May 10, 2016

Understanding 5e D&D Skills

Today's topic is 5th edition D&D skill checks.  I'm going to examine 5e skill DCs.  And I'll give you a few pointers along the way.
The design philosophy for 5e D&D skill checks was to make DC 10 feel Easy, 15 feel Moderate, and 20 feel Hard. Then it gradually raises the PCs' competency in their best skills by about 6 points over 20 levels.  (You get 4 from Proficiency and 2 from Attribute increases).

Mathematical Probabilities and Subjective Feelings
This isn't a math article, but we're going to go over the math a little at the beginning.  Here's the refresher:  Each number on a d20 is one in twenty, which means 5%.  The probability of failure for any DC is (DC-Skill Bonus-1)*5%.  The probability of success is (Skill+21-DC)*5%.  Got it?
DC 10 is a 55% chance of success for a person with +0 in the skill.  Does that feel "Easy" to you?  Not at all!  Failing almost half the time is not easy!  But who has a +0?
Well, you do.  Consider any of the sample characters in the Starter Set or the Pregens on the DM's Guild.  Each one has many skills in the -1 to +1 range -- in fact, most of their skills fall in that range!  So how is DC 10 Easy?
That was a rhetorical question, of course.  Here's how:  The party picks the best person for every task.  Someone in the party has a decent modifier in just about every skill.  There are 18 skills.  A party of four PCs has enough proficiencies among them to have a good modifier in almost every skill, between them.  Players naturally collaborate to make their characters so there's not too much overlap.  This protects their niche ("I'm the sneaky one") and ensures the party can take on most challenges.

The core assumptions
The core three DCs (10/15/20) are designed for situations that meet the following criteria:
  1. There are four or five PCs.  As a result, there are enough skill proficiencies in the party that every important skill is represnted. 
  2. The characters have minimal skill overlap.  As a result, when the party is together, there's a PC with a decent rating in almost every skill.
  3. The party is together so they can select the most skilled character for the task.
  4. The DM calls for a single roll for a single task.
  5. The party is first level

There's a PC with a decent rating in almost every skill when the party is together.
A level 1 Rogue probably has +7 Stealth.  (That's +3 from Dexterity and +2 Proficiency, doubled for Expertise).  DC 10 Stealth is Easy for that character.  The rogue has a 90% chance to succeed.  That's easy both from a subjective point of view and an objective, mathematical point of view.  DC 15 to pick a lock is Moderate for that character.  The rogue has a +5 in Thieves' Tools Proficiency, using Dexterity; so that's a 55% chance to succeed.  Moderate.  DC 20 Acrobatics is Hard for that character.  They have +5 there, too, so that's just a 30% chance to succeed - and that's pretty Hard!
Can the party Cleric pick the lock?  Assuming the cleric even has Thieves' Tools, the task is DC 15, and the cleric has 10 Dexterity.  There's a 30% chance the Cleric will succeed.  That's not Moderate.  That's Hard.  The Fighter isn't much better off, with a +2 (40%).  The elf Wizard is fumbling about with a +1 (35%).  It's Hard for three-fourths of the party but Moderate for the Rogue, so DC 15 is Moderate for the party.
So if the whole party is together when they get to the locked door, and the party contains a good mix of skills, the locked door task is Moderate difficulty.  If the party doesn't have someone proficient in Thieves' Tools for some reason, or if the Thief is off doing something else, the task becomes Hard.

Single task rolls work; multiple rolls for a single task don't
When the Rogue is picking the lock, it's just one roll.  Succeed, and the door opens.  Fail, and the patrols find you before you can open the lock.  If the DM requires multiple rolls to succeed,where just one failed check spells doom, the probabilities change.
Here's an example.  Let's take that Rogue with +7 Stealth again.  The Rogue has to sneak past six sentries.  The Sentries have 10 Wisdom and are not Proficient in Perception, making each roll DC 10 - Easy.  The task truly is Easy if the DM has the Rogue roll one time for the whole task.  The task is not easy if the rogue has to roll for each sentry.  If just one sentry spots the Rogue, they will raise the alarm, and the scouting mission has failed.
The chance to succeed at a "get 6 successes before 1 failure" task is [Chance to Succeed once]^6
90%^6 is 53%.  The challenge is not Easy; it's Moderate at best!
If the DM had set the task at Moderate (DC 15) for each sentry, the Rogue would have a 65% chance to make each check.  When we do the math (0.65^6) the rogue has just an 8% chance to succeed them all without failing even once.  That's not just Hard.  That's Very Hard.

