Second Star to the Right (SSTTR) is a Dungeons and Dragons actual-play show developed by Second Star Productions and led by professional Dungeon Master and WizKids RPG Producer Joe Nuzzo. Airing bi-weekly on Fridays at 7pm CDT, SSTTR boasts a glorious line-up of seasoned TTRPG players: Faeforge Academy actor and Into the Motherlands star Michael Sinclair II, psychology expert Desirée Strother, who explores relationship dynamics through D&D, creative producer for The Initiative Order and ambassador for Jasper’s Game Day Breanna Flaim, host of Roll for Persuasion and Head of Marketing at Dwarven Forge Andrew Strother, and TV producer, voice actor, and 20 Sided Stories cast member Emily Ervolina.
The Neverland Setting
SSTTR follows Andrew Kolb‘s Neverland setting, a feature-length hex crawl campaign intended for sandbox exploration published by Andrews McMeel. Kolb takes inspiration from the classic world of Peter Pan’s adventures, adding a unique twist that makes for a more appropriate, and perhaps more interesting, environment to wade through for mature TTRPG players. To this, Second Star Productions affix Nuzzo’s many years of pro DMing experience and distinct hands-on narrative style. As the players are guided through an at times comical, at times emotional journey to retrieving a fallen star, each hex of the map reveals new aspects and components of Neverland’s island, championing its characteristically spontaneous setting.
Before exploring Neverland however, SSTTR does a great job in its first episode at making its community feel immersed in the setting of Fantasy London. Dipping its toes into WWII England, the show makes a point to mention the “cool crisp air”, the “loud bells”, Big Ben, and Whitehall Street. Imbuing the city with magic, the players are introduced to a mystical version of the British Museum, as the DM paints an upgraded picture of what the world might look like right around the corner of the Darling’s household, had they been NPCs in a D&D campaign.
Complementary, self-reflective acting
SSTTR’s acting is both genuine and funny, not to mention consistent. As a native South West Londoner, I’m a harsh critic, but the English colloquialisms are there when they need to be. The cast have no qualms when it comes to making fun of themselves, highlighting their lack of a repertoire of UK accents: “I’m gonna put on my worst British accent because I don’t know how to do that.” (Michael Sinclair II, playing Dante).
Each party member adds an invaluable layer to SSTTR’s story, with well-balanced pairings. Genevieve is a careful, intelligent, and poised Wizard. Sharing some of those characteristics, Dante embodies the more serious and forthcoming persona any adventuring team needs to accomplish their goals. Despite this, he often finds himself in the most unlikely of comedic situations, sometimes spearheaded by nonchalant, mysterious, happy-go-lucky Talith. Finally, leaving a memorable impression are investigative Síofra and strongwoman Helen, two opposites of a sorely-needed spectrum; small ball of energy meets fount of knowledge, and buff Hollywood one-punch wonder.
Dedicated to an upward path
The campaign moves at a slower pace than some TTRPG productions, but the storytelling and person-to-person synergy are especially captivating. This is no easy feat for the podcast format, as seen in SSTTR’s first episode, but the cast and crew managed anyway, eventually switching to incorporate video as well. From there on out, the sessions begin to benefit from both the added imagery, as well as intro music by Travis Reaves and recently acquired gameplay music by Alexander Nakarada.
A stand-out quality of SSTTR’s production is the considerable progress it has been dedicated to since first airing, fixing any sound issues, upgrading camera quality, working with sponsors, and at times weaving audience suggestions into their canon.
Sharp comedic quality
SSTTR is all laughter from the get-go. The big bad behind the missing pixie dust is the British Museum, and brief introductory filler baddies include a guy with “Tattoos all over his face, not that there’s anything wrong with that!”, described in the wokest of ways.
The comedy has a skilfully improvised feel, and the humour of the least carefree characters finding themselves in the unlikeliest of situations is not lost on the audience. None should be so bold as to discount the fun in Dante being assailed by both husk dolls and water in equal measure. An opinion piece would also be remiss if it didn’t mention the meta-level anachronisms and self-referential material that has the show’s Twitch viewers in stitches. We love a Walt Disney name drop and a fantasy OSHA violation warning.
Maps and minis
True to his style, Nuzzo did not disappoint when he showed up with a mini terrain. Customising these builds and making minis for D&D gameplay is time-consuming and sometimes difficult to arrange (camera placement, lighting, perspective), and even more so when the game is remote. Although the players can’t directly interact with the field, it gives them an idea of their exact surroundings, as well as offering viewers some nice visuals to look at.
Teamwork makes the dream work
What I love most about SSTTR is that every player cares about the next. There’s nothing worse than a tabletop game where everybody cuts each other off, no one pays mind to anyone else’s backstory, and characters don’t pick up on subtle cues to play off of. The total lack of disrespectful roleplaying edgelordery is a breath of fresh air. Without a shadow of a doubt, it seems that the cast are both professionally and emotionally in tune with what it means to be a good and considerate TTRPG player.
Second Star Show is, in essence, an incredibly well-produced experience tailored to Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts on the hunt for a light-hearted setting with a beautifully narrated and acted story, full of intriguing turns, and the occasional plunge into the darker, more obscure moments.
Second Star to the Right airs every second Friday at 7pm CDT on Twitch.
New Year, New Dungeons and Dragons Campaign? Perhaps you’re not quite there yet and hosting a one-shot or two is more up your alley. Whatever the motive, planning the first game of any adventure can seem daunting. Luckily, the core event of your session is pre-determined; the heroes have to meet. All you need now are a place, plot, and some people – the definition of a manageable workload. Except, your wizard rolls a Nat 20 Intelligence Check, figures out that her father is her brother, pulls out some bat guano and pulverises your starter BBEG for 96 points of fire damage. Holy shit, sick and rad indeed, but… now what?
Here are some suggestions on how to maximise your chances of running a smooth and interesting first Dungeons and Dragons game.
Playtest or Kick-off
Typically, a session 0 and session 1 of Dungeons and Dragons differ in structure and level of preparedness. Session 0s can act as improvisational games where adventurers playtest class and race combinations, try out roleplay accents that they are unsure of, or metagame and ask questions that might otherwise disturb the natural flow of the session. On the other hand, nothing says that a session 0 cannot or should not be the actual kick-off of your campaign or two-shot. You might well feel more comfortable with a pre-written set of intrigues. What matters above all is transparency between Dungeon Master (DM) and players. Talk to your party about what they expect of a first game – this includes addressing triggers and consent – and being honest with them about the kind of adventure you’re looking to run.
Set the mood
Determining the type of game you’re hosting includes setting the appropriate tone and mood. Whether you tend to rely entirely on theatre of the mind, or have a proclivity for fully-fledged battle maps, D&D is always about immersion. Even diehard metagamers rely on a constant commitment to breaking character. To that effect, there are ways in which a game can be made to feel like quasi-VR madness, where everyone is an actor in the universe woven collectively by DM and players.
Adopt the mindset of becoming your Non-Player Characters (NPCs)
Adjust your tone of voice to fit the mood of narrative descriptions
Consider register and mood; for example, formal RP English for a Victorian Era setting
Consider word choice and mood; “deep dark pit” is serious, and “big-ass hole” is comedic
Make use of silences and pauses to heighten suspense and punctuate important information
Rely on fast-paced narrative for (pre-)combat, urgency traps, and timed missions
Practice accents, timbre, pitch, tone, pace, and linguistic quirks
Study sound effects and try to incorporate them into your narrative
For the hearing and seeing community, audio-visual stimuli can be a crucial step to achieving immersion
Platforms such as Watch2Gether, or bots like Groovy on Discord, facilitate autoplay and looping
Free battle maps, ideal for combat, can be made on Inkarnate, as well as other platforms
Online whiteboards like AWW Board provide a backdrop for your session for maps, NPCs, and minis
The mood has been set and the main event is certain: forming a party of people who trust each other enough to venture out on deadly quests together. Though the topic is simple enough, allowing for players to become a cohesive unit organically without engaging in illusionism or railroading is a big question mark DMs often grapple with.
With only two or three players at your table or on your screen, the possibilities of planning a narrative-only session 0 that allows for players to find each other naturally are endless. The story can jump from player to player until they find each other, or follow a linear timeline. The goal will almost always be to end up in the same location with a mission that is, to some degree, shared. Having some plot elements that tie characters together beforehand is helpful, and will have them wanting to work together, either out of empathy, sympathy, or necessity. Although this might give the narrative a “chosen ones” feel, injecting this into the larger picture early on means less railroading overall.
