Creatures Trailer and Final Trailer for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Paramount Pictures is trying to drum up interest for their D&D movie with a short creatures video and a final trailer.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves | Meet The Creatures (2023 Movie) by Paramount Pictures on YouTube

Clearly by creatures they really mean monsters. The big fish-like critter at the 4-5 second mark interests me most, because it’s the least media sexy and I can’t think of what it could be. Or why they’d include it! But I could’ve done without the brain monsters, though—urgh, blech.

The final trailer really sounds like a puff piece, though:

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves | Final Trailer (2023 Movie) by Paramount Pictures on YouTube

I’m perfectly willing to be entertained by a D&D movie that turns out to be better than my expectations, but “Best movie of the year”? Please.

More exciting is the 3-minute “Let the Games Begin” clip:

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves | Let the Games Begin Clip (2023 Movie) by Paramount Pictures on YouTube

That’s more like it, even if it doesn’t tell us why our intrepid adventurers end up on the arena, let alone competing with at least two other groups.

Looks like Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves opens today, if it already hasn’t in your neck of the woods. I really hope it’s at least a little good.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.


Second Trailer for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

A brand-new trailer is out for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves!

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves | NEW Trailer (2023 Movie) by Paramount Pictures on YouTube

We’re not seeing much new plotwise, just some beefed-up scenes from the first trailer. Glimpses of the Red Wizards and the orifice are on par with the typical medieval-inspired D&D worlds, but WHAT ON EARTH is going on with that broomhead wall?!?

Dungeons and Dragons Honor Among Thieves Screencap House

The roof looks properly thatched, but I have serious doubts of the durability of the facade. There’s obviously plenty of timber available in this area of the world for framing the house with, so the little detail above the door must be decorative. Perhaps there wasn’t quite enough to do the whole outer wall? Or the straw is there for easy repairs?? The original builders blew all of their money on framing and had to make do for cladding???

Anyway, if a trailer commentary can be so easily stolen by funky set design, the question arises whether the trailer in question really did fulfil its function or not… I hope we’ll get another, better one before the release day.

According to IMDB, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is now expected on April 07, 2023, but the trailer still says “this March”, so go figure.

Image: screencap from Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

To Crit or Not to Crit?

The next iteration of Dungeons & Dragons is in the works, titled One D&D. Proposed changes to rules and systems are being announced a little at at time. The first round of changes included some revisions to how critical successes work. These changes got a big reaction from the player base, and some elements of them were soon reverted. Still, it’s useful for players and dungeon masters alike to think about what criticals are for and how we use them in the game.


First, a quick primer on critical successes for anyone not familiar with the game. When a character attempts most anything in the game, whether it be trying to hit a monster with a sword, resist an evil sorcerer’s spell, track a band of Orcs through the wilderness, or persuade a suspicious guard to let them carry their weapons into the king’s hall, the player rolls a twenty-sided die. The number that comes up on the die, plus or minus some modifiers depending on the character’s skills and the situation, reflects how well the character pulled off what they were attempting. Unlike the confusing mechanics in some earlier versions of the game, in the current version of D&D, higher numbers are always better, which means the best roll you can get on the die in any situation is a 20.

Rolling a 20 on the die is known as a critical success, or a “crit.” In combat, a crit represents a lucky strike that hits a weak spot or catches the enemy off guard. A critical success on an attack roll can hit a target that would otherwise be mathematically impossible for the character to hit. For instance, if a character has a -1 modifier on their attack roll and the enemy they are fighting has an armor of 22, there is no roll on a twenty-sided die that, minus 1, equals or exceeds 22, but a natural 20 will always hit, even though 20-1 is only 19. The critical success overrides the normal math. Not only does a critical success in combat always hit, it also does extra damage to the target.

Combat crits

Critical hits in combat bring both positive and negative things to the game. The positive is that they allow for surprise. A character who rolls a natural 20 can pull off an attack that should be impossible or deal a foe an unexpectedly powerful wound. A monster that gets a critical hit can wound or even kill a character who thought they were invulnerable. For players who lean more into the storytelling aspect of the game, these moments of sudden reversal are great opportunities to describe how their character got a lucky shot at the dragon’s weak spot or play out how the party deals with losing a friend and companion. For players who are more interested in the game as a tactical simulation, the possibility of the unexpected adds variety and challenge to the game.

