Category Archives: Advice

6 Things to Include in a 1st-Level D&D Adventure

The best 1st-level adventures make a great first impression. To start a campaign, we want 1st-level adventures that excite players and leave them eager for the adventures to come. More importantly, new players typically get introduced to Dungeons & Dragons with 1st-level adventures. That’s good because starting at 1st level makes a better impression than a plunge into the deep end with a higher-level character sporting a bewildering array of abilities.

As an introduction to D&D, I favor starting adventures that offer a sampler of all the game offers. Even at first level, I prefer adventures with a feeling of risk and with something at stake. I like to feel like a daring hero at all levels, and nothing feels so brave and scary as playing a new character risking their life to become a hero. But starting adventures need to avoid a big downer: dead characters.

By tradition, new D&D characters start as fragile as soap bubbles. The fifth edition design team felt comfortable sticking to this tradition because players lose very little play-time investment when their new character dies. Just write a new name on the sheet and play the deceased’s twin! Still, plenty of players invest creative energy in their new character’s personality and background. Even without that emotional attachment, losing a character feels like a loss. Nobody likes to lose.

If you’re reading this, then you probably qualify as a D&D fan, and I know the game hooked some of us despite new characters who died minutes after creation, but I suspect the potential fans scared away by a quick loss outnumber us. I want to win new fans to the game, not to haze potential fans with casualties.

Many starter adventures, even recent ones from the D&D team, seem to welcome the likelihood of dead characters. Lost Mine of Phandelver starts with a deadly ambush. Dragon of Icespire Peak can pit 1st-level characters against a manticore powerful enough to rout the party.

When I want to make a deadly starting adventure a little safer for new players, I contrive a way to give their characters the benefit of and aid spell. Have the priest reward a good deed by giving the party a boost. Or perhaps returning a holy symbol to the chapel earns divine favor. Five extra hit points makes 1st-level characters almost twice as durable.

Aside from such tricks, a 1st-level adventure can spare characters by including the right foes. See number 2 of my list of 6 things to include in a starting adventure.

A place to explore. The game starts with dungeons, and I like delivering what new players expect with a tiny dungeon. A size of 3 to 4 rooms leaves time for play outside the dungeon, showing new players that the modern game offers much more than gilded holes.

Weak foes in multiples to fight. Many new players will look at the spells and attacks listed on their character sheets and feel eager to test them in battle. Even long-time players like me like to see a fight or two. The ideal starting foes prove easy to hit and kill, rarely deal enough damage to one-shot the mage, and never had parents.

“Never had parents” depends on the players, but I choose foes younger players will feel happy to fight. Think undead, constructs, and plants. Spiders, insects, and the like also work, although they don’t technically qualify. These foes avoid second thoughts about what to kill.

Sadly, the fifth edition bestiary includes almost no weak creatures that qualify. Twig blights rate as best. Skeletons work well enough, especially if players learn and prepare for their vulnerability to bludgeoning, or with lower hit point versions as, say, snake or lizard skeletons. No one tries to befriend a twig blight or to capture a skeleton for questioning. You can easily reskin both types of creatures, so turn twig blights into animated furniture that deal bludgeoning damage.

A reluctant ally to win. A roleplaying scene makes an essential ingredient to adventure, but if players don’t enter the scene with a goal, then they often don’t know what to do. If the scene lacks an obstacle, then it lacks interest. Gaining help from someone who seems reluctant or even hostile feels like a win and adds an upward beat to the adventure’s drama.

See Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens and Improve Roleplaying Investigation Scenes With These 23 Reasons an NPC Won’t Cooperate

Something to figure out. Players love to figure things out. The process makes them feel smart and capable. It reveals hidden order in the (game) world, and we love finding order in a jumble. In D&D, this joy of figuring things out can come from various sources: mysteries, puzzles, and objects with unknown functions like traps and magic. For a new adventure, make the thing to figure out very easy. Just figuring out that the holy idol belongs back in the indentation of the altar qualifies. If the adventure includes a trap, make the trap obvious and the challenge figuring out how to avoid it.

See The Fun Thing D&D Players Love that No One Mentions and that the Game Almost Lost

Something magical and fantastic. Sometimes low-level adventures falter by sticking close to the mud and the mundane. If the rats-in-the-basement adventure rose above cliché, then it still rates as bad because it lacks any magic or wonder. D&D brings the fantastic to our lives, and new players deserve a taste of it. So if the villager has trouble in the cellar, make it from a gate to hell that needs closing. Bonus: Manes and lemures make suitable monsters. (Kids will have no trouble destroying fiends, but watch out for concerned parents.)

A secret that hooks the next adventure. A starting adventure should leave players with a clear path to their next outing, even if that simply means a treasure map leading to a magic sword. Just avoid hooking the second episode too early. You might lead the party away from the current goals.

D&D’s Best Monsters for Fun and Utility

I love beholders and I know most Dungeons & Dragons fans share my affection, but fights against beholders tend to fizzle into disappointment. At first, the eye beams incapacitate a character or two, so the monster feels threatening even if fear or paralysis idles a couple of players who stop having fun. But beholders can’t damage reliably enough to threaten level-appropriate foes, so the battle turns into a series of rolls to see if bad luck kills a character who suffers random disintegration.

At the table, beholders disappoint, but some less glamorous monsters prove more better than they seem at a glance. The lowly twig blight offers my favorite example. As foes for new characters, blights boast several advantages:

  • They’re creepy.
  • They’re supernatural, unlike the mundane foes that tend to appear a low-levels.
  • Even new characters can fight several.
  • Needle blights and vine blights team to ranged and special attacks.
  • No one worries about their families.
  • Not rats.

Blights may lack flash, but they make useful foes.

