Monthly Archives: May 2016

7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing

The designers of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons want to avoid changing the game as it exists in print. In a Tome Show interview, designer Mike Mearls said they would only make changes if something proves “horribly broken.” Although no character options seem to qualify, a few rate as troublesome enough to land on designer Jeremy Crawford’s undisclosed “watch list.” A few more dominate enough to overshadow lesser PCs. Here are 7 examples.

7. Dealing massive damage during surprise rounds – Paladin 2/Assassin 3/Fighter 2

At level 3, a Rogue who takes the Assassin archetype treats any hit scored against a surprised creature as a critical, which doubles the Rogue’s sneak attack dice. The 2nd-level Paladin’s Divine Smite adds even more dice to double. To land more critical hits, add two levels of Fighter for Action Surge and a second batch of attacks. If you want criticals without surprise, continue to level 3 with the Fighter’s Champion archetype for crits on 19-20.

Is it broken? No. How often does a party or even a sneaky PC gain surprise? When a party does gain surprise, this advantage typically leads to a romp even without an assassin going nova.

Without surprise, you have a Rogue who must boast a Strength and Charisma of 13, and a Paladin who either skips the protection of heavy armor or sneaks with disadvantage.

Related: Dealing Death: Handbook of the True Assassin

6. Healing at low levels – Druid 1/Cleric 1

The 1st-level druid spell Goodberry creates 10 berries that PCs can eat to heal a hit point. Whenever a Life-domain Cleric uses a 1st-level spell to heal, the target regains 3 additional hit points. This bonus applies to each of 10 healing berries produced by Goodberry. At levels 2-4, gaining 40 hit points of healing from a 1st-level spell rates as outrageous. An official Sage Advice post confirms this interaction.

Is it broken? No. Although you can upend a bag of M&Ms into your mouth, eating a single Goodberry demands an action. As levels rise, the healing stays at 40, and the class pairing just yields a Druid/Cleric who can’t wear metal armor, or a Cleric/Druid who can’t be a Druid. Adventurers League players will drop the combination before they reach level 5.

5. Locking down monsters – Monk 5 and Hex

Update: Hex only imposes disadvantage on ability checks, and not on saving throws, so this combination doesn’t work. Jay Elmore tells me that some players combine Hex and grapple to impose disadvantage on their target’s Strength checks.

At level 5, every class gains a game-changing ability. Monks get Stunning Strike. After striking, they can force their foe to make a Constitution save to avoid being stunned until the monk’s next turn. A stunned creature can do nothing except endure attacks made with advantage. Few foes will survive more than a turn or two of the onslaught.

The Warlock’s 1st-level Hex spell lets the monk impose disadvantage on one type of save, say Constitution. Hex lasts at least an hour and can move from victim to victim. The extra 1d6 damage added to each blow just adds a lagniappe of pain. (Also a good name for a Zydeco-Metal band.)

A Monk can gain the ability to cast Hex in two ways: Take the Magic Initiate feat or a level of Warlock. With the feat, Monks can only Hex once a day—still enough for a hour-long adventuring day and at least one boss smackdown. The level of Warlock costs both the level and a 13 Charisma, but gains multiple castings.

Is it broken? No, but the combination tends to dominate every boss fight. If I were a better person behind the DM screen, I would enjoy watching monks seize the spotlight as they turn my biggest threats into piñatas. Forgive me though, because sometimes I fake my admiration.

I have a memo to anyone designing D&D adventures, including many pros who should know better. No single foe without legendary actions can pose a fight to a group of PCs.

4. Dealing melee damage – Great Weapon Master

Arbo-ValkyrienThe Great Weapon Master feat lets characters trade accuracy for damage. “Before you make a melee attack with a heavy weapon you are proficient with, you can choose to take a -5 penalty to the attack roll. If the attack hits, you add +10 to the attack’s damage.” With fifth edition’s bounded armor classes, this trade usually makes great deal. Your fighter gets no benefit from rolling 20-something to hit a typical 14 AC, but that extra 10 damage stings.

A fighter who gains many extra attacks at higher levels and from action surges can multiply the extra damage by several attacks.

Is it broken? The combination falls short of breaking the game, but it overshadows other melee-fighting strategies.

Related: Great Weapon Mastery How to -5/+10 Like a Pro

3. Dealing consistent ranged damage – Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert

Exactly like Great Weapon Master, Sharpshooter lets characters trade accuracy for damage. The trade can yield even more damage per round, because a sharpshooter with the Crossbow Expert feat gains an additional attack.

