Justice’s Guide to the DMs Guild

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Every once and awhile, I receive a notification from an aspiring game designer asking for advice. The tabletop community is brimming with avid game masters, players, and worldbuilders eager to share their creations. With a few DMs Guild best sellers to my name, folks often ask me about publishing on the DMs Guild.

These questions are always humbling—after all, I still consider myself an aspiring game designer at heart! Not long ago, I was firing off applications to Wizards of the Coast for any job I could get. “Maybe if I can nab a janitor position,” I thought, “I could tack an adventure on a bulletin board near Chris Perkins’ office, a la the chalkboard scene in Good Will Hunting.” I could have benefited from some entry-level advice for sure.

Over the past few years, the DMs Guild has blossomed from a budding platform into an active community, home to some of the best third party content that D&D 5th Edition has to offer. Currently, the DMs Guild is the only platform where you can directly benefit from the sale of original content featuring official D&D properties such as the Forgotten Realms, Strahd Von Zarovich, or Acererak’s mad shredding skillz. On top of that, the DMs Guild Adepts program includes some of the best and brightest D&D creators in the industry, and brand manager Lysa Penrose has put in countless hours working to make the Guild a more inclusive, positive, and welcoming space.

Throughout my time on the Guild (that’s what the cool kids call it), I’ve learned many valuable TTRPG lessons. Some of them came easily, taught to me by friends, mentors, and generous peers, while others were the products of hard work or failure. I’m a big proponent of paying things forward, so I’ve created this article as a sort of landing page for new creators.

Resources

Before I begin, I wanted to list a few helpful resources.

Getting Started on the DMs Guild. This article by James Introcaso helped me when I first dipped my toes into the waters of the Guild, and I’m sure it will help you. James is the creator of Roll20’s Burn Bryte, Managing Editor at MCDM, and credited on several official D&D hardcovers. “Getting Started on the DMs Guild” breaks down the major beats of the creative process, from concept to a published product. Be sure to read James’ article if you need an overview of the TTRPG writing process.

Getting Started on the DMs Guild. Yes, this article has the same name as the one above! But this one is a more support-driven article written by the folks at DMs Guild and OBS. Think of it as a checklist to review at least once before you begin your project. Review it again before you go to publish—the last thing you want is your product taken down on release day because you forgot the DMs Guild Logo!

D&D House Style Guides. These free resources, written by members of the Dungeons & Dragons creative team, are designed to help you write content that’s in-line with official D&D standards. Though there are some slight formatting variations between official publications, these resources are absolutely essential if you want to emulate D&D 5th Edition style in your work. I highly recommend you familiarize yourself with these resources. While it’s okay to deviate from them, DMs Guild customers expect some degree of consistency. If your work is drastically different from what they’ve come to expect in 5th Edition, your audience may struggle to incorporate it in their games.

RPG Writer Workshop. This digital academy was created by Ashley Warren, a TTRPG titan whose credits include Hekna!, Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden and the critically acclaimed Uncaged Anthology series. In addition to the very popular Write Your First Adventure course, the RPG Writer Workshop has a poppin’ Discord channel where you can connect and learn with other creators.

Becoming a D&D Designer. I was on this panel with D&D heroes Celeste Conowich, Lysa Penrose, and Ashley Warren for D&D Celebration 2020. I can testify that I would have personally benefited from this panel early on! You’ll see some of its information echoed in the article below.

First, Write the Thing

So, you’ve got an idea, and you want to publish it on the DMs Guild. That’s great! Your creations deserve to see the light of day. The first step is to write the thing.

This article isn’t about writing—I’m assuming you can handle that part! What makes writing “good” is subjective, but my writing has improved from following insightful creators like Teos Abadia, M.T. Black, James Haeck, Sly Flourish, Hannah Rose, and Shawn Merwin. I’ve also learned a lot by working with my partner in crime, Anthony Joyce, on several projects. Ultimately, your writing style is impacted by the subject matter of your supplement, your personal preferences, and the audience for which you’re writing.

General DMs Guild Writing Tips

Okay, so I lied. I can’t just throw you into the deep end like that! Here are a few quick tips for writing your first DMs Guild Supplement.

  • A Bigger Audience. Writing for the DMs Guild is not the same as writing for your home game. Cast a wide net that gives Dungeon Masters and players the tools to approach a scenario in a variety of ways. Don’t tell stories. Give tools.
  • Collaborate. Unless your project is small, I highly recommend working with at least one other writer. The experience will make both of you better creators. You’ll think of things that other collaborators don’t and vice versa, and the idea generation phase—which might just be my favorite part—is a lot better when you can pitch your ideas with someone else before they hit the page.
  • Hire an Editor. You think finding a typo in your Tweet is bad? How about discovering twenty of them a week after you’ve released!

The Three Pillars of DMs Guild Supplements

Just like a D&D session, you can break down any given DMs Guild project into three categories.

  • Writing & Editing
  • Artwork
  • Graphic Design

Let’s talk about editing first.

Editing

Remember when I said hire an editor? I wasn’t joking. Editors are like blacksmiths, removing impurities from your writing and giving your words the cutting edge that lets the pen rival the sword. Even if you’re just writing for fun, I strongly recommend that you hire an editor. They are well worth the investment.

There are three types of editing:

  • Proofreading. The most basic form of editing. A proofreader reviews a document and identifies mistakes such as spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting.
  • Copyediting. A copyeditor analyzes a document in terms of grammar, spelling, flow, and syntax. In addition to correcting errors and inconsistencies, a copyeditor may recommend slight changes to improve a sentence or paragraph. On the DMs Guild, this may also involve them reviewing your work for adherence to the D&D House Style Guide.
  • Developmental Editing. A developmental editor reviews your project as a whole. They look at the big picture, examining your work in terms of structure, style, content, pacing, and/or value. Think of a developmental editor as a sculptor, reshaping your work to be more in line with your vision.

The Cost of Editing

Prices vary between editors, but services are generally priced based on the degree of involvement. Proofreading is relatively inexpensive (I’ve seen anywhere from 1-3 cents per word for the DMs Guild) when compared to copyediting (3-6 cents per word), while developmental editing can rival rates for consulting or sensitivity reading (10 cents or higher). The longer your project is, the more you need to budget for editing. As a brief disclaimer, industry-standard rates are often higher than on the DMs Guild.

Artwork

You’re probably going to need some artwork, even if it’s just for the cover page! Tables, bullets, and other design elements can help break up a wall of text, but including a striking piece of artwork every few pages keeps readers from getting fatigued.

