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Letting Go of Defined Encounters

Sly Flourish - Mon, 07/10/2017 - 06:00

The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons describes the core elements of the game as "exploration, interaction, and combat". In 4th edition, we spent a lot of time building clear "encounters" tuned in design and power to challenge our party of characters. Often the adventure revolved around these clearly defined battle arenas.

In 5e, combat can be less clearly defined. It can flow into the rest of the story of the game. It can spontanously erupt in a lot of different scenes, whether its random encounters or a negotiation gone bad. This gives us a lot of flexibility in how we build our games. We don't have to build clear definitions around combat, exploration, or interaction scenes. We can just build situations.

In fact, there are a lot of advantages to building scenes this way.

Tom Lommell, the Dungeon Bastard, discussed this topic in one of his excellent dis-organized play videos, referring to it as "Prepping Outcomes, Not Encounters". We can let go of our definitions for the types of scenes and define sitiuations and outcomes intead of clear combat encounters.

Here's an example.

In the adventure Legacy of the Crystal Shard, our heroes have an opportunity to deal with a pirate ship from Luskin called the Howling Fiend. In our old way of designing adventures, we might set up a series of well balanced encounters where the characters fight groups of pirates, pirate veterans, and the pirate captain along with her personal guard. We might have a scene where the characters meet with some drunken pirates who aren't happy with this whole situation in Icewind Dale and might be willing to negotiate. The characters might also explore some nearby caves that the villainous wizard Vaelish Gant had used to hold his hostage—the speaker of Bryn Shander.

There's another way we can handle this design though. Instead of breaking it down by scene and encounter, we just build the situation. The docked the Howling Fiend in a huge glacial overhang along Lac Dinneshere. There's a crack in the glacier overhang that leads up to the surface and a guard posted there who can collapse the ice above and seal off this entryway if need be. There's some caves carved out of the ice that Vaelish Gant has used for his own personal chambers when he's not busy pulling some politics at Bryn Shander. He also has the speaker of Bryn Shander tied up there. There are a bunch of ramshackle huts built on an iceflow down by the water's edge and a winding path to an overlook near the crack that leads up to the surface.

Our pirates include two dozen bandits, a bandit captain, a gladiator, and a mage. The captain and her barbarian gladiator bodyguard often oversee repairs to the ship and shipments being moved from the iceflow to the ship. At any given time there are a dozen pirates on the iceflow, another half dozen up along the overlook and the guard post, and a half dozen sleeping one off either on the ship or in the huts.

We can add in some nice details like a teleportation circle used by Gant in his cave, a frozen body in the ice with its hand out that may not be as dead as it looks, a store of booty aboard the ship, some explosives the pirates planned to use to cause trouble to Ten Towns, and some other fun things.

There are no defined "encounters" for this situation. There is only the situation. It's up to the players to choose how their characters deal with this situation. They might use stealth to sneak in and assassinate as many pirates as they can. They might negotiate their way in disguised as pirates or barbarian mercenaries or something. They might just decide to go in with swords drawn and hope for the best. They might sneak in through the crack in the glacial wall or come in on a boat painted black. Who knows!

Rather than defining the scene, we DMs can instead develop situations with lots of options, lots of hooks, and lots of interesting things the characters can interact with. The video game Dishonored did a great job building scenes like this. In Dishonored you had lots of options in any given scene. You could fight your way in, you could mind-control one of the guards, you could stealth around, or you could turn into a rat and go through the sewers. The scenes weren't built expecting any given course of action. Some courses might be a real bitch and others might be the easier path but all of them were options.

In general, scenes should have a few different ways the characters can interact with it. You nerds out there might consider this the scene's API—the interface between the world and the characters. We have a few big interfaces between characters and the world: skills, combat abilities, backgrounds, and spells. We don't have to build environments with specific hooks for all of these but it helps us keep a few in mind so we know the scene won't be a complete dud. If we build a scene that looks like a set for American Gladiator but none of the characters are particularly athletic or acrobatic, that might not be a lot of fun. Likewise, if we take our group of five barbarians with an average charisma of 8 into the wedding reception of the duke's daughter, that might not be a lot of fun for folks.

It's better when we design scenes with lots of options and lots of complications. Here's another example:

The wedding of the duke's daugther is rumored to be the site of an assassination attempt by the Order of the Black Kris. The wedding is taking place in the temple of Oslandia built near the little-known cliff-side ruins of the dark temple of Avrix. All the well-to-do members of the city will be there, including likely the unknown leader of the Black Kris, whose agents will probably be in hiding somewhere within the ruins. The duke himself has hired the Red Fist mercenary company as his bodyguards, the very group that Volund, the fighter of one of our players, left a decade earlier under bad circumstances.

Now we have lots of hooks. There are options for a bunch of skills including history, athletics, acrobatics, performance, persuasion, intimidation. There's room for combat, both with the Red Fist mercenaries and the Black Kris assassins. There's even a hook to one of the PC's backgrounds.

This is a pretty robust scene, and might even take up an entire adventure. Not all of our scenes need to be this big in scope and detail but any of our larger scenes will benefit from including all of these potential hooks.

Avoiding the Single Roll Failure

When we build a situation like this, we have to be careful not to let a single roll completely ruin the situation or, by default, drop it right into combat. We can see how a bad roll in either the ship infiltration situation or the wedding situation could send the whole scene tumbling towards mass bloodshed. We don't want that to happen, at least not righ t away. We need to keep the idea of "failing forward" nearby. Just as no single attack roll usually determines the success or failure of an entire fight, no single skill roll should determine the entire outcome for a whole big scene. Instead, it could be a whole pile of skill checks that move the needle one way or another or steer the whole path that the scene takes. When we run scenes like this, we need to keep in mind that we can't leap to pure sucesses or failures and instead let each roll nudge the scene down one path or another. It's harder to do but builds much more rewarding scenes.

Breaking Away From Assumptions

All of this is part of our exercise to break away from our own assumptions about how a game is going to go. D&D is a lot more fun when we can watch scenes unfold in new and interesting ways well beyond what we originally intended. In order for that to happen, however, we need to build environments with all of the right elements to give characters, and their players, the chance to take things in lots of different directions. Give it a try.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

DM's Deep Dive with Tom Lommel on Improvisation

Sly Flourish - Mon, 07/10/2017 - 06:00

This past month on the DM's Deep Dive Tom Lommel, AKA the Dungeon Bastard, discussed the topic of improvisation and D&D.

In a recent query of both Twitter and Facebook, creativity, flexibility, and improvisation topped out a list of the most valued D&D Dungeon Master traits. As a professional actor with a heavy focus on D&D, I sought out Tom to help us unravel the topic of improvisation, how we do it, and how we can get better at it.

Here's the Youtube video of our conversation:

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During this episode we cover many topics including:

  • The Dungeon Bastard, his day job, and his approach towards D&D.
  • We're always improvising. D&D, at its core, is a game about improv. It's just how much improv.
  • Improv isn't just the funny voices.
  • Tom's three dirty tricks:
    • "No, but" instead of "Yes, and".
    • Pick one weird tick or detail for an NPC. Does the NPC always scratch his right eye when he talks? Does he refer to everyone as "ma'am"?
    • Prepare for improvisation.
  • Plot radars and Schroedinger's clues.
  • Tips for improvisation during tense moments.
  • Improv difficulty with homebrew versus published adventures.
  • Books for good improv: Dungeon World, Fate Core, Fiasco
  • What we think about Storm King's Thunder.

Other Related Links:

If you like the show, you can watch other episodes of the Deep Dive on Youtube or subscribe to the DM's Deep Dive podcast.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Dwarven Forge Buyer's Guide

Sly Flourish - Mon, 07/03/2017 - 06:00

Note: This article is an update from the original published in June 2010 and offers recommendations for the ongoing Dwarven Forge Dungeon of Doom Kickstarter.

One of the interesting things about the hobby of Dungeons & Dragons is the extreme range of the cost to play. Essentially, this range goes from zero to almost infinity. I'd estimate that the average is about $100 for players and $200 for DMs, though.

We'll be talking more about how to play D&D for nothing (or very cheap) in the future. This article, however, goes the other direction; into one of the higher potential costs in our hobby: 3D terrain. In particular, we'll be looking at the best 3D terrain available for tabletop fantasy gaming: Dwarven Forge.

The Dungeon of Doom Kickstarter

At the time of this writing, Dwarven Forge has launched their fifth Kickstarter for the Dungeon of Doom and it includes many of the core pieces I recommend in this article. Getting these pieces through Kickstarter is the most cost effective way to pick these pieces up. Later in this article we have a recommendation list of items from this Kickstarter for those who don't yet have any Dwarven Forge pieces.

Other Wallet-Friendly Options

A solid set of Dwarven Forge dungeon pieces runs about $300 to $500 on the low end. If this cost is too high, there are many more affordable options for D&D battle maps. Take a look at our Battle Map Comparisons guide or, if you want to go really cheap, consider running combat in the theater of the mind. In my opinion, Theater of the Mind is the most cost effective and flexible way to play D&D and doesn't cost a penny.

A Single viewpoint from Nine Years of Experience

This review comes from about nine years of experience with Dwarven Forge products, including products from all four of their previous Kickstarters and a bunch of their resin-based products before they came up with Dwarvenite. Its based on its use at hundreds of games, most at home but some at local game shops as well.

However, these experiences are really just a single view. Our recommendations here fit a particular philosophy and that philosophy may be very different for other collectors. Our goal for this guide is to focus on the most useful, versatile, cost-effective, and easy to set up pieces. We can break this down into two other ideas:

Get big pieces that matter.

Focus on a few versatile pieces and get a lot of them.

Many other collectors enjoy building out very large arrangements with lots of amazing details. Roads, sewers, houses, and hamlets; Dwarven Forge sells products for all of these areas and they look amazing. This variety comes with a cost beyond money though. It also comes at the cost of space (this stuff takes up a lot of room) and versatility ("nah, the sewers sound nasty. Maybe we'll go somewhere else."). Good solid dungeon pieces, however? We can use these things just about anywhere.

A Focus on the Dungeon

For this article we're primarily going to focus on the core dungeon sets. Dwarven Forge also makes excellent cavern and city sets along with a castle set that will soon be available on their website and was the focus of their 2015 Kickstarter. These sets are wonderful but not as versatile as the core dungeon sets. Dungeon walls fit just about anywhere but castle walls really only work with castles, towns, and the like.

Core Pieces

The original Dwarven Forge Kickstarter focused on three primary components: the wall, the floor, and the corner. With enough of these three pieces we can make a nearly infinite variety of rooms, passages, and corridors. We can build small rooms inside of bigger rooms or rooms with walls that act as cover. Though it seems like these three pieces alone wouldn't be enough, we can do a lot with them. How many is enough? Probably two to three sets with a minimum of 12 corners, 28 walls, and 24 floors. That's enough to build out two or three big rooms or three to five smaller rooms with halls and passages and the like.

I'm going to add two more core components to this list of primary pieces: cubes and large floors.

One major advantage of Dwarven Forge is the added dimension of height. We can make this even better by using things like 2" cubes to elevate parts of our dungeons including platforms, altars, sniper positions, and other interesting parts that stick up from the flat floor. The two-inch Dwarven Forge cubes are perfect for this. The Dungeon of Doom Kickstarter includes a 15 cube add-on pack. Otherwise, the only way to get these cubes is as part of the Dwarven Forge Caverns set which look more naturally formed than what we might want in a dungeon.

Bigger floors are also a wonderful and useful piece for building rooms quickly. The 4x6 floors work very well to fill out a room or build a platform.

With walls, corners, 2x2 floors, large floors, and 2 inch cubes; we can built all sorts of amazing halls, rooms, and chambers with elevated platforms, altars, and interesting places for our characters to explore.

A Kickstarter 5 Dungeon of Doom Shopping List

If one is just getting into Dwarven Forge, the Dungeon of Doom Kickstarter is a great way to get into it. The fine folks at Dwarven Forge have this guide for new customers that gives an excellent overview of the Kickstarter and the Dwarven Forge pieces themselves including solid recommendations for new backers.

