Monday, November 25, 2019

What Do I Know About First Impressions? Unearthed Arcana Psychic Soul Psionic Playtest (5e)

I wasn’t in the habit of commenting on every Unearthed Arcana that came down the pike, especially since Brandes Stoddard does a much better job of it than I can, but WOTC has been putting out such juicy options, and I’ve got a special reason to dive into this particular Unearthed Arcana.

The most recent article details Psionic versions of three subclasses, one each for Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. I feel particularly compelled to comment on this one, because I had just mentioned on social media recently that my gaming group had a discussion about how the best way to model psionics in 5e would likely be with psionically flavored subclasses, and here we are.

Psychic Warrior

Time to reuse a name from 3rd edition!

Psychic Warriors are fighters that learn to use their mental abilities to augment their combat abilities. In broad strokes, this allows them to do things like reducing damage, adding psychic damage to their attacks, doing bursts of force damage that can move opponents closer or further away, providing psychic cover, and a subclass capstone of regeneration, fast movement, and a reduced amount of movement to stand up from prone.

What’s interesting is that the Psychic Warrior is getting tools to defend their companions, but not always in the 4th edition way of being a defender. Reducing damage to allies and boosting their AC is kind of cool, but it doesn’t necessarily redirect opponents to taking on your fighter.

The most “defender-y” tool the Psychic Warrior gets, they don’t get until 7th level. You get the ability to lessen damage to your friends, but that doesn’t really convince the bad guys to come after you instead of the squishy casters, or penalize them for ignoring you, which is peak defender behavior.

Since we’re already playing with telekinesis with this character, I think I would have almost rather had some kind of “gravity well” ability to pull opponents to the psychic warrior, instead of just the general augmented defenses ability, but that may be because I’ve got a Max Press Warden in my current D&D game, so I’m already seeing a lot of “pulls” and “rough terrain to get away” moves going off.


Another 3rd edition class name takes the stage. Also, this class is pretty much Psylocke, and always has been.

Soulknives get to manifest a psychic blade that is the focused totality of their psychic ability. Essentially it’s a mentally produced psychic short sword, and it takes a bonus action to conjure. You can manifest one for each hand, and they can be thrown, so it seems like it would make sense to manifest both at once even if you don’t plan on throwing one, just in case.

Soulknives can also pick from a list of three abilities once per long rest. Because you are Psylocke, one of those is being able to telepathically communicate with others, but your other, non-Psylocke options are an increased movement speed, and a bonus to your hit point maximum. I’m not sure 5 extra feet per movement feels quite as flashy as the other two options.

Eventually, Soulknives can scare people when they hit them with their weapons (it’s amazing how few opponents are scared of PCs when they get hit with weapons). They can also become invisible at 13th level, and the capstone subclass ability is a big psychic boom that can do a lot of damage as well as stun your opponent, at the cost of one of your manifested blades (manifest them both when you can!)


The Arcane Tradition of Psionics also shows up for wizards. I have favored the notion of modifying how someone casts their spells because they are using psychic abilities, ever since I saw it with the Psychic Expert Path in Shadow of the Demon Lord.

Wizards that study psionics get a Psionic Focus, which counts as a spellcasting focus, and also lets you reroll 1s when you roll for damage with spells that do psychic or force damage. That’s a neat, simple reinforcement of a theme.

The tradition also allows access to an extra “psychic themed” cantrip, which you can cast without components, and might have a bit of a kicker past the normal cantrip ability.

At 6th level, you can take on “Thought Form,” which gives you resistance to certain damage types, and lets you cast your spells without components, as long as the base spell doesn’t require a component with a base gold piece cost.

At higher levels, you gain a new bonus “psychic themed” spell to your spellbook, and eventually you add your Intelligence modifier to spells that deal psychic or force damage. Your subclass capstone is the ability to fly and phase through objects in your “thought form.”

Psionic Spells

The next section adds a few spell lists that are “Psionic Spells,” which are lists of spells that reinforce the idea of using psychic abilities, but what is interesting is that these lists aren’t really for anything except as an example. Nobody is really restricted to only using these spells by the document, it’s mainly just an example of spells that are more “psychic feeling” than other spells.

