Category Archives: Advice

For D&D Travel, Steer Clear Of Rolls Versus Random Punishment

Dungeons & Dragons brings fun from many sources: from acting the roles of characters, from creating stories with friends, and from making choices and seeing their consequences in the game world. This post focuses on that last source of fun: Seeing choices play out, and sometimes surprise us, thanks to D&D’s volatile mix of rules, dice, and the hidden information behind the DM screen.

The choices players make during character creation lead to consequences throughout a character’s career. Every saving throw plays out the consequences of a choice made days or even years ago. But when choices quickly lead to consequences, D&D proves most engrossing. When my choice to play an agile rogue lets me dodge an explosive rune, I feel satisfied, but when I figure a way to trigger the trap from a distance, I feel pleased and engaged.

I once complained how casting the foresight made D&D less fun for me. Foresight erases the effect of a lot of the games choices. I thought gaining advantage on everything would prove fun, but it made the game less entertaining. Rather than making numerous small choices during a session to gain an edge, the wizard makes one choice to cast foresight and the rest matter less.

Originally, players rolling a D&D character faced no choices except for class. Now, players typically control every aspect of character building and most players talk about rolling a character in the same way we talk about dialing a phone. Most players like control over character creation, but that control also tempts designers to create situations that engage numbers on character sheets more than the choices players make in the moment.

Years ago, I played an adventure where the party floated on a raft down river with canyon walls on each side. As we floated, unreachable monsters atop the walls hurled down rocks and we made checks to avoid damage. The situation blocked any choices, so we could only ride along and take our licks.

The adventure’s designer surely hoped for a tense scene with plenty of action as characters race down a river dodging perils. On a movie screen, the sequence might have worked, but at the table it played as string of random punishments—an unwelcome chore.

To be fair, character-building choices factored into the outcome of the scene, but those choices came long ago when we chose how dexterous to make our characters. In a game, the most entertaining choices come in the moment. Character design choices come in second, often a distant second.

Surely some readers see the river raft scene as obviously flawed, but adventures by well-meaning authors include similar roll versus random damage sequences, especially when the party must cross from point A to B. That includes many adventures that I’ve played at conventions. Again, I understand the authors aims. After all, on the cinema screens in their imaginations, the sequences work, and besides authors learn by imitating adventure written by other pros who set similar patterns. Fourth-edition skill challenges often fit that pattern. “I learned it from you.” Sure, skill challenges offered choices, but typically with the obviously correct options of picking the skills with the highest options. Only small children find such decisions compelling.

The roll-versus-random-punishment dynamic often makes travel sequences fall flat. Suppose the party in Aglarond uncovers a lead that prompts a trip to Battledale. The DM decides to make the trip interesting and give a sense of distance by rolling for random encounters along the way. That approach creates a roll-versus-punishment sequence with only one choice: Quit (y/N)? So the party trudges on hoping to resume their story in Battledale soon.

Some might argue my point by recommending better ways to handle the travel sequence. Perfect! None of those better ways include the roll-versus-damage dynamic. They bring choices and the story to the journey, or they cut past the journey.

Just Because a Dungeon Numbers Every Room Doesn’t Mean Players Have To Explore Room-by-Room

If I had run Expedition to the Barrier Peaks when it reached me in 1980, the first session might have ended in frustration. Barrier Peaks includes lots of empty rooms. Of the 100 or so rooms on the first level, fewer than 20 contain anything of interest. I would have dutifully let the players poke through 80 rooms of “jumbled furniture and rotting goods,” gaining “only bits of rag or odd pieces of junk.” Two hours into that grind, my players would suddenly remember that their moms wanted them home.

Level 1 of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

In 1980, we ran every dungeon room at the same speed: The pace where players describe their movement and actions in careful detail because if they fail to look under the bed, they might overlook the coins, and if they never mention checking the door, they die in its trap.

Some dungeon masters then and a few now would say that dutifully running level 1 as a room-by-room crawl builds tension. Besides, Barrier Peaks includes wandering monsters to add excitement. Then as now, the pacing of dungeon exploration depends on players. Some enjoy a more methodical pace while others grow impatient for action. But even players who favor careful play will appreciate skipping the slow parts. After the players poke through three or four rooms full of rubbish, dungeon masters can summarize groups of similar rooms by saying they hold nothing of interest.

