Tag Archives: encounters

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.

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.

Dungeon Masters, Don’t Prepare Plots and Encounters—Do This Instead

Every dungeon master sometimes throws characters into a combat encounter, and then sees players do something unexpected. We never expect a peaceful dialog. Later, the characters reach a mountain outpost stocked with perfectly crafted encounters and the players show ingenuity by, say, triggering an avalanche that buries the place. Sometimes, every DM wants to say, “Come on, you all took intelligence as a dump stat. Just fight the monsters!”

Sometime in most dungeon masters’ careers, we plot a grand adventure for characters, complete with dramatic beats, treachery, revelations, and a climax. Then the players impulsively murder the traitor in session 1. In session 3, instead of escaping as planned, the evil mastermind dies too. The threat of such reversals tempt any dungeon master to railroad.

All these setbacks come from preparing encounters and plots that expect players to behave as expected. Often players do something surprising that leaves the plans in ruin.

Such planning misfires stem from taking the wrong mindset to prepare for a Dungeons & Dragons game.

For a better approach, follow two principles:

  • Prepare situations instead of encounters.
  • Prepare clues and villains instead of plots.

Situations form the bones of an adventure.

Game-world situations are the arrangements of locations and non-player characters that stand between the characters and what they want. The most elemental form of a situation includes (a) an obstacle, like a bridge blocked by a troll hungry for the party’s delicious gnome, and (b) a goal, like the other side. Often the difference between a small situation and an encounter is a mindset. An encounter starts as a situation with an assumed plot—perhaps as simple as (1) the characters fight and (2) they win. A situation stops assuming a plot and fills in other details like what the monsters want. (Hint: Not to wait in a room until heroes come to murder them.) A small situation might resemble a combat encounter complete with monsters to (probably) fight, but the situation mindset opens DMs for other courses of action. Maybe the characters talk, or sneak, or dislike the gnome.

Unlike combat, exploration, or interaction scenes, situations bring enough flexibility to play in different ways.

Larger situations often resemble dungeons. From a situation mindset, players could solve the Tomb of Horrors by excavating it from the top down—or by skipping it. Rather than grave robbing, real heroes should battle evil overlords. They have treasure too. (Perhaps by looting the tomb, the heroes can defeat the overlord by getting enough gold to cause runaway inflation. I want an adventure where evil is thwarted because it can’t make payroll.)

Tomb of Annihilation includes more modern takes on the dungeon as situation. Within the campaign, The Fain of the Night Serpent features factions, intrigue, and a McGuffin to recover. The Tomb of Nine Gods resembles the Tomb of Horrors, but with the time limit and an objective bigger than runaway inflation.

Situations can go beyond locations. For instance, a masquerade could be a situation where players need to uncover a spy. The characters might find their target through deception, magic, or by picking a suspect’s pockets to gain stolen plans.

The Prince of Murder’s network of covert assassins could form another situation. Instead of predicting which encounters the characters will face as they unravel the network, the DM invents a organization that reacts to the players’ actions.

As with combat encounters, a boring situation can lead it to dull scenes. Good situations include features that lead to interesting play. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea has advice for creating situations. “Develop situations with lots of options, lots of hooks, and lots of interesting things the characters can interact with.”

So a situation that might feature combat may include a location primed for a dynamic battle. A situation that might include role playing may include memorable NPCs, but should at least include NPCs that want something.

I think of developing situations as piling kindling. Add enough incendiary ingredients so that if a spark flares, the scenes catch fire.

These details rarely require more work. Most dungeon masters will feel comfortable improvising some of the pieces. Plus, the situation mindset often frees DMs from worrying about contingencies. DMs who build situations spend less time preparing responses for every potential action because consequences stem naturally from the situation.

Mike touts the virtues of situations. “D&D is a lot more fun when we can watch scenes unfold in new and interesting ways well beyond what we originally intended. In order for that to happen, however, we need to build environments with all of the right elements to give characters, and their players, the chance to take things in lots of different directions.”

