Encounter Difficulty in the Sunless Citadel

The_Sunless_Citadel.jpgAs I recently launched a Tales from the Yawning Portal campaign, I thought I’d evaluate the Sunless Citadel encounters according to the difficulty guidelines in the Dungeon Masters Guide page 82. My encounter difficulty analysis for Lost Mine of Phandelver did basically the same thing.

In this case, I work from the assumption that the group starts out with 4 level 1 characters, progressing to level 2 when they go to the second level If you have more or higher-level characters, then obviously the encounters get a little easier. You may wish to add additional combatants or other complications to compensate in that case, obviously.


Continue reading

On the 5e core book set

Dialogus creaturarumSo now we’ve had the D&D Fifth Edition core books for a bit. Many bloggers have written many words about their impressions and evaluations, sometimes in great detail. But as I look at the shelf to my right, one of the three stands out more than the others.

The Player’s Handbook covers the core mechanics of the game and does a lot of things well. But, by its nature, the vast majority of the book only applies to this one game. Appendix B, “Gods of the Multiverse”, has some cool material for campaign development. Appendix E, “Inspirational Reading”, does a great job of carrying on the legacy of the original Appendix N. (And if “E” alludes to “E. Gary Gygax”, that’s a nice touch.) I use this book the least, though.

I love the Monster Manual as a general fantasy bestiary and art book in addition to its utility for 5e. The stat blocks tend to run a little long for my taste and could probably have used a slightly more minimalist approach. As a DM, I love some of the actions and special abilities of some of the monsters. “The goblin attacks with its Scimitar” gets old very quickly, but “That zombie keeps going [due to Undead Fortitude]” does not. When I want to enjoy a glass of bourbon in my hand, pore over some fantastic monsters, and read a few words about their mythical backgrounds, this book provides plenty of material.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide has both fantastic art and great non-edition specific advice. Mike Schley and the other artists have provided evocative maps and illustrations. Many of the magic items appear in lots of different editions and even games, so having the illustrations and histories makes up for the fact that they take up about a third of the book. (Those same features probably explain that page count issue, too.) Again we have appendices that we will use many times in the future for creating dungeons. Appendix D, “Dungeon Master Inspiration”, completes the PHB Appendix E.

The Monster Manual is my favorite of the three 5e core books. I will use both it and the DMG even when running other games, but only the MM truly satisfies that non-game reading itch. Open it to a random page and spend 10 or 15 minutes appreciating that one monster. I’d love to find more bestiaries like it and A Practical Guide to Monsters that accomplish that so well.

Hiring and followers in Fifth Edition

Gishi Shozo Sanshi (Annotated Portraits of Loyal Retainers)In my last play session, we noted that the players probably need to hire torchbearers or similar companions. I took a look at the rules in 5e and some other games before deciding what to do, and ended up merging them into a simple system that I hope will work for us.

D&D Fifth Edition

The hiring rules[0] in 5e left me feeling really underwhelmed. And after I compared them with the rules in a number of other games, I felt even more underwhelmed. “Skilled” cost 2 gold pieces per day, and “unskilled” cost 2 silver pieces per day. I’d increase that significantly for NPCs asked to go into harm’s way, like torchbearers in a dungeon. Note that this only means hired workers, not “retainers” or “low-level followers”. In those cases, they get a share of treasure and experience points. They make good replacement characters when a regular player character dies, too.

Page 93 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide provides a nice loyalty system tied to the Charisma score of the party. The NPC’s Loyalty score starts at half of the highest Charisma in the party, with that Charisma being the maximum. When you help them achieve a bond or do something really nice for them, the loyalty increases by 1d4. A corresponding decrease of 1d4 occurs when the party members do something that runs against the NPC’s alignment or bond, or 2d4 if they’re mistreated for selfish reasons. When the loyalty score reaches 0, the disloyal NPC either leaves or undermines the party. If it reaches 10, they will risk their lives for the party members.

Other games

Basic Fantasy RPG lists three types of companions. It provides “retainers”, who go into dungeons, participate, and get a share of the rewards. “Specialists” don’t go on adventures but perform other sorts of services (like a sage doing research or a sailors on a character-owned ship). Finally, “mercenaries” typically get hired as units and might provide security at a stronghold or similar. Labyrinth Lord has almost the same setup.

