The world is a weird place right now. Toilet paper is flying off the shelves faster than those weird anthropomorphic bears can make it, most businesses are closed, and we have to stay at least six feet away from everyone. While it may seem trivial, those of us who game in the physical realm (tabletop roleplaying games, wargames, board games) can find our main pastimes taken away from us due to the requirement to “shelter in place” and “practice social distancing.” While my wife and I can continue to play our normal one-on-one roleplaying games, board games, and wargames, many people are not lucky enough to have a live-in gaming partner. Having your main hobby taken away from you is a devastating experience, but we are all lucky enough to live in an age where technology is abundant and gaming resources are better than they’ve ever been to facilitate distance play. Today I’ll briefly summarize my own experiences with online gaming and suggestions for your own groups to try to provide some hope and help to those of you who may be suffering from gaming withdrawal, and tips if you’re starting out.
My Edge of the Empire group is primarily an online game; we have had only 2 in-person sessions since we started in March of 2018. Our group is scattered across the country as we moved after high school and college, so online play is the only way we can consistently get together to roll some dice. We use a variety of different tools simultaneously to make the game a success. For the primary gaming “table,” we use Roll20. The debate over which is better (Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds) is well-documented all over the internet, but I like Roll20 mainly for the ability to use all of its essential features free of charge, and its ease of manipulation. It never takes me long to upload and prepare maps and tokens for encounters, and the system is easy to use for GMs and players alike. Fantasy Grounds is also a great system I’m sure, but I have no experience in using it. Roll20 has a built-in dice roller which covers all of the different numeric dice for games from D&D to Pathfinder to Call of Cthulhu, including a “GM roll mode” for those behind-the-screen rolls, but what it does not have (at least it didn’t when we started) was a “custom EOTE” dice roller. Instead, we use Star Wars RPG Dice Roller , a fantastic Fantasy Flight RPG dice roller which allows you to create a room where the dice are rolled. Given the open nature of the system’s dice rolls, this room works perfectly, and again is easy to use. Finally, for our video and audio, we use Google Hangouts, again because of quality and ease of use; we’ve found Roll20’s video and audio system to be finnicky and unreliable. In the balance, it requires us to have split-screens and multiple windows open, but it has worked well for us for two years and we don’t see any need to change it now.
For GMs and DMs out there, finding maps and tokens for an online game after only playing on the tabletop can be a daunting experience. I’ve found that Pinterest is the most abundant source or online maps and character art to be used for tokens on the internet. There are repositories, forums, and the like out there as well, but time and again I find myself returning to Pinterest, not only for the wealth of content, but also the quality of its “similar items” section below each map or piece of art. I’ve spent hours at a time going down rabbit holes of “similar items” and come out with a wealth of maps and art, both for current games as well as inspiration for future games. Here are some places to start if you’ve never jumped into Pinterest: Battle Maps , Character Art , Background Art . For the maps, on Roll20, you simply need to upload the map to your image archive on the website, drag and drop it into the background layer, and then adjust the scale to fit your needs. For pre-gridded maps, I recommend counting the dimensions of the map beforehand and then adjusting the Roll20 page size to the correct number of squares; then it’s a simple “pull to the edge” map resize and the grids will align correctly.
Compared with RPGs, wargames may seem like a tough proposition to do online, especially given that half (or more probably) of the wargaming hobby is putting together and painting your armies. While I hesitate to recommend anything you need to pay for, Tabletop Simulator is nonetheless the best option for online wargaming I’ve found, and is comparatively cheap for what you get: $19.99, which isn’t even the cost of a single box of troops for most wargames. Once you pay for the base simulator, the modding community has created incredible add-ons that you can download for free to play your favorite wargames. There are robust architectures for Warhammer and 40k , Bolt Action , Star Wars Legion , X-Wing , Infinity , and many others. There are dice rollers, rulers, and datacards included in many of the mods, making the transition easier. The physics of the game board can be wonky sometimes, but once you get the hang of grouping, selecting, and moving your digital minis around, the game can be almost as fun as playing on the real table, and faster (usually). A great advantage of using Tabletop Simulator to play wargames during this pandemic is that it gives you an opportunity to try out units, armies, and games that you have been wondering about, for a much lower cost than otherwise possible. Normally an IG player but wondering about Tyranids? Download the Tyranids army list and go to town on Tabletop Simulator. Wondering how that Knight Castellan plays but don’t want to pull the trigger on the model just yet? Throw one into your digital army list and take it for a spin 5, 10, 20 times over the next few weeks. The possibilities are endless.
Board games are in a similar boat as wargames: the best options are paid ones. If you were thinking about buying or already got Tabletop Simulator, there are tons of free options for board games on there as well, in addition to paid ones. Lots of board game publishers also put out digital versions of their most popular games which can be played with friends online; many are on phones and tablets as well so you can play anywhere.
The global pandemic of COVID-19 can make the world seem like a scary place, but it always helps to look on the bright side of things. If you love RPGs, wargames, or board games, I urge you not to let those hobbies fall by the wayside due to the imposed physical restrictions. Instead, look at this time as an opportunity: an opportunity to branch out and try new armies, new games, new campaigns, or even just an opportunity to play games more regularly since everyone’s schedules are far more open than they have been in….well, ever. Playing games has always been a wonderful way to spend time with good friends and family, and with the resources out there, that’s one thing that doesn’t have to change.
I am currently running a linked RPG-wargaming campaign using three different Warhammer 40,000 systems: Dark Heresy, Kill Team, and the normal Warhammer 40k ruleset (8th edition). It is an ambitious project, but I’m hoping it will make for an intriguing narrative. Back in January, we had both our first Dark Heresy session and our first Warhammer 40,000 battle. Before you keep reading, just be aware that this will be a narrative post, and not my normal GM/DM tips.
The campaign storyline centers around the defense of the planet St. Jowen’s Dock, the main Imperial Navy hub for the Armageddon Sector fleet, during the Third War for Armageddon. As a major Imperial Navy base, it would be of vital importance to the ongoing void battle occurring over the course of the war. The only mention in official Warhammer 40k lore is simply that the Orks assaulted it, with no mention of the campaign or outcome of that fight. This seemed like a ripe opportunity for some storytelling in one of my favorite wars in the lore, and my favorite Imperial Guard regiment, the Armageddon Steel Legion.
The first battle we played was a mission out of the Vigilus books, modified to suit our needs. The goal was for the Imperial defenders to hold off the Orks, using the Relentless Assault special rule, for as many turns as possible while the Adeptus Mechanicus readied defenses at the main base of St. Jowen’s Dock. 4 turns would be the standard metric; any fewer turns and the defenses would be uncompleted and the next mission would reflect this with penalties to the Imperial forces. 4 turns, they would be completed, and the next battle would be fought as normal. More than 4 turns would result in the AdMech completing extra defenses, giving the Imperials a boost in the next battle. With that explanation, we begin the narrative.
THE DEFENSE OF ST. JOWEN’S DOCK
Lieutenant Werner Brandt wished one of the falling Roks had just killed him. The massive Ork asteroid-turned-spaceship would have flattened both him and his Leman Russ Executioner in a split second, a quick, painless death. The alternatives now presented to him by the Orks whooping and hollering as they charged out of the blasted Rok seemed far worse by comparison: shredded to pieces by a tankbusta bomb inside his own vehicle, incinerated by a skorcha or burna, being pulled from his tank and hacked apart by the barbarians. He was sure there were more, including a round from one of the enemy’s battlewagon kannons striking his tank’s fuel tanks or plasma cannon cells. Yes, it would have been much better to just be crushed flat by a Rok. Was that heresy? To wish for a quick death rather than to live and take as many Orks with him as possible, to buy more time for the Techpriests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to erect the shields and other defenses back at the dockyards? Perhaps, but Brandt pushed the question from his mind: that was something for the Commissars and Ecclesiarchy to concern themselves with. A Rok hadn’t crushed him, so the only alternative was to fight. His hand absent-mindedly strayed to his laspistol, holstered under one arm in a leather rig; at least if worst came to worse, and his vehicle was disabled and the enemy tearing at the hatches, he could end things on his terms.
Pulling his binoculars away from his eyes, Brandt sat back down inside his turret, pulling the armored hatch closed behind him as he returned to the cramped interior. “Well, they’re coming,” he said over the internal vox. Thumbing the transmit switch on his vehicle crewman helmet, he broadcast over his platoon’s vox, “This is 3-1, the battlewagons are your primary engagement priority. After that, Deff Dreads, then Killa Kans. Have your bolter gunners hit the enemy infantry as they get closer, but don’t waste ammo if they’re out of range.” An echo of affirmatives from the other three tank commanders in his platoon came in response.
