Monthly Archives: December 2019

New Printable Initiative Trackers for Dungeons & Dragons

When I described the best ways to track initiative in Dungeons & Dragons, I showed how I track initiative by draping named initiative tents over my dungeon master’s screen. I favor this method because I like a visible reference to the characters’ and especially the monsters’ stats. At the table, paging through the monster manual or finding monster pages shuffled in my other papers takes me too long. Hanging key numbers in plain sight speeds play.

Collected Monster Initiative Tents

When I fill a monster’s initiative tracker, I save it for future games. Over a couple of years, I’ve accumulated hundred of tents, from aboleth to zombie. I appreciate this resource, but when the reuse proved helpful, I wished for monster tents that could hold more information: all the saves and an fuller outline of actions. So I created bigger trackers for more complicated monsters. These large tents work better for aboleth, while the small ones still work fine for zombie. My new design means I’ll be rewriting older tents as needed.

Download a PDF of my blank tents.

My player tents include spaces for AC and passive perception, plus space for up to 8 separate initiative scores. As an extra time saver, I have players pre-roll initiative. During the a game session, I never slow for initiative. When an encounter starts, I hand all the tents to a player for sorting, and then I drape the folds on my screen.

Some helpful players won’t wait for initiative. At the end of every encounter, they re-order the tents. I never have to call for initiative. While this skips a dramatic moment, it also blends the line between combat and the rest of the game.

Top Dog Games makes a line of pre-printed Stat Trackers that already come printed with monster information.

Start Here: My Most Popular and Favorite Posts

This page list the most popular articles on DMDavid by category.

Signed Greyhawk CoverD&D History

Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves

How D&D Shed the Troubling Implications of Half -Orcs

The Threat that Nearly Killed Dungeons & Dragons—Twice

The Unintended Consequence That Ruined Fourth Edition D&D’s Chance of Success, But Proved Great for Gamers

When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons

The True Story of the Cthulhu and Elric Sections Removed from Deities & Demigods

Behind D&D’s Design

Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve

The Tangled Origins of D&D’s Armor Class, Hit Points, and Twenty-Sided Die Rolls To-Hit

Proficiency and Bounded Accuracy in D&D Next

The Dungeons & Dragons Books that Secretly Previewed Each New Edition

The Dungeons & Dragons Spells Gary Gygax Never Meant for Players

Character Building

7 Dungeons & Dragons Character Builds Absurdly Good at One Thing

7 Best Classes to Add to Multiclass a Dungeons & Dragons Character

The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character)

How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D (If the Rest of Your Group Doesn’t Mind)

10 Ways to Build a Character That Will Earn the Love of Your Party

Dungeon Master Advice

In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons

You Roll for Random Encounters Wrong (and So Do I)

Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story

5 Tricks for Creating Brilliant Dungeon Maps From Will Doyle

How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure

Reference and Play Aids

A Complete List and Gallery of Dungeon Tiles Sets

New Photo Guide to Dungeon Master’s Tools

Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk

What Is the Typical Amount of Treasure Awarded in a Fifth-Edition Dungeons & Dragons Campaign?

Gallery of poster battle maps published for Dungeons & Dragons

How to Print Map Graphics As Battle Maps Using Free Software

Great Adventures

Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?

The 10 Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Since 1985

How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures for Good

How Running Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan Reversed My Opinion of It

Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes

Opinion

Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D, but That Speaks Well of Fifth Edition

How New Changes Created the 4 Most Annoying Spells in Dungeons & Dragons

Why Dungeons & Dragons Players Don’t Love Sandboxes As Much as They Think

Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?

If D&D Play Styles Could Talk, the One I Hate Would Say, “I Won D&D for You. You’re Welcome.”

Dungeon Masters: Why Your Players Might Not Love Theater of the Mind As Much as You Do

Demi-Human Level Limits, D&D Adventurers League, Open Rolls, and More From the Comment Section

Time for another visit to the comment section, starting with a request.

DM Bill writes, “Could you do an article about humans versus non-humans, and the importance of the First Edition level cap, please!