Swords & Wizardry does not have the concept of “retainers”. It has one page for hiring followers of various types, including “Man-at-Arms (Soldiers)” and “Man-at-Arms (Adventuring)”. The latter category probably comes closest to retainers. Another category covers “Torchbearer (or Other Adventuring Non-combatant)”. In this regard, it looks a lot like 5e.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess handles this with its characteristic balance between simplicity in exposition and detail in requirement. In fact, it seems to envision that adventuring parties become “expeditions” with all sorts of followers. For example, once characters acquire strongholds, accountants and similar become really important. For my purposes, the most relevant types include “Guides” who help the party avoid becoming lost, “Henchmen” (retainers), and “Laborers” & “Linkboys” (treasure carriers and torchbearers). All followers also earn a death benefit payable to family or a magistrate if they die during the course of the adventure.

My system

We will have three classes of NPCs for adventuring. Note that I don’t have any campaigns with players ready to run a stronghold or similar, so I don’t have to think about that yet.

  1. Followers. These correspond to “retainers” in most systems: classed, lower-level characters that get a share of the rewards. Players can create and run them during an adventure if they desire to use them as potential replacement characters if their main characters die. A character needs to reach fifth level before finding a follower, though.
  2. Mercenaries. These don’t get a share of rewards but only fill specific roles (e.g. they can apply healing kits or other special expertise). The DM runs them but they should never take the spotlight for fear of becoming “DMPCs“. If the PCs want the mercenaries to accompany them into a dungeon or into some other type of battle, they earn 10 gp/day. Otherwise they cost 2 gp/day as for skilled workers in the PHB.
  3. Attendants. Torchbearers, animal handlers, and so forth earn 2 sp/day just to accompany the party. But if they have to go into a dungeon, they earn a full gold piece per day.

Mercenaries and attendants earn a death benefit payable to their families or the guild. This comes to 100 days of hazard pay, so 1000 gp for mercenaries and 200 gp for attendants. I want the players to view these NPCs as actual characters, not furniture.

Further, the 5e loyalty system applies, but I want to import the morale system from the Mentzer Basic Dungeon Masters Rulebook. When appropriate, the NPC rolls 2d6 against their loyalty score. If the result exceeds their loyalty score, they flee or otherwise stop helping. If the loyalty score reaches 12, then the NPC doesn’t have to roll. But in all cases, if the NPC feels abused, Bad Things may happen.

[0]: I hate the word “hirelings” with a burning passion even more than I hate the term “human resources”.

Building a random dungeon with the 5e DMG

Let’s say you don’t want to use an existing dungeon generator for some reason. Maybe you have some time to kill in a parking garage and can’t reach the Internet. Maybe you want to draw a map but nothing comes to mind. You could do worse than use “Appendix A: Random Dungeons” from the D&D 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide.

In this post, I’ll generate a dungeon to go with the adventure I created using the same book a few days ago. That means we need to create a lair originally built by dwarves under a graveyard. It should have some bells that contain the villain’s soul, or at least will summon a good celestial.

Blando and Schley sit to discuss their profession

Blando and Schley sit to discuss their profession

Many talented illustrators work on maps for roleplaying games. Professionals like Jared Blando and Mike Schley set a really high bar, but amateurs often do a fine job as well. I do not belong to any of those august groups – just a nerd with a #2 pencil, some graph paper, and dice. That explanation out of the way, let’s roll on the Starting Area table:

9. Passage, 10 ft wide; T intersection

That doesn’t mean the party magically transports into this place. “Pick one of the doors or passages leading into the starting area as the entrance to the dungeon as a whole.”

I’ll roll three times on the Passages table to see what connects here, then figure out where to put the entrance.

7. Continue straight 20 ft, side passage to the right, then an additional 10 ft ahead
13. Continue straight 20 ft, then the passage turns right and continues 10 ft
3. Continue straight 20 ft, door to the right, then an additional 10 ft ahead.

