No, you don’t get inspiration

Inspiration as presented in 5e is kind of janky, both in the way you reward it and in the way it is used. The concept is a good idea, but its execution is hard to pull off and arguably has a very forgettable effect. The suggested way to award according to the Player’s Handbook is to give it out when someone performs an act of roleplaying one of their character’s traits – especially the flaws. A good idea, but impossible to keep track of with even a few players. You have to know what their traits are (four per player) and remember to award it for playing to their character. Depending on their traits it may come up often or not at all during a session. Not fun.

Even if you do give out inspiration often, all it does is give advantage on a single attack, check, or save. Technically you have to declare you use it before you roll and you can only give someone else inspiration for a roleplaying moment, but all of the time it’s forgotten that you have it. What normally happens then is that someone obviously fails a save, gets depressed, and then they or someone else announces: “wait, I have inspiration”. It feels bad for the DM to say you can’t use your inspiration, because it’s going to make the player grumble and then it’s just going to happen again because everyone forgets they have it yet again. So, it ends up in them getting another chance at the roll for no discernible in-game reason. I think that this sucks for everyone because you’ve just essentially had to retcon something in the game and interrupted the flow. It’s not even a cool character or class trait, it’s just an unexpected time reversal. It breaks the scene so much to have to do something so meta-game-y.

So I’ve been experimenting lately with making inspiration just a simple d10 to the roll. It seems to be working well. It is remembered quite a bit more, it actually helps if you already have advantage, and it isn’t “wasted” if you just happen to roll low. Win-win. I’ve also decided that everyone gets inspiration once the reach certain milestones in the campaign or every 2 sessions, whichever comes first (normally the milestone). That seems to work out well too. I’m likely going to experiment further and not give them inspiration, but mark down that they have inspiration myself and offer its usage if they fail something by 10 or less. I remember it much more than the players.

Death House: Roll Perception to Advance

Let me get the short version of the review out of the way: Death House is hard but not in a good way, and is not an exciting module without serious DM modification.

Death House suffers from the “roll x to advance” gateway that many modules have. That is, you have to perform a certain check with a certain DC in order to go through the module. Parts of the module literally do not exist until they pass those skill checks or check a certain area. What’s worse is that they are the worst kind of checks: perception checks. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against perception in general, but the way Death House does it really encourages the mindset of rolling dice to do basic human tasks to advance.

It reminds me of a certain type of DM … you’ve all played with the DM who had you roll for everything. EVERYTHING. You know the one:

Player: “I want to look around the room.”

DM: “Okay, roll perception.”

Player: “… I got a 5.”

DM: “You don’t see anything interesting.”

Other Player: “What about me? I got a 18.”

DM: “You notice that there are clay pots around the area. There is a bookshelf containing several multi-colored books. Over in the corner you can see a chest by a large bed…”

Was the player blind? Could he really not see objects sitting in the room? Why spend the time to do this? Does this actually benefit the game? No.

Death House suffers from this a lot where there are many perception checks required to even notice particular things in the room and sometimes it only lets you notice if you specifically check a certain object. Some very, very important details can and will be lost due to this. Combined with the 2-5 paragraphs (yes, you read that right) of description text for almost every room means that your players eyes will be glazing over and they will have forgotten everything that was in the room by the time you are done. There is too much irrelevant information given freely and not enough vital information given without rolling. Some players may like that, but in my experience, the vast majority don’t care about listening to you talk on and on about what wood the bedpost is made of.

Once they get past the perception gateway, the real fun begins. By fun I mean your players dying horribly while they curse your name. This adventure is designed for a party of five 1st level adventurers. By “designed” they mean “intended to kill.” The average group at level one will die to a lot of the encounters. As a matter of fact, mine did. Not through any fault of their own, but because the monsters are too incredibly strong for them to take on. Even with three healing capable classes/feat takers, at least half of the party was down during every fight. On three of the encounters I had to seriously downplay monster abilities in order to prevent a TPK. Each individual monster is more than capable of taking down a level 1 character in a single hit, tanking multiple hits, and have enough secondary effects to put someone out of the fight if they happen to survive the damage. It is incredibly overtuned.

