Category Archives: Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition

Stuff relating to the fourth edition of D&D, released in 2008

Magical Descriptions

Magical Descriptions

So, in my post on magic, or somewhere else, who can keep track of this anymore, I sure can’t, I posited that there should be good guidelines and idea pools to help DMs describe magical items in ways that made them flavorful and memorable from a fluff perspective, regardless of the mechanics. It thus then occurred to me that I could provide such a service myself.

First, let’s discuss the kinds of things a DM should think about, before delving into a catalog of mental kickstarters. The below material doesn’t contain specific mechanics, but describes mechanics conceptually, so a DM can translate them to their game system of choice with ease.

Basic Concepts

So, you’ve got a +1 sword. Now what? Please note, the below questions and guidelines can apply to all items, not just weapons and armor, though they’re less applicable to disposable one-shot items like scrolls and potions, though not wholly so.

Who Made It?: I don’t mean the name of the smith or wizard (or do I? Yes, I certainly might), but the culture. In an age before mass production, all items show some signs of cultural origin, sometimes obvious, sometimes not. If it’s made by a particular nation, it may contain the symbol of that nation, or the choices of decoration may reflect the animals, gods, plants, and so on of that nation. Remember that non-humans aren’t monocultures; while you can get away with saying “It’s forged in the elvish style”, it’s much cooler to day, “It’s forged in the style of the Grey Elves of the Western Woods, as you can tell by the use of the silver ash leaf as a decorative motif.” Except for items from lost, forgotten, etc, cultures, it should generally be an easy check on an appropriate History or Knowledge skill, or a freebie to someone with the appropriate background.

When Was It Made?: This ties slightly into the above — cultures have eras and periods, and there are usually signs of when an item was made, based on the style of art, the craftsmanship, materials used, and so on. Symbols rise and fall in prominence over time, and craftsmen learn new techniques, or forget old ones. The purity of an alloy, or the width of a hilt, can all give clues to the age of an item. Generally speaking, it is a trope that older items are more powerful. While sometimes illogical (would you rather have an ENIAC or an iPad?), it can make sense in the weird context of D&D-style games. For a sword to survive in a usable form for thousands of years in a dank dungeon, it’s probably got some potent enchantments on it. Furthermore, a newly-made +5 holy dancing vorpal flaming dragonbane sword is probably still in the hands of the person it was made for, not lost twenty levels underground. For a very powerful item to be lying around waiting for someone to claim it, it needs to have been lost so long ago most people have given up looking for it. Less powerful items, more easily replaced, are more easily abandoned when they’re still new.

What’s It Made Of?: Leaving aside explicitly magical materials, the composition of an item can be interesting. Is it made of crude, impure, metal, or highly tempered and refined steel? What kind of wood is the bow made of? Is the leather on the grip made of dragonhide or human skin or good ol’ cow? Is it made of multiple substances, perhaps woven together in an unusual way? Again, culture is likely a key here, but this is also a good chance to show how an item is unusual:”The markings and runes are all very clearly of the Dwarves of Brasshammer’s Forge, but they’re known for their work with steel and adamantine. This shield is made of crude bog-iron, or so it seems.” Alchemy, Appraisal, or any kind of military or weapons knowledge skills are used here, and identifying common materials is likely to be an easy check, but rare materials — or realizing a common material should be uncommon for an item of this type — can be moderate or hard. Scrolls can be on papyrus, on refined paper (for higher tech cultures), on rough cloth, on segmented folding metal or slats of wood, or on vellum made from all sorts of creatures.  Potion bottles might be glass, or metal, or clay, or varnished wood, or stoppered drinking horns. Ivory and bone can come from dragons, demons, liches, or sheep.

What Does It Look Like?: Well, duh, it’s a sword! (Shield, chain shirt, wand, ring). This question sort of relates back to the others, but go further. Is the ring made of twisted and interlocked braids? Does the sword have writing on the blade, and on both sides, or one side?  What does the writing say? What language is it in? Is the blade straight or scalloped? What condition is the armor in — shining and clean, or battered? Are the decorative bits, or does the item reek of pure functionality? Has it been dyed or colored in any way? Are there small details — if the grip of a wand contains a carved ivory skull, does the skull have tiny sapphires for eyes… or perhaps the skull has horns, or fangs.

How Does It Feel?: This is a good time to consider the kind of magic the item has, and how it might manifest. Is the armor unusually light or flexible? Does it seem to instantly fit the wearer? Does it itch, or radiate warmth, or is it always cold? Is the sword so well balanced it almost seems to move on its own? Does it vibrate a little when it’s held? Does the wand twitch a bit when you first grip it, seeking a target? Do you find you always nick yourself on the blade when you draw the weapon, now matter how careful you are, and does the blood sink into the very metal of the sword?

Is It A Thing Of Legend?:Most items were made for a reason. You don’t make magic swords — not even boring +1 swords — to keep them in stock in case someone comes in wanting to buy one. Perhaps a powerful ruler commissioned a dozen such blades for his elite guard, all identical, but finding one of the King’s Own Twelve is still a noteworthy achievement. This doesn’t mean every blade is fabled in song and story. Most of the time, the backstory is relatively trivial — a wand carved by a wizard for a favored apprentice, a ring made by a runesmith to be a gift to a loyal adviser, and so on. Knowing this history is often simply a fun thing, but it can be useful, especially if anyone involved, or their descendents, are still around and even marginally interested. It can open some doors… or attract some enemies.

