Friday, December 28, 2012

Making Yourself Welcome at a D&D Game Table

You’d think that it was easy to portray a character that would be welcomed in a role-playing game. Based on my own practical experience, you’d be wrong. How hard can it be? It can be hard enough that I’m writing this article about it.

What follows is like religion, and nobody agrees on religion. Even so, that doesn't stop anybody talking about religion, and it isn't going to stop me from talking about how to make yourself more welcome at a D&D game table.

The first thing that you need to know about D&D is that the game is forward facing fiction. By this, I mean that a character’s back story doesn't matter a whole lot. What matters most is the front story. That is, what matters is the current adventure where something is challenging your group or something is actively trying to kill you. Some players LOVE their back stories, and those back stories can be useful, but back stories are ultimately your own private playground while the nature of an RPGs is a shared.

How can you orient yourself to the forward facing story? Ask yourself some questions. Where do you want your character to go? What do you want her to see? Who do you want him to be? Those are the questions that D&D inherently asks. Have some of those answers ready, and your DM will love you. Be willing to discover those answers as your go and you will love the game.

The center of D&D is ultimately characters reacting to difficult situations. What does your character think or do in the uncertain situation before him? Sometimes that’s an easy question to answer: there’s an orc trying to kill you and you happily kill it first with no remorse. Sometimes the question are not easy. Who do you rescue first? When do you balk at the party's plans? Where are your moral boundaries? These questions are a constant, ongoing character development skirmish running through the game. Engage in those questions and you find the game.

I like to think of D&D as the willingness to lean into uncertainty. Where a situation is certain, you have neither challenge nor doubt. You can smash a thousand ants and gain nothing but boredom. You can also fight an impossibly lethal dragon and find the true meaning of charcoal. Between those two extreme, you have uncertainty, and by your own action, influence that uncertainty. Will you be successful? Will you screw up? What will go wrong? What surprises may happen? What opportunities may arrives? That’s where the game dwells strongest and best.

The stories that get remembered in D&D are not the stories of stomping on bugs. You most often hear the stories of mistakes, desperation, pulling victories out of your ass, and how somebody died a truly stupid death. Those are the things that make impressions upon the players. Those are the things that make for memories.

Most people don’t like dwelling in doubt and uncertainty. As children, we all want to win and win decisively. We want our teams to dominate. We want clear victory. We act to keep ourselves in that state of certainty. That’s natural. In D&D, you must put that natural state aside. If you are to be an adventurer, you must be willing to go into the uncertainty and engage with whatever you find there. What’s there? Doubt, moral quandaries, puzzles, certain harm, and possibly death. There’s no answer in the back of the book. In fact, you are creating the book as you go along.

A unifying theme to character/player unpopularity is the elimination of uncertainty. They do this in a variety of ways. Some players make super-powerful characters, some cheat, some derail the game, or some enjoy that feeling of beating the DM. Whatever the case, these players eliminate uncertainty, which eliminates the fun for most others at the table.

If you want to be welcome, then embrace uncertainty. Do these two things: express your characters personality in the situation before him and lean into uncertainty. If you dare to do this, then you should be well rewarded and find yourself very welcomed.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Anthropomorphic Animal Characters

Anthropomorphic animals are a staple of fantasy fiction. Fortunately, they are easy enough to hack into any edition. Anthropomorphic animals are simply other races reskinned. This gives you an existing race and all its racial feats, along with any other racial rules might be helpful to you.

Humans work well for monkeys and other well rounded animals, such as badgers.

Dwarf traits are very useful for solid, well-built animals. There not much difference between a dwarf and a hog, for example. Rams also work well with dwarves.

Half-orcs are best used for solid animals that have known mean streaks, such as boars, rhinos, and hippos. (Don’t laugh at hippos. They’re more deadly than lions.)

Half-giants and other particularly large races work well with any larger animals, such as moose, elephant, or bison.

Elves go well with very agile and graceful animals, such as deer, snakes, and birds.

Halflings associate well with clever animals, such as fox or wildcat.

