Friday, 17 October 2014

7 things I learned from DMing my first Roll20 game

The BEST resource for those who do not keep a DM and 3 other players chained in their basement.

What ho, Adventurers!

Recently I decided to take the plunge and run a Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition game on Roll20. I've been using Roll20 as a player for about six months, and have been blown away by what a tremendous free resource this is for RPG players. I've heard it said that we are living in a golden age for tabletop RPGs, and between Roll20, the OSR, the plethora of PDFs available, and now the awesome D&D Fifth Edition, I am certainly inclined to agree. That said, I was still finding that there never seemed to be the exact game I wanted at the exact time I wanted (SO picky, I know!) 

I decided the best way to solve the problem was to just run my own darn game, when I wanted and how I wanted. How hard could it be, right? 

Here's the summary of what what I found out from my experience, presented as 7 items in no particular order:
  1. Use the resources they give you. In the games I played in before running my own, I found I sometimes felt like a slave to the built in character sheet. I couldn't really see the calculations being used on my rolls, and I constantly had a sneaking suspicion things weren't working correctly. I decided when it came time for my own game, it would be pure dice rolls, no templates or anything. In practise, I was allowing room for a LOT of human error. The way around this is to use macros. You can set them up in advance, and the calculations are visible to everyone. I've seen experienced DMs with very elaborate macros laid out. They do this for a reason - it's the most likely way to get a correct result. It also speeds up play considerably, and when you're in the game, every second counts.
  2. Use your time in advance wisely. The main difference between DMing in person, and DMing using Roll20 is not only are you running the game, you're also running the Roll20 interface. This can sometimes lead to awkward situations that slow down gameplay as you load tokens, configure initiative, transfer maps, enable hidden journal entries, and so on. ANYTHING of this nature you can do in advance will be well worth it when the game is underway. You'll be able to focus on your players, and not your computer.
  3. Book extra players.  Roll20 users are the best people on earth. They are funny, smart, patient and able to bring more life into a simple pre-gen than you ever would have believed possible. They are also PEOPLE. They will on occasion get suddenly busy, be generally confused about dates and times, have sudden emergencies, or just flake out. You need to have backup players, and backups for the backups. The good news is there is always SOMEONE looking for a game. If you're in a pinch you can probably find a player ready to go in about 15 minutes. Did I mention Roll20 is awesome? It's because of the community as much as the technology.
  4. Get ready for the avalanche! I've heard it jokingly said that on Roll20 the ratio of players to DMs is 100-0. While its obviously not that bad, there are a lot more players than DMs, and thus there are a lot of people who will want to play in your game. Most will probably not have much experience, and may not have headsets or other technical specs necessary, especially if you're using voice. Try to be kind and point them in the right direction, and if possible don't get too frustrated with the sometimes strange requests. Yes, you may be three hours into your adventure and people are still asking to join your game, but that's the price of popularity.
  5. Get your voice or chat option running as smoothly as possible. It's the nature of online gaming that voice chat is something you're going to need to deal with. Most games are going to use it, and that means players need a headset/mike setup of some sort. There is a voice option native to roll20, but most people prefer other options. Google Hangouts are a popular choice, as is Skype. These are free, but sometimes suffer from sound quality and latency issues. Teamspeak and Mumble require a hosted server, but give a higher quality of sound. I was able to get a hosted Mumble server for under $2 a month, so we're not talking a huge expense here. If possible do a sound check a few hours before the game starts. It's very sad for someone to be stuck doing text chat only in a voice game.
  6. Use the built in sound player to add immersion to your game. You've got a group of people you're trying to draw into a fictional world, and they're all wearing HEADSETS. It would be crazy not to use some awesome audio to help paint the picture. Roll20 has a great built in function that lets you search Soundcloud for music and sounds, and plays them for anyone logged into the game. You can play several at once to create layers, adjust audio levels to keep everything in balance, and loop infinitely if you so desire. My favourite was adding a thumping heartbeat just a hair above inaudible. A cheap trick maybe, but really effective at adding tension.
  7. If you are considering running a game on Roll20, do it NOW! It will be exhilarating, frustrating, hilarious, tragic, and leave you sweating profusely and grinning ear to ear. I did just about everything wrong humanly possible, and still had an absolutely fantastic time. My players even said they would like to play again. To me, that counts as a total victory, and I'm sure you will do even better!
If you are interested in how the game went, you can view the actual play video:

