Mentors and Rivals

Mentors and rivals encircle heroes, helping and hindering in equal measure, yet both serve to advance the story. Who are these crucial figures?

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, author Joseph Campbell describes the “mentor” as the one who provides insight, advice, or training to help the hero during the adventure. Conversely, “rivals” are oppositional characters who stand in conflict to the hero and motivate through their antagonism.

In TTRPGs, both GMs and players can use mentors and rivals in countless ways, such as prompting quests, triggering encounters, identifying items, plotting ambushes, and so much more! They foster investment for the players and build depth into the setting.


Mentors and rivals are staples in fantasy literature and roleplaying games. Studying fictional and historical inspirations that led to the roles of these two archetypes can help flesh out mentors and rivals in your games. The following lists highlight sources of inspiration to get you started.

Fictional Mentor-student Inspiration

  • Merlin mentored King Arthur. (Arthurian legend)
  • Legendary Irish warrior, Finn McCool had two mentors, his two foster mothers who raised him in secret. Bodhmall the druidess and Liath Luachra were both known as great warriors in their own right. (Irish legend)
  • The Greek goddess Athena mentored Telemachus, the son of Odysseus. (The Odyssey)

Historical Mentor-student Inspiration

  • The famous mentor train of Socrates to Plato to Aristotle to Alexander the Great.
  • Ip Kai-Man was a mentor to Bruce Lee.
  • Shinmen Bennosuke mentored Miyamoto Musashi.

Fictional Rivalries Inspiration

  • Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham
  • Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty
  • Edmund Dantès, a.k.a. the Count of Monte Cristo, has a couple of rivalries, including himself in another alias as Lord Wilmore! (The Count of Monte Cristo)

Historical Rivalries Inspiration

  • Scipio Africanus and Hannibal
  • Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin
  • The feuding paleontological rivalry of Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh (yes, really)

Martial Mentors

Heroes seldom take their first steps out of their childhood homes and instantly become world-saving icons. Glory and greatness require time, training and, often, help. Mentors are the people behind the heroes.

Martial mentors, as opposed to other types of mentors, are primarily concerned with weapon or unarmed combat skills. They are the teachers, instructors, exemplars, and patrons who teach the craft of the blade, hammer, or bow, and encourage heroes along their path to legend.

Why Have a Mentor?

Functionally, the game doesn’t require a hero to have a mentor. However, mentors can provide a clever in-game method to impart skills, feats, proficiencies, special techniques, rare weapons, or whatever else the GM and players want the character to acquire.

Perhaps there is a feat or exotic weapon proficiency that would be perfect for a barbarian hero. The GM could just give it to the character, but it is more satisfying for the character to earn it.

The martial mentor can also be a source of story hooks and adventures. They can hire the heroes for various jobs and give out rewards. Above all, however, martial mentors have a vested interest in their students’ success and skills. They want the heroes to succeed.

Creating a mentor

The best mentors have some personal relationship with the heroes, or a previous connection with their backstories. The tables below provide a quick method of developing a martial mentor.

Who Is The Mentor?

When creating a martial mentor, first think about how the mentor acquired their prowess. Are they still adventuring? If not, contemplate why they aren’t still out in the world using their skills.

d8 Example Martial Mentors
1 Retired adventurer who runs a secret order dedicated to combating evil.
2 War-weary general living a quiet life in an empty manor house.
3 Disgraced duelist, past his prime, wallowing in drink and despair.
4 Wielder of a famous magical weapon or other martial item stuck advising a king.
5 Traveler from a far realm or plane, looking for a way back home.
6 Grinning old man with a broom, the last master of an esoteric lost discipline.
7 Relative or family friend who just wants to be the person behind a legend.
8 Sentient magical item looking to teach what it knew when it was a real person.

Mentor-Student Backstory

Next, consider how the heroes first encounter the mentor, the beginning of their relationship. In some games, the mentor can be a figure from a characters’ background, but in others the mentor is someone the heroes meet during the campaign. From their origin, the relationship with the mentor can build and deepen in importance.

d8 Martial Mentor Origins
1 Discovered in a chance encounter along the road.
2 Challenged the heroes during a tournament.
3 Rescued, or rescued by, the heroes.
4 Was one of the heroes’ first teachers.
5 Owes one of the heroes a great debt.
6 Runs a school the heroes applied to join.
7 Hired the heroes for a job.
8 Observed the heroes in action.

