Monday, October 20, 2014

Charismatic Combats


Sometimes a D&D battle is a back and forth of hack and slash, the only interaction between combatants expressed in cold steel.  But often DM's can spice up combat by building in chances for social interaction to influence the outcome.  It's easiest to do this in urban encounters, like the example I'll describe now.  After running a few encounters like this, your PCs might be wishing they hadn't used Charisma as a dump stat!


The encounter takes place at a posh inn.  Three of the PCs are hiding in a cart near the stables.  The last PC (disguised as a Cultist) is escorting 2 evil Cultists to the cart, where the rest of the group plans to ambush them.


In the diagram below, 3 of the PCs are hiding in the cart.  The last PC is leading two Cultists (C) to the back of the cart.  The other letters represent townspeople NPCs that might enter the encounter.


I created a simple table to control when and if an NPC joins the encounter.  At the start of Round 2 I will roll 1d2 to see which NPC enters.  Next round 1d3, followed by 1d4, then 1d6.  If I roll the same NPC twice, then no one enters that round.


  1. Stable Boy 1
  2. Stable Boy 2 (Commoners, the Stable Boys will run to the inn's main entrance to get help)
  3. Gnome (Commoner, will keep to the fringes, darting in to steal from anyone who goes down)
  4. Knight (will attempt to keep order, and will join the fight if hostilities continue)
  5. Noble (will pompously demand that everyone throw down their arms, and call out the Knight if they don't listen)
  6. Handyman (Commoner, will run and grapple combatants, trying to restrain them until more help can arrive)

Play Through

Here's how it played out.

Round 1

Surprise - Since the PCs were hidden, the 2 Cultists are surprised, losing their actions in the first round.

Monk - Jumps out of the cart and stabs one of the Cultists with his short sword, making a Melee Attack and killing him outright.  Now, the Monk tries to make this a non-lethal blow.  My house rule for this is that the PC needs to roll a DC 10 INT (Medicine) Check to see if they can make the blow non-lethal (advantage if using bludgeoning weapons).  The Monk fails, so the Cultist is slain.  The Monk then uses his Flurry of Blows to make 2 Unarmed Strikes against the second Cultist, getting one good strike that takes out half the Cultist's hit points.

Wizard - Points a Sleep spell up in the sky, trying to position it so that he catches the Cultist and not the Monk.  I rule that since it's a tricky prospect, he needs to roll a DC 15 WIS (Perception) Check to avoid catching the Monk.  He fails, so the second Cultist and the Monk slump down asleep.

Paladin - Starts to tie up the sleeping Cultist with a rope.  He asks if he can complete this in one round.  I think for a moment, and decide it's a long shot.  I create a ruling that will let the Paladin make a DEX Check at DC 20 this round, 15 next round, etc, and complete the job when he succeeds. Lo and behold, the Paladin rolls a 20 so ties up the Cultist lightning fast (everyone cheers)!

At this point the players asked if we can drop out of initiative, thinking the encounter was over, but I keep us in initiative.

Round 2

One of the Stable Boys walks out of the stables, a look of shock on his face at seeing drawn swords and a bloody body.  He calls out for his friend to get out here and see this!

Warlock - Approaches the Stable Boy and successfully casts Charm Person.  Tells the Stable Boy to call his friend off, and tell him he was only joking.  I roll a CHA (Deception) Check for the Stable Boy, and he succeeds.  His friend complains a little, but keeps working in the stables.

Round 3

I make a roll to determine if a new NPC approaches, but none does this round.  But our heroes are getting the idea that they need to control and clean up this situation quickly.

Warlock - Starts escorting the charmed Stable Boy toward the inn's main entrance.

Paladin - Shakes the sleeping Monk awake.

Wizard - Starts to drag the sleeping Cultist into the cart.  Wonders if this will wake him up.  Good point!  I have the Wizard roll a DC 10 DEX (Sleight of Hand) Check.  He fails, so the Cultist is roused awake, and promptly screams for help!  This brings Stable Boy 2 out to investigate.

