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DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS BASICS PART II

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On This Page:

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Alignments

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Skills

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Feats

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Magic

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D&D Basics Page 1

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About Playing Index

The Essential Alignments

Alignments give players an idea of how their characters operate morally. There are some lines that people simply will not cross, while others will do whatever it takes to achieve an end.  The experience of D&D is not simply divided up into good and evil. The nine alignments are combinations of good/evil/neutrality and law/chaos/neutrality and they cover the very basics of how people conduct themselves. They are open to interpretation and the final say regarding which actions are which rest with the DM.

All characters must choose an alignment during character creation. Alignments can change as characters change their patterns of decision making, but major changes take time; rarely does a person become truly evil overnight. There are magics which have affects regarding the different alignments (the protection from evil spell protects someone from attacks by an evil foe). Character alignments can affect the way a group of characters works together. If a chaotic evil character insists on a gruesome murder in front of a lawful good character, there should be some strife between them.

"Monster" races which are found in the Monster Manuals have alignments set for them. Some monster races are listed as being "usually" one alignment, or "always" of one alignment. There are a number of reasons for this. In some cases, it is simply easier to portray a monster race as always being evil - you always know that this race is going to be a problem. In other cases, a race has a dominant alignment because of their larger world-view and the way they raise their children. For example, it is rare to find a good-aligned Drow due to the way that Drow are raised. The good are weeded out by the cruel Drow on purpose.

Keep in mind that cities can also have alignments, and the alignment of a city can tell you about how the general populace reacts and does business. City alignments are good for DMs and players to consider - they can give you insight into how a place works. (For more on location alignments, click here.)

Character alignments are as follows (all explanations and examples are my own; your opinions may vary):

Lawful good: (a.k.a. "goody little two shoes") If you have watched movies or read books, you have seen a lawful good character. Most often main protagonists are lawful good - the hero who upholds the law and protects the people can be found everywhere. A lawful good character respects law and authority and cherishes life and justice. A LG character wants good to be done and will often take action to see that it happens. LG characters are compassionate and they can't stand for the guilty to walk free.

Examples from Popular Culture:
Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker of Star Wars
Pilot of Farscape
Rowan, Michael, and Aaron Lightner of The Witching Hour
Zander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Hermoine Granger, Minerva McGonagall, Neville Longbottom, Percy Weasley, Arthur Weasley from the Harry Potter series
Inara Serra and Simon Tam of Firefly

Neutral good: NG characters care that good is done and the rest is just details. If the monarchy is good and just, the NG character will support it. If the social order is corrupt and harmful, a NG character will not hesitate to help in its overthrow. The vehicle is not important; the end result must be that good is done and balance is achieved. While others squabble over rules or argue for freedom, NG folks move past the noise and into action because goodness is what is at stake for them.

Examples from Popular Culture:
Xena Warrior Princess and her sidekicks Joxer and Gabrielle
Zhaan of Farscape
Willow of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series
Kaylee Frye and Shepherd Book of Firefly

Chaotic good: CG good characters value personal freedom above the law and do not like to be interfered with. They are highly individualistic and they make their own way. They try to get ahead in life but not at any price. They value the good of others as well as their own. They can be unpredictable but are not out to backstab others.

Examples from Popular Culture:
John Crichton of Farscape (originally a LN Peacekeeper)
Han Solo and Lando Kalrissian of Star Wars
Julien and Stella Mayfair of The Witching Hour
Tara of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Fred and George Weasley from the Harry Potter series
Wash of Firefly

Lawful neutral: LN characters value the letter of the law. They tend to follow internal codes of conduct or strong governments. They do not care much if the order in the land is enforced with violence. They believe in balance in the law and in their own lives. They will reward harm with harm and often take jobs as government enforcers.

Examples from Popular Culture:
O'Brien of 1984 by George Orwell
Ka D'Argo and Aeryn Sun of Farscape
Buffy and Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series
Mal Reynolds and Zoe Warren of Firefly

Neutral: Most neutral characters do not stick their necks out for others. They don't feel compelled to enforce good, nor do they care enough for evil. Some N characters don't know enough about the law to condone it. Other N characters don't care to be bothered about what's good, right, or wrong. They want to be left to their own devices.

