Can NPCs Unbalance the Game?

Your first thought is probably, “how could an NPC unbalance the game?” since you are probably used to Non-Player Characters who are designed to simply advance the story through social interaction by intrigue and information sharing and not necessarily an active member of the adventuring party. Those aren’t the NPCs I’m talking about. I am specifically asking the question about active NPCs who stand side-by-side with he player party.

When I DM a campaign, I love to insert NPCs that are specifically designed to advance the party through he story by accompanying them through an adventure. They may be non-combatant, but most of the time have a few a secrets I like to reveal slowly and only when needed. For example, I have a verdan celestial Warlock named Billi playing along with my Icewind Dale campaign that has helped them in battle, as well as healed them up a couple of times. I don’t plan to keep her around for too much longer, but she has played a critical role in a few sticky situations.

Keep in mind that when I build these NPCs, I do not overpower them. They aren’t Elminster in another guise or the avatar of a deity. My NPCs are of equal level to the rest of the party and are equipped with minimal, if any, magic items. I am very aware that if I had my NPC at a higher level with legendary items, that could definitely unbalance the game.

And I also only use them for a specific, short-term purpose. Billi is there to spend time with the party to gain their intentions, offering some assistance in the process, then moving on once they reveal their intent. The reasons why, I can’t go into just in case any of my players read this blog, but let’s just say that her patron has a vested interest in the goings-on in Icewind Dale. As of now, Billi’s gotten what she came for and is about to leave the party. Maybe, she’ll pop up again. Then again, maybe not. (No spoilers here!)

But, I have to acknowledge that her presence wasn’t altogether insignificant. She healed the party when they needed it, attacked (and killed) foes when required to defend herself, and used her spellcasting ability to give the party a little extra power when they needed it. This is where balance was an issue.

Some of you DMs out there would probably argue against using NPCs in this manner and you would have valid points. There are other ways that a DM can adjust on the fly so an NPC like Billi isn’t really needed. I could have put some potions of healing in the adventure or modified the encounters so that they would be more suited for the party as they were configured. This would have forced the party to become more reliant on themselves and their own abilities as well as accept character death if it came to that. The argument could certainly me made that I coddled the party and you probably would be right.

Sometimes, being a DM for a group for an extended time makes you become a little too attached. Rather than providing background and plot hooks, you think of yourself as a member of the party like that little DM dude in the cartoon from the 1990s. NPCs are a DM’s avatar, so to speak. I freely acknowledge that this can be detrimental to the experience of the game and I probably need to stop doing it. But I won’t.

And why won’t I? Because it helps me enjoy the game. Sure, it may give an advantage to the party, but so what? I’m one of those DMs who doesn’t really like to see their players die because I love continuity in my stories. I thoroughly enjoy seeing a player grow along with their character as they solve problems, handle difficult battles and attempt to persuade their way into a bigger reward or more substantial discount at the local mercantile.

Also, it’s my party and I can do what I want to.

Happy RPGing!

Homebrew vs. Published Adventures

If there is any debate among players and DMs as to whether homebrew adventures are better than published ones, the debate should be quashed in a hot minute. Debates should be reserved for arguments of facts not preference. As a DM, I have no preference at all, as I enjoy both, even though both have their share of cons as well as pros. Yet, despite this, there is nothing that says you can’t do both at the same time.

Right now, I am running Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden. I was initially intrigued by the characters’ battle with the Frostmaiden herself, but, also the complications that the natural elements would cause adventurers. I thought it made for an interesting story, and I still do.

But that didn’t stop me from adding in a few homebrew adventures, NPCs and sub- plots to make it a little less scripted and more personal. If you want the players to be involved with the telling of the story, as a DM should, then it makes perfect sense to append to the contents of the book.

First, I had all my players create a backstory for their characters as I always do, then I found good spots to insert a feature to compliment them. For example, one the characters is a drow rogue whose backstory was about how she lost her house, wealth and status in her home city and had to escape to stay alive. In Icewind Dale, I had her run into some drow that had recognized her and attempted to kill her. She prevailed with a little help from an NPC that warned her of impending danger from the Matron Mothers. Because I included her story into the timeline, that player is more invested in a story she now call her own, which achieves the desired affect.

I also listened to the players when they requested the presence of a magic shop. There isn’t one written into the adventure, so I put one in. I included a “test” of sorts to gain entry. And, once they earned admittance, I had them interact with a Zhentarim agent that dealt with black market goods. This prompted me to create ways for the party to gain a patron, as per Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, which has yet to bear fruit, but soon will. Patrons are really good at making characters make choices they may not want to make.

Adding homebrew features to a published adventure does not necessarily mean the adventure as written is weak. Don’t misunderstand me. There are different opinions on how they all stack up, but they all have their strong points. You can go to sites like The Gamer or FandomSpot to see what other folks say (spoiler: everyone loves Curse of Strahd), but it’s all subjective. Different DMs have varying styles that may or may not gel with a published adventure. Regardless, there was some serious effort to create these books for the TTRPG community and that should, at least, be respected.

When I first started Doing, I would always create a homebrew world and supplement it with the published creatures from the Monster Manual. I loved creating my own world, but I realized there was so much missing that I had never considered. Politics and world history are important parts of any world and it was there that I was lacking. This essentially destroyed the pillars of exploration and social interaction, making my worlds one dimensional. When I started playing 5e, I threw the homebrews away and decided to use Toril as my backdrop. It was now a matter of doing research as opposed to creation, although it was easy enough to insert my own touches in where I saw fit.

Before I took my party, a group of D&D newbies, into Icewind Dale, I had them explore Longsaddle. It was there that I created their first adventure which involved an abandoned halfling village that was said to be haunted. This was a good primer for them. It was also fortunate that I used the Harpell family, known in the town, as an impetus to seek out a cousin, Velynne, in Icewind Dale. Homebrew met publication and they liked each other a lot.

