I’m done with Dungeons & Dragons (again)

This week I finished my D&D 5th edition campaign that I’ve been running almost weekly over nearly five months for a total of 19 games. This has not only been the longest campaign I’ve been involved with, but also the first one that actually reached its conclusion. I think it’s also the best one I’ve ever run by a considerable margin. My experiences from running campaigns on and of over the many years since the 3rd edition was first released, but also the many theories about gamemastering that I’ve learned about in the seven years since I started this site finally came together in a way that made me feel like I actually knew what I was doing, and that things turned out more or less as I had intended. And in the process, I think I learned even more from this campaign than any other I’ve ran in the past.

So all taken together, this really was a huge success.

But one important thing I realized in the final third or so of the campaign is that D&D really is not the game for me. I feel like I am done with Dungeons & Dragons, but also with dungeons, as well as dragons.

One of the reasons is the particular style of fantasy that D&D is both build upon and it perpetuates through the mechanics of its rules. D&D fantasy is fantasy that does its primary worldbuilding through establishing mechanics and standards for how things work and how beings behave. It’s a form of fantasy that is structural and rational, with clear rules that everyone can understand, leading to expectations that players automatically bring to the game. It is the opposite of being magical, wondrous, and elusive, which to me defeats the overall purpose of fantsy. Everything becomes systemised, quantified, stiff, and bland. I do have some fond memories of The North of the Forgotten Realms, and think there’s some really cool sounding ideas about the less popular lands in the distant east. Dark Sun looks really cool with really great concepts, and there’s something unique and compelling about Planescape. But when you play campaigns in these settings, you’ll always be playing D&D, and players looking at everything through the D&D lense, trying to analyze their situation and formulate their plans by D&D logic.

While I think that the D&D mindset is not my cup of tea and that other styles of fantasy are much better, this is something that I could live with and accept as something that comes with entertaining the players. As a GM, my job is not to get the players to play the ideal fantasy campaign that I would want to play, but to give them the opportunity to play the way they want to play. (There is only darkness and despair down the path of telling the players how to play the campaign right.)

The bigger problem, and I think ultimately the dealbreaker, is that D&D is build around certain structures that I simply don’t find compatible with where my strength in the preparation and running of adventures lie. I just don’t get dungeons.

And it’s not like D&D needs dungeons because they are in the title of the game and players would be disappointed if they don’t get them. The whole game is based around dungeons on the most fundamental level. The game needs dungeons, not just as locations within the story but as a structure in gameplay. D&D is a game of attrition. If the party is facing just one villain, even one surrounded by guards and minions, the fight will either be very short, or very lethal for the PC. Single fights are not meant to be difficuly, they are meant to gnaw away on the endurance of the party. To play the game as it is designed to work, you need environments where the players will be facing six, eight, or ten fights in a row. And that is just not something that works in the kind of stories that I can create. For situations that make sense to me and that I feel will be rewarding for players, it almost never makes sense to have more than two or perhaps three encounters before leaving the place to regroup for the next outing on another day. When I make larger dungeons, they always end up as huge piles of guard creatures that serve little narrative function. Classical dungeons also regularly have puzzles, but I almost never find situations in which the presence of a puzzle would make sense and wouldn’t be nonsensical. You also can have nonhostile NPCs and creatures, and I often include those, but they don’t contribute to the attrition that games like D&D need. I often feel like I do rationally understand how dungeons are supposed to work, how they are structured, filled with content, and the purpose they have in a game. I just find them somewhat dull and completely out of place in the kind of adventures that I know how to make compelling and fun.

So what then about simply forgetting about all that attrition stuff and embracing the unlimited freedom to make the way whatever I want it to be. Yes, that certainly is an option. But what would really be the point of that? The main thing that broke the camel’s back for me with 3rd edition was the abundance of new class features and special abilities that characters get at almost all levels. And that’s something that is still present in 5th editon. Not quite as heavily as in 3rd, but still very much. Way too much, I think.

D&D is ultimately a game about pursuing experience to get access to new abilities. At least in the editions of the last 20 years, but it’s been like that for spellcasters since the very beginning. D&D is a game about getting new special abilities. It’s a main element of what drives players forward, and the prospect of new abilities is what makes players pick their character concepts. The group I had for my last campaign was amazing. They all went all in, head first, with all the narrative freeform nonsense I presented to them. But even these players were constantly talking about the new abilities they were looking forward to after and between games, and they were always proud to tell each other what cool new tricks they just got when they reached a new level. This is something that is baked into the game. This is what the game is about. And I feel that when you run adventures for the group in which most situations don’t result in fighting, then what is the point of running D&D? I am feeling very confident that I am certainly able to run cool and fun adventures. But when I run D&D, I have to provide plenty of opportunities for the players to use their wide and always increasing range of cool special abilities, and I simply don’t see how to do that in adventures that are cool and fun.