Now, if this was an adventure designed to challenge veteran players I can understand. These encounters are beatable as written, but you have to understand the rules very well, create optimized characters, use tactics, and be very genre savvy. But, this is not what the module is marketed as. It’s marketed as an introduction to the new season, which means new players. Getting pounded into the ground on your first day is not very fun.

There is a good story here, don’t get me wrong, but the actual game gets in the way of it. The first half of the module is an incredibly pointless amount of perception rolling until you find the specific room to use that specific perception roll on, and then the second half is a slaughterhouse. If I ever run this again, not incredibly likely, I will need to make serious changes to the module. I could tell the players were getting bored during the first portion and getting tired of the constant beatdowns in the second half.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

Here are some changes I’d recommend for the module:

  • Room descriptions: cut down the description of the rooms. Players don’t need to hear 4 paragraphs of description when you can say “it’s an elegantly furnished dining room.” Sure, they may not be imaging “A crystal chandelier hangs above the table, which is covered with resplendent silverware and crystalware polished to a dazzling shine” but it really doesn’t matter one bit that they’re imaging that specifically in their heads. You can convey the same image with many fewer words. Especially when there’s absolutely nothing for them to discover in that room. Pointless rooms make me shake my head, but that’s another rant for another time.
  • Level advancement: the module recommends using milestones, although that’s contrary to the official Adventure League rules and what it says in the DMG about breaking the pace. I avoided doing the “level up in the middle of a session” thing at that exact point since they really breaks the flow of the game to have them stop and level up while they’re walking down some stairs after looking in some rooms. They leveled up once they reached a good stopping point in the dungeon while taking a rest.
  • Inspiration: give them inspiration once they reach the dungeon rather than the specifically mentioned point in the adventure. That can come at the very end and be useless to them.
  • Secrets: just include all the DC 12 check descriptions and information if they’re looking around the room. There’s no point in making them roll for these.
  • Monsters in general: give the players some roleplaying opportunities with the various undead denizens. It’s boring that everything just immediately attacks if they see the players and cannot be avoided. I did this with several of the encounters and they had a lot more fun than beating down the ghost of someone they don’t care about.
  • Area 20: have this door be bolted from the outside and operable without anything special. Locking essential story and advancement away behind hard DCs or one specific item that they specifically have to look in a certain piece of furniture for is not cool.
  • Dungeon monsters: fudge their numbers or abilities. You will seriously need to do this for almost every encounter if you want an average party to survive or not be on the brink of death all the time.

Bordered Cutouts

There was a request for the bordered cutouts that were used for the Out of the Abyss NPCs. Here’s a page of them in PDF format.

Download Bordered Cutouts (.pdf)

Perception vs investigation

It’s not really an age old debate, but it’s something I have struggled with a bit ever since I started DMing for 5e games. Much like perception vs search in the older D&D systems, sometimes it’s difficult to determine what you actually want the players to roll in order to find something. Now, it’s pretty clear cut that in order to find a creature that is hiding you use perception, but what about finding secret doors and hidden compartments? The default book answer is perception, but then you’re left asking yourself “what is investigation actually useful for?” Sure, there are those outlaying instances where it’s obviously what you want to use, but I still have a hard time justifying perception over investigation when searching for traps, hidden doors, and other items for the following reasons:

  1. It hurts anyone proficient in disarming traps. Arcane trickster rogues even uses intelligence primarily for its spellcasting, so you know that’s going to be a high stat. It seems a bit unfair for that to go to waste if they can’t use their naturally high investigation to assist them in any way when looking for traps which is still a big part of a rogue.
  2. It may be hidden to the senses. Sometimes based on the description of the trap it’s impossible to spot it. Literally impossible. In that case you may have to use clues of its activity in order to determine that a trap is here. Hmmmm … that sounds kind of like investigation, doesn’t it?
  3. I hate having perception be the king of everything. Nothing gets more boring than having everyone roll perception over and over again for everything. I wouldn’t cry too much if active perception went away completely, but for now I’d rather mix it up a bit.