I need to roll a passage width for the side passage on the first roll. Also, I want to use that door on the final roll as my entrance. So on Passage Width:

5. 10 feet

Then Door Type:

11. Wooden, barred or locked

I don’t need to roll for what lies beyond the door in this case. Four more rolls on the Passage table:

13. Continue straight 20 ft, then the passage turns right and continues 10 ft
10. Continue straight 20 ft, comes to a dead end; 10 percent chance of a secret door
17. Chamber (roll on the Chamber table)
2. Continue straight 30 ft, no doors or side passages

I will put that dead end at the north, the chamber on the west, and the two passages heading east can use the other rolls. No secret door (6 on a d10) and the chamber is:

14. Rectangle, 40 x 50 ft

I will come back to that chamber in a moment. First, two more passages:

18. Chamber (roll on the Chamber table)
6. Continue straight 20 ft, side passage to the right, then an additional 10 ft ahead.

The chamber will go in the northeast corner and I need a width for the side passage.

11. Rectangle, 30 x 40 ft
5. 10 ft

We require two more rolls on the Passages table. Clearly that one is the workhorse of the process!

6. Continue straight 20 ft, side passage to the right, then an additional 10 ft ahead.
7. Continue straight 20 ft, side passage to the right, then an additional 10 ft ahead.

Widths for these:

4. 10 ft
8. 10 ft

However, we need to start thinking about how this starts to run into limits. From the introduction to the appendix:

Following these instructions can lead to sprawling complexes that more than fill a single sheet of graph paper. If you want to constrain the dungeon, establish limits ahead of time on how far it can grow.

The most obvious limit to a dungeon’s size is the graph paer it’s drawn on. If a feature would exceed the boundaries of the page, curtail it. A corridor might turn or come to a dead end at the map’s edge, or you can make a chamber smaller to fit the available space.

Alternatively, you can decide that passages leading off the edge of the map are additional dungeon entrances. Stairs, shafts, and other features that would normally lead to levels you don’t plan to map can serve a similar purpose.

For the purposes of this post, I want everything to fit on one sheet of graph paper. So that means that my next set of rolls may need a bit of adjusting. Already, I had to close off a passage because it had turned back on itself and we had a conflict. That passage could also ramp above or below the other passage. However, I have enough trouble with two dimensions. Adding a third complicates things too much now.

10. Continue straight 20 ft, comes to a dead end; 10 percent chance of a secret door. [rolled a 2, no secret door]
20. Stairs (roll on the Stairs table)

For the stairs, I could also reroll, use it as an alternative entrance, or replace them with another feature. As noted, I don’t want to go up or down. So I will choose to place another entrance here.

What about our two chambers? We need to roll for the number of exits first. The Chamber Exits table has one column for Normal Chambers (including the 30 x 40 ft room), and another for Large Chambers (including the 40 x 50 ft room). Respectively:

15. Two exits
9. Two exits

For each exit, we roll Location and Type.

17. Wall right of entrance + 7. Door + 2. Wooden + 9. Chamber on the other side
9. Wall left of entrance + 4. Door + 16. Iron, barred or locked + 8. Passage 20 ft straight ahead + 9. 10 ft wide

15. Wall right of entrance + 4. Door + 1. Wooden + 9. Chamber on the other side
20. Same wall as entrance + 14. Corridor, 10 ft long + 13. 20 feet wide

One of the passages has to end there because it has reached the edge of the paper. We still have two chambers and a passage, though.

13. Rectangle, 40 x 50 ft
12. Rectangle, 30 x 40 ft
11. Continue straight 20 ft, then the passage turns left and continues 10 ft.

That passage will end there as it has run back into a wall. Each chamber should have four exits, but at this point I think we have enough for our dungeon. This includes four full-size chambers and a side room. Just for demonstration purposes (like this whole thing), I will roll twice on the Chamber Purpose table for lairs and then three more times for General Dungeon Chamber:

17. Training and exercise room
7. Cistern or well for drinking water
28. Crypt
61. Observatory
80. Storage room

Other dungeon types like Planar Gates and Strongholds have their own tables. Additional tables include things like Current Chamber State and Chamber Contents. This latter table can then direct you to Monsters & Motivations, Random Traps, and more. For example, in the Cistern room, I could decide it remains in working order but roll on other tables to learn that it is an otherwise empty room with spider webs.

By rolling on the various Dungeon Dressing tables, we also learn that people in the dungeon may hear footsteps ahead of them and breathe clear, damp air that smells of manure. Rotting wood pieces litter the floor. The crypt may contain furnishings like vestments, a stand, and a throne.