For situations, Tom “Dungeon Bastard” Lommel plans one extra element: He prepares a menu of potential outcomes. He lists wins that represent total success, complications that bring success at a cost, and setbacks that represent failure. “One thing I always get bogged down in is analysis paralysis,” Tom says. “This is a road map for me to respond to what the party is doing. I have a list of plausible options at my command and I don’t have to think about it in the moment.”

I like Tom’s strategy because, in the heat of a game session, I struggle to improvise reactions to sweeping victories and epic fails. Such grand outcomes often threaten to upend the game. An easy win can’t cut a 4-hour convention adventure to a half-hour assassination. Instead, I want to reward ingenuity with some success, and then add reasonable complications that keep one move from ending the game. A total-party kill shouldn’t abort a long-running campaign arc short of a satisfying conclusion. Instead, I want the characters captured, or to lose the magic key, or to suffer the gloating of the rival who saves them. (Forget bludgeoning, adventurers hate blows to their pride most because they wound the player too.) At the least, I always plan ways to turn total-party kills into setbacks that spare the campaign.

Tom uses a storyteller’s sense of drama to help decide among outcomes. His choice results from the usual factors of the player’s choices and the luck of the die, but also from what suits the narrative. Will an up-beat or a down-beat better add drama? Is the table spoiling for a fight or for a lull? Does the session’s pace leave time for complications?

Instead of preparing encounters, prepare situations. The mindset opens you to plan less for what the players might do, while making you ready for anything.

Next: Dungeon masters: Instead of plots, prepare secrets, clues, and leads.

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.

Mixing Threats from Weak to Lethal in a Dungeons & Dragons Game

When megadungeons ruled Dungeons & Dragons, adventurers selected a difficulty level by deciding how deep they dared to go. As the game matured, DMs started to design or select adventures for a party’s level. Players grew to expect that their characters would just happen to face threats right for their level.

Of course the game always allowed a style of play that offered no such guarantees.

Gary Gygax liked monster populations that fit a habitat for a logical reason. In early D&D, the wilderness monster tables did nothing to match monsters to character levels. Skeletons appear as often as vampires. This approach made outdoor adventures particularly risky. The original rules cite the high-level task of scouting for castle sites as the best reason for wilderness expeditions.

Realistically, creatures and adventure locations in the wild would not come sorted by difficulty. At best, characters might learn about a site’s hazards by reputation.

Tomb of Annihilation follows such a natural order. “By design, the adventure locations are not tailored to characters of a specific level. If the adventuring party is relatively weak, it’s up to the players to choose whether to flee instead of fight, negotiate instead of attack, or surrender instead of die.”

This is old-school player agency at its best. Players make the choices and then bear the repercussions of those choices.

The fifth-edition hardcover adventures often let characters roam. The random encounter tables serve deadly and weak threats. Each location aims to challenge a particular level of character, but the adventures rarely steer characters to a suitable challenge. For instance, a table in Curse of Strahd lists locations and their difficulty levels. But if a party happens to find sites that match their level, then their DM nudged them along.

And DMs running Curse of Strahd and its kin probably did some nudging.

Although mixing challenges of all threat levels feels natural and perilous, this cocktail suffers disadvantages. Weak foes force tables to waste time reaching inevitable outcomes. Overwhelming foes make players feel ineffectual, and may kill characters.

Even an adventure like Tomb of Annihilation has a story to tell and heroes to protect. “It’s up to you as the DM to be flexible and keep the story moving forward as best you can. If an encounter is going badly for the adventurers, you can have the monsters suddenly withdraw, demand the party’s surrender, or deal nonlethal damage.

“In short, there is always a way to turn the party’s misfortune into a fighting chance of survival.”

Turning a total party kill into a complication can save a campaign while adding spice. If characters make a narrow escape, they earn a tale to tell. When they level up and return for a rematch, they relish their new power. A capture takes the story interesting places. When you try to take characters captive, players notice you steering the game to force an outcome. But if players ignore the warning signs, press a fight even after they should retreat, and still get captured, they know they had it coming. Still, sparing characters with a “lucky” intervention works best as a rare twist.

When threats don’t always match the party’s power, D&D can become more exciting. But we value balanced encounters for a reason. They mix a fun challenge and a strong chance of success.

