Pages on RJD20

29 April 2019

Five Facets of a Compelling D&D Character



It’s Wednesday night. The Eldar I campaign is about to begin and a new story is about to unfold in this new world. I set the scene, describing a port town in the early hours of night being hit by a fierce storm. As powerful waves buffet against the docks and rain creates muddy puddles in the streets, I ask the Players to introduce each of their characters. Who are they, where are they, and what are they doing? I ensure that my own entrance into the campaign does not overshadow their’s; after all, they are the stars of this story.

In Dungeons & Dragons, Dungeon Masters are not the protagonists. Neither are their myriad monsters, nonplayer characters, fantastical locations, might deities, or mystical magic items. Instead, the spotlight shines on the pieces the Players brought with them to the table: the Player Characters. These venerable heroes, wily looters, and lucky adventurers are the centerpiece of all that happens. Every battle, every conversation, and every exploration is carried out in some way by them. Thus, it’s important that these characters are compelling, no?

If you create a compelling character, it greatens the joy and entertainment of everything in the campaign. You’ll be more invested, along with the rest of the players at the table. In this installment of Legendary Lessons, I’m going to help you do just that! Let’s discuss five facets of a compelling D&D character.

Of course, the first step is to create your character. Pick a race and class, then give them a little bit of personality. Use Chapter 4: Backgrounds in the fifth edition Player's Handbook. Bookmark it, too. We'll be referencing it a few times throughout this process! Choose a background like acolyte or sailor, select or roll randomly for an ideal, a personality trait, a bond, and a flaw. After that, continue below.

1. Part of the World


Unless you’re playing an amnesiac, your character was a part of the world before the campaign began and they remember it. You didn’t just emerge from the ground, sword-in-hand and ready to adventure. A path led to who you are in the campaign. The Backgrounds chapter in the fifth edition Player’s Handbook oozes inspiration, but you need to cement yourself as a part of the world you’re playing in. Speak to your Dungeon Master about your hometown, a few people you care about, and some people you hate. Don’t just let your backstory sit on your character sheet; implement it into the actual game!

If you’re a wizard, maybe the school you attended is nearby and you can contact its administrators for assistance. Rogues might be a part of a prominent thieves’ guild or a dirty, up-and-coming gang who lairs in the sewers beneath the city. The half orc antipaladin who imprisoned your best childhood friend and brought him before his infernal master could return to the story and become a villain in the campaign. Maybe you can hitch a ride from your friend, the stable owner.

All of these examples connect your character to the world and make them a part of it. And if you’re a part of the world, then you’ll care much more about it; as a result, so will the other players and your DM. These stories, people, and places from your background can also help shape your personality. Side note: these background elements don’t need to be created before the campaign begins. D&D worlds are constantly changing and being built upon. Don’t be afraid to create NPCs, locations, and plots on the fly.

2. A Reason to Be There


It’s not a good feeling when everyone gathers around the table to play D&D and then a character decides he doesn’t want to be a member of the party or go adventuring for an arbitrary reason. In fact, I’d say it sucks. When we play D&D, we do so under a usually unseen and unheard agreement that we are, well, there to play D&D. That means all of our characters want to go on an adventure, make a cool story, fight evil folks, and find magnificent artifacts. You need to make sure your character has a reason to be there, a reason to be an adventurer.

It doesn’t matter how simple or how complicated your reason is. Perhaps you just want the bounty being offered by the local monster hunter, or maybe you are desperate for revenge against the hill giant who crushed your award-winning hog. All that matters is that you want to be in the murky swamp where the medusa supposedly hides, or in the depths of the hill giant’s cave, knee-deep in pig bones and half-eaten cows (the giant doesn’t like cows).

This doesn’t mean your character can’t disagree with what the party is doing, but that disagreement shouldn’t bring the game to a standstill. When it does, it fractures the wonderful experience that is D&D. Try not to fight about where to go next or what quest to take too often and once the next action is decided upon, don’t fret. Instead, come up with a reason why you’d want to be there! It’s D&D; anything is possible.

