D&D 5th Edition

In an old Pathfinder campaign I ran, early on, when I was still learning the system ropes, I grabbed a flavorful “make this monster two challenge ratings tougher” template to add to the boss of an encounter to bump a wolf mother from CR3 to CR5, not realizing it was a template from an old Paizo module that was intended to be applied to monsters closer to CR14 base. She wound up much stronger than I expected, and two players got overconfident because they both had excellent saves - one of those, “I’m only in danger if I roll a 3 twice!” situations. As you might expect, 3s were rolled and I didn’t realize I probably needed to start fudging until they both suddenly and very anticlimactically died. It was a crappy ending to what was meant to just be an interstitial encounter to cap off a one off side quest they picked up while traveling to the next big town, and now two main characters were dead with basically no payoff or point.

Now, in some kinds of games, with some kinds of players, that’s super okay! The world is dangerous, the monsters are scary, and if our tactics and preparation aren’t Dark Souls level on point, we’re gonna die. For what it’s worth, I don’t run or enjoy playing in games like that, and people who play with me generally know that. I’m all about crafting an engaging player driven storyline that feeds off character actions and choices, using bits of my overprepared world building to find a narrative thread that their actions will lead them toward. My combats are usually more intended to be about Something Larger than to just grind you down or maybe kill someone. And those deaths were really counter to everything we’d been planning on.

On the other hand, when players approached me and said they wanted to play a new character and have their current one go out with a bang, we worked together to build up something really cool and explosive to take them out, and I usually then got to spin a cool new storyline out of that, like the grim faced cleric who was resurrected by the evil god caught in the spiritual mesh cutting off their world from the afterlife to help free him - that player even got to play his old character again when his paths crossed with the party’s!

To keep the tension level high, I try to offer them stakes larger than their own mortal lives that derive from the motivations and back stories they develop. Yes sure this demon lord might kill your characters while they’re stuck in the 1600s without access to their superpowers, but if he’s successful in warping the family line of these famous Master Mages, in 400 years, Hell will claim the earth, AND YOU’LL NEVER GET TO GO BACK TO YOUR PROM DATE TO FINISH THE LAST DANCE. dun dun dunnnnn

Some crews are easy to motivate, with classic stuff like money or treasure. Others might have an npc family member they love, or a nation they serve, or a god they’re bound to. Defeat might not mean death, but failing to stop something worse from happening in time - fighting the heroes was just a minor distraction from the villain’s real goal all along, etc.

Edit to note, none of this is to say you can’t tell a player driven storyline while also having deadly tactical combat. That’s generally not how I personally roll, so my advice is geared away from that. Other GMing styles will provide good insights there, Colville included! He runs a pretty lethal game.

Recent editions of D&D have made death less of a possibility. A character reduced to 0 hit points gets 3-5 rounds of rolling death saves before they actually die, and there’s a 50/50 chance that those death saves result in “unconscious but badly wounded” instead of death as a result. Plus there are low level magics to prevent a 0-HP character from even having to make those saves at all. Even if the dice go wild and a should-have-been-easy fight starts dropping characters, savvy players can almost always manage to run away to fight another day.

A DM who wants even more insurance about that can make sure that the players know that the clerics in the nearby city/village/temple/grove/monastery/abbey/cave have a few scrolls of Raise Dead for emergencies. They aren’t just going to use those on anyone who asks of course, but for people who are willing to do a major service for the clerics (INSERT PLOT HOOK HERE) would of course be eligible. That lets you pivot a player death into a renewed focused on the plot.

I am going to a virtual gaming convention this weekend. The people that run the AL stuff at TotalCon are doing an online con. Since TotalCon is going virtual-only next year this is a good dry run.

I installed the Beyond20 chrome plug in and holy how that is slick.

You have to read your group. Last game I ran in person was Ravenloft, and I told them that if they die, they die. Make a new character. This led to the party being SUPER cautious and paranoid, which fit the game very well. They had hirelings and shit that they’d use as reinforcement. The hirelings would revolt if asked to do dangerous things, and take shares of treasure and XP. It felt very much like old school D&D, and it added to the atmosphere of dread. Not every group is going to like that, though, they just want to chill and have improv sessions, so if someone dies make up some stuff about how they didn’t die.

