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Practical Worldbuilding: Stories are Stronger than Facts

Worldbuilding is one of the most fun parts of preparing a TTRPG campaign, but it’s easy to get lost in the excitement of creating continents and fail to define what matters most to tell a good story. After a recent worldbuilding session, I realized that despite having spent hours describing city-states, geography, and gods, my world was not fit for running an adventure. I knew there was supposed to be a large-scale civil war, but I hadn’t spent any time describing the people that would be involved in it, so I actually had no idea what everyone was fighting for or why. I had defined the street layout of entire cities, but failed to describe the aspirations of their scheming kings. I had documented the unit composition of various armies, but never stopped to consider who was commanding them. The result was a stagnant world that was full of facts, but lacked any excitement.

Avoid the mistakes I’ve made: build your world in terms of stories instead of facts. Facts are easy to come up with and write down, so they’re often the comfortable go-to when worldbuilding, but they usually do little to help flesh out an engaging world ripe for an RPG campaign. In my first attempt at creating this world, I listed out all 15 cities with neat, 3 paragraph descriptions of their population, language, and history. I felt like I had made great progress towards creating my world, but in fact I was no closer to telling a compelling story then before. I didn’t know what the leaders of these cities were working towards, so there were no clear conflicts between them that could cause the war I wanted to base my campaign around. There were no plots to conquer land, or schemes to discover powerful magic: just 15 cities, each existing in their own bubble of demographic statistics. To make an interesting world you need characters whose goals pit them against each other to create conflict. Raw facts lack the characters, goals, and conflicts that will make your world engaging. 

After my failure with fact-based worldbuilding, I tried basing everything on one central narrative: The city-states were conquered by a cleric who turned tyrannical after inventing magic, but were liberated to independence by the cleric’s trusted warrior who backstabbed his liege. The leaders of each city-state, despite appreciating their newfound freedom, are secretly studying the same magic that oppressed them with the dream of forming their own empires. After this worldbuilding session, I had much more to work with to start my campaign: I understood how people use and view magic, why there is a coalition of independent city-states, and what their leaders are doing now. It also inherently sets up an interesting conflict: new found peace is only being used to prepare for conflict, and a massive war will break out the moment any city-state gets the magical edge over the other.

Stories are more effective for world building than facts because they practically write your first adventure for you. If you describe your world as a story of characters helping and hindering each other, you may be able to just drop your heroes in the middle of the most interesting part of that ongoing story, and see what happens from there. After all, your goal when creating this world was to set up your campaign’s story, and your story will be especially compelling if it connects to the formative events of your world.

I didn’t start doing story-driven worldbuilding just to make my job of creating a campaign easier: it also makes the world much more accessible to your players. A good RPG world should be easy to understand, and allow your players to easily impact it. Humans can naturally remember stories much better than a list of facts: my players won’t have to sit down and read a 10-page document describing the demographics of each city state. Instead, they can sit down and listen to a short story about how the free cities came to be. Second, If your world is defined by the actions of key characters, your players can have a profound impact on the world by helping or hindering those characters. To go back to my earlier story example, the players may join up with the backstabbing warrior to help keep the peace between city states, or join up with a scheming king and help him conquer the continent. Because the key movers and shakers of your world are named and known, your players have a way to connect with it in a clear and engaging manner.

Just because story-driven worldbuilding can make engaging worlds doesn’t mean its easy. I’m an engineer, so its hard for me to create dramatic stories, but one short bit of reading that helped me significantly was this chapter of the FATE RPG rulebook. It gives you concrete steps for creating a story full of characters, goals, and conflicts. Even though I didn’t do those steps exactly in my worldbuilding, it helped me understand what elements you need to write a good story, especially one for an RPG. Happy worldbuilding!

PS: How do you do worldbuilding? What’s worked best for you? I’d love to hear about it!

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Player Agency; a PvP Perspective

When people talk about player agency, the conversation is usually in the context of the GM being the one who decides how much freedom and agency a character in the party has. What often flies under the radar though is that player agency is not completely decided by the GM, the other players in the party play just as important of a role in deciding how much a player can do in a campaign. 

When player agency is applied in a GM context, the trade off is that the more freedom the GM gives the party, the more agency the party has at the cost of the GM losing control over the game and the ability to keep their story on track the way they thought. When it comes to player agency applied in a player context, the opposite effect is present, the more freedom the players gain from the GM, the higher the chance that the party will restrict each other’s agency.

To put things into perspective, here’s a story from one of my brother’s own campaigns:

The GM was running a Warhammer Fantasy game and put specific emphasis on exploration in the campaign,. This gave his players a significant amount of freedom and agency in directing their path and the story. Within the campaign, my brother played as a traveling artisan with aspirations to establish his own version of the silk road. 

At first my brother and the rest of the players were thrilled that they were able to travel the world and make real decisions, but as the game progressed, the agency and freedom that the players were given turned into a double edged sword, eventually biting back. 

While my brother’s character was focused on the social aspect of the world and more humble level aspirations, other player’s in his party looked to become stronger and gain higher level career advances. With the agency they had in directing the campaign, the adventures the party started going on devolved into majority rules. Since two of the player characters (half the party) shared similar aspirations in gaining power (one through exploring chaos and the other through looking for lost magic), the party often found themselves going on these adventures as the two players coordinated their player agency together. 

It wasn’t long until my brother found that he had no agency in being able to create his trade network and even began to be phased out of the party as the spells and chaos energy the other players worked towards meant that they would just always roll better than him with their bonuses. Despite him being the “face” character for the party, it was easier for these players to just use their spells or their power to charm, trick, or intimidate the NPCs in their interactions.

Despite the GM explicitly giving the players a high amount of freedom, the agency they were given was directly cut short by each other’s different ambitions and actions. Now obviously, the GM could have done more to assist the other half of the party. Despite this, the point still stands that a player’s agency is just as susceptible to the party’s actions as the GM’s decisions. If you aren’t careful, you as a player could be directly hindering another player’s enjoyment and ability to play the game how they want. 

When considering your own player agency keep in mind the actions and aspirations of other players. Whether you want to set up your own silk road, discover lost magic, or look to exact your revenge from someone who’s robbed you, a player’s agency and aspirations typically align into four categories. While TTPRGs are different from other games in certain aspects, the Bartle Test still shares some similarities and can be extrapolated to TTRPGs. The Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology looks to categorize players into four categories for what they look to in a game; Killers, Explorers, Socializers, and Achievers. 

While this test does not directly match up with TTRPGs, we can extrapolate these categories into relative playstyles and agency for TTRPG players. Killers may be those who seek out combat or have a mission to slay a certain foe. Explorers might be those who seek to explore ancient civilizations and artifacts or delve into the wilds or the world. Socializer agency may fit into players who wish to join or become the leader of their own organization. Finally, Achievers can apply to those who seek to operate on behalf of a master or look to gain a form of fame in the world.

Even though video game RPGs have their own unique game aspects, the same idea stands that TTRPG players also generally fit into categories when deciding on what they want to do in a campaign.  

Whether you’re a player or GM, be sure to keep in mind what type of category the rest of your party falls into and what type of agency and actions they’ll want to take in the campaign. Now this doesn’t mean you have to always consider the rest of the party’s ambitions every time you want to make your own choice, keep in mind on how often your character is making the decisions or having the rest of the party follow your path. As a GM, while obviously players want agency and be able to make meaningful decisions and follow their own character’s story and not just the campaign, railroading the party isn’t always a bad thing.

Taking control of the story and guiding the party towards certain choices can be a good tool to implement the party’s ambitions into the campaign and give each player their adventure to work towards their own goals. Take note of the adventures you’ve run so far and try to categorize them into those previous discussed categories to see if one or two categories have been favored over the others. If you see this, take some of the agency back in your own hands and try to guide the next few adventures towards the other categories to let the rest of the party shine.

Player agency isn’t easy to balance and shouldn’t be a set level. Too little agency and the players will feel like they’re just following the campaign and not being true to their character. Too much agency and the players may end up hurting each other by inadvertently restricting each other’s choices and ability to follow their own character’s true feelings. When a party of players is formed, there is an unspoken contract that players recognize that for some adventures they’ll have to take a backseat for another player to shine. When too much freedom is given to the players, this contract is at risk of being marred.

Player agency should be an ever-flowing dynamic to keep a balance where players can feel free to follow their own ambitions without having to significantly impact the rest of the party. 

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Keep Your Heroes Heroic: Avoiding the 6-Foot Pole Problem

When sitting down to play any TTRPG, it’s common for players to be very cautious with their character’s actions to make sure they live to fight another day. There’s many good reasons for doing this: many players gain an attachment to their characters over weeks and months of play and don’t want to have them die. Character death stops you from participating in the rest of the current adventure, and requires you to go back and spend another hour or so making a new character. It also makes sense for most characters to be as cautious as possible: after all, what sane person wants to put their life on the line for no good reason? 

In some stories, like heist adventures, caution can be part of the fun. But in many TTRPG settings, DnD included, excessive caution works against the heroic fun of the game. It makes sense for all characters to be as careful as possible, but facing danger head-on is a key experience in classic swords-and-sorcery stories: the type of stories DnD is designed to tell. Here’s some specific examples of excessive caution in games of DnD i’ve played in or run:
“For every hallway in the dungeon, we’ll roll a rock down it to try and trigger traps, then spend 30 miuntes tapping each tile ahead of us with a 6 foot pole.”

“Let’s spend another day going back to town to hire a few guards, so we can outnumber the bandits in this camp.”

“Let’s sleep another 8 hours to get a few hitpoints back before we walk into that boss room.”

All of these decisions deflate the tension of the adventure: the suspense built up by walking through dungeon halls, searching for the bandit camp, or approaching the final boss room is lost when the heroes (and their players) take a long break from action to play it safe. 

All three of these examples of deflated tension come from the same problem with the story: the heroes are not pressed for time. It makes total sense for heroes to be as cautious as possible, but caution doesn’t make for exciting action stories. When characters are pressed for time, they have to make faster, riskier moves which create problems that make the story interesting; if the heroes only have 8 hours to get an antidote from the dungeon before their village dies of plague, then there’s no time to spend hours testing every inch of hallway for traps.

Every heroic story needs to have an imminent threat, not just an unchanging objective that could be completed at any time. Many standard quests like “retrieve this item from this dungeon” come with no ticking timer, so heroes (and players) have no reason to make fast, risky, and action-packed decisions. If you’re a GM writing up your next TTRPG adventure, take a second to ask “could this mission be done at any time? What’s the rush?” if you don’t have an answer to that, try moving some elements around to add a sense of urgency to achieving the objective.

Now that your adventures have time limits that force heroes to make quick, risky decisions, there’s one more step your entire TTRPG group can do together to make this riskier play style more fun. As I mentioned earlier, players are often very cautious with their characters because they don’t want to lose them. Now that players are forced to make riskier decisions with their characters, it’s essential for everyone in your group, GM and players together, to discuss how high-death your group’s adventures are going to be. Could any hallway contain a secret trap that instantly kills people, or will characters only die by making a series of poor decisions and failed actions? Getting on the same page about what amount of lethality the players and GM enjoy is a key final step to making your TTRPG adventures action-packed.

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The GM’s Smithy: Forging a Campaign to Suit Your Habits

In today’s article I’m going to tackle a few things; namely why I cancelled my most recent D&D campaign. I decided to take some time to reflect on what it was about my previous campaign wasn’t doing it for me, and how I could help other GMs in crafting a campaign setting to avoid burnout, specifically by tailoring the narrative and gameplay to work with your GM habits.

I am honestly ashamed to admit that I cancelled my last D&D campaign. Most campaigns sputter out or just sort of end, but I usually pride myself on providing satisfying conclusions to my campaigns. Something just wasn’t working for me anymore, and in the vein of “Know thyself”, I decided to figure out why so that I don’t run into those problems again. I was dreading prepping for sessions, and the idea of trying to progress the story’s overarching narrative was very intimidating for me. I felt like I had no idea where to go and no tools to help me.

After I broke the news to my players, I thought back on my successful campaigns and what about them kept me invested. I usually don’t run D&D – I have much more experience and success running science-fiction games than fantasy one. I first tried to look at the differences in the genre to see if that might be a contributing factor.

A few things popped out to me. Planet-hopping in a sci-fi setting means you can set adventures in a variety of biomes, with the players encountering different tech levels and cultures. You might have one adventure set on a jungle world inhabited by stone-age tribes, and set another on a refinery facility that hovers in the sulfur clouds above an active volcano. What I realized from this is that I like variety in terrains and biomes and for the environment to sometimes be a threat – but not always. Whereas the D&D campaign I was just running was set in a desert, which proved interesting for a bit, but I think I grew bored of it.

Every so often you want to change up a temperate region with, say, a fetid swamp, or an arctic glacier. I want to be able to send my players into a blistering wasteland one week, and then have them swashbuckling onboard pirate galleys the next. However, the mechanics that make those environments a fun challenge – such as extreme temperatures, storms, and the threat of tropical disease – become boring and irritating if used too much. Locales inhospitable to life such as a desert are fun for a one-off adventure but aren’t sustainable for long-term campaigns because you have to keep justifying encounters, which is difficult if the terrain is so hostile. So, in crafting a new setting, I need to give players a mode of transport that gets them to a new locale. Perhaps a vehicle?

Well, that opens another can of worms. Maps were also a big issue for me in my last campaign. I don’t enjoy making maps. That might sound shocking coming from a GM, but it holds no interest for me. I love the tactical side of moving enemies on a map, but the map-making itself holds no appeal to me. I’d much rather use one of the beautiful maps than many D&D content creators illustrate for use by the RPG community. And those maps aren’t made with vehicular combat scale in mind – and if I were to try and make a vehicle-scale map myself, it would be even more of a nightmare than if I tried to make a standard-scale map, which I already wouldn’t enjoy doing. What’s more, if you have a vehicle, you spend a lot less time in the nasty environment in question and the terrain hazards become trivialized because you have lots of ways to get around or shield yourself from them.

