The "Draw 4" Solution (little victories)

In game design there’s something called a “death spiral”. You’ve probably heard of it. If you haven’t ( or even if you have), The description typically goes something like this: player one begins to win. Player two begins to lose. Then, the rate at which player one begins Wenning seems to accelerate. For whatever reason, his edge or lead over his opponent is steadily growing. Player two on the other hand is obviously losing, but the key here is this; there are little to no options for player two to reverse the situation.

This is a particularly common experience in RTS games. If you’re playing against the AI, you’ve probably at some point thought “I’ve won, the computer just doesn’t know it yet. Time to go through the motions, there’s literally no way for the computer to turn this around.” You’ve unlocked all of the in game research and abilities, your fleet or troops or at max capacity, and you have to sit through another hour of gameplay wishing that there was a 32x speed because the AI isn’t smart enough to concede (or maybe it is, and it decided to filibuster your victory out of spite). On the other hand, you’ve doubtless quit a game or even deleted a save file because you determined there was no coming back from whatever defeat you had already suffered, even if they were early in the game’s progress. Maybe especially if they were early in the game’s progress.

Personally, I don’t view it as a gratifying experience.

Now I don’t have a solution for RTS games as far as this problem is concerned. But I know that other games have solved this issue, and I find the solution relevant to some of the irons I have in the fire. The drive to write this was stoked if you will by a conversation I recently listened to about Hearthstone (though the conversation did not recently take place). Card games are apparently relatively easy to create, needing little more than two or three programmers to handle UI and the actual player interaction, a ton of art from whoever you can get it, and the role of Yours truly, a designer to handle the mechanics. Consider this a public invitation to DM me if you have interest in such a project.

Ah, but there was a complaint about Hearthstone in this discussion. About a death spiral, no less! There was no cleverness to winning; the game was dependent on how strong the cards were, and whether the other player had encountered them before. There were no interrupts; things for you to do when it wasn’t your turn. This kept the game fast paced (good) but without any other cards to fill this role on the player’s turn, there was nothing to use as a “counter” (bad).

Now, obviously a “counter” isn’t limited to things that interrupt the player on their turn. A counter is simply something that hinders the opponents in their objective. Ever play Uno?
Yeah, you know where I’m going with this. The Draw 4 card! Your goal is to ditch all of your cards in the pile, you’re down to your last 2 cards and your opponent has 8, suddenly BOOM, you have to draw 4 cards. There’s been a reversal in the trend, victory suddenly becomes less certain. Even if you do end up winning the game, there’s an element of satisfaction for the other player.. The game was a war they lost, but they got the joy of winning a battle; they had a little victory.

You can craft a “little victory” condition simply by introducing (in this case a card) an asset the player can deploy to hinder the opponent. Real strategy enters when these assets have 2 or 3 layers of counters that can be deployed.

This essay’s been in the backlog for a few weeks, it got pushed off with the lead-up to the kickstarter.

Some thoughts on character specialization

I might’ve lied. Technically this is a post on character specialization. However it’s primarily me ranting and raving and generally putting down other people’s thoughts on the subject using allegories and analogies that I have an emotional attachment to. Maybe you’re thinking hey, isn’t that what he always does?

You’d be correct.

I’ve been working on the Rebuilt Ranger recently, squeezing original abilities and spells out of my head like a pressed orange to what’s essentially the husk of the revised ranger Wizards Of The Coast released. There’s something of a shibboleth floating around the ranger class, a preprogrammed response to that afterthought-design cobbled mess. Everyone likes to talk about the Beast Master, and while I of course agree that it’s so miserably designed I practically hope WOTC never attempts a redesign of that particular subclass, I don’t like focusing on it! Poorly designed subclasses can still hold themselves together provided their built on the foundation of inappropriately design class. Likewise, a spectacularly designed subclass can elevate a poorly designed class (as unlikely as that particular combination is) so as to conceal some of core class’s flaws. For this reason, I focus on the Hunter. A subclass of impressive design, clearly focused on martial prowess with a host of well-designed abilities to complement a number of play styles. Unfortunately, the ranger still sucks. The Hunter would be even more fun to play or attach to a class that wasn’t half-baked.

