Category Archives: Advice

How to Avoid Boring Rerolls of D&D’s Ability Checks

Dungeons & Dragons plays best when players can only retry ability checks if something changed after the first roll.

For many ability checks, this makes sense because failing makes trying the same thing again impossible. The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives this example: “If the rogue loses a contest of Charisma (Deception) against the guard’s Wisdom (Insight), the same lie told again won’t work.” Typically, Intelligence and Charisma checks only allow one attempt.

Still, the realization that DMs should avoid allowing rerolls surprised me because some checks naturally invite retries. Typically, Strength and Dexterity checks seem open to multiple attempts. Why not try to pick a lock again? The Dungeon Master’s Guide even includes advice for multiple checks. “In some cases, the only real cost is the time it takes. To speed things up, assume that a character spending ten times the normal amount of time needed to complete a task automatically succeeds at that task.”

That suggestion seems like advice for retrying checks, but at the core, it tells when to skip them. If a character can succeed and has time, then skip the roll. This guideline never explains how to determine whether characters have enough skill and talent to succeed. (Spoiler: I will recommend rolling a check.)

DMs aim to run an exciting game, and skipping rerolls helps. The outcome of a roll should launch—or at least nudge—the game ahead or into a new direction. Even a failure that blocks progress should inspire ingenuity. If a failure does nothing more than prompt a player to fish for a higher number, then the game stalls. Boring. Third edition even created rules to avoid such fizzles. A player could take 20 and spend 20 times as long in exchange for an automatic 20 on a check attempt.

For checks that seem to allow multiple retries, the take 20 rule answers the can-I question using addition. While fifth edition skips the take-20 rule, the math remains the same. If a character’s check bonus plus 20 meets or beats a task’s DC, then mathematically the character could succeed. But this take-20 math leads to unsatisfying play for two reasons:

If bending the bars of dungeon cells requires success against a DC 20, which the game calls “hard,” then anyone with an average Strength of 10 and time to spare gets loose. The same goes for a hard lock and an untrained thief with no aptitude. For dungeons to hold athletes and locks to deter thieves, the iron and the mechanisms need a DC 25 and talented beginners still get through. I think we can all agree that prisons work better than that. But we contrive DCs to create a fun and challenging game. D&D aims for heroics where the barbarian bends the portcullis and the rogue picks the lock, all before the approaching monsters arrive. So the game recommends DCs based on the assumption that characters only get one attempt.

Instead of using take-20 math to decide whether a character has enough talent and skill to succeed, the game usually plays better when one ability check decides. Knowledge checks already work that way. When players ask if their characters know the history of Netheril, a check answers without rerolls or taking 20. For any check where failure blocks a retry, one die roll decides whether a character can succeed. Can the paladin persuade the mayor? Can the wizard decipher the sigil?

Checks that decide what a character can accomplish date back to first edition and attempts to bend bars or lift gates. “The attempt may be made but once, and if the score required is not made, the character will never succeed at the task.” Does a failed check reveal thicker bars? Maybe. Such checks fit D&D’s long tradition of rolling to learn things about the game world, things like whether a door is locked or if the skies are clear.

Die rolls bring more fun than letting take-20 math or a DM’s ruling decide between success and failure. Plus, you only roll once so the game never stalls while someone fishes for a higher number.

Now that you know to never allow a character to repeat a check, I will weaken that principle by revealing exceptions.

One obvious exception: Sometimes a change in approach allows a reroll. If a character failed to move a stone, perhaps a lever will help. Gain another attempt.

The second exception requires a DM’s judgement, something right in the DM job description.

When characters risk paying a price for failure, allowing retries can create a more exciting game. If a climber can fall or if someone attempting to disarm a trap can suffer the device’s effects, the character can retry and bear the risks again. Often the price of failure comes from losing time against a ticking clock—a draining hourglass in most D&D worlds. In classic D&D games, every moment wasted raises the risk of wandering monsters. When attempting to break a door, the price of failure is often noise, whether it alerts wandering monsters or nearby guards.

Fifth edition allows for setbacks more interesting than damage or delays. Failure can mean that a character “makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.” For example, if a rogue blows a roll to pick a lock, the DM can decide that the lock opens but the attempt made a noise that leads to complications. Gamers call this failing forward.

The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game includes a “pushing the roll” rule that lets players agree to pay a price for a second failure in exchange for a retry. Players describe the extra effort or time taken to justify a second chance. Plus, they give the game master “permission to bring dire consequences” if the next attempt fails. You may steal this rule for your D&D game. The idea works especially well for checks with a potentially harsh penalty for failure. For example, a character who fails a first climb attempt realizes the cliff seems too treacherous and makes no progress. If the climber pushes on despite the risk, and then fails again, they fall.

DMs who ask for a check must be ready for failure. Sometimes even published modules include checks where a failure blocks the rest of the adventure—checks with no room for failure. At conventions, I have seen bad rolls test DMs who abruptly realized that a failure left the adventure no way to continue. These DMs switched to improvising new checks as a way to drag the group to success. When we kept failing, the damage control turned comical. Failing forward lets characters fail checks and still pass ahead, but search checks and especially knowledge checks can make inventing a setback a hard challenge for a DM.

