Mechanics for Mixed Heritage

The One D&D Unearthed Arcana introduced updated Character Origin rules. Almost every PHB race was revisited, but two were dropped: Half-Elf and Half-Orc. The latter was replaced with the full Orc, but the former was replaced with a new planetouched race called the Ardling. That left no half- or otherwise mixed race options.

What am I supposed to do with all this bearded, pointy-eared people art??

There is a sidebar, “Children of Different Humanoid Kinds,” that says if you want to play half-elf, half-orc, or any other combination of things, just pick one side of your parentage to determine your game abilities and then you can describe yourself as looking like a combination of both sides of your ancestry. Then average the two races’ lifespan to get your expected lifespan.

A lot of folks feel that is insufficient for a variety of reasons that I’ll leave you to find on your own. A lot of alternatives have been proposed, usually around the idea of combining traits from two or more races, but exactly in what proportion is a tough nut to crack. So I took a swing.

Mechanical Mixing

Any mixed heritage system needs to be as simple as making a few choices from a list. Spending points out of a pool to “purchase” racial traits a la carte is too involved for my casual players and the casual players that D&D is most aimed at. So, how much of what do you pick?

I went through the Races section of the Character Origins UA and gave each trait under each race a simple categorization:

  • Minor (m): A single skill proficiency, darkvision, a cantrip, resistance to a rare damage type, or a fairly situational ability
  • Major (M): Magic progression with cantrip, 1st-, and 2nd-level spells; resistance to a common damage type; or a generally powerful ability
  • Superior/major + minor (Mm): Something that exceeds the Major options in a substantial way

These are general bands of power, not meant to draw fine lines between every distinct trait. That would not enable the quick-and-dirty nature of this homebrew on a playtest doc. Are these subjective? Yes, to some unavoidable degree. No two people will rate everything exactly the same, including the designers. But we’ve got to start somewhere.

The first thing I learned is the races as written are not particularly balanced. Modularizing the races into a standardized structure like we see in the Backgrounds of the Character Origins UA would require significant changes to a number of the races. I decided against that, as that would limit the utility of the system going forward since Wizards of the Coast are unlikely to adopt my rewrite of their UA, to understate things significantly.

Instead, I built a structure for mixed heritage races that is itself standardized even though it is built out of these non-standardized pieces. The median race in the UA has about 2 Major traits and 2 Minor traits. Some have a Superior trait, but none have more than one. So I used that as the structure. Every mixed heritage PC using this will have 2 Major and 2 Minor traits, with Superior traits taking up 1 Major and 1 Minor slot, and no more than 1 Superior trait. This way, even if the UA traits are eventually revised, this structure can still be applied, I’ll just need to update the trait ratings.

So here’s my sidebar:

Children of Different Humanoid Kinds

Across the magical worlds of the multiverse, humanoids of different kinds often have children together. On some worlds, children of humans and orcs or humans and elves are particularly prevalent. However, many other combinations are possible and well represented throughout the multiverse.

If you decide your character is the child of such a pairing, pick the Creature Type, Size, and Speed traits of one of your parentages (we suggest the most distinctive). Determine the average of the two options’ Life Span traits to figure out how long your character might live. For example, a child of a Gnome and a Halfling has an average life span of 288 years. As far as physical description, you can mix and match the visual characteristics – color, ear shape, and the like – of both parentages.

For your special traits, pick two major traits and two minor traits from those listed for your character’s parentage, in any combination. In place of one of your major and minor picks, you may instead pick a superior trait. You cannot pick more than one superior trait.

For example, the Gnome/Halfling child above might pick the Gnome’s Gnomish Cunning trait (superior), the Halfling’s Luck trait (major), and the Gnome’s Darkvision trait (minor). Alternatively, they could pick the Gnome’s Gnomish Lineage trait (major), the Halfling’s Brave trait (major), the Gnome’s Darkvision trait (minor), and the Halfling’s Halfling Nimbleness trait (minor).

  • Human
    • Resourceful (Major)
    • Skillful (Minor)
    • Versatile (Superior)
  • Ardling
    • Angelic Flight (Major)
    • Celestial Legacy (Major)
    • Damage Resistance (minor)
  • Dragonborn
    • Draconic Ancestry (this has no effect itself, it only affects the Breath Weapon and Damage Resistance traits. If you take either of those, also take Draconic Ancestry)
    • Breath Weapon (Major)
    • Damage Resistance (Major)
    • Darkvision (minor)
    • Draconic Language (if Dragonborn is one of your parentages, you get this trait automatically)
  • Dwarf
    • Darkvision (Minor)
    • Dwarven Resilience (Major)
    • Dwarven Toughness (Major)
    • Forge Wise (Minor)
    • Stonecunning (Major)
  • Elf
    • Darkvision (Minor)
    • Elven Lineage (Superior)
    • Fey Ancestry (Major)
    • Keen Senses (Minor)
    • Trance (Minor)
  • Gnome
    • Darkvision (Minor)
    • Gnomish Cunning (Superior)
    • Gnomish Lineage (Major)
  • Halfling
    • Brave (Major)
    • Halfling Nimbleness (Minor)
    • Luck (Major)
    • Naturally Stealthy (Minor)
  • Orc
    • Adrenaline Rush (Major)
    • Darkvision (Minor)
    • Powerful Build (Minor)
    • Relentless Endurance (Major)
  • Tiefling
    • Darkvision (Minor)
    • Fiendish Legacy (Superior)
    • Otherworldly Presence (Minor)

Sample Combinations

So, a few examples:

  • Tanis, Half-Elf Half-Human
    • Fey Ancestry (Major)
    • Trance (Minor)
    • Versatile (Superior)
  • Fjord, Half-Human Half-Orc
    • Adrenaline Rush (Major)
    • Darkvision (Minor)
    • Resourceful (Major)
    • Skillful (Minor)
  • Koriand’r Starfire, Half-Ardling Half-Dragonborn
    • Angelic Flight (Major)
    • Breath Weapon (Major)
    • (Ardling’s) Damage Resistance (Minor)
    • Darkvision (Minor)
    • Draconic Ancestry (free)
    • Draconic Language (free)
  • Chastity Bitterburn, Half-Dwarf Half-Tiefling
    • Darkvision (Minor)
    • Fiendish Legacy (Superior)
    • Stonecunning (Major)

I don’t think these are broken, not in light of the standard Dwarf and Elf packages, at least. Maybe Dragonborn’s Breath Weapon should be superior? But maybe not. I’ll keep revising it.

What do you think? Does this make mixed heritage characters feel more mixed? None of this is set in stone, I welcome thoughtful feedback.

Let me know if you try this out how it works for you! That would be amazing.

Also, please, can we drop the word Race and use almost any synonym? Heritage, Ancestry, Parentage, Kin, even Bloodline is better than Race. Thanks.

No, no, not that kind. (Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines poster)

Does One D&D Fix Grappling?

At least in one major way, yes.

In 5e, to grapple someone you make a Strength (Athletics) check opposed by their Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check, and if you win they are Grappled, meaning they cannot move, but that’s it.

Pictured: grappling (picture of a stop sign)

So imagine your party Wizard is being attacked by a melee brute, let’s call it a Bearded Devil. You’re a big Barbarian or Fighter and want to grapple the thing to get it to lay off the Wizard. You go up and succeed the opposed check, and you’re both now Grappled.

What has changed? Almost nothing. If the BD’s turn comes between yours and the Wizard’s, the BD still gets to attack the Wizard totally unimpeded. If the Wizard’s turn comes between yours and the BD’s, then they either have to Disengage or take an opportunity attack, the same as if the BD weren’t grappled at all. The only difference is that if the Wizard disengages or eats an opportunity attack and successfully moves away, then on the BD’s next turn, it has to either attack you or use its action to try to escape the grapple to pursue the Wizard.

(Spider-Man asking “Why do I even bother?”)

That is a tangential benefit that almost certainly is less useful than just hitting the thing or at least knocking it prone.

But the One D&D UA released today changes that in a good way! The new Grappled condition gives disadvantage to attacks against anyone other than your grappler. So as soon as you grapple the Bearded Devil, its opportunity attack against the fleeing Wizard is now at Disadvantage! And even if the BD’s turn comes before the Wizard’s, it has an incentive to attack you instead of the Wizard even though the Wizard is still next to it. So you instantly help out your party’s squishies by grappling the melee brute that is attacking them! Exactly how you imagine running up and engaging your companion’s assailant should help.

It’s not all good news for grapplers and bad for grapplees, though. The Bearded Devil now gets a free chance to break the grapple at the end of its turn instead of having to use its action. So if the BD’s turn is before the Wizard’s, then it will likely attack you to avoid disadvantage, and then attempt to break the grapple. If it succeeds, then the Wizard still faces a full OA when they run on their turn.

Battle of the Bearded Dudes, I suppose

In summary, there are three ways a successful grapple changes this scenario: either 1) the Wizard is able to run away and only face an OA with disadvantage, 2) the BD attacks you instead of the Wizard, but breaks the grapple at the end of its turn and still fully threatens the Wizard, or 3) the BD attacks you instead of the Wizard and fails to break the grapple at the end of its turn, so the Wizard also only faces an OA with disadvantage.

Either way, it’s a lot better than maybe sucking up the BD’s action a whole turn later after it’s already made another round of attacks and opportunity attacks on the Wizard. I’m implementing this immediately. Three cheers for One D&D!

Think Things, Not Words

(This is a post about rulings in D&D 5e, I promise.)

In 1899, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote the lines “We must think things not words, or at least we must constantly translate our words into the facts for which they stand, if we are to keep to the real and the true.” We live in a very different age where justices allow textual minutiae to erode and diminish the rights secured by past generations’ efforts, then chide the upset citizenry for not knowing that words are more important than things. But that’s a little too significant for this blog.

Almost as significant as that moustache! (Portrait of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., sporting a Wario moustache in white)

It is relevant, though. For the life of D&D 5e, official rule interpretations have come in the form of Sage Advice, mostly tweets from D&D’s Lead Designer Jeremy Crawford. These are compiled into the Sage Advice Compendium, here. As of this writing, the most recent compendium update was released in April of 2020.

The vast majority of Sage Advice’s rulings are fairly noncontroversial, but there are a few that leave you scratching your head. There’s a theme to some of the most egregious of these outliers: they rely on the text of the rules as written to justify an awkward, clunky distinction that doesn’t really make sense based on the apparent in-universe rules of “how things work.” They are rulings based on words, not the actual things the words represent.

A Hero Is Only As Good As His Weapon

The best known example may be the paladin’s Divine Smite ability. The text of the rule reads “when you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack, you can expend one spell slot to deal radiant damage to the target, in addition to the weapon’s damage.” So the question came: Can a paladin use Divine Smite when they hit using an unarmed strike? Well, in the combat chapter, the PHB tells us “Instead of using a weapon to make a melee weapon attack, you can use an unarmed strike.” In other words, whether you use a weapon or an unarmed strike, that is a melee weapon attack, so either fulfills the requirement of Divine Smite.

And this makes sense, right? What god insists on the use of handheld weapons to the point that they withhold their paladins’ ability to smite enemies if they head-butt them instead of smash them with a hammer? Let alone all gods, since this would apply to all paladins! That’s a pretty arbitrary, if not outright silly limitation. Divine Smite imbues divine energy to a paladin’s physical attack, whatever form that takes. Any other ruling would also create a strange, new distinction between a “melee weapon attack,” which includes unarmed strikes per the combat chapter, and an “attack with a melee weapon,” which does not. Textually, conceptually, structurally, and practically, Divine Smite on an unarmed strike is the clearer, more sensible, more consistent rule.

