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Top Tips from a Sample of 4,000 Dungeon Masters

Sly Flourish - Mon, 10/16/2017 - 06:00

Each one of us has opinions and ideas on how to make our D&D games great. It's harder, however, to group all of these opinions together to find the commonalities.

By categorizing a random sample of 400 DM tips from a selection of over 4,000 such tips submitted as part of the 2016 Dungeon Master's Survey, I give you a summarized list of the top advice offered by D&D dungeon masters:

  • Prepare to improvise.
  • Focus on the players and their characters.
  • Monitor the pacing of your game.
  • Evoke memorable NPCs and fantastic worlds.

Manually Categorizing DM Tips

Though I had conducted a number of automated processes to categorize the 4,153 results of the 2016 DM survey, I decided instead to conduct a sample categorization by hand to see what trends occurred. I didn't use any special machine learning or natural language processing techniques for this analysis. I simply read them and categorized them myself.

I conducted this analysis to look at what DMs advise to other DMs in aggregate so we can learn from hundreds of DMs at once.

I chose four hundred responses because it's a large enough sample to have some statistical significance. It isn't a perfect representation but its a likely (95% confident) look at what topics bubble up to the top (with about plus or minus 4% error).

Here's a table of the top eleven results, cut off when there were less than ten responses for any particular category.

Summarized Top DM TipsRespondents% estimate
Prepare to improvise.6216% Use the ideas that players bring to the table.4311% Focus the game on the characters.359% Pay attention to the pacing of the game.267% Say yes.215% Understand the desires of the players.154% Prepare for your game.144% Develop interesting NPCs.144% Build rich worlds.144% Provide evocative narration.113% Prepare lightly.103%

You'll notice that these results are similar to the top traits for D&D Dungeon Masters. In particular, both lists focus heavily on the need to improvise and the drive to pull as much from the game from the ideas of the players as we can.

This also isn't far off from the results of our clustering analysis of the full range of tips:

  • Focus on the players.
  • Make things happen.
  • Let things happen.
  • Focus on characters, backgrounds, and stories.
  • Improvise.
  • Say yes.
  • Have fun.
A Heavy Focus on Improvisation

All of these analyses have a heavy focus on the importance of improvisation and our preparation to improvise. This was a focus of our DM Deep Dive with Tom Lommel. A popular trick described often in DM-tip-focused surveys, discussions, videos, and blog articles was to keep a list of names we can quickly reference to improvise NPCs. There are many other tricks for good improvisation but keeping a list of NPC names comes up often.

"Saying yes" also came up often in both the 2016 DM survey and our study of top DM traits. This is a complicated topic with many facets. Tom Lommell, for example, recommends replacing "yes and" with "no but". This also brings us to the topic of failing forward, where we must improvise the results of failures into new and interesting events that keep propelling the story forward.

Improvisation isn't an easy technique to master, which makes its prominence in all these surveys and studies valuable. When we take a wide view of the tips offered by DMs; grouping together topics like improvisation, NPC development, evocative narration, "saying yes", and light preparation; it accounts for roughly 50% of the tips offered.

Based on this prominence, I argue that improving our skills, tools, tips, and tricks for improvisation may have the biggest benefit to our game.

A Focus on the Players and the Characters

Many other tips from numerous studies centered around focusing our attention on the players and the characters. We often discuss this topic here on Sly Flourish. We DMs can get so caught up in our own worlds and our own ideas for the stories that the characters almost become secondary. Focusing on the characters, understanding the desires of the players, and using what they give you to build the story accounted for roughly 34% of the sampled responses above.


Pacing came up high in our sample from the 2016 survey but didn't show up in our top DM tips from the Facebook poll. Still, experienced DMs and RPG designers often discuss the importance of pacing in our games. Monte Cook discusses it in his introduction to Weird Discoveries for Numenera and RPG luminary Robin Laws wrote a book on the topic filled with excellent and practical advice called Hamlet's Hit Points. If you read no other book on the topic of pacing, read *Hamlet's Hit Points*. The main concept is easy to digest and easy to implement in your game right away.

The Importance of Preparation

Our sampled DM tips split between heavy and light preparation recommendations. Some described a high degree of preparation to remove uncertainty when running the game. Others discussed the importance of light preparation and building the flexibility to react to a changing game. It is no secret, being the author of the Lazy Dungeon Master that I prefer and recommend lighter preparation with a focus on flexibility and improvisation.

What we can agree on is the importance of some preparation. In my experience, even the laziest dungeon master is best served by preparing components for their next session that aid them in running a fun and fluid game. Some of our light preparation steps might include:


9% of the sample also recommended the importance of building a rich world. Worldbuilding gave DMs the material they needed when the characters took an unexpected side trek. The more these DMs knew their world and the more details that existed in that world; the more real it felt to them and to their players regardless of the situation.

Because it doesn't feed well into the ideas of the lazy dungeon master, I've often avoided digging into the topic of worldbuilding, leaving it to the experts, but many DMs find worldbuilding a useful and highly entertaining activity. How often can we find a way to flee from our regular lives with our regular problems and escape to an entire universe we can build from our own limitless imaginations?

Worldbuilding also ties into the tip mentioned roughly 7% of the time to provide evocative descriptions in narration. Capturing the imaginations of our players requires that we evoke fantastic imagery. The more we have developed this imagery ahead of time, the easier it is to evoke fantastic descriptions when we need them. This was a large focus of Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations.

Powerful Skills for Lifelong Learning

Combing through hundreds (and thousands) of DM tips helps us recognize where many DMs have found the greatest value in their games. While each of us might have a unique way of making our game great, it helps us to see the ways that have worked well for so many other DMs.

Here's a boiled-down summary of the advice of thousands of dungeon masters:

  • Prepare to improvise.
  • Focus on the players and their characters.
  • Monitor the pacing of your game.
  • Evoke memorable NPCs and fantastic worlds.
Categories: Blogs, D&D

Improvising Combat Situations with Advantage, Disadvantage, and Inspiration

Sly Flourish - Tue, 10/10/2017 - 06:00

Keeping combat scenes fresh and interesting is a hard job. Many players have played and will play through thousands of combat encounters and it's up to us DMs to make each one memorable.

We DMs probably make this harder on ourselves than we need to, however. Much of the time, players just want to watch their characters do awesome stuff. The details of the monsters and the battle only needs to highlight the cool capabilities of their characters. We might think monster and environmental details matter greatly in combat but they probably don't matter as much as we think.

Back in the 4th edition days, many DMs spent considerable time building interesting battle arenas with lots of dynamic pieces and combat mechanics that change the battle. Environmental effects, traps, and hazards even had their own stat blocks similar to monsters. We might still spend a lot of time on the environmental effects of a battle in our 5th edition games, of course, and, for our big set-piece battles, its probably worth doing.

Other times, however, we want to keep some loose tools on hand to help us improvise dynamic combat elements so we can make the battle interesting without having to prepare a lot ahead of time. If the characters take a turn we didn't expect and get into a fight, we can still put together interesting environments for this battle to take place and use these tools to make it feel unique and interesting without a lot of lift on our part. D&D 5e gives us three powerful tools for this: advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration.

We can break down the implementation of these three tools to help us improvise combat into the following broad guidelines:

  1. Give characters advantage when they take a risk and succeed on a skill check that puts them in an advantageous position against their enemies.

  2. Give characters disadvantage if they fail in this skill check and unbalance themselves.

  3. Impose disadvantage on an enemy when a creature puts that enemy at a disadvantage.

  4. Grant inspiration to draw characters into heroic actions, helping them make a leap that puts themselves at risk for the good of the party or the world.

Tying Advantage, Disadvantage, and Inspiration to Skill Checks

Players often overlook skills when engaged in combat. Instead they focus on their characters' combat abilities. Using skills in combat can add a new dimension to the battle. Instead of simply moving up to attack a troll, a character might use their acrobatics to leap up and use the vines hanging above the troll to drop down onto the beast. We can quickly improvise a difficulty check to account for this unexpected use of a skill depending on the situation. We do this by picking a number between 10 and 20 (usually around 13) to represent the difficulty based on the situation.

Often we'll want to state the DC so the player knows the risk and the difficulty before making the choice. If we want to reinforce the use of skills like this, we might grant advantage if there's some reason their character would be particularly good at it.

Tying Advantage, Disadvantage, and Inspiration to Fantastic Features

Fantastic features make combat scenes come to life. It's one thing to fight a handful of orcs in a room. It's something else when you're fighting orcs in a room with a huge glyphed draconic skull hanging from the ceiling. When players see a feature like that, they want to do something with it. Maybe characters trained in arcana can use a bonus action to channel the rage of this dragon with a DC 13 Intelligence (Arcana) check, giving them advantage on their next magical attack. Maybe, when properly called upon with a DC 13 Intelligence (Religion) check, the spirit trapped within the dragon skull will protect the dragonborn paladin, making attacks against the paladin at disadvantage. If the characters fail at these checks, the results may inflict the opposite as penalties. If it doesn't seem like the players are biting on these offers, we can offer inspiration to draw them towards the risk.

We can tie advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration to all sorts of objects and features in an environment. Climbing the slick wall to reach alcoves high above can grant advantage to ranged attackers. Smashing the huge raised water basin can put all of the ogres underneath it at disadvantage.

This improvisational use of advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration requires little prep ahead of time. We might come up with a fantastic feature for a location on the spot and all we need to do is use advantage, disadvantage, or inspiration to make it something useful in combat.

Advantage, Disadvantage, Inspiration, and Story Beats

In Hamlet's Hit Points Robin Laws describes how stories oscillate between hopeful and fearful beats to keep people interested in the story. In our D&D games, we can likewise oscillate hopeful and fearful beats to keep our players engaged. We often cannot plan ahead of time whether the players will take a situation as a hopeful or fearful beat but, during the game, we can use advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration to easily add a beat of the right type.

If the party has been having an easy time slaughtering goblins, maybe a new wave of goblins enters the fray from above, firing with advantage down on the characters. Maybe if the characters have been having a hard go of it, they can tap into ancient primeval forces within the glyphed cavern walls to grant them a blood-rage that gives them advantage on attacks. If one particular character has been having rotten luck, we can give them inspiration for a good idea and help them turn that luck around.

Advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration are wonderful built-in tools to not only improvise interesting encounters but also change the very feeling of the story to keep players hooked.

An Easy and Powerful Improvisational Tool

Giving characters the opportunity to use a skill check to gain advantage is a powerful and easy-to-use tool to keep in our improvisational toolbox. It doesn't require much thought or preparation on our part to implement and makes an entire scene come to life in ways we wouldn't normally expect. Likewise, we can use disadvantage as a failure mechanic should things go poorly or inflict disadvantage on a variety of foes if a large enough event calls for it. When we're having trouble getting players to buy into bold moves we can draw them in with an offer of inspiration. Many times, thats just the reward they need.

Keep advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration in your improvisational toolbox as a quick and easy way to change the face of a battle.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

DM's Deep Dive with James Introcaso on Roll20

Sly Flourish - Mon, 10/02/2017 - 06:00

In another episode of the DM's Deep Dive, I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to my friend and co-creator of the Don't Split the Podcast network, James Introcaso about running games on Roll20.

James has over 2,100 hours logged into Roll20 and has written and developed numerous modules for the platform including Storm King's Thunder.

Like other episodes of the DM's Deep Dive, you can listen to the podcast or watch it in Youtube. The video is also embedded below.

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Here is a summary of the questions and answers we discussed during the show.

James's top three (four) tips for running great games on Roll20.

  • Get in there and play around with it. Spend the time to understand how it works.
  • Don't worry that you don't know everything about the system.
  • Give yourself and your players time to adjust. It can be weird and takes time getting used to it. The more you do it, the more it feels natural.
  • Do your best to stay focused on the game. Don't get distracted by the whole rest of the internet sitting there in front of you.

How can we keep peoples' attention on the game?

It's hard. Ramp up your engagement of the players. Make sure players have the gameplay types and scenes that interest them. Take the time to know what drives them and ensure you're engaging them as often as you can. Combat scenes will often give people time to get distracted so ensure there are important scenes.

Give players jobs like notetaking so they have something in-game to do even when its not their turn.

Make something big needs to happen every fifteen minutes.

What is the ideal number of players for VTTs?

Four to five is good.

How can a lazy dungeon master make the most out of Roll20?

One can do theater of the mind on a VTT. We don't need to use the fancy battle maps or other features just because they're there.

Each time you play, try to imcorporate one new thing.

Look at Phandelver for a model of how to run an adventure.

Where do people get stuck when running Roll20 games?

Trying to do too much. Getting bogged down in the technology. For the record, the random seed for Roll20 is well studied. It's probably more accurate than physical dice.

The technology can be hard at first. Take the time to figure it out.

People sign up for games and don't show up. That's a tough problem. Keep going and you'll be ok.

Will Jones doesn't use the grid. He runs fully theater of the mind.

How can somebody use D&D Beyond with Roll20?

If monsters are part of the SRD, people will have the monsters in Roll20 for free. Otherwise, a DM can look things up in D&D Beyond and describe them in Roll20. There might be some integration in the future.

It might be worth buying the Monster Manual in Roll20 just to have all of the monsters, stat blocks, and tokens to use in Roll20.