The crack-whoomph of artillery cut through even the thick armor of the Leman Russ and the sounds of its engine, signalling the beginning of the 10th Armageddon Steel Legion Armored Regiment’s defense of St. Jowen’s Dock. Smaller echoes popped as Anvil Company’s mortars added their music to the fray. Through his tank commander’s periscope, Brandt watched as plumes of dirt, smoke, and fire erupted from the advancing Ork horde. Black-and-white-clad green bodies were jettisoned from the explosions, some of them staggering back to their feet and continuing to run, to Brandt’s dismay but not necessarily surprise. The Steel Legion had fought Orks on Armageddon itself for fifty years since the last war, leftovers and holdouts from Ghazghkull’s first invasion. They were a hardy breed, living only for war and accustomed to inhuman amounts of pain.
The infantry were not his problem for now, though. Turning his periscope a bit to the left, he sighted in on a rusty-red contraption. It was at least twice the size of his Leman Russ, rolling on a mixture of wheels and tracks. A massive dozer blade was affixed to its front, plowing through obstacles and friendly Orks alike as its crew barreled towards the Imperial lines. Armored plates of different colors were welded haphazardly to all sides, protecting the Ork riders inside. A blocky turret sat atop it, sporting a stubby, wide gun barrel which Brandt equated in his mind to something like a Demolisher cannon. The capabilities of Ork weaponry were almost impossible to distinguish without seeing them fire, but if the cannon had anything like the destructive capability of a Demolisher, Brandt knew it needed to die.
“Battlewagon, eleven o’clock,” he said, rotating a dial on his periscope to judge the distance. “Fifteen hundred meters.”
“Identified!” shouted Sergeant Alojz, his primary gunner. Private Novak, in the front hull gunner’s seat, echoed.
“Main gun, hull gun, fire!”
“On the way!”
A bolt of white-blue plasma erupted from the tank’s Executioner cannon, and a split-second later a solid beam of red las energy connected the tank’s hull lascannon with the battlewagon. Armor slagged under the heat of the plasma bolt, and smoke streamed from the hole punched by the lascannon, but the Ork vehicle kept on rolling, albeit listing heavily to the side which had been hit. “Reengage!” shouted Brandt as the battlewagon’s turret swiveled in their direction.
“On the way!”
The battlewagon fired first, sending a shower of dirt and shrapnel up in front of the Leman Russ as the shot missed. Brandt’s periscope was blocked, but he heard the Executioner fire and felt its warmth as the excess heat was vented.
“Engine kill!” reported Alozj with triumph.
“Good kill,” Brandt replied. “Find another target, my periscope’s blocked. I gotta clear it.”
“31, 33, engine kill,” Sergeant Elias, one of his platoon’s tank commanders.
“Roger.” Brandt twisted the handle on his hatch and forced it open, cautiously popping his head out over the lip of the cupola. As he reached forward to clear the blockage in front of his periscope, he glanced about at the battlefield. The main horde of Orks was still a good distance off, and it would take some time for them to cross the open area between them and the 10th’s lines. The battlewagons and other vehicles were a different matter, moving so much faster. They could deliver the initial wave, the shock troops and largest Orks, which would tie up the infantry and prevent them from firing into the horde as it got closer. The Leman Russes of his platoon, all Conqueror patterns, boomed as they engaged armored targets in his priority order, while the many Chimeras of Anvil Company added their multilasers and heavy bolters to the cacophony of destruction being directed towards the Orks.
Brandt wondered if it would be enough as he closed his hatch.
“Anvil 23, Anvil 6.” Captain von Scheel, Anvil Company’s commander, sounded calm and stoic over the vox.
“6, 23,” replied Sergeant Krakovic, using the vox handset in his squad’s Chimera. Unlike the rest of the company, his squad, 3rd Squad of 2nd Platoon, had remained in their vehicle, behind the tanks, at the back of the unit’s position with the FSO and the mortars. They were the Skulls of Hades, the most veteran squad in the company, and saved as the reserve for the most dire of situations. The first two hours of the battle had been difficult for the Skulls, waiting as they did for the call forward. It was a strange dichotomy, Krakovic thought; he and his men wanted to be called forward, to fight, but that would mean that the battle was going poorly, and that many of his comrades had died. So, did that mean he wanted them to die? Maybe. Life was cheap in the Imperial Guard, and Krakovic and his squad were some of the few who had lived long enough to become experts at their craft of killing. Some men had to die for others to survive. Now, it seemed there had, indeed, been enough death to warrant a call.
“2nd platoon is getting mauled on the right flank,” von Scheel said, his voice emotionless. “Their 2nd squad is completely gone. Orks are in the trenches. Clear them out.”
“Roger that, sir,” Krakovic replied. The Chimera, its engines already running, moved out without needing Krakovic to tell the crew anything; they were monitoring the vox, and knew their duty.
“There’s a Deff Dread there too,” von Scheel added.
Krakovic looked around at his squad in the Chimera; all of their faces were hidden by their metallic skull breathing masks, but he wondered if some were smiling. Their shotguns and meltaguns were made for close-range work; clearing the trench was the kind of fight they were made for. Less than five minutes later, the multilaser and heavy flamer on the Skulls’ Chimera opened up. The vehicle soon came to a halt, and the ramp dropped down.
Without words, the Skulls of Hades piled out of the vehicle and peeled around the sides. Shotguns cracked as the veterans put solid slugs into the heads and chests of Orks who were clambering out of the nearby trench, snarling and barking. Krakovic hefted his bolter to his shoulder and let loose a quick flurry of single shots into a large Ork with a spiked horn helmet on its head. The explosive bolts turned the Ork’s chest into a mess of shredded flesh and bone, and knocked the creature, still snorting in anger, back down into the trench. As Krakovic turned to engage another Ork, he heard the whoosh of his squad’s missile launcher, followed by an explosion. The target was close enough for him to feel the heat, and hear shards of shrapnel whistling past his helmet. He turned to see the hulking form of a Deff Dread plodding towards the squad on the other side of the trench system. It poured smoke from its bottom left side where the missile had impacted, but its four weapon arms still all functioned. It unleashed a salvo of shells from its bolter-like weapon, cutting down two of his squadmates, and its saw arm spun while its klaw arm snapped open and shut in anticipation.
A second later, three streams of white-hot energy blasted three massive holes in the Deff Dread’s torso. Armor slagged to liquid, and the top half toppled inwards and backwards onto its lower half. The skorcha on its right side shot a gout of flame upwards in the walker’s death throes, and then the Deff Dread exploded as the heat met the fuel. Some of the Orks in the trench were incinerated by the blast, others cut in half or shredded by shrapnel. Still others turned in bewilderment at the noise and heat. They lasted only seconds longer than the others, as the Skulls of Hades leapt down into the trench with them, shotguns blasting and meltaguns cutting down swathes of the enemy like reapers in a field. In a matter of minutes, the trench was clear, the flank secure.
A plasma blast from Lieutenant Brandt’s Executioner cannon impacted against a battlewagon, and the vehicle exploded. The hit was a direct one, but Captain Erich von Scheel knew the massive explosion which followed had not been due to the plasma alone; his gunner must have hit a fuel tank or an ammunition stowage in the vehicle’s hull. The fireball spread out nearly 15 meters in all directions, consuming a Deff Dread, a horde of the lumbering Orks known as Nobz to their kind, and the heavily-armored brute of an Ork wearing a backpack which had been projecting some sort of force field to protect the nearby Orks and vehicles in his charge. Dozens of Orks who had been riding in the back of the battlewagon were jettisoned upwards, and came screaming back down to the earth like burning meteors. When the fireball subsided, everything in the 15 meter radius was dead or melted.
Von Scheel turned around to look at Brandt’s tank and nodded in approval. He doubted the Lieutenant was paying attention to him, but he felt the gesture was warranted nonetheless. The young man had performed well in the six-hour battle so far, racking up numerous engine kills while positioning his platoon well without von Scheel needing to direct him to do so. Anvil Company, and the 10th as a whole, had held far longer than anyone had projected, but von Scheel knew the battle was coming to a close. The Steel Legion had taken severe casualties, and Dominus Velkan had informed Colonel Bauer two hours ago that the defenses had been completed; all of this time was now bonus for the Tech Priests to improve the inner works of Saint Jowen’s Docks, and it made little sense to sacrifice the entire 10th for bonus time.
“Prepare yourself, Captain,” said Commissar Fioris from von Scheel’s left. Von Scheel glanced over at Fioris, and then in the direction the Commissar was pointing with his power sword. In the center of the line, the Company’s troops were wavering. Orks wearing some scrap smattering version of power armor were breaching the trench, and behind them, the largest Ork von Scheel had ever seen was charging forward. The Ork wielded a weapon that looked like a bolter and missile launcher welded together in one of its massive hands, while the other sported a red power klaw that hissed steam. Several lasgun and heavy bolter shots peppered the Ork Warboss as he charged forward, but it hardly seemed to slow the beast. He smashed into the trench line, sweeping his kombi weapon like a club and severing Legionnaires in half with his power klaw. Von Scheel drew his plasma pistol and power sword and fired at the warboss. Fioris did the same with his bolt pistol.
