Writing things up.

So the whole “paper writing” thing has been going super well, at least the part where I’m writing on paper. Last week I spent a lot more time writing and was more deeply engaged in the writing I did, but there was also a lot of adjustments to my routine.

I learned that while it is no great chore to type stuff up after writing it, it still must be done. My day one solution of propping the notebook up against a random thing proved untenable in the long term… it was hard to find the sweet spot and harder to keep the notebook there. Also, my day one random object is my insulated mug, which is something I am ideally using for other purposes throughout the day.

Fortunately, my mother reads my blog. (How many times do you suppose that sentence has been typed in human history?) Through her auspices and the existence of Amazon, an office-grade book stand arrived at my door over the weekend. This was obviously going to be the long-term solution, but on my own devices I would have waited until after the next time I get paid to order it, as I was mentally classing it as “useful but non-essential”. In retrospect, though, it really is an essential part of the operation.

The exact model she got me is proving to be really great. It’s surprisingly versatile. The whole thing folds up into a flat, lightweight piece of inflexible plastic of just the right size and shape to slip under a notebook when I’m leaning back in my chair and writing. It also makes a great stand for a tablet; I don’t have a specific use for that function in mind, but it might be useful if I need to do an impromptu “two screens” set up for some reason. It can also hold something like a D&D book open to a specific two-page spread, which will be useful not only for my weekend DMing but will also make it easier to do things like reference the monster CR tables when working on my own materials.

Speaking of my own materials, at the end of my first month writing and selling my own D&D materials through the DMs Guild, I have a bit north of $400 gross sales on e-booklets selling for between $1 and $5. Not too shabby. Actually, that was the high end of what I was hoping to do. Now, at the 50% royalty rate that amounts to a little bit less north of $200, and I can’t cash that out until the sales are 60 days in the past, and this might be a fluke.

But if it’s something that sustains or even grows, dang, could this be exactly what I need.

I’m also coming into week five of my “forty things for sale in forty weeks” plan, right on target in terms of both output (four things, though I don’t think I’ve posted the fourth one, a collection of magic items, to my main blog here) and what it’s doing for my revenue. I really didn’t expect when I started that the first 10% of them would all be D&D things. I’m going to be focusing my energies elsewhere for a while so that I don’t wind up cannibalizing my own sales, to ride the fiction/prose groove that I started last week with the notebooks, and to watch what the sales numbers do there when I am not putting out a new D&D thing every week.

I’d also like for my next major DMs Guild release to be something more substantial than ~20 pages of character options or magic items. I started with quick little weekly projects because I’m coming at this from the standpoint that I know what my work is worth so I’m not going to be throwing out three pages of homebrew with a pay-what-you-want sticker on it, but there’s no reason for the masses of people browsing the storefront to trust me when I say that my work is worth $10 or $20. But the $5 releases can serve as a calling card, and the book of feats can be an even more entry-level introduction for people who can’t imagine putting down $5 for a 3rd party PDF supplement by someone they’ve never heard of.

On the subject of the feat book, I’ve currently got it listed for $1.99 just to see what happens. Originally it was the same price as the most popular feat supplement on the DMs Guild with twice as much content (and better content, in my opinion), just to see what happened. As I’d hoped/predicted, it became the most popular one and held onto that for quite a while, while also pushing the previous contender down out of the top five. I raised the price over the weekend under the theory that a higher price might be seen as an assertion of quality. I’m about to go and lower the price to $0.75 or $0.50 or pay-what-thou-wilt (not sure at the moment that I write this) to see what happens when it’s undercutting its nearest competitor in price.

Again, it’s kind of the “gimme” in the list, so I feel free to experiment more with it.


Fun with etymology: the word “manuscript” means, literally, “handwriting”. Manual script. Go back far enough, and the idea of a typewritten manuscript becomes an oxymoron.

Of course, it’s not as though we were otherwise spoiled for options back when manuscript implied handwritten. It’s impossible to imagine a word as basic and useful as “manuscript” clinging useless to its roots in a day and age when the act of writing can not only bypass the need for a pen and ink but even paper.

Somewhere along the line, I convinced myself that I don’t like writing by hand. It’s something I only did by necesity, in the dim and long ago ages that preceded this modern age of wonders, of computers that fit in laps and purses, or hands and pockets. For me, the practical end goal for any physical act of writing for me is to get it into a computer, where it can be edited, published, shared. Writing it all out by hand first must by necessity add a step to the process, slowing things down.

Why add to the overhead, if you don’t have to?

Increasingly, over the past decade or so, I’ve never had to.

So I haven’t.


