Category Archives: Dungeons & Dragons

Hey, you heard of Dungeons & Dragons? I’ve heard of Dungeons & Dragons. So let’s talk about Dungeons & Dragons.

4e: The Passionguard (And A Kickstarter Promo!)

In 4th Edition D&D, a starting character has three large layered choices for making a character more conveniently.  You have their Ancestry (“race”), you have the toolset for solving problems they have for their basic skills (“class”), and then you have the little third layer, the layer where you get to refine those two things with extra stuff that isn’t worth a lot, but does bring with it some inherent difference: the theme.

For me, themes are a secret sauce component of 4th edition D&D. They’re a place that you can fill out things a character should be able to do, small bonuses that aren’t necessarily as uniformly available. If you have a striker who you think of as needing to be able to shield someone, one person in particular, the Guardian theme is there for you. If you want to add some sneaky stabbiness to a straightforward fighter, there’s a Yakuza. I’ve used the Werewolf and Werebear for a lot of stuff, and there are sometimes whole themes that carry a concept that are more important than the other two choices to make sure you can hit a specific feel.

But also themes aren’t ironclad, either. Some are very specific, like membership in a specific organisation and some are very general. Themes feel to me like seasonings: The biggest problem we have with Themes right now is not enough of them and not varied enough. Themes are there to do the job of helping you cement some element of your character design that needs to grow, but also can’t be done with the slow progress of feats.

And while working on this, I found this.

Art by Floh Pitot

This artwork rules. I have this problem when I see art and because I create in game spaces, I immediately think ‘hey that’s rad, I’d love to make a game that looks like that.’ And you can’t, that’s a thing, you can’t just take art you like and use it, even though people can just take rules they like and use them. Seems a bit rude on me, I guess. But anyway, point is, I saw this and went: Damn, that gives me ideas.

Thing is, this art is for something. It’s art from 2018 for a Zine called Dames. And that zine has an iteration, currently on Kickstarter, right now. With that in mind, here’s a link to this Kickstarter, and I recommend you check it out and see if you like it. It’s a zine full of knightly ladies. That looks cool!

And now, inspired by this bangin’ artwork, I’d like to present you with The Passionguard.

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3.5 Memories – The Smoochless Book Of Exalted Deeds

Back in D&D 3.5’s hey-day, which was, it seems to look at these printing dates, 2003, they were so convinced of their infinite expandability and the depth of their market that they made themselves a special label warning that this book was of the Mature Line of products. In the time of this line’s existence, as best I can tell, there were a total of two books Wizards of the Coast published on it, with the first being the perhaps obvious Book of Vile Darkness.

The most obvious joke, ‘vile dorkness,’ writes itself, and is 100% justified.

The other book in this line, though, is the Book of Exalted Deeds. This book got to be Mature because… of… reasons, most of which seemed to be to add a few dollars to its sticker price and, I suppose, to let it reference the Book of Vile Darkness, which it felt a need to do. Now, there’s a lot to be said about the difficulty of composing a book whose entire foyer has to be a treatise on how to not only ‘be good’ but also be really good in these proactive ways that translate to good game mechanics and engaging character beats for an ongoing story. You can really feel the front end of this book trying to park a bus in a bike spot, as it seeks to bring up things that are good things for a character to do, in a proactive and engaging way, while still buying into the slightly mangled moral framework of D&D as she is written.

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How To Be: ME GRIMLOCK (In 4e D&D)

In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
  • This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritive but as a creative exercise
  • While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
  • The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic

When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.

You know, last year we did a bunch of characters who could be seen as fitting the genre of a combative adventurer reasonably well, and maybe it’s time to try some stuff that’s a bit more weird. With that in mind, let us reach wide, with our tiny, tiny arms, and look at ME GRIMLOCK!

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4e: The Paladin’s Plight

Pacing is important in games. It’s a lesson that can be difficult to learn without trial and error, and when your game is big and playtesting sessions are slow and about lots of varied choices it’s entirely possible that you have a pacing problem that only a small number of people are ever going to notice.

In 4e D&D, the Paladin was one of those characters with a rough pacing problem. If you build one, now, using any of the major building tools available, you’re going to see that when you hit level 2, you have to pick one of the utility powers available at that level and

Woo.

It is a spicy one.

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3.5 Memories – The Cleric Archer

It’s by no means a secret that 3.5 D&D’s balance was off in some ways that made ‘good’ and ‘best’ categories of things a little unintuitive, like how the best stealth-based character was a wizard, or the best speed-based character was the wizard, or the best big, strong melee character who smacked things with a sword was a wizard.

Hm.

If you ever got asked, houwever, about ‘best’ builds, there were always a handful of builds that stood apart because they had unique combination of effects. There was the Supermount, for example, or the Wildshape Ranger, builds that were renowned for having access to something that set them apart from things of their type. And, especially since Legolas was in the popular media at the time, there was often a question about how to make the best archer. There were plenty of archery feats, and it seemed for once, this was a challenge the fighter was perfectly suited to address – the excessive strength of the Barbarian’s rages wouldn’t necessarily apply, and sneak attack for a rogue was harder to get, so perhaps, perhaps, with a host of feats available, surely the best character to take them would finally be the Fighter?

Nope.

It was the cleric.

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How To Be: The Covers Of 2020

It has now been a full year of How To Be. These articles are fun to make, they’re interesting to play around with, and I have more of them ready to go, so I fully expect to keep doing them. What I do think, though, from all of those articles I’ve made this year, I was frustrated to find that Twitter and Jetpack, two of the ways I promote this blog, don’t present my hilarious book covers in the thumbnails consistently. That means it’s possible that you might not see these book covers and may not have gone looking for them.

Also, since it’s December, and I am tired and you are tired and everyone is tired, how about I show off this year’s How To Be covers, and let you check them out now, as some long-form throwback reading of the rest of the blog.

Yeah?

Yeah.

Yeah.

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How To Be: Wolf Queen Nailah (In 4e D&D)

In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
  • This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritive but as a creative exercise
  • While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
  • The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic

When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.

And this month, before we talk about our subject, though I mean she’s in the subject of the blog post that you just clicked on so I mean what are we going to cover, suddenly a swerve and it’s going to be about trotting out pairs of characters that can be Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. But see, this marks our twelfth How To Be, and it also marks the first year of this feature. It’s fun! I’ve enjoyed doing that!