Even though modern adventures seldom contain sprawls of empty rooms, they often include locations best summarized. For example, Dragon of Icespire peak includes Butterskull Ranch, a 10 location manor occupied by orcs. Once my players defeated the orcs and nothing threatened them, I summarized their characters’ search of the house instead of forcing a room-by-room waste of play time. When players defeat the main threat in a dungeon and erase most of the peril, they lose patience for careful exploration. You can just summarize the loot and discoveries that remain.

Any site that merits numbered locations can mix areas that deserve different paces of play from square-by-square attention to cutting to the next scene.

As you pace the game at such a site, choose between methodical exploration and a summary based on the novelty, peril, and choices ahead of the players. When players first enter a dungeon, they face all three elements. A new dungeon starts with novelty because players know little about the threats and discoveries ahead. Even with all those empty rooms, the crashed spaceship at Barrier Peaks starts with unprecedented novelty. If a dungeon lacks peril, then its just an archaeological site; summarize the discoveries. Dungeons tend to start with key choices over marching order, light, and strategy. Does the party plan to explore carefully or rush ahead to stop the midnight ritual? Will they listen at doors or check for traps? Does someone scout?

Once these choices set a pattern and the dungeon starts to seem familiar, DMs can summarize the exploration until the situation changes.

Especially when you run a big dungeon like Barrier Peaks, you can switch your pace between methodical exploration and summary many times during a session. In the areas with nothing new to discover and no threats to face, take the shortcut of summarizing. Then when the players encounter something new, slow to a pace that lets them account for every action. “What do you want to do?”

For More Entertaining D&D Battles, Stop Players From Focusing Fire

In combat, tactically-minded Dungeons & Dragons players focus their characters’ attacks on one monster. By concentrating damage and eliminating enemies, they zero each monster’s hit points as quickly as possible, reducing the number of monsters able to counterattack. The fourth-edition Player’s Strategy Guide included a figure that showed the benefits of this tactic. Focusing fire offers the simplest and most effective tactic in the game. However, the tactic can make combat a little less fun.

The advantages of focused fire: 17 attacks or 27 attacks

When adventurers focus fire, battle scenes sputter out as monsters fall until the battle ends with outnumbered foes near full hit points mobbed by the entire party. 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 even while the outcome seems obvious. (For help with this predicament, see How to End Combat Encounters Before They Become a Grind.)

More exciting fights leave many monsters standing until the last round, when most of the monsters fall in a turning tide of battle. So hindering the players’ ability to focus fire not only helps keep more monsters fighting, it also helps keep combat interesting to the end.

To avoid becoming the next to die, monsters chosen as targets for focused fire typically have two options:

  • Dodge. If a monster dodges, its attackers can either try to hit while suffering disadvantage or move to another target, sometimes facing an opportunity attack.
  • Move. Monsters getting targeted can move to a safer position, even at the price of disengaging or taking an opportunity attack. Often a creature can avoid focused melee attacks by moving past the front line to attack the spellcasters and ranged attackers further back. Give the wizard a taste.

Such tactics count as common sense rather than genius. Even the most bloodthirsty monster who takes a beating at the front will play defense or maneuver to let fresher fighters come forward.

As a dungeon master, while I know the advantage of preventing focused fire, I always feel hesitant to let my creatures dodge or move. I blame loss aversion and I should know better. Creatures that dodge or disengage may lose a turn when they could attack, but dead creatures lose all their attacks. Creatures who suffer an opportunity attack sometimes die to a free attack, but just as often they live longer. Also, against characters with multiple attacks, taking a single opportunity attack hurts less. If the free attack does finish the monster, so what? You have unlimited monsters. Besides, players love when that killing blow comes free.

Related:
4 Simple Tactics that Make Cunning D&D Foes Seem More Dangerous

D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes

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.

Next post April 19. To avoid missing out, sign up to get my posts by email using the box at right.

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.

Next post March 22. To avoid missing out, sign up to get my posts by email using the box at right.