Category Archives: Advice

Before You Roll, Do the Math: A D&D Tip Inspired by Numenera

Monte Cook’s thirty-plus years as a game designer include credits co-designing third-edition Dungeons & Dragons and his science-fantasy roleplaying game Numenera, which mirrors some broad patterns of D&D. Numenera includes characters that resemble fighters, rogues, and spellcasters who gather to explore dangerous places. Players even roll d20s and aim to reach target numbers that rate a task’s difficulty. Make no mistake though, Numenera features innovations. Monte writes, “I think I have some fresh variations on some concepts that are in games now, and some wholly new ideas as well.”

For example, Monte noticed that players have more fun rolling to attack than watching a dungeon master make a foe’s saving throw. Rolling gives us an emotional sense of involvement. So in Numenera, the players always roll the dice. When players attack, they roll to hit; when monsters attack, the players roll to defend.

Letting players always roll has the side effect of eliminating the GM’s ability to fudge rolls. “If the dice don’t mean anything, then everything is predetermined, and it’s no longer a game by any definition—just a story being told,” Monte writes. “So the dice need to matter. But that means that sometimes a PC will fail when they would succeed if it were a story, and vice versa. That’s not a flaw; it’s a feature. It’s what makes roleplaying games so exciting.” Dice make roleplaying games unpredictable and dynamic. Numenera embraces that. (You may like how fudging rolls gives a GM power fit the game into a story, but Numenera gives GMs and players other tools to help shape a thrilling narrative.)

Numenera highlights the fun and drama of rolling dice in other ways. One has influenced how I run D&D and improved my games.

The rules of D&D encourage rolling first, and then adding bonuses and penalties to learn whether the roll means success or failure. The delay of calculating after the roll often robs the roll of potential drama.

Numenera puts the calculations before the roll by making things like skills and circumstances adjust the target difficulty. By the time the players throw the dice, they know exactly the number they need. Monte explains that calculating before the roll “makes task resolution–and in particular combat–move much, much more quickly if you’re not waiting for people to add together numbers (or to ensure they have all their various miscellaneous modifiers accounted for).” Even better, calculating first gives the roll an immediate significance that everyone playing understands.

Of course D&D players and DMs can calculate the target number needed for success before rolling too. Just subtract all the bonuses from the DC. As a DM, I often announce these target numbers before open rolls to wring maximum drama from a roll of the dice. As a DM under the influence of Numenera, I find myself making such announcements before nearly every roll. I’ve always rolled in the open, but when players know what the numbers mean, they pay attention and they react to the numbers.

Calculating a target number in advance hardly takes extra effort. Sure, some very low or high rolls could have skipped the math entirely. But pre-calculating often makes up for the occasional unnecessary effort in volume. If I roll a save for the 7 ghouls in a fireball and I know they need a 13 to succeed, I can toss 7 d20s and spot all the successes in an instant. If I throw the dice with just DC 15 and +2 in my head, then making sense of 7 numbers on the dice and the 2 numbers in my head takes much longer.

The most exciting moments in games like Numenera and D&D often come from die rolls. When we throw the dice, game masters and players alike surrender control to chance. For maximum drama, don’t make players wait for calculation of the results. Tell everyone the number to look for on the die.

Related: D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.

Steal This Rule: Numenera and XP for Discovery

The Tournament Adventure That Tested My Limits as a DM

For tier 2 of my Dungeons & Dragons weekend, I ran Necropolis of the Mailed Fist, billed as a “punishing one-session tournament dungeon designed for four 8th‑level 5th Edition characters.” My group relishes punishing tournament D&D games and once made the annual D&D open championships the center of our gaming year, so the Necropolis seemed tailor made. See Why the awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship should return.

Necropolis author Sersa Victory specializes in tournament-style deathtraps flavored like the concentrated essence of every graveyard-and-murder-themed heavy metal album cover. The Necropolis delivers. In the first room, one character had his eyes torn out. The adventure includes a creature called a constellation of living spheres of annihilation. For the right audience it works brilliantly, and I ran it for the right crowd.

That said, because every room includes a page or two of connected puzzles, traps, and monsters, I often found running the adventure taxing. As I flipped pages, I sometimes worried that I failed to keep the fast pace needed for maximum engagement. Confession time: I love encounters with more in play than monsters to kill, but this adventure layers so much into every scene that I wished for a bit less. I feel so ashamed. A more measured approach to heaping punishment would have limited the simultaneous moving parts that demand a DM’s attention.

Later in the weekend, when I ran a tier 4 adventure of my own making, I took the lesson to heart and eliminated some complicating elements from an encounter that hardly seemed to need the filigree.

Challenging High-level Characters Without Breaking the Dungeon Master

A the highest levels, Dungeons & Dragons lets super-powered characters travel otherworldly realms and battle threats that approach the power of gods. That grand scale lets dungeon masters enjoy the fun of loosing our imaginations’ unlimited special effects budgets, and of pitting the characters against any threat we can dream while feeling confident the players will win. But to DMs new to running high-level games, that power level can also feel unmanageable. I‘m here to help.