For similar reasons, I love giants. Aside from giants, the D&D monster toolkit includes few foes able to challenge higher-level characters without complicating battles with a bunch of special attacks and abilities. Plus giants logically appear in groups that hardly make sense for beholders, dragons, or other more exotic monsters. The simplicity of giants isn’t a bug; it’s a feature.

Gith boast similar virtues: They logically appear in numbers, threaten higher level characters than other humanoids, and don’t slow fights with complexity. Geoff Hogan writes, “I always present them as being friendly but with a culture and history that is hard to understand, so players are always scared of breaking a taboo.” Plus, elite types of Gith give DMs more options for adventures.

When I asked D&D enthusiasts to name their favorites, John touted animated armor as simple troops. “Their blindsight makes them good guards, but as programmed automatons with Intelligence 1, players might invent fun tricks to avoid battle.”

“I love ghouls because they’re dangerous for many levels,” writes Eric Stephen. The ghoul’s appearance in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide example of play “scared the shit” out of him at age 12. “You see a sickly gray arm strike the gnome as he’s working on the spike, the gnome utters a muffled cry, and then a shadowy form drags him out of sight. What are you others going to do?” I love describing ghouls with milky eyes and ragged dagger nails, scuttling to tear and feast on living flesh.

Dave Clark recommends wyverns as a lower-level alternative to dragons. Wyverns give a taste, but save a real dragon showdown for later in a campaign. When a wyvern stings and players learn the high damage total, I love the fear and surprise at the table. Does that make me a mean DM?

Other surprisingly scary monsters include shadows and skulks. Marty Walser favors shadows. “Players start crapping their pants after losing several points of Strength, which is basically the new dump stat in 5e since few people go with Strength fighters.” “I think skulks are great as terrifying tier 1 foes, and they scale well into tier 2 in large numbers because of invisibility and advantage,” writes Graham Ward. Graham notes that players who research and prepare for skulks can overcome their invisibility and prevail. That adds a rewarding story thread.

Of course many monsters shine because they feature special attacks and abilities that, unlike the beholder’s eye rays, tend to create fun battles. I’ve run several entertaining fights against bulettes. Their burrow speed lets them hit and run, leaving worried players to wonder where the land shark will next erupt from the ground and crash down.

Ropers gained recommendations. Ropers grab and reel characters, while players worry about the nearing maw and try to decide how best to escape. “Every roper encounter is hilarious,” writes ThinkDM.

Creatures that swallow characters usually create fun encounters. When characters get swallowed and then cut their way out, players feel badass and love it. Teos Abadia’s list includes froghemoths, behirs, and giant toads. Teos also favors creatures that deal damage on contact, making a remorhaz a double win.

Jeffrey S. Mueller recommends manticores for challenging, low-level fights. “A few of them can really create a lot of fun scenarios for an encounter other than the usual stand and bang it out fights.”

Some monsters flop when miscast in a typical, three-round D&D combat, but they excel in other roles. Arithmancer Ken suggests hobgoblin iron shadows as spies able to cast charm person and disguise self. If caught, powers like Shadow Jaunt and the silent image spell give them a good chance of escaping.

Eric Menge casts doppelgangers for similar roles. “They make great spies, thieves, and grifters.” He also takes a page from the Fantastic Four comics where one of Doctor Doom’s robot doubles takes the fall. “You killed the villain! Oh no! It’s just a doppelganger! Wahwah!”

As mere combat foes, nothics never live up to their creepy appearance, but as story pieces they excel. Before running a nothic, read the advice from Keith Ammann in The Monsters Know What They’re Doing. Eric Menge also likes nothics as patrols. “They’re better watchdogs than serious threats. Use them in creepy search parties or in patrols around objectives to give PCs a challenge.”

My 5 Biggest Game Mastering Blunders Ever and What I Learned

As a dungeon master, I’ll never stop making mistakes. Between the demands of the task and my own limitations, missteps will come and I try to forgive myself for them, and then learn from them. Looking back at all the games I’ve run, a few blunders stand out as the memories that my brain insists on fretting about late at night when I struggle to sleep. Most of these goofs came at conventions, where the strangers at the table added to my shame. At least the lessons from these five mistakes made me a better game master.

1. I meddle with a player’s character.

Very early in my journey as a dungeon master, the party scried the campaign’s villain, the anti-paladin twin-brother of a paladin in the group. (I pioneered connecting a characters’ backstories to the campaign in reckless ways that I would avoid now.) The anti-paladin had gained a wish and as the party watched, this blackguard wished that his brother could become just as good as him, meaning not good at all. All this seemed to make sense at the time. In my memory of the scene at the game table, I hear a record scratch. The paladin’s player stood and said, “No way. I won’t play that character. If you do that I quit.” So I improvised a reason to make the wish fail. Perhaps in the Gygaxian tradition of perverse, literal interpretation, the anti-paladin suddenly became good. Meanwhile, I learned that DMs can kill and curse characters, but their players still deserve creative control over their characters.

2. I arrive overconfident and under-prepared.

In 1984, my gaming interests had wandered from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to other role-playing games. I was not an RPGA member then, but I had run an event of my own at Gen Con, landing me on the RPGA DM mailing list. Perhaps the RPGA found themselves pinched for judges, because they asked if I would run an RPGA slot, and I agreed. The RPGA sent a dot-matrix printing of the module that would reach stores as I11 Needle.

Needle for convention DMs

Needle for convention DMs

With the confidence of youth, I gave the adventure a quick read and assumed I could return to the AD&D rules after a couple of years away, and I expected to dazzle my players. The event failed to go as planned. As we played, I found myself scrambling to read the adventure ahead, and at the end, my players politely filled me on on the rules I’d forgotten. I got no complaints, so I cannot be certain that I left unhappy players, but thinking back on this event makes me cringe. I suspect that in a box in the Wizards of the Coast headquarters sits a file transferred from TSR that includes a permanent record of any poor feedback scores I received. I wish I could run that table over again and do it properly.

