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.

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. 

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. 

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!

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!

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.

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.

Player’s Perspective: Asking “What do you like?”

I recently discovered a community on the social networking site Reddit called /r/dndhorrorstories.  It’s a place where DMs come together to trade tales of woe, horror, and disgust based on the actions of their party members.  The stories break into several basic categories:

  1. A player obsessively power leveled and min-maxed above all of the other players
  2. My incredibly detailed world and complex plot  was derailed by my party in five seconds
  3. My otherwise role play heavy party is constantly thrown off track by one bloodthirsty character who  stabs every NPC that dares breath in their presence
  4. A few really terrible and upsetting stories where parties or players behave in socially inappropriate ways in both the game and in real life

With the exception of category 4 stories, which often read like real life nightmares, most of these horror stories are overstated.  While the players definitely should take some blame for these issues, the DM can take blame as well.

These first 3 problematic stories occur when the  party doesn’t clearly communicate what they expect and want from the DM’s game.  Every player comes into TTRPGs with different expectations and finds joy in different ways (just read Andy’s lovely “What do you love about RPGs?” for some reasons why players may be coming to your table).  

When every player and the DM want the same thing from a game, it works flawlessly.  The story begins, fun is had, and everyone walks away better off. However, it almost never works this way.  Instead, you end up with a table staffed with 2 actors, a builder, and a goofball. Instead of a flawless game and good memories, the table sets on fire, two people hate each other by the end of the night, and no one responds to your attempts at scheduling anymore.

Here comes the controversial statement of the post: given their power over the game, I believe it is the role of the DM to try their best to help everyone have fun.  If your session ends up as a category 1, 2, or 3 horror story, you should think about why your expectations for the game differed from your players before blaming them for a wasted night (if it’s a category 4, you should think about removing the offending player from the game, though that is often complicated by friendships).  Please note: this sentiment only holds true for longer campaigns amongst friends. For situations like the Adventurer’s League where you need to run an adventure for anyone who appears, I think the DM has much less control over these issues.

Before you start planning your first session, you should be talking to your players about what they want.  Ask them directly what they’re expecting to do in the game. Hopefully, they’ll give you a straight answer.  If they don’t, probe a bit. Use the archetypes that Andy discussed, or use your own. Try to understand if they’re a wargamer or an role-player.  Do they become carried away by the story, or are they just there to hang out with friends and have fun? What level of seriousness do they bring to the game?

When you ask your players for their expectations, take notes.  You should end up with a grid with a row dedicated to each of your players, and one row dedicated to yourself.  You should know how serious each person is about the game, how competitive they are, what they enjoy about RPGs, and what they dislike about them.  

Using this information, you can find the parts of the game that a majority of your players enjoy and those that a majority of your players dislike.  Now, when you’re designing sessions, you can keep these two things in mind. You can lean heavily into the things that the party loves, and stray away from the things that the party dislikes. Don’t run a serious campaign when your players said they aren’t that serious about the game. If your players hate puzzles but enjoy combat, you can build a session revolving around combat, such as a tournament in a coliseum where the players’ strengths are put to the test.  It won’t make as much sense to put them through a gauntlet of five brainteasers where their stats and spells won’t help the slightest bit.

Additionally, you can communicate to your players that you’ll be designing your sessions around these shared interests and dislikes. By pointing this out to them, players will likely appreciate the work you’re putting in to design a world based on their feedback and ideas and will be encouraged to provide more feedback in the future.  

Gathering the likes and dislikes of your players and designing off of them can also help to avoid issues that lead to /r/dndhorrorstories.  If most of your party are serious players, but one of your players loves being a goofball, you can talk to the goofball about this contrast.  Please, don’t just tell them they aren’t allowed to do the thing they enjoy. Instead, you can try to find a compromise. Maybe you can work out an agreement where they don’t derail the plot, but you feed them a steady stream of minor NPCs they can seduce/beguile/betray/etc.  Maybe, you can give them small side plots that keep them happy without bothering the other party members. First and foremost, seek solutions.

If these conversations prove unfruitful, you have to moderate their gameplay and say no (I’ve written about this before in “Saying No”).  If the player really isn’t interested in what most other players want to do, you might have to consider asking them to leave the game. If you’re playing with friends, this can be extremely difficult, so I recommend it only as a last resort.

Finally, remember that your players are people, and people can change their minds.  I’d recommend trying to keep your list of party interests and dislikes up to date. Every 3-5 sessions or so, reach out to your players and ask them to update you on what they’re looking for next.  Keep your ear to the ground so that you can consistently provide the party with sessions and encounters that all of them can enjoy.

Knowing what excites and irritates your party members is a major step to avoiding horror stories and improving the experience for yourself and your players.  If you use this information to shape sessions and iron out problems before they manifest, you can have a fun time even with a divergent table. Establish what everyone wants, and you can give it to them. 

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!

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 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.


OptimisticEmpatheticShort TemperedVulgar


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

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.


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


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.