And because variety is important to me, we’re going back to Fire Emblem. And maybe, being you’re one of my friends, you might be thinking that yes! I’m going to bring up ya girl Edelgard, who is… very, very similar to Hilda.

No, we’re talking about Nailah, from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. And we’re talking about her because she’s cool, and she can do interesting things, and most importantly, because Fox likes her. I started with one of Fox’s favourite franchises, and then with a character she kinda didn’t like one way or the other? Terrible form on my part.

Let’s look at a Wolf Queen.

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3.5 Memories: GAY RAINBOW SNAKE

Eff it, sometimes I need one that’s a walk.

The way these posts tend to happen is I go into the garage where my physical D&D books are kept and I reach into the shelf and pull out a book I haven’t read lately, flip it open and see if what I see on the page reminds me of anything and this month we got the Complete Divine and the page I flipped to was the Rainbow Servant.

Good news, this class can do some beautiful bullshit, and it can do it while looking really gay.

What we’re going to deal with her is a lovely overlap of unintended consequence. See, D&D creation was ultimately fractal; when you made a new class or a new race, you could test it against other stuff but as more stuff happened, you would always find combinations of stuff interacting in ways you maybe didn’t intend. Sometimes this meant you could find two different spells in different supplements did identical things, but one was much stronger, and sometimes this meant that a character could take two identical feats for double the effect. The copy editors at Wizards of the Coast could keep on top of this most of the time, but not always.

What mostly happened, then, was things were tested against a core of ‘what was in the player’s handbook’ and the more sources you added, the more wild things could get. That was one of the ways the game got weird, too – the more of the exciting and interesting stuff you started to include, the more weird byproducts you got.

This time around, what we have is the collision between the Complete Divine and The Miniatures Handbook and repeated in the Complete Arcane. The two parts at work here are the Warmage (a class) and the Rainbow Servant (a Prestige Class).

Rainbow Servants are spellcasters that learn from and benefit from a relationship with couatls, a type of sorta-kinda-Aztec-y divine monster creatures that are snakes, that relate to rainbows, and yet, suspiciously, aren’t shown in rainbows in their default art. Must seem gay. Anyway, these couatls grant special gifts to arcane spellcasters, and those casters get to be Rainbow Servants.

As written, the Rainbow Servant is a prestige class for arcane spellcasters that want to add a bit of divine vibe to what they’re doing, in exchange for eating some spellcasting levels. Most of the time, this tradeoff isn’t worth it: spellcasters that give up spellcasting levels need to get something truly immense in exchange. The stuff you get out of the Rainbow Servant is domains (which add spells to your potential repertoire), beautiful rainbow wings, and then, eventually, the entire cleric spell list added to your spell list.

For a sorcerer or wizard, this represents more options, but not more choices. These classes still have to spend resources to know those spells. Wizards adding the entire cleric spell list to their spellbook is a lot of power, but you had to give up four levels of spells to get there, and that’s typically not a worthwhile tradeoff. Sorcerers need to spend their very limited spells known to get those spells, but you already don’t have enough spells.

So, Rainbow Servant is a bit weak, and you might pick it up if you really really wanted the rainbow wings, for example, or you had a strong concept for a divine-arcane mixed up spellcasters.

But then, let’s introduce to the conversation the Warmage.

The Warmage is a class designed for a kind of different form of D&D. It was originally made to be a boomspell platform for the miniatures game, which used D&D combat rules to resolve a tactical miniatures wargame. Noticing that for fast combat, choosing spell preparation is a pain in the ass but choosing the right spell for the job on the spot is hard enough, they created a spellcaster who just always had access to all their spells, and made that spell list limited.

So.

If a warmage adds spells to their spell list – like with a domain – then suddenly, they can cast, spontaneously, every spell on the domain list that’s of a level they have access to. That’s pretty good. Then when they hit level 10, they have all the spells in the cleric list, available to cast spontaneously, and the existing warmage blast spells.

That’s really cool!

This build is also not especially strong, at least, not most of the time. You need to hit around level 16 before this happens, and at that point, you have a character who’s casting lots of different level 6 spells. You’ll never get access to 9th level spells (without some nonsense), but you’ll have enormous flexibility all the way up there – the best cleric spell for the job, all those lower level slots able to turn into useful buffs, and a bunch of handy special abilities to go with it.

Now.

This is clearly unintended consequence. The Rainbow Servant was not made to be a route to ‘late-game megacleric wizard.’ The Warmage was not created to turn into a support machine with the right level choices. These two elements were not created to interact with each other. One can argue that this interaction, being unintended, should be excluded. After all, if it wasn’t tested, it might have unforseen consequences. This is how a lot of MMOs behave: even things that are designed to replicate one another are often designed to not stack or interact, so as to prevent players from having too much of an effect. Check out how for a time, World of Warcraft had a standard list of ‘raid buffs’ (and may still have but I don’t care to check).

However, this is where TTRPGs have a freedom. You can look at how players engage with the game, and make those choices on the fly. You can decide if a player doing this stuff is eating up time. Hypothetically, you can even decide how in your game it’s okay for things to work out unfairly in one player’s favour, because that player may be less strategically minded, or not inclined to take advantage of the power, or bad at managing the information load. You might decide that it’s okay, because you can see other ways other things can be just as powerful that you are okay with. You can even decide to adjust this as the game goes on.

But don’t forget that sometimes, there are cool, odd interactions that some players may pick up just because they like the gay rainbow wings.

How To Be: The Castlevania Gang (In 4e D&D)

In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
  • This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritive but as a creative exercise
  • While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
  • The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic

When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.

This month, we’re going to examine overlapping skillsets as we look at not creating a character but creating a group of characters: The trio of monster hunters from the Fang-Em-Up Netflix anime, Castlevania.


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5 Ways To Be Cosmically Horrifying in 4E D&D

It is easy perhaps to forget that TTRPGs are a fundamentally creative space. In some games, especially the more modern indie style of TTRPG, characters are often handed a role that really paints the way they should feel, a characterisation that is in some cases extremely specific, like you’ll see in PBTA games. In D&D, there’s a lot of ways in recent days that flavour has swung towards specificity, which can limit the kinds of creativity you can express.

4e D&D is a game system that deliberately tries to leave a lot of your flavour up to you. Last year I talked about some character options that let you be horrifying heroes. This year, we’re going to do that again, but instead of gothic horror, we’re going to look at ways to do cosmic horror with your character that swings a big axe and saves the day.

