May 31, 2023

No-Hassle Summoning

For a spellcaster to summon monsters from the magical aether to the real world is one of the most iconic moves in a fantasy RPG. The essential idea of calling forth creatures from nothingness to do your bidding is always a cool move — especially in combat, where unexpected allies can easily tip the balance of a fight.

But because those unexpected allies each need to take full turns in combat, handling summoned creatures can quickly become one of the most frustrating aspects of a game, for everyone at the table. For the GM, each extra foe added to a fight increases the complexity of running that fight. And for the other players, all the extra actions, tactical decisions, and dice rolling that comes from madditional combatants can turn the fastest-paced fight into a slog of waiting endlessly for one’s turn.

So if summoning creatures has ever been a hassle at your table, the following options might help make the process easier.

Agree That Casters Shouldn’t Use Summoning Spells

This is definitely the nuclear option for dealing with summoning being a problem, but it’s not an entirely unreasonable approach. If you’re a GM (especially a relatively new GM still finding your way), feel free to say to the players: “Summoning spells absolutely wreck me, please don’t cast them.” If you’re a player who’s noticed that summoning spells are causing the GM grief and slowing the game down, you can just have your character cast something else. All RPGs are a continuum of choices, and making choices that make the game fun for everyone is always a good idea.

Share the Responsibility

Rather than automatically assuming that the player of the caster or the GM should handle all the tactics and die rolling for summoned creatures, get other players to help share that load. For a single summoned creature, ask the player with the most straightforward character — or the player with a demonstrated ability to get through their turn quickly even with a more complex character — to make the summoned creature’s die rolls and track their hit points. Especially if the player of the summoning spellcaster has a more complex range of choices to make while casting other spells in subsequent turns, they can focus on giving the summoned creature general directives, then leave the fiddly bits to someone else.

In the event of multiple summoned creatures, it can be great fun to have all the players take on a summoned creature or two like short-term secondary characters or companions. The player of the caster might continue to make tactical choices for summoned creatures in such circumstances, or that could be given over to other players as well, creating the strongest sense of summoned creatures as intelligent, independent combatants.

Simplify Combat

Use whatever tricks you can to make the presence of additional creatures in combat flow as smoothly as possible. Even if your game doesn’t normally use average damage for monsters, do that for summoned creatures. If you know that summoned creatures are badly outclassed in a combat encounter, rather than wasting time on missed attack rolls, let those creatures use the Help action rather than attacking on their own. Or at lower levels, when a single summoned creature can likely hold their own with the party, let the player of the weakest combatant use the Help action to give the summoned creature advantage on attacks, with that player running the summoned creature as above.

Plan Ahead

Sometimes the problem with summoning spells is less about how much they slow down a combat session, and more about how much they grind the session to a halt before combat even starts. Players using spells that summon distinct creatures (as opposed to generic “summoned monster” stat blocks) should think about what sorts of creatures their character is likely to summon, then have those creatures’ stat blocks ready to go — bookmarked in a monster tome, printed out for table use, saved on a tablet, and so forth.

If you’re playing a summoning caster, have two or three options prepared — one creature you like for scouting and recon, one creature built for combat, one creature for mischief and skullduggery. Even if those creatures turn out to not be ideal for a particular scenario, run with them anyway, rather than run the risk of derailing a session by having to quickly through a book of creatures looking for the perfect option.

GMs can likewise have a few easy-to-run creature stat blocks on hand — and are within their rights to ask players to use those stat blocks if they haven’t come prepared.

May 16, 2023

Learning to Live with Speak With Dead

 A lot of GMs actively hate the speak with dead spell for making it impossible to run a cool murder-mystery campaign in D&D. But in my experience, the reason many GMs feel that way is that they’ve let themselves be convinced by forceful players that the text of speak with dead says words to the effect of: 

“You grant the semblance of life and intelligence to a corpse of your choice within range, allowing it to answer any question relating to its death with perfect accuracy, including the name, description, mailing address, and shoe size of their murderer.” 

Except, of course, the spell doesn’t say that. And within the scope of what the spell doesn’t say, there’s lot of room to make sure speak with dead doesn’t mess with your ability to get your detective story on.

First, always remember that a person (dead or alive) can’t name what they can’t see. Magical disguise is a potent hedge against identification by the living or the dead. But so is a simple mask, a hood pulled down in an area of dim light, or a scarf quickly tied beneath the eyes. Creatures intent on evil deeds typically understand the importance of not being seen — and further understand that in a magical milieu, a victim is always a potential observer even after their demise.

Even when the victim is aware of who’s responsible for shuffling them off this mortal coil, remember that speak with dead allows a caster to question a corpse’s animating spirit — not to access the full consciousness of the person who died. Villains will thus understand how easy it is to confuse that spirit with false information. As a victim breathes their last, imagine a killer they don’t know leaning over them and saying clearly, “My name is John Smith! Remember that John Smith did this to you!” In the hands of a canny villain and a deft DM, speak with dead can be a perfect vehicle not just for deflecting suspicion from the real killer, but for framing someone else for a crime they didn’t commit.

Always remember that characters living in a fantasy world filled with magic are aware of that magic, even if they’ve never seen or experienced it themselves. So NPCs and villains being aware of speak with dead and what it does can keep the effect of the spell in mind if they find themselves involved in a lethal altercation. An easy analogy in our own world is taking fingerprints as crime-scene evidence — a practice for which most people have no idea how it actually works, but which we’re all generally aware of. Anyone who’s seen a police procedural has seen criminals and other ne’er-do-wells wiping fingerprints off surfaces before the investigators arrive. And in the same way, a villain in a fantasy campaign is going to understand the risks involved in a dead character telling the story of how they met their end, and will do what’s necessary to work around that.