On the other hand, the surprise factor that crits bring to combat is also a negative. The unpredictability of combat has proven to be a problem in current D&D. When the amount of damage player characters and monsters can do to one another is unpredictable, it is hard to calibrate fights so that they present a challenge to the players without overwhelming them. Challenge rating (CR), the tool that is supposed to help DMs plan appropriately difficult fights, has proven to be both difficult to use and unreliable in its results. Crits make it harder for DMs to know how to challenge players without risking outright destroying the party.

The proposed rule changes in One D&D would have kept combat crits for players but made them less powerful while eliminating them entirely for monsters. Many players balked at this proposal, and their reaction led to its reversal. You can have your own house rules about combat crits, though, and many of us do. For instance, in my games I don’t allow monsters to do extra damage with critical hits. Player characters and monsters trading damage is the core of D&D combat, but just doing more damage is the most boring way a monster can threaten a PC. Instead, I try to give monsters interesting abilities that change the flow of battle and make the players rethink their tactics. A monster that can turn invisible, fly, emit a cloud of poison, attempt to control a PC’s mind, or heal an ally presents a more interesting challenge than one who just sometimes hits extra hard.

There were also some players who objected to the proposed rule changes because they didn’t like the idea that player characters would be less likely to be killed in combat. To these folks, I have some words from behind the DM screen: killing PCs is easy. Monsters can hit exactly as often and as hard as I want. I can add more and bigger monsters to the encounter at any time. Did the party come out of the fight alive? I can send in a swarm of angry owlbears before they have a chance to rest up or have the Arch-Demon Xrtplzqtsk cast an unbreakable killing curse on them for its dark amusement. Earthquake. Wildfire. Lightning strike. Rocks fall, everyone dies. Killing a PC is the easiest thing a DM can do.

The question is not whether you should have monster crits in your game, it’s why do you want to do more damage to your PCs and possibly kill them? Sometimes it is the right thing to do. Maybe it fits the story. Maybe the healer wants a chance to break out the big spells and be the hero. Maybe your players like the challenge of mastering the game’s mechanics and want the threat of character death as an incentive. Maybe your players are adrenaline junkies and get bored if they know their characters aren’t in real peril. All of these are perfectly good ways of playing the game if that’s how you like to play, but that’s a conversation to have around your own gaming table. If you’re bothered by the thought that people you don’t know in a game you’re not a part of might be less likely to have their characters die, that’d be a you problem, not a game design problem.

Non-combat crits

While the proposed changes to critical rolls in combat would have made the game more predictable, the changes to non-combat crits were meant to shake things up a bit. Under the current rules, there are no crits outside of combat. When a player is rolling for their character to pick a lock or identify ancient magical runes, a natural 20 is just a number. A clumsy character with a -1 modifier to their roll trying to pick a lock with a difficulty of 20 won’t succeed no matter what. A roll of 20 on the die just turns into a 19, which isn’t enough. Even a more skilled character with a +1 who rolls a 20 on the same task just succeeds; there’s no extra benefit like the bonus damage that comes with a combat crit.

Allowing crits outside of combat, whether by new rules or house rules, can have some interesting effects on the game. It encourages players to try things they might not otherwise try, since there’s always at least a 5% chance of success. An unexpected success in the non-combat parts of the game can be just as thrilling as getting in a critical hit in a fight. Good DMs and players can always invest as much emotion as they want into the game’s storytelling aspects, but it can help to have the mechanics of the game give some support to the idea that what your characters do off the battlefield can be as exciting as what they do on it.

Letting players roll crits outside of combat can lead to some problems, though. DMs already have to deal with a subtype of player who thinks that their character can do anything if they roll well enough, the ones who will argue that a natural 20 means they can seduce a volcano or pickpocket the scales off a dragon. Adopting the principle that a 20 succeeds on anything makes these sorts of interactions more difficult for everyone. The obvious solution is that players should only roll when the DM tells them to, and the DM shouldn’t let players roll for things that are impossible, but in practice that’s a hard rule to enforce. Players like rolling dice, and many are impulsive enough to go ahead and roll as soon as they announce what they are trying to do. It sucks to be the DM who has to tell your players that the 20 they just rolled doesn’t count, and it equally sucks to be the player who has to hear it.

