Origin Stories: Fonken, backstory

I haven’t done an origin stories post in awhile, so I thought I’d get back into it with my favorite character ever. In these posts, I discuss a character I created, going over their backstory and the mechanics behind their creation. This can serve as a guide for new players and inspiration for your own characters; it’s also kind of fun.

Today we’ll learn about Fonken “Oneshoe,” a lawful neutral gnome wizard I used in the D&D 5e campaign “Curse of Strahd.” For the first few seasons of 5e I had played a front-line character–a melee cleric, a paladin, a blade pact warlock, etc. As my group prepared for Curse of Strahd, I wanted to try something different, and asked if I could be the group’s wizard. I pictured a pious, noble, but slightly eccentric investigator intrigued by the mysteries of Barovia. I imagined him a bit like Dale Cooper (from Twin Peaks), although the other players were reminded of Ray Stantz, from Ghostbusters (I could live with that).

I incorporated some fun bits into role-play, like Dale Cooper’s thumbs up-and-grin. I also made some Ghostbusters references after my group compared Fonken to Ray.  one favorite was walking around the room with his “sniffer” (see below) as others were talking. At one point, Fonken walked up to an NPC, “sniffed” him with the machine, then poked him to see if he was real (an allusion to Egon in the movie). I had a lot of fun, and my group said it was my best character ever.

Here is his backstory:

Fonken Ningell was a rock gnome who grew up in X. A pious gnome, he attended worship services regularly for X, and planned to become a cleric. He found it hard to concentrate on the long prayers and rituals required for such a profession, however, as he was constantly distracted by new ideas or puzzling questions that arose. Recognizing his true path, the temple elders suggested he study the arcane arts.

Fonken entered the wizard academy and excelled in his studies. He focused especially on divination, eager to peer into the mysteries of this and other worlds. Fonken was usually absorbed in some research or spell memorization, and would wander the halls, absent-minded. His tendency to get absorbed in a book while dressing led to his nickname, “Oneshoe.”

After graduating, Fonken went to work at a great library, continuing his researches. He found ancient texts discussing a powerful being who crossed into the Shadowfell and created his own demi-plane there. Fonken, alarmed, found repeated reports over the years of this demi-plane intersecting with ours; those who happened to encounter it disappeared, never to be heard of again.

He became obsessed with understanding these events.  He researched all the lore he could on travelling to and existing in the Shadowfell, including whatever foul powers may exist there. He focused his arcane spell studies on countering threats from this demi-plane, memorizing spells he thought may be useful against its denizens. And he used his gnome skills to create a device, which he called a “sniffer,” to aid in this search; a hose attached to a box with lights and a squeezable ball, Fonken could use it to “sniff” the air and detect any traces of this demi-plane.

After he believed he’d progressed sufficiently in his studies, Fonken requested a leave of absence from the library. He gathered his spellbook, his sniffer, and his travelling clothes, and set out to investigate the latest report of an interaction with the shadow-plane, a place whose name he had recently learned: Barovia…

Tune in next time to learn how I created Fonken.


Tomb of Annihilation: No end in sight…

Last time, another of the party became possessed by the Trickster gods, and the group ventured deeper into the dungeon. The party is Roland (Aasimar sorcerer), Orga (half-orc cleric), Ergul (dwarf barbarian), Sidora (human ranger), Dri (dragonborn barbarian) and Kespin (human bard).

Exploring further into the dungeon, they came onto a room with a golem, and four dwarf wights. The creatures attacked. Sidora, Ergul and Dri rushed to engage them, while Orga cast spirit guardians. Roland began firing away, and cast minor illusion on the golem so it thought its view was obscured by a fog. After a tough fight, the group rested.

Moving deeper into the dungeon, they came to a study. Inside was an old man in wizard’s robes. Nearby was a creepy undead bird, and disembodied hands crawling around. The group tried to engage with the man, but he was evasive. Roland suspected he was evil, and demanded he come clean [successful insight check]. The man said something about serving Acererak and his “servant” Raj-Nesee, then attacked. He cast a lightning bolt at Roland, knocking him to the ground. Sidora fired an arrow at the wizard, wounding him. He then tried to cast wall of fire but Roland managed to stop him with counterspell [I love that spell].