To sum up, I guess I’m saying that you shouldn’t have to make a choice between what is scripted and what you can contribute to a story. Players are going to play their characters the way they want to play them, so a published adventure won’t always work exactly the way its written anyway. And, there is nothing preventing you from inserting a published adventure from a book like Candlekeep Mysteries or Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft in a homebrew world. In fact, sometimes the latter makes it easier on a. DM.

If you really want to be adventurous and support the creator community, check out DM’s Guild. There’s also some really good stuff there as well.

Happy RPGing!

Cost to Leveling Up in D&D 5e?

I had a recent discussion with my players about leveling up in D&D 5e and what it should take to actually get to a new level beyond experience points or milestone attainment. The question is what effort should the character make to go from one level to the next? Should it be automatic or should there be some sort of “cost” to gaining a level once you’ve met the requirements?

I’ve seen some different takes on this topic. Some DMs don’t require any cost to level up, while others may use some legacy rules from earlier editions. Others make up their own rules. Some of those home-brew rules can be real expensive and time consuming. I never really bought into that since I don’t hand out a lot of gold to begin with and I would rather a character spend their funds on equipment, information gathering and other costs. Up until now, I’ve been using the variant rule in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (P.131) which reads:


As a variant rule, you can require characters to spend downtime training or studying before they gain the benefits of a new level. If you choose this option, once a character has earned enough experience points to attain a new level, he or she must train for a number of days before gaining any class features associated with the new level. The training time required depends on the level to be gained, as shown on the Training to Gain Levels table. The training cost is for the total training time.

I think this is a fair rule and not too hard to meet for the player characters. Even the time it takes to go up from one level to another is minimal and has no effect in most campaigns. If a 3rd level character can’t afford to 20gp to get to 4th level, then your DM really needs to reconsider how they compensate the characters for success.

Dungeon and Dragons 5e default is that there is no cost in time or gold to go up a level, which I believe is not practical in some scenarios, while in others, it works just fine.

To have no additional requirements to gain a level makes sense mostly for fighting abilities, in my opinion. Abilities like Second Wind and Additional Attacks can be gained just by getting better at killing stuff. The more you swing your battleaxe, the better you are going to be at it. Your stamina will increase, your accuracy will get better and your familiarity with your weapon will become more intimate. Sure, you can make the argument that learning new moves takes time and exposure, but this is nitpicking.

Some rogue abilities make sense here, too. Cunning Action is a good example. As a character who primarily uses Dexterity, you get sharper and more efficient in your action economy. Your sneak attack, also, gets more lethal just from using it, so increasing the damage makes complete sense to me.

For some spell casters, it makes some sense to me as well. Warlocks, for example, get their abilities from their patron. Learning a new spell is not a consideration for them. The same can be said for their Eldritch Invocations. They just get these new things from their patron who can just instill the knowledge within them.

Clerics and Druids, too, just get spells through divine intervention, but where it stops making sense is exactly how to use this new spells, knowing what they do, and understanding what components may be needed. Where do they get that information from? Does their deity just grant them that like a patron does for a Warlock? That argument can be made, I guess.

I would say that for any character that casts spells, whether they are a Wizard or Arcane Trickster, it is a difficult thing for me to accept that as soon as they reach a milestone in the middle of an adventure that they instantly get all their new spells and have a complete understanding of them. I would even say this extends to other abilities like Battle Master tactics and a Sorcerer’s Metamagic abilities.

I think many DMs don’t want to go through the effort of creating mechanics for this dilemma, which I understand. Although it makes the game a little more “realistic” and is more practical, it is a burden to manage. Right now, I am running Icewind Dale and the characters met the milestones to get to 6th level, a level that grants all sorts of new abilities to most classes, but they aren’t even done with the adventure. For the sake of making it easier, I just let them level up despite the fact that they are in a fortress full of duergar and other baddies so they can finish it up. I can’t see waiting for them to finish the module in order to grant them new powers, especially because, once they complete it, they will be on to the next challenge immediately. There will be no time to learn new spells or abilities. The game must go on.

I’m curious what other DMs do here since I’ve only started to think this through. Any comments would be appreciated.

My Favorite D&D 5e Class: The Warlock

If you ask any D&D player, they will have a favorite class to play, a “go to” that they’ve played over and over again and seem to enjoy the most. When they make this known, as I’m about to do, there is always a rush of naysayers who say why they think your choice sucks and why they think there’s is better, but there are also people that agree with you. Pay none of those folks any mind. You play the character you want and will have the most fun role-playing. For me, that’s the Warlock. I love me my Warlocks.

Before you go getting all judgey, let me tell you that I absolutely know most, if not all, of the downsides of playing a Warlock. The fact that they are pretty squishy (even though they are the only full caster to get some kind of armor) and they have a very limiting and weird spell casting methodology are two big reasons to shy away from them and go for a Sorcerer or Wizard. But, not me.

In order for me to explain why I love the Warlock so much, let me share my current character, Petyr Lidon. He’s a 4th level shadar-kai Hexblade Warlock. I love this guy.

Basic Build

Here are the Ability scores I ended up with at my current level (4th):

Obviously, I’m gonna build up Charisma since he’s a Charisma-based caster. This also makes me pretty good with “face” skills like Deception and Persuasion which enhances my role-playing in the social interaction pillar. Dexterity and Constitution were also must-haves since he’s gonna be in some melee being a Hexblade.

I picked shadar-kai because I love the lore. I know it’s hackneyed to use the Raven Queen as a Hexblade patron, but I put a little twist on it in Petyr’s backstory. Instead of him being your typical stoic shadow elf, I gave him some personality which the Raven Queen is using to her advantage. Petyr was sent to Faerun to do her dirty deeds, but she figured that since he was less daunting than his kinfolks, that he would be able to survive a bit longer. So now poor Petyr is a happy ignoramus traveling through a world that he has no understanding of. It’s gotten him into some trouble so far, let me tell you that.

When I first built him, I used the Point Buy system. Using the customization rules in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, I gave his Charisma the bigger bonus and his Dexterity, the +1. Strength, when you are a Hexblade warlock, means absolutely nothing, so that got no love from me at all. I don’t think this is any different than what anyone else would do.