But it’s not the one Sage Advice went with. You see, according to Sage Advice, “the text of Divine Smite…refers to the ‘weapon’s damage,’ and an unarmed strike isn’t a weapon.” (Compendium, p. 5). Sage Advice gets stuck on the words in the rule, that it refers to “the weapon’s damage,” which must be different from an unarmed strike’s damage, even though they are both melee weapon attacks. If the rule had meant to include unarmed strikes, I suppose it would have said “you can expend one spell slot to deal radiant damage to the target, in addition to the weapon or unarmed strike’s damage,” or “in addition to the attack’s normal damage,” or something else. But since it said “the weapon’s damage,” well, I guess poor Sage Advice’s hands were tied.

(“Is he though?” still from Thor: Ragnarok)

Paladins got a slight nerf and the category of “attack with a melee weapon” was distinguished from “melee weapon attack,” because Sage Advice answered the question by thinking words, not things. Never mind that the words in Divine Smite were likely drafted without knowing what the combat chapter’s final text would say about unarmed strikes, and likely by a totally different person or even team than whoever wrote the unarmed strike rules. No, Sage Advice instead insists that this was a thematic choice, that paladins are traditionally associated with weapons so the game wouldn’t support unarmed paladins, and not an interpretive choice wherein Crawford answered a question by strictly following a slightly contradictory text. That is difficult to believe, and if true, a bad reason to burden us with “attack with a melee weapon” anyway.

But even more egregious than Divine Smite is what this textualist approach did to magical effects in, say, an antimagic field.

Works Like Magic (Except When It Totally Doesn’t)!

According to antimagic field‘s description, “[s]pells and other magical effects, except those created by an artifact or a deity, are suppressed in the sphere and can’t protrude into it.” There are some further rules describing how spells and other magical effects are suppressed, but that’s the relevant takeaway. So the question comes to Sage Advice: is the breath weapon of a dragon magical? Is it a “magical effect” for antimagic field and similar purposes?

A great question, since “magical effect” is not defined in the rulebooks. There are a number of things to think about while answering it: dragons are inherently magical creatures, and breathing fire or ice or acid or sleep gas seems like a part of their magical nature. At the same time, every elf also has Fey Ancestry which gives them apparently magical immunity to charm and magical sleep effects. Is that also a “magical effect” suppressed by antimagic field? Elementals are beings of almost pure magical energy, are they suppressed, as well? Magic infuses every inch of D&D worlds, it is part of their fundamental make up, yet obviously antimagic field doesn’t blink everything in its radius out of existence. What about a monk’s ki effects? Druid’s Wild Shape? A paladin’s aura? Bardic Inspiration? We have to draw a line somewhere that feels right and that DMs can apply at their own table.

Or we could do what Sage Advice did and make up textual rules about whether something is magical. There are 5 ways an effect can be magical, and if it doesn’t fit any of those 5, then it’s not magical. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is it a magic item?
  2. Is it a spell, or does it let you create the effects of a spell that’s mentioned in its description?
  3. Is it a spell attack?
  4. Is it fueled by the use of spell slots?
  5. Does its description say it’s magical?

If at least one of the answers is yes, the feature/trait is a magical effect. So, a dragon’s breath, it turns out, is not a magical effect since it is not described as “magical” in its statblock or any of the other criteria. (Compendium, p. 20)

But as is often the case when you impose strict textual rules of interpretation on rules written years before by different people in different phases of development, these rigid rules lead to some weird results!

For instance, a bard’s Countercharm ability, whereby you use “musical notes or words of power to disrupt mind-influencing effects[,]” is now not magical. A Light Cleric’s Warding Flare or Life Cleric’s Divine Strikes? Not magical. When a Tempest Cleric takes flight via Stormborn? Also not magical. The Eldritch Knight Fighter – you know, the one who casts spells – gets the ability to teleport when they Action Surge, but it’s not a magical teleport, apparently, just one of those mundane teleports. A paladin’s Lay On Hands is not magical, nor is the Vengeance Paladin’s ability to transform into a winged form with a frightening aura. An Archfey Warlock’s Misty Escape, whereby they become invisible and teleport, is not magical, nor is the Fiend Warlock’s Hurl Through Hell feature which, as you can guess, hurls enemies through hell. All of this can happen in an antimagic field, apparently. Bizarrely, teleportation is one of the specifically enumerated effects of antimagic field, even though some teleports are, by Sage Advice, not magical!

(Woman with math meme)

“OK, fine,” you might say to yourself, “imposing that rule backwards may not work very well, but I’m sure specifying what is meant to be magical became standard practice after that Sage Advice, right?” Well, that Sage Advice response first appeared in 2015, over 2 years before the first major expansion, Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, was released. That book featured the Barbarian Path of the Ancestral Guardian, whose key feature, Ancestral Protectors, summons spirits who protect you. It just does so non-magically, apparently. The Grave Cleric can harness the energy of a departing soul to heal others, and this is also not magical. A Hexblade Warlock can raise an undead specter to be its servant all without magic.

Suffice it to say, things don’t get better in Tasha’s, either, in fact it introduces psionic subclasses which are a whole new gray area. Material being released today is just as random on the Sage Advice magical effect criteria as the material that predated it. And this list is by no means exhaustive. There are dozens more class features that are clearly magical in concept but are not technically “magical effects” per Sage Advice. I haven’t even looked at monsters yet, but I assume the problem is just as rampant there.

When PCs are teleporting, hurling fools through hell, and raising spectres and you’re calling that not a magical effect, but a Totem Warrior Barbarian speaking with animals is since the latter directly cites a spell, the term “magical effect” has lost all practical meaning. These are not even the close calls that rules clarifications are helpful for. Sage Advice never should have defined “magical effects” by tying it to the specific words a dozen or more authors happened to use in descriptive text written across the many years of the edition’s lifespan. The results are absurd.

Now, I’m a lawyer, I get where Crawford’s coming from: in an ideal world the words we use to codify rules would perfectly express the scope of what we want the rule to do, so the rules text itself can provide the answers without having to engage with the inherently fuzzy concepts directly. He wanted to find an answer in the words, not the things the words represent, just like a Supreme Court Ju–no, sorry, not getting significant. I get that impulse for easy analysis, but in any sprawling system, the easy answer will often lead to more confusing, less beneficial outcomes. In Justice Holmes’ words, it loses “the real and the true.” Sometimes it is better to let judges just roll up their sleeves and make substantive judgment calls in context.

“I never broke the rules! I AM THE RULES!!” (Judge Dredd)

That means the “rule” on magical effects should have addressed things, not words. Something like:

  • If an effect is accomplished by material, mundane, or mechanical means, it is not a magical effect; but if it is accomplished by applying some source of supernatural energy, whether arcane, divine, mystical, or otherwise, then it is a magical effect.
  • For example, all spells channel arcane or divine energy, so spellcasting is magical, as is any feature or trait that mimics a particular spell or is fueled by spell slots. Likewise, any effect that calls for a spell attack or a save against a Spell DC channels magical energy.
  • Some features and traits are magical even if they don’t refer to spellcasting: a druid takes the form of beasts via Wild Shape, clerics and paladins can Channel Divinity, and Pact of the Fiend warlocks can send their enemies on a trip through hell.
  • Supernatural energies include more than just the arcane and divine, e.g. the mystical or psionic. A monk’s ki powers and a mind flayer’s Mind Blast are also magical effects since they manipulate those energies.
  • Just because something seems unrealistic does not mean it is not mundane in D&D worlds. Realistically, a creature built like a typical fantasy dragon would be unable to fly. But what matters is that dragons have wings, which are a mundane means to fly. Unless something suggests otherwise, creatures with a mundane means to accomplish an effect use those means, and creatures with a magical means to accomplish an effect use those means.
  • When a creature has both mundane and magical means to accomplish an effect, it may help to compare the effect to other effects the creature has to decide which means is likely producing the effect in question.

Thus, the analysis of a white dragon’s Cold Breath would go something like: while we could imagine a mechanical or mundane means of spewing an icy blast at a foe, nothing about a white dragon suggests it has such means. On the other hand, white dragons create icy effects similar to their Cold Breath in their lair and region as they grow in power, which certainly seem to be supernatural. Since the white dragon’s other ice effects appear to be accomplished by magical means, and no mundane means of blasting ice is suggested by what we know of dragons, the white dragon’s Cold Breath is a magical effect.

(Spongebob Squarepants making a rainbow with the words “It’s Magic”)

Maybe you would draw the line slightly differently, maybe “magic” is really only about drawing on external energies and therefore inherent magic like a dragon’s breath or a monk’s ki or an elf’s fey ancestry would not count as “magical effects.” Or some other mental model entirely.

The point is not to draw the perfect line between non-magical and magical effects, the point is that the rules and/or DM rulings should define that line in terms of the fictional things that are happening and not by the words a given author happened to use to describe them.

And that has become very apparent with the updated monster stat blocks! A lot of good changes in the new blocks, but magic is a much more mixed bag. Spellcasting monsters’ key spells will be turned into unique Actions to make them easier to run, while other, mostly out-of-combat utility spells, will be in the general Spellcasting Action. I’m all for making spellcasters easier to run, and Actions written out in the block beat just a spell name I have to look up every time. But changing key effects from spells to non-spells changes things a lot, especially when the new write-up forgets to describe an obviously supernatural effect as magical. Now it’s no longer a spell, no longer uses a spell slot, and isn’t written as “magical,” which makes it not even a magical effect! The old War Priest was, for all intents and purposes, a War Cleric who would be just as affected by antimagic field as the party’s War Cleric. The new one, OTOH, would not be much affected since its at-will Holy Fire attack is neither a spell nor a magical effect, according to Sage Advice.

Enough is enough. Sage Advice put out a rigid, text-based definition of magical effect that was wildly inconsistent with the game as it was written then, has not been applied since, and now the textual and mechanical lines between mundane and magical effects are being blurred even more with the new evolution. DMs shouldn’t follow that Sage Advice, and the new evolution of 5e should write a rule for magical effects and then ensure that magical effects actually follow it.

My definition and ruling are by no means perfect, there are still edge cases like paladin auras or bardic inspiration that you could argue either way for. But when stuff is already published and you’re just looking to interpret it, clear concepts with some unclear application is ultimately preferable to a crystal-clear-to-apply but frequently absurd answer. DMs have to make up how to award magic items and had to invent how stealth is supposed to work entirely: we can decide whether an effect in the narrative and rules is accomplished by mundane or magical means.

Keep to the Real and True

I’m a proponent of robust rules, but no TTRPG can cover everything and making rulings is an important skill for every DM. Unfortunately, 5e really doesn’t provide much guidance on how to make one or how to communicate one. Sage Advice are official rulings: they’re not binding, but they’re a model of rulings. While most Sage Advice is perfectly reasonable (where the rules actually answer the question), occasionally the insistence on ruling from text instead of from the fiction creates absurd results.

Justice Holmes gives us a better way: think things, not words. Understand the rules are imperfectly trying to reflect the fictional world, and that world can and should be the foundation of your rulings, not just the letter of the rules text. Paladins can Smite with their fists. Lay On Hands is a magical effect. Sage Advice can just be wrong. Death to textualism.

(King Theoden shouts “Death!” at the Battle of Pelennor Fields, Return of the King)

Rulings Require Rules

I hate disagreeing with Matt Colville.

One, because he is an unprecedentedly wonderful resource for GMs, by all accounts a top-rate employer, and an exemplary creative professional. Two, because he so often gets things perfectly right and I don’t want to be misconstrued as saying Matt Colville is fundamentally wrong-headed and not worth listening to. Three, because he takes criticism kind of poorly and his community, which I consider myself a part of, is very defensive of him. In his “Language, Not Rules” video posted yesterday, he says “Take [this video] in the spirit it is meant . . . you are encouraged to disagree loudly.”

