Sunday, 30 August 2015

Dungeon Master: Creature Behaviour

Interaction is a core component of a table-top role playing game. The players interact with the world the Dungeon Master creates through the Dungeon Master. Naturally, the world is full of all kinds of creatures and characters that have their own roles within the game world. To keep the world interesting there needs to be a variety of characters and to keep the world believable there needs to be some kind of consistency. Being able to achieve those kinds of characters is no easy feat and it is for this reason that I hope to overview some general ideas that I hope help people deal with this element of running a game. It is mostly inspired by certain things I've seen occur during playing and also deals with combat rules.

Dungeon Master Talking to Himself

I've seen quite a few games where clearly a lot of effort was put into planning the world and the characters the party was interacting with. However, serious issues started to come up when non-player characters had to talk to non-player characters. From all of the games I've seen it tended to be one of two things. The Dungeon Master could have been quite new to the role and as such didn't feel comfortable talking to themselves. In that kind of situation the only real solution is more practice from the side of the Dungeon Master. However, it is also possible that the Dungeon Master simply forgot to consider how the characters interact with each other and feel about each other (the people I asked found this kind of situation to be quite common).

Take for example a very simple example of a high ranking lord and one of their knights. It's easy enough to just define the two characters individually (important life events that shaped their character) and forget to consider how they might feel about each other. Does the knight like his boss? Does the lord have a grudge because of some history? Are their interactions formal when behind closed doors with the party or informal? If none of things are given any though it becomes easy to see why someone might freeze for a second while trying to make it up on the spot.

Combat is Character Interaction Too

There is nothing wrong with having a character that is incompetent in combat. There is nothing wrong with having a character who is a coward in combat but talks big outside of it. However, it's important to remember that combat is a character interaction and will be influenced by the character of the individual. Zombies shouldn't be as good at forming a plan as the 18 intelligence wizard who is ordering them (18+ intelligence zombies excluded, of course). I've seen and played in many games where the personality of the enemies didn't factor into the battle strategy at all. Instead, it was based on what would be challenging to the party. The party should be challenged when it is appropriate but the way the enemies behave should still remain consistent with how the characters were established before combat. A cowardly wizard can still be a challenge even when they are hiding behind a wall a long distance away and instead ordering their henchmen to do the fighting.

I also want to emphasize that balance is important in these kinds of situations. Making some kind of detailed back story for all characters your players run across including the kobold your players see for 15 seconds before shooting with an arrow is a lot of work for not much payoff. Big important characters should, however, have a back story and a personality that will play a part in determining how they behave when in combat or other threatening situations. If a fight is being improvised, considering what the enemy might be feeling and making decisions based on a quick personality you invent on the spot is a possibility and provides a break from always taking a tactically superior choice (it also makes the enemies that are well enough trained and organized to always make a tactically good move that much more special).


Consider two ideas when planning or running role-playing game sessions. Every interaction a character has (including combat) will be influenced by their personality and that considering the relationships and history characters have with each other is important when thinking about their interactions (don't forget to develop their own personality's as well).

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Rules Corner: Layers of Protection

Every now and then a situation comes up that is quite specific but points out some interesting parts of a rule system. I hope to talk about one such situation that came up for one of my groups a long time ago. This situation in particular has to do with armour types and some of the details that result from the way they are generally handled. In particular, I will focus on D&D 5th edition but the general issues also occur in other systems I've seen (especially D&D inspired systems). I will also state the solution rule that worked for this group (thinking of suits of armour as layers of protection and creating rules to partially wear armour).

The Situation

The party found themselves in the desert. The Dungeon Master ruled that medium and heavy armour had disadvantage because of the extreme heat but light armour was fine. The fighter wore heavy armour and used a glaive. Naturally, he wanted to wear light armour in that situation.

Expense vs Effectiveness

In D&D 5th edition and just about every other system I can think of off the top of my head, heavy armour is the most expensive. That seems to make logical sense when you think about it. It's expensive because it has the best protection. Except that in D&D 5th edition, that is only true for plate armour. Given a sufficient DEX score, the AC (armour class) of a character wearing light armour can equal the armour class of plate but have to use their DEX score (usually these feed into other parts of the character like stealth). DEX is useful for other combat related things such as saving against quite a few spells and stealth. There are other penalties with medium and heavy armour compared to light armour. Travelling in extremely hot climates and being stealthy are both harder in medium and heavy armour.

