Evil PCs and NPCs have been on my mind as of late. For villains most DMs seem to go with the typical kick-a-puppy type. You’ve got a baddie and they are mean. Occasionally you’ll dabble in the Mr. Freeze type, a villain that thinks they have moral justification for their evil actions. But for the most part you’ve got villains running around doing really bad things to good people.
Thugs, bandits, warlords, necromancers, you can pretty easily sketch out what drives that type of evil. But if you broaden your definition of evil some. You start to see how easily it can be a label placed on many NPCs, organizations, and even for the players.
What I define as evil in much of my campaigns is a lack of empathy and selfishness. You’ve got a merchant that scraped their little store together from nothing. They’ve been ruthless against competition and unyielding with their prices and policies. Want to get something on credit? Sure, but you pay hefty interest. They’re the kind running a company store for mining claims. They are evil.
Think of a wealthy merchant that built trade empire on white lies and uncaring adherence to the law. They never busted heads or threatened anyone with violence, but they sure got signatures for contracts through pure browbeating and other underhanded tactics (cutting off water rights, undervalued offers for land, etc.) that would make a fictional character like There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview seem mild.
If anything Lawful Evil would be a fairly common description of most the evil NPCs in my game. While they might not outright break laws, they certainly bend them and find loopholes. Even more so they’ll also unerringly seek to enforce laws that play to their advantage. The most important characteristic they share would be lack of empathy and being selfish. They are a literal embodiment of ‘F&*K you. Got mine.’
It’s their family, loved ones, and kin that might get an expression of kindness or caring. Everyone else might get a furrowed brow of concern at the most. After all, they can’t give away all they have to help everyone in the world. And this logic is used to cloak themselves from shame when turning their backs on strangers in need. When you adopt that type of mentality for evil NPCS, you begin to see these types of people can be found everywhere in your game.
Alignment isn’t an absolute. Those good villagers might be distrustful of strangers, and circle more around those that they know. But they can be goaded into doing the right thing. However for my evil NPCs I see them doing good deeds as a way to adhere to quid pro quo. Yes, that evil noble will donate to an orphanage but it isn’t an act of charity or compassion. They know they are getting something from it. They know it helps seat them in power and sway the peasants to his banner. He is using that act of charity to further his own selfish goals.
This is easily something that can be adopted for your players. The evil PC is going to get theirs, no matter what. Tasked with clearing out a warren of goblins? Okay. But the village is going to pay. The PC will get a reward AND keep a share of treasure found, no matter what. It’s literally a mercenary way of thinking. And when this type of motivation is expanded some, ensuring a PC gets compensated sufficiently for every ‘good’ deed that is done, your game opens up to playing evil aligned characters.
I would argue it’s the Neutral characters that are the most difficult to play. I see these types more akin to zen-like monks that see the value in letting the universe just be, and not align with any particular moral force. These types seem to hardest to properly stoke motivation in navigating through potential story lines and adventures.
In the past I’ve put my foot down on having players helm evil characters. More from my laziness in not wanting to wrestle with thinking up the right type of adventure hooks and lures to get the group going in a particular campaign direction. But lately I’ve reconsidered acceptable motivations for PCs that swerve into more selfish territory. Once you allow the notion of evil being acceptable for PCs, you’ll also start seeing it a more common NPC personality trait too. It can add more complexity and depth to the type of interactions your group has with denizens in your campaign, and something worth exploring around the table.
So I’ve been tinkering with initiative for my 5e games. So far my players have liked the variant I tweaked from Mike Mearls. But there are some rough spots with it. A big issue is players still losing actions due to their planned targets getting wiped out, essentially cancelling their action if they were just going to make an attack.
Another more critical issue is that there is so much in 5e based on the structure of movement plus an action in the game. If you stop using it, certain abilities and feats become useless or need some severe houserules to make them work. Another small point is that having that initiative bonus gets lost.
I picked up the Genesys RPG which is a more narrative based system, and one thing that stood out for me was how they handled initiative. I loved it and immediately scooped it up for my game. It’s structured but gives a little room for players to have some agency over when they act for the turn.
