Building the Story with Dice Rolls

Remnants of the black half-dragon’s acidic breath fade from the air as Qoyish attempts to mount his injured shadow wyvern. If she succeeds, she’ll be able to stab the beast where his wounds are already dire. If she fails, she risks falling directly under the wyvern’s venomous stinger that drips black venom. And if she truly stumbles, the wyvern might immediately lurch at the already hurt ice elf, leading to her demise.

As the debate with the human lord grows more and more heated at the grand feasting table, a minotaur rebukes him with a firm statement. If his words land, the lord will cow to their demands. If they fall flat, he might order his dragonborn guards to carry them to the dungeons below his keep. If they sting the lord’s fragile ego, he could order the party’s death on the spot.

Hearing his water nymph companion’s call for help down the tiny passage, a minotaur forces himself into the hole. If he succeeds, he’ll squeeze through the stone, sahuagin corpse, and sharp spike trap. If he fails, he’ll cut himself on the spikes and reach his companion far more slowly. But if his strength and dexterity completely fail him, he’ll be a big cow caught in a small hole.

Last week, I read an article written over at Improved Initiative that caught my attention. It discussed the concept of failing forward which is incredibly important in a game like Dungeons & Dragons. In a pinch, failing forward means that even if a PC fails a check, especially a skill check, something still happens. Sure, if a half-orc fighter bashes down a wooden door with a successful Athletics check, it’s self explanatory, but what happens if she fails? Do you have an alternative besides letting the door remain intact? Do you have multiple scenarios? If not, this article might help with that.

The goal of this article is to get you in the mindset of setting up multiple reactions to your PCs rolls. They might not always be mechanical; in fact, most of the time they won’t be. Instead, they’ll progress the story, ensuring the engagement doesn’t go down as the half-orc tries to bash the door down again and again with her metal shield or just-as-hard fists. At the same time, you need to be cognizant of the fact that sometimes you need to let the PCs try other plans. Let’s roll.

The General Mindset

Failed rolls don’t need to just fail. Repeat that to yourself. As you think, understand that this is a hard mindset to grasp. The process will take weeks and even months, but it’s worth it in the end. Eventually, when you ask for a roll from a player, you should know a few of its implications. A skill or ability check can succeed and fail at varying degrees. A missed attack might garner some information about an opponent. Rolls need to mean something; you should never ask a player to roll if it’s not necessary. Memorize this and you’ll be golden brown after practicing it for an adventure or two. After that, you’ll steadily improve, think up new ideas, and build your story from the most basic of D&D blocks.

Skill Checks

When you ask one of your players to make a skill check, you should lay out different outcomes in your head. Usually, I ponder up four: major failure, failure, success, and major success. Note that I don’t call these critical successes or failures; this is intentional because I don’t play with the house rule that states natural 20’s/1’s cause skill checks to instantly succeed/fail. Each outcome will cause the scenario to play out differently and ensure the story progresses and doesn’t stall. This is the process of failing forward that was discussed in the article I mentioned earlier, with a little more concrete. Let’s look at an example.

A few sessions ago in my Karlith Straits campaign, a water nymph, Na, was trapped by a portcullis in a small passageway; duergar were en route to her. The party’s minotaur cleric, Alovnek, desperately needed to get to her and break down the portcullis. However, the tunnel was quite small plus a spike trap and a sahuagin corpse was in his way. I gave his player the choice of making an Athletics or Acrobatics check to get to the portcullis. For both, I had the following thought out depending on how he described his action:
  1. Major Failure: He gets stuck in the beginning of the tiny tunnel, becoming restrained. This lets the duergar get to his party member before him.
  2. Failure: He squirms his way through the tunnel slowly, but cuts himself on the sharp spike and gets sahuagin blood on his armor.
  3. Success: He progresses through the tunnel without touching the sahuagin corpse or spike and reaches Na before the duergar do.
  4. Major Success: He reaches the end of the tiny tunnel quickly long before the duergar do and uses his momentum to break down the shabby portcullis with his horns.
Each of these outcomes would have drastically changed the story and forthcoming encounter. What if Na was captured by the duergar? Would his cut be the death of him in the duergar combat? Take note that even in failure, Alovnek succeeded somewhat. And even in major failure, Alovnek may not have progressed, but the story did. That’s the key, especially with skill checks: they should always progress the adventure. After a skill check is made, something new should happen. Even if the half-orc doesn’t bash down the door, maybe a patrol of guards passes by, she hears something on the other side of the door, or it splinters, shooting into her eye and making her blind.

