Stranger Chargen

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(This shouldn’t contain any particular spoilers for Stranger Things 2.)

Watching Stranger Things, like with many large-ensemble sci-fi shows, the first place my brain goes is, if this was an RPG, how are the PCs distributed? That is, traditional ensembles work like traditional RPGs, in that there is a smallish group that often gets together, and even when they split up you feel like it’s one protagonist per player. However, in large ensembles, it can be vanishingly rare for the whole group to do anything together. Instead, the action is constantly flipping between different groups, and you can begin to wonder whether, modeled in an RPG, this would be each player portraying more than one protagonist, with each player swapping PCs as the scene demands it. Why do two protagonists rarely get screen time together? Because they’re being played by the same player, and the GM tries to keep doubling up your own PCs in a scene from happening.

So this is a method for generating a Stranger Things-esque set of PC concepts for troupe-style play. Each player winds up making three PCs from different age brackets, with the intention that the GM will be running several events concurrently that will be handled by different sets of PCs. When something comes up, you play the PC that’s most appropriate or, if that PC is already busy, whichever PC you have remaining that could conceivably participate.

This is purely a character concept-generation method. You can use any system desired once you’ve settled on concepts.

The Brackets and Archetypes

There are four age brackets:

  • Youngest: Adolescent of 11-13
  • Younger: Young teen of 13-15
  • Older: Teen of 15-19
  • Oldest: Grownup of 20+

In the course of concept generation, you’ll pitch a concept for each bracket and then lose one of them, so the age range allows you to adjust the character’s final age to fit in better with the other PCs in the same tier. For example, if two players keep their Youngest and two players only have a Younger character, the middle school characters are probably all around 13.

This should make more sense in a minute.

There are also four archetypes:

  • Charismatic: If you’re still in school, you’re a popular kid. If you’re an adult, you’re socially adept.
  • Athletic: If you’re still in school, you’re a jock. If you’re an adult, you have physical (likely including combat) competence.
  • Smart: If you’re still in school, you’re a nerd. If you’re an adult, you have mental advantages.
  • Talented: If you’re still in school, you’re an arty kid or other performer. If you’re an adult, you have some kind of interesting skill specialty.

As with the brackets, you’ll pitch a concept for each archetype, then lose one of them.

You’ll wind up mixing and matching the brackets and archetypes. For example, you might initially pitch a popular adolescent (Charismatic/Youngest), a jock teen (Athletic/Younger), a nerdy older teen (Smart/Older), and an interestingly-skilled adult (Talented/Oldest).

You can obviously change out the brackets and archetypes to make more sense for your game, but these seem appropriate to me for a directly Stranger Things-inspired game.

The Special Character

You can skip this step if you don’t want to have any of the players with a powered character.

This step is the most significant chance for the players to have input on what type of weirdness is going to be present in the game, as the GM will have to adapt to the final special character chosen.

Each player picks one bracket and archetype combo (if you have four players, you can randomly distribute them if desired), then details a supernatural character concept for that combo. This should be an extremely high concept of around a sentence, just enough to give the other players an idea of what kind of powers and attitude you’d be bringing if you get to play the special character.

For example:

  • Charismatic/Youngest: A young, sidhe-like being that has wandered into the school and quickly used her glamour to become incredibly popular, but who is still learning what it means to be human
  • Athletic/Younger: A mutant that’s gaining strength, invulnerability, and all of that with puberty, and is trying to keep his abilities under wraps while the school sports team increasingly relies on him
  • Smart/Older: A picked-on girl that has been developing psychic powers and is fighting the temptation to use them to punish all the other kids in high school that have done her wrong over the years
  • Talented/Oldest: Despite his business card, nobody really believes that the new private investigator in town is a wizard, but he totally is

Each player votes privately to the GM, ranking the choices starting at 1 (favorite) and going up in order to least favorite. Players should skip their own characters when voting. Total up the numbers for each concept. The one with the lowest total gets to be the Special Character for the game.

The Troupe

Each* player comes up with four non-supernatural concepts, once for each bracket and archetype (combine them however you want).

* The player that got to keep the Special Character uses that character for that bracket/archetype combo.

Your pitch for each character concept should include one sentence each for:

  • Why is this character cool?
  • What’s a rumor going around about this character?
  • What’s the character’s biggest problem?

If you’re playing the Special Character, include it and expand it with the same questions.

For example, one player’s pitches might look like:

  • Charismatic/Older: He’s the nicest guy in school, and one of the best looking, so he’s very popular despite being from a low income family. There are always at least half a dozen girls that people think he’s sleeping with. Secretly, though, he’s gay and trying to figure out how to come out.
  • Athletic/Oldest: She’s a former Olympic triathlete that’s in the National Guard, and is also the gym coach. Obviously, the rumor is that she’s a lesbian. Her problem is really, though, that it’s hard enough to be taken seriously as a woman in this small 80s town anyway that she’s worried dating openly would ruin what cred she’s assembled.
  • Smart/Youngest: He’s a child savant who’s extremely gifted with math. Everyone thinks his parents are some kind of cult, or government agents, or eugenicists that did something weird to get a kid this smart. He’s in a huge fight with his parents where they want him to keep going to school with kids his own age and get socialized properly, and he just wants to skip some grades.
  • Talented/Younger: He’s a comic artist that’s talented beyond his young years, and is just counting the days before he can run off to illustrate for Marvel or DC. Everyone at school calls him Pirate, because the rumor is that he has a wooden leg. Actually, he just has reduced mobility and keeps it covered because of all the nasty scars from the terrible abuse his bio-dad put him through; he lives in constant dread of his father’s return.

As with the Special Character, the other players vote. Rank each other player’s pitches from 1-4 from the one you’re most interested in seeing that player portray to the one that you’re the least interested in. Turn your votes in to the GM, who will add up the totals.

Each player should now have his or her pitches ranked from low to high, based on how the other players ranked the concepts. Discard the one with the most points (most of the other players ranked that one as least interesting). The one with the least points (most interesting) is now your focal character (the one that will get the most initial plots, and which will be called out by later stages in the process). If somehow the Special Character got voted out, vote out that player’s third concept instead.

Linking Characters

Arrange your concepts from youngest remaining to oldest remaining. The youngest you have is your Middle School character. The middle one is your High School character. The oldest is your Adult character.

Compare all the Middle School characters. Are they friends? Just acquaintances? Figure out their ages and relationships to one another. If anyone is outright antagonistic, it should be a superficial problem that can be overcome/put aside as an icebreaker in the first session. These characters will wind up adventuring together a lot early on.

Repeat that process for the High School and Adult characters.

Now go around the table and make ties to each player’s focal character. The first player picks another player’s non-focal character from a different age group (e.g., if your focal character is in Middle School, pick another player’s non-focal character from High School or Adult). Work together to establish a strong tie (probably siblings or parent/child) between the characters. Repeat this for each player around the table.

Go around again, and each player should suggest a concept for an antagonist NPC for his or her focal character. This should be a sentence or two describing why the characters don’t get along and broadly sketching the antagonist. The GM will further flesh this antagonist out (and come up with ways that that character might have further positive or negative relationships to the rest of the group).

The players should have one more general discussion to decide whether any more links make sense (all the characters shouldn’t be incredibly tightly linked, but there might be a couple more family relationships or weird connections that the group wants to establish).

Now work on actually fleshing out each character’s stats and expanded background (as desired). Players should collaborate on anything that reflects their closely linked characters (e.g., if you’re siblings or parent/child, you should work together on last name and home situation).

Running the Game

Overall, the GM should be working to have a lot going on at any one time. Especially early on in a scenario, it should be disconnected enough that the different groups don’t necessarily think to loop the other groups in on it. At other times, it’s obviously all connected, but the whole group needs to split up to tackle multiple problems at once. The natural distrust/dismissal between age groups should serve to keep things naturally firewalled as well (the adults aren’t going to believe the kids about something, and the kids don’t want to have their cool thing taken from them even if they did).