What are your thoughts on pay to play?

Nice work if you can get it! Nothing wrong with it if people are willing to pay. It's a lot of work to prep a game. It might help ensure people actually show up. We already pay for games at game conventions.

How necessary are good quality mics and cameras?

Any decent mic and camera are fine. Built-in cameras are fine. Anything good enough to play games with your friends.

What is the most diverse party location-wise we've seen in Roll20?

Roll20con had people all over the world.

What's more important: setting the scene with details or running NPCs?

I argue NPCs because, according to 158 responses to a Facebook poll on the three pillars, 60% of respondents preferred NPC interaction to the other two pillars. James agreed.

Do you feel like you have less control over people in a VTT? People throwing dice or moving tokens or drawing dicks on the table.

There has to be shared respect between DMs and players. "Don't be a dick and don't draw dicks."

You can move players to their own screen where they can draw dicks all by themselves.

Thanks to James Introcaso and Alex Basso for their help with the show.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Injecting the Hard Moves

Sly Flourish - Mon, 09/25/2017 - 06:00

The fantastic roleplaying game Dungeon World is a treasure trove of wonderful ideas we can bring right into our fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons games. We've talked in the past about using fronts as a way to focus our preparation time on the antagonists of our campaign and their own plots rather than trying to build linear stories to stick in front of our players.

Today we're going to talk about another concept from Dungeon World, the "hard move". We're going to twist this idea into a powerful improvisational weapon we can draw out at our table and change the world we create with our players at the table.

Let's look at what Dungeon World has to say on the idea of moves:

When you make a move what you're actually doing is taking an element of the fiction and bringing it to bear against the characters. Your move should always follow from the action. They help you focus on one aspect of the current situation and do something interesting with it. What's going on? What move makes sense here?

In Dungeon World, a hard move has an immediate and powerful effect on the characters—like inflicting damage. We're going to expand the definition a bit to suit a wider use for D&D:

A hard move drops a big rock into the path of the story. When the world laughs at the characters and turns up the heat by a factor of ten, that's a hard move. "Life's a bitch" is the tag line for our hard move. It's Murphy's Law. Hard moves are bad freaking luck.

The world of D&D doesn't follow purely predictable paths. Sometimes chaos flows in hard, wrecking perfectly laid plans. The dice often act as these agents of chaos but we can add another big change ourselves, a meteor that soars in and makes our world complicated.

The Reaction to a Low Roll

When the characters try something, roll for a skill check, and roll really low; that's a great time to drop in a hard move. They don't just fall off of the wall they were climbing. They fall into the palm of the cloud giant who has been hunting for them right before the cloud giant smiles and smahes them against the wall like a bug.

There's an oft-discussed concept in modern roleplaying games called "failing forward". When a character attemps something and fails, they don't lose the game. The game doesn't end. Instead, it steers the story of the game down a new path, a potentially more difficult path, but a path that might be just as interesting or even more interesting than the original path they would have followed on a success.

Low rolls on skill checks is a perfect time to drop in the hard move and that's basically how it works in Dungeon World. It works just as well for D&D.

Why Move Hard?

Sometimes, even outside of a bad roll, hard moves just happen. We drop them in when the story needs a complication. If things have been going too easy or the plan has worked out too well; time to drop in a hard move.

Knowing how and when to inflict hard moves is an advanced bit of DMing to learn. We might throw in a hard move when we're pissed that the players broke our perfectly planned boss encounter. That's not a good time to throw in a hard move.

We don't throw in hard moves to negate the exciting and sometimes surprising victories of the characters. We applaud those victories. We throw in hard moves when things start to feel stale. We drop them in when the story becomes mundane and the players are starting to look a little bored.

Hard moves are perfect vehicles to spice up the pace of our game. Sometimes we might throw it in at a low point of energy in the game but sometimes we might throw it in when the energy is high to make it even higher. Sure, the characters are worried about fighting that ettin, but what if two more ogres walk in the back door to see what the ettin is on about? A tense situation just got worse.

The Dangers of Hard Moves

Hard moves, though powerful, are also dangerous. We need to be careful how we use them. We don't want hard moves to destroy the careful work and planning of the players. We don't want it to remove their capabilities or circumvent their actions. Hard moves, though painful within the story, should be built to help players show off their characters. Like much of the rest of the game, they should be designed to make characters look cool.

When the characters are in a fight with a couple of veterans and then fifty bandits show up like the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill, they get an opportunity to look really cool. Fireballs love bandit hoards. If the characters are headed onto a gambling ship and their arch villain shows up as a surprise guest, it could be a rough spot but they might learn something or even steal something from her. That's cool too. Hard moves look terrible at first but then end up as jump pads to make characters look awesome.

Twenty Hard Moves

Here are twenty examples of hard moves.

  • The room sets on fire.
  • The arch villain crashes the party.
  • Someone important just died.
  • Fifty bandits show up.
  • Someone else showed up to rob the same object.
  • That item is cursed by something far worse than the current villain.
  • The lord comes home early having forgotten his favorite hat.
  • The sleeping dragon wakes up.
  • A bound demon is released.
  • A ghost possesses a character.
  • The building collapses.
  • A purple worm wants to see what the noise is all about.
  • Ghouls for one hundred miles are attracted to radiant energy.
  • Shadow assassins.
  • The zombies are full of wasp swarms.
  • The magic sword chooses this very moment to attempt to dominate the wielder.
  • Mom shows up.
  • The ancient doomsday trap reveals itself.
  • The king wants to see where all the action is.
  • The room floods.
Improvising Hard Moves

Its possible for us to plan our hard moves ahead of time. It helps us ensure we're not throwing in a hard move that's too hard. The heat of the moment may make us drop in a hard move just because we're pissed off that the fighter killed our favorite lich in two attacks. We might plan out a few hard moves when we're writing down our secrets and clues for our next game.

Other times, however, an idea might just pop into our head. The game might be growing stale. The characters are having a pretty easy go of it. They have a really solid idea of the direction the story is going and it feels too perfect. That's the time to throw in a hard move. While hard moves can come from bad skill checks, it also doesn't need to be a reaction to the characters at all. Maybe that's the time the servants stage their violent revolt against the aristocracy. Maybe that's the time the sleeping horror beneath the city wakes up.

The right improvised hard move can be loads of fun that take you and the players into entirely other worlds of adventure.

The Random Seeds of Excitement

Hard moves aren't punishment. They're the vectors that take our story into new and wild directions. Often, when we throw in a hard move, even we don't know where it will take the story. That's the fun of running these games. We have no idea where they'll end up. Next time your game is feeling a bit stale, throw in a hard move and see where it leads.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

5e Dungeons & Dragons Facebook Survey Results

Sly Flourish - Mon, 09/04/2017 - 06:00

In October 2016 I ran a 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons survey of 6,600 dungeon masters to better understand how DMs prepare and run their games. I wasn't happy to stop there, however. Lately I've been posting numerous single-question polls over at the D&D 5th edition Facebook group, a group with roughly 100,000 members.

This group gives us a fantastic way to get almost immediate feedback on how D&D DMs and players experience the game. This article contains a number of these polls, the dates of the poll, the number of respondents, and the results.

These are certainly flawed polls. The D&D group isn't a perfect representation of D&D DMs overall and their response falls well into the problems of selection bias. However, the results of these polls often provide a better view than just guessing or basing our opinions on personal anecdotes.

So we shouldn't put too much weight on these results but, at the same time, they give us an insight that's likely better than guessing.

I'll update this page with the results of future polls as I conduct them.

Facebook D&D Poll Table of Contents

Do DMs change monster hit points during combat?

Question: "5e DMs, do you regularly alter monster hit points during combat?"

Poll posted 1 September 2017, 523 respondents.

ResponseRespondents% of total "Yes, I both increase and decrease hit points during combat."36870% "No, I don't modify a monster's hit points once the battle has started."12925% "Yes, I increase hit points to increase the challenge."194% "Yes, I reduce hit points to speed up combat or improve pacing."31% "I don't even track hit points."41%

Which D&D Gameplay Pillars do Players Prefer?

Question: "D&D players, of the three pillars of D&D gameplay, which do you enjoy the most?"

Poll posted 31 August 2017, 158 respondents.

ResponseRespondents% of total NPC Interaction and Roleplaying9459% Exploration and Investigation4227% Combat2214%

How Much Time Per Hour do DMs Prepare for Their Game?

Question: "In the following Kotaku interview, Jeremy Crawford recommends 30 minutes of prep per hour of playtime. What is your prep time to play time ratio?"

Poll posted 30 August 2017, 209 respondents.

Note, we can compare results from this survey to the results from the 2016 DM survey limiting those results to the 2,900 DMs who ran four hour games (the most common duration. The last column shows the percentage of respondents for the same preparation time block. It isn't always a perfect fit, particularly for those higher than 60 minutes prep per hour of gameplay, but it gives a reasonable comparison and seems to be pretty close.

ResponseRespondents% of total2016 survey % I don't prepare at all. 157%2% less than 15 minutes of prep time per hour of game time. 2311%13% 15 minutes of prep time per hour of game time. Voters for this option4019%23% 30 minutes of prep time per hour of game time. 6431%27% 60 minutes of prep time per hour of game time. 3718%22%* 90 minutes of prep time per hour of game time.84%14%** 120 minutes of prep time per hour of game time. 157%14%** More than 120 minutes of prep time per hour of game time. 73%14%**


* For this result I combined the 3 hours per 4 hour game and 4 hours per for hour game results from the 2016 survey.

** These results all represent the 2016 DM survey's "More than four hours" or "more than 60 minutes per hour of gameplay". This is best compared by combining results "above 60 minutes per hour" from the new survey (14%) to "above 60 minutes per hour" from the original survey (14%).

How do DMs Build Encounters?

Question: "DMs, how do you balance encounters when preparing your D&D game?"

Poll posted 28 August 2017, 276 respondents.

ResponseRespondents% of total "I use monster challenge ratings as a rough gauge of difficulty and improvise encounter balance from there."15757% "I don't really balance encounters. I choose the type and number of monsters based on the story and situation."7226% "I use Kobold Fight Club to balance encounters."2710% "I use another online calculator to balance encounters."124% "I use the encounter building guidelines in the Dungeon Master's Guide."83% "I use the new Unearthed Arcana encounter building guidelines for balancing encounters."00%

Do DMs Plan or Improvise NPCs?

Question: "5th edition Dungeon Masters, do you plan NPCs ahead of time or improvise them at the table?"

Poll posted 25 August 2017, 121 respondents.

ResponseRespondents% of total "I improvise nearly all of my NPCs at the table."43% "I mostly improvise my NPCs at the table."3428% "I prepare about half of my NPCs ahead of time and improvise half at the table."6352% "I mostly prepare my NPCs ahead of time."1714% "I prepare nearly all of my NPCs ahead of time."33%

Do DMs Roll Dice In the Open?

Question: "For 5th edition dungeon masters, do you roll your dice in the open or hide them?"

Poll posted 22 August 2017, 914 respondents.

ResponseRespondents% of total "I hide my rolls."63570% "I roll in the open."27930%

What Level do D&D Players Typically Reach in a Campaign?

Question: "What is the highest level D&D campaign you've run or played in?"

Poll posted 17 August 2017, 269 respondents. ResponseRespondents% of total 1st to 3rd83% 4th to 6th4416% 7th to 9th6625% 10th to 12th3613% 13th to 15th5520% 16th to 18th207% 19th to 20th4015%

Do DMs Use the Monster Manual at the Table?

Question: "When running a D&D game, do you use the Monster Manual right at the table to look up stat blocks? Do you reformat and reprint them? Do you use some digital tool to look them up?"

Poll posted 12 August 2017, 453 respondents ResponseRespondents% of total "I use the Monster Manual at the table."31670% "I reformat and reprint monster stat blocks for use at the table."7416% "I use some digital tool to look up monster stat blocks at the table."5211% "I use something else to look up monster stat blocks at the table."112%

Do DMs Enjoy Preparing D&D Games?

Question: "Do you enjoy preparing your D&D game?"

Poll posted 5 August 2017, 427 respondents.

ResponseRespondents% of total Yes40394% No246%

How Many DMs Have to Deal With Disruptive Players?

Question: "Do you regularly have to deal with disruptive players?"

Poll posted 30 July 2017, 82 respondents.

ResponseRespondents% of total Yes1620% No6680%

How Many D&D Players Play in the Adventurer's League?

Question: "Do you play in D&D Adventurer's League Organized Play games whether real life or online?"

Posted 23 July 2017, 427 respondents.

ResponseRespondents% of total Yes10424% No32376%

Do DMs Roll for Monster Damage or Use Static Damage?

Question: "When running a D&D monster, do you roll for monster damage or use the listed static damage?"

Poll posted 15 July 2017, 530 respondents.

ResponseRespondents% of total "I roll for damage."47990% "I use the listed average damage."5110%

How do DMs Use Published Adventures?

Question: "How do you use the official published hardback D&D adventures (Curse of Strahd, Storm King's Thunder, Out of the Abyss, etc)?"

Poll posted 10 June 2017, 169 respondents.