The official material has gone back and forth on what to use; sometimes requiring perception and sometimes requiring investigation. Sage Advice has said there was overlap, which doesn’t really help at all. There are several approaches I have tried over multiple sessions to varying degrees of success. Consider the following scenario with a ranger with good perception and a rogue with good investigation:

You enter the dimly lit stone room. This is obviously a lived-in apartment as you see common furnishings, a wide open closet, and the occasional piece of clothing thrown about. An almost completely melted candle sits besides a pile of notes and pen on a table.

Now, if you’re my players you’ll look around at the immediate stuff, probably read the notes, and then determine that there has to be some sort of secret around here and begin looking around. At this point I’ll be looked at me expectantly to tell them to roll something and find the legendary items obviously hidden in this commoner’s closet.

Approach 1

“Roll investigation or perception – your preference.” I’ve tried giving them the choice of the skill they want and setting a DC that either of them can meet. The explanation for this is that they may both find it, but they’ll go about it in different ways. The perception guy may spot some creases in the drawer that shouldn’t be there while the investigation guy may observe that the inner dimensions of the drawer are too small based on the outside dimensions.

The result of this is mixed but probably the best out of all of the approaches. It seems to make players happy since they can choose their good skills, but it also slows things down since they’re not used to having a choice like this and will fumble with their sheets or just be indecisive in general. One thing I don’t like, however, is that on occasion one of those skills just plain won’t work for the situation. In that case, when I call for a single skill check, I’ve already given some information away. If I call for both, one of the players get frustrated because although his 20 didn’t see it, the 15 with the other skill did. I started giving them the “uneasy feeling” for those with the skill that couldn’t spot it, which seemed to help, but that just slowed the game down more than I would have liked.

Approach 2

“Roll investigation.” In some sessions, I’ve just made investigation the default for detecting objects like traps, secret doors, etc. This speeds things up and made the rogue happy, but the ranger is constantly grumbling because he feels useless being unable to spot things with his eagle eyes.

The result of this I kind of liked since investigation got a good use and I was able to describe things in more detail than “you spot a trap … I don’t know how you know it’s a trap, but it’s a trap.” Instead he could see the slight acid spills around the keyhole and determine there was some sort of acid trap there, or see that the doorknob was positioned in a rather odd way that might hint at something being tucked behind it.

Approach 3

“Roll perception.” Now the rogue is feeling pouty because other people have to point out traps and secret doors that he supposedly specializes in, but can’t seem to spot. The ranger feels more useful because he can help with his sharp spotting skills.

Out of all of them I like this one the least. It seemed rather anti-fun to have the trap master depend on others to be better at seeing things he should be able to pick out in the first place due to actually knowing what he was looking for.

I’m not really sure what the best approach is yet. It is probably none of these. I think I’ll be going with approach number one for now and try to get a bit more creative in cases where there is no overlap; perhaps have one or the other grant advantage to certain things based on what they’ve done.

(5e) Out of the Abyss Jailbreak NPCs

A collection of the portraits and statistics for the jailbreak NPCs in chapter 1 of Out of the Abyss. These printouts are similar in size to the magic item certifications when cut out. Extremely handy for quickly referencing the NPC stats and handing them out for the players to use.

The normal AC and weapons for these NPCs have been left out (with the exception of natural weapons and armor) since they will be using scavenged equipment which will change their AC and attacks. Any multiattack capabilities have been noted, so otherwise just use weapons and armor as they normally would. The proficiency bonus, although not printed on this version, is easy to see based on any skill proficiencies they may have. Use your best judgement for weapon and armor proficiencies.

Download (5e) Out of the Abyss Jailbreak NPCs (.pdf)