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Building the better Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master.
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Choosing Targets

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 06:00

Today we're going to talk about how we choose targets for our monsters when running our Dungeons & Dragons games. We'll focus on two ways in particular:

  • Choosing targets that make sense for the monster and the situation.
  • Choosing randomly.

What Would the Monster Attack?

Our first decision puts us in the mind of the monster. What would it likely attack? Is it smart? Does it know how to defend itself? Will it accept opportunity attacks to break away from a melee? Is it cowardly? Lots of questions go into the motivation of a monster and what target it chooses. Smart monsters will know to try to hit spellcasters to break concentration. Brash monsters will break away from an adjacent enemy to attack someone it hates more; thus provoking an opportunity attack.

Smart monsters, like lichs, will know which spells to use against which characters based on their likely defenses. Dumb monsters will just attack randomly.

Choose Targets Randomly

Whenever it isn't clear which character a monster will attack, and this might be most of the time, we can choose targets randomly. Choosing random targets has a major advantage: rolling randomly to determine targets breaks us out of unconscious biases. We might not think we're picking on one particular character but what if we're doing it subconsciously? How could we tell? Sure, we might pick up some body language, but what if we're even blind to that?

One way to ensure we're not favoring or picking on anyone in particular is to randomly choose targets when the monsters don't have a clear reason for attacking one particular character. It also makes the whole battle more dynamic.

If a warlock puts a hold person on four scorpion cultists, however, that warlock just became a big glowing target for intelligent monsters so they can break concentration and get their friends back. That's where we go back to rule 1: do what makes sense from the point of view of the monsters.

Avoiding a Tactical Wargame

These methods of choosing targets break us away from thinking too tactically during combat. Instead of treating combat as a competition between the intellect of the player and the dungeon master, we continue to focus on the story by thinking through the eyes of our monsters instead of thinking like a competing player in a board game. This is what separates D&D from other tabletop games. We're always immersed in the fiction of the game whether we're roleplaying a lord's chamberlain or deciding who the bugbear assassins are going to attack.

Attacking Unconscious Targets

There's one point when choosing targets can really matter and that's whether a monster attacks an unconscious target or not. If a monster within five feet of an unconscious character attacks that character, it has advantage on its attacks and, if it hits, it automatically critically hits and inflicts two failed death saving throws on that character. If it has multiple attacks, it can kill that character in a single attack action.

Most of the time, we can assume a monster will drop a character to zero and then move on to another enemy instead of attacking the unconscious character. If the characters, however, are continually being healed up and brought back into the battle, a monster with any brains at all will start hitting them until they stop getting back up.

This is an area where we DMs have to consider the fun of the group and the pacing of the rest of the game when we make a choice like this. There are choices that makes sense from the tactics of the monster and choices that will put our whole game on hold if a character dies. If our game is particularly rough, like the meatgrinder mode of Tomb of Annihilation, we might let the players know that death can come quickly and thus they should have spare characters ready to fill in when their main character dies. If this is established clearly, the gloves are off and monsters may very well attack unconscious characters.

Our philosophy on attacking unconscious characters is worth considering before it suddenly happens at the table.

Thinking About the Small Parts of Our Games

This might seem like a small topic but sometimes it helps us to spend some conscious energy looking at the small choices we make when running our game. This helps us focus on bringing the most fun to our game. If we can use a two-step rule for targeting that helps us avoid playing favorites, we can reduce the feeling of competition between DMs and players and focus the game on the story we all share around the table.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Emotional Investment of Dungeon Mastering

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 06:00

A band of powerful adventurers explores the mausoleum of a powerful dracolich. The adventurers enter a large chamber and with sparks of unnatural energy, five slaads appear, three red and two blue. "Stand back", says the wizard and begins chanting a spell. The two blue slaads look at him and then begin to chuckle. Then they laugh. Then they roar, falling to the ground and rolling around uncontrollably. The wizard smiles, continuing his chant. "The other three are your problem", he says to his companions.

Written out as fiction, the casting Tasha's Hideous Laughter on a pair of blue slaads sounds pretty cool. If we Dungeon Masters are invested in these slaads, however, this result might frustrate us. That wizard just inflicted the equivalent of 240 damage with a single spell. The slaad's terrible wisdom saving throw, even with advantage from magic resistance, and the wizard's ability to stay out of reach of the red slaads ensures the hideous laughter will continue as long as the characters need.

If we had hopes for a big five-on-five battle, this single spell dashed those hopes. This battle didn't go the way we expected and that can leave us feeling like things went wrong or the system is broken.

The Differing Emotional Investment of Players and DMs

Players are invested in their characters. They want to see their characters do interesting things. They want to discover the world. They want to disarm devious traps. They want to uncover deep secrets. They want to swing from ropes and push over carts. They want to do awesome things. In particular, they want to kick monster ass in battles. Can they completely paralyze a monster that might have looked threatening? That's pretty cool! Like Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman cool.

Think how pissed a player would be if his character got banished or stuck behind a wall of force for a whole battle. Sometimes, that's how we DMs feel when our monsters face the same fate. If we have a villain we really liked destroyed or incapacitated in a single round, that can suck. It's the reason we need to be careful when putting villains like Strahd or Iymrith in front of the characters. We don't want to see them put down too easily.

DMs can't be invested in the game the same way players are invested. For most games, players only have characters die every so often. For DMs, monsters and villains die all the time. The job of our monsters is to threaten the PCs and then fall. How can we invest emotional energy into such doomed creatures?

The Divine Art of Not Giving A Shit

There are a lot of ways to deal with these feelings. First of all, as Dungeon World teaches us, we should, first and foremost, be fans of the characters, not the monsters. We play to find out what happens not to make sure a battle goes the way we want it to go and not to enjoy how awesome the monsters are at killing the heroes.

One way we can ensure we don't care is to not spend a lot of time on them. The less time we spend building and preparing our monsters or planning a battle, the less we will worry about what happens if the monsters get screwed by a save-or-suck spell. We can get just as excited about it as the players were. Just like the swordsman scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, a surprise like that can be pretty bad-ass.

Running narrative "theater of the mind" combat makes this even easier. We don't have to worry about drawing a map or putting down a gridded battle space that might only get used for a few minutes before the characters steamroll an encounter or sneak past with a great stealth check. One of the big problems with the tyranny of the grid is that we DMs put emotional investment into the battle spaces we build out. If we take the time to build something nice, we want the battle to be a solid challenge that doesn't get short circuited by a single good casting of hypnotic pattern.

But if we don't spend time planning some of our encounters, they can get boring either in the environment or in the tactics of the monsters. How many times have you played out a battle only to discover too late that the monster had some effect you forgot to use? How many times did you roll up a treasure hoard and wonder why the monster wasn't using that Flametongue sword she was sitting on? A little time prepping a combat encounter isn't a bad thing.

Know Your Enemy

It really helps to know the capabilities of the characters. What are they particularly good at? What save or suck spells do they enjoy using? We don't learn these capabilities just to counteract them with monsters that resist or exploit them. We learn what the characters can do to ensure we're giving them a good chance to use those cool abilities.

If you have a character you know can remove monsters easily, you might consider this when choosing the number of monsters. Does the enchanter always have a good way to "mass suggest" groups of foes? Add in a couple of more to increase the likelihood of a save. Do the characters dish out huge amounts of damage? Maybe max out the hit points of a few highly challenging creatures. The key isn't to hose the PCs who have this stuff but to ensure they don't get bored as they circumvent battles too regularly.

Where Should We Invest Our Emotional Capital?

So if we DMs shouldn't invest our emotional capital (a fancy marketing word for giving a shit) in our poor monsters, where should we invest it? What's fun for us DMs? What do we enjoy in a good game?

As mentioned, we can become fans of the characters. We can enjoy their growth, their depth, and their desires. We can enjoy watching them kick ass, struggle, and figure things out. We can review the characters any time we feel like we're spending too much time thinking about combat encounters.

When we are thinking about the bad guys, instead of focusing on their combat powers, we might think about the long game of the villain. If the villain is a hag, how might the hag harass and torture the characters without putting herself in harms way? How can Strahd tug his strings and squeeze his hand around the characters without leaving Castle Ravenloft? What long-term plans do the villains have?

We can invest our time in the fronts of our villains. What are they doing right now? What do they want? What plans are they moving forward? This gets into Mike Mearls's statement about getting away from thinking tactically and thinking more about the overarching story being told. This is a huge shift for many DMs and one I think encapsulates the changing nature of D&D games these days.

We can also invest our time in the secrets and clues the characters can discover or the fantastic locations they can explore.

Shifting the direction of our emotional investment in our D&D games isn't easy. It requires careful thought and self analysis to put our heads around the right parts of our game, the parts we and our players enjoy together. When we aim our emotional investment the right way, we can build even more fantastic stories with our groups and all share in the joy these stories bring us as they unfold.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Exploring Chult

Mon, 05/07/2018 - 06:00

The fantastic hardback adventure, Tomb of Annihilation, includes a large throwback to the hex-crawl. In this mode of play, the characters make their way through the wilderness of Chult as they seek out ancient vaults and lost cities. Players roll for various checks to determine whether they can find their way through the forest, see threats as they come up, or avoid getting throat leeches (my new favorite disease next to super-tetanus). We also roll for a handful of random encounters as the days go by.

In today's article we're going to look at how DMs can make the most out of the exploration of Chult. This will focus primarily on chapter 2 of the adventure in which the characters dive deep into the sinister undead-infested jungles as they seek out the threat to the souls of the world.

Give the Exploration System a Fair Shot

Tomb of Annihilation includes a rich system for handling the exploration of Chult and it's worth at least trying it out for a few sessions to see if it work for you and your group. You don't have to be a slave to it, however. Instead, you can tune the exploration system to suit the pacing you and your players enjoy. Early on though, before you look at this exploration system and judge whether it will work or not, give it an actual try and see what you think. You can always tune as you go.

Add Weather

Tomb of Annihilation itself doesn't have a system for determining weather each day but we can use the rules in the Dungeon Master's Guide to include rolling for weather while the characters travel through Chult. The adventure does mention that there is a 25% chance of a tropical storm on days of heavy rain. That's worth checking for as well. Weather adds some fun atmosphere to the events of the day.

Throw In Some Fantastic Monuments

The lands of Chult are littered with the remnants of the past. As the characters explore the lands, we can throw in some fantastic monuments and maybe some fantastic monuments customized for Chult. We don't have to drop these monuments in all the time but they can be a fun way to focus a scene around an interesting feature of a location.

Tie Random Encounters to the Story through Secrets

Many complain that the random encounters in Tomb of Annihilation (and other adventures) break away from the central story of the adventure and thus choose not to use them. Though these encounters are random, they need not steer away from the theme of the adventure. We can use our list of abstracted secrets and clues to help the characters learn about the history of Chult or the threat of the Soulmonger from these random encounters.

As we DMs learn to better improvise during our game we can look at what the random encounter chart has come up with and figure out how to tie that encounter to the story. Maybe it pushes the characters towards a discovery of the city of Omu. Maybe they see a vision of Acererak hanging over that horde of zombies. Part of our jobs as DMs is to make random encounters relevant and it's a fun part of the job.

Mixing Up Random Encounters

There are other ways we can use random encounters to make things interesting during the exploration of Chult. First off, as the book says, we never need to go with what the dice show us if it's not that interesting. Feel free to re-roll or pick something nearby instead.

Second, we can always have the characters discover the results of a random encounter after it has happened. Instead of having the characters face a cyclops, they might come to an area where it is clear some giant humanoid recently walked by dragging something. The characters are free to investigate or keep on with their journey. Maybe the characters discover the remains of a Flaming Fist mercenary company clearly killed by the undead. This gives the players some agency in chasing down mysterious clues or getting on with their journey.

Third, we can mix up the results of two rolls instead of running just one encounter. We might do this if we roll multiple random encounters in a single day, say rolling a 4, 16, and 18 on our three daily random encounter checks. Instead of running them sequentially, we can mash the two together for something interesting. This might start off with an attack of Batari goblins who then call a zombie tyrannosaurus using a strange bone horn. It might be that same cyclops fighting a band of Emerald Enclave scouts. Maybe a pack of pterafolk use a nest of pteranodons as bait to lure the characters into a trap.

We need not be slaves to the random encounter chart. Instead we can use it as a way to inspire us to build interesting scenes in the jungles of Chult.

Group Days Together

Chult is a big place and we're likely to get bored of running it one hex at a time. Instead, we can group days together and summarize them to our party. We might describe a ten-day journey in a tropical storm, soaked through and no cover, scraping by on what food and water they come across and watching in awe at the huge brontosauruses that munch on the tall trees. We might roll one random encounter per ten-day, again, perhaps, joining together a couple of encounters and a fantastic location to highlight an interesting event along the ten-day journey.

Use Montages

Finally, we can break away from the traveling system completely and use a 13th Age style montage system instead. In this system, we ask a player to describe an interesting challenge they face without offering a solution. Then, ask another player to describe how their character helped them get through the situation. We can do this two or three times to get all of the players involved, fill out the story of the journey, and learn what sorts of things interest the players. We can always use this montage system to skip over about ten hexes worth of travel and then return to the hex system when we want to.

Options, not Limitations

Many DMs might look at the exploration and random encounter system in Tomb of Annihilation and feel bound by it. Without even trying it, a DM might feel like it is too mechanics-heavy and will end up being too much of a slog to bother with. Giving it a try, at least for a session or two, can let us know what it is really like and whether our players will actually enjoy it. We always know we can throw it out of it isn't working for us. Instead of throwing it out completely, however, we can use it as a toolkit to experiment with the descriptions and gameplay of travel in our RPGs. The above ideas are a few ways we might do so.

Above all, randomness aids in creativity and inspiration. It might not be immediately comfortable to trust that we will be able to tie random encounters to the main storyline of Tomb of Annihilation but we can do so if we abstract secrets and clues from the story and tie them to the random events that take place. Doing so creates a game that is just as much fun for us DMs as it is for the players.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

DM's Deep Dive: D&D for the Visually Impaired

Mon, 04/23/2018 - 06:00

This month on the DM's Deep Dive, a proud member of the Don't Split the Podcast Network, I was privileged to talk to my friend and lifelong gamer, Sharon Dudley, about her experiences as a visually impaired RPG player and recent Game Master.