You might want some bonus skills to come with your animal choice. Especially in 3.X, it’s hard to go wrong by adding appropriate skills. You could also add a free Skill Focus if a class already has an appropriate feat. So a fox might give a fighter the Sneak skill, but would give the rogue a Skill Focus feat since that class already has Sneak.

That was easy, wasn’t it? The combinations are pretty simple once you get used to the cheat.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Alternate Reincarnation Table

The following is a variant table for the reincarnate spell. This table includes all SRD races to LA+2. It removes races which had no rules for using as a player race.
09-12Dwarf, Deep
13-17Dwarf, Hill
18-20Dwarf, Mountain
26-28Elf, Gray
29-33Elf, High
34-36Elf, Wild
37-39Elf, Wood
42-44Gnome, Forest
45-49Gnome, Rock
53-54Goblin, Blue
66-68Halfling, Deep
69-73Halfling, Lightfoot
74-76Halfling, Tallfellows

Monday, December 17, 2012

Alternate Shield Rules (3E)

In history, the shield was described as a warrior's most important piece of equipment. Used dynamically, it protected a warrior from harm. In D&D, this important tool has been reduced to a mere bonus.

Instead of treating the shield as a passive bonus, we can treat the shield as an armor substitute.

 Type Shield Bonus Armor Bonus
 Buckler +1 +2
 Light Shield +1 +5
 Heavy Shield +2 +8
 Tower Shield +4 +8

The new thing that we add here is the armor bonus. The shield becomes a substitute for armor.
  • The armor bonus is only received while the wearer receives (or could receive) his dexterity bonus.
  • Armor bonuses do not stack.
  • Any shield enhancement bonus also provides an armor enhancement bonus.
Essentially, this lets melee classes operate effectively with only a shield for protection, yet their AC should come out approximately correct. 

This approach does flout wealth levels a little, but not by much.

If a shield is so great, then why bother with heavy armor at all? One reason is being flat-footed. If you lose your dex bonus, you lose your entire armor bonus. 

In sea adventure campaigns, this should help even heavy armor classes better operate.

Finally, these rules give a DM a way to give NPCs a larger AC without having to throw in large amounts of wealth into the game. All that you really need to do is pick the appropriate shield, which is far less valuable as treasure.


This is another article which I first posted to the D&D Wiki.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Virtual Magic Item System for 3E/OGL

Many playgroups enjoy playing in low magic campaigns. Unfortunately, D&D 3rd Edition does not handle low-magic or no-magic games correctly. To account for this, rather than receive ever larger magic items and ever-larger wealth, the characters receive virtual bonuses according to the table below. These items advance with schedule laid out in the Magic Item Compendium.

Masterwork items do not appear on this schedule.

4.+1 armor enhancement, +1 shield enhancement
+1 enhancement to all saves
6.+1 armor enhancement, +1 shield enhancement, +1 deflection, +1 natural armor class
+1 enhancement to all saves
+1 weapon enhancement
8.+2 enhancement to one ability and Con
+2 armor enhancement, +2 shield enhancement, +1 deflection, +1 natural armor class
+2 enhancement to all saves
+1 weapon enhancement
12.+2 enhancement to one ability and Con
+3 armor enhancement, +3 shield enhancement, +2 deflection, +2 natural armor class
+3 enhancement to all saves
+2 weapon enhancement
14.+4 enhancement to one ability and Con
+4 armor enhancement, +4 shield enhancement, +3 deflection, +3 natural armor class
+4 enhancement to all saves
+3 weapon enhancement
15.+4 enhancement to one ability and Con
+5 armor enhancement, +5 shield enhancement, +3 deflection, +3 natural armor class
+5 enhancement to all saves
+3 weapon enhancement
16.+6 enhancement to one ability and Con
+5 armor enhancement, +5 shield enhancement, +4 deflection, +4 natural armor class
+5 enhancement to all saves
+4 weapon enhancement
18.+6 enhancement to one ability and Con
+5 armor enhancement, +5 shield enhancement, +5 deflection, +5 natural armor class
+5 enhancement to all saves
+5 weapon enhancement
Shield bonuse apply when using a shield, buckler, or (optionally) if two-weapon fighting and using the second weapon for defense.