Round 4

My random rolling determines that the Knight enters the encounter.  He strolls out of the inn's main entrance, decked out in plate mail, wondering what the screaming and ruckus is all about.

Monk - Walks over to Stable Boy 2 and tries to reason with him, telling him that these are dangerous cultists they're dealing with here that need to be stopped.  I have him make a CHA (Persuasion) Check, contested by SB2's Wisdom.  The Monk fails, and SB2 goes dashing toward the inn's main entrance to get help, past the Warlock and the Knight.  I remind the Monk that he can make an opportunity attack, and he gets the d20 ready.  But another player interrupts him, reminding him that killing a poor stable boy might not reflect the Monk's alignment.  The Monk considers this, and decides not the take the opportunity attack.

The tied up Cultist tries to stand up.  Since he's tied up, I roll a DC10 DEX Check for him, but he fails so he stays put this round, prone.

Warlock - With quick thinking, excitedly tells the Knight to grab that Stable Boy, he just stole something from her!  I have the Warlock roll a CHA (Deception) Check, which she passes easily, and the Knight does his chivalrous duty and turns to run after the thief.  I award the Warlock a point of Inspiration for this brilliant move.

At this point, the encounter is effectively wrapped up, as I describe the Knight grabbing the poor Stable Boy by the collar inside the inn and slapping him around.


Instead of a boring exchange of attacks, this encounter became its own vibrant story, with an outcome that I could have never predicted.  It turns out there were only 3 Attack Rolls made, and 8 Ability Checks.

Consider throwing NPCs like this into your combat encounters, especially in urban settings.  It will lead to unpredictable but fun outcomes that can liven up the session dramatically!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Encumbrance Variant in D&D 5e

Tucked away in the 5e Player's Handbook, on page 176, is a small paragraph detailing a variant encumbrance rule.  You're still weighed down and can't move if you carry 15x your Strength score.  But now there are gradations.  If you carry 10x your Strength, your Speed is -20, and at 5x Strength your Speed is -10.  I can just see the poor, heavily encumbered gnome waddling along at a Speed of 5.

To help the players manage these encumbrance levels, I added some small boxes to the bottom of the character sheet where they can write down their encumbered, heavily encumbered, and overloaded levels.

It turns out that, with just their starting gear, all of the PCs in my game were encumbered, so they all suffered a -10 penalty to Speed.  This proved a rude awakening for the players, and has become somewhat an area of focus in the sessions.  In future posts I'll outline how I use cards to help players more easily calculate their equipment load, and how the lowly backpack has found a center stage tactical role.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Every Roll has Consequences

Getting ready to kick off a D&D 5e campaign, I am going to bring in many of the principles that I learned from running Dungeon World.  One concept from DW that really stuck with me is that every roll has potential consequences.

Too many times, when the party wants to make a Check, if one PC fails, someone else chimes in, "I'll try it."  The player must be thinking, "After all, why not, there's no risk in failure so I might as well try too."

In Dungeon World, every roll can result in a success, a partial success, or a failure.  A partial success leads to a hard bargain or tough decision.  A failure means that the GM can make something bad happen.  That means, the player needs to think twice before they flippantly decide that they want to make a roll.

In practice, this led to interesting developments in my previous Dungeon World game.  One of the characters rolled to explore some ruins, and another character decided to roll to aid them.  The aiding player rolled a failure.  In D&D this usually just means, too bad, you couldn't help.  In Dungeon World, it meant that the player suffered a debility as he sprained his ankle trying to navigate some difficult terrain while he tried to help.  After that experience, the player didn't offer to help again.

These consequences add tension and *decision making* into the game.  It makes it a decision whether to make a roll or not, rather than a "why not."

In the D&D Next playtest packets, there was even an optional mechanic that formalized this, the Hazard rule for Ability Checks.  If you rolled a certain number below the required DC, something bad happens.  I hope that this optional rule survives in the DMG!