Whenever I sit down as a dungeon master, especially with strangers at a convention, I feel a keen responsibility to make them pleased they spent hours gaming with me. Every time I sit in the DM’s chair, I try to redo that table in 1984 and do it right.

3. I cut short a game instead of failing forward.

At Gen Con 1985, I brought no lack of confidence despite my 1984 misstep. Inspired by Fez, I created a tournament of my own, a three-round, science fiction roleplaying event. I wrote and adventure, previewed it for friends, and recruited some to help me as game masters. This listing from the event catalog describes my game.

HOMEBOUND: 2029
Description:
2000: Begin journey to Alpha Centauri. 2012: Communications w/ earth are cut short. 2015: Alien life is discovered on Alpha Centauri. 2029: You return to a vastly changed world.

No, my blunder was not my optimistic date of 2000 for interstellar travel. I imagined an economic boom fueled by cheap fusion power. Oops. At least we have social media.

Like Fez, Homebound mostly factored rules out of the adventure. The outcome of the players’ choices came from natural consequences rather than die rolls. But one puzzle proved so hard that no one solved it. Instead, every party found themselves captured by secret police in the train station. Steeped in the unforgiving roleplaying tournament style of the time, I saw the players’ failure as the end of the adventure. In my defense, decades later I would play in tournaments where falling rocks caused sudden TPKs. Better luck next year.

But my buddy Mike also ran tables, and he improvised an escape from the secret police. He let players fail forward. Guess what? His players had more fun. I still regret creating an adventure—even a tournament—that failed to put fun first.

4. I fail to warn a new player of a risk their character would understand.

Flashing forward a few years, I was running a science fiction campaign set on a colony planet cut off from civilization and fallen to ruin. Mike invited a friend who had played some D&D and relished the chance to revisit some monster bashing fun. Meanwhile, we were playing a more realistic and more lethal game using a version of Basic Roleplaying from Chaosium. The new player decided to ambush some guards, rolled a series of misses, and then died suddenly to returned fire. Our guest player felt enraged. “I just wanted to play a fun game, and you kill me just like that?” To the new player, his character’s death felt unreasonable and personal.

Setting aside the problem of matching the game to expectations, I should never have let him take a substantial risk without explaining the danger. This became the third of my Four Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break.

5. I fail to consider my players’ emotional reactions.

Not all my mistakes come from thirty years in the past. I still learn. In 2019, I ran Blood on the Moors multiple times for the Adventurers League at the Origins convention. Players filled out feedback forms and weeks later I got rating scores. To my dismay, I scored lower than I usually do. Where did I go wrong? I only have theories, but I know a mistake I made.

D&D play at Origins 2016 with the D&D Experience in the balcony

Blood on the Moors works as a creepy adventure where players enter a dungeon and hear unsettling voices in their heads. “The characters should occasionally hear whispers they can’t block, geared to their vulnerabilities. If they have lost someone, perhaps they are whispering about their loneliness. If they did not want to descend into the darkness, perhaps the whispers are about being lost and forgotten.”

The adventure succeeds at setting a disquieting mood, and although my draft lacked a content content warning, the published version includes one. “This adventure contains themes of abandonment, grief, mental illness, and mind control. Player discretion is advised.”

I should have started the adventure by advising players of the the troubling aspects, gotten feedback on whether I should voice the whispers or just summarize the mood, and then given ways players could tell me to skip past any uncomfortable bits during play. Instead, I performed the voices.

I don’t know that my voices ruined anyone’s fun, maybe other mistakes led to my poor scores. But I know I would never run a similar adventure without taking steps to ensure every player feels comfortable.

Later, when I received my scores for Gen Con, I saw a big increase and never felt so much performance anxiety lifted.

How to Bring Player Character Backstory Into Campaigns Without Overstepping

The Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook tells players to create backstories for new characters. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything adds pages of tables to help players invent their characters’ backstories. The books‘ support for backstory makes sense: Such imagined histories help roleplay and when dungeon masters connect the characters’ backstories to their campaign, the game feels more personal to players.

Like any creative collaboration, using character backstory in a campaign proves harder than it seems. When a DM adapts or elaborates on a character’s backstory to fit the campaign, the additions might not fit the player’s vision. In a game, players only enjoy full creative control over their own characters. They deserve to keep that control without unwanted meddling, and that goes beyond not seeing people in their character’s backstory killed for dramatic effect. When a DM tinkers with backgrounds, player characters may stop feeling familiar and the players may lose a sense of owning their characters. I’m always hesitant to introduce important NPCs from PC backgrounds because I’m worried I won’t do the characters justice or portray the relationship the way the player envisioned it.

One method of incorporating character backstory works without ever returning to the people or places in a character’s history. Create new situations or characters that resemble the events from the character’s history. So if character left magic school after being falsely accused of stealing a valuable tome, put them in situations where other folks face false accusations or face exile from their home. If a character lost someone, don’t try to kill more of their family, but do create new situations that recall those memories. Such rhymes with the past help players reveal their characters.

Of course, most DMs want to go beyond mere rhymes. For a more powerful use of backstory, visit people and places from the characters’ histories. Reappearances highlight a player character’s unique importance to the campaign and follow the Small World Principle, but using characters from backstories takes more care.

I once played in an Adventurers League scenario that the DM started by asking everyone to name someone beloved from their character’s background. I named my monk’s master teacher. Later my teacher and the other beloved non-player characters appeared as prisoners to be rescued by the bad guy. The master my monk idolized died. Although I felt comfortable with the twist, this wasn’t the story I imagined.

