Category: World Design

Money for Potions

I have been creating a series of potions and other items for my game. I love single effect items like potions because allow the players to tactically when to use them and it gives them more options on how to spend their money. And unlike a +2 sword or a ring of power, it is hard for a 1-2 use item from breaking a campaign.

So I have been posting each item on Reddit. This allows me to get excellent feedback on their power levels, effect, and even wording. I think once I have enough of these, I might publish them for a buck or two at one of the 5e sites.

Please introduce these into your game and let me know how they work for you!

Here are links to the items I am posting.

Potions. I am exploring with different types of potions. Some are poured instead of drank!

Shard. These are new items of my design. They are crystal wands that are snapped for a magical effect. Then there is a chance the shard reforms. Basically they are 1-4 usage items.

Items. I want more items especially those that break!


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.

Planning out a Campaign

A reader asked me how I organize for a campaign. Here are some thoughts on the subject.

When I start a new campaign, I ask myself if there is a story I want to tell. Often times, there is a theme or a part of my world I want to explore. I feel this is the place to start because finding something that interests me helps to stop GM burnout. After all, I am the person who will be putting the most work into the campaign. The quality of what I produce will be improved if I am interested in the subject matter. That is just a fact of life.

Once I have my grand vision, I try to figure out how to do it in a way that is most inclusive to players and the characters they might want to play. I do not want the scope of the story to be too narrow, as this can lead to railroading.

For example, my next campaign will be about a revolutionary war. My vision is to have the adventurers be local heroes who rise to overthrow the king. While not every session needs to progress this story forward, the theme of revolution will start from session one.

Once I have the general story idea, I then make a quick broad stokes outline of it.

The following are notes for this running. I plan to set it in the city of Avalon. When I designed Wild World, the Five Crown empire had a few cities not given a ruling crown. This means they are rules by distant kings. I always imagined this would cause injustice. Avalon is a central city in the empire that does not have their own representation. In fact, their king’s castle is 600 miles to the north and is culturally and religiously different.

In this outline, all the NPC names are placeholders.

  1. The PC are recruited to stop local gnome bandits.
  2. While fighing the bandits, they discover the local sheriff is corrupt and causing the hardship.
  3. They eventually fight against the sheriff becoming local heroes.
  4. A lord (JFK) in Avalon take interest in them. Hires them to fight against corruption in the city.
  5. As they fight the corruption, they find it goes back to the lords of the city.
  6. JFK’s advisor (Sam Adams) teaches the Adventures about the evils the King’s second (Wormtongue).
  7. Wormtongue becomes the main villain and source of all the city’s problems.
  8. JFK is arrested. Adams gives the Adventures several adventures to help in his release and to fight Wormtongue’s minions.
  9. They defeat Wormtongue.
  10. Expecting change, the King promotes another terrible person to rule over the city. Nothing has changed.
  11. They get to do some other missions but when they return, discover Avalon is worst off than when it was controlled by Wormtongue.
  12. In this transition period is when they come to suspect that it is the King is really evil.
  13. JFK is freed. He gives the Adventures a blueprint for revolution against the king.
  14. On an adventure, they learn of a true heir to the throne. The King’s claim is illegitimate.
  15. JFK is killed.
  16. Sam Adams give the characters a mission to bring proof of the kings illegitimate claim to the throne.
  17. Sam Adams dies around the time the Party is introduced to the idea of a Republic.
  18. Lots of adventuring of getting the heir.
  19. The heir doesn’t want the crown.
  20. Perhaps some building up of allies against the king.
  21. At some point, there needs to be war in Avalon. Rebels in the hills.
  22. End Game: What happens? A revolution. Will they force the heir to be king?
  23. Party does their plans until they win. Lots of fights against the King.
  24. In the end either they die as martyrs, win with a new king, or are the founding fathers of a Republic.

The beats here can last for weeks, months, or even years of gaming. It starts with the adventures forced into a role, but as they level they have more latitude on their approach. Notice all the big NPCs die midway through the story, another trick I’m often using.

My next step would be to place limitations on the players during startup. Again, I am thinking as broad and inclusive as possible. But to make this work, I would ask for characters that are from Avalon, have family and friends there, and are basically good.

In my world, Avalon is home to humans, gnomes, and dwarves so that would be the majority of the party. If the group is large enough, would allow for one non-core race. If I allowed too many different races, the party could lose connection with Avalon. I think I would exclude elves and orcs, as I plan on using them as villains.

