At previous Pastors & Dragons retreats, I’ve had groups of up to 12 people at the table. Running a game for a crowd is difficult to do. Many people have found the sweet spot of 5e D&D to be about 4-5 players. When the table gets crowded with 6, 7, 8 (or 12!) people, a lot of folks have found that the fun begins to get lost. So how do we keep the fun with a large group?
Keeping large group D&D fun is hard for a couple reasons. The first is that the role-playing and exploration phases of the game are difficult to keep everyone engaged. The players that are naturally more outspoken can easily dominate the spotlight. It takes a lot of work to keep everyone engaged, as there is usually just one DM adjudicating all the action. This is a hard nut to crack. The DM really needs to lean into the role of inviting forward players who tend to sit back, and reminding the more outspoken players to step back. They also need to create situations that necessitate group conversations and watch out for too much 1-on-1 PC-to-NPC interaction.
The second reason that this is hard, and the one that is driving this blog post, is that combat with a large group can turn into a real slog. There’s a lot of out-of-spotlight time for players during combat, as other players are taking their turns, making their decisions about their actions, trying to assess for the best possible action to take. Battlefields are a lot more complex, and this just makes everything even more difficult to adjudicate. For this, the tool of Speed Factor Initiative is one of the best ways I have found to keep things interesting, moving, and fun.
Speed Factor initiative is one of the optional rules in the DMG. It was also a tool that was created and used in some of the earliest versions of the game. Those early versions of D&D were built for huge groups compared to what we normally see today, parties of a dozen or more. Those early ways of handling large groups piqued my interest in Speed Factor Initiative, and then the Angry GM’s blog post about Speed Factor initiative, pushed me over the edge and encouraged me to try it for myself.
To use this at my tables, I’ve created a player-facing version of my Speed Factor Initiative rules. Each player gets one. You can download a copy of my Speed Factor Initiative tool as a doc or pdf and print some out for use at your own table.
I give them the opportunity to plan their actions in an action declaration phase. Then I have everyone roll initiative. Their d20 gets placed on the sheet over the corresponding number and the initiative countdown starts the action resolution phase. “30, 29, 28, 27, 26, 25, 24, 23…” As their number comes up they resolve their actions in quick fashion. In practice I’ve found that this method of initiative works and makes combat much more engaging, much less of a slog, and a bit quicker for large groups. It’s specifically a large group technique, and grows in effectiveness the larger the group is.
The action declaration phase is more engaging because it lets everyone at the table “play” as they plan actions, discuss, set up combos, whatever. There’s no waiting while other people come up with what they want to do. Everyone is engaged in the fun. Set a timer to make this phase feel tense and keep things moving.
The action resolution phase is engaging as well, because you’re counting down through initiative and people are waiting for their number to be called. There’s tension and surprise. You’re not sure whose turn will come up next, and since all the decisions about which action to take have already been made, it goes much faster.
There’s a couple hangups with this method. The first is that people have to understand that they are effectively locked in to the actions they declared, with the option to dip out of that action and take the Dodge action instead if what they planned goes awry. This means that when their turn comes up their declared action might not be the best possible action they could take anymore. Tough cookies. You have to do what you declared, that’s the only way this speeds up play and keeps it fun for everyone. If you start letting people change their minds, you might as well just use standard initiative. The second is that in my experience this works best for in-person play. Group discussions just don’t work as well online, and that’s a large part of what makes this fun.
As we seemed to be coming out of the pandemic this past summer, I was trying to figure out a good way to re-engage the Pastors & Dragons Retreat. With that in mind, I decided to try something new – taking some of that good gaming retreat content to a broader audience at Gamehole Con!
As the delta variant has come on, I’ve been a little anxious about this whole plan, but I’m thankful that Gamehole Con has had a vaccine mandate and will be enforcing that for all attendees. This makes me feel a little safer. If you are curious about what Biblical gaming can look like and you’re fully vaccinated, think about joining me for some games in Madison, Wisconsin this October!
On Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I will run eight games in a series I’m calling “Adventures of Biblical Proportions”. Each session will stand alone as a one-shot experience, though players who come back multiple times will notice ways that the stories interconnect. Each session will explore a different passage of the Bible from the New Testament, inviting players to enter into the Biblical story and experience it firsthand. These games will be part history, part legend, with each exploring a different gaming “flavor”, be it the supernatural or social horror or the backdrop of war.
These games will be run using the Cypher System, which I have found to be a more adaptable TTRPG alternative to D&D 5e. D&D 5e is a great system that I love deeply. Some of these adventures saw their beginnings as 5e adventures, and worked to great effect. However I’ve also found that the 5e learning curve can be a little steeper and I appreciate the simplicity of a more story-focused system like Cypher, especially when engaging with church groups which may or may not have any tabletop gaming background.
Alright, enough with the blathering. Let’s get to a rundown of those games!
Adventures of Biblical Proportions!
Gamehole Con 2021
Chains in the Graveyard – Fri., Oct 22nd, 9am
Protect the people from the powers of the graveyard in a supernatural horror adventure.
Faster Than Stones – Fri., Oct 22nd, 1pm
Outrun the threat of death in a social thriller adventure.