That’s a standard intro I give to any conversation, post, or general essay on the ranger. Here though, I want to drill down on a specific debate on design within 5E. When is it appropriate to attach specialized class features? How specialized is too specialized? Do benefits against specific kinds of creatures take away from the fun of fighting anything else? That last one (aside from the fact I practically open this talking about the ranger) probably gave it away. I’m told what is ostensibly a core feature of the Ranger, favored enemy, can’t possibly do anything useful within the context of the game ( especially not combat). after all, if you’re especially good at dealing with a specific kind of enemy in combat, you’ll feel bad at fighting just about anybody else! How does the rest of the game feel about this? Ah yes, the forbidden question. Are there any other class features in the game that adhere to this apparently unshakable principle? Both the cleric and paladin have bonuses against particular enemies. The cleric has access to destroy undead, which functions as turn undead to any other living creature not immediately vaporized by it. Interestingly enough this is a channel divinity feature; every single cleric archetype comes with its own channel divinity feature. You can use that channel divinity as opposed to turn undead. How about the paladin? When he uses his divine smite feature (adds a bit of holy judgment to a weapon attack the paladin makes), The unfortunate creature takes additional damage if it is a fiend or undead. Not bad at all. What do both of these features have in common? They are not the end-all be-all of the class. In the cleric’s case, turn undead isn’t the only way to use his channel divinity feature. The paladin on the other hand, can apply divine smite to any creature, and simply gains an additional benefit if the creature is of a specific type.

No one really complains about not being able to fight undead in the case of the cleric, or both undead and fiends in the case of the Paladin. Their class features are satisfying enough on their own that fighting these enemies makes them especially useful: not simply useful. There is a difference. To further illustrate the point, imagine if you will that these holy warriors and men of the cloth had no special abilities or features to bring to bear against unholy terrors of the night? It might seem a little strange. Let’s suppose further that we spent several hundred words as a description of a supposedly core class feature describing how good these classes were at attacking these particular creatures. It would feel like a sham; you would wonder why it was there in the first place! The class itself might well mathematically check out in terms of its utility or skill in combat, but this obviously terrible design choice would leave you feeling underwhelming.

I think we can all see well enough that specialization enhances the specifically narrative elements ( how you think about your character and how it’s perceived by others) even if its only technical application is in combat. I sincerely apologize to all the people who think that storytelling and mechanics are completely divorced from one another, who will only read this apology after recovering from what was surely a solid five minutes of wailing and gnashing of teeth, spurred on by my previous statement. Moreover (steel yourselves, please), I think excluding specialization from where the narrative clearly made room for it is a recipe for disaster. Doubly so if the aforementioned hints from the narrative take the form of a 1,000 word description of a class ability.

If you want to make a big deal about how well the feature or class or spell deals with a specific problem, make sure it actually does. Features which deal with specific problems ( or simply do so especially well) should probably be tacked on to a generally useful class, not used as compensation for something underwhelming (side note, I might’ve just solved the poor transition from the 3.5 to 5E Ranger, you’re welcome). Thanks for reading.

Designing Spells for the Artificer

This is definitely more of a stream of consciousness post, I’m thinking through various principles for designing spells for my Artificer player. He’s the only guy in our group that’s attending school abroad, so I try to toss him extra goodies to entice him to show up for games. It works (about 50% of the time)! Jokes aside, he largely only fails to show up when he can’t. Anyways, those goodies take the form of crafting primarily. Whenever my player is away, he’s on the airship crafting firearms, potions, magical oddities, you name it. We ran into a bit of a problem though; he wanted a self-winding grappling hook. I’ve got a good grasp on the mechanical advancement of the world and how its limitations differ from those of real life (you can check this post for why firearms will never become widespread in my world). Long story short, it wasn’t gonna happen (not in the form he wanted at the very least).

Being the ever generous DM, I made him an offer; why not create a spell that did what he was looking for? He was an intelligence based caster, after all. This excited him a great deal, and after a short delay, I set off to work!

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Not bad for a first draft, right? It’s even cooler for the artificer, because he gets an ability that let’s him place spells in items! He can literally place this spell that uses a grappling hook as a material component into the grappling hook and hand it off to another character. There’s a bit of wording to fix, I need to say “alternatively, you can swing up to 60 feet away, provided the anchor point is at least 20 feet above you” or something.