Recently, I was a passing party to a conversation about classroom decorum and learning styles. The topic was teachers who punish students for “not paying attention” if they observe them doing something like doodling or surfing the web or reading or playing a casual game or fidgeting or working on something for another class during a lecture.

Many people made the testimonial that they had performed best when they had teachers who didn’t notice or didn’t care that they were playing Solitaire or scribbling in the margins of their notebook or working on math homework during another class.

I chimed in to say that I had done most of my best writing in high school and college during unrelated lecture classes, where I could sit there with an open notebook and appear for all the world to be taking copious notes. I never actually took any notes on any class, but I never forgot a thing I heard while I was filling another notebook up with my personal observations about superheroes and sorcery.

I did all or most of my writing that way, once upon a time. Even after school ceased to be a part of my life, I still carried my notebooks and I still threshed a lot of things out in them. I had less access to computers, fewer opportunities to hammer words directly from my brain into keyboards, less time to do it in.

I’ve never been nostalgic for that experience. As I said, it seemed like unnecessary overhead. But this conversation got me to think about how ever since I stopped writing by hand, I’ve been trying to find ways to change my electronic writing experience in ways that make it more similar to doing things the old-fashioned way. I don’t mean the whole stylus-scribbling-on-a-screen route. I mean making the electronic writing experience more portable, more casual, more tactile, and above all, more deliberate in the way that writing by hand is.

Physical keyboards that fit in my pocket. Smaller ones, that force me to slow my scroll. ILYS.com to keep me focused letter by letter, word by word. Internet nannies to keep my attention from drifting. I’ve never thought of these as being more like writing by hand, but they are.

So I started to wonder if the once necessary evil of having to transcribe my thoughts twice might not have been more necessary and less evil than I imagined it to be.

This is not a “kids these days” rant. This is not a paean to pen and paper over the soullessness of screens. Computers let me do what I do. I can’t write manuscript to society (or more particular, a school’s) specifiications, and the more I try to bring my output up to a level that’s legible to anyone who doesn’t already know what it says, the more exhausted I become and the worse results I get. Learning to type changed my life in ways that are all but indistinguishable from saving it.

Typing is second nature to me. When I sit down and put my fingers on a physical keyboard, even a tiny one like the kind that used to be common for smartphones, I feel an almost spirit-level connection to the machine. It’s like I think words and they appear. I can pour my thoughts out through my fingers and send them off into the world.

It’s like a kind of magic. The best kind of magic, in that it works.

But typing at the speed of thought is not always an advantage. When the story is fully-formed in my head, when the words are right there bulging up behind my eyes straining to get out, sure. Point me at a keyboard and standback. You’re about to see something.

But it doesn’t help me when I don’t know what the story is. There’s an upper bound on how much speed matters when I’m trying to pluck the words out of the aether, and the slower the words feel like coming, the more all of that extra speed just hangs around my uselessly, cluttering up the psychic space where the work is supposed to get done.

The truth is, the best writing I ever manage on a computer is all transcription. It might be transcribing something that I put together in my head and I can see as clear as day, or it might be something I put down on paper, but if I don’t have the words already in front of me in some form, the computer adds nothing to the process. All the productivity and inspiration gimmicks I’ve tried are just trying to make up for that.

Currently, I am engaged in an experiment.

I sat down here maybe half an hour ago with a brand new notebook and a fat gel pen and I wrote the words, “Somewhere along the line I convinced myself that I don’t like writing by hand.” I’ve had these words in my head for a few days now, and they were the only ones I started with.

Here I am, six college-ruled pages later, and my pen hasn’t stopped moving in thirty minutes.

I’ve poured this whole essay out onto the page in order, except for the etymological digression that now forms the introduction. That came to me at the top of the second page, so I wrote it, blocked it off, and then continued.

The experience of writing in this way is familiar, but completely different from the one I’ve gotten used to. When I write on a computer, I have to carefully manage my environment and my emotional state. Any little thing can throw me off, and anything that throws me off even a little can upset the delicate balance on which it has seemed my creativity depends. To write at a computer, I need solitude and privacy and emotional security.

Here, as I write this, I am in a crowded coffee shop. I brought headphones, but I’m not using them. Intruding on my consciousness are not just all of the background sounds of a busy cafe, but the details of the three nearest conversations. Two are mothers going over reading assignments with their small children, and the other one is political. None of them are particularly irksome (I’m a bit charmed to note that one of the children is only reading books that were part of Sad Puppies Review Books, but then, the classics are classics for a reason), but I know if I was trying to write a blog post on an electronic device (to say nothing of a story) I would have to plug my headphones in and screen out all the noise.

