Sometimes I Tell Players No, but “Say Yes” Made Me a Better Dungeon Master

As the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax set an example that seemed to encourage dungeon masters to battle players. As soon as players gained an edge, Gygax created something to foil them. When players started listening at doors, He created ear seekers. When they collected too many magic items, he invented magic-item saving throws. When players boasted about their invincible characters, he created Tomb of Horrors.

Until D&D, games were adversarial, so the DM-versus-player model felt natural to the first D&D players. Gary and his players enjoyed the battle of wits brought by his style of play, but other dungeon masters too the style too far. Too many DMs played to defeat the players and their characters.

For decades, most tales of bad D&D games started with DMs abusing their power, punishing players so the DM could “win.”

Thankfully, role-playing matured. Gamers began to see the dungeon masters as something between a neutral facilitator and collaborator sharing an equal role in a shared storytelling.

This spirit of collaboration tells DMs to say yes.

The notion of saying yes comes from improvisational comedy. “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES,” Tina Fey writes in Bossypants. “When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt.”

As a DM, saying yes accepts the players as collaborators. If they want to attempt a battlefield stunt, say yes and make it exciting. If they have a character idea, say yes and make it special. If they want to visit the school of magic in a town without one, invent a secret school that was there all along.

Sly Flourish’s analysis of his dungeon master survey took thousands of bits of DM advice and distilled the 7 most-common nuggets. Number 6: “Say yes.”

The fourth edition Dungeon Master’s Book touts the benefits of saying yes. “As often as possible, take what the players give you and build on it. If they do something unexpected, run with it. Take it and weave it back into your story.

“When you say yes, you open more possibilities.”

Say yes has helped my DMing, because my first reaction tends to be no. I used to say no a lot. “No” let me keep the game safely on the track I planned. But saying no cost opportunities to improve the game. Now I say yes, unless I have a damn good reason.

Role-playing games are new, so we feel tempted to borrow techniques from older mediums. Older media once followed the same pattern of borrowing. During the dawn of filmmaking, directors staged movies like plays, by setting a single, stationary camera in front of the actors. When filmmakers stopped shooting movies as plays, cinema leaped forward.

Often, game-mastering advice borrows suggestions meant for fiction writing—or for improv. Some of it still works, but some no longer applies to a game. In improv, performers always say yes. In gaming, yes can take a game in the wrong direction.

I chased all the DM advice about saying yes that I could find, and I the recommendation always came with strings attached. You should say yes—except when you should say no.

Saying yes can conflict with some of a dungeon master’s responsibilities:

  • Posing challenges
  • Protecting the game world
  • Giving each player a contribution

In those conflicts, DMs must balance the merits of yes against against their other duties.

Despite the exceptions, saying yes remains powerful because it challenges DMs like me to defy our first impulse. Saying no always feels safe and easy, but yes often leads to a better game.

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4 Simple Tactics that Make Cunning D&D Foes Seem More Dangerous

Are you a dungeon master? Tired losing every fight? Tired of player characters beating your monsters like pinatas? Get used to it. For DMs and for the Washington Generals basketball team, losing fits the job description.

Still, if the monsters show cunning, then the players who outwit them feel a sweeter triumph. And even the most tactically shrewd DMs will be outwitted. The players outnumber the DM by at least 4 brains to 1.

This post presents simple tactics that challenge players to work harder to win their battles. Victory will only taste sweeter.

1. Move after an action

In fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, creatures can move, then attack or cast a spell, and then move again.

Creatures with ranged attacks, and especially spellcasters, should seek total cover between actions. They can can pop out, cast spells, and then duck back behind the wall. If your enemy spellcasters start out of sight, they stand a much better chance of loosing a few spells. If they cast from out of the 60-foot range of Counterspell, their chances get even better.

Flying creatures with ranged attacks benefit from weaving in and out of range. Flyers with melee attacks do best by swooping to hit a single target and then flying away. Such attacks provoke a single opportunity attack, but that beats taking blows from a PC with multiple attacks, and then giving other melee attackers a chance to pile on.

When you weigh whether to provoke an opportunity attack, remember that against foes with multiple attacks, taking a single opportunity attack hurts less.

Flying creatures who make good use of flight tend to sideline melee-based characters, so too many flyers may frustrate players. Try not to discourage the folks who just want to hit things with a sword. The game already saddles these melee players with weaker characters than the ranged players. Thanks Sharpshooter.

2. Use the Dodge action

Players virtually never use the Dodge action. Who wants to take a turn doing nothing? But having some monsters in a group Dodge can prove effective.

  • When a couple of monsters block characters from reaching monsters that have ranged attacks, the blockers should dodge while the ranged attackers deal damage.
  • When a monster lacks enough movement to reach an enemy without dashing, then move and Dodge.
  • When characters gang up on one monster to focus their fire, use Dodge. The characters can either move to another target—and face an opportunity attack—or they can try to hit while suffering disadvantage.
  • When a spellcaster concentrates on a spell hurting the characters, use Dodge.