Examples from Popular Culture:
[I have had difficulty pinning down solid examples for this alignment; if you know of any, please feel free to suggest them and I will give you due credit]

Chaotic neutral: A CN character is out for himself first and foremost. He values his own freedom and leaves others to fend for themselves. A CN is a rebel, whose only cause is himself. They are unpredictable in their behavior. They will backstab a friend if it is worth it and if they can avoid punishment. They will fraternize with whomever suits them. Only if it puts them in personal danger or affects them will they try to stop an evil deed.

Examples from Popular Culture:
Scarlett O'Hara of Gone with the Wind
Draco of Xena: Warrior Princess
Chiana of Farscape
Faith, Anya and Cordelia of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Wormtail from the Harry Potter series

Lawful evil: LE characters depend on order. LE characters follow their own code of conduct and have their own internal sense of order, which they can then impose on others. They may follow the laws of the land in order to better their own position or because those laws are in harmony with their own sense of how the world should be. Many LE characters know the laws as well as judges and bend them whenever they can. They have no qualm with committing the deeds that their code allows them: murder, sabotage, deceit, slavery. They use rules and logic to protect themselves from others and to justify their own actions. They pursue power with subtlety and can be very effective rulers.

Examples from Popular Culture:
Rygel and Scorpius of Farscape
Darth Vader of Star Wars
Carlotta Mayfair of The Witching Hour
The Patrician, Lord Havelock Vetinari of Terry Pratchett's Discworld
Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter series
Niska (the torturer) of Firefly

The Patrician of Discworld talks about the roles of good and evil folks:
"...We're the only ones who know how to make things work. You see, the only thing the good people are good at is overthrowing the bad people. And you're good at that, I'll grant you. But the trouble is that it's the only thing you're good at. One day it's the ringing of the bells and the casting down of the evil tyrant, and the next it's everyone sitting around complaining that ever since the tyrant was overthrown no one's been taking out the trash. Because the bad people know how to plan. It's part of the specification, you might say. Every evil tyrant has a plan to rule the world. The good people don't seem to have the knack." - Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Neutral evil: NE characters will do whatever they can to get what they want. They have little respect for the law and yet they do respect what getting caught can mean to them. They are not suicidal and they are not stupid. They exploit the weaknesses in social order as well as in social chaos and get away with murder where they can. They will betray anyone if it suits them and their betrayals are likely to involve death and pain.

Examples from Popular Culture:
Carla in Record of Lodoss War
Emperor Palpatine of Star Wars
Lasher of The Witching Hour
Spike from the tv series Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series
Jayne Cobb of Firefly

Chaotic evil: A CE character is brutal, greedy, cruel and lethal. Such a character follows their whims and twisted desires. They are unpredictable at best and completely insane at worst. They are very commonly seen as villains in movies and books as the opposite of the lawful good hero.

Examples from Popular Culture:
Micky and Mallory Knox in Natural Born Killers
Callisto of Xena: Warrior Princess
Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series
Saffron/Bridget/Yolanda of Firefly

Skills

Skills are required to perform many things - hiding, picking locks, persuading the local guards to let you go. I cannot tell you how vital skills are in the most recent editions of D&D. The Player's Handbook does not expound nearly enough on how instrumental skills can be to your character's options, in roleplaying and in combat. To judge the worth of a gem, you have to use a skill. To spot your enemy closing in, you have to use a skill. To earn money at your chosen craft, you have to use a skill. No one can escape them, since even NPCs need the skills necessary to create items that player characters buy. 

Characters use skills constantly and some classes are not as skill-based as others, so each skill must be chosen wisely. The Player's Handbook tries to make skills easy to understand for new players, but I found most of the examples as dry as toast. Therefore, I'm going to try my hand at it here.

A skill is not something you're born knowing how to do well. Most skills require practice and some require special training in order to use them at all. A character can try to use a skill that they're not familiar with but the odds are stacked against success. On top of all of this, some races are born with a knack for certain skills. Halflings, because of their size and lightness, are naturally able to move more quietly than other folks. 