Oddments And Oddities: Magic is a chaotic force, even under the most carefully controlled conditions. Some believe the chaos is innate; others, that the chaos represents a lack of knowledge about all the factors which might be involved. In any event, most items have some slight quirks to them. An axe forged by dwarfs might cause its wielder to curse in dwarfish, no matter what language he is trying to swear in. The wielder of a wand of fireballs might find he can’t abide any meat that is not seared to nearly the point of charcoal. Armor may clang resoundingly when it is struck, or it might bleed black oil whenever the wearer is critically hit. The design on a ring might shift to show the phases of the moon, or the gem on a magic staff becomes the birthstone of whatever wizard is holding it. A cloak woven with a pattern of roses might give off the small of roses… or it might occasionally produce, from nowhere, a few petals, which simply drop off.

The Inevitable Caveats

It’s best to have only one to three interesting aspects for any item; don’t go whole-hog, especially if the item isn’t the centerpiece of a campaign or intended to be the signature item of a character.

Descriptive and fluff text should have effectively no mechanical impact, except under extraordinary circumstances. Don’t make players suffer if their items are cool (for example, penalizing them on stealth if their items emit quiet sounds or odd smells), and, likewise, don’t let them try to turn a bit of colorful description into a way to snag an unearned bonus or modifier.

The Magic Of Magic

The Magic Of Magic

Once again, this a is reply to, and expansion of, some of the WOTC articles on 5e. Here’s the original article, and here’s my (two) original replies, and after this, we’ll get even more ways to say the same thing using slightly different words.

First off, let’s put a stake through the heart of the myth that magic items used to be “rare” or “mysterious”. Everyone had all the rulebooks and memorized them, as far back as the game existed. To the extent there was every any mystery, it was always for new players who hadn’t yet memorized the rules, and trying to reclaim that feeling is like trying to get back your virginity. Ain’t gonna happen. As for rare… two words: Monty Haul.

If you decide that you won’t build in the assumption that players will gain magic items, then, you basically break the game’s math, because they WILL gain them, in great profusion. If you scale monsters and difficulty levels on the assumption most players won’t have magic items, that’s like designing a video game on the assumption most players won’t go to hint sites or read guidebooks. It’s just not how things work, or how things EVER worked, and I’m really worried that people caught up in this nostalgia kick are apparently doing no research as to how games ACTUALLY PLAYED back in the 1970s and 1980s, and how most of the design decisions being rejected were the direct consequence of fixing actual old school play, not rose-colored fantasies of a playstyle that never was.

That said, having backstory and myth and cool minor powers attached to magic items is something any competent DM does all the time; it’s nice if this is mentioned in the rules and guidelines provided, but it’s hardly the sort of thing we’ve all been waiting on the rules to “let” us do. It’s baseline DMing, it’s what we do by instinct. Also, and this is important, it’s done for our own pleasure, as players either a)ignore such fluff, or, b)obsess insanely over it, warping the entire campaign over some off-hand bit of color, because somehow it’s got stuck in their minds that this is the key to EVERYTHING and the DM wouldn’t have put it there if they weren’t meant to pursue it at all costs.

Second reply:

Just to elaborate, here’s the reality of actual play:
DM:”You see an odd suit of armor. It is formed of battered dark iron, inset with many pieces of stone, all in tones of greys and blacks, such as smoky dark quartz and obsidian mosaics that form primitive, but intricate, patterns. There are signs that the suit has seen much battle,  as it is dented and scraped, although clearly still sturdy and wearable. The helmet for the suit is hammered into the shape of a bull’s head, and…”

Player: “Right, gorgon armor. +2, immune to petrification, yadda yadda. Page 125 in the DMG. Does anyone wear plate? Oh, and if he’s handing this out, it means we’re going to be facing medusae or basilisks or something, everyone make sure you’ve got Scrolls Of Protection From Petrification at the ready. Oh, I guess, technically, I should roll to know that… roll…. 24 on my arcane knowledge check, there, that’s done, what’s the next item we looted? It better be a +2 sword, I’ve been carrying this +1 piece of crap for three levels now. Cheapass DM!”

THAT’S the reality of play, from 1974 to 2012, and beyond, and nothing in the rules can change it.

Now, let me go on a bit…

Consider the following:

“The blade, known in lore as Restgiver, is a greatsword in form, the general style and artistry reflective of the Theatian culture which forged. The hilt is of bone, reputed to be of a lich, and carved with patterns of skulls deformed in seeming terror. The blade itself is of metal so pale as to seem almost white. Histories tell that it was forged from the fragments of blades taken from such beings as liches, death knights, and skeleton warriors, and it was tempered in both holy water and in the ectoplasm of ghosts bound to the forge where it was made. Its innate magics make it lighter, sharper, and faster than even the finest mundane blade, making it a fit prize for any warrior, but it shows its purpose when it confronts the undead, as it is designed to give them rest. When wielded against any once-living being still animated by foul magics, it is even deadlier than a normal blade of its ilk would be, and it cuts and bites into the faintest wisp of a ghost or a phantom as if they were made of solid flesh. While it has no true soul or spirit animating it, those who wield it report that they feel some sense of warmth or joy when the prospect of returning the dead to their grave is mentioned in its presence.”


“Greatsword +2 bane (undead), ghost touch”.

They’re both the same thing.

The rules exist to give you the tools to make the latter. Adding the former is up to you; the rules can’t give you that.

(Oh, and I just posted most of that back on WOTC’s boards anyway; so it goes. It’s not like anyone’s paying for this site.)

A History Of Facile Video Game Comparisons

In Convenient Chart Format

Year Edition Video Game
2000 Third
2008 Fourth
2012 Fifth




You Should Be Used To Names Like That By Now

Wow, 20 days or so since I last posted? Well, I’ve been replying to comments, I updated Grammar For Gamers, and I’ve been active on some of the 5e boards over at WOTC, telling them what they’re doing wrong. Also, exercising, which has started to take an hour a day away from important things like writing blog entries while eating an entire bag of bacon-wrapped Cheetos.

