Category Archives: Advice

The Best DM Tricks for Helping a Party Make Choices

Sometimes in a Dungeons & Dragons game, a party faces a thorny decision and the action pauses while they weigh options and make plans. As a dungeon master, I sit back and listen, feeling like I won D&D. Such situations show players taking the game world and its threats seriously. It shows a game offering meaningful choices.

Other times, players must choose between, say, the left or right passage, and they stall. Those times, DMs can speed the game by helping the group make quick decisions.

Instead of asking the whole party, “What do you want to do?” I’ll ask one particular player for direction—usually the one who’s had the least to do. This can help bring a quick choice for the group. Scott Fitzgerald Gray writes, “I often try to put it in the form of saying to the quiet player, ‘Okay, while everyone else has been focusing on X and you’ve been keeping an eye out for trouble, you hear something. What do you do?’”

Of course, you can choose a party spokesperson in another way. “I occasionally ask who has the highest skill modifier appropriate to the moment at hand,” Will Doyle writes. For example, the character with the highest Investigation skill might choose how to tail the quarry.

Scott and Will commented when I asked DMs for tricks for expediting group decisions. This post reveals some other favorite techniques.

One of my favorite techniques comes from from Monte Cook’s book of advice, Your Best Game Ever. “Sometimes one player will attempt to speak for the group, saying something like ‘We turn on our flashlights and go inside the warehouse.’ If that happens, just go with it. If the other players don’t object, it makes things a little easier and moves them along a little faster. You don’t have to get confirmation from all the other players. It’s their duty to pay attention and interject with ‘Wait, I don’t want to go into the warehouse,’ or ‘I’ll stay outside while everyone else goes in’ if that’s how they feel.”

Early editions of D&D suggested the party appoint a caller, one player who spoke for the group. Perhaps we have reinvented the caller as a momentary role of expediency.

Characters in a roleplaying game have freedom to attempt any action. Sometimes that latitude leaves players struggling to sift through options in search of a few promising choices. Too often, players may feel confused by their predicament in the game world. Either way, summarizing the situation and listing the most obvious choices cuts through the fog and brings focus. “I’ll often give the players two reasonable choices and then add they can also do something else if they prefer,” writes Tom Pleasant. “Putting those two things straight up front, even if they don’t choose them, re-establishes the scene and clarifies their thoughts.”

I used to worry that suggesting a menu of likely actions might seem like an attempt to limit the player’s freedom, but they always welcome the clarity.

“Whenever you think your players aren’t sure where to go or feel forced to go down a particular path, offer them three choices,” Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea writes. “Each of these three options should be viable directions with clear meaning and motivations. There shouldn’t be a clear ‘right way’ to go and it shouldn’t simply be a random choice. As a GM, you shouldn’t prefer one path over another—players can tell. When you provide these choices, you should be happy to go with whichever one they choose.”

At the end of a session, I always like to ask for the party’s plans for the next game. This helps me plan, keeps the players looking ahead, and shows the players that their decisions guide the course of the game.

Many DMs like to jolt players from indecision by adding urgency to their predicament. Jon Lemich suggests that a DM say something like, “You hear a door hinge creak and new voices talking. You’re still hidden. Barbarian, what do you do?”

For the right tables, real-world time pressure can help force decisions. Nathan Hughes has told players that “something” will happen in 1 minute, and then set a timer. Roman Ryder purchased a set of 1, 3, 5, and 10 minute hour glasses. “I break them out sometimes for timed scenarios to turn up the pressure. I also recently used them for a map that had moving parts that were on a timer.”

I’ve had groups seeking a faster pace suggest an hourglass, but the wrong group could easily see such pressure as adversarial.

What techniques do you favor for expediting party decisions?

How to Wring Maximum Drama from a Roll of the Dice

Often the most exciting moments in Dungeons & Dragons come from die rolls. When we throw the dice, dungeon masters and players alike surrender control to chance. Dice add surprise and risk to the game. See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.

Every D&D game has rolls important enough to grab everyone’s attention. Does the dragon’s breath weapon recharge? Did the inspirational speech win an ally? A die roll can spell the difference between victory or defeat, and sometimes between life and death. As a DM, you can spotlight these moments to heighten the drama and excitement.

Even DMs who typically roll in secret can benefit from making some rolls in the open.

  • Choose rolls that bring high enough stakes to grab attention.

  • Make sure you feel comfortable honoring the outcome of the roll, whatever it brings.

  • Announce what the roll means. “If the lich fails this save, it dies. Otherwise, it’s turn comes next and it has an 8th-level spell ready to cast.”

  • Announce the target number. For maximum drama, don’t make players wait for you to interpret the results. Tell everyone the number to look for on the die. “The lich needs a 13 or better to save.”

Then throw the die into the middle of the table. Let everyone watch the roll together and share the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.

For some rolls a DM would usually make, I sometimes ask a player to make the roll. For example, I almost always ask a player to roll to see if a monster’s big attack recharges.

D&D’s lead rule designer Jeremy Crawford favors this trick too. “Sometimes I love making it impossible for myself to fudge rolls and will have players roll for me. Partly because as any DM will be able to attest, it’s too tempting when you tell yourself I’ll just roll to see what’s going to happen, but then you look at the die and think ‘eh, I don’t really like that result.’

“There’s something powerful about giving it to the players, and then we’re all agreeing we’re handing over the decision to fate. When I’m feeling particularly impish as a DM, I like having the players do it especially when it’s something bad because then they don’t feel like the DM did that to me. You rolled the die.”

We don’t use this stunt because we worry that players think we can’t be trusted with the roll. Instead the trick works because we all can feel like if we want a certain roll strongly enough, we might sway the outcome. Sure, those of us who play D&D rather than Las Vegas recognize that sense of control for a lie, but we feel it all the same. That feeling heightens the drama of the roll. The DM didn’t make things go wrong. I rolled the die.

The trick of explaining a roll, naming the target number, and then having a player cast the die works especially well for random encounters.