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Adventures into Darkness Dungeons & Dragons Actual Play Episode One


What ho, Adventurers!

We are proud to present the first episode of what we hope to be a long running series. These games are played online using the very fine and FREE service provided by, and using the fantastic fifth edition ruleset for Dungeons and Dragons. Of course, we use the rule variants outlined in this blog to up the challenge for our players, and also to keep more in line thematically with a more low magic and spooky campaign style,

This first adventure will span four episodes, with more coming hot on their heels. 


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Critical spell failures and wild magic in D&D 5E

What the !? I was trying to cast summon ham sandwich...

What ho, Adventurers! Sometimes you want magic to be freewheeling and frivolous. And sometimes you want it to be frightening, dangerous, and unpredictable for everyone involved, especially the spellcaster. 

While the D&D 5e Players Handbook  does include a large D100 chart of wild magic misfire effects, they are not very complimentary to a more gritty campaign. The best example would be the effect if you roll a 41-42 "You turn into a potted plant." I like Douglas Adams as much as the next guy, but this isn't really going to reinforce any feelings of dread and menace in my players.

For my upcoming campaign, I want every spell cast to have a chance of horrible consequences. Magic is a dangerous thing, and those who use it often wind up twisted creatures to be feared and loathed. Thus for every spell cast, even automatic effect spells with no roll such as the ubiquitous Light spell, you roll a d20. If you roll a 1, that is a critical failure, and you then roll on a table for effects.

After much google searching and rpg system scouring, I have settled on using the spell corruption tables from Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. Like most of the rules in that excellent game, they are highly thematic and very well written. There are three levels of corruption from failed magic: minor, major, and greater. In DCC RPG the table that you use is based on the spell cast. We will be using it differently.

In this variant, it will be an exploding dice roll, where a result below 1 means you move to the next table. Roll badly enough on the minor table and you go to the major table. Roll badly enough on that table, and you roll on the greater table. Roll badly on the greater table and you might be rolling up a new character. Using this system, even with casting that simple Light spell, if you blow enough rolls you could wind up having your head transform into that of an insect, or having your flesh rot and fall away in chunks, or having your character wink out of existence entirely! However, this varaint will be using a d20 rather than a d10, so the most likely outcome of a spell failure will simply be falling unconscious for 1d6 hours unless woken forcibly. This system can also help explain why high level magic users don't go around casting world changing magic all the time. A critical failure on a ninth level spell would be likely to have some very serious negative effects! 

The formula used will this: 

roll 1d20 - spell level (cantrips are level 0)

For those who have not yet purchased the DCC RPG core rulebook, the charts are below, with slight adjustments made to port it to D&D 5e, a fatal failure added as the worst roll on the greater corruption table, and also added the exploding dice roll feature. The details are all otherwise the same. I cannot reccomend purchasing this book enough! Even if you never play it, the ideas in it and the accompanying art are spectacular.