Here are my own personal recommendations:

Zaltar's Gameroom: Lots of neat pieces including big 2x4 doors and archways and a 4x4 floor. Neat light-up wall pieces with both torches and green glowing snake things, a very cool throne, and lots of other small accessories. This counts as the "level 1" dungeon so it gets you some stretch goals and avoids the $10 fee for going add-on only.

2x Classic Dungeon Remastered Set: A good price for the classic pieces. 30 walls, 16 corners, and 30 floors is enough to build out a lot of great rooms and hallways. You won't fill out an entire table but you can build two or three great chambers or a bunch of smaller ones.

Large Floors: A big 8x8 floor and four 4x4 floors. Hard to say whether its better to get the marble ones or the red ones. If you can afford both, you'll have a LOT of great floors.

Epic Stairs: Nice big stairs that let characters clearly move from one level to another. These will see a lot of use.

Large Curved Walls: Big walls to drop down and build a big room really quickly. This isn't a must-have either but they'll probably see a lot of use if we get them.

Spacer Cubes: An elevation add-on pack includes 15 cubes designed with dungeon bricks and red pillars. These are perfect for standing up platforms, altars, or other multi-level dungeons.

Elevation Platform: A cool way to elevate a huge part of the dungeon to build a two-level huge chamber. Also looks like a great way to transport your stuff around in between games. A bit on the pricey side so more of a nice-to-have. This is somewhat of an unknown.

There are lots of other great options in this Kickstarter as well, including the incredible Forsaken Temple pieces, but above we focused on the main pieces to build the widest range of dungeon chambers. They're intended to be versatile and easy and quick to set up. Keep in mind that new add-ons are released every day so its worth checking the Kickstarter to the last minute to see what looks good.

Filling Out the Dungeon With Flair

Filling out our dungeon rooms with cool accessories will really make them unique and fantastic. Dwarven Forge themselves have wonderful light-up accessories to fill out a room but we can also pick these up as Reaper Bones or even model train or aquarium accessories. Recently Wizkids Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons miniatures have started including dungeon accessories and decorations as well which can sometimes be picked up on the secondary market.

Like our philosophy of focusing on important versatile pieces, we can choose the accessories we're likely to use a lot. Here's a short example list:

  • Braziers (light-up ones are great).
  • Sarcophagi
  • Altars
  • Statues (unpainted miniatures work great)
  • Decorated Pillars
  • Floor Runes and Glyphs (cardboard or plastic dungeon tiles work well)

One good rule of thumb for picking up accessories is to ask "can the characters actually do something with this?" If its merely decoration, we can probably skip buying it, but if its something that characters can actually interact with, or something that will interact with the characters, that can be a nice aid to pick up.

Unpainted miniatures can make for great statues to fill out a dungeon as well.

Mixing Our Media

One great way to make the most use out of Dwarven Forge is to mix it with our 2D battle maps as well, such as Paizo's Pathfinder Flip Mats. We can use four corner pieces to make a small 3D building on a town map, for example, or use the elevation blocks to build a small ziggurat in the center of a forest. With a four-inch piece of card board we can build square towers out of corner and wall pieces. We can use some 2" blocks and floors to build an elevated platform on one part of the map. Even just throwing out some wall pieces onto a battlefield can add some interesting cover for characters to hide behind.

Not a Necessity but a Wonderful Aid

Our Kickstarter recommendation above runs about $500. That's not cheap. If this is outside of your price range, fear not. When we think about the joy we get playing D&D, accessories like Dwarven Forge can definitely add to the experience but they aren't required. We can have a whole lot of fun playing D&D with hand-drawn maps on a flip mat or even completely in the Theater of the Mind. We're also not including the high cost of miniatures in any of this discussion; thats a whole other topic.

That said, for people who are really into this hobby of ours and have the income to spend on things like this, there is no better tabletop dungeon accessory than Dwarven Forge.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Top Traits of a Good Dungeon Master

Sly Flourish - Mon, 06/19/2017 - 06:00

On 9 May 2017, I posted a note to both Twitter and Facebook asking for, in one or two words, the three most important traits for a good D&D dungeon master. This returned roughly 162 total responses. I took these responses and performed some text mining using Python to normalize the results and help us find the most valued traits among these responses.

Below is a list of the top 30 traits along with the number of times they came up across the 162 results.

TermFrequency% of Responses flexible / adaptable5936.4% creative3823.5% improvisational2716.7% fair2113.0% fun2012.3% patience148.6% prepared148.6% listener106.2% says yes84.9% conversant74.3% collaborative74.3% enthusiasm63.7% storyteller63.7% knowledgeable63.7% empathy53.1% skills53.1% rules42.5% ability42.5% facilitator42.5% cooperative42.5% humor42.5% clear42.5% quick31.9% bodycount31.9% organization31.9% love31.9% understanding31.9% persistence31.9% translator31.9% thinking31.9% consistent31.9%

You'll notice that we grouped "flexible" and "adaptable" together into one group since it's hard to see a difference between the two words. You might also note that these aggregates include many variants of the same words; it's not just a pure text match. Finally, you can see that the percentages add up to greater than 100%. This is due to each response containing more than one result.

A Quantified View of Valued DM Traits

An analysis like this gives us a powerful tool to understand the topic of good DMing. Any single opinion on the topic is just one point of information. When we group these opinions together, we start to get a wider view of what matters to people. It's not perfect, but, like Amazon star ratings on products, we're more likely to get an accurate view of a topic the more people weigh in. This is why I find the results of the 2016 DM Survey so interesting. We all have opinions on Theater of the Mind versus gridded combat and organized play versus home games. It's different when we can see the aggregate of these opinions. It isn't definitive, but it gives us a wider view than the flawed simulation of the world constantly going on in our own individual heads.

Flexible, Creative, and Improvisational

These responses are very telling when we take a good look at them. We can surmise, for example, that being flexible is twenty times more valued (according to this analysis) than being consistent (a common trait often mentioned as a virtue for organized play, for example). Paying attention to the percentage shows us how highly valued the top responses are compared to the rest. For example, the first item, being flexible and adaptable, was nearly 10x more valued than 11th, being enthusiastic.

This gives us a good idea where we might focus our attention and share our most valued experiences. In particular, when looking at the top three, improvisation seems to have a strong connection to being flexible, adaptable, and creative. From this, I would argue that, among all of the best skills, the msot important skill we can improve is our ability to improvise at the table.

You'll see more on improvisation in the days to come on Sly Flourish based on these results.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Streaming D&D Full Time with Will Jones

Sly Flourish - Mon, 06/12/2017 - 06:00

In May 2017 on the DM's Deep Dive I spoke to Will Jones of Encounter Roleplay who plays D&D full time on Twitch professionally. For us old timers who barely have a handle on what Twitch is, this is a fascinating look into the world of streaming D&D online.

According to a recent analysis of over one million tweets tagged with #dnd, from 2015 to 2017, use of the #dnd hashtag grew at roughly 10% a month. In the first five months of 2017 alone, it's grown roughly 30%. Many attribute this growth to the growth of the D&D streaming community, which manifested in full force at the recent Stream of Annhiliation event in late May 2017. This conversation with Will Jones gives us a wonderful window into this new way to enjoy this hobby of ours.

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Our conversation covers a wide range of topics such as how he got started in streaming, how to cultivate a streaming community, how to get enough material to run so much D&D, how to run a D&D game for 125 people (yes, that's not a typo), how to get started streaming your games, thoughts on games designed for streaming, running theater of the mind on streaming shows, and how some old grognards are a bunch of assholes.

If you want to get a glimpse of Will's work, he recommends this stream of his Curse of Strahd game.

You can watch the video on Youtube or listen and subscribe to the podcast at the DM's Deep Dive homepage.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Villains of Storm King's Thunder: Iymrith

Sly Flourish - Mon, 06/05/2017 - 06:00

There are a number of villains in the published adventure Storm King's Thunder but few are as interesting and as as central to the storyline as the ancient blue dragon, Iymrith, the Doom of the Desert.

Today we're going to dig deep into this powerful villain, both in her background and story as well as her unique powers and ways to ensure she is as dangerous a foe as she should be. Much in the way we looked at running Strahd von Zarovich we're going to look at her tactics and enhance her powers to ensure that even the most well optimized party of adventurers will remember they've been in a fight when they face her.

Though this article focuses on Iymrith as a central villain in Storm King's Thunder, you can place Iymrith in your own homebrew campaign if you prefer or use this article as a wrapper for a blue dragon sorcerer of your own choosing in your own stories. You don't need to run Storm King's Thunder to get a great villain out of this draconic blue horror.

Do Our Homework

Fifteen years ago, Ed Greenwood wrote an article for the D&D website entitled Iymrith, "The Dragon of the Statues". This 4,000 word article covers Iymrith's vast history and outlines her unique powers, her motivations, her tactics, and her vast lair in Anauroch known as the Nameless City. This article gives us tons of material we can use in our own game. We could run a huge adventure as our characters explore the Nameless City and face the defenses she has put into place before they dive into her hidden shrines and laboratories beneath the blowing sands.

Bring Iymrith Into the Story Early

Just like Strahd, we can foreshadow Iymrith's presence in a bunch of different ways. For example, we can drop a powerful magic item into the hands of the characters early on, a wand of lightning for example. Her connection to the wand lets Iymrith scry on the characters her own enjoyment. The characters can get all sorts of premonitions that they're being watched, seeing themselves within the orb of a crystal ball with a draconic claw swirling over the top of it. They might feel the spectral presence of a dragon flowing over them when they use the item and hearing the words "I see you" in draconic.

For some great fun, Iymrith might show up at other inopportune times, perhaps as a high class gambler on the Grand Dame, secretly meeting with Lord Drylund in order to pass messages to Slarkrethel, the Kraken. If there's ever a potential chance Iymrith might show up, it's always worth considering dropping her in.

Iymrith's Motivations

As always, a good villain needs a strong motivation. Here's one example motivation we can use for Iymrith that expands on her background in Storm King's Thunder.

Though she didn't directly partake in the Rise of Tiamat, Iyrmith took the Dragon Queen's defeat poorly. She sought vengeance against the smallfolk who broke the plan and saw the breaking of the Ordening of the giants as a way to bring chaos to the Sword Coast and the North. Iymrith herself is descended from a powerful dragon sorcerer who battled the giants during the Thousand Year War. Like her bloodline, Iymrith always seeks to disrupt the kingdom of giants in all forms.

Iymrith is the orchestrator of the shattering of the Ordening, planting poisoned seeds into the minds of the leaders of the Storm Giants and ultimately leading to the kidnapping of King Hekaton and the assassination of his wife. Iymrith allied with the ancient kraken Slarkrethel, a being even she fears, to complete this plot.

Iymrith is quite pleased with how things are going and, after the fall of Tiamat to a band of adventurers, she worries that meddlesome heroes might break her plot as well. Once the characters learn of the truth of the Ordening at the Eye of the All Father, they cease to be an amusement to her and she treats them as a threat, sending assassins both from her personal band of dragon cultists and members of the Kraken Society after them. She may face them herself from time to time as well if she can find them in time.

Iymrith, however, has one great fear. Klauth. The two dragons, both powerful spellcasters on top of their draconic heritage, are nearly evenly matched and both dragons know it. Both prefer to watch their plots unfold from afar and neither seeks to confront the other. For this reason, Iymrith is not likely to directly attack the characters if she feels that Klauth might protect them.

Empowering Iymrith

When we challenge a powerful party with Iymrith, we want to consider carefully how she might defend herself. Against a powerful group of characters run by skilled players, we DMs are always at a disadvantage and it isn't impossible that we see a mighty villain like Iymrith fall much more quickly than the story should allow.

The following suggestions are intended to make Iymrith the powerful foe she deserves to be and are intended to challenge five or six strong high level characters run by smart and skilled players. Against smaller parties of characters who might not be quite as powerful run by players who are not as tactically minded, this could quickly be a total party kill. Keep in mind that this version of Iymrith isn't "balanced" at all. There's no applicable CR.