ResponseRespondents% of total "I do not run the official published hardback D&D adventures.7142% "I moderately alter published adventures to fit my campaign.4426% "I run them as they are written with very few changes.3621% "I significantly alter published adventures to fit my campaign.1811%
Categories: Blogs, D&D

Matt Mercer on Bringing NPCs to Life

Sly Flourish - Mon, 08/28/2017 - 06:00

In July 2017, on the DM's Deep Dive I had the privilege to talk to Matt Mercer of Critical Role about bringing NPCs in our D&D games to life. Matt is a professional voice actor and very popular streamer of D&D, with appearances on the Stream of Annihiliation and the WOTC D&D series, Force Gray. Matt also recently released his Tal'Dorei campaign setting with Green Ronin.

You can watch the discussion on Youtube or listen to the podcast.

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Throughout our one-hour discussion, Matt and I discussed numerous topics for bringing NPCs to life. Below are some of the highlights from the talk.

Matt's Top Three Tips
  1. Have a strong idea of what drives the NPC. How will the characters engage them and how will they react. Why are they important?
  2. What is the goal of the NPC in each interaction. Are they trying to inspire the characters to be heroes? Trying to get a key piece of information? Trying to feel them out? Trying to get more money?
  3. Use body language to define characters. Don't be afraid to steeple your fingers or drop your shoulders to imitate the character's appearance. Open your hands and be welcoming. Use body language to show your players that you're a new character.
Other Notes from our Conversation

Matt's tip for performing voices is practice. Practice by yourself, while driving, or in the shower. Record yourself doing voicework, listen to it, and adjust it.

Mix voices together. Use characteristics from one voice and mix it with characteristics for another. Matt's higher pitch Zoidberg isn't to be missed.

Study the classics of mythology and Shakespeare to give your games an old-world feel. MacBeth and Othello for example. Read Midsummer Night's Dream to get the feel for the world of the fae.

Matt keeps track of voices by looking it back up on the net (that's great for Matt Mercer!) but he also keeps track of things in a big Word document. Try to do the best you can from memory.

Matt improvises NPCs about 50% of the time. For his improvised NPCs, he builds it out from the root of the NPC and its interaction with the character and the NPC's responses to their discussions.

Matt's prepared NPCs have the advantage of filling in key needs in the story. Not having any prepared NPCs definitely spikes anxiety but can be thrilling in a safe game with trusted players.

Matt prepares more NPCs for more linear travel situations and significantly more in an urban environment—six to ten main NPCs and maybe ten secondary NPCs.

Matt spends between one hour to two hours of preparation per hour of gameplay. Higher level campaigns in a city might take up to three hours per hour of gameplay. It's hard to prepare when the characters can hop entire planes of existence.

When working on your voices, avoid stereotypes. It can be easy to fall into stereotype voices (think every woman is the Monty Python shrieking lady). Avoid alienating layers with sexist or racist stereotypes for voices. Be respectful and mindful of the of various dialects and accents you use.

How you hold yourself can make a huge difference. It's not just about the voice.

Answers to Questions from the Audience

To keep your voice healthy, stay hydrated with water. Use hot tea if you have voice strain. There are teas specifically used for keeping your voice in action. Take a break or call off the game if its getting bad.

When NPCs become part of the party they can overshadow the actions of the characters. Find ways they can be useful to the characters in other ways like doing off-screen research or acting as an ambassador. Find a natural exit for them.

Don't worry about screwing up any particular part of the game. DMs should feel free to screw up. It's harder when 10,000 people are watching you play. If you are enjoying it your players will enjoy it. Everyone is there to have a good time. Just roll with it. Be nice to low level characters and new players.

Don't do a stressful voice for a character that's going to be in play a lot. Don't hurt yourself.

Be ready for plot threads to break and use prep time to figure out how to fill in the gaps. Feel free to shift the whole world to make a broken connection work. Find ways to make your inconsistencies true.

Practice cool voices by listening them on Youtube. Record 30 seconds of yourself and then study how it worked. Practice dialects by listening to the International Dialects in English Archive. There are hundreds of accents from all over the world. Again, watch out for stereotypes.

Matt Mercer's hardest voice was a mind flayer named Clarota. The speech on inhale was hard.

When you're running with a large number of players, talk to them about your intent to give them all some screen time. When they see the problem the way you do, they'll be more understanding of how it works out. If you can tie a single background or narrative to a pair of characters, it lets you kill two birds with one stone.

When using milestone experience, feel free to let characters level up on side quests.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Managing Player Attendance with an On-Call List

Sly Flourish - Mon, 08/21/2017 - 06:00

The hardest part about running a Dungeons & Dragons game is finding players and keeping them coming back to your table week after week. We love to pontificate the importance of preparation, building stories, focusing on characters, and all of the rest; but just getting people to show up to a game is tough.

There's a sweet spot for the optimal number of players for a great Dungeons & Dragons game fun. Your results may vary but I've found that four to six players is just about perfect. Any more than six players and it becomes hard to pay attention to any single player long enough to let their character shine in the world. Any less and the creative synergy of the group just isn't as strong.

Some DMs find it difficult to get enough players and others find themselves with too many. We've talked in other articles about how we might find new players when we might not have enough and we offer a few more suggestions at the end of this article. The bulk of this article, however, talks about a technique that I've used to keep a regular weekly game of six regular players and two on-call players going on for ten years.

The Six Regular Players

To keep a game strong, we can focus on a core group of six regular players who come to the game as often as possible and two alternate players who can fill in when an opening comes up.

These core six should be people who commit to attending as often as they can. We know that people get busy and real life things get in the way. That's fine. Our assumption, though, is that, with these six regular players, at least four of them will show up at any given session.

We also can ask these players to commit to letting us know if they can't make a session as soon as they know. To help with this we can send an email or text message to all of the members confirming their attendance to each game, even if we know the game is regular. This helps remind them that they have a game this week and gives them the chance to step out if they need to.

And if they need to step out, this is where the on-call players come in.

The Two On-Call Players

There are lots of players who love to play D&D but cannot commit to a regular weekly game. They might be interested, however, in sitting in from time to time when a seat is free. At any given point, its worth having two of these "on call" players on our list so if any of the regulars can't make it, we can send a note to the first on-call player and see if they can. If they cannot, we can go to the second on-call player.

When contacting our on-call players we can either rotate between them so each of them gets a chance to play or find some other way to choose who we contact first.

Contacting only one of them at a time is important though. If we send an invite to both, we risk that both might be able and eager to attend but then we have too many again. Waiving one off can hurt feelings. Taking the extra time to email or contact one at a time and waiting for a confirmation or denial is worth it.

On-call players can come from one of two places. Either they are players who cannot commit to a regular game but like to play from time to time or they are players who want to join in as a regular member but understand that you already have six regular members. The latter are particularly useful because, if any of your regular players has to step out for a long period of time, they can jump in as a new regular member.

Being an on-call player has advantages to the player as well. It's not a second-class role. It gives them flexibility. Unlike the regular player, they aren't generally committed to coming so they're free to decline when an invitation rolls out. Some players prefer this freedom.

Keeping the Cycle Going

Lives change continually so our group of six players will change regularly as well. People will drop out. New people will come in. Some people who dropped out will come back. Each time someone drops out, we can go to our on-call list and see if one of the on-call people wants to join as a regular member or not. Hopefully at least one of the on-call players wants to jump in as a full time player. Otherwise its back to the hunt for a new player but at least the on-call players can fill in from time to time when able.

Sometimes a full-time player needs to step out but can still stick around as an on-call player. This happens often as our lives change. Sometimes whatever happened in their life changes again and they switch back to a regular. That's all part of the cycle.

Finding New Players

As people move on and on-call players become regulars, we want to continually keep up our group of six plus two. Maybe we even want more on-call players if we can get them. As long as people don't mind not getting called all the time we can keep as long an on-call list as we can. We can even run alternate games once in a while with just the on-call people to keep them at the table.

We also, though, need to keep finding new players. This is a big problem outside of the scope of this article but we'll offer a few quick suggestions and one big suggestion. First, the big one:

Run One-Shot Games

One-shot games are a fantastic way to feel out players and let them feel out you and the rest of the group. Not every player works well with every DM and vice versa. Its best to have a single game at a different time and maybe at a different place just to try things out and see how it works. However we meet new players we can use one-shot games to ensure a good fit on both sides.

This way we're not inviting someone sight unseen into a long campaign only to find out its a poor fit. At that point we have to have the conversation to ask them leave if its not working out and that's no fun for anyone. One-shot games avoid that problem. If you're not sure after a one-shot game, maybe run another one-shot game. Generally, if you're not sure after a couple of games, you're probably best looking for another player elsewhere.

So one-shots are a great way for DMs and players to see if they work well together. But how do we actually find those players? There's no perfect answer but here are a few suggestions that came up in numerous discussions on the net:

  • Find nerds at work and invite them.
  • Make your love of D&D known. Put stickers on your car. Walk around with D&D shirts on. Read your D&D books in coffee shops.
  • Use Meetup to find D&D players in your area.
  • Go to local game shops and see if they have organized play (or any D&D games) going on. Join in, mark the players you really enjoy playing with, and ask them if they want to join your home game.
  • Ask around on Facebook, Twitter, or other D&D forums like Enworld for local games and organized play games.
  • Use Organized play games to find players who fit your style and invite them to a home game.

If you're a DM having a hard time running a game, try Roll 20 and play online. They're always looking for DMs from what I understand. Roll 20 has kept many groups gaming together well after the players have moved apart.

A Continual Process

Finding players, keeping them coming to your table, and keepig the cycle going as players leave is the hardest part of this hobby. It is a process that will require continual work. It's worth it, though. There are fewer better moments in life than getting together with friends to share in a few laughs and have some creative fun.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

A Guide to Official D&D 5th Edition Published Adventures

Sly Flourish - Mon, 08/14/2017 - 06:00

This article will provide a guide to the official fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons adventures published by Wizards of the Coast. They are ordered in my own order of preference, from top to bottom. I intend for this article to help guide DMs who want a brief look at each of the D&D campaigns and offer links for further resources to run them.

I'll update this article as Wizards of the Coast releases new D&D adventures and once I've had a chance to actually run them. Use this guide to help you decide where best to spend your time and the time of your players as you run your D&D games.

Lost Mine of Phandelver

The first published D&D adventure also ends up being the best one so far. Lost Mine of Phandelver is included in the affordable D&D Starter Set and provides an excellent view into what D&D is all about. Lost Mine of Phandelver is presented in four chapters each of which will run roughly four hours. The adventures takes characters from level 1 to level 5 and the Starter Set includes pre-generated characters with all of the leveling up included right on the character sheet. Even years after its release, Phandelver remains one of the most popular D&D adventures for 5e and is my personal favorite.

DM Requirements: Very little. Like any D&D adventure, do what you can to integrate the desires of the players and the backgrounds of the characters into the game. The pre-generated characters include some adventure-specific hooks already so take note of those before you run it. Oh, and be nice to them at level 1. The first part of this adventure can be lethal for level 1s if you're not careful. Consider leveling them to two before they go to the goblin caves in chapter 1.

Resources Curse of Strahd

An adventure with a huge legacy, the 5th edition adventure Curse of Strahd captures everything we loved in the 1983 classic, i6 Ravenloft, and expands it into a full campaign. Instead of rethinking the adventure from scratch, this adventure keeps the original intact and adds new interesting and creepy places for our characters to explore before they head to the castle. Of all of the published campaigns, this one is the most solid, with a clear motivation and excellent locations.

Curse of Strahd is a world unto itself, unlike any other world in D&D. It is less of a Dungeons & Dragons fantasy romp and more of a dark horror-themed adventure. If that's what you and your players are looking for, it's fantastic, but it isn't what I would consider a "traditional D&D experience".

DM Requirements: Keep the threads going that bring the characters from place to place. Make sure Strahd is in the characters' face throughout the whole adventure. Run him as a true supervillain. Make sure, with the Sunsword and Icon of Ravenloft in hand, that they can't just kick his ass when they finally face him in the castle.

Resources Out of the Abyss

Out of the Abyss is described as a dark version of Alice in Wonderland. Moreso than any other adventure I've played, Out of the Abyss captures the high fantasy of the underdark. It isn't just a bunch of caves. We have entire underground cities swamped in pollution. We have a vast lake with great horrors beneath its depths. We have a huge grove of luminescent sentient fungi. Out of the Abyss, like Curse of Strahd, is a sandbox of sandboxes, with many large areas open for exploration above and dungeons below tied together with a loose framework of a storyline, the first half of which is easily described with a single word: "escape".

Out of the Abyss starts off with the characters imprisoned and enslaved by Drow, a beginning that might not resonate well with all players or DMs. It's worth discussing this before you decide to run it just to ensure people are on board. The earliest levels of Out of the Abyss feel much more like a survival horror game than a fantasy roleplaying game. The search for food, clean water, and decent weapons dominates the first two or three levels. Eventually, the characters find enough resources to get on with their larger explorations into the mystery of the arrival of the demon princes.

I never did play the second half of Out of the Abyss so this description and recommendation come from playing through the first half.

DM Requirements: Be ready to build quest threads and hooks between each of the big areas so the players have one to three clear paths to take as they explore the underdark. Read chapter 7 early so you have some idea where chapters 2 to 6 are eventually headed. Enjoy and play up the truly alien and fantastic nature of the underdark.