Hopefully this gives you a sense of what these tables can do. In real usage, I would probably interpret the rolls a bit more liberally (“training and exercise”, really?!) and develop out the rooms a little further. But for now, our little dungeon looks like this:

Hand-drawn map on graph paper with dice, pencil, and protractor

Building the framework of a dungeon adventure

I’ve wanted to try to generate an adventure with the random tables in the new Dungeon Master’s Guide since I bought it. Here I present one example of my experimentation. Note that I didn’t fudge any rolls – all this reflects actual results.

Location-based adventure

Because my current “sandbox” campaign focuses on dungeon crawls, I’ll start with “location-based adventures” on page 72. The process flows as follows:

  1. Identify the party’s goals
  2. Identify important NPCs
  3. Flesh out the location details
  4. Find the ideal introduction
  5. Consider the ideal climax
  6. Plan encounters


I’ll roll a d20 on Dungeon Goals and Other Goals, skipping the wilderness table, and see what happens.

19. Hide from a threat outside the dungeon
2. Defend a location from attackers

Those certainly don’t look like the other adventures I have run. But I want to use this process to spice things up. So I will choose the first. Perhaps the party originally sets out on some other mission, such as to go ask a sage for a map or some historical guidance. When they arrive, though, they find themselves ambushed just outside the location. Or maybe they get there just before some sort of attack on the dungeon occurs. That lets us merge these two goals nicely.

Important NPCs

We definitely need a few NPCs here to drive this.


Who will provide the threat? From my d20 roll on the Adventure Villains table:

7. Undead with any agenda

Death KnightThis points up an immediate weakness in both the DMG and the Monster Manual. Even with the new indices, Wizards of the Coast hasn’t provided an index of creatures by type. I have a player-created one, though. Because of the nature of my plan, I don’t want one with sunlight sensitivity. The death knight fits the bill perfectly:

When a paladin that falls from grace dies without seeking atonement, dark powers can transform the once-mortal knight into a hateful undead creature. A death knight is a skeletal warrior clad in fearsome plate armor. Beneath its helmet, one can see the knight’s skull with malevolent pinpoints of light burning in its eye sockets.

An Arthurian name generator seems appropriate for this character. That site generates 10 names, so my d10 chooses:

3. Claunus

Chapter 4 in the DMG, “Creating Nonplayer Characters”, can help give Claunus a bit of depth. I’ll roll on the Mannerism, Interaction with Others, NPC Ideals, NPC Bonds, and NPC Flaws and Secrets tables first.

16. Chews something
12. Suspicious
2. Greed (evil)
6. Whimsy (chaotic)
1. Aspiration (other)

So Claunus works his jaw (as an undead, he doesn’t actually eat per se). Suspicious, greedy, and aspiring to power & conquest, he fits the archetype pretty well. We also have some specific tables for Villains: Scheme, Methods, and Weakness.

1. Immortality (steal a planar creature’s essence)
19. Vice (drugs or alcohol)
1. A hidden object holds the villain’s soul

The methods roll doesn’t provide much utility in our case, so I will reroll just once:

5. Confidence scams (fine print)

That doesn’t make sense either. But it doesn’t matter since we have an existing concept. I’d just hoped to give it a little more depth.

Villainous class options from the DMG preview

Villainous class options from the DMG preview

This chapter also contains a section on villainous paladins, including a new spell list and some new features. I don’t have to use them unless the party will face the villain directly. At CR 17, Claunus already has more power than almost any group could handle. But the class options do give a greater sense of how this sort of villain operates. He should have an army of undead to command in addition to his own ability to besiege the sage’s dungeon with his hellfire orb.


As noted, Claunus provides a greater threat than a typical adventurer party can handle. Let’s give them a bit of help.

1. Skilled adventurer
9. Celestial ally

If it should come to some sort of showdown, a celestial ally fits the bill! The planetar has a similar CR (16) and background that matches:

Planetars act as the weapons of the gods they serve, presenting a tangible representation of their deities’ might. A planetar can call down rain to relieve a drought, or can loose an insect plague to devour crops. A planetar’s celestial ears detect every falsehood, and its radiant eyes see through every deception.

The adventure shouldn’t take the focus off of the party, though. Perhaps the party needs to accomplish some task to summon the planetar, all while fending off the undead army. We can adjust the sage to some sort of cleric to match the developing flavor.

