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Social Distance Thoughts. GM-less 5e Gaming: Part One – Skills

Pandemic changes things. For everyone’s sake, we need to adapt. For our own sakes, we need to stay sane.

At least for the next few weeks, a lot of us aren’t going out and doing the things we normally do. That leaves us with only online options to interact with friends.

RPGs are a great way to spend time with friends. And if you are willing to go theater-of-the-mind, it works great just via chat or video conference.

But, no one may be in the mood to act as GM.

So, a group of 2-4 friends sure CAN run through a pre-generated adventure without a GM, or a map. Just treat it as a board game, deal with one encounter at a time, roll targets of attacks randomly, and don’t get too hung up on things like tactics or worrying about player knowledge. One Facilitator reads each encounter as you run into it (and maybe that role rotates), and players agree to deal with things cooperatively.

You can even use these ideas to run yourself through adventures on your own, a kind of Gaming Solitaire.

But… it might be nice to have some guidelines for things like skill checks interacting with encounters, when you don’t have a GM to make rulings. So:

GM-less 5e Skill Rules

This is just the beginning of a potential ruleset for playing through a published 5e module with friends, likely online and without a virtual tabletop, and without a GM. This is a first set of thoughts—the beginning of this idea, rather than the end.

Group Skill Decisions

When you want to try something the text doesn’t give you guidance on, the group needs to decide on a DC for the effort. The player proposing the action suggests an ability and related skill, and describes how the action would work. The group then sees if they can agree that the thing being proposed would be Very Easy to accomplish, Easy, Medium, Hard, Very Hard, or Nearly Impossible. The default DC of anything the group can’t decide on is 20 (Hard).

3d illustration of low poly mystical dungeon with a gate in the rock. Game locations with poisons. Above the stone gates is a dragon sculpture with glowing green eyes. Stylized art with bokeh effect.

Ability Checks Table: Typical Difficulty Classes

Task Difficulty   (DC)

Very Easy (5)

Easy (10)

Medium (15)

Hard (20)

Very Hard (25)

Nearly Impossible (30)

Each ability score lists the skills associated with it, along with typical results for success and failure of skill checks that aren’t specifically outlines in the adventure. Have fun with these checks. Describe the attempts, discuss how the story plays out. It’s a different kind of roleplaying, but no less fun or effective for being more cooperative.

For example, the adventure says there is a locked door. Kyla suggests her barbarian should be able to shoulder the door open with a Strength (Athletics) check. The group agrees that’s possible, but given it’s a sturdy, well-maintained door, it’ll be Hard. Kyla attempts a DC 20 Strength (Athletics) check. If she succeeded, she could bypass the obstacle (forcing the door open). As it happens she fails. The typical failure for Strength Athletics) is to take Damage equal to DC -20 -2d6. That’s a base of 10 (DC 20 -10) hp of damage. Kyla rolls 2d6, and gets a 7, which she also subtracts. She ends up taking 3 (10 -7) points of damage, and the door is not open.


(Athletics) – Success: Overcome one obstacle. Cause one monster to be unable to act for 1d4 rounds. Failure: Take damage equal to task DC -10 -2d6 (minimum 0).


(Acrobatics) – Success: Overcome one obstacle. Cause one monster to be unable to affect you for 1d3 rounds. Failure: Take damage equal to task DC -10 -3d6 (minimum 0).

(Sleight of Hand) – Success: Take one item of fist-size or less from the encounter. Cause one monster to be unable to use an item for 1 round. Failure: Disadvantage on defensive rolls for 1 round.

(Stealth) – Success: Escape an encounter. Examine an encounter without triggering it. Failure: Trigger an encounter, lose turn failing to escape the encounter.


Endure a hazard or circumstance for 1d4 rounds without taking additional damage or penalties.


(Arcana) – Learn the details of one magic creature, effect, trap, curse, or similar item. Failure: False information causes you to be at disadvantage for your next check against the magic examined.

(History) – Learn the details of one ruin or established settlement, or item pertaining to it. Failure: False information causes you to be at disadvantage for your next check against the place or related item examined.

(Investigation) – Learn the details of one location you can examine unhindered. Failure: False information causes you to be at disadvantage for your next check against the location or a related item examined.

(Nature) – Learn the details of one natural creature, effect, hazard, location, terrain, or similar item. Failure: False information causes you to be at disadvantage for your next check against the natural creature or phenomenon examined.

(Religion) – Learn the details of one religion or a related creature, effect, trap, curse, or similar item. This specifically includes angels, demons, devils, and undead. Failure: False information causes you to be at disadvantage for your next check against the religious subject examined.


(Animal Handling) – Success: Overcome one animal-based encounter that has not yet become a combat without it becoming one. Cause one animal to be unable to affect you for 1d3 rounds. Instruct a friendly animal to take a specific action. Failure: Bad interaction causes you to be at disadvantage with your next check with the relevant animal.

(Insight) – Success: Learn the true intentions of one intelligence creature. If the creature intends to attack you, you may take an action to begin the combat before the creature does. Failure: Bad conclusion causes you to be at disadvantage with your next check with the relevant creature.

(Medicine) – Success: Learn the nature of one disease or poison. Stabilize a dying creature. Prevent a disease, bleed, or poison from affecting its victim for 1 round. Failure: target takes 1 hp.

(Perception) – Success: Learn all elements of an encounter. Failure: No penalty.

(Survival) – Success: Live off the land without using up supplies for 1 day. Avoid one natural hazard. Locate a natural encounter and observe it without setting it off. Failure: One random party member takes 1 hp.


(Deception) – Success: Overcome one non-combat encounter with intelligent creatures. Gain advantage on your next check with one creature in a combat encounter. Failure: You are at disadvantage on your next check with the creature you attempted to deceive.

(Intimidation) – Success: Overcome one non-combat encounter with intelligent creatures. Gain advantage on your next check with one creature in a combat encounter. Failure: Creature attacks you.

(Performance) – Success: Gain advantage for the next check a party member makes in a non-combat encounter with intelligent creatures. Failure: Suffer disadvantage for the next check a party member makes in a non-combat encounter with intelligent creatures.

(Persuasion) – Success: Overcome one non-combat encounter with nonhostile intelligent creatures. Failure: No penalty.

A Request

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Thanks, everyone.