Meanwhile, the undead hands charged them. Orga cast word of radiance to disperse the hands, and Ergul and Dri killed the old man.

Searching the room, Roland found an amulet the man had been wearing. He picked it up…and was immediately shrunk to halfling size. Roland was irritated, but didn’t know how to reverse this, so they pressed on.

The came to a room with a font that seemed to do nothing. As they searched the room, Sidora found a locked secret door. The group had no way of opening it, so Roland asked Starfallen if she would squeeze through the crack to investigate. She agreed, and said the wall was thin, but there was no mechanism she could see. Ergul, using his dwarven ingenuity, figured out a way to carve through the wall. Inside, the found a golem, which they quickly defeated.

Moving on, they saw another skeleton [we’ve encountered a few, but I can’t remember if I marked all of them down]. Killing it, they took the skull key and added it to their collection.

They came upon a room with a demon mouth in the floor. The group wanted to investigate, so Roland volunteered to be lowered down [this could have gone very badly]. He came through the ceiling of a room with a chest in the center, a skeleton walking around, and tiles with strange markings on them.  He called up to pass this information on, and asked to be lowered onto the platform with the chest.

On the way down he killed the skeleton with his spells and took the key. Roland couldn’t find any way to get the chest open, and neither could Sidora, who joined him. She noticed a skeleton with some gear on it on the tiles, however, and decided to investigate. As she stepped onto the tiles, she was hit with a swarm of locusts. Roland tried to help, and was hit too. They experimented with different types of tile symbols, to see if any were safe, but kept getting hit with locusts. Before they succumbed to their wounds, they gave up (not before Sidora retrieved some treasure from the fallen skeleton), and asked to be pulled back up.

The group took another rest, despairing of ever making their way through the dungeon. Tune in next time to see if they do…

Tomb of Annihilation: Another friend falls?

Last time, the group realized the traps in the dungeon are no joke…’nuff said. The party included Roland (Aasimar Sorcerer), Sidora (human ranger), Orga (half-orc cleric), Ergul (dwarf barbarian), Dri (dragonborn barbarian), and Kespin (human bard).

The group woke up after resting, with their newly female dragonborn barbarian. They resumed exploring the dungeon, and came to a room with a sarcaphogus, a glass wall and corpses on thrones. As they entered the room, the corpses rose up; Sidora recognized them as wights. The group retreated down the hallway as the wights advanced. Roland cast tidal wave knocking several of them back down the hallway. Then Ergul and Sidora charged; Sidora killed one with her sun blade and Ergul chopped up another. Dri followed them, swinging her greatsword. Kespin, Volens and Roland cast spells from the rear of the group, finishing them off, but not after Ergul had his hit points reduced from hits he took by the wights.

The group explored the room, finding nothing besides the sarcaphogus. They opened it, and a ghostly form appeared and and lunged at Sidora. The group realized she had been possessed by one of the trickster gods. After talking to it for awhile, it seemed like it didn’t mean any immediate harm (not that they could really trust it) so they proceeded further into the dungeon with their possessed friend following along.

They came to a room with a giant skull as an entryway. Ergul and Dri walked in, causing two ghostly lights in the skull to go out. Ergul walked out, and a light reignited; he then returned to the room. Roland walked through the skull…and it clamped shut on him, nearly killing him [I figured this was what would happen, but I wanted to get inside].

Once Roland was free, they investigated the room and found a sarcaphogus and a skull floating in a sealed lid. The three heard the voice of a girl calling for help. The group was unable to make any progress talking with the disembodied voice, so they tried to open the sarcaphogus. As they did, a fireball went off. Thankfully everyone was able to dodge, so they were only mildly injured…but a flame skull appeared.

The rest of the group rushed into the room to help. The flame skull fired beams from its eyes, hitting Kespin. Sidora let loose with her bow, nearly knocking the monster to the ground. It fired again, hitting Roland, who was nearly unconscious by this point. Roland then cast a chromatic orb at the skull, and it fell to the ground, shattering.

