Tag Archives: backstory

11 Great Dungeon Master Tips Revealed at Winter Fantasy 2020

The Winter Fantasy convention fits into one hall at the convention center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Despite the event’s compact size, it delivers as much Dungeons & Dragons as far larger conventions such as Origins or Gen Con. Plus, the con offers plenty of inexpensive hotel rooms. Sure, Fort Wayne suffers an icy February, but you come to game.

For dungeon masters who aim to improve their game, nothing beats running games for strangers. In close second comes playing at other DMs’ tables and learning their best techniques. (See If You Want to Write Games for Everyone, Game with Everyone).

At the 2020 convention, I came to play, and I found myself noting tips gleaned from every session.

1. When you have to deliver background, have players roll for it so it feels like a reward.

We all see adventures that start with bullet lists of background information for some patron to recite. Often, letting everyone roll, say, a history check makes a better way to reveal such backstory. Once everyone rolls, reward the lower results with the common knowledge, and the higher rolls with the lesser-known details. See In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?.

2. Try to award every attempt to gather information with something.

I used to reveal every descriptive detail of a door, altar, or dungeon room right away. This made for long descriptions and held nothing for when players explored. You want to reward players’ investigations with some information, even just bits of color and flavor. I used to fear that holding back would deprive players of some necessary description. Now I trust that players will gather whatever details I hold back.

3. Show the written names of key non-player characters. Pictures are even better.

DMs love when players show enough interest to take notes, writing names and other details. This year I resolved to take such notes as I played. But fantasy character names became a problem. I would write what I thought I heard and always get it wrong. Even for non-note takers, seeing a name written helps scribe it in memory. Teachers write on a board for a reason. As a DM, you probably have an erasable grid surface in your kit. Use it to show names as well as maps.

For the most important characters, try to find a picture that suits them. Showing a picture makes the impression even stronger.

4. In interaction scenes, make sure players know their goal and see at least one potential route to success.

The best thing about combat scenes is that players rarely enter one without some idea of what they aim to accomplish. They have a goal and understand what to do. (Typically, kill the monsters.) Too often, adventurers start interaction scenes without seeing a potential route to success. Players flounder as they try to figure out what to do. That never makes for the most fun. See Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens.

5. You can say, “You have learned all you can here,” or “You’ve done all you can here.”

Sometimes players continue searching a place or questioning someone well after accomplishing everything they can. DMs feel hesitant to say, “You have learned all you can here,” because it reveals something the characters would not know. Just say it. If you like, you can imagine that hours more of unproductive conversation happened off screen.

6. When players attempt something, make sure they understand the odds and the stakes.

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 the odds and 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.” See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?.

7. For a convention game, encourage players to put their character’s name on a table tent.

Based on anecdotal evidence collected from a few hundred convention games, I’m convinced that players need about 2 hours to learn the names of their partners in adventure. Table tents bring a simple remedy. Veteran convention players know this and bring their own. I suggest bringing note cards and a Sharpie so every player can make a tent.

8. Add, don’t subtract.

When you track damage to a monster, add the damage until it reaches the monster’s hit points. Some DMs subtract until they reach 0, which seems more cumbersome to us non-savants.

9. In roleplaying interactions, go ahead and split the party.

Never split the party applies to combat and exploration, but in roleplaying challenges, splitting up often proves more fun. Rather than the player with the most forceful personality taking most of the time in the spotlight, more players participate. As a bonus, ability checks work better when just a couple of players participate.

To make the most of a split party, cut between the smaller groups’ scenes. Every role-playing game reaches moments when the players make plans while the DM sits idle. Those moments bring my favorite times to switch scenes. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Instead of waiting for decisions, I can give more players time in the spotlight. The tempo of the game feels faster. See Never Split the Party—Except When It Adds Fun.

10. Every time you ask for a check, you write a check.

Remember paper checks? Once, long ago, folks used to pay money by writing a promise to pay on a special slip of paper. With checks, you needed to back that promise with actual money in the bank. Ability checks sometimes work like paper checks. If you ask for a check, you promise to allow for failure. This year I saw bad rolls test a few DMs who realized a failure had to succeed for the adventure to continue. I watched their damage control as they hunted for a way to drag me to success. If the adventure leaves no room for failure, skip the check.

11. Speak like a storyteller.

When I DM, I tend to rush through my speaking parts. The habit comes from a good motive: I want to spend less time talking so the players do more playing. Seeing more measured DMs proves that sometimes going slower works better. The best DMs adjust their tempo, often slowing to give their words weight. They pause to emphasize, their tone expresses emotion, and it works. Fireside storytellers and preachers show it, and we DMs can learn it. Through practice, I hope to capture some of that knack.

