Barbarian Subclass: Path of the Gourmet

I felt like there wasn’t enough cooking in D&D.

So I homebrewed this up:

Path of The Gourmet

A wild hunter and cook capable of filleting the best dragon sashimi you’ve ever tasted, Barbarians who follow the Path of the Gourmet are not your typical hulking brutes. Gourmet’s love to be on the front lines so they can find the freshest meat, the rarest vegetables, and the best spring water. They are capable of preparing meals fit for royalty and their meals don’t just taste good. When a Gourmet Barbarian cooks a meal for his companions their strength is bolstered, their spirits lifted, and their bodies refreshed.

Some barbarians hail from culinary cultures. Many of these barbarians end up finding places of prominence within towns or cities. Barbarians that follow the Path of the Gourmet sublimate their rage in the pursuits of perfect meals. Wild hunters and cooks capable of filleting the best dragon sashimi you’ve ever tasted, Barbarians who follow the Path of the Gourmet are not your typical hulking brutes. Gourmet’s love to be on the front lines so they can find the freshest meat, the rarest vegetables, and the best spring water. They are capable of preparing meals fit for royalty and their meals don’t just taste good. When a Gourmet Barbarian cooks a meal for his companions their strength is bolstered, their spirits lifted, and their bodies refreshed.

They choose a favored utensil as their forte’, The Fork, The Spoon, or The Knife, and they hone their craft around dishes and battle techniques that aid their companions and surprise their enemies.


Yours is a path that seeks the ultimate dish, the finest fresh ingredients from the wild, and sharing your delicious meals with others who can appreciate your rare talents. At 3rd level when you adopt this path, you gain the ability to cast the create bonfire and control flames spells. Intelligence is your spell-casting ability for these spells. When you choose this path you also gain proficiency with Cook’s Utensils.


At 3rd level, when you adopt this path, you choose a forte’, represented by a favored cooking utensil, and gain its feature. To gain the features of a forte’ you must have a regular size version of the utensil on your person as well as a weapon that mimics the utensil. A Spoon is any bludgeoning weapon. A Fork is any piercing weapon. A Knife is any slashing weapon. Typically these Forte’ Weapons are modified by a gourmet to more closely resemble the utensil they represent.


While raging, attacks with bludgeoning weapons against you have Disadvantage. You can use your Cook’s Utensil’s to make a Soup (with the right ingredients) to grant temporary hit points to a number of creatures equal to your Barbarian Level +1. To make this soup you need 1 hour. Make a Cook’s Utensils Intelligence check. You set the DC for the check. The number of temporary hit points gained is equal to half the DC rounded down. The temporary hit points remain for 1 hour. If you fail the check the food is passable but grants no temporary hit points. You may use this feature the same number of times you may rage. The soup is portable, provided you have containers to keep it in, but spoils after 24 hours.


While raging, attacks with piercing weapons against you have Disadvantage. You can use your Cook’s Utensil’s to make a Salad (with the right ingredients) to grant resistance to a type of damage to a number of creatures equal to your Barbarian Level +1. To make this salad you need 1 hour. Make a Cook’s Utensils Intelligence check. You choose the DC for the check. The salad can grant resistance based on the DC of the check. DC 10: Poison, Psychic, or Force. DC 15: Thunder, Acid, or Radiant. DC 20: Lightning, Cold, or Fire. The salad grants resistance of the chosen damage type for 1 hour. If you fail the check the food is passable but grants no resistance. You may use this feature the same number of times you may rage. The salad is portable, provided you have containers to keep it in, but spoils after 24 hours.


While raging, attacks with slashing weapons against you have Disadvantage. You can use your Cook’s Utensil’s to make a Roast (with the right ingredients) to increase the Armor Class of a number of creatures equal to your Barbarian Level +1. To make this roast you need 1 hour. Make a Cook’s Utensils Intelligence check. You choose the DC for the check. The roast can grant a bonus based on the DC of the check. DC 15: +1 AC. DC 20: +2 AC. This bonus to AC lasts for 1 hour. If you fail the check the food is passable but grants no bonus. You may use this feature the same number of times you may rage. The roast is portable, provided you have containers to keep it in, but spoils after 24 hours.

