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26 June 2019

Four Interesting Reward Types in D&D


Knowing they now hold incredible sway in the town of Asudem, the party negotiates with a halfling councilor about ownership of the Storm Temple. After all, they cleared the thri-kreen infestation beneath it, routed its corrupt clergy, and brought a new following to its patron deity; why shouldn’t they own the structure? If they did, they'd exert even more influence upon the Stormsteps and draw more followers. Yes, they thought, the Storm Temple would be theirs, no matter the cost.

En route to the dangerous Lost Precipices, the group stops a caravan heading toward the nearby town. Little do they know, it’s one of the town’s councilors who’s been absent for a few months. He’s incredibly grateful for all they’ve done in his absence and thusly promises he owes them a favor. A favor from Hector Gjorbinson, Merchant Lord of the Nine Goldmen Bank, is a powerful thing.

After besting the overrun catacombs beneath Hidden Sun Monastery and defending the canyon fortress from hordes of yuan-ti, red dragonborn, and thri-kreen, the party meets with the monastery’s master. The thankful dragonborn monk taps into each of their bodies’ ki, regardless of their class, and unlocks their hidden fury.

On the wall of a reviling shrine to Takhsis, goddess of manipulation, hangs a massive, black-bladed scythe. A platinum half-dragon picks it up, immediately sensing this weapon could grant him extreme power — at extreme cost.

Gone are the days are delving into a dungeon to find a treasure chest full of copper, silver, and gold pieces, along with the occasional +1 weapon or flaming sword (at least for some groups). Nowadays, it’s hip to populate your campaigns with interesting rewards, right? People want to feel powerful mechanically and in combat, yes, but they also strive to make a difference in other areas of the game that are becoming more and more “mainstream.” And even in the realm of combat-related item rewards, there’s room to innovate and create.

So, in the name of innovation, let’s delve into four interesting rewards to add to your Dungeons & Dragons campaigns: boons, weapons with a twist, places of power, and special favors.

Places of Power


Wondrous temples, cloud-reaching towers, and flying fortresses, places of power are locations where your party can retreat to safety, store their treasures, plan their next adventure, and amass followers. These places can arrive in the hands of your party in a variety of ways. Perhaps they clear a dungeon of its inhabitants and decide to call it their new home. Maybe a local lord rewards them with a plot of land inside town or just on the road toward the city. Really, there are many ways to offer up a place of power to your party, but it’s up to them to take it.

And that’s the key: this reward is useless if your party isn’t interested in having a home of their own. Some groups will actively pursue this reward, others will gladly accept a stronghold, castle, or tower if given the opportunity, and a select few will pass it up. Regardless, there’s no harm in giving your group the chance to own their own place of power, so try it! If at first they’re not interested, have an NPC explain how this location could become a symbol of their mark on the land. With a significant enough symbol, followers will begin to journey there and more opportunities will present themselves. And hey, they’ll also be able to store all their sweet loot realistically.

Interested in this type of reward? Here are four ideas for places of power:

  1. The wreckage of a keep in a nearby forest are overrun with goblinoids led by a vicious, four-armed troll. The local lord declares whoever can rid it of this warmonger will have his support in repairing the keep and making it their own.
  2. A squadron of modron fly high in the skies of the Material Plane using their massive airship, trying to instill order in any society they deem chaotic. If the modrons aboard the airship were to be banished or destroyed, the genius and powerful airship would be up for grabs…
  3. Two weeks ago, news arrived that strange, yellow and green skinned humanoids emerged from a closeby wizard’s tower wielding silver swords and speaking of an unfathomable conflict. Some folk were able to ascertain that these creatures were gith — and had surely taken control of the wizard’s tower that connected to the Astral Plane. With him most likely dead or imprisoned and gith on the loose, that extra dimensional tower just might be vacant (but probably not).
  4. You’re given a proposition by an archdevil of the Nine Hells: murder an angel gone rogue in Avernus and be rewarded with an infernal fortress on the River Styx, becoming a Lord of Avernus. Do you accept?
As an aside: if your group decides to take on the responsibility of owning a place of power, I highly recommend incorporating Matthew Colville’s Strongholds and Followers into your game. It’s a great well of ideas both mechanical and flavorful.