I'll be adopting the Hazard rule for 5e.  If the player fails a Check by more than 5, something bad will happen.  For example, if they're exploring a swamp and someone makes a Knowledge Check, and fails by 6 or more, the party might here some loud croaking sounds in the distance.  This foreshadows the presence of Giant Toads in the area.  This is akin the the Signs of Doom advice from Dungeon World.

Consider using a "Hazard" style rule in your games to keep the tension level high, and make each roll a DECISION and not a "why not".

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Passive Perception Conundrum

Consider this situation in D&D 5e:

Praxel the Rogue hides in the shadows of the cavern.  He rolls a Dexterity (Stealth) Check, and rolls a 2.  With his various bonuses he winds up with a total of 6 on his Check.  This value will be contested by any creature moving through that cavern to determine if he's detected.

Grok the Orc advances into the cavern.  He saw Praxel run into these caverns so he's on the lookout for the Rogue.  He thus needs to roll a Wisdom (Perception) Check.  He rolls a 5, and thus fails to detect Praxel.

A little while later, Drok the Orc meanders through the cavern.  He's not aware that an intruder is hiding here, so he takes his Passive Perception score of 10, and detects Praxel out of the corner of his eye!

This illustrates the only major thing in the 5e rules that bother me.  The fact that Grok, who was looking for Praxel, failed to find him, but that Drok, who wasn't looking, could not fail!

I considered just dropping Passive Perception, but I think a creature actively searching should have some kind of advantage.  I noticed in the Phandelver adventure that different DCs are sometimes given to creatures actively searching versus passively perceiving.  So I still think that these rules are in a bit of flux.

After considering several options, I'm leaning toward making Passive Perception a standard WIS (Perception) Check, but at automatic Disadvantage.  I will also roll the PP numbers for the PCs and note them secretly behind the screen (re-rolling as they are used).  This will inject some desired randomness back into the Passive Perception concept, and give active searchers a better chance of discovering something than passive observers.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Fire Elf - D&D 5e Subrace

You come from a branch of Elves that have migrated and adapted to the harsh deserts of the world.  Your skin is a coppery color, and your eyes might range from deep burnt orange to shimmering umber.

Ability Score Increase.  Your Charisma and Constitution scores increase by 1.

Fire Elf Weapon Training.  You have proficiency with the scimitar and the sling.

Heat Resistance.  You are resistant to fire damage.

Desert Native.  You have advantage on any Survival check related to a desert environment.

Ice Dwarf - D&D 5e Subrace

You are a member of the first primordial race, which mastered Elemental Magic as well as Necromancy, and carved out the Underdark before the Drow invaded it.

Alignment.  Most Ice Dwarves are firmly in the Lawful Evil camp.  But the Order of the Ancestors actively opposed this philosophy, and joined the Mountain Dwarves in a war against the Ice Dwarves.  This war purged most of the evil Ice Dwarves from the eastern part of the world.

Ability Score Increase.  Your Intelligence score increases by 1.

Icy Resistance.  You have resistance to cold damage.

Icecunning.  As Stonecunning, but also applies to ice and cold.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

My D&D 5e House Rules

The campaign will kick off in a few weeks and I'm compiling the House Rules for my flavor of 5e.  Slightly more gritty, a tad more old school.  Some of these rules were adopted from previous playtest releases and are likely to show up in the DMG, and others were stolen from Troll and Flame.

Slower Healing
You recover your Hit Dice during a Long Rest, not your full Hit Points.

Encounter Cantrips
Cantrips are not at-will, but you regain them after a Short or Long Rest.

Consequences of Death
Being returned from the dead results in a loss of 1 random Ability point.

After the killing blow, must make a DC 12 INT Check to avoid accidentally killing enemy.  If using a bludgeoning weapon, this is made at Advantage.

Magic Item Attunement
You can attune to a maximum number of magic items equal to your Charisma modifier (minimum 1).