Play should alternate between active groupings with frequent “Meanwhile…” scene changes at good moments (cliffhangers preferred). Players should try to keep good track of what each of their characters knows, and avoid metagaming. Part of the fun of this kind of game is the dramatic irony of feeling like you, as a player, have a better view of the big picture than any of your characters do. Keep in mind, if one of your characters gets screwed, or even killed, by being uninformed, you still have two others to play.

Speaking of which, death can be even more on the table for this type of game than for one-PC-per-player games in the same genre. Killing off or otherwise sidelining a PC leaves the player with plenty of ability to continue to roleplay. The player can look into taking over an NPC or introducing an entirely new character to replace the lost PC at the beginning of the next scenario.

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D&D 5e Scaling Spells, 4th-8th

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Continued from last week, here are the rest of the spells cast at higher level. As with the previous set, arguments about my choices are welcome in the comments.

Level 4 Spells

  • Arcane Eye: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the eye can move an additional 10 feet per action for each slot level above 4th.
  • Black Tentacles: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the damage dealt by the tentacles increases by 1d6 for each slot level above 4th.
  • Compulsion: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the range of the spell increases by 10 feet for each slot level above 4th.
  • Control Water: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 10 minutes for each slot level above 4th.
  • Death Ward: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 4th.
  • Dimension Door: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, you can transport one additional passenger (who must also be within 5 feet of you) for each slot level above 4th.
  • Fabricate: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, you can add four additional 5-foot cubes worth of space to the final large object for each slot level above 4th. Additionally, if you cast this spell with a slot of 6th level or higher you can include stone in the construction of a large object, and if you cast it with a slot of 8th level or higher you can include metal in the construction of a large object.
  • Faithful Hound: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 4 hours and the damage dealt by the hound increases by 1d8 for each slot level above 4th.
  • Fire Shield: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 10 minutes for each slot level above 4th.
  • Freedom of Movement: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 4th.
  • Giant Insect: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the creatures transformed by this spell gain temporary hit points. Divide 20 hit points for each slot level above 4th as evenly as possible among the transformed creatures.
  • Greater Invisibility: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 4th.
  • Guardian of Faith: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the damage dealt by the guardian increases by 10 for each slot level above 4th. Additionally, the damage dealt before the guardian vanishes increases by 30 for each slot level above 4th.
  • Hallucinatory Terrain: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the area of the spell increases by 50 feet on each side of the cube for each slot level above 4th.
  • Locate Creature: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 1 hour for each slot level above 4th.
  • Polymorph: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 4th.
  • Resilient Sphere: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the range of the spell increases by 30 feet for each slot level above 4th.
  • Secret Chest: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, for the duration of the spell the chest’s interior dimensions increase beyond its physical size, allowing it to store more material. The space available for storage increases by 6 cubic feet for each slot level above 4th. If the spell ends while more is stored within the chest than should be physically possible, the excess contents disgorge themselves into the space around the chest.
  • Stone Shape: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, you can shape one additional 5 foot cube of stone for each slot level above 4th.
  • Stoneskin: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 4th. The material component cost of the spell increases proportionately to the number of creatures affected.

Level 5 Spells

  • Antilife Shell: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 1 hour for each slot level above 5th.
  • Awaken: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the casting time of the spell decreases by 2 hours for each slot level above 5th (to a minimum of 1 action at 9th level).
  • Contagion: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, you may target an additional creature for each slot level above 5th. You gain a number of rounds equal to the number of targets in which you may use your action to touch an additional creature in melee range to become affected by the spell.
  • Dispel Evil and Good: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, you may gain an additional use of the spell’s special functions for each slot level above 5th without ending the spell early.
  • Dream: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the damage of the nightmare version of the spell increases by 2d6 for each slot level above 5th.
  • Greater Restoration: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, an additional effect or exhausted level can be removed for each slot level above 5th. The material component cost of the spell increases proportionately to the number of additional effects or exhausted levels removed.
  • Hallow: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the casting time of the spell decreases by 6 hours for each slot level above 5th (to a minimum of 1 action at 9th level).
  • Legend Lore: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the casting time of the spell decreases by two and a half minutes for each slot level above 5th (to a minimum of 1 action at 9th level).
  • Mislead: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 30 minutes for each slot level above 5th. Additionally, if cast using a slot of 9th level, the invisibility counts as Greater Invisibility, so is not ended if you attack or cast a spell.
  • Passwall: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 1 hour for each slot level above 5th. Instead, you may choose to leave the duration unaffected and increase the maximum depth of the opening by 10 feet for each slot level above 5th.
  • Raise Dead: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the casting time of the spell decreases by 15 minutes for each slot level above 5th (to a minimum of 1 action at 9th level).
  • Reincarnate: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the casting time of the spell decreases by 15 minutes for each slot level above 5th (to a minimum of 1 action at 9th level).
  • Scrying: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 30 minutes for each slot level above 5th.
  • Seeming: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 4 hours for each slot level above 5th.
  • Telekinesis: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the range of the spell increases by 30 feet for each slot level above 5th.
  • Telepathic Bond: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 30 minutes for each slot level above 5th.
  • Teleportation Circle: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 1 round for each slot level above 5th (you may voluntarily close it early if desired, from either side of the portal). Additionally, the casting time of the spell decreases to 1 minute with a 6th level slot, to 6 rounds with a 7th level slot, to 3 rounds with an 8th level slot, and to 1 action with a 9th level slot.
  • Tree Stride: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the range of the spell increases for each slot level above 5th. At 6th level, the range becomes 1 mile, at 7th level it becomes 20 miles, at 8th level it becomes 100 miles, and at 9th level it becomes unlimited within the same plane or world. Instead of knowing the location of all trees within the extended range, you know the location of all trees of the same kind within 500 feet of your intended destination (and cannot complete the round of travel if you chose a location that was not within 500 feet of a tree of the same kind).
  • Wall of Force: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 5 minutes for each slot level above 5th. Additionally, if cast using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, the spell no longer requires Concentration (buy you may still end it early if desired).
  • Wall of Stone: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the number of panels created by the spell increases by 5 panels for each slot level above 5th.

Level 6 Spells

  • Blade Barrier: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the damage dealt to creatures in the wall’s area increases by 1d10 for each slot level above 6th.
  • Contingency: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 5 days for each slot level above 6th.
  • Eyebite: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, targets that fail a saving throw against the spell also take 1d10 necrotic damage for each slot level above 6th.
  • Find the Path: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 12 hours for each slot level above 6th. Additionally, if you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, it no longer requires concentration.
  • Flesh to Stone: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 6th.
  • Forbiddance: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the number of days required before the effect becomes Until Dispelled decreases by 1 for each slot level above 6th (e.g., it only requires 10 days of casting this at 9th level before it becomes effectively permanent).
  • Guards and Wards: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the number of days required before the effect becomes Until Dispelled decreases by 4 for each slot level above 6th (e.g., it only requires one month of casting this at 9th level before it becomes effectively permanent).
  • Harm: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the damage dealt by the spell increases by 3d6 for each slot level above 6th.
  • Heroes’ Feast: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the number of creatures that can partake of the feast increases by 6 for each slot level above 6th.
  • Irresistible Dance: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 6th.
  • Magic Jar: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, if the spell expires in a way that would cause you to die while possessing a body, there is a chance that you instead permanently take over the possessed body (causing the soul of the body to die in your stead). This chance is equal to 25% for each slot level above 6th.
  • Move Earth: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 1 hour for each slot level above 6th.
  • Planar Ally: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the casting time of the spell decreases to 1 minute with a 7th level slot, to 4 rounds with an 8th level slot, and to 1 action with a 9th level slot.
  • Programmed Image: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the performance duration increases by 2 minutes for each slot level above 6th.
  • Sunbeam: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the damage dealt by the spell increases by 1d8 for each slot level above 6th.
  • Transport via Plants: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 1 round for each slot level above 6th (you may voluntarily close it early if desired, from either side of the transportation).
  • True Seeing: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 1 hour for each slot level above 6th.
  • Wind Walk: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, the flying speed granted by the spell increases by 100 feet for each slot level above 6th.
  • Word of Recall: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, you can target three additional creatures for each slot level above 6th.