There are also times when, as a DM, you want to let your players roll for something even if they have no chance of success. If one door in the dungeon has an unpickable lock that can only be opened with a magic key, you may want that discovery to unfold as part of the story, and if that’s the only door you won’t let the rogue roll to pick, it calls more attention to the door than you may be ready for. Not letting players roll for something the players have every expectation of being able to roll for is too much like a neon sign saying “This Way to the Plot.” Letting the players try and fail, no matter how good their roll, helps keep the suspension of disbelief intact.

In my games, I don’t exactly have a house rule allowing critical successes outside of combat, but I run with a principle that a 20 should give a favorable result, and an interesting one if possible. When players roll a 20 for something they are capable of doing, the result should add something to the narrative that an ordinary success wouldn’t. If a player tries to get some information out of an NPC and rolls a 20, they may get more information than they were expecting, or make a friend who’s willing to help them in other ways. A natural 20 at my table doesn’t make the impossible possible, but it can yield a result that’s helpful in some way, even if it isn’t what the character was trying for. If someone tries to pick an unpickable lock and rolls a 20, that won’t open the door, but they might get an inkling of what the key could look like or spy something interesting through the keyhole. A player who tries to seduce a volcano won’t succeed with a 20, but at least they’ll get safely away from the lava.

Crit or not?

Whatever Wizards of the Coast ends up doing with One D&D, crits are an area that’s ripe for house rules and discussion around the gaming table. If you like your fights dramatic and unpredictable, combat crits are a simple mechanic to build in some surprises. If you’d rather have a better handle on how a particular fight is likely to go, you can leave them out or tone them down. Likewise, if you like the excitement of crits in combat, bringing them to the rest of the game can be just as exciting. Bringing the thrill of the critical to non-combat encounters gives DMs more leeway to plan campaigns around more than just fighting, as long as you’re prepared to deal with some of the wackier consequences of giving everybody a 5% shot at anything.

Crits have a role in Dungeons & Dragons, and it doesn’t have to be the same role at your table that it is in the official rules.

Image by Erik Jensen

Of Dice and Dragons talks about games and gaming.

Random Tavern Generator

Want to add some color to your tabletop role-playing games? Here’s a quick method to roll up a random tavern, complete with name, atmosphere, staff, and even the potential for some side stories to shake up your ongoing plot.

First, to name your tavern, roll a d20 twice to get two numbers between 1 and 20. Apply the following adjustment for the quality of the establishment to each number to get two final results between -2 and 23.


Find the result of your two rolls on the table below. You can either name your tavern “The Adjective Noun” or “The Noun and Noun.”

Let’s say you’re making a poor tavern and you roll a 9 and a 2. You subtract 2 from the results to get 7 and 0. That gives you The Grim Snake, The Dead Sailor, or The Snake and Sailor (or Sailor and Snake), whichever one sounds best for your setting. If you’re making a fine tavern and you roll a 6 and a 15, those become 8 and 17, giving you The Lost Hero, The Cheerful Hare, or The Hare and Hero / Hero and Hare. (Of course, reroll or adjust if you’re not happy with any of the results.)

19WinsomePrince / Princess

Now that you have a name, the next thing to do is roll up the atmosphere and staff. For this roll a d6 and apply the same adjustments for quality.

RollAtmosphere and staff
-2A rickety old hovel, half falling down, with rotten floorboards and vermin scuttling just out of sight. The staff is surly and suspicious of outsiders.
-1A dilapidated shanty with broken windows. The wind whistles through chinks in the walls and rain soaks through the uneven thatch of the roof. The staff is gloomy and unhelpful.
0A ramshackle place knocked together from an old barn and its outbuildings. The staff is tired and rude.
1A worn-out house that’s seen better days; the furniture is unsteady, and the curtains are faded. The staff is harried and disagreeable; they respond to the needs of their guests, but slowly and with lots of grumbling.
2A modest establishment with good ale and decent food, but the furnishings are old and threadbare, the beds are uncomfortable, and the walls are thin. The staff is capable but does not take initiative and is hard to get moving.
3An old but tidy farmhouse adapted to hosting travelers; everything inside is worn but well cared for. The staff is polite and proud of their inn, but they have limited resources to work with.
4A plain but cozy little inn; most of the guests are regulars from the local countryside who come here to see old friends and enjoy familiar comforts after a hard day’s work. The staff is cheerful and helpful, but often distracted by conversations with regulars.
5A comfortable and well-kept place; the furnishings are new and pleasant, but not expensive. The staff is proud of their tavern; they are gracious to guests who appear well-to-do, but brusque with any visitors who seem poor or unkempt.
6A charming old-fashioned tavern that has been run by the same family for generations; many of the furnishings are heirlooms passed down from the original owners. The staff knows the full history of the inn and will share interesting historical tidbits at the drop of a hat, but doesn’t know much else.
7A new establishment, recently built with all the modern conveniences, comfortable rooms, and excellent food. The staff is eager to advertise and encourages guests to spread the word.
8A luxurious retreat, built in the style of distant lands and filled with imported luxuries; exotic spices flavor the food and vintage wines fill the cellars. The staff performs elaborate courtesies with an affected air, but are also expert at discreetly fulfilling guests’ wishes, even the more unusual ones.
9A palatial lodging built with cut and polished stone, gilded everywhere; the furnishings are immaculate antiques, and the serving wares are the finest porcelain and silver. The staff is highly competent, discreet and unflappable, accustomed to both accommodating the whims of wealthy clients and being handsomely rewarded for their service.