Inside the sarcaphogus, they found a staff of the python, which Orga–who could use it as a cleric–took.

They ventured furhter. They came to a hallway with a turbine halfway down the hall. Becoming more aware of traps, the group investigated the floor. They found a pressure plate, and figured out it would activate the turbine, likely sucking them in. Roland jammed the turbine shut with the immovable rod and they proceeded past the turbine.

In the next room, they came across a sarcaphogus and three boxes. There was no clear way to open the sarcaphogus. They also found a lantern with strange glowing lights inside. When Roland picked it up, it began talking to him, revealing itself as the spirit of an elf. Roland tried to help release the spirit, but couldn’t figure out a way to open it. In the process of doing so, however, they developed a rapport and the spirit offered to help them [this was a ghost lantern, which functions like mage hand]

Ergul, acting on a hunch, climbs into one and locks it. He is hit with a magnetic force (that would have destroyed any metal on him if he’d been wearing any) and something clicked in the sarcaphogus. Roland and Kespin climbed into the other ones. Kespin was hit with cold damage, but emerged safely. Roland was hit with immense force damage; even though he resisted its effects [succeeded on his save] it still knocked him unconscious and nearly killed him [almost took me to negative my max hit points]. Before the group could revive Roland the sarcaphogus popped open and a mummy climbed out, attacking them. They destroyed the creature, and then healed Roland.

Inside, they found a sinister looking mace. The lantern–who identified herself as Starfallen–warned them against using it. As Kespin was leaning over to look at it, a ghostly form emerged from the sarcaphogus and leapt at him. Despite his attempts to hide it, the group realized he had been possessed by one of the deranged trickster gods. Kespin suggested he be given the mace, but the others (wisely) handed it to Dri.

They rested, warily, keeping an eye on their two possessed friends.

Tune in next time for more adventures in the Tomb of Annihilation…

Bonus Post: Using “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” for a Christmas/New Year’s Adventure

I love Christmas. After Thanksgiving we put up the tree, play Christmas music, and start watching Christmas movies. We observe Advent (the often-forgotten pre-Christmas season), an anxious waiting in darkness for deliverance. And I try to read some Christmas stories. I of course always read A Christmas Carol, and have read some of Dickens’ other Christmas stories (which aren’t as great). But I wanted to find some other options this year.

Scanning my bookshelf, I noticed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This long Middle English poem tells a tale of King Arthur’s Round Table. A monstrous Green Man appears during a feast, challenging a knight to chop off his head; he’ll do the same to whoever accepts the challenge in one year. Everyone is nervous, prompting derision from the knight. Finally, Gawain steps up to the challenge. He chops off the Green Knight’s head…and the knight then picks up his head and leaves.

One year later, Gawain sets out to find the Green Knight’s castle. He has many adventures, which are not discussed in detail, and eventually comes to a beautiful castle after crossing a moat. Inside he finds a noble lord and his sultry wife. The lord asks Gawain to stay with him for a few days, and suggests a deal; the lord will go out hunting and share whatever he finds with Gawain, and Gawain will stay in his house and do likewise. Each day, after the men leave, the wife sneaks into Gawain’s room and tries to seduce him; he resists, but she gives him a kiss. At the end of each day, Gawain gets some of the fine game the lord caught, and the lord gets a kiss. On the last day, the wife gives Gawain a sash that will keep him safe; he does not give this to the lord.

Gawain then heads to the “Green Chapel.” His arrival includes a great scene in which he hears the Greek Knight sharpening his axe ominously. The Knight has Gawain lay his head down. He swings once and misses, swings again and misses, then on the third swing knicks Gawain’s neck. Gawain gets ready to fight and the Green Knight says he was actually the lord, and this was all a set-up by Morgan Le Fay. His wife was testing Gawain, and he nearly passed, but saved the sash. Gawain then returns to Camelot, feeling despondent, but they treat him as a hero, venerating the sash he brought back.