Optional: In the SRD, a magic weapon or armor must have a +1 bonus before any other properties are applied. This rule can be waived in favor of making more flavorful weapons. Since a weapon no longer needs an enhancement bonus, it can now have magical properties without first having to have a bonus. For example, a flaming holy longsword with no magic item bonus is a legal weapon under this system.

Design Note
I first posted this on the D&D Wiki many years ago. I'm reposting it here, and I'll find other things I wrote previously as well. I created this little schedule to help magic lighter games to operate. 

Dragon Age

I've started Dragon Age: Origins. (Yeah, I'm late and slow.) I've playing a dwarf noble.

It's both comforting and humbling to find that they are running with many of the same themes and ideas that I did. They named them differently, but they are the same. It is humbling, because yet again, I see how unoriginal my creations are, but it's also rocks, because the dragon age writers professionally developed the dwarves to be interesting, and the team came up with most of the same results that I did. So, I don't really know which direction to go with this. Mixed emotions. For lack of a better response, I'll picked that I rock, because my results run with the AAA titles.

The only remaining place that I feel original is my exploration of religion, but as most of that is flat out stolen from real life, I once again come face to face with the fact that what I wrote is derivative. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Nobody points to a mystery writer or romance writer and accuses them of being derivative. Derivativeness is the price of being a genre writer. Yet, we all want to be original, don't we? That's the curse of fantasy. 

Weeds Among Stone and Standing Between Earth and Heaven are both available as ebooks on Amazon's Kindle service. They really are good reads.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Grenadier: A Martial Controller

Possibly the most important, controversial, all-consuming, awe-inspiring question of 4E D&D is: where’s the martial controller? Okay, maybe it’s not quite so overwhelmingly important as I make it out to be, but you gotta admit, this sure did burn up the boards.

Here’s my little recipe for bashing together a martial controller. I all the class The Grenadier.

The Grenadier

Grenadiers are ordinary mortals who have learned the magical properties of various magical items and ingredients. When combined, they get extraordinary effects. This might sound like an alchemist, but they aren’t alchemists. They’re basically punks with chemistry books. They are no more magic because they pick up magical things and make them go boom than a fighter is magic because he picks up a magic sword and wears magic armor. The character is martial because in combat, Grenadiers use their physical abilities to hurl dangerous shit at their enemies to great effect. The closest historical role would be that of the grenadier, the people on the battlefield who used to chuck big explosives about in the pre-modern era.

Putting One Together

To bash the class together, take a controller as the base, then assemble a set of powers from controllers that would work well with a grenadier. Pay attention to those powers which look like they could work well with inventions or blow up when hurled.

I’m not decided on a special ability yet. At this point, I think that grenadiers can take encounter/daily uses from an available magic item and use them to fuel uses of their own encounter/daily powers, or take one of their encounter/daily powers and use it to power a magic item.

All of that is hand-wavy, of course, but workable. The Grenadier should not play like a wizard, and should also have some survivability in closer combat. I won’t really know until I playtest the class, which won’t happen anytime soon.

What should be a grenadier’s implement? Yeesh, I have no clue. The class isn’t really centered around implements. As there’s no use in making a new implement up. I’d say that grenadiers should use tomes as they are, after all, punks with chemistry books. They could also work with rods and wands.


As a personal opinion, I think that alchemists should be martial as well. They are not innately magic. What they do is use their own personal skill to create magical effects, and the realm of skills is martial, not arcane.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Animal Spirit Allies

In many respects, Bear Warrior is an incomplete answer to a martial need: how can you add amazing abilities? This is a historical problem. Every warrior from every society has sought such advantages. The thing is, they don’t abandon who they are, or what their class is. What they do is to layer on a new level of abilities.

Gaining power from animal spirits is one such answer. By gaining the help of these spirits, warriors gain the abilities of those spirits, and by that, are stronger than their enemies. The challenge to me, then, is how I create a set of rules that helps this idea? How do I implement this under OGL vs. D&D 4th edition? What about Next?