Cosmic horror in this case refers to the horror felt at the boundaries between human agency and universal indifference. Cosmic horror can be felt in a very mundane, normal moment of life when you look up at the sky and realise that there is more that exists that you’ll never see, that the universe is old in a scale that you will never understand and will live on longer than you will ever be able to conceive, and that these two details make you a nothing of a blip between nothing blips. When we talk about cosmic horror as she is shown in media, it’s often about trying to show you those points of interface: Of the horror that Lovecraft himself said,

“Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large.”

The horror of the Cosmic is not the threat of Gothic horror. It is the immense indifference of an uncaring, infinite emptiness.

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3.5 Memories: Okay, Fine, Let’s Talk About Zceryll

Back during August, I looked at the Tome of Magic, a 3.5 D&D book, which involved looking at the the Binder. The Binder was one of the classes presented in that book, where the basic idea was that the binder had these things, called Vestiges, that you could sort of cold-swap between to get different abilities based on your different needs; the task of swapping character mode was fast enough that you could do it between encounters, or on the far side of a dungeon door, or hurriedly while the guards are on their way, but it wasn’t something you could hot-plug in between combats. The Binder was a weak character class by default that could, with its variety of options, hot-swap into a form that was usually about as good as a rogue with most of the gear they want.

Note those italics.

When it comes to D&D content, Wizards put things in the books, but they also made a thing of web expansions – pdfs and website content that you could add to your game, stuff that came from the Official Source and was generally made to be safe enough to include in any game, and that is where we got the Vestige that on its own takes the Binder from ‘incredibly fair, even a bit weak’ to the upper tiers of power, brushing in the shadow of the wizard and cleric.

And bonus, that Vestige is spooky.

The actual text of the Vestige of Zceryll, from Wizards’ own web expansion, is pretty simple:

Zceryll was a mortal sorceress who communed with alien powers from the far realm. She became obsessed with immortality, seeking out the alien beings in the hopes of learning their eternal secrets. When she died, she became a hideously twisted vestige, forever seeking to re-enter the Realms via numerous artifacts she dispersed across the world. Zceryll grants you the ability to transform your body and mind into an alien form, granting you telepathy, resistance to effects related to insanity, the ability to summon pseudonatural creatures, and the power to unleash bolts of pure madness.

Okay, how is it broken? What’s it do that’s so good, power-wise? Normally when you talk about character power, you can usually point to something as a general rule – like you can point to the wizards’ spell list and that’ll explain itself. In Zceryll’s case, what you get when you channel this Vestige is:

Summon Alien: You can summon any creature from the summon monster list that a sorcerer of your level could summon. Any creature you summon with this ability gains the pseudonatural template. Thus, at 10th level you could summon any creature from the summon monster I-V list. When you reach 14th level, you can summon any creature from the summon monster I-VII list. You can only summon creatures that can be affected by the pseudonatural template. Once you have used this ability, you cannot do so again for 5 rounds.

Let’s simplify that: You can use Summon Monster (Half Your Level) every five turns at will. DMs may make you spend the action to do it, in out-of-combat ways, but at will summons is incredibly strong, not because you can flood the battlefield, but because summons are combat capable creatures that in many cases can cast spells. So every utility power available to any monster on the summon list is available to you, but in a spooky way. Need something big moved? Summon something big and stronk. Need to get out of a cage? Summon something that can move through walls. Need to wreck shop on the battlefield? Well at every tier, there’s a piece of cannonfodder you can dump on the battlefield and then not have to spend actions commanding. If your summon runs out of healing magic, you can just summon another one and get it to do the healing magic. If your summon is beat up, you can summon another one and get that to replace the other. It is one of the most startlingly effective spell families to have at-will access to, and the only real drawback for the Binder is that it’s a bit slow.

The actual theme of Zceryll is a weird one, and it bums me out a little that the Binder is a class ostensibly built around this variety of flavour choices, when every powerful Binder is going to be hard on Zceryll and the skills required to be good at managing Zceryll. It’s also frustrating because the name Zceryll is a person’s name first; the odd, hard to express mangled language of the name isn’t a language from outside reality – it’s someone’s name, a weird name, but it’s just… a weird name. It speaks of a culture that’s not common to you now, but Zceryll is still just a person, it’s not an extrusion of a reality where they don’t have vowel sounds.

I feel this is a dropped ball with Zceryll. At its root, it wants to be Lovecraftian; the powers are from the far realms, it’s about a refugee of our reality trying hard to get back in, it’s got this sort of lurking threat to it, and it shows you tearing reality open and letting in things that look like stuff you already know but which are definitely not, while you cast literal bolts of madness from your hand... and then disappointingly, it’s just… a wizard, like you, who drank of the outside.

My advice, if you’re going to use Zceryll in your game worlds? Soak in the eerie. Don’t say it was a wizard who started out researching the far realm. Make Zceryll something not someone.

How To Be: Tier Halibel (In 4e D&D)

In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
  • This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritive but as a creative exercise
  • While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
  • The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic

When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.

This month, we’re going to dive into the world of the dead and look to the Queen of Hueco Mundo by the most powerful shounen anime right, the right of default, the underboob to Matsumoto’s cleavage well, Tier Harribel.

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4e D&D: Marks Are Great

A common criticism of 4th Edition D&D is that at its root, it was good at combat, and therefore, everything in the game, is in service of those combat rules. One example given, is that in 4th edition D&D, there’s the mark system, which turns any kind of player choices manipulating enemy behaviour is turned into a simple reliable mechanic and the player doesn’t need to think about it to engage it, and that this is bad.

This is of course, a stupid position because I introduced it up front so I could get you on my side with a comical twist. Of course I think marks are good, and that’s in part because I think the first half of that argument is kinda a bad faith argument. If you think 4th edition D&D is only combat mechanics, it tends to suggest you haven’t really cracked the books. I could talk about how the nature of the game is that good guides for the creation of narrative don’t need lots of space, and convenient reference text for combat entities does, and we’re back at talking about rainbow tables and storage versus process, but whatever.

The mark system in 4th edition D&D is a blatantly tactical gameplay mechanic.

And I love it.

If you’re not familiar, marks are a system that all the characters with the classification ‘defender’ – you might know it as ‘tank’ or ‘blocker’ or ‘guardian’ – get some ability or other that lets them impose the status of marked on enemies. Marks have a few standard rules; specifically, when you have the marked status, the person who did mark you matters. When you’re marked, you suffer a -2 penalty to attack rolls on attacks that do not include the thing marking you. That’s it, at base.