If you want to add a little extra drama to your characters’ stay at the tavern, you can also roll up a little side story with a d6, applying the same modifier for the quality of the place. How your players deal with this added drama is up to them.

-2A gang of brigands is dividing up the loot from their latest raid in a corner of the common room. They suspect the player characters may be hunting them, so they try to look innocent, which only makes them look more suspicious. They are likely to react with violence if challenged.
-1A young traveler spots the player characters and thinks they recognize the person who killed their parents and against whom they swore vengeance. (They may or may not be correct, depending on your party’s backstories and adventuring habits.)
0The kitchen catches fire in a cooking accident, and the guests are called upon to help evacuate the inn and fight the blaze.
1A very large, very drunk patron spills their drink on one of the player characters and gets belligerent demanding the character buy them a new drink.
2The innkeeper accuses the player characters of trying to pay with counterfeit coins. Depending on the setting, local law enforcement may or may not get involved before everything can be sorted out.
3A smuggler, on the run from the law, attempts to slip some of their contraband into the player characters’ baggage.
4A spy in the service of the player characters’ enemies is staying at the same inn. In their haste to get away before the party notices them, they accidentally leave behind some evidence that helps the party on their current quest.
5Two young nobles from rival houses are staying at the inn under false names, having run away from their families together. They fear that the player characters may recognize them, so they take steps to evade, eliminate, or ingratiate themselves with the party.
6One of the player characters recognizes a familiar taste in the cooking and discovers that someone from their past is working in the kitchen. Whether the reunion is a happy or tense one is up to you and the player.
7One of the staff falls into hero worship of one of the player characters and hangs around making starry eyes at them and being generally awkward but harmless. They may be persuaded to do something to help out their newfound hero.
8The player characters are mistaken for visiting dignitaries from an important neighboring power and find themselves besieged by petitioners and sycophants.
9A wandering prophet recognizes the player characters and offers to share valuable information about their current quest in exchange for picking up the prophet’s rather hefty bar tab.

Image: Interior of a Tavern, with Cardplayers and a Violin Player, via Wikimedia (currently Royal Collection, UK; c. 1695; oil on canvas; by Jan Steen)

Of Dice and Dragons talks about games and gaming.

Trailer for Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

I had completely missed the news that there was a big budget D&D movie in the making! On the basis of this trailer, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves looks kinda bad, but fun kind of bad. Take a look yourself:

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves – Official Trailer | Comic Con 2022 by IGN on YouTube

I’ve been playing so much World of Warcraft in recent years that I’m woefully out of date with D&D, but I think I spotted familiar things in the trailer. Also handsome, at least on a quick view; they sure churn out decent special effects these days.

At this writing, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is expected to release in theaters on March 03, 2023.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

DM-ing Past an Impasse

One of the difficult situations you can find yourself in when acting as Dungeon Master / Game Master for a tabletop role-playing game is when your players find themselves stuck. An adventure is about forward movement, whether it’s fighting the next band of goblins so you can take their loot, discovering the secret door that leads into the hidden underground facility, or navigating through the asteroid field to get to safety. When your players feel like their characters aren’t making progress, that can sap the fun out of your game. What can you do as a DM to help your players get past an impasse?

