Tag Archives: battle maps

For Better D&D Fights, Use This 1 Simple Trick That the Designers Won’t Tell You

Late in the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the design team started presenting each encounter in a 1- or 2-page diagram. By putting everything needed to run an encounter on a page, this “delve format” benefited dungeon masters. The format especially suited fourth edition’s focus on tactical combat encounters played on battle maps. It encouraged designers to craft locations that fueled interesting battles.

Delve format encounter

While many DMs favored the easy-to-run encounters, the delve format took some heat too. Critics argued that lavishing so much space and attention on encounters encouraged adventure designs that forced players to battle through all those set pieces. The approach led to linear adventures, and it discouraged letting players use diplomacy, stealth, or ingenuity to skip combat. All that sunk cost in maps, stats, and setup tempted DMs to make fights inevitable.

So in fifth edition, the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme. Today’s adventures avoid framing situations as encounters. Instead DMs get a monster name in bold without any extra detail that might invite combat. Sample fifth-edition design: “This 20-by-20 room has 3 manticores. Fight them or whatever. Doesn’t matter.” I’m paraphrasing.

But combat remains part of D&D, and such lightweight non-encounters can lead to too many dull battles. Too often, characters and their foes crowd a doorway trading damage until monsters drop. If the designers aimed to make roleplaying interaction and exploration seem more appealing, then mission accomplished!

Even though the delve format seemed to foster more interesting combat encounters by lavishing more space on them, the key ingredient was rarely the extra text; the key was the map.

The delve format shined a spotlight on encounter maps and inspired designers to dream bigger than a 20-by-20 room. Better maps led to better battles.

Fifth edition abandoned the delve format, but it still features maps. Often, the secret to better D&D fights lies in imagining a better location. Not every potential battlefield merits the attention, but many do. I compare drawing the map for a likely battle to piling kindling. If a spark appears, I want fire.

Designing better maps doesn’t necessarily mean every fight needs to play on a grid of 5-foot squares. But even if your players favor narrative combat, more knotty locations probably mean sketching a rough map of the battlefield and of relative positions. (DMs, your players may not love theater of the mind as much as you do, so check.)

The 1 simple trick is more of a mindset: When you you map a battleground, start by seeking ways to favor the home team, usually the monster. 

Smart monsters will seek lairs that benefit them, but even beasts will instinctively seek the best place to ambush prey. From a game perspective, the most engaging fights will come from battlegrounds that let monsters exploit their abilities. Flyers want airspace to rise from reach and perhaps walls, columns, or stalactites to swoop behind. Giants need space to move. Intangible creatures want tight, knotted corridors with walls to phase through.

Mapping locations that favor the home team makes sense, but DMs seldom do it. Too often we fall into patterns set by the oldest dungeons. Originally, DMs like Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax drew maps, and then populated them by rolling from tables. We came to mock those monster hotels, but just about every DM has started with a map and sprinkled it with picks from the monster manual. Modern dungeons still tend to settle for that pattern. I’ve seen official adventures with beholders in small rooms under low ceilings and even an archmage guarding a hallway. Here’s a super genius who spent a lifetime making space and time his playthings, and somehow he winds up alone in a hall where he can only hope for a high enough initiative to loose a cone of cold before getting beaten to death. (His stats say Int 20, but if he fails to use his turn to teleport far away, I suspect daddy got him into wizard school.)

This old pattern of drawing a rectangle and posting a few monsters heavily favors the players. The party brings durable heroes who can block attacks, plus spellcasters and sharpshooters who can heap damage on monsters while safely behind the defenders.

Maps that draw characters into interesting locations make sense for the monsters, and bring more fun. For help designing maps that fuel dramatic battles, see D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes.

Sometimes a battlefield that favors the characters can prove even more fun than one that favors the monsters. To work, such locations must invite some bigger advantage than a defensive line at the door. While most fights at a door prove tiresome, if the players cross to such a choke point and then draw their foes there, the battle rewards clever play and brings fun. Often the most exciting battles pit characters against more powerful foes, and then add features that players can use to even the score. Classic adventures like Night’s Dark Terror and Isle of the Abbey turn this premise into sieges, where players have time to prepare a defense against hordes of foes. Whatever the specifics, players feel clever while they savor the thrill of defying the odds.

Good maps don’t help if everyone winds up crowding the door. To avoid bottlenecks, flip the usual script: Give the party time to enter a room and scatter before having the monsters intrude. Beyond that, break from the old pattern of thinking of each room as a separate encounter area. Instead, think of encounter areas as clusters of rooms, hallways, and whatever else lies in earshot. As scattered monsters sense intruders, they come from different directions. If the set of rooms includes a route that leads behind the characters, monsters can circle back and give those wizards and archers a taste. For good battles against the leader types who make the players’ first targets, let the leaders move into view on their turns.

When you map a location for a likely battle, think of the monsters, and then favor the home team.

How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

If you are a dungeon master, the easiest way to improve your game sessions might be to do less. Rather than doing all the tasks of running the game, delegate some to the players.

This lesson took me a long time to learn. I found Dungeons & Dragons in an era when gamers took the master part of dungeon master seriously. Some control freaks even thought dungeon masters should make all the players’ die rolls to better conceal ACs and other secrets. (See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?) I never went so far, but I never considered imposing DM chores on the players. Besides, I felt happy to do the chores myself.

Years of running tables in 4-hour convention games made me change. Especially with D&D’s fourth edition, convention sessions threatened to push past the time allowed, robbing the players of a satisfying conclusion. Rather than let a session go long, I found ways to speed the game. I learned to delegate parts of the game to the players.

I've learned a lot about dungeon mastering in rooms like this at Origins

I’ve learned a lot about dungeon mastering in rooms like this one at Origins.

The benefits surprised me. Delegating did more than help end a session on time. It led to better games.

Typically, dungeon masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the DM’s attention. A DM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck at the dungeon master. 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.

What tasks can you delegate?

Tracking initiative. If you poll your players for initiative scores and keep track yourself, you should change your method. Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative. I drape initiative tents over my DM screen so that I can reference stats on the cards, but players fill the cards—even monster names—and put them in order. Typically, they call out turns. For more, see The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons.

Referencing rules. Stopping a session to page through the rules robs the game of momentum. Ask your players to look things up. Usually, I just need to understand a spell and can resolve other actions until I get the details.

Drawing the battle map. If someone can draw the room while I grab miniatures, combat starts faster. Don’t bother describing every detail to sketch. Just ask someone to draw, say, a 40 by 60 room, then you can draw the doors and profane altars and other features.

Running allied non-player characters. Whenever an non-player character might take the side of the players in a fight, I always print an extra sheet with the character’s combat stats. My regular players lobby for the chance to run an NPC. If the ally doesn’t require bring much personality or motive, anyone can run it. If I need someone to show the NPCs’ fear of fire or hatred of magic, I pick the role players with character portraits on their table tents—the players who introduce their characters in funny voices.