This system is implemented in a lot of different ways; Wardens can mark everyone around them as a free action, but they have to choose when in their turn they do it, which can make for some tactical choices about where and how you position yourself. Fighters mark everyone they attack, whether or not they hit, which means they care about doing lots of incidental attacks, and view area effect or multi-target attacks as a form of control. Paladins have two different marks – one which happens on specific attacks, and one which requires them to remain near the subject. There are more of course, but just these three examples present the mark as a tool where the player can treat the battlefield in terms of their impact on it; monsters have a reason to want to avoid them, and they have a way of controlling monster behaviour. Marks don’t stack – the most recent mark over-writes the other ones.

It’s not just the defenders who can use marks themselves – because it’s a standard mechanic, you can then have other characters use them. For example, you can make a fragile character get a risky power that marks an enemy, which means that suddenly, you’re a high priority target and it makes it harder for the tank to keep that enemy on them. Another option is a support character who can make another character mark something – so you could play a psion, that says ‘hey, enemy, you are now marked by the tank.’ These are interesting options. And you can even use it on enemies – Sometimes a skeleton warrior may have the rules text ‘Deals 1d8+5 damage, and the target is marked.’ And that right there is a simple mechanic that suggests that the enemy is doing what it can to try and force you to focus on it.

Now why are they considered bad?

The idea seems to be that if marks just work, players don’t have to work to roleplay their characters being visibly fearsome or expressing themselves in the world around them so the DM will make monsters behave in a way players want to manipulate. That’s something that sounds compelling if you are, like me, an amazing roleplayer who’s great at commanding attention and capable of convincing DMs. But there are lots of players who want to play a showy, ostentatious asshole of a tank who isn’t actually that great at one-liners or showy, ostentatious violence in description.

This is a false idea, in my opinion. The whole point of Marks as a system is that it’s designed to make something in the game that should work work reliably, rather than make it prone to the whims of the player. It’s not as interesting if your character can or can’t maintain enemy attention based on your ability to say something rude or shocking or clever in another language, but it is interesting if you’re able to make choices about where you stand and what targets you care about.

It’s also something about being in fights. If you’ve never been in a fight, it might surprise you to know that there are ways to fight that make ‘disengaging’ from the fight actually hard, and it’s not because you can make fun of people, it’s because of stances and reach and position.

I think Marks are great, and part of why they’re great is because they reduce the friction of what the game play is directing to not determine whether or not a thing can happen, but rather the game rules dictate what will happen, and it’s up to you, the player, to explain how it happens.

3.5 Memories: Tome of Magic

Magic in D&D is…

Is…

Look.

Let’s try and be nice.

Magic in D&D, generally, is designed mechanics first. Spells are things that players do, and so, spells are designed to be player-facing, player-activated. They’re things that make sense when players have access to them, that follow predictable rules, and that players can coherently treat as game options. Sometimes those game options are a bit vague, with ideas like charm person that kind of try to dance around what they’re doing, and sometimes they’re extremely specific in terms of how much damage they’re doing and to what. There are tables.

In 2ed, there was a book called the Tome of Magic that wanted to present advanced spellcasting rules, and in 3.5, as part of the eternal experimentation in getting money out of players (but also because hey, throw stuff at the wall), they released a new version. Rather than just More Spells, though, the Tome of Magic tried to present three alternative magic systems for you to weave into your game. They were treated as old and mysterious magic systems, systems that were by definition, a mystery to the rest of the magical schools, something that didn’t exist already.

They were also bad.

They were in fact, abysmally bad.

Now, if you’re of the old-school 3.5 playing, dig-through-the-paperwork type, you’re probably thinking but Zceryll – and yes. Yes, that’s a thing, a web expansion to one class that makes one of them pretty strong once they hit level 10. Okay, cool. That’s not in this book.

And what’s in the book? There’s three types of magic presented, each with their own framing and page templates; Vestige magic, Shadow magic, and Truename magic. Vestige magic is kind of like picking a kit of abilities and turning them on each day, with a skill check to see if you get a convenient or inconvenient version. Shadow magic is a magical system that wants to try and capture more of the ‘just do it’ magical style, rather than the thinky-learny-study-y magic of a wizard. It’s a lot like the Warlock, but more goth. Then there’s Truename magic.

None of these systems are good; the Binder is capable of doing the job of a solid rogue-like character, who can maybe mode switch a few times a day from rogue-type to fighter type or pinch healer. It’s really quite neat, and if you’re playing in a game where Zceryll is allowed (because Zceryll is quite strong), you can probably get this one out there to hang in the big leagues, if you don’t mind being the kind of player who comes to the table with a stack of reference documents. Imagine a swiss army knife with forty five attachments. Shadow Magic, on the other hand, wants to turn spellcasting into a talent tree, and the character you get out of it is a very weak spellcaster who’s even more limited than a sorcerer. Basically, the Shadowcaster wants to be an alternate wizard, but it’s kind of more like a Bard for non-combatants, or a Warlock for people afraid of being overpowered.

And there’s the Truenamer.

The idea at the heart of Tome of Magic‘s three different magic systems is to introduce some form of magical system that relates to the existing skill system, something that had been attempted with melee weapons in other supplemental works. This is something to bear in mind as it relates to Magic Month – when you tie your magic system to a skill system, you imply that getting better at magic is a process of practicing. That’s something D&D tends to not do, accidentally or otherwise, because most of the time, you get better at magic by levelling up, which is pretty vague, and often means that you improve at casting Rope Trick by killing lots of goblins. There’s a disconnect.

Binders use a skill check to commune with their vestiges. Vestiges that are harder to commune with will exert influence over you, often imposing on you particularly difficult limitations, like limiting the number of rounds you can partake in combat, or making you obey characters who are prettier than you. Also you can possibly grow sick-ass rams horns and headbutt people while you swing your sword.

Shadowcasters don’t relate to skills much. They also try to make their magical powers the result of practice; as you level up, your easiest magic tricks get easier and easier, until they’re eventually supernatural abilities you can use at will, which would be nice, if they weren’t comparing poorly to a fighter’s bow. Still, that’s something.

Thennnnn

Okay.

Time to pull off the bandaid.

The Truenamer is an incomplete class.