Back when few players invented a backstory for characters because new characters died so often, I ran a campaign that included a paladin, and I invented an anti-paladin twin for the character. I liked the drama and failed to notice how trite and campy evil twins would eventually seem. I got lucky. My contribution to the character’s backstory worked. The player liked his character’s special importance as the brother of the group’s arch enemy. And no one mocked the evil twin trope. That was a different time.

Both those examples of DMs meddling in backstory ended fine, but either could have ended with hard feelings because the riskiest method for including character backstory is when DMs surprise players by plundering their histories for cheap motivation or lazy pathos. The motivation comes when, say, a character’s teacher just happens to be kidnapped for human sacrifice. The pathos comes when villain murders your character’s parents. Both combine when the DM opts to make a loved one into a villain. This I’m-your-father twist starts with a backstory that includes kind grandmother, and then ends when the DM turns her into a cult leader spilling blood for Orcus. Surprise!

Such surprises can sink a campaign even though similar twists can work fine in fiction. Writers of fiction create their characters and make them suffer as parts of the same job. In a D&D campaign such tricks can feel like the DM has forced a character into certain choices or trashed the creative work a player invested in backstory. A player could see Nana wielding the sacrificial blade and think not in my world and check out of the game. Early in D&D’s history, such stunts proved so irresistible to some DMs that many players felt most comfortable imagining their characters as orphans without a single attachment to their past.

Finding victims and villains from backstory works in D&D when the DM and player settle which parts of the backstory should be preserved in history and which parts a DM can revisit and elaborate for the campaign. Some players would welcome villains from their backstories as ongoing foes. Some might happily see Nana leading the cult of Orcus and the teacher they idolize captured despite his deadly fists of fury.

Collaborative planning does lose a potential surprise, but only to the one player behind the backstory. You can surprise the other players, the biggest audience for their story.

So, discuss ways to bring backstory into the game before play. As a DM, look over a character’s backstory and ask questions like these:

  • What characters and places from your backstory would you like to revisit in the game?
  • Based on your background, what unfinished business does your character have?
  • What sorts of situations would give your character a chance to resolve those loose ends, and how do you imagine the outcome?

None of this discussion means that you need to let players script situations and outcomes. D&D remains a game with dice, where unplanned twists can add to the fun, but the players‘ answers to these questions can inspire your preparation.

The No-Prep Way to Use Character Backstory In a Campaign

When dungeon masters connect the characters’ backstories to their campaign, the game feels more personal to players. Revisiting a backstory shines a spotlight on a character and includes them in a way that highlights a character’s unique importance to the campaign. Through character backstory, players contribute to the campaign world. Using that backstory in the game recognizes the value of the player’s creative contribution. That recognition feels great.

But the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks include no advice for dungeon masters aiming to use these backstories in play. I’m here to help.

The easiest method for pulling a backstory into a D&D game follows the techniques of another type of real-time, collaborative storytelling: improv theater. “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES,” Tina Fey writes in Bossypants. “When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt.”

Improv’s “Yes and…” principle enables DMs and players to work together to bring character backstory into scenes. Suppose the party visited Waterdeep and you, as DM, wanted to use something from a character’s backstory to draw them in. If a character’s backstory included a history as a gambler wandering from town to town, fleeing angry marks and gambling debts, then the scene might start like this.

DM: Zand, have you ever gambled in Waterdeep?

Zand’s player: Yes, and I’m keeping my eyes open for… (looks at hands) …Knuckles. I owe him.

DM: As luck would have it, you spot Knuckles going across a crowded market square. He looks your way.

Zand’s player: I walk to Knuckles and say, “Hello friend, I have an irresistible opportunity that will pay you back for what I owe.”

Sometimes players can contribute backstory to suit a scene without much improvisation, because they imagined more of their characters’ histories than the DM knows or remembers.

“Yes and…” builds creatively. The scene and the game moves forward instead of getting stuck finding agreement. Second City explains, “The basic concept of these two words is that you are up for anything, and will go along with whatever gets thrown your way.”

Unlike performers in an improv scene, players don’t need to be up for anything. When a DM elaborates on a character’s backstory to fit the campaign, the additions might not fit the player’s vision. In a game, players invest time and imagination in their characters, so they deserve to keep control of their proxies. Players can always pause the game and explain that a bit of invented backstory doesn’t match their vision.

This sort of spontaneous addition of character backstory resembles another technique where the DM has the players contribute to the world-building during a session. Examples range from asking the players to invent a distinguishing feature for a monster to having players describe the folks in the inn. That practice can become a jarring reminder that the characters live in a made-up world without any truth. Inventing or recalling backstory feels more comfortable because players feel accustomed to imagining that part of the story. The DM asks questions and the characters know the answers, even if the players have to dream up the details.

Of course just a few actors and storytellers understand this sort of in-game collaboration. Sometimes such offers stumble. The DM says, “As you eat your meal, someone you recognize from your battalion walks in. Which one grew up here?” And then the player locks up. I don’t remember anything about that, the player thinks. What do you want from me? You can nudge the scene along by spelling out the offer. “Would you like to expand on your character’s backstory by telling me the name of someone you fought beside in the last war? What do you remember about them?”

When the technique works, it feels like creative magic—the best case for connecting backstory to the game in progress.

Related:

Next: More on bringing backstory into campaigns.

The Best D&D Spells to Cast With a Higher Level Slot

Last week when I asked D&D enthusiasts to name their favorite spells to up-cast at a higher level, I learned a fault of my own to confess.