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

Getting Players Moving, Especially When No One Wants to Drive

If you game master enough roleplaying games, you will eventually land a session that keeps stalling because no one wants to drive—no one wants to speak for the group. For instance, if the party has to pick a restaurant, then everyone spends 10 minutes saying “I don’t care. What do you want?” We’ve all been there, just probably not while in a dungeon. Most often, such tentative groups form when strangers meet for a game, often at conventions. But any group can lag, and the techniques for nudging a party ahead can prove useful beyond a convention hall.

To be clear, not every lull in a game needs an intervention. If the group enjoys slowing to roleplay, let it flow. If a group starts planning for the challenge ahead, then sit back and relish it. These situations show a group immersed in the game world. Score a win for the dungeon master.

Sometimes folks in a group of strangers feel presumptuous speaking for the whole group. When everyone keeps hesitating to call shots for the group, many DMs smooth the way by asking for individual decisions. “Making a choice for your character seems less daunting than making one for the group. Low stakes choices can break the ice,” writes Louis Bamberger. “Recently I ran a group that was pretty quiet. Their characters were at a town carnival, so I asked them what game they would play and what food or drink they would order. After each person explained their choices, a snowball of enthusiasm grew with each person’s answer.” By the end of the session, a group of players new to roleplaying games felt eager for another go.

Die rolls, even inconsequential ones, make another good ice breaker. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia gives an example. “In a marketplace, have an arcane character make a bogus check to point out a vendor’s wares could be spell components, just to get them to talk. Data tends to help us make decisions, so skill checks, even granting minor information, tend to help move us to action.”

When I serve as DM for tentative group, I tend to make two adjustments.

First, I pose more choose-your-adventure-style choices.

This helps narrow a limitless range of options to a menu of sensible actions. At worst the table can vote. Often I nominate one player as caller-for-the-moment to make a decision. DM Tom Christy sometimes selects the most charismatic character—the natural leader. You can also nominate a leader based on circumstantial qualifications. Underground, let the dwarf choose the way. At a masquerade, the bard would lead.

Second, I may increase the amount of information I give before I ask the players what they want to do. This decreases the number of minor, often inconsequential, choices slowing the group.

With a typical group, when the players meet a character with clues to share, or when the players enter a new location, I withhold some easy discoveries. This gives players more to learn as they talk and investigate. This rewards action and leads to a more interactive game. So if the room has a mosaic, I’ll assume someone will take a closer look. If a wizard’s apprentice reveals that the archmage sought reagents, I’ll assume the party will ask for details. For most groups, this technique leads to a better game.

But if a tentative group needs to know that the archmage intends to make a golem, then the apprentice may become chatty. And I’ll just tell a hesitant group that the mosaic shows a priestess burying a scepter under a mountain with three peaks.

I don’t welcome such adjustments. They can feel like I’m dragging a particularly halting group to the finish, but no one wants a game that lags.

Phil Vecchione notes that groups become indecisive when they lack enough information to make a choice. He suggests bridging that information gap. Start by recapping what the players already know. Players feel confused more often than they ever admit—and more than we DMs care to admit. Share any useful information that the characters may know based on their in-game expertise. The characters live in the game world; the players just visit.

As an ultimate remedy, Phil suggests upping the urgency by adding new developments in the game world. So if the party continues to dither at the door, have something open it from the other side.

Use the Small World Principle to Build a Better Game

Before you introduce a new non-player character to your game, seek to reuse an existing character who can fill the role.

I think of this as the Small World Principle, because I sometimes extend it beyond NPCs. Other writers call it the Law of Conservation of NPCs.

The Small World Principle brings a few benefits:

  • NPCs become more memorable and better developed because players spend more time with them.
  • The smaller number of characters creates more interaction, conflict, and drama within the cast. Drama builds rather than dissipates.
  • Game masters save the work of creating new and potentially interesting NPCs by relying on proven ones.

When I run one of the published D&D campaign adventures, I may consolidate the cast to focus on the non-player characters that I favor. Many DMs prefer to audition lots of NPCs in play and see who players fancy. Watch how players react to the characters they meet. If one sparks interest, then look for ways to expand the character’s role. See How to Make Non-Player Characters That Your Players Will Like.

The Small World Principle extends beyond NPCs. Instead of letting the game sprawl, look to circle back to existing locations.

Creators of fiction rely on the Small World Principle, even when they work on larger canvases. The Star Wars tales span a galaxy, but somehow everything happens to the Skywalkers, usually on Tatooine. In Marvel comics, almost every hero and villain lives in New York City. What are the odds? Sure, the Hulk spends time in the desert, but he seems to visit New York monthly for a team up or two. People notice the unlikeliness, but few seem overly bothered by it.

Sometimes an NPC brings some qualifications to a role, but seems disqualified for some reason. For example, perhaps the character last appeared a continent away. Or maybe they were dead. Before you conclude that the existing character won’t fit, reconsider the NPC in the part and ask, How could this be true? See Ask this question to create ideas and mysteries that grab players’ attention. Perhaps the character’s reappearance just requires a line of explanation. Perhaps it sparks a mystery that enriches the game.

