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Running Omu

Sly Flourish - Mon, 12/17/2018 - 06:00

The fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure Tomb of Annihilation has an interesting and wonderous structure. It begins as a city adventure in Port Nyanzaru, expands out into a large overland exploration sandbox as the characters travel through Chult, narrows down to the exploration of the city of Omu and a potential trek into the Fane of the Night Serpent, and then drills down deep into the dungeon crawl to beat all dungeon crawls, the Tomb of the Nine Gods.

In today's article we're going to focus on the characters' exploration of the city of Omu. How can we dungeon masters get the most out of running this section of the book? Let's find out.

A Refined Sandbox

When the characters journey to Omu they will be going from a large sandbox—the journey through Chult—into a more refined sandbox style adventure. Like Chult itself, Omu has a nice defined boundary to it but multiple ways characters can travel within and through it. To begin with, they can enter from either the south-west corner (a grand staircase) or the north east (down a large waterfall) so even their entry into Omu is their own.

Side tip: When creating sandbox adventures, include two entrances. If you, as the DM, don't know how the characters will enter a dungeon or other area, you're a lot less likely to railroad them overall.

Design two entrances.

Once in the city, the characters can choose how they want to approach the city and accomplish their goals. They won't be the only ones.

The Fronts of Omu

Here at Sly Flourish we like to steal the concept of "fronts" from the game Dungeon World. A front is a driver of the story of our game. It's an actor, often a creature but sometimes an environment or even a whole planet, that has its own goals and leaves indicators to the characters. These indicators are called grim portents. They show the progression of a front as it heads towards its goal.

In the city of Omu, we have two main fronts working alongside the characters. The first is the Red Wizards of Thay. Like the characters, they are trying to acquire the puzzle cubes from the nine trickster gods to get access to the tomb of the nine gods. The Red Wizards might be sending mercenary forces out to the various tombs to collect what cubes they can.

The second front are the yuan-ti from the Fane of the Night Serpent. Their leader, Ras Nsi, seeks the cubes as well because the death curse is eating away at him. His second, a nightmare speaker named Fenthasa, might not have the same goal as Ras Nsi and this can become a fun complication for the characters to explore.

Both of these factions offer opportunities for conflict within Omu but they offer something more interesting too. Their goals are not necessarily in opposition to the characters. The Red Wizards, led by Valindra Shadowmantle, seek to end the death curse but they also want to learn about the Soul Monger. It is possible the characters can work out a deal with them instead of just fighting them.

Likewise, Ras Nsi might be willing to work out a deal with the characters since he too wants to stop the death curse. Of course, Fenthasa might not like that idea which gives us multiple factions within the yuan-ti to work through. If the characters are willing to kill Ras Nsi, Fenthasa might be more willing to work with them.

This offers up an interesting observation for our D&D games. When we have fronts with motivations that can be potentially turned to fit the motivations of the characters, we can build in ways that the characters can use all three pillars to interact with these fronts. In this case, we can see how the characters might use subterfuge, stealth, careful conversations, or violence to work with these fronts. The characters have lots of potential paths and options to take when dealing with this front that aren't just combat. That's awesome.

Give players the option to interact with fronts using roleplaying, exploration, and combat.

The Other Actors in Omu

Beyond the Red Wizards and the yuan-ti, there are other actors in Omu that can come into play and bring some fun with them. The big one, both figuratively and literally, is the King of Feathers. This epic t-rex can be a continuing threat in Omu for the characters. In my game, I modified him a bit. First, I gave him legendary actions so he can have one action between characters' turns. I also gave him legendary resistances as well. I increased his hit points to 200. Finally, I gave him some psionic abilities unique in Chult. He had misty step and invisibility as actions he could take. This let him disappear from combat, shift to a new spot, and attack with advantage. As the characters traveled through Omu they learned more about his abilities and how dangerous he was. When finally faced, he was a real powerhouse villain.

Other actors include the three tabaxi hunters: Bag of Nails, Copper Bell, and Hooded Lantern. These are wonderful NPCs whose history, backgrounds, and motivations you can change for your own game. In one of the two Tomb of Annihilation games I ran, Bag of Nails was a fellow assassin to one of the characters who served Prince Jessamine in Port Nyanzaru. In another, the three taxabi were former companions of the taxabi rogue player character. Reskinning NPCs like these is a great way to bring some relevant stories to the characters as they explore Omu.

There are lots of other actors in Omu worth bringing up such as the kobolds in service of Acererak and the strange vegepigmies conducting a grung sacrifice at the lava pit. Read fully through the chapter and highlight the encounters you want to bring up in your game.

Gathering the Cubes

The primary goal of the characters in Omu is to acquire the nine cubes required to open up the doorway to the Tomb of the Nine Gods. Each of the nine cubes rest in one of the nine shrines to each of the Trickster Gods.

As the adventure states, the characters need not be the ones to collect all nine cubes. The Red Wizards may have recovered some. The yuan-ti might have some. Other random adventurers may have some.

This is a great opportunity to ensure that the characters interact with these other groups and they get to choose how. Maybe it's negotiation. Maybe it's theft. Maybe it's blinding violence.

You can choose how many of the cubes have already been recovered or decide that, as the characters uncover one cube the other fronts acquire another. One good way to choose this is to read through each of the shrines in the adventure and if any of them don't resonate with you as a DM, you can make that one a shrine whose cube has already been pilfered. How may cubes have been recovered also shortens the time spent in Omu so it's a nice dial to turn if you want things to move forward faster. You'll have to ensure the characters learn that the cubes have been recovered before they waste a lot of time trying to get them.

The Ruins of Omu

As the characters travel through Omu, it's likely they'll want to explore some of the notable ruins of Omu, either to take a rest, escape a pursuer, or just take in some of the dead culture of Omu.

Here is a list of twenty notable ruins the characters might encounter while exploring Omu. If you're not running Tomb of Annihilation, you can use this same list for other ruined cities as well.

The Collapsed Cellar. A floor of one of the buildings has collapsed into a strange cellar. The cellar contains a small shrine to a trickster god (roll to randomly determine the trickster god), a sacrificial stone, and scrawlings in old Omuan begging for the life of a sick child.

The Ashen Family. This ruin contains bodies of ash still standing with looks of horror on their face. An ashen body of a mother cradles her doomed child. All of them appear to have been hit with a disintegrate spell.

The Noble Treasure Vault. A house of nobility has trapped bronze door in the cellar guarded by two animated armors. The door has two DC 15 glyphs of warding including a fear glyph and another glyph that animates the statues. If the trap is defeated, the adventurers find the noble house's treasury. The treasury includes 832 cp, 3490 sp, 2087 gp, 28 pp, 2 x Chalcedony (50 gp), Citrine (50 gp), Jasper (50 gp), 3 x Moonstone (50 gp), 5 x Sardonyx (50 gp), 3 x Zircon (50 gp), Potion of Resistance (thunder) (uncommon, dmg 188), Spell Scroll (Sleet Storm) (uncommon, dmg 200), Potion of Water Breathing (uncommon, dmg 188), and a Rope of Climbing (uncommon, dmg 197) Use the treasure tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide to determine the treasure instead if you prefer.

Desecrated Shrine to Ubtao. This ruin contains a shrine to the god Ubtao. The statue's head has been removed and lies in the corner covered in rubbish. Dark sigils have been etched into the statue's surface. Examining the glyphs begins to fill the examiner's visions with the people of Omu destroying effigies of Ubtao after he turned his back on them two centuries ago. The cacophony of blasphemy fills the investigator's head with madness. The character must make a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw or suffer a short-term madness effect.

The Crystal of Calling. The basement of this ruined building contains an arcane circle. In the center of the circle is a large violet cracked crystal. A DC 14 Intelligence (Arcana) check reveals that the crystal was used by arcane spellcasters to call across the multiverse to help find a god who would save them from their downfall. Any creature that touches the crystal can see visions of the Omuians using the crystal to call out across the Astral Sea and then later witnessing the arrival of Acererak.

Access to Underground Sewers. Deep cracks in the basement of one of the ruins reveals access to narrow sewer passages that lead to various areas of Omu including the palace, the flooded rivers to the east, the amphitheater, and the enclave to the south-west. Traveling through the sewers has a chance to encounter monsters. Use the random encounter table for level 1 to 4 swamp monsters in [Xanathar's Guide to Everything] re-rolling if the monsters make no sense for Omu.

Altar to Dendar the Night Serpent. The ruins of this building contain a carving depicting a massive serpent eating its own tail surrounding a globe that looks like Toril. The rotting remains of a female dwarf lie on a bloody stone altar, her ritually dissected innards in a series of clay pots surrounding the altar.

Abandoned Red Wizard Refuge. This ruin contains the remnants of a campsite for roughly one dozen people. The signs of a conflict litter the area including the bodies of Thayan mercenaries, mercenaries of Port Nyanzaru, and dead yuan-ti purebloods. A cracked silver mirror with arcane glyphs surrounding its edge used for scrying remains in the area. The broken mirror is worth 200 gold pieces.

Ruin of Grasping Vines. Thick yellow throned vines fill this ruined house seeming to come from a central stalk in the center that throbs like a heartbeat. The stalk itself (a yellow musk creeper with double the normal hit points and a reach of 15 feet) grows from the ruins of the basement below and only there can it be truly destroyed. The remains of a dead adventuring party lay within the ruins possessing a Philter of Love (uncommon, dmg 184), a Potion of Animal Friendship (uncommon, dmg 187), and two Potions of Growth (uncommon, dmg 187). 1d2+1 yellow musk zombies rise from the thick vines when someone enters.

The Trapped Incubus. The characters fall into a ruined pleasure den where an incubus has been trapped for nearly a century within a summoning circle. The incubus begs for its release and will give the characters a clue about Acererak's arrival and the building of the Tomb of the Nine Gods in return for his freedom.

Your Own Mini-Campaign

Tomb of Annihilation is an amazing adventure for a bunch of reasons but one of them is because it contains all sorts of sandboxes within sandboxes. Omu is itself a full sandbox adventure packed within Chult, a much larger sandbox adventure. And, of course, Omu leads to the Tomb of the Nine Gods which is its own evil sandbox.

Above all, keep the options open and let the characters interact with the forbidden city however they wish.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

D&D's Nastier Specials

Sly Flourish - Mon, 12/10/2018 - 06:00

I love the roleplaying game 13th Age by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet. Written as a love-letter to D&D by two designers who worked on two different editions of D&D, 13th Age has some of my favorite rules for running great roleplaying games. Like Dungeon World, it's a RPG that often gets pilfered for great ideas DMs can bring into our own games like the "one unique thing", the escalation Die, and their method of abstract combat.

I also love the monster design of 13th Age. As a simplified version of 4th Edition D&D's monster design, monsters in 13th Age are easy to use and are some of the most well-balanced monsters in any d20 game I've played.

It also has a really cool feature that, like the others mentioned above, we might pilfer and use in our 5th edition D&D games: the nastier special.

Many monsters in 13th Age include a way to beef them up to build a really tough challenge if the GM wants one. Here's an example for the Hezrou:

The fifth edition of D&D doesn't have clear dials like this we can use to change the threat of a monster. The system, however, is flexible enough that we can come up with our own, often improvising them right on the spot if we want. Once we have some experience built up, if something feels right, we can drop in our nastier specials without any work at all.

We've talked before about building stronger encounters and how to improve boss fights. This article goes hand-in-hand with both of those.

A List of Nastier Specials

The following is a list of a few potential nastier specials we might add to our monsters. My hope is that these are simple enough that we can keep them in our head and use them when the time feels right for it. We shouldn't need to write them down. Above all, these specials need to make sense within the story. Why are these specials in place? We're not doing it to be mean to our players, we're doing it to add fuel to the fire of the story.

Maximize damage. One of the easiest ways to dramatically increase the threat of a monster is to maximize its damage output. Monsters suddenly start hitting for a lot more, sometimes nearly twice as hard, when their damage is maximized. Are you worried that your high level characters are going to kill Tiamat when they face her? Not if she's breathing for 156 damage as a legendary action! Ok, that's an extreme example, but you get the idea. If you really want a monster to be dangerous bordering on lethal, max it's damage output.

Add extra attacks. Along with or instead of increasing damage, we can give a monster extra attacks. Maybe it attacks faster than others of its ilk. Maybe it's hastened. Maybe it has more appendages available for such attacks. More attacks increases the number of times a monster will hit so you can spread its damage around to multiple targets instead of hammering on one target all the time. This is a good nastier special when a creature is fighting by itself against a full party of adventurers.

Maximize or double its hit points. Bigger nastier versions of a monster could have significantly more hit points than the average listed in the Monster Manual. We are free to change these hit points as much as we think fits the story within the range of the hit dice. We can also just ignore it and double a monster's hit points if there's a good reason. One dirty trick that helps us maintain pacing is to keep in mind the maximum hit points a monster might have and, if it fits the story and the pacing, change those hit points during the fight so a monster sticks around a little longer or drops at the right moment. Yes, it's cheating, but it's for the good of the pace of the game.

Add Legendary Actions and Resistances. We can make any monster a legendary foe by giving it legendary actions and resistances. Typically legendary actions will let a monster attack or move up to three times between its opponents turns. Keep in mind that the power of a legendary version of a monster will be much stronger than it otherwise would be. Legendary resistances also help monsters, particularly monsters fighting alone, to break out of nasty save or suck effects like hypnotic pattern or dominate monster. Again, these should be used sparingly and only when they make sense within the fiction of the story. Why are these monsters legendary?

Damage shields. The spell fire shield is powerful on its own but it's really powerful if it's on a monster that everyone is going to hit. Put it on a dragon and that dragon becomes a lot more dangerous. We don't need to stick to fire or cold either. We can add any element we want to the damage shield. A lich might have a necrotic damage shield or a demon might excrete poison or acid. We can also increase the damage on this, maximizing it to 16 or more if we think it's right. Note that this is particularly hard on monks who attack about seventy times a round and will take damage every time.

Give Monsters Spell-Like Abilities. If you're looking for a nastier special, look no further than the hundreds of spells at our disposal in the Player's Handbook. These spells aren't just for player characters. We DMs can build entire stories around the spells found in that book. And they make fantastic ways to customize monsters. Spiritual weapon, shield, misty step, wall of fire; the list of useful spells for monsters goes on and on. We can reskin and reflavor these spells to fit the theme of the monster as well. A powerful devil might invoke a wall of screaming souls that acts very much like a wall of fire except it does psychic damage instead of fire damage.

We can make these spells more useful by making them part of a monster's attack action instead of using up a whole action for the spell. A drow spellblade might be able to hurl a lightning bolt right after slashing with its own lightning-enhanced scimitar, for example.

We can also give monsters spells that might not otherwise be in our game, like spells from third-party publishers. Unlike giving them to characters and potentially changing the face of our game permanently, a monster with a spell like this will only hit the table once and then be gone. My current favorite monsterous spells are the Blasphemies of Bor Bwalsch by D&D writer and creator of Shadow of the Demon Lord Rob Schwalb. They're awful spells that are perfect for lichs, vampires, demons, devils, hags, and any other hideous spell casters.

Give Monsters Exotic Potions. Monsters don't always have to have access to spells to gain some interesting new abilities. Instead we can give intelligent monsters access to potions or scrolls with some interesting and dangerous abilities. Potions of displacement could give a monster the same trait as a displacer beast. Potions of greater invisibility could give an assassin a seriously dangerous edge. Potions of giant strength can turn monsters or NPCs into mountain-crushing horrors. It makes sense that powerful NPCs like the gladiator or champion would have access to a potion like this. A champion with a potion of storm giant strength is a true foe to be feared. It doesn't hurt if the characters get access to reserve potions like this so they can gain the same benefit even if it's only for a few minutes.

Building Your Toolkit of Nastier Specials

All of these are just examples of the sorts of ways you can tune monsters to be something interesting and unique. New armor, magic weapons, potions, scrolls, and spell-like-abilities are ways to change monsters within the fiction. Simple mechanical effects like increasing it points, increasing damage, and adding attacks are easy to implement and turn a normal monster into a brute.

Build your own mental list of nastier specials that make sense for the situation and are relatively easy to implement. With a good set of nastier specials you can turn the hundreds of monsters in the Monster Manual into tens of thousands of monsters your players will remember their whole lives.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Produce Appealing Goods For You To Sell

Temporary Hit Points - Mon, 12/03/2018 - 13:43

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The post Produce Appealing Goods For You To Sell appeared first on Temporary Hitpoints.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Generating Enhanced Tomb Guardians

Sly Flourish - Mon, 11/26/2018 - 06:00

There is only one real wandering monster in the Tomb of the Nine Gods in Tomb of Annihilation, the Tomb Guardian. These armored flesh golems are no joke but they can get stale if we run them again and again.

Today we'll offer a generator to create enhanced tomb guardians. Each of these still uses the default statistics for the flesh golem with an armor class of 18 for the armor bolted onto its body, though some might be more dexterous and wearing leather armor but we can still give them an AC of 18. Each of them is also empowered beyond the normal tomb guardian as Withers enhances his creations, all with different races, with enchanted weapons and armor.