More 5e Familiars

I was having a conversation with Jacob Blackmon (by social-distancing-approved web interface), and he mentioned an idea of playing with how familiars and concentration spells in 5e interact. I found it interesting, and that developed into these Upgraded Familiars.

You gain an Upgraded Familiar with the find familiar spell, but must add additional material components as listed for each upgraded familiar below. Each uses the base stats of the listed normal familiar, but also has one of more special abilities.

Material: 50 gp worth of opal
Base stats: lizard
Special: A chameleon gives you access to the alter self spell, which you can cast using appropriate spell slots as if it was a spell you knew. The chameleon can take its action each turn to concentrate on an alter self spell you cast, which frees you from its limitations of a concentration spell.

Firefly, Giant
Material: 50 gp worth of amber
Base stats: owl
Special: A giant firefly can make as much light as a candle at will. It also gives you access to the dancing lights cantrip, which you can cast as if it was a cantrip you knew. The firefly can take its action each turn to concentrate on a dancing lights cantrip you cast, which frees you from its limitations of a concentration spell.

Material: 50 gp worth of pearl
Base stats: weasel
Special: A mongoose gives you access to the blur spell, which you can cast using appropriate spell slots as if it was a spell you knew. The mongoose can take its action each turn to concentrate on a blur spell you cast, which frees you from its limitations of a concentration spell.

Material: 50 gp worth of onyx
Base stats: bat
Special: A nightingale gives you access to the darkness spell, which you can cast using appropriate spell slots as if it was a spell you knew. The nightingale can take its action each turn to concentrate on a darkness spell you cast, which frees you from its limitations of a concentration spell.

Spider, Orb Weaver
Material: 50 gp worth of jade
Base stats: spider
Special: An orb weaver gives you access to the web spell, which you can cast using appropriate spell slots as if it was a spell you knew. The orb weaver can take its action each turn to concentrate on a web spell you cast, which frees you from its limitations of a concentration spell.

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Dash Cantrip, in Four Game Systems

Cantrips are interesting, in all 4 of the d20 game systems I work in regularly (PF1, PF2, StF, and 5e). You get unlimited uses of them, so they need to be useful enough to be worth tracking (even at mid- to high-levels), but can’t be so good that casting them endlessly can ruin a game.

And almost none of them impact movement.

Which lead me to wonder, CAN I design a cantrip that impacts movement? Something to give you a little edge when what you need to do is reposition yourself and just a double move (or dash, or triple move, or whatever the game’s equivalent is) won’t do.

Can I do in in four game systems?

Behold, the dash cantrip.

Pathfinder, 1e

School transmutation; Level Bard 0, Cleric 0, Druid 0, Inquisitor 0, Magus 0, Mesmerist 0, Psychic 0, Shaman 0, Witch 0, Sorcerer/Wizard 0]
Casting Time 1 standard action
Range personal
Target you
Duration 1 round

Your movement rate increases by an enhancement bonus equal to your current movement rate, +20 feet.

Pathfinder, 2e

Dash [Cantrip 1]
Traditions Arcane, Divine, Primal
Cast [three actions] Verbal
Duration until the start of your next turn

You move a distance equal to triple your speed +30 feet.


Dash  [Mystic 0, Witchwarper 0]
School transmutation
Casting Time 1 standard action
Range personal
Duration 1 round

You gain a +10 foot increase to your land speed until the beginning of your next turn. As part of casting this spell, you can move up to your land speed.


Transmutation cantrip
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Self
Components: V
Duration: 1 round

You can move a number of feet this round equal to double your move, +20 feet.

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Gamifying Friday the 13th in 4 Game Systems

It’s Friday the 13th, a day long associated with misfortune and evil spirits… and urban legends.

So, what would such a day look like in an RPG? Let’s examine 4 different ideas, in 4 different game systems–Pathfinder 1st and 2nd edition, Starfinder, and 5e.


Blood Night

On blood night, the moon takes on a dull reddish hue that lasts through the night. Blood night is always in autumn, but exactly what night it occurs is based on a complex set of rules only heirophants really seem to understand. What is known is that when a blood night occurs on the night of a full moon, the bad luck is far worse.

From sundown to sunup, any attack that normally only threatens a critical hit on a natural 20, or 19-20, instead threatens one on an 18-20. Additionally, attack rolls made to confirm critical hits gain a +8 circumstance bonus


Minotaur’s Moon

When the ancient Cyclops Calendar begins the month of Maze on the week of a new moon, that is the day of the Minotaur’s Moon, when the Bull Man works to kill the small and weak. Goblins, in particular, greatly fear this.

On the Minotaur’s Moon, everyone has Doomed 2.


Which Weird

The kasatha and shobad calendars do not normally line up, being from different worlds with different year durations. But both have a “wyrd” day that is observed in grim reserve, and every few years those days happen to overlap by a period of 11 to 17.5 hours.

During that “which weird,” all Reflex saving throws take a -4 penalty.



When the Imperial Calendar gets a full day off from the Seasonal Calendar, a day must be added to adjust the beginning of Spring. This day is seen as a gate through which evil dead spirits can speak into the world to so discord for one say, and weaken the resolve of heroes, and is known as Lichgate.

On Lichgate, when making a Wisdom saving throw, you roll twice and use the lower result as if you had disadvantage. However, if your unused result is enough to resist the effect, you only suffer the consequences of the failed saving throw for 1 round. After that you shake off the evil spirits that weakened you, and are no longer effected. But if both die rolls are failures, the effect’s duration upon you is doubled.

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Here’s a teaser of content yet to come this year in the 52-in-52 subscription!

Animated branded with an Unholy Sign cover 1

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Sorcerers & Speakeasies Part 3 (Religions)

We’ve talked about doing the 1920s Magic and Mobsters campaign, “Sorcerers and Speakeasies” in general terms, and  talked a bit about Backgrounds, and even talked a bit about our plans on the BAMF podcast.

A common question that has come up during these discussions is: What do you plan to do about religion?

It’s a common question anytime you add fantastic elements to a setting rooted in real-world history. There are numerous potential issues when you look to grant traditional D&D-like divine powers to real-world religions. These problems are magnified if you don’t do tons and tons of research. Should you treat Christians differently than Hindus? Is Zues still worshipped? Are their fantasy gods, like Karracker? If monotheist religions can talk to God, does that prove polytheists are wrong?

