It’s the beginning of the end now for the Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything breakdown series, though in total page count remaining you could be forgiven for thinking it’s only the end of the beginning. That is all to say that we’re entering Chapter 4: Dungeon Master’s Tools. In the Edition Wars podcast, we’ve been working through the 5e DMG chapter by chapter, so it’s fun to get to this section that expands on some things that get short shrift in the DMG.
This section covers three major things to get sorted out clearly before you can really start playing. First up, creating the characters and the party, including a d6 table for what brought the party together (no taverns need apply). This section runs face-first into “okay but could this have been longer,” because six party origins and four bullet points of questions to ask yourself during party creation is skeletal. I do think the third bullet, “What does each character like most about every other member of the adventuring party?” is a great idea for just remembering a table of real-life friends that it’s okay to play in-character friends as well.
The next section is the social contract of the game. I like the idea of social contracts getting made into something explicit at the start of a game. In practice, I think that a lot of conversations around group social contracts fail to engage with how social dynamics that are external to the tabletop game itself – long friendships, romantic relationships, whatever – make enforcing the social contract and dismissing someone from a group infeasible. What I’m saying is, relationships are complicated, and a few scant paragraphs were never going to contribute much to solving more difficult problems.
Hard and soft limits, or lines and veils as they were called in Ron Edwards’s Sex and Sorcery supplement for Sorcerer, are a long time coming to official D&D text. I hope this, and the section of Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft that recapitulates this, help D&D fans – especially the rising generation of new fans that significantly outnumbers 20+ year veterans like me – enjoy content that lets them feel vulnerable at the table.
Game customization is the third and final section, dealing with house rules (ahem, I use a whole mess of these), optional rules modules, and other questions around what kind of game and game elements each player enjoys. I think of this as taking the player types discussed in the Introduction of the 5e DMG, which can trace its roots back to Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering if not earlier, and asking players directly instead of guessing based on your knowledge of them.
Probably a good call, but also take a minute to consider ask cultures versus guess cultures. You may be setting yourself up for a lot of coaxing and awkward inability to answer if you’re expecting a clear statement of wants from someone in a guess culture.
People are complicated. Tabletop gaming is a conversation that takes place in the context of who each person is and how they relate to everyone else at the table. Two and a half pages isn’t scratching the surface of that, but it’s a nice gesture.
These sidekick rules first appeared in a UA release, then in the Essentials Kit boxed set. In the Essentials Kit they’re a six-level progression; this expands them to 20 and gives them a first level. They’re similar in some ways to standard classes – especially the warrior’s similarity to the fighter – but they’re each a step down and retooled to be more support-based. The whole thing expands on a set of suggestions in Chapter 4 of the 5e DMG.
The fundamental idea here is that you take any creature stat block of CR ½ of lower and bolt on levels of one of these three classes – Expert, Spellcaster, or Warrior. In a move that seems incredibly perverse to me, they continue gaining the Hit Die of their base stat block rather than each class having a Hit Die. This is a change from the Essentials Kit version, which had its own baseline stat blocks for humanoid sidekicks and thus made them all use d8s for Hit Dice. Also, those stat blocks start at two Hit Dice – an early survivability kicker.
I love the idea of talking animal sidekicks or any number of other “monsters,” even those with a higher base CR. as long as you proceed with understanding of what you’re giving the PC. Young dragon sidekicks are an idea with a long pedigree in D&D and fantasy, so trimming down the starting stat block and leveling them up with sidekick levels is the under-served market need that this chapter still doesn’t engage.
A sidekick’s level is pegged to the average level of their group. I don’t know, am I the only person whose PCs vary in level? Chapter 8 of the DMG explicitly acknowledges level variation within a party, though everywhere else in the game pretty strongly assumes parties all being the same level.
Since I also cover class histories, I’ll briefly say that 3.x also has NPC classes (adept, expert, warrior) for this kind of thing. They’re bare-bones in function compared to these sidekick classes.
The expert class is a rogue that splashes bard, more or less? In real gameplay terms, it’s a Mastermind rogue that left most of their Sneak Attack dice in their other pants. It’s ideal for when your sidekick does two things really super well, and combat isn’t specifically one of them – maybe a sage adviser or a backup singer.
- Bonus Proficiencies grants proficiency in one saving throw (Dex, Int, or Cha), in five skills (chosen from the whole list), and light armor. Humanoids and weapon-users gain proficiency in simple weapons and with two types of tools.