Given my formative experiences as a writer, though, it should be no surprise that these distractions don’t actually distract me when I’m writing by hand. I used to write superhero stories and RPG mechanics while listening to history lectures. I used to code game stuff while answering a customer service line.

Still, it’s nice to have it confirmed. That was the point of coming here in the first place. I had a hypothesis and I am testing it.

Some things about this experiment made me nervous, mind you. It bothers me not being able to quantify my progress in terms other than notebook pages. How many words is that? How many real pages (by which I mean, 250 word intervals) will it fill? I suppose that if I keep this up I’ll get a better sense of that sort of thing.

For now, I just have to be satisfied with the knowledge that I am writing, that the words are flowing fast and free. This part of the experiment was a success. You will know the second part succeeded if you are reading these words, because that means I found it equally easy to transcribe this text into my blog and post it.

My recollection is that this was not only a fairly quick chore, but an easy one. Not only am I a lightning-fast typist, not only am I able to type accurately without glancing at the keys or the screen, but I am an exceptional transcriptionist of my own thoughts. Once I have written a thing, looking at the source is more like getting an occasional refresher than anything else. I have resented the task of typing up a manuscript I scripted manually only because it seemed annoyingly redundant, not because of any actual annoyance.

If this impression holds true, then I might have turned a real corner in my approach to the writing process. I might have found the practical break I’ve been looking for.

If you do read this on my blog, file this one under “personal breakthrough” rather than “writerly advice”, folks. My general advice is and will always be to do what works for you, but never stop trying new things in case something works better. Try this for yourself if you want, but don’t feel like it’s a necessary part of doing things right. I mastered typing at a young enough age that I’m “fluent” in it, but I still came of age before there was quite the ubiquity of consumer electronics there is today. I suspect if I’d had a phone in my hand instead of a notebook on my desk during those long hours, things would have turned out differently

On the subject of trying something new: even if the second part fails, or is not an unqualified slog, and by the time I reach these words I am sick to death of the whole thing, it’s still good to be trying something. It’s still good to have another trick arrow in my quiver for when I get stuck.

Succeed or fail, this is an experiment. Whether a hypothesis holds true or not, the only real failure state for the experimenter is being afraid to try.

As I type this, I am once again writing out of my head. I have run out of words on the paper. I see now that in the hour I spent writing in the coffee shop, I wrote ~1,800 words. That’s really good. When I’m writing, I consider 500 words every half hour to be my target and 1,000 words in a half hour to be an exceptional streak. It took me 40 minutes to copy this, so counting this as 100 minutes’ total of writing work, I’m still on-target for my goal of 1,000 words an hour.

It did take me a whole day more than I intended to type this up, as when I got home yesterday I didn’t really have a suitable set-up for propping up a notebook where I can comfortably read it. What I’m doing right now isn’t a long-term solution (it is literally just propped up), but it works.

After writing the body of this blog post in the coffee shop, I spent a half hour writing bits of a story I started a while back but which I have had a hard time figuring out a way to continue, to make sure this method works as well for fiction as it does for meandering personal essays. It did. Then, last night, while watching a TV show I’m interested but not hugely invested in, I also sat and wrote a bit of flash fiction. I can’t multitask like that when I’m writing on a computer, can’t even have a movie or TV show on “for background noise” (though I admittedly have never seen the appeal of that in general). With pen and paper, though, I could follow the story on the screen and the one in my head. It’s possible I followed both of them better, because my mind wasn’t constantly wandering to other things.

So I think this is going to mark a change in my writing process. The associated gadgetry with this one is cheaper, at least. I spent $1 a piece on three notebooks, and another $1 on the pen. (It was a nice-ish one, on clearance).

Magic Items (D&D 5E)

The following three magic items are intended for use in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. They are presented here as a preview of my upcoming supplement, Armoury of Enchantment, which will be added to my other titles currently available on the DMs Guild.

Footwear of the Windrunner

Wondrous item, very rare

These boots or sandals allow the wearer to run—not walk, not stand, but run—on thin air. They seem ordinary when worn, until the wearer takes the Dash action. Doing so gives the wearer the ability to run on thin air. Ascending by 1 foot requires an additional foot of movement, descending is treated as normal movement. The wearer falls if knocked prone, or at the start of their turn if they do not immediately take the Dash action again. If the wearer jumps while wearing these shoes, a DC 15 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check is required to avoid falling at the end of the jump.

Potion of Cosmic Revelation

Potion, rare

Also known as the elixir of the third eye or the potion of mind opening, this potion bestows upon any creature who drinks it the effects of the contact other plane spell, some 2d4 minutes after it is imbibed. The potion renders the drinker catatonic (unconscious, for all purposes except the spell) for the duration of the spell (1 minute). A creature who is not seated when the effect hits falls prone.