Minor Corruption
Below 1 - Roll on Major corruption chart
1 - Character develops horrid pustules on his face. These pustules do not heal and impose a -1 penalty to social charisma ability checks.
2 -  Character’s skin on one random portion of his body appears to melt. Like wax, it flows and reforms into odd puddles and shapes. This is an ongoing, constant motion that itches constantly and repulses others. Determine location randomly (1d6): (1) face; (2) arms; (3) legs; (4) torso; (5) hands; (6) feet.
3 - One of the character’s legs grows 1d6”. Character now walks with an odd gait.
4 - Eyes affected. Roll 1d4: (1) eyes glow with unearthly color; (2) eyes gain light sensitivity (-1 to all rolls in daylight); (3) character gains infravision (sees heat signatures at range of 100’); (4) eyes become large and unblinking, like a fish.
5 - Character develops painful lesions on his chest and legs and open sores on his hands and feet that do not heal.
6 - Ears mutate. Roll 1d5: (1) ears become pointed; (2) ears fall off (character still hears normally); (3) ears enlarge and look like an elephant’s; (4) ears elongate and look like a donkey’s (character also gains braying laugh); (5) ears shrivel and fold back.
7 - Chills. Character shakes constantly and cannot remain quiet due to chattering teeth.
8 - Character’s facial appearance is permanently disfigured according to the magic that was summoned. If fire magic was used, his eyebrows are scorched and his skin glows red; if cold magic was used, his skin is pasty white and his lips are blue. If ambiguous magic was used, his appearance grows gaunt and he permanently loses 5 pounds.
9 - Character’s hair is suffused with dark energy. Roll 1d4: (1) hair turns bone white; (2) hair turns pitch black; (3) hair falls out completely; (4) hair sticks straight up.
10+ - Character passes out. He is unconscious for 1d6 hours or until awakened by vigorous means

Major Corruption
Below 1 - Roll on Greater corruption chart
1 - Febrile. Character slowly weakens over 1d4 months, suffering a -1 penalty to Strength for each month.
2 - A duplicate of the character’s face grows on his back. It looks just like his normal face. The eyes, nose, and mouth can be operated independently.
3 - Consumption. Character’s body feeds on its own mass. Character loses 2d10 pounds in one month and suffers a -1 penalty to Constitution.
4 - Corpulence. Character gains 6d12 pounds in one month. The weight gain imposes a -1 penalty to Dexterity, and the character’s speed is reduced by 5’.
5 - Character crackles with energy of a type associated with the spells he most commonly casts. The energy could manifest as flames, lightning, cold waves, etc.
6 - Character’s height changes by 1d20-10 inches. There is no change in weight; the character’s body grows
thin and tall or short and fat.
7 - Demonic taint. Roll 1d3: (1) character’s fingers elongate into claws, and he gains an attack for 1d6 damage; (2) character’s feet transform into cloven hoofs; (3) character’s legs become goat-like.
8 - Character’s tongue forks and his nostrils narrow to slits. The character is able to smell with his tongue like a snake.
9 -  Small horns grow on the character’s forehead. This appears as a ridge-like, simian forehead for the first month; then buds for the second month; goat horns after the third month; and finally, bull horns after six months.
10+ Character’s skin changes to an unearthly shade. Roll 1d8: (1) albino; (2) pitch black; (3) clear; (4) shimmering quality; (5) deep blue; (6) malevolent yellow; (7) ashen and pallid; (8) texture and color of fishy scales; (9) thick bear-like fur; (10) reptilian scales.