Dungeons & Dragons is not for me. If a group of players I like to play with invites me to a game of D&D, I probably wouldn’t say no. As long as I don’t have to come up with adventures that provide something to be entertaining for the players, I have no problem with it, even when I think other games would be even more fun. But running D&D sets requirements and limitations for the GM that don’t work with my abilities as a GM and what I consider enjoyable about gamemastering. Perhaps if the planets happen to align and some unexpected circumstances arise, I might possibly run a B/X campaign or something of a similar type. They are nowhere near as burdened by special abilities, but in the end they are still games about large dungeons filled with monsters and puzzles. I much more see my future with heroic fantasy games looking like Barbarians of Lemuria. Or perhaps some Apocalypse World. But for now it’s Star Wars all the way. And not the Star Wars with the D&D class features, or the Star Wars with the funky dice. The original Star Wars d6 game, where all the dice you need are d6s, and all your character’s abilities are the basic skill rolls. Rules light rules at their best.

Faction Spells

I am working on a concept for a Planescape campaign, and part of it includes modifying several tanar’ri, yugoloths, and other planar creatures from their 5th edition version to give them back their magical abilities that got lost somewhere along the way. And their Intelligence scores. I really have no idea what anyone was thinking with a marilith and nalfeshnee that don’t have any spells, or an alkilith and hezrou with an Intelligence of 6 and 5 respectively. These are demons, not ogres! And ultrolths at the same relative power level as beholders, storm giants, and nalfeshnees? Oh, please! You can run these monsters, but it wouldn’t be Planescape.

While I was making the updated monster stats and restored their lists of spells to something that would reflect the original abilities at least in spirit, I got the idea that spellcasting NPCs from the planar factions could also have lists of commonly used spells that reflect the spirits of their beliefs and organizations.

The results of this effort vary greatly. For the Athar, Godsmen, and Guvners I didn’t get anything, and for the Ciphers and Xaositects the lists also ended up very short (to the point where they will likely be undetectable as a pattern when players encounter them). But that’s alright I think. This can simply be something that is a prominent feature of some factions but not others.

When creating NPCs that could potentially be fought or provide magical assistance, the following lists are my starting point. I think these spells would also be the first ones that would be offered to PCs who are joining the factions and are looking for assistance and training from their new allies.

The Bleak Cabal

The Bleakers would have an interest in spells that cause madness in others and also preserve their own sanity. There’s not a lot of those in 5th edition, but these are certainly spells that many Bleaker spellcasters would be happy to have in their arsenal.

  • Cantrips: vicious mockery
  • 1st level: dissonant whispers, hideous laughter
  • 2nd level: calm emotions
  • 3rd level: fear
  • 4th level: confusion
  • 6th level: eyebite, irresistible dance
  • 8th level: feeblemind, mind blank
Doomguard

The Sinkers are all over entropy, and as such would be very much into all spells that either drain the strength from creatures or cause decay in the environment. And there’s really quite a lot of spells of this kind.

  • 1st level: arms of hadar, bane, ray of sickness, sleep
  • 2nd level: blindness, darkness, ray of enfeeblement, silence
  • 3rd level: bestow curse, hunger of hadar, slow, vampiric touch
  • 4th level: blight
  • 5th level: contagion
  • 6th level: circle of death, disintegrate, harm
  • 7th level: finger of death
Dustmen

For the Dusties everything revolves around death, so they would commonly use all kinds of necromancies. But they are also very much opposed to people dying before their time has come, or returning from death after their life has ended. As such, they would be using spells that keep people at and make them come back from the brink of death. They are of course also interested in interacting with the undead.

  • Cantrip: chill touch, spare the dying
  • 1st level: false life
  • 2nd level: gentle repose
  • 3rd level: animate dead, feign death, revivify, speak with dead
  • 4th level: death ward
  • 5th level: antilife shell
  • 6th level: create undead
Fated

The Takers believe that everything rightfully belongs to those who can take it and keep it. The most deserving people are those with the determination to do what it takes to get what they want. Unfortunately there are not a lot of spells to get things, but I think spells that help characters to keep the things they have would also be a perfect fit for this faction.

  • 1st level: alarm
  • 2nd level: arcane lock, knock, locate object
  • 3rd level: glyph of warding
  • 4th level: private sanctum, secret chest
  • 7th level: sequester
Free League

The Indeps hardly even count as a faction, sharing only the desire to not have to pledge allegiance to any other faction and simply be left alone to do as they please. Spells that allow them to avoid and escape control and detainment are great spells to help them maintain their freedom.