Mentor Motivations

Finally, think about what the mentor wants. This is usually a longer-term goal with connections to their backstory. This goal can revolve around the heroes, but doesn’t necessarily have to even involve them.

d8 Martial Mentor Motivations
1 Wants one of the heroes to be their successor.
2 Wants revenge against an old foe.
3 Wants to hand down an artifact-level weapon to a worthy student.
4 Is secretly in league with a great evil.
5 Needs to train someone to rescue an old companion.
6 Follows a prophetic vision.
7 Is actually one of the heroes, sent back from the future.
8 Cursed to train the only person able to kill them.

Downtime: Training with Your Martial mentor

A character working with a martial mentor spends free time between adventures studying, practicing, and testing themselves to gain new abilities. The exact nature of the new ability depends greatly on the needs of individual campaigns, but most often involves learning new weapon proficiencies, skills, feats, or special techniques.

Some GMs might permit a character to train with a martial mentor to change their subclass, or even their class. Players should consult with their GM when using these optional rules.

Training with a martial mentor covers a workweek of practice and instruction. A character must spend one week training with their mentor for at least 8 hours a day, and put forward the requisite coin to pay for supplies and expenses.

Training points

Training points represent a character’s progress with their training. A character collects training points to spend on a desired benefit.

To gain training points, make an ability check (as listed in the training type) after each workweek of training. Add the character’s current number of training points (if positive) to the ability check roll.

Compare the check’s outcome to the Check column of the Martial Training table. The corresponding Result on the table specifies how many training points the character gains (or loses) for the week’s effort.

Training points a character accrues can be spent on benefits from the mentor. Note that training points are not spent when added to ability checks on the Martial Training table.

Types of Training

  • Weapon Proficiency. Attempt to learn a new type of weapon. This costs 25 gp per workweek and requires a Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check.
  • Language, Skill, or Tool Proficiency. Attempt to learn a new skill or gain proficiency with a tool. This costs 25 gp per workweek and requires an Intelligence check.
  • Feat. Attempt to learn a new feat. This costs 10 gp per character level per workweek and requires either a Strength or Dexterity check (for physical feats) or an Intelligence or Wisdom check (for mental feats).
  • Special Technique. Attempt to learn a special technique. Some of these are described below. This costs 20 gp per character level per workweek, and requires a Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics) check.
  • Change Subclass. Attempt to change a character’s subclass. This costs 100 gp per character level per workweek, and requires an Intelligence or Wisdom check.
  • Change Class. Attempt to change the character’s class. This costs 1,000 gp per character level per workweek, and requires an Intelligence or Wisdom check. If more than one option for the type of check is available, the GM decides which is appropriate.
Martial Training
Check Result
1–5 Wounded! You fail to grasp a key aspect of the new training and suffer a minor injury. Lose 1 training point. If you have no training points when you roll this result, you have disadvantage on the next check you make to determine training points.
6–10 Distracted! Other matters weigh heavy on you, pulling you away from your training. You make no progress. You gain no training points this workweek.
11–15 Advancement! You make solid progress on your training. You gain 1 training point.
16–20 Inspiration! You push through difficulty and feel accomplished about your training. You gain 2 training points.
21+ Breakthrough! Everything clicks into place, and you make significant progress. You gain 3 training points.

Mentor Benefits

A character can spend training points on the following benefits:

Advantage (Costs 1 Training Point). The character has advantage on a Strength or Dexterity check made to overcome a physical obstacle.

Ask a Minor Favor (Costs 2 Training Points). The character can call upon their martial mentor for a minor favor. These are small actions that may make life easier for the adventurer. Some examples of minor favors:

  • Learn the location (and price) of a magic weapon of rare or lower rarity.
  • Distract guards at the entrance to a building or location.
  • Secure an invitation to an important event or gathering.
  • Get a letter of introduction to a noble or other high-ranking individual.
  • Secure cost-free lodging and food for one week.