Until third edition, Dungeons & Dragons limited non-human characters to maximum levels in most classes. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax favored the sort of human-dominated fantasy that appeared in the fiction that inspired him. To Gary, demi-human level limits explained why humans dominated D&D worlds despite the extraordinary talents and longevity of elves and dwarves. Gary wrote, “If demi-humans, already given some advantages, were as able as humans, the world would be dominated by them, and there goes the whole of having a relatively familiar world setting in regards to what cultures and societies one will find in control. So a demi-human is unlimited in thief level only, as that this a class not destined to control the fate of major groups or states.

I doubt the rare humans who become capable enough to overshadow non-humans really explain human prevalence in a D&D world, but the level limits encouraged playing human characters and tended to fill adventuring parties with humans. Of course, some groups simply ignored the rule.

Gary wrote, “Why are humans more able to rise to higher levels than demi-humans? Because the gods say so, and don’t like pointy eared types with curly-toed shoes, squat miners with big beards, hairy-footed midgets, etc.” Gary intended the comment as harmless fun at the expense of make-believe creatures, and in 2005 most readers read it that way. But now the comment reads in a way Gary surely didn’t consider. In our history, people have justified inflicting countless horrors on other humans by claiming that God disapproved of some group. Talking about even fictional half-humans like this raises uncomfortable echoes.

Nowadays, many players feel drawn to the exotic character races. In an apt post, John Arendt compares the typical Adventurers League party to the Munsters, a collection of exotic, monstrous types with perhaps one human for contrast. “When an AL player sits down with a shadar-kai shadow sorcerer, there’s no point in even asking them what they’re doing in a large human city; the players haven’t considered it. The culture is about players assembling races and classes because the mechanical bits sound cool.” I see many players drawn to exotic characters for their story, flavor, and for the chance to play someone who seems extraordinary even in a D&D world. That urge never succeeds as well as players hope. Even in the Forgotten Realms, a party that includes a deep gnome, a tortle, a triton, a shadar-kai, and a guy with flaming hair would alarm ordinary folks, but to keep the adventure on track everyone treats such groups as unremarkable.

D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character

In D&D’s Animal Companions and Familiars—Choosing the Right Pet For Your Character I touted the power of find familiar.

Seven writes, “When used correctly find familiar is way overpowered. My owl scouts ahead so we don’t get ambushed. My owl flies down the tunnel triggering the glyph. My owl scouts the dungeon as I watch. Oh, it dies. Ok, I ritually cast. Let’s burn an hour.

I disallowed the Help action in combat for familiars and my players try not to abuse the power granted by the find familiar, but I miss the old days when you suffered a consequence when your familiar died.

Ilbranteloth writes, “Why can’t a spirit have a personality? Gwenhwyver was a magic item, but had a personality and sting connection to Drizzt. Having a personality is up the player. It has nothing to do with being a flesh and blood creature that only exists in our imagination.

If find familiar feels too strong for a 1st-level spell, I suggest limiting it by adding two elements:

  • Treat the familiar as an non-player character with an attitude and a some desire to avoid getting hurt. As controlled by the dungeon master, familiars follow orders, but not necessarily cheerfully or recklessly.

  • Doors. Scouting familiars lack the hands needed to open most doors.

The post also suggested find steed and find greater steed to players interested in gaining a mount.

Larissa writes, “Find greater steed is a 4th-level spell, so paladins won’t get it until level 13. For the greater steed, play a bard and take the spell at level 10, because for a paladin it’s a long wait.

Steal This Rule: Flashbacks and Heists in Dungeons & Dragons

The post Steal This Rule: Flashbacks and Heists in Dungeons & Dragons explained how to adapt rules for flashbacks to Dungeons & Dragons.

Morten Greis writes, “It is kind of weird to see flashbacks-mechanics coming back as if it was a wholly new thing. In 2010, I wrote this: Using Flashbacks in Your Roleplaying Game. It is a great mechanic, though, and it is good to see people using it more.

For gamers interested in flashbacks, Morten’s post gives more suggestions for using the mechanic to enhance your game.

Captain Person writes, “There’s a product on DMs Guild called Here’s To Crime: A Guide to Capers and Heists that adapts the Blades in the Dark heists to fifth-edition D&D.

Michael Lush writes, “‘The Arcadian Job’ episode of the Netflix series 3Below: Tales of Arcadia had an interesting flash-forward spin on this.

The protagonists need to break into a high security military base, but the action focuses on the planning session where they narrate what they are doing and their plans appear on screen.

