Posts Tagged ‘DnDBlog’

A few weeks ago I was running a game in my homebrew setting Exploration Age. The characters were on a beach slinging ranged attacks at an approaching metal warship full of anarchist dragonborn. That’s when Vegas Lancaster, who plays Ichabod Dragonsblood, drow bard, asked, “Hey can I cast heat metal on the warship?”

I laughed. “I don’t think the spell can heat up a warship.”

Vegas shot back, “Well it says, ‘Choose a manufactured metal object, such as a metal weapon or a suit of heavy or medium metal armor, that you can see within range. You cause the object to glow red-hot.’ No real parameters on the object otherwise.”

I’m sure this was one of those moments where rules as written clashed with rules as intended. The Dungeons and Dragons default assumption is that most boats, buildings, and other large objects aren’t made of metal so this would never come up. I didn’t realize I’d break the game with my (admittedly ridiculous) battleship.

Since there were plenty of other enormous metal objects in the party’s future, I didn’t want to say yes outright. I also didn’t want to kill a player’s cool idea, so I said, “You can heat the entire ship… if you use an 8th level spell slot.” Vegas agreed and the dragonborn fried.

That got me thinking about how spells could be used with higher level spell slots to do things beyond their normal description and the “at higher levels” description. I came up with a rough system below. Let me know what you think! I’m definitely still playing with it.

Using Higher Level Spell Slots

When it comes to using higher level spell slots in creative ways, there are two things I’m keeping in mind:

  1. I don’t want to step on the sorcerer’s toes. Metamagic is one of the sorcerer’s biggest class features. I’m not going to try to replicate what exclusively belongs to that class.
  2. Warlocks are use higher level spell slots to cast lower level spells. Pact Magic means a high-level warlock is always using 5th level spell slots to cast spells. While this won’t have too great an impact, since the intent is for warlocks to be able to cast a few powerful spells between short rests, I am still going to keep an eye on this, particularly as it pertains to spells that don’t already have an “at higher level” effect.
Increase Area of Effect

Spells that have an area of effect which is a cone, cube, cylinder, line, or sphere, and already contain an “at higher levels” effect in their description are eligible for this spell slot upgrade, which is used in place of the current “at higher levels” effect. The spell’s area of effect dimensions are doubled when the spell is cast using a spell slot two levels higher than the spell’s initial casting slot.

Eschew Materials

Spells that have a material component for which there is no cost listed are eligible for this spell slot upgrade, which is used in place of any current “at higher levels” effect. The material component is not required to cast the spell if the spell is cast using a spell slot one level higher than the spell’s initial casting slot.

Change Save

Spells that require a saving throw are eligible for this spell slot upgrade, which is used in place of any current “at higher levels” effect. If the spell requires a Constitution, Dexterity, or Wisdom saving throw, you can change the save to be one of the others in that list if the spell is cast using a spell slot two levels higher than the spell’s initial slot. If the spell requires a Strength, Intelligence, or Charisma saving throw, you can change the save to be any other save if the spell is cast using a spell slot two levels higher than the spell’s initial slot. You must describe how your spell has changed to require this new save.

Change Damage Type

Spells that deal damage are eligible for this spell slot upgrade, which is used in place of any current “at higher levels” effect. You can change the damage type of the spell to any other damage type if the spell is cast using a spell slot two levels higher than the spell’s initial slot.

Increase Effect

At the DM’s discretion, you can increase the effect of a spell to make it more potent. You propose how you’d like to use the spell. For instance you might say, “I’d to target a creature with and Intelligence score of less than 4 with Tasha’s hideous laughter,” or, “I want to block both undead and fiends with my magic circle.” The DM then determines if this action is possible and if so, what level spell slot should be used to create the desired effect.

To decide which slot should be used, DM’s should first ask, “Does this new effect come close to the effect of another spell?” If the answer is yes, then the spell slot required should be that comparable’s spell’s level plus two. For instance, if a character wants to shape a fireball spell into a 60-foot-cone, that’s an area similar to the 5th-level cone of cold spell, so the DM might tell the character this is possible using a 7th-level slot.

If the desired effect isn’t similar to any spell that already exists, then think about the scale sliding in powers of two. If the change is rather minor, it should cost a spell slot two levels higher than the initial casting. If it is a major change, it should cost four levels higher than the initial casting. If the change completely redefines what the spell can do, it should cost six levels higher than the initial casting. DMs should let the player know this is an experimental process and that rulings may change.

In all cases the spell should gain no other benefits from the higher level casting than what the player and DM agree upon.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Session 0 is a term applied to a game session before a long campaign where the game master and characters come together to cocreate the world and character backstories. Having a session 0 is fun for many people, but others prefer to jump right in and start playing. I’m here to tell you there’s a way to get the best of both worlds. Simply put your session 0 in the middle of your campaign.