You can listen to the podcast or watch the video on Youtube. It's also embedded in the page below.

The rest of this article outlines notes and highlights from the show.

.embed-container { position: relative; padding-bottom: 56.25%; height: 0; overflow: hidden; max-width: 100%; } .embed-container iframe, .embed-container object, .embed-container embed { position: absolute; top: 0; left: 0; width: 100%; height: 100%; } Sharon's Three Tips for Running Games for the Visually Impaired
  1. You don't need the grid. Instead use descriptive vocabulary of the situation. Sharon has played D&D and Pathfinder for years and does very well without necessarily seeing the exact position of everything.

  2. Pictures aren't helpful. This seems obvious but many DMs rely on visuals and that simply will not work for someone who cannot see them. If you can't describe some part of your game, any part of your game, the parts you can't describe will not work for those who can't see it.

  3. Don't use the words "this" and "that" and "there" which aren't helpful when visually impaired people can't see what you're referring to. Describe what or who you are pointing at or looking at.

Here's a tip from another visually impaired gamer: ask them how you can make the game better for them. Sharon said she would never be offended and would be really happy to be asked how a game can be more accessible to her.

What GMs Do Well?

What's fun for Sharon is fun for everyone. Good plot, great GM that brings the characters and settings to life; these are all great. Music sets the tone for the game. Music lightly playing in the background adds to the atmosphere.

Sharon suggest focusing on giving life to characters. This goes for other players as well as DMs. Sharon loves to work with other characters and that works best when people are into the stories of their characters and not just the mechanics. Don't railroad or just focus on dice. Sharon can also sense when people are on their phones. Players should stay attentive and keep the pace of the game going forward. Sharon likes it when everyone is is present and focused on the game (don't we all!).

On phones, Mike leans towards the idea that people are spending their own time and can play clicker games if they want but their lack of attention can hurt the game for everyone else. Maybe its best to put the phones away from the table.

Mike reminisces about web design and web accessibility guidelines and how focusing on accessibility made the website better for everyone. The things that make a game good for people who are visually impaired can make it good for everyone.

On Initiative

Blind and visually impaired players can't see an initiative tent or board. GMs should make sure that visually impaired players know where their place is in initiative. Many GMs have made progress over the years by making initiative visually available to those who can see but this doesn't help those who are visually impaired. Take the time to describe the initiative order to any visually impared players so they know when their turn is about to come up.

On Ideal Systems

For D&D, 4th edition was really hard for visually impaired. The difficulties of not being able to see meant that push, pull, shift, and slide effects were hard. This made Sharon not want to play. 5e has made it definitely better, as did Pathfinder.

Cortex is challenging for visually impaired because choosing an ability from a particular dice pool is hard to remember between turns.

At Origins, Sharon had to leave a game that had a heavy focus on visual cyphers and word-problems. Players had to see it to figure it out. The game required visual puzzle solving which just plain makes it inaccessible.

If a component of the game requires looking at something, it doesn't work or those who can't see it. Again, this seems obvious but takes particular attention for those of us who take it for granted.

When a GM is making a puzzle, ask how would someone solve this puzzle without seeing anything. If they want to figure out a cypher, how can they solve a cypher without having any sort of visual aid or hand-out?

The board game Baker Street focuses on gathering clues and figuring out which clues are true and which are false. By deducting which pieces of evidence can't be true players can figure out which results can't be true and which can.

Mike likes secrets and clues as a game prep technique that can work this way.

Different voices for NPCs help visually impaired players. Voices are both entertaining and help identify difference NPCs. Describe scents. Invoke the five senses. Again, this is a benefit for everyone, not just those who are visually impaired.

Sound effects using a sound board can add a lot to a game for both those with visual impairments and those without.

Sharon's top traits for great games: music, sound effects, character voices, clear identification of characters, and making the story come alive.

Though she prefers roleplaying, combat in D&D and RPGs can be great fun and a great stress reliever.

Sharon can't stand it when people are drawing battle maps. Not only is it a general waste of time for everyone, it is particularly agonizing for those who are visually impaired and know they will get no benefit at all even when it's done. Arguing about the size of a closet is mind-numbing.

Questions From the Audience

What is the best way to handle dense text builds like wizards or clerics?

Sharon loves rogues but it isn't because of issues with complexity, it's the character type she likes. She also likes paladins. Sharon can play pretty much any class. She just memorizes the spells. Brailing the cards could help for something like wizards. Screen-readers also help. Another visually impaired player said that D&D Beyond made D&D much more accessible because it can be read by a screen-reader.

How can digital tools help?

Sharon doesn't use a screen-reader, she uses her husband, Chris. Chris helps her with the details of Pathfinder.

What is the simplest thing that DMs can do to make their table more inclusive.

Sharon says "say the character's name". Don't say "so what do you think?" say "Gronon, what do you think?" even if it isn't the visually impaired player's character. Address all the players by the names of their characters each time you address them. Visually impaired players can't see eye-contact. Using the character's name instead of the player's name also draws people into the story.

What is your first D&D memory?

Sharon's first character got shot to death by hobgoblins when she turned her back on them.

What game systems work well?

Dragon Age and Quick-Ass Gaming. Fate is lovely.

Sharon can play pretty much any game. A game without tons of numbers are better. Champions has a lot of numbers.

Sharon has no problem with Pathfinder.

Listen to more of Sharon's work and experiences on the Dragonreel podcast with her husband, Chris.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Running Port Nyanzaru in Tomb of Annihilation

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 06:00

Note, this article contains spoilers for the Tomb of Annihilation campaign adventure.

Tomb of Annihilation is a campaign adventure filled with jungle explorations, buried mysteries, strange creatures, ancient ruins, and deathtrap dungeons. The adventure begins in the beautiful and bustling city of Port Nyanzaru. Unlike previous campaign adventures, Tomb of Annihilation doesn't include a small and focused low-level scenario to kick off the adventure. Instead, as written, the adventure begins with the characters teleported into Port Nyanzaru and set off exploring the city.

Running city-based adventures can be daunting. There are many choices and options that can end up paralyzing both players and Dungeon Masters. Where to go next? What should we do? What will we miss? Decision paralysis and the fear of missing out both run high in such situations.

This article attempts to unravel Port Nyanzaru so DMs can build and run focused sessions that give the players a fun and moderately guided adventure in this beautiful city. We'll shave off some of the rough edges, highlight some of the highest sources of fun, and give you some inspiration to build and focus your own adventure in Port Nyanzaru.

Here's a quick checklist of the highlights of this adventures. Your own checklist might vary based on your own desires and the desires of your group, of course, but maybe this list gives you a few ideas.

  • Read the chapter on Port Nyanzaru in Tomb of Annihiliation.
  • Downplay the urgency of the Death Curse.
  • Bring the characters in by sea and let them meet Aremag.
  • Run a dinosaur race.
  • Outline the key locations in Port Nyanzaru of interest to the characters.
  • Narrow down the selection of guides and perhaps choose guides that are less troublesome.
  • Consider adding a starting dungeon under a ziggurat in the Old City.
  • Foreshadow the major factions you plan to highlight in Chult potentially including the naga of Orolunga, Nanny Pupu in Mbala, the pirates of Jalaka Bay, the Yuan-Ti of Omu, the Flaming Fist of Fort Belurarian, and the Order of the Gauntlet at Camp Vengeance.
  • Reinforce the primary goal of the adventure: to travel into the jungles of Chult to find the cause of the Death Curse and end it.
Read Up on Port Nyanzaru

We all know how much I stress the way of the lazy dungeon master but there is one form of preparation that takes effort but offers a high value for the time spent: actually reading these books we buy. One of my biggest recommendations recently is to fully-read the Monster Manual and Volo's Guide to Monsters to steep ourselves in the lore of D&D.

The same is true for running Tomb of Annihilation. We will get the most out of this book and bring the most fun to our table if we read it all the way through. If we don't have the time, we can focus our attention on the area we're going to run next and the area right after that.

Before running Port Nyanzaru, read and review the chapter in the book itself. This will help fill your mind with the right details to reveal when running it. It will also help you identify the parts of the city you like the best and the parts you might want to skip.

Downplay the Urgency of the Death Curse

As written the Death Curse is eating away at the health of those who have been resurrected. It moves quickly enough that any delay could result in the loss of many lives. This urgency might push the characters to avoid fun distractions in Port Nyanzaru and the rest of Chult. Instead, we can downplay the urgency of the Death Curse by making it clear that some sort of disease eats at the health of those resurrected but it will be some time before they die of the disease. The soul-stealing aspect of the Death Curse might be something hinted at but not necessarily well known to the characters until they're close to doing something about it. The Death Curse is the main hook of this adventure but it need not be so urgent that the characters rush past all of the other fun parts of the adventure to end it. No one wants to miss a dinosaur race.

Come In By Sea and Meet Aremag

As written, Tomb of Annihilation has the characters teleported into Port Nyanzaru by their patron but this removes the fun of coming in by ship, potentially seeing some pirates, and meeting Aremag the dragon turtle who requires payment or passage. Perhaps it is up to the characters to deliver a ruby tiara the dragon turtle demands as they make their way in to shore.

Aremag is such a fun part of the adventure that it behooves us to introduce him to the characters who might otherwise miss him if they simply teleport in.

Run a Dinosaur Race

Of all of the events in Port Nyanzaru, none is as memorable as the dinosaur race. You can run this race in the Theater of the Mind or you might pick up some fun dinosaur toys to represent the contestants.

You might even jump right into the action by starting off the campaign with this character-focused question.

"As you roar through the streets of Port Nyanzaru on the back of four tons of allsaurus, what series of life choices brought you to this questionable situation?"

Starting the whole campaign on the back of a dinosaur will surely grab peoples' attention and get the game right into the action.

Some players might choose to race, some might be betting from the sidelines. The book contains rules for both. To keep things a bit faster, you can reduce the goal from 300 feet to 200 feet.

When you run the event, don't shy away from colorful narrative. Describe it when a triceratops smashes into six carts of colorful silks and juicy fruits.

However you choose to insert it, few events will build such strong memories as a dinosaur race through the streets of Port Nyanzaru.

Beware Troublesome Guides

One big activity in Port Nyanzaru revolves around potentially hiring a guide. Some guides work out just fine. Azaka, Eku, Shago, River Mist, and Flask of Wine all have something to offer both from a roleplay perspective and from a useful aid to the party.

Troublesome guides include Hew Hakenstone who will mislead the party, Musharib who has his own dwarven agenda he wants to pursue, and Salida who is actually a double-agent for the yuan-ti. Such double-crosses might be fine for your group but they can also potentially mislead the group for many sessions if handled the wrong way. Depending on how complicated you want to make the game, you might skip over the more troublesome guides and just offer those who won't lead the party astray.

Your group might forgo hiring a guide completely. Perhaps one of the characters already knows enough about Chult to lead the party into the jungles on their own. This can further simplify the campaign and removes any weird oddities like the fact that Eku actually already knows where everything is if asked the right questions.

Consider a Starting Dungeon

Unlike other hardback D&D adventures, Tomb of Annihilation doesn't have any sort of introductory adventure to start the campaign off with a bang. There's no Nightstone or Death House here. The characters are dropped right into this big city with a potentially unlimited number of options.

Our friend James Introcaso wrote an epic starting adventure for Tomb of Annihilation called The Cellar of Death that ties right into the existing story of the campaign.

If we're looking for something a little smaller, we might add our own dungeon adventure to the beginning of the campaign in Port Nyanzaru itself. This dungeon can help foreshadow the death trap dungeon the characters will face at the end.

The ziggurats of the Old City are a perfect spot for a small dungeon. A collapsed floor might lead to a catacomb beneath the ziggurat filled with horrid undead, ancient shrines to dead gods, and dangerous traps yet unsprung. Perhaps a yuan-ti agent has desecrated such an altar and turned it into a beacon that calls the undead of the jungle right into the city of Port Nyanzaru. A back entrance of these catacombs might lead into the otyugh-filled refuse pit. We can re-purpose the maps for the Oozing Temple or the Lost Tomb from Out of the Abyss if we're looking or a map of these uncovered catacombs.

A small staring dungeon like this can focus the party, get them working together, and bring some action to the city of Port Nyanzaru.

Foreshadow the Factions of Chult

There are a lot of factions throughout Tomb of Annihilation, whether they be groups like the yuan-ti or individual powers like Nanny Pupu or Saja N'baza of Orolunga. We don't have to cover them all in our own running of the adventure, of course. While the characters wander Port Nyanzaru, we can use the opportunity to introduce a number of factions, both good and evil, and see which ones resonate with the interests of the characters.

These factions might include:

  • The yuan-ti
  • Saja N'baza, the oracle of Orolunga
  • Nanny Pupu
  • The pirates of Jalaka bay
  • The Flaming Fist
  • The Order of the Gauntlet

We can drop various hints in throughout the characters' time in Port Nyanzaru. They might get harassed by members of the Flaming Fist or recruited by the Order of the Gauntlet. They might get visions or dreams from Nanny Pupu or Saja N'baza. They might be shadowed by a spy for the yuan-ti or attacked by thugs in the yuan-ti spy's service. They might hear about the assault of the pirates of Jalaka Bay from Zindar the harbormaster or actually witness such an attack from afar.

We can see which of these sorts of situations grabs the attention of the players and then tug on those interests throughout their exploration in Chult itself.

Reinforce the Primary Story Hook

Above all, it behooves us to reinforce the primary goal of this adventure. The characters will join together to explore Chult, find the source of the Death Curse, and end it. Everyone from their primary patrons such as Wakanga O'tamu to the dreams they have might reinforce the desire of the characters to get into Chult, find the source of the Death Curse, and end it.

Some Focus to Open-Ended Exploration

City-based sessions can be tough to run. There are so many options that both players and DMs can get quickly overwhelmed. Keeping a handful of high-priority options on hand can help you offer interesting things to do for players who might otherwise find themselves lost.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Story Focus of D&D

Mon, 04/09/2018 - 06:00

There's a change happening in Dungeons & Dragons games. It's something that's been evolving since the release of the fifth edition of D&D and continuing its momentum over the past three years. It lies at the core of many discussions on the differences we're seeing between streaming games, home games, and organized play games. It makes a lot of people uncomfortable and excites a lot of others.

This change is best described as fifth edition's focus on the story of our D&D games over tactical combat and heavy mechanics. This is a hard topic to get our heads around but today we're going to dig in and try.