You get the idea, though! The moment this concept played itself out it my mind, I started thinking of other artificer spells. It’s such a unique class, of course it would benefit from unique spells! What would they look like?

The Artificer’s ability to place spells in an object is a factor in any spell I design for them. Material components normally are not important beyond a gold cost. The Artificer could of course cast spells into unrelated objects. It’s incentive enough to make spells that focus on altering equipment for me, however. I’m attracted to that variety of narrative/mechanic synergy.

Next is action economy. The Artificer has plenty of things to do with his action already, mostly shooting things with a firearm. As such, anything that isn’t a bonus action spell should probably have some sort of significant effect. I understand that’s horribly unspecific, so I’ll try to drill it down in a sentence or two. Bringing a party member back from the brink of death with a cure wounds, forcing multiple creatures prone with grease, etc. Something that cures or deals a status effect is “significant”, or perhaps is better stated as “changes the conditions of the battlefield”. Spells shouldn’t simply deal damage, they should augment damage. Anything worth casting with his action at such a low level spell would not be balanced in the least, the dude has 1/3rd casting progression. No, the spells need to impact the battlefield in some manner other than damage. Damage is a nice rider if the spell takes an action, but I should look to balance bonus action spells.

Finally, we have spell levels to watch out for. Anything I make for the Artificer can be picked up by the Bard at level 10 with magical secrets, but I’m not terribly worried about that. My primary concern is multiclassing. Since I’m as much of a power gamer as power gamers can be and an avid fan of multiclassing, I usually know what to watch out for. The more the spell is meant to synergize with the class I’m designing it for, and the greater investment a multiclasser has to make to get that “prize spell”, the less I need to worry about it. Things shouldn’t be so far down the line that they can’t access it, on the contrary. I want players to actually feel special with the artificer. Is a 3 level dip enough of a cost to get a new take on misty step, or cast a special spell on a grappling hook? I think so.

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Let’s look at another spell I designed somewhat spontaneously.

By the time the artificer gets this, he’s at least 13 level. It fits with his class, it’s an excellent secondary damage boost (6d6 with the thunder monger from his class, 2d8 from the spell, all to 2 targets, one of which doesn’t require a roll to hit). It’s far enough in that I don’t have to worry about any nasty “I dip in, now I’m OP” multiclassing (though dipping out of the class could make for some interesting combinations). It fits his theme (spell requires a firearm, he’s all about mechanical weapons, can literally implant the spell in the gun for later use, etc). I’d say it fits my principles!

I already had some additional ideas for spells (which will sadly stay out of view until I release a supplement focused on them)!

Another Condition: Weakened

My long suffering page followers were hit with a barrage of COME WATCH MY STREAM posting (and indeed you should) while I played For The King, specifically their Frostbite Mountain adventure. I had a great time, and it scratched my D&D itch to boot. I’ve been thinking over a lot of the items, skills, spells, and in particular status effects. Video games are better equipped to handle a multitude of status effects than your average RPG by far. You have more time to engage with the game than if you were depending on scheduling something out with your friends, the game adjudicates the status effect’s impact on gameplay by way of the developers coding, etc.

Status Effects in RPGs depend on the players to properly adjudicate the effect, and the DM in particular. So, status effects need to be clear on how they impact the game, concise in their clarification, and from a mechanical perspective can’t bog down the game. This lends to fewer status effects that are featured in a multitude of spells and abilities. The interesting variation comes not from several different iterations of the same status effects, but the twists and circumstances of the individual skill or spell that produces it. I see plenty of requests for new abilities and even spells, but very few for new effects, and in all honesty that’s probably for the best when it comes to your average homebrew designer,

I’m not that designer. Also, a new status effect is more of a tool specifically for people creating content, seeing as you need some sort of delivery system for a status effect to even come up in the game. When considering what I wanted out of a new status effect, I decided on a damage boost (against the target effected).

So here it is.
Frozen: The target is vulnerable to the next damage it takes.