Planning out the night

I have learned that it is hard to get through 5 story beats in an evening. I try to have it in what I call the Hourglass style. So I plan out some key moments and I outline some Sandbox ideas. I have places I hope to get the characters to go, but I do not rush to get them there. If I need them to discover something and they fail to do so, I don’t panic. I let them explore where they want to go, and I try to find carrots to bring them back to the story. I rarely use sticks.

In this running, my first session would start with a small town. There was a robbery and the Adventures are apart of the posse out to bring justice. They discover a nearby gnome town are the source of the bandits and fight them. While doing so, they discover that the gnomes are suffering because of a corrupt tax collector. Perhaps they end up helping the gnomes, which brings them to the JFK or Adam NPC (is Adam a gnome? sure sounds good).

I try to work in outlines. In this way, I can be flexible.

Here is my outline for the first night.

  1. Town’s hardware store was robbed.
  2. Party joins the posse and is offered a reward.
  3. Battle with Gnomes.
  4. They learn the Gnomes are hard up because of a corrupt tax collector.
  5. Does party fight the tax collector? Tries to get the local lord to help?
  6. Meets Sam Adams, (Mr. Billhook) local Gnome who tells them about the corruption.
  7. Discovers how corrupt lord. Fights him, tax collector.
  8. The lord sends men to arrest the party. Fight? Flee? Outlaws?

That seems like a good starting point. The Heroes are trying to be Heroes and do the right thing. They discover the local’s tax collector is the bad guy. A Robin Hood starting point. I like the idea of them end the night as outlaws.

I would see where the players take the adventure before outlining too much of the next session. Perhaps they only get to a few of the beats of the above outline. Before the next game night, I would work on the next half dozen beats.

Meanwhile, I write content for the campaign. I write “random” encounters. I work out missions, areas they could explore, and history. I want to explore Avalon, the kingdom, and what a revolution looks like. This gets to be apart of my fun. I get to write about a subject I am interested in developing.

Player Revolt

This used to be a problem. Players are not used to being confined to an area or topic. As a GM, I am saying do what you want as long as it is on this subject matter and in this area. To some, that seems oppressive. It isn’t.

One way to help with this is not to have everything progress the main story. Have some sub-plots happen. Best if these come from the characters and not you.

However, if the players suddenly decide they want to travel to the other side of the world to become sea pirates, well I might just say “OK, they do that.” But I might not be on board to GM that story. I have learned that ends up making DM burnout. Hey, some GMs are cool with 100% sandbox. I am not.

The End of Session

Lastly as wrapping, I ask the players where they think they are going next. In this way, I can plan out the next 5-7 beats on that direction. This brings up the overall quality of my content while still allowing them to direct the story.

So this is a quick and dirty write-up of how I prepare for my game.

Teleportation No More.

A decade ago, I decided to remove teleportation and gates from my world.

Plane shifting still exists but is rare and is fixed to locations. For example, under a mountain range known as the Echo, some of the caverns there lead to Hell. These caves are one of the few means of traveling to the realm of Hell.

By making this adjustment to what the Heroes can do, I have made my homebrew world feel remarkably larger. By forcing Heroes to travel, often by ship, it has made the subject matters of my stories more local.

I know this style of local story based campaigns is not what all GMs want. I have played in good D&D games where Heroes feels like jet-setters “flying” all over the world. We would have sessions where the party teleport from city-to-city solving global problems. There is no doubt this can be fun.

However, I feel something gets lost in those types of global stories. Counties become abstract ideas. Often, the party never steps foot outside of the palaces. Whole countries get reduced to a few buildings and NPCs who the Heroes repeatedly visit.

My taste is the local stories. When the Heroes are helping a village, a city, or a nation. Often they begin the campaign in a region and never end up stray too far from it. My stories are designed so that the Heroes never have to travel the world to take part in them.

Even when I am running a Sandbox style game, because they need to travel by sea to get anywhere far, they often explore where that start. It isn’t always guaranteed. But even when the Heroes do travel, they often find someplace to build their roots.

One day, I decided to create a new world. While doing so, I thought I would try something different. My new world would be base on naval power. But then I was thinking about teleportation. After all, at some point, all travel becomes pointless in standard campaigns. The party teleports everywhere. Then I had a thought, remove teleportation. So I gave it a try.