Anyway, this is a creature which has been in the back of my mind for a while, but I was, surprisingly, stuck on the name… I kept thinking “Porcuboar”, which is obviously not acceptable, and it both astounds and depresses me how long it took for the bleedingly obvious “boarcupine” to emerge.

While the kangaruins are intended to be straightforward creatures, the boarcupine is more complex, as it changes its fighting style and general function when it’s bloodied, going from a quill-tossing piece of artillery to a vicious brute.

The usual caveat: Fresh off the keyboard, not a lot of editing, yadda yadda yadda.


Boarcupine (Artillery/Brute)

Level 16 Elite Artillery/Brute

Large natural beast (mammal)

XP 2,800

HP 252; Bloodied 126

AC 28; Fortitude 29; Reflex 28; Will 27

Speed 6

Saving Throws +2; Action Points 1

Initiative +13

Perception +10, low-light vision

O Prickly Defense • Aura 1
Any creature entering the aura, or starting its turn there, takes 2d6+4 damage. If doubles are rolled on this damage, the creature also takes 5 ongoing damage, save ends. If the first save fails and the target is in the aura, increase to 10 ongoing damage.
Raging Boar
When the Boarcupine is bloodied, it gains 64 temporary hit points, and its AC and Reflex defenses drop by 2. It also changes its abilities in ways noted in each affected power. Once it has been bloodied, it becomes Berserk. It does not lose this condition until the end of the encounter, even if it is healed back above Bloodied.
Standard Actions
m Gore • At-Will
Attack: Reach 2; +21 vs. AC
Hit: 3d10 + 8 damage. If the Boarcupine is Berserk, the damage increases to 4d10+10.
a Quill Toss • At-Will
Requirements: The Boarcupine must not be Berserk.
Attack: Area Burst 2 within 15 (All creatures in burst.); +20 vs. Reflex
Hit: 4d6 + 4 damage, and creature is slowed (save ends). If hit again by this power when still slowed, the condition becomes immobilized (save ends). .
M Trample • At-Will
Requirements: Must be Berserk.
Attack: +21 vs. AC; +2 bonus to attack rolls and +6 bonus to damage against prone targets.
Hit: 2d12 + 10 damage, and target is knocked prone. .
All Out Attack • At-Will
Requirements: Must not be Berserk.
Effect: The Boarcupine makes a Gore attack and a Quill Toss attack. The Quill Toss does not provoke an OA from any creature targeted by the Gore.
C Quill Burst • Recharge 4 5 6; recharge 6 if Berserk
Attack: Close Burst 3 (All creatures in burst); +21 vs. Reflex
Hit: 4d6 + 4 damage, and creature is blinded until the start of the boarcupine’s next turn.
M Tramplegore • At-Will
Requirements: Must be Berserk.
Effect: The boarcupine makes a trample and gore attack, against the same or different targets. If both attacks hit, it may shift half its speed.
Triggered Actions
Bloodied Burst • Encounter
Trigger: The boarcupine is bloodied for the first time in an encounter.
Effect (Immediate Reaction): Quill Burst immediately recharges, and the boarcupine uses it. In addition, the boarcupine become Berserk.
Skills Endurance +20, Intimidate +15
Str 24 (+15) Dex 21 (+13) Wis 15 (+10)
Con 24 (+15) Int 2 (+4) Cha 15 (+10)
Alignment unaligned     Languages

Boarcupines are massive creatures, usually 8-10 feet high at the shoulder. Their general form is that of a greatly enlarged boar, except that they are covered with a dense tangle of jagged quills, and usually have 2-6 tusks that jut in every direction.

Boarcupines are almost never seen with their own kind, except during mating season, when they will gather in the dense, temperate forests that are their homes and engage in violent battles in order to win attention from the females. After mating, the females will leave and raise their offspring away from the violent and territorial males; boarcupines are weaned within 6 months. Some groups of bloodgers will stalk pregnant females and try to capture the young within a week or two of birth; this is the only way to even partially domesticate them.

There are a number of herb and fungus mixes which can mimic particular scents which the boarcupine responds to, such as a female in heat or a male marking its territority. Races which dwell in the forests often use these to control or guide boarcupines, so they may be encountered as guards. Sometimes, female boarcupines are teamed with other creatures, sapient or otherwise, that have been scent-masked to seem to be her young.

Boarcupine Mounts: Bloodgers, and members of the Beast Legion and the Annihilation Army, sometimes manage to make mounts out of these beasts. Such creatures gain the “Mount” keyword, and the following powers:

Difficult Mount
When the boarcupine is Berserk, any rider must make an Easy Athletics or Nature check, with the DC based on the boarcupine’s level, to remain mounted. This check is a free action made at the start of the rider’s turn.


Painful Spur • Encounter
Requirements: Must be mounted by a rider of 16th level or higher.
Effect: As a Standard Action, the rider forces the boarcupine to perform a Quill Burst attack, even if the power has not recharged. After this, the power cannot recharge (even by Bloodied Burst) until the boarcupine has had a short rest.

(Generally, it’s best for riders to save Painful Spur until the boarcupine has been bloodied; otherwise, they lose the bonus recharge from Bloodied Burst, and, besides, Recharge 6 might as well be recharge never when you’re past bloodied — the fight will most likely only go another 2-3 rounds.)

D&D 5E

Well, as everyone probably knows by now, this site not exactly being known for cutting edge news or steady updates (I’ve got a good excuse for not posting much this past month, namely, I’ve been taking care of my sick mother playing SWTOR.. anyone on the Ebon Hawk server? I’ve got a BH 28 and a JK 4), Wizards Of The Coast has announced development on D&D Fifth Edition, with rules previews coming at D&D Experience which is, I think, in January or February, and an open playtest starting in Spring 2012 (the Mayans predicted this), and probably a 2013 release, though there isn’t an official date set. Some are figuring 2014, to coincide with the game’s 40th anniversary, but that would mean two and a half years of limbo sales, since people won’t want to “invest” in 4e with a “new” edition on the horizon… unless WOTC spends the next two years or so selling “beta” releases of the 5e rules, constantly updated with new material, until the “final release” in 2014, which would be an interesting marketing strategy, and by “interesting”, I mean “I think it’s amazingly stupid, which means, it will probably work perfectly”.