Special Favors


A promise from a merchant-king, a pinky-swear from a delightful fairy sorcerer, or a deal written in blood by a night hag are all examples of special favors, things NPCs guarantee to deliver to your party. They can range in power and complexity and alter the course of your campaign. Say farewell to material rewards like gold, fortresses, weapons, and armor; say hello to promises of assistance from influential allies, defeated enemies, and mysterious entities. This type of reward can be utilized in a variety of ways and is a great way to infuse high-stakes social interaction into an encounter!

Here are a few ideas about what special favors can entail:
  1. A warlord promises assistance in a future battle.
  2. Two merchant lords give the group a blank check after they route out a vile werefrog gang.
  3. An eccentric pixie sorcerer pinky-swears that she’ll have a place for them in the Feywild if they need it.
  4. Grandmother Blenna, a night hag, will watch over the group and defend them from any outside sources of divination, besides herself of course.
  5. The local innkeeper promises the party free room and board in a room of their choosing after they stop a bar brawl.
  6. A genie in a lamp will tell them of his brother’s location when they’re ready. That way, they can secure another wish from a genie!
  7. Silver dragon sisters Daliana and Galiana pledge their loyalty to the group after they destroy their mother’s zombified husk. They will exert their influence (in polymorphed forms, of course) in the party’s favor over the local kingdom.
  8. An old king promises to pass the crown onto an individual of the party’s choice after they route the foul evil influencing his closest advisors.

Boons


A blessing from a high priest of Bahamut, an experimental serum injected by a thankful illithid, and an unfathomable power locked in a lost vault of the gods are all boons, cool abilities that add on to or enhance the abilities of your party. Of my four ideas in this article, this is the most controversial and the most powerful (potentially). Boons, while quickly outlined in the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide for max-level characters, can be utilized at all levels of the game.

They’re great rewards for the end of a big arc or a particularly difficult side quest and they should be extremely rare. In addition, all of the party might not receive the boon; in my Enoach Desert campaign, a master monk offered to unlock the inner ki of the entire party, as long as they accepted the “blessing of the Hidden Sun, a long lost deity and force that hides with all of us today.” Some of the group accepted, others denied, leading to some members of the party gaining the boon.

Here’s a couple potential boons to bless your party with:
  1. Hidden Sun’s Fury: a blessing from a high priest of Bahamut. Maximize the damage dice of a single weapon attack. This ability recharges after a long rest.
  2. Illithid Serum: a thick liquid injected by an illithid arcanist. Permanently increases any one ability score by 2.
  3. Thoughts of the Secret God: knowledge obtained from the vault of a forgotten god. Gain proficiency in any two skills.
  4. Defensive Insight of the Weapon Master: defensive battle tactics ingrained into your mind by a general of the Abyss. Gain +1 to Armor Class, two uses of the Shield spell per long rest, or the ability to impose disadvantage on one enemy attack per long rest as a reaction.

Weapons With a Twist


The lightning-absorbing scimitar of an aarakocra storm sorcerer, a dark scythe meant to deal pain to both its wielder and their enemies, or a misty staffs that allows its wielder to transform into a lightning bolt — most of the time — are all possible weapons with a twist, weapons that aren’t simply +1 or add 1d4 fire damage onto each hit. These are created by mishmashing the different mechanics found within D&D, stealing cool ideas from other works, and wracking the deepest reaches of your mind to discover what your party will be enamored with. For what it’s worth, the magic item creation section of the Dungeon Master’s Guide has some great ideas; pull from there if you can’t think of anything. But truly, don’t reward your group with +1 weapons. Have them be more interesting than that!

Even adding simple abilities makes a huge difference. Perhaps a longsword shines blue light in a 10’ radius around its wielder and is made of mithril, making it a finesse weapon. How about a spiked mace that feeds on its wielder and its enemy, dealing an extra 3d4 damage to enemies on a hit but drawing 1d4 damage from its wielder on every hit? Don’t be afraid to create, reinvent, or steal from other sources; it’s your campaign! If this isn’t your style, that’s fine. Use the rules from the Dungeon Master’s Guide to make fifth edition “appropriate” magic items — but don’t just use +1 weapons over and over again.

In Summary


There are more rewards in D&D than what’s listed the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Let your mind flow free and let your creations crash into your game. Sometimes, their splash will cause giant ripples and change the course of the campaign. Other times, these newly thought up rewards might create tiny moments that your players will never forget. Remember:
  1. Reward your party with places of power. From these locales, they can build not only their power but their influence upon a part of the world.
  2. Offer your party special favors from NPC favorites, villains and allies alike! Once given, they are great to use in dramatic moments or when your party needs some extra help.
  3. Bless your party with boons that give them new and interesting abilities. These can range from in combat boosts to sway of extraplanar creatures; the possibilities are endless!
  4. Create weapons with a twist for your party. The serrated axe dripping with acid that splashes not only its target but its wielder and has the ability to turn into a clump of ooze for 1 hour is far more interesting than a +1 axe.
  5. Don’t be afraid to break the rules of the game to invent new stuff for your home campaign.
That’s all for today, folks. If this article inspired you, please comment below and spread your inspiration far and wide! Sharing the content of small content creators truly helps them grow, and I’m one of them.

Until next time, fare thee well!

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.

17 June 2019

Building Better Battles 2


A wood elf assassin releases a bolt from his hand crossbow that flies across the misty void of the Astral Plane and plunges into the shoulder of an earth elemental. The shot creates a crack that dislodges a piece of rock from the elemental’s arm, giving it ammunition to toss at the barbarian fighting on the floating island below. A firbolg warlock and tabaxi arcane archer maneuver around the icy chamber, dodging an ice beholder’s rays and its warforged titan’s heavy blows. The beholder cries, “This has played out in my head millions of times. In no scenario are you victorious,” as the battle rages on. In the catwalks of an underground thieves’ guild, a party of four dashes from boardwalk to boardwalk, battling human archers and halfling swashbucklers at varying heights. From above, a warforged blasts the group with a wave of acid that sculpts around his allies. He’ll need to be dealt with.

At the very least, combat encounters swallow one-third of your group’s time will playing Dungeons & Dragons, split between social interaction and exploration (as well as out of character chatter). Thus, building and running battles should be a skill Dungeon Masters constantly strive to improve on. If you’re interested, I wrote another article about this exact topic over a year ago; check it out here.

This article, though, will explore three different ways to build/run better battles: giving combatants interesting reactions, sprinkling in combat dialogue, and utilizing three dimensional environments. Let’s roll.

Interesting Reactions


A great way to spice up combat is to give unique reactions to the combatants in the fight that can change the fight both mechanically and flavorfully. Here are examples of both:


Last week my Enoach Desert group fought a patch of earth elementals in the Astral Plane. The elementals’ primary weapons were boulders which they couldn’t obtain when they were using their minds to fly through the misty void. Instead, when the PCs attacked the elementals, I had pieces of them break off, giving them more ammunition to assault the party; that’d be a mechanical reaction that isn’t inherently outlined in the game or earth elemental stat block.

If you’re not seeking to alter the mechanics of the combat, add reactions to the combatants that just don’t do so! This is rather simple. The barbarian’s blade slices through the owlbear’s hide, leaving a large gash. The warlock’s eldritch blast dents the fire giant’s brass shield. The dire wolf leaves tooth marks in the ranger’s leather gauntlet. These reactions to attacks (both misses and hits) add flavor to the battle and make them more memorable.

However, note that not every attack or action in combat needs to have an interesting reaction. Some misses are mere misses, some hits just hit.

Combat Dialogue


Speaking of hits and misses, this next tip is definitely a hit with some groups and an utter miss with others. Where do many of the epic one-liners occur in TV shows or movies? Combat. Try to do the same in your D&D battles! This goes for both PCs and NPCs/monsters.

Recently in my Iskryn campaign, the party confronted one of the villains of the campaign: Relueick, an ice beholder eldritch knight. Before the encounter, I jotted down a few lines he could spout during the battle — more so to give me inspiration for other things he might say. Whenever he spoke, it ramped up the tension and made the PCs retort. Eventually, I completely strayed from my pre-written dialogue and changed his reactions to fit what was occurring; it was great!