If the drinker does not have any 5th level spell slots, the saving throw called for by the spell is made with disadvantage, but even on a failed save the drinker can ask 1d4 questions before taking the damage and succumbing to the mind-shattering effects of the spell.

Sapphire Bird Ring

Ring, very rare

The first sapphire bird ring was created by a high elf wizard of an age long past. This wizard, whose name and identity have not been lost, was known for possessing an unusual reverence for the beautiful things of nature, even for an elf.

This ring bears a device that resembles a bird with two exquisitely cut sapphires for eyes. With a mental command and an action, one or both sapphires can be ejected from the ring, at which point they turn into a crystalline construct resembling a bluebird. Use the statistics for a raven, minus the mimicry ability, but the creature is a construct, not a beast, and has only 1 hp. The birds glow with an inner light, shedding bright light in a 10 foot radius and dim light for another 10 feet. If one of the birds takes any damage, it shatters into brittle blue glass immediately. If a bird is destroyed, its gem will reappear on the ring after 1d6+1 days. Until that time, it cannot be re-summoned.

While they exist, the bluebirds are bound to the ringbearer can communicate with, control, and see through the senses of either bird as if it were a familiar, (as described under the find familiar spell), though the birds cannot deliver spells or use the Help action. The wearer may also cast the animal messenger spell at-will, using one of the birds. The birds always return unerringly to the ring after delivering their message.

A bird created by the ring cannot be banished as a familiar would be. If touched with the ring, as an action a bluebird can be turned back into a gemstone, which rejoins with the ring.

Fun times, phone times.

So, our hot water heater shut itself off again sometime between Saturday and Sunday. Since this time it had the good grace to do it at a time that doesn’t coincide with an impending seaboard-paralyzing blizzard with attendant actual plumbing and heating emergencies plus travel impediments, it will probably take less than a week to get a plumber in. On the other hand, since this is twice in such rapid succession that the cutoff has been tripped, I presume it will call for more than resetting the breaker. So who knows what the situation will be there.

Also yesterday, my phone died on me completely. I had it in the pocket of my jacket. I looked at it just before getting up from the dinner table and it worked fine and had a sufficiency of charge. A few minutes later, I tried turning it on in the living room and got nothing. Wouldn’t tap on. Wouldn’t respond to the power button. Wouldn’t respond to a USB cord being plugged in. Wouldn’t respond to inputs from the headphones. Wouldn’t do a soft reset. Wouldn’t even come on for a hard reset. Left it charging for a while, no change.

Even though my phone, like so many phones these days, is not designed for the battery to be consumer accessible, the next step in my general troubleshooting flowchart was “remove and re-seat the battery”. So I figured out how to take it apart (that took some doing) and how to re-seat the battery (that took even more doing), and when that produced no change, I started delving deeper and discovered a loose connection, which I fixed. Lo and behold, it turned on.

I’m sure I voided the warranty seventeen ways to Sunday doing that, though I did plan on replacing my phone within half a year anyway. I feel like I might have to be prepared to move that timetable up a bit as my ability to patch up the interior of an electronic device does have limits. My phone is insured, so I could have gotten a comparable replacement for cheap, but I kind of have an inverse psychological version of the serenity prayer going. In order to accept that I can’t change the water heater, I had to have something that I can change, and I can troubleshoot an electronic device.

On the subject of acceptance and change: I have sold more copies of my D&D stuff with less advertising effort than I have ever sold of anything else in the same timeframe. Even ignoring all of the sales of the $1 “feat value pack” thing I made specifically to break into the top 10/top 5 (it’s still in the top 10, and has been intermittently in the top 5 for most of the days it’s been out), this is true. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this, as my most successful work has always been gamer-related, and I have spent the vast majority of my life immersing myself in RPG design for free, but it’s still  a bit of a revelation. It also does a lot to kick latent impostor syndrome to the curb. I’ve been a little apologetic about how much of my output right now is D&D stuff, but man… it’s fun and it looks like it has the potential to pay the bills. If nothing else, embracing that will mean that the energy and spoons and creative cycles I spend dithering over how much is too much will be freed up for other things.

Sick or tired?

Jack pointed out today that it’s possible that I’m not fighting off an infection, I’m just dealing with low-level exhaustion because he keeps getting up in the night (he is actually sick), and I’m a light sleeper. He was prescribed antibiotics today, so there’s a chance it will clear up, if that’s what my issue has been this week.

Spherical Goblins: Conceptual Problems

In past columns, I’ve spoken about the issue of Dungeon Masters nerfing player characters on the fly because they can’t make sense of what the game allows the PC to do. The flipside of the DM nerfing a PC “because it doesn’t make sense” is a player thinking it’s only fair that they be allowed to do something with their character “because it makes sense”.