Letting characters find a few mismatched encounters livens the game. Letting them stumble into entire locations that don’t suit them probably yields a bad session. If low-level characters go into a high-level location, they can only fight to escape. If high-level characters enter a lower-level site, then the game becomes a rout.

Most players enjoy an occasional chance to dominate battles, but when I play and I’m not challenged, I’m bored, and I’m not alone. Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea asked D&D players on Facebook about this topic. Would players rather (a) have their DM scale up an adventure to challenge higher-level characters or (b) keep the low-level content and let players savor their power. Of those responding, 95% preferred a scaled-up challenge.

When characters lack challenges to face, time should pass in summary. So if high-level characters gearing up to storm the gates of hell meet some bandits on the streets of Hillsfar, skip the dice. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure.

Despite a preference for challenging locations, an open world can still feature sites in a mix of threats, from the Caves of Chaos to the Tomb of Horrors. Deadly locations promise future adventure and make players look ahead with eager anticipation. But rumors and clues must help players measure the dangers ahead. If a bunch of new adventurers start poking around a skull-topped hill, they’re in for a nasty surprise. Princes of the Apocalypse skipped such signals and shocked a lot of players. They could easily descend from a challenging dungeon level to an overwhelming one.

Leading characters to the right mix of challenges presents a tough problem for designers of hardcover adventures. But most DMs just dream up their own content for their next game, and they probably do encounters right already. If that’s you, then you make most encounters fit the characters at your table, at least broadly. And even if you aim for just the right challenge, you create some uneven matches. Fourth edition made devising balanced encounters easy, but 5E delivers less consistent results. Even when encounters come tailored for a particular character level, some will become romps, and a few might prove unexpectedly hard.

Most fifth edition DMs tend use guesswork to create encounters—the building guidelines hardly improve on it. And that guesswork serves up a pretty good mix of difficulties.

When I design encounters, I mix some guesswork with quick, encounter-building guidelines. Sometimes, I create intentionally deadly foes because they can enrich the game. They force players to use diplomacy, or guile, or stealth. In fourth edition, when I planted a deadly foe, I chose something obviously overwhelming to overcome the expectation that every foe must be beatable. Such metagaming still leads players to underestimate threats, but I will relay what their characters know from living in the game world. “You believe this fight may kill you.”

I avoid intentionally designing easy encounters, because aiming for balance still yields plenty of easy fights.

D&D head Mike Mearls aims for flavor. “I copy down a few stat blocks and make notes on what makes an area interesting. I don’t use the encounter building rules. Fights are as tough as is appropriate to the location and situation.” I’ll bet Mike’s encounters still broadly suit the characters, if only because new adventurers probably spend more time in Hillsfar than storming the gates of hell.

How to end combat encounters before they become a grind

Every Dungeons & Dragons player experiences a battle that drags near the end, when the monsters have spent their best attacks and lack the numbers to threaten the PCs. As a dungeon master, I want to cut to the next scene, but thanks to focused fire, the remaining monsters stand near full health. Players won’t spend any resources on a fight that seems won, so they chip away with cantrips and basic attacks. The battle wears on.

briar_wood_buscot_park-1After a battle’s outcome becomes obvious, the game can drag. I have had many chances to test ways to move on. Some of my schemes have worked better than others.

Plan an out

The best combat encounters feature an objective different from kill all the monsters. PCs attempt to stop a ritual, defend a wall, close a dark portal, destroy an artifact, steal the brain in the jar, or accomplish some other task. Often, completing the objective ends the battle. Either the PCs escape or the summoned/dominated/animated defenders stop fighting.

In scenes where the players can win by slaying the necromancer or summoner who controls all the monsters, make sure the mastermind makes a difficult target. A typical dark lord won’t last a round fighting toe-to-toe with a rogue and barbarian. See The evil wizard’s guide to defense against murderous treasure hunters.

Dave “The Game” Chalker wrote more about The Combat Out.

Alternate goals make engaging combat encounters, but not every battle can turn on one.

Call the fight

When a winner becomes obvious, some DMs recommend calling the fight. Just sweep the monsters off the map. This fix seems tempting, but too many players hate the practice.