Like the lasgun and bolter shots before, even von Scheel’s plasma pistol seemed only to make the Warboss angrier. Even as its flesh charred and sloughed off from the superheated plasma, the Ork roared and beat its chest with his power klaw. It fixed its bloodshot eyes on von Scheel, pointed its power klaw at the Captain, and charged foward. It barreled through Legionnaire and Ork alike, and von Scheel continued to fire, standing his ground. Just as the Ork Warboss was only five meters away and raising his power klaw to slam down, he suddenly lurched and toppled forward, one of his legs separated from his body. Von Scheel turned in surprise to see Tech Priest Marius standing over the Warboss, his Omnissian Axe dark with Ork blood. Marius had spent the entire battle tending to the company’s battle-damaged vehicles, repairing whatever he could, and von Scheel was surprised to see him so close to the front. Surprised, but thankful. The Warboss began to roll over to attack Marius, but the Tech Priest raised his axe and brought it down, severing the Ork’s head. The Tech Priest raised his head to look at Captain von Scheel and nodded in acknowledgement. “Good afternoon, Captain,” Marius said, before turning and walking back towards the nearest Leman Russ as if nothing extraordinary had happened.
“All Anvil elements, Anvil 6. Begin withdrawal. Disengage from the Orks and proceed back to the dockyards. Maintain rear security with turret weapons and sponsons. Mount up, let’s get out of here.”
Lieutenant Brandt could hardly believe that he was actually hearing von Scheel correctly. He glanced at his chrono; they had held for seven hours. Seven hours against the Orks. Casualties among the infantry had been horrendous, and his tanks had taken a good amount of damage themselves, but they had held the line. The Tech Priests back at the docks had better have made good use of their three extra hours. “You heard the commander, fall back to the dockyards,” Brandt said hoarsely over his platoon vox. “This fight’s over.”
My homebrew Dungeons and Dragons setting for our weekly game is currently in what can easily be described as an epic high-fantasy time period. I have made no secret, however, that technologies and the world have advanced. 1200 years prior to our current timeline, there was a Roman-esque Empire which collapsed. That Empire, the Varyans, built their power on the technology of bronze and iron, and the world is currently in the age of steel (and mithril, of course). The obvious extrapolation for me is that, at a suitable time in the future, the world will discover gunpowder and all of the associated technologies that come along with that. Gunpowder weapons are described in the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, but I do not feel they adequately represent the advantages that gunpowder weapons imparted as the world transitioned from bows and arrows and melee weapons to muskets and beyond. So, I sat down, looked at those advantages, and came up with some rules that I think better represent the weapons which would come about in a “black powder” Dungeons and Dragons setting, as well as how to balance your game with these powerful changes.
The first, and most obvious advantage, of gunpowder weapons are their stopping power. The Brown Bess flintlock musket, the musket that “built the British Empire” in many ways, fired a .69-.75 caliber musket ball. That’s a bullet 3/4 of an inch being propelled at 1000 feet per second. The standard English longbow, by comparison, fired an arrow at a mere 170 feet per second. When you think about the devastation that English longbowmen were able to inflict on even heavily-armored opponents, such as at the Battle of Agincourt (where French knights in full plate were slaughtered by English soldiers with longbows), the destructive power of the musket in comparison comes into focus. Not only could it punch through plate mail, but the bullet often ricocheted inside the target, tearing apart internal organs or shredding muscles holding limbs together. The prevalence of muskets in the hands of soldiers was inversely proportional to the number of soldiers wearing armor on the battlefield: by the late 1600s, few, if any, wore any armor at all on the battlefield.
Dungeons and Dragons’ combat system is built around the concept of Armor Class, with heavier armor imparting bigger defensive bonuses. Full plate, at a base AC of 18, is the “heaviest” armor. In order to represent the penetrative qualities of gunpowder weapons, I suggest adding a “special” stat to the weapons’ stat block:
Piercing X: When attacking a creature wearing armor with this weapon, the target’s base Armor Class from their armor is reduced by X, to a minimum of 10. This does not affect the target’s dexterity bonus to their Armor Class.
For example, a Piercing 8 weapon would remove the +8 to Armor Class granted by plate mail to the base of 10, while a Piercing 4 weapon would reduce the base AC of plate mail to 14. This enables you to scale the penetrative qualities of different gunpowder weapons based on their purpose as well as the time period. Earlier gunpowder weapons might have a lower Piercing quality, as might pistols or blunderbusses.
The second advantage, intertwined with the first, was that it was incredibly easy to train a soldier to use a musket, especially later flintlock musket. It took far less time to train someone to use a musket compared to a longbow. Thus, you ended up with a deadlier soldier in terms of stopping power in a fraction of the time. Gunpowder weapons still had the disadvantage of taking time to load each shot, however, and with their current stat lines, no one would use them in a Dungeons and Dragons game. The DMG gives a musket a damage of 1d12, and then requires the user spend either a full Action or a Bonus Action to reload the single shot. Over every two turns, a player with two attacks will be able to attack only 3 times instead of 4, and lose both of their bonus actions over those two turns. When it comes to ranged weapons, almost every player will choose some sort of bow, which they can shoot multiple times per turn and still have their bonus action free (or use their bonus action to attack again). The statline also does not represent the “democratization of the battlefield,” where foot soldiers became king. To balance things out and make gunpowder weapons more viable, all we need to do is double the damage. A flintlock musket’s damage becomes 2d12, a pistol becomes 2d10, et cetera, while retaining the loading downside. This makes gunpowder weapons much more attractive to players if your intent is to run a black powder setting, while also making regular foot soldiers more deadly.
The third advantage is not historical, but rather fictional. I asked myself: in my setting, with the prevalence of magic, why would muskets become so popular? The answer: they can be viewed as mage-killers. When you think about the Shield spell, it is a mage reacting in time to an attack by throwing up a magical barrier. For a melee attack this is easy. For an arrow from a bow, more difficult, but still possible based on range. Against a musket ball traveling 6-8 times the speed of an arrow? I’d say next to impossible, but maybe that’s a bit too harsh. To represent this, I came up with one additional rule for black powder weapons:
Muzzle Velocity: If a creature would cast a defensive spell as a reaction to an attack against this weapon (such as Shield), that creature must first make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw. On a failure, the creature does not react in time and cannot cast the spell.
This rule makes it much more difficult to get those Shield spells off, but not impossible, while still not forcing the player to burn a spell on a failed attempt.
These rules can be added into your game all together, or you can pick and choose depending on the flavor you are going for. You can modify them based off of technology available or what different races or nations come up with. Keep in mind that this drastically changes the power curve on these weapons, and musket-wielding enemies can wipe out a 1st-level party in a single round. If you intend on including all three of the above rules in your game, here are some possible options you can pick and choose from to balance your game:
Start players at a higher level. I generally do this anyways as I find lower levels can be tedious for experienced players, but a higher-level start gives your players an extra boost of hit points.
Give players extra hit points at the start. Simply double their starting HP if starting at level 1.
Make mithril, adamantine, and magical armor immune to the Piercing quality of gunpowder weapons. These armors are much rarer , and can enable players who really want to still be melee fighters to have a place where they don’t feel overwhelmed or weaker than everyone else. Empowering players is a MUST.
Lower the attack bonus of black powder weapon-wielding enemies so that they hit less often; when they do hit, it will be like a freight train, so reducing their likelihood can balance out the damage.
For specific encounters, add much more line of sight-blocking terrain to the battlefield to enable characters to take cover (and gain the associated AC bonus) and/or close the distance to gunpowder-wielding enemies.
My regular Edge of the Empire group plays a session in our campaign roughly twice a month, due to our conflicting personal schedules. Sometimes we get lucky and play three times a month, and sometimes unlucky and play only once. We have been playing since March of 2018, and one of our members has taken two extended leaves of absence, one for four months to hike the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, and one for two months to bike from Alaska to roughly Vancouver. Some of you may ask, “Rambling GM, how have you even kept that group together, how are you still playing the same campaign??” That is a question for a different post. Today we will talk about what we did during those leaves of absence, and what we sometimes do when a player drops out last minute or during those weeks when someone can’t find time to make it to a game: One-Shots, and why you should incorporate them into your DM/GM stable.
For our purposes, One-Shots are any roleplaying game storyline designed to run a complete arc in one session (though occasionally this might stretch into two based on what happens at the table and player desires). Generally, One-Shots are played with different characters from the ones a roleplaying group normally plays. But why should you run them?
First, and most practically, they allow your roleplaying group to still get together and play something even if one or more members either can’t attend at all that session, or had planned to attend but dropped out last minute for some reason. I doubt you will find many people in your group who will turn down an opportunity to get around a table and roll some dice. Players in your group will be happy that they can get together and play a game, especially if it looked like they were going to have to skip a week. They may still be disappointed that they can’t continue their normal campaign, but I promise you, that will not last long. No one in my Edge of the Empire group has ever been disappointed with playing a One-Shot.