Why Put Your Origin Stories After Your Pilot Episode

Before I start a long RPG campaign, I usually like to get backstories from my players about their characters and have a world ready to go. That method is not for every game master and it’s not for every player. Some people, when forced to write a backstory or create a world, come up with bland and generic ideas that aren’t nearly as interesting than as if they had jumped right in and started playing. The give and take of improvisational storytelling with others spawns amazing ideas about a character’s background a single mind may have never come up with on its own.

For many players and game masters, the fun is in letting the story grow organically. “Oh are there house-sized spiders in this dungeon? Well that’s going to be interesting because I just decided Martha the PC is an arachnophobe!” is a split second decision made by a player that has just turned a normal dungeon crawl an interesting quest of character development. The player may not have thought to come up with that detail when writing a backstory and may not have wanted to add that detail because in Martha’s prewritten backstory she’s already afraid of caribou, waterfalls, and snakes (and one more fear would just be unseemly for a hero). Meanwhile the GM is using their spider dungeon because it was in the description of the pre-created world and now has to figure out a way to get caribou, waterfalls, or snakes into the dungeon to get the same development for Martha the PC. Letting the story form organically allows for some amazing, on-the-spot character development and story moments.

Yet there’s fun to be had in a session 0. We love to tell origin stories! Some of the most-remembered and loved episodes of television are the flashback episodes where we see how the gang of friends or heroes met. So do exactly that. Flashback. After your group has established characters, a world, and story, then go back and have your session 0. Here’s why.

Jumping Right In Allows The Party To Start As A Team

When you jump right into the game with assumption that you’ll flashback to an origin, the party has a reason to start working together. Maybe they don’t know why that is yet, but that’s fine as long as they work together. The reason for doing so will be discovered by all of you along the way if you have confidence in the storytelling abilities of the group. Sometimes an origin session can feel like wrangling cats as you try to bring together individuals with different backstories and motivations. Now when you play out your flashback origin session after characters and stories have been established, the players will feel more motivation to bring everyone together themselves, since coming together is an inevitability.

Better Incorporation of Backstories

The backstories of your characters become better incorporated into the campaign’s overall story if you wait for one to organically appear. If the GM is building the world as the story demands it instead of arriving with one fully fabricated, the overall story of the world can also adapt to fit choices the character makes. It’s an amazing give and take when you jump right in.

How To Run a Session 0 After Your Campaign Has Already Begun

If you decide to go this route with a longer campaign, here’s my tips.

Use Another System

It can feel strange to go backwards in the same system with the same characters. “Just what spells did Bob the sorcerer have at level 1?” A lot of systems have a level 0 character approach you can try, but these characters are usually very squishy and you want some survivability since, presumably, everyone lives through the flashback.

My advice is to use another system. Go for mechanics you’ve always wanted to try to keep it rules light, since you’ll probably only be using it for a session or two. For example: Dungeon World makes a great flashback sessions for games like D&D and Pathfinder. (Thanks for the hint Griffin McElroy of The Adventure Zone!) FATE is another great system that can be adapted to any genre. Both systems allow for heartier starting characters as well, which is a great thing since again, the characters are probably going to make it through the session alive.

A flashback session is a great time to explore a new rules system, since the players are already comfortable with the characters they’re playing and the GM is already comfortable with the world. That means you’ll have less on your mind as you try to tackle the new rules before you.

Give The Characters A Reason To Come Together

Now that you know the characters well, you can find a great reason to bring them together for their first adventure. You can use the relationships the characters have built within the cannon of your story and have a better idea of what matters to them. Plus the players know the characters come together eventually anyway, so they’ll work with the reasons you provide to build a great origin story.

Tie It Into Your Campaign’s Main Story

Now that you know where you’re campaign’s overall story is headed (or at least have an idea), tie your flashback session into that story. Drop hints of what’s to come and let your players bask in their character’s young ignorance. You’ll have a blast!

More Gaming, Less Talk

Many session 0s are chatty, with not a lot of action as people discuss what characters should do and how the world should be. When you do a flashback session, there’s plenty of chatting, but it’s all in character and there’s a lot more gaming action. So get to it!

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

If you’ve been playing RPGs as long as I have (22 years!), then you know keeping combat fresh ain’t easy especially when you’re playing with the same players for a good portion of that time. How can we continue to surprise, delight, scare, and challenge our players who have seen all our tricks a thousand times over?

This week I’ve had the privilege of recording a few Table Top Babble podcasts with successful designers like Mike Shea, M.T. Black, Tony Petrecca, and Jeff Stevens and I asked them this question. These people have written some of my favorite combat encounters ever so I couldn’t let the opportunity slip by.

They all had a common idea about spicing up combat. Encounters share common elements that can be changed to create a challenging and unique battle with minimal effort. Think of each of these variable elements as having a dial that you can turn to make every brawl distinct.

