Building NPCs in 5e & the Einstein Problem

There is a post on The Alexandrian blog, from 2007, called Calibrating Your Expectations, that I think about a lot, especially as I am building PCs and NPCs for my games. It’s long, but the short version of the relevant part is this: “Einstein was … a 4th or 5th level expert.” The line of thinking goes like this: as a 5th level expert, Einstein can have a +15 bonus to his Knowledge (physics) checks. With this score, he can answer the hardest questions in the field of Physics, those with a DC 25, by taking 10 on his check. The most vexing questions in the field might have a DC of 30, and Einstein would be able to answer those about 70% of the time, or 100% if he took a few minutes to think about it (and took 20 on the check).

The numbers change a bit for Pathfinder (which only allows one skill point per level to be placed in a skill, but gives a bonus for class skills), but the principle is the same. If I build Einstein as a Pathfinder Expert, it takes him until level 8 to get the +15. What this means for the PCs is obvious: a 15th level PC who has maxed out Knowledge (Engineering) and is reasonably intelligent might have 15 ranks, a class skill bonus of 3, and an intelligence bonus of 4. At a glance, that PC can build anything or determine the structural weakness of anything. They are both the best architect in history and the best demolitionist.

In 3rd Edition and Pathfinder, if a GM wants to create NPCs, we generally have to build them like a PC: with class levels, skill points, saves, hit points, and so on. The math has to make sense, so Einstein has to be an Expert who has maximized Knowledge (Physics), and has to have 7d8 hit points, and a +5 to hit. That’s pretty weird. I’m confident that Einstein couldn’t throw a punch that would land hard enough to damage the average person 75% of the time (maybe a little less if his Strength is below 10). Still, that’s the system.

5th Edition is completely different. NPCs can be built from scratch, and abilities  added on as needed. If my PCs come to town looking for a doctor, I don’t need much. In fact, if I want to build the best surgeon in the world, someone who can succeed at a DC 30 (“nearly impossible”) skill check related to medicine, let’s call him Derek Shepherd, I might build him like this:

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Dragonborn bloodline – The Drak

Dragonborn? Dragonmade! 

Image by DeviantArt user FuSharkSome dragon-kin are born, the blood of their parents running in their veins, able to spew acid, cold, fire, lightning, or poison from their mouths. They carry their ancestry proudly, knowing that they carry on a tradition of dragonborn empires and mighty draconic kings.

Elsewhere in the universe, however, there is another “dragonborn” race, the dominant life form on their planet, these dragonborn, who call themselves drak, have never known dragons. If there were once dragons on their world, the great beasts have long since died off, possibly killed by the first drak.

The first drak might have been an experiment, an attempt by the dragons to build the perfect minion. If that was the goal, it backfired spectacularly. The drak quickly rose to become the dominant life-form, unencumbered by emotion and thorough in their extermination of any race that could present any genuine competition for resources. For generations, the drak race presented a united front against the world, pooling their collective intellect and power and turning their desires towards the stars. By the time the spirit of drak cooperation ran out, they had begun to colonize their local star system. They jumped so quickly from draconic slaves to spacefarers, however, that their technology is a hodgepodge of iron-age weapons and interstellar machinery.

Drak Traits                                                                                        

Ability Score Increase. Your Strength score increases by 2, and your Intelligence score increases by 1.
Age. Young drak grow quickly, aging as dragonborn.
Alignment. Drak view attachment and sentimentality as a weakness, and tend towards neutral and evil alignments, but they also value cooperation and loyalty, tending towards law over chaos.
Size. Drak are smaller and thinner than humans, the tallest standing less than 6 feet tall and averaging under 200 pounds.
Speed. Your base walking speed is 30 feet.
Darkvision. You have superior vision in dark and dim conditions. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of grey.
Protective scales. Your body is covered in thin plates that are nonetheless effective armor. Your base armor class is 12, as long as you are wearing no other armor. This armor also gives you limited protection against the vacuum of space, allowing you to survive in the void for a number of minutes equal to your Constitution score before you begin taking damage or making Constitution checks against decompression. (This protection does not give you the ability to breathe in space.)
Thick scales, cold-blood. Your body is protected against extremes of cold and heat, for a short time. You suffer no negative environmental effects related to either cold or heat for a number of hours equal to your Constitution modifier plus your level (minimum 1). After this time, however, you have disadvantage on all saves related to such effects.
Draconic legacy. You know the prestidigitation cantrip. Once you reach 5th level, you can also cast spider climb spell once per day. Once your reach 7th level, you can cast the fly spell once per day. Intelligence is your spellcasting ability for these spells.
Tail. Your tail gives you extra support, giving you advantage on Strength (Athletics) and Dexterity (Acrobatics) checks related to climbing, jumping and balancing.
Languages. You can speak, read, and write Draconic. You are adept at learning new languages, however, and each time you gain a level you may choose to learn one new language to which you have been exposed since your last level.