Sometimes, you don’t have to do anything. Remember that your players are not the same as the characters they play. Being on an adventure is often not a lot of fun for the characters as they face danger, uncertainty, and the possibility of death. Sometimes even though the characters may be stuck, the players are still having a good time. They may be relishing the chance to role-play how their characters deal with failure or enjoy the prompt to think outside the box and come up with wacky new schemes so crazy they just might work. Some players want a game that plays strictly by the rules, even if that means they “lose.” When the characters run into trouble, watch how your players react. If they’re still having fun, you can just let them keep at it, but if the characters’ frustration leads to your players being frustrated, then it is time for you to step in as DM. In that case, here are some things to think about.

Break the DM Wall

As DMs, we have a barrier between us and the players, not just the physical barrier of the DM screen (for those who use them), but the distance between ourselves, who know all the secrets of the adventure, and the players, who do not. When your players are feeling stuck, it can help to open that barrier a little.

Suppose your players’ characters are trying to get into a castle to stop the evil duke from doing an evil ritual with an ancient artifact of evil. They try to get through the front gate and are stopped by the guards. They decide there are too many guards to fight, so they try to bluff their way in. The bluffing doesn’t work, but the players are committed this plan and keep trying to argue and make rolls to get through the gate.

Try saying something like: “I’m stepping in as DM to let you know that the guard just isn’t going to budge, no matter what you say or how well you roll. You’ll have to find another way in.” Giving the players this out-of-game information can help in several ways. It lets the players know that they weren’t on the right track so they can focus their energies on something else. It reassures the players that you are playing fair with them—they didn’t do something wrong, this approach was just never viable, and there is a way forward if they can figure it out. It also helps everyone take a step back from the characters’ frustrations to refocus on the fun of the game.

If your players like to actively role-play their characters and speak for them, it can help to shift perspective and speak about them instead. If you can get your players from “I’ve tried everything I can think of, but this guard captain is just stonewalling” to “Whiteleaf the bard is feeling frustrated and at a loss because her skills aren’t helping her group accomplish their mission,” that can help your players reframe their problem and work toward a solution.

No, but

You may have heard of the rule that in improv you always want to say “Yes, and.” “Yes, and” means you accept whatever ideas someone else brought to the scene and add your own contribution to develop it further. DM-ing is a kind of improv, but an adventure is also constrained by rules, rolls, and the story you have built for your players to explore. Sometimes the best thing to do is just throw out the other stuff and go with your players’ ideas, but if you always ignore the rules and the story, then you leave your players without a structure to work within. So there’s a corollary to the “Yes, and” rule: the “No, but” rule.

“No, but” means that when you say no to something your players want to do, you nudge them toward an alternative. This could be anything from a subtle hint on how to sway the current encounter successfully to a neon arrow pointing at the next plot point.

In the example above, you could “No, but” as you play the castle guard with a grouchy reply: “Look, His Grace said no one gets into the castle but Merchant Severan’s crew with the monthly wine shipment. I don’t see any wine barrels, so you’re not getting in here.” Alternatively, you could step out of character and say: “As you continue to argue with the guard, you notice that the northern wall of the castle overhangs a sheer cliff; there are no guards there, for obvious reasons.” These options give your players a hook for a way forward without interrupting the scene.

It’s up to your players to pick up on the “No, but” and figure out how they want to take advantage of it, but it allows you to steer them out of a dead end and back into the adventure without breaking the immersion of the game.

Change something

If your players just keep trying something that won’t work, you have the option as DM to change the rules and make it work. If necessary, you can always just say: “Okay, ignore that last roll. You succeeded. Move on,” but it’s better if you can fit the change into the story. If the situation the players’ characters find themselves in is a deadlock, you’ll want to either add something or take something away to break the stalemate.

Adding something may mean a new character comes on the scene, an event occurs to disrupt the current stalemate, or the characters get new information that gives them a way forward. For instance, perhaps the evil duke himself comes out to see what the fuss is and decides to invite the characters in so he has someone to gloat at as he does his evil thing. Perhaps a band of marauders swarms out of the nearby woods, giving the castle guards something more important to focus on and letting the characters take advantage of the chaos.

Instead of adding something, you might take away one of the things causing the impasse. Perhaps the guard captain gets frustrated and walks away to let her subordinate handle the characters, and that subordinate turns out to be much more gullible or a secret ally to the party. Perhaps several of the guards get called away to handle another problem elsewhere in the castle leaving a smaller number that the player characters can take in a fight.

In the end, remember that a role-playing game is a collaboration between players and DM. The most important thing is that everyone, including you, gets to have a good experience. Sometimes your players are going to get themselves into places where they aren’t having fun, but as a DM you have options for helping them get out.

