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Building the better Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master.
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DM's Deep Dive with Paige Leitman on D&D Streaming and Organized Play

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

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

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

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.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Making the Most of Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes

Mon, 07/23/2018 - 06:00

Wizards of the Coast recently released their third monster-focused sourcebook, Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes, for the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Like Volo's Guide to Monsters, Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes is a thematic book of monsters. Instead of piling on hundreds and hundreds of monsters without a clear overall theme, Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes focuses on ancient conflicts across the multiverse. These conflicts include the Blood War between demons and devils, the struggles between the elves, the dwarf and duergar conflicts, the wars of the gith, and the dichotomy of halflings and gnomes.

The 140 different monsters in this book mostly fall into these conflicts with a few exceptions. This book also focuses on higher challenge rating monsters, with a median challenge rating of 10 compared to the median challenge rating of 5 for the Monster Manual.

This article isn't a review of Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. Given how few D&D books get released each year, if the idea of the book resonates with you at all, it's probably worth picking up. Players will love it for the newly available character races and DMs will love it for the depth of lore and the slew of new monsters.

Instead of reviewing the book, this article will focus on how we can use this book. Some of these tips might seem obvious while others may help us look at this book in a different way. However you choose to use it is up to you, of course. These are just suggestions. Please note that I received a review copy of Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes for this article.

Read It

This might seem like one of those obvious tips but that doesn't mean we all do it. We DMs, particularly those who resonate with the ideas of the Lazy Dungeon Master, are often pressed for time. Veteran DMs might also feel like they already know most of what they might read in a book like this.

So we buy it, put it on our shelf, and rifle through it looking for new monsters we can throw at our characters once in a while. That can work, of course, but it doesn't squeeze nearly the value out of this book that we can when we read it from cover to cover.

D&D is more than stat blocks and mechanics. D&D is about building worlds and sharing stories in those worlds. This book helps us expand and dive into these worlds. The text of every conflict and every monster is packed with ideas we can use, either as secrets and clues or full-blown campaign ideas.

As we shift to a more story-focused D&D game, the lore of the monsters and the conflicts that surround them become more important than their stat blocks. If you find yourself fixated by those stat blocks, take the time to read the book you dropped $50 on and think about the context of those monsters you want to drop into your game.

Finding time to read it is always tricky but there are ways we might squeeze it in. Instead of poking around on all of the social medias, we might bring our copy with us and, when we have a moment, read a chapter or even a single monster entry. If we already read for fun, we might put aside our favorite novel and read this instead.

With D&D Beyond, we can now take all of our favorite sourcebooks on the go and Mordenkainen's is no different. Being able to carry a searchable version of all of the 5th edition rulebooks on our phones is amazingly powerful. Not only will it save our backs when we're running D&D at our local game shop, but it gives us the chance to load up and read Mordenkainen's when we find ourselves with some spare time just about anywhere.

If you take no other advice from this article, take this.

Read the book.

Steal Story Hooks From the Lore

The lore contained in Mordenkainen's, both in the descriptions of the various conflicts and in the monster descriptions themselves, are packed with ideas we can harvest for adventures, campaigns, story threads, and monstrous lairs. While Mordenkainen's doesn't include lair maps like Volo's Guide to Monsters did, we can pull a million map ideas from all over the net and apply the flavor we want from the ideas we get from Mordenkainen's.

My personal favorite is the description of the Githyanki city of Tu'narath. Built within the corpse of a dead god. The whole lower half of the corpse, known as the Dragon Caves, is a megadungeon even the Githyanki don't fully understand. There are ancient things in there born before the lives of mortals. Talk about a place rich for high level dungeon crawling.

We could even set an entire mini-campaign out of Tu'Narath with an all-githyanki party sent out by commanders of the Lich Queen to recover lost artifacts, raid settlements, and hunt down mind flayers. These chapters in Mordenkainen's fills our head with all sorts of ideas.

Fill Out Your Characters and NPCs

This tip works for both players and dungeon masters. Perhaps, as a player, we have a new elf character. We could go with all of the tropes, she loves nature and the touch of arcane, but maybe we can go a bit deeper. Maybe our elven character is reaching the Drawing of the Veil and feels she is losing her connection to Corellon and the lands of Arvandor and is doing whatever she can to reconnect with the ancient lives of the first elves.

The rich history of common races like the dwarves, elves, halflings, and gnomes in Mordenkainen's let us fill out a lot of details for our NPCs and, if we're players, our characters. We might recommend to our players that they read up on these sections if running these races. The vast amount of background helps us fall into the story and go there. It helps us break away from what attribute bonus a race has and actually get into the ancient history of these races.

Beef Up Powerful Named Monsters

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes includes many high challenge rating monsters including a huge pile of demon princes and devil lords. Wizards of the Coast chose to stick to their original monster design guidelines to build these monsters which can lead to high challenge monsters that don't really challenge high level characters. In a recent Twitter poll on the topic, about three in four responding DMs who run high level D&D games said that high challenge monsters aren't hard enough. Unfortunately, this is as true for the monsters in Mordenkainen's as it is for the Monster Manual.

This means it's up to us to empower these monsters to challenge high level characters.

Often we can increase the challenge of a battle by adding more monsters. We can add other monsters to boss fights too, though these bosses will still tend to take on the focus of the characters' attacks. So we'll likely want to tweak these boss monsters directly.

We have a few tricks we can use to keep high challenge monsters as powerful and scary as they should be. First, we can maximize their hit points within their hit dice range instead of using the printed average. According to Jeremy Crawford, this is still fully in the intended design of the monster. Maximizing hit points helps ensure these powerful monsters can survive a couple of rounds of high-damage attacks like action-surging power attacks, multiple paladin divine strikes, and sharpshooting archers.

We can actually keep this increased amount of hit points in our head when running the game. If the battle becomes a complete slog, we can reduce it back to the average to end the fight. If instead things are moving too fast, we can use the maximum to keep the fight going a little longer. This flexible range of hit points gives us a good way to manage the flow, pace, and story beats of our battles.

If we want to make our jobs even easier, we can simply double their hit points. This is outside of spec, but it's easier to improvise at the table.

To increase the monster's threat, we can maximize or double their damage as well. Instead of Baphomet's Heartcleaver hitting for an average of 21, we can maximize it to 30 or double it to 42. If you roll for damage instead of using the average (you should really try using the average), you can instead double the damage dice for a higher threat attack. This is definitely not a "legal" version of the monster at this point but it can put up quite a threat.

Many of these high challenge legendary monsters also use a lot of poison and fear-based effects. If a group of characters has access to the spell Hero's Feast, both of these threats will be completely negated. We don't want to punish our players for using this spell but we might not want the major abilities of high challenge foes negated either. Thus, we can replace fear with madness effects instead. Madness is a wonderful flavorful status effect. Like fear, we can have affected creatures make saves at the end of their turns to get rid of the effect.

For poisons, we might instead replace poison damage with another element type such as acid or necrotic. Again, we don't want to do this all the time but if a big boss's major threat is removed, we might want to give it some help.

