Surprise Wisdom From D&D

Every other Saturday is D&D day. I love the campaign I’m in. We’ve been playing together for 20 years, in several different campaigns. The DM is a great storyteller. The PCs are interesting and complex. The plot is phenomenal to the point where I’m jealous.

Something interesting came up in out-of-character conversation:

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5 Low Level D&D Monsters Made Deadly

I love Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve been playing since I was 10 years old (I’m 39 right now), and hopefully I’ll play until I die (or drop to negs). D&D has been a major influence on my writing. Not that I rip them off, but the skills I learned helped with world building, narrative flow, and especially character development.

I enjoy being a PC more than a DM, and I’ve been lucky enough to have some excellent DMs over the years. That said, I love coming up with great scenarios for combat. As one of my DMs said,”it is all about the setting and the dynamic of the landscape.” I agree, but it’s also about customizing monsters (in logical ways) to make them unique and deadly.

In this post, I took some low level monsters–the kind a party would face at 1st to 3rd level–and souped them up. With these changes, they can be deadly to any size party of much higher level. Enjoy.

(some contributions are borrowed from gamer friends John B and Osvaldo O.)

RUN AWAY!!!

1) Kobolds. Bah, Kobolds are basically xp machines for low level parties. 4 HP, a mediocre AC, reduced damage, there’s not much to intimidate the PCs here. Just kill the rat-dogs and loot the bodies.

Answer: Rogue Levels. Kobolds have two distinct advantages: numbers and dexterity. If you put them to use, they become very deadly. Have them surround the PCs, two kobolds can fit in one 5ft box, so you can get up to 16 (!) in there. Give a few of them a rogue level or even two. They now have Sneak Attack, and since a surrounded PC would be flanked, they always get that damage bonus. Their numbers will make casting difficult (taking out area-affect spells), and 2nd level rogues get Evasion. Imagine the look on players faces when they’re facing down a pack of Kobolds that can cause 11 points of damage with one hit. Smile and laugh.

For an added laugh, have the encounter in the dark, where the Kobold’s Darkvision gives them a big advantage. When PCs fight, they almost always set down the lantern. Have a Kobold kick it over. PCs also drop their packs in a fight. Have a few Kobolds steal the packs and retreat for even more hilarity. Even if they kill all the Kobolds, they still have to find the thieves that took their stuff.

gif dnd cat paladin

2) Wild Dogs or Wolves: Dogs and Wolves aren’t monsters, but they’re a fairly common encounter at low level. They don’t have many HP, and they don’t do extraordinary amounts of damage. Wolves are more difficult, but nothing a low level party can’t handle.

Answer: Group Tactics and Trip. Both species are pack animals, and this is how they fight in the wild. Wolves already get Trip, but give it to the dogs too. Add Group Tactics (BAB +1 for everyone with GT fighting the same enemy, up to +3) to Trip and they will pull your PCs to the ground and have their way with them (not like that). Wolf pack tactics are a beautiful thing.

Note: Some party members might have qualms about killing animals. Attack them last, eat them first.

Gives Me XP

3) Goblins: Goblins are the whipping boy of the D&D world. They pick fights with every race, and almost always lose. Only their prolific breeding keeps them around. Despite this, Goblins have a wicked, crafty intelligence and love traps and ambushes. A good DM uses all of this.

Answer: A Bard. Bards are so versatile, they’re perfect for any trap. Besides a variety of spells that can confuse or disable PCs (Daze, Flare, Sleep, Cause Fear, Simple Illusions, etc) they have the excellent Inspire Courage song. There’s no set amount of creatures this can affect. It doesn’t matter if they are 5 or 50, as long as they can hear the singer, they get a +1 to saves, attacks, and damage. This counts for missile weapons too. As with the Kobolds, you can have them fight in the dark, though I prefer missile attacks from concealment like trees or bushes. Add some wolf riders to keep the PCs off the missilers, and you have a killer encounter.

One tip, have all the goblins sing, and dress the Bard the same as the others. This way, the PCs can’t target the Bard specifically.


Apparently Jareth the Goblin King has some Bard levels.

4) Zombies. Everyone loves fighting Zombies. They have a good amount of hit points and damage resistance, but they’re slow and have a poor BAB. Zombies can be trouble for a party without a Cleric, but a Turn Undead ability usually takes care of them.