You don’t have to commission a single piece of artwork for your DMs Guild supplements. If you’re willing to do some legwork, you can source art without breaking the bank or underpaying artists. Here are some tips for cutting the costs on art assets:

  • D&D Creator Resources. Unless you’re a DMs Guild Adept, you can’t replicate official art in your products. However, the DMs Guild does contain a few collections of artwork in their DMs Guild Creator Resources, which you can find on the Logo and Artwork Questions page. You should also just give this page a review in general. It’s all good stuff. There are some great pieces in the Creator Resources, but you’re going to have to do a little hunting; last I checked, the pieces didn’t have any established naming convention.
  • Stock Art. There are several artists on the DriveThruRPG who publish stock art at a highly discounted rate compared to industry standard. Here’s a link to the stock art page. The trade-off is that other creators can also access this license, and other products are likely to have the same piece you bought within their pages or maybe even on the cover. Don’t let that dissuade you, though. Industry-standard covers can run you anywhere from $300-1,000 depending on the individual artist and their rates.
  • Game Assets. Some companies market to app developers, bundling assets aimed at fantasy-themed smartphone games. Preparing to write some magic items? Look at game asset websites like Rexxard. They make tons of assets for books, monsters, spells, and potions that you can drop into your project for just a few bucks. And of course, whenever possible, you can always write your content around the artwork you have.
  • Licensing Art. I’ve seen a few very successful products on the DMs Guild utilize licensed art. An artist may work on a piece for practice, pleasure, or another project with non-exclusive rights to their work. If it fits, you can always reach out to the artist—politely and professionally—and inquire whether any pieces are available for a one-time license for your supplement. Pick a few candidates from their portfolio and have them ready when you reach out. Some artists’ rates may depend on the piece you’re licensing, or they might offer bundle pricing if you license multiple pieces.

If you do decide to commission artwork for your products, my recommendation is to start with the cover and go from there. Especially around official D&D releases, the DMs Guild is flooded with new content, and a stand-out cover can help set your product apart from the rest. You don’t have to commission a full-page cover, either. A half-page cover with good graphic design, like I had for the Mithral-best-selling Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contracts, works just as well!

Layout

Once you’ve got everything ready to go—your work has been written, playtested, and edited, and your artwork has been chosen—it’s time to go to layout. Finding a good layout artist who’s available can be a challenge, so be on the lookout for designers early on.

Layout artists vary in pricing, depending on their experience, rates, and the complexity of your project. A layout artist may charge anywhere from $5-10 a page or more for DMs Guild work, possibly including a flat project fee. Some prefer to work for a royalty share, asking for 5-10% of a project’s sales revenues. Again, industry-standard rates for layout and/or graphic design may exceed those listed in this article.

Can’t find or afford a layout artist/graphic designer? Here are a few ways you can do it yourself.

  • GM Binder and NaturalCrit’s Homebrewery let you format your products based on a simple, predetermined style. There’s a bit of a learning curve, but once you understand each interface’s capabilities and associated dialogue, it’s smooth sailing. My very first title, Heart Hunt, used one of these programs.
  • What if I told you that you could lay your entire product out in Microsoft Word? Well, you can! It’s a bit of a pain, but you can plug in page assets and artwork, export them to PDFs, and even include familiar page textures as image backgrounds. You might not know it, but there are several best-selling DMs Guild projects whose layouts were done in Microsoft Word.

    A good friend of mine and talented editor, Laura Hirsbrunner, created a Simple 5E Template for Microsoft Word to make such layouts a breeze. Yes, there are instructions.

The Final Stretch

Your project is finally complete. You wrote the thing, then an editor revised your words. You sourced artwork, and gave that to a layout artist. Congratulations! You’ve earned a short rest. After that, it’s time to finish strong.

Pricing Your Product

A lot of creators struggle when it comes to pricing their work. Please don’t work for free. The more free and underpriced products there are on the market, the less creators get paid. Worse, consumers start to expect them as the norm, passing up on otherwise spectacular products in favor of underpriced alternatives. Help us legitimize the tabletop industry by promoting fair pay.

Price Per Page

Joe Raso recently put together a price breakdown of the Top 100 products on the DMs Guild for 2020, comparing his results to a similar analysis from the previous year. Looking at Joe’s data, products with 100 pages or less sit around 15-20 cents per page in terms of price, increasing above that when you have less than 30 pages. Based on this, you could price your 50-page supplement anywhere between $7.50-10 or more. If your supplement small—I’m talking 10 pages or less—the data is less reliable, but I’d recommend charging anywhere between $1-5.

The past year has taught us that the DMs Guild can sustain higher prices without having to justify them with hundreds of pages of content. With new TTRPG books dropping every day, there’s a growing market for compact, high-quality supplements. Take Heavyarms’ Armorer’s Handbook, for example, a fantastic Adamantine-best-selling product. It has a price point of $9.95, but just 28 pages of content! If you’ve read the supplement, however, you know that it’s worth every penny.

Benchmark Pricing

You can also price your supplement based on similar products on the market. When looking for a benchmark product, consider your supplement in terms of production value, genre, type (such as adventures, magic item supplements, variant rules, etc.), page count, and audience size. Try to refine your search to supplements released in the last year.

Budget-Based Pricing

You can also price your project based on your budget. Assuming you’re the only contributor receiving royalties, you’ll get 50% of every sale. How many sales are you predicting? What price point do you need to offer to break even? For example, if you spent $50 on your supplement, and you price it at $5, you’ll need 20 sales to break even. After that, it’s all profit!

Publishing to the DMs Guild

The Resources links above include instructions on preparing your title for publishing. At minimum, make sure your project checks the following boxes:

  • You either own, licensed, or have obtained permission to use all of the content in your title, and you’ve credited creators wherever appropriate for any work contained therein. This includes both artwork and writing.
  • You’ve stuck the DMs Guild logo from the Logo and Artwork Content page on your cover and in the thumbnail, and no other branding logos are on your cover.
  • Your content uses the D&D 5th Edition ruleset. 
  • You’re using approved settings (if applicable, setting neutral is okay), such as the Forgotten Realms, Eberron, Ravenloft, or Ravnica. Reminder: You cannot publish your own settings on the DMs Guild. Check out the DriveThruRPG for that.
  • You’ve included the legal text found here on your credits page: Ownership and License (OGL) Questions page
  • You have read and understand the DMs Guild Community Content Agreement.

If you’ve got all that, publish that thang! Then, it’s time to tell the world about your title.

Marketing & Advertising

Once you’ve got a finished product in your hands—or at least something to generate hype prior to release day—it’s time to advertise it. This is arguably one of the most important yet ambiguous aspects of any TTRPG project. Every day, beautiful products go unnoticed simply because customers don’t know they exist.

Here are a few tips for marketing and advertising your supplement.