What game masters (and their monsters) should say during a combat encounter

defending_against_frost_giantsDuring a combat encounters, I focus on keeping play moving. A faster tempo means players spend less time waiting between turns. Waiting never adds fun.

Despite my focus on tempo, I do more than count initiative and tell players when they hit. I try to describe enough of the action to make the scene vivid. I speak for the villains. Still, I worry that some player will think, Quit blabbing so I can take my turn, so I aim to add color without slowing the game.

In combat encounters, my monsters and I talk about three sorts of things:

1. Villainous monologues

Speaking dialog 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.

Also, I 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, sometime it feels personal. If the monsters explain themselves, the GM starts to disappear.

2. Summary

At the end of a turn, if a PC does something noteworthy, give a short, vivid description of the event—or invite the player to describe it. Some GMs 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 loose their imaginations. Instead, focus on describing the big spells, stunts, transformations, setbacks, and feats of valor. The summary should only take a few seconds.

3. Urgency and exigency

After the summary, call the next player to act, and then tell them the biggest crisis on the battlefield. This advice comes from the Angry GM. “A player’s turn in combat needs to have both urgency (there’s an emergency that needs to be dealt with) and exigency (if you don’t take action right now, you will lose your opportunity). That’s what makes combat scary and that’s what keeps it running forward.” For example, say “Agnes, the wolves have knocked Kedric to the ground and look ready to gut him. What do you do?” Such transitions call the player to attention, focus them on the game, and increase their sense of urgency.

4. Exposition

Screenwriters cannot pad a movie fight scene with dialog without strangling the pace. But in a role-playing game, you can fit dialog into a fight. If you want to compare RPG fight scenes to another medium, compare them to comics. In comic-book fights, battles stretch time. I’ve seen Captain America deliver 50 words on freedom in the span of a single punch.

Similarly, I’ve seen D&D players squeeze a 5-minute strategy conference into a 6-second round. (If the players enjoy tactics and they’re not just telling the new player what to do, I just assume that yesterday, at the campfire, the PCs planned tactics for situations like this.)

Most adventures need some exposition: essential information needed to make sense of events, or clues the that lead to the next scene. Sometimes all GMs find themselves relaying some essential bit of background while the players grow impatient. Their expressions say, “Blah, blah, blah. Just tell us what to kill.”

Why not add exposition while the players know what to kill? You never have a better hold on their attention. Unlike in a movie, your villains can monologue during a fight, revealing their history, exposing their plans, and so on. “My father defeated the demon Chirix to win that staff, you shall not have it.” Just don’t recite more than a few lines at a time, stalling play. The players might allow themselves a 5-minute strategy conference, but your villain cannot unfold a page and say, “As a free action, I would like to read a statement.”

Do as a I say and try to do

I have a confession to make. I aim to enhance all my fights with colorful dialog and descriptions, but sometimes I lose myself in the business of keeping the turns moving and planning my monsters’ next move. If you ever happen to find a seat at my game table, you’ll see how well I’m doing.

When you serve as game master during a combat encounter, what do you say?

Deciding what backstory to print and what to cut

When I write these posts, I occasionally offer advice aimed a folks creating adventures and game materials for print. I realize that this represents a minuscule number of readers, so I fret about writing to an audience of no one. On the other hand, I post for kicks, so here I go again. If you lack interest, this won’t appear on the test. My next post will move to a different topic. You may be excused.

In “The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory,” I complained about written adventures loaded with backstory that cannot possibly enter play. When I prepare to run a published adventure, I want only as much information as I need, when I need it. I know that this is an unreachable goal. Adventure authors must prepare me for actions my players won’t choose. Nonetheless, the goal stands.

Edmund Leighton - Tristan and Isolde - 1902

“Let me tell you about my campaign.”

When writing an adventure, save the “Adventure Background” section for last. Instead, write descriptions of backstory in the locations and scenes where players can discover it. An adventure may offer several ways to learn some essential backstory. You can repeat that background wherever it surfaces. I want information when and where I need it.

If backstory never comes up in a location or scene, that either means it’s not important or that you must find a way to communicate it to the players during play. For more, see “How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session.”

Some authors feel tempted to stuff backstory into descriptions of non-player characters, but appending backstory to an NPC fails to do enough to put it into play. This approach tempts authors to pair NPCs with backstories that die with the NPC in 3 rounds. You can pair backstory with a character description, but only if you offer a way for players to learn the story.