  • 1st level: expeditious retreat
  • 2nd level: misty step, sanctuary
  • 3rd level: haste
  • 4th level: freedom of movement
  • 5th level: passwall
  • 8th level: mind blank
Harmonium

The only thing the Hardheads ever really want is for everyone to comply and obey. They do want to make everyone adopt their beliefs and comply voluntarily, but they are really not above making people follow their rules by force when needed.

  • 1st level: command
  • 2nd level: detect thoughts, enthrall, hold person, suggestion
  • 5th level: dominate person, geas, hold monster
  • 6th level: mass suggestion
Mercykillers

They are all about delivering punishment to the guilty. There are plenty of spells to apprehend and imprison those who are trying to escape their just fate.

  • 1st level: compel duel, hellish rebuke, hex
  • 2nd level: hold person, see invisibility, silence
  • 3rd level: bestow curse, slow, stinking cloud
  • 4th level: locate creature, resilient sphere
  • 5th level: hold monster
  • 7th level: forcecage
  • 8th level: maze
  • 9th level: imprisonment, true seeing
Revolutionary League

The Anarchists are constantly working to overthrow the people in power and living their whole existence in complete paranoia. Anything that helps with maintaining secrecy is just the thing they need.

  • 1st level: disguise self, illusory script
  • 2nd level: detect thoughts, invisibility, knock, pass without trace
  • 3rd level: nondetection
  • 4th level: arcane eye, greater invisibility, private sanctum
  • 5th level: mislead, seeming
  • 8th level: mind blank
Sign of One

The Signers reject your reality and substitute their own. Pretty much all illusions and transmutations, as well as several enchantments are exactly the kind of magic they are looking for.

  • Cantrip: minor illusion
  • 1st level: charm person, disguise self, silent image
  • 2nd level: alter self, phantasmal force, suggestion
  • 3rd level: counterspell, dispel magic, major image
  • 4th level: fabricate, hallucinatory terrain, phantasmal killer, polymorph
  • 5th level: creation, modify memory, seeming
  • 6th level: mass suggestion, programmed illusion
  • 7th level: magnificent mansion, mirage arcane, simulacrum
  • 8th level: demiplane
  • 9th level: true polymorph, weird, wish
Society of Sensation

The Sensates seek to experience the Multiverse in as many ways as possible, so they can fully see the big picture behind everything and make sense of all existence. Like the Signers they would be very much interested in transmutations that let them experiences the forms of other creatures, but also in divinations that let them perceive what is usually hidden from their ordinary senses. Additionally, spells that help them survive particularly dangerous experiences are of great use to the Sensates.

  • Cantrips: resistance
  • 1st level: comprehend languages, identify, purify food and drink
  • 2nd level: alter self, beast sense, darkvision, protection from poison, see invisibility
  • 3rd level: clairvoyance, protection from energy, water breathing
  • 4th level: arcane eye, polymorph
  • 5th level: legend lore, scrying
  • 6th level: magic jar
  • 9th level: shapechange, true seeing
The Transcendent Order

The Ciphers believe that all the challenges of the Multiverse are not solved through reason, but through instinct. The Ciphers don’t think about threats they encounter or make plans or come up with tactics. They simply act, without hesitations or doubts, in the firm belief that everything will just work out as it’s supposed to.

  • Cantrip: guidance, resistance
  • 2nd level: enhance ability
  • 3rd level: haste, water walk
  • 8th level: mind blank
  • 9th level: foresight, time stop
Xaositects

Chaos is its own reward.

  • 2nd level: misty step
  • 3rd level: blink, hypnotic pattern
  • 4th level: confusion
  • 5th level: animate objects
  • 7th level: prismatic spray, reverse gravity

There might be more that I have not yet thought of. It seems rather suspicious to me that the concept I have in mind for the campaign would feature the Bleakers, Doomguards, Dustmen, Anarchists, Signers, and Sensates in quite prominent roles, and that these just happen to have the largest and most evocative spell lists. Though that could just be coincidence. Something about the Rule of Three or something.

Inixon – Against the Dwellers of the Isle of Dread

I returned to university last year and right now it doesn’t look like classes will resume until may at the earliest. So I really can’t pass up on the opportunity to get a new online campaign off the ground.

And this is as good a time as any to finally make use of my old idea to combine I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City, N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God, and X1 The Isle of Dread into one big B/X campaign. Combining my three favorite modules is really quite easy. The Forbidden City replaces the ruins in the volcano on the Isle of Dread, and the Reptile God is an emissary of the Dwellers trying to establish a foothold on the mainland.

