Posts Tagged ‘worldbuilding’

Hey I just wanted to let you know I’m contributing to Mike Myler’s Book of Exalted Darkness which you can back on Kickstarter right now!

At the beginning of the year I unveiled my plan to make Enora my first fully published world.

With that world comes new monsters, races, subclasses, and more. I’m now adding a paladin oath to the undead world – restoration.

Note that what is below is considered playtest material. Please let me know what you think!

Publisher’s Choice Quality Stock Art © Rick Hershey / Fat Goblin Games

Oath of Restoration

The Oath of Restoration binds paladins to the task of rebuilding what once was. Sometimes called rebuilders or restorers, these paladins nurture civilizations, clear monsters from ruins, heal scarred lands, help refugees reclaim their homes, and mend the wounds of the injured. Unlike paladins who swear an Oath of Vengeance, restoration paladins focus on the work of bringing back what is lost rather than making the guilty pay.

Tenets of Restoration

The wording of the tenets of restoration vary from paladin to paladin, but all share the same ideals about rebuilding, nurturing, and protecting others.

Stop Wanton Destruction. Those who destroy for the sake of themselves must be stopped at all costs.

Reclaim Homes. It is never too late to help another reclaim a lost homeland.

Anything Can Be Rebuilt. With enough time, will, and determination, any place, relationship, or life can be reforged.

Civilization for All. Any creature that desires shelter, education, good health, and the trappings of society should have access to such and be accepted.

Rebuild Hope. Optimism is key in inspiring yourself and others to uphold reclaim what once was.

Oath of Restoration Spells
Paladin Level Spells
3rd sanctuary, shield
5th lesser restoration, spike growth
9th beacon of hope, plant growth
13th aura of life, fabricate
17th greater restoration, mass cure wounds
Channel Divinity

When you take this oath at 3rd level, you gain the following two Channel Divinity options.

Greater Mending. As an action you touch a broken object, such as a cracked wagon wheel, two halves of a shield, a torn tapestry, or a leaking dam wall. As long as the break or tear is no larger than 3 feet in any dimension, you mend it, leaving no trace of the former damage. If the item you repair is a magic item, you restore magic to such an object. If the item you repair is a construct, you can repair it, but you cannot restore its magic.

Restore the Fallen. As an action choose one living creature reduced to 0 hit points that you can see within 30 feet of you. That creature regains one-third its hit points (rounded down).

Improved Lay on Hands

Starting at 7th level, with your Lay on Hands healing pool, you can restore a number of hit points equal to your paladin level x 10, and you can use this pool to restore hit points to objects.

At 18th level, you can expend 100 hit points from your healing pool to return a creature to life that has died within the last minute. That creature returns to life with 1 hit point. This feature can’t return to life a creature that has died of old age, nor can it restore any missing body parts.

Mutual Destruction

Starting at 15th level, you can rebuke your attackers with holy light. When a creature within 5 feet of you that you can see hits you with an attack, you can use your reaction to cause that creature to make a Dexterity saving throw. This saving throw DC equals your paladin spell save DC. On a failed save, that creature takes 2d6 radiant damage.

Aura of Durability

At 20th level, as an action, you can emanate an aura of strength and determination. For 1 minute, you and your allies within 30 feet of you have resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage from nonmagical weapons and have advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects. Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long rest.

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!

At the beginning of the year I unveiled my plan to make Enora my first fully published world.

With that world comes new monsters, races, subclasses, and more. I’m now adding a sorcerous origin to the undead world – lichtouched.

Note that what is below is considered playtest material. Please let me know what you think!

Publisher’s Choice Quality Stock Art © Rick Hershey / Fat Goblin Games


Your innate magic comes from some place of dark energy. Your parents may have been cursed by a powerful undead spellcaster. You could have visited a plane of negative energy. Perhaps you were even once an undead creature yourself. The reason you attuned to necromantic magic may never be clear, but what is obvious is that you can wield this power as easily as any lich.

Withering Grasp

When you choose this origin at 1st level, you gain the chill touch cantrip if you don’t already know it. In addition, when you cast and deal damage with chill touch, add your Charisma modifier to the damage roll of the spell.

Flesh of the Dead

Starting at 1st level, your flesh takes on a dull gray or stark white appearance. You are resistant to necrotic damage and have advantage on saving throws against effects that reduce your hit point maximum.

Consume Soul

Starting at 6th level, when a creature you can see dies, you can use your reaction to consume its soul. You regain 2 sorcery points and the creature’s soul is destroyed as a result. You can use this feature twice. You regain any expended uses when you finish a long rest.