Greater Corruption
Below 1 - The Character ceases to exist. DM fiat on how this happens. Maybe they simply wink out of existence, maybe they explode. 
1 - A sliver of soul energy is claimed by a demon lord. Character experiences unearthly pain, suffering 3d6 damage, a permanent -2 penalty to all ability scores, and an additional -2 penalty to Luck.
2 - Decay. Character’s flesh falls off in zombie-like chunks. Character loses 1d4 hp per day. Only magical healing can stave off the decay.
3 - Character’s head becomes bestial in a painful overnight transformation. Roll 1d6: (1) snake; (2) goat; (3) bull; (4) rat; (5) insect; (6) fish.
4 - Character’s limbs are replaced by suckered tentacles. One limb is replaced at random each month for four months. At the end of four months, it is impossible to hide the character’s inhuman nature.
5 - Small tentacles grow around the character’s mouth and ears. The tentacles are maggot-sized at first, but grow at rate of 1” per month to a mature length of 12”.
6 - Third eye. Roll 1d4 for location: (1) middle of forehead; (2) palm of hand; (3) chest; (4) back of head.
7 - Fingers on one hand fuse while the thumb enlarges. After one week, the hand has transformed into a crab claw. Character gains a natural attack for 1d6 damage and can no longer grasp normal weapons and objects.
8 - Character grows a beak in place of his mouth. Transformation starts as a puckering of the lips that slowly turns into a full-fledged bird or squid beak over the next 1d12 months. Character gains a bite attack for 1d3 damage.
9 - Bodily transformation. Roll 1d6: (1) character grows scales across his entire body; (2) character grows gills; (3) character sprouts feathers; (4) character develops webbed toes and feet.
10+ Character grows a tail over 1d6 days. Roll 1d6: (1) scorpion tail that can attack for 1d4 damage plus poison (DC 10 Fort save or target loses 1d4 Str permanently); (2) scaly snake tail; (3) forked demon tail (grants +1 Dexterity); (4) fleshy tail ending in a useable third hand; (5) fused cartilaginous links ending in spiked stump that can attack for 1d6 damage; (6) bushy horse’s tail. 

Any thoughts or comments are appreciated!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Injuries for Dungeons & Dragons 5E

"I'm OK, all I need is one long rest and I'll be good as new!"

What ho, Adventurers! I've been looking at the way damage and healing is currently handled in Dungeons & Dragons 5E, and I'm finding it... insufficient. My aim here is to outline a slightly more realistic system, one that will attach more threat to being reduced to zero hit points. 

The system I am proposing to use in my upcoming campaign would be as follows. Once you are reduced to zero hit points, you roll on the wound table below, using this formula:
  • roll 1d20 + CON mod
Then you consult the table to see the effect. These effects are in addition to the usual death saving throws from being knocked down to zero. Of the effects, the most likely outcome is that you will simply gain a permanent scar. I love the idea of adventurers sitting around telling stories and showing each other their old wounds. Some outcomes require a second roll to determine if the limb can be saved. The ongoing effect is described underneath the injury. Higher rolls are better, lower rolls are worse. 

1) Lost nose 

  • Disadvantage on all social charisma based rolls, unable to detect scents and aromas. Permanent.
2) Lost eye 

  • Disadvantage to all perception rolls involving sight. Disadvantage on social charisma rolls unless eye is covered by some sort of patch. Permanent.

3) Lost ear / deafness in one ear 

  • Disadvantage to perception rolls involving sound. Permanent.

4) Leg broken  (roll 1d10, and on a roll of 1-2 lose leg)

  • For 1d8 weeks the character's movement is halved, and they have disadvantage on Dexterity checks. Effects are permanent if leg is lost, and requires the use of a crutch or some form of prosthetic such as a wooden leg.

5) Arm broken (roll 1d10, and on a roll of 1-2 lose arm)

  • For 1d8 weeks the character cannot use a shield, fight two handed, or use two handed weapons. Effects are permanent if arm is lost.
6) Hand broken (roll 1d10, and on a roll of 1-2 lose hand)
  • For 1d8 weeks the character cannot fight two handed or use two handed weapons. Effects are permanent if hand is lost. Character may gain a special attack or feature by adding a prosthetic such as a hook.

7) Foot broken (roll 1d10, and on roll of 1-2 lose foot)

  • For 1d8 weeks the character has their move reduced by 1/4. Effect is permanent if foot is lost, and requires a crutch or prosthetic such as a custom boot.

8) Broken rib

  • For 1d8 weeks the character only has 3/4 of their normal maximum HP.

9) Blurred vision (concussion)

  • For 1d6 days disadvantage to all perception checks involving sight, and no proficiency bonus to attack rolls.