Animal Spirit Allies Under OGL (D&D 3.X)

In OGL, we have the problem of promiscuous multiclassing. As a designer, I can’t guarantee how classes will go together, or even rely on classes at all. Compounding this is the fact that non-magic characters don’t actually have anything that I can key off of, and even if I did, prestige classes make that determination even more difficult.

A simple way to implement this would be to create a Caster Level cost. That is, your caster level would be reduced by X levels. As losing Caster Level is a harsh penalty for a caster, this would help keep the cross-class abuse to a minimum. However, we have classes like Ranger that would do well to have animal totems, and they gain spells, so a penalty to them would be fairly harsh. Reducing all spellcasting to ½ level, which most non-casters already get as penalties, might sidestep that well enough.

I am sure that abuses are still possible. An important note is that spirits are independent entities. The spirits can get offended and go away. You are not guaranteed of their help. Fortunately, ceremonies can mend the relationship. So if things do go awry, the DM does have a brake. For the most part, there should be no need for a DM to put the brakes on Tier 4 and Tier 5 characters.

With such a low cost, every non-magic character would rationally want a creature totem. As all low-tier classes need a boost, that is good.

All spirit allies provide the following:

  • Character can polymorph into a normal version of the represented animal. With a feat, that can be improved to celestial/infernal version.
  • Small characters choose small animals
  • Medium characters choose medium animals or large animals, although they only change into medium versions of their chosen animal. Feats enable larger versions.
  • Character polymorphs as a move action. With a feat, this can be reduced to a swift action.
  • The spirit provides two skills at ranks equal to character level + 3. These skills are thematically appropriate for their animal.
  • The character gains a feat appropriate to the animal.

Let’s see how this works out. A fighter chooses an elk as his animal spirit. The elk spirit gives him the skills Intimidation and Listen. The elk gives him the feat Bull Rush. He can change into an elk at will.

Meanwhile, a Ranger chooses a wolf. He gains the Endurance feat, and the Hide and Move Silently skills. He can change into a wolf.

A halfling rogue, being small, chooses a fox. He chooses the skills Spot and Search, and the feat Tracking.

Can that be abused? Yes, I’m sure that it can, but in an average enough game, these rules will work well enough.

Animal Spirit Allies Under 4th Edition

Here, animal spirits work far easier. Any character in a class that does not gain spells can gain an animal spirit. In this case, the spirit only gives you the ability to change shape into the appropriate creature. The rest can be handled ad-hoc. Essentially, it just becomes a bit of fun. Attack rolls, power, and such remain the same. The animal form could switch out a few powers, giving you different at-will abilities for that encounter appropriate to the animal and the level of the character.

What About Spellcasters?

Spellcasters can get animal spirits, too. However, those are already modeled into the class. It’s just a matter of fluff to say, “I have an animal spirit helping me.” The character already has the magic to prove that power.

Flying is a bit of a problem. Flying forms should be limited by archetype. Controllers should always be the smallest flyers, strikers medium flyers, and tanks as the largest.

Animal Spirit Allies Under Next

We don’t know all of Next yet. I assume that is will be better balanced. For now, the forms should be acquirable as a quest, and it should count as your move to change forms. Medium races should get medium creatures, and small races get small creatures (or miniature versions of larger creatures).

How to pay for this? I don’t have a clue yet.

As a hack, combat should just use appropriate weapons for the class.

I think that spellcasters would have no fingers, so casting spells as an animal should be a large problem for them.

That’s about it for this post. I’ve kicked this can around enough already.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Bear Warrior Redux

I fucking love the bear warrior prestige class. It rocks, even if it is suboptimal in so many ways. It is a prestige class that worked despite the rules. Basically, who doesn’t want to tear their enemies limb from limb?

Alas, love can’t last. The rules for bear warrior wound up playing very cumbersome. I literally needed a spreadsheet to play the character as so many numbers changed between forms. Since those early, heady days of 3.X, I’ve thought about what I would change and how I would make the class better. In the end, I said “fuck this” and created my own idea of the same class.

