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.

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.

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:
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!

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.

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. 

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.

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.


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. 


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.  

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.

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. 

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.