In a dungeon, the threat of random encounters forces urgency on players. Instead of slowing down for painstaking caution, and instead of stopping to chop down a locked door, characters have to keep moving. In the wilderness, random encounters give a journey more weight than “You spend three weeks travelling from Waterdeep to Neverwinter without incident.” (Sometimes you may want to fast-forward through a trip; other times distance should matter.)

For random encounters to benefit your game, players need a sense of the threat of wandering monsters. Nothing makes the threat more obvious than saying, “You’ve spent an hour in the tomb. Someone roll a d20 for me. On a 17 or higher, something bad happens.” See You Roll for Random Encounters Wrong (and so Do I).

Spell Tactics for 8 Wizards in the D&D Monster Books and for a Wizard of Your Own

Evil wizards in Dungeons & Dragons can make exciting foes for players. They have access to a range of spells that threaten characters and create tactical puzzles. But that potential seldom translates into play. The designers of fifth edition aimed to make a typical fight last 3 rounds. That seems brief, but wizards lack hit points and they carry a big bullseye, so they can only dream of lasting so long. Too often, some evil “mastermind” stands in an open room, whiffs an initiative roll, and dies in an encounter that resembles an execution by firing squad. Dave and Gary did not give D&D to us just so players could claim a Table H treasure without a fight or even any cunning.

Five years ago, I wrote the The Evil Wizard’s Guide to Defense Against Murderous Treasure Hunters. That post focused on defensive spells and assumed dungeon masters would choose spells rather than stick to the lists in the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters. Sometimes players who see non-player wizards go off script can get a bit salty. After all, an archmage who prepares greater invisibility becomes a much bigger threat than one bringing the standard spells listed in the book. For a convention table, I’ll stick to a standard spell selection. For a home game that includes players who welcome a challenge, anything goes.

This post focuses on the game’s stock wizards and their spell lists.

Wizard encounters

Wizards make poor solo foes. Better fights come where wizards—even the boss—play supporting roles. Players must wonder if they can safely ignore a casters’ allies to focus fire on the wizard.

If wizards are paper, the party’s archers are scissors. Ranged rogues and sharpshooting fighters break concentration and heap damage on a wizard’s meager health. Avoid starting a fight with a spellcaster standing in the open, because they rarely bring enough hit points to survive long. In fifth edition, a character can move into view, cast a spell, and then move back out of sight. Make the party ready attacks or charge in to face the wizard’s allies. I dream of wizard battles where a solo wizard boasts defenses that the players must fight to unravel, but we have a game with sharpshooters instead. (This message brought to you by the alliance to return protection from normal missiles to D&D as a non-concentration spell.)

Spellcasters are smart and have the potential to become recurring foes, so whenever I pit the players against a wizard, I plan an escape and reserve the spell slots required for that plan. For lower-level casters, my escape may require invisibility or fly. Higher-level casters may reserve teleport or wall of force.

Next, identify the wizard’s most powerful offensive spells. For the mage and archmage in the Monster Manual, this means cone of cold followed by fireball. Few D&D battles last long enough to tap lesser spells.

Next check the wizard’s defenses. Without their defensive spells running, wizards become as fragile as soap bubbles. Unless the players make a special effort to gain surprise, and succeed, let the wizard raise a few defenses before they enter battle. Since defenses often require concentration, pick the spell that merits that focus. Sometimes this means concentrating on an offensive or battlefield control spell rather than a defense.

The rest of this post highlights the wizards in Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters, from the tricky illusionist to the mighty (underwhelming) archmage.


Illusionist

A 7th-level wizard.

Escape

Invisibility [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 hour)

Invisibility lets wizards escape from melee, but without much stealth, they need more tricks or obstacles to block a chase.

Disguise Self [1st-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 hour)

Disguise self enables an illusionist to blend into a crowd.

Minor Illusion [Cantrip] (S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)

Minor illusion could make a hall or a door look like a plain wall for long enough to engineer an escape.

Offense

Phantasmal Killer [4th-level Illusion] (V,S) (Casting time: 1 Action) (Duration: concentration, 1 minute)

Phantasmal killer only hits one target and requires 2 failed saves before inflicting any damage. Even that feeble effect requires concentration. An attacking illusionist can only target the barbarian and hope for the best.

The illusionist starts with feeble offensive spells, so more than any of the other wizards, illusionists work as part of a group of foes.

Defense

Mage Armor [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 8 hours)

Every wizard the players face will have mage armor in effect.

Mirror Image [2nd-level Illusion] (V,S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute)

Even compared to higher-level options, mirror image ranks as the best no-concentration defensive spell.

Make it fun

Illusionists make bad foes for dungeon showdowns. Instead, use an illusionist in an urban environment to trick an frustrate the party, potentially helping other attackers.

Major Image [3nd-level Illusion] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)

Use crowds, illusion, and cover to avoid being spotted, and major image to befuddle the party. For a good model, think of the super-villain Mysterio as seen in Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Power up

Hypnotic Pattern [3nd-level Illusion] (S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, 1 minute)

To make an illusionist more dangerous, perpare hypnotic pattern rather than phantom steed and shield instead of magic missile.


Mage

A 9th-level wizard.

Escape

Misty Step [2nd-level Conjuration] (V) (casting time: 1 bonus action) (duration: instantaneous)

For a quick escape, use misty step to teleport to someplace relatively inaccessible, such as a balcony or across a chasm, then dash out of view. Misty step just takes a bonus action to cast, but you cannot cast a spell as a bonus action and cast another spell other than a cantrip in the same turn. See Player’s Handbook page 202.

Fly [3rd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)

Fly offers a defense against melee attackers and a potential way to escape a fight that goes bad. When a wizard can fly in and out of cover, the spell makes a good defense.

Offense

Ice Storm [4th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

While ice storm falls short of the damage from cone of cold or fireball, the spell slows movement and makes a good opening attack.

Cone of Cold [5th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Fireball [3th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

While the other wizards in D&D’s monster books include some weaker spell choices to make them into distinctive foes, the mage picks the strongest spells as a player might.