Level 7 Spells

  • Arcane Sword: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, the sword can move 40 feet instead of 20. When you cast it using a spell slot of 9th level, all the sword’s attacks gain Advantage.
  • Divine Word: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, each of the current hit point limits on the spell’s chart increases by 10 hit points for each slot level above 7th (e.g., at 9th level creatures with 70 hit points or fewer can be Deafened down to creatures with 40 hit points or fewer can be killed instantly).
  • Finger of Death: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, the damage dealt by the spell increases by 2d8 for each slot level above 7th.
  • Fire Storm: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, the damage dealt by the spell increases by 1d10 for each slot level above 7th.
  • Forcecage: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 1 hour for each slot level above 7th.
  • Magnificent Mansion: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases by 24 hours for each slot level above 7th.
  • Mirage Arcane: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level, the casting time of the spell becomes 1 minute. When you cast it using a spell slot of 9th level, the casting time becomes 1 action.
  • Plane Shift: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, the number of creatures that can be transported increases by 4 for each slot level above 7th.
  • Prismatic Spray: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level, the damage dice used by the damaging rays become d8s. When you cast it using a spell slot of 9th level, the damage dice become d10s.
  • Project Image: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, Intelligence (Investigation) checks to reveal the illusion gain Disadvantage. When you cast it using a spell slot of 9th level, it no longer requires Concentration (though you can still end it whenever desired).
  • Regenerate: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, the initial hit points healed increase by 4d8 for each slot level above 7th.
  • Resurrection: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, it automatically destroys and then resurrects a touched mindless, corporeal undead. When you cast it using a spell slot of 9th level, it destroys and resurrects a touched intelligent, corporeal undead if the target fails a Charisma saving throw (the target can choose to fail this saving throw automatically).
  • Reverse Gravity: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, you can exclude four targets (creatures or objects) from the effect for each slot level above 7th. These targets do not have to start within the area or remain in it to preserve this exclusion.
  • Sequester: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, you can target one additional creature or object for each slot level above 7th. All targets to be affected must be in physical contact at the casting of the spell.
  • Simulacrum: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, the casting time decreases by 6 hours for each slot level above 7th (to a minimum of 1 action at 9th level).
  • Symbol: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, the casting time decreases by 5 rounds for each slot level above 7th (to a minimum of 1 action at 9th level).
  • Teleport: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 8th level or higher, the number of creatures that can be transported increases by 4 for each slot level above 7th.

Level 8 Spells

  • Animal Shapes: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, the targets no longer have to be willing. Unwilling targets receive a Charisma saving throw to avoid the transformation.
  • Antimagic Field: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, you can anchor the area on a specific point in space rather than on yourself, and it no longer requires Concentration to maintain. At the DM’s option, regular use of this spell on the same area over time may result in an effectively permanent antimagic zone.
  • Antipathy (Sympathy): When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, the casting time becomes 1 action but the duration is reduced to 1 minute.
  • Clone: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, the time to reach maturity decreases to 90 days.
  • Control Weather: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, the time for new conditions to take effect decreases to 1d4 x 5 minutes, and the duration increases to Concentration up to 12 hours.
  • Demiplane: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, the created door to the demiplane is also affected by Arcane Lock as if cast with a 9th level spell slot.
  • Earthquake: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, you can designate up to 6 creatures that automatically succeed at all saving throws related to the spell.
  • Feeblemind: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, the target gains Disadvantage on the saving throw.
  • Glibness: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, you may cast this on a touched willing target instead of yourself.
  • Holy Aura: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, attackers have Disadvantage on the Constitution saving throw to avoid being Blinded.
  • Incendiary Cloud: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, the damage dice of the spell are d10s.
  • Maze: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, the target has Disadvantage on the Intelligence check to escape the maze.
  • Mind Blank: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, you can affect an additional target with the same casting.
  • Power Word Stun: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, the spell can affect a target of 200 hit points or fewer.
  • Sunburst: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 9th level, the damage dice of the spell are d8s.

D&D 5e Scaling Spells, 1st-3rd

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One of my favorite mechanics in D&D 5e is the scaling spells. No need to have a bunch of copies that just do the same thing, only at a higher spell level, when you can just have a lower level one improve when cast with a higher level slot. However, I remain baffled by spells that don’t have a scaling mechanic. Especially when playing a Warlock, spells that don’t make full use of your pact magic seem much less useful than ones that do. But most other casters are also often strapped for spells known, such that low-level spells that let you get full use out of your higher level slots for which you might not have a lot of appropriate level spells known are very helpful.

So this is just me going through and trying to tack an At Higher Levels tag for every spell that doesn’t have one and isn’t a ritual. I went for brevity whenever possible, so admittedly a lot of these scale so linearly that they probably aren’t worth that much at much higher slot levels (but at least they’ll do something more than with a base slot). I’m also purely eyeballing the math, so I welcome arguments in the comments about why I’ve made something unbalanced with the scaling effect.

Level 1 Spells

  • Detect Evil and Good: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the range of the perception increases 10 feet for each slot level above 1st.
  • Detect Poison and Disease: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the range of the perception increases 10 feet for each slot level above 1st.
  • Disguise Self: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 30 minutes for each slot level above 1st.
  • Divine Favor: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level, the damage increases to 2d4 radiant. For each additional two spell levels, increase the damage by one die (to a maximum of 5d4 when using a 9th level spell slot).
  • Entangle: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level, all creatures restrained by the spell take 1d4 bludgeoning damage per round as they are crushed by the vines. The damage increases by one die for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Expeditious Retreat: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 5 minutes for each slot level above 1st.
  • Faerie Fire: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, all creatures affected by the spell take 1d4 fire damage per round as they are burned by the light. The damage increases by one die for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Feather Fall: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the spell can affect two additional targets for each slot level above 1st.
  • Goodberry: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the spell produces five additional berries for each slot level above 1st.
  • Grease: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the grease becomes highly flammable. If ignited (deliberately or by any area of effect fire attack), all creatures in the grease take 1d4 fire damage at the end of their turns (1d6 if they are prone), applied after the check to fall prone. This damage increases by one die for each slot level above 2nd. The fire burns until the spell expires or extinguished (by an effect that can douse a large, hot fire).
  • Hideous Laughter: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target on additional creature for each slot level above 1st. The creatures must be within 30 feet of each other when you target them.
  • Jump: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.
  • Mage Armor: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.
  • Protection from Evil and Good: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.
  • Sanctuary: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.
  • Shield: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, a residual protection from the shield grants you 3 temporary hit points that last for 10 minutes. These temporary hit points increase by 3 for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Shield of Faith: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.
  • Silent Image: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 10 minutes for each slot level above 1st.