Ergo, the best method of shuttling your players from biome to biome without actually giving them something that trivializes the environment would be a portal. So, we want some kind of campaign built around portal-hopping to new regions. Interesting, and definitely different to what I’m used to running. But why are the players going to these different places?

Last time I also found myself struggling to progress the story arc. I either wasn’t sure what direction to take the plot in, or I had an idea and it didn’t match up with the players’ power level (either being too high or too low). For this time around perhaps I don’t want to have to think about an arc – maybe I want each adventurer to be mostly contained, with only the characters themselves connecting them. Sort of an “adventure-of-the-week” kind of thing. Looking back on my sci-fi games, this tracks with what I’m used to running – a mission-of-the-week storytelling system, with perhaps a few villains getting multi-mission arcs before being dealt with, and perhaps a few of those villains are connected by a Big Bad who the players defeat in the campaign finale.

This type of structure lends itself well to a Sandbox-style game. However, in a Sandbox game players provide their own progression (a lesson I’ve learned from prior experience as well), so how do we motivate them?

When all else fails, loot and magic items. Magic items provide a form of progression outside of XP which players can use to feel like they accomplished something even if they didn’t level up at the end of a session. So, we construct the new campaign around a gameplay loop where characters go out and gather resources (which are guarded by monsters, for some reason – we will get to that later), and return to convert those resources into magic items.

This also gives us inspiration for our players’ “home base”. In prior games I’ve had that home base be a starship, a space station, or a planetary colony – somewhere where the players feel as though their adventures are actively making a difference to improve the lives of the people living there. If this is also the place where the players are turning in their quest rewards in return for magic items, the most obvious answer is some kind of dwarven city, with portals leading out to other parts of the world and even other planes. The problem is, manufacturing magic items takes a long time, but we want players to be able to return to the city and get their rewards instantly. Why not just have the items pre-manufactured and give them to the players in return for going on adventures? Well, because the whole point of the portals is to send the players out to get the resources for the magic items, and also because having them lying around ahead of time means players could just try to steal them beforehand and avoid the quests altogether!

To accelerate the manufacturing process of magic items, perhaps we say that the dwarves have constructed magical forges inside of which local time is accelerated, meaning work that would take weeks or months can be completed in hours or days. To avoid the dwarves themselves coming out of the forges with huge chunks of their lifespan burned up, the forges are worked by magical automatons (perhaps a warforged-esque race available to player characters?). And maybe our resources that the players go out questing for are in some way used to power these time forges.

So why are these resources guarded by monsters? Maybe they’re fragments of a god of entropy (hence the time acceleration factor) and as such evil creatures are naturally drawn to them.

So there we have it. The campaign’s home base city relies on its manufacturing of magic items for the local economy, and we can easily tie the players characters into that trade via both magic item rewards and also cuts of the forges’ profits. We’ve created a mechanism by which we can send the players all over the world, and even to other worlds, meaning we have limitless options for creating memorable dungeons and encounters. What’s funny is that, on paper, this setting doesn’t seem like the kind I would initially be interested in. But perhaps it’s not about what your story is, but how you’re telling it, that matters.

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Police Presence in your Modern Campaigns

One of my favorite RPG adventures to run or be a part of is a modern paranormal or supernatural investigation campaign. While all RPGs are an escape into the imagination and lets players live and experience a totally new world, there’s something so intriguing about having my players navigate the modern world they are familiar with but have a totally different reality hidden underneath with the presence of ghosts, cryptids, and all sorts of monsters which have ingrained themselves into modern living.

While I’ve talked with both players and other GMs about all their different modern paranormal campaigns and all the unique details they’ve each implemented, one conundrum has been consistent in all my conversations, the police.

Police presence is a staple of modern society. Unlike D&D campaigns where your players can just hack and slash their way through bandits on a main road or carry a massive broadsword into a tavern, players in a modern campaign have to be more nuanced with their weapons and actions when in public. While this situation can lead to some really interesting and clever interactions and plans on the part of the players, as a GM you need to set a proper balance for police presence.

Even though a campaign story should give your players freedom to make their own choices and not feel too restrained, if you’re running a modern campaign, I encourage you to not throw out the threat of police to give them that freedom. Having the right amount of police present in your campaign acts as an ever shifting puzzle for your players to creatively think around. Too little presence takes part of a modern RPG’s charm away while too much presence will strangle yourself players and could kill their fun.

If you’re looking to run a modern-setting campaign and wondering how to implement or balance your police presence in the world, the three tricks I use to find the right balance are “population,” “flying under the radar,” and “the edge.”

Population

The size of your police force will be directly tied to the size of your town. While not every member of the police is out on patrol at any given time, larger cities will inevitably have larger forces and more routine patrols. One of the best ways to provide a balanced police present is to base your modern campaign in more rural or smaller towns.

With a smaller police force due to a smaller town, your players will have more freedom to act or engage in combat without fear of immediately getting the cops called on them. Furthermore, smaller towns typically fit best with the paranormal or supernatural setting; you’re certainly more likely to run into the Mothman or a werewolf in a mountain town than in a big city. 

Flying under the Radar

Depending on how profile your players’ characters and actions are, their deeds may not even reach the police. Consider creating a setting or a city where the police have better things to do than to worry about your characters. Tailoring your combat encounters to more enclosed or less public areas will lead to your players attracting less attention. This strategy works really well if you’ve decided to run your campaign in a more populated area. A major city police department won’t be as keen to rapidly respond to and investigate a group of random guys trespassing on an abandoned dock or in a park than if there were to be a shootout with a monster in a store.

This strategy is an easy trick to implement into your campaigns without having to implement many changes as the dens of iniquity and the shady abandoned places of cities are often ripe with trouble for you to direct your players to adventure into. 

The Edge

 Regardless if your party is a bunch of random civilians who stumbled into a world of monsters or crime, or if they are a trained party of mercenaries or operatives, your players should always have some sort of edge against attracting police attention. This leading edge could be absolutely anything you can imagine. The party could have an inside man inside the police department, surveillance gear to listen in on their radio, or even have your party be somehow tied to an undercover organization which can support them and act as a “cleanup crew” for the eventual chaos they’ll reap.

No matter what setting you’re in or what type of campaign you’re running, the player characters are the unsung heroes (or in some cases villains) of the story. As such, they should have bigger issues to worry about than the police, but the police should still be a worry. By giving your players a way to stay one step ahead of the police, they can act more freely and not constantly be pausing the game to sit and plan how they can get away with any potentially unlawful actions they’ll inevitably be driven to commit. 

RPGs are a balance of giving your players the freedom of choice while also restricting them to force them to embrace and envelop the world they’re in and to use what they have to the best of their abilities. While this balance is particularly tricky in modern campaigns, a little extra thought and planning can make your modern campaign as good or even better than even the most intricate Fantasy or SciFi world. Don’t be afraid to try something different and dip your toes into modern setting campaigns. While it may take some time for you to find a proper balance for your world, you might be surprised with how much fun these campaigns can be when properly balanced.

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The Magic Of Modular NPCs

After a particularly brilliant session, I was walking home with our friend group’s GM. Although he had run  another session just three days earlier, this last session was a fantastic, fully fleshed out adventure. I imagined him spending late night after night tinkering in his DM workshop, I asked if my DM was okay.  “I just want to make sure you aren’t killing yourself over these games,” I blurted out.

Our DM laughed in response.  “Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said, “I just use modular NPCs, it makes it a lot easier.”  Immediately, I asked him what he meant. He started explaining the world of modular NPCs. My whole RPG world shifted.

You see, outside of very extreme circumstances, a fun and exciting NPC is agnostic of the world in which you’re playing.  That means that as a DM, you can re-use the NPCs you’ve built for prior parties. Each new group of players can experience an expanding menagerie of characters with their own personalities, motivations, and quirks.  Over time, this cast grows and grows, and the amount of work you need to do for each campaign decreases.

Designing your NPCs for re-use doesn’t just make it easier to set up sessions, it also makes those sessions higher quality.  Just think of how we build things in our lives. If you needed to build some place to sleep for only one night, you’d probably throw together a lean-to out of sticks and wood.  It’ll keep you safer for the night, but in a day or two it’ll fall down. If you needed to build a place to sleep for 10 years, you’d be calling in a construction company to make you a whole house.  That’s the difference between designing one-time use NPCs and modular NPCs. For a single use, you might throw something together. When you’re designing a character to be used over and over again, take your time to ensure you’re doing it right.

Finally, modular NPCs can be shared.  If you make some interesting modular NPCs, you can easily send them to other DMs.  Start making modular NPCs, and soon, you might become the most popular DM on your side of the Rocky Mountains.

Here’s some advice on how to construct modular NPCs that can make your life easier as you go.

  1. Start with their personality
    1. The defining aspect of an engaging NPC is their personality.  Thankfully, a personality is also the most evergreen characteristic, you’ll never need to change it depending on your universe.  I’d recommend defining an NPC’s personality by separating out overt traits and subtle traits. Try to pick 2-3 of each. Overt personality traits are things that your players might notice right away.  It may be an abrasiveness that causes the NPC to pick fights, or a kind heart you might highlight with a gentle act. Subtle traits are things that you should use to guide how the NPC acts but shouldn’t be obvious.  For example, your NPC might have a subtle bias against religion. They don’t bring it up, but whenever the party goes into a church, the NPC makes some excuse not to join.
  2. Next, develop their motivations.
    1. Motivations are the next big thing to nail down.  Because these NPCs need to work across many settings, try not to have the motivation be too specific.  The motivation “Kill King Edward” isn’t going to be helpful if King Edward is only in one campaign. Instead, try to draw general motivations out of their personality.  If one of their traits is that they love money, their motivation could be getting rich. Then, depending on the universe you’ve set them in, you can determine what the particulars are.  
    2. I’d recommend choosing a few motivations and setting relative priority levels for them.  Try to represent your NPCs with the complexity that real people exhibit. Normally, our motivations are constantly contrasting with each other.  Additionally, the motivations we say we care about don’t always align with what we actually care about. We may not even mean to deceive people; we just may not understand ourselves well enough to articulate our desires.  Keep this in mind when building out your NPCs motivations.
  3. Figure out what they look like.
    1. Many of the greatest fiction authors talk about how if you can’t picture a scene, you might as well not be reading it.  The same is true for building characters. Write a description of your NPC that makes them easier for all of your players to picture.  Once again, try to avoid specific information that might change from setting to setting. Instead, create memorable details that can help with visualization but don’t change from setting to setting.  Are they well or poorly dressed? Do they walk with confidence or shame? Are they shaven or unkempt? Do they have any odd visual quirks like scars or tattoos? Create a description that allows you to have a clear picture of what they look like.  Write it down. If you have the time, come back to it two weeks later and read it again. Do you still have a clear picture? If not, add more.

Finally, a few things to be careful about:

  1. Race
    1. If you’re the DM who changes races around frequently or moves from system to system, you can’t take the existence of a race for granted. Instead of specifying an NPC is an orc, take note that that NPC is strong and martial, and use that to inform the race you assign him in any setting.
  2. Stat blocks
    1. If you change systems frequently, try not to set specific stat lines.  Instead, write a few skill sets your NPC is notably good or bad at compared to the system’s standard.
  3. Political or religious alignments
    1. Specific names here will almost constantly change.  Instead of saying they support Queen Aliza, think about what traits make them support that character.  Then, write down their more general preferences or beliefs, e.g. “Having faith in the government, they prefer patriarchal and authoritarian factions.

These are just some of my initial thoughts when it comes to modular characters.  Do you design modular characters yourself? How do you think about creating them?  What are your personal do’s and don’ts?

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Managing Macroenvironments

Critics commonly like to joke that sci-fi and fantasy authors have a poor sense of scale, and indeed it’s true that sometimes our reach can overextend our grasp. Any GM has doubtless fantasized about planting larger-than-life worlds into their games, whether those worlds take the form of sprawling megacities, kilometers-long starships, or space stations the size of moons. These are what I refer to as macroenvironments – settings so large that their scale truly dwarfs the mind and puts any attempt at accurately rendering them into the realm of impossibility.

The fact of the matter is, you can’t sit down and map out a macroenvironment the way you would map out a dungeon crawl. It can be daunting to even figure out a rough layout like you would for a zoomed-out village or town map. Dropping your players into an environment this large can be tough for both the GM themselves and also the players alike, but here’s some advice for creating verisimilitude in your macroenvirons so that your players never feel lost in the living, breathing worlds you’re trying to create.


The first thing you’re going to want to prioritize is breaking your macroenvironment down into basic districts or sectors. In some cases, figuring out the districts may seem self-evident. For example, on a starship or space station you’ll need hydroponics decks, engineering bays, a power source such as a plasma drive or a nuclear reactor, gunnery decks, and a nerve center such as a bridge or command post. Feel free to add as many of these as you like – the more bite-sized chunks you can break the macroenvironment into, the better. 

Once you’ve divvied up the environment into districts, you’ll want to figure out those districts’ relationships to each other. You still don’t need to make an actual map, persay – it’s enough to figure out a rough flowchart as to which sections you can reach from where. For example, in our starship analogy, we can use the logics of how a starship would be designed to inform our placements. The ship’s main drives would be located at the ship’s center to protect them from enemy fire, whereas the gun decks would be at the very outermost layers of the ship for obvious reasons. The crew quarters would also probably be closer to the ship’s core to protect the slumbering astronauts from depressurizations or exterior hull breaches. In figuring this out, we’ve created a sandwich of layers – you can go from the engineering drives to the crew quarters and then from the crew quarters to the gunnery decks, but not straight from engineering to the guns or vice versa. This is important information should the ship come under attack by space pirates or hostile aliens.

Once you’ve figured out the rough relationships of all the districts to each other, I recommend you come up with a few nonplayer characters for each district to breathe life into them. Give each NPC a few sentences of backstory – stuff the players’ characters would know about the NPCs that you can “remind” the players of when they first encounter them. Think about how these NPCs’ jobs might bring them into alliance or conflict with both each other and the player characters. 

To showcase how this macroenvironment system can be used, I’ll take an example from a campaign of Warhammer 40,00 Roleplay: Rogue Trader that I ran a few years ago. In the campaign, the players act as the titular Rogue Trader and his or her retinue, effectively acting as explorers in their spaceship.