A good general rule of thumb is don’t have monsters finish off players that go down in a battle. Having a monster use its round to kill a PC at 0HP is a dick move as a DM. If it’s a boss, and the boss is in trouble, I can see him threatening to finish off a downed player as a way to escape. Like, Strahd would totally grab someone who was down and use them as a human shield to escape a losing situation.

I’ve done 3 virtual D&D games since lockdown started and I hate them. Roll 20 sucks, still, and it’s so much goddamn work just to get a basic map running. That grid align thing is a nightmare. I don’t want to spend even more time prepping a session than I already do. Plus everyone as little zoom windows is not the same as sitting around a table with friends. It’s just depressing.

Seth Skorkowski (who has a superb series teaching Call of Cthulhu. That’s how I first heard of him) makes a great point 9 minutes into this video about “failing forward”, fudging dice rolls and the players realising that the threat of death can never come to pass:

If the players realise that the threat (death, other permanent failure) can never come to pass, then those obstacles become simple annoyances to overcome.

I personally don’t want characters to die every session. But I like that the characters in the campaigns I’ve played (DM in one, player in 3. I have… limited experience :) ) have had to be cautious because they feared for their lives.

As has been pointed out, D&D 5E is already not too brutal when it comes to PC’s dying. So I would be unlikely to make sure death never happens. Even in the campaign I run for my wife and daughter (though I would sprinkle warnings and try and avoid them getting in a really bad situation first).


Gary Gygax said the DM fudging die rolls or changing the scenario during the game is cheating. He was from a different time, though.

Ultimately you want the group to have fun. If the group is the type that enjoys collaborative story telling, then let them be super heroes. Be the Deus Ex Machina from behind the screen.

In my Ravenloft game I mentioned, I told the group I was going to make all my die rolls in front of them. If the monster crits, we all see it. If the boss rolls a 1 on his saving throw, we all see it. The dice are the gods in this world. They do not care about your 3 page elaborate backstory.

In general, I agree, but boy have I found that smart monsters really should be doing this, because PCs (at least in the party that I’m DMing) have so many ways of healing and bouncing right back into battle that it sometimes feels like a silly yo-yo effect.

A couple sessions ago, I was essentially forced into using the monster’s attack to kill a PC because a (young) black dragon moved its full movement, then critted a PC with its bite, dropping him from 31 hit points to 0. The dragon had no movement left to go after the only other PC who was there (they split the party, long story but it was ultimately fantastic) so it simply used its remaining two claw attacks to rend the downed PC, killing him with trivial double death save attacks.

As an additional note, even this death was "yo-yo"ed as the party cleric (5th level) ran in from another and reached the downed PC in time to cast Revivify and bring him back to life.

So, I’ve found that it’s super hard to kill PCs, so much so that I’ve instituted (with player agreement because we’re all old school players and prefer the threat of terminated characters) a system shock like rule to our campaign.

Oh man, system shock. I’d forgotten about system shock.

Yeah, that’s my guiding principle. If I’m dealing with a group that can deal with death, I let the rolls be what they are, and deal with the consequences. But if the group is such that I know it would be a very negative experience, I’m willing to fudge rolls or bring in random help to avoid serious damage.

I played 3 games in an online D&D convention this weekend.

As a side note, this season of the Adventurer’s League is whacked. It is very easy to get your character legally locked out of content. Prior seasons you could kinda jump around the previous seasons with only a few restrictions – primarily around Ravenloft. This season, while no one can really figure out the rules, a S10 character can play S10 content, but if they play previous season’s content they don’t advance or get rewards, likewise, prior season’s characters don’t get any rewards in season 10. No one on the forums can really figure it out well, and I have no idea why they did this. No one looks at the logs anyway, and I had at least one DM when I brought my S10 character to a Season 8 adventure said, “I won’t tell if anyone else doesn’t.” I expect a lot of blind eyes to be turned.

Ok, on to the con itself.

I loved it. Friday night’s game was a little rough. The DM had a accent and weird cadence to his speech pattern. At least one person was just using their laptop speakers and mikes so we had a ton of noise. It was bad WebEx at work, but in a game. The adventure itself was a ton of fun, though.

Saturday, I did one of the big multi-table interactive events that was a ton of fun. The GM was one I had played with at my local con. The Saturday night crew was an established gaming group from Colorado that were a ton of fun.