Flashbacks not railroads
Due to the tedious nature of meeting sans Deus Ex Machina and how time consuming it can be, Dungeon Masters who have more than a couple of players might lean towards preparing a session 0 that relies heavily on railroading the players into meeting up at a tavern, palace, shop, or battlefield. Upon arrival, five or more strangers are suddenly thrust into the same situation and must all find time to quickly develop a connection.
Though railroading players in a session 0 is, in my opinion, entirely acceptable and sometimes even necessary for sheer practicality, there are ways of avoiding this. Instead of having players travel to the same location in real time, give them a chance to delve into their past. They could all start off in the same location, together in a room for example, and are in each other’s company already for reasons that will soon be revealed. Cue a series of flashbacks that allow them to snoop on each other, so to speak, and catch a glimpse of what other characters are like without engaging in unreasonably deep and meaningful conversations on day one.
A flashback is also a useful tool for DMs as it provides them with a steerable narrative that is limited; as we are in the past, not much can be changed about where the players find themselves now and what their quest is. However, players can impact the “how”, and some choices or rolls might affect the future, i.e., the present. In tandem with this impact, players are able to develop their characters and roleplay what kind of backstory they intend to embody.
Of course, a more light-hearted approach that handles relationships with humour could erase the need to care about meeting organically, or about bonding as companions altogether. The vibe of your game might just be listen here you piece of shit gnome, I don’t give a hoot about your problems, but you’re coming with me, and that’s hilariously okay too.
The Tavern Trope
First encounters inevitably beg the question of where the party will meet. If you’re a seasoned Dungeon Master, you’ll probably want to show your players something unique, and discount the idea of a medieval tavern entirely. That said, if you’re dealing with a bunch of first-timers, The Tavern™ often fulfils novice player TTRPG expectations, and denying them this so-called rite of passage could be a disservice to their entry into D&D.
The answer to this conundrum is simple enough – ask your players about the fantasy worlds or locations they are interested in. Of course, DMs should take their own preferences into account too – never put forward a proposal that doesn’t speak to you, and always be honest with your table, lest you be unexpectedly stuck for five years in a K-Pop-themed campaign set in outer space. Come to think of it, that sounds kind of interesting…
Nat 20s, Nat 1s, and Flukes
For DMs that prefer to be overprepared like myself, it’s often hard to come to terms with the improvisational nature of D&D, and the very real possibility of having to deal with many unforeseeable events determined by dice rolls alone, or unanticipated Player Character (PC) choices.
Strokes of luck
Beyond making sure you aren’t too set in the story you have in mind, there are techniques you can use to deal with the unplanned, or the improbable. For example, a PC might roll a Nat 20 Intelligence Check on a piece of lore you were hoping would remain a mystery for half of the campaign. This is a stroke of good luck that has the potential to warp any DM’s plans, and yet the best way to avoid feeling defeated is by 1) understanding from the get-go that anything you prepare can be subject to a Nat 20 or a Nat 1, 2) recognising that this is a moment of utter satisfaction for the player and reward them with the answer. After all, there will be other obscure mysteries to come.
Other times, Nat 20s and Nat 1s have less to do with taking the DM by surprise, and more to do with managing a situation that seems improbable, or virtually impossible. Dungeon Masters and D&D players Brennan Lee Mulligan and Lou Wilson discuss such tactics in detail in Dimension 20’s Adventuring Academy episode Creating Rounded Characters. Other than the by now well-known “yes and” rule of improv that seems to fix any situation, unlikely events can be narrated in ways that make them seem more probable. Here are some examples from my own campaigns and one-shots (hosted and played):
Half-elf Cleric rolls a Nat 20 on dragging an unconscious polymorphed Firbolg Monk (bear) out of a pit
Kenku Rogue rolls a Nat 1 Dex Check on tinkering with a lock in a Silverymoon library
Warforged Druid with proficiency in Perception rolls a Nat 1 Perception Check on seeing a house, twice
Halfling Wizard rolls a Nat 20 Strength Check on pulling a 6ft Warforged Druid out of a village well
Fire Goliath Barbarian rolls a Nat 20 on an Acrobatics Check to jump over a dozen fragile tavern stools
Fire Goliath Barbarian rolls a Nat 1 on a melee attack roll, inside a closed tavern against one enemy
All of these situations seem unlikely, and can be difficult to justify on the spot; however, adapting your perspective to favour each PC’s individual qualities and flaws can help. The Half-elf Cleric was suddenly inspired by God, the Kenku Rogue hasn’t slept for 2 days, the Warforged Druid is lost deep in thought, the Halfling Wizard cleverly repositions her companion so that they may use their own Strength to get out of the well, and the Fire Goliath Barbarian is so strong that his momentum pushes him forward, somersaulting over all the old furniture, unfortunately causing him to mistime the swing of his axe.
Fluke rolls can also be tackled with balanced encounters. Preparing beforehand that X amount of enemies at level Y will storm a tavern if the BBEG drops below 50% HP before a specified time can often solve PCs being accidentally overpowered (OP). Balancing also makes combat fairer and more interesting.
Though some might interpret this type of balancing as a form of railroading, relying on logic is enough to support this method; how many times has a superhero or supervillain prepped some backup in the event that they should meet their demise? You know, the whole “If I’m not back in 10 minutes, send in the tanks.” You get the gist.
Despite all of these pointers, the 2020+ covid-19 pandemic has led to a decrease in IRL gameplay, and a huge shift towards remote Dungeons and Dragons. As Ari would say, when all is said and done, virtual D&D sessions could end up being your biggest challenge yet; your internet might let you down, and awkward silences can stack like Jenga blocks.
Tech mishaps and solutions
Computers crash; prepare to temporarily join Discord (or the platform you use) via phone if possible
For cuts in PC audio, the DM can switch to narrative describing scenery, or move on to other players
Any general technical difficulties with a short waiting time can be solved with a water or food break
If a single player’s internet connection drops for a long time, narrate the character’s sudden departure
Discord flops happen; try a temporary switch to Skype, Zoom or Google Meets
Digital dice page won’t load? Siri rolls polyhedral dice too! Or ask a fellow player to determine your fate
Frozen or broken battle maps might be your cue to go off-script and engage in theatre of the mind combat
Silences, they’re unavoidable. Call for a break, load some cricket noises, further describe the scene
Mistimed music can be humorous; AC/DC combat music on at a romantic date? Narrate the stage bard’s strange take on what a candlelit dinner ambience means. Her manager will be having a word with her…
Rule #1 – Have fun
Although the DM is in charge of gameplay prep and keeping an overview of the direction of each session – especially the first session – the point of TTRPG is ultimately to have fun. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many Nat 1s you roll or how far you stray from the intended path. All that matters is that you’re having a great time at the table, be it a material, or virtual one.
Michael Habiger, who lives in Vienna, is a part-time web developer and university project assistant – but his spare time is spent on enriching the world of Dungeons and Dragons by creating the tiniest, fluffiest oddball creatures. His instagram, @the_fluffy_folio, began on July 31st of this year, with digital art focused mostly on creating races and classes for D&D. On September 7th however, interest shifted primarily from people to curious critters, with the publication of his first ever creature; the Twiddletoad.
Basic Snitch and The Fluffy Folio sat down for a remote chat about all things D&D art!
How did you first get into illustrating?
There was always some kind of affinity to drawing and painting in my life. When my family got its first computer – 8 MB RAM and it was a powerhouse, so you can imagine how long ago that was – I immediately declared the drawing program to be my absolute favourite. Graphic tablets weren’t available back then, and I had just learned how to use a mouse. I don’t remember when I got my first tablet, maybe 10 years ago? I remember that I loved it! At that point, I was also starting to get more serious about painting and reading corresponding literature. I watched tutorials, or studied other paintings in much more detail than I had ever before. I didn’t go to art school, so painting still remained more of a much-loved hobby. Of course, I also took breaks, sometimes very long ones, but I never completely dropped the pen.
What pushes you to never drop the pen?
I’ve experienced three considerable motivational pushes to keep painting these last few years. I began illustrating a card game, which I’ve been working on for three years. I also started playing Dungeons & Dragons, and would draw my party’s characters. Around this time, I received my first commissions after posting my work on social media. This exposure, sharing and discussing art as well as engaging with the community, is a great joy for me and it really keeps me going. Although painting isn’t my full-time job, I hope it someday will be. It would be the dream!
How has your style as an artist developed over the years, and what’s something you’ve learned by sticking with it?
