D&D 5e Warlock Patron: The King of Dreams

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On some worlds, an entity deep within the ethereal or feywild gains oversight of the concepts of dreams and nightmares. When such a being is in play, sleeping creatures are, in a real sense, casting their minds into the realm of the King of Dreams. In such places, dreams and nightmares might become coherent, thinking entities in their own right, and gain enough power to threaten the waking world.

Far from omniscient or omnipotent, the King of Dreams often must rely upon servants to attempt to police the vast realm of dreams and the recalcitrant denizens therein. While tending to favor relying on other dreams and nightmares forged by their own hand, sometimes they will speak to a gifted dreamer and offer powers in exchange for service in maintaining the dream realm.

Warlocks of the King of Dreams are often tasked with hunting down rogue dreams and nightmares. These may take the form of fey or aberrations when they escape to the waking world, or may simply hide in the recurring dreams of certain mortals for a Sleepwalker to find. The warlocks may also be sent on more whimsical quests: some religious philosophers struggle to cleanly explain the difference between the King of Dreams and any other Archfey.

Pacts

  • Blade: Pact weapons of the King of Dreams seem altogether too fanciful to be real; the idea of the weapon, but not the reality. They tend to be overly large and have adornments that no waking smith would include. And yet, they strike as effectively as any mundane weapon.
  • Chain: Devotees of the King of Dreams often have a raven tasked to their aid, a protector and a spy for their patron. It has the statistics of the Psychopomp, though instead of being able to transport incorporeal undead, it can transport dream and nightmare fey and aberrations.
  • Tome: A classic dream journal, a dream-pact warlock’s book of shadows is often fanciful, with multicolored ribbon bookmarks, an intricate cover, and beautiful images that spontaneously accompany the spells inscribed within.
  • Blood: Blood-pact warlocks of the King of Dreams are generally descended from those that procreated while stuck in a coma, deeply linked to the realm of dreams while bringing a child into the world.

Features

Warlock LevelFeature
1stExpanded Spell List, Lucidity
6thSleepwalker
10thSandman
14thDreamworld

Expanded Spell List

The King of Dreams lets you choose from an expanded list of spells when you learn a warlock spell. The following spells are added to the warlock spell list for you.

Spell LevelSpells
1stsilent image, sleep
2ndcalm emotions, phantasmal force
3rdcatnap (xge), phantom steed
4thconfusion, phantasmal killer
5thmodify memory, seeming

Lucidity

At 1st level, magic can’t put you to sleep unless you choose to let it affect you. Additionally, when sleeping (naturally or through voluntary acceptance of magical sleep), you retain a rudimentary awareness of the world around you. You do not have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks made while sleeping, and may wake and act immediately on your initiative when danger occurs while you are sleeping. You may, similarly, choose to wake immediately if subjected to danger that affects you in your dreams. These abilities do not apply when your patron puts you to sleep.

If you are normally incapable of sleep you may choose to sleep and dream. If you would normally rest fewer hours (e.g., four hours for trance), you only need to sleep this long to complete a long rest.

You have advantage on saving throws against illusion and enchantment spells, and on ability checks to recognize an illusion. You may use your action to grant a target you can touch a new saving throw to end an illusion or enchantment spell. At the DM’s discretion, these abilities also apply to effects that are similar to illusion or enchantment spells, but not technically spells.

You have advantage on Wisdom (Insight) rolls against creatures that dream.

Sleepwalker

Starting at 6th level, you gain the ability to walk through dreams. While sleeping, you may enter the dreams of any other sleeping creature within ten feet per point of proficiency bonus. The DM can describe the creature’s dreams to greater or lesser extent. You may encounter creatures of the dream realm within these visions, interacting with them as if you were in a waking encounter with them and the dreamer. Regardless of the outcome, you gain advantage on Charisma checks against the dreamer for 12 hours after they wake, due to your insight into their mind.

You may also use this ability to visit the realm of your patron while you sleep, and converse with them. At your patron’s whim, you may be led to other dreams or dream realms, and interact with them as if you were in a waking encounter.

Additionally, you gain resistance to Psychic damage.

Sandman

Starting at 10th level, you gain the ability to send other creatures directly to sleep, regardless of hit points. As a bonus action when you hit a target you can see with a weapon attack or spell (or the target fails a save against one of your spells), you may force the target to make a Wisdom saving throw against your spell save DC or fall asleep as if affected by the sleep spell. Undead and creatures immune to charm have advantage on this saving throw. If you affected multiple targets with the triggering attack or spell, you must choose one creature affected to be subject to this effect. You may use this ability a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, and regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

Additionally, you add the dream spell to your spell list (and may choose another spell if you had already learned this spell).

Dreamworld

You gain conjure fey (6th), mirage arcane (7th), demiplane (8th), and weird (9th) as additional uses of your Mystic Arcanum for the listed level (you may cast the spell instead of the spell you have chosen at that level).

After you take damage, you may use your reaction to enter the Ethereal plane, making it more difficult to affect you with subsequent attacks. You return to your original plane at the start of your turn.

Invocations

Warlocks of the King of Dreams count as warlocks of the Archfey to qualify for invocations.

Dream Vortex

Prerequisite: King of Dreams patron, 5th level warlock, Pact of the Blood feature

You add summon fey (tce) as a known warlock spell (and may choose another spell if you had already learned this spell).

When you cast summon fey or conjure fey, the fey spirit takes the form of a dream or nightmare of a creature within 60 feet of you when you cast the spell; that target has disadvantage on saving throws against the summoned creature’s abilities, and the summoned creature has advantage on attack rolls against that target.

Some Simple Gambling Systems

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So your players have gone into a casino and want to gamble? Here are a few basic systems for some common games. These are mostly tuned for D20, but should work for other game systems with minimal adjusting.

Roulette

An American-style roulette wheel has 38 numbers, so the odds are pretty easy to simulate with a d20 roll (rerolling 1s). In this system, players don’t really specify exactly what they bet (it’s not a pure simulation), just the odds they’re going for. Payout indicates how much they’ll win times what they bid (e.g., a Single Number returns 36 gp if the bet was 1 gp).

If multiple PCs are playing at once, assume they coordinate their betting (e.g., if one player is betting Column, and another bets Single Number, assume the first player bet the same column that contained the second player’s single number); this way, high numbers are good for all players.

Payout Table

BetPayoutRoll
Single Number3620*
Split1820
Street1219-20*
Corner919-20
Green Corner718-20*
Line618-20
Column315-20
Red/Black, Odd/Even, or 18 Numbers211-20
Always reroll 1s
* If you roll a 20, you must also get a 2 on a d2 (or some other kind of tie-breaker) for it to count as a win

Using Powers and Skills

  • Lucky: Players with luck that lets them periodically reroll a die can just reroll and take the better result. If the game features some kind of always-on minor luck, treating all results as one higher (up to a max of 20) is probably fair, depending on how reliable the character’s luck is.
  • Telekinesis: If the player has some kind of invisible way to influence the fall of the ball in the wheel, you may call for some kind of reaction check to do it fast enough to get a useful result. The player can provide an arbitrary bonus to the roll, but for anything higher than a +1, nearby staff members get a perception check to notice that the ball is behaving oddly. If multiple players at the table are also trying to influence it, there might be a contested roll as invisible forces fight over control of the ball.
  • Precognition: Depending on the strength and accuracy of precognition, the character can generally just make as much money as they want at roulette. In general, if a precog plays conservatively (mostly making 2:1 bets and losing slightly less often than they win) the cheating may only be discovered over long amounts of time. However, if the precog cannot get a constant feed of the future easily, they may have to make larger bets, and the staff will likely be very interested in looking into someone that suddenly bets big on a high-payout result after previously-normal play (leading to contested social and perception rolls).
  • Telepathy: Mind reading is not helpful. The croupier doesn’t know the result any more than the players do. Mental control might get the croupier to miscall a number or mispay a bet, but this is likely to be immediately obvious to anyone else paying attention. There are safer ways to use mind-control to get money.

Slots

Slot machines have large payouts with commensurately small chances. Assume that a relatively-fair slot machine will be set up with about a 96-97% payout rate: for every 100 coins deposited in the machine, the machine returns 96 or 97, and keeps 2 or 3.

This payout isn’t usually as simple as 1/100 spins pays the full money, and the rest lose. Some may be mega-payouts that ultimately pay out less than 1/100 times, but pay a lot when they do hit. Others may be designed for variable reinforcement, paying out much more frequently for smaller amounts. Two basic systems for the two types are below.

Jackpot Slots

The player rolls one or more d20s, depending on the size of the jackpot. Only with all dice showing 20 does the machine hit the jackpot and pay out the listed amount. The jackpot is a multiple of the cost of the payment to play (e.g., a 19 jackpot for a cp coin slot returns 19 cp).

d20sJackpot
119
2388
37,760
4155,200
53,104,000

Variable Reinforcement Slots

This slot machine pays out more often, but pays out less. Roll a d20 for each play, and the machine pays out based on the roll (e.g., on a 19, which pays out 4, one coin was put into the machine and four came back out). On a roll of 20, roll another d20 and compare to the jackpot lines.

RollPayout
1-160
172
183
194
20Jackpot
Jackpot + 1-145
Jackpot + 15-1710
Jackpot + 18-1930
Jackpot + 2050

Using Powers and Skills

  • Lucky: For luck that allows rerolling a die, it works normally on slot machines (choose which of the dice to reroll). For smaller, more consistent luck, treat rolls as one higher (and may require some kind of roll to activate). In general, this latter type of luck shifts the payout so the character can consistently make +50% over a long play session (e.g., after spending 300 coins on the slots, the character will have 450 coins). On average, it takes about six seconds to put in a coin and get a result on a standard slot machine (hey, a round!), so an attentive slot player can put in 600 coins in an hour, getting back 900 with this more consistent kind of luck. The staff are likely to notice if this continues for quite some time, but likely won’t question it for the first hour or two.
  • Precognition: Seeing the future has very little effect on a standard one-coin slot machine: assume the inner-workings aren’t truly random enough that a precog can time the pull of the lever to generate a better result. If the precog has access to several of them, however, they can identify the one most likely to pay out at a given moment. Make whatever rolls are necessary to activate the power, then preroll for each of the machines, tell the precog the result, and let them play the ones with the better payout. This is not likely to make much difference in the short run (since once that machine is used, it rerolls normally for the next pull), but might if the precog can wander past a row of slots every so often after others have used them. As usual for cheating, the staff will eventually notice someone wandering the aisles, only playing slot machines that are ready to pay out.

Blackjack

Blackjack tends to have a much smaller house edge than roulette or slots, giving a standard player with basic understanding of the game and no special powers a basically-even chance of winning or losing money over time. A conservative player that comes to the table with 1000 coins, on average, will walk away with 997-999.

For standard play, simply ask the player how much they’re coming to the table to bid for a session. Assume a normal session is at least a hour of play, and the table bet maximum may influence how much a player could reasonable play at a table (a character looking to play with 1000 gp over an hour probably can’t play at the table with a silver piece per round betting limit).

Roll 2d20, add them together, and compare the result to the following chart. The payout is the percentage of the character’s starting money (e.g., on a roll of 21, the player basically came out even, taking away as much as they came to bet, though there may have been some ups and downs during the session, and on a roll of 23 a character that walked up ready to drop 10 gp walks away with 11 gp).