BEAR WARRIOR (Prestige Class for 3.x/OGL)

Bear Warriors are combatants who have formed unions with powerful bear spirits. Through the use of these spirits, they gain great advantages in melee. Most bear warriors are humans, half-giants, and half-orcs

Prerequsites: Power Attack, Cleave, Great Cleave, BAB +5 or better, Non-Lawful, (Human, Half-Giant, or Half-Orc)

For to-hit and saves, continue your progression up your primary class table.

1. Too Big for My Britches, Slam ‘Em, Powerful Blow
2. Whirlwind Cleave
3. Bear-Out, Improved Multi-Attack
4. Can’t Hold Me Back
5. Improved Bear-Out

Too Big for My Britches - With the infusion of the bear spirit, you grow. You aren’t quite large, but then again, you aren’t quite medium either. You gain the advantages of being large where advantageous to you.

Slam ‘Em (Ex) - Once per round, after you’ve hit a target, you may make a strength check against that target. If you succeed, your powerful blow hurls or drives your target back five feet (one square) per strength bonus. Medium or smaller creatures literally fly backwards, taking no additional damage from the slam.

Powerful Blow - Due to your larger size, you now hit harder. Treat one-handed weapons as two-handed weapons where advantageous. For example, a dagger (a light weapon) now gets 1.5x strength bonus on damage.

Whirlwind Cleave - When you hit an opponent, you may cleave into the next opponent. (Note: By 7th level, the easily cleavable opponents have been left behind. This also gets us the cinematic effect of a big guy powering back lots of little guys.)

Bear Out (Su) - As a swift action, you polymorph into a brown bear. Your attack bonus remains the same for both claw and bite. Your your claws retain all properties of your primary weapon, but now use d8 as the damage die. Your bite gains the bonus and properties of any secondary weapon you may be wielding or carrying. You retain your armor class (but lose any shield and shield enhancement bonuses.) You also retain the special abilities of any magic item that you may be wearing.

For example: If you are wielding a +1 flaming longsword, for a +10 attack bonus and +6 damage bonus, your claws now use the +10 attack bonus and +6 damage bonus.

Rip It Apart - When attempting to break an inanimate target, it’s break DC is 5 less. While attempting to damage an inanimate target, it’s damage resistance if five less.

Can’t Hold Me Back - You may now attempt to break free of a grapple as a free action or a move action. This means that you can normally get three checks to break a grapple per round.

Improved Bear Out (Su) - You are now a bigger bear than before. Your claws do d10 and your bite does d8.


The problems of bear warrior are deep and distressing. Basically, the prestige class is not supported by the rest of the game. It's a cool idea, but once you start playing it, it's really out there in terms of support. 

Perhaps the worst part of the class is that your character loses all benefits of magic equipment when changed into a bear, which is a massive nerf to a tank character. In many respect, the class trades you for power rather than gives you extra power. What's the point of that? The prestige class really needs to work with existing equipment and abilities.

One of my conundrums was addressing the matching of magic weapons to natural weapons. Should I go with a strict 1:1 correspondence of man-made to natural weapon, or should I go lax? As written, a bear warrior should not need to regear just to use his cool powers. He should be able to recycle his weapons with the greatest of paperwork ease. So I chose to go with a lax matching of primary weapons to natural weapons. That does the give character an advantage in gold pieces, but considering that lower powered classes will take this prestige class, the advantage winds up fairly minor.

The bear warrior also has a problem with weapons. He's a natural for two-handed weapons, but his bear form is a dual wield build. Even worse, dual wield builds don't translate into natural weapons and multiattack. Talks about a design trainwreck! So, we just need to make sure that the bear warrior gets the feats that he needs to be effective.

I use the term “where advantageous” in this sketch-up. I could write lots and lots of detailed rules, but the rules really come down to, “get the good stuff and ignore the bad stuff.” I’m not going to go through and work out every possible situation and account for it in the rules.

The prerequsites are still iffy. Not every race makes a good bear warrior. I dropped the small races as they just made the rules more complicated to write. Sorry, small guys. Thematically, small peoples really don’t fit with bear warrior. I was ambivalent about dwarves, but decided against them. Maybe create a boar warrior class? (I'll do that later.) Elves just don’t fit as bear warriors.