And another adventurer could come in handy as another vector for exposition. She won’t do too much, again because the party members are the hero of this story. Maybe the adventure will call for a heroic sacrifice, even. Back in Chapter 4, we can generate mannerisms, abilities, talents, mannerisms, ideals, bonds, and flaws & secrets.

20. Exceptionally ugly
5. [High] Wisdom: perceptive, spiritual, insightful
2. [Low] Dexterity: clumsy, fumbling
14. Expert carpenter
7. Whispers
11. Quiet
6. [Lawful] Tradition
6. [Good] Self-sacrifice
4. Loyal to a benefactor, patron, or employer
12. Foolhardy bravery

This sketches out a pretty interesting character we can use as the cleric. (The carpentry expertise doesn’t matter for this adventure.) Our priestess speaks quietly when she speaks at all, but her deeds mark her as a devoted servant of her god. I’ll roll a d10 on the results from a dwarf name generator:

7. Durirnoir Bluntchin

Now we have a link to the “exceptional ugliness” after all! Durinoir’s surname will fit, and she will have a misshapen lower jaw. Her physical appearance belies her beautiful spirit and holiness (although I will attempt not to turn this into too much of an Aesop). I like her playing against type, though.


They have some reason to go, after all.

12. Respected elder

What can we learn about this elder? The same tables as those used for the cleric above will serve us again.

17. Distinctive nose
2. [High] Dexterity: lithe, agile, graceful
6. [Low] Charisma: dull, boring
13. Drinks everyone under the table
16. Chews something
1. Argumentative
6. [Neutral] People
3. [Other] Glory
6. Drawn to a special place
1. Forbidden love or susceptibility to romance

Everyone loves the adorable old town drunk because he has been a fixture for generations. Perhaps he even holds a place on the council. But his alcoholic dreams of a sacred temple become the clue needed for the party to learn how to defeat the undead army.

Location details

This process really deserves an entire post of its own. But the basic characteristics don’t take very long to generate. For the Dungeon Location:

14. Beneath a graveyard

Landscape with a Graveyard by Night

That result evokes some fantastic atmosphere and fits the developing themes quite well. To identify the Dungeon Creator:

7. Dwarves
6. Chaotic Good
1. Barbarian

This plays against type a little (barbaric dwarves who don’t care too much for tradition) but could provide a nice bit of atmosphere.

We also might want to learn a bit about the original Dungeon Purpose and History:

2. Lair
1. Abandoned by creators

These will all provide help when we generate the dungeon in a future post.


The table could provide additional inspiration for beginning the adventure.

7. A town or village needs volunteers to go to the adventure location

The council sends the party to the ancient temple that houses the item holding the death knight’s soul. I’ll flip back to “Appendix A: Random Dungeons” and roll on the Religious Articles and Furnishings table for this item:

07. Bells

That gives us a couple of pieces of mood music! Maybe we should ask For Whom the Bell Tolls:

No, we shouldn’t, because “it tolls for thee.” Instead, the death knight’s soul resides in Hells Bells:

Enough of that tangent.


Adventurers have a well-known tendency to go “off script”. Role-playing games differ pretty strongly from films and novels, so this just comes with the territory. But what will the adventure aim for?

10. A threat more powerful than the adventurers appears, destroys the main villain, and then turns its attention on the characters.

The planetar’s adherence to its lawful good alignment could put the adventurers in danger. Those with impure hearts or who desecrate the graves might run significant risk. That keeps the focus on them and can help avoid a deus ex machina solution.


These also belong primarily in a future post about the dungeon, but we have the outline of how to proceed already.


The DMG helped create the scaffolding for a group to get started. A lot of work remains to turn this into a full-fledged adventure, especially the encounter design. But in reality, a few minutes with the book provided enough for a creative DM to get started with roleplay. This could even happen on-the-fly with an automated dungeon generator or a similar system.

Also, nothing in this post relies on specific system mechanics. The outline above could fit any fantasy system and a few others besides (perhaps a Cthulhu-esque horror game with a few adjustments). So yes, the new DMG certainly could provide a lot of utility for people playing OSR games.

Rolls for role-playing

"The White King Learning to Conduct a Kitchen Burgkmair"I don’t like the way D&D Fifth Edition and lots of other “modern” games handle skills. As a player, I don’t like spending time deciding which skill should cover a particular task. More than that, however, I intensely dislike using Charisma rolls to cover role-playing. In 5e, for example, Charisma skills include Deception, Intimidation, Performance, and Persuasion. When these situations come up, I prefer to act them out.