Aside: Group Checks
Group checks are another example of multiple rolls, but they actually work, mathematically.  Using a Group Check, the DM calls for the whole party to attempt a skill check.  If at least half succeed, the whole party succeeds.  As long as the party has a diverse mix of skills, at level 1, most Group Checks work out using the standard difficulty spectrum. A DC 10 Group Check is Easy; a DC 15 Group Check is Moderate; and a DC 20 Group Check is Hard.

Tasks get easier as you go up in level
The last criterion is important.  The 5e designers didn't want a "treadmill" where the skill difficulties moved up along with the PCs' skill levels.  The skill DCs stay put.  The PCs get better.  
Your attributes improve every handful of levels, and your Proficiency bonus improves, too.  So that Rogue, at level 20, has +17 Stealth.  Very Hard checks aren't Very Hard anymore.  They're pretty easy.
Now the level 20 Rogue has an Easy time at Elaborate Stealth challenges, and a Moderate to Hard time with Impenetrable Stealth challenges.  That makes more sense.
This also means that if you obey the other three criteria, you need to use more and more complex tasks.  Don't just raise the DCs you use -- make the tasks harder first, then give them higher DCs to reflect the greater challenge.
  • At levels 1-7:  Most tasks you set before the PCs should be Easy and Medium challenges.  You can sprinkle a few Hard challenges in when there are good stakes for a "you'll probably lose" wager.  
  • At levels 8-12:  At level 8 or 9,  the party will be able to succeed almost any Easy task even if they roll a 1.  Practically speaking, the PCs will still encounter Easy tasks, but you won't be able to build exciting encounters around them.  You'll need to use mostly Medium DCs with occasional Hard and even a few rare Very Hard tasks where the stakes are good for a "you'll probably lose" wager.
  • At levels 13+:  When the party is all together, use a mix of Medium and Hard tasks, with occasional Very Hard tasks and even a few Near Impossible tasks that play to the party's strengths, when the stakes are right for them.

If there is no Wizard, go easy on Intelligence skills
It's generally acknowledged that 5th edition D&D is the "dumbest edition" because the Intelligence attribute has so little value to every class except Wizards.  Most characters take Intelligence 8 or 10.  You rarely see a non-Wizard character with Intelligence higher than 12.  Consequently, a level 20 Cleric will likely have Religion at +5 or +6.  
This means that you can continue to use easier tasks for Intelligence skills for all 20 levels, unless the party has a Wizard.   (Note that Knowledge Domain clerics and College of Lore Bards may also have good Intelligence skills, even if they don't have high Intelligence attributes.)

Everyone should have a social skill
Every class in 5th edition D&D gets at least one useful social skill.  Persuasion, Deception and Intimidation are the most commonly used social skills, but you can use History or Insight as well.  Between those five skills, any character should have one, if not two, skills that are useful in a social scene.  
In this case, it's good for the PCs to overlap.  It would be terribly dull if only one character took Persuasion, so only one player ever attempted to persuade NPCs of things! 
Because the skill you use depends on the approach you take, social skills are often interchangeable.  Intimidation might be the most obvious approach for dealing with goblins, but you can use Deception if you try to trick them or Persuasion if you try to bribe them.  
In social scenes, it's tempting to call for individual task rolls.  But that encourages the Sorcerer, Warlock, Paladin, or Bard to do all the talking.  Instead, encourage everyont to participate by using group checks (see above).  Everyone who participates gets to make a check using the skill relevant to the approach they used against a DC based on the NPC's social savvy and how much leverage the PCs have (or how much leverage the NPCs have over them!).  