As a dungeon master, I do appreciate a big picture look, so that “Adventure Background” does help me. When you finish writing your locations and scenes, go back and look at the history that gets revealed. You can then compile the subset that will enable the DM to understand the adventure. The telling details and sense of wonder can stay in the scenes and locations. If you finish your compilation and realize that some essential piece of background doesn’t appear in your compilation, then you know you failed to offer a way to communicate that background to the players. Dream up a few ways that the players can learn the background, then drop the element into the adventure.

How to reveal backstory in a role-playing game session

Adventures should focus on the present, but they can still draw from your game world’s past. Exposing players to a little backstory makes the world feel more connected and vibrant. The imaginary seems more real.

I prefer to reveal backstory through dialog. This lets the players learn as they interact. They can role play their characters’ reactions. Players can ask questions, and feel clever when the answers lead to more insights.

Creating a source of backstory

Bound and unbound books and manuscripts on shelves and a table (Leiden, 1630)Backstory can come from more sources than a hoary sage or captured henchman. People hear things, and in fantasy your sources can be something other than people. Your players can get information from a range of sources that add flavor and even launch plotlines.

  • a local busybody or snoop.
  • a fortune teller whose insights come from a network of gossips rather than anything supernatural.
  • servants and slaves, ignored by their masters, but privy to intimate conversations.
  • an immortal creature or a ghost bound to a particular location or object.
  • a thief who discovered something in the course of a crime.
  • a shapeshifter who spies in animal form.

Opening a dialog

The best time to reveal backstory is when players seek it because they have questions to answer. See “When to introduce backstory in a role-playing adventure.” For example, if a party stops at a pig farmer’s shack to ask about a strange light, and they notice that he flies the banners of the lost kingdom, someone will ask about the banners.

If you cannot lead the players to ask the right questions, then you can have a non-player character (NPC) volunteer essential background, but keep the dose small. The players will tolerate a pig farmer who mentions that the last king ascended to the heavens from atop yon hill. They won’t listen to the king’s lineage.

When you make an NPC stand out, or put her in the path of adventure, players may decide to talk. Aim to let curiosity drive the the players. If you lavish too much attention on a bystander, players will metagame and assume that the spotlight obligates them to approach. No one likes to feel steered.

Sometimes NPCs will approach the players. In a world without mass communications, locals will seek wanderers with news from afar, and will bring gossip to share. If the players decide the pig farmer is not worth their time, then perhaps he wants to to know if anyone saw his lost sow. “She likes the berries that grow on yon hill. It’s special, you know.” Remember: small doses.

Revealing backstory in writing

Of course, sometimes no one knows the information the players need. At times, I’ve resorted to letting characters uncover a bunch of backstory written in a letter, or a journal entry, or an old book page. This tactic lets players learn from a dead or missing source. It avoids the risk that players will kill someone who knows something essential. It lets me create a prop.

But this approach suffers from serious drawbacks:

  • Reading a page loses the interaction players gain when they speak to a non-player character.
  • No one wants to stop participating to read. Often players’ handouts languish on the table
  • Only one player can read at once, unless you print copies. You can enlist someone to read aloud, but listening to someone drone never seems compelling.

If you must offer written backstory, make it short. The chance to inform without spending time at the table tempts some DMs to cast pages of backstory as a tome or journal, and then to dump them on the players. This only works if players can study between sessions, and many—perhaps most—players will skip the homework.

When did you last see a movie or TV show that expected you to read something to understand the story? I can answer that. When did you last see a Star Wars movie? Even in 1977, the introductory text seemed quaint. George Lucas wanted to evoke the movies he saw as a kid. If you can think of another movie that requires reading, I suspect it’s black and white, perhaps even silent. Contemporary movies find a way to communicate though dialog and images rather then text, and a game should aspire to more interaction than a movie.

Written backstory works best when it supports interaction. First players meet with the sage, then they get a copy of the lecture notes. If you have a journal or tome for the players, put it in the hands of an NPC who has read it. The NPC can tell what it says and contribute extra information to the discussion. When the discussion ends, the players have a text to reference.

Iceberg adventures

Although I dislike trudging through pages of adventure background just to run a published adventure, I hate when authors imagine nuggets of evocative backstory, put them in print, and then fail to offer any way for players to discover them.

Some adventures resemble icebergs, with a background that could make the game world come to life submerged and doomed to stay hidden. Of course, most adventure backgrounds drown the flavorful morsels with cruft the author could not bear to cut. For more, see “The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory.”