A Random Enhanced Tomb Guardian Generator

Here are twenty randomly generated enhanced tomb guardians. Reload the page for a new set.

var guardian = {origin:[""], weapon:[""], element:[""], spell:[""]}; guardian.origin = [ "dragonborn", "dwarven", "elven", "abyssal", "orcish", "dark elven", "demonic", "human", "gorilla", "ogre", "giant", "hobgoblin" ]; guardian.element = [ "flaming", "icy", "electrical", "thunderous", "poisonous", "necrotic", "acidic", "forceful", "psychic", "radiant", ]; guardian.attack = [ "dagger", "mace", "spear", "battleaxe", "flail", "longsword", "morningstar", "scimitar", "shortsword", "warhammer", "spiked gauntlet", "spiked chain" ]; guardian.spell = [ "shield", "lightning bolt", "fireball", "spirit guardians", "cloudkill", "sleep", "fire shield", "cone of cold", "improved invisibility", "haste", "globe of invulnerability", "glyph of warding" ]; function GuardianGenerator(origin, element, attack, spell) { function shuffle(o){ //v1.0 for(var j, x, i = o.length; i; j = Math.floor(Math.random() * i), x = o[--i], o[i] = o[j], o[j] = x); }; this.generate = function(length, targetDiv, write_out){ var output_list = []; for(var i = 0; i < length; i++){ shuffle(origin); shuffle(element); shuffle(attack); shuffle(spell); output_list.push("A " + origin[0] + " tomb guardian armed with a " + element[0] + " " + attack[0] + " and a " + element[1] + " " + attack[1] + " empowered with a " + spell[0] + " spell.") } if(targetDiv && write_out) $("div#" + targetDiv).html("
  • "+output_list.join("
  • ")+"
"); } } $(document).ready(function() { var count = 20; var output = true; var guardianGenerator = new GuardianGenerator(guardian.origin, guardian.element, guardian.attack, guardian.spell); guardianGenerator.generate(count, "guardianlist", output); $("#reload").bind("click",function(){ trapGenerator.generate(count, "guardianlist", output); }); });

Each enhanced tomb guardian uses the statistics of a flesh golem with an armor class of 18. Enhanced tomb guardians add 7 (2d6) damage onto each weapon attack of the damage type defined by descriptors on the weapons. You can use the proper dice for each weapon, doubling the normal dice and adding the flesh golem's strength bonus, or, if you're lazy, you can just use the default damage the flesh golem already inflicts plus the bonus damage.

The spells the enhanced tomb guardian can cast do not require any components and are cast at 5th level. They have a DC of 15 and a +7 spell attack bonus. Spells with a duration are cast before combat begins and the enhanced tomb guardian does not need to concentrate to keep a spell going.

Want to build your own enhanced tomb guardians at the table? Use the tables below to roll for your tomb guardians.

Origin

What creature or creatures make up the tomb guardian? Roll 1d12 and consult the following:

  1. Dragonborn
  2. Dwarven
  3. Elven
  4. Abyssal
  5. Orcish
  6. Dark Elven
  7. Demonic
  8. Human
  9. Gorilla
  10. Ogre
  11. Giant
  12. Hobgoblin
Weapons

Roll 1d12 twice on this list to determine what weapons the tomb guardian wields.

  1. Dagger
  2. Mace
  3. Spear
  4. Battleaxe
  5. Flail
  6. Longsword
  7. Morningstar
  8. Scimitar
  9. Shortsword
  10. Warhammer
  11. Spiked Gauntlet
  12. Spiked Chain
Elemental

Some tomb guardians might have an elemental bond. Roll 1d4, on a 4, roll 1d10 on this table to determine what elemental condition it might have. If Withers feels like the characters are having too easy a time, he might send more tomb guardians with these bonds.

  1. Fire
  2. Cold
  3. Necrotic
  4. Poison
  5. Acidic
  6. Thunderous
  7. Lightning
  8. Radiant
  9. Force
  10. Psychic
Spellbound

Withers has implanted spells on some tomb guardians as well. If the characters are having an easy time, he might send these spellbound tomb guardians to thwart the party.

  1. Shield
  2. Lightning Bolt
  3. Fireball
  4. Spirit Guardians
  5. Cloudkill
  6. Sleep
  7. Burning Hands
  8. Cone of Cold
  9. Improved Invisibility
  10. Haste
  11. Globe of Invulnerability
  12. Glyph of Warding
Adding Flavor to Tomb Guardians

These enhanced tomb guardians are intended to change up the threat the characters face when facing one of these thematic tomb guardians. We add these interesting abilities not to punish our players (that's Acererak's job) but to keep things interesting. Each time our players see one of these enhanced tomb guardians coming for them, they'll know they're going to be facing something unique and chaotic.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Running Meaningful Random Encounters

Sly Flourish - Mon, 11/19/2018 - 06:00

In a previous article on Sly Flourish we talked about the value of randomness and creativity in D&D and breaking conventional thought with random tables. Randomness is obviously a big part of the gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons. We're rolling dice all the time while the story unfolds during the game. We might even think of the die, and randomness in general, as an additional player in the game, one who steers the direction of the game in ways we could not have expected.

So we all take it for granted that randomness is a core component of the game (ability checks, attack rolls, and the like), but we might not consider how randomness can affect larger parts of the story as well, like the potential scenes that take place.

Random encounters go back to the beginning of D&D. Against the Giants and Descent into the Depths both published in 1978 included wandering monster tables that made these adventures feel alive and unpredictable. Even the DM didn't know where things were necessarily going to go.

Nearly all of the fifth edition D&D hardback adventures include robust random encounter tables with encounters for many environments and detailed descriptions of what the characters might find in the encounter. Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes a bunch of random encounter tables based on environments that we can use for our own adventures. I've also included a set of random dungeon encounters in the Lazy DM's Workbook.

Criticism of Random Encounters

While many DMs are fine with random encounters, some DMs don't like them at all. Criticisms against random encounters include, generally, two main themes: they take away from the main story of an adventure and they take up valuable game time. These criticisms aren't necessarily wrong but there are ways we can incorporate random encounters that make them an interesting and exciting part of the story instead of a distraction. We can steer how we use random encounters to stay true to the story, expand the world, and liven up the game for both our players and ourselves by introducing the unexpected. Today we'll look at some of the ways to get the most out of random encounters in our D&D games.

Cooking At The Table

Why would we want to use random encounters at all? Why not plan out all the encounters that the characters will face so we can tune them very carefully around the story? As we talked about in the article Randomness and Creativity we recognize that sometimes random elements can make us more creative. We'll avoid stereotypes. We'll push our minds towards new ideas we might not have seen otherwise. Just as the dice we roll for a character affects the outcome of a story, so can the dice help us see what scenes might take place.

Rolling for random encounters is a bit like cooking at the table instead of in the kitchen. We have the ingredients all set up for us but a couple of die rolls might change things up in ways we didn't expect.

For some DMs, this is scary. We like to have control over the game and might even feel like that control is critical to ensure the game will be fun. Sometimes, though, we have to just let go. For others, though, it can be a great way to sharpen our ability to improvise right at the table. We don't roll random encounters to divert the story of the game. We roll random encounters to find new and interesting ways to expand that story.

Use Theater of the Mind

The fact that random encounters add time to our games is hard to get past. If our games are already constrained, random encounters are likely the first thing to go. One way we can manage the time is to skip the battle map and handle the scene all in our conversations. First off, the random encounter might not end in combat anyway. Characters might sneak by, negotiate their way past, or find some other way to get out of the situation without drawing a sword. If we pull out a mat, we're telegraphing to our players that combat is the likely way out. If we keep it aside, the players might try other ways to navigate the scene.

If it does come to combat, we can stay with our narrative approach by running combat in the theater of the mind. This keeps things moving fast and keeps the players in the story instead of worrying about tactical positioning. Even if you use the grid for big battles, running smaller battles in the theater of the mind is a great approach to keep on hand, particularly for random encounters.

Situations and Undefined Scenes

When we introduce a random encounter, it works well when we think of it as a situation the characters are going to get involved in. We don't have to consider what type of scene it is: exploration, roleplaying, or combat. Instead, we can focus on the fiction. Even if it's a horrible monster, the characters might find another way out of the situation than sword and spell. The less we define an encounter, the more freedom the players have to navigate it. This works well for the whole game, really, but it works particularly well for random encounters.

Tying Secrets and Clues to Random Encounters

I'm a huge fan of secrets and clues as an improvisational aid and preparation technique. It's the cornerstone of the checklist in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. The keys to a great secret and clue is that it's relatively short, it matters to the characters, and we don't know how it will come up during the game.

Random encounters are a great way to use those secrets and clues we prepared. Often we can reveal a valuable clue through a random encounter. When this works well it feels like magic. Suddenly something we couldn't anticipate came true at the table and tied directly into the story. We had a secret but didn't know where it would come up. We have an encounter we didn't expect but rolled the dice and there it is. Put the two together and we have the very example of how the story unfolds at the table.

Don't be a Slave to the Dice

Sometimes you roll the dice for a random encounter and it just doesn't work out. You either roll an encounter that already happened or that just doesn't make sense for the situation. We need not accept such weird answers. It helps to take a moment and really think about how it might make sense. The dice, after all, are helping us break out of our current creative shell and think differently. If it really doesn't work out, roll again or let your eyes wander up and down the list of random encounters and pick one that makes sense.

The Right Tool for the Right Job

There are circumstances when random encounters really don't fit well at all. If you're running a single-session time-focused game, like a convention Adventurer's League game, you probably don't want to throw in a random encounter. I don't think many Adventurer's League adventures include random encounters for this very reason.

If you're running a homebrew single-session adventure, however, you can account for the extra time within the structure of the adventure. If the characters are navigating an old crypt to find the remains of the Blood Prince, you might account for a random encounter within the tomb as they seek the villain.

Avoid Building Your Own Random Encounter Lists

Here's a bit of a controversial statement. As DMs, I don't think its a valuable use of our time to come up with our own random encounter lists. Instead, we can just come up with encounters. Leave the random encounter lists to publishers and random encounter generators. Game designers get paid to make large lists of random encounters, knowing that many of them will not get used by any single player but that, overall, they will have a high impact on the games played among many groups.

When we DMs write out random encounter lists, we're not likely to use it very often and thus a lot of our effort is wasted. Our time is better spent designing actual situations we know the characters will face and using random encounter lists to help us think outside of our own mind a little bit. Others may likely argue against this, and that's fine, but consider how much impact the whole random encounter list you write affects your actual game and decide if it's worth the time or if that time is better spent elsewhere. That is, after all, the number one lesson of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.

Prepare what matters.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Why I Love Madness

Sly Flourish - Tue, 11/13/2018 - 06:00

As part of the work we did on the Lazy Dungeon Master's Workbook, I surveyed the Kickstarter backers of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and asked them which references, charts, and tables they found most and least useful while preparing and running their 5e games. The three madness charts trended towards the bottom of the list.

I'm not completely surprised but a little sad at this. I love the madness charts. Ever since using them in Out of the Abyss, I've used madness here and there throughout my D&D games and always found them to be an enjoyable addition. Today I'm going to dig into why I love these charts so much and what they can bring to their game.

Regardless of the results, I stuck the madness tables in there anyway. Hell, it's my book. Today I'll talk about why.

(art by Walter Brocca)

The Great Equalizer

Madness is a strange effect. It isn't technically a status effect but when it hits a character, it acts very much like one. We don't know exactly what that effect will be should a character fail a madness check but it sure won't be good.

When we have high power characters, it can be hard for us dungeon masters to challenge them all the time. Many times that's perfectly fine. It's fun to carve through all sorts of monsters when you're a high level and high power character. Since D&D isn't tuned around magical items, the items characters acquire push them outside of their expected power level and that feels great.

Sometimes, however, particularly for really powerful monsters, we want to show the danger. We want players to be scared of things. If Demogorgon rises out of the black waters of Dark Lake, we don't want the characters to just start preparing their attacks and jumping in.

That's where madness comes in. Some creatures are just too horrible to behold. Their very presence pushes the mortal mind outside of the bounds of sanity. The walls of reality crack and in seeps the horror of worlds beyond.

It doesn't matter how many attacks a round you can dish out, a DC 24 Charisma saving throw will turn just about any fighter into a slug-eating buffoon, at least for a few seconds.

The round a demon prince comes out and that aura of madness hits the characters, that's the most dangerous round in D&D. And that danger can be really fun.

When To Use Madness

Madness is an effect we should keep in our back pocket and not use all the time. The appearance of a demon prince or lord of hell is a great time to drop in madness. The arrival of a powerful entity of the Far Realm might be another. Should Slarkrethal the kraken rise from the depths of the seas, it's psionic wave will crash on them like water tearing down mountains.

Other circumstances might also warrant a madness check. Opening up and gazing upon a book of terrible rituals, maybe the Book of Vile Darkness itself, could crack the minds of the strongest wizards. Staring into the shifting planes of a portal to an outer world might invoke madness. Some Fantastic Features containing the depths of evil and studied too rashly might drop waves of terror upon those who gaze upon them.

Again, madness should be used infrequently but, when the situation is right, it's a powerful effect.

Tuning Madness for Fun

As written, madness might be too powerful. The biggest reasion is that it offers no saving throw at the end of a turn to get rid of the effect. We can easily add this end-of-next-turn saving throw when a character is hit with a short-term madness effect during combat.

If the saving throw is too high, though, as it might be for characters who have poor charisma scores, this might not even help. A fighter is going to have a hell of a time beating a DC 24 Charisma save even if they get it at the end of any round. A number of spells can remove madness, as described in the Dungeon Master's Guide including calm emotions lesser restoration, remove curse, dispel evil and good, and greater restoration. We might also argue that damage done to the character can snap them out of their daze or at least give them advantage on the check.

The Creativity and Improvisation of Madness Effects

One of the reasons I love the madness effect so much is that it's full of flavor. While a stun is generally just a stun, madness carries such flavorful effects as "the character experiences an overpowering urge to eat something strange such as dirt, slime, or offal." Hard to beat that for flavor!

Other status effects too have such flavor but it's tied to the way it hits the character. When a drow mage casts web on a character, we know more than just that the character is incapacitated. We know that they are cocooned in a magical sticky web, stuck to the wall or ground and gasping for breath. We might forget this when we're deep into the mechanics of the game but it behooves us to go there and remember what is really going on in the game's fiction.

Likewise madness brings flavor to the game beyond its mechanical effects, which are substantial. Think about the source and describe what happens. One of my favorite questions is to ask the player to describe their happy place when they retreat into their own mind due to a madness effect. A player will describe a nice leatherbound book, sweet pipesmoke in the air, and the familiar softness of a leather chair in front of a warm fire while the rest of the party is being shredded by the tentacles and mental probes of a cyclopean titan risen from the depths. Oh what fun!

Though we tend not to use it often, short-term madness is a wonderful flavorful effect to add into our games from time to time. The next time a character witnesses something outside the bounds of the mind, time to hit that madness chart.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Our Ability Check Toolbox

Sly Flourish - Mon, 11/05/2018 - 06:00

The more we focus on the story of D&D, the more ability checks become the main mechanic as characters interact with the world around them. Asking for checks and getting the results sounds easy. Ask the player for a roll, add the appropriate modifiers, and match it up against a DC. Simple.

When we're running our game, though, it isn't always as easy as it sounds. It isn't always clear how we should call for checks, to whom, and how we should adjudicate the results. What if a player does a particularly good job roleplaying an encounter with an NPC but rolls poorly on their persuasion check? Is all that good roleplaying lost? What about when a character wants to examine a door, rolls a 2, and everyone else at the table wants to jump in and check the door as well?

In today's article we're going to dig deep into how we use ability checks in the story of our D&D games.

A Summary of Ability Check Options

This is a big article so here's a summary.

  • Read up on the intent of ability checks in chapter 7 of the Player's Handbook and chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide. Freshen up regularly before you start changing how you run things.
  • Consider how randomness fits into the world and the situations in which we might call for an ability check. Does this check warrant a roll or is a passive ability check enough?
  • Roll secretly for a character's ability check when the character might not know if they succeeded or failed such as when searching for a trap.
  • Offer advantage on checks in which players roleplay particularly well or when an aspect of their character gives them an advantage in the situation.
  • Allow full table rolls if the circumstances allow for it. The highest roll learns the in-game results first.
  • If needed, curb full-table rolls by determining if only one character can reasonably perform the check or by accepting only the first roll.
  • Be prepared for an entire table to fail a check. Make sure it doesn't halt the game.
  • Ask for rolls only from those trained in a skill when a particular level of expertise is required such as decoding magical runes.
  • Ask players to describe how they aid an ally or guide them with guidance.
  • Build your own toolbox of methods for adjudicating ability checks.
Understanding the Rules As Written

Whenever we're going to dig deep into any mechanic in D&D, it's best to read the rules and understand their intent. In the case of ability checks, we have chapter 7 page 173 in the Player's Handbook and chapter 8 page 237 in of the Dungeon Master's Guide to give us the written rules and some solid advice on how best to use ability checks. If you're going to monkey around with ability checks or find that things get confusing at your game, spend a few minutes reading both of these sections to reinforce how the designers intended for ability checks to work.