Ask a Major Favor (Costs 4 Training Points). The character can call upon their martial mentor for a major favor. This might include illegal activities. Some examples of major favors:

  • Learn the location (and price) of a magic weapon of legendary or lower rarity.
  • Secure a pardon for a major crime.
  • Arrange for the resurrection of an ally (but not covering the cost).
  • Challenge a foe with a CR equal to half the character’s level.
  • Secure cost-free lodging and food for 1 month.

Weapon Proficiency (Costs 5 Training Points). The character gains proficiency with a weapon.

Learn New Language, Skill, or Tool Proficiency (Costs 5 Training Points). The character learns a new language or skill, or gains proficiency in a tool.

Learn Special Technique (Costs 6 Training Points). The character learns a new maneuver or technique, and it becomes one of their character features.

Learn New Feat (Costs 8 Training Points). The character learns a new feat. The character must fulfill any prerequisite for the feat before beginning the training. Feats gained in this manner only grant ability score improvements at the GM’s discretion.

Subclass Change (Costs 10 Training Points). The character replaces all of their old subclass features with the features of the new subclass at their level and lower.

Class Change (Costs 12 Training Points). The character replaces all of their old class features (including subclass features) with the features of the new class at their level and lower.


Characters who spend their time honing their physical skill risk falling prey to a complication. A character has a 10% chance of triggering a complication for each workweek spent training with their martial mentor.

This check is made at the beginning of the workweek.

When a complication occurs, the GM can roll d8 and consult the Martial Mentor Complications table, or create a unique complication suitable to the campaign.

Martial Mentor Complications
d8 Complication
1 You accidentally break important training equipment but finally get the lesson. Training costs an additional 100 gp per character level to cover expenses, but gain 1 extra training point this week.
2 You suffer a major injury and can’t gain training points this week.
3 A series of failures makes you doubt yourself. Lose 1 training point.
4 Your mentor accepts a new student who insists on shadowing your every move.
5 A rival warrior defeats you in a practice bout. Lose 1 training point.
6 You take time off to participate in a series of tournaments. You gain 100 gp per character level but gain no training points this week.
7 You have a major disagreement with your mentor. You have disadvantage on this check to determine your training points this week.
8 You impress your mentor! You have advantage on the check to determine your training points this week.

Optional Rule: Special Techniques

Martial mentors can reward characters with special combat abilities, at the GMs discretion. Special techniques are little tricks that can surprise a foe, but are unlikely to work repeatedly. These can be features created by the GM or pulled from the examples here.

Angled Blade

After you make an attack on a target, you quickly angle your blade to reflect light right into your foe’s eyes. The target must succeed on a DC 12 Dexterity saving throw or be blinded until your next turn. The target must have eyes and must be able to see you.

Once you use this feature, you must finish a short or long rest before you can use it again.

Toe Crusher

After you make an attack on a target, you drop your bludgeoning weapon onto the target’s feet before catching the handle again. The target must succeed on a DC 12 Constitution saving throw or their speed becomes 0 until your next turn. Once you use this feature, you must finish a short or long rest before you can use it again.

Weapon Bind

In place of one of your attacks this round, you can lock your weapon with a target’s weapon. The target must succeed on a DC 12 Strength or Dexterity saving throw or the target may not use their weapon until the beginning of your next turn. During this time, you also can’t use your own weapon.

Once you use this feature, you must finish a short or long rest before you can use it again.

Sever the string

Instead of dealing damage to a bow wielding target with a successful ranged weapon attack, you can aim at the target’s bowstring. The target must succeed on a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw (DC 20 for a magical bow), or their bow becomes nonfunctional for 1d4 rounds. Once you use this feature, you must finish a short or long rest before you can use it again.

Unarmed Filch

When you make a successful unarmed attack on a target, you can choose to deal no damage and instead attempt to grab something in the target’s possession.

The target must succeed on a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw to take an object from a target. You must be able to see the object. The object must be something you can hold in one hand, and not something currently held by the target. Once you use this feature, you must finish a short or long rest before you can use it again.

