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.


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.

Making Secret Connections Less Secret

Lately, I’ve noticed an increasing trend of characters with secret connections in TTRPG adventures. An NPC, sometimes prominent but usually a side character, is tied to some secret organization. Dear old granny down the street is donating the proceeds from her bake sales to the cult of Vecna that spawned from her weekly book club. The beggar in the market is actually a well-off spy for the Harpers. A group of Zhentarim thugs enjoy an indefinite stay at the local inn – so long as they take care of the inkeeper’s problem patrons discreetly.

This isn’t a new concept. Secret connections and alternative motives are long-standing tropes of both D&D and storytelling in general. However, such secrets can be problematic when pivotal moments of an adventure hinge on their discovery.

When Secret Connections Cause Problems

In theory, these connections can lead to interesting situations and the incredibly rewarding “Ah-ha!” moment for a player when revealed. In practice, however, these are often poorly executed (in my opinion, of course). Whether it’s to save space or allow the Dungeon Master more freedom, rarely do I see supporting information for DMs to handle these connections in-game beyond simply stating that they exist. Compounded with an adventure that assumes the party will unearth said NPC’s hidden connections, this lack of supporting information can lead to ambiguity, confusion, or frustration at the gaming table.

Multiple Secret Connections

Warning: Minor spoilers for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist ahead.

This is especially true when writers include multiple secret connections in one adventure. Information slips through the cracks, or connections get applied to the wrong NPCs. After all, most of us game once a week (if that), and critical information tends to trickle out over multiple sessions. It’s one of the reasons I’ve had difficulty running Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, an adventure that has its fair share of NPCs with something to hide.

Balancing multiple connections is a real challenge, especially when you factor in TTRPGs as a storytelling medium and maintaining good pacing. While Waterdeep: Dragon Heist has grown on me over the past few sessions, it’s certainly required me to be on my game. In fact, the two center panels of my DM screen from the Beadle & Grimm’s Platinum Edition is devoted to a color-coded breakdown of NPCs and the organization for which they work!

When Mirt the Moneylender paid a visit to the party in Trollskull Manor for the first time, I roleplayed him as an old-school, braggadocios bigwig looking to invest in a new property. I thought, Why would Mirt be so open about his connection to the party, especially when they met with the Zhentarim’s Master of Coin the day before? After all, Mirt hasn’t earned his station in Waterdeep by spilling his beans everywhere he goes. Formerly known as Mirt the Merciless, the Old Wolf helped to eradicate a thieves’ guild in Waterdeep by masquerading as one of its members.

With a history of keeping secrets, the party saw Mirt how he wanted to be seen. He offered a generous investment with one condition: Mirt wanted naming rights to the tavern. This, of course, prompted a “Fuck this guy!” from the party, who promptly went to the Zhentarim for a high-interest loan. Sure, they might end up with a few bashed-in kneecaps, but at least they would keep their name. Ever seen The Crucible?

Running Secret Connections

Unfortunately, when the text surrounding these associations is somewhat bare, I think DMs need to do some extra prep to make sure information gets translated to the players effectively. The good news is a lot of this can be improvised with minimal effort. Here are a couple of tips for running secret connections at your game table.

Use Clues

Leave something for the characters to find. Consider the actions that the NPC might take given their connection. How apparent are those actions to the characters? Clues can take dozens of forms, from a magic residue identified with an Intelligence (Arcana) check to a rumor overheard in the town market.

Don’t be too obvious, of course, but be careful not to make the information vague and useless. Can the connection be discovered before the plot-defining moment? Great! If not, why not? Is it absolutely necessary to rob the players of that “Ah-ha!” moment?

These categories are by no means exhaustive, but they might help you come up with a good clue to drop into a future session.


How high up in the organization is the NPC? Who do they report to? Does someone report to them?


What is the NPC’s main method of communication with the organization? Some options include:

  • Letters sent by flying snakes or as paper birds (see appendix A of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist)
  • Physical meetings via a teleportation circle or a private location
  • Coded messages that must be deciphered with a secret code or magic
  • Messages delivered through subjects or thralls via spells like geas or suggestion
  • Trances, seances, or dreams

Furthermore, how often do they communicate on behalf of the organization? What happens if they don’t communicate in time; does someone come to check up on them?


What is the NPC required to do? Are there any opportunities for them to get caught while performing these responsibilities? Does someone sign off on their work? If so, who?

How closely do these responsibilities resemble the NPC’s daily activities outside of the organization? For example, a notary forging documents is much harder to catch than a painter doing the same thing, as official stamps and wax seals are out of the ordinary in the artist’s workshop.


What opportunities for information arise from the NPCs regular operations? Here are some examples:

  • The NPC only meets with contacts and other members at specific intervals. Perhaps they close their shop down for a late lunch every day, or stress that they must delay meeting up with the character until after a certain hour.
  • What physical evidence is associated with their day-to-day operations?
  • Is the NPC careful or sloppy at hiding evidence of their association?
  • What is their go-to answer when questioned about something? Is it believable?