Now, generally, if we’re talking about something that comes up in play and isn’t covered by the rules, I’ll side with the player who reasons that they should maybe be able to at least try this cool thing they thought of. Back in 4th Edition, I would let players cash in an encounter power or daily power use to do something that did not meet the strict mechanical definition of what that power did, but which was clearly related. Example? The ranger power “Hunter’s Bear Trap” lets you pin someone with an arrow to the leg. If someone saw an ally or civilian topple off a wall and wanted to save them, I’d let them make an attack roll and use that power to try to save them by pinning their cloak.

That kind of improvisation was necessitated by the rigid powers structure of 4E, but it comes up in every edition. The rules can’t cover everything. If you feel like your Acrobatics proficiency should let you do something that’s not explicitly covered by it and which isn’t covered by another skill, I’m game. If you’ve got a slightly tweaked use for a spell that doesn’t replicate another spell, I’ll listen.

Where this gets to be a problem, though, is when we’re talking about adding base level capabilities to a character that exceed what is otherwise available. Often these capabilities are explained as being logical outgrowths or even requirements of the character’s backstory or nature, which both can make the player feel like they’re not being unreasonable (they don’t want it to be more powerful, they want it because it makes sense) and like the DM who says no is being unreasonable (they’re ruining your character!)

As an example, imagine a player whose character concept is this: blessed by a goddess of nature, this character has a profound connection with the natural world and an almost empathic ability to relate to animals.

If I hear a concept like that in D&D, I’ll think, great! That one’s easy. Be a ranger, druid, nature cleric, or totem warrior barbarian, or just take a background that gives you animal handling.

But a player who comes up with a concept like that might have a dot dot dot rather than a period at the end of that, and the next part is “so my character should have double proficiency bonus on Animal Handling and Survival, and be able to cast speak with animals at-will.”

Because of the connection with nature and the empathic ability to relate to animals.

The first time I ran up against this kind of thinking, I wasn’t playing D&D. I was trying to put together a superhero themed campaign in GURPS, and I had one player who kept arguing about the point buy system on principle. She wanted her character to have the ability to step out of phase with reality, becoming not just intangible but also invisible every time she did so.

That was fine. GURPS can handle that kind of thing really well. Basically, you pay the cost for both abilities and give yourself a discount for invisibility only working while you are intangible.

Her issue was, “But the invisibility is a natural side effect of her phasing, so it should be automatic. Why do I have to pay for something that happens naturally?”

The answer I gave her is the same one I give to players who feel that the mechanical options in D&D should be supplemented by benefits from their backstory: game balance doesn’t care where your capabilities come from, only what they are.

Being able to turn invisible and intangible at the same time is just as valuable a pair of abilities no matter what explanation you give for them, so it costs the same amount of points.

Dungeons & Dragons does not use such an intricate and comprehensive point system for anything, though it does offer point buy as an option for setting your ability scores (i.e., basic attributes), so let’s take this as an example. For simplicity, I’m going to be dealing with scores before racial modifiers throughout this next bit, just so I don’t have to keep clarifying that the 15 I’m referring to might be a 16 or 17.

Say there’s a player whose character, as a lad, would eat four dozen eggs every day to help him get large. Now that he’s grown, he eats five dozen eggs, so he’s roughly the size of a barge.

Now, the player has done the point buy and put 15 points into Strength, the maximum the system will allow him to buy. But he comes to his DM and says, “I think my Strength should be 18. My character has performed an exhaustive strength-gaining regimen ever since he was a child, and that should be reflected in his stats. It’s just not realistic that I have the same strength score as anyone else would have, given how completely my character’s life has been dedicated to gaining muscle.”

A lot of DMs, in this situation, will be bothered by this argument but not be able to put their finger on what’s wrong with it, so if they wind up saying no out of principle they feel like they shot down part of the character’s concept, or they’ll not be able to defend the rules or their decision any better than by shrugging and saying, “Well, the game doesn’t always make sense.”

But this is really the same situation as in that GURPS game. Having a “mere” Strength of 15 doesn’t require you to ignore your character’s backstory where they have distant giant blood, or had a massive protein intake and bodybuilding regimen, or were blessed with phenomenal strength by a god, or whatever. Rather, it reflects it. Even though as a player you are absolutely entitled to take your attribute points and spend them in order to get a 15 on whatever attribute you see fit, the character you create was shaped and molded by the circumstances of their life in order to wind up with such an extraordinary (and it really is extraordinary!) capability that a 15 represents.