Dodge does not rate as a tricky tactic. Faced with grouped attacks and with allies in view, even the dullest monsters may go on defense. I would.

In retreat, sometimes Dodge works better than the Disengage action. Disengage lets you avoid attacks during your turn, but grants no defense after your turn ends. Dodge helps against opportunity attacks, and protects you until your next turn.

Fit tactics to temperament and intelligence

When you decide how monsters should act, fit tactics to their temperament and intelligence. Disciplined hobgoblins might take a Dodge action, but aggressive orcs never will. Dim-witted ogres just club things—unless a smarter master calls orders.

Even creatures with animal intelligence may use their abilities with cunning. A real-world wolf will draw the attention of prey and take the equivalent of a Dodge action while the rest of the pack attacks from the flanks.

3. Use the Help action to grant advantage to powerful attacks

The Help action lets a creature assist an ally making an attack. If a fight includes smaller creatures cooperating with something with big attacks, just one of the mooks can spend an action to grant the boss advantage on an attack. A crafty goblin can trade his meager attack for a chance to help a friendly ogre bash skulls.

4. Focus fire

Against characters at low level, I avoid having monsters focus their attacks on individuals. Characters will die. At level 7 or so, characters become nearly impossible to kill through ordinary attacks. Monsters can start focusing attacks and the healer can shine. To avoid hard feelings, I suggest revealing why the monsters target characters. See What game masters (and their monsters) should say during a combat encounter.

The focus fire tactic opens a trick for brutish monsters surrounded by allies, especially when they face spellcasters. Use the Shove action to knock Poindexter prone, and then let the allies make melee attacks with advantage.

Play to match the players’ skill and interests

For some players, tricky combat strategies will make your game seem less fun.

If you pit your mastery of the Dungeons & Dragons rules against newer players, then the game will seem complicated and intimidating. If your players prefer combat scenes that just give their characters a chance to show off before the story resumes, then skip the tricky maneuvers. Such players may prefer demolishing extra monsters over matching wits with fewer, more cunning foes.

On the other hand, if your players enjoy outwitting their enemies, play the villains up to their intelligence score.

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What to do when a player interrupts a role-playing scene to start a battle

Every dungeon master sees an impatient player spoil a scene sooner or later. Or sooner. The party talks with the Viper Queen when a player grows restless and blurts out, “I hit her with my axe!” If you have yet to deal with such a scene, I hope your second turn in the DM’s chair goes as well as your first.

Instigators who interrupt role-playing scenes expect to end tiresome banter and be rewarded with a free attack. While everyone was talking, they struck by surprise! As they see it, they earned first strike. Cheating them of a free attack just makes you a bad DM who wants to screw over the players.

Roll for initiative!

Except the rules say something else: When a character makes a hostile move, roll initiative. The instigator takes a turn when it comes. If a player with higher initiative wants to stop the attack, then they gain their chance. If a foe with higher initiative wants to stop the attack by, say, bashing the instigator’s skull, then they get a chance too.

To picture how initiative works, imagine a Western where two gunslingers face each other. Each dares the other to draw, but the first to move may still fall to someone quicker to shoot.

Instigators argue that the Wild West showdown differs from the scene in the game. The gunslingers stand ready, but the characters in the game are just talking.

Nope. The players at the kitchen table are just talking. In the game world, the Viper Queen faces a group of hardened, armed killers. While the woman with the lute seems agreeable, the ranger keeps an arrow nocked and the dwarf fingers his axe and glowers. (Charisma was his dump stat.) The Viper Queen knows these types by bloody reputation. When the dwarf hurls an axe, he takes no one by surprise.

Sometimes, players actually work to surprise foes by launching an attack during a conversation. Perhaps the characters wear cult robes, someone adopts a disguise, or the murder attempt happens at a festival. Before the players earn surprise, these scenes call for Charisma (Deception) checks to seem friendly and to hide deadly intent.

Most of the time though, the sudden attack comes from one player’s impatience. When someone interrupts a role-playing scene with an attack, I explain that despite their “surprise,” everyone will act in initiative order. Then I offer the instigator a chance to take back their action. I hate seeing role-playing scenes cut short even more than I love screwing over the players.

Often, instigators recant their attack. When they don’t, their action may call for more discussion.

If a scene runs its course, and the party grows tired of the villain’s monologue, and someone attacks, then fine. Roll for initiative. But if someone finds a scene tiresome and doesn’t care if anyone else likes it, then starting a fight rates as a jerk move. Players who enjoy role playing and cautious play deserve their fun without some instigator launching an attack.

The excuse of “that’s what my character would do” does not entitle a player to spoil the other players’ fun.

On the DM’s Deep Dive show, Elite DM Teos Abadia explains how he lets the party intervene in-game. “I’ll freeze time. ‘Everyone can see that your character is about to kill this person. Everybody has a chance to stop this. What do you all want to do?’” Teos makes it clear that the single player stands alone against everybody else in the party.

Ultimately though, the game’s social contract does not allow one character to drag an unwilling party into a battle. Players bear responsibility for imagining a character who can cooperate with the other characters on the adventure. (See A role-playing game player’s obligation.) For the game to work, all the players must decide on a mutual course of action.

If you happen to be playing when some player picks a fight that you want no part of, and your DM fails to follow my advice, then try persuading the rest of the party to abandon the instigator to die alone. That’s what my character would do.

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Ask this question to create ideas and mysteries that grab players’ attention

I like to generate ideas by taking two notions that strike my interest, but that seem impossible together, and then inventing ways to put the two notions together logically. Angry GM calls this game How Can this be True?

Like all dungeon fans, I like tombs filled with traps. Such places offer easy explanation. In the real world, Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang had architects construct crossbow traps to kill thieves who violated his tomb. (This emperor’s tomb helped inspire Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan.)

I also like dungeons with clues and puzzles that let clever looters bypass the death traps. Traps with clues make an irresistible combination, but they defy explanation. Why would someone build death traps, and then offer the hints needed to avoid the traps? In “5 reasons someone might build a dungeon filled with clues and tests,” I played a game of How Can this be True and offered 5 ideas.

By drawing players into a game of How Can this be True, you can capture their attention and set them looking for answers.

On the Table Top Babble podcast, game master Ruth Tillman told of hooking players through an unplanned game of How Can this be True. To create a game session, she took pieces from a few adventures and put them all together. One piece featured thugs with Yakuza tattoos who jump the characters. Her characters happened to be in Savannah, Georgia. “I needed a fight and I made the mistake of leaving in those guys and not changing their origin.” After the confrontation, the players found the mystery of Japanese mobsters in Georgia irresistible—more compelling than what Ruth had planned. She ran with the new angle.

When you play How Can this be True, you may also create a compelling mystery.

Your non-player character may need to draw attention to an incongruity. Few players solve a puzzle room in a dungeon, and then wonder why anyone would build the room. Such rooms have become a convention of Dungeons & Dragons that few question. But if the old sage wonders, the players will—especially if the learning the dungeon’s purpose becomes the key to some larger goal.

The television show Lost hooked viewers by putting a polar bear a tropical island and making them ask, “How can this be true?” Lost kept asking the question without ever giving viewers satisfying answers.

In your game, close the circle. Generate ideas by asking how can this be true, hook players by introducing the two elements that defy explanation, and then when they earn an explanation, reveal it.

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Side trek for Storm King’s Thunder: To Steal a Primordial

At the Dwarven stronghold of Gauntlgrym, a trapped primordial called Maegera the Dawn Titan fires the forges. In Storm King’s Thunder, a party of drow raids the forges to steal the godling. If the player characters happen to visit Gauntlgrym, they gain a chance to foil the theft.

The description of Gauntlgrym in Out of the Abyss reveals the primordial’s tremendous power, but the struggle for the creature lacks gravity. Player characters just happen to stumble across 8 drow in a hallway. A couple of rounds of combat thwarts the caper.

If drow enter a dwarven stronghold and sieze a primordial from the forge, surely they made a better plan than the encounter suggests. Also, foiling the theft of a primordial merits at least a set-piece encounter, if not a full session of adventure.

This side trek expands the raid at Gauntlgrym. I aimed to make the drow more cunning, and the players’ interference more memorable.

For the drow, I plotted their scheme like players would if they had similar resources and powers. Now instead just killing unprepared drow in a hall, players feel like they match wits with a cunning foe. The drow and shadow demons get a chance to use stealth and spellcraft, forcing players to use their wits.

This trek integrates two potential encounters from the wandering monster tables in Gauntlgrym chapter of Out of the Abyss.

The tricky part of reimagining this scenario came as I worked to arrange the pieces so the scenario can play differently depending on the players’ strategy. Still, the events likely lead to a big confontration in the crypts.

In the original encounter, the lack of setup makes the drow seem random. In a dwarven fortress, they seem very random. After the battle, the players learn the plot, but now that it has failed, the details seem less importatant. If you run the original, you should hope that the players give the event little thought, because their success rests on a wildly coincidental meeting.

The new scenario sets up the drow scheme in advance and shows the stakes. The sudden chill in Gauntlgrym lends some weight to the theft.

This scenario should challenge 8th-level characters.

Also, my spell checker wanted to spell doppelgänger with umlauts. I went with it because everything is more metal with umlauts.

Download: To Steal a Primordial

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Number your monsters to stop wasting time finding them on the battle map

Many game masters boast an ability that I can’t match. I can’t stick to a character accent, but not that ability.

During combat encounters, many GM’s remember which monster corresponds to which damage total on a sheet of paper.