- Players and the DM determine initiative order as per 5E rules.
- Instead of a specific player, the initiative results indicate which side can act (either players or monsters).
- When it is a side’s ‘turn’, any player, creature, or group of monsters can act.
- A player or monster can only act once per round, but chooses when to take their action in the initiative order.
- Monsters should be broken up into groups of 3-5 and have multiple initiative rolls. NPCs also contribute an initiative roll. Solo monsters may potentially have one additional initiative roll.
To determine initiative for a combat I fell back to each player rolling on a d20 as per 5e rules. I break up the opposition into groups rolling for every 3-5 creatures, and add 1 additional roll if I have an NPC of note in the battle. Once initiative order is set, each character can take one action per round of battle. However the order is totally up to the players provided it’s their side’s ‘turn’ to act.
If I have multiple opponents, each monster can act only once during the turn. Further I try to break up the actions so that only part of the group activates when they are supposed to. I’ll roll twice for those 5 orcs, but up to 3 will act when it’s their turn. The other 2 will act when their turn rolls around later during the round.
Everyone loves this. It fits in well with the 5e rules. However it gives them the freedom to switch around the party order from round to round. If a cleric needs to get off a critical heal or buff before the barbarian makes a huge attack, they have the chance to do it. Players can coordinate their actions more this way. Another small bonus is that super high dex player can help the party get an action or two off before the monsters do each turn (provided they get a high initiative roll).
The downside is you do that that occasional battle where the monsters might get that alpha strike, being able to take all their actions first before the players due to poor initiative rolls. But the PCs in turn can tweak with the order of their actions, making what they feel are their best tactical choices deciding who goes when. So far it’s been a huge hit at the table and I feel a decent compromise to allow for some free form order of actions during the turn, but also fall within that move-plus-action economy that 5e utilizes.
I’m a fan of Savage Worlds and always liked the card initiative system they used. Every new round of combat everyone draws a card and then act based on the suit and value of their card. It makes for a dynamic turn and some unpredictability when everyone acts. Best of all if you flub your draw, you aren’t stuck for the entire battle going last.
Mearls was playing around with an idea of doing something similar. However you’d roll dice and your planned action would also influence the type of die you roll. Initiative starts and 1 and goes up. Lined up a shot and ready to fire off an arrow? Roll a d4. Locked in melee and ready to swing? Roll a d6. If you have to move and engage an enemy, you are rolling additional dice to add to your total.
This way relatively quick actions like firing a bow or swinging a mace will probably roll low, but more intricate actions and those combined with movement take more time and are more likely to act later in the round. This isn’t necessarily the case however and a player (or monster) might still luck out and roll very low. But like drawing cards in Savage Worlds, if you tank a roll you aren’t stuck for the entire battle taking your action last.
Another thing I like about this is that players can plan out some, thinking about their actions and adding a little strategy to the battle. The more simplistic the action, the more likely you can act before the opposition. Trying to run around doing backflips and taking bonus actions are possible, but also mean you’ll likely act later in the round.
I borrowed some ideas from Mike Coleville having larger, more damaging weapons use a higher-faced die. I also split up spells so that higher level spells used a larger die to determine initiative. Cantrips were slower action spells compared to melee and ranged strikes, but could still be fired off faster than casting prepared spells.
The pickle with this system is that you can get a blown turn where the opponent you were going to attack becomes a casualty from another player. Effectively this would cancel your action for the round if planning on just making an attack. I decided that if your planned action gets cancelled due to no longer having a valid target, the player could always make a movement action allowing them to set up for the next round.
I am still struggling some with figuring out how the opposition uses this. Commonly I just roll a d8 or a d10, allowing the players to have more chances to act before them. It works out some as there are those rounds where most of the party gets to act before the monsters. While there are also those occasional turns where I luck out rolling a 1 and having all the baddies attack first for the round.