Ability Checks

As opposed to skill checks, ability checks are quite black and white; they’re made when your character reacts to something like the electric breath of an ancient blue dragon, the gaze of a medusa, or a mountain dwarf wizard’s hold person spell. Optionally, you can use them to make combat more interesting and to build on to the story, especially in boss battles. What if you fail an ability check by 10 or more, something terrible happens? The blue dragon’s lightning breath causes you to collapse to the ground, writhing in pain. The medusa’s gaze turn you not to stone, but into a statue fighting for her! The dwarf’s hold person spell causes you to drop your weapon! These examples of extra flair aren’t integrated into the rules. Of course, if you’re going to try this out, especially with abilities players can cast like hold person, ensure the players know about the added effects.

Attack Rolls

Combat rolls can tell a story, too. Oftentimes, this is where players begin to roleplay and imagine again. How do you finish off the beholder? Where do you hit the orc chieftain? How do you evade the red dragon’s fiery breath? It’s easy to imagine characters as action heroes, and it’s easy to describe what they look like in your head. I’ve discussed this in a previous article. Ask players to describe their character’s attacks and misses, their kills and defeats. And Dungeon Masters, you do the same. In fact, apply the major failure, failure, success, and major success to combat if you’re up to it.

For example, my party was fighting an island-sized earth elemental in the Astral Plane in my latest Enoach Desert session. I had lots of fun designing that encounter, and knew the characters could pull off some awesome moves on this enormous elemental. When a character hit, depending on the attack roll/damage, they could do the following:
  1. Major Failure: The earth elemental grabs the attacker’s weapon and thrusts it forty feet off the platform or absorbs a missile/spell and regurgitates it onto people standing on the island.
  2. Failure: The attacker’s weapon is stuck in the earth elemental.
  3. Success: The attacker causes one of the throwing boulders to no longer be of use (breaking it, moving it off, causing the earth elemental to pivot, etc).
  4. Major Success: The attacker cracks one of the earth elemental’s limbs off, causing it to topple into the Astral Plane, useless.
Apply this to everything! What does a major failure when facing the fire giant king look like? What about a major success against a pack of hellhounds? Remember I’m not talking about critical hits here; this advice is not in the rules but it’s inside the confines of D&D. Simply put, it’s an interesting way to add flair to your combat encounters and keep building the story during them.

In Summary

Understanding that your PCs don’t always need to succeed on a roll for something to happen is key to running an exciting, beloved game. However, it’s a learned skill; you won’t be able to do this consistently next session, the session after that, or even in a few months. Keep trying. Keep learning. Keep training. And understand that dice can be used for many things.
  1. Remember all rolls in D&D should have reactions, otherwise why roll?
  2. Skill checks should have multiple outcomes that can significantly help, harm, or hinder the PCs based on their actions.
  3. Ability checks are more black and white rules-as-written, but you can design mechanics with varying die rolls in mind. What if the wizard fails his Intelligence save by more than 5?
  4. Failed and successful attack rolls can have a plethora of outcomes other than simply being a hit. Does the sword barely scratch along the armor’s weak point? Does the maul’s mighty blow shatter the ogre’s knee cap?
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, share it on social media, tell your friends about it, or bring up at your next D&D session.

Next time — I promise — will either be an article about my new favorite unused D&D monster or a remix of a loved and hated artifact found in 3.5’s Races of Eberron.

Until then, farewell!