Level 2 Spells

  • Alter Self: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 30 minutes for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Arcane Lock: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, any Knock spell must be cast at the same or greater slot level to suppress the lock.
  • Arcanist’s Magic Aura: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the number of days required before the effect becomes Until Dispelled decreases by 1 for each slot level above 3rd (e.g., it only requires 10 days of casting this at 5th level before it becomes effectively permanent).
  • Barkskin: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Blur: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 minute for each slot level above 2nd. In addition, when cast using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the spell no longer requires Concentration.
  • Calm Emotions: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 minute for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Continual Flame: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the material cost of the spell decreases by 7 gp for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Darkness: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the spell suppresses any light spells cast at the same or lower slot level.
  • Darkvision: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Detect Thoughts: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 minute for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Enlarge/Reduce: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 minute for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Enthrall: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 minute for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Find Steed: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the steed’s maximum hit points increase by 5 for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Find Traps: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you gain more information about the traps present. At 3rd level, you learn the distance in feet to the closest trap you’ve detected. For each slot level above 3rd, you learn the distance to the next closest trap (e.g., the three closest traps at 5th level).
  • Gust of Wind: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the distance targets are pushed increases 5 feet for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Knock: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, it can suppress Arcane Lock effects cast at the same or lower slot level.
  • Lesser Restoration: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can end an additional disease or condition (on the same creature or on multiple creatures you can touch) for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Levitate: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the weight limit of the target increases 300 pounds for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Locate Object: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the range the object can be from you increases 1000 feet for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Mirror Image: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 minute for each slot level above 2nd. Additionally, you can spend a bonus action to recover an illusory duplicate that has been destroyed; you can recover one such duplicate per casting of the spell for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Misty Step: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you are also affected by Blur (cast at two slot levels lower than the slot level used).
  • Pass without Trace: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 hour for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Protection from Poison: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can neutralize an additional poison and/or affect an additional creature you can touch for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Ray of Enfeeblement: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the spell also deals 1d10 necrotic damage for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Rope Trick: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 hour for each slot level above 2nd.
  • See Invisibility: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 hour for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Spider Climb: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Spike Growth: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the damage dealt to creatures moving increases by 1d4 for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Suggestion: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Warding Bond: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can have any self-only spells or any touch spells that you cast upon yourself instead affect your bonded target. The spell must use a slot level equal to or lower than the slot level used for Warding Bond – 2 (e.g., if you cast this at 3rd level, you can only have spells cast at 1st level affect the target).
  • Web: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 hour for each slot level above 2nd. Additionally, burning the webs also deals an additional 1d4 fire damage for each slot level above 2nd.
  • Zone of Truth: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the radius of the zone increases by 10 feet for for each slot level above 2nd. Additionally, the duration of the spell increases 5 minutes for each slot level above 2nd.

Level 3 Spells

  • Beacon of Hope: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the range of the spell increases 30 feet for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Blink: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you may choose to add or subtract 1 for each slot level above 3rd to each d20 roll to determine if you vanish (e.g., at 6th level, you may modify the roll by +3 or -3 depending on whether you do or do not wish to vanish at the current time).
  • Clairvoyance: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 10 minutes for each slot level above 3rd. Additionally, the range of the spell increases 1 mile for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Create Food and Water: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the amount of food increases by enough to sustain nine additional humanoids or three steeds for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Daylight: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the spell dispels darkness effects cast at a lower slot level than the chosen slot level for Daylight. Additionally, the radius of the spell increases by 20 feet for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Fear: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the spell additionally deals 1d10 Psychic damage to every target that fails the saving throw (half damage on a successful save) for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Gaseous Form: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Haste: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Hypnotic Pattern: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, for each slot level above 3rd creatures affected by the spell ignore one source of damage or action used to shake them awake.
  • Nondetection: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 8 hours for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Phantom Steed: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 1 hour for each slot level above 3rd. Additionally, if cast using a slot of at least 5th level, the steed can travel on water, ice, or mud as if it were solid ground (ignoring difficult terrain from these and similar sources). Finally, if cast using a slot of at least 7th level, the steed can Fly (as the spell) for the duration of the Phantom Steed spell.
  • Plant Growth: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the area affected by the first application of the spell count as if it was under the effects of Entangle (cast at 3 slot levels lower than the casting of Plant Growth), and the second application of the spell has its casting time reduced by 1 hour per slot level above 3rd.
  • Protection from Energy: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Remove Curse: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target one additional creature or object for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Revivify: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the creature heals 2d8 additional hit points for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Sending: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the message can be increased by 15 words for each slot level above 3rd. Additionally, if cast using a slot of at least 6th level, you can immediately make one more twenty-five word followup message to the target after the target’s reply.
  • Sleet Storm: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, creatures that fail the Dexterity save to remain standing take 1d4 cold damage for each slot level above 3rd (half damage on a successful save).
  • Slow: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target three additional creatures for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Speak with Dead: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can ask the creature two additional questions for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Speak with Plants: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the duration of the spell increases 5 minutes for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Stinking Cloud: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, creatures that fail the Constitution save against poison take 1d6 poison damage for each slot level above 3rd (no damage on a successful save).
  • Tongues: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Water Breathing: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target ten additional creatures for each slot level above 3rd.
  • Water Walk: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, you can target ten additional creatures for each slot level above 3rd. Alternatively, if you cast this spell with a slot level of 5th level or higher, it can target an unwilling creature (plus one creature for each slot level above 5th); targets may make a Strength save to negate the effect.
  • Wind Wall: When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the damage dealt by the wall increases by 2d8 for each slot level above 3rd.

Fae Empowerment

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The following is a short rules set I worked up for an offer from a sidhe noble in my Beyond the Wall game: when the fae really want to tempt you to do something for them, they can offer up some of their own ability scores to give yours a permanent boost. The gift tends to come with quite a bit of the resonance of the sidhe, making it a bit of a mixed blessing and pulling you closer to becoming fae yourself. Permanent ability score boosts are obviously a pretty big reward for most D&D iterations; in my game, this was the gambit for the fae asking for ownership of the ancient crown mentioned last week (which the players, some with more regret than others, passed on taking).

Basic System

The fae can offer up to +4 to a particular quality, such as might or beauty (noted in parenthesis and mapping to an ability score). You may choose to give the player full control over how much is taken, the faerie may only offer a point or two, or you might offer it on a sliding scale (e.g., characters starting with a low score can get a bigger boost than those with a high score already).

Taking +1 has no ill effect. Characters that accept +2 gain the cosmetic side effect for the trait. Those that accept +3 gain the cosmetic and the minor side effects. Those that accept +4 gain all three side effects.

If you take one less increase, you also gain the boon. Thus, if you want the boon, you could take it, no ability score increase, and no side effects all the way up to the boon, +3 to the score, and all three side effects.

Qualities of Nature Fae (Spring/Summer/Seelie)

Strength (Might)

  • Boon: Weapons you wield made entirely of plants (e.g., clubs, staves, etc.) increase damage by a die size. Double your progress rate when using force to move or alter plants (e.g., blazing trails, hauling wood, etc.).
  • Cosmetic: Your muscles creak like tree branches when exerting themselves.
  • Minor: Treat iron as adamantine for the purposes of bending/breaking it (i.e., basically impervious to brute force).
  • Major: Iron or steel weapons you wield are at -1 attack penalty and iron or steel armor you wear is at -1 AC (due to feeling heavier than they are).

Dexterity (Grace)

  • Boon: You always Pass without Trace through forest environments (includes immunity to the Hedge).
  • Cosmetic: You exhibit unearthly thinness and a great degree of androgyny.
  • Minor: You are helplessly immobilized when bound in iron.
  • Major: You must save vs Spell or dance when exposed to certain music (as if Tasha’s Hideous Laughter in 5e).

Constitution (Health)

  • Boon: Double all healing (natural or magical) when outside in a natural environment, and gain +2 to saves vs. Poison from natural sources.
  • Cosmetic: Your skin takes on the appearance of bark.
  • Minor: You automatically hibernate when sleeping in Winter (each day you must be woken forcefully or you will sleep until Spring).
  • Major: You suffer vulnerability to Iron.

Intelligence (Wit)

  • Boon: You gain your choice of either the Glamour Weaving or Second Sight cantrips (Minor Illusion cantrip or Detect Magic as ritual in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: Flowers and vines twine through your hair while sleeping and are difficult to remove.
  • Minor: You must save vs. Spell to refuse a riddle game (Cha save in 5e).
  • Major: You are incapable of telling an outright falsehood (this may impose situational penalties to Deception if not well-roleplayed).