Second, One-Shots will expand the horizons for both your players and you. If you are going to run a One-Shot, I challenge you to run it in a system you are unfamiliar with. Normally play Dungeons and Dragons? Try out the Star Wars RPG system from Fantasy Flight. Normally play FATE? Jump into Pathfinder. It’s not just the system, though, you should also try to run the session in a different type of setting than normal. The idea is to give yourself and your players an opportunity to explore new characters, themes, systems, and stories than you normally get to in the main campaign. Who knows, you may discover a new favorite game. I have run Dark Heresy, Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, and Legend of the Five Rings for my group. While some players tend to enjoy playing the same type of character across games, some will relish in the chance to change it up: my very science-oriented Droid Technician from Edge of the Empire played a fire-and-brimstone (literally) Ecclesiarchy Priest in our Dark Heresy game:
Third, One-Shots are great fun because they last only a single session and players normally have very little attachment to their characters. Some of the wildest moments in my GMing career have occurred as part of One-Shots. Players are willing to throw caution to the wind and attempt some truly ridiculous stunts that they would never risk in a campaign. One player spent every point of his remaining luck on a single roll in our Call of Cthulhu game to leap from the door of one moving car to the hood of another and stick the landing during a chase scene. They also let you plan encounters with no sense of guilt, because if everyone dies, hey it was just a One-Shot.
As for getting ready for One-Shots, here’s a tip: plan your One-Shots in advance, and have them ready to pull up on short notice. One-Shots benefit from being more railroad-like in structure because of the limited time you have to finish them, and players are more interested in getting from encounter to encounter in a One-Shot than doing any sort of in-depth character-building roleplay. For that reason, I’d take some time to plan them out extensively to ensure that everything runs smoothly and at a good clip. Planning the sessions in advance of even knowing you will need one also enables you to salvage a session that is on the verge of falling apart if a single player drops out. Ensure you have access to the maps, minis, notes, or anything else you need even if you plan on running a normal session.
I’ll close with a final note: for those of us who play one-on-one, two-player roleplaying campaigns as well (my wife and I have been playing an Age of Rebellion campaign for 3.5 years and a D&D campaign for a year and a half), One-Shots are also great for you! We have explored new game systems, new characters, and new settings and had a blast doing so. They are good to pop in after finishing a long campaign arc to change things up and decompress a bit, especially if the arc was particularly intense. All of the same notes above apply to one-on-one games, so I encourage everyone to try it out.
Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games (MMORPGs or just MMOs) have been popular for the past fifteen or more years. However, while they have the words “Roleplaying Games” in them, the games can and do exist for many players without them doing any roleplaying. There are hardcore PVP groups, hardcore PVE groups, and, yes, there are roleplaying groups, but it is not a requirement to play and enjoy the game. This fact, and the fact that these are video games, often with puzzle-like mechanics for major combats and memorized “rotations” of moves for other fights, distances them from tabletop roleplaying games. There are many people, especially in the recent surge of popularity for TTRPGs, who have never played MMORPGs, and many people who think that MMORPGs have nothing of value to teach us when it comes to TTRPGs. I disagree; MMORPGs do many things well, in particular when it comes to combat, that I believe DMs and GMs can add to their own games to make combats more interesting.
The only MMO I have played is Star Wars: The Old Republic. MMOs as a concept never really appealed to me, but I figured I would try it because 1) It was Star Wars, and 2) It was made by Bioware. I intended to play primarily for the story, but ended up joining an awesome guild called Remnants of Hope and getting into all aspects of the game heavily (PVE, PVP, and roleplaying). I stepped away from playing regularly in 2015, but recently returned to simply play through the new story content. It was while playing through the story content and relearning both how to play and also the new mechanics that bosses had that I realized how much MMORPGs had to offer to DMs/GMs. A common thinking trap for DMs/GMs is trying to make their monsters or enemies conform to preexisting abilities and rules in the rulebook; so what if PCs can only ever get 4 spell slots of a certain level? This boss has 6 3rd level spellslots! Or no spellslots at all! Do not feel like you have to conform your enemies to the same rules as players, and with that in mind, let’s see what kind of abilities we can bring from MMOs into TTRPGs.
The first thing that is common to many MMORPG bosses is positional attacks. Because the bosses, particularly in raids, are designed to be fought by groups of between 4 and 8 players, these bosses normally have powerful attacks that hit players based on their positioning. For example, they may have a knockback attack that hits in a frontal cone, or a stomp attack that hits all players within 3 meters, or even a powerful beam attack that hits everything in a straight line 5 meters wide until it reaches a wall or other solid object (SWTOR distances are measured in meters, which is why I’m using them as a point of reference). These types of attacks are great to bring into TTRPGs because combat can often stagnate, especially if there are many close-combat players as there often are in fantasy RPGs (this is less of a concern in modern or sci fi RPGs since most players are ranged combatants, and will move and maneuver to get the best cover and rarely get locked down, but the principles can still apply). Combat in games like Dungeons and Dragons can quickly break down into everyone rushing the boss and then sitting there, not moving, for round after round, beating on the boss until it goes down. Now, some bosses already have positional attacks, such as a dragon’s conical breath weapon, or even spells like lightning bolt, but even these usually turn into afterthoughts. The goal of positional attacks is to make players aware of them and then force them to make decisions because of the anticipated effects. They can keep combat dynamic, and make the encounter more fun and hopefully more memorable.
An example of a positional attack that we could bring into a game like Dungeons and Dragons is the aforementioned knockback attack. This could be an appropriate ability for a large creature like a Hill Giant that has a good reach. Simply stated, the Hill Giant, once per round, forces every enemy within 10 feet in a 180 degree arc in one direction to make a Strength saving throw; if they fail, they take 1D8+5 bludgeoning damage and are pushed back 10 feet and knocked prone. If they succeed, they take half damage and are not pushed back or knocked prone. Since the ability only affects a “frontal arc,” the players can begin to position themselves, forcing themselves and the DM to both make decisions about what they are going to do and where they are going to go. Another positional-style attack is some sort of whirlwind. Let’s say the players are fighting a Drow assassin wielding two scimitars. Normally, this assassin would only get two attacks. The players rush him and surround him to prevent his escape, only to discover that he suddenly makes a whirwind attack; he makes a single weapon attack against every enemy within reach, whether that is two or six. This ability not only makes a single enemy much more deadly, but will again force players to think about where and when they position themselves once they know the enemy has this ability. A final positional ability can be a conical ranged attack, and for this I will use Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars or Genesys rules. Similar to the whirlwind attack, this involves making more attacks than normally possible, but with other restrictions attached. Of course, the boss should have some sort of suitable ranged weapon, such as a repeater or a rotary cannon. The ability could be called Relentless Barrage, and state that the boss makes a single weapon attack against any number of enemies who are within Short Range or Engaged with each other, but increases the difficulty of each subsequent attack past the first by 1. No matter what type of ability you decide to give, attacks that focus on players’ positioning relative to the boss or to each other can make combats more interesting by making players think deliberately about where they put themselves.
The second mechanic type we can take from MMOs is similar to the positional attack, and this is the moving attack. In SWTOR, a few bosses have an ability where they can summon or launch ranged attacks that home in on targets, forcing the unfortunate target to attempt to evade it. These are abilities which can easily be ported over into TTRPGs. Imagine a wizard, or a Sith Lord, summoning balls of lightning and cursing one or more players with them. Said balls of lightning move at 30 feet per round, lasting for three rounds, and if they hit a player, deal 6d6 points of lightning damage to a target. This forces players to remain moving, otherwise they could deal with damage from an ability which occurred up to three rounds ago. Alternatively, you could have the “homing missiles” inflict a status effect, such as paralyzing the target for a single round or giving them disadvantage for a number of rounds. The important thing to keep in mind here is to not give the “missile” the ability to take away a player’s action through its movement. If a player can move 30 feet and the missile can move 40 feet, they will eventually have to give up their action to get away, which is not the intent; players not being able to do cool things on their turn is no fun.
The third mechanic I’d like to talk about today is the concept of “adds,” or additional enemies that the players have to fight. In MMORPGs, adds are usually enemies who deal little damage and are easily killed, but the threat they pose is in numbers: if the players do not divert time and attention to kill the adds, their damage can add up and their numbers can multiply. Boss fights in RPGs can often end up just being a boss alone, or a boss with a few minions, but once those minions are killed, it turns into just the boss, with everyone rushing in and beating on it until it dies. In MMOs, however, the boss usually has the ability to call adds multiple times throughout the fight, constantly drawing the player’s attention. This is easily replicated in a TTRPG. Either give the boss an ability to literally call more minions to him by shouting, over a comlink, or something similar, and have the minions rush into the room to engage in battle; or give them a magical ability where they can summon or raise minions, like skeletons, near-instantaneously. Again, as I mentioned earlier, don’t be afraid to go outside the rules as written to do this. Yes, Animate Dead in D&D takes 1 minute to cast, but wouldn’t it be much cooler if, in the midst of a battle, a Necromancer can just point at a pile of bones, command, “Rise!” and add a skeleton to the battle? I’ve personally used this exact ability in my D&D game and it does little to unbalance the battle. The thing to remember when bringing adds into battles is that they need to be relatively harmless individually and be easy to kill; a single hit should do most of them in. You want to force your players to make interesting decisions about what to do on their turns, not overwhelm them with enemy attacks and bags of lots of hit points.