Release to the Captives – Fri., Oct 22nd, 4pm
Grant release to the captives in an adventure of angelic secrecy.
Island Odyssey – Sat., Oct 23rd, 9am
Go on an Island Odyssey in a game of fantastic adventure.
Idols of Athens – Sat., Oct 23rd, 1pm
Explore the idols of Athens in a monstrously metaphorical adventure.
Mystery of Ephesus – Sat., Oct 23rd, 4pm
Explore the mystery of Ephesus in a supernatural investigative adventure.
A Monstrous Appetite (Revelation Part I) – Sun., Oct 24th, 9am
Confront the appetite of dragons in a monstrously mythic adventure. This adventure can be played alone or as part of a two-part series based on the Book of Revelation.
Beasts on the Earth (Revelation Part II) – Sun., Oct 24th, 12pm
Confront the wide sweeping machinations of beasts in a mythic wartime adventure. This adventure can be played alone or as part of a two-part series based on the Book of Revelation.
If you’re coming to Gamehole Con, it would be great to play with you. Sign ups for these games are live over at gamehole.com!
War is a force that gives us meaning. The clashing of armies has the power to rewrite national boundaries and change the course of history. While the standard combat rules of Dungeons & Dragons can handle fights of up to a few dozen, they struggle to adequately handle true mass combat.
The Lord of Hosts Battlesystem builds on the standard combat rules to model conflict on a much larger scale, from dozens to hundreds to thousands, while still enabling individual adventurers to lead an army’s charge against an enemy regiment, rally dispirited soldiers to rejoin the fray, or defeat powerful enemy creatures.
In most cases, when two armies oppose one another, the DM serves as the general for one side, and the players serve as generals for the opposing force. These leaders direct the soldiers that make up their armies, and everyone at the table might also represent individual champions (such as the PCs and important NPCs) who are capable of turning the tide of battle all by themselves.
To make managing dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of creatures at a time easier, similar creatures are organized into units. A unit might be a small squadron of 10, a company of hundreds, or a battalion of thousands of individuals. Each unit acts together on the battlefield, fighting until they are victorious, destroyed, or flee, succumbing to broken morale.
Each unit may have a commander, though they can also operate without one. Commanders play a key role in resolving battles, and their Charisma might be what stands between victory and defeat.
Building a Unit
Units consist of similar creatures, for example 15 Orcs or 6000 Star Spawn Manglers. In general, units are organized in sizes according to the scale of the combat being played out. The scale of a battle impacts how big of a map to use and the length of a round of combat. Refer to the Battlesystem Scale Table to determine appropriate map scales, combat round lengths, and unit starting sizes.
Battlesystem Scale Table
Time of Combat Round
# of Creatures per Unit
The starting size is the number of creatures a unit begins the battle with. As a unit takes damage, the number of surviving creatures will shrink. Starting size is like a unit’s maximum hit points, while surviving creatures is like a unit’s current hit points. Note these numbers – they will impact when the unit makes morale checks and will be refered to throughout the battle.
A unit of creatures with a starting size equal to the number of creatures per unit shown in the Battlesystem Scale Table occupies the same space on a battle grid that a single creature would occupy on a 5ft grid.
When operating as a unit, the unit’s creatures make a single initiative roll and act together as one, using the same stats and abilities as of the single creature. If a creature has an ability that requires an ally to be nearby, such as Pack Tactics, that ability is active for all creatures within the unit.
All rolls other than initiative are resolved using these modified mob rules.
If a unit’s actions result in making damage rolls, use average damage or roll damage as if for a single creature, then multiply that number by the number of creatures that scored a hit. The same applies for healing.
Example: A unit of 14 Orcs attacks an enemy unit of Svirfneblin (AC 15) with their greataxes. The player makes an attack roll and rolls a 10 on the die, resulting in a 15 to hit. 5 Orcs hit with a 15, 5 more hit with an unnatural 20, and the last 4 miss with a 10. The player rolls damage and gets 9, multiplied by 10 creatures that hit equals 90 points of damage dealt to the enemy unit.
Advantage and Disadvantage can apply to these rolls as circumstances favor or disfavor the entire unit. Critical Hits and Critical Fails apply to the entire unit as well. If a player rolls a natural 20 on an attack roll, every creature in the unit hits the target and deals critical damage. If a player rolls a natural 1 on an attack roll, every creature in the unit misses the target regardless of their other modifiers.
Durations of Spells and Other Abilities
When casting spells or using creature abilities with lingering effects (like a Ghoul’s paralyzing claws) during mass combat, the duration of these effects is measured in rounds.
Spells and abilties that have a duration of Instantaneous or until next turn happen immediately or last until the next turn, even though the time scale of combat turns is longer. Spells with a duration of a minute or longer instead have a duration equal to the number of minutes times ten.
Example: a unit of Priests who cast Spirit Guardians (with a 10 minute duration) have a spell duration of 100 rounds regardless of the time scale. Likewise, a single PC warlock who casts Armor of Agathys (1 hour duration) now enjoys a duration of 600 rounds regardless of time scale.