Defense

Greater Invisibility [4th-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

Greater invisibility rates as the best defensive spell in D&D. Most attacks on you suffer disadvantage. Plus, you avoid spells that require a target “that you can see,” which includes counterspell.

Counterspell [3rd-level Abjuration] (S) (casting time: 1 reaction) (duration: instantaneous)

An enemy wizard will run out of turns before running short of spell slots. Counterspell gives wizards a use for their reaction and lets them benefit from casting two leveled spells in a round rather than just one. Counterspell lets you trade another caster’s action for a reaction that a wizard probably would not use. Despite the power of counterspell, most enemy spellcasters benefit more from ducking out of sight between turns.

Whenever players face enemy spellcasters, pay close attention to the 60-foot range of counterspell. If possible, spellcasters move out of that range before they cast.

Shield [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S) (casting time: 1 reaction) (duration: 1 round)

Shield offers protection against archers and melee attacker that lasts a full round. Use this to protect against readied attacks when you move into view to cast spells.

Also: mage armor.

Make it fun

The mage brings the best spells on the wizard list, so of all the monster-book wizards, this one hits hardest for its challenge rating.

Power up

For a more durable, and therefore more dangerous mage, swap suggestion for mirror image.


Conjurer

A 9th-level wizard.

Escape

Misty step.

Offense

Evard’s Black Tentacles [4th-level Conjuration] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

In most fights, start with Evard’s black tentacles and follow with fireball.

Cloudkill [5th-level Conjuration] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)

If the natural terrain somehow prevents attackers from easily escaping from a cloudkill, or against parties dominated by ranged attackers, start with cloudkill. Remember, cloudkill creates a heavily-obscured area that blocks vision.

Defense

Stoneskin [4th-level Abjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 hour)

The quality of stoneskin depends on the number of foes wielding magical weapons or attacks. Against groups likely to fight a 9th-level wizard, stoneskin offers nothing. Just about every non-player character wizard prepares stoneskin, and that’s always a mistake. With so many of the conjurer’s spells requiring concentration, stoneskin becomes doubly useless.

Also: mage armor

Make it fun

The combination of cloudkill and Evard’s black tentacles makes an exciting challenge for a party facing a pair of conjurers.

Power up

Prepare shield instead of magic missile and mirror image instead of cloud of daggers.


Enchanter

A 9th-level wizard.

Escape

Invisibility.

Offense

Enchanters have fireball, which seems like a bid to give them something to do in a fight, even if that lacks the flavor of the specialty.

Hold Monster [5th-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

In the best case for hold monster, the enchanter paralyzes one character and spoils one player’s fun, then the rest of the party takes an average 1.5 turns to zero the caster’s 40 hit points.

Haste [3rd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

Haste ranks as an excellent spell for an enchanter to cast on an ally, but a fight with a hasted, charmed assassin doesn’t feel much like a fight against an enchanter.

Dominate Beast [4rd-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

The best setup for a battle against an enchanter features a giant ape or a tyrannosaurus rex improbably around to become the target of dominate beast.

Defense

Instinctive Charm seems like defense that shows an enchanter’s flavor, but enchantment spells tend to require concentration, so an enchanter probably won’t cast one every turn, and the ability will rarely recharge. Let the ability recharge every turn anyway.

Also: mage armor and stoneskin.

Make it fun

An enchanter serves as more of a story piece than a combatant. For a fun battle against an enchanter, add odd creatures under a geas to defend the wizard and perhaps a fearsome beast in a cage.

Dominate Person [5th-level Enchantment] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

For enchanters to show their power, power up with dominate person.

Power up

Confusion [4th-level Enchantment] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

Switch hold monster for dominate person, confusion for stoneskin, and shield for magic missile.


Evoker

A 12th-level wizard.

Escape

Wall of Ice [6th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)

A cautious evoker saves a 6th-level spell slot for a wall of ice to block pursuit.

Also: misty step.

Offense

Bigby’s Hand [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

Rather than casting chain lightening, start with Bigby’s hand to interfere with melee attackers, and then start blasting with cone of cold and either fireball or lightning bolt.

Lightning Bolt [3th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Defense

Mage armor, mirror image, and counterspell.

Make it fun

With so many blasting spells and few defenses, the evoker will probably strike hard, and then die quickly. This caster may work best supporting other foes in a high-level encounter.

Power up:

Prepare greater invisibility instead of stoneskin and shield instead of burning hands.


Abjurer

A 13th-level wizard.

Escape

Teleport [7th-level Conjuration] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Teleport enables a near-certain escape, so long as you allow time to cast it.

Wall of Force [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 10 minutes)

Wall of force can serve three purposes.

  • Create a barrier to enable escape.

  • Trap some of your foes so the rest become outnumbered by your allies.

  • Create a defensive shield that blocks attacks while you blast foes.

An invisible wall of force lets you see targets for spells, but “nothing can physically pass through the wall of force.” Few wizard spells let you continue to concentrate on the wall while enabling attacks through the wall. Sadly, none of the non-player character wizards prepare both wall of force and something like disintegrate or finger of death. Unless you change spells, this lapse eliminates the wall’s third use.

Also: invisibility.

Offense

Symbol [7th-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 minute) (duration: until dispelled or triggered)

The abjurer’s most dangerous spell takes too long to cast in battle, but it lasts until dispelled or triggered. Each symbol costs 1,000 gp to inscribe. This leaves DMs to decide how many symbols protect an abjurer. One seems sporting.

Symbol aside, start blasting with cone of cold, and then fireball.

Banishment [4th-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

As soon as you take damage, upcast banishment in a 6th- or 7th-level slot and bolster your Arcane Ward.

Defense

Alarm [1st-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 minute) (duration: 8 hours)

Abjurers should never face an attack unprepared. Best case, that means casting symbol on the entry, taking a position that puts a barrier between you and melee attackers, and having a globe of invulnerability in effect.