Recapping the last session. When you continue a campaign, ask if anyone can recap the last session. This allows you another moment to prepare while giving you a sense of what the players considered interesting or important. Plus, you may uncover things you told the players that proved confusing or misleading.

Tallying experience points. Players keep track of the gold they win. Why not have a player keep track of experience points too? After each encounter, while you still have the monsters and encounter notes in view, give the experience values to a volunteer accountant.

Githyanki marked with numbered disks

Githyanki marked with numbered disks

Numbering monsters. I use numbered markers to distinguish the miniature figures on my battle map. Compared to players attacking “this” and “that” monster, the numbers avoid confusion and speed play. Tracking damage becomes easier. See Number Your Monsters to Stop Wasting Time Finding Them on the Battle Map. Usually, I hand one player a stack of numbered markers and let them tag the monsters.

Track damage dealt to foes. Damage dealt is not secret information for the DM. (Seeking a tactical advantage, my Dungeons & Dragons Championship teams kept track of damage.) Delegate damage tracking to that player who likes to deduce monster ACs and can total 8d6 fireball damage at a glance. When a monster takes damage, have the tracker report its total damage. If the total exceeds the monster’s hit points, describe the kill.

Or let the player describe their moment. Delegate. The game doesn’t just belong to the dungeon master. It belongs to everyone at the table. See Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters?

Unfrozen DMs, Annoying Spells, Dynamic Battles, and More Insights from the Comment Section

Time for another trip to the comment section.

The unfrozen dungeon master

In The Plight of the Unfrozen Dungeon Master, I wrote about DMs returning to Dungeons & Dragons and adapting the changes in the way folks play the game.

Edgewise wrote “One thing everyone needs to learn is that there are many different legit styles of GMing. There is no single new and current approach, and if there was, it wouldn’t be ‘better.’

My post highlighted a shift in play style from cooperating to overcome deadly challenges to a style aimed at developing characters and their stories.

Even in the same campaign, D&D can accommodate both styles. To span styles, DMs need to separate their roles in the game. Unfrozen DMs like me first learned to act as impartial referees who bring challenges and control monsters. Even in a story-focused game, that role remains important because compelling tales put characters through a wringer. We unfrozen DMs know when to tell players no(sometimes). The collaborative storyteller learns to say yes and become the character’s biggest fans. We can all learn to welcome the players ideas and weave them into the game.

This post also prompted some discussion of Matthew Finch’s A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming, a pamphlet I mentioned in A Lack of Ability Checks Shaped How People Originally Played Dungeons & Dragons. The pamphlet merits a read. Just as unfrozen DMs can learn from the game’s innovations, newer DMs can learn from D&D’s original style of play.

I failed to explain why a Lair Assault game made such a bad match for an unfrozen DM’s style. Thanks go to Marty from Raging Owlbear for making up for the lapse.

Lair Assault was an organized play event where players were challenged to optimize a party build in order to defeat a specifically designed difficult scenario.

It was not a home game. It was not Adventurers League. It was more akin to a cooperative board game where it was the players vs. the game with the DM acting as the ‘AI’ of the scenario.

This means that the DM changing the Lair Assault scenario is breaking the whole concept of the Lair Assault. The whole point of Lair Assault was to stick to the rules as written to “win” the scenario. If the DM changes the scenario as written, it’s not fair to the players who signed up for that specific game mode. The DM is breaking the agreed upon play style.

Preparing situations

Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead advised DMs to build games around situations rather encounters.

Grimcleaver offered an alternative approach that mixes specific encounters with some improvisation.

Take your normal map with encounters scattered around, cut out all the same encounters and put them in a bullet point list. Then just sit back. When the time seems set for one of the encounters–run it. They need be in no preordained place on the map so long as the circumstances are right. They collapse the mine entrance with an avalanche? Fine, but a ways out they discover tracks–a warband of the creatures must have been out when the cave was sealed. If they do the expected thing and follow them into the woods then your first encounter can be whatever you’d planned, but in a clearing in the woods. If they come up with another crazy out of the box solution and subvert that situation? Well that’s fine, you have the encounter prepped and in your notes whenever you need it–and the PCs get to do something else clever.

What I try to go for is to have a list of encounters that are both dramatic and balanced that I can drop in anywhere to use as filler or twists or kickoff points to further the action. If what the PCs are doing is proactive and interesting on its own, that’s better. I’ll stick with that. But when things slow down and the players need an external stimulus, bam I can throw down an encounter that works.

This technique resembles the way I sometimes manage wandering monsters, so it makes a good addition to a preparation toolbox. But DMs who lean too heavily on the technique risk robbing players of meaningful choices. If options lead to the same encounters, do the players’ choices matter? See Illusionism: if player choices seem to matter, does it matter if they don’t?.

Character introductions

Replying to How to Get D&D Players to Make Unforgettable Character Introductions That Take a Minute or Less, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia reminded us that you don’t need a DM’s invitation to make an unforgettable introduction. “It may be worth mentioning that as players, we can also plan for a generic ‘fit anywhere’ scene. When a DM asks for a character introduction, you can drop it in. ‘My introduction isn’t about me standing here before you, but what led to my arrival. It started with a few shouts down the street, as I battled a pair of ruffians…’”

Spell templates

Regarding How to Create Wire Spell Templates for Dungeons & Dragons, skwyd42 asked a question: “I agree that wire templates are quite nice. However, these cones (and also circles) will have the issue of ‘partial squares’ when using a grid. I’ve yet to find a satisfactory solution for this issue. Any ideas?

The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives this answer: “Choose an intersection of squares or hexes as the point of origin of an area of effect, then follow its rules as normal. If an area of effect is circular and covers at least half a square, it affects that square.” Likewise, if a cone fills half a square, it affects the square.

Alphastream offers a method suited to making square templates. “Should it be of help, during the 4E days I used a technique one of my friends had, using window screen tubing and wire. That same technique can be used for 5E.”

Gary Gygax’s plans for AD&D

In reply to Gary Gygax’s Thwarted Plans for Second-Edition Dungeons & Dragons, a couple of posters mentioned Joseph Bloch’s game Adventures Dark and Deep. This AD&D game attempts to capture the second edition Gary Gygax would have created, based on exhaustive research into Gary’s stated plans.

Joern Moller writes, “Isn’t Castles and Crusades (which Gary consulted on and supported) the game closest to his ideal version of D&D?

Correct. In Gary’s later years, he favored his own Lejendary Adventure Game. But when an occasion called for a modern take on D&D, he ran Castles & Crusades.

Annoying spells

In a response to How new changes created the 4 most annoying spells in Dungeons & Dragons, Andy Walker succeeded at diplomacy, by the standards of Internet comments.