Iymrith uses the optional rules in the Monster Manual for draconic spellcasters with one difference. Though her challenge rating as a default dragon does not give her access to ninth level spells, she does, in fact, have them. Her vast intellect as a dragon gives her nearly unlimited access to spells so don't be afraid to give her whatever spell you think she needs at the moment. In fairness, we can keep an eye on what spell slots she uses but we shouldn't worry too much about what spells she has prepared and just use what works for the moment. This gives her the impression of being incredibly well prepared with a nearly bottomless depth of magical experience.

Iymrith has carefully scribed her scales with arcane power giving her the equivalent of robes of the archmagi. This gives her +2 to her spell DCs, spell attacks, and saving throws as well as advantage on any save versus magical effects. She also wears a ring of mind shielding primarily to let her deal with Slarkrethal and his psionic powers.

Arcane Feedback: Iymirth has a particularly nasty version of counterspell that acts like counterspell but also inflicts 21 (7d6) psychic damage against the spellcaster. Like any legendary spellcaster, Iymirth must make the choice for whether to use shield or arcane feedback using her reaction. This decision mostly comes down to the threat she faces, either a tricky spellcaster or a powerful melee or ranged attacker. Like counterspell, this can be cast at higher levels, inflicting an extra 3 (1d6) psychic damage for every level above 4th.

Force Burn: (Recharge 5,6) Iymirth has spent centuries perfecting this incredibly powerful attack, one that opens up the weave of arcane magic into beams of raw magical energy. Iymrith can fire three beams up to 100 feet and may choose a single creature for all three or split the beams up among up to three creatures. She makes a spell attack against each creature and, on a hit, each beam inflicts 70 (20d6) force damage and the target loses 1d4 spell slots beginning with lower level spell slots and working up.

Quick Casting: Iymrith can use a legendary action to cast a cantrip or first level spell. She can use two legendary actions to cast a second or third level spell. Iymrith is capable of casting multiple spells in a single round without restriction.

In her lair, Iymrith has a pair of stone golems that include the bound ability of the shield guardian and thus can transfer half the damage done to her to one of the stone golems if the golem is within 50 feet. These golems are shaped like huge gargoyles, can fly 60 feet, and have the maximum hit points for a stone golem (255).

The Unnamed City, A High Level Dungeon Crawl

Iymrith has lairs everywhere but her primary lair is within a lost Netherese city on the north-western edge of Anauroch. Greenwood's article on Iymrith has some fantastic ideas we can use to build a vast lair for the dragon, one the characters can dive into and explore for many sessions of we so choose. Here are some highlights:

  • Ancient Netherese temples.
  • Gargoyle spies and guardians.
  • Vast tunnels below.
  • A broken mage tower.
  • Super-accurate stone-hurling trebuchets.
  • Giant draconic statues which Iymrith can possess.
  • Bedine tribal worshippers.
  • Floating bodies of draconic stone forms.

We can combine many of these features into a city filled with ancient ruins and dark secrets that must be uncovered before a group of powerful adventurers can face Iymrith herself in her lair.

A Great Villain for a Long Campaign

When we're running a long campaign like Storm King's Thunder, it helps both us and our players when there's a clear villain working against the characters. While she might not be notable to a party of local adventurers saving the villagers of Night Stone from goblins, heroes of note will soon come to her attention and their attention might soon focus on her. The earlier we can bring Iymrith into the story, the sooner our party can enjoy this great threat to the North.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Hero Kids Character Sheets

Roving Band of Misfits - Tue, 05/23/2017 - 19:31

I love Hero Kids. My kids love Hero Kids. We’ve been playing for years, and we’re still going strong in our Bayhaven campaign. It’s gotten to the point where my kids want to include their friends in the game from time to time. I’m happy to do this because Hero Kids is such a simple system to teach and use.

But there’s this one thing. It’s small, but whenever I teach the game, the kids always get hung up on it. And it’s this rule: Whenever you make a skill check, you roll 1d6, and add d6’s based upon your skill proficiency and the related attribute. So a Dexterity (Stealth) check starts with 1d6, and then the player would add their Dexterity dice, and a d6 if they were trained in Stealth. Easy, right? But kids always get hung up on that first, free d6. Why do they get it when they roll a skill, but not an attack? It’s hard to explain because there’s no in-game reason for it. On the base game character sheets, every character gets one skill, and one inventory item. So players don’t realize that they actually have one die in every skill, and two dice in the pictured skill. And they don’t realize that other inventory items are available to them.

Then I realized that if I could illustrate it in the form of “just another dice pool,” and include all available inventory items as pictures, it would be easier. And so, this new character sheet was born. I ran over to the awesome, free repository at, and pulled some icons that would serve my purpose. Then, I did a little gimp-fu, and basic layout, and voila. A new character sheet design. I translated all 10 of the characters from the base game into the new format, plus threw in some blank sheets with instructions on creating a character. And made it form-fillable!

You can check out the new character sheets at Drive Thru RPG. If you already have the Bayhaven Ultimate bundle or the Starter Pack bundle, you’ll pay far less than $1 for the new character sheets.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Analyzing the Best D&D Advice

Sly Flourish - Mon, 05/22/2017 - 06:00

On 4 May 2017, Gill Sulivan posted a topic to the popular Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Facebook group asking for the best D&D advice in four words or less. This resulted in over 1,400 responses.

Rather than read all 1400 responses, we can process, extrapolate, and normalize them to identify common trends. Like our 2016 Dungeon Master Survey and our Analysis D&D Twitter Community, we can get quantitative information on the most popular advice D&D enthusiasts have to offer.

This article summarizes the results from the processed and analyzed text of the 1,400 responses to the request for the best D&D advice in four words or less.

Top Three or Four Word Statements

We'll start with the most useful look. Here's a list of common advice given three times or more along with the number of times these statements were given and their percentage of total responses.

  • dont split the party (21, 1.4%)
  • always check for traps (20, 1.4%)
  • dont be a dick (11, 0.8%)
  • dont eat yellow snow (11, 0.8%)
  • trust the dm (7, 0.5%)
  • its just a game (6, 0.4%)
  • dont trust the dm (6, 0.4%)
  • roll with it (5, 0.3%)
  • always have fun (5, 0.3%)
  • always go left (5, 0.3%)
  • always have a healer (4, 0.3%)
  • when in doubt fireball (4, 0.3%)
  • remember to have fun (4, 0.3%)
  • try not to die (3, 0.2%)
  • dont roll a one (3, 0.2%)
  • dont wake the dragon (3, 0.2%)
  • be a team (3, 0.2%)
  • beware the smiling dm (3, 0.2%)
  • its only a game (3, 0.2%)
  • kill it with fire (3, 0.2%)
  • always trust a flumph (3, 0.2%)
  • just roll with it (3, 0.2%)
  • dont trust the rogue (3, 0.2%)
  • check for mimics (3, 0.2%)
  • protect the cleric (3, 0.2%)
  • just have fun (3, 0.2%)
  • expect the unexpected (3, 0.2%)
  • its probably a mimic (3, 0.2%)

We get this list by normalizing words, looking for three- and four-word phrases (called ngrams) without removing common words (called stopwords), and normalizing the word "never" (used 79 times) to "dont" (used 252 times). We also cleaned it up into sentences that made sense. That's probably the best list of responses we're going to get.

We can dig a bit deeper, though, by looking at top words, bigrams, and trigrams.

Top Words

The following is a list of the top 100 words given in the 1,453 responses:

dont (252, 17.3%), always (152, 10.5%), never (79, 5.4%), dm (79, 5.4%), fun (58, 4.0%), check (47, 3.2%), trust (45, 3.1%), first (40, 2.8%), party (36, 2.5%), just (35, 2.4%), kill (35, 2.4%), go (35, 2.4%), trap (34, 2.3%), dragon (32, 2.2%), roll (31, 2.1%), get (28, 1.9%), eat (27, 1.9%), game (26, 1.8%), play (26, 1.8%), make (25, 1.7%), split (25, 1.7%), die (24, 1.7%), player (24, 1.7%), cleric (24, 1.7%), bring (22, 1.5%), let (22, 1.5%), healer (20, 1.4%), advice (19, 1.3%), good (19, 1.3%), mimic (19, 1.3%), try (19, 1.3%), rogue (19, 1.3%), fireball (18, 1.2%), run (18, 1.2%), thats (18, 1.2%), fuck (18, 1.2%), everything (17, 1.2%), dice (16, 1.1%), keep (16, 1.1%), one (16, 1.1%), word (15, 1.0%), take (14, 1.0%), doubt (14, 1.0%), dick (14, 1.0%), rule (13, 0.9%), cast (13, 0.9%), listen (13, 0.9%), look (13, 0.9%), touch (13, 0.9%), loot (12, 0.8%)

Not entirely useful although we can see some interesting trends.

Word Graphs

By connecting every pair of words, once common words are removed, we can build a graph of the connections of words. The following image represents a graph of word connections for every word pair that appeared two or more times. This results in a graph of 241 words and 251 word-connections. Click on it to get a high resolution version.

Specific Word Graphs

We can take this graph and break it down into those that contain the top four words found across all 1,400 resposes. Here are the word graphs for "dont", "always", "never" and "dm". These graphs are limited to two or more connections between words.

What can we Learn From This?

What does all of this tell us? First, it's interesting that 23% of tips told us NOT to do something (don't / never). Is being a good DM or player more a matter of what we don't do instead of what we do do?

There's also a lot of folks who didn't take this too seriously, so neither should we. How much yellow snow do we actually come across in our D&D games? Always checking for traps and never splitting the party is sound advice and not a surprise (cheers to the the central limit theorem!). Not eating things in general is also good advice. Never trusting the DM is interesting and probably fair. A good DM telegraphs this trust, though. Sometimes we should trust the DM, sometimes not.

Even if this is a bit of a silly exercise, its always interesting to see how people reply to questions like this.

How I Did This Analysis

For this analysis, I copied and cleaned up the list of 1,453 total responses in the Facebook thread. I cleaned it up with a mixture of Sublime regular expressions and Python using Python Anaconda and Jupyter which comes in Anaconda. The text processing was all done with Python Anaconda, the NLTK library, and Jupyter. The word graphs were built using R Studio and the iGraph library.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Thoughts on Exploration

Sly Flourish - Mon, 05/15/2017 - 06:00

The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons describes three main types of gameplay in the game: exploration, roleplaying, and combat.

Combat is probably the most well refined part of the game. We generally know how it is going to work, whether we run combat on a grid or using theater of the mind. Turn order is solid, there are lots of known mechanics at play. When a battle start in D&D, most DMs and players know what they're supposed to do.

Roleplaying is also relatively well understood, though not as refined as combat. Roleplaying tends to either focus on our ability to roleplay at the table or by rolling persuasion, deception, performance, or intimidation checks. Usually it's a mix of the two. DMs can probably figure out how to run a roleplay scene without much trouble. They might have a flowchart of possible outcomes or they might step inside of the character and play from their motivations and knowledge—an approach we prefer here at Sly Flourish.

Exploration, however, feels like the least well defined portion of our game and, potentially, also the largest part of the game. Exploration might be everything from describing a month-long journey on the high seas, a ten-week travel along the High Road, or a minute-by-minute journey exploring the ruins of Tamoachan.

How exactly does exploration work? What should DMs do when running scenes of exploration? What system surrounds it? These are all hard questions we're going to dig into today.

It's All About Discovery

The key to exploration is the word "discovery". Exploration is all about the characters discovering things. This might be learning the layout of a dungeon. It might be uncovering the secret to defeating the stone giant lich. It might be learning the 30,000 year history of the war between dragons and giants (and why they should care about it). Exploration is about learning things and uncovering things. It's about seeing things that haven't been seen before.

Dungeons make great environments for discovery because every room is a new opportunity. This is why a 50 foot empty room is so terrible; it was a chance at discovery and ended up being a room full of nothing. Just like in White Plume Mountain, every room should have its own story to tell and hide its own clues to discover.

When we're thinking about how to fill in our exploration scenes, we can start by asking ourselves a simple question: what might the characters discover?

