Daniel M. Ford

Author of The Paladin Trilogy

Daniel M. Ford is a teacher, poet, writer, and author of The Paladin Trilogy, forthcoming from SFWP.

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The Sword's the Thing: A Look at How I DM

If you know what a Paladin is and that's what brought you here, then chances are you know what is meant by “DM” in the above, but in case you don't, it's shorthand for “Dungeon Master,” the storyteller, arbiter, and referee who runs a typical Role Playing Game (RPG). Probably more often than not, among the various groups of gamers I've been lucky enough to be a part of, I've taken on that role. Not always, but with a natural bent towards storytelling and a willingness to spend more than my budget should really allow on gaming books, it's often fallen to me to provide the backbone of story for the friends I game with. I have no complaints about this; the DM or GM's role is a complex and challenging one, but it has its benefits. For one, they can't play the game without you, so your scheduling matters. Two, and this is key, it has undoubtedly made me a better writer. A good DM learns to gauge an audience, work a room, manage expectations, drop the right kind of clues without giving up the plot, build characters out of thin air, and develop an instinct for killer story moments, the kinds of things players talk about for years after the fact.

If I had to break my DMing approach down into a few rules, they'd be as follows:

1. Let the dice fall where they may; what happens happens when the dice hit the table. This goes both ways! If the players cook up a clever strategy or simply get hot and roll a spate of Nat 20s to take down my big bad, so be it. But I won't pull my crits either.

2. The game – that means the DM – should reward risk-taking. Overly cautious play grinds the game to a halt and turns every dungeon crawl into a dice cleanse.

3. The player characters should get their time to shine, their chance for Big Damn Hero moments. What else are you playing the game for, if not that? Obviously if you're running an 'evil' campaign this may have different wording, but I don't care to run or play that kind of game, generally.

4. The PCs aren't heroes without the real threat of death. I do not think I've ever run a campaign that didn't wind up with at least one player death. I have, essentially, run a campaign that ended in a TPK, or close enough to it that we never picked it back up. I will reward risk, but I won't wave away stupidity, bad choices, and remember what rule #1 up there says.

5. Magic and treasure are one of the most fun parts of the game. I find this to be true as both a player and a DM. There's almost nothing I enjoy more than building a treasure hoard for a significant encounter, or designing specific magic items for player characters.

To that end, I recently designed a weapon for a new character for my current campaign, The Dragon Seas, a homebrew world for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. In another post some day, if there's interest, I'll go ahead and post up some info on that world and you can tell me what you think. For now, though, I'm just going to give what info is necessary. Be warned; the following is deeply nerdy. I mean, to the point of containing words in Elven. Errors in grammar, spelling, or usage there are entirely mine and not the fault of my source, which is https://www.elfdict.com/

The character coming into the campaign is new, but the player is not. In fact, we've been gaming together since 1999. His first PC in this game didn't die, but voluntarily retired due to recent actions by the rest of the party and the dictates of his own conscience. The new PC is going to be an Elven Barbarian. Barbarian by class, mind you, not by instinct or social role; I am pretty liberal in terms of the presentation of a class. So long as we're not altering the actual functional abilities, I don't really care if your barbarian is a gentleman of perfect breeding and impeccable stock who carries a heavy walking stick and has occasional episodes that end with blood under his fingernails and some ruffians beaten to a pulp. In this case I imagine the character is going to be much more like a samurai whose 'rage' abilities are more like a trance he deliberately induces in battle. Nothing changes about the class, only how it's role-played.

So, he's going to be entering the campaign at a pretty high level, 8. His previous character had some pretty sweet items, and took every one of them with him. This new character needs to bring some firepower to replace the old one, and some of that needs to be represented in his weapon. Now, I know that you technically don't need magic items to function in this version, not in the way you did in 2nd and 3rd.

But who doesn't want magic items? I know some folks prefer low magic settings and they have all kinds of good reasons for that.

I'm not one of them.

Give me the flaming sword and winged armor for my paladin every time. Give me a wizard with so many ioun stones orbiting his head he has trouble seeing through them, or a rogue with so many stealth-boosting magic items that a guard can be standing on his foot and still miss him. That's just how I like to play, and your mileage may vary. Besides, the more powerful the PCs get, the more force I can bring to bear to crush them and everything they love.