Second Forte’

At 6th Level you choose a Second Forte’. This can be the same Forte’ you chose at 3rd Level or a different one. If you choose the same Forte’ you gain a +2 bonus to any checks you make for making that Forte’s Meals. If you choose a different Forte’, you can only choose one damage type to have Disadvantage on attacks against you while raging.

Food Poisoning

At 10th Level you learn the contagion spell. Intelligence is your spell-casting ability for this spell. When casting this spell you must use a piece of rotten food as an additional material component. You may cast this spell on the food prior to combat. You must either get a target creature to eat the food or otherwise have the food touch the target creature in order for the spell to take effect. You can cast this spell once per day.

Third Forte’

At 14th Level you choose a Third Forte’. This can be the same Forte’ you chose previously or a different one. If you choose the same Forte’ you gain a +2 bonus to any checks you make for making that Forte’s Meal. If you choose a different Forte’, you can only choose one damage type to have Disadvantage on attacks against you while raging.

NetHack Inspired D&D 5e Hunger Mechanics

So my regular group is in the middle of the final chapter of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and we’re on a brief hiatus as one of our players is unavailable this month.

So I’m running two of my players through a random dungeon crawl on Roll20.

Because I needs my TTRPG fix. I needs it.

And since I became obsessed with the insanely hard rouge-like that is NetHack I was inspired to find fun ways to convert a NetHack inspired mentality into a playable D&D 5e dungeon crawl.

One thing I’ve always struggled with as a DM is a good way to track time in a dungeon. I’ve tried keeping track of turns and having players move one turn at a time. I’ve tried tracking time in terms of Travel Pace (300 ft per minute for a normal pace, 200 ft for slow pace, 400 ft for a fast pace). I’ve tried hand-waving it and simply summarizing (“Ok it takes you a minute or two to walk down the long corridor.” or “It takes you about 30 minutes to carefully search every nook and cranny of this room.”) But no matter how I try to track time it always seems unsatisfying. Now I only care about tracking time if a trap or a spell effect requires me to do so. But this is also unsatisfying to me because most of the time I want to run a gritty game that has a sense of danger and urgency.

NetHack, and many survival games since NetHack, have fixed this problem with an elegant solution. Hunger. You can’t just wander around a dungeon aimlessly because you will fucking starve to death. You need food on your person so you don’t have yet another stupid death. Every step and every action in NetHack requires you to keep in the back of your mind “I’m going to need to eat soon. It’s been a while.” I love these types of mechanics in games because everything feels more urgent when you always need to keep an eye on a continually depleting resource.

Running  D&D 5e, my players rarely ever bother mentioning they’e eating. Of course I’m partly to blame, but the system is also at fault. D&D 5e (and I believe any edition) lacks any real mechanical reasons to eat. Sure short rests and Long rests are always on players minds because that’s how they get back all their cool abilities. Outside of sleeping or just sitting for an hour nobody gives a fuck about food and water because there’s no tangible mechanical benefits for keeping track of that shit or real mechanical consequences for not eating or drinking. Sure the rules says any character needs a gallon of water and a pound of food every day but it turns into “ok just assume I’m doing that every long rest.” It ends up feeling like Skyrim where you run around punching dragons to death and your health just magically refills and you never need to eat or sleep or worry about any of the things mortal creatures need to do to just not fucking die.

Here’s what 5e has to say about Food & Water:

Characters who don’t eat or drink suffer the effects of exhaustion. Exhaustion caused by lack of food or water can’t be removed until the character eats and drinks the full required amount.


A character needs one pound of food per day and can make food last longer by subsisting on half rations. Eating half a pound of food in a day counts as half a day without food.

A character can go without food for a number of days equal to 3 + his or her Constitution modifier (minimum 1). At the end of each day beyond that limit, a character automatically suffers one level of exhaustion.

A normal day of eating resets the count of days without food to zero.


A character needs one gallon of water per day, or two gallons per day if the weather is hot. A character who drinks only half that much water must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or suffer one level of exhaustion at the end of the day. A character with access to even less water automatically suffers one level of exhaustion at the end of the day.

If the character already has one or more levels of exhaustion, the character takes two levels in either case.