Payout Table

RollPayout
2-120%
13-1420%
15-1640%
17-1860%
19-2080%
21100%
22-24110%
25-28140%
29-31180%
32-34210%
35-37250%
38-39350%
40750%

Using Powers and Skills

  • Gambling Skill: Unlike the previous games, skill can have a reasonably large effect at blackjack. A character that has no idea how to play might make bad bets and lose more often. Meanwhile, a skilled character that’s learned how to count cards can turn the house edge to a mild edge for themselves. Make an intelligence-based gambling skill check, with the difficulty based on how complicated the house’s shuffling system is (low for a single deck, increasing to high difficulty for multiple decks mixed together and various rules for reshuffling). A significant failure against the difficulty may impose a -1 to the final total of 2d20. A success adds +1. Major success may add +2 or +3, at the GM’s discretion. Casinos tend to be on the lookout for card counters that win big over time, banning them from continuing to play.
  • Lucky: For luck that allows rerolling a die, it works normally on the result of blackjack (chose which of the dice to reroll). For smaller, more consistent luck, treat the result as one higher (and may require some kind of roll to activate). Both of these stack with gambling skill.
  • Precognition: Usually blackjack is played over so many hands, with enough of a table limit, that limited-use precognition is not very helpful: if you can only see the future a few times a day, you’re just as likely to see a hand where the dealer wins as one where you do. Table limits to bets likely keep this from making a difference (and it might be very suspicious to only bet the table limit a couple of times when you barely beat the dealer). Treat the result of this as a +1 for every use of precognition for the session. Meanwhile, always-on precognition, as with roulette, can let you win as much as you want from blackjack, and the trick is to keep from getting caught. Add as big a number as you’d like to the die result, but the bigger the number, the more suspicious the staff will be.
  • Telepathy: As with roulette, there isn’t a lot of hidden information for mind reading to find, and mind control to mess up the dealer is likely to be noticed by all the eyes on the table.

Poker

Alone among the games in this list, poker isn’t played against the casino, and is purely about the skill and luck of the players. Generally, the house either takes nothing from poker (though in this case many suspect some consistent players are working for the house) or takes a small rake from the table or amount of the tournament pot. But, unlike the other games, you don’t stand to win functionally-unlimited house money if you’re really lucky: if you’re playing poker against three other people, a win just gets you the money the other players are willing to put into the pot.

Basic Game

At the beginning of the game, each gambler puts in the standard amount of the table for chips (e.g., at a 10 gp table, it costs 10 gp to play).

Each gambler at the table makes a gambling skill check representing several rounds of play (taking several minutes for each round). The gambler that rolls lowest goes bust. Distribute their current chips evenly around the table, with the remainder going to the highest roll. That player might be able to buy back in at the table cost to keep playing.

Repeat this roll for each round, slowly eliminating players until there is only one left. If the table allows it, a gambler may exit with their current value in chips before rolling for a round, rather than risking going bust.

For example, a 10 gp table has four players. After the first round, one player goes bust and the remaining players now have 13 gp, 13 gp, and 14 gp, but the bust player buys back in for 10 gp. After the second round, one of the 13 gp players goes bust (split 4 gp, 4 gp, and 5 gp), leaving totals of 14 gp, 17 gp, and 19 gp (the same player rolled highest both rounds). At this point, the player with 17 gp exits while still ahead. After the final round, the winner walks away with 14 + 19 gp (33 gp).

Tournament Play

Tournaments generally take a buy-in at the beginning, do not let players that go bust buy back in, and do not let players walk away while they’re ahead. Each match of the tournament is basically a table of gamblers trying to eliminate all but one, who moves on to the next round. Obviously, different tournaments might change some of these rules, but they simplify play overall.

Essentially, iterate multiple basic games, with the player characters only moving on if they win their tables. As a hedge against one bad roll making you go bust even though you handily won previous rounds (and thus should have a big chip advantage), you might choose to give the winner of each round a cumulative +1 for subsequent rounds at the same table.

Gradually increase the skill of the opponents at the table as the player characters approach the final match of the tournament.

If they are eliminated early, players may receive a prize for previous table wins. For simplicity, assume they recoup their tournament entry fee for winning each match (e.g., 4x their entry fee for being eliminated in match 5). The overall winner of the tournament instead gets half the total entry fees. (You can do more exact math if you want; this is a quick and dirty way to split it up.)

Using Powers and Skills

  • Gambling Skill: Gambling skill is key to the whole operation, and already built into the basic rules. Note that players might choose to configure exactly how their skill manifests, based on whether they’re bluffing, purely playing the odds based on visible cards, or trying to catch other people bluffing (i.e., for D&D 5e, player’s choice of using Charisma, Intelligence, or Wisdom as the attribute involved in the Cards tool roll).
  • Skill-based Cheating: Sleight-of-hand is the traditional way to cheat at cards. The type of game might make this harder or easier to do (e.g., it’s pretty hard to do for televised Texas Hold’em, but might be fairly easy in a dimly-lit pirate bar playing stud). Each round of a match, make a contested check against the non-allied onlooker with the highest perception, on success gain a bonus to the round’s gambling roll, and on a major failure you’re caught. (For 5e, roll Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) against the highest Passive Perception of anyone that might turn you in for cheating. On success, gain Advantage on your gambling roll, but if you fail by 5 or more, you’re caught cheating.)
  • Lucky: For luck that allows rerolling a die, it works normally on the gambling check each round. For smaller, more consistent luck, gain a +1 or the equivalent to your gambling rolls.
  • Precognition: Poker is iterated over enough hands, that a single glimpse of the future usually won’t completely swing the match, but can reveal whether you’ll win a high-value hand or should avoid going bust trying to match the player with the better result. Treat a limited use of precognition as Skill-Based Cheating or Lucky, letting you reroll a round and take the better result. If you have always-on precognition, act as if you’re doing Skill-Based Cheating on every round (there’s still some luck involved in the cards you get), and prepare to make social checks to prevent others from realizing how easy it is to win.
  • Telepathy/Clairvoyance: The ability to know what cards another player has is massive, either by reading their mind or viewing their cards. Similarly, mind control can fairly-subtly convince a player to bet big on your high hands or fail to push you when they’ve got a winning hand. Essentially, if you’ve successfully used telepathy on another gambler at the table, you can cause them to automatically go bust instead of the actual loser after the rolls are revealed for the round; you generally want to wait to use this until you’d go bust if they didn’t.

Reconceptualizing D&D 5e as Supers

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I’ve been thinking about this since watching Unsleeping City (which is more modern occult than supers, but a lot of the concepts carry over). The idea is basically to just use D&D 5e with as little conversion as possible to run a modern-day supers game. D&D characters are already fairly superheroic, especially at high level.

My initial inclination was to do a ton of work with custom classes and abilities to fully turn it into a supers game, but, honestly, I think you can get most of the way there changing very little. You just have to reimagine a lot of the mechanics from medieval fantasy to modern pulp. And, this way, it’s probably a lot easier of a sell to your players who are familiar with D&D.

Note that this isn’t really meant to model existing supers franchises, though the examples indicate that it can get closer than you’d think. You probably can’t use it to model any given hero’s powers closely enough to replicate them as a PC (though you can get a lot closer as the DM making an arbitrary NPC stat block).

Ability Scores

  • 10 is the true human level of basic competence. Most individuals have all of their scores at 10 or lower.
  • 12 is well above average. Many people that excel at their careers and pursuits have no scores higher than a 12.
  • 14 is exceptional competence. Few people have a 14, and extremely few have more than one ability score at a 14 or higher. Assume that IQ/10 basically equals Intelligence, so Int 14 is a genius IQ, and other scores are similar outliers.
  • 16 is the practical maximum for most humans. Paragons of various disciplines might have a 16. These are olympic athletes (Str, Dex, or Con), top-of-field geniuses (Int or Wis), or enduring global celebrities (Cha).
  • 18 is the technical maximum for true outliers. The strongest unaugmented powerlifter in the world has an 18 strength. Stephen Hawking likely had an 18 intelligence.
  • 20 is beyond human. Scores this high and above are only available to those that are augmented.

Player characters generate their ability scores normally for D&D, just use these as guidelines for how omnicompetent they are compared to baseline humans. And when creating unaugmented human NPCs, try to keep their ability scores within this frame.

It is up to the DM to decide whether to create a dramatic ramp on the lifting chart for strength to treat 20 as much more superhuman than normal. At the very least, you should allow more dramatic lifting stunts than you otherwise would, even if the practical carrying capacity isn’t increased that much from the normal chart (it’s not like supers tend to carry a ton of gear like fantasy characters anyway). At the very least, as noted in the Equipment and Improvised Weapons section, I think Str 18 can probably throw a motorcycle and Str 20 can hit an enemy with a car (though they might not be able to carry them around indefinitely).

Races

In general, most players should use the Custom Lineage rules (from Tasha’s), or just play Variant Humans. If you want some minor superpowers that don’t make sense with your class, work with the DM to make a custom race that seems balanced.

For example, rather than build Superman as a high-level Eldritch Knight to get flight, heat vision, and cold breath, Kryptonians may simply be built as a race with a fly speed, the fire bolt cantrip, and a 1/day burning hands (which does cold instead of fire). See Classes and Spells, below.

Equipment and Improvised Weapons

The armor from your starting equipment and either one weapon or one weapon and shield from this package become “phantom gear.” Unless you are suffering some kind of power suppression, you are always considered to be wielding them. Unless it makes sense for your power set, these don’t actually manifest as spectral arms and armor, but simply represent your basic enhanced toughess (armor), punching ability (melee weapon), or reusable energy blast (ranged weapon). Feats and abilities affect the phantom weapon as they would a normal weapon of the type (e.g., great weapon master works if you’re wielding a phantom greatsword).

For example, a fighter with the basic gear might have AC 18 and a 1d8 punch (as if using a longsword and shield) or AC 16 and a 2d6 punch (as if using a greatsword).

Phantom gear may improve at story moments where your powers are enhanced (at roughly the same schedule the DM would dole out better gear in a regular campaign). For example, the fighter’s AC may improve by +2 when they go from phantom chain to phantom plate in some event that increases their durability.

Since you can only choose one weapon, you will need to use improvised weapons for whichever of melee or ranged your phantom weapon doesn’t cover. In general, at Str up to 14, you can lift things that count as d6 damage weapons (and might have finesse), at Str 16 you can lift 2d6 weapons (objects up to a couple hundred pounds), at Str 18 you can lift 3d6 weapons (objects up to half a ton), and at Str 20 you can lift 4d6 weapons (objects up to a ton or more). It’s up to the DM whether cars to throw at people are readily available and/or reusable, so even high-strength characters may be limited to lesser improvised weapons depending on the environment. And picking up such a weapon uses up your bonus action in most cases (possibly also your move to get to it). Finally, improvised weapons don’t count for feats and abilities that affect specific weapons.

Tech-based characters (or your modern fantasy characters that actually wear armor and wield swords) may choose to forego phantom equipment, and represent their capabilities with physical gear. In this case, they should probably treat all their equipment as +1 enhancement higher than it would otherwise be, as a bonus for being able to disarm them without power suppression.

In general, replace physical weapons with their closest modern equivalent. This mostly means that guns just swap in for bows without any practical changes. Yes, a modern firearm should be way more deadly than a shortbow in a true simulation, but for pulp games, it doesn’t really matter that much.

Classes and Spells

Think of classes as your main powerset, and do your best to make the concept for your powers fit. A speedster might be a barbarian or monk (or rogue that just uses cunning action to dash). Most strength-based characters represent various types of brick, dexterity-based characters are your ninjas and acrobats, and casters are blasters.

If the character concept really doesn’t support a particular class ability, the DM should allow the player to swap to something equivalently powerful that makes more sense. But try to do this as little as possible, since the whole draw of this is to avoid having to make a ton of houseruled classes.