Make the Organization Known

The more you foreshadow an organization, the better the reveal will be. Sure, we all recognize cults are bad, but a cult of Mephistopheles is more meaningful when an old wizard boasts about how she took the “high road” to learning magic – unlike her former friend who entered into a Faustian pact with the Cold Lord.

I’m a big fan of foreshadowing in my D&D games. In tabletop roleplaying games, you have to layer information to make it stick. Few players are more versed in the lore than their DMs, so important details can feel like a passing reference amidst a sea of information.

Foreshadowing secret connections is more nuanced. You want to hint at the association without giving it away. In class, if the teacher writes something on the board, you should write it down. In D&D, when the Dungeon Master spells out a word, you should write it down. I consider something effectively foreshadowed when I’ve made three separate references to it, such as:

  • Having an NPC comment or speculate on it, such as placing blame on the organization for an event, whether or not it’s true for that specific instance
  • A sign or insignia belonging to the organization, such as graffiti on an old building
  • An encounter with a former or current member

Writing Secret Connections

When you’re the one writing secret connections, you have every opportunity to set Dungeon Masters up for success. Before incorporating a secret connection, ask yourself if it absolutely must be discovered for a pivotal moment to pay off or make sense; if it does, I implore you to reconsider! Even if you leave good clues for Dungeon Masters, there’s no guarantee that every table will follow them, or that every DM can incorporate them effectively. Write situations, not plot.

Other than that, here are a few tips for setting tables up for success when it comes to your adventure.

  • Keep it simple. One or two secret connections are great, but a web of secrets can really jumble your players’ minds unless they’re interested in other genres, such as intrigue or pulp noir.
  • Make NPCs with secret connections memorable. A human male noble is forgettable, but that tortle that speaks exclusively in Dwarvish will stand out with the passage of time.
  • Leave good clues. Three solid clues is a good rule of thumb, one of which is easy to find.

If we take a little bit of time to make secret connections less secret, they can be incredibly rewarding for the whole table.

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: 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!

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.

Watch Your Back in Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters

Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters is now available on the Dungeon Master’s Guild! Anthony Joyce and I co-led this project with amazing contributions from Anne Gregersen and Gordon McAlpin (who also did the fantastic graphic design). This supplement provides Dungeon Masters with forty short encounters to supplement their Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus campaigns. These brief scenarios enliven the City of Blood and distinguish it from other settlements along the Sword Coast, such as Waterdeep or Daggerford.

This follows the last project that I worked on with Anthony and Gordon, Baldur’s Gate: the Fall of Elturel (which you can find here). This is actually my fourth title designed to accompany the current fifth edition story line. On top of that, Anthony and I are huge fans of the Forgotten Realms. Needless to say, this project was right up our alley. Be careful in those alleys, by the way, especially in Baldur’s Gate.

Tension in Baldur’s Gate

“There’s no eliminating power in the City of Blood.
It only changes hands.”

This isn’t your typical city encounters supplement. Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters introduces a new mechanic: the tension meter. With it come twenty random encounters tied to five levels of tension within Baldur’s Gate – Martial Law, Order, Status Quo, Unstable, and Pandemonium.

We wanted a way for the encounters to have meaning while also portraying the city’s unique mood. Baldur’s Gate has criminals, cults, and the brutal Flaming Fist. As the characters make decisions, they may shift power between the city’s major factions and unlock new encounters. Surprise your characters with the true villain of any D&D campaign: consequences.

I think the mechanic came out well in the end. We had some back and forth about whether dice would be involved, how wide the bands between tension levels should be, etc. In the end, we decided to honor the philosophy of 5e and keep it simple. Tables maybe will have five encounters in Baldur’s Gate; why not show them a nice sampling of the tension within the City of Blood?

The tension meter has received some good feedback, and it’s another reason I firmly believe TTRPG designers should play more board games, because that’s what inspired this idea for me.

Neighborhood Encounters

The “Baldur’s Gate Gazeteer” in Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus is packed with useful lore and story hooks for neighborhoods in the Upper, Lower, and Outer City. We’ve taken that information and done all the heavy lifting for you by turning it into twenty location-based encounters, ready to go at your D&D table.

I won’t spoil too terribly much about the encounters, but Anne and Gordon have quite the knack for disgusting food-based encounters that make this milk-themed horror author awfully proud. There’s also a reference to a certain barber on Fleet Street somewhere in there.

What’s Cooking?

I think I’m going to hang out in Hell just a little while longer. I enjoyed this supplement, and Anthony and I have at least one more idea up our sleeves for your Descent into Avernus game.

You can purchase Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters by clicking the red button below. Yes, this is one of those times where you’re encouraged to push the big red button.

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.

Take a Beat to Avoid a Beating

Have you ever tried to avoid an encounter in D&D, but it didn’t quite go how you wanted it to? The roleplay started to feel awkward, and you ended up fighting anyway, making the whole interaction seem pointless?

We had one of those this weekend.

Beware! Spoilers for chapter 3 of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist ahead!

Image result for bar fight dnd
Come on, though. Who stops a tavern brawl?