It’s simple rules that are easy to remember but I think they’re too simple. It ends up being forgotten and hand-waved constantly. A PC with 10 Constitution (+0 Modifier) can adventure for 3 days without eating with no problems whatsoever. What the fuck is that shit? Have you ever tried not eating for a whole 24 hours? Have you ever not eaten for 24 hours and then also carried 20lbs of coin, 30lbs of armor, a longsword, and ran around fighting goblinoids? That’s gotta fucking suck. Sure I want heroism. Sure I want a group of badasses kicking ass and chewing bubblegum. But if they’re immune to worrying about basic survival what’s the point? Where’s the drama? Where’s the suspense? Why the fuck should anyone care about a Ranger foraging food or the spell Create Food & Water? The rules presented in 5e are suitable if you want to Skyrim level worries, but I want to run a game with NetHack level worries.

So I designed Hunger Die Mechanics to sate my appetite for something more substantial.

The Hunger Die

Your Hunger Die is an indicator of how hungry you are and if you don’t eat when you’re low you will become Exhausted and eventually starve to death.

Your Hunger Die is equal to your Hit Die. It starts out at as the highest number and incrementally goes down with strenuous activity. Your Hunger Die increases when you eat, drink, or quaff a health potion. Below is a list of activities that will affect your Hunger Die. If your Hunger Die would ever go negative as the result of your actions or lack of actions you die. No Death Saves. You’re fucking dead.

After Combat                                  DC 15 Con Save

Athletics/Acrobatics                      DC 10 Con Save

Half or Less HP                              DC 15 Con Save

(Con Saves: Success=No change, Failure= -1 Hunger, Natural 1= -2 Hunger)

0 HP                                                 -2 Hunger

Short Rest                                       -1 Hunger

Long Rest                                        -2 Hunger

Eating & Drinking                         +2 Hunger

Eating/Drinking                             +1 Hunger

Eating/Drinking Poor Quality     Roll 1d6. 4-6: +1, 1-3: No Change

Eating raw corpse                         Roll 1d6. 5 or 6: +1 Hunger, 2-4: No change, 1: -1 Hunger

Eating cooked corpse                   Roll 1d6. 4-6: +1 Hunger, 2 or 3 No Change, 1: -1 Hunger

Magical Bland Food                      Roll 1d6. 4-6: +1 Hunger, 1-3: No Change

Magical Good Food                       +2 Hunger

Potion of…                                       Healing:+2, Greater:+4, Superior: +8, Supreme:+12

(If your HP Maximum is halved as a result of Exhaustion from hunger you do not make another Half HP Con Save)

Hunger Die Exhaustion Effects
D6 –          1    0    -1
Exh. Lv.  3    5    Death
D8 –           2    1    0    -1
Exh. Lv.   3    4    5    Death
D10 –         3    2    1    0    -1
Exh. Lv.   2    3    4    5    Death
D12 –        4    3    2    1    0    -1
Exh. Lv.  1    2    3    4    5    Death

With these additional mechanics I feel it maintains an heroic feel while also adding a sense of gritty realism. When you’re just exploring a dungeon and searching through ruins you still don’t need to worry about hunger. But every time you end combat, you might be a little more hungry. Every time you lose half your health you get a little hungrier. And if you go through 3 combat encounters, take a short rest, and heave open a door with brute strength, you’re probably going to need to start to worry about those dry rations sitting in your backpack. And, of course, if you ignore the consequences of your heroic actions completely, you WILL fucking starve to death. Yet another stupid death.

10 DM tips I would tell my younger self


Nobody has any idea what they’re doing in the beginning.


New Players won’t know or care if you’re good or bad so stop judging yourself so harshly.


The Rulebooks are not infallible sacred scripture. They’re more like well thought out guidelines you can always choose to ignore.


Be 100% ready to throw out your precious idea when a player freely gives you a better one.


You aren’t under any sort of obligation to play with any person. If they’re ruining your fun talk to them about it. If differences are irreconcilable then for the love of the gods walk away from any toxic relationships.


Don’t save your best ideas for next session. There may not be a next session. Use everything you got every time you can and leave the table with as little regrets as possible.


You can steal ideas from anything and anywhere that gives you inspiration. If your references are obscure or unknown to your players they’ll think it was your idea in the first place. If your references are obvious they may have a rewarding “Aha!” moment as their brain draws links and comparisons. If your references are obvious and they’re wang-rods about it, see tip #5.