All of this will be set in my Green Sun setting, which I recently decided to give a little update to make it more interesting and conductive to adventures. I finally overcame my aversion to post-apocalyptic settings and decided to take inspirations from the Bronze Age collapse. The world of Kaendor is now set in the days after a century long period of increasing storms and rainfall, that has caused much of the farmland to become too swampy for local crops and many of the coastal cities to be lost to erosion. There are now only a dozen city states left with most people living scattered in small villages in the forests, where they can get by with hunting, fishing, and foresting.

The old trade networks that enabled the large scale production of bronze have collapsed, but fortunately old bronze can be recycled very easily. When the first cities were abandoned by their people, nobody saw how great the scarcity of bronze would become, and much of it was left behind for being too heavy. Now these forgotten stockpiles of bronze ingots are worth their weight in silver and a draw for many treasure hunters. But buildings that have collapsed in typhoons or landslides also uncovered large numbers of previously hidden vaults and tombs.

In the jungles of the south, the ancient serpentmen are sensing the fall of the younger civilizations, and many of them remember their old dreams of their return to power and reclaiming the lands of Kaendor for themselves. Currently there seems to be little chance of that ever happening again, but that doesn’t stop ambitious snake sorcerers from sending their minions north.

And deep beneath the sea, the primordial aquatic horrors and the fishmen are watching the events in the world above.

And given the source material, I need to have an NPC cook named Zeb. :p

Exorcists For Hire

Three months back I wrote about giving quest givers some kind of existing relationship to the PCs to make adventures more personal and to create a stronger sense of the party having their own place in the world, and also make it feel more plausible and natural that of all the people they get picked to deal with the situation. Hiring some random dangerous vagabonds to deal with very sensitive matters always feels forced to me, and even more so that said vagabonds can make a career out of these jobs.

What I didn’t really adress back then however, was what exactly the PCs do as their day jobs. How did they become qualified to deal with roaming monsters, hauntings by spirits, and demonic artifacts? Since the Kaendor setting is designed from the ground up to provide opportunity for encounters with spirits and supernatural forces, and I deliberately avoided adding military conflicts or endemic banditry, I feel that the setting is really lending itself to to parties that are well equipped to deal with spirits, demons, and curses. While a campaign about adventurers who make their bread and butter with exterminating bandits and goblins, with the occasional evil wizard or giant thrown in, does feel implausible to me beyond the point that I am happy to ignore, a group of specialists who are called upon when their services are needed, does feel more believable. It’s not even much of a stretch that they might go on extended “patrols” beyond their home turf now and then, to see if more remote settlements might be in need of their services.

Armed travellers looking for opportunities to make money through violence shouldn’t really look that different from the bandits and raiders they are regularly fighting to most villagers. But groups of clerics and druids with their retinues of guardians present a completely different picture from demons or other supernatural horrors. It feels much more justified that people would welcome them with relief and approach them to plead for their help.

It does actually change very little when it comes to how adventures are prepared and played out. Just avoid having regular bandits, monstrous raiders, or normal wild animals as threats. The rest would be very much the same. But it’s the context that changes.

The Mythic Fantasy campaign style

Mythic Fantasy frequently gets mentioned in passing in listings of various fantasy styles. The Dungeon Master’s Guide for D&D 5th Edition describes it like this:

A mythic-fantasy campaign draws on the themes and stories of ancient myth and legend, from Gilgamesh to Cu Chulainn. Adventurers attempt mighty feats of legend, aided or hindered by the gods or their agents – and they might have divine blood themselves. The monsters and villains they face probably have a similar origin. The minotaur in the dungeon isn’t just another bull-headed humanoid, but the Minotaur – misbegotten offspring of a philandering god. Adventures might lead the heroes through a series of trials to the realms of the gods in search of a gift or favor.
Such a campaign can draw on the myths and legends of any culture, not just the familiar Greek tales.

Sounds good, makes sense. Barely anyone ever seems to use it. And when you see it show up somewhere, the vast majority of it seems to be indeed mashups of Greek gods, heroes, and monsters. What you get is a fantasy version of Greek myth, sometimes with names switched up, but you will have a really hard time to point out original fantasy that is inspired by mythic themes, motifs, and narratives. There is of course The Lord of the Rings, that was specifically written to be mythic in style, but even though elements of it have been copied thousands of times, the mythic aspects seem to have been lost to the imitators. If you dig in really deep, you might have some luck with lesser known novels, but it seems to be very much absent in movies, RPGs, and videogames. It’s an idea that sounds really good, but I never was able to identify good references for how that could look like. Except of course for the fantasy versions of Greece.

