Category Archives: Advice

Narrating Combat, Actions, and Outcomes

In roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, not all of a dungeon master’s descriptions set a scene. DMs spend even more words describing the results of actions, often during combat. That narrative demands the skills of a radio play-by-play announcer describing the events in a sporting event, except the DM imagines the scene.

Photo by Fringer Cat on Unsplash

For a strong RPG play-by-play, feature the characters—player and non-player, but mostly player. No sports play-by-play announcer just talks about the ball. Folks tune in to hear about players and their athletic mastery. Likewise, the players at your table want to hear about their characters and their prowess.

For captivating descriptions of actions and outcomes, focus as much on a character’s actions as you do on the outcome. If the barbarian jumps a fissure and rolls a hit, tell how she vaults across the chasm while winding back her great sword, and then describe the blade cleaving into the beholder’s carapace.

We DMs tend to slant our descriptions to the game world and to avoid describing the player characters. It feels polite to avoid other people’s toys. But a DM doing play-by-play lets the players keep control. Your description comes after a player explains their character’s action and after the dice determine the outcome. Just relate the deed and its outcome with the most captivating description you can muster.

As a DM, spot the moments when characters do some remarkable feat. The characters represent extraordinary heroes, so those feats should come often. Put game time into slow motion and lavish description on the heroics. Make it awesome.

But shouldn’t players describe their own character’s exploits?

Players absolutely can contribute descriptions for their characters. As a player, you know your character better than anyone, plus you decide their actions. If you want other players to pay attention to your turn, try describing your character’s deeds as a play-by-play. You can even describe what the character feels. I promise that the others at the table will look up and listen even when they would normally tune out.

As a DM, you can encourage players to describe their characters’ heroic moments. Some players relish the chance. For others, such a performance makes them uncomfortable. That’s okay.

Have you ever overheard people talking about how well you did something? It’s the best feeling. Hearing the DM as play-by-play announcer describe your character’s exploits captures some of the same joy.

When a character does something noteworthy, give a short, vivid description of the event—or invite the player to describe it. Some DMs ask players to describe their kills. D&D includes a lot of kills, so for my taste, describing them all becomes tiresome and too gruesome. Especially with kids at the table. Especially when those kids set their imaginations loose. Besides, your play-by-play should center on character rather than severed arteries. Instead, focus on describing the big spells, stunts, transformations, setbacks, and feats of valor.

Even when the characters fail, describe them as talented and skilled heroes who come short because of the difficult challenges they face. In the first Rocky film, the hero loses, but against the odds, the outcome feels like a triumph. So a miss comes from a foe’s supernatural agility or the flying ash stinging a character’s eyes, rather than a botched swing. Avoid turning a roll of 1 into a comic fumble. Such descriptions might get some cheap laughs, but they turn characters into buffoons, rather than legends.
See When You Describe Outcomes, Flatter Your Game’s Heroes and Monsters

Your game’s villains deserve the same flattering descriptions. After all, dangerous threats add a sense of peril to the game. And heroes must defeat deadly foes instead of cupcakes. So look for villainous moments—badass occasions when your monsters get to flaunt their menace. Think of Darth Vader demolishing rebels in pursuit of the stolen Death Star plans. D&D monsters typically arrive outmatched by heroes, so make the most of every badass turn. Legendary resistances invite villainous moments by letting foes shrug off a hero’s best shot and laugh at the character’s weakness.

Much of a DM’s play-by-play comes during combat scenes. For that, narrate every turn with two steps:

  1. Describe the turn by capturing the character’s action and its outcome. Step 1 centers on the characters and their deeds.
  2. Set up the next turn by calling the next player to act and by spotlighting the most threatening foe or urgent crisis on the battlefield.

For step 2, look for the part of the battle that poses the most urgent threat to the party. Perhaps foes have the rogue surrounded, or a character lies unconscious, or a sentry runs to sound an alarm. This step gains both practical and dramatic benefits. As a practical gain, you call the next player to attention and focus on the most pressing threat in the battle. Inattentive players get a quick review that helps them choose an action without dithering. As a dramatic gain, you build the sense of peril and strengthen the urgency players feel.