Crossbow Expert lets a character attack with a one-handed weapon, and then use a bonus attack to make another attack with a hand crossbow. D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford tweeted, “Crossbow Expert does allow a character to shoot a hand crossbow as an action and again as a bonus action.” So fighters with the feat can use their usual multi-attacks, attack with a bonus action, and optionally spend an Action Surge for another volley. Plus, you can make these attacks from range. (The fifth-edition designers often undervalue the benefit of attacking from a distance.)

As a downside, loading requires a free hand. Also, the Great Weapon Masters will mock your tiny weapon.

Is it broken? Players who play any martial archetype that has ever appeared in fantasy face being overshadowed by an improbable character who rapid fires a tiny crossbow for massive damage.

Some DMs will rule that the crossbow used for the bonus attack cannot be the same as the one used for the regular attack. This forces PCs to stow a crossbow, freeing a hand to reload. In organized play, any DMs making this ruling will hear players howl that the ruling “COMPLETELY AND ARBITRARILY INVALIDATES MY ENTIRE CHARACTER CONCEPT.”

2. Dealing bursts of ranged damage – Warlock 2 / Sorcerer 3+

Warlocks gain fewer spell slots than other casters, forcing them to spend more rounds blasting with their Eldritch Blast cantrip. In compensation, eldritch invocations make Eldritch Blast much better than other cantrips. The best invocation, Agonizing Blast, lets Warlocks add their Charisma bonus to their blasts’ damage. It makes the essential, first invocation to take at level 2. Even when PCs never take another level of Warlock, the number of beams from their Eldritch Blasts increase as their level increases.

Once a 2nd-level Warlock can blast the game’s most powerful cantrip, a switch to the Sorcerer class unlocks a way to cast another in the same turn. Third-level Sorcerers can take the Quicken Spell metamagic option, which lets them spend sorcery points to fire another Eldritch Blast as a bonus action. As a level-5 PC, Quicken Spell allows firing 4 beams in one round. By the time such characters reach level 11, they can quicken their blasts for 4 straight turns, dealing up to 6d10+30 damage per turn.

Is it broken? Warlock and Sorcerer both use powers based on Charisma, so the classes combine well. Whether the combination breaks the game depends on how many encounters your game tends to pack between long rests and fresh allotments of sorcery points.

Honorable mention: At level 14, Evokers gain the Overchannel ability, which lets them boost a spell to deal maximum damage. After one use, the overchannelling Wizard takes 2d12 of damage per level of spell—a steep price. But cantrips count as level 0, so overchannel Firebolt every turn!

Designer Jeremy Crawford tweeted, “As written, an evoker can overchannel a cantrip without taking damage (on my watch list). A DM could say no cantrips.” Sure, and INVALIDATE MY ENTIRE CHARACTER CONCEPT.

Update: The Player’s Handbook errata changed Overchannel so it doesn’t benefit cantrips.

1. Surviving damage – Druids in the Circle of the Moon path

At 2nd level, a Druid can take the shape of beast along with all its hit points. When Druids return to their regular shape, they return to the hit point total they had before they transformed. In effect, a 2nd-level druid can lose most of the, say, 68 hit points of two brown-bear forms before even dipping into their regular supply.

For Druids in the Circle of the Land, the beast form lacks combat strength, so they transform to scout. No one enters the Circle of the Land. Druids in the Circle of the Moon get beast forms that can fight. Plus, Druids assume the Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution of their beast forms, so they can make all three physical attributes dump stats.

Some players make their Druids even tougher by adding levels of Barbarian for their Rage ability and the resistance it grants to piercing, bludgeoning, and slashing damage. Moon Druids never seem endangered, so the combination probably offers more protection than anyone needs. Multiclassing dilutes the Druid’s overall power, because it slows access to more powerful beast forms.

250px-Justiceleague_v2_01Is it broken? Jeremy Crawford has the feature on his watch list, but calls it better on paper than in play.

Many critics of the Moon Druid cite the level-20 archdruid’s ability to shapechange an unlimited number of times, which makes them virtually invincible. But all level-20 characters have abilities that would qualify them for the Justice League.

Nonetheless, in the role of defender, Moon Druids change the balance of the game. In level-appropriate encounters, Druids never become endangered. Once a Druid learns to screen party members, they rarely feel threatened either.