10) Ringing ears (concussion)

  • For 1d6 days disadvantage to all perception checks involving sound. Magic users have more difficulty maintaining concentration, and any attack that strikes them will cause them to lose a concentration spell currently in effect.

11) Amnesia (concussion)

  • For 1d6 days the character has no memory of anything that occurred prior to their injury. They can conduct themselves normally, but have no idea who they are, what their goals are, or who anyone else is. 

12-20) Scarred

  • The character has a distinctive scar that can used to identify them. 
I hope that this system will add a greater threat to being knocked unconscious than what is in place at the moment. It will also add some nice flavour and role playing opportunities to the campaign. I really hope we get a one eyed, peg legged, hook handed character with amnesia at some point in our game!

Any thoughts or suggestions are much appreciated.

Edit - If you're looking for a more detailed and sophisticated system for healing and injuries in 5E, check out this awesome system from R. Scott Kennan.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Fear checks and Insanity for Dungeons & Dragons 5E

What ho, Adventurers! Today I wanted to discuss incorporating some form of fear based insanity mechanic into my upcoming D&D game.

My inspiration comes from Call of Cthulhu, and that style of gaming will be a big part of what we do. I also thought it would add a little bit of realism. In the low magic world we will be playing in, seeing shambling undead and gore drenched demons will not be such an everyday occurrence that folks just shrug their shoulders and get on with killing stuff. It should be frightening (at least to those that fail their wisdom checks). 

Reading through the Players Handbook, I noticed the rules for exhaustion (p.291). These line up perfectly with what I wanted to accomplish with insanity. There are 6 levels of exhaustion, and each level brings a greater penalty, leading up to death. For our purpose, it would be 6 levels of temporary insanity, leading up to permanent insanity rather than death. Whether that final state is curable would be up the DM, and that might be a quest in itself. Regardless, the player would probably need to roll up a new character, so in practical terms it is about the same as dying.

Fear checks would be conducted whenever something frightening happens. This can be a terrifying event or fearsome monster, and some creatures already have fear effects built right in, such as the ghost and it's horrifying visage. Successive events of the same type or monster would not provoke a further check for 24 hours, as the characters are temporarily inured to that particular horror. 

My formula for the check would be this:

  • roll 1d20 + WIS bonus + level - current level of insanity

My reasoning for adding your current level to the roll is that as you become more experienced (higher in level), you are more jaded and less likely to be affected by frightening events. Also, someone with a low Wisdom and a negative modifier will be more likely to fail, as will someone who is already slightly insane.  

I would probably apply a DC of 10 for most circumstances, unless they were especially horrifying. Of course, each character may have their own weaknesses that might call for a higher DC. In addition, they may have unusual phobias of situations that might not normally call for a fear check. The halfling may have a fear of heights, or the plate clad dwarf that doesn't know how to swim may cringe at the sight of a boat. 

For those still waiting for their Players Handbook, the levels run as follows:

  1. Disadvantage on ability checks (eg. too jittery to pick the lock well)
  2. Speed halved (eg. looking over their shoulder, tripping over their feet)
  3. Disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws (eg. seriously panicked and unable to think clearly)
  4. Hit point max halved (eg. nervous breakdown)
  5. Speed reduced to zero (eg. hiding immobile in a corner from the terrors all around)
  6. Permanent insanity (eg. taking off all their clothes and running screaming through the night)

These effects would be distinct from actually being "frightened", which is a separate condition with its own rules. "Frightened" refers to being afraid of one creature, whereas these insanity conditions are more general.

To recover, a short rest would be enough to bump a character down a level of insanity, and a long rest should be sufficient to wipe out accumulated levels completely (except for permanent insanity).

I hope this will add a bit of extra flavour to our campaign, where physical damage isn't the only potential negative outcome. I'm anticipating that my group of low level adventurers will be nervously opening every door, and daring each other to peek around corners for fear of what my lie around them.

Any thoughts or suggestions are much appreciated.