I know, it’s hard to remember that an unmodified ability score of 15 is extraordinary when you’re traveling with 3 to 5 other people who pretty much all have one, too. But this is where it’s important to remember two things: one, you’re not the star of the show here, but two, you are one of the stars.

Back in the day, when we all rolled our stats in order (and then fudged the heck out of them), player characters were theoretically average individuals who might, if they lived long enough, become great heroes. From 3rd edition onward, the trend has been against that, with 3rd edition formally adopting as default weighted die rolls and a generous point buy system. 4th edition really solidified what I call the Lake Wobegon school of character design, “where the halflings are strong, the half-orcs are good looking, and all the adventurers are above average”. 5E more or less continues that trend, not strengthening it but not shying away from it.

But even if a 15 doesn’t make you anything special among the sort of heroic adventurers you find yourself banding together with, it is still special. A score like that really cries out for explanation, honestly, and a backstory that explains how you came to be so blessed is not just acceptable, it’s great.

But while your backstory can explain how you came to have the abilities you do, it can’t be used to justify a score that’s even higher.

That’s talking strictly about ability scores, which have a literal point buy scale associated with them. What about other capabilities, though, like our nature lover?

Even without an explicit “point cost”, the answer is the same. When you choose a background, class, race, skill proficiencies, feats, etc., you are essentially spending a single point to buy a thing or package of things. You can (and by all means, should, if you have the inclination) explain the results of that purchase in terms of your character’s backstory, but you don’t get more points to spend because of the backstory.

If your character is a druid or ranger, then your nature skills and natural magic represent your character’s profound spiritual connection to nature. If you’re making a human with the variant rules and take the magic initiate feat and use animal friendship or speak with animals as your one level one spell, that’s likewise a result of that connection.

“But that’s the feat I get just for being human!” the player might say. “This comes from something unique to my character.”

This is confusing choices you make as a player with things about your character. The ability to choose a feat just for being human (or rather, just for making a level 1 human adventurer who is intended to stand alongside humanoid dragons and quasi-immortal forest jerks) is a player resource; but the feat you choose is (or represents) something unique about your character. You can do as much or as little as you want to integrate that unique thing into your character’s concept and backstory (or ongoing story).

Now, there is a difference between wanting something extra and wanting something different. If a player wants to use a custom feat in place of any of the existing examples, or wishes to have a custom sub-class to take instead of one of the existing ones, that’s theoretically no different than spending their points differently in order to achieve a desired result.

For instance, it’s not uncommon to encounter a player who wants to play as a heroic werewolf or vampire. The Monster Manual already provides rules for converting a bitten character into monsters of those type, but they add an immense amount of power in the process and balance-wise, they really work better for “your character died and now there’s a new villain” than “your character was bitten by the fantasy equivalent of a radioactive spider and now you have all of the superpowers”.

This isn’t to say that you have to say no. The trick is to figure out what abilities a vampire or werewolf character class would have at level 1 that would be comparable to what any other character class gets at level 1, and give them that as an option for their next character level. If they want to keep developing their monstrous new abilities, then at level 2, you do the same thing, and so on.

Obviously this is a lot of work compared to the alternative, which is saying, “No, lycnathropy/vampirism is not a cool origin story but a horrible, horrible curse which basically means you have no control over your actions/you are dead and a twisted reflection of you is occupying your body,” and it may or may not be worth putting in that much effort to keep things balanced. And if it’s not worth it to you, then I urge you to just say no, because having one player who is disappointed is better than wrecking the game for everyone else.

Also? It’s not like there’s a shortage of cool character concepts that can be modeled with just what’s in the Player’s Handbook. Players who are that blasé about the possibilities embodied by high level characters of any class probably don’t understand the potential of them, and would benefit by spending more time looking at them.

But at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with coming up with alternatives for players whose character concepts are on the same general level as what’s available, but not otherwise mechanically represented. The trick is to make sure that whatever they get from the custom feat or sub-class or whatever is not any better than what they give up in not taking an existing feat or sub-class.

This can be trickier than it sounds, which is why I recommend that inexperienced players work with what’s already available and, even more so, that inexperienced DMs practice saying no to any custom options pitched by players. You have to know how the system works and why it works the way it does before you can understand if and how a new option is going to work with the system.

One area that can be really tricky is the idea of using a custom “race” build to implement a character concept. There’s a certain school of thought that already views character class and race as nothing but abstract bags of mechanical pieces. If you have a character concept for an elf that would benefit more from a high Constitution and more hit points, they’ll tell you “Take dwarf and say you’re an elf. That’s just roleplay.” Why anyone would say something is “just roleplay” in reference to a roleplaying game is beyond me, but we’ll let that go. The point is that if you see the races in the PHB as nothing but means to achieving an end for your character, then the next step is to treat them as a sort of smorgasbord.