Worldbuilding may be fun but it may also be a colossal waste of time. It is a cardinal DM sin to write pages of backstory and genealogies for NPCs that the players will never interact with or care about. Every time you sit down to prep ask yourself “Will this come up in the session? Is this vital for them to know? Is there a way to tell them this naturally without a tedious info-dump?” Most of the things you think are uber important are answers to questions they never ask and artifacts that are irrelevant to the story of the PCs in the first place. Only prep what is necessary, and only time and practice can teach you what actually qualifies as necessary.


LISTEN TO YOUR PLAYERS. They will give you countless pieces of information about what they find fun and what they care about in the story. Focus on the fun, feed their hearts with what they desire. And then when you have them hooked, poke them. But not too much.


If your players want to do something NEVER just flatly say NO. If you must say NO because something is unreasonable in the world you are endeavoring to build you at the very least tell them WHY you are saying NO. Ideally, say “No…but you could…” and build on whatever suggested action they gave you. Eventually they will find the limits of what you find reasonable and plausible. If their view of reasonable and plausible is different than yours don’t be a wang-rod about it. Always try to find the middle ground, and sometimes (if they’re not being a wang-rod) just fucking give it to them.



So NetHack has warped my mind in weird ways. I’m obsessed with playing it and it’s uniquely randomized AD&D dungeon delving has me pondering what I can lift from it in order to improve my own games. It’s challenged me to look at D&D in a different light. A very difficult and uncompromising light.

Taken from the NetHack wiki:

“NetHack is designed so that death is permanent (except for the amulet of life saving, of course). This adds difficulty to the game, but also adds depth. When making a mistake might cost a week of gameplay, one thinks longer about each action, and investigates more fully the possible repercussions. It also adds excitement: taking risks with a carefully cultivated character becomes more exhilarating when the stakes are higher.”

NetHack is essentially solo-DM-less D&D. Some of the items and monsters and roles (classes) are taken exactly from Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. But if there were a DM (let’s call the game itself the de facto DM), its DM would be cruel, brutal, unforgiving, and the type to make that sweet new armor horribly horribly cursed and now you’re stuck with it.

Some aspects of NetHack make no sense to try and use as a DM at the table. Like nobody needs to worry over-much about step by step movement through a dungeon (I tried this when I ran Tomb of Annihilation and it failed miserably). Or stopping to make sure every single dagger I find isn’t cursed would dramatically slow down play at the table.

But the very real possibility of permanent death? The overwhelming joy of one magic item wiping out a room of baddies you never thought you could survive? The sweet satisfaction of descending deeper than you have ever explored balanced on a razor edge against the overwhelming fear that you have no idea what’s through the darkness?

That’s some fuckin hardcore main-lined D&D go-juice right there.

It used to be, back in the day, that all one would do at the table was explore dungeons. It’s in the fucking name. It used to be that in the old Dungeon Master’s Guide Gary told DMs to create 4-6 of their own dungeons and they absolutely needed them. I mean duh, hence the name, Master of Dungeons. For years and gods known how many sessions across groups and across states everyone was just dungeon delving. Then players and DMs started asking questions. “Ok, so why should we care?” or “What’s this goblin’s story?” or perhaps even “Yea screw rescuing the blacksmith’s daughter, can we explore that wild forest you mentioned a second ago?”

So was born world-building, campaign settings, city books, continental maps, and everything else we could think of to populate a living breathing world of fantasy.

But The Dungeon never dies. The Dungeon is always there. Calling us to explore just how deep it goes and what treasures are guarded by horrific beasts. But piles of gold are absolutely worthless if death isn’t possible and viscerally real. If any fool with a wooden sword can wander down into the dragon’s hoard and a merciful DM allows them to survive, well then, what the fuck is the point?

We’ve grown so used to forgiving stories. The kind where the hero or heroine always comes out on top eventually. The day is saved. The sitcom wraps back around and the cast learns something they should have known all along. We fail the Red Quest and hit restart and go back to a previous save. But life is not like that, and personally I don’t want my Tabletop RPGs to be as cheap and predictable as the hundreds of other medias I could just watch instead. When I run D&D i want there to be a Challenge.

A challenge for my players to find a way to keep their characters alive. A challenge for me to calculate the machinations of villains and the ramifications of character actions. A challenge for the table to risk it all on the one die roll that could spell disaster or overwhelming success.

