Origin Stories: Arkdo

My gaming group just finished their latest session of D&Ds’ Out of the Abyss (see latest walkthrough here). They made it to Blingdenstone, and discovered even in this relatively safe city, threats still abounded…I’ll have it up soon. But first…

In this installment in my ongoing Origin Stories series, I want to discuss a character I made for a non-D&D game. As I’ve mentioned, I played Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPGs with an old group. These are really fun games that capture a lot of the flavor of Star Wars. This character was for Edge of the Empire, a game setting focusing on the seedier side of the Star Wars Universe (see my walkthrough of an adventure I wrote here). Other settings include Force and Destiny (focusing on force-users, as I’ve discussed) and Age of Rebellion (where you play as part of the Rebel Alliance).

This post is a bit shorter, so I’ll include it all as one post, instead of putting it up over two weeks.

The character I created was Arkdo, the Duro archeologist.

Arkdo grew up on Dantooine; his parents, originally from Duros, fled when the Empire took over and made their way to the Outer Rim. His parents were pilots, helping move cargo through the system and nearby systems and shuttling passengers around. Arkdo helped them out, learning how to fly and astrogate, but he spent most of his time exploring the Jedi ruins on Dantoiine.

During one exploration, he met an old man, who befriended him and taught him much about the ancient Jedi. The man turned out to be a Jedi in hiding, which Arkdo learned when a bounty hunter hired by the Empire found him and killed him. Arkdo then decided to strike out on his own. Getting his parent’s blessing and the meager inheritance they had set aside for him, he set out to make his way in the Outer Rim.

His talents at astrogation and piloting, as well as the skills he gained in Old Republic lore, exploration and archeology, helped him get steady work with the salvagers and treasure hunters who exist at the edge of the Empire [see what I did there?]. Arkdo eventually joined a steady crew hunting for ancient relics to sell to wealthy buyers. On one expedition beyond Subterrell, they found a long-lost Jedi outpost. Among the relics were data on other Outer Rim outposts, which the crew realized would lead them to vast stores of treasure. The crew’s commander knew the Empire had begun collecting all remaining Jedi relics, and thought they could sell this information to the Empire for a lot of money.

Arkdo decided then he would rather be principled than rich. Remembering his Jedi mentor, he resolved to never let this information or the Jedi relics fall into the Empire’s hands. He stole the information and crippled his crew’s ship, before escaping by offering his astrogation services to a smuggler who had landed on the planet. He disappeared into the Outer Rim, his forbidden knowledge guarded carefully, constantly looking over his back for the crew he had betrayed…

Character Creation: Arkdo

This character came about through some good interactions with my GM. When we started playing EOTE, I created a Scout character from the base EOTE rulebook. After playing a session, the GM thought I was going more the route of an archeologist, a character from one of the EOTE expansion books. I checked it out, noticed the illustration was a Duros, and decided I’d play a Duros archeologist.

Character creation is a little complicated in EOTE. It’s a mix of Shadowrun or Firefly/Serenity—when you have a number of points you can use to create customized characters—and D&D, with its set character classes. You start with a career and specialization, like Bounty Hunter-Assassin or Explorer-Scout. Then the race you choose starts off with beginning characteristics (for example, Wookies have high Brawn), and a set number of XP. You choose these XP to build your character through characteristics, skills and equipment.

For Arkdo, as I mentioned I wanted him to be a Duros, and used the Archeologist specialization for the Explorer career (which is part of an expansion pack). I knew I wanted him to be smart and cunning, and also able to use a weapon, so I bumped up his agility (which is used for ranged attacks), intellect and cunning. Most of his skills would go towards his knowledge of lore and the Outer Rim, as well as perception (useful for finding ruins and relics) and survival, for exploring. I gave him a few skill ranks in ranged-light (for things like blasters) as he likely had to defend himself a lot while exploring. Finally, after buying his weapons, I got him equipment appropriate for an archeologist, like macrobinoculars and scanners.

The other cool thing about EOTE character creation is the obligation mechanic. The idea is that everyone exploring the edges of the Empire has some complications in their past. It could be a family they left behind, a debt to a crimelord, or a cause they’re devoted to. These give characters resources, but also lead to complications. At creation, characters choose an obligation, and can add to their obligation value in order to gain more XP or credits to buy equipment. But at the start of every session, the GM rolls dice based on the party’s total obligation value; if the roll comes up right everyone faces some adverse consequences. It’s a cool way to introduce risk into the creation process.

I chose the betrayal obligation, and bumped it up a bit for more equipment. As I was creating Arkdo, I was thinking of his backstory, and the betrayal option inspired me to come up with his introduction to adventuring I discussed in the previous post.