Globe of Invulnerability [6th-level Abjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute)

Globe of invulnerability only protects from magical attacks, so it just leaves most casters vulnerable to the party’s archers. Paper, meet scissors. Fortunately, the abjurer’s Arcane Ward grants a measure of protection that other wizards lack. Plus, the ward takes damage instead of the wizard, reducing concentration checks. The globe might remain active long enough to shape the battle.

Also: mage armor, shield, counterspell, and stoneskin.

Make it fun

The abjurer rates as the only wizard able to make a globe of invulnerability into a tactical challenge for an adventuring group, rather than a bubble a few arrows pop. So start with the globe. Once the wizard takes damage, switch to concentrating on banishment.

Forget the archmage, the combination of symbol, Arcane Ward, and banishment makes abjurers the most dangerous wizards in the monster books. If enough characters fail their saves, banishment could make half the party vanish. If you pit an abjurer against a group, ready a plan B involving a capture, a rescue, or a deal that can avert a total-party kill.

Power up

Prepare mirror image instead of arcane lock.


Diviner

A 15th-level wizard.

Escape

Teleport and fly.

Offense

Mass suggestion [_6th-level Enchantment] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 24 hours)

A diviner’s best strategy probably starts with a mass suggestion that convinces everyone to leave in search of the real villain. Unlike suggestion, mass suggestion doesn’t require concentration.

Maze [8th-level Conjuration] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)

Escaping maze requires a DC20 Intelligence check. Because so few player characters boast an Intelligence above 10, the spell usually guarantees one character leaves the fight for its duration. If the party includes a paladin, then use maze to banish that character and their boost to saving throws. Otherwise, wait to see who saves versus mass suggestion.

Delayed Blast Fireball [7th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: concentration, up to 1 minute)

A diviner can see enough of the future to know not to cast delayed blast fireball, saving their 7th-level slot for teleport instead.

Also: ice storm and fireball.

Defense

Portent will probably only get one use, so keep it for a saving throw.

Make it fun

Like an enchanter, a diviner serves better as a story piece than a combatant. Diviners make good patrons because they see enough of the future to send the party on quests.


Archmage

An 18th-level wizard.

Escape

Teleport, wall of force, fly, misty step, invisibility, and disguise self.

The wealth of spells that enable archmages to escape reveal the role of these wizards: Archmages underperform in combat and work better as plotters who avoid fighting whenever possible.

Offense

Cone of cold, banishment, and lightning bolt.

Defense

Time Stop [9th-level Transmutation] (v) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Time stop gives an archmage a chance to cast a suite of defensive spells.

Mind Blank [8th-level Abjuration] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 24 hours)

Mind blank serves as a story piece more than a spell that actually defends against anything players might use to attack an archmage.

Fire Shield [4th-level Evocation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 10 minutes)

As a 4th-level spell, fire shield ranks as the worst no-concentration defense. The damage amounts to less than a typical melee attacker can deal, and wizards lack health to lose in trade.

Combine fire shield with stoneskin, the worst defense that requires concentration, and you follow a recipe for a short and disappointing showdown.

Make it fun

The archmage’s spell list makes this wizard weaker in combat than some of the lower-level specialists. I suspect the designer who concocted this spell list imagined a fight starting with a time stop that enables an archmage to erect defenses, followed by a barrage of attack spells. Unfortunately, the feeble defenses do little to thwart a party facing an archmage. The archmage’s 99 hit points may not last two players’ turns. Paper, meet scissors.

The smart move is to skip time stop and upcast banishment at 9th-level, and then to blast the survivors who made saves. Once you thin those foes, cast wall of force to split the banished party as they pop back. Divide and conquer.

I’m not sure which of those strategies seems less fun for players.

The Intelligence-20 move is to teleport away to live for more evil schemes.

Power up

Disintegrate [6th-level Transmutation] (V,S,M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous)

Prepare greater invisibility instead of stoneskin and disintegrate instead of globe of invulnerability.

How the Flawed Hooks in Descent Into Avernus Might Make D&D Players Feel Railroaded

Everyone giving Dungeons & Dragons advice tells dungeon masters how to start an adventure with a hook. This includes me, last week. That advice usually stops after the first hook, and it shouldn’t. Sure, adventures that lure characters into the unknown seeking treasure only need one hook. But just about every adventure with a more complicated premise serves hooks from start to finish. Those hooks offer choices and lure characters along a course that shapes into a story.

The hooks that come after an adventure’s start often go by names like clues, secrets, or leads. In earlier posts, I favored the term “leads” because the word matches one essential purpose: Leads reveal ways for the characters to reach a goal. (If the idea of leads seems unclear, see instead of plots, prepare secrets, clues, and leads.) The word “hook” emphasizes a second essential: Hooks entice players to chase a particular goal.

By either name, hooks and leads must accomplish two things: They entice characters to pursue a goal and they reveal ways to reach that goal. Skipping one of those parts causes adventures to stumble.

Leads point a direction, but sometimes they still need to sell a new goal.

When an adventure needs to point characters toward a new goal, the leads need to sell that new goal. Many adventures fail to close the sale. Most often, an adventure starts with a promise of gold, and then presumes that a band that may only include murderous treasure hunters will happily switch to, say, battling princes of elemental evil—for free.

My last post describes how Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus attempts this sort of flip. The opening hook appeals both to the treasure hunters and the do-gooders. Later though, the adventure asks players to send their characters to Hell for the slimmest chance of rescuing a damned city. The paladins might volunteer, but any sensible rogue would say, “I’m out.” Still, the rogue players want to play D&D, so their characters dutifully tag along.

In an adventure like this, either the dungeon master or the players can rethink the party’s motivations, smoothing the rough patch. Often, no one does. Many longtime players face such situations often enough to feel numb to the dissonance of having to do something their characters wouldn’t do just to keep playing. The rest feel railroaded.

Hooks sell a goal, but they need to offer a sensible direction too.

When an adventure runs short of hooks or leads, everyone notices. The party gets stuck and the DM finds a way to drop new clues. The adventure may stall, but the obvious trouble invites a solution.