As a DM, you know more about the monsters’ conditions than the players. You may see an obvious win, while the players still feel tension.

Even when everyone sees the inevitable, your intervention jars the players out of their immersion in the game world. It leaves players feeling robbed of a victory they earned.

Only call a fight when a convention slot or other limit brings a severe time crunch—when you must move on or risk leaving an adventure unfinished. If you do call a fight, use narration to ease players out of the scene and give some sense of victory. Describe the characters’ final strikes—or invite the players to tell the tale.

Let monsters flee or surrender

Some argue that monsters would possess a sense of self preservation. That in the face of death, they would flee or surrender. I used to agree, but then I learned that bloodthirsty treasure hunters never show mercy.

Having monsters flee or surrender seems like a quick way to end a battle, but neither tactic saves time. PCs always pursue fleeing monsters, resulting in a chase. Only have monsters flee when you want a chase, or when the PCs simply cannot follow.

Surrender leads to a ugly interrogation scene followed by the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Finally, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. (If you have never run these scenes, welcome first-time dungeon master!)

Sometimes, a surrender can lead to an interesting role-playing scene, or a real dilemma. Usually this requires foes who can (a) trade for their lives or (b) offer a good reason they should be freed. Nonetheless, surrender never saves time.

With either a chase or a surrender, you spend 30 minutes to save 5.

I suspect that in the monster community, word has spread about murderous treasure hunters and their rogues and paladins. Better to fall in battle than to die on your knees or with a knife in your back.

Turn monsters into minions

You can bring a fight to a quick end by silently deciding that all the monsters stand at only 1 hit point. The next hit kills. I’ve done it, but I never feel proud of it. I like a game where the players’ actions and the dice seem to decide the PCs fate. Even in a battle that seems won, if the players notice my meddling, they lose some sense that they control their destiny.

Still, as battles wane, when a blow nearly slays a monster, I may round the damage up to dead.

Everyone roll

Near the end of a battle, typically only one type of monster remains. These survivors all act on the same initiative count, then all the players act. This situation permits my favorite way to close a battle: everyone roll at once. By now, the outcome has been decided, so no one would waste a spell slot. No player’s action requires my full attention. I announce the monsters’ armor class and invite everyone to roll their attacks and damage at once. If you need to move, just do it. Then I call out names and tally damage. In the time usually spent on one turn, all the players act. During these fast forwards, I used to ignore initiative and go around the table, having players call off their damage totals. But I learned that some players care about earning the kill, if only for the glory. So now I call names in initiative order.

A dungeon master’s guide to Glyph of Warding

From the beginning, Dungeons & Dragons has included a few spells for dungeon masters. In my last post, I cited Magic Jar as inspiration for adventure. Player characters won’t cast it, but villains might.

In today’s game, Glyph of Warding caters to DMs. PCs rarely have lairs and virtually never find them raided by murderous treasure hunters. Glyph of Warding protects lairs and treasure, so PCs don’t cast it anymore.

They used to cast it.

dungeon_adventureIn the game’s early days, PCs might rest in the dungeon and use a glyph to defend against wandering monsters. PCs might build strongholds to defend. DMs might even send thieves after the players’ treasure. Back then, many DMs thought angry players were just sore losers.

Also, older rules allowed players to misuse the glyphs. For instance, they would put evil-sensing, exploding glyphs on things like arrows, and then pose as either Green Arrow or Hawkeye, depending on favorite color. Fifth edition ends such hijinks by ruling that moving a glyph more than 10 feet breaks it.

Now the Glyph of Warding serves you, as a DM, and the villains you control.

Traditionally, glyphs appear as traps in empty crypts and on treasure hoards, but glyphs work best as defenses in combat encounters. A cunning wizard or cleric would plant glyphs in the throne rooms, arcane laboratories, and chapels where intruders might attack.

As a tool for Evil, 5E’s Glyph of Warding opens plenty of room for abuse. I could let an evil wizard advise you on how to use glyphs, but he would lead you too far. Angry players are not sore losers. Even though your villain has the means to create glyphs that would frustrate and destroy the PCs, you need to devise wards that simply challenge the party. Good games come from fun, challenging, and winnable encounters.