So here I go.

I Actually Agree a Lot

I disagree with that video’s conclusion, but I agree with a lot of the specific points he raises and I think he and I would ultimately come pretty close to agreement if we had a dialogue about it. He is right that 3E’s “a rule for everything under the sun” approach bogged down the game in minutiae and litigation, that rules are a language we use to communicate our role play, and that mastery of language means knowing how to break the rules to invent new expressions. He’s right that minutiae like the comma in “Let’s eat, grandma” can be omitted without anyone thinking you are suggesting cannibalism. He’s right that there is no reward for playing 100% by the rules, and that getting them right is not required to have fun.

Perhaps most of all, he’s right that you should not “waste time looking [rules] up, just guess, and if you’re familiar with the rules, your guess might not be ‘correct’ but it will be ‘good’: your players will think ‘that’s fair,’ and you can move on.” That’s what a good ruling is, and he argues, ultimately, that good rulings are what make RPGs work, not getting the rule for every possible scenario “right.” In fact, he argues that whatever rules are there are just the spelling and grammar of an emergent spoken language that can’t be perfectly described by the rules text, only indicated or approximated: the rules don’t matter themselves, they only suggest and prompt the emergent gameplay at the table. Thus “rulings, not rules.”

The Dark Side of “Rulings, not Rules”

I wholeheartedly agree that 3E’s maximalist approach went well past the point where additional detail’s marginal benefit in terms of robustness and predictability sunk below its marginal cost in terms of rules look-ups/memorization and disputes. I don’t want to return to that. However, I would suggest that “rulings, not rules” simply replaces one extreme for another.

Take the classic example of a DM imposing “realistic” limitations on feats of martial prowess while allowing magical power to increase freely since that’s what the rules indicate and the magic doesn’t run up against real-world baggage in the DM’s mind. Perhaps a more even-handed DM imposes a risk of madness when a mage uses powerful magic. But even then, PC abilities are now like Schrodinger’s cat, simultaneously available and not available until observed, contingent on getting the DM’s buy-in. Players have traded disputes over hard-wired rules for negotiations over quantum rulings.

What is lost in that mode is not just the players’ entitlement to the shiny buttons on their character sheet, i.e. their most direct ability to self-express, but also the players’ ability to solve problems creatively. If there are no rules for digging holes in the ground, PCs may never realize they can bypass a dungeon level by doing so, and even if they do they will have to play Mother May I to see if it might succeed. If there are no rules for what acid does to objects, it will be much harder to rely on it in concocting a way to escape the prison of the usurper king because if you pitch it to the DM who had a big thing planned in the dungeon, they might say it doesn’t work that way simply to keep you aimed at what they have prepped. Creative applications of known quantities – not undefined suggestions – are the building blocks of the kind of schemes that are at the heart of so many excellent, dramatic D&D stories.

I think Colville might agree with that in theory, but say that it’s still an improvement over death-by-rulesphyxiation, and that training DMs to be more consistent and more sensitive to and encouraging of players’ fun can prevent the bad scenarios. Lots of tables did it right back in the day, after all. It’s a personality problem, a table problem, not a design problem or a systemic problem. The language metaphor would come up: mastery of language is not obeying every rule but using novel variations of the basic rules to better express oneself. The DM and the players have to have the negotiation to truly explore and express the drama of the story they tell. But I think the problem is systemic, that the old days were full of bad tables as well, and applying individual fixes to systemic problems is a recipe for frustration and failure. I don’t think that means we need to pre-solve every rules problem with a right answer, though.

Laying Down the Law

I have a degree in the Chinese language, so I understand the language metaphor. I also have a degree in law, and I think law is the better comparison, and not just for the obvious reason that they’re both systems of rules. The law is made of rules, yes, but society uses the law’s rules to organize activities with many participants. And not just for the sake of a fair competition, but for people who want to cooperate to achieve a goal together. When two savvy businesses enter into a contract, neither of them is controlling or policing or gatekeeping the other, they are clarifying their agreement very precisely and making their cooperation as predictable as possible. Predictability enables and encourages action in a group.

But complexity undermines predictability. Law, like 3E, wants to create the perfect answer for every scenario ahead of time, so while any question has a theoretical answer, the process of making an agreement is so complex that it’s difficult to predict what will end up happening anyway. It requires immense knowledge of a complicated ruleset to execute the kind of interactions both sides want. That, frankly, doesn’t benefit the law that much, and it is certainly unacceptable for TTRPGs, where the game moving forward is more important than the answer to any one question.

That’s where rulings come in. But first, let’s talk about language as self-expression.

Fickledorfs and Padawaggers

The audience of a play or a novel or a YouTube video is passive, and the context of the invented expression will passively inform its contours. The precise meaning is unimportant because the author will simply avoid scenarios where “blue flavor” could be ambiguous, like referring to a sad flavor as well as referring to blue raspberry. But RPGs are not passive experiences, they are participatory. They don’t just tell stories, nor are their rules just there to generate improv prompts. They also create expectations and inform choices, inform role-playing.

If you’re called up on stage at a game show and told to use the fickledorf to shmurt the padawagger, you will be lost until you see more context, like a hammer lying next to a nail. But if there is a hammer, a saw, and a pair of scissors on one table and a nail, a log, and a piece of paper on the other, suddenly the invented language isn’t clear anymore because it’s no longer confined to a context that makes it clear; any one of the former could be the fickledorf, and any of the latter the padawagger you must shmurt. The language is no longer actionable, and the game can no longer be played, because neither the text nor the context give foreseeable meaning to any choice.

Rulings Require Context

We communicate a lot, if not predominantly, through context. That’s why “let’s eat grandma” is not confusing, even without the comma. It’s not that commas are actually meaningless, it’s that context does the heavy lifting despite the text. And so it is in RPGs: rulings rely on mechanical and fictional context. Good rulings flow from good rules. Colville even says good rulings come from familiarity with the rules, and the players’ response to a good ruling is “that’s fair.” And that is telling; in Colville’s own description, the DM is pitching a novel mechanical resolution and the players are assenting to it based on what, exactly? Based on the context of the rest of the game’s rules and the fiction. The DM is resolving this action in this way because that is how similar actions are resolved in the rules. That’s why it’s “fair;” it is precedented, it is foreseeable; it is consistent with other, similar resolutions.

Good rulings flow from good rules.

Rulings are a useful tool in a DM’s toolbox: use the rules you know to resolve an action whose resolution is unclear, either because you don’t know the rule or because there is no rule or because the actual rule is terrible and doesn’t fit the fiction, or whatever other reason. Good rulings fill in the creases and gaps in a necessarily limited rule-set in a foreseeable way that is substantially consistent with that rule-set and the fiction of the game.

In general, though, rulings supplement rules, they don’t displace them. The rules establish the baseline expectations for both players and DM, the foundation on which players make role-playing choices and DMs make rulings.

What Even Are Good Rules?

3E’s problem wasn’t that it wanted to give DMs the tools to adjudicate any scenario, it’s that its tools were too specific, they couldn’t be generalized. You had to learn each of them, and they tended to be complicated in their operation to ensure every angle was covered. The 4+ step process to grapple is the most famous example, but building monsters was also frighteningly complicated with the number of feats and other rules you had to track and apply properly. The rule-set was robust, sure, but its tools and processes were just so needlessly difficult to learn and difficult to use.

The ideal is a rule-set that resolves similar things similarly and simply, that naturally creates the model for further rulings. Fifth Edition made a wonderfully flexible, easy-to-use mechanic in Advantage/Disadvantage, but then also adds a bunch of other ways to improve rolls, like Bardic Inspiration (+d6-d12, depending on level), the bless spell (+d4), and the Archery Fighting Style (+2), among many others. It’s inconsistent on when rider effects on monsters’ attacks , e.g. vampires and vampire spawn have multiattack and can choose to grab a target they hit in lieu of dealing damage, whereas the mind flayer’s tentacles attack deals damage and grapples and has a chance to stun the target. How stealth works is infamously open to interpretation. And let’s not get started on “melee weapon attacks” vs. “attacks with a melee weapon.” While it’s got a fraction of 3E’s complexity, it still has a lot of fiddly, inconsistent rules that offer little guidance for rulings in a game that explicitly endorses rulings over rules.

Shadow of the Demon Lord has a more consistent approach. Bonuses and penalties are condensed into a system of boons and banes, e.g. d6s that are rolled with the d20. You take the largest d6 result and add it to or subtract it from your d20 roll, depending on if you rolled boons or banes. Spells like bless, advantageous positioning, the aid of a comrade, those all give you a boon or two, consistent across the board. 5e would benefit from adopting that consistent approach, both in terms of setting expectations for players to be creative around, and in terms of making ad hoc rulings easier to be consistent about.


I think on some level Colville would agree that neither absolute rules fidelity nor absolute rules freeform is ideal for most groups. Whether you lean on rules or rulings, what you want is a consistent, predictable mechanical context in which to explore dramatic situations without bogging down the free flow of the narrative aspects with either extensive litigation or negotiation.

To my mind, that means a well-defined ruleset that uses similar building blocks as widely as possible to create clear expectations and predictability on both sides of the screen. The drama and shock and surprise should come from the choices of characters and the dice, not the ad hoc resolution mechanics.

Rulings are integral to any TTRPG, but they are ultimately tools that serve their greatest purpose in the context of consistent, clear rules. Jettisoning the latter and filling in everything with rulings can work, just as the opposite can work with the right group, too, but common, shared, comprehensible rules that set expectations for actions and for rulings will facilitate action, and thus, in the semiotics of TTRPGs, communication, more than rulings or rules alone.

Fantasy Cultures from the Inside Out

The Danger of Understanding Cultures from the Outside In

Imagine you’re an Englishman in the middle ages. You’ve never been to France or Sicily or the Holy Roman Empire, but other folks have, and they’ve come back and told you about the French, the Italians, and the Germans. They describe how different French cuisine, mannerisms, routines, fashion, courtship, warfare, and philosophy are, and the same with the Italians and the Germans. They don’t describe–in fact they may not even have noticed–how similar their patterns of life, their religious beliefs and traditions, their family structure, their trades, their form of government, etc., are. In the mind of a medieval Englishman, French, Italian, and German cultures are inherently alien and exotic, because all the stuff that was similar was too boring to report.

(Map of medieval Europe c. 950-1300)

Of course, the French didn’t consider the parts of their culture that were unique and different from English culture to be the critical parts of French culture. The French way of life, as defined by the French, revolved around mostly the same activities as other ways of life in medieval Europe. But when the French looked at the English, the differences stood out while the similarities blended into the background, so they also thought of the English in terms of the former, not the latter.

Cultural stereotypes, myths, and prejudices are quickly established since the number of people who directly interact with the other side are few. Both sides paint with a broad brush and in only the colors that seem strange and foreign to them. “The French wear scarves, berets, drink a lot, and smell bad,” says the Englishman (channeling modern stereotypes to make a point), and the other Englishmen nod approvingly, not knowing any better themselves.

(Depiction of stereotypical Frenchman)

Most of that is not true for most Frenchmen, and even the ones that have a basis in truth–many in France do drink a bit of wine with many meals–is not true for a huge number of the French. If you go to France, you might find a few individuals who embody a preponderance of these traits, but the French are as diverse as any wealthy culture, and the average Frenchmen bears little resemblance to the caricature. This was basically as true in medieval times as it is today.

Now swap out the English for fantasy humans and the French for fantasy dwarves. In fantasy, we accept that most, if not all individuals in a fantasy culture embody the cultural traits outsiders find unique: dwarves are all like Gimli, they all grow beards, wield axes, are smiths or miners, like to drink, and take their ancestral clan very seriously. Sure, there might be an individual or two who buck the trend, but they are the odd ducks, probably ostracized to some extent because of their un-dwarf-like behavior, the exceptions that prove the rule.