That’s a tough one. I think it’s hard to notice how your own style develops in the making. It’s mostly an unconscious process. What happens, though, is that I notice bad habits from time to time – or notice that I’m losing track [of what I want to be creating]. That’s when I engage in research, and study other art to tweak my skills actively. What I really want to maintain is working with different levels of detail within one painting. It’s a process in which the painting is able to suggest several points of focus to the observer. [On the topic of] sticking with it – if something doesn’t work, don’t give up, try again.
What sort of programs or tools do you rely on, and what could you recommend to other (D&D) artists?
I use the classic Photoshop and a graphic tablet combo – it’s what I’m used to. But I can advise that you don’t always need the fanciest tablet out there. I have two; a sophisticated one full of buttons and features, and one very basic, small tablet. And well, I haven’t touched the sophisticated tablet in months. The portability of the smaller one is very useful, and I don’t usually take up that much space on the drawing area. But, it all comes down to personal preference.
I love taking a closer look at tiny details, like moss, bark, or roots. I try to think of them as tiny worlds and imagine what creatures might live in there.
What or who do you draw the most inspiration from? Pun intended!
My wife! She patiently listens to all my ideas, and I tend to have a lot of them. She helps me reflect on them, and I can’t thank her enough. Another inspiration is nature – I love taking a closer look at tiny details, like moss, bark, or roots. I try to think of them as tiny worlds and imagine what creatures might live in there. Mostly, though, I’m inspired by my 6-month-old son. Never in my life have I painted more productively, both in regards to time management and content. I started with smaller works – naturally time is a bit scarce now! I tried to paint as much as I could during his naps. Funnily, lack of time somehow did the trick for me.
When did you get into Dungeons and Dragons? Do you have a favourite D&D show?
Sometime in 2017, though I already owned the books in my youth. These were mainly books concerning creatures; I really loved the illustrations and backstories, and I remember spending hours reading through them over and over again! The stats didn’t interest me that much yet. Now that I play, I have a preference for the roleplaying aspects of D&D and I like the simplicity of 5e. Of course, I also love all the awesome homebrew stuff available to players. It makes it vivid and diverse – I like that. And my favourite show would be Acquisitions Incorporated – love everything about it, from the cheesy website to their PAX shows – always good for a laugh 🙂
Is there a class or type of folk that you tend towards playing?
Hmm, not really. I like playing a cleric, but all classes and folks have their own charm. For me, it’s more about the character and how they interact with the world. And well – I have a whole cohort of characters lined up, each one waiting for their turn. Once I start playing one, I tend to make a plan about how to get the next one into the game, [be it their departure, or death, for example]. Poor characters, now I feel bad! Fortunately for them, I’m more of a Dungeon Master anyway.
What is your favourite thing about D&D?
It has no boundaries, it’s social, and it’s fun! As a DM, I love listening to all my players coming up with plans. I like how they role-play their characters and shape the world they are in through them. For me, it’s a great pleasure be immersed in another universe, and not have to think about the real world for a few hours. Combine that with meeting friends, and it’s the perfect evening 🙂
Where did the idea of drawing fuzzy, strange creatures for D&D come from? Do you feel that this is something that’s missing in D&D?
The Twiddletoad was the first of my critters, and the idea was relatively spontaneous. Late one night, I felt the urge to finish this digital painting. The idea to actually make stats for the Twiddletoad then came about a few days later, when I thought about implementing this fella as a fun little encounter for my adventurers. Since then, I’ve really enjoyed both aspects; the painting process and the stat creation. Somehow, I felt a push to populate the world of D&D with a mass of tiny creatures 😀 I always had the idea of a scholar in my mind, on a search for unique and rare critters, documenting and describing them. I liked the concept, so decided to stick with it!
Do you play any other RPG games, or are you looking to get in to any?
Not at the moment, but I’m a big fan of RPGs, and have played them my whole life, mainly digitally. From Nintendo to PC, this genre has definitely remained my favourite. I’ve always wanted to try Call of Cthulhu, pen and paper – I love the lore!
If you had to explain D&D to a newcomer, how would you go about it?
D&D is a game about great, [collaborative storytelling]. Nobody wins and nobody loses. Even if you fail on a roll, consider it an opportunity to create an epic scene. If The Lord of The Rings were a D&D session, even the Fellowship came out [on top] with bad rolls!
Do you have any favourite artists you’d like to shout out? Who should we be keeping up with?
There are so, so many talented artists out there, that it is really hard to pin down. Overall, I enjoy the many shared influences, the exchanging, and the mutual support! Lately, I learned the word Amigurumi, thanks to @konsumlumpen on Instagram, and I really love the tiny creatures he’s creating! So, [style-wise], I always keep an open mind.
Who or what has supported and helped you most along the way?
Everyone and everything. I take each experience, and use it to drive me to keep working on my paintings – be it positive or negative experiences. It’s all valuable and helpful somehow. Concretely, I want to thank my family and friends for their support, and of course my supporters on social media for their awesome feedback!
What’s hardest about being part of the art or D&D community, and where do you think we can do better?
At the minute, it’s difficult for me to advise on where to improve. Luckily, I haven’t had any truly negative experiences in either community.
What’s your final message to all the D&D nerds out there?
Keep on homebrewing, and keep playing D&D!
You can find Michi @the_fluffy_folio on Instagram, and u/michifromkmk on Reddit. If you like his work and would like to support him, give him a like, comment, or follow on either account! Though he doesn’t currently run a Ko-fi or Patreon, plans are being made for the future. In the meantime, he’s keeping busy taking care of his 6-month old son, hanging out with his ever-supportive and awesome wife, and populating the world of Dungeons and Dragons with the most unforgettable, tiny, fluffy critters!
Happy Halloween! You’ve put on your costume, and finally come to the realisation that what you’re doing is in effect LARPing and cosplaying for treats. In fact, you might even have given in to the nouvelle vague hype surrounding tabletop roleplaying games – perhaps even Dungeons and Dragons specifically!
Alas, you find yourself overwhelmed by the rules, classes, and races. Where to begin? Here are some tried and tested tips and tricks for new players who are being guided by an intermediate level Dungeon Master!
Be clear about your expectations
There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a year-long medieval role-play-heavy campaign when you thought you were going to space. Before joining a group, define what exactly it is you’re interested in when it comes to tabletop roleplaying games. Would your ideal gameplay include a lot of combat? Are you expecting everyone to dress up as their character? Do you want music and scenery to add to the immersion, or is detailed narration enough? Talk to your Dungeon Master about your wishes, and conversely, recognise that they might not be able to meet all of your expectations. Of course, this goes both ways; find out how much is expected of you as a player, and ask yourself how much time and effort you are willing to invest in D&D.
Expectations also extend to your level of comfort. Ask your DM whether they plan on providing players with a consent form. It’s a shame to join a group only to realise later on that the story includes scenarios that are traumatic or uncomfortable for you to be put in. This may happen regardless of a consent form, but the DM should try their best to plan ahead. If you are aware of any specific triggers and feel comfortable talking about them to your DM, do so early on, before you start playing.
Agree on edition and core rulebooks
Although most people these days play 5th edition D&D, new players should confirm with their DM what edition they’ll be playing, as it will constitute a good prompt for Game Masters to tell their participants what information will be applicable to gameplay. A lot of blogs or guides online contain content from 3.5e or 4e that is no longer applicable to 5e games, and beginners might have trouble distinguishing which information is valid to them.
Though the game might rely heavily on the Player’s Handbook (PHB), there are other rulebooks that players might already have investigated, keen to incorporate them into their experience of D&D. Have you just discovered Unearthed Arcana? Check with your DM if they’ll allow for it to be included in their world!
Find out what templates you’ll use
With D&D Beyond’s detailed, and by now standardised, character creation template, it’s easy to be assumptive when it comes to what ‘forms’ your DM will require you to fill out; however, there are often easier, simplified versions of character sheets that can be better suited to beginners.
D&D Beyond’s character sheet fills in a lot of information automatically, which is a lifesaver for experienced players who want to save time and already know what perks come with what class and race. Beginners might be more likely to oversee this information, and could benefit from writing it down themselves, or discussing it with their DM to write it down together.
Start off easy or be prepared to conduct research
You certainly shouldn’t feel forced to play a human fighter with no feats, but if you plan on picking a tricky combination, say, a half-changeling wild magic sorcerer multi-classing as a wizard, you’ll have to conduct some research. Perhaps the most baffling aspect of D&D is its immense corpus of choices upon options upon possibilities. If you’re shocked by the amount of playable races on the web that don’t feature in the Player’s Handbook, then you’ll be flabbergasted at the sight of the long online lists of backgrounds at your disposal.