One thing of note, particularly for DMs who have played older versions of D&D, there are no skill checks. In the fifth edition of D&D, there are only ability checks. Skills are subjects in which characters are proficient and add to an ability modifier when the circumstances allow it. This sounds pedantic but the distinction matters, particularly in the vocabulary of the rules.

These sections in the Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide give us the basics of using ability checks including group checks, aiding another character, and using advantage and disadvantage based on the circumstance of the check. It's worth reading and refreshing ourselves on these rules regularly, particularly once we've seen how they actually play out for the group at the table.

The Random Chances of the World Around Us

The real world around is is constantly and continually moving based on random chance. Very likely the reason I am writing this and the reason you are reading it are based on very slim random occurrences that happened over our lives and the lives of our ancestors. When we interact with the world around us, random chance plays a big part in those interactions as well, even if we don't see it or choose not to.

The same is true in the world of our D&D games. In the Dungeon Master's Guide, we're given the advice that we need not worry about asking for ability checks when the task being done is either so easy that it's almost assured or so hard that it's nearly impossible. There's another way to think about this, though, and it's by considering how much randomness exists in the situation itself.

If the characters are talking to a town guard, maybe there's randomness in the response of that guard. Maybe he ate something bad earlier that day or got in a fight with his husband before work. Maybe we want to account for that potential random circumstance when our charismatic sorcerer decides to ask him about the secret tunnels beneath the ruined watchtower.

But maybe we don't. Maybe, for the sake of the story, its just easier of the guard tells the characters what they want to know. Regardless of any digestive or domestic issues the guard has, he's still likely to tell a charismatic sorcerer about the tunnels. We don't need to roll for this.

Page 236 of chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide has a whole section called "The Role of Dice" that discusses when DMs should consider rolling or ignoring dice. The section called "The Middle Path" likely offers the best option: use the dice when a bit of randomness makes sense for that situation or ignore it when the characters approach the situation in a way that makes failure unlikely.

It's important for us to understand why there is a random component when it comes to interacting with the world overall. This randomness isn't there to take some excellent roleplaying and throw it away on a shitty roll. It's there to help the world feel as unpredictable as any realistic world would feel. It's also there to make the story more interesting. If everything were simply comparisons between static ability scores and difficulty classes, we could predict every interaction before it occurred (hello Leplace's Demon!). With the roll of the die, mysterious things happen and that's fun for both players and DMs alike.

How we inject this randomness into our games and how we tweak it based on the context of the story takes some deeper understanding.

Passive Checks

There's a whole interesting discussion to have about passive checks; particularly how passive perception and passive insight work. Jeremy Crawford talked about this on a previous episode of Dragon Talk. Here's a clip from the episode where he goes into details.

In short, passive scores (perception and insight) are always on as long as you're conscious. Players don't get to say that they're using it. Passive perception is intended to be the floor of a character's perception. They might not notice anything specific but they'll know something is going on. If a player rolls perception, they might roll lower than their passive perception but the passive perception is still going on. Anything they would see with that, they'd see anyway.

We can use passive scores for just about anything if we want to but they're most likely to be used for these sort of "always on" skills. As mentioned above, if we feel like the random elements of a situation don't exist in a particular situation, we can opt for a static check on anything. If a rogue has +7 to stealth we can consider it having a general stealth of 17 if they're sneaking through a whole area and we don't want to roll on it all the time.

We might use passive checks instead of rolls in the following circumstances:

  • When randomness isn't a meaningful factor in the situation.
  • When we'd normally have to make a large series of checks.
  • When a skill is "always on" as the characters explore. These skills might include Arcana, History, Insight, Investigation, Medicine, Nature, Perception, Religion, and Survival.
DM Rolls and Hidden Checks

There are times when the results of a situation might be a mystery to the characters regardless of a success or failure. The ability to detect a trap, for example, might be known or not regardless of the results of a roll. Yet when we ask a player to roll to detect a trap, they will know the result because they can see the result.

Instead, we might ask for a character's Wisdom (Perception or Investigation) bonus and make a hidden roll to see how it goes. This gives some mystery to the results. If they detect the trap, they know it's there. If they did not detect a trap, though, it could be because there isn't one there or they missed it. That's exciting.

There aren't many circumstances where we'd roll an ability check for a character and keep the results hidden but it can be useful and fun when it does happen. Here are a few circumstances when rolling a hidden check might be appropriate:

  • Detecting a trap
  • Negotiating with an NPC who hides their responses
  • Checking for secret doors or hidden compartments
  • Detecting whether a liquid is poison or not
  • Recognizing the traits of a monster

This technique can be fun but should be used sparingly. It's almost always best for players to roll their own checks.

Awesome Roleplaying, Poor Rolls

Sometimes, and we can see this in a lot of streaming games like Critical Role, players do quite a bit of awesome roleplaying when interacting with an NPC. Sometimes, however, their character actually isn't particularly good at that type of interaction. The character has an awesome bit of dialog intimidating the goblin but has an intimidation bonus of -1.

Sometimes we might ask for the check after such a narrative exposition and then see a terrible roll come up. All of us know, based on what was actually said, that it should have gone better than that.

There are a couple of ways we can handle this. First of all, we're within the intention of the game to offer advantage to the player for a fine bit of roleplaying. We can even give them inspiration if they want to hang on to the advantage for another check.

We can also lower the difficulty class on the fly based on the particular approach that was taken with the NPC. We might even use our shades of gray on the roll to turn a bad roll into an interesting divergent path in the situation.

We might even let the roll go away completely and, based on the awesome roleplaying, determine that there's basically no way the interaction will go against the character when they take the approach they're taking. No matter what, we are not slaves to the dice. If the approach and the situation are stronger than random chance, we can judge it a success and move forward.

Full Table Rolls

Invariably we sometimes get into a situation where a character wants to spot something, announces their intention to look around an area, rolls a 2, and then the whole rest of the group jumps in and wants to make the same check.

This can happen in both wide circumstances, like keeping an eye out for monsters while resting or something small like checking a door for traps. When the players see another player fail a check, they want to leap in to make the same check.

The circumstances of such a roll matter a lot in how we adjudicate this. We might, in our minds, have a clear idea that only one character may see or miss seeing such an event only to realize that if everyone tries, someone is bound to make the check.

If the task at hand is something only one character can reasonably do, we can simply veto the checks when the rest of the group wants to roll. We might argue that only that one chance could work and subsequent attempts won't succeed. Other times, however, we might shrug and go with the group check.

Here are some circumstances when only one character can reasonably perform a check:

  • Detecting a trap
  • Disarming a trap
  • Picking a lock
  • Forging a document
  • Manipulating an object
  • Reading arcane energy off of an object
  • Climbing a wall

And here are some example circumstances when a whole group can reasonably check.

  • Investigating a room
  • Scouting an area
  • Foraging for food
  • Forcing open a door
  • Studying a written document

If we do find circumstances where the whole group can participate, we might instead call for a group check. See page 175 of the Player's Handbook for details. We use a group check when the whole group acts together and succeeds or fails together. The most common group check is the group stealth check to avoid being seen as a group travels through an area but we can use it in other circumstances too. In a group check, all participants roll for the check and more than half of them must succeed in order to succeed at the roll.

If things seem too easy when the whole group would roll on a check, we can use the group check to even things out a bit.

Full Table Failures

Sometimes we want to pass some information to the characters and we ask for a full group check expecting that someone will pass. Sometimes, however, the dice work against all of us and no one succeeds. If the information was vital, we might find ourselves stuck in a corner of the story. We expected someone would pass. Now what?

Even when we're calling for a group check in which only one member of the group must succeed, we must be ready to handle it if no one succeeds at all. In these circumstances it might be best to give the highest rolling player the required information and "fail forward" with a complication of some sort such as giving away their position or not noticing the arrival of another group of creatures before it's too late.

Only Those Trained Can Succeed

The fifth edition of D&D expects that all checks are "ability" checks, not "skill" checks. Thus, when a DM calls for a check, they ask for an ability like "give me a wisdom check" to notice something coming closer in the distant sky. We might also tag on a skill with it and say "give me a wisdom check and add your proficiency if you're trained in perception". I imagine most DMs skip this and go straight to "give me a perception check" and players know to roll flat wisdom if they aren't trained.

One way to ensure that an entire group doesn't try a particularly narrow skill is to ask for only those trained in the skill to check. For example, understanding arcane runes protecting a vaulted door might require that it be checked only by those trained in Arcana. Understanding the intricate information stored in a religious text or recognizing the origin of a buried statue might require someone trained in Religion.

Requiring proficiency in a particular skill goes outside the bounds of the intended D&D rules, but it is a good way to make those proficiencies count during the game. We might stack on other backgrounds, races, or classes onto this list as well. If the characters come across a mystical tome, maybe only those trained in Arcana or those able to cast spells can attempt to decode the book's secrets using their spellcasting ability score to understand it. Perhaps only someone trained in Religion can recognize the ancient buried statue except for dwarves who might recognize that the statue is of a dwarven deity lost long ago.

Here are some example circumstances where we might only ask those who are trained to make a check:

  • When decoding powerful arcane runes
  • When investigating ancient religious artifacts
  • When picking a difficult lock
  • When hunting a deceptive beast through the jungles
  • When digging through formal histories for a particular nugget
  • When attempting to brew a particular poison
  • When seeking the particulars from the wounds found on a corpse

Again, this method for ability checks goes outside the expected rules and, as Jeremy Crawford says, it should be used sparingly.

Offering Advantage for Character Traits and Backgrounds

It's always nice to reinforce a character's interactions with the world through that character's race, class, background, or any other trait of the character that gives the character an advantage in a particular situation. In these circumstances, we can give a character advantage for a particular check based on this trait.

If the characters are examining an ancient fresco buried underneath centuries of moss, the high elf character might get advantage on the check since the fresco depicts elements of the ancient elven struggle between Corellon and Lolth.

The Dungeon Master's Guide specifically discusses when to use advantage and disadvantage on ability checks. Page 239 includes circumstances when one or the other makes sense with one particularly interesting statement: "Consider granting advantage when circumstances not related to a creature's inherent capabilities provide it with an edge."

When a rogue is disarming a trap or picking a lock, we don't give them advantage for being a rogue. Their proficiency is already wired into being a rogue. Picking locks and disarming traps is what rogues do. We already know that barbarians are particularly athletic, they don't get barbarous advantage for bending bars or lifting gates. They actually get it anyway if they're raging at those vexing bars.

Backgrounds already offer skills so we might think of that as an inherent capability already but if the details of a background can aid a character beyond a skill proficiency, we can consider that enough to offer advantage on the check.

Here are some examples where we might offer advantage on an ability check based on a particular trait of a character.

  • When a sailor is examining a wrecked ship
  • When a sage is reading through an old tome
  • When a dwarf is investigating the construction of an underground citadel
  • When an Warlock serving a Great Old One patron peers into a portal to the far realm
  • When an assassin investigates a potential poisoning
Describing Aiding and Guidance

The aid another action is a great way for two characters to work on a problem with one of them giving advantage to another. The most common problem I've seen with this is that the player of the aiding party grabs a d20 and rolls without thinking about the fact that they aren't the ones supposed to be rolling. If this happens, we can tell the partners that this second roll counts as the advantage roll and add whichever modifier is higher between the two characters.

We can apply a small cost to this aid as well by asking the player to describe how they're aiding. This is a nice trick to get players into the story. It isn't enough for them to say "I'll aid them", the question is how they'll offer that aid. Fun stories can come from such questions.

The same is true with the cleric's spell guidance which offers 1d4 to any ability check. When a cleric casts this spell, we can ask the player to describe what that aid looks like. Is it a holy light that fills in the nooks and crannies of a difficult lock? Is it a small glowing halo that surrounds the rogue as she talks her way past the town guards? Is it a tiny glowing light in the eyes of the wizard as she decodes the magical glyphs embedded in the wall?

Getting players to answer these in-game story-focused questions is a great way to get them outside of their character sheet and into the world you're creating together.

Ability Checks: The Primary Mechanic between Players and the World

When we think about it, ability checks may be the biggest mechanic of D&D. In our more story-focused games, these ability checks guide nearly every challenging interaction between the characters and the world around them. The basic mechanic of ability checks; rolling a d20, adding a modifier, and matching against a difficulty class; seems so simple but how we actually implement these checks into the game can have a big impact in how the game is played and how it turns out.

Read the rules, see how they play out at your own table, and build a toolbox of methods for calling for and using ability checks in your own game. Let these checks act as the chaotic vehicles for the awesome stories that unfold at your table.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Develop Attractive Goods To Sell

Temporary Hit Points - Sun, 11/04/2018 - 13:48

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The post Develop Attractive Goods To Sell appeared first on Temporary Hitpoints.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Hunger: A Level 1 to 20 Gnoll Campaign

Sly Flourish - Mon, 10/29/2018 - 06:00

Reading Volo's Guide to Monsters, along with the Monster Manual is a fantastic way to fill our head with D&D lore that helps us plan our games and improvise while we're running them. If you get nothing else out of this article, consider how much value you can get by reading these books cover to cover to steep yourself in D&D lore.

Reading the section on gnolls in Volo's Guide got my head spinning around the idea of a full level 1 to 20 fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign built around gnolls. I had in my head an image of a hyena twitching in the remains of a half-digested corpse of a villager (gory, I know). As the characters watch in horror, the hyena starts to twist and break like the best scene in American Werewolf in London. The party witnesses the full transformation (or maybe partial transformation if they decide to blast it to pieces before it finishes) of a hyena into a gnoll.

A whirlwind of events would take them from that single scene all the way into the Death Dells where they will hunt—or be hunted by— Yeenoghu the demon prince of gnolls and the most powerful minions on Yeenoghu's home plane of existence in the Abyss.

Can we build an entire campaign around this central pillar? I believe we can! Of course it won't JUST be gnolls. We'd have lots of side threads going on too, but building a full level 1 to 20 campaign arc focused on Yeenoghu's Hunger sounds like a lot of fun to me, so let's dig in.

The Campaign Elevator Pitch

Following the steps in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master for building new campaigns, we start with a central theme for the campaign. The shorter the better, so here is my campaign pitch in three words:

End Yeenoghu's hunger.

That's simple but it's a good central pillar around which to build the campaign. It's a quest the characters can get early on in the adventure and work towards all throughout their characters' levels.

Six Truths of the Hunger

Next we come to the campaign's six truths. What sets this campaign apart from others? Here we list the six things that make this campaign unique among campaigns. These are truths we will share with the players so they know what to build their characters around.

  • A blood moon rises in the sky each night and has for a full month with no sign of stopping.

  • Signs of a twisted new cult have begun to appear. Some whisper of cannibalism.

  • Trade between smaller villages and towns have begun to cease. Some say entire villages have been found slaughtered and devoured.

  • Hobgoblins from a warband known as the Black Fist have sprung up in greater numbers.

  • Cities of the lands have begun to close their borders and seal their walls. Even they do not know exactly why.

  • A great black and green storm swirls over the mountains of Shattered Teeth. Sages say the very atmosphere over the mountains has changed.

This is going to be a campaign of overland exploration and dungeon delving and will have all three pillars of play. We can reinforce to the players that they will will want to build players with the following goal:

"My character wants to work with their fellow adventurers to find the source of the bloody hunger that grips the land and end it."

The Fronts

We don't have to build out an entire campaign from end to end here, but we will outline the major story drivers of the campaign. We've borrowed the idea of Fronts from the excellent RPG, Dungeon World.

  • Front: Yeenoghu and the gnoll hordes
  • Goal: Devour all humanity in the world.
  • First Grim Portent: Packs of gnolls in great number stop trade between the major cities of the land.
  • Second Grim Portent: Yeenoghu and his gnoll hordes attack a smaller settlement.
  • Third Grim Portent: Yeenoghu and his greater horde attack one of the larger cities.

  • Front: The Cult of the Hunger

  • Goal: Pave the way for Yeenoghu's cleansing.
  • First Grim Portent: The cult grows larger as it recruits from disenfranchised towns on the outskirts of major cities.
  • Second Grim Portent: The cult steals the powerful Tome of Savagery from the greatest library of the land and uses it to open a second portal to Yeenoghu's realm, the Death Dells.
  • Third Grim Portent: The Cult of Hunger assassinates the leaders of a major city and sends its armies into chaos.

