I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Should we trust MIKE MEARLS on 5e D&D monster math?

So Mike Mearls‏ tweeted this:


Want to cut down on referencing monster stats as you play? Use half a monster's CR as its bonus for all checks and saves. If the monster has legendary actions or is notably powerful in your campaign, also add its proficiency bonus.

Needless to say, Mike Mearls‏ did an amazing job with 5e, so he must  know what he is talking about.

And, honestly, I take Sage Advice (and pretty much everything that Mike Mearls‏ and Jeremy Crawford tweet) almost as canon. They made the game, after all, and have some amazing insights on it.

Unfortunately, this particular tip makes seems to make no sense when compared to actual 5e numbers.

If you follow he link to the tweet, you'll see an user named Dylan ran the numbers and got some very interesting results... some of which I don't fully understand.

I don't really tweet, so I can't participate on the conversation directly, but the subject interests me.

In any case, I wanted to make a quick check myself.


Let us take the first monsters in alphabetical order, from here:

Aboleth (CR 10) - saving throws are Con +6, Int +8, Wis +6, plus Dex -1, Str +5, and Cha +4. Average +4.6. Pretty close to half CR... however... it has legendary actions, so you'd add proficiency bonus, making its it rolls ALL the checks and saves at +9. Comparing this to the monster's actual dexterity save, at -1 shows it is absurd - but +9 is also twice the size of the average saving throw. The aboleth also has only two skills - for everything else, the bonus would be way lower than +9.

Acolyte (CR 1/4) - well, with CR 1/4, I have to agree that just giving it +0 to everything is good enough.

Adult Black Dragon (CR 14) - saving throws are Dex +7, Con +10, Wis +6, Cha +8, plus Str +6 and Intelligence +2. Pretty good saves, with an average of 6.5... Unlike Mearls formula, that would give it +12 to all saves. Skills? The dragon has Perception +11, Stealth +7. Not a single +12 skill, and most checks would be even lower than the saves on average.

Air Elemental (CR 5) - not proficient in ANY saving throws, nor skills. Good! Its checks and saves are one and the same. We have STR 14 (+2) DEX 20 (+5) CON 14 (+2) INT 6 (-2) WIS 10 (0) CHA 6 (-2), and average of +0.83 to all checks. Mike's formula gives us +2 or +3. It might seem like a small difference, but it fails by more than 200%, maybe 300%, like the other examples.

So, yeah, as written, the original tweet does not work very well.

Is there a good formula?

As you know, the DMG has a (hidden) formula for attacks, AC, save DC, HP, damage, etc. (a formula that the MM doesn't actually follow very well, but this is another topic), but not for saves and checks.

Dylan has suggested some. I don't have access to any compiled monster database (please send it to me if you do!), nor am I a mathematician, so I cannot really criticize his work.

But, from my experiences and (limited) number-crunching, I'd guess that for AVERAGE checks, the bonus should be equal to proficiency bonus (i.e., 2+1/4 CR). I think Dylan suggests this for "max ability check bonus", so I'm not sure he takes saves into consideration.

Using the proficiency works well enough for the Aboleth and Adult Black Dragon. It doesn't work well for the Acolyte or Air Elemental - here Mike's formula is better. It seems Mike's suggestion is better for low CRs - at least in this VERY LIMITED sample.

Next creature in line (skipping the Dragons) would be the Androsphinx. Average save about +8 in reality, checks would probably be lower, +6 if you use proficiency, +14 (!) if you follow Mearls.

The best part, though, is that there is a pretty intuitive (and somewhat accurate) way of combining all the formulas.

Good: 3 plus ONE THIRD CR*
Average: 2+1/4 CR (which means, equal to proficiency bonus)
Weak: just 1/5 of CR.

* It is he DMG suggestion and close to Dylan's "fit" of 12.34+0.39*CR.