Hacking the Drak

The thing about the dragonborn, who I think are a great race (if a little underpowered in 5th Edition), is that they are a monolith. There are no subraces, and that seemed like a missed opportunity. What about dragonborn who, instead of the breath weapon, get wings? What about dragonborn who get the size, or shape (a tauric dragonborn, if you will – I’m absolutely building one of those, later)?

The drak are dragonborn who get the magic, the scales, and the tail. They’re built, a little bit, on the mojh race, from Monte Cooke’s Arcana Unearthed, because one of my players expressed a fondness for the setting, and I thought it would be a fun option.

The spacefaring details are, of course, easy to get rid of. In your world, they might be a magical offshoot of dragonborn, or the result of experimentation with dragon blood by humans who were smarter than they were charismatic (so, terrible dragonblooded sorcerers, but great drak wizards). Of course, the fact that drak spells come later than wizard spells means that drak of other classes have access to interesting options, although drak wizards don’t need to waste spell slots on abilities that are theirs by right of birth.

What do you think? Overpowered? Cutting too much into the uniqueness of the tiefling, with the racial spells? How would you use them, in your game?

Nanite Sorcerer Bloodline for 5th Edition D&D

More Machine than Man

The Nanite Bloodline, from Paizo’s People of the River, might be a little too specific for most games, but it’s perfect for Iron Gods, where players can play android sorcerers. The bloodline synchronizes with the android race nicely, in my game the bloodline is android only (and the only sorcerer bloodline androids can take). I like the idea that an android’s “sorcery” comes less from a draconic ancestor or a wild font of magic, and more from its programming. That says a lot, to me, about the people who programmed it, and the ways in which magic and technology were merged in their society. If a society has technology advanced enough to create nearly-human constructs, and imbue those constructs with souls, that’s the realm of hard science fiction. If that society also chooses to give those androids access to magical power, that’s something else altogether, something I haven’t seen tackled in fiction, much.

In that vein, this bloodline is less for people who want to play out characters and archetypes from fiction than people who want to create a blend of genres that is hard to find on bookstore shelves. I’m not against borrowing (I wrote the Mentalist to emulate pulp action heroes, after all), but sometimes creating a new path, with little basis in the literature, is fun, too.

That said, I can see an argument for keeping the nanite bloodline and the android race disconnected, beyond that being a design philosophy of 5th Edition, since wild magic can pop up anywhere, and nanites can infect non-androids. In my games, though, I’d rather keep them linked for story reasons.

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Legacy Weapons in 5E: Brigid’s Hammer

Weapons of Myth and Might

When Arthur pulls Excalibur (or possibly Calibur) from the stone, he begins a journey that will last the rest of his life. He doesn’t have to wait until he is already a 17th level Paladin (or whatever). Tolkien is full of swords that become magical because they were used by heroes (rather than the other way around). Whether or not it appears much in myth, the idea of an item carried by a character which doesn’t quickly obsolete as they advance is a persistent one in RPGs.

In 3rd Edition, there was a Weapons of Legacy book, which was a great idea with awful execution. The problem was that buying weapons was meant to be a money-sink for characters. (DM David has a great series on the use of gold and economic controls in early editions of D&D, and the legacy effects of those rules.) This meant that the Weapons of Legacy rules had to build in strange rules like mysteriously spending gold to improve a weapon that was supposed to level with you, and taking ability penalties for wielding your chosen weapon. Strange stuff.