As for what that means for this site… I don’t know. I’ve mostly been producing 4e materials, because it’s easy to do. I’m still passionate about Earth Delta, having had some more monster ideas this weekend. This site has always been run on the basis of “Whatever I feel like writing about at the time”. My 4e campaign is winding down, and it looks like I’ll be using True 20 for my next game, since I’ve failed to sell my players on GURPS. (They wanted to stick in the D20 world, and D20 Modern is not that great, having used it for a long campaign, and there’s no true “Pathfinder Modern” out there, and Spycraft gives me a headache, and that’s saying something. )

So, really, in terms of new rules and crunch, I’m not sure what I’m likely to be inspired to work on. I’ll probably do more review/walkthroughs, as they seem more popular, anyway, and I have no shortage of material to work with.

Making Magic Magical

A common complaint I see on RPG boards is that “magic should be more magical”. The lack of “magicalness” is often cited as a reason to dislike some new version of a game, or otherwise waved around as a generic failure that explains why nothing is fun anymore and everything sucks and it’s just not like it was in the old days.

Virtually identical tones, if different in actual details, can be found on every MMORPG board, and it all basically boils down to “You can’t lose your virginity twice”, a metaphor which is, admittedly, a bit problematical when dealing with some MMO players. But I digress. (Yeah, I’ve made that joke before. Hey, you go with what works, you know?)

Anyway, to focus on the topic on hand… no system of rules will make magic magical. The reason why is in that very sentence. It’s a system of rules. No matter how the game is dressed up in folderol like “arranging motes of quintessence in order to transform will into power”, it boils down to “Roll 4d10 and add your Majik1 Enlightenment to blast the zombie into dust.”

A common response to this is, “Well, sure, there are rules, but the game and the world can make magic mysterious, and magical!” Partially true… but not nearly so much as some people think or want, and here’s why. When discussing D&D, or dungeon crawly/medieval fantasy in general,  magic is usually quite common in actual play, even if the rules say it isn’t. Face it, if you’ve got a book of spells, and a book of items, and a book of monsters, you want to use most of them. You don’t want your heroes spending all their time fighting normal humans with normal weapons… unless your name is “George R. R. Martin”, who can literally describe characters eating breakfast and make it compelling reading.

Rules For Breakfast Not Included

(Yes, I know what “literally” means. I do not mean ‘figuratively’ or ‘as an exaggerated example’. I mean, when George R. R. Martin writes about what his characters eat, just the normal mundane foods they consume, he does it in a way that is interesting enough that it serves to draw you into the world, not make you yawn and wonder when he’s going to get on with the plot. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say few, if any, of the people reading this are that skilled at DMing.) You want your characters fighting vampiric half-dragon wolves with flaming vorpal swords! (You can read this as “the characters are using the swords” or “the wolves are using the swords” — either works.) So the world is going to be steeped in magic and monsters, and that’s that.

This is a “best case” scenario, where only the PCs, and their key antagonists, have access to magic, akin to older high fantasy like Lord Of The Rings.

Rules For Second Breakfast Not Included

The NPCs may oooh and ahhh and swoon over the magic, but there’s still no getting around the fact that the players know exactly how many plusses Gorthandiril, The Lost Sword Of The True Kings Of The Far Lands, has, and how much better it is than a mundane sword, and that they’ll toss it down a well if a sword with more plusses shows up. Even in this case, if the campaign is long, the amount of magic in it will invariably creep up, if only to keep the enemies and the players on an equal footing. Further, it’s quite impossible to pull many of the tricks that authors pull when you’re dealing with players. They’ll loot every item they can find, and “mumble mumble doesn’t work for you mumble mumble” grows thin. Even more, no matter what wondrous, enthralling, truly mystical marvel you create, as an item or as a feature of the world, some player is going to find a way to exploit the living crap out of it by treating it as a fact of the world and then reasoning forward from that fact… and that leads us to the more common scenario.

That scenario is, “the world is overloaded with magic”. This is the default scenario for any D&D world, whether you want to admit it or not; you can’t go into any random dungeon and come out with a pile of wands, scrolls, potions, and so on, without realizing “someone made all this stuff, and it was sufficiently replaceable that it was left to molder in some goblin-infested pit until a bunch of sociopathic murderers decided to commit genocide and then loot the corpses”.  If there exist NPCs capable of massacring goblins by sneezing on them (and there usually are), and none of them considered finding, say, a +1 sword in a goblin lair to be sufficient inducement to take an hour or two to clean out said lair, this instantly tells you that a +1 sword is considered to be a pretty darn common thing, even if the fluff text in the rules goes on and on about how rare magic is. If the fluff text says “Magic is rare and precious!”, and then the “sample adventure” has a goblin lair with magic items in it, a bare hop, skip, and jump from a town with NPCs of sufficiently high level that the PCs can’t just skip the goblins and, instead, loot the town… the fluff text is lying.

“Well, what if no one knew there was a magic sword there?”

Do they let the PCs keep the magic sword? Yes? Then the magic sword is virtually worthless.

Let’s put it this way. If a modern day soldier, returning from a battle, has grabbed an enemy utility knife, or even pistol, as a souvenir, he might be breaking some regulation or two, but in reality, no one will care. If he comes back with, oh, an atomic bomb, he will not be allowed to keep it “as a souvenir”. Period. Given how even high-level NPCs in most D&D type worlds react to PCs with magic items (that is, they don’t), barring artifacts and similar world-wreckers, there’s no way to get around it — magic items are common.