I will try to be diplomatic here, and probably fail. I like some of the spells you hate in this post. Banishment? Sure it upsets the table temporarily, but the target gets a save, and IT WORKS BOTH WAYS. Try letting the villain banish the Barbarian or the Wizard as his opener, and suddenly the PCs are the ones on the defensive, pinata side. When a villain is banished, have him return invisible, or in Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere. Just because the baddie is gone, doesn’t mean he/she suddenly becomes stupid or helpless.

Counterspell? One of the best spells in the game. If you want an interesting duel between mages, this thing rocks. Nothing is more dramatic than causing the evil necromancer’s Disintegrate Spell to fail, or a PC’s high level spell, carefully selected for just this foe, to fizzle. And counterspell against a counterspell (yup, totally legal)? Mage Battle Royale!!!

This whole column seems like ‘things that annoy me as a DM because I didn’t prepare contingencies, and I’m too nice to use them against the PCs.’

If I ran a regular game with players who enjoyed such reprisals, I would relish banishment. However, most players find seeing their characters sidelined by banishment or counterspell more frustrating than fun. Fortunately for most players, unless DMs opt to drop spellcasters into most encounters, and then routinely switch up the stock non-player character spell lists, the annoying spells rarely work both ways.

Tracking initiative

I discovered my numbered technique for tracking initiative from Alphastream.

To use numbers, create a set of tents numbered from 1 up. When initiative starts, the players compare numbers and take the card the matches their place in the order. The highest takes 1, second highest 2, and so on. The DM takes cards for the monsters’ place in the order. Everyone sets the numbers at their spot at the table so everyone can see their place.

I have to give all praise to Paul Lauper Ellison, an amazing gamer and friend I first met during the days of Living Greyhawk 3.5 organized play,” Alphastream commented. “Paul came up with the idea of numbered tents (and made his first ones) for special Living Greyhawk events like Battle Interactives, where time was a big factor for success. We could shave off many minutes of the DM pausing to figure out who went when by using his tents.

During the first round, Paul would simply start placing numbers as the DM called out someone’s turn. I do the same as a player. I must say that by the end of the adventure/event, 99% of DMs have stopped tracking initiative on their end and are letting us do it, because it is so much better. Every player knows when their turn comes up, no one gets skipped, and we know when monsters go (typically, we place a number in front of the DM for each group of monsters, so a DM might go on both 4 and 9). It really is a brilliant system. These days, you see the system used all around Adventurers League, and it is all thanks to Paul!

As for handling monster initiatives, Alphastream writes, “I still assign them a number. Because most encounters have a few types of creatures (a bugbear, three orcs), and cards are used for each group of monsters, the players are used to seeing the DM have several numbers at the start of combat. They don’t know if a number belongs to one of the orcs (maybe one of them is a spellcaster) or something else, until the initiative passes (and even then, they may not notice).

It can also be fun to announce it. ‘And on number 5… nothing happens!’ It creates mystery and excitement at the table, as they wonder what will happen. If you use initiative numbers for things like traps and events (on every number 4, the volcano causes the ground to shake and all creatures make a Dex save to avoid falling), the players won’t always assume it’s a hidden monster. It really works well overall.

Dynamic combat scenes

In response to D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes Alphastream offered more suggestions. (As you see, Alphastream’s comments make half this post. Thanks, buddy!)

One thing I would add is to give the characters obvious goals inside the room, to draw them in and give them things to do. Some examples: A monster is heading towards a lever, so it probably should be stopped. The treasure is in a clearly visible alcove, but a huge stone wall is dropping down to seal it off. A clockwork device begins to slowly count down.

When it comes to foes, making them interesting really helps. Four goblins and a wizard… everyone will target the wizard. But when you have goblins throwing strange alchemical or mechanical devices at the party, or if the goblins control levers that activate traps, suddenly players won’t know where to focus fire, and the battle gets interesting and dynamic. Even vivid descriptions can be effective. A common outcome in my home campaign is that they don’t focus fire (despite being very tactical) because the monsters all demand attention.

Terrain is also worth underscoring. Cover is important, but the design of the room itself will drive how players react. A ramp up the middle, elevated places, stacks of crates that can topple over, a chasm, a pit, a rope bridge with ropes you can clearly use to swing across, and other such terrain will all change the behavior of players and encourage at least a few of them to engage the battle in fun ways.

My terrain post also drew suggestions for dynamic encounters from Timothy Park. He adds too much good advice to quote here, so go back to the post and read the comment.

In the same post, I faulted the adventure Hecatomb for a lack of terrain, which set up monsters for execution by sharpshooters and other ranged attackers.

Stevey writes, “I helped with Hecatomb last spring also here in Montreal. I was to be DMing Tier 3. Upon reading it, I immediately noticed the open battle field effect you mentioned. I proceeded to create a dozen ‘Claws’ and a huge box of scatter terrain to hand out to the 10+ DM’s to help with this. I really think it helped. We even used it to help raise money (the Epic was for a charity) and gave away the terrain to those that donated.

Check out Steve’s stunning terrain props.

The terrain post led Duncan Rhodes from Hipsters & Dragons to create a list of terrain features that would improve a combat scene. See 101+ Terrain Features for Better Combats. I plan to draw from the list for inspiration.

From the authors of a 40-year-old adventure

Finally, during this site’s first year, I praised one of my favorite adventures, Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a 1980 tournament adventure Judges Guild sold for a mere $2. Authors’ Allen Pruehs and Ree Moorhead Pruehs, found my review and wrote, “Wow. Thank you for the compliments. We are blown away!” Their notice delighted me. Incidentally, I also listed Astigar’s Lair, among the 5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1978-2000.

How to Use the Players’ Metagaming to Mess With Their Heads (and Improve Your Game)

In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide, Dungeon & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax suggested speeding overcautious players by rolling “huge handfuls of dice” to raise fears of nearby monsters. Of course, the characters in the game world never hear the die rolls or Gary saying, “You detect nothing, and nothing has detected YOU so far.” He relied on the player’s metagaming to speed the dungeon crawl. When metagaming, players use knowledge of the game in the real world to make decisions based on things their characters don’t know.

Gary intended to use the power of metagaming for good.

Whenever a battle map includes a statue, I always place a statue miniature on the map. Players routinely ignore statues drawn on the map, but if I add a miniature, their characters inevitably sidle around thing, expecting it to animate and attack. The presence of miniatures sends the metagame signal that the figures represent things to fight.

Although this never fails to amuse me, it brings another benefit. Placing miniatures for harmless things defies a metagame assumption. Maybe next time, the players won’t tie up all the statues in the dungeon just in case.

Animated Statue?

These sorts of metagame stunts carry a price. They call attention to the game and may interfere with the players’ immersion in the imaginary world. When DMs use meaningless die rolls to hurry the players or foster paranoia, they can nudge players out of the game world.

Instead, consider fostering paranoia based on things inside the game world. Describe the sound of a door slamming in the last room, a smell of wet fur, a sudden chill, cries echoing through stone halls, and so on.