If nothing stands out as particularly urgent, then use step 2 as a chance to describe the threat of a foe or to act the role of a villain. Speaking for your villains transforms them from bags of hit points into enemies. In comics, villains mock the fools that oppose them, and we hate them for their contempt, arrogance, and cruelty. Some of the fun Dungeons & Dragons comes from crushing evil. Good dialog makes your villains seem more real, more detestable, and more satisfying to crush.

Plus you can reveal the monsters’ tactics through dialog. The ogre might say, “You hurt Grug, so I smash you.” The necromancer might say, “Barbarian, I have just the enchantment for weak-willed cretins like you.” This reframes the battle from the us verses the game master into us verses the monsters. I want players invested in their characters, but when I single out their character for attack, sometimes it feels personal. If the monsters explain themselves, the GM starts to disappear.

Sometimes to speed play, you can skip a narrative step. Not every blow merits careful description. Even if some chatterbox DM could manage so much commentary, such a detailed account would cause a fight to drag. Who could keep thinking of new ways to describe a few points of damage? Even the best play-by-play announcers sometimes just say, “It’s a swing and a miss.” Save the vivid descriptions for the bigger moments. Often, just a quick tally of damage suffices.

The static moments of a battle where foes simply trade blows can probably speed by without recaps.

When I used to run combated scenes, I avoided talking any more than absolutely necessary. I feared slowing the game’s pace. But I’ve learned that adding a few lines between turns rarely slows the tempo. Often, giving brief notice of the most urgent peril in the battle spurs players to act more quickly.

Plus the action seems more vivid, dramatic, and exciting, and that’s not nothing.

Descriptions That Dare Players To Act Create a Brisk Tempo

As a dungeon master, your narration stops when players understand enough of a situation to make a decision or to act. The best narration invites action, which circles back to the goal of shorter descriptions that lead to more back-and-forth with players. The quicker a description baits players to act, the sooner DMs can stop talking and players can do something. Most players like their turn to talk best. This gives the screenplay for Your D&D Game—The Movie an optimal shape, with lots of back-and-forth dialog.

When the players enter a new location, I withhold some easy discoveries from my first description. This gives players more to learn as they talk and investigate. This rewards action and leads to a more interactive game. For example, if the room has a mosaic, I’ll skip a detailed description, and instead assume someone will take a closer look.

Much of the key to having shorter descriptions comes from baiting short descriptions with details that inspire action or at least follow-up questions. For fantastic locations, the bait comes easy, but for more ordinary places include one or two unexpected details that can lead players to intact. A kitchen might seem wholly uninteresting, but if the chef snores on the floor and birds have entered an open window to peck at bread, then the players take an interest. Even something like a burning pan spurs action. In more ordinary situations, aim for two unexpected details that might interest players. This doubles the bait and gives players a choice.

When players take the bait and look closer, try to reward their interest with some tidbit of information, perhaps a useful clue or some of the story behind the adventure. Really any discovery no matter how small will encourage curiosity. Sometimes though, if you want players to feel uneasy or you aim to build a sense of mystery, you can raise questions without answers.

How well such tantalizing descriptions lead to action depends on the players. Some groups eagerly follow every reveal with activity or at least with enough curiosity to ask follow up questions. Other groups just listen patiently for the words, “Roll initiative!” For those groups, you must adjust by giving longer descriptions that skip the small choices and instead stop at the big decisions that steer the adventure. Players: If your DM keeps giving monologues, that could be your fault. Perhaps your character should become more eager to interact.

A good introduction to a scene starts with an invitation to action, so a description that fails to inspire action might predict a weak scene. You may have a dull location if you have to ask, “What do you do?” Some locations deserve two interesting details that inspire action, but many locations only deserve a summary.

Traditionally D&D players explore locations room by room, so we DMs dutifully let a party poke through all the numbered locations in a site, even when none include obstacles or require decisions. If the characters kill the monster in the attic, and then start exploring the rest of the house, and if you know the investigation requires no meaningful choices, then just summarize and skip to the next choice. “You search the house and only find rubbish and cobwebs, but a scroll case from the library captures your interest.”