Arkdo ended up being fun. He was not as cutthroat or mercenary as others in the party, since he saw himself as a noble figure trying to gain knowledge of the past. And he was obsessed for searching every market or ruin for relics of value. But his knowledge of ancient sites and Outer Rim societies and governments came in handy pretty frequently.

This was a good example of coming up with a general idea for a character, and then letting the mechanics flesh it out.

Controlled randomness as a tool in adventure/character creation

Last night, I was working on the first level of a multi-stage dungeon for an upcoming D&D 5e session I’m running (I’ll be sure to put up the walkthrough after it’s over). I realized I was turning to a tool I’ve often leveraged at other times I create adventures or characters in RPGs: controlled randomness. I thought it may be useful to have a post on this tool for others, and I apologize if this is incredibly obvious to everyone but me.

What is controlled randomness? It is the use of random decisions with a general pre-determined framework to add depth and flavor to a RPG creation. That sounds like a line from an academic article, but I think it gets the definition. In many RPGs there are tables of adventure elements, character backgrounds and the like, in which the player rolls a dice to determine what detail to use. Controlled randomness uses these, but re-rolls as needed to find something that generally fits with the pre-determined framework.

I first systematized this when my old group and I were creating characters for Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. This is a fun character creation process (which I’ve discussed before), and involves detailing the motivations and complications behind the character. I was creating Arkdo, a Duros explorer I’ll discuss in a future Origin Stories post. I rolled for his motivation, didn’t like the result, and re-rolled it. One of the fellow players teased me for doing this, so I explained my reasoning.

As I envisioned him, Arkdo was basically a good guy who ended up on the wrong side of the law because of his ideals. I wasn’t sure how to flesh that out, so I rolled on the tables until something useful came up: dedication to the Jedi. Now, Arkdo wasn’t a Jedi, but he did admire the order and attempted to preserve their memory.

Thanks to controlled randomness, I had a cool backstory for my character. I knew generally what I wanted, but if I had just picked the most obvious motivation I wouldn’t have gone with his dedication to the Jedi. By re-rolling on the table within a pre-set idea, I was able to add more layers to this character.

Another example was my creation of Fonken, a gnome wizard in D&D 5e (this will be another future Origin Stories post). I wanted a LG gnome with a sage background, but beyond that I didn’t have much. D&D 5e includes tables to rolls for different aspects of the character’s background, including bonds, motivations and flaws. For flaw, I rolled something about reacting to a horrible monster’s appearance by trying to study it. With this roll, the character clicked, and I envisioned him as a cross between Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters and Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks. He was a lot of fun to play, and I even revived an older Fonken for one of my own adventures I created.

This reveals another reason to value controlled randomness: adding flaws. Fonken’s inquisitiveness led him to take unwise risks. This added some complications to my group’s adventures, but overall made things more fun. I’ve talked before about the value of adding flaws to D&D characters, and this is one good way to do it.

Controlled randomness works for adventure creation as well. In The Shadow in the Woods–one of my home-brew adventures–I had a general sense for a dungeon the group would explore. It was the subterranean dwelling of a hag who had summoned a beast from the Shadowfell. But that was it. So I used the encounter and dungeon creation tables in the DMG. I rolled up a castle submerged in a swamp as the setting. This gave me a lot to play with, as the corridors and rooms twisted at odd angles thanks to the castle sinking at an odd angle. I also was able to use this to create a dramatic escape challenge at the end. And I used the random dungeon tables to create a confusing series of passages and rooms that, thanks to my pre-conceived idea, followed the basic form of a multi-level tower connected by oddly-angled corridors.

I used controlled randomness to even greater effect in the dungeon I’m currently finishing (I don’t want to give too many details in case any players read this blog…). In this case, I knew the first level of the dungeon would be the basement of a ruined wizard’s tower. I wanted it to feel like part of a ruined structure, so I planned out the corridors and rooms myself. I also came up with a general idea for what each section would be: a cluster of rooms to entertain guests, a cluster for research, machinery, etc. I also had an idea of the combat encounters, traps and hazards the group would face so I placed them accordingly.

This is where controlled randomness came in. For each cluster of rooms, I rolled on the DMG random dungeon tables to determine the specific nature of the room, re-rolling when the result didn’t fit. I also rolled on the table for the rooms’ current states. This added some nice randomness, as I pictured certain rooms crumbling or becoming overgrown with vines, while others were sealed up and lest in a pristine state. The DMG tricks and obstacles tables were also useful; I had a few rooms that would contain some non-combat encounter, and these tables helped me come up with surprising challenges for the players. In this way, controlled randomness gave me a fleshed out dungeon that still felt coherent.

