D&D Ideas — Three Pillars of 5E D&D

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Welcome once again to the weekly Nerdarchy Newsletter. This week we’ve got the Three Pillars of 5E D&D. We decided to break things up a little differently than usual. There are three of us and three different pillars so we each took one. Before we jump into it I feel morally obligated to mention Nerdarchy’s Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition Kickstarter. Take a look at the Kickstarter page and discover the pledge level that’s best for you. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy, by signing up here.

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Delving Dave’s Dungeon

Arguably I’ve been given the easiest of the three pillars of D&D — combat. Why do I say that? Well, most of the rules in the game are based around this aspect. But therein lies the trap. It’s easy to fall into the routine of just rolling the dice to attack characters and for them to do the same to monsters.
But it doesn’t have to be. Why not have the orc bandit kick a barrel at the fighter, before charging with their greataxe?
Let’s break it down and discuss how it would play out at the table. The orc makes an attack roll. If it hits, it’s only a 1d4 plus Strength in damage. But because it’s a barrel rolling at the fighter’s legs, call for a DC 13 Strength or Dexterity saving throw. Just take 8 (base) +3 (Strength) +2 (Proficiency modifier) = 13. On a failed save the fighter ends up on their butt. Any of the orc’s buddies that attack the fighter will now have advantage to attack them.
That being said, if your players want to try something crazy like that let them. If our orc had another attack it would have been able to capitalize on the advantage. Instead you can have them and their allies laugh and mock the fighter.
Now there is an overturned barrel on the battlefield. Next up the orc’s goblin buddy slides behind the barrel to gain cover as they begin firing off their crossbow. That’s only one example. In it we’ve even added in some roleplaying in the form of the orcs mocking the fighter.
In another scenario you might have characters in a running battle through the treetops where they’ve got to swing on vines, climb, and jump from branch to branch. In this way you add elements from the exploration pillar right into the combat pillar. Maybe the enemies or even the player characters will attempt to attack the vines the others are swinging on instead of each other. As the Dungeon Master, give the vines an AC and HP. On success they can eliminate enemies from the fight or a player has to figure out how to get back into the fight.
These are some of the ways to spice up battles.

From Ted’s Head

Of all the pillars of D&D, the social pillar might be viewed as the hardest for some DMs. If it is easy for you then feel free to skim this one section for tips. But for those who might find the social pillar challenging here are some helpful things you can do to help you out.
First, you need to remember we are playing a game. Not all games are being run on a channel, getting streamed for anyone to watch. So messing up or needing to fix something is okay. I have had to fix a statement or change something in games in the past.
Second, roleplaying is just having a conversation. There are many things you can do if you have plans for using a special NPC for a game. Not every NPC needs to have a story or a voice. So go ahead and skip shopping NPCs if that suits you. If you want to make a shopkeeper standout, have fun with it.
Third, listen to your players. If they find interest in an NPC you have the ability to make that NPC more interesting, have more layers, and potentially become intertwined in the plot. Feel free to use the tropes. They could be kidnapped. They could be working for the bad guys. They could have a shady past that catches up to them or even have secrets that get out.
Fourth, should you have an NPC you wish to make special, there are several things you can do ahead of time if you are willing. You can decide on a voice that is going to work. I had an NPC I mirrored the voice from a character in a TV show and I practiced the voice in the week leading up to the game where I used them. If using voices is not for you or you are looking to build up more preparation, feel free to build out a lore or data sheet for that NPC. Knowing who the character is before the game will allow you a better chance of getting into character and playing them during the session.
Lastly when it comes to roleplaying I suggest you do not stress out over it and have fun. The social pillar has the least rules but if you feel you need to have rules you can set DCs for your skill checks as opposed to using a defensive role on your skills. This would cut down on you needing to roll against your players and keeping them guessing as you play.

From the Nerditor’s Desk

three pillars of 5E D&D combat exploration social interactionI’ve heard many times that fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is primarily a combat game. Most of the rules address combat situations, for example. And perhaps more illustrative of this point is there’s not many rules per se governing the other two pillars of 5E D&D play — social situations and exploration.