I’m guilty of choosing spells without reading the full descriptions, and I suspect I’m not alone. This misdeed always follows the same pattern: When my spellcaster gains higher level spells, I pick a couple to prepare and dutifully read the descriptions, skipping the bits at the end labeled At Higher Levels. Why bother? My character can’t cast at higher levels yet. But when my character reaches those higher levels, I never return to the spell descriptions.

So when people cited spells like command, blindness, and mass suggestion, their picks surprised me because I never realized that those spells included options for higher levels.

The spells that deliver the biggest boosts when cast at higher levels fit two categories:

  • Spells that deal damage every turn over a longer duration. When cast at higher levels, these spells typically multiply extra damage by many turns leading to big effects. I love playing clerics who cast spirit guardians at levels as high as 8, dealing 8d8 damage to every foe within 15 feet, and repeating the damage every turn.
  • Spells that add an extra target for each level cast above the base level. Often this means doubling from one to two targets with just a spell slot one level higher. Evil archmages could wipe out a lot of adventurers by up-casting banishment at 7th level to dismiss half the party, enabling their allies to kill the stragglers. However, most players won’t enjoy facing this tactic.

Warlock spells like armor of Agathys tend to scale well at higher levels, but I skipped listing those because warlocks never face a choice to cast at higher levels. They always cast at the highest available level.

What are the best spells to cast at higher levels?

Aid (3rd level) – You raise the hit point maximum and the current hit points of 3 creatures by 5. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, a target’s hit points increase by an additional 5 for each slot level above 2nd.

Animate Objects (5th level) – You animate 10 small objects. If you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, you can animate two additional objects for each slot level above 5th.

Banishment (4th level) – You banish one creature. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 4th.

Bless (1st level) – You bless up to three creatures. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.

Blindness (2nd level) – You blind one foe. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd.

Call Lightning (3rd level) – You create a storm cloud that lasts 10 minutes and can strike lighting that deals 3d10 damage. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th or higher level, the damage increases by 1d10 for each slot level above 3rd.

Chain Lightning (6th level) – You create a bolt of lighting that forks to strike a total of four targets. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, one additional bolt leaps from the first target to another target for each slot level above 6th.

Cloudkill (5th level) – You create a cloud of poison fog that deals up to 5d8 damage per turn. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the damage increases by 1d8 for each slot level above 5th.

Command (1st level) – You speak a one-word command to a creature. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can affect one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.

Hold Monster (5th level) – You paralyze a creature. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 5th. The creatures must be within 30 feet of each other when you target them.

Invisibility (2nd level) – You make a creature invisible. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd.

Mass Suggestion (6th level) – You magically influence up to twelve creatures. When you cast this spell using a 7th-level spell slot, the duration is 10 days. When you use an 8th-level spell slot, the duration is 30 days. When you use a 9th-level spell slot, the duration is a year and a day.

Moonbeam (2nd level) – You create a beam of light from above that deals up to 2d10 radiant damage per turn and that lasts a minute. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the damage increases by 1d10 for each slot level above 2nd.

Sleep (1st level) – You send creatures with up to 5d8 hit points into a magical slumber. This spell offers no saving throw. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, roll an additional 2d8 for each slot level above 1st.

Spirit Guardians (3rd level) – Spirits circle you at a distance of 15 feet, dealing up to 3d8 radiant damage per turn for 10 minutes. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the damage increases by 1d8 for each slot level above 3rd.

Spiritual Weapon (2nd level) – You create a floating weapon that you can use to attack for force damage equal to 1d8 + your spellcasting ability modifier. The weapon lasts a minute. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the damage increases by 1d8 for every two slot levels above 2nd.

Storm Sphere (4th level) – You create a 20-foot radius sphere of whirling air that lasts a minute, deals 2d6 bludgeoning damage to creatures inside, and can throw a lighting every turn for 4d6 damage. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the damage increases for each of its effects by 1d6 for each slot level above 4th.

Summon Fey, Shadowspawn, Undead and other summoning spells from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (Levels 3-6) – You summon a creature. The creatures’ AC, hit points, and damage all increased when cast with a higher-level spell slot.

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Morale Checks: Does Wisdom Make One Courageous or Wise?

In the real world, battles end when one side loses morale and surrenders or runs. Fights to the last warrior become legend because they come so rarely. In most Dungeons & Dragons games, fights routinely end with one side wiped out, often because monsters that surrender or run can spoil the fun unless dungeon masters cope with the hassles of broken morale.

If you want a D&D game where sensible monsters try to save their lives through escape or surrender, then how do you, as DM, decide when morale breaks?

Usually, DMs decide by roleplaying the monsters. The second edition Player’s Handbook touts that option. “The first (and best) way to handle morale is to determine without rolling any dice or consulting any tables. This gives the biggest range of choices and prevents illogical things from happening. To decide what a creature does, think about its goals and reasons for fighting.”

This roleplaying approach marked a break from D&D’s roots. In the wargames that led to D&D, competitors used arcane formula and impartial rolls to decide when morale broke. The fifth edition rules acknowledges this tradition by including optional rules for morale rolls. But why bother rolling? The latest edition gives no reasons.

Second edition offers a weak reason to roll. “Sometimes there are just too many things going on to keep track of all the motivations and reactions of the participants.”

Merric Blackman offers something better. “One of the big reasons to use morale rules is to provide some unpredictability. As a DM, it’s very easy to fall into patterns of thinking; morale rules allow monsters to react in ways you didn’t expect.” In D&D, the dice add an impartial element of surprise.

DMs who want morale rolls should skip fifth edition’s optional rule. The rule’s designer dutifully recognized D&D’s wargaming tradition using the game’s modern mechanics, but the result often makes no sense. “To determine whether a creature or group of creatures flees, make a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw for the creature or the group’s leader.” This works based on Wisdom as a measure of courage and resolve, but if Wisdom also works as a measure of wisdom, then a successful check would often make someone run from a bloodthirsty band of treasure-hunting killers. D&D’s Wisdom score bundles an awkward set of traits.