When they split the party, go back to easier tasks
You've heard the cry:  "Don't split the party!"  But it happens all the time.  When the party is split, use simpler tasks to challenge the PCs.  
For instance, if the level 16 Rogue is scouting ahead in the forest, and has to find the hidden goblin lair, an Easy Survival check 

Justify your Skill DCs!
Remember, your task DC choice should always be justified by the game-world conditions.  This isn't just a D&D thing - this is a GM core competency, even in more narrative story-focused games!  If climbing a stone wall was Easy at level 1, it should still be Easy at level 14.  Yes, I know there's no way the Proficient characters can fail an Easy skill check at level 14.  But either call for a roll and let the PCs feel powerful for being able to succeed even on a 1; don't call for a roll at all; split the party so the non-proficient characters have to climb the wall unaided; or change the conditions:  If there's a rain pouring down and the PCs have to rush up the wall, maybe it's not Easy anymore.
If you justify higher DCs, the players feel like they're growing in ability.  If you just raise the DCs arbitrarily, the players feel like they're slipping backwards on a treadmill.  You don't want that.

Skill monkeys
Bards and Rogues will dominate your skill scenes if you let them.  They get all kinds of bonuses to skill checks.  They're often called "Skill Monkey" classes.  There are two ways to avoid that.
  1. When you want to design a longer exploration scene, choose multiple opportunities and threats within the scene that relate to a variety of skills, then get everyone to participate.  If the PCs find themselves in a corridor with strange runes along the walls, odd tracks in the dust, and a rumbling sound ahead around a corner.  The Rogue goes to scout the rumbling sound, the Wizard reads the runes, the Cleric helps interpret the religious prophecy the runes spell out, and the Ranger tries to learn something from the tracks.
  2. Typically, the Skill Monkey is going to leap in on every skill scene with a useful contribution.  That's OK - their character is designed for that.  Once the Skill Monkey gets to work on their part of the scene, turn to another player and say "While Darkblade VanRogue scouts the hallway, what is Wizard Wandsworth doing?" 
A few details about high level 5e skill monkeys...
  • Reliable Talent:  At level 11, Rogues treat all rolls below 10 on a d20 for the skills in which they have proficiency as a 10.  Bards of the College of Lore get Peerless Skill which also dramatically improves skill rolls.
  • Expertise:  Expertise (which Bards and Rogues get) doubles Proficiency for a limited set of skills.  This balloons fast.  

Spells solve skill scenes

Many utility spells effectively negate skill checks.  Invisibility and Dimension Door make sneaking past sentries a snap.  Clairvoyance makes scouting easy.  Charm Person can handle Persuasion for a brief scene.  Spider Climb and Fly can make it easy to get over and past obstacles.  If the spell obviously resolves the challenge, it resolves the challenge.  But if there's any question, use this guideline:
  • A spell-caster's spells can be classified as follows:  Their best spells are the spells of the highest level they can cast.  Their second-best spells are the spell level below the highest level they can cast.  Their cheap spells are their spells of two or more levels below that.  
  • Spellcasters' cheap spells should provide bonuses to skill checks.  
    • For instance, a 9th level wizard may use Feather Fall to make it easier for her to walk across a narrow ledge, reasoning that if she's as light as a feather, it's easier to balance.  The GM might let her claim Advantage on the check in exchange for using the spell in a creative manner.
  • Spellcasters' best and second-best spells may resolve the challenge entirely.  
    • For instance, the 9th level wizard could use the Fly spell, cast at 5th level, to let three characters fly.  That would get herself, the cleric, and the fighter across the narrow ledge.  The rogue can easily make the Acrobatics check to cross it.  The spell basically solved the challenge for the whole party.  That deed cost her the only 5th level spell she can cast today, and one of just four spells of 4th-5th level she can cast today.
    • Level 6-9 spells always count as a spellcaster's best or second best spells.  Even a 20th level Wizard doesn't get a lot of them.