Another warning sign comes when a description ends with a choice that leaves players indifferent. A simple option between two, interchangeable doors feels like no choice at all. The players have no basis for a decision. Worst case, they discuss the non-choice for five minutes because no one wants responsibility for picking heads or tails. But describe metallic scraping past one door and water seeping from under the other, and the small details make the choice interesting.

Ending descriptions with the one or two things you expect to inspire action gives insightful players metagame clues about what’s important. This fits with how DMs give more description to things of interest or importance. This is not a bug. Think of this as good and useful. That focus keeps adventures from becoming mired in minutiae.

Sometimes you might intentionally use metagame clues to draw attention. If you want someone to notice the secret door, you might even make eye contact with the dwarf as you describe some newer stonework. To players, the clue seems like the reward of having a dwarf’s keen eye for masonry. Even if the party lacks a dwarf, a lavish description of bricks will likely lead a player to look closer. Your descriptions acknowledge that the characters live in the game world and bring experience and perception that the players and your mere words cannot match—even when you include all five senses.

Next: Describing the outcomes of actions.

End Your Descriptions With Something That Inspires Players To Act

In roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons, the game master’s descriptions often end with a question: “What do you want to do?” Sometimes we skip the question, but even unspoken, that question forms part of the game’s play loop where dungeon masters depict a situation, and then players act on it.

As a DM, you stop talking when (1) players have something to do or a decision to make and (2) the players understand enough to make a sensible decision. The barbarian needs to know about the lava-filled trench before making the choice to charge the dragon. All this may seem obvious, but it leads to some less-obvious advice.

When you set a scene, the end of your narration should highlight something that dares the heroes to act. The best narration can skip the what-do-you-want-to-do question because they leave players eager to take action. Sometimes, that invitation to action comes from the monsters in the room. More often, some curious feature simply begs a closer look.

When you set a scene, describe the things likely to spur the players to action last. This rule applies to the monsters in the room, so describe the dragon last even though the characters would likely notice it first. Once a description includes something like a dragon that demands action, players start considering their next move instead of paying attention to the ongoing description. So the barbarian pays no attention to that trench filled with lava. Minutes later, the DM has to stop play to rewind the raging charge attack and describe the room again. The battle loses momentum.

A combat scene can’t start with the monster and skip the description until after the fight. To act, players need to know about terrain, cover, hiding places, hazards, secondary objectives, and interactive objects. Fights with none of those elements often prove dull. None of that description can wait until after the battle, so lead with the glowing sigils, lava, and ballistas before describing foes.

The old habit of describing monsters first led to t-shirts that read, “I didn’t ask how big the room is. I said I cast fireball.” In D&D’s early editions, a fireball confined to a tight space could blow back and damage player characters. (See Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve.)

Some DMs advise starting descriptions with the monsters because characters would surely notice the threats first. But this advice ignores the limitations of describing with words. With a glance, our characters in the room notice its key features. At the game table, we need a minute of talking to paint the same picture. DMs can bridge some of that gap by showing pictures or revealing maps or terrain, but we can never recreate all the immediacy of opening a door and spotting a dragon.

Still, describing the monsters last can feel like burying the lede. The dragon rearing back to breathe acid feels like an awkward ending for a description. “Didn’t we notice the dragon before, FFS?” For the best reveals, keep the monster out of sight long enough for the players to picture the room before the threat appears from the shadows or from some other concealment. Even more compelling descriptions can hint at an unseen threat (churning water) before the dragon erupts from the lake, showering the party with icy water. (That description scores extra points for including the sense of touch with an unexpected detail.)

Even when nothing hides the threat, at least describing the monster last lets players react immediately to it rather than forcing a delay for more description. This reinforces the urgency of the danger.

For demands for action weaker than a hostile monster, describing an invitation to action last tends to give players an obvious choice to act on. Rather than trying to recall, say, the strange idol mentioned in the middle of a description, players immediately investigate that object.