Triggering a glyph

For a glyph to help defend the dark lord’s lair, it must spare servants and henchman. The spell offers several options: If the lord only employs drow or undead, a glyph could spare those sorts of creatures. A master with only a few allies might award them talismans that let them pass some glyphs. Servants could be trained to avoid others.

Long before D&D grew to embrace mystery and intrigue, Gary Gygax created the Detect Evil spell. Since then, Know Alignment made getting away with murder impossible. Following Pathfinder’s lead, 5E purges all the spells and abilities that reveal alignment—except for Glyph of Warding. I suspect the designers overlooked this loophole. Unless you want a world where trials begin—and messily end—with the accused forced to walk over a glyph that blows up evil creatures, ignore the alignment trigger.

Spotting a glyph

Glyphs are nearly invisible and require a successful Intelligence (Investigation) check against the caster’s spell save DC to spot. In a combat encounter, let characters take an action to attempt to find all glyphs within, say, 5 feet.

Helpful spells

Through third edition, Glyph of Warding specified that casters could only store a “harmful” spell. This prevented casters from scribing helpful glyphs on the pages of a book, creating a collection of self-casting scrolls. Still, the word “harmful” left plenty of room for interpretation. For example, spells that unleashed negative energy could heal undead.

The fifth-editon spell drops the word “harmful.” I suspect that the designers felt the word lacked rigor, and that making glyphs immobile made non-harmful glyphs impractical to adventurers. After all, stationary glyphs can’t become self-casting scrolls. But for an evildoer defending a lair, helpful glyphs create a sort of lair action. Casters could store healing spells on the floor of their cult headquarters, each to be triggered with a step. They could lay a path over Stoneskin and Greater Invisibility glyphs. In 5E, a spell triggered by a glyph lasts its full duration, without any need for concentration. A caster could trigger a series of buffs as part of a move action, and bypass all their concentration requirements.

As an encounter designer, a helpful glyph sprung out of view just adds a power to a villain’s stat block. You admire the villain’s (your) ingenuity, but the players never see it. To be interesting, an enemy needs to trigger a helpful glyph in plain sight, perhaps after negotiation turns to combat. Imagine a foe who triggers healing glyphs just as the players think they have won the upper hand. When players realize they must immobilize their foe to win, the battle turns into an interesting, tactical puzzle.

Update: Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea noted that the fifth-edition description says the spell lets the caster “inscribe a glyph that harms other creatures,” so unless you rule that this description qualifies as flavor, then any helpful glyphs your villains use must be a unique variation on the usual glyph.

Harmful spells

Villains can also defend their lairs in a traditional way, with harmful glyphs that wreck intruders. Harmful glyphs can either trigger explosive runes or a spell that targets a single creature or an area.

Explosive runes deal about as much as any third-level spell, so they work well. However, if you put an encounter on a minefield, no one has fun. Everyone marks off the damage and vows not to move. Many of the spells you can pair with glyphs lead to livelier battles. Area-effect spells with lasting effects encourage movement. Single-target spells that blind or curse PCs will lift routine slug-outs by forcing new plans and by putting different characters in the spotlight.

Explosive runes may not appeal to evil masterminds either. Cleaning up blast damage in an arcane laboratory can be such a bother. A glyph that turns an intruder into a toad lets you gloat, and then squish. Delightful! Even lower-level spells can guard an attack route with less mess. For instance, the door and threshold to the dark chapel could trigger Darkness and Silence unless those who enter speak a short prayer. If an acolyte forgets, the glyph does no lasting damage. If intruders enter, they cannot target attacks or cast spells.

The following lists include the most dangerous or interesting spells to pair with a glyph.

Area-Effect Cleric Spells

Darkness [2nd-level Illusion] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) 15-foot-radius sphere. p.230.

Silence [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) 20-foot-radius sphere. p.275.

Flame Strike [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Dexterity save. 10-foot-radius cylinder. p.242.

Blade Barrier [6th-level Evocation] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) Dexterity save. p.218.

Fire Storm [7th-level Evocation] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Dexterity save. 10 10-foot cubes. p.242.

Area-Effect Wizard Spells

Faerie Fire [1st-level Evocation] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (Concentration duration: 1 minute) Dexterity save. 10-foot cube. p.239.

Cloud of Daggers [2nd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) No save. Five-foot cube. p.222.

Darkness [2nd-level Illusion] (V, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) 15-foot-radius sphere. p.230.

Silence [2nd-level Illusion] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) 20-foot-radius sphere. p.275.

Web [2nd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour) 20-foot cube. Dexterity save. p.287.

Stinking Cloud [3rd-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) 20-foot-radius sphere. p.278.

Confusion [4th-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. 10-foot-radius sphere. p.224.

Wall of Fire [4th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) p.285.

Cloudkill [5th-level Conjuration] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) Constitution save. 20-foot-radius sphere. p.222.

Wall of Force [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) p.285.

Wall of Stone [5th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) p.287.
Does a Wall of Stone summoned by a glyph create a permanent wall? The demolition makes this impractical for lair defense.

Wall of Ice [6th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) p.285.

Reverse Gravity [7th-level transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Dexterity save. 50-foot-radius cylinder. p.272.

Sunburst [8th-level Evocation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Constitution save. 60-foot-radius. p.279.
The spell description fails to specify a cylinder or sphere.

Single-Target Cleric Spells

Blindness [2nd-level Necromancy] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: 1 minute) Constitution save. p.219.

Hold Person [2nd-level Necromancy] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.251.
Unlike with Blindness, targets get a new save on each of their turns.

Bestow Curse [3rd-level Necromancy] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.218.
The best single-target spell to pair with a 3rd-level glyph.

Harm [6th-level Necromancy] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Constitution save. p.249.

Single-Target Wizard Spells

Hold Person [2nd-level Necromancy] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.251.

Levitate [2nd-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes) Constitution save. p.255.
Targets that lack ranged attacks could be removed from battle for 10 minutes. Rules question: Will a victim rise 20 feet and stop, or keep rising?

Bestow Curse [3rd-level Necromancy] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.218.

Blight [4th-level Necromancy] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Constitution save. p.219.

Phantasmal Killer [4th-level Illusion] (V, S) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save. p.265.

Polymorph [4th-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 hour) Wisdom save. p.266.
Turn the target into a frog or a rat for an hour. Probably the best single-target spell to pair with a glyph.

Flesh to Stone [6th-level Transmutation] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Constitution save. p.243.

Otto’s Irresistable Dance [6th-level Enchantment] (V) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute) Wisdom save, but irresistable until the target takes an action to attempt to resist. p.264.

Feeblemind [8th-level Enchantment] (V, S, M) (casting time: 1 action) (duration: instantaneous) Intelligence save. p.238.

Saving fifth-edition D&D’s evil wizards from meddling do-gooders

In more than a year of fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons, I’ve pitted player characters against a lot of wizards. Often, a published adventure or one from the D&D Adventurers League offers a spellcaster as a climactic encounter. These showdowns typically follow the same script: The players target the leader and focus fire. The villain falls, often without firing a single spell.

Sometimes players relish these easy victories. For instance, in the Expeditions adventure, “The Howling Void,” players spend the adventure unraveling the sources of the villain’s power. So at my table, when the showdown proved easy, it felt like a hard-won reward.

Wizard Pinata

Wizard Pinata

More often, players anticipate a climactic battle, face a cream puff, and feel let down. Dave and Gary did not give D&D to us so dungeon masters like me could let that happen.

Some encounters with wizards threaten to go the other way. I once spoke to a DM who had just run a convention adventure. His villain won initiative and launched a fireball that killed the entire party. Rather than ending the session and going for a beer, the DM rolled back time, undoing the slaughter. In the wake of the Fireball TPK, casting Grease must have been a let down. To avoid my own total party kills, I’ve held back fireballs against low-level groups, blaming the villain’s overconfidence, and hoping I could still challenge the players with Web.

Some blame for these fizzled encounters goes to habit carried from fourth edition and the practice of building encounters according to an experience-point budget.

Fifth-edition adventure designers will put spellcasters in encounters as they would in fourth edition. They pit the PCs against a single wizard who ranks several levels higher than the PCs. Fifth edition’s experience point budgets even suggest that this match makes a good fight. Not so. In the last edition, these encounters worked because the game designed arcane foes as monsters, contrived to make a fun encounter. They had defenses and hit points that enabled them to survive a few rounds of focused fire, and spells (attack powers) calibrated to damage a party without laying waste to them. In fifth edition, that wizard’s spells may be too lethal, and he is as fragile as a soap bubble in a hurricane.

To create a satisfying fight against a fifth-edition wizard, spread the experience budget. The wizard needs plenty of allies: brutes to lock down attackers and apprentices to concentrate on defenses. Plus, a wizard of more equal level won’t have spells that can nuke the party that you intend to challenge.

Let me tell you how a showdown with a fifth-edition wizard would really go. It would be a hero’s nightmare. The villain’s magical alarms would ensure that he always stands prepared. You would enter an arcane lab for the climactic battle, tripping barely-seen glyphs with every step. Those lucky enough to escape the wards’ curses, blindness, and damage would face a choice between moving and tripping additional wards, or standing still and posing an easy target for fire and lightning. Any of the people in the room could equally be servants or the mastermind himself, magically disguised. Or perhaps he stands invisible and sheltered in darkness. Unseen, he darts from cover to unleash a barrage, then weaves back into cover before you can counter. The mastermind’s apprentices lurk behind barriers, concentrating to surround him in defensive spells. You face a choice between chasing these minions to unravel their master’s protection, or charging into the teeth of his defenses. Then, if you somehow near victory, the villain blinks away, or proves to be an image or dupe.

Truly, the bards would sing of a victory against such a villain. But at your table, find a fun balance between the evil mastermind and the unprepared pinata.

If you approach a wizard’s defense too much as min-maxing players would, you can devise an encounter that would result in a total party kill. Unless tacticians fill your table—unless your players see the game as a puzzle to solve—you must hold back a bit. Good games come from fun, challenging, and winnable encounters.

Even a balanced encounter can frustrate players. Many of the Wizard’s best defenses prevent PCs from finding, reaching, or even identifying their foe. For instance, in “Empowering the War Mage,” Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea notes that the Blink spell can lead to frustration.

To temper frustration, and add flavor and variety, you can organize a wizard’s defense on a theme. For example an illusionist may rely heavily on misdirection to keep characters guessing. A necromancer might rely on undead servants and may also use Magic Jar to possess a proxy.

However, just as an occasional easy encounter can prove fun, an occasional dose of frustration can lead to fun. A villain who keeps thwarting attacks by teleporting away or by making PCs flail at illusions will fill players with more hatred than one who merely burns orphanages and drowns puppies. When players finally best a maddening trickster, you will see cheers and high fives around the table.

This leads me to consider ways spellcasters can challenge meddling do-gooders. In my next post, I will review the spells that can save evil masterminds from a quick thumping by murderous treasure hunters.

The next skill challenge

(This concludes a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

How would a game activity like the skill challenge appear in D&D Next?

First of all, D&D Next no longer attempts to center game play around the encounter as a core activity of the game, so the rules no longer need to package a bunch of skill checks into something with the scale and formality of combat encounter. As ever, players may still need to infiltrate enemy camps or coax the duke into supporting their cause, and those challenges may require a series of skill rolls, but the checks can come as needed. Under the surface, do the tallies of successes and failures make the game more fun?

If D&D Next never includes anything like a skill challenge, I will be perfectly content. However, including rules for something like the skill challenge could yield two benefits:

  • They give a formal mechanism for awarding experience points to characters who overcome non-combat obstacles in the game.
  • They provide a tool for dungeon masters as they work to structure non-combat obstacles into exciting adventures, which involve every character and feature a sense of jeopardy that rises even as the characters near success.

As I have suggested throughout this series of posts, the design flaws of the skill challenge begin with the “skill” in the name. Putting the focus on skills creates the wrong approach. A good alternative would place the emphasis where it belongs, on the obstacles the players must overcome.