Resources Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat

Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat were the first two hardback adventures published for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Together they build a truly epic campaign in which the characters go to war against a newly risen sect of the Cult of the Dragon and their attempt to bring Tiamat, the goddess of chromatic dragons, to Faerun. These adventures begin with a town under siege, a new trope quickly becoming as common as meeting up in a bar. The adventure has the characters traveling all along the Sword Coast from Greenist, a town south-east of Baldur's Gate, all the way up to Waterdeep. One chapter in particular has the characters traveling nearly a thousand miles all built around a relatively delicate ruse as caravan guards that smart players might easily miss, avoid, or turn around into something else.

These two adventures have a great overall story but require a fair bit of work from the Dungeon Master to build into a great campaign. In particular, a few battles in the adventure were written before fifth edition monsters were put down on paper so the battles can be terribly one-sided against the characters.

DM Requirements: Find ways to give the players options outside the railroad in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Ensure the characters have some good ties and backgrounds to the NPCs. Is one of the characters a cousin of a villain? Be ready to come up with multiple reasons and multiple ways the characters will make their way from Greenest to Waterdeep. It's a long journey and the book only gives one narrow path to get there. Be ready to come up with your own. Rebalance some of the encounters like the vampire in the floating castle later in Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

Resources Princes of the Apocalypse

Princes of the Apocalypse is a single campaign adventure set in the Dessarin Valley and pays homage to the classic adventure Temple of Elemental Evil. Like other campaign adventures it has an intro adventure that gets characters to level 3 and then begins with the story. Prince is set up as a sandbox, with many avenues to explore and many ruins to dig into. Princes has two problems, however, though neither is insurmountable. First, if characters aren't careful, they can definitely "dig too deep", going down into dungeons for which they are woefully underpowered. Each upper dungeon is tuned roughly for levels 4 to 7) while each connected dungeon is tuned for levels 8 to 11. Thus, its possible for people to go down a stairwell leading from a fourth level dungeon to an eighth level dungeon with just a few steps.

This might be fine for some groups who prefer that the world does not conform to the level of the characters. There are two ways we can handle this. First, we can simply telegraph to the players that they might be heading into an area with dangers that are beyond their capability. Simply saying "you feel you have entered an area beyond your capability" is usually enough of a telegraph. Second, we can lock parts of the dungeon with doors and keys that only become available when the characters are ready for the challenge. This turns the sandbox into a railroad but that might be fine for you and your players. The choice is yours.

The second problem comes with the thin storyline of Princes. It starts off as a missing persons adventure but actually keeping track of who got lost and where they ended up gets a bit loose throughout the adventure. It's up to the DM to tie the threads together so that characters have a clear motivation for going from one place to the next.

Still, Princes is a nice solid D&D adventure with a lot of dungeons, interesting NPCs, and some fun battles. If one is looking for a nice traditional D&D sandbox campaign, this is a fine one to consider.

DM Requirements: It's up to you to fill in the blanks when it comes to tracking down the lost expedition. You can only dangle the "sorry, your dwarven explorer is in another dungeon!" so many times before players get frustrated. Consider whether or not to lock the more difficult dungeons or ensure you tell your players that there are areas beyond their capabilities if they explore too deep. Outline strong hooks that take the charactes between each of the four cults.

Resources Tales of the Yawning Portal

Tales of the Yawning Portal is a very different hardback book than the other adventures Wizards of the Coast has released for D&D 5e. Instead of being part of a large campaign, Yawning Portal contains seven classic adventures updated for D&D 5e. These include:

  • Against the Giants
  • Dead in Thay
  • Forge of Fury
  • Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan
  • Sunless Citadel
  • Tomb of Horrors
  • White Plume Mountain

Because it is very easy to convert old adventures to 5e, this book may not be that useful for those who already have the original adventures. The book does contain new maps and new art, however, along with updated stat blocks for certain monsters and updated DCs and damage output levels. For those seeking a set of individual and traditional D&D adventures this is the perfect book. It's a great book to have on hand when one wants to insert particular dungeons in the middle of a campaign. For example, one can stick White Plume Mountain right in the middle of a Storm King's Thunder or Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign.

DM Requirements: Find ways to insert these dungeons into your ongoing campaigns. Fill them with character-relevant bits of backstory. Ensure you run otherwise boring rooms full of orcs as a single organic area in which orcs can move around and get alerted. Be ready to cut off parts of the dungeons you don't like or think will bore the players. Enjoy the old-school feel!

Resources Storm King's Thunder

Of all of the campaign adventures, few are wider in scope than Storm King's Thunder. Taking place all along the northern Sword Coast, this campaign adventure feels more like a campaign setting than a traditional adventure. It is built very loosely so each DM who runs it is likely to run it much differently than any other.

Because of this, I consider it to be more difficult to run than any other campaign adventure. This book does not hold your hand. You'll have to make a lot of choices and do a lot of work to build a cohesive story for your group when you run this adventure.

The adventure also offers multiple pathways at certain points so its unlikely any single group will be able to use every chapter from the book. For example, after the excellent introductory adventure, the DM is offered three choices for the adventurers' next path. This means they're not likely to see the other two.

Chapter 3 of this adventure is 46 pages containing information on 164 individual locations, each with potential hooks. This feels more like a miniature campaign setting than a chapter in an adventure and puts a lot on the shoulders of the DM to build a cohesive story in between chapter 2 and chapter 4. The wide-spread nature of this chapter might be useful for some but for others (like me) it makes the adventure more difficult to run.

The overall storyline of the plight of the giants also suffers from not being that relevant to the characters. Yes, the giants are in upheaval because their orderly stack-rank, called the Ordening, has mysteriously disappeared, but why do characters really care? So what? That's something each DM needs to make important.

Of all of the adventures, short of Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat, this adventure gives us the most straight forward campaign set along the Sword Coast and the North. It gives us a nice widespread campaign with lots of room for DMs and players to explore what they want to explore.

DM Requirements: Be ready to fill in a lot of blanks with your own stories, quests, motivations, and dungeons; particularly early on. Mix this adventure up with adventures like Princes of the Apocalypse or Yawning Portal and let the characters go where they feel. Tie the characters to a single faction and let that faction guide their interests and motivations to deal with the giant threat. Read through chapter 3 and note the areas that catch your interest. Only pick a few of these and don't feel like your game needs to spend a month wandering around the North.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Choose Monsters Based on the Story

Sly Flourish - Mon, 08/07/2017 - 06:00
A Short Summary for Narrative-Based Encounter Building
  1. Choose the type and number of monsters appropriate for the story and situation.

  2. Judge the relative difficulty of the encounter with our encounter building guidelines. As a loose rule of thumb a battle is considered "deadly" if, given an equal number of characters and monsters, the monster's CR is equal to half of the character's level. For example, a battle with five level 10 characters facing five CR 5 hill giants is considered just over the edge into "deadly".

  3. Give the characters fair warning if they're taking on something too hard with a "you feel this challenge is beyond you" warning.

A New Look at Encounter Balance—Don't Bother

"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."

- Mike Mearls, Design and Development Lead for Dungeons & Dragons

When it comes to designing combat encounters, Wizards of the Coast describes two different ways to balance combat encounters in the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. The first is the crazy two-dial system found in the Dungeon Master's Guide. For many DMs, these rules are too cumbersome to use and don't really balance encounters anyway even when you go through the trouble. The other official encounter balance rules come in an Unearthed Arcana on encounter building rules. These guidelines are much better, much easier to use, and accept the fact that, given the wide range of monster abilities within a given challenge rating, it's a loose guide at best.

There are other options as well. In the 2016 D&D Dungeon Master Survey, roughly 14% percent of respondents mentioned Kobold Fight Club as one of the top three best tools for running D&D games. It is a much easier way to use the calculations of the official rules to develop "balanced" encounters. We here at Sly Flourish wanted something a little simpler, something we could keep in our head. Thus we came up with our own encounter building guidelines as well.

There is another way we can build encounters, however. One that takes no math at all and is used by many DMs already, including Mike Mearls, the creative lead for Dungeons & Dragons. Here it is:

Choose monsters based on what makes sense for the scene and the story.

If the characters walk into the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, there will no doubt be a lot of frost giants there. They won't be conveniently split up into encounter-appropriate group sizes. If the characters kick open the doors during a frost giant feast, there will be a lot of frost giants in there. It doesn't matter if the characters are level 6 or level 16. We don't sit around with Kobold Fight Club and determine what the challenge level is. The giants are there because they should be there.

Let's look at another example. Maybe our level 8 characters are wandering through the streets of Hillsfar making sure that the recent political troubles haven't caused a crime wave. Sure enough, we see a band of ruffians breaking windows and ripping off fine dresses from Madame Yvoniva's Delights. If we're to use standard encounter building rules, we'd discover that we'll need some beefy NPCs to match up against a group of level 8 characters; swashbucklers, gladiators, master thiefs, and the like. But what the hell would gladiators, swashbucklers, and master thieves be doing running around the streets stealing dresses? How many swashbucklers and master thieves are there in Hillsfar? Wouldn't it be more likely to be a bunch of bandits?

Many times we DMs tend to build "appropriate" encounters without taking into consideration what is likely to be there. Bandits are likely. Gladiators and master thieves aren't likely.

There's nothing wrong with an encounter against a handful of bandits, even if they are way underpowered for the characters. It just makes sense that they'd be bandits. It also gives the characters a chance to shine against the typical riffraff of the seedy streets of Hillsfar.

If you're running a battle like this, you probably don't even need to break out the battle map and the miniatures. This is a fine time to consider running it using either a loose abstract map or the theater of the mind.

Giving Fair Warning for Deadly Fights

Sometimes, like in the example of the raid against the frost giants, things are way more dangerous than a gang of bandits. A party of level 6 characters is going to have a real hard time against twelve frost giants. In this circumstance, it behooves us DMs to give the characters fair warning. Sure, it might be obvious to you and, we can hope, to the players, but best to be sure. Players have a tendency to metagame things like this and might expect that we've somehow tuned the battle so they won't get wiped out. Of course, we have no intention of pulling punches if they do something stupid. Before they go kicking in the door, we might help them out a little bit by saying something like this:

"You believe this fight may be beyond you."

That's a powerful phrase using in-game language that gives the players fair warning that they might be facing a deadly encounter.

If you're running an entire campaign without generally tuning encounters around the level of the characters, you might want to say so right up front.

"The world does not conform to your level of power. Much will be less powerful than you, some will be more powerful than you. Heed this warning."

These warnings will help your players understand just how they will want to act in the world.

Quick Benchmarks for Encounter Difficulty

How do you know if an encounter is too hard and deserves this warning? We can use the basic formulas in our encounter building guidelines to gauge how hard a fight might be:

  • A monster with a CR of 1/4 the character's level is roughly balanced for two monsters per character.
  • A monster with a CR of 1/3 the character's level is roughly balanced for a single character.
  • A monster with a CR of 3/4 the character's level is roughly balanced for two characters.
  • A monster with a CR equal to a character's level is roughly balanced for four characters.

You can also simplify this further with the following rule of thumb:

Given an equal number of characters to monsters, a battle is considered deadly if the monster's CR is half of the character's level.

As we discuss in the encounter building guidelines, this can be affected by a whole lot of variables including how many battles the characters have faced previously, the circumstances of the battle, the delta in actions between characters in monsters, the synergy of the character classes, and the experience of the players. These are far from solid encounter balanced rules and much more loose rules of thumb to help us DMs understand what to expect when the characters kick in a door into a room full of frost giants.

What About Hordes of Monsters?

Sometimes the story calls for a fight against large mobs of monsters. For example, our band of adventurers finally pisses Strahd off enough that he sends an army of one hundred zombies to attack them. How do we run that?

Page 250 of the Dungeon Master's Guide gives us a set of guidelines for running large amounts of monsters against a smaller group of characters.

We've also built a handy mob combat calculator to give us the flexibility to run battles with any number of monsters we wish just for situations like this. If you're running more than a dozen monsters, consider using it to help you quickly adjudicate hits per character and the like.

With these mob rules in our toolbox we can run battles with anywhere from one to a thousand monsters. We can run any number of monsters based on what the story calls for.

"What Monsters Makes Sense?"

We DMs can make our lives unnecessarily hard. Figuring out what matters most to our games and eliminating what doesn't is the key to the way of the lazy dungeon master. Further, this elimination can actually make our games better at the same time.

Removing complicated encounter building rules and focusing on a single encounter building guideline of "choose monsters that make sense for the location and situation" is a perfect example of this simplification. It focuses our mind on the story and the situation instead of worrying about building perfectly balanced combat encounters. It builds dynamic play into the game by making scenes flexible depending on what happened before. It lets characters show off their powers against weaker foes and occasionally lets them get in over their heads and realize that the world does not conform to their level.

The next time you're sitting down to choose what monsters inhabit a location, skip the math and ask yourself, "what makes sense?".

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Awarding Magic Items in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

Sly Flourish - Mon, 07/31/2017 - 06:00
A Quick Checklist for Distributing Magic Items
  • Magic item rewards are an important part of D&D and worth our time to prepare.
  • Tie magic items to the story we create with our group; whether it's a short sword with a history or a quest for a holy warhammer.
  • Use magic items as vehicles for secrets and clues.
  • Write down useful and interesting magic item for each character on our campaign worksheet. When unsure, ask players what types of items they might like for their character.
  • Also use random loot tables from the Dungeon Master's Guide or donjon to bring in interesting and unexpected magic items into our campaign.
  • Equip villains with interesing magic items that the characters can win off of their smoking corpses.