So new players and DMs may find this tool, controlled randomness of use. Come up with a basic idea for a character or dungeon. Then roll on the appropriate table. Re-roll if the result makes no sense with your idea, but push yourself to keep results that are unexpected or complicate your plans. I’d love to hear from anyone who tries this.

 

Issues with Star Wars: Force and Destiny characters

This is a wonky post, but hopefully it illustrates a broader point about character design in games.

My former gaming group had for sometime alternated between D&D 5th edition and Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars: Edge of the Empire. Edge of the Empire focuses on the shadier side of Star Wars, with characters wo are smugglers, scoundrels and explorers. Recently, Fantasy Flight released Force and Destiny, which is focused on Jedi-esque characters using the force, which is only a minor part of Edge of the Empire.

Character creation in these games is rather different from D&D. Players start with a set amount of XP based on the race they chose. The player then chooses a career and specialization; a career is similar to a D&D class like paladin, while specialization is like the specific oaths that paladins can take. In Force and Destiny, for example, one career is Guardian; specializations include peacekeeper, protector and Soresu defender (a Jedi training).

After choosing race, career and specialization, a player must buy attributes and skills. This where the career and specialization come in. The specialization and career you choose gives you certain “career skills,” which a player can “buy” relatively cheaply with XP. Players can also buy “non-career skills”–other skills not included in their career–for more XP. And players can buy “talents”–specific upgradeable powers–that depend on their specialization.

Hopefully that’s kind of clear. Basically, the classes are very customizable, but career/specialization push you in certain directions.

Ok, now to the game. Force and Destiny (F&D) has an interesting set-up. You aren’t playing as parties of Jedi Knights, although this may be possible at higher levels. Instead, player characters are “force sensitives,” people with some affinity for force use. They have a variety of careers—pilots, scouts, warriors—and can add force powers and eventually Jedi-like lightsaber training as they gain XP.

So far so good. But as we were putting together a party we kept running into problems. None of us could find a character we were completely comfortable with. And we kept running into issues with party balance. We always tried to calibrate character creation so everyone’s PC has a unique role and nothing important is left out. But we kept struggling. No one was really specialized enough in information gathering. Those of us with combat-focused characters, like me, found ourselves with little to do outside of combat.

And this wasn’t just a rookie mistake. We’d all done this before, and we tried to work out a good party. It kind of felt like there was something with the character creation process that was causing complications.

So we looked into this, and found it. The characters were just a little off.

First, a lot of the career-specialization skills were either oddly mismatched or redundant. The Starfighter specialization had every piloting-related skill as career—piloting, of course, but also astrogation and gunnery. This makes sense if your PC is flying an X-wing, but that barely ever happens in the game. And when you’re on a freighter-type vessel—the usual way to get around space—one person has all the skills needed but can’t use all of them at once. So you either have redundancy—two astrogaters—or are missing important skills.

The Guardian specialization has career skills related to melee combat and medicine. This kind of made sense, but the attributes needed for melee and related skills (brawn, discipline) are not at all complementary with the skill for medicine, intellect. So you either have a character with weak stats in both or who isn’t making use of their character’s full potential.

One more example, the Peacekeeper. The Peacekeeper’s career skills make use of Brawn and Willpower attributes. But all the talents in the talent tree related to leadership checks, which depend on Presence. So again, characters will have trouble balancing this out.

Of course, the Star Wars RPGs’ process lets you customize your character. If you want piloting skills but that isn’t a career skill for your character, you can still take the skills, they just cost more. And you don’t necessarily need to make use of all the skills and talents for a specialization. So all these downsides could be overcome by spending XP for non-career skills or ignoring clashing elements of character design.

But that kind of defeats the purpose of the class system. If we can just have infinitely customizable classes, let’s use a system like Shadowrun’s or the Firefly/Serenity RPG’s. If there are classes, they should be playable. Star Wars character creation system is kind of halfway between D&Ds—with little customizability outside class options or multi-classing—and the games I just mentioned that are very customizable. Maybe in the end it’s an uneasy balance.

Origin Story: Dorn

In this Origin Stories series, I’ll be discussing Dorn. Dorn was my second character I created for 5e D&D. As the first was for a short-lived campaign, I consider him the beginning of my 5e adventures in a way. He was a Lawful Neutral Oath of the Ancients Paladin; nothing at all like I usually play, which was great.