In order to use a skill well, a character has to have at least two things - a bit of natural ability and some experience. The equation for figuring out character skills is expressed on the character sheet. The skills section is set up on the right hand of the page, where the skills are listed in alphabetical order and there are sections to figure out your total score. It looks something like this:

Skill Name

Key Ability

Skill Modifier

Ability Modifier

Ranks

Misc Modifier

Tumble

DEX

___ =

___ +

___ +

___

The skill for this example is tumble, which you can use to tumble like an acrobat between people's legs, around an enemy's sword reach, or to flip to a halt behind your enemy (and if you're a rogue and the guy doesn't know you're there, you can deliver your most devastating special attack, called a backstab). Tumble is very useful for those who are light, quick, and wanting to move through combat without being hurt. 

Tumble is based on a person's Dexterity (thus, Dex is listed as its key ability). From there, the system works in a sort of backwards fashion, which doesn't help new players who are trying to learn the game. Your total skill modifier will be recorded in the next column over, but it's your end result - so leave it for last. The next column is where you record your ability modifier, which has to do with the key ability, so you have to ask yourself - what is your character's Dexterity rating? Let's say that he has a Dex of 18 (so he gets a +4 ability modifier). We would fill in +4 in the ability modifier column.

Skill Name

Key Ability

Skill Modifier

Ability Modifier

Ranks

Misc Modifier

Tumble

DEX

___ =

_4_ +

___ +

___

Character class and Intelligence score determine how many skill points a character has to spend on skills. The smarter a character is, the more skillful they will be. Some classes are just more skill-based than others, so they get more points. A character "spends" these points to "buy" ranks, showing how much training has been put into that skill. 

Character class also determines which skills a character knows best. During the course of their training in a class, a character uses some skills more than others and becomes better at them; these are called class skills. When you spend points on a class skill, one point buys one rank. The skills that a character isn't trained to use much or isn't trained to use at all are called cross-class skills. When you spend points on a cross-class skill, one point buys only half a rank. Some skills are available only to members of a particular class and cannot be learned by characters of other classes.

For the sake of our example, let's assume we're choosing the tumble skill for a first level human bard. If the bard has an Intelligence of 15, they will have a +2 Intelligence modifier. Humans get a few extra skill points to use (four at first level). If we are considering a standard 3.5 bard, we would get (6 + 2) x 4 points to start out with. We would also add in four extra points because the character is a human. That would give us 36 points to start with. Tumble is a class skill for bards. At first level, a bard can buy up to four ranks in a class skill, but only 2 ranks in a cross-class skill (like Open Lock). 

Tumble is a good skill for a bard to have because bards usually travel light and wear lighter armor. They are more likely to need to get the hell out of the way of intensive combat than fighter type characters. At first level, let's say our bard buys four ranks in Tumble, the maximum he can have. That would leave him with only 32 points left to spend on other skills.

Skill Name

Key Ability

Skill Modifier

Ability Modifier

Ranks

Misc Modifier

Tumble

DEX

8 =

4 +

4 +

___

Our human bard doesn't have any miscellaneous modifiers for tumbling. But with his ability modifier and his ranks, his total skill modifier is +8. In combat, if he wants to Tumble through enemy lines to get away, and not be touched by his enemies on his way through, the bard has to roll one 20 sided die. This is called making a skill check to see if you can succeed at what you want to do. The skill modifier is added to the number that has been rolled. If we roll a tumble check and get a 13, we would add 8 to that, for a total of 21. The Difficulty Class (DC) for a tumble skill check involving moving through enemy lines, however, is 25. We didn't get a 25 or better, so the character fails - and enemies get a chance to strike at the bard as he tumbles around them. The bard is just not quick enough this time.

Skills have different DCs depending on factors such as the skill itself, the environment, and the circumstances at hand. Some are set in the book, but they are always left to the DM's discretion.