The Truenamer has spells (“Utterances”) that are formatted inconsistantly, meaning that some of them seem to literally not work as printed. It’s designed so that the first spell you cast each day is the easiest, and therefore, every time you use spells after it, it gets harder. It works by rolling skill checks to use your spells, and your spells are weaker versions of things that the other classes get at earlier levels, and more conveniently. There’s a lot of talk about the Truenamer as ‘the worst class of 3rd edition’ and I personally think that’s valid when you take into account that a player who intuitively takes to this class and tries to make it work the way it looks like it wants to work is going to have a very hard time doing the things the class suggests you want to do.

This is a class for whom one of your top tier feats is skill focus. This is a class that at level 20 can turn your Truenamer into Batman provided the one trick Batman wanted to do is summon fifteen hundred solars. The character gets to be both Angel Summoner and BMX Bandit.

The Tome Of Magic is trying to do some interesting things. It even gets to stumble, ass-backwards, into doing some broken stuff. It’s definitely not a forgotten jewel of 3.5, and in a way, it shows that being three mini-books jammed into one skin, that experimentation is valuable, but so is proper practice.

How To Be: Sumireko Usami (In 4e D&D)

In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
  • This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritive but as a creative exercise
  • While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
  • The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic

When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.

This month, we’re going to become a god damned Touhou.

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4e: Rites and Rituals

A complaint about 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons was the ‘loss’ of a bunch of utility magic like Rope Trick and Leomund’s Hut. Typically, I hear it framed as the wizard specifically lost something by having its powers reduced to just the ability to fire off combat magic, and that’s kind of fair; when a character has a lot of utility effects in 3rd edition, if they were all gone and left only the combat stuff behind in 4th edition, it’d definitely be a limitation in scope.

The problem of course is that wizards lost none of their utility nonsense, and that utility nonsense was made more available to more characters, because if it wasn’t a combat effect, it was folded into the space of rituals.

Rituals are basically spells, but they’re spells that are too complicated and time consuming to perform in combat, and give you a kind of effect that the game doesn’t want you to just dump anywhere, at any time, for free. This was one of the problems with 3rd edition magical effects; some of them made major, common impediments to plots into trivial actions that a player character could renewably blast through – things like Speak to Dead and Teleport Without Error aren’t utility effects for combat, but are just plot-busters.

In 4e, all of these utility effects are created not as magical items that let you do the utility effects (as many of them became in 3rd, with scrolls and wands occupying the ‘nice but rarely needed’ spell slots), but rather as a straight up exchange for something your character can do, with the right components and a book. It’s great, honestly, since back in 3rd edition, as builds evolved over time, players would eventually just get in the habit of keeping cash on hand to pay the local cleric or wizard or whatever to cast the spell they needed for whatever inconvenient bullshit they were dealing with.

How do they work?

Basically, you can either buy a ritual scroll, which is a one-off, purchaseable version that needs no expertise. You need the effect once and you don’t imagine you’ll have value out of getting it regularly, so you buy the ritual scroll and go for it. Anyone can do that.

But if you want to do the effect multiple times, it’s cheaper (long term) to take the Ritual Caster feat, and transcribe that scroll into your ritual book. That means it’s mastered. And when it’s mastered, you can do it any time you want by expending components.

Okay, okay, components, that’s the next thing, what’s that mean. Well, there’s a generic purchaseable thing called ‘components’ for each skill. You spend gold on buying a quantity of Components, and then you use those components to do the rituals when you need to.

This turns these things into an expendable resource, something you can’t just overuse to solve every problem, but as you level up, they become more affordable, and you start being able to spend a small quantity of this resource on making some problems go away. Knock costs 35 gp and a healing surge – meaning that at the low level, the gold is a serious cost, at high level the healing surge is. But it also means that you can play a character who spends, by mid level, spare change on the magical effects that, in 3rd edition, you’d never use because to use them would involve spending a spell slot – something that’s really valuable.

Plus, as with a lot of things in 4th edition, this opens up a lot of character options. Let’s say you want to play a fighter who’s learned a trick or two from mages. Then you can take the Ritual Caster feat – in combat, you’re still a knuckle-dusting badass who uses swords and axes and shields and whatnot, you didn’t become a wizard – but now you know how to magically undo a lock, or create an illusion. Same thing with a rogue, who can complement their thievery with teleportation rituals!

There’s also the Martial Practices system, which adds Ritual Like Effects to the non-magical characters – stuff that definitely should take some time and effort to do, but shouldn’t need to be done by a wizard in a pointy hat.

I really like the ritual system! It’s one of those super neat components of 4th Edition that’s been seemingly rendered invisible in a sea of bad faith arguments, and that’s a damn shame.

How To Be: Chandra Nalaar (In 4e D&D)

In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
  • This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritive but as a creative exercise
  • While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
  • The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic

When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.

This month, we’re going to talk about the hottest of Pansexual Messes, Chandra Nalaar and you may be asking me ‘well why didn’t you do that during Pride Month?’ and the answer is because Wizards have not been exactly well behaved on this issue and I’m not about to do their marketing work for them just this moment thank you bloody much. Instead we’re going to talk about Chandra on her own time, thank you very much.

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4e: The Dragonborn

You may remember a while ago I talked about how, typically, in fantasy stories, dragons are used to represent governments. This idea isn’t like, hard codified facts or anything, it’s just a way to look at dragons and it can make some sense of how they behave when they’re used in stories. The thing is, that’s a sort of high-up view of what dragons are used for, and the ways we treat dragons because it’s the way we learned to treat dragons; they are, essentially, governments that you can interact with on an individual, personal level, which means that they can be petty and cruel and vain in ways that only involve changing one mind to fix or they can be benevolent and kind in the ways that an individual making reasonable judgments can.

But what if dragons were not only expressed in these forms, what if the role of the dragon in a story being a person means it is something that people can observe, can admire, can disconnect from its duties and the scope of its powers, and consider as a person that can be swayed, can be hungry, can have material needs, can-

Look, I’m circling around the question of whether or not Dragons Doink.

Now of course Dragons doink. In almost every single modern D&D style story, Dragons are not byproducts of ethereal reproduction, or spiritual cell splitting, or even magical summoning but in our modern conception, instead, absolutely and clearly about dragons that frick, and who wouldn’t want that, as a way to get baby dragons? They follow eggs, then that makes sense, and the fact it feels like it makes sense is more important than whether or not it makes sense.