3. A Fatal Flaw


Not everyone is perfect. That’s a good thing. Perfect characters make for imperfect, uninteresting stories. Imperfect characters, on the other hand, make the most interesting tales. Therefore, give your character a fatal flaw! And no, not a mechanical one; not being proficient in longbows isn’t a flaw (unless you play it up, a lot!), but being unable to resist the temptation of what lies behind the next door or what’s kept in the priest of Pelor’s lockbox is! Flaws are gold mines for Dungeon Masters because they’re easy ways to make your character act or do something incredulous.

There are lots of flaws listed in the Backgrounds chapter of the fifth edition Player’s Handbook. Pick one of those and ensure you play it up. Just because the flaw exists on your character sheet doesn’t mean your character is flawed. It’s up to you to include it in the game itself.

Are you a devout cleric of Torm who is dedicated to their temple and its people? What happens when all signs in a foul plot to murder the town’s mayor point to your temple’s leadership? If you are truthful about your flaw, if you play it up, you won’t immediately skip over to the temple and bang on your priest’s doors. You might defend them, come up with excuses, and try to speak with them alone. Even with the evidence piling up, you might refuse to indict them. Perhaps a confrontation between them and your party comes to blows...whose side are you on? Dramatic, no? That’s the point! Fatal flaws make for great stories and great D&D.

4. A Dangerous Secret


Similar to a fatal flaw, all D&D characters should begin the game with a dangerous secret. No, this doesn’t need to be a catastrophe-causing, devil-summoning, terrifying secret (note: need to be); instead, it can be something that could hurt you, someone you know, an organization you’re a part of, or something else. Work with your Dungeon Master. Maybe they can hand out a few important secrets to the plot that you know about but need to uncover more information to utilize properly. If that doesn’t sound compelling to you, try creating a riveting secret based on your tumultuous past.

5. Close Friends and Hearsay


My final tip for creating a compelling D&D character is to connect them to other characters in your party in one way or another. It’s also the most optional. Not all groups want to begin the campaign knowing the other members of the party and that’s fine. Sometimes, though, interparty connections can lead to spectacular stories. I’ve not played many tabletop roleplaying games besides D&D but I’ve heard this is a common thread in many of them and I definitely understand why.

Here’s a table of potential connections to other members of your party:

A Compelling Character


Meet Morgash: he's a half orc warlock and my next D&D character. Morgash was raised in the cellars below the Font of Knowledge in Waterdeep. He was left there as a babe by his mother or father, eyes red and veins black. The priests there took him in and tried to cure him of his sickness. They thought they succeeded; they were wrong. For the first thirty years of his life, Morgash assisted the clergy of Oghma from the depths of the temple, sorting tomes, cleaning relics, and learning about the ways of Waterdeep from below. Upon examination of a particular artifact found in the depths of Undermountain, the evil inside him stirred. Without warning or explanation, Morgash left the Font of Knowledge in the night and traveled to the Yawning Portal, dead set on entering the dungeon that lurked below the establishment. Here is the breakdown of Morgash:

Personality Trait


Morgash is horribly awkward in social situations and talks in third person.

Ideal


Morgash's patron's artifact hides in Undermountain; it leads to the patron's salvation and power and domination. It must be found.

Bond


Morgash's patron hides inside him. It has always been with him. Morgash would do anything for it...does his patron believe the same?

Five Facets

  1. Part of the World. Morgash has lived in Waterdeep his entire life, though much of it has been spent beneath one of the city's greatest temples. He has relationships with the priests of that temple, the temple itself, and knows of the troubles the city has endured the past three decades.
  2. A Reason to be There. Morgash is a warlock whose patron desperately wants to find something in Undermountain. The patron hiding inside Morgash has finally awakened and forced Morgash to the Yawning Portal. But was he forced, really? Morgash's patron has always been within him, speaking to him, helping him. Morgash would do anything his patron asked...
  3. A Fatal Flaw. What I just stated in the sentence prior: Morgash would do anything his patron asked, without question. This could lead to some unfortunate confrontations or terrible situations.
  4. A Dangerous Secret. When interacting with the party, Morgash knows he must hide who and what his patron is. They can know he's searching for something below the Yawning Portal, but what it is and why it is important can remain a secret. If that secret gets out...bad things might happen.
  5. Close Friends and Hearsay. The other characters have not been created for the adventure yet, so I'm not connected to any of them. Maybe one can be a priest from his temple who is also delving into Undermountain. That would lead to some interesting experiences, especially if the priest was alive when Morgash was dropped on the steps of the temple.