Here's a short summary of modifications we can easily make for high challenge boss monsters in Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes:

  • Maximize or double hit points instead of using the listed averages.
  • Maximize or double damage on attacks.
  • Replace the frightened status effect with short-term madness effects.
  • Replace poison attacks with acid or necrotic attacks.
Think Less Tactically

Instead of worrying too much about building perfectly tuned encounters every time, we might follow Mike Mearls's advice and think less tactically about our game overall. Though Mordenkainen's is packed with monster stat blocks, that isn't where we have to focus our attention. We can instead think about these monsters and the conflicts in the larger scale of our campaigns.

What is the larger context these monsters play in our games? What is the overall situation going on? If the characters run into a Githyanki spelljammer in the Astral Sea, what's going on with the spelljammer? We don't have to build six to eight balanced encounters of three to seven bad guys in each encounter. We can crew the ship as the Githyanki would have crewed it and let the players interact with it as they choose.

Thinking less tactically, at least to me, means thinking less about encounter design and more about the situation in the world regardless of the characters. It's a clear focus on building the world and the situation based on the key rule of "what makes sense".

As we go through Mordenkainen's, we can think more about the world these monsters inhabit and less about what balance of monsters we want in a fight. It's a different way of thinking but one that has rewarding results.

Choose Villains

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes is packed with mid and high challenge monsters of all different sorts. Both the initial lore and the monster descriptions give us great room for the main villains in our campaigns. Perhaps our entire campaign rises from the battles of two cults, one demonic and one hellish, both patroned by a powerful demon prince and devil lord. Grazzt is a great scheming villain on the demonic side while Zariel always seeks powerful cultists to fill her ranks. While these two fiends may never actually come into play in a lower level campaign, they might be in the background, their orders being ruthlessly followed by the cults in their service.

Filling Our Brains Full of D&D

The biggest advantage a book like this has for us lazy DMs is the giant pile of lore we can pour into our brains. Steeping ourselves in worlds of fantasy makes our brains limber for improvising while running our games. It makes our descriptions richer and more unique. It helps us share the details of our worlds when it comes up during our game. We can help players see past the stat blocks and attribute bumps of their races to understand why elves are the way they are. All of this helps us escape the real world for a little while and enjoy the worlds we share with our friends.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Tools for New D&D Dungeon Masters

Mon, 07/16/2018 - 06:00

Note: This article is reposed with permission from the original posted to D&D Beyond on March 2018. It is the third 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 get into the weeds of the best tools to help us run Dungeons & Dragons games. We're going to start with the minimum needed to play and work our way up into some of the more advanced accessories that aren't necessary, but are helpful. This article focuses on tools we use at a physical table, not digital accessories for virtual tabletop play. That's a topic for another day.

RPGs, including D&D, aren't like other games. You don't buy a box that includes all of the pieces you need to run a game over and over again, although the D&D Starter Set comes close. The tools and accessories we can potentially use in our D&D games is as limitless as the stories we create. Every DM has their favorites. Some tools, however, appear often in the bags of Dungeon Masters and it's these items that we're going to talk about today.

Let's open our book bags and take a look.

Starting with the Starter Set

The D&D Starter Set is an amazing value. If you're just starting out, this is a great first purchase. Its slim contents include a rulebook, an adventure book, five pre-generated character sheets, and a set of dice. That doesn't seem like much but if you throw in some pencils and paper, you really don't need anything else to run a D&D game up to level 5. The rulebook includes a bunch of monsters you can use to generate your own adventure if you decide not to use Lost Mine of Phandelver, but you're missing out on an excellent introduction to D&D if you skip it. The character sheets included in the D&D Starter Set, and available online for free, are also perfect for other games since they include all of the rules you need to level from 1 to 5 right on the sheet. The maps in Lost Mines of Phandelver fit commonly used locations in D&D games like ruined castles, thieves' guilds, dwarven mines, abandoned villages, and monster lairs. You can easily drop these maps into your own game even if you're not running the actual adventure.

Your First Power Tool: A List of Names

Of all of the tools that can help us improvise and stay flexible, few are as simple and powerful as a good list of names. You can build one of these from the dozens of random name generators on the internet. If you've picked up the D&D companion book, Xanathar's Guide to Everything, it includes seventeen pages of names from all different races and ethnicities you can pull from. That many names can be a bit unwieldy, however. For any given session you likely don't need more than ten or so. Grab a 3x5 note card (more on these power-tools in a moment), and jot down a handful of nice-sounding names. You'll want to mix them up to account for the various races and cultures of the NPCs you might create.

We use these names any time an NPC unexpectedly enters the spotlight. This might be the young bar hand delivering a drink or it might be the one goblin who didn't get killed at the ambush site. The game goes in unexpected directions. We can think of the eyes of the characters as the cameras in a movie; cameras we DMs don't control. They might turn and focus 90 degrees away from what we thought they'd focus on and suddenly an amorphous blob of ethereal goo becomes an NPC they want to meet and interact with. That's why we have this list of names.

Office Supplies

When we're running our D&D games, we also need a list of common office supplies. A set of pencils is nearly mandatory, even if you're using a digital tool like D&D Beyond for your character (you are using D&D Beyond, right?) players and DMs will constantly want to jot down names of people, places, and things. They might even be so inclined as to draw out a rough map of their location. Pencils are much preferred over pens—we're going to be erasing a lot during our games. I like mechanical ones because it takes nothing to pop out some more lead and who wants to use a sharpener like a barbarian?

3x5 cards are likewise a universal tool for D&D games. They're great for taking notes, drawing sketches, passing notes among players, writing down the names and effects of magic items, and as table tents for character names or initiative cards when folded in half. There are many ways to track initiative but one of the easiest is to fold 3x5 cards in half and writing numbers on them from 1 to about 8. Then, when you or your initiative delegate (remember, we can delegate initiative out to one of the members of the group) figures out who goes first in combat, you can pass out the cards from low number to high based on how high they stand in the initiative order.

We can also stick to using pieces of paper to draw out complicated areas that we can't simply describe. Some pencil sketches on blank paper can help everyone get an understanding of what a room looks like and who is where.

Dice

It's possible for a group to get away with the single set of dice included in the D&D Starter Set but it's far from ideal. It's much better if everyone has their own set. You can pick up dice at any local game shop or online. Game conventions always have companies willing to sell dice of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Dice collecting quickly becomes its own side-hobby and one that evolves over the life of a D&D player.

In general, each player should have a set of dice with at least one of each type and ideally two to eight of the dice they tend to use the most. Dice packs run about $5 to $10 a set but can be cheaper when bought in larger sets for whole groups.

Your DM Notebook

Running a great D&D game isn't about spouting out all of the stories we have in our heads. The players and the dice will surprise us. That's the fun of the game. Often, we'll need to write these surprises down. You can keep notes in a stack of 3x5 cards, a small pocket notebook, a smartphone, a word processor on your computer, or just about anywhere else. Whatever you choose, stay consistent so it's easy to reference this DM's notebook again later.