The 1991 Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia featured the best morale rule to appear in a D&D game. Each monster has a morale score. Abject cowards start at 2. Mindless undead, constructs, and fanatics top the scale at 12.

The book’s Morale Scores Table (p.103) suggests scores.

Morale Scores Table
Type of Personality Morale Score Range
Abjectly cowardly 2
Always frightened or very cautious 3-5
Unmotivated 6
Disinterested 7
Normal 8
Brave, determined, or stubborn 9-11
Suicidally brave or berserk 12

To make a morale check, roll 2d6. If the roll is higher than the monster’s morale, the creature either runs or surrenders. Monsters with a morale of 2 never fight, monsters with a morale of 12 always fight and never check morale.

This simple method adds unpredictability without weighing the game with calculations that only benefit simulation games. Usually though, just roleplay the monsters based on their goals and temperaments.

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Monsters That Run or Surrender Raise so Many Problems. How to Cope

Page 1 of the Dungeons & Dragons strategy book The Monsters Know What They’re Doing sets a 100% true principle that usually makes running fun games harder for dungeon masters.

Author Keith Ammann writes, “With only a small number of exceptions (mostly constructs and undead), every creature wants, first and foremost, to survive. Seriously wounded creatures will try to flee, unless they’re fanatics or intelligent beings who believe they’ll be hunted down and killed if they do flee.” Plenty of other writers see the value of surviving. Game Designer Robert Schwalb writes, “I can imagine most monsters, once they’ve lost about half their numbers, will say screw it and run away. It just makes sense. Evil doesn’t usually place a lot of stock in honor and fighting to protect their fellows.”

When monsters run, players almost always chase them. Rob Schwalb writes, “Even when fleeing seems like a good thing to do, I’m reluctant to have that happen since I know my players will chase down the offending humanoids and put them to the sword.”

Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea says, “Players hate it when the monsters run away. When a monster gets away, it’s a big downward beat.”

While fleeing makes perfect sense for most creatures facing adventurers, monsters that run away or surrender can make D&D less fun. I wish that wasn’t so, but fights to the death usually play better. Still, with the right techniques, DMs can cope with monsters that retreat or surrender. Sometimes these answers even lead to a better game.

The D&D rules handle retreat badly. Unless monsters can fly, pass through walls, or otherwise go places the characters can’t follow, running from a D&D fight just means getting killed without a chance to attack back. This stems from how D&D divides 6 seconds into turns. When a fleeing creature’s turn ends, any pursuers can catch up and sometimes even attack. Then if the fleeing creature continues running, it suffers opportunity attacks. The pattern repeats until everyone running dies. Even speedy creatures rarely outpace rogues with their cunning actions. Such chases just prolong battles the players have already won.

To give retreat some chance of success, switch out of strict initiative and use some other method to resolve the escape. The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes chase rules, but in these situations, I favor a house rule from Merric Blackman. “In a pursuit situation, movement occurs simultaneously at the beginning of the round. If a creature or vehicle wishes to spend its action dashing or some other maneuver that affects movement, then those actions are resolved before any further action.”

Such house rules clearly help monsters escape, and that means players may protest. The house rule feels like the DM favors the monsters—at least until the rare fight the party chooses to flee.

Players chasing monsters can get characters killed. In a dungeon or stronghold, letting monsters escape poses a grave risk because even a single escaping goblin can rally defenders to prepare for intruders. “The retreating goblins will go get help and turn what was a manageable fight into a TPK,” Rob Schwalb writes.

Players know the risk of total party kills too, so such situations raise questions that add tension. Can the monsters reach help? Should the characters dare to chase blindly into the dungeon and toward whatever threats wait? When players face dilemmas like these, it leads to excitement. But as a DM, consider the chance of luring the characters into more trouble than they can overcome. Don’t be too careful. Players can run too. Please remind them of your generous house rule for retreat.

Retreat and surrender makes running dungeons harder. When fleeing monsters bring reinforcements, an extra burden lands on the DM. Typically DMs can run dungeons without remembering the details of every room because usually only the delve’s current location matters. That one-location focus makes dungeons easy for DMs. But a fleeing monster raises questions that demand a broad mastery of the dungeon. Justin Alexander lists a sampling of those questions: “Where are they running to? What are they going to do there? If they’re looking for help or trying to summon reinforcements, where are the other enemies located? If they reach those enemies, what do those enemies do?” As word of intruders ripples through the stronghold, the DM suddenly needs to know every room.

To prepare for these situations, make a copy of the dungeon map and write the number of monsters in each location. Now you can see where fleeing monsters will reach allies and how the reinforcements might react to intruders. See To Run a Great Dungeon, Write All Over the Map.

If you lack such preparation, call for a break and take a few minutes to review the dungeon. A monster’s escape creates a tense moment that offers an excellent cliffhanger.

A surrender can also test a DM’s memory of the whole dungeon. Players will question captives about treasure, traps, and foes. If the captives talk, the DM needs to provide answers, and a marked up dungeon map can help. If the captives refuse to talk, the situation creates ugly new problems.

Captives lead to troubling scenes of torture and murder. In my games, I consider torture scenes off limits. Author Oren Ashkenazi agrees. “Deliberately inflicting pain on someone who’s at your mercy is a horrible thing, and it’s not something we should be doing around the RPG table, for our own mental health if nothing else.” I typically make captives cooperative because they’re typically evil and willing to betray their allies.