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

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Session Starters

The table is set, all my players are here, and I’m ready to begin today’s session of Dungeons & Dragons. Before I give my brief recap of last time’s events, I ask everyone a question, “Do you have an irrational fear? If you do, do you show it to others, or try to keep it hidden away?” Everyone starts to think; they’re putting themselves in the mind of their characters. Alovnek is terrified of cultists of Bhaal, god of murder. Ra is terrified of losing his clan, the Tarsa. Grobbolith cannot stand creatures that surpass his own power. And Qoyish is fearful of minotaurs, despite one being a member of their party. We all laugh and prepare to delve into tonight’s story. I begin the session. “Previously in the Karlith Straits…”

For some groups, it’s terribly difficult to start a session. People talk, grab food, and meander around the table, still set in their real-world ways. In my latest campaign, I’ve put into use an idea I found in the wild a while ago I now call session starters. While simple in concept, session starters can become complicated and greatly useful to some groups.

When it’s time to begin our session, I pose everyone with a question that, to begin, they must answer about their character. When was the last time you told someone you loved them? Have you ever taught someone an important skill? What is your most treasured possession? Do you enjoy adventuring, or do you do it out of necessity? Immediately, this posed question transports them into the head of their character and out of the world around our table. It’s a good stepping stone from the real world to the world of your D&D game.

Let’s discuss a few of the ways you can use session starters, and lay out a variety of questions you can pose to your players.

Start With the Basics

In the beginning of my Karlith Straits campaign, I asked my players simple questions about their characters. Yes or no questions that could be elaborated on if they wanted to. The answers could be a word, a sentence, or a rambling paragraph; any answer would do. Over time, they started to enjoy it more and open up. One time, I forgot about the session starter and they had to remind me about it.

I make up most of the questions a few minutes before the session. Sometimes, they’re just general questions. Others, they’re loaded questions, posed for my personal gain as a Dungeon Master. The questions you ask not only cause the players to get in their character’s heads, they give you a glimpse into each character’s background with every question you ask. They’re helping you build your campaign without even knowing it!

Even though I advise you create the questions yourself, here’s a list of example questions. This should keep you set for 20 sessions, plenty of time to think up your own list.
  1. Have you seen a dragon?
  2. Do you like the local leadership?
  3. Are you afraid of what lies below the surface?
  4. Do you have an irrational fear? If yes, what is it?
  5. What is your favorite move in battle?
  6. Where is your family?
  7. What’s the toughest battle you’ve been in?
  8. Are you religious? If yes, which deity are you closest to? If no, why not?
  9. What is your favorite tavern drink?
  10. Have you ever been into the Underdark?
  11. What monster are you not scared of?
  12. Which race is your favorite to be around?
  13. Which race is your least favorite to be around?
  14. What is the last dream you remember?
  15. Have you ever been in love?
  16. Is there something that would make you surrender? If yes, what?
  17. Did you have a non-parental mentor growing up? If yes, who?
  18. What is the closest you’ve come to death?
  19. Where is your favorite place to be?
  20. Do you see yourself passing from old age? If no, how do you think you’ll die?

Advance to Worldbuilding

As I said before, I started with super basic questions in my Karlith Straits campaign. However, I’ve progressed to asking my players questions about the world their characters are in, leading to a short, collaborative worldbuilding exercise at the beginning of every session. Using your session starter, you can begin incorporating the pieces of the world your players build into the sessions ahead! It not only excites the players about what’s to come, it gives you ideas about things the players are interested in.

Try it out! Here’s a list of session starter worldbuilding questions.
  1. What is a unique monster you’ve faced? Give it a name, a unique trait, and a cool ability.
  2. What is a settlement you’ve been to and one of its eccentric quirks?
  3. What is an organization you hate?
  4. What is one piece of history you’ll never forget?
  5. Where is the place you aspire to go someday?
  6. What is a lesser known deity you’ve interacted with in some way? Give it a name, a domain, and a symbol.
  7. What is a magic item you’ve heard legends about? Give it a name, an appearance, and an interesting quality.
  8. What is one of the layers of the Infinite Abyss? Give it a name, a demon lord, and a vile attribute.
  9. What is your favorite constellation? Give it a name and a brief story.
  10. What distant culture have you heard of? Give it a name and a short description.
Don’t worry; you can always return to asking simple questions about the player characters. This worldbuilding exercise simply spices it up!