I’m going to breakdown each of these elements below to show how you can use them to make an encounter legendary. You only need to crank two or three of these to make a memorable battle. If you try to play with too many elements at once, combat can get bogged down in the details as players wait for their turns.


Visibility has an enormous impact on combat. Take a look at all the beautiful creatures with darkvision, blindsight, termorsense, and more. Those abilities really mean something and can give players or monsters a leg up in a battle that’s shrouded in darkness (magical or mundane), fog, or illusion magic. Foes who are fully aware of their surroundings might toy with enemies who struggle to get bearings.

Tips For Playing With Visibility:
  • Don’t make it frustrating. Let the players get creative and counteract the fact that they can’t see in creative ways, like creating clouds of flour to reveal invisible enemies or using the momentary light of a fireball spell to get a quick look at the area.
  • If you’re playing on a virtual table use available dynamic lighting features.
  • If you’re playing in person, consider running this particular encounter in the theater of the mind style. Using minis allows players with blind characters to see the position of other creatures and terrain so it ruins shrouded visuals.


The landscape of an encounter can really change the way it is played. A few bits of interesting terrain will create better combat and storytelling in your games even if you aren’t sure how it will all come into play. Let the players surprise you! It’s not up to the DM to figure out how every brazier and tree can be a part of combat.

Tips For Playing With Terrain:
  • Let players get creative. In fifth edition D&D advantage and disadvantage make improv easy by taking a lot of math out of the equation. If a character wants to try to fell a tree onto an ogre, let them try! Even if a task is nigh impossible, failure is a more interesting than saying no. Once your players realize the world is theirs to get creative in, you can lay out the terrain that makes sense in a location and let them decide how to use it.
  • Terrain goes beyond the natural. Stairs, horse-drawn carts, and a ruined half-wall all count as terrain. Don’t just think about the natural world!
  • Smart creatures lair in terrain that favors them. A room where a beholder sleeps might be spherical so the aberration can take advantage of its ability to fly and use eye beams on enemies as they slide to the floor. A white dragon’s lair could be covered in slippery ice that also allows the beast to walk upside down on the ceiling!
  • While grids can make interacting with terrain easy, you can still rock terrain in a theater of the mind encounter. Simply write out some major terrain features on a piece of paper or index card and display it so the players know what they’re working with and against.


Space defines the area where your encounter takes place. Is it a cramped dungeon hall with enemies attacking from either side? Is it an open forest sniper battle with hundreds of yards between enemies? Is it a battle that occurs as the combatants fall through the sky? All three are very different experiences. Cramped spaces make a battle feel desperate and wide open spaces make an encounter epic.

Tips For Playing With Space:
  • Don’t forget the third dimension. Remember that creatures with flying speeds take advantage of height all the time (as do creatures that can’t fly). Adding height to your encounter makes it far more interesting, realistic, and memorable.
  • You can add motion to your battle. Some of the most memorable action sequences in movies take place on the road, in the sky, or on a body of water. Your space can move if it’s a fight on rafts down river rapids or a chase across busy city rooftops.
  • If you go wide, remember to fill in the terrain. You don’t want your combatants to spend the first three rounds of combat simply moving into range of one another.

Hazards and Traps

A great trap or hazard can make a battle memorable all on its own. The floor slowly falling out of a room, a pendulum scythe, or an enchanted tapestry can add delicious layers of complexity to an encounter. If play with this element, be sure you don’t turn up too many other dials, since tracking these things can be a lot of work.

Tips For Playing With Hazards and Traps:
  • Roll initiative for most hazards and traps. That way you remember to use them. (To make it extra unpredictable, roll initiative for the trap at the start of each round.)
  • Let players defeat hazards and traps creatively… or at least let them try!
  • Most monsters are aware of the hazards and traps in their lairs and know how to avoid them.
  • Have a list of simple hazards handy for those random encounters.

Customize Monsters

There’s so many ways to customize monsters that this could be its own series of blog posts. A recent tweet from M.T. Black shows us just 20 of those options:

Reskin monsters, add abilities (using pg. 280 and 281 of the DMG), give them spells, resistances, immunities, and vulnerabilities, and change damage types to create exciting beasties that don’t do what the players thought.

Tips For Customizing Monsters:
  • Don’t worry too much about exact math. If you add a spell or ability that requires a DC, remember that fifth edition D&D’s bounded accuracy system means DC 10 is always easy, 15 is always moderate, and 20 is always hard. Let those numbers be your guide when give a monster a feature that requires a saving throw. If you need an attack bonus for an ability, just pull it from one of the creature’s other attacks.
  • If you want a tough monster, boost those hit points. This is a great way to make a tougher version of a monster without having to adjust anything else.
  • To make things really easy on yourself, just reskin monsters. Want a fire-breathing orc that can fly? Use a fire dragon wyrmling stat block.