So no surprises in the build – high Charisma, Dexterity and Constitution. A total dump of Strength and indifference towards Intelligence and Wisdom.

As far as Background, I went with Far Traveler for no other reason but the fact that he is from the Shadowfell. I chose the Stealth skill proficiency and picked up Insight. When I chose the class, I picked up Arcana and Deception, so I have a little bit of everything. Of course, you an try and min-max your character and choose only “face” skills, but I like a little more range, especially when it supports the background I created.

There are other backgrounds with more Charisma-based skills, like Entertainer, Charlatan and Noble, but Far Traveler seemed too good of a fit for Petyr.


For the most part, I went with DM instruction on the equipment list, but I kept it within reason. I requested a change because of my Hexblood patron and because of my background. So, here’s where I ended up:

  1. No crossbow or any ranged weapon. That’s what Eldritch Blast is for.
  2. I took an arcane focus (crystal)
  3. Explorer’s Pack
  4. Studded Leather, shield and a rapier. I also took a pair of daggers.

Total cost, per PHB: 10+12+45+10+25+4=106gp. Plus, I was allowed to keep another 14gp for an even 120gp. A bargain by any standards.

What You Get for Choosing Hexblade

First, I get Pact Magic. See Spells below.

Second, I get Hexblade’s Curse, which is better than regular Hex, in my opinion. I pick one poor sucker and curse him. In return, I get bonus damage, extend my critical hit to include 19 and 20 and, if I kill the subject of my curse, I get hit points back.

With Hex Warrior, I gain proficiency in medium armor, shields and martial weapons. And, I can touch a weapon and make it a hex weapon, which allows me to use my Charisma modifier as opposed to Strength or Dexterity. My squishy spell caster is getting a little bulked up and ready to get into melee.


If anyone has a valid critique of the warlock, it’s with their spells and the methodology Wizards of the Coast designed. It’s simple, but extremely limiting.

The first thing you have to consider is that you start with 1 lonely spell slot at 1st level, then jump to 2 slots at 2nd level, then you have to wait a long time before getting a 3rd slot at 11th level. At 14th level, you get 4 slots and that is where you max out. And, all of these slots are at the same level when calculating their efficacy. Until you get to 3rd level, these are considered 1st level spell slots. When you reach 5th level, they are 3rd level slots and so on. If you ever reach 20th level, you will have a total of 4 5th level slots. That’s all. A little good news here is that those slots are regained after a short rest. .

So, you have limited slots. But what about the number of spells known? Guess what. No good news there, either. You start with 2 spells known which goes up by 1 each level until you reach 9th level where you know 10. After that, you learn a new spell every other level, so, again, if you get to 20th level, you will have 15 spells you know that you cast at 5th level, but you only have 4 slots.

You also get cantrips which everyone loves. Of course, since you’re a Warlock, you get less than everyone else. A Warlock can only learn 4 total – ever (with 1 exception to be discussed later). A Sorcerer starts with 4 cantrips (but maxes at 6), while a Wizard starts at 3 and maxes out at 5.

The limitation on spell-casting makes every spell precious. They have to be scalable and should be something you can use in conjunction with other abilities. For example, let’s take Eldritch Blast – the “go to” cantrip for a Warlock. It does the same damage as Fire Bolt, except that, with Eldritch Invocations (see below), we can make that Eldritch Blast do a heck of a lot more. There are invocations to increase its damage, its range and its effectiveness. Plus, as you level up, the number of bolts and the damage they do scales with you. That’s a keeper.

I also like utility spells, usually Mage Hand or Minor Illusion. For Petyr, I took Minor Illusion because trickery was in the lore of the shadar-kai. Eventually, I took Green Flame Blade (or you can take Booming Blade) which makes your hexblade attacks have a little more oomph. Those spells also scale as I go up in levels, so good choice for Petyr.

For 1st level spells, I was tempted to go with Hex and I think every warlock should, but I already have Hexblade’s Curse which is a little more potent. So I went with Armor of Agathys to make me less squishy (that damn d8) and decided on Hellish Rebuke simply for the action economy and the scalable damage. At this level, I was going to pass on Wrathful Smite because I really didn’t want to spend a precious slot for an additional d6 psychic damage and a chance I scare the pants off a creature if it fails a Wisdom save.

At higher levels (he’s 4th level now), I added Darkness, Shatter and Shield for various reasons. Shatter is an okay AOE (Area of Effect) spell that does decent damage and is scalable. I’ll probably drop it later, but at this level, I need something like it.

I picked Shield (as part of my Expanded Spell List) simply because it’s a great spell. Not only is it great for action economy (reaction), but it adds +5 to my Armor Class until my next turn.

The reason I picked Darkness was because someone online implanted an idea in my head and I wanted to try it out. The idea was to take Darkness and combine it with the Invocation (see below) Devil’s Sight, which allows me the ability to see up to 120ft in magical and non-magical darkness. My opponent will get disadvantage against me and I will get advantage against them. A great idea I just had to steal.

I digress, though. This isn’t a review of the Warlock; it’s a love letter. What makes the warlock awesome is the customization options. From your choice of Patron (subclass) to the Pact Boons to the Eldritch Invocations, you can make whatever character you want. Your ingenuity is what makes the warlock so great.

Petyr Lidon, Shadar-Kai Hexblade Warlock by HeroForge

Pact Boons

This is one of two places where the rubber meets the road for a warlock. At 2nd level, you get a gift from your patron – a Pact Boon. With the Hexblade, I picked Pact of the Blade, which allows me to summon any weapon I want and I am instantly proficient with it and it counts as magical.

There are other Boons, but I didn’t go that way. I like Pact of the Tome for other Warlocks, which gives my warlock an extra 3 cantrips from any spell list. Do I want Guidance? Maybe I could have Mage Hand? How about True Strike? (Just kidding with True Strike. NO ONE picks True Strike).

Whatever boon you pick, you can open up a world of possibilities, especially because each boon unlocks its own personal Eldritch Invocations.