After the questioning, comes the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Typically, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. I like moral dilemmas that reveal character, but disputes over murdering helpless captives are best skipped. To avoid such scenes, have NPCs around who can take captives to proper authorities. How convenient!

Chases and surrenders can still drag the game. Despite these techniques for making the best of fleeing and surrendering monsters, monsters who fight to the death often make for a quicker game and fewer hassles.

Why would monsters fight to the end?

  • Adventurers bring such a reputation for blood lust that monsters choose to die fighting.
  • In D&D worlds, the plain truth of gods and the afterlife inspires foes and leads them to seek their god’s approval in death.
  • Supernatural evil or chaos drives monsters to behave differently than natural, evolved creatures in our world.

D&D asks gamers to accept some outrageously unrealistic assumptions that make the game more fun. Those premises include hit points and the notion that characters can get 8 hours of restful sleep anywhere, anytime. Add the uncanny courage of monsters to that list.

3 Reasons to Never Split the Party and How to Ignore Them

Everyone who plays roleplaying games learns the Dungeons & Dragons adage never split the party.

In the hobby’s early days, when dungeon masters were referees and players chose difficulty by dungeon level, never splitting the party always made good strategy. Parties found safety in numbers. In a dungeon stocked with encounters suited for a full party, splitting the party jeopardizes everyone.

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

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

1. Players fear encounters designed for a full party.

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

Typically though, groups split to tackle roleplaying, stealth, and investigation challenges that seem unlikely to lead to fights.

If half of a split party lands in a fight, DMs can adjust the difficulty of the foes, but leaving the opposition unchanged may play better. Players who split up despite perilous situations know they’re taking an extra risk and they feel a greater sense of peril, especially when their own decisions lead to danger. They use stealth and cunning in ways they might not with a full group, when they assume they can defeat any monsters set before them. In a way, adjusting threats steals the players’ agency by nullifying the consequences of their actions. (See How to Scare D&D Players—Even When They Play Mighty Heroes.)

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

By staying together, players avoid forcing the GM to juggle two separate narratives. But splitting attention between two groups can play well as long as each of the smaller groups faces their own challenges. The trick comes from devising situations that keep each part of the group thinking.

When a subgroup needs time to plan or plot their next move, cut from their scene to a scene featuring players ready for action. With a full group, planning means waiting for a decision while you as the DM worries that the idle time creates a slow place. With a split group, the game hurtles ahead and the subgroup facing a choice can plan without feeling rushed. The session feels brisk and pacing feels effortless!

Usually, game time between the subgroups can pass at different rates as long as the players in real time feel engaged. D&D scenarios seldom rely on precise timekeeping anyway.

The troublesome situations come when one party member wanders while the rest wait. A short scouting mission can give some players a break to grab a snack, but when reconnaissance takes too long, restless players start wondering why they showed up. For advice on handling scouting, see 4 Tips For When One Player Scouts the Dungeon.

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

A split party inevitably forces some players to wait until the spotlight returns to them. But unexpectedly, splitting the party can make players feel more active. In a smaller subgroup, each individual gains a greater role. And as the DM cuts between subgroups, the inactive players can stay busy planning their next move.

Even when the entire party faces a roleplaying scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes the player with the most charismatic character serves as the face with the highest bonus. Often the player with the most forceful personality does all the talking.

But when a party splits, soft-spoken players gain time in the spotlight. Player characters gain unique chances to reveal their character’s personality and talents. So the wizard finally gets to cast Sending and the thief gets to sneak without some armored clod making a racket.

Instead of avoiding challenges suited to split parties, look for situations where dividing the party gives everyone a chance to show their talents and to roleplay.

Typically, time pressure leads groups to split up. If the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must help. Forcing a party to divide and conquer invites everyone to contribute.

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

Cut from one group to the next every few minutes. Some DMs even set a timer for about 4 minutes. If you tend to lose track of time, then a countdown helps.

The best moment to switch subgroups comes when the active group faces a choice. While players debate their next move, cut to the other half of the table. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Such decision points typically come after the group makes a discovery or when their situation changes. These situations make players wonder what happens next, and that curiosity keeps them engaged while they wait to regain the spotlight.

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

A split party invites some techniques that help one keep everyone busy.

If two subgroups land in a fight, run both battles on the same initiative count. This keeps everyone busy while using a familiar game mechanic to cut between scenes. The technique works so well that, as a DM, I feel tempted to start a second fight whenever half of a split party buys trouble. Time to roll a random encounter behind the screen.

Delegate the non-player characters and even monsters to the idle players. For groups who particularly enjoy roleplaying and collaborative storytelling, write down a few quick notes about NPCs on a card. When the NPC enters a scene, give control of the character to a player.

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

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

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

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

If you separate players, frequent switches become more important, so the groups should be as near as the kitchen and the dining room. Make the separation temporary. Your players came to play together.

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

From Hommlet to Phandalin, Villages Written as a List of Locations Seem Ready To Run. They Lie

Villages written with nothing more than a list of locations imply that DMs need nothing more to bring adventure. They lie and I’ve fallen for it. I should know better by now.

Many starting Dungeons & Dragons pair a village with a dungeon or wilderness. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax began the custom in 1979 with T1 The Village of Hommlet and the pattern endures because most players want more than dungeon crawls in an empty world. Starting characters need a place to stay, hear rumors, gather supplies, and so on.

My mistake comes when I read keyed locations for a village and think I’m ready to run. I imagine that my players will enter town and shop, mingle, gather rumors, and, say, suspect the cult activity that leads to adventure. After all, some DMs boast of players who will enter a strange town and happily spend an evening chatting with folks for just the fun of roleplaying. Such players are a treasure.