- This feature might as well read “this is why PCs shouldn’t be able to multiclass into a sidekick class.” One save and five skills? Um. Normally that’s a lot more than you can gain from multiclassing (and the multiclassing rules are ultra-clear on this). Here it’s stored as a feature from leveling up, so you definitely get it if multiclassing is allowed.
- Helpful lets you use Help as a bonus action. So like I said about Mastermind…
- Cunning Action at 2nd level is exactly the rogue feature of the same name – it just doesn’t get juiced up with additional subclass features.
- Expertise at 3rd level is the same as the rogue and bard feature of the same name. It’s even more pivotal to the reasons you’d have an expert sidekick than it is to the reasons most people play rogues or bards. Experts get their second round of boosted proficiencies at 15th level.
- Ability Score Improvements at the standard levels. This doesn’t call out that sidekicks could have feats, but I hope we can all agree that the Chef feat goes with an expert sidekick like chocolate with graham crackers and a toasted marshmallow.
- Your proficiency bonus goes up by 1 at 5th, 9th, 13th, and 17th level. That’s the whole of what sidekicks get at those levels, except for spellcasters, who also gain new spell levels at each of those advancements.
- Coordinated Strike at 6th level is a partial Sneak Attack…ish, that comes from the sidekick using the Help action. It also adds to their effective range with the Help action. The sidekick deals +2d6 damage to the target they helped someone else attack (that’s what’s SA-like about it), without any of the qualifying requirements of SA, like weapon type. It’s great for keeping experts relevant in fights without making them badasses in solo situations.
- In the Essentials Kit, experts get Extra Attack instead of Coordinated Strikes.
- Evasion at 7th level is the same as the monk and rogue features of the same name.
- Inspiring Help at 11th level adds a +1d6 bonus to the expert’s Help actions that modify checks and attack rolls; for attack rolls, the person you’re Helping can instead use that as a damage bonus. At 20th level, this goes up to 2d6.
- Reliable Talent at 14th level is the same as the rogue feature of the same name.
- Sharp Mind at 18th level grants proficiency in one of Int, Wis, or Cha saves. It’s Slippery Mind, but higher level and with two more options.
Overall, this feels the most purely sidekick-y of all three options, thanks to all the Help extras. I know people – several of you are regular readers and will be in the Comments section presently – who would have a great time slapping a subclass on this bad boy and just making it their PC. It’d be underpowered, but it’s threading the needle between rogue and bard just enough to hide that slightly and carve out something pretty fun of its own.
The flavor text here seems to say that this sidekick class covers sorcerers as well as bards, clerics, druids, warlocks, and wizards. There’s just one problem – with no subclass, the sorcerer doesn’t have their fundamental shaping element. (I’ll actually argue the same about warlocks, to an only-slightly-lesser degree.) The table of spellcaster type and spell lists here backs me up on this.
- Bonus Proficiencies grants one of Int, Wis, or Cha saves, two skills, light armor, and (for humanoids or those who use weapons) simple weapons. No tools, get rekt, nerd.
- Spellcasting sets this class up as a half-caster, but a half-caster that gets cantrips. The breakdown here, where the spellcaster is defined as a Mage (wizard), Healer (cleric and druid), or Prodigy (bard and warlock) to give you their spell lists and spellcasting ability.
- So the Prodigy is a warlock who can pick up bardic healing spells and casts with standard spell slots, not Pact Magic slots, and still gets a parallel of Ag Blast at 6th level, with Potent Cantrips. The Prodigy’s suggested starting spells are eldritch blast, healing word, and light. There’s a better-than-even chance that my wife would enjoy playing a Prodigy + a Patron subclass more than she’s enjoying the core warlock.
- The Essentials Kit doesn’t have the Prodigy, just the Mage and Healer.
- Ability Score Improvement, yadda yadda yadda. Except that they get their last ASI at 18th rather than 19th, for no obvious reason beyond “19th level is when they get their last Spell Known and their second 5th-level spell slot.”
- Potent Cantrips at 6th level adds your spellcasting ability modifier to cantrip damage. Thanks for being weird, eldritch blast!
- Empowered Spells at 14th level adds your spellcasting ability modifier to spell damage or healing when you expend a spell slot, but only for one school of magic.
- I’m honestly not sure why this is restricted to one school of magic, or why you’d even consider a school other than evocation. You know, the one with healing in it?