  • The 5e task DCs work best when the group is all together.  At low levels (1-7) use a mix of Easy and Moderate tasks, mostly.  Use slightly harder tasks at mid levels (8-12).  Phase out Easy tasks and mostly use Moderate tasks.  Use harder still at high levels (13+).  Mostly use an even mix of Moderate and Hard tasks.
  • Group checks work!  Use them in social scenes to encourage everyone to participate.
  • If you call for multiple rolls to achieve a single task, where failing once is catastrophic, use easier DCs.
  • If they split the party, use easier tasks.
  • Use more complicated scenes to let the "skill monkey" shine while giving other characters something useful to do.
  • Justify your skill DCs!
  • Spells can "solve" exploration scenes.  If it's not obvious how to handle it, the rule of thumb is the better the spell slot sacrificed, the more effective the spell should be.

April 29, 2016

Goblin Market

Urban fantasy became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, spawning its own host of tabletop RPGs.  One trope of urban fantasy is the "trade for your magic" bargain wherein regular people (and sometimes wizards) trade some part of themselves for magical powers.  RPGs like Don't Rest Your Head, Ron Edwards' Sorcerer and Unknown Armies do a good job with Faustian bargains.  The very best RPG for goblin deals is Changeling: the Lost, called Goblin Markets, but you can port the trope into any fantasy RPG - maybe even into some sci-fi RPGs.  (Though there's an RPG currently in development called Asylum that's entirely about these sorts of bargains)

A goblin market is an instant trove of plot hooks that could start a campaign or reboot a campaign that's struggling to find reasons for the PCs to care.


Here's how it works...

The PCs encounter a strange creature or market of strange creatures who offer to sell them fantastic, impossible things.  The sellers might be the devil, spirits, faeries, goblins, aliens, Mi-Go, demons, mysterious angels, djinn, an AI system, or gods.  If you're running a Planescape D&D game, you should probably introduce this trope at least once.  It could be a single mysterious tempter or a community or structure full of eerie deal-makers, or even an actual market (like in Changeling).

Nothing for sale is entirely straightforward, but all of them seem useful and maybe even life-changing.  Some may seem like curses, except when you think about them, they would be very useful.  They sell magic items, magic powers, magic properties, and fates.  Here's a sample menu of things on offer:
  • The ability to fly when the sun is shining
  • Immortality, but not agelessness
  • The ability to psychicly hear anyone's negative thoughts about you
  • A sword that, no matter what happens, is guaranteed to kill the person whose name you etch indelibly into its blade
  • Invincibility, until you kill a person
  • The guarantee that you will become wealthy within a year and a day
  • The guarantee that you will always lose when you play a game of chance (try betting that the serial killer won't leave a clue that leads to their arrest, for instance)
  • The dangerous blessing that all locks open with ease in your presence
  • A wand that can teleport you anywhere in the world that you name

The price for these blessings is never money.  The creatures that you trade with wind up asking bizarre, intangible prices.  The bargain you make with them is magical and binding.  These costs come in two categories:  Geasa and pieces of your identity.  Geasa are compulsions or magically-enforced agreements.  Usually the blessing-seller names their price.  But sometimes the shoppers can make counter-offers or even offer some part of themselves or some promise as payment.  Here are some example costs:
  • Your memories of your childhood
  • The promise to return to this same exact place in a year and a day
  • A promise to never eat meat again
  • Your name
  • A small favor to be named in the next year and a day (they really like "year and a day" time-frames)
  • Your face (don't worry - you'll get a loaner for the term of the bargain)
  • The next lucky thing that will happen to you (happens to the goblin instead)
  • Your first born child
  • Your voice (Disney used this trope for the plot of The Little Mermaid)
Some of these prices are heavier than others.  That's OK.  None of them can really be measured against one another anyway.

The GM trick with Goblin Bargains is this:
  1. Whatever the blessing, the GM has to turn it into a curse at least once.  Every single example I listed can be turned to cause a player to sweat.  The invincible character may feel like she doesn't need to kill anyone, since she can withstand any harm.  But when a truly monstrous villain threatens the life of an innocent, and it becomes a life or death struggle, what does she do?  Does she preserve her power?
  2. The price has to be way worse than it seems at first.  For instance, if a player trades for "striking beauty" and gives away their face (which seems like a low price since they're getting a strikingly beautiful one in return), they may find themselves the subject of a statewide manhunt for the crime of serial abductions -- committed by the faerie using their face!  For the duration of the deal (year and a day of course), they can lay low with their new face.  But when their time is up...
The plot that a goblin market can create is immense.  Here are some examples:
Alternatives to the goblin market can change the relationship between the deal-maker and the PCs.  The GM can start the PCs with a need for something impossible, then present the deal-maker as their salvation.  The table can agree to a game about people who start off with good intentions but wind up doing very bad things as a result of their Faustian bargains.