In an episode of the DM's Deep Dive, the senior manager for development of Dungeons & Dragons, Mike Mearls, described this in his number one tip we might not have already heard, that we might think more strategically and less tactically about the direction of our D&D games.

Removing the Focus on Combat

Mike describes that many of us (and I am certainly guilty of this) have focused on combat as the core of the D&D experience. In the fourth edition of D&D, adventures were built around combat encounters. We'd have a set number of combats per session and the story connected these battles together. The length of time and refined system of combat in 4e made this nearly required. Books like the Dungeon Delve focused almost exclusively on combat.

Mike Mearls suggests that we consider the story of our adventures and campaigns without thinking about combat. What would our story look like without combat? What is the arc of the characters and villains regardless of the fights?

We can also think of this as a shift away from the focus of mechanics of D&D to the story behind the characters and monsters in our games. Mike describes how newer players come to D&D without the mechanical background of those of us who have played the third and fourth edition of D&D. Those of us with this experience might look at a particular character build from its mechanical capabilities while newer players look at the story behind, say an infernal pact warlock, and get excited about the class's theme regardless of the mechanics. This excitement for the lore of a class is something us veterans may have lost but can hopefully regain.

Us veterans might consider re-aligning how we approach our D&D games. For roughly fifteen to twenty years we've seen D&D move its focus to combat. Now that focus has steered away from it. We have some habits to unwire and adjust along with these changes.

An Uncomfortable Spot for Veteran DMs

Some DMs will look at these ideas and see that it is not for them or their group. Many groups have played for many years with a focus on refined adventures, clear combat encounters, and tactical play. As our friends on the RPG Academy say, if you're having fun, you're doing it right.

Nothing says you and your group have to shift your focus around this new story-based approach to D&D. How we choose to play our D&D games is completely up to each of us.

It's probably a conversation worth having with a group, however. We can experiment with these ideas. We can, for example, build a larger situation instead of a series of tactical battles to see how our players navigate a less refined setup. We can take Mike Mearls's advice and build out one session without considering combat encounters. What does the story of the session look like?

Our own individual games live in tiny bubbles among all D&D games taking place around the planet. However others choose to run their games has no impact on how we choose to run ours. Yet, thanks to the internet, we can peer into those other bubbles and see the new ideas other DMs bring to their games.

We don't have to jump into an entirely new style of play we're not comfortable with. We don't need to throw away twenty years of experiences. Likewise, we'd be remiss not to capitalize on the vast amount of shared knowledge we now have access to and learn some new tricks from our fellow DMs.

Tips for Focusing On the Story

For those of us interested in exploring this shifting focus on D&D, there are a few practical things we can do as we prepare and run our D&D games. Here are a few thoughts.

Prepare to Improvise

Improvisation is much more than roleplaying NPCs or coming up with funny voices. Improvisation lets us build a world that reacts to the unexpected actions of the characters. Improvisation is likely the most important skill us DMs can cultivate and every bit of improvement will pay off as we run our games.

Preparing to improvise sounds like an oxymoron. It's not. We prepare to improvise by giving ourselves the right tools to let the world expand in unexpected ways during the game. The easiest and possibly most powerful tool is a good set of names. Random treasure, traps, relics, and monuments likewise help us add unexpected elements into our games. Even random encounter tables can help us add some interesting new situations to our characters' adventures.

Most of all, great improvisation comes from a limber mind. The more we do it, the better we get at it. Filling our brain with lore (see reading the Monster Manual below) and getting used to spouting out descriptions helps us get better at it every session. The more we do it, the more comfortable we get doing it. This is a huge focus of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes a wonderful set of thousands of names and a whole pile of random encounters for every environment. The Dungeon Master's Guide contains excellent random tables as well. Use them and be prepared to build the world at the table, not beforehand.

Further reading: On Improvisation, DM Deep Dive with Tom Lommell, DM Deep Dive with Matt Mercer, and Top Traits for Dungeon Masters.

Focus on the Characters

Story-focused games focus on the characters, the actions they take, and the reactions of the world. We think about the characters from their place in the world; who they are, where they came from, and what they want. We don't have to worry about their mechanics. We think about their class based on how that class fits in the world.

We can, of course hope that our players think of their characters the same way. If we ask players why they chose a paladin warlock multi-class character and they say "because they both use Charisma", we can dig deeper. Yes, but why did it make sense for that character? "Because they were saved by Gilgleam and their faith was shaken but not lost." Better.

We can begin our D&D preparation each time by asking "who are the characters?". This is the first step in the new checklist in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. Beginning our prep by focusing on the characters puts hooks in our head upon which we can hang the rest of the story.

Further reading: Focus on the Characters.

Read the Monster Manual and Volo's Guide to Monsters

We can get so absorbed with the mechanics of our games that we skip the delicious flavor. The fifth edition D&D Monster Manual and Volo's Guide to Monsters are packed with wonderful bits of lore and story hooks we can use to build out and improvise scenes and situations during our game. These books shows us what the story D&D really looks like. What would a village be like if an Oni has been secretly charming a quarter of the town and eating babies for a century? What might happen if two lost temples containing much-needed artifacts are guarded by opposing naga?

Reading the Monster Manual and Volo's Guide fills our brain with the deep lore of D&D. It helps us build and improvise fantastic situations. Reading the D&D monster books gets our head into D&D like nothing else can.

Dive Deep Into the Setting

Along with reading the Monster Manual, we can likewise dive into any material we have for the setting of the game we're going to run. If we're running in the Forgotten Realms, it's worth reading the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide and chapter 3 of Storm King's Thunder to understand everything going on in the Sword Coast. If we know our characters are heading to Baldur's Gate, we might dig into old Baldur's Gate material so we really understand the city.

If our campaign setting is a home brew setting, we might spend our time understanding enough of our own setting to bring up the right points at the right time. We should know what sorts of things our characters might run into. What factions are in play? What history might they uncover? Where do the borders of the civilized world and the wilds exist? Some DMs spend tremendous amounts of time building out their campaign worlds for this purpose, which is a fine use of time as long as they don't expect to use it all or force it down the players' throats.

There is a lot to be said by sticking to published settings. These publishers have done more work on these setting than we can ever do on our own. If it's a shared world, like the Forgotten Realms, our players might already have an established investment in the lore of the world; not something they're likely to have in our own world. The production value on published campaign worlds also bring a tremendous value. Books that cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce can be ours for forty or fifty bucks. Think about the total dollar investment in the Forgotten Realms and how cheaply the results of that investment can be yours.

Build Situations, Not Pre-Defined Scenes

The world and all of the people and places within it are not built expecting a group of four to six characters of a particular level to wander into it. The hobgoblin armies don't spread themselves out into perfect groups of four to eight; just the right challenge rating to challenge the characters.

When we build a story-focused game, we set up the situation as it makes sense for the story. How many mind flayers are in an undead mind flayer colony taken over by Orcus? How many make sense to us? Probably not a thousand. Probably not four. When we build out our scenes, we build them in a way that makes sense for the situation irrespective of the characters and then let the characters deal with it as they would in real life (you know, with fireballs).

Further reading: Build situations.

Be Flexible with Combat Styles

In decades past, we spent considerable time building out carefully planned tactical combat encounters. Many times we tremble in anger when the characters circumvent the encounter with something like invisibility, flight, or one hell of a charisma check. We need not get bent out of shape when things don't go our way with one simple technique: not knowing how it's going to go anyway.

We also don't necessarily know where a battle will take place. If we're building situations, those situations are dynamic. A bad situation could result in an entire hobgoblin army aiming bows at the characters in the courtyard of their castle.

As you can tell, this makes it difficult to set up typical battle maps with just the right miniatures. Instead, we can get used to running combat in the theater of the mind with loose sketches instead of fixed five-foot gridded battles.

We don't have to do this all the time, of course. Sometimes we might map out the entire area. Other times we'll want to have a nice climactic battle against a boss. But that's not the norm for a story-focused D&D game. In that game, the final battle might be a sniping conversation over wine.

We DMs who choose a story-focused game know to keep our options open for battles. We don't require a map and miniatures for every fight; or any fight for that matter. We're prepared to run very small or very large fights. We don't define combat encounters ahead of time. We just see how things go as the game unfolds.

Further reading: The Tyranny of the Grid, Running Narrative "Theater of the Mind" Combat, the Abstract Battle Map.

Worry Less About Balanced Combat Encounters

Along with our flexibility in running combat encounters, we need to let go of the idea of "balanced" encounters when running story-focused D&D games. Instead of futzing around with the three tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide or Kobold Fight Club, we need only ask ourselves a few questions. What types of monsters make sense? How many of those monsters make sense? If it turns into a battle, will it likely kill the characters? If so, can I telegraph this so the players know to tread carefully?

We can figure out if something is too hard by comparing the challenge rating of the monster to the levels of the characters. Too many monsters or monsters of a challenge rating significanlty higher than the level of the charaters could be deadly. A monster is roughly equvalant to four characters if that monster's challenge rating is close to the character's level. A single monster is roughly equivalant to a single character if that monster's challenge rating is roughly one quarter of the character's level (or one half if above level five).

Keeping some rough gauges in our head means we can look at a battle and immediately tell if it might be deadly or not.

Further Reading: Encouter Building Guidelines, a New Approach to Encounter Building.

Embrace Childlike Wonder

Above all we must become kids again. We might put the mechanics aside and remember what this fantasy world and the characters in it look like, sound like, smell like, and feel like. We can get outlandish with the descriptions. We can laugh at one another. We can break character. We can break the fourth wall. We can go big with descriptions, describe brutal killing blows, and mark our enemies not with a number on the base of a miniature but by the strange glyphed ring it wears in its overly large nostril. We must mix our years of experiences with the childlike wonder we pushed aside for cynicism and adulthood. Be a kid again, just be a smarter kid.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Abstract Battlemap

Mon, 03/26/2018 - 06:00

One of the wonderful things about D&D is how flexible the game is for the different styles of play we bring to our tables. We can see this most clearly in our options for running combat. Some DMs run combat encounters with nothing more than a piece of paper with sketch of a room on it. Others have elaborate 3D models or a virtual tabletop like Roll20 or run combat completely in the theater of our minds. Whatever style we prefer, the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons supports it.

Many online discussions have grouped styles of combat into two: gridded combat, in which combat takes place on a gridded battle map of some sort with each square on the grid representing 5 feet; or "theater of the mind" in which combat takes place completely verbally with the DM describing the situation and the players describing their actions. These are gross abstractions, though, with a huge range of options in between them.

Today we're going to show a third option, one that, according to the 2016 Dungeon Master survey, roughly 20% of DMs already use. We call this the "abstract map" and the concept is relatively simple.

First, for this style of combat, we use some sort of physical map to represent the battle area. This might be a typical dry-erase battle map or a loose sketch on a piece of paper. It might even be an elaborate Dwarven Forge arrangement. It can use our well-loved collection of beautiful miniatures or represent monsters and characters with Starbursts. Our battle maps might use materials that cost as low as a few cents or materials that cost more than a new car. That's up to you, your players, your game, and your budget. Whatever you use, the abstract map style of combat works the same way.

The main difference between an abstract map and a traditional gridded battle map is that distance is not measured in five foot squares. The distances and ranges between things aren't fixed. They're loose. Abstract maps show the relative distances between things and the general physical positioning of characters and monsters. Instead of thinking about five foot squares, we focus on the big picture.

To understand why we might want to abstract distances, please see the Tyranny of the Grid. Much of this article will talk, instead, about how.

"But D&D Uses Five Foot Increments!"

Many D&D DMs and players point out that the fifth edition of D&D uses five-foot incremental distances all throughout it; from the distance characters move to the areas of effect for spells and abilities. Unlike 13th Age, Fate Accelerated, or Dungeon World, the distances in D&D are not abstract in the rules.

This is true. However many DMs for decades have played D&D without worrying about those distances when running combat, including many of the current Wizards of the Coast designers who made the fifth edition of D&D. Range and distances can be abstracted in D&D without losing the meaning and purpose of the game. I argue that, when we abstract distances, we focus more on the fantastic heroic action of D&D and less on the minutia.

Clarifying the Rules Up Front

It's critical that we DMs describe how abstracted combat works with our players before the game begins and get our players' agreement. Our guidelines for theater of the mind combat can aid with this, even though we're not truly using "theater of the mind". Many of these guidelines work well with an abstract battle map. Some of the key points include the following:

  • Our goal is for fast and fun combat that focuses on big actions and big effects, not the minutia of 5 foot increments.
  • On their turn, players should describe their intent. What do they want to do?
  • The ranges and distances between characters, monsters, and objects isn't fixed; it's abstract.
  • We DMs will tend to err on the side of the player.
  • Area effects tend to hit a set number of monsters, defined up front, rather than those that look like they are within or outside of a blast. The DM determines how many can be hit but the minimum expectation should be based on a set amount (usually 2 for small areas, 3 for lines or medium areas, 4 for larger areas, everyone for huge areas).
  • Generally speaking, unless the combat area is very large, creatures can move wherever they want with a move action.
  • We DMs ask for the players' trust to adjudicate the battle and we DMs promise to focus on running a fun heroic fight above competitive tactical battles.
The Trouble Spots

Because 5e D&D is a detailed game, there are specific situations that often come up when we're running abstract combat. We'll outline some of the bigger issues here but DMs will have to adjudicate as the game goes on. In general, we should favor the character with our judgment to build trust with the player. When in doubt, ask the other players what seems reasonable. This is a great way to break past the potential competitive nature of DMs and players and bring the group together to tell a fantastic story.

Characters With Extra Movement: A few characters have extra movement speeds such as wood elves, monks, and rogues. When we let anyone move wherever they want, it takes away from the advantages of playing with these characters. What good is it if a monk gains an extra five feet of movement if we're not bothering to play in five foot squares?

First, we have to ask, how important is that extra movement really? Is it the defining characteristic of the character? Does it really make that big a difference even when we do play on a grid? For some, like the monk and rogue, it sure does. They get whole piles of extra movement, not just five feet.

For those characters who get entire extra move actions, we can use a nice simple guideline:

Most characters can move a reasonable distance during their turn. Rogues and monks can move an unreasonable distance.

