Monthly Archives: November 2016

What game masters (and their monsters) should say during a combat encounter

defending_against_frost_giantsDuring a combat encounters, I focus on keeping play moving. A faster tempo means players spend less time waiting between turns. Waiting never adds fun.

Despite my focus on tempo, I do more than count initiative and tell players when they hit. I try to describe enough of the action to make the scene vivid. I speak for the villains. Still, I worry that some player will think, Quit blabbing so I can take my turn, so I aim to add color without slowing the game.

In combat encounters, my monsters and I talk about three sorts of things:

1. Villainous monologues

Speaking dialog for your villains transforms them from bags of hit points into enemies. In comics, villains mock the fools that oppose them, and we hate them for their contempt, arrogance, and cruelty. Some of the fun Dungeons & Dragons comes from crushing evil. Good dialog makes your villains seem more real, more detestable, and more satisfying to crush.

Also, I reveal the monsters’ tactics through dialog. The ogre might say, “You hurt Grug, so I smash you.” The necromancer might say, “Barbarian, I have just the enchantment for weak-willed cretins like you.” This reframes the battle from the us verses the game master into us verses the monsters. I want players invested in their characters, but when I single out their character for attack, sometime it feels personal. If the monsters explain themselves, the GM starts to disappear.

2. Summary

At the end of a turn, if a PC does something noteworthy, give a short, vivid description of the event—or invite the player to describe it. Some GMs ask players to describe their kills. D&D includes a lot of kills, so for my taste, describing them all becomes tiresome and too gruesome. Especially with kids at the table. Especially when those kids loose their imaginations. Instead, focus on describing the big spells, stunts, transformations, setbacks, and feats of valor. The summary should only take a few seconds.

3. Urgency and exigency

After the summary, call the next player to act, and then tell them the biggest crisis on the battlefield. This advice comes from the Angry GM. “A player’s turn in combat needs to have both urgency (there’s an emergency that needs to be dealt with) and exigency (if you don’t take action right now, you will lose your opportunity). That’s what makes combat scary and that’s what keeps it running forward.” For example, say “Agnes, the wolves have knocked Kedric to the ground and look ready to gut him. What do you do?” Such transitions call the player to attention, focus them on the game, and increase their sense of urgency.

4. Exposition

Screenwriters cannot pad a movie fight scene with dialog without strangling the pace. But in a role-playing game, you can fit dialog into a fight. If you want to compare RPG fight scenes to another medium, compare them to comics. In comic-book fights, battles stretch time. I’ve seen Captain America deliver 50 words on freedom in the span of a single punch.

Similarly, I’ve seen D&D players squeeze a 5-minute strategy conference into a 6-second round. (If the players enjoy tactics and they’re not just telling the new player what to do, I just assume that yesterday, at the campfire, the PCs planned tactics for situations like this.)

Most adventures need some exposition: essential information needed to make sense of events, or clues the that lead to the next scene. Sometimes all GMs find themselves relaying some essential bit of background while the players grow impatient. Their expressions say, “Blah, blah, blah. Just tell us what to kill.”

Why not add exposition while the players know what to kill? You never have a better hold on their attention. Unlike in a movie, your villains can monologue during a fight, revealing their history, exposing their plans, and so on. “My father defeated the demon Chirix to win that staff, you shall not have it.” Just don’t recite more than a few lines at a time, stalling play. The players might allow themselves a 5-minute strategy conference, but your villain cannot unfold a page and say, “As a free action, I would like to read a statement.”

Do as a I say and try to do

I have a confession to make. I aim to enhance all my fights with colorful dialog and descriptions, but sometimes I lose myself in the business of keeping the turns moving and planning my monsters’ next move. If you ever happen to find a seat at my game table, you’ll see how well I’m doing.

When you serve as game master during a combat encounter, what do you say?

How much description should a dungeon key include?

The conventional Dungeons & Dragons adventure includes a dungeon key describing numbered locations on a map. When D&D co-creator Gary Gygax created his first dungeon under Castle Greyhawk, he usually wrote a 1-line note for each room. These notes served as more than just Gary’s reminders to himself. He and co-dungeon master Rob Kuntz shared the notes. For more, see “When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons.”