The reason the "goblin market" works to excite players about your game is that they can make a deal to get things they care about, to achieve goals they care about.  In return, they pay a cost that motivates them to avoid the drawbacks of their bargain, or even to try to get out of it.  That's fuel for many, many sessions of play.  

April 20, 2016

Stance and the Magic Circle

I've had a lot of articles about D&D mechanics lately, so it's time for another RPG theory piece.  Today's topic: Stance.

There are a lot of different ways to play an RPG.

Ron Edwards' concept of Stance in RPGs describes three ways in which a player interacts with the game:

  • Actor stance, where the player thinks like their character, making decisions based only on game world information the character knows, using the character's motives.
  • Author stance, where the player makes decisions for the character based on what the player wants to see happen, then decides the character's reasons for making those decisions.  ("Pawn stance" is when the player makes decisions for the character, but without regard to why the character would make those decisions.)
  • Director stance is like Author stance, in that the player makes decisions based on what the player wants to see happen.  Except in Director stance, the player also has the ability to make decisions for other characters and events in the game world, outside their own character.
I think these categories are fine, but they can be improved on.  For instance, Author and Director stance both imply the same relationship between the player's motives and their character's motives.  And Director stance is a feature of the game rules, not the player's preference.

Let's re-examine stance from the concept of the Magic Circle.  Quick refresher:  The Magic Circle is the permeable membrane between the shared imagined world of the game (Gary Allen Fine called it the "Game World Frame" using Erving Goffman's frame analysis) and the real world.  Inside the magic circle is the game world.  Outside is the real world.

Wait, what?  Permeable membrane?  Things from my D&D game can get into the real world?

That's right - things can bleed across the membrane.  When something crosses from the real world into the game world, it's called bleed-in.  When something crosses from the game world into the real world, it's called bleed-out.  It's not like the Red Wizards of Thay are sneaking into Earth from Faerûn.  Ideas, relationships. idioms, and emotions are the most likely things to bleed.  Say I had a hard day at work, and I want to blow off steam.  My nerdy decker is going to be a little more likely to break out his Ares Predator in tonight's game.  Say I pull off a really cool heist in a D&D game and even though there were some hitches, we pulled it off with aplomb.  I'm going to be excited and proud when I talk about it on Facebook the next day.

We can look at stance from the lens of the magic circle and see how there are two axes of stance:  Bleed-in and bleed-out.  As I said before, GMs can try to encourage or discourage bleed in various ways.  But bleed is ultimately a player characteristic.  It's related to personality - games are a form of identity management, after all. Some players have a membrane that's more permeable one or both directions.  We're just talking about the permeability of the membrane between real and virtual worlds; self and pretend-role.

  • Actor stance implies a permeable membrane, with a lot of bleed-in and bleed-out.  
  • Author and Director stance imply a less permeable membrane, with little bleed-out but some bleed-in.  Pawn stance has significant bleed-in.
  • Power gamers have significant bleed-out:  They're players who feel bad if their characters suffer defeat.
  • Story gamers less interest in or get less enjoyment from bleed-out.  Story games often strongly discourage bleed-out and strongly encourage bleed-in:  In Microscope, for instance, what a player wants is far more important than what the character they're currently playing wants.  
  • Horror games strongly encourage bleed-out.
  • There are systems in some games to break players from too much bleed-in.  From Alignment in D&D to Aspects in Fate, RPGs have asked players to commit to strong, defining personality traits for their characters.
The step from Author to Director stance can be captured in how much of a sphere of influence the game provides players.  If you can only control your character, like in old school D&D, you're limited to Actor and Author stance.  But even in games that give players a huge sphere of influence, like Microscope, a player can still assume Actor and Author stance.  Even though games like Microscope give players a large sphere of influence over the world, some players prefer to role-play a single character, limiting how much of that sphere of influence they actually use.  Others might chafe at the limited sphere of influence in a game of D&D, constantly suggesting story ideas and NPC actions to the DM (or perhaps those people are the ones who are temperamentally inclined to be the DM).