We can think of distance abstraction as turning five foot squares into fifty foot squares. The game Fate does this with Zones, large areas that make up the physical setting of a scene. In our abstract map, if an area is bigger than a fifty foot square, typical creatures can only move from within one square to another but monks and rogues can move into one big block and back out again. Rogues and monks, with their extra movement, can pretty much decide to go wherever they want.

For an example, we might have a battle on a three-decked ship. Normal characters can move from one deck to another. Monks and rogues can move to any of the three decks from any other deck.

As far as the extra five or ten feet of movement that some characters have over another, we have to ask our players to accept that we're rounding that off in order to focus on the bigger and more heroic elements of the battle. You can also go with one of my favorites: "you would have been ten feet short of your goal but since you're an elf, you made it!" That aways gets a narrowed-eyed harumph.

Areas of Effect: When we put a map down, fill it up with miniatures, and begin to run combat; we're bound to come to the discussion of how many targets—friends or foes—can fit in the area. Our best approach to this is to let the players know up front what they should expect from a spell's area to begin with.

The Dungeon Master's Guide outlines rules for this on page 247. We abstracted this further in our Guidelines for Theater of the Mind Combat into four categories: small bursts (2), large bursts (4), huge bursts (16), and lines (3). That is the minimum number of targets a player should expect they can hit with a spell. Circumstances may let them hit more such as fireballing a huge horde of skeletons in a large cavern or adding four additional targets to a fireball if only they're willing to accept also hitting the front-line fighter and cleric.

Like the rest of this style of combat, how areas of effect work on an abstract map is best handled by discussing it with players before the game begins and then adjudicating it in the player's favor when we can.

Opportunity Attacks and Sentinels: Opportunity attacks actually have a long history with Dungeons & Dragons; both when people played using the "theater of the mind" and when the game focused on a 5 foot per square grid. Arbitrating opportunity attacks actually becomes easier on an abstract map than it does when using purely descriptive "theater of the mind" style because people can see when their character is next to a monster or not.

Movement past enemies might be troublesome but even in an abstract map players and DMs can see when reaching the back row of their enemies might put them near enough to the front row to risk an opportunity attack.

The only main rule we need when considering opportunity attacks while running abstract combat is this one: assume creatures move smartly to avoid opportunity attacks when they can. We, as the DM, should ensure that people don't take surprise opportunity attacks which hurt the credibility of our abstract map. We should tell players when they risk an opportunity attack before they act. The same goes for monsters although many monsters aren't smart enough to know they shouldn't risk an opportunity attack. Players love making them so let's give them a good amount of opportunity attacks.

Likewise, because miniatures will be right next to each other, we know when a feat like sentinel will take place. The specific distance isn't as important as whether or not the minis are up close. In those cases where reach matters, like a sentinel fighter wielding a glaive, we can fall back to the player describing the intent and pose the mini to remind us of that intent.

"Honestly, when I use minis in D&D it's not about tactical combat or clarity of action. It's an excuse to play with toy soldiers."

- Mike Mearls, D&D 5e Lead Designer

Focusing on High Adventure

Our overall goal when using abstract battle maps is to break away from the minutia of miniature wargaming and bring the focus back to the fast action and high adventure of our roleplaying game. Beyond being useful aids to ensure players share a common view of the battle, detailed battle maps and miniatures can be a wonderful rich part of this game we love. By abstracting distances while using physical maps, we can get the best of both worlds: detailed physical battle areas with beautiful miniatures and the high adventure we love best in D&D.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Lost Monuments of Chult

Mon, 03/19/2018 - 06:00

The eternal buzz of carniverous insects fills the humid air. Each step in the swamp threatens to tear the boot from your foot or expel a blast of poisonous gas. The eyes of beasts seem always upon you as you cut through the thick vines in your path.

As you pull through another canopy of skin-tearing vines you reveal a clearing and the ancient lost monument hidden within it.

Twenty Random Lost Monuments of Chult

Here is a list of twenty randomly generated monuments. Refresh this page for a new set or bookmark it to add some texture to the random encounters and hex crawl in Tomb of Annihilation. Use these random monuments as inspiration to build fantastic monuments in your own game. Choose and customize random monuments that make sense for the characters and the story of your shared adventure. Add your own effects or tie secrets and clues to the monument based on the description to add new spice to the scene.

$(document).ready(function() { var monuments = getMonuments(20); $("div#itemlist").html("
  1. "+monuments.join("
  2. ")); }); Keep Your Own List On Hand

    The random monuments above were generated from the following list. You can print this table and use it as a bookmark in your Tomb of Annihilation book, using it whenever you think a monument might add some fun exploration to the game.

    d20 rollConditionEffectTypeOrigin1CrumblingNecroticPillarof Ubtao2SunkenFieryPoolof Dendar3PristineMadeningShrineof Ras Nsi4ExcavatedWateryTreeof Myrkul5Ivy-coveredRadiantRuinof the Aarakokra6RuinedArcaneCairnof the Batiri7CrackedPoisonousStatueof the Grung8ShatteredAcidicBarrowof the Taxabi9BuriedDiseasedEffigyof the Pterafolk10Gore-coveredPsychicAltarof the Yuan-ti11BloodyFrostySkullof I'jin the almiraj12GlyphedElectricalFountainof Kubazan the froghemoth13RunedAntimagicalObeliskof Moa the jaculi14ObsidianOozingShipof Nangnang the grung15MetallicCharmingTowerof Obo'laka the zorbo16OrnateFearfulTombof Papazotl the eblis17DesecratedDominatingThroneof Shagambi the kamadan18AncientSleep-inducingStone Circleof Unkh the flail snail19DecoratedThunderousCarvingof Wongo the su-monster20FloatingTrappedRockof Acererak The Value of Random Inspiration

    Random charts and tables on their own do not build interwoven and interconnected stories. We DMs, on our own, have a bad tendency to leap to stereotypes and cliches when we need sudden inspiration for a fantastic features. A mixture of random tables that fuel the inspiration of us dungeon masters have the potential to come up with wonderully colorful and well-connected monuments within the stories we share with our group.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Random Creativity in Dungeons & Dragons

Mon, 03/12/2018 - 06:00

When M.T. Black, the DM's Guild best-selling producer, begins to consider adventures he wishes to develop and the titles he wants to use for those adventures, he doesn't sit back in a large leather chair and stare out the window to the beaches of South Whales, Australia until inspiration comes and finds him. M.T. Black uses a series of Javscripts to generate random lists of titles, plots, and seeds. From these random lists he prunes and cultivates until he finds and constructs titles such as Horror in the House of Dagon, the Secret of Skyhold Tower, and the Clockwork Queen. These sound like solid traditional adventure titles yet it took a spark of random inspiration to give them their edge.

As M.T. Black puts it:

I use randomness all the time when I'm creating an adventure. Otherwise I find I'm just slipping back into very comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness really helps me bring something fresh to the table.

Randomness is a funny thing. In the world of machine learning and artificial intelligence, randomness is used to avoid an algorithm "overfitting" to a problem. This is the algorithm's equivalent of slipping into comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness pushes prediction algorithms outside of the grooves of the data they process to help them take a wider and likely more accurate view of the world around them. AI scientist, Janelle Shane, used a neural network, which itself includes random elements, to generate some awesome D&D spell names including hold mouse, barking sphere, wrathful hound, grove of plants, vicious markers, end wall, and gland growth.

Just as artificial intelligence and machine learning can use randomness to break out of a comfortable groove and discover something as awesome as gland growth, we too can use randomness to push ourselves out of our grooves and into the fantastic.

We've talked about breaking conventional thought with random tables before but wanted to dive into the topic once again.

(art by Justin Gerard)

Random Tables in D&D

The fifth edition D&D Dungeon Master's Guide is full of random tables that we can read for inspiration or actually roll on to help us generate ideas for our game. Such tables have been included in Dungeon Master's Guides all the way back to the beginning of the game. Randomness, obviously, plays a huge part in D&D and yet in some cases, DMs are quick to dismiss it.

My personal favorite is the "framing events" table on page 79 which can help take any generic town or city scene and turn it into something dynamic and interesting.

We need not use random results without any modifications from our part. As M.T. Black does, we can look at what comes out of them and, if they don't make any sense, dismiss them.

Using random results to fuel our inspiration gives us a perfect opportunity to stretch our improvisation muscles, take what the dice give us, and make it part of the story.

The Dungeon Master's Game

In an excellent episode of Dragon Talk, Jeremy Crawford talked about how the randomness of Dungeons & Dragons is part of what makes the game fun for dungeon masters. Not knowing exactly what is going to happen is as much fun for the dungeon master as it is for the players, if we let it be. Jeremy brings up the idea of a dragon's breath recharging on a 5 or 6 on a roll of 1d6. If that breath weapon comes back, the whole encounter will run differently than if it does not.

The rolls of the dice inside of combat need be only one of the random elements that becomes part of the dungeon master's game. The random tables we find in our D&D books can likewise become part of the DM's game.

Improvisation may be the most important skill a DM can learn. The use of random tables to push us out of a groove; to prevent us from "overfitting" our own biases, cliches, and stereotypes into future stories; can help us improvise new, fantastic, and interesting scenes into our D&D games.

Randomness in the Tomb of Annihilation

Let's look at the published D&D adventure Tomb of Annihilation under the lens of how randomness can affect the story we share at the table. Chapter 2 of Tomb of Annihilation focuses on travel throughout the undead-infested jungles of Chult. Appendix B, beginning on page 193 of the adventure, includes twelve pages of random encounters we can run as our characters travel through the jungle.

Many DMs avoid running such encounters for a few reasons: they can bog down the game if we run too many of them, they can steer the characters away from the main story, or they just take too much time. None of these reasons are unreasonable. Before we toss them aside, however, we might consider what we gain by giving them a fair try.

Random encounters need not steer us away from the story. Instead, characters might learn valuable secrets or clues during an encounter. Meeting up with members of the Emerald Enclave in their journeys might give them more information about where they can learn more about the mysterious death curse.

We certainly don't want to bog the whole game down with random encounters and we might skip a few days on the journey throughout Chult since the distances between places can get pretty far. Still, the use of random encounters in Tomb of Annihilation can give us DMs a good opportunity to take what the tables give us and turn it into a major arc of the story.

Likewise, we can use the Weather, Monuments, and Weird Locales tables on pages 108 and 109 of the Dungeon Master's Guide to add even more flavor to the journey through Chult.

If we use all of these random tables together, we might come up with a pretty interesting encounter. The characters might find themselves facing nine ghouls and a ghast at an intact statue of Ubtao lost in the jungles for centuries. The encounter takes place during a particularly heavy rainstorm in the sweltering heat. The ghast has a triangle tattooed on its head that shows it to be a former follower of Ras Nsi. Perhaps the ghast might know something of the lost city of Omu!

Knowing how often to drop in such encounters is an important part of reading the table and ensuring we're keeping the progression of the story moving forward. Tomb of Annihilation itself states that we should use or skip such encounters only when it is fun for the group.

A Few Sources of Randomness

Beyond the random tables in D&D sourcebooks and adventures, there's a nearly infinite supply of random generators on the internet we can use to shake up our creativity and improvisation. Here are four I've created and one I love:

Ancient Monuments. This page offers randomly generated monuments we can drop into any scene to give it a bit of texture. The details of these monuments go well beyond that found in the DMG and let us generate thousands of unique objects to drop into our scenes.

Traps. This generator builds complicated traps with a mixture of both physical and magical effects. We need not make every trap as complicated as these. Many times a poisoned needle trap is the right one for the story. However, when we want to add something unique and menasing, overlapping a pair of traps with both physical and magical effects will definitely keep characters on their toes.

Relics. With 5e's more limited take on magic item rewards, single-use magic relics can give our characters interesting rewards without turning it into a Monty Hall campaign. This generator builds physical objects empowered with single-use magical effects to drop into treasure parsels as the characters discover them.

Names. Of all of the tools an improvisational DM needs, a good set of names is at the top of the list. Xanathar's Guide includes a dozens of lists of names for many races and cultures, both fantasy and from our own world. This is a fine list to have on hand. This random name generator won't likely work as well but might help out when one doesn't want to dig through a book for a random name.

Donjon. The website Donjon includes a wide range of random generators for all sorts of things. It is the crown jewel of random D&D generators with generators for NPCs, treasure, magic shops, and even full dungeons.

Letting Go of Control and Shaking Up Our System

One of the hardest parts about dungeon mastering is the idea of letting go of the story. This is a big piece of the Lazy Dungeon Master and a piece that some DMs never really grasp or even want to grasp. That's ok, of course. If you're having fun, you're doing it right. Still, for some of us, letting go of the story has resulted in an entirely new game, one that really does unfold right in front of us while we're playing.

Adding more randomness to our game seems like it pushes us too far outside of the story we want to tell but, when cultivated correctly as M.T. Black does, we can use a mixture of randomness and our own creative improvisational eye to build entirely new situations that propel our stories forward in ways none of us would ever expect.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Session Zero of Tomb of Annihilation

Mon, 03/05/2018 - 06:00

Any time we're considering running a campaign it's worth spending some time with the group up front to scope the campaign and the characters within it. This session is often called a "Session Zero". This session doesn't necessarily include gameplay. Instead, it focuses on developing the characters, tying them together, and tying them to the theme of the adventure or campaign.

Tomb of Annihilation is a very thematic adventure. Exotic cities, jungle treks, ancient ruins, and the death curse fill out this rich and large sandbox adventure. Our Tomb of Annihilation session zero will help us describe these themes and help the players design characters and a group that fit well into the scenario.

Describing the Theme of the Adventure

Before our players get too far into designing their characters, it's best if we explain the overall theme of the adventure. This is also our opportunity to help them buy-in to the adventure. If the players aren't interested in the themes of the adventure, we might best put it aside and try something else. Assuming the theme resonates with the players, they can keep the theme in mind while they think about what sort of character will interface well with this world.

Here's my summary of the overall theme of Tomb of Annihilation:

A death curse plaguing all of Toril emanates from the jungle island of Chult. Ancient ruins and hordes of undead fill the mostly unexplored and dangerous jungles. The mercantile city of Port Nyanzaru stands as a bastion of civilization on the northern edge of the jungle. Somewhere deep in the jungle, with every lost soul, the Tomb of Annihilation grows ever more powerful.

This covers much of what the players can expect from the adventure including jungle exploration, undead threats, ancient ruins, the mercantile city of Port Nyanzaru, and a deathtrap dungeon.