  • Write Out Your Unique Selling Proposition. Ew, you got business in my TTRPGs! Don’t worry. A unique selling proposition (USP) is a just fancy marketing term that answers the question, “What makes your product special, and why should your customers care about it?” Understanding this will help you when posting about your product.
  • Create An Attractive Product Page. Tell potential customers what they’re getting in your supplement. Keep it focused and concise.
  • Know Your Audience. Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit all have different kinds of D&D audiences. The more your post matches the “vibe” associated with each platform, the more likely it is to gain traction.
  • Keep Promoting. Your product will continue to gain sales after any release day buzz has died down, albeit at a slower pace.
  • Pay It Forward. No one wants to follow an ad account. Early on, someone told me that for every self promotion post, there should be 2-5 where you’re offering original content, insights, or engaging with other creators. TTRPGs are a team sport! Celebrate other creators—you might just work with them one day!

Manage Your Expectations

My last recommendation is to manage your expectations. Most products on the DMs Guild don’t sell more than a handful of copies in their first week, let alone the first couple of months. Unless you have an established audience elsewhere, your first project will probably fall in line with that trend. Rest assured, you’re not alone.

Everyone has an underperforming project eventually, and it stings every time. What matters is that you keep creating.

My first two projects, Heart Hunt and Oath of the Aesir, didn’t sell very many copies. It wasn’t until my third project, Devil’s Advocate, that I really felt like I found my stride. Even if you have a stand-out project, there’s no guarantee that you’ll maintain that trend—in fact, you almost certainly won’t. Three months after releasing Devil’s Advocate, I put out my milk-themed carnival horror adventure, Step Right Up. Guess what? It still hasn’t broken even!

There’s a saying in the DMs Guild community that most supplements have a “long tail.” Regardless of where your product peaks when you release it, you’ll still sell a copy or two every so often. It might not seem like much at first—a sale every week or two, maybe a couple in one week and none in others. But over time, you’ll notice that those sales add up. As you keep creating, that single sale in your first week suddenly becomes sixty sales in your first year, and you’re the proud new recipient of a copper bestseller metal.  

We all fail sometimes, but with each setback comes new knowledge and opportunity. Failure hasn’t stopped me from creating—it won’t stop you, either.


Like this article? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim or Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign, Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contractsor Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.

You can also follow me on Twitter at @justicearman or sign up for my email list, the Gjallarhorn, for exclusive updates, playtest opportunities, and discounts.

Sorcerous Origin: Thread of the Norns

We recently released the definitive guide to Candlekeep in 5th Edition D&D, Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. Featuring design and consultation by creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood, this supplement is packed with lore, new player options, and the first-ever map of the library fortress!


If you didn’t already know, I’m a huge fan of Norse mythology. I love the most recent God of War game, Neil Gaiman’s masterful reimaginings of the classic myths, and am looking forward to playing the Fate of the Norns RPG when I get some free time—it uses runes instead of dice! I ran a homebrew Norse-themed campaign that lasted about two years in which Loki was the overarching villain. My players still maintain the occasional suspicion that one of my good-hearted NPCs is just another illusion of the trickster god. In fact, my old domain name and twitter handle was actually Norse DM. I changed this over time as 1) I’m actually Middle Eastern, and 2) I’ve written far more about devils than I ever did vikings.

When I got my start on the DMs Guild, my first subclass was the Oath of the Aesir paladin. I released it in June of 2019. My original hope was to do a trio of subclasses, including a cosmic monk tied to Yggdrasil, the World Tree, but my attention was called to other pursuits. Recently, I was going through my old files and found a Norse-mythology-inspired sorcerer subclass that I made months ago.

I’ve been fortunate enough over the past year to stay busy in a constant stream of TTRPG work. so take this free subclass as a thank you. Let me know what you think in the comments!

Sorcerous Origin: Thread of the Norns

Magic has been woven into your lineage by the Norns, a coven of prophetic hags residing beneath the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Maybe a Norn chose you to avert or bring about an apocalyptic event. Perhaps one of your ancestors drank from Urðarbrunnr, the well beneath the World Tree. Regardless of the origin, Norn magic empowers you to manipulate fate itself. 

The Norns

In Norse mythology, the three named Norns— Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld—control the fate of all beings, including the gods. These ancient hags spin threads of destiny within their halls, weaving the past, present, and future into existence as if it were a great tapestry. Interestingly, the Poetic Edda mentions the existence of many lesser Norns. Some acolytes claim that a Norn is present at every birth, entwining the child’s life with fortune or failure. Thus, any hag that focuses her time on prophecy or fate may be deemed a Norn.

Norn Sorcerer Quirks

At your option, you can pick from or roll on the Norn Quirks table to create an interesting personality trait for your character.

Norn Quirks

d6Quirk
1I am in possession of a cryptic prophecy from which I constantly extrapolate meaning.
2I knit excessively and often create garments for people I meet throughout my adventures.
3When my companions or I attempt a difficult feat, I attempt to read the threads of fate, commenting on the likelihood of success or failure.
4I have a trinket which I stroke when reciting strange omens.
5Some say I resemble an old crone when I laugh.
6I believe I’ve foreseen my own death. Until that time comes, I’ll live every day to its fullest.

Norns of the Realms
While the Forgotten Realms contain more outward references to Norse mythology, such as Thrym and Surtr in the giant pantheon, allusions to the Norns are more subtle. Volo’s Guide to Monsters offers three thematic alternatives to hag coven spells, one of which is linked to prophecy and includes fate-altering spells like bane and bless. A trio of stone giants resides in the underground library of Gravenhollow in Out of the Abyss. Ulthar, Urmas, and Ustova are Keepers of the Past, Present, and Future, respectively. If you know what to look for, you’ll find evidence of the Norns woven into other tales.

Nails of the Norns

Beginning at 1st level, your connection with destiny gives you a tactical edge in combat. Whenever you roll initiative, you may add or subtract your Charisma modifier from your result.

Norn Magic

The thread of the Norns connects you to fate-altering magic. You gain one of two spells at the listed sorcerer level in the Norn Spells table, representing the two sides of fate. These spells don’t count against the number of sorcerer spells you know, but you cannot replace them later.

Norn Spells

Sorcerer LevelSpell Choice
1stbane or bless
3rdaugury or ray of enfeeblement
5thcrusader’s mantle or speak with dead
7thdeath ward or blight
9thcontact other plane or dream

Entwine the Fates

Starting at 6th level, you can create a tapestry from raw magic that lets you shape the future. 

As an action, you weave a glowing tapestry onto the battlefield. You choose the shape and color of the tapestry when it appears, though it always originates from you (see the Tapestry Shapes By Level table). If you move to another space after creating the tapestry, it remains in its original shape, orientation, and location for 1 minute, or until you dismiss it as a Bonus Action. 