This all took place during “Christmas season,” the time between Christmas day and Epiphany (January 6th for the Western church). The actual story began on New Year’s Day.

So I thought this could be a great setting for a holiday D&D session. There could be some nice role-playing in the feast, someone would have to accept the Knght’s challenge (maybe through a Constitution or Wisdom save to overcome fear), and there would be some random wilderness adventures as they traveled to the Knight’s realm.

The time in the castle could be tricky. Adding a seductress could make some players uncomfortable. But the time in the castle could include some exploration and puzzles, trying to find more about this knight. And then the final “battle” with the knight could involve a test of wills, with a chance for the players to realize what was going on based on their explorations in the castle.

Any thoughts? Would this work?

Tomb of Annihilation: Into the dungeon…

Last time, the group reluctantly made a deal with the Yuan-Ti to find and destroy the Soulmonger. They were Roland (Aasimar Sorcerer), Orga (half-orc cleric), Sidora (human ranger), Kespin (human bard), Dri (dragonborn barbarian) and Ergul (dwarf barbarian).

The entrance to the dungeon was across a subterranean lake, so the group got in one of the Yuan-Ti’s boats. Halfway across, the Yuan-Ti piloting the boat threw a humanoid-shaped bundle into the water; a hydra appeared, and dragged it under. Roland reiterated his promise to destroy them when this was all over.

They got out on the other side, at a tall obelisk. Reading it, they found a riddle, which they noted and moved on. They found a room with statues set in rows, with one separate from the others, wearing a necklace; Roland took the necklace. In another area, they found slots for blocks the size of the ones they had recovered from the temples and Yuan-Ti, although it was one short. They decided to try it out, and inserted them. As they did this, the necklace started pulling Roland away from there, but he ignored it.When they completed inserting the blocks, the wall started closing, and poisonous gas started pouring out of four vents. After nearly dying, they blocked the vents, and the wall opened up.

They decided to now follow the pull of the necklace. It led them to a hidden entrance with a similar set of slots although there was space for all the blocks. They inserted them, and the wall moved aside. Walking forward, the wall closed behind them. A hand with an hourglass appeared; it turned the hourglass, and the sands started flowing. Roland saw a lever at the opposite side of the room. He rushed to pull it….and the floor opened up, dropping all of them onto spikes.

[We now started to realize this was a serious dungeon, and decided to start thinking through each encounter]

The group climbed out and healed themselves, then moved farther into the dungeon. They came to a room with a set of bushes arranged along its length. As Roland stepped forward an arrow show out and hit him. Ergul noticed sensors at shoulder level, and he and Orga crawled to avoid the traps. Roland did likewise. Kespin, meanwhile, was incessantly complaining about Roland rushing into traps [the player was trash-talking] so Dri threw him at one of the bushes to see if it set off the trap; it did.

Moving through that room, they came to a room with a metal statue. Suddenly, Dri–who had gone first–felt himself pulled forwards towards the statue. He lost his grip on his magic axe and it flew to the statue, where it turned into dust [the player was not happy about that]. His greatsword stayed on his back, but it pinned him to the statue. Kespin, who had also walked into the room, managed to hold onto his shortsword, and proceeded to taunt Dri [that player was in a weird mood that day]. Roland–who had nothing metal on him–searched for a release in the surrounding area but couldn’t find it. So the group all pulled Dri off the statue. He then beat the statue into dust.

In the next room they found a fountain. Ergul–who liked to drink from strange fountains, as you may remember–tried some and was healed. Dri excitedly took a draught…and turned into a woman. He tried again, and took serious damage.

The group, confused and bruised, decided to rest for the night before going further into the dungeon. Tune in next time for their further adventures…


D&D Tomb of Annihilation: Entering Omu, 2

Last time, the group made their way to Omu and encountered the Yuan-Ti…the group is Roland (Aasimar sorcerer), Orga (half-orc cleric), Erdgul (dwarf barbarian), Dri (dragonborn barbarian). Sidora (human ranger), and Kespin (human bard).