In Summary


The first and arguably most important step to playing in a great D&D game is creating a compelling D&D character. Here are five facets of a fantastic character:
  1. Be a part of the world.
  2. Have a reason to be there, to be a member of the party.
  3. Make sure you have a fatal flaw.
  4. Create a dangerous secret to hide.
  5. Connect to other members of the party.
You now have a compelling D&D character! All that’s left is to bring them to the table and hope everyone else had done the same.

Until next time everyone, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

15 April 2019

The Major Powers in Your D&D Setting


The dry chamber was silent. All the grand chairs were filled, the table was littered with maps, pins, papers, and quills; yet no one spoke. They were all here, representatives from the greatest powers across Aphesus: A mighty dwarven battlemaster from Utgarda; a bloodthirsty gnoll warlock from Dol Dohur; a shy, enigmatic wood elf from Daioda; a zealotos life cleric from Lorinth; a wild halfling atop his raptor from Zinae. Yet no sound emerged from any of them. They all knew the severity of the disaster that brought them together — the decimation of the gnome country Klavangra — but none could muster the courage to speak. In this sultry, remote outpost, they sat, stunned and unsure of what to say or how to approach the matter at hand. Eventually, the silence would break; these are powerful people after all. Surely they’d know what to do. Here in this arid desert hideout, peace would be brokered...or war declared.

Thus far in the worldbuilding process, we’ve formed core tenets, established a great pantheon, and drawn a basic map. All of these have been broad strokes. Before we start adding depth to our world, we’re going to slide the brush across our entire canvas one more time. In this installment of the Worldforge, we’ll be creating the major powers of our Dungeons & Dragons setting; these will be the movers and shakers of our world, the cultures that are most widespread. Let’s make some powerful cultures!

Defining a Power


A major power can be anything from an influential city-state to a titanic empire that sprawls across your entire setting; we need to make a few. These notable cultures will likely interact with the actual player characters in your group more than deities — or even maps — ever will. Most of the conflict and intrigue in your setting should stem from these powers colliding, collapsing, and being born anew.

So, what is interesting to you? Look at your world and what it’s about. What kind of cultures do you want to fill it with? Most D&D worlds are rich with diversity: orcs and elves, halflings and tieflings, humans and dwarves. My general rule is to give every common race a single major power. The orcs control an enormous stronghold that once was held by dwarves. Dragonborn rule an entire empire that threatens every civilization that exists. That’s the first step to defining a power: you need to think about what that power is and who controls it. Here are a few examples:
  1. Nation of gnolls in the desert.
  2. Theocracy of halflings.
  3. Nomadic tribe of goliaths in the mountains.
  4. City-state of halflings in the jungle.
  5. Cabal of genasi.
  6. Magocracy of sorcerers half in the Material Plane, half in the Inner Planes.
  7. Country of warmongering humans.
  8. Empire of peaceful, idealistic gnomes.
After you’ve decided what the power is and who controls it, you need to create its culture. How does the nation of gnolls in the desert act? Do they worship gods, spirits, or the stars? Are they a militaristic society or do they thrive on hunting wild beasts and straying from conflict with other powers? As is the norm with worldbuilding, all you need to do is think up and initial premise and ask yourself questions about it to give it more depth.


When creating powers, I’ve found the following strategy incredibly useful, engaging, and fun. Take one or two cultures you know about, splice them together, and add a fantastical twist! This makes for interesting powers in your setting without too much work on your part and can give you a baseline to further develop after you’ve created a few of them. Read about ancient Egyptian culture and their devotion to the pyramids and monumental statues, combine that with the Mongol’s mastery of cavalry, and give your city-state of halflings in the jungle pterodactyls to ride. Voila — you have an interesting power; you can build on it later. Make some more!