And if dragons can doink…

Dragons can doink people.

And dragons can have kids with people.

Look, I’m not saying that 100% of all expressions of the Dragonborn through their history in D&D, stems from dragonfrickers, and people who associate with dragonfrickers, but it’s a pretty simple and fundamental thought: What if a dragon, but a badass or cool or pretty looking person who isn’t so powerful they shake the world? Is that a reasonable want to be?

The Dragonborn were not a new creation for 4th edition; I suspect they existed in 2nd edition as a few scattered NPCs, or maybe something from Parliament of Wyrms but damned if I’m going back that far to research them. They were given prominent showing and referred to as ‘new’ in 3.5’s Races of the Dragon, a stunningly unnecessary book about many varieties of Dragonfrickers; particularly, in this case, the kobold and the dragonborn, who at the time looked really strong, overpowered even. There were also… another… one, but this isn’t me going in on that book (and I will, don’t worry), it’s going in on the 4e race. Essential backgrounder, you know, as far as one can be essential when discussing the significance and importance of a completely fictional race of dragon-furries (scalies, I’m sure you’re correcting me in your head) for Dungeons And Dragons.

The dragonborn, that book said, were members of different cultures that were just the bestest friends of Bahamut, who, upon testing their moral character and deciding on their significance as servants, proceeded to wrap them in an egg that they then broke out of in a big sprawling mess of goo.

Not joking.

Dragonification (Giving).

This idea was used to get the Dragonborn into D&D settings that didn’t have it at that stage, and even let players openly turn their existing, established, high-level mid-campaign characters into these cool scaly bastards, because D&D is like a really weird, badly maintained MMO with a need for backdoor explanations for why things even are, but it wasn’t necessary for 4th Edition D&D that launched from the jump with Dragonborn in it.

The explanation for the Dragonborn provided there was that they were a race that was related to some ancient Dragon and… they had an empire that was almost a worldwide dominion, but didn’t wind up that way. This you may recognise as echoing the story of the Tieflings, who had a global empire, that they then wrecked in their hubris. Personally, I don’t like reusing this story beat, but the default canon explanation for the origin of the Dragonborn is that they’re basically either Tieflings Two Point Oh (and I have a great fondness for Tieflings as they currently are), or they’re stuck with being Bahamut or Io’s Special Favourite Mousketeers, and well, at least in default D&D settings, AGAB, and Bahamut in particular is a narc’s narc.

There’s also the option that they were made by some other, mysterious force, that they are a created people, possible for purposes of war, but there’s also the Warforged, who exist in the same space, and present a lot of interesting questions, meaning that Dragonborn run the risk of being a Less Interesting Warforged.

What then for the poor Dragonborn?

The thing with these fangaling wingalings is that they’re absolutely something you work backwards to get. It isn’t that the setting has this great big empty space where you need to pour some sort of excitingly interesting dragon-like culture, we have that already, it’s called dragons. It’s not like dragons even necessarily imply the existence of dragonborn – dragons are big, slow, ancient and they still get whole cities built to their glory. But if you want a person who looks like a dragon and still wants to run around doin’ an adventure, then dragonborns fill that spot, and you have to then back-fill what they’re for.

In 4th Edition, we add an extra wrinkle to this exchange because the Dragonborn is also extremely strong and extremely well-supported, meaning that it’s very likely that players who don’t necessarily feel interested in being a Totally Hot Dragon Person are nonetheless going to find themselves drawn into that space as well.

The biggest challenge for me is finding something for Dragonborn to be about that isn’t just duplicating another useful cultural space. You can go with them as being inheritors of an empire, frustrated by their nearly-attained but never-quite global domination, but empires are assholes and when you’re dealing with dragons you already have the uphill struggle of dealing with a person who behaves like an empire.

What, the question is, do I want Dragonborn to be for?

Because right now?

They’re for furries.

That’s it.

That’s a good enough reason, no lies – but I’d like to be able to show the friends who are looking for that, that in my setting, my vision of Dragonborn lets them be the kind of characters they want to be; that they are not saddled with trauma and tragedy, nor does my world see them as inherently conquering jerkholes.

Now, the solution for Cobrin’Seil, my setting, is still something I’m working on. I’m thinking about where to go with it, but I also think it’s important to recognise the parameters of the question. If there’s a problem, it’s worth trying to get my arms around.

 

3.0 D&D : The Spelldancer

In my mind, I see D&D editions as a map of the same general world, scarred about with the history it lives; because no edition is really gone, and the game rules still exist and are still played (yes, even right now), it isn’t correct to see them in terms of a linear flow of time as much as regions of related space. Some are earlier, were founded before, but they are all here.

When I think of them this way, though, they take on their own character. Basic D&D seems more bucolic, smaller and older, and a space made up of its own adventures. Characters are all reasonably similar to one another, and perhaps the entirety of what Basic D&D is can fit in one valley somewhere. The First Edition is a place of broken empires, and old world lore, a place where the reality itself doesn’t quite make sense, and people must exist and coexist with the strange storybookness of how buildings stand and fall. Second edition is vast, an enormous sprawling empire of nation states scattered about, with whole nations and planes built out underneath it, subjugated and commanded even as they utter their strange national shibboleth of don’t ask about thaco.

I do not know these places, I do not know these people. I have but passed through their lands.

Then there come the spaces I know.

Fourth Edition is a nation of stout borders; bigger than it should be, perhaps, but still reasonable. It did not overstretch its means, there are no strange, raggedy places where it tried to build where it could not. What lives there makes some sense; even the most powerful and terrible of its people are still recognisable as people. They do not stand apart from one another as strange and alien. There are the Essentials places, where the rules are smaller and simpler, the buildings boxier, but broadly, it is a kingdom where the roads all run the right way and there’s no eldritch horrors lurking under the bed.

But 3.5 is right next door, and it spills out and around like a sinuous, corrupted beast. The lines of where it ends and begins are fuzzy. There’s a little extradimensional space there, between it and 3.0, where there’s a book called Ultramodern Firearms that would be disturbing if it wasn’t just really bad. There are monsters in these spaces, creatures that wreck the world just by their breathing, things where the alchemy of character construction come together and the water runs black after them. If you know them, you know them, nonsense like Punpun and the pile of Warforged cultists. Things that could hypothetically be done. Power that needed arcane rituals to make happen.

But there’s worse.