Image by Erik Jensen

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

Tolkien, Fantasy, and Race

Wizards of the Coast recently announced that they will be changing how the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game system handles race. These changes include, among others, reimagining the traditionally evil Drow and Orcs as complex and nuanced cultures, revising how a player’s choice of race affects their character’s stats, and removing racially insensitive text from reissues of old content. You can read the company’s statement about these changes here.

Some of these changes are more obviously necessary than others. It’s not hard for most of us to see how having a race of dark-skinned Elves who are almost universally evil in your game is a poor design choice that needs to be rectified, but it’s less obvious to a lot of people why the game should be changed so that your Elf isn’t necessarily clever and dexterous or your Dwarf stout and tough. To understand why rules like these are problematic, it helps to look at how ideas about portraying non-human beings in fantasy have been shaped. Fantasy is as complex and varied as any other genre of literature and no single person is responsible for the development of its tropes and principles, but when we think about race in fantasy, there is one crucial place to start: Tolkien.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth legendarium profoundly shaped fantasy literature in the twentieth century and the other media drawing from it, such as role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Tolkien’s versions of Elves and Dwarves, as well as his invention of Hobbits (made lawyer-friendly as “Halflings”), formed the basis for D&D’s early options for players who wanted an alternative to humans. Much of the popular fantasy archetypes for what non-human races are like (ethereal, wise, bow-wielding Elves; stubborn, pugnacious, axe-hefting Dwarves) were either created or codified by Tolkien.

Tolkien’s relationship to race is complicated. On one hand, he was vocally opposed to the antisemitism common in his time and to the Nazis’ attempts to claim his beloved Germanic mythology as a prop to their racist regime. His Middle Earth tales can be read as a counter-argument to white supremacist ideology, as the “lesser” folk of Middle Earth, like the Hobbits and the Wild Men, prove more resistant to the lies of evil than the “higher” races of Men. At the same time, there is no denying that Tolkien’s fiction is suffused with familiar racial assumptions, filled with white characters and portraying dark-skinned people only as strange or threatening others.

But it is Tolkien’s work as a scholar that is most important for understanding his effect on the depiction of race in fantasy. Tolkien’s academic training as an Oxford student in the early twentieth century was grounded in the traditions of the nineteenth century, which defined nations as coherent, natural entities existing across time and marked by inherent characteristics. This academic worldview was linked to the Romantic and nationalist movements at work in Europe in that century, as well as the ongoing imperialist projects of Britain, France, and other nations of Europe. At its core was the belief that culture and biology are equivalent, that people have fundamental national traits inherited from their ancestors which define their culture, character, even moral worth.

Every academic discipline concerned with the human past was engaged in some way with this project. Historians traced the ancestry of their own and other peoples as far back as written sources would allow, at which point archaeologists stepped in to carry the line further back. Scholars of literature and art looked to both nationally famous artists and rural folk traditions to delineate the defining characteristics of a culture. Scholars in different nations concocted their own versions of national culture and interpreted both ancient and recent history in terms of discreet nations wrangling with one another: while English writers explained their early history as the victory of the serious, diligent Anglo-Saxon over the moody, whimsical Celt, French historians conceived of the French Revolution as a primordial Gallic peasantry overthrowing the Germanic overlords who had dominated them since the fifth century CE. Even forgeries and hoaxes followed the same principle, like the collection of Gaelic poetry attributed to the bard Ossian or the fake primordial Englishman buried with a battered cricket bat at Piltdown. While the work of such historians, folklorists, artists, pranksters and others was in itself fairly benign, it was part of a larger politics that justified the exploitation and oppression of some ethnic groups for the benefit of others based on specious claims about national characters and destinies.

Tolkien’s subject, philology, was no exception. Scholars believed that language could be a key to those parts of the past that neither history nor archaeology could reach, perhaps even the most important parts, for what can be more fundamental to our identity than the words we use to describe our world? Linguistic research, starting in the eighteenth century with the realization that the ancient Indian language Sanskrit came from the same source as Greek and Latin, had demonstrated that it was possible to discover regular principles that governed shifts in sound as languages evolved and split into new languages. Applying these principles to the earliest documented fragments of existing languages made it possible to reconstruct, with a high degree of certainty, elements of vocabulary and grammar belonging to languages that had never been written down.