Example Powers


Stuck trying to create a power or two? Take a gander at this short list for ideas:
  1. Empire of thri-kreen that look to the stars and constellations for guidance, construct enormous planetariums, and seek the destruction of all deities.
  2. Guild of warforged who live in the sewers of a major city and manipulate the politics of it from the tunnels below. They construct odd, “warforged” animals like rats and birds to spy on their enemies — and allies.
  3. Country of elves and dwarves who live together in a forested mountain chain and share a common history. Everyone speaks Elvish, the most common weapon is a battleaxe, and the professions of mining and artistry go hand-in-hand.
  4. Human jungle nation that relies on a chained devil for energy and magic.

In Summary


The last, large stroke across our world is the creation of a few major powers. Remember the following points:
  1. A major power is an culture or faction that will play a substantial role in your setting.
  2. Think about the what and who of a culture before you do anything else. Is it a diverse country? A city of gnomes? A guild of half orcs?
  3. To develop provocative powers, take two cultures you know about, splice them together, and add a fantastical twist! The possibilities are endless.

About YouTube


For the past few weeks, I've been uploading a new video to my YouTube channel on Friday mornings. Each of these videos is simply me reading my articles, starting from the beginning, and then elaborating on them at the end of the video. Sometimes, I've changed my mind on a topic, other times my opinion remains the same. If you're interested in listening the the articles read aloud, check it out!

Next up in the Worldforge series, we’ll be zooming in — creating a starting point for a campaign or adventure in our campaign setting.

Until then, farewell!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

04 April 2019

Great Ways to Use Spell Components in D&D


Desperate for a companion in this haunted forest, a shy elf druid pulls out a charred fish and motions toward the crouched lion as green, shining magic courses between her and the animal. In the midst of battle, a near-death halfling wizard pulls out and uncorks a wooden flask, shouting an arcane phrase as water flows from the flask and forms an icy haze around his being. With the only way out the size of a small goblin, a human sorcerer splashes a pinch of powdered iron across the glowing glyphs on her face as she recites an ancient spell and begins to shrink in size.

By many folks, combat is seen as simply a tactical battle, a confrontation between foes, a bloody skirmish. Turn by turn, we go around the table and portray our characters who battle against a squad of squirming goblins, a raging dragon, or a mess of elementals. We hit them, they hit us back, and when someone falls, friend or foe, there’s usually a chance to cast some roleplaying and narration into the battle. Some people prefer it this way; roleplaying can be saved for exploration and social interactions. There’s no need for it during combat. I’m not some people.

Roleplaying during combat can make for some of the best moments in an entire campaign. It’s the perfect time for wicked one-liners, describing your character’s prowess in a certain form of combat, or the villain to espouse why they’re in the right. However, roleplaying during combat may seem unnatural or difficult. I’m here to help change that! Today, we’re going to discuss how to add flair to your combat encounters, both as a Player and a Dungeon Master. Specifically, we’re going to look at integrating spell components into your descriptions during a battle. Afterward, we’ll dive into how spell components might add more to your campaign than you realize.

First, Remember This


Before we delve into how to flair up your battles descriptively using spell components, think about the following. Not every single spell cast, all damage dealt, or every swing missed needs to be anteceded by thirty seconds or a minute of narration. Sometimes, even in roleplaying-focused groups, simply saying, “The firebolt flies past the goblin shaman,” or, “Your longsword slashes past the bandit’s chain links, injuring him,” is enough.

Personally, I’d add flair to every other one of your turns and leave the rest with simple descriptions. Again, this depends on your group. Some people hate describing their battles, others love diving into every missed attack and every step on the battlefield. Alright, let’s get into the meat of the article.