Likewise, so are spellcasters. Again, no matter how much the fluff text insists magic is rare and amazing and people stare with wonder at it, if a typical part of a wizard, a cleric, and this year’s variant of gish (fighter/magic-user) can walk through town and go about their business easily enough… magic isn’t rare. (Consider how much fuss was caused in Israel, about 2000 years ago, when one person tossed off a few trivial spells like Cure Blindness, Walk On Water, and Create Food and Drink. Even the highest level spell cast was Raise Dead, which is only fifth level.)

“So? Just because magic is common doesn’t mean it can’t be…. magical, whatever that means!”, says my peanut gallery of straw men, a truly strange mental image.

Except that it does. If it’s common… people know how it works and what it does. Oh, most people might not know everything and there will be a lot of false information. The “why” and “how” might be very mysterious… but so what? I don’t need to know exactly how gunpowder combusts to know, roughly, what a gun can do, how fast it can fire, how many shots it holds. I may not be able to perform the equations that explain how rifling works, but I know what it does and the effect it has on a bullet. A wand of fireballs is no more mysterious, to a typical D&D inhabitant, than a fully-automatic rifle. He may never own one. He may never see one personally, at least, he probably hopes not. He may not be able to describe how it works, or determine, at a glance, how many charges it has left… but he’s heard of them, he knows enough about them that while he may be terrified of seeing one in action, he’s not astounded by it. The reality of its existence is part of his world. We all live surrounded by machines whose exact workings we can barely fathom, and we know of the existence of all sorts of machines we have never personally seen or interacted with.

Attempts to hammer a “sensawunda” into the rules are usually futile. You can make magic much more random and less reliable, but this still doesn’t make magic “magical” — it just makes it more of a case for detailed cost-benefit analysis.

So what’s the solution?

Well, first, players need to realize that what they’re asking for is to have their minds reset to the time when they first discovered RPGs, when they didn’t know how the rules worked or what spells were available or anything, and so of course magic was “magical”. While you could guess what a sword could do fairly easily, you had no idea what a wizard could do, so you actually experienced that sense of wonder, because it was new to you, the player, and that cannot be recaptured by any rules.

Second, the DM and the players have to take up some of the heavy lifting themselves.

Effects need to be described, not just in terms of their game effects, but in their sight, sound, smell, and the way they impact the world. When a character “detects magic”, what are they doing? Hearing odd noises? Seeing colors? Having images flicker into their brain, like forgotten dreams? This responsibility falls on both sides of the screen. If a DM tells you, “You’re detecting strong conjuration magic”, you may tell the rest of the party this, in character, as “There are vibrations here of the sort one usually sees with spells of conjuration… fairly potent ones, too… let me wait a moment more, and see if I can perceive the sub-harmonies that could indicate the type”. Now, of course, this kind of flavor text might strike other people as utterly wrong, exactly the kind of clinical pseudo-scientific “magic” they want to avoid… and that’s fine. The exact way in which the mechanics of the rules are perceived by the people in the game world is something that tends to arise from consensus between the players and the DM.

The game mechanics of 3.x/PF, and to a lesser extent 4e, virtually mandate a golf bag of magic items and a constant swapping of weaker items for better ones. (I’ve found that, in 4e, once someone likes a sword/armor/shield, it’s often best to simply increment the bonus instead of giving them a “new” item. If a flaming sword is iconic to their character, then, instead of replacing the +1 flaming sword with a +2 frost sword, or a different +2 flaming sword, just say, “After the battle, you realize that the ambient magic has been partially drawn into your blade, increasing the potency of the enchantments upon it.” Most players, in my experience, are happy to keep the sword that has become identified with their character, so long as they remain in the right place on the power curve.)

Even if you do have many potions/wands/scrolls, though, it’s possible and desirable to describe them uniquely. A wand of fireballs may be made of charred wood and always smell slightly sulfurous, for example. Potions have varying tastes and textures. Even more, each item may have odd side effects or unusual traits, reflecting the idea that magic is as much art as science. Given two wands of magic missile, for instance, one might emit bolts that fly towards their target with a keening whine, while another bucks and quivers as it discharges.

In conclusion… if you think that the reason things aren’t “magical” enough is that the rules are too well-defined, and that going back to a “simpler” rules set will “bring back the magic”… you’re probably wrong, and you’re going to spend a lot of time being very disappointed. If you want to recapture the feeling of freshness and wonder, bring in some new players — in any edition of the rules — and enjoy seeing the game through their eyes. If you want to make the world more evocative and involving — don’t expect the game to provide you with all the description and imagery that makes it so; do it yourself. As a player, describe what happens when you cast a spell, or the look and feel of your magic items, and ask your fellow players to do the same. As a DM, think about every +1 sword and potion of cure light wounds you hand out, and give them something interesting, even if it’s just a decoration on the hilt or the fact that when you drink the potion, you hear a feminine voice singing “Soft Kitty”.

If You Didn’t Get That Last Joke, Order This


1: The more you misspell “magic”, the more magical… I mean, majyckyl… it is.

And STAY Dead!

And STAY Dead!

Assassination In A World Of Magic

The RPGBloggers carnival this month is about assassins, everyone’s favorite black-cloaked n’er-do-wells. My contribution is this collection of items and rituals designed to aid in killing people (and, ideally, not getting caught), when “We can’t question him here… kill him, cut off his head, stuff it in the bag of holding, and carry it with so we can talk to him later” is a perfectly viable strategy, or when the nearly lethal wound you inflicted is instantly healed by some inconvenient cleric a second later. (Or, worse, by some warlord who just shouts at someone until their throat un-slits.)

