Tag Archives: D&D

Q&A: Magical World Building and Arcane Spell Failure

Is there any “realistic” reason why a mage couldn’t wear simple armor? Is armor really that heavy? Or is just some stuff leftover from DnD

This isn’t even a thing in D&D anymore, so let’s talk about where this is coming from and why it really doesn’t matter, unless you want it to.

It’s important to understand that the magic in the worlds you create isn’t real. You can base your magical theories off of real world mysticism if you want, but that will lead you more into a discussion in metaphysics, rather than, “can I cast spells while using a tower shield?”

D&D’s had a long history, and when it comes to Wizards (and Sorcerers) a lot of it trends back to one fictional character: Gandalf. Gandalf wandered around in robes, with a walking stick, so Wizards got the ability to wield a staff and couldn’t wear armor. The big floppy hat was optional, but encouraged. (There is a lot more to unpack with Gandalf, but this is, almost certainly, where D&D was drawing inspiration from.)

With the caveat that I never played AD&D in tabletop, my understanding with that edition was that Wizards were flat out blocked from casting spells while wearing armor.

My introduction was in 3rd Edition. This edition had a few major changes, including the ability to take armor proficiency, “out of class.” This meant it was suddenly feasible for players to roll up a human Wizard and immediately give them proficiency with light armor. The result was a rule called, “arcane spell failure.”

In D&D, spell casting has five distinct components: verbal, somatic, material, focus, or divine focus. Most spells only have a couple, and (as far as I know, none have both focus versions.)

Verbal components require the spell caster speak as part of the spell. Material components are consumed in the casting (there’s also a version that consumes XP off the character), Focus components are items which are needed for the spell but not consumed. Divine Focus components are the easier to grasp example here, because they’re usually holy symbols needed to cast the spell. Non-divine Focus items work the same way, just they’re not a holy symbol.

Somatic components are how the designers justified, “arcane spell failure.” The term “somatic” just means, “of the body.” In D&D terms it refers to very fine hand movements necessary for spellcasting. If a wizard wants to cast a spell with a somatic component, there’s a specific hand gesture associated with it, and they must replicate it perfectly. This is sensitive enough that wearing any armor could slightly “throw off,” the Wizard and cause the spell to fizzle. (The chance for this to happen increases based on the armor worn.)

So, this is where D&D is very D&D. Arcane spell failure applies only to “arcane” spells, and doesn’t affect divine spells at all. On the surface this sounds fine. Except, some spells appear on both Arcane and Divine spell lists. There’s no explanation why a Wizard needs to be much more precise when casting Bear’s Endurance, while a Cleric can cast it in heavy armor.

Starting with 4E, arcane spell failure has been mostly scrubbed from the game. From what I remember, 4E doesn’t even address Arcane Spell Failure at all, and I’m actually struggling to remember what armor proficiency even does in that edition.

From what I know, in 5e, proficiencies allows you to spell cast in that armor weight. (Though, I’ll admit, I haven’t read any of the 5e core books.)

So, that’s D&D. Other fantasy settings have their own rules, and they run the gamut. So, why did D&D go the route it did?

Probably balance. Originally the idea was that armor would make you considerably harder to hit in combat (conceptualization for how D&D’s armor system works is a discussion on its own), so, because spell casters would become godlike beings, it made sense that you’d want to keep them from also being effective melee fighters. Combined with there being some particularly nasty melee based spells in D&D which are (or were) high risk/high reward decisions.

Over time, D&D’s defense options homogenized considerably, and by late 3.5, (and also in Pathfinder) you could get a pretty respectable Armor Class on your starting character regardless of class. A Fighter or Cleric would be getting it from their armor, a Rogue would be getting it Dex bonus and their (lighter) armor, and a Wizard (or Sorcerer) would be getting it from their spells.

Modern D&D’s approach is actually pretty reasonable, it’s not that mages can’t cast while wearing armor, it’s simply that they spent their time learning their spells, and not martial combat. As a result, they never learned to fight in armor, and simply don’t know how.

This might sound a little ridiculous when you’re talking about leather armor, but it actually makes some sense for chain or plate combat, as both require training and conditioning, which an academic would (likely) lack.

Beyond that, in game systems, you usually see four approaches to mages in armor: Complete prohibition, negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, and agnostic systems.

Complete prohibition is where the mage simply can’t use armor (or can’t cast while wearing it.) This usually isn’t a result of the armor’s weight, but may be other factors, such as the armor (somehow) cutting the wearer off from “the flow of magic,” or creating some kind of magical interference.

Negative reinforcement is where the mage is penalized for wearing armor, but can still use it if they’re willing to make that sacrifice. Technically, 3e D&D was an example of this, because the Wizard would need to take armor proficiency feats, and then still risk losing any spell they cast, though it was technically possible.

Positive reinforcement is where the mage gains benefits from going unarmored. From a world building perspective, this can be very similar to the previous group, however if your mages have specialized garb that enhances their magical powers, that would be an example of this. If said garb can also appear as armor, then we have the next example.

Agnostic systems are where the game (or setting) doesn’t care what the mage is wearing. They can wear any armor they like without affecting their ability to use magic (though they still may need training to use the armor effectively, and as a result may abstain from armor.) As mentioned in the last paragraph, if you have specialized magic enhancing garb which also appears in armored variants (and that’s the only difference) then you’re probably looking at this. D&D’s Clerics are (ironically) an example of this.