The Situation

This past Saturday, the party entered Gralhund Villa, a luxurious mansion belonging to a pair of ambitious nobles, Yalah and Orund Gralhund. The session was going smoothly until the party reached the Great Hall, where a trio of Zhentarim thugs stood over the fresh corpses of several Gralhund guards.

Two of the characters have chosen to align themselves with the Zhentarim in this campaign. Seeing the Black Network garb on the thugs, the pair understandably attempted to avoid an encounter by reasoning with their fellow faction members. Unfortunately, these two characters work for Istrid Horn, but Istrid didn’t send the Zhentarim thugs in the Great Hall.

For simplicity, here’s our D&D party.

  • Sear. Fire genasi divination wizard. New member of the Zhentarim.
  • R’yzzlan. Drow kensei monk.
  • Nika. Human gloomstalker ranger.
  • Henzio. Aasimar celestial warlock. Long-time member of Zhentarim.

Urstul Floxin, Loose Cannon

If you’re not familiar with the module, there’s a bit of a divide within the Zhentarim. After all, it’s a company of mercenaries, and members are entitled to their own alliances – especially if those alliances could lead to a buttload of gold.

Urstul Floxin. In the charred flesh.

One particular Zhent baddie, Urstul Floxin, is a bit of a loose cannon. He’s been hired by the Gralhunds to retrieve the stone of Golorr, but they didn’t trust him entirely to do his job. Long story short, his employers cost Urstul half his face, so he’s come to Gralhund Villa to beat the snot out of them and take the stone.

While Urstul’s more of hands-on, I’ll-do-it-my-way type, Istrid Horn likes to sit back and keep track of her ledgers. As Master of Trade and Coin, Istrid is keen to follow the chain of command. The characters currently owe Istrid a lot of money. She’s warned the characters in the past about Urstul and his way of doing things. As long as they make payments and don’t draw attention from the city watch, Istrid stays happy.

So, What Happened?

Sear and Henzio, the two Zhents, attempted to calm the guards down. They tried to blend in, mentioning their affiliation to the Black Network. Nika mentions that they are a clean-up crew, and all is going well until the lead thug asks, “Who do you all work for?”

It’s not a bad question. They don’t exactly blend in, and the drow monk refuses to remove his mask due to his monastic order. Suspicious, the guard asks again. “Who do you work for?” he presses.

D&D brain begins to set in. Nika essentially no u‘s the guards by replying, “Who do you work for?” The players – not the characters – begin to panic. Henzio tries to cover by stating the party works for Istrid, which makes the guards exchange a look and tighten their grip on their maces. A bead of sweat runs down the lead thug’s brow. A fight is imminent.

The players, however, don’t realize this. They don’t know the guards have been ordered to hold the room. They could ask, but it’s probably too late. In their minds, they’ve entered roleplay with the DM, and it’s time to improvise. Not surprisingly, improv is hard, and they begin to forget what they’re doing here.

Insults start rolling of the monk’s tongue – he’s been a bard for the last three years. The characters stop communicating with each other. One by one, they say the first thing that comes to mind. I, as the DM, have failed to keep the excitement flowing and to clearly demonstrate the results of the characters’ actions.

Roll initiative, I guess?

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

There are times when you can avoid fights in D&D, but some are easier than others. It can get tricky as a player to gauge this information. If you’re not careful, social interactions can become a habitual game of replying off the top of your head without considering where you are, your character’s identity, or what you want from the exchange. In my six years of DMing, I’ve found that when players lose sight of their goal during roleplay, they default to insulting the NPC, which rarely works. Eventually, these scenarios simply escalate, making all previous roleplay feel like wasted effort! It’s especially frustrating if some are trying to diffuse using one method while others are not.

Getting Better

I often take time after sessions to write down what I thought went well or fell flat. How can I learn from my mistakes to avoid them in the future? I think that a mark of a great DM is setting the pace; that includes identifying or anticipating lulls and getting everything back on track. However, DMs are already monitoring dozens of small things behind the screen. Until something becomes second nature, it’s going to be a constant effort that divides your attention.

So, what would I have changed about this social interaction? Well, for starters I would have encouraged the players to take a beat and assess the situation.

A cool map of Gralhund Villa by Valeur RPG.

Taking a Beat

When you notice a troubling roleplay scenario like this, it’s a great time to take a pause as a group. No one has to think on their feet unless a timer has been placed on the table. And, in my opinion, the players should not be held to the same standard of knowledge as their characters. Otherwise, we get into a typical D&D brained back-and-forth where tension escalates, but we aren’t really doing anything helpful to calm it down.

When you take a beat as a party, here are some good questions to ask:

  • What do we want here?
  • What stands in our way?
  • Who is the best person to represent us, i.e., who should take the lead?
  • Do any of us have useful information?

Let’s take a look at the situation again from the party’s perspective.

What Do We Want?

We are trying to avoid a fight. We need to convince the Zhentarim thugs that we belong.

What Stands in Our Way?

Well, we look pretty weird. We’re arriving late, just after they’ve murdered a bunch of people. On top of that, we’re not really dressed like these Zhents, nor are we in disguise.