My last post shared advice from Adventurers League administrator Alan Patrick for improving top-level games by circling back to recapture elements that make low-level games compelling. This new post offers more help for challenging high-level characters and their players in combat while dealing with the mental demands of running tables with so many powers and effects in play.

Give the characters more to do at once. A D&D character’s limit of 1 action, 1 bonus, and 1 reaction never lifts, so while high-level characters gain more options, they can only choose a few.

Much of the joy of playing games comes from weighing options and making crucial choices. The delight and challenge of playing high-level D&D comes from having all the answers, but only so much time—a dilemma that creates interesting decisions. Every round offers a choice of possibilities. Which will best win the day?

For high level characters, Alan Patrick seeks to build encounters around multiple, simultaneous problems or challenges to be resolved. Those include battlefield traps and hazards, secondary objectives, countdowns, and other elements that demand attention. He recommends avoiding situations that simply ask characters to work to avoid an obstacle. Instead, make players choose which of many possible outcomes they should spend their energy to reach.

The final showdown of Alan’s adventure DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before presses every player to make tough choices on every turn. The main foe drains health to regenerate, so it makes an obvious target, but the creature’s allies seem even more punishing. When I played the adventure, my group struggled to decide who we could most afford to ignore. Meanwhile, many of the monsters spewed worms that posed a deadly hazard we couldn’t ignore. I found my attention riveted as I wrestled over how best to use my power on my upcoming turn.

In that encounter, Alan hit his design target.

Make the party run a marathon. When high-level parties rest, they recover tremendous resources, including new helpings of the reality-remaking 9th-level spells that even 20th-level characters can only cast once per day. If you prefer not to let the party coast through adventures because they tackle encounters at full strength and then cut through every problem one wish at a time, then time pressure becomes essential. High-level characters feature enough resources to run a daily marathon. Make them. Tier 4 adventures work best when players must face obstacles in a race against time.

Give preferred targets maximum hit points. The moment a key foe takes the field, they become the favored target for attack. In fifth edition, the sort of masterminds behind an evil scheme or capable of attacks that threaten a group also suffer from too few hit points to flaunt their best tricks. The hit dice formulas in the monster books represent a range of possible values. For obvious targets, dial up health to the maximum value.

Give the headliner a warm-up act. In this analogy, the headliner is that primary foe who makes an obvious target. If a high-level party can start fights by targeting that lead foe and unloading all their attacks and powers, the heroes will beat every encounter in a hurry. So build encounters like live entertainment, with a warm-up act that starts the party before the headlining boss monster appears.

Managing high-level battles

The threats capable of challenging high-level characters also tax a DM’s skills. Every monster, power, and hazard adds more choices and more to manage at the table. If you’re like me, you sometimes struggle to handle it all. Some techniques can ease the load.

Seek uncomplicated monsters to fill groups of foes. D&D’s high-threat monsters almost always include menus of powers that add complexity. Such creatures play fine at lower levels where one demon makes a potent threat, but when these creatures gather in the groups needed at high levels, they slow the game. The Monster Manual offers very few high-challenge creatures that remain simple to run, so uncomplicated, hard-hitting foes such as giants and mariliths prove especially useful.

Bring monsters in waves. Challenging high-level characters often means more monsters and more complicated monsters, which can mean that players wind up spending too much idle time between their turns watching the DM run monsters. Instead, add creatures in waves that come as the the players thin the foes already in the battle. The delayed arrivals maintain tension without dragging down the DM with too much activity.

Favor traps and hazards that trigger on an initiative count. Battlefield traps and hazards help challenge mighty heroes, but effects that trigger during a characters’ turn add more to the DM’s memory load. Recently, when I ran an encounter in a fiery environment that inflicted damage to creatures at the end of their turns, I kept forgetting. When I changed to inflicting damage on initiative 0, I added the fire damage effect to my initiative tracker and remembered it. That made me and my iron golems happy.

Add legendary and lair actions to your initiative tracker. Add markers in your initiative tracker for any legendary actions. If you opt to change when legendary monsters use their extra actions, reposition these markers, but the reminders lift the burden of remembering the actions.

Use average damage. In the fourth edition days, I would sometimes attempt to speed high-level battles by using average damage for monsters like the edition’s designers recommended, but some convention players felt slighted by my shortcut. Now, D&D gives average damage as the standard for monsters, so players accept it and I welcome the option to skip damage rolls. Sometimes, if a blow threatens to drop a character, I roll that damage in view of the players. Perhaps a low roll spares the character. Instead of rolling handfuls of dice for things like spells, I use a die-rolling app on my phone.

Delegate. Instead of managing all the extra demands of high-level play, delegate some of the effort to the players. Let one player track initiative, another run allies, and a third handle the hazards. You can even have someone count the damage dealt to monsters. Spreading the work makes games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain more to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun. See How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less.