I can’t. In my games, I keep applying damage to the wrong totals until some goblin survives 50 points of damage. Players protest, and I invent a story about a goblin enchanted to never die, or about a legendary warrior cursed to live as a goblin. Good tales, but my players suspect the truth.

Now I use numbered markers to distinguish the miniature figures on my battle map. Alea Tools sells the disks and numbered stickers that I use. Unless you also buy adhesive, magnetic disks and stick them to the bottom of your figures, miniatures tend to slip off the Alea markers.

Elite DM Chuck Benscoter uses markers that cup miniatures’ bases. Too bad Dapper Devil no longer sells these markers.

I number miniatures to help bookkeeping, but two other benefits surprised me.

The numbers speed communication. In the typical fight, players keep referring to monsters as “this one” and “that one.” Then I look up from my notes and ask “which one?” and the pointing resumes. Repeat once per turn.

I train players to refer to monsters by number. “Number three” works much better than “this one.” I rarely even need to look up and find the creature on the board.

After someone damages a monster, number it. When my players hit something, I pass them a marker and say, “Make ‘that one’ number three.”

For area effects, numbers make bookkeeping faster. When the wizard casts the first fireball, I pass a numbered markers for each target. Without looking up from my damage tally, I roll saves. “Number 1 saves…2 fails…” and so on. If some targets already have numbers, then I ask the players to read the numbers of the figures in their area of effect. On my sheet, I make tick marks by the targets, roll saves, and total damage. I can do bookkeeping without looking up.

This method does require a new routine. The long habit of “this one” and “that one” takes a couple of encounters to break, but soon combat encounters run faster.

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Winter Fantasy hosted 12 slots of Dungeons & Dragons and I played through them all

At the convention center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the entire Winter Fantasy convention fits into one hall. Despite the event’s compact size, Winter Fantasy delivers as much Dungeons & Dragons as the biggest table-top gaming cons. Imagine the D&D track from Origins or Gen Con, complete with a D&D designer or two, the Adventurers League brain trust, and the game’s most passionate players, concentrated in a convention of its own. Plus, the con offers plenty of $99 hotel rooms. Sure, Fort Wayne suffers an icy February, but you come to game.

This year, Winter Fantasy hosted 12, 4-hour slots of gaming and I played D&D through them all. This post covers some highlights.

An adventure’s written pages only step toward the final product: the play at the table. My dungeon masters and the other player shaped the adventures. We may have steered things in ways the authors never intended. Here, I write about my own experiences at the tables.

DDAL05-11 Forgotten Tradition

In Forgotten Tradition, PCs explore a time-lost museum revealing the history of giants and their kin. Some of this adventure’s success rests on the players’ interest in the museum’s lore. I learned a few things.

Our DM for Forgotten Tradition admitted to tinkering with the adventure’s final encounter. I have no idea what changes he made—or if they improved anything—but I liked the result. The final showdown pitted characters against a unique, single foe. The creature proved so dangerous that my group chose to run. And then our DM turned the escape into an entertaining conclusion.

DDAL05-14 Reeducation Parts 1 & 2

Reeducation lands the PCs on a mission to rescue Seer, their patron in many earlier adventures. Most of the adventure plays as a dungeon crawl. I like dungeon crawls and I liked the story behind this one, but its challenges seemed suited for characters nearing 10th level rather than characters around level 15. My cleric kept rolling low initiatives, so the fights finished before he could act. The pattern became a running gag. Our DM would shrug and remind us they we already played at the highest difficulty.

While my cleric missed turns, another player’s simulacrum took turns. Simulacrum lets you create a duplicate that doubles all your spells and half your hit points. One player gains an extra, second character in the adventure. Yes, I know DMs should scale adventures to challenge an extra character, but the addition doubles one player’s activity at the expense of the other players (me). I’m not sore, just grateful for a start on another post listing most annoying spells in D&D. The first attracted a surge of readers.

DDEP05-02 The Ark of the Mountains

D&D epics give players an experience they cannot match at home. Epics unite many tables of players together to fight for a common goal.

After last year’s Winter Fantasy, I raved about how author Will Doyle delivered the one of the best epics ever with Reclamation of Phlan.

This year, Will proved still he knows how to craft an epic. The Ark of the Mountains challenged players to seize control of a airship in time to use it to battle a giant’s flying war galley. I liked how the fantastic premise made the battle extraordinary, even for the a magical setting. Some past epics overreached in adding magic-as-technology to the Forgotten Realms. To me, fleets of airships dropping alchemical bombs belong in Eberron. This event kept a sense of wonder and the flavor of the Realms by making the airship a ancient artifact.

The Ark of the Mountains improved on Will’s last epic by adding improvements that made the adventure easier for DMs. Rather than the 50 maps in Reclamation of Phlan, Ark reused just a few locations.

At my table, we landed a DM without a killer instinct, so the encounters seemed too easy. What kind of basilisk fails to use its gaze attacks?

DDEP05-01 The Iron Baron

My convention group loves a deadly challenge, so some ranked The Iron Baron as the best session of the con. In this epic, characters raid a fire giant’s fortress. I loved the mix of challenging encounters with varied objectives. During my session, the players won the day, but during other sessions, the heroes fell short. Evidently, epics can be lost, and learning that pleased me. The threat of defeat gives villains credibility and makes the players’ wins meaningful.

Some players felt that The Iron Baron lacked interaction—that it felt like we neighbored tables that just happened to be running the same adventure. While events rarely rippled between tables, our head DM did a wonderful job of uniting the room. As our commander he rallied us; as the Iron Baron, he shouted threats, sometimes in the untranslated Giant.

In past years, conventions ran each epic just one time and the entire convention played at once. This year, the con repeated its epics throughout the convention for fewer tables. This change lifted a burden from dungeon masters. In the past, the convention drafted every DM to run the epic, forcing each DM to prepare an extra adventure, usually at two or three tiers. Now, DMs running the epic can focus on the event, and free the other DMs from extra preparation. Plus, the epics’ organizers face more manageable groups of players.

PHLAN2-1 Hatemaster, PHLAN2-2 Demagogue, PHLAN2-3 The Royal We, & PHLAN2-S

For Winter Fantasy’s D&D experience, Baldman Games premiered 4 adventures of con-created content. These adventures served an ambitious premise: The PCs find themselves protecting the three candidates running in an election to lead Phlan. Bane, god of tyranny, forces the PCs to prove whether any of the three merits the god’s support. In the first three adventures, the PCs enter dream worlds that reveal each candidates’ fondest wishes, realized in three dystopian versions of Phlan. I have never met such off-beat adventures in organized play. I appreciated how they broke from the more typical session.

Of the adventures, The Royal We stood out the most. To start, characters took the roles of commanders on the battlefield in mass combat using simplified Battlesystem rules. Some folks at my table enjoyed the experiment. For me, the scene just showed that if D&D world worked according to D&D rules, battles would look nothing like a medieval clash of arms. After our PCs spent a couple of rounds pounding enemy units with fireballs, they routed. The units represented by cardboard counters on the map barely clashed and never impacted the outcome.

However, the rest of The Royal We delivered. The plot moved to a knotty combat encounter that featured foes with clever synergies. Next, we solved an puzzle that revealed a candidate’s backstory while entertaining and challenging us. The final encounter combined a potential fight with another problem to solve.

The D&D Experience ended with a special adventure that pitted all the tables against a series of encounters where everyone battled to repel an invading fleet. The encounters felt solid, but the enemy spellcasters obviously never read my post on self defense. Characters built around the Sharpshooter feat dish out so much damage in tier-3 D&D play that no spellcaster can start in the open and stand much chance of casting a spell.

Like some past epics, this mini-epic left me wondering about magic and technology in the Forgotten Realms. The ships packed batteries of black-powder cannon.

DDAL05-18 Eye of Xxiphu Parts 1 & 2

As levels increase, characters gain abilities that let them fly, operate in underwater, and travel the planes. Adventures gain an epic feel by inviting players to use their extraordinary abilities. If PCs just wind up in dungeons blasting monsters—but with higher damage totals—then level 17 feels much like level 1. Eye of Xxiphu delivered an epic feel. Our choices took us into an underwater funhouse where author Merric Blackman seemed to channel a measure of White Plume Mountain with a dash of extra gonzo. I don’t know if any of it had a logical explanation, but I didn’t much mind.

When my convention group met the young DM who would run Eye of Xxiphu for us, I worried that running a 2-part, level-17-through-20 adventure for a bunch of old DMs might drag him in over his head. But he showed mastery over the rules and juggled difficult encounters featuring crowds of monsters.

This DM boasted a killer instinct. Someone in our group took a risk with something in the dungeon, and our DM said, “You’re dead. No save.” Fortunately, our party included two clerics, so death only slowed us a little. Welcome to tier 4.

The adventure climaxed in a set-piece battle with us mounted on dragons—or shapechanged into a dragon—chasing a giant airship as at raced to reach a cloud castle. An epic conclusion to an epic adventure. And to an epic convention.

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The surprising benefits of giving an adventuring party a guide

When I started gaming, people tended to play Dungeons & Dragons with larger parties than now. When game session fell short of 8 or more players, dungeon masters often added their own character to fill the group. To me, the practice seemed dodgy. The spotlight belongs on the player characters. The players’ choices steer the adventure; their characters’ actions create the story.

Now, DMs never add their player characters to the party, but sometimes they get the same kicks by adding a pet NPC. These game-world Mary Sues let game masters indulge in wish fulfillment. They turn other NPCs into admirers and turn PCs into sidekicks. (Aaron at RPG Musings tells how to spot at pet NPC.)