Most importantly, we'll use this notebook to write things down about the characters. D&D is a game that focuses on the characters and so should we. We can write down the characters' names, races, classes, backgrounds, flaws, bonds, ideals, and the desires of their players. We can review these notes before we do anything else when preparing for our next game. Doing so helps us keep this focus on the characters as we build out the rest of the world around them.

Keep this DM's notebook on hand during preparation and play. Ask questions, listen to the answers, and write them down.

The Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual

Once you've exhausted the material in the D&D Starter Set and the players get eager to build their own characters, dig into the core books. The central pillar of D&D rests on three books: the Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master's Guide, and the Monster Manual. Ideally each player has their own Player's Handbook but you might get away with sharing a copy if you need to. Only the Dungeon Master needs the Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual. With these three books a group can play D&D for the rest of their lives. They are the only three required books to play D&D to its fullest.

You can also pick up all three of these books on D&D Beyond and share a single purchase of the Player's Handbook with the members of your group. Purchasing these books here means you can build characters with all classes and options in the Player's Handbook, get access to all of the magic items in the Dungeon Master's Guide, and have access to all of the monsters in the Monster Manual.

If the prices for these books are too high for you or your group to manage, you can still continue playing D&D past the Starter Set by using the D&D Basic Rules. These are available in PDF and on D&D Beyond for free. These Basic Rules are limited to single archetypes for each of the classes and a limited set of monsters but there's enough material to play D&D all the way to level 20 without buying a single book.

Numerous other books exist for the fifth edition of D&D including accessory books and published adventures. They have a lot to offer for our D&D games but aren't mandatory to run a full D&D game.

Battle Mats

Many DMs are perfectly happy running D&D games with just the above materials. Combat can be largely handled in the Theater of the Mind by describing what is going on, having the players describe what they want to do, and then narrating the results.

Over the years, however many other DMs have gone to more advanced tools for showing a battle area and representing characters and monsters with miniatures and tokens. Thus we come to the erasable battle mat.

Battle mats are common and useful tools that help us draw out rooms, halls, or chambers in a dungeon. For example, when the characters explore Cragmaw Hideout in Lost Mines of Phandelver, we can draw out the rooms as the characters explore them with a marker on a battle map. This lets us draw rooms much larger than we would on a small sheet of paper and help players visualize complexities that we simply can't describe well.

There's a wide range of battle maps available. They run anywhere from $14 to $30 in price for blank battle mats and are available from a wide range of manufacturers. Paizo makes an excellent and low-cost laminated fold-up battle map that sells for about $14. You can get these with a variety of textures but the lighter gray for dungeon rooms and lighter tan for overland means your black markers will work well. This flip mat is my personal favorite.

Many DMs also use a roll-up vinyl battle map that's been around for decades. You can only write on it with wet-erase markers. Dry-erase markers will mark it permanently. These lay flatter than fold up mats and hold the drawings better so they won't wipe away when someone moves a figure across the board. They do have a tendency to curl up at the ends and aren't quite as portable as a fold-up mat.

A few manufacturers also produce poster mats with pre-printed dungeons, villages, forests, and other specific maps on them. These look beautiful but are of limited utility since you can only use them when you actually need the exact map it displays. One can build a large collection of such maps but at a pretty high price. It's probably better to save the money and stick to a blank battle mat you can use over and over again.

Representing Characters and Monsters

We're going to cover the whole subject of miniatures, tokens, and other options for representing characters and monsters in a future article. For the purposes of this article, we'll offer a single recommendation:

Use whatever objects you can to represent characters and monsters. Steal from a board game. Use dice, coins, LEGOs, or glass beads. You don't need a beautiful painted miniature for every monster in the game. Doing so will quickly empty your bank account and you'll still never have all the ones you want. Using generic tokens for monsters makes it very easy to set up a battle without breaking the flow of the game.

If you're able to get them, nice miniatures for the players' characters can make a big difference. Players love to see miniatures of their characters and the miniatures can help everyone at the table visualize that character. It's not always easy or cheap to get good character miniatures but it can make a big difference in our game. We'll dig into the topic of character and monster representations in a future article.

Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Anyone who goes to a big gaming convention like Gen Con can see booth after booth of accessories for our D&D games. Hundreds of small companies have built an amazing array of accessories to make our game more fun. We can find everything from background music to smoke machines. Some of these accessories are wonderful. Others are neat ideas but serve little practical purpose at our game.

As we explore all of these options, we must ask ourselves a few questions:

"Will this make my game more fun? How much so?"

"Is this product easy to use? Can I get it set up quickly?"

"Is it worth the cost?"

"Does it help me improvise? Will it keep my game flexible?"

We can use these filters to help us avoid buying accessories that end up sitting in our basement instead of making our game as great as it can be.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Lost Temple of the Eshowdow

Mon, 07/09/2018 - 06:00

Note, this article contains spoilers for Tomb of Annihilation.

Nearly five thousand years ago many tribes followed the messengers of Ubtao to the lands of Chult. Nearly two thousand years ago a great civil war took place on Chult between the people known as the Eshowe and those of Mezro. The Eshowe called to a being of horrible power from the plane of shadow said to be a dark splinter of Ubtao himself. They brought it into the land and sent it to destroy Mezro. It soon turned on its summoners and scattered the Eshowe across the land. A champion of Mezro, a knight of Ubtao known as Ras Nsi, hunted down the remaining Eshowe and slew them all.

Yet remnants of this lost tribe, and their secret pact with the shadow giant Eshowdow, still exist buried under the jungles of Chult. This lost temple is one such remnant.

This article is different from others on this site. Recently I've been running Twitch streams and posting videos to Youtube that go into the details of the eight steps of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master for game preparation.

The notes in this article isn't a fully playable adventure but you'll notice it has a style similar to Fantastic Adventures. These are the notes I wrote down and used to run a game in the middle of our Tomb of Annihilation campaign. The characters were fifth level at the time.

These notes mostly follow the Lazy Dungeon Master steps omitting first step of reviewing the characters since that will be different for your group than mine. The other steps: the strong start, potential scenes, secrets and clues, fantastic locations, potential NPCs, potential monsters, and treasure are all here.

For this session I also set up a nice Dwarven Forge setup which certainly added to the prep time but was a fun addition to the game.

This whole adventure follows a lost tribe of Chult known as the Eshowe. You can learn more about them and their originating source material from their Forgotten Realms Wiki page. The Eshowe are also mentioned in Chapter 4 of Tomb of Annihilation in the Valley of Lost Honor.

One special note, due to the Death Curse, any life draining caused by the spectres and wraiths in this adventure could seriously hinder or kill the characters. It can be a drag if a character enters the temple only to exit with 80% of their hit points gone. You might cut them a break with some sort of special ritual that restores their hit points here or let something like a Greater Restoration restore hit points. Or you can leave it as deadly as it is if that's the sort of danger your players like.

Adventure Start

This adventure starts as the characters discover the head of a huge statue of an unknown god or champion. This statue is of the Eshowdow, a shadow giant summoned by the Chult tribe of the Eshowe who sent it against Mezro. It's strange angular features look not Chultan and nor do they represent any known deity. As they study the statue, one of the characters potentially falls down a sinkhole into a lost temple buried under the ground. Flying snakes spray out of one of the eyes of the statue while giant centipedes attack any who fall into the pit.