We infiltrate under cover of night and cut through the wall with…BZZZZZZT!!! No, can’t do that! Look the wall is electrified…

We infiltrate under cover of night and short circuit the wall (failed Security roll. An alarm rings, guards show up, and we die in a hail of blaster fire! No, can’t do that…

OK. Infiltrate under cover of night, insulate the wall with rubber matting (rolls a success), and climb over the…ZAP!! Oh sentry turrets.

Hmm. The wall is a bust. How about the gate?

Once they bypass all the security, the flash-forward planning switches back to normal real-time play.

In a tabletop game, such planning steps would resemble a video game where when you run into trouble, you restore to the last save. The story that develops includes no failures because the framing story shows how the players planned around all the pitfalls.

The 3Below episode finds a new take on the usual storytelling approach to planning. Typically, if the characters make a plan on screen, we know the plan will fail. The narrative lets us enjoy the surprise and tension of seeing the plan unravel. But if we never see the planning, then the plan succeeds. Narratives never show heroes making successful plans because revisiting a familiar plan as it unfolds would prove less interesting.

lunaabadia writes, “One of the mechanics I really like in Gumshoe games such as Night’s Black Agents is the Preparedness skill. It represents this concept that your character has a knack for planning. As with other skills in the game, you spend one or more points to add to a roll for what you are trying to accomplish. You might say, ‘but of course I brought night goggles,’ and you make the roll. As you noted above, the whole point is to zip past the boring hours players can spend wondering what gear to bring. Preparedness answers the question of whether you brought it and frees players’ brains to focus on the action.

I would guess Preparedness could be done with Inspiration, and in a heist session it could make a lot of sense to give each player Inspiration at the start of the mission, representing their planning. Do you spend it on a roll? Or do you hold it in case you need to do a flashback?

7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing

The post 7 Dungeons & Dragons character builds absurdly good at one thing continues to attract readers and comments.

Geoff writes, “Disciple of Life doesn’t apply to goodberries. It says ‘whenever you use a spell of 1st level or higher to restore hit points to a creature, the creature regains additional hit points.’ Goodberry is a spell that summons magical berries, not a spell that restores hit points to a creature.

Your interpretation adds up, but officially the interaction works. See this Sage Advice post.

Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?

In Chivalry & Sorcery: What if Gary and Dave had not found the fun?, I had a bit of fun at the expense of one of the earliest fantasy roleplaying games.

Shane Devries tells how his group started playing Chivalry & Sorcery by ignoring most of the rules, and then slowly added complexity. “Over a period of a couple of years we were playing the entire system as written and NEVER looked back. Over time D&D and Palladium dropped away and by 1985 all we played was Chivalry & Sorcery, which we still play to this day. All my players prefer C&S BECAUSE of its complexity and revel in the system and what it has to offer. The older players in my group with decades of experience will not go back to D&D or any other system for this fact.

Why You Should Play in the D&D Adventurers League (and a New 1-Sheet Quick Start)

The post Why You Should Play in the D&D Adventurers League (and a New 1-Sheet Quick Start) prompted some readers to share their bad experiences dropping in for Adventurers League games.

Alphastream responds, “The experience really varies, but bad areas are uncommon. I’ve traveled for work across the US and tried many different stores. I would say under 15% are truly bad, primarily due to bad store management. And, even when I’ve found a bad one, I’ve offered to DM an additional table, recruited players via MeetUp (or a similar site), and had a great time. I’ve had far better results finding AL tables and meeting cool players/DMs there than I have with trying to find decent home groups. Good stores are also very welcoming to new players. Stores overall are changing a lot these days, mastering skills to draw in customers through many different programs and creating healthy and safe spaces focused on fun.

My local game store draws players interested in sampling D&D, and while many become regulars, many don’t return. The conversion rate rises when prospective players arrive at a table starting a new campaign or hardcover. When players get slotted into an ongoing game, they seem to find the experience more daunting. An ideal welcome would feature short seasons of low-level games that fed into a higher-level experience. Wizards of the Coast should support a program like that. I can even suggest a name for it.

How New Changes Created the 4 Most Annoying Spells in Dungeons & Dragons

In How new changes created the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, I wrote, “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.”

Acemindbreaker writes, “Why play that out? If it’s clear that their opponents stand no chance, montage it instead of rolling the dice. ‘So, your opponents are all helpless as long as your wizard keeps up hypnotic pattern. Are you intending to kill them all?’