Six Truths about Chult

It helps if we can summarize the core themes of the adventure so our players can best identify what sort of world they're about to explore. We accomplish this with our six truths about Chult:

  • The jungles of Chult are largely unexplored and very dangerous.
  • Ancient ruins and an undead plague riddle the jungles.
  • Various factions including the Order of the Gauntlet and the Flaming Fist seek to make their mark in the jungle.
  • The death curse prevents resurrections and eats the lives of the resurrected.
  • The merchant princes run Port Nyanzaru, a city of high commerce.
  • Chult contains a rich history of unique gods including Ubtao and Dendar the Night Serpent.

Your own list of six truths may be different than these depending on what themes you want to reinforce.

Loaded Questions and the Three Character Vectors

Good session zeros focus on a few statements and questions that help guide players as they build these characters. We can refine our core D&D character design statement to ensure that players are seeking to build characters who fit the adventure.

The heroes are cooperative explorers who seek to explore the jungles of Chult and end the death curse.

This helps us avoid the aristocratic aid to the baron who hates smelly adventurers and prefers not to get his robes dirty.

When we talk to the players about their characters, we can remind them of the three vectors for character creation: who the character is, how they fit the theme of the adventure, and how they're bonded with the other members of the group. Usually players tend to focus only on the first one but all three are required to have a good time throughout the campaign.

We can reinforce these three vectors with some loaded questions we'll ask during character creation. Here are some examples.

What sorts of things will this character do during a jungle exploration?

Which of the other characters' does your character trust, and why?

Why does your character want to stop the death curse?

We can add any additional questions if we want to further refine the game. The overall goal is to have the players design characters that fit both the adventure and the group they will experience it with.

Getting Started on the Right Foot

Trekking off into a jungle filled with undead and ancient ruins while a death curse plagues the world requires the right sort of heroes. Hopefully, with a solid session zero, we'll find those heroes and ensure that we DMs and our players will enjoy Tomb of Annihilation to the fullest.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Jeremy Crawford on Encounter Building

Mon, 02/26/2018 - 06:00

On an episode of Dragon Talk, D&D developer and rules sage, Jeremy Crawford, spent a good deal of time digging deep into encounter building, particularly into building combat encounters. It's a wonderful episode and one I highly recommend listening to.

Since the release of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons, I've had two obsessions: narrative combat and D&D 5e encounter building guidelines. The official approach to D&D combat encounter building has changed since its release, most recently with the release of the combat encounter charts in Xanathar's Guide to Everything. Some of the developers of D&D themselves, like Mike Mearls, [don't use any sort of mathematics to balance encounters at all], instead choosing to build encounters that make sense for the story.

During this episode, Jeremy Crawford shined a lot of light onto what Wizards of the Coast expected when it came to D&D combat encounter building. This article summarizes much of what he said in the interview so we have some textual representation of this outstanding discussion.

Let the summary begin...

Encounter building is more than just worrying about challenge rating.

The guidelines in the Dungeon Master's Guide are intended to help DMs recognize how difficult an encounter might be. The math of encounter building is all about determining whether combat will be deadly or not.

From a common vocabulary standpoint, the term "encounter" doesn't just mean combat encounters. Encounters can represent represent any type of scene. Combat encounters are a subset of all encounters.

There is no one right way to build an encounter. There's no perfect formula. The drunk goblin at the gate could be more fun than a well calibrated set-piece battle.

Going through the math of determining encounter balance is really just there to help us answer the question "is this going to kill them all?"

The encounter building rules can also tell you if it's going to be too easy, just right, hard, or super hard.

The DMG encounter rules just give you a sense of how a battle might go. So many variables can change the difficulty of an encounter. Four ogres on a road is a very different challenge than four ogres on a rope bridge over lava.

The dice also have a big effect on the difficulty of an encounter. The recharge of a dragon's breath might be the difference between victory and death. Players who roll well can also make a hard battle easy.

The variability of encounters is a design, not a flaw. Not even the DM should be able to fully predict how a battle goes. This uncertainty is the game from the DM's side. This is what makes the D&D a fun game for the DM as well. DMs aren't puppet masters who control everything, they too can be surprised.

Jeremy rolls recharge dice in the open, sometimes letting the players roll for a dragon's breath recharge.

Opportunities to improvise lead to a DM's fun.

Catastrophe can lead to really fun problems. Lean in to failure.

A monster's challenge rating communicates that the monster will probably not wipe out three to six characters of a level equal to the monster's challenge rating. A CR 3 monster will not likely wipe out three to six characters of level 3.

This gets tricker with multiple monsters. Legendary monsters are intended to run on their own, other monsters are not.

Jeremy built a spreadsheet to handle the DMG's encounter building guidelines but suggests that the tables in Xanathar's Guide to Everything are a better choice.

A correct encounter is one in which the players had fun.

Wizards of the Coast used the encounter building guidelines in Tomb of Annihilation only to judge whether an encounter was harder than they wanted it to be. It wasn't a way to ensure that an encounter is an equal challenge to a specific level of characters. This is the way WOTC uses it and also how they suggest we DMs use it. Encounter building guidelines are intended to help us gauge whether an encounter is more deadly than we intend.

A DM could use Xanathar's Guide to adjust battles to fit characters of a specific level but this is not the expected design. The design of 5e is intended to be an open world where challenges are not designed to progress with the level of the characters. You might talk your way out of the problem or find some other way.

Jeremy rewards groups that subvert encounters as much as if they had defeated the monsters in an encounter.

Jeremy likes to put encounters in front of characters that are way more difficult just so the players see that the world is a living world not designed for them. It's a chance for the players to navigate a situation without combat. Quest giving NPCs will give clues to the difficulty. "Are you SURE you want to go in there?" An NPC can yell "fly, you fools!"

Jeremy likes to ramp encounters up. Monsters join in a battle partway through. There is a rising tension as more monsters show up. Sometimes allies show up and ramp the difficulty down. Jeremy likes to have friendly creatures show up in a battle.

Jeremy also likes to have timed elements. If all three gems light up, something awful happens.

Jeremy likes villains that introduce complications. He likes the classic villain who simply says too much. A villain might plant a seed of doubt in the characters during combat. Some villains are worse than others. A foe can put in a seed out doubt into whether they should be fighting at all. Strahd can be an ally!

Jeremy had a group of necromancers with a sign on their bodies. If they are killed, they return as some form of undead until the mark is destroyed. This is a fancy way to add more monsters to a battle. "More dudes show up" is the goal but we can wrap that in interesting story reasons.

Jeremy suggests we throw encounters at characters that are also easy so they can feel powerful as they progress.

Encounter guidelines that put the exact correct number and power of monsters will make the game boring. Perfectly crafted encounters can feel monotonous. Design easier and harder encounters and use the encounter guidelines in the DMG and Xanathar's to help you asses that potential difficulty.

Jeremy suggests we learn how to change difficulty on the fly. One of the easiest things DMs can do is change hit points within the range of the monsters' hit dice. Hit dice are a potential range of hit points. Raise hit points to make them tougher or lower them to make them more like 4e minions. According to Jeremy, modifying hit points within the hit dice range of a monster is fully within the rules of D&D 5e. We are using the monsters as intended when we play with the range of hit points. The listed hit points are the average for that type of monsters. We get to choose their range. It's not cheating.

During the battle, we DMs can shift hit points for narrative effect. If a powerful blow hits and it makes sense for the monster to fall, it can fall.

The DMG states six to eight encounters for a long rest. Some DMs say that this is the correct number of encounters. This is not how it is intended. If you're curious how much they can take in a day, six to eight is typical. WOTC does not suggest that this is the correct number. Like encounter building guidelines, its intended to help a DM gauge how hard the game will be if encounters go up to or beyond six to eight per day.

As the rules sage, Jeremy has answers to common rules questions over at the D&D website.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Reading Published Adventures

Mon, 02/19/2018 - 06:00

We spend more than just our money when we buy a D&D 5e hardback adventure, we spend our time and energy on it as well. Unlike the 16 and 32 page adventures of old, these hefty tomes often include 256 pages of material. Reading, studying, understanding, and preparing such an adventure takes considerable time.

The way of the lazy dungeon master is about spending our time and energy on the parts of our game that matter the most. I argue that the time we spend reading published adventures before we run them offers us a good return for our time and energy spent. Every one of these published adventures states that we read them all the way through before we run them and it is advice well heeded.

According to a poll I ran on Twitter and some continuing open discussion, slightly more than half of DMs read their adventures all the way through before they run it, so this idea isn't foreign to many. Others, however, choose to give it a good skim read and then dive deep into whatever section of the adventure they're about to run next. This is also a fine way to go.

While reading a big published adventure offers many values, we can tweak how we read published adventures to get the most value for our time.

We might each have our ideal way to read through a published adventure and if it works for us then it works. This article, based on about 200 responses to discussions on the topic, offers one way we might get the most out of our time spent digesting a published adventure.

The Intro and an Initial Skim

When we first sit down with a published adventure, we might start with the introduction so we know what the adventure is actually about. This gives us a high-level understanding of what we're going to expect from the adventure.

We can also give the whole book a nice big skim-read. This takes longer but helps us really understand what we're going to get into. Which parts of the adventure are linear? Which parts are big sandboxes? What catches our eye? Which parts don't seem to resonate with us?

The skim-read helps us understand the structure of the adventure. We know what we're getting into. We don't yet understand the whole adventure. We've missed lots of important details that will matter when we run it but this skim helps us know where to look when we start to run it.

Outline the Flow of the Adventure

Some adventures, like Storm King's Thunder, show us what the flow of the adventure is like, although in the case of Storm King's Thunder, the actual flow of the adventure will likely be more complicated when we run it. Whether the adventure includes a flowchart of the story or not, it helps us to outline our own. Where does the adventure start? How do the big parts flow together? Where are the major decision points? What leads the characters to the end?

Many times, with sandbox-style adventures like Out of the Abyss and Tomb of Annihilation our own flowchart will have big clouds in the middle filled with a plethora of possible decision points. We'll have to eventually fill out these options but maybe not until the characters get closer to them. We will want to know, however, what major components lead to the end of the adventure and what initial options we want to expose to the characters early on. Which guides, for example, we focus on in the beginning of Tomb of Annihilation will have a big effect on the game itself.

Tying Together the Connections

D&D hardback published adventures all tend to miss one important aid that helps us run these adventures: a connection map. When characters go through the story of the adventure, they follow one of a number of potential threads that weave through the whole adventure. These threads connect NPCs, locations, and story hooks all throughout the adventure. When we're reading the adventure, it helps if we know which NPCs could lead or direct the characters to a new location and who or what at that location can lead to the next set of places. These connections aren't linear and there may be a lot of them. Depending on which pieces of a published adventure catch our fancy when we read it, we may want to figure out what threads can lead there.

We don't need a big FBI wall map of people's mugshots tied together with yarn but it can help if we jot down the places we like and the things that can lead characters to those places.

A Deeper Skim

At this point we have a good understanding of the ways the adventure may play out. Now we can take a deeper read into the whole book. We don't necessarily need to read every room description in every location but we should have a good understanding of the main moving parts in every chapter of the adventure. We'll pick up things we would normally have missed on a higher-level skim read. We'll begin to get a better understanding about which parts of the adventure we love and which parts we want to skip.

Focusing on the Next Section

Once we actually start running the adventure, we can dive deep into the next chapter we're going to actually run. During our skim-read we may have skipped room descriptions and details of the locations throughout the adventure. Now it's time for us to read every word so we can understand what happens and what may happen as the characters explore the next location. The more time we spend here, the better we'll run it at the table. Granted, many parts of a published adventure may go out the window when it meets the drives and actions of the characters, but if things do head into the book, we're ready for it.

The Value of Fully Reading the Adventure

Though we can get away with a healthy skim, reading through a whole published adventure offers numerous advantages. It helps us when the characters take a left turn we didn't expect. It helps us feel confident when things begin to move forward and we know where they're likely to move. It makes us see the whole big picture instead of just what's in front of us. It let's us foreshadow events early on in the adventure that may not come to pass for weeks or months.

Every D&D 5e published hardback adventure suggests that you read the whole adventure through and that's good advice. Though it's far from lazy, there's a lot to be gained by spending the time to read what we plan to run.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

Mon, 02/12/2018 - 06:00

Five years ago I wrote the book the Lazy Dungeon Master. This was in the middle of the transition between the 4th edition and 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Since then, the book has done extremely well and the ideas in it have resonated with many dungeon masters, both old and new.

Last year, after the wonderful success of Fantastic Adventures, I went back through the original book to see what worked well, what fell short, and what needed to be refined. I studied dozens of gamemaster books for different fantasy roleplaying games and books of advice for running great fantasy RPGs. I watched a ton of Youtube videos by folks like Matt Mercer, Matt Colville, and others. I poured over forums and websites and blogs that talk about how to run great D&D games. I went back over the six thousand responses to the 2016 Dungeon Master Survey and dozens of Facebook and Twitter polls. I dug deep to see how we actually prepare and run our games.

Then I took a month off from everything and wrote the first draft of the Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. Now, the Kickstarter for the Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master is live! If you like my work and want to give back, this is the way to do it.

I kept the price of this book low, $8 for the PDF and $13 for access to buy the print-on-demand book at cost direct from RPGNow. This keeps it close to the original cost and still make it viable enough to bring on industry titans like Scott Fitzgerald Gray, Marc Radle, and Jack Kaiser to polish this book like a Samurai sword.

At this point we're hammering through stretch goals that include a free EPUB ebook version of the book for all backers, access to a hardcover edition for the $13 backers, and a Lazy Dungeon Master Workbook that will include piles of useful tools to help us run great D&D games. We also unlocked Lazy Lairs; maps of common dungeon locations we can drop right into our game when we need them. These ten general-purpose dungeons will be added to the Lazy Dungeon Master Workbook.

The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master sample chapters are packed with material you can use right now to make your game awesome. Read it, see if you like it, and if you do, please back the Kickstarter.

I love this book. I can't wait to get it into your hands so you can love it too.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Encounter Building with Teos Abadia

Mon, 02/05/2018 - 06:00

In the December 2017 episode of the DM's Deep Dive, I spoke to D&D designer Teos Abadia about encounter building for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Our goal in this show was to dig deep into how we think about building encounters.