Examples from Film

We need look no further than some of our favorite movies to fire up ideas for exploration. Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably the best example, along with being one of the best (maybe the best?) movies of all time. I sent out a query to Twitter asking for movies that exemplify the exploration and discovery of D&D. Here were some repeated answers and how often they were mentioned:

Not all of these movies are obvious exploration movies and not all of them are actually good movies, but they all do their part to show people exploring things.

Fantastic Locations, Secrets, and Clues

We've talked at length about the value of fantastic locations. We even wrote a book with twenty fantastic locations you can drop into your game. Exploration and discovery requires interesting places. These are hard to improvise so it's worth spending time to either steal locations from published adventures or jot down our own fantastic features. Need a quick Dragonspear Castle for your characters to explore? What about grabbing the map and general features of the Keep on the Shadowfell. Are the players about to head to Cromm's Hold on the Lizard Marsh only there is no such place? How about stealing the map of Floshin's Manor from Scourge of the Sword Coast?

Our ideas for secrets and clues also fit perfectly with the concept of discovery. When we ask ourselves that key question of "what can the characters discover?" we can jot down ten answers to this question every time we're preparing a session. This is a quick way to ensure we have something to fill those scenes of discovery without writing a Robert-Jordan-novel's worth of material that might never get used.

We can also keep all of this abstract from one another. We don't have to tie our secrets and clues to the fantastic locations we have on hand. We don't have to fill every room of a dungeon with monsters. We can just keep our lists of locations, secrets, monsters, and NPCs available and see how they come together at the table.

Twenty Things That Might Get Discovered

If we keep going with our concept that exploration is about discovery, we can take a look at twenty examples of the sorts of things that might be discovered while exploring. Let's take a look.

  • The inner workings of a trap in a later chamber.
  • A hibernating vampire lord.
  • The secret truth about the king's bloodline.
  • The story of the sleeping horror under fifty thousand years of ice.
  • The truename for the elven sword carried by our rogue.
  • The name of the dragon sorceress who nearly destroyed the world with her single terrible spell.
  • The bloody spellbook of the lost mage Creston Bluecloak.
  • The buried ruins of the lost city of Al'Kanan.
  • The key to the Vault of the Dragon Queen.
  • The glyphed spear of the Bloodrain lizardfolk tribe.
  • The blood-covered dagger of the assassin Soulwhisper.
  • The lost verse of the song sung by the singing statue in the town square.
  • The map to the temple of the all-father.
  • The glyphed tooth of a dragon said to guide the possesser to the dragon's lost hoard.
  • The journal of the gnomish explorer Leopold Spiderchewer.
  • The black gemstone known as the voidstar said to contain an entire plane of existence within its depths.
  • The half-burnt page telling the tale of the Death King's betrayal.
  • A drow statue thought lost torn across space and time now half-buried in volcanic stone.
  • The tiny yet ancient Grandmother Tree.
  • A masterwork music box said to contain the song that will end the world.
A Part of the Game Worth Preparing

We often talk about which parts of the game we should focus our attention on and which parts we can safely let go of and still have a good game. Understanding what locations our characters will explore and what discoveries they might find are areas worth preparing. By keeping a balance on building useful details and keeping them abstract enough to aid in our ever-flowing game, we can build rich worlds with little effort and watch them evolve as our game runs at the table. Keep your torches lit and a keen eye for what lurks below.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Looking at the History of D&D with DM David

Sly Flourish - Mon, 05/08/2017 - 06:00

Last month I had the privilege of talking to David Hartlage of the DM David website and Twitter account. Around the time that D&D Next came out, David started writing wonderful and deep-thinking articles about this hobby of ours. I've had the chance to meet David at a couple of gaming conventions and asked him to come on the DM Deep Dive to talk about his deep look into the various versions of D&D.

During this episode we look at each of the editions since the original 1978 Basic D&D and how the feelings of the game have changed from version to version. We also look at the role the community has had over the years in enriching D&D, whether the owner of the property liked it or not.

It was a wonderful conversation and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. You can watch the Youtube video of the show below or listen and subscribe to the podcast.

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Categories: Blogs, D&D

Character-Focused Ancient Monuments

Sly Flourish - Mon, 05/01/2017 - 06:00

Ancient monuments are a cornerstone of D&D games. They fill out the "exploration" portions of D&D. They're something weird to investigate when traveling across the lands of old. They're a remarkable feature our players will remember when they think about their journeys. They contain valuable secrets. Sometimes they will have a direct effect in a conflict that occurs around it.

Random ancient monuments are a great way to fire up our imaginations to fill out interesting fantstic locations that the characters will investigate or explore. Rarely will we use a random ancient monument exactly as it comes out of the generator but often it will spawn an idea for us. The random nature helps break us out of our limited imaginations and throw us completely new ideas.

We can take this a step further, however, if we build our ancient monuments around the backgrounds of the characters. We've talked a lot about tying character backgrounds to elements of our story. You can find a big list of these articles in the article Character-Focused Encounters. We can take the same approach with our ancient monuments by tying the monument itself to the background of a character—a monument that a particular character will recognize and potentially interact with based on their background.

Here's a list of some characters and their general backgrounds.

  • Ryu, the dragonborn storm cleric who fought with the Harpers during the Rise of Tiamat.
  • Ryld, the drow storm sorcerer from Maerimydra who was ripped across the ethereal plane by a bad encounter with faezrez.
  • Trubellah, the monk who studied at the library of Candlekeep.
  • Ymitraa, the abjurer who once owned a store of curios in Waterdeep.
  • Ursoc, the ancient moon druid who spent centuries alone in the high forest.
  • Sif, the goliath traveler of the North, companion of Harshnag.
  • Ultar, the orc noble champion who hunts down the corruption of the Zhentarim.

Let's mix up some random ancient monuments with these backgrounds to see if we can come up with six monuments that will actually be important to the characters.

Glyphed altar of Oghma. This altar depicts a robed man sitting in a chair reading a large glyphed tome. The glyphs themselves are imbued with the power of blessings. Trubellah can recognize the statue as a lost marker for the order of Oghma whom he served in Candlekeep and may want to mark its location for the order.

Decorated Drow Fountain of Frost. A relic torn across the fabric of the multiverse has ended up half-buried in the ground, a fountain whose freezing water continues to flow, though it should not. This fountain was once found in the center of the Drow city of Maerimydra until the matron mother's dark rituals split the city in half, one half in the material world and one half in the ethereal plane. Ryld, the storm sorcerer, will recognize the fountain and its strange connection between worlds, like his own.

Pristine Crystalline Geode of Enchantment. This strange floating crystal seems to leave arcane sigils floating in the air around it. Those who stare within its depths see strange swirling arcane patterns. Ymetria will see the abjuration powers held deep within this geode. Perhaps it is a celestial entity mysteriously left in the world only she can see.

The Tree of Ash. Within the wastelands of Anauroch, nearly buried by the swirling sands of the massive desert, stands the remains of a tree. Once, thousands of years ago, it was the lifetree of a lost elven nation. Now it is all that remains of their time on the world. Perhaps it is one of the lost mythals. Ursoc, the wanderer of the high forest, can see the power of this dead tree and, perhaps, hear its lost secrets.

The Corpse of Ovestaar. The ancient silver dragon, Ovestaar, was slain during the thousand year war. The huge skull of the silver dragon lays half-buried in Greypeak Mountains. Ovestaar's silver horns still attract huge blasts of lightning which arc through the skull and reveal the runes carved into the bone. Ryu can recognize this skull and learn of its origin, perhaps channeling the storm that always surrounds the skull or touching the spirit of the mighty dragon.

The Hammer of Lanaxis. Thought by most to be a odd natural rock formation, the Hammer of Lanaxis is actually made of iron and yet covered with rock after tens of thousands of years of erosion. The hammer sits, head down and handle up, in the Spine of the World. When one of giant-blood comes nearby, they might see runes of ancient giant languages glowing on the hammer's base. Sif might be one to see such runes and might have a connection to the long-dead titan who placed it here or draw strength from the mighty artifact.

The Broken Hero. This huge statue depicts the half-orc paladin Damun Bronzeclaw, champion of Torm. The statue has cracked, leaving part of its arm and face in rubble at the base of the statue yet its one remaining eye stares out with determination at the western mountains. Ultar can recognize this champion as one of his childhood heroes. It is said Damun's eye stares at the his lost tomb where his armor and blade rest to this day seeking a new champion. The right oath given to this statue applies the blessing of the hero to all who accept its aid.

Building Your Own Character-Focused Ancient Monuments

Building your own character-focused ancient monuments requires only a few steps. First, and most important, we should have a copy of our characters' names and backgrounds in front of us so we actually know what we should tap into. Then we might use the random generator to give us a few ideas, seeing if any of them are an interesting fit for any particular character's background.

We can use our lazy approach for building fantastic locations by just jotting down three interesting things about this monument we've created. Many times it needs to be nothing other than the name of the thing, but a few notes about features can't hurt. If we want, we can apply some sort of spell effect to the monument that can be applied by a character performing the right sort of skill check. Our favored character, the one whose background is tied to the monument, can make this check with advantage.

A Cheap Trick for Shining the Spotlight

This whole process is a great way to help us highlight one character for a particular scene. We can load the monument up with monsters that the character loves to fight. We can include a potential magic item reward noteworthy to that character. Finding a monument, encounter, and reward is a great way to make one of the characters (and, more importantly, one of the players) feel special. Give it a try.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

An Analysis of the #dnd Twitter Community

Sly Flourish - Mon, 04/24/2017 - 06:00

Before we begin, we have about a week left on our Fantastic Adventures Kickstarter. If you're a fan of the site and are looking for ten short adventures for your fifth edition RPG, please give it a look. Thanks!

So as not to waste your time, I'll start this article off with the most useful tip I have for watching the #dnd Twitter community. If you want to keep your thumb on the D&D community through Twitter, set up a persistent search for #dnd min_retweets:3. This will show you #dnd tagged tweets that have been retweeted at least three times. This cuts down on noise and serves up the most interesting D&D news curated by others.

Now on to the twitter #dnd analysis.

I am a huge fan of the #dnd community on Twitter. Though fraught with problems, Twitter has been a huge boon for this website and the many friendships I've formed while writing about D&D for the past nine years.

Two years ago, Enrique Bertran, the Newbie DM, made an off-hand remark that he no longer knew who to follow on Twitter when it came to D&D. During the early days of 4e, there was a strong circle of bloggers who wrote about this new (at the time) version of D&D but many of them had either switched topics or gone dark. Now, with the release of the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons, we had all new communities forming around this game, but how could we find them?

Being a bit of a data nerd, I wanted to find an answer to Enrique's question not subjectively, but algorithmically. What sort of software or system could I write that would answer his question? Thus began a deep odyssey in my analysis of the #dnd hash tag.

Over two years I collected 910,635 tweets and processed them to answer Enrique's question and a lot of others. Who tweets the most often? What does the overall trend of #dnd tweets look like? Who is the most popular tweeter by retweets? By processing all of these tweets I could answer all of these questions.

So, with just shy of a million tweets in hand, let's look at what the #dnd community looks like.

The Imperfection of #dnd

Any statistical analysis like this needs about a thousand disclaimers. This one will be no different.

The first disclaimer is that the #dnd hashtag on Twitter doesn't fully represent all of the discussions happening on Dungeons & Dragons on Twitter. It's just those flagged with #dnd. This will include a few tweets that use #dnd for something other than Dungeons & Dragons (there are a few but not many) and misses out on many Dungeons & Dragons discussions on Twitter that don't use the tag.

I also do some gross slashing and hacking of the data in order to get to some of the answers. Sometimes this slashing and hacking might cut away useful information. When we're looking at a large set of data like this, its easy to miss some of the nuances.

Lastly, I could just screw up. It's quite possible a bug in my analysis code came up with a wrong conclusion. I wouldn't start betting the future of your company on these results without verifying them and replicating the results. Due to Twitter's terms of service, I cannot pass around the raw data, but if you're interested in digging in, send an email to [email protected] about it.

Now, with the disclaimers out of the way, let's start looking at some results.

Tweets Versus Retweets

Of the 910,635 total tweets containing the #dnd hashtag between 21 March 2015 and 27 March 2017, 470,932 (51.71%) were original tweets and 439,703 (48.29%) were retweets. Just about half of all the #dnd tweets were retweets.