Still, my trick with the statures seems  innocuous to me. After all, the players are already focusing on the map and minis when I place the figures.

Despite the price of instigating metagame thinking, I occasionally ask players to make meaningless checks. This discourages the assumption that every roll signals something. I prefer requesting such checks when players already seem focused on the game table rather than immersed in the game world. For instance, if a rogue scouts ahead and checks for traps, I might also ask for a superfluous stealth check.

In my games, I like to toy with players metagame expectations for two reasons:

  • It discourages metagaming. If you sometimes do things that defy the metagame, players will rely less on it.
  • It creates uncertainty and fosters surprises. In the game, we can create surprises by doing things that break the expectations that come from knowing their characters exist in a game.
People bring meta-fiction expectations to stories as well as games. The movie Psycho provides my favorite example of violating these expectations to shock and surprise. The movie contains two big surprises. I will spoil one here. Psycho begins with the movie’s star embezzling $40,000 cash and taking to the road. We’ve all seen countless movies, so we all know what will happen. Obviously, the movie will follow the story of the stolen cash to the end. And we know the movie’s star will survive until the finale. The star always does. Instead, Psycho shatters our expectations by having the movie’s star suddenly murdered less then half way through. The turn shocked and electrified audiences. Hitchcock even added a personal plea to the end of the film asking viewers not to reveal the twists.

I recommend playing with these metagame assumptions.

Metagame assumption Countermeasure
The battle map signals a fight. Every DM has set a battle map on the table and seen players immediately ready weapons and announce their battle stances. I discourage such shenanigans by saying something like, “This map shows a forest clearing exactly like several others you passed on your journey, except—unknown to your characters—this clearing happens to be on a battle map.” Use a battle map for a non-combat scene like a council meeting or a visit to the tavern. From Twitter, @Styro_Vgc writes, “Watching the PCs carefully maneuver to flank the mailman delivering the summons is worth the effort of drawing a few building outlines.” I always pictured typical adventurers as twitchy and paranoid anyway.
Miniatures represent combatants. If a non-player or creature has a miniature, you should expect to fight them. In addition to statues, I collect miniature figures for unarmed civilians, from royalty to beggars. During combats, they often serve as bystanders to be protected. Bystanders can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat.
The last fight is the big one. Players routinely conserve resources for the expected, climactic battle. Vary your adventures from the expected arc to a climactic battle. For instance, in Monte Cook’s Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the players almost immediately face one of their biggest, most dangerous fights. Monte designed the battle to shock players who expected the usual, leisurely start.
Unique miniatures or tokens represent important NPCs. Players tend to focus attention on the unique figures in a battle. From Twitter, Kyle Maxwell writes, “I use and it’s fun to name the NPC tokens so my players immediately assume they are some highly significant character. (Bonus, the interaction with them sometimes turns this into a self-fulfilling prophecy!)” A variation of this trick works with unique or important looking miniatures mixed in with, say, a group of bandits.

While these tricks keep players on their toes by toying with metagame assumptions, I can think of one assumption DMs should uphold. A tricky DM can alarm players by lavishing description on a harmless, ordinary object such as a door. Don’t. None of this suggests you should avoid vivid descriptions—they make the imaginary come alive. Still, no player wants to spend a half hour investigating an ordinary door because their DM’s extra attention made it seem important. Your descriptions help guide players to the fun and interesting features in the world. Without that lead, you risk slowing the game as players poke, prod, and investigate every bit of decor.

D&D Locations and Tactics that Encourage Dynamic Combat Scenes

Last summer, I played in the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Hecatomb. The multi-table event put numerous parties on a massive battlefield. Our characters scrambled to destroy arcane obelisks while fighting monsters. To start the event, the dungeon master pointed to the empty grid, “There’s your part of the battlefield,” then he set markers for the obelisk and monsters. Now fight.

I’ve played countless battles on that same featureless grid. Sure, sometimes the blank space represents an open cavern, a desert, or a hilltop, but in every case, the empty field adds no interest to the scene. At least we had squares to count.

The dull setup turned duller when we realized that our party’s sharpshooter could safely destroy the obelisks and the monsters lurking two maps over, without ever letting threats come close enough to strike back. Our melee characters could only “ooh” and “ahh” like an audience for Annie Oakley.

In D&D, the empty grid has an equally humdrum opposite: the square dungeon room with doors on either end. I’ve played that map countless times, and I know how that goes as well. If the monsters win initiative, they crowd the door and nobody moves again. If the players win initiative, fireballs and hypnotic patterns cull the weak, while the sharpshooter drops the boss. Only the monsters who make saves get to crowd the door.

Perhaps some of these combat scenes prove fun. Sometimes players enjoy a chance to revel in quick victory. Mostly, they make DMs consider dismissing the fight with a quick visit to the theater of the mind or they consider altogether fewer fights. This makes me sad because while I enjoy exploration and role-playing, I also enjoy dynamic, tactical battles.

To map locations that lead to exciting battles, take my suggestions:

Monsters deserve cover

In a fantasy world with D&D sharpshooters and fireballs, combatants would hunker down in trenches like soldiers at the Somme. Melee fighters would advance under cover of Fog Cloud. Such tactics probably lack the heroic flavor you want, but you can give monsters a fighting chance without getting too tricky. Just add some total cover, and play creatures with the good sense to duck between their turns. This hardly counts as high strategy. If you throw a rock at a rat, it runs for cover. Faced with melee and ranged attacks, many foes will stay out of sight and let intruders come into reach. That usually works. By reputation, treasure hunters are bloodthirsty and undisciplined.

Such tactics encourage characters to move to engage. Melee fighters get more to do. They deserve to shine.

Total cover takes just few columns or stalagmites.

One caution: Newer players can find foes that duck behind total cover frustrating. You may need to dial down the tactic or explain the rules for readying actions.

Start some monsters out of sight—especially the boss

In the typical D&D battle, all the party’s foes start in plain sight. This makes the strongest monster an easy target for focused fire. Too often the mastermind dies before acting, or even before finishing a monologue. The players never learn of the fiendish plan that will end their pitiful lives. Consider starting that climactic battle with the main foe out of view. Let the characters spread out to attack the guards and lieutenants, and then have the biggest threat appear on its turn. In D&D, villains must fight and monologue at the same time.

When some lesser foes begin out of view, fights benefit. First, this gives some total cover. Plus the battle feels more fluid; the situation more uncertain. As characters move into the room, they spot unseen foes. As monsters emerge, the players wonder what other surprises wait.

Give flyers some air

Cover plus room to fly makes a good lair for a beholder

I find beholders irresistible. Who doesn’t? But just about every showdown against a beholder that I’ve played or run ended in disappointment. Too often, scenarios put them in a room with low ceiling, letting melee attackers rush in and smack them like t-balls. Any beholder worth its 17 intelligence finds a lair with a high ceiling and elevated places that provide total cover. A hole in the roof or some high columns will do. Between flying and antimagic, Beholders should frustrate every do-gooder.

