Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Making Gems Fun

I like to make finding gems an exciting experience for the players in my campaign, and here are some tools to help you accomplish this.

Gem Tokens

Download the PDF below, print a few copies on card stock, and cut out the gem tokens as needed.  I keep a stack of the lower base value tokens handy, and cut out the higher base value tokens as needed.

Gem Tokens PDF

Finding Gems

When PCs discover gems as part of a treasure, determine how many they find, and the base value level of the gems.  Use your discretion as DM.  If they're in a low-risk environment, the base level would be 10gp.  Deeper in the dungeon, the base level would be higher.  As a reminder, the base gem value levels from the DMG are:



Have someone in the party roll a number of d6's equal to the number of gems found.  For each 1 rolled, that particular gem goes down by 1 base level (if it's above 10gp).  For each 6 rolled, that gem goes up 1 base level (if it isn't already at 5,000gp).

These 1's and 6's are exploding dice.  For example, if a player found a 10gp base gem, and rolled a 6 for it, the value is bumped up to a 50gp base.  They then roll that die again.  Another 6 means another bump up to 100gp, and keep going until a 6 is not rolled.

Distribute the Loot

Reach into your gem token stacks and give them a gem token for each gem found.

Using Gems for Rituals

This is a completely optional house rule that I instituted for my campaign.  I felt that there was not enough cost to performing rituals (basically a time cost only).  So I established that you need 50gp worth of gems per spell level to cast a spell as a ritual.  The gems are consumed in the process.

Appraising Gems

Players can visit a gem shop in a settlement to appraise, cash in, and exchange gems.  During this process, the gemologist might determine that an individual gem is worth less, or more than its base value.  The cost for the service is 1gp per gem.  Have the player roll 1d10 for each gem being appraised.

If a die comes up a 1 or 10, consult the tables below.  Roll on the Gem Flaws table for 1's, and the Gem Bonuses table for 10's.  Then, roll that die again, repeating the procedure, until a 1 or 10 is not rolled.  You might wind up with an unusually large, finely-cut, exceptionally clear garnet that's worth more than a diamond.

Gem Flaws - d4
1. Smaller than normal, value halved
2. Cracked, value halved
2. Flawed, value quartered
3. Unusually cloudy, value quartered

Gem Bonuses - d4
1. Larger than normal, value increased by half
2. Exceptionally clear, value increased by half
3. Striking color, value doubled
4. Unusual and exquisite cut, value increased by 100-400%.

Do it Yourself

Any PC with proficiency in Jeweler's Tools can spend a Short Rest or longer appraising gems themselves.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Using Equipment Cards in D&D 5e

I use small cards to represent gear and other physical items that the PCs possess in my game.  I found that a standard index card cut in half is the perfect size for a gear/item card.

On the card I write the item's name, some important stats, such as attack and damage if it's a weapon, or it's illumination range if it's a torch or lantern.  If the item has multiple instances, like a group of torches or pitons, I write a number of circles on the card.  The player scratches out a circle as they consume an item.

On the bottom right hand corner of the card I write the item's weight.  This makes it easy for players to total up their weight for purposes of calculating encumbrance.  You'd be amazed at how quickly the weight of gear adds up, especially if you're using the Encumbrance Variant rule from the PHB.  All of the PCs in my game are at -10 speed.  A backpack can mitigate this, and I'll detail how I use this lowly piece of gear in a future post.

Now in my games, a PC doesn't have something unless they have the card.  This can really make the players feel the sting of losing items.  It's more painful to give up a physical card than it is to erase something from a character sheet.  The system makes it easy for players to exchange items (just swap cards), or to store their gear in a common pool in their wagon (throw all the common cards in a plastic baggie).

I also took advantage of this system when an NPC in the party started stealing from the group.  Whenever this thief succeeded at his DEX(Sleight of Hand) roll contested by the PC's Passive Perception, I surreptitiously removed the gear card(s) from their stacks between sessions.  Fortunately for the party they eventually caught the thief NPC red handed and quickly put an end to his shenanigans ... by killing him.  When they went through the slain NPC's gear cards, there was quite a laugh when they saw all of the items that he'd pilfered from them.

Making Passive Perception more Fun

I've had a love/hate relationship with D&D 5e Passive Perception since I first read the rule.  On the one hand, it's nice to have a simple way to resolve whether or not the PCs notice something without tipping your hand as a DM and calling for a WIS(Perception) Check.  On the other hand, the static nature of the Passive Perception takes some randomness out of the game that I miss.