So, you may have noticed I dropped D&D into two different categories here, and that is something to keep in mind for a sufficiently diverse world: Not every magic user is going to be following the same rules.

D&D’s Clerics have no restriction when casting in armor, their Wizards have to be very careful about armor because it impedes their hand gestures, and Druids have sworn oaths against wearing metal armor (if broken, these oaths suppress their their spellcasting.)

The structure of D&D encourages creating characters within limitations. This can be a very good thing from a character building (and world building) perspective. When any character can do whatever they want, they will tend to blend together. If your mage doesn’t wear armor because they’ve never trained to use it, and they can use their magical prowess to defend against attacks, that will give them a very different identity from a walking slab of meat wrapped in steel.

Further, when characters are limited by what they haven’t learned (or cannot do) because of their background, that will encourage a more diverse world, with a larger number of distinct groups and factions.

There’s also a potential for very direct explanations, like saying that a mage in your world shouldn’t cast electrical spells while wearing steel, because it will arc back onto them… but lightning’s fine, because that’s a bolt of plasma.

Similarly, geas are another potential restriction. Your character has magic, but it’s restricted by specific taboos. D&D has a bunch of these including the Druids (mentioned above), Clerics, and Paladins. If your setting has nature mages who lose their abilities if they, “use the artifice of civilization,” that could be a very chunky (or even debilitating) restriction.

Because you’re creating your world, you have a lot of freedom to say why magic does, or does not, play well with armor. D&D used it as a balancing mechanic, but turned it into a world building element until later abandoning it. While I’d strongly recommend staying consistent (you’re not cranking out multiple editions of a 45 year old RPG, and adjusting it to keep it fresh, and balanced-ish), it is a decent reference point for considering options in building your own fantasy setting, just don’t be afraid to step well away from it if you’d prefer to do something else.


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Q&A: D&D by Gaslight

Not 100% writing related, but my friend – who’s very knowledgeable about military history – wants our D&D campaign to be as realistically medieval as possible while also maintaining the fantasy elements. This is explanation as to why there aren’t many female warriors/soldiers/etc, and the ones we DO encounter will be magic users, because if someone can do magic you’re going to put them on the front line. He’s a great friend and a brilliant DM, but am I wrong for having an issue with this?

No. Intentionally or not, you’re seeing someone try to justify their misogyny using logic that is internally inconsistent. The problem is really fundamental, fantasy elements, especially D&D’s, preclude medieval power structures and military strategy. It also, very transparently, exposes their misogyny, without them even realizing it.

So let’s start with that last one. The argument for excluding women from front line combat roles is that they’re unsuited to combat. This is an argument made in the real world where the list of sapient species capable of fulfilling a combat role is somewhat short. It’s also bullshit. It has no historical basis. Women have operated as frontline fighters throughout human history. Not everywhere. There have been mysogynistic cultures. But, the idea that women cannot fight, and never fought is shockingly unsupportable. I can’t remember the last time we linked, We Have Always Fought, by Kameron Hurley, so, here it is, read up, enjoy.

But, when we’re talking about your game of D&D, we’re not talking about the real world. We’re talking about a world with Orcs, Minotaurs, and other races, all of which have innate attribute bonuses to their strength and constitution. They are, quite literally, stronger and more durable than human fighters.

The inverse is also true, (while 4th and 5th edition changed this), used to be Elves had a penalty to constitution, making them less suited to frontline combat roles. Again, if someone’s trying to say, “women aren’t suitable for combat,” while gleefully signing off on male elves, that’s misogyny.

It is reasonable to have basic stat prereq stats a character would need in order serve in a military. For example, they might not be allowed to enlist if their STR, or CON scores were below 10 or 12, there’s even some realism in that, most militaries don’t want recruits who are physically or mentally infirm. If you think every stat should be at least 10, cool, easy. However, female characters would have no difficulty hitting those thresholds.

Short version: If you’re saying that women can’t serve in your D&D military, you’re also saying that humans are unfit to serve, across the board. There’s some potential worldbuiling to be had there. For example, in Dragonlance, Minotaurs are frequently employed as sailors. Their physical stat bonuses make them ideal for a rough life on the seas, and many take to it happily.

And, to be clear, those physically beefier races are pretty well distributed through the population in Forgotten Realm’s Faerun. You don’t see a lot of half-orc infantry units, in general, because of social stigmas against them, and their numbers aren’t that high, but that doesn’t play well with the idea of a medieval power structure, or really the way power tends to work in general. In any plausible, medieval, world, those half-orcs would be conscripted into military service in some capacity. This highlights something about D&D, and high fantasy in general, that is easy to overlook: this is not medieval.

Medieval Europe was shaped by a lot of factors. For our purposes, the utter lack of individuals with godlike powers is a fairly significant factor to look at.

Let’s start with a specific phrase: “if someone can do magic you’re going to put them on the front line.” This is very questionable thinking. How, exactly, are you going to convince someone who can cast Cloudkill, that you want them in an infantry role?

Warfare is not fun. It’s not an enjoyable activity. When you’re talking about a medieval conflict, a lot of your forces are going to be conscripted. So, how, exactly, do you conscript a wizard? Even at level 1, they have access to a host of dangerous abilities that makes forcing to do you want incredibly risky. This before you consider that not all magic users are wizards, and some are decidedly more dangerous to harass.

Wizards in D&D draw their magic from an education in the arcane arts. This means, many wizards actually come from academies or larger organizations. Organizations that would not appreciate having their members poached by a local despot. A local despot who would be hard pressed to survive the ire of higher level wizards and basically 5th or higher level spell.