What works for beholders works for every other flyer. Don’t ground flyers under a low ceiling. Let them fly over the melee ranks and bite the lightly-armored spellcaster attempting to concentrate.

Let the monsters intrude for a change

In an earlier post, I suggested an easy way to make dungeons feel vital. The method reverses the tired pattern of monsters that seem to wait in rooms for their chance to be slain. Pick a room where you would normally put monsters. In a published adventure, the room might already include some. Then assume the monsters have temporarily left the room. As the characters interact with other features of the room—the fountain or the bookcase—the monsters return. This trick begins fights with characters spread out instead of in a defensive formation. Characters who avoid melee may land in harm’s way. Some character may be surprised. The dungeon feels active.

Watch Counterspell range

Counterspell ranks as one of the 4 most annoying spells in fifth edition. Any encounter centered on an enemy spellcaster threatens to turn into a Counterspell duel where the foe does nothing. All that nothing amounts a boring encounter. Spellcasters can avoid Counterspell two ways: Either cast outside the spell’s 60-foot range or cast from out of sight. So place enemy casters in locations big enough for more the 60 feet of distance, and then favor spells that work from that distance. Fireball delivers again. After casting, duck behind total cover and let the melee characters come for a taste of shorter-ranged spells.

As for casting from out of sight, non-player spellcasters typically lack Greater Invisibility, but a few of their buff spells can be cast from total cover.

Love the small loop

The opposite of the static, bottlenecked encounter comes from encounter areas built around at least one tight, looping circuit through the dungeon. Such a layout enables foes to circle around and bring the battle to characters in the back—the characters who so rarely enjoy the chance to face foes up close. Meanwhile, melee characters rarely resist the temptation to chase skirmishers. The layout invites active battles.

Make encounter areas from clusters of rooms

D&D brings a long tradition of dungeons filled with square rooms with a door. Once upon a time, that game felt new enough to make even the 20-by-20 room a fitting battlefield. In today’s game, that worn setup rarely works. Don’t just draw a big square on a grid and call it a battlefield. Dynamic encounters demand more thought.

Rather than confining encounter areas to a single room, consider building sites from clusters of small rooms with one or more paths that circuit the location. Groups of rooms add places for total cover and for hidden foes. They encourage characters to pursue enemies, adding movement and excitement. On these maps, make the distances small enough so characters can move from room to room, and from attack to attack, with a single move.

Out of marching order

I pity players who favor melee characters. Fifth-edition D&D delivers too many advantages for ranged attackers. Spellcasters get fireball and hypnotic pattern. Ranged rogues can more easily attack from hiding. Archers get sharpshooter and crossbow expert. In addition to getting the best feats, ranged attackers get to fight out of harm’s way.

But battles with movement and cover tend to play to the strengths of melee characters. The monk finally gets to flaunt her speed! The backstabber gains places to dash, disengage, and reasons to engage. The paladin can drive foes from hiding. Sure, these sort of encounters may frustrate and threaten sharpshooters, but that just adds an extra benefit.

Don’t follow this advice for me. Do it for the beholders. Those characters won’t disintegrate themselves.

Related: In my side trek “To Steal a Primordial,” the party attempts to intercept a group of drow before they can escape to the Underdark. To foster a moving battle, I designed the scenario’s last map using much of my advice here.

My Scheme to Draw Dungeon Battle Maps Without Counting Squares

For my game, I like to draw battle maps of key locations in advance. I use gaming paper or easel pads marked with a 1-inch grid. When I copy an adventure map to a big sheet, I hate counting squares, but I’m too fussy to fudge and settle for close enough. My taste for precision makes winding caverns a particular nuisance. Sometimes I print map graphics as battle maps, but that requires more printer ink, cutting, and pasting than I want to lavish on a huge map. See How to print map graphics as battle maps using free software.

After my weekly group managed to end a session by alerting an entire dungeon, the next session promised a running battle spanning the site. I needed a big map. How could I draw it without wasting time counting squares and recreating that underground river? If only I could just trace a 50-by-50-inch map from my computer monitor.

Inspiration struck. I have a projector. And a wall.

Post-it Super Sticky Easel Pad, 25 x 30 Inches, 1-Inch Grid

How to draw adventure maps on 1″ grids without counting squares.

What you need

For this procedure, you need the following items:

On the wall

Steps

  1. Connect the computer to the connector.
  2. Open the map image in the computer.
  3. Project the map image on the wall.
  4. If the map includes a 5-foot-per-square grid, zoom the map image until the squares projected on the wall measure 1-inch across. Otherwise, zoom the map image until 5 feet on the map spans 1 inch on the wall.
  5. Stick a gridded sheet on the wall so the squares on the sheet align with any squares on the projected map. If you want to stick the sheet with a long side up, use removable tape.
  6. Trace.

For me, this method proved far faster and easier than counting squares.

Off the wall

Once I finished the map, I cut it into sections that I could lay out as characters explored. Having pre-drawn maps increased the pace of the next game session. The missing gaps behind doors and around corners seemed to encourage players to scatter and open doors, escalating the mayhem of battle.

I suspect I’ll use this trick often.

3 Pieces of Dungeon Masters Gear I Love and 1 Failed Experiment

Whenever I unpack my dry-erase maps and tiles, I reveal the remains of past games. Today, this residue includes the usual battlegrounds drawn in 5-foot squares, but also names like Syndra Silvane and Ytepka, experience numbers, damage totals, a sketch of the Chapel of Kukulkan from Tamoachan, and a rough map of the Nangalore in Chult.

As much as dungeon masters serve as a referees and facilitators, we need to act as communicators. So I use my dry-erase grids as white boards to help reveal the game world to the players, to remind players of place and character names, to emphasize key details, and so on. At any Dungeons & Dragons table, I’m never the only one who tends to think visually.

This habit led me to discover an advantage interlocking gaming tiles boast over the conventional battle mats. I can pick up one tile, write or draw, and set tile back down. No more struggling to write “Ytepka” upside down for the players to see.

Compared to a conventional battle mat, interlocking, dry- or wet-erase tiles bring other advantages. You can draw tiles in advance, and then reveal them as characters explore. As characters travel, adding tiles extends your map. Characters and their miniatures can roam without leaving the table.

Dry- and Wet-Erase Interlocking Tiles

Two companies now sell dry- or wet-erase interlocking tiles with either 1-inch grids or hexes.

Gaming Paper’s tiles consist of heavy cardboard like the board in your Monopoly game, but thicker. I can hold a rigid tile in 1 hand and draw with the other. The glossy surface takes dry-erase markers. The 8×11 size fits with your game books in a bag or on a bookshelf. The construction makes the boards inexpensive, but it means that careless erasing will peel the paper surface from the boards.