So, Sorcerers and Speakeasies is leaning toward avoiding a lot of those questions, and focusing instead on religios themes. Players and GMs can do whatever they and their group are comfortable with those themes.

First and foremost, gods (and God) don’t talk to people in Sorcerers and Speakeasies.

Outsiders do… but all admit they can’t discuss (or don’t know) the reality of gods. Angelic and fiendish creatures themselves follow various religions, or at least seem to, but in general state they support those mortals that support their own areas of concern, often as indicated through Aspects (see below).

Cleric: Three Callings
Gods aren’t as directly communicative in 1920 as they seemed to be in Ancient times. Rather than the focused power of a divine domain, S&S clerics are generally following a calling that motivates them to live spiritual lives in very specific ways.
Calling of Ordination – Member of a specific holy order, though that may be a Buddhist nun, Catholic priest, Presbyterian pastor, semicha lerabanim, or any other organized group that have common rules, training, and requirements to join.
Calling of Preachers – You have been called to preach. Perhaps in a church, perhaps under a tent, or perhaps on a street corner.
Calling of Witness – You don’t just have faith, you demonstrate it by doing something dangerous as proof your faith protects you. Among the most famous of these are scorpion-dancers, who handle deadly scorpions as proof they have divine protection.

Sixteen Domains
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with the domains in the Player’s handbook–if you want to play a cleric of the Knowledge domain, feel free. But most Sorcerers and Speakeasies clerics, and divine characters and NPCs in general, are built around one of sixteen Aspects, each of which has a domain.

These are build off concepts often seen as “sins” and “virtues,” and eight of each have angels and fiends empowered by them, but the aspects are not alignment-locked. While there are demons of Pride, it is possible to have a good-aligned cleric of Pride who embodied taking pride in your work and avoiding false modesty. Similarly someone who believes in killing those who are not generous enough would be an evil figure of Generosity).

Angelic Aspects: Courage, Diligence, Generosity, Gratitude, Humility, Justice, Patience, Prudence

Fiendish Aspects: Cowardice, Envy, Gluttony, Greed, Lust, Pride, Sloth, Wrath

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One Feat: Four Systems (Allied Spellcaster)

So, obviously, I’ve been working in a lot of different game systems recently. With the 52-in-52 program, I’m developing the same game content for Pathfinder 1st ed, Pathfinder 2nd ed, Starfinder, and 5e.

It’s been a fascinating view of how the different game systems look at game elements that have the same name, but different functions.

For example, feats.

In Pathfinder 1e and Starfinder, feats are cross-character goodies that are generally designed to be optional, and sometimes tie into class design (such as for the fighter and soldier), but not always.

For Pathfinder 2e, feats are the quintessential character ability, and different kinds of feats are crucial to your ancestry, class, and any archetype you take.

For 5e, feats are entirely optional, and if taken come in place of ability score advancements. Each feat is more potent in many ways, but you can make a character with a single feat, or no feats, and no class depends on feats for any part of its core functions.

As an example, we’re going to take a PF1 teamwork feat, and present it (as a non-teamwork feat) in different versions, one for each of the four game systems.

Here’s the original, a PF1 Teamwork feat

Allied Spellcaster (Teamwork)
With the aid of an ally, you are skilled at piercing the protections of other creatures with your spells.
Prerequisite: Caster level 1st.
Benefit: Whenever you are adjacent to an ally who also has this feat, you receive a +2 competence bonus on level checks made to overcome spell resistance. If your ally has the same spell prepared (or known with a slot available if they are spontaneous spellcasters), this bonus increases to +4 and you receive a +1 bonus to the caster level for all level-dependent variables, such as duration, range, and effect.

Here’s a new PF1 version, that isn’t a teamwork feat

You can aid an allied spellcaster, adding your magic power to their own.
Prerequisite: Caster level 1st.
Benefit: Whenever you are adjacent to an ally who can cast spells, as a standard action you can expend a spell slot or prepared spell of 1st level or higher to attempt to boost their spellcasting ability. This requires a Spellcraft check, DC 10 + double the level of the spell slot expended. On a successful check, you increase their caster level for the next spell they cast before the beginning of your next round by an amount equal to the level of the spell or spell slot expended.

You can also take eldritch power from a willing adjacent spellcaster to boost the power of your own spells. The allied spellcaster must ready to grant you a spell slot or prepared spell of 1st level of 1st level or higher on your turn. If they do so, you make the same Spellcraft check as a swift action and, if successful, for the next spell you cast this round your caster level is increased by an amount equal to the spell level your ally expended.

*So, that plays with both action economy and resource management, but it lets you play the spellcaster who can work in a group without anyone else having to also have the feat in question.

Here’s the same spell for Starfinder.

You can aid an allied spellcaster, adding your magic power to their own.
Prerequisite: Caster level 1st.
Benefit: Whenever you are adjacent to an ally who can cast spells, as a standard action you can expend a spell slot of 1st level or higher to attempt to boost their spellcasting ability. This requires a Mysticism check, DC 10 + triple the level of the spell slot expended. On a successful check, you increase their caster level for the next spell they cast before the beginning of your next round by an amount equal to the level of the spell or spell slot expended. If the spell does damage and does not have a duration, area, or damage calculation based on level, you can instead grant +3 damage per level of spell you expended.

You can also take eldritch power from a willing adjacent spellcaster to boost the power of your own spells. The allied spellcaster takes a standard action to imbue you with energy by expending  a spell slot of 1st level or higher on your turn. If they do so, on your turn you can make the same Mysticism check as part of the action to cast your next spell and, if successful, gain the benefits listed above. If you do not cast a spell within 1 round of being imbued, the additional spell energy is lost.

*That’s very similar, though it makes an adjustment for the fact that Starfinder doesn’t generally have damage affected by caster level and readied actions work differently caused us to make some adjustments.

Here’s a version for 5e.

Prerequisite: Caster level 1st or higher
You are skilled at magic manipulatipons. Increase your Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma score by 1.
You can cast a spell to boost the effectiveness of an allied spellcaster within 60 feet, rather than its normal effect. If allied spellcaster casts a spell of their own that is no more than one spell level higher on their next turn, they have advantage on any attack roll the spell requires, or one target of their choice has disadvantage on any saving throw the spell requires.
An ally can cast a spell to boost your effectiveness rather than the spell’s normal effect, giving you the same benefit on your next turn.