In this case, Rogue Trader already has rules for starship creation, so breaking down the ship into subsections was easy enough because the lion’s share of the work was done for me when the players designed their ship. They elected to build a four-kilometer long light cruiser, and put points into making sure the bridge would be suitably equipped for space combat, as well as buffing up the life support systems to include shipboard emergency kits spaced at designated checkpoints throughout the vessel. They also spent points to upgrade the quality of their crew’s quarters, and expanded the size of said quarters so that they could fit in a standing army in alongside their basic crew, bringing the total population to 130,000 persons. The remaining space on the ship was dedicated to a grand cathedral, a teleportarium, and an arboretum – and lots of laser batteries. 

Figuring out who the important NPCs should be simply boiled down to figuring out which roles on the ship weren’t being filled by player characters. The players themselves had taken on the roles of the ship’s Captain, her First Officer, and the Master of Sensors. I sat down to think about what other roles would be needed.

If there were technical issues with the ship, such as preparing structural damages, none of the PCs were really equipped or trained to direct those, so we needed a Chief Engineer – who could also serve as our technician for the teleportarium. Similarly, the standing army needed a General – someone to undertake the minutae of running the ship’s militia so that the Captain and First Officer wouldn’t get bogged down in bookkeeping. The cathedral would need a Chief Confessor, as well. Throw in a pair of Navigators to help chart interstellar flight paths along with a Pilot for helmsman duties and inter-atmospheric flight, and we had our supporting cast of NPCs figured out. 

Now that we had our cast, we just had to figure out their backstories. Our Chief Engineer became Drivesmaster Malfyzantze Bolth, a cantankerous and stubborn tech-priest who rankled at having to work alongside the flesh-and-blood officers. Our Rogue Trader’s backstory was that her family had heavy ties to the Church Militant, so the ship’s Chief Confessor became her brother. The Navigators were a pair of siblings tithed to the Rogue Trader’s family, and one of the Player Characters actually ended up marrying one of the Navigators by the campaign’s end. These are just a few examples of how you can use NPCs to give faces to geographical regions of the ship. 

These same techniques can be applied to anything from a large city to a space station to even an entire planet if need be. Breaking the world down into chunks and then giving each chunk a “face” is a good strategy for making the world more manageable for yourself and your players. 

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One Piece of Tech Worth Bringing to the Tabletop

Part of the draw of tabletop RPGs is their physical nature; rolling dice, unfurling battlematts, and doodling on your character sheet are all a great part of the experience. But I’ve found that using one set of technology has made running games so much better, and it doesn’t get in the way of the physical game. It’s simple: use a TV Screen and Speakers to set the scene with art and music. Immersing your players in a fantastical world is one of the most important and challenging aspects of RPGs. Though it’s possible to set the scene using only your words, it puts a lot of work on players to picture an entire world in their head. People’s minds aren’t made to keep track of complex scenes: studies have consistently shown that short term memory can only keep track of four to seven items at once. Take some of the mental burden off your players by setting the scene with visual and audio aids; For every major scene you expect your players to encounter, find one piece of artwork that depicts the scene, and one music or sound effect loop that captures the mood you want. Put each piece of art on a slide of a powerpoint presentation, and have each soundtrack play while on that slide. During your adventure, bring up the slides, and switch to whichever one captures the current scene the best. With very little prep, you have a great tool for immersing your players in your world!

Ideally, you only need to prep three slides at most. If you expect to have more scenes, see if you can make slides that can be used across multiple scenes. If you want to do a bit more prep work after making your scene slides, find art for several important characters and objects, and drop them into your slides on top of your scene images. Having important characters and items up on the screen ensures your players won’t lose track of what’s important. Also, if you provide images of what NPCs look like, players can remember your characters much more easily. 

Although I’m generally against bringing tech to the tabletop, I’ve found that this one addition has added a lot of value to my games with only a small amount of prep required.

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Online Sessions: a Double-edged Sword for Attention.

My experience growing up with Tabletop RPGs was fairly traditional; a furnished basement with me and my party all huddled up on the couch and chairs around a large battlemap ridden table, and our GM at the head, surrounded by a library or rule-books and notes. Nearly every weekend we’d follow the same routine and all meet together to have our sessions. Nowadays though, my weekly RPG experience is very different. With our party scattered across the country due to jobs and school, our weekly sessions consist of sitting down at my desktop, booting up Roll20, and talking over Discord to have our adventures. 

Online sessions have become increasingly popular. Whether you’re like me and have your party members living in other states, or decided to branch out and meet new groups of people and join their games, the ability to host online TTRPGs has helped a huge number of parties be able to play and connect with each other.

But while online sessions help players connect and run games, I’ve found that the system has one flaw, and that’s maintaining attention in the players. Unlike when the party is all together in person, running online sessions mean that the players in the session are all technically alone on their computers The potential for them to lose attention is exponentially higher. 

Just like any form of online entertainment, online RPG sessions and keeping your players’ attention rely on two major aspects, the visual and audio experience. 

Unlike in-person sessions, where the GM can use body language and props, and only typically need visuals for battle maps, online sessions will have the whole party relying on all of their queues and interactions to occur on a single screen.  With all the players relying on a screen for their visuals, it’s important for you to include as many visuals as possible to contemplate for the lack of an ability to act things out for your players. Beyond just battle maps, implement visuals for all of your situations, exploring , RPing, character interactions, anything you can think of. Implementing varying visuals such as NPC portraits, tavern interiors, or even artifact designs,  will allow you to continuously show your players new things and keep them from just staring at the same screen outside of battlemaps. 

Luckily there are lots of tools out there to allow you to implement these visuals into your Roll20 (or other online RPG tool) games. Tools such as Inkanrate or Wonderdraft are great for making your world and city maps, and there is a litany of images and other resources online for any other images you might want to implement into your game. By adding these visuals,  you can always have something for your players to see and pay attention to in order to supplement your storytelling. 

 Like all RPG sessions, one of the most critical parts or every game relies on the audio experience. For online sessions, the audio experience is 1000% more critical to your sessions. Since the party isn’t all together in person where you can physically see if one of your party members is starting to drift off, the best way to tell who is and isn’t engaged will be through who is and isn’t talking. Every party will naturally have a dominant player, the one who usually does the most talking and RP. For your online sessions, it’s important to keep in mind who is the dominant player and who isn’t really talking. Dominant players are good to help keep things lively, but they also have the risk of making you seem like everyone is paying attention when in reality it could leave opportunities for other players to lose attention.

Since you can’t see your players and if they start losing focus, for your online sessions, it’s important to properly structure your NPC conversations to counter this. Long series of conversation or lengthy exposition can easily lead to your players zoning out as they stare at their screen. To counter this, try to structure your NPC conversations and exposition into multiple short bursts. For example, instead spending a while detailing the whole city as your party enters it, only talk about the entrance gate or the street they are on, and then let them take their actions or RP on their own before going into another explanation or NPC conversation. By having shorter, but more, back and forths, your whole party will actively be paying attention and making actions. 

Furthermore, when structuring your NPCs and the conversations they’ll be having with your players, be sure to keep all of your players’ motivations and ambitions in mind. When a player is on their own in these online sessions, if their character doesn’t feel involved in a scene or feel the need to talk or RP with your NPCs, it’s very easy to them to stop paying attention as they sit there waiting for the scene to end and potentially just switch tabs on their computer in the meantime. Having your NPCs make an effort to talk to your whole party will help keep everyone involved and prevent a dominant player from acting as a crutch for others to zone out. 

Online RPG sessions have definitely revolutionized the Tabletop RPG genre and expanded the accessibility to these games more than ever. Players can both play with their friends as well as meet new parties and be unrestrained by their location. As great as this is, the online RPG landscape leaves an issue of attention. While as a GM you’ll be busy coordinating the game and may not notice the difference between your in-person game and your online game, remember your players on the other end of the computer. While they’re just as excited to play as you are, they’re on their own with just their computer. As fun as online RPG sessions are, they lack the synergy of everyone being together in the same room and playing off each other. Even though online sessions are a bit different, they can be just as fun as any in-person session so long as you can keep everyone involved and paying attention.

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A Different kind of D&D Boss Battle: Encounter Included!

This week I was going to write a long-winded article about an alternative way of running boss battles in D&D, but why write an article when I could make a boss battle for you instead! This is a 4CR boss battle against a giant bird of prey that you can use as anything from the finale of a quest to a random wilderness encounter. Check it out!

Besides being a fun fight, this battle shows off a few of my favorite modifications to combat in D&D 5e:

Position Matters: in this fight, standing in the right place is the difference between being forced to make really hard DC20 saves, and being entirely outside the boss’s reach. 

Alternate Objective: Instead of just attacking the boss over and over again, you can instead work to get a nearby ancient ballista working, which will do massive damage once you fire it.

Minions: I love throwing a bunch of 1 hp, low AC enemies alongside a big boss. It makes players feel like Heroes, and it rewards strategic minded players who use area attacks.

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Losing isn’t what you think it is

It was late after work, and we were sitting around the table, dice in hand, talking.  The scene had been set by our DM. We were a ragtag band of religious missionaries trying to save a city from being slaughtered by Coalition forces.  After the enemy army had ambushed the army in a nearby field, the Coalition forces besieged the local city nearby, blaming a spy for the ambush. If we weren’t able to locate the spy within a week’s time, the Coalition forces would raze the entire city and slaughter the innocents.

We were faced with a pressing problem.  Unfortunately, our problem wasn’t finding the spy.  We had four hours to play, and we had spent over an hour discussing the best path forward and failed to come to a definitive plan.  Here we were playing along in a world of our creation, and we seemed to be paralyzed by the idea of messing up, doing the wrong thing, and dying.

This experience made me think a lot about what Dungeons and Dragons and other Tabletop RPGs represent.  I think the best way to sum up my thoughts is this: Losing isn’t what you think it is.

For many people, the point of games is to win them.  Winning typically means accomplishing the task set before you.  In chess, this means putting your opponent in checkmate. In D&D, this typically means accomplishing the goal the DM puts in front of you or achieving your character’s desires.

Despite this, it’s important to remember that the potential outcomes of D&D don’t always correlate with whether or not your characters accomplish their stated goals. When you walk away from a session, whether or not you succeeded is a very small aspect of what’s important.  The most important part of any particular game is this: did you have fun?

Take my game as an example.  By the end of the session, we identified the spy and saved the day, but we had spent half of our entire session just discussing strategy.  I was content that we had succeeded. We had done everything so safely. Somehow, we had managed to avoid a single mistake, and this meant there hadn’t been any risk.  Never once did I think my character was in real danger. While my party members enjoyed the session I lot, I enjoyed it but still felt hungry for more action.

When I discussed this with my friends, they said they understood my point, but they mentioned how much it would’ve sucked if something had messed up.  “We could’ve died!” said one friend.

This is where “winning” is so non-traditional in D&D.  You win in D&D if you have fun, and you can have fun if you make great stories.  Whether they are stories of triumph or a fun tale of how your party botched their mission, you have fun when you’re talking about a session for months afterward. 

On the upside of making a risky choice in D&D, you might have more fun putting things on the line, and if your risk succeeds, your character is even closer to the goal, which feels good. 

On the downside, your character is farther from your goal, which might stink, but these sticky situations can make for great stories.

How do your characters pull the party back from the brink?  If they don’t recover, how does a character heroically die? While a character death or TPK might occur, both of these leave you with more stories and more fun. In both the positive and negative outcomes, you’re having fun.  You’re winning the game.

While I know this might be my own opinion, I’d recommend all D&D players to take more risks.  Remember that the worst that can happen is a character death that leads to a new character sheet and new stories.  Make memories with your friends, and don’t shy away from risky things. Remember that D&D is made up for a reason. It’s a time to feel epic, to feel powerful, to be the hero of the story.  While failure might not feel like a goal, any epic quest has its ups and downs. It’s better to have your triumphs and despair than your small wins and losses. Better to have mountains and valleys than hills and troughs.  So please, take risks. Losing isn’t what you think it is.

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Monster of the Month: No More Wolves

Last time I wrote a piece about bandits, but this time we’re going to talk about another monster with a very specific narrative role. Except this monster isn’t a monster at all. It’s just an animal.

Those of you who read my last article saw this one coming a mile away. I’m talking about wolves.

Seriously, why is it always wolves? Well, wolves provide an important storytelling tool. They show the adventurers that the wilderness is dangerous. The thick forests and jungles which lie between settlements are often fraught with peril, not just from other humanoids, but from the very earth itself. Nature is a foe no less dangerous than a bandit with a knife. 

Except wolves don’t need to be the only predatory animals you can use to showcase this. Seriously, I think that I’ve fought a pack of wolves in every D&D campaign I’ve played in, and I may well have thrown packs of wolves at most of the D&D parties I’ve run games for. It’s easy to see why we’d default to using wolves. Fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and werewolf fiction have turned the wolf into the apex predator of the forest. 

If you’re considering using wolves, I’m assuming you’re likely going for a northern European vibe, but consider this – panthers have the same Challenge Ratings as wolves. Naturally you find them in jungles, not forests, of course, but perhaps you’d consider relocating your campaign to a more tropical setting so as to vary up your toolbox of wild animals?

But, if you are set on a European setting, you’ve got an easy alternative: a boar. They’re territorial, ill tempered, and they’ve got big-ass tusks. If you think a wolf howling at the moon is scary, imagine a pack of wild boars rushing at you.

However, nature can be deceiving, and animals do not always behave in ways we expect them to – especially when they’re enlarged. No one questions a giant spider eating people because we view spiders the same we view wolves, with an atavistic dread, even though in real life normal-sized spiders are absolutely terrified of humans. What other animals would become a lot more threatening if we scaled them up? 

Badgers. Your party may well come across a giant badger in the woods and think it cute, think it harmless. But real-life badgers are meat-eaters – they love earthworms, grubs, insects, eggs, and baby birds.

Yup. Real-life badgers eat baby birds. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Now imagine the appetite of a badger the size of a semi. Suddenly that giant badger isn’t looking as cute, is it?