I want to convince the guard that we have arrived at the court as ambassadors from a faraway land. I have proficiency in Deception so my modifier is +5. And I rolled a 12, so that gives me a 17. That should do it, right?

If that works for your group, fantastic, but it just bores me to death. Instead, I want a player to tell me what their character says. They don’t have to use flowery, exaggerated medieval language. They don’t even have to fake an accent.

Sir, I come to you in the name of the sovereign nation of Breouria. As the ambassador of my land, I would bid your lord welcome and discuss matters of great import. My entourage and I must pass at once!

To follow the spirit and letter of the rules as written, we have to roll sometimes for fairness to the players. If the skill scores never come into use, after all, we have forced the players to “waste” some of their potential power due to opportunity cost. For example, the personal guards of a paranoid tyrant might require a DC 20 check, or DC 10 for a commerce-minded noble in a peaceful land). If the player put everything into it, I give them advantage on the roll. Still, they could roll a 1 and fail. Perhaps the guard did not sleep well and doesn’t want to deal with unknown travelers with a carrying a letter written in some foreign language.

The new Dungeon Master’s Guide contains a lot of variant rules. (I didn’t take part in the play test of D&D Next but others have said that some of these came directly from that.) For social interaction and role-playing, we can tweak two different systems: reactions and skills.

Reaction Rolls

On page 244, the DMG explicitly outlines two different ways to handle these. In the first method, the DM determines the starting attitude of the NPC: friendly, indifferent, or hostile. The conversation plays out, possibly changing the creature’s attitude. The text emphasizes the use of ideals, bonds, and flaws. The player then “can attempt a Wisdom (Insight) check to uncover one of the creature’s characteristics.” At some point, the DM calls for a Charisma check, including any relevant skill proficiency. Based on the NPC’s attitude at that point, the DM interprets the roll on the Conversation Reaction table. Except for using the Insight skill to determine a characteristic, this describes what we already do. The reaction roll system in Basic D&D could almost function as a drop-in replacement.

The next section discusses role-playing. Voicing a character can provide some of the most fun moments in a game. For example, I had a wonderful time playing the “fat, pompous old fool” of the town master of Phandalin in Lost Mine of Phandelver. I dropped my voice an octave, puffed up my cheeks, and blustered like the mayor of a small town in some old movie my mom would watch. The players loved it!

In these circumstances, I just decide how a character would react based on the interaction. Creating the most fun in the story also becomes a factor. In the above example, the guard might let them through with a stern advisory or he might have them thrown into the stockade.

That still raises the issue of opportunity cost for the players. Worse, it penalizes players who like RP. They are the most likely ones to choose social type skills for their characters, reflecting their interests and preferred play style. 

An apothecary publically preparing the drug theriac, under the supervision of a physician. Woodcut.

Skill Variants

Among the other rule variants, we have several options to handle abilities and skills. These start on page 263. All the skill variants replace the skill system with something else. This section also provides for the replacement of a flat proficiency bonus with an appropriate die roll. As an example, low level characters can roll a d4 instead of the normal +2.

The first variant, Ability Check Proficiency, replaces all skills with the base abilities. A player chooses one based on their class and another based on their background. Expertise counts as one ability rather than two skills. Background and Personality Trait Proficiencies both rely on deep histories and concepts for characters. With these variants, the DM decides that a character can apply their proficiency bonus when their background or traits apply to the situation.

These all feel “old school” to me. In fact, they remind me of the systems in Microlite20 OSS (Old School Style).

Application in my future games

Taking all this together, I would use both Background and Personality Trait Proficiencies rather than build a skill profile. That will speed up character creation! I would only have a player roll for the success of a social interaction in unusual circumstances. They would then get to apply their Charisma modifier and proficiency bonus. If they played it really well or clearly appealed to something they’d discerned about the NPC, I would give them Advantage.

In these ways, 5e can feel a little more old school.

Initial Impressions: Fifth Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide

Kyle holding his DMG

Happier than I should be

I went down to my friendly local gaming store this morning and picked up the new Dungeon Master’s Guide. (They had a 15% discount on all D&D stuff, which gave a little extra bit of unexpected happiness.)