Related: How to Create Loveable Non-Player Characters While You Supercharge Your Sex Appeal

The 4 Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break

In Dungeons & Dragons the dungeon master gets to break the rules, but only so much. The amount of breakage varies from group to group. Some DMs stick to the rules as written, only overriding them when they defy the logic of the game world. Other DMs never track hit points and just declare monsters defeated when it suits the drama of a battle.

Despite a DM’s dominion over the rules, D&D includes some rules DMs must never break—at least if they want their players to stick with the game. Oddly, these rules never appeared in print, so successful DMs learned them by observation and insight. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax made these lessons difficult for many early DMs to learn. He set an example that seemed to encourage dungeon masters to beat players. As soon as players gained an edge, Gary created something to foil them. He and his players enjoyed the battle of wits brought by this style of play. Still, Gary just aimed to challenge players and he mostly stuck to these rules that he never wrote down.

Meanwhile, struggling DMs never deduced the unwritten rules, and often unknowingly broke them to defeat the players and to “win” D&D. Eventually, these DMs either lost all their players or they learned.

What are the dungeon master’s laws of fair play?

1. Never confront characters with threats they cannot either defeat or avoid.

The avoid part of this rule is important.

In D&D’s early days, players controlled the game’s difficulty by choosing how deep to delve into the dungeon. Certainly Gary introduced tricks aimed at luring characters deeper than they intended, but he saw such traps as avoidable tests of mapping skill. The early rules made fleeing easier and clever players knew when to run. See The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.

In today’s game, DMs more often contrive threats that the party can beat. DMs can still throw deadly, even lethal challenges, but not without giving players a warning or a way to avoid the peril. See How to Scare D&D Players—Even When They Play Mighty Heroes.

An outrageous violation of this rule appears as a living hill monster described in Booty and the Beasts, the 1979 collection of monsters and treasures co-authored by legendary D&D artist Erol Otus. Living hills look like normal, grassy hills. “They feed upon unwary travelers who camp upon their seemingly benign summits.” Campers only have a 1 in 6 chance of noticing a lost—and digested—party member. Blogger Mr. Lizard writes, “This is a perfect example of the classic ‘gotcha!’ monster. Basically, unless you actually go out of your way to check to see if you’re on a living hill, your character is dead.”

2. Assume players have taken reasonable actions.

Imagine this rule worded in a more amusing way: DMs should always assume the characters are wearing pants, even if no players said that they put them on. Obviously, this guideline exempts the anthropomorphic ducks in RuneQuest.

In the more adversarial days of D&D, some DMs insisted that players announce their intent to draw a weapon before attacking. If the battle started without weapons drawn, characters wasted a turn pulling out blades. Frustrated players took to readying weapons at every sign of danger, as if just entering a monster-infested underground death trap fell short of a sign.

3. Never let players ignorantly take a substantial risk.

We all love when players stake their characters’ lives on some reckless, nearly impossible stunt. Whether they succeed or fail, such moments make unforgettable gaming. But before any foolhardy undertaking, make sure the players know (1) the odds and (2) the result of failure. I typically share difficulty classes before players roll. These DC numbers help span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and what a player learns from a DM’s description. DCs prevent misunderstandings.

As for risks, make sure players know that, say, falling from the Earth mote means plunging into a sea of lava. That works better than rewinding the action for a player who heard “sea” and not “lava.”

4. Never plan to take the players’ freedom or stuff to support your plot.

In the early days of D&D, some gamers coached DMs to deal with excess treasure by having thieves steal it as the characters slept. Often the caper succeeded because the players never listed the reasonable precautions they would take to protect their treasures. (See rule 2.)

Early spells like Leomund’s Secret Chest seem designed to thwart thievery, so perhaps Gary indulged in such thefts. Gary had an excuse: He invented most of the game’s magic items and wanted to test them in play. His players grew accustomed to seeing gear won, lost, and melted by fireballs. Also Gary’s players probably stole from each other—they played to win back then. See Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

None of this applies to today’s game. Never take the character’s hard-won gear. They will resent the loss.

Often DMs who steal gear aim to create a powerful hook, which leads players to chase their treasure through a campaign arc. Those good intentions may make the theft seem permissible, but those schemes only make the situation worse. Such rough hooks make players feel railroaded.

The same rules for gear also apply to the loved ones players invent for their backgrounds. Those casts count as the player’s stuff. Never kill such characters to create a cheap motivation.

The most common and egregious violation of this rule comes when a DM wants players taken captive. In adventure fiction, heroes get captured regularly. So DMs dream up similar stories, and then try to force a capture despite the players’ determination to never get taken alive.

Sometimes DMs opt for capture as alternative to a total party kill. While a fair exception to this rule, don’t violate rule 1 in the process by confronting characters with a threat they cannot defeat or avoid. Save your escape-from-the-dungeon scenario for a time when players ignore warning signs, make bad choices, suffer setbacks, and ignore any chance to run. Those times happen—trust me. Then, instead of rolling new characters, have the old characters wake in chains. The players will feel grateful for a second chance.

What unwritten rules have you spotted in D&D?

You Can Play These Supreme D&D Characters, But Should You?

When I drafted my list of supreme character builds for Dungeons & Dragons, I originally included a section that asked, “You can play this, but should you?” The answer became this post, but why even ask?