When I run a published iceberg, I aim to break the ice. After I finish reading, I return to the background and look for all the interesting bits of history and scheming, motive and magic that might enhance play, if only I can bring them to the table.

When to introduce backstory in a role-playing adventure

In my last post, I groused about authors who write thousands of words under an “Adventure Background” heading, without bothering to limit the history lesson to the elements that enter play. This leads to a question: What adventure background should enter play?

Some players will happily devour any background and history you share at the game table. These folks read the appendixes at the end of The Lord of the Rings, and then finished The Silmarillion. I love these folks, but they’re unusual. Every public library has copies of The Silmarillion with 100 well-read pages and 100 never-read pages.

Anyone can reach the DM’s pet. What backstory do the other players want to know?

Shadow on the Moonsea shipsIn some adventures, players need to know some background to make sense of what would otherwise seem like an assortment of random events. At Gen Con 2014, I ran the Adventurers League scenario Shadow of the Moonsea five times. This adventure comes packed with flavorful elements: infernal pirates, ghost ships, creepy and incestuous villagers, and a secret that ties everything together. I enjoyed running this one. At the start of the con, I told Community Manager Robert Adducci that I would be running Shadow. He advised me to look for ways to expose the adventure’s backstory to the players. As I ran Shadow for the first time, the players strove to make sense of the adventure’s moving pieces—a good sign that the game engaged them. However, as written, Shadow on the Moonsea only offers players one route to learning the secret that links everything. My players would not take that route. If I stuck to the script, then the session would end in a bewildering clash of apparently unrelated elements. I wanted to finish with the satisfaction of a mystery solved, so I adjusted. As the adventure neared its climax, a village girl the PCs had befriended relayed a conversion she had overheard. The secret became clear. The adventure’s threads tied into a satisfying end.

Even when a piece of information makes sense of an adventure, the players may not care. Sometimes I find myself relaying some essential bit of background while the players grow impatient. Their expressions say, “Blah, blah, blah. Just tell us what to kill.” Some players do not come to the game table for a consistent work of story or worldbuilding. They will never care.

More often, when you relate backstory and the players lack interest, you are providing answers before the players know the questions. Most players care little for backstory unless it solves a problem or explains some mystery that raised their curiosity.

In order solve a problem, we must understand it.

If all the obstacles in your game invite obvious solutions, then your players will never have a reason to learn anything. But if they need to learn who committed the murder, where the treasure lies, or just what to kill, they become curious. Shadow on the Moonsea begins with the characters seeking to stop a series of raids by phantoms on a ghost ship borne by storms. As players work to identify the source of the raiders, the task becomes a mystery. During this adventure, players take an interest in such dry lore as the nature of some old bones and weather patterns on the Moonsea.

When players work as investigators, their appetite for information lets you serve backstory that would otherwise bore them, even if it does not lead anywhere. Some of the fun of investigation comes from sorting clues from unimportant details. But avoid feeding information that leads in the wrong direction. Red herrings create confusing and frustrating role-playing adventures. Players have enough difficulty pursuing clues that lead through an adventure without having to sort through clues that mislead.

If you run an investigation and players still don’t care about the facts, then you are running the wrong sort of adventure for the table.

Something doesn’t add up.

Even if the players do not need answers to solve a problem, an unexplained situation may fire their curiosity.

During the course of their quest, players in Shadow on the Moonsea find themselves in a creepy, isolated village that may be the target of the raiders’ imminent attack. But lots of things in the village seem odd. The village may be a target, but it seems to have no other links to the raiders. Nonetheless, the place’s secrets will raise the players’ curiosity. The players wind up meddling in search of the village’s secret—in search of backstory.

This sort of curiosity has sustained television shows such as Twin Peaks and Lost. Both kept viewers tuning in by spawning unexplained events that teased curiosity. The puzzles propelled the shows for years, even though neither shows’ writers proved interested in delivering satisfying answers.

The nature of a fantasy world makes creating the unexplained difficult. We have the Twilight Zone; Faerûn has Tuesday—second-day. Magic explains much. But if you manage to create a game world that seems consistent and interconnected, then players will spot the things that defy explanation, and they may dig for answers.

We want to know more.

Sometimes, players immersed in the game world will take an interest in backstory that neither helps solve a problem, nor explains something puzzling. Some favorite moments as a dungeon master have come at these moments see imagination come alive. These times, as a dungeon master, I win D&D.