This might be a pet peeve of mine, but I’m always immediately suspicious of a player who wants to play mix-and-match with racial abilities. It might seem like this is a decent approach to keeping things balanced, but they rarely weigh what a given feature is worth in any real way. It’s more a sense of “Well, there are races in the book that have this, so it must be balanced if I have it.”

The most egregious example I saw was a player who wanted a character who was human who had been blessed by angels but who also gained power by drinking demon blood. He took pieces from the tiefling, aasimar, and variant human race, and added another feat (on top of the one you get “just for being human”) to represent demonic strength/power. Another, less egregious recent example was a player who wanted his character to have both the halfling luck trait and the Lucky feat at level 1, in order to make a character whose concept is the luckiest person in the world.

Neither player was at my table, but I would have given both of them the same answer: make your character normally and then use this backstory to explain what you’ve got.

If your demonic-angelic avenger character is a paladin with reasonably high Strength and Constitution scores, you’ve got your blessings (the paladin abilities) and you’ve got your demonic power (the physical attributes). Take the tiefling or aasimar race to mechanically represent more demonic or more angelic flavor, or just take variant human and use your feat to get a couple of cantrips that represent both.

If your character is supposed to have luck as an overwhelming defining trait, play them as lucky. Take the halfling or variant human race to get some mechanical luck, sure, but don’t stop there because those two abilities put together won’t come up often enough to really define you. Take high dexterity but describe your character as no more than usually graceful, just prone to getting off lucky shots and being missed due to happenstance.

A rogue with this kind of character concept might have their Sneak Attack damage defined not as a matter of skill but everything lining up perfectly. A monk might have their martial arts described as coincidental slapstick. And so on.

Now, the player with the angel/demon knight concept was already planning on being a paladin. He wanted more supernatural blessings than you get “just for being a paladin”, though. The real problem with the character was that he, as my boyfriend Jack puts it, “had a level 20 backstory for a level 1 character”.

I.e., he’d already met angelic beings who singled him out for special powers and a great destiny, already learned the secret of gaining power from drinking demon blood. D&D player characters are by definition potentially epic heroes, but you have to go on the epic quests to get there.

And that, more so than any point about game balance or creativity, is my final answer to any player who feels strongly that they should be allowed to have a bunch of extra powers not because they want them for any advantage but because they think it would be fun to play a vampire or a god in human form or an indestructible construct or a celestial half-fey half-dragon. The game you’re playing is designed to model certain things, and those things are mostly “the increasingly epic adventures of increasingly epic mortal heroes.”

You start out special, you start out larger-than-life, but there’s a ceiling on those things, and if you can’t work within those limits, you need to dial your vision back in one way or another, if not by throwing it out than by deciding to grow into it.

4th Edition had epic destinies (endgame prestige classes, basically) that represented a character who gradually realized over the course of their career that they were the living embodiments of a god or primordial, or for characters who become royalty in hell, or powerful members of a fey court. In each case, though, you got no mechanical in-character benefit from these things before level 21, and then you spent 10 levels growing into it.

5th Edition does not have anything like that, but by the time you reach level 20, you are metaphorically or in some cases literally a force of nature. If you can’t raise the dead or reshape reality with a word, you can stand shoulder-to-shoulder or toe-to-toe with gods and titans.

But you’ve got to get there.

Going strictly by encounter XP budget, by the time you’re ready to tangle with a vampire one-on-one you’re going to be level 19. This is not a perfect measurement, but it’s close enough to make the point that a single vampire is comparable in awesomeness to a very high level character. You can’t expect to get that at level 1.

As a final note: DMs who wish to head off a certain amount of more reasonable “concept fishing” and allow more customization at level 1 might consider a house rule that allows each player character to choose a single feat at level 1. You might also consider taking the feat-based human variant off the table if you do this, though in my experience, the appeal of that option falls off sharply when it’s not the only path to getting a feat at level 1.

Alexandra Erin has been playing roleplaying games since 1989, and has been experimenting with game design since about one week after that. She is the author of the character option manuals Clerics of Lesser DomainsWarlocks of Other Patrons, and Feats of Heroism: 36 New Feats for 5th Edition, currently in the top 5 titles on the DMs Guild.

Good news, middling news?

Firs, the bad-ish news: I think I’ve been getting sick? It’s hard to tell. I have a very low-key brain fog and the joint pain that I normally associate with the onset of illness, plus a bit of stuffiness and throat pain, and I’ve kind of spent the past several days bracing for myself to wake up with a cold, but it didn’t actually happen. If I’m right, then I guess we can figure that my immune system is possibly on an upswing, which would be a good thing all around. If so, I could definitely get used to it… and I’d like to get used to it, as I’ve lost more productive energy this week to fretting about it than to actually being sick.