But today I was seeing a trailer for the new From Software game Elden Ring and took a glance at what some people think about it so far, and I finally got it! The whole Soulsborne series is mythic fantasy. This is how it can look like in practice. Is Lord Gwyn a bit like Zeus? Yes, of course he is. And he brought the Age of Fire to humans, like Prometheus did. But other than that, nothing about Dark Souls feels like a retelling of Greek myth. Bloodborne of course does nothing to cover up its imagery that is taken from Gothic Horror and Eldritch Horror, but it doesn’t feel like a Lovecraft story or a Lovecraft setting. It still is it’s very own thing.

But what is it that makes these games and their setting feel mythic, and how is this different from other types of fantasy?

I think the first thing that stands out are the boss monsters. They are not simply just boss fights. With some exceptions like the Capra Demon, most of the prominent ones are unique beings with a specific backstory and context. And equally important, they have powers that make them stand apart from other monsters and a very different kind of threat. When you take our own everyday world as your frame of reference, then a minotaur, centaur, or satyr would be an amazingly strange creature and great threat. But when you are already in a fantasy world, then even a minotaur doesn’t have anything supernatural or divine about it.

The other main thing that contributes to the mythic feel is that these are stories that explain how things came to be the way that they were and the transformations that the world is currently experiencing. They are stories that lift the veil from how the world works. They give you insight into the powers that control the world, why they do what they do, and how they are limited in restricted in what they can do.

Perhaps mythic fantasy is ultimately about the supernatural and divine forces that shape the world, and the potential and limitations of human agency. It’s about dealing with situations that are beyond anyone’s fault or control, with mortals having no choice but accepting the changes forced on them and somehow finding ways to live with them. That isn’t to say that heroes would be passive. Far from it. But fate plays a huge role and heroes often have very little choice in playing their part in events that are inevitable. Even when the ultimate outcome is not predetermined, there often can be only two ways for things to end, and it is up the heroes to make the one decision that makes all the difference.

There surely is a lot more to it than just this, and I am not even certain that these first observations are fully accurate. But I feel like this is a first insight into what this particularly elusive form of fantasy storytelling might actually be.

Conflict on the Horizon

As my focus is turning away from the basic worldbuilding for the setting and towards the practical work of preparing an actual campaign and adventures, I’ve been noticing that the setting is still very much lacking in the way of plot hooks. Poking around in strange ruins in the wilderness and dealing with alien spirits and dangerous sorcerers is all fun and well, but why are the characters doing that? What greater purpose do their activities serve? Having stories emerge from the players’ choices and actions is fantastic, but you can’t have something come from nothing. Which is why great settings almost always have some form of underlying tension. Which so far Kaendor has been lacking. There is this concept of civilization being under pressure by the erratic and volatile forces of nature, but I found out that this is too fuzzy to really build adventures on. There is also the idea that sorcery creates terrible environmental damage which most people fear and oppose, but it raises the question why anyone would turn to it other than for moustache twirling evil.

In practice, larger scale conflicts come in just two basic forms. Competition for a resource of which there isn’t enough to cover the amounts that everyone wants, and contradicting opinions on what shape society and culture should take. Whatever reasons and justifications people give for why they fight or oppose others, it almost always comes down to one of these two as the root cause. Both the themes of a permanent struggle against a hostile environment and the lure of the powerful but dangerous tool of sorcery are closely connected with competition for vital but scarce resources.

In the lands of Kaendor, the omnipresent forests keeps growing back exceptionally fast and populations of animals are almost impossibly difficult to control. The climate makes storms, floods, draughts, and wildfires extremely unpredictable, and earthquakes, blights, and pests are a constant threat. Maintaining the small and limited areas of farmable land is a constant struggle and claiming more land almost impossibly difficult. This makes maintaining a stable supply of grain and access to large amounts of salt for the preservation of food a primariy concern for all rulers. A third resource that is almost as critical for the survival and prosperity of the domains is tin for the production of bronze.

Because civilization in Kaendor is both small and scattered across great distances, invasions and conquest are not practical approaches to securing access to these vital resources. Armies arriving on ships have little means to assault or besiege fortified strongholds far away from home, and even when a distant domain can be taken it is almost impossible to hold. The distances involved make it very difficult to control whoever is put in charge or to respond to rebellions once the conquering armies have returned home. Raiding is a much more common form of warfare, but with most resources being stored within the walls of well defended strongholds, this approach is very unreliable and carries great risks, and is usually taken only out of desperation.