Having so many options can be exciting, but it can also be overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to ask your DM for recommendations; they should be prepared to dissect your character, and be able to come up with a selection of possible classes, races, and backgrounds for you to peruse in your own time.
Consider playing a one-shot
There’s truly no better way to familiarise yourself with the game mechanics of D&D than playing the game itself. It’s very difficult to sit down with a beginner to explain all the variable rules, let alone be able to cover everything in one call.
If your DM doesn’t have time to prepare a preliminary one-shot on top of the one-shot or campaign they already have set up for your party, ask them about the option of hosting a session zero, or a quick run through of an improvised game. Essentially, you’ll be able to test run ability checks and in-combat turns – no strings attached.
Write your backstory in First Person
When a new player of mine recently got back to me with their backstory in first person, I was taken aback and impressed to discover just how much I was able to hear the character’s voice. Often, and certainly in my case, I see a lot of third person narratives, which admittedly can feel very detached. Writing in first person really brings the character to life, and even more so if you choose to incorporate dialect-specific words. For role-play enthusiasts, this further helps players prepare for what they intend to sound and act like when in character.
Know your character to the best of your ability
As a DM, there’s nothing more respectful and helpful than when a player has tried their utmost best to know everything they can about their character. When you have done research on your class, race, and background, and you are adamant about understanding your weapon attacks, spells, and abilities, the game runs smoother for everyone.
If you intend on playing a light-hearted improvised game just for the laugh of it, then showing up unprepared can of course add to the humour of the night. But be sure you’ve understood the tone of the gameplay correctly, as a lack of research and preparedness can be a big sign of disrespect or disinterest to Dungeon Masters that have spent weeks, months, or even years combing through your character to make sure they have a fulfilling time in a fully-fledged fantasy world.
What can you do as a Dungeon Master for new players?
I cannot recommend consent forms enough. The original form was created for the TTRPG Safety Toolkit and is adapted from the RPG Consent Checklist that appears in the Consent in Gaming supplement by Sean K. Reynolds and Shanna Germain, published by Monte Cook Games. The adapted version that I based my adapted version on can be found here.
Consent forms can seem off-putting at first, as there’s a lot of wild stuff on there, but it’s important that you and your players are comfortable at all times (except of course in moments where you have expressly agreed to feeling uncomfortable). Be sure to explain the spotlight method to your players, and convey that ‘enthusiastic consent’ does not denote support of the gruesome things mentioned in the form, but rather denotes an undeniable certainty that the player agrees for these topics to come up in-game. For players that aren’t sure, advise them to always tick yellow.
Dungeon Masters should remember that consent can fluctuate; what might have been all right for a player last week might no longer be. It is your job as a DM to check in with your players, and they should be provided with a safe space in which they can tell you that something feels off.
Questionnaires are all about exploring and managing the expectations of your players, and finding out how much they already know about D&D or RPG. They are also useful when it comes to worldbuilding and plot expectations. Though most beginners might tend towards being interested in a medieval world that is mostly optimistic in tone, your players might surprise you with their answers.
Questionnaires can help you find out what some participants find essential to have a good D&D game.
And they are extremely useful as an extension to the consent form, for example on the topic of perma-death, of which the emotional side effects are often misunderstood, downplayed, or outrightly mocked.
All in all, questionnaires are always a good idea, and pre-existing templates can be found online for DMs who are stretched for time!
With so many rules, coupled simultaneously with a huge lack of specific guidelines, it can be useful to have something to refer to that is more condensed than the Player’s Handbook. I had a hard time finding help sheets online that were all-inclusive; 1) colour-coded 2) succinct 3) extensive (includes actions, movement, conditions, environmental effects).
If you plan on being a part-time, long-term Dungeon Master, consider creating your own help sheets, or adapting yours from a pre-existing template. Players will be able to refer to them in-game when you are caught in narration or Non-Player Character (NPC) role-play, and they might just spare you a lot of questions.
Colour-coding and/or semiology
D&D Beyond’s pre-made character templates aren’t very eye-grabbing, which is important when learning rules quickly; when you’re playing D&D, your eyes have to gravitate towards specific information, which is even more important when engaged in combat. This is particularly useful when playing remotely. Don’t know what AC and HP are, or where on your sheet they are located? With colour-coding, your DM will be able to refer to them easily, and you’ll be able to spot them immediately.
Of course, it’s the DMs job to make sure everybody is included to an equal degree. Remember to check with your group that all players are able to see colours the same way; if you have a colourblind player, consider semiology instead, and rely on symbols that stand out and can easily be used as visual references. If you have visually impaired players, you will be partly responsible for coming up with a solution that facilitates learning D&D comfortably and quickly.
In-depth Character Creation Discussion
Last but not least, if you’re a high-commitment group, then you owe it to your players to put aside an hour to discuss their character with them. They might have specific backstory questions that will surface in a one-to-one discussion, or be curious about customising something with you. It’s a fun experience that is rewarding to both parties, and will help Dungeon Masters engage in coherent and rich world-building, where characters are tied into the world itself, and where their actions and choices have an impact.
So, what are you waiting for? Halloween is the perfect time to embark on a spooktacular adventure!
Critical Role has just launched its new non-profit organisation, Critical Role Foundation, calling on all gamers to take action and donate to various causes at criticalrolefoundation.org.
On Thursday, Critical Role released a short animated video on their YouTube channel detailing the launch of Critical Role Foundation (CRF). This launch comes after Critical Role’s many successful years as a Dungeons and Dragons-focused company, show, and much-loved ttrpg community. What was once a small D&D game run and played by a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors is now an independent media company housing arguably the most popular weekly D&D show, with an average of 15K viewers and 600K subscribers. Their increasing popularity within the ttrpg world, and their loyal and diverse fanbase, makes the decision to launch a non-profit all the more important.
CRF partners with other non-profit organisations to organise fundraising campaigns in support of various charitable causes. Their current fundraiser asks for donations to revive the Native Youth & Culture Fund for two nonprofits located at Zuni Pueblo and Cochiti Pueblo.
With several long-running shows on YouTube and Twitch, live shows (pre-pandemic), a merch store in the US, UK, and Australia, as well as a soon-to-be released Animated Series, it made sense for Critical Role to continue on its upward path and add a non-profit foundation to its list of accomplished goals.
Critical Role also announced in the caption of their launch video that “10% of every donation, across every campaign, goes toward an emergency relief fund giving CRF the ability to provide donations in the event of a natural disaster or other instance that requires immediate humanitarian aid“. With 2020 having been an inexplicably tragic year; the company’s choice to set aside a portion of donations for an emergency relief fund is crucial. It comes in the wake of the 2020 California Wildfires, an hour or so away from Los Angeles where the cast and crew of Critical Role are based, and the worldwide devastation of the coronavirus pandemic. This year also saw earthquakes in Turkey and the Caribbean, the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer, the mass deadly explosion in Beirut, the Australian bushfires, floods in Jakarta, bloody riots in Delhi, and the ongoing perpetuation of injustices across the board.
Of course; it’s not the first time the cast and crew of Critical Role have used their platform and growth to encourage their overwhelmingly supportive community to donate to good causes. The company has raised money for Red Nose Day, OutRight International, OSD, and Pablove. Critical Role is also an ongoing supporter of 82LA; “a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.”
Head on over to Critical Role Foundation to donate. Keen on supporting but unable to donate? Please help the ttrpg community spread the word, at no cost.
Quarrels, combat, battles, and even wars, are often a necessary part of tabletop roleplaying games, and most players wouldn’t have it any other way! But there might be times when there is too much at stake to risk a fight, or you realise mid-combat that your opponents are completely out of your league. If you’re up two against one level 300 aboleth, you should probably bounce. But, if you find yourself in a more manageable situation, then here are some tips and tricks on what to do before engaging.
1. If possible, talk it out reasonably
It might seem obvious, but players tend to forget all about the option to persuade or dissuade when they feel threatened. Ignore the heat and panic, and take a moment to reflect on whether the opponent might be someone an adventurer could bargain with. If the enemy understands you and has yet to attack, some DMs often leave room for a skill check to even out the odds. Particularly designed for Charisma-based classes, such as the Bard, Sorcerer, and Warlock, this alternative befits the Cleric and Paladin too. At level 5, a Bard with 20 Charisma, and expertise in Persuasion, has +11 to their roll; a high chance of weaselling themselves out of a situation. Add in some extra convincing role-play, and you might be rolling with advantage! Here is a list of persuasive phrases for a few verge-of-combat scenarios:
Win them over by appealing to nationalism
– I can’t help but notice the embroidery on your cape, a fellow Athkatlan. What do you say we put our differences aside for the night? Too much blood has been shed on our soil already.