Longer Thoughts on Distributing Magic Items

Prepare what bring the most enjoyment to the group.

That is the core mantra of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the philosophy that helps us focus our preparation of Dungeons & Dragons games on the things that matter the most and helps us avoid, or at least recognize, the elements of preparation that offer little value.

Magic items are important. Players love treasure. While we DMs tend to get wrapped up in the story we're sharing at the table (assuming we've already learned that the best stories unfold among the group at the table), tangible things make a big difference. Players focus on their characters. They love the mechanics. They love their own story. For the most part, players are fully responsible for the growth of their characters.

Magic items, however, have drastic effects on characters and magic item distribution lies completely in the hands of the dungeon master. Yet we dungeon masters might not be thinking about it at all.

Thinking about magic item rewards puts our minds back where we can bring the most fun to the game; by thinking about the characters.

For the scope of this article, we're going to focus on distributing permanent magic items. How characters handle money and more temporary magic items, such as single-use magic items, is an entirely different topic, one we won't be digging into here.

We might start with a solid review of the Dungeon Master's Guide to remind us what it says about treasure and magic items. Nearly a third of the book is dedicated to treasure so clearly the game designers knew how important magic items are to the joy of D&D. In particular, read the general distribution discussions on page 133 and 135 as well as how to manage magic item buying, selling, and crafting as a downtime activity on page 129 and 130. These descriptions are worth our time to read and review more than once.

I'm not particularly good about rewarding treasure so I went out to both Twitter and Facebook to get peoples' ideas for how best to manage treasure. I received about 60 replies which I categorized into a few different overarching themes. Below is a list of magic item distribution themes, the number of times that topic came up, and the count as a percent of the total. We cut off the list at anything less than four mentions.

Magic Item Distribution RecommendationsNumber of respondents% of posts Magic items are a vehicle for the story.1730% The DM selects magic items based on character backgrounds and capabilities.916% The DM randomly rolls for magic items.713% The characters acquire magic items from the hands of dead villains.47% The DM asks for a magic item wishlist from players.47%

We'll talk about each of these well-known techniques for distributing magic items below. Any one or more of these techniques can help us bring useful and meaningful loot to the characters in our games.

Magic Items as a Vehicle for the Story

Seventeen respondents to my query (30% of the total) described how magic items serve as hooks for the story of the game. This is a wonderful way to bring together the story we DMs love to tell and the magic items that can mean so much to players. The idea of joining stories to magic items comes in two directions: stories tied to magic items the characters acquire and stories that lead the characters to the magic items.

In the first, the characters discover items and these items have stories tied to them. Maybe it's a wand of lightning owned by the ancient dragon sorcerer Ixyvis, the great great grandmother if Iymrith. Whenever the wand is used, Iymrith feels it and learns where it was activated. Maybe it's a magical longsword known as "Command" found in an old temple to Xvym, the son of Bane. The Zhentarim had protected it as an artifact of their faith but since growing less formal, the blade became lost yet the Zhentarim of Dark Hold still seek it.

However we distribute these magic items, we can tie bits of stories to them. This works particularly well when we're writing down secrets and clues as we prepare our game. If we roll for random treasure and an Ebony Fly shows up, we can go to our list of secrets and clues and see that the fly was once a prized artifact of Wolfrund the Wise, leader of the Yellowtooth Wererats in the warrens near Skullport. Because secrets and clues aren't necessarily tied to particular sources, we can make the source the magic items that the characters recover.

The second way of tying stories to items is when the item itself is the fulcrum of a story. Wave, Whelm, and Blackrazor, for example, are the clear motivations for the exploration of White Plume Mountain. The characters learn about them before they even head in. Finding the Sunsword in Curse of Strahd becomes a quest unto itself when Madame Eva sends the characters to find the blade.

Building quests to retrieve powerful magic items is a solid hook almost guaranteed to interest players as long as these items seem useful to their characters and fit their backgrounds.

Whatever method we use to award magic items in our game, we can always find ways to tie them to the story in our game either through improvisation or with planning ahead of time.

Now lets look at some ways to actually distribute magic items in our games.

Selecting Loot Based on the Characters' Background

Nine respondents (16% of the total) to the question of loot talked about the DM selecting loot appropriate to the characters. In this method, the DM spends time ahead of the game studying the characters and finding items useful or of likely interest to that character. This requires time up front but, as we described earlier, time spent thinking about the characters is often time well spent.

We need not do this all the time, though, since rewarding magic items to characters in 5th edition happens roughly once every four or five levels. Each time we sit down to prepare our session, we might ask "what item might a particular character discover?" We can rotate through the list of our characters ensuring someone gets something useful to their character each session or so.

To make life easy, we can, during our first preparation step of looking over the characters, write down items we think will be meaningful to the characters on our campaign worksheet. We only have to write down one meaningful item per character and it will likely take us up to a dozen sessions to award them all. Once each character receives an item we might write down new ones. Over the course of a campaign, each character might only receive one to three such items but they will matter a whole lot.

Selecting Treasure Randomly

Seven respondents (13% the total) described the value in randomly selecting loot. This is, by far, the laziest way to distribute loot which we say with the utmost affection. The Dungeon Master's Guide provides wonderful tables for choosing loot; either by bundling together treasure hoards or by rolling on individual treasure tables to determine whats available. If you're lazy, numerous random treasure generators exist online. We're a fan of Donjon's Random Treasure Generator.

Choosing treasure randomly doesn't mean we can't tie meaningful stories to it. As we described earlier, if we're keeping our secrets and clues handy, we can tie a bit of history or a clue to the magic item found randomly in a hoard right at the table. It feels like magic when it works well ("How did he know we'd roll a flametongue sword and that it was one of the first weapons forged in the fires of Duke Zalto's forges?")

Acquiring Magic Items from Enemies

Four respondents (7% of the total) talked about players acquiring magic items from the cold dead hands of the villains they fight. Why would a death knight have a frostbrand greatsword in her treasure hoard and not use it herself? This requires more work up front by selecting treasure and putting it in the hands of the enemies ahead of time. It also requires more work from the DM to stat out the monster with the item. Typically this isn't too hard but sometimes it can make a big difference. If we're running a true arch villain, like Strahd or a deadly lich, we might want to consider what magic items they have collected in their long lives. Otherwise, this might end up being too much work.

For us lazy DMs, we might give major villains magic items but otherwise its too much trouble and players won't really notice if the monsters weren't using something they otherwise could.

Asking the Players for a Wish List

The subject of player wish lists came up by four respondents (7% of the total). In this method, we simply ask our players what they want and write down the results. A few DMs suggest, instead of asking for specific items, to ask about the general types of items players want for their characters. Instead of saying "I want a vorpal greatsword and a suit of +3 full plate" we might hear "greatswords and plate armor". That gives us enough to help us select meaningful loot without being so specific that the players aren't surprised by what they will get.

Using a Mix of Styles

There is no reason we DMs need to choose any one style over any other. All of these are available to us to use in any way we wish. We can, for example, use random loot most of the time, improvising interesting stories around what comes up with the dice along with keeping a list of key character-defining magic items we'll reward throughout the campaign. This list, of course, we might get after we've talked to the players about the types of items they want to get for their characters overall. Our villains, of course, will have their own magic items in hand.

Paying Attention to Loot

Whatever we do, we likely best serve the enjoyment of our players by paying attention to magic items. Memorable magic items are one of the many important things our players seek and remember as they travel through the story that unfolds at the table. Give magic items the attention they deserve.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Mob Damage Calculator for 5e Dungeons & Dragons

Sly Flourish - Mon, 07/24/2017 - 06:00
D&D 5e Mob Damage Calculator

Use this form to calculate the amount of damage inflicted to a character from a mob consisting of many monsters. See page 250 of the Dungeon Master's Guide for details. You can also use this form to see how many monsters in a mob save against an effect.

Target character armor class (or DC of effect used on the mob): Number of attacking creatures (or creatures within DC-based effect): Attack bonus of attacking creatures (or saving throw bonus of creature in mob) (note: don't add the "+"): Total damage of each attacking creature: Calculate function output(){ var ac = parseInt(document.getElementById('ac').value); var amount = parseInt(document.getElementById('amount').value); var attack = parseInt(document.getElementById('attack').value); var damage = parseInt(document.getElementById('damage').value); if (ac - attack > 20) { var avac = 20; } else { var avac = ac - attack; } pctMonstersThatHit = (21 - avac) / 20; numMonstersThatHit = Math.floor(pctMonstersThatHit * amount); totalDamage = numMonstersThatHit * damage; result = numMonstersThatHit + " monsters of " + amount + " (" + Math.floor(pctMonstersThatHit * 100) + "% of total) hit for a total of " + totalDamage + " damage.

If calculating for monster saving throws, " + numMonstersThatHit + " monsters of " + amount + " (" + Math.floor(pctMonstersThatHit * 100) + "%) make their saving throw."; document.getElementById('result').innerHTML = result; }

Typical battles in D&D have a group of characters, usually four to six, fighting a similar number of monsters; from one to maybe twelve or so. What if we want to run really huge battles where our characters face dozens, maybe hundreds of foes? How do we figure out all the math without rolling forty 1d20 rolls?

Page 250 of the Dungeon Master's Guide gives us a set of guidelines for running large amounts of monsters against a group of players. We can simplify things by using the calculator above. This form helps us determine how much damage a specific character will take when that character is attacked by a large group of creatures.

Likewise, there are times when characters might cast spells or use effects that forces a large group of monsters to make lots of saving throws. We can use the same form to figure out how many monsters will make their save when the monster group is hit with an effect that forces a saving throw.

Tracking Mob Hit Points and Damage

This abstraction for mob attacks and saving throws works well for large groups of monsters but what about tracking the hit points of the monsters in the mob? Is it really fun for melee characters if they can only attack one crawling claw at a time? Why can't they sweep away huge swathes of the things? How the hell do we efficiently track damage inflicted to thirty six ghouls?

We can steal the mook rule from 13th Age for this. Whenever the character inflicts damage to any one creature in a mob, any extra damage beyond the damage that drops a creature to zero hit points will carry over to another mob. If, for example, our fighter cleaves into a mob of crawling claws, inflicting 12 damage, he kills six crawling claws since each claw only has two hit points.

Obviously area attacks will be particularly effective against mobs. Since we're not likely to have one hundred crawling claw miniatures on a grid, we'll have to estimate how many monsters in a mob is hit by any given blast. 4x the number given in our guidelines for theater of the mind combat is a good start; about 16 for a fireball, 12 for a lightning bolt or burning hands. You can choose more or less depending on the circumstances and any bargaining ("sure, you can hit 30 of them but you have to drop the fireball on the whole party").

Many times, an area attack will kill any creature within the blast outright but sometimes we might actually have to track the damage done by an area attack. If the damage of a blast on a successful save is less than the amount of hit points of the creatures in the mob, we'll need to see how many in the mob makes their saving throw, as mentioned above.

If the creatures within a mob have hit points remaining after they take the damage of the spell, we can track it as we would normally.

If we want to simplify our damage tracking, we might use a hit point pool, another trick from 13th Age. Instead of applying damage to each creature individually, we can total the amount of damage the entire group within the blast took and figure out how many monsters that damage would have killed. For example, we're in a battle with twenty ogres (59 hit points each). Our wizard fireballs the ogres. We figure, based on the arrangement of the ogres, that he can hit sixteen of the twenty. He rolls his damage and it comes out to 30. 75% fail their saving throw (twelve of the sixteen). 12 times 30 (those that failed) is 360 plus 4 times 15 (those that saved) is another 60 for 420. The number of ogres killed by the blast is seven with seven damage remaining to one of the survivors.

Of course, this requires a bit of abstraction to explain why the other nine didn't take any damage even though they were within a fireball. That's the price of a hit point pool. If you plan to use it, its best to pull back the curtain and let the players know that you're using it, why you're using it, and how it works.

When we track this we track the number of monsters that are still alive and how much extra damage that group has taken. Any time it takes more than a single monster's hit points worth of damage, one of the monsters dies and we track the remainder. If enough damage is inflicted to kill more than one, we keep removing monsters and subtracting their hit points from the damage amount until the remainder is less than a single monster's worth of hit points. Thats the damage remainder.

Another Method, Reskinning Monsters Into Mobs

If all of this seems too complicated and you want another approach for handling battles against a huge number of foes, you can go with the method of reskinning a larger monster into a mob of smaller ones. We talked about this previously in Creating High Level Swarms in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. The short version is that you take a simple higher CR monster, like a giant, and describe it as a swarm of whatever monster you intended. You give it a couple of "swarm" traits to make it act more like a swarm and you're all set.

Using Mob Rules for Mass Combat

The Blog of Holding figured out that these mob rules can work well for mass combat as well. Using hit point pools for groups of monsters and using the mob damage and saving throw calculator, we could have a war between 100 skeletons, 50 guards, and 20 elven scouts. Each round, damage is applied to the group, so many are killed, and the amount of damage they inflict to the other side is reduced. We can take some lessons from the Unearthed Arcana Mass Combat Rules and have all of the damage applied at the same time rather than one group going before another to simulate the entire battle taking place. Personally, I'm not a fan of the rest of the UA mass combat rules but the mob rules work well in their place. With this system you could, for example, have an ancient red dragon fight one hundred hundred knights.