I do confess that I addressed only a few of the problems that sharp critics levy against the lower powered classes. Alas, they are all still there. I may, however, bring up the lower powered classes a tier.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Devas Are Cooler Than You Think

Devas come from a variety of backgrounds with a variety of motivations. Wouldn’t it be cool to play an awesome deva, rather than just another holier-than-thou Deva?

Really, folks, deva are cool but you just don’t know it. You could easily have an entire party of deva, with no two alike. So, to expand your options, and hopefully get you excited, here are some different types of deva.

The Holier-Than-Thou Crusader

Everyone knows this deva. They volunteered for this job. They show up on earth, eternally reborn, to kick the ass of evil and take no names. This might seem boring, but this laser like determination can blind them to their own evil, and lead them closer and closer to a bad rebirth, so while they are busy saving everyone else, they slowly lose themselves.

The Shamed

The Dead God was destroyed by his own angels. What became of his loyal servitors? Some fled that final battle, hiding themselves away from their enemies. When their god needed them most, they turned coward, and that is an idea that always haunts them. They fight, not so much to make good, but to atone for their cowardice.

The Regretful

Some deva come into the world and decide that they made a wrong decision. They do not want to be in the world. They want to leave and return to the heavenly realms. The only way to do that is to ascend again. These deva now care more for returning to the heavenly realms than they do about doing good. They can’t leave soon enough. However, they fear death, for death makes them begin their quest for ascension again.

The Atoner

Once a rakshasha, you have struggled your soul back to the side of good. You recall everything evil that you did, and now you must live with that. You cannot undo what you have done, but by doing some good, any good, perhaps you can make this time and this place better.

The Incomplete

Sometimes deva are reborn wrong. Something spiritual goes awry. They might not remember correctly, they might have some personality quirk, or they might have some sort of compulsion. Whatever the flaw, the deva is painfully aware that the flaw is there and fear their own rebirth, or worse, a cycle of increasingly flawed rebirth leading them into becoming who knows what horror. The power that they gain may make them whole, or make them a monsters, and they do not know which.

The Guide

Some devas do not come down to lead a fight, but rather, to lead societies themselves into being better, or to guide heroes so that they remain good. The fight that they lead is not against monsters, but against the temptations of the mortal soul. What use is it to defeat monsters when mortals only become worse monsters? Better that mortals reach towards heaven than reach towards hell.

The Freshman

USome deva have newly descended into the world. They know nothing of this place and its ways. Everything is new to them, and they have all sorts of lesson to learn. They may be wise in the way of immortals, but they are a fool in the ways of men. Their eagerness leads them forward, pulling others with them, but their eagerness forgets that their comrades are not immortal as well. They don’t yet understand mortality.

The Implications of Immortality and Rebirth

Unlike most races, a deva is immortal. They are continuously reborn. Some are reborn knowing everything from their past. Some are reborn just knowing their purpose. Some are reborn from great defeat. Yet, no matter the reason, they are reborn, whether they like it or not.

Deva remember the great battles in the beginning, for they were there. They know the gods by sight, and likely low other great beings by sight as well. They have seen history unfold. They may remember the ruins when the foundations were laid. They may have witnessed the depredations caused by great villains. They may have hidden treasure, then forgotten about it. They may even have a grave with their old gear, just waiting for them to return and claim it.

When it comes to mortals, they have seen all mortals die. This shapes their relationship. Do they savor their quick lives, like a parent enjoys children? Do they stay aloof, having learned to not build affections with such short lived beings?

All deva are eternally reborn. So exactly how long does that take? Are they reborn immediately? Are they only reborn when great evil arises? Must they wait a number of years, decades, or centuries before they are reborn? Are they reborn in the same location or different locations?

What do mortals remember of a deva? Was the deva well known? Did the deva leave a legacy? What do mortals think of an ancient and eternally reborn creature? Are they feared for their power, or sought after for their knowledge, or their purported ability to know the will of heaven?