In a comment, designer Teos “Alphastream” Abadia identified the supreme builds as enjoyable concepts, but “generally horrible at the table.” Although any character can fit the right game, some optimized builds reduce the fun at most tables. Teos writes, “For me, the biggest social contract item for players is to contain whatever optimization they cook up to reasonable and fun levels.”

D&D’s design aims to create a game where all a party’s characters get to contribute to the group’s success. When a single member of the group starts battles by one-shotting the monster with a huge burst of damage, or one character learns every skill to meet all challenges, then that character idles or overshadows the rest and makes the other players wonder why they showed up.

Most skilled

DM’s guild designer Andrew Bishkinskyi singles out one optimization to skip. “The most skilled character is made to do everything, and exists by design to exclude others from play, which I don’t want.”

Early editions of D&D embraced this kind of specialization. Thieves started as the only class with any capabilities resembling skills, but rated as nearly useless in a fight. Nowadays, D&D’s class designs aim give every class ways to contribute through all the game’s three pillars of exploration, combat, and roleplaying interaction.

Most damaging

Combat makes a big part of most D&D games, so characters optimized for extreme damage tend to prove troublesome. I’ve run public tables where newer players dealing single-digit damage would follow turns where optimized characters routinely dealt 50-some points. I saw the new folks trade discouraged looks as they realized their contributions hardly mattered. DM Thomas Christy has hosted as many online D&D games for strangers as anyone. He says, “I have actually had players complain in game and out about how it seemed like they did not need to be there.” In a Todd Talks episode, Jen Kretchmer tells about asking a player to rebuild a combat-optimized character. “The character was a nightmare of doing way more damage off the top, and no one else could get a hit in.” See Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D.

D&D’s strongest high-damage builds make ranged attacks from a distance. Such builds can leave the rest of the party to bear the monsters’ attacks. Teos Abadia writes, “Even if we don’t have character deaths or a TPK, a ranged character can create a frustrating situation for the other characters, who find themselves relentlessly beaten up, constantly targeted by saving throws, and harried by environmental and terrain damage. Over the course of a campaign, this can be tough for the party. Players may not even realize the cause. They simply find play frustrating and feel picked on. If the ranged player keeps saying, ‘hey, I didn’t even take any damage—again!’ the rest of the party might start to realize why.”

If you, like everyone, enjoy dealing maximum damage, I recommend a character powered by the Great Weapon Master and Polearm Master feats. See How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter. If you favor a ranged attacker, the strongest builds combine Sharpshooter, Crossbow Expert, and an Extra Attack feature. In a typical game, pick two.

Biggest damage novas

A few D&D players welcome characters capable of starting a fight with a huge burst of damage for an unexpected reason: These gamers find D&D’s combat pillar tiresome. By bringing a fight to an immediate end, a nova just brings the session back to their fun. Perhaps these games need a better approach to combat, or even a switch to a different game.

In groups more interested in roleplaying and exploration, players might not mind letting an optimized character showboat during the battles. Or perhaps others in the group feel content in roles other than damage dealing. Perhaps the bard and wizard both enjoy their versatility, the druid likes turning into a bat and scouting, and nobody minds letting you finish encounters at the top of round 1.

But most gamers enjoy a mix of the D&D’s three pillars. For these players, characters designed to start fights with maximum damage prove problematic because when they work, no one else participates. “The issue is that even if those characters don’t completely trivialize an encounter, they can reduce the fun of other players by taking a disproportionate amount of the spotlight,” writes @UncannyPally.

You can’t blame the players aiming for these builds. The occasional nova can create memorable moments.

“It’s only fun the first few times a character charges in and essentially one-shots the boss before you get to do anything,” writes @pocketfell. “And of course, upping the hp of the monsters just means that when the mega-damage PC doesn’t get lucky, it’s a slog through four times the usual number of hp.”

I suspect that D&D class features that power damage spikes steer the game in the wrong direction. However, I respect D&D’s designers and they seem to welcome such features. For example, paladins can smite multiple times per turn. In more recent designs, rangers with the Gloom Stalker archetype begin fights with an extra attack plus extra damage. The grave domain cleric’s Path to the Grave feature sets up one shots by making creatures vulnerable to the next attack.

Surely, the designers defending such features would cite 2 points:

  • Players relish the occasional nova. They can feel like an exploit that breaks the game, delivering a quick win.
  • Some spells shut down an encounter as well as massive weapon damage. Fair’s fair.

I argue that encounter-breaking spells rate as problematic too, but D&D traditionally limits such spells to a few spellcasting classes, often at higher levels and only once per day.

Highest AC

I accept that as a DM controlling the monsters, I will almost always lose. A defeat for my team evil counts as a win for the table, so I welcome the loss. But I must confess something:  For my fun, I like the monsters to get some licks in. Is that so wrong? Under suggestion and zone of truth, I suspect other DMs would echo the same admission. Some gamers even float the courageous suggestion that DMs deserve fun like the players.

A character with an untouchable AC doesn’t rob the spotlight from other players, but for DMs, such characters become tiresome. If you back up a maximum AC with, say, a class able to cast shield and block those rare hits, then your DM might not show disappointment when you miss game night.