Blood of the Dead

Starting at 14th level, you are immune to disease and poison. In addition, whenever deal necrotic damage to a creature with a spell you cast, that creature cannot regain hit points until the start of your next turn.

Undead Being

Beginning at 18th level, you can channel necrotic energy to become ghostly. As an action, you spend 5 sorcery points to draw on this power. For 1 minute or until you lose concentration (as if you were concentrating on a spell), you gain a fly speed equal to your walking speed and you can move through other creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain. You take 1d10 force damage if you end your turn inside an object. While in this form, you are resistant to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage from nonmagical weapons as well as acid, fire, lightning, and thunder damage.

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!

A new episode of Table Top Babble is now available!

James Introcaso sits down with Karl Resch and Quinn Wilson of Swallows of the South to discuss incorporating player input in your games.

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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’m going to write a post that is self-indulgent. I guess that’s true about every post on this blog in one way or another, but this blog post is going to be a story in which I am the central character, which is a little unusual for this site. Usually it’s some crazy monster, magic item, piece of advice, or game mechanic that takes center stage. If you hadn’t guessed from the title, this post will tell you how I became a somewhat, kinda, sorta, maybe, known creator in the world of tabletop roleplaying games.

I’m writing this post because several people have asked me how I “made it” in the industry. To be honest, I’m not sure I have “made it” at least by the modern definition. I’ve got a full-time gig outside the industry as a TV commercial writer/producer (which I really love). That being said, I do get paid to work on some pretty great projects in the industry and I am doing more in this space than I dared to dream, so in some ways I guess I have “made it” in this industry. At least made it further than I expected.

Still I thought sharing my story might be helpful for anyone out there interested in a freelance RPG design career, but I will say that my path is unique and involves a lot of luck, so I’m not sure it can be replicated. I was inspired to share thanks in part to the requests I got, but also by a recent episode of the Down with D&D podcast in which designers and podcasters Shawn Merwin and Chris Sniezak shared their own stories. Definitely check out the episode because they have great stories and a lot of amazing advice.

The Tome Show

In Fall of 2013 I was listening to a lot of podcasts and playing tons of D&D with my friends on Roll20. The D&D Next playtest was in full swing and I devoured every piece of D&D news I could find. One of my favorite programs was the News Desk on The Tome Show, but it only came out once a month. I searched for other D&D news podcasts, but most were actual plays, none with D&D news. I remember telling my then-girlfriend, now-wife, Bonnie, that I wanted to listen to a weekly show that covered the latest D&D news in-depth. I told her there was no show out there like it (that I knew of) and Bonnie said, “Why don’t you make it?”

What did I have to lose by giving it a shot? I already knew how to edit audio… but I didn’t know how to book guests, build an audience, or even submit a podcast feed to iTunes. At the time I was listening to backlogs of the now-defunct D&D advice podcast Critical Hits hosted by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish. At the end of each podcast he gave our his contact information, including email, and encouraged folks with questions to reach out. I emailed Mike, thanking him for his awesome contributions to the community and asked for advice on starting a podcast. I soon realized how gracious he truly was. The man gave me 600 words of free advice and told me if I wanted more I should contact Jeff Greiner, the creator and owner of the aforementioned Tome Show podcast.

Already a subscriber to Jeff’s show, I eagerly went to him for advice next. Jeff asked me to pitch him my idea and without even knowing it was coming he offered me a chance to do my show on the Tome Show’s feed, immediately hitting a large audience of subscribers! I admit, this is some pure, amazing luck. Thus my first public RPG-related creation was born: The Round Table podcast. Special thanks to Rudy Basso, Alex Basso, Greg Blair, and Vegas Lancaster for making those first several episodes with me and encouraging me to keep making the show in those first weeks. Extra special thanks to Sam Dillon for actually getting all those episodes on the air. After several months of consistent output, Jeff told me (after I asked a few times) that he trusted me enough to revive the Gamer to Gamer franchise on the network and I started interviewing professionals in the industry. (Shoutout to my first interviewee on that show, Wolfgang Baur!)


  • Listen to your partner.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out to people for advice.
  • Be gracious and grateful. People remember how you treat them. Also everyone deserves to be treated like a human.
  • Seize opportunities when luck offers them.
  • Be consistent with you work and don’t be afraid to ask for more after you’ve proven yourself.

The Blog

I was three episodes into The Round Table and seeing thousands of people listening to the show when I decided I should probably use the podcast as a platform to promote something I always wanted to do, but had been too lazy to start – a blog about homebrew design. I had a lot of time on my hands, since Bonnie was on a two-week business trip, so rather than play video games every night (which was my normal MO when she was gone before the blog and podcast), I used the time to create this site. I made a commitment to write two articles a week. To keep myself accountable, I started shouting the site out on the podcast, knowing that I would need to keep it stocked with content if people were going to show up.