The potential lengthening of spell and ability durations represents the combatants drawing on otherwise hidden stores of magic to rise to the need of their comrades and the heightened challenges of warfare.
Spells that require a longer casting time have their casting time measured in rounds in a similar manner. Spells with a casting time of a minute or longer instead have a casting time equal to the number of minutes times ten.
Tracking Damage Done to a Unit
While each unit uses the statblock of its component creature, the DM and players should round the creatures’ average hit points to the nearest 5 or 10. Write down the hit points of a single creature in the unit next to the unit’s starting size.
Tip! Adjust the creatures’ average hit points up or down to reflect how the combatants have been treated by their allies and commanders, their general health and condition, the stakes of the battle, their investment in the outcome, and any other factors that you think should play a role.
Tally the damage inflicted to the unit as a whole instead of the damage dealt to individual creatures. Assume that every hit targets the most damaged individual. When the damage tally is enough to kill one or more individuals in the unit, remove them from the number of surviving creatures, reset the damage tally to zero, and carry over extra damage.
If a unit has an ability that allows it to drop to 1 hp instead of 0 hp, like Undead Fortitude or the Death Ward spell, determine how many individuals are affected by this ability and track those survivors separately as a sub-unit of the main force. This sub-unit is identical to the main unit except for the damage threshhold to kill an individual. Assume that attacks target this sub-unit first, before the main unit.
If a unit receives any healing, apply the healing to the damage tally of the unit as a whole. If multiple creatures within the unit will benefit from healing, multiply the healing by the number of creatures that benefit. If the healing is enough to completely heal one or more individuals in the unit, add them back to the number of surviving creatures, carrying over any extra healing. A unit can never have more surviving creatures than its starting size.
If a unit receives temporary hit points, determine how many creatures within the unit will benefit. Multiply the temporary hit points by the number of creatures that will benefit. These are the unit’s temporary hit points and serve as a buffer against damage. The temporary hit points are lost first and any leftover damage is applied ot the unit’s damage tally.
Special Unit Actions
As an action, a unit can reinforce an adjacent unit of similar creatures. These reinforcements renew the resolve of their allies, reversing the effects of a failed morale check and resetting the sarting size of the unit to the sum of surviving creatures in the two units. The reinforcing unit loses its turn in combat and is joined to the space of the other unit, as the two units meld into one.
If both units have a commander (see below), the commanders decide which one stays with the newly reinforced unit. The other commander immediately leaves the unit.
Movement, Reach, and Range
A unit can occupy an individual creature’s space and vice versa, but not the space of another unit. A unit can also move through any opening large enough for one of its individual creatures.
When using a grid, the speed of a unit’s movement is measured in squares, and is equal to the speed of an individual creature divided by 5. To translate this speed into feet, multiply the size of the squares/hexes by the unit’s movement speed.
Example: a unit of Hobgoblins have an individual speed of 30 feet, resulting in a unit movement speed of 6 spaces, regardless the size of those spaces. In a single round, the unit can move 150 ft. in a battle using a 25 ft. scale or 3000 ft. in a battle using a 500 ft. scale.)
A unit can make a melee or ranged attack against an enemy if any part of the unit is within reach or range (respectively) of the target. Likewise, a unit of spellcasters can use their spells to target any point that is within range of any part of the unit. If a spell’s area of effect covers any part of an enemy unit, the entire enemy unit is affected.
Areas of Effect and Conditions
TAE Damage Multiplier
Some spells and creature abilities like a dragon’s Breath Weapon attack are especially effective when used in mass combat. Their damage to a unit is multiplied based on how many targets could reasonably be caught in their area of effect. Use the Targets in Areas of Effect Multiplier table to adjust damage from area of effect spells and creature abilities. The damage multiplier represents the number of small or medium sized combatants that are caught in an area of effect. Players running spell casting units or units of creatures with similar abilities may want to jot down the TAE damage multipliers for their commonly used spells and abilities.
Targets in Area of Effect Multiplier Table
TAE Damage Multiplier
Size ÷ 10 (round up)
Cube or square
Size ÷ 5 (round up)
Radius ÷ 5 (round up)
Length ÷ 30 (round up)
Sphere or circle
Radius ÷ 5 (round up)
Size Damage Modifier
If the combatants are of a size other than small or medium, modify the rounded result of the TAE damage multiplier by the modifier listed in the Size Damage Modifier Table.
Size Damage Modifier Table
Size of Creatures in Unit
Size Damage Modifier
x 2 (round up)
÷ 2 (round up)
÷ 3 (round up)
÷ 4 (round up)
Saving Throws and Conditions
When a spell or ability requires a targeted creature to make a saving throw, the entire unit makes a saving throw using the modified mob rules above. When a unit makes a saving throw to save for half damage, the total damage dealt is reduced by 1/6 if one section saves, reduced by 1/3 if 2 sections save, or reduced by half if all 3 sections save. Likewise if succeeding on a saving throw results in no damage taken, the total damage dealt to the unit is reduced by 1/3 if one section saves, 2/3 if two sections save, and is reduced to zero if all three sections save. If a spell or ability imposes a condition, a unit is only affected by that condition if the condition affects more than 50% of the unit.