There’s a few issues with this, but let me hit you with the inspiration. “Frozen” in For The King causes the target to suffer an additional 25% damage. Now, vulnerable obviously deals an additional 100% damage. Frozen in FTK lasts for more turns, but that’s besides the point. I don’t need to duplicate it to the exact.

First, the question of Resistances and Immunities. I need to include a small disclaimer of those. I could simply say that it has no effect if the target is immune to the damage type. I could assume the game master is happy to make a target normally resistant take normal damage. Applying vulnerability to a creature normally resistant to an effect isn’t something people normally need to deal with. As a matter of fact, I don’t think that situation has existed even as a possibility until the release of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, with the addition of the Grave Cleric. Its channel divinity feature makes the creature targeted vulnerable to the next attack against it. Do resistance and vulnerability cancel each other out? I certainly think so, and I’m sure everyone I play with would agree.

That’s not quite my standard for placing caveats in my design. If I can clear things up without inflating the word count too much, to me that’s preferable than any unnecessary amount of confusion. The questions Mearls and Crawford in particular have to suffer shows it doesn’t hurt to include some extra clarification.

Frozen: The target is vulnerable to the next damage it receives. If the target would normally be resistant to the damage, it instead loses its resistance to that damage. If the target would normally be immune, it takes no damage.

Not too bad! We should fix two last things. First, “Frozen” is probably a bad name for the status effect. It’s a port from something else; D&D has a ton of monsters to use. While it makes sense in the context of For the King, there’s no specific relation to ice or frost here. Next, the last sentence on immunity sounds redundant, so we’ll change it up.

Weakened: The target is vulnerable to the next damage it receives. If the target would normally be resistant to the damage, it instead loses its resistance to that damage. Targets which are immune to the damage suffer no effect.

Now we’re cooking with gas! Weakened makes far more sense when it comes to the effect. I don’t have to worry about any dissonance between the condition’s name and its effect on a creature like Frost Giants or Rhemorazes. This should provide some interesting levers to play with when designing homebrew content. In fact, I have to make a magic bow for Kevin’s new character.

Might see some use!

Changing Spells I

Well the poll on my page was clear, and the Charger revision is going back to the drafts for awhile.

You terrible people. 

All's well though, spellcasting is one of my favorite topics when it comes to games in general. Now, I love magic in tabletop RPG's in particular because there's such a variety of actual spells. Far too many they could get a game like sky room, there's just too much programming and development of assets that would go into developing 1/10 of the spells D&D has (that's not including situations that would involve their application, though most are combat focused so it's layered with other things). 

However if you're like me, you might find spellcasting and D&D a little stale after a while. You're constantly looking up spells that don't have the concentration tag's you can layer some active effects, combats only last three or four rounds, and there's all the spells you can't really justify casting over something else. There may be a situation one in a million where casting wall of sand would aid the party in combat. Perfectly reasonable assumption. However, there will never be a time in which casting wall of sand is a better tactical option than casting haste.

So, my first choice for editing spells within D&D is screwing around with the concentration tags. Now, I've already gone into elsewhere what my current system for managing concentration is. For those of you not quite looking to rip off that band-aid yet, no worries, I'm going to try something a little different here that hopefully exposes the process.

We're going to run down a 5 step plan for determining whether you can take concentration off a spell without breaking the game. There's plenty of obvious spells to choose from, but I'm going to see if I can't run down a list of more difficult choices (can't grow if you don't challenge yourself).

1. Compare the spell to haste.
Haste isn't actually the linchpin here but it's a useful example. Chances are, if you play for a year or more, certain casters have a signature spell. It's the best, the party moves around it, it's the first suggestion someone makes when they want to solve an issue, it's the first thing someone casts in combat. In the game I'm currently playing, literally every player has some sort of martial competence. On top of that, we find ourselves kited often (mostly bosses fleeing from the raging half-orc with two greatsw-ALL HAIL KAINO THE MOUNTAIN) so the speed boost is gravy. Any other concentration spell I cast is weighed against the speed and damage boost 2 or 3 of my party members are receiving at that time, so it's rare that I drop anything else on the field. Spike growth COULD be cool in some situations, but I rarely have the excuse for it. For these reasons, haste is my go-to.