Early published D&D adventures such as Palace of the Vampire Queen adopted the same terse style.

Tegel Manor and minimal descriptions

Tegel ManorWhen Judges Guild founders Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen published Tegel Manor (1977), its rooms featured minimal descriptions:

B8 25’x16’x20’H Picture on south wall depicts living battle scene. Arrow flies out of picture every 4 r. Arrows stuck everywhere.

B9 25’x24’x20’H Dire wolves head E Wall has Ring of Mammal Control in nose. Stuffed Elf, Giant Ant, boar, etc.

In 1978, my friend Gordon tried running Tegel Manor, but the campaign fizzled after his first session. Young Gordon lacked the experience to turn a list of creatures, clutter, and spooky effects into something fun. His manor played as a dreary slog.

In Dragon magazine issue 27, Bob Bledsaw wrote, “Originally we had some bad feedback which indicated that judges felt that the actual description of dungeons was their ‘domain’ and all they desired was a very skeletal framework with the more time-consuming level details worked out. We learned quickly and now design to allow the judge to delete (or modify) that which doesn’t suit the tenor of his play.

Gary Gygax sets the standard

Gary started publishing adventures with G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978). He included generous descriptions for every location, even the rooms with little to interest players.

CHIEF’S CHAMBER: This room is hung with rugs and skins and there are hides on the floor. There is a bed, 2 chairs, a small table with a tun of cheap wine on it, an old shield and some of the chief’s weapons (in the corner), a chest with his clothing, and other clothing hanging on pegs. A thick chain (for his cave bear) is set into one wall. Nothing of value is in the place.

Gary’s longer descriptions set the pattern for virtually every adventure to follow.

Longer descriptions

When Gamescience updated Tegel in 1989, they expanded the descriptions. The bedroom with the battle scene gets the following description:

B8 BEDROOM (25’x16’x20’H): Opening into the side hallway that leads from the Master Gallery to the Whistling Hall, this room would appear to have been trapped, and to have claimed a victim already. The door stands ajar and a corpse sprawls partway out into the hall, with an arrow protruding from its skull. Two more arrows are lodged in the wall beyond. Any who examine the room further will find a fascinating sight: The wall opposite the door is entirely covered by a vast depiction of a fearsome battle scene—and the picture is alive! Not only does it continue to move, but every fourth turn another arrow flies out of the picture in a random direction. The other walls of the room bristle with arrows stuck in the woodwork, the bedding, other pictures (one of which—a portrait—is bleeding!).

Longer descriptions free DMs from a need to invent details at the table. Even if you have a knack for description, the ideas that spring to mind first will steer toward the obvious—likely the most familiar and blandest ideas.

The update turns the curiosity of the arrow-shooting picture into a possible trap for players to investigate. The bleeding portrait adds another spooky detail. The fuller description makes the room more fun than the version Gordon ran.

On the other hand, the description of the taxidermist’s bedroom adds some color, but little play value.

B9 BEDROOM (2S’x24’x20’H): Entering this room off the Master Gallery, one is immediately overcome by the strong animal musk that clings to the chamber. A stuffed elk stands in one corner, while heads of boar, dire wolf, great cats and other fierce beasts fill the walls, along with hunting bows and spears, all heavily layered in dust. How one could sleep in such a room without keeping a bonfire going is questionable, especially since the eyes of all heads seem to glimmer and follow you around the room.

This description takes a good, middle sentence and pads it like a school paper stretched to an assigned length. The custom of longer description encourages authors to write something even when they have little to add. The format makes authors feel obligated to describe the shelves and pegs in an empty closet. I have quotes from published adventures. Don’t force me to include them.

Matching description to a location’s purpose

A location’s purpose in the game should also figure into the length of its descriptions. If the player characters meet the sheriff about a wanted poster, no one needs an item-by-item inventory of her kitchen. Even the kitchen in the giant chief’s steading only merits a sentence. In the unlikely event that players care about pots and pans, Gordon can improvise.