Eldritch Invocations

This is the bread and butter of the Warlock and why I love it so much. Invocations allow you to really customize your character the way you want. Some of the invocations give abilities all the time, while others take a spell slot (which I mostly stay away from). There are also invocations tied to the boon you choose, while others are up for grabs. The only problem is that you don’t get that many of these customizations (no surprise there).

Your first two invocations come at 2nd level. You get another one at 5th level. If you ever reach 20th level, you will have 8 (which you actually get at 18th).

Petyr chose Agonizing Blast and Improved Pact Weapon at 2nd level. Agonizing Blast gave him more power for his ranged spell damage by adding his Charisma bonus to his Eldritch Blast. The Improved Pact Weapon invocation gave his melee weapon, a rapier, an additional +1 to hit and +1 damage. But, the awesome thing about invocations is that you can change them when you gain a level. This means you can build your Warlock to his strengths. For example, I switched out Improved Pact Weapon with Devil’s Sight at 3rd level as I mentioned above. The ability to swap invocations is an adaptation many classes do not have.

Eventually at 5th level, I’ll pick up Thirsting Blade, which will give me an extra attack per round. This will guide my character more towards his true nature as a melee attacker. As a 2nd tier character, he will be a little less squishy, have a bit better armor, a higher proficiency bonus and higher Charisma (which is used for his attack and damage bonuses as a Hexblade). He could be quite formidable if his hit points were a little better, but they are only a d8, so he would still have to be careful and let the Paladin, Barbarian or Fighter take the lead.

Later Levels

More invocations, some more spells and some Hexblade abilities are nice as you go up levels. I don’t know how long Petyr will survive, but I am definitely looking forward to a few more abilities.

At 6th level, he gets Accursed Specter. This is basically making a pet out of a humanoid soul that you killed. Not sure how I will use that yet, but I have a feeling it will be fun.

At 10th level, though, I will get Armor of Hexes, which basically makes any hit against me made from someone I cursed with my Hexblade Curse have a 50% chance of missing me. A little limited, but I tend to use Hexblade’s Curse against big bad evil guys who do a lot of damage, so this could be a life saver.

I don’t expect to get to 14th level so I’m not concerned about those 3rd tier abilities right now. I’m having too much fun with him as a 1st-2nd tier character,

Previously, I mentioned that the Warlock maxes at 5th level spells, but there’s a fix for that. Starting at 11th level, the Warlock has the Mystic Arcanum feature engaged. This give him the ability to take 1 spell at 6th level from a limited list. Every other level after that, you get another Mystic Arcanum slot. This is still limiting, but it does give my Warlock a little more spell casting power.


The Warlock isn’t for everyone, for sure. The class’s limitations may turn people off, especially if you are a player who likes to role-play less than get in the middle of a fight and kick ass. It takes a lot of imagination and patience to play a Warlock, which I think is why I love it so much. Yeah, I struggle every time he goes up a level because of the paradox between the amount fo options and the limited capacity to use them. but that’s what excites me.

For Petyr, the backstory I created has really guided many of my choices, which is exactly why a background is so important. I cover this in some detail in my How to be a Decent Player post.

Please feel free to leave a comment on what your favorite D&D 5e class is and why. I’m always looking for new ideas. Happy RPGing!

How to be a decent Player

If you’ve already read my post about how to be a decent GM, then you could have expected I would also write a post on how to be a decent player. Without both roles doing what they can to make the role playing experience fun, it may be a complete waste of time. That would be a damn, dirty shame.

Role-playing games are a shared experience for both the guide (GM) and the guided (players) and it requires that both parties participate in the telling of the story. While the GM provides history and setting (among other things), they do not really make too many decisions that influence the story. What makes the story move forward is the players’ interaction with the world the GM has presented.

Since I play Dungeons and Dragons 5e the most, I’m going to tailor this post accordingly to the rules of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, but my counsel can really apply to any table top role-playing game from Blades in the Dark to Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars games (click the links to take a look-see – I’m not getting paid for that).

So here we go with another blog post on how to do something you’ve already been doing and probably have been doing really well. In no particular order:

Create a Backstory

This is not so much of an issue in later editions of D&D, but in older editions it was all about killing monsters and getting loot. The gaming industry as a whole has moved passed this as a primary motivator for any character. Nowadays, there are actually three pillars of role-playing, according to Dungeons & Dragons – exploration, social interaction and combat. Two of those three pillars largely depend on your character’s backstory as it guides them to explore and determines how the interact with other players and non-player characters.

For example, my halfling monk, Carl Codwallop, was displaced from his village, his parents killed, by a horde of goblins. He was saved by an old monk who trained him in the martial arts. It’s kind of a trite storyline, but it works on a couple of levels.

Carl Codwallop

First, we now have an enemy for Carl. He hates them fucking goblins, so when he interacts with them, it’s most likely gonna turn bloody. However, if he meets a good goblin (or verdant), there may be no shedding of blood and, instead, there is a deep distrust which, through time, can become a friendship. That changes the story dynamically.

Carl may also choose to search the land for the goblin chieftain, Grobnob, responsible for destroying his childhood. He will go out and search, explore, the world to find him. What poor Carl experiences on the way to his ultimate goal – killing Grobnob – will shape his character I ways he has yet to know. It’s a mystery to be solved without even knowing it’s a mystery at all.

Also, as a bonus, development of a character history will also help you choose what lineage and occupation (class) that you want your character to be. This is often a tough choice for some, so the story sets the stage quite well.

Don’t Get Trapped by Min-Maxing

Min-Maxing is a way to minimize weaknesses and maximize strengths. To me, this results in creating a boring character that is oftentimes one-dimensional.

An example of min-maxing is a rogue who bulks up his stats in Dexterity and Intelligence and mostly ignores other characteristics like Charisma and Wisdom. Sure, this makes them a more effective rogue, but not necessarily a more effective character. A less effective character makes for a less enjoyable player experience.