Next Tuesday: How descriptions and decision points lead to an engaging tempo. To avoid missing out, sign up to get my posts by email using the box at right.

How To Make Descriptions Vivid and Evocative

During a Dungeons & Dragons game, vivid description encourages immersion, a sense of living in the fictional world. Still, long descriptions can make players feel impatient as they wait for their chance to act. This leads to two goals for dungeon masters narrating adventures.

  • Wring the most vivid, evocative narration from the fewest words.
  • Try for shorter descriptions that lead to more back-and-forth dialog with players.

My last post explained those goals; this post starts advice to help reach them.

Find vivid and evocative details.

In your descriptions, work to include two or three of the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Descriptions will almost always include sight, and virtually never include taste. That leaves sounds and smells as vital second impressions. In a dungeon, sound can prove particularly evocative. Do characters hear the distant roar of an underground waterfall, echoing voices in some unrecognizable language, the thrum of machinery, or just a slow patter of dripping? Touch comes in with heat, cold, and the wet squelching of water in boots as you plod through mud.

Describing senses beyond sight brings a second benefit: Those details often seem fresh enough to be interesting, but also common enough to feel familiar to players. When you imagine a swamp, details like the water squelching between your toes rarely comes to mind, but everyone knows how that feels. That makes a powerful description. The best descriptions capture a bit of the funny-because-it’s-true vibe of observational comedy. If your descriptions simply include the obvious, they never spark imagination.

Details grounded in ordinary experience can make descriptions of fantastic locations vivid and relatable. To describe an iron fortress over a lake of molten metal on the Abyss, mention the flurries of soot swirling in the air and the acid smell of ash. Such a description takes the imagination further than the obvious: “It feels hot. Really, super hot.” (🗹 touch.)

The sort of familiar-but-unexpected details that make the best descriptions work because the rarely come readily to mind. That quality makes them difficult to improvise. To prepare for a strong descriptions, think of two evocative details before the game and jot them down. Don’t bother scripting box text; you only need ideas to elaborate at the table.

Just two evocative details typically proves enough. When people see a list of two items, we spot patterns and let our imaginations expand the list. Many jokes use our tendency to create humor. The gag sets a pattern with two instances, and then makes a surprising turn with a third addition. Descriptions that include just two evocative details can rely on the listener’s imagination to paint more of the scene.

Aim for precise description.

The more specific the words and details you use for your description, the more vivid the picture the words create. Words like goblet, carpenter, and rhino create stronger mental images than cup, worker, and animal.

Focus your descriptions on single, representative things, and then widen to groups. Describe the milky eyes, needle teeth, and filthy yellow nails of the first ghoul to climb the side of the boat before mentioning that five more follow.

Favor impressions over big numbers and measurements. An army where the campfires stretch to the horizon like a starry sky makes a bigger impact than a force of 10,000. A spider the size of an elephant paints a more vivid image than one described as eight feet tall.

Stop your descriptions when players know enough to act or make a choice.

In roleplaying games such as D&D, the DM’s descriptions often end with a question: “What do you want to do?” Sometimes we skip the question, but even unspoken, that question forms part of the game’s play loop where DMs depict a situation, and then players act on it.

As a DM, you stop describing when (1) players have something to do or a decision to make and (2) the players understand enough to make a sensible decision. The barbarian needs to know about the lava-filled trench before making the choice to charge the dragon. All this may seem obvious, but it leads to some less-obvious advice.

Next Tuesday: Less-obvious advice. How descriptions and decision points lead to crackling dialog in Your D&D Game—The Movie.

Narrating Your D&D Game: The Essentials

Everyone can describe things, which makes narration seem like a skill everyone does naturally, but we have all played with dungeon masters who fumbled the task. I’ve been that DM, although I hope not recently. After decades of running games, my narration skills have improved, even in the last few years, and I plan to keep learning and improving. This post starts a series that shares what I know.