I haven’t seen the tiles from Role 4 Initiative. They come on 1/8-inch-thick chipboard, so they should prove more durable than cardboard. The tiles work with both wet- and dry-erase markers. Dry erase marks lift without water, but they tend to smear during transport or storage. Wet-erase marks stay sharp. These tiles come in both 10×10 and 5×5 sizes, which makes packing a bit more awkward, but which helps DMs fit dungeon walls within tile borders.

Wire Templates

Nothing stalls a fight on a grid like an area-effect spell. Everyone waits while someone counts and recounts squares, and then figures angles like a pool shark. For fireballs and other circles, my macrame rings trim minutes from the process. To make 30-foot cones just as simple, I shaped 12-gauge, aluminum craft wire and electrical tape into a template. For Cone of Cold, I bent an 30-foot extension.

For improved versions, I would like to find stiffer wire. My wire holds up at the table, but packing requires care. I nestle the pieces under the flat cover of my compartment case.

Bags for Games Masters

I used to think that scrapbooking served as lonely fun, but scrapbookers gather together to craft. And companies design amazing bags suited for their ventures. We DMs lack the same market clout, but a bag made for scrapbooking holds my Dungeons & Dragons gear so well that only an embroidered ampersand would improve it.

The 360 Crafters Rolling Bag from We Are Memory Keepers holds a compartment case full of miniatures alongside a stack of hardcovers. Pockets cover the bag inside and out, offering a place for everything. Plus, mesh reveals each pockets’ contents, so I can find things without digging. Plus, the bag stands open beside my DM’s chair, keeping everything in easy reach. I can start a game without unpacking.

Admittedly, the selection of cheerful colors and breezy patterns hardly says killer DM, but I can add my own green, devil patches.

Wet-Wipe Chalk Marker

Until technology brings me a video display that I can unroll at a convention table, I’m stuck using paper maps. To bad, because I dream of using electronics to show a map and reveal only the features within the characters’ sight. I experimented with a low-tech alternative.

  1. Set a players’ version of a dungeon map under the Lexan sheet I sometimes use to keep battlemaps flat.
  2. Conceal the map with a wet-wipe chalk marker—the sort of marker a school’s homecoming committee uses to decorate the windows of businesses on Main Street.
  3. As players explore, wipe away the chalk marks, revealing the map.

Unfortunately, the chalk coating proved too hard to remove. Scraping caused it to flake off in ragged patches, revealing too much and leaving a blizzard of white powder. A wet paper towel left white smears and also lacked precision. I count wet chalk as a failed experiment, so I’m back to waiting for a packable, 30-inch display.

Related: Photo Guide to Dungeon Masters Tools

New photo guide to dungeon master’s tools

As a dungeon master or game master, you can run a fun game with almost no gear, just a couple of dice, a pen, and some note paper.  I prefer to operate on the other end of the spectrum, with a full array of miniatures, markers, and props. This guide takes a tour through the tools in my DM’s kit. You do not need any of this equipment, but I suspect you will see some items to add to your  case.

A bento box doubles as storage and a dice tray.

Bento box

A bento box serves as compact storage.

A bento box provides storage for my gaming essentials. This Japanese-style lunch set includes two boxes with lids that pull together with an elastic band. I put pens, pencils, and tokens in the one box. Dice go into the other. When I take out the pens, the empty box doubles as my dice tray.   Best of all, when I go to play, just need to grab the box and a character sheet. Also, except for a battle map, all my dungeon mastering essentials fit in the box. Amazon offers some appealing bento boxes for around $20.

Compartment case

The miniature figures I need for a game fit into a translucent-plastic, compartment case. Removable dividers make the compartments’ size adjustable. As visible in the photo, I half-filled some of the compartments with foam rectangles. This prevents miniatures from banging around and makes small items easy to reach. When I need space for a larger miniature, I pluck out the foam for extra room.

Deep compartment case

Deep compartment case

Dungeon master’s screen

I typically use a DM screen. I prefer the 6” tall mini version of the World’s Greatest Screen from Hammerdog games. This screen is constructed like a loose-leaf binder, with clear-plastic pockets on both sides. I filled the DM-side pockets with the tables and rules I needed most at the table. Stuff the players’ side with your favorite fantasy art.

I have created rules inserts for fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, which you can download as a PDF file. Put them in the Hammerdog screen, or just put the inserts on cardboard and fabricate your own screen.

You can learn why I choose to use a screen and download my inserts in “Dungeon master’s screen.”

Behind the dungeon master’s screen

Behind the dungeon master’s screen

Battlemap

I always carry a blank battlemap. The Pathfinder flip-mat works with both wet- and dry-ease markers and folds for easy storage. When laid out, the mat tents a little at the creases.

The Chessex Battemat rolls out and lays flat, but the rolled map is harder to carry. This vinyl map limits you to wet-erase markers.

When I use folded poster maps, I typically make the map lay flat by covering it with a Lexan Polycarbonate Sheet—the sort of material used for storm windows. The Lexan sheets cost more than Acrylic, but they resist cracking. By using wet-erase markers, you can write on these sheets and then erase. Purchase these sheets from your local home-improvement store for under $20.

Battle map under plexiglas

Battle map under Lexan

 

I transport my maps and Lexan sheet in a inexpensive, artist’s portfolio case.

Some poster maps printed for miniature skirmish games lack a grid. You can still use these maps for your D&D games. ArcKnight sells clear-plastic sheets that overlay a grid on any map. Some DMs avoid grids. Tokens or miniatures on an informal map gives a picture of the battlefield without encouraging anyone to quibble over squares. Alternately, you can use a tape measure to find distances in inches, just as Dave and Gary once did.

Rolling in a box

Clear box for dice rolling

Clear box for dice rolling

For reasons explained in “Rolling in a box,” I always make die rolls in full view of the players. I used to use a clear, plastic box to keep the dice corralled. This clear box never hides the outcome of a roll, but now I use one of my bento boxes as a dice tray. The bento box doubles a storage, so it packs more easily.

Status markers

Alea tools magnetic markers in case

Alea Tools magnetic markers in case

Fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons required combat-status markers to track all the conditions on the battlefield. I invested in a set of Alea Tools magnetic status markers. You can mark the edges of these markers with adhesive labels so everyone can read the status names. The markers cling in place, and a storage case makes organization easy.

Fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons eliminates much of the need for combat-status markers, so I no longer bring a case full of markers to the table. However, I’ll always use the numbered markers to tell one identical monster figure from another on the battlefield. When I lack miniatures for a game, I use my numbered markers as creature tokens.

Numbered alea markers

Numbered and labeled Alea markers

 

Plastic markers

Colored marking dots

Colored marking dots

Colored plastic disks provide any easy way to mark the location of things like a key, a magical glyph, or a wall of fire on the battlemap. Because the disks lay flat, miniatures will sit on top of them. I purchased my set from a convention vendor. You can also buy plastic countersonline.