As always, part 1 is the backstory, and part 2 (next week) is the character creation mechanics.

Dorn grew up in a small village near Neverwinter, deep in the Mere of Dead Men. He worked his uncle’s tavern, helped keep the drunks in line, and always dreamed of something bigger. Dorn was not very intelligent, but was strong and gregarious. Most people liked him, although some grew irritable with his lack of attention and shallow thinking. Dorn’s chance for greatness came when a fiend was reported to be rampaging through the forest nearby, heading to the village. Dorn joined the militia, and headed out to stop it.

Unsurprisingly, a spawn of hell proved more powerful than a village militia. Everyone fell except Dorn, who still stood against the fiend, clutching his dead father’s longsword. At this moment, Mielikki—the goddess of forests—noticed his stand in defense of her realm, and granted Dorn her favor. Suddenly infused with holy fey power, Dorn defeated the fiend.

He returned to his village a hero, and used his new powers to defend his village, all the while continuing to brew his famous ale. Eventually, Mielikki wanted to collect on her investment in Dorn, and sent one of her Shadoweirs—paladins sworn to serve her—to Dorn’s village to recruit him to her cause. Dorn jumped at the chance to leave his village on an adventure, and followed the Shadoweir. He was soon sent to join the Order of the Gauntlet, to help defend good in the world in line with Mielikki’s teaching…

Origin Story: Badger, part 2

Last week I discussed the backstory of Badger, a D&D 5e forest gnome rogue. This week, I’ll discuss the mechanics behind the character. This is in my Origin Stories series of posts, see here for an earlier one.

Badger was inspired by the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. This sourcebook included information on where each of the races in the PHB fit into the Sword Coast setting. It mentioned forest gnomes tend to live by themselves deep in the woods. That got me thinking about why a forest gnome would be adventuring. One possibility was a druid trying to fight off threats to the forest, but I was more intrigued by the idea of a well-meaning rogue cast out of his society.

This would be a pretty basic rogue, with most of the flavor going into the backstory. But the forest gnome race gives him a few extra skills, which I’ll discuss below.

He’s obviously a forest gnome, and I gave him the outlander background to fit his story. And chaotic good is the go-to choice for a good rogue.

For stats, I prioritized dexterity (a must for thieves, for which forest gnomes get a bonus), and constitution. He also received a boost for intelligence as a gnome, and I gave him respectable wisdom. I admit I struggled with this, since according to his backstory he should not be very wise, but wisdom ends up being really important for perception, which a forest gnome rogue should be good at.

For skills, he has the usual sneaky thief skills-stealth (with expertise), sleight of hand, perception and acrobatics. And his outlander upbringing gave him skills in athletics and survival.

He’s armed with a short sword, shortbow, and dagger. And Badger has darkvision, the minor illusion cantrip, and the ability to speak with small animals from his forest gnome race.

So for this, I tried to craft an outdoorsy rogue, who melts into the forest rather than the shadows. And as he’s a bit of a wanderer, I downplayed the social skills in favor of sneaking and exploring.

What do you think? Any other ways you would have crafted Badger?

Origin Story: Badger, part 1

This is another in my “Origin Story” series of posts, which I started with an earlier one on Randulf, a Lovecraftian warlock. These posts talk about the backstory of a character I created, as well as the mechanics of how I translated that backstory into a 5e D&D character.

This time, I’m talking about Badger, a forest gnome druid I created as a sort of sidekick to Randulf. Hope you enjoy it:

Alvyn “Badger” Folkor was a forest gnome living in a gnome village deep in the Cloakwood. His parents were rangers, protecting the village from wild beasts and invaders, and Badger trained to follow in their footsteps. He spent much time by himself in the wilderness, chatting with small animals for information, tracking outsiders to ensure they didn’t bother his village, and living off the land. But he was always rather free-spirited, and chafed at the restrictions his parents and village placed on him. When he wasn’t exploring the wilderness, Badger found it difficult to stay out of trouble. He would frequently “borrow” items from other villagers, get drunk and pass out in the village square, and embarrass himself in other ways. The growing frustration with Badger came to a head when he attempted to sample the latest gin produced by the village distillery and accidentally caused the still to explode.

The village elders asked Badger if he would be happier wandering free to explore the Cloakwood and the world beyond. Badger sensed they were trying to get rid of him, but was excited at the thought of no longer having to sit through his father’s lessons on dendrology. So he set out, leaving behind a very relieved village of forest gnomes.