Answer: Water. I never understood the Slam or Weapon attacks for a zombie. I’ve seen a lot of zombie movies and the attack is always the same: grab and bite. A variation of this would be “grab and drown.”

The undead don’t need to breathe, but PCs do. Have the zombies pull them to a watery doom. Use enough water to drown a person, but not so much that the zombies can’t reach the PCs from the water’s bottom. A shallow pond or swamp works well.

From a cinematic POV, imagine swimming across a darkened lake, only to have corpse-like hands grab you from beneath and pull you under. Scary stuff, right?

As for using Turn Undead, it’s up to the DM. Do you have to see the creatures to turn them, and can you do so without being able to speak? A good grapple might keep a PC from reaching their holy symbol too. We may be 70% water, but it’s better on the inside than out.

I like playing a cleric sometimes.

5) Lizardfolk. I am partial to lizardfolk, probably because I’ve been playing one as a PC for the past 3 years (maybe 4). Lizzies are tough, but their lack of tactics in the wild limit the challenge toward PCs. From the D&D wiki: Lizardfolk fight as unorganized individuals. They prefer frontal assaults and massed rushes, sometimes trying to force foes into the water, where the lizardfolk have an advantage.

The obvious answer would be to give more sophisticated tactics (like the zombie drowning scenario from above), but I drew from real-world culture for a different solution.

Answer: Poisoned Weapons. Lizardfolk are swamp dwellers and there are plenty of poisonous animals/plants in the swamp. There’s no reason why they can’t harvest and use poisons. Human cultures have been doing it for thousands of years.

Lizardfolk could put the poison on javelins or darts, or even (and this would be pretty awesome) their claws. Lizardfolk get the very awesome claw, claw, bite multi-attack. If it’s a poison they have natural immunity too (and I imagine there to be several poisons like this) they can dip their claws in the swampy goodness. Given the many different types of poisons, the possibilities are endless. Personally, I would use paralyzing or strength-sapping poison and then have the lizardfolk drown them in the swamp or eat them alive. I’m a twisted bastard.

So there you go, five scrub monsters turned into PC killers. Use with caution, challenging a party is fun, causing a Total Party Kill is not.

Like my posts? Follow my website or “Like” my facebook fan page and/or follow me on Twitter. I also suggest picking up my latest novel The Watchmage of Old New York. Set in 1855 Manhattan, it’s a blend of vivid history, in-depth magic, gumshoe mystery and fairy-tale fantasy. It’s based on the original serial at Jukepop Serials, where it remains one of the most popular serials on JukePop OF ALL TIME!

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You can also purchase my debut novel, Song of Simon, at any online bookstore or a real one (they both exist). Song of Simon currently has a 4.8/5.0 rating on Amazon, so people seem to like it. 

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The Ten (Fifteen) Book Challenge

I’ve been tagged by a dozen people to list the 10 books that have stayed with me and had a great influence. I have to expand it to 15, and I’m still not done. I did a list on my Facebook fan page, but I think I’ll do a more detailed one here (because reasons). There are many books that I had to leave out, including the many comic books that have influenced me. Maybe I’ll do another post on those…

(In chronological order)
1. Chicken Soup With Rice–Maurice Sendak
Maurice Sendak was my favorite author as a small child, even more than Doctor Seuss. This is my favorite book from the nutshell collection (A Alligators All Around, Pierre, etc). I almost put The Monster at the End of This Book (which is not Sendak) instead.

In January it’s so nice…

2. The Pushcart War–Jean Merrill
A fantastic book about the little guy standing up against unstoppable forces. This gave me the idea, foolish that it may be, that equality is worth fighting for, even if it’s blowing tacks into a truck’s tires.

Fuck those trucks!

3. The Great Brain Series–John D. Fitzgerald
I love these books so very much. Not only did Fitzgerald create a vivid setting (his own childhood), he painted his family with a deft hand. Someone, he’s able to make a swindler like his brother Tom into a roguish hero. Every child should read these books.

4. The Call of the Wild–Jack London
I read this book in 7th grade. While I enjoyed White Fang more, The Call of the Wild really stuck with me. The setting was fantastic, and seeing the savage world from a domestic (though physically superior) dog’s point of view entranced me. Buck, Sol-leks, Francois and Perrault, they were all incredible characters that I still hold in my heart.