If a unit is forced to make a saving throw based on the amount of damage they have received, like a concentration check, use the damage of a single attack, before multipliers and modifiers, to determine the save DC.
Battlesystem Saving Throw Effects Table
# of Unit Sections that Save
For Half Damage
For No Damage
Against a Condition or Effect
Damage Reduced by 1/6
Damage Reduced by 1/3
Damage Reduced by 1/3
Damage Reduced by 2/3
Unit Not Affected
Damage Reduced by 1/2
Damage Reduced to 0
Unit Not Affected
Example 1: a single PC wizard directs Burning Hands (a 15-foot cone) at a nearby unit of 60 medium Orcs. The Orcs make a saving throw and 1/3 (20) of them succeed, while 2/3 (40) of them fail. Using the TAE Multiplier table, we can say that two Orcs are actually targeted (15 ÷ 10 = 1.5, rounded up to 2). The wizard multiplies the damage of their Burning Hands spell (3d6) by two to get an average of 21 damage. Since 1/3 of the Orcs succeeded on the saving throw, the damage to the unit is reduced by 1/6. So the total damage from the wizard’s spell to the unit is 18 (21 – 3).
Example 2: a unit with ten surviving Archmages could launch a barrage of Lightning Bolts (100-foot line) at a unit of 15 large Ogres. Using the TAE Multiplier and Size Damage Modifier tables, we can say that two of the Ogres are targeted by each Archmage (100 ÷ 30 = 3.33, rounded up to 4 ÷ 2 = 2). The Archmages multiply the damage from their Lightning Bolts by 2 (8d6 x 2 = 56 average damage per spell x 10 sorcerers = 560 total average damage). The Ogres rolled poorly on their saving throw and none saved, so their unit takes the full 560 points of damage, likely killing 9 of them.
A commander is a significant creature on the battlefield—usually a player character or a powerful NPC or monster. These individuals may operate independently on the battlefield, but are most effective when they are appointed to a unit.
At the begininng of a mass combat, determine who the commanders are and whether they begin the fight independent or appointed to a unit. Commanders roll their own initiative and retain their place in the initiative order even when joined to a unit. While appointed to a unit a commander shares their unit’s space and moves with them on their turn, but take’s actions on their own turn. A commander maintains their own statistics and makes their own attack rolls, ability checks, and saving throws.
Protected and Protector
As a part of a unit, a commander both protects and is protected by their allies.
A commander can force an attack targeted at their unit to target them instead. Likewise when a creature the commander can see targets it with an attack, the commander can make the unit the target instead. Any time the unit is dealt damage, the commander can choose to redirect any amount of that damage to themself.
If a commander’s unit is eliminated, even if the commander was the original intended target of the attack, the commander remains in play. A newly unattached commander can immediately join an adjacent unit without a commander or remain unattached and occupy part of the space the stand formerly occupied. If a commander’s unit is subjected to a spell or ability that forces a saving throw and has an area of effect which covers more than 50% of the unit’s space. then the commander is also affected and must make a saving throw.
If a commander is dropped to 0 hit points and forced to make death saves, they make a single save each round.
Commanding Your Forces
When joined to a unit, a commander uses their Charisma to bolster the strength and the spirits of those in their charge.
A commander on the battlefield has five new options for its bonus action: Incite, Prepare, Rally, Reappoint, and Spur.
A commander can try to inspire the soldiers of its unit to greater effort by making a DC 15 Charisma (Intimidation or Persuasion) check. If it succeeds, the unit gains advantage on all attack rolls and ability checks it makes until the end of the commander’s next turn.
A commander can order its unit to be more wary by making a DC 15 Charisma (Intimidation or Persuasion) check. If it succeeds, the unit gains advantage on all saving throws until the end of the commander’s next turn.
A commander can steel the nerve of their troops by rallying them to the fight and making a DC 15 Charisma (Intimidation or Persuasion) check. If it succeeds, the unit gains Advantage on all morale checks until the end of the commander’s next turn. Whether the commander succeeds or fails, a broken unit can make a new morale check at the beginning of its turn. (See Check Morale.)
A commander leaves its unit and becomes independent, or joins a unit without a commander.
A commander can order its unit to move more quickly across the battlefield by making a DC 15 Charisma (Intimidation or Persuasion) check. If it succeeds, the unit can use its reaction to move up to its speed.
Few soldiers want to die. After a unit suffers significant losses, the survivors might lose their nerve for battle. Rather than stay and fight, the rest of the unit tries to run away. Anytime the rules call for a morale check, the unit must make a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw.
The first time that a unit is reduced to less than half of it’s starting size, or any time it begins its turn at less than half or its starting size, the unit must immediately check morale.
If a friendly unit within sight of the unit is destroyed or broken, the unit must immediately check morale.
A Commander Falls
If a unit’s appointed commander is killed during the battle, the unit must immediately check morale.
Failing a Morale Check
If more than 50% of the unit fails the morale check, the unit becomes broken. For the rest of the battle, a broken unit must spend its turns trying to move as far away from enemy units as it can. It also can’t take Reactions. For its action, the unit can use only the Dash action or try to escape from an effect that prevents it from moving. If there’s nowhere to move, the unit can use the Dodge action.