  • Front: The Black Fist hobgoblin mercenary army

  • Goal: Let the gnoll horde weaken the defenses of the cities and then sweep in and take over.
  • First Grim Portent: The Black Fist hobgoblin army takes over a ruined castle within striking distance of two major settlements.
  • Second Grim Portent: Black Fist scouts track Yeenoghu's trail of destruction.
  • Third Grim Portent: The Black Fist stands outside of a major city, waiting until both sides are weakened before sweeping in and taking it over.

We hold these fronts loosely. New fronts might pop up and old fronts might change drastically. Volo's Guide includes a wonderful section on hobgoblins as well as gnolls so we can add them as a third party that might end up as allies of the, enemies, or both for the characters and their goals.

When it comes to the selection of monsters we might choose or this campaign, Volo's Guide has an excellent section on the Anatomy of a Warband and on Gnoll Allies that works as a great checklist of potential monsters we can sprinkle throughout our campaign.

A Loose 1 to 20 Outline

While we don't need anything more than the above to run a decent start to a campaign, it might be fun to write a loose outline of the places the characters might visit and the events that might occur as they go through the campaign. I picked twenty such places and events, one for each level of the game. I have no illusion that these will all get used at exactly the right level but it gives me a loose outline of ideas I can go through when running adventures. I am happy to throw any or all of these away as the campaign progresses.

Level 1: The Dying Hyena. The party encounters a dying hyena that turns into a gnoll in front of their eyes. More hyenas howl in the distance.

Level 2: Slaughter at the Village of Nix. The party sees the slaughter of the village of Nix and hunts down those that committed the act.

Level 3: The Charnal Pit. The party witnesses the gnoll's feast at the charnel pit outside of Nix.

Level 4: Assault on Fort Kellum. The party arrives at Fort Kellum to see it under assault by the gnolls.

Level 5: The Dead Gate. The characters explore the ruins of a planar gate previously used by Yeenoghu four hundred years ago and the ruins of dwarves and deep gnomes that surround it.

Level 6: Citadel Gallax. The party explores, infiltrates, or is invited into a ruined citadel now rebuilt by the Black Fist hobgoblin warband.

Level 7: The Tower of Fangs. The party faces the cult of Hunger at one of its temples and discovers their dark portents.

Level 8: Mountain of Broken Teeth. The party backtracks to the Mountains of Broken Teeth where Yeenoghu first came to the world.

Level 9: The First Portal. The party finds and close the portal Yeenoghu used to enter the prime plane.

Level 10: Dragonspear Castle. The party goes to Dragonspear Castle where the Black Fist warband wages war against a huge gnoll army.

Level 11: The Temple of the Hunger. The party faces the cult of Hunger and its high priest to recover the Book of Savagry.

Level 12: The Demon Rift. The party discovers and must close a rift spilling out scores of maw demons like an infected wound in the world.

Level 13: The Hunters at the Twisted Shrine. At a long-forgotten shrine, the party must survive an assault by a war band of gnolls specifically born and bred to hunt them down and slay them.

Level 14: The Assault on Baldur's Gate. The party arrives at Baldur's Gate to find Yeenoghu and his army waging an assault on the city.

Level 15: The Prince of Savagery. The party faces Yeenoghu and his army in order to save Baldur's Gate.

Level 16: The Gateway. The party faces Yeenoghu's gatekeepers and enters the gateway to the Death Dells.

Level 17: The Death Dells. The party begins their exploration into Yeenoghu's Abyssal plane.

Level 18: The Maw. The party travels through a huge sinkhole consisting of the rotten corpse of a single huge maw demon.

Level 19: The Hunting Grounds. A twisted maze of brambles surrounds Yeenghu's lair in which the mightiest gnolls of the demon prince eternally hunt their prey.

Level 20: Yeenoghu. The party faces the Prince of Savagery on his throne of corpses.

A Loose Outline and a Fun Exercise

When we sit down to plan a campaign like this, we need not plan too far. Things are going to go off the rails from the very first session and that's what makes these games so much fun. We can, however, get our minds working by thinking about what might happen and have some fun diving deep into the lore of the game to see where our minds go. Such exercises keep our minds limber and keep us ready to run some great games even if we never get around to running a campaign like this.

When you think of your own campaign, where does your mind go?

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Handling Tag-Along NPCs

Sly Flourish - Mon, 10/22/2018 - 06:00

In the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Out of the Abyss, the party has the potential of grouping with a number of NPCs as they all attempt to escape from their captors in the depths of the underdark. In Storm King's Thunder, the party can be accompanied by Harshnag, a powerful frost giant wielding an incredibly powerful magical axe. Finally, in Tomb of Annihilation, the characters have the potential of grouping with assassins, a Couatl, or an artifact-donning hero and his lizard companion wielding a holy avenger.

Some DMs may not have any problem handling these tag-along NPCs in a game. These NPCs find their place in a group and work their way into the story as it unfolds. Other DMs, myself included, have trouble with tag-along NPCs. Here's why.

First, tag-along NPCs make our lives harder as DMs. Running a whole world is already hard work, even for the lazy. Adding tag-along NPCs gives us a whole other set of variables to handle.

Tag-along NPCs also make combat take longer since there's another character in the mix. Sometimes we can hand this off to one of the players but not if the NPC has a secret identity. If you hand Dragonbait over to a player, I bet that sword is getting traded.

These tag-along NPCs also skew the balance of power in a group. Challenges that the party might have had a hard time with suddenly got easier. That extra NPC adds to the overall synergy to the party and that synergy is a huge power boost. If we want to challenge the characters, we're going to have to account for it.

Probably the worst offense of tag-along NPCs is that they draw the spotlight off of the characters. Our attention should be on the characters and how they interact with the world around them. Now we have this new character that doesn't belong to anyone but who also takes some of that spotlight away. This gets exacerbated if the NPC overshadows the characters in power, like Artus Cimber, Dragonbait, or Harshnag.

How do we handle it when tag-along NPCs become a burden to a game? Many DMs discussed the problem and potential solutions in a Twitter thread on the topic. The following includes ideas they discussed as well as some of my own.

Don't Let them Tag Along in the First Place

If we know these tag-along NPCs might show up in our adventure, we can head them off before they actually join the characters. Maybe we just don't have them show up at all. What is their reason not to join the party? I hinted at Artus Cimber and Dragonbait in my Tomb of Annihilation game but never pulled the thread on them and never had them show up. Maybe I would have if they came up in a random roll of the dice but maybe I'd simply roll again. This is certainly likely after hearing how difficult these high-level NPCs can be when they join a game.

The easiest way to deal with tag-along NPCs is simply not to. Don't let them become tag-along NPCs.

Have an Exit Strategy

If an NPC does join the party, it always helps to have an exit plan for the NPC. When will the NPC leave the group? What circumstances will lead to their departure? How do you steer things to ensure that circumstance actually takes place?

Harshnag in Storm King's Thunder had an exit plan; getting crushed under a million tons of ice in the Eye of the All Father. I don't know that Artus Ember and Dragonbait had much of an exit plan but they might come to either fear the characters or fear for the characters and head out during the night. The various NPCs in Out of the Abyss might eventually betray the characters or leave for other reasons. The guides in Tomb of Annihilation might get sick or might have another tangential agenda that leads them away from the party.

Keep your options open when considering how to get an NPC to leave the party and be ready to enact it if you find the NPC is overstaying their welcome.

Limit Their Utility

What the NPCs do while their with the party can also make a huge difference in how things play out. If an NPC agrees up front to stay out of combat, that makes things easier. This works best if the NPC clearly isn't much of a combatant to begin with. It's harder when you see a lizard with a holy avenger sword who's standing back while you fight ancient crocodiles by yourself. There are few reasons why a combat-focused NPC wouldn't fight but, if there's a good reason within the context of the story, that can work out. Lets pretend Jarlaxle joined the group. He has a clear reason to disappear every time things get dangerous even though he's a hell of a combatant. It's a lot less likely Drizzt would stay out of a fight, though.

Instead, we have another way we can keep them out of the way.

Make them Background Scenery

One way we can have a combat-focused NPC in a party and still not causing much trouble is to make them part of the background. If the party is facing three ogres, maybe they're actually facing four and our combat-focused NPC is taking care of the fourth. We pull these two combatants out of the actual battle and simply describe the battle taking place between them in the narrative. No dice need be thrown, no damage needs be tallied; we just make it part of the scenery going on while the main battle takes place in the foreground.

This has limits, though. This style will likely get stale if you do it over and over. This problem points back to getting them out of the party as soon as you can so it doesn't get that stale.

Let Players Run Them

In the case of an NPC who isn't seriously outclassing the rest of the party, let one of the players—maybe the player with the simplest character—run the NPC. You can give them a copy of the stat block, maybe taking a picture of it with their phone, and let them run the NPC on their same initiative. This is usually quick since monster stat blocks aren't terribly difficult.

If the NPC has a secret identity, say like Eku from Tomb of Annihilation secretly being a Couatl, you can instead give the player the stat block for the NPC they're pretending to be, say a spy or a veteran. These characters are likely to pull their punches anyway so as not to expose their true selves and that can be accounted for in the false statblock. It also keeps their power under control.

Be Aware of the Spotlight

Beyond adding extra power to the characters that might make potentially challenging situations trivial, NPCs in the party can have a tendency of pulling the spotlight away from the other characters. No one wants to watch DMs play with themselves. This can get tricky if the NPC is clearly the right person for a particular job, either because of what they know or the skills they happen to have. Why wouldn't the NPC who already knows the king be the one to negotiate for the party? This is something you'll want to noodle through before it starts to happen in your game. The spotlight should always be on the characters and tag-along NPCs should always be in the background. We might have to fudge the story a little bit to get them there but its important enough that it's worth bending the story to make it happen.

Player-Provided Tag-Along NPCs

So far we've been talking about NPCs in the adventure who, through the purposes of the story, end up tagging along with the group. Sometimes, however, players will bring their own tag-along NPCs as part of their characters. Maybe they hired a hireling or maybe they summoned a pet. Maybe they have their own simulacrum walking around with them or some sort of intelligent pet. This is a slightly different situation because you can't simply route the NPC out of the group. If a character's NPC starts to hog too much of the spotlight, it might be worth having an out-of-game conversation with the player to determine how you can ensure their NPC isn't stealing the joy from the rest of the table. Mabye that shield guardian of theirs wanders off unexpectedly. Maybe that hireling quits. Maybe the simulacrum goes back to protect the characters' airship.

Other times these player-provided tag-along NPCs aren't that much of a problem. You can always account for them when determining the challenge of a fight if a challenge is what you seek by adding one or two monsters to balance them out. They also often make juicy targets.

One nice house rule you might incorporate is the rule of mutually-assured destruction for tag-along NPCs. This works well for delicate pets and familiars. If a character's NPC doesn't come out in a fight, you won't target them; even with area of effect spells. This helps them keep their delicate NPCs without worrying about them getting killed in every fireball that happens to target the party.

Just Say No

Many of these problems and potential solutions go away if, when you have the chance, you simply forgo having tag-along NPCs at all. If an adventure calls for an NPC to follow the party, consider whether it really needs to happen and, if it does, how they will exit out again. Be particularly careful with high power NPCs like Artus Cimber, Dragonbait, and Harshnag. They can completely unbalance an adventure if they stick around too much.

The easiest thing is to simply avoid such NPCs. That's what us lazy dungeon masters do.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

A New Dungeon Master's Guide For Building Encounters

Sly Flourish - Mon, 10/08/2018 - 06:00

Note: This article is reposed with permission from the original posted to D&D Beyond on March 2018. It is the sixth in a six-part series of articles focused on helping new D&D DMs put together and run great games. The full list of articles includes:

In this article we're going to dig deep into one of the most challenging aspects of running a D&D game: building combat encounters.

This article goes hand-in-hand with my original article on Building Encounters in Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. That article contains charts and tables to help you choose the right number of monsters for a given situation.

Here's a quick summary of this article's approach towards encounter building:

  • Let encounters develop from the story, the situation, and the actions of the characters. We don't have to pre-define encounters as "combat", "roleplaying", or "exploration". We only have to set up the situations and let the players decide how to interact with them.
  • Choose the type and number of monsters that make sense given the situation. Sometimes this might be two sleepy guards at a cave entrance. Other times it might be an entire hobgoblin warband. Give the characters openings to take different approaches towards the scene.
  • Keep an eye out for unexpectedly deadly encounters. Understand the loose relationship between monster challenge ratings and character levels. Remember that fewer monsters are generally easier than lots of monsters. Use a tool like the tables in Xanathar's Guide to Everything if you're not sure. In particular, be nice to level 1 characters. They're really squishy.
  • Adjust the encounter as needed during the game. Vary hit points within the hit-dice range. Increase or decrease damage. Add or remove monsters.
  • Mix up encounters to keep things fresh. Add interesting terrain or fantastic features. Throw a mixture of easy and hard encounters at the characters. Use waves of monsters.

We're going to dig into all of these things throughout the article.

Develop Encounters from the Story

Dungeons & Dragons breaks down scenes into three different types of gameplay: NPC interaction and roleplaying, exploration, and combat. In the vernacular of D&D, all of these types of scenes are considered "encounters".

We don't have to define any scene as being a roleplay scene, an exploration scene, or a combat scene ahead of time. Instead, we can set up the situation and let the players choose how to approach it. Maybe they attack the bugbear leader of the goblins directly. Maybe they try to bargain with them. Maybe they sneak up the garbage chute and try to listen in to the bugbear's plans. We don't necessarily know what choices the players will make when they leap into an encounter and not knowing is half the fun.

It's common to break up our game into a set number of roleplay encounters, exploration encounters, and combat encounters but consider setting those categories aside and simply developing situations. These situations have interesting things going on in them that the characters can get involved with, but we don't have to know how they will interact with it. Sure, some scenes lean one way or another. When a horde of goblins attacks a wagon filled with friendly farming families (FFFs), the player characters are not going to go investigate rocks. Many times, however, we DMs can simply set the stage and let the players act within the scene as they want. That's a big part of the fun of D&D.

Choose Monsters that Fit the Situation

As we described earlier, the story and situation drives what encounters takes place. The same is true when we select monsters. Choose the monsters that fit the situation. A hobgoblin war camp might realistically have twenty-five hobgoblins and fifty goblins in it. They might not all charge the characters at once but that's the size of the war camp. A single hobgoblin patrol might consist of six hobgoblins and a captain. A war party might consist of twenty goblins, twelve hobgoblins, two hobgoblin captains, and a hobgoblin warlord.

We don't try to balance this war camp with the characters. This is the size of the war camp, the patrol, and the war party regardless of the characters. How the characters decide to deal with a small patrol or approach the war party is up to them.

Sometimes the characters might corner off two hobgoblins who went to examine an old dwarven statue. Other times the characters might find themselves overwhelmed with two dozen hobgoblins and two captains riding on scarred worgs. The story drives the encounter.

Determining Deadly Encounters

Most DMs want to have a vague idea of how difficult an encounter will be. A group of level 17 characters won't have much of a problem blowing this war camp off the face of Faerun but a group of level 4 characters running up against an entire war party at once could be deadly.

Before an encounter turns to combat, it helps if we know it's rough potential difficulty. Doing so helps us steer the situation and offer other options to the players before it becomes a surprise total-party-kill (TPKs). Understanding encounter difficulty is tricky and can cause real problems for new DMs. Most commonly, a new DM will pit the characters against monsters that are way too hard and inadvertently kill the characters.

Accidental TPKs are much more likely to happen at level 1 than any other level in D&D. Anyone who thinks a battle between a group of level 18 characters against Tiamat will be rough hasn't seen what happens when level 1 characters fight too many rat swarms.

Above all else, be gentle with level 1 characters. However squishy you think they are, they're squishier. If you want to throw some monsters at your level 1 characters, choose fewer monsters than characters (maybe one for every two characters) and make sure they have a challenge of 1/4 or less. Even two or three challenge 1/2 thugs can wipe the floor with level 1 characters. Be nice to these poor young adventurers and you'll have 19 more levels of delightful pain to inflict.

The Dungeon Master's Guide has detailed instructions for building encounters at various difficulties. These are the guidelines that Wizards of the Coast themselves use to design monsters and balance combat encounters. I suggest that you ignore these guidelines. They're too complicated, take a lot of time, and don't usually give us the results we're after anyway.

In a wonderful episode of Dragon Talk, lead D&D Designer and rules sage Jeremy Crawford goes into detail on these rules and explains that the main goal isn't to "balance" encounters but to help DMs gauge the difficulty of a combat encounter, particularly if it's deadly. The math in the Dungeon Master's Guide can give us this rough gauge but so can a number of other easier methods. I'm going to offer three different methods for determining whether an encounter is deadly or not and you are free to choose the method you like the best. Two of these methods use the same underlying math of the Dungeon Master's Guide but are easier to use.

First, Xanathar's Guide to Everything includes a much-improved set of guidelines and tables for determining encounter difficulty. Instead of attempting to calculate encounter balance based on experience budgets, difficulty, and the number of monsters, Xanathar's Guide includes charts we can reference to determine the equivalent number of monsters to characters at a given character level and monster challenge rating.