The blog’s audience growth was slow, but steady. I started with less than 10 views a day, but as I kept updating it consistently and shouting out new posts to various social media groups and message boards, the views crept up. Now on days when I don’t post something new, I get about 500 hits in a day, but it took me three years to get here.


  • Sometimes you need to put video games and Netflix aside to work on rewarding, fun, creative projects.
  • The best way to build and audience is put out consistent, well-crafted content that you enjoy making.
  • Hold yourself accountable for getting your own projects done. No one else will.

The Work

So how did I finally get paid for some game design? Well my first jobs came from EN5ider and Johnn Four‘s Roleplaying Tips and they came about quite differently.

I had a year of blogging and podcasting under my belt when I saw EN5ider was just starting up. I saw a post on EN World calling for article submissions, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I had been rejected before by Dungeon and Dragon magazines and by the Adventurers League, but I didn’t let that discourage me. Editor James Haeck accepted of my pitch! Give Chase was born… after careful outlining, planning, proof-reading and revising, and revising again once I got notes from James. I made sure to hit each deadline and to listen to the editor’s feedback, incorporating it into the article, rather than rejecting what was said. James and I worked well together and I’ve written a few more articles for EN5ider since then.

Roleplaying Tips came about in a much different way. World Builder Blog was a regular contributor to the monthly RPG Blog Carnival and through that Johnn noticed my work, he reached out to me and asked if I would write an article for his newsletter that gave worldbuilding lessons. I’d be paid for the work and I could repost it here on the blog. That’s a great deal, so of course I said yes. Johnn and I have worked together on a few projects since, including a massive adventure that should be coming soon!

It was about another year before I got to do work for more people. In that time the DMs Guild launched. I already had a heaping helping of fifth edition content on this blog, so I put some of that into PDFs (without having ever done layout). The reputation I had built for myself on the blog and podcast helped get my products some buzz and a few became best-sellers. That’s when things really started to pick up.

The Adventurers League asked me to write an adventure for them and Shawn Merwin asked me to write another for Baldman Games. Roll20’s owners (who I met after applying for their game master job, which I did not get but did give me a chance to make connections with these very cool people) asked me to create their introductory fifth edition adventure, The Master’s Vault. Since then I’ve worked on a few other projects, but those are going to stay secret for now. Many of them are people I have met at conventions.

You know the rest of the tale. I’ve continued to create and since left the Tome Show to create my own podcast network with Rudy Basso. What’s in store for the future? Only time shall tell!


  • Keep submitting to open calls. Rejection happens! That’s ok. Don’t take it personally and keep pitching.
  • Be an active part of the community.
  • Write, revise, proofread, and hit your deadlines. People will want to work with you again.
  • Create, create, create for yourself before someone asks you to do it for them. You’ll learn your craft and build a library of content to show off or even sell.
  • Go to conventions. Meet your heroes, ask them for advice. This industry is smaller than you think and people are super approachable and awesome.

Luck and Hard Work

I clearly owe a lot of people many thanks. I could not have made it to even where I am today without them. My timing worked out and I was very lucky, but I also created some of my own luck by working hard. Hopefully this story helps some of you out 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!

It will likely be no surprise for any of you to learn I was in an improv troupe in college.

Me being hilarious (clearly) with my pal Vegas Lancaster back in 2008.

I know many of us Game Masters heard or read the old piece of advice to say, “Yes, and…” when a player throws out an idea as a way to build story cooperatively. That advice is often immediately followed up or preceded by the person telling you that this idea is a basic rule of improv comedy.

Why not apply improv comedy advice to RPGs? It makes sense. D&D is basically improv fantasy. Dread is basically improv horror. Night’s Black Agents is basically improv super spies vs vampires. And so on. It’s all collaborative storytelling.

The “Yes and…” technique is a handy piece of advice that I employ in my games (to a point, but that’s another post). It got me thinking, “Are there other improv comedy techniques or tips we can steal for our games?” Yes. A lot.

Today I want to share one mnemonic I learned in improv that helps establish scenes and brings NPCs to life. It helps when I need to create an NPC on the spot and breathes pizzaz into any generic shopkeeper or street urchin. It helps give named NPC 41 in a published adventure a personality and backstory without panic. It keeps you calm when the players zig and you expected them to zag. All you need to do is think, “LARCH.” That’s Location, Action, Relationship, Characterization, and History.