Pictured: a weirdo (Drizzt Do’urden)

That’s not really how cultures work, though.

How Cultures Work (according to me)

First, few1 cultures assign internal significance to the physical characteristics that differentiate them from other groups. Chinese culture assigns no significance to their epicanthic folds, other than to distinguish them from other groups. It’s externally significant, but has little to no internal meaning. Dwarves may care a great deal about their beards, but the beards did not become significant internally because it marked them different from their neighbors. Rather, dwarven beard culture happened first, and then became just one of those traits other races found unique and interesting.

1 The exception that proves the rule here, though, is an oppressed culture: an oppressed culture might just assign great significance to the biological or other signifiers that their oppressors use to identify and mistreat them, reclaiming them as badges of honor.

So if you find yourself making a fantasy cultural trait around a physical distinction, like an elven ballet tradition since elves are relatively slender and graceful, remember that elves don’t think of themselves as all slender and graceful. They think of themselves as elves, who may be short, tall, thin, bulky, stout, etc., to their eyes, no matter how other races would describe them. Elven ballet is a perfectly legitimate idea, but it wouldn’t happen because elves are graceful; the most graceful of elves would pick up ballet and it would be very interesting and memorable to other races that are unlikely to match the extremes of elven grace on display, but that wouldn’t automatically make it important to elves as a whole. Russian ballet is a world-famous style, but the vast majority of Russians have never danced ballet and aren’t suited for it just by being Russian.

Pictured: the premier danseur of the 1917 season (Vladimir Lenin)

Which leads to the second point: cultures are not monolithic. Keeping with the Russian theme, most Russians have never given more than a passing thought to Russian ballet. Or to the architecture styles of the buildings around Moscow’s Red Square. Or to the characteristics of Russian vodka compared to other alcohol. Even if a significant minority do think about them, such that they are cultural touchpoints that foreigners will encounter, most Russians do not embody these cultural traits anymore than the French wear scarves, berets, and always have cheese and wine ready. And some Russians reject Russian ballet as insultingly bourgeois, or Russian vodka as cheap and unsophisticated. They might engage in the cultural trappings of Russia, be neutral towards them, or actively reject them.

Similarly, fantasy cultures will have a spectrum and diversity of opinion, even on things that outsiders see as inherent to the culture. Dwarves live underground and their kingdoms’ wealth comes from mining, but only a minority of dwarves really consider themselves born to mine; a lot of them are just there for the paycheck or until something better comes along. Some probably hate mining, and these are disproportionately likely to be adventurers, since they would rather accept great risk on an adventure than take the relatively steady life of a dwarven miner.

The same with drinking, or beards. Dwarves could have an absolutely killer alcohol culture known far and wide, but the average dwarf probably isn’t a connoisseur, he likes his local brews well enough, while the progressives are rallying in the capital for unions and *gasp* prohibition. And how would the clan elders respond to a generation of rebellious youth who started shaving their heads and beards, originally in solidarity with a revolutionary political figure whose beard was shaven for “corrupting the youth,” but which has now just become a style?

“Free the chest hair, lads!” (Male dwarf with only stubble and an open shirt)

Cultures contain multitudes, and the pressures that shape cultural values, practices, and expressions are generally internal or environmental, not comparative. They have to do with the life cycle of the race, the place they live and how they fulfill their physical and emotional/spiritual needs as individuals, families, villages, towns, cities, and nations.

Building Cultures from the Inside Out

When you’re thinking up a fantasy culture, then, avoid starting with “what will outsiders see first?” Instead, start from the inside out: what do wood elves talk about with other wood elves? How are families organized, how is labor divided? What life milestones are celebrated? How are decisions made in the village or town? What functions are essential to an elven settlement’s way of life? What does their spirituality look like? What do wood elves disagree about? How do they resolve conflicts between individuals? Between settlements?

If the culture has cities and trade and specialization, the answers to these questions will probably vary more, as different needs are prioritized for different groups, creating the potential for more conflict and drama. The spectrum of attitudes really starts to extend. Embrace it! Let the dwarven capital actually feel cosmopolitan instead of provincial. Small villages in an area may be a little more homogeneous, though you should still flesh out the conflicts in a village that will be explored, but a city should lean into the fissures in a society dealing with ever-shifting internal and external pressures. It helps you understand the facets of your culture, including what parts outsiders will see first, and it increases potential for great characters and great drama.

The dwarves of Tyr Alona, for instance, were exiled from their mountain halls by a great dragon that took up residence in the ancestral capital of Bhar Moldir and sent his draconic armies to eradicate any dwarves that dared remain underground. Now living on the surface in Kharnumok, the dwarven civilization was under extreme pressure. The more orthodox among them, including many of the clan leaders, believed that they were being punished for straying too far from the traditional faith of the forge god Rapha, and only repentance and religious renewal would restore them to their homes under the earth. In fact, there were some who took this to extremes and terrorized those they deemed insufficiently pious to encourage all dwarves to remember the old rites. While the traditionalists disapproved the extremists’ methods, some sympathized with them. Many dwarves, however, placed the blame squarely on the dragon and didn’t feel their forebears’ religion was particularly insightful on fixing that problem. Some even embraced surface life; fresh produce was a whole new dietary world, and they loved it! They saw a new chapter in dwarven society, opening untold new opportunities that weren’t working in that gods-forsaken mine.

(Dwarf in armor standing in a mountain valley)

The city of Kharnumok was ground zero for dwarven extremists and reformers. Even if the story that brings the characters there isn’t about the dwarves’ plight, it’s a background element that shows a living culture responding to extreme circumstances. That is simply more interesting than a city that emphasizes a one-dimensional set of cultural traits like a tourist attraction.

What do you think? What fantasy cultures have you found or made that are fully fleshed out and three-dimensional? What about their culture seemed most real to you?

Further Reading

Rant: Creature size on hex grid is WAAY off

Have you ever tried to put a Large creature mini in the center of 3 1″ hexes like the 5e DMG indicates is the size of a Large creature?

Table showing D&D creature sizes in both square grid and hex grid (as listed below)

That mini’s base is spilling waaay over into the bordering hexes, such that no Medium base can fit there. And a Huge base swallows the 7 hexes the DMG says it’s supposed to get plus takes a bite out of 5 more hexes.

Either you need to use a much bigger hex grid (like 1.25″, maybe 1.33″?), or just drop the 3-hex configuration and bump the size categories up so that a Large mini fits over 7 hexes, Huge covers 12, etc.

And this makes way more sense because a 1″ hex isn’t a square inch of area the way a 1″ square is. A 1″ hex is ~.853 square inches, so 3 of them together is only about 2.56 square inches, significantly smaller than the 4 square inches on a square grid. Currently, the DMG recommends an increasingly smaller area on hex grids than on square grids:

  • Medium (1″ diameter base, 0.785 sq. in.) = 1 square (1 sq. in.) = 1 hex (0.853 sq. in.)
  • Large (2″ diameter base, 3.141 sq. in.) = 4 squares (4 sq. in.) = 3 hexes (2.56 sq. in.)
  • Huge (3″ diameter base, 7.068 sq. in.) = 9 squares (9 sq. in.) = 7 hexes (5.974 sq. in.)
  • Gargantuan (4″ diameter base, 12.566 sq. in.) = 16 squares (16 sq. in.) = 12 hexes (10.24 sq. in.)

Notice that every hex arrangement over Medium is actually smaller than the creature’s base? You see how the Gargantuan creature is supposed to take up barely over 1 sq. in. more on a hex grid than the Huge creature does on a square grid? These hex arrangements are unworkable.

The Huge creature should take up 12 hexes, the Large 7, and the Medium 1. Gargantuan, then, takes the 19-hex pattern that Colossal creatures took in previous editions. (The 19-hex pattern covers 16.214 sq. in., almost exactly the 16 that Gargantuan creatures on a square grid takes).

Hex-based creature sizes from Small/Medium through Colossal, Colossal with 19 hexes.

If you want, you can put the Large creature on a symmetrical 6-hex pattern that actually makes its total area closer to the 4 sq. in. of the square grid than either 3 or 7 hexes does (5.12 sq. in. instead of 2.56 or 5.974, respectively).

6-hex Large creature pattern that forms a triangle of 3 hexes on a side

I know no one cares about hex grids anyway, and VTTs and TotM really don’t care how big minis are. But it bothers me that multiple editions have been suggesting such absurd hex conversions to ostensibly use with your same minis and maps.


“Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee”: Inspiration as Camaraderie in D&D

“Camaraderie” by Magic the Gathering artist Sidharth Chaturvedhi

Camaraderie, friendship, and love are quintessential themes of the fantasy adventure genre. This goes back at least to The Iliad: Achilles is content to sit out the fight against the Trojans until his dear companion Patroclus is slain by Prince Hector of Troy. Achilles’ world-shaking rage is awakened, and Hector’s fate is sealed.

In the grandfather of D&D, The Lord of the Rings, the fellowship of the Ring quickly grow to be a tight-knit group (Boromir excepted). Merry and Pippin begin as close friends, and that bond strengthens them in their many hardships. Conversely, Legolas and Gimli don’t see eye to eye (ba-dum-tiss!), but their common travails nevertheless forge a trust that transcends their familial feud. And then, of course, there’s Frodo and Sam. From their earliest steps, where the quote in the title symbolizes this relationship, their love and devotion to each other seem to be the only things carrying their small Hobbit forms through the oppression of Mordor.

In D&D literature, the Heroes of the Lance on Krynn, the Companions of the Hall in the Forgotten Realms, and nowadays Vox Machina and the Mighty Nein of Exandria are replete with siblings, comrades, and lovers that inspire equal parts heroism and foolishness. Whether its the Majere twins in Dragonlance or the half-elven twins of Vox Machina, or the found family of misfits that is the Mighty Nein, the line between family and adventuring companions is often blurry, a dynamic that breeds the kind of trust you need to risk life and limb next to someone in a dungeon day in and day out.

“The new Rogue’s got our back, right? Right?”

It’s a core part of so many fantasy adventure stories, and a lot of fantasy TTRPGs include something that reflects that bond: you’re not just 3-6 strangers who happen to be fighting monsters in the same room, the trust you’ve built helps you focus – you’re not worried about being stabbed in the back – and to push yourself – you are all that stands between your companions and death! My favorite implementation was in The One Ring by Cubicle 7.

In The One Ring, every character has a small pool of meta-currency called Hope that you can spend to add extra bonuses to rolls. In addition, there is a shared “Fellowship pool” equal in size to the number of companions in your fellowship which can replenish 1 spent Hope per Fellowship, if at least half the group agrees (if half the group does not agree, you can still take the point, but you also gain 1 Shadow). Finally, one of your adventuring companions is your “Fellowship Focus,” and any Hope you spend to directly help or rescue them is restored to you, if the attempt succeeds, but if they are wounded or slain, you take 1 or 3 Shadow, respectfully.

So, when Anthony Joyce (@Thrawn589) and M.T. Black (@mtblack2567) called for ideas on incorporating love of all kinds into D&D, I half-remembered The One Ring mechanic and described it (wrongly) on their posts. I said Fellowship points were the meta-currency, and spending them to help your Fellowship Focus gave you it back, but if your FF was slain, you took Despair and couldn’t use Fellowship points. Black, in particular, was a big fan and took that and ran with it:

M.T. Black’s Camaraderie rule, from his Twitter post

This is a great optional rule that instantly inspired a lot of ideas for me. It’s also a much better implementation of Inspiration than the forgettable default Inspiration rules.