While prepared casters usually represent your true Dr. Strange types, and warlocks may be witches, spontaneous casters and most half-casters use spells to represent various energy projection powers and miscellaneous utility powers. At minimum, allow spells that represent powers to switch to the character’s primary energy type (e.g., for a sorcerer that’s a fire blaster, all of their damage spells should be switched to do fire damage). Most “spells” also don’t really have components, though you can still impose a monetary cost on the ones with expensive material components as part of their balance. In general, try to limit your character to spells that make sense, and the DM should be generous in allowing you to describe the effects of a spell in a way that makes more sense for your concept (e.g., the charm and suggestion spells as mind-control or super-Charisma).

For some characters, the wide raft of spells don’t make a lot of sense, because they’re really just trying to pick up a particular power (e.g., flight). As noted above, this might work better as a custom race. But if you really just want to have one trick, the DM can experiment with giving you more spell slots but fewer known spells (though try this gradually and be careful of balance; there are probably certain spells that could make this too good).

Also think heavily about spells per day as having some level of narrative implication. Maybe your Cypher-esque omniglot can’t technically run tongues all day for 100% linguistic comprehension as you conceived, but should be able to get it running most of the time when it matters. If there are still aliens to interpret for after running out of spell slots, maybe you just have a stress headache or need to do something else for a while.

Skills, Tools, and Languages

Not all of the standard skills make sense for a modern supers campaign. However, standard sheets don’t make it easy to remove and add skills, so I’ve endeavored to make the transfer below as simple as possible. You may just have to make a note somewhere to remember that Arcana is actually Science.

  • Science replaces Arcana, and represents most hard sciences (biology is still Medicine and Nature).
  • Academics replaces History, expanding it to a broad knowledge of liberal arts education topics.
  • Nature remains the same, but takes on more of Survival’s ability to forage in the wilderness.
  • Occult replaces Religion, and covers Religion, Arcana, and other esoteric, mystical concepts.
  • Streetwise replaces Survival, and focuses more on navigation and tracking in an urban environment (allowing Nature to carry more of the rare out-of-city adventure tropes).

Computers are a new tool proficiency. You may also want to create separate tool proficiencies for things like Electronics. Driving a car is Land Vehicles. You might also add Air Vehicles for planes. PCs should have a broad ability to swap out existing tool proficiencies for the modern technology ones.

Common is replaced by the dominant language of the country in which you’re setting your game. Allow players to swap other fantasy languages for Earth languages. If you want to play a true polyglot, consider getting the tongues spell, as mentioned above, rather than chasing down adding every possible language to your sheet.

Knockback

This is an optional rule to have more cinematic fights like in the comics.

Whenever you take damage from a kinetic or explosive source that could presumably send you flying, you may reduce the damage to half and move away a number of feet equal to the damage ultimately taken (e.g., if you take 20 damage and halve it for knockback, you suffer 10 damage and fly back 10 feet). This is a free action that stacks with reactions such as Uncanny Dodge; it’s fair for characters in supers fights to be twice as durable if they’re willing to get smashed through walls.

If this knocks you off a ledge, you suffer falling damage normally. If you would hit a wall, you go through the wall if the damage you took would also be enough to break it. This does not generally do additional damage to you, but is just cinematic.

If the damage you took is higher than your Dexterity score, you fall prone at the end of the knockback. If it is equal or lower, you can keep your feet (unless you are also knocked off a ledge).

Enemies

In general, it’s pretty easy to convert standard monsters to supers threats. Swapping their type to Construct for robots or Monstrosity for science mutants goes a long way. Tweak resistances and immunities to make sense, and change how you describe the creature and you can get away with reusing stats.

For human threats, keep the rules about ability scores in mind, if only for verisimilitude. In general, unaugmented humans should probably be limited to CR 1 or less. Anything higher, and you’re looking at standard-issue power armor and laser weapons, or explaining why they have low-level powers.

In general, you have the same problem as in regular D&D justifying why high-CR intelligent NPCs are working as mooks for an even bigger villain rather than setting up their own enterprise in another town where they’re less likely to get punched.

DMing 101: Your First One-Shot

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A friend was telling me her teenager recently ran her first D&D one-shot for friends, and stressed herself out mightily trying to figure out what to prep. That got me thinking about my advice for an introductory session of D&D, particularly for others that have never really played before that you’re trying to convince that the hobby is an entertaining one.

Best Practice: Don’t beat yourself up. You are your own worst critic. The session didn’t go as badly as you think it did, and, even if it did, you’ll get a chance to try again. People willing to DM are few, so just being willing to try gives you an audience. It’s a skill that takes a long time to get good at, but any DM is better than no DM. Give yourself room to fail, and use those failures to improve. You’ll get better, and as long as you’re honest about improving, everyone is going to be pulling for you to do so.

Character Generation

If this is a true one-shot, I’d advise you to pregenerate characters. And I’d advise starting them at third level for D&D 5e. The pregeneration allows you to skip a lot of confusion at the table, particularly if you have players that are new. Starting at third level makes the PCs a lot tougher (so you don’t accidentally kill them with a few lucky monster rolls) and gives them access to more of their fun class abilities (particularly, that’s the level where everyone has gotten access to their subclass features).

When pregenerating, definitely get input from everyone as to what they want to play. Some people might be very specific (and veteran players might want to make the character themselves, and feel free to let them within the same guidelines as everyone else). Some might be very vague, and you’ll have to prompt them with suggestions for races, classes, and backgrounds they might find fun. The goal here is to get enough buy-in that the players feel they have ownership of the characters without forcing those with no experience to go through character generation.

If this is a “one-shot” only in the sense that you definitely want to run a whole campaign with these same characters, and you’re just trying to get buy-in, then you’re more limited. In this case, you’ll probably want to start at first level (so everyone feels like the levels past that are “earned”). And you’ll likely want to sit people down to make their characters themselves (with a lot of input from you for those that haven’t played before). Ideally, get everyone together for a Session 0 (character generation and planning session) to have time to work through the process and bounce character ideas off of each other. This process always takes more time than you’ve budgeted, so you don’t want to try to do it and then run a whole adventure in the same time block.

Don’t Meet in a Tavern

It’s a sacred D&D trope and it usually sucks. I may be an outlier on this advice, but I think this trope should die in a fire. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a D&D game where we met in a tavern that didn’t take forever to get going and lead to character problems for many sessions on. The core problem is just, why would you trust your life to a handful of strangers you just met at a bar? It’s hard to bend your roleplaying around the idea that you’re adventuring with these people, but your character doesn’t trust or even like most of them.

My advice is to have the PCs all be companions before the game starts. There are a number of ways to do this:

  • Big City Adventurers: The PCs are from an adventuring guild in the big city (or some equivalent that makes sense for your world, like deputies of some adventuring government agency). They already know each other from the guildhall, and chose to band together to go out looking for problems to solve. This is a great option if you foresee your campaign going back to the big city if it continues.
  • Local Heroes: The PCs are the few classed adventurers in this town. For whatever reason, they’re not actually on the sheriff’s payroll, but everyone knows that they’re the plucky heroes the town can call on when something weird happens. They’ve known each other for years, and are probably all friends that hang out (depending on ages). This is a great option if you foresee the campaign being focused on this region of the world, using this town as a home base.
  • Far-Flung Connections: The PCs are all relatives or all have the same patron. While they have been adventuring in other places, they’ve probably met one another at least in passing and have their mutual contacts to say they’re trustworthy. Their relative/patron in the town has called them in for this mission (or maybe their patron has recently died and they’re all here investigating the suspicious circumstances). The trick with this one is to make it clear that the patron/relative is/was really nice, so they’ll all feel good about adventuring together under the NPC’s banner.
  • Already Met in a Tavern: Particularly if you’re starting at higher level, you can say that the PCs have already had a meet cute, gone on an adventurer or two, and gotten over any initial distrust they might have had. Have the players give you some vague ideas for the adventure where they met, and workshop it into something that makes sense for your campaign world until everyone’s happy with the summary of their “first adventure together.” This can give you an immediate hook for the next one-shot (“Remember that town you saved from zombies in your first adventure? Now they have a new problem and are calling you back…”).

Best Practice: Don’t have high-level NPCs around unless it’s very clear why they can’t help. Particularly in the patron scenario, the players are going to be like, “If they’re so interested in this, why don’t they come along and help?” This is a special problem with the classic high-level wizard distributing quests: in the time they waited around for adventurers to provide the quest to, they could have just popped over and handled the crisis. It’s easier if the patron is wealthy, but low-level (e.g., the mayor or a local landowner), so needs the combat skills the PCs possess.

Corollary: Don’t have a bunch of high-level guards in town. If the players are having to handle all of the town’s serious problems themselves, but then have a tough fight if they ever run afoul of the guards, they’re going to immediately want to know why the guards haven’t been handling the town’s weird problems, if they’re so competent. This means that the PCs are going to get away with crimes. I’ll discuss that a little bit down below.

The Town Scene

At this point, you know why the players are adventuring together and why they’re in this town looking for adventure. You could skip straight to the adventure. But you should run a town scene first.

The difference between tabletop RPGs and video games is the unscripted freedom to interact with whatever and whoever you want. You’re going to build some of that into the first dungeon as well, but it’s really apparent in town. The players can interact with whatever they want. They can talk to whoever they want. They can say and do whatever inane things they want, and the NPCs will respond.

Your first-time players in particular are going to want to pick a fight. They’re going to want to steal stuff. They’re going to push things in the environment just to see that they fall over. Some of this is that they’re seeing how much freedom they have. Some of it is that we don’t really get to act out in our lives in the real world, and D&D provides a no-consequence way to get it our of our systems.

You obviously don’t want your players to murder the town guard, scoop up all the money, and run off into the sunset, dungeon unplumbed. If nothing else, it’s not actually as much fun as it seems, even for the players doing it. But you don’t want to clamp down on bad behavior like an angry assistant principal either. What do you do?

Best Practice: Let the players seem to barely get away with bad behavior. If they try to steal something, don’t tell them the DC. If they rolled well, act like bystanders almost spotted them and might if they try again. If they rolled poorly, play the failure as them giving up on the attempt because there are too many eyes on them (rather than obviously stealing in the open and leading to a big arrest scene). If they start a fight, have the other side give up quickly, with bystanders muttering about “heroes” that pick fights rather than helping the town. What you want is for the players to get that they’re allowed to act out, but they should be getting on to the crisis out of town that they all came here for. What you don’t want is the session to devolve into a brawl with the town guards trying to arrest the PCs (especially since you’ve set the town guard up as not very competent, which is why they need the PCs in the first place).

Assuming things don’t devolve instantly into a crime spree, what you’re trying to get out of the town scene is some freeform roleplay. You’re getting the players used to speaking in character and treating the world as a real thing. You’re dropping some campaign lore, if you’ve developed it. You’re getting the players to make decisions in character, even if they’re minor ones. You’re showing off that D&D is more than just killing goblins in a dungeon.

Ask the players what they’re up to in town before meeting up with their contact for the quest briefing. Try to split them up, if you feel comfortable running separate scenes for different PCs (it helps to have a town map, so you can move their minis around it to make it obvious who can interject into which conversations; “You’re over at the blacksmith, you aren’t part of the conversation with the barkeep.”). If they don’t have anything in particular they want to do, suggest that they can go try to buy gear that didn’t come with their default equipment packages, which should send them to roleplay with a shopkeep.

Best Practice: Don’t overprep, particularly for NPCs. You don’t actually need to have every significant NPC in town fully described and statted. Lean into tropes and stereotypes. The blacksmith is a gruff dwarf. The barkeep is loud and large. Do a funny voice, if you feel up to it. If they for some reason need to roll against the NPC, pull a low-level stat block from the back of the Monster Manual. Or just give the NPC a +0 through a +3, depending on how good it seems like they should be at the skill. If the players revisit the NPC, you can develop them further then. The biggest trick to DMing is that work your players don’t see is wasted: you’re way better off spending your prep cycles on NPCs, locations, and plots the players have already demonstrated they’re interested in.