Second, I'll offer some rules-of-thumb you can keep in your head to give you a rough idea of whether an encounter is deadly or not. This takes a little work to memorize but once it's wired into your head, you'll need no other tool or chart to gauge an encounter's difficulty. This method compares the challenge rating of monsters to the levels of characters.

Third, you can just wing it. The more experienced you get with D&D; the monsters, the mechanics, and the capabilities of the characters; the easier it will be for you to judge the difficulty of an encounter on your own. There is, of course, a lot of variance during a fight, but as you run games you'll become better at judging the difficulty without any sort of forumlas or tables. Many experienced DMs ignore any sort of encounter balance rules and take an estimated guess at the difficulty of any given encounter.

Comparing Challenge Rating to Character Level

It's important that we understand what the challenge rating of a monster represents. According to the Monster Manual, a group of four characters should be able to defeat a monster with a challenge rating equal to the level of the characters. Thus, a group of level 2 characters should be able to defeat a challenge 2 ogre.

If we reverse-engineer the encounter building math used in the Dungeon Master's Guide, we can figure out a few other relationships between challenge rating and character level. These comparisons assume a fight that is not quite deadly, but close.

A single monster is roughly equal in power to a single character if its challenge rating is roughly 1/4 of the character's level. This increases to 1/2 if the character is above level 4.

A single monster is roughly equal in power to two characters if its challenge rating is 1/2 of the character's level. This increases to 3/4 if the character is above level 4.

Two monsters are roughly equal in power to a single character if the monsters' challenge rating is roughly equal to 1/10 of the character's level. This increases to 1/4 if the character is above level 4.

Here's a small table that might help. This comes from the upcoming Lazy DM's Workook, the Kickstarter stretch goal for Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

Any encounters above these amounts, in the quantity of monsters and the challenge ratings of monsters compared to the level of the characters, will be potentially deadly.

This system can't give you a perfectly accurate view of how a battle will go, however. Too many variables determine the difficulty of a combat encounter. These variables include the experience of the players, the synergy of the character classes, how many battles the characters have already encountered, what spells the characters have, what magic items the characters have, the environment they're fighting in, and, of course, the roll of the dice.

Thus, any guidelines you decide to use to help you understand encounter difficulty won't be perfectly accurate. Instead, you'll have to judge for yourself by seeing how the characters fair against various types of fights throughout an adventure or a campaign. Sometimes you'll need to ease back and make battles easier. Other times you'll need to increase the number of monsters to challenge the characters.

The more experience you get under your belt running combat in D&D and the better you understand the capabilities of the characters, the easier it becomes to see what the characters can handle and adjust accordingly.

Adjusting Encounter Difficulty on the Fly

There's a dirty secret among DMs. We're all cheats and liars. We do, however, cheat and lie for the fun of the game and the enjoyment of the players. We can, for example, vary the hit points of a monster depending on how the battle is going. If the battle is becoming a slog or is simply too hard, we can reduce the number of hit points a monster has. If the characters are carving through monsters too easily, we might increase them to add to the challenge. As long as we're varying hit points within the hit dice range of a monster, we're technically not cheating.

For example, an ogre has an average of 59 hit points and its hit dice are 7d10 + 21. Thus, any ogre could have between 28 and 91 hit points. A bigger brute might have 90 hit points but the weaker ones might only have 40. We don't have to make these changes ahead of time. We can change their hit points during the battle to keep up the high energy pace of the game.

We can likewise tweak the damage of a monster. Like hit points, we're given an average amount of damage and a damage equation. If we want, we can increase the damage the monster inflicts up to the maximum of that dice range and still be within the rules. Likewise, a hit might be less if we find that the monsters are inflicting way more damage than we expected.

Finally, we can add or remove monsters to tune a fight. Maybe six more hobgoblins rush in when they hear their fellow soldiers being attacked. Maybe two of the hobgoblins flee to get help or become distracted by a third party.

All three of these techniques give us dials we can turn to change the difficulty of a fight while it's happening. We don't want to do this sort of thing all the time, but the options are there if things aren't going well and the game's fun factor is dropping.

Add Interesting Terrain and Fantastic Features

Six hobgoblins in an open field isn't that interesting. Four hobgoblins and their four worg mounts camping out around an ancient dwarven archway is more interesting, particularly if that archway is swirling with eldritch energy.

When we're developing the scenes in our adventure, we can add texture by throwing in interesting terrain or fantastic features. Chapter 5 of the Dungeon Master's Guide includes two tables of monuments and weird locales we can use as inspiration for some fantastic features to include in our combat encounters. Appendix A of the Dungeon Master's Guide also includes similar tables for dungeon features. Describing them can give our players ideas about how to use these features in combat which makes the whole battle more dynamic and exciting.

Features like this add an element of exploration and mystery to our scenes.

Final Thoughts on Building Great Encounters

Building great encounters is a skill, like improvisation, that gets better the more we do it. It's a skill we can improve on for the rest of our lives. By keeping some general guidelines in mind and experimenting from scene to scene, we can learn what works well, what does not, and what things we want to try out in the future.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Giving Characters Hard Choices

Sly Flourish - Mon, 10/01/2018 - 06:00

Dungeons & Dragons is a game full of choices. From running campaigns to running characters, from steering world-shaking events to choosing an approach while having a conversation with a merchant, players and DMs make all sorts of choices when playing D&D.

Choices are also the root of what makes D&D fun. How should the characters interact with an NPC? How will they accomplish their goal? Who gets the fancy new magic sword? All of these choices, and the consequences of them, bring life to the game.

Sometimes, though, the best choices aren't easily made. Sometimes all of the options are reasonable and other times, all of them are fraught with consequences. Today we're going to look at these hard choices and see how we can make the most of them in our D&D games.

Which Front to Face

In the campaign building advice in Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, I recommend using Fronts from Dungeon World as a way to see what major movers and shakers are changing the face of the world. When these fronts all become visible to the characters, the characters will have to make a hard choice about which front they want to stop.

For example, in the D&D adventure Legacy of the Crystal Shard, the characters have three potential factions they have to deal with: the ice witch Hedrun, Akar Kessel the undead mage, and Valish Gant the schemer of the Arcane Brotherhood. When the characters navigate this adventure, they must decide which of these three villains they wish to thwart knowing that the other paths will move forward unhindered.

If we're not careful, these always-moving fronts can be frustrating for players. While focusing on one villain, the characters find they're two steps back with the other two. If the players begin to feel screwed no matter which direction they go, perhaps slow down on the progression of the other fronts.

Making Deals

"You can hit four enemies with your fireball, or eight if you're willing to hit the fighter and rogue..."

One of the fun design elements of the excellent RPG 13th Age is how it includes deals made between players and the GM. A fireball in 13th Age can hit 1d3 enemies in a group or, if you cast it recklessly, an extra 1d3 enemies, but it will hit any of your friends engaged with those enemies. That's a great way to get fireballs to work well without a grid.

Making deals are a great way to put hard choices in front of players. Do you want advantage on your next attack? All you have to do is swing from that chandelier up above? A failure, of course, could result in a nasty fall.

Advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration are three currencies we DMs always have on hand to sweeten deals and put hard choices in front of the characters. Waving an inspiration token at a player is a great way to get them to accept some risk when things would otherwise feel too safe.

Here are some example deals we can put in front of our players:

  • Turn a failed ability check into a success but at a cost.
  • Give the character advantage on their next check by putting themselves in a risky position.
  • Give a character additional targets in a spell's area but only by putting something else in that area at risk.
  • Giving a single-use ability or power but with a chance of corruption, damage, or arcane feedback.
  • Give a character some vital information but only by guaranteeing the safety of someone the characters desperately want to slay.
The Curse You Don't Want to Get Rid Of

What if a fungus-cursed hydra bites one of the characters and that character contracts some sort of hideous disease? That's not a hard choice. Go find the nearest caster of cure disease or greater restoration and get that thing cleaned up!

But what if this infection did something to the character, something interesting. What if this character could start to see through other plants? What if it gave them access to new powers they could cultivate such as entangle, spike growth, and grasping vine? What if the strange infected would knit itself closed with tendrils of vines and roots? What if, on their death, they are returned in their original form but inside they're all plant stuff, a physical vessel sworn to Zuggtmoy?

Simple curses are easy. Characters certainly want to get rid of them and will do so. If we turn those curses into hard choices, though, maybe they'll live with the curse.

Maybe an abolith is willing to impart the vast knowledge of the abolithic sovereignty to your character, giving them a history as old as the millennia and current intelligence all over the Sword Coast? What if all it cost was the character's own mental independence? Hmmm.

Choosing Villainous Factions

Often, when we're prepping our D&D games, it's hard for us to see villainous organizations as anything other than a big pile of monsters for the characters to kill. If the characters go into a thieves' den, it might end up being room after room of bandits getting slaughtered.

One way we can turn monstrous lairs into opportunities for roleplaying and hard choices is to ensure there are multiple factions within the band of monsters or among the villainous organization. This way the characters can work within or against these factions. If both factions are purely hostile to the characters then it might end up as a slaughterfest anyway so we'll need to ensure the factions have reason to talk to the characters and vice versa.

For example, in Tomb of Annihilation, the characters can go into the Fane of the Night Serpent. There are two factions in there; those loyal to Ras Nsi and those loyal to Fenthasa. Ras Nsi has no intent at going into the Tomb of the Nine Gods to stop the Soul Monger so he has a reason to talk to the party: convince them to go into the tomb itself and stop the Soul Monger. Fenthasa might have another goal. She wants Ras Nsi dead and the obsidian dagger from the Tomb returned to her. She might aid a party willing to end Ras Nsi and return to her the dagger within the tomb.

Now, instead of the characters just going in and slaughtering all the yuan-ti, they might get involved in the rift between two factions and have to choose which faction they want to support.

These factions might be rivals within a group or subordinates who no longer want to work with their superior. Any rift like this is an opportunity for the characters to get involved and a hard choice for them to make. Which faction, if any, will they support?

Here are some examples of factions within villainous groups:

  • Each of two rival factions want to usurp the other.
  • A subordinate secretly plots against their master.
  • Two monstrous groups are separated by a valley and neither group can get the upper hand on the other without the characters' help.
  • A powerful leader actually wants to leave the gang they're in.
  • A spy for a rival group has infiltrated a villainous group.
  • The characters possess an item that makes a faction in a villainous group covet and worship them.
What Would Make Them Choose Differently?

Whenever we want to throw a hard choice in front of the characters, we can, when the choice in front of the characters seems inevitable, we can ask ourselves "what would make them choose differently?"

For example, if the yuan-ti want to open a huge door into the realm of the Night Serpent and they need one of the characters to actually open the door, what would convince them to do so? How could the yuan-ti convince the characters that opening the door is the better option? Maybe only the Night Serpent can stop the horror Acererak feeds in the depth of the Tomb of the Nine Gods. Maybe the only way to stop the Night Serpent is to face it. Maybe something the character loves more than mortal life lies beyond those gates.

When a choice seems too easy, what might steer the characters to choose a different way?

A Game of Choices

D&D is a game full of choices, some of them small and some as big as the multiverse. One of our jobs as dungeon masters is to put meaningful and interesting choice in front of the characters whenever the pace of the adventure calls for it. Without putting too much decision fatigue on them, we can insert hard choices so the players can see the true impact of the choices they make. Use hard choices to make your game unique and fun.

Special thanks to Taylor on Twitter for the suggestion to write this article.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

A New DM's Guide to Miniatures

Sly Flourish - Mon, 09/24/2018 - 06:00

Note: This article is reposed with permission from the original posted to D&D Beyond on March 2018. It is part of a series of articles focused on helping new D&D DMs put together and run great games. The full list of articles includes:

In a previous article we talked about the tools we need to run our D&D games. We glossed over one giant topic, however, the topic of miniatures.

When we say "miniatures" we're really talking about the physical objects we use to represent the characters and monsters in our D&D games. The options are vast.

Groups don't actually need to use anything to represent monsters or characters in Dungeons & Dragons. We can use a gameplay style known as the "theater of the mind". When running D&D in the theater of the mind, the DM describes the situation, clarifies it from the questions of the players, listens to what the players want their characters to do, and describes the outcome. It is the same for combat as it is for exploration or roleplay.

Ever since D&D game out forty years ago, however, players and DMs have often used some sort of miniature to represent their characters or monsters. Back then it was often lead or pewter war game miniatures, sometimes painted and sometimes not. The use of miniatures has evolved in the four decades since, but even today there is no perfect solution for representing monsters and characters at the table. We have a wide range of options, from no cost at all to thousands of dollars, but none of these options are perfect.

No matter which of the paths we take or products we buy for D&D miniatures, we'll always make tradeoffs. Sometimes it's money, sometimes it's time, sometimes it's physical space, sometimes it's the flexibility of our game. Even if we spend thousands of dollars on miniatures, as some veteran DMs have, finding the right miniature can take too long to make it useful when running a game. No matter how many miniatures we own, we still will not have exactly the right one or exactly the right number for every battle. While no perfect solution exists, we can mix and match a few ideas together to design our own personal best-case solution for representing characters and monsters in combat.

The Free Options and the Theater of the Mind

As mentioned, we can describe combat and use the occasional paper sketch to help players visualize what is going on. This method is fast, free, and doesn't break the flow of the game from scene to scene.

Running combat in the theater of the mind means we can run any sort of battle we want. With a zero cost comes infinite flexibility. We can run a battle atop a massive titan's skull surrounded by a thousand screaming ghouls if we want to. We can run a ship battle in the depths of the astral sea fighting against a pair of githyanki warships. Whatever sort of battle we can imagine, we can run. Even if we do choose to use miniatures, keeping this gameplay style in our toolkit gives us the option when we want it.

Combat in the theater of the mind isn't for everyone. When battles get complicated, some representation of the characters and monsters helps. We can start by representing them with whatever we have on hand. Game pieces from other games, dice, coins, glass beads, LEGOs, and a any roughly one-inch-square object can serve as tokens for characters and monsters. This is a fine option when starting to play D&D that may serve you well for your entire D&D career. Even if you do end up getting more miniatures and better representations, keeping some generic tokens on hand can help set up an improvised battle and save you a lot of time.

Low Cost Do-It-Yourself Options

Some crafty DMs learned how to print paper versions their own miniatures either as tokens or as stand-ups. This is a low-cost solution but does take time to build them out. Enrique Bertran, the Newbie DM, wrote a popular guide to making tokens with print-outs, a one-inch hole punch, a washer, and some glue. More recently he posted a great trick of making one token per monster type and then using generic tokens to represent the rest of those monsters. These hand-made tokens are a wonderful and scalable solution that won't break the bank.

The folks over at Alea Tools have a wonderful suggestion for making tokens out of old Magic the Gathering cards. They suggest punching out the card art you like with a one-inch punch, and sticking adhesive one-inch epoxy stickers to the top to make it feel like a hard plastic token. I spent a weekend making about one hundred such tokens and the look and feel great. The epoxy stickers, originally designed for bottle cap necklaces, work just as well on printed artwork like in NewbieDM's solution above. The one-inch punch and epoxy stickers can make just about anything into a great usable D&D token for pennies. A few generic tokens made this way can also augment our miniatures collection by representing additional monsters whose miniatures we don't own.

Many other creators have published PDFs of tokens and stand-up paper miniatures. Trash Mob Minis and Printable Heroes are two such creators. These print-out miniatures require your time and the right equipment, which can get expensive if you don't already have it, but offer a nice pocketbook-friendly solution that gives you the exact type and number of miniatures you want.

Pawns and Flat Plastic Miniatures

For those who would rather save time and are willing to spend more money, we come to cardboard pawns. The most popular of these are the Pathfinder Pawns Bestiary collection which offers a large number of cardboard stand-up monster tokens for a low price. Though designed for Pathfinder, these tokens work just as well for D&D.

Other producers like Arcknight Games have come up with flat plastic miniatures that cost more but, in my opinion, look much better on a table and pack light since they're considerably flatter than cardboard stand-ups (full disclosure, I have a curated set of Flat Plastic Miniatures available through Arcknight Games).

These flat stand-up miniatures are a great way to build a large collection of monster representations without breaking the bank.

The Wide World of Plastic Miniatures

We now come to the large topic of plastic miniatures which come both painted and unpainted. Pre-painted miniatures often come in random booster boxes while specific unpainted miniatures can usually be purchased in non-random blister packs. Some sets of individual painted miniatures exist for heroes which is a great way to build up a small collection of hero miniatures without resorting to random selections.

Unpainted miniatures can be used as-is or painted. Painting miniatures, of course, adds the cost of paints, brushes, and other painting accessories on top of the time it takes to paint them. Painting miniatures is a fun hobby all on its own but it isn't for everyone. Backing the occasional Kickstarter by Reaper for unpainted "Bones" miniatures is one way to get a large collection of miniatures for a relatively low cost-per-mini.