The items, etc, here, are not so much intended for the assassin class per se, as for anyone, regardless of their class, who engages in the art of removing obstacles from other people’s paths. Assassination, in this context, differs from straight-up combat in many ways: It is usually done solo; the assassin spends time, often days or weeks, studying their victim; and  it is best if no one knows who did it.

While the game mechanics here are for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, the ideas should be readily portable to any fantasy game where magic is, if not necessarily cheap or common, both common enough and reliable enough that the rich and powerful will have access to it for protection, and those who would slay them have access to counter-measures. (In most cases, there aren’t counter-counter-measures, because that game tends to have no end.)

Oil Of Eternal Silence

There are few things worse than having your dead victim rat you out. Even when returning the dead to life is out of the question, they can still speak from beyond the grave. Many assassins carry a vial or two of this substance to use if they suspect they were seen or that their target would have a good guess who got them.

Oil Of Eternal Silence Level 5+ Rare

This oil is thin, black, and yet glistens even in darkness. When ignited, the flames make no noise.

Lvl 5: 50 gp

Lvl 15: 1,000 gp

Lvl 25: 25,000 gp


Utility Power * Consumable (Minor Action)

Effect:When this oil is poured on a corpse, and ignited, any attempt use speak with dead on the charred remains are stymied, with a penalty to the Religion check equal to the  oil’s level, plus 5 (-10 for the fifth level potion, -20 for the 15th level potion, -30 for the 25th level potion).

Spider Queen’s Caress

This item is named for the drow, fabled masters of poison, but it is uncertain if it truly originated with them or if this is mere folklore, as the mystique of such things is ruined if it turns out it was invented by some cunning kobold shaman.

The Spider Queen’s Caress Level 8+ Rare

It’s clear, tasteless, odorless, and perfectly safe for you to drink right along with your target… assuming no one is also targeting you…

Lvl 8 125 gp Lvl 23 17,000 gp
Lvl 13 650 gp Lvl 28 85,000 gp
Lvl 18 3,400 gp


Utility Power * Consumable (Minor Action)

Effect:This poison must be ingested, and can be slipped easily into a target’s drink or food with a typical sleight of hand check, if anyone’s watching. It is virtually impossible to detect, requiring a Hard Perception check at the poison’s level +5 to notice. (Magic that detects poison with no roll or chance of failure will still have a 10% chance of missing this one.)

Once ingested, spider queen’s caress gives the target vulnerability 5 (poison) and a -2 to all saves against ongoing damage or other effects from a poison of its level or lower, until the end of the second extended rest from when they consumed it. This increases to vulnerability 10 (poison) at 18th level and to vulnerability 15 (poison) at 23rd level. In addition, at 13th level, the first save made against any poison attack automatically fails (this is the first save rolled, whether the normal end of turn save or one granted by magic or healing). At 23rd level, the first two saves fail.

Since the spider queen’s caress is not directly damaging, some daring assassins will risk consuming it, if doing so lulls the suspicions of their target.

Blessingbane Weapon

Often, merely hearing that someone has been marked for death is enough to make his friends desert him, but some people have annoyingly loyal companions. This weapon quite literally cuts a victim off from support. While it was originally crafted to prevent someone who was “mostly dead” being restored if a healer happened on him at the last minute, it has also become a useful tool for those whose plans of a quiet slit throat in the night have gone awry, and they must kill their victim in the presence of witnesses.

Blessingbane Weapon Level 4+ Rare

One slice of this dagger, and the target finds that no one can aid him, not even himself.

Lvl 4 +1
840 gp Lvl 19 +4
105,000 gp
Lvl 9 +2
4,200 gp Lvl 24 +5
525,000 gp
Lvl 14 +3
21,000 gp Lvl 29 +6  2,625,000

Weapon: Light blade

Enhancement Bonus: Attack rolls and damage rolls.

Critical: +1d8 necrotic damage per plus, or +1d12 necrotic damage when making a coup de grace

Property: Any attacks you make with this weapon ignore temporary hit points, and directly reduce the target’s true hit point total.

Power (Encounter): Free action.  Use this power after you have damaged a creature with this weapon. Until the end of the encounter, any powers you use that deal ongoing damage to the creature which a save can end impose a -2 penalty to the save.

Power (Encounter): Free action. Use this power after you have damaged a creature with this weapon. Any attempt to make healing checks on the creature suffer a penalty equal to twice the weapon’s enhancement bonus. This lasts until the end of the encounter.

Power (Daily): Free action. Use this power after you have damaged a creature with this weapon. The creature cannot be the target of any beneficial power or effect with the healing keyword. He is not considered an “ally” of anyone, for any purpose, until this effect ends, meaning he will be targeted by area spells which normally do not affect allies, he is not included in any power that allows “all allies” to make an attack, and so on. Likewise, no power he has which targets “allies” will function. This effect lasts until the end of the encounter, or until the wielder of this weapon ends a turn without making an attack against the target.

Rite Of The Deceptive Tongue

While assassins often make a big show of swearing to carry their secrets to the grave, the fact is, many who have sent others to their deaths have no desire to follow after. Torture, magic, or simply a jingling bag of coins can tempt many to spill their guts.

Rite of the Deceptive Tongue

The hooded master of the guild of friendly helpers finished scribing the sign and then waved his subordinate on his way. He knew this was a risky mission, but he knew the killer would die before he revealed any secrets, whether he wanted to or not.

Level: 8

Category: Deception

Time: 10 minutes

Duration: 24 hours

Component Cost: 135 gp

Market Price: 680 gp

Key Skill: Arcana; must also be trained in Bluff to use this ritual.