*Things in 5e are simpler. Like, way simpler. Advantage or disadvantage is 75% of how the game handles things. And they are pretty big bonuses (work out to about a +4 bonus on a d20), so it’s okay that this only applies to spells of a level close to the level you expend.

That said, weaker feats in 5e also give you a +1 to one ability score (since you gave up a +2 to get the feat), which applies here given how circumstantial this is.

Here’s the same feat for PF2

General Skill
Prerequisites: Expert in Arcana, Nature, Occultism or Religion
You can use the aid reaction to assist an adjacent ally when they cast a spell. This requires a successful Arcana, Nature, Occultism or Religion check (you must be expert in the selected skill) with a DC of 20 + double the level of spell the ally is casting. You must expend a spell slot of 1st level or higher, and you gain a bonus to your skill check equal to the level of the spell expended. You grant the ally a +2 circumstance bonus to their attack roll, or a +1 bonus to the save DC of their spell.
An adjacent allied spellcaster can attempt to use the aid reaction when you cast a spell. This works the same way, except you must make the Arcana, Nature, Occultism or Religion check.

*Pf2 uses a universal proficiency system for everything, so a +2 bonus matters as much at 15th level as it does at 5th level. There’s already an aid action which might be usable if a spell required an attack roll, but it’s not clear how it would apply and it certainly won’t boost save DCs. This cut through that, and is a skill feat spellcasters might really appreciate.

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Sorcerers & Speakeasies (Part 2: Backgrounds)

Okay… so maybe I now AM working on a Sorcerers and Speakeasies 5e supplement. Mostly, I’m having someone else work on it right now, while I just offer outlines and notes. But since it’s on my mind, and I need content for my blog anyway, here are some more thoughts.

Given that 5e is a robust, flexible, well-supported game system we need to ask ourselves: what do characters really need to fit in to our 1920s setting? Equipment, obviously. Since we are sticking with the normal species there’s no need for change there. We’ll make adjustments to the classes, but only as needed. Maybe a few spells to augment the feel of the setting (Tannison’s Terrible Tommygun, anyone?) But there’s actually not a ton of hard rules changes needed.

That brings us to backgrounds.

Many of the backgrounds in 5e conceptually work fine for our 1920s “Djinn and Tonic” campaign. We’d need to update available equipment, including for each background, but we can do that easily (once we have an equipment list… so this is something I have an excellent freelancer working on right now). Similarly we’d want a conversation about languages (do we have all the 5e languages and all the real-world languages? Do we decide German is elven, so Netherlandic is drow, West Scandinavian is old fae, and so on?), but once that’s settled languages are easy. The personality traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws generally work fine (I think we can trust players to update any anachronistic terms to 1920s-appropriate equivalents).

Beyond that, looking at the PHB, Acolyte, Charlatan, Criminal, Entertainer, Sage, Sailor, and Urchin all work pretty well as-is. Some context might be worth adding, but each of those backgrounds can easily be adapted to Sorcerers & Speakeasies with a small entry that gives an update to equipment and maybe proficiencies, and a short description of any conceptual tweaks that need to be mentioned.

We might want to do just a bit more work for Folk Hero, Guild Artisan, Hermit, Noble, and Outlander. The core of those work fine, but the details might need a tad more adjustment. Luckily, the concept of Variant backgrounds can handle that just fine. Local Favorite is an easy variant for Folk Hero, Union Member for Guild Artisan, Dedicated Academic for Hermit, Upper Class Scion for Noble, and possibly WWI Veteran for Outlander.

It could be worth doing a few more variant for the backgrounds that already work well too, just for specific flavor. Gambler is an easy variant for Charlatan, Gangster for Criminal, Scientist for Sage, and so on.

Now that doesn’t mean we may not want to add some new backgrounds as well. Journalist comes to mind as a common 1920s trope worth supporting on its own, and maybe Masked Vigilante if we want specific support for it. Copper, Detective, Driver, Engineer, Pilot, Smuggler, Rum-Runner… there’s tons of fun stuff we can do if we want to. In each case we should ask if it needs it’s own background (if we do Smuggler, Rum-Runner is a pretty obvious variant–same with Copper and Detective or Diver and Pilot). Dilettante could be a variant of Noble, but maybe Dandy/Flapper deserves its own? We can touch on things like Made a Deal at the Crossroads (if we don’t borrow the idea for the Warlock), or Blasted By Lovecraftian Horror if we want to support more mystic backgrounds in keeping with our magic-and-machines.

We don’t want to get TOO specific. I suspect we want Archaeologists as a form of Sage or Hermit, and Banker/Grocer/Typewriter Repair Man are likely just suggestions for some kind of Crafter or the Guild Artisan. We should think hard about whether Spy, Photographer, Athlete/Sports Star, Student, and the dozen more than come to mind are really worth having their own entries at all, but certainly some will.

A LOT of character flavor can come from backgrounds, so we’d want to think about if we want to make any variants just for that reason.

For example, look at the Entertainer background. It has 10 Entertainer Routines listed. There’s nothing wrong with being an actor, dancer, or juggler, but “jester” doesn’t speak to the 1920s. Let’s look at what a revised table might look like.

Entertainer Routines

Pick 1-3 routines, or roll a d10 to pick them randomly.

  1. Stage actor
  2. Dancer
  3. Carnival barker
  4. Clown
  5. Juggler
  6. Jazz instrumentalist
  7. Big Band instrumentalist
  8. Singer
  9. Radio actor
  10. Ventriloquist

That doesn’t change the game rules at all, but it does feel very much more grounded in the culture of the Roaring 20s.

This also means a Backgrounds chapter of a Sorcerers and Speakeasies game could contain a lot of flavor without loading down players or the GM with a lot of specialized rules. If we want to sneak in references to Adventurer’s Inc., Hexers, Grendels, and Taxi Heroes, we can put all that into Backgrounds just to help flesh out the world.

Speaking of helping:

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Today’s post only happened because I was able to turn down some small freelance projects, giving me spare time to consider these questions, and replace the income those would have brought in with money from my Patreon. Even just the price of a cup of coffee each month makes a big difference in how much content I can put out on my blog!

d20 Design Diary (Part 6)

This is the sixth in my series of class-focused d20 Design Diaries. I suspect I only have a couple more posts to go on this topic, but we’ll see how the topics actually shake out (and what kind of feedback I get).