5. The Crystal Shard–R.A.Salvatore
I read this at age 14, just as I was getting back into D&D. It has everything you would want in pulp fantasy: Evil wizards, A demon, a powerful artifact, noble warriors, and the renegade dark elf that would soon have over 30 books about him, Drizzt Do’Urden. Although Wulfgar was the main protagonist in TCS, Drizzt stole the show. After all these years, I’m still a mark for Drizzt and Salvatore’s work.

My dog ate the cover

6. The D&D Players Handbook–Various Authors
My love for D&D is well documented in this blog (and in various interviews). The Players Handbook (2nd edition) was the door. I could also include The Fighter’s Handbook, The DM Guide, and Creative Campaigning (my first exposure to world building and story structure).

7. Catcher in the Rye–JD Salinger
It’s become trendy to disparage Holden Caulfield as some whiny kid with entitlement problems. I say that if you read it this way, you’re completely missing the point. Holden is a deeply scarred boy: devastated by his brother’s death, ostracized by his family, sexually abused by his teachers (you have to pay attention, but it’s there). He’s a walking contradiction, a cynic, an idealist, a person willing to stand up for his beliefs and to bury them under the skin. That makes him as true to a real person as you can get.

8. Animal Farm–George Orwell
A shocking and apt political allegory. What this book did was open my eyes to a common theme in my writing: “all actions have unforeseen repercussions.” It’s the corruption of the pigs that destroys a noble endeavor. We all know that power corrupts, but how many pay attention to the people that suffer from such corruption?

9. Bastard out of Carolina–Dorothy Allison
A dramatic and tragic coming of age story with a vivid backdrop. The South is pretty foreign to me, and Allison paints a striking and disturbing picture. She fearlessly tackles physical and sexual abuse. Despite all of her flaws, she turns her mother into a character you empathize with, all the while reviling her choices.

10. Rule of the Bone–Russell Banks
Another coming of age novel that deals with abuse. Bone is a modern day Huck Finn (another book I should’ve included), running away from home, bouncing from crazy experiences to crazier ones.

sup to you, Bone…

11.The DemonWars Series–R.A.Salvatore
DemonWars (I hate the series title, but it stuck) is more complex than the Drizzt books. They certainly carry more emotional heft. Salvatore builds his own world, filled with rich history and religion. Several storylines echo modern ethical questions. I especially recommend the novel Mortalis, one of the most emotionally charged books in the genre that I’ve ever read.

12. The Harry Potter Series–JK Rowling
A classic example of The Hero’s Journey, good vs evil, and the redemptive power of love. What I love most about this series is that you can see Rowling improve as a writer with every book.

13. The Writer’s Journey–Christopher Vogler
A non-fiction book that spelled out the Hero’s Journey better than Campbell ever could. It offers a lot of practical advice for writers. If you haven’t heard of Vogler, it’s because he’s a Hollywood script consultant. He’s worked on some of the most popular movies in history, especially for Disney.

14. A Song of Ice and Fire–George RR Martin
Dark, complex (I seem to say that a lot on this list), and a complete perversion of the fantasy genre. ASOIAF is a masterpiece, and if it continues at this level, it will be the greatest fantasy series ever written. The HBO version, Game of Thrones, holds up well, but it lacks the complexity of the books. Yes, the books are even more complex than the tv show.

15. American Gods–Neil Gaiman
My all time favorite book. Read this book! Read it!!

I mean it, READ AMERICAN GODS!!

There is nothing about this book that isn’t excellent

And this list is still not complete! I’m not going to include any honorable mentions, because they’re just too many. This list could conceivably go on for another dozen entries. I’ve hardly scratched the surface.

Like my posts? Follow my website or “Like” my facebook fan page and/or follow me on Twitter. You can also purchase my debut novel, Song of Simon, at any online bookstore or a real one (they both exist). Song of Simon currently has a 4.8/5.0 rating on Amazon, so it’s pretty damn good. If you’re looking for something FREE, you can read my serial (soon to be an expanded series of novels) The Watchmage of Old New York. Though it ended in February, it remains one of the most popular serials on JukePop OF ALL TIME!

Geekin it Up

It’s time for my bi-weekly DnD game. Last time we had a major battle, this time we deal with all the fall out. It’s gonna be bad.

The thing that I like best about this campaign is that the players have to face responsibility for our actions. We’ve already become wanted in our home country. it doesn’t matter if the people we fight are bad, they’re still people and the law protects them too.

Too many games are hack and slash with no worries or complexity. Our game is the opposite.