A commander is never broken. It can decide to move with a broken unit or immediately leave the unit at the start of any of its turns.
If a broken unit has a commander, the unit has a chance to rally at the start of its turn. If the unit is called to rally by its commander, it makes a new morale check at the start of its turn, potentially with Advantage. If the save succeeds, the unit is no longer broken. It takes its turn as normal.
One of my favorite parts about magic in fiction is all the extra accoutrements that go with it. Complicated hand gestures, mysterious and rare materials, and powerful incantations fill out a rich world of wonder. While D&D 5e has gone to significant lengths to put fun and creative material components in the rules, those verbal components have been left up to each player’s imaginations. Most of the time, however, that fun part of the game gets quickly glossed over.
If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I have a habit of tweeting out Biblical verbal components for the many and various spells of Dungeons & Dragons 5e. Over the last couple years, I’ve tweeted thousands of Bible verses matched up with hundreds of different spells. Last year I published that collection of Biblical Verbal Components over on DMsGuild.com. This supplement offers options for what to say when you need some verbal spell components for the over 500 officially published spells in D&D 5e!
Since I first published that collection, new spells have been added to the game in Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. I’ve been working on updates recently and am proud to announce Biblical Verbal Components 2.0! All the new spells have been added and some of the old ones changed to match the errata. There’s new artwork as well to help inspire your imagination as you play.
I’ve also dropped the price on this collection of over 50 pages of supplemental content. Now it’s just $5. Every penny of profit goes to help people in need through an emergency needs fund. This fund helped meet over $2,500 of need in 2020.
One of the things that never scares me as a Dungeon Master is whether or not I’ll be able to challenge my players.
A lot of people worry about this. As a DM you don’t want the game to be too easy and of no consequence. You also don’t want it to be an adversarial and impossible grind that punishes player characters just for existing. You need to find just the right balance of challenge.
I’ve got lots of little tricks that I’ve learned along the way, but the one that has been the most freeing for me has been this little rule: “Your character only stays dead if you want them to.”
I unabashedly embrace resurrection in my games. I always provide a way back from the dead, and one that doesn’t take up too much table time, though it might provide an opportunity for other characters to make a sacrifice for their fallen ally. In a current campaign one player made a deal with an evil NPC to raise their comrade from the dead, while another had an opportunity to offer up one of their own bones for the sake of a resurrection.
Embracing resurrection in your TTRPG also teaches an important faith lesson: Death is not the end of our story. God overcame death, so that we could do the same. Death need not be feared.
Without being afraid of killing the PCs at my table, I embrace things like putting monsters in front of players that hit like a dump truck and knock them out, rolling dice in the open and letting them fall where they lie, putting giant mobs of monsters in front of them, making them figure out how to actually overcome difficult challenges or even come back from the dead.
I’ve knocked out and killed plenty of characters in my games, but there’s always that rule “Your character only stays dead if you want them to.” This rule has created deep and meaningful story moments as the players get the opportunity to role play with grief and loss, emotions that we often shun. It’s beneficial for us to experience these grittier emotions, especially if we can do so in a relatively safe way. A bit of grit is a good thing. The grit gives our stories and our lives definition.
Character death also has a game mechanics benefit. It gives players an opportunity to respec their PCs, or say goodbye and build a whole new character if they like. I find that a lot of times they’re ready for some kind of change. It’s an opportunity for the player to consider their character and if their story is complete just yet.
And if you TPK the party of heroes? Well it’s the same rule. They stay dead only if the players want them to. Mostly a TPK is just an opportunity to up the stakes a bit. Fail forward and raise them up in a hairy situation with an opportunity to overcome defeat.
You can’t learn to rise if you never get the chance to fall.
Just a quick post to share a DM tool I’ve really enjoyed over the last year.
I’ve tried keeping track of time in previous campaigns, and I always fall off the wagon pretty quick. I found this little tool from olddungeonmaster.com and have been using it over a year now on my current campaign and I LOVE it!
It’s well designed and simple enough to do what I need without getting in the way. It’s quick and efficient and I love being able to shade in the little boxes. There’s tons of space for adding notes about anything else I deem to be relevant.
DM Tool for Tracking Time Download your free copy here. I have tried several different ways to keep track of time in a dungeon. Years ago I even wrote a “Time Tender” software program. I was thinking of getting a toy clock, or a broken clock that I could turn the hands on. Thinking of […]
Keeping track of time has improved my game in all sorts of ways. On the big scale it’s helped me track moon cycles, npc contracts, and town festivals. On a smaller scale it has added a much more satisfying way to answer the player’s inevitable questions of, “What time is it?” with more than hand-wavy-timey-wimey-ness.
My son Edan was born with a rare genetic disease called Spinal Muscular Atrophy, but thanks to Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, he’s receiving life saving treatment! I’ve pledged to play games and raise funds for sick kids at Gillette, kids like my son!
Here’s how it works
Extra Life is a fundraising and gaming marathon to support Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
I’m joining thousands of gamers and will be dedicating time to play games and get donations from friends like YOU!