Related: 5th edition D&D Druid Handbook

That’s my list. What have I missed?

Mapping—or not-fun things that Dungeons & Dragons players learned to skip, part 1

In 1978, when I found the Dungeons & Dragons basic set, I noticed that the dwarf description included lot of fluff: stocky bodies, long beards, and an ability to detect slanting passages, shifting walls and new construction. I figured the slanting-and-shifting thing would never affect the game unless some dwarf skipped adventuring for a safer job as a building inspector. “Your rolling-boulder ramp isn’t up to code. Someone might not trip.”

Years later, I realized the dwarven fluff actually helped players keep the chore of mapping from becoming maddening.

In early D&D, one player assumed the role of mapper and transcribed a description of walls and distances onto graph paper. Map-keeping dominated play as much as combat. In the original example of play, the referee—dungeon master had not been coined yet—spends half the game reciting dimensions.

Did anyone ever think translating distances to graph paper added fun? Or was mapping another way to thwart players who tried to steal the quasi-adversarial referee’s treasure. (In the same example, the Caller finds hidden loot, and the Referee responds by “cursing the thoroughness of the Caller.” Rules question: Must the Referee curse aloud or can he just twirl his mustache?)

D&D co-creator Gary Gygax relished any chance to frustrate mappers. The original rules’ half page of “Tricks and Traps” lists nothing but slanting passages, sinking rooms, and other ways to waste graph paper. In this game, the dwarf’s slant-and-shift sense became essential. If you wanted to survive, someone played a cleric; if you wanted your game to not suck, someone played a dwarf.

The text described dungeons as “mazy.” Gary wasn’t kidding.

Original D&D described dungeons as “mazy.” Gary wasn’t kidding.

The original example of play should have included this addition:

Mapper: I cannot believe the referee teleported us into another goddamn Maze.

Caller: I suppose a mountain of fun games will be invented in the next 40 years, but for now the only alternative is Monopoly.

Mapper: Sigh. I search for secret doors.

To be fair, the sloping floors and trick staircases made more than a nuisance. In the megadungeons of the era, greater threats prowled on lower levels, so tricks that lured PCs deeper threatened their lives. Traps that blocked a mapped escape from the dungeon prevented players from resting and re-equipping.

Deathmaze 5000 offered a true test of map keeping

Deathmaze 5000’s revolutionary first-person view offered  mappers a true test

Perhaps Gary also thought map-keeping let players practice the skills of imaginary dungeon explorers. But explorers would see the place they mapped. From a first-person view, mapping is entirely different than translating spoken descriptions. I learned this playing Deathmaze 5000 long before computer programmers went soft and made dungeon games with automatic mapping, or saved games, or that players enjoyed.

By 1976, Palace of the Vampire Queen included player’s maps to spare players the chore of transcribing dimensions. By fourth edition, labyrinths had turned from mapping challenges to skill challenges. Such mazes were no more fun, but they saved graph paper.

For years, mapping formed a part of D&D that players tolerated, but that few questioned. Then, this revolutionary game seemed so fresh and intoxicating that even duties like mapping found love, just a lot less than the game’s actual fun parts.

9 facts about D&D’s first standalone adventure, Palace of the Vampire Queen

Before Curse of Strahd and Ravenloft came Palace of the Vampire Queen, a dungeon written by California gamers Pete and Judy Kerestan and distributed by TSR Hobbies.palace_of_the_vampire_queen_folder

1 Palace of the Vampire Queen may count as the first Dungeons & Dragons adventure module published, but only after a few disqualifications.

Book 3 of the original D&D game devoted two pages to a dungeon level, but the sample falls short of a complete dungeon. Supplement II Blackmoor (1975) includes Temple of the Frog, but that location plays as a Chainmail scenario rather than a dungeon. As Palace reached print in June 1976, Paul Jaquays published Dungeoneer issue 1. The magazine including a dungeon called F’Cherlak’s Tomb. So Palace of the Vampire Queen rates as the first standalone D&D adventure in print.

2 D&D co-creator Gary Gygax thought no one would buy published dungeons, because dungeon masters could easily create their own.

The key to Palace makes dungeon creation seem trivial, so you can see Gary’s point. Each room appears as a row on a table with a monster quantity, a list of hit points, and a line describing the room’s contents. Anyone with enough imagination to play D&D could create similar content as quickly as they could type.


3 TSR Hobbies distributed Palace because they found success reselling blank character sheets from the same authors.

In February 1976, Strategic Review announced the Character Archaic, a set of character sheets for D&D and Empire of the Petal Throne.