Clerics, Paladins, Druids, and Rangers draw their spellcasting abilities from their gods. (In the case Druids and Rangers, it’s technically nature itself, but the distinction is more about the spell lists and fluff.) Ironically, if you wanted to see front line magic users, Clerics, Paladins, and Rangers are high on the list. Rangers often serve as scouts, while Clerics often serve as combat medics and Paladins are, literally, holy crusaders.

There is one more spell caster that draws power from an outside source: The Warlock. Warlocks get their power from bargaining with Demons, Dark Gods, Edlrich Horrors, or even more terrifying powers. Yeah, trying to force one of these guys fight for you sounds like a horrible idea.

There are two more magic casters in standard D&D. The Sorcerer and Bard both draw magic from within. Where the Wizard learns spells through study, or the Cleric prays to their god, the Sorcerer just kinda throws a fireball. They don’t really understand the intricacies of arcane magic, they simply “know” how to cast intuitively, much in the same way dragons do. Unironically, one common origin for a Sorcerer’s powers is a dragon somewhere in their family tree. Their magic tends to be chaotic and unpredictable, meaning they’re not a particularly good fit for any regulated military.

Personal builds aside, Bards are very similar to Sorcerers. As a player, you can make some pretty beefy builds, but as a part of the world, they don’t fit well with military campaigning. Though, a chaotic good kingdom could, plausibly, recruit and send bards to war to boost morale of their troops, that’s not really part of any campaign settings. (Incidentally, said chaotic good kingdom probably wouldn’t engage in conscription to begin with. That’s more of a lawful activity. They’d also be less likely to care about the gender of their recruits, because, again, chaotic good.)

I’m also skipping over some of the weirder classes that haven’t, necessarily, made it into 5th Edition, like the Spellsword, Favored Soul, Spirit Shaman, Archivist, or Warmage. There’s a lot of variation here. The important thing to understand moving forward is that, you can’t force a mage to fight for you, and you can’t have a fantasy version of Medieval Europe if it includes a single level 20 Wizard.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. You can’t have a fantasy version of Europe if you have any characters over ~ level 10.

Something a lot of people miss about D&D is how far up the power scale goes. Figure that your average military will never have characters above level 5. Elite forces and singular champions might get to 10 (though 8 is also a pretty reasonable ceiling for them.) The kings and warlords may get into the elite range, but they could easily be on par with the rank and file soldiers, ~level 3 – 5. And, you expect a level 12 warlock, who got their powers from bargaining with the forces of hell to just bend knee and go die for a petty little mortal?

When you start looking at character progression, after level 10, your character is, pretty much, a fantasy superhero. Your challenge rating table starts rolling over from bandits, druids, mages, and assassins, into mythical creatures, and other “big ticket” enemies. Your level 13 party shouldn’t be encountering mercenaries, they’re up to the task of going after adult dragons.

In case you thought that was just your character having the stats, the abilities that your classes unlock in the 11-20 range starts getting out of hand as well. For example, a level 11 Barbarian can, literally, be too angry to die. A level 13 monk gains the ability to speak and understand any language. They can also be understood by anyone. And then at level 15, they no longer need to eat or drink anything. I’m cherry picking, a little, but these abilities transcend the humanly possible.

This loops back to a fundamental element of D&D: The game is a power fantasy, and it’s built around that. You could not drop a level 11 character into 11th century Europe without them fundamentally altering the course of human history. They are that powerful.

When you’re creating wars in that kind of setting, saying, “I’m going to stick to medieval warfare,” doesn’t track. The short version is that you can’t have a medieval era in a conventional D&D campaign setting. The diversity of conflicting religions, backed by their own gods, mean you (probably) would not see a unified religion (or any other single body) taking control over a massive territory and forcing the society into a technological stasis.

Magic, frequently, replaces far more advanced technologies. I’ve written about this at length before, but if you have battlefield spellcasters, you now have mobile artillery, advanced communications, remote reconnaissance, and a host of other, “modern tools of warfare.” As a ruler, you now have political problem, because you need to secure the loyalty of those mages. It may be enough to secure personal loyalty from the individuals, but in larger scale warfare, you’d need the loyalty of the organization training and overseeing them. You cannot simply force to serve you, the way you could round up another batch of peasants for use as shock troops.

The, “problem,” with Forgotten Realms as a medieval setting is, it’s way too cosmopolitan. There’s a lot of physical mobility. There’s a lot of cross-racial interaction. Granted, not all interactions are positive, but you have a world that far better understood than what medieval Europe had. It’s also more technologically advanced.

Remember how I said that mages mean you have access to a bunch of modern technologies on the battlefield? Magic has also seriously impacted technological development. Firearms exist, but are vanishingly rare. This isn’t because they’re new, it’s because they’re kind of irrelevant. Magic can already do the things that made firearms revolutionary in the real world, and have been able to do that for quite some time.

While medical technology is less advanced, clerics and druids gain access to spells which will outright cure diseases at low enough levels for that to be a fairly accessible service. Even bringing someone back from the dead isn’t difficult, (though that is expensive.)

The power structures of the world tend to center around higher level characters (usually in the borderline-superhero range.) With that world in place, it’s basically impossible to recreate the real Medieval Europe with any kind of logical consistency.