When it comes to meeting an NPC, the first thing you should establish is their location. Where an NPC meet the player characters says a lot about that NPC. For instance, if the characters get an invitation to meet the NPC for a meal, do they dine in the common room of a run down tavern, the private club room of an upscale establishment, or the NPC’s home (which could be a home-cooked meal in a shack or a feast prepared by servants in a mansion)? Do they meet for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or afternoon tea? If the characters meet the NPC on the street, is a shadowy alley, paved main street, or trail in the wilderness? All of these details say quite a bit about the NPC by showing the characters where they feel most comfortable. Before you get into describing the NPC, describe their location.


NPCs do not stand around and wait for the characters to approach them. They’re busy people! The evil cult leader is in performing a sacrificial ritual or reading an ancient tome or taking a nap when the characters roll up to her hidden swamp cave. A busy noble asks the characters to join him in his carriage as he rides from one appointment to the next. An urchin begs passersby for copper pieces as she shares rumors with the characters. A scientist browses through some album covers in a record shop as she casually passes the player characters her secret formula. Actions speak louder than words and clue the players into each NPC’s personality. By deciding what actions your NPCs are taking when they meet with PCs, it helps you as the GM settle into that particular character as well.


NPCs should know other people and places in the world beyond the player characters. During conversations with the PCs they should mention friends, acquaintances, enemies, rivals, family, celebrities, favorite dining establishments, inns to avoid, and more.It is most fun to connect new NPCs to people and places already known by the characters. If the adventurers are referred to the NPC A by NPC B, NPC A should mention NPC B’s name and how they feel about that person.

You start to fill out your world with new connections and interesting relationships and plots when you do this. If NPC C hates NPC B who is friends with NPC A, then odds are NPC C also hates NPC A… but maybe not! (Wouldn’t that be interesting?) Forming these relationships helps establish an NPCs character by connecting them to the world and simultaneously builds out your world. It also helps the characters get an idea of who your NPCs are beyond their presented self. If the kindly grandma hates the noble paladin, someone is probably not what they seem.


Personality and mannerisms are two important components to your NPC. When you’re making a new NPC write down an adjective and an character archetype and play to those ideas (e.g. Upstanding Criminal, Cowardly Clerk, Noble Henchmen, Loyal Politician, Mad Scientist). These words should have no strict interpretation. You are the only one who will ever see them. You decide what they mean. For instance “Mad Scientist” could mean an inventor who is angry, or a crazy supervillain with no post-graduate degree of any kind. By writing two words down next to the NPC’s name, you’ll remember more details about the character the next time they cross paths with the PCs.

If you need to create an NPC on the fly, choose or roll on the table below. If you want to take things a step further, use the tables in my NPC mannerisms post.

d20 Adjective d20 Noun
1 Noble 1 Sodlier
2 Sleazy 2 Criminal
3 Reluctant 3 Henchman
4 Pious 4 Scientist
5 Cowardly 5 Politician
6 Stoic 6 Youth
7 Mad 7 Hermit
8 Exhausted 8 Spy
9 Worldly 9 Artist
10 Powerful 10 Scholar
11 Polite 11 Clerk
12 Rude 12 Urchin
13 Excitable 13 Devotee
14 Competitive 14 Outsider
15 Broken 15 Merchant
16 Optimistic 16 Parent
17 Bored 17 Laborer
18 Curious 18 Hunter
19 Cursed 19 Liar
20 Lonely 20 Leader


Your NPCs didn’t just suddenly appear in the world. They have been living in it their entire life (probably). What accomplishments do they still talk about that exist in the world at present? How do they feel about big world-shaking events of the past, or even smaller events, like what the PCs did on their last quest? NPCs should have feelings about events that transpired before they met the characters and should have an impact of their own (no matter how small) on the world. If the merchant up and leaves town because the PCs threatened him, how does the rest of the community react to see their favorite bait and tackle shop close its doors after 20 years because some hooligans scared Mr. Potter? Just like relationships, when you create history, you’re defining your NPC and worldbuilding at the same 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!

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!

Have you ever sat down to run a D&D game and thought, “Oh crap. What am I gonna do? Why didn’t I prepare ANYTHING?” This happened to me sometimes as a kid and now it happens more than I care to admit as an adult. People get busy. There’s chores to be done, work to be accomplished, family obligations, social obligations, and more. These commitments also often get in the way of actual game time, so I’d rather run a game unprepared because who knows when the next time we’ll get to play is? Not only that, my players have cleared time on their schedules and made a commitment to the game. I don’t want to let them down. At the same time I don’t to run a bad game either which can be a result of unpreparedness. What’s a DM to do? You should prepare to be unprepared.