4 Palace came as a collection of loose 8½ by 11 pages tucked into a black folder with a copyright notice taped inside the cover.

Adding to the low-budget feel, TSR fixed missing pages in some kits by adding Xerox-streaked duplicates from the office machine.

5 Most of the adventure’s text comes in a 1-page background.

The page tells of a beloved queen, slain by a vampire, and entombed on the dwarvish island of Baylor. She rises to bring terror to the night.

In addition to launching the standalone adventure, Palace gives players their first shot at rescuing the princess. The vampire queen has abducted the king’s only daughter. “The people wait in fear at night. The king wanders his royal palace, so empty now without his only child. Neither the king nor his people have hope left that a hero or group of heroes will come to rid them of the Vampire Queen. For surely the Vampire Queen lies deep within the forbidding mountains, protected by her subjects, vengeful with hate for all truly living things and constantly thirsting for human blood on which to feed.

In the early days of the game, when players raided dungeons for treasure and the experience points it brought, this qualified as an unprecedented dose of plot.

6 Palace shows a dungeon designed before anyone worried about making things plausible.

Even though the dungeon’s background presents it as a tomb for a queen-turned-vampire, it features assorted monsters waiting in rooms to be killed. In any natural underground, the creatures would wander away for a meal. And the bandits in room 23 would search for a safer hideout near easier marks. And the Wizard selling magic items in room 23 would find a store with foot traffic that doesn’t creep or slither.

7 In 1976, nobody worried about dead characters much.

When someone opens a chest on level 2, a block drops and kills the PC and anyone else in a 3×6’ space. No damage rolls, no save—just dead.The dungeon’s threats escalate quickly. Level 2 includes orcs and a giant slug; level 5 includes 35 vampires and a Balrog.

Despite these menaces, players in 1976 stood a better chance than they would now. The Balrog was just a brute with 2 attacks and 41 hit points, not the modern Balor with 262 hit points and a fire aura. Vampires suffered significant disadvantages: “Vampires cannot abide the smell of garlic, the face of a mirror, or the sight of cross. They will fall back from these if strongly presented.” Level 4 even includes a Garlic Garden so players can stock up.

When the players reach the vampire queen’s tomb, she flees their garlic and crosses, and tries to take the dwarf princess hostage.

8 In 1976, no one knew how to present a dungeon—or agreed on how to play the game.

palace_of_the_vampire_queen_mapThe key sketches just the most essential information: a quantity of monsters, their treasure, and an occasional trick or trap. The text lists no stats other than hit points, but lists them as Max Damage. Apparently, D&D’s terminology remained unsettled. Back then, DMs rolled hit points, so pre-rolling counted as a time saver.

In one room, a PC can adopt a lynx kitten as a pet, which lets him “add 3 to his morale score.” D&D lacked morale rules for player characters, but in those days popular house rules spread though regions. Folks writing about D&D regularly confused their regional practices for canon.

Each level of the dungeon includes a keyed and unkeyed map. “The Dungeon Master may give or sell the player map to the players to speed game play.” Even in 1976, players saw mapping as a chore.

9 The dungeon master needed to work to bring the Palace to life.

Palace of the Vampire Queen isn’t called a “module” or “dungeon adventure,” but a “Dungeon Masters Kit.”

The authors realized that dungeon’s brief descriptions fell short of adventure. “Feel free to use your imagination for dialog or any extra details you feel would add to more exciting play. The kit itself is only a basic outline—you can make it a dramatic adventure.

The kit uses fewer words to describe 5 levels than some modern adventures lavish on a single room. Nevertheless, it presents some charming bits. On level 4, PCs find a petrified Lammasu missing a jewel eye. Replacing the eye causes the creature to come to life as an ally.

Room 24 holds 3 sacks of sand. Room 25 says, “Sand alarm rings in room 26 when door is opened.” I searched the web for “sand alarm” to determine if it were some kind of widely-known trick, perhaps requiring a supply of sandbags. Finally, I realized room 25 holds a sound (making) alarm.

One room holds an Invisible Chime of Opening. I have no clue how the PCs might find the thing unless they literally sweep the floor. Just for kicks, I would have put a broom in the room.

Just a couple of years after Palace of the Vampire Queen reached gamers, the D&D community forgot about it. But this first adventure showed Gary that adventure modules could attract buyers, so he rushed to publish the giant series.