‘Yeah.’

‘All right, easy enough to do. Once they’re all dead, what next?’

Zachiel cites maze as an annoying spell that can wreck most player characters. Wizards aside, PCs never boast enough intelligence to make a DC20 check on less than a 20. Lucky for players, few will ever face the 8th-level spell. However, the spell appears on Acererak’s list in Tomb of Annihilation, so I got to send someone to the labyrinth, and that delighted me. My joy probably makes me a mean DM, but we DMs so rarely get to thwart players with such potent magic.

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less suggested ways DMs can delegate some of their tasks to players.

Daniel writes, “My players enjoyed reciting expository dialog (usually in the form of flashback conversations involving NPCs). Maybe this is because some of them had more of an acting background than a gaming one. It does mean that I had to compose and print the dialog in advance but it then saved me having to do too much talking (and switching personas) during a session.

In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?

The post In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling? raised a question that drew plenty of interest.

RobOQ writes, “As a player I tend to get annoyed at rolling for every imaginable thing. I prefer, both as a player and a DM, to go by the rule of ‘if there isn’t an interesting outcome to both success and failure on the roll, leave the dice where they are and just describe the more interesting outcome.’ I see very little point in rolling dice where a failure means the situation doesn’t change at all.

Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes

In Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes, I betrayed a low passive insight by suggesting that a liar might avoid eye contact.

Dr Sepsis writes, “Someone who is lying is more likely to make eye contact as they check to see if they’re being detected.

HDA writes, “Instead of rolling dice to get information, make your players think, observe, ask questions, learn from the world around them. As the DM playing a non-player character, maybe raise your eyebrow a bit. You know, emote. What is even the point of having intrigue and deception in your game if the players can just roll to see through it?

8 Fast Facts About D&D’s Magic Missile Spell

In response to 8 Fast Facts About D&D’s Magic Missile Spell, Kristen Mork pointed me to Sage Advice that said each magic missile should provoke a separate concentration check.

This answer defies the answer the design team gave when they introduced the game, but fine. In practice, the newer ruling makes magic missile an efficient way to break concentration and to finish fallen characters. (See Can a DM Have Monsters Kill Fallen Characters Without Bringing Hurt Feelings?)

After penning my 8 facts, I watched a Q&A panel by TSR editor Tim Kask that expanded on one. Gary Gygax’s debates with Tim helped shape Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. “The only thing that I won was that magic missile always hits for damage,” Tim said. “It took me two-and-a-half weeks of arguing. I kept telling him that that’s the only thing the little guy gets and if it’s hit or miss, then he’s dead.”

Dan writes, “I would actually argue that the magic missile and shield spells were inspired by a bit earlier in that scene from The Raven, whereby Karloff produces magical knives and an ax and sends them toward Price, who blocks them with magic barriers.

The small exploding balls at the beginning of your embedded video are much more likely to have been what inspired Melf’s Minute Meteors.

Steve Blunden writes, “Seeing both these clips, and of course the wizard duels in Harry Potter inspired me to see if the rather colourless counterspell could be dramatically improved. When a character tries to cast counterspell, the player should be encouraged to describe what this might look like. E.g. if counterspell is used against fireball, the player can describe the counterspell as a jet of water leaping out of their hand to douse the fire.

In Making Counterspell Awesome, Mike “Sly Fourish” Shea recommended this approach.

How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story

The post How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story prompted alphastream to share some history.

Second edition and earlier simply had fragile PCs. You could die easily, end of story.

Third edition had monsters that were absolutely brutal at all tiers, plus some really exploitable loopholes (such as non-associated class levels) that created sky-high challenges. This all meant that if the DM knew how to craft monsters,characters could easily die, even when they had full hit points. Unfortunately, it was incredibly taxing to modify monsters.

Fourth edition gave PCs too much of a safety net between hp and healing surges, though the edition also had some amazing challenges (especially after the developers went back and corrected the monster design math).

Fifth edition on paper looks more fragile than 4E, but it has not been in play. Characters are very resilient and have a lot of hit points compared to monster damage. Monsters are often given special abilities and to balance that they do less damage, but the abilities don’t actually threaten PCs with death. This problem is even worse at high tiers of play, where monster damage is absolutely shameful. Most monsters have no chance. If they hit 100% of the time they still could not drop all the PCs to 0 hit points. And when that isn’t the case, there is no way for the PCs to be defeated in most fights. To me, the 5E solution is pretty simple: add damage.