Who Should Take the Lead?

Probably one of the two Zhentarim characters. They’ll be the most convincing, and one of them is a warlock with a nice Charisma score.

Any Useful Info?

Henzio knows that there’s a split within the Zhentarim. Perhaps he could whisper this in character, or convey that he would have told Sear this info, since she’s new to the Black Network. It also doesn’t hurt for the DM to remind players of useful info they may have forgotten.

Improving Communication

It’s no wonder so many players have trouble finding a steady group. It’s hard to specify exactly what makes a “good” Dungeon Master, but I think we all agree that a lot falls on the DM’s shoulders. Heck, the amount of time I’ve spent trying to actively improve my DMing – practicing accents, prepping for sessions, reading books, and watching videos – easily dwarfs the time I spent studying for classes during my undergrad or MBA (maybe even both). However, improving in-game communication is one skill that can only really be strengthened at the table during session.

Here are a few ways you improve communication at your table.

Asking Questions

Ask your DM questions. This may remind them of something they forgot to mention or assist other players in understanding a situation. It also may prompt the DM to have you roll checks and keep the game moving forward.

  • “Does it look like the thug believes us?” Make a Charisma (Deception) check.
  • “How likely is a fight here?” Make a Wisdom (Insight) check.
  • “Why are these guards here?” Make an Intelligence (Investigation) check.

Convey Your Intent

You don’t always have to come up with the mechanical solution to a problem. Try not to think of what’s on your character sheet, but what your character wants to do. Your DM can then help you make your plan a reality.

  • “I want to avoid a fight by deceiving them, but I’m having trouble thinking of a useful lie.”
  • “I’m wearing Zhent colors. I want to use that to my advantage.”

Be Clear to Each Other

Both in and out of character, make your desires known! If you don’t want to fight, don’t let the party barbarian push you into one. On the flip side, throw them a bone every once and a while and share the spotlight.

  • (Out of character) “I don’t want to get into a fight here because I think we can avoid it. These guys are Zhents and so are we. Let us handle this one.”
  • (In character) “R’yzzlan, Nika, I told you we’d find the rest of the squad in here! I’m Henzio and this is Sear. You look surprised. Didn’t you get our flying snake?”

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.

Using Unearthed Arcana at Your D&D Table

Back in 1985, when Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was in its prime, TSR released Unearthed Arcana, a collection of supplemental rules written by Gary Gygax. It contained new races, classes, and previously published material from sources such as Dragon Magazine. The book included the first hardcover iteration of the barbarian as a class (originally detailed in Dragon #63), details on using subraces such as the drow and deep gnome (now staples of D&D 5e), and some new spells. It was unfortunately met with criticism due to its editing, binding, and some of the content within, such as the comeliness attribute. Gary intended to incorporate much of the optional content into a second edition for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, but Unearthed Arcana is the last TSR hardcover to bear his name on its cover.

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They actually reprinted the original Unearthed Arcana in a premium edition in 2013. It’s the only hardcover version to incorporate errata published in Dragon Magazine after its 1985 release.

Unearthed Arcana Today

Today, Unearthed Arcana (UA) is alive and well in 5th Edition D&D, though there’s no hardcover book. Instead, it takes the form of a series of articles published by Wizards of the Coast containing PDFs with new subclasses, races, or rules for D&D 5e. These articles stay true to the original Unearthed Arcana by introducing variant options for players and Dungeon Masters who want to customize their games.

Why Should I Use Unearthed Arcana?

There’s been a lot of great Unearthed Arcana coming out lately. We’ve had astral monks, a huge supplement on class feature variants, and most recently, psionics! If that’s not enough to convince you to check it out, here are a few additional reasons:

It’s Free

You can technically play D&D 5e using just the standard ruleset. If you’re strapped for cash but still want some new options, these playtest options slot right into the existing 5e rules without requiring access to any other published books.

You Can Shape the Future of D&D

After each Unearthed Arcana release, Wizards of the Coast puts up a survey where you can rate the options that were presented. The most recent survey is for Class Feature Variants. You can complete it here. That page also details the new psionic subclasses for the fighter, rogue, and wizard. Who doesn’t want to make their fighter the equivalent of fantasy Darth Vader?

This could be your fighter. All you need is a red sun blade, and an asthmatic respirator mask courtesy of your party’s artificer.

D&D 5th Edition has seen multiple years of double-digit growth and is arguably more popular than ever. The lead designers for 5th Edition have attributed much of its success to the extensive playtesting conducted before its release. Bummed that you didn’t get to participate in the 5e playtest? Jump in now! That’s basically what Unearthed Arcana is!

Previously released Unearthed Arcana has already made its way into published books. Designers at WOTC take survey responses seriously and use them to gauge popularity, reception, and perceived balance. Based on survey feedback, they may rework UA options over multiple iterations, repackage abilities into new classes or spells, or even scrap poorly-rated options altogether.