The Curse of Strahd adventure lavishes detail on every location. The homes of notable NPCs get pages of room descriptions. To be fair, players might explore some of these rooms and author Chris Perkins fills them with creepy, moody details. But unless your players treat social calls like dungeon crawls, they will never enter the Burgomaster’s scullery, much less care about his spooky spatula. As I read the adventure, many locations interested me until I considered how players might experience them. Often then, I  realized that nothing would bring players to the location. I wonder if any DMs led players to explore village houses like dungeons because the places’ descriptions seemed to invite that mode of play?

An avalanche of description does more than squander page count. It buries many great details might actually enter play. For example, in my Curse of Strahd game, every time I needed to find information about the players’ ally Victor Wachter, I needed to find him buried in the page-long description of his workroom in the 5-page description of his father’s mansion. (I have an idea: Trade 2 pages of mansion for 2 pages of index.)

Boxed, read-aloud text

Even though I seldom read-aloud text verbatim, boxed text consolidates and identifies features that require description. I like box text, but not every location needs it. Curse of Strahd includes it for every location. The descriptions are evocative, but DMs who dutifully present the box text for all the empty rooms in a place like the Argynvostholt dungeon will bore players.

Clearly, writing box text for the endless, gloomy rooms in Curse of Strahd caused Chris Perkins to collapse weeping into his keyboard. His follow-up, Storm King’s Thunder, omits almost all read-aloud text. Find a happy middle, Chris.

For more on boxed text, see “Picturing the dungeon – boxed text.”

The influence of one-page dungeons

A few modern adventures skip long room descriptions. Michael Curtis, author of the well-reviewed Stonehell megadungeon follows a style pioneered for one-page dungeons. Curtis explains that the format provides “the minimum amount of information needed to run the dungeon, allowing the referee to customize the adventure to his own (and his players’) tastes.”

stonehell level 1AStonehell dungeon presents each level on 2-page spread, with most rooms getting a just a couple of lines. Features that deserve special attention get descriptions in sidebars. (You can download a free, 6-page sample of Stonehell.)

Even a novice DM could run Stonehell cold, but I wonder if the sparse details offer enough to bring the adventure to life.

The ideal dungeon description

My ideal dungeon description would adopt the best of both worlds. I want a map overlayed with notes and matched with an abbreviated key on the same page. At the table, the short key offers an easy reference. The latrines, empty bedrooms, and such can get the one line they deserve. More interesting locations can break out into a second, expanded key.

The length of descriptions should match the way players will engage a location. If sofas, throne-like chairs, and urns appear in the kindly widow’s salon, skip the box text. If they appear in the Tomb of Horrors, keep typing.

Descriptions should focus on telling details and plot-critical information—details I can use in play. Don’t bury the evocative bits in lavish descriptions of sleeping pallets and rubbish. If your kitchen description seems like the first thing a typical DM would imagine at the table, you may as well rely on the typical imagination.

How much description do you want in a dungeon key?

Never split the party—except when it adds fun

Everyone who plays role-playing games learns the Dungeons & Dragons adage never split the party.

In the hobby’s early days, when dungeon masters were referees and players chose difficulty by dungeon level, never splitting the party always made good strategy. Parties found safety in numbers.

defending-the-bridgeThe danger of splitting the party

In a dungeon stocked with encounters suited for a full party, splitting the party jeopardizes everyone. But despite the adage, players sometimes find reasons to split the party. New players and kids always seem tempted.

Faced with a divided group, some dungeon masters will scale the challenges for smaller groups. Typically, I don’t. I usually only shrink the challenges for those new players and kids.

Experienced players who split up know they’re taking an extra risk. They feel a sense of jeopardy that the usual game can’t match. They use stealth and cunning in ways they might not with a full group, when they assume they can defeat any monsters set before them. I don’t want to lose that sense of peril, or to block their chance to approach the game differently. In a way, adjusting threats steals the players’ agency by nullifying the consequences of their actions.

Why split the party?

In today’s game, player characters do more than assault dungeons. Sometimes the elf and wizard must persuade the elven emissary, the thief and warlock need to infiltrate a manor house, and the bard and noble paladin need to charm guests at a ball. They could work better separately, but players insist on keeping the party together. So the dwarf insults the emissary, the paladin’s chainmail racket alerts the manor guards, and a motley band of killers sours the ball. Then midnight tolls and evil triumphs.