Removing Teleportation and Gates have been the best world design decision I have ever made.

When I look at many of my favorite novels: LOTR and the Belgariad, they did not have teleportation in them. In fact, numerous books I love there is no teleportation. I enjoyed books that also have teleportation in them, just as I have liked some D&D campaigns with it.

But after playing my world for nearly a decade, I have concluded that removing teleportation is the way to go. If you are making your world, I would suggest you remove it. You will find your world will suddenly become so much larger.

Note: One minor adjustment I have made is to add a few additional powerful Blink type spells. At the highest levels, these can travel a few miles. So the Villain and Heroes can still Blink away if need be. I recognize that is something I still want to have in the game.

Current Running

I thought I would share my current campaign for Age of Swords. This is set in my world setting of the Wildworld.

This campaign serves as a playtest for version 4 of the game. I am now working on version 5. I try not to change rules mid playtest, but I learned a lot out of this running. So I might have them convert the Heroes to version 5.

I had the players start at level 1. They have been rapidly advancing in level. It is a group of seven players, but on average four players, a session can make it. At this point, the Heroes range from level 5 to 2. These level range because of missed sessions and deaths. Two Heroes have died, and their replacements started at Level 1.

The Backstory

The Heroes begin in the Summerland territory. Until two hundred years ago, this area was apart of the Seagod Kingdom. The northern region of the kingdom started to convert to the Music god. This eventually lead to a civil war known as the Brinestone Revolt. At the end of the revolt, the nation had two breakaway regions. Summerland was one of those regions and became a federation of city-states united by their faith in the Music God.

Then 180 years after their independence, the eastern Five Crown Empire invaded by sea. Summerland quickly fell. It is now a colonial state of the Empire.

With shifts in political power and trade, Summerland has been having booms and busts economies as different cities and region adjust to the far away whims of the Empire. The land is under the control of four governors who plot for Imperial favors.

The Railroad Part of the Story Beginning:

The Heroes began as people of Mayway Valley, a district of Summerland that has suffered under Imperial rule due to their traditional trade routes being made obsolete.

Each player got to choose their race. I did ask for them to be a diverse party, so everyone picked different classes. As some of the players have since died, their new Heroes do have some overlaps in race and class. I haven’t cared, I just wanted them to start off on sound footing.

All of my runnings, I give the players some character background restriction. In this case, I gave them the following:

  1. They needed to play disenfranchised people of the Mayway Valley. Coming from a poor family or families that have lost their wealth.
  2. Each needed to be someone who would willingly travel to Pe’dock in the hopes of a better life.

These restrictions are not too severe. But they force the party to have similar backgrounds and motivations. They are playing poor people seeking to better their lives. Some of the players started off knowing each other, while others were traveling by themselves.

There was only one Hero that I had to work extra to get into the party, but then he was the first to die. And in the second battle! When a Level 1 Hero gets 4 hits in a round, it is hard for him to survive it.

So at Level 1, the Heroes were stragglers of a Dwarven caravan traveling to the city of Pe’dock. Pe’docks promise of prosperity and jobs thanks to the Empire expanding the harbor. The road to Pe’dock was once a lifeline of the Summerland Federation. Now it is forgotten. The Empire is a naval power, and all trade is now by sea.

The Plotted Adventure Begins:

On the way to Pe’dock, the Dwarven caravan was attacked by goblins. The party got separated from the Dwarves who march on ahead. With a member of the party poisoned, they retreated to a village they had passed days before.

The villagers healed them. They told the Heroes that the goblins invaded their forest a year ago. Since then twelve of the villagers have died. They have suffered because they traditionally hunt the forest for food. The town passed around a collection plate and offered them the puny award for their help. The party agreed to help the village and started their war on the goblins of the forest.

After a couple of fights against the goblins, the Goblin Chief wanted to talk to them. The goblins were only in the forest because a Mage has displaced them from there bog. The Goblin Chief promised a treasure of stolen Dwarven weapons and armor if the party would get rid of the Mage so they could return home.

The party followed the goblin instructions and traveled to a lost temple in a bog. There they fought the minions of an Echo Mage until they came to an agreement with him.

The Mage had been stuck here for a year. In a secret dungeon under the temple, his Imp companions had betrayed him. Now, the Imps were trapped inside, but he could not get to them. Perhaps the party could… so the party made a deal.