Perhaps the largest thing you can do to make combat interesting is change the goal of the encounter. Too often are our battles each side rolling d20s until the other is wiped off the face of the earth. Change the game. If the odds are overwhelming against the PCs but all they need to do is grab a magic sword, stop a dark ritual, or save a prince, the encounter becomes more thrilling. You can read more about this idea in this blog post.

Tips For Playing With Goals:
  • Think about the goal of the monsters. What do they do to ensure they can complete the dark ritual or grab the magic sword before the PCs?
  • How do the monsters react if the characters achieve their goal? Do they flee? Pursue? Explode?
  • Ask yourself, “Which monsters in this encounter will sacrifice everything to stop the characters from achieving this goal?”
  • Don’t be afraid to throw more than one goal into a truly climactic encounter.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Last year I gave not one, but two status updates about my sales on the Dungeon Master’s Guild. I’ve got several pay what you want products in addition to a few paid products now on the guild. One of those paid products is the D&D Adventurers League adventure DDAL 05-05 Dish Best Served Cold which is an official part of the Storm King’s Thunder storyline. (You can find Travis Woodall’s amazing Deluxe Maps for the adventure here.) People have been asking me to do another update and share my AL sales. I’m more than happy to do that.

First Let’s Take A Look At Pay What You Want One More Time

Below are all my sale numbers including free downloads of my pay what you want products:

And here are the sale numbers with paid purchases only:

For reference, the pay what you want products are:

*Free purchases are not factored into a pay what you want product’s average payment.

So it seems a lot of my assumptions about pay what you want products vs paid products hold true after over a year. Pay what you want products see lots of downloads and get your name out there. They can quickly become “best sellers” since any sale of $0.01 or more counts towards your numbers. Sounds great, right? Yet one year in and I’ve still made less than $0.01 a word on these products. Any further releases I have on the DMs Guild will likely be paid only.

If you want to know more about why I made my initial products pay what you want, see my first post on this topic. I’ve learned tons about layout, editing, and art acquisition since I started posting products on the DMs Guild, so future products will not only be paid, but they should also be of a superior quality to my pay what you want products.

Let’s Talk About Adventurers League Adventures

When it comes to making paid products, sales skyrocket if a product is part of the main D&D Adventurers League storyline. A Dish Best Served Cold has only been up since November 1, 2016, yet has over 1000 sales and is already close to Platinum Best Seller status. Add to that the fact that adventure designers make 60% commission on their D&D Adventurers League adventures if they were published in season five or later and it is by far my biggest money-maker, despite the fact that it has roughly 1/10th the downloads of 50 New Magic Items.

Now the question becomes, does this hold true for adventures in the convention created content program? Not as much.

If you don’t know what the convention created content program is, here’s a nutshell description. Wizards of the Coast allows conventions to create adventures set in the Moonsea region of the Forgotten Realms. Those adventures are then played at the convention that created them, are considered Adventurers League legal, and can be sold on the DMs Guild after the convention.

Many of the same folks who work on the main D&D Adventurers League adventures also write the con created content. The con created content adventures are often just as professional and put together as the main Adventurers League adventures, yet they have lower sales. I wrote a con created content adventure called Tales of Good & Evil for Baldman Games that premiered at Gen Con. It’s been available to the public since December 2016. While I don’t have the exact sale numbers, I can tell you that they are somewhere between 100 and 260 sales, since it’s a Silver Best Seller at the moment (more on best seller medals below).

Now, that doesn’t mean writing con created content isn’t worth it. First of all, it’s a blast to write in the Forgotten Realms and to share that story with players everywhere. Second, that’s a published adventure with your name on it, baby! I’m so proud of Tales of Good & Evil and it allowed me to work with an amazing team of people. (Don’t tell Shawn Merwin, but I would have done it for free.) If we’re talking financially, Baldman Games made sure designers were taken care of. In addition to a commission split that is handled by Baldman (which is why I don’t see the exact number of sales… that’s in their hands), Baldman also paid me an up front fee for my words. So yes, working on con created content does indeed pay, despite smaller sales.


After having products on the DMs Guild for over a year I feel confident saying the following numbers and medals correspond. It appears to take medals several hours to update, so if you just hit one of these numbers, give it a day or two.

  • Copper. 50 paid sales
  • Silver. 100 paid sales
  • Electrum. 260 paid sales
  • Gold. 525 paid sales
  • Platinum. 1050 paid sales

How do I know this? At the moment, here are my own medals.

My copper best sellers are:

My silver best sellers is:

I have no electrum best sellers at the moment, but I do have two gold:

Finally, my two platinum best sellers are:

Ratings and Reviews

Ratings and reviews are tough to come by on the DMs Guild, and even more difficult to get organically. When I was starting out, I asked friends to take a look at and rate honestly my pay what you want products, so keep that in mind when you see the numbers below.