First, I think there needs to be some limit on uses of the inspiring comrade bit. I first thought of limiting it to 1/SR, but I think the limiter from TOR is better: the camaraderie point is replenished only if the action succeeds, as your spirits are lifted as you see your inspiring comrade escape a terrible fate or succeed at their endeavor. If it fails, the point is not replenished, as your effort did not change your comrade’s fortunes at all. If you and your inspiring comrade are fighting a monster together and using camaraderie on every attack roll, the pool will be depleted before too long. But then, using it up when you’re fighting the big boss is exactly the point: when we face extreme challenges, that’s when those bonds must flex the most to share the great burden.

Next, while reading a related thread I noticed someone posted a similar ability to inspiring comrade called Bond from the Quest TTRPG:

In particular, the second and third bullets are extremely flavorful and part and parcel of the trope we are aiming for. I’d say the third one is partially covered by the base inspiring comrade mechanic, so out of a desire to keep moving parts to a minimum, I would just add the second: When you are separated from your inspiring comrade and they face grave danger, you sense that they are in peril, no matter where you are.

Finally, I would re-introduce some consequences when your inspiring comrade falls, but not just negative consequences. The death (or otherwise permanent loss, like being plane-shifted with no means of return, etc.) of your inspiring comrade should be a big gut punch; there’s a raw wound in your soul that shuts down all other social bonds, and the possibility of warping your focus to exclude all else and consider only your loss. Rules-wise, you are Isolated and must make a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw or become Anguished, which you can choose to fail if desired. Both end when you complete a long rest.

What’re Isolated and Anguished? New conditions that interact with camaraderie rules, because I like to make things complicated:

Isolated: An isolated character cannot use camaraderie.

(Having the isolated condition separate also allows other triggering events that might make someone isolated. That gets into inter-party conflict, which is kind of verboten in 5e, but hey, optional rules are optional rules. I’m willing to put it out there and see how it goes.)

Anguished: An anguished character has advantage on all attack rolls and saving throws against the enemy or enemies that led to their inspiring comrade’s death. They have disadvantage on all other attack rolls, saving throws, and ability checks.

Grieving for a fallen comrade

What does this look like? It means the Barbarian Achilles can use camaraderie to gain advantage on an attack against the Dark Prince Hector who is attacking the Fighter Patroclus, his inspiring comrade. If that attack succeeds, the camaraderie point comes right back. When Patroclus dies or is teleported to a torture chamber in Carceri, never to return, Achilles can’t use camaraderie anymore, but he can choose to fail the save against his grief (or just fail it) and get advantage on all attacks and saves against Hector and his minions. He slays Hector, but when the party go to negotiate with Hector’s surviving brother Prince Paris, Achilles is still anguished and has disadvantage on his Persuasion checks. The negotiations devolve into more bloodshed. Paris fires the fateful arrow that crits on Achilles’ heel.

Another example: Frodo and Sam have maximized their use of camaraderie; they fight Gollum, hide from Nazgul, and persuade Faramir, together. When Shelob the Spider stabs Frodo and prepares him for eating, Sam fails a Wisdom (Perception) check and believes he is dead. Sam chooses to fail the Wisdom save and becomes anguished, giving him advantage on his attack rolls and saving throws against Shelob. With that, he is able to wound her with a critical hit in the abdomen. As she slinks back, he runs up to Frodo again, and the DM tells him to make another Wisdom (Perception) check. Being anguished, he rolls with disadvantage and fails. The DM tells him he hears no heartbeat. Frodo truly seems dead. Their players are chuckling, because they know Frodo is just unconscious.

OK, that last example was a bit of a stretch, but I think the concept here is solid.

I put together all the above, renamed some things to my liking, and put it on Homebrewery. I think just having the rules out there would point many tables in the direction of thinking about building the team and inter-party relationships. But tell me what you think: is this too heavy-handed? Too abusable? Too foreign of a design, a bad port of material that’s clearly from another game?

We Need to Talk About Hopper

I guess it’s too late for a mustache intervention…

I was a Stranger Things agnostic until earlier this year, when I finally sat down and watched Seasons 1 and 2 in just enough time to watch Season 3 right when it came out. The first season alone earned me as a fan for at least one more season. Joyce Byers’ character was just so compelling: desperately trying to claw her way into a mystery to save her son when everyone else, with the best of intentions, essentially gaslit her (unintentional gaslighting probably doesn’t count as gaslighting, but essentially) into questioning all of her experiences. Even as a viewer of the show, part of me wanted her to believe it was all in her head just so she wouldn’t have to keep struggling against an unsolvable mystery about a parallel dimension that took her child: the horror and impenetrability of it–knowing that Will was out there but so beyond anyone’s help due to the paranormal–almost seemed worse than just losing Will to a fall in the quarry. That drama was magnificently crafted.

We haven’t had anything quite like that in Seasons 2 or 3. At no point has anyone been quite as powerless, isolated, and afraid as in Season 1, which makes sense: the time it took for the various characters in Season 1 to come across one sliver of the situation, find someone they could trust to help find more, and then finally meet all the other groups and put all the pieces together was a central tension until the last couple episodes. Now, however, they have those relationships established, they trust each other, and it just feels contrived when, for often banal reasons, they don’t use the network of other characters in the know when more Upside Down stuff happens. We’ve transitioned from horror/thriller to adventure/thriller.

As the actual plot has become slightly less compelling, the characters have to step up and carry more of the burden of hooking the audience. We’re invested in their relationships, their goals, their defeats, and their triumphs. And that brings us to Hopper and Joyce.

Or “Jopper,” for those who believe in syllabic economy.

It’s not just that this looks a lot darker than it did when it was hinted at in the previous seasons because Hopper is emotionally abusive from the moment she agrees to go on a date with him, it’s that after the first couple episodes these two characters suddenly have very little going on outside the plot and the “will they, won’t they?” that drags on way too long.

In the first act of the season, Joyce is getting ready to move out of Hawkins (though we learn this by being told, not by seeing it, which is lame), and Hopper doesn’t want that for apparently selfish reasons. Hopper also has issues with El growing up and her relationship with Mike. So Hopper has a hard time accepting change, but everything in his life is changing right now.

And then he gets beat up by a Russian Terminator lookalike and we’re off to the races. Hopper spends this season as the cocky, angry, shouty guy who tries to control everyone around him and…that just works? Hopper gets basically everything he wants by being controlling and shouty. Mike backs off of El. Joyce agrees to date him. Alexei starts cooperating. He even straight-up defeats all the young, fit Russian hitmen, including the aforementioned Terminator lookalike, through sheer hand-to-hand prowess despite being one overweight, alcoholic single dad a couple decades past his prime.

It’s probably all the capitalism he eats.

That just encapsulates the problems of Hopper’s character this season: he spends episode after episode ramming fists–metaphorical or literal–into his problems, and is never confronted with any negative consequences of that approach which would force him to grow as a character. This is even weirder because he already had that arc in a different context in Season 2: he was controlling and manipulative of El since the government was still looking for her, but there his angry outbursts, his failure to apologize, his willingness to lie and get physical to maintain control at all times ended up blowing up when El ran away entirely. He was forced to apologize, and when she returned, he was more transparent and less controlling.

Not so in Season 3. Even as the script indicates consequences to Hopper’s actions, he never faces them, so he can’t ever grow. He lies to Mike and then threatens him to stay away from El, which causes all kinds of problems for the kids, but Hopper is just happy as a clam when he comes home from being stood up by Joyce to find it is Maxine, not Mike, in El’s room tonight. The mayor of Hawkins, played by the Dread Pirate Roberts, threatens to reveal all kinds of things about Hopper if Hopper tries to blackmail him for information on the Russians, but then when Hopper goes straight to violence and torture, and despite every indication of Westley’s ability to take some action against him…nothing really happens. Whatever the Robin Hood with the English accent did to help the Russians find Hopper (he said something about having the state police all looking for him or something), none of it worked, or even appears on screen: he had to phone it in himself when Hopper waltzed into the 4th of July bash. And speaking of the Russians, even though Hopper was completely outclassed by the Terminator in their first encounter in the abandoned lab, the second in the farmhouse was maybe a draw, and only defeated him in the fun house due to the hall of mirrors, in their final fight he just out-fights him and throws him into the spinning machine of ridiculous death.

But then (VERY SERIOUS SPOILERS, LIKE, THE NEVERENDING STORY SHOULD HAVE A CLEAR CONNECTION TO PLANCK’S CONSTANT TO YOU BEFORE YOU CONTINUE) Hopper dies,* and so there was some lip service of him reconciling with Mike. It was another one-sided conversation where Mike didn’t even say anything, he just nods. He more or less says goodbye to El, rehashing the second season’s themes because Hopper and El have almost no interaction in this season: he is actively dismissive when Joyce suggests they should even be worried about the kids. And then there was the Captain America-esque date scheduled with Joyce before the mission is finished.

I thought this was super fun and I have been singing it ever since, but it also ended all the stakes that had been built up. It was ten or fifteen minutes before there was any tension again. Not exactly what you want for your finale episode.

That brings me to Joyce. Joyce didn’t even have the setup of a character arc this season, except “will she date Hopper?” And lest my sarcasm be poorly detected in text, that’s not a character arc. A character arc is where a character overcomes a flaw or other internal impediment and grows. A good character arc differentiates between what a character consciously wants and subconsciously needs. The latter often includes a revelation that her worldview or approach is incomplete and needs broadening, thus allowing her to see that what she originally wanted was never the answer to what she needed in the first place. Think of Marty McFly in the Back to the Future trilogy: he wanted to be tough, to never back down from a fight, to not be a chicken like his dad. That led to him being goaded into bad spots time and time again, until he finally let go of his pride, which ended up saving him from a terrible car accident at the end of the films.

So what is set up for Joyce in this season? We see her re-enacting dinner with Bob. Hopper reveals (though it is never really brought up again) that she is also preparing to move away from Hawkins. She wants to figure out the mystery of the failing magnets. At the end of the season, she has figured out the mystery and leaves Hawkins, because the last person that could tie her there, Hopper, is gone. And she adopts El. I’m not sure if there’s really any character growth there at all. She does go from not recognizing her feelings for Hopper to recognizing them, so there’s that. At the same time, it’s not clear that her feelings are anything more than the sexual tension that Maurice identifies: they have little in common except that shared trauma, and outside of physical security, it’s unclear that Hopper has ever really supported or been there for Joyce in any way.

The Duffer brothers have been hinting at Jopper for two seasons, and this is what we get? I understand that they wanted Hopper’s death* to hit hard, but this is all they could think to make that happen? The angry guy who just shouts or punches until he gets his way and the trauma victim who is attracted to him despite the fact they’ve never emotionally connected? Meanwhile he has a daughter that stepped into his lost daughter’s place and they went through a serious test of their boundaries last season but grew a lot through it and now there are new boundary challenges going on, but instead of building that up even more to be the relationship that pulls at our heartstrings when he dies, the Duffer brothers ignored that entire relationship, instead “solving” Hopper’s issues with El and Mike by shouting and threats in one episode to focus on the shallow sexual tension that is Jopper, and filled that with more shouting and threats, until Joyce finally says yes to a date.

Of all the ways to send off Hopper, or to finally deliver on Jopper, this was a pretty clumsy way to go. This doesn’t feel like Season 1 anymore, with all the tight characterizations and straightforward, powerful themes. Now everything is murky, and the electricity just isn’t there. It’s almost like we’re in…

the Upside Down!

(*) Yeah, yeah, I know “the American.” I think that’s more likely to be Brenner, personally.

You must construct additional Infinity Stones


I don’t see how this will make a 3-hour movie more aerodynamic, but I’ll take it anyway.

I don’t normally do Fridge Logic/plot hole/nitpick posts, and I really think Endgame is a very satisfying movie with good character arcs that basically nails what it wanted to accomplish. All that being said, something just occurred to me that seems kind of significant.