Tolkien, and other philologists of his generation, believed that it was possible to go a step further and apply the same principles to myths, legends, even history. Working backwards from the earliest recorded elements of a culture—its oldest literature and art, archaeological remains, and whatever fragments of ancient knowledge survived in folk tradition—they hoped to reconstruct the primordial beliefs, practices, and character of that culture. Tolkien carried this same spirit into his literary work and with his Middle Earth stories tried to reimagine a history that might have lain behind the scattered remnants of Germanic mythology that come down to us through English, Norse, German, and Icelandic sources.

The result of this labor was a fictional world that incorporates numerous traces of ancient tradition—Smaug, from The Hobbit, has shades of Fafnir from the Volsunga Saga, while the arrival of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and Gandalf at Edoras in The Lord of the Rings recreates the Geatish heroes’ arrival at Heorot in Beowulf—but put together in a distinctly nineteenth-century way. The various races of Men in Tolkien’s work reflect contemporary belief in inherent national cultures to the extent that the Dunedain of the north retained their culture for many long generations cut off from Gondor in the south. Other peoples of Tolkien’s world are culturally defined by their ancestry, stretching over thousands of years.

Tolkien’s Elves and Dwarves are a similar combination of ancient Nordic lore and nineteenth-century nationalistic culture-construction. Tolkien took stories about Elves and Dwarves from different times, cultures, and genres, extracted the elements he believed were characteristic, and fused them together to create the kind of singular, coherent cultures that scholars of his day believed could be found among real peoples. The idea of Elves as archers comes from a Scottish tradition of referring to prehistoric arrow points as “Elf-shot.” The intermarriage of Elves and humans comes from Icelandic sagas. The bewildering power of an encounter with Elves derives from medieval German folklore. Tolkien believed that these various fragments were the remains of what had once been a clear, consistent belief in Elves as beings with defined characteristics, much as words in Sanskrit, Greek, and Old Norse were the remains of an older language, and that by putting them together he could reconstruct the nature of Elves in same way philologists reconstructed lost languages. The same applies to Tolkien’s Dwarves.

Tolkien’s assumptions about lost cultural knowledge only make sense in the context of the scholarship he worked in. Modern research has found that the image of Elves in northern European mythology is widely varied. Writers in different times and cultures had vastly different ideas about what Elves were, ranging from benevolent ancestor spirits to malicious swamp creatures that would steal your baby and eat it. There is no evidence that the original Elf Tolkien thought he could reconstruct was ever anything but a mirage. Indeed, it is not just that Elves did not have consistent characteristics in northern mythology, early northern writers don’t even seem to have viewed “Elf” as a stable category that could be defined. Many texts use the term fluidly for many different sorts of supernatural creature, overlapping with Dwarves, demons, angels, and others in ways that do not allow for any clear definition.

It is primarily to Tolkien that we owe the idea, not just that Elves, Dwarves, and other fantastical creatures have consistent characteristics, but that they exist as discreet groups that can be defined. This conception of fantasy folks is a product of a particular cultural and scholarly worldview, one that is increasingly out of date. Aloof archer Elves and beefy brawling Dwarves running around your game world may seem perfectly harmless, but the archetypes that define these as the standard types of Elves and Dwarves are rooted in a history of imperialism and racism.

It is time to leave behind this artifact of the nineteenth century and embrace a world in which Dwarves can be slender bookworms and Elves can be boisterous bruisers, or anything else you want them to be.

Post edited for grammar

Image: Elf and Dwarf cosplay, photograph by Tomasz Stasiuk via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

The “Sheer Dumb Luck” Table


Sometimes the tools you use the most are the simplest ones. This is one of the simplest things in my arsenal when I run a role-playing game, but I use it all the time.

Your players will often ask you questions that you didn’t think of ahead of time. Is the guard wearing gloves? Are there any pine cones lying around? Does this planet have any beryllium deposits near the surface?

Of course, if it matters to the adventure whether or not the guard is wearing gloves, then you have your answer and you go with it, but often either yes or no will do, you just have to pick one. It can be exhausting to always be having to decide, so you can just flip a coin, but not everything in the world is a fifty-fifty chance. If you’ve already established that it’s a cold night, the chances that the guard is wearing gloves are pretty high.

That’s where the table comes in, which, in honor of my favorite Harry Potter character, I have dubbed: The “Sheer Dumb Luck” table.