Here’s how my reviews are stacking up:

  • 15 New Backgrounds – 36 ratings, 8 of which include a written review (up since Jan 22, 2016)
  • 20 New Traps – 20 ratings, 3 of which include a written review (up since February 8, 2016)
  • 50 New Magic Items – 32 ratings, 3 of which include a written review (up since February 18, 2016)
  • Arachnids, Wraiths, & Zombies – 8 ratings, 1 of which includes a written review (up since March 9, 2016)
  • Archons – 13 ratings, 1 of which includes a written review (from a personal friend) on (up since January 19, 2016)
  • Catastrophic Dragons – 23 ratings, 5 of which include a written review (up since January 19, 2016)
  • Greater & Elder Elementals – 13 ratings, 0 of which include a written review on Greater & Elder Elements (up since February 1, 2016)
  • Tarokka Expansion 2 ratings, 1 of which includes a written review (up since June 1, 2016)
  • A Dish Best Served Cold – 7 ratings, 1 of which includes a written review (up since November 1, 2016)
  • Tales of Good & Evil – 2 ratings, 1 of which includes a written review (up since December 2016)

I will say that my free and pay what you want products have more reviews than my paid products, even when you take into account the five friends I asked to rate things for me (not all of whom actually did because they didn’t have time to read the products). It MAY be that a small number of people who download for free take the time to leave a rating (essentially giving their time instead of their cash to a product).

So there you have. The latest update on the DMs Guild. Anyone else out there having success? Did I get anything wrong? Is this information helpful to you? Sound off in the comments below!

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Boons and Setbacks in 5e

Posted: March 23, 2017 in Inspiration

Many of us have heard the term failing forward, but how can we use it in D&D? We play RPGs that have boons and setbacks, but can those ideas be brought into 5e? If you’re a DM who can think on the fly, you might be able to spice up ability checks and even attack rolls and saving throws in the world’s most popular RPG with a few very simple tweaks.

Defining Our Terms

First I need to define terms. A boon is a little something extra good that happens after you make a d20 roll, usually on top of success. For instance, if you’re picking a lock in a castle, you might learn a specific trick about the lock that gives you advantage on all future checks to pick locks in this wing of the building. Boons are often determined on the fly by the DM. Check out a list of suggested boons below to help guide you.

A setback (or botch or drawback or complication) is a little extra punishment that happens after you roll a d20, usually on top of a failure. In the lock picking example above, not only might you fail to pick the lock, you might also break your thieves’ tools trying to do so. Setbacks are often determined on the fly by the DM. Check out a list of suggested setbacks below to help guide you.

When Do Boons and Setbacks Happen?

Now that we’ve defined our terms, how and when do boons and setbacks happen. Before we get to when, let me ask you a couple questions that will help us answer how.

  1. To what kind of d20 rolls do boons and setbacks apply? Ability checks are by far some of the easiest rolls to come up with boons and botches on the fly. Attack rolls and saving throws can be a bit trickier, because the rules are more rigid with exactly what the outcomes of these rolls should be. As a result, if you decide to use boons and setbacks during combat, you may want to have a strict interpretation about what those mean (like you always have advantage on your next attack or get to move 10 feet for free) or create a random table (like my critical hit effects and critical miss effects) for consequences. For examples of static consequences, see the table below. If you and your group feel comfortable improvising these as well, go for it!
  2. Can boons only be applied when you succeed and can setbacks only be applied when you fail? Failure with a boon (sometimes referred to as failing forward), could mean in our lock picking example that you failed to open the door, but noticed the contact poison smeared on the knob before you touched it. Success with a setback could mean you picked the lock, but broke your thieves’ tools in the process. Adding these can make your gameplay richer, but it also adds more pressure on you as the DM to come up with ideas on the fly, so you don’t have to use them. You’ll also want to think long and hard about having failures with boons and success with setbacks when it comes to saving throws and attacks. If you’re using these techniques, perhaps they only apply to ability checks. If you’re using them with other d20 rolls, then maybe come up with a strict rule or table instead of winging it, unless you’re very comfortable with improv.

So when is it appropriate to use boons and setbacks? A few optional rules are outlined below.

Optional Rule: Five Above/Below

This optional rule allows you to apply boons based on the result of a character’s ability check, attack roll, or saving throw when compared to the DC or AC . Roll the dice, apply appropriate modifiers, and then use the table below to determine the result.

Result Effect
5 or more above DC/AC Success with boon
1-4 above DC/AC Normal success
Equals DC/AC Success with setback*
1 below DC/AC Failure with boon*
2-4 below DC/AC Normal failure
5 or more below DC/AC Failure with setback

*If you are not playing with these effects as options, treat the results as normal successes and failures.