Some Filtering of the Data

For much of this analysis, we filtered out a bunch of tweets for various reasons to give us a deeper look into the most valuable tweets. The first account we filtered is the explosively popular @dungeonsdonald account which accounts for 29,369 retweets from 6 May 2016 to 27 March 2017. That accounted for 3.2% of the total tweets of the 910,635 tweets.

We also filtered out 17 #dnd bots which we'll discuss later. These bots accounted for 62,448 total tweets which is about 6.8% of total tweets. These bots often dominated the list of loudest #dnd twitter accounts and their twitter text patterns were easy to spot in our bi-gram graph, which we'll talk about later.

Lastly, we filtered out contest tweets which included any tweet with the following phrases: "Giving Away", "giveaway", "chance to win", or "enter to win". This removed 14,139 tweets or 1.5% of total tweets.

What remains is 792,196 tweets.

The Growth of #dnd

Looking at the number of tweets posted to #dnd month to month, we can see a steady overall increase over the past two years. The month to month median growth of #dnd was 7.4% or roughly 5% over the 2.5% median growth of Twitter overall. That seems small but it clearly compounds every month, revealing a solid growth for the use of the tag (and, perhaps, the game itself).

Here's a chart of the number of #dnd tagged tweets per day from March 2015 to March 2017.

Even more interesting is the number of #dnd tagged tweets per day.

Careful observers will note that it looks like two weeks are missing in early 2015. You'd be correct. The script I use to grab up these tweets failed for those two weeks and that data is missing. This actually changes up some of the results but not by much and I'm too lazy to calculate it.

You'll also those spikes on there. We'll get to those in a bit.

The Most Popular Tweeters

Based on the number of retweets, we can find the accounts whose tweets were retweeted the most. These tended to be the most popular #dnd tweeters overall. Keep in mind that we removed @DungeonsDonald from this list as we mentioned above.

Here are the top twenty most retweeted #dnd tweeters from 21 March 2015 to 27 March 2017.

fieldcountWizards_DnD23,153EncounterRP12,311Grand_DM8,494DmLeviathan8,294TheGodDamnDM7,910SlyFlourish7,423EvilSqueegee5,737mstephenjoy5,697JeremyECrawford5,344thedungeoncast3,548DMs_Block2,914DMDicetress2,911Askren2,588XPWebSeries2,525DDOPlayers2,514DonaldTheDM2,261JadeGamingNews2,132Mentalburnout2,114cawoodpublish2,082HowReroll2,027 The Most Popular Tweets

We can also get a list of the most popular tweets posted during this timeframe. Again, we removed @DungeonsDonald from this list. This list is abbreviated because it became hard to link to the original tweet and contained a few tweets that really weren't relevant.

Here are the top tweets from March 2015 to March 2017. textcount

RT @TheGodDamnDM: Player Tip - Your stealth only has to beat their perception. Never assume you automatically fail. #dnd5,157

RT @thedungeoncast: How to spot a polymorphed dragon #dnd #dungeoncast #dragons #polymorph,883 RT @Ekmelsword: Mjolnerd! #rpg #CriticalRole #dnd,336 RT @Wizards_DnD: Let's see what fate lies ahead! Retweet (not quote) this tweet and Madam Eva will read your #DnDFortune. #dnd https://t.co617 RT @Wizards_DnD: #ForceGrey: Giant Hunters debuts Monday July 11 on Nerdist! Here's a teaser trailer to tide you over until then.#dnd https585 RT @Bombastic_World: Mjolnerd! #rpg #CriticalRole #dnd RT @Logic301: Building my Character with @BrianWFoster Mwuahahahaha! #DnD RT @Wizards_DnD: #DnD has another history making moment thanks to you we were just inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame!488 RT @ElectroCereal: HEROES NEVER DIE!!! Finally, lines and base color for the Cleric of #FantasyWatch :D Hope you like her!442 RT @Wizards_DnD: Happy Birthday Gary! Thanks for focusing on the fun and sharing #dnd with everybody! RT @Wizards_DnD: And @matthewmercer just announced the #dnd video series he'll be running this summer - Force Grey: Giant Hunters! https://407 RT @Grand_DM: Cathulhu has awakened. #Lovecraft #Cthulhu #cat #dnd #rpg #horror RT @matthewmercer: The first episode of Force Grey: Giant Hunters is available for your viewing pleasure! #DungeonsandDragons https://t.co338 RT @Wizards_DnD: If you're looking for a #dndfortune, Madam Eva is still in the house. Just retweet (not quote) this tweet and I'll consult326 RT @65thvictor: Had to share this from FB. #dnd #dungeonsanddragons RT @Minileed: Here's a portal I made that uses an animated gif on a cell phone. Has a slot to hide phone in back. #dnd305 The last book of the In the Shadow of the Black Sun #trilogy. Get it now for the #Kindle! #RPG #DnD #Fantasy #LOTR303 RT @Wizards_DnD: Everybody on the #dnd team got some nice new Chuck's today! RT @HowReroll: #DnD words to live by fellow adventurers

The Loudest Tweeters

So who posts the most #dnd tweets overall? The following list shows the top 20 #dnd tweeters. These are people whose actual posts include the #dnd hashtag.

As I mentioned, noisy bots tended to show up in the list of top tweeters, so we removed them from this list.

Here's the list of top #dnd tweeters from March 2015 to March 2017.

Screen NameTweets SageAdviceDnD6,597Alphastream4,131rpg_org3,628SlyFlourish3,598DmLeviathan3,390Shenorai2,806TheDragonLordDM2,612JeremyECrawford2,448cbsa822,401beerwithdragons2,388AkeishaRoberts2,195Askren2,080haelyn782,072ddocentral1,871schwarm1,865genghisgalahad21,790DaquineGameArmy1,739XPWebSeries1,725Mentalburnout1,667GoingInBlindDnd1,597EncounterRP1,570 The #dnd Retweet Graph—Visualizing the #dnd Twitter Community

Top twenty lists are all well and good but sometimes it's nice to dig a bit deeper. What does the entire #dnd twitter network look like when you graph those who retweeted someone to those who were retweeted? We can build a graph visualization of this network into a large single image.

The image below represents one line (known as an "edge") for every retweet that occurred between a retweeter and someone they retweeted. Every dot (known as a "node") is a twitter account. There are a total of 90,496 twitter accounts and 200,665 retweets in this graph.

Any node that received more than 200 retweets has its name displayed. The larger the name, the more retweets it received. The colors represent algorithmically generated "communities" that group together commonly associated tweets. The layout is also done automatically with a random force directed algorithm. This was all generated in R with the iGraph package. It isn't particularly practical but it is pretty.

You can also view a unlabeled version of this graph or one labeled by a minimum of 20 retweets instead of 500. You can't read the center in this one but you can see whose at the edges a bit more.

Most Popular Monsters

Using a list of the monsters in the 5th edition Monster Manual we can get a rough gauge for the popularity of monsters by their mentions on Twitter. This list was slightly edited for monsters that happen to have names used for things other than monsters. I also removed some NPC monster names because they are most often described as PCs (like "Druid"). This checked only original tweets, not retweets, which would have skewed the results for any popular retweet of "gelatinous cube" or something like that.

monstercountGoblin1,917Orc1,033Vampire837Cat823Beholder799Spider662Zombie648Wolf558Kobold523Troll482Rat480Ogre468Lich459Ghost448Skeleton440Mimic375Werewolf306Owlbear300Bugbear297Minotaur296 Popularity of Campaign Settings

With basic pattern matching we can get a rough gauge of the popularity of various D&D campaign settings. These are highly skewed, of course, by how well our pattern matches a tweet and by the timing of the campaigns. Still, it's interesting:

Campaigncount[Curse of Strahd](,564[Storm King's Thunder](,692[Out of the Abyss](,934[Princes of the Apocalypse]([Yawning Portal]([Hoard of the Dragon Queen]([Rise of Tiamat](

We can also take a look at campaign trends over time, which tells a more detailed story.

Analyzing the Text of Tweets

Since we're sitting on three quarters of a million tweets, we can also do some interesting text analysis. What are people actually talking about?

We'll start with a general word list. We removed a bunch of "stop words" like "the", "an", and "#dnd" which every tweet already has. We're also focusing on the 439,703 unique tweets so words from highly retweeted tweets don't end up dominating the list.

Here's a list of the top fifty words in unique #dnd tweets.

Top 50 Words: game (22,228), new (20,423), just (17,223), now (16,799), one (16,100), im (16,041), player (15,586), like (14,864), get (14,761), time (14,613), character (13,519), dm (12,819), wa (12,516), day (12,457), can (12,442), d&d (12,381), tonight (12,019), campaign (11,889), play (11,076), dragon (10,548), will (10,405), session (10,033), good (9,761), night (9,751), check (9,553), live (9,436), dungeon (9,427), u (9,424), ha (9,403), today (9,301), party (9,162), make (8,908), want (8,839), first (8,767), adventure (8,620), love (8,477), great (8,440), episode (8,239), go (8,012), last (7,990), need (7,843), got (7,786), dont (7,737), come (7,653), week (7,588), playing (7,568), going (7,259), dice (7,239), thing (7,186), know (7,093)

Nothing particularly interesting there.

A Look at Other Hashtags

What other hashtags were people using in their tweets? This is pretty easy for us to figure out too.

Top 30 Hashtags (besides #dnd): #rpg (50,058, 12%), #dungeonsanddragons (28,315, 7%), #dnd5e (17,694, 4%), #tabletop (11,892, 3%), #pathfinder (9,820, 2%), #critters (6,454, 2%), #fantasy (5,982, 1%), #criticalrole (5,638, 1%), #podcast (5,425, 1%), #gaming (4,029, 1%), #5e (3,292, 1%), #dice (3,177, 1%), #d20 (3,003, 1%), #twitch (2,939, 1%), #art (2,574, 1%), #sageadvice (2,407, 1%), #roleplaying (2,194, 1%), #kickstarter (2,065, 0%), #games (1,868, 0%), #boardgames (1,780, 0%), #dm (1,719, 0%), #adnd (1,623, 0%), #dnd, (1,620, 0%), #ff (1,556, 0%), #geek (1,522, 0%), #ddo (1,511, 0%), #nerd (1,414, 0%), #gencon (1,375, 0%), #gamedev (1,359, 0%), #roleplay (1,336, 0%), #curseofstrahd (1,192, 0%)

The Word Graph of Tweets

By splitting every tweet into pairs of words (bi-grams), we can build a graph similar to the retweet graph above. This time we represent the relationships of words within tweets. This graph focuses on word pairs that appeared more than 200 times. Since it focuses on words, we chose to display fewer edges (less than 3000) and showed each of the words.

Beats those fancy "word clouds" all to hell, if you ask me.


Co-occurences show us every time two words appeared in the same tweet, wherever they are in that tweet. The list below shows you the top fifty co-occurences across all original tweets.

Top Fifty Co-Occurences: dungeons dragons (3,621), last night (1,955), join us (1,753), curse strahd (1,487), right now (1,429), cant wait (1,315), storm thunder (1,214), come watch (1,199), live now (1,192), new campaign (1,190), im going (1,178), thanks follow (1,161), first time (1,117), storm kings (1,093), fantasy coins (1,088), kings thunder (1,071), looks like (1,033), come us (1,030), now available (1,027), new episode (1,004), thanks players (928), follow players (888), get now (881), dont know (869), new available (855), last now (848), 5th edition (835), want play (791), last get (784), come join (776), new character (764), new now (751), dampd 5e (750), can get (744), just got (724), coins now (692), next week (684), game night (682), first game (674), dungeon master (672), looking forward (672), book now (666), last session (657), going live (655), new game (651), new players (647), first session (646), book get (645), last book (641), black now (641).

Like our word graph above, we can graph and visualize co-occurrences as well. Here are the top X co-occurrences.

Building the #dnd Artifical Superintelligence!