He promised them the loot of the temple if he could just get an item of the spoils. It was agreed. The party entered the dungeon and killed the Imps. They had a fortune in gold treasure! But then the Mage betrayed.

Years Later… So Starts the Fox Hunt style adventure.

One of the party members “woke up.” He was being tortured by some Nagas over a piece of treasure he had pocketed in the dungeon. He escaped and came to realize that for the last three years, his memory and personality had been wiped. With his memory and energy restore, he remembers the Echo Mage betrayal.

He then found the other party members and woke them up too. Now the party is on a mission to get revenge on the Mage and get their treasure back.

My GM Notes on the Story Structure.

Okay, the evil Mage betraying the party is an old troupe. But I feel it is a good foundation for this story. The party is well motivated to get their revenge. It allows me to Hourglass this story building it around their desire for revenge. I do have a story I want to explore. I know they are on board because their goal is to kill the Mage.

Like most of my campaigns, I Railroad the first 1 or 2 hours to get the party on the tracks and then step back. That is how I did this one too. They were mainly running a module I wrote for the first session. The first battle was wholly scripted, and the whole session was well thought out. All the way to the Mage betraying them was somewhat planned. They threw out some surprises, but since they were going monster killing and treasure hunting it was simple to adjust.

Now that they are on a Fox Hunt, I just sit back. It is a Sandbox where their goals are clearly defined. So while they do their actions against the Mage, the players are discovering parts of the story I plan to end the adventure arc on. It is building up. It involves the Mage’s upcoming revolt against the Empire using the Nagas as pawns.

The Mage has a bunch of Sharkniod minions. These are a cross between a frog and a shark. They do a lot of damage but are not too hard to take out. Two party members did come close to dying while fighting them, so they work well as a threat. This has allowed me to get some fights in with this new creature I have designed and adding to my world. There is a whole area of the map they will infest.

The party has learned that the city of Pe’dock was built on the ruins of an ancient Naga city. And that below the city, there are tunnels that the Naga still live in. They have made an ally with a Naga Prince, but do not really know the full scope or power of the Naga. I hope to get them more involve with the Naga in the future. I have some ideas, but it will be interesting to see if they bite on it.

Nagas are also being added to my world. They will play a more serious role as a significant villain in future stories, so another chance to playtest them out.

They do know that the Mage is using an element he found in the temple to create an item to control the Naga. It is a repeat of the device he uses to control the Sharknoids. They believe that with this army, he hopes to take over the region.

They have also learned that the Mage is well connected and a personal friend of the Governor. So they know the local government is on the side of the Mage.

The Location is Important to me as a GM.

All of this adventuring has taken place within one month travel of the city of Pe’dock. They have visited two local villages, becoming friends with one and enemies of another. They have explored a jungle temple and even returned there later to gather more information.

Keeping the story and adventuring locally is crucial to me. I want to flush out this part of my world. And the best way to do this is to have a party adventure in it. They have already discovered the lore of a forgotten god, origins of some monsters, and the political dynamics of the city-state.

They have been both friends and enemies of the local goblin tribe. In the sewers of the city, they have discovered new enemies and friends. They have had interactions with the provincial governor and some Imperial agents.

I hope that the entire story arc takes places in this region. On a few occasion, they have plotted to go to Summerland and the Kingdom of the Seagod in hopes to find the Mage’s family. If they did this, it would not be a disaster but would not further the adventure.

They have also talked about making the long trip to the Five Crown Empire. This would also be a waste of time. I am afraid they might make this trip. If they do, it might put a wrinkle in the story, and I will have to adjust for it.

Currently in the Running

The party was able to kill the Mage in a battle but then discovered that it was an Echo Clone. Early they had encountered an Echo Clone, but it didn’t really click with them that he had them out in the world. They know the Mage has a powerful amulet, so they are sure that when they kill the real Mage, they can identify them by this item.

The party has been able to steal a key component in the Mage’s plans. They have learned that he is out in the wilds forging his item. They have been trying to figure out the best tactic to use having this item against him. Some want to attack him during the forging while others think they should wait.

Next Time

It will be interesting to see what they choose to do next time we play. My group bounces back and forth between two GM because we have such busy lives.

I missed a session two weeks ago, so they moved forward with another story that has been running for a while. This other story has been a long drawn campaign. I am in no rush to get back to my running as I have more work to do on version 5. When it is ready, we will switch back and hopefully finish this adventure arc.