Simply pick the descriptor on the list that sounds right for whatever your players asked and roll 3d6. Is the guard wearing gloves? Very likely. Are there any pine cones? Somewhat likely. Any beryllium? Virtually impossible. If you roll equal to or under the number given, the answer is yes. If higher, no.

  • 4–Virtually impossible
  • 6–Very unlikely
  • 8–Unlikely
  • 10–Fifty/fifty
  • 11–Somewhat likely
  • 12–Likely
  • 14–Very likely
  • 15–Virtually certain

And the best thing about this table: sometimes, once you’ve rolled, you realize that the opposite answer is actually better. One way or another, you’ve answered the question and the adventure can keep rolling.

Like everything, it’s a tool, not a rule. Not everyone likes to leave as much up to chance in an adventure as I do. Use it if it helps, ignore it if it doesn’t.

Images: Books and dice by Erik Jensen; “Five points…” via

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

The Rumor Table

150910rpgSo, you’re game-mastering a tabletop role-playing game and your player characters decide to spread out around town and see if they can pick up any useful information about their current quest. How do you handle it?

There are lots of things you can do. If there’s some info you need to dump on them, now’s the time to hand it over. Or if you want them to just head out into the wilderness and figure it out as they go, you tell them that no one knows anything. You can always just make stuff up off the top of your head. Like with most GMing tasks, as long as your players have a good time, there’s no wrong way to do it. Here’s a tool that might make your job a little easier, though: the rumor table.

When I’m planning an adventure and I know that my players are going to have a chance to snoop around and ask questions, I like to prepare a rumor table for what they might find out. The table is a mix of true and false information that is more or less helpful. I plan it for a roll of 2d6 (you can make it bigger or smaller depending on your needs, but I find a 2d6 table covers most cases). For the numbers 2-12, come up with the following tidbits of information:

  • 2 – False, and potentially disastrous if the player characters believe it
  • 3 & 4 – False
  • 5 & 6 – False but with a grain of truth, such as true information that has been garbled or misinterpreted
  • 7 – Equal parts true and false
  • 8 & 9 – True
  • 10 & 11 – True and probably helpful to the characters at the moment
  • 12 – True and very important

Suppose your campaign is The Lord of the Rings and your characters are meeting for the first time at the Council of Elrond in Rivendell. (I mean, imagine a world in which The Lord of the Rings isn’t a famous novel and movie trilogy that your players already know but is your campaign that you wrote and they are playing through for the first time.)

Here’s what your table might look like:

  • 2 – Saruman is secretly on the side of good
  • 3 – Elves from Lothlorien have been attacking outlying villages on the borders of Rohan
  • 4 – Moria is abandoned and free of orcs
  • 5 – Smeagol has been sighted in Mirkwood heading east towards Dale
  • 6 – Rohan pays a tribute of horses to Sauron for the ringwraiths to ride
  • 7 – Denethor of Gondor has a palantir but he refuses to look into it
  • 8 – The Dunedain rangers were searching for Smeagol not long ago
  • 9 – Saruman has ordered the destruction of Fangorn forest
  • 10 – Wargs have been spotted in great numbers in the wildlands south of Rivendell
  • 11 – Theoden king of Rohan has become weak and listless and lets his advisers make most decisions
  • 12 – A balrog lurks in the depths of Moria

There are some advantages to using a rumor table. For one thing, it takes some of the pressure off you to come up with the perfect responses in the moment. Like mapping a dungeon ahead of time, it lets you prepare in advance. It’s also a convenient way of rewarding your players for good role-playing or taking the characters’ advantages into account. If the PC has a charisma bonus and the player does a good job role-playing the asking around, you don’t have to puzzle out just how much better information they should get; it’s easy to just give them a +2 on the rumor roll.

Another good thing about using the rumor table, if your players know that you have one, is it short-circuits the “it must be important or the GM wouldn’t have told us” metagaming. Your players have to think carefully and evaluate the information they get, just like their characters would have to do.

Now, of course, it’s a tool, not a rule. Use it with discretion. If the character your PCs happen to be talking to wouldn’t know (or wouldn’t say) the answer you roll, don’t use it. Either go up or down the table or make up something different. If there are things that your characters really need to know at a given point in the adventure, then that’s what you give them. (You can always roll the dice anyway, so they don’t know when they’re getting plot-critical stuff.)

Happy rumor-mongering!

Image by Erik Jensen

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.