There are new spells, in the form of the old school psionic attack and defense modes. In addition, the mind sliver cantrip that showed up back when we got the squishy, creepy sorcerer/warlock Unearthed Arcana is reprinted here as well.

New Feats

If you use feats in your campaign, the article also presents new feats to represent, well, wild talents for lack of a better term (in this edition). Telekinetic lets you use mage hand and you can also use a bonus action to mentally shove creatures near your mage hand. Telepathic gives you proficiency in a skill were reading someone’s mind might be helpful, and also lets you mentally communicate with people within 30 feet of you.

The State of Psionics

I’ll be honest, this is, for the most part, what I want from psionics in my D&D game. A way to nod towards characters that are more psychic than flashy and pyrotechnic, without having a subsystem that does something very similar to other aspects of the game, but using more complicated mechanics to achieve that same result.

I watched the D&D Beyond video where Jeremy Crawford discussed this design philosophy, and he mentioned that the problem with a robust subsystem for psionics is that many people then chose not to engage with it. I would argue there is another consequence, and that is, the people that do engage with it become very attached to how that corner of the game works, which makes them less than satisfied when the concept is reintegrated into the mainstream assumptions of the game.

I’m not sure I have a good answer for this. I want to be respectful of people that want a robust, delineated system for psionics, but I also want what’s going to mesh the best with the overall game. Just like I’ve come to accept that maybe a Forgotten Realms that is just one corner of Dungeons and Dragons Land, instead of having the same level of detail invested in it as a distinct setting, maybe psionics being mainstreamed is a sacrifice at the altar of overall brand coherence.

Soul Takes

I like the psychic warrior, although I wish they had a little bit more stickiness to them. I want to see a soul knife in action, but in general, I like the overall theme and how the abilities support them. I like wizard as a psion, but I’m not sure the “casting without components” should be linked only to the Thought Form ability to reinforce the psychic theme. The concept works for me, but I feel like some of the details could be a little more . . . flavorful?

But overall, I’m pretty excited about the plug and play nature of psionic subclasses, because I’m almost certain that means they are more likely to see use at the table than if we got new classes and a new casting subsystem.

What Do I Know About Reviews? Animal Sidekicks (Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition)

The Dungeons and Dragons Essentials Kit introduces a new concept to the game in the form of Sidekick rules. In the boxed set, Sidekicks had three base stat blocks, one for Expert, Spellcaster, and Warrior. The boxed set also gave details on how to level these characters up to 6th level.

The product I’m looking at today from the Dungeon Master’s Guild is called Animal Sidekicks, and it expands the options for Sidekicks using the same concept that the Essentials Kit introduced.

The Recruitment Board

The PDF for Animal Sidekicks is 44 pages long. The headings and table formats are all in similar style to the standard D&D rulebooks, and the book itself has all full-color artwork, with many pieces reused from the available DM’s Guild resources. Individual pages have a stat block, a table for leveling up the sidekick introduced, and another table that might be used for alternate species or personality traits.

There is a Table of Contents and a single page introduction, and the remainder of the pages are all different Animal Sidekicks.


The introduction explains the concept of the Sidekick and repeats much of the same information in the introduction for Sidekicks in the Essentials Kit. There is an additional section explaining size changes for some Sidekicks, as well as Languages. The default assumption is that most Sidekicks understand common well enough to take direction, but there is a short set of rules and a table to adjudicate an optional system for giving detailed instructions via Wisdom (Animal Handling) checks.

The final section of the introduction mentions Quirks and Personality Traits, and while many of the Sidekicks introduced in this product have tables for Quirks and Personalities, it’s not universally applied. As mentioned above, some animals have alternate “class” features or stat block differences to differentiate species of animal instead of Quirks or Personality Traits.

Bring On the Sidekicks

The rest of the product is all new Sidekicks. While the name of the product is Animal Sidekicks, there are a few monsters that aren’t quite “animals” in the mix. Most of the stat blocks align in a similar manner to the Expert or Warrior stat blocks, since even the more magical creatures don’t get a full spellcasting progression.