If you look to your favorite MMO, or if you don’t play, just do some research online about bosses and their abilities, I’m sure you can find plenty of inspiration for interesting bosses and encounters. I’ve barely scratched the surface during this post about the kinds of things you can add to your game, and I hope it’s been helpful.
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The party is under attack! Orcs, or goblins, or hobgoblins, or skeletons, or zombies, or any other permutation of horde-style enemies are surrounding the party, or defending their lair, or…you get the point.
These encounters pop up many times in most campaigns, sometimes as major set-piece battles, sometimes as random encounters, or even just to give the players a dose of combat to break up some long periods of roleplaying and exploration. While these battles can be fun, they run the risk of being bland in terms of the enemy types players face, particularly if the Dungeon Master or GM only has access to a basic bestiary like the Monster Manual and not advanced books with more diverse enemy types. Perhaps even those advanced books don’t have enough differentiated enemy types. For example, while there are eight different flavors of Orc across three different rulebooks, there are only five types of Hobgoblins you can throw at your players, and two of them (Warlord and Captain), are essentially the same, with the Warlord just having three times as many hit points and a higher AC. Even worse, there are only two types of Goblins! Such narrow options can not only bore your players, it also can rob them of that element of uncertainty when facing interesting monsters; they will get so accustomed to what these creatures’ abilities are that it can lead to even more boring encounters since they know exactly what to do. Today’s post will be an overview on how to homebrew some interesting and simple variations on enemies to bring more variety to your encounters and keep your players on your toes.
The first and simplest way to do modify enemies is to change up their equipment. In the D&D basic rules, an Orc wears hide armor and carries a greatsword and javelin. In my homebrew game, Orcs are more akin to Lord of the Rings Orcs than to D&D Orcs, and I use LOTR wargame miniatures on the tabletop. Those orcs wear mostly chain and half-plate armor, and are armed with a great variety of weapons: swords and shields, two-handed axes, spears, and bows. Since I try to adhere to the principle of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get, essentially meaning, for example, if a miniature has a shield and half-plate, his stats will reflect that added AC; I want my players to be able to look at the mins on the battlefield and make their decisions off of the information they glean from it, as their characters would be able to), when I throw 40 Orcs on the battlefield for a major set-piece battle, most of those Orcs have different stats based on the equipment they have. Already, we have broken our basic Orc into at least four different varieties. It requires a bit more bookkeeping since you need to have the stats for the different weapons at hand, but it does make things more interesting for both you and your players. If you are going to change up weapons and equipment, however, I would highly recommend having appropriate miniatures so that the players (and you) can easily tell the difference. It is way easier to glance over and see that a mini has a shield and add +2 to its AC rather than trying to think, “Hmm, wait, was that the guy with a shield or was it this one over here?”
The second way to add some variety is to add some enemies that I will refer to as Specialists. These are enemies that are tougher than your average minion, but not yet tough enough to be something like a leader or miniboss. In D&D terms, they would probably sit around CR1, possibly 2 depending on the level of your party and the encounter, and in something like Star Wars RPG or Gensys they would be Rivals as opposed to Minions, or even just Minions with a higher Wound Threshold. Specialists are simple twists on basic enemies, having a single special ability or schtick that sets them apart and gives them a more defined purpose on the battlefield. In a science fiction or modern RPG, an easy Specialist could be a machinegunner; increase the hit points or armor to make him more survivable and give him an appropriate weapon that can spit out a high volume of shots or target multiple enemies. The key, though, is to give them a special ability. For our machinegunner, we can give him an ability that if he targets an enemy with his weapon on his turn, that enemy gets some sort of debuff as they go scrambling for cover. In Star Wars, this can be represented by adding a black die to that character’s next check, and in a D20 system it could be a -2 to their next check or even Disadvantage. In any system, you can have a Spotter, who uses their action to grant a buff to all allies who target a specific enemy; in D&D you could even make this an enemy cleric who is able to cast Guiding Bolt every turn, though that is the only spell they know. A good option is to create some sort of defensive specialist, who buffs their allies’ Armor Class or Defense, or even can provide some sort of cover for them to hide behind, making it harder to kill the enemies. Feel free to invent new spells and abilities, such as a Concentration spell that enables a Wizard to add +1 to the AC of three different creatures other than itself, for example.
The important thing to remember when creating Specialists is to create them with a very specific role in mind, and make them fit solely within that role. A damage-dealing Specialist like a machinegunner should be attacking every turn and doing nothing else; perhaps even make them a turret character, who can’t attack or gets disadvantages to attacking when they move. A support Specialist like our spotter or a defensive Specialist like our AC-buffing Wizard should not be able to do much damage, and should rarely be attacking anyways. Perhaps they only attack in self defense, when an enemy is directly threatening them. But again, these are supposed to be only one step up from your average enemy, not a full miniboss.
The third way to add variety to your combat encounters with many similar enemies is to create new abilities to add to some or all of your enemies. This is the most complex and requires the most work on the part of the DM/GM, but can really spice up encounters. I recommend, in particular, creating abilities which synergize with each other. You can even combine the above Specialists with these new abilities and create some really interesting combos which force the players to sit up and pay attention. Let’s take the Spotter from above, for example, make him an Orc, and let’s say his ability is to fire a flaming marking arrow which adds +5 to all attack rolls against the target until his next turn. Now let’s give a third of our Orcs compound bows (count as longbows, but longbows don’t seem very Orcish), changing up the weaponry they’re carrying. Finally, let’s give all of our bow-wielding Orcs a new ability: when firing at an enemy marked by the Spotter, add an extra D4 piercing damage to their damage if they hit. Notice that the extra damage only applies to bow-wielding Orcs, not all Orcs, so we are further differentiating our enemies and how they interact with some of the special abilities.
If you want an ability to apply to all of your enemies, ensure that it will change how the players approach the encounter in a fundamental way once you reveal it. Following the Orc example, half-Orcs get an ability where, once per long rest, when they drop to 0 HP, they can drop to 1 instead. This is obviously supposed to be because of their Orcish heritage, but Orcs have no such ability. Why not give this ability to Orcs as well, to surprise your players the next time they face a group of Orcs and think they know exactly how things will go. Maybe make it even nastier; when they pop back up with 1 HP, they go into a bloodthirsty rage where they get advantage on all attacks until they are killed.
By doing a little prep work and having the appropriate miniatures or representations, you can take what might be a tedious encounter and turn it into one your players will remember, and keep them on their toes for future combats you might run. Some players love to read the Monster Manual or other such books to try to brush up on enemies they will face, and this is a good way to discourage that sort of metagaming, even if it is mostly harmless. It can bring a sense of mystery and slight trepidation to each combat encounter, making your players guess, “what is going to be going on with these enemies today?”
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In part 2 of my four-part series on adding War to your campaign (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), I discussed running battles on the tabletop, including how to involve your players and keep their interest. One of the points I made in that post was that, when running mass combat as part of a roleplaying game battle, it is imperative to “find a good mass combat system that works quickly, smoothly, and integrates with your game’s system.” Over the years, many different mass combat systems have been developed for different roleplaying games, especially for the most popular of them all, Dungeons and Dragons. There are plenty of good ones out there, but most of them involve some permutation of standard D&D combat, where there are individual units with attacks with attack bonuses, some version of armor class, and hit points, and you roll for attacks against each other. In the end, this boils down to some form of wargaming, with a series of rolls for individual units, and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I enjoy mass combat systems like that. Part of that, however, is because of the type of person and player I am; my wife and I both enjoy playing wargames, so a system where combat is similar to baseline D&D mechanics for individual units isn’t very bothersome.
On the other hand, running different units is essentially running multiple more NPCs in a combat system that can already stretch on and bog down when there are many participants. With higher-level players (and suitably higher-level challenges), adding units to a mass combat where they all maneuver individually and make their own attacks can double the amount of time the battle or session is supposed to take. If you have a three-hour battle session planned, this can spiral out of control into a six-hour session if you’re not careful. Again, maybe that’s fine and maybe you and your players will love that. Not everyone will, however.
With that in mind, I set out to create a mass combat system that could be resolved in a single contested roll, plus some quick math, each turn, while still retaining some individual attributes for units to make armies feel unique and interesting based on the types of troops they have. To my knowledge, there aren’t many (or any) single-roll mass combat systems for Dungeons and Dragons that don’t oversimplify combat to a meaningless level or wipe out the difference in troop types. The difficulty with trying to make a system that is both simple and detailed is that often the two things are mutually exclusive in gaming, particularly when it comes to simulating battles. For example, I love the mass combat system in Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPG system, and it fits perfectly for that kind of roleplaying game and the system they have built. A single roll each turn, with some modifiers based on what is going on or types of troops, decides what happens with the mass combat each turn. There are tables to reference using the narrative system to help interpret the results. However, I’ve had to house rule and modify it a bit to give the level of detail that makes things interesting when large numbers of troops of differing qualities and equipment smash against each other.