The group headed further into the city the next morning. Crossing a fallen log over a river, arrows started firing out of a half-ruined cover. Approaching, the group saw they were being fired by an ancient tabaxi. The group talked him down, with Orga praising him for his martial prowess. He invited them inside and served them some rancid stew, telling them he was looking for an artifact called the Navel of the Moon. They said they would look for it.

The group then came on a shrine to one of the gods. Four kobolds were outside. Roland cast minor illusion on Dri to make him look bigger. He tried to trick the kobolds into thinking he was a dragon god, but accidentally insulted their mothers [rolled a 1]. They attacked, and the group easily killed one. The rest fled.

The group decided to explore the shrine. They found a series of empty torch brackets, and a pool of water. Writing on the side said “tread warily and stay in the light.” Dri and Roland decided to enter the pool. They came out in a reversed version of the room. The torches were lit, and a petrified man was holding an artifact. Roland discerned the lit torches were magic. They brought them through to the other side, and set them in the empty brackets.

Roland went back through the water, followed by Dri. As Roland emerged from the pool, the man–now revealed to be a Red Wizard–rushed him. Roland cast chaos bolt, missing, then hit the man with frostbite. Dri emerged from the pool, and killed the man. On his person they found another artifact of the trickster gods, and a magic item, the immovable rod. 

The group decided to fulfill their promise, and went to the Yuan-Ti’s temple. They were escorted to meet their leader, Raj-Nesee, who was suffering from the death curse. He asked the group to go into the temple of the gods to get the Soulmonger. They agreed, but Roland swore to deal with the Yuan-Tis evil when they returned.

As they were preparing, Raj-Nesee’s deputy snuck up to them, and offered to help if they killed Raj-Nesee. They rejected her offer, and turned her over to Raj-Nesee. Kespin then realized she was the head of the attack that killed his party.

He asked to kill her himself. He drew a knife and stabbed, but it slipped out of his hand [rolled a 1]. Roland and Orga were unhappy about this, as it would be murder, but Dri–hoping to see a good fight–restrained us. Kespin, furious, casts fireball. This would have harmed the whole group, so Roland canceled it with counterspell [a new spell I’d just learned, which I love casting]. Orga then cast a spell to restrain Kespin, but Roland countered it again, saying the group had to stick together. Dri, realizing Kespin wasn’t actually going to fight the Yuan-Ti, changed his mind and threatened him if he tried to do it again.

Kespin agreed to dual the woman. He was a little nervous, as one-on-one fighting was not his forte. The two duel, and Kespin is nearly killed when Roland decides this has gone on long enough, and fires a chaos bolt at the Yuan-Ti, killing her.

The group, fraying and tired, tried to rest before having to enter the tomb in the morning…

D&D Tomb of Annihilation walkthrough: Entering Omu

Last time, in Tomb of Annihilation, the group ventured into the jungles of Chult and faced betrayal by their guide. She agreed to lead them to the Yuan-Ti who had hired her; the group hoped this would lead to some answers on the death curse. The group was Roland (my Aasimar sorcerer), Orga (half-orc cleric), Slith (dragonborn rogue), Dri (dragonborn barbarian), Ergul (dwarf barbarian) and Sidora (human ranger).

As they woke up after a rest, they saw that Slith had disappeared. They searched for him for some time, to no avail [the player had to leave the group]. Their shouts attracted some attention, though. Hearing them, Kespin, a human bard, ran out of the jungle [the replacement player]. His party had been attacked and killed, and only he survived. He joined them and they headed towards Omu.

Their wilderness guide led them towards stairs that would take them into the sunken city when they were attached by a Yuan-Ti ambush. Orga and Sidora were hit in the initial volley of arrows; Roland was about to, but cast shield and the arrow bounched off harmlessly. Roland responded with a chaos bolt at the leader, and summoned sorcerous energy to cast frostbite on him as well [used sorcerey points to quicken spell].

Kespin jumped into the fray, casting dissonant whispers, causing one of the Yuan-Ti to flee into the jungle. Orga cast word of radiance, causing one of the Yuan-Ti to erupt in radiant damage.