A full review of this book would take significant time due to the density and amount of material in it. But I wanted to see right away how to build & modify monsters. I also have been looking forward to learning how to distribute treasure (especially magic items). This post mostly discusses those two areas. Other brief impressions include:

  • I see Robin Stacey in the credits. More Microlite20 love.
  • The art matches my expectations and deserves its own post. In fact, it probably even exceeds them. During my upcoming business trip, I could spend hours on a plane just examining the illustrations. I recognize a few of them from earlier products. The goblin illustration on page 107 comes directly from the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure.
  • Yay for “low-level followers” and “hirelings” – torch bearers! This doesn’t contain nearly enough information for me, though. I will need to refer to older DM guides for this sort of thing.
  • Successfully noticing and bypassing a trap should provide XP. I don’t think that the book gives any guidelines for that, or even credence to that idea. I may have missed it, of course, in the brief time since I acquired the book.
  • Reaction rolls on page 244. As a rule, I don’t like to roll for social interaction. But since players “spend” some power to have those skill and ability scores, I can’t just ignore it, either. These guidelines will help a little.
  • HEX RULES!!! I spent many years playing war games, both tabletop and computer-based. So I have a special love for maps using hexagons and the tactical play they create even if I don’t like using D&D as a tactical game itself. Come to think of it, this may help me get into that mode when it fits.
  • The Madness section on page 258 will assist me greatly with the upcoming “Madness of Iliasha” campaign (spoilers?).
  • Appendix D: Dungeon Master Inspiration looks like an “Appendix N” with more specificity. The list largely consists of non-fiction books with a few true classics in the greatest possible sense. For example, in addition to lots of books by Gary Gygax and TSR, it includes Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.

Monsters and CR

Page 312 sample mapSince the Monster Manual came out, I have wanted to roll up my own monsters. Other DMs have already started, of course, but they have far more experience at it than I do. The section “Creating a Monster” in Chapter 9 starts on page 273. It discusses reskinning, including minor changes such as adding special traits or switching weapons. The section also includes a table on Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating. For each rating, the table lists the proficiency bonus, armor class, hit point range, attack bonus, damage per round range, and save DC. This table fits those situations where you just need something quick, such as an on-the-fly conversion.

Then it has a procedure for “Creating a Monster Stat Block”, allowing us to brew up a full-fledged monster. That procedure has 20 steps, some of which themselves have several parts. Obviously this requires much more effort than the process for games like Microlite20. But as the introduction to the whole section notes:

Part of the D&D experience is the simple joy of creating new monsters and customizing existing ones, if for no other reason than to surprise and delight your players with something they’ve never faced before.

This zooms in on the abbreviated process described before. It discusses things like damage and special traits in far more detail. We also have a Monster Features table that covers two full pages. Finally the section discusses the mechanics of creating NPCs from scratch (not the preview section on mannerisms and backgrounds and such).

Magic Items

Illustration of an adventuring group reviewing a mapPlayers get excited to see the actual magic items themselves. People like me get excited to see how we can distribute them. Chapter 7 (“Treasure”) should satisfy us both.

The distribution frequency for magic items in this edition in particular has confounded me a little. Page 135 shows a “Magic Item Rarity” table showing the expected character levels per rarity type. For example, common and uncommon items correspond to all characters starting at first level. But rare items typically go to characters at fifth level and higher. Of course the text makes clear that DMs should do as they wish according to what fits their campaigns. The book only makes suggestions, not rules.

For more specificity, of course, the book has several treasure tables. It has four different Individual Treasure tables for different CR ranges. The same applies to the Treasure Hoard tables. Gemstones and Art Objects have several different tables by value. Some of these tables refer to Random Magic Items of various types. You can enhance those with tables on magic item flavor (e.g. What Is a Detail From Its History?). Between this and Appendix A on “random dungeons”, I should have no trouble populating environments generated by Donjon or using maps created by other people.

Time to go tweak tomorrow’s adventure!

Dungeon Masters Rulebook (Red Box version)

Basic Dungeon Masters Rulebook

I picked up the Dungeon Masters Rulebook from the old BECMI D&D edition (aka “the Red Box”) a few days ago. Most of the OSR products I’ve read didn’t have enough guidance for this rusty old DM.  What better source for guidance on running an old-school game than the actual old-school guidance?! The rest of this post consists of my thoughts as I took notes during my second reading. It isn’t really a review in the critical sense but in the “let’s go back over what’s here” sense.