Badger made his way first to Beregost, where he found the locals easily angered with his “borrowings” and “accidental” property destruction. He drew on his forestry skills to elude capture by the sheriff, and headed north. At each village, town or city he stopped in, the story was the same; he walked off with some food or goods, got drunk and tried to pick fights, or knocked over statues and mills. The local authorities came after him, and he disappeared back into the wilderness.

He eventually became quite the thief, although he never thought of himself as a rogue. Badger lived comfortably travelling up and down the Sword Coast, pilfering food and supplies and entertaining himself by running away from the powers that be. Eventually he made a mistake, however, and attempted to pick-pocket two travelers deep in the Mere of Dead Men outside Neverwinter. They caught him, and ignored his protestations that he had accidentally pulled their coinpurses from their pockets.

The men were impressed with Badger’s skill, however, and recognized his good nature. They revealed themselves as Harpers, and gave Badger the choice between joining them or going to jail. Naturally, he became a Harper.

After a few trial missions, they assigned him to his partner, a dour, half-mad warlock named Randulf Cardr. Both Badger and Randulf were mystified by this pairing, but the Harper leadership hoped Randulf could discipline Badger’s penchant for crime, while Badger’s well-meaning chaos would uplift Randulf’s sagging spirits. The jury is still out…

Is charisma overused in fifth edition D&D?

So just to save you reading the blog post in case you’re busy, the answer—in my opinion—is yes. But please read on for my explanation, as well as why I think this matters for gameplay and roleplaying.

One day while a former group was going through a D&D adventure, it came time for a charisma check to deal with a shopkeeper. We realized half the group had high charisma, so we had to debate about who would be best to handle this. This got me thinking about how common high charisma is in fifth edition D&D.

There are numerous classes dependent on high charisma. It is the primary stat for paladins, warlocks, sorcerers and bards. By contrast, dexterity is the primary stat for rogues and rangers (although wisdom is a close second for rangers). Wisdom is important for monks, clerics and rangers. Strength is essential for fighters and barbarians. And intelligence is only important for wizards.

Now someone may argue there is some complexity to this. Charisma is the primary SAD-type stat (that means single ability dependent, i.e. a class that can make do with high scores in one ability) for only sorcerer. Sorcerers are spellcasters and charisma determines everything about their spells, much like intelligence does for wizards. Paladins are a mix of divine magic and combat, so they’ll also be reliant on strength (or dexterity for the rare dex-based paladin). Warlocks are kind of intended to be combat-focused so they may also rely on strength or dexterity. So charisma maybe isn’t that ubiquitous.

There are a few issues with this retort. First, Warlocks and Paladins may be MAD (multiple ability dependent) but they’ll still need high charisma—either of these with mediocre charisma scores is kind of pointless and you might as well just play another class. So they still rely on charisma. Second, whether or not charisma is the primary stat, having relatively high scores among multiple characters means lots of people will be good at similar stuff, especially in social interactions. Finally, there are no classes with intelligence as a secondary stat. Sure it might be good for investigator-type rogues but it’s not really required.

This last point brings me to why I think it’s an issue. Just having lots of charismatic characters around should be a good thing, right? But there are downsides.

The first is if you want a smart character. Intelligence is useful for a variety of knowledge skills, and I think it’s a cool character concept to have a nerdy professor-type, so I wanted a smart character. But one of my fellow party members likes to always play sorcerers, so we didn’t really need a wizard. I realized then that the only way to have a smart non-wizard character is to lower a more useful secondary skill (like dexterity or constitution). But there are plenty of character builds pushing you towards having pretty good charisma so I kept ending up with charismatic characters with intelligence as their drop stat.

Now obviously this is only a problem if you want smart characters. But there are other issues. One is duplication. As I mentioned in the opening of this post, we kept running into situations where everyone could do a charisma check that came up. It takes away the fun when people don’t have unique skills, and can get a little frustrating. I bet a lot of 5e parties end up with lots of people with +5s on persuasion and none with more than +1 on history or arcana.

The final one is more of a conceptual issue. When I raised concerns about the overuse of charisma, my fellow players said it’s because there are different types of charisma. A charismatic paladin may be a bold leader, able to inspire the troops. A charismatic bard is a charmer. A charismatic warlock or sorcerer has a powerful, strong personality that can literally summon magic from nothing. So charisma isn’t overused, it’s a diverse concept.

But when a concept can stretch to fit numerous applications, maybe it’s poorly defined. Indeed, when you look at other game systems—like Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars games, which I will blog about here—they have multiple skills that would fall under charisma. Of course, I have issues with very specific skills or attributes as that tends to lead to redundance or over-complexity (look for a future post on this).