I started with a simple contested D20 roll: the GM would roll for the enemy army, while a player would roll for the allied army. This would occur each turn, at an easily-definable point. Most similar things in D&D occur on Initiative Count 20, so I went with that, specifically after all other Initiative Count 20 events occurred. There also had to be modifiers for each army which would represent the different training, expertise, and equipment the armies brought to the battlefield, I wanted leaders to have an impact, and there needed to be some sort of hit point system that could help define who was winning and losing. I sat down and banged out some quick outlines for how I wanted combat to work, and then created some sample units with which I could run quick playtests. The rules went through three permutations until I was satisfied that the rules worked, made sense, and could last a session.
One important decision I made very early on was that I wanted both ranged and melee fighting to have a chance to shine, so things like the peerless archery of Wood Elves or the staunch melee defenses of Dwarves could stand out, while their comparative weakness in other areas could also be pointed out and exploited. I also did not want to make anything require more than one contested roll per turn. My solution to this was to have combat alternate each turn between a Ranged fight and a Melee fight. On the first turn, the armies would trade Ranged blows, while on the second turn, it would swap to Melee, and so on and so forth until the end of the encounter. The system is flexible enough, however, so that if DMs and players wanted to have Melee and Ranged occur every round and do two rolls, they could easily do so.
I next decided that armies would be built of units. Units combine their statistics together to create the army’s statistics, allowing for the combined arms approach where one type of unit, such as archers, could complement for another type of unit, such as knights, each unit covering the statistical weaknesses of the other. I gave each unit six statistics: Ranged Attack, Ranged Defense, Melee Attack, Melee Defense, Morale, and Strength. The Ranged and Melee stats are the modifiers that the armies apply in the appropriate Ranged and Melee rounds, and satisfy my requirement that different types of units can stand out based on their experience. The Attack and Defense versions of those stats are not, in fact, a sort of “Attack/Armor Class” or any kind of comparative stat. Instead, they represent tactics which the army chooses to adopt. If an army fights defensively, such as defending a castle or forming up on a hill and allowing the enemy come to them, that is represented by that army using the Defense version of their stat in the Melee and Ranged rounds. If an army decides to fight offensively, such as besieging a castle or taking the fight to the enemy by charging, they will use the Attack version of their stats. For example, Dwarves are usually renowned for defensive fighting, but heavy armor and bulky weapons do not normally translate well to attacking. I therefore gave Dwarven units higher Defense stats and lower Attack stats. Orcs, on the other hand, are aggressive creatures who are not disposed to standing around waiting for the enemy, so they have higher Attack stats and lower Defense stats. Morale is a catch-all stat encompassing, yes, the Morale of the unit, but also its armor, general toughness, resilience, etc. It is, essentially, the staying power or the resistance of the unit to damage, both physical damage and damage to the psyche of the unit from casualties. Morale reduces the damage that a unit or army will take. Of note, I decided Morale would be an average across the army, not a sum like the other stats, in order to allow casualties to still occur. Finally, Strength is the health of the unit, its Hit Points. Losing these do not affect any of the other stats, but represent the ability of the army to keep fighting. If Strength hits zero, that army has been defeated. It does not necessarily mean every soldier is dead, but instead that the army has lost the battle. It could mean that the army is wiped out, but just as easily that the army’s morale as broken and they have fled, or that the general has decided to retreat.
The resolution of mass combat each turn is a simple affair. The army building should occur prior to the session, giving both the DM and the players their starting army statistics at the beginning of the session. Each turn, a contested D20 roll occurs, and each side adds the appropriate statistic (Melee Attack, Melee Defense, Ranged Attack, or Ranged Defense) to give them their mass combat Score. The two sides compare their Scores to determine which side has won and lost the mass combat that round. The resulting Difference is the base “damage” that will be dealt to the loser’s Strength. Morale reduces this damage, and the resulting final Difference is how much the loser’s Strength is reduced by. And…that’s it. A single roll, some quick math, a single note of bookkeeping, and the mass combat is decided for the round. The DM can then narratively describe the results of the mass combat to the players, and then everyone can move on to the main event: whatever the players are actually doing.
You can find my Simple Mass Combat rules here, on the Dungeon Master’s Guild. They are Pay What You Want, so feel free to download them for free and try them out. Drop a review or a rating, I’d love to hear your feedback. Also, these rules are easily transferable to any other roleplaying system, not just a D20 or fantasy system. It is very easy to create your own units, so you could quickly draw up some science fiction or modern units and still use the same statistics and rules to resolve your battles.
I have said many times on this blog that I believe players’ satisfaction at the table should be the primary goal of any Game Master/Dungeon Master. After all, we are simply the facilitator for a group of our friends, and ultimately are the minority, sometimes greatly so in large groups. I’ve spoken before on different ways to focus on your players, and today I’m going to add another one to the list in my never-ending quest to help anyone who may be looking for inspiration or guidance in running their roleplaying game campaigns.
People who Game Master or Dungeon Master do so for many reasons, but one common theme is that we like to create. Whether it’s worldbuilding, designing monsters, making custom classes, creating magical items, or thinking up interesting NPCs and villains, we like the process of coming up with something and sharing it with our friends and players for them to enjoy. Our creations will often serve the advancement of the plot and the fleshing out of the story, but there is an easy way to direct those creative energies towards making your players feel special: coming up with unique rewards for them in your campaign.
Many of the most roleplaying games are chock full of rules covering all manner of different things, and have been extensively playtested to ensure everything is generally balanced against each other and that everything is fun to play. After all, nobody will want to play a wizard if sorcerers are obviously and continuously proven to be more powerful spellcasters in every way. Roleplaying games should absolutely be designed that way for those reasons, but it sometimes leaves little room for players to feel like their character is truly unique. They know that, somewhere out there, someone else is basically playing the exact same half-orc battlemaster fighter with a sword and shield wearing plate armor. Sure, backstory and roleplaying may be different, but mechanics-wise, everything they can do is found in a book where any other person can do the exact same thing, and probably has.
So, I advocate that you make a determined effort to think of things to give your players that will make their characters feel special, like they are the only character anywhere in the world that can do something or has something. The easiest way to do this, and the one you can do most often (sometimes repeatedly) is with items. Plenty of GMs/DMs, myself included, will roll on random loot tables occasionally to provide some spice and excitement to the end of encounters, and there is nothing wrong with that. Likewise, many will dream up magic items to pepper throughout their world for the players to find, and that is good and fun as well; it makes the world feel lived in, like it has an organic history. A lot of created items, however, are built from a worldbuilding perspective. For example, “This ancient elven king had a super-powerful blade which was fine-tuned for killing dragons,” and so you make a powerful dragon-slaying sword of elven design. I suggest that instead of focusing on worldbuilding first, focus on player first.
Players will carve out a niche for themselves, mechanically-speaking, within the party fairly early on, sometimes in the first session. They may choose to be a ranged combat specialist, or focus on healing, or focus on supporting their allies with buffs. Identify those things that players deem are most important to them mechanically and start creating magic items with those in mind. If a player builds an archery ranger who enjoys striking from the shadows, design a magical bow that has an increased chance to score a critical hit if the player is hidden when they use it. If a player creates a combat medic, you could come up with a set of advanced medical diagnostic devices which grant them bonuses when they perform medicine checks on other players. Once you’ve designed the items, ensure that the players gain access to them relatively easily. Don’t lock them behind high prices or secret puzzles that the players may choose or fail to pursue. You want the players to get these items, so make sure they can. The most important thing about all of this is to make the item; don’t look through the rulebook and find one that you think is appropriate. You want the players to also know that this item is new, not in the book, something that essentially was made for their character. Other people in the game world might have it, but knowing that no one else’s home game in the real world has this item has a certain special quality to it. With items, I suggest you give out several over the course of a campaign, so that players can end up with gear that they actually want and that they feel is special.
A second way which I would say is far more impactful, but of a more limited number of uses, is to grant a player’s character a unique ability that you have designed specifically for them. In most roleplaying games, characters are set apart from each other by their abilities granted by their class, if there are classes in the game, or the abilities the players choose. While players often enjoy customizing their character when they are given the chance to do so with free-form character construction in games like Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars RPG, or with Feats in Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder, they are still necessarily restricted by the rules to a locked set of choices. Creating a custom ability for a player can provide not only the feeling of being special for having something no one else has, but also excitement about being able to do something that is not available anywhere in the rules as written. I cannot recommend this type of unique reward strongly enough.
It is important to put lots of thought into the unique abilities you create for your players; it can be a complicated process. Of course, each player in the game must get one at some point if you give one to one player. They need not be given at the same time, but do not give one to one player at level three and then wait until level fifteen to give one to another player, or the last player. Just as important as making a player feel special is ensuring that no player feels left out. When you go about making the abilities, ensure that none will completely overshadow any of the others. They don’t need to be as finely balanced as the base rules, but again, do not give one player an amazing ability and leave the others with merely middling ones. When the time comes to begin creating the abilities, take into consideration the same concepts as when creating unique magical items for them. Think about what the player has made their focus or role within the party and try to enhance or complement that role.