You might want to throw some foils in. Make most of the NPCs supportive and nice (after all, these are heroes here solving their problems), but throw in one or two that don’t like them. This gives them someone to prove wrong, and get an apology from later. It’s probably best that this is someone they won’t immediately want to throw down with for the insult (someone connected, like the mayor’s kid, or an actual child, rather than a town tough).

Best Practice: It’s easy to get players to hate NPCs. It sometimes seems that your players are primed to hate any NPC that acts like they have a life and opinion of their own that doesn’t revolve around the PCs getting their own way. After all, they’re the protagonists. You don’t have to work very hard to get players to decide an NPCs is their enemy. It’s honestly a lot harder to get players to like NPCs without having them be total pushovers to whatever the PCs are selling. This is trending into advanced GMing tips, so just be aware of it. NPCs you thought your characters would love, they’ll hate because they disagreed at the wrong time. NPCs you thought they’d hate or at least not care about will be adopted as the team mascot. You just have to roll with it.

Eventually, you’re going to corral them into the actual quest hook. If they’re locals, word can just come through during their normal day that the mayor/sheriff/patron needs to talk to them. If they came here looking for adventure, you can just remind them that their meeting with their contact starts soon.

If you’re being fancy, you can make the adventure come to them. Someone screams that their kid has been carried off by goblins. Skeletons are suddenly shambling into town, coming from the old crypt. The old diabolist everyone thought was long-dead shouts down from the local hill that they’ll all rue the day they exiled him (rue!) before running back to his sanctum. You know, action stuff.

Either way, you’re basically trying to provide two things:

  • Directions to the dungeon
  • A little bit of context about what they’re going to fight there so they can make limited preparations

This is a first-time one-shot. You’re not trying to be tricky this time. You want a clear call to action and a dungeon to be called to. Save the more complicated scenarios for when everyone is more seasoned.

Dungeon Crawling

Most of what I’d want to say about how to build an early dungeon, Matt Colville has already covered in great detail. You basically want:

  • A short enough dungeon that they’ll get through it in your available time
  • More than one type of encounter: different kinds of fights, traps, chances for social interaction, etc.
  • Some opportunities to make real choices
  • A satisfying final room where the players feel like they won a victory

If you’re trying to sell people on an extended campaign in a world of your devising, this is a great place to build in subtle connections to your lore. You’re not trying to hit them over the head with it, but interesting decorations in your room or character descriptions can go a long way. Text props unrelated to the current problem can hint at issues going on elsewhere. Maybe the little big bad they defeat in the dungeon was clearly working for—or at least incited by—some greater and more mysterious force.

Best Practice: Leave room in your encounters for clever solutions or roleplaying. Not every room has to be a combat. The players might scare off the bad guys. They might convince them to help. In particular, it’s useful to have an optional room that contains an NPC that isn’t directly in league with the main enemies, that the players can fight or befriend. It could be a mistreated guardian. It could be a creature the main enemies are afraid of but leave alone as long as it stays in its area. It could be a spirit the PCs might convince to fight with them or even possess one of their weapons to turn it into a temporary magic item. The players are going to remember the time they did something clever and unexpected to change an encounter for much longer than the time they won a combat.

And that’s it. The PCs run the dungeon. They return to town triumphant. NPCs that told them they wouldn’t do it apologize. NPCs that believed in them all along give a hearty thanks and a modest quest reward.

All that’s left is to ask the players whether they had a good time and might want to try it again.

Serial Numbers Filed Off: The Parasol Culmination

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Four decades ago, the sky fell. That’s the poetic way of putting it. The factual way to describe it is that rocky space debris totaling a significant fraction of Earth’s mass cascaded across the planet over the course of two days. Hardly a square mile of the world was spared from some kind of meteor strike, from rocks the size of bullets up to ones the size of airplanes.

Approximately half a billion people died from the impacts and their immediate collateral damage. The same number died in the next few days from the massively destroyed infrastructure, fires, and tidal waves. Even more would die over the next few years, from the famine caused by the green haze diminishing the light of the sun and from cancer caused by the massive influx of radioactive particles. By the mid-1980s, humanity had been reduced by nearly half what it was before the catastrophe.

Much of the debris was a strange, green crystalline rock, which came to be called Viridian. Safe to hold briefly, it became apparent that it was nonetheless highly radioactive. The large shards were quickly collected from craters by local governments, but the small fragments and dust were what led to the steep rise in cancer throughout the world’s population. The years of haze also created immense static across the radio waves, and new age nuts swore that it had similarly silenced the world’s magic.

But, humanity will overcome. Far less destructive than global thermonuclear war (and fortunate neither superpower had viewed the impacts as an attack), Viridian proved far safer and more useful than plutonium. Within a few years, the worst of the haze had been denatured by weather and sunlight, diminishing to a slightly-elevated background radiation. The vast stores of crystals could be harnessed for much-safer nuclear power to try to bootstrap global technology back from its nadir. And the massive crisis, shared tragedy, and loss of competing mouths to feed had united the world in a way that nothing else could. Scientists worked across national lines to solve the problems of rebuilding infrastructure, curing cancer, harnessing the new material, and looking to the skies to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again.

It did not take long for the world’s astronomers to realize that this was not some random strike. The trail had followed the path of a small, recovered spacecraft that crashed ahead of the tide of rock, somehow guided through space. If not for the fortunate timing of an alignment with Mars, scraping off the bulk of the debris cloud to impact the red planet, Humanity might have gone extinct. Earth had been saved by a matter of hours in celestial alignment.

But if there was some great enemy on the other side of the galaxy that had tried to remotely bombard Earth into an apocalypse, they would find humanity ready. In addition to great strides in technology, the planet had an unexpected resource: individuals with inexplicable powers. Shocking numbers of children born after the skyfall began to demonstrate these abilities, believed to be mutation from the Viridian’s radiation. The vast majority could do little more than parlor tricks, but there were others that could do more. Some few turned their abilities to crime and war, but the greatest of them became protectors.

You are the world’s premier super group: some of the strongest of the Viridian Children, coupled with some of the brightest engineers to harness the crystal for powered gear. When the world is threatened from within, you leap into action. But everyone knows that you are really preparing for what might happen if the aliens that launched the attack try again.

At least you were.

Years of research has finally been verified. The “attack” may have been a cosmic accident. The “missile” could have been an intergalactic escape pod for a single refugee, accidentally sweeping part of an exploding planet in its wake. All the astrophysics backs it up, tracing the path of the Viridian to a distant solar system where a shattered planet orbits a red giant sun in its habitable zone. If this doomed planet had exploded mere hours later, Earth would have received the full blast. But the real tragedy is, a day earlier, and a passing sweep of Jupiter might have collected the majority of the debris safely, leaving both Earth and Mars barely scathed. A sad and immutable fact of history, certainly.

Except that the particle physicists at Star Laboratories have begun to talk of some kind of “speed force” that might make faster-than-light travel possible… developed with the idea of space travel and defense, some are murmuring that it could be used for time travel.

And there would be many people interested in going back forty years to try to give the Earth a second chance…


This idea is largely inspired by Umbrella Academy and Avengers: Endgame. What if the greatest heroes from a recovering post-apocalyptic timeline washed up in a version of history where they’d be inevitably viewed as villains? In the recovering world they came from, the PCs are basically the Justice League. But in the prime DC timeline, they’re a bunch of meteor mutants or using Kryptonite-powered tech, and Superman takes a keen interest in those. Even should they convince this world’s heroes they’re not villains, they still have every incentive to try to restore the timeline that contains everyone they’ve ever loved, and the new powers that be can’t have that.

Incidentally, for the scenario above, I think the inciting incident is a few surviving White Martians infiltrating Star Labs and trying to change the timing of Krypton exploding enough that Earth takes the full brunt rather than Mars. But the heroes intervene, somehow speed up the process (possibly because Braniac notes their presence), and wind up leaving both Earth and Mars intact, giving rise to the standard DC timeline of your choice.

D&D 5e: Additional Chain Pact Warlock Options

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It’s weird that only Fiendlocks get Pact of the Chain familiar options that are decent, right? Imp and Quasit are significantly better familiar options than Sprite, and while Pseudodragon at least gets Magic Resistance, it’s only CR 1/4 vs. the CR 1 of the fiendish options. This post offers some options for comparable CR 1 familiars that better fit some of the other patrons, and also a new invocation.

I feel like you should offer the youngest version of the Faerie Dragon as a familiar for Archfey warlocks, so that creates a better option than Sprite for them. Argonine is meant for Great Old One, Lantern Archon is meant for Celestial, and Psychopomp is meant for Hexblade (does anyone make a Hexblade patron warlock that isn’t a bladelock?). For Fathomless and Genie, I feel like a reskin of the Imp or Quasit as a stronger Mephit is probably fine: just make it an elemental and reskin the resistances and powers for the appropriate element.

New Invocation: Empowering Chains

Prerequisite: 5th level, Pact of the Chain feature

Your investment in your familiar improves its capabilities. Whenever you summon your familiar using the find familiar spell, it gains the following benefits:

  • The to hit for its attacks, its trained skills, and any saving throws DCs for its actions increase by +1 for every point your proficiency bonus is higher than 2 (essentially replacing its proficiency bonus with your own).
  • Its AC increases by half your proficiency bonus.
  • It gains additional HP equal to twice your Warlock level.
  • It gains the Multiattack action, allowing it to make two attacks with its main attack.
  • It gains the Evasion ability, as per the Rogue feature of the same name.

New Monsters

Argonine

A strange “cat” from beyond the known planes, the Argonine is a shadowy mass of eyes and sharp tentacles that can disguise itself as a mortal feline to those that don’t look too closely.

Argonine
Tiny aberration, unaligned

Armor Class 13
Hit Points 10 (3d4 + 3)
Speed 30 ft., climb 30 ft.

STRDEXCONINTWISCHA
6 (-2)17 (+3)13 (+1)7 (-2)12 (+1)12 (+1)

Skills Acrobatics +5, Insight +5, Perception +5, Stealth +5
Damage Resistances bludgeoning, necrotic
Damage Immunities psychic
Condition Immunities charmed, grappled
Senses blindsight 60 ft., truesight 20 ft. passive Perception 11
Languages Deep Speech
Challenge 1 (200 XP)

Death Sense. The argonine can sense the exact location of any humanoid or beast within 120 feet with current hit points less than half its maximum hit points.

False Appearance. Unless it is using its Claw Barrage ability, the argonine is indistiguishable from a normal housecat to those without truesight, blindsense, or a link to a Great Old One.

Keen Senses. The argonine has advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight or smell.

Light Sensitivity. While in sunlight or equivalent bright light, the argonine has disadvantage on attack rolls. The argonine has disadvantage on saving throws against effects that would cause the blinded condition.

Magic Resistance. The argonine has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.

Actions

Claw Barrage. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., all creatures within reach. Hit: 5 (1d4+3) slashing damage.

Shadowmeld. The argonine magically turns invisible until it attacks or until its concentration ends (as if concentrating on a spell). Any items carried by the argonine become invisible with it. It may only use this power when in dim light or darkness, and it becomes visible again if it enters an area of normal or bright light.

Lantern Archon

The least of the celestial host, lantern archons are little more than ephemeral balls of light, assigned to lead mortals on the path of virtue by giving good advice and faint aid.

Lantern Archon
Small celestial, neutral good

Armor Class 17
Hit Points 11 (2d6 + 4)
Speed fly 60 ft.