Next: Deciding what backstory to print and what to cut

The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide joins the battle against excessive backstory

When I got my copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, I first looked at topics that overlap with posts I plan for this blog. If the DMG already said it, I will work on something else. Turns out, as good as the book is, I still have things to add.

In chapter 3, “Creating Adventures,” the book lists “Elements of a Great Adventure.” The list covers familiar ground, but one entry surprised me. Great adventures should put a clear focus of the present. “Instead of dealing with what happened in the past, an adventure should focus on describing the present situation.” The author wisely lists positive elements to aim toward, rather than negatives to avoid, but I see the negative: backstory. Avoid weighing your adventure with history and background that players either cannot see or don’t care about. This surprised me because Dungeon magazine once ranked as the number one perpetrator of excessive backstory.

Dungeon magazine 25For a paragon of superfluous backstory, see this room description from Dungeon 25. “Trophy Room. This room once contained trophies of war. Swords, spears, and armor of all kinds were dedicated here to the everlasting glory of the fallen orc leaders. Centuries ago, the walls were draped with elven banners, dwarves sigils, gnome heraldry, and the flags and standards of men, goblins, and various orc tribes. The moonorc leaders have stripped the room of anything useful in order to outfit the tribe. The weapons and armor were quickly divided among the warriors, while the flags and banners were torn down and used for blankets or ripped apart and resewn into bags, sacks, and clothing. The room now contains only refuse and rusty, unusable equipment.” The description could just list “refuse and rusty, unusable equipment,” but adds 100 words of fluff that cannot possibly come into play.

The quote comes via Bryce Lynch’s crabby, entertaining reviews of Dungeon magazine adventures on tenfootpole.org.

Of course, most backstory appears in the front of adventures under the heading “Adventure Background,” and starting with the words, “A century ago…,” followed by three more pages of background. For anything more complicated than goblin raiders, authors feel obligated to start their background a millennium ago.

Some backstory improves a game. Anyone building a world—or just a dungeon—must imagine the history of the place to make it consistent. Creating a backstory can inspire ideas. When players notice a little history, the game world feels more connected and vibrant.

But adventures never arrive light on backstory. I feel annoyed when an adventure makes me trudge through pages of phony history to run a game session. Judging by Bryce Lynch’s reviews of Dungeon magazine adventures, I feel pretty sure backstory killed his parents.

Why do authors weigh down adventures with superfluous backstory? I count three reasons:

  • Forgetting that adventures exist to be played. Unnecessary backstory seemed to peak in the era of the campaign setting, what James Maliszewski calls D&D’s Bronze Age (1990-1995). During this era, TSR seemed to produce products to be read more than played. They published seven campaign settings supported by mountains of supporting material and novels. Nobody could play a fraction of it all. If an adventure exists more to be read than played, then backstory adds as much as playable content.
    I have the theory that the folks who write role-playing adventures do it because they like to write. I know, crazy. You would think they would do it for the cash and girls. Some writers seem to discover that simply writing RPG products scratches the same creative itch that once led them to play role-playing games. Over time, the writing assignments pile up, their gaming buddies move on, and these writers find themselves writing for role-playing games, but not playing them. During this same bronze age, I seem to recall a lot of designers admitting that they no longer played the games they wrote for.
  • An obligation to justify the elements of the adventure. Dungeons have changed from the original monster hotels peppered with rooms plucked from a lethal funhouse. Even in a fantasy world, players and DMs expect things to make sense. In Backstory and Adventure Design, Gus L writes, “One of the best parts of wonder, strangeness and exploration is figuring out why and how something is in the game world and how it connects to the rest of that world. Without context, a dungeon is just a series of puzzles, rewards and enemies.” In this spirit, I offered “5 reasons someone might build a dungeon filled with clues and tests.”
     
    Remember when your math teacher insisted that you show your work? I’m a DM. I just want answers—just the history that enhances play. I appreciate if you can justify every detail of an adventure with some torturous back story, but you can keep most of it to yourself. I don’t need the history of Krypton to enjoy a Superman tale.
     

     
    When your creative process leads you to create an elaborate history that the players will never learn, the game will still benefit. An unseen backstory will inspire telling details that make the game world more vivid. That history will lend the setting and characters a consistency that they would otherwise lack. 
  • A desire to share the creative work that led to the adventure. Most authors who create a detailed history as part of their creative process cannot bear to leave it untold. So they write thousands of words under “Adventure Background” and force me to sift the nuggets that will enter play. Like every writer, adventure authors must murder their darlings. (Or at least put them in colored insets as I do.)

Next: When and how to introduce backstory