When this ritual is performed, the target of the ritual, who must be willing, is given a topic or closely related set of topics that he cannot discuss honestly. He will be given a cover story or the like, and he will believe this with absolute sincerity, so that any Insight check will reveal he seems to be telling the truth. The Bluff check of the caster of this ritual, +5, is the DC for any Insight or Arcana check to determine that the target is under magical compulsion. Even if confronted with hard evidence that he’s lying, or threatened with death or torture, the subject of the ritual will either stick to his story, or will “crack” and tell a second, different, lie, but at a -5 penalty to his bluff as it will be forced and obvious.


It is not always easy to find these items; they are fundamentally illegal in most nations, as their purpose is self-evidently the antithesis of weal.  While the default is often to let the players have them if the DM thinks they should, and otherwise not, a less railroady method is possible.

A streetwise check at a hard DC of the item’s level can be made to locate a likely seller. This check is generally impossible in any village of under 500 people, unless the DM has explicitly placed someone there or the village is exceptionally corrupt and criminal — a drow town in the underdark, for example. It is at a -2 to -5 in any town or city of less than 5000, the exact penalty being based on the size of the settlement and the general tone of the place; chaotic cities in evil empires tend to have a thriving black market.

It is reasonable to assume that professional, full-time, NPC assassins who are working in their home cities, or who traveled with a target in mind from the start, will have resources appropriate to their level. If the NPC is forced, by circumstance, to hunt for such items himself (for example, he has joined the PCs as a hireling and was not able to gather all his items before they teleported half across the world), you can just assume he finds what he needs “offstage”, but it can be more fun to roll for it, as above, and then decide what the NPC does if he’s denied access to some of his favorite toys.  This also helps convey a sense of fairness and avoids the problem often seen in 4e, where there’s a giant wall between how the world works for PCs and how it works for everyone else.

An Utterly Random Thought On 4e Combat

So I’m over on WOTC’s site, where their advice on making 4e combat take less time is to not do any of the things that 4e combat is designed around, such as using interesting terrain, or giving monsters cool powers. One thought occurred to me that a problem with 4e combat is that, since most of your key abilities are encounter based, for a fight to be challenging, it has to actually force you to use most of them and then press you to use your dailies or to drain enough healing surges that the fight actually “counts” — if you can plow through a battle in one round, you won’t use 1/5th of the daily resources you might use in a 5 round fight, you’ll likely use no daily resources at all.  Thus, a “real” fight must be a full-on affair, with multiple monsters and all of their synergies, or you might as well just say “A fight happened, you won, here’s your XP and loot”.

Older versions of D&D had most powers as X/day, or (especially in Pathfinder) X rounds/day, so a series of short, 2-3 round fights consume as many rounds/day resources as a longer, 10 round, fight.  Because of the way encounter powers work, there’s no reason for players to hold them back in any fight, if they can reasonably assume even five minutes to catch their breath… if they encounter a lone “standard” monsters of their level, they will unload with encounter attacks without a second thought. Why not? Using anything less means a greater risk of damage, which means a loss of healing surges, one of the few non-recoverable resources.

So, what if — and be aware this is a random thought and not something I’ve really considered in depth as to its implications — encounter powers didn’t refresh with a short rest, but refreshed only X rounds of combat after they were used, no matter how far apart those combats were during the day? Lets say, totally arbitrarily, that the ‘average’ power recovers after five rounds of combat. If you use that power in Round 2 of the first fight of the day, and that fight ends in Round 3, you can’t use it again until fight 2, round 4.  (A Reliable power would not ‘discharge’ until it hit, of course.)

So let’s say the a party of 5 encounters a single level-appropriate elite monster, or two level-appropriate standard monsters. This is well below an ‘easy’ encounter and it would be exceptionally bad luck if anyone lost more than a healing surge, at most. However, unloading with encounter powers, under my system, would mean that those powers would not be available until late in the NEXT fight, so players might hold back a bit, with perhaps one or two players using their encounter powers to end the fight fairly quickly. This would let a typical “Adventuring day” contain a wider range of encounter types, and probably the same total rounds of combat, but broken up in much more interesting ways than the standard sequence of fights. Further, if we eliminate the short rest to recharge encounter powers, a particularly long fight doesn’t mean a tedious sequence of shooting at-wills… if a fight drags on long enough, the earliest used encounter powers in the fight come back, allowing a sudden surge of ability just as the enemy is weakest.

Thinking further, you can make this a way of balancing powers… weaker powers might recharge after three rounds, stronger powers after eight. Daily powers might go away altogether, just make them recharge every 20 rounds or so, so they’ll be unlikely to be used more than once a day, but, you never know… A chaos sorcerer might have their powers recharge 3+1d4 rounds after use.

Bookkeeping becomes more complex, because you need to track total rounds of combat in a day and which round of which fight each power was used. This adds one more annoying thing to keep track of, so it’s a serious concern.

Like I said, a random thought.

Snakes… Why’d It Have To Be Snakes…

…because snakes are cool, that’s why! Duh! Only sharks are cooler… hm…. snakeshark! Oh, yeah, that’s going in there…

Anyway, here’s a bit more of work-in-progress for Earth Delta, namely, snakevines! I like concepts that lend themselves to easy expansion, mostly because I’m intellectually lazy, and if I get one quasi-good idea (possibly even a para-good idea, and if you get that joke, damn, you’re an old-school gamer), I will not just run with it, I will do a god-damn marathon with it. So, when I got the idea of sort of snake/plant hybrids, it occurred to me I could do all sorts of snakes and fill a lot of different niches, so a quick look at my spreadsheet of monsters showed me I still needed brutes and artillery for level 15… and that’s what you’re getting.