Feats

Feats, on the other hand, are taken at set times and they have set effects. Feats are very special abilities that can give a character a new ability or improve something she already has. All characters are eligible for feats. Every first level character starts out with one feat. Humans get a bonus feat in addition to the feat for being a first level character. Different classes offer various feats at different intervals. Wizards get a bonus feat pertaining to magic every five levels, while fighters get an extra feat about every other level. At 3rd level and every three levels thereafter, you get one more feat regardless of what class you are. Feats allow you to make magic items, deflect arrows, and otherwise become more awesome in fighting. An archer with the Point Blank Shot feat will be able to shoot with more accuracy and effect within 30 feet of their target. A paladin with the Leadership feat will attract men to follow him as a leader, even if they are not his friends or companions in adventure. Feats are meant to enhance attacks, effects and abilities, although not all feats fit neatly into the work of the classes. 

Magic

Magic is a widespread feature in D&D and there are many aspects of it that a player must understand. Magical effects go beyond ordinary abilities, into the realm of extraordinary effects. Magic effects are typically brought into being through the use of spells, which are formulations used to interpret the raw energy of magic. Some spells require a certain set of words to be spoken, while others require the burning of a particular root. Magic users are able to manipulate the magical potential around them into actual effects: fireballs, mental domination, illusionary sounds and so on. Some magic users learn to manipulate this energy through books and regulated education; they bring forth magic through careful conduction of strict rituals (ie wizards). Other magic users have an intuitive grasp of the forces of magic and require only the desire to cast spells (as with sorcerers and bards). Yet other magic users are given the ability to cast spells through the grace of their gods, to be used in service of their deity (as with clerics).

Magic in D&D is divided up into two categories: divine and arcane. Divine spells are those granted by an outside force like a god, or nature. Arcane spells are those that a magic user can perform directly, through learning or intuitive manipulation. Arcane spellcasters cannot cast spells that are divine in nature and vice versa, although many spells are found in both categories. Arcane spells tend to be more combative in their effects; there are more arcane spells that cause damage than divine ones. Character class determines the type of spells a character can cast, the number of spells a magic user can perform in a day, as well as how many spells a magic user can know how to perform.

Spells are divided up several different ways, and one important way is according to level, from 0 to 9. Lower-level spells tend to be small effects with limited range and scope, while higher-level spells tend to affect reality in deeper and very impressive ways. As a magic user advances in character levels, they will be able to cast spells of higher levels. A magic user must advance as a magic user in order to gain more powerful spells, however; if a magic user chooses to branch out into the fighter class, their magical abilities will not improve. If a wizard chooses to take on levels as a cleric, their magical abilities as an arcane spellcaster will not improve, but their abilities as a divine spellcaster will advance.

Spells are also divided up into different types of effects, known as schools of magic. A spell can only belong to one school of magic. Spells that create objects are conjuration spells, while magic that creates something out of nothing is from the evocation school. There are eight schools of magic, and although a few spells belong to no school, most belong to one. You can choose to specialize in certain kinds of effects through simple spell selection (such as giving your wizard mostly charm and illusion spells).

Wizards hold all of the spells they know in a spell book; in reality, the book knows the spells and the wizard only absorbs them for a short time. A wizard can add new spells to their repertoire if they can copy the spells into their spellbook. Clerics differ in that they can choose from any of the universal cleric spells, up to the limit of the spells they can cast in a day. They pray for certain spells to be delivered into their minds by their god, and can pray for a different set of spells the next day. Bards and sorcerers are far more limited in their spell selection; they must choose the spells they know, and they know those spells for life. They can gain new spells when they go up in level, or they can swap out a spell for another one every few levels, but for the most part they are stuck with their selections. Spells can make or break combat situations, so every spellcaster much choose wisely.

Magic can be used for more than mere survival, however, since spells can be sold to those who need them. There are also ways to store magical effects inside of items: scrolls, potions, rings, amulets, weapons, and armor, for example. Some magical items can only be used by those who know how to use the type of magic in question; a cleric cannot use a scroll for a spell that is only arcane in nature. Other magical items can be used by whoever has them, like potions, or when the possessor meets certain conditions, like a password. All magical items are more expensive because of their very magical natures. The items that only spellcasters can use tend to cost less, however, than the items that anyone can use.

 
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