You can play with your players’ expectations by having normally cute animals suddenly get nasty once they’re scaled up to giant size. This teaches them the first law of nature – survival of the fittest. Once a badger is big enough to eat something larger than earthworms, it will, regardless of whether that something has a face or not. And in doing so, you warn your players that nature is not only unpredictable, but also apathetic. It does not care about them. And that makes it all the more dangerous. 

Beasts aren’t the only option, of course. For monsters of nature, we can also look at the Fey and Monstrosity categories – after all, Monstrosities are basically just Beasts that are big and scary and have no real-life analogues. I’d make a mention of the Plant enemies in the Monster Manual, but most of them are too high-level CR for your first-through-third level parties, except for blights and the awakened shrub (the former of which are pretty boring, the latter of which is…just a bush).

And if you really want to mess with your players’ expectations, throw a pack of velociraptors at them. Even if you never feature another dinosaur again, your players will spend the rest of the campaign wondering what else might be lurking out there in the woods. 

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So You Want to Run a Horror Adventure?

Some of my favorite adventures have been horror themed sessions. Whether it was tracking down and finding ourselves at the whim of a murderous hag, or investigating a case of fishing town disappearances only to come across the abominations of a crazed inn keeper, some of my favorite moments in my RPG history have been during a horror session. In my opinion, horror adventures have the potential to bring out the best in Tabletop RPGs.

From funny moments of panic or comedy in the face of fear, genuine role-playing as characters come to terms with what’s really going on, to some of the most interesting fights where the players must come up with a plan to take out the threat, horror sessions have something for everyone. Even though horror adventures have a lot to offer, they’re definitely a niche aspect of Tabletop RPGs and can go awry or flop if not properly planned. Now while full horror campaigns are different case, If you’ve ever been interested in running a horror adventure/session, here are a few tips to keep in mind and get you going.

Keep it simple:
When it comes to the plot of the adventure and the enemy you choose to be the source of the horror, it’s better to keep things simple. If your monster’s plan is too complex or you decide to put too many plot points or twists and turns in the adventure, the horror and suspense of your adventure might get lost on the players as they focus too much on the plot than the setting and situation they find themselves in.

Think of some of the classic horror movies like Alien. The 1979 film is a classic science fiction horror that people love and have expanded on, but at its core, the horror of the movie is simple; a crew trapped on their ship as an unknown threat skulks through the ship as the crew fights for their lives. When considering your session’s plot, if you can’t describe the adventure and what the core aspect of the horror is in a sentence or two, then there’s a chance that your players might not fully comprehend and appreciate it while they’re playing. 

There are no heroes, just survivors in the dark:
When writing the plot of your adventure, patience is the name of the game. Revealing your monster too early or letting your party immediately take the fight to the monster can ruin all of the horror and suspense you’ve tried to build. The monsters and your players shouldn’t strictly have a cat and mouse relationship, but one where the players have to take their time as they aren’t sure if they are the hunters or the hunted.

Slowly reveal the plot and the monster step by step so the players are always left in the partially in the dark. Up until their final confrontation, your players should never have the upper-hand; heroes don’t make for scary stories. If your party is always a step behind the monster or at a disadvantage, taking real action becomes dangerous and the players will fear that they may not be up to the task. Finally, when it comes to the end of the adventure, resolve the conflict but be sure to keep things on a bittersweet note.

Even if the players manage to kill the monster, their victory should not be heroic but a reminder of what they’ve lost. For example, in our recent D&D campaign, we had an adventure where we were tracking down a series of disappearances which we later discovered to be the work of a hag. Even though we managed to defeat her, at the end of the fight all we were left with was a dead hag and a cave full of devoured corpses. While we had won, no one in the party felt proud as what remained was to inform the town of the loss of their loved ones and the baby we were too late to save. By having a bittersweet ending where the party aren’t heroes from their victory, but survivors, you can make the horror of your adventure sink in and remain even after the battle is done.   

Give them downtime:
The downtime during a horror adventure is just as important as the scary parts and the action. Players need time to let them understand their situation and let the horror sink in. If the party is always on the case or if the GM is constantly throwing things at them, there isn’t any room for the suspense that makes horror adventures so fun.

Giving the players some downtime will them to give them a chance to try to figure out a plan to take out your monster and fit in meaningful role-playing as the player characters struggle to come to terms with the threat how to possibly tackle it. Downtime is also a good way to expand on the mundane horror of the situation and raise their fear. For example, in our D&D hag adventure, after we learned that it was a hag kidnapping those who had good fortune, the hag made sure to leave trails of severed ears, bloody runes, and whispers in the wind wherever we went, and specifically when we retired to the inn for the night. Even when we weren’t doing anything, the hag was always watching and toying with us.

By having the threat and horror always there, but knowing to keep it in the background, our GM always kept our party scared and on edge, waiting and fearing for when the hag would quit playing and strike. 

Make it personal but not critical:
While movies and novels often have a “fight for your life” as a key aspect of horror, every genre of RPG has combat or a risk to a party member’s life. In the case of RPGs, your monster needs to be more threatening than just a threat to the party members. One of the best ways to do this is to hit the characters where it hurts, right in the backstory. If possible, try to find a common theme shared in your party’s backstory (if your party backstories are all over the place, then settle for at least find a theme shared by two characters).

Try to shake your players to their core by having the monster target their insecurities. But like we said before, the name of the game is patience and restraint. Don’t tear down the characters too much to the point where they find themselves in a critical position. Keep your players invested in their hate of the monster and the corruption of what they hold dear, but not too scared to decide to either immediately go in for the kill or abandon the other NPC victims to their fate.  

If you’re interested in running a horror adventure in your campaign, or even a horror one-off, I encourage you to try to keep a couple of these tips in mind when considering your plot and monster. Just like all TTRPGs, learning how to GM a proper horror genre takes a bit of time as you learn how to best implement and maintain the suspense and horror in your game. Keep with it though and I hope you get to see just what I love about horror games and all the fun the party can have getting their asses scared off. 

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Not Too Low, Not Too High: The Goldilocks Levels of D&D

The level of your characters in D&D has a big impact on your adventure. High level characters have access to incredible spells that let them easily solve anything but the most legendary of challenges, while low level characters will be challenged by a pack of roving goblins. Many groups start at level 1, and plan to play until level 20, but in reality few campaigns last the 50+ adventures required to do so. Its challenging to keep organizing games over months and years, and many stories are happily resolved in less than 50 adventures. Instead of defaulting to starting at level 1, it’s better to plan what level range you want your campaigns to take place over: what level should characters start at, how many adventures will the campaign last, and what level should the party to end at? If you don’t take player’s levels into consideration when designing a campaign’s story you may find players are much too powerful or weak to face the challenges you’ve created. The most fun adventures occur when the party’s level gives them spells and powers that aid in their mission, but can’t be abused to automatically solve the problem. If the goal of the campaign is to slay the evil ogre emperor, level 11 characters could simply fly over to the palace and disintegrate him with a laser, while level 2 characters could die to a single sword strike from the most incompotent palace guard. Level 8 characters, on the other hand, must use their spells and powers to carefully infiltrate the palace or methodically hack and slash their way to the emperor, creating a dramatic story. There are three distinct level ranges in D&D, which each excel at telling different types of stories. These exact level ranges are for D&D 5th edition, but all editions of D&D have these 3 tiers of power:

Level RangeFeaturesBest stories…
1-2Very low health, can die from a one or two attacks. Few class features or spells.Rags to riches, show how the adventurers went from common rabble to powerful heroes.
3-10Interesting abilities and spells, ample spell slots and hit dice to spend over multiple encounters.Fighting interesting monsters, taking on hordes of common soldiers. Dismantling evil organizations, from small cults to sprawling empires.
11-20Reality-breaking 6+ level spells. Exponential power from extra actions and other class features. Easier access to resurrection. Saving the world by slaying titanic monsters, travelling to new dimensions, meddling in the affairs of demigods and deities.

During levels 1-2 the adventurers have few interesting powers and can easily die to single hits, so many groups decide to start their campaigns at level 3. If you envision the party to be real “heroes” at the start of the campaign, start at level 3. Only start at level 1 if the story begins with a rag-tag group of common swordsmen and apprentice spell casters. Groups with new players benefit from starting at level 1 to reduce the overwhelming number of features given to them. 

Because of the power of level 11-20 characters, many DMs try to create stories that will end before then. It becomes difficult to create relatable challenges (such as “cross the mountain”, “kill the emperor” or “get to the bottom of the dungeon”) because high powered spells let players fly over great heights, shoot disintegrating lasers from afar, and dig up tons of dirt and stone. 

Because of the problematic weakness of low level characters and the strength of high level characters, the level range 3-10 is often considered the best to tell “normal” D&D stories. The makers of the game were aware of this too, as xp curves are designed to keep players in this level range the longest. This doesn’t mean your group should never play adventures outside that level range, it just means you need to tailor adventures to accommodate other ranges. Emphasize the weakness of 1-2 level characters by making them tackle very small problems, and play up the strength of levels 11-20 by throwing mundane problems in favor of fantastical lands and titanic monsters. 

Ultimately, any level of D&D can be fun in different ways, and planning the partie’s starting and ending level within the story can help create fun, challenging adventures throughout the whole campaign.

P.S: What levels are your favorite to play as or run games for? Have you ever had problems when characters were too high or low level? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear about it!

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Party Crafting 1: Shared Backstories

When playing D&D, I find the most important and hardest step is character creation.  You’re given a slew of options and need to build a narrative, a personality, quirks, and a functioning stat line.  Most importantly, your decisions are permanent. If you’re preparing for a campaign, you might be locked into the same class and backstory for months or years.  If you’re a worry wort like me, you might fear you will have to play a character you don’t like for hundreds of hours of game time. It’s stressful.

In order to help others assuage their fears and worries about character creation, I wanted to detail the moments in character creations that have led to my having the most fun.  In this first piece, I wanted to discuss shared backstories.

When we first started playing D&D, our first encounter would always include our characters meeting each other.  Our DM would savor the moments describing us, reading from our scribbled descriptions of ourselves and highlighting the look, feel, and mood of our characters.  Once we were done being introduced, the characters would begin to talk. After saying our names, someone would begin to squabble with someone else. The rogue would steal a bottle of vodka from the bartender, and the paladin would turn him into the police.  The two players in real life would begin to argue. The “fun” continued the whole night.

The dolts we were, we would often play several sessions with a diametrically opposed party.  While the DM tried to shepherd us from one encounter to the next, we would constantly pursue our own agendas.  These campaigns never lasted long and, to be frank, they weren’t very entertaining.

This all changed the day that our DM sat us down before our newest campaign.  “Okay,” he said, taking out the character sheets he was always kind enough to print out for us, “today, I’m not starting the encounter until everyone in this party has a reason why they know each other.”

The mood of character creation changed immediately.  Instead of us sitting in quiet consternation and leafing through the player’s handbook, we were cracking jokes and coming up with stories.  We built our characters with the other players in mind, choosing our quirks and interests so they complimented each other. We had a ton of fun collectively story-telling, and that fun continued in the actual adventure.  Suddenly, our characters worked together. We usually stayed on track, and, more importantly, when we strayed from the plot, we strayed as a team. Our characters cracked inside jokes. We loved and despised NPCs together.  It benefited our play immensely.

Over the years, I can attribute shared backstories to some of my favorite campaigns.  In one campaign, a friend of mine and I played as two brothers, one an assassin and the other paladin.  While they disagreed with each other’s ways, the familial bond made their relationship one of respectful disagreement.  Additionally, these shared backstories strengthen your character’s development by encouraging them to push each other in dialogue and action.

Not everybody wants to work on shared back stories, and not everyone can (it doesn’t always make sense in a one-off environment).  However, if you’re interested in building more parties based on shared backstory, I wanted to share some tips for creating your party I’ve learned over time.

  1. You like and respect each other

Parties that get along can often collaborate to get up to amazing antics or accomplish phenomenal deeds.  I’d recommend that every party starts party creation with the assumption that every player character likes each other.  This doesn’t actually limit the party at all. As mentioned in the paladin and assassin example, two seemingly opposite characters can respect each other and become fun narrative foils.

  1. Always ask the other player what they would like

In one rough character creation session, a rather new player was working with a more seasoned veteran.  The new player wanted to be a character with a noble background. When the veteran asked him how the character would fit into the party, the new player said, “Well, I’ll be your former lord.”  The veteran looked at him confused and replied, “No, I don’t think that’s going to happen.” The table sat quiet for a second. The DM jumped in to explain to the new player how he couldn’t dictate others’ backstories.

If you’re building backstories with others, lead with questions.  Ask them what they would want. Don’t accept anything until you land on a shared story that both of you are happy with.  If it’s not a “hell yes!” from both of you, it’s a “no.”

  1. Ideally, you all know each other

I’ve found that there is a positive correlation between the number of characters that have a shared background and the amount of fun the party has.  Characters can know each other from different moments in their life. Three characters can all be childhood friends; two could have fought in a war together; two more worked together on a heist.  The more connections the party has going into it, the better the party will be. This gives each player more to draw from for storytelling, and it gives the DM more to use.

If you’ve ever played a long campaign, you can likely remember the fun of having a shared history and chatting amongst your characters now that they’re old friends.  Why not start there?

Hopefully, you can these rules to build a better party and have more fun.  As always, these are just suggestions. However, I hope you try them out!

Do you have any of your own rules for crafting parties?  Comment them below!

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Monster of the Month: No More Goblins (or Kobolds either)

This month, I’m lumping goblins and kobolds in together because they’re pretty much interchangeable in terms of their world-building role. They’re diminutive but clever humanoids that eke out meager lairs in caves and grottoes, generally underground – hence why they tend to be the default enemies for Player’s First Dungeon. Another reason they make great foes for Player’s First Dungeon is that they’re humanoid enough to have relatable motives (greed, a love of shiny things, the will to survive).