For a fun project, I took all of the #dnd tweet texts and ran it through a library called Markovify which runs a series of processes on the text to generate likely combinations of word sets and generates its own tweets. In essence, it trains itself on all of the #dnd tweet texts and tries to build its own likely sentences. This leaves us with the ultimate #dnd twitter artificial intelligence. Let's have a look at a selection of twenty tweets it generated:

First steps in the eye and earholes!

Google + Hangouts Happening Now! @Joatmoniac has a chaotic good human sorcerer. Really worried she will need more popcorn #dnd

Said Fox executives to the #DND #FF #nerds #rpg #bloodymary

Well, um, obviously no #KimmtStreams tonight - help a lot!

DM: you are your heroes ... #dnd

#DnD peeps - er, Cloudkill? Big difference.

About to enter the portal gate back after the argument about Canada, that is.

Wilderness random encounter table for this weekends @ExtraLife4Kids marathon a success.

@MobilescapeAdvs IF I ever actually see a story to play!

#DnD #DMTip If you like Dragons? Well #unMadeGaming has both his clan & my exercise is imaginary? #dnd #mentalpushups

Currently recording goblin sound effects to add heroes? #dnd #rpg

Save vs Lawsuit: Publish #dnd Content

I love this cover! LOOK AT THE BABIES #dnd

What is the #DarkSun setting @Pixel_Dailies #pixel_dailies #pixelart @guthay

#Pathfinder #DnD #DungeonsAndDragons

Prep complete! Now awaiting the PCs. Drawn by anthonymoreci #swrpg #dnd #gamemaster @

Hey Power in my Top 14 items to add it as a Tabaxi. #VolosGuideToMonsters #Bramblepelt

in 20 minutes.

More of my first gift from the best 2. Rolled 2 crits. BOOM! 154 damage in #DnD? Ordinary heart attacks. I I miss #DND?

Koscheis playlist is currently biting a dragon's wing. #DnD #FTW

I'd read these tweets all day...

The Dungeons and Donald Effect

When looking at the past two years of tweets, there is one huge anomaly that we must account for when studying the rest of the data. I call it the @DungeonsDonald effect. This Dungeons & Dragons / Donald Trump parody twitter account became HUGELY popular, with 29,369 retweets (3.22% of total tweets) since it began in May 2016. This account's tweets skewed the whole resulting analysis if kept in so, for this analysis, we removed all of these tweets and retweets from our dataset.

The Rise of #dnd Twitter Bots

We've all likely heard how robots are eating the job market and it looks like these insidious automated bastards are aiming for DMs as well. During this analysis, I found that 62,448 non-retweeted tweets (6.86%) came from bots that auto-generated content of some sort.

These bots tended to be noisy, posting a lot of tweets, and showed up in the top 20 list of top #dnd tweeters. Some of the ones that posted random effects tended to post sentence patterns that showed up clearly when building a graph (we'll talk more about graphs in a bit).

Here is a list of known Twitter bots by their tweet count:

user_screen_name count DnDSkillCheck 8,117 ChargenBot 7,685 SimonSezCRB 6,153 randomdnd 5,770 dndsavingthrow 5,208 DnDTweets 4,995 youfoundloot 4,782 RpgExplorer 4,688 dndblogs 3,111 RandomMagicItem 2,596 RollMeaPC 2,304 DungeonRooms 1,970 d20_simulator 1,860 20sidedTweet 1,615 20sidedplayer 1,594

For the rest of this analysis, we eliminated tweets by known bots (including two that I run myself, dnd_blogs and dnd_tweets).

How'd I Do All This?

Beginning on 21 March 2015, I set up a Python Twitter streaming listener that began to capture any tweet tagged with the #dnd hashtag. This was stored in a large Mongo database in its raw JSON format. From this database, I could feed a variety of analytical tools by outputting various versions in CSV or using a system like ElasticSearch and Kibana to analyze the results. I hosted all of this on a server hosted on Amazon's cloud.

By March 2017 I had collected over 910,635 tweets in this database. I was able to load and process all of this data using Python Anaconda and R-Studio on my trusty Macbook Pro.

For the data processing I used mainly Pandas, the NLTK, and the iGraph package for R.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Three Things to Do While Traveling

Sly Flourish - Mon, 04/17/2017 - 06:00

Travel scenes in D&D can be tricky to run. We want travel to be meaningful. If the characters are going to hike it from Nightstone to Bryn Shander, they should feel like they've actually gone five hundred miles instead of just suddenly teleporting there. Yet when it comes to the pace of our game at the table, travel scenes can end up boring us if we don't handle them right.

Today we're going to look at three tricks for making the journey between places fun.

The Player-Described Travel Montage

I stole this one out of 13th Age, although, to my knowledge, it isn't part of the core rules but something that came out of their organized play campaigns. Wherever it came from, it's a great trick. Here's how it works.

When it comes time for a travel scene, the DM describes the general circumstances of the journey. Are they traveling across a scorching desert, a fetid swamp, or the icy peaks of the Spine of the World? It's important to give out enough detail to spark the imaginations of the players listening to you. With the general circumstances out in the open, it's time for some improv at the table.

Ask if someone wants to describe a challenge the group faced while on their journey. Try to steer them away from descriptions of what their character is doing, which is their instinct given that they spend most of their time at the table in the mind of their character. Ask them to step outside of their own character and just describe a the challenge.

When a player describes a scene, try really hard not to shut down their idea. Maybe they're not as steeped into the lore of the Forgotten Realms but that's no reason to cut down their idea of running into an abandoned fortress of giants in the middle of the Mere of Dead Men even though we know that the Mere is full of draconic ruins, not giant ruins. Try to build off of their idea, using the improvisation technique of "yes, and".

When they have described a situation and challenge, ask what other player would like to describe how the party, together, overcame the challenge. Again, they might start with what their own character does, so ask them questions like "who helped you with that?" or "who else got involved?". Let the other players jump in if they have something to add.

You might be tempted to call on people in particular but its perfectly acceptable if a player doesn't really want to leap in. Not all of us are good at thinking on our feet and not all of us should be forced to play in our hippy bullshit here. Some are just happy to hear the tale.

That said, you will want to make sure that players feel comfortable jumping in with their ideas even if another player is faster on the draw. As you use this technique, make sure to give quiet players a chance to jump in if they want to but don't force them. Give them a chance and a way out without shame.

The player-driven travel montage is a fantastic way to expand the boundaries of the story beyond the DM's head and can lead to some wonderful stories you never would have thought of otherwise.

Not-So-Random Encounters

Many of the hardcover D&D adventures like Curse of Strahd, Out of the Abyss, and Storm King's Thunder have excellent detailed random encounter tables on them. We might be tempted to be really lazy and roll them up right at the table. This isn't the best way to use these encounters, however. Instead we can read though these encounters and either choose a few we really like or roll them randomly when we're preparing for our game. This gives us a chance to fire up our imaginations with random ideas rather than forcing ourselves to just use the first one that comes up. When we have a few we like, we can use those to break up long travel sequences.

We can also spend some time tying these encounters to the backgrounds of the characters. Players will pay a lot more attenton to an encounter with a clear tie to their character. We can still work from the random encounter list but insert a thread or seed that ties back to one of the characters.

These encounters don't have to be combat encounters either. The characters might discover three stone giants still as statues kneeling around a floating geode. The characters might avoid awakening the giants from their sleep or might simply get into a conversation with them if they awaken. Many DMs tend to focus on combat encounters but we can place a lot of interesting exploration and roleplaying encounters out in the wilds as well.

Some Fantastic Locations

Pardon the shameless plug. Whether we're working with a random encounter or building our own encounter around a character's background, every encounter deserves a fantastic location of sorts. The setting matters. We can start with an ancient monument to get our creative juices going and maybe fill it out with some monsters relevant to the location or the setting. We can load up this location with some secrets and clues so it's not just filler. This way our travel scenes can really mean something. They're important, not just filler.

We might even fill this out into a mini-dungeon of sorts. Maybe it's not just a single scene or encounter but a deeper location the characters can dig into. They don't have to go into the strange catacombs they discover beneath the elemental monolith but they might find something pretty cool if they do.

This, of course, elongates our travel scene. For more relaxed campaigns, this might be fine. If speed is important and the story overall will be better if the characters get to their destination quickly, probably best to avoid sticking a bunch of dungeons in the way.

Different Options for your Travel Scenes

These options are just three of many you might choose to fill in scenes of travel as your characters move around the world. Use each of them as they make sense for the story and for the pace of the game.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Breaking Conventional Thought with Random Tables

Sly Flourish - Mon, 04/10/2017 - 06:00

In 1974 Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt built a set of cards designed to help people break out of conventional thought called Oblique Strategies. This deck of cards each contained an odd phrase such as "look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them" and "use filters". These phrases were designed to help spark one's mind, break out of a rut, and fire up some new creative ideas.

It's a bit new-age, but we can do the same thing with our collections of random tables, charts, and tools for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Random tables, like those found in the Dungeon Master's Guide, our own Ancient Monuments, and the excellent donjon random encounter generator can break us out of our own conventional thought and steer us into new creative directions. Even a decent random name generator can help us break past finding a good name for an NPC, a bar, or a band of mercenary hobgoblins.

A Key Activity During Game Preparation

We might be tempted to use random tables during gameplay but even better is using them during game preparation. We can spend more time with these random tables and their results ot help us break away from conventional thought while preparing our game ahead of time. Rolling on random tables during game preparation gives us a good chance to throw out bad ideas and refine the good ones into something wonderful.

Any particular encounter we run is likely built on layers such as a general environment, a fantastic feature, and some monsters. This might look like it's only for combat encounters but it can work for scenes of exploration and roleplaying as well. Many times our combat encounters end up as exploration and roleplaying encounters anyway if our players get creative about how they approach it.

Typically we know what environment our scene is going to take place. Maybe its a city, maybe its a frozen tundra, or maybe its a swamp. We often don't need any sort of random table to figure this out. Unless the characters are about to step through a misty portal to an unknown world, we know roughly what the environment will be like.

With the general environment in mind we can try to think up a fantastic feature for the location. What makes this place unique and memorable? We can use a random ancient monument to fire up some ideas. Not all of these randomly generated monuments are going to make sense but we might see something that sparks our imaginations.

We probably want to add some monsters to our encounter, even if it's not always going to end up in combat. Donjon's random encounter generator is a great way to choose some random monsters at a particular level and based in a particular environment. If you don't like what comes up, run the generator again. Lower or raise the level if you want to try out a different environment.

Random Tables of the Dungeon Master's Guide

If online tools aren't your bag, the Dungeon Master's Guide is packed with great random charts to fire off your imagination. Chapters 3, 5, and Appendix A contain excellent random tables to give you ideas during your game preparation. Spending time with the DMG rolling on these tables and putting together some ideas is a great way to play some D&D by yourself. Give them a roll and see what fires your imagination.

Fleeing From the Familiar

Random tables help us break our thoughts away from the stereotypes we might fall back on when we're pressed to come up with an interesting location or encounter in our D&D game. Under the stress of running the game, our minds return to the familiar. When we roll on random tables as part of our preparation activity, it helps push our minds into new and uncharted waters. Roll some dice and let chaos guide our ideas.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Sly Flourish's Fantastic Adventures on Kickstarter!

Sly Flourish - Mon, 04/03/2017 - 06:00

Last year, thanks to nearly 800 of you fine folks, we were able to put together and release the book Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations. This year we're digging one level deeper with Sly Flourish's Fantastic Adventures. This book will contain ten short adventures for characters of levels 2 to 5 of the fifth edition of the world's most popular roleplaying game. The unique design of these adventures fits the philosophies of the Lazy Dungeon Master making it as easy as possible for you to pick them up, customize them for your own campaign, and run them for your group.

The funding we recive through Kickstarter will help fund the editing, design, artwork, and maps for this book. The more we receive, the better product we'll be able to put together. I've spent nearly a year working on the adventures in Fantastic Adventures and can't wait to get them onto your table.

If you are a fan of this site and want to give back, please consider backing the Kickstarter for Sly Flourish's Fantastic Adventures.

Thank you!