STRDEXCONINTWISCHA
1 (-5)18 (+4)14 (+2)6 (-2)12 (+1)12 (+1)

Skills Perception +3, Religion +0
Damage Resistances radiant; bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage from nonmagical weapons
Condition Immunities charmed, exhaustion, frightened, grappled, prone, restrained
Senses darkvision 120 ft. passive Perception 13
Languages all, telepathy 120 ft.
Challenge 1 (200 XP)

Innate Spellcasting. The lantern archon’s spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell save DC 11). The lantern archon can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components:
        At will: light, detect evil and good
        1/day: aid

Magic Resistance. The lantern archon has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.

Actions

Healing Touch (1/Day). The lantern archon touches another creature. The target magically regains 9 (2d8) hit points and is freed from any curse, disease, poison, blindness, or deafness.

Light Ray. Ranged Spell Attack: +6 to hit, range 30/60 ft., one target. Hit: 6 (1d4+4) radiant damage.

Psychopomp

Easy to mistake for a particularly large and clever raven, psychopomps are minions of the Raven Queen that can be sent to aid her followers or to force the dead to move on.

Psychopomp
Tiny beast, unaligned

Armor Class 14
Hit Points 10 (3d4 + 3)
Speed 10 ft., fly 60 ft.

STRDEXCONINTWISCHA
2 (-4)18 (+4)12 (+1)6 (-2)12 (+1)14 (+2)

Skills Perception +3, Stealth +6
Damage Resistances necrotic, psychic; bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage from nonmagical weapons
Condition Immunities frightened, life drained
Senses darkvision 60 ft. passive Perception 13
Languages all (can’t speak except Raven Speech and Mimicry)
Challenge 1 (200 XP)

Death Sense. The psychopomp can sense the exact location of any humanoid or beast within 120 feet with current hit points less than half its maximum hit points.

Magic Resistance. The psychopomp has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.

Mimicry. The psychopomp can mimic simple sounds it has heard, such a person whispering, a baby crying, or an animal chittering. A creature that hears the sounds can tell they are imitations with a DC 10 Wisdom (Insights) check.

Raven Speech. The psychopomp can learn to croak a number of words equal to its Intelligence score.

Actions

Beak. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit:6 (1d4+4) piercing damage. This attack counts as radiant damage if it targets an Undead creature.

Blink. The psychopomp vanishes from its current plane of existence and appears in the Ethereal Plane, or, if already on the Ethereal Plane, appears in the nearest corresponding unoccupied space on the Material Plane (or the plane adjacent to the Ethereal that it most recently exited from). The psychopomp cannot carry any other living creatures or items with it, but may carry incorporeal undead or other souls. For unwilling incorporeal undead, the psychopomp must be adjacent before using this action, and the undead target receives a Charisma saving throw (DC 12) to avoid being brought along.

The Campaign that Runs Itself

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I’d like to drill down on a couple of things in the investigation system I posted last week that have had a somewhat unintended effect: this campaign basically runs itself.

By that I mean that the players are specifically driving their own play most of the time, and are extremely happy to dither over day-to-day (sometimes hour-to-hour) activities. I only have to inject new planned content every few sessions to keep things lively, and otherwise my players seem perfectly pleased to spend most of their time on self-directed goals (mostly involving training, research, and improving their relationships with NPCs).

This engine has three major pieces, spelled out in more detail in last week’s post:

  • Spending XP costs an action block per XP, so the players need to plan their training time against their available XP and which traits they want to improve (and when, if they need, say, to improve their magic casting stats before an upcoming event).
  • New spells have become one of the major types of “loot,” and research rolls take up time blocks.
  • Perhaps the biggest factor is the Persona 5-inspired NPC relationship system. Each NPC has a 10-step track of benefits gained by improving the PC’s relationship with them, and players must plan their hangouts and make sure to include NPCs in their investigation actions if they want to be able to allocate relationship points.

That last bullet has proven to be key. This obviously wouldn’t work in a game with a lot of travel, but for a city-based game it’s really interesting. There need to be a lot of interesting NPCs around that the players can choose to spend time with. As I mentioned in my long-ago Technoir review, the easiest way to get players to invest in an NPC relationship is to have them quantify it on their character sheets (so the NPC effectively just becomes another of their own statistics). Since I implemented this system, the players have been turbo-charged in wanting to get to know the various NPCs.

An important factor in this is to be able to generate a bunch of interesting NPCs. The trick I used for this was actually pretty simple: I semi-randomly combined skills, qualities, and drawbacks from the system in a spreadsheet, then used that as a seed for the NPC. Each NPC is essentially the exemplar of three or four traits. For skills, that means that the NPC has it at a very high rank. For qualities and drawbacks, they’re either the only known NPC with that trait, or they have it at the highest rating.

For example, I wound up with one NPC that was really good at Science, had the Superscience quality, but had Depression. It was a short walk to Darwin, the senior class’ physics genius.

Since Buffy comes with plenty of each type of trait, I was able to generate 24 students and a similar number of adults (the adults have two signature skills, and reuse the pool of qualities and drawbacks from the students). That’s a lot of seeds for content generation.

It also proved useful in coming up with a ten-step relationship progression. Since three of the steps are pre-defined (Acquaintance, Friend, and BFF) and one or two are Good Example (with their signature skill or skills), I only had to come up with five or six unique relationship rewards for each character.

Playing on Roll20 helps with all of this. I’m able to just make all of this information public on the NPC’s journal entry, so players can see what every NPC they know is basically about and what they’ll get be becoming better friends with them. It might be harder face-to-face.

Also, I make the players keep personal track of their progress toward each new rank of an NPC (and on their XP spends, incidentally). I only update NPCs when the player moves up a rank and tells me (moving their name next to the new relationship rank). This reduces my bookkeeping to a manageable amount.

Below are several example NPCs.

Angelina Pierce                Yearbook Photographer

Signature Skill, Quality, Drawback: Wild Card (Animal Handling), Artist, Misfit

A girl with a lot of interests, but not a lot of luck talking to people, Angelina seems happiest when hiding behind a camera or working with animals. It’s dealing directly with people that gives her problems. She’s the main yearbook photographer for Eastbend High and works part time at the Pet Resorts and Vet with Agnes. Danny knows she’s clued-in to the supernatural, having seen some of her photos of vampires using a telephoto lens that she tried to pass off as art photos.

Everyone has discovered that Agnes is a werewolf. She locks herself in a cage she got from the vet’s office on full moons.

Relationships (Temperance)

  1. Acquaintance (Anthony, Danny)
  2. Angelina will tag along to photographically document dangerous or strange situations
  3. Friend (Agnes)
  4. Animal Magnetism: Animals won’t attack you unless ordered or supernaturally manipulated
  5. Good Example: Animal Handling
  6. Crying Wolf: You gain a +2 modifier to Influence rolls to convince people they’re in danger
  7. Candid Camera: Spend a Drama Point to retroactively declare that Angelina was hiding and taking pictures of a scene you were in where that would be reasonable
  8. BFF
  9. Counter surveillance: You have learned to hide your features so it’s nearly impossible to get pictures/video proving you were doing something
  10. Wolf Whisperer: You can verbally control Angelina while she is transformed into a werewolf

Darwin Jackson                  Physics Genius

Signature Skill, Quality, Drawback: Science, Sorcery (Superscientist), Emotional Problems (Depression)

Darwin’s parents have a love of science that they imparted to their boy, though he wound up favoring the hard sciences rather than biology, which is a bit of an embarrassment since his dad is the high school bio teacher, Cody Jackson. But he’s a genius at physics, and there are rumors that he’s built some gadgets that might get him into MIT on a scholarship, if the Army doesn’t notice first and snap him up for DARPA.

In the meantime, science doesn’t pay the bills or instill a work ethic, so he has a part time job at Gold’s Gym.

Relationships (The Hermit)

  1. Acquaintance (Pete)
  2. Darwin may cut you in on his projects, allowing you to learn Superscience
  3. Friend
  4. Newtonian Physics: +2 modifier when making trick shot attacks
  5. Good Example: Science (Anthony)
  6. Astrophysics: +4 modifier on investigation rolls where celestial events are involved
  7. Research Encouragement: Darwin gains +1 Superscience for each PC at this level
  8. BFF
  9. Just the Thing: Darwin will often provide you a Superscience gadget that’s surprisingly helpful in the current crisis
  10. Job Connections: Darwin gets a job somewhere high-tech and can provide you access

Dienarr Prins                     Siobhan’s Girl Friday

Signature Skill, Quality, Drawback: Driving, Good Luck, Mental Problems (Reckless)

Dienarr’s family is Dutch, and owns High Street Clothing. She doesn’t have much of an accent, the Prinses have been here so long. Other than her work for the family business and her bizarre devotion to Siobhan Faobhar, her great love is driving. Her family got her a sporty purple coupe for her 16th birthday, and it’s only through her insanely good luck that she hasn’t wrapped it around a phone pole or killed someone yet, the way she drives.

She’s not super bright, but she’s pretty well off and lucky so that accounts for a lot.

Relationships (Wheel of Fortune)

  1. Acquaintance (Anthony, Danny)
  2. Dienarr will drive you around, if it’s not too much trouble
  3. Friend
  4. Lucky Charm: You can ignore your bad luck, Pete, or act as if you have a 1 point Good Luck
  5. Good Example: Driving
  6. Halvsies!: Dienarr will pay for half of a major purchase if she expects to get to use it a fair amount
  7. Cab Service: Dienarr will drop most things to pick you up and drive you across town (Pete)
  8. BFF
  9. The Zen of Recklessness: Dangerously risky actions you take have a +1 modifier to succeed
  10. Charmed Life: Dienarr gains an additional +2 Good Luck for each PC at this level

Eve Doyle                            Scary Girl

Signature Skill, Quality, Drawback: Wild Card (Demolitions), Jock, Mental Problems (Delusions)

Pete’s friend Eve is trouble. One of the town’s many military brats, her father does something with ordinance and she’s learned way too much about it. She got dragooned onto the track team last year after training herself to run away from fuses she’d lit. She’s medicated for schizophrenia, but sometimes forgets to take a dose and that’s a bad weekend if she has some thermite mixed up. Most of the time she knows to ignore the voices telling her to blow things up.

If she’s not in school (which is more often than most teenagers aren’t in school), she can often be found at Sid’s Junkyard, making pipe bombs.

Danny, Pete, and Agnes have some sway with Mrs. Doyle regarding informing her when Eve is off her meds.

Relationships (The Tower)

  1. Acquaintance (Shannon)
  2. Eve will provide you small amounts of minor explosives/incendiaries (Anthony, Danny)
  3. Friend (Agnes)
  4. Eve will help you on demolitions crafting, doubling your output
  5. Good Example: Demolitions
  6. Eve will provide you small amounts of the kind of things that would get you on a watchlist (Pete)
  7. Don’t blow your hand off: +3 modifier to avoid damage from explosions/fire
  8. BFF
  9. Outrun the Explosion: Increase your running speed by +2 in dangerous situations
  10. The Voices are Real: Eve gains a spirit-related power for each PC at this level

Jamarion Barrera             Latin Club President

Signature Skill, Quality, Drawback: Languages, Photographic Memory, Covetous (Lecherous)

Jamarion “Jams” Barrera has mastered all the languages taught at the high school. He was already fluent in Spanish when he got there, and his excellent memory made it easy for him to pick up Latin and French. He’s looking for something new and interesting to pick up.

The kid is really hard up for sex. It’s likely that he only worked so hard to be president of the Latin club since that means more time around Ms. Houghton. That doesn’t stop him from taking a shot at asking out most of the other girls at school, though. At least he tends to let it go once shot down.

He works part time as a stock boy at Rose’s department store.