Now the good news: even if I haven’t accomplished much this week beyond it, my D&D marketing plan has worked perfectly. The collection of feats I put up just yesterday breached the top 10 product list on the DMs Guild a couple of times as it bounced around, then surged to hit the number 5 spot, where it is right now. This puts it visible on the front page of the store for people using most browsers/devices, which in turn generates more sales which gives it some inertia for its high spot. It’s hard to tell how much of a bump it’s giving my other booklets as I’ve been selling the oldest one for, oh, about twelve days, but I feel like it did give them both a jolt, and more than that, I figure it is helping me build a reputation.

Feats, marketing strategy, and more.

So, my first D&D supplements have been doing pretty well. In the ten days or so since the first one came out, I’ve had over $100 gross sales (of which I net half). Not gangbusters, but nothing to sneeze at. Considering that they’re each aimed at players of a single class, and neither one is exactly the class most starved for options, and that I’m an unknown to most players who is charging $5 for ~20 pages of options, I think it’s respectable.

I’m not willing to compromise on the price as I know what my products are worth, but I figured I need an “entry level” purchase to establish my bona fides and pique people’s interest. Thus, I took a loose collection of homebrew feats I’ve been working on (including the few in my warlock and cleric books) and put them together into a collection of 36 new feats called “Feats of Heroism“, which I’m selling for a crisp electronic dollar.

The number’s not an accident. Pretty much since the DMs Guild opened, there’s been a set of 18 feats for a dollar in the top 5 products. I’ve read them. They’re not bad, but they’re not great. They just have the virtue of being something everybody has wanted more of (feats), being cheap, and having been released ahead of most of the pack.

I humbly believe that my feat collection is the better value, and would be at twice the price. I don’t know what kind of numbers it would have to pull to knock the 18 feats off the front page, or if the steady release of more flavorful and well-thought out material is just going to see packets of feats fall in the rankings. But I’m sure it’ll sell more easily to more strangers than my cleric or warlock books will, and that it represents my game design work well enough that I’ll get more people looking at my more expensive offerings.

This is technically my published thing for the week, as I am charging money for it, but I’m going to continue working on another D&D-related release for the end of the week, which will be free (or rather, pay what you will): Heroic Houserules, a pamphlet that contains my house rules for creating emphasizing the heroic, larger-than-life aspects of the game (and incidentally pumping up some of the less effectual “ribbon” abilities, like the paladin’s Divine Sense and the ranger’s Primeval Awareness). This will serve a similar purpose to the feat manual of acting as an introduction to players unfamiliar with my work.

After that, I think I’m going to give the D&D game design stuff a rest for a bit. Part of the reason I’ve had so much material to release in those ares is it’s been building up for longer than there’s been an official outlet for it.

Warlocks of Other Patrons (D&D 5E)

Available now through the DMs Guild, Warlocks of Other Patrons is a brilliant resource for taking the warlock class to new and exciting places. Including new patrons, new pact boons, new cantrips to make melee-focused “bladelocks” more viable, and new invocations and backgrounds to add a dash of creature comfort and worldly riches to your warlock’s existence, this is a devil of a deal at $4.99.

New patrons include the Balance, the Living Dead, the Primal Spirits, and the Stars. The latter two in particular are designed to bring options and flavor from 4E explicitly into the realm of 5E. New pact boons include a divination-focused the Pact of the Eye, an immortality-oriented Pact of the Soul Keeper, and a second familiar/companion pact, Pact of the Guiding Spirit.

One of the meta goals for this release is to broaden the space occupied by the warlock in the same way that Clerics of Lesser Domains did for that class. Hence, there are more options for melee warlocks, summoning warlocks, even healing warlocks, and more non-combat/roleplay oriented options. You can use the backgrounds Astrologer, Diabolist, or Spirit Medium to represent the means by which you made your pact, or backgrounds like Cursed, Fortune’s Favorite, and Well-Kept to represent the results.

Get it today!


Twine Story: Attract Mode

Attract Mode” was an idea I had for a short story some time ago but couldn’t figure out how to write, until I came up with the idea of doing it in Twine, a visual mark-up tool that is mainly used for crafting interactive stories. I started this last fall, but was stuck on a few aspects of it. Today I showed it to Jack, who helped me figure out how to wrap it up, and so now, I’m sharing it with you.


(And for the curious, the title “Attract Mode” refers to what most folks call the “demo” of an arcade game. The term dates back to pinball machines, which would light up and make noise to attract people.)