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, for example, was heavily influenced by Unearthed Arcana content. The Gloomstalker, Storm Sorcerer, Samurai, Drunken Fist, and many more options in that book all started with an article from Wizards of the Coast. I remember reading about the ceremony spell in UA back when it was first proposed. There was even an UA druid subclass that became a spell, guardian of nature!

Image result for xanathar's guide to everything
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything is packed with new options for D&D 5th Edition. It introduced multiple new subclasses, common magic items, and variant rules such as expanded downtime.

Ever looked at an official subclass and saw something you didn’t like? Chances are you had an opportunity to voice your opinion to its designer. So, what are you waiting for? Get playtesting, and let your voice be heard!

It’s a Peek Behind the Curtain

If you’re an aspiring designer like me, you won’t regret following Unearthed Arcana. Jeremy Crawford is often talking with Todd Kenrick at D&D Beyond about the options and the philosophy behind them. Here he is talking about the massive Class Feature Variants UA that dropped recently. It’s a great opportunity to learn from lead designers like Jeremy, get new ideas, or study UA that earns multiple iterations (I’m looking at you, Revised Ranger). Plus, Todd and his guests are a delight to listen to due to their passion and humor.

Incorporating Unearthed Arcana into Your Games

So, I succeeded on my Charisma (Persuasion) check, and you’re thinking about testing some Unearthed Arcana in an upcoming session. Awesome. Start by communicating with your DM and/or players that you want to use these experimental options.

Here are a few ways to work these playtest options into your games.

One-Shot Adventures

One-shots are a great opportunity to feel out some new options. Especially with the holidays coming up, many of us have the chance to game with some new people – family who have never played D&D, friends you’ve not seen in a while, or a kind stranger at an unfamiliar gaming store. Alternatively, many D&D groups put games on hold due to low attendance around the holiday season. Who says you can’t still play D&D with a group of three, or even a one-on-one session? If you’re having trouble finding a group, try advertising your one-shot at your local game store or joining an online game through Roll20.

A one-shot is also a good chance for the DM to get a much-needed break. In addition, a player interested in DMing can take on the mantle in a low-pressure environment – aside from the usual stress of DMing – without committing to an entire campaign. Here’s a GM Tips video from Geek and Sundry where Matt Mercer talks about writing one-shots!

If you’re having trouble writing a one-shot, there are many great short adventures on the Dungeon Master’s Guild worthy of your table. Seriously, the quality in the Top 100 products has skyrocketed over the past year. Head over to the Guild, grab a Tier 1 or 2 one-shot, and roll up some new, no-strings-attached UA characters for single session of gaming! If you’re primarily playtesting subclasses, it’s best to find an adventure that doesn’t lean too heavily on any one pillar of play. If possible, give the subclass a chance to shine in combat, exploration, and social interaction.

Take Notes. As you play, consider taking notes on the Unearthed Arcana class, spell, or ruleset. What worked? What made you feel epic? What fell flat? How did other players feel about your character? These will be useful later when filling out the survey.


For those more interested in combat or just short on time, you can test most Unearthed Arcana using a quick series of encounters. Perhaps each player brings an UA character and an encounter with certain parameters, almost like the X-Men training in the Danger Room. You could take turns DMing a few scenarios, such as a trio of fire giants in a desert temple or a long, trapped hallway.

Remember, there is a “N/A” option on the surveys, so if you didn’t get a chance to try out an ability, you don’t have to rate it. This is a good way to test multiple UA options, but it’s probably not as fun as a dedicated session for most players.


Sometimes, an Unearthed Arcana option grabs you from the moment you read it. You’re ready for the long haul and want to play it every night for the foreseeable future.

Great! Talk to your DM. Have them read the class and tell them that you’d like to give it a proper try. Keep in mind, there’s likely to be some back and forth with your DM as you level up within the class; you or your DM may feel something is unbalanced and want to tweak it as you go.

If you choose to incorporate Unearthed Arcana into a campaign, remember that the surveys only last a few weeks! After you’ve had a couple sessions with the new rules, don’t forget to go back and fill out the survey before it’s too late. In addition, check in from time to time. The rules may have been updated based on previous survey responses.

Where Can I Find Unearthed Arcana?

There may never be another Unearthed Arcana hardcover, but the spirit of the original book is alive and well in 5th Edition. I think people weren’t ready for Gary Gygax’s variant rules in 1985. Sure, there might have been some obscure ones (did we really need a Thief-Acrobat?), but they were always meant to be optional. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like most D&D players today are willing to tinker, house-rule, and experiment. Perhaps it’s due to the variety of available TTRPGs or the renaissance of new board games, many of which bring unique and brilliant mechanics. Either way, I think Gary would be proud.

You can find current and past Unearthed Arcana here.

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.

Norse DM Convention Sponsorship

Quick note: My website/handle used to be called Norse DM! I’ve since rebranded. Enjoy this blog post anyway!

A couple of weeks ago, I returned from my annual trek to Gen Con. Since Gen Con 50 was so incredible, I have attended every year since. While I was there, I thought I would pick up a couple of dice sets for a giveaway, as I know not everyone is so fortunate to attend Gen Con. After all, attending big conventions is often expensive.