When I design a dungeon, I don't want to know that the PCs will notice a secret door with a DC of 15 because of the highest Passive Perception in the party.  I still want there to be a chance that they don't notice the door.  On the other hand, I also want there to be a chance that they do notice a door that they normally wouldn't based on Passive Perception.

My solution is to pre-roll a number of WIS(Perception) Checks.  Each PC gets a row on an index card, and I first write their name and their WIS(Perception) modifier.  Then I partition the card into a number of columns, make some dice rolls, and write down the results.  When I need one or more Passive Perception values during play, I look at the next result on the card.  Once I use a value, I scratch it out.

In this way, I can keep the suspense of Passive Perception, and still have the uncertainty that a die roll brings to the situation.

Monday, December 1, 2014

5e DMG Encounter Tables - Vulture Hills

The 5e DMG offers an elegant example of a random encounter table driven by a d8+d12 roll.  The outliers of the table represent very rare encounters/events, and the entries nearer the center of the table are more common ones.  The table contains several plain old monster encounters, but it also has a fair number of environmental encounters, and even an NPC.  The encounters, taken together, form a kind of story that has the potential for occurring in the sylvan forest that the table was constructed for.

The DMG contains only one example table, a sylvan forest.  The idea is that you (the DM) create one of these tables for each region in your world that the PCs have a chance of wandering into.  The story potential in the table drives the campaign forward into new and exciting directions.  The random nature of this system means that not even the DM knows in advance exactly how that story will unfold.

When constructing a random encounter table, be sure to have a few different factions present in the target region.  I present an example of my own below, of one of the hill regions in my campaign, the region of Vulture Hills.  I had previously established that these hills were subject to flash floods, and home to a variety of unsavory denizens, including tribes of savage ape-men.  I introduced a group of dwarf miners establishing a colony named Pickfarther as another faction, and also make liberal use of the region's namesake vultures.

Vulture Hills Encounters (d8+d12)

  1. Zixius (adult black dragon) flying overhead, DC20 Perception Check (+11) to spot party.  2d6 rounds to arrive, they'd better find a hiding place before he does!
  2. A spontaneous thunderstorm erupts.  Unless party indicates they are seeking high ground, a flash flood sweeps them away.  DC15 DEX save or character is swept away.  Each character swept away must make a DC15 CON save or take 2d10 bludgeoning damage (save halves).  Must also make a DC10 DEX save or lose what they were holding.  A roll of 1 indicates they lose their backpack as well.  The swept away characters are deposited in an unknown area, lost.
  3. A small side cave contains figures and maps painted on the walls.  A crude representation of a dragon, and the rough location of Zixius' lair.
  4. A number of vultures are seen circling in the distance.  If investigated, they are seen eating the remains of an adventuring party.  Characters can fight off the 2d6 vultures, of wait them out (1 day).  On the remains are found several pieces of mundane gear, some silver, and a map to a nearby tomb.
  5. 2d4 red ape-men bringing tribute to Zixius' lair
  6. 2d4 ape-men hunting party carrying their catch (goat, elk, etc).
  7. Remains of 2d4 ape-men dissolved in a huge pool of acid.
  8. Two rival ape-men tribes fighting, 2d6 in each group.
  9. Narrow, winding gullies confuse the party.  Navigator must make a DC20 WIS(Survival) roll or the party becomes lost.
  10. 3d6 hungry and aggressive blood hawks.
  11. 2d4 elk (75%) or 1d2 giant elk (25%), grazing peacfully.
  12. 1d4 giant goat, running from 2d4 ape-men hunters.
  13. Unstable slope gives way.  Each character must make a DC15 DEX save or suffer 1d10 bludgeoning damage as they tumble down the side.
  14. An ancient ice dwarf shrine carved into the side of a vertical cliff.  A DC20 INT(Religion) check allows a willing character to undertake the proper ritual and receive a boon of 1 extra inspiration token.
  15. 1d4 giant vultures.
  16. 2d4 dwarf prospectors, lost, looking for way back to Pickfarther base.
  17. A dying dwarf peppered with crossbow bolts.  Was ambushed by ape-men.  Can be stabilized with a DC15 WIS(Medicine) check, or magical healing.  If characters escort him back to Pickfarther base they are rewarded with 2d6x10 gold.
  18. Flies buzz around the remains of a gutted dwarf staked to a tree.  (Ape-men don't like dwarf flesh).
  19. Front rank characters detect this natural pit on a Passive Perception check of 15+.  Failure leads to collapse, DC15 DEX save or fall down 20' shaft into the entry chamber of a new dungeon.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Beseech the Dwarf Ancients

1st-level divination

Casting Time: 1 minute
Range: 10 feet
Components: V, S, M (burnt incense)
Duration: Instantaneous

This spell lets you communicate with a statue, sculpture, painting, or other representation of a dwarf that was crafted by dwarf craftsmen.  At 1st-level, you can ask the object a single question relating to the current dungeon level.  This usage of the spell will not work if the object has been removed from the dungeon level it was found in.  The statue, painting, etc. animates and answers the question in a simple and straightforward manner.