While most of the creatures are on par with the Essentials Kit stat blocks, there are a few that start off a little weaker physically, such as the cat, which starts off tiny and stays that way (it’s a scary glass cannon with its dex based damage, however).

The Sidekicks introduced in the product include the following:

  • Allosaurus
  • Awakened Plant
  • Badger
  • Bear
  • Blink Dog
  • Boar
  • Cat
  • Constrictor Snake
  • Crag Cat
  • Cranium Rat Swarm
  • Crocodile
  • Death Dog
  • Displacer Beast
  • Dragon Wyrmling
  • Flying Monkey
  • Flying Snake
  • Giant Goat
  • Giant Owl
  • Goat
  • Goose
  • Griffon
  • Hollyphant
  • Horse
  • Leucrotta
  • Mastiff
  • Myconid
  • Octopus
  • Panther
  • Phase Spider
  • Pony
  • Psuedodragon
  • Rat
  • Raven
  • Sea Horse
  • Steeder
  • Tiger
  • Tressym
  • Wolf

Many of the higher level abilities involved adding a second attack, which is similar to the Sidekicks presented in the Essentials Kit, although some, like the constrictor snake, gain special abilities like a swallow ability added on to an existing attack.

While all of the stat blocks, in general, look pretty solidly in line with the initial Sidekicks stat blocks, and many of the special abilities trigger at points where the Essentials Kit versions gain similar abilities, there are a few things I wish could have been standardized across different Sidekicks.

For example, as written, the goose doesn’t have a size limitation to it’s ability to knock foes prone, but the steeder does. The boar can eventually grow to large size, but other animals that have a giant and “regular” version, like goats and owls, get separate stat blocks for the different versions (with the large sized usually getting more aggressively combat oriented abilities, and the smaller version getting more “tricksy” abilities, like the goat’s faint or rapid leap versus the giant goat’s crazy eyes or death bleat abilities).

Many of these animals that do shift size do so around 5th level, meaning for medium sized PCs, that’s around the time they could be used for mounts. However, there are a few that have their growth spurt or equivalent ability earlier than 5th level, and a few that get it later than 5th level. While it’s logical that it doesn’t happen, given the “wyrmling” designation, that means there aren’t any ridable dragons for your PCs among these Sidekicks, at least if your PCs are medium.

It is interesting to see the griffon adapted to these rules, but not some other staple magical mounts. It was also a surprising choice to see the default mastiff progression presenting it as a mount for small characters, with a sidebar on modifying the stat block and progression for other types of dogs.

Most of the creatures have strongly thematic elements added to them, although a few make for choices I didn’t expect. The crocodile gets the ability to support Charisma checks with an ability called Crocodile Tears, which, other than the name, I have no idea how that works. On the other hand, cats and tressym get a bard like ability to boost healing on a short rest because of their ability to purr, which I love.

I wanted to specifically mention sea horses, because if you are trying to picture what kind of helpful abilities a real world sea horse would contribute to an adventuring company, I wouldn’t worry about it. This is the most fancifully removed from it’s base animal type in the product. Picture a sea horse that literally came from The Little Mermaid, and you would have a better idea of it’s abilities. And the names of it’s abilities, for that matter.

It is also worth noting that even if the base creature is a monstrosity with an alignment listed in the Monster Manual, none of these stat blocks have alignments, and are assumed to be workable companions to whatever adventurers they travel with. I appreciate that flexibility.

Boon Companions

I really liked the concept of Sidekicks from the Essentials Kit, so I’m happy to see an expansion to those rules. There is a great variety of Sidekicks presented, that can fit a wide range of fantasy tropes (the special mount, the faithful dog, the wise bird that acts as a scout for the adventurers), and making them Sidekicks means that they don’t need to be slotted into the structure of a subclass to work. Some of the stat blocks are functional alternatives to the basic Sidekicks from the Essentials Kit, but there are several with clever thematic elements based on the animals themselves.