Potential Scenes
  • The characters discover the huge head of a statue to the Eshowedow.

  • A character falls into a sinkhole or they repel down into the temple chambers below the surface.

  • Giant centipedes and flying snakes!

  • The characters explore the chambers. They meet the apprehensive specter Odrade, the dying tabaxi three-claw, and the vengeful wight, Zane the Warlock King.

  • The characters must unlock the puzzle of the treasure room. "Only with the blood of our enemy will you find the knowledge you seek."

Secrets and Clues
  • The Eshowe is a tribe of Chultians that go back nearly five thousand years to the time when Ubtao led his people to the land of Chult.

  • The Eshowe and many other tribes lived peacefully for centuries. Then a horrible and bloody civil war broke out between tribes.

  • Warlocks of the Eshowe called to the beings of the Plane of Shadow and a shadow giant answered. They called this giant, the Shadow of the Eshowe or "Eshowedow".

  • The warlocks of the Eshowe used a dark ritual forbidden by nearly every arcane and divine school for it calls to dark beings like a beacon.

  • The Eshowe sent the Eshowdow to destroy the city of Mezro, considered Ubtao's holy city. It nearly succeeded.

  • The warlocks of the Eshowe lost control over the Eshowdow and it turned on them, destroying much of the cities of the Eshowe.

  • A powerful warlord of Mezro, the paladin of Ubtao named Ras Nsi, hunted down and slew every Eshowe on the island nearly a thousand years ago.

  • Ras Nsi's blood lust horrified Ubtao who cast out the paladin and sent him to die in the jungle.

  • Ras Nsi didn't die but instead turned his revenge against Mezro and finished what the Eshowdow started. He summoned an army of undead and destroyed the city.

  • Ras Nsi was slain and his undead army still plagues the lands.

  • Ras Nsi lives.

Fantastic Locations

The Altar of Eshowdow: Huge statue of the shadow giant, obsidian altar, bones of sacrifices

The Vaults of the Eshowe: Gold-inlaid stone, sinister glyphs, large obsidian palm holding treasure chest

The Crypts of the Warlocks: Stone sarcophagi, barred door, black floating orb of shadow

The Central Ziggurat: Underground ziggurat in central chamber, statues of knights and warlocks, swirls of ancient green energy

The Pit: Huge pit in the center of the floor, hanging chains and cages holding dozens of skeletons, foul wind blowing in and out of the pit like the breath of the dead

Potential NPCs

Odrade Thellemaw: Undead warlock of the Eshowe. The last known "living" Eshowe. Still putters around the temple and spends years praying at the altar.

Three Claw: Tabaxi archaeologist who fell into the pit and broke his leg. Seeks the treasures and lore of the Eshowe.

Zane the Warlock King: A shadow remnant of the warlock king who summoned the Eshowdow and wishes him summoned again.

Potential Monsters

Wraith, specters, crawling claws, giant centipedes, flying snakes.

Potential Treasure

Helm of comprehend languages, some random treasure.

A Quick Outline for a Fun Session

Putting together the outline like this took about 30 minutes. Setting up the Dwarven Forge took another 30. I improvised a lot during the game including a deadly necrotic life-draining trap protecting the treasure vault that got one of the characters killed. And, in Chult, killed is killed.

Hopefully this outline gives you a few of your own ideas both for some fun Chult side-adventures as well as how to put together your own Lazy DM outline for the next adventure you plan to run.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Starting Strong At Your First Dungeons & Dragons Game

Mon, 07/02/2018 - 06:00

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

Your First Adventure: Consider Lost Mine of Phandelver

There's no single correct way to run your first D&D game but we're going to offer a suggestion—start with Lost Mine of Phandelver. This adventure, included in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and available on D&D Beyond, is specifically designed for new groups to get into the game. The story of Phandelver is straight forward and yet has enough interesting threads to keep even veteran D&D players engaged. Lost Mine of Phandelver is my favorite published adventure for this very reason. It feels like a solid traditional D&D adventure and yet offers a rich fresh story to explore. Lost Mine of Phandelver covers at least 16 hours of gameplay spread across four chapters and can be expanded out into the larger Forgotten Realms world either as a home campaign or into one of the other D&D adventures published by Wizards of the Coast.

More importantly, the D&D Starter Set includes an abbreviated set of rules for running D&D games. In a twitter post I conducted, I asked new DMs what the hard parts of D&D were for them. More than 10% of those who replied said that grasping and understanding the rules was a heavy lift for them. The Starter Set helps consideribly by giving you a focused set of rules and pregenerated characters so you won't be overwhelmed with all that D&D has to offer. The three core books are, no doubt, the main pillars of D&D but at more than 1,000 pages total, getting the main gist through the Starter Set is a good way to go. If you're brand new to D&D, start with the D&D Starter Set.

If you're eager to jump into the DM seat, you likely have your own ideas for your own campaigns and that's wonderful. However, when you're first running a D&D game, you'll have enough on your plate already. Building a cohesive adventure for your group on top of all of the other duties required of us DMs can overwhelm even the most organized new dungeon masters.

If you do choose to run your own adventure, keep it simple. Focus your attention on the characters and what is right around them instead of building a huge epic storyline. Where will the adventure start? What choices can the characters make right off the bat? Focus on what they can see, hear, and interact with. Put them in a spot, but not one so tough that they'll all just get wiped out. Keep in mind that just about anything can kill level 1 characters. This isn't the time to bring out the cool ancient red dragon you read about in the Monster Manual and harass them. Give them a problem they can solve.

This is why Phandelver's opening chapter in Cragmaw Hideout is such a great choice for your first adventure. It starts off in the action and puts a problem in place that the characters can solve. Stick to that formula until you get your feet under you.

The Tools of the Trade

With your first adventure selected, it's time to gather the tools you need to run your game. Players need character sheets, pencils, and dice. If everyone is new to D&D, it might be best to start with level 1 pregenerated characters. The D&D Starter Set includes such pregenerated characters but you can also download a set for free. Print out these character sheets and read them over. Players can also use the Quick Build option of the D&D Beyond character builder to get an optimized 1st-level digital character sheet for each class. Use the character sheets and the rules of the game together to help you understand the basic mechanics of D&D.

If you want to dig into D&D for free, check out the D&D Basic Rules with rulebooks for players and for Dungeon Masters. These don't include an adventure but do give you full digital rulebooks to help you learn the game and run your own adventures.

You will, of course, need some dice. The D&D Starter Set (are you noticing a trend here? Seriously, go buy the Starter Set) includes a set of dice but you can pick up additional dice from a variety of vendors on the internet or at your local game shop. One set of dice per player is ideal, and eventually players will pick up more dice depending on what they happen to use for their characters.

To actually run the game, you only need a piece of paper and a pencil to sketch out what is going on. When characters begin exploring caves, you can describe it and then sketch it out so the players can get an idea of what is going on. Better yet, ask a player to volunteer to be the cartographer and sketch maps of dungeons as they travel through them.

If you research D&D online, you'll see all sorts of tabletop aids DMs use to run their game. Painted miniatures, battle maps, wet and dry-erase mats, modular dungeon tiles, even 3d terrain of castles and dungeons. There exists an equally wide array of digital tools for running D&D games as well, such as virtual tabletops Roll 20 and Fantasy Grounds.

Once you get into the game, you can explore this endless list of such products and, over time, choose what tools and toys you like the best for running your game. Initially, sticking to paper and pencil can help you get the best understanding of the game without fiddling around with things like maps and miniatures.

You also need copies of the rules and the adventure you plan to run. The Starter Set includes everything you need but some players might want their own copies of the Player's Handbook. Eventually you'll want your own Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual but you don't need them right away if you're running Lost Mine of Phandelver.

All of this material is also available on D&D Beyond. Many of the monsters in the Monster Manual and the full set of rules for playing D&D are available on D&D Beyond for free and are accessible on a computer, tablet, or phone. The search in D&D Beyond makes it easy to look up a particular spell, monster, magic item, or rule quickly making it a useful aid even if you do tend to use the books at the table.

Don't feel like you have to load up on all of the tools you see on the net before you run your game. Keeping the tools at your table to the minimum required for your first game can help you focus on what matters the most.

Sweating the Right Details

When we run our D&D games, there are things we should pay careful attention to and things that we really don't have to worry about. We don't need to take full responsibility for every part of the game. We can work with the players to delegate certain activities, so we can focus on the parts of the game for which we DMs have the most responsibility.

It's common for new players and DMs to get caught flat footed by all of the rules in Dungeons & Dragons. Veterans will often share a common lesson to newer DMs: the rules really aren't that important. It's worth understanding the basics of the game; rolling ability checks, attacks, saving throws, and stuff like; but it's easy to get wound up in the minutia when we're really just sharing stories and throwing in the random element of the dice into the game.

A commonly offered piece of advice is this: when in doubt, make a ruling and move on. Later, one can look up the rule and see if it's off from what you chose and then you can run it the right way later.

Likewise, while we're likely to get caught up in the rules and mechanics of the game, we're also potentially likely to miss the most important part of the game—the characters. Spend time, both before the game and during the game, understanding the story of the characters. Who are they? What do they want? Where did they come from? What's interesting about them?

When we pre-load our mind with the story of the characters, we're more likely to hook into those stories during the game. This matters a lot to the players and makes the whole game more fun for everyone.

We can never go wrong by focusing our time, energy, and attention on the characters.

Finally, if we're running a published adventure, it really helps us to read the whole adventure through. This isn't always that easy. It takes time, but it's worth it in the long run. The more we understand the adventure we're running, the more fluid it runs and the easier it is to keep going when things go off track, and they always get off track.

If you're running your own campaign, spend your time focusing on the areas of the campaign that directly surround the characters. Build small dungeons right nearby and focus on what the characters can actually see and do instead of worrying about the larger picture.

Bringing the Whole Team Together

DMs are not the enemy of the characters. We are all on the same side. We're sharing a story together, watching it unfold in front of us as we play the game. We don't have to take full responsibility for running the game all by ourselves. We can depend on the players to help us run a smooth game, particularly in the beginning. We can ask players to look up rules for us when we need. We can ask players to run initiative to take it off our hands. We can even hand parts of the fiction to the players as well. If they go into a tavern, we might ask the players what interesting features they see. When we delegate responsibilities like this, the game becomes less of a competition and more clearly a game of cooperative storytelling.

Your First Steps into the Multiverse

Above all, we should not be hard on ourselves when we're first getting started. D&D is a game with a forty-year history and is truly as limitless as our imaginations. In future articles we'll dig deeper into the hardest and most important parts of running a great D&D game such as honing our improvisational skills. Today, however, we can get started with our first session. Tell stories, share laughs, relax, and have a great time.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Building Lazy Dungeons

Mon, 06/25/2018 - 06:00

We've talked before about making dungeons awesome, building living dungeons, and developing fantastic locations but not yet about how to build lazy dungeons. How do the philosophies of the lazy dungeon master work for us when designing a dungeon? Where can we get the highest value when building a dungeon for the effort we put in?

Rather than simply give my opinion on the matter, I brought the question to Twitter and Facebook and did a bunch of reading on the topic to see what other people have to say on the matter. What I found was that there was no common way to build dungeons. Many DMs had many different ways they handled it. Some just improvise the whole thing. Others spend hours building beautiful dungeon maps in tools like Campaign Cartographer or Realmworks. Others used the five room dungeon idea, which trends closest to ways of the lazy game master with a small caveat.

So without any single common approach, I'm back to offering my best suggestions for what I've used, what I've seen, and what I've heard. The rest of this article will offer suggestiosn on how we might build the best lazy dungeon.

Cave map for the Lazy DM's Workbook by Daniel Walthall coming fall 2018.

Inspiring Yourself with the Dungeon Master's Guide

Chapter 5 and appendix A of the Dungeon Master's Guide contains some excellent tables to give you some inspiration for your dungeon. If you don't have a dungeon already in mind, a few rolls on these tables can give you some ideas. Even if you do have a dungeon in mind, some of these tables can give you greater atmosphere. Maybe you know that the characters are going to head into some old caves, but maybe it's cooler if the caves were actually (rolls dice) used as a temple by cultists of a neutral diety who eventually destroyed themselves.

Steal Dungeon Layouts

We're big on reskinning here at Sly Flourish. We can get great value by using beautiful maps drawn by brillaint artists instead of spending our own time on them. Chris Perkins talked about this in his article describing the Schley Stack. We can build our own similar archive using Google's Image search and looking for "Mike Schley maps" and "Jared Blando maps". Both artists also sell high resolution versions of their maps if you plan on actually using the map at your game.

We can grab just about any published adventure and steal the maps out of it to use in our own game. The Plunging Torrent map from Princes of the Apocalypse can represent an ancient flooded Abolith city laying beneath the Purple Rocks, for example. Stealing dungeon maps from old adventures is one of the best ways to squeeze the value out of the adventures we buy.

The Dungeon Master's Guide and Volo's Guide to Monsters both include excellent maps for a variety of situations. The cartographer Dyson has a huge collection of royalty-free maps that fit in any situation and Elven Tower who did cartography work for the upcoming Lazy DM's Workbook has a Patreon for his wonderful maps.

Drawing Lines Between Fantastic Locations

When we think about a dungeon in our game, we really only need to think about the parts of it that will come up in our very next session. We don't have to build out a multi-layer hundred-room monstrosity when our players will only see about 5% of it. Instead, we can think about what rooms and chambers might come up in the next session we run. When we think of these chambers, we do so using the same concept we've used for building fantastic locations. We give each important chamber an evocative name and then give it three interesting and usable aspects. For example, we might have the Squirming Charnal Pit with the three aspects deep central pit, necrotic runoff from above, and statues of the old pitkeepers.

If we're having trouble coming up with interesting features, we might use the random monument generator for some inspiration.

Depending on how long our session goes, we might write out five to ten of these locations. We'll need one for roughly every half our to hour of gameplay.

When we have our locations we can write down the names on a piece of paper and draw lines between them to show the hallways that connect them. We might even give these hallways their own aspects and secrets to discover. We can always throw in random traps if the pacing seems right for a fearful beat.

This whole process can be done in about fifteen to thirty minutes.

Improvise the Small Stuff

When we're building out a dungeon like this, there might be numerous smaller rooms that make sense for the dungeon itself. Everybody poops, so any humanoid habitat is likely to have a privy of some sort. We don't need to make it a fantastic privy (although that doesn't sound like a terrible idea), its just a privy. We can list out maybe an extra half-dozen such utilitarian rooms to fill out the dungeon itself. These extra rooms, of course, will depend on how the dungeon was as originally constructed. Most great dungeons were something else before they became dungeons. What they were before and what they are now are often two different things.

On the Five Room Dungeon

We'd be remiss if we didn't talk more about the ideas of five room dungeons. This thematic look at adventure design through the five chambers of a dungeon fits well with the philosophy of the lazy dungeon master although we don't have to stick to five rooms and we don't need to worry too much about those chamber themes. The original five-room dungeon idea suggests that we build particular encounters in a particular order (entrance with guardian, puzzle or roleplaying challenge, trick or setback, big climax, reward and revelation). Instead we can build situations for the dungeon and let that situation, and the character's approaches, evolve as the characters explore the place.

Focusing on What's in Front of the Characters

The key to making things easy on ourselves and still building a fantastic and realistic world for our players is to focus on what their characters can see and what is just over the horizon. We might have dreams of twenty-level deep megadungeons but all we really need is a cave entrance, a chamber with a fantastic monument in it, and a waterslide into a roaring underground river filled with ropers to keep things exciting. A few notes and a few connecting lines is enough to keep the adventure moving forward.

Special thanks to David Hartlage of the DM David Blog and Matthew Neagley of Gnome Stew for putting the seed of this topic in mind.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Scaling the Story to the Level of the Characters

Mon, 06/18/2018 - 06:00

In a recent discussion on Twitter, my friend Teos Abadia (Alphastream on Twitter) and I, along with a few others, talked about one of my #dnd tip tweets I posted. The tweet said:

Make sure the scope of the story matches the level of the characters. Rat swarms are suitable for level 1. Demon princes are suitable for level 20. The scope and scale of the characters' actions should increase proportionally.

This is one of those times when a tweet can't fully describe the topic, thus the discussion on Twitter and the writing of this article.

First, let me explain a bit further.

Characters in Dungeons & Dragons have levels, from 1 to 20. Beyond being bundles of new mechanics that characters earn, these levels can also describe the growth of the character in the world. Within the story, the characters get better and grow more powerful. The threats they face also grow in power.

Dragonslayers by Larry Elmore

In recent days, some D&D adventures have gone with the idea that even low level characters can face world-threatening situations. The general idea is that low level adventures are boring so let's throw some big awesome stuff at the characters and let them deal with it somehow.

We're not talking about a situation where the characters stumble into the lair of a black dragon all on their own and we DMs have to decide if the world is going to punish them for their stumble. This is a situation where we DMs build a big epic story and throw low level characters into it on purpose. That is certainly a style of storytelling in D&D but it isn't my preferred style.

In my opinion, facing a lich, a balor, a death knight, a beholder, or an ancient red dragon is something really special. It shouldn't happen all the time and it shouldn't happen at low levels. First off, these monsters are, thankfully, not that common. Second, though, being able to face such foes is one of the rewards of gaining levels. If the characters continually see these epic world-threatening forces at low levels, they lose their uniqueness.

Of course, like just about any rule, there are times where we can break this one.

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing such threats can give low level characters a glimpse of the greater threats out in the world. In Curse of Strahd, it's awesome that Strahd comes to see the characters first hand and maybe even give them a glimpse of the vampire lord himself. Seeing Slarkrethal eating a boat off of the Sword Coast is a fun way to show the characters that something huge and awful has awoken in the deep. Dark visions of Acererak and his Soul Monger might bleed into the dreams of the characters as they first make their way into Chult. In Out of the Abyss, the characters can witness Demogorgon rising from the oily black waters of Darklake around level 4 or so.

Giving the characters the hints and ideas that there is something much bigger at stake here is a great way to keep the adventure tied together and show them the path they will take.

There's a big difference between dreaming about a lich, facing a lich, and defeating a lich.

Scaling the Threat

Many of the hardback adventures are based on world-shaking events. Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat foretell the coming of Tiamat. Out of the Abyss has the demon princes lounging around in the Underdark. Princes of the Apocalypse speak of, well, apocalyptic princes.

Sometimes, like in the case of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the characters are thrown right in. At level 1 or 2 they have to somehow negotiate with an ancient blue dragon and convince it not to kill everyone.

Some DMs and designers might try to find ways to take a high level threat and make it defeatable for low level characters. Reducing its hit points and removing some of its danger can accomplish this.

When we change these threats, however, we remove one of the joys of higher-level play, though. What fun is it to level if all of the monsters simply scale to the level of the characters anyway?

The Progression of the Threats in the Story

When we think about how characters progress throughout D&D, there is a clear ladder of dangers that has existed for forty years. Low level characters face rats, kobolds, goblins, skeletons, and orcs. Mid-level characters face hobgoblins, ogres, skeletal knights, and maybe a beholder. High level characters face demons, devils, giants, and dragons. It's the progression through these monsters that makes D&D feel real while the characters explore.

Making the Skeleton in the Basement Interesting

Returning to the central core of the topic, however, we're working on the assumption that low level adventures are inherently small and boring. I disagree. We DMs can bring life to that single skeleton lurking in the hidden crawl-space under the tavern. It's decaying flesh reeking. It's jagged nails cracked from decades of scratching at the walls. Death and vengeance radiating from its empty eye sockets. Even on it's defeat, we're left with the question of "why?". Why was it down there? Who made it? Where did it come from? By the gods, are there more of them?

Low level adventures take the lens of our focus and narrow it down to microscopic levels. A swarm of rats is as deadly as a balor when the characters are only level 1. Every screech of those rats, every slip in the muck of the sewers, every little beady black eye that screams for blood; every detail comes into horrible focus when we zoom that lens in on low-level threats.

We need not leap past them and get to epic stories when these small threats can be just as memorable. Don't throw away low level threats, embrace them.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

DM's Deep Dive: Grant Ellis on Understanding Streaming D&D

Mon, 06/04/2018 - 06:00

D&D is exploding. 2017 was D&D's best year for sales since Wizards of the Coast bought the brand from TSR back in 1997. The core books had all become best selling books for weeks on end. The book Xanathar's Guide to Everything was the fastest selling D&D book of all time. Let me say that again: fastest selling book of all time—including the 80s when D&D had a network cartoon show and sold D&D-themed big-wheels.

Wizards of the Coast stated that somewhere between 8 million and 15 million people played D&D in 2016 and that sales grew 44% from 2016 to 2017.

When Wizards of the Coast talks about why we're seeing this growth, they focus on one topic: the rise of streaming D&D shows. According to Greg Tito the amount of D&D broadcast and watched on the internet is tremendous. 7,500 unique broadcasters broadcast over 475 million minutes of D&D to 9 million viewers. This is another important point. According to these numbers (and they change from article to article), it is possible that more people watch D&D than play it.

If this bothers you, take a deep breath. It will be ok. Not everyone needs to play D&D to enjoy it. This is a huge idea to get our heads around. Mike Mearls touches on this in a noteworthy tweet:

I think we saw such a hard push toward mechanical intensity and character optimization post-3e because that was the one thing you could share without playing. Streaming has flipped that script, and helped pull D&D out of a 20+ year trough.

Watching D&D online has become the new lonely fun of D&D.

It's also become the number one way people learn about D&D. In a Geek and Sundry article with Greg Tito from Wizards of the Coast, Greg makes the following statement:

"Streaming is the number one reported answer for how people find out about and want to get into Dungeons & Dragons. It surpassed friends and family for the first time ever that we've known in our surveys."

The idea that more people learn about D&D from streaming is a huge change for D&D overall, one that has never been seen in its 40 year history.

The popular D&D show Critical Role had nearly 81,000 live viewers for the first episode of season 2. That's eighty thousand people who watched a four-hour live D&D game being played by other people.

The New Life of D&D

For those of us who have been playing D&D a long time, we remember dark days when the biggest conversation about D&D was how soon video games and computer games would critically hit our beloved hobby for good. Our worry was that younger players wouldn't pick up the game and it would die with us gen-xers.

That conversation isn't happening anymore. That worry is gone. Instead we have all new conversations happening about whether these streams are good for D&D or not and what it means for our home games. "I am not Matt Mercer" gets stated probably daily over on the Facebook D&D Group and the Facebook Adventurer's League group.

Instead of leaping to a conclusion and making ourselves look like asses, I propose we spend some time really understanding what is going on here. The world of D&D is changing. The sands are shifting under our feet. It can feel like we're standing on a train platform and something huge and bright just rocketed past us. "What the hell was that?"

I've been trying to better understand this change myself in a few ways. I started by meeting and talking with Will Jones of Encounter Roleplay who plays and streams roughly 40 hours of D&D a week and does it as his full time job. I spoke to him on the DM's Deep Dive talking about running D&D 40 hours a week.

Grant Ellis on Streaming's Effect on D&D

In April 2018 I spoke with Grant Ellis, a prominent D&D streamer and fellow streamer on the Encounter RP Twitch channel along with Will Jones. The topic for our conversation was "how is streaming affecting D&D?" This conversation was broadcast on Twitch and archived on Youtube and on the DM's Deep Dive podcast. You can watch the video below.

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The rest of this article contains my notes from the show.

Grant's Three Tips for All Dungeon Masters

Always be yourself, find your own voice and unique take on D&D. We see a lot of streamers but we don't have to become them. We are our own DMs.

Heighten your personal sensitivity to the expectations of your players and the community. Keep an eye on how you are being perceived. Embrace the cultural diversity going on with D&D. Ask the players you meet how they came into contact with RPGs and D&D.

Steal from the best. We have incredible access to live-play D&D games and can watch the best dungeon masters in the world perform their craft. Use this vast access we have to improve ourselves. Try stuff out. Change your style up once in a while. You don't have to change everything but you can experiment. Grant was a heavy gridded combat DM and now has learned how to use more theater of the mind.

Customer Acquisition

Wizards of the Coast is capitalizing heavily on "influencer marketing". Influencer marketing takes fans of D&D (like Matt Mercer and Joe Manganiello) and using them as ambassadors to bring new fans to the game. This has worked very well for Wizards with D&D.

Grant says, as big as it is, we're still not at the potential peak. As much of an explosion as we're seeing, Grant sees it as the tip of the iceberg.

Tiny Bubbles

D&D exists in thousands of tiny bubbles. We each run our own game with five or six other players and what we do there has no effect on anything else outside of our bubble. But we also have this huge view into the experiences and opinions of hundreds of thousands of other players and DMs. This gives us a really unique and interesting relationship with the game, other players, and our own groups.

What Streaming Means for Old-Timer D&D DMs

We haven't heard the argument that D&D is going to die when all the Generation-Xers die. There is clearly no risk to the game as its fans age. Many new young fans have joined in the hobby, potentially accounting for more players than it ever originally had.

It's easy to feel like we're missing this explosion in the popularity of streaming D&D.

Some of us that kept the lanterns lit during the dark times are the best ambassadors as long as we let go of any animosity towards potential students and new players. We don't need to feel left out. We can use the lessons of the past to shape the future because we've seen what happens over 40+ years in this hobby. It's ok if streaming isn't out of our thing. This one demographic doesn't represent all of D&D. It doesn't affect the fun of our games. We can, however, learn from it.

The "fear of missing out" is strong, however, but we must see it for what it is, a human bias.

Can We All Be Matt Merer?

Grant ran a survey looking at new DMs, other streamers, or Matt Mercer. He counted the number of smiles, the number of "ums" and "uhs", and it wasn't very different between new DMs and "professional streamers". This helps disprove the idea that Matt Mercer's skills as a DM are beyond us. Matt is wonderful and we love his games but his general level of skill as a DM is achievable for us. We likely won't be the voice actor that he is but we can still run a great game. A few solid tips can take us far.

When it comes to the expectations of players, we don't have to worry that we're not Matt Mercer. Being a good DM is definitely achievable.

The stories of our games don't even happen at the table but afterwards. The stories occur when we re-tell what happened at the game. The game itself is a session but the story happens when we describe it.

How Will the Game Change?

The designers have access to thousands of hours of DMs running games. The game can evolve based on real experiences watching people play. Grant talks about his skirmish rules that he developed based on watching and running games online.

Questions From the Audience

What are some tips for people making the transition from home to streaming game?

Grant suggests understanding what the goal is. Grant doesn't do it for any sort of marketing or commercial purpose. Grant does it to meet new folks and learn from people. Grant suggests learning the technical basics by asking people from it. Do a tech rehearsal. Check people's bandwidth. The community is willing to put up with tech problems. It makes the whole thing feel real.

"You can be either on time or on brand."

Should suggestions from viewers be critical to the plot?

If you are playing online and something happens in chat that's better, go with fun. Grant uses the lazy dungeon masters process to help him prepare. When people whisper something in chat he steals the ideas to put in his game. Lightweight prep helps DMs insert such things into their game.

Will modules be created and marketed differently based on changes due to streaming?

Marketed, certainly. We saw this with the Stream of Annihilation and the Stream of Many Eyes are both huge streaming events to promote new products. Many high-profile streams end up running published modules like Tomb of Annihilation.

The DM's Guild Adept program promotes products written by streamers such as Satine Phoenix, who now works for Wizards of the Coast, and Ruty Rutenberg.

Matt Colville's huge success with his Kickstarter is an example of how online video is vehicle for great marketing.

The spell green flame blade came from liveplay D&D sessions.

Grant says there isn't that much different between streaming games and home games when it comes to the design of the products themselves.

What does it take to get the old-timers to engage with the streaming community?

Invitation and education of the generational technology gaps. Help people understand the technology and see the benefits it can bring. Just keep doing it and you'll get better.

You don't need Roll 20 if it feels too complicated, just roll your own dice.

At the streamer panel at PAX Unplugged, Adam Koebel mentioned that people would be happy to watch you stream your income taxes if you wanted. He suggests just trying it out. Get the software and try a stream. This led me to start streaming my game preparation videos each week.

What was a moment in this current age of D&D that you experienced that was just awesome.

Grant: PAX Unplugged. "The best part of PAX Unplugged was PAX Unplugged."

Mike: Big impacts are seeing the doubling of D&D mentions on Twitter every year. Huge visible impact. Hearing that more people are learning about D&D on streaming than any other way. That's a huge impact to the game and very interesting.

Grant doesn't think we've saturated the streaming side of D&D at all. There are billions of people on the planet that potentially want to watch and play some D&D. The rise of D&D cannot be ignored or overstated.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Urgency of the Death Curse

Tue, 05/29/2018 - 06:00

Note: This article contains spoilers for the D&D adventure Tomb of Annihilation.

The Death Curse is the main driver of the story in the Dungeons & Dragons adventure Tomb of Annihilation. It is the reasons adventurers are called to Chult to hunt down the location of the Soul Monger and end Acererak's vile curse.

As written, the Death Curse is a ticking bomb. Anyone previously resurrected has one hit point drained each day while the curse still exists. Yet traveling across Chult can eat up many tendays worth of travel even if the characters go straight there.

The adventure also includes many side treks that can grab the attention of the characters and send them off into new areas. Some of the NPC guides even misdirect the characters away from the source of the Death Curse. How will the players feel if they know the urgency and yet find themselves duped by an ally, thus losing the souls of potentially thousands?

This is a common complaint about Tomb of Annihilation. For a big exploration sandbox-style adventure, the story has this heavy handed driver that pushes the characters to take as little time as possible to go to the tomb and end the curse.

Luckily, as problems go, this one is easy for us DM's to fix. Today we'll look at how.

Abstracting the Death Curse

First, we need not describe the death curse so specifically. We get to decide how and when we describe it to the characters. When the campaign first starts out, we might describe it only as a rumor and a rash. Sindra Silvane, the primary protagonist in this adventure, might show them a small patch of gray skin on her arm and describe the visions of sages who say that something is happening. It's happening in Chult. And it will get bad if something isn't done.

Discovering the mystery of the Death Curse can be part of the fun of this adventure and it need not need to be a ticking bomb. We get to decide how the characters learn of it, what they learn of it, and how fast it goes.

The Death Curse: Your Own Urgency Dial

We gain a great freedom and powerful tool when we describe the death curse so abstractly. We can use this abstraction to turn the dial up or down depending on the pace of the story and the directions of the characters. If they're enjoying getting lost on side-treks, we might dial it down saying that any investigation into it shows that it doesn't appear to be escalating too quickly. If they get too far off track and it's time for them to get to Omu, we might dial it up with portents, dreams, and even the physical effects for characters who might be affected.

In my own game, one of the characters died when fighting a sister of Nanny Pupu. The hag sister had a bag of shriveled hearts with souls still in them. The characters used the captured soul and a lot of dark magic to restore this character to life, now with a new class and new memories along with the memories of the older character.

Doing so, however, came at a cost. A terrible cost. This restoration caused the death curse to escalate. Now the characters have an even greater drive to end it because they themselves caused its increase,

This is just one example of the twisting of the death curse dial. However you decide to tweak the progression and urgency of the death curse is up to you. As written, the death curse can force your game into a direction you don't like. Treating it as a more abstract concept and focusing on the death curse's story instead of its mechanics means it becomes a tool you can use to steer the game towards the path of greatest fun.

The Chultan Death Curse Revised

If you're looking for some deeper mechanics for tweaking the Death Curse in your game, something beyond just "abstract it", friend Teos Abadia wrote an excellent Chultan Death Curse Revised supplement available on the DM's Guild. This supplement modifies the Death Curse to make it more palatable at the table and offers options for the Death Curse's escalation as the characters get deeper into the story. Give it a look.

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Choosing Targets

Mon, 05/21/2018 - 06:00

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

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

What Would the Monster Attack?

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

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

Choose Targets Randomly

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

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

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

Avoiding a Tactical Wargame

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

Attacking Unconscious Targets

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

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

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

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

Thinking About the Small Parts of Our Games

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

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Emotional Investment of Dungeon Mastering

Mon, 05/14/2018 - 06:00

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

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

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

The Differing Emotional Investment of Players and DMs

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

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

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

The Divine Art of Not Giving A Shit

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

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

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

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

Know Your Enemy

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

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

Where Should We Invest Our Emotional Capital?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Exploring Chult

Mon, 05/07/2018 - 06:00

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

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

Give the Exploration System a Fair Shot

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

Add Weather

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

Throw In Some Fantastic Monuments

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

Tie Random Encounters to the Story through Secrets

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

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

Mixing Up Random Encounters

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

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

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

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

Group Days Together

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

Use Montages

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

Options, not Limitations

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

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

Categories: Blogs, D&D

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

Mon, 04/23/2018 - 06:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What GMs Do Well?

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

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

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

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

On Initiative

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

On Ideal Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions From the Audience

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

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

How can digital tools help?

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

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

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

What is your first D&D memory?

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

What game systems work well?

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

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

Sharon has no problem with Pathfinder.

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

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Running Port Nyanzaru in Tomb of Annihilation

Mon, 04/16/2018 - 06:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Downplay the Urgency of the Death Curse

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

Come In By Sea and Meet Aremag

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

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

Run a Dinosaur Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware Troublesome Guides

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

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

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

Consider a Starting Dungeon

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

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

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

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

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

Foreshadow the Factions of Chult

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

These factions might include:

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

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

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

Reinforce the Primary Story Hook

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

Some Focus to Open-Ended Exploration

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

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Story Focus of D&D

Mon, 04/09/2018 - 06:00

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

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

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

Removing the Focus on Combat

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

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

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

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

An Uncomfortable Spot for Veteran DMs

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for Focusing On the Story

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

Prepare to Improvise

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on the Characters

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

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

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

Further reading: Focus on the Characters.

Read the Monster Manual and Volo's Guide to Monsters

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

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

Dive Deep Into the Setting

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

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

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

Build Situations, Not Pre-Defined Scenes

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

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

Further reading: Build situations.

Be Flexible with Combat Styles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worry Less About Balanced Combat Encounters

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

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

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

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

Embrace Childlike Wonder

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

Categories: Blogs, D&D

The Abstract Battlemap

Mon, 03/26/2018 - 06:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

"But D&D Uses Five Foot Increments!"

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

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

Clarifying the Rules Up Front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Mike Mearls, D&D 5e Lead Designer

Focusing on High Adventure

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

Categories: Blogs, D&D

Lost Monuments of Chult

Mon, 03/19/2018 - 06:00

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

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

Twenty Random Lost Monuments of Chult

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

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

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

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

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

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