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.

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

  1. For initiative, I use tents on my DM screen. I like this method because it allows me to have monster and PC stats for quick reference (like AC, passive perception etc), but it requires quite a lot of preparation. I also include pictures on the players’ side of the screen, which helps the players visualize the monsters (but also kind of reveals what they’re fighting). Sometimes I just place a blank tent on the screen where the monster is in the initiative order, then keep the real tent for reference and only reveal it when the players figure out what the monster is.

    I really like the idea of the numbered tents though. Mainly because it is easier, faster, and because I like the idea of the players being responsible for keeping track of initiative. I might try a combination of both. Have the screen tents for reference and number tents for initiative order.

  2. spilledale says:

    “Just because the baddie is gone, doesn’t mean he/she suddenly becomes stupid or helpless.” – Andy

    Yes it does. In 5e, at least. Banishment’s wording explicitly states that natives to the material plane are sent to a demiplane where they are incapacitated, and therefore can’t take any actions. They CAN’T prepare.

    If the target is native to another plane it returns to that plane and can take actions while there, so in that use case then yes the enemy can prepare. But players are possibly less likely to use it on such an enemy mid-fight for precisely that reason, and also because it would be more efficient to wait: they’d likely only use it on such a target when they know they’re safe to maintain the concentration required to banish such a creature permanently.

  3. Orillion says:

    One suggestion I’m surprised I don’t see more often for spell template partial squares as an alternative to the questionable decision to only count squares covered at least halfway by the spell template is to count every square touched (within reason; if the template barely goes over the corner you can probably just ignore that one) but just state that targets caught in the periphery of the blast automatically make any relevant reflex save. Alternatively, they get a hefty bonus on it (I would rule that it’s equivalent to a cover bonus in 5E, rather than just making it a generic advantage-granter). Considering what a reflex save is ostensibly supposed to represent, that strikes me as being the most obvious and fair way of arbitrating such edge cases.

  4. Zeshio says:

    I was just chatting with another DM about the Illusionism issue. Being flexible is great, but when you’re so flexible as a DM you’re actually railroading your players into a specific scenario regardless of their choices, that’s what I consider bad DMing.

    I think the DM should have a general narrative story in their head, and the characters take actions that affect that story. The main point would be to give real consequences to the players’ actions, rather than make it feel like they’re playing through a pre-ordained book.

    I think developing that flexibility and that story telling muscle takes practice, especially if your DM style started out more old school. If you’re used to just running people through dungeons, monsters, and one sided quests, it can take awhile to learn a new style (collaborative storytelling) and then mix them together to fit your party’s needs.

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