They’re skilled trappers and hunters, and towards evil, but their villainy is somewhat limited in scope. However, when they have time to prepare their defenses and work together, they teach the players not to underestimate enemies based on size alone, and also about the value of teamwork. Goblins make use of basic guerilla warfare, making hit-and-run attacks before ducking back out of sight, while kobolds utilize their strength in numbers through their Pack Tactics trait.

So, we want enemies that require smarts to make the most of their abilities, be that stealth or sheer numbers. We want them human-esque, but suitably monstrous. We want evil, and we want it lurking in an underground warren, the typical dungeon setting.

Lets talk about grimlocks.

What the hell is a grimlock? you might ask. You’d be right to. I’ve never used them. I’ve never seen them used. I’ve never even heard of an actual player encountering one.

Well, the concept of the grimlock is that they’re the evolutionary descendants of underground-dwelling peoples. They hunt by smell and hearing, as they have no eyes. They’re devolved, savage creatures, but they’re smart enough in their primitive mindsets to set up traps and snares, as well as crafting simple tools and weapons. And they’re not picky about what they eat…

This might all sound very familiar to fans of the science fiction genre. They’re effectively clones of the Morlocks from The Time Machine, if you’ve read the book (or seen the movies). Other Morlock clones throughout scifi include the mutants from Pandorum and the ghilliam from Warhammer 40,000, or any other flavor of “devolved underground nocturnal humanoid”.

Grimlocks are ambush predators. Their pebbly grey skin gives them advantage to stealth in rocky terrain – such as the underground lairs where the vast majority of dungeons are set. Their weakness, Blind Senses, means that they can’t “see” if they’re deafened or cannot smell, meaning that cantrips like Prestidigitation-analogues, Minor Illusion, and Thunderclap will all have a lot of utility. This has the added benefit of teaching players to use their abilities in creative ways, and to size up their foes for potential weaknesses that can be exploited. If you want to take this even further, you can make your grimlocks vulnerable to Radiant Damage. Telegraph this to the players by putting a hole in the dungeon’s roof, letting sunlight from above come in. A charred grimlock corpse lying on the edge of the spotlight will say all you need.

If you want to spice up a grimlock encounter with some more variety, you can give them some domesticated beasts such as giant lizards or giant spiders to use as steeds or riding beasts. Grimlocks can use rust monsters as excavators and guard dogs alike – their iron scents allow them to seek out mineral-rich caverns to feast on, and then the grimlocks move into the hollow left behind. The rust monster can also use its sense for metal to warn if surface dwellers are near (grimlocks craft their weapons from organic materials such as wood, bone and leather, so rust monsters pose little issue to them). Grimlock lairs will also be set up with conventional traps such as tripwires, deadfall pits, and breakaway urns containing swarms of insects, along with cultivated clusters of mushrooms such as shriekers and violet fungi.

Grimlocks have no naturally occurring spellcasters, so any magic-users will be those who have gotten ahold of magic items looted from dead adventurers. These grimlocks are also likely to act as the chieftain of the tribe they lead. They won’t be able to use any items that require attunement, and the rust monsters will have eaten anything metal. Unlike with most monsters, glitter or shine holds no interest to the blind grimlocks – they prefer things with interesting textures, smells or sounds, such as Bags of Tricks, Dust of Sneezing and Choking, Eversmoking Bottles, nonmetallic Figurines of Wondrous Power, Oil of Slipperiness, Pipes of Haunting, and any manner of Potions.

Next week, we look at the staple of the wilderness encounter – the wolf.

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Monster of the Month: No More Bandits

The bandit in D&D is a strange creature. Medieval bandits were bullies who wanted money, so they hid out by the roads of trade routes or pilgrimages and then threatened to whack people with big sticks. The D&D bandit, however, is wealthy enough to afford leather armor, a scimitar, and a crossbow with ammunition, yet is somehow still poor enough to need to turn to a life of crime. What’s more, these bandits aren’t content to simply ambush unarmed civilians and bully them for money – for some reason they love to pick fights with heavily armed and armored Player Characters (presumably for the greater rewards of their weapons, armor and gold).

So in D&D, what narrative role does the not-so-humble bandit fill? Even if the bandit makes no sense in-universe, a bandit company provides a humanoid threat for early-level adventurers, which means they’re more relatable than orcs and goblins. Easily understandable goals – such as greed for material goods – drive the bandits.

More importantly, bandits are geographical creatures. Bandits set up their lairs near abandoned human structures, preferably on the edges of the wilderness where lawbringers are found in fewer quantities. Abandoned mills, dilapidated farms, as well as mines and caves all have the little nooks and crannies that bandits love for stashing loot and gear, especially if they’re near a road where there’s high civilian traffic. Once the bandits have set themselves up in position, they won’t go on the move until someone gets sent to clear them out – *cough cough like the Player Characters*.

They’re greedy, territorial thugs that like violence and loot, taking sick thrills from preying on the weak. The NPC Bandit is to the PC Murderhobo.

You know who else are greedy, territorial assholes who like to dunk on the defenseless? Faeries.

Everyone has this image of fairies in their head. It’s Tinkerbell. Faeries are supposed to be small, sweet, and kind-hearted. But even in Peter Pan, Tinkerbell was a jealous prankster. In most traditional folklore, faeries are nasty tricksters at their best, and downright vicious antagonists at their worst. They’ll tie your hair to your bed frame, steal your money straight out of your pocket, kill your pets, magically enchant you to dance until your feet break, and kidnap your babies to raise as their own. If you’re lucky, they’ll leave a changeling behind which looks like the child they abducted, which will stick around until it hits puberty, at which point it scurries off into the woods to return to its faerie kin.

What’s more, like bandits, they’re aggressively territorial. Don’t go into a faerie wood. Don’t.

So, when we stop and think about it, bandits and faeries fulfill very similar archetypes. However, fey have more magical abilities, which forces the players to use their own magical abilities to counter them. This makes fey more interesting tactically than bandits.

Blink dogs are effectively the faerie equivalent of a mastiff, serving as hunting dogs and trackers. However, blink dogs can use their teleport ability to disappear after attacking in melee, re-appearing behind cover to protect themselves from ranged attacks before their prey has the chance to counter-attack.

Satyrs serve as your mainline bandit analogues, armed with bows and swords, and you can use them the same way you’d use normal bandits. Sprites can also be used to backup your Satyrs and fill the gap of less deadly but still dangerous enemies.  Sprites don’t deal much damage on their own, so they use their poisoned arrows to debuff characters, making the job of fighting easier for the rest of their team. Sprites will target low-AC characters who look physically frail, such as wizards and sorcerers, to maximize the chances of their arrows landing and poisoning their targets.

A trio of a Satyr, a sprite, and a blink dog will make a good challenge for a second-level adventuring party. If your party is higher-level, you can add more enemies or throw in a dryad as the group’s leader. The dryad will use her tree stride ability to keep at a thirty-foot distance from the main body of the party, casting entangle on as many players as she can to slow them down and lock them in place for ranged attacks from the satyrs and sprites. Once that’s done, she attempts to charm whoever looks the weakest-willed, targeting obvious brutes like fighters and barbarians first. 

Instead of just sending the players to clear out another bandit encampment, pitting them against fey can provide a very different type of adventure than players might be used to. Encounters with small groups of fey can foreshadow the presence of a planar gate to the feywild, possibly taking the form of a secret pools, a wild groves of shifting mists, or a circle of mushrooms and standing stones. How the players choose to proceed with this knowledge will lead to new narrative and world-building options for your story.

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What do you love about RPGs?

Tabletop RPGs are a such a unique type of game because there’s so many distinct mechanics to enjoy. Rulebooks offer everything from character building and combat rules, to a framework for players to fully immerse themselves in their character and create collaborative stories. Every TTRPG player comes to the table for different reasons, and consciously thinking about what parts of RPGs you and your friends like the most can help you focus your gameplay and pick a rulebook that’s right for you. Some players are all in it for the combat, while others love to roleplay and solve mysteries. From my experience, players typically fall into six archetypes which your group can consider when deciding on what you like most about RPGs. When you’re reading through each type, think about which reasons you love RPGs and leave a comment!

The “Looter Shooter”

Some players love tabletop RPGs for the same reason they love a video-game like Skyrim. The “Looter Shooter” loves an RPG’s cycle of action-packed combat and awesome loot (that can be used for future combat). They often spend less time concerned with the details of their character’s personality or background, and prefer to express the uniqueness of their character through the weapons they wield and the fighting style they employ.

Recommended RPGs: Dungeons and Dragons (all editions), Black Crusade

The “Builder”

Though some players like loot and action, others prefer to focus on designing the perfect character. Some RPGs allow you to make exactly the character you want by offering lots of powers, skills, and classes to mix and match. Some players love character building to create the most powerful fighters possible, while others enjoy complex character building systems because it lets them create a very specific character they want to act out. 

Recommended RPGs: Shadowrun, Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 edition

The “Problem Solver”

Many adventures revolve around complex problems or intricate puzzles. How can the party break into a museum without getting caught, or slay a dragon with impenetrable scales? The problem solver loves being the guy with the perfect solution. They enjoy spending time coordinating team movements, searching for valuable information, and doing other side quests to set up a master plan to tackle even the most complex of puzzles. 

Recommended RPGs: Shadowrun, Dark Heresy

The “Actor”

Being able to walk and talk as an entirely new person is a core experience of RPGs. The Actor loves getting into character, and takes actions entirely based on what they think their character would do, even when those actions may hurt the party’s chances of winning a fight or gaining more loot.

Recommended RPGs: FATE system, Fiasco, The Burning Wheel

The “Storyteller”

While the actor cares about making sure he represents the personality of his singe character well, the storyteller wants to make sure his character fits well into a larger story, and wants to make decisions that he thinks will benefit the drama, suspense, and surprise everyone at the table feels. These players will often want to coordinate the backstory of their character with other characters in the party and the lore of the world the game master has created.

Recommended RPGs: FATE system, Savage Worlds

The “Goofball”

At the end of the day, playing RPGs is about having fun. The Goofball loves RPGs as a way of creating ridiculous characters and situations that everyone can laugh along with. They often pick the craziest combination of classes and races when making their characters, and usually give their character a backstory and personality anywhere from comical to outright absurd. The goofball is having the most fun when his character can be a catalyst for laughter at the table.

Recommended RPGs: Demon Hunters: A Comedy of Terrors, Monster of the Week, Kobolds Ate My Baby, Paranoia

So what kind of player are you? What kind of players do you think are most common in your RPG group? Once you know what your group likes most about Tabletop RPGs you can tailor your plots to focus on what everyone is interested in, pick out a rulebook and setting that lets your player characters thrive, and spend more time at the table focusing on what you love most!

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Rolling with Randomness: GMing on the Fly

It’s no secret that TTRPGs can quickly go off the rails. While player synergy can be a valuable tool for any GM to breathe life and excitement in the campaign, it also has the potential to make all of your best plans for the campaign go completely awry. 

Something as simple as random exposition from an NPC or an interesting setting can lead players onto an entirely different path and for the GM to think on their feet to account for this shift in direction. In line with our own blog’s name, one of our old campaigns went entirely off the rails when our party decided to steal a ship, abandon the plot, and sail the high seas as pirates after we botched the GM’s planned heist and recreated our own fantasy Boston Massacre. 

While between sessions it’s not too hard to find a way to get things back on track, the initial adventure where a GM’s planned adventure goes awry can be quite intimidating for GM’s who aren’t used to improvising. When GMing on the fly, a lot of your time will be put into creating the narrative for the adventure to follow along with whatever crazy plans your players may have spontaneously created. A sudden change in the adventure can often result in a sudden change in NPCs and Setting. Here are some tools to help you develop these adventure aspects on the fly should you find your planned adventure unraveling. 

NPCs:
NPCs are a critical aspect of every campaign. Not only do add core substance to your world, but they act as a direct line for GMs to talk to players and help move the story along. Thinking of interesting NPCs can be tricky when your previously planned adventure doesn’t apply. Personality, quirks, and personal details are critical to any good NPC. If an NPC is boring or underdeveloped, players will have a hard time interacting with them, but creating interesting NPCs can take time and has the potential to grind your adventure to a halt as you flesh out your character. Having a prepared sheet of details for generating NPCs can help you not have to think of NPCs on the fly and let you focus on the adventure. Whether you want to roll on the table or pick from your table, this resource gives you a base outline for an NPC to work off and help you flesh out good NPCs. 

While your tables can be as detailed or simple as you want, this is an example of a table to provide the groundwork to build detailed NPCs on the fly.

Personality 

PositivePositiveNegativeNegative
ConfidentObservantDeceitfulGreedy
OptimisticEmpatheticShort TemperedVulgar
HumbleExtrovertedNervousSuperstitious
CasualFolksyDelusionalCallous
DiscreetAgreeableSuspiciousPompous

Details/Quirks

PhysicalSocialPersonalMiscellaneous
Tattooed/PiercingsWild GesturesDistinct SmellPet Companion
Maimed/DisabledThick AccentPhobiaAlways Working
ScarredGets off TopicReligiousUnique Clothing/Gear
DrunkGossips on the StreetDistinct HabitHoard of Junk
Sick Broken VocabularyForeignerPosse/Bodyguards

Settings:
Going back to the previously mentioned pirate adventure, our devolution into privateers of the high seas forced our GM to recreate entire islands and settings as we decided to hoard our cursed loot and just murder the NPC that was supposed to lead us to the black kingom. 

Depending on what happens to your adventure, the change in setting can range from small tweeks, such as creating a new fort or wilderness as the players go off on a spontaneous side quest, to large scale changes such as abandoning and entire town or dungeon. While most of the time you should luck out and only have to create a few minor tweaks to your setting as it is unlikely that your players will make a radical change in scenery, just as with the NPCs, you can use tables and tools to help you develop detailed settings instead of having to spend too much time making them from scratch. While you might have a general idea for the town in terms of narrative progression, actually filling out the town with details beyond the standard shops and inns can take quite a bit of time. Similar situations can also pop up in the creation of your dungeons. Developing dungeon themes, traps, and special rooms can quickly give you a long to-do list to tackle.

 Having pre-established tables for towns and dungeons can quickly breathe life into your setting and help you keep the game moving while shaping a new direction for your adventure.