The most common, and most effective way, in which strong rulers and powerful city states secure their access to vital resources is by controlling the trade with the smaller domains. All the domain rely on trade across the Endless Sea and the Southern Sea for resources they don’t have themselves, and even the Wilders have extensive trade relationships among their tribes. With their great riches and large numbers of merchant and war ships, the larger city states have a great amount of influence over all trade. They have the power to dictate who can sell which goods and for which prices, and make demands that serve their own continued interests. Domains that have such power over others are always trying to maintain and expand it, while those who are under the influence of more powerful domains are constantly searching for ways to escape it. This is the primary source of conflict between domains in Kaendor.

The specifics of commerce and the intricacies of trade power aren’t of any greater relevance to either the setting or the activities in which players are involved. Instead, the purpose of this background is to provide motivations for people in power to set events into motion in which the players can become involved. Rulers are always interested in finding ways to weaken the influence of their enemies or the means to reduce their dependency on trade for certain resources with their rivals. Much of it is politics that does not involve the players, but in the world of Kaendor there are also always many opportunities to gain support from the spirits of the land and the gods of the forest and the sea. Similarly, the spirits are the only ones able to stop changes to the environment that threaten the prosperity and survival of a domain.

Both desperation and ambition can also be strong motivations to turn towards the lure of sorcery. The chaotic magics of sorcery can bend nature to its will and can be a source of great power and riches, even though it is well known that its practice drains the land of life and in time warps and corrupts that which remains. When times are dire, this steep price might appear worth paying, but even more often prideful sorcerers believe that they have found ways to contain the corruption and prevent or at least limit the spread of the blight. Some are motivated by greed and others by the more noble goal to ensure the survival of their domains. But among the common people and the servants of the gods, hardship and abandoning their homes for new lands are far preferable to this madness.

Another aspect that naturally follows from this underlying tension is the emergence of crime. When the larger city states control access to certain goods and determine prices that only benefit themselves, smuggling becomes a major part of trade. Smuggling in Kaendor is not simply about some men rowing to shore at night to unload a few boxes of goods outlawed by the lord of the domain. It’s a vast network reaching from Var Sharaz all the way to Nevald in the Northern Sea, consisting of wealthy merchants, pirates, and corrupt officials. There might well be not a single palace anywhere in Kaendor that doesn’t have two or three people involved in smuggling, and many of their biggest customers are minor lords who wish to be doing business without knowledge by the city states. Most smugglers trade in bulk goods, but their connnections and secrecy enable them to get hold of almost everything for the right price and when time not a pressing issue. Pirates rely entirely on smugglers to sell their plunder and many leaders make some additional money at the side with blackmail, extortion, and bringing in debts for their associates. Smugglers make for great sources of information and rare magic resources, and questionable allies. They can also serve as antagonists who are introducing new trouble by threatening befriended merchants or lords, accidentally angering or awakening spirits while hiding out in forbidden caves, working with sorcerers, or bringing in disrupting magic object from distant lands.

None of these things are exactly material for adventures in strange woods and mysterious ruins. But they do make a solid foundation for why the players have to go out into the wilderness, either to find something that can help solving a conflict, or to stop a threatening disasters that has been set into motion by the desperation or ambition of influential people.

Exploration System, Part 2: Practical Encumbrance

Encumbrance in D&D has always ranged from bad to terrible. The idea behind encumbrance is actually great. The default assumption for the first decade or so had been that the party enters a dangerous place, gets their hands on valuable stuff, and gets back out again, preferably with their loot and without anyone dying. When wandering monsters are a thing (look forward to part 3) and fighting battles is a negligible source of XP (look forward to part 4), then getting in and out quickly is of the essence. The longer it takes you, the greater is the risk of anyone dying with no benefit in trade. So as you keep delving deeper into the dark unknown, you are using up some of the tools and supplies you have brought with you, but at the same time get weighted down by the treasures you find. Which leaves you with two choices. Slow down and risk fighting more opponents and reducing your odds of being able to run away. Or reduce your weight, either by choosing to leave some of the treasure you’ve found behind, or by dropping some of the equipment that you hopefully won’t be needing on your way back to the surface. Hang on to all your potentially life saving tools and weapons as you slowly crawl back to the exit, or make a mad dash to safety? Or play it safe and leave some of your hard fought for rewards behind? This is a real question that players will have to face. There is no right answer which two out of these three you should choose and will greatly depend on the constantly changing situations. To me, this is one of the big things that make exploration adventures so exciting.

Random Encounters, XP for treasure, and Encumbrance are really a single unified system. They really only work together as a unit. When you ditch one of them, the other two stop serving any purpose as well. And I think most of the time, Encumbrance is the first one to go. Because the way D&D handles it is just so annoyingly tedious that almost everyone very quickly, if not immediately, decides to just not bother with it at all. Whether you calculate your character’s equipment load in pounds or in coins, every time you pick up an item or drop an item, you have to adjust your current encumbrance load value. And inevitably you will sometimes forget it or make mistakes, requiring to make a complete recount of all your inventory and calculate all the different weight again. Nobody thinks that’s fun. To really do that, you need to keep your inventory on spreadsheets, and playing the game with everyone having a computer open can’t be the way to go. So out the window Encumbrance goes, making the whole exploration system pointless.