Obedience School

Overall, I felt as if the stat blocks and abilities compare fairly evenly with the Sidekicks from the Essentials Kit, but I wish that some of the creatures that had similar thematic elements were standardized against one another a little bit better. I will fully admit, I don’t know what the effects of having Sidekicks that can serve as mounts from level 1, and multiple others that can do so for small characters, does to the game, because, honestly, I haven’t seen many mounts performing pivotal functions in 5e games I have played in or run.

Qualified Recommendation--A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.

If you love the Sidekick rules, or you really want more scalable rules for things like mounts or hunting dogs that travel with the party over time, this is going to be a solid purchase for you. Even having a limit of 6th level is going to dramatically increase the survivability of companion animals in the group.

On the other hand, if you are running with even a “standard” size party, you may not want to do something that encourages a party to go from four to five turns to eight or ten. As it stands, the Sidekick rules may not be as robust as full player character classes, but they aren’t simple “boosts” to existing character actions either. So if you don’t already want those extra characters in your game, this product isn’t going to be the one to change your mind.

For me, personally, that really enjoys the concept of Sidekicks and wants to see what others do in that design space, I really hope that there are further products that can introduce the kinds of companions that a whole range of PCs might take with them, from constructs, to undead, to outer planar creatures, in this same, simplified format.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Ed Greenwood and the Wisdom of Vaguely Identifiable Fantasy Worlds

Note: The following post is based on a Twitter thread from 11/23/2019, and I wanted to keep a record of it on the blog, as it helped to sort out some thoughts I've had for a while more clearly.

I think this gets to the heart of a lot of Forgotten Realms versus Greyhawk, and even Conan versus Fafhrd and Mouser discussions, especially when people have a difficult time seeing the fine distinctions.

The First Kingdoms

Greyhawk seemed to embrace the wargame aspect of it's heritage to the extent that knighthoods and serfdoms and sumptuary laws were all assumed to exist to some extent or another because "kingdom X looks like real-world historical kingdom Y." To some extent, those things aren't made expressly clear in the campaign material, but there are many oblique references to such things, assuming you should just bring that as a "given" to your engagement with the setting (not unlike OD&D assuming you know Chainmail rules).

What a lot of the original Realms material brought was a light dusting of what you would expect from a culture, but not a deep assumed constraint. Uthgardt barbarians aren't Vikings. Calishites aren't Persians. Real-world allusions gave you the general shape, not details.

This is why the Realms often reminds me of Fafhrd & Mouser more than Conan; Howard's stories existed in a proto-historical setting, where many of the cultures would eventually become later cultures-nobody really knows what Ice Gnomes or Ghouls are supposed to act like beforehand.

Changing Times

That's why it was extremely jarring to have much more historically analogous regions stapled on to the Realms as time went by. The Hordelands, Maztica, and the Old Empires were all very jarring to me back in the day.

You felt as if the text could have said "all of the stuff in this sourcebook is true, plus if you look up the cultures imitated in an encyclopedia, you can assume all of that stuff is true as well." It added a meta-constraint to the overall tone of the sub-settings being added.

[It also added an arrogance of being sure of the portrayal of a real-world culture to each of these regions as well, which is a HUGE problem, but admittedly, not what jumped out at me when I was younger]

Of all of the things that got thrown into the blender to create the gaming smoothie that resulted in Dungeons and Dragons, "historical medieval assumptions from wargaming" is the one that leaves the grainiest bits that don't contribute well, for me. I think this is also where D&D's "domain game" continually falls apart. You have multiple worlds where a lot of the world doesn't conform to medieval assumptions, but suddenly, you impose a single structure based on feudalism.

Revisiting the Domain Game

When Fafhrd and Mouser became "leaders," it meant they had a small squad of people doing stuff they were good at to help them do larger-scale things. When Conan became king, it meant he had to fight wars when people screwed him over instead of skirmishes.

But D&D's domain game often falls into if you have the "right" to rule a region, how many commoners produce income, what your upkeep is. It doesn't tell you how the story changes, it attempts to bolt on an economic model of feudalism that may not exist in the setting otherwise.

At least to me, the assumption of hidden, yet present, "historical accuracy" always felt more oppressive than any amount of story-based, "unique to the setting" canon might have felt.