If you followed class design steps in the order I have written about them, we’ve settled on an appropriate and interesting class concept, set up the right class progression tools, made sure we are following (or at least only breaking by intent rather than by accident) the game’s style and etiquette, looked at how many options you want for each level of your class and how that impacts complexity, and discussed spell access and progression.

But we still need to talk about spell lists. Specifically, do you give your new class access to one (or more) existing spell lists, or make a brand-new spell list? And, it turns out, that.s a pretty complex question that depends very much on the game system you are using.

So, you know, let’s start by saying studying what that system does and how it handles those questions.

Also, it’s very important to know if you are building expansions classes that are in addition to a *core* set of pre-existing classes or are building a whole set of classes from scratch. Most of the advice here is directed at the former case. If you are in the latter situation, there may not even be pre-existing spell lists for you to borrow from. In that case you’ll need to make decisions about how many class lists to build from scratch, and the following advice may still be applicable to that decision.

Certainly the more you want a spell list to have a very strong theme tied to the class’s concept, the more you should consider a unique class spell list. The more you want the spell list to interact and grow well with other publisher’s content, the more you should consider using an existing class list.

In Pathfinder 1st edition, classes have access to a hodgepodge of class-specific lists, sharing class lists, and mixing class lists. The bard has its own spell list for example (though the skald later gains access to it as well), while the warpriest just has access to the cleric list (though it gets most spell levels later in its own level progression, when they are less powerful compared to the challenges being faced). Both sorcerers and wizards use the sorcerer/wizard spell list, though it has specific spells only one of the classes can take. Hunters get both druid and ranger spells (and gain access to ranger spells much earlier than rangers do, potentially making them more powerful compared to the challenges faced when you first access them), but inquisitors have a unique spell list.

Counting only official classes, no alternate classes, and only actual spell lists (as opposed to formula lists for alchemists and investigators), by the end of its run Pathfinder 1st d had 16 separate spell classes. On top of that, all of the class spell lists are defined as being arcane, divine, or occult.

In that environment, it seems insane to create a brand new unique class list. First, there are tons of lists with different themes already. Second, each of those lists has been expanded by so many supplements (official and otherwise) that any new lists is either going to fill a small book on its own, or have many fewer options than the 16 existing lists. Further, if someone is adding content from other publishers, those 3pp spells won’t even know to suggest what new spells should be on your unique class spell list.

By the same token, by the time a game has 16 unique spell lists, it’s hard to claim a 17th will be the bridge too far for design weight.

Pathfinder 2nd edition, as a counterexample, has only 4 spell lists. Absolutely every class has access to the arcane, divine, occult, or primal spell list. Some classes can pick what spell list they access based on other class features (such as the sorcerer), and many classes have access to a very small number of “focus spells” unique to their class. This includes both classes with access to a traditional spell list (such as the bards and their occult spells), and classes with no other spell access (such as champions). While it would be possible to build a whole 5th spell list (akashic magic, perhaps, or runic magic), this would likely only make sense if designing multiple classes that accessed it, or perhaps writing class variants of existing classes that accessed your new magic type. However, adding a small number of focus spells to any new spellcasting class, but otherwise tying them to one or more of the 4 existing lists, seems an excellent way to both benefit from that class having unique and flavorful spells of its own (new focus spells) and benefiting from ties to a growing standard spell list that other books and companies can expand. Pathfinfer 2nd ed also has things such as spell rarity which could be used to create “new” spell list options (such as creating a magister class that has access to common spells for multiple lists, but can never gain uncommon or rare spells).

By contrast Starfinder goes the opposite route, and give every spellcaster their own unique spell list.

Starfinder only has 3 official spellcasting classes so far of course, and each also has the same level of spell access and spells/day. That certainly sets an expectation for players that a class focused on spellcasting would likely follow the same path. There are many potential reasons to not go that route (if creating a mechanic/technomancer hybrid class, the Dronemancer, that only had access up to 3rd level spells, it might well make sense for it to have the technomancer spell list), but again the key point is to know what tools are at your disposal, and study how the core game (or similar games, if you are starting from scratch) use them.

Dungeons & Dragons 5th ed also gives each class its own spell list (at least in the Player’s handbook), including the sorcerer and wizard, who shared a spell list when the sorcerer was first introduced in 3rd edition. There is greater variety in both spell access (paladins and rangers only get up to 5th level spells), and how the class uses spells (warlocks and wizards have very different game mechanics dictation how they interact with and use their spells). The larger number of lists makes it more likely that you can match a specific class’s theme with an existing class list or combination of lists, but it also drives home player expectation in much the same way Starfinder does.

As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that whether a game has dozens of class spell lists or just three, d20 games almost always have some basic spells that appear on multiple (or even all) spell lists. the most flavorless and utilitarian spells are often there, from detect magic to light. By the same token, most such games have at least a few types of spells that are kept off specific spell lists, in the tradition of “clerics don’t cast magic missile, wizards don’t heal.”

But honestly, that’s another whole blog post worth of commentary.


These Design Diaries are among the most popular of the things I wrote, but they are also the biggest, hardest, and most time-consuming to create. If you want to keep seeing them, I encourage you to join my Patreon. Just a few dollars a month can make the difference between me having the time to tackle these larger, in-depth design articles, and sticking to shorter, simpler topics.

Design Diary: Creating d20 Classes (Part 4)

Last month we began a line of Design Diary entries discussing how to create a character class from scratch for a d20 class/level based game. We’ve gone over concept, and discussed the class progression tools various games give you to fill out the mechanical roles your class might fill, and begun discussing the etiquette of the presentation of special abilities (the heart of any d20 class).

So, we need to dig into Class Features… and that’s a big topic. So this week we get a big post, that tackles some of the context and frameworks you can use when designing how a class and a character interface with class feature choices.

When looking at what special abilities to give a class, you should consider the category of each ability. Some abilities are access abilities, such as a spellcaster’s access to a spell list (and we’ll talk more about spells and spell lists in a later post) or access to a list of feats. Some are unique powers available only to that class. Some classes (and some game systems) blur that line — Pathfinder 1st edition has fighter-only feat, which some later classes can can access as their own class features. Pathfinder 2nd edition has feats for every class that are unique to that class, except that any other character can pick many of them up by taking a mutliclass dedication feat.