You can watch the episode on Youtube or listen to the podcast on the Don't Split the Podcast network.

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We start off the show by designing a specific encounter involving a pair of ettins who hate their joined head but like heads on the other ettin. This is an example of designing an encounter based on the story first instead of just building it around a well-defined tactical combat encounter. It shows how we can let the scene play out how it plays out instead of trying to define it during design as a combat, roleplaying, or exploration scene.

Teos talks about focusing first on building an engaging scene before worrying about encounter balance or encounter type.

Teos then heroically looks at the combat encounter building guidelines in the Dungeon Master's Guide to figure out what level characters fit a pair of ettins. Mike's Note: I don't recommend we ever bother with the encounter building charts in the DMG anymore. Teos then looks at the charts in Xanathar's Guide which includes newly formatted charts for looking up the appropriate CR for a monster given characters of specific levels. Both he and I agree that the charts in Xanathar's Guide are much more useful than the guidelines in the DMG when it comes to building encounters.

The conversation moved on to how Teos scales encounters during adventure design for the D&D Open which must support characters from levels 1 to 10. This isn't a likely scenario for more than a handul of DMs but its interesting to hear the challenges of scaling battles across such a wide level range.

I shared my simple head-math that lets me gauge whether a combat encounter is likely deadly or not. The math breaks down to the following:

Assuming an equal number of monsters and characters, a combat encounter is just over the edge into deadly if the challenge rating of the monsters is equal to half the level of the characters.

Teos uses an Excel spreadsheet to figure out challenge level and many DMs use Kobold Fight Club to figure it out. Given the wide range of variance in encounters already, I believe that a simpler formula we can keep in our heads is just as useful as a set of charts, a spreadsheet, or an online tool.

For adventures on the DM's Guild or Adventurer's League, Teos wants to make it as easy as possible for DMs to be able to run a fun experience which often results in more detailed encounter balance guidelines.

We then discuss our previous episode of the DM's Deep Dive and the shift D&D is making from a tactical wargame to a more story-focused game and how that relates to Adventurer's League play which, in my opinion, lags behind the shifts taking place in home games and streaming games (no, I don't have the data for that, shut up).

I suggest that D&D AL adventures help teach DMs how to tune encounters on the fly to make the experience the most fun. I even recommend that D&D AL DMs get comfortable fudging hit points for the fun of the game, something that is likely an anathema to many in organized play D&D.

We then discuss how encounters are handled in hardback adventures—which focus almost exclusively on the story before considering encounter balance. In some cases this results in encounters much harder than we would expect characters to face. The frost giant invasion of Bryn Shander in Storm King's Thunder and the dragon in the mines in Tomb of Annihilation came up as examples.

We then talk about how we're looking at running Tomb of Annihilation by reducing the quest lines so we don't overwhelm the players and turning off daily hit point loss of the death curse so things aren't so urgent.

Questions From the Audience

"Do you design encounters differently for 'theater of the mind' versus 'grids'?

Teos does not tailor encounters one way or another. He tries to build encounters that are compelling for either situation.

I feel much freer with encounter design when I'm not worried about miniatures and a gridded map. I've run battles against 950 skeletons because I don't have to worry about squares and miniatures. When I don't worry about what fits on a battle map, I can design encounters based completely around the story regardless of the type, size, and number of monsters or the physical area in which they're encountered.

"What encounter have you designed that you are most proud of?"

Teos talked about a collaboration with other designers working really well. Teos liked what he did in the Artifact, an adventure based on the ideas of Clue. The characters have to interview ghosts to figure out who killed the archmage and with what. It's a very sandboxy adventure. Was it Colonel Mustard with the pipe?

I enjoyed building an encounter that took up my whole dining room table in a battle with a primordial in the heart of the abyss.

Teos talked about how he has a Terraclips temple he brings out regularly but it never seems to come into play so he puts it back upstairs at the end of each session.

"What are your favorite parts of Dark Sun and do you have any recommended reading or research?"

Teos likes the Veiled Alliance supplement that digs deep into all of the city-states of Athas.

Dark Sun lets the wilderness shine. The whole world is an antagonist trying to kill the characters (and everyone else).

Getting honey in Athas for survival means they are going to have to fight a giant wasp.

"How do you make challenging social encounters that don't lead to combat?"

Teos recommends focusing on the objective and putting hard choices in place. "You must work with me or all of these people will die." The situation requires that the characters ally with particular NPCs against other NPCs. If you're meeting with a merchant prince, the merchant princes likewise work together and will remember if the characters fight one of them. Take what the characters bring in and have the NPCs react to that and those NPCs react with other NPCs based on those changes.

I wonder, if NPC roleplay scenes often lead to combat, are the players telegraphing what they want from the game? If the barbarian is continually charging guards at the castle, throw them in a dungeon where they can fight everything they see.

"Do you worry about balancing encounters that show off character abilities or do you just put problems in front of the players to let them apply themselves?"

Teos doesn't use challenge levels to show off characters but will look at monster types that a particular character might deal with well.

I often talk about designing encounters that show off the capabilities of the characters but I rarely seem to do it. Instead I build encounters that make sense for the story and, in some of these, one class will really shine. I try in particular not to break a character's advantage and let them steamroll an encounter if that's how it works out.

"Have you ever given your PCs a Kobyashi Maru encounter?"

All editions of D&D are generally bad about retreat. No one knows how exactly to retreat and not have the last few people dead on the floor.

If you're going for a retreat, have special rules for it.

If you're going to have another success criteria for a battle, that needs to be clear to the characters.

I've definitely had hard situations where I'm not sure how the characters are going to get through it. Invariably one of the six players figures out how to get around something.

Teos and I agree that it can be dangerous to push characters to fail.

The impossible puzzle or situation isn't cool.

Players may say they like hard choices but, when faced by them, they might really not like to make a bad commitment.

Storm King's Thunder is a good relaxing adventure that doesn't have these hard choices but your players might end up not seeing giants for two months.

Check out Teos's adventures Jungle Treks and Adamanatine Chef!

Thanks again to Teos Abadia for letting us pick his brain on such an important topic.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

A New Dungeon Master's Guide to the Forgotten Realms

Mon, 01/29/2018 - 06:00

The Forgotten Realms is a fantasy world developed over fifty years and in publication for thirty. There are nearly three hundred products available for the Forgotten Realms according to a quick search of the DM's Guild. TSR and Wizards of the coast have likely invested tens of millions of dollars into the development of the the Forgotten Realms. That's a tremendous amount of investment in a fantasy world and we DMs can ride the wave of that investment.

On a recent Twitter discussion, I brought up this tremendous value we DMs get by using the Forgotten Realms as our setting for D&D. I tended to get three types of responses. First, some people agreed. Second, some people said that they simply don't like the Realms. That's totally fair. Third, some people didn't use it because they are intimidated by the very advantage the Realms brings to us—the tremendous amounts of background and detail.

It's this third group that we'll focus on today, although this article may help anyone even if they don't like the Realms or are already on board.

In this article we're going to discuss how we might squeeze the most value out of the Forgotten Realms. We'll talk about where someone without any experience in the background of the Realms can leap in and get enough to run a great game in this vast and ancient world.

(art by Jedd Chevrier)

Love to Read

Here's a secret truth of D&D that might be a high barrier for many of us. DMs better love to read. We might be able to run a fair bit of D&D without reading a whole lot but the game gets considerabily better the more time we're willing to invest in reading the books that we use to run our games. This means reading the Monster Manual cover to cover. This means reading published adventures to really understand what's going on in them. This means reading about the campaign worlds the characters are going to explore. The more we read, the more we absorb these fantastic ideas into our brain, the easier it is to improvise a great game at the table.

We need not be slaves to what we read. This is our game and we can run it how we wish. Often, though, it's better to know what we're changing instead of just leaping ahead without understanding the world. Even if we have no intention of running what we read, delving deep into our D&D books fills our brains with ideas we can use when we prepare and when we run our D&D games.

Reading D&D sourcebooks pays dividends in every game we run. Reading books isn't a lazy technique but when we consider the value it brings us, the return is worth the investment.

This is as true with campaign worlds as it is with every other book.

Start with the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide

As mentioned, there are hundreds of Forgotten Realms books available but the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide is the widest ranging book on the Forgotten Realms published since the release of the fifth edition of D&D. It focuses on the western half of the continent of Faerun but for someone new to the Forgotten Realms, focusing on that side of the world is a fine idea. Nearly all of the published hardback adventures for D&D 5e also focus on the Sword Coast. If we plan on running those adventures, learning about the area makes it easier to run those adventures. There's a lot of Forgotten Realms to love in the east and south but we can focus on the west and have years of campaigns to run.

The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide covers three major cities on the Sword Coast including Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter, and Waterdeep. There are dozens of other towns and villages covered in the book as well.

The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide is designed for both players and DMs so it doesn't have DM specific information in it. As an added companion, Storm King's Thunder includes a huge chapter covering over one hundred locations from the DM's point of view, many of which overlap with locations covered within the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. You need not read Storm King's Thunder to get value out of the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide but the two books fit well together.

Purchasing the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide on D&D Beyond gives us the advantage of being able to search the book on a phone. This makes it much more usable when you need to look up a location quickly.

Focus on a Single Location and Spiral Out

If we plan on running a game in the Forgotten Realms, we need not memorize the Grand History of the Realms or the full breadth of its locations. Instead, we need only focus on the areas of the Realms that the characters will likely experience in their very next session. If we're planning to run Lost Mine of Phandelver, still my favorite published 5e adventure, we need only worry about the areas around the village of Phandelin.

When we finish a session or adventure we might want to expand out to the locations the characters are likely to go to next. We DMs can expand our own view of the Realms by staying a step or two ahead of the character's travels.

Use the Forgotten Realms Wiki

The Forgotten Realms Wiki likewise stands as font of knowledge on the Realms. Written in the typical wiki fashion of "just the facts", it not only gives a summary of any given location or event but also shows us what published sources talk about that particular area. It's these sources that can help us dive quite deep into the Realms, beginning to really fill out this world in our minds.

Diving Deep into the DM's Guild

At this point we're using the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide as our core reference for the Realms and using the Forgotten Realms wiki as our way to identify books that dive deeper into specific areas. Now we can go to the DM's Guild to find those books. There's thirty years worth of history of the Realms captured in hundreds of products on the DM's Guild if we want it.

If we're planning on spending a lot of time in Baldur's Gate, we might pick up the Murder at Baldur's Gate adventure which includes an excellent reference to the city. If we're going to be spending a lot of time north of the Spine of the World, we probably want to pick up the Legacy of the Crystal Shard which contains a full reference book on Ten Towns and the rest of Icewind Dale. If we're considering a campaign in Neverwinter, the 4th edition era Neverwinter Campaign Sourcebook can't be beat. Even deep locations like Menzoberranzan have older sourcebooks we can use should our characters decide to take a long vacation in the city of the Spider Queen.

We probably don't need to drop ten to twenty bucks on each of these locations if the characters are just visiting. If that's the case, the summaries in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide and the Forgotten Realms wiki are probably enough. Only if we're going to be running an entire campaign, or a good piece of one, in one of these locations will we potentially want to buy a whole sourcebook on the area.

Finding the Right Balance

The sheer scope of the Forgotten Realms, in physical size and in history, can overwhelm us if we let it. Instead, we can recognize that we only need to know what will directly help us run our next game. If we dive too deep, we might find we'll never have enough time to absorb the whole thing. We need only start with a surface-level understanding and then dive in as we want into whichever parts of it we'll need for our game. This lets us spend our time wisely as we sort through the work of hundreds of authors on hundreds of products that span back across the decades.

With just a little work, we too can become part of the Forgotten Realms.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Lazy Approach to Stronger Encounters

Mon, 01/22/2018 - 06:00

Most of the time we can probably run monsters right out of the Monster Manual at our 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons games without having to change anything. There's a freedom that comes from using monsters right out of the book and letting things play out as they will.

Sometimes, though, we find that the characters seem to be walking through encounters that should challenge the characters more than they did. While letting the game play out as it will is often the best choice, it's useful to have some tools on hand that can help us bring a greater threat to the characters so they're getting the right frequency of upward and downward beats. We also want using these tricks to be easy so we don't have to prepare them ahead of time and can implement them right at the table with as little work as possible. Let's take a look at some tricks for making encounters more dangerous.

(art by Jack Kaiser)

Increase the Challenge Rating

Like it or not, the challenge ratings and encounter balance in D&D 5e is a mess. Xanathar's Guide to Everything gives us much improved tools for building balanced encounters, although it can be even simpler if we keep just a loose gauge of what a "balanced" encounter looks like in our head and then let the situation and story determine the monsters.

If we find that our characters are having an easy time with encounters that should be challenging, we can treat the characters as though they are one or more levels higher than the stated level and see how it goes. Choosing a higher challenge rating threshold will result in more monsters, bigger monsters, or both.

Throw In More Monsters

Instead of worrying about balanced encounters using the guidelines, we can just throw more monsters at the characters to increase the challenge. This pushes the action economy in favor of the monsters which will definitely increase the difficulty on the characters. There are few groups who can survive eight angry storm giants.

Adding monsters to a fight was also the number one most mentioned tactic for improving boss fights.

If you're considering a combat encounter and want to increase the difficulty, you can't go wrong by adding more monsters.

Increase Hit Points

Some characters can put out a tremendous amount of damage for their level. If we have particular monsters we want to last past a great weapon champion's action surge or a rogue's assassinate, we might need to give their hit points a boost. We can, for example, increase the hit points of a monster up to the maximum allowed for its hit dice equation. For example, the standard fire giant has 162 hit points but it could have up to 234 if we maximize its hit points from its hit dice (13d12 + 78).

If we don't want to bother with the math, we can simply double the hit points of a monster and consider it an "elite" version. Many published D&D adventures do this for "named" versions of monsters. Doubling hit points is a quick trick to make a more powerful version of any single monster.

Many DMs have made the good point that increasing hit points can turn a battle into a slog. If we increase hit points, we shouldn't require that every hit point be knocked off if the game is getting boring. If we think a monster is going to get killed too early and decide to increase its hit points, we can just as easily reduce its hit points if that turns out to be too much.