Wisdom (Intuition)

  • Boon: You gain your choice of either the Druid’s Touch or Beast Ken cantrips (Druidcraft cantrip or Speak with Animals as ritual in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: Your eyes and ears transform to strongly resemble those of the fae.
  • Minor: You can be commanded by someone who knows your True Name (you may be able to save to resist commands).
  • Major: You must save vs Magic Item or be paralyzed by sound of bells (Str save in 5e).

Charisma (Beauty)

  • Boon: You learn the spells Commanding Word, False Friend, Inspiration, and Word of Courage and may cast +1 spell per day (Cast your choice of Bless, Command, Charm Person, or Heroism at 1st level 1/day in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: You take on a fae cast to your features and assume the skin and hair coloring of the donating faerie.
  • Minor: You become a physical duplicate of the donating faerie (less any fae traits not assigned from other side effects).
  • Major: You become unnaturally aged during the Winter, taking -1 penalties to most physical actions.

Qualities of Ice Fae (Autumn/Winter/Unseelie)

Strength (Might)

  • Boon: Weapons you wield made entirely of ice and spell attacks you make that deal cold damage increase damage by a die size. Double your progress rate when using force to move or alter ice or snow (e.g., sculpt ice, break through ice walls, blaze snow trails, etc.).
  • Cosmetic: Your muscles creak like stressed ice sheets when exerting themselves.
  • Minor: Treat iron as adamantine for the purposes of bending/breaking it (i.e., basically impervious to brute force).
  • Major: Iron or steel weapons you wield are at -1 attack penalty and iron or steel armor you wear is at -1 AC (due to feeling heavier than they are).

Dexterity (Grace)

  • Boon: You treat snow and slick ice as solid ground when you desire to do so.
  • Cosmetic: You exhibit unearthly thinness and a great degree of androgyny.
  • Minor: You are helplessly immobilized when bound in iron.
  • Major: You must save vs Spell or dance when exposed to certain music (as if Tasha’s Hideous Laughter in 5e).

Constitution (Health)

  • Boon: You take half damage from cold/ice attacks and treat temperatures down to freezing as comfortable (adjusting sub-freezing temperatures as if freezing was room temperature)(Cold Resistance in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: Your skin takes on a bluish pallor.
  • Minor: You automatically hibernate when sleeping in Summer (each day you must be woken forcefully or you will sleep until Autumn).
  • Major: You suffer vulnerability to Iron.

Intelligence (Wit)

  • Boon: You gain your choice of either the Glamour Weaving or Second Sight cantrips (Minor Illusion cantrip or Detect Magic as ritual in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: Frost patterns form on your skin whenever you are exposed to cold.
  • Minor: You must save vs. Spell to refuse a riddle game (Cha save in 5e).
  • Major: You are incapable of telling an outright falsehood (this may impose situational penalties to Deception if not well-roleplayed).

Wisdom (Intuition)

  • Boon: You gain your choice of either the Blessing or Hexing cantrips (Guidance cantrip or Bane at 1st level 2/day in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: Your eyes and ears transform to strongly resemble those of the fae.
  • Minor: You can be commanded by someone who knows your True Name (you may be able to save to resist commands).
  • Major: You must save vs Magic Item or be paralyzed by sound of bells (Str save in 5e).

Charisma (Beauty)

  • Boon: You learn the spells Obscurement, Petrifying Gaze, Terrifying Presence, and Whispering Wind and may cast +1 spell per day (Cast your choice of Dissonant Whispers, Fog Cloud, Hex, or Tasha’s Hideous Laughter at 1st level 1/day in 5e).
  • Cosmetic: You take on a fae cast to your features and assume the skin and hair coloring of the donating faerie.
  • Minor: You become a physical duplicate of the donating faerie (less any fae traits not assigned from other side effects).
  • Major: You become sluggish and uncomfortable during the Summer, taking -1 penalties to most physical actions.

Items of the Hedge

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We’re 15 sessions into my Beyond the Wall game at this point, and I’ve given out enough treasure that it’s time to reflect on my itemization rules as well as include some significant treasure that my players seemed to really like.

Minor Items

At this point, I’ve given out most of the example weapons on the minor weapons post:

  • They found a Blood Drinker axe buried in an ancient battlefield. They’re so creeped out by it that they might opt to not use it even if someone was a primary axe user.
  • I think they now have five or six Coffin Nails in various states of discharge (and one is currently pinning down a revenant at a crossroads, so it’s not really available). The primary user is the party rogue, who seems to enjoy managing the monthly discharge/recharge cycle now that he has enough of them that a budget of uses is a realistic thing to consider.
  • They found a Commoner’s Holdout knife at some point, and I’m not sure they remember they have it when it’s useful. Honestly, they don’t get seriously injured enough to make the trigger condition frequently available. Maybe I should try to change that…
  • The Landless Noble’s Family Weapon was a big help earlier in the campaign, when they stumbled on a demon that could only be hurt by magic. Overall, the infrequency of magic weapons seems to have helped keep magic-vulnerable monsters special for longer: because most enhanced weapons aren’t technically “magic” it makes the ones that genuinely are more special.
  • They recently got a Hedgecutter under less-than-ideal circumstances (off of the corpse of one of their higher level NPC allies who they’d had to kill because he’d been vamped). They haven’t gotten to use it to actually travel through the Hedge, but will soon, and probably would have loved to have it a few sessions ago when they had to run and hide from a Shambling Mound.
  • No Sidhe Swords have come into play yet, though they’re on the hex map to be discovered. The Fae Foundling in the party would probably love to get her hands on one, though she is normally a ranged combatant.
  • They recovered a Siegebreaker fairly early on (well, stole it from goblin storage and are hoping the owners don’t notice it). It’s being used by the Gifted Dilettante (rogue/mage), who shouldn’t really be in melee at all but, if he’s going to be, he might as well swing a really big weapon. He doesn’t actually connect with it all that often, but does seem to enjoy the option of smashing through doors and walls like the Kool-Aid man.

I believe I’ve also given out a couple of other weapons using the same minor weapon rules: a bow that is extra harmful against beasts, some arrows with one ability each, and Siegekeeper: a longbow that’s Magic and extra effective (Penetrating and Warning) against soldiers of their rival empire.

Overall, I’ve been pretty pleased with the minor weapon rules: keeping the players from chasing pluses allows them to use weapons that fit their styles.

I’ve also given out quite a few of the items from the minor items post:

  • I believe that most of the main PCs have, at this point, at least one reroll item. I seem to remember putting in play items of Cantrips, Hunting, Perception, and Rituals. Most of them are one charge per day, and I don’t see them get used that often (mostly because those checks are so good for the bearers that failure is unlikely).
  • An item of Warmth and one of Sustenance have come into play and are interesting curiosities, but haven’t been used to great effect yet. In particular, the Chalice of Sustenance (turns liquid put into it into a satisfying meal) has picked up a bad connotation of “Dysentery Chowder” after the bearer experimented with “I wonder if it can turn this awful sewer water into a meal?”
  • The single-charge Belt of Stoneskin has already saved the Gifted Dilettante’s life twice (though I think I need to pay more attention to making sure he declares activating it up front rather than as soon as he takes a big hit). It’s probably the MVP of items so far.
  • The rogue seems to really enjoy the Gem of Seeing in principle, but hasn’t gotten much actual use out of it.
  • They just got an item of Protection this past session which may also find a lot of use. The item of Regeneration is currently in the hands of a character that doesn’t get injured much, but she seems glad to have it in the event that she does get injured.

Ultimately, the minor items aren’t getting used nearly as much as I expected, but the players seem to enjoy receiving them and figuring out how to distribute them to take advantage of party roles and number of fortune slots for each character. I’ve begun handing out items with more than one charge per day, which may increase their overall utility.

Significant Items

The following items are named treasure, mostly with strong links to the game backstory. Like the other items, they don’t carry pluses, just modular effects. They ought to port over fairly easily as items for D&D; feel free to add the enhancement bonus of your choice in that case.