There’s plenty of guidelines for social and environmental interactions in 5E D&D. And while Nerdarchists Dave and Ted tackle the fighty stuff and the talky stuff, I quickly called dibs on the looky stuff, my favorite aspect of D&D — exploration.

Whenever adventurers aren’t locked in mortal combat with a fearsome foe, or jawing with an NPC or among themselves, guess what? They’re exploring. Think about the last time you played D&D, from either side of the DM screen. A good chunk of your game session likely involved trying to defeat creatures in combat, and there was probably a fair amount of chatting with NPCs. What about all the time between?

The party scout looking for traps. The wilderness expert guiding the group safely through the wilds. A character with knowledge of arcane things studying the strange obelisk deep in the dungeon. All of these things are exploration.

I will admit, while there are many, many class abilities, spells, tools and more related to exploration, there isn’t as robust content on what to do when these traits are employed. So this can get a bit tricky for a DM.

Here’s an example: in the Player’s Handbook, the Religion skill is described like this: “Your Intelligence (Religion) check measures your ability to recall lore about deities, rites and prayers, religious hierarchies, holy symbols, and the practices of secret cults.”

But what happens when the skill is used? In my second favorite edition of D&D (4E fight me), skill checks were often accompanied by a tiered list of what success meant. The Nerdarchy crew liked this kind of material, and you’ll find similar tables in some of our own products.

When players express a desire to use skills and abilities to interact with the adventure or campaign setting in ways that don’t involve violence or interpersonal communication, they’re essentially telling you they want to know more about the world around them.

Now’s your chance!

I like to think of exploration as a great opportunity for “stuff that happens.” You stick your hand in the pool of glowing liquid, pull a lever on a dungeon wall, creep ahead to see what lies beyond the next rise, look for signs of the Xanathar Guild scrawled around Waterdeep, try to decipher an ancient tablet, whatever. Welcome to exploration.

Like social interaction, it’s true there isn’t as extensive rules of guidelines to it… at least not explicitly. Chapter 8 in the Dungeon Master’s Guide does include sections on resolving some things mechanically for these two pillars of play and this is a great place to start.

My biggest tip for making exploration more vibrant in your D&D games is to start a collection of random charts and tables. Whenever characters are exploring, you’ll have a wealth of storytelling options to reward players for interacting with the environment. I recommend asking the players to make dice rolls on your tables, rather than you the DM. First off it’s fun to roll dice and players will be excited because they surely found something important! Second, if the results are unfortunate, hey, they rolled it not you.

To get you started, back again to the DMG where chapter 3 covers random encounters —  “obstacles and events that advance the plot, foreshadow important elements or themes of the adventure, and provide fun distractions.”

Please note: just because a creature is on a stuff the happens table doesn’t make it a combat! In my experience it’s very likely players will approach creatures on the social pillar. I know a lot of players who love befriending monsters. On the Sylvan Forest Encounters table in the DMG, one of the results is 1 owl bear. Scary. Or maybe an opportunity to explore and witness the majestic wonder of the owl bear in its natural habitat.

Another entry on that table: “A magical plant with 2d4 glowing berries. A creature that ingests a berry becomes invisible for 1 hour, or until it attacks or casts a spell. Once picked, a berry loses its magic after 12 hours. Berries regrow at midnight, but if all its berries are picked, the plant becomes nonmagical and grows no more berries.”

I’m willing to bet a good chunk of your game session from there on out would involve that magical plant. A random exploration that players used to build a uniquely D&D part of their characters’ story.

Next time the adventurers in your party don’t feel like talking to strangers (or strange creatures), and no one is rolling for initiative, pull out your random charts and tables and discover right alongside the players what exactly happens when their character reads the ancient text aloud.

“Chain: A 200-foot long chain appears on the ground for a few seconds before it blinks out of existence.” — No. 242 from a table of 1d1000 totally random magical effects.

Of course, the best resource to have on hand for dynamic exploration encounters, you should totally check out Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition — Nerdarchy’s own Kickstarter! It’s our first one ever and it funded in less than 30 hours. The 55 encounters included are primed for any pillar of play with everything you need to create memorable experiences and stories that will last a lifetime with your friends.

Until next time, stay nerdy!

— Nerdarchy Team


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