The Game Must Flow
How Conditions Improve Your Game of D&D 5e
GM - “What does Barnabus do?”
Player - “Barnabus grapples the troll!” *rolls dice* “Awesome! I got a 24 total! Let’s see that troll break out of my awesome headlock!” *flexes*
GM - “Oh?! But you should’ve rolled with disadvantage. Remember, you’re still frightened by the black mage’s spell.”
Player - “Ahh, right. I forgot. What does being frightened do, again? I may want to do something else.”
GM - *sighs (silently)* “The frightened condition means. . .”
Hopefully you and your gaming group don’t run into this sort of situation often. But it happens - trust me. What’s the real problem here? It’s not simply that someone at the table made a little mistake. Both the GM and Player in this scenario could make improvements to their game. The heart of this problem is that the narrative flow of the game has broken down: the sequence of in-game events is no longer moving smoothly enough to create a seamless story about the heroes.
Smooth narrative flow, complete with peaks and valleys, is what makes the difference between “Oh, that was a fun game tonight,” and “That was exhilarating! My heart was racing when the dragon. . .” Naturally, there are many differences in play-styles. Having an engaging - dare I say, EPIC - session may not be what some players are looking for. Maybe you’re at the gaming table just to hang out with friends, have some munchies, and roll some dice. Fair enough. This article might not be for you. On the other hand, if you want to level-up your game and help pack every session you play with energy and dramatic events, read on!
Let’s Not Forget Our Conditions
In this article, we’ll be delving into how conditions fit into your game of D&D 5e! The main topic of this article is how conditions uniquely contribute to the narrative flow at your table, as well as techniques and tools to handle conditions without your game grinding to a halt. Along the way, we’ll cover what conditions are, and also give a little shout out to concentration in 5e.
As we saw in the example above, the main problem which disrupted the flow of the game was that the Player forgot to apply the frightened condition to his action choice. We can break this problem down into two parts. The Player forgot that (A) his character, Barnabus, was frightened; and (B) how being frightened affects Barnabus (specifically, that frightened creatures have disadvantage on attacks and ability checks).
Either one of these is a minor issue, but both of them together breaks the flow of the game. The GM has to recite a rule and the Player makes a new decision about what to do. Or, to keep the game moving, the GM might just tell the Player to roll with disadvantage (though this might cause some frustration for the Player).
While the latter option certainly doesn’t halt the game, it also doesn’t solve the long-term problem of the (A)and (B) combo. The GM might be tempted to put all the responsibility for solving this problem on the Player, but what if the GM had used visual and verbal reminders of Barnabus’ condition? That might certainly have helped the Player choose his action more wisely before it becomes a disruption to the game.
We’ll circle back to resolving these issues, but as I said, we’re here to look at the real problem: preventing the breakdown of narrative flow. Since conditions can (and should) play a huge part of this, we should be clear on what conditions are.
What in the 14 Hells are Conditions?
Conditions are persistent status effects inflicted on a creature which alter its capabilities (PHB 290) or make it easier to kill the creature. There are fourteen conditions in all, plus a couple of condition-like states (concentrating or surprised, for instance). I’m not going to go through this list and give a run-down of what each condition does: there are plenty of other articles already out there which do this just fine (here’s one example).
Understanding what conditions do in general will help you make choices as a player (how you build your character) and affect the choices of your character (not grappling the troll because you’re frightened). If you’re playing a magic-user who primarily uses spells with saving throws, for instance, conditions affecting your enemies aren’t going to matter as much to you. But also knowing that restrained creatures have disadvantage on Dexterity saving throws can help your sorcerer line up that devastating lightningbolt on your enemies.
Most often, conditions will be affecting your character in combat, but there are some conditions like charmed, exhaustion, or poisoned which may make your character’s life difficult even outside of combat. The most common way conditions affect a creature is by granting disadvantage on certain rolls (usually attack rolls and/or ability checks), reducing movement options, or making the creature easier to hit with attacks.
I won’t go into the math, but the average numerical bonus/penalty for advantage/disadvantage is 3.325. However, one of the really cool things about (dis)advantage is that when you are trying to roll at least a 10 or an 11, the bonus is more like a +/-5! (Check out the statistics here.) This means that even with a relatively low AC or DC, disadvantage is pretty effective at making a creature fail on their roll.