The Ancient Crown

This crown is suspiciously non-magical, particularly coming from the long-dead ruler of a magically potent ancient empire. For certain, it’s valuable enough: it would be an extremely good find for a low level party just taking it apart for its platinum and gems. As an art object, it’s worth even more.

But the real potency of the crown is in its political weight. The inheritor state of the ancient empire craves trappings of legitimacy. A long-lost crown could be enough to elevate a minor claimant to the national stage, by brokering a deal to give it to the current rulers or treating it as proof of a previously significant bloodline. Simply handing it over to a friendly noble NPC to deal with should be a major quest reward, and trying to figure out how to use it for themselves could be a campaign-spanning PC goal.

Beyond the purely mortal parties that would love to get their hands on such a valuable item, there is also the question of immortal interest. Faeries, demons, and other such beings have a great use for items that are important even if they aren’t technically magical. What rituals could they wreak upon the fabric of the empire with such a token of rulership? They’d probably go to great lengths to find out…

The Anydress

In some ways little more than a toy, this dress is woven of glamour by a skilled faerie tailor. For most fae, it’s a long-term savings on fashion. For shapeshifters and other infiltrators, however, it can be a vital tool of the trade…

When unworn, this looks like a simple shift of nice but unremarkable fabric. When donned, however, it adapts to properly fit anyone of roughly humanoid size and shape, and transfigures seamlessly into a dress appropriate for the wearer and the environment. On the streets of the merchant district, it’s fashionable but not ostentatious. In the bad part of town, it seems respectably plain. And at a royal ball, it’s festooned with gems and needlework.

Obviously, none of this lasts if separated from the item, and it can sometimes have its own whimsical interpretation of what’s appropriate rather than strictly appearing as the wearer desires. But, unlike many such faerie crafts, it’s remarkably durable and can last indefinitely without deteriorating or losing its powers.

A little known component of the dress’ whimsy is also the ability to tune into times of significance. For example, if curious adventurers were to try on an ancient crown while wearing the Anydress, it might give them a hint as to what might happen if they claimed the crown by adapting to reflect what kind of ruler they could become.

Wælcyrie’s Raiment

This suit of leathers is fitted for a woman and extremely well made. It features dozens of long, dagged strips hanging from the mantle and skirt. It is strongly magic (for any effects that interact with magic on armor), ghost touch (spectral entities cannot bypass its AC bonus), and grants +2 to saving throws the wearer makes against the attacks of any kind of undead or spirit. The strips writhe in the presence of ghosts, even unmanifested/invisible ones.

If a ghost can be convinced to voluntarily grasp one of the strips, it becomes infused into the armor. It is always considered to be in Protective stance: the ghost will interrupt and take the next hit against the wearer. Most ghosts can only take one such hit before being discorporated; more powerful ones may be able to take multiple hits, and may grant additional abilities to the wearer while infused. Discorporated ghosts seemingly pass on for good. The armor can support multiple ghosts at once; generally the one that has been infused the longest will be the one that takes hits.

Græfenrót Banner

This silken banner was seemingly wielded by the outriders of the Wælcyrie. The horses of any allies under the banner suppress their natural fear response to undead, and even mundane horses can keep up with supernatural horses within the cavalry.

When grasped by someone with authority over mindless undead, those undead will never attack allies of the bearer within sight of the banner, even in the bloodlust of battle. The bearer and all allies within sight of the banner gain +4 to saving throws against any mental (fear, charm, etc.) effects generated by undead/ghosts.

Allies slain within sight of the banner always leave a weak and somewhat confused ghost (which will usually pass on at sunrise unless infused into the Wælcyrie’s Raiment), which is generally still friendly and will continue to fight beside its original allies if it can be effectively directed. This effect may intensify other necromantic auras, causing the fallen to rise as physical undead instead of ghosts.

GMing Tricks from the Defenders

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One of the first things I noticed about the new Defenders show on Netflix was that, by virtue of making an ensemble out of a bunch of established solo characters, it wound up feeling more like an RPG than many TV shows do. And that makes it an excellent example for some GMing techniques that I think it highlights. This post, obviously, may contain SPOILERS for the Defenders (though I’ll try to keep them to minor structural ones), so proceed at your own risk if you didn’t binge it over the weekend.

Splitting the Party

The first thing I noticed about Defenders was that it was using a technique I’ve really only seen in World of Darkness games (and mostly in a subset of WoD games where the GMs all learned it from one another). The group starts out split, doesn’t know one another, and gradually their solo experience compounds into winding up as a team. Importantly, this isn’t just a series of preludes that were all run individually and then the first full session has everyone meet up. Instead, like in Defenders, scenes alternate between PCs (often cutting on a cliffhanger), sometimes two PCs will briefly meet and then continue on separately, and only once the plot is well and truly laid out do they realize they need to work together. Sometimes, it can take multiple sessions. And the other players are all there while this is happening, waiting their turns for the spotlight.

This has several useful effects:

  • The other players get a better sense of your character by watching without being able to interfere when you have spotlight time. Though it’s an entirely metagame experience, it gives everyone a better sense of what you and the GM have agreed is cool about your character.
  • The metagame aspect is also important: it gets the players used to the idea of firewalling what they’ve experienced in and out of play. Inevitably, there’s some slippage as you eventually can’t remember whether you were there for a scene where a crucial detail happened, but the important thing is that you’re trying.
  • It also gets you used to allowing other players to have spotlight time without being disruptive. The social contract is that you’ll get a similar amount of spotlight time where the other players will also keep quiet and let you have your moment.
  • Finally, it establishes that splitting up is a thing that is safe to do.

The adage to never split the party often comes from the idea that you could, at any moment, run into a party-scaled encounter by yourself and lose. Letting the players run around solo for a while gets them used to going off solo or in pairs to do things when the situation demands it, and makes it apparent that this isn’t likely to get anyone killed. Sometimes you’ll run into something that you don’t want to tackle without the whole party, and rarely you’ll get in over your head and have to escape a threat that the party would trounce, but you’re not terrified of being alone.

This technique probably works best in a city-based game, rather than one spread out or in hostile territory.

Recurring Villains

One of the things a lot of games suffer from is insufficiently involved villains. Sure, you might have heard of the guy from his minions and former victims, but you don’t actually meet him until you get to the final room of the final dungeon in the module. Then it’s a fight, maybe after a brief monologue. Boring.

In order for your players to really feel connected to your villains—whether that be total hatred or conflicted aggravation—they need to meet them multiple times. The villains need to do things on screen that drive the players mad, take thing from them, or fail to do things and narrowly escape. The problem is that your players are likely to go nuclear if they’re allowed at all: if they identify the main villain, especially if it’s a combat encounter, all available resources go into putting her down quickly and completely.

The Defenders answer to this is that the bad guys are mostly very experienced ninjas. They go into every fight with the heroes with a cheater’s escape route planned (there are numerous scenes where the “taken out” result for the bad guy becomes “and you knock him offscreen and he’s just gone“). This is a trick you can use for ninjas and teleporting wizards, but it only works so long before the players start planning countermeasures. Other techniques from the Defenders prelude shows are that the bad guy is legally clean, and the law would take a dim view of assaulting him in public, so there can be confrontations in public spaces without either side feeling like it’s a kill-or-be-killed situation. Finally, never underestimate the villain having a conversation, the PCs thinking they have her right where they want her, and then she wanders out after summoning a horde of minions or environmental disaster that keeps the PCs away from her.

Ultimately, the real trick is making sure you’ve designed the villains’ motivations so they don’t necessarily want to commit themselves fully to a fight until the end game. Come up with reasons why they feel their goals can be met without endangering themselves. They should be willing to walk away several times rather than fighting to the death, even if they outclass the PCs.

Constrained Villains

One of the things that’s always in the back of my head as a player is whether it feels like the opposition’s resources are infinite until they’re suddenly not. Will taking out these minions have a measurable impact on the villains’ ability to operate? Is it worth it to strike at a target, or will they just have a similar resource later if we capture this one? Do the villains have to play by the same rules I do, even if they start with more resources?