Looking at bleed and sphere of influence as personality traits means stance is more than just a player's current approach to affecting the game world.  It means it can be used to describe a player's preferred approach, too.

Stance Revised
So that leaves us with three characteristics of stance.  A player has a current and preferred version of each:

  • Bleed-in Permeability 
  • Bleed-out Permeability
  • Sphere of Influence
Players can shift their stance over the course of a game.  

For instance, let's say we're playing a game of Night's Black Agents (see the link to the right).  The party splits up, and first I have a scene where I'm hacking some vampire gangster's cell phone and listening in on their conversations.  I might immerse myself during that scene, taking an actor stance with lots of bleed-out and a moderate amount of bleed-in.  After I'm done, the GM turns to you, and you have a scene where your character is tailing a suspected hit man through a bad neighborhood in Marakesh.  I can still experience bleed from your character into my own self -- I can be afraid for you, for instance.  But I don't.  I "close my membrane," and observe from more of a director stance with no bleed-out and a bit of bleed-in.  Without hogging the spotlight, I suggest a few cool things that the GM could throw into the scene to add to the fun for everyone.

Thoughts?  Reactions?  Let me know!

April 6, 2016

Not on My Watch

While it's always been in my GM Credo to facilitate inclusion, recently good folks have raised awareness of the need for RPG players, especially GMs, to take a stand against rotten behavior at the table that makes players uncomfortable - especially racism, homophobia, and misogyny.  The problem is especially bad in public gaming spaces, where strangers mingle, such as game stores, meetups, and cons; though it could happen anywhere.

As the GM, it is your responsibility to shut down abusive player behavior.  If you run a game with close friends, you already do this, custom-tailored for them.  You don't have to be hyper-alert to the players' reactions to things, because you've known them for a long time, and they're still playing with you.  They've known you for a long time, too, and they know they can talk to you if something at the table makes them uncomfortable.

Gaming with acquaintances and strangers is another story.  If you ever go to a convention or run games at a library, games cafe, or friendly local game store; you need to be more alert.

As responsible GMs, we must acknowledge that everyone is at risk for abusive behavior, and we are all good at noticing and controlling behaviors that make people like ourselves uncomfortable; but it takes heightened awareness and empathy to notice and respond to behavior that could make people different from us uncomfortable.

For instance, if you're thin, you may not notice fat shaming at your table.  If you're a man, you may not notice a scene in a game that makes the women around you uncomfortable.  If you're Jewish, you might have to pay special attention to make sure the table doesn't make a Christian uncomfortable.

The good news is that roleplayers and especially GMs get a lot of practice putting ourselves in others' shoes.  Human empathy is "thinking in character" -- except that the person across the table from you is the character.  You have the skills.  You just have to activate them.

This is not about being politically correct, but about making sure everyone has the best time at your table.  That's how your GMing is evaluated, in the end:  How much fun did everyone have?  If one player out of the four at your table is uncomfortable because half your D&D session was spent in a Faerun cathouse making caricatures of women and sex workers, and you didn't notice because you're not a woman; you only did a good job for 75% of your players.  Even if the other 3 players had a blast, 75% is a C.  Nobody wants to be a C-level GM.  You don't have to be politically correct; you just have to be sensitive to the people at your table.
  1. Behavior at or near our table is something we GMs have authority to address.
  2. It takes special attention to be alert to behavior that could bother people different from us.
  3. Failing to notice and address behavior that makes our players uncomfortable is bad GMing.
  4. We must not allow that kind of behavior while we have the authority to stop it.  #NotOnMyWatch (thanks to Heather Stern for the hashtag!)
How do you do it?  Use the tools you already have:  You can say no to a racist character just as easily as you say no to a cheesy rules abusing character.  You can railroad the players away from a misogynistic scene just as easily as you can railroad them away from wasting their time chasing a red herring.  You can use the dice and stats to abstract out uncomfortable scenes or just not run them, just like you do with scenes that might be uncomfortable for you.  If the players are yukking it up about a portly ogre, end that conversation with a goblin ambush.  If you can't control the behavior by diverting the players, you will need to step out of character - the same as with any disruptive behavior, like inappropriate cell phone use, rules lawyering, or quarterbacking.