Compromises All Around

However we choose to deal with running large numbers of monsters against our group of characters, we'll have to make some compromises to abstract the battle. Either we're averaging out the number of hits a group of creatures will succeed with, we're adding significant amounts of time rolling for each creature, or we're bundling the creatures together into a bigger swarm-creature. None of these methods are perfect and its up to you and your group to find the method you all prefer.

Give them a shot.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Letting Go of Defined Encounters

Sly Flourish - Mon, 07/10/2017 - 06:00

The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons describes the core elements of the game as "exploration, interaction, and combat". In 4th edition, we spent a lot of time building clear "encounters" tuned in design and power to challenge our party of characters. Often the adventure revolved around these clearly defined battle arenas.

In 5e, combat can be less clearly defined. It can flow into the rest of the story of the game. It can spontanously erupt in a lot of different scenes, whether its random encounters or a negotiation gone bad. This gives us a lot of flexibility in how we build our games. We don't have to build clear definitions around combat, exploration, or interaction scenes. We can just build situations.

In fact, there are a lot of advantages to building scenes this way.

Tom Lommell, the Dungeon Bastard, discussed this topic in one of his excellent dis-organized play videos, referring to it as "Prepping Outcomes, Not Encounters". We can let go of our definitions for the types of scenes and define sitiuations and outcomes intead of clear combat encounters.

Here's an example.

In the adventure Legacy of the Crystal Shard, our heroes have an opportunity to deal with a pirate ship from Luskin called the Howling Fiend. In our old way of designing adventures, we might set up a series of well balanced encounters where the characters fight groups of pirates, pirate veterans, and the pirate captain along with her personal guard. We might have a scene where the characters meet with some drunken pirates who aren't happy with this whole situation in Icewind Dale and might be willing to negotiate. The characters might also explore some nearby caves that the villainous wizard Vaelish Gant had used to hold his hostage—the speaker of Bryn Shander.

There's another way we can handle this design though. Instead of breaking it down by scene and encounter, we just build the situation. The docked the Howling Fiend in a huge glacial overhang along Lac Dinneshere. There's a crack in the glacier overhang that leads up to the surface and a guard posted there who can collapse the ice above and seal off this entryway if need be. There's some caves carved out of the ice that Vaelish Gant has used for his own personal chambers when he's not busy pulling some politics at Bryn Shander. He also has the speaker of Bryn Shander tied up there. There are a bunch of ramshackle huts built on an iceflow down by the water's edge and a winding path to an overlook near the crack that leads up to the surface.

Our pirates include two dozen bandits, a bandit captain, a gladiator, and a mage. The captain and her barbarian gladiator bodyguard often oversee repairs to the ship and shipments being moved from the iceflow to the ship. At any given time there are a dozen pirates on the iceflow, another half dozen up along the overlook and the guard post, and a half dozen sleeping one off either on the ship or in the huts.

We can add in some nice details like a teleportation circle used by Gant in his cave, a frozen body in the ice with its hand out that may not be as dead as it looks, a store of booty aboard the ship, some explosives the pirates planned to use to cause trouble to Ten Towns, and some other fun things.

There are no defined "encounters" for this situation. There is only the situation. It's up to the players to choose how their characters deal with this situation. They might use stealth to sneak in and assassinate as many pirates as they can. They might negotiate their way in disguised as pirates or barbarian mercenaries or something. They might just decide to go in with swords drawn and hope for the best. They might sneak in through the crack in the glacial wall or come in on a boat painted black. Who knows!

Rather than defining the scene, we DMs can instead develop situations with lots of options, lots of hooks, and lots of interesting things the characters can interact with. The video game Dishonored did a great job building scenes like this. In Dishonored you had lots of options in any given scene. You could fight your way in, you could mind-control one of the guards, you could stealth around, or you could turn into a rat and go through the sewers. The scenes weren't built expecting any given course of action. Some courses might be a real bitch and others might be the easier path but all of them were options.

In general, scenes should have a few different ways the characters can interact with it. You nerds out there might consider this the scene's API—the interface between the world and the characters. We have a few big interfaces between characters and the world: skills, combat abilities, backgrounds, and spells. We don't have to build environments with specific hooks for all of these but it helps us keep a few in mind so we know the scene won't be a complete dud. If we build a scene that looks like a set for American Gladiator but none of the characters are particularly athletic or acrobatic, that might not be a lot of fun. Likewise, if we take our group of five barbarians with an average charisma of 8 into the wedding reception of the duke's daughter, that might not be a lot of fun for folks.

It's better when we design scenes with lots of options and lots of complications. Here's another example:

The wedding of the duke's daugther is rumored to be the site of an assassination attempt by the Order of the Black Kris. The wedding is taking place in the temple of Oslandia built near the little-known cliff-side ruins of the dark temple of Avrix. All the well-to-do members of the city will be there, including likely the unknown leader of the Black Kris, whose agents will probably be in hiding somewhere within the ruins. The duke himself has hired the Red Fist mercenary company as his bodyguards, the very group that Volund, the fighter of one of our players, left a decade earlier under bad circumstances.

Now we have lots of hooks. There are options for a bunch of skills including history, athletics, acrobatics, performance, persuasion, intimidation. There's room for combat, both with the Red Fist mercenaries and the Black Kris assassins. There's even a hook to one of the PC's backgrounds.

This is a pretty robust scene, and might even take up an entire adventure. Not all of our scenes need to be this big in scope and detail but any of our larger scenes will benefit from including all of these potential hooks.

Avoiding the Single Roll Failure

When we build a situation like this, we have to be careful not to let a single roll completely ruin the situation or, by default, drop it right into combat. We can see how a bad roll in either the ship infiltration situation or the wedding situation could send the whole scene tumbling towards mass bloodshed. We don't want that to happen, at least not righ t away. We need to keep the idea of "failing forward" nearby. Just as no single attack roll usually determines the success or failure of an entire fight, no single skill roll should determine the entire outcome for a whole big scene. Instead, it could be a whole pile of skill checks that move the needle one way or another or steer the whole path that the scene takes. When we run scenes like this, we need to keep in mind that we can't leap to pure sucesses or failures and instead let each roll nudge the scene down one path or another. It's harder to do but builds much more rewarding scenes.

Breaking Away From Assumptions

All of this is part of our exercise to break away from our own assumptions about how a game is going to go. 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. Give it a try.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

DM's Deep Dive with Tom Lommel on Improvisation

Sly Flourish - Mon, 07/10/2017 - 06:00

This past month on the DM's Deep Dive Tom Lommel, AKA the Dungeon Bastard, discussed the topic of improvisation and D&D.

In a recent query of both Twitter and Facebook, creativity, flexibility, and improvisation topped out a list of the most valued D&D Dungeon Master traits. As a professional actor with a heavy focus on D&D, I sought out Tom to help us unravel the topic of improvisation, how we do it, and how we can get better at it.

Here's the Youtube video of our conversation:

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During this episode we cover many topics including:

  • The Dungeon Bastard, his day job, and his approach towards D&D.
  • We're always improvising. D&D, at its core, is a game about improv. It's just how much improv.
  • Improv isn't just the funny voices.
  • Tom's three dirty tricks:
    • "No, but" instead of "Yes, and".
    • Pick one weird tick or detail for an NPC. Does the NPC always scratch his right eye when he talks? Does he refer to everyone as "ma'am"?
    • Prepare for improvisation.
  • Plot radars and Schroedinger's clues.
  • Tips for improvisation during tense moments.
  • Improv difficulty with homebrew versus published adventures.
  • Books for good improv: Dungeon World, Fate Core, Fiasco
  • What we think about Storm King's Thunder.

Other Related Links:

If you like the show, you can watch other episodes of the Deep Dive on Youtube or subscribe to the DM's Deep Dive podcast.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Dwarven Forge Buyer's Guide

Sly Flourish - Mon, 07/03/2017 - 06:00

Note: This article is an update from the original published in June 2010 and offers recommendations for the ongoing Dwarven Forge Dungeon of Doom Kickstarter.

One of the interesting things about the hobby of Dungeons & Dragons is the extreme range of the cost to play. Essentially, this range goes from zero to almost infinity. I'd estimate that the average is about $100 for players and $200 for DMs, though.

We'll be talking more about how to play D&D for nothing (or very cheap) in the future. This article, however, goes the other direction; into one of the higher potential costs in our hobby: 3D terrain. In particular, we'll be looking at the best 3D terrain available for tabletop fantasy gaming: Dwarven Forge.

The Dungeon of Doom Kickstarter

At the time of this writing, Dwarven Forge has launched their fifth Kickstarter for the Dungeon of Doom and it includes many of the core pieces I recommend in this article. Getting these pieces through Kickstarter is the most cost effective way to pick these pieces up. Later in this article we have a recommendation list of items from this Kickstarter for those who don't yet have any Dwarven Forge pieces.

Other Wallet-Friendly Options

A solid set of Dwarven Forge dungeon pieces runs about $300 to $500 on the low end. If this cost is too high, there are many more affordable options for D&D battle maps. Take a look at our Battle Map Comparisons guide or, if you want to go really cheap, consider running combat in the theater of the mind. In my opinion, Theater of the Mind is the most cost effective and flexible way to play D&D and doesn't cost a penny.

A Single viewpoint from Nine Years of Experience

This review comes from about nine years of experience with Dwarven Forge products, including products from all four of their previous Kickstarters and a bunch of their resin-based products before they came up with Dwarvenite. Its based on its use at hundreds of games, most at home but some at local game shops as well.

However, these experiences are really just a single view. Our recommendations here fit a particular philosophy and that philosophy may be very different for other collectors. Our goal for this guide is to focus on the most useful, versatile, cost-effective, and easy to set up pieces. We can break this down into two other ideas:

Get big pieces that matter.

Focus on a few versatile pieces and get a lot of them.

Many other collectors enjoy building out very large arrangements with lots of amazing details. Roads, sewers, houses, and hamlets; Dwarven Forge sells products for all of these areas and they look amazing. This variety comes with a cost beyond money though. It also comes at the cost of space (this stuff takes up a lot of room) and versatility ("nah, the sewers sound nasty. Maybe we'll go somewhere else."). Good solid dungeon pieces, however? We can use these things just about anywhere.

A Focus on the Dungeon

For this article we're primarily going to focus on the core dungeon sets. Dwarven Forge also makes excellent cavern and city sets along with a castle set that will soon be available on their website and was the focus of their 2015 Kickstarter. These sets are wonderful but not as versatile as the core dungeon sets. Dungeon walls fit just about anywhere but castle walls really only work with castles, towns, and the like.

Core Pieces

The original Dwarven Forge Kickstarter focused on three primary components: the wall, the floor, and the corner. With enough of these three pieces we can make a nearly infinite variety of rooms, passages, and corridors. We can build small rooms inside of bigger rooms or rooms with walls that act as cover. Though it seems like these three pieces alone wouldn't be enough, we can do a lot with them. How many is enough? Probably two to three sets with a minimum of 12 corners, 28 walls, and 24 floors. That's enough to build out two or three big rooms or three to five smaller rooms with halls and passages and the like.

I'm going to add two more core components to this list of primary pieces: cubes and large floors.

One major advantage of Dwarven Forge is the added dimension of height. We can make this even better by using things like 2" cubes to elevate parts of our dungeons including platforms, altars, sniper positions, and other interesting parts that stick up from the flat floor. The two-inch Dwarven Forge cubes are perfect for this. The Dungeon of Doom Kickstarter includes a 15 cube add-on pack. Otherwise, the only way to get these cubes is as part of the Dwarven Forge Caverns set which look more naturally formed than what we might want in a dungeon.

Bigger floors are also a wonderful and useful piece for building rooms quickly. The 4x6 floors work very well to fill out a room or build a platform.

With walls, corners, 2x2 floors, large floors, and 2 inch cubes; we can built all sorts of amazing halls, rooms, and chambers with elevated platforms, altars, and interesting places for our characters to explore.

A Kickstarter 5 Dungeon of Doom Shopping List

If one is just getting into Dwarven Forge, the Dungeon of Doom Kickstarter is a great way to get into it. The fine folks at Dwarven Forge have this guide for new customers that gives an excellent overview of the Kickstarter and the Dwarven Forge pieces themselves including solid recommendations for new backers.

Here are my own personal recommendations:

Zaltar's Gameroom: Lots of neat pieces including big 2x4 doors and archways and a 4x4 floor. Neat light-up wall pieces with both torches and green glowing snake things, a very cool throne, and lots of other small accessories. This counts as the "level 1" dungeon so it gets you some stretch goals and avoids the $10 fee for going add-on only.

2x Classic Dungeon Remastered Set: A good price for the classic pieces. 30 walls, 16 corners, and 30 floors is enough to build out a lot of great rooms and hallways. You won't fill out an entire table but you can build two or three great chambers or a bunch of smaller ones.

Large Floors: A big 8x8 floor and four 4x4 floors. Hard to say whether its better to get the marble ones or the red ones. If you can afford both, you'll have a LOT of great floors.

Epic Stairs: Nice big stairs that let characters clearly move from one level to another. These will see a lot of use.