Disclaimers and Context

I also wanted to make sure it's clear that I know even with its "light touch," Calimshan has some issues in it's presentation and what it borrows, as so a lot of Realms regions, even before some of the 2nd edition "real-world" mapping started.

Additionally, while Nehwon didn't have the pro-cultures real world cultures that Hyperboria had, some elements, like the southern lands and the Mingols, still had problematic assumptions brought in from tropes and stereotypes.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Retreat Rules for D&D 5e

Yesterday, there was a little bit of discussion about retreat in D&D, as well as how 13th Age supports the concept of retreat. One of the responses I received referenced the Chase rules in the DMG, but I think PCs wanting to retreat represents a different narrative beat than PCs being involved in a chase.

I’ve run chases using those rules before, and  I think they work better to represent PCs tracking down someone running from them, rather than representing the group running from others. Given that the chase rules still effectively use the character’s speed as a reference, they also have the same issue as PCs just moving away from their opponent in a tactical encounter, i.e. a faster opponent is going to overrun a slower character assuming the complications don’t hinder the faster pursuer, or the slower pursued don’t find a way to end the chase early.

When I try tinkering, I like to start from a base of something in the game. That means I started with the idea of the group check, and then layered a few things on from 13th Age there.

The Procedure

Whenever the player characters wish to retreat from a combat, the following procedure may be used:

At the top of the initiative round, the entire group decides they will be attempting a retreat. They may only do this one time per combat.

On the character’s turn, they may make an appropriate check to escape combat. Characters may use a variety of ability checks with different skills, if that approach to retreating is logical. They may only attempt the ability check to determine retreat on their turn. They may still use reactions. All characters must make their check, even if success or failure has already been determined.

Once the characters have gone into retreat, until the success of the retreat is determined, characters are treated as if they are dodging and have magic resistance. Characters may forgo this benefit to roll their retreat check with advantage.

If 50% of the group makes their retreat checks, the party has successfully retreated. The DM determines which of the following options is most appropriate to the circumstance:

  • The PCs regroup a short time later, with the hostile parties having left the area.
  • The PCs regroup in the nearest appropriate location, having broken line of sight to the hostile parties.

If the PCs are not successful, they may still retreat by accepting a campaign loss. In general, this means that something the PCs care about has been lost. A treasure they were seeking may be seized by someone else, a location they consider safe may be compromised, etc. If this campaign loss is accepted by the party, see the options above for where the PCs end up when they retreat.


The following are some examples of what retreats might look like in a game:

A group of adventurers are fighting a mob of ghouls in an ancient crypt. Concerned about the sheer number of ghouls and realizing that only the front rank of ghouls has closed on them, the group decides on round two to retreat.

The first party member makes their check successfully--they make a strength check to prepare to run, using Athletics as a skill. The second PC fails, using Wisdom as their check, with the Intuition skill, looking for a point where the ghouls aren’t paying attention.

The ghouls go next and miss the adventurers because they all rolled with disadvantage on their attacks, as the party is treated as taking the Dodge action. The wizard also uses shield as a reaction, and one ghoul moves away, allowing the rogue to take an attack on them.

The final two party members make successful checks. One makes a Dexterity check, using the Stealth skill to look for a good series of hiding places for their retreat. The other uses Charisma, using the Deception skill to tell the ghouls nearest to them to look behind them convincingly.

The DM looks at the situation and decides that and empty room back down the hallway that the PCs have already explored is close enough to a place to regroup the party, breaking line of sight from the ghouls.

If one more PC had failed to make their check, the PCs could have decided to accept a campaign loss. Because the group is seeking an evil altar that is perpetuating a curse over the region, the DM decides that an evil high priest shows up to bolster the altar, adding an additional opponent to those guarding the altar. The PCs get a hint at this when they hear undead in the halls crying that “the master has arrived!”

Sample DCs

Fastest Pursuer is slower that the slowest PC
Fastest Pursuer has the same speed as slowest PC
Fastest Pursuer is faster than the slowest PC
Fastest Pursuer is more than twice as fast as the slowest PC