Over my career as a DM, I’ve read countless how-to-DM guides. They all warn against letting non-player characters overshadow the PCs. I read this advice and probably shared a typical reaction: No duh. I never felt tempted to create a pet NPC, but I never even created an NPC who traveled with the players.

Lately, I have run some adventures that added NPCs to the party. To my surprise, the additions worked. They enhanced the game.

Out of the Abyss begins with the new PCs held captive. They meet other several other prisoners, and everyone joins in an escape. The PCs and NPCs find themselves deep in the Underdark, traveling together for as long as their paths overlap.

As the adventure progressed, NPCs left the group, leaving a pair traveling companions: Jim Jar, the gambling deep gnome, and Sprout, the young Myconid. I started to see them enrich the game. The ongoing characters became more vivid than the usual walk-on NPCs. The players enjoyed interacting with them. Players never care about the NPCs they meet in passing, but now they became emotionally attached to a silent mushroom boy.

Plus, the traveling NPCs served as guides. Most D&D players feel at home in a fantasy setting, but the Underdark should seem alien. The party’s Underdark natives helped me reveal the strange environment. They could give background information and show the way.

Walk-on NPCs could have met the party and dispensed information, but having a guide creates a certain economy. The players don’t need to keep meeting characters they never see again. Instead, the guides save time while they build bonds.

The adventure Cloud Giant’s Bargain also adds an NPC who guides the players. This adventure takes place in a typical (for D&D), flying castle, so its guide doesn’t help introduce the background. But this adventure aims to introduce D&D to new players, so instructor Tulahk guides novices through the adventure. He reminds players to do the sneaking, investigating, and diplomacy that will lead to success. Plus, Tulahk is crabby, talking skull, so when I ran the adventure, I had fun channeling J. Jonah Jameson while calling the PCs empty-headed boneheads and numskulls.

Despite the advantages of giving a party an NPC guide, only add them when they serve a role. And then keep the guide out of the spotlight.

To prevent a NPC from stealing the spotlight, follow two principles:

A guide can’t make decisions for the party. Either create a guide with little interest in the party’s goal, or make the guide too young, too foolish, or too weird to direct the party. Ed Greenwood prevented his NPC wizard Elminster from overshadowing players by making him eccentric. “I never wanted Elminster to be anything more than the ‘old storyteller’ figure,” Greenwood said. “He was the mind-wandering, irritatingly whimsical old man who could OCCASIONALLY be of help to PCs.”

The players must prove more capable than their guide. Tolkien understood the risks of letting a powerful figure upstage his main characters. He kept contriving to have Gandalf leave for important business elsewhere. If a guide reveals more power than than the PCs, the players will wonder why they showed up. On the other hand, if you mix in NPCs who the players can upstage, and who admire the PC’s exploits, the PCs shine even brighter.

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Side trek for Storm King’s Thunder: The Giant Ship

Chapter 3 of the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Storm King’s Thunder encourages characters to roam the Savage Frontier, completing quests and facing warring giants. As written, the section could to become a grind, with long marches interrupted by routine encounters. However, the content leads dungeon masters to enliven the journeys with their own ideas.

Lately, I’ve embellished my own sessions by building on the characters, monsters, and treasure featured in the book to create side treks.

Frost Giant’s Ship

This post shares one of my mini-adventures, The Giant Ship. Although this side trek expands on the suggested encounter for Helms Hold (p.91), you can also plant a hook at any time the characters travel the coast. This episode aims to bring problem solving, roleplaying, and more flavor to what might otherwise be a routine battle.

Characters at levels 5-10 gain access to abilities like flight and invisibility. The giant ship in this trek poses a rescue problem that such PCs can now solve. I tried to contrive a scenario that invites several strategies. I love when players face a dilemma that lets me sit back while they scheme.

As a battle, this final encounter should challenge a party of 7th-level characters. But because they characters probably won’t face another battle on the same day, they can win against the foes.

The scenario’s format shows my effort to make details easy to spot at a glance. I did not create this trek to be read and set aside; I created it to be played at the table.

Please tell me how the trek played at your table.

Download: Side Trek for Storm King’s Thunder.

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New photo guide to dungeon master’s tools

As a dungeon master or game master, you can run a fun game with almost no gear, just a couple of dice, a pen, and some note paper.  I prefer to operate on the other end of the spectrum, with a full array of miniatures, markers, and props. This guide takes a tour through the tools in my DM’s kit. You do not need any of this equipment, but I suspect you will see some items to add to your  case.

A bento box doubles as storage and a dice tray.

Bento box

A bento box serves as compact storage.

A bento box provides storage for my gaming essentials. This Japanese-style lunch set includes two boxes with lids that pull together with an elastic band. I put pens, pencils, and tokens in the one box. Dice go into the other. When I take out the pens, the empty box doubles as my dice tray.   Best of all, when I go to play, just need to grab the box and a character sheet. Also, except for a battle map, all my dungeon mastering essentials fit in the box. Amazon offers some appealing bento boxes for around $20.