Conditions and Flow
You may be wondering why I think conditions are so important to the flow of the game. Aren’t they just like any other part of the rules? Yes, they are like most other rules - in the sense that thumbing through your PHB stalls the game. No argument there. But conditions are of particular importance to the flow of the narrative, as well as the flow of the game.
You should, as a player or GM, know what the conditions are and whether a character under your control is affected by X, Y, or Z condition. That makes the mechanical aspects of the game move smoothly: rolling Barnabus’ grapple check with disadvantage automatically, rather than having to be reminded by the GM.
But using those conditions to aid the narrative - what’s happening from the perspective of the characters - is something that will help improve the game for the whole group. It’s okay to be a little put out when your fighter becomes blinded in the middle of an undead horde. It sucks for you and your character: you’re less likely to slay these zombies and they’re more likely to give you a beating. Even the most courageous adventurers can be torn to bits when the odds are stacked against them.
Yes, we all love when our characters can wade through their opponents, landing one attack after another and dealing some serious damage. But if that’s what your character always does, round after round, combat after combat, it’s going to get stale. You might feel satisfaction as a player because your well-designed character is able to put some big numbers on the board (i.e. dealing tons of damage), but you might also be completely ignoring the ‘R’ and ‘P’ in RPG.
Moments when the blinded fighter struggles amid the pile of animated corpses adds dramatic tension to your game. Do you want combats that are just a slug-fest, where your character stands still and simply trades attacks with the baddies? B-o-o-oring. If you are blinded in the midst of a bunch of undead, are you just going to stand there?! Hell no! You could Disengage: stumbling through the cold, grasping hands to a safer position while you try to shake it off. Or, if you must HOLD THE LINE at all costs, taking the Dodge action will negate the advantage that the zombies have against you.
In either case, you are harnessing the full potential of this condition to create an awesome story! Even though being blinded is never an ideal circumstance for your character, a good story always has times when the heroes are in a poor position. And is what makes the victory all the sweeter: overcoming adverse circumstances and emerging triumphant! It’s those moments that your group will be talking about for years to come.
We must notice, though, that your knowledge of the blinded condition and how it affects your character is important. If you are unaware that being blinded means other creatures have advantage against your character, then you might just swing wildly (attack with disadvantage) and trust that your armor will protect you. Obviously, this is something you could do, but it doesn’t really help create a situation where the narrative dramatically rises and falls.
Even with only partial knowledge of how being blinded affects your character, another way you can turn this situation into narrative gold is to use the Help action to aid one of your allies. Swinging wildly can just as easily be how your fighter distracts the zombies so the rogue can sidle in for an advantageous sneak attack!
The best-case scenario is that you know the effects of 5e’s conditions inside and out. But even before you get to that level of rules-knowledge, there are still many ways to bring more vitality into your game. Incorporating the perspective of narrative and game flow at your table is just one example of how you can help your group take your sessions to the next level.
Tracking Those Conditions
So, before you can effectively embrace this duality of flow to enhance your game, you need to ensure that you’re not being tripped-up by the two potential issues brought up in the troll example. A) Remembering that your character has condition X, Y, Z. B) Remembering how the condition affects your character.
The fix for (A) is pretty straightforward: a visual reminder near your character sheet or your miniature on the map will do the job nicely. Having these visual cues to mark your character’s current conditions will not only help you, but the GM and other players as well. With this in mind, the better option (if you don’t use both) is to track your conditions on your miniature.
When combat becomes hectic, with characters slinging spells left and right, the reminder that is on the board with your miniature becomes a much more effective memory aid. The board is more visually stimulating - your attention is drawn more toward the cool miniatures and tactical situation on the board than to your character sheet. And this goes double for the other players at the table. Other people are most definitely not looking at your sheet, but they all have eyes on the minis.
With this in mind, there are some amazing accessories on the market that handle problem (A) perfectly. I picked up a set of Condition Rings from WildBot3D and I’m thrilled with how seamless they make condition-tracking. These 3D-printed rings fit right around your mini’s base, show exactly what condition the character is under, and are even color-coded. In just my first session using these beauties, I barely even had to read the rings because the color scheme was so intuitive: bright red is RAGING, lime green is POISONED, clear is INVISIBLE.