Abelhawk writes, “I have a couple of house rules that make death a bit more dangerous and limiting:

1. When a character is brought to 0 hit points, they gain a level of exhaustion. Levels of exhaustion gained in this way go away after a short rest, or if the character is brought to half their hit point maximum.

2. When a character dies and is brought back to life, they receive one permanent death saving throw failure. A character with three permanent death saving throw failures cannot be brought back to life by any means.

Imposing exhaustion on characters raised from 0 hp rates as a fairly popular house rule. As for the second house rule, I like the idea of limiting characters to some maximum number of resurrections.

Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story

In the post, Turning Character Deaths in D&D Into Deals that Benefit Game and Story, I wrote, “If D&D players wanted a game where fighting rated as a last resort, they would play Call of Cthulhu or the Dallas Television RPG, where you can’t shoot JR.”

Jacob Blalock responds, “Most people who want to play have to take what they can get in terms of finding a group to play with, and that means they mostly play the most recent edition of the most widely recognized RPG, 5th-edition D&D.

Jacob makes a fair point. Some roleplaying gamers play D&D because the game’s popularity makes finding a group easier, rather than because the game perfectly suits their tastes.

Cymond writes, “I was recently considering the idea of a house rule: Let a dying character remain conscious but unable to act or speak loudly. You can still have those dramatic deathbed moments where they confess their eternal love, beg to be avenged, plead with the unscrupulous rogue to please save the world, etc. Or maybe say that they don’t die immediately after 3 failed saves, but are beyond saving with anything less that the same things that would resurrect them, and save the deathbed moment until after combat.

Tardigrade writes, “I strongly feel that if a character death is a problem for your narrative, then you’re playing the game wrong. If you are narrating a story, go write a book. If you are trying to create an experience that challenges players, then play D&D, design the game so that their choices matter and don’t fudge the dice.

BlobinatorQ responds, “Ultimately it comes down to the group. If the group wants D&D to be nothing but challenges, and wants the stakes to be high with character death always on the table, then so be it. If the group wants to build and be invested in a narrative, and don’t want people left out of the experience due to some unlucky dice rolls, then things should be crafted to suit that. There is no one right way to play D&D, it can be a very different game for different groups.

When I explained the problems that death creates for a story, I focused on the story a particular player imagines for their character. The story of a D&D campaign can stand some character deaths, but that doesn’t cushion the blow a dead character brings to their player.

Ilbranteloth notes that the 1st-edition rules for characters at 0 hit points were forgiving, giving players at least 7 rounds to help a fallen character.

What differs significantly are the consequences of your near-death experience. And this is where I think 5e has made it much less of a thing. In AD&D, if you were reduced to 0 hp, then once you were restored to at least 1 hp with mundane OR MAGICAL means, you were in a coma for 10-60 minutes. Then you had to rest for a full week, minimum. A Heal spell was required to avoid this period of rest.

There was a significant consequence already built into the game for dying and we avoided it because it generally put the adventure on hold while the party headed back to town to rest and recover.

In most cases, it also meant nobody was out of the game. The entire party went to town to rest and resupply, and of course you didn’t have to play that out. So it was a short, we-failed moment.

If this one rule was still in effect, then the risk of death is back, without having to kill any PCs. And it also has the effect of reducing the risk of actual character death because players try to make sure they aren’t reduced to 0 hp.

I have now learned that when I played AD&D, everyone I played with got the rules for 0 hit points wrong.

The post Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk explained why I typically use a DM screen.

Alphastream writes, “When I run organized play games and don’t use a screen, I get maybe one person every four or so tables that can’t help but look at my notes. And when that happens, they tend to look often… enough that it distracts me! So, I tend to use a screen. Plus, I like collecting/buying screens and then I get to show them off.

I find screens can be effective for drawing attention from others. In a public space where that’s valuable, such as to get other people walking by to be interested and sit down, it can be an asset.

The least valuable aspect of a screen, for me, is what’s printed on my side. Outside of a few things, such as conditions, dispel magic, and counterspell, I never look anything up. What I’ve been doing lately is draping two pieces of paper taped together over one part of my screen. Facing the players is a map of the general area of the world. Facing me is a list of the character names and info I want for help with roleplay: race, background, class/subclass, etc. I add a list of important campaign NPCs and similar notes. That’s stuff I reference all the time.