Compartment case

The miniature figures I need for a game fit into a translucent-plastic, compartment case. Removable dividers make the compartments’ size adjustable. As visible in the photo, I half-filled some of the compartments with foam rectangles. This prevents miniatures from banging around and makes small items easy to reach. When I need space for a larger miniature, I pluck out the foam for extra room.

Deep compartment case

Deep compartment case

Dungeon master’s screen

I typically use a DM screen. I prefer the 6” tall mini version of the World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog games. This screen is constructed like a loose-leaf binder, with clear-plastic pockets on both sides. I filled the DM-side pockets with the tables and rules I needed most at the table. Stuff the players’ side with your favorite fantasy art.

I have created rules inserts for fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, which you can download as a PDF file. Put them in the Hammerdog screen, or just put the inserts on cardboard and fabricate your own screen.

You can learn why I choose to use a screen and download my inserts in “Dungeon master’s screen.”

Behind the dungeon master’s screen

Behind the dungeon master’s screen

Battlemap

I always carry a blank battlemap. The Pathfinder flip-mat works with both wet- and dry-ease markers and folds for easy storage. When laid out, the mat tents a little at the creases.

The Chessex Battemat rolls out and lays flat, but the rolled map is harder to carry. This vinyl map limits you to wet-erase markers.

When I use folded poster maps, I typically make the map lay flat by covering it with a Lexan Polycarbonate Sheet—the sort of material used for storm windows. The Lexan sheets cost more than Acrylic, but they resist cracking. By using wet-erase markers, you can write on these sheets and then erase. Purchase these sheets from your local home-improvement store for under $20.

Battle map under plexiglas

Battle map under Lexan

 

I transport my maps and Lexan sheet in a inexpensive, artist’s portfolio case.

Some poster maps printed for miniature skirmish games lack a grid. You can still use these maps for your D&D games. ArcKnight sells clear-plastic sheets that overlay a grid on any map. Some DMs avoid grids. Tokens or miniatures on an informal map gives a picture of the battlefield without encouraging anyone to quibble over squares. Alternately, you can use a tape measure to find distances in inches, just as Dave and Gary once did.

Rolling in a box

Clear box for dice rolling

Clear box for dice rolling

For reasons explained in “Rolling in a box,” I always make die rolls in full view of the players. I used to use a clear, plastic box to keep the dice corralled. This clear box never hides the outcome of a roll, but now I use one of my bento boxes as a dice tray. The bento box doubles a storage, so it packs more easily.

Status markers

Alea tools magnetic markers in case

Alea Tools magnetic markers in case

Fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons required combat-status markers to track all the conditions on the battlefield. I invested in a set of Alea Tools magnetic status markers. You can mark the edges of these markers with adhesive labels so everyone can read the status names. The markers cling in place, and a storage case makes organization easy.

Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons eliminates much of the need for combat-status markers, so I no longer bring a case full of markers to the table. However, I’ll always use the numbered markers to tell one identical monster figure from another on the battlefield. When I lack miniatures for a game, I use my numbered markers as creature tokens.

Numbered alea markers

Numbered and labeled Alea markers

 

Plastic markers

Colored marking dots

Colored marking dots

Colored plastic disks provide any easy way to mark the location of things like a key, a magical glyph, or a wall of fire on the battlemap. Because the disks lay flat, miniatures will sit on top of them. I purchased my set from a convention vendor. You can also buy plastic countersonline.

 

Marking zones and areas of effect

To designate zones and areas of effect on the battlemap, I use three types of markers:

Colored transparencies.  I keep a set of transparent, colored sheets clipped to the inside of my DM screen. Whenever someone drops, say, a cloud of darkness, I can lay down a sheet on the battle map. Because you can see through the sheets, the terrain stays visible. Typically, you only have to lift one or two figures to place a small sheet, which is easier and faster than marking each of the area’s four corners. You can purchase the transparencies from American Science and Surplus.

Area of effect markers

Blue transparency and yellow boundary markers

Boundary markers. These plastic angles mark the four corners of square areas. The boundry markers from Litko Game Accesories come cheap, work for any size area, and allow the miniatures to stay put.

Area-of-Effect Templates. For third-edition D&D and descendants like Pathfinder, I recommend the wire templates from Steel Sqwire. Frugal gamers can bend and snip templates almost as nice from coat hangers.

Steel Sqwire area of effect templates

Steel Sqwire area of effect templates

The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide drops the jagged spell templates of 3E. Instead, the rules suggest that players measure actual circles and cones on the battle map. Spellcasters no longer need to stay inside the lines. Despite the change, eyeballing spell areas on a grid remains a chore.

Macrame rings

Macrame rings

To show circular spell effects, use macrame rings. The rings come in variety of sizes, so you can get an 8-inch ring for Fireball, a 6″ ring for Darkness, and a 4″ ring for Antimagic Field—or for the tactician who wants to launch a fireball above the battle to catch a smaller circle. The sturdy rings pack easily into your game bag.