Related: All the Troubles That Can Make High-Level D&D a Bitch To Run, and How To Solve Them

Making High-Level D&D Click: Advice from Alan Patrick, the DM Who Has Run More Tier 4 Than Anyone

Five years ago, the Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League administrators faced a dilemma. The campaign’s loyal players had characters that neared 17th level and tier 4 play, but the league lacked adventures for these characters. The campaign administrators wondered if they should add top-level adventures despite the smaller audience for these heights. D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast had not led with any top-level content. Some D&D enthusiasts even wondered if games at such levels would prove fun or manageable. (Spoiler: Yes.) If the league created scenarios for epic levels, then the campaign’s authors needed to experiment and learn for themselves how to make the adventures play well.

League administrator Alan Patrick learned as much as anyone. He has run more than 350 sessions at levels 17 through 20, most at conventions with tables of strangers bringing unfamiliar characters. He won experience by running for every available character type through a spectrum of play styles.

The product of Alan’s experience appears in a trilogy of high-level adventures each perfected by the author through more than a hundred runs. The trio includes DDAL00-01 Window to the Past, DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before, and DDAL00-10 Trust and Understanding.

For Alan, top-level D&D play works best when its style circles back to some of the same elements that make tier 1 rewarding for players.

Circle back to the characters’ emotional roots

New characters feel close to their roots: things like their homes, schools, families, and heritage. Often their adventures connect back to these elements. In the middle levels of 5-16, as characters leave a place like the Village of Hommlet, they visit exotic locations while rising to superhuman power. At the end of a legendary career, tier 4 characters and their adventures may deliver wonders, but the scope can rob their adventures of any emotional connection.

To remedy this distance, reconnect the characters to their humble origins, to the friends they met and locations they visited, to their heritage and home. Tier 4 adventures mark the end of a character’s career, and players feel the nearing conclusion. Reconnecting with characters’ origin adds emotional resonance to their journeys. If the character’s home is an actual place, they can return as legends and see reminders of their start. They can mirror the path of the hobbits returning to scour the Shire or the Beatles giving one last concert on the roof of Abby Road.

During a long weekend of D&D, my group played the same characters with stops from new to level 20. DM Shane Morrison ran Alan’s adventure DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before to finish the series at level 20. In one scene, we witnessed the ruin to come if we failed our mission. Shane described the doom awaiting many of the locations and friends from our characters’ careers. This moment brilliantly rooted our battle to save the world to the story of our characters. Win or lose, I knew I fought my character’s final battle, and I felt like I was fighting for something that counted.

Even while high-level adventurers look back to their start, they will see reminders of their achievement. Their legendary reputations may lead non-player characters to react like star-struck fans. Except for the occasional secretive rogue, tier 4 characters would rank as the rock stars and celebrities of their world. Getting a meeting with the king might not pose a challenge, because he can’t wait to finally get a selfie. Sample PC dialog: “Ask the royal artist to paint faster. We have a multiverse to save.”

A return to the characters’ roots hardly means that legendary heroes should fight rats in the cellar. Tier 4 merits heavy use of our imagination’s unlimited special effects budget. The Dungeon Master’s Guide offers a vision for cosmic settings and foes. “Characters traverse otherworldly realms and explore demiplanes and other extraplanar locales, where they fight savage balor demons, titans, archdevils, lich archmages, and even avatars of the gods themselves.” High-level characters have the power to do all that and still visit home for snacks.

Tier 4 characters play like superheroes, flying, running on walls, teleporting, and so on. If you drop such a party in a room where two sides trade damage, nobody gets to flaunt their amazing powers. Imagine battles atop boulders buoyed on rising lava in an erupting volcano. With lesser characters, such a battlefield might risk incinerating heroes, but the tier 4 heroes can cope with every peril you imagine, and then leave you wondering how to make them sweat despite their fire resistance.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains that adventures at this tier have far-reaching consequences “possibly determining the fate of millions in the Material Plane and even places beyond.” Such grand stakes offer a cinematic flair, but not every adventure must aim to save the multiverse. “The breaking of home is a much more emotional experience, which keeps players dialed in to the game,” Alan explains.

Smaller stakes still work well when they feel personal, and they avoid an exhausting need to raise the stakes every week. Thor and Superman may rank among the mightiest heroes of their fictional universes, but half of Thor’s adventures amount to family drama and Superman saves Jimmy Olson as often as the world. Superman stays rooted in his found family at the Daily Planet.

Return to the early game’s swings of fortune and embrace them

At early levels, D&D games start with a certain swingyness where the characters’ fates rest on happenstance and on the dice. Characters die because of a single critical hit or because they happened to stand in the line of a lightning bolt. Players have less invested in characters at low levels, so the game’s designers rate character death as more tolerable. During the middle levels, the game’s uncertainty fades. Characters grow stout enough to survive a few bad rolls and monsters rarely have abilities potent enough to force a hero to save or die.