The Yuan-Ti regrouped and attacked. One slashed at Sidora, and another nearly hit Roland, missing him because the frostbite from his spell slowed its strike [it got disadvantage on its next hit]. Roland cast haste on Dri, and launched a firebolt, missing, and setting a tree on fire. Dri went into a rage, hacking a Yuan-Ti to pieces [he got an extra attack with haste].

The Yuan-Ti closed in around the group. One slashed Orga, another hit Roland, nearly knocking him unconscious. Dri, still enraged killed another, but not before it knocked Sidora unconscious. Roland summons all his arcane energy and fires a chaos bolt, but it takes the form of poison, to which Yuan-Ti are immune [the type of damage is random]

Kespin casts vicious mockery, distracting the Yuan-Ti while Orga rushed to heal Sidora. Sidora jumped back up, a little unsteady on her feet, killing one of the Yuan-Ti with a well-aimed arrow [critical hit]. Roland, meanwhile, used his remaining spell to cast chaos bolt again; it hit one of the two remaining Yuan-Ti and leapt to the other, wounding both of them [there is a chance the spell will jump to a new target]. Dri and Sidora then closed in, and finished them off.

After taking a short rest to recover, the group came up with a plan. They would pretend their guide had captured them, with Roland summoning an illusory Yuan-Ti [using silent image] as a guard. They made heir way into the city with no trouble.

Kespin and Sidora scouted ahead, and found a group of men in red robes watching a pack of dogs eating a humanoid body. The group is unsure who they are, but decides they seem evil, and attack.

Roland cast tidal wave, knocking three of the four to the ground. Meanwhile, Kespin cast hypnotic lights on the dogs, distracting them. Roland then cast blindness on the remaining upright man as the rest of the group closed in. They easily disatched three of them. The remaining man surrendered to Ergul, who killed him [we weren’t happy about that].

As the group caught their breath, they heard a muffled crying. Investigating, they found a man trapped in rubble. He explained he was a translator hired by the Red Wizards of Thay [we all were relieved the group we killed was actually evil], who were looking for artifacts in the shrines. He had three on him, representing some of the trickster gods of ancient Omu.

The group rested. In the middle of the night, Yuan-Ti crept up on the camp. Roland was on watch, and alerted the others, but said he had a plan. Using minor illusion, he gave a booming echo to his voice when he told them to think twice about attacking. This intimidated the Yuan-Ti [gave me advantage on intimidation], and they agreed to give the group 24 hours to present themselves at their temple…

Tune in next time for further adventures in Omu…


Bonus Post: Guidelines for Using D&D Skills&Background for New Players

Here’s a bonus post from my previous one on how to use skills and background as parameters for D&D encounters. I wanted to give a concrete set of guidelines for players to draw on. As I said, this may seem a bit mechanistic, but I think it can help new players get used to the game.

Players enter into a new encounter:

  1. Identify potential options to resolve it:
    1. combat?
    2. stealth?
    3. negotiation?
    4. knowledge?
  2. Compare potential options to skill proficiencies:
    1. Acrobatics: Jumping, balance
    2. Animal Handling: Soothing, befriending animals
    3. Arcana: Knowledge of magic and magic items
    4. Athletics: climbing, running, etc.
    5. Deception: Lying and bluffing
    6. History: Knowledge of past events, traditions
    7. Insight: Ability to detect lies, learn about others’ personalities and motivations
    8. Intimidation: Ability to coerce others
    9. Investigation: Searching a location for clues or traps
    10. Medicine: Knowledge of healing, ability to heal
    11. Nature: Knowledge of the environment, animal and plant life
    12. Perception: Ability to detect important details
    13. Persuasion: Ability to convince others or get them to like you
    14. Performance: Play a musical instrument or act a part
    15. Religion: Knowledge of religious traditions and beliefs
    16. Sleight of Hand: Ability to pick locks or obtain items secretly
    17. Stealth: Ability to sneak by undetected
    18. Survival: Ability to navigate unfamiliar environments
  3. Pick proficiency that best match the encounter, the rest of the party’s strengths
  4. Come up with an action that fits the proficiency (this might require some creativity)
  5. roll as directed by the DM
  6. If the encounter involves social interactions
    1. Identify key elements of the social situation
      1. Background of non-player characters (NPCs)
      2. motivation of NPC
      3. demeanor of NPC
    2. Consult background information
      1. Personality trait: a character’s general demeanor
      2. Ideals: What motivates the character
      3. Bonds: What draws the character to others
      4. Flaws: Aspects of the character’s personality that leads to problems
    3. Identify any connections between background information and key elements of the social situation
      1. Similarities or clashes between the player and NPC, ways flaws could apply to the situation
    4. Come up with a social action that arises from this (this may require creativity)
      1. don’t worry if it isn’t “optimal” as long as it’s fun. But be careful of disrupting the group because it’s “what your guy would do”