Imagine trying to start an adventure by only revealing that long ago a mighty warrior hid a magic sword in a long-forgotten location. That tidbit would only leave players waiting for more, because without any clues, the incomplete hook rates as backstory. Every adventure starts with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal. Number 2 rarely gets discussed because DMs seldom botch it. At the start of a scenario, no DM dangles a hook that lacks any clues the characters can follow to the goal.

The more insidious problem appears when an adventure offers clues that don’t seem to lead closer to the goal. The players see a lead, but no reason to follow it. Few players want to derail an adventure that plainly offers a direction, so the players dutifully follow the lead while ignoring that dissonance that comes from doing things just because the DM pointed the way. Following an apparently useless lead makes players feel confused at best, railroaded at worst. To the DM, the adventure seems to run smoothly, so the problem goes unnoticed by the person who could have corrected it.

Descent Into Avernus suffers from this trouble. (This discussion includes spoilers, but hardly more than the adventure’s title.) D&D blogger Merric Blackman writes, “The trip to Hell offers no reason for the characters to believe they can improve things. You stopped a threat to Baldur’s Gate. Why now to Avernus?

“‘If the characters think they have any chance to rescue Elturel, Liara strongly urges them to pursue that quest.’ That’s why the PCs descend into Avernus. Not great, huh? Why do the PCs think they have a chance?”

Game designer Justin Alexander is more blunt. He explains how Descent Into Avernus keeps asking players to follow directions just because they lead to more D&D. “The entire campaign is just this one structure repeated infinitely: A non-player character tells you where to go, you go there, and then find another NPC who tells you where to go.” This pattern works when the NPC’s directions show a way closer to the goal. The leads in Avernus fail that standard. “The problem is that the designers aren’t designing a situation. They aren’t thinking of the game world as a real place.

“Why does the adventure assume the characters will simply plane shift to Hell without having any reason for doing so? Because an NPC told them to! Why not also have the NPC give them a coherent reason? Because it doesn’t matter!”

The design only aims to route players from scene to scene. In play, the party sees a lead that they know the adventure expects them to follow, so they do. To the DM, the adventure appears to work, but unless players feel numb to dutifully playing DM Simon says, they feel railroaded.

Alternately, when hooks clearly point characters toward their goals, even linear adventures, even railroads, can work magic.

“A good railroad, at a certain level, is like a good magic trick: The players won’t really believe that magic is real, but a good magic trick will let them suspend disbelief just long enough to be amazed. The most important technique for the railroaded scenario is to frame the meaningful choices in such a way that the players legitimately want to make the predetermined choice.” writes Justin Alexander.

“The GM never forces a card on them. In the end, they do the magic trick to themselves. When a railroaded scenario pulls this off, the suspension of disbelief is perfect: Players never feel as if they were forced to do something. They’re able to remain completely immersed in their characters, feeling as if the world is unfolding in direct response to their actions.”

In a successful narrative adventure, the DM keeps laying track by dropping hooks. Each one shows a course that brings the characters closer to their goal, so the players willingly choose to follow. 

Good hooks power meaningful choices even better than linear scenarios. When players find enough leads, they face choosing which one to follow. Making choices and seeing outcomes generates the fun of role-playing games. Leads also offer more flexibility than plots. DMs can reveal them whenever players need to find a direction or to face choices.

As for Descent Into Avernus, the adventure brings evocative locations and vivid characters to an unforgettable journey through Hell. Your heroes get to adventure in Hell! Fixing the weak connections merits a bit of creative work. For ideas, see Merric Blackman’s account of running the campaign, Justin Alexander’s Remixing Avernus, and my own post Improve the Start of Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus With These 2 Add-On Adventures.

Related: Why Dungeons & Dragons (and roleplaying) took years to leave the dungeon.

The D&D Adventures That Stumble by Missing the Hook

Every adventure starts with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal.

Appealing to rogues, paladins, and players

A good adventure hook appeals to both the party’s rogues and paladins. More than popular classes, rogues and paladins represent two ways players often imagine their characters’ outlooks. Steve Winter, a Dungeons & Dragons designer since second edition, writes, “Hooks aren’t about characters; they’re about players.”

Rogues and paladins make popular character perspectives because they bring escapes from either the restrictions or the unfairness of modern life.

In our world, we often feel bound by rules and obligations. Playing a rogue who’s free from ethical burdens and who boasts the power to ignore rules feels exhilarating. Much of the vicarious joy of playing a rogue comes from gaining wealth. Certainly most players of rogue types would say their character is in it for the money.

In our world, we see misdeeds rewarded, good people suffer, and too often we feel helpless to act. Playing a paladin with the strength to punish wrongdoers, help the deserving, and right wrongs feels rejuvenating. Paladins seek chances to act heroic.

Hooks that only appeal to one type can leave other characters just following along because their players came to play D&D. For example, Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage presents a megadungeon similar to those that D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax imagined for their first campaigns. But when I ran it, the paladin types kept wondering why they bothered with Undermountain. A mere search for fortune failed to motivate them; they wanted to become heroes. As the delve continued, I sought ways to add heroic missions.

Vicarious wealth and glory make a solid appeal to players, but curiosity can grab players emotions even more. Most D&D games tease a little curiosity with questions like, “What waits under Skull Mountain.” Especially compelling hooks make players ask, “How can this be so?” Television shows like Lost build mysteries that hook viewers who crave explanations.

Missing the hook

Some adventures risk only hooking one character type. Hoard of the Dragon Queen starts with the characters nearing a town under attack by a dragon and an army—foes that add up to near certain death to a 1st-level character. The adventure depends on new characters charging into the town, so it demands heroes willing to ignore impossible odds to do good. If everyone makes a paladin type, the start works. Of course, the rogues and the sensible characters probably tag along because their players came to play D&D, but their players feel the dissonance of making their characters do things they really wouldn’t. A broader hook might add rumors of a wagon load of treasure in the town. Movies like Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and Three Kings (1999) work from a premise like this.