To begin with, I liked the unique take on time travel that Avengers: Endgame uses, before discarding it in the last scene so Cap can farewell Sam.*

But I just realized that there’s another hole in the (mostly) happy ending for the world.** Didn’t we learn in this movie that Infinity Stones were kind of important to maintain the fabric of reality? And there just aren’t any here any more?

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Marauders of Sekolah: Tomb of Annihilation Campaign Diary #1

Evil stirs in a sunken stone chamber. A malevolent ripple courses unseen through the fabric of space and time. “Soon,” echoes a sinister voice in the chamber, “worlds shall bow to me or wither. Magic and fate shall be mine to command.” The chamber begins to hum with energy. “The momentary flash of Life against the vastness of the eternities shall be swallowed by Death, ever infinite.

My hour is nigh.”

Mountain, jungle, and oceans away, on the open sea off the Sword Coast, glides The Barracuda, a two-masted sailing ship with a ballista mounted on one end and a mangonel on the other. Dark clouds hang overhead, and the waves grow choppy. The sails are secured except a topsail, and the crew battens down the hatches before securing below deck. A storm approaches, though it doesn’t appear terribly dangerous. Not yet.

In the galley are four long tables flanked by benches, where sit the crew and the band of marines hired for the expedition. The ship had left its home port of Waterdeep over a week ago, headed south to the shores of Chult to claim the bounty on several pirate vessels marauding visiting merchant ships. The adventurers hired as marines – the boarding party – had generally made themselves a part of the crew; some, however did not.

A tan, gray-haired elf whose haunted eyes were an unusual red color had kept to himself most of the voyage. Whenever he was not eating, sleeping, or standing watch topside, he was pouring over books and vials in one corner of the marine berthing. His name was Iralan, though he told this to but a few.

Cronan Treebane, on the other hand, was a household name by now. The colorful Half-Orc had spent nearly every night regaling the crew with fantastic tales of ancient heroes who dutifully abstained from consuming any animal-based food, ointments, or other sundries. At this point several of the crew now feel a twinge of guilt as they sit down to eat the cook’s stew each night.

Cronan’s closest companions were Aura, a Chultan Aarakocra scholar, and a slinky Tabaxi they called Tweety. The latter found the occasional seagull just irresistible, quickly scaling the rigging to catch it. Sometimes, Tweety seemed to look at Aura the same way. Cronan would dutifully remind her that birds are friends, not food.

Another odd pair was Ragar Sunforger and Miznar Boltbreaker, a hulking Minotaur and an inventive Goblin of some kind, respectively, though neither of them quite resembled the types familiar to this world. Ragar was adorned in armor emblazoned with a white first on a red shield, and slung over his shoulder was an ornate maul, easily the size of his Goblin companion. Not to be outdone, Miznar wore a pair of metalwork goggles and carried some kind of exotic firearm with a pair of candles – one whose flame burned red when activated, the other blue – fixed near the barrel’s breech instead of a magazine. Whatever it is, the image of the keen-witted Goblin walking around with the contraption was enough to unnerve many of the crew.

Finally, two more shady figures rounded out the boarding party: Wren, a short, Half-Elven woman with striking features, dark raiment, and thick chain armor was accompanied by Eden, a young, wiry Elf-maid clad in a dark cloak, who seemed almost like Wren’s shadow, appearing with her almost exclusively.

That night in the galley, as the storm clouds gathered and rain began to fall, Ragar sat on the galley bench next to the marine sergeant, a Goliath called Barney the Blunderbuss. The two dwarfed anyone else on the ship, and the bench bent beneath their colossal combined weight. “So, you, uh, ever been through the Triangle before?” Barney asked. The Triangle referred to the open sea north of Chult, surrounded on three sides by the Sea of Swords, the Shining Sea, and the Rackless Sea. “They say it’s mighty bad luck to sail in the Triangle. ‘S part of why Chult is still so isolated: sailing there’s a bit of a risk, plenty of ships don’t make it. Taken by the waves…or something worse.” Barney took another bite of stew. “Of course, you can’t believe everything you hear. Shouldn’t get too superstitious.”

After dinner, Miznar carefully scales the forward mast to relieve the watch in the crow’s nest. The wind picks up as the sun’s light fades totally from the sky. The clouds cover the moon and stars, and the patter of rain on the wooden deck combines with the wind to drown out any oth–wait…what was that? Between gusts of wind, Miznar hears a faint, constant tone. A conch? There it is again. Yes, a conch on the wind. Miznar knows only one breed of monster would be out in a storm and signalling on a conch: Sahuagin.

He alerts the helmsman, who pulls a rope that strikes a bell below decks: the alarm. All hands move to their battle stations, the adventurers to the deck. Lanterns are lit and hung on each of the masts. Cronan climbs into the aft crow’s nest, Miznar remains in the other, and the rest of the adventurers fan out across the deck. After a moment, dark, scaly hands grasp the edge of the deck and begin to pull monstrous forms up onto the deck. In the darkness and rain, all that is apparent is arms, legs, a tail, and what looks like spines coming out of the forearms and head. Lightning flashes in the distance, illuminating their flat, fish-like faces with jet black orbs for eyes and rows of teeth inside their fin-flanked mouths.

Probably here to borrow a cup of sugar or something.

Just as the party raises their weapons to strike, something slams into the ship, sending them reeling. The adventurers quickly recover and go on the offensive: Cronan launches into a menacing Orcish war dance, which frightens one of the Sahuagin still clutching the side of the ship. Wren gives a shout and bone-like demon wings appear on her back, as the air around her ripples with a dark energy. Another Sahuagin frightened. Miznar lets loose a Chaos Bolt which erupts into flaming energy as it slams into one of the Sahuagin who barely manages to roll up onto the deck. Iralan imbues his double-ended Elvish scimitar with the dark magic that courses through his veins and downs an elixir of some kind before slicing clean through one of the still-climbing Sahuagin’s forearms, sending him plummeting back into the water.

The Sahuagin leap onto the deck and bring the fight to the adventurers, but to little avail. Soon Ragar charges and gores one with a horn, while Tweety plays whack-a-mole with the Sahuagin frightened by Cronan. Another Chaos Bolt rains down from the forward crow’s nest, melting a Sahuagin’s face off. Iralan deftly spins his double-ended scimitar, slicing through the Sahuagin flocking to him as the scent of his blood sends them into a frenzy.

Three more Sahuagin emerge from the aft of the ship: one stands taller and lither than her companions, clad in a robe, necklace, and brass bracelets. She raises her arm towards Iralan and begins muttering in a harsh tongue. Iralan focuses on her, blood running from his nose, creating a connection to her blood, and forces her arm down, ending whatever she was about to cast. The two Sahuagin beside her charge in towards him.

Cronan swings down from the crow’s nest back to the deck and joins Tweety in finishing off the Sahuagin on the ship’s port side. Ragar finishes off the gored Sahuagin and begins to clear out the others near Wren, who has taken some blows. All that remains is the caster and the clump surrounding Iralan. Iralan parries away their blows with accelerated speed, but he can’t keep it up for long. The caster raises her other arm and once again mutters the words of a spell; the wounds of the Sahuagin Iralan already cut begin to magically heal before his eyes. SLAM! The ship is rocked by another impact. The heroes remain steady, but Iralan, having spent his own life force to power his attacks, fears the worst as he is now surrounded by three Sahuagin at full strength.

Wren and Ragar crash into the Sahuagin behind him, cutting them to ribbons. Cronan magically transmits the most disturbing image of the effect of an animal-based diet into the mind of the Sahuagin caster, causing her great pain and to lose her grip on reality and flee back into the waves momentarily. She shakes it off and returns, only to find Iralan standing over her remaining guard’s lifeless form. A cloud of magical daggers appears and begins cutting her from various angles. Before she can escape, a final Chaos Bolt slams into her mind, and as her consciousness begins to melt she rips out her own eyes. As black blood begins to pool around her limp figure on the deck, the power of the blast continues on into the ocean, causing the ten-foot tall fin of a gigantic shark creature to emerge and spasm. After a moment, the fin speeds away from The Barracuda.

As the rush of battle gives way, the rest of the crew appears topside. The First Mate, a broad-shouldered Human male in a double-breasted coat, tricorn hat, and trim blond hair pulled in a ponytail congratulates the new marines. “The fight is ours, men! Your skills are formidable. If you do that well against the pirates in a few more days, we’ll all be rich! Huzzah!”


And so ended the first session of a Tomb of Annihilation campaign. I’m trying a new intro to the main quest thread, hope it works. So far, so good. The characters are certainly awesome.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive D&D

The book Art & Arcana is probably the first of its kind: a history of the art of Dungeons & Dragons. Interlaced in the text is the history of D&D itself: its creation, rise to popularity, controversy, business changes, edition changes, fall in popularity, and apparent renaissance. The first generation to grow up in an age where D&D was popular have become the first elders of a tribe, transmitting for the first time the culture of playing D&D to a generation of players that is larger than any that came before it.

But what is D&D? Defining D&D has proven difficult for a long time, because the game is played slightly differently at every table, creating a broad spectrum of experiences that each claim, with basically equal authority, to be D&D.

Some are theatrical, with improvised acting, accents, or even props/costumes, where a disagreement between the dice and the drama should be resolved in the latter’s favor. Others are tactical challenges that dare the players to plan and execute character builds and combat tactics that will keep them alive in a meat-grinder of a dungeon with little grand design behind the function of presenting the challenge. Still other games are downright goofy, where characters are named after pop culture icons and the NPCs are there to be punchlines. Most games have a mixture of these. Some are even more esoteric.

This is still the most accurate statement of “What is D&D?”

On the other side of that experience, the books those groups are using might be different editions: there have been 5 official editions, but there were certainly more forms before 1st edition, 2nd edition had optional rulebooks that vastly changed the game, there was both a 3.0 and a 3.5 edition, a 4e and a 4e Essentials, etc. Depending on the mix of books at the table, the game worked very differently. Even if two tables used the same books, house rules can change the experience extensively.

Beyond that, there are a number of games built using the same building blocks as D&D: the six attributes, armor class, hit points, d20, etc., but which have never been called Dungeons & Dragons. Some of these used the material released under the Open Game License from 3rd edition days (and renewed to some extent in 5e), like the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, while others took the mechanical inspiration of later editions but reached back to the simpler, grittier gameplay of editions that predate the OGL, like Castles & Crusades, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and other OSR games.

One thorny issue in defining D&D is deciding what is not D&D. Is the use of the D&D logo the dividing line? The use of the OGL?

I want to explore the proposition that, at least for some purposes, all of them are D&D, from TSR, WotC, Paizo, or Troll Lord Games.

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The Ash Wood (Campaign Diary #1)

In the far north of Tyr Alona, on the banks of the Silverrun River which flows out of the Mountains of Madness, lies the city of Greywatch. A continent-spanning mercenary guild called the Sapphire Legion operates a franchise of adventurers there. Recently, the unfortunate adventurers–known as the Sapphire Hares–met their demise in the depths of an abandoned dungeon outside the city.

Occupational hazard, you see.

Five new recruits from Ebonholde have been hired to fill their shoes. They hired a cart driven by an older gentleman named Berny to take them to Greywatch, where they would meet their Sapphire Legion liaison and manager, someone by the name of Exard Shaley.

These five recruits are:

  • Thia, the Wood Elf Ranger
  • Winnie, the Firbolg Druid
  • Jewel of the Mountain, the Tabaxi Rogue
  • Hyperion, the Aasimar Paladin
  • Cora, the Halfling Rogue

As they entered the last day of their journey, the cart entered the Ash Wood, a cursed wood full of menacing fairies and terrifying monsters, according to rumors. The mist seemed to thicken, obscuring what little the adventurers could see through the dense foliage. The air grew chill, and the din of nature was seemingly silenced.