The Chrome plug in is amazing. I just hit buttons and dice rolled. The only adjustment I needed was to tell the GM if my raging barbarian had an extra 2 to the damage.

It was tiring, and probably a little more tiring than in person. Having a headset on all day is very tiring, I also had a tech issue with my headset and my Mac causing a lot of static.

Sounds like it was lots of fun! That Chrome plugin looks handy. I’m not dying to use Roll20 again, though. I’ve poked around at Fantasy Grounds, but I guess that’s not as popular (and not free).

I hear you about wearing a headset all day long. It hurts my pointy ears. :)

Foundry VTT is where its at, these days. I’d check that out - there is an online demo as well.

I still use Roll20, but will transition to Foundry full soon, once I get decided whether to host my own server, or use one of the paid options (5 dollars a month) - both things work, I am just not webtech savvy enough to make a SSL certificate for my own server, which is required if you want to use video and voice inside Foundry.

There are some tools to help, if you want to go that route. Post something over in the Hardware-Tech forum, we’ve got lots of folks on the boards here with experience.

Ooh, I watched the Foundry video, and it looks very nice. I can see why you might prefer it to Roll20.

You mentioned video and voice inside Foundry. Could you alternatively use something like Zoom with phones or tablets?

Sure - I just enjoy seeing people and listening to them, in the same way Roll20 does it, on the same screen :-) Its closer to the tabletop experience for me at least, that way.

But yes, Foundry is really nice, and impressively being done by one man only. It does rely on the ton of mod makers that makes systems and mods for it to be functional, and automates less than Roll20 does - at least without mods.

For instance - There are no native 3D dice in Foundy, but DicesoNice, a mod made by some , adds that and its brilliant - so many options.

I watched that whole dice video; fun! I was especially curious whether it would support the Star Wars FFG dice, and sure enough, there they are! I had already checked to see whether Foundry supports that game, and indeed it does. It’s my favorite tabletop RPG other than D&D 5th edition.

I think Foundry is definitely the best VTT at the moment. I’ve used both Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds in the past but they feel dated in comparison, creaking under many years of old code.

It’s pretty interesting to read through the early posts in this thread to review what we all thought or heard was going to happen versus how it actually shook out.

  1. 5E is going to suck because Hasbro sucks and/or 4E sucked. It turned out that 5E was pretty good right out of the gate. Of course there were (and are) rules that can be clarified or done better, but overall Wizards knocked it out of the park. 5E successfully moved the system back to something that pleased old-timers while being welcoming to new players.

  2. We already have Pathfinder. Crazily, Pathfinder wound up losing their lead by falling into the trap D&D did years ago. Too many supplemental books, an ever-expanding set of complicated rules that made casual gaming hard, and 5E became the “new shiny” while Pathfinder ended up looking stale. With Pathfinder 2E, Paizo seems to have embraced a different path, but they’ve got to work to catch up.

  3. D&D is doomed because they haven’t embraced the digital age. It took a little time, but Wizards learned their lesson with 4E, and the community stepped up anywhere they could.

  • The official online tools are pretty good and the subscription price is fair, at least most players seem to think so.
  • The free intro pdf is a great no-risk way to get started. Beyond that, the cheap basic boxed set wound up in retail and every online outlet and thankfully never went out of print.
  • The rise of dozens of online virtual tabletop services swooped in and filled the void for players to connect and play digitally. It’s a party market here. You can choose between a number of free sites, cheap apps, subscription services, or one-price licensed software to play tabletop games.
  1. D&D is a hobby that (unfairly or not) has a reputation for attracting some awful people that repel new players. This point, I’m glad to say, was soundly stomped by something none of us saw coming. The rise of game streaming services like Twitch and YouTube gave a much-needed boost of young, cool (well, cooler than us) players and DMs that people could watch. This not only acted as great marketing, but the sessions acted as terrific teaching tools for the community. I don’t know how quickly Wizards jumped on this, but they really can thank their lucky stars that this streaming phenomenon happened when it did.

Is there a good place online to find a campaign to join? Doesn’t have to be D&D.

Sure - take a look here https://www.reddit.com/r/lfg/
If you are into Roll20 as VTT, you can take a look here https://app.roll20.net/lfg/search/