Time to bust out my dice. TTYL

Better Writing Through D&D

Dungeons & Dragons turned 40 this year. Since its beginnings, over 20 million people have rolled a 20-sided die and failed their damn Saving Throw. I’m not sure if D&D was the first RPG, but it’s certainly the best known and most popular. It survived horrible mismanagement and many different editions (let’s never mention 4th Edition i.e. tabletop WoW), but it still remains my favorite hobby and the primary influence on my writing skills.

Do you find it weird that I credit D&D for helping me write well? Then you’ve never played.

Still Life With RPGs

It’s hard to remember exactly where I was first exposed to D&D. I suspect that it was the old cartoon, which holds up surprisingly well today. It might have been the board game Dungeon, which was so much fun. I wish I still had it.

I do remember the first time I played. It was 4th grade. I recently moved from the Bronx to Rockland County, a suburb of New York City. I was without friends and completely out of my element. I broke my collarbone just before school started, so while everyone else was at recess, I had to sit with the teachers. It was not a good way to make friends.

A kid named Marc was just as unpopular as me, but he has this really cool game. You got to make up a character and go on adventures and stuff. It was all in your imagination, and it was fun. I was instantly hooked.

And we need more Mountain Dew!!!

In high school, I found more gamers, and people got worried. I went to a special school for the “bad kids” and there were already rumors about how D&D made you worship the devil (assholes like Jack Chick didn’t help). I met a crazy bastard named Kevin there, and he got me back into the game. We used to play at lunch until the school banned the game. Fucking bullshit!

btw: Kevin is still a crazy bastard, but I love him like a brother. You better read this fucking article, man!

In college, I found the group that I still play with today. The game became less about smashing shit and more about character development. The world we play in, Aquerra, a creation of my (often referenced) friend Osvaldo, was rich in detail and complexity and like nothing I’ve experienced before. Even better, every character we created and adventure we went on added layers of detail to the already laden world. Aquerra is also where the term Watchmage comes from, though my version and Osvaldo’s have little in common.

Not only have these gamers become my closest friends, they are also very talented roleplayers and world builders. I consider them my mentors as I developed my own writing skills.

D&D: Writing Class With Mountain Dew

Every writer should play roleplaying games.  I don’t mean video games like WoW or Skyrim, I mean the good, uncut stuff: Dungeons & Dragons, World of Darkness, Champions…but mostly D&D.

I’m not the only writer that feels that way. Jon Favreau also credits D&D for honing his skills, and several creative types like George RR Martin, R.A. Salvatore, Stephen Colbert and Robin Williams were also players.

Role playing games teach you how to build a character the only true way: by becoming him. If you want to write a convincing character, you have to climb into his skin. Learn to think like him, act like him. Have him interact with other characters, before you actually start your story. You have to treat him like a real person. Only then will you know his heart.

DMing will make you a master world builder. For RPGs, you have to build a world for your PCs and NPCs to live in. If you can building a massive campaign setting for a game, you can build one for a story.

Running adventures teaches you about plot, pacing, and when to increase or decrease tension (an article from me about pacing is coming next week). With experience you learn when to ratchet up the drama, and when to ease up. You learn plot points, and if you really analyze it, you learn the Hero’s Journey.

Embrace Your Inner (and Outer) Geek

When I was young, playing D&D made you an outcast. I already had serious issues with bullies (ironic since I was so much bigger than everyone), so I hid my hobby. I played in basements with other outcasts like me. We were united in our game, and united in our persecution. But god forbid someone found out.

We’re in a geek renaissance right now, and it’s a beautiful thing. People love comics and scifi/fantasy. You don’t have to be embarrassed of your Star Wars toy collection anymore. Yet for some reason, D&D still gets mocked.

The horror…the horror…

Enough of this! OUT OF THE BASEMENTS AND INTO THE STREETS!

Ok, maybe I shouldn’t equate this to the gay rights movement, but until D&D is as accepted as other geek hobbies, no geek is free.

I think we need a sponsor…maybe Mountain Dew.

Like my posts? Follow my website or “Like” my facebook fan page and/or follow me on Twitter. You can also purchase my debut novel, Song of Simon, at any online bookstore or a real one (they both exist). Song of Simon currently has a 4.8/5.0 rating on Amazon, so it’s pretty damn good. If you’re looking for something FREE, you can read my serial (soon to be an expanded series of novels) The Watchmage of Old New York. Though it ended in February, it remains one of the most popular serials on JukePop OF ALL TIME!