So far my players like this. Most cut their RPG teeth on Savage Worlds and not getting stuck with a single initiative roll for an entire combat is something they appreciate. There are still some kinks though and having essentially wasted actions (especially those making melee attacks) is something I found players occasionally grouse over. Another issue is there are feats and abilities that revolve around rolling for initiative, and players dumping into a high dex so that they can get that initiative bonus lose out some. I might tweak with allowing a single reroll per battle for every +4 initiative bonus. Regardless it seems to be a hit so far and you can find my tweaks for an alternate 5E initiative system in the downloads section.
Picked up Tomb of Annihilation and eager to get my group into the adventure. It really looks fun. One thing stood out for me though was that a decent chunk of the game is a hex crawl. I wanted to dabble some in exploration of the island, but didn’t want the hex-by-hex movement the book suggested. Instead I wanted to farm out the overland travel system I used for Savage Worlds.
It’s an abstract system using milestones and marking provision levels using markers. The journey to a location is divided up into milestones, where each milestone reduces the levels of supplies one by one. If players reach a milestone and are out of provisions they suffer fatigue.
Random encounters and challenges are based on drawing cards. If a face card is drawn, something happens with the suit dictating what event occurs. They can range from getting lost, losing supplies, to even encounters with creatures. I tweaked it some to make it more friendly for 5E D&D.
Nearly all of the obstacles and challenges players will face require group checks. One pickle of course, especially dealing with rations, is there are magical items and spells that would likely counter any effects of obstacles during travel. To take these spells and equipment into account, players get advantage on checks that they make if they use (or have access to) such abilities.
I stumbled across a player friendly map version of a Chult which I like far more than the default blank hex map in the module. In addition for exploring the jungles of Chult, I had some additional rules…
Speed of Travel: For each milestone players should determine their speed. Normal speeds will cover 10 miles per day (a single hex), while traveling by canoe allow for 20 miles per day (2 hexes). The DM should determine the total distance traveled for a single milestone of the trip and decide what likely terrain types will be common for potential events during the trip.
If traveling at a slow pace, roll a d12. A roll of 12 results in the group being able to make up the distance traveled as if they were moving at a normal pace. Otherwise the pace is much slower and the total distance expected to travel for the milestone is halved. There is a bonus of +4 to any checks however as the slow pace allows the group to be better prepared to overcome any challenges.
If travelling at a fast pace the party will travel 1 and ½ times the total distance they normally would cover traveling at a normal pace to reach a milestone. Any checks made during the trip are at a disadvantage. Note this means traveling at a fast pace will cancel any advantage players get due to spells, abilities, magic items, or special equipment for ability checks.
Guides: The guides are a fairly critical part of the initial adventure and I wanted to have them serve some importance here. If a Hearts suit is drawn as an event, the guide makes a difficult Wisdom check (DC 15). If successful they can allow up to two players to make their Wisdom check with advantage to avoid getting lost.
Gear and Equipment: Some equipment like rain catchers can allow players to supplement the provisions they carry. These items will allow players to have advantage on certain checks.
Terrain types: The jungles of Chult are exceedingly difficult to travel and navigate. The region is hot and humid, making one consume far more water than journeys through other lands. The high canopy of trees and foliage make conditions of the jungle almost similar to that of the Underdark. Combined with the dark jungles is hilly terrain crisscrossed with narrow streams, and lack of unique landmarks and direct sunlight make orienteering difficult. Additionally, some regions covered with swampy water attract even more aggressive wildlife. These conditions and lands alter the resolution of events seen in typical overland travel. The normal rules for travel are used however some events may have a greater chance of occurring.
Undead Territory: Areas of lesser and greater Undead Territory are more likely to have a chance to encounter undead. A draw of Spades (2-Ace) indicates that the players have stumbled into an encounter. This is regardless of the terrain type.
Jungle: Deep jungle terrain not broken up by river or coastline is hard to navigate and the rough ground and heat make it more likely provisions will be consumed faster. The jungle also is a refuge for all manners of creatures. A draw of Clubs (8-Ace) means that players may lose one rank of provisions. A draw of Hearts (5-Ace) indicates that the group might become lost and add another milestone to their journey. A draw of Spades (8-Ace) results in a random encounter for the party.