Pre-painted plastic miniatures are, by far, the most common solution. Wizards of the Coast and their partner, WizKids, released thousands of miniatures over the past fifteen years. They've almost always been in randomly assorted packs but the price per miniature has changed dramatically over the years, and not in the direction we'd hope for. DMs collecting for many years might have large collections but building one today costs more than it did ten to fifteen years ago. If random boosters aren't your bag, you can buy miniatures on the secondary market but the cost per mini will be about $3 to $4 per mini on the low-end. Miniatures for our heroes and boss monsters might be worth it but it's probably not worth getting a warband of twelve orcs together for $36.

An Evolving Marketplace

The world of tokens, stand-ups, and miniatures continually changes. New ideas, like printable paper stand-up miniatures, pop up quickly and become very popular while older solutions like cardboard tokens or cheap pre-painted miniatures tend to fall out of production. Sometimes one can buy cardboard stand-ups easily and other times they're out of print and selling for four times the cost. This all points to the same core truth of miniatures: no miniature solution is perfect.

Terrain

If you thought miniatures were the end of the D&D money sink, you are mistaken. The top of the line D&D accessories include 3D terrain to go with all of those miniatures. These fantasy terrain arrangements look absolutely stunning, showing off full three-dimensional maps and areas including dungeons, cities, towns, and castles. The most popular vendor for these accessories is the venerable Dwarven Forge and their creator Stefan Pokorny. These are the setups that everyone drools over on Pinterest and Twitter. Matt Mercer uses Dwarven Forge on Critical Role.

The costs for these elements of terrain are as high as the sets are beautiful. A table-sized representation of a complicated castle or dungeon can run thousands of dollars.

There is also a hidden cost with this terrain. The time to set up such an arrangement leaves little flexibility for the game to go anywhere else. If you set up a castle, the characters are definitely going to that castle. Likewise, the terrain takes up a lot of space to store and time to set up. I am a huge fan of Dwarven Forge and own many sets myself, but it is not a requirement to run a great D&D game.

For now, admire the pictures people put on the web but stick to your blank battle-mat for a lightweight, cost-effective, and flexible alternative.

Some Final Recommendations

Given the imperfection of the D&D miniature market, I have no clear solution but a few recommendations.

First of all, even if we don't use it all the time, running combat using the "theater of the mind" offers us infinite flexibility and no cost. Even if we do have a collection of miniatures, we don't have to use them all the time. Keeping this style of play in our DM toolbox keeps our game fast and flexible.

Players love to have nice miniatures for their characters. Character miniatures can show their marching order when heading down a hallway, who is on watch, and a variety of other non-combat situations on top of their obvious representation in combat. They're also just plain fun to play with. Investing in a good set of character miniatures, either as full miniatures or stand-up tokens, can help bring the characters to life.

As far as monsters go, sticking with cheap representations of monsters with whatever objects you have on hand is just fine. Hand-made tokens are fast, flexible, easy to transport, and cheap. Plastic and card-board stand-up miniatures give us a large collection of monsters for a reasonable cost. Painted or unpainted miniatures look great at the table but the costs are high. Choose which ever of these options best fits your budget and the type of game you want to run.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master

Sly Flourish - Mon, 09/10/2018 - 06:00

Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the spiritual successor to the Lazy Dungeon Master is now available for purchase! Currently you can buy the ebook package which includes the PDF and ePub version of the book. The softcover and hardcover versions of the book are due for release in early October 2018.

It's been five years since the release of the Lazy Dungeon Master. Back then, D&D was transitioning between fourth and the fifth edition. Even written during this transition the book did extremely well and the ideas in it still resonate with GMs today.

After 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 many different fantasy roleplaying games and books of advice for running great fantasy RPGs. I watched tons 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. In February I launched the Kickstarter for the Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and the support blew the doors off of any of my expectations. I was able to finance not just the full production of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master but a full Lazy DM's Workbook to go even deeper into helping GMs run great fifth edition games. That book is due out in late fall or early winter 2018.

I kept the price of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master low—$8 for the ebook package—to help as many GMs as possible get it into their hands. The smashing success of the Kickstarter let me bring on industry titans like Scott Fitzgerald Gray for editing, Marc Radle for art direction and layout, Jack Kaiser for two incredible covers, and Pedro Potier for the internal artwork.

There's a two-chapter sample of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master so you can see what you're getting and this sample also acts as a crash course in the new lazy DM's checklist so it's usable on its own. Give it a look and see if it's the style for you.

I've also recently taken to Twitch to broadcast myself preparing for my weekly Tomb of Annihilation game using the new Lazy DM's checklist. If you want to see the steps in action, take a look at the Youtube archive of previous Lazy DM prep videos.

I've poured decades of experiences running D&D games into Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. I poured centuries of experiences from other GMs into this book as well. Everything that I've focused on when helping GMs run great roleplaying games I polished and put into this book. If you like what I've been doing on this site over the past ten years, this book is the refined culmination of everything I have to offer.

I hope you love it as much as I do and I thank you for your support.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Running Hags

Sly Flourish - Tue, 09/04/2018 - 06:00

Hags may be the perfect low-level boss monster and they run best when we focus less on their stat block and more on how they'll make the lives of the characters miserable over the course of a low-level campaign. The more we think about hags as the ageless, plotting, and manipulating villains they are, the more our players will enjoy hunting them down and killing them.

The Hags as Low Level Bosses

D&D is defined by huge boss monsters. The Dungeon Master's Guide has Acererak the arch-lich on the cover, the Monster Manual has a beholder on it's cover, and the Player's Handbook has King Snurre the fire giant lord on it's cover. D&D, of course, even includes "dragon" in the title and when we think of that, we're likely not thinking about the famous Larry Elmore Dragon Slayers art. We're thinking about big dragons. Maybe sorcerer dragons like Iymrith.

Low level characters don't often get to face bosses like that. They're worried about wererats, decaying skeletons, and hobgoblins. We often save our really interesting bosses for high level campaigns.

Enter the hag. Hags are ageless villains. The depth of their black hearts are only matched by the long centuries of their lives. They are cunning and devious. Many DMs probably run hags like any other encounter, the characters burst into a den with one or more hags and, after a fight, down the hags go.

But hags can be so much more. Volo's Guide to Monsters includes eleven pages on hags and it's well worth the read. Volo's also has numerous hag allies and minions including boggarts, redcaps, yeth hounds, quicklings, catoblepases, and banderhobbs. These are the monsters the characters can fight, and fight often. If the characters actually go toe-to-toe with the hag, however, likely the hag has already lost.

To really understand the depth of the hag, give the chapter on hags in Volo's Guide a solid read before running them as a villain.

Thinking Beyond the Stat Block

Monsters are more than just stat blocks. As we move towards the story focus of D&D and away from thinking mostly about tactical combat, this lesson is an important one to keep in mind.

Villains are living breathing entities in our story. Villains in this world don't just face off against characters and fight them in well-prepared battle arenas. Villains do lots of things off screen that affect the lives characters. They manipulate the world around them. They send minions to harass. They pull on strings and set up situations. They kidnap and murder loved-ones. A good villain may never face off against the characters if they can help it.

Statistically, hags, particularly green hags, aren't very powerful. They're challenge 3 and have decent hit points and damage but, if ganged up on, they'll go down quickly. A green hag might be a good threat for a level two or three party party, but not a party of level six or seven characters.

And yet these hags are ancient. They are master manipulators. They've murdered for centuries without getting caught. How can such a creature only be a challenge 3 monster with 78 hit points? How do we make such a monster a threat?

As strange as it sounds, a hag might never fight the characters head on. She might send waves of boggles, red caps, and banderhobbs. She would figure out how to get the town guards to think the characters are murderers themselves. She'll haunt their dreams and taunt them with illusions. She would twist what the characters love into something horrible. Hags aren't going to run up and hack them with their claws, they're going to spend ten years twisting their minds into knots.

Running hags this way can be new for some of us. We know that monsters have a place in the story but we're still used to throwing them out there in front of the characters in combat encounter three and having a big old scrape. Not all of the monsters work well that way. Hags are the prime example.

Hags make much better villains than monsters. Instead of worrying about encounter balance with hags, we should be think about what they're thinking, what they're feeling, and what they're doing. Fighting a hag might be more about gathering information, uncovering clues, and working the hag's ego against herself to find out where she is.

When the characters finally do face a hag, it might be a quick fight. The hag might even find a way to make it even worse for the characters if she dies. Perhaps the hag has vital information the characters will lose if she dies. Perhaps the characters have made a deal with her that they cannot break. Perhaps her life force is bound to an innocent, one loved by the characters. Perhaps her death will result in releasing a necrotic poison that will flood the city's aquafurs.

Of course, if we want to beef up our hag in the actual fight, maxing her hit points and doubling her attacks can often do the trick. Maybe she wears a grizzly amulet that lets her distribute damage to her banderhobb bodyguard. Beefing her up, though, isn't the point. The point is how she deals with the characters before combat begins.

We can also give the hag access to all sorts of spells that can screw with the characters from afar. Running a hag isn't about dropping fireballs on the characters, its about manipulating their thoughts and the reality around them. Spells like phantasmal force, dissonant whispers, hallucinatory terrain, friends, charm person, dream, sending, phantasmal killer, insect plague, mass suggestion, and simulacrum can help the hag terrorize the party, particularly if we cheat and let the hag cast spells from afar, like through scrying. The hag's tremendous experience likely lets them break the rules of spells. They can know spells well outside their challenge level and maybe even break the rules of concentration. A hag might use multiple simulacrums to terrorize the characters without them actually being able to kill her. It's nice for the players to be able to recognize the spells that the hag casts but also see that the hag's version is quite a bit different at the same time; strange and powerful.

The Nearly Omnipotent Hag

We DMs aren't as smart as the combined intellects of our players. They'll nearly always outsmart us. If we're in the minds of our villains, how can our villians not be outsmarted by them as well?

We cheat.

Our hag might not know exactly what the characters are up to at any given time, but we are and maybe we can leak some of that information into the actions of the hag. Maybe the hag knows more than the charaters think. Maybe there is a spy among them. Do we trust that sentient sword wielded by the ranger?

If we're going to play a smart villain, we have to give it superhuman intellect that only we creators of the game can give them. It's the only way we can keep up with the four to six brains working against our dastardly foe.

Hags may not be ancient red dragons, lichs, or vampire lords. Yet they can be as cunning as any of those. Low level adventures deserve strong villains just as high-level ones do. For your level 1 to 5 adventures, the hag can make an excellent villain. Think through her eyes, keep her out of harms way, send in her minions, and let her tug on the strings of the characters as her plot unweaves around them.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Managing Mysteries and Plot Twists

Sly Flourish - Mon, 08/27/2018 - 06:00

Running mysteries in D&D is exceedingly difficult. Unlike great mystery stories, we have no idea how the characters will navigate the situation. On top of this, it's likely our players may uncover the root of the mystery well before we expected them to.

Some DMs likely map out all of the threads of a story when they sit down to prepare it. They'll start with a murder, for example, and map out all of the key components like a giant FBI crime board full of push pins and yarn. That approach may work for some but we're going to look at a different approach today: focusing on the situation and developing your clues.

Focus on the Situation and Clues

Instead of trying to build out detailed plots and mysteries with the expectation that the players will go from step A to step B, we might instead focus on the situation. In a murder mystery, instead of worrying about how the characters will discover the murderer, we can focus on the situation of the murder itself. Where did it take place? Who was there? What does the crime scene look like?

Each of these questions can be filled out in our list of ten secrets and clues. Our lazy method of writing down a number of secrets and clues without worrying about how the characters will discover them is perfect for mysteries like this. No matter what path the characters take to investigate the murder, they can eventually uncover the clues they need to come up with the answer.

Some of these secrets offer only small clues while others tell us everything. For example, in the adventure Gloom in Fantastic Adventures (spoilers ahead!), we have the mystery of an elven assassin going after the nephew of the local lord for peeing in the local holy elven pool. Here are a few of the secrets for this mystery:

  • The Temple of Light was recently defiled, with a large statue broken and someone urinating in the holy pool of light. Witnesses saw two youths fleeing the scene.

  • Meira, a priest of light, is a quiet, introspective person. She came to the Temple of Light two decades ago, not speaking of her past but seeking to serve the light for the rest of her days.

  • For over a century, a master assassin named Gloom upset the power base of numerous lands by assassinating nobles and rulers on all sides.

  • Gloom went missing decades ago, and most presume her dead.

  • Meira confessed her true identity to one of the other priests at the Temple of Light, as well as her vow to atone for the murders she committed.

  • An old shrine to a dead god is said to be hidden in a bog outside Whitesparrow.

  • Assassins and thieves once worshiped a god known as the Blood King, but the faith dedicated to that mysterious figure died out decades ago.

  • After the defilement of the Temple of Light, Meira was seen cutting off all her hair and painting a black stripe across her eyes with oily mud.

  • More than one person has seen Meira wandering in the vicinity of a huge outcrop known as the magnetic rock in a bog near Whitesparrow. Those who saw her know the area as one of treacherous terrain, making it an odd location for a casual walk.

In this adventure, there's actually only one vital clue to move the adventure forward and that's where Gloom is hiding. The rest of it can build up interesting backstory for the assassin but it's not vital.

When running the game, we improvise how the characters end up learning each of these secrets. We don't need to know this ahead of time.

You might also add some red herrings if you don't mind the characters following a false trail. This can get frustrating if they go too far so better for them to see that some evidence is contradictory so they know something isn't right.

Justin Alexander at The Alexandrian recommends adding three clues for each major step in the mystery so the characters are sure to find it. If we're keeping our secrets flexible, we might not need three but having enough secrets to get to the end is vital.

Focusing your prep around ten secrets and clues the characters may discover works well for any D&D game but it works particularly well for mysteries.

Assume They'll Figure It Out Early

We can also make the assumption that the players will figure out the mystery early. They might only have one clue but they might jump to the right conclusion right away. They might use speak with dead, commune, zone of truth, or detect thoughts to find out answers we hadn't expected them to ask. What will we do if that happens? How can the game go on if the characters figure out the big reveal with a single spell? That's probably worth preparing for before it happens. A mystery can turn into a manhunt instead of an investigation.

Many great movies tell us up front who the villain is but still end up as great stories. No Country for Old Men fits this idea well. We have a cop, a opportunist, and an assassin all trying to piece together a drug deal gone wrong. We know who they all are. We know what the situation was, but unraveling the story is still a great deal of fun. The characters might cast speak with dead on the nearly decapitated guard only to find out that it was a huge and amazingly dexterous half-orc he had picked up earlier as a suspect in another crime.

Reveal Plot Twists Spontaneously

Instead of planning plot twists ahead of time, we might simply ignore them until the twist comes up on its own. This is more of a Stephen King's On Writing style of DMing. We just start the story and see where it leads. Sometimes it leads into a plot twist. Sometimes it just moves forward to its inevitable end. Sometimes the plot twists surprise us just as much as the other players. That's a pure joy when it happens and it's a sure fire way the players won't figure it out early. Hell, even we didn't know what was going to happen.

All of this leads to the conclusion that we might be best letting go of our bigger ideas for plots and mysteries. Instead, we let the story play out based on the initial situation, the characters, their actions, and the reactions of the world. Like everything else in these evolving games, the mysteries and plot-twists become organic. They happen when they happen.

We might even let go of the idea that we're running a mystery at all. Why define the type of adventure we're running? Why not just let the story play out how it plays out without trying to model it after a detective novel? Maybe it ends up as a mystery but we don't need to necessarily start it there.

Thinking Through the Eyes of the Villain

Instead of plotting out our mystery scene-by-scene, worrying about what the characters will do, we might step back and see through the eyes of the antagonist in the story. This antagonist can change direction as the characters move forward. I had no idea Strahd would turn into a quest NPC for the characters because I had no idea the characters would release the Ancient One vampire from the Amber Temple in Curse of Strahd. Until Strahd saw the characters release that Ancient One, he never would have guessed he would ally with them, even if it was a brief alliance, to defeat the Ancient One. At a certain point, Strahd realized he would lose in a stand-up fight with the characters so he moved forward with new plans knowing this risk.

The plot of my Curse of Strahd game definitely twisted but not in a direction anyone would have guessed.

Strahd is, of course, one of the best villains whose eyes we might see through.

Trusting Improvisation

When we think about a mystery in D&D we might compare it to great mysteries in fiction. There's a big difference, though, and that's the players. Unlike the great detectives, our players won't follow the plot of the book. They won't find the right clue at just the right time. We don't know what they'll do and that's a great deal of fun. We can't map out our mysteries as though we're going to write a novel. We have to start with the situation at the center of the mystery and then scatter clues in circles all around it. The characters can pick up these clues and, when they have enough, the mystery reveals itself.

This means we must trust our ability to improvise the story as it unfolds at the table. It means leaving blanks in our game. It means that the story isn't a static map but continually evolves as the world reacts to the players.