But there is a solution, and it is brilliant in its simplicity. It also isn’t mine. This idea is taken pretty much straight from Papers and Pencils. I don’t really add anything significant to it, I am just aligning it with my exploration system here. What this system does is to say “calculating loads by weight doesn’t work because nobody uses it, let’s drop the idea of doing it ‘realistically’ and use a much simpler system of inventory slots”. Yes, it’s a greater degree of abstraction, but as I always keep saying all of the numbers in these mechanics are make believe anyway, and a system that people would want to use is always better than a system that always gets ignored.

The basic, and really very simple idea is that any items have a weight that is either “insignificant”, “significant”, or “especially heavy”. Insignificant weight means the item has an encumbrance value of 0, significant weight means it has an encumbrance value of 1, and especially heavy items have an encumbrance value of 2 or higher. To assign an encumbrance value to an item, my rule of thumb is round up the weight in pounds to the nearest multiple of 10, then drop the last 0. Items with a weight below 1 pound have an encumbrance value of 0.

The amount of items a character can carry is as follows:

Speed Max. Load Effect
Unencumbered STR x 1
Encumbered STR x 2 Speed -10
Heavily Encumbered STR x 3 Speed -20, disadvantage to Str, Dex, and Con

And that is the entire system. But you can even simplify this even more by setting up your inventory sheet in the right way. I recommend making a dedicated inventory sheet like this, but you can try squeezing it into the inventory space on your character sheet.

There are two columns for items. One for items with significant weights that add to encumbrance, and one for items with insignificant weights that don’t. On the left side you have all the rows numbered. When you now put all your items with significant weights into the left item column, and make them take up as many lines as its the encumbrance value, you no longer have to calculate anything. Your current load value is right there to the left of the last item on your list. To make things even easier for you, you can mark the lines that match your Strength score times 10, 20, and 30. In this example, the character has a Strength score of 13, so he is unencumbered with a load up to 13, encumbered with a load up to 26, and heavily encumbered with a load up to 39. The line below 13 items is marked green here, the line below 26 items marked orange. When you add or remove items on your inventory list, you immediately see when your current encumbrance category changes. The column with the items of insignificant wight doesn’t matter, I just thought it fits conveniently in the place where it is here.

Next to the numbers, I added another column as a recently added new feature. In this column you can mark if the items are part of your Arms, Exploration Gear, or Travel Gear. If you keep them sorted like this, it becomes trivial to say “I put down the backpack with my heavy travel gear and continue forward with only my arms and my tool pouch”. Again, no new calculations are needed. In this example we immediately see that the Arms and Exploration Gear cross below the green line, but stay above the orange line. That means when I drop my backpack with my tent, food, and spare clothing, my encumbrance will be Encumbered.

I did play around a bit with an idea of keeping track of various pouches and sacks characters might be carrying, but that just ends up disrupting the neat simplicity and easy of use of this system. So again, I just said eh!, and went for the more abstract option that requires the least amount of bookkeeping and rearranging your inventory. Though I admit I still don’t have a perfect idea what to do when characters go into a dungeon with empty space in their Exploration Gear pouch that later gets filled with treasure that they pick up. Right now, this still requires you to move an item from the top of your T-items to the bottom and adding the new item as an E-item. Maybe this can be improved as well, but I think so far this is a really damn good inventory management system, far better than anything you find in almost all versions of D&D.

Turning any map into a hex map with GIMP

There are a number of programms out there that allow you to make a hex map out of hex tiles. I used one of them to make this map of the Savage Frontier five years back. However, I am not a fan of these maps, at least not as something to put into the hands of the players. I feel it creates too much abstraction in the minds of players that works against them mentally visualizing the setting of the game as an actual world. As a setting creator, I see even myself getting affected by that and it significantly hampers my work on the world.

But hexes are very useful as tools to keep track of the party’s position as it is moving through the wilderness. In most situations you want to have separate maps for the players and the GM anyway, so you can keep track of where hidden and unknown sites are located without giving it away to the players. You can also overlay a hex grid on top of the GM version of the map along with the hidden sites and other notes. The terrain type of each hex won’t always be completely clear, but that’s not really an actual issue. Make a best guess which terrain on the background image dominates, and when you don’t stay consistent between different occasions the players are passing through it nobody will notice.