OR:

Good 3 + 1/3 CR
Average 2 + 1/4 CR
Weak 0 + 1/5 CR

You could be even more precise (and still intuitive, I think) by allowing some small variation (use the second number after CR 4):

Good3 (or 4)1/3 CR
Average1 (or 2)+1/4 CR
Weak0+1/5 CR

The DM gets to decide what the monster is good, average and weak at. Assume EVERY monster is good at attacking, AC and save DC (after all, all characters will use their best stats for such things).

How does it work for the actual monsters studied here?

Aboleth (CR 10): if the DM assumes the Aboleth to be good at Intelligence and Wisdom, it would have +7 to saves and checks with those abilities. Dexterity being its worst check, a +2 bonus (instead of -1). Average stuff? +4. Quite similar to the actual numbers.

Adult Black Dragon (CR 14): best traits are Strength, Constitution,  perception, and stealth (+8 to all, instead of +6, +5, +11, and +7 - which averages around +7). Weakest stat in Intelligence - you get +3 (instead of +2).  Everything eles is average (+5). Again, pretty close.

We could try other examples, but without an actual compilation of data we would not get very far.

So, there you go: if you have a rough idea of the monster's strengths and weaknesses, you can intuitively guess the numbers involved, with some degree of precision.

What is the point?

The fact that you can just google any monster makes this exercise a bit superfluous. But if you have to come up with some numbers on the spot, or create your own monster, this little formulas can be very helpful.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Monster Parts & Boss Fights (D&D 5e quick fix)

Here is some interesting information by Sly Flourish. It seems there are people who think 5e's boss monsters aren't tough enough. Sly mentions many ways to fix that; the most popular one is adding more monsters to the fight, because of the action economy.

There are other possible solutions - I like legendary actions and even multiple reactions myself - but this one is a straightforward solution that doesn't require much mechanical manipulation.

As Sly puts it:

Each side in D&D combat has an overall number of actions they can take. If we have five characters in combat, that group has five full actions it can take. If the other side has ten orcs, those orcs have ten actions to the characters' five. That puts the action economy clearly in favor of the orcs. Even if the orcs are weaker, they have more actions which means they can do more stuff. That's the action economy.

When we think about boss encounters, we often focus on a single monster—like a dragon. In 5e, powerful monsters identified as legendary monsters have legendary actions which improve their action economy, often giving them the equivalent of maybe two to three full actions per round. Yet we sometimes assume that legendary monsters can stand off against four characters or more. If so, even with legendary actions, these monsters are still going to lose the action economy.

It makes perfect sense.

It also makes perfect sense that some bosses would have minions and bodyguards. Adding more monsters is a good solution for most cases.

On the other hand, you might want to give your players a lonely monster from time to time. Having minions as an option is great; making them obligatory is constraining.

But there is one way to "add more monsters to the fight" without actually adding more monsters: monster parts.

...Better than one - Source.
Simply get a monster with a CR that is higher than the party's level would indicate, and let the PCs hack it to pieces - literally. The improved HP and saves will make the monster last longer than usual, but the "maiming" mechanics below will make them a bit less deadly.

The exact mechanics are up to you. You can use something similar to the hydra ("Whenever the hydra takes 25 or more damage in a single turn, one of its heads dies"), any "called shots" rule you like, a "bloodied" condition that depletes your foe when it reaches half HP, making the enemy suffer after being hit with a natural 20, or something unique to your game.

The important part is that the boss loses some of its attacks as the fight goes own - exactly as if it were a bunch of smaller enemies - and that the PCs know that they can make the monster weaker.

It is easy to explain the situation to your players if the monster has three heads, a dangerous tail, or multiple eye-stalks. For example, you can give your 3rd level party a Chimera to fight, split the HP, and let them tell you which head they are targeting with each attack.

More fun than a bag of HP! - Image copyright WotC
Humanoids are a bit harder - hacking enemies feels unfair if they can't hack you back. Fortunately, humanoids seem to be more gregarious than Chimeras! So literally "adding more adversaries" work very well here!

