Sunday, 25 October 2015

Dungeon Master: Reducing Rolls and Time

As a Dungeon Master, you may need to do a lot of rolling. As the group gets bigger, the more rolling the Dungeon Master will find themselves doing. In D&D 5th edition, this is also true as the party levels up (there aren't that many high level enemies so instead larger groups of enemies are needed to challenge the players). In order to help deal with this, I will provide a few ways to reduce the total number of rolls. It will be mostly focused on D&D, though the basic principles can be applied to other tabletop RPGs as well. Most of it will be already known to older players, but I hope it helps.

Don't Go Overboard

If the Dungeon Master goes overboard with reducing the amount of rolls, the game might start to feel too deterministic. It's also important to remember that the goal here is to reduce the rolling in order to keep the game flowing at a pace that is still interesting for the players. The players can handle their own rolls and should be allowed to roll for actions that they take.

Reducing Combat Rolls

D&D 5th edition has the average damage and health provided for their creatures. Simply using these values will allow the Dungeon Master to greatly speed up combat, since they will only need to roll to see if the creature hits (you need to leave some randomness). Combat may feel a bit less dangerous for players, since they will expect certain damage from their enemies (some groups may prefer the reduction in randomness) and the enemies themselves will feel less diverse compared to if health was rolled.

Where it gets a little trickier is initiative. You don't want to completely remove rolling for initiative and take the average because doing so would make combat less tactical. For this kind of situation, I've seen two main ways being used. The first is to break off similar enemies into smaller groups (if there are 8 goblins, you can break them up into 4 groups of 2 or 2 groups of 4) and roll for those groups (this also works for stealth and surprise). Doing so reduces randomness a bit and should really be employed when there starts to be a lot of enemies in a combat encounter. It's also perfectly balanced when the players are also acting as groups (as I outlined here). To make the scene more climactic and to keep things going faster, I've seen Dungeon Masters move multiple characters at once. While this speeds things up, it's also important to try and avoid doing things that couldn't be done if you used turns instead.

Pre-Rolling and Out of Combat

When not in combat, it can be tempting to try and reduce rolls as well. The issue is that often times doing so causes strange results. Stealth, for example, is made against the passive perception of characters. If you remove this roll and use the average values, we end up with the same issues as when we looked at combat (we removed too much randomness). In such a case, it may be beneficial to do rolling before the game and keep a note of it. Doing so has a few advantages. First, it prevents meta-gaming since players don't know the roll has been done. Second, when done during preparation, it makes the actual running of the adventure easier and allows the Dungeon Master to focus more on the role-playing. The down side is that it can sometimes cut down on the suspense and if your players aren't aware of it, may think that the Dungeon Master made the decisions when in reality it was the dice. It can also make some moments less suspenseful, since players won't be waiting in anticipation to see what the dice say. Naturally, it can also only be applied to things that were foreseen or planned. The Dungeon Master should not be too attached to the rolling he did previously to prevent railroading.

Situations where this can be done to great effect are:

  • Rolling health (you can keep an array of values for each creature you are going to use for that week)
  • Deciding if a creature will be seen by party members (the value will then be used for active checks)
  • Deciding if a player will notice a lie (the value will then be used for active checks)
  • Deciding if a character will succeed on a skill check (sometimes I find myself making adventures where the bad guys have their own skill checks in order to allow for more outcomes, especially if I like it enough to run with a different group)

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Dungeon Master: Large Player Character Groups

The size of the adventure group has a great impact on