By invoking race
– From one tiefling to another, I feel how irrevocably misunderstood we have come to be. But we can change this misconception, we can show them we are different, that we can be reasoned with.
By relying on gender
– Long has it been since I have crossed paths with a woman fending for herself in the wild. It is admirable indeed, and no easy walk of life, I should know. Perhaps you would make an exception for a travelling sister in need.
By drawing on shared experiences
– My good man, if you are indeed also a soldier as your comrade claims, then you know well that too many battles have been fought in vain. Many of our men met their end too soon, and we need not fall with them.
By calling on religion
– Let us honour our faith in the Moonmaiden, be it Selûne, or Sehanine as you know her by. She who opposes Darkness and champions Good beseeches us to spread her wisdom, not to fight amongst ourselves.
By bringing up values and family
– I cannot help but notice the great resemblance between you and young Merrowynn here. I, too, am a father, and I should wish to one day see my family again, just as you should wish to keep fighting alongside yours.
Invoking pity, for example by relying heavily on emotions
– Prithee sire, I am but a lowly wanderer, an adventurer with no great ambitions and no money to her name. I have nothing of worth to offer you, and I implore you to spare me. Life is the only boon that was given to me.
Invoking knowledge, and mentioning undeniable facts
– A fight in broad daylight is a suicide mission. Needless to say, you will alert the Dynasty’s national guard, and in times of war, marauding and assassinating without good cause is punishable by death. Your loot will do you no good dead. We can waste away our coin, or we can settle this peacefully.
Calling on logic, and suggesting a mutually beneficial option
– Our party is home to an incredible guide who knows the elemental plane like the back of their hand, and an extremely adept healer. We could be of aid; our Genasi Ranger tells me you are not native to these regions.
The doomsday argument
– Listen, we all know that beyond the Great Forest lies the Empire, an Empire favoured by none. Fight as we may, if we do not join forces to take down the entity that oppresses us, there shall be no tomorrow for us to see. There shall be no freedom to relish. I beseech you all to consider a truce.
2. Flattery will get you far
Your first thought might be that flattery is limited to flirting and seduction, and typically restricted to Bards. Throw that out of the window! If you think outside of the box, then this combat-stopper is a well-rounded option, regardless of class, gender, and sex. Try these before resorting to a fist fight:
Proficient in History? Bring attention to fame or noteworthiness
– Lady Darkblade, First of Her Name, Mistress of the Forgotten Forest, Empress of the Highlands; your name carries across continents. Even my lowborn ears have heard of your unmatched accomplishments.
The classic and timeless “rumour has it”
– Rumour has it that this one over here knocked out two Giants in one punch. I doubt he wants to see time wasted on a group of wandering Snow Elves and Firbolgs. There are greater foes beyond these lands.
Flattery of the mind, especially good for wizards
– Such a powerful, and all-knowing Master of the Arts such as yourself would probably see it ill-fit to engage in combat with a party devoid of any academic and experiential training. Though, perhaps we will be in luck if the lack of challenge bores you to death.
Alright sure, seduction works too
– Sir Quixington, may I have a word, perhaps in private? May I call you Maxwell? How kind of you, Max. To be perfectly frank, duelling with such a handsome and strong man such as yourself would be wasting the more sensorial experience I had imagined upon first seeing you. I have been travelling these lands and never have I seen such an attractive… priest.
Well, trying it with an evil priest is a bit far-fetched, but it sure is a roll with disadvantage that I’d like to see! At least you can say you tried.
3. Call on your background or rank
The least appreciated and called upon advantage is probably the one given to players by their background. This alternative is so personal to PC backstories that examples of dialogue might not be fit to illustrate the point. Have a look at your background Feature; if you’re a traveller, your party may be able to pass through favoured terrain undetected by natural means, or if you’re a Navy SEAL (it’s a thing), maybe you can invoke your rank as Commander Lieutenant of the FrostGuard Garrison. Those with military ranks can usually command the respect of their subordinates, and this might extend itself to avoiding a kerfuffle.
4. Trade, or lend your services
This method of doing your opponent a favour as a means of escape is the one least used by my own party. Approaching level 8, we have sadly only just come to the realisation that perhaps we should be doing odd jobs for gold. Travelling rivals might give you a break upon offering to take care of something that has been a huge pain in their side for a while. For example:
– Instead of killing us all for the platinum shield, rather time-consuming and messy if you ask me, and not a guaranteed win to be honest, we’ll trade it to you for your emerald dagger.
There is strength in numbers
– Well if you’re planning on storming the Castle of Silverymoon, you’ll need more than just four men. How about this, we’ll help you retrieve your stolen artefact, and you’ll let us go our merry way. What say you?
A fresh pair of eyes and ears on unfamiliar territory
– Our party is new to the city, and our business is our own, but we have time to spare at nightfall. Give us no trouble and we’ll see to being your eyes and ears for the fortnight.
Call on your particular skillset
– There need be no haste in this matter; we may be able to strike a deal. I have a highly trained Dwarf Artificer who makes bombs the size of a horse, and a Gnome Wizard-Assassin that can kill your greatest enemy whilst disguised as a Walrus. Solid plan? All in favour, say aye.
5. Offer up a zone of truth
A quick reminder that all your Persuasion checks might be to no avail at all if your opponents disbelieve your party and your worth alive. When in doubt, or when certain of failure, a party Bard, Cleric, or Paladin could offer up a zone of truth as proof of sincerity – immediately, or in a mere matter of hours.
6. Homebrew your bargaining chip: aka lies, lies, lies.
A funner alternative to persuasion when faced with adversity is of course going full chaotic liar. If you’re a Lawful Good Paladin playing on the safe and honest side, then this one might not be for you, but it can undoubtably lead to some hilarious acting. Do be wary, however, of how off the cuff deception checks might lead to absurdity, in which case your DM could have you roll with disadvantage, or severely (and justifiably) increase the DC. Nevertheless, here are some fun ways in which a D&D party can lie :
– I’m awfully sorry I can’t be of help, my liege, I haven’t seen any Dark Elves around here. As you can see, I am a proud Wood Elf myself and great worshipper of the city’s main patron, our Lord and Saviour, Holy Father, Totally My God Lathander.
Feign ignoranceand redirect
– Hmmm, a treasure chest, a treasure chest. I think I saw a couple of feral Dwarven swordsmen with eyepatches and pink beards dragging a big old chest in this opposite direction here. In fact, now that I think, I do remember, there was the Emperor’s seal on it, and I did find it rather odd. But my wife Biglie always tells me to mind my own business, and so I do.
– Oh my good friend, my dearest ally, my sweet long lost companion! I have not seen you in decades gone by. Oh how you have changed, and I too it seems, so much so that you have mistaken me for an intruder! Oh, how I long to embrace you once again, lay down your weapons, and let us share a drink in honour of finding each other once more!
– I am, in fact, the sovereign ruler of the Mountain of High Tides, and it is actually you who is tress-passing. Another step, and my hoard of angry but very fair Goliaths will seize you and take you to my Torture Chambers of Treason. The choice is yours.
– Ah, I believe we are caught up in a great misunderstanding. We are not here to abduct the Pope, we are actually conducting an inspection of the grounds of this monastery by order of the King. Official business, all monasteries must be inspected and be up to code.
7. Cause a distraction
Within the subcategory of deception you’ll find distractions, ranging anywhere from a “Look, over there!”, to a carefully laid out plan comprised of illusions and trickery. Much like player backgrounds, distractions are often specific to context. Look around and assess your environment; is there anything that can be knocked over so as to create a sound? Are there any animals that could cause a raucous? Are the fabrics available to you flammable? Would it be safe for you to make a drunken scene? With so many options, PCs are truly spoiled for choice, and any good-spirited DM will entertain a fun diversion or two per session!
8. Consider situationally nifty spells
So often do players rely on spells in-combat that we tend to forget situationally useful cantrips or ritual spells that could end up saving the day. There are some very powerful high level spells that have great out-of-combat uses as well. Here is a Situationally Useful Spell List (not all inclusive) that might get you out of having to lose hit points:
Paralyse your enemy: Hold Person, Stunning Strike.