There is one last part here, your friend is subverting the intended spirit of D&D. Wizards of the Coast recently published an article on diversity:

One of the explicit design goals of 5th edition D&D is to depict humanity in all its beautiful diversity by depicting characters who represent an array of ethnicities, gender identities, sexual orientations, and beliefs. We want everyone to feel at home around the game table and to see positive reflections of themselves within our products. “Human” in D&D means everyone, not just fantasy versions of northern Europeans, and the D&D community is now more diverse than it’s ever been.

The entire article is worth reading, and I encourage you to do so. However, this a takeaway, if anyone your roleplaying group is engaging behavior that makes you feel excluded, or marginalized, it’s something that needs to be addressed.

If your friend is an, “expert,” on medieval warfare, and thinks that women never fought, it seriously undercuts his research.

One of the ironies with Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla‘s release were the idiots who threw a fit over the option to play a female viking. It almost feels like a straw man example, because Ubisoft preemptively released comments on the subject:

But the fact is, and I think what’s really important, is that it was part of their conception of the world. Sagas and myths from Norse society are full of tough female characters and warriors. It was part of their idea of the world, that women and men are equally formidable in battle…

Thierry Noel

The archaeological problem with vikings is that earlier archaeologists were determine gender based on whether the individual was buried with militant goods without checking if the skeleton was actually male. Meaning, they assumed that all raiders were male, therefore, all raiders they found were male, without checking to see if that assumption was true.

The debate, now, is that quite a few women were buried with militant goods. If we take the original assumption, that means viking raids were coed. Or burying them with a sword meant something different. However, Noel is right, looking at their culture, their myths, and then saying, viking women placidly stayed at home while the men, and only the men raided, is dubious at best.

Throughout history, women have fought in warfare. Not in every nation. Not in every time. But they have fought. Saying, “but it’s not historically accurate,” has no place in the real world. To say nothing of a world of elves, dragons, wizards, and bards seducing the goddamn spiders.


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Q&A: D&D Raksasha

Would having backwards hands (Like a Raksasha from D&D) provide any kind of tangible combat benefit.

I kinda doubt it. Both my editions of the Monster Manual insist that it doesn’t affect their manual dexterity, which, I’m not so sure about that. They suggest that all it does is make the Raksasha look more disturbing.

I mean, if you spend enough time, you may be able to come up with some extremely situational examples, where their reversed hands would be an advantage. For example: They can claw you on a backhand, instead of a normal rake. Though, the value of that is kinda dubious. Mostly this detail is just to make the Raksasha more memorable and feel more unique. I mean, the 3.5e MM runs to over 300 pages, the Raksasha needs something to stand apart from the crowd.

Details like this can help to sell a fantasy creature you’ve created. Weird little anomalies you can use to make your world feel less generic. At the same time, these don’t need to be immediate, concrete, beneficial powers. Things like the Rakshasa’s reversed hands can just be there to sell your setting.


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So, I was reading a story about where characters live in a RPG. The story is founded on each person has a class at birth, that can’t be changed. The main character is a blacksmith, a class that is not “Made” for combat. And on his journey to become a “Hero” he blindly stumbles through the social norms of heroes and a bunch of other things. I was wondering how you think one would go about writing his personality and thought proccess and character growth. Thanks.

Up front, I don’t have an answer. As I’m sure I’ve
said before, I can’t tell you who your character is. What I can do is unpack
this question a little.

The hardest part with writing characters inside a
game is, you need to understand the game’s rules. It’s actually a much more
difficult kind of worldbuilding than simply saying, “I have a setting here.” It
also breaks from how reality functions in a critical way.

Games are, at best, a simulacrum of reality. Details
get sanded over to present the underlying philosophies. Sometimes that’s an
intentional choice by the developers. They want to talk about something
specific. Sometimes it’s an incidental choice that reflects how the developers
view the world. Sometimes it’s a fluke, created by the other systems.

This applies to the rules themselves, and can
reflect a developer’s priorities. A more intricate combat system suggests the
game is focused on players delving in and working through the intricacies of
complex tactical situations. A game with an abstract combat system suggests
that combat is less of a focus, or if it is, that it’s more of a venue for
player expression than the mechanics designed to keep the players engaged.

Roleplaying games aren’t about what’s real, or how
people actually work. It’s about creating a system with a specific goal in
mind. Usually, that goal is populating the world with characters who fit into
it, and allowing the players to experience (and hopefully influence) a story
(or a multitude of stories).

Class systems can serve several distinct purposes. In
games, they can be an attempt to push characters towards certain archetypes
defined by their setting or genre.

This is especially true in something like D&D,
where the player classes are designed to build into the normal fantasy hero
archetypes. You have your Aragorn or Legolas style Rangers. Your Conan inspired
Barbarians. Your academic Wizards who wander the world in search of lore. Your
chaotic and impulsive Sorcerers who cast magic as it flows through them. Your
rogues, freshly escaped from the pages of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. These are
the kinds of characters the game wants available to the players. It doesn’t
mean that every Barbarian will be a shallow imitation of Conan the Chimerian,
but it forms the initial framework of the character. It’s a player aid, saying,
“hey, kid, you wanna be a hero?”

Now, remember what I said above about system focus?
Character creation in an RPG is the same; it informs design goals. An RPG that
simply gives you a non-customizable class is more interested in putting players
into the action. It may also suggest the game is one where individual
characters are expendable. Conversely a game without any class system
whatsoever is probably advocating character creation as an element of personal
expression. A game without a class system, or a more pervasive one will be more
accepting of “special snowflakes,” than a game that hands you your class on a
playing card and says, “it’s this or you could try the Waywatcher.”