Alternately, the characters could start the campaign knowing they must play do-gooders. Hoard includes an appendix listing character backgrounds that bring them into the adventure. D&D blogger Merric Blackman writes, “Ultimately the Tyranny of Dragons storyline is a heroic one. The characters get into it because they’re heroes.”

Even adventures that start with an appeal to every character can run short of interest for one type, usually the rogues.

An adventure like Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus can switch goals. At the start, the characters just aim to thwart some evil cultists. The opening hook brings both a payment that appeals to the rogues and a chance to smite evil for the paladins, so it works for both character types. Later though, the adventure asks players to send their characters to hell. The paladins might volunteer, but any sensible rogue would say, “I’m out.”

Nonetheless, the rogue players want to play D&D, so their characters dutifully tag along. Perhaps the expert role players invent a new goal that fits their character. Maybe they go for the sake of their friendship with the team. Maybe, like Han Solo, they go because they discover an unfamiliar desire to do the right thing. Perhaps the player does a bit of improvised world building by imagining a legend of treasure in Avernus. Most likely, the rogues just ignore the dissonance of having to do something their characters wouldn’t.

As the goals of an adventure change, the hooks still need to appeal to the entire party.

None of these missed hooks make the adventures I cited bad. I rate Dungeon of the Mad Mage as the best megadungeon to ever appear in print. Merric ranks Tyranny of Dragons as fifth edition’s best hardcover adventure. DMs grow accustomed to tinkering with hooks—many would consider such adjustments mandatory. After all, every adventure deserves a strong start.

Next: The D&D adventures that falter by letting the hooks stop in the first scene.

For Better D&D Fights, Use This 1 Simple Trick That the Designers Won’t Tell You

Late in the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the design team started presenting each encounter in a 1- or 2-page diagram. By putting everything needed to run an encounter on a page, this “delve format” benefited dungeon masters. The format especially suited fourth edition’s focus on tactical combat encounters played on battle maps. It encouraged designers to craft locations that fueled interesting battles.

Delve format encounter

While many DMs favored the easy-to-run encounters, the delve format took some heat too. Critics argued that lavishing so much space and attention on encounters encouraged adventure designs that forced players to battle through all those set pieces. The approach led to linear adventures, and it discouraged letting players use diplomacy, stealth, or ingenuity to skip combat. All that sunk cost in maps, stats, and setup tempted DMs to make fights inevitable.

So in fifth edition, the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme. Today’s adventures avoid framing situations as encounters. Instead DMs get a monster name in bold without any extra detail that might invite combat. Sample fifth-edition design: “This 20-by-20 room has 3 manticores. Fight them or whatever. Doesn’t matter.” I’m paraphrasing.

But combat remains part of D&D, and such lightweight non-encounters can lead to too many dull battles. Too often, characters and their foes crowd a doorway trading damage until monsters drop. If the designers aimed to make roleplaying interaction and exploration seem more appealing, then mission accomplished!

Even though the delve format seemed to foster more interesting combat encounters by lavishing more space on them, the key ingredient was rarely the extra text; the key was the map.

The delve format shined a spotlight on encounter maps and inspired designers to dream bigger than a 20-by-20 room. Better maps led to better battles.

Fifth edition abandoned the delve format, but it still features maps. Often, the secret to better D&D fights lies in imagining a better location. Not every potential battlefield merits the attention, but many do. I compare drawing the map for a likely battle to piling kindling. If a spark appears, I want fire.

Designing better maps doesn’t necessarily mean every fight needs to play on a grid of 5-foot squares. But even if your players favor narrative combat, more knotty locations probably mean sketching a rough map of the battlefield and of relative positions. (DMs, your players may not love theater of the mind as much as you do, so check.)

The 1 simple trick is more of a mindset: When you you map a battleground, start by seeking ways to favor the home team, usually the monster. 

Smart monsters will seek lairs that benefit them, but even beasts will instinctively seek the best place to ambush prey. From a game perspective, the most engaging fights will come from battlegrounds that let monsters exploit their abilities. Flyers want airspace to rise from reach and perhaps walls, columns, or stalactites to swoop behind. Giants need space to move. Intangible creatures want tight, knotted corridors with walls to phase through.

Mapping locations that favor the home team makes sense, but DMs seldom do it. Too often we fall into patterns set by the oldest dungeons. Originally, DMs like Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax drew maps, and then populated them by rolling from tables. We came to mock those monster hotels, but just about every DM has started with a map and sprinkled it with picks from the monster manual. Modern dungeons still tend to settle for that pattern. I’ve seen official adventures with beholders in small rooms under low ceilings and even an archmage guarding a hallway. Here’s a super genius who spent a lifetime making space and time his playthings, and somehow he winds up alone in a hall where he can only hope for a high enough initiative to loose a cone of cold before getting beaten to death. (His stats say Int 20, but if he fails to use his turn to teleport far away, I suspect daddy got him into wizard school.)

This old pattern of drawing a rectangle and posting a few monsters heavily favors the players. The party brings durable heroes who can block attacks, plus spellcasters and sharpshooters who can heap damage on monsters while safely behind the defenders.

Maps that draw characters into interesting locations make sense for the monsters, and bring more fun. For help designing maps that fuel dramatic battles, see D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes.

Sometimes a battlefield that favors the characters can prove even more fun than one that favors the monsters. To work, such locations must invite some bigger advantage than a defensive line at the door. While most fights at a door prove tiresome, if the players cross to such a choke point and then draw their foes there, the battle rewards clever play and brings fun. Often the most exciting battles pit characters against more powerful foes, and then add features that players can use to even the score. Classic adventures like Night’s Dark Terror and Isle of the Abbey turn this premise into sieges, where players have time to prepare a defense against hordes of foes. Whatever the specifics, players feel clever while they savor the thrill of defying the odds.

Good maps don’t help if everyone winds up crowding the door. To avoid bottlenecks, flip the usual script: Give the party time to enter a room and scatter before having the monsters intrude. Beyond that, break from the old pattern of thinking of each room as a separate encounter area. Instead, think of encounter areas as clusters of rooms, hallways, and whatever else lies in earshot. As scattered monsters sense intruders, they come from different directions. If the set of rooms includes a route that leads behind the characters, monsters can circle back and give those wizards and archers a taste. For good battles against the leader types who make the players’ first targets, let the leaders move into view on their turns.