So what is the solution? Maybe replace charisma with wisdom for either warlock or sorcerer. This would balance stats out a bit. Or even make intelligence the primary stat for warlocks. A warlock usually comes into contact with his or her patron through study or exploration, so it makes sense for wisdom or intelligence to be high. This would ease the over-reliance on charisma a bit.

Any thoughts?

Origin Story: Randulf, part 2

In last week’s post, I presented the backstory for Randulf, a Lovecraftian warlock in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. This is part of a series of blog posts I’m calling “Origin Stories,” in which I’ll present the lore and mechanics behind characters in D&D and other RPG systems. This post will be part 2 of the piece on Randulf, in which I  discuss how I translated that backstory into a D&D character

The idea for Randulf came from H.P. Lovecraft, the influential early 20th-century author of “weird fiction.” Lovecraft wrote of ancient alien beings that still threatened and were worshiped by humans. I saw similarities between some of Lovecraft’s cultists and D&D’s warlock; indeed, the PHB’s entry on warlocks even gives Cthulhu (a powerful being Lovecraft created) as an example of a warlock patron. The name Randulf Cardr comes from Randolph Carter, a recurring Lovecraft character who is constantly seeking forbidden knowledge.

Most warlocks are played as fiends or charlatans (charlatan is actually the recommended background for warlock in the PHB). I wanted to play a warlock as a reluctant servant of a powerful being, which was the basis for my character. I thought he could be a bored noble who sought forbidden knowledge and ended up being bound to a Lovecraftian Great Old One. I used this starting point to flesh out Randulf’s backstory, as described in the last post.

Warlocks are kind of a mix of a wizard and a fighter. They have magical powers in the form of pact spells and evocations; the former are chosen from the spell list while the latter are magical effects that can take a variety of forms, such as added damage for spells or the ability to see in the dark. But they also have some fighting ability through armor and weapon proficiencies.

Warlocks are also very customizable thanks to the choice of patron and pacts. Patrons are the powerful beings the warlock is tied to—a fiend, an archfey, or a Great Old One. And pacts are the type of connection one has—Chain (use a familiar), Blade (summon a magical weapon), and Book, which I will discuss below.

I initially wanted to make Randulf bookish, using the Pact of the Book feature. In this customization option, the character gets a book from his patron that grants forbidden knowledge; in gameplay, the character gains several extra cantrips and has the option of transcribing ritual spells using an evocation. This fit my idea of a character who was constantly seeking out lore he should have avoided. But the group needed a front-line fighter, so I tweaked things a bit. I went with the Pact of the Blade. This gave my character a lot of flexibility in front-line fighting, as I could summon any weapon needed and gain proficiency with it. For example, I decided to prepare the stats for a spear, maul (a giant club), and long sword, depending on the situation I encountered.

I decided to be a human, to fit the backstory of a Baldur’s Gate noble. But I chose the “variant human” option, which gives a character boosts to two stats, an extra skill, and a free feat. Feats are customization options that give character special bonuses or powers. And of course I chose the Noble background; this doesn’t give many useful traits for a Warlock, but I liked the flavor. Moreover, as Randulf was trying to be good, but struggled against the chains of his family obligations and was under the spell of a dark power, I thought Chaotic Good would be most appropriate for an alignment.

For stats, I needed a powerful Warlock who would also be good at front-line fighting. So I prioritized Charisma (the warlock class stat, which affects spell attacks), strength and constitution; the last two would help me out as a front-line fighter. And I used my variant human feat to gain moderate armor proficiency and boost dexterity. My lowest stat was Wisdom; while Wisdom is pretty useful, I thought this fit with my backstory of a dissolute noble youth.

For skills, I tried to think of ones that Randulf would have gained through his noble youth and his time with the Harpers. Randulf has skills in Arcana, History, and Investigation; I thought this made sense for someone who spent most of his time searching for lost knowledge. He is also skilled in Persuasion from his noble upbringing, and Intimidation, due to the dark powers he was aligned with. Finally, Randulf is proficient in stealth from his Harper training (unlike the other skills, this is not an option from the Warlock class or Noble background, it is the extra skill gained as a variant human).

For spells, I tried to pick ones that fit with his backstory. I chose Eldritch Blast, basically a missile of arcane force; it’s kind of required for all Warlocks (see this post from the great Harbinger of Doom blog for a criticism of this aspect of warlock design). The rest of my spells were part of a theme of using my mystical powers to manipulate minds and matter. The second cantrip I chose was mage hand, which can be used to move things around or lift them up. I picked a few spells made available by the Great Old One pact that involved mind manipulation: dissonant whispers (which causes the target to take psychic damage and run away), detect thoughts and mirror image (which creates illusory copies of the character to confused attacks). Finally, I chose arms of Hadar, which causes tentacles to appear and attack all close to me; I thought this made sense in terms of extra-dimensional beings breaking into our reality. Finally, for the evocations, I picked agonizing blast—increasing the damage of Eldritch blast—and fiendish vigor, which increases hit points temporarily, making me a better front-line fighter.