- Focused Casting at 20th level lets you ignore damage as something that can break concentration. (Pretty sure Samuel L. Jackson can still break your concentration, though.)
- I’m surprised we don’t see this or something like it in a lot more classes or subclasses. I’d particularly like to see it in Necromancy, as part of a game loop about taking damage from your spells and healing it with Grim Harvest.
It’s a pretty good summary of a stripped-down caster that still gets some things. Those things never include spells of 6th level or higher. Their lack of spell slot staying power is a virtue in terms of mental load – you know they’re going to throw another fire bolt or eldritch blast or whatever. If your group is stuck with both thinking they need a healer in 5e (probably not, but whatever) and no one wants to play that healer (but you should, healers are great in 5e), a Healer or Prodigy spellcaster sidekick is a perfect solution.
It will never not be weird that Gygax named the original weapon-using class “fighting-man” and not “warrior,” leading us to call the class “fighter” today. Anyway, this is the sidekick class that works best with beasts and monstrosities, just on a conceptual level. I think there’s a lot to be said for just… having a ranger’s pet be a sidekick rather than a subclass feature.
- Bonus Proficiencies grants one of Strength, Dex, or Con saves, two skills from a fairly ranger-flavored list, proficiency with all armor (barding, maybe), and if it’s humanoid or uses weapons, all simple and martial weapons and shields.
- Martial Role grants either +2 to all attack rolls (“Archery but… more about correcting for NPC stat blocks having lowish stats”) or Defender (“Protection but without a shield”). These are fine – most of the issues I have with Protection fade into some irrelevance when we’re talking about a sidekick.
- Second Wind at 2nd level works like the fighter feature of the same name. You get your second Second Wind at 20th, rather than earlier.
- Improved Critical at 3rd level works like the Champion subclass feature of the same name.
- Ability Score Improvement at the standard levels.
- Extra Attack at 6th, and again at 15th. There’s a note that Extra Attack and Multiattack can’t be used in the same round – it’s one or the other.
- That’s a tough pill to swallow for many stat blocks you’d use as the foundation for your Warrior sidekick, and that bothers me because it dips a toe into the system-mastery waters of the PH Beast Master ranger needing to understand which pets work with their mechanics. The only defense I see there is that it’s a sidekick, so optimizing is even more overthinking than normal.
- Battle Readiness at 7th level grants advantage on initiative rolls. Sure, no sweat.
- Improved Defense at 10th level is basically the Defense fighting style, without calling it that.
- Indomitable at 11th level is identical to the fighter feature of the same name. You get your second use per long rest at 18th level.
I’m not here to judge anyone who decides that the Champion fighter is too much and they just want to play a Warrior, but it’s weaker along every axis except for starting hit points. (Not that you asked, but I give PCs in my homebrew campaign +5 starting hit points, the average of 1d8, and I have never regretted that in the least.)
For sidekick rules as a category, I have no problem with what I see here. For times when I’ve had NPCs come along on adventures, these rules would work for one of them (warrior), while the other character… doesn’t quite work as a warrior or an expert, because of things that matter to me about making him play more explicitly like a rogue, or like the master thief stat block from Volo’s Guide to Monsters.
Parleying with Monsters
This section sort of expands on the Social Interaction section in Chapter 8 of the DMG, getting into alternate ways to interact with creatures based on their type. I appreciate this two-page spread as a bunch of d4 tables to spark imagination, but the incredible variation of creatures within each type means that it can’t help but be… not enough. But then, every DM-facing table in the game is non-exhaustive and intended to inspire rather than dictate.
I like the section on monster research. Setting the DC at 10 + CR does mean that top-end monsters might be setting untouchable DCs, but… well, this isn’t for learning about creatures north of CR 22 or so. Most of those, you could learn something about just by finding a lower-CR relative and learning all of its secrets. Using History for humanoids, but Arcana or Religion for undead, doesn’t really cover unique undead where learning their personal history would help. Should it? Eh, maybe not – once you’re concerned with unique undead, the DM can probably figure out that History is for questions about the distant past.
If you were looking for this section to spackle over the issues with the Social Interaction rules in the DMG, well, sorry. Not even the goal here.
That’s it for this article – the next section launches into twenty pages of Environmental Hazards, and I want to give each of these attention. Since I’m already pushing 3k words, well, let’s call it here, and with a lot of luck maybe I can finish this series in Part Ten, you know, soon.