The idea, though, is a good one. Maybe it’s not a weapon, but many heroes have an item that is identified with them from the beginning: the hide of the Nemean Lion, Captain America’s shield, Orpheus’s lyre, The Tarnhelm, or anything made by Weyland Smith or Masamune. If your weapon was made by Hitori Honso, why would you want to give that up as your own power grew? If your weapon wasn’t made by someone awesome, why are you telling stories about it?

In other words, we’re in the business of telling stories, and the items in our stories are part of that.

5th Edition Magic

As a DM, the hardest thing to wrap my head around about 5th Edition is the de-emphasizing of magic items. They’re still part of the game, but it’s not assumed that every character will have a dozen of them by 12th level. In fact, DM David (again) has a great level-by-level breakdown of magic item and treasure distribution. Short version: at 11th level, a PC should have accumulated about 21,000 gp and at most four permanent magic items (including, maybe, a very rare), which can’t usually be purchased. In Pathfinder, the assumption is 82,000 gp, which should include a weapon, armor, a cloak, a ring, boots, two slot-less items, and one miscellaneous item (maybe a hat, or gloves, or bracers, or a staff, or a couple of wands, or something). Much of that Pathfinder gold will have been spent on buying or improving magic items. Much of that 5th Edition gold will have been spent on… other stuff. Training languages or tool proficiencies, maybe. Buying a house. Dumping into a vault and swimming in. (I imagine I’ll write another post about that, later.)

In other words, in 5th Edition, if a character’s item levels with them, it’s much easier to simply give out a little less treasure to make up for it. It’s not supposed to by a money-sink.

If the progression is usually uncommon/uncommon/rare/rare/very rare/ legendary, then it’s easy enough to adjust for legacy items by making it legacy/uncommon/uncommon/rare/rare/very rare, for that character. Their legacy item grows with them, becoming (eventually) legendary. They don’t need another legendary item, and the one they have is all the more cool because it’s been with them all along.

Legacy weapons are different from “legendary” weapons in that legendary weapons (and artifacts) start out powerful, with their full slate of abilities accessible by their wielders. Legacy weapons, on the other hand, improve at certain levels (or after certain milestones, depending on the campaign).

Hacking Legacy Weapons into My Game

One of my players chose the singular curiosity “You carry your grandmother’s enchanted sword; it does +1 damage and will fly to your hand if you will it,” except that she wanted a hammer. Her family are smiths, and a hammer made sense. In play, she realized that having it fly to her hand was Thor-like, so we incorporated that. This gave us our first legacy item: Brigid’s Hammer.

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Thundarr, the Robot-Smasher Barbarian


The circle of metal spiders closed around Klar, and the boy dropped the pile of firewood he had been fetching. The creatures chittered at him in their alien tongue, their pincers ripping at his cloak. Summoning all of his courage, and thinking of the shame he would bring on his tribe if he went down without a fight, Klar hit the closest robot with a piece of wood, but while his strike was a solid hit, the metal monstrosity appeared all but unhurt. Klar knew, then, that it was his time, and rage grew inside him. He did not want to die like this, pulled apart by these inhuman things. He wanted to die at the hands of men, to die like a man.

Klar’s vision narrowed until he could only see the robotic spider in front of him, and he let out a scream that reminded him of the great warriors of his tribe, if a little higher pitched. He lashed out with the firewood in his hand, again, and this time, the metal shell caved in under his blow, and the creature sunk to the ground. The boy was beyond fear, now, and, clothed in the rage of his ancestors, he lay into the arachnid pack with nothing but the firewood in his hands and hate in his heart for all their metallic kind…

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Ranger Archetype: The Robot Hunter

Magnus: Robot Fighter

Magnus, Robot Fighter by Barry Windsor-Smith

You are humanity’s first line of defense against the robot menace, and you use both your ability to control machines and your ability to destroy them to protect the natural world. That means smashing robots and other mechanical creatures better than anyone else, but it also means being able to get inside them and learn how they work. You have learned specialized techniques for dealing with these threats.

In order to take the following features, you must have selected constructs (which includes robots and clockworks) as your favored enemy. These features are gained in addition to the choices from your Hunter archetype. You may only use one feature from each level at one time. When you finish a short or long rest, choose which feature you plan to use. Once you have made a choice, you may not change it until you finish a short or long rest.