And that’s Randulf. I started with my initial idea—a Lovecraftian reluctant warlock—and crafted him according to that backstory and my group’s needs. He was a fun character to play, as I added in occasional touches of madness in role-playing and the flavor of his powers was interesting.

Origin Story: Randulf, part 1

This is a type of post I’ll do occasionally in which I discuss characters I’ve created. I’ve had fun coming up with backstories and translating them into game mechanics, so I thought others may be interested to read them. Each of these will have two parts: the first is the backstory and the second is the actual way I created the character.

The first one deals with Randulf Cardr, a warlock I created for D&D. The backstory of the warlock class comes from both the PHB and the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.

Here we go:

Randulf Cardr was the youngest of five sons of Elstran Cardr, a lesser noble of Baldur’s Gate. There is little for even the eldest son of a lesser noble to do in that city, let alone the youngest, and Randulf soon lost interest in his obligatory military training. So, of course, Randulf occupied his time with the pursuits of the idle rich; drunken revelry, dangerous pursuits and the occult.  After nights out on the town, Randulf and his friends—also bored noble youth—would stay up late in the night, collecting information and discussing dark, forgotten secrets.

These pursuits led them to the study of the Great Old Ones, powerful beings dwelling beyond the bounds of time and space. Randulf and his friends collected any information they could find—ritualistic materials from cults dedicated to these beings, ancient blasphemous texts, and even hints of their worship in Baldur’s Gate. During an exploration in the Undercity for rumored evidence of Great Old One worship, Randulf stumbled upon a makeshift shrine in an old, crumbling temple. Much of the material in the shrine was worthless or ruined, but he did find a notebook full of mad scribblings. Taking it back with him to the surface, Randulf and his friends discovered it contained a madman’s notes on his search for Zargon, one of the Great Old Ones, and rituals he believed would put a mortal in touch with the dangerous being.

On All Hallows’ Eve, Randulf and his friends gathered in the basement of one of his father’s warehouses, dressed in black robes (there was no indication this is what Zargon prefers, but they thought it looked neat) and conducted the ritual. As it completed, they were shocked to find it worked. A hole opened in the air, a sickly yellow light flooded out along with a booming, devastating voice. All of Randulf’s friends were driven mad, nearly comatose with their horror. For some reason—maybe because he discovered the ritual, maybe because he was slightly smarter and stronger than his friends—Randulf was spared. But Zargon did bind Randulf permanently to him, making him an unwitting servant of the great tyrant.

When his father’s guards stormed in, worried the noise and screaming indicated a riot or fight in the warehouse, they found Randulf wandering around dazed in a now-sickly grey robe and his friends on the ground. His father moved to silence any news of this event, as did the families of the other youths, as they hoped to avoid bringing shame on their houses. Randuf was now the shameful youngest son of a minor Baldur’s Gate noble, and faced even bleaker prospects for a fulfilling life.

But something else had changed. Randulf found himself inexplicably producing magical effects—hearing the thoughts of those around him, blowing open doors with an eldritch force from his hands, imposing hallucinatory sights and noises affecting others. Returning to his studies, he realized his bond with Zargon allowed him to tap into that being’s endless power. With practice he was able to craft more powerful effects, creating illusory images of himself that followed him around and even summoning an apparently real weapon that he could change at will. But this came at a price, as whenever he tapped into Zargon’s power he also made contact with the Great Old One, resulting in lingering effects—the temperature would suddenly drop, mad laughter or threatening whispers would manifest themselves. These images, and the fear of their occurrence, gnawed at Randulf till he often muttered to himself or listened wide-eyed for phantom noises.

His father, ever charitable, attempted to help Randulf. He arranged for a priest of Lathander to meet with the young man. Randulf found solace in the Morning Lord’s teachings, and even began to pray to him, but this only accentuated the constant darkness following him and the growing guilt he felt at what happened to his friends.

Randulf soon decided he needed to leave Baldur’s Gate, to hopefully escape his demons and redeem himself. He wandered throughout the Sword Coast, helping villagers threatened by ruffians or merchants waylaid by bandits. He perfected the power he could draw from Zargon—he sculpted the eldritch force into powerful bolts of energy capable of felling enemies, he twisted his breath into whispers that drove his target mad. But he still felt restless and guilty, unable to find his place in the world.