The Player's Solution

The fighter, being a fairly smart guy, asked if he could wear the under padding as light armour. The Dungeon Master allowed it (same stats as studded leather) and he went happily along on his way. However, I want to stress how powerful that feature is. Being able to switch from heavy armour to light armour for no additional cost gave heavy and medium armour versatility for the characters who wore it. Since it cost more as well, it worked just fine. At that point the fighter could have easy bought some light armour but never even thought about until that point. However, you could argue that the price of heavy and medium armour is already high enough to consider it a non-issue from a balance perspective. I'd also argue it generally makes sense since light armour still has to be quite thick to provide protection.

Later with the same group, he was able to successfully argue into being allowed to wear his full plate like half plate. It wasn't such a problem from an AC (armour class) perspective because it actually lowered the character's AC. He was, however, able to put on partial armour faster than the full suit. For this reason, everyone agreed it was fair.

Other Solutions

In these kinds of cases, making any armour provide penalties in extremely hot climates would work out well. If it bothered the Dungeon Master that both armours would provide the same AC, they could just give different players different AC's.

Layers of Protection Rule

Consider allowed medium and heavy armour to be thought of as layers of protection. Light armour padding (AC 12 + DEX) is present under all medium armour except hide. Some more expensive suits can be worn partially to decrease the time to don them but for lower AC (splint gets AC 14 + max DEX +2 and plate can be worn as half plate).   

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Dungeon Master: Success and Failure

I've touched on it before, but success and failure are important parts of stories in general. In table top role-playing games it is also important to consider success and failure. Because of the nature of the topic, this article in particular won't be based on one system. Instead, the discussion will be focused on story telling from a Dungeon Master perspective.

The Spectrum of Success and Failure

All too often, I see table top role-playing where there are really two options for the characters. Either they will succeed in their goal or they will die. However, there are many more options begging to be explored. If the goal of the players is to prevent the summoning of an ancient evil, how cool (and extremely deadly) would it be if the players failed? Of course, I'm not saying a Dungeon Master should rail road their players to fail. However, if the players' choice, luck and situation result in this possibility, don't be afraid to walk down that road. Setbacks and failures leading up to a final, well-earned success make for a compelling story.

There are other examples that can be listed such as gaining or losing the backing of a powerful character, finding incorrect information and finding an item and using a fake to fool the enemy. The key in these situations for me is to ask myself, “What would the consequence of the players actions be?” You can list out the big picture success and failures, but subtle touches can also help and make the successes and failures seem organic. From my experience it isn't easy to predict all possible ways to success and fail. Moving events as the players make decisions is part of the Dungeon Master's job and makes for a more engaging game.

Risk vs Reward

The scope of failure and success should reflect the risk and reward of the thing being attempted. It should also make sense in context. Being taken prisoner probably isn't a possibility when being attacked by an undead army. The rewards need to also make sense in context. When the city is being threatened with an imminent undead invasion, the reward for helping a shop keeper with their rat problem (bonus points for making the side quest having Pied Piper references) probably shouldn't somehow advance the goal of stopping the undead army.

It's Not Always Obvious

Whether the players are succeeding or not isn't always obvious. The players will not have perfect knowledge of their situation. If a fake item was placed for them to find, their seeming success turns into a failure (with the added bonus of losing time thinking they had the real thing). At the same time, any situation where time is the party's enemy naturally falls into this kind of situation. When the players have multiple options and select one, there is an opportunity cost based on the options they didn't take. Taking a risky choice for more rewards could end or work against their goals while the success from the very easy option may not be enough to ultimately win. Keeping these kinds of ideas in mind can help make a more compelling shared story for your group (I find these kinds of things more necessary in groups that have more experience and as such may find something too similar to a previous campaign stale). Sometimes the players success may bring about events that they didn't want (reaching the end of a dungeon may put them in a position where they can accidentally release an ultimate evil on the world).


Some rewards from successes and penalties from failures will take time to notice. If everything is handed immediately after the event, you run the risk of seeming to game-y and as a result break the story and immersion of your world. Some events may happen to the players in anticipation of a success and failure as well (if a local figure knows you reputation, they may try to send you on a quest and pay half up front).


I feel it is important to talk about character death when talking about this topic. There are some games I have played in where the Dungeon Master did not like to kill off player characters. Generally, that is not my style but at the same time it can work. However, there has to be some kind of player failure. If losing a fight causes the party to be taken prisoner for a week that later stops them from accomplishing their goal, there is still a consequence. If it is your style not to kill off players, fine, but you will need to provide tension for the players through some other manner. This is particularly true in combat. Since the players will know they can't be killed, a challenging fight will not have nearly the same tension or reason to run away (one such attempt is to make character death happen in the event of some total party kills but not if only one party member went down).


Here I list a few results that could occur during the course of play. I hope they inspire you.