I posted the following tweet.

I got a lot of great convention memories as a response. Sadly, I also received a lot of comments from people that said they had never attended a convention. I’ve only been to Gen Con and one other, but I think the convention experience is something every gamer should experience if they want to.

I followed up this post with a poll asking what the biggest barrier was for those had never attended a convention. Here were the results:


“Other” included:
– Social anxiety
– Dislike of crowds
– Health/mobility issues
– A combination of the options (travel & cost, for example)

There were some great, supportive responses from many gamers. Suggestions of how to deal with convention anxiety, quiet spaces at some conventions, and having a con buddy to walk newcomers through their first experience. However, the biggest contributor was still cash.

While I’m not exactly rolling in dough – I’ve got a mortgage, some student loans, and a couple car payments between my wife and me – I wanted to do something about this, at least for one person!

Norse DM Convention Sponsorship

From now until the end of September 2019, I will be accepting submissions for a convention sponsorship.

Entry Criteria

Before you enter, please make sure you satisfy the following criteria.

  • You are at least 18 years of age
  • You have never attended a tabletop, board game, or RPG-related convention in your life
  • You can arrange transportation to a local convention, be it by Uber, bus, friend, etc.
How to Enter

Entry is simple. Use the “Contact” page on to send me the following information:

  • Your Name.
  • Your Email.
  • Up to Two (2) Conventions You Would Like to Attend. If you could attend a convention near you, which one would it be? Why?
  • Short Bio. Tell me about yourself. What is your favorite RPG or board game? How long have you been playing? What are your other gaming interests?
  • Why Haven’t You Attended a Convention Before? Please tell me briefly what barriers you have faced in attending a local convention. How could this sponsorship help you?

By entering, you agree to be featured on and my Twitter profile as the winner (if you are chosen).

Convention Sponsorship

I will sponsor at least $50 towards one (1) convention for one entrant, chosen by me. This will likely taking the form of a ticket to said convention and possibly additional swag or credit towards events.

To ensure that the sponsorship actually goes towards the convention, I will purchase the ticket for the entrant and arrange delivery, either electronically or by mail. Because I won’t be purchasing the ticket until the end of September, the convention must occur between 10/1/19 and 9/30/20.

Honor & Integrity

There are many people in this world that are struggling from day to day. Disparities in socioeconomic status, health, and other barriers are the result of random chance. This is an opportunity to brighten a gamer’s life despite these barriers.

If you are able and have the financial security to attend a convention, please do not enter this sponsorship. Likewise, only enter this convention if you truly have never attended one.

Thank you to everyone who responded on Twitter. Good luck to all entrants!

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.

My Thoughts On MCDM’s Strongholds and Followers, Part I

Last night was the finale to our 2.5-year, 20-level Norse D&D campaign. It came to a spectacular and fitting end. Over the coming weeks, I’ll take some time to collect my thoughts and hard-earned wisdom. There are lot of D&D tips out there, so my focus will be on running high-level (Tiers 3 & 4) play with some sprinkling of advice for maintaining a constant group. With the culmination of our campaign and a couple of writing projects – Devil’s Advocate: A Guide to Infernal Contracts is set to release next week – I finally have some breathing room to sit and enjoy the finer things.

Speaking of finer things, have you had a chance to check out MCDM’s Strongholds and Followers?

About Strongholds & Followers

If you’re not familiar with the book, Strongholds & Followers began as a Kickstarter by Matt Colville and his newly-formed company MCDM Productions. The goal of the Kickstarter was twofold: 1) fund a book surrounding rules for creating, managing, and upgrading strongholds, and 2) raise enough money for MCDM to start their very own D&D 5e stream. Long story short, the project blew it out of the water when it came to funding, raising over $2 million dollars and earning the title of one of the most successful TTRPG Kickstarters of all time.

Is this a review?

Yes and no. I understand that not everyone was able to participate in this Kickstarter. So I’d like to take the time to showcase this book and my thoughts as I read through it. Long story short, I think what Matt and his team have created is wonderful, and I’d like to share it with you.

If you’ve watched any of Matt’s “Running the Game” videos on Youtube, you have probably gleaned that he has a signature style as a GM. I have been following Matt for some time now, and I will continue to do so because he offers a unique perspective from other personalities at the forefront of this great hobby. While I haven’t incorporated all of his tips, Matt is an honest, bright, and experienced creator who has been a tremendous help to my growth as a Dungeon Master.

Just like any other TTRPG products, there are going to be things that resonate for you in this book and things that don’t. I wholeheartedly endorse this book regardless of the percentage of content I’ll be incorporating into my games. There is something in this book for everyone, even if you never intend to build a stronghold in your campaign – though if you feel that way, you really should reconsider!

The artwork is superb.

The first thing that is going to hit you is that this book is packed with absolutely stunning artwork. MCDM did not spare a penny when it came to hiring some of the best fantasy artists. There are very few pages in this book that do not have some piece of artwork somewhere on the page.