Swamp: The additional water in this terrain makes it more hospitable to wildlife and the fetid marches can be a source for disease. A draw of Spades (5-Ace) results in a random encounter for the party. A draw of Clubs (5-Ace) means that players may lose one rank of provisions.
An example of a travel milestone– A group decides to head south through the jungle of Chult to explore unknown regions and then return to Port Nyanzaru. The DM decides this will take a total of 4 milestones. Two to travel a certain distance out into unexplored land and 2 milestones returning to civilization. They are prepared and have a full complement of rations and water, so they are at the Stocked provision rank and also are taking canoes with them. The DM decides that for the first milestone the group will travel for 7 days, and the group tells the DM they will attempt this first leg of the journey at a normal pace. Note if the players were trying to reach a specific location, the DM would still say the trip would require 4 milestones (2 to reach the destination and 2 to return to Port Nyanzaru), but the actual number of days per milestone could be greater, or less, depending on the map distance.
Looking over the map, the party decides plots a course that will try to take advantage of a nearby river. The group will try to travel 4 hexes (40 miles) in 4 days through the jungle. On the final 3 days they can cover another 6 hexes (60 miles) by canoe rapidly navigating through a great river. This might change however depending on what events transpire during the first part of the journey. The DM expects that at the end of the first milestone the party will have traveled 10 hexes at most.
The DM decides for this initial milestone the party will have three potential challenges. Two will certainly occur when travelling in the jungle, while the third might take place as the group is on the river (or still occur in the jungle depending on what happens). A player draws one card getting a 2 of Spades indicating no major event happens during the first leg of the trip.
A second card is drawn indicating a 7 of Hearts. The group might possibly become lost. They have a guide and a Wisdom check (DC 15) is made for the NPC which fails. This means even the guide is turned around and cannot help the players get through the thick jungle (not allowing the players to make any checks at advantage). The DM decides that a medium DC Wisdom (Survival) is appropriate. One player is a Ranger with the Forest as their favored terrain, and another has a magical compass. The DM allows both of these players to make ability checks with advantage.
Despite this help, most of the party fails their Wisdom (Survival) checks. The entire journey will take another milestone. The DM decides that the players still keep on track direction-wise, but get turned around some or make a bad choice trying to go a certain path leading to an impassable area, adding time to the overall trip. Instead of taking 4 days to travel 40 miles, the party takes 6 days to travel the same distance.
The last check for this milestone the DM decides will be on the river for one additional day of travel. The players have made it through the jungle and are now seeing what event might unfold as they travel by canoe. An ace of Clubs is drawn. Players make another medium DC Wisdom (Survival) group check to determine if they manage to utilize their rations effectively. Again most of the group fails their checks. The DM describes a large portion of food and fresh water is lost as a canoe capsizes. The group loses one rank of provisions and are now at a High rank.
At the end of the first milestone, provisions decrease another rank with the party supplies at a Sufficient rank. At the end of 7 days, the group has traveled 6 hexes. Forty miles through jungle and another 20 miles along the river. As time was lost and another milestone added to the journey, they didn’t travel as far as expected. This is a little open ended as they are not trying to reach a specific destination but rather poke around in unexplored territory. However now the group has a difficult choice.
They can press further, but due to early difficulty navigating through the jungles they’ve severely cut down the territory they can explore. If they were trying to reach a specific location they would have an additional milestone to their journey. They could cut their losses and spend another milestone to return back to Port Nyanzaru, or push on and see if they can get some luck. If they choose to travel further, they can hope when low on provisions they are able to forage enough from the countryside to supplement dwindling supplies.
I’ve used this system with great success in my Savage Worlds games. I like it as it keeps everyone engaged and contributing to the success (or failure) of the group. For 5E I’d consider not allowing automatic successes due to spells and abilities but instead offer advantage on checks. I’d also consider using the ability checks as suggestions and feel free to allow players to pitch the use of other ability checks if they can effectively describe their actions. Strength (Athletics) and Constitution checks might be alternates depending on the conditions and situations the players are tackling.I hope folks find some use for this in their games.