My halfling rogue (I love halflings), Jimmy Strychnine, has the necessary high Dexterity, but he also has a high Intelligence and Charisma. I chose this combination because of my backstory. Jimmy liked to read books as a child and he also became an expert liar. This led me to beef up these secondary rogue abilities. Now, he can use his book smarts to outwit some poor sap and effectively deceive a simpleton into giving up valuable information. As a result of his experience, he’s not very wise and, therefore, he’s an unnecessary risk taker, and he’s not very strong, so he can’t really lift as much loot as his greedy hands would like. This often puts him in precarious positions that may yield very little reward.

Jimmy is one of my favorite characters to play because every decision he makes generates an unknown result. He slowly unravels the mystery of who he is without knowing it was a mystery to begin with. That is exciting.

Do the Research (Know your Character)

As a part-time GM, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat at a table and a player doesn’t know what abilities their character has, what their spells do or what benefits from their lineage they have at their disposal. With newer players, I am glad to give them a nudge, but with more experienced players, I give them nothing. If you snooze, you lose. It’s not my job as a GM to tell you what your character can or cannot do in any situation. Likewise, I don’t expect a GM to tell me what my characters can do.

Petyr Lindon is my shadar-kai Hexblade Warlock (not a halfling) and he is awesome. One time, he was on a ship in the Sea of Swords that was attacked by a group of Kuo-toa. In the first round of combat he was grappled, which essentially made him useless since his strength was so low so he couldn’t easily break free. As combat progressed, he could not cast spells or attack and almost got himself thrown overboard. Luckily, one of his compadres came to his rescue and killed the little fish stick that held him, but it was too late for him to really do anything of value.

Petyr Lindon

After the session, I realized Petyr has the Misty Step ability and could have gotten out of that grapple using a bonus action. I banged my head against a wall, frustrated by my stupidity. The entire sequence of events that could have resulted in me using one of Petyr’s primary abilities became a lost opportunity and now impossible possibilities.

I learned my lesson. In another encounter, Petyr walked into an ambush. As four crossbow bolts headed towards him, he cast Shield. When his turn came, he took his movement, used Misty Step as a bonus action to get closer to one of his attackers, then swung is Hex Weapon (a rapier) and scored a critical hit with Green-Flame Blade. The rest of the party took care of the other three brigands. It was pretty cool and the rest of the players were impressed (and a little scared). All that and I only expended one precious warlock spell slot.

Tolerance is not Enough

If you want to sit at a table where racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotry is acceptable, find another table. I won’t have it. Moreso, if you only tolerate other people’s individuality, then find another table. This is not a political or religious issue for me. It is a matter of being a good human being.

Diversity in the game, as well as the table, makes the game more worth playing. Different points of view and experiences lead to a broader range of possibilities and that is, to me, a requirement for having fun in any table top role-playing game. We should embrace this and accept it as a new experience for ourselves, to make us better players and better people. Tolerance is simply not enough.

I don’t have an example to give here because I have been fortunate enough to play with folks that exemplify this quality. But, for you, you’ll know it when you see it or hear it. Stay clear of those in the community who want to limit the experience of others. ‘Nuff said.

Don’t Cheat

This should go without saying, but I think it needs to be said anyway. Don’t fudge your rolls or try to convince the GM or another player that an ability or spell works differently than how it’s written. A GM will not necessarily know every spell or racial ability and how it works, so be honest about it.

Accept the results of a bad roll. It becomes an opportunity to role play and experience failure. For example, on an attack roll that results in a natural 1, I use a custom table I created to provide a fun result without changing the balance of the encounter. Here are a couple of examples:

You fart really loud, resulting in a missed opportunity and immense embarrassment. Make a DC 10 Charisma save or opponent gets advantage on next action.

A pretty butterfly passes by, distracting you. Make a DC Wisdom save or opponent has advantage on next action.

You can’t remember your own name. Is it “Bradley”? “Horatio?” “Janice?”. You are worried you’re getting stupid. Make a DC 10 Intelligence save or suffer disadvantage on your next action.

The same applies for skill checks. First, you don’t know what DC the GM has established as successful. As a DM for D&D5e, I set multiple DCs as thresholds for levels of success. The higher your roll, the more information you get. I know I have a laugh every time I fail a skill check for a skill I’m actually proficient in. It’s so much fun for everyone when the wizard fails an Arcana check when he’s +6 and then the barbarian rolls a natural 20 and has a -1 skill modifier.

Negotiating is Better than Nothing

GMs have a hard time as it is, so when a player proposes an action or sequence of actions that are a little out there, sometimes it takes a little compromise in order to keep the story flowing. As a GM, I love when players try some really weird shit, but, sometimes, it’s just way out there and cannot be done as easily as a player thinks it can be.

When I watch Critical Role or Acquisitions Incorporated videos, sometimes I wonder why the DM allows some of the stuff they do, but it’s normally done as a result of some negotiation and there are also clear consequences of failure. Sometimes the DM will let you try your hair-brained scheme, but increase the difficulty and make the result of a failure be near fatal. This is all part of joint storytelling and is a good experience for everyone at the table.

In ConclusionHave Fun!

Sure, there are probably more tidbits I can share, but, really, it’s about having fun. This has been always the goal and it’s been said a kazillion times by more experienced players than me, but it is so important to remember.

If you aren’t having fun, you need to change something. Maybe it’s your play style, but it could also be the GM’s style of running a campaign or adventure, or maybe even other players in your group are making it difficult to enjoy yourself. None of this means the game itself isn’t fun, it just means that that experience isn’t.

Table top role-playing games are designed for you to have an immersive experience in a different reality than the one you live every day. If your real-life is shitty, you can use a TTRPG as a temporary escape, so don’t bring that shittiness to the table. But, it also can help you with problem solving, social interaction and team building which can be applied to your real life. Maybe that frown can be turned upside down!

I wish you nothing but natural 20s. Enjoy!