I have one young player who finds the basilisk so irresistible that I often see his eyes rise like Kilroy over the top of my screen.

The post’s sidebar explained why I roll in the open and raised some debate.

I wrote, “If I had rolled behind the screen and simply announced a pair of crits, the event would have fallen as flat as a card trick on radio.”

Navy DM responds, “If players have that low level of trust in their DM, then that is a whole different issue.

Sam replies, “Sounds more like the excitement and watching the dice roll than not trusting what the DM rolled to me.

Marty replies, “Exactly. The tension comes from seeing the rolls and reacting. Rolling in the open has completely changed my game for the better.

Most DMs who roll behind the screen acknowledge that they occasionally override rolls to shape play, aiming for a better experience. Rather than players trusting their DM to stick to a die roll, I assume the players trust the DM to not abuse their privilege in some way. What would count as a betrayal of trust?

To be clear, I make some rolls in secret to conceal information from the players. I often roll hidden perception and especially insight checks to avoid revealing secrets.

Beyond the advantages I described in the post, rolling in the open forces me to honor any surprises the dice send my way. If a secret roll upends my plans, I might feel tempted to ignore the roll and take the comfortable path I expected. For me, rolling in the open feels a bit more exciting, like dungeon mastering without a net.

Other DMs feel like sometimes overriding rolls lets them craft a more dramatic game. I respect that perspective, but it’s not for me.

Print My Custom D&D DM Screen to Defeat the Basilisk

When I run games as a dungeon master, I typically use a DM screen, but I see the appeal of skipping it. Many DMs feel that screens create an unnecessary divide that feels adversarial. By this mindset, everyone at the table ranks a storyteller in a collaboration. When I have minimal notes, I’ll set my screen aside and join the team.

Also, I roll in the open, in front of the screen. Dropping the screen would eliminate a bothersome obstruction between me and my dice tray.

As a dungeon master, I want players to feel they earned their victories thanks to smart play, and not to worry that they owe a win to fudged rolls. As for defeats, I like the dice to carry the blame. By rolling in the open, players know I’m not fudging to spare them, to pick on them, or to protect some narrative I planned for. Key die rolls can also add drama. I like when a tense moment brings players to their feet, and when everyone at the table watches to see the outcome of a roll. In one memorable moment, I reminded a player that his movement would provoke a pair of attacks, but he laughed off the risk. I rolled a pair of natural 20s and the table burst out laughing. If I had rolled behind the screen and simply announced a pair of crits, the event would have fallen as flat as a card trick on radio.

Despite the annoyance, I use the screen because of the basilisk. Let me explain. When I play with DMs who skip the screen and sets out their papers, I don’t want to spoil bits of the adventure, so I avoid looking at their preparation. But a DM’s maps and notes always draw my eye. They become the basilisk, something in plain view that forces me to constantly avert my gaze. Surely, many players easily ignore the basilisk, but I’m not the only one who struggles against it. I’ve heard others voice similar feelings.

In addition to walling off the basilisk, my DM screen shows tables and rules I often forget. After five years of fifth edition, I know exactly what I never remember. Every session, I reference descriptions of the game’s conditions. Also, I usually write the names of characters and locations on an index card and clip that to the screen. Plus, the screen gives me a visible place to drape initiative tents.

Despite my preference for a screen, standard-sized screens stand too tall for my taste. I prefer the 6-inch 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 fill the DM-side pockets with the tables and rules I need most at the table. For the player side, I add artwork.

You can download a PDF version of my screen, minus the art.

This update adopts a look that echoes the design of published 5th-edition screens. The PDF includes more pages than you need. Choose which pages suit you best. Some inserts feature information like the table showing levels and experience points, which suits the players more than the DM. Add those to the side that faces the players.

The tables for encounter building, improvised challenges, and mobs of monsters appear thanks to Mike Shea. His Lazy DM’s Workbook includes versions of all these tools along with a wealth of other references, guides, and maps.

Can a DM Have Monsters Kill Fallen Characters Without Bringing Hurt Feelings?