Obviously, this might not work when your party does battle with zombies or tries to survive against a pack of dire wolves, but a version of it might. There’s nothing quite like a Dungeon Master trying to mimic a wolf’s growl or a zombie’s moan. At worst (or best), your attempt to roleplay a zombie will cause your players to laugh; at best, it will invoke fear into them (and cause them to laugh).

Again, this tip doesn’t need to be used every encounter, but it can be! It’s especially useful for boss fights when the PCs are battling a character they’ve grown to hate over the course of the campaign or adventure.


Three Dimensional Environments


Flat battle environments become boring after awhile, so why not excite your players with a battle in three dimensions? A gentle hill covered in rocks above a field, catwalks in an underground thieves’ den, or vertical, trapped corridors in a beholder’s hive are all great examples of 3D battlefields. Remember, though, you’ll generally want the party to have some way to navigate a vertical battlefield (flying, ropes, etc).

In the latest session of my Enoach Desert campaign, my party briefly entered the Astral Plane and fought earth elementals scattered across broken pieces of a wizards’ tower that floated at various heights. They had to navigate not only along the x-axis but the y-axis, dodging boulder barrages, grasping earth elemental hands, and using shattered islands as cover. They had a blast and the fight, I’m sure, will be super memorable for months and years to come. And as an aside, this isn’t the last they’ve seen of a 3D battlefield in this dungeon…

Anyways, try this out! Even small alterations like adding a hill or tower to a battle can create tons of new decisions and branches for the combat; you don’t need to thrust your group into the Astral Plane.

In Summary


As Dungeon Masters, we can always improve our games. Why not start with combat encounters? Remember:
  1. Add flavorful reactions to combatants. These small moments can make combats infinitely more memorable.
  2. Sprinkle dialogue throughout the combat. The roleplaying need not end when weapons and spellbooks are drawn!
  3. Build fights in three dimensional environments. This adds extra flare and strategy to the battle.
Thanks for reading. If you liked this article, share it on social media like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit. Make sure to check back next week for another article, too.

Until then, fare thee well!

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.

03 June 2019

Dungeon Masters, Study Your Players' Characters


It’s Wednesday night. The Karlith Straits group is flying away from an erupting volcano where their hexblade’s clan once resided. Once he awakens from unconsciousness, there will surely be a hostile confrontation between him and the unintentional vanquishers of his vanquished clan. Later that same night, the party fights Taris Xaglomandra, a black half-dragon enforcer of the Obsidian Circle and cleric of Takhsis. They’re battling atop a partially-singed grassy knoll and Taris is near death and on the ground; he calls out to his shadow wyvern to grasp him in his talons and retreat. Not so fast! As the wyvern rises into the air with Taris, the order domain cleric Alovnek narrowly slams it with his maul. As the weapon connects, misty blue chains appear from its head and shackle the wyvern to the ground. After fifteen sessions, Taris would finally fall to the group (even though he took down a likable NPC and a PC with him).

Characters drive Dungeons & Dragons games forward. The most important ones are the player characters. If you find yourself questioning this statement, you most likely disagree with me about the fundamentals of D&D or you haven’t had this epiphany yet. Who do the villains plot and compete against? The PCs. Who affects the fantastic locations and stories spread across your campaign? The PCs. Who interacts with the carefully crafted NPCs who populate your world? The PCs. Thus, it’s important that you understand each one of them if you’re striving for the best possible experience at the table and in the game.

This idea might seem rudimentary, but to some, it’s a revelation they need to read. So, with that in mind, let’s delve into what parts of your players’ characters you need to study as a Dungeon Master.


Their Backstory


Understanding the various backstories of the party you’re running the game for can drastically improve everyone’s enjoyment at the table. Good news! It doesn’t require much work on your end. If each of your players wrote a single paragraph or even a single sentence for their respective character, read and incorporate it into the campaign or adventure.

The arms merchant the fighter had a hostile run-in with when he bought his first sword? He’s opening the new weapon shop in town. How about the cold bandit king who slaughtered the ranger’s bear companion for her beautiful pelt? he’s behind the string of disappearances driving the adventure. Who’s the victim of one of these disappearances? The dwarf wizard’s mother who paid for his arcane academy tuition!