Increase Damage

Like hit dice, monster damage is also technically a range between the minimum and maximum of the stated damage dice. If we happen to use static monster damage, which I recommend, we can increase the amount of damage, even going to the maximum on the damage dice instead of the listed average. If using static monster damage isn't your bag, you can add extra damage dice to the attack, maybe even doubling the amount of damage dice and get roughly the same effect.

It's nice to have a story-based reason for such a boost in damage. Maybe they are surrounded by a powerful necrotic aura that makes them more lethal. Maybe their blade or claws are on fire. Maybe they are blessed by a dark god or demon prince. If you can find a flavorful way to increase their damage, all the better. It's not always necessary but its helpful.

Add an Extra Attack

Instead of boosting damage, we might give a monster an additional attack. This works well when we want to spread the threat of a monster to more than one character. A fire giant champion may get three attacks instead of two so it can hit all three of the melee characters piled up on it. Giving a monster another attack requires no up-front math or planning. We just do it when we feel it adds a fun challenge to the monster.

Add Legendary Attacks

If a monster is a boss of some sort, we can easily give it legendary attacks. This creature gets three legendary actions it can take between at the end of other creatures' turns and these actions can either be a move or a single attack. This isn't a perfectly balanced option. A Chasme would benefit much more from this extra attack (since it only has one attack and it's huge) than a creature with three small attacks that do significantly less damage. Still, its an easy approach for boss monsters.

Add Legendary Resistance

Likewise we can also give boss monsters a version of legendary resistances to help them avoid being banished or hypnotic patterned into uselessness. It would be nice of us to telegraph this resistance by saying something like "you feel like you are facing a legendary foe". Of course, to apply such a label, a foe like this must really be legendary. Errtu the balor, for example, is not just any balor but a real legendary demon.

Feel Free to Ignore These Ideas

Manipulating monsters in the ways described above can easily be considered dirty pool. An orc is an orc, so why would one orc hit harder, stand taller, and become legendary just because we DMs think the characters need a harder challenge? There is nothing wrong with running D&D as it is, without modifying monsters at all and letting the story get built from what happens.

Manipulating hit points, damage, and adding legendary features to monsters is a form of DM manipulation of the story we may not necessarily want. Still, given our desire to drop in both hopeful and fearful beats, improvising encounters by increasing their difficulty is one way to get us closer to a fearful beat when we need it.

Like everything here at Sly Flourish, we might keep these ideas in our toolbox and use them when they make the game more fun.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Getting the Most out of Storm King's Thunder

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 06:00

This article may seem one year too late but I've finally completed running Storm King's Thunder not once, but twice. Only now do I feel like I can speak with some authority about how we can make the most out of his huge epic adventure.

This article is likely the final in a series of articles about Storm King's Thunder here on Sly Flourish including the following:

This article will take a wide look at the adventure overall and offer tips on how one might squeeze the most out of this epic adventure.

1/3 Adventure, 2/3 Campaign Sourcebook

Storm King's Thunder is different than other D&D 5e adventure Wizards of the Coast has put out. It has, by far, the widest scope of any adventure, covering nearly a quarter of all of Faerun.

Chapter 4, in particular, covers 164 locations over 46 pages. It offers little interconnection between these locations and the rest of the adventure. There's a lot of fantastic material in this chapter; material that parallels the player-focused descriptions we might find in the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide. It's easy to get lost in this chapter, however, both when you're reading the adventure to prepare for your game and when you're actually running it.

The two groups for whom I ran Storm King's Thunder both lost the thread of the adventure while they spent time exploring the various locations in chapter 4. This isn't bad, but it can be unexpected given how we're used to the adventures of the past. One group, for example, spent a handful of sessions dealing with interesting political intrigue between Daggerford and Cromm's Hold. It was great fun but had almost nothing to do with rampaging giants.

One could almost take out chapter 4 and run the rest of the book, with some quick leveling between the remaining chapters, as one big linear adventure. Doing so, however, loses the fun of a wide-ranging exploration of the North.

Choose Your Giant Lords

When you sit down to read through Storm King's Thunder, and you should definitely read the whole adventure if you plan on running it, it's worth taking note of which giant lords interest you. I never much cared for the hill giant chieftain eating herself to death. I also thought the frost giants were too far away and the red herring about the ring of winter made me think the whole section would fall flat when it turns out the characters can't actually find the ring.

I also thought the stone giants didn't have a particularly strong reason to do what they did so I replaced them with the Dodkong, which made for a much more enjoyable chapter for one of my two groups. Who doesn't like the idea of a thousand-year-old stone giant lich?

The fire giants and cloud giants both sounded great to me so they became major components in my groups although we paid much less attention to the fire giants as the story moved on during the campaign. They became much less of a threat once they lost the magic jar containing a primordial as their fuel.

Your own choices of giant lords may differ but feel free to choose whichever ones grab your interest and make them the focus of the campaign you run.

Sprinkle In Other Adventures

If we treat Storm King's Thunder as more of a campaign sourcebook than a streamlined adventure, we might find opportunities to drop in other smaller adventures in the middle of it. For example, I had Countess Sansuri hunting dragon artifacts of the thousand year war in White Plume Mountain. The characters were free to choose to recover these artifacts themselves (Wave, Whelm, and Blackrazor) or leave them be. Both groups chose to enter the dangerous dungeon, which turned out to be one of Klauth's many hidden treasure vaults.

There are lots of opportunities to drop in other adventures and even reshape the Storm King's Thunder campaign in the process. We could, for example, set our campaign far to the north around Icewind Dale and mix in components from Legacy of the Crystal Shard.

Read Powerscore's Storm King's Thunder Guide

Sean McGovern has a wonderful guide to Storm King's Thunder also available as a "pay what you want" DM's Guild version (and it's definitely worth $5 so give him his due) that provides a wonderful summary and outline of the entire adventure, giving us a wonderful reference we can use as we run the adventure. Definitely give it a read-through and keep it on hand.

Embrace the Freedom or Let it Overwhelm You

The strength and biggest drawback of Storm King's Thunder is the vast freedom the campaign adventure gives you. You can wire this adventure into a straight-forward linear adventure if you choose or let the characters explore the Sword Coast with the giant menace as merely a backdrop. This requires both planning and an ability to improvise as the players make their choices. If you want to return to the story of Storm King's Thunder, be prepared to drop in your own character hooks.

Assign a Patron

As early as we can, we might assign a patron to the characters. This patron may be a faction agent or another notable character that the adventurers will trust and follow. NPCs recognizable to the players can work well such as Leosin Erlanthar or Jamna Gleamsilver from Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

This patron can change throughout the adventure. It might become the ancient red dragon Klauth who wants to see the restoration of the Ordening himsef just to remove any potential threats to his vale. It might become Princess Serissa of the storm giants when the characters meet her.

As wide open as this adventure is, this NPC can be critical to guide the characters as they navigate the adventure.

Outline the Main Thread

As vast as it is, it helps if we have an understanding of the main thread that can tie this adventure together. While side-plots may become wonderfully abundant, it helps to know what the main thread is to drive the story when needed. Here is one potential abbreviated thread:

  1. The characters route the goblins and bandits at Night Stone. They are given a quest to travel to either Goldenfields or Triboar. The quest needs to be enough of a hook to get them to go on such a long journey.
  2. At Triboar and Goldenfields, the charaters witness a giant attack. A patron of the characters from their faction gives them clues that the giants are causing all sorts of problems and the characters are asked to discover why the giants seem to be in such a state and end this chaos. They can learn more at the lost Temple of the All-Father but few know the way.
  3. The party meets Harshnag the giant who knows the way to the Temple of the All Father.
  4. At the temple, the party learns that the Ordening is shattered and that the giant lords all seek to become the new leaders of giants. The fire giants, with their construction of the Vonnindod and the cloud giants with their recovery of draconic magic from the thousand year war are the greatest threats. Likewise, the storm giants have gone completely silent after Queen Nerissa was assassinated on the islands north of Waterdeep. As they leave the temple, they face Iymrith for the first time. Harshnag collapses the entrance of the temple on himself and Iymrith to save the characters.
  5. The characters face off against the giant lords of their choice. During these confrontations they recover a conch that lets them teleport to the Malestrom and stand in front of the remaining storm giants.
  6. During their adventures, the characters also learn that Hekaton, the former head of the Ordening and king of storm giants has been kidnapped and is likely held on the Purple Rocks but a great storm makes traveling there quite difficult. The adventurers can discover that Lord Khaspere Drylund of the Grand Dame gambling barge had something to do with Hekaton's kidnapping.
  7. During their adventures stories and rumors of Iymrith continue. She might actually show up as a gambler on the Grand Dame or as the advisor to the storm giants. She might also send a simulacrum of herself to attack the party to see what the party is made of.
  8. With Hekaton's recovery from the Purple Rocks and one or more giant lords defeated and their plans destroyed, the party can face off against Iymrith, either isolating her from the Sword Coast or defeating her in combat. Doing so is no small feat for the ancient blue dragon sorcerer may be the second most powerful dragon in the lands.

This is just one potential example of the main thread of Storm King's Thunder. As you run the adventure, you may want to modify this thread to fit what has happened in the adventure and what quests the players are likely to resonate with. The characters may discover many of the connections in this adventure in ways you did not expect. For example, in one of my games the characters learned of Hekaton's kidnapping and torment by Slarkrethel through the use of the dream spell. I had no idea they would use such a spell but I was able to drop in the right hints at that time and help guide the story through the direct actions of the characters.

Keeping the main threads in mind lets you drop them in whenever the moments seem right.

The Two Threats: Iymrith and Slarkrethel

Throughout Storm King's Thunder, the characters may face numerous villains but two stand out among the rest: Slarkrethel and Iymrith. Iymrith, who we wrote about already is our cunning manipulator and secret engineer of the shattering of the Ordening.

Slarkrethel, however, is an alien intelligence deep in the sea. For a great side mission, consider having King Hekaton stashed and protected by the Cult of Slarkrethel in an ancient Abolitic ruin beneath the Purple Rocks. We can steal much from HP Lovecraft's Shadow over Innsmouth complete with creepy fish-people in old villages that have thrown away the gods we know in worship of Slarkrethel. Deep scions, sea spawns, kraken priests, and warlocks of the great old one from Volo's Guide to Monsters make for some great enemies in such an adventure. As the party tries to rescue Hekaton, they witness the horror and madness of Slarkrethel as the abomination tries to prevent them from stealing back the king of giants.

What, exactly, is Slarkrethel's motivations? The book has some suggestions but we might consider that Slarkrethel seeks its own mortal avatar through which to better understand and conquer the mortals of the Sword Coast. Should Hekaton be stolen away, the beast Slarkrethel might seek one of the characters to be its avatar instead.

It could be Iymrith herself who implanted this strange idea into Slarkrethel's mind, thus adding to the chaos of the Sword Coast and shattering the Ordening with Hekaton's kidnapping and enslavement to abomination of the deep.

The Heist of the Grand Dame

Though different than the rest of the book, the chapter that takes place aboard the Grand Dame is a great way to break away from typical giant hunting. The situation on the Grand Dame is a great example how to let go of defined encounters. The party has to board the gambling barge and discover where King Hekaton was taken, who took him, and what is going on there.

While there, the characters can learn that Drylund is part of the Kraken Society, that Iymrith aided him in capturing Hekaton, and that he took him to the Purple Rocks to his horrifying patron, Slarkrethel. During this scenario, Drylund might be killed with a telepathic Power Word Kill from Slarkrethel if the abomination thinks Drylund is failing him or giving up too much information.

Likewise Iymrith might show up on the ship to see how Drylund is doing. If confronted, she will likely destroy the ship and leave instead of fighting the characters directly. This can be a fun open-ended heist scenario with lots of opportunity for deception, exploration, spycraft, and showmanship.

Artifacts of the Thousand Year War

One way to guide characters around the Sword Coast and let them weave into and out of the story of Storm King's Thunder is to bait them with artifacts of the Thousand Year War. 30,000 years ago the giants and dragons nearly destroyed the Toril with their war of magic and military might. The remnants of this war still lay buried under the Sword Coast or in the collections of treasure hunters all over the lands. Whatever patron guides the characters can ask them to seek out these artifacts and finding one artifact can give clues to the locations of the others. These artifacts need not be useless maguffins, they can actually be interesting magic items useful to the characters.

An Epic Campaign on the Sword Coast and the North

As it stands, Storm King's Thunder is a truely epic campaign as wide in scope as the Tyranny of Dragons adventures but without the single clear path. As big as it is, Storm King's Thunder is also difficult to run. Give it a solid read, plan your big steps, focus on the parts of it you like, throw away what doesn't work, and let the story unfold between you and your players as you run this massive adventure.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Best of Sly Flourish 2017

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 06:00

Whatever else was going on in the rest of the world, 2017 was a wonderful year for our wonderful hobby. We here at Sly Flourish continued to try our best to help DMs run the best D&D games they could.

In today's article we're going to take a look back over 2017 here at Sly Flourish; looking at what articles received the most visits, which ones I am most proud of, and which tips seemed to resonate with the most DMs.

Fantastic Adventures

This year I published Sly Flourish's Fantastic Adventures, a book of ten short 5e adventures for characters of levels 1 to 5. These short adventures go hand-in-hand with the 2016 release of Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations.

Following in the philosophy of the Lazy Dungeon Master these two books aim to do the heavy lifting for your D&D games with the full intent that you're going to customize them to fit your own game.

(art by Jack Kaiser)

Top 10 Most Visited Articles in 2017

Below are the ten articles most visited by those who came to Sly Flourish over the year. I offered my own commentary on these articles given their popularity and what has happened since their release.

  • Building Encounters in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. This was the number one hit on the site over 2017 and I think it was an important one earlier in the year. Two major changed occurred since this article came out. First, Xanathar's Guide now includes much improved encounter building guidelines that I highly recommend. Second, my own philosophy has changed towards build encounters and now focuses on choosing the number of monsters that fits the story.

  • What I Learned Running D&D 5e from Level 1 to 20. A good article that shares my experiences running D&D all the way from level 1 to 20 during my Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign. Since then I've run six other campaigns from level 1 up to level 12 to 16 and my views keep evolving. Overall the article still holds many of my views although I've been changing quite a bit towards a more story and situation-focused game instead of a pre-planned adventure.

  • Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set: Running Phandelver. Lost Mine of Phandelver remains my favorite D&D published adventure. I think it holds up remarkably well as a starter adventure and I still enjoy running it. Lost Mines is the model for the adventures I wrote in Fantastic Adventures and I hope we'll see another product like this in the future. I expect people hit this article who haven't run Phandelver before so it serves its purpose well.

  • Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Greenist in Flames. Though nearly three years old at this point, people still run Hoard of the Dragon Queen and this article and its subsequent articles aim to help DMs run those adventures as smoothly as possible.

  • Guide to to Narrative "Theater of the Mind" Combat. I spend a tremendous amount of time and energy thinking about and talking about "theater of the mind" combat. This article has gone through dozens of revisions and best articulates some ground-rules for narrative combat I hope can serve more than just my own table. I'm glad to see how popular it is.

  • Running Curse of Strahd. Curse of Strahd is my favorite hardback published D&D adventure. I ran it from cover to cover for two groups over 2016 and loved how both campaigns ran. It also serves well as a Halloween one-shot adventure. This article starts off a series of articles that aim to help DMs run this epic gothic adventure.

  • Tools for 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. A list of the most popular tools to help us run our D&D 5e games. Most of these came from the results of the 2016 DM survey but a handful are ones I personally use. It's a handy list to investigate and bookmark. I expect all DMs have a list like this somewhere.

  • Tools of the Lazy Dungeon Master. Another list of tools; this one mostly made up of table aids that help us run smooth games.

  • Instant NPCs for Fifth Edition D&D. We often find ourselves improvising NPCs, enough that I often wonder whether it's worth preparing NPCs at all. This article gives us some tips for improvising NPCs, both mechanically and within the story, that fits the philosophy of the lazy dungeon master.

  • Running Death House. Though this fits with the article on how to run Curse of Strahd, Death House is an awesome stand-alone adventure as well and it's free to download. An excellent haunted house D&D adventure with creepy ghosts, a twisted story, and the remnants of an evil cult in the cellars; Death House has it all.

  • D&D 5e Numbers to Keep In Your Head. This article gives us a basic list of number ranges we can keep in our heads to improve our ability to improvise. Any time we need to come up with a DC, we can simply ask "what is the difficulty on a range of 10 to 20" and set the DC. A monster's CR is roughly equivalent to a character's level / 3. Inflict 6 (1d10) damage per challenge rating of a damaging effect. Keeping these numbers in mind makes it easy to come up with challenge right at the table.

Mike's Five Favorite Articles

So those were the articles most visited on the site but I have my own list of favorite articles I wrote over 2017. Of the 54 articles and 50,000 words I wrote on Sly Flourish over 2017, These are the articles I am most proud of.

  • Three Years of D&D 5e with Mike Mearls. Being able to interview Mike Mearls was its own great pleasure but the amount of interesting conversations and advice in this episode makes it well worth the listen. Mike talks candidly about the changes happening in D&D as it moves from the heavy tactical wargame of 4e into the story-based game that's captivating people on Twitch. This isn't an easy shift for many people and I find it fascinating to watch and ponder.

  • Letter to a New Dungeon Master. This originally came from a letter that a friend of a friend asked me to write to her son. I think it captures a great deal that I've learned and gleaned from dozens of surveys and thousands of conversations on Facebook and Twitter with D&D dungeon masters. I think this article best captures the high level advice I'd give to any dungeon master.

  • Choose Monsters Based on the Story. This begins to grasp my new thoughts on how we build and prepare our D&D games. In my opinion, building balanced encounters not only doesn't work but makes our games too stale if it did. Instead we can build situations and choose the right number of the right monsters for the situation and watch how the characters navigate it. This is a big shift in how we might think about our D&D games.

  • Building Great D&D Characters. I rarely offer advice to players but in this case I made an exception. Building characters that interface with all of the aspects of the game (not just optimizing around combat) can lead to a more fun experience for everyone around the table. Above all, build characters that have a clear motivation to adventure with the rest of the group.

  • Letting Go of Defined Encounters. This article is another look at how we can let go of defining our encounters by type (exploration, NPC roleplaying, or combat) and instead build situations and let the characters navigate them. This one, choosing monsters based on the story, and the interview with Mike Mearls all dig into this philosophy which I think can be a big change in how we look at D&D.

Top Twenty D&D Tip Tweets of 2017

Over the year I tweeted 370 "#dnd tips" (yeah, I don't know where those extra five came from either). Below are the top twenty most retweeted #dnd tips I posted along with the number of times they were retweeted.

  • D&D is about sitting around a table laughing with your friends. That's the core of our game. Embrace it every session. (147)
  • If the players come up with a better idea than the one you had, smile, wiggle your eyebrows, and pretend it was yours all along. (86)
  • Our hobby is constantly evolving. Do not look at how others play differently with scorn but with awe, wonder, and happiness. (51)
  • Instead of thinking about a boss encounter as strictly tactical combat, ask what big story element will be revealed during the confrontation. (38)
  • Don't stick to the published adventure if what is in your head sounds cooler than the words on the page. (37)
  • Write down seven tips after your D&D game on things you learned and areas where you can improve. (31)
  • Write out one fantastic location and three notable features for every 45 minutes of gameplay you expect to run. Example: Chamber of Orbs; dozen multicolored orbs swirling around the room, covered orb of antimagic in the center, angel of vengeance carved into iron door. (31)
  • Replace meaningless NPCs in published adventures with NPCs your players know and remember. (31)
  • Give players inspiration when they willingly move the story forward and take risks doing so. (30)
  • Boss monsters are more than just bags of hit points and beams of damage. What plot are they setting up to thwart the characters? (29)
  • Don't build scripted scenes. Build situations and let the scene play out from the actions of the characters. (29)
  • Take inspiration from anywhere. Old cover to an Iron Maiden album? Done! (28)
  • Boss fights aren't just an opportunity to beat the hell out of the characters, its an opportunity for the characters to play true to themselves and their capabilities. (27)
  • When a player gives you a rich character background, it's a gift! Mine it for interesting story threads to weave into your game. (27)
  • When teaching the game, get as fast as possible (like within 10 minutes) to playing the game. The rules aren't that important. (27)
  • Instead of rewarding a straight magic item, consider rewarding parts of a larger powerful magic item crafting quest. (26)
  • Spend the time to actually read the Monster Manual. It has hundred of adventure ideas packed into it. (26)
  • Keep your long-term campaign plans light and flexible. Focus two sessions out and let the campaign grow organically. (23)
  • Steal what you want from published adventures and throw away what doesn't delight you. Make them your own. (23)
  • Play D&D like you play craps. Everyone is on the same side and the only villains are the dice. (22)
On to 2018!

During 2018 we'll continue to look at how we run our D&D games, how they're changing, and how we can make the most with what we're given. Let's pack our bags, grab our swords, and head off into the great unknown.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Making Awesome Dungeons

Tue, 01/02/2018 - 06:00

Note, this article has been updated from the original written in October 2010.

Dungeons are one of the staples of Dungeons & Dragons. They even make up 50% of the title of the game. Today we're going to look at how best to make our dungeons awesome.

For the sake of this article, we're going to use the term "dungeon" widely. Decrepit crypts, moldering cellars, sinister prisons, decaying temples, ancient catacombs, castle ruins; any and all of these can be considered "dungeons" from our roleplaying game standpoint. When we talk about dungeons, we're really talking about a series of rooms or chambers connected by halls or passages of some sort.

So we have an idea what dungeons are, but what makes a dungeon awesome?

(art by Sebastian Wagner commissioned for the Five Temples of the Earthmother)

Familiar, Functional, and Fantastic

Long ago in a lost D&D podcast, D&D developer Rodney Thompson described three key criteria for good locations called the three "Fs". These included making locations familiar, functional, and fantastic. We can, of course, apply these to our fantastic dungeons.

First, players have to understand the dungeon's function. What does it resemble? What metaphor can we use from real-life that helps to describe it? Is it a series of tunnels similar to an underground train station? Is it a set of crypts like those found in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? What makes this dungeon familiar enough that players can relate to it?

Second, who made it and why? What purpose does the dungeon serve? How exactly does it work? What keeps it still working over the years? In Tomb of Horrors Gary Gygax had little demons and devils that ran around the tomb resetting traps.

What keeps your traps in good working order over the years? Sure, we can always fall back to "magic", but what about huge waterwheels and massive counterweights? Continually flowing water works as a powerful source of kinetic energy to keep ancient dungeons continually moving. Heat and fire also work, creating gas that moves huge stone pistons if the heat is great enough.

Third, every dungeon should be fantastic. Ancient frescoes painfully etched into the walls over tens of thousands of years. Massive underground waterfalls that fall hundreds of feet below. A black iron prison hanging suspended over the center of a volcano for only the worst offenders of the Elemental Chaos. Size is the easiest way to make something feel fantastic. Big things, cyclopean things, are awe inspiring. What makes your dungeon fantastic?

Wrap It in a Strong Story

Every dungeon needs a good story, or maybe more than one. First, the dungeon needs an origin. Whether it came from the path of the Worm God or was built as a tomb to an ancient stone giant lich, there needs to be a tale for the dungeon's creation. Second, it needs to support the current story. Why are your PCs there? What happened to bring them there? What happened here before? Why do they give a shit? Are they rescuing someone? Are they looking for a vital piece of information? Are they recovering a powerful artifact before someone else does it? Like the layers of a dungeon, our story might too have multiple layers overlapping it.

Every room can tell a story. Each room might have a secret to share. Life is too short for empty chambers. Each chamber might tell what it used to be, what it is now, and why the characters should care.

Layers of History

Dungeons and the chambers can be wrapped in layers of history. Different groups could have used them for different things over the years. What was it when it was created? What did it become? What is it used for now? These layers can appear like layers of wallpaper in an old house, each one telling a different story about those who once called it home. What three layers does your dungeon have?

Three Fantastic Features

One secret gleaned during the development of Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations is the idea of defining three "area aspects" to each area within a location. For any given dungeon we might have five to ten rooms or chambers. Each of these rooms and chambers might have three "area aspects" that help make it fantastic and functional. Here are ten example features we might have in any given room:

  • Bloody rivulets on the floor
  • Leering skulls embedded in the wall
  • A petrified hand reaching up from the floor
  • Burning violet braziers
  • A huge draconic skull
  • rotted floorboards covered in yellow mold
  • A gemstone eye that always seems to follow someone
  • A pile of dismembered hands
  • Bubbling vats of thick liquid
  • Statue of the Red Lady

These tags need be little more than a phrase to let our imaginations and the imaginations of our players run wild during the game. Keep it simple and stay lazy.

Fill Out Dungeons with Monuments, Traps, Relics, and Secrets

Good dungeons are filled with ancient monuments and complicated traps. They are littered with forgotten relics. All of these hide secrets relevant to the character's interests and goals.

The monsters we choose to fill out a dungeon fit the context. We likely don't want to use pure random encounters. Contextually appropriate random encounters, like those found in published adventures or Xanathar's Guide, can work well. If you're at a loss for which monsters to pick, take a look at the Monsters by Environment table in the Dungeon Master's Guide page 302.

From Cellars to the Underdark

Dungeons can appear in just about any shape or size but there are some sweet spots for dungeons. The Underdark, as portrayed in Out of the Abyss or the massive dungeon complex underneath Waterdeep known as Undermountain are massive in scale. These campaign-sized dungeons are not typical. Many times, our dungeons will be small. They might be a single room beneath a church that happens to have a vampire spawn trapped within it.

For a typical single-session adventure, a dungeon is a series of three to nine rooms—most often five rooms. As DMs, we can pick and choose the size of dungeons that best fit the context of the story, the interest of the players, and the length of the dungeon exploration we want. Sometimes this length might just be a scene, sometimes it might be the length of a whole campaign.

The Depths of Adventure

Dungeons are the great pillars of exploration. Whether they're the cellars under a bar or a massive dark cathedral buried under rock for fifty thousand years, dungeons are the pockets of wonder that keep our players on the edge of their seats. Keep a few tools on hand to bring your dungeons to life and fill their eyes with wonder and adventure.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Letter to a New Dungeon Master

Tue, 12/26/2017 - 06:00

The following is a letter I gave to a co-worker's son who just began his, hopefully long, career as a Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master. I thought it might be useful for the rest of us as well. His name has been omitted for privacy.

Dear friend,

It's always a great pleasure to hear about a new dungeon master coming into the hobby of Dungeons & Dragons. It's hard for us old timers to remember what it's like to play the game for the first time. Regardless of how long we've been running D&D games, it's always a bit scary. The joy of running a great game with our friends, however, always makes up for it.

There are few greater joys in life than spending time with our friends and making up stories. Its easy to focus on all of the rules of D&D, but the rules are just the framework for the stories we get to experience with our friends. It's the stories we'll remember.

No one person knows best how to run a D&D game. Each of us has to learn our own way. We can, however, share in the experiences of thousands of other dungeon masters out there in the world; something I spend a considerable time doing. If you will forgive the arrogance, I'll offer a few experiences often shared among these thousands of dungeon masters who, just like you and I, are all figuring out how to run these games.

Keep it simple. We're always eager to run huge epic stories that expand in our minds like vast oceans. When we're running the game, however, we're best off focusing on the here-and-now. What matters to the characters right now? What do their immediate surroundings look like? What immediate threats do they face? That's where we might best focus our attention as DMs.

Focus on the characters. We might have grand ideas for our world but the players love their characters and so should we. Let the world test those characters and give those characters plenty of ways to shine in the world. They are the heroes of the story.

Don't sweat the details. Don't worry about knowing all the rules. Few do. The rules, frankly, aren't not that important. Learn the basics, make judgment calls during the game, ask the players to help you out, admit mistakes, laugh about it, and keep playing.

Prepare to improvise. The best scenes in D&D happen spontaneously. They surprise even us DMs when we're running them. Spend time preparing the tools that will help you improvise the game as it happens. Read the Monster Manual, not just the statistics but the stories of the monsters. Print a list of random names and keep it on hand for improvising NPCs. Write things down as they happen in the game and go back to this list for ideas. When in doubt, ask the players to describe the details of the world they see. It doesn't always have to be you making things up.

Relax and have fun. There are few times in our lives where we can let our imaginations run wild while having fun with our friends. Getting together with friends to play games happens too rarely in our lives. Relax, laugh, have fun, don't take anything too seriously, and enjoy the game.

Thank you again for joining this hobby of ours and may your dice always roll 20s.

Mike Shea

Categories: Blogs, D&D