Each of the strongholds include breathtaking, full-page pieces that convey its personality. While all of them are beautiful, I especially enjoy the cleric’s church, the monk’s monastery, and the wizard’s library (which, to me, really evokes that classic 80’s D&D cover art).

Followers include grizzled warriors and friendly mages. Monsters range from the epic and powerful gemstone dragons to the hauntingly beautiful monarchon. Magic items, especially the codices, pair nicely with descriptions that manifest countless story hooks as I read.

But artwork goes beyond landscapes, creatures, and items. The layout for the book is beautiful and unique. While I am a great fan of D&D 5e, this supplement sets itself apart with colorful decorations that frame each page as if you were reading a hand-decorated Medieval manuscript. Maps are professional and come with their own charm. In particular, I was blown away by the stained glass look of the temple. The picture really just doesn’t do it justice. It’s so colorful!

Strongholds & Followers

Now that you’ve seen a sneak peak of what you’ll see in the book, lets talk about content. I’ll break this down by major sections. Today, we’re going to focus mainly on the first part of the book: strongholds.


Strongholds & Followers opens with the history of strongholds in D&D back in the early days of the hobby. It talks about giving mechanical reasons for your character to build a stronghold, such as demesne (which I learned is pronounced “deh-MAIN”) effects, attracting followers, and new abilities. The four types of strongholds are:

  • Keeps – raising armies and fighting
  • Temples – summoning extraplanar allies
  • Towers – researching new spells (really cool)
  • Establishments – gaining that sweet, sweet gold and learning secrets

I appreciate that Matt includes a note about approving this book with your GM. Running D&D is complicated enough by the time characters can have their own stronghold, though I’m sure many players are (hopefully) willing to be patient with their dungeon master if they’re cool enough to work in stronghold rules.

Acquiring a Stronghold

The book then breaks down ways to obtain a stronghold, of which there are three. Just like any old house here in the real world, you can construct your own, be awarded one, or fix one up. Though since the 1890s or so it’s become much more difficult to storm a stranger’s home with weapons, clear the place out, and make it your own. As someone who went through the lengthy process of buying a house last May and still doesn’t understand what exactly escrow is, I’m honestly not sure which method is more difficult.

There are some very helpful tables detailing the cost, time, and bonuses that come with building the four types of strongholds. There are similar rules and costs for upgrading your strong hold once built, giving you greater capabilities which are detailed later on in the text.

Castles allow you to incorporate more than one function at once. I think this section could have been broken down a bit better. The example for cost increases for incorporating three strongholds in one is helpful, but I could see GMs missing some important information if they haven’t read the section below in a while. For example, it seems rather important that a stronghold’s benefit only applies to one character at a time!

I appreciate that Matt’s voice comes through in his writing. In this section, he mentions how when he has run strongholds, usually a couple characters don’t care. He incorporates GM tips throughout the book. It’s very Matt (or at least my perception of who Matt is).

The following sections on Repairing a Ruin and Awarding a Stronghold are concise and easy to digest. There’s some great sections on political complications that come from creating a stronghold, such as how the nobility reacts to the construction of your 10,000gp keep just outside the city!

Stronghold Types

We then get start to get into the meat of the strongholds, which boils down to powers that recharge on an extended rest, which requires spending a week at your stronghold doing various errands and upkeep. Matt gives some advice on balancing the game – though a big part of the fun of strongholds is that they unbalance the game – and we get a bit more on politics, including saving you time by focusing on three types of local lord. Then we get to see what the four types of strongholds actually do!

The Keep

Keeps are used to build, train, and maintain an army. You attract units unique to your class. Later in the book, each class gets its own stronghold section. While a wizard can technically make a keep, a fighter’s going to benefit more from constructing one because their class followers chart is better-suited to attracting military units. However, every class has the chance of attracting martial units as followers.

The keep also gives you training benefits, which are super cool. I’m guessing that these last indefinitely. You can change which one you use on an extended rest. For example, after training a bunch of mercenaries to dodge dragon’s breath, you take Light Armor Training, giving you advantage on Dexterity checks while wearing light armor. I think this is a great detail and builds on the existing abilities of some classic weapons proficiencies to really make you feel like a badass.

Barbarian Camps are a mobile alternative to the immense, immobilized keep on the cover. I appreciate that Matt gives hooks and advice for playing against type. He gives an example of a “barbarian camp” in the form of a war-hungry druid with awakened trees. I love that he mentions Joan of Arc basically leading a barbarian horde.

The rules for barbarian camps are true to history. They have limited units, and they are slower the larger they get. But they can also cause unrest in a province!

The Pirate Ship is another mobile variant on the keep, and comes with a huge, gorgeous ship with several masts. I also love that there are footnotes in this book talking about sales and the development of the galleon. You can tell Matt loves history. With Saltmarsh out, this could be a favorite stronghold for many parties.

Organizational Aside. I hope that future MCDM books contain an index (unless I missed it) or some other type of page references for material contained inside the book. In the stronghold tables on page 10, there’s one that simply reads “Size.” At this point, I assume that means units. This chart states D6 for a 1st level keep. However, in the text for raising units in the Keep section, it states newly raised units start at a D4. It isn’t until page 236 that I find out that fortifications, including Keeps, have a size of their own.