Fireball-size ring

Fireball-size ring

I still hunt for wire templates for cone effects. I may try to bend my own.

Line-of-sight indicator

Line-of-sight indicator in retracting spool

Line-of-sight indicator in retracting spool

A line-of-sight indicator reels out a string that you can stretch between figures on the battlemap to see if obstacles block the line. The string is spring loaded, so it draws back automatically like a tape measure. Paizo sells these, but office supply stores and Amazon offers the same item as a retractable badge holder.

Initiative tents

I track initiative using folded, card-stock tents with names written on both sides. I drape the tents across the top of my DM’s screen in initiative order. If you work without a DM screen, or prefer to delegate initiative to the players, you can stand the tents on the table, lined up in order.

Initiative tents

Initiative tents

You can find more advice and my printable initiative tents at “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Pens, clips, and scissors

Obviously, your DM kit requires regular pens and pencils as well as wet- or dry-erase pens suitable for your battle map. I bring clips so I can affix maps and pictures to my DM screen in the players’ view. Any convention DM must carry scissors to cut apart certificates and player hand outs.

Scissors, pens, clips, and post-it flags

Scissors, pens, clips, and post-it flags

Post-it flags enable me to affix reminders to my initiative tents, so I can remember when conditions lift, and when the purple worm will burst from the floor.

Poker chips

Poker chips

Poker chips

I give players poker chips to represent inspiration. Different colored chips can also account for magical talismans, blessed elixirs, keys, and other items players must collect or use during the course of an adventure.

Miniatures

As I confessed in “Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard – I made a Drowslayer,” I enjoy representing the action on the table with the correct miniatures.

My DM case always includes an assortment of two types of miniatures:

  • Bystanders and civilians. As I wrote in “Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads,” miniature figures for unarmed civilians can serve as bystanders to be protected as moving obstacles. Civilian figures can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. You can find townsfolk from TurnKey miniatures, Dungeon Crawler, and Reaper’s Bones lines.

    Bystander and civilian miniatures

    Bystander and civilian miniatures

  • Beast forms and animal companions. While fourth edition encouraged characters to collect animal companions, fifth edition lures many folks into playing Druids with animal forms. I pack an assortment of the most common beasts. In ascending level, Druids favor the following forms: Wolf, Bear, Hyena, Giant Vulture, Giant Snake, Ankylosaurus, Giant Scorpion, Giant Crocodile, Mammoth, and elementals.

    Animal companion miniatures

    Animal companion miniatures

For a list of other miniatures that I keep close at hand, see “The 11 most useful types of miniatures.”

To avoid the expense of miniatures, you can substitute tokens, Alea markers, or candy—tell players, “If you kill it, you eat it.”

ArcKnight offers a line of flat, plastic miniatures as a cheaper alternative to the real thing. These figures stand upright, so they offer more visual appeal than a token. Once you take them off their bases, they pack flat, making them easily portable.

Flight stands

Miniature flight platform

Miniature flight platform

The flying figure stands from Litko game accessories offer a way to mark airborne figures. The stands allow you to position one figure over another, or to set a die under a flying figure to indicate elevation. The flight stands come in three pieces that require assembly. Typical CA glue will fog the clear acrylic, so I suggest using the Craftics #33 Thick Acrylic Cement. Use nail clippers to trim the long tabs on the vertical support so they fit flush with the base and platform. Pack the stands carefully, because they snap easily.

Dungeon Tiles

When I use Dungeon Tiles, I arrange them on sheets of non-slip drawer liners, available anyplace that sells housewares. The liners grip the table and keep the loose tiles in place. These lightweight liners easily roll up for transport.

Shelf lines keep tiles in place

Shelf lines keep tiles in place

 

Removable mounting putty

Removable mounting putty

For all but the simplest layouts, loose tiles take too long to arrange on the table, so I like to assemble maps in advance. I use removable mounting putty to stick the tiles on foam-core art boards. Office supply stores sell both the boards and the putty. Get the Removable Adhesive Putty, and not clear removable mounting dots, because the clear stuff sets after a while and will damage the tiles.

For more one dungeon tiles, see my “complete list and gallery of Dungeon Tiles sets” and “complete guide to using Dungeon Tiles.”

Props

Potion vial prop

Potion vial prop

I carry a couple of corked glass vials from American Science and Surplus. While completely unnecessary, I find them enchanting and I sometimes use them as prop potions.

Dungeon decor

While completely inessential, I pack some miniature dungeon decor to add to the battlemap. Figures such as chests, statues, and altars can add three-dimensional flavor to the battlemap, while calling attention to important features. Ballistas appear in enough adventures to make a figure useful. The photo below features items from more recent D&D miniature sets and from Legendary Realms. Reaper’s Bones line also includes some unpainted decor.

Dungeon decor

Dungeon decor

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