I guess what I’m trying to say is:

I want to run a Mega Dungeon. D&D on Nightmare mode. Create 3 characters because your first choice might not make it to Level 2 type of shit. A campaign heavily inspired by NetHack where random tables are the real gods, and the DM is just the messenger. Where a 1st Level Character could randomly find a Ring of Three Wishes. Where a 3rd Level Party could stumble into a Red Dragon’s Lair. Where every corridor and room is randomly determined and it’s up to the party mapper to draw out a safe way back. You WILL Die. You MAY Die heroically and save your friends. Only to pick up your next character as a lost adventurer in the next room. See how far your party can go on just 3 Character Sheets.

I dunno. I think it could be fun.

The real challenge is convincing my players to buy in.

Planning to Fail: An Alternate d20 System

Failure. We fear it. We hate when it happens to us. It drives us to do better, to be better, to learn from our mistakes. Aristotle was the first western thinker to analyze dramatic theory and defined tragedy and comedy, but core to both expressive modes of narrative is the idea of failure. In a tragedy a protagonist is brought low by the extent of their failures. In comedy we laugh as we experience the protagonist’s story as a series of errors, mishaps, and misunderstandings. Failure drives them both, what is different is a matter of tone and perspective. A character who always gets what they want and nothing bad ever happens to them is both boring and totally unrelatable to us as human beings. So why should our D&D heroes succeed ad nauseam or constantly roll 2’s all night?

I love D&D and the d20 system, but sometimes I wish there was a little more dramatic control with our narratives. Why should a rogue fail at picking a lock because they rolled a 1 and a barbarian rolls a 20 and opens up the same lock that foiled the rogue? Why should a run of bad luck on several different dice thwart the super awesome plan that the party concocted to sneak into the fortress? Wouldn’t it be nice if when a certain conflict resolution was uncertain and required a die roll that the player could decide to succeed at some cost or play it safe and fail spectacularly?

Enter the mechanical genius of Phoenix: Dawn Command. In Phoenix: Dawn Command every player has a deck of cards that they draw from in order to resolve conflicts. The cleverness of the system is that when a player draws their hand they can see how likely they are to succeed in the conflict. If a player decides that the success of this conflict is crucial, they can decide to burn their cards in order to make sure that it succeeds. They can also choose to fail on less important tasks because they want to save their good cards for when they might really need them. I love this resource management and risk/reward system. It gives the players more control over the narrative and eliminates the sometimes problematic “swingy-ness” of d20 resolution mechanics. It becomes not a matter of if random dice rolls will fail you but when will you choose to fail in the narrative.

So with this in mind I’ve come up with a way to bring this resource management risk/reward mechanic to D&D. All you need is two decks of playing cards and your players’ consent to try something new.

Players share a deck of cards, the DM uses their own deck. Shuffle the deck and have each player draw a hand of 4 cards. The DM draws a hand of 7 (allowing for multiple NPCs/monsters). These cards are their possible “die results” for their next conflict resolution. At the start of every turn if anyone ever has less than 4 cards they redraw from the deck back up to 4 cards.  If, for some reason, you need to make a “d20 roll” and you have no cards (using a reaction, making a saving throw, attack rolls in excess of 4, etc) you draw from the top of the deck and must use whatever result you draw. When you use cards for conflict resolutions you discard them in a pile. When the deck runs out you shuffle the discard pile and create a new deck.

The cards equal the following “d20” rolls:

  • Ace: 1 or 20 (Player can choose a Natural 20 or Natural 1. In addition to the chosen result they also get an additionally benefit. Natural 20: immediately draw one card. Natural 1: they may immediately discard any number of cards from their hand and immediately draw back up to 4 cards.)
  • 2: Natural 20
  • 3: 3
  • 4: 4
  • 5: 5
  • 6: 6
  • 7: 7
  • 8: 8
  • 9: 9
  • 10: 10
  • Jack: 15
  • Queen: 15
  • Kind: 15

What this means is that roughly 38% of the cards will allow them to almost guarantee success (Ace’s, 2’s, Jack’s, Queen’s, and King’s) 15% of the cards (the 9’s & 10’s) will allow them to succeed if they have a good enough bonus, and 46% of the cards (3’s-8’s) will almost certainly mean failure. While this system does use random draws from the deck it isn’t completely random. Players always choose their cards from their hands, but about half of the cards mean failure. The players don’t get to decide if they fail but they do get to make many more decisions about when they fail.

