Monthly Archives: March 2017

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.

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.

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.

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.