When it comes to getting interesting material out of
this kind of a dynamic, your best bet is letting characters play against one
another within the range of who their class expects to be.

Now, here’s where understanding your game becomes
vitally important. If you look at classes as training wheels for building a
character, your next question becomes, “how restrictive is it?”

RPGs can have very open classes or very tightly
restricted ones. D&D’s done both, over the years, and had a lot of
different approaches to class systems over the years.

A restrictive class system is one where you cannot
break out of your class identity at all. An RPG with a strict gear list based
on classes. Where a Wizard can’t even use a sword or any armor, for instance,
would be a highly restrictive one.

A less restrictive class system might use certain
skills to control progress, and ignore or cap advancement in others. An
unrestrictive class system might let you simply buy out of your class and into
others as you progress.

For example: Third and 3.5 Edition D&D allowed
you flat out choose new classes when you leveled up. You’d start at level one
in those classes, but you’d gain everything associated with being a member of
that class in addition to the old one.

Another example would be White Wolf’s Exalted. Where
characters could buy skills and magical abilities outside of their Caste. In
one specific case, they could also buy skills from other kinds of beings in the
game. There were limits, but those were more about ensuring your character had
a basic core ability set, rather than saying they could not follow their

It’s also probably worth noting that the Exalted
were (explicitly) demigods, so their ability to do whatever they wanted was a deliberate
reflection of that nature.

The philosophy and worldview that underpin class
systems is that people have a specific venue. That may be they have a specific
skill set, and can learn others. Or it could be a far harsher view that “they
have a place in the world,” and cannot deviate from it.

In a very restrictive class system, it may not be
possible to buck the trend. If your character literally can’t equip armor,
because their class doesn’t allow it, they’re going to have a very difficult
time becoming a frontline fighter.

And it gets worse.

In most
games, blacksmith wouldn’t be a player class. Not all, some MMOs will gleefully
allow players to pick non-combat/non-social classes, with the idea that you
want to simply roleplay in the world.

Most class based RPGs maintain a hard line between
playable and non-playable classes. Players stand head and shoulders above the
general populous. Your normal RPG is a power fantasy after all. It’s about
being bigger, stronger, faster, more cunning, or more lethal than you can in
life. You’re creating a character to be (one of) the protagonist(s) in a story.
Not the tavern owner that serves the heroes their beer while they plot to take
down the evil overlord.

For games like D&D, that means that NPC classes
(even combat focused ones) are flat out inferior to player classes. For
example, if you’ve played 3.5 Edition D&D, you’re probably aware of the
Fighter class. Did you know there’s also a Warrior class? It is almost the
same, except it doesn’t have any bonus abilities, fewer hit points, and a much
shorter skill list. It’s a class for NPCs, designed to allow the GM to
introduce professional soldiers, guards, or other combat capable NPCs, who aren’t
as powerful as the party but can fight alongside, or against, them.

If you’re curious, D&D 3.5 has five of these NPC
classes. The Expert (a highly skilled non-combat character), the Adept (a weak
healer), the Warrior, the Aristocrat, and the Commoner.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb. I haven’t done a
full lit review of how RPGs have influenced modern fantasy. I see it frequently
in passing, but it’s a specific interaction that I’ve never really researched,
so take this with a few grains of salt. It’s my opinions, not empirical fact.

The rise of RPGs, particularly D&D, have
influenced how we write “conventional” fantasy. A modern generic fantasy novel’s
setting often owes more to Gygax than to Tolkien. This is a symbiotic
relationship. It’s not that people are “ripping off,” D&D nor the reverse.
Simply that D&D has become a nexus of modern fantasy elements that has superseded

Within post-modern fantasy lit, there’s a
substantial chunk of lit dealing with a very specific paradox of D&D and
RPGs in general. If your character is a normal farm boy (or girl) one day, and
an adventuring hero the next, what the hell just happened? How does a character
go from being a background NPC in their world one moment to becoming a
significantly more powerful player character?

I brought up D&D because it, systemically,
illustrates how strange this paradox really is.

Some of this is because it’s how Campbell’s hero’s
journey works. Your protagonist comes from nothing, and in a moment is revealed
as the protagonist. They were always there, hidden (even from themselves), and
are forced to reveal themselves.

Some of it is supposed to be glossed over. You
rolled up your character to play a hero, not to spend thirty years forging
horseshoes before being killed by a goblin to provide a nearby adventuring
party with an adventure hook.

It’s entirely possible to cheat around this. Your
character finds some magical doohickey that “reveals their inner potential,”
and changes their class. It’s not a satisfying answer, because it doesn’t
actually say anything meaningful, it just levels your character up and pushes
on with the quest, but it’s one that many writers do fall back on.

Unfortunately, I don’t really have an answer for you,
just more questions:

How self aware is your setting? There’s an entire
sub-genre of D&D lit where characters are literally discussing how the
rules function in setting. Order of the Stick is probably the best example that
comes to mind. A story where adventuring heroes wander the land is going to be
substantially different if people are actually talking about the result of To Hit
rolls, crit confirmations and hit dice.

Is this something the rules actually allow for?
There are games that will allow you to flat out break class. Hell, one of my favorite
methods for subverting the level scaling in Oblivion was to roll an Acrobat and
then specifically play against class, to artificially deflate the character’s
level in comparison to their skills.