This book will benefit from some good tabbing (like many other D&D books). I wish it had broken down the tables on page 10, because not all of them were self explanatory, and it would have reinforced knowledge as I was exposed to it a second time. I was confused when first reading this, and then perplexed that there wasn’t an index! I would love to have seen on page 10, “Fortification size is used in warfare. See Sample Warfare on page 236 for more details.”

The Tower

Towers are all about spell research. As a huge fan of wizards, I alternated between drooling and giggling with excitement as I read this section. In our campaign, there were two homebrew spells, both of which occurred in Tier 4 with the wizard Mordenkainen.

There is something very classic about creating your own spells. Here’s a video of Gary Gygax’s son, Luke Gygax, talking about inventing Melf’s Acid Arrow and Melf’s Minute Meteors with his dad. Matt gets this. While I’m only 26, Matt and his pals were there when famous wizard PCs like Melf and Elminster were crafting these iconic spells. Now, Matt brings some of that magic to your table.

Spell research is fun and unpredictable. We get some of that 80s randomness in the tables Spell Research Tables. There’s different tables depending on who the target is. For example, you might buff yourself with levitation, or buff an ally with your spell modifier. I think this section is really thoughtful and, well, magical. It’s great that Matt and the gang found a way to bring that excitement to 5th Edition. I can already see the look on my players’ faces at the prospect of naming their very own spell.

There are rules for modifying spells, and a really cool little section on what happens after you’ve cast your signature spell in the wild a few times. There’s then an alternative rule section on Towers By School, where you can basically amplify spells in your area of expertise.

The Temple

Temples are geared towards priests, warlocks, and druids. While a druid might have a grove, it may mechanically fall under the temple. This is one of the more flexible strongholds, the other being the establishment. It covers a lot of ground with its main feature, which is concordance. Basically, the more pleased your deity is with you, the better your results are when you petition your deity for aid. Matt makes the distinction that concordance is basically a lower version of divine intervention.

Petitioning your deity can have negative effects, such as being cursed. Anyone can call on a deity for aid, but those who own a temple are far more likely to succeed. They’re granted a +30 to the percentile dice rolled (similar to divine intervention, but higher is better in this case). If you roll really low (though it’s basically impossible if you own a temple unless you’ve been bad), you could become cursed, and if you roll average nothing happens.

Well, not nothing. There’s a cool mechanic built into this stronghold power. When you petition, you gain a penalty for your next one – regardless of whether or not you succeed. The circumstance chart lists ways to change this penalty by doing things like spreading the good word, whereas failing to uphold your deity’s tenants results in a worse penalty. Once you’ve reduced the penalty, or you’re ambitious enough to roll despite a hefty negative modifier, you can petition your deity once again.

If you roll high, however, you get a servitor. The higher you roll, the better the servitor you get. Servitors are other-worldly allies that come from a source, such as The Court of Arcadia for fey or The Elemental Templars for elementals. The majority of servitors are actually original monsters! They are also very interesting. The only category that does not include original monsters is undead; 5e already contains an abundance of them. Later, when I talk about the new monsters, we can look at a couple of these.

There’s a section on using your servitor, which remains for a number of rounds dependent on your stronghold. As someone who had to do something like this for the Infernal Ally offer in my upcoming product, I appreciate the flexibility of time depending on the effort you put into your stronghold. One round can make a hell of a difference in 5e, especially considering the action economy of adding someone to your side.

Druid Groves, like barbarian camps, are an alternative option for this type of stronghold. It allows you to basically install a spell, such as reincarnate that can be cast within the grove every so often, depending on the spell itself.

The Establishment

No, this isn’t the man oppressing you. This version of the establishment is everything you dreamed it would be! The establishment’s primary goals are generating revenue and rumors. This includes taverns, theatres, blacksmiths, basically anything that could get you coin and introduce you to new patrons.

There’s a cool DM note on the seasonal revenue generated by your establishment. It’s designed to be roughly even with what your character would be exposed to through adventuring, though this varies from campaign to campaign.

Rumors allow you to learn secrets about traps, puzzles, items, organizations – you name it – with a successful Gather Intel check. Your establishment has a range limited by its level. I love the cute little blacksmith map as an example of a small establishment. I bet there’s somewhere you could print these maps out (such as an artist’s page or through MCDM), laminate them, and use them at your table.

Lastly, you can use the establishment to get favors! If you’re rolling in dough, why wouldn’t you be able to pay another stronghold to do something for you? Makes sense, though I wouldn’t have thought of it. It’s a really cool detail. I also love the three-story theatre artwork on the last page.

I hope you enjoyed this look at the first two sections of Strongholds and Followers. It’s the first time I’ve read them, so I might come back and amend some things later on.

So far, I think this book is fantastic. The amount of work put into it shows. It’s a pleasure to read, has a distinct tone, and is filled with beautiful artwork.

Next: Strongholds by Class

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