Maybe my in-game descriptions of bystanders never prove inviting enough. In my games, the party enters the tavern, dismisses the lovingly crafted cast of characters as mere color, and then waits expectantly for me to start the adventure. (See Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens.)

To avoid repeating my mistake, I know I can’t just study the locations and stop. I have work to do. That work includes checking a few boxes:

  • Consider the players’ goals at the location and how these goals could lead to interaction.
  • For any non-player characters the party should meet, contrive events that lead to the meeting.
  • For any clues, rumors, or hooks the party should uncover, imagine interactions that lead to the disclosure.

Not every DM needs so much preparation. Many DMs improvise interactions that engage players. Mike “Sly Florish” Shea favors making a list of secrets and clues, but improvising reveals. Nonetheless, almost every DM needs to spark engagement. If you don’t, thank your all-star players.

Most villages need more than keyed locations to engage players. Here are some methods that work.

Start players with a goal

Village of Hommlet starts with this introduction for players. “You are poorly mounted, badly equipped, and have no large sums of cash. In fact, all you have is what you wear and what you ride, plus the few coins that are hidden in purses and pockets. What you do possess in quantity, though, is daring and desire to become wealthy and famous.” Gary Gygax immediately frames a goal: Shop for equipment and find ways to earn enough for better gear. To succeed, players must meet the people of Hommlet. Along the way, players learn of the Temple of Elemental Evil. You may have heard of it.

N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God (1982) pairs the village or Orlane with adventure. This one starts players with rumors that hint of evil and a mystery. For example, “People in Orlane are being altered (true), and the ‘changeling’ can be recognized by fang marks in their throats. (false).” To uncover the truth, the players must seek interaction with the people of Orlane. (See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures For Good.

Nowadays, most players create characters with individual goals, often in collaboration with the group. When players bring goals, think of ways they can lead to interaction with your supporting cast.

Add notices

Posted wanted notices make an instant adventure, but other notices can invite players to interact. How about a sale notice for a map, a magic trinket, or even something billed as a Slaad control gem? Want to buy a windmill cheap? (Must not fear ghosts.) Anything that lures players to seek folks out and ask questions works. If the players spot a “lost pet” poster showing a child’s sketch of an imp or an owlbear, the players will probably investigate. I love notice boards because they become menus of rumors and quests where players can select whatever strikes their fancy. If the players find the notices at the end of a session, you can prepare for the post they choose to investigate.

Bring non-player characters to the players

New arrivals make people curious. Townsfolk see visitors as a source of information or as an opportunity. I like having folks ask adventurers for news, usually with questions that reveal rumors. “Did you see the dragon blamed for the attacks on the High Road?” or “Did you travel past that strange storm near the standing stones?”

If the group brings a reputation, folks treat them as celebrities, buying drinks and asking for stories. People might suggest new adventures or inform on threats the party should investigate. Is the old timer really conducting diabolical experiments in his broken tower or just perfecting a recipe for the next baking contest?

A more subtle invitation can also prove potent. D&D freelancer Scott Fitzgerald Gray suggests, “In a tavern or restaurant, have one of the characters notice an NPC staring at them, as an invitation for the characters to make contact (often a stronger beat than having an NPC approach the characters). Why they’re staring depends on what hook you want to use them to reveal.”

Have someone offer to guide

People interested in learning about visitors and gaining a relationship might offer a village tour. They may even make introductions like a host circulating new guests to a party. This works especially well for guides with big personalities.

DM Rebecca introduced players to Bryn Shander by having them meet sheriff’s deputy Augrek Brighthelm, a character patterned after spitfire southern belle who volunteered to guide the group through the town. “It immediately gave the players a recognizable character they could interface with.”

Some guides might ask for coins for the service. Perhaps the party offers a few silver or perhaps they spurn the guide and he grumbles, “I wouldn’t leave your horses unattended if I were you.” How the players react reveals character.

(See Don’t Make a Pet NPC, But Sometimes You Can Play a Guide.)

Create events that foster interaction

In the Acquisitions Incorporated hardcover adventure, a visit to the town of Luskan triggers events that offer a choice of actions. “Just ahead of you, a wagon has broken down in front of a tavern. The elderly human driver calls out for help, but passersby ignore her. As she calls out once more, the tavern door behind her opens and two guards toss a young male human in bright clothing out into the street. He tumbles into the old woman, sending both of them sprawling to the ground. The door closes, then opens once more as a mandolin comes flying out of the tavern.”

I love the flying mandolin. Everything about that scene invites interaction.

Some favorite events include a fire that the villagers need to organize to quench, a panicked horse dragging someone, an argument overheard, and a child seeking a lost pet. Rescue the cat and gain a guide. Almost anything works. The thatcher might be caught on a roof after his ladder slipped down. Two women might ask the bard to judge a singing contest; neither carries a tune.

Alexander Davis offers scenes that reveal character. “Someone’s been caught stealing. The local laws against thieving are serious, and the criminal looks pathetic. Does the party intervene to save them, fetch the militia themselves, or try to talk everyone into some sort of deal?

“The local cleric approaches the party, asking for alms for the poor. He looks untrustworthy, but there are also people visibly within the nearby temple who are receiving help. Does the party donate, help directly, or even investigate the suspicious cleric?”

Some events can come from events like festivals or fairs. These can offer contests for characters to join or reveal backstory about local history.

Add visual aids

A map handout encourages players to explore. They remember the locations that raised interest even after the hunt for the cat. Sometimes, I also show pictures of important NPCs. The pictures help players notice and remember key cast members.

Artist Brandon Darrah gives extra effort. “I use over-world tokens for my maps where I draw all my PCs and NPCs. I usually draw unique/weird/cool/cute NPCs to draw in my players and that usually does it.” I’m impressed.

Related: What Murder In Balur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing