Tag Archives: interaction

11 Great Dungeon Master Tips Revealed at Winter Fantasy 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all love when players stake their characters’ lives on some reckless, nearly impossible stunt. Whether they succeed or fail, such moments make unforgettable gaming. But before any foolhardy undertaking, make sure the players know the odds and the result of failure. I typically share difficulty classes before players roll. These DC numbers help span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and what a player learns from a DM’s description. DCs prevent misunderstandings. As for risks, make sure players know that, say, falling from the Earth mote means plunging into a sea of lava. That works better than rewinding the action for a player who heard “sea” and not “lava.” See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?.

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

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

8. Add, don’t subtract.

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

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

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

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

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

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

11. Speak like a storyteller.

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

Filling a map with Dungeons & Dragons adventure

When the first Dungeons & Dragons players wanted a break from the dungeon, their characters could explore the wilderness “in search of some legendary treasure.” In original D&D, a quarter of finds on the magical treasure tables consisted of treasure maps. Surely some led to those legendary treasures available in the wild.

For wilderness adventures, Gary Gygax recommended adopting the hex map from the Outdoor Survival board game and replacing the catch basins with castles. “The terrain beyond the immediate surroundings of the dungeon area should be unknown to all but the referee.” Players started with a blank map, and charted the terrain as they moved. Mainly, they met wandering monsters, but castles worked as penalty squares. Lords and Patriarchs demanded tolls and tithes. Magic users would cast Geas to compel trespassers to bring treasure.

Back then, even aimless wandering and senseless fights felt bold and fresh. Now, computer games can deliver random monsters with better graphics. At the table, exploration-based D&D sessions need maps stocked with potential adventure.

Seed opportunities

In How to Start a Sandbox Campaign, I explained how a dungeon master must arm new characters with enough knowledge for players to chose a direction that suits their goals. In his influential West Marches campaign, Ben Robbins never started players empty handed. “Every time I introduced a batch of new players, I gave them a very basic treasure map that vaguely pointed to somewhere in the West Marches and then let them go look for it.

As exploration continues, characters must keep finding things that suggest their next destination.

“A good sandbox has scenario hooks hanging all over the place,” Justin Alexander explains. “The successful sandbox will not only be festooned with scenario hooks, it will also feature some form of default action that can be used to deliver more hooks if the players find themselves bereft of interesting options.” Players should know that something like buying a round of drinks at the inn will lead to rumors, and that patrons always seek adventurers for hire.

In the original game, all those treasure maps worked as hooks for every character. In a modern campaign, characters can adopt many goals, so the hooks either help players toward the campaign’s ultimate goal or to appeal to characters’ individual interests.

Here, the sandbox portion of Storm King’s Thunder fell flat. Once the adventure showed the menace of the giants, it left characters with no clear way to meet the threat. Instead, the characters could only run errands until they reached the adventure’s true start. The errands suffered from such weak hooks that DMs either needed to completely rework them or to face players dutifully following a course because the adventure expected it.

Open worlds offer freedom, but if players only ever face one hook at a time, they never feel that liberty. During each session, characters need to uncover more than one possibility for their next foray.

Connect the dots

In an open world, the connections between locations, non-player characters, and factions become as important as their place on the map. Characters rarely just wander. Rumors and other bits of information draw them from place to place. When players need information to guide them toward their characters’ aims, the secrets they learn can prove as rewarding as gold.

To start exploring, players need some information to make their choices interesting. By the time they learn the fate of the last doomed expedition and find that lost city on the plateau, they need new clues to investigate and new mysteries to unravel.

When you devise an open world, spend more time inventing connections than drawing terrain. The connections could range from alliances and rivalries, to rumors and clues that link locations on a map to others. Chris Kutalik makes such connections a big focus of his Hill Cantons campaign. “Each site’s mystery or theme has to have a connection with either another site’s or a larger setting one.

Reveal secrets

Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea offers advice for sowing information that helps players “build out the story as they choose courses of actions.” He calls these tidbits secrets.

A secret is a piece of information previously unknown to the PCs that, when revealed, gives them a tweet-sized bit of useful and interesting information. Secrets aren’t an entire story. They’re not complete pictures. They’re a single point of data in a large pool of undiscovered information.” Before a game session, Mike creates a pool of 10 secrets. During the game, characters uncover some of the secrets. He improvises the details of when and how characters uncover the secrets.

Secrets enhance an exploration game’s strength: the joy of freedom and discovery.

Secrets reward players with something more interesting than learning that the next hex contains forest.

Unlike full hooks, secrets give players more latitude to follow the threads that spark interest. “We don’t use secrets to steer the direction of the PCs. We use secrets to give them interesting information that helps them come up with their own directions.

Include many chances for interaction

In D&D’s original rules for wilderness adventure, most encounters ended in fight or flight. Today, wilderness adventures still tend to emphasize D&D’s combat and exploration pillars, even though 60% of D&D players enjoy interaction the most.

In Game of Thrones, the lands beyond the wall give George R.R. Martin plenty of chances for exciting battles and exploration. But when members of the Night’s Watch range beyond the wall, Martin devotes as much attention to visits to Craster’s Keep. The keep offers chances for interaction and to explore character.

Your sandbox needs non-player characters that run the gamut from friend to foe. Friends rarely challenge characters and foes tend to die, so NPCs in the middle foster the most interesting interaction. For example, Craster offers an indispensable ally who happens to be morally offensive. Plus his daughter-wives present a dangerous temptation to the men in black.

Perfect opportunities for interaction come from NPCs or groups either too dangerous or too useful to murder, who pursue goals that don’t always align with the players’ aims.

How knowing the difference between a setting book and an adventure helps craft better adventures

What makes an adventure different from a setting book? Both start with maps, locations, and characters, but what extra ingredients turn a source book into an adventure? You might name story or plot as that essential extra bit, but early adventures lacked anything like a story. Many players favor adventures without plots, where you can enjoy as much freedom to play as a sandbox.

Not an adventure

Not an adventure

The fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide says, “An adventure typically hinges on the successful completion of a quest.” The word “quest” adds some gravity to what could just be a search for loot, so I say “goal.”

Adventures start with a goal that leads to obstacles. The first dungeon adventures presents characters with the simple goal of retrieving treasure from the dungeon, and obstacles like monsters and traps that stand in the way. Forty years later, characters may chase other goals—they may never enter a dungeon, but the essential ingredients of goals and obstacles remain.

Even the most primitive D&D adventures assume the game’s default goal of gaining treasure to enhance your character’s power. The early game made this goal explicit by awarding characters experience points for treasure.

Setting books can include maps to explore, non-player characters to interact with, and perhaps even a monster lair, but without goals and obstacles, they fail to qualify as adventures.

The designers of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons focused their design on supporting three pillars of play: combat, exploration, and interaction. Adventure creators rarely struggle to create goals and obstacles for the combat and exploration pillars, but they often fail to properly support the interaction pillar.

A combat encounter features a built in goal—to survive—and ready obstacles, the monsters. Great combat encounters may feature more interesting goals, hazards, and traps, but no one ever built a combat encounter by pitting characters against butterflies and rainbows.

To support exploration, adventures pair maps with number keys. Adventure designers create maps for locations that players have a reason to explore and that presents obstacles. If the players decide buy horses, you do not need a map of the stables keyed with a description of what’s on the floor of each stall. Sometimes adventures include maps and keys for ordinary buildings with mundane contents, but most authors know better.

When adventure authors try to support interaction, they often falter. They devise non-player characters who the players have no reason to interact with—NPCs who do not fit a goal. See “A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.” They create NPCs who present no obstacle to the PCs’ progress. (Certainly a few NPCs can simply provide flavor or exposition, but most NPCs should do more.) NPCs best fit into an adventure when players encounter them in pursuit of a goal, and when they present some obstacle. By obstacle, I do not mean that NPCs must serve as creatures to fight. NPCs can act as obstacles in countless other ways.

But many adventures see print larded with NPCs that fail to support interaction. The authors devise rosters of colorful characters, but stop short of devising ways to put them in the paths of the PCs’ goals. Authors lavish text on some shopkeeper’s aspirations and home life just so he can sell rope.

For example, Hoard of the Dragon Queen describes 22 NPCs who join the PCs on a two-month journey, but few of these NPCs entice the players to interact, and none act as obstacles. If I want to use any to “spice up the journey, or bring the trip to life,” I need to find ways to put them in scenes with the players. When I ran Hoard, I did this work. But designers Steve Winter and Wolfgang Baur claimed a bit of my money while working as RPG designers—a dream job. I paid them to do the work for me. Instead they dumped a load of parts, and then left the work to me. Ironically, the dragon cultists on the same journey, who may serve as obstacles, get no description at all.

Not enough for interaction

Not enough for interaction

Adventure designers fail when they suppose that character descriptions alone provide enough basis for interaction. Like maps and monster stats, NPC descriptions cannot stand alone in an adventure. Scenes provide the true basis for interaction.

Scenes require at least one of these three elements: a goal, an obstacle, and a lead. The best have all three elements.

The goal for a scene stems from what the players think they can accomplish by meeting a non-player character. Convince the fearful witness to name the assassin. Strike a deal with the troll to let you pass. Discover why the beggar keeps staring at the party. Whenever the players must persuade an NPC to provide help or information, they have a goal.

Scenes without goals begin when NPCs approach the PCs. These scenes can provide flavor or exposition. For example, the players may help a merchant who speaks of the ghost ship raiding the coast, or a beggar who explains how the wizard looks just like a legendary tyrant. Most scenes without a goal establish one when an NPC explains what they offer, and then what obstacles the PCs must overcome to gain cooperation.

If an NPC only provides flavor without advancing the PCs’ goals, the players may enjoy a brief interaction, but soon they will wonder why you judged the NPC worth bringing on stage. “Who is this guy? Did we miss something that should make us care?”

A scene’s simplest obstacle comes when players must devise the right questions to get information they need from a willing source. Greater obstacles appear whenever an NPC in a scene proves unwilling or unable to help. For more, see “22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate.” Scenes without obstacles tend to play short. Once players get the bit of information or assistance they need, they tend to grow impatient, ready for the next challenge.

Even if an NPC helps the players, when a scene presents no obstacles, players will lose interest. If you devote too much time to colorful shopkeepers when the players just want gear, they will gripe. Perhaps not to you, but to me. I’ve heard them. A lack of obstacles means that an adventure’s denouement, where the PC’s patron grants treasure and ties up loose ends, never seems very compelling.

Most scenes end with at least one lead, some clue or item that directs the players to their next step. For example, a lead could be the identity of the burglar who stole the Casket of Wrath, or the key to the vault. The best scenes end with a choice of leads to follow.

Fourth edition Living Forgotten Realms adventures often supported interaction with scenes rather than just characters. The fifth-edition adventures I’ve seen lapse back to just listing NPCs. Why? I suspect the 5E designers associate scenes with railroading. They wish to break from the tight-plotting of 4E adventures, where players moved between encounter numbers 1-2-3, in order. Instead, they list characters, and so force me to give players a reason to meet them in scenes.

ELTU3-1 Good Intentions with my added blue labels

Scenes in the Living Forgotten Realms Adventure ELTU3-1 Good Intentions

The plots and NPCs in recent adventures like Hoard of the Dragon Queen and especially Murder in Baldur’s Gate show true ambition. I suspect the designers aimed for the role-playing equivalent of the n-body problem with the players and NPCs scheming, acting, and reacting in ways too dynamic for the constraints of scenes and encounters. So the authors delegate keeping track of all the threads to the dungeon master. We must become George R. R. Martin, except instead of getting years to hash out the details, we must improvise. To add to the challenge, these adventures still expect dungeon masters to adhere to an overall story, so I find myself choosing whether to use DM mind tricks to nudge the players back on course or to allow them to stray completely off text.  For me, the ambition of these adventures works better in scenarios I create, when I have a complete understanding of moving parts that I created. Published adventures work best when the DM can operate without mastery of entire storyline and its many, moving parts. They work best when they hold to encounters, locations, and scenes—with ample, meaningful choices for the players to choose a course from scene to scene.

Scenes do not contribute to railroading any more than dungeon walls. Railroading comes when adventures fail to offer players choices. If every scene ends with exactly one lead, then you have a railroad. If each scene ends with a few leads that offer interesting, meaningful choices, then you have adventure.

Related: For an example of my struggle to injecting more interaction into an adventure, see “What Murder In Baldur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing.”

22 Reasons why a non-player character won’t cooperate

In “a priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens,” I wrote about how most players only find role-playing encounters compelling when they have a objective to achieve and an obstacle to overcome. Even encounters with the most vivid and fascinating non-player characters fall flat without these two essential elements.

Typically, role-playing encounters combine an objective of gaining information or help, with the obstacle of an uncooperative NPC.

Sometimes the players simply try to persuade the NPC, succeed at a diplomacy check, and move on, but if every interaction amounts to a skill roll, the game loses interest.  At times the bard’s honeyed words may overcome any objections; at times an NPC faces conflicts or repercussions that require action.

I suggest an approach to role-playing encounters that yields more challenging and interesting encounters, along with more memorable NPCs.

Just as the puzzles in a Dungeons & Dragons game have solutions, and locked doors have keys, NPCs can have keys of a sort too. Every NPC who stands unwilling to cooperate must have a reason for it. To unlock the NPC’s help, players must find ways to defuse or overcome their objectives.

If an NPC enters an interaction with a reason not to help the players, you should ultimately give the players enough clues to find a way past the objection.

The NPC may reveal the reason, but sometimes the players may need to figure it out for themselves. The key might not even be apparent on first meeting. If players learn something about a character that helps in a later meeting, then the world feels richer, the NPCs more vibrant, and the players cleverer.

To spark ideas and aid with improvisation, I created a list of potential reasons an NPC might have for refusing to cooperate with the player characters.  Low-numbered items work best for ad-libbed objections from walk-on characters; they require less planning and fewer details about the NPC. Higher-numbered items work better when you have time to plan for your adventure’s most important NPCs.

Reasons a non-player character refuses to cooperate.

  1. She doesn’t want to get involved.
  2. He doesn’t like your kind, for example, strangers, elves, adventurers, or meddling kids.
  3. She doesn’t believe she can help.
  4. He thinks the players will only make things worse. They should leave well enough alone.
  5. She wants something: a bribe, an errand done, or to be convinced that she stands to gain if the players succeed.
  6. He has been paid to keep silent or to stay out.
  7. The players have insulted or offended her.
  8. He thinks the players efforts are dangerous because they don’t understand what’s really going on. He might know something the players don’t or he may simply know less than he thinks.
  9. The players have unwittingly  caused her to suffer a loss.
  10. She feels that helping the players will betray her duties or obligations.
  11. He needs more information to support the players case before he can act.
  12. She knows or suspects that she or the players are watched.
  13. Someone he loves or respects told him not to help.
  14. She is secretly involved with the other side.
  15. The situation benefits her, for example, by raising the value of her trade goods, or by hurting competitors or rivals.
  16. She fears the players might claim a treasure or reward that she expects to get.
  17. He is allied with rivals or competitors to the party.
  18. She’s been threatened.
  19. Someone she loves safety is threatened.
  20. Someone he loves is involved with the other side.
  21. He’s not involved but might be implicated, perhaps for doing things that once seemed innocent.
  22. He’s being blackmailed for a misdeed unrelated to the players’ concerns.

When you play an uncooperative NPC, remember that the NPC may seem helpful. An uncooperative NPC can say all the right things while they lie or let the players down.

Still, I suggest feeding the players lies only when the deception leads to a new development. Lies that lead to false leads and dead ends will prove frustrating and unfun. For example, the countess can lie and say than her hated rival stole the broach, but then the rival must reveal a new piece to a puzzle, perhaps a secret that the countess fought to hide.