In a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, the characters’ experience—what they see, hear, and otherwise sense—reaches the players through the DM’s descriptions of the game world. Vivid description encourages immersion, a sense of living in the fictional world. That makes strong narration a vital part of a great adventure. But books of game mastering advice rarely give the topic much attention. Perhaps the authors include a paragraph urging descriptions that include five senses, and then move to fudging dice. Narration seems to defy advice, but no source of GM advice lacks an opinion on fudging.

Nonetheless, if description falls flat, heroic adventures in wondrous locations feel dull. If narration goes wrong, players wind up confused or frustrated.

Good narration goes beyond revealing how the dungeon smells. (Pretty bad, I suppose.) What deserves description? How much time should a DM spend on description? In what order should DMs describe things? All that matters, and I have answers.

Spare but steady narration

Nobody sits for a D&D game hoping the DM as narrator will spend most of the session yakking. Recorded books talk nonstop better. Instead, players relish the times they talk and their characters act.

Model and photo by Java Cat

So as a DM, make your goal to wring the most vivid, evocative narration from the fewest words.

Overlong descriptions lead the players’ attention to drift. Rather than visualizing the eons of weathering that mark the vermilion masonry, players consider their next move. For the biggest impact, fit concise, evocative descriptions between the characters’ actions.

On the pages of a screenplay, the shape of text gives a sense of how a scene will play. Scenes with monologues feature unbroken rectangles of text. Scenes with back and forth between actors have short lines of text with whitespace between. Rather than dropping overlong boxes of DM dialog into the screenplay for Your D&D Game—the Movie, try for shorter bits with more back-and-forth. Don’t test your players’ patience as they wait to talk.

I used to take brevity too far, rushing to describe locations and skipping descriptions to reach the next turn. The habit came from a good motive: I wanted to spend less time talking so the players do more playing.

Fewer words speed play, but something like a battle with no description feels flat. Spare but steady narration keeps the game alive.

I fight an urge to hasten narration by speaking faster, and I see plenty of other DMs suffer from the same tendency to hurry. But fast talk just makes the description seem lifeless and unimportant. If you recite descriptions like the legal text at the end of a drug ad, players will pay as much attention as they do to dry mouth and palm sweat. The best DMs adjust their tempo, often slowing to give their words weight. They pause to emphasize, their tone expresses emotion, and it captures attention.

Tools for clarity

In D&D, players make choices based on description, so clarity matters as much as immersion.

To help make the players’ vision of the game world clear enough for (imaginary) life and death decisions, go beyond verbal description. If you have pictures of non-player characters, locations, and monsters, then show them. No one listens for 1000 words, but everyone looks up to see a picture. You can print pictures, load them on your phone or tablet, or load them online for a virtual game.

Think of yourself as an expert instructor with chalk in hand. To help reveal the game world to the players, I use my dry-erase grids as white boards. I write key names and critical details for players to remember. As I describe complicated scenes, I sketch maps and location features. Even if you plan to skip a grid in favor of narrative combat, the visual aid of a sketched, abstract map helps players understand. Beyond the map, a rough diagram of, say, a statue of Moloch can remind players of its gem eyes and the fire-filled bowl it it’s hands.

Next: How To Make Descriptions Vivid and Evocative

Use a White Paint Pen to Label Miniatures

I suspect most folks organize their miniatures by category. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains this approach, along with recommendations for storage options. I organize by set, and then use a resource like MinisCollector to find the figures I need. But unlike the older Wizards of the Coast miniatures, the newer WizKids miniatures lack any label that reveals their set. To help organize these figures, I write the set’s initials on the bases using a white, fine-tipped Sharpie paint pen.

Bonus tips: Use a white paint pen to label your wall-wart power blocks so you know what device they power. Also, if you become a famous artist and need to sign your glossy prints, the paint pen works beautifully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steal This Rule: Numenera and XP for Discovery

The Tournament Adventure That Tested My Limits as a DM

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

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

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

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

Challenging High-level Characters Without Breaking the Dungeon Master

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

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

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

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

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

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

In that encounter, Alan hit his design target.

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

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

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

Managing high-level battles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circle back to the characters’ emotional roots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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