Category: GM Tips

Complex Alignments

I read a lot of 5e D&D FB post. I guess I am a snob as most of what is describe as role playing sounds horrible. In a typical post of this nature, a character takes collection of random and mean actions in game justify it by saying, “I am playing an evil character….” As if this response explains it all.

My best guess is they expecting the FB readers to respond with, “Oh that is why you decided to attack your own party members after setting them up to fail so you could steal all their stuff? Nice Roleplaying!”

Some people see playing an evil character as a means being a random stupid asshole. Doing whatever they want at any given moment without thought or reason.

Playing a real and complex evil character is much more exciting and challenging. It is one of my favorite types of Heroes to play.

Before I get to my advice, I recommend the following two videos of playing evil characters and not playing a Dickish character. Both of these were created by the video blogger Guy at his site Bacon Battalion RPG. In both cases, I think Guy is right and gives solid advice.

Keeping with what Guy said, I want to introduce the Concentric Circle Alignment system for character creation. A Concentric Circle is a chart of a circle within a Circle. Apparently, this name sucks so I will call it Complex Alignments. By using this method, you can use the D&D alignment system to create more complex characters.

First off, playing the selfish evil character just doesn’t work for an RPG.

As a collective social story, excluding others from the game just by time management alone makes you a bad player. So when playing any character, it has to be a social one. Someone that can function as a group.

The best way to approach an evil Hero is to have a very narrow number of people you care about. This would include family, friends, the party, and perhaps a patron. And that is about it! The rest of the world you could all burn if it gets in your way.

Therefore, when dealing with those you do care about, be a good Hero. And as  BaconRPG suggests, be a super good character!

As it is, the D&D alignment system is inadequate and limiting. However, with a simple modification, I think it is excellent!

The modification requires you to think of alignment as a Concentric Circle chart with 3 or more circles. The circles I use are labeled as Friends, Stranger, and Enemies. You then give each circle and alignment of its own.

By doing so, you will end up making exciting and complex Heroes. And you can play evil characters who can function within a party because they are also good characters.

Let’s put this into play with building a Human Paladin who worships Bahamut.

The first version will be a by-the-book true good Paladin. So I write down my alignment as LG, LG, & LG. So in the case of Friends, Stranger, and Enemies, I am Lawful Good. This is a Hero that is true to his convictions.

In the second version, I decide I want to play a crusading Paladin. This is someone who hates the followers of a rival god. He has been fighting them and has a harder edge. Then I give him an alignment of LG, LG, & LE.



With this alignment, I am kind to everyone except for my enemies. In their case, I am still Lawful, but I am ruthless. I have no mercy for them. I will not break the law, but once judged my enemy then the gloves are off.

In the eyes of my enemies, I am an LE character. I hunt them down, burn their villages, and kill them. I am ruthless and cruel. But again, to the rest of the world, I am a super nice guy.

This Paladin might have a bad reputation in his church. He is apparently a good and kind person, but something about war brings out the worst in him. Perhaps he feels terrible about it and confesses his sins. Or he feels justified saying to the Priest, “Father, you do not understand the followers of Tiamat as I do.”

Now let’s turn to a third version of the same Paladin and make him more involved. Let’s adjust his Alignment to LG, LN, & NE.

He is still Lawful Good to his church and family. He would do anything for these people. Giving his life and soul to save them.

However, this isn’t true of the random person he meets on the street. By his nature, he follows the law, but he isn’t compassionate. He would not make a personal sacrifice for them. After all, they follow pagan gods, and therefore he really doesn’t care what happens to them. Perhaps if he were paid, he would help them.

Then against his enemies, he is Neutral Evil. This means for them there are no laws. They must be destroyed at any cost, without exception or mercy. In fact, he is cruel to them and enjoys to see them suffer. Not only would he burn their villages, but he would kill the children. It makes sense in his eyes since they will only grow up to be his enemies.

Now I get to play a more believable evil Paladin. Someone who is kind, generous and just to the party and fellow church members, but has less compassion for people as a whole. They must follow the law. Otherwise, he isn’t interested. What he is interested in is destroying his enemies in any conceivable means. The law be damned! Rules are for good people, not for those with evil hearts!

Each of these three Paladin I created would play very different, but not so different to party members. To his friends, he would take the shirt off his back to help them. Lay on track if need be. He is a Lawful Good hero.

Let’s make a second character using Complex Alignments.

I want to play an Elf that hates Dragonborn. I decided to create another circle: Friends, Stranger, Enemies, & Dragonborn. I give this Elf the following alignments: CG, NG, LE, & CE.

At first glance, she seems like a mess. But let’s dig into it.

For the people close to her, she believes that good people are worthy of trust and kindness. That there is no need for rules. Their kind hearts will guide them. For people as a whole, she sees it on a case-by-case basis.

When it comes to the bad people that are where rules are needed. These people don’t have the good in their heart to guide them. They need laws and order enforced upon them. A society needs guards and prisons. Rules are for bad people.

Lastly, there is the worst of the worst, Dragonkind. These are inherently evil. They are beyond laws. Having laws for them is pointless, they don’t have it within them. They should all be destroyed. And while she cannot kill dragons, yet. She can focus her rage on the Dragonborn.

Over time, the center circles must trump the lower Diagrams! Friends > Enemies.

This is important. Imagine a new Hero joins the party and plays a Dragonborn. Here is the trick! After a short hazing period, the Elf must shift the PC from enemy to the friend circle. In doing so, she can claim to have found one of the few good ones. And then she now uses the PC Dragonborn to further justify her hatred. “If only they were all like you, but they are not!”

Using Complex Alignment creates complex Hero that are constant in their view. It allows a Hero to be both good and evil. Lawful and chaotic.


5e D&D Don’t steal from Classes: Adding Flavor and Special Effects.

A theme of questions I keep seeing DMs ask is about adding mechanics to a character. Often this comes because of the Hero’s in-game choices. Many times, not having any idea of how to balance these mechanics, they end up stealing them from another classes. Time and time again, I feel the same answers applies to each situation.

Here is an example from my own gaming at a local store. A new player to the group created a Bard. He asked me the following question:

Player: “Because of my Bard’s backstory I was hoping he could fight with two weapons.”

I said, “Sure of course. You can do that.”

He then asked, “Great. What is the mechanic I use?”

I said, “None. But you can fight with two weapons.”

He was confused, “But I should get a bonus otherwise what is the point?”

Me: “I thought it was about role-playing?”

What is the point? Much of this goes back to a post a while back about Wanting +1s. But I want to expand on this a little more.

First off, not everything we do in life is optimized. Not every skill we have is at the best.

His Bard can “fight” with two weapons. His Bard can feel like it gives him an advantage. To him, fighting “twin” could be what he thinks is the best way to fight. But many of our beliefs are really false assumptions. Sometimes they are even a liability or limitation. If he really wants to fight with two weapons because of a role-playing choice, then why does he need a mechanical bonus?

I get these questions all the time. So my answer to most of these questions is “Yes you can!”

Can my wizard wear chainmail? “Yes!”

Can my Rogue I have a pet wolf that fights with me? “Yes!

Can my Barbarian use an axe with two different axe heads? “Yes!”

Then it is always, “What is the advantage?”

Me: “None.”

Game Design

The classes, feats, items, skills, abilities, spells, etc… are nothing but a series of Flavor and Mechanics. If you start to give mechanics from one class to another, you are creating imbalances in the game.

A recent post I read was about a Barbarian with a trained wolf and a Ranger with their Animal Companion. By allowing the Barbarian an Animal Companion (he called it an NPC wolf), he is taking away from the Ranger class. In the design of the classes, they assigned a value to the Animal Companion. And while this value might not be perfect, it is apart of their balancing equation. Better not to mess with it.

Note: If you think the Ranger or Barbarian class is too weak and you are making a homebrew choice to fix it then this is another issues. I say more power to you. But making a balancing choice is not what I am talking about here.

The Fighter has a two weapon option. It is apart of their class balance. If I give it to a Bard, I am taking away from the Fighter. The Fighter become less special and less effective compared to both the Bard and other classes.

But if the bard gets gain nothing for using two weapons, then all the Fighter loses is some Flavor. The Fighter is a bad-ass with two weapons and the Bard thinks he is a bad-ass with two weapons. This is a great place for some role playing fun and no imbalance is created.

The last key to all of this is the narrative. While I personally rarely give narrative for minor attack results, when I do give the flavor I take into account their flavor choices. So if the twin weapon fighting Bard hits and does 2 damage, then it can be with his off-weapon. When he does a critical hit, he can hit with both weapons doing massive damage.

A lot of times characters want to train and pick up skills for the other characters and NPCs they meet. Great! If the Rogue has been training with the Monk and now wants to punch with his off-hand attack; sounds great. In narration, when the damage roll low I can say his attack was a punch.

The Wizard in Chainmail, does not get any improvements to his Armor Class. He isn’t wearing it effectively. It is uncomfortable, gets in the way, and the enemy finds it easy to get around it. But sure, he can wear it for role-playing reasons. It can make him feel safer.

Lessons from Champions!

Hero Systems Champions the Super Hero Game introduced me to the concept of Special Effects. In that game, you buy an Energy Blast as your attack. Say you bought a 8d6 Energy Blast attack. Then when you hit, you would do 8d6 damage. That was the game mechanics.

Then there was the Flavor of the attack. You got to choose that yourself. It could have a fireball, ice blast, wind attack, summoning a giant fist, sonic, etc. These special effects on occasion could come into play. If you said it was ice attack and the villain is immune to ice damage, then you are out of luck. But in most cases, the flavor was just the flavor.

I believe Savage World is built on the same general concept.

I apply the concept of Flavor to Dungeon and Dragons. I try to leave the mechanics alone and let the flavor be the flavor.

So next time they want to have their Bards fight with two weapons, say “Cool! Sounds good to me.” Then wait for the next question that always follows…

Update: Several people pointed out that 5e does have a mechanic for 2 weapon fighting outside of Fighters and Rogues. So I do have that to use. However, this was not the point. They player knew these rules. He was hoping for something extra. They are always looking for those +1 and other bonuses. Solve a lot of these issues by treating them as flavor is my point.

RPG: Expanding on Last Minute Rolls in 5e D&D.

More on Last Minute Rolls!

A while ago, I wrote a post on my style of waiting till the Last Minute on skill rolls. It was one of my more popular posts, so I thought I would give more examples of how I use it in game play.

Last week, I GMed two different groups in 5e D&D. Both were 1-shots with the hope of starting a new campaign. Both of the stories were in the same area, using the same themes, and involved a lot of Gnolls.

During play, they would often need to make SURVIVAL rolls. While on occasion, I would have a roll made by the Ranger just to see how well they were navigating the wilderness, most of the rolls I waited until something was going to happen. One failed roll told them they were lost and had traveled a day on the wrong trail.

Another roll was to avoid an encounter while they were taking a long rest. I didn’t have them roll to find a good camping spot, that was a given. But in the middle of the long rest, they rolled to dodge a Gnoll patrol.

The best example of the Last Minute roll that jumps out to me was a STEALTH check one of the players needed to make. They were at the base of some ruins where a Gnoll Shaman had made her hideout. The Paladin wanted to climb up from the dry moat and do some scouting.

Since they had debated in Real Time for a while on this plan, I wanted the Paladin to succeed in getting the information. Seriously, sometimes PCs are so timid it gets tiring. Anyhow, he wanted to see what was in the ruin’s courtyard before traveling up the road.

So I just allowed it. It was a win-win as player and GM. Since I view the PCs as Heroes and not Clowns, I let a lot of actions happen. He climbed up some stones and peeked around the fallen tower to get a look into the courtyard. There he saw the Shaman and some Kolbolts. He got the information he needed and then wanted to return to the party.

Now for the rolls!

See before, if I had him roll to climb and sneak about failure would have stopped the story. And there would have been no good consequences. If he had failed either the ATHLETICISM or STEALTH rolls it would have been a lose-lose. They still would have been stuck on what to do, and nothing interesting would have happened from a failed roll. Sure I could always go for some cheap laugh and have him fall or split his pants like some GM, but that is not my style. That is the PCs are Clowns style.

But now, while he is trying to stealth away, a roll is all sorts of win. In this case, he failed his stealth roll. I had several of the Kolbolts run at him.

He now had to hurry down the rocks, making for a more interesting ATHLETICISM roll. He did well on this roll, so escaped. I let the Kolbolts throw rocks. In the end, he took 2 damage from a stone. But now there was some tension. Dice were rolling. He was concern. There could have been dire consequences for him.

Now that they knew what was going on, they decided to go for a frontal attack. This strategy meant they would have to go up the raised road. Halfway up, the Kolbolts had their battleground picked.

The Paladin asked to check for traps. I told him it was all clear. I later told him that “checking for traps” was a meaningless statement in my game.

He then charged forward to attack. Guess what, it was a trap! I had him make an INVESTIGATION roll as he closed the distance. He made the roll, so I gave him Advantage to dodge the boulders the Kolbolts push down on him.

At one point in the story, they found some fishing traps left by some Barbarian Elves. The elves had decided to attack them. Instead of making rolls to see if they saw them sneaking up, I waited until the last moment. Then I gave PERCEPTION roll to prevent surprise. This type of Last Minute roll is normal by GM everywhere. But often they will add an earlier roll to spot them sneaking up in the first place. I often remove this rollout because it will often create meta.

As I plan out the next session, I look at how I am going to handle expected rolls.

Obviously, nothing goes as planned. But even so, I all the time am looking at the framing to get the roll at the Last Minute.

They will need to make a sacrifice to an angry god. I will just assume they will have an idea of how to do it without a Religion roll. But once they make the sacrifice, then have a RELIGION roll to see if it was correct. The first roll a lot of GMs give, prevents the roll with consequences. Allow the characters to make assumptions!

They are going to find some mirrors that give some knowledge. Instead of having rolls to understand it, I am going to tell them they do so. But then while using it, then comes the ARCANE roll. But on a bad roll, it will go directly to Death Saves. I will give Advantage to the Death Saves so the chance of dying will be slim to none. Sounds harsh, right! Story tension. Three Death Saves with Advantage is less than 2% of death.

They will come upon a puzzle trap. Once of the Hero has already found some clues in an old scrolls to disarm it. I will tell him that once he read the scrolls, disarming is easy. But after disarming it, and then opening the seal, I will have him roll to succeed on the Disarm roll (with Advantage). Not a roll before he opens to see if he succeeds, but after opening. See the different?

I plan for them to take a raft across a short waterway, only to have it become a dangerous trip in the middle. I will skip all rolls until it becomes dangerous. On a bad roll, they will have to jump to some stones. I plan to have these jumps not need a roll. But later they will have to jump off the stones to safety. These will require rolls.

Lastly, they will get into a fight with a living and dangerous statue. I plan for only then will they make the PERSUASION roll. I think I will wait until the creature is at half damage. So they will say, I try to Persuade it. I will get how, some role-playing, then it attacks. Once they do 25 damage to it, I will then have the Persuasion roll made. If successful, it will stop fighting. I do not do this with all NPCs, but in this case, I already know how it will go down.

I guess, one thing I do different that many GMs is I assume competence and the belief of competence in the Heroes.

Faster 5e Turn Order / Initiative system

For the last three weeks, I have been playing 5e at a local game store. My 8-year old son wanted to try the game, so I joined it for him. Now instead of DM, I play with him.

In the gaming group, there are several other kids. I have to say, I am quite proud of my son’s behavior. He pays attention to the action and story. While he does little role-playing, his focus is the battles.

I feel the current Initiative system bogs down the game.

The more I play 5e, the more I don’t like the Initiative system. Although it does have some positive attributes, overall, it breaks the game flow when going into combat. It feels like the game has shifted from one game to another.

I have also noticed that 5e has made the players’ turns more complex. In general, too much of 5e is waiting around to do something. And since I do not optimize my turn, my turns go fast while others go slow.

It seems to me that since it takes much longer to get to a players’ turn, lots of players working hard just to do stuff. The spotlight in on them and they know it is going to be a while before it returns to them. So they scramble to come up with something to do.

Age of Swords System

In play testing Age of Swords, I have been playing around with simultaneous rounds. With the monsters and the players all attacking at the same time, I have found it really speeds up the game. Often I resolve all the monster actions and then let the players go. But it is all happening at the same time in the game. Turn order is no longer important.

5e System Idea

If I was to make a change to 5e, I would shift it more towards this style of Initiative. Here is what I am thinking. I am interested in what people think of this hybrid-system.

At the start of combat, I would have everyone make an Initiative DC check against the enemies Initiative score. The default being DC 12. In this way, I would never take away from a good roll by a player. The results of the roll would be labeled as either Fast (Success) and Slow (Fail).

While this is almost the same as the current system (everyone stopping to roll) there is no accounting involved. The characters are now grouped into those that go before the monsters and those that go after.

Turn Order

  • Fast
  • Monsters
  • Slow

Then I would add the following, simple mechanic. As an Action, at the start of your turn end your turn. You change your Turn Order group.

It is my hope to play test this simple system in the near future. While I don’t think it would solve all the problems, I think it could help to speed things up a bit. And without the DM having to micro-manager the Turn Order.

With using this system, the people in the different groups then take their turn in whatever order they choose. If there is a conflict, the GM can choose to let those with the faster Initiative bonus go first. One of the first things people have said when they hear of this system is they think the players will always be challenging Turn Order, but in my play-testing it hasn’t happened.

Please let me know your thought or if you even try this system. At my son’s gaming group, I might be DMing soon. If it happens, I will test it out for myself.

Power Gamers in 5e and Pathfinder! What to Do about them?

The Power Gamer: I read about them all the time. For most of my life, I have been lucky to avoid them. The last two store games I have joined, I have encountered them. Now, it feels like they are everywhere.

In both encounters, they had these insane builds making their characters powerful beyond their level. They both had unique custom magic items that were broken. More importantly, both these two young men had the same air about them.

They played the same way. They wanted to kill everything, never take damage, and argue DM rulings. Their idea of role-playing was to boast how powerful they were. Every role-playing moment was short lived as they started combat almost immediately.

And in both cases, I had the same response.

I turned my characters into a coward. I refused to help in battle. My time was spent trying to make every encounter into a role-playing one.

Even in combat, I would role play. My turns were used by running around trying to talk the monsters into surrendering or retreating. In some cases, I would be apologizing for the attack on the other party members. I would be responding to the horrors that I saw. I never made an attack.

Perhaps my position is the immature one. After all, I am the outsider joining “their” games. In both occasions, the DM found my activities refreshing. The other players started to get involved with my role-playing. And in both cases, the Power Gamer tried hard to turn it back into a wargame.

And I want to point out, with the Power Gamer entirely in charge of the party my lack of participation changed nothing. Every fight was easy for them. My involvement would have meant nothing. Perhaps they would have taken 5 less damage. To me, whatever. But to them, it pissed them off. It feels like 5 HP loss is losing to them.

As an experienced GM, I feel I just put a stop to them right away.

One way is I remove multi-classing and feats from the game. Both of these are the primary source of their power increase. They are looking for micro-imbalances in the game to exploit. In combination, these imbalances can become monstrous. One of them was making the two hand-crossbow attacks. While most of the other characters were +6 to hit with 1 attack, he was +8 with 2 strikes. I am not sure how, but he was rolling 4 dice for damage.

Another way I limited them is to make everyone use a point buy. Both of these Power Gamers had 1 in a million stats. It’s amazing how half of all characters out there are a 1 in a million shot on stats. I have made a few of these characters in my youth. Now it is all point buys.

Lastly, I don’t argue the rules during play. I make my rulings, I will hear a moment of a case against it, and them tell them to talk to me afterward. In one of the games, I played there was at least a 10-minute argument over a ruling. The GM changed his verdict even after more than half the table said he was right (me including). It was clear the Power Gamer wasn’t going to stop until he got his ruling.

One thing I have always done when I GM is to put in the occasional suicidal encounter. I try to make it evident. The purpose is that it forces them to run away or find another way out. In this way, in the back of their minds, they are always looking and judging if they can take a fight.

I had players complain about this idea.

He asked, “Why would you ever have a fight we couldn’t win?”

To which I asked, “Why did you think that was a fight?”

One time, I described basically Godzilla attacking and everyone running away. A 3rd level character ran up and struck it. Godzilla stomped on him, and he was dead. The player was shocked.

This might be a bit off topic, but I notice that in RPG there is little role-playing the epic escape. Almost all action movies, there are times the Hero is trying to flee from overwhelming odds. There is this mentality that every encounter should be a fight, and the Adventurers should win it.

I think removing the Heroic escape from the game is denying another exciting way to interact with the world as a player and GM. And it is a perfect trap for the Power Gamer placed in the story.

As a Player, my goal with Power Gamers is to show the other players at the table that there is another way to play. I doubt anything I do or will change the Power Gamer’s minds. To me, the battle is to reach the rest of the table. If the other players become more interested in playing the full game, and not just combat, then I think the Power Gamer will leave.

What I am not interested in is trying to compete with them. I have no interest in playing the Power Gamer’s game. In my years, I have played some powerful characters. But I never got there by power gaming.

I know I am not alone in how much I find the Power Gamer destructive to playing an RPG. I would really like more input and advice on how to deal with them as both a GM and player. Anyone with some ideas, please commit or email.
I plan to update this in the future!