At Higher Levels.  Dwarven casters can automatically cast the spell at 2 levels higher than the slot they consume.  When you cast this using a 3rd-level spell slot, you can ask a question relating to the entire dungeon.  This usage will not work if the object was removed from the dungeon.  With a 5th-level slot, the actual spirit of the dwarf represented manifests, and will answer any question that it knew in life.  At 7th-level, you can ask up to three questions.  At 9th-level, you can carry on a conversation lasting up to 10 minutes.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Vrackni's Finger

The creation of a sadistic and charismatic arch-mage, this divination device consists of a desiccated severed finger set in a case made of brass and glass.  Vrackni produced several of these devices and expanded her wealth substantially through their sales, and no - she did not use her own fingers in their construction.

To operate the device, you inscribe a magical circle in the floor, and place the device in the center.  Then, recite the required incantations for one hour.  Learning how to do this requires a day of downtime study or instruction with a successful DC 15 INT(Arcana) Check (you can keep using your downtime to study until you succeed).

The device pinpoints the future location of a single creature.  You must place one of the creature's previous physical possessions in the circle, such as a scrap of clothing or weapon.  After the ritual is completed, the finger will point in the direction of the exact spot that the creature will be in 12 hours time.  As you travel, the finger rotates to always point to that single destination.  If you are within 50' of that point, the finger points straight upward, indicating you have arrived.  You have one hour to reach the destination.  After that time, the magic fades and the finger falls limp.

Each time you use the device roll 1d20.  On a 20, the physical possession that you placed in the circle is consumed by the magical forces.

After activating the device, you cannot use it again for another 12 hours.

Monday, October 27, 2014

White Wood Staff

This staff is carved from a single piece of nearly white wood, engraved with intricate twisting vines, leaves, and berries.

  • The staff can act as a Druidic Focus.
  • The staff is a magical +1 Quarterstaff.
  • Attuned - When placed next to an injured creature, one of the berries transforms into a living berry.  The creature can consume this berry and regain 1d6 hit points.  The staff will produce only one berry per creature per day.  After using this ability, mark a tick mark next to the item on your character sheet, and roll a number of d6's equal to the total number of tick marks next to the item.  If any of the dice come up 1, the staff is exhausted and no more berries will appear.  You can spend a day communing in a forest to recharge the staff.  The staff will function again, and you can remove a number of tick marks equal to 1d6 + your WIS modifier.

This item is an example of how I like to use "escalating d6's" for magic item charges.  The more you use the item, the greater the chance that you'll hit the last charge.  In this case, the item can be re-charged by sacrificing a day of time, and being in a forest.

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".

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 (Scrapped)
Cantrips are not at-will, but you regain them after a Short or Long Rest. (Note: this house rule was quickly scrapped.  I had the old damage potential of the play test cantrips in my mind, and found that the release cantrips were more well balanced.)

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

Non-Lethal Damage
If you decide to pull your punches before making an attack roll with a melee weapon (this incurs disadvantage) you can deal non-lethal damage.  If you don't pull your punches, then after a strike that brings the enemy to 0 HP, you must make a DC 12 INT(Medicine) check to avoid accidentally killing them.  If you're 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).

Monday, July 28, 2014

Cat Folk Race for D&D 5e

Cat Folk

Ability Score Increase.  Your Dexterity score increases by 2, and your Charisma score by 1.

Size.  Your size is Medium.

Speed.  Your base walking speed is 30 feet.

Darkvision.  You have superior feline vision in dark and dim conditions.  You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light.  You can't discern colors in darkness, only shades of gray.

Keen Senses.  You have proficiency in the Perception Skill.

Stalk.  You have proficiency in the Stealth Skill.

Languages.  You can speak, read and write Common and Felingua, the language of the Cat Folk.

Land on all Fours.  You are resistant to falling damage.

Pounce.  You double the distance that you can jump.