To be fair, players who sell out for maximum defense wind up with few other strengths. These players enjoy their chance to shine at the end of every fight when they crow about not taking damage—again! I’ve learned to accept their source of bliss and welcome their characters. They may soak attacks, turning claw, claw, bite into useless flailing, but I can always add more attacks to go around.

Toughest

In theory, tough characters should trigger the same annoyance as untouchable characters, but the barbarians and Circle of the Moon druids actually suffer hits, so their durability feels different.

In tactically-minded parties, tough characters and characters with high AC fill a role by preventing monsters from reaching more fragile characters. If your group favors that play style, your DM surely dials up the opposition past very strong and also pairs smart foes with clever strategies. Optimized characters of all sorts often fit that style of play.

Fastest

Nobody minds a fast character. I love playing monks who speed around the battlefield stunning everything in their path. However, those stun attacks certainly bring less acclaim. See How to Build a D&D Monk So Good That DMs Want to Cheat.

Most healing

If you play the healer and miss game night, everyone feels disappointed. ’Nuff said.

Related:
If D&D Play Styles Could Talk, the One I Hate Would Say, “I Won D&D for You. You’re Welcome.”
10 Ways to Build a Character That Will Earn the Love of Your Party

How to Scare D&D Players—Even When They Play Mighty Heroes

Scaring Dungeons & Dragons players proves hard. Unlike the ordinary folks played as characters in a frightful game of Call of Cthulhu, characters in D&D boast heroic powers that allow them to defeat the most fearsome threats, at least eventually.

Most campaigns begin with the assumption that the dungeon master won’t give the characters more than they can handle. Fifth edition’s first hardcover adventure, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, starts when 1st-level adventurers reach a town under attack by an adult blue dragon—an insurmountable threat. Instead of sensibly assuming that entering the town would lead to electrocution, and then choosing to flee in terror, the new party must go charging in for the adventure to begin. When characters always meet threats their characters can overcome, players never see reason to fear.

However, if players understand that their choices led them into trouble, then they can reach a rare moment of panic.

Blogger Ben Robbins writes “The players will embrace the idea of being afraid and impressed by a threat when they brought it upon themselves. If the threat comes at them because of nothing the players did, the players rightly feel like the situation is a little unfair and are not as willing to buy into it.”

If the party hears whispers from the darkness and chases blindly toward the noise, then they deserve the panicked moment when monsters close from every direction.

Shoggoth by Nottsuo – nottsuo.deviantart – www.pixiv.net – twitter.com/nottsuo, CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In a seminar, Call of Cthulhu designer Sandy Petersen builds on this idea with his Creepy Stuff Rule. “What you don’t want to do is say, ‘You open the door an there’s a shoggoth,’ and then the players all get killed.” Instead, give players three chances to survive the monster.

  1. A hint. In the case of the shoggoth, that might be a trail of ooze and a reptile-house smell outside the sewer entrance. “Then the players might say, ‘We’re not afraid. We’re going in.”
  2. Solid evidence of danger. “You find the sewer worker’s body. His head has been sucked off and it’s covered in slime.” Now the player’s see an obvious sign of danger. “Anything that sucks a guy’s head off has got to be a problem.” Here the players can still turn back.
  3. The Monster. “Emerging from the nexus of sewers is a giant, protoplasmic blob covered with eyes and organs constantly spawning.” The players may still have time to say, “Nope,” and then slam the door, although with a shoggoth probably not.

“At this point, any player who is killed can’t blame you. You gave them three warnings. Always have the players blame themselves when they get killed. Even in Call of Cthulhu, the players should feel like it’s their own fault.”

Justin Alexander writes, “If the players externalize that blame to the GM, it becomes external not only from themselves but also from the game world. This robs the events of meaning, and without meaning there can be no horror.”

Petersen recognizes that players may feel compelled to chase obvious danger to finish the adventure. In his game, players embrace that expectation. “If they weren’t willing to get their heads sucked off, why would they play Call of Cthulhu?”

However, few D&D campaigns expect characters to survive deadly treats to finish an adventure, so to earn a scare, D&D players must choose danger over other leads that could also bring success.

A typically reckless and impulsive D&D party may see extra risk as an invitation—at least until that oh-shit moment. Look for opportunities when the players’ choices might lead to extraordinary danger, and then fuel their fears. If you know your players, you may even know ways to tempt them into bad choices.

Rather than actually slaughtering the party, you probably favor suggesting a lethal threat without actually delivering. That means keeping the true size of the threat unknown and unseen. In the Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide, Jennell Jaquays writes, “Rely on the perceptions of the characters. Describe what seems to be seen, what may have been heard, or a faint odor in the air. Let the players draw their own conclusions. When the players don’t know what their characters are up against, they begin to feel the creeping chill of fear.

“Keep the players guessing, keep them on edge, even make them afraid—they’ll love you for it.”

Related: The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.

Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From RPG Legend Sandy Petersen Made Me Stop Talking to Myself

Dungeon Masters: Just a Little Attention to Darkness Pays Off

My favorite sightseeing stops include caves and inactive mines. Cave tours inevitably include tales of the cave’s original explorers. I imagine myself in their place, delving by a feeble glow from a lantern, discovering underground landscapes and traces of people and creatures long gone, and I relish the feelings of wonder and mystery. My love of dungeons seems inevitable. In sprawling undergrounds, even modern lights don’t reach far before darkness engulfs their glow. I gaze into midnight shafts and feel a shiver much like leaning over a rail on the 95th floor. These tours always pause to extinguish all the lights and give a taste of complete darkness, but not before making sure no one feels close to panic. Like heights, spiders, and snakes, darkness triggers a primal fear that we share.

As played by most groups, the Dungeons & Dragons rules for light work like this: When the party starts their descent into darkness, the dungeon master asks what they have for light. Perhaps everyone has darkvision and that’s that. More likely, the group includes a human, so someone fires a torch or casts light and then no one pays attention to the subject until the next dungeon.

Through most of my experience as a DM, I played that way. The same goes for the multitude of DMs I’ve played with. After all, the rules as written make careful attention to light seem like a chore. How can anyone be expected to keep track of who carries a light and how that glow interacts with the senses and positions of various characters? You need a computer for that. My scrapheap of article-ideas-never-written includes a post describing light as a thing everyone ignores because it never adds fun. Everyone would have ignored that post too.

Surely tense dungeon-survival sessions can bring fun. In those campaigns, parties struggle to escape the dungeon with their loot before their supplies of torches and oil run out. But most D&D players favor heroism over such grit. Besides, D&D gives so many characters darkvision that calling out the stumbling humans and halflings seems pointless.

I’ve changed. When I run dungeons now, I pay some attention to light without getting mired in detail. The benefits of a little consideration surprised me.

As a party explores a dark space, I pay attention to just one thing: about how far they can see past their front row. For most groups, that’s 60-feet from the character with darkvision closest to the lead. And then when I describe, I mention what they can’t see because of the cover of darkness. When possible, I describe any sounds that come from that shrouded space. Imagine the scratches, the whispered malevolent voices, the creak of doors, the drip of water. Sometimes perceptive characters see glowing eyes that suddenly wink out in the depths. If the party recklessly chases ahead into the unseen, they deserve the panicked moment when monsters close from every direction. When I draw maps as players explore, my lines for the walls end where the darkness starts.

That small regard pays off with a sense of tension, atmosphere, and mystery.

In cramped dungeon rooms, light hardly matters, but in long corridors, underground cathedrals, vaulting caverns darkness easily swallows the feeble glow of a lantern. Darkvision only makes 60 feet seem like dim light. Beyond that who knows what spies the party’s glow and clamor?

Dungeons Masters Can Make Fake Choices for Players, But Should You?

Eventually, every dungeon master winds up guilty of illusionism: You offer the players a choice that seems to matter, and then rearrange the game world so all the options lead to the same outcome.

An illusionist GM prepares an encounter that pits the characters against an ogre on the road. Then, whether the players take the low road or the high road, they face that same ogre. If they opt to stay home for tea and cakes, the ogre fancies a bite.

426px-Sandys,_Frederick_-_Morgan_le_FayIn the early days of role-playing games, when players tried to beat dungeons and dungeon masters acted as something between referee and adversary, such illusionist deceptions resembled cheating. Chivalry & Sorcery (1978) advised the GM to set out a dungeon’s details in advance so he could “prove them on paper should an incredulous group of players challenge his honesty or fairness.”

As the game changed into a way to engage players in a story, illusionism became a tempting strategy for GMs. Deception appealed to GMs who wished to steer players through a particular story, but also to GMs who needed to prepare a game without preparing for every possibility.

GMs running campaigns aim for three targets: player freedom, world detail, and ease of preparation. Those of us who must keep a day job can only choose two. Illusionism seems like a way to cheat by dropping player freedom while making the players think they remain free. If the players believe their choices count, what does it matter if they don’t?

The ogre encounter seems innocent. Dungeons & Dragons players expect to stumble on monsters, and that ogre could appear on either route as a wandering monster. But what if the players must guess whether the Dread Baron travels the low road or the high road? Do you base the villain’s travel plans on whether your story calls for a showdown today?

Many GMs feel that offering an illusion of choice robs players’ of real control over their characters’ fates, so illusionism is unfair on principle. While writing about illusionism, John Arendt concludes, “The DM is obligated to administer the setting in a way that ensures player choice is meaningful, in accordance with the previously established facts.” Courtney Campbell adds, “I think illusionism is abhorrent in both D&D-style games, and story-based, plot-arc games.”

I admire the principle, but players don’t join your game because they admire your unwavering game theory.

In every RPG session, players sacrifice some of their characters’ freedom for fun. When they join the game, they silently agree to band their PCs together, to cooperate, and to have their PCs award the magic item to whoever rolls highest on the great d20 in the sky.

The price of illusionism comes from another angle. Much of the fun of games come from making interesting choices and then experiencing the consequences. For more, see “How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices.”

In a role-playing game, good choices come with enough information to make illusion difficult. The sort of choices that let you easily fake illusionary consequences tend to be dull choices based on scant facts. When you serve players such vague options, they hardly enrich the game. High road or low road? Flip a coin.