Now, given the level, and the nature of the campaign, I want to give this new character a solidly powerful sword, one that will remain useful for the entirety of the game. We started last April and I imagine we'll still be playing for several months yet, approaching level fifteen or sixteen by the time we're done.

I don't want to give too much background on my homebrew world in this post, but two things merit a brief gloss. First, there is an ancient order of elven knights-errant (though they need not be knights; any class can be a part of this order) called the Oniranya, or 'Wandering Force.' This is taken directly from the Youxia tradition of Chinese poetry. Second, slavery is an issue of political strife in this world, mostly in the form of humans enslaving orcs, though they're not too shy about enslaving one another, either.

And in the next session – which will be the first one the new character participates in – the players are about to attempt to foment a slave revolt by freeing and arming the thralls held in the slave market of one of the two major slaving cities.

Enter an Oniranya devoted to principles of freedom and courage. Carrying his sword, En Poldor Angwendh. The Breaker of Chains. As I described it in an email to the player:

Your sword has had many names, and has known many hands before your own. Always, it returns to Dolen Caras Randhirim (note: the only elven city in this world) and is given to another Oniranya – but seldom is it passed directly from one wielder to another.

In the wars against the Unnumbered Hordes of the Goblins it was known as Dangweth,or The Answerer. Later it was known as En Felectha, The Equalizer. When it came to you while you underwent your Oniranya training in Dolen Caras Randhirim, it was, as tradition would dictate, given a new name:

En Poldor Angwendh – The Breaker of Chains

It is a +2 Greatsword that is wreathed in flames when drawn and casts bright radiance to 30 feet. When you draw it, as a bonus action, by speaking aloud the command word, you can determine what kind of bonus damage the flames do; Radiance, Thunder, Acid, or Fire. To change this in the midst of combat also requires the use of a bonus action. It does an extra 1d6 damage of this type.

Furthermore, as an action, you may use this sword to cut through any chain, lock, or bar made of iron or steel (or other mundane metal) that is being used to imprison a sentient being. There is no need to roll an attack or damage; the bar/chain/lock is simply cut. This does not effect a magically strengthened or locked door (like 'hold portal' or 'arcane lock') it does not affect anything made of mithril, adamantite, or other exotic metals (gold, silver, platinum). It does not effect doors primarily made of stone or wood (i.e., if prisoners are being held in a room with a locked oaken door, the sword can't effect the door, but if there are bars or chains or fetters binding the prisoners INSIDE that room, those would be cut).

Requires attunement by an elf of CG alignment. In the hands of anyone else it functions as a simple +1 Greatsword.

So, my thought process and some clarification; I want the players to love their signature items. I want them to be meaningful to the character, rather than some rusty old sword they found in a dragon's hoard and said, “eh, it's 5% more effective than this old thing I've been carrying through all my adventures and won fame and fortune with, so out with the old.” I wanted to give him something that will remain useful to his character from now until the end of the campaign, reflect his culture and role, and generally do cool stuff without being overpowered.

So, that variable 1d6 of damage? That's useful forever, especially in this world. Remember that mention above of goblins? They're sort of the old bugaboo that even Stone Giant parents use to scare their children with, for good reason. The first is overwhelming numbers. Individually, they're totally nonthreatening, but they don't come in small numbers. Secondly, these are not standard Monster Manual goblins; they adapt in the midst of combat to develop resistance to whatever kinds of damage are being done to them.

No, it really isn't fair. Hence an ancient elven sword designed originally to fight them called The Answerer.

But goblins aren't seen as much of a threat anymore, or haven't been for eight hundred years, and the Oniranya don't focus only on the past.

I feel like the sword's ability to cut chains is the kind of thing that's fun, and lends color to the game without breaking anything or making it too overwhelmingly powerful.

And in his first session with a new character, an old friend and player will get to immediately prove his value and his total badassery to a bunch of strangers (the rest of the party) who won't have to invent some lame reason to keep him around – one of the perils of PC mortality.

So, there you have it; a glimpse into me as a Dungeon Master, how I create items, how I try to make space for the players to do the cool stuff we all sit at the gaming table for, and one of the many reasons I keep coming back to D&D and games like it; magic swords are just cool. 


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