  • The players fail to assassinate a target. As a result, the target now has a scar and added mannerism (e.g. limp) as well as an unhealthy obsession with finding who had done this to them. Upon finding them, any of their normal reason is put aside in pursuit of revenge.
  • The players have consistently help stop the plans of a group and their part is known. As a result, assassination attempts have occurred multiple times. They started as knife wielding thugs in the streets but have intensified to poisoning attempts and setting the inn they were staying at on fire.
  • The players have managed to sneak into a wizard's lair and destroy their work but did not manage to kill the wizard. Since the wizard is still alive, they can rebuild their work after a given period of time. Can also be substituted for a lich.
  • Upon entering an ancient and decrepit tomb, the party accidentally triggered a cave in through repeated mistakes during excavation. They now have to dig out before the air runs out.
  • On one of their adventures, the players accidentally released an evil onto the world even after reading the large amount of warning signs that say not to. This is usually used as the start of a campaign.
  • The players successfully prevent a course of action of a powerful figure to the point they may never attempt it again (usually by destroying an item). The powerful figure may have a strong hatred or positive feelings towards the party (the figure may realize they were wrong or be in awe of the party's accomplishments).
  • The players try to steal an item but in the aftermath of their failed escape caused the item to be damaged.   

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Dungeon Master: Encounter Difficulty

Getting the difficulty of an encounter right is an important part of running a table top role-playing game. However, it is more of an art than a science and there are many options at the hands of the Dungeon Master. I hope to help newer Dungeon Masters by going over this topic at a higher level.

Difficulty is Relative

What makes a particular encounter difficult for a party comes from a bunch of different factors. The experience of the players has quite a bit to do with it. On top of this, equipment, initiative (in D&D like systems where players act in turns) and party composition also play very big roles. This can work in both directions. An encounter that may be deadly for a party of new players could be easily beaten by a party of experiences players by exploiting the weaknesses of the creatures and tactical choices in the terrain. As always, knowing your players and what they like is important. Difficulty for combat is also generally better details in rule system than for puzzles and other things. The difficulty in solving a riddle will largely depend on the knowledge of your players (though hints from good insight checks in D&D 5th edition can help too).

3 Basic Difficulties of Encounters

As a general idea, there are really 3 different difficulties that exist if the goal is to kill every enemy in the room. The encounter can be perfect for the party. Maybe a character or two will be making death saves by the end, but the party will probably win if they play reasonably and have luck somewhat on their side (a string of 1's can doom anyone). If the party hasn't rested for a while, the encounter can be more difficult than anticipated. In such a situation, the party may need to retreat.

The encounter could be easy for the party. They may take a couple of scratches but in general they aren't in too much danger at that moment. The danger from these kinds of encounters comes from something other than the encounter itself. Too many in a row force the party to expend resources that they may need for the more challenging part later. The possibility for the party to rest and recuperate still exists and will make these kinds of encounters even easier. For this kind of starving strategy, there needs to be a risk or loss associated with rest (otherwise they will just rest and make the encounter even easier). It can also significantly slow down the players in a situation where time is the most valuable resource they have (in such a case, resting will cost them time as well).

The encounter can also be extremely challenging for the party. Throwing a lich at a level 1 party is not just challenging but almost impossible for the party to win in terms of a combat rules perspective (you can still try to introduce a big bad this early and have the party run as allies are getting killed). In such a case, short of pure ingenuity and the Dungeon Master playing along (dropping the entire tunnel on the lich), the party doesn't have any hope of winning. They may need to run away (your players will need to know that running away is an acceptable choice). There is another kind of challenging the party. It is probably more desirable that the encounter will be won by the slimmest of margins unless the party plays smart and has luck on their side. This also means that the party could be killed by bad luck and that they may need to consider escaping to fight another day. This kind of encounter tends to be the ending of quest. Most of the time, they don't just stumble upon this kind of encounter while shopping for groceries.

Situation Matters

The difficulty of an encounter plays directly into the story that is being told. When trying to create an immersive game, the kinds of encounters and when they occur will be important to the tone and the story itself. Your final fight doesn't need to challenge the players at full strength if it doesn't make sense. It may even be jarring if the physically weak but manipulative bad guy is able to hold himself as an equal to the fighter in sword fighting (if the idea is that the bad guy was looking for a way to become stronger and succeeded, sure, but in that case you have built an in world reason to justify it). If the hardest encounter you ever had involved a fistfight in a bar, it may also be a bit jarring for the party (once again, know your players since some may enjoy that situation from a comedic perspective).