 

Marking zones and areas of effect

To designate zones and areas of effect on the battlemap, I use three types of markers:

Colored transparencies.  I keep a set of transparent, colored sheets clipped to the inside of my DM screen. Whenever someone drops, say, a cloud of darkness, I can lay down a sheet on the battle map. Because you can see through the sheets, the terrain stays visible. Typically, you only have to lift one or two figures to place a small sheet, which is easier and faster than marking each of the area’s four corners. You can purchase the transparencies from American Science and Surplus.

Area of effect markers

Blue transparency and yellow boundary markers

Boundary markers. These plastic angles mark the four corners of square areas. The boundry markers from Litko Game Accesories come cheap, work for any size area, and allow the miniatures to stay put.

Area-of-Effect Templates. For third-edition D&D and descendants like Pathfinder, I recommend the wire templates from Steel Sqwire. Frugal gamers can bend and snip templates almost as nice from coat hangers.

Steel Sqwire area of effect templates

Steel Sqwire area of effect templates

The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide drops the jagged spell templates of 3E. Instead, the rules suggest that players measure actual circles and cones on the battle map. Spellcasters no longer need to stay inside the lines. Despite the change, eyeballing spell areas on a grid remains a chore.

Macrame rings

Macrame rings

To show circular spell effects, use macrame rings. The rings come in variety of sizes, so you can get an 8-inch ring for Fireball, a 6″ ring for Darkness, and a 4″ ring for Antimagic Field—or for the tactician who wants to launch a fireball above the battle to catch a smaller circle. The sturdy rings pack easily into your game bag.

Fireball-size ring

Fireball-size ring

I still hunt for wire templates for cone effects. I may try to bend my own.

Line-of-sight indicator

Line-of-sight indicator in retracting spool

Line-of-sight indicator in retracting spool

A line-of-sight indicator reels out a string that you can stretch between figures on the battlemap to see if obstacles block the line. The string is spring loaded, so it draws back automatically like a tape measure. Paizo sells these, but office supply stores and Amazon offers the same item as a retractable badge holder.

Initiative tents

I track initiative using folded, card-stock tents with names written on both sides. I drape the tents across the top of my DM’s screen in initiative order. If you work without a DM screen, or prefer to delegate initiative to the players, you can stand the tents on the table, lined up in order.

Initiative tents

Initiative tents

You can find more advice and my printable initiative tents at “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Pens, clips, and scissors

Obviously, your DM kit requires regular pens and pencils as well as wet- or dry-erase pens suitable for your battle map. I bring clips so I can affix maps and pictures to my DM screen in the players’ view. Any convention DM must carry scissors to cut apart certificates and player hand outs.

Scissors, pens, clips, and post-it flags

Scissors, pens, clips, and post-it flags

Post-it flags enable me to affix reminders to my initiative tents, so I can remember when conditions lift, and when the purple worm will burst from the floor.

Poker chips

Poker chips

Poker chips

I give players poker chips to represent inspiration. Different colored chips can also account for magical talismans, blessed elixirs, keys, and other items players must collect or use during the course of an adventure.

Miniatures

As I confessed in “Lair Assault: Kill the Wizard – I made a Drowslayer,” I enjoy representing the action on the table with the correct miniatures.

My DM case always includes an assortment of two types of miniatures:

  • Bystanders and civilians. As I wrote in “Using your players’ metagaming to mess with their heads,” miniature figures for unarmed civilians can serve as bystanders to be protected as moving obstacles. Civilian figures can set a scene and defuse the players’ notion that every figure is a threat. You can find townsfolk from TurnKey miniatures, Dungeon Crawler, and Reaper’s Bones lines.

    Bystander and civilian miniatures

    Bystander and civilian miniatures

  • Beast forms and animal companions. While fourth edition encouraged characters to collect animal companions, fifth edition lures many folks into playing Druids with animal forms. I pack an assortment of the most common beasts. In ascending level, Druids favor the following forms: Wolf, Bear, Hyena, Giant Vulture, Giant Snake, Ankylosaurus, Giant Scorpion, Giant Crocodile, Mammoth, and elementals.

    Animal companion miniatures

    Animal companion miniatures

For a list of other miniatures that I keep close at hand, see “The 11 most useful types of miniatures.”

To avoid the expense of miniatures, you can substitute tokens, Alea markers, or candy—tell players, “If you kill it, you eat it.”

ArcKnight offers a line of flat, plastic miniatures as a cheaper alternative to the real thing. These figures stand upright, so they offer more visual appeal than a token. Once you take them off their bases, they pack flat, making them easily portable.

Flight stands

Miniature flight platform

Miniature flight platform

The flying figure stands from Litko game accessories offer a way to mark airborne figures. The stands allow you to position one figure over another, or to set a die under a flying figure to indicate elevation. The flight stands come in three pieces that require assembly. Typical CA glue will fog the clear acrylic, so I suggest using the Craftics #33 Thick Acrylic Cement. Use nail clippers to trim the long tabs on the vertical support so they fit flush with the base and platform. Pack the stands carefully, because they snap easily.

Dungeon Tiles

When I use Dungeon Tiles, I arrange them on sheets of non-slip drawer liners, available anyplace that sells housewares. The liners grip the table and keep the loose tiles in place. These lightweight liners easily roll up for transport.

Shelf lines keep tiles in place

Shelf lines keep tiles in place

 

Removable mounting putty

Removable mounting putty

For all but the simplest layouts, loose tiles take too long to arrange on the table, so I like to assemble maps in advance. I use removable mounting putty to stick the tiles on foam-core art boards. Office supply stores sell both the boards and the putty. Get the Removable Adhesive Putty, and not clear removable mounting dots, because the clear stuff sets after a while and will damage the tiles.

For more one dungeon tiles, see my “complete list and gallery of Dungeon Tiles sets” and “complete guide to using Dungeon Tiles.”

Props

Potion vial prop

Potion vial prop

I carry a couple of corked glass vials from American Science and Surplus. While completely unnecessary, I find them enchanting and I sometimes use them as prop potions.

Dungeon decor

While completely inessential, I pack some miniature dungeon decor to add to the battlemap. Figures such as chests, statues, and altars can add three-dimensional flavor to the battlemap, while calling attention to important features. Ballistas appear in enough adventures to make a figure useful. The photo below features items from more recent D&D miniature sets and from Legendary Realms. Reaper’s Bones line also includes some unpainted decor.

Dungeon decor

Dungeon decor

Preparing to run an adventure as a dungeon master at a convention

In 1984 at Gen Con, I first served as an official dungeon master for a table full of strangers. I ran the adventure that would become I11 Needle. As I explained in “Running I11 Needle at Gen Con in 1984,” the session fell short of my standards. Frank Mentzer, please forgive me.

Needle Gen Con 17

Judges’ copy of Needle from Gen Con 17

In the years since, I’ve run many more convention games. I’ve improved. Sometimes I even meet my standards.

This year at Gen Con, I ran 8 D&D Adventurers League sessions. This post explains how I prepare these sessions.