Game masters often avoid challenges suited to split parties, but I invite them. Sometimes I relish a chance to split a party.

Splitting the party can give soft-spoken players a chance in the spotlight. Player characters gain unique chances to reveal their character’s personality and talents.

Way back in a post on skill challenges, I suggested using time pressure to force each PC to participate. “If the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute.” Formal skill challenges are gone, but forcing a party to divide and conquer still invites everyone to contribute.

One limitation of role-playing games is that even when the entire party participates in a role-playing scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes players find themselves overshadowed by players with more forceful personalities. Splitting the party gives more players a solo. Meanwhile, the thief finally gets to sneak. The wizard finally gets to cast Sending.

If done well, splitting the party creates more spotlight time for every player at the table. More on that later.

Why keep everyone together?

Never split the party started as good strategy, but now it feels like part of the game’s social contract. Even when splitting the party seems logical, players keep the group together for three metagame reasons.

1. Players fear encounters designed for a full party.

Players expect combat encounters designed to challenge a group of 4 to 7 characters. If they split up before a fight erupts, then an undermanned party becomes overmatched.

But that happens less often that you think, because you, as a game master, see the situations that invite splitting the party and can plan challenges for smaller groups.

2. Players stay together as a courtesy to the game master.

By staying together, players avoid forcing the GM to juggle two separate narratives.

For the GM, balancing two threads can be fun—in the right situation. For a split to work, either (1) it cannot take more time than the idle players need to grab a snack, or (2) each subgroup needs to meet separate challenges. You can’t leave half of the party inactive for more than 5 minutes.

So the trick of handling a split party comes from devising situations that keep each part of the group busy. If someone goes to scout while the party rests, either the scouting should be finish by the time the idle players grab a drink, or something better stumble into the campsite.

3. Players stay together to keep everyone involved in the action.

A split party inevitably forces some players to wait until the spotlight returns to them. To minimize the problem of downtime, use two techniques.

Cut between scenes

Cut from one group to the next every 2-4 minutes. Some GMs advise setting a timer for about 4 minutes. If you tend to lose track, then a timer helps, but I prefer to use my own sense of time and pacing to switch scenes.

Every role-playing game reaches moments when the players make plans while the GM sits idle. Those moments bring my favorite times to switch scenes. While players debate their next move, I cut to the other half of the table. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Instead of waiting for decisions, I can give more players time in the spotlight. The tempo of the game feels faster.

If I can’t switch scenes on a decision point, I switch on a moment of tension, ideally a cliffhanger.

Delegate the monsters to the idle players

Depending on your players’ dispositions, you might recruit idle players to run monsters in a battle. This works especially well in a simple fight where you expect the PCs to win. If the foes bring complicated abilities or motives, or if their power threatens to slay characters, I would avoid giving up control. When a GM kills a character, it comes in the line of duty, but a player should not take the heat for killing a PC.

If half the party lands in a fight, then the split plays best if the other half finds a battle too. You can run two fights on two maps with the same initiative count.

If you run simultaneous fights and let the players run the monsters, then you can leave the room for a drink. Your greatest GM triumphs often come when you have nothing to do.

Game master Rich Howard goes beyond letting players run foes. He casts idle players as the non-player characters who interact with the rest of the party. I admire the approach, but I feel unready to surrender so much of the game world.

Splitting the room

Even when you split a party, players tend to remain at the same table. This lets inactive players watch the story and lets the GM switch easily from one subgroup to another.

While sharing a table, the spectators learn things that their characters don’t. Most players take it as a point of honor not to use their unearned knowledge. If not, remind them to play in character based on what their character knows.

Separating players to different rooms can add fun though. No player has access to hidden information, so decisions become more interesting. Everyone feels an added sense of peril and concern for their missing comrades.

If you do separate players, you still need to switch groups every 2-4 minutes, so the groups should be as near as the kitchen and the dining room. Make the separation temporary. Your players came to play together.

Back when phones featured dials, I would separate players to sow suspicion about what other party members could be plotting. This fit the early game, when players betrayed each other for loot. Now such mind games only fit Paranoia sessions. Now I insist that my D&D players contrive reasons to cooperate.