The best mysteries are the ones that surprise even us.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

DM's Deep Dive with Paige Leitman on D&D Streaming and Organized Play

Sly Flourish - Mon, 08/20/2018 - 06:00

On June 2018 episode of the DM's Deep Dive, I had the great pleasure to talk with Paige Leitman, organizer for Dragon Con D&D games, writers of con-created content for the Adventurers League, and moderator of the 126,000 member D&D Facebook group. Paige had some wonderful insights into the differences between Adventurers League organized play groups and groups who have come to the game through online streams such as Critical Role. In this episode Paige and I talk about this difference, what it means, and what we can do about it.

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Here are some notes from this episode.

Paige's two posts (requires being part of the D&D Adventurers League Facebook group):

Paige's Top Three Tips for DMs and D&D AL DMs
  • Wake up! Our hobby is changing and growing. It's a new golden age of D&D. Experience it. Go to a convention and see how the demographics are changing. Talk to people online. Find out what brings people to D&D. Watch streaming shows. Even if it's not your thing, please do it and gain an appreciation for it because it's driving the hobby.

  • Get out of your rut. If you've been playing D&D the same way for 30 years, learn new tricks. Learn from other DMs and newer DMs. Be open to change.

  • Go watch or listen to Critical Role, Girls Guts Glory, Adventure Zone, Venture Maidens. Yeah, maybe you don't want to, do it anyway. It will give you critical insight into what's going on with our hobby right now.

Paige uses her commute to catch up on streaming games.

Finding times to slide in streaming D&D shows can give us a chance to learn from a lot of DMs.

Paige will take the Broadswords over the news every morning.

Play different games with different players at conventions and it will do wonders for your own game. Even in bad games, we can learn a ton by playing in other groups, watching other players, and watching other DMs. Mike mentions Truman Capote who said that, when interviewing a boring person, he asked "what makes this person so boring? What drove this person's life to this spot?".

The idea of learning more from DMs doesn't mean we DMs have to throw away all of our experiences. Instead, we can think like a Bayesian and take in new evidence to update our prior understanding of the game.

"Dude, no one is asking you to be Matt Mercer. No one is Matt Mercer except Matt."

According to Mike's flawed analysis of comments on Paige's post about learning from Critical Role, 60% were positively inclined towards learning tips from Matt Mercer.

There is resistance to the idea that we can learn from streaming. "I'm not Matt Mercer and if people are looking for that, they should find another table." This is said often and, frankly, shuts the door on learning from an excellent DM.

When we look at streaming from the position of organized play, what do we see?

Paige describes a continuum of tactical play on one side and story focused gaming on the other. Streaming leans more towards story and organized play leans more towards tactical but there is an overlap between the two of them. There is a bell curve for both types of gamers with each leaning one way or the other.

In streaming games there is a bigger focus on the characters and might spend a lot of time doing things like shopping at a store. This would drive con coordinators crazy. Adventurers League games have fixed time frames and can't spend a lot of time focused on individual characters. Instead AL adventures focus on the story of the adventure itself and a clear out line of scenes including refined combat encounters.

How can Adventurers League nudge things towards this greater story focus? How do we create an environment where people who have learned about D&D through streaming will enjoy playing D&D Adventurers League games?

Paige's gut feeling is that WOTC is pushing towards more story-focused adventures. Paige brings up Rrakkma as an example adventure that focuses on a more narrative arc. The upcoming Season 8 adventurers seem to fit this model as well.

Paige and Mike discussed the Red War, a player-generated storyline in Mulmaster. Mike thinks that the fact that a bunch of players got focused on the narrative of the story instead of some mechanics-focused thing was pretty awesome.

Newer rewards in Organized Play also focus on stories such as homes, keeps, business, pets, boats, titles, estates. These non-mechanical rewards are exciting for D&D AL players and that's a good move towards story-focused characters.

Mike's Note. The D&D Open at Origins was a wonderful narrative-focused adventure that was heavily timed but still gave players a rich and full story with lots of options and excitement. I played it for about 9 hours and we had one battle against one foe that lasted maybe 5 minutes. The game still had us on the edge of our seats.

Paige describes how recent con-created adventures give the DMs tools to handle it when characters subvert or bypass combat encounters with improvised skill check situations. This is a good way of giving DMs the tools they need to handle improvised situations as they pop up.

Is audience participation in streaming a negative?

Paige thinks its nice that people give money to a stream and good on them for getting it. Mike's philosophy is "never get in the way of someone else's hustle". If they can make money from it, go with the gods.

Is there some way in AL to make better matches betweens DMs and players between tactical and RP?

Paige says they've tried that in their local conventions and it can work at conventions or game stores. When looking for players, Mike described his game as a "story focused game that uses a lot of Theater of the Mind" and that helped players select his game based on that style. In organized play games, Mike saw tactical players come unglued when they suddenly found themselves in narrative combat.

How do The D&D AL Epics shape people's views on Organized Play games?

People love the combined group and high epic scope of epics and opens and the bigger multi-table games. Shameless plug, Mike wrote Vault of the Dracolich as a multi-table event between editions.

Paige believes that a good home game is likely better than a typical Adventurers League game but no home game can do what an Epic or Open does. Mike got to mention how his paladin was the first character whose soul was eaten by the Soul Monger during the D&D Open at Origins 2017. They announced his death from the balcony of the ballroom and Mike got a unique certificate from Shawn Merwin and Teos Abadia themselves.

Final Words

Paige believes that integrating these new cultures into the Adventurers League and that it resides with the DDAL admins who can reach out to streamers and start to think about how to bring these groups together. Adventures can be written differently to support more narrative games.

Paige's last piece of advice is go out there and talk to five new D&D players to hear their experiences and drives for the game. Try to spend time understanding this new group of people coming to D&D.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Improvisation for New D&D Dungeon Masters

Sly Flourish - Mon, 08/13/2018 - 06:00

Note: This article is reposed with permission from the original posted to D&D Beyond on March 2018. It is the fourth of a six-part series of articles focused on helping new D&D DMs put together and run great games. The full list of articles includes:

When we think about the skills Dungeon Masters require to run great D&D games, many come to mind. We might think we need to have mastery of the rules or a keen mind for combat tactics. We might assume we need to build out a world from scratch including its history, religion, and politics. The reality of the game is much different. We don't need those skills to run great games. One skill, however, stands out when it comes to running awesome D&D games.

Improvisation.

Games never go according to plan. The players latch on to ideas we never thought of ourselves. They make decisions we never considered. They head east into the great unknown when we have reams of maps for the well-charted west. They fall in love with NPCs we made up on the spot and kick the most important quest-giving NPC over a cliff thinking they were a doppelganger. Reacting to these on-the-spot changes and still managing to keep the game running smoothly is the difference between mediocre DMs and great ones.

We might be tempted to push the game back on track and force events to go the way we expected they would go. Doing so, however, can be a mistake. Pushing the game in one direction removes the agency of the players to guide the story. Second, it's fun when things don't go where we expected. It feels magical when the story expands beyond the minds of any individual at the table. It's up to us to weave that magic and the spell we'll use is improvisation.

When we talk about improvisation, we're not talking about using funny voices or falling into character. Those are certainly fun skills to develop but they aren't the core of what we're talking about here. We're talking about the skills required to keep the story going and making sure it's fun regardless of the choices the characters make or the unexpected events that unfold. We don't force the characters to go one way or another, we adapt based on the choices they make.

Improvisation is a skill that gets better over a lifetime. Whether we're just starting out or have run D&D for forty years, we can always improve this skill. We pick up tricks. We learn new techniques. We figure out new ways to riff with our players and come up with wild ideas we never would have thought of before it happened at the game. We get better at improvisation the more we do it because the more we do it, the more confident we become. Practice builds confidence which is the foundation of good improvisation.

Delegating Rules Mastery

As you get started running D&D games, you might find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer rules of the game. D&D is a complicated game to run. Instead of taking on the role as the full arbiter of the rules, ask the players to help. Did you forget how much damage thunderwave does? Ask someone to look it up for you rather than do it yourself. The more we rely on the players to help us answer rules questions, the less likely they'll think of us DMs as their opponents and understand that the DM, like the rest of the players, is there to watch the story unfold.

This doesn't get you off the hook from understanding the basics of how D&D runs, though. You don't have to master the rules but you should be proficient enough for the game to run smoothly. Give yourself enough time to read through and understand how the game works before you begin to run it for your group.

Learn to Let Go

Much of the struggle to get better at improvisation revolves around letting go of our expectations. When we sit down to plan and prepare our game, we build in our mind how we expect things to go. Then, when we're at the table, things don't always go the way we planned. If we hang on too tight to these expectations, we lose the opportunity to be surprised by the direction the story goes. We're not building a video game, filming a movie, or writing a story here. We're experiencing the story as it unfolds.

Commonly this will happen when we expect a fight to break out but the characters instead figure out how to get around it through a discussion with the potential combatants or by subverting the confrontation some other way. Say the characters run into a small hobgoblin camp. We assume they'll go in and fight some hobgoblins but what if, instead, they end up pretending to be mercenaries hired to join the band? What if they end up sneaking right past the camp with a series of great Stealth checks? What if they lure the guards of the camp away with a huge bonfire some distance away? We might not have expected any of these things but all of them could lead to an interesting story. We'd miss out on that if we simply force the confrontation and make the fight happen the way we expected it to in the first place.

Building interesting situations for our characters to explore and letting go of our expectations about how they will approach it is a huge step forward towards improvisational DMing.

Ask Questions and Listen to the Answers

Those who study improvisation say a great deal of the art of improvisation comes from listening. We can't improvise if we're not listening to what the players say and how it can change the game. One of the easiest tricks to steer the game is to ask players guided questions and use their answers to move the game forward.

Here are some examples:

"Mao, what object do you find irresistible in this curio shop?"

"Warryn, what interesting event unfolds as you travel through the jungles of Chult?"

"Tysabri, what are the three things you notice first about the city docks?"

"Diva, what drives you to protect your dwarf companion from the undead knight?"

You'll notice that all of these questions help steer the characters but in a way that lets us learn something more. They're not too general or open-ended. We know Mao the rogue is going to want something in this shop, but we don't know what. We know that Diva is going to aid her friend, but we might not know what drives her to do so. This might seem like we're steering the story too heavily but sometimes it's up to us to guide the story down a fun path instead of asking too vague a question such as "what do you do?" without context.

Asking questions also gets us involved in the characters in the game. It helps us hear what the players are hoping for as the game unfolds. Asking questions and listening to answers helps us break out of the story we have in our head and gets us to recognize, realize, and embrace the stories of the characters as they travel through the world.

"Yes, and..."

One of the most common topics of improvisation surrounds the idea of "yes, and..." This improvisational technique has two people build a story by passing ideas back and forth, continually accepting and adding on the ideas of the previous by saying "yes, and..." This can work well in D&D though sometimes "no, but" is more appropriate when a character wants to try something impossible but we DMs can offer an alternative. Many times this might start with a player's question:

"Can I break through the prison bars?"

"No, but you notice that the guard holding the keys has fallen asleep and the keyring on his belt may be just within reach."

This is the back-and-forth storytelling that lies at the core of D&D. DM's describe the situations, players describe what they want to do, and the DM describes how they might do it. Using "yes, and" and "no, but" builds in a negotiation into the game. What are the characters willing to risk to accomplish their goals?

Read the Books

Loading our brain up with great fiction improves our ability to improvise. Books, movies, TV shows, video games; all of these serve as great sources of inspiration for our D&D games. The D&D books themselves, however, offer a tremendous value for improvisational gaming. The Monster Manual is packed with wonderful stories, hooks, and ideas you can drop right into your game at the right moment. If you read no other D&D book from cover to cover, read this one. The Dungeon Master's Guide too is full of inspirational ideas. In particular, the random tables in the DMG serve as a wonderful inspirational aid while preparing our games. Random tables can break us out of stereotypical ideas and give us fresh ideas for our game. If you're running a published adventure, read it through so you can drop in foreshadowing and feel comfortable if the characters take a different direction from what the adventure expects.

The Mechanics of Improvisation

When we run our D&D games, some key mechanics can help us improvise situations and offer potential actions to the characters: skill checks, advantage, disadvantage, and inspiration. These mechanics work together to help facilitate improvised situations. They also fit into the ideas of asking questions and offering options.

If you aren't familiar with these mechanics, take a few minutes to read about them either in the D&D Players Handbook or on D&D Beyond before continuing.

When we run our games, we describe the situations in which the characters attempt to overcome obstacles to accomplish goals. Sometimes, if the actions the characters try are particularly easy, the characters can just do them. If they're challenging, however, we can set a Difficulty Class (DC) to the challenge based on how difficult it is. Easy yet fallible actions are about a 10 and really hard challenges are about a 20. We DMs pick this Difficulty Class, between 10 and 20, depending on the difficulty of the situation and the action the characters want to take. Stealing keys off of the belt of a sleeping guard is probably a 13. Bending the iron bars of the cell is probably a 20.

In some situations, particularly in combat, we can make offers to the players. If they succeed at a particular skill check, they can gain advantage on an attack. For example, if a character is willing to leap up on the stone table and dive in on the ogre, they can get advantage on their first attack if they make a DC 13 Acrobatics of Athleticscheck. If they fail, they'll slide on the table and land at the ogre's feet prone.

These sorts of deals can work either way: DM to player or player to DM. If a player wants to try something awesome, we can give them a DC to achieve it and grant them advantage if they succeed. Likewise, in order to add some excitement to a situation, we might let the player know of a potential option they can take, the difficulty to do so, the advantage they'll receive if they succeed, and the disadvantage they'll receive if they fail.

Finally, if we find that a player is acting in character and moving the story forward, we can reward them with inspiration. Inspiration is a tricky mechanic to remember and work in but it can serve very well to reward players for making choices true to their character that also keep the story moving forward. I personally like to award inspiration when characters take risks or will offer it as a reward if they are willing to do so.

Continuing our Lifelong Quest

This article barely scratched the surface of what it takes to be a great improvisational DM. It takes practice and work to get good at it. When it works, our games truly become something magical—a story none of us had individually considered but instead built together. In future articles we'll talk about some of the tools that help us run our D&D games including tools that help us improvise right at the table.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Hard Parts of Running D&D

Sly Flourish - Mon, 08/06/2018 - 06:00

For many of us, running D&D games is a great joy in our lives. We get together with friends, share laughs, tell stories, and have a great time together. Running D&D games, however, isn't easy, as lazy as we want to be about it.

For those of us who have run D&D games a long time, we can forget how hard it is for new dungeon masters to get started playing this game and which parts of running a D&D game can be the hardest for them.

I took to Twitter and Facebook to try to get a better understanding from new DMs on the difficulties new DMs faced getting started running D&D games. Instead of just surfing through the hundreds of responses, I copied them all down, threw them in a spreadsheet, and attempted to categorize them into specific groups and categories.

This led me to a few conclusions. First, there's a wide variety of unique challenges people face. There was a clear "long tail" in categories that only came up once among all of the responses. These included things like the diversity of expectations of the players, developing a good story, running session zeros, balancing encounters, understanding all of the spells, having poor teachers, being shamed by other groups or DMs, knowing when to say no, and onward. These are just some of the things that came up infrequently. You can read all of the Twitter responses here.

There were a few common problems new DMs faced, though, and that's where we'll focus some of our attention today. These common problems included:

  • Learning the rules.
  • Learning how to prepare a game.
  • Finding players.
  • Learning how to improvise.
  • Getting up the confidence to run.

Learning the Rules

Those of us who have played a lot of different RPGs know that D&D is far from the most rules-heavy roleplaying game out there but it still has a lot of rules, particularly when compared to other games a group might sit down and play.

When we think of the three core books, we're looking at over a thousand pages of rules. That can be intimidating for new potential D&D DMs who don't know which rules they should spend their time learning and which they can learn as they play.

There are lots of ways to learn how to play D&D, of course. Many recommend watching the myriad of D&D videos on Youtube to see what the game actually looks like in play. This isn't the best way to learn the ins and outs of the rules, but it really helps one understand how the game actually works. I'd start with Critical Role; Force Gray; Dice, Camera, Action; and the excellent videos by Matt Colville.

As far as actually learning the rules goes, I recommend starting with the D&D Starter Set which includes an abbreviated rulebook, focuses on low level characters, and has my favorite published D&D adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver. The Starter Set really is the best way to get started in D&D.

As an alternative, Wizards of the Coast has released the D&D Basic Rules for free including the Player's Rules and the Dungeon Master's Rules. These are great, free, online resources to help new DMs get started learning the fundamentals of D&D. All of these rules are also available for free on D&D Beyond.

Many veteran DMs also recognize that having full rules mastery isn't that important to run a great game. Understanding the basics and learning the rest of the rules as you go is a fine way to play. As a DM, there's no problem relying on your players to help you with the rules. It can even help get you out of a competitive mindset and remember that D&D is a cooperative game between DMs and players alike.