Relationships (The Lovers)

  1. Acquaintance (Agnes, Anthony)
  2. Jams will help you with translation research (Danny)
  3. Friend
  4. Jams will let you use his employee discount at Rose’s
  5. Good Example: Languages
  6. Modern Cyrano: You gain a +2 modifier on Influence rolls to Woo
  7. Memory Training: +1 modifier to investigation rolls when remembering details would be useful
  8. BFF
  9. Cultural Immersion: You understand the gist of foreign languages, even if you don’t speak them
  10. Quick Occult Study: Jams gains +2 Occultism for each PC at this level

Oliver Brown                     Most Likely to Do Hard Time

Signature Skill, Quality, Drawback: Crime, Resistance, Bad Luck

Clearly just waiting until he gets kicked out of school to really ramp up his criminal enterprises, Oliver is always hustling. He’s the guy you go to if you want to buy something that “fell off a truck,” though he doesn’t really seem to have the hookup for drugs. Maybe it’s just that he knows his own bad luck and reputation, so it’s not worth the risk for him to be holding. He can be found lurking around the old mill warehouses when he’s not in school.

Relationships (The Hanged Man)

  1. Acquaintance (Agnes, Pete)
  2. Oliver will sell you his illicit goods (Shannon)
  3. Friend
  4. Oliver will alert you of upcoming criminal enterprises, and serves as a criminal Contact (Anthony)
  5. Good Example: Crime
  6. Oliver will sell you his illicit goods at a 20% discount
  7. You can send Oliver to do a minor crime for you on his own time
  8. BFF
  9. Business Partner: You make $100 a week in illicit income
  10. Phantom Thief: Oliver gains +1 “Sorcery” for each PC at this level, useful for spell-like abilities that let him “steal” supernatural items and features

Siobhan Faobhar              Local Colonel’s Daughter

Signature Skill, Quality, Drawback: Gun Fu, Attractiveness, Mental Problems (Cruelty)

Daughter of the commander of Fort Blake, Siobhan pronounces her last name like “Fire” and is considered  both extremely cool and unbearably hot by most of the student body at Eastbend High. She does target shooting competitively, and would be training for international competitions if she wasn’t set on going into ROTC and then into the military when she graduates (Eastbend High isn’t big enough for JROTC).

Most of the school misfits are sad that she’s so pretty, talented, and undeniably badass, because she’s also a sadist that uses her influence against those that are safe targets for her. Like, those she’s picked on are honestly afraid that she might shoot them if they were alone in the woods and she thought she could get away with it. Cognizant of her reputation even if she is a sociopath, she limits her bullying at school to social torments.

Strangely, she doesn’t date. Anyone who’s asked her gets brushed off as neither attractive nor awesome enough to date her.

When she’s not at school, she can often be found at the Espresso Pump holding mean girl court.

Relationships (Strength)

  1. Acquaintance (Shannon, Anthony, Pete)
  2. Siobhan will try to avoid being mean to you at school
  3. Friend/Frenemy
  4. Siobhan will show up to shoot things for you if it’s convenient (Agnes)
  5. Good Example: Gun Fu
  6. Siobhan will use her military connections to help you
  7. Angel of Death: Spend two Drama Points to have Siobhan show up, guns blazing, if you’re in trouble (Danny)
  8. BFF/Best Frenemy
  9. Siobhan will “borrow” military-spec hardware for you
  10. High Functioning: Siobhan will become literally like 20% less terrible for each PC at this level

Zara Wright                        Out and Proud Witch

Signature Skill, Quality, Drawback: Occultism, Occult Library, Humorless

Danny’s friend Zara is about what you’d expect from a small, slightly-gothy Wiccan girl in a small southern town: totally serious about her faith and ready to fight you about it. While she’s never been very good in a brawl, at some point a lot of the school bullies became convinced that she could “get” them (possibly with some kind of curse), and started leaving her alone.

She works at Party Town for the discount on Halloween props.

She lives in one of the smaller little communities up the interstate that doesn’t have its own high school. Thus, she did not meet everyone until freshman year, when she got bussed in (having attended elementary and middle school at her home town).

Relationships (High Priestess)

  1. Acquaintance (Anthony)
  2. You can use Zara’s +2 Library and she’ll assist with research
  3. Friend
  4. Zara will provide ritual casting assistance (Pete)
  5. Good Example: Occult
  6. Zara will research spells for you on her own time
  7. Warding Buddy: You benefit from a +1 Will of the Coven at all times (Agnes, Danny)
  8. BFF 
  9. Ingredients Shopper: Zara can provide a free Rare casting component 1/week
  10. Witch awakening: Zara gains +1 Sorcery for each PC at this level

Casey Harris                       High School Principal

Signature Skills; Quality; Drawback: Getting Medieval, Science; Photographic Memory; Bad Luck

A former science teacher and nationally ranked fencer, it’s unclear how Casey Harris wound up being principal of a large rural high school. It’s likely due to his well-known bad luck. Between being an actual decent educator, his impossibly good memory for student details, and his willingness to beat the living shit out of anyone that pushes him, he’s managed to gain a grudging respect from the student body.

Relationships (King of Swords)

  1. Acquaintance
  2. Getting called to the principal’s office is a lot less scary (Shannon)
  3. Friend
  4. Fencing Practice: Use a full relationship action with Harris AND allocate Getting Medieval XP
  5. Good Example: Getting Medieval
  6. Princi-Pal: Remove one free level of Delinquency (or Dereliction if you work for him) each week on Sunday
  7. Good Example: Science
  8. BFF
  9. The Good Equipment: Harris gifts you a very nice combat-ready rapier or saber
  10. Castling: If you get in a fight in the school, Harris shows up to assist

Alexander Jenkins           Superstitious Boys’ Football Coach

Signature Skills; Quality; Drawback: Occultism, Sports; Occult Library; Covetous (Ambitious)

The Jenkins family owns and runs D’Antonio’s pizza, but Alexander was interested in teaching. With a special interest in the secret history of the world, he got a degree that let him teach social studies, but he was always good at sports so also wound up coaching the school’s football team. 

Pete knows he’s clued-in to the supernatural, after some of the football team got into his special collection of occult reference books three years ago and wound up summoning some kind of entity to possess them. Mr. Jenkins was briefly caught up in the ambition of how supernaturally-empowered teens were finally having a winning season, and let it go on for far too long before they got dangerous and violent, forcing him to exorcise them and resulting in permanent damage that left them benched. But at least Pete got to start from his sophomore year on.

Mr. Jenkins has been a lot more careful about his occult collection and dabbling since then, but grudgingly allowed Pete and his friends to use it after Danny offered to share some of his family’s own tomes and a promise that they wouldn’t summon any demons.

Relationships (King of Rods)

  1. Acquaintance (Shannon)
  2. Jenkins will let you use his gym-based library (Agnes, Anthony, Danny)
  3. Friend (Pete)
  4. Jenkins will help you do spell research if it’s something that might be useful for football
  5. Good Example: Sports
  6. Blitz: Double teamwork bonuses when charging at the same target
  7. Good Example: Occultism
  8. BFF
  9. Sack: +2 modifier on Slam Tackle maneuvers.
  10. Wizard awakening: Jenkins gains +1 Sorcery for each PC at this level

Lucy Burns                          Wiccan High Priestess

Signature Skills; Quality; Drawback: Driving, Occultism; Sorcery; Mental Problems (Zealot: Wicca Pacifist)

Rumored to be the town’s Wiccan High Priestess (if that even means anything in a place that’s 99% some denomination of Christian), Lucy Burns is British and nobody is really sure why she’d go to school in such a small little town so far away from her home. She’s outspoken about her faith to those who are interested, and follows a particularly pacifistic praxis where she considers any kind of willful violence as an affront against the Goddess. She works at Daily Grind, the coffee shop, as a barista when she’s not in class.

Relationships

  1. Acquaintance
  2. You can go to the Wicca meetings (Agnes, Danny)
  3. Friend
  4. Lucy will help you do spell Research
  5. Good Example: Occultism
  6. Draw Down the Goddess: You have a 50% chance of immediately recovering a Drama Point spent to cast a white magic spell
  7. Good Example: Driving
  8. BFF
  9. That It Harm None: Starting each fight, you have a +5 bonus to defense rolls until you attack someone in combat.
  10. Protector: Automatically benefit from a powerful protective spell that Lucy casts for you on the regular

Dane Petty                         Auto Shop Repair Guy

Signature Skills; Quality; Drawback: Acrobatics, Mr. Fix-it; Hard to Kill; Werewolf

Dane Petty is the cousin of a pretty famous race car driver who just happened to be going to Riverview when the owner of Sid’s Auto Repair needed new help. Fortunately, Dane is good at fixing cars, having learned something working the pit crew as a teen. He’s also pretty fast, and can frequently be seen out training for some ultra-marathon or triathlon.

Relationships

  1. Acquaintance (Agnes, Anthony, Pete)
  2. Dane will let you fix stuff in the shop, no questions asked
  3. Friend (Danny)
  4. Dane will fix minor things for you in the shop without you taking the time
  5. Good Example: Mr. Fix-it
  6. Car Surfing: Halve penalties from maneuvers on moving objects
  7. Good Example: Acrobatics
  8. BFF
  9. Those Pettys: Gain access to NASCAR-grade racing parts and cars
  10. Wolf Whisperer: You can verbally control Dane while he is transformed into a werewolf

Molly George                    Getaway Driver and Smuggler

Signature Skills; Quality; Drawback: Crime, Driving; Fast Reaction Time; Talentless

Parents Clara and William run Sid’s Barbershop (Sid was Clara’s father). Works as a barber (too unartistic and annoyed to give anything but a basic trim). Fiery.

Relationships

  1. Acquaintance (Agnes, Anthony, Pete, Danny)
  2. Crime Taxi: You can pay Molly $50 an hour (min one hour) plus 5% to be your getaway driver
  3. Friend
  4. Molly will give you a free haircut (you get what you pay for)
  5. Good Example: Driving
  6. Ride Along: Use a full relationship action with her AND allocate Driving XP
  7. Good Example: Crime
  8. BFF
  9. Hell on Wheels: Spend a Drama Point when near a road to have Molly arrive in her car to cause a distraction or help you escape
  10. Muse: Molly loses the effects of Talentless for you (the haircuts are pretty good!)

Mia Thompson                 Antiques Store Owner

Signature Skills; Quality; Drawback: Art, Getting Medieval; Watcher; Love

Mia Thompson is a British woman who recently opened Thompson’s Treasures, the antique store. She seems to be a single mother, though some think that she might just be fostering or have adopted young Rona, and she looks pained and changes the subject if anyone brings up a husband. She’s extremely knowledgeable about all varieties of antique art.

Relationships

  1. Acquaintance (Agnes, Anthony, Danny, Shannon)
  2. Sword Art Online: Mia will use her museum and Watcher connections to order you basic monster-fighting weapons and gear with minimal markup. (Pete)
  3. Friend
  4. That Kind of Watcher: Mia will assist with Art-based Research rolls.
  5. Good Example: Getting Medieval
  6. The Cavalry: Spend a Drama Point to have Mia and Rona show up in town to assist in a difficult fight.
  7. Good Example: Art
  8. BFF
  9. And ALSO a Fighter: You have a 30% chance of regaining a Drama Point spent to protect someone you love with self-sacrifice or violence.
  10. Witch awakening: Mia gains +1 Sorcery for each PC at this level

Buffy: Revised Investigation System

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This is a revised, updated, and expanded version of my Great Conflicting Responsibilities post. It’s tuned to work for the Cinematic Unisystem version of Buffy: the Vampire Slayer (see last week’s post for more information on spells and next week’s for more about NPC relationships). In rough essence, player characters get up to 4 time blocks per day that represent 3-4 hours (several of which are usually pre-spent on going to school/work, sleeping, and doing homework). These can be used for on-camera activities, or “downtime” activities such as investigating, patrolling, researching, training, and hanging out with friends (in practice, most of the gameplay is “downtime” that drifts in and out of roleplay).