2. Evaluate the opportunity costs of the spell. 
What happens when a character drops concentration on another spell to cast this one? How does the battlefield change? Is it more valuable to maintain concentration on a hold monster or fog cloud then switch to this one? Will it see any use? If you drop in this instance the concentration tag, does it displace the other spells? Obviously if you remove concentration from the spell they can deploy the effect alongside a concentration effect.

Let's say we've got a spell, single target to keep things simple. It doesn't deal any damage but incurs a pretty hefty status affect. Not something that hurts a creature's action economy, just makes it worse that using the actions it has available to it. That spell sounds pretty fun, and it is! It has to pretty hefty downsides though. It offers a saving throw for the effect obviously not bad enough itself, and that save is Constitution based. Monsters tend to be decent at Constitution and strength saving throws. Next, the spell offers a repeating save. The spell can fail well before it would naturally end or even before you take damage and may be feel concentration check, even if the spell originally succeeds. For arguments sake, let's make the spell second level quite a few second level spells match the sort of design.

Now the spell isn't useless by any stretch of the imagination, it's still pretty powerful. Do we add the concentration tag to it? I'd say no! The restrictions placed on the spell are significant, and the spell's benefit isn't something that takes the enemy off the board. It doesn't deal damage, and it has a good chance of failure even if the spell succeeds at first. If you add concentration to this spell, it's not going to be terribly impressive. So unimpressive, that it gets moved from a "nice in-pocket spell" to "right in the never-cast list with wall of sand".

So, we do not add the concentration tag to such a spell. If said spell has that tag, we remove it.
This spell exists, by the way. It's Blindness/Deafness, and it's great for minibosses and clutch moments when I'm playing a character focused on battlefield control.

3. Compare the spell to other spells of its kind.
There's a cluster of 2nd level spells that really overlap in their utility and purpose, mechanically and thematically. Suggestion, Crown of Madness, and Hold Person (that last one might seem odd but I promise it's supposed to be there) all serve to diminish or cut out action economy in some fashion when it comes to the enemy.

Are your players going to ignore spells similar to the one you've selected to change? Is that an indication those other spells are in need of a fix as well? Or are you just boosting a spell to be too powerful?

4. Consider any exploits that result from changing it.
This step in the process of editing the spell is particularly relevant given the tag have chosen to use as an example. After all, concentration is fifth editions design Band-Aid on too many spell effects. So naturally, making your mechanical change in this area exploit – proof is especially necessary.

It's almost like I plan these things.

Changes to debuff spells are especially in need of attention. Stacking multiple conditions on top of one another can create a much faster downward spiral for your monsters. Creature fails wisdom save, creature has a condition that makes it automatically fail dex and strength saves, casters start throwing those spells at the creature, tensions rise, the DM flips the table. Avoid this. 

Don't engage in theory crafting; honestly think about how your usual combats play out. Mine tend to go about 3-4 rounds, and the players tend to get surprised more often than they do the monsters. I wouldn't think about what would happen if the cleric had 6 rounds of not taking damage, total preparation, no restrictions on line of sight, no risk of the monsters overwhelming him, etc. That situation will never play itself out in the game, not even by accident. Does the caster become a higher value target for intelligent monsters? Does the caster somehow make themselves more difficult to hit or take damage with the spell? Do the effective damage reductions also restrict their ability to affect the battlefield? Play out the situations in your head, or just take some 1" grid paper and literally play out the situation on paper. Not enough DMs do this, in can seriously benefit your design decisions. 

5. Evaluate whether toning down the spell may be worth the tradeoff.
There are two easy ways to tone down spells that are normally concentration. First, add a repeating save. There are few concentration spells that last for something like a minute and do not offer a repeating save. Spells of these sorts are usually justified in having the concentration tag. You might want to remove it anyways for whatever reason, so a good way to tone it down is to inflate the chance of the spell's failure. Pretty simple, right? Now some spells have a one minute duration and already offer a repeating save. If you want to remove the concentration tag from that spell, your easiest option for diminishing the effect is hard capping the duration. Make the spell last until the end of the casters next turn. It's a hefty penalty, but it's a nice trade-off. Now, what if you've encountered a spell that already caps the effect at the end of the casters next turn and has the concentration tag? More likely than not, you found a poorly designed spell. But if some miracle such as spell exists and deleting the concentration tag would make it unbalanced, simply increase the minimum level at which it must be cast. In fact, that change is relatively easy to institute to begin with and perhaps easier to remember.