Optional Rule: Know Your the Roll

This optional rule uses the unmodified results of the dice. Any natural roll of 15 or above grants a boon, while any natural roll of 5 or less imposes a setback. You can increase the ranges of these results to increase the frequencies of boons and setbacks to fit the needs of your group and story.

Optional Rule: Advantage Boons and Disadvantage Setbacks

This optional rule states that an ability check, attack roll, or saving throw is made with advantage, the result grants a boon, while anytime one of those rolls is made with disadvantage, the result grants a setback. Note that this rule does not mesh well with the suggested boons and setbacks that grant advantage and disadvantage on the next d20 roll, since it risks creating never-ending advantage and disadvantage.

Optional Rule: Natural 20s and 1s Only

With this optional rule you gain a boon whenever you roll a natural 20 on your ability check, attack roll, or saving throw and a setback whenever you roll a natural 1 on one of those rolls.

Suggested Boons

You have advantage on the next d20 roll you make.

You gain a piece of knowledge or hint about your current quest.

You can immediately take the Help action as a bonus action.

You can spend one die to heal as if had taken a short rest immediately.

Attack: You knock your target prone.

Attack: You disarm your target.

Attack: You deafen your target.

Attack: Your attack does an extra 1d6 damage. Damage type is chosen by the DM.

Save: You can immediately move 10 feet in any direction.

Save: You shout a warning which allows another creature of your choice who can hear you and has to make the same save advantage on their saving throw.

Check out my list of critical hit effects for more ideas.

Suggested Setbacks

You have disadvantage on the next d20.

An item being used in the action is broken.

You take 1d6 damage as a result of the setback. Damage type is determined by the DM.

You lose one hit die, 1st-level spell slot, or other small resource.

Attack: You drop your weapon or implement used to make the attack.

Attack: You fall prone.

Save: You fall prone or are moved 10 feet in a random direction if the effect already knocks you prone.

Check out my list of critical failures for more ideas.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I’ve been preparing to run a game of Phoenix: Dawn Command this weekend and I have to say it’s brilliant. This RPG from the mind of Keith Baker is a beautiful merging of story and mechanics that encourages teamwork, roleplaying, and heroics from the players. Here’s a quick description of the game from its website:

In Phoenix: Dawn Command, you don’t gain power by killing others; you gain power by dying. After each death, you add additional cards to your deck representing the lessons you learned from your previous life. However, there’s a catch: you can only return seven times. So each death makes you stronger, but it also brings you closer to the end of your story. In addition, you don’t return right away and you don’t return in the place where you died. This is what drives tension: most missions are time-sensitive, and should you and your friends all fall without completing your task, you will fail… and when you return you’ll have to deal with the consequences of that failure. Because death isn’t the end, the odds will often be stacked against the characters; players are encouraged to take risks and to be prepared to make sacrifices. Death isn’t the end, but you want to make sure you make every life count.

Even if you’re only ever going to play Dungeons & Dragons, Phoenix is worth purchasing for the ideas and new mechanics it will bring into your game. In today’s post I’m going to show how you can steal a few ideas from Phoenix and apply them to D&D. If you like this post, you might like another post about stealing mechanics from other games.


If you want evocative, original story ideas, this game is full of them. Much of the game’s rulebook is devoted to the setting, Dalea, and goes into great detail about the world’s history, cities, and cultures. One entire section of the book unravels the mysteries of the Dread (an evil phenomena that is overtaking the Dalea). The final pages of the book detail an entire campaign that can be run, complete with amazing encounters, compelling villains, and interesting NPCs. In true Keith Baker fashion the text is sprinkled with plenty of interesting open ends and alternatives that are worthy of entire campaigns.  Many of these ideas you can be stolen straight-up. Most others require the smallest of tweaks to apply to D&D. I could go on, but I don’t want to give too many of the game’s juicy bits away.

GM Advice

In addition to the lore within this game, there’s a lot of great advice about running Phoenix that can be applied to ANY roleplaying game. The book discusses encouraging players to take risks and roleplay, what to do when you don’t have a full table, how to create interesting encounters, and more. The lore plus the advice make this thing worth the price of admission and we aren’t done yet.

Environmental Elements

In Phoenix every combat encounter has a list of interesting environmental elements that can be used in an attack’s description. For instance a battle in a tavern might have a chandelier, fireplacekeg of ale, mounted moose head, and a shelf of bottles. In Phoenix, a card-based game, when a character uses one of these elements in the description of an attack, they get to draw an extra card. The element is then crossed off the list, not because it cannot be used in another description, but because it cannot be used to gain the bonus card benefit again.

It’s easy to bring the same idea to D&D. You can write a list of elements right onto a battle mat, paper, or index card. If you’re a lazy DM, ask each player to come up with one and write them down. When each is first used in an attack’s description, allow the character to gain advantage on the attack roll. If advantage seems too powerful, give another benefit, like an extra d4 damage if they hit.