I start by reading the adventure twice.

My first, quick read provides a high-level view. When I finish, I want to know the important characters, the expected course of events, and the clues that lead the player characters through these events.

Most adventures feature an overview intended to serve the purpose of my first read, but these summaries never seem to help me. When I take my first look at an adventure, I’m keenly interested in what leads the PCs through the narrative. But a typical summary just lists events: “After finding the casket of wrath, the characters go to confront Lady Frost.” I need to know what motivates the characters to go from one event to the next. Those leads become the most important clues I must communicate to the players.

The first read enables me to reread knowing which details merit careful attention. I can sift clues from set dressing, key characters from extras.

During the second read, I pay careful attention to the decisions the characters will face. When I run the adventure, I can miss a bit of color, but I must communicate the details that weigh on decisions. I tend to think a lot about the actions players might take during a session. Although I enjoy when players surprise me, I still imagine their likely choices and consider how to handle each one.

A 4-hour convention slot leaves little time for decisions that swing the course of an adventure. I want to present any real options to make them as interesting as possible. See “How running an adventure eight times can be fun and educational.”

Even the best adventure authors sometimes make bad assumptions about what the players will do. See “Actions players always take and choices players never make.” For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen assumes players will join a caravan with some cultists transporting looted treasure and then travel for weeks—instead of just attacking the cultists and taking their gold. Like every D&D player ever. I wondered have the authors even played this game? (Answer: Yes. More than me, but perhaps not with so many strangers at recent conventions.)

Whenever I spot such an oversight, I plan on how to account for it. Will I reinforce the need to infiltrate the caravan? Will I present the cultists as too tough to confront? Will I let the players slay the cultists and then contrive a way to get the PCs to the next chapter. Sometimes I let players discover the risks of each option so players reach a dilemma. See “How to improve your game by forcing characters into tough choices.” Sometimes, I just make players understand the facts that make a bad strategy bad.

On my second read, I may mark up the pages. I cannot bear to mark up a hardcover adventure, but Adventurers League pages call for the red and blue pens.

Red and blue notes on page

Red and blue notes on page

In blue, I break the wall of text with sub-headings that flag key information. In play, I rarely scan my headings, but when I do, they can cut minutes of text skimming. Plus, the process of writing headings turns me into an active reader. I notice things that I might otherwise overlook. I remember more at the table, so I look down less.

In red, I write names and other bits of text I must find at a glance. Names always go in red, as do quotes that I might read as I glance down.

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

On any dungeon maps, I note everything I need to know. My captions include monsters, locks, objects of interest, difficulty classes and so on. Ideally, I can run all the rooms from the map.

When I first started running organized-play adventures, I would work from a packet of pages. This led to disaster. As I referenced maps, monsters, and descriptions of encounter areas, I plucked them from the pile. Half way through the session, I faced a shuffled heap. While I spent minutes hunting for that one sheet, I stammered apologies.

color reference sheets and player handouts

Color reference sheets and player handouts

Now, all my adventures go into a loose-leaf binder with tabs separating each module. Double-sided printing makes the best use of space.

I print second copies of the maps and monsters on single-sided sheets of colored paper. I can pull my green, monster stats at a glance and I never lose them in a stack.

Player handouts, including magic-item descriptions and story awards, also go on colored paper and in the binder. If I plan to run an run an adventure more than once, I use card stock.

Printed urban battle map fits the encounter

A pre-printed, urban battle map fits this encounter

For any of the adventure’s encounter areas, I look for pre-printed maps in my collection that suit the location. Many encounters rely on few specific details, so any map that captures a location’s flavor will serve.

When none of my existing maps fit, I might print or sketch a map in advance. If an adventure always lands PCs in a location, I’ll wind up drawing the map anyway. Drawing in advance saves time at the table. Plus, if I’m running an adventure more than once, more players can enjoy any effort I invest in maps.

Szith Morcane Unbound - Dengor’s palace

Szith Morcane Unbound – Dengor’s palace on Dungeon Paper

Maps go into sheet-protector pockets and then into the binder near the encounter description. (For more on printing maps, see “How to print map graphics as battle maps using free software.”)

Map in sheet protector paired with encounter

A map in a sheet protector paired with an encounter

After years chasing miniatures, I can match most monsters with suitable figures. If I lack figures, I may use the excuse to add to my collection, or even fabricate a figure.

Miniatures for an adventure

Miniatures for the CORE 2-2 adventure

No one leaves a D&D table annoyed because they needed to use imagination. So if you lack miniatures, you can bring tokens or even candy to represent monsters.

Finally, creating monster initiative tents in advance pays off at the table. When combat starts, ready-made monster tents avoid delay. Plus, pre-rolling gives me time to note key monster stats on the tents. This keeps things like Armor Class front-and-center rather than somewhere in a pile of green sheets. For my initiative tents and more, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

How do you prepare for a published adventure?

Some new, favorite dungeon masters’ tools

My list of dungeon mastering gear needs a new addition. In my original post, I recommended that 3rd-edition Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder players use Steel Sqwire templates to determine the area of spell effects. The wires map circular and conical areas to squares on a grid.

The fifth-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide drops the jagged spell templates of 3E. Instead, the rules suggest that players measure actual circles and cones on the battle map. Spellcasters no longer need to stay inside the lines. Despite the change, eyeballing spell areas on a grid remains a chore.

Macrame rings

Macrame rings

To show circular spell effects, use macrame rings. The rings come in variety of sizes, so you can get an 8-inch ring for Fireball, a 6″ ring for Darkness, and a 4″ ring for Antimagic Field—or for the tactician who wants to launch a fireball above the battle to catch a smaller circle. The sturdy rings pack easily into your game bag.

Fireball-size ring

Fireball-size ring

I still hunt for wire templates for cone effects. I may try to bend my own.

Back in 2014, I backed a couple of Kickstarters from Jonathan Wilson at Tabletop props. He makes covered wagons, tents, campfires, and dead trees all scaled to match miniature figures. The tent and covered wagon props pleased me so much that I wish I had chipped in for more rewards. The props are now available for sale.

Campsite from Tabletop Props on a battle map

Wagon, tent, dead tree, and campfire from Tabletop Props on a battle map

Almost as many D&D adventures have PCs guarding wagons as exploring dungeons. During the inevitable ambush, I used to put a dungeon-tile wagon on the battle map. Now I have the covered-wagon prop.

Tabletop Props covered wagon

Tabletop Props covered wagon

The wagon boasts stunning details. The top-half comes off, turning the wagon into a flatbed. The wheels turn. At two squares across and three long, its scale suits the battle map.

The tent spans a 3-by-3 square on the map, so it represents a big shelter.

The campfire fits perfectly into a square and features translucent flames.

The wagon’s $25 price led me to only order one, but I plan to order a second. I will use the wagon in many more encounters than any of the more expensive dragon figures in my closet.