What I need you to understand is what I’m going to tell you about now is a 3.0 character option that’s probably about as broken as you can get and you can get it accidentally.

Oh yes.

We’re going to talk about the Spelldancer.

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How To Be: A Squid Maid (In 4E D&D)

In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
  • This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritive but as a creative exercise
  • While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
  • The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic

When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.

And now, it’s Pride Month! Since I haven’t done one of these on a single straight character yet (if you believe my fanfics), I had to do something a bit special and out of the ordinary, and so, let’s do something that’s extremely culturally important.

That’s right. It’s Squid Maids time.

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When D&D Got Horny

Hey friends, have you seen Discourse on D&D lately, that imply that the blessed and sainted arrival of Gay People into D&D’s player space has brought with it this blissful enlightened period where player characters want to try seducing everything in sight, and how hilariously, entire encounters with major boss monsters are interrupted by bards rolling to seduce. The Monster Manual is Basically Tinder, the joke runs, which

Look, I’m old, I guess? In D&D terms, I’m old. I played some 2nd edition online, I played 3rd edition and 3.5, I played 4th edition, and then the transition from 4th to 5th revolted me and I instead opted to stay happily in my older generation of an edition I personally think of as ‘superior,’ just like the old beardie dude who only played Basic while I was looking for people to talk about 3rd edition with. And that means that for me, it feels like there are these people who have recently got into D&D because they started being alive after I started playing D&D, and they want to talk authoritatively about the way the game works in general, and they say these

things.

Things that I want to holler at them about because you darn kids.

I’m not getting off to a good start.

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Hunters Dream – Building Building Encounters

This is more work on Hunter’s Dream, a 4th Edition D&D-compatible mod made to enable a Bloodborne style of game, where players take on the role of hunters, who have to first research their prey before going out to the tactical combat stage of things where players get to have cool fights with werewolves and whatnot.

The whole point of using 4th Edition D&D to form the basis of Hunter’s Dream is that it’s a comprehensive combat engine, with interesting tactical choices, and a philosophy of player engagement tha rewards tactical attention to detail. It’s a good combat engine, it does a lot of stuff I like. This includes things like the level of control players have over enemy movement, the way player powers are reliable, and the way players have clear information about the way their powers are meant to work. There’s not a lot of nilbog-style ‘surprise, idiot‘ stuff in 4e D&D, and not as much Grick-style ‘Why won’t this thing die’ nonsense you saw in 3.5.

That means that in my mind at least, a lot of Hunters Dreams games are going to be made up of players doing investigatory work, connecting to their community, digging into information, doing tasks to build tools, and eventually deducing things like nests or sites, solving murder mysteries or finding themselves trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then, rather than ‘exploring a dungeon’ combats break out as short sequences of combat, comparable in scope to Dungeon Delve encounters.

How then, do I make that happen?

Here’s where unbelievably, you might be surprised, my brain goes not to tools, but to page counts. Ostensibly, I’d like for Hunters Dream to be a book, distributed to users. I’d like it to have art in it, and be professionally edited, and I’d like maybe, maybe, for it to be printable, in a way people can have in their own homes.

I’d also like it if the game was contained. I like distributing games in contained ways – I don’t like telling people they need expansions to make a game work. That means that anything I do for games, I tend to think in terms of a minimal expenditure for the consumer. If that’s how I’m thinking, then the possible scope of the book – and cost of it – become an important factor to consider.

Yeah, even at this point!

One of the big complaints about 4th Edition D&D is book bloat. If you collected 4e, even if you weren’t buying a lot, you might still have dozens of hardback books, and there are probably dozens more. It’s one complaint about the game’s model that people bring up that I do think is genuinely worth improvement. There’s a cousin complaint about how D&D ‘fools’ people into spending money on three books, instead of just buying one, which…

Indie friends.

Please.

Stop.

Anyway, if you need two or three books to run Hunter’s Dream, then the game just as a matter of necessity is harder to run. You need to flip between different books to get the game going, and that’s not great. On the other hand it isn’t like I think Hunter’s Dream can replace your Player’s Handbook and Adventurer’s Guide, per se? Because those books have all sorts of other stuff in them, like numerous classes and gear. If I try to make Hunter’s Dream into a one-stop shop for all the stuff you need to play, the book will be enormous, and expensive to make, and probably be too cumbersome to easily use for players who are interested in it. Twenty bucks on your own Player’s Handbook is a different kind of entry point than a hundred dollars on a book you’re largely not going to need.

I’ve said that games are a machine that creates a story. Well, an RPG system is a machine that creates a machine that creates a story. With that in mind, and I am literally reasoning this out as I write this, I think the step before designing encounters for Hunter’s Dream is to get my head around how the design for encounters should even be approached.

Specifically, as much as I’d like to present in Hunter’s Dream a set of encounters and monsters so you can select the monsters for an encounter easily and quickly, that eats up page space, and that page space eats up a lot of volume that players need for things, and the thing is, people who run this edition of D&D can get themselves monster resources in another way. That is really rough, too, because it means that if you got into Hunter’s Dream and it was self-contained, there’s that wealth of content out there that you may have that I’d be telling you to not look at because I personally hadn’t vetted it.

With that in mind, I think then, that the encounter design in hunter’s Dream needs to have new guidelines and new ways to design thematics and things like ongoing mechanics for specific monsters that are campaign specific, but the fundamental systems that underpin the thing need to be about telling you how to crack open your Monster Manual rather than telling you to throw it away. I need to put the top hats on the werewolves, I don’t need to reinvent the werewolf.

How To Be: Gardevoir (In 4E D&D)

In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
  • This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritive but as a creative exercise
  • While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
  • The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic

When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.

And now this time, because you on the Twitters voted for it (whether or not you realised you were voting for it specifically), this month’s choice is the elegant mind dancer Pokemon, Gardevoir.

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4e Power Sources

Back in the olden days of Fourth Edition, we would cast our minds back to the even oldener days of Third Edition and the slightly less oldener days of Third Point Fifth Edition, all of which predates Fifth Edition, about which, I want to underscore, and reiterate, because I keep having to do this, I know nothing and do not care to know anything. Anyway, back in third edition, there were these terms for magic – arcane and divine. The rules around these mechanics were the kind of thing you’d look up once, then never need to remember again because they only mattered for setting some basic rules. The basic rules being that divine spells didn’t incur ‘arcane spell failure’ and arcane spells did. You had to know whether you did arcane spells or divine spells, but you didn’t really need to know much more about it than that.