Split the party

So split the party. For a GM running a divided party, the second hardest trick comes from finding situations where all the subgroups remain engaged. The hardest trick? Encouraging the players defy protocol and split up when splitting makes sense.

How new changes created the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons

In Dungeons & Dragons, if you play a rogue, the class description describes your key powers. All rogues make sneak attacks, cunning actions, and use evasion. If you play a spellcaster, your powers sprawl into the spell list. Every wizard tends to prepare the same powerful spells on the list. Once wizards reach fifth level, they all start casting fireball. Spells also appear as a monster powers, turning some spells into foundational abilities that span the game.

magic-circleI’ve asked D&D players and dungeon masters what spells they find the most annoying or the least fun in play. Four spells dominated the list of annoyances.

All of the annoying spells offer enough power to make them common in play once characters can cast them. Like sneak attack, these tend to appear in most fights, but unlike sneak attack, these spells sap a little bit of the fun out of play.

Some readers will ask, “So what? Just ban the spells from your game.” But DMs in the Adventures League cannot ban anything. At best, authors of adventures can concoct ways to discourage the spells. In Barovia, Banishment fails. In the D&D Open, players lose points for using spells like Hypnotic Pattern.

Curiously, none of the 4 annoying spells bothered players of previous D&D editions. I wondered why. When I investigated the origins of these 4 spells, I discovered that all introduced critical changes that turned them from forgettable to aggravating. None of these spells even appeared in the playtest documents. Now they’re enshrined in the official rules.

So what are the 4 spells and what makes them so irritating?

Hypnotic pattern

What makes it so annoying?

Hypnotic Pattern forces every creature in its area of effect to make a Wisdom save to avoid being incapacitated. Few monsters boast good Wisdom saves. With half or more of their foes incapacitated, a party can focus fire on the few that still pose a threat, picking off the outnumbered monsters. By the end of the encounter, player characters go from one beguiled victim to the next, raining attacks on the defenseless pinatas. As a DM, I may be biased, but I think the least fun scenes in the game come when PCs beat helpless foes to death.

Why did it work before?

Hypnotic Pattern started as the Illusionist class’s answer to the Sleep spell. Like Sleep, an ally could break a victim’s stupor. Like Sleep, Hypnotic Pattern only affected a limited number of total hit dice. The spell never proved more troublesome than Sleep.

Third edition tinkered with the spell a little. Victims could no longer be roused, but the caster needed to concentrate—and in 3E, concentration demanded a standard action.

Where does it go wrong?

The fifth-edition designers removed the hit-die limit. Perhaps someone decided on a simulationist approach: If everyone in an area sees the pattern, they all should save. Now every creature in the area of effect faced a Wisdom save to avoid becoming incapacitated. Few monsters boast good Wisdom saves. As with the original spell, allies or damage can rouse hypnotized creatures, but those allies face an entire party working to block them. The spell still requires concentration, but concentration in 5E costs no action.

How should it have worked?

The spell should have followed the pattern of Sleep and kept a hit-point limit.

Counterspell

What makes it so annoying?

Part of the fun of Dungeons & Dragons comes from casting imaginary spells to bring down terrible foes. Part of the game’s challenge comes from facing evil wizards that rock the battle with spells. Counterspell drains the fun out of those confrontations. Instead of casting spells, you don’t. Instead of battling against spell effects, nothing happens.

Meanwhile at the table, everyone gets mired in a rules dispute over whether the wizard who just had his spell countered can counter that Counterspell. (Yes, wizards casting a spell can counter the Counterspell that counters their spell.)

Why did it work before?

Up to fifth edition, D&D lacked a spell named Counterspell. Instead, Dispel Magic could counter spells. In the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, Dispel Magic can “counter the casting of spells in the area of effect.” But the game offered no clue how countering would work in play. Rather than inventing rules for readied actions or reactions decades early, players did the sensible thing and ignored countering.

Third edition introduced the readied action—the foundation players needed to use Dispel Magic as a counterspell. To counter, spellcasters readied a counterspell action and watched for something to counter. If the round passed without anyone starting a spell worth blocking, you wasted an action. In practice, wizards never tried to counter. Better to just cast a spell of your own.

Where does it go wrong?