In Dungeons & Dragons, the threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an end that usually feels sad and disappointing. Fifth-edition D&D copes with this conflict by making death virtually impossible for characters above level 4. Only new characters typically die. The game’s designers embrace this bent. To them, a new character represents a small enough time and emotional investment to feel disposable. But at higher levels, players feel indestructible, and this lack of risk can drain the game of excitement. (See How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story.)

D&D needs a better way to add peril without the problem of dead characters. In my last post, I suggested a solution to limit the problem of dead characters: Substitute character deaths for more interesting and less permanent setbacks. But while writing the post, I realized the proposal hardly applied to fifth edition because only new characters die. Once you solve for dead characters, the game needs a higher risk of death.

How can a DM increase the threat of death?

Obviously, we can add more and tougher monsters. Higher challenge monsters rarely hit with enough damage to threaten higher-level characters. Maxing out the monsters’ damage increases their menace to a level that makes fights interesting.

We can run monsters with more cunning. See 4 Simple Tactics that Make Cunning D&D Foes Seem More Dangerous, D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes, and the book The Monsters Know What They’re Doing.

I support these approaches, because greater danger makes a more exciting game. But pressing threats too hard will create more total-party kills. D&D enthusiasts call them TPKs, and we don’t want them.

In fifth edition, fallen characters usually survive if anyone stands to revive them, so the rules make TPKs more common than individual deaths. To raise the threat of death without substantially more TPKs, fallen characters must suffer a higher risk of dying.

If I were king of D&D rather than a DM who shuns house rules, I would rule that damage that exceeds the Constitution score of a character at 0 hit points results in death. Does that seem harsh? If so, perhaps you should sit down for my next bit.

The existing D&D rules offer one way to make the game more lethal. Monsters can deal killing blows to fallen characters. Older editions called this the coup de grâce. This edition calls it attacking an unconscious foe within 5 feet, gaining advantage, counting any hit as a critical, and then inflicting two failed death saves. That’s a mouthful, but at least I can say it without anyone laughing at me for pronouncing the P in coup de grâce.

Monsters have good reasons for dealing finishing blows.

  • Monsters of average intelligence who see a fallen foe magically healed will want to prevent more revivals.

  • Brainy monsters who recognize healers will avoid leaving unconscious enemies.

  • Demons, gnolls, and other creatures fueled by blood and destruction will delight in murdering enemies.

  • Creatures with a hostility toward particular party members might focus on slaying them. For example, drow might finish elves.

Despite the logic of finishing blows, DMs never let monsters make them because the tactic feels harsh. Such attacks single out players in a way that seems personal. Besides, although we want a threat of death, we would rather keep characters alive.

But handled with finesse, the risk of a finishing blow might make the game feel more dangerous and urgent without hard feelings and without sending character sheets to the shredder.

To make finishing blows work, players must see the risk and understand that the menace comes from the monsters.

If smart monsters resolve to make finishing blows because of potential healing, make their decision obvious. So if a character falls and gets revived, have an evil leader shout an order to finish any other characters who drop. Or at the start of the fight, have a mastermind point out the party’s healer and order the other monsters to knife anyone who falls.

Demons, gnolls, and other creatures who exalt in blood lust will gain a reputation for rending fallen foes. Make sure that the player characters hear such tales before they face battle.

All these warnings let players adapt their strategies to higher threats.

In most D&D games, players treat fallen characters with little urgency. Three strikes usually take a string of bad luck and a several turns to accumulate. Players often choose to make an attack over spending a turn pouring a healing potion into an ally. They expect plenty of time for healing after the fight.

Sometimes, party healers aiming for efficiency will avoid mending characters until they drop. Curiously, these healers know the rule that allows all damage below 0 to heal for free. When the dread warlord orders his soldiers to finish fallen characters, such metagaming ends immediately.

Simply a threat of finishing blows makes D&D battles feel much more dangerous and urgent. Plus if players adapt by healing characters before they drop and by immediately healing fallen allies, the number of deaths remains close to zero.

D&D rules make finishing blows a bit less dangerous than they seem. Typically, one inflicts two failed death saves, and leaves the character hanging to life. Monsters will assume that the one blow finished the character and will move to another foe. Let your monsters overlook their chance to kill characters with failed death saves. Still, be prepared to swap a potential character death for a more interesting complication.

After writing this post, I still feel unsure of the answer to the question I posed in my title. Tell me. Can a DM have monsters kill fallen characters without bringing hurt feelings?