Build With Your Players

Looking to the future, I hope these exercises will allow me to easily build my world and story with my players. While playing, I should be able to ask them questions about the surrounding area, a particular creature’s unique appearance, or a flaw of the local lord. In seconds, they’ll be able to conjure something up in their heads and add to the story — a piece that’s not their player character. It’s improvisation, not on a character level, but on a worldwide level. This might not be for everyone. For this to work, you need to trust your players or be able to work with what they give you. If someone adds firearms to your gunless world, spar with them a little. Instead of firearms, maybe the renegade your minotaur PC has heard about wields wands instead; she’s a wandslinger!

In Summary

Starting sessions isn’t always easy. Beginning with a session starter could help you and your players transition naturally from the real world to the game world. As an added bonus, it’ll help build your world and campaign, too!
  1. Start with basic questions. What’s your greatest fear? What was your mother like? Have you ever served in a militia or army?
  2. Slowly add more complexity to the questions. Eventually, you’ll start each session with a brief worldbuilding exercise. What is a lesser known demi-plane? Who is a renowned conqueror? Where does an ancient dragon lair?
  3. Integrate the worldbuilding exercises into the actual session. Collaboratively build your world with your players. What’s the name of the best tavern in town? Who’s an interesting person hanging out on the docks this evening? What scar does the white half-dragon blackguard have?
Thanks for reading. Look forward to next week, when I believe we’ll be musing over a monster I love…

Until then, farewell!

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

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How to Introduce a New Party Member

In the nasty sewers conquered by the Ratskin wererat gang, the group frees a kobold warlock from his shackles. Desperate for revenge against the lycanthropic thieves’ guild and their wizard master, he joins the party. With powers derived from his fiendish patron, he freezes and pierces the thieves’ defenses and immediately proves his worth. In the trials to come, he'll surely do so again and again, until he meets his fatal end in the dungeon of Underkeep.

Far from her woodland, a water nymph tries to communicate to two creatures locked in conversation inside a hill fortress. Her fey patron sent her to this tropical archipelago to find them and she didn’t plan on letting a stone wall or window interrupt her quest. She sends in her watery pseudodragon familiar to get the minotaur and lizardfolk’s attention so she can unite with them as soon as possible.

As the party recovers from their spit with a giant roper, they hear wet footsteps coming from the passage to the south. To their surprise, in comes a triton who’s been tracking them and seeks their sahuagin prisoner’s death. If they fancy him, he’ll help the party delve further into the cove; if they don’t, there might be trouble.

Most campaigns gain new characters (and even new players) throughout their lifetime. Whether it’s near the beginning, in the middle of a fiery arc, or near the end, new characters appear and must be introduced. Sometimes, introducing them can be difficult. Lots comes into play. Are they a dead party member’s replacement? Are they simply a new addition? Where is the party currently? Does it make sense to introduce them immediately? Do you care? These are a few of the questions you need to ask yourself; and as always, how you introduce a new PC depends on the group. Some people will care greatly about how a new party member joins the party, keen on having it make sense in the context of the story. Others will want the newbie to walk out of a portal and appear alongside the group as if they’ve always been there.

I’ve had to introduce plenty of new characters into my campaigns either because a new person joined the group mid-campaign or someone’s character met a terrible end the session before.

Based on my experience, I’ve split the ways to introduce a party member into three categories: in medias res, at the proper time, and as fast as possible. Let’s delve into each of these and learn about the best ways to introduce a new party member.

In Medias Res

When you’re introducing a character in medias res, you’re introducing them at the next logical step in the very session their player has them ready. This means you’ll have to work some magic to insert them into the story in a sound way. Work with the player to make this happen. Overall, this is the best way to introduce a new character. It keeps the story intact, lets the new player or the old player’s new character quickly join in on the action again, and only requires a bit of coordination and suspension of disbelief from the rest of the group.