100% of the donations go to my local children’s hospital. TOGETHER we will make a difference for sick kids!
Your donation is tax-deductible and will make miracles happen for families who desperately need them. You can click the “Donate” button at the top of this page to make a safe and easy online donation.
And you can play with me!
On Saturday, August 29th, from 12:30pm-4pm Central Time, I’ll be running an online D&D one-shot called “For the Good of the Few”. With your donation of $20, you can get a seat at the table and join the game!
Here are some details about the game:
Adventure Synopsis: “For the Good of the Few” is a Level 4 D&D adventure set in the town of Brinsdale. A month ago, a deadly plague hit the population of the town. Since then, many people have passed and more still lay dying. The King’s royal army has arrived and have encamped surrounding the town, enforcing a strict quarantine. In the center of Brinsdale, Baron Lord Waylier has locked himself inside the walls of his keep and refuses to offer aid. The local church is completely unable to keep pace with the outbreak, and some of those who still hold strength to stand are beginning to plot rebellion.
You can build your own level 4 character or use a provided pregenerated character.
Google Meet and Roll20 will be used to run the game.
One of the questions I often get is, “How can I incorporate Christianity into my game?”
Including real-world religion in a fantasy RPG like Dungeons & Dragons has its own set of risks and rewards. For the moment though, I’m going to leave off going into those for future posts and instead get right down to practical suggestions.
First of all, there’s lots of ways to go about mixing Christianity (or any real-world religion) into your play. It’s not so much an on-off switch as it is a dial you can adjust to suit your own stylistic preferences. Here are four different settings for that dial.
Setting 1: In the Bible.
The first way to incorporate faith into your game would be to run a game directly inspired by the Bible. Have the players pick Bible characters to base their PCs on, put the PCs directly into the events of a major Bible story, or do both! You can either plop them right into a Bible story.
One of my favorite stories to play out is the Sons of Sceva from Acts 19. A bunch of stuffed-shirts getting in over their heads and getting possessed. Have the PCs just happen to be in Ephesus while that is going on, then play that out! What do they do with the possessed folks? Are they strong enough to defeat the demons?
There’s a lot of places in Scripture like this that make for good campaign hooks. And there’s lots of great people described in the Bible who would make really interesting characters to explore as a PC.
Setting 2: Out of the Bible
The second approach is a lot like the first, with just a minor change. In this approach, you still take inspiration for the characters or the adventure from Scripture, but then you reskin them and plop them into whatever D&D world you want.
For example, take the Gerasene demoniac from Mark 5. Now here’s a character rich with possibilities. A possessed strong-man hanging out in a graveyard has D&D encounter written all over it. You can put that graveyard wherever you want.
Another approach that’s similar to this is to change some other aspect of an otherwise clearly Biblical story. Maybe that small change needs to be fixed and the story set right to avoid some major trouble. For instance what if Goliath had been wearing a fancy helmet that covered his forehead and the boy’s sling stone just bounced off? Or what if there hadn’t been a ram in the bush when Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac?
Setting 3: The Narnia Route – Strong Allegory
You could also go the Narnia route and play a game that’s strongly allegorical. I call it the Narnia route because this is how CS Lewis approached fantasy. You make the heroes and the enemies stand for something specific. The evil sorcereress isn’t just an evil sorcereress, but the very thinly veiled incarnations of the devil. The lion isn’t just a lion, but an obvious stand-in for Jesus.
You can play a lot with allegory. Take an evil, maybe one of the seven deadly sins for example, and make the enemies a physical representation of that vice. That hill giant isn’t just a hill giant, but the embodiment of gluttony, for example.
Setting 4: The Tolkien Route – ideals and themes
The final way to think about how to incorporate Christianity into your game is to go the Tolkien route. This is what we see in The Lord of the Rings. The story happens in the fantasy setting, and the themes and ideals of the Christian faith are major players in the story, but religion as such is often left off-screen.
In this method you resist the temptation to go for direct Biblical allegory but see the ideals and themes of Christian faith as universal truths that are at play in any environment.
Repentance. Redemption. Love. Humility. Truth. Friendship. Kindness. Trust. Self-sacrifice. Endurance in the face of suffering. These ideals are some of those that color the faith of Jesus. Meaning, these are things not about Jesus, but the ways of living that Jesus valued and tried to teach to others.
On reskinning game mechanics:
Though the standard religious lore of Dungeons & Dragons involves a pantheon of various deities spread across a multiverse of fairly well-defined planes of existence, there’s not much in the mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons that gets lost if you want to strip all that out. The game itself is lore-agnostic, and nothing is lost if the lore of your game looks a little different. The Dungeon Master’s Guide specifically gives you permission to tell your stories in whatever world you want, including with whatever conceptions of deity and supernatural forces you want.
Concerning player characters:
You can substitute almost anything for the “power source” of more fantastical and magical powers pretty simply. I’ve used lots of different versions of this in my games.
For example, in games that I’ve run that are set in the world of Biblical events, I’ve reskinned many of the D&D classes and made God the power source for everything. Different classes access God in different ways, with the various class flavors coming from how people emphasize different aspects of God. I emphasized these changes by reskinning some of the character classes with new names.