How to be a decent GM

The Best Tabletop RPGs That Aren't 'Dungeons & Dragons' – Review Geek
Image courtesy of Review Geek

In the Twitterverse, I see a lot of folks asking for advice on how to be a GREAT Game or Dungeon Master and sometimes I shudder at some of the advice handed out. This isn’t to say that I am a great GM, but only that I am pretty decent and my group seems to like what I’m doing. 

Different GMs have different styles and none of them are necessarily correct, but some are more effective than others. Many in the Dungeons and Dragons community look up to Matt Mercer as the paragon of GMs, with good reason, but that doesn’t mean we all have to mimic him in order to be a decent, if not good, GM.

Make no mistake, it is a skill to be a GM. You are the narrator to a story of your own creation (or someone else’s, if you choose), so you have to be able to turn words into images for your player characters. They need to form those images into a clear picture to assist in determining their next actions. It allows them to fully immerse themselves into the setting and their respective characters. This is not easy. I tend to use the same words to describe things – “musty”, “huge”, “hairy” – (you get the point), so wordsmithing is a definite asset. This is easily solved with the use of a Thesaurus, if you have one available (if you don’t, then you need to just Google shit), but other potential roadblocks may require a little helping hand from a friend.

Beyond effective storytelling, which is really the entire purpose of any TTRPG, I like to give the following advice that works well for me:


No one can really tell you how long this takes or what exactly you should prepare, so you need to go with your gut. If you know what monster encounters are coming (which you absolutely should), you don’t have to know their entire stat block but you should have easy access to it when you need it. Some monsters have special abilities that you don’t want to skimp on because the encounter would be unbalanced and the players will be robbed of the full experience.

You should also get to know your NPCs or create a short story for them so they have personality and flavor. Is that dragonborn barkeep grumpy or is he zen? No matter what direction you pick, it will affect the interactions the players have with them. Give your NPCs some life.

Understanding the narrative and the setting of the adventure is also key. What is the party’s  purpose for being there and how do they achieve it? What is the climate like? Familiarize yourself with the setting whether it be a mountain, a forest, a simple village or a sprawling city. The GM is the one who sets up the story in a way that lures an emotional response out of the players.  Paint the blank canvas.

Know the Rules (so you can forget them)

There are GMs that are “rules lawyers” or stick to the rules as written (RAW) like wet toilet paper to a shoe. This gets boring and tedious and sucks the fun out of the game. They are also sometimes impractical or incomplete. Most “handbooks” or “core rules” anthologies should be used as a guide, not a mace to clobber over your players’ heads. Don’t be that GM.

Instead, let them be the framework for how you want to run the game. Some mechanics (like some dice rolls) are critical to the experience of the particular game, but even then, if you feel it’s appropriate, you can change them.  Don’t like the d20 initiative mechanic, then change it to what makes sense to you and is fair to everyone. For example, Youtuber, Dungeon Craft, has an interesting take on Group Initiative. I like it and maybe you will, too.

Be a Player

I don’t mean with the ladies. I mean sit in the player’s seats and experience their side of the table. If you do that, as a GM, you will get ahead of some of the questions they are asking and, as a bonus, get to learn what a particular class or race can do. It’s always a good thing when you know the capabilities of your player characters’ assets and abilities so you can adjust real time to most of what they throw at you during a session you are GMing. It can also help you make decisions on those pesky RAWs to see if they really make sense.

Being a player also means being part of a team. You can learn how team dynamics work, how they can operate synergistically and be exposed to different player types. Taking20 does a ton of great videos on YouTube, but here are a couple that you may like, whether you are a player or GM:

Best D&D Players

9 Problem D&D Players

Encourage – nay, DEMAND, Character Backstories

There are very few things that make the game harder to GM, but the one I find that ruins it is the lack of character backstories. A character just didn’t spring into existence suddenly and, although the player brings them to life at level 1, it has to be assumed there was years of history before the character got to the time and place they are now. Those years are all fodder for continuing their adventures, which means the GM has more plot points to explore that are specifically suited to the party. That is frickin’ gold. It further immerses the characters into the story the GM is narrating and makes them like a participant rather than a victim.

This does not mean, however, that you make your players write novels (I am still writing a backstory for my halfling rogue. I’m on page 34). It doesn’t even have to be in prose. Let them bullet out a few thoughts and share it with you. Ask questions for clarification, then take that information and work it into your campaign even if it is a prewritten one. There’s always space for a sandbox in the world.

One of my favorite resources, DavvyChappy, has a short video on YouTube regarding backstories. Give it a watch so you can help players formulate some ideas about Umber, the half-orc sorcerer or Mr. Chirpy, the aaracokra bard.

Let the Players Play

Lastly, and most importantly, let the players play. You have to remember as a GM that you are a narrator in this story, not the writer. You don’t control the actions of the characters. The players do. Sure, they may go off on tangents and you may have to think of a way on the fly to get them back on course, but let them (and the dice) decide their fate.

Granting this autonomy to the players enhances the team dynamics and the storyline, not take away from it. Some players may not like the way other players roleplay and that is okay. Not everyone would act the same way given the same scenario. Let them work out any conflicts and step in when you feel you need to. The goal is to have fun and you are the host.

One caveat to that is that there has to be a line that is clearly defined that does not get crossed in your sessions. You define that line and get agreement from the players. For example, as a GM, I do not tolerate personal attacks, racism or bigotry of any kind and fun-killers. If I am with a party that cannot respect those lines, then I don’t think I want to play with them anyway.

In Conclusion

This shit is hard. Being a GM is no walk in the Neverwinter Wood during Kythorn. Telling a story that you audience is invested and interested in can be a tough task, but you can do it with practice and exposure. Watch other DMs on YouTube, Discord and Twitch and see what styles you like and consider what is within your capability. Like I said before, not everyone can be a Matt Mercer or even likes his style, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a decent GM yourself.

Roll the dice and give it a shot.

Dungeons & Dragons: Alignment

When I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons circa 1980, the rules were complex to the 12-year-old me, but I chose to learn them because I was transfixed by the notion of living in a fantastical medieval world. It represented the archetypal battle between good and evil with swords and sorcery as the tools. Back then, the bad guys were orcs, goblins and skeletons as well as devils and demons such as Asmodeus and the now famous Demogorgon.