When you map a location for a likely battle, think of the monsters, and then favor the home team.

11 Great Dungeon Master Tips Revealed at Winter Fantasy 2020

The Winter Fantasy convention fits into one hall at the convention center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Despite the event’s compact size, it delivers as much Dungeons & Dragons as far larger conventions such as Origins or Gen Con. Plus, the con offers plenty of inexpensive hotel rooms. Sure, Fort Wayne suffers an icy February, but you come to game.

For dungeon masters who aim to improve their game, nothing beats running games for strangers. In close second comes playing at other DMs’ tables and learning their best techniques. (See If You Want to Write Games for Everyone, Game with Everyone).

At the 2020 convention, I came to play, and I found myself noting tips gleaned from every session.

1. When you have to deliver background, have players roll for it so it feels like a reward.

We all see adventures that start with bullet lists of background information for some patron to recite. Often, letting everyone roll, say, a history check makes a better way to reveal such backstory. Once everyone rolls, reward the lower results with the common knowledge, and the higher rolls with the lesser-known details. See In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?.

2. Try to award every attempt to gather information with something.

I used to reveal every descriptive detail of a door, altar, or dungeon room right away. This made for long descriptions and held nothing for when players explored. You want to reward players’ investigations with some information, even just bits of color and flavor. I used to fear that holding back would deprive players of some necessary description. Now I trust that players will gather whatever details I hold back.

3. Show the written names of key non-player characters. Pictures are even better.

DMs love when players show enough interest to take notes, writing names and other details. This year I resolved to take such notes as I played. But fantasy character names became a problem. I would write what I thought I heard and always get it wrong. Even for non-note takers, seeing a name written helps scribe it in memory. Teachers write on a board for a reason. As a DM, you probably have an erasable grid surface in your kit. Use it to show names as well as maps.

For the most important characters, try to find a picture that suits them. Showing a picture makes the impression even stronger.

4. In interaction scenes, make sure players know their goal and see at least one potential route to success.

The best thing about combat scenes is that players rarely enter one without some idea of what they aim to accomplish. They have a goal and understand what to do. (Typically, kill the monsters.) Too often, adventurers start interaction scenes without seeing a potential route to success. Players flounder as they try to figure out what to do. That never makes for the most fun. See Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens.

5. You can say, “You have learned all you can here,” or “You’ve done all you can here.”

Sometimes players continue searching a place or questioning someone well after accomplishing everything they can. DMs feel hesitant to say, “You have learned all you can here,” because it reveals something the characters would not know. Just say it. If you like, you can imagine that hours more of unproductive conversation happened off screen.

6. When players attempt something, make sure they understand the odds and the stakes.

We all love when players stake their characters’ lives on some reckless, nearly impossible stunt. Whether they succeed or fail, such moments make unforgettable gaming. But before any foolhardy undertaking, make sure the players know the odds and the result of failure. I typically share difficulty classes before players roll. These DC numbers help span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and what a player learns from a DM’s description. DCs prevent misunderstandings. As for risks, make sure players know that, say, falling from the Earth mote means plunging into a sea of lava. That works better than rewinding the action for a player who heard “sea” and not “lava.” See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?.

7. For a convention game, encourage players to put their character’s name on a table tent.

Based on anecdotal evidence collected from a few hundred convention games, I’m convinced that players need about 2 hours to learn the names of their partners in adventure. Table tents bring a simple remedy. Veteran convention players know this and bring their own. I suggest bringing note cards and a Sharpie so every player can make a tent.

8. Add, don’t subtract.

When you track damage to a monster, add the damage until it reaches the monster’s hit points. Some DMs subtract until they reach 0, which seems more cumbersome to us non-savants.

9. In roleplaying interactions, go ahead and split the party.

Never split the party applies to combat and exploration, but in roleplaying challenges, splitting up often proves more fun. Rather than the player with the most forceful personality taking most of the time in the spotlight, more players participate. As a bonus, ability checks work better when just a couple of players participate.

To make the most of a split party, cut between the smaller groups’ scenes. Every role-playing game reaches moments when the players make plans while the DM sits idle. Those moments bring my favorite times to switch scenes. 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. See Never Split the Party—Except When It Adds Fun.

10. Every time you ask for a check, you write a check.

Remember paper checks? Once, long ago, folks used to pay money by writing a promise to pay on a special slip of paper. With checks, you needed to back that promise with actual money in the bank. Ability checks sometimes work like paper checks. If you ask for a check, you promise to allow for failure. This year I saw bad rolls test a few DMs who realized a failure had to succeed for the adventure to continue. I watched their damage control as they hunted for a way to drag me to success. If the adventure leaves no room for failure, skip the check.

11. Speak like a storyteller.

When I DM, I tend to rush through my speaking parts. The habit comes from a good motive: I want to spend less time talking so the players do more playing. Seeing more measured DMs proves that sometimes going slower works better. The best DMs adjust their tempo, often slowing to give their words weight. They pause to emphasize, their tone expresses emotion, and it works. Fireside storytellers and preachers show it, and we DMs can learn it. Through practice, I hope to capture some of that knack.

Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling

Even though experience points have fallen from the favor of the designers of Dungeons & Dragons, XP brings advantages proven by countless video games. XP show players steady progress to the reward of their next level. Players feel a sense of control over their advancement. With every victory, gamers see their score rise, leading to higher levels and greater power. This feedback of rewards kept gamers hooked. (See XP Started as One of D&D’s Breakthrough Ideas and XP Versus Milestone Advancement.)

As I run Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus, I’m using the story-based awards set in the text because adapting for experience points seems like too much work for any potential benefits. Still, in a more open campaign, I would opt for XP.