For example, in one of my first campaigns, my brother’s character, a bumbling half-orc bard fell to his death in a violent fight with a halfling wererat rogue. The session he died during ended in the wererat gang’s hideout — a sewer of course. In between sessions, I talked to him; he wanted to play a kobold warlock. In an attempt to introduce him quickly and intelligently, I asked him if he’d be okay starting a prisoner of this gang, kept in their sewer prison. He agreed and came up with a reason why he was there. Fast forward to the next session: the party pressed onward and eventually ran into his new character and he joined the party with ease. As a plus, it made sense!

So this gist is: talk to the player, connect their new character to the story in some way, and introduce them as quickly as possible. It doesn't need to make 100% sense, just get it to 40-50% and throw them in!

At the Proper Time

If you’re willing to wait for the perfect moment to introduce a new party member, you’re following the “at the proper time” approach. Sadly, it might take longer to let a new member join this way, but it might be the right method if your group is super into immersive gameplay. In my view, this is the worst way to introduce a new member, especially if it’s a completely new player. Get people into the game, don’t stall and respect the story, giving it precedence over the fun of the new player unless you see it as a necessary evil.

Despite my trepidations, I’ve done this a time or two. In a campaign I’m currently running, one of my player’s characters was killed in a deadly battle between the party and a ravenous black half-dragon and his shadow wyvern mount. We decided to wait until the best moment to introduce her character, about an hour and a half into the session. She truly loved this character and didn’t want her to just stumble upon the party; instead, she was searching for them, knew they’d be in a certain place at a certain time, and methodically, logically found them. It wasn’t chance. It wasn’t convoluted. There was no disbelief that needed suspending. She joined the party as a new member at the proper time.

As Fast as Possible

Some folks don’t care about immersion or story sensibility and love the “as fast as possible” tactic. This means as soon as the session starts, the party gains a new member no matter the circumstance the group is in. I’ve seen groups where the new member simply fades into the group, teleports in via an extra dimensional portal, or just charges into the session-starting battle. It works, just not for all groups. Some people don’t care how their new friend joins in, they just want them there; they’re able to conjure up how and why they’re there on the spot.

I’ve utilized this approach quite a few times because I’m usually a fan of launching my new players into the campaign as quickly as possible but as a general rule, I’d stray away from it. Using “in media res” is a better approach in almost every scenario. Put a bit of thought into the new character’s arrival and drop them into your story. It’s almost always better than a portal cutting through existence and delivering the party a bold fighter or sassy ranger.

In Summary

When you’re trying to introduce a new party member to the group, there are a few ways to do it:
  1. Thrust them into the action in a plausible way.
  2. Allow them to meet the group during downtime or at a proper story moment.
  3. Drop them into the opening/next encounter.
That’s it for this week, folks. Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, please share it with your friends, post it on Twitter, Facebook, or Reddit, and comment below.

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.

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Your D&D Setting's Campaign Guide

Multiple days of strife, countless hours of creativity, many minutes of preparation, and more than a few seconds of ingenuity have led up to this moment: you’re ready to begin your Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Your setting’s tenets? Finished. Your setting’s pantheon? Fleshed out. Your setting’s map? Made. Your setting’s major powers? Created. Your campaign’s starting point? Prepared. Some people may believe they’re ready to go on the warpath and kickstart their campaign. They can do that, but I like to take one more step before beginning. Today, we’ll be taking that extra step together; let’s create a campaign guide for our D&D setting.

Luckily, most of this should have already been finished after reading the Worldforge articles preceding this one! If you haven’t read them, check out the Worldforge Library before moving on.

Describe the Setting

Create a new document, name it, “ Campaign Guide,” and think about what is special about your setting. What sets it apart from the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, and Dark Sun? Why is it yours? Once you’ve done that, write a maximum of three paragraphs to introduce your group to your setting. For the most part, stick to big ideas and use a few examples to get your message across. Where is this place? Who lives there? What are the powerful factions? What’s the largest problem posed to the setting as a whole? Try to answer all these questions in your opening paragraphs and you’re golden brown.