Towns

FeaturesLocationThemeOrganizations
BazaarRiverside/LakesideShanty TownReligious Sect
Military FortMajor CrossroadMetropolitan CityMercenary Guild
Back AlleysBase of a MountainQuarantined/OutbreakCorrupt Officials
ChapelBuilt Among Ancient RuinsColonyCriminal Gangs
Mine/FarmWartorn/War ZoneResearch BaseSlavers

Dungeons

DangersRoomsFeaturesTheme
Punji PitChapel/AltarMaze/Natural CavesAbandoned Sewers
Acidic PoolsReliquarySecret RoomsAncient Ruins
Rickety BridgeWorkshopPlant OvergrowthSecret Hideout
Explosive MaterialsBarracksAncient MuralsDeserted Monastery
Arrow TrapsPrison/Torture ChamberAbandoned CampBandit Compound

Hopefully in your GM career you won’t encounter too many instances of improvised adventures and be able to keep things on track while still keeping your players happy and encouraging them to make their own choices. While there are websites that offer whole lists of descriptions and potential details, pouring over the thousands of results to find something you like can take just as long as creating the content from scratch. So I encourage you to create your own tables, that way you have a manageable list of results you know you’ll enjoy and can quickly find when you need. 

If you do find yourself in a situation where you have to improvise as a GM, having tables and a general scaffolding for NPCs and Settings can help you save time when GMing on the fly and still create enjoyable and detailed adventures. 

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Monster of the Month: No More Skeletons

The spooky month of October is upon us, and to celebrate I’ve begun writing a series of articles focusing on my favorite part of Dungeons & Dragons – the monsters.

Every person who has ever played a campaign of D&D started, at some point, at Level 1. During their time as a Level 1 character, they fought all manner of flavorful fiends such as bandits, goblins, kobolds, orcs, skeletons, and, for whatever reason, packs of wolves.

Always wolves.

The problem is, pretty much every campaign that starts at Level 1 features these monsters. It’s bizarre. It’s like it’s coded into GMs on a genetic level to default to these creatures – and I’m including myself here. If you’re a GM reading this and you’re about to run a campaign for first-level adventurers, I’m willing to bet you’ve featured some of these monsters in your upcoming encounters.

Your players, if they’ve played D&D before, are sick of them. And that’s a problem, given that D&D is, at its core, a game about fighting monsters.

Let’s take a look at some alternatives you can use – specifically, by figuring out exactly what mechanical and narrative role these common monsters fill, and finding stylistically distinct alternatives to replace them with. We’re also going to look at how to tactically and narratively use these monsters. That way, your players will actually remember the first three levels of your campaign, as opposed to a blur of dead goblins and driftglobes.

Seeing as we are in the month of Halloween, when the veil between the living and the dead draws thin, what better monster to start this series with than the humble skeleton?

Skeletons are great. They’re so goofy. They always seem to be grinning and they rattle like xylophones. So it hurts me a lot to say this, but it’s time for skeletons to go.

Mechanically, there’s not much going on with skeletons. They’ve got swords for melee and bows for range, so we’re not worried about something too spicy in terms of tactical gameplay.

 In that case, what’s the narrative purpose of a skeleton? They’re meant to be scary – they’re a horror-dungeon enemy. What’s more, they’re not a naturally occurring phenomenon. The presence of skeletons is a sign that something is deeply wrong with the laws of nature. The dead have risen. That which was buried has clawed itself free from the earth. A group of skeletons is basically a giant flashing neon sign saying NECROMANCER HERE.

They’re also a reminder of our own mortality. There’s a skeleton in all of us.

These traits also apply to zombies, but without any of the charm. A skeleton smiles at you and is smart enough to use actual weapons. Zombies just sort of…lurch. They’re boring, tactically – their only interesting traits is that they take a long time to kill, and readers of my Initiative articles will know my opinion on things that take too long.

So in order to meaningfully replace skeletons, we want a monster that feels like an unnatural mirror of ourselves, something that exists in a supernatural setting, and something that could not have appeared without the intervention of someone up to no good.

Have you ever actually looked at the artwork for the lemure in the 5th edition Monster Manual? I mean really, really looked at it. It’s horrifying. The way those doughy lips peel back from the distended gums, and those beady, mad-looking eyes…

The humble, Challenge-Rating-Zero lemure is, when you think about it, a terrifying thing. It essentially resembles a mound of melting wax with a distorted, tortured human face. Lemures are the souls of evildoers consigned to Hell, doomed to perpetually reform to serve as playthings for their demonic torturers. They’re a warning for adventurers as to the fate that awaits them should they indulge their greed and bloodlust too far. 

Lemures occupy the lowest rank on the infernal totem pole – which makes them perfect summons for an amateur diabolist. Remember how we pointed out that skeletons are a sure sign of a necromancer in the area? Lemures serve the same function for evil cultists.

Only, lemures are pretty boring, mechanically speaking. All they can do is punch, which is even less than what a skeleton can do. But while the lemure can cover the existential horror of our encounter, we can use other lesser demons, such as the dretch, for further tactical combat purposes.

Dretches and lemures work quite well together. Dretches can emit a poisonous green smoke which obscures the area near them – lemures, having Devil’s Sight, are presumably unaffected by this, and can’t be poisoned. Add some cultists, and a cult fanatic or a priest to lead them, and you’ve created a horror dungeon reminiscent of the Satanic Panic.

Fanatics and priests also allow you access to magic for your villains to help mechanically spice up an encounter. These leaders might have some low-level magic items thematically appropriate to their cult to further spice up combat and give them a unique vibe (I’m personally a big fan of Dark Shard Amulets, Dread Helms, and Staffs of the Adder). You should also feel free to change up the cult leader’s spell list to more closely represent their cult’s patrons, be they evil gods or powerful fiends. These spellcasters are necessary to give the encounter some ranged combat options.

The first thing to remember is that a cult summoning lemures and dretches is working low on the food chain. They’re not yet ready to actually fight anything, or they’d be summoning more powerful demonic lackeys – they’re more focused on practice-makes-perfect for the time being. Low-level cultists mastering their own abilities out also acts as a nice mirror of your own party of Level 1 characters discovering their new features during their adventures. The first priority for a low-level cult that the adventurers have bungled will be to flee, leaving their minions behind to slow down their pursuers. 

The cult probably keeps their bound demons stationed near the doors of the cultists’ lair to bog down incoming attackers, but they stay deep enough inside the lair so that there’s no risk of them being accidentally discovered, especially if the cultists are using a legitimate establishment as a front. Lemures engage first, attacking the front line of adventurers to stop them from making further progress into the lair. Dretches move into midrange, popping their clouds to obscure the area between the cultists and the players in order to cover the cultists’ retreats, and then move in to support the lemures in melee. Once the clawed dretches are tying up any dedicated melee fighters, the lemures can disengage and prioritize trying to trap ranged combatants in melee.

The cultists will beeline for the nearest exit, using their actions to Dash. The Cult Fanatic, if one is present, can open up by casting Shield of Faith on himself as a Bonus Action, and then casting Hold person on the frontmost adventurer to stymie them from pursuing. He will then move as far away as he can and will spend subsequent rounds Dashing until he’s escaped with the rest of the cultists. This presents players with a more interesting fight as they must weigh the options of chasing after the fleeing cultists, or supporting the rest of their trapped party.

Hopefully you’ll take this advice and use it as a starting point to building your own unique, memorable encounters. Next month, we examine another generic baddie: the bandit.

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Player’s Perspective: Saying No

In one of my first campaigns, set in a grim-dark science fiction setting, I effectively became a god.  My character was statistically incapable of failing any charisma checks, and he galavanted across space, breaking lore and logic with a silver tongue that allowed him to do anything, say anything, and get away with anything.

While some of you may be shaking your heads and muttering to yourself about the dangers of homebrew, everything I did came directly from the rulebook.  Additionally, while this was a different system than D&D, D&D is definitely not immune to this form of power creep. As splat books are published and new magic items and feats are produced, potential for power leveling drastically increases.  Look no further than Pun-Pun, a level 1 kobold demi-god with infinite power.  While reaching divinity at Level 1 requires fudging the rules in a homebrew way, you can also reach this level of power at level 14 using Polymorph, which is absolutely street legal.  Effectively, Pun-Pun demonstrates that no systems are safe. Given the near constant publication of splat books, power creep will happen, and the rules won’t save you.

Here’s an important thing to understand about this level of power creep.  Even when my player character was effectively a god, I was not having fun.  In many ways, TTRPGs rely on how a player can do almost anything, but they need to work for it. For many players, if you take away the difficulty, you take away the fun.

Solving the problem

Therefore, talk to your players.  Establish what each of them are interested in and enjoy.  Once you establish a style of play that all of your players will enjoy, stick to it.  Don’t allow a player to stray from this golden path. In order to keep everyone having fun, learn to say no.

If most of your players like working slowly towards their goal, and one player tries to rules lawyer their way into being a deity, say no.  Invoke the rule of fun (GM has last say on everything), and strike down the power creep. Protect the fun of the game.

Many of my friends who GM feel uncomfortable saying no because they don’t like disappointing players or confrontation.  They feel like by turning down a single player’s request, they’re decreasing the amount of fun that player is having in the game. This can be especially hard when you’re playing with friends. However, remember that a single person’s fun does not determine whether or not a campaign is an enjoyable experience.  A campaign is fun when every single player is invested and engaged (this includes you, the GM). When these situations come up, it’s important to protect the fun for other players; say no.

Obviously this is easier said than done; saying no can still be difficult.  There are two major risks: players feel like you’re playing favorites, and players will feel like they’ve wasted their time. I’ve found that I’ve respected GMs much more when they turn down my ideas when they follow these steps:

For avoiding favorites:

  1. Provide a principle behind your decision (If I gave this magic item to you, it would make you significantly more powerful than the rest of the party. I would need to balance the combat to your power level, and every one else would feel like glass cannons without the gun powder.)
  2. Be consistent.  Once you’ve said no once based on a principle, write that principle down.  Whenever another player comes to you with an idea or attempts something within the campaign, check the principles you’ve used for rulings so far.  Make your decisions based on what you’ve said before.
  3. If you do happen to allow something through that feels closely related to a prior “No”, discuss that decision with the player you previously turned down. Clarify why this “Yes” differed from your past “No.”  It could be based on timing in the campaign, a less drastic increase in power, or something else. If you feel as if you can’t easily explain the difference between the “Yes” and “No” to this player, reconsider your decision.  Are they that different? Should you be allowing this new behavior?

To avoid the feeling of wasted time:

  1. When you notice a player working towards something, ask them what exactly their goal is.  If their goal feels like something you would not want them to obtain, have that conversation with them right away.  The earlier, the better! This will stop them from investing playtime into a goal you would have to say no to.
  2. Keep up to date with the status and ambitions of your players’ characters, Often times a player can decide to switch what they want in between sessions. Consistently keeping up to date with your player’s goals will let you stay out in front of any attempted power creep.
  3. If you are not able to catch an endeavor for an overpowered item or feature ahead of time, explain to your player why you are saying no.  Then, depending on the amount of time they put into it, try to arrange a compromise. While they may not be able to have the sentient sword with +10 damage they wanted, maybe they would still be happy with a +1 magic sword with a backstory that you can incorporate into the main campaign.  

There are more intricacies in saying no, but these two areas are the major ones that I’ve encountered as a player.  Whenever my GM has said no and handled the situation well, I’ve gained respect for them. Saying no may be hard (after all, it’s confrontation, and few people like confrontation), but it’s an important tool in a GM’s toolkit when it comes to making sure everyone is having a fun time.

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Rulings Without Rule books: How to Speed Up Your Adventures

Running smooth, action packed RPG adventures with as few interruptions as possible makes the game more immersive and enjoyable. One common interruption to adventures i’ve seen is stopping the game to look up rules. It may seem like a good use of time: using the rules as they are written makes sense, and some players know the rulebook well enough to jump right to the rules they’re looking for quickly. However, even a 30 second break (which is pretty quick when searching through a 200-page rulebook) can destroy awesome moments in your adventure. Dealing a fatal blow to the final boss is a bit harder to enjoy when half of it was spent looking up what bonuses an attacker on higher ground gets. 

The solution is simple: come up with your own rule for the situation, stick to it for the rest of the adventure, then look up the real rule up after the game. In order to make the ruling quick and decisive, I recommend giving the game master final say on the temporary house rule, but players should be able to suggest criticism or tweaks on the ruling.

Though this method means you’ll be ignoring the rules as written in some cases, surprisingly little is lost. RPG rules only exist to help you tell a story that makes sense within its setting. Your snap house rulings will likely be close enough to the intent of the real rules. Even if your rules differ, quick houserulings cut out interruptions from looking up rules and usually won’t have any negative impact on the story. If the party feels a rule is critical to the outcome of the adventure, then it may be worth looking it up.

There’s one last trick to help you get the best of both worlds: have a cheat sheet ready. Cheat sheets can be a great resource for finding the answers to rule questions very quickly. Have one ready for yourself (printed, or open in a tab if you’re going digital), and even give one out to each other players so everyone can quickly reference the rules. 

All cheat sheets should contain the hardest to remember, frequently used rules. If many players are new to the game, handing out a cheat sheet with basic information (such as possible actions, how to attack, and status effects) could be a great way to help everyone find the rules they need much faster. 

Even experienced players benefit greatly from creating personalized cheat sheets. Having a printed reference of your class’s abilities and spells removes any ambiguity as they work in the middle of a fight. When I run D&D as a Game Master, I create a small cheat sheet of monster stats, the spells they can cast, and a list of the effects of the obstacles I’ve created. I also add a short list of important plot points and NPCs to help keep track of the story.

Whether your a player or game master, new or experienced, making cheat sheets and leaving the rule book out of your adventures means more role playing, less page-flipping.

P.S: Here’s an example of a great beginner cheat sheet for 5th edition D&D from the Dungeon Masters Guild: http://i.imgur.com/0cEuH7P.png
It has a list of all those hard-to-remember effects and actions, and manages to fit it all on one page. Checks all the marks in my book!