You don't have to be a social justice warrior.  You don't have to advocate for anything.  You just have to do your job as a GM; and the most important part of your job is making sure everyone is comfortable and having a good time.

March 31, 2016

5e Level Zero rules

"Level zero" represents a D&D character who does not have a character class.  They're a henchman or commoner, or a hero before hearing the call to adventure.

5th edition is not alone among editions of D&D that do not have "level zero" rules.  Level zero rules are not universally useful, but they can come in handy for some styles of game.

For instance, one day I will run a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court game (alternately, Narnia or Fillory), perhaps using modern New Yorkers transported into a fantasyland where they can gain D&D character class levels.

Another use for "zeroth level" is for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Funnel.  

You can also run a "farmboy to hero" destined messiah type of game, with the PCs starting as shepherds and pig-boys and so forth.

I've seen some others' attempts at creating level zero rules, but they all added something.  These are stark and simple and provide instructions for "leveling up" to first level.  So here are the rules.

Character Creation

A 5th edition D&D 0th level character has:

  • The core six attributes (Str, Dex, Con, Int, Wis, Cha)
  • Race
  • Background
  • Maximum hit points:  6+Constitution Modifier
  • No hit dice
  • Armor Proficiency:  None
  • Weapon Proficiency:  Proficiency with daggers, darts, slings, quarterstaffs, and light crossbows
  • Tool Proficiency:  None
  • Saving Throw Proficiency:  None
  • Skill Proficiency:  None
  • Starting Equipment or Gold:  You start with the equipment and money your background bestows.
  • Your Proficiency Bonus starts at +1*

(* this lets the few skills, tools, and weapons you have proficiency with actually matter)

Note that you do not get a weapon to start with.  Level zero characters are torchbearers, deckhands, and pig farmers.  They're not walking around armed like adventurers.  You'll have some money to buy a weapon, though.  Each background provides enough coin for anything you're proficient with except the light crossbow.  Some backgrounds provide tool proficiency and tools that would let you make a weapon, if you have time.  Note that some backgrounds also provide a weapon (a Soldier can have a small trophy from a fallen enemy, like a dagger).

Gaining your First Level

You improve to level 1 once you've had training in a character class.  Usually there's some danger and adventure you have to go through before you can get that training, though.  That's the whole point of "level zero"!

At level 1, you select a character class and...
  • Replace your maximum hit points and hit dice with the ones you gain from your class.
  • Gain the Armor, Weapon, Skill, Tool, and Saving Throw proficiencies your class bestows.
  • Gain all the class features associated with your new character class.
  • Gain your choices from the standard equipment your character class starts with
  • Improve your Proficiency Bonus to +2  

That's it.  Easy as pie!

March 25, 2016

Quick Fantasy Background Generator

If you're stuck for ideas for how to make your fantasy RPG character interesting and tied to the DM's plots, simply roll up a loved one and a rival, flesh them out, and send them to the DM to tie to the story.

Loved One

The person I’m closest to is… (1d6)

  1. Romantic Partner
  2. Parent
  3. Child
  4. Mentor, Priest, or Teacher
  5. Loyal Friend
  6. Liege or Commander

I interact with them regularly by… (1d6)

  • 1. They travel with me, but not into danger
  • 2-4. I write them regular letters or reports
  • 5-6. I return to them after every adventure

Their future is uncertain because… (1d6)

  1. They’ve been cursed or suffer from a terminal condition, and I quest to save them
  2. They may have been recruited by my enemies or made a deal with the devil
  3. They have a position of power, and their rivals seek to usurp them
  4. They have dangerous or risky goals that I have to help them achieve 
  5. They’re hunted by enemies I have to protect them from
  6. They have a troubling, prophesied destiny none of us understands

Once you've got your results, give the person a name (choose a name from the examples given for the character's race in the game book, if you're stuck, or use a fantasy name generator.  Then flesh them out a little.  What do they look like?  What quirks might they have?  What are their goals?  What's your current relationship like?  Sweet?  Rocky?  Affectionate?  Testy?  Cold?  Businesslike?  Recovering?  Generous?