Mike Shea

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Building a Great D&D Character

Sly Flourish - Mon, 03/27/2017 - 06:00

We here at Sly Flourish focus almost exclusively on helping dungeon masters run better D&D games. It's been my charge for eight years. Today we're going to take a slightly different approach. We're going to give one dungeon master's opinion, offered to players, on how to build great D&D characters.

A Focus on Fun

Our intent with this article is to help players build characters that bring the most fun to the player, the other players at the table, and the dungeon master. This sounds obvious but we'd all probably be surprised by the number of character builds that don't seem built around this idea. They're built for other reasons including uniqueness, combat power, or to break the boundaries of the game. These things don't preclude building a fun character but sometimes these ideals steer the generation of that character away from the things that make this game enjoyable. This article doesn't describe how to build the most powerful character or the most unique character. Instead, we look at how to build one that brings out the most fun of the game.

The Character as an API

In computer nerd speak, there is a term known as the "application programming interface" or API. This is how one computer program can speak to another or how a large system (like Twitter) can speak to the rest of the world programmatically.

Likewise, we can consider that Dungeons & Dragons itself has an API of sorts. D&D has a way we players interact with the game, a way characters interface with it. When we better understand that API, we can begin to see how certain characters will work better tha n others.

We can break down the interface of D&D into three big parts as outlined in the core rules: combat, interaction, and exploration. These are the three big components that build a D&D game. When we're thinking about our character, we want to think about how they will handle each of these three types of scenes, not just one of them. If we focus too heavily on one of these scenes, we might find ourselves bored and frustrated when the other scenes come up.

As an example, we might consider building the ultimate badass fighter. This fighter, armed with great weapon fighting and great weapon mastery, can hit like a Tarrasque when it comes to smashing stuff with a sword. Interaction? Yeah, not so much. Our Tarrasque hunter has a charisma of 8 and no training in conversational skills because who wants to boost up a -1 attribute bonus. Exploration? Also not so great, with a Wisdom of 10 and no skills there either. Sure, this fighter can lift and smash stuff but that's not always so useful when negotiating with the king's viceroy or exploring the trapped halls of the Temple of Xvim.

This character might be awesome in combat but its player may get pretty bored when scenes focusing on interaction and exploration take place.

Choose Skills for Each Type of Scene

One simple way to build a well-rounded character is to look at our skill list and ensure we have a good mix. When we think about the interface of D&D, the skill list is a big part of that interface. Here's a list of the skills broken out by the three main types of scenes:

Combat Skills: Athletics, Stealth, Intimidation, Animal Handling.

Exploration Skills: Athletics, Acrobatics, Stealth, Arcana, History, Investigation, Nature, Religion, Insight, Medicine, Perception, Survival.

Interaction Skills: Slight of Hand, Investigation, Religion, Deception, Intimidation, Performance, Persuasion.

It's likely worth being proficient in at least one or two skills for each of these categories, particularly exploration and interaction. Skills in combat aren't nearly as important since characters have a whole other pile of abilities for combat.

Thus, when we start building our character we might start by saying "what will this character do in combat, exploration, and roleplaying scenes?"

Choose Well-Rounded Combat Skills

You don't need to be the best badass fighter, but it's worth knowing how you're going to handle combat. What will you do when you face a pack of gnolls, a horde of skeletons, or a young red dragon? What will you do if you're stuck with a web spell or can't reach that spell-wielding mage high up on the cliff?

It's not enough to have one big awesome move you plan to pull out all the time, like the power-attacking great-sword wielding fighter or the fireball-enhanced sorcerer. What will that character do when they're stuck trudging through a swamp getting shot at by troglodites hiding up in the trees?

Even in combat skills, we should look for well-rounded character abilities.

Don't Get Too Creative

Some players love choosing to build characters that break the mold of D&D. The pacifist cleric build or the noble bourgeois fop might be examples. These characters seem custom built to avoid the very things D&D is about. They might hate combat, have poor social skills, and care more about keeping their nails clean than figuring out what the forty thousand year old runes on the wall of the ancient crypt mean.

These creative characters don't fit the D&D interface. Sure, we're telling an open ended story full of creativity but the core of D&D is built around going on adventures, getting into fights, and having heated interesting conversations with people. Some of us might hate the idea that the game can be broken down to such a low level, but when it comes down to it, that's it. If we try to break that mold too much, we're going to suck at everything.

Why does your character want to go off on adventures and fight monsters? If it doesn't, leave that one in the noble-district of Baldur's Gate and roll up a character who does.

Characters Built for a Party

As a DM, my favorite characters are the characters built to be part of a party. Even better is when they already are part of the party. Being the isolationist loner character might seem like a good idea but if you don't have a good reason to be in the group, it's going to be a pain in the ass for everyone to integrate yourself into it. Instead of choosing a background or history that makes it hard to be in a group, find a history or background that draws you into the party or connects you with the group to begin with.

There are fewer more boring storylines in D&D than those who go out of their way to get five people together into a group to finally start having adventures. Far nicer is when the whole group can hit the ground running as a single coherent team. As a player, help your DM out by figuring this out ahead of time.

When you're building a character, consider how your background ties you to your party.

Aiding Another

Tying into the group doesn't have to start or end with a character's background either. How about, instead of picking that cool spell, feat, or power that boosts your own attacks, you pick an ability that helps your fellow characters? How about, instead of picking counterspell to make the DM's life miserable you choose haste to make your fellow companions love you?

Sly Flourish's Quick Summary to Make Awesome Characters

Let's take a quick review and build a checklist for making characters awesome. The next time you're building a character, consider the following questions:

  • What options does this character have in combat, exploration, and roleplaying scenes? What benefits does it provide in each of these types of scenes?
  • Does my character have a wide range of options in combat?
  • Does this character fit well into the general themes of D&D? Does it clearly fit into a story of going on adventures, exploring old dungeons, and fighting monsters?
  • What drives our character to want to join an adventuring party? Which other character am I bound to?
  • What direct benefits does this character provide to the other characters in the group?
A Different Look at Character Creation

The intent of this article is to steer us away from focusing our characters on pure power or uniqueness. Instead, we can think about how to build well rounded characters that fit the themes of D&D and bring the most joy to us and the rest of the group. Let's give it a try.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

D&D Beyond – First Impressions

A Walk In the Dark - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 18:22

fvD4bT9FSo the day has come... D&D Beyond open beta has begun, so I decided to take a look.

First off, I'm looking at this strictly as (1) a software developer and architect, and as (2) someone who would actually use this thing. Without any mention of possible pricing, I can't say yet whether it's worth it or not, so I'll treat it for now as if it was free.

Some general comments...

  • The website is hosted on CloudFlare, which is a pretty decent hosting service that is designed to handle excessive load and usage. Let me put it in simple terms: the D&D Beyond site can likely handle more users, more bandwidth and more activity than WotC's own website.
  • The core of the site is built around Cobalt, which is a framework designed to support "hybrid" apps (both native and HTML-based app), which not only answers the question about support on multiple devices... but it does seem to hint how this whole thing will work offline. On devices, the HTML and Javascript pages that drive the app are physically on the device, not on a webserver, so it doesn't have to be online to function as a website would. Where the data physically is is another matter... I would venture to guess that the compendium wouldn't be available offline, but character creation and character content can be saved on the local device through Cobalt's integration between the HTML app and native services.
  • The server runs the website using "nginx", which is a web service similar to Apache. Although I can't confirm it, my going theory is that the server side is written in Python (which would have been my personal choice), although PHP and other languages is surely possible. Whatever it may be, it's safe to say that they're officially a Linux shop... a big departure from WotC's history of being obsessively Microsoft-centric.
  • Looking at the client-side code that I can see (and I admit there isn't a lot of it since only the Compendium is available), it looks well put together and fairly clean. In layman terms, it seems to suggest that the developer that wrote it knows what they're doing and isn't a total idiot. But, like I said, there isn't much there... we should have a better impression of their abilities once the next beta phases go live.
  • The app works really well, better than I expected actually. This goes along with my opinion that a company like Curse has done this sort of thing before and isn't making stuff up as they go along.
  • The app is visually appealing. Although it only contains SRD content right now, everything looks good. It even has pictures for all the monsters (well, most of them anyway... didn't go through all of them). The bugs I have seen are trivial and don't prevent you from using it (if you remember Dungeonscape/Morningstar, the bugs there made it unusable).
  • The app works out of the box on desktop and mobile, which was as could be expected with the Cobalt framework.

All in all, I'm fairly impressed. It's better than I expected, and it shows that there's a serious company with experience doing this sort of thing behind it.

The Unexpected Reveal

The D&D Beyond beta did reveal something interesting... and I'm guessing it wasn't intentional.

If you look at the beta site, the logo on the top left doesn't go to it goes to the domain, which in turn redirects to

So what is We don't know, but doing a WHOIS on the domains reveals something even more interesting: existed OVER SIX MONTHS BEFORE did. ... Registered Feb 2017 ... Registered Feb 2017 ... Registered July 2016 ... Registered July 2016

So... that being said... I have a new theory.

At first I thought that WotC likely asked Curse to create the app, but I don't think that any more. I think that Curse was already creating an app of this nature, called at the time, and only after was it pitched to WotC. WotC saw the working app and went with it, rebranding it to be

This approach differs wildly from what Trapdoor tried to do with WotC; when they pitched to WotC, Trapdoor didn't have an actual working app to show... at least not on three platforms (Android, iOS and desktop). They had what they thought it would look like, but I'm guessing that Curse was much farther along in their development, and the fact they can show a working app on every target platform was likely a big plus. This would also explain how Curse can take D&D Beyond from announcement to open beta in like a week; they've been working on it for a long time now.

This is all wild speculation, but if you think about it... it sure does look probable. We will likely never know the truth, though.

The Elephant In the Room

All the above is based on me looking at the app as a developer and as a user... but there's going to be one big problem with it and everyone knows it's coming: pricing.

As has been mentioned many a time, WotC has a tendency to price these sort of things at an absurd amount, making them impractical to afford or making people unwilling to pay for. Many are hesitant to pay for books they already own, but many indicators seem so show that will likely be the case here (see Fantasy Grounds).

We can only hope that WotC will snap out of their archaic mindset and get with modern times, but that's a big thing to ask.

More to Come

All in all, the app does show promise... But there isn't much to the Compendium, to be honest. What will make or break the application, at least from an application perspective, are the next two phases: Phase Two being character creation, and Phase Three being homebrew support and campaign management. Personally, I'm particularly curious about Phase Three.

Categories: Blogs

Tools for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons

Sly Flourish - Mon, 03/20/2017 - 06:00
5e D&D DM Tools

A curated list of tools for running fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons games. Bookmark this list to keep it on hand.

5e Campaign Worksheet: A single-page worksheet with rules summaries, random names, and a focus on your characters and their backgrounds.

Kobold Fight Club: The most popular D&D 5e encounter building tool. Useful for random encounters and as a general monster index.

Name Generator: One of a thousand name generators. Useful for bars and inns as well as people.

Ancient Monuments: Random ancient monuments including interesting random environmental effects.

Relics: Single-use Magic Items: Single-use magic items based on interesting combinations of physical objects.

Random Traps: A trap generator that mixes magical and physical effects with two connected traps.

Monsters by Challenge Rating: The official list of Monster Manual monsters by challenge rating.

Random Spell Tables. A set of charts for determining a random spell. You can also just roll up treasure and hope for a spell. 5e Tools: A fantastic selection of 5e tools including an encounter size calculator; spell, monster, and magic item indexes; a great random treasure tool; and even a magic item shop generator.

Guide to Narrative Combat with one-page guidelines PDF: Guidelines for running non-gridded combat either in full narrative "theater of the mind" or with an abstract map.

Encounter Building Guidelines with one-page guidelines PDF: Sly Flourish's guide to simple encounter building. The UA Encounter Building Tables are likewise useful.

Character Sheets and Pregenerated Characters: A large set of official blank character sheets as well as pregenerated characters for many classes from levels 1 to 10. Includes the excellent starter set character sheets.

Tables of the Dungeon Master's Guide: An index of the tables in the DMG, including the most valuable tables.

Roll 20: Play Dungeons & Dragons online! Includes official WOTC published adventures such as Storm King's Thunder and Lost Mines of Phandelver.