I’ve got a player eager to take the helm running a D&D game periodically. I’m super excited to see them flip to the other side of the screen and be a DM. They freely admitted struggling some with thinking up an appropriate way to kick off the game, and the decision to dabble in making up their own world or run something pre-made. They also wanted to know if I had any advice. So I pointed them over to Running the Game, a YouTube series about being a DM.
It’s done by Matthew Colville, a writer that also works in the video game industry. The videos he creates run between 15 to 30 minutes and commonly cover a specific RPG topic. Some address a specific issue most DMs will face at the table or when planning out their session. He also has a series that covers his own game more in detail and the problems he occasionally has when playing.
Now a big caveat with the advice is that what he will regularly state the tidbits he throws out are his opinions and how he likes to run his own games. Your mileage might vary with his advice, and he’ll freely admit his approach might not be for everyone. Another point is that much of the series is about running D&D. I think if you were a GM for other game systems a lot of his advice would still be great but you are going to get some chunks of content not quite applicable to a non-D&D game.
This last point touches on a few episodes. One is related to the Deck of Many things (which dragged some for me), and if not playing D&D or including that magic item in your campaign, much of the video will be not helpful. However you might pick up some interesting tips and ideas handling a similar powerful, legendary magical item in your own game. The concept of using a few props to spice up your game is great and I particularly like the idea of a little sleight of hand to make players think they have full agency (when in reality you are guiding events some).
Another ding with the video series is the speed that Matthew speaks. He talks fast. You might want to slow down the playback speed at little. I think especially if English wasn’t your mother tongue you’d have a hard time keeping up. I enjoy his rapid fire dialog and find it engaging and quippish, but keep in mind he speaks at a fair clip.
But these are quibbles. You’ll find his videos a great resource. I especially like that he also talks about things that fall flat at his table. We tend to just spout off the things that work in our sessions and not dwell on the times when things just didn’t work. I agree with his opinion that sharing stuff that failed can also serve as helpful advice.
In the end you have a fantastic introduction to being a DM. Seriously, for the uninitiated wanting to sit down and try their hand at running a game, this is a great series. The first four are especially solid tutorials for DMing your initial adventure. There really are some golden tips covered in them. It’s such a helpful and entertaining bunch of tutorials. I really can’t recommend it enough to new DMs, and if you’re a bit long in the tooth as a GM, give a few videos a watch. You’ll either be nodding your head in agreement or picking up a few good ideas for your own game.
My wife is Korean. Last year there was a death in the family and I was unable to travel to another city for the funeral. Late at night my wife returned and from the parking lot downstairs she called me, ‘Come downstairs and bring the salt.’ No clue why she wanted it but I comply with the wishes of my CO. As I come to her car she steps out and grabs a palmful of salt tossing it over herself and then tossed some over the top of her car. Walking up to our apartment she called back over her shoulder, ‘To ward off evil spirits.’
Four is a big no no over here. Four is a number aligned with the same word for death and loss so it’s avoided. Giving cash gifts (a common practice) you never give away increments of 4. 30,000 and 50,000 won is okay, but 40,000 is an insult. It’s so pervasive you can’t even find an option to take out 40,000 or 400,000 from ATM machines.
Now as an American I sometimes roll my eyes at stuff like this, but I realize Americans do similar things too. Next time you are in an elevator for a highrise office building, see if you can find a button for floor 13. Once when it was pouring here in Korea I walked in with a dripping wet umbrella. My coworker took it from my hands and opened it up out in the hallway. For a brief instant I thought about bad luck, then I realized how clever it was to allow the umbrella to dry quickly exposing more surface area (rather than being bunched up when it is closed). Cultures have superstitions, and it’s amazing how pervasive they are.