How to use skills&background to roleplay in D&D 5e

This post was inspired by an experience I had a few years ago at an old job. A friend and I who played RPGs (he’s actually in my Star Wars: Age of Rebellion campaign) decided we wanted to do some D&D over our lunch breaks. We found two others who were willing, but had never played D&D and got together a few times a week for short D&D sessions. It was a lot of fun, but the new players had a little difficulty figuring out what to do. Outside of combat, they were faced with nearly limitless options for character actions. And they weren’t sure how to convincingly roleplay. This boundless opportunity is part of what makes these games so great. But it can also be a barrier to new players.

So I gave them some hints, using the D&D 5e character sheet. In D&D 5e, in addition to your characters’ ability scores and personal information (class/race, etc.) every character has a set of skills and a background. Skills run from persuasion to athletics to stealth. Characters are better at skills that rely on higher ability scores (like charisma for persuasion) or those in which they are proficient (which depends on their class and background). Backgrounds are broken into personality traits, bonds, ideals and flaws. These are specific to the background and the character you want to play.

Skills are used in non-combat encounters, like exploration or social interaction. Backgrounds are mainly used for role-playing, although they affect some ability checks (such as through skill proficiency). I think both can be used as guidelines for new players, however, by providing parameters for behavior. That is, they indicate what a character would do or rely on in certain situations.

Say a party has to get into a castle. They encounter a guard patrol standing by a gate, a roughly-built outer wall, and a moat that disappeared into a tunnel under the gate. A section of the wall that backed up to a cliff is covered with vines. New players may be a bit intimidated. Besides attacking the guards, it’s unclear how to proceed.

Confused characters could consult their skill sheets. Is the player proficient in deception? Then they could try and bluff their way past the guards. Are they proficient in athletic? They could climb up the wall, and let the group in another way. Stealth? Sneak by. Other less obvious skills may have uses. A character proficient in nature may be able to ascertain that the moat is dumping into a reservoir, so they could swim into the castle. Or a player proficient in survival could figure out that the vine-covered wall by the cliff would provide an easy way in.

What had before seemed like a completely open-ended encounter ends up providing a set of discrete choices for players, depending on the skills they are proficient in.

Background features play a similar function in social interactions. These are often the hardest encounters for new players, as they feel the need to improvise dramatically. But consulting your character sheet can tell you how a player would interact with others.

Let’s say we’re playing as Dain, a Lawful Neutral Dwarven cleric (I wrote about him here). His background is “Faction Agent” (from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide), and he is a member of the Lords’ Alliance. Dain’s background traits are:

  • “intolerant of other factions”
  • “ancient traditions must be upheld”
  • “owe life to knight who led me to faith”
  • “too much faith in faction hierarchy”

Dain and his party encounter a cleric from a faction that is a rival to Dain’s who is asking them for a favor. Again, this could be nerve-wracking for new players. But they can consult their character sheet. Dain is intolerant of other factions, so he may initially react with skepticism to the cleric. If the cleric appeals to ancient traditions of cooperation, or produces a letter from the Lords’ Alliance indicating they support the cleric’s mission, Dain may change his mind. This could be a problem if everyone else in the party thinks the cleric is untrustworthy, but Dain wants to help because he puts his faith in his faction hierarchy. Thus, the background provides the player with guidelines on how to approach a social situation, and may lead to some interesting intra-group tension.