Defenders does a really good job of constraining the villains (though it’s unclear if those constraints would be totally clear to the PCs if they weren’t seeing the internal bad guy discussion scenes that we’re privy to as the audience). They’ve gambled their most precious resource on obtaining a big payoff, and the time is running out for them to get that payoff.

This gives you a number of really useful plot levers to use as a GM:

  • There’s a natural time pressure: the villains need to do things soon, and aren’t going to wait on the PCs to be ready.
  • There are a number of things that the villains can do that are mistakes to give the PCs an advantage, because they’re out of options.
  • The PCs can capitalize on information to put the villains on the defensive, giving the players an enhanced sense of agency.
  • The PCs can ultimately realize that they have several methods of victory, including taking away a key villain resource and/or just running out the clock on their scheme.

Fighting a group of stressed, worried, and grasping bad guys is ultimately going to make your players feel a lot better about their own options and place in the game world than if every set of bad guys is powerful and secure until the PCs can finally work out a fait accompli to cut off the head.

Supporting Cast

Like a lot of GMs, I’m bad at remembering to use supporting cast. When you’ve got a short session, it can feel like a waste of time to take a minute to have a brief roleplay scene with one PC’s family and friends. But if your player gave you those NPCs in the first place, it was out of hopes that they’d get used for more than damselling or other pathos. Sometimes, you just have to do the groundwork to have them recur enough to feel like part of the fabric of the world, and to give the player an opportunity to express elements of her character that aren’t seen when in full adventurer mode.

This is certainly easier if you’ve started off with a split party, so it’s more usual that there are scenes with one PC off alone dealing with NPCs, playing out what she’s doing when not with the rest of the group.

Defenders does a good job of providing a use for most of the supporting cast. It helps if your system has rules for mental stress that your loved ones can help you remove. Even if it doesn’t, they can be hooked into resources that the PCs don’t have: reporters to get you information you’d missed, cops and lawyers to get you out of legal trouble, doctors and nurses to handle physical ailments, and even less-skilled adventurers that can take some minor threats off your plate so you can focus on the bigger problems.

Also, remember to have the players add their useful NPCs to their character sheets. NPCs immediately become more real to players when tracked as a resource.

Protagonist Plot Glue

The downside of several of these techniques is that it can sometimes be hard to hit the ground running with fully committed protagonists. When you do group character generation, it’s much easier to motivate everyone to follow the plot as a team, as their characters are intimately connected to one another and, usually, the story as a whole. But when the players have made independent, fully realized characters, they may have trouble finding proper motivation to engage. You’ll need to devise the plot to glue the PCs together and to the story.

Some of your players may be like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones: despite their outward complaining about being wrapped up in something that doesn’t truly concern them, they’re at the game to play and will figure out a motivation to dive in. At worst, the GM will need to have an aside with the player and ask what kind of thing would flip the PC from on-the-fence to fully-committed. It may just take a minor incident to convey that the bigger problem will have follow-on problems to things the PC cares about.

Some may be like Matt Murdock: he’s created a deep and robust character, and talked himself into doing less fun things because they’re more true to the character. Without the right motivations, he’ll sit on the sidelines playing lawyer, because he’s convinced himself that the character doesn’t want to risk his mundane life and supporting cast. At best, there are a number of contrived scenes where he gets to play legal counsel to the rest of the team, and maybe secretly help out a little. At worst, you’re spinning your wheels running repeated side scenes where he agonizes over not being able to help while going through the motions of his mundane life. For this type of character, you need to make sure that the plot leaves no escape: the things he cares about are in direct danger, the plot is directly relevant to his backstory, and, what the hell, his ex-girlfriend is back from the dead and deeply enmeshed. The player will thank you for making the decision to engage as easy in character as it is out of character.

Some may be the opposite problem, like Danny Rand: they’re gung ho to go after the plot, but the other players are going to have a really hard time justifying hanging out with this guy. There’s often a Danny Rand in the group, who made a character that just doesn’t fit. Maybe he didn’t understand the memo about, “we’re making down-on-their-luck, street-level heroes,” or maybe there was less direction and everyone else just settled on a theme by happenstance. Maybe he’s a new player who just doesn’t get the social norms of the group. Honestly, modern occult and superheroes games often make “one of us is super wealthy, and the rest of us are broke” an issue with how they price wealth in character creation, and nobody can figure out why they’d hang out with the rich guy as peers, and don’t want to be his de facto minions. This last problem can often be the toughest, and you pretty much have to do what Defenders does: make the odd PC out key to the whole plot, until the party settles into being used to having that guy around.

If you’re lucky, after the first major storyline, the PCs will have gelled well enough that you can be less heavy-handed for the second. But be prepared to keep tabs on where the players are at with their PCs’ emotional lives (possibly through supporting cast), and be ready to keep tuning the game until they’re ready to stick as a group to your satisfaction.

Hacking Initiative, Part 3

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This final installment is an inventory of some of the commonly used initiative systems, at least in games I’ve played, and what I find to be their strengths and weaknesses.

The Modern D&D Standard

Since 3e, D&D has been using pretty similar variations on Declare and Act in Order-style: each character gets a unique imitative score once per combat that’s the sum of a d20 roll and modifiers (usually Dex modifier plus miscellaneous bonuses from feats). The GM then counts down from the highest to the lowest each round, with some ability to ready and/or hold to reset initiative. Your order seldom changes within a given battle.

Strengths: The main advantage of this style is that it allows you to use “until the [start/end] of your next turn” as a counter that means “this will give everyone else in the fight the chance to go before it ends. If it’s something defensive, it lasts through a full set of enemy actions. If it’s a group buff or debuff, it affects everyone else once. If it’s something that can be interrupted, all the enemies get a chance to interrupt it. There’s also low overhead after the first round: once you get everyone’s order worked out, you can just cycle through it until the fight ends without further delay from recalculation/reordering.

Weaknesses: This initiative system is so powerfully boring that the current lead designer is publicly trying to replace it. After the first round, you just get locked into the same cycle over and over again, and having a really good initiative bonus really only gets you one round of benefit due to the continuous cycle (e.g., if you go first and can’t get to an enemy, it’s almost like you’re going last). While subsequent rounds are easy enough to keep track of, the first round actually takes a non-trivial amount of work to figure out, as you have to write everyone’s name down with their initiative result and make sure you leave enough space to fit in the players that tell you a result that’s between two existing results. If you have enough actors, you can inculcate further delay as players forget when they’re going to go, get distracted, and don’t start planning their actions until called upon by the GM.

Beyond the Wall

The system used in Beyond the Wall is very similar to D&D, with a crucial difference: initiative score is fixed rather than rolled. All PCs have an initiative score equal to level + Dex mod + class bonus. Most NPCs just use level unmodified (so will often go last unless they outclass the PCs, and won’t go first unless they significantly outclass the PCs, due to PC rogues often getting a +4 or better to their level for this score).

Strengths: In addition to most of the strengths of the standard D&D mechanic, the crucial benefit is that you don’t have the first round calculation drain. It’s even recommended that you have the players sit around the table in the order of their PCs’ initiative scores, so you can just whip around the table, pausing for wherever the monsters are inserted.

Weaknesses: This has most of the same weaknesses as standard D&D, with the addition of losing any kind of variation at all. In practice, however, this isn’t much of a drawback. I don’t really feel like the variations due to rolling mean that much in the long run when you’re only randomizing once per combat (and characters with good bonuses are going to go first more often than not anyway), and the speed in this method is a big help. Additionally, by placing the players in order around the table, it’s much more obvious when your turn is about to happen, so it’s not a surprise when you get called on (and, thus, you’ve often started planning your action, further speeding things up).