According to the tastes of your table the players can either openly share what their hands are or this could be kept a secret from each other. Knowing that four aces are in the collective hands could make for some interesting strategizing of attack plans. Personally, I would allow my players to know each others hands and under certain circumstances (using clever role-playing descriptions) allow them to even swap one card with one player once a round.

On the topic of Advantage and Disadvantage there are few options on how to handle those mechanics in this system.

Advantage could either a) allow a player to draw a card from the deck and choose that card or a card from their hand, or b) allow a player to add two card values together.

Disadvantage could either a) require a player to discard one card chosen at random by the DM, or b) require a player to discard two cards and use the lower value.

How you handle Advantage and Disadvantage should be chosen with everyone’s consent.

Initiative in combat can be handled by everyone drawing a card and highest goes first (players chose outcome of ties) or by rolling a d20 and adding Dexterity as usual.

Everything else about the rules of D&D 5th Edition would remain the same. You still use modifiers and still roll damage dice when you need to. But the tone and feel of combat and role-play encounters would be very different. You won’t be on the edge of your seat waiting for the d20 to stop spinning, you’ll be looking at your hand and thinking “hmm, if I want to I could guarantee this guard believes my ridiculous lie, but if I spend my Ace now I’m almost certainly going to fail the next problem that might arise. Is it worth it?”

As a disclaimer I have absolutely zero play-testing of this idea. I’m interested in trying this out with my group and also hearing if anyone tries this out. It’s just something I came up with because of my annoyance with the sometimes “swingy-ness” of d20’s and because I love the way Phoenix: Dawn Command feels very heroic and dramatic. If you haven’t heard of it or checked it out it is well worth a look.


3D NPCs. Never name them “The Blacksmith.”

Recently I’ve been devouring the contents of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and some of its contents (NO SPOILERS) have inspired me to do a little ranting. The good kind.

Dungeon Masters love to go online and wail about rampant Murder-Hoboism in their group. There are a plethora of Youtube videos, articles, and forums discussing this “issue” at length. Usually I see that the discussions often focus around the Players and what they may or may not being doing. Categorizing problem players or bad habits. But it takes two to role-play a tango and the faults of the DM are too frequently overlooked. In my opinion it is a cardinal Dungeon Master sin to present players with 2D, boring NPCs. If you want your players to not murder everything with a pulse, you need to give them a reason to care. Make interesting NPCs and their first thought won’t be “I wonder how much gold he has and whether I can kill him before the guards find out.”

In Waterdeep: Dragon Heist the writers/designers have done their due diligence in presenting interesting, memorable, and complicated NPCs. I’ve not yet read the whole book but by only Chapter 2 I am delighted with the role-playing possibilities it will afford me and our group. I will give one such example, without too much context, to illustrate my point.

Embric and Avi. A married couple in the city of Waterdeep. Embric is a male Fire Genasi, and Avi is a male Water Genasi. Together they operate an armorer and blacksmith shop. Their descriptions are very simple and to the point. Embric is descended from the efreet of Calimshan and is prone to mood swings. Avi worships Eldath, God of Peace, is laid back, and speaks plainly. And that’s about all that the book has to say about Embric and Avi. But immediately after reading these succinct paragraphs I was overwhelmingly inspired to role-play these characters. Inspired enough to make a blogpost about it. It also reminding me of an antidote to Murder-Hoboism.

Embric and Avi are interesting. I immediately have questions about them. How did they meet? How long have they been married? What does an argument look like between the two of them and what do they agree on? What does it look like when a Fire Genasi and a Water Genasi kiss? Are they very private when in their shop or do they show public affection? Do some patrons give them a wide berth and refuse to go to them? Do they play elemental pranks on one another? Wouldn’t their shop be incredibly steamy, what with all the moisture and warmth?

The fact that I have all these questions is a great indication that 1) I will enjoy role-playing them, and 2) my players will at least remember them if not fall in love with them. These are NPCs with gravitas, and with only 252 words the module has set me up nicely to almost completely rule out the possibility of a Murder-Hobo situation. Why?

Because the inclusion of diversity and complex social situations force players to play the game in a more “realistic” way. The suspension of disbelief is so much easier when NPCs are three dimensional. The Grognard might say “oh well that’s ridiculous a Water Genasi and a Fire Genasi would never fall in love.” and to them I would say your fantasy is painfully wrong. I would also say the cliche’ “Opposites Attract” and I would also ask them if they have ever been in a real human relationship.