In this way, new players (and veteran players) can use their character sheet to provide parameters for their players’ behavior. There are three counterarguments to this advice.

  1. One can argue the party should figure out the most optimal approach to an encounter, rather than relying on what their characters are good at. This is fine from a power-gaming perspective, but I like D&D to be driven by role-playing.
  2. Some players don’t like to be hindered by their character sheets. They see the background traits and alignment as suggestions. If that’s the case, then why bother having them? Too many players avoid role-playing, making it hard for others who do (see this post). A bigger critique is that this could lead to “my guy syndrome;” i.e. a player who does something irrational, but it’s “what my guy would do.” That is valid, and DMs and parties should chat with players who do this too often.
  3. Another critique is that this doesn’t involve enough role-playing. It’s too mechanistic. That’s valid, although it can help new players get to the point where they don’t need to rely on guidelines. I’m also not a fan of the “anything goes” approach to role-playing, since it’s not really role-playing if you’re not basing your actions on your character’s personal details.

So there’s my tips. I’ll be putting up a checklist in a bonus post (I don’t want this to get too long). Any thoughts?


5 tips to help explain tabletop game rules to family members

This post was inspired by an experience I had over Thanksgiving that is probably pretty common for gamers. My family gathered for the holiday, and decided to play a game. I pulled out Settlers of Catan, as some had played it and it’s pretty easy to learn. Those of us who had played then proceeded to talk over each other, trying to explain the rules to those who hadn’t. They ended up confused and frustrated (although one of them actually won).

So I thought I’d think through a few tips on how to explain new games to family members who aren’t frequent gamers, and pass them on to my loyal readers. Before I start, there is one meta-tip: make sure everyone actually wants to play. This may sound obvious, but I’ve had a lot of gaming sessions in which half the people are there begrudgingly, and it’d be better to just not play at that point.

Ok, here we go:

  1. Have a designated speaker: It can get trick for multiple people to explain rules, as you tend to veer off in separate directions. One person may have a methodical way of explaining rules, while another thinks they need to jump in and clarify points that were left out. This leaves new players very confused. Pick one person to explain the rules to the new players, and the rest of the group stays quiet, answering questions as needed.
  2. Explain the “point” of the game and how someone wins: It’s always hard to play a game when you don’t know what you’re trying to do. Many games have a “story” behind them–settlers building a civilization, investigators trying to defeat an ancient alien force, etc. It can help to know what the game is about. Beyond that, it’s always good to know how a game ends so players can get a sense for how long it will take and start to work out a strategy.
  3. Explain what happens each turn: Specific mechanics can be confusing if disconnected from actual gameplay. So one usual way to explain a game is to talk about what happens each turn: in Settlers of Catan, for example, you roll a dice, collect resources based on the number, build and trade. This helps news players know what to expect and encourages them to ask questions on the steps they don’t understand.
  4. Differentiate between core and secondary rules: In grad school, my adviser and I would organize game nights. Whenever we’d play Dominion he’d start the rules with the difference between “coin” and “copper”–coin is currency, copper is a denomination–leaving new players very confused. There are a lot of details in rules that are useful to know, but don’t make any sense until you know the overall mechanics and structure of the game. Try and figure out which rules players absolutely need to start playing, and which you can mention as relevant situations come up.
  5. Encourage new players to read game materials as you play: This is related to #4. Many games have cards that provide a lot of information. The items in Munchkin tell you exactly what they do (+2 bonus). The encounter cards in Arkham Horror specify what players should roll (lore check at -2). Chaotic games like Fluxx have cards with detailed rules changes. But a lot of the time, new players will just sigh and exclaim, “I just don’t know what this is.” Encourage them to read through the cards they have, and take whatever time is needed to think through what they mean and what they’re used for. This will keep the veteran players from having to explain every little thing and get the new players more involved.

So there are my tips, based on  years of experience trying to get my family to play games. Any others you’d add?