Investigation Cycles

You gain one free investigation cycle per weekday and three free per weekend day (or 11 per week). You may take up to 4 cycles total per day (including the free ones), representing either staying up late or skipping school/work. If you stay up late to get another cycle, you gain a point of Stress. If you skip school/work, you gain a point of Delinquency/Dereliction.

Stress

Your total level of Stress is effectively an opposed roll for every task (within the investigation system or outside of it). If your roll total is equal to or lower than your Stress, the roll fails even if it is not opposed by any external force. Get some sleep and chill.

Delinquency/Dereliction

Your total level of this trait functions as stress for all interactions with teachers (Delinquency) or managers (Dereliction) (Stress takes precedence, if higher). You may trigger scenes with authority figures as it rises to convince them not to assign penalties for all your skipping school/work. But, as a bonus, detention totally counts as Recovery if it uses up your investigation cycles!

Types of Investigation Action

Patrolling

Patrolling is the general choice of active investigators to keep an eye on the safety of the town. In general, it means walking or driving around the town and noting potential issues. Most white hats on patrol will not actually attempt to engage with monsters unless they see targets of opportunity, but will instead attempt to figure out their hunting area and locate their base/nest. Skilled fighters (or groups of white hats) might actually attempt to fight minions deliberately to cull their numbers, attempting to escape if there are too many to fight easily.

Roll Perception + Notice to map minions. 10 successes identifies the location of a base/nest.

Compare Minions combat rating to Dexterity + Combat Skill.

  • If minions have higher combat, roll Constitution + Acrobatics, Driving, or Sports to avoid group minion encounters. Minions total reduced by 1 per 2 successes.
  • If minions have equal or lower combat, roll Dexterity + Combat Skill. Minions total reduced by 1 per success.
  • You take damage equal to the Combat Rating of the strongest minion defeated. You may take half this by halving the total minions defeated for the action. If multiple people go on patrol, rather than rolling individually, you can have a primary with a bonus modifier equal to the successes of the secondary helpers and distribute the damage across all patrollers (rather than each taking the full damage).

Add levels of Income to patrolling rolls to represent car and better gear. This cannot be shared. Drawbacks that limit perception or mobility (e.g., Impaired Sense or Physical Disability) may penalize these rolls.

Once a base/nest has been located and Minions total reduced to 0, the group can trigger a combat scene to attempt to clear out the location. If the location is attacked before the Minions total is reduced, that number of enemies will be added to the fight (e.g., if there are half a dozen vampires minimum in a nest, there will be 10 there if Minions was at 4 when it was attacked).

Researching

Non-active investigators can usually help by doing research. General research can be attempted at any time, and involves combing occult and historical texts for elements of interest to share with allies. This is usually particular weaknesses of various demons to make them general knowledge, or unique identifiers and limitations of problems that may be relevant to the local town. Once a threat is actually identified, specific research must be done to find the creature’s salient details (whether that be weaknesses of the demon type or just background about the target that will help when fighting it).

Roll Intelligence + Knowledge for general research. Each success adds to the general research pool. These points can be spent on patrolling or specific research rolls, after rolling, to retroactively increase the result on a one-for-one basis (e.g., spend 3 general research points to add +3 to a Perception + Notice roll when mapping minions).

Roll Perception + Art, Languages, or Occult (depending on subject) to turn up information on specific monsters. Monsters typically require successes equal to their life points to fully research, though some information may be revealed at milestones along this track.

Add modifiers from Occult Library to rolls. Researchers in the same place can share an occult library. Drawbacks that reduce the ability to focus on work (e.g., Emotional or Mental Problems) may penalize these rolls.

When researching spells, make the same roll as when researching a specific monster. A spell generally has “life points” equal to its level x 10, but this may be increased if the spell is obscure or being modified/invented from other principles.

Networking

Roll Intelligence + Computers or Influence to gather information from people. This is usually reactive, looking for a specific piece of information (known by a contact and/or in a hackable database). Each roll takes a full investigation cycle and has plot-related results.

Add quality points in Contacts to rolls. This cannot be shared. Drawbacks that cause difficulty with others (e.g., Emotional Problems, Mental Problems, Minority, Misfit, Nerd) may penalize these rolls.

Forensics

Roll Perception + a relevant skill to analyze different scenes:

  • Crime for crime scenes
  • Doctor for dead (or infected) bodies
  • Mr. Fix-it for machines
  • Science for most substances

Each roll takes a full investigation cycle and has plot-related results. Drawbacks that would make it difficult to interact with the subject of study (e.g., Mental Problems) may penalize these rolls.

Add levels of honors (for students) to represent school resources.

You can also use Forensics to invent new Superscience assemblage recipes or back-convert a known magic spell into a recipe for an assemblage. Make a relevant Forensics roll, and accumulate successes similar to magical research. Inventing a totally new assemblage involves suggesting the general effect and the GM giving it a level, effect, and drawbacks; it then takes 20 successes per level to invent the assemblage. Converting an existing magic spell instead requires only 3 successes per level and access to an annotated and assembled version of the ritual text (i.e., it has to have been successfully researched as a spell already).

Training

You can spend up to 10 XP/week on skills you could learn in school (Acrobatics, Computers, Doctor, Driving, Languages, Knowledge, Mr. Fix-it, Science, Sports) or attributes. If you are an adult, you can instead learn skills relevant to your job. This 10 XP is reduced by levels of Delinquency or Dereliction you take for the week.

For each investigation cycle you spend on training, you can allocate 1 point of XP on qualities or other skills that you must learn in your own time.

Recovery

For every two investigation cycles you spend, you can reduce your Stress or Delinquency/Dereliction by one level.

Relationships

You may build your relationship with an NPC. Most NPCs have a 10-step meter. You must accumulate points equal to the next level of the meter to improve your relationship (e.g., 5 points to go from step 4 to 5). Most NPCs have various benefits awarded for being at that step or higher. Track your points on your sheet notes. You can accumulate points by:

  • School/Work Hangout: Each day, assign one point toward a single NPC you saw during the day (a teacher whose class you have, student you have a class with, or coworker) and made an effort to be friendly with.
  • Incidental Hangout: You may invite one NPC to your normal investigative duties (e.g., spending XP, patrolling, researching) and assign a point toward that NPC if they hang out with your for the duration. Multiple PCs can “share” the same NPC (e.g., if Danny and Agnes research with Zara, both can assign a point to Zara).
  • Dedicated Hangout: You may invite one NPC to do something actually intended to be fun for that NPC (and do not use this time for other investigative actions). Roll Perception + Influence, and assign points based on your successes (minimum 1). You may gain a modifier from gifts or choosing something super fun to do. As with Incidental Hangouts, multiple people can share an NPC for a Dedicated Hangout.

The following are common relationship benefits:

  • Acquaintance: The NPC doesn’t think unkindly of you, and might consent to further interactions if it’s not too much bother
  • Friend: The NPC thinks of you as a friend, and will regularly choose to hang out with you without special reason (you can generally chose to start dating the NPC at this level, if appropriate)
  • Good Example: Once per day, you may add a +5 modifier to a roll you make using that NPC’s signature skill
  • BFF: The NPC considers you their best friend, and will generally drop anything that’s not life-or-death to come help you out on short notice (if you have been dating, you can decide that this means you’re in love; take the Love drawback if you do not already have it, and immediately gain the relevant XP)

New Buffy Spells

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I’ve been running the old Cinematic Unisystem Buffy: the Vampire Slayer game weekly (online) for most of a year now. We mostly settled on it because it had the best character sheet on Roll20 of the systems I was considering for my next game, but I’m finding it holds up surprisingly well.

One of the things I like most about it is that it has a simple yet comprehensive spell-creation system, which is always a plus for a game featuring magic. Unlike so many other such systems, the game has an inbuilt limitation to keep the players from inventing an optimized, OP spell. Half of that is that it’s key to getting the level (and, thus, difficulty) of a spell down to assign fairly significant limitations (either a material cost or GM-controlled event or mystical resource), so if something proves way too powerful, the GM can just reduce access to the components. The other is that all casting has a compounding penalty within the same day (with an additional penalty for casting the same spell repeatedly). Magic is, thus, either useful for utility/prep or as a one-shot big gun in a fight, which has so far been fine in my campaign.

And it’s fun to make up the new spells for the players to find.

Below are several of the new spells I’ve created for the campaign. Note that when it lists a dollar value, that’s meant to be a real cost: in my game I’ve limited access to the Resources quality and we handwave incidental lifestyle money as being spent on incidental lifestyle stuff. Thus, the only money they have to spend on spell components (and other things with a game effect) is money earned as “treasure” on camera, either looting or selling off loot.

Spells

Fury of the Moon (Level 2)

fury-of-the-moonThis spell only functions outdoors at night, drawing down a bolt of radiant moonlight that burns the target. It is particularly effective against vampires, forging moonlight into a brand almost as potent as the sun.

Source: Books

Quick Cast: Yes

Power Level: 2

Requirements: Valuable moon-themed talisman (not consumed on casting), moonlit night while outdoors, miscellaneous minor spell components (that are consumed), a few-minute ritual for non-Sorcerers

Effect: The spell deals 3x Willpower damage per Success Level on a gibbous moon. This increases to 4x on a full moon, but decreases to 2x on a quarter moon, and 1x on a crescent moon. It deals +1x to vampires and other entities vulnerable to sun or moonlight. For example, it would deal 5x Willpower per Success Level to a vampire under a full moon. This damage is spread out evenly over the course of ten rounds, and ends early if the target can get under cover from the moonlight.

Aspect Analysis: Requires 1 caster (0), Ritual (0), Quick Cast (+1), Noticeable Scope (+1), Slow Effect (-1), Rare Ingredients (-2), Major Harm (+3)

Invocation of Vengeance (Level 1)

invocation-of-vengeanceThis ritual beckons a vengeance demon to appear. The demon is not bound on arrival.

Source: Books (Episode 3.9)

Quick Cast: No

Power Level: 1

Requirements: Golden bowl, various herbs, short ritual including the correct form of invocation for the specific desired vengeance demon

Effect: The named vengeance demon appears nearby.

Aspect Analysis: Requires 1 caster (0), Ritual (0), Minor Scope (0), Limited Target Selection (-1), Unusual Ingredients (-1), Major Summoning (+3)

Lantern of Revealing (Level 2)

lantern-of-revealing-2This spell empowers a jack o’ lantern to reveal and solidify spirits caught in its light. It is a form of the Solidify Spirit spell that can only be used on All Hallows Eve.

Source: Books

Quick Cast: Yes

Power Level: 2

Requirements: Jack o’ lantern with rune-etched candle and particular carvings taking 20 minutes or so to create (or, if quick-cast, simply the incantation “Spiritum revela” with the light emanating from the caster’s eyes)

Effect: The spirit become corporeal within the light of the spell, gaining physical attributes equal to its mental attributes, and Life Points equal to three times its Brains score. If reduced to 0 Life Points, it is banished back to the underworld for another year or more.

Aspect Analysis: Requires 1 caster (+0), Ritual (less than half an hour) (+0), can be Quick Cast (+1), noticeable scope (one being) (+1), long duration (+1), restricted use (-4), major effect (+3).

Reveal the Quiescent Beast (Level 2)

reveal-the-quiescent-beastThis spell reveals if a subject is a werewolf or other kind of animal shapeshifter.