I played a human paladin as my first character. I can’t remember how he died exactly, but I assume he went down fighting the evil that his lawful goodness compelled him to fight. For a paladin was supposed to be lawful good. Thems was the rules.

Then came the anti-paladin. He was the fallen hero, now intent on spreading chaos and ruin. Instead of laying on hands to do heal, he would do it to cause harm. Instead of a white steed, he rode a nightmare.

I also played a monk, who, at the time, was to be of lawful alignment. The assumption there was, I assume, that monks follow a strict code of honor, regardless of which side of the good/evil fence they rode (or in the middle).

Unfortunately, I did not play D&D for a long time, missing out on both 3rd and 4th edition, and then came late to 5th edition around September of 2018. I was shocked to find that those alignment restrictions were no longer there. In fact, I was pretty adamant that they should be for the reasons that 1st/2nd edition laid them out.

But, I have since changed my mind. Why? Well, because I realized that the characters should be just as diverse as the players and, well, the people who play Dungeons and Dragons cannot be pigeonholed into one specific silo.

I consider myself to be on the “lawful” side of the spectrum and, generally, I am a good person (I really am), but I wouldn’t consider myself “lawful good”. However, I have broken some of society’s rules every now and then and, I haven’t always acted in the best interest of everyone involved. I wasn’t evil, but I certainly wasn’t good. The simple truth is that, in certain circumstances, I will tend towards lawful goodness, but it is really situational.

Alignment is too strict, too rigid, and it leads the players away from effective role-playing and into an environment where they are boxed into a specific way to play, seem and appear. To me, Dungeons and Dragons has never been a place where you are told to conform to a certain way of being. It has always been about thinking outside of the box – not only to solve problems within the game, but to expand the borders of your social experience.

Dungeons and Dragons is a community game made up of diverse personalities, beliefs, appearances, and identities, so why should our fantasy world be any less so?

As I always say, let the players play.

Moving to Nerdtown

I know I’ve been reeeeeeeaaaaaal lax in posting anything and for good reason. I was burnt out on complaining.

With everything that has gone on in the world for the last four years, it just got kind of tiring to be pissed off all the time because of Facebook or Trump (or the idiots that support and enable him) or COVID-19 or climate change or religion or any number of things that could cause social distress.

Like many others, I tried to escape it by removing myself from Facebook or other social media, or by weeding the social garden, so to speak. But politics has become more intrusive than any virus, infecting every aspect of real life, so I did find a place to move, albeit temporarily. Nerdtown.

Late in 2018, I rediscovered my passion for TTRPGs (Table-top Role Playing Games), specifically Dungeons and Dragons. I used to play as a kid and I always loved it, but had been forced to abandon it when I went to college and for many years after. But, I felt this was finally the time to get back in the game, so to speak.

I’ve enjoyed the move to Nerdtown. My Twitter feed is a lot less hostile and the videos I watch on YouTube have changed what shows up in my feed. I’ve reset the algorithm as one does when they move from the old to the new.

So now my next few posts, if not more, will be exclusively about D&D. Sure, they may cross the line into reality a bit, but, although it is a fantasy game, it is played by real people who live in the real world.

If you don’t like this new direction, stop reading.

Hanlon’s Razor

0001365_95-701-platinum-series-double-edge-razor-blades_300You have probably heard of Occam’s (Ockham’s) Razor, but have you heard that Hanlon has one, too? Robert Hanlon’s Razor is as follows:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

I was introduced to this by my therapist because it seemed appropriate for the state of mind I was in at the time (and still am many times). My issue is, and always has been, that I expect too much from people. I expect them to behave with civility, to seek truth and knowledge, and to be humble. As you may expect, human beings often disappoint me.

For example, I expect people to put their shopping carts in the corral, not in the middle of a parking space. Moreover, I expect that when they do decide to walk to the corral that they also put the cart all the way in rather than just at the edge. It totally screws up the stacking process. It pisses me off.

On the surface, Hanlon’s Razor gives the stupid among us a free pass. In my example above, it guides me to simply forgive them for being incompetent rather than be angry at them for being malicious. One could make the argument that willful ignorance or laziness is malicious in intent, but let’s not go there for now.

But, you need to look a little deeper into Hanlon’s Razor to see what the complete context is because, for me, letting people get away with stupidity is not enough for forgiveness. In the link, the author, Matthew Cook, asks the reader to “replace ‘stupidity’ with tiredness, hunger, laziness, ignorance, misunderstanding, shyness…”. Try it with me:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by tiredness. 

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by shyness.

Makes it a different statement altogether, doesn’t it? The message is here is that people do what they do for various reasons and we cannot assume, based on our own biases or justifications, that people act in accordance with our worldview. They simply have a different set of experiences and biology that have brought them to the place where they are, carrying the baggage they have, making the decisions they do. Even “smart” people do stupid things sometimes and it’s not necessarily out of malice.

One thing I want to clear up – ignorance does not necessarily mean someone is mean-spirited. It can also mean that they have not had a comparable experience and, therefore, do not know the proper way to act or respond. Google the definition and it simply says “lack of knowledge or information.” You can’t really blame someone for not knowing what they don’t know. Now, willful ignorance is a different topic altogether, which I will probably address in a different post, but, to choose to have a lack of knowledge on a particular subject is not bad as long as you don’t also try to be an expert. I don’t know anything about ceramics, and I choose not to, but I also don’t act like I know all about it when, if ever, I am engaged in a conversation about earthenware, porcelain or stoneware (I looked that up).

I guess the moral of this story is that we should not assume what we don’t know or else that makes us the potential target for the bloodletting of Hanlon’s Razor. Of course, the person could just be an asshole, too.