Learning How to Prepare a D&D Game

I've basically spent ten years writing on the topic of D&D prep, the results culminating in the book The Lazy Dungeon Master and the upcoming Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master so I won't repeat it all here. I'll give some sneak previews though, including articles that can help get new DMs started. These include:

There's more as well but you'll have to wait for Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master for the rest.

Finding Players

Finding a group is likely the hardest part of running a great D&D group. I recently wrote an article for D&D Beyond on this topic and have reposted it here: How to Find and Maintain a D&D Group.

Learning How to Improvise

Realizing that the rules of D&D don't cover everything that will happen at your game is one of the great leaps DMs and players take when comparing D&D to more traditional board games. The freedom for the story to go off in areas no one has thought of is both freeing and intimidating. Recognizing that the rules are a framework for collaborative storytelling takes some understanding and often the best way to learn this is to watch it. The web shows Critical Role, Force Gray, and Dice, Camera, Action are some great shows to see what D&D actually looks like.

When a new group wants to play D&D they might open up Phandelver from the Starter Set and start playing. During the first encounter one of the players might say "I want to flip the cart". A new DM might scramble, looking through the rules for cart-flipping without recognizing that just about anything in the game can happen if its possible. Just choose a difficulty class between 10 and 20 and see how it goes! This is easy for us veteran DMs to understand but it can throw off new DMs who might not have made that transition from a refined board game to an open-ended game like D&D.

This is, of course, just the beginning of the topic of improvisation. Learning how to improvise during the game is a skill that we can likely improve on as long as we run D&D games. It's also been a focus of this website for some time. Here are a few articles on the topic:

Getting the Confidence to Run

Though it didn't come up as often as the other hard parts of D&D in this article, getting the confidence to run games did come up a few times and I think it's a topic worth addressing. As part of the original conversation about the hard parts of D&D, I asked folks on Twitter about how they found the confidence to run D&D games. I got a plethora of answers which we'll cover in an upcoming article. For a short preview, however, respondents gave the following reasons most often when asked what gave them the confidence to run D&D games:

  • No one else was willing to do it.
  • They were supported by family and friends.
  • They got better through practice.
  • They had stories they wanted to share.
  • They learned from liveplay broadcasts and DM advice on Youtube.
Helping New DMs Out

I expect that most of the people reading this article are already well versed in the world of Dungeons & Dragons and don't need the sort of help found in this article. I do hope, however, that this article can help us veterans understand what sorts of questions new DMs have and what sort of problems they face. If you know a new DM who's just figuring out what's going on in this game, perhaps point them to this article or offer some of the suggestions found within.

In a wonderful discussion of how streaming D&D is changing organized play, Paige Leightman suggested that we veteran DMs go out there and talk to five new D&D players to understand what their views and experiences of the game really are. Doing so can give us an entirely different look at how we can help new players and DMs get into this hobby. Instead of telling folks about the old days of X edition, let's keep our mouths shut and hear about them for a while.

Our hobby is growing like never before. Let's shepherd those just entering and show them the worlds that lie beyond.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

A Dwarven Forge Caverns Deep Kickstarter Guide

Sly Flourish - Mon, 07/30/2018 - 06:00

Updated 6 August

  • Switched to cherry-picking add-on sets instead of the Hag's Den core set.
  • Added the natural bridge to the stand-alone piece discussion.
  • Added a description of cherry-picking add-on sets for main cavern sets.

The folks over at Dwarven Forge are right in the middle of their sixth Kickstarter for a new set of cavern-focused encounters and pieces called Caverns Deep. The Dwarven Forge folks reached out to me based on the guide I had put together last year for their Dungeon of Doom Kickstarter and asked that I put together a similar guide for getting the most out of your Caverns Deep Kickstarter Pledge. This article will take one view of how we can get the most adventure for our dollar for these amazing pieces.

Note that I'm publishing this article after the first week of the Kickstarter. The folks at Dwarven Forge continue to release new add-ons as the Kickstarter continues and I will update this article again before the end of the Kickstarter.

Please also note that I am being compensated for this article by the fine folks at Dwarven Forge. Know too that I've been a big fan and customer of theirs for more than a decade and will be backing this Kickstarter myself. Yes, I'm biased, but I really do love this stuff.

Dungeons & Dragons and the Price of Dwarven Forge

Before we head into the Caverns Deep, it helps to understand how Dwarven Forge fits into Dungeons & Dragons. Dwarven Forge is, in my opinion and the opinions of many, the best 3D terrain you can get for Dungeons & Dragons. The price, however, puts it out of the realm of possibility for many.

If the price is prohibitive for you, I have good news. Dwarven Forge is a wonderful accessory for D&D but it's not required. People can run awesome D&D games for hardly any money at all. The $20 D&D Starter Set or the free D&D Basic Rules are enough for a group of friends to share some fantastic stories together for a long time.

It's easier to think of Dwarven Forge as the titanium golf-clubs of D&D. They are not necessary to play but they sure grab attention at your D&D table.

Our goal in this article is to find the highest value pieces for the dollar—the pieces that will find the most use at our table and capture the most attention.

Kickstarters: Our Best Path to Dwarven Forge

Dwarven Forge Kickstarters are the best way to get into this hobby. With a substantial savings (at least in the US) for both shipping and taxes, discounted sets, and added stretch goal pieces thrown in; if one wants to get into Dwarven Forge, starting with their Kickstarters is a great way to go. In particular, this Kickstarter bakes their stretch goals into all of the relevant pledges or add-ons which is a big plus. Even the smaller pledges get some good stretch goal pieces.

That said, this campaign is more of an "advanced builder" campaign than the previous Dungeon of Doom campaign. This set heavily augments Dwarven Forge's second Kickstarter, the first Caverns Kickstarter, that focused on the primary building blocks of walls, corners and floors. This Kickstarter focuses more on the advanced pieces to make our rooms and corridors more fluid, dynamic, and detailed. This Kickstarter does, however, include a starter pack that can get new Dwarven Forge collectors started in their cave collections.

I personally choose to go for painted sets because I like to pull them out and use them out of the box. If you're crafty and familiar with painting miniatures or terrain and you have the spare time, you can save a lot by going with unpainted. The Dwarven Forge folks have some good paint tutorials up on Youtube if you decide to save a bunch of money and paint them yourselves.

Sacrificing Clarity for Flexibility

The Dungeon of Doom was a huge Kickstarter with new encounters and new add-ons being released every day. That said, it was relatively easy to see what you got with each of the encounters.

The Caverns Deep Kickstarter breaks things up to help backers get exactly what they want but at the sacrifice of clarity in the pledges. Nate Taylor, the creative director of Dwarven Forge, referred to this campaign as the "Caverns of Cherry Picking." They have the full expectation that people will pick and choose just the pieces they want from this Kickstarter. Because of this flexibility, there are numerous types of kits in this Kickstarter including pledge levels, encounters, adventure packs, core packs, universal packs, and miscellaneous packs. This can be quite confusing. I would worry less about the types of packs and, instead, choose exactly which packs you want that contain the pieces you will find most valuable at your game. That's what I've done in this guide.

It can be hard to know exactly which pieces you want, however. In this guide, we choose one philosophy and list of potential pledges but your own list might (and probably should) vary based on your own budget and your own desires. Some people love LED pieces (I'm one of them) while others want to focus on bread-and-butter pieces. Some love super-detailed and accurate pieces while others want walls, floors, and corners so they can build quickly.

Adding to this, the folks at Dwarven Forge have been adding new sets and add-on packs every day so far and will likely continue to near the end of the Kickstarter. This seems to add to the confusion but this often comes from the direct feedback of the backers, helping to build packs that better fit peoples' desires. It also means we can enjoy this Kickstarter every day instead of all at once, watching as new pieces come out.

Most importantly, prepare to do some research and cherry-pick the pieces that fit your budget and bring you the most value for your own game.

There are a couple of excellent spreadsheets made by some other industrious backers here and here that can show you exactly what pieces you get with which pledges. They're a couple of great planning tools.

Now let's talk about my own Dwarven Forge philosophy.

Big Meaningful Pieces

Anyone who gets into Dwarven Forge and spends some time with the pieces usually ends up building a personal philosophy towards them. This philosophy will change from person to person but I will give you mine, refined after over a decade of collecting and using Dwarven Forge pieces in my own D&D games.

I like big meaningful pieces. I like big pieces that I can drop on a table and instantly change an area. I like the big flashy pieces that make players go "wow". I want pieces that the characters can interact with. I want them pulling arcane energy out of glowing crystals, throwing bad guys into fiery pits, getting an advantageous shot when they climb a high tower, and falling into portals to the nine layers of hell.

This Kickstarter has some great big meaningful pieces. If one doesn't have any other cavern pieces, these big pieces look like they will work well in any sort of battle map, Dwarven Forge or not. Examples include the LED basalt floor from the summoning chamber adventure pack, the stairway to violence, the dwarven forge, and the stuff in the shrine of Skyss Ryssa adventure pack.

If you already have some previous cavern sets or if you're picking up any of the starter or core sets in this Kickstarter than there are some big pieces in this Kickstarter that look like they'll have some high value for our cavern setups. This includes the entrance riser, the corner curve, the corner entrance, the LED wall pack, and the 6x6 floor. These big pieces help you build out rooms quickly and with a lot of variety and are included in a few different sets.

Utility Versus Aesthetics

The various components of this Dwarven Forge cavern sets are, without a doubt, beautiful. One question we must keep in mind, however, is how often they will see use at our table? The ice set, for example, looks great, but how often do our characters fight in icy corridors? The glowing Mother of All Mushrooms is also awesome but how often will it land on the table?

These are hard questions we must ask ourselves to ensure that we're really getting a high value for the pieces we pick up. A 6x6 floor piece may not seem nearly as flashy as a giant glowing mushroom but we can drop that 6x6 floor in any big cavern room we build.

Mixing Your Media

While the Caverns Deep Kickstarter focuses on building small encounter environments, we can mix our media, using the stand-alone set-pieces in this Kickstarter with more traditional 2D maps, either hand-drawn on flip mats or using pre-printed flip mats like those published by Paizo for Pathfinder.

Freestanding walls can sit out to break up line of sight on a larger battle map. Elevation pieces can give characters and monsters higher ground from which to snipe foes. Glowing terrain, like the basalt floor or the dwarven forge, can sit in a larger map surrounded by chanting cultists while something horrible raises from the hellish portal. You'll see a full list of my favorite stand-alone centerpieces below.

Using Dwarven Forge pieces like this is also quick to set up so it works well for improvised areas. One can draw a sketch of an area and then drop a piece or two of Dwarven Forge to spice it up in just a couple of minutes.

When we're shopping for pieces in this Kickstarter, it helps to know what we already have in hand and how we typically build encounter areas already.

A Shopping List for Stand-Alone Centerpieces

On to our shopping lists. First, we'll start with these excellent stand-alone centerpieces pieces that look like they will work for just about any setup, including right on a flat battle map. I've listed these in my own priority order.

  • The Stairway to Violence. A three-story platform is really an awesome piece to drop into an encounter area. It's only two pieces so it's easy to set up and it's versatile enough to use in a lot of encounters. It will bring a lot of 3D to an otherwise flat map. Note, this isn't yet available as an add-on but I expect it soon will be.

  • Summoning Chamber Adventure Pack. Who doesn't need a big glowing summoning circle? This is another great set piece that will define an encounter area and catch a lot of eyes around the table. Summoning circles are common enough that we'll use this a lot but cool enough to wow us every time.

  • The Dwarven Forge Pack. A small accessory pack with an awesome LED dwarven forge with a removable top. This is a great eye-catcher that looks like it has a lot of versatility and works as a stand-alone centerpiece that characters can interact with (or vice versa!). Who doesn't want to kick a hobgoblin into a fiery pit of molten metal?

  • Shrine of Skiss-Ryssa - Adventure Pack. This one's more expensive but looks cool and comes with three different glowy pieces and some other neat accessories like the gibbering mouther and the magnetic chained crystal. Nearly each of these pieces can act as a story centerpiece in an adventure.

  • Natural Bridge. The natural bridge looks like it will give us a really cool piece of elevation that we can drop on the table without requiring any other pieces. It also looks like it will mix well with the stairway to violence.

  • Hag's Den - Adventure Pack. The Hag's Den pack contains a myriad of flavorful accessories to dress up rooms. These sorts of accessories can turn a plain chamber into something really unique. Personally, I'm already swimming in accessories like this from other Kickstarters so I'm going to pass but if you're brand new, it's worth considering.

As of this writing, the full breakout lists for the Crystal Caverns, the Underdoom, and the Dreadhollow Forest sets aren't released. It is possible those sets also contain some excellent stand-alone centerpieces we might want. Check this article again in a week to see what we add.

Cavern Building Sets

Going beyond stand-alone pieces, we come to sets that actually build out full cavern areas. Building large rooms with this Kickstarter can get expensive quickly but rich and interesting small chambers and halls are within our grasp. We'll get the most from this Kickstarter's core pieces if we already have a bunch of cavern pieces from the second Dwarven Forge Kickstarter. After a lot of study I've come to a list of sets that I think contain the most interesting cavern pieces with an eye towards price at three price ranges.

  • The Starter Set. The Caverns Deep starter set includes a small pile of walls, floors, corners, and general cavernous accessories. One set is enough to either augment a larger purchase or build a small room but, on its own, one set probably isn't enough. If you're looking for more general pieces, two or three starter sets will likely give us enough material to build a good sized set of chambers. These starter sets also mix very well with the Cavern Entrance Encounter. One cavern entrance encounter and two starter sets gives us a solid collection for a bit over $300. This might be enough on its own to build out a good variety of cave encounters for an evening. Starter sets can also add a number of basic pieces to any larger core set if we go for those.

  • Cavern Entrance Encounter. This set includes the summoning chamber circle mentioned above along with the awesome entrance riser. It also includes big epic corners and a bunch of other bread-and-butter pieces. This really doesn't have enough pieces on its own to build more than a single small room so augmenting it with one or two starter sets will fill it out. We can likely skip this set if we're adding a bigger core set to our pledge.

  • Cherry-picked Add-On Sets. Instead of choosing one of the larger core sets, we can cherry pick the exact pieces we want from the exact sets. The add-on sets that have my eye include the Cavern Floors Pack, the Passages Pack, the Double Door Pack, and the Rising Elevation Pack. These, mixed with the starter set and the entrance encounter gives us solid amount of bread and butter pieces to build out a lot of locations.

  • The LED Wall Pack. This Kickstarter includes a 2x6 cavern wall with a door, archway, and torch sconces for glowing torches. It won't work well on its own but as part of a cavern setup, it looks like it will be easy to set up and bring a lot of cool features into a room. It includes a stand-alone wall with a socket that has a lot of uses in a lot of set-ups.

  • Encounter 11 Hag's Den Core Set. If you don't want to cherry pick a bunch of pieces and instead want a big variety of pieces for roughly the same price, the core set for the hag encounter is a great package. This one will build out a nice-sized room and a few passages. It has a lot of pieces awesome pieces including the 6x6 floor (one of my favorites in this Kickstarter; I love big floors). A bunch of the pieces in this core set are the same as the entrance set except for the basalt floor or entrance riser. Instead of buying this AND the entrance set, you can get this set and then the raised entrance and basalt floor from that set as add-ons.

  • Essentials 1 through 9 Set. If one had $1,500 to spend on this Kickstarter, this all-in-one package has a whole ton of great pieces. For the money, this is the no-brainer pledge. The only thing missing is the Shamanic Circle which I would still add as an add-on.

Dan W. who goes by DW, Chancellor of Valoria on the Kickstarter's huge comment section, offers up that we can leave out one or two sides of walls when building out a room or chamber for a Starcraft-like setup that gives you a lot more potential surface area. That's a neat idea I haven't yet tried.

Mike's Personal Wish List (Updated 6 August)

So what am I actually going to order? Here's my own list in priority order. This list might certainly change before the end of the Kickstarter depending on what they announce. I'm mostly cherrypicking the specific pieces I want along with a cavern entrance set and a caverns starter set as my base pledge. Again, check back before the end of the Kickstarter to see how I've updated it.

More to Come

This Kickstarter is only about eight days in as this article is published, with almost two weeks to go. As the days move on, the landscape changes and so too might these recommendations. Keep an eye on this page to see what updates come in before the end of the Kickstarter.

Another Dimension for our Tabletop Fantasy Games

When I look at the pictures from this Kickstarter, it reminds me of the awesome set-pieces that Wizards of the Coast puts together for Chris Perkins's Acquisitions Incorporated games. Those hand-made sets take his games to a new level and, typically, we wouldn't have access to anything like that. Dwarven Forge stuff, however, gives us that access. It gives us modular terrain, hand sculpted by D&D nerds to let us build awesome tabletop setups for our D&D games.

This stuff isn't necessary to run a great game but, for those who can afford it, Dwarven Forge adds an entire new element to the games we enjoy. Give it a look and see if it's for you.

Special thanks to Teos Abadia, Shad Ross, Dan W., my wonderful wife, and the excellent folks at Dwarven Forge for their help and suggestions with this article.

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