What does being a hero mean? This one probably needs
to be further unpacked, but at a basic level, who does your character want to
be? In many campaigns player characters are little more than exceedingly
homicidal magpies on the prowl for the next loot piñata. That is something he could aspire to. But it’s
a pretty warped definition of, “hero.” It’s fun, and game designers usually
come up with contextual elements to excuse it, but this is a genre that can
become pretty messed up when you step back and ask, “but why am I hitting this
man with a giant club made from the incisor of a petrified dragon?”

How does your character deal with failure? Even
under the best of circumstances, your character isn’t going to get what they
want. How they deal with failure is at least as important with how they deal
with success. This one’s a pretty good question to think about for any
character you’re writing.

Who’s playing this thing? Is your character a player
trapped in the character sheet of an NPC, or are there actually player
characters wandering around adventuring while your character looks on? If it’s
the latter, what is the GM after? This can lead to some incredibly surreal
weirdness. Especially if it’s 3am and everyone’s still laughing about the
butterscotch zombie, while the GM’s trying to get the game back on track, while
your character’s just trying to deal with the insanity unfolding around them.


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Somehow, Discworld seems to be the most appropriate
reading recommendation. It might not make sense immediately, but Terry Prachett’s
approach to messing with fantasy conventions and clichés is on point. I’m linking The Color of Magic, but feel free to poke around and pick other ones from the series, if they catch your attention instead.

focused on one interesting twist on what you’re talking about. Exalts were
superhumanly powerful. For the weakest variety, their powers were usually hereditary,
but in some cases the offspring of Dragon
would fail to Exalt, and remain mortal. It’s part of a larger
setting, but if you’re worried about your fantasy setting being too generic,
then Exalted’s setting might help. It
also spent time talking about characters who went from nobody to demigod in a
moment, and how they dealt with that. More what your character fantasizes about
than their life, but still.

This might be a doozy, but do you guys have a best guess for what century/age of the real world standard fantasy RPG’s take place in? (I’m thinking DnD 3.5, Pathfinder, etc.)

As a general rule, D&D is extremely anachronistic. It’s
also not one setting. Third Edition and 3.5 both default to Greyhawk, (which,
Ironically isn’t a setting I’m incredibly familiar with), which offers
technology ranging from the 9th century up through the 18th, depending on what
best fits the feel they’re going for. This results in situations where you have
sailing vessels designed for broadsiding in a setting without gunpowder, and
armor that never existed in the real world.

As a result, you can’t really tie D&D down, and this is
before you start looking at the other campaign settings. Forgotten Realms is
the one most people probably think of as the default D&D setting (it’s not,
but that doesn’t really matter.) There’s Dark Sun, where magic drains life from
the world, and the resulting environment is a barren wasteland. There’s Dragonlance,
where, unsurprisingly, Dragons are the biggest threat (usually), and the world
outside of fortress settlements is barely civilized as a result (incidentally,
this is another setting, I’m not that familiar with). There’s Ravenloft, where
the entire world is splintered across various horror themed mini-planes. There’s
Eberron (one of the newer settings), which has a magitech/steampunk aesthetic
going on. There’s Birthright, which is explicitly pulling from 13th century
knights, and fairytale chivalry (though, I honestly can’t remember much about
this setting beyond that.) There’s Spelljammer, where people fly magical
sailing ships between worlds (including, potentially any of the ones I’ve
listed here.) There’s Planescape, where characters wander between universes,
including any of the ones I listed above.

If you want a D&D setting I can pin down to a specific moment
in history, the only ones that come to mind off hand are Urban Arcana, Dark
Matter and Shadowchasers, but those are both from D20 Modern, and by default
they’re set around 2002 (give or take a year.) (Strictly speaking, there’s some
Dark Matter supplements from back in the 90s, so that setting is a little
older, but it’s tenure as a D&D setting starts in 2002.)

And, honestly, that’s okay. Fantasy is rarely designed to
mimic specific moments in history. As a genre, it owes a lot to both J. R. R. Tolkien
and Robert E. Howard.

With Lord of the Rings,
Tolkien was specifically pulling inspiration from the literary epics like
Beowulf. He envisioned a forgotten version of Europe that existed in some
forgotten dark age long before recorded history. The technology is an incoherent
mix of different eras because, the idea goes, that much of this was lost, and
then later rediscovered.

The result is: Middle Earth is usually read as a self
contained world, with no relation to the real one. It’s treated as fantasy
world, segregated from reality, rather than a piece of fiction that takes place
in “the real world,” but this wasn’t Tolkien’s intent. Ironically, this
actually sets Tolkien into a fairly small subgenre of fantasy, with series like
Terry Brooks’ Shanara Chronicles, or Jack Vance’s Dying Earth (which became the
basis for D&D’s spell casting system.)

Robert E. Howard just loved history. Really loved it.
Apparently, to the point that he couldn’t pick a single favorite element, and
simply grabbed pieces of whatever wasn’t nailed down. If you’ve never read the
Conan stories from Howard, you really do owe it to yourself to take a look. More
than Tolkien, Howard set the tone for modern Sword and Sorcery as a genre. So,
while D&D inherits a lot of its ideas, like elves and dwarves from Tolkien,
it looks to Howard, when the time comes to pick from a moment in history.

So the end result is a massive collection of anachronisms,
and usually that’s acceptable. You have a fantasy setting, where different
concerns gave rise to different technological priorities, and some of the
things you take for granted in your daily lives just never happened.