Here is the class list as I present it to my players for creating characters in a game world with a more Biblical lore.
Fighter – a trained warrior. A master of martial combat, skilled with a variety of weapons and armor.
Zealot (Barbarian) – an emotional warrior. A fierce warrior who fights with their emotions and can enter a battle rage.
Paladin – a holy warrior. A holy warrior bound to a sacred oath.
Ranger – a wilderness warrior who is a bruiser with a few special tricks. A warrior who uses martial prowess and natural forces to combat threats on the edges of civilization.
Rogue – a daring and sly opponent. A scoundrel who uses stealth and trickery to overcome obstacles.
Fighter – a precision sharpshooter. A master of martial combat, skilled with a variety of weapons and armor.
Monk – a martial artist. A master of martial arts, harnessing the power of the body in pursuit of spiritual perfection.
Ranger – a wilderness warrior who is light on the feet with a few special tricks. A warrior who uses martial prowess and natural forces to combat threats on the edges of civilization.
Scribe (Wizard) – accesses great power through academic study. A scholar who wields supernatural power that is capable of manipulating the structures of reality.
Artificer – accesses power through an understanding of the connections between the physical and the metaphysical. A master of unlocking hidden power in everyday objects, artificers are supreme inventors.
Cleric – accesses great power through prayer to God. A priestly champion who wields divine force in service of a higher power.
Druid – accesses great power through becoming one with the natural world. A priest of the old faith, wielding the powers of nature—moonlight and plant growth, fire and lightning—and adopting animal forms.
Bard – accesses great power through personality and creativity
Paladin – accesses great power through willpower and spiritual disciplines. A holy warrior bound to a sacred oath.
Chosen (Sorcerer) – accesses great power through natural ability. A blessed individual who draws on inherent ability to do supernatural things.
Prophet (Warlock) – accesses great power through supernatural relationships and bargains. A charismatic agent of God who wields power through a supernatural agreement.
One last thing before I wrap this post up. I recently created a tool that will help you add a more Biblical flavor to your D&D games called Biblical Verbal Components. It’s a collection of Bible verses that you can use as the verbal components for any of the officially published spells in D&D 5th Edition. It has components for over 500 spells, which means over 1100 different Bible verses mapped to match the unique effects of each spell. It’s available over on the DMs Guild, and proceeds from the sale of Biblical Verbal Components will go to directly supporting those in need through our local Emergency Needs Fund.
Back in January, an article on Buzzfeed went viral. No, it wasn’t about the 10 best ways to cook a hot dog (although I’d be intrigued to find out the ways other than: 1. Roasting over a fire; 2. Boiling in a pan on the stovetop; 3. Wrapping in a paper towel and microwaving for 45 seconds).
It was an article titled, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” by Anne Helen Petersen. If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to take the time to do so here. The gist of the article is that, while burnout isn’t a phenomenon unique to the millennial generation, millennials are held captive by it in a way that other generations aren’t. Millennials have essentially been programmed since birth to attempt to optimize every aspect of life. Beginning with over-scheduled childhoods filled with a variety of extra-curricular activities designed to make us the most attractive college candidates possible, to the society-driven goal that every single one of us attend said colleges, we have spent our lives being maximized. This has led millennials to be pre-disposed to burnout. Burnout happens when you give everything you have to something, and yet still more is asked of you, which you continue to give until you just stop.
I resonated with this article. Being an older millennial (part of the xennial sub-generation) I can’t say that everything fit my life, but it nails the general social context in which I’ve grown up, and in which I find myself attempting to successfully ‘adult.’
And I admit, that I often
feel a bit burned out. Like Ms. Petersen notes in her article, I can find
myself struggling to focus on accomplishing simple, uncomplicated tasks. This
is one of the hallmarks of burnout.
It’s the result of being expected to produce something in every aspect of life, to give and give and give until you have nothing left to give and then give even more. It’s a mental and physical reaction against the programmed commodification our whole lives have become. This goes far beyond just the work we do…it extends into our hobbies.
For years I’ve felt a bit ashamed of publicly revealing my hobbies. When asked what my hobbies are, instead of saying things like, working outside, exercising, or woodworking, my answer is, “I play games.”
Most often this means video games, but it also includes board games. The problem with board games is that you have to have a group of people get together, and with work and travel and families, finding time is an issue. PLUS, you have to live near each other. Video games requires neither of these so, more often than not, I probably should should say that my hobby isn’t playing games (in general) but simply playing video games.
I felt shame about sharing this hobby because, unlike those other hobbies I mentioned, playing video games isn’t ‘productive.’ Like, I don’t get to the end of an hour of doing my hobby and say, “Look at these chiseled 6-pack abs I’ve been working on!” There are no books to analyze and review, no cool walking sticks I’ve whittled, no flower gardens to show off…instead, I could share about how I won the 1998 World Series with the Twins after I took over as the General Manager in 1994 for an utterly horrendous team!
Even in my hobbies,
which are supposed to be about what I do to relax in my downtime, I was being
sucked back into this idea that the only thing important about life is how well
I could optimize my time to produce stuff.