This stage of the process is what I'd most recommend consulting with your players. As the adage goes, if it ain't broke don't fix it. After going through the previous steps, you may find a proposed mechanical change is best in your eyes balanced by diminishing some aspect of the spell. There are a variety of ways to do this of course, but I'd like to note that this step of the process is most likely to step on your players toes. Now, don't try to avoid that while going through this process up until this point. You would to plunge yourself into the mechanics, the math, the way your change plays out of the table. This plenty of opportunities for somebody to be mildly inconvenienced by a change you made; you need to ignore those thoughts while testing things out, or a else slow (worse yet, stall) your progress.

Once you get to this point, feedback is helpful! Making the design process collaborative for this sort of thing in the early stages can be difficult. It's far too easy to shoot each other down before getting things on paper. And since prototyping mechanic for a tabletop game is noticeably easier than prototyping for something like a videogame, the potential payoff for ignoring everyone else to get the idea established is far too high to resist. So, ask your players! Ask whether this will step on any of their toes! They will be best equipped to see if this will have any immediate or obvious detriments to their enjoyment of the game. 

Note: Sorry for a lower quality here, I had a really excellent 2-5 point list buy didn't save changes, so a lot of this is re-hashing things I'd already written down. 
 

Weekly Statblock: Frost Dune Worm

This week's statblock is a little different in that I actually already attacked the players with it. Besides that, This is more of a "homebrewed on the spot" monster (I had a bit of help from the 3.5 Sandstorm supplement). 

Frost Dune Worm.jpg

Nasty, huh? This is how solo bosses should be made!

Let's go through it. The players met God-King Orion (which I stole shamelessly from warhammer), who pledged to give them access to a Rune if they pledged themselves to a Hunting Lodge of his tree-city. How does on pledge to a lodge? They agree to go on a hunt, the target of which is chosen by Orion. The players accept, Orion thinks awhile, and he decides on what he wants. "On another world lies worms of titanic size; hunts worthy of my Glade Riders! One's caught my eye; Albino, with the breath of a dragon, and scaled! My Riders will guide you through the Glade, and drive the creature towards you." This plays out, the players make it to this new world (which they didn't at first understand, was not a plane, but another Material World), and look about. Pale red skies and sand lie above whatever ravine or canyon they've landed in, and the Riders set out to drive the worm towards them. Important note; the players knew the Riders were not to assist them in the event things went sideways.

This sort of encounter (the players are specifically contracted to fight it) is a great opportunity to be nastier than usual. 

So, let's evaluate what this guy can do.

The big threat to players is the Cold Breath. It's based on a Con save and deals a slightly less common resistance. The Gusting Breath is functionally more deadly to the players. It's based on a slightly better save for players (though not for mine in particular), but deals a far less common resistance (physical damage) and has the potential to blind the players besides. That being said, it can only be used after using the Inhaling Breath. This of course means using its action a whole round beforehand, which minimizes its damage somewhat. Not by too much, though. The Inhaling Breath is actually quite useful on its own; bringing creatures closer to its lovely whirlwind of death is frightening on its own, particularly if you start using the Bull Rush legendary action. 

Let's go to the Molting Shriek ability. I detected pretty early on the players were going to attempt a stunlock (and why not, there's only 1 creature). Once we got to a point in the fight that the players discovered holding back might get one or more of them killed, the creature's hp started dropping far more rapidly than before. I decided to give it a reaction (homebrew monster, I can do what I waaaaaaaant). I didn't know the specifics of the reaction beyond 2 things; it dropped his AC by 2, and the players had to make a con save or become stunned. I remember describing it as rearing back in pain, inhaling to emit the shriek so strongly that some of the scales and chitin they'd been striking began to slough off. If I recall correctly, this was roughly around where the creature was at half hp. Half HP is generally a goof flux point to intensify a battle, whether the creature gets stronger, weaker, or whatever else have you. I used this ability a second time however, when he was at something like 20 hp. I didn't have to include a justification for using the ability multiple times, of course. What I invent in the moment isn't always necessarily useful to anyone reading. Nevertheless, I thought I might be able to come up with a clever escalation mechanic, and lo! I did!