At top levels, some of those early twists of fortune return. Words kill without a save, and botched saves turn heroes to dust. But all these levels, bad turns count as mere setbacks. I recently ran a tier 4 adventure where two heroes were disintegrated. Neither lost more than a turn during the fight. Dealing with such setbacks brings much of the fun. High-level characters have answers for every situation and players relish chances to use those powerful capabilities.

But most top-level monsters fail to deliver the same excitement.

When Alan first began running adventures for high-level characters, the obvious problem stemmed from challenging players with such super-powered characters. He explains that most D&D fans want adventures that challenge both players and their characters, but at top levels, the game’s advice and its monsters fall short.

In fifth edition D&D, characters gain hit points at a faster rate than damage dealt by comparable monsters. The foes matched against 1st-level characters make for dangerous encounters, but at level 8 or so, the game’s advice for building encounters leads to overmatched monsters. By the highest levels, the monsters can feel hopeless. (For a breakdown, see Why So Many DMs Have Trouble Challenging Players by Teos “Alphastream” Abadia.)

Sure, DMs can add more foes, but that slows fights and players wind up spending too much idle time watching the DM run monsters. Alan aims to see more player dice rolls than monster rolls.

DMs can add tougher foes, but for heroes in their teen levels, the official monster books leave few options. At top levels, even the toughest monster of all, the challenge 30 Tarrasque, makes a disappointing solo foe. The adventure Invasion from the Planet of Tarrasques resorts to multiple Tarrasques with added powers like a ranged attack, fly, or a breath weapon. After all, a level-appropriate party will often fly from claw/claw/bite, so even Godzilla needs nuclear breath.

To create more compelling foes for top-level characters, Alan raises the monsters‘ damage output until it matches the proportions of the damage low-level foes inflict on low-level characters. This recaptures some of the swings that makes low-level D&D exciting. In DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before, the Aspect of Kyuss claws for 66 points of damage compared to the Tarrasque’s sad little tap of 28 points of claw damage.

Although such numbers may seem harsh, tier 4 characters have a far stronger ability to bounce back. That quality creates additional drama at the table. Alan’s ideal for a climactic tier 4 battle resembles a bout in a Rocky movie where the heroes’ adversaries push the characters to their limits. As players face likely defeat, they call on every resource to turn the tables and win the day. When I played DDAL00-03 Those That Came Before with a level 20 party, the showdown with Kyuss matched that ideal. I felt certain the monster would kill us all, but somehow, we slowly battled back to win. Compare that to most tier 4 battles where monsters deal insignificant damage, which players dutifully track out of respect for the game. When my party battled Kyuss, we cheered every time our foe missed.

High-level D&D characters bring enough hit points to make added damage a nearly essential ingredient to any credible foe. But the high damage numbers penalize support characters who rely on concentration to help the party. Nobody who suffers 66 points of damage makes a DC 33 save to keep concentration—even though a proportional amount of damage would result in a makeable DC 10 save at low levels. I once floated a “modest proposal” for improving D&D that would avoid damage hacks, which penalize support characters. The suggestion revisited a rule that dates to the original little brown books. Back then high-level characters who earned a level only gained a hit point or two. However, even if Matt Mercer and the ghosts of Dave and Gary all approved such a house rule, players would never go for it. So instead, we’re left with the damage thing.

Next: More on challenging high-level characters. Plus dealing with the cognitive demands of running high-level games. To avoiding missing the next post, follow me on Twitter at @dmdavidblog and sign up to receive posts via email.

Related: All the Troubles That Can Make High-Level D&D a Bitch To Run, and How To Solve Them

All the Troubles That Can Make High-Level D&D a Bitch To Run, and How To Solve Them

Data from D&D Beyond suggests that 90% of Dungeons & Dragons games stop by level 10. That means players are missing out because at high levels D&D can prove the most fun of all. Sure, in older editions when characters rose above level 10, the math of the game crumbled. Also back then, everyone playing alongside a high-level wizard started feeling like Jimmy Olsen alongside Superman. But fifth edition solves the linear-fighter/exponential-wizard problem and the math mostly holds up, so dive into high-level play. The game plays (mostly) fine.

I wrote “mostly” because high-level games pose unique challenges. Don’t expect much help from the game’s designers. They focus on the low levels that dominate actual play and on making the game welcoming for the new players driving the D&D’s growth. The designers figure those of us interested in high-level play have the smarts to make the game work. We can. Here’s how.

Trouble: Characters have abilities that erase obstacles

Low-level D&D challenges players with physical obstacles: dungeon walls and doors, chasms, towers, and portcullises. As characters grow in level, they gain abilities that surmount all those deterrents. Dungeon masters lose all the barriers that can test players and channel characters through adventures. High-level characters can bypass other obstacles too. A suggestion spell makes a hostile witness tell all. A scrying spell reveals the location of captives. Teleport takes you directly to their location. Even the dead may tell their tales.