If the players must decide whether to travel the low road or the high road, then either choice could lead to the same wandering ogre. But suppose on the low road, the hag Auntie Boil always demands some small, wicked deed of those who travel her swamp. On the high road, frost giants guard an icy pass, but one may owe the party thief a favor. Ogres could wander either route, but now the choice becomes interesting because each road takes the adventure on a different spin.

The best choices lead to consequences too specific to fake with illusion. If the players spurn a town that pleaded for help against raiders, the town burns. If the players betray Lady Redblade, she treats them as enemies.

You could contrive circumstances that spares players from the expected consequences: A storm delays the raiders until the players arrive. Lady Redblade blames a rival for stealing the artifact that the players took for themselves. But whenever a convenient break spares your story from the players’ actions, your game world loses credibility. If players seldom see their actions lead to repercussions, they learn that their actions hardly matter.

Illusionism isn’t a cheat; it’s a compromise. Illusion may save a great encounter or contribute to an impression of freedom, but it bears a price. Whenever you serve an illusion of choice, you miss a chance to offer the sort of real choice that enhances the game.

Should you use to illusionism at your table? The game is yours. Every dungeon master knows the benefit of deception. Now you understand the cost of a lost opportunity. Interesting choices carry a price.

Turning a Monster Into a Puzzle

In first-edition Dungeons & Dragons, clay golems could only be hit by magical bludgeoning weapons. Also, only three spells, move earth, disintegrate, and earthquake, affected these monsters. As foes, they worked as puzzles. “Our DM ran the golem encounter from Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure this way,” recalls @Stoltzken. “It was terrifying. The key to making it work for us was we had fair warning in the initial round that this was as much a puzzle as a fight. First round was minor damage. From there on though…”

Poul Anderson’s novel Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) inspired D&D’s regenerating trolls. To the hero of the novel—and to early D&D players unfamiliar with the book—the problem of killing a troll makes a puzzle.

Now everyone knows how to kill a troll, and that shows one problem with puzzle monsters such as trolls and golems. Players learn the solutions. Early in D&D’s history, co-creator Gary Gygax figured that only dungeon masters would read the books of treasures and monsters. He assumed players would learn the game’s secrets in play. In practice, even kids who couldn’t find a group studied the Monster Manual. At every table, someone knew every monster’s vulnerability.

That problem invites obvious solutions: Invent new monsters, vary existing monsters with new immunities, or add secret enchantments that block familiar attacks. @StaffandBranch writes, “I ran a rock, paper, scissors, encounter where the rock golem could only be defeated by wood, the treant by metal weapon, and the storm of swords by stone or rocks.”

Recent editions of D&D rarely add strong immunities to monsters. The third-edition rogue reveals why. That edition’s designers gave rogues a sneak attack ability limited by numerous monsters immune to sneak attacks. Creatures like oozes lack vulnerable spots, so those limitations made sense. But players saw too many encounters where rogues could not use their signature ability. Since then, D&D’s designers have steered toward avoiding immunities that hamper characters and lead players to feel-bad moments.

Mainly though, the blame for driving puzzle monsters from D&D belongs to foolhardy players. When did you last see players run from a fight? In early D&D games, players expected to find monsters too strong to defeat. Fragile characters made retreat a common option. Often now, players who face a creature that seems immune to attack just try hitting harder. (See The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.) When players don’t know the key to beating a puzzle monster, such encounters can lead to total party kills.

Still, puzzle monsters can enrich D&D and many players love them. Creatures with secret vulnerability make D&D games feel more mythical. They let players work their brains while their characters flaunt their power.

For some monsters, players can find the key to victory during battle. Perhaps pushing that clay golem into running water dissolves the thing. Often puzzle monsters must be trapped rather than killed. I’m reminded of Spider-Man trapping the Sandman in a vacuum cleaner.

Other puzzle monsters might require gathering lore and engaging with the game world. A hunt for a lich’s phylactery can work like that. Some might spur a quest for the artifacts that enable a monster’s defeat. Curse of Strahd works like that.

Puzzle monsters work best in games seeded with rumors of the creature’s invincibility and hints to the creature’s vulnerability. For players particularly slow to spot clues, devise a plan B enabling an escape or rescue. I once put a puzzle-based golem on a ledge over water. If the players took too much damage before spotting the creature’s invulnerability, the jump offered an easy escape. I didn’t even fill the water with sharks. Sometimes I’m such a cupcake.

The adventure Deep Carbon Observatory by Patrick Stuart and Scrap Princess features my favorite puzzle villain. Spoilers follow. In the adventure, a rescued child whispers in an character’s ear.

There was a bad old woman who lived in the corn.
Only children knew that she was real.
She had seven souls and couldn’t die the same way twice.
So all the children poisoned her.
Then they stabbed her and smashed her and sliced her
and burnt her and drowned her.
And then they threw her in the well.
That’s Six And Seven Makes All…

To slay the witch, the players need to find a means of death the children never used.

What’s your favorite puzzle monster?

What to Do When a D&D Player Wants to Be Ready, Call a Shot, or Delay

Without knowing any rules—without knowing a d20 from a d12—new Dungeons & Dragons players can join a party and love the game at least as much as veteran players. Everything feels fresh and thrilling, so often the newcomers have more fun. They play without rules by just imagining themselves as heroes and asking what they would do.