In addition to the access-unique spectrum, class abilities can be divided into static abilities, group abilities, and selectable abilities. Static abilities are things the class gets with no variation or choice (and least without accessing optional or advanced rules). In Starfinder, every operative gets trick attack. Group abilities are things where a player makes a choice between one group of abilities and another, but once that choice is made the abilities it grants are set. Looking at the Starfinder operative again, each operative select one specialization. That specialization has a few abilities it grants over the course of the operative’s career, but once the choice of which specialization to take is made the abilities within that choice are set. Selectable abilities are individual things that can be chosen from a list (though they might have prerequisites). The operatives exploits are a good example of this.

Some of the access choices are things every character class can take some portion of, so when designing a class you need to consider not just what access options help their role within the game and a party, but how that interacts with other classes in the game. Skills are a perfect example of this. Most classes have access to more skills than they can take (whether through a skill-point system, scaling proficiencies, or just what ability score they focus on, depending on how the game system handles classes). If you give a class access to all a game’s skill options, the chances they’ll overlap with some other class that needs a skill more for its core function increases. Even if no one character can take all the skills, adding some limits to what subset they have to choose from can help give a class focus and clarity of purpose.

There are some pseudo-choices a character can offer as well, where every member of the class has the same ability, but characters may be differentiated by which choice they make. For example, all fighters in most d20 game systems have access to all martial weapons, armors, and shields. However, most fighters select a small set of weapons to use most often. Even though two different fighters can both use a greatsword or a longsword and shield, most characters go with one or the other. While that’s a minor difference at first, as the character evolves the other choices they make are likely to reinforce one equipment selection over another.

One of the less-obvious consequences of how you allow ca class to access its abilities is complexity. A character that has access to a wide range of spell choices, for example, is less likely to have lots of selectable abilities. The need to read through and pick spells is already a lot of footwork to ask of a player. (Even if a character ends up with only a small number of spells, the need to pick them from a large list slows and complicates character creation). If you are designing a class to add to an existing game you likely can afford to make the design more complex overall–players who don’t like more work to make their character can stick to existing class options. But if you are designing all the classes designed to be used in a campaign (such as if you are creating new classes that are all that is expected to be available for a campaign setting), you should consider having at least one class that is simpler and has fewer choices, to allow players who prefer simple design an easy entry point.

That’s not universal, of course. Many players prefer highly customizable characters with lots of options. Many just enjoy being able to build a character closer to their pre-existing concept, while others want to have enough flexibility that if another player chooses the same class their two characters act and play differently from one another.

However that plays off another important fact, which we need to discuss before we move on to ability balance–the more selectable options a character class has at a given level, the more potential for min/maxing exists. Even if the options are tied to a set of options that are (theoretically) all at the same power level, the wider the set of options you give access to the more powerful a character can become. For example, if you give a class access to a single specific feat at 5th level, that’s a typical and easily balanced level of power. If you give the character their choice of one of 6 feats, that is slightly more powerful, even if all those feats are perfectly balanced against one another. If you allow a character to take any feat they meet the prerequisites for that is much more powerful, even if you assume every feat in the game is perfectly balanced.

This is because players who achieve a high-degree of system mastery can use synergy between options to make a character that can do more than an off-the-rack build. Especially in games with growing rules additions (which are most games that are seen as “well-supported”), every adjustable class feature is a chance to find some combination that works better than a typical combo. Even if none of the new options are built into you class’s features (a character who has a set of 7 specific feats they can choose from doesn’t have that list automatically expand just because new feats are added to the game, unlike a character with access to all of a type of feat–or one with access to all of one set of spells), a synergy could develop between an old choice and new options any character can access.

There’s no right or wrong choices with these elements, to be clear. They are just things to consider when looking at the ways you can organize and hand out class features.

With all that in mind, we can look at power level of class features and appropriate choices by character level… next time! (Maybe in a week… maybe in 2-3… )


These Design Diaries are among the most popular of the things I wrote, but they are also the biggest, hardest, and most time-consuming to create. I was thrilled to be able to really take some time to write and develop this particular entry over a few weeks, thanks to your kind support! If you want to help me keep producing these Design Diaries, I encourage you to join my Patreon. Just a few dollars a month can make the difference between me having the time to tackle these larger, in-depth design articles, and sticking to shorter, simpler topics.

5e Campaign Settings the Easy Way (Sorcerers & Speakeasies)

As is so often the case for me, as I specifically set myself up for a massive workload (I am currently sitting at 223 different project deadlines due sometime in 2020), my muse is hammering me hard with ideas for a project that ISN’T on that list.

That, combined with the fact I’m still in Seattle having been flown out for some meetings at OrcaCon, means I am going to punt the next d20 Class Design Diary post (which has had Part 2 and Part 3 in recent weeks) by another week.

But we are going to tackle a related topic! I take a look at some campaign building/class expansion ideas to match new campaign options for 5e, based on the ideas that have been Muse-shoved into my brain recently. So, what project does my muse have me thinking about, that so far is NOT on my list of things to get to anytime soon?

Sorcerers & Speakeasies

“It’s the Raging 20s. Magic elixirs and booze are illegal. Monsters are rampant. Adventure is everywhere!”

There are lots of ways I could proceed about making a magic-and-machine-guns setting based on Prohibition era America, ranging from making a brand new RPG ruleset, to a full game system hack (such as I have been working on for Really Wild West). But its also possible to design it as just a set of bolted-on extras for an existing game system that does most of what we need. The current edition of 5e is flexible and open-ended enough that it could cover a lot of what a Sorcerers & Speakeasies game would need. Some worldbuilding would be necessary of course, and 1920s equipment would have to be designed and added, but that’s easy compared to reskinning a whole game or creating one from scratch.

Since the main way players interact with a game world is through character classes, that’s a great place to start when looking at creating a campaign setting for a new ruleset. When discussing using 5e classes in a Paladins-And-Prohibition game, there are two routes we could take. We could create new 5e classes whole cloth to fill all the roles we need, or we could just add new specializations to each class to give them a 1920s moonshiners and monsters feel. That’s a good deal less work, and in some ways more flexible since it means any other material designed for those classes can be easily added to our Sorcerers & Speakeasies (S&S) game.