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The Hero’s Journey: A Mid-Length Campaign Structure

 In the 1950s, Joseph Campbell presented the Hero’s Journey in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This story structure occurs constantly in hundreds of our most famous myths, stories, and novels, and is taught in many a writing class.  More importantly, you can use the Hero’s Journey to create a campaign of 5-10 sessions that pushes and fulfills your players.

Campbell  breaks the Hero’s Journey into several major parts: The Ordinary World, The Call To Adventure, Crossing the First Threshold, Challenges, Approach to the Inmost Cave, The Ordeal, The Reward, and finally, The Escape.  There are two optional parts of the Hero’s Journey (Refusal of the Call and Meeting the Mentor) that I will skip over for now (I don’t think they work as well for a campaign), but feel free to look them up in your own time.

The Ordinary World:  At the start of your first session, set the scene.  Build a world around your players before that fateful moment when they’re given their quest.  Give your players friends, family, and innocent civilians to care about. Show them people, places, and ideas that they will want to defend from danger.  Give them something, and then threaten to take it away.

The Call to Adventure:  A great example of the call to adventure is in the classic Star Wars line “Help us Obi-wan Kinobi, you’re our only hope.”  In D&D, the call could be a wizard sitting in the corner of the bar telling old tales of approaching doom or the summons of the King for a new adventure.  Whatever the adventure is, tie it back into the world you built in the initial setting of the scene. Try to have your player’s characters have a personal stake in the outcome.

Crossing the First Threshold:  The heroes have accepted the challenge and struck out into the wild; now they experience their first danger.  The first threshold represents the difference between the ordinary world, where things are safe and calm, and the new, dangerous world.  This can be your player’s first combat or the first time they experience the big bad. Something should be on the line, but they should have a relatively high chance of success.  The threat is experienced by the players first hand, solidifying the dangers of which the Call to Adventure warned.  

Once the threshold is passed, there is no going back.  If you’re so inclined, you can even add a concrete game mechanic to represent this.  In one campaign I played, the GM would have disasters occur after a certain number of sessions.  This made our time precious, and we refused to waste time.

I recommend that the Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, and Crossing the First Threshold happen in the first session.

Challenges:  After the first experience of danger, the heroes are exposed to increasing threats and more strenuous challenges.  This is the bulk of the campaign. Characters slay enemies, conquer puzzles, and befriend allies. A campaign can consist of only combat encounters and be enjoyable, but I’ve had the most fun in campaigns where a variety of challenges pushed my character to grow.  Try to use your challenges to mature your characters in ways other than their XP.  

For example, in one campaign, our party included a morally stalwart Lawful Good Paladin.  He refused to do any wrong. Artfully, the GM locked us in a challenge where paladin could use his god’s power to lift a curse from a family but only if he killed the non-cursed, innocent father.  If he felled the man, the father’s family lived; if he refused to draw his sword, the father would watch his wife and three children die. The Paladin drew blood, and for the rest of the campaign, they changed from a one dimensional Goody Two Shoes into a conflicted man trying to do his best by the world. 

Challenges should take up anywhere between 2-4 sessions.

Approaching the Inmost Cave:   After a series of challenges, the heroes finally arrive at the source of the threat.  Think Strahd’s Castle, the Death Star, or Mount Doom. The air should feel filled with magic and danger.  Create a high-stakes atmosphere by punishing mistakes harshly The more dangerous and challenging you make this final stage, the more rewarding the victory will feel to the heroes.  

Some of you familiar with the hero’s journey might ask: Wait, if we make the inmost cave challenging, doesn’t that mean that the heroes might lose?  Don’t the hero’s always win?  

This is not the case.  Many myths end with the hero’s failure.  Though triumphant in his quest, Theseus failed to put up the white sails that signaled his conquest over the Minotaur.  Believing his son dead, Theseus’s father commited suicide, throwing himself off of the cliffs in front of Theseus’s own eyes.  An enjoyable story makes us feel something. This feeling doesn’t have to be triumph; it can be sorrow.

The inmost cave can take up to 1-2 sessions.

The Ordeal:  The climax.  In this scene, the heroes confront either a great evil or a trial of will that pushes them to finally master their skills.  Think of any D&D fight against the Big Bad Evil Guy, Buddha’s test at the tree before he reached nirvana, or Luke Skywalker facing off against Vader and Palpatine.  A mistake could spell more than death; a mistake could spell the end of the ordinary world as the heroes know it. Reference and incorporate challenges and characters from the entire campaign.  Make it hard for your heroes to overcome the final ordeal, and try to make them pull from lessons they learned along the campaign in order to overcome this challenge.

The Reward:  With the ordeal overcome, the heroes find their reward.  This can be a moment of peace after months of strife, a legendary weapon that will save their world, or new knowledge that pushes them further.  The reward does not need to be just loot, It can be a revelation that answers a campaign-long mystery or the revenge the heroes and their allies have been seeking since the start of the adventure.  It should be something that you know your players will appreciate, and it should be worth the sessions of effort they’ve spent to reach this goal.  

The Escape: The ordeal overcome, the heroes must now flee.  A good example of an escape I saw recently came from IT Chapter Two.  (Spoilers!!)  After defeating Pennywise, the heroes of IT notice the cave crumbling around them.  They are forced to flee for their lives. Use this second climax as an opportunity for your heroes to make use of the new knowledge, skills, or loot they gained from overcoming the ordeal.  

The ordeal, the reward, and the escape should all take up 1 session, with most of the time being spent on the ordeal.  This can be a very long session, and I’d recommend finding time on a weekend.  

The Hero’s journey is too complex for me to properly describe in a single article.  Campbell himself dedicated hundreds of pages to it. However, I hope this outline can work as a good start to building a 5-10 session campaign that is focused on character growth and hard earned triumph.

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Streamlining Your Skill Checks


Skill checks – love them or hate them, they form the core mechanics of every roleplaying game, but too many checks or a poorly timed failure can grind even the best adventures to a halt. As a GM, if you’ve ever found your game stalling as players rethink an entire plan due to a failed acrobatics check, or have had your NPCs battered with charm roll after charm roll from the entire party, here are a few tips for you.

Character Backgrounds:

Even though games like Dungeons & Dragons and Dark Heresy have skill checks for nearly every possible action, this doesn’t mean they always need to be used. Just as we aren’t always consciously aware of all our actions, GMs should allow characters to subconsciously perform certain actions without having to roll a skill check. 

For example, one of my party’s characters was a druid whose entire backstory revolved around growing up in the forests after gnolls slaughtered her village. As the dedicated healer of the group, the druid often spent many nights on the road or in the woods scavenging for herbs to craft healing potions. This was a routine she performed every adventure, so instead of having to waste minutes having her roll every time, I instead ruled that, thanks to her bushcraft experience, she’d always be able to forage some healing herbs unless she was in an unfamiliar landscape such as a desert – or if she specifically stated that she was scavenging for a large amount of herbs.

When a skill check comes about, keep in mind three things to determine whether or not you really need to roll the check: 

1. Is the check critical to a situation?

2. Does the check apply to the character’s core background?

3. Is the skill something they have to consciously think of when they perform it?

Not only does this method of cutting out certain checks streamline your game by fast-tracking players’ most common routines, but it will also encourage your players to create more in-depth backstories and richer characters in order to reap in-game benefits while you as a GM now have more to work with to cater your world to the characters. 

Player Knowledge vs Character Knowledge: 

One of the most difficult things for any GM is having their party separate player knowledge from character knowledge. A common situation I’ve run into for example is when a character fails to read a map, other players will suddenly not trust the navigator and try to read it themselves – even though the other character’s might not have any idea that their party member read it wrong. 

Another common occurrence is the glorious “insight check,” where even a hint of another party member doing something suspicious prompts a hail of sudden insight checks from the rest of the party, despite them having no reason to suspect anything is the issue. These “meta” checks can seriously slow down a game and can often be frustrating for both GMs and players alike. 

While some parties are able to keep player knowledge and character knowledge separate when it comes to these skill checks, not every GM is lucky enough to run games for such players. For the rest of us, set some basic rules when it comes to certain skill checks. 

For example, when deciphering information such as reading a map or runes, all characters need to declare ahead of time if they are going to try to decipher the information. Once the dice are rolled, pass or fail, what’s done is done. Obviously in the case of a critical failure, where it’s pretty obvious the character has no idea what they’re looking at, other characters can take the map from befuddled navigator. Otherwise, this rule requires that the rest of the party put faith in their fellow party members, even if the players know otherwise.

Charisma checks are another frequent issue, where players might try to roll intimidation and charm checks on the same NPC after their other party members failed. To avoid this behavior, increase the difficulty of the check after each successive attempt, to represent these NPCs becoming increasingly frustrated with feigned affection or more resistant to failed questioning. By setting up specific rules for what the consequences of each type of skill check would be, GMs can reduce the amount of “meta” roles and keep the game moving. 

Mitigated Success:

Has a player in your party ever come up with meticulous plan, only for their plan to blow up in their face at the cost of a failed skill check? A failed check can really jam up a game and cause your session to grind to a halt as players stall to rethink a previously well thought out plan. While many games such as D&D, Dark Heresy, or Iron Kingdoms have pass-or-fail skill checks, there are a few systems out there such as FATE or Monster of the Week, which implement a failing-forward system. 

A failing-forward system is one where, instead of a failed skill check resulting in the character being unable to complete their attempted action, the GM can offer a mixed success, where the character can complete their action – but at a cost. Let’s say a rogue is trying to sneak over a wall but fails his acrobatics check. In a failing-forward system, instead of the rogue being simply unable to climb the wall, the GM can instead create a scenario where the rogue scales the wall but injures himself tumbling down the other side, or loses his climbing rope and thereby compromises his escape plan. While the rogue would have to account for this hiccup, the whole plan to sneak over the wall is still primarily intact. 

While mixed successes don’t need to be implemented for simple skill check rolls, the GM should be encouraged to use this strategy when there’s a risk that a failed check could effectively stop the game or lead to a TPK from being rumbled. It’s one thing if players make bad choices that get them into trouble – it’s another if they fall victim to bad luck despite doing everything else right. 

Reserving the standard “pass or fail” system of skill checks to only critical and relevant moments not only keeps your game moving smoothly, but also gives more weight to the skill checks themselves. Momentum and player engagement is crucial to running any RPG, and with these strategies, you can avoid the rest of your party zoning out or halting the game, and leave more time for roleplay and the fun that RPGs have to offer. 

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Another Chat About Initiative

Two weeks ago, I talked about why players shouldn’t roll for Initiative – because it takes time. I explained a system by which GMs could prepare the Initiative orders for each of their fights, Players Characters and Monsters alike, ahead of time. But now, let’s talk about the other half of the combat – the NPCs – in a bit more detail. It takes two to tango, after all. Which brings us to another problem with Dice-Based Initiative, something I like to call Alpha Striking when the players do it, or Enemy Bloat when NPCs do it.

Say all the players roll higher in the Initiative order than the Big Bad. Even if the Big Bad has goons present, the Player Characters will likely focus all their efforts on melting that one guy before he gets a chance to use any of the cool spells or weapons in his arsenal. If the players have their way, he’ll probably die before he gets to do anything. That’s Alpha Striking.

Enemy Bloat is when you end up with a huge chunk of enemies going at once, in between two players. This is even worse than Alpha Striking because it increases the time between Player Characters acting, which – as we’ve established – means players will get bored. Generally speaking, I’ve found that you never want more than two enemies going between a pair of Player Characters.

Here’s how you avoid this. When you’re preparing the initiative scores for a session, spread the NPCs out evenly between the Player Characters, frontloading if you have more enemy NPCs than Player Characters. If you have multiple enemies with the same Initiative score, put the more powerful ones first so that they survive long enough to actually do something cool.

All together, you’ve now ensured you always have a “Player Goes, Enemy Goes” dynamic, which keeps players invested and stops anyone – Player Characters and Monsters alike – from ganging up all at once and preemptively nuking someone before they get a chance to act.

For the sake of argument, let’s take our example party from last time – Bob, Jim, and Keith – and pretend they heard that their GM is implementing some new, dice-less Initiative system. They’ve broken into their GM’s lair to try and sniff out any clues as to what the new system will entail. However, their GM is canny and not to be trifled with, and he’s booby-trapped his lair with seemingly innocuous objects such as a Broom of Animated Attack and a Rug of Smothering. The GM himself is also present, along with his pet dog, a Mastiff. We will count the GM as an Archmage, a very powerful magician.

Yes, I’m aware the balance of these enemies is absurdly lopsided, but I’m structuring this encounter to showcase an Initiative system, not to make a fair fight.

A Broom of Animated Attack has a Dexterity of 17 (+3). A Flying Sword has a Dexterity of 15 (+2). The Archmage, the Mastiff, and the Rug of Smothering all have a Dexterity of 14 (also +2). None of them have any Feats that improve their Initiative score.

So, by that logic, the final initiative order should look like this:

Bob (16)

Broom of Animated Attack (13)

Archmage (12)

Jim (10)

Rug of Smothering (12)

Keith (9)

Mastiff (12)

There you go. By preparing this Initiative Order ahead of time, you’ve saved valuable time which will only compound the more fights you have, and you’ve ensured that everyone’s going to get a chance to act. Hopefully this will prove to be the last time your Player Characters vaporize the Big Bad before he can get in a verbal component edgewise.

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How to Level Up Your DnD Fights

Combat is one of the most fun parts of Dungeons and Dragons. Each class has a slew of awesome abilities to fight with, and movement on the battle-grid opens up lots of opportunities for unique play. Though D&D has a lot to offer to make combat interesting, I still see a lot of fights fall short. I could ramble on all day about ideas to spice up D&D Combat, but to keep things quick and simple I’ve distilled my approach to designing combats into three main points that can be applied to any edition of D&D; Objectives, Positioning, and Cover & Terrain.