Here is a list of effects you might add for a multi-part creature:

* A big monster suffers more damage from an area effect than a small one. Or not.
* A monster part can be target with a reaction from the PC being attacked.
* A monster loses the ability to escape after having their wings or legs hurt.
* A monster loses the will to fight as the number of attacks is diminished.
* A hacked monster part becomes a weapon.
* Damage that exceeds the maximum damage a body part can take is wasted - which both allows the monster to live longer and make the PCs accomplish something. You can also allow the PCs to use their cleave-like abilities when they reduce a body part to 0 HP.

Some people prefer to make the stakes rise as the fight goes, but I'm not so sure this is the ideal solution; it seems to me that hurting the PCs a bit and then deal less damage as they are low on HP might be better than a few annoying hits and then bringing in the big guns as the PCs are hurt. Making the big monsters a bit less dangerous as the fight goes mirrors most of the PC's tactics well (when first encountering a boss monster they will usually spend all their powers).

With that said, I'm all for mixing things up from time to time. Let some monsters get more dangerous when they're hurt!

Another cool thing is that if the PCs are near death and see no changes in their opponents... they know it is time to run away! Ideally, the decreasing damage per round will avoid a surprise TPK... most of the times.

But you wanted a BOSS monster, didn't you?

Friday, November 03, 2017

Apprentice’s Weapons and Magic Items (for D&D 5e)

Apprentice’s Weapons are special items that can be used efficiently by anyone - even if they aren't proficient. They are probably more expensive, rarer or even magical when compared to common weapons. They might have been created by wizards for themselves or their incompetent minions, or by a gifted blacksmith to help rebelling villagers against oppressive knights.

In game terms, anyone is proficient with this weapon. A wizard using an Apprentice’s Glaive, for example, would at her proficiency bonus to the attack.

This idea is inspired by this post at Don't Split the Party (invented in 79!). Check the blog if you will, it has some awesome stuff.

Now, let us expand the idea further.


Magic Items for Dummies

Adding the "Apprentice’s" template to magic weapons and items would allow them to be used by characters that are not proficient or that ordinarily cannot be attuned to them.

This would allow non-proficient characters to use magic weapons, but also  non-spellcasters to cast spells with staves and wands!

As a general rule, all apprentice’s items should require attunement.

Of course, these apprentice’s items would be rarer or somewhat worse than their DMG counterparts.

Alternatively, you can make it worse only when used by an apprentice, while working as written on the DMG if wielded by the intended classes. You can even use this method to give PCs a "taste" of the item and encourage them to take the adequate proficiency if they want to make full use of the item.

Some examples of limitations (choose two or more of than, or add other limitations):

1. Charges. If an item has charges, the apprentice's version has half as many charges (round down).
2. Save DCs. If an item allows the target a save DC, the apprentice's version DC is half the original DC (round down), plus the wielder's Intelligence, Wisdom or Charisma modifier depending on the item.
3. Fragility. If an item has a chance of breaking, the apprentice's version has twice as much chance of breaking. If an item does not have a chance of breaking, the apprentice's version might have a small chance of breaking (for example, an apprentice's sword might have 10% chance of breakage if a crit is rolled).
4. Bonuses. If an item gives you a bonus (for example, a +3 sword), the apprentice's version has a smaller bonus (+1 or +2) since amateurs cannot make the best use of it.
5. Spellburn! My go-to answer to the question of "can my Fighter PC cast spells?" is usually "Yes, at his own risk". Which means: if a magic item is used by someone that is not really used to this kind of magic/weapon/etc., give it a small change of creating a magical blowback.

Name variations. To add some mystery to it, you can use other synonyms to name your items.