Of course some people might not consider all the 5e classes to be good matches for a 1920s-era setting, even one that adds dwarves, gnomes, and spellcasting. For example, players with visions of barbarians exclusively as nordic vikings, Conan-like Hyperboreans, and savage jungle princesses may have trouble seeing how the class works in a game that runs from Uptown Citadels and Theater Street all the way down to the Undertown and Gearling Park.

But that’s why our new specializations need to be flavorful and thematically appropriate both to the core of the class, and to some 1920s hero/villain trope. For example, if I was going to do S&S as a simple 5e bolt-on, I’d start with something like this.

Barbarian: Three new Primal Paths
Boondock – You grew up in a remote rural location, commonly mountain country or midwestern farmland, in an area with extensive and extreme poverty. You may have learned to survive just on woodcraft and farming, or you might have gotten a hard manual labor job such as miner, oil field worker, or logger. You might fit the stereotype of being an uneducated overall-wearing moonshiner and pistol-popper… or you might have depths city-slickers neither expect nor appreciate. You may or may not not be quick to anger, but your hillfolk roots give you access to a pool of simple, potent wrath you can tap when you have had enough.
Grinder – When there is dirty, hard, unpleasant work to be done, people look at you. Your best prospects are often acting as a second-tier knee-breaker, not trusted to plan anything complicated but an expert at mayhem when the the plan falls part. Some grinders make an honest living, as boxers, wrestlers, pig-chuckers, or circus strongmen, but your strength and durability often draw the attention of people who think they have more violent uses for your talents.
Jitney – People are shocked at how big you are, and how much hardship you can shrug off. They may call you “built like a cement truck,” a “brickhouse,” or a “palooka,” but the sentiment is the same regardless of the term — you are made of shoeleather and axehandles, and your durability seems unearthly. It’s fairly common for those who don’t know you to assume your mass and density mean you are dim-witted as well, though being underestimated in that way can play in your favor.

Yes, I’d need game mechanics to make those paths complete, but my starting point for adding specialties to 5e to give a 1920s magic adventure feel is very much conceptual. Taking this exploration of ideas a bit further, here are some other potential directions to take 5e classes that might otherwise feel very disconnected from the modern world of a 1920s campaign. These are just sketches of ideas, starting points I’d build out from if I was spending more time on this.


Bard: Three Circuits
There’s a good chance your S&S bard has a bit more experience singing for his dinner, and a little less formal training, than a bard with a “college.” In place of colleges, an S&S bard can select a Circuit, reflecting the types of places where they are most likely to have gotten paying gigs.
Busker’s Circuit – You might not still mostly be performing on the streets hoping for spare change to make a living, but you’ve done it enough to know the ins and outs, and how life on the street works.
Club Circuit – There are a lot of houses of entertainment these days, and you’ve learned to get booked, make a living on the gigs, and work contacts bot for your career, and to arrange for anything else you might need.
Vaudeville Circuit – You’ve done a little of a lot of different things to fit in to the vaudevillian life, and may be able to sing a bit, dance a bit, do a few card tricks, throw your voice, tell some jokes, throw your voice, or a dozen other little performances.

Druid: Three Habitats
There isn’t any one universal druid circle in the 1920s. There are numerous groups and religions that work with or include druids along with many other characters, but what most distinguishes one druid from another in Sorcery & Speakeasies is the habitat of creatures they focus on and feel a connection with.
Alley Habitat – You are closely connected to the creatures that share urban living spaces, from pigeons and rats, to feral cats and dogs, and sometimes even roaches.
Domestic Habitat – Civilization has been working with animals, as guards, allies, mounts, producers, and just food, for thousands of years. You are most strongly connected to animals that share citizens lives, be those cattle, horses, guard dogs, housecats, hunting birds, or circus elephants.
Wilds Habitat – There’s still a lot of wilderness out there, from back roads to mountain hollows and unspoiled woodlands. You prefer to connect with the creatures of these

Step 0 – A Feel for the World

This project didn’t begin as a thought experiment into how to adapt 5e classes. It began with a wild notion for what kind of slang might exist in a Fantasy Roaring 20s campaign, and how such slang might help define a world and inspire adventures within it. I’ve posted all this to my Facebook page at random times over the past couple of months, but it seems worthwhile to offer it all in one compiled for here.