Escape: Arcane Gate, Astral Projection, Demiplane, Dimension Door, Expeditious Retreat, Far Step, Gate, Knock, Misty Step, Plane Shift, Teleportation Circle, Thunder Step, Transport via Plants, Tree Stride, Word of Recall.
Escape through or over difficult terrain: Control Water, Enlarge/Reduce, Feather Fall, Fly, Freedom of Movement, Gaseous Form, Mold Earth, Move Earth, Polymorph, Shape Water, Spider Climb, Stone Shape, Water Walk, Wind Walk.
Incapacitate or inconvenience your enemy: Antimagic Field, Counterspell, Entangle, Magic Circle, Silence, Sleep.
Dissuade from combat: Animal Friendship, Calm Emotions, Cause Fear, Charm Monster, Charm Person, Command, Compulsion, Dominate Monster, Dominate Person, Fast Friends, Fear, Mass Suggestion, Modify Memory, Suggestion.
Hide and protect: Blink, Etherealness, Greater Invisibility, Invisibility, Leomund’s Tiny Hut, Magic Circle, Meld Into Stone, Mislead, Nondetection, Pass Without Trace, Rope Trick, Seeming.
Remove the enemy: Banishment, Banishing Smite, Polymorph.
Avoid or intercept the enemy: Aid, Alarm, Commune, Detect Evil and Good, Detect Thoughts, Divination, Find The Path, Find Traps, Scrying, See Invisibility, True Seeing.
9. Drop reason, rely on intimidation
So you’ve tried playing nice, and it looks like your opponent doesn’t have an announce of sympathy in their body. Persuasion checks can be tough if you’re up against the big bad, or anyone who lies somewhere on the truly evil alignment spectrum. Puff up your chest, it’s time to intimidate:
Out of your league
– Listen up you puny little knave, we are a party of five ferocious fighters who have seen war and death beyond what you could ever conceive of. I can assure you that if you pick a fight with us, you won’t live to regret it.
A friend of mine
– I can see how you would think that we don’t pose a threat to you, that we are easily provoked. It’s funny, really, how appearances can deceive. Curious, really. I wouldn’t like for you to meet the tip of the poisoned blades that my invisible allies, scattered around this city in the shadows and always watching, have pointed on you as we speak. Think twice next time.
Get out the gore
– Out of my way, I said, or I will rip your entire existence to shred, starting with your heart, which I will gladly and without hesitation force feed to the last man standing on your team.
Display of brute force
– As you can see, Morlasch, standing behind me here, is rending asunder an entire wall made of pure lava. He is immune to fire, and mercy. Imagine what he could do to a tiny face. Fascinating.
10. Run… Hide… Or just fight!
When push comes to shove, you might’n’t have a choice. When desired, engaging in combat is one of the best and most satisfying bits of partaking in any tabletop roleplaying game. After all, you spent good time preparing your moves and/or spells, and your diligent Dungeon Master has no doubt spent even more time preparing a world with intense encounters and riveting combat. So good luck adventurers! May you always face Vampires with a silver tongue, and if they refuse to concede, well, switch to the silver arrow instead.
Dropout TV’s tabletop comedy show Dimension 20 just dropped the trailer for their sixth Side Quest, which finished filming last month. Taking place after the events of Fantasy High: Sophomore Year, this adventure is set in the pirate city of Leviathan, aka the Jewel of the Celestine Sea. This Side Quest stars Carlos Luna as Cheese, Krystina Arielle as Barbarella “Bob” Sasparilla Gainglynn, Aabria Iyengar as Myrtle the Bitch, B. Dave Walters as Marcid the Typhoon, Marisha Ray as Sunny Biscotto, Matthew Mercer as Jack Brakkow, and Brennan Lee Mulligan as the returning Dungeon Master.
What do we know about Leviathan?
Leviathan is a pirate city in the Celestine Sea made of shipwrecks that have been strung together to form an island that inhabits roughly 1.5 million people (yikes, that’s a lot of NPCs, good luck Brennan Lee Mulligan). This location has already featured in Dimension 20 LIVE; if you have yet to watch this D&D live show, skip to the next sub-chapter to avoid spoilers.
Well-known locations in the Leviathan include Maelstrom’s Maw, a supply shop of sorts where ships are dismantled and looted for their materials. It is run by warforged bosun Jamina Joy, who has the delicate job of keeping the city afloat. Jamina has already made appearances in Episode 5 through 8 of Dimension 20 LIVE.
Leviathan is also house to the Four Castles, a violent part of town where citizens will gladly take each other out for half a shilling, or control of the street’s block. Close to the Four Castles lies the cursed Sternwood forest, plagued by beasts, monsters, distorted trees, and human remains.
Further South, Cannon Court has used shipwrecks and hulls to form a large dwarven-style subterranean neighbourhood full of dwarves and gnomes. In contrast, Galleyard is a lovely area that includes TheGold Gardens (notable NPC Garthy O’Brien‘s house of debauchery), and forms the nexus of the city. With a reportedly New Orleans type architecture, the city centre is bustling with diverse peoples.
Connected to the city’s mosque by way of dagger, Gibbety Square is adorned with the head of a former pirate king, put on display by Fabian Seacaster‘s father Bill Seacaster. It includes a sign that reads “No kings for a captain.” Near Gibbety Square lies Aftward, home to a tower of prison blocks neatly named the Row and the Ruction. Atop Aftward stands Crow’s Keep, housing the Compass Points Library and the Ramble (a place for elder pirates to engage in decision-making).
Lastly, Poop City is, you guessed it, the name deemed worthy of the wealthiest and most luxurious neighbourhood in Leviathan. Why not!
Pirates of Leviathan’s Intrigue: An entire city at stake
The trailer is peppered with clues that offer some insight in terms of location, plot, and player characters. Those unfamiliar with the island of Leviathan know it now as a “behemoth of shipwrecks”, and the “Jewel of the Sea”, perhaps foreshadowing the location’s innate dichotomy: a monstrous creature, and yet a precious treasure.
At the start of the clip, an NPC ominously utters the words “Take her body to the Sternwood with the others”, possibly implying that a female NPC has either died, or that her body is somehow affected or cursed. “The others” suggests that there are several, if not many, people in Leviathan who have lost their lives or have been met with some terrible fate; rough enough to have them be dragged to Sternwood, a place apparently adequate for storing bodies. Eerie.
Our Intrepid Heroes, here Buccaneer Buddies, have been informed that “all of Leviathan is in a heaping helping of trouble.” Such a sinister statement surely supposes that the torments bedevilling the city are greater than a squabble limited to a singular NPC or set of NPCs. The combination of bodies being taken to a cursed forest and the omen that all of Leviathan is somehow affected might indicate that something larger is at stake. This begs the question – who, or what, is determined to take down an entire city? And why? If the name is any hint, perhaps a sea serpent, but knowing the DM’s background in philosophy, it’s likely a nod to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan in which the author proposes absolute sovereignty as a necessary evil. That’s not to say the two Leviathans are mutually exclusive. Absolute sea serpent sovereign end boss? Yes please!
Player Characters in Pirates of Leviathan
The trailer also sheds light on the kind of PCs and party mix viewers can expect, and how they might complement each other, or clash. Heads up – some class, race, and level spoilers ahead in this subchapter! According to Fandom, all PCs are level 5 residents of Leviathan. No one is a newcomer!
• Barbarella “Bob” Sasparilla Gainglynn, played by Denver by Night’s Krystina Arielle is an Aasimar multi-classing as a Level 3 College of Lore Bard, and Level 2 City Domain Cleric (Unearthed Arcana). Bob’s chirpy voice and good-natured spirit come through in the trailer: “Sometimes you just need a little diplomacy”. A nice, and perhaps unassuming, Bard-Cleric, Bob seems to be the antithesis of typical pirate life.
• Cheese, played by Roll 20’s Carlos Luna, is a Forest Gnome School of Necromancy Wizard. Though he might have a fighter side viewers have yet to witness, the trailer has him pinned down as the party’s nervous adventurer in touch with his emotions. “Oh god,” and “I cry all the time” set the tone for this PC. Then again, being a life-reaping necromancer does warrant constant crying.
• Jack Brakkow, played by Critical Role’s Matthew Mercer, is a Ratfolk Path of Ancestral Guardian Barbarian. The trailer portrays Jack as a bit rough around the edges, and maybe a bit of a loner: “Sorry child, I don’t have friends.” He is also heard shouting quite aggressively “You bastard – I can’t afford a new wall!”, suggesting that damage was done to his property, and that he isn’t financially in a position to repair it. Yar – this PC could be in it for the coin!