Humans and relationships are messy, complicated, and sometimes contradictory. We say “I’m going on a diet” and then crumble at the sight of a red velvet cake. We say “I’m not going to call her.” and then we do in a moment of weakness. We do and say things that make no logical sense, spurred on by emotional undercurrents that are years in the making and sometimes can only notice their ripples in hindsight. Human interactions are varied, include subtext, and are almost never simply what they may appear to be. Why, as a DM, would you rob your players of the rich experience of meeting an NPC they actually care about?

Let’s talk about Panda for a moment.

Panda is a Giff gunsmith savant I created for my Spelljammer campaign. He is loud, boisterous, and has zero social tact. He always says the most obvious things at the most inopportune times. My players grew to love him and he made several repeat appearances. Later in the campaign, I had established our world as having “multiple timelines” existing concurrently and they could be glimpsed in weird ways. I hinted that in an alternate timeline Panda had joined forces with the heroes to thwart a great evil, and he had solo piloted a ship rigged with smokepowder into an enemy armada. He sacrificed his life in order to save them from an unwinnable scenario. My beautiful wife, playing two characters in the campaign, immediately wept in real life. She wailed “We don’t deserve him!” and continued to cry. Somehow I had stumbled upon a character that was real in our minds and we gave a shit whether he lived or died. We care about Panda on a very real and emotional level. That’s because he’s not “The Gunsmith.” He’s Panda. He is real in our minds because he has a past, he has hopes and dreams, and he has his faults and failings.

Next time you’re tempted to use a placeholder NPC with zero personality, probe deeper and try to figure out what makes them tick. There’s plenty of techniques to flesh out characters, but here’s four quick questions that might help you:

1) What do they want badly and are having trouble getting?

2) What’s a quirk or habit specific to them?

3) What’s one thing they want everyone to know?

4) What’s one thing they want nobody to ever know?

An Apology for Labels and Clubs *Or* Justification of Compartmentalization

(Painting by René Magritte)
This rant of a blogpost was inspired by Full Metal RPG Episode 57 – “Heather, 5th Edition Vampire the Masquerade, Vampire the Requiem, Omega Zone Review.”
(You should check out FMRPG, they’re fucking rad)

I’ll start this philosophical bullshit with a strange question:

If we can play pretend for free and at any moment we choose, why bother paying a clerk in paper or electronic trust to deliver a packaged experience made by some far distant organization of people?

Plainspeak: Why bother buying RPG books when you can make it up yourself for free?

I see at least 4 great reasons: 1) people who write/create collaboratively for a living are more likely to create excellent content, 2) To have an agreed upon common language (aka rules/setting/character options), 3) to feel a sense of belonging to the group that uses this same common language, and 4) to commiserate with afterwards (between games) with people who speak the same common language.

We buy rule books because that’s the cost of entry into the gaming club. When players and game masters have rules to go by they have a social currency they can agree on, comprehend, and adhere to. It leads to an experience that can be repeated again and again, across the globe, regardless of personalities or circumstances.  It offers consistency, predictability, and comfort. It also offers a sense of belonging.

Twice in one week I was out in public with the common rabble of my fellow humans and I was called out for wearing symbols emblematic of my hobby interests. Someone spotted my d20 spinner ring and asked if I played D&D. Someone else spotted my “Lake Geneva Games” t-shirt and asked where I got it and if I knew any good places for people to run a game of D&D. The effect of both interactions was a surge of dopamine in my brain and a flash of smiling recognition. I immediately knew something about these people and they knew something about me. By no means was this a complete recognition, we might have argued over religion or politics or whether or not Dark Side of The Moon was the quintessential Pink Floyd album, but we had at least the common ground of Dungeons and Dragons and all that entails.

Without me wearing symbols of my interests and without companies creating rule books and people purchasing these products these moments would have never happened. I would know nothing of my connection to a wider world and human moments of empathy would have been lost.

A club can be used to fulfill the human need for belonging, or it can be used to bludgeon an “other” over the head because they don’t belong.

At their core, clubs and labels fulfill our brains innate desire to rationally comprehend the world around us. Flooded with sensory input from the external world as well as our own internal thoughts, in order to function we need to prioritize and compartmentalize information. If we refuse to do this or perhaps if our brains cannot do this for some physiological reason, we will quickly find ourselves unable to relate or cope with day to day modern human life.