Your tapestry grants you two the following two abilities:

  • Favor. Whenever a friendly creature within your tapestry must make a saving throw, you can use your reaction to spend 2 sorcery points to give it advantage on the roll. You can grant this benefit to multiple creatures at once, but you must spend 2 sorcery points for each creature.
  • Fall. As a bonus action, you can spend 3 sorcery points to force a creature within your tapestry to make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failure, choose one type of damage. Until the start of your next turn, you and your allies ignore resistance to damage of the chosen type for that creature. Creatures with immunity to the chosen damage type instead have resistance to it until the start of your next turn. You can target multiple creatures at once with this ability, but you must spend 3 sorcery points for each creature.

Once you have woven your tapestry, you cannot do so again until you have finished a short or long rest.

The range of your tapestry increases at 14th level, as shown in the Tapestry Shapes By Level table.

Tapestry Shapes By Level

Sorcerer LevelConeCubeLine
6th30 ft15 ft10 ft x 60 ft
14th60 ft25 ft10 ft x 120 ft

Thread of Gold

At 14th level, your Norn ancestry tethers you to the weave of magic that permeates all things. You gain advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.

Judgement of the Norns

When you reach 18th level, your connection to the Norns allows you to cement a creature in destiny or doom. 

Destiny. As an action, choose a creature within 30 feet of you and expend 1 to 10 sorcery points. The creature regains 1d8 hit points per sorcery point spent.

Doom. As an action, choose a creature within 30 feet of you and expend 1 to 10 sorcery points. The creature must make a Constitution saving throw, taking 2d8 necrotic damage per sorcery point spent on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.


Like this article? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim or Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign, Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contractsor Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.

You can also follow me on Twitter at @justicearman or sign up for my email list, the Gjallarhorn, for exclusive updates, playtest opportunities, and discounts.

Running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus – Rewriting the Elfsong Tavern

This article contains spoilers for chapter 1 of Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus.

Last week, we began our Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus campaign, kicking it off with Baldur’s Gate: The Fall of Elturel, an alternative introductory adventure I co-wrote with Anthony Joyce. That adventure personalizes the campaign’s inciting event: the fall of the holy city of Elturel. It also introduces three new background options—members of the Flaming Fist, Hellriders, and the Order of the Gauntlet—that tie the characters more heavily to the campaign. You can read those in my free Session 0 Campaign Companion for Descent into Avernus.

Anthony and I changed a lot about the first session of the campaign, but I found I wasn’t quite ready for the characters to go straight to the bathhouse. I’m a big fan of foreshadowing, and I didn’t want to pass up the chance to use the awesome map of the Elfsong Tavern contained in my Platinum Edition of the adventure by Beadle & Grimm’s. (B&G is currently selling a Silver Edition of the adventure right now, which includes this awesome map on canvas paper!)

There’s nothing wrong with the way the “With Friends Like These” encounter in the Elfsong plays out in the official adventure. Tarina has information, and just like everything else in Baldur’s Gate, it has a price. She’s on the run from an old pirate crew that she may have stolen from, so she asks the characters to hang around a while and beat up some pirate bandits in exchange for the down low. Not a bad way to get acquainted with kind of rough-and-tumble folk that call the City of Blood’s docks home.

This encounter is meant to do three things:

  • Give the characters a moral quandary
  • Portray the disorganized Flaming Fist as a violent organization that doesn’t always have the best interests of its citizens at heart
  • Introduce them to both the brutality and humanity of members in the Cult of the Dead Three
  • Use this awesome version of “The Song of Elturel” by Keith McCollough

The Adventuring Party

Before I detail the encounter, I wanted to take a moment to introduce you to the characters, as their affiliations made this encounter even more personal.

  • Luri, a half-elf Flaming Fist and former Hellrider. Luri is sister to Alex. The pair became Hellriders after they survived the reveal of the High Rider as a vampire lord in 1444 DR.
  • Alex, a half-elf Flaming Fist and former Hellrider. Alex is brother to Luri. The two left the Hellriders after their dark secret.
  • Milt, a half-orc forge cleric of Torm and member of the Order of the Gauntlet.
  • Lil’ Bit, a faceless gnome artificer whose persona is a luchadora named La Rama.
  • Cassandra, an aasimar fighter and current Hellrider. Cassandra snuck into the city along with her warhorse, Bug.

The encounter, “The Song of My People,” is below.


The Song of My People

In this encounter, Tarina isn’t concerned that her former pirate crew from the Uncivil Servant are in the city; in fact, they’re probably miles away. Instead, Tarina’s made a living for herself by acting as an informant for various power groups in the city. She has an array of badges under her heavy waistcoat—Flaming Fist ranks, the badge of the Watch, the Guild, and even minor identifiers of the Cult of the Dead Three. Ultimately, Tarina is only loyal to herself. She knows the city like the back of her hand, and always chooses to meet the characters at the Elfsong to avoid any crossover between her connections.

If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: the Fall of Elturel, you can have the dragon cultist mention an informant in the city who has more info on the bathhouse. It’s probably unwise for characters to rush into the bathhouse when entering the city, but they should always have that option.

If you’re running the adventure as written, you shouldn’t have any problems. Captain Zodge asks the characters to go meet with Tarina or they’ll get a good floggin’. And Flaming Fists love themselves a good floggin’.

The Alexandrian » 2020 » March

The Elfsong Tavern

When the characters enter the Elfsong, read or paraphrase the following:

Sullen-eyed patrons dot the Elfsong’s spacious taproom. Gruff sailors, hardened criminals, and grizzled citizensall armed with swords, clubs, and daggers—take a brief moment to size you up, almost in unison, before returning to mugs of ale and stout glasses of hard liquor.

A muscular, sunburned woman laughs in a corner booth as she rakes in a pile of coins from a game of Baldur’s Bones. A frustrated half-orc slaps his dice off the table, which clatter to the floor, grumbling, “Ye’ve bled me dry!” as he leaves the game.

Seated among the patrons is a table of three Cultists of the Dead Three (a fist of bane, necromite of Myrkul, and a night blade of Bhaal). Without their ceremonial garb, however, they draw no more suspicion than any of the other patrons. They look like a group of friends enjoying a drink.

The Informant

The woman in the corner booth is Tarina, the informant. Characters can make a DC 12 Intelligence (History) check to know the following information about Tarina. Any Flaming Fists in the party have advantage on this check. Alternatively, you could have Captain Zodge give them the information.

  • Tarina is an informant for the Flaming Fist, as well as a few other organizations within Baldur’s Gate
  • She is a former pirate of the Uncivil Serpent, captained by Murosko Sessprin
  • She’s in good standing with Nine-Fingers Keene, leader of the Guild, from which she gets occasional work

What Tarina Knows

Tarina invites the characters to play a game of Baldur’s Bones as she talks with them (see chapter 1 of Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus). Like everything within Baldur’s Gate, Tarina’s services come at a price. The informant charges 1 gp for each piece of information, tantalizing those who gripe about the cost with, “What a shame! I was just getting to the juicy part.” A character can attempt to coerce Tarina to spill the beans with a successful DC 16 (Charisma) Intimidation check. On a failure, Tarina doubles her price.

Similarly, Tarina buys interesting information off of the characters for the same amount. Those who give her valuable insights regarding the inner workings of the Flaming Fists, the fall of Elturel, or other relevant groups are rewarded with 1 gp.

Tarina gives the characters the following information, so long as they make it worth her while:

  • The Cult of the Dead Three is storing treasure at the Bathhouse several blocks northwest of the Elfsong Tavern.
  • The bathhouse is bigger than it looks.
  • The purchase is a distant one, but the bathhouse is owned by the Vanthampur family: Mortlock, Amrik, Thurstwell, and Duke Vanthampur herself showed up on the paperwork. Tarina thinks it’s operated by them, but she’s not sure.
  • Rumor has it there’s something being stored at the bathhouse that doesn’t belong to the Vanthampurs. It’s got the Cult of the Dragon all in a tizzy, and some of them are here in the city looking for it, including a high-ranking black half-dragon named Rezmir.

The Bard

As the characters finish up their discussion with Tarina—which may or may not have been interrupted by the Elfsong at some point—a young bard (halfling male commoner) begins to play “The Song of Elturel.” The bard is a refugee from Elturgard named Olos. A character who succeeds on a DC 11 Intelligence (Investigation) check can tell from the poor condition of Olos’ clothing that he is a refugee. As Olos begins to play the introduction, a Flaming Fist manip and two fists (a veteran and two thugs) enter the Elfsong Tavern and order a couple of drinks.

The Song of Elturel
To give this scene weight, I recommend playing the Keith McCollouch version of this song. You can even provide your players with the lyrics and grant inspiration to any character who sings along. Cutting the song short when the fists interrupt can add further gravity to the scene.

Disturbing the Peace

It takes the three Flaming Fists a while to realize the song that Olos is playing, but upon the mention of the Hellriders, the manip spits out their drink and commands the bard to stop. Angry at the way the refugees have been received in the City of Blood, Olos plays and sings more forcefully. In response, one of the Flaming Fists uses their club to teach the bard a lesson. If the characters do nothing to intervene at this point, read or paraphrase the following text:

As the bard’s song grows more forceful, the commanding fist smashes the bard’s fretting hand in a violent display of force. The bard cries out in pain, his fingers broken and the neck of his Oud shattered by the blow. “That oughtta teach you to obey the Flaming Fist. You’re not in Elturgard anymore, little singer!”

If the characters intervene, the Flaming Fists defend themselves fiercely, shouting that they will place the characters under arrest for their betrayal. If any of the characters display a Flaming Fist badge openly, the manips threaten to demote the character, spitting, “You’ll answer to Captain Zodge for this!” The Flaming Fists do not kill any of the characters, but rather aim to knock them unconscious and place them under arrest.

Elfsong Employees. Unless one of the employees was harmed in the struggle, the Elfsong crew doesn’t get involved. The tavern’s two bouncers protect the tavern staff, not its patrons.

Undercover Cultists. Roll initiative for the three cultists of the Dead Three. If the characters intervene, the cultists join them during the second round of combat, seizing the chaos. If not, the cultists allow the beating to continue for a few seconds, then enter the fray. The cultists make sure that neither of the oppressive fists make it out alive, slitting their throats and rejoicing in the bloodshed.

Cultist of the Dead Three Voice Lines
The following phrases may help to inspire your roleplay.
“Bathe in Bhaal’s flowing river! The Dead Three will not be silenced by your mortal corruption, Flaming Fist pigs!”
“Thank you for standing up to those mindless goons. They’ve ruined our city.”
“Blood will be spilled. There’s no question of that. Let it matter this time”

Development

The Flaming Fists and cultists of the Dead Three fight until one of the two groups is dead. Regardless of who won the struggle, the Elfsong Tavern employees speedily cleans up the floor and dispose of the bodies via the Lower City’s corpse cart service.

Friend of the Cult. If the characters intervened, the cultists are friendly towards them and thank them for “doing the right thing.” The group’s leader, a Willing Whip Banite and butcher named Gary, cheerfully hands them the following letter and invites them to join the Cult of Dead Three. If the cultists were killed, the characters can find the letter on Gary’s corpse.

Characters can meet with Gary for a complimentary brunch. Even if they decide not to join the cult, they may be able to learn helpful information about the Dead Three and its operations within the city, including the stolen Cult of the Dragon treasure underneath the bathhouse. Characters could also use it as an opportunity to infiltrate the cult.

Flaming Fists. If the Flaming Fists were successful but the characters intervened, the fists turn the characters over to Captain Zodge. They’re held in a Lower City prison cell awaiting further punishment.

Concluding the Encounter

The characters proceed to the bathhouse (see “The Dungeon of the Dead Three” in chapter 1 of Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus).



Like this article? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim or Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign, Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contractsor Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.

You can also follow me on Twitter at @justicearman or sign up for my email list, the Gjallarhorn, for exclusive updates, playtest opportunities, and discounts.

Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus – Session Zero Companion

We just released the definitive guide to Candlekeep in 5th Edition D&D, Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. Featuring design and consultation by creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood, this supplement is packed with lore, new player options, and the first-ever map of the library fortress!


As the shelter in place restrictions slowly start to loosen up here in Texas, I’m gearing up to run our next campaign. Thankfully, we finished Waterdeep: Dragon Heist just before the pandemic began, but I’ve been itching to break out my Platinum Edition of Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus by Beadle and Grimm’s for a few months now.

If you didn’t get a chance to get this amazing box, B&G is actually offering a Silver Edition for less than half the cost, and everything is 10% off for Nurses’ Week starting on Wednesday, May 7th, with another 10% of all proceeds going to the Feeding America charity. See what’s in the box using the video below.

With all the writing I’ve been doing, I actually felt like I was slacking during my Waterdeep: Dragon Heist campaign. Luckily, my players didn’t feel that way. However, I’ve written a lot of content for Descent into Avernus, so I’m confident I can do this one justice. That said, I’d like to start the campaign off on the right foot. I’ll be running the alternative introductory adventure The Fall of Elturel that Anthony Joyce and I released a few months ago. For that supplement, I wrote three new backgrounds, including one for the Hellriders that lets you commandeer a warhorse.

Session Zero Companion

While doing my campaign research, I came across a Player’s Guide for Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus that included helpful information about the city. Most of it appears to have been summarized from the adventure text, but I cannot for the life of me find the original source of it, so I’ve decided to build off of the information there and write a Session 0 guide for my own players. (If you do happen to know where the guide came from, please let me know so I can contact the original creator and credit them here.)

This document is freely available and created in accordance with the Wizard’s of the Coast Fan Content Policy. Much of the information came from Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus and the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. In this Session Zero document, you’ll find:

  • A spoiler-free adventure set up
  • Baldur’s Gate lore, including government, city districts, and quick facts
  • Mechanics-free descriptions of the backgrounds in the Baldur’s Gate Gazetteer
  • Elturgard lore, including the Companion, the Hellriders, and quick facts
  • Three new background options (created by me), each including ranks for advancement
  • A brief introduction to Dark Secrets

You can download the companion using the button below.


Like this article? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim or Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign, Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contractsor Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.

You can also follow me on Twitter at @justicearman or sign up for my email list, the Gjallarhorn, for exclusive updates, playtest opportunities, and discounts.

Variant Rule: Quiet Casting

During our last campaign, the party received a scroll penned by a god. It detailed a list of four components – all on different planes – that could be combined in a ritual spell to create an artifact known as the phoenix elixir, a liquid capable of resurrecting a dead god. Due to the potential ramifications, the divine scribe scrambled the letters on the scroll with an ever-changing script that was impervious to the strongest of divination spells to read its contents. Even the great wizard Mordenkainen only knew of one such method to translate the scroll: an ancient codex created by a god of knowledge named Kvasir.

The codex’s last known location was at the top of an enormous tower library in Ysgard. (Technically, the codex was destroyed and would be cleverly reconstructed using the plucked eye of one of Kvasir’s immortal librarians who was able to see into the past, but that’s another story.)

The party at this point was 18th level, and they knew this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. Kvasir was no longer around, but many of his sworn agents were. (If you’re familiar with Norse mythology, which was a big part of this campaign, you’ll know that the god Kvasir was killed and turned into the Mead of Poetry.) His had a host of constructs, giants, and angels guarding what was essentially ruined city of knowledge surrounded by a dedicated mythal. There was even a Valkyrie-inspired planetar who was just itching for a fight after centuries of guarding the near-impenetrable fortress.

I used this awesome Cloudspire Ruins map by Venatus Maps to represent Kvasir’s library city. Venatus has a ton of maps available on their Patreon that are just as good as this one. You should consider becoming a patron if you use digital maps or run a lot of homebrew.

Cloud Spire Ruins

Eventually, the party made it inside the library, which, like all libraries, included its own specific set of rules. One of these was stressed above all others by the modron in the entrance foyer:

Please be quiet while in the library.

As the party entered the first room of the library, an aged wizard sat at one of the reading tables. With a beard nearly five feet in length, this mage had certainly been here a long time. Excited to have human contact once more, he leapt to his feet and exclaimed in joy at the characters, only to promptly cover his mouth in horror at violating the principle rule of Kvasir’s library.

Image result for mouth of sauron

Protruding from some one of the floating bookcases was the carving of an aged woman. She appeared almost as a wooden lich, similar to the mouth of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings. She raised one finger to her lips, shushing the mage while pointing towards him with her other hand. A ray of green light sprung from her index finger, and in an instant, the mage was but a pile of dust. These were the librarians.

With that, the session ended, and I let the party I’d be sending them some alternative rules on sneaking within the library. Naturally, one of the party members wanted to know if they were restricted to spells that didn’t have verbal components. Realizing that this could be an opportunity to give structure to sneaking mages in the future, I whipped up the following variant rule.

Disclaimer: Stealth Sequences and Minions
Note that this rule loses its potency in later levels unless you institute minion rules from 4th Edition D&D. Matt Colville has a great video on minions which really opened my eyes to their potential in 5th Edition. Many players ask about stealth-killing guards when sneaking, but only the rogue has enough gusto to make this a reality at later levels unless the enemies are significantly weaker than your party’s casters. When someone only has one hit point, or even a small number of hit points, these Quiet Casting rules really shine.

Variant Rule: Quiet Casting

Sometimes, a caster will want to cast a spell with a verbal component while sneaking up on a foe without attracting the attention of nearby enemies. Whisper casting provides a trade-off for a shorter range in exchange for lower volume during stealth sequences that involve one or more casters.

Assumption: Normal Spells are Spoken from Your Heart’s Fire
In Disney Pixar’s Onward, Barley Lightfoot tells his brother that in order for a spell to work, it must be spoken confidently and with a richness and power to one’s voice. Barley calls this “speaking from your heart’s fire.” We’re going to assume that this is the requirement for spells with verbal components in Dungeons and Dragons, i.e., normal spells are spoken loudly and with gusto, drawing the attention of enemies in the same way shouting would.

Thankfully the majority of spells in D&D 5th Edition are divisible by three. There are a few exceptions, such as touch spells, some cube spells, and spells with long ranges (locate object, dimension door). This makes our job quite easy, so long as you’re okay with a little bit of quick math. With this variant rule, there are three ways to cast a spell:

Image result for onward heart's fire

Speak From Your Heart’s Fire

A spell spoken from your heart’s fire maintains the spell’s normal range but is treated as a shout. This attracts the attention of most enemies in the area as if you were yelling at your foe as a distraction. The exact range is up to your DM and may be subject to an Intelligence (Investigation) or Wisdom (Insight or Perception) check. Your ray of frost spell may take out that orc guard 60 feet away, but his friends are on the way.

Murmur

A murmured spell has two-thirds its normal range. A murmer is less likely to attract unwanted attention. Continuing with our ray of frost example, the spell now has a range of 40 feet, rather than 60 feet, but it’s less of a risk. Your other party members may be able to take out the other orc guard nearby before she has a chance to act. The ones on the other side of the clearing aren’t going to hear you cast the spell.

Whisper

A whispered spell has one-third its normal range. However, unlike a murmer or shout, a whispered spell can only be heard by enemies in close proximity, i.e., the same small room, guarding the same door, or engaged with one another in an activity. Now our ray of frost is just 20 feet, but just as stealthy as an assassin’s blade (or at least pretty close).

Shortcomings of this Variant Rule

This rule unfortunately doesn’t work for every spell, as there are a few spells that either don’t quite fit the bill due to range or because they have some obviously recognizable effect (such as the booming sound of thunderwave or shatter). In addition, the exact proximity for detection is intentionally vague to prevent bogging down the pace of your game. After all, it wouldn’t be D&D if the DM didn’t have to do a bit of adjudicating!