Awesome Ingredients


Lots of people don’t pay attention to spell components. That’s a shame because the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS team obviously put a lot of effort into making them interesting. Truly, they’re fantastic ways to spice up your descriptions during combat. Dungeon Masters and Players either completely ignore or misconstrue what spell components are; they turn them into objects with no meaning. This is a consequence of not wanting to track them and I understand that. Tracking them can be tedious and tax a spellcasting player character over time. My argument is that you ensure spellcasting components aren’t merely a tally or word on your character sheet.

The descriptions in the opening paragraph of this article show this. Instead of saying, “I cast reduce self,” you can add flair to it by shouting, “I splash a pinch of powdered iron across the glowing glyphs on my bloody face, begin chanting, ‘Downgala, reductas, zween,’ and shrink to the size of a halfling!” And that doesn’t take a lot of effort; you just need to know what spell components you need. Reduce, a 2nd-level transmutation, one needs a Verbal component (the arcane phrase), a Somatic component (flicking your hand), and a Material component (a pinch of powdered iron). Combined together, you get an amazing description. It creates a memorable moment at the table and the book basically did the work for you!

Here’s the gist: Pay attention to spell components! They really can give you lots of inspiration on how to spice up your descriptions. Check out a few of these Material components:
  • Hunger of Hadar - a pickled octopus tentacle. Do you fling the tentacle at your foes, or swing it in the air like a rope?
  • Identify - a pearl worth at least 100 gold pieces and an owl feather. You inspect a magical item by dusting it off with an owl feather. Awesome!
  • Spirit Guardians - a holy symbol. Perhaps a wizard or sorcerer can get their hands on this spell...but how do they cast it?
While we’re at it, ponder about your spells’ appearances as well. Not every fireball is the same. Not all magic missiles are purple. Not every skeleton made by Create Undead looks similar. During play, especially if you’re in a narratively focused campaign, feel free to mold your spells’ looks based on your character. A wild magic sorcerer’s Fireball might be bunches of blue, orange, red, white, and green flames, while a shadow sorcerer’s Fireball will probably be a torpedo of blazing darkness, swallowing all shadows in the room. It’s D&D; the possibilities are endless!


Spell Ingredients and Plot


Dungeon Masters, take note! Not only can these be used to make the spells your player characters and monsters cast interesting, but they can also make for great quest and story items. If your group is into finding spell components, where will they find a pickled octopus tentacle? In the shop of an eccentric triton pickler or cut from the body of a giant octopus that haunts the Western Docks? To cast Spirit Guardians, you need a holy symbol. Where’d you get it? Off the body of a slain cleric of a foul god? A gift from a friend who you haven’t seen in years?

High-level spells such as true resurrection and gate require valuable and scarce components. Unless your party is highly unlikely to enjoy a detour or side-quest to obtain such materials, you should make these ingredients a mini-arc in your campaign. Here are a few examples:
  • True Resurrection requires a diamond to be cast. The only sizable diamond for hundreds of miles is locked in the vault of a dwarvish collector and golem-maker extraordinaire.
  • A cruel devil’s true name is necessary to cast the Gate spell. The only being alive that remembers it is his fierce, jaded rival: a solar lost years ago in the Astral Sea.
  • Imprisonment requires a statuette carved in the liking of the targeted creature. You know a master carver, but you parted ways on terrible circumstances.
  • Holy Aura needs a holy relic to work. Luckily, the Archdiviner of Mystra is in the city, and you might be able to score a meeting with her.
This isn’t limited to high-level material components, but it’s far easier to obtain a pinch of fine sand than the true name of a devil.

In Summary


I hope you’ve gained inspiration on how to invigorate your combat encounters using spell components, whether you’re a Player or a Dungeon Master. Remember what we covered:
  1. Not every spell or attack needs to be followed by a lengthy description.
  2. Spell components can be seamlessly woven into your combat description and greatly add to the scene.
  3. The same spell doesn't need to look similar; it changes based on the caster. My rule is: “No two Fireballs are alike.”
  4. Material spell components/spell ingredients can make for great side quests or mini-plots if your players are up for it.
Next week, we might see the start of series number four on RJD20.com or the continuation of the Worldforge. It is unknown.

Until then, safe travels!

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to rjd20writes@gmail.com.

Most Popular Articles