Sorcerers & Speakeasies Slang

Adventure, Inc.: Adventure, Inc. is a semi-formal network of taxi drivers, trash collectors, diners, phone operators, street workers, milkmen, bus drivers, mechanics ,and similar folk who work to get information about “grendles” to people who might do something about them.
Babylon Phonebook: Spellbook, especially one focusing on summoning things.
Button Troll: Any monster paid to act as a guard, thug, or legbreaker, normally by organized crime figures.
Calico: A woman who has rural hedge-wizard, witchcraft or shamanistic powers, but also acts as an urban employee, guide, or even boss.
Cement Cloak: A magic item designed to get the user killed. Sometimes used to refer to any method of assassination.
Cleaver Squad: Group willing and able to engage in violence using primarily melee weapons, especially those adapted from tools. “The merchants of Unstreet, from the Gutters to Old Fane, can call up a pretty big Cleaver Squad.”
Copper Shield: A system protecting police and other government enforcers *and* their agents and informers from the consequences of their own actions as long as they remain useful to the government higher-ups. “He’s crooked, but he’s behind the copper shield.”
Corpse Doctor: A necromancer. Or necrothurge. Or flesh automaton maker. Basically anyone who mucks with bodies for mystic purposes.
Dama: A woman with the skills and confidence of a knight. May be literal for a warrior-woman, or may be a term of respect for the woman’s expertise and dominance within her field, be that accounting, politics, or just being family matriarch.
Drowned Man: Functioning drunk. Often barely-functioning, like a disgraced doctor who now works out of a back ally, or a corrupt police detective who does private investigations now.
Eveic: The secret language of Eve, used in the Garden of Eden, which neither Adam nor God understood. Therefor, any secret known and used by a group of women.
Hexer: Anyone with magic that is of an evil source, or they use to specifically evil ends.
Hexhunter: An expert at tracking down, understanding, and undoing the evil caused by hexers.
Glint: Someone who has one, and likely only one, truly noteworthy magic item (often a weapon or one-use spell-tosser).
Go Dwarven: Get simple, heavy, primitive, and generally violent. “If you don’t pay your loan back, we’ll have to go dwarven on you.” But also a mechanical philosophy. “The radiator doesn’t work unless you go a bit dwarven on the pipes.”
Grendle: Any monstrous or supernatural problem that, for whatever reason, the local authorities won’t do anything about.
Guillotine Cure: Fixing social problems by getting rid of politicians in charge. Not always by killing them, but that’s often the implication.
GumSword: A hired monster-killer or adventurer. Often a low-rent one, who can’t afford high-end steel weapons, but may depend on a baseball bat or crowbar.
Lotus Fiend: Drug addict, especially addicted to drugs that grant magic visions and maybe real eldritch powers, at least briefly.
LuckLubber: Someone who is cursed, or has such bad luck they seem to be cursed.
Medusa: A woman who is believed to have power, generally magical or political, and the will to use it.
Morlock: Any intelligence, roughly humanoid thing that most lives below ground and doesn’t abide by the rules of civilization and society, not even Undertown society. May include trogs, derro, mongrelmen, skulks, tommyknockers, and, you know, morlocks.
Noirmancer: A secret spellcaster, who only does their wok in the dark or at night, or in the metaphysical shadows.
Paper Troll: Someone who talks big and makes trouble, but only in newspaper editorials or letters to the paper, or in town meetings and such.
Pargeter: An artificer skilled in the creation of automatons and homonculi.
Parthian: An enchanted firearm. “No one wants to cross Gurhtu One-Tusk. His violin case supposedly is where he carries a Parthian.”
Precious: Any important item, often referred to by the obsessive owner; such as “Jimmy the Glint’s ‘Precious’.”
Psara Cat: An unusually large, fluffy, calm breed of feline who supposedly pick people to adopt and turn into spellcasters. Also, anyone who appears to be the power behind the scenes. “Little Ezri may just look like the bartender, but he’s the real Psara Cat south of 114th street.”
Raven: An informer who knows things about the world of magic and monsters. Sometimes, may be an actual corvid.
Spelleasy: A neighborhood bar when you drink coffee or tea and discuss magic. You might discuss elixirs, but don’t actually make them. Like alcohol elixirs are, after all, illegal now.
Spider-Friendly: Willing to deal with creatures from the Undertown, like drow and driders and ropers. “The ground floor of the Drake Drink Club is upscale, but the basement levels are spider-friendly.” Also a suggestion of a person who might be sexually attracted to subterranean races.
Stormer: A powerful, primal spellcaster. often one who has to be angry to create magic effects, or who creates uncontrolled magi effects when angry.
Talk to a Mirror: Any form of divination. “Okay, I’m stumped on this case. but I know a guy who’ll talk to a mirror for us.”
Taxi Hero: An adventurer who deals with things on a case-by-case, for-pay basis. “They may not deal with the whole cult, but the neighborhood gathered some money to hire a taxi hero to clear out that Set temple on in the abandoned Monarch Hotel.” Taxi heroes often literally work for a local branch of the Delver’s Union, which sells tickets to people they can give a Taxi Hero to deal with a problem. An “A Ticket” is a minor nuisance, such a a giant rat in your basement, or soot-sprites. The letter-codes go all the way up to the E Ticket, which is your trolls under an overpass, chimera nest in the church’s bell tower, hauntings, and so on.
The Taxi Hero takes the ticket back to the local Delver’s Union, and gets paid for the work. Of course, it seems like the A and B tickets pay out less and less every season…
“Three C’s”: Chokers, Cloakers, and Crypt Things — stand in for anything you may run into in an urban alley or sewer that’s common enough to recognize and know how to deal with, but dangerous enough to kill in an unheroic manner you anyway. “Lots of people gone missing in the Battery recently. Probably just the Three C’s.”
Threadman: An undead created intentionally as a servant. Comes from the fact they often have lips, eyes, or both sewn shut.
Wand Wiggler: A spellcaster-for hire, often a pretty weak one.
WarWolf (or Loup de Guerre): A civilian vehicle converted for paramilitary or military purposes. “The Starshiners have an old WarWolf they use to make deliveries.”

Step 0+1: Microfiction

Even after I saw how easily gamified the concepts for Sorcerers & Speakeasies could be, I didn’t leap to game rules. Instead, I began wondering if there was a way to present a setting that had magic melee weapons and firearms both be fairly common, but magic firearms be rare. I especially liked the idea of enchanted clubs and sling rocks being even more common than enchanted swords.

That lead to this super-short story.

Runes and Remmingtons
“Sarge, why do the Torchers carry breakbats?”

“Are you asking, cadet, why an officer in the Undertown street patrol might be equipped by the city with an Type IV Enruned Peacekeeping Cudgel?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Because cadet–Macklin, is it?–there are things in Undertown that need kinetic encouragement to be good citizens.”

“Well sure, Sarge. We all get that. But why not use a .38?”

“While our Police Standard Issue is a fine choice for many duties, son, there are things in Undertown that don’t pay attention until you tap their should with something that has runes on it.”

“Okay, Sarge, but why not just put runes on a .38? I mean I’ve seen an Ogre Squad carrying more boarspears than shotguns! Shouldn’t we just put some runes on modern weapons?”

“First, Cadet Macklin, a shotgun lacks the lugs needed to keep a wounded globster from crawling up onto and over you while you and your squad hit it with the wrath of Good St. Alaina the dozen or more times it takes to bring it down.
“Second, runecasters have been putting the roxie on pigstickers and crossbows for centuries. They’ve gotten right good at it. But a nice Remmie pump 17? Been out less time than you’ve been alive. Turns out, until the Longbeards and Calicos in armaments have been perfecting the runes for a kind of weapon for a good dozen decades, the cost of enruing one is… prohibitive.”

“But Captain Auburn has that cherry Springfield with a bunch of runes on it!”

“She does indeed. Brought it back from the war. And she earned it. Got that for killing a dragon, Macklin.”

“A draaaagon, Sarge? Really?”

“Feel free to ask her your own self, cadet. If you want to lose your eyebrows for insolence. But until then, let’s train with the Peacekeeping Cudgels, shall we?”

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