For the rest of us, knowing the rules can interfere with that primal experience. Instead of interacting with the D&D world, we slip into interacting with the rules. So when we hear footsteps approaching a door, instead of nocking an arrow and drawing a bow, we ask to ready an attack action for when a monster opens the door. In this example, that ready action breaks the rules because ready only applies during combat’s initiative order.

My last post described 3 times when players ask to use rules not even in the game. The game omits the supposed rules because they would run against D&D’s design approach. Often, past editions of the game even included these extra rules, but fifth edition’s more economical design forced them out. That post explained the designers’ choices and how to explain the missing rules to players.

Still, although the rules only allow ready actions in combat, lack a system for called shots, and omit the delay action, characters can still aim a drawn bow at a closed door, shoot for the tentacle gripping a friend, and perhaps even wait for the slow paladin to stop blocking the door.

This post offers advice for ruling on all those requests without inventing rules that the designers skipped for good reasons.

1. Readying an action outside of combat.

Players usually ask to ready outside combat for one of two reasons:

  • They expect trouble and want to stay alert.

  • They want to attack first. 

D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford explained how he handles the request to stay alert. “Usually what that means is they won’t be surprised at my table.” Alternately, you could grant the character advantage on perception checks and a cooresponding +5 to passive perception until the situation changes or you judge that the characters’ attention would ease to a normal level. Nobody can stay especially alert all the time except barbarians with Feral Instinct. Impinging on a class feature would make barbarians angry. You wouldn’t like that.

Often, attempts to gain the first attack fall under surprise rules. When a party prepares to attack something inside a closed door and that foe remains unaware of the threat, then the monster starts combat surprised. If the monster knows about the threat, then the situation matches the usual start of a fight: Everyone is ready. Roll initiative to see who goes first. DMs who rule that a character with an arrow pulled only needs an instant to aim and shoot might give that character advantage on initiative. Don’t make the first attack automatic. We’ve all seen countless scenes where some skilled fighter stares down a poised weapon, and then uses lightning reflexes to strike first.

2. Called shots.

Usually players ask to call shots to gain a quicker route to taking a foe from a fight. To that I say, “Your characters are experts at combat. With each attack, they use their skills to find the best opportunity to land a blow that deals the most damage and that offers the best chance of taking your foe out of the fight.”

The second-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide limited called shots with a rule that remains sound in fifth. “Against a creature, a called shot will only cause the normal amount of damage allowed by the weapon. Attempts to blind, cripple, or maim will not succeed.”

Such a limit quashes most interest in called shots, so the designers opted for rules economy over adding rules for called shots. Still, players may want to temporarily impose a condition like Blinded, Deafened, or Prone. Conditions in D&D typically last a round or allow saves every turn. Players could also aim to distract, slow movement, or disarm.

The latest Dungeon Master’s Guide includes rules for disarming a foe (p.257). For other conditions, game designer Justin Alexander suggests some sensible, but untested rules. His post details the design decisions behind called shots. Called shots typically suffer a penalty of -2 or -4 as judged by the DM. (Don’t impose disadvantage, because that creates an incentive to call a shot whenever an attack would suffer disadvantage anyway. D&D lacks double disadvantage.) If the called shot succeeds, then you deal damage normally and the target must make an appropriate saving throw or suffer the effect. I recommend calculating a saving throw DC using a formula similar to the Battle Master fighter’s Maneuver save DC. Add 5 + your proficiency bonus + your choice of Strength or Dexterity modifier. 

Delay a turn.

Fifth edition skips the delay action because the extra option adds extra rules baggage and may slow play.

Nonetheless, in one case players who delay their place in initiative can smooth play without adding any complexity to the rules. That case comes when you first arrange initiative before any creature takes an action. Too often, the slow, tough characters at the door roll low while the quicker skirmishers in back roll high. Those tanks wind up bottling up the door because the rules offer no way for the bladesinger in back to just wait for the paladin to step out of the damn way. Before initiative starts, let players opt for a lower initiative count.

For the players who enjoy the tactical intricacies brought by the delay action, groups can import the delay rules in earlier editions of D&D and in D&D’s sister system Pathfinder. Here are the rules the designers wished to avoid.

Delay

By choosing to delay, you take no action and then act normally on whatever initiative count you decide to act. When you delay, you voluntarily reduce your own initiative result for the rest of the combat. When your new, lower initiative count comes up later in the same round, you can act normally. You can specify this new initiative result or just wait until sometime later in the round and act then, thus fixing your new initiative count at that point.

You never get back the time you spend waiting to see what’s going to happen. You also can’t interrupt anyone else’s action (as you can with a readied action).

Your initiative result becomes the count on which you took the delayed action. If you come to your next action and have not yet performed an action, you don’t get to take a delayed action (though you can delay again).

If you take a delayed action in the next round, before your regular turn comes up, your initiative count rises to that new point in the order of battle, and you do not get your regular action that round.

When you Delay, any persistent damage or other negative effects that normally occur at the start or end of your turn occur immediately when you use the Delay action. Any beneficial effects that would end at any point during your turn also end. You can’t Delay to avoid negative consequences that would happen on your turn or to extend beneficial effects that would end on your turn.