There were some splats, some supplemental rules that sought to make the ‘martial’ type a thing, there was some vague wuffling about shadow powers and even once, an entire splatbook about introducing different types of magic to the game that were all, in their own way, terrible, and even involved just being arcane and divine in places, as the code that the game ran on really, really wanted a reference point for that information.

Fourth edition, though, looked at this sort of ‘power source’ idea and asked the question: what if we actually used this game flag for something?

So we got, in the first book, the power sources Arcane, Martial, and Divine. Later books introduced Psionic and Primal, and I guess Shadow exists, somewhere, over there. We don’t talk about Shadow, not here, and not in the Sonic fandom.

Now, hand to my heart, if you go looking in 4th edition for a power or ability that says something like ‘when an opponent attacks you with an arcane spell, do a thing,’ I don’t think you’ll find anything but I’m not entirely sure. They did try some experimental stuff in places in that game. But broadly speaking, you do not find things that reference power sources in the way that they were referenced back in 3.5 D&D! There was no armour attribute that only mattered to arcane characters (and which almost every arcane character class had some way around god damnit 3.5).

Instead, power sources in 4th edition were used in two ways:

  • To give the different classes with the same power source a linked mechanical feel
  • To give characters with a specific style multiple different mechanical opportunities

This may sound like not much, but it’s a hugely useful part of the game and it isn’t something you need to care about. As a designer, being able to say ‘primal characters tend to get these special effects’ is handy set of tools. As a DM, knowing that you have (for example), a group with Primal and Martial characters suggests to you that you’re not likely to have big spread AOEs or super-flexible powers like if you were dealing with Arcane characters. Martial characters care a lot about weapons and combat advantage, Arcane characters tend to have flexible special abilities, Divine characters tend to have heavier armour options, Primal characters tend to have more hit points and Psionic characters get power points.

And nobody cares about Shadow.

You may want to build your character, knowing you want a Ranger and that’s it, oh kay, so much, no problem at all. But if you don’t approach the class system that way, 4th edition’s power sources are here for you. Let’s say you conceive of a character who’s a bit rough around the edges, lives in the woods, tracks their own food and knows how to win a fight, and maybe has a pet. In 3rd edition, you have two options: the Ranger and the Druid. The ranger is a melee damage dealer (or you can try range if you want to be bad) and the druid is … ostensibly, a full spellcaster, and in actuality, brokenly powerful all singing all dancing shitting god-king of numbers mountain. But that’s it, that’s your options; a heavy caster, and a light caster who stabs things. Fox has said that I should add the Barbarian and I am even though I definitely wouldn’t if she didn’t.

But in 4th edition, if you wanted to play that same character, the woodsy outdoor type, you could play a melee damage dealer (ranger), a ranged controller (hunter), a shapeshifting monster person controller (druid), a shapeshifting monster person with a weapon tank (warden), a summoner with healer ghosts (shaman), an angry person with a weapon who hits people real hard (barbarian) and even another, different kind of ranged controller (the seeker, which we don’t talk about). They’ll have unified feels – they’ll all be nature-y, they’ll have nature-skills, they’ll work well for the story space you want to put them, but they’ll all be different mechanical choices with the same thematic space. This matters a lot, because suddenly, players can make choices that are about what they want a character to feel like without needing a super-refined grasp on a thousand rule options to make a build work (like back in 3.5).

See also, the divine. If you wanted to be a religiously chosen holy crusader type in 3.5, your options were Paladin and Cleric (which was also broken). That is, a pair of melee, heavily armoured combatants, who usually wore a shield and cast spells at the direct behest of a god, with some smiteyness thrown in. In terms of differences in style, the cleric didn’t have a horse and the paladin didn’t get to be strong enough to piss in god’s ear. But in 4th edition, if you want to play that same divine, holy crusader type, you have clerics, paladins, avengers, invokers, runepriests and blackguards (who can join the Seeker and Shadow).

These options are all kind of just washing over you at this point, I know, but this is a really important bit of design technology. Unifying thematic space gives players more room to make their own thematic choices. If there’s one way to be something in your world, any player who wants to be that thing can only be that thing.

Power Sources are one of many things in 4th edition D&D that made the game better, and part of what makes them exceptional design technology is that if you didn’t care you never had to notice the bloody things at all.

Power Word: Kill

Okay, okay, hold up, this one might be a walk of an intro.

Do you know the story of Ananias and Saphira? It’s a Biblical story, a story that gets loved by grifting preachers and people who want to scare the shit out of kids. During the early days of the church in the book of Acts, when the church was going full communist, there’s this little cautionary story about Ananias and Saphira, a couple that sold everything they had, gave most of the money to Peter to build the church, and held some of it back.

When they brought the money to Peter, he looked at them, asked them if this was all the money, they said yes, and Peter said ‘no it’s not,’ and they died.

Now, I’m simplifying the story (it’s done in two incidents, there’s talk about whether it’s about lying or it’s about greed, but whatever, it’s Christian myth, it sucks ass and none of these people existed), but this is a story that sometimes gets brought up with a giggle pointing out that this would make Peter a level 17 wizard, minimum, or a cleric with the war domain, because this was a Biblical appearance of the spell Power Word: Kill.

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How To Be: Corvo Attano (In 4E D&D)

In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines are as follows:

  • This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
  • This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritive but as a creative exercise
  • While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
  • The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic

When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.

Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.

This time, we’re going to try and capture the feeling of the Knight Protector of the Empress of Dunwall woops oh no it’s all gone wrong, Corvo Attano.

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The Church Knights of the Eresh Protectorates

Once again I’m returning to run games in my Cobrin’Seil D&D setting. It’s just a setting, there’s no high romance to it, I don’t have an elevator pitch to it that’ll let you go ‘oh yeah, dang, I want to be here.’ It’s just a place with a bunch of stuff I like in it, monsters for friends to fight, Trade Cartels to attack, bandits to retaliate against, at least one or two churches to have corrupt villains come out of, all that stuff.

In this setting, though, there are Church Knights, and I’ve found more than anything else in a tabletop game book, I get excited about factions. Factions are something that you can belong to, an organisation with a perspective and an idea to them, and it can come with competing needs and ways to shape yourself in response to an identity.

So I’m going to share a bit of my setting. I’m going to share with you the Church Knights of the Eresh Protectorates.

concept art from Dark Souls

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