Large Curved Walls: Big walls to drop down and build a big room really quickly. This isn't a must-have either but they'll probably see a lot of use if we get them.

Spacer Cubes: An elevation add-on pack includes 15 cubes designed with dungeon bricks and red pillars. These are perfect for standing up platforms, altars, or other multi-level dungeons.

Elevation Platform: A cool way to elevate a huge part of the dungeon to build a two-level huge chamber. Also looks like a great way to transport your stuff around in between games. A bit on the pricey side so more of a nice-to-have. This is somewhat of an unknown.

There are lots of other great options in this Kickstarter as well, including the incredible Forsaken Temple pieces, but above we focused on the main pieces to build the widest range of dungeon chambers. They're intended to be versatile and easy and quick to set up. Keep in mind that new add-ons are released every day so its worth checking the Kickstarter to the last minute to see what looks good.

Filling Out the Dungeon With Flair

Filling out our dungeon rooms with cool accessories will really make them unique and fantastic. Dwarven Forge themselves have wonderful light-up accessories to fill out a room but we can also pick these up as Reaper Bones or even model train or aquarium accessories. Recently Wizkids Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons miniatures have started including dungeon accessories and decorations as well which can sometimes be picked up on the secondary market.

Like our philosophy of focusing on important versatile pieces, we can choose the accessories we're likely to use a lot. Here's a short example list:

  • Braziers (light-up ones are great).
  • Sarcophagi
  • Altars
  • Statues (unpainted miniatures work great)
  • Decorated Pillars
  • Floor Runes and Glyphs (cardboard or plastic dungeon tiles work well)

One good rule of thumb for picking up accessories is to ask "can the characters actually do something with this?" If its merely decoration, we can probably skip buying it, but if its something that characters can actually interact with, or something that will interact with the characters, that can be a nice aid to pick up.

Unpainted miniatures can make for great statues to fill out a dungeon as well.

Mixing Our Media

One great way to make the most use out of Dwarven Forge is to mix it with our 2D battle maps as well, such as Paizo's Pathfinder Flip Mats. We can use four corner pieces to make a small 3D building on a town map, for example, or use the elevation blocks to build a small ziggurat in the center of a forest. With a four-inch piece of card board we can build square towers out of corner and wall pieces. We can use some 2" blocks and floors to build an elevated platform on one part of the map. Even just throwing out some wall pieces onto a battlefield can add some interesting cover for characters to hide behind.

Not a Necessity but a Wonderful Aid

Our Kickstarter recommendation above runs about $500. That's not cheap. If this is outside of your price range, fear not. When we think about the joy we get playing D&D, accessories like Dwarven Forge can definitely add to the experience but they aren't required. We can have a whole lot of fun playing D&D with hand-drawn maps on a flip mat or even completely in the Theater of the Mind. We're also not including the high cost of miniatures in any of this discussion; thats a whole other topic.

That said, for people who are really into this hobby of ours and have the income to spend on things like this, there is no better tabletop dungeon accessory than Dwarven Forge.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Top Traits of a Good Dungeon Master

Sly Flourish - Mon, 06/19/2017 - 06:00

On 9 May 2017, I posted a note to both Twitter and Facebook asking for, in one or two words, the three most important traits for a good D&D dungeon master. This returned roughly 162 total responses. I took these responses and performed some text mining using Python to normalize the results and help us find the most valued traits among these responses.

Below is a list of the top 30 traits along with the number of times they came up across the 162 results.

TermFrequency% of Responses flexible / adaptable5936.4% creative3823.5% improvisational2716.7% fair2113.0% fun2012.3% patience148.6% prepared148.6% listener106.2% says yes84.9% conversant74.3% collaborative74.3% enthusiasm63.7% storyteller63.7% knowledgeable63.7% empathy53.1% skills53.1% rules42.5% ability42.5% facilitator42.5% cooperative42.5% humor42.5% clear42.5% quick31.9% bodycount31.9% organization31.9% love31.9% understanding31.9% persistence31.9% translator31.9% thinking31.9% consistent31.9%

You'll notice that we grouped "flexible" and "adaptable" together into one group since it's hard to see a difference between the two words. You might also note that these aggregates include many variants of the same words; it's not just a pure text match. Finally, you can see that the percentages add up to greater than 100%. This is due to each response containing more than one result.

A Quantified View of Valued DM Traits

An analysis like this gives us a powerful tool to understand the topic of good DMing. Any single opinion on the topic is just one point of information. When we group these opinions together, we start to get a wider view of what matters to people. It's not perfect, but, like Amazon star ratings on products, we're more likely to get an accurate view of a topic the more people weigh in. This is why I find the results of the 2016 DM Survey so interesting. We all have opinions on Theater of the Mind versus gridded combat and organized play versus home games. It's different when we can see the aggregate of these opinions. It isn't definitive, but it gives us a wider view than the flawed simulation of the world constantly going on in our own individual heads.

Flexible, Creative, and Improvisational

These responses are very telling when we take a good look at them. We can surmise, for example, that being flexible is twenty times more valued (according to this analysis) than being consistent (a common trait often mentioned as a virtue for organized play, for example). Paying attention to the percentage shows us how highly valued the top responses are compared to the rest. For example, the first item, being flexible and adaptable, was nearly 10x more valued than 11th, being enthusiastic.

This gives us a good idea where we might focus our attention and share our most valued experiences. In particular, when looking at the top three, improvisation seems to have a strong connection to being flexible, adaptable, and creative. From this, I would argue that, among all of the best skills, the msot important skill we can improve is our ability to improvise at the table.

You'll see more on improvisation in the days to come on Sly Flourish based on these results.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Streaming D&D Full Time with Will Jones

Sly Flourish - Mon, 06/12/2017 - 06:00

In May 2017 on the DM's Deep Dive I spoke to Will Jones of Encounter Roleplay who plays D&D full time on Twitch professionally. For us old timers who barely have a handle on what Twitch is, this is a fascinating look into the world of streaming D&D online.

According to a recent analysis of over one million tweets tagged with #dnd, from 2015 to 2017, use of the #dnd hashtag grew at roughly 10% a month. In the first five months of 2017 alone, it's grown roughly 30%. Many attribute this growth to the growth of the D&D streaming community, which manifested in full force at the recent Stream of Annhiliation event in late May 2017. This conversation with Will Jones gives us a wonderful window into this new way to enjoy this hobby of ours.

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Our conversation covers a wide range of topics such as how he got started in streaming, how to cultivate a streaming community, how to get enough material to run so much D&D, how to run a D&D game for 125 people (yes, that's not a typo), how to get started streaming your games, thoughts on games designed for streaming, running theater of the mind on streaming shows, and how some old grognards are a bunch of assholes.

If you want to get a glimpse of Will's work, he recommends this stream of his Curse of Strahd game.

You can watch the video on Youtube or listen and subscribe to the podcast at the DM's Deep Dive homepage.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Villains of Storm King's Thunder: Iymrith

Sly Flourish - Mon, 06/05/2017 - 06:00

There are a number of villains in the published adventure Storm King's Thunder but few are as interesting and as as central to the storyline as the ancient blue dragon, Iymrith, the Doom of the Desert.

Today we're going to dig deep into this powerful villain, both in her background and story as well as her unique powers and ways to ensure she is as dangerous a foe as she should be. Much in the way we looked at running Strahd von Zarovich we're going to look at her tactics and enhance her powers to ensure that even the most well optimized party of adventurers will remember they've been in a fight when they face her.

Though this article focuses on Iymrith as a central villain in Storm King's Thunder, you can place Iymrith in your own homebrew campaign if you prefer or use this article as a wrapper for a blue dragon sorcerer of your own choosing in your own stories. You don't need to run Storm King's Thunder to get a great villain out of this draconic blue horror.

Do Our Homework

Fifteen years ago, Ed Greenwood wrote an article for the D&D website entitled Iymrith, "The Dragon of the Statues". This 4,000 word article covers Iymrith's vast history and outlines her unique powers, her motivations, her tactics, and her vast lair in Anauroch known as the Nameless City. This article gives us tons of material we can use in our own game. We could run a huge adventure as our characters explore the Nameless City and face the defenses she has put into place before they dive into her hidden shrines and laboratories beneath the blowing sands.

Bring Iymrith Into the Story Early

Just like Strahd, we can foreshadow Iymrith's presence in a bunch of different ways. For example, we can drop a powerful magic item into the hands of the characters early on, a wand of lightning for example. Her connection to the wand lets Iymrith scry on the characters her own enjoyment. The characters can get all sorts of premonitions that they're being watched, seeing themselves within the orb of a crystal ball with a draconic claw swirling over the top of it. They might feel the spectral presence of a dragon flowing over them when they use the item and hearing the words "I see you" in draconic.

For some great fun, Iymrith might show up at other inopportune times, perhaps as a high class gambler on the Grand Dame, secretly meeting with Lord Drylund in order to pass messages to Slarkrethel, the Kraken. If there's ever a potential chance Iymrith might show up, it's always worth considering dropping her in.

Iymrith's Motivations

As always, a good villain needs a strong motivation. Here's one example motivation we can use for Iymrith that expands on her background in Storm King's Thunder.

Though she didn't directly partake in the Rise of Tiamat, Iyrmith took the Dragon Queen's defeat poorly. She sought vengeance against the smallfolk who broke the plan and saw the breaking of the Ordening of the giants as a way to bring chaos to the Sword Coast and the North. Iymrith herself is descended from a powerful dragon sorcerer who battled the giants during the Thousand Year War. Like her bloodline, Iymrith always seeks to disrupt the kingdom of giants in all forms.

Iymrith is the orchestrator of the shattering of the Ordening, planting poisoned seeds into the minds of the leaders of the Storm Giants and ultimately leading to the kidnapping of King Hekaton and the assassination of his wife. Iymrith allied with the ancient kraken Slarkrethel, a being even she fears, to complete this plot.

Iymrith is quite pleased with how things are going and, after the fall of Tiamat to a band of adventurers, she worries that meddlesome heroes might break her plot as well. Once the characters learn of the truth of the Ordening at the Eye of the All Father, they cease to be an amusement to her and she treats them as a threat, sending assassins both from her personal band of dragon cultists and members of the Kraken Society after them. She may face them herself from time to time as well if she can find them in time.

Iymrith, however, has one great fear. Klauth. The two dragons, both powerful spellcasters on top of their draconic heritage, are nearly evenly matched and both dragons know it. Both prefer to watch their plots unfold from afar and neither seeks to confront the other. For this reason, Iymrith is not likely to directly attack the characters if she feels that Klauth might protect them.

Empowering Iymrith

When we challenge a powerful party with Iymrith, we want to consider carefully how she might defend herself. Against a powerful group of characters run by skilled players, we DMs are always at a disadvantage and it isn't impossible that we see a mighty villain like Iymrith fall much more quickly than the story should allow.

The following suggestions are intended to make Iymrith the powerful foe she deserves to be and are intended to challenge five or six strong high level characters run by smart and skilled players. Against smaller parties of characters who might not be quite as powerful run by players who are not as tactically minded, this could quickly be a total party kill. Keep in mind that this version of Iymrith isn't "balanced" at all. There's no applicable CR.

Iymrith uses the optional rules in the Monster Manual for draconic spellcasters with one difference. Though her challenge rating as a default dragon does not give her access to ninth level spells, she does, in fact, have them. Her vast intellect as a dragon gives her nearly unlimited access to spells so don't be afraid to give her whatever spell you think she needs at the moment. In fairness, we can keep an eye on what spell slots she uses but we shouldn't worry too much about what spells she has prepared and just use what works for the moment. This gives her the impression of being incredibly well prepared with a nearly bottomless depth of magical experience.

Iymrith has carefully scribed her scales with arcane power giving her the equivalent of robes of the archmagi. This gives her +2 to her spell DCs, spell attacks, and saving throws as well as advantage on any save versus magical effects. She also wears a ring of mind shielding primarily to let her deal with Slarkrethal and his psionic powers.

Arcane Feedback: Iymirth has a particularly nasty version of counterspell that acts like counterspell but also inflicts 21 (7d6) psychic damage against the spellcaster. Like any legendary spellcaster, Iymirth must make the choice for whether to use shield or arcane feedback using her reaction. This decision mostly comes down to the threat she faces, either a tricky spellcaster or a powerful melee or ranged attacker. Like counterspell, this can be cast at higher levels, inflicting an extra 3 (1d6) psychic damage for every level above 4th.

Force Burn: (Recharge 5,6) Iymirth has spent centuries perfecting this incredibly powerful attack, one that opens up the weave of arcane magic into beams of raw magical energy. Iymrith can fire three beams up to 100 feet and may choose a single creature for all three or split the beams up among up to three creatures. She makes a spell attack against each creature and, on a hit, each beam inflicts 70 (20d6) force damage and the target loses 1d4 spell slots beginning with lower level spell slots and working up.

Quick Casting: Iymrith can use a legendary action to cast a cantrip or first level spell. She can use two legendary actions to cast a second or third level spell. Iymrith is capable of casting multiple spells in a single round without restriction.

In her lair, Iymrith has a pair of stone golems that include the bound ability of the shield guardian and thus can transfer half the damage done to her to one of the stone golems if the golem is within 50 feet. These golems are shaped like huge gargoyles, can fly 60 feet, and have the maximum hit points for a stone golem (255).