The Most Important Rule: BE FAIR. That fits, since we control everything about the world and universe in which the characters exist. The world itself may not be fair, but our rulings should be consistent and even-handed.

Hewlett-Packard 48GX

“An electronic pocket calculator is helpful.”

Quite a few pages consist of “your first game”. Actually, this game is first for the DM, which comes after the solo game in the players guide that teaches the initial rules. The players go after some magic user named “Bargle“. Most of this doesn’t apply to my games or needs. The map of the dungeon’s second level looked interesting, though, and would make a great candidate for conversion.

The rulebook includes advice on issues like arguments and complaints. That reminds the reader that RPGs are social in ways most other games are not. Given the age and inclinations of the target audience for D&D (especially at the time), I suspect Gygax and even Mentzer felt themselves in something of a fatherly position.  Related to that, the rulebook gives advice on providing clues appropriate for the player skill and experience level, including the admonition that “extreme danger with no warning is not very fair.” ROCKS FALL EVERYONE DIES! Also, the Deities section obliquely refers to some sensitive issues and takes a diplomatic approach: “The DM should be careful not to needlessly offend players and current beliefs should be avoided.”

For the first time, I finally understand how early editions treated demi-humans. Dwarves consisted of both a race and a class, so that all dwarf characters basically act like Gimli: short, squat fighters all up in your face who know everything there is to know about stones and gems and dungeons. Most modern players probably would not like this. Generally speaking, I don’t either, but there’s a certain mindset where I can see that working.

Experienced dungeon masters may select results instead of rolling dice.

See, the old school includes fudging rolls! I remember reading a quote from Gygax to the effect that the real secret to being a good DM is that the dice are just for show. That perhaps goes a little to the extreme (which could be a product of my faulty memory) but the sentiment is useful.

Reaction rolls seem like a core mechanic in this old edition. I’ve seen these in Microlite20. If the new Fifth Edition DMG doesn’t contain something like this, then I will likely incorporate some version of it in my games. Often I just roleplay the NPCs and “select results” as discussed above, but a little unpredictability in some situations can go a long way.

Lost spell books? Now that’s evil. I wouldn’t do that to a player unless they actively did something that clearly would result in losing the spell book. “I throw my spell book at the fire elemental.” “Um… okay.”

Mapping SymbolsMapping has changed considerably in the last thirty years. I don’t think most groups really treat it as a player skill anymore. Certainly those of us who primarily play online on Roll20 or similar can’t do this effectively without significant restructuring. Perhaps allowing one of the players to draw on the map…? I do like the old-school concept of player skill mattering at least as much as character skill, and this fits into that philosophy much as the clues discussion does.

During the play of the game, a player will eventually try something not explained in these rules… Be sure to write down any rules you create, and apply them fairly to everyone.

If by “eventually” we mean “within the first five minutes”, then sure! Otherwise you could send a self-addressed stamped envelope to TSR with a rules question. Things about the 20th century I don’t miss include SASEs and snail mail.

Timekeeping still presents a challenge for me outside of combat rounds. I’d hoped for some guidance here but it honestly doesn’t help much:

You may simply make notes on the time used during an adventure, or you can create a system (check marks, boxes to cross off, etc.) for keeping track.

Transferring characters remains a touchy subject. I just had a player ask me about it this past weekend, in fact. For some sorts of campaigns, it would feel odd just for narrative reasons. It could also create the perception of fairness issues with other players. But in other cases it might work fine, and so Mentzer gives some guidance on balance considerations.

Then the book goes into some lengthy monster references, including stat blocks and reactions and everything else. The treasure tables, though, really come in handy for me. I frequently find an old-school adventure I want to use that refers to “treasure type H” or something. Now I can cross-reference that.

Dungeon stockingFinally we have some guidance on dungeons, especially adventure motivation. The table on stocking dungeons reminds me of the so-called Barrowmaze method. But now I know the real source, because the method here is to roll 1d6 twice. The first roll tells you what’s in the room (e.g. a trap or a monster) and the second roll tells you whether the room has treasure.

I still look forward to getting my 5th Edition DMG in two days.The material in this rulebook will help fill in any gaps, plus provide additional stuff for my Microlite games.