So I present my alternative to the skill challenge: the obstacle course. The name is memorable, puts the focus where it belongs, and yes, it’s silly. I admit it.

Combat encounters feature creatures to overcome. The obstacle course features obstacles to overcome. Combat encounters deliver experience based on the number and difficulty of enemies; obstacle courses deliver experience based on the number and difficulty of challenges. Obstacle courses can be overcome by player problem solving, skill successes, or a combination of both. Just as setbacks in a combat encounter threaten the characters, setbacks in a well-designed obstacle course bring the characters closer to some catastrophe. Sounds fun, doesn’t it?

So let’s bury the skill challenge. Long live the obstacle course.

Next: Living Forgotten Realms Battle Interactive

The skill challenge: good intentions, half baked

(Part 2 of a series, which begins with Evolution of the skill challenge.)

The forth edition rules make the encounter the central activity of the Dungeons & Dragons game. The Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “Encounters are the exciting part of the D&D game,” (p.22) and encourages dungeon masters to shorten the intervals between encounters. “Move the PCs quickly from encounter to encounter, and on to the fun!” (p.105)

Page 105 includes more revealing advice. “As much as possible, fast-forward through the parts of an adventure that aren’t fun.  An encounter with two guards at the city gate isn’t fun.  Tell the players they get through the gate without much trouble and move on to the fun.  Niggling details about food supplies and encumbrance usually aren’t fun, so don’t sweat them, and let the players get to the adventure and on to the fun.  Long treks through endless corridors in the ancient dwarven stronghold beneath the mountains aren’t fun.”

Personally, I think that two of those activities do seem fun—especially the trek through the dwarven stronghold. I think the passage reveals something about how the 4E designers disastrously misread some of the audience for the fourth edition game, but that’s a topic for another post.

More to the point, the passage lists the sorts of interaction and exploration that skill challenges try to turn into encounters.

The 4E designers recognized that D&D includes more than combat, so they needed a game activity that gave players an opportunity to use skills and that held the same weight as the game’s core activity, the encounter. I imagine the 4E designers filling a white board with goals like these:

  • Skill challenges should be worth experience points to give them importance equal to a combat encounter.
  • Skill challenges need a difficulty and mechanical rigor similar to a combat encounter.
  • Skill challenge mechanic should enable every player to participate, not just the players with obvious skills.

The last goal reverses the early class balance of the game, in a good way. Through most of D&D history, some characters fared poorly in combat, but got a chance to shine in exploration and role playing. In the original game, thieves were not particularly useful in a fight, but fights were short and the players spent most of their time exploring, so the thief enjoyed plenty of time in the spotlight. In 4E, the rogue ranks as one of the most effective classes in combat, but every other class gets an equal chance to shine outside of combat.

The original skill challenge rules have players rolling initiative and taking turns. To make sure that everyone has a chance to contribute on their turn, players take the role of inventing circumstances where their characters can contribute. The turn structure ensures that everyone must contribute. You cannot pass a turn. “Characters must make a check on their turns using one of the identified, primary skills or they must use a different skill, if they can come up with a way to use it to contribute to the challenge.” (p.74)  This often leads to strained justifications for skill checks.

“Does the chieftain like acrobatics?  By using acrobats and interpretive dance, perhaps I can convince him not to attack the village.”

As the name suggests, skill challenges focus on skills, not on the players’ problem-solving abilities. As I wrote in Player skill without player frustration, 4E attempted to eliminate frustration by emphasizing skill checks and skill challenges over concrete obstacles and over players’ problem solving skills. When every obstacle has a DC and multiple skills, then no one gets frustrated. If you find a locked door, you can pick the lock with thievery, or break the door with strength.

The designers saw another benefit of focusing on skills. Social skills such as diplomacy, bluff, and intimidate allow players who feel uncomfortable with play-acting to contribute without stepping out of their comfort zone. As a DM, I’ve encountered plenty of players who freeze up when I encourage them to speak as their character. I think they miss a fun aspect of the game, but I don’t force it. Nonetheless, I insist players say more than, “I diplomacize the king and I roll….”

Next: Speed factor, weapon armor class adjustments, and skill challenges