As you might’ve noticed, these rings don’t track just the fourteen conditions, they also cover spell effects and other states like the all-important CONCENTRATING. When the paladin is concentrating on a bless spell, these rings will make sure no one at the table forgets to apply that 1d4 to attack rolls and saves. Likewise, when that paladin takes a hit, the concentrating ring is there to say “Don’t forget your concentration check!” With seventy-seven rings in total, this accessory will ensure no one at your table falls prey to problem (A) ever again.
Problem (B), however, is a separate issue. Unfortunately, visual aids like these condition rings can’t magically provide you with the mechanical knowledge of each condition, spell effect, etc. Ideally, everyone at the table should be familiar with the rules of (at least) the main conditions. But this is where the visual aid near your character sheet can make a larger contribution. A player or the GM can easily make a set of cards that show the name and effects of the conditions.
Just print out a couple of these for each condition and slide them into protector sleeves from your favorite tradable card game. Boom! With the rings, now you have a visual cue on both the map and by your character sheet, and the one by your sheet even reminds you of the condition’s effects if your memory is a little foggy.
A few more words about concentration. Although concentration isn’t a “condition,” it is very important to handle it with consistency and fairness. Remember that you can only concentrate on one spell at a time. If your character is already concentrating on bless and then casts spirit guardians (also a concentration spell), bless immediately ends as your character now focuses their mental effort on the new spell.
When a concentrating creature takes damage, it must pass a concentration check (usually a DC 10 Constitution saving throw) or the spell immediately ends. Forgetting to roll for concentration after taking damage might mean an illegitimate extra round of your stinking cloud. If the cloud hadn’t been there, the tactics of your enemies (or allies!) might’ve been completely different! They could’ve moved straight in to attack rather than spending their whole turn circumnavigating the cloud.
Even if this doesn’t disrupt the narrative or game flow, it is still a HUGE shift in the momentum of the combat. By momentum, I mean which side has the upper hand in the ongoing battle. True, sometimes this doesn’t matter too much: the fight is pretty much over already or is just trivial (though the GM should avoid introducing trivial combats at all costs). But in cool, important, epic combats with dangerous enemies, it’s the difference between riding the lightning of adrenaline - Will we make it?! - and feeling like “Eh, it’s just a game.”
When the wizard’s concentration goes down on that wall of fire - the only barrier between a battalion of hobgoblins and a village full of helpless commoners - that is a dramatic moment! It’s a moment when the narrative flow has shifted. Hopefully the rest of the party is there to hold the monsters at bay, buying the time for another potent spell to shift the momentum back in your favor!
Whether you are going out on your first adventure or you’re a seasoned veteran with many years at the table, how you integrate conditions into your game of D&D 5e can make a substantial difference to your roleplaying experience.
First, it helps keep the game flowing smoothly. Knowing that a restrained creature has disadvantage on attack rolls but a grappled creature rolls normally helps you make decisions quickly. This keeps everyone at the table interested and engaged with the action rather than just waiting for their turn to come around. And marking conditions on the battlefield in a visually-striking way is a fantastic method to enhance game play. Again, I cannot recommend that set of Condition Rings enough, especially during combat.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, is that conditions stimulate the narrative flow of the game. Without situations that put the characters in difficult positions, over and above simply being low on hit points, combat can become repetitious and dull. Without the low-points, when your character is in real trouble, the narrative can’t really have the high-points when your character beats the odds, weathers the storm, and triumphs over the greatest villains.
Struggle and strife are necessary for a strong narrative. The ebb and flow between success and failure is what allows characters to evolve. The paladin who becomes terribly scarred, loses a hand, and is even crippled in the course of serving their deity may have their faith shaken to the core. (This actually happened to one of my own characters in a recent campaign! The narrative shift made for a much more interesting character arc than if she just continued through the game with business as usual.) Whether from short-term conditions or long-term character injuries, narrative flow amps up the quality of your D&D sessions, and will even cause players to have trouble walking away from the table because they’re already pumped about what will happen next time!