It (sort of) makes sense that Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk
don’t have firearms. Magic is very prevalent, to the point that convenient
ranged weapons exist. Additionally, because of how gunpowder works, a single
wizard or sorcerer could (theoretically) ignite your batteries with a stray fireball,
which makes the entire idea of stockpiling powder a lot less appealing.

Of course, it’s also entirely possible you would have
gunpowder in your setting. Warhammer pulls heavily from the 15th century Europe.
Primitive firearms and all. Even with the danger of a Bright Wizard being able
to detonate handgunner’s powder on a whim (or on accident).

The only times you’ll see serious criticism of D&D’s
historical elements are when you try to do one of two things. Putting one of
the campaign settings together into a coherent whole while accounting for the
game’s rules and asking, “does this make sense?” No, the actual rules
(particularly in 3rd and 4th edition) are designed to facilitate play for the
party, and characters accelerate to godlike status (or outright godhood) with
horrifying speed.

Or, when someone looks at individual technologies in a
campaign setting and finds one that is dependent on a technology that never
happened. For example: Forgotten Realms’ sailing ships, which are based on 17th
century designs, which were heavily influenced by cannon fire.

When it comes to Pathfinder, I don’t know. What I’ve seen
suggests it mixes 14th and 17th century technology together with gleeful
abandon. I don’t know how fair that is, because I’ve never purchased or read a
Pathfinder book or game.


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Magic in D&D


For my money, Greg Stolze has some of the best Magic-writing advice in his RPG Reign: Namely, that one of the most important things to figure out for magic is what it -can’t- do and what it costs to use.  The default assumption with D&D type magic is “Nothing”, but that’s not as interesting as having strong limits to play with, and makes it easier to see how it affects the world.

As far as I can tell, Stolze didn’t work on Mage specifically, but he was partially responsible for Demon: The Fallen and Hunter: The Reckoning. Both of which excel at pushing the players to think out realistic consequences to magical violence. So, now you have my attention. Anyway, I’ll stop chasing after White Wolf’s Alumni and poke something with a stick that really wouldn’t have been appropriate for the original post.

The problem with D&D’s magic system isn’t that it’s free. It’s that there’s serious discrepancies between the original design intentions and what ends up in game.

As a quick aside, it’s really important to understand where your baseline is, for D&D. For some things, the transitions between editions are, fairly minor. They change things a bit, but you’re still rolling a 20 sided die to brain some critter with your weapon and hoping for the best.

That’s not the case for wizards (and other spellcasting classes). The transition between AD&D and 3rd Edition seriously warped the way magic was presented to the player. It also seriously screws up balance, in a way that actually really irritates some AD&D veterans. (And, for disclosure, my native D&D baseline is 3rd or 3.5. That’s where I started, and what I expected as normal, until years later when I went back and looked at AD&D.)

In D&D magic for wizards (and most of the spell casting classes) are metered out based on a Vancian system. Named after the system Jack Vance used in his Dying Earth setting. The basic idea is your spell caster can commit a certain number of spells to memory. Two or three when they’re starting out, up to a couple dozen by the time they’ve ascended into Gandalf levels of power. They can cast each spell once. After that, it’s gone from their mind, and they’ll need to memorize it again before they can recast it.

And, of course, Tolkien is a massive influence on D&D. Wizards are very much in the Odin Wandering mode of powerhouses, once they’ve spent a few decades (or centuries) traveling and accumulating lore.

In D&D there’s also the concept of spells being segregated by separate tiers (called “circles”). As a wizard (or any spell caster, really) levels up, they’ll gradually get access to higher tiers of magic. These occupy separate memorization slots, and the spells get absurdly powerful, fast.

These more powerful spells are moderated by increasing costs. Literal costs. The example I used in the original post, about having a sack of diamonds worth five thousand gold, is actually a necessary sacrifice to cast the basic raise dead spell. Which means, being a wizard (or cleric) can get really expensive fast. A lot of players and DMs simply wave these costs because it’s a lot of tedious paperwork. Do you really want to have a character demonstrate that they have a dart, a powdered rhubarb leaf, and an adder’s stomach when all they want to do is cast Melf’s Acid Arrow at a bugbear that’s eating Disposable Party Member #16? On one hand, it’s not fun, but on the other hand it is a major element that keeps the system’s magic grounded.

The other thing that intermittently gets lost from a lot of campaigns is the idea that a Wizard needs to keep their spell book on hand. It’s actually a physical volume, and if it’s taken or destroyed, that’s it. They need to start over from scratch and put things back together.

I can’t remember if it’s technically house rules from someone’s homebrew, but I could swear there’s also occasional chances that higher tier spells would be incorrectly memorized, even by an experienced wizard, resulting in a spell fizzling, or worse a wild magic roll. (AD&D’s wild magic table for spells that get out of control is several levels of boggling.)

The other major problem is that spells get handed out way too gleefully in Third and 3.5. In AD&D, the Wizard spells per day are a little more conservative. They start with a single first circle spell, instead of 3 + some additional slots for high intelligence. But, they advance through the spell tiers at roughly the same rate… sort of. They get access to the second tier of spells at level 3, and the third tier at level 5. Which just means they get a few more spells to work with, except for one major thing. Third Edition streamlined the experience progression.

In Third, 3.5, and Fourth edition, everyone advances at the same rate. It’s 1k XP to hit level 2, 3k after that you hit 3, 6k after that you hit level 4. You can actually find this table online pretty easily, and it’s really simple. If you’ve got a party of players that are gaming together, they’ll hit their level ups at roughly the same time, so all the paperwork is done at once, and then out of the way until later.