Goals Change the Difficulty

The players' goals can have a big effective on the encounter itself. If the players find themselves in a room full of zombies and their goal is to get to the next room, they can choose to run past them and close the door behind them. Such a choice may make the combat encounter easier even if they later open the door (fighting them after choosing beneficial positions and after choke pointing them may be a lot easier) and in the meantime may allow them to completely bypass the encounter. It can also make things worse if there are more zombies in the new room and the zombies from the other room start to break down the door.

If the players are trying to assassinate someone, they don't have to kill everyone in the room. This makes the encounter easier from their perceptive (they will also probably get to choose the terms they attack under) but still dangerous. Even if the players can't beat everyone in the room, they can still take out their target and escape. Such a tactic is perfectly reasonable in such a case, especially if the players realize how hard it would be to kill everyone in the room.

There are other ways of getting past a combat encounter (giving a counterfeit of the item the bad guys want is a classic) and depending on the choice taken, there could be consequences later (the bad guys who got the counterfeit item you threw at them before you ran will come back and not listen to what you have to say, even if you offer them the real item).

Goals can also make an encounter more difficult for the party. If a group of cultists is trying to summon a demon and they are just 2 turns away from doing so when the party enters, the party's goal and the situation makes it more difficult than just killing cultists (of course, doing before the demon is summoned will work but may require some creativity). There is a chance the party will be able to stop the demon from being summoned (maybe by using burning hands on the alter, throwing the offering off of the alter or something else entirely) but if the demon does get summoned, they have an incentive to stay and fight (they won't be able to accomplish their goal if they run and the demon is still on this plane). They can still escape if things go very badly, but they will then need to take more time to finish off the quest and it may be even harder now that they are expected.

Not Always Combat

An encounter can be more than just combat. Traps and puzzles can be mixed together within a combat encounter to make things both easier and more difficult (you can make zombies run into traps, after all). The wizard may be able to lift a curse to free all of the ghosts attacking the party. If there is no combat but a riddle or puzzle, the challenge comes from trying to solve it and may take a long amount of in-game time. There may be easy ways for the players to talk their way out of otherwise impossible to win situations as well. There are many different options in such cases but they can still add, remove or have a difficulty of their own.  

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Dungeon Master: Bloodlust Weapon

A weapon craving the blood of a target is quite a popular archetype. However, to make such a thing a reality in table top role-playing games, we need to use fluff and mechanics. What I will do today is put forward several different ways to make such a weapon a reality. I also want to mention that I would usually avoid giving this kind of weapon to a player in most forms. Taking away options from the players usually makes things less fun, not more. I will also focus on the kind of weapon that will want to focus on a single target after it tastes it's blood and not the kind of weapon that likes to target one kind of enemy (Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition has enough of that).

When the weapon tastes the blood of a creature, it will have an overwhelming urge to finish the job. Until that creature lies dead or the craving subsides, the wielding of the weapon will feel the push towards that one target.

The Carrot

One way to make such a weapon is by giving an incentive for the character to attack the target. By giving a static bonus to hit and attack or a dice roll for extra damage against the creature the weapon has targeted, you don't take away the characters options but give an incentive to go after a certain target. This is probably the only type that I would consider giving a player as an actual beneficial magic item (the rest are more like cursed items).

Variant 1: After a character hits a creature using this weapon (addition restriction could be that it needs to bleed), any subsequent attack against this target gives a bonus +2 to hit and damage. The target must die or be out of visual range before a new target can be chosen.

Variant 2: After a character hits a creature using this weapon (addition restriction could be that it needs to bleed), any subsequent attack against this target gives a bonus 1d6 to damage. The target must die or be out of visual range before a new target can be chosen.

The Stick

Of course, we can try to punish a character for not attacking the correct target instead. There are multiple ways to do so including a penalty to hit, damage taken for attacking the wrong target or even not giving a choice in the matter. If given to players, they will act more like cursed items.

Variant 1: After a character hits a creature using this weapon (addition restriction could be that it needs to bleed), the creature that was hit becomes the target. An attack against anyone but the target will have disadvantage. Killing the target or being out of visual range makes the creature that was hit no longer the target.

Variant 2: After a character hits a creature using this weapon (addition restriction could be that it needs to bleed), the creature that was hit becomes the target. An attack against anyone but the target will result in 1d6 damage to the character wielding the weapon. The target must die or be out of visual range before a new target can be chosen.

Variant 3: After a character hits a creature using this weapon (addition restriction could be that it needs to bleed), the creature that was hit becomes the target. The character wielding the weapon is overcome with an intense blood lust and cannot willingly move farther away from the target. They can also not attack anyone but their target.

Note: I'd be hesitant of even using this as a cursed item but it works well in the hands of an NPC.