• Marcid the Typhoon, played by Dungeons & Dragons’ B. Dave Walters, is a Bugbear Gloomstalker. Perhaps diplomatic in nature like Bob, Marcid seems partial to some negotiation: “We can talk it out, mate.” As a Gloomstalker, it might be safe to assume that he is a careful character, in the know when it comes to the darkest of places in Leviathan. His warning “Loose lips sink ships” might be a reference to his experience overhearing conversations. Beware!
• Myrtle the Bitch, played by Saving Throw’s Aabria Iyengar, is a Merfolk Tempest Domain Cleric. Myrtle’s profile is a whirlwind of mystery that is to die for. Her Fandom description reveals that she “sinks ships to appease her god”, and that her favourite colour is “Blood”. In Dimension 20’s trailer, an NPC (perhaps her god) addresses her with “You’ve sent many souls down to my hungry mouth”. This same person or creature, one could suppose, also responds to her with “Quite worth the spells…”. Is there an actual Leviathan in Leviathan? Is Myrtle a warlock? Only time will tell.
• Sunny Biscotto, played by Critical Role’s Marisha Ray, is an Aarakocra Oath of Devotion Paladin. Although Sunny didn’t say too much in the trailer, her “Whoah wait!” could be a quick nod at a Paladin’s usual pre-conflict behaviour: use your words, not your fists! Or wings. As an Oath of Devotion Paladin, Sunny would typically be bound to the highest of ideals, virtue, and order, and it’ll be interesting to see how she gets along with PCs such as Myrtle, Marcid, and Jack.
Of course, it would be a sin not to mention that the experienced (guest) cast and crew of Dimension 20 always manage to circumvent the usual stereotypes, tropes, shallow motivations, and black-and-white character choices. If Pirates of Leviathan is anything like the rest of D20’s Quests, then its PCs are sure to be multilayered, emotionally complex, and lots of fun.
Dimension 20’s Pirates of Leviathan premieres September 16 on Dropout TV.
Created in the mid 70s and currently resurfacing as a popular fantasy tabletop role playing game, Dungeons and Dragons is an open world pencil-paper-and-dice game that lets your imagination run wild. But how limitless should the world be, and where do Dungeon Masters draw the line?
I recently stumbled across an archived thread in the r/DnD subreddit on the topic of railroading versus illusion of choice. Both forms of deception offer TTRPG players two or more options, with all or several of them resulting in the same outcome. The crossroads example is classically drawn on to illustrate this strategy; the party has the option to go left or right, but both paths lead back to the dungeon. If they decide on neither, the dungeon inevitably comes to them.
Is there a difference between illusion of choice and railroading?
Illusion of choice and railroading seem to be distinct in that they connote different intentions. The former is likely to occur when Dungeon Masters are ill-prepared for a twist in narrative or action, and are obliged to quickly improvise. Sometimes the only option is to put the party back on track, whatever the costs. The opposite hypothetical also warrants some attention; being overly prepared can come at a price. As a DM, I have hundreds of options laid out for my players with each choice and outcome promising to be unique and significant. Regardless of gameplay style, I know beforehand that it’s downright impossible to prepare for every scenario. When taken by surprise, I eventually come up with an improvised solution, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t relied on illusionism once or twice.
Similarly, railroading is a deliberate manoeuvre used to force player characters back into whatever situation the DM had intended them to be in. It leaves little room for any meaningful choices at all, and is largely more transparent than illusionism. Constant and reoccurring railroading might well be a sign of an inexperienced DM, or in the worst of cases, an uncooperative DM.
So aren’t illusion of choice and railroading, in essence, cut from the same cloth? Dungeon Solvers are of the opinion that illusionism is indeed “a form of railroading where the players can make a decision, but their choice has no effect on the game’s direction.” Illusionism is then an umbrella term that encompasses railroading. In either case, using deception too often risks affecting the level of trust between DM and PCS, and impinging on player morale.
A careful balance between deception and trust
Of course, every player’s ideal DMing style is entirely subjective, and might even depend on the edition of DnD the participants are acquainted with. Many 3e enthusiasts enjoy the idea of being pitted against their DM in a Battle Royale style massacre where no one can be trusted, and in this sense, maybe illusionism matters less, as they are essentially fighting against the DM as well.
This dynamic has evolved in 5e, and many feel that trust between the DM and the Player Character is absolutely essential for a good campaign. This relationship makes it harder to know when and if you should deceive your PCs. Are you confident that your PCs rely on you, and trust you to be helpful and honest? Avoiding illusionism as much as possible might be the best solution.
Illusionism is the easy way out
From the DM’s perspective, illusionism might just be a blessing in disguise. Presenting irrelevant choices to your party can sometimes be exactly the breather you need.
Some of the benefits of illusionism
There is no longer a need to prepare as many outcomes as possible if you are not well-versed in improvisation.
It can take pressure off of DMing and allow for narrative or descriptive development. Release those quirky NPC one-liners.
Worldbuilding immediately becomes a lot easier; there are a limited amount of places you can and will end up.
Generally speaking, it saves hours of preparation time.
It’s a wonderful tactic for lighthearted, action-packed, non-RPG-heavy one shots.
At the end of the day, one could argue that what matters most is the DM’s ability to cover up these illusions and make them seem like meaningful choices. That said, the sheer thought of denying agency to the players is enough to cause distrust. Personally, I need to be able to trust my DM not to deceive me more than what is strictly necessary. In turn, players are honest about their rolls, their stats, the amount of spell slots they have left, whether they have already burned their reaction.
Video games are restrictive; TTRPG should be limitless
It’s worth emphasising that Dungeons and Dragons is unique exactly because it operates on an open world model in which literally anything can happen. These realms thrive on a plethora of meaningful choices, and if DMs choose to railroad their characters to the point of enforcing a singular set of paths, then PCs might as well play a video game.
Unlike DnD, video games are exclusive, and, prohibitively expensive (not only due to the price of the game, but also that of the console, monitor, controller, reliable internet connection…). They depend on restricted choices, be it by way of fixed quests, or the reductive binary male vs female avatar selection. Heck, Ubisoft didn’t even provide us with gender options.
DnD is about inclusivity, which should extend itself to meaningful decisions beyond choosing a class and race. Escapism seems less valuable if it’s only to perform in yet another closed off universe. Or what do I know, a one shot with an all-male human fighter cast collectively called Arno could admittedly be entertaining.
How to avoid railroading
A rough draft
In order to avoid being ill-prepared for a session, always plan out a rough draft of a few possible options. Instead of meticulously sketched out dialogue and encounter scenes, write up a page per NPC and opponents with their possible reactions, one-liners, loot, and the information they can supply the party with. If this suits your style, continue with a page per location complete with loot, traps, and monsters. Stick to bullet points!
Instead of defecting to your original plan, come up with a series of creative solutions that have been pre-planned before the session and that you can fall back on when you’re in a rut. Perhaps you operate in a world where there are evil creatures spawning from set of locations (forests, towns, cities, mountains). If a radically different outcome or path is pursued and they find themselves near a spawn location, roll a d6 and choose from a list of homebrew (or existing) monsters. The inclusion of a closing combat leaves room for the modifications next game’s prep will now undergo. This allows you to be the kind of DM that won’t render player choices meaningless, but delay them enough to give you time to adjust accordingly.
Redirect with clues
Your players might be derailing themselves from your main plot because there aren’t enough clues per session to peak their curiosity and redirect it back to the larger picture. Alternatively, you might have too many clues and pieces of information, giving them an overwhelmingly unapproachable air. Simplify your hints without taking away from their mystery, and allow for ways in which the dots can be connected.
Easier said than done, the key to smooth flowing narrative and storytelling is to match your players’ level of improvisation. Are they responding differently to a dilemma than you had expected? Perhaps you had assumed they would save a child from a burning building, but instead they ran. Huzza! A perfect backstory for your new villain; a vengeful, burn-ridden baby warlock of a fiend patron. Creepy.
Is illusionism ever acceptable?
All that said, sometimes the DM is, ironically, left without a choice. Fortunately, non-toxic ways of dabbling in illusionism do exist. For example, if your party is having fun advancing in a particular quest but are way off track, nudging them in the right direction shouldn’t be frowned upon. See it as a help action that is in their best interest rather than your own. By no means is this participating in toxic railroading where the outcome is always the same no matter what the players choose to do. If you put in the work, it’s likely that participants will instinctively feel the difference between a forced path, and an intelligent choice that aligns with their quest. Despite the modicum of extra DM prep it might imply, there really is nothing better than imbuing your players with genuine curiosity, and newfound purpose.