Attendant Spirits

We’ve all been there. One hour into a four-hour session a T-Rex bites the head off the druid and now Katy has nothing to do for the rest of session. Phoenix, a game that somewhat encourages players to die, has a solution for this. When a PC bites the dust, their soul can bond to another hero as an attendant spirit until they are reborn. This attendant spirit can communicate telepathically with the host and speak to others through the host’s voice when the host allows it. In addition, the spirit can spend unused resources to aid the host.

To bring this idea over to D&D, we can think about the dead PC’s unspent resources. Maybe the spirit can spend unused hit dice to instantly heal the host, gift unused spell slots (of 5th level and below) so the host can cast more spells, or give away some other resource. Once the resource runs out, the spirit passes into the afterlife or waits to be raised from the dead.

Death As Advancement

Of course the big idea behind Phoenix is its most brilliant. When a hero dies, they level up, but their seventh death is permanent and final. This creates a great tension in the game because players want their characters to die, but not too quickly!

You could easily create a mechanic in D&D that eliminates the usual come back from the dead spells (revivify, raise dead, reincarnation, resurrection, and true resurrection) and experience points, and has characters return at dawn after their death, now one level stronger. If you decide to play this way, I recommend setting a cap to the number of times a PC can return before they are dead for good. 7 works well for Phoenix, but you could pick 3, 5, 10, 20, or whatever you thinks works best for your game. (For more hacks and advice in dealing with death, checkout these posts: Death and Returning Modules, and When Death Isn’t (Always) The End.)


The PCs in Phoenix have a limited amount of Sparks that can be used to add +1 per Spark burned to any Skill or Attack Spread. Once a Phoenix uses all of their sparks, they die. Sparks do regenerate, but rather slowly.

With some caution you could add a similar mechanic to D&D. If you’re using death as a tool for advancement, I’d say simply give your characters 5 Sparks per level and allow them to be burned to add bonuses to ability checks and attack and damage rolls. Characters regain 1 Spark x character level at the end of each long rest. If you run out of sparks, you die.

If you’re not using death as advancement, this becomes far more tricky to balance. I’d say each character gets 1 Spark x 1/2 character level (rounded down) per day that can be used to gain advantage on any ability check, attack roll, or saving throw.

Or Just Give Phoenix A Try…

If you’re loving all these ideas why not give Phoenix: Dawn Command a chance? All I did was steal what was already there!

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Once again I’m continuing my quest to add killer undead to the options already available in the fifth edition Monster Manual for my world of Enora. So far we’ve seen husks, skeletal dragons, vampiric dragonsvampiric vines, and elemental undead. Now I’d like to turn my attention to updating (and adding my own twists to) some old favorites: the nightcrawler, nighthaunt, nightwalker, and night wing. Thanks to EN World forum user pukunui for the idea!


When shadows and evil are infused with the strong will of a powerful being, they take massive forms. Appearing as giants, purple worms, and winged-beasts, this animated shadow stuff abhor life and light and desire a world covered in a shadow of death.

Massive Murderers. All nightshades are enormous combinations of solid shadow and corruption. When a strong-willed, evil beings refuse to pass into the afterlife, their souls infuse the with the same material that creates the Plane of Shadow. The souls wrestle with the shadow stuff, taking as much of it on as possible in order to anchor themselves in worlds of the living. At the same time, the shadow sucks any tiny sense of morality from the soul, creating a new being of considerable size, horrific shape, and murderous intent.

Undead Generals. Nightshades are cunning beings, who stalk the Plane of Shadow, looking for wayward victims to kill and turn into other undead through dark rituals. These undead are bound to the nightshade for as long as it exists. They follow its every command. Many nightshades search for ways to lead their armies into the Material Plane, so they might swell their ranks and experience death on a grand scale.

Work Better Together. Nightshades have great respect for others of their kind. They often form alliances to increase their slaughtering capabilities and grow the sizes of their armies.

Undead Nature. Nightshades don’t require air, food, drink, or sleep.


Nightcrawlers resemble purple worms made of pure darkness. Despite their appearance, they are extremely intelligent spellcasters who have devastating strength, burrowing capabilities, and the ability to swallow ogres whole.


Nighthaunts resemble large gargoyles and are pure malevolence. As expert tacticians, these nightshades are the best at leading armies of undead or placing guards and strategic defenses around a fortress.


Nightwalkers are twenty-foot-tall humanoids silent as death. They are among the multiverse’s best stalkers and their dead eyes can cause panic in the most daring prey.


Nightwings appear as enormous bats made of darkness, but have the same level of cunning and guile as all other nightshades. Silent as death and nearly invisible against a black sky, these beings dive onto prey before victims even know they’re being attacked.

Want the Stats?

Grab the PDF below or on the Free Game Resources section of this site any time.