1. Apprentice’s.
2. Neophyte’s.
3. Novice’s.
4. Fledgling’s.
5. Beginner's.
6. Pupil's.

Random effects. As an alternative, if you want to allow non-proficient characters to use ALL magic items in the game, you can use this method to allow your PCs to make SOME use of magic items that are found randomly and have nothing to do with their characters... before they trade it or sell it, anyway. Here are some possible effects of using an item you're not supposed to use:

1. Fewer charges, low DC (see above).
2. Smaller bonus (maximum +1).
3. Every time you use it, there is a 1-in-20 chance or hurting yourself or having another negative consequence (see "Spellburn", above).
4. Fewer charges, frail (see above).
5. You cannot make head nor tails of this item, but you can roll again after you gain a level.
6. This item is definitely not intended for you. You cannot attune or use it proficiently until you have the required proficiency/class.

Caveat emptor (magic armor)

While letting wizards walk around with +1 swords will not break the game, you should be very careful about armor. Weapon proficiency is easy to come by, unlike armor proficiency. In addition, a fighter with a +2 sword is still better than a wizard due to increased attacks and Strength, but a wizard with +1 plate might have the exact same AC as the fighter! In conclusion, apprentice’s armor should be rare and significantly weaker.

Sample magic items



Fledgling’s Staff of Fire

Staff, Very Rare.

Requires Attunement.

You have Resistance to fire damage while you hold this staff.

The staff has 5 Charges. While holding it, you can use an action to expend 1 or more of its Charges to cast one of the following Spells from it, using half your spell save DC*: Burning Hands (1 charge), Fireball (3 charges), or Wall of Fire (4 charges).

The staff regains 1d3 + 2 expended Charges daily at dawn. If you expend the last charge, roll a d20. On a 1 or 2, the staff blackens, crumbles into cinders, and is destroyed.

* 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence, Charisma or Wisdom modifier; and divide the total by two.

Optional: if attuned to a  Druid, Sorcerer, Warlock, or Wizard, it functions as a regular Staff of Fire.


Neophyte’s Sun Blade

Weapon, Rare (requires attunement, longsword)

This item appears to be a longsword hilt. While grasping the hilt, you can use a bonus action to cause a blade of pure radiance to spring into existence, or make the blade disappear. While the blade exists, this magic longsword has the finesse property. While attuned, you are proficient with the Neophyte’s Sun Blade, even if you are not proficient with longswords.

You gain a +1 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with this weapon, which deals radiant damage instead of slashing damage. When you hit an undead with it, that target takes an extra 1d4 radiant damage.

The sword's luminous blade emits bright light in a 10-foot radius and dim light for an additional 10 feet. The light is sunlight.

If you roll a natural 1 while attacking with this weapon, roll another d20. On a 1 or 2, the sword is destroyed in a flash of light, causing 1d6 damage to the wielder.

Optional: If you are proficient with shortswords or longswords, it functions as a regular Sun Blade.


Orbs

Here is some fluff inspired by these ideas; maybe you can use it as fodder for your settings, or ignore it completely.

Think of orbs like pyromancy flames in Dark Souls; a magic weapons anyone can use -  a great equalizer that can potentially make ordinary people almost as dangerous as mighty warriors or magicians. Like firearms, basically.

Orbs are magical implements crafted by hired wizards in ancient to give mighty rulers the power to cast spells. Most wizards hate orbs with a fierce passion, since their existence cheapens the wizards' power, and will likely destroy them on sight before they may fall in wrong hands (or anyone's hands for that matter).

Mechanically, it functions similarly to ring of spell storing, with a few differences:

The orb stores Spells cast into it, holding them until the attuned wearer uses them. The orb holds one spell chosen by the creator at the moment the orb is created, and can store up to a maximum of 5 levels worth of Spells (for example, an Orb of Magic missile will allow one to cast this 1st level spell 5 times). When found, it contains 1d6 - 1 levels of stored Spells chosen by the DM. While holding this orb, you can cast any spell stored in it. The spell uses the slot level, spell save DC, spell Attack bonus, and spellcasting ability of the original caster, but is otherwise treated as if you cast the spell.

The orb regains 1d4 expended charges daily at dawn. If you expend the orb's last charge, roll a d20. On a 1, the orb crumbles into ashes and is destroyed.
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