How can a DM cope?Sometimes DMs and adventure designers resort to blocking troublesome abilities. During a recent weekend of D&D, two of the three published, high-level adventures that I played nullified teleportation.

As a way to vary challenges and encourage new, ingenious solutions, you can block characters’ powers, but I suggest avoiding that technique. Instead, as a DM who is a fan of the characters, embrace their power and savor the freedom it gives you. As DM for a high-level group, you can invent nearly insurmountable obstacles, traps that verge on the unfair, and heap complications on the characters without sparing a moment worrying the that the party will become stuck or overmatched. High-level characters bring answers for every situation and players relish chances to use those powerful capabilities. High-level D&D offers an invitation to set your wicked imagination loose. You will love it.

Vary the challenges. Despite the fun of using super-powered abilities, players still enjoy obstacles that test their problem solving. High-level characters will find easy answers to some obstacles and foes, so if you want some hurtles to remain, look to vary the challenges.

This means that high-level adventures invite problems when all the monsters share a theme along with similar strengths and weaknesses. When I ran a high-level epic themed around a green dragon and its poison-spewing allies, the moment the party cast heroes’ feast and gained resistance to all poison, a 4-hour session turned into an overlong joke.

Recently, I created tier 4 encounter that started with a wave of iron golems, but iron golems suffer from a -5 Charisma modifier. A typical high-level spellcaster with a DC20-plus saving throw can cast a 8th-level banishment and clear a battlefield of 5 iron golems with a single spell that the golems have zero chance of resisting. For the next wave of foes I aimed for high Charisma and perhaps enough attacks to break concentration. Say hello to a pair of mariliths. If my approach seems unfair, remember that tier 4 parties have answers for everything. You can dare players to win and then feel confident they will. The players will solve the mariliths too, but with a different solution.

Players love an ingenious trick that wins an encounter, but they grow bored if the same method keeps working. If the same trick threatens to work more than once, consider improvising complications or devising a different sort of barrier. If the same trick could work a third time, you can invent reasons to nullify it. I’ll sign your permission slip.

Separate the keys to success. If you ever wonder why the Empire of Star Wars keeps building weapons with single Achilles heels, this advice should resonate. When you devise high-level adventures, divide the keys to victory.

Often the keys to solving an adventure include the identity and locations of the objects to retrieve, of the lairs to invade, and of the evil to smite. Typically, a lack of information rates as the only obstacle likely to block high-level adventurers from ending your adventure too soon. To protect a scenario’s challenge, protect the information.

  • In investigations, assume every non-player character, living or dead, is an open book. This means that when you decide what NPCs know, make sure that no one has all the answers the players need to skip to the adventure’s end.
  • Until the end of a scenario, make sure that persuading or killing a single non-player character can’t bring the party success in all their goals.

Expect players to skip to the end of locations. Top-level play can make dungeon crawls as toothless as flying makes pit traps. Characters bring too many ways to skip the walls, doors and traps. And 1-6 pit fiends hardly make sense as wandering monsters. For high levels, focus on smaller locations with one or two challenging encounters.

D&D used to be game that emphasized building groups with characters who could fill unique roles, including a fighter able to protect more fragile characters and especially a cleric able to heal. The design of today’s D&D lets parties operate without healers and makes every character fairly durable. But at high levels one character type can reshape what a party can accomplish. Wizards and other spellcasters with teleport and plane shift unlock the sort of world-spanning, cosmic adventures that work best at high levels. Groups that lack such capabilities have to rely on portals or patrons who provide the transportation. For me, the hardest part of designing a high-level adventure for an unfamiliar group of characters comes from rewarding the wizard’s capabilities, but not requiring them.

Next: Making High-Level D&D Click: Advice from Alan Patrick, the DM Who Has Run More Tier 4 Than Anyone

Confidence game: Why Faking Confidence Makes You a Better Dungeon Master

Some dungeon masters boast unshakable confidence in their skill, even though their games only attract players because no one else wants the DM’s chair. Overconfidence leaves these DMs blind to their flaws. I should know. As a DM, I have been that overconfident, and it led me to run bad games.

bills_tableNow I know that my skills can always stand improvement. That my next session could be a dud. That however well my last game went, I can find ways to do better. When I finish running a game, I reflect back on the session and wonder how I can recreate the moments that went well and fix any missteps.

My lesser confidence makes me a better dungeon master. Don’t tell my players. I need to seem confident.

When expert DMs name the qualities of a good DM, they often cite confidence. I agree with 100% certainty.

As a dungeon master, you channel an imaginary world to your players. When you seem uncertain about what happens in that world, it yanks the players out of their imagination and reminds them that you just make things up.

In a confidence game, a con man schemes to gain someone’s trust in order to rob them. As a dungeon master, you don’t chase anyone’s retirement savings, but your game still needs trust. If you speak of the game world with confidence, players trust you as their eyes into it. They throw their alter egos into an imaginary world and trust that it will react in ways the make sense.