We can look at the two examples above, the archer-focused ranger and the combat medic, and think about what abilities we may give them. The ranger has decided that they like to attack from cover, and received the magical bow that crits on a 19 or 20 when they attack while hidden. So, how can we play to that playstyle? We should help the ranger get into a hidden position, and then provide an increase to the chance to roll that 19 or 20 when attacking from hidden. The ability could read something like this: “You have made a concerted effort to take advantage of any distraction on the battlefield to slip into hiding and line up the perfect shot. You gain advantage on Stealth rolls while in combat. While making a ranged attack while hidden, you gain advantage on the attack roll.” We take something that the player has been doing throughout the entire campaign, trying to get into stealth and then attacking, even if just for flavor, and reward them for it with a unique ability. Likewise with the player who has been playing a combat medic. If using Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars or Genesys rules, we can give them an ability which reads as such: “You have become a master of calming your hands while you work in dangerous situations where another’s life literally rests in your hands. You may decrease the difficulty of any Medicine check you make in structured time. When making a Medicine check in structured time, you may spend three Advantages to also cure a Critical Injury or cure an additional Critical Injury, rather than a Triumph as normal.” Again, we make the player feel special, like they are becoming an unparalleled master at what they have chosen to focus on, and reward them for their playstyle.
I will leave you with some thoughts on balance. Roleplaying games, like most other forms of tabletop gaming, are playtested early and often in order to ensure they are balanced. When creating custom rewards for your players, you do not have the time or resources to playtest the items, abilities, or other things you plan on giving your players. You will try to make something fair and balanced while you’re making it. Despite your best efforts and intentions, you may find that something you give them is either underwhelming or far too powerful when compared to the game you’re running or the other players in the party. This is not a failure of you as a GM/DM, but it also should not remain the way it is. There are three ways you can go about solving this problem. The first is to speak with the player out-of-game and discuss a way to either boost or nerf the ability or item in question; they may feel the same way, or they may have a different opinion which can inform your future action on the matter. If they agree, you two can work on a new version of the ability together, and then have it ready in time for the next session. The second option is to address the other players’ abilities and items, improving them or nerfing them as appropriate given the issue with the one player’s ability. In all circumstances, I advocate boosting everyone’s to meet one player’s powerful item or ability rather than nerfing everyone’s. Last, you could adjust the game you’re running on the GM/DM side. For example, if you give everyone powerful abilities and your players are running through every combat encounter you put up against them, increase the difficulty of the combat encounters, with more or tougher enemies. It will require constantly tweaking and adjustments, but I find I am always doing that anyways in my roleplaying campaigns, so about par for the course. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that your players are having fun, and better for them to feel a bit overpowered than for them to feel like they are constantly struggling.
I hope this article provided some good thoughts for how you can improve your game and give your players some exciting new items or abilities. If you want more content, you can follow me on Instagram and check out my stuff on the DM’s Guild.
About a week ago, I wrote a blog post about some custom Fighter Archetypes I had developed for use in my homebrew campaign setting, specifically in the land of Teikoku. As I continue to expand that nation, I will continue to release content for it. My most recent addition is a full-fledged custom class, the Shugenja.
The Shugenja is a divine spell-caster, and serves as the priest of Teikoku’s religion, based around worship of the kami, or divine spirits which they believe inhabit every aspect of the world around us. The idea of kami has its root in the Shinto religion, the ethnic religion of Japan. Kami are believed to be the spirits of everything in the natural world and beyond, from rocks and trees to thunder strikes and raindrops, from the fire of a torch or a blowing wind to an animal’s soul and the spirit of an ancestor; all things have kami spirits. For creating the class, I focused on the idea of kami being divided into the four basic elements that make up the universe: air, earth, fire, and water. Many things in ancient cultures believed these four elements were fundamental forces in nature, and Dungeons and Dragons has always held such. It made sense to me that when worshiping the kami, the people of Teikoku would divide them into elemental categories.
I initially set out to make the Shugenja a Cleric Domain, a simple subclass, but as I continued to work on it and think about Shugenja’s place in Teikoku, I realized that the Shugenja of different clans would be as different as I had made their Samurai. While I still proceeded with them as a single Domain, the idea that clans would be different continued to tug at me until I decided to make an entirely new class. The clans would be subclasses, titled Schools as they instructed the Shugenja of the clan in their own way. The Shugenja would not only pick a School to hail from, though, they would also pick to devote themselves to a single group of elemental Kami at 1st level. This would be the Shugenja’s form of picking a god to worship, with the added twist that picking an element would lock the Shugenja out of its opposing element: water and fire or earth and air.
As a caster class, one of the first steps was to think about the spell list for the class. Since they were initially a Cleric derivative, and since they served as the priests for Teikoku, the Cleric spell list was a good starting point. However, two main factors pushed me to expand it: first, most of the “elemental” or “nature” spells fell within the Druid spell list, and second, my ideas for elemental devotion to the Kami would necessarily cut down the spell list by approximately 25%. So, I went into the Druid spell list and pulled about half of the spells from there to put into the Shugenja spell list. The overall spell list is therefore larger than either the Cleric or the Druid spell lists, but the number of spells most Shugenja will have access to is 25% less than that, and the devotion mechanic further cuts down what is feasible to prepare with another feature: if the Shugenja takes at least 50% of their spells from the elemental list of the element they are devoted to, they gain a 1d4 increase to their maximum hit points. This bonus also scales every 4 levels, providing an incentive for the Shugenja to try to stay within their elemental discipline, while also limiting the spell list even further.
The second step was to come up with a major class feature that really drove home the role of the Shugenja as a conduit between mortals and the Kami. That came easily as the Summon Kami ability. At 2nd level, the Shugenja gained the ability to summon a Kami forth into the mortal world to request something of them. At first, it is merely the ability to ask the Kami questions, with guidelines given to the DM about how those interactions will go based on the attitude of the player and their elemental alignment compared to the Kami’s. As they increase in level, however, they gain additional abilities, namely the ability to change the damage type of one of their prepared spells, and the ability to summon a powerful Kami in the form of an elemental to fight with them. I felt this ability, available to all Shugenja, was flavorful and useful regardless of school.
With those taken care of, it was time to focus on the Schools. I had already determined what each Clan was known and responsible for, so now I merely needed to come up with Shugenja roles that would fit in neatly with those Clans’ identities. The first one I did was the Turtle Clan, as that was the clearest in my mind. As the Turtle Clan was responsible for fighting oni and undead, their Shugenja would be geared towards that role. I also decided that as extra flavor, the Shugenja would be tasked with hunting down those magic users who tried to consort with Oni, and therefore named them Inquisitors. While most of their abilities deal with making life difficult for fiends and undead and making them more able to deal massive damage to them, the fluff of them being Inquisitors is fun to me.
Next came the Bear Clan. As the standing army of Teikoku, the Bear Clan Shugenja needed to be able to hold their own on the front lines. History and lineage would likely be important to such a warrior culture, and so I made the Bear Clan Shugenja focus on ancestor worship. He is able to fight at the front with the best Samurai, wearing heavy armor and gaining the ability to lock down areas with an increased reach, but his most powerful ability comes when he calls upon an ancestor to possess him.
The Fox Clan was relatively easy to consider. The Foxes are the clever, cunning spies and informants of Teikoku, and so illusion magic, and the ability to counter those using it, seemed like the perfect niche for their Shugenja to fill. Fox Clan Shugenja gain the ability to ritual cast Disguise Self, and can see through any illusion or invisibility as they grow more powerful. Eventually, they get a form of magical sneak attack, able to deal massive damage when they attack from cover.
The Lion Clan was the fourth I worked on, and was somewhat challenging. As the head priests among a class full of priests, I struggled to think of what made them different than the others. Ultimately I decided that, as the religious heads in Teikoku, they would see less of a divide among the different elemental Kami than most, and would strive to revere all equally. Once that was figured out, the abilities fell into place. They suffer fewer restrictions to spell selection than other types of Shugenja, and gain the ability to use their Summon Kami ability as an action, rather than as a 1 minute casting time. At the end I was left with a School that I felt truly represented the head priests of the country.
Finally, the Owl Clan. I had the most difficulty with them, as I was not sure what I wanted them to be able to do, or what their role would be. The Owl Clan serves as the diplomats and bodyguards for the Imperial family, and the bodyguard role seemed to be well-covered by their Samurai class. I initially thought to go the route of diplomat or courtier, but could not come up with any abilities I was happy with. I ended up deciding that there was nothing preventing me from making the Owl Shugenja also specialize in protection, and so the Owl Clan Warden was born. They gain bonuses to initiative to help get the drop on enemies, and can absorb hostile spells directed at them or their charges. Most impressively, however, they can use reactions to prevent allies from falling unconscious or dying, making them excellent frontline medic characters.