That changed one day when Randulf was travelling through a forest near Neverwinter. He came upon two travelers who had been set upon by a group of hobgoblin bandits. Drawing on his ever-growing power, Randulf came to their aid. He summoned the illusory multiple copies of himself to distract the hobgoblins’ blows and made one of the bandits run, screaming in pain, from a spell. He summoned a wicked-looking trident, fired a few blasts of his eldritch force, and charged. The hobgoblins were soon dispersed.

The grateful travelers turned out to be Harpers, members of that secretive organization dedicated to defending the innocent and fighting tyranny throughout the Sword Coast. They were impressed by his selflessness and power, and offered him a position with their organization. Randulf, wandering and lost for so long, had finally found where he belonged. But deep in the back of his mind were mad whispers and haunting laughter, constant reminders that the price of drawing on Zargon’s power is often madness.

Are the Volo’s Guide Character Races Overpowered?

I recently got the excellent Volo’s Guide to Monsters, a new sourcebook for fifth edition D&D. This includes an incredible set of resources for DMs and players, including extensive information on several popular monsters (like Beholders and goblinoids), an expanded bestiary for the Forgotten Realms, and rules for playing expanded character races. These include some familiar to fifth edition fans (including the Aasimar from the DMG and Goliaths from Princes of the Apocalypse) and some that are new (like the Kenku, previously presented in the Monster’s Manual). There are even rules for playing monster characters.

This is all very cool, and I for one have always loved Aasimar (first encountering them as playable races in the “Neverwinter Nights 2” PC game). But as I read through the rules for creating characters based on these races, I began to notice something: they all seemed really overpowered.

First, they get multiple ability score increases. For example, Aasimar have an increase in charisma of 2 and a 1 point increase in either wisdom, constitution or strength depending on the sub-race you pick. Similarly, Firbolgs get an increase to Wisdom of 2, and an increase to strength of 1.

But they get other benefits as well. Most get some sort of extra skill or innate power. Goliaths, for example, gain proficiency in Athletics, count as one size larger for carrying capacity, and can reduce the damage they take from hits. Others gain spell abilities. Tritons can cast fog cloud—which they later upgrade to gust of wind—and can talk with aquatic creatures.

PHB Non-human races get some of these benefits, although (and here’s a debatable point) I think the Volo’s Guide races get a bit more. For example, Gnomes get a 2 point increase to Intelligence and a 1 point increase in either Dexterity or Constitution (depending on the sub-race). They also get a few other minor benefits, like “gnome cunning” or the forest gnome’s nature-related powers. But these seem less significant than the myriad benefits a player gets from playing one of the new Volo’s Guide races.

Granted, as I said, this is debatable. Non-human PHB races get the same attribute bonus, and it’s hard to weigh the other benefits. But even if the PHB non-human races can kind of compete with the Volo’s Guide races, humans can’t. Humans are designed to be flexible and adaptable. As a result, they get a 1 point increase in every attribute.. Or—if the DM allows it—they get a 1 point increase in 2 attributes, a feat and a skill. These are both great features, and make human a potent choice for character race if you’re not interested in maxing out attribute points early on. But even getting a feat—which can be very fun for low-level characters—can’t compete with a total of 3 attribute point increases and other magical benefits you’d get from one of the Volo’s Guide races.

So if we use the Volo’s Guide races, why would anyone ever play a human?

The only downside I can think of relates to role-playing. Humans are usually the standard race in campaigns, with other PHB races rarities of different levels depending on the specifics of the campaign. Volo’s Guide races, by contrast, would be spectacles in most settings. This should make them kind of difficult to play if—for example—there’s a 10% chance villagers will run and scream when a Firbolg character tries to talk to them. Also, each of these races has rather strict alignment requirements, and personality traits that could make some social interactions difficult.

This does kind of make sense—you get more power by playing these exotic races but it can make your life (and the lives of your party) more difficult in other ways. A lot of this will depend on the DM, however, and it’s possible a DM won’t really handicap players using the Volo’s Guide races via roleplaying. This will lead to a situation of “power gamers” always gravitating towards a Volo’s Guide race, making it difficult for players to justify using a standard race. Absent some mechanism of rewarding flawed characters (such as…maybe this one…), this can effectively limit the variation in gameplay.

I get that D&D isn’t interested in lowering attributes for different races; always getting an increase of some sort is more fun. But I worry that they went a bit too far with the Volo’s Guide races.

Am I being unfair?