Enter Dungeons and Dragons.
Here was a game that
I could play, with others (and thanks to the wonders of the internet we can
play together even though we don’t live near each other!), and we weren’t
producing anything…at least, not some tangible product.
When you play D&D, you do end up producing things…you produce a story…you produce active imaginations…you produce team-work…you produce friendship…in short, you produce community. These are an entirely different kind of product, a product that doesn’t drain you of life like a 4th level Blight spell, but instead restores your soul like a Bard’s Song of Rest.
Since I started
playing D&D 4 years ago, I have felt zero shame in sharing about the adventures
of my Hill Dwarf Fighter-Paladin named Leroy Jenkins. In fact, I relish the chance
to share about my hobby, to raise a fist in the face of productive hobbies, to
boldly claim, “I’m not making anything and it feels great!”
So, how do you deal
with millennial (or any) burnout? Why not try joining up with other adventurers
to end a tyrannical Lich’s reign of terror? To quote my gnome friend Channing
Tenderhammer, “Liches get stitches!”
A group of people sit down around a table, eyeing one other warily. Each has come in search of adventure and will spend the next few hours finding it, or will leave with regret. Few talk, unsure of what to say to these strange new companions. It’s an introvert’s nightmare. And I, dear reader, am an introvert.
Games played through Dungeons & Dragons Organized Play, also known as the D&D Adventurers League, often begin in this dubious fashion. They take place at game stores, gaming conventions, and other public spaces – united in that initial awkward moment.
Thank God there is a game to play. Eventually the Dungeon Master calls the table together, you get to introduce your character, and you’re off and running with fantastic companions like Crouton the Human Barbarian and Daryush the Aasimar Bard. The awkwardness of those first 15 minutes is behind you, eclipsed by this new world of wonder that’s being created together at the table. Thank God there is a game to play; it almost makes that initial awkward moment disappear.
A great rpg like D&D can cover for a multitude of social sins. It builds community and friendships. But in my experience, at an organized play game those friendships are often felt more by the characters than they are by the actual players. Your character may have saved the life of another character at the table, but 4 hours can pass and you can leave the table without even learning the name of the person playing that character.
Now there is a lot that I love about organized play. I love that I can drop in and out of a game according to my life’s hectic schedule. I love that I can take my character to a multitude of different tables and play them with a multitude of different companions. I love my experience as a DM, where I don’t have to manage other people’s schedules and have weeks where we can’t play because schedules didn’t line up. Instead I just announce that I’m running a table and every week it is full.
But those first 15 minutes… woof!
I love home games too. I recently finished DMing two simultaneous 3 1/2 year campaigns in a shared world. It was a blast. If that awkward initial situation was happening at a home game, it’s probably right at the very beginning of the campaign. In that case we could do a Session 0. A Session 0 is a time for you to get together as people, introduce new faces, and talk about what you hope to get out of the game. You can build your characters together, co-create the world, and importantly get to know your fellow players as people. A Session 0 is an awesome thing, lots of peoplehave written aboutwhy and how to have them, but for Organized Play games the idea of a Session 0 is completely useless. There’s not enough time!
But there is 15 minutes. You might not build a lifelong friendship in that time, but you can at least start to build a sense of person-to-person community.
As a Pastor, one of my jobs is to facilitate community building, sometimes in these same tiny windows of time. As a Dungeon Master, I’ve been bringing those community creation skills to my Adventurers League games in something I call The First 15, and I think every Adventurers League DM should implement it, because that awkward initial moment? I don’t worry about those anymore.
THE FIRST 15
As the Dungeon Master, your first task is to welcome your players to the table. This is your table, and only you can share its hospitality. Make the first move and at least say, “Hello,” to each person as they arrive.
When your players are all there, invite them to go around the table and introduce themselves. Here’s where it gets important! As people introduce themselves, have them share their name and pronouns, their character’s name and the standard race/class/etc. AND ONE MORE THING.
In addition to simple hospitality, this one more thing is the crux of the whole First 15. It must be one more thing about the player, not the character. A simple icebreaker question can give the entire game session a different feel, and leave a much better impression in people’s minds when it’s over. Here is a list of great questions you can ask that will pull out that one more thing.
What are you excited about today/ tonight?
What is one thing you need to have a great game session?
What fear do you have as we begin this game?
On a scale of 1-10, where is your energy level right now?
What are you hoping for in this game?
What is one expectation you would like to set for the entire table?
What has been the best part of your day so far?
What is your favorite/least favorite thing about your character?
Besides your own PC, who is your favorite fictional character?
What is your favorite movie/book/tv show?
What power or ability does your character have that you wish you had in reed life?
What is your most prized personal possession?
What color best fits your personality?
What is your favorite pillar of play (Combat/Exploration/Role Play) and which pillar would you most like to improve your play in?
Asking even a single question about the person behind the PC lets people know that they matter. A question like one of these can uncover otherwise hidden expectations, anxieties, or dreams. Having a space, however brief, to share these things before starting to play can make the whole gameplay experience better. People might hear something that helps them remember someone’s name or interests.
It’s far from rocket science, but instituting the First 15 in your game is a simple first step to an even better game.