Language itself is compartmentalized information. If we didn’t have language we could not express ourselves and meet our basic needs. I don’t see people scrambling to create a language revolution where we return to the good ol’ days of grunts and pointing. But people perennially love to discuss the oppression of labels and clubs. Personally, I think we’re having the wrong discussion. The oppression we should really be talking about is human cruelty. The insufferable insanity of crowds and mob mentality. The ever present evil of blindly following orders. The cults of personality and devotion that lead ordinary people to defend the honor and image of people they have never even met. Labels and clubs are not to blame for how people may misuse them.

I find it amusing that a podcast (FMRPG) that refers to its loyal audience as “cultists” recently discussed the sins of labels and clubs. This dramatic irony will not be lost on my friend Brendan of FMRPG. This isn’t me saying he’s a fool and a charlatan. I just like giving him shit. (I will admit, it’s easy for me to sit here and dissect and create points and counterpoints when I have the luxury of pausing and replaying the conversation on the podcast.)

The following is a brief transcription of the discussion in question (between timestamps 1:08:13 –  1:11:41)

Heather: “My biggest problem with vampire games is the way that they make you have to be in some kind of club…Why do vampires have to be in their own little clubs and fight each other?”

Brendan: “I think V5 acknowledges that…life doesn’t just get boiled down to what weird little group you’re in. I think that was a major failing of the original Masquerade material…it started out being this edgy different thing, ‘oh I get to choose a clan, and I’m part of a sect’ and these ideas of belonging that had never been expressed in roleplaying up till that point, felt very new and very fresh. But by the time you hit ’97 through ’99 people were starting to talk about ‘oh that character is the way they are because (and they would cite clan or cite sect).’ And then they started doing what I consider even more heinous things saying ‘this character can’t be because of clan or sect’ ‘Oh that characters not Brujah, Brujah would never be like that!’” (Alignment arguments anyone?)

Brendan: “This idea that you can break everything down into these finer and finer subgroups is actually destructive to creativity. It’s destructive to the way that games get played where everybody is always trying to analyze everything…what little nook can I slot you into?”

I agree with Heather and Brendan, but listening to the discussion I had my own thoughts I wanted to elucidate here. In my opinion it’s not clubs or labels that’s the real problem. What’s really to blame in these egregious situations is simply people being fucking shitheads.

I see where they’re coming from. I have been privy to conversations where people are diametrically opposed to what I believe or what I participate in. I have been “the other” in arguments that is bashed over the head with ideology and labels. I have bucked labels and tried to redefine myself. But in the end, all these years later, I realize how narrow my perspective was, and that I myself was conforming to just another set of rules and ideology. It’s like the person who says they want to rebel against society and its ideals of what is and isn’t acceptable and they purchase all their clothes from Hot Topic. It’s missing the point entirely.

The real point, as I see it, is that human beings can think stupidly and act outright disgusting to one another. When I was in high school I was abhorred that the “popular kids” started liking System of A Down. I didn’t want them joining my own edgy anti-establishment club of cool kids. Shouldn’t I have been happy that the band was succeeding in reaching a wider audience? Shouldn’t I have been using this common ground as an entryway for further understanding and empathy with my peers? Couldn’t I have just let it go and not be concerned with finding fault in others? Sure. But I wanted to throw a temper tantrum over what other people could and could not like based on my own prejudices.

“Oh you can’t play with us because you’re a (insert label here).” I’ve recently learned a little bit about this going on in the gaming community at large. I learned that we even have a label for this labeling. “Gatekeeping.” Keeping out people from a fandom or a hobby by direct or indirect means. This kind of behavior or language disgusts me. I want everyone to feel the rush of excitement I get when the final blow is struck with a critical hit against the Big Bad. I want everyone to feel welcome at my table and find a bit of solace from the too often confusing and chaotic real world. Not everyone needs to like what I like and everyone can find their own fun. Just don’t find your fun at the expense of others. Don’t be a wangrod to prove you’re right and others are wrong.

In summary: we need labels and rules and clubs to have a functioning society and in order for gaming to even happen in the first place. Just don’t be a fucking dick at/around/about the games we play. Fuck off with that shit.