Note, we'll keep updating this as we become more aware of great and useful 5e D&D tools. Let us know!

Categories: Blogs, D&D

WotC Announces Digital Tools… AGAIN.

A Walk In the Dark - Mon, 03/13/2017 - 16:22

Cavern of the Damned is now available for Pathfinder (through DriveThruRPG) and for Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition (through the DM's Guild)!

God, has it been *that* long since I posted anything here?

fvD4bT9FMy year has been kind of chaotic, to say the least... but leave it to Wizards of the Coast to announce something that might just bring this blog back from the dead: at PAX, WotC announced D&D Beyond, a new suite of digital tools being created by Curse to support D&D 5th Edition.

Wait, what? You mean you've heard this story before? Well... about that... Time for a history lesson.

Background: The History of D&D Licensing

In the days of 3rd Edition and 3.5E, WotC created the Open Gaming License (OGL, for short) so that publishers can create D&D content. Soon the market was saturated with content, and everyone was reasonably happy.

But the OGL created something that blindsided WotC: Paizo went through the OGL with a magnifying glass and, soon enough, Pathfinder was born. Suddenly there was a new player in town that directly threatened WotC's crown as the king of fantasy RPGs. WotC was terrified, and from that point forward they became more protective of their content than ever before.

When 4th Edition (4E, for short) came around, WotC decided to close the door on the possibility of such a thing ever happening again, so they discarded the OGL in favor of the Game System License (GSL, for short). The GSL did allow some publishers to release material, but it was heavily restricted and had several limitations as to what you can actively publish. Yes, you could continue to publish things using the OGL, but besides certain things you could not include legally (creatures that were part of WotC's "intellectual property") you could make no mention of WotC or D&D at all. Many were forced to do silly things like say their product was "compatible with the 4th edition of the world's most popular roleplaying game" (a claim that itself was in doubt due to the rise of Pathfinder).

Then there's the whole situation regarding the digital world... At the beginning of 4th Edition some of the core books were available in PDF format, but WotC quickly realized that they had no control over their distribution and weren't making as much money off them as they could. They were, in their eyes, losing money. So they yanked all the PDFs, took a step back in to the dark ages and pretended PDF technology didn't exist at all (some argue that this is the same reason why Dragon and Dungeon magazines were terminated; there was no way to make reliable money off them). Only recently, with the appearance of the DM's Guild, did PDFs return... and with such an absence of PDFs that was fostered over so many years, the demand for PDFs exploded and it was a rousing success.

For 5th Edition, WotC decided to go back to the OGL, but there's still an air of uncertainty as far as digital tools. It's not that people can't create the tools... it's that people are afraid to. WotC legal is a nasty foe to have (trust me on that), and many that have tried to create online tools before were violently shut down. There's such a cloud of uncertainty around digital tools that no one dares to do them for fear of WotC's wrath.

The Beginning of Digital Tools: 4th Edition

Prior to 4th Edition, in what you can arguably call the early days of the internet, WotC didn't have many digital tools to speak of to support 3rd Edition and 3.5E. Creation of such tools was in the hands of third parties, who could freely create these tools under the conditions of the OGL.

When 4th Edition's GSL came around, the GSL had a specific clause added that never appeared before: third parties were explicitly denied creating any digital tools or applications using the 4th Edition ruleset. WotC seized on the opportunity to create the tools themselves, and DDI (D&D Insider) was born, where WotC would charge a monthly fee for users to access their digital tools.

There's just one problem with that: WotC is not in the business of creating software (with the growth of Magic the Gathering Online, that has recently changed... but, even so, MtG's their golden goose). It never was, nor should it ever be. Yet they tried, and the results were disastrous.

At first they created a standalone application to create your characters, but WotC quickly realized there was no way they can charge a monthly fee for something that can be used offline. So they abandoned the standalone application in favor for an application hosted on their website. And to give you an idea of how much of a mess that was, do an experiment: go find any experienced software developer you know and see how they recoil in horror when you say the word "Silverlight".

Almost as soon as 5th Edition was announced (to be honest, I don't remember the exact timeline here), WotC announced that the 4th Edition tools would no longer be supported and would eventually be abandoned entirely. This went along with the new mindset WotC had: basically pretend that 4th Edition never happened.

Digital Tools for 5th Edition, Chapter One

DISCLAIMER: The following is based on discussions I had with someone who, for now, asked to remain anonymous. Since WotC legal has me on speed dial, I cannot elaborate on where they got this information, but I personally trust it.

Trapdoor Technologies was a modest company that had an interesting product: a way to get content online and hyperlink the ever loving crap out of it. Admittedly, not a lot of people were using their app in the first place, but it was a nice idea at least.

But there's one thing that made them different: they were gamers. Basically the entire upper level staff at Trapdoor were heavily in to RPGs (they were the first group to ever playtest a product of mine, Cavern of the Damned for Pathfinder). And they saw that their tool would be a really cool idea to use for RPG content.

So they took a shot and pitched their idea to someone (I don't know who) at WotC, and that person at WotC loved the idea. At first Trapdoor only suggested the product they had - hyperlinking D&D content - but WotC is the one who asked Trapdoor if they can do that *and* create a character generator to boot. Trapdoor, a company with not much of a development team to speak of, agreed to do just that without having any real idea what they were getting in to. Contracts were signed, Trapdoor got some funding to begin development on what would end up bring Morningstar/Dungeonscape, and spent six months developing the product before its announcement at Origins.

Thing is, Trapdoor seemed as much of a developer "shop" as WotC was in the 4E days. They seemingly had no idea what they got themselves in to, and had nowhere near the infrastructure and resources to deliver a product of such scope. Prior to this they hadn't even created an Android app at all ever, so they immediately had to run around and find the developers to actually do that (I have to admit, I offered my services to them to do that). When someone brought up desktop support, they were equally flustered.

During this time, Trapdoor was in constant conflict with WotC over pricing. Trapdoor wanted to price the tools themselves cheap, preferring the users to spend the money on the actual books. WotC, for who knows what reason, wanted to go the other way: they wanted to add micro transactions *everywhere*. For example, they wanted to charge $1.99 for each class and each race you wanted. But, so long as the funding continued and the fans seem so like what they were doing, Trapdoor pressed on because, after all, they did have WotC's blessing to continue... right?

After GenCon of that year, in an act that should come as a surprise to no one that has dealt with WotC before, everything changed.

Apparently, the person at WotC that was dealing with Trapdoor was working autonomously, and had not even bothered to run it up the chain of command. In other words, 600K and six months were spent developing Morningstar while the upper echelon of WotC management - and, specifically, WotC's branding and legal departments - had no idea it was happening.

As soon as the "powers that be" found out, chaos ensued. WotC immediately demanded that they remove the books from Morningstar, which was the whole reason the project was green-lit in the first place. Without the book content, Trapdoor lost the only thing that WotC had apparently agreed upon, and they were left with not much of a product after that.

Trapdoor panicked and tried to renegotiate a new pricing deal with WotC, but WotC didn't see the future in the same way. Not only did WotC immediately terminate the contract, but they effectively threw Trapdoor under the bus and chastised them for "not meeting WotC's expectations." Trapdoor was thrown like a discarded bone at the fans, and they mercilessly tore into them.

Trapdoor tried to stay afloat, but there was no wind in their sails. In the eyes of the public, they failed. As a company, they didn't last long before their investors pulled the plug and shut them down.

Trapdoor still owes me $14.10 for Cavern of the Damned, but I'm not bitter...

Digital Tools for 5th Edition, Part Deux

And here we are...

Trapdoor was effectively an indie startup that was barely staying in the black, but Curse is an established software development company with over ten times the staff (141 employees, at least according to their company profile). Curse is also owned by Twitch and has multi-platform products out there in the marked that are used by tens of thousands of gamers, so they've arguably done this before.

But Curse is that and only that: they actually are a programmer "shop". I have no doubt they can create a good product that would be easy to use, but they are only creating a front end for WotC's content. WotC has absolute say in how much access to that content costs, and as we've described above: when it comes to the digital realm, WotC is still in the dark ages.

Based on a Reddit post by the product lead at Curse, it looks like WotC is leaning towards the micro-transaction route that they tried to ram down Trapdoor's throat. So expect to pay as much for a 5th Edition character class as you would for a handful of hearts in Candy Crush.


I have confidence in Curse being able to make a decent app, but this project might be doomed from the start because of WotC's pricing model. I remain cautiously optimistic that WotC will see the light some day and change their ways. We can only hope.

Categories: Blogs

DM Deep Dive with Teos Abadia: What We Learn from D&D Organized Play

Sly Flourish - Mon, 03/13/2017 - 06:00

This month, on the DM's Deep Dive, I spent an hour devouring the intellect of Teos Abadia. Teos has more than 10,000 hours of time spent running D&D organized play games including games for Living Greyhawk, Ashes of Athas, and now the D&D Adventurer's League. Teos and I have spent years discussing DMing and working on projects together including Vault of the Dracolich with Scott Fitzgerald Gray. You can find Teos's writings on the web at

You can watch the Youtube video for the show below or subscribe to the DM Deep Dive Podcast using your favorite podcast app.

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Teos and I discuss what DMs can learn from organized play and what tips organized play DMs can pass along to DMs who primarily run home games.

We started off by discussing Teos's three big takeaways from running organized play over the years. These included:

  • Running organized play means being able to work with many DMs and many players. We rarely get to see so many DMs running so many different games than we do in organized play.

  • When DMs work together on an organized play campaign, they can build a really strong community. Teos brings up the Living Greyhawk and Ashes of Athas communities as examples.

  • Seeing how players can develop a schtick for a character that other players feed off of. One character had a "tiny god" in a bag around his neck that he continually spoke to to make decisions. All of the rest of the party played off of this 13th Age style "one unique thing".

Here are a bunch of other interesting notes from the conversation.

Learning from running multiple iterations of the same adventure is an experience we don't often have at home games. Not only does it refine what we run but the differences between groups can be really interesting. When we have dozens of DMs all running Caves of Chaos, as an example we discuss in the show, different DMs can work together to come up with really interesting ideas that they can implement in the game. In my own experiences, running Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Curse of Strahd, and Storm King's Thunder for multiple groups let me refine it as I ran it.

The shared experience is another big advantage to running published adventures. So many DMs are running these same adventures that, even if you can't discuss it with other DMs directly, we can feed off of the experiences that other DMs have had running these adventures. If we're running Storm King's Thunder for example, we can use both the Power Score Storm King's Thunder guide and Tom Lommell's Storm King's Thunder Disorganized Play video series to see how other games worked out.

Most of the time, our players are happy for anyone to be running the game. As Teos puts it, even if you're a half-warm body who shows up to run the game, people are happy. This was a big takeaway for me from the show, similar to Enrique's big take-away from our last show that no one gives a shit about your big fantastic world. We all want our games to be amazing storytelling experiences but the bar is actually pretty low. Trying to be the best DM we can be is a noble goal but we shouldn't let that desire paralyze us from running a game, organized or not.

If you have the chance to play an adventure before you run it, you can learn a lot about how you would run it. Convention "slot zero" sessions are one such way. If you can't do this, you can watch people play the adventures you're going to run on YouTube. For example, if you're going to run Lost Mines of Phandelver from the D&D Starter Set, you can watch Greg Bilsland run it before you run it yourself.

One of the questions we received talks about how to handle situations in which one PC attacks another PC in the same party and what to do with it. Teos mentions the excellent rule from the Adventurer's League that requires that no PC can damage another PC without that player's permission. This is a good rule to keep in mind at a home game as well. You can only drop a fireball on your friends if your friends agree with it.

When conflict between two characters does occur, Teos offers some great suggestions. This includes running the combat off-screen, resolving it with a small number of die rolls, or mentioning to the players involved that the players not involved might not want to spend a lot of time watching two characters fight each other.

Other links from the show:

I want to thank Teos again for spending the time to chat with us and squeeze out his experiences so we can all benefit from the. Stay tuned for future episodes of the DM's Deep Dive on the Don't Split the Podcast Network each month!

Categories: Blogs, D&D