If these classes sound interesting to you, you can download them off of the Dungeon Master’s Guild. While there you can also check out the Samurai Clan Fighter Archetypes if you missed them and want to try them out in your games. Please leave a rating or a review, I’d love to hear what you think of them and how they are used in your game.
Everyone likes a good mystery. Whether it’s a murderer that needs catching, a traitor who needs exposing, or an underground cult that needs stopping, mysteries are irresistible for most people. The tension and drama that comes with investigating a case, and the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes with solving one, are lures that draw people to mysteries and thrillers. People enjoy solving cases, knowing that they outsmarted the villain or the puzzle. People love to boast about how they “figured it out before the big reveal” when they go and see a thriller movie or watch a crime TV show. It is understandable, therefore, that people want to replicate that experience in a roleplaying game, where the players are literally the ones making the decisions in the investigation to uncover the truth of whatever mystery is afoot. However, mystery and investigation adventures are some of the most-often mishandled adventures in roleplaying games, and can often lead to frustration, resentment, and resignation at the gaming table. How do we can avoid this as Dungeon Masters and Game Masters is the subject of today’s discussion. As a disclaimer, before we get started, I am not referring to grand mysteries which unfold over many sessions, as those are stock and trade of campaigns; I am going to cover mysteries which cover one, two, or three sessions and are focused around a specific event such as a murder, a traitor among the group, et cetera.
I have run mystery and/or investigation adventures across several different roleplaying game systems, including Age of Rebellion (FFG Star Wars), Dungeons and Dragons, and Dark Heresy. Most have been successful, but those successful ones were aided by things I learned and feedback I solicited from the unsuccessful adventures. When I say unsuccessful, I mean that I either had to strongly suggest a course of action to the players because they got stumped, or the players were visibly or verbally annoyed or off-put by the way the investigation was proceeding and felt that it was either too difficult, or they had been railroaded into having to use certain clues to reach a certain conclusion. I believe that across all mystery adventures, the former is more common: players will get frustrated and disinterested if the mystery is too hard, and most of this has to do with the dungeon master. That’s right, a lot of it is your fault, not your players.
Why is this the case? It certainly doesn’t come from any malicious intent. In fact, it usually comes from the opposite. DMs want to provide a challenging yet fun experience for their players. The ultimate goal of everyone at the table is to have a good time, and the DM is responsible for facilitating that. Throwing a group of four goblins at a 5th-level party of four players is not a fun combat encounter; the challenge is far below the players’ threshold, and it will leave them scratching their heads, yawning, and wondering why you’re wasting their time with such an easy encounter. When it comes to mysteries, DMs likewise don’t want their players to feel bored or like it was too easy. If they can figure it out without expending much effort, then what was the point? This is a pitfall which leads many DMs (and adventure writers) into making a mystery far too hard, even for a group of people putting their heads together and trying to solve it. A major contributing factor to this is that we have a skewed sense of what the players will think to ask and pursue in the course of the investigation.
Since we, the DMs and writers, are the ones planning the adventure, we have all of the answers. We already know who did it, how they did it, when they did it, and why they did it. We know how the perpetrator covered their tracks, and what clues will lead to them. When we try to take a step back and think about it, it is tempting to think that the solution is obvious, too obvious in fact. So then we go back and make it even harder to figure out the necessary clues, worried that the players will breeze through the adventure and solve the case after an hour, and be left feeling bored and unsatisfied. Sometimes this occurs several times, until the players are left with an unsolvable labyrinth of dead end clues and plot twists.
So how can we avoid this? Firstly, give the players a good place to start. Often, the players will be given the investigation quest by an NPC, they won’t just decide to investigate on their own. While it may be tempting to have that NPC say, “start anywhere you want,” for smooth sailing, I highly recommend that the NPC suggest a place to the players for them to start. It could be a crime scene, a piece of evidence, or an eyewitness, but it should be something that is guaranteed to give them at least one clue, possibly more. Having a starting point does two things for your players. It gives them an initial sense of direction, rather than dropping them into unfamiliar territory and saying, “figure it out.” Also, it provides them with an early win; since we have guaranteed that they will receive at least one clue from this starting point, it gives the players a sense of accomplishment that they are chipping away at the mystery, and confidence that they can solve the case.
As the adventure goes on, multiple different people, locations, and items should and will come up through investigation and conversation. You do not need to gift any of these things to players, in fact I encourage you to lock many of them behind skill checks such as social checks when talking to NPCs or search checks to find a piece of evidence. However, every person, place, or thing that comes up during the course of the investigation should somehow advance the adventure. One of the most frustrating things for a player is to spend time pursuing a lead in a mystery adventure only to find out that it is a dead end. It is extremely frustrating if that occurs over and over. I know from personal experience in running the much-lauded adventure “Against the Cult of the Reptile God.” The adventure is well-reviewed and, to be honest, I am a fan of the plot and the amount of information that the booklet gives to the Dungeon Master. Some great things can happen in that adventure, but, on the flip side, there are a ton of dead ends. There are many locations in the village which provide little to no useful information to the players when visiting them, and many which provide useful information only if specific circumstances are met. When I ran ATCOTRG, my players chose five or six locations in a row that had no useful information for them, and I could see them grow visibly frustrated at the table as they struggled with what to do and their lack of progress.
An excellent example of an adventure in which every location or person mentioned has a clue or plot advancement to give the players is “Edge of Darkness,” the starting adventure for the Dark Heresy roleplaying game. I ran this adventure, which is essentially a murder mystery, earlier this week and was blown away by how well it was structured. There are 11 locations and numerous NPCs listed, and all of them are interconnected with the investigation in one way or another. Often, locations and NPCs have multiple clues to give, which will bear fruit at some point even if not immediately. For example, the dead man’s sister can give up the information about her brother’s favorite watering hole where he went that night, and the name of closest friend who has been avoiding her since the disappearance. Finding the friend can be difficult, but visiting the bar can assist in that regard, ensuring that a visit to the bar isn’t pointless even though no one at the bar knows anything about the man’s disappearance.
Making every NPC or location have some piece of information to offer ensures that the players will always have forward momentum, even if that momentum is a bit slow or tangential (such as simply helping to find another NPC who may have information). I am not saying to award players information without work, though. If the players can just go to a location or meet an NPC and get the clues they need without challenge, then we revert to the initial problem we were trying to avoid when we started: the mystery being too easy. Players should still need to make skill checks and ask the right questions of NPCs in order to be rewarded with the clues they seek. If they fail at these skill checks, then they will lose access to that particular piece of information, possibly permanently from that source. This has the possibility of causing another problem: the players hitting a dead end because of a failed skill check.
A failed skill check blocking forward progress in an adventure or campaign is a common problem which DMs and GMs struggle with constantly. Some systems have built-in mechanics which allow players to “fail forward,” but in others, success or failure is clear-cut, and this can lead to frustrations. My solution for this in mystery adventures is to ensure that there are always multiple ways for the players to either get the information they need to solve the mystery, or that there are multiple ways to solve the mystery with the correct conclusion. For example, if the murderer was an elf, you could have three different clues which point to him being an elf: a witness could have seen an elf commit the murder, the murder weapon could be a type of blade which is known to only be used by elves, and a pamphlet was found at the scene of the crime proclaiming elves to be superior to any other race. In Edge of Darkness, the local Alms House is the headquarters of the cult behind the murder; the players can be directed to the Alms House by the dead man’s drinking buddy who saw him enter the building before never being seen again, by the leader of the local police (who have been bought off by the cult) who in a fit of guilt will warn the players to steer clear of the Alms House, or from a local gang leader who sees the cult as competition for illicit business and wants the players to remove the problem for him. Each of the clues requires a skill check or skillful questioning by the players to be discovered, but redundancy in either the clue itself or the method of delivery ensures that even if your players fail a skill check and get locked out of one avenue, there are other ways for them to access the information needed to solve the case.
Mystery and investigation adventures can be some of the most fun experiences your players have, providing them with a sense of accomplishment and cleverness difficult to replicate with other adventures. However, because they are less common and more thought-provoking than normal adventures, they can be challenging to plan and run. By providing your players with a good starting point, making every person or place they visit and interact with have something of value to them if they pass a skill check or ask the right questions, and ensuring that the players have multiple avenues to access information and get to the solution, you can give your players a memorable investigative experience. Edge of Darkness was a huge hit with my group. It challenged them by making them ask the right questions and make the right skill checks, but there were many options available to them which they never visited. They solved the mystery and “won” the adventure, but it was very reassuring to me that had they not taken the route they had taken, there were still many options for them to reach the same conclusion. I challenge you to strive for the same redundancy and possibilities in your own adventures.
Good luck, and happy gaming!
*Edge of Darkness is a free adventure from Fantasy Flight Games, and you can download it here. It’s worth a read, even if you don’t play Dark Heresy, just to really appreciate the skill of adventure construction for an investigation module.