See? It’s easy and will help invest your players into your world and the collaborative story you’re all telling.


Their Goals


Arguably more important than knowing each PC’s backstory is understanding what their goals are as individuals and as a collective. If you know them, it’s even easier to weave a narrative that piques their interest. Sadly, some players don’t arrive at the table with a clear goal in mind; ask them to! In particular, ask for two short term goals and one long term goal. That should give you more than enough ammunition for quests now and in the future.

Short term goals should be simple and concise: Alovnek yearns for the death of Enforcer Taris; Ra seeks a forgotten temple of his patron; Qoyish wants a weapon forged specially for her; Grobbolith needs to find new varieties of mushrooms. Most of the time, they’re attainable quickly (the time frame changes group by group), but this doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. Short term goals can start as mere side quests and become main story beats or embody the core story from the very beginning.

Long terms goals are different. They’re complicated, far-off, and most likely require an arduous journey to attain: Alovnek wants to become a deity; Ra wishes to release his patron who’s imprisoned in the Elemental Plane of Fire; Qoyish yearns for her hated kind to be accepted by their kin; Grobbolith seeks the power his archdruid mentor. Long terms goals aren’t attainable in a day or two. They require months of adventuring and scheming.

As for collective goals, those should arise naturally during play. Sometimes, party’s begin with a concrete motive in mind: Stop the death curse plaguing the realm (Tomb of Annihilation); defeat Strahd (Curse of Strahd). But even those can change over time! Perhaps your group decides the death curse can be harnessed. Maybe they think Strahd is a fecund individual, what he’s done with Barovia is fantastic! The point being that collective goals can arise naturally during play, while short and long term goals (at least initially) should be pitched by the players.

So, make sure to study your players’ characters! If they have goals, great, use them. If they don’t, ask them to form a few. The entire game becomes much more fun when each individual has a motivation. As for a collective goal, well, that’s why the party exists; those arise and grow naturally.

Their Mechanical Abilities


Now we’re moving a bit away from the story-side of D&D. The next aspect of your players’ characters that you should be looking at is their mechanical abilities. I’m not talking about how hard they hit or what their armor class is; instead, what special abilities does their class give them? What spells are on their spell list? What do they do over and over and what do they have available to them that’s being underutilized? Once you’ve done a bit of research, building challenging and interesting encounters becomes much easier. It’s a fine line, encounter design. You want to challenge your players’ characters but you also want them to shine and show their strength.

In the battle I described in this article’s opening, I did just that. Enforcer Taris, a black half-dragon cleric, took advantage of the Karlith Straits group’s weaknesses all while allowing their strengths to shine through. Their lack of range is an issue, leading them to constantly group up around a creature; so, Taris unleashed acidic breath upon them multiple times, leading to the death of a beloved NPC and a player character. However, Taris wasn’t able to escape because of Alovnek’s clutch use of ensnaring strike.

This isn’t a video game. We don’t need to build our encounters for a varying cast of characters that surmounts 1,000 possibilities. We need to build them for our group. Shape your encounters around your group and you’ll start having a much better and easier time.

Their Items


After class abilities, items play the next most important role in how characters interact with the world around them. You should think about them when designing encounters as well! Follow what I outlined above: give characters with awesome, useful items moments to shine. If the half-orc ranger has a pair of water-walking boots, set an epic battle against drow in an underground river or lake. If the halfling rogue has a grappling hook, give her a chasm to throw it across! Players feel amazing when their items come in use — play on that! It’s something I need to do more of and I’m getting better at it every time I play.

As a side note, also be sure to not reward your party with the same reward twice. Switch it up! No need to hand out two vorpal blades, boots of water-walking, or the same old 1,000 gold pieces reward. In fact, I think there's an entire article on this topic waiting to be written...

In Summary


Dungeon Masters, study your players’ character. In particular, pay attention to these four aspects:
  1. Their backstory. Incorporate it into your game at every opportunity.
  2. Their goals. Use them to drive your collaborative story forward.
  3. Their mechanical abilities. Build encounters with them in mind.
  4. Their items. Create encounters with them in mind and don’t hand out the same reward twice.
If you do that, your D&D game is guaranteed to improve.

Until next time, 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.

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