Source: Books

Quick Cast: No

Power Level: 2

Requirements: Wolfsbane, silver, and other relatively challenging components, as well as a couple minutes of chanting

Effect: Nearby werewolves glow with a lambent flame

Aspect Analysis: Requires 1 caster (0), recitation time (+1), noticeable scope (+1), short duration (-1), unusual ingredients (-1), severe effect (+2)

Cross Reference: The research used to unearth this spell suggested the following other lycanthrope-related spells. You have +2 successes toward researching them:

  • Blessed Silver Shot: Enchants a silver bullet or arrow/bolt to strike true against lycanthropes
  • Fury of the Moon: Attack spell useful in the moonlight
  • Seal the Virulent Bite: Keeps you from being infected by lycanthropy or similar afflictions (or keeps a lycanthrope from being infectious while transformed)
  • Soothe the Savage Beast: Pacifies or puts to sleep animals and bestial monsters
  • Wear the Beast Skin: Magical ritual to become effectively a werewolf (without the forced transformation)

Seal the Virulent Bite (Level 1)

seal-the-virulent-biteThis spell protects the target from the bite of a lycanthrope or similar types of infectious monster bite. If cast on an infectious monster (including a lycanthrope in human form before transforming), it instead renders that target not infectious for the duration.

Source: Books

Quick Cast: No

Power Level: 1

Requirements: Glyphs painted onto the skin in a few-minute ritual from a mixture of wolfsbane, powdered silver, and other ingredients which become temporary tattoos once the spell is cast

Effect: For the duration of the effect, the target cannot be infected/cannot infect others. The spell lasts one hour per Success Level, and, if at least 5 successes are gained, it lasts until the next moonset if that would be longer.

Aspect Analysis: Requires 2 casters (-1), ritual time (0), noticeable scope (+1), long duration (+1), unusual ingredients (-1), noticeable strength (+1)

Soothe the Savage Beast (Level 3)

soothe-the-savage-beastThis spell calms an animal or bestial monster, and may even put the target to sleep.

Source: Books

Quick Cast: Yes

Power Level: 3

Requirements: A heaping handful of powdered opium poppies (highly illegal!), which are tossed into the air in front of the target while chanting the spell

Effect: The target beast is calmed for one minute per Success Level. Most creatures will stop attacking under this effect, but even those under strong rage or orders subtract the Success Levels from their attacks while under the effect. If the Success Levels are greater than the target’s Willpower doubled, they usually go to sleep and will remain asleep until woken, even after the spell expires.

Aspect Analysis: Requires 1 caster (0), instant cast (+2), noticeable scope (+1), medium duration (0), rare ingredients (-2), severe effect (+2)

Thermite Fireball (Level 1)

thermite-fireball(This spell was haphazardly generated by Agnes, Danny, and Zara with help from Eve and Anthony. It started at 3 but will reduce in difficulty to 0 as the kinks are ironed out when cast as a full ritual, but remains 2 for quick-cast by a single caster.)

Source: Invented

Quick Cast: Yes

Power Level: 0 (Quick Cast 2)

Requirements: 16 fl oz of thermite (a Sprite bottle’s worth), a similar amount of distilled water, and various other mystical components, included in an approximately hour-long ritual (Witches and Warlocks need only combine the ingredients with some properly-conjugated Latin said over the effect)

Effect: The caster throws a silvery, white-hot fireball at a single target that does Willpower (Doubled) times success levels fire damage.

Aspect Analysis: Requires 3-9 casters (-2), a lengthy ritual (-1), noticeable scope (+1), instant duration (+0), unusual ingredients (-1), and severe harm (+2) (single caster when quick cast for +3)

Walk a Mile (Level 5)

walk-a-mileThis invocation of the goddess can only be used when the walls of reality are thin, and causes the casters to disappear and enter a dreamlike fugue where they inhabit the body of their worst enemy or someone they otherwise hate until the following midnight. The inhabited target cannot be magical, supernatural, or even completely aware of the supernatural or will shrug off the effect (forcing the caster into their next-biggest enemy). Otherwise, the possessed individual is still semi-conscious, will resist strong out of character actions, and may ultimately treat the whole thing as a strange dream or unusual psychiatric event.

Source: Reverse engineered from accidental casting

Quick Cast: No

Power Level: 5

Requirements: Short ritual and invocation of the goddess for empathy and seeing behind the masks others create; auspicious date such as Halloween

Effect: Everyone involved in the casting immediately falls unconscious and then disappears the next time they are unobserved. The next time their possessed target wakes, the caster is in control of their actions, but uses their character statistics. The spells ends the following midnight, but exorcism effects may eject the caster earlier. The caster reappears in the original casting location asleep, and wakes there the next morning or when woken.

Aspect Analysis: Requires one caster (+0), Ritual casting (+0), Major scope (+4), Very long duration (+2), Restricted use (-4), Major mind/emotions (+3)

Will of the Coven (Level 1)

will-of-the-covenThis spell was an old protective ritual, usually cast before delving into magics that affected the mind.

Source: Grimoire of the Vestals

Quick Cast: No

Power Level: 1

Requirements: A half-hour long ritual, including glyphs painted on the forehead of all to be protected

Effect: The success levels, minus the number of people to be protected, minus the number of hours the spell will be active, is the effective rank in the Resistance: Demonic Powers quality that all subjects have for the duration. The subjects must all be present for the full ritual casting, but do not all need to participate in the ritual.

Aspect Analysis: Requires 3-9 casters (-2), a lengthy ritual (-1), severe scope (+2), long duration (+1), no special requirements (+0), and noticeable mental effect (+1)

Assemblages

Forge Logs (Level 2)

forge-logsThis assemblage creates highly compact flammable chemicals packed around an electronic mechanism that can semi-miraculously control their ignition rate without melting until the object is fully consumed. It is intended, though the use of a synched radio controller, to make a specially-constructed forge burn hotter and better for the purposes of forging and smelting metals.

Source: Invented by Anthony Hollinger

Quick Cast: No

Power Level: 2

Requirements: Half a unit of thermite powder, misc other chemicals available in a well-stocked science lab but costing about $30 if ordered, $100 of electronics, and over half an hour of tinkering

Effect: One log is produced for every three successes on the Superscience roll, and they remain viable for at least a month if stored in a cool, dry place. Logs can be used in three distinct ways:

  • If used in its standard function, it improves and normalizes the heat generated by a standard gas forge, allowing a single crafting action using the forge to accomplish twice as much progress as normal (i.e., two crafting checks if rolling).
  • It can also be used by a skilled smith (particularly an enchanter or superscientist) to briefly heat the forge to temperatures sufficient to liquify iron, allowing the production of alloys. This use can produce one ingot of alloy per log.
  • Finally, it can be remotely ignited outside of the forge to produce either several hours of heat sufficient to campfire through to a one-round effect comparable to igniting a unit of thermite.

Aspect Analysis: Requires 1 caster (0), ritual (0), magical item (+1), noticeable scope (+1), long duration (+1), unusual ingredients (-1), noticeable transforming (+1)

Ghostagons (Level 2)

ghostagonThis assemblage causes a gauntlet to temporarily emit an electric field that interacts with the ethereal: to wit, you can punch ghosts.

Source: Invented by Anthony Hollinger

Quick Cast: No

Power Level: 2

Requirements: A Power Glove or similar electrical glove device and misc circuitry upgrades (representing about $300 of electronics) and over half an hour of tinkering

Effect: After being created, the glove can be powered on any time within an hour per success, starting its timer. While powered on, the glove has enough energy for one minute per success or one successful hit per success (whichever comes first). The wearer can use the Punch attack with the gloved hand against normally-incorporeal opponents. Warning: There is some chance of a small capacitor explosion if all the power is expended through punching.

Aspect Analysis: Requires 1 caster (0), ritual (0), noticeable scope (+1), medium duration (0), unusual ingredients (-1), noticeable harm/manipulating/summoning (+1)

Maglite of Revealing (Level 2)

maglite-of-revealingThis assemblage loads a maglite with etheric resonators to reveal and solidify “spirits” caught in its light. Due to various environmental effects, this version only works on October 31st.

Source: Converted by Anthony Hollinger

Quick Cast: No

Power Level: 2

Requirements: Maglite loaded with miscellaneous materials (no significant electronics cost), an hour or so to create

Effect: The spirit become corporeal within the light of the device, gaining physical attributes equal to its mental attributes, and Life Points equal to three times its Brains score. If reduced to 0 Life Points, it is banished back to the underworld for another year or more. After being created, the assemblage will last up to several months if kept in a cool, dry environment; it does not begin consuming its duration until initially switched on.

Aspect Analysis: Requires 1 caster (+0), Ritual (less than half an hour) (+0), magic item (+1), noticeable scope (one being) (+1), long duration (+1), restricted use (-4), major effect (+3).

DMing 201: Avoiding Black Box Combats

Comments Off on DMing 201: Avoiding Black Box Combats

I think I’ve finally realized the thing that bugs me about D&D combat and has led to various ideas to skip combats: most adventuring days are a black box. Particularly with 5e restoring nearly all PC resources on a long rest, there’s no way to tell by just looking at the players’ sheets whether yesterday they fought a series of hard battles that they scraped through nearly wiped or had an easy day of it. I know many players enjoy the simple act of playing out tactical combat, but it’s very easy to make fights where player cleverness, strategy, and luck don’t really have an ongoing effect on the narrative. Especially if your DM runs a character-story-heavy game and is very reticent to kill off PCs (or the game is 5th level+ and your healer is willing to pay the tax of preparing revivify every day), it’s not like anyone’s really even worried about dying. For players like myself (i.e., total buzzkills too aware of the rules framework that goes into encounter design), combats can feel like a waste of time when the DM could have ultimately narrated a hard-fought victory and nothing would actually change other than that the players didn’t get to roll dice and quote special abilities they have.

But this isn’t another post about skipping combat.

Instead, this is a simple suggestion for all DMs designing combat encounters: make sure your fights have multiple possible story branches based on how “well” the players/PCs do in the fight. If there are variable outcomes to a fight other than simply how many resources the players expended (that will be completely refreshed in the morning), then they make it a lot easier for fights to feel meaningful within the overall narrative.

Some basic suggestions:

  • Bad guys may get away (to pass information the PCs don’t want shared, to escape with information/resources the PCs want, or simply to fortify subsequent encounters and make them a little harder)
  • Good guys may not get away (this is your classic “keep the monsters from killing the bystanders” fight), hopefully with long-term ramifications for how many were saved
  • Optional resources may be lost (this could be either of the previous options if the resource is a person/information in a person’s brain, but could also include loot that could be destroyed if the fight goes badly/the bad guys might not use up limited-use items if stopped quickly enough; this also includes if the PCs may need to expend a limited-use item/boon, but only if doing so isn’t planned as basically essential for the encounter)
  • A world-counter may progress (this is the standard “stop the evil ritual” fight, but only if, as the DM, you’ve set it up so the ritual being stopped or succeeding isn’t a foregone conclusion; you need to plan for both results being interesting)
  • The fight may alter the scenery (for a location that the PCs will visit again; e.g., stop the goblins from burning down the village barn, maneuver the umber hulk into smashing open a corridor to make a new path for later exploration, etc.)
  • Something about the fight can generate additional lore (this is all your skill challenges to read books/hack computers/investigate containers that for whatever reason can only happen as part of a fight)

Some fights (“trash encounters”) can clearly be designed only to expend resources so they’re not available later in the day for fights that are more important. But be extra careful that you’ve designed a scenario that doesn’t let the players just constantly rest after those fights (the 15-minute adventuring day).

For the important fights, having two possible outcomes should be a primary goal, and if you can think of three or more different ways that might spin off, that’s really great. Keep in mind that these should be legitimate things that you think might happen. The overall goal is for the players, in hindsight, to realize that if they’d played the encounter differently, the story would also have changed.

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