Troublesome Rival

My troublesome rival is… (1d6)

  1. Someone who seeks to usurp my position or outcompete me for a position I desire
  2. Someone who took something important from me (either illegally or legitimately), that I want to get back
  3. Someone who believes I harmed them or cost them something valuable, so I owe them a debt I can never repay
  4. An ex-lover who believes me to be a shiftless villain who cannot be trusted
  5. A former employer or commander who believes I betrayed them or shirked my responsibilities
  6. Someone who desperately wants a unique item I have, that I would never part with

Their redeeming quality (the reason I can’t kill them) is… (1d6)

  1. They help the poor and needy, and are respected by the common folk and other do-gooders like them
  2. They serve a god of goodness and justice faithfully and loyally, and the god and their servants love and respect them
  3. They are a loyal and valuable servant of the rightful ruler of the land, and the ruler depends on them and respects them
  4. They are kind and nurturing to people I care about, and the people I care about would never forgive me for causing them serious harm
  5. I owe them for saving my life or the life of the person I care most about, and people of my culture know this and expect me to show them respect and deference
  6. Their destiny is tied to mine, and prophecy says I need them, though I don’t know why or how

Their power is… (1d6)

  1. They are a powerful magic user
  2. They have a position of power, such as Alderman, Baron, or Vizier
  3. They have a network of loyal eyes and ears
  4. They are allied with a powerful monster
  5. They command an army
  6. They have legitimate authority to deliver justice anywhere in the world

Once you've got your results, give the person a name (choose a name from the examples given for the character's race in the game book, if you're stuck, or use a fantasy name generator.  Then flesh them out a little.  What do they look like?  What derisive name do they call you?  Or worse - are they respectful toward you?  Do they have friends or henchmen you know about?

March 9, 2016

Dungeon Aesthetics

Here are some things to help inspire you when designing fantasy adventures.  Fantasy RPGs take place in isolated locations with constrained paths between discrete areas.  These are called "dungeons" after the name of the most popular fantasy RPG, but they're rarely literal subterranean prisons.

How far away is the dungeon?
- Hidden inside a major city
- Just outside a major city
- Hidden in a market town
- Just outside a market town
- Near a tiny hamlet
- A day's journey from the nearest tiny hamlet
- A week's journey from the nearest tiny hamlet
- In a remote wilderness many weeks journey away
- On another continent
- On another plane of existence

How old is it?
- It's older than recorded history
- It's hundreds of years old
- It's a few generations old
- It's been here for a decade or so
- It's newly constructed
- Is it a mix of two of those

What sort of structure is it?
- A defensive building like a keep, tower, fortress, armory or citadel
- A moving vehicle like a ship, airship, or giant tortoise
- A place of worship like a temple, cathedral or abbey
- A place of learning like a university, college, or library
- A dwelling like a palace, apartment building, or manor
- A spectacle building like a colosseum, theater, amphetheater, or arena
- A place of confinement like a prison or slave market
- A market building like a souk or bank
- An industrial building like a mine, forge, mill, foundary, or warehouse
- An agricultural building like a barn, freehold complex, granary, or stable
- A temporary residence like a refugee camp or military bivouac
- A place to keep something safe like a vault or treasury
- A burial place like a necropolis, ossuary, tomb or crypt
- A multi-component structure with more than one use

How was it built?
- An underground complex dug deep into the earth beneath the hills and fields
- Built into the side of a cliff, exposed along one face
- Built into the bottom of a canyon or pit
- Built like a mine deep inside a mountain or hill, hidden from view
- Built up off the ground, as a stone or timber structure
- Built high, along the tops of trees, buttes, a plateau, or high towers

The creatures there are...
- The original inhabitants, or their normal descendants
- The twisted descendants of the original inhabitants
- New residents who moved in and are using it for their own purposes
- Non-intelligent creatures or animals who just live here
- Ancient, slumbering evils
- Programmed automatons whose eldritch rotes keep out natural wildlife