Some quick suggestions:

  • Spells with a range of touch must always be shouted and cannot use Quiet Casting rules
  • Spells with 10-foot range become 5-foot range when murmured and touch when spoken
  • Sorcerers with the Subtle spell trait can treat all their spells as spoken from the heart without suffering a detection penalty
  • Dimension door’s ranges follow this range 500 feet > 300 feet > 150 feet
  • Any spell with a range longer than 500 feet cannot be cast using these rules
  • Everything else, you’re going to have to eyeball it!

Like this article? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as my milk-themed carnival adventure, Step Right Up, Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim or Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign, Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contractsor Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.

You can also follow me on Twitter at @justicearman or sign up for my email list, the Gjallarhorn, for exclusive updates, playtest opportunities, and discounts.

Mystra’s Musings: Making Stoneskin A Rock-Solid Spell

I’m not a fan of Ang Lee’s Hulk movie, but it did have an interesting villain. No, I’m not talking about the 10-foot-tall gamma poodle. I’m talking about Absorbing Man! During the film’s abstract finale (which featured some ambitious CGI for 2003) there’s a brief moment where Absorbing Man becomes stone. I was only ten at the time, and I thought it was extremely cool.

Image result for absorbing man stone

Twelve years later, I’m playing Dungeons and Dragons in Utah with some friends. Fifth Edition D&D has just released, and I’ve decided to try my hand at being a Dungeon Master. All three of the core books are out, but I only own the Player’s Handbook because $50 is quite the investment. (Support your local game store!) I’ve only played 3.5e at this point, and to be honest, I didn’t really understand what’s was going on at the time.

I’m reading the PHB like crazy, trying to absorb all the info I can because my DM is about to be one of my players, and I don’t want to look like a complete fool. (I did, but that’s a story for another time.) I’m not a fast reader by any means, but going through the core rulebooks at least once a year has become an important pastime and made me a better DM. That was the first time I came across the stoneskin spell.

Stoneskin

Here’s the spell, courtesy of D&D Beyond:

Sounds Dope. What’s the Problem?

It looks awesome at first glance, right? Thematically it is. Your skin becomes rock-hard for an entire hour so you or your buddy can go toe-to-toe with that towering stone giant without getting dropped in the first round. In fact, casting this spell on someone else is probably the most effective use of it. But I’ve never seen a player cast it, let alone take it in 5th Edition.

Why does this spell feel underwhelming? Well, there’s not really one glaring problem with the spell. In my opinion, stoneskin falls flat due to a few micro-contributions, namely:

  • It requires 100gp to cast. Right off the bat, you need 100 gp in diamonds every time you cast this spell. If your DM is a stickler for resource management, this one’s going to be a pain.
  • It’s a 4th level spell. Getting to 7th level in any class is quite the achievement! Generally, I think that 4th level spells are in the awkward place between iconic 3rd level spells like fireball and haste and game-changing 5th level spells like scrying, but there are some great ones out there.

    This spell has to stand up to banishment, dimension door, fire shield, and Otiluke’s resilient sphere. That’s a tough line-up!
  • It lasts an hour. Sounds great at first, but this is part of the reason that the spell is both concentration and 4th level. A lot can happen in one hour in-game. Generally, I take a 1-minute duration as one encounter and a 10-minute duration as 2 combat encounters – though I’ve seen more than that due to snowballing bad decisions. An hour could be an entire dungeon!
  • It’s concentration. Fans of older editions absolutely despise concentration, but I generally think it’s a necessary evil to keep the gameplay flowing instead of being bogged down by mechanical upkeep. That said, there are a lot of concentration spells in 5th Edition, and it’s worth asking, “Should stoneskin be one of them?”

    Stoneskin is an armor spell, which means you don’t cast it on someone unless you think they’re going to get hit. If you’re casting this on yourself, or you’re close to the ally on which you cast it, you’re going to be making a few concentration checks to avoid dropping the spell with a minimum DC of 10 (see below). Unless you’re rolling really well, you’re most likely not going to make use of that 1-hour duration because eventually you’re going to fail this check.

    On top of that, fire shield doesn’t require concentration and is at the same level. Sure, it’s a bit more situational and fills a different niche, but still.

Sculpting a Better Stoneskin

I actually like the stoneskin spell, but I also like to play against type and am generally pretty easy to please. My desire to “fix” it comes from the reaction on my players’ faces when they read this spell. Despite how excited they were about the prospect of taking hits like Rocky, they end up ultimately disappointed and pass on the spell in the end.

The best part about modifying this spell is you have some options, and you can pick the one that best suits your table. Here are my proposed fixes for the stoneskin spell.

Image Copyright Dean Spencer 2019

Option 1: Lower the Spell Level

Make stoneskin more accessible at lower levels by making it 3rd level. Your wizard’s Arcane Recovery and the sorcerer’s Font of Magic feature can get more use out of this spell as they level up.

There are already a ton of great 3rd level spells. However, if a player really wants to take this spell, you can offer it earlier. If you choose this option, I recommend one of two additional tweaks:

  • The spell still requires concentration, but the duration is now 10 minutes.
  • The spell does not require concentration, but it only lasts 1 minute. With a 1-minute duration, you’ll almost always use your first turn in combat to cast it.

Option 2: Remove Concentration & Lower Duration

My favorite option involves removing the concentration component and changing the duration to 10 minutes. The spell stays at 4th level. This isn’t a huge change, but it does the spell justice. You won’t have to curse under your breath and hope for a high roll every time you take damage, and the spell could potentially last for two or even three encounters. Sure, there are going to be some weird combos where someone is flying with stoneskin or something, but they’ll only last 10 minutes!

Option 3: Remove Concentration & Increase the Spell Level

If you want to cap off your 10- or 11-level campaign with a spectacular boss fight or dungeon, you could remove the concentration requirement and make stoneskin a 5th or even 6th level spell. This is my least favorite option, because 1) most campaigns fizzle out around these levels, 2) the balance seems shaky here with such a long duration, and 3) there are so many cool 5th and 6th level spells.

You’re probably better off just giving a potion of stoneskin if this is your preferred route because if you’re making this change for the long-haul, this spell is going to become a no-brainer before every dungeon. And without concentration, it’s going to be cast on multiple characters.

Then again, high-level play is all about challenging your players and learning how to tell the best stories in the framework of their epic abilities. If it’s too much, it doesn’t hurt to learn how to retcon something diplomatically.


Did this article help you? Consider supporting me by buying one of my products on the DMs Guild, such as my milk-themed carnival adventure, Step Right Up, Darkhold: Secrets of the Zhentarim or Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. If you’re running Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, consider picking up an alternative introductory adventure to the campaign, Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contractsor Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters.

You can also follow me on Twitter at @justicearman or sign up for my email list, the Gjallarhorn, for exclusive updates, playtest opportunities, and discounts.