Finding an image of a hex grid on a transparent background to simply slap on top of a map you have in Photoshop or GIMP has been a huge pain in the butt for most of this afternoon. But at least for GIMP I found a great solution to add a grid on top of any image.

  1. Open your image file of your map.
  2. Add a new layer: Layer > New Layer > Press “Okay”. Make sure the new layer is above the layer with the map.
  3. Open the Mosaic dialog: Filters > Distortions > Mosaic.
  4. Make sure Tile Geometry is set to “Hexagons”.
  5. Set Tile Size to your prefered size of tiles.
  6. Set Tile Height to 1 (to remove reflection effect).
  7. Set Tile Neatness to 1 (to make orderly hexes).
  8. Set Tile Color Variation to 0 (to make all tiles blank).
  9. Set Tile Spacing to 1 (or higher, if you want wider grid lines).
  10. Joints Color: This will be the color of your grid lines.
  11. Light Color: To remove shiny reflections on each hex, click on the color to open the “Light Color” dialog. Set the value for “A” to “0” or move the slider all the way to the left. Click “OK” to close the dialog. (You can’t disable the reflection, but this makes it completely transparent and therefore invisible.)
  12. Click “OK” in the Mosaic dialog to apply the grid to the player.

And that is the entire process. The tricky part is to find the right value for “Tile Height” to get the tile size that matches the scale of your map. But if the map has scale markings on it, move the view of the image to that corner of the map and try out different sizes in the Mosaic dialog until the hexes line up with it. (The “Preview” box has to be checked to see how the grid would look like with the current settings.)

The only issue I noticed is that with hexes of sizes below 20-30, the hexes tend to get a bit squashed as a result of the image consisting of pixels, but I think you’d get this with any other method to get a hex map as well, unless it uses vector images (which I doubt any map software does).

How do I use mount?

I think in the almost 20 years now that I have been playing D&D, I’ve not seen any PC or NPC ever use a mount in combat. It’s always been on foot. I think a main reason for this is that I’ve been playing almost exclusively 3rd Edition and Pathfinder, and one of the many, many big flaws with that system is that it’s always too much of a bother to learn a new combat subsystem for a single encounter. So it never came up, and I never used it as a GM myself.

5th Edition does most things in much simpler ways and so I gave mounted combat (and grappling) another look. And using a mount effectively turns out to be actually really easy not requiring learning anything new. It’s just that once again, the PHB does not make the effort to explain how this works and you have to go hunting for four or five different rules in different parts of the book to piece together how it’s done.

Being up on a horse or other mount doesn’t give you any practical advantage. When you park your horse next to an enemy and then keep hacking away for a couple of rounds, the horse is not doing anything for you. Where the horse comes in really handy is when you use it in the way that actual cavalry charges were historically done. You race towards the enemy, make a single strike, and then be gone before they counterattack. And then you keep doing that round after round after round.

You could theoretically try this on foot, but with a mount it becomes much more effective because you get one additional action. When you are on a mount, you get your mount’s movement, your mount’s action, and your own action all on the same turn. The mount can only dash, disenngage, or dodge and not attack itself, but this serves you just fine here.

  • Direct your horse to use its movement (60 ft.) to move past the enemy you want to attack. (No action.)
  • Your mount takes the disengage action so it does not provoke any opportunity attacks from any of the enemies it moves past this round.
  • When your mount has moved you into range of your target, you make your attack.
  • The mount continues its movement until it has moved 60 ft.

What makes this work so well is that in 5th Edition, you don’t provoke opportunities when you are being moved by another creature. And when your mount disengages, it does not provoke any opportunity attacks either. The only way enemies can get a shot at attacking you as you ride past is to ready an action to make an attack when you come into reach of their weapons. However, they will have to ready that action before you start your charge. If your movement doesn’t bring you into their reach, their action for that round is wasted.

Enemies could try to run after you and make an attack at the end of their movement. But if you are dealing with a pursuer that has a speed of 30 ft., simply make sure you end your turn at 40 ft. away from it. If it pursues, it can either dash to get next to you and not take any other action, or move its 30 ft. and take its action still 10 ft. away from you. Then in the next round you move 10 ft. towards that enemy, make an attack, and have your mount continue to a position that is again 40 ft. away from your enemy.

This all works even better when you have other allies on mounts with you. If your enemies try to pursue you, you can scatter them over a larger area, making it harder for them to work together and gain the benefits of a being in a group.

Of course you need a good amount of space to pull this off, which is probably another big reason mounted combat rarely shhows up in D&D. But it’s a nice way to give encounters a new dynamic and have to players fight in a new situation. Because everything the players can do, their enemies can also throw against them.