This blog post provides a few tricks you can try for those games when you couldn’t even spare the last-minute prep.

Read Adventures

Having an adventure you can pull off the shelf that you’ve already read makes life easy when you haven’t prepped. As a bonus, reading a well-written D&D adventure can be just as enjoyable as reading a book. Yet where can we find the time for pleasurable reading? We don’t even have time to prep our games! Fear not, there’s some solutions. First try multitasking. If you commute using public transportation or get a little cardio in on a treadmill or bike during the week, these are perfect times to read an adventure. If neither of those things work for you, remember – everyone poops.

I know reading the Wizards of the Coast hardcover D&D adventures can seem daunting. If you don’t have the time, desire, or money to read one, you don’t have to do that. There are tons of adventures you can for free (like on this site or found in Dragon+) or very cheap on the DMs guild or DriveThruRPG. Ratings and rankings can help you discover which adventures are well written as can the in-depth reviews from Merric’s Musings. If you’ve got time to scroll through social media, odds are you have time to read a short adventure.

As you read an adventure, the best thing to do is mark segments and encounters you really love. You just slap a quick post it note on a hard copy or place a bookmark on a PDF. When the fateful day comes that you’re unprepared you’ll be able to grab what you need and go. You don’t need to use the whole adventure, just take the parts you like (more on that below).

If you’re playing a longer campaign with a connected story, you can still make use of published encounters and adventures. Some simple re-flavoring (or re-skinning) will make everything fit in your story. For example, let’s say you’re running a story in which giants are the main antagonists, but you really want to use a red dragon encounter from Rise of Tiamat. Simply re-flavor the red dragon to be fire giant eldritch knight (the breath weapon and flight abilities are spells and the attacks are various weapons and stomps). The minions can likely stay the same. Boom. No math required. It’s all done on the fly.

Steal, Steal, Steal from Podcasts and Web Series

In a world full of actual play and advice podcasts and web videos, it’s even easier to multitask. The Adventure Zone, Total Party ThrillCritical Role, Behind the DMs Screen on The Tome Show, Venture MaidensDice, Camera, Action, and more have lots of folks playing or talking about their D&D campaigns. If you’re hurting for an idea, there’s absolutely no shame in stealing from these properties, especially if your players aren’t part of the audience of the property you’re stealing from. Even then you can make an idea work, provided you add a bit of a twist of your own or apply some of that reskinning.

Practice Improv

When you do have time to prepare, build a little improv into your game. Maybe write the first and last scene for a session, but let the players decide how to get from beginning to end. You can use random tables in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and have a few of the resources listed below ready to roll as a safety net. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, maybe just have a single improvised scene and go from there. Improvisational storytelling is a muscle. Work it out, build it up, and you’ll be ready if you find yourself running a game for which you did not prepare.

Save What You Don’t Use

Sometimes players go off the rails, causing you to throw out what you’ve prepared. Don’t walk away from that sweet kobold dungeon just because your players decided to hunt pirates on the high seas. Keep that for your less-than-prepared day.

Let the Players Take the Reins

If you haven’t prepared anything and feel comfortable with improv, let your players decide where the story goes next. Maybe they have downtime between adventures and decide to pursue a plot thread from one of their backstories or an enemy that got away during a previous quest. Maybe they have a dark relic that they want to figure out how to destroy. Maybe they want to blow off the main quest anyway and hunt pirates. If this is the case, ask lots of questions at the start and listen to the players as they respond. Let them construct the plan of action. Ask what they want to do and how they want to accomplish it. Take notes and answer any of their questions and you’re ready to roll. For some players it might be weird to open up a game by asking, “What do YOU want to do?” but once they realize what’s happening, most will love it.

Find Products Made Just For This

In addition to the resources listed in this post, you might also want to checkout Kobold Press’ Prepared! by Jon Sawatsky and the Book of Lairs. The former is a book of encounters and the latter is a book of dungeons. Put ’em together and you got game nights to spare! I also recommend two products by Michael E. Shea of Sly FlourishFantastic Locations gives you a bunch of amazing abstract locations that can be turned into dungeons large and small. His latest (currently) ongoing Kickstarter for Fantastic Adventures is a bunch of short one-shot D&D adventures with fun twists and turns. This book can be used with Fantastic Locations to really flesh out adventures and have an awesome experience.

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!

A new episode of Table Top Babble is now available!

James Introcaso sits down with Pedro Barrenechea and Henry Lopez of Paradigm Concepts to discuss their rich campaign world of Arcanis, its organized play program, and the Kickstarter that brings the setting into 5th Edition D&D.

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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!