If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Once again I’m continuing my quest to add killer undead to the options already available in the fifth edition Monster Manual for my world of Enora. So far we’ve seen husks, skeletal dragons, vampiric dragons, and vampiric vines. Now I’d like to turn my attention to updating (and adding my own twists to) two old favorites: blazing skeletons (or blazing bones) and the chillborn zombie.


Elemental Undead

Just because many wizards focus on one school of magic does not mean they can’t add a dash of another to their speciality to create a true nightmare. When a pinch of conjuration is added to the power of necromancy, skeletons bathed in fire and corpses armored in ice walk the land, eager for only murder.

Created by Master Mages. Only the most powerful mortals can tap into the power of the elemental planes when they make the dead walk again. These horrid creations are infused with elemental essence to make them stronger and faster while providing magical abilities that other undead of their ilk lack. A creator must be certain they can control an elemental undead before they create it, since the monster desires the mage’s death as much as any other living creature.

Furious Dead. Blazing bones and chillborn zombies have the elementals’ fury and the undead’s hatred of all things living, making them extremely difficult to control. They take a primal, raw pleasure in killing and are never satisfied.

Blazing Bones

Blazing bones are skeletons wreathed in ever-burning flame. They smell constantly of cooked marrow and screech like vultures when they attack. A connection to the Plane of Fire allows them to hurl flame and detonate their bodies at the moment of death.

Chillborn Zombie

Chillborn zombies have ice crystals embedded in their rotting flesh. The immediate area around them is deathly cold and their frigid touch penetrates to the heart. Their elemental connection allows them to breathe cold and, like the blazing bones, they also explode in a burst of energy when they perish.

Want the Stats?

Grab the PDF below or on the Free Game Resources section of this site any time.

Elemental Undead

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

Today I’m continuing my quest to add killer undead to the options already available in the fifth edition Monster Manual for my world of Enora. Today we enter the world of undead plants! (You read that right). You might say, “Whoa, James. Plants that are evil and dead? C’mon.” To that I’d say, “Of course, dear reader. Haven’t you ever seen Evil Dead? The most terrifying scene involves trees (that are presumably both evil and dead).”

It is with great pleasure that I now show off vampiric vines.

Vampiric Vine

Vampiric vines are sentient clusters of black thorned vines that thirst for the blood of the living. When a plant dies as the result of necrotic magic and its seeds are scatter on desecrated ground, these vines grow forth and eventually uproot themselves and crawl out into the night in search of a drink.

Nocturnal Hunters. During the day, a tangle of vampiric vines stays in the desecrated dirt from which it sprung forth. At night, the undead plant crawls forth, looking for unsuspecting creatures and an easy meal before returning home. The vines leave the bodies of their drained victims behind, sometimes causing panic that a den of vampires is nearby, attacking the land at night.

Hidden in Plain Sight. Vampiric vines appear to be normal dead brush when at rest. If a victim wanders into a lair, the vine waits until it is within striking distance and then pounces.

Save Snacks for Later. Vampiric vines are surprisingly strong, and will sometimes drain enough blood from a victim to drop it unconscious and then drag the prey back to its lair for more feeding later. Sometimes vampiric vines will feed off a victim for days before drinking enough blood to kill it.

Want the Stats?

Get them in the PDF below or grab them anytime on the Free Game Resources page. These stats are in playtest mode, so I’d love any feedback you have for me!

Vampiric Vines

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!


In the last two weeks, I showed off some new undead (skeletal dragons and husks), to help fill the undead Challenge Rating gaps in the fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my world of Enora. Today I’m continuing the parade of new undead with vampire dragons!

Vampiric Dragon

Vampiric dragons are the unfathomable result of dragons undergoing transitions to become potent, blood-sucking undead. Of the few such terrors that exist, most underwent the transition willingly. There are many reasons for a dragon to become a vampire, fear of death and increased power chief among them.

Vampiric Qualities. Like humanoid vampires, vampiric dragons do not cast shadows or reflections and have a thirst for blood. In their normal state, they are generally undistinguishable from their dragon counterparts who are not undead. Unlike normal vampires, vampiric dragons do not need to be invited to enter a residence and have nothing to fear from running water.

Feed and Slumber. When vampiric dragons feed, they can ravage miles of countryside or an entire city in a single night. Their thirst for blood is nigh insatiable, and a vampiric dragon can devastate an entire province before it slumbers, creating armies of vampire spawn to guard its lair.

Relief comes when the dragon decides to rest. Finally satiated, the beast enters a long slumber of one-hundred years before it wakes to feed again.

Undead Nature. Vampiric dragons do not require air. Since they have nothing to fear from running water and no need to breathe, many make their lairs deep in bodies of water.

Want the Template and as Sample Vampiric Dragon?

Here you go. I put them into a nice little PDF for you:

Vampiric Dragons

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!