For dungeon masters like me who sometimes lack confidence, this insight should feel encouraging.

If you lack confidence, you can fake it. No dungeon master always feels confident. You just need to pretend enough to show authority. No problem. As role players, we all practice pretending.

Even though you can fabricate confidence from pure bluster, I prefer to reach the table armed with the real thing. You do not need 10,000 hours of GM experience to build the sort of confidence that helps at the table. You just need to master the sliver of your game world that players will see. By doing the preparation you probably already do, you can reach the table with confidence.

As a dungeon master, you may worry that someone at your table will know the rules better than you do. Don’t let this shake your confidence. Someone usually knows more, and that doesn’t matter. In a prior Dungeon Master’s Guide, designer James Wyatt wrote, “When I started working at Wizards of the Coast, it took a long time before I felt comfortable running a game for any of my coworkers, even though I used to always DM for my friends back home. They all knew the rules better than I did, and I didn’t want to get caught in a stupid mistake. Eventually, I got over that.”

You need to know enough of the rules to keep your game moving, but you do not need to match the rules lawyer. You can delegate mastery of the rules. Have someone look up that spell for you. Let the lawyers explain the corner case. They relish the chance.

“The DM is the person who prepares adventures, plans a campaign, and runs the monsters and NPCs,” Wyatt wrote. “I don’t want to be a referee or judge, and my players don’t expect me to.”

Of course, the rules leave many decisions to the DM’s judgement.

Confidence—or an imitation of it—lets you make these rulings with authority. If your rulings seem to rely on the players’ approval, you encourage them to quibble. They start to lobby for favorable rulings. I’ve sat at tables where players see the DM as unsure. They try to wheedle advantages and the game lurches along. Despite the merits of saying yes, compelling stories require obstacles. Immersion requires a game world that doesn’t change as the DM waffles. Listen to the players, make a confident ruling that seems fun and fair, and then move on.

The secret to projecting confidence at the table lies in role playing. Play the character of a confident, expert dungeon master. A dungeon master much like you. If you come prepared to bring a sliver of your game world to life, playing the role should come easy. You can run a great game. Your players sat to roll some dice and have fun. They want you to succeed.

This post originally appeared in October 2016.

Add Tension and Interesting Choices to D&D Adventures With This Potion

In an adventure that features a race against time or against unseen ememies, players will ask if they have time to rest,  search, or prepare. If the adventure lacks a way to reveal how much time remains, such decisions become guesswork. Informed choices make roleplaying games fun, but guessing can just feel frustrating. Players wonder if their blind decisions really matter or if their choices just get ignored so the session tracks a narrative. Often, story conventions win, so choices don’t matter. How often do parties of adventurers reach a diabolical ritual seconds before its completion? Such luck! All those guesses led to the most improbable, dramatic conclusion. (I don‘t condemn it; I’ve done it.)

The movie version of the race to foil a ritual would cut speeding characters against shots revealing the cultists’ nearing success. For drama, a dungeon master could take the storytelling liberty of describing events the characters can’t see, but that gives players actionable information their characters lack. To play in character, does the group have to pretend they don’t know what they can’t know?

Potions photo by Jan Ranft

Some years ago, the multi-table epic adventure Return to White Plume Mountain suffered from such an information gap. In it, some tables worked to create a distraction to divert foes from other groups who might otherwise be overwhelmed. At the end of the adventure, groups that drew more foes faced more monsters. The best strategy balanced making some distration without drawing a lethal amount of attention. But the players lacked feedback revealing the rising threat they faced, so I wished for some divination magic that would give players a better sense of how their actions shaped their future.

I’ve considered all this as I prepare to run the adventure Necropolis of the Mailed Fist, a “punishing” tournament adventure sure to be relished by a particular group of gluttons for punishment. Author Sersa Victory favors competition over immersion by sometimes telling DMs to make metagame announcements or to issue challenges:

“Announce to players that ‘the constellation of living spheres of annihilation has been awakened!’”

“Tell characters that they have one minute to choose between supremacy for themselves or subjugation for their enemies.”

I imagine an unseen narrator’s announcements sounding across the necropolis, and the characters looking quizzically for the source, Instead, I want a way to bring these announcements out of the metagame and into the game world.

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons scenarios would play better when the players gain feedback that would lead to interesting choices and added tension. Often, the characters have no ordinary way to get that information. Fortunately, D&D characters live in a magical world where divination exists.

Potion of Omens
Potion, rare
After drinking this potion, you begin seeing visions or hearing phrases that reveal your progress toward whatever short-term goal you feel is most important. These omens may also reveal the most likely outcome of current activities meant to reach the goal. The DM chooses the frequency and the exact nature of the omens. The effects last for 10 days or until your goal changes.

By providing the capability in a potion, the DM controls access, so when a mission works better with extra information, characters can happen upon a potion that helps.

