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.

Heavy metal inspired quests

Ronnie_James_Dio_TombA few weeks ago, I set up a Pandora station called “OSR Radio“. It plays music my buddies and I listened to while playing RPGs in the wayback. Think Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, etc. Lots of the songs sound like they could inspire some fun D&D adventures. I have tried to avoid the most iconic works because many of us already have very strong associations with some very popular songs. Nothing feels more D&D to me than remembering the first time I heard Black Sabbath and “Iron Man” in my best friend’s bedroom about 1am, reading D&D books that our parents didn’t allow us to have. And Metallica’s powerful “Wherever I May Roam” describes a party of chaotic “murder hoboes” better than anything else I can imagine.

Whether all the groups  cited below qualify as “heavy metal” or belong to a particular period is beside the point in this particular case. The themes matter more than the specific musical genres. But in all honesty, you could just point at a random song in the discography for either of those bands, or Iron Maiden, or Judas Priest, or Megadeth, or Dio, or some other metal band I don’t even know about but you totally love. And from that random finger wiggle, you’ll generate d4 adventures just like that. You probably have ideas right now from thinking about your favorite song and have stopped reading. I could be writing “titty sprinkles” here and nobody would notice because you’ve already got your notebook open and have started scribbling ideas furiously.

So here I’ve listed a few ideas resulting from a fusion of Pandora selections and perusing the D&D 5e Monster Manual. Hopefully one or two of these can provide some inspiration for you. If nothing else, go listen to some tunes.

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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!

Microlite20 monster: Ormyrr

OrmyrrThe Practical Guide to Monsters has a few monsters that don’t have Microlite20 versionsOrmyrrs stick out to me more than the others. For reference: Thri-kreen, Yuan-ti, werebear, wereboar, ghost, and lich do not have M20-style stat blocks that I have found. Some of those have enough substitutes you can reskin (lycanthropes and generic undead), while “lich” can be applied as a template. But I like these slug-looking characters that clearly have no relation whatsoever to Hutts. In fact, the D&D Fifth Edition doesn’t have them, either.

Orymyrrs have enormous grublike bodies that possess powerful arms, a mouthful of extremely sharp teeth, and a surprisingly intelligent brain. They aren’t particularly aggressive, tending to keep to themselves.

While (or perhaps because) these creatures have no talent for casting spells, they find magic absolutely irresistible. They will lie, cheat, and steal to obtain a scroll, spellbook, or other magical object, and can be mesmerized by a skillful display of magic powers.

The book also notes that they tend to live in a solitary state or in small tribes of no more than one dozen. I would use the following stat block. DMs may want to adjust the to-hit numbers (especially slam). They should also target magic users of whatever flavor first.

Ormyrr: HD 7d8+7 (43 hp), AC 15, Slam +6 (1d4+1), spear +8 (1d6+6), constrict (2d6)

Review: “A Practical Guide to Monsters”

A Practical Guide to MonstersI recently got a copy of A Practical Guide to Monsters. An in-universe reference volume for apprentice wizards, it lists 53 different monsters by my count. Each of them has a bit of fiction, a fact box (e.g. height, weight, habitat, diet, attack methods, etc.), and an artistic representation. If you think this sounds like a Monster Manual, then you’ve got the idea, but the book includes no game statistics. In effect, you can think of the guide as a monster manual for kids. Some of the monsters even have associated maps and marginalia.

The illustrations bring out the ideas behind each monster without scaring small children. A few of them include a child-like goblin running away or otherwise engaged in some activity. This gives kids a way to imagine themselves interacting with the monster but in a reasonably survivable way. Several intermediate sections list weapons, armor, and equipment that an adventurer might need. My kids and I have had a nice time looking through it and talking about what it might feel like to run into some of the monsters.

A sleeping goblin adventurer

I don’t want to give the idea that the guide only works as a children’s book. The free Dungeon Master’s Basic Guide lists statistics for a little under half of the listed monsters, and the Monster Manual for 5e includes almost 90% of them. Exceptions include the Yrthak, Ormyrr, and Athach, among others. The Microlite20 expanded monster list includes about the same number. A GM could easily convert the exceptions from other editions.

So in addition to the coffee table aspect, this book works well as a way to illustrate monsters to players. A game with children or using a retroclone would particularly benefit. Wizards of the Coast first published the book in 2007, so lots of stores carry inexpensive copies. They published a whole series of Practical Guides (“wizards”, “dragons”, etc.) and I look forward to getting a few more for my home library.