You might be wondering "Why doesn't the worm just spam that ability, use legendary actions and breath weapons to kill the pcs, and bounce?" 2 reasons, one of which is tactical, and one of which is not. The tactical reason is spamming Molting Shriek grants diminishing returns. The chances that all of your players will fail the save (even as hefty as 16 Con) is low. The chance they'll all fail it multiple times? Virtually none. So your monster is very rapidly decreasing his armor class (which normally remains static). 5e math is adjusted for players hitting something like 60% of the time. That might be lower when it comes to high AC creatures like this. If the monster spams this ability, he'll be hit with far more attacks and be far less able to defend himself. His HP will begin to spiral downwards; the difference between HP retention in the fight between my players and this creature before and after he used Molting Shriek was very, VERY distinct. That's just going from 20 to 18. Imagine going down to something like 12! You might very well kill a player, don't get me wrong. You're probably not going to get much more than that, though. 

I saved the narrative reason for last because I wanted a well thought out, mechanical explanation for the inevitable complaint over things people haven't playtested being "OP". Narrative reasons are nice, but people will glance over them if they dislike the conclusion. There's a very simple reason this creature doesn't do take "tactically completely optimal" option: it has an intelligence of 6. 6! There are no tactics for that creature. It's not going for the spellcaster first. Stop it. Stop typ-no, stop. If you wanna play the half dragon sandworm like it houses the trapped consciousness of Alexander the Great, you do you man. 

Don't drag me down. 

One last thing; the death burst! This was I think lifted directly from the 3.5 supplement. Very simple ability; the players kill the creature, and the creature detonates and hurts them. This can actually be important in 2 contexts. For one thing, if other creatures are on the way, how many resources (HP, spells) the players have left is actually quite important. Next, if any players are unconscious (particularly more than one), stay in initiative (which I did). The players probably won't lose anyone to failed death saves outside of combat. The possibility remains, however, and who has what spells to revive someone actually matters (at the very least, a non healer might need to spend some health potions to ensure the survival of a close downed player).

Lemme know what you think guys!

Fix the Eldritch Knight?

The Eldritch Knight is something of an abomination within D&D. Just about all the martial classes have a subclass which is considered to be the magic fighting hybrid. And they all pretty universally suck. Well, maybe I shouldn't go that far. I'm relatively certain you could play a combat effective Eldritch Knight. You can take spells like shield from the get go, making you extremely hard to hit (especially if you're in something like plate armor). You can further boost your chances of survival with spells like blur, absorb elements, protection from evil and good, you get the idea. I'm not going to mention spells like haste (seeing as though you're practically never get up to that level), but hey, they're out there.

All that being said, the subclass feels disjointed. You're constantly going to choose between either casting a spell, or using your melee attacks. As you learn more about the subclass and what's optimal (not to mention your number of attacks going up) you start doing the smart thing and pretty much ignore your spells.
 

I preface the mechanical change I'm about to propose to demonstrate I'm willing to look at the subclass as being viable for combat. When people want to play a hybridized magic knight, they want to do two things. They want to in some fashion combine spellcasting and their martial abilities, or at the very least on a regular basis do spellcasting and their regular attacks within the same turn. On this basis, the Eldritch Knight doesn't fill that niche. You either cast spells, or you make physical attacks. And as previously mentioned, as the levels go up, you lean heavily in one of those directions.

I can say this now having done it, if I wanted to play a kind of magic knight I would simply mix wizard with about three levels of Battle Master fighter. I get several maneuvers that allow me to toy with the battlefield, some damage and survival enhancing abilities, and in general don't have to choose between using my core class features and spellcasting. It actually works out pretty well, and I highly recommend it to you all (even those of you who accept the mechanical change I'm about to propose).

All that being said, let's look at one abilitiy in particular.

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, when you use your action to cast a cantrip, you can make one weapon attack as a bonus action.


Now, this is pretty miserable. By the time you get this ability, you've already gotten the first of your extra attacks. If you're using any sort of heavy weapon, the damage you do with one attack will likely outclass anything you do with a cantrip. If you're not using a heavy weapon, the difference between a single physical attack and a cantrip is much smaller. As previously mentioned however, you can at this point make two attacks per round.

Just to reiterate; the fact you will not use this ability except in very specific and convoluted circumstances does not mean that the Eldritch Knight can't be effective in combat. It just suffers from one of the many instances of a class receiving poorly designed abilities (not ribbons) that pretend to change the character. Even if the class as a whole is well designed and even carries the subclass through, if the subclass's special abilities don't seem to fundamentally change the character, it'll feel lackluster.

Did that make sense?  Let me try putting it this way: the Eldritch Knight could be completely viable and even on par with the Battlemaster (as an example) levels 3-20 despite never changing from "that guy who swings his sword and casts shield". However, if those abilities he gets from 3-20 don't produce any improvements (i.e. the character actually uses them on occasion), the subclass doesn't actually grow. That's fine, unless literally any other subclass or class does grow. If another subclass actually improves over time, it's more fun to engage with (for most people).

 Now, on to the proposed change:

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, take the attack action, you can cast a cantrip as a bonus action. 

Let the harpies come. 
I'm going to try to justify this as best I can before I put any additional restrictions on it. At this level, your cantrip damage has only increased by one dice, and Int is still most likely your secondary or tertiary stat. No wizard at this point is "taking a dip" into the class, they're giving up some serious firepower to do whatever insane build the seven level deviation is for. Ditto for Warlock and Arcane Trickster. You have a decent increase in damage (probably not something that will supersede the champion) and a bit of increased utility to boot. On top of that, you can actually use this ability without feeling like a complete idiot, right?

That being said, we should definitely add a caveat. 

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, when you take the attack action, you can cast a wizard cantrip as a bonus action. 

This is just to prevent any Eldritch Blast shenanigans. The fighter gets enough feats that Magic Initiate becomes a must-have, and Eldritch Blast being what is is, Warlock is pretty sound. Also, with the release of the Hexblade, a heavy deviation into something like Eldritch Knight becomes viable (seeing as you'd only need to focus Int and Cha for your offensive abilities). 

Now, if this still seems too powerful for some reason (and there are several), we can cut it down further.

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, when take the attack action, you can cast a wizard cantrip as a bonus action. You can use this feature a number of times equal to your Intelligence modifier (a minimum of once). You regain all expended uses when you finish a short or long rest.

Now we're cooking with gas. I admit, this feels punishing compared to the last example, but in actuality it's probably more balanced. These additional cantrips are now on par with something like Battlemaster Maneuvers, though perhaps a bit damaged focused. 

I can definitely see an Eldritch Knight pummeling an enemy to just a few hitpoints trying to save the Sorcerer or something, casting Shocking Grasp to let him exit safely.

A big part of this is the introduction of the SCAG, and several cantrips that allow you to make a weapon attack as part of the spell. Having unlimited access to that as a bonus action would quickly (and I really don't use this lightly) overpowered.

So, let's recap:

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, when you use your action to cast a cantrip, you can make one weapon attack as a bonus action.

This is the default ability for the Eldritch Knight. Your player will never take a second glance at it, and poor design like this turns your players off from the subclass.

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, take the attack action, you can cast a cantrip as a bonus action. 

The first proposed change. It'll see use, maybe too much use. The constant extra damage or utility from the cantrips can override the Battlemaster and Champion's abilities, making them seem like the suboptimal choice. Also fairly easy to break with multiclassing.

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, when you take the attack action, you can cast a wizard cantrip as a bonus action.

Issues with this change are identical to the last, with the exception of problems caused by multiclassing. This would be a nice ability to attach to a magic item. 

War magic:
Beginning at 7th level, when take the attack action, you can cast a wizard cantrip as a bonus action. You can use this feature a number of times equal to your Intelligence modifier (a minimum of once). You regain all expended uses when you finish a short or long rest.

The final proposed change. Less ideal as a reward in the form of magic item or simply an improvement upon an ability (though your players won't complain for getting it), but makes an excellent replacement for the Eldritch Knight's 7th level ability.

Let me know what you think in the comments.