How to End Combat Encounters Before They Become a Grind

Every Dungeons & Dragons player experiences a battle that drags near the end, when the monsters have spent their best attacks and lack the numbers to threaten the PCs. As a dungeon master, I want to cut to the next scene, but thanks to focused fire, the remaining monsters stand near full health. Players won’t spend any resources on a fight that seems won, so they chip away with cantrips and basic attacks. The battle wears on.

After a battle’s outcome becomes obvious, the game can drag. I have had many chances to test ways to move on. Some of my schemes have worked better than others.

Endings to avoid

Avoid having monsters flee or surrender. Some argue that monsters would possess a sense of self preservation. That in the face of death, they would flee or surrender. I used to agree, but then I learned that bloodthirsty treasure hunters never show mercy.

Having monsters flee or surrender seems like a quick way to end a battle, but neither tactic saves time. PCs always pursue fleeing monsters, resulting in a chase. Only have monsters flee when you want a chase, or when the PCs simply cannot follow.

Surrender leads to an ugly interrogation scene followed by the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Finally, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. (If you have never run these scenes, welcome first-time dungeon master!)

Sometimes, a surrender can lead to an interesting role-playing scene, or a real dilemma. Usually this requires foes who can (a) trade for their lives or (b) offer a good reason they should be freed. In these cases, a surrender can enrich a game by creating interesting choices. See Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing. Nonetheless, surrender never saves time.

With either a chase or a surrender, you spend 30 minutes to save 5.

I suspect that in the monster community, word has spread about murderous treasure hunters and their rogues and paladins. Better to fall in battle than to die on your knees or with a knife in your back.

Don’t call the fight. When a winner becomes obvious, some DMs recommend calling the fight. Just sweep the monsters off the map. This fix seems tempting, but players hate it.

As a DM, you know more about the monsters’ conditions than the players. You may see an obvious win, while the players still feel tension. To players, the fight remains undecided and they want to play to the end.

Even when everyone sees the inevitable, calling a fight jars the players out of their immersion in the game world. It leaves players feeling robbed of a victory they earned. “When a player rolls a successful attack, deals damage, and the bad guy dies, that’s something that THEY did. They own that moment,” writes Justin Alexander. “If you, as the GM, interrupt that process, and declare a fiat success, you take that moment away from them: They didn’t kill the monster; you did.”

“As DMs, we might get tired. We might get frustrated because the PCs dominated what otherwise would have been a tough fight,” Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea writes. “Don’t spread your disinterest to your players, revel in their excitement! Be fans of the PCs and come up with interesting ways to end the battle in a powerful in-story conclusion.”

In the worst time crunch, use narration to ease players out of the scene and give some sense of victory. Describe the characters’ final strikes—or invite the players to tell the tale.

Endings to use

Plan an out. The best combat encounters feature an objective different from kill all the monsters. Charactrers attempt to stop a ritual, defend a wall, close a dark portal, destroy an artifact, steal the brain in the jar, or accomplish some other task. Dave “The Game” Chalker calls this The Combat Out.

Often completing the objective returns undead foes to dust, turns summoned foes to mist, makes constructs inanimate, or causes the cultists to rout. Unlike most combat encounters, if the losing foes surrender or run, the players may skip the torture and chase scenes. After all, the victorious players have no information to gain. And if the heroes insist on bringing the fleeing cultists to justice, nobody minds if the DM summarizes that endgame.

Turn monsters into minions. You can bring a fight to a quick end by silently deciding that all the monsters stand at only 1 hit point. The next hit kills. I used to feel conflicted about this technique because it felt like a way for a DM to steer the game—I want the players’ actions and the dice to decide the characters‘ fate. But the characters have settled their fate and won. Rounding up their damage rolls to let them quickly finish monsters just gives the players a victory lap.

Let everyone roll at once. Near the end of a battle, typically only one type of monster remains—often just one creature at nearly full health. These survivors all act on the same initiative count, then all the players act. This situation permits my favorite way to close a battle: everyone roll at once. By now, the outcome has been decided, so no one would waste a spell slot. No player’s action requires my full attention. I announce the monsters’ armor class and invite everyone to roll their attacks and damage at once. If you need to move, just do it. I call out names in initiative order and tally damage. In the time usually spent on one turn, all the players act.

This post updates and improves on a version that appeared in 2016.

Two Ways to Exploit D&D’s Ready Action In Tricky Ways

Usually, D&D games feel the most fun and immediate when the game’s rules aren’t the center of attention. So for example, the fifth edition uses the blunt simplicity of advantage and disadvantage instead of the fussy lists of pluses and minuses found in prior editions. But the Ready action adds rules where players and dungeon masters can wring benefits by exploiting the game text. Using these tricks throws a spotlight on the game’s rules and might send players to the books or to search for rulings from lead designer Jeremy Crawford, so the tricks don’t fit every table.