Martial Mentor Quest hooks

Adventures involving a martial mentor can occur in a number of ways. A few suggestions:

  • Your martial mentor has long sought a fabulous lost weapon, and now new information points toward a tomb complex rumored to have been constructed to test the greatest warriors in the world.
  • A decades-long animosity exists between your martial mentor and the head of a rival fighting school. With a grand tournament soon to begin, your mentor needs you and your companions to win to settle the conflict once and for all.
  • The grandmaster who instructed your martial mentor vanished long ago on a mysterious island. The map leading to that same island has recently been found. Your mentor begs you to recover the remains of his teacher so they can be properly laid to rest.

Martial Rivals

Martial rivals serve very specific functions in roleplaying games. While they can serve as the ultimate bad guy, this is usually not their role. They act as obstacles for the heroes. This can be a physical barrier, such as a group of mercenaries blocking the entrance to a dungeon. They can also provide subtle pressure of tension or adversity, such as a group of rival adventurers racing the heroes to an ancient relic.

The versatility of martial rivals allows them to be used in a variety of different ways within the campaign.

Creating a Martial rival

Rivals are not nameless thugs. They are full-fledged characters with their own goals, fears, and motivations. The more they feel like real people, the more dangerous they appear. When creating a rival, think about three key aspects: type, motivation, and actions.

Types of Martial rivals

Generally speaking, rivals fall into four thematic categories. However, rivals can move from one category to another as needed by the demands of the campaign.

The Adversary

These are the archetypal rivals. Working for evil forces, they are in direct opposition to the heroes either out in the open or behind the scenes. Adversary rivals usually do not get along with the heroes, and act to thwart them. The elite assassin or deadly mercenary is the primary example of this type of rival.

Campaign Role: Adversary rivals act as obstacles, furthering the plans of the campaign foes, and/or seeking to kill the heroes.

The Competition

The player characters are not the only heroes in the world. Competition rivals are on the same path as the heroes, and contend for the same jobs or glory. The heroes might have good relations with these rivals, swapping tall tales at the local tavern when their paths cross. On the other hand, they might hate them for past encounters where the rivals seized the prize. The opposing adventuring group is the primary example of this type of rival.

Campaign Role: Competition rivals act as inspiration, spurring the heroes to act or strive harder. They also are perfect for stirring up roleplaying drama.

The Newbies

These rivals are new to the martial life. Their armor is so new, it squeaks. While not a major obstacle in terms of prowess, the newbie rival’s combination of pluck and overconfidence gets them into trouble over and over. They may look up to the heroes as examples, or they may be gunning for them, trying to take the heroes’ place on the top of the heap.

Campaign Role: Newbie rivals act as plot advancers. They often need rescuing, or inadvertently pass on some critical bit of information to the heroes.

The Jenkins

These rivals interfere with the heroes’ quests, ignoring any warnings to rush headlong into danger (and usually die). Their relationship with the heroes tends to be abrasive, since they have no intention of listening to good advice.

Campaign Role: Jenkins rivals act as a warning to the heroes. They demonstrate the seriousness of a location or situation. Sometimes, in their death, they provide the heroes with a vital clue.

Martial Rival Motivations

The reason why a rival acts is almost as important as what they do. Think about what a rival needs, and why the heroes stand in the path of achieving that goal. The conflict this generates is the heart of the hero-rival struggle, and can inspire many adventures.

A rival could be looking out only for themselves or acting under the direction of some more powerful figure. Whatever their reasons, a rival’s actions in the game are usually to further their goals. Rivals can acquire new goals over the course of a campaign.

Listed below are a few possible rival motivations.

Martial Rival Motivations
d10 Motivation
1 Prove they are the best by defeating the heroes.
2 Kill a legendary creature before the heroes do.
3 Prevent the heroes from meddling.
4 Steal a powerful item possessed by the heroes.
5 Collect the bounty on the heroes.
6 Win glory or renown before the heroes do.
7 Become one of the heroes’ companions.
8 Get revenge on heroes for their transgressions.
9 Just following orders.
10 Tired of hearing the songs about the heroes.