Philosophy for Dummies

death-of-socratesWhen I tell some people that I am studying philosophy they, understandably, assume I want to be a Philosophy teacher. I think it would be cool to get my Master’s and become a teacher, but I have no illusions that it will actually happen. I do enjoy studying the subject of philosophy because it engages my critical thinking skills, which is something we are not taught to do often enough. This leads to a population that is woefully unprepared to discuss and answer the big questions. Sometimes we purposefully avoid knowledge, but sometimes we are willfully ignorant.

Philosophy is the study of knowledge, reality or our existence. We have those types of discussions every day without even knowing it, so philosophy shouldn’t be treated as some sort of esoteric study. It’s not about knowing who Hobbes, Camus or Aquinas are, it’s about understanding what contributions they made to our public discourse, or just knowing that they simply made an argument at all. Maybe that argument is something you agree with now or maybe it’s simply a point of view you cannot accept, but if you cannot accept it, you must have a reason for it. That would require critical thinking.

So, breaking down the major philosophical questions would probably help exemplify what I’m getting at.

Knowledge or “Epistemology”

What do you actually know and how do you know it? These are big questions, especially in the age of “fake news”. Putting aside the whole effort of getting fed information through memes, blogs and articles that cite anonymous sources, we seem to accept information willingly if it confirms to our biases or we reject it if it is contrary to our beliefs.

The biggest epistemological question that has been around for thousands of years is what people believe versus what they know in regard to the existence of a divine being. Sure, people may believe in something, but do they actually know it? This is a different question than whether or not there is a god or gods (as explained below under “Metaphysics”) because the epistemological question addresses knowledge. For those that claim to know divinity exists, philosophers and critical thinkers ask what their rationale is for that confidence and how can they prove it so that others may also share their in what they claim to know? I’m not going to get into too much detail around agnosticism and atheism here, but they are two different concepts. Agnosticism is “without knowledge” while atheism is “without belief in a god or gods”. To give a more relatable example, I will use one that the folks at The Atheist Experience use often because it really delivers.

Given a jar full of gum balls, one may believe there are an odd number (and have a 50% chance of being correct), or you can count them and know that there actually are 53 of them. So, I can be agnostic as to how many gum balls there are (if I don’t count them), but still be a believer in the odd amount, In terms of religion, as an agnostic atheist, I do not believe there are any gods (atheism), but I certainly don’t know it to be true (agnosticism).

Take, as an example, also, eyewitness testimony. People can be convinced that they know the perpetrator of a crime, yet, studies show consistently that eyewitnesses and memory are not reliable. One might believe they know the guilty party, but science may proves otherwise through something like DNA tests.

There are countless other arguments we make based on our beliefs versus our knowledge. Among them are the existence of life on other planets, Sasquatch, angels and ghosts.

For more on epistemology, look up Aristotle, known to be the Father of modern science.

Morals or “Ethics”

Moral problems hit us in big ways every day. When we discuss reproduction rights or homosexuality, as a culture, we are discussing moral issues. People who protest the death penalty may be doing so on moral grounds. Perhaps, you see someone at work acting in a way that rubs you the wrong way because you are making a moral judgement on that person. Maybe you think nothing of a person parked in a parking spot reserved for physically disabled people or expectant mothers, but maybe you are. Perhaps, you get angry when someone talks too loud in a restaurant or maybe you don’t. These are all potentially moral questions.

The famous example of our moral elasticity is the Trolley Problem. The scenario is that a runaway trolley is barreling down the tracks and it’s coming to a fork. You have control over the switch and can send that trolley to the left or the right. On the left track is a single person and on the left is a group of people. Who would you save? Most people would try and find a way out of the problem, but, eventually, most would want to save the most people they can, so they choose to save the group. Now, imagine that the group of people are drug dealers and the single person is a father of five small children. How does that change your thought process?

Another part of ethical philosophy is the question of nature versus nurture. Psychologists and other social scientists study this question as well. Where do we get our morals? Are they from our learned experiences or from evolution? Philosophy weighs in on this as well.

Aristotle wrote Nichomachean Ethics, if you want to try that one out, but other philosophers who have tackled ethics and that you may know are Plato (in Euthyphro, et al), Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham. In “Euthyphro”, Plato addressed the question of divine command theory. The question there is whether or not something is moral because a god commands it. Interesting read and great argument. Bentham argued that morality is based on more utilitarian means, or, the more moral choice choice is the one that does the most good for the most people and causes the least suffering for the least amount of people. You can agree or disagree, but that’s the whole point of philosophy.


Anyone that know philosophy will tell you that metaphysics is the place to go for a lot of our most pressing and profound discussions. This is the field where big ticket items like free will and existentialism, the existence of god and the nature of our reality are debated. Aristotle himself called this the “first philosophy” with good reason. Metaphysics is a huge circle with many circles within.

I’ve written about the concept of free will and determinism before. The idea that we do not have free will can upset some people, but it is an important conversation to have when dealing with topics such as mental illness and crime. In order to try and find a solution to a problem, we have to try and understand the reason why it exists. For people that are mentally ill or are lifetime criminals, we have to wonder whether or not they are pre-disposed to a certain behavior that conflicts with social norms so we can find out how to deal with it. This is where the marriage of critical thinking and science is most important. We use the scientific method to gather data that we use to draw conclusions.

The nature of our reality is a huge philosophical question. Folks Like Nick Bostrom believe we live in a simulation. Think about that for a second. Rather, read his paper.

Descartes once said about our existence, “I think, therefore, I am”. This is the quintessential argument for consciousness that almost everyone has heard before. But, is it true? Do people in comas think? If not, then do they exist?  It’s a good question that philosophers can debate over.

Lastly metaphysics attempts to answer the “god” questions. Does one or many exist? Is it possible to know (see above under Epistemology)? Does the divine insert themselves into society and humanity or do they not? Every Sunday, I think, these questions are asked and there are different answers based on the religion and sect. We are all trying to figure it out.

In Conclusion

Philosophers are not flakes who talk about things that no one else talks about. They try to make sense of the big questions by debating with those that disagree with them. A good skeptic will always change their mind given new, more enlightening information, and that is what a philosopher is. A good skeptic. So, hug a skeptic today.