Group Initiative

As mentioned previously, when running D&D/Pathfinder I actually tend to use group initiative for the reasons outlined by Ben Robbins. In my particular variation, I average out the NPCs’ initiative bonus, have everyone roll, and the players with a higher score than the enemies get a free turn, the enemies go, then all the PCs go, and so on, alternating between NPCs and PCs. Players are free to strategize and trade their order within the PC turn.

Strengths: This preserves most of the advantages of the standard D&D initiative, while encouraging much more tactical play as players coordinate. Particularly in 3.x/Pathfinder, when you could freely delay your action and lower your initiative score, players could choose to coordinate in this way if they wanted to anyway. Players tend to consider their overall strategy and cooperate much better, in my experience. It’s also a little faster than the standard, because the GM doesn’t have to write anything down, just figure out who gets a free turn before the NPCs.

Weaknesses: There could be some disruption in the timing of effects (players can decide to go before or after their allies, depending on whether stretching or shrinking the duration of an effect is helpful). If a lot is going on, you may need some kind of marker to remember to get to everyone (“Wait… did I go this round already? It’s been so long since I’ve gone…”). Pushier players can dominate play, always going first and/or puppeting the choices of less opinionated players (though, as discussed in the previous posts, this might not always be the worst thing).

Balsera/Popcorn

Used first in Marvel Heroic and later in various other projects including Atomic Robo, this system includes a few varying mechanics to decide who goes first and sometimes to break the order, but otherwise simply has the last player to act declare the next character to act (from a pool of characters that haven’t acted yet this round).

Strengths: This is extremely fast to set up, and has even stronger tactical play than group initiative: there’s a lot of strategy in picking an order that provides synergy to your team and disadvantages the choices of the enemies. It generally results in a natural shakeup of the action order each turn, without any randomization required.

Weaknesses: It’s very hard to do much with bonuses in this system (unless they’re constructed to allow you to seize the initiative somehow). You cannot reliably use “until your next turn” mechanics with it, as the length in between turns can be extremely variable.

Shadowrun

Superficially a Declare and Act in Order system similar to D&D, Shadowrun’s system features multiple turns within a single round as a core feature. Essentially, while basic characters will usually have an initiative result under 10, enhanced characters can easily exceed this limit (possibly getting initiatives in the 20s or even 30s). Once a full pass through in decreasing order of initiative has happened, everyone deducts 10 from their score, and those that still have a positive result get another pass for additional turns (e.g., if one character has a 22 initiative, and the rest have under 10, the 22 initiative character will go first, everyone else will go, and then the 22 initiative character will get to go twice again before the end of the round). Initiative is rerolled every round, and there are other actions that can cost initiative (making it less likely to get an additional turn).

Strengths: Shadowrun is the pinnacle of focus on how character speed grants a huge advantage due to the imitative system: it’s a really good system to advantage playing fast characters. Since each round can include multiple passes, effects that use your action but last for the remainder of the round can actually be hugely helpful if you’re going to get to go again while the effect is still active. Due to rolling each round, and the breakpoints in results that means a great initiative roll can get you an extra action beyond just a good roll, the order remains meaningful and interesting.

Weaknesses: The system is hugely time consuming and fiddly. It has all the time delay drawbacks of D&D’s initiative, and beyond. There’s a tremendous amount of bookkeeping for the GM. Effects that last for the rest of the round can matter hugely, or not at all, depending on how many actions are left.

Classic Storyteller

The Storyteller initiative mechanic, which solidified in the Revised editions and seems to be more or less intact in the 20th anniversary editions, is a Declare First, Act in Order system with reverse declaration of actions and a general intention of rerolling each round. The roll is unusual for the system: in an attempt to speed up the slowness of it all, you roll a single d10 and add your relevant traits instead of rolling a dice pool. Multiple actions (very common in most of the games) work a lot like Shadowrun, in that everyone with additional actions takes them after the first normal pass through the initiative.

Strengths: Honestly, there aren’t really a lot of pluses to this system, unless you really, really like reverse action declaration and re-randomzing each round.

Weaknesses: It’s slow and cumbersome. It is key to the system’s defensive death spiral (in that you have to sacrifice your upcoming action to try to dodge or parry an attack, which still might do a little damage, and now you don’t have an action to fight back so you really just hope you go first next round to put the enemy on the defensive). It really only works at all because combat tends to be very rare in the World of Darkness compared to D&D. And, honestly, I don’t think anyone I’ve every played with remembered that you’re supposed to reverse declare, implicitly turning it into a Declare and Act in Order system.

Fading Suns

The initiative system in Fading Suns is clearly derived from the same 90s sensibilities as Storyteller’s, but takes it in a different direction (possibly because combat was supposed to happen a lot more in the setting). Initiative is a pure comparison of whatever primary skill you’re using for the round (e.g., if you’re shooting someone, your initiative is equal to your Shoot skill), with ties broken by speed-related traits. It’s technically then a Declare and Act in Order system, except that you’ve implicitly at least made something of a declaration by choosing which skill you’re using.

Strengths: It’s almost as fast as Beyond the Wall’s system, and easy to understand, with some interesting room for variation.

Weaknesses: Practically, it’s just Beyond the Wall’s fixed initiative system: you’re almost always just going to use your best combat skill in a fight, so your initiative is going to vary extremely rarely.

The One Ring

The latest Middle Earth-themed RPG has a very straightforward and interesting initiative system: your initiative order is purely based on what “stance” you take each round (which is basically your position + intention; in order to make a ranged attack, for example, you have to take a particular stance and have party members that are taking melee stances to screen you from the enemy). Each stance has its own mechanics, so you’re picking it for tactical reasons and your initiative order just falls out of those decisions.

Strengths: Unlike most other initiative systems, there’s an extremely strong tactical component: your turn order is intimately linked to your action choice, but in a way that’s faster than typical declarations or weapon speed rules.

Weaknesses: Practically, there’s a very limited range of initiative results, so there could be some annoyance breaking ties in big fights. I don’t have enough playtest experience with this to fully understand further limitations.

One Roll Engine

An interesting variation on a Declare First system, the One Roll Engine games (e.g., Wild Talents, Better Angels, etc.) get everyone to decide what they’re trying to do, everyone rolls their actions, and then the order is determined by the results of the roll (the system generates success results with both a “width” and a “height,” so one can be used for effect and one can be used for speed). Your intended action can be invalidated by your opponent getting a faster result (taking damage tends to also damage your success total if you  haven’t acted yet).

Strengths: As far as actually simulating the chaos of a “realistic” combat, ORE’s mechanic is probably a much better model than any other system where everyone takes discrete turns. It collides intention and execution in a way that nothing else does.

Weaknesses: ORE is confusing as hell. As discussed previously, we wound up converting my Better Angels game to Savage Worlds because everyone was so baffled by the system. I suspect that it all becomes very cool if you have a group dedicated to really learning the dice paradigm and using it effectively, but that was not my group. I may try it again at some point and hope for a better result.

Savage Worlds

Speaking of Savage Worlds, its initiative system is the one that’s pretty much completely divorced from in-game traits or decisions: you draw cards from a deck each round and Declare and Act in Order from the best card to the worst (with a Joker giving you a bonus and the ability to act at any point in the round).

Strengths: Since it’s so divorced from the rest of the system, it’s probably the fastest way to re-randomize each round if that’s your bliss. It’s extremely easy to mod further to your tastes, because it’s so detached from the rest of the mechanics.

Weaknesses: It’s very detached from the rest of the mechanics. You’re not really modeling anything more than, “It’s exciting when we go in a different order every round!” It’s ultimately the epitome of randomization equaling fairness: sometimes you go first, sometimes you go last, and you’ll probably get to do both within a fairly short collection of combats.

The Rest

Most of the other games I’ve played with any regularity are very similar to one of the ones above, or are games with such little relative space devoted to combat rules that the initiative system is basically “go in the order that makes sense; if you have a disagreement, break ties this way…” Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list, and I’m interested in hearing from commenters about other games with interesting initiative mechanics.

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