I suspect D&D fans undervalue the XP system. Dungeon masters tend to be more vocal in D&D circles, but we gain no rewards from experience points, so we just see a chore. As for players, seasoned D&D fans feel far too canny to fall for cheap psychological tricks. (Also, we never stay up playing a video game for just one more level, and we never become distracted by social media.)

For DMs who want the advantages of XP, fifth-edition D&D features a mostly-excellent system. Too bad the terrible part of the system—the XP awards for individual monsters—gets all the attention. Ignore those XP scores for two reasons:

  • The monster XP values hardly relate to the difficulty of the encounter. Most of encounter difficulty stems from the relative numbers of monsters and characters. Also, some monsters like banshees and shadows hit harder than their XP value suggests, others like spell casters rarely survive long enough to merit their XP.

  • Monster XP values steer players toward fighting, even when they might prefer to overcome obstacles with ingenuity and roleplaying.

As my dear Nana used to say about monster XP calculations, “The juice isn’t worth the squeeze.”

Instead of using the monster values, rate every obstacle, even combative monsters, as non-combat challenges as described on page 261 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Each challenge gets a difficulty rating of easy, medium, hard, and deadly—call that nearly impossible. If you run a campaign where players have enough freedom to seek greater challenges, higher difficulty scores match higher risks with bigger rewards. Otherwise, you may as well rate every challenge as medium. Uniform ratings free you from judging difficulties and the points even out over the course of the campaign.

By this system, look for places in the adventure where the players’ goals meet an obstacle. The obstacle could be a monster, but also a puzzling door into the treasure room, a disagreeable queen who might offer help, or an ogre with a key. The players can set their own goals with help from the adventure’s hooks, secrets, and clues.

Whenever the players overcome an obstacle on route to their goal, they earn experience for the achievement. Some solutions might pass an obstacle, but leave problems for later. Think of times when the characters sneak past a monster that remains to block their escape. In these situations, you can grant half the XP award for half a resolution.

For investigation and exploration goals, the obstacle comes from the lack of information. Reward the party for the discoveries they make that bring them closer to their goal.

Don’t bother awarding XP to the group and then dividing by the number of characters. Such math only makes sense if you count XP scores by monster, and monster XP scores assume a bogus precision that D&D can’t offer. Instead, just award each character points based on the number and difficulty of obstacles. And in most campaigns, count every obstacle as medium difficulty.

To determine how much experience to award to each character, the following table shows current party levels and the XP awards for easy, medium, and hard obstacles. Nearly impossible challenges earn as much as two medium challenges.

Current Level Easy XP Award Medium XP Award Hard XP Award Medium XP Awards to Advance
1 25 50 75 6
2 50 100 150 6
3 75 150 225 12
4 125 250 375 15
5 250 500 750 15
6 300 600 900 15
7 350 750 1100 15
8 450 900 1400 13
9 550 1100 1600 15
10 600 1200 1900 18
11 800 1600 2400 6
12 1000 2000 3000 7
13 1100 2200 3400 6
14 1250 2500 3800 7
15 1400 2800 4300 7
16 1600 3200 4800 6
17 2000 3900 5900 7
18 2100 4200 6300 6
19 2400 4900 8500 6

If the party mixes characters of mixed levels, award experience points based on the higher-level characters in the party. This helps the lower-level characters catch up. Few players will complain about advancing too quickly.

Sometimes characters need extra experience to keep pace with, say, a hardcover adventure. You can award bonus experience for bigger, story achievements. If you plan on such awards, then when the players set the goal, I suggest writing the quest and award on a note card and giving it to the players. This makes the award feel like a prize for an achievement rather than an arbitrary bonus. The value of XP comes from how the points feel to players. Such bonus XP awards correspond to the milestones described on page 261 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

In games where wandering monsters encourage characters to act with urgency, you might skip awarding XP for overcoming these foes. Wandering monsters serve to penalize players for dillydallying, so adding an XP reward just mixes the message. In the original D&D game, wandering monsters usually lacked treasure and the XP award that gold brought, so they worked as a similar consequence for loitering.

My XP table shows the number of medium-difficulty XP awards required to gain a level. This helps DMs see how quickly characters will level and helps plan the pace of a campaign. For faster or slower advancement, you can adjust the XP awards listed.

Players commonly fault XP for adding math and bookkeeping. Many close relatives of D&D adopt smaller XP numbers as a quick route to simpler math. For example, in the second edition of Pathfinder, gaining each level takes 1000 XP. But such uniform numbers might cost a system a key advantage: D&D’s steep, level-by-level rise in XP awards speeds the advance of lower-level characters who join higher-level parties. That helps new characters and players who miss sessions catch up to their companions. Characters never fall far behind their group. Pathfinder works to capture a similar advantage by  granting party members behind in level double XP.

Still, an XP system that counts obstacles rather than monsters could grant 1 point for an easy, 1st-level obstacle rather than 25. From there, every XP award would be 1/25th of its current D&D value. This table shows XP values divided by 25.

Level Experience Points Medium XP Award
1 0 2
2 12 4
3 36 6
4 225 10
5 260 20
6 560 24
7 920 30
8 1360 36
9 1920 44
10 2560 48
11 3400 64
12 4000 80
13 4800 88
14 5600 100
15 6600 112
16 7800 128
17 9000 156
18 10600 168
19 12200 196

The smaller numbers have some appeal, but they hardly merit a house rule that confuses players by replacing the standard XP advancement table.

Some DMs suffer from players who ask for XP awards throughout a game session. While this reveals the addictive boost XP can deliver, it also brings the worst aspects of XP, the bookkeeping and distraction.

Never award XP until the end of a game session. But avoid delaying the awards until next time, because you want the accomplishments to feel fresh and the rewards immediate. Review of the characters’ successes while you cite the XP awards each earns, and then the total award for the session.

Recounting the achievements and awards makes the most of the cheap, I mean, powerful psychological boost brought by XP. Players hear they did well and feel good about their accomplishments. Plus, the account helps everyone understand and remember the session. This pays off during the next session.

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

Postscript: My last post promised the XP award Gary Gygax should have used instead of gold, but this post has run long enough. That topic must wait.

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?