The Unnamed City, A High Level Dungeon Crawl

Iymrith has lairs everywhere but her primary lair is within a lost Netherese city on the north-western edge of Anauroch. Greenwood's article on Iymrith has some fantastic ideas we can use to build a vast lair for the dragon, one the characters can dive into and explore for many sessions of we so choose. Here are some highlights:

  • Ancient Netherese temples.
  • Gargoyle spies and guardians.
  • Vast tunnels below.
  • A broken mage tower.
  • Super-accurate stone-hurling trebuchets.
  • Giant draconic statues which Iymrith can possess.
  • Bedine tribal worshippers.
  • Floating bodies of draconic stone forms.

We can combine many of these features into a city filled with ancient ruins and dark secrets that must be uncovered before a group of powerful adventurers can face Iymrith herself in her lair.

A Great Villain for a Long Campaign

When we're running a long campaign like Storm King's Thunder, it helps both us and our players when there's a clear villain working against the characters. While she might not be notable to a party of local adventurers saving the villagers of Night Stone from goblins, heroes of note will soon come to her attention and their attention might soon focus on her. The earlier we can bring Iymrith into the story, the sooner our party can enjoy this great threat to the North.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Hero Kids Character Sheets

Roving Band of Misfits - Tue, 05/23/2017 - 19:31

I love Hero Kids. My kids love Hero Kids. We’ve been playing for years, and we’re still going strong in our Bayhaven campaign. It’s gotten to the point where my kids want to include their friends in the game from time to time. I’m happy to do this because Hero Kids is such a simple system to teach and use.

But there’s this one thing. It’s small, but whenever I teach the game, the kids always get hung up on it. And it’s this rule: Whenever you make a skill check, you roll 1d6, and add d6’s based upon your skill proficiency and the related attribute. So a Dexterity (Stealth) check starts with 1d6, and then the player would add their Dexterity dice, and a d6 if they were trained in Stealth. Easy, right? But kids always get hung up on that first, free d6. Why do they get it when they roll a skill, but not an attack? It’s hard to explain because there’s no in-game reason for it. On the base game character sheets, every character gets one skill, and one inventory item. So players don’t realize that they actually have one die in every skill, and two dice in the pictured skill. And they don’t realize that other inventory items are available to them.

Then I realized that if I could illustrate it in the form of “just another dice pool,” and include all available inventory items as pictures, it would be easier. And so, this new character sheet was born. I ran over to the awesome, free repository at, and pulled some icons that would serve my purpose. Then, I did a little gimp-fu, and basic layout, and voila. A new character sheet design. I translated all 10 of the characters from the base game into the new format, plus threw in some blank sheets with instructions on creating a character. And made it form-fillable!

You can check out the new character sheets at Drive Thru RPG. If you already have the Bayhaven Ultimate bundle or the Starter Pack bundle, you’ll pay far less than $1 for the new character sheets.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Analyzing the Best D&D Advice

Sly Flourish - Mon, 05/22/2017 - 06:00

On 4 May 2017, Gill Sulivan posted a topic to the popular Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Facebook group asking for the best D&D advice in four words or less. This resulted in over 1,400 responses.

Rather than read all 1400 responses, we can process, extrapolate, and normalize them to identify common trends. Like our 2016 Dungeon Master Survey and our Analysis D&D Twitter Community, we can get quantitative information on the most popular advice D&D enthusiasts have to offer.

This article summarizes the results from the processed and analyzed text of the 1,400 responses to the request for the best D&D advice in four words or less.

Top Three or Four Word Statements

We'll start with the most useful look. Here's a list of common advice given three times or more along with the number of times these statements were given and their percentage of total responses.

  • dont split the party (21, 1.4%)
  • always check for traps (20, 1.4%)
  • dont be a dick (11, 0.8%)
  • dont eat yellow snow (11, 0.8%)
  • trust the dm (7, 0.5%)
  • its just a game (6, 0.4%)
  • dont trust the dm (6, 0.4%)
  • roll with it (5, 0.3%)
  • always have fun (5, 0.3%)
  • always go left (5, 0.3%)
  • always have a healer (4, 0.3%)
  • when in doubt fireball (4, 0.3%)
  • remember to have fun (4, 0.3%)
  • try not to die (3, 0.2%)
  • dont roll a one (3, 0.2%)
  • dont wake the dragon (3, 0.2%)
  • be a team (3, 0.2%)
  • beware the smiling dm (3, 0.2%)
  • its only a game (3, 0.2%)
  • kill it with fire (3, 0.2%)
  • always trust a flumph (3, 0.2%)
  • just roll with it (3, 0.2%)
  • dont trust the rogue (3, 0.2%)
  • check for mimics (3, 0.2%)
  • protect the cleric (3, 0.2%)
  • just have fun (3, 0.2%)
  • expect the unexpected (3, 0.2%)
  • its probably a mimic (3, 0.2%)

We get this list by normalizing words, looking for three- and four-word phrases (called ngrams) without removing common words (called stopwords), and normalizing the word "never" (used 79 times) to "dont" (used 252 times). We also cleaned it up into sentences that made sense. That's probably the best list of responses we're going to get.

We can dig a bit deeper, though, by looking at top words, bigrams, and trigrams.

Top Words

The following is a list of the top 100 words given in the 1,453 responses:

dont (252, 17.3%), always (152, 10.5%), never (79, 5.4%), dm (79, 5.4%), fun (58, 4.0%), check (47, 3.2%), trust (45, 3.1%), first (40, 2.8%), party (36, 2.5%), just (35, 2.4%), kill (35, 2.4%), go (35, 2.4%), trap (34, 2.3%), dragon (32, 2.2%), roll (31, 2.1%), get (28, 1.9%), eat (27, 1.9%), game (26, 1.8%), play (26, 1.8%), make (25, 1.7%), split (25, 1.7%), die (24, 1.7%), player (24, 1.7%), cleric (24, 1.7%), bring (22, 1.5%), let (22, 1.5%), healer (20, 1.4%), advice (19, 1.3%), good (19, 1.3%), mimic (19, 1.3%), try (19, 1.3%), rogue (19, 1.3%), fireball (18, 1.2%), run (18, 1.2%), thats (18, 1.2%), fuck (18, 1.2%), everything (17, 1.2%), dice (16, 1.1%), keep (16, 1.1%), one (16, 1.1%), word (15, 1.0%), take (14, 1.0%), doubt (14, 1.0%), dick (14, 1.0%), rule (13, 0.9%), cast (13, 0.9%), listen (13, 0.9%), look (13, 0.9%), touch (13, 0.9%), loot (12, 0.8%)

Not entirely useful although we can see some interesting trends.

Word Graphs

By connecting every pair of words, once common words are removed, we can build a graph of the connections of words. The following image represents a graph of word connections for every word pair that appeared two or more times. This results in a graph of 241 words and 251 word-connections. Click on it to get a high resolution version.

Specific Word Graphs

We can take this graph and break it down into those that contain the top four words found across all 1,400 resposes. Here are the word graphs for "dont", "always", "never" and "dm". These graphs are limited to two or more connections between words.

What can we Learn From This?

What does all of this tell us? First, it's interesting that 23% of tips told us NOT to do something (don't / never). Is being a good DM or player more a matter of what we don't do instead of what we do do?

There's also a lot of folks who didn't take this too seriously, so neither should we. How much yellow snow do we actually come across in our D&D games? Always checking for traps and never splitting the party is sound advice and not a surprise (cheers to the the central limit theorem!). Not eating things in general is also good advice. Never trusting the DM is interesting and probably fair. A good DM telegraphs this trust, though. Sometimes we should trust the DM, sometimes not.

Even if this is a bit of a silly exercise, its always interesting to see how people reply to questions like this.

How I Did This Analysis

For this analysis, I copied and cleaned up the list of 1,453 total responses in the Facebook thread. I cleaned it up with a mixture of Sublime regular expressions and Python using Python Anaconda and Jupyter which comes in Anaconda. The text processing was all done with Python Anaconda, the NLTK library, and Jupyter. The word graphs were built using R Studio and the iGraph library.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Thoughts on Exploration

Sly Flourish - Mon, 05/15/2017 - 06:00

The fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons describes three main types of gameplay in the game: exploration, roleplaying, and combat.

Combat is probably the most well refined part of the game. We generally know how it is going to work, whether we run combat on a grid or using theater of the mind. Turn order is solid, there are lots of known mechanics at play. When a battle start in D&D, most DMs and players know what they're supposed to do.

Roleplaying is also relatively well understood, though not as refined as combat. Roleplaying tends to either focus on our ability to roleplay at the table or by rolling persuasion, deception, performance, or intimidation checks. Usually it's a mix of the two. DMs can probably figure out how to run a roleplay scene without much trouble. They might have a flowchart of possible outcomes or they might step inside of the character and play from their motivations and knowledge—an approach we prefer here at Sly Flourish.

Exploration, however, feels like the least well defined portion of our game and, potentially, also the largest part of the game. Exploration might be everything from describing a month-long journey on the high seas, a ten-week travel along the High Road, or a minute-by-minute journey exploring the ruins of Tamoachan.

How exactly does exploration work? What should DMs do when running scenes of exploration? What system surrounds it? These are all hard questions we're going to dig into today.

It's All About Discovery

The key to exploration is the word "discovery". Exploration is all about the characters discovering things. This might be learning the layout of a dungeon. It might be uncovering the secret to defeating the stone giant lich. It might be learning the 30,000 year history of the war between dragons and giants (and why they should care about it). Exploration is about learning things and uncovering things. It's about seeing things that haven't been seen before.

Dungeons make great environments for discovery because every room is a new opportunity. This is why a 50 foot empty room is so terrible; it was a chance at discovery and ended up being a room full of nothing. Just like in White Plume Mountain, every room should have its own story to tell and hide its own clues to discover.

When we're thinking about how to fill in our exploration scenes, we can start by asking ourselves a simple question: what might the characters discover?

Examples from Film

We need look no further than some of our favorite movies to fire up ideas for exploration. Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably the best example, along with being one of the best (maybe the best?) movies of all time. I sent out a query to Twitter asking for movies that exemplify the exploration and discovery of D&D. Here were some repeated answers and how often they were mentioned:

Not all of these movies are obvious exploration movies and not all of them are actually good movies, but they all do their part to show people exploring things.

Fantastic Locations, Secrets, and Clues

We've talked at length about the value of fantastic locations. We even wrote a book with twenty fantastic locations you can drop into your game. Exploration and discovery requires interesting places. These are hard to improvise so it's worth spending time to either steal locations from published adventures or jot down our own fantastic features. Need a quick Dragonspear Castle for your characters to explore? What about grabbing the map and general features of the Keep on the Shadowfell. Are the players about to head to Cromm's Hold on the Lizard Marsh only there is no such place? How about stealing the map of Floshin's Manor from Scourge of the Sword Coast?

Our ideas for secrets and clues also fit perfectly with the concept of discovery. When we ask ourselves that key question of "what can the characters discover?" we can jot down ten answers to this question every time we're preparing a session. This is a quick way to ensure we have something to fill those scenes of discovery without writing a Robert-Jordan-novel's worth of material that might never get used.

We can also keep all of this abstract from one another. We don't have to tie our secrets and clues to the fantastic locations we have on hand. We don't have to fill every room of a dungeon with monsters. We can just keep our lists of locations, secrets, monsters, and NPCs available and see how they come together at the table.

Twenty Things That Might Get Discovered

If we keep going with our concept that exploration is about discovery, we can take a look at twenty examples of the sorts of things that might be discovered while exploring. Let's take a look.

  • The inner workings of a trap in a later chamber.
  • A hibernating vampire lord.
  • The secret truth about the king's bloodline.
  • The story of the sleeping horror under fifty thousand years of ice.
  • The truename for the elven sword carried by our rogue.
  • The name of the dragon sorceress who nearly destroyed the world with her single terrible spell.
  • The bloody spellbook of the lost mage Creston Bluecloak.
  • The buried ruins of the lost city of Al'Kanan.
  • The key to the Vault of the Dragon Queen.
  • The glyphed spear of the Bloodrain lizardfolk tribe.
  • The blood-covered dagger of the assassin Soulwhisper.
  • The lost verse of the song sung by the singing statue in the town square.
  • The map to the temple of the all-father.
  • The glyphed tooth of a dragon said to guide the possesser to the dragon's lost hoard.
  • The journal of the gnomish explorer Leopold Spiderchewer.
  • The black gemstone known as the voidstar said to contain an entire plane of existence within its depths.
  • The half-burnt page telling the tale of the Death King's betrayal.
  • A drow statue thought lost torn across space and time now half-buried in volcanic stone.
  • The tiny yet ancient Grandmother Tree.
  • A masterwork music box said to contain the song that will end the world.
A Part of the Game Worth Preparing

We often talk about which parts of the game we should focus our attention on and which parts we can safely let go of and still have a good game. Understanding what locations our characters will explore and what discoveries they might find are areas worth preparing. By keeping a balance on building useful details and keeping them abstract enough to aid in our ever-flowing game, we can build rich worlds with little effort and watch them evolve as our game runs at the table. Keep your torches lit and a keen eye for what lurks below.

Categories: Blogs, D&D