An hour into the Wood, a scream erupted from around the next bend. Berny knew better than to stop on this road, so the cart rounded the corner to find an ornate carriage surrounded by four guards on horseback focused on the eastern side of the road, crossbows drawn. Arrows streaked out from the foliage, hitting the carriage and one of the horses, which reared up, throwing its rider to the ground with a crash.

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Power, Politics & Intrigue in D&D

Dungeons & Dragons-like games are carried by their combat systems, which have a very distinct way of creating tension and presenting constrained choices within a system to try to resolve that tension in your favor. In the 1970s, D&D built on decades of wargame experience, and today’s games have built on decades more of experience fine-tuning the mechanical apparatus of combat. Where D&D and TTRPGs in general have struggled is everything outside of combat, which lacks that focus and tangibility: players are usually left to either talk or roll dice at things until it resolves itself or turns into a combat scenario. Today, I want to talk about politics & intrigue.

Oh, yeah. We’re going there.

One of the event-based adventure types listed in the 5e DMG is Intrigue, and it describes a couple of options for the premise of an intrigue and whether there may be no villain or multiple villains, and suggests tracking influence with each faction or even each individual somehow. That’s a start, but it’s quite far from enough to understand the apparatus that supports an engaging intrigue. Just as a battle has well-defined parameters of what is possible and how likely things are to work (even if there is a significant amount of room for creative choices and rulings), a grander intrigue needs those same structures. Instead of jumping immediately to abstract game structures like faction points and tension levels and so on, I find this is one area where thinking of the in-universe mechanisms at work is the best starting point.

While “intrigue” refers to the fascinating or mysterious quality of the scenario, the actual substance of the intrigue is usually politics: the contest for power within a social system of some kind. When you want to go full Game of Thrones with the greatest power in the local world up for grabs and want to create the tension and present constrained choices within a system to try to resolve it in one side’s favor, you need to flesh out the full context significantly, so that players can at least somewhat accurately predict the consequences of their actions and be agents in the political world.

The political intrigue plots that are the spine of e.g. GoT hinge on manipulation and power plays, whether those are in personal relationships, political affairs, or war. The tropes here are the naked accumulation, manipulation, and exercise of power, which tends to overshadow the exploration of other themes.

So, for a game to feel like that, you have to 1) have individuals that run factions with certain power, circumstances or relationships, and goals, and then 2) have them go about growing, manipulating, and exercising their power. So let’s talk about power real fast.

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D&D Combat Strikes Back

Michael Shea just wrapped up a series of articles over on D&D Beyond about running D&D in the Theater of the Mind (meaning without miniatures or a grid), why to do so, how to do so, and how games like 13th Age have developed guidelines to steer it, and how to borrow mechanics from less tactical games like the FATE RPG. TotM combat is a great tool with a little elbow grease, but it necessarily rounds off some of the corners of the base rules, like the many races and classes that have differing movement speeds, weapon/spell ranges, and differences between areas of effect.

But what if we want to swing the other way? Make D&D combat more tactical, not less. Could it be more engaging throughout the round instead of just on your turn? In a game of 5 players and 1 DM, each player goes on their turn, and then sits out the rest of the round unless they need to roll the occasional save. So in an hour-long combat, each player is only active about 10 minutes. Could you change all of that while not slowing down combat and maybe even speeding it up? Where could we find inspiration for that kind of thing?

But before we get there, there’s another, more theoretical reason I want to talk about these specific rule ideas (scroll down to “Obi-Wan Has Taught You Well” if you’re impatient).

You Must Unlearn What You Have Learned

In 2012, I wrote an article describing an epiphany I had about D&D combat: dealing damage isn’t interesting. Especially if you are a martial character (e.g. Fighter, Barbarian, Rogue), you spend your turn attacking an enemy, but whether you succeed or fail, the tactical landscape is entirely unchanged. Sure, rolling really high damage for a crit or a sneak attack is fun, but damage itself? It’s hard to engage with.

So I slapped together a damage/HP-less idea for combat, where you either killed the target outright (crit success), had a chance to kill them (success), did nothing (tie or marginal failure), or they had a chance to kill you (significant failure), or you were killed outright (crit fail), based on your margin of success or failure. So you could kill the other guy on the first hit or be killed yourself on your own turn, if your attack was that bad against their defense. And then a bunch of other things would ride on your attack, as well.

It was riddled with problems from a conceptual level, which several comments pointed out. Underlying those criticisms was an important counterpoint to my article: just because damage/HP isn’t interesting in itself does not mean that it is unnecessary. Damage and HP still play a critical role: pacing.

The primary utility of damage/HP is pacing: you will have ~X rounds to fight monsters until they kill you, and vice versa. Things like damage resistance or immunity, healing, temporary HP, and regeneration add in puzzle elements or other complications in that X gets shorter or longer if you have the right tool for the job, but the sine qua non of damage/HP itself is a pacing mechanic: the tension starts low and ratchets up as your HP goes down.

HP is dressed up like “toughness,” but it’s not really about toughness: armor doesn’t interact with your HP, though that is a common variant rule because it seems like it should if HP is toughness. The Player’s Handbook defines HP as “a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.” In other words, they’re basically plot armor so that you can handle an appropriate amount of enemy without much urgency, and some more with a lot of urgency before you’re really in danger of death. Put another way: a pacing mechanic. QED.

This is why systems that put the cart of “toughness” (e.g. using HP inflation as a major part of power growth) before the horse of the pacing function often end up with one of two problems in higher levels: either a fight is a huge slog because damage doesn’t keep up with HP bloat (the padded sumo effect), or, if there are effective-enough save-or-dies available, it’s over too fast because players learn to just use those until one hits (rocket launcher tag). In the latter case, it has effectively turned into a damage/HP-less game, with no real pacing mechanic built in, like the one I whipped out for the old article.

So leaping from “damage isn’t interesting” to “let’s get rid of damage” was ill advised. But the basic premise, that just dealing damage is boring, still holds true. Every turn should do more than just move the pacing mechanic along: the tactical calculus should be different after you hit than before, even if just slightly.

Cham outlined the seed of the right idea in another article: his point was that to get the dynamic movement we’re used to seeing in action media, where the opponents range over the environment as they clash, remaining stationary had to be lethal, a result you took only if you were cornered or surrounded, and the default action then should be to move away from your attacker.

Obi-Wan Has Taught You Well

Enter, wargames. Specifically, the Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game by Games Workshop, which uses what I assume was once a version of Warhammer rules. Let’s look at how combat works in MESBG, and then adapt some of that to a D&D context.

In MESBG, each player commands a squad of creatures and instead of turns, each round is separated into 5 phases: Priority, Move, Shoot, Fight, and End.

In Priority Phase, both sides roll off to see which has priority for the round. This becomes important.

In the Move Phase, the side that has priority moves their creatures up to their movement allotment in inches. If you move within 1 inch of an unengaged enemy creature, though, you must charge into melee with that enemy and can no longer move. Once an enemy creature is engaged by an ally, it no longer threatens that area, so other creatures can move within 1 inch of it. Creatures with reach weapons can engage enemies from immediately behind allies already engaged with them (i.e. they can attack from the second rank, and some even from the third). All engaged combatants will resolve their attacks in the Fight Phase. If a creature has Magical Powers, they can typically be used only during the Move Phase. If a creature moves more than half its movement, it cannot make a ranged attack in the Shoot Phase. After the side that has priority finishes moving their creatures, the other side can move their unengaged creatures, if any.

In the Shoot Phase, the side that has priority makes any ranged attacks from its unengaged creatures that moved half their movement or less. There are rules about how difficult it is to shoot a target based on distance, how much of the miniature is visible from the perspective of the attacking miniature (as in yes, you bend down so that the miniature is at eye level and look at how much of the target is covered by the model terrain on the board), and whether the miniature is engaged in combat or not. The other side then makes any attacks from its unengaged creatures that moved half their movement or less.

In the Fight Phase, the engaged creatures are grouped into their distinct melees, breaking into as many distinct melees as possible with the side that has priority settling any ambiguities about who is fighting whom. The side that has priority then decides in what order to resolve the melees. Fights have three steps: Duel, Loser Backs Away, and Winner Makes Strikes. Both sides roll a contested Fight check to determine who wins the Duel. The loser(s) must back away 1 inch from the winners: if the loser cannot do so because they are surrounded by enemies or cornered by geography, they are considered Trapped. Then the winner(s) roll to land a Strike on their retreating opponent: if the opponent is Trapped, they roll twice the dice, meaning they can inflict more than one Wound. Most creatures in the game are defeated after taking 1 Wound.

Finally, in the End Phase you resolve certain effects, clear away casualties, and get ready for the next round. Then it goes back to a new Priority Phase where both sides roll for priority again, so the side that controls movement and melee resolution often switches.

You’ll Find I’m Full of Surprises

You can import a few of these concepts or a lot, with varying degrees of elbow grease to make it work in the context of D&D:

At the low end of the spectrum, there are ideas you can adapt without changing much. For instance, take the Priority Phase and team initiative ideas:

At the beginning of each new round, every creature rolls initiative to seize the initiative. The team of whichever creature rolls the highest goes first. Creatures on the same team can move and take their actions in any order, then initiative passes to the next team, until all teams have taken their turns.

Optional rule: A creature can use Inspiration to act out of order at any time.

This does not require any other change to the game to work and has several benefits:

  1. You get into combat quicker because you only care about the highest initiative score on each side: it actually removes the several-minute process of rolling and recording 5-15 initiative scores.
  2. Higher initiative bonuses are noticed more often because they get to help more since it is rolled more than once per fight.
  3. Combat is much more dynamic when the turn order varies from round to round, including times where one team will go twice back-to-back (e.g. losing initiative in the first round while winning it in the second).
  4. It encourages more active cooperation and strategizing, because turn order on a team is fluid, so you can make a plan and then immediately execute it. (Of course, so can the enemy).

Now, if you’re willing to take things one step further, implement the movement/engaging rules and the backing away/Trapped ideas into melee combat:

Opportunity Attacks are removed.

You can Engage an enemy within reach of your melee attacks as part of an Attack Action or as a Reaction. You and your target are both Engaged. An Engaged creature cannot leave the other’s reach, cannot Engage another creature (though other creatures can Engage them), and cannot attack any creature other than a creature with whom it is Engaged. A successful melee attack or taking the Disengage Action ends the Engaged condition.

When a creature is hit by a melee attack, it can move 5 ft. away from the attacker, which does not count against its movement for the round and does not trigger an Engage Reaction. If the creature still has movement for the round from its speed, it can move beyond the free 5-foot step away. If the creature does not or cannot move away from its attacker(s) (because terrain or other creatures block any path away), then any successful attack is considered a critical hit, regardless of the die roll.

If a creature can make multiple attacks, it can roll them simultaneously or separately. If simultaneously, the target only moves back once. A creature can Engage an enemy, attack, push the enemy back, then move and Engage/attack/push all over again as many times as it has attacks and movement.

If more than one creature on one team is Engaged with the same enemy creature, all the Engaged allies should resolve their attacks together before the enemy moves away (if possible).

These rules make tactical positioning much more important, and also creates a dynamic battlefield where players will be keeping an eye on exit routes at all times, trying to set up flanking or cornering an enemy before they are flanked/cornered themselves.

Unlike Theater of the Mind, which diminishes differences in reach or movement speed, these rules emphasize them. A level 5 Monk has five attacks to make (Attack action = 2, Flurry of Blows = 2, Martial Arts Bonus action = 1) and 35-45 feet of movement (depending on Race) to make them across: that means she can potentially maneuver an enemy across a battlefield in a single turn, or clear away multiple enemies, allowing an allied Rogue to punch through the enemy line to the spellcasters in the back.