Martial Rival actions

When a rival acts, it is to further their goals. The “when” and “how” of these actions depends greatly on the type of campaign the heroes are involved in. Think about one of the hero-rival conflicts in the campaign.

What are the rivals trying to achieve, and what are two or three actions they might engage in to reach that goal? These actions can take place as the heroes adventure, or they can take place during downtime.

Try to arrange these actions so it impacts the heroes either directly or indirectly. Listed below are a few sample rival actions to act as inspiration.

d10 Martial Rival Actions
1 Tries to kill the heroes or one of their allies.
2 Opens a fighting school in the heroes’ hometown.
3 Ambushes the heroes when they least expect it.
4 Hires a popular bard to perform satirical songs about the heroes.
5 Kidnaps one of the heroes’ henchmen.
6 Convinces townsfolk to avoid the heroes’ business.
7 Challenges one of the heroes to a duel.
8 Pays off a magistrate to revoke the heroes’ charter.
9 Unleashes a monster to kill the heroes.
10 Offers a bounty on the heroes, dead or alive.

Advancing a Martial rival

Rivals should grow in power just as the heroes do, advancing by Tier. This provides ever-increasing tension and conflict. Listed below are the suggested tiers (along with a suggested CR) for martial rivals.

  • Tier 1. Heroes are levels 1–4. These rivals are relatively new to the adventuring life. They have a few notches on their scabbards but have a lot to learn. Suggested Rival Challenge: CR 3.
  • Tier 2. Heroes are levels 5–10. The rivals are now accomplished in their fields, and are often found working for powerful employers. Suggested Rival Challenge: CR 8.
  • Tier 3. Heroes are levels 11–16. These rivals are names to be respected or feared. Their deeds are spoken of in taverns across the lands, and their accomplishments can alter the fates of nations. Suggested Rival Challenge: CR 13.
  • Tier 4. Heroes are level 17–20. At the pinnacle of their power, the rivals are living legends. Only the greatest (or worst) figures can afford to hire them, and their actions can have far-reaching consequences. Suggested Rival Challenge: CR 18.

When/How to Kill Off a rival

The best rivals are the ones who appear repeatedly over the course of a campaign, perhaps beginning as a minor annoyance then growing in strength until their defeat is worthy of legend.

Before every encounter with the heroes, give the rival a plan for escape if things go poorly. This could be a convenient magic item, the well-paid intervention of the constabulary, or just a really fast horse. However, don’t bend or break the rules to keep a rival alive. If the rival can’t escape from the heroes, give the players their moment of glory and start thinking about how the next rival will enter the campaign.

Rewards For Dispatching A Martial rival

The rewards for disposing of a rival depend greatly on the campaign, and might take the form of looted equipment, payments from mentors, or discovered treasures. Described below is a guideline for possible rewards they might earn for their victory.

Tier 1

  • 50–100 gp
  • Common or uncommon magic item
  • A favor from a local merchant or minor noble

Tier 2

  • 400–800 gp
  • Uncommon or rare magic item
  • Patronage from an important noble, membership in a guild or organization

Tier 3

  • 1,200–2,200 gp
  • Rare or very rare magic item
  • Deed to property, specialized information from a sage or archmage

Tier 4

  • 4,000–8,000 gp
  • Very rare or legendary magic item
  • Rank or granted land from a king or national ruler

Martial Rival Quest Hooks

Conflicts with martial rivals can occur in myriad ways. A few suggested ones are described below.

  • While journeying toward a dungeon or lost treasure site, the heroes hear rumors of another adventuring group after the same goal. This band of rivals is ahead of the heroes, prompting a race to reach the treasure.
  • The heroes have been a thorn in the side of a powerful foe, so a martial rival is hired to stop their meddling. This rival studies the heroes for a time before arranging a deadly ambush!
  • Unrelated to their overall goals, the heroes inadvertently interfered with the activities of a cabal of cultists or wealthy merchants. A number of martial rivals begin plaguing the heroes, all to keep them away from the cabal’s interests.
Section 15: Copyright Notice

Book of Blades: Mentors and Rivals ©2022 Open Design LLC; Author: Brian Suskind.

This is not the complete section 15 entry - see the full license for this page

scroll to top