How do I sacrifice my estranged little brother to a potent god? Maybe you don’t ask yourself that question too, but it’s possible that you’re off daydreaming about other universes, tinkering with machines, or concocting potions: whatever your fantasy world is about, you can probably find it in Dungeons and Dragons.
Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D (also stylised DnD) is the first modern role-playing tabletop game, and the most un-board-gamey-game out there. Created in the mid 70s and recently re-popularised with newer editions surfacing, DnD is different from traditional wargaming in that each player creates their own completely unique character, with a huge amount of mix-and-match possibilities and very few limitations.
All players choose a race (such as goblin or elf) and a class (such as druid or rogue) and pick from a long and elaborate list of spells and/or combat tricks. They roll some polyhedral dice (ranging from d4s to d20s) to come up with theirin-game statistics, complete with ability scores and modifiers. These scores, which players roll for and allocate themselves, will determine their abilities: how good or bad they are at lying, convincing, dragging, jumping, sneaking around, recalling information, and so on. Left to fend for themselves with only a modicum of guidance, they walk into a spontaneous, or maybe fully-fledged, fantasy world.
Led by the Game Master (GM), also called Dungeon Master (DM), the characters meet each other, or have already met beforehand and must weave their encounter(s) into their respective backstories. They tackle the world they are in with a simple dice roll determining their ability to accomplish a certain task: perceive, investigate, attack… Unexpected enemies or allies can appear at any time, and players might run out of spell slots, or even die.
The purpose of the game is to go on several, often improvised quests, and the beauty of it all, is that it is essentially never-ending: DnD is not just a game, but a story that involves a lot of character-based calculations, consideration for other players, and commitment to meeting up and playing the part. Conversely, many also choose to partake in ‘one shots’ for a riveting DnD session lasting one night and one night only.
That all sounds pretty funky already, but here are a bunch of expert opinions sourced directly from my own completely unbiased party on why you should borrow a set of dice and sign up for your very first game of DnD.
Our quick and cunning thief likes to take bets on her luck and creative mind. Chantal, who plays Earing the Halfling Rogue, will tell you that her favourite thing about playing DnD comes in packs of three:
“The combination of skill, chance, and creativity. Going on a prolonged journey into the imagination of other people whilst they play a character who does not necessarily represent their own [out-of-game] choices and how that collective effort brings life into the in-game world.”
And try as you may, the dice will determine your fate. But if you think creatively and way, way outside of the realm, then your DM might be humoured into lowering the number needed to succeed. So why not take a chance!
Benefits of the halfing rogue combo
• Nimble • Dexterous • Good with traps • Lucky • Sneaky • Able to communicate in thieves’ cant • A lock’s worst enemy
GAMING, MINUS THE SCREEN
If you’re looking for orphaned royalty, we’ve got that too. Our mysterious and untrusting half-elf ranger was once a noble paladin. Sebastian plays (Tar-)Darion Beluarian, The Strayer, and he likes the idea of gaming without the adverse effects of screen-time:
“There’s no screen, and actually, no writer or director telling you what the fictional world should look like. It just allows everyone in the group to have their own world, and yet play together, in real life. You’re totally free, you can eat and drink at the same time, you can leave quickly to the kitchen and come back, and the freedom extends to you as an actor.”
In DnD, players are free to choose what kind of a person they’d like to play, whereas video-gamers are often limited to a list of pre-made avatars:
“Here, you not only choose your own spells and abilities, but your entire background story, look, and personality.”
And it’s not untrue; there isn’t always a list of narrative A, B, C, D options to choose from, and you could spend years on creating a backstory, or invent it on the spot. If you’d like to swap genders, professions, political parties, or philosophies, go ahead. No one is stopping you.
Benefits of the half-elf rangercombo
• Charismatic • Diplomatic • Ability to multi-attack • Knowledge of various terrains • Bow expert
LARP THE NIGHT AWAY
Live Action Role Playing, or LARPing, is not just an activity you can participate in to see what it would be like to be a catastrophically elite version of yourself. Vulnerability is key, so don’t shy away from taking on an insecurity or belief you might not have in real life. Becoming someone else and building a common narrative is tricky, but ultimately very rewarding. As a relatively confident person, recent graduate, and atheist, I play Elyssee Elwing, the paranoid half-elf cleric student. It makes no sense, but it’s a lot of fun.
All of it comes with a no-strings-attached policy, because it’s only a character. At the same time, if you dedicate yourself to it enough, it’ll become you. Players in-game usually only refer to each other by their character names, team-members will adopt strange accents and quirks, and, when you die, you die. Back to the drawing board for your new character.
Benefits of the half elf cleric combo
• Charismatic • Diplomatic • Necessary healer • Always useful • Banish the dead • Befriend the dead?
And just when you might begin to think that DnD sounds unmanageably free and off-the-usual-track, you’ll be pleased to know that the game also offers a wealth of information on how to play. Gimble the Gnome Wizard, played by Espen, dreams of worlds built on travel narratives.
“It gives the gameplay a coherent structure and shifts between an emphasis on ontological and subjective approaches to documentation of places and people encountered.”
You’ll find many maps and treasure troves of information on DnD, which include The Player’s Handbook and Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Our well-travelled gnome is thankfully our living map guide, but there are many digital resources, such as Roll 20, DND 5th Edition, and D&D Beyond’s 5th Edition Maps, if you’re not too sure about investing in costly tabletop books quite yet.
Benefits of the gnome wizard combo
• Intelligent • Unparalleled knowledge of the Arcane • Naturally gifted illusionist • Able to communicate with animals • Chaotic good fun • So many spells
BY THE BOOK, OR NOT
With all its books and platforms, any rule in DnD can be interpreted as a long list of suggestions at the discretion of your group’s Dungeon Master. Frank, the team’s hilarious bear-who-was-revealed-to-actually-not-be-a-real-bear (it was shocking), or Varen the Firbolg Monk, is all about the in-game freedom:
“Whilst it’s true that the game involves many rules, they don’t operate by restricting creativity, but rather by guiding it, helping to make the game fun for you and your group. When playing DnD, each player has the freedom to invent their own game, which results in an unbelievably rich and unexpected adventure.”
As a bear who walks and talks in the country’s capital without care, Varen embodies freedom of game, exemplified by his quirky tangential mini-adventures, such as the quest for a decent yet rustic pipe to smoke.
Benefits of the firbolg monk combo
• Giant • Naturally detect magic • Naturally disguise yourself • Invisibility • Mulitattacks • Ability to stun and delay
Our inscrutable barbarian agrees. Though he initially had many existential questions on the game’s lack of necessary structure and coherence, Nil, or Tork the Orc, now finds the idea of a freer world built on a semblance of reality to be comforting:
“The people I come across, the places I visit. Do they exist before I encounter them? […] The future could be predetermined, yet I have no means of knowing. Where does free will lie under such an argument? Although these questions occupy my mind often, I have learned to not think about them. It is likely that the DM improvises as he goes, and I have found peace in not questioning his ability to [lead us].”
Coming to terms with the at times strange nature of the game has led to a number of absurd occurrences, such as when Tork killed a wizard in one blow for purely narrative reasons. He didn’t seem to mind, though. Tork smash!
Benefits of the barbarian orc combo
• Strong • Resilient • Robust • Naturally intimidating • Deal 40 points of damage in one swing
BE THE GAME
There’s one last actor, hidden behind a dividing screen. Arvid, our smiling Dungeon Master, also loves the narrative and geographical world-building that DnD has to offer; after all, the game we play is in many ways the seed of his creative mind intermingled with our own individual and joint choices. In other ways, the game is out of his control almost entirely:
“The reason why I play and act as the Dungeon Master in DnD is mostly as a creative outlet. Whether I play or act as the DM, I see it as a performance of story-telling and as immersion for the players and for myself. I like to improvise and I love to write short little stories in my mind that I can act out in front of the players. I am always curious as to what the players will do and where they will end up. This gives me, as a Dungeon Master, the opportunity to express my imagination both in terms of world-building, and in terms of being an improvisational actor.”
According to our DM, an opinion I am sure our players would back up vehemently, the rich fantasy world of DnD us unlike any other game out there:
“I know of no other game that allows for such freedom of expression and after not having played for a while, I always feel drawn back into this fantasy world to see what ideas may present themselves.”
Benefits of DMing
• Narrative storytelling • Worldbuilding • Character creation • Practice accents • Surprise your players • DM and NPC – double the fun!