Wait, you ask, level 15 of what? No, you’re not asking that, since this site isn’t exactly teeming with random casual browsers, but, just in case… this is for Earth Delta, Lizard’s version of post apocalyptic mutant adventuring designed for the Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition rules, a lot like WOTC’s own Gamma World, except, a)mine doesn’t have collectible cards, and, b)rather ironically, mine is more compatible with core 4e than theirs. Go figure.

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Back To Not-Basics

Over on, I got sucked into a debate instead of doing what I wanted to do this morning, which was write the next part of the Necromican series. So, I decided to share with you some of that debate, because I think it’s worth sharing to some extent, and because I like to at least pretend I keep this site updated.

First, I wrote this:

People don’t want to play a game branded as “Dungeons & Dragons”. They want to play D&D, whatever that might mean to them. There’s zillions of other rules systems out there; people stick to D&D because it delivers what they want, not because of what it’s named. Change what it delivers, and people will find another rules system (however named) that does give them the gameplay they’ve come to expect from “Dungeons & Dragons”. WOTC has already learned, painfully, that the brand name is not enough. Reading the L&L columns, I think Mike Mearls is still grossly misreading the audience — if 4e was less than it could have been due to overestimating the size of the CharOp fringe, “4e++” looks to be undermined due to overestimating the OSR fringe — but at least he’s TRYING to read the audience, and that’s a damn good sign.

(It ought to be noted that reading the audience and slavishly obeying the loudest voices is not the same thing. Brad McQuaid rather famously said, “The players don’t know what they want”, and to a large extent, he was right. While it applies more to MMOs than RPGs due to many obvious factors, there’s a point where you need to tell the audience to sit down and shut up — but to do this, you need to know even better than they do what really drives the play experience.)

4e delivers, probably, the best rendition of the ‘core experience’ of D&D than any prior edition, but players don’t play just for the core, but for the… uhm… not core… and groups differ wildly in which non-core experiences they like best. By focusing on the core to the near total exclusion of all other activities, they drove off, or at least underwhelmed, a huge swath of players. Given the choice between “Perfect core and nothing else” and “Core experience is 80% of what it could be, but everything else is there”, many people deliberately chose less-optimal core play in order to also get the non-core play. (I chose to ignore the rules advice and run 4e my way, bringing in the non-core experiences I desired, in many ways aided by how little work I needed to do get the core experience to work well. Without having to prep 4 hours for a fight that will last 30 seconds thanks to save-or-die, I had 4 hours to do both mechanical and non-mechanical worldbuilding. But that’s another thread.)

Then someone asked:

So what ‘core sacred cows’ would WOTC want to put in to ‘attract back’ the Pathfinder/3.5/retro fans (the ones, that is, who left. Some people are happily playing both 4e and others)?

It is, as you say, a very subjective thing … but WOTC would still need to make a decision on what to include in a ‘back to basics’ as suggested by Daztur.

So what would WOTC need to include (or exclude)?

To which I replied (and this is really the important part, as it sort of sums up what D&D is for me, and what ethos guides the stuff I make for myself):

Back to basics isn’t the solution. Back to basics is the PROBLEM.

If you look at a lot of net activity in the late 1990s, you will find a mountain of huge, detailed “netbooks” for running D&D in every setting imaginable, or over-detailing the most trivial aspects of the rules. When 3.0 came out, the designers recognized and acknowledged that people liked playing D&D for everything (whether OR NOT it worked, whether OR NOT it was the best system), and so encouraged this, with broad rules covering a wide range of activities, ray guns on the weapon lists, and, of course, the OGL/SRD, which was intended to let people keep playing D&D whether or not they wanted to play cowboys, vampires, or wookies. Please don’t tell me how much the D20 Modern rules sucked or how “system matters”; the point is, people DID use D&D for everything, WOTC recognized that fact, and WOTC set out to give people a “D&D for everything”, and it worked — people bought it, used it, and played it.

4e was the back-to-basics. “Kick down the door, kill the monster, get the treasure, NEXT!” It turned it up to 11, giving us all the cool action movie stunts and epic battles we wanted but that the rules tended to cover poorly or not at all. It just chucked everything ELSE out the window, everything that gave you a reason to be kicking down the door in the first place. The game advice strongly encouraged “getting to the fun”, which meant “having a combat encounter” (or a skill challenge, but the skill challenge rules were mathematically broken in the first release), and everything else was trivial.

So what do I suggest? Screw “back to basics”. Give us rules for everything. Running baronies. Sailing ships. Firing muskets. Large races. Small races. Races without boobies. (OK, that’s pushing it… gotta have dem boobies, even on the lizard-people and the crystal people.) Researching spells. Getting drunk. Dickering over copper pieces. Killing gods. Killing gods by using a mass accelerator to fling copper pieces at near-C velocities at them. You want a “modular rules set”? Fine, I like that. I like it a lot, without sarcasm. But don’t just give us “Basic Combat Module”, “Advanced Combat Module”, and “Players Of A Weird Hybrid Of Star Fleet Battles Where They Use Advanced Squad Leader For Boarding Actions Will Be Terrified By The Complexity Of These Rules Combat Module”. Give us “Basic Kingdoms” and “Advanced Kingdoms” and “Henry Kissinger Presents:Kingdoms”. Give us more, not less, cutomizability, and trust us to be smart enough to know if we’re building a sucky character.

(If I was smart, I’d be linking to 4e or Pathfinder at Amazon in the vague hope of making enough from this website, in a year, to buy a Big Mac. But, no, I link to two products I like, but which are only relevant because I used them in a lame joke about excess complexity. I am not smart.)

D&D is, or should support, a 2 hit point wizard scrambling to buy enough bat guano for his spells, and a party of 54th level Paladin/Assassins who think Deities&Demigods is a monster manual. After nearly 40 years, that’s what D&D is. The SAME GROUP may not play at both ends of this spectrum… but both groups think they’re playing “D&D”, and that what’s D&D ought to give them.