Hunter’s Prey
At 3rd level, you gain the following feature.
Reprogram or Recycle: You gain proficiency with Engineer’s Tools, which you can use to shift the attitude of constructs (including robots and clockworks), provided you are not in combat with them, as though making a Charisma (Diplomacy) check. In addition, your attacks do an additional 1d4 points of damage to construct creature (including robots and clockworks).

Defensive Tactics
At 7th level,  you gain the following feature.
Predictable Machines: When constructs (including robots and clockworks) with multiattack use their action to attack you, they have disadvantage on all attacks after the first.

At 11th level, you gain the following feature.
Terminator: When you take the Attack action on your turn, you may make one additional attack for each enemy construct (including robots and clockworks) adjacent to you.  These attacks can be made against the same target, or divided among multiple targets. In addition, your attacks against constructs (including robots and clockworks) are considered critical hits when you roll a 19 or a 20.

Superior Hunter’s Defense
At 15th level, you gain the following feature.
Baffle: You can make a Dexterity (Stealth) check to hide from constructs (including robots and clockworks), even during combat, while they are observing you. If your check succeeds, those creatures can not detect your presence until you make noise or attack. Other creatures can perceive you as normal, regardless of the result of your check.

Hacking the Ranger

The 5th Edition ranger is a strange class. Messages boards are full of posts with titles like “Ranger: The Most Disappointing Class” and “Beastmaster Ranger: Useless or Hilariously Useless,” and I’ve heard more than one reviewer go after it for being much weaker than the other classes. I’ve also seen it argued that the ranger is on par with other classes, when played carefully. It’s a finesse class. Just today, the blog Tribality posted a decent revised Beastmaster (thought I’d make a couple of tweaks).

In previous editions, the ranger was all about the favored enemy and the fighting style. In 5th Edition, other classes get a fighting style, and the favored enemy is less impressive. The ranger now sacrifices damage output for versatility, and it has somewhat less versatility than it once did.

The thing is, it’s still a class with a deep bench: favored enemy and terrain, spells like hunter’s mark, cordon of arrows, and conjure barrage (which, used in the right situation, can do hundreds of points of damage in a round) give it a lot of choices, and the Hunter ranger has a lot going for it, particularly in terms of the options.

In adapting the saboteur ranger archetype to 5th Edition, I considered the versatility of the Hunter ranger, and the fact that the favored enemy class feature no longer has any mechanical effect in combat (until 20th level, that is). If the ranger can choose which Hunter feature to have access to, they can either focus their efforts on their favored enemy or use their abilities more broadly. This represents, I think, the value of preparation. If Magnus, here, knows that he’ll be fighting robots, then he can focus his energies in that way, but his focus makes it harder to call on the precision of the “colossus slayer” feature.

This tweak can be easily adapted to other favored enemies, to make the ranger a little more flavorful, and a little more powerful, in the right circumstances. While the fighter can consistently charge in and do the same damage, the ranger ought to benefit from preparation and scouting.

Next time: More Smashing: The Robot Smasher barbarian archetype!

The Mentalist, Part 2: Tricks and Spells

Last time, I cut the mentalist class short. These are the tricks and spells, many of which will seem familiar if you have read the warlock invocation and spell list. I’m including them here, even though some of the text is in the Player’s Handbook, to demonstrate how just changing a few words here and there can make a class feel completely different. This isn’t the “warlock,” anymore. It may do some of the same things, like “detect magic” at will, but the mentalist is doing it by perfecting their own mind. This means that DMs and players who are uncomfortable with the “pacts with evil entities” flavor aspect of the warlock can avoid that altogether, without sacrificing flavor completely.

It might, instead, look like this:

The Doctor closed his eyes for a moment in the doorway, his allies stopping behind him. “Whadda ya doin’?” Beef asked, barely masking his irritation. “I want to know if there are any magical surprises waiting for us,” The Doctor replied. “I’m accessing some of the 90% of our brain that most people don’t use.”

Beef hefted his axe, “you can see magic like that?”

When The Doctor’s eyes opened, they seemed brighter in the torchlight. “With the right training and enough discipline,” he said, his voice preternaturally calm. “Anyone can see the energies left by magic. Now, don’t step on the rug, unless you want to fight a bear in here.”

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