Write a Brief Timeline

Next up, it’s time to date your campaign setting. What year is it? What important, world shaking events happened in the last, say, five centuries? What’s happening locally, near where the campaign itself begins? Ask yourself these questions so you have context going in to the campaign and your players understand this world is living and breathing; it has a history right now and it will in the future. Perhaps their characters will be a part of it.

Attach Your Map

A map, no matter how simple, is a necessary part of your campaign guide. Many players love a visual representation of where they’re playing, whether it’s a brief sketch done in Paint or a professionally made map that rivals Tolkien’s. It should identify all places detailed in your campaign guide like nations, key cities, rivers and lakes, and regions. Always include your campaign’s starting location on this map to give your players a sense of where they’re starting; include the rest of the locales to give them a sense of where they can possibly go!

Clearly Outline Your Tenets

Look back to when we created our worlds’ tenets. Clearly state them in your campaign guide so that players know what they’re getting into. When they read this, they’ll come to understand how prevalent magic is, whether deities exist, how wide the wilds are and what monsters roam them. Dedicate a few sentences to each tenet and don’t go overboard; tenets should be concise and your players should understand why they’re important at a glance.

Flesh Out Race and Class Examples

Now it’s time to think about where the core races live across your setting. These example points of origin are by no means exhaustive; they’re simply meant to give your players an idea of where to begin. Where do humans live? Do wood elves live in great forests or exotic jungles? Are mountain dwarves as prominent as hill dwarves? Do halfling communities dot the lovely rivers that border human lands? As a baseline, provide a point of origin for each of the core races from the fifth edition Player’s Handbook, alongside any other relatively common races in your own setting (warforged, minotaurs, goliaths, et cetera). This gives players something to build on or use when they’re just starting in your world. When creating characters, encourage them to conjure up unique points of origin — build your world together!

With a plethora of racial points of origin set up, it’s time to move on to points of origin for the core classes. Where are some example places rife with barbarians? Do bards gather in cities or roam the continent? Is this a particularly popular wizard academy somewhere in your world? Think up one or more points of origin for each of the twelve classes and add them to your campaign guide. After that, you’re nearly finished!

Include A Pantheon

Remember when we built our pantheon? It was partly for this moment! Create a table of deities in your world, taking a few from each culture and combining them into a general pantheon. Include their name, what they’re the deity of, what their typical domains are, and what their symbol is. With that, you give inspiration to clerics, paladins, any players who might want their characters to be religious, and you give yourself a concrete list of deities to rely on when you create your plots, settlements, and villains.

My Example

I have an example you can view, if you wish. Follow the following ink to see it in Google Docs; it’s the campaign guide for the continent Aphesus on my world of Eldar.


In Summary

It’s important to have a setting guide for your homebrew playing ground. In some cases, your players will engross themselves in it and love it; in others, you’ll be the only one reading it. Regardless, creating a document with the most basic information about your campaign setting is necessary, whether it’s for you or your players to read and reference occasionally. Remember:
  1. Open the document with a three paragraph description of your setting. What sets it apart from other ones?
  2. Date the campaign. What important events happened recently? What’s happening now?
  3. Place your map prominently! Most folks love a visual of the setting they’re playing in.
  4. Bullet the most important tenets of your setting so everyone knows what playing in your setting entails.
  5. Provide example points of origin for races and classes using your map. It’ll give your players and you plenty of ideas and potential plot hooks.
  6. Include the deities or divine forces that provide power and hope to so many people in your setting.
And that’s a close to the opening articles of the Worldforge. Next up, we’ll be able to dive into more minute topics. If you enjoyed the article, the series as a whole, or my content in general, please share your support! I love seeing my work across our little setting of the Internet, and it’s key in growing my audience. You folks keep me going.

This article received a follow-up in January 2020. Here's the link to it:

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