A Dungeons & Dragons round unravels 6 seconds of mayhem where combatants all fight at once into turns played at the game table. The ready action lets players hesitate a moment to take an action outside their usual turn. Since all the turns in a round share the same 6 seconds, Ready actions leave space for wonky rules exploits.

Use this one weird trick to avoid counterspell

You cast counterspell as a reaction “you take when you see a creature within 60 feet of you casting a spell.” So if you cast a spell out of sight, no foes can counter it. “When you ready a spell, you cast it as normal but hold its energy, which you release with your reaction when the trigger occurs.”

To avoid a counterspell, just ready a spell by casting it around the corner or beyond the 60-foot range of a counter, and then choose to trigger the action when your target comes into view or within range of your spell. Jeremy Crawford writes, “Counterspell foils the casting of a spell, not the release of a spell that was cast previously using the Ready action.”

Nothing in the ready action prevents you from readying and then moving while concentrating on the ready spell. As an added bonus, readying a spell out of view enables you to release it without the mystic movements or words that would expose you as the source of the spell. Of course, with many spells, something like flames jetting from your fingertips reveals you as the caster.

Although this exploit works, I never use it because—despite Jeremy’s defense of the rules as written—it feels like an unintended consequence of the fifth edition text, allowing a trick that only a rules lawyer could love.

Slow ranged attackers by a third just by moving out of sight between turns

Creatures in fifth edition D&D can move into view, fire an attack or spell, and then duck back into complete cover. Such duck-and-cover tactics make the most effective defense against ranged attackers who can’t shoot through walls and other obstacles. The typical archer has to choose between two options:

  • Circle the obstacle and potentially move dangerously close to the target.
  • Ready an attack for the moment a target pops into view.
archer photo

Photo by Alireza Sahebi

Few D&D players appreciate how much using a Ready action hurts their ranged characters. Combatants forced to ready attacks suffer from two disadvantages that tend to fall more heavily on players.

  • The Extra Attack feature only works “when you take the Attack action on your turn.” Because Ready actions trigger on another creature’s turn, a character with Extra Attack who readies an Attack action only gets a single attack despite the feature.
  • The Ready action only lets you postpone an action, not an action plus a bonus action, so characters typically able to trade a bonus action for another attack lose that addition.

Combined, this means that martial characters who typically attack three times per turn thanks to the Extra Attack feature and feats like crossbow expert can only ready a single strike.

Because most adventuring parties include ranged attackers who can prove brutally effective in fifth edition, this technique tends to bring more advantages to DMs. But should DMs use this bit of rules mastery to frustrate players? If the party lacks characters with the Sharpshooter feat, I opt for just keeping foes in sight to gain the simple benefit of cover. But Sharpshooter negates cover and ranks as the most efficient feat in the game, so against it, I reluctantly adopt tactics that force players to ready actions.

Tip: Plant Character Knowledge Before the Game

Characters in Dungeons & Dragons worlds bring knowledge that players lack. And that knowledge goes beyond sword swinging and spell crafting. Rolls that call for religion, nature, arcana, and history all check a character’s in-world knowledge. Sometimes characters know better than players. For example, as a DM, I warn players whenever their characters’ knowledge of the world says that a particular monster will likely kill them in a fight. Maybe your 1st-level characters shouldn’t attack the manticore.

For my latest game, I planned an investigation where the characters’ knowledge might help connect clues and would certainly provide perspective. For instance, the players could succeed without knowing Zuggtmoy and Lloth feuded as hated rivals, but that tidbit would help explain a discovery on the Abyssal plane of Shedaklah. I preferred not to interrupt the narrative for a Religion check and information dump. (Believe me, when the characters made the discovery, nobody wanted to pause for my lecture on religion.) I considered planting the lore in the world, but describing, say, an open book turned to a page about the rivalry seemed forced at best. So I adopted a tip from DM Tom Christy.

Before an adventure, Tom considers the essential backstory and pertinent lore that might arise, and then reveals it to individual players before play. “I love to find out which characters are trained in pertinent skills, and then feed their players information ahead of the session.” This knowledge can come from skill proficiencies but also from each character’s background, nature, and outlook. For instance, the druid knows of the cursed trees surrounding the grove, while the dwarf knows about the flooded mine.

During the game, players can share their knowledge in-character. When a player reveals knowledge, Tom rewards inspiration.

slips containing written adventure background information

For my latest adventure, I wrote the useful bits of game-world lore on slips of paper. Before the game, I awarded the slips based on the characters’ experience in the world. So the elf who knew religion got facts about the demon queens. These tidbits even included personal information about a key non-player character one adventurer would have met.

I explained, “These slips list things that your character knows. Right now, they’re just some of the countless facts you happen to know. Sometime during the adventure, this information may become pertinent, and then you should share it.”

This technique boasts key advantages: The information sharing comes when players find it important and feels organic to the in-world narrative. More importantly, players get the spotlight to share lore as their character instead of just having the DM tell what characters know. DMs already spend enough time talking.

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