The added stickiness of Engage relative to Opportunity Attacks means that front-line types are more effective (albeit by cannibalizing some of the benefits of the Sentinel feat). At the same time, the added movement means that people move more, and the right tactical movement can quickly change the tide of a fight.

But why stop there? You can fundamentally change the structure of combat with just a little more tweaking in a way that still adds value.

Each combat round is divided into 5 phases: Initiative, Move, Shoot, Fight, and End.

During Initiative phase, every creature rolls initiative to seize the initiative. The team of whoever rolls highest holds the initiative for this round.

During Move phase, the team that holds initiative first moves into their chosen positions, and the other team(s) follow.

During Shoot phase, the team that holds initiative first makes any ranged attacks or casts any spells (but not melee spell attacks) it wants from creatures not Engaged in melee, followed by the other team(s).

During Fight phase, the team that holds initiative determines in what order to resolve the melees that have formed. Attacks from all creatures in each melee are rolled simultaneously, and whichever team rolled the highest attack value is the winner: the losers’ attacks deal no damage, and all losing creatures must move back or suffer an automatic critical if the winner’s attack value(s) hits their Armor Class. The winner can choose which loser or losers its attacks hit.

During End Phase, all ongoing effects are resolved, including Death Saves.

A character can use Inspiration to move and take actions at any time, outside the usual order.

This changes things. A lot. It would require at least a tweak if not a rewrite of many abilities and possibly rebalancing HP and damage since melee attacks that otherwise would hit and deal damage simply won’t when the other side rolls higher and wins the Fight, though criticals might happen more often with flanking/cornering.

But it solves one of D&D combat’s most entrenched problems: the fact that you rarely have to pay attention to anything outside your turn. It breaks down what was once a “turn” into its pieces and allows near-simultaneous resolution of similar actions, so the flow of combat is more energized and streamlined: it draws you into the tactics as a team, not just as an individual character on your turn.

And Fight Phase is way cooler than D&D melee. Instead of two chunks of HP slapping each other at arm’s length until one falls down, the two combatants actively seek out a good position or create one for themselves, and when your raging Barbarian is surrounded by 4 Goblins but wins the Fight anyway, pushing them all back, it is 10x as exciting as each Goblin missing you on their turn and then you hitting one or two on yours. That dynamic drama in melee is sorely missing in vanilla D&D combat.

You can take this all one step further and replace the 1-inch square grid with a tape measure or ruler: now you’ve gone truly old school.

I Am Your Father

Role-playing games split off from their parent hobby wargames back in the 70s. One avenue of development for them in the decades since has been to get more abstract and “rules-light,” relying on conversation and the Theater of the Mind to reduce the complexity of combat. Even then, folks find it useful to write down zones on cards to off-load the mental task of tracking the space their characters are in.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are rulebooks that have many layers of derived statistics for each character and a modifier for every circumstance. But what “rules-heavy” systems usually lack are rules that make use of the grid-and-minis that D&D assumes when it measures distance in 5-ft. increments, gives varying movement speeds as class/race features, includes reach weapons, and features a wide variety of spell shapes. These wargame-inspired rules do not make the character sheet or dice rolls any more complicated, they just make movement more possible and more important, while using a new structure for combat that minimizes “zone-out” time and makes melee far more interesting.

It’s fascinating that looking to wargames has revealed what might be a shot-in-the-arm for D&D combat. Instead of teaching an old dog new tricks, the old dog is teaching new dogs its tricks. I intend to write up a tweaked Combat chapter to work with these rules, a sample of play, and then to go through and write tweaks to races, classes, and spells for them, too. That will be an ongoing project, but this is the groundwork. Maybe this will all change as I bump into problems. Gutting the action economy and making something new in its place is going to have weird consequences that I won’t understand until I just try and run it through all the permutations of D&D 5e’s options. Hopefully I’ll figure out some rules of thumb for how to convert categories of things in vanilla 5e combat into this more tactical setup, so that I can prepare a total package document. We’ll see how it goes!

Comments and feedback always welcome.


tap tap tap

This thing on?

Hey, internet.

If you find this recording, don’t feel bad about this. Part of the journey is the end.

Just for the record, being adrift in cyberspace with zero promise of rescue is more fun than it sounds.

Free time ran out five years ago. Partner started his own thing two years ago. Sparkling cider’ll run out tomorrow morning. That’ll be it.

When I drift off. I will dream about you. It’s always you.

Hours later…

Stubbazubba lies in a half-conscious state, staring at the porthole into the various webpages projected across the horizon beyond his dying ship…

His eyes close, and his lips mouth the word “Rosebu–“


He startles back to consciousness. Outside the ship he sees Spider-Man (Peter B. Parker), Spider-Man (Miles Morales), Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, the SP//dr suit piloted by Peni Parker, and Spider-Ham all looking through the porthole at him.

“Man, he looks terrible,” says Miles.

“I know terrible,” adds Peter B. Parker, “this is just pathetic. Did he really just rickroll his entire follower-base for his first post in almost five years?”

“We should leave the poltroon here in his ice box,” sneers Spider-Man Noir.

“I don’t know what that means,” says Spider-Ham, “but I agree with it.”

“Whu–where did you all come from?” Stubbazubba asks, disoriented. “Did, did Film Crit Hulk send you?”

“Um, no,” says Spider-Gwen, arms crossed. “Pretty sure he has bigger things to worry about.”

“I picked up your distress signal,” Peni says with a smile.

“And I convinced them there would be something worth saving here,” says Miles.

“Yeah, I think I won that bet, you owe me $20,” says Peter.

“Not so fast,” Miles replies. “Look, we’ve all been pinned down at the bottom of a hulking rubble pile that no one–even you–thinks you’ll ever get out of. Ending up there doesn’t make any of us, or anyone else, a failure.”

Gwen cracks a smile at Miles. Peter rolls his eyes and looks away.

“Languishing for five years without a post?” says Noir, “That’s not a mountain of rubble from a confrontation with evil, that’s just a milksop giving up the fight.”

“Well, which is it?” Gwen asks. “You’re down, you’re on the verge of giving up. But can you get back up again?”

“No matter how embarrassing showing your face around here might be?” Spider-Ham adds, wiggling his snout.

“I… I don’t know that I have what it takes to keep this up. I mean, this space–superhero movies, Dungeons & Dragons, a nerd podcast–it’s all so saturated these days. I’m not Matt Colville, Hello Future Me, or Lindsay Ellis. I’m not even Dael Kingsmill. There’s a whole subreddit for amateur movie rewrites. I don’t have a gimmick, a niche, or an insider perspective. How could I possibly be interesting? I’m just…some random guy.”

“No, you’re not him, either,” says Peter.

Miles shoots Peter a glance, then turns back to Stubbazubba. “If you think you need to be special to belong here, to have a voice, you haven’t noticed who you’re talking to yet.”

Peter raises an eyebrow. “A bunch of closet geniuses who are also radioactive spider people gifted with superhuman strength, agility, the ability to climb walls, and PTSD that manifests as a guilt complex?”

Spider-Ham puts his hands on his hips, “And one genius, radioactive, gifted, traumatized spider pig, thank you very much!”

“No, no,” Miles shakes his head, “I mean them,” he gestures to the audience out in cyberspace, “the readers. They’re hungry for quality, not gimmicks. You have that inside you. It’s a little unpolished, but you’ve got…a spark. Y’know what I’m saying?”

“I…I think I do.”

“All those people, and much bigger personalities–I’m talking Matthew Mercer, Marques Brownlee, Hank Green, you name it–started out as just another nobody having fun and sharing it with the world. Anyone can do that. And if you stay in it long enough, be consistent, take the good feedback, roll with the punches, and keep quipping, you can be a friendly, neighborhood internet personality, too.”

Stubbazubba stands and locks eyes with Miles. “You’re right. I can do this. I have everything I need, even without a gimmick or a following. I’m gonna get there, one step at a time. No matter what’s come before. Thanks, Spider-Man.”

“Don’t mention it, man.” He pulls his mask over his face, and the others follow suit. “See you in the feeds!” He shoots a web into the distance and leaps away with a wave goodbye.

Gwen eyes Stubbazubba. “You’re his project, now. Don’t you disappoint him.” She turns and shoots a web, then turns back. “Good luck,” and she leaps after Miles.

Peter grasps Stubbazubba’s shoulder. “You’re right about one thing: just ’cause you messed stuff up before is no reason to put off doing the right thing now. Remember that.” He turns and follows the other two. “Hey, Miles, you know I was joking about that bet, right? Miles?”

Spider-Ham extends a hand, which Stubbazubba shakes. “Hey, I’m trying out a new tagline, tell me what you think: Excelsior!” he exclaims as he swings away. “Pretty great, huh?”

“One of the best!”

Spider-Man Noir looks to the left and right, then back at Stubbazubba. He whispers, “I thought, y’know, the thing? It was hilarious.” He turns and leaps after the others, humming to Rick Astley.

Alone, Stubbazubba smiles. Then he realizes something. “Uh, guys? I’m still stran–“

“Power’s back!” Peni and SP//dr pop out from around the other side of the craft. “Pretty easy fix, really.” The craft hums back to life.

“Um, wow. Didn’t see that coming. Thanks!”

“Ha ha, it was nothing! Gambaru!” Peni and the bot swing away, as well.

Stubbazubba closes his eyes and focuses for a moment. He opens them and walks back to the center of the craft, sits at a roll-y chair in front of a large computer screen, and taps the keyboard, bringing the monitor to life.

Let’s try this again.

Hey, internet.

Enough navel gazing: long time no see. Ready to pick it up again?

I’m finally in a place where I can devote a bit of time to writing again, and boy, have I got stuff to write. More movie fixes, D&D house rules, musing on game design, and a campaign diary that follows the exploits of a small-time adventuring party trying to make it in a big city DM’ed by yours truly. Besides that, I’ll be walking you through the D&D world that Cham and I have made for…well, it turns out for like a decade at this point. There’s a lot going on there, and we’re both quite proud of it. Last, but not least, I will be posting some fiction that takes place in that world or others.

All that being said, I don’t want to set expectations overly high, and I don’t want to burn myself out. So the schedule will be, at least for now: monthly posts, aiming for the last weekend in a given month. We’ll see how that goes for a quarter, and then see about going biweekly. Hopefully, as I get better at it and have multiple projects/series to work on (so I’m not just waiting for random inspiration), post volume will increase. As we roll into Q3/Q4 I might even start looking at making videos (one obvious difference between myself and most of my influences linked above).

I hope you enjoyed this little interlude. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is excellent, by the way. Not perfect, mind you, but certainly on par with many of the best super hero movies of the last several years. No spoilers for now, but that one’s going in the queue.

For those of you subscribed, I hope you’ll stick around for the new content starting in a couple weeks. For those of you just finding this, there’s a backlog of stuff I wouldn’t entirely disown even though it’s at least five years old. Both more of that and new things are coming, so go ahead and subscribe if you’d be interested in seeing it when it arrives. Or don’t, you’re pretty sharp, you don’t need anyone to tell you how this works.

Now I need a tagline. JARVIS, put that in the queue, too.

Now, how do I turn this thing–ah, here it is.

Uh, toodles?

Power down sound.

Let’s Play Chrono Cross: Potter

Yes, this is still going. I’ve gotta get my filler from somewhere.

Moving Around

A common complaint about D&D combat is that you don’t really move around much during it. Two characters will get into melee range with one another and then takes turns punching each other until one of them falls down. Then the winner will go find another melee friend to trade blows with. Whereas in source material, fights are fluid. They move, people swing on chandeliers and jump on tables and such.

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