For RPGs, superstitions are a great way to add some local color to a city or people. Further it’s something that can go beyond religious beliefs, being part of the culture for a group. Maybe every doorway holds a simple wind chime to ward off spirits. Maybe for every cup of ale one drinks in the local tavern, you dip in your thumb and press it on the table while you take the first draught. These small details can bring a lot of life to the fantasy world you create and even better, allow for some local flavor from town to town rather than it being another nondescript village.
Superstitions are also ripe for adventure fodder. In a world of fantastic creatures maybe there is a hint of truth to every dark superstition. It’s quite possible that a village hovel that doesn’t mark its doorway with a sigil might have some foul creature come at nightfall. Maybe players failing to follow a superstitious ritual are shunned, or given dire warnings (with ghostly consequences if they don’t follow a local custom). Not all superstitions have to be in place to ward off evil but could be done to avoid mischievous spirits.
Special events can also provide a backdrop for adventures. Festivals and a customary dinner revolving around a ritual can work too. While the players might be included as friendly participants, maybe they are considered outsiders and not welcome as part of the festivities. Maybe petty jealousies among villagers could lead to one fouling an offering or superstitious ward of a neighbor, bringing about some unforeseen horrible fate. Consider our Halloween and the Jack-O’-Lantern. What if a rival decided to smash his neighbor’s pumpkin in spite to bestow a bit of bad luck? Instead of some slight misfortune, the neighbor’s child is spirited away to the Fey. This could be a great setup for a one-shot adventure.
So the next time you describe a small village, consider looking at superstitions. They can offer an easy means to add some interesting detail to the locale and people, breathing a small amount of life into your world. They might even be a great source for a session’s adventure.
I grew up old school with AD&D. Scrawling out huge dungeons on graph paper was always an entertaining pastime, even if many of the lairs I drew never saw the game table. It was just a fun creative exercise to line up rooms and try to interconnect them all. This is something I have clung to over the years. Then of course I see some gorgeous freeform maps from Fearless DM and after picking my jaw up off the floor, come to the realization that trying to get something like this mapped out in its entirety would likely be an insurmountable task.
Something dawns on me, why bother mapping out the interconnecting bits? Why etch out on paper that you’ve got a hallway that goes 30’ and then branches into a T, heading east and west, each going another 40’ ending in at a set of doors? Why mess with all that detail?
Instead, just concentrate on mapping the rooms. The stuff with monsters in it. Where all the action is taking place. That is the meat and potatoes for just about any dungeon jaunt. Why bother trying to accurately get a layout for the entire network of corridors and hallways that interconnect everything? Why not just stick to getting the details set for where the players will be actively adventuring.
With that mindset, maps like these become more manageable and something easier to work with. In the past I occasionally would just handwave the layout of a dungeon. Now I’ve been doing it exclusively. I try to keep a framework of room connections through lines and intersections with a few notes, but it is all a rough sketch. I save the actual mapping for where encounters will be.
I’ve been liking this as it’s been making my adventure planning more modular and dynamic. So the group has been through a series of monster encounters. At the descriptive intersection they head left towards another combat, where heading right would lead them to a trapped room. I’m able to switch out the rooms and give my players something else to tackle aside from another hack and slash fight. Best of all, I don’t have to muddle around with trying to keep every interconnecting hallway accurately mapped out.
It gives me some options to make encounters more interesting also. Now I can throw monsters coming in from two directions when the party stumbles into a room (including from behind). Keeping the rooms networked together with a narrative description gives me some wiggle room. If I keep things general and tell the group they’ve gone through a series of corridors which head into a large chamber, that allows me to plop in monster reinforcements right in the direction they entered the room from. It helps keep the players from being complacent and too overconfident of their tactical situation in an encounter.
I’ve been liking this so much I’ve thrown out the idea of mapping out hallways. Just leaving things as a rough networked sketch has been great. It’s made it mentally easier for me to keep rooms dynamic and eased the ability of switching things around on the fly. Even better, when I see inspiring stuff like the maps here I’m more likely to use it and not worry about keeping in the corridors.
( Sadly, Fearless DM wrapped up his blog (where I snatched up these wonderful maps), but you can usually find him still dispensing RPG gems via twitter: @pseckler )