The counterspell function of Dispel Magic hardly fits the spell’s disenchant role. By splitting Counterspell into a separate spell, the 5E designers let the spell work as a reaction. Instead of reading an action to counter, wizards could counter any time, even on their own turn, even as they cast another spell.

Countering spells turned from a process that demanded one or more standard actions, to something wizards could do without losing time for another spell.

For the first time ever, D&D introduced the Counterspell duel. Instead of doing something, dueling spell casters do nothing. Turns out nothing isn’t much fun.

Sly Flourish worked to salvage some fun from Counterspell by adding colorful descriptions. He’s still making chicken salad out of something other than chicken.

How should it have worked?

In 5E readying a spell such as Dispel Magic costs the spell slot even when the spell goes unused. If Counterspell were gone, and if Dispel Magic worked as it did in 3E, no one would counter spells. I think everyone would be content with that.

Banishment

What makes it so annoying?

The Banishment spell forces targets to make a Charisma save to avoid being sent to another plane.

Banishment lets players split combat scenes into two parts. In part one, the wizard or cleric banishes the toughest foes so their party can gang up on the outnumbered mooks in a one-sided romp. In the second part, the banished creatures spring back into reality and the party ambushes them. A potentially compelling fight turns into a rout followed by a dreary murder scene.

Once 7th-level players gain access to Banishment, it becomes a key factor in encounter design. If any monster enters the battle looking like a boss, he’s sure to be banished. Every boss now needs one or more allies of similar power.

Why did it work before?

In The Dungeons & Dragons spells Gary Gygax never meant for players, I told of Gary’s tendency to add every magical effect from fantasy to his game. This urge led him to include a spell that banished creatures to whatever hell they came from. Unearthed Arcana introduced the 7th-level spell Banishment along with a 4th-level version called Dissmissal. Because the spells only worked on visitors from another plane, they both rated as weak. Unlike Dismissal, Banishment capped the number of hit dice it could affect, but it offered ways to reduce the target’s save. Banishment and Dismissal served a narrow use, so they seldom reached play.

Where does it go wrong?

Someone on the D&D design team must have fancied the notion of banishing enemies from the battlefield. They championed changes that turned Banishment from something no one ever casts into an inevitable opening move. Not only does the spell drop into Dismissal’s 4th-level slot, but it also banishes natives from their own plane. I suppose the designer figured that if these banished creatures bounce back after a minute, then the spell would be balanced. Nope. The return just gives one-sided battles an ugly coda.

How should it have worked?

D&D thrived for 11 years without Banishment. The game would have thrived without it.

The 5E version of the spell might be fun if banished creatures returned in 1d8 rounds at a point of their choice within line of sight of their last location. This change would add enough uncertainty to avoid the pinata treatment.

Conjure Animals

What makes it so annoying?

Conjure Animals belongs to a class of annoying spells including Conjure Minor Elementals and Conjure Woodland Beings. The spells imply the caster gets to choose which creatures appear. This invited broken options. For example, conjuring 8 challenge rating 1/4 elk created an instant stampede. Eight challenge rating 1/4 pixies might cast at-will spells like Fly and Phantasmal Force for you.

In a clarification, designer Jeremy Crawford wrote that players only select the number of creatures to summon. The DM chooses the specific creatures, selecting creatures appropriate for the campaign and fun for the scene.

Nonetheless, as soon as Timmy summons 8 of anything, the game screeches to a halt. Suddenly Timmy manages his own actions and those of 8 proxies, taking more actions than the rest of the table combined.

Why did it work before?

Summoning spells came as a recent addition to the game. Originally, druids outdoors could call creatures from the wood, but then the Druid still had to make friends. None of this worked in a fight. At least the forest friends could tidy a cottage during the span of a musical number.

Third edition added actual summoning spells, but none created more than 1d4+1 creatures. Instead of 8 woodland friends, Timmy got about 3. Still, the problem of Timmy taking so much time on stage prompted the 4E designers to avoid summoning spells.

Where does it go wrong?

Somehow in the process of striking all traces of 4E from the D&D, the 5E designers forgot the problem of summoning spells.

How should it have worked?

Spells like Conjure Animals should never bring more than 4 creatures, and the options should favor single creatures.