But, in AD&D each class had a separate progression table. And, Wizards had one of the most brutal. An AD&D wizard and third edition character will hit level 5 at the same XP (the progression before that’s off by a bit), but, then Third edition characters start cooking with gas. (Incidentally, I’m using the Baldur’s Gate 2 manual for the AD&D XP progression, because it’s the most convenient thing at hand, I could be messing these numbers up a bit.)

This wouldn’t be a real comparison except, in AD&D the non mages, will also be leveling up faster. So you have a system where wizards need to spend a lot of time very carefully advancing through the world, scouring everything, to reach a new level of understanding and power, while you’re fighter’s off clocking heads, and your thief is engaging in their time honored craft of murder.

At higher levels these numbers go absolutely insane. Getting an AD&D wizard to level 12 takes roughly three times the experience what it takes to get a Third Edition character there. Advancing from 12 to 13 takes over 1 million XP in AD&D, while that same amount of XP will put a Third Edition character almost to 19. Given that 18 is the level where you get access to the final tier of spells, and a 12 has only just gained access to the sixth tier, there’s an issue.

So, in migrating the spell list from AD&D to Third, there’s a serious, unintentional, power creep, that results in godlike mages at a shocking speed. This was actually a pretty major sticking point for a lot of amateur game designers and some players, because as you said, it makes magic in Third Edition feel costless. It also makes some stupidly powerful spells available to relatively inexperienced characters.

This is also where we get into the other big problem with D&D, which TV Tropes gleefully dubs Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards. For most classes, a new level means they’re now slightly better at hitting things, and get to add one to the D20 they’re rolling to slap something senseless. For Mages, that’s actually a whole new surge of powers. Sometimes it’s just a new dice of damage on the spells they’re using (doubling the effectiveness of that new spell they got last level), but every other level cranks them up a bit further. Now, in AD&D Wizards do eventually outclass everything on the board, but it comes a lot further down the line, when you’re already in Odin Walking territory.

And before someone wonders, all told, I much prefer 3.5 over AD&D. A lot of the needlessly complex systems got streamlined down to something that was easily manageable, while still leaving the player with a lot of freedom to define a character. It’s also a hilariously broken and imbalanced ruleset, and not something I’d recommend for your writing. And any writer that thinks that, “so my character gets an attack of opportunity against the thug that’s bull rushing her, so I’ll use circle kick…” No, just, please, don’t. It’s a deep and fantastic strategy game, but it’s about as realistic as XCOM.

That said, some of the campaign settings do have fantastic world building. So, there is stuff to use there, it’s just going to be buried behind a lot of math. And, while I’ve never gotten into the D&D tie in fiction, there’s a lot of stuff there to dig through.


Hello, I have a question regarding “agility” and its use in popular media (well, a couple of questions, actually). How would you define “agility”? And, it’s possible to someone who is tall and/or heavy have high “agility”? I’m mostly asking regarding RPGs, because on those the shorter and “lighter” race always has more “agility” than other races.

I tend to think of it as overall physical mobility. But, that’s almost more of a word association thing, or a general language preference than anything profound.

Basically, the same reason I don’t like using the word dexterity outside of talking about game stats.

So, second part of this is size doesn’t really matter. At least, not in the way you’d think it would. Spend enough time dealing with martial artists, cops, or even former soldiers, and you’ll find some really heavyset individuals who can move. It’s not something we tend to think of, but someone can be in both really good condition and overweight at the same time.

Games like D&D, tend to give Elves a Dex bonus because they’re pulling from the Tolkien model of fantasy races. That is to say that elves are, by default, supernaturally graceful. So, they get a +2 Dex bonus. I wouldn’t read much more into it than looking at how much Tolkien has influenced our general concepts of fantasy.


I follow this blog for the obvious reason, and I kinda wonder if I’m on the right track here; I play dungeons and dragons, and I decided I would make stats for my characters similar to that format and “roll” out a fight. Is this a good idea or not?

If you’re honest about the rolls and don’t cheat for your characters (re-rolling to get the desired results) then it can be a really great snapshot of how things can sometimes go wrong even when your characters are perfectly prepared for the situations that they’re facing. It can also be useful for reminding yourself, as the author, that fights involve two people or more, not just one. Which means that you need to be paying attention to what characters other than your protagonist are doing.

The downside to RPG systems is that a character you might use in an RPG with your friends and a character you create for a story are two different things. This is something we plan on talking about in the future. RPGs put the emphasis on the player to create the most overpowered jackasses possible and then reward them for it, but you can’t do that in a novel. If you do, you’ll essentially end up with a Mary Sue and a story that doesn’t work.

So, using an RPG for character creation relies on a certain level of honesty. You can only give stats that are character appropriate, not power gaming ones that will be best for your character in the long run. This means that from a D&D standpoint, the characters for your novel will come out looking subpar. This is fine, because they’re not for a D&D game. However, if you are someone who plays D&D often this may be difficult to look at because it’s all wrong.

The best solution I’ve found to this problem is to create a stat block for the character at the beginning of the story and a stat block for them for where they are at the end of it. And, you know, never use these characters in any D&D game ever.

Other than that, go to town, have fun, see what shakes loose. It’s a great way to help you develop an awareness of the uncertainty that comes with combat and a good reminder that even when your character is overpowered someone could still possibly knife them in the back.

General gaming good. Power gaming no.

I hope that helps!