Mystra’s Musings: Who Is Nystul

This article is the first installment of Mystra’s Musings, a new blog segment devoted to spells, wizards, and the arcane.

Tonight, I was sitting at Union Hall’s Urban Eatery while my wife, Sam, DM’d her ladies’ night D&D game. It’s this new food court in downtown Waco that’s slated to have 14 restaurants. Right now, there’s only a few places, but one of them is Koko Ramen, which was a food truck up until only a month or two ago. I love a good bowl of ramen.

Sam’s group bounces around Waco every Tuesday. Sometimes it’s here at our house, but usually they’re at a restaurant, supporting local businesses and spreading the good word of D&D. I usually accompany the group, sitting at a nearby table to write (we just released Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters), read books, and provide support to Sam and her players. The group has come to nickname me “Grampappy DM.”

Grampappy DM

Why? Well because Grampappy is old, and he knows all the rules. Sam and her group know that I am saturated with D&D content, be it videos, podcasts, writing, reading – you name it. My relationship with D&D content is best summed up by a contestant on the New Year’s special for the Great British Baking Show. Stephen, who was originally speaking about orange buttercream frosting, said “I’d like to strip naked and lather myself with it like a shower gel.” That’s how I feel about D&D. Is that too much?

So, when Sam or someone in her group reaches an impasse or can’t remember a rule, they look my way and say, “Hey Grampappy DM? When a creature’s prone, do I have advantage?” to which I clear my throat, grab my cane, and reply, “An attack roll against a creature has advantage if the attacker is within 5 feet of their target. Otherwise, ya’ got disadvantage.” They say thanks and resume playing.

Today, Sam looked up from her copy of Ghosts of Saltmarsh and asked, “Hey Grampappy?”
“Yes?” I replied.
“Who is Nystul? It’s okay if you don’t know. It looks pretty obscure.”

Grampappy knew.

Who Is Nystul?

Nystul is an archmage in the Greyhawk setting. He was born to a noble family in Tenh, and developed spells such as Nystul’s magic aura and Nystul’s undetectable aura. The former made it into 5th Edition D&D with its original name, and the latter could have been absorbed into the nondetection spell.

Image result for nystul greyhawk

Nystul’s Magic Aura

You might have seen Nystul’s name somewhere before. If you’re relatively knew to D&D, like I am, you probably first came across Nystul in the 2nd level divination spell, Nystul’s magic aura.

Nystul’s magic aura (or arcanist’s magic aura), courtesy of D&D Beyond

Pretty obscure spell, isn’t it?

I actually really like this spell, but not for it’s usage. A while back on Twitter, there was a thread on alignment in 5th Edition D&D. It’s been a while, but I think someone said you could throw out alignment altogether because there wasn’t anything mechanical about it like older editions. This spell, along with a few other ones like polymorph, are part of the handful of mechanical effects currently in D&D that reference alignment.

Spells like these are interesting ones. I feel like they’re not really there for you to take at 3rd level, unless you’re prepping it for a very specific purpose. They can be used to do cool things, like make a magic item appear nonmagical or hide your magical disguise, but up until about 7th level, those 2nd level slots are a precious resource.

After that, however, you can really start to have fun. Why cast a 1st level chromatic orb when your ray of frost cantrip is more potent? Let’s get creative! What else you got? Going into a dungeon? Cast longstrider. What else you got? Nystul’s magic aura? Sure, why not. Use ’em or lose ’em!

Nystul and the Circle of Eight

There are many spells throughout Dungeons and Dragons history that contain the name of the spell’s creator. Mordenkainen’s magnificent mansion, Tenser’s floating disk, Rary’s telepathic bond, Bigby’s hand and Otiluk’s resilient sphere all appear within 5th edition D&D. Coincidentally, all of these individuals were in the Circle of Eight, along with Nystul.

The Circle of Eight was a powerful cabal of wizards in the Greyhawk campaign setting devoted to maintaining the balance between the forces of good, evil, law, and chaos. If you’ve read Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, you’re already familiar with Mordenkainen’s perception of the Blood War, the eternal struggle between devils and demons that takes place primarily on Avernus. Mordenkainen is happy to tip the scales when need be if it means the devils and demons will continue to tucker themselves out instead of turning on the rest of the cosmos. It’s super cool and a great example of lawful neutral, in my opinion – or is it lawful good? Someone get Nystul in here!

Image result for mordenkainen circle

The Circle of Eight originally consisted of:

  • Mordenkainen (founder)
  • Bigby (Mordenkainen’s apprentice)
  • Bucknard
  • Drawmij
  • Leomund (who was later replaced by Tenser)
  • Otto
  • Rary
  • Nystul
  • Otiluke (a late joiner)

Sadly, most of the Circle of Eight (all except for Mordenkainen) were slain by Halmadar the Cruel, who was in possession of the Hand of Vecna at the time. I thought this was super interesting, because Joe Manganiello’s character, Arkan the Cruel, bears the same title and is currently in possession of the Hand of Vecna!

Nystul the Person

There’s some debate as two whom the Nystul’s magic aura‘s namesake belongs. It appears that the spell (and thus the wizard) was inspired by a stage magician named Brad Nystul who suggested the spell to Gary. You can read the source comment written by Gary back on the Dragon’s Foot Forums here. I’ve screen capped it below because it’s interesting to see some of the other origins as well, such as Tasha.

However, user ripvonwerner on this thread did some interesting detective work that suggests the spell may actually be named after RPG creator Mike Nystul, given a section in Footprints #5 which describes the “Nystul campaign” that may have taken place around 1978 including “Brad, Genny, Mike and Brian [sic] Nystul.” The user goes on to mention that “Mike and Bryan Nystul were brothers and later game designers, so Brad Nystul must have been their father.” It’s hard to remember a game from 30 years ago.

Either way, Nystul’s magic aura is a family spell.

Roleplaying Nystul

We don’t have a lot of information on Nystul, unfortunately. One could surmise from the spell that he could be a divination wizard if he showed up in 5th Edition D&D. If Nystul is indeed named after Mike, Len Lakofka mentions in the same Footprints #5 article that Mike’s character was aggressive, brash, and impetuous. Not the best qualities in a wizard watching the cosmos, but at least he had eight others to balance him out.

I much prefer the page about Nystul on the Greyhawk Wiki that describes him as flippant with a preference for puns and quips. Mordenkainen doesn’t seem like the sort to ever crack a smile, so it’s amusing to think of another wizard annoying these great watchers of the cosmos. It also mentions he is “intelligent, subtle, and profound, however, with an unerring tactical sense.”

UPDATE: User N. Gray has confirmed that the spell was indeed Brad’s idea, and Nystul was Mike’s character. Thank you!


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