Objectives

A fight should never just be about chipping away all the monster’s HP until it hits 0. For every fight, try to come up with an objective characters can discover, then achieve, to win the fight. For example, I had my party fight a giant Roc on a mountain, and there was an ancient mechanical ballista near the start of the fight. Instead of just hacking away at the Roc, some characters searched battlefield for metal bolts, another used engineering to get the ballista working, while the rest of the party kept the Roc distracted. After a few turns the party managed to fix and arm the ballista and fire it at the Roc, damaging it for half its health!  Having a side objective beyond just doing damage gives players options in a fight, and can reward creative problem solving. 

Positioning

A character’s position on the battle grid should matter immensely. There should constantly be reasons for players to move around and react to the tide of battle. D&D mechanics and abilities can encourage players to stay in one spot: melee characters want to get locked with monsters in the front line while ranged characters bombard them from a fixed, safe distance. Ideally, every player should have a reason to move every turn. Making movement pivotal creates a dynamic fight and adds a layer of strategy. 

There are many ways you can increase the importance of positioning, but one of my favorites is to give my biggest monsters giant area attacks that can be dodged by moving out of the way. Instead of making a dragon’s breath attack immediately force players in a cone make a save, have the dragon charge up their breath attack in a certain direction one turn, then cast it at the start of the next turn. This way, players are encouraged to run outside of the cone attack. Of course, once a monster attack can be dodged by movement, it should be much more punishing for players who don’t get out of the way: significantly Increase the save DCs and Damage of these “delayed area” attacks to strongly encourage players to find ways to avoid them. 

But devastating attacks aren’t the only way to get your players moving around the battlefield, we can make fights even better by making good use of….

Cover & Terrain

Though cover is a thoroughly defined mechanic in D&D, I often see it go unused. To make cover matter, you need to make foes that have incredibly powerful ranged attacks, but put them in a battlefield that has bits of good (+4 or 5 AC) cover. Instead of pitting your party against 4 skeletal archers in an empty room, pit them against 4 ballista-wielding giant skeletons that do twice as much damage, and add big pillars characters can use as cover while they advance towards the monsters. 

Now that we’re using cover, let’s start talking about the most important rule when designing your battlefield terrain: create an uneven battlefield. Some parts of the map should be very beneficial to occupy, while others should be very dangerous to stand in. Don’t create a battlefield with an even spread of cover, difficult terrain, and damaging terrain. Put a bunch of great cover on the left side of the battlefield, and place a bunch of pools of acid on the right. Once there are obvious places that your characters want to be and places that your characters want to avoid, combat gains a new dimension. Combat now isn’t just about damaging the enemy: it’s about controlling the battlefield and leveraging it to your advantage. 

In a one-shot I’ve run for various parties, the entire adventure revolved around ascending a great mountain path, where falling off the side was a constant risk in every fight. Giant birds would try to drag adventurers off the edge while soldiers shoved the heroes closer to their doom. Players quickly learned to stay away from the edge when they could, and started using their own abilities to shove and push enemies off the edge.

This example highlights one more valuable lesson: now that all your fights have areas of valuable and dangerous terrain, give all your monsters and players ways to easily push and pull each other. Grappling is the basic way to drag foes around, and can be incredibly powerful once your position matters. D&D 5e has the shove action, which lets players use an attack to push a monster 5 feet, but I typically increase that to 10 feet to allow for greater impact and compensate for the lost attack.

These are the three core mechanics I recommend incorporating into your fight designs! Throughout all of these points, there’s a central theme: design with extremes. Rather than making a monster with a normal attack that does some damage, give it an attack that does massive damage but provides the opportunity to be dodged or countered. Don’t make your monster a little more resistant to fire damage, make it totally immune to all magic damage, but lose that immunity if you pry the glowing gem out of his head. These extremes create memorable moments for you and your players to get the most out of every battle.  

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Why I Stopped Rolling For Initiative

Combat is the place in an RPG where you’re most likely to lose people. If one player spends too much time taking their turn, you’re going to have the rest of your players’ minds wandering, and they’re going to lose interest in what’s happening. Every minute spent on math is a minute not spent on roleplaying – and, for most players, except the rare few who enjoy DPS number-crunching, a dull minute.

Combat needs to be fast, or else players will get bored.

In pretty much all the RPG systems I’ve played, Initiative goes the same way. Characters roll dice and add some modifier from an Ability Score or a Characteristic, usually something called Dexterity or Agility, to determine how fast they act. Once all the Player Characters and the Non-Player Characters have rolled their Initiatives, the GM creates a ranked order for when all the characters take their actions.

There are some problems with this. Rolling dice takes time – the physical time it takes to roll the literal dice, and then the subsequent time of doing the mental arithmetic of “Dice Roll plus Dexterity Modifier equals my Initiative Result.” This doesn’t sound like it takes a lot of time, but when the GM needs to roll for every NPC and then ask every player for their Initiative numbers, and then make an ordered list…it adds up. If you’re running a dungeon with lots of fights, you’re wasting dozens of minutes rolling Initiative. After the fourth combat encounter, the phrase “Roll for Initiative” will make your players want to throttle you.

Anything you can do to remove rolling dice and arithmetic keeps the game moving faster. So, how do you remove rolling dice from calculating Initiative? Simple. Just base Initiative off an unchanging series of numbers – such as, say, the characters’ average Initiative Scores. For D&D, this would be 10 + the character’s Dexterity Bonus. If anyone has Feats or Talents that improve their Initiative, factor those in as well.

For example, say you’ve got three Player Characters. Let’s call them Bob, Jim, and Keith. Bob has a Dexterity of 12 (Ability Modifier = +1), Jim has a Dexterity of 11 (+0), and Keith has Dexterity 9 (-1). However, Bob has the Improved Initiative Feat, which gives him a +5 Bonus to Initiative. By this logic, your Initiative order for the players would look like this:

Bob (10+1+5 =16)

Jim (10)

Keith (9)

“But wait,” you say, “This still requires me to ask my players what their Initiative Totals are, as well as figuring out all my monsters’ Initiative Stats, and doesn’t that still take time?”

Yes. I also used to worry about this. However, it’s also commonly said that “Every minute spent preparing is ten minutes saved improvising”, which is why you’re going to take every fight you have planned and prepare their Initiative orders ahead of time, before the session even starts.

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The Issue with Eldritch Horror

Eldritch Horror has long been a part of the RPG genre, from subtle mentions of the great old ones in Dungeons & Dragons to entirely eldritch games like Call of Cthulhu. But while Eldritch Horror has increased in popular culture, the genre often plays second fiddle to other genres in RPG culture and campaigns. Compared to fantasy or futuristic campaigns, Eldritch Horror campaigns are few and far between.  

So why are Eldritch Horror games so uncommon, even in a time where Tabletop RPGs seem to be thriving? The Eldritch Horror genre bases itself on the idea of the mundane world discovering and interacting with otherworldly and incomprehensible horrors. This core concept of the setting works against a good tabletop RPG’s two major principles: Freedom of Choice and Meaningful Action. 

Freedom of Choice: 

Tabletop RPGs are appealing to players because they have the freedom of choice to act in creative and diverse ways. Eldritch Horror directly conflicts with this due to the inherent nature of the creatures the players must fight. We’ve seen in staple Eldritch Horror stories that while eldritch beasts can be harmed, fighting these monsters is a fruitless effort unless the players know the true weakness of the beast. Furthermore, as these horrors embody true madness, there’s no reasoning with the eldritch forces that be, and investigating their true nature simply results in the person going insane from the horrors of what they learned. How can players and their characters choose how they want to face eldritch horrors when there’s no reliable or prolonged way to interact with them? Prolonged interaction with these horrors almost always results in death or insanity. We’ve seen in stories such as “Shadow Over Innsmouth” that even the mere sight of a deep one causes the narrator to faint from the sheer madness these creatures embody. Yet while these characters must interact with these unimaginable creatures, the Eldritch Horror genre takes place in realistic settings where player characters are restricted to realistic feats and abilities. RPGs set in Fantasy and Science-Fiction genres allow for players to create fantastical and imaginative characters with powerful abilities to execute the creative actions they wish to perform. While magic is present in the Eldritch Horror genre, extended use of this magic and the eldritch world brings misfortune, corrupting not only the mind of the character through inevitable madness, but also going so far as to corrupting the physical form as well, such as Wilbur in the “Dunwich Horror” where his and his family’s experience with eldritch beasts left them alien in nature and inevitably leads to their demise. At its core, Eldritch Horror is about the average joe stumbling into a world of horrors and madness where there is little freedom for characters to act how they want without the powers-that-be overwhelming their body and mind. 

Meaningful Action:

RPG campaigns should be gripping narratives that encourage and motivate characters to keep fighting and accomplish their goals. Eldritch Horror conflicts with this concept. The whole point of Eldritch Horror is that its monsters cannot be beaten or stopped, only stalled. As such, Meaningful Action in an Eldritch Horror system is hard to encounter as the big-bad the players are fighting can’t be meaningfully harmed; what drives the player’s characters to try and fight these otherworldly terrors when they know that there is little they can reasonably do to stop them? The Eldritch Horror campaigns I have both run and participated in have all notably made use of cults and humans as the antagonists. This allows the campaign to revolve around human motivations and meaningful action since taking down a cult is much more accessible than stopping an eldritch being. So unless the campaign reduces interactions with eldritch monsters or sidelines them all together, there is little possibility for game masters to create stories that allow players to feel like they’re making a difference. Lovecraft’s stories and other Eldritch Horror works share a pattern of this hopelessness in the face of the coming tide. There are few meaningful heroes in the Eldritch Horror genre, just victims in the end. While some Eldritch Horror stories end with the humans victorious, these victories come with a heavy toll, all from just one encounter. In “Dunwich Horror” where Armitage and his associates managed to defeat Wilbur’s spawn of Yog-Sothoth, the fight left Whateley unconscious just at the mere sight of the beast, and the town of Dunwich was left with a significant body count. Lovecraft’s and other authors’ stories often revolve around a single encounter with the Eldritch world. While this works well for the concept of one offs, where the long term fate of player characters does not need to be accounted for, a long term campaign of this genre is difficult. As every fight exacts a toll and even slim victories require significant sacrifice, player characters cannot expect to survive for long, making the chance of a Total Party Kill (TPK) all too real. 

As the Eldritch Horror genre is at odds with Tabletop RPGs’ focus of Player Freedom and Meaningful Action, it’s no wonder that this genre is one of the less popular campaign settings. With little possibility for characters to reliably triumph over otherworldly horrors, Eldritch Horror RPGs hold a unique position in the world of Tabletop RPGs, sitting in a realm of conceptual popularity but technical inaccessibility. In a time where Tabletop RPGs are more popular than ever, it will be interesting to see how the Eldritch Horror genre grows and develops and how new waves of players and game masters will encounter this unique situation the genre finds itself in. 

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Why Eggdip?

This website is a theory and game advice blog for tabletop role-playing games, commonly abbreviated throughout this site and the world as TTRPGs. A TTRPG is a game where players assume the roles of various heroes, misfits, or villains, progressing through a shared story where their actions and choices affect the development of the plot. They roll dice to determine the outcomes of their actions, typically under the guidance of a Game Master (GM). The whole time, they generally make fools of themselves by accidentally toppling governments, destroying economies, or literally always doing the one thing for which the GM has not prepared any material.

The most famous TTRPG is Dungeons and Dragons, the game that popularized the genre and acquired an infamous reputation back in the 1990’s thanks to the Satanic Panic. The game has recently regained fame through serials such as Stranger Things and Critical Role. D&D also has copyrighted the much more famous term “Dungeon Master” or “DM”, so no other TTRPGs can use it. 

That’s fine. It sounded too kinky for our tastes anyway.

If you’ve never heard of TTRPGs before and you’re curious, welcome in! We will try not to scare you away. These games are fantastic for building community, expressing creativity, and making memories with your fellow players. If you don’t jive with our specific style of writing or humor, please try to play a game anyways or find some other resources regardless. We promise you that it’ll change your life for the better.

If you’ve been living, breathing, and dying (with all the shuffling of a new character sheet that it requires) in TTRPGs for a while, then have a seat by the proverbial hearth, friend. This blog is for you. You are our target audience, our closest friends we haven’t met yet; the people we most want to hear from.

We want to write about the stuff that makes us (and hopefully, you) excited. We plan to argue about game theory, game design, GM-ing tips, and the eccentricities of games and TTRPGs.  Hopefully, you’ll come along for the ride.

Now that we’ve explained the basic idea, let us explain a more complicated one.

Why the hell is our site called EGGDIP

Well, as we mentioned before, TTRPGs involve players taking on the roles of various heroes, misfits, or villains. Over time your characters will develop and change, like the protagonists of a film or a novel, and will often end up in a very different place from where they started. 

In our case, over eight years of play, it did not matter where we started. It did not matter what noble intentions we began with, what backstories we had painstakingly pieced together, or what grand campaign our Game Master had set before us. 

Invariably, by some point, our party would turn into pirates.

We could be noble swashbucklers or chaotic reavers, renegades rebelling against a totalitarian regime or power-hungry warlords, sailing on the sea and space alike, but it always ended with pirates, all the same, every time.

You see, most TTRPG games exist in the world of D&D. D&D has a lot of prebuilt lore that many players choose to follow, and this lore pushes you to play as epic heroes. The realm is in trouble, and you are the mythic protagonists who are going to save the day. 

Our GM didn’t like D&D very much, so instead, we played many indie TTRPGs. These systems (and the style of our GM) lent themselves to sandbox play. Given no real mission to solve, no world to save, we typically ended up trying to amass power as a way to challenge ourselves. Somewhere along the way, we’d run afoul of the laws of our fictional world, and we’d be on the run. Tired of fleeing, we’d fight back. Suddenly, our names were plastered around everywhere, and we were true criminals. Add a boat or a space boat (which all of these universes seemed to have), and boom, pirates.

This trend kept on repeating itself in almost every campaign we ran. Sure, we had a few that didn’t end in pirates. But the good campaigns? The ones that made us laugh and cry and play until six in the morning? The ones that left us with memories of escapades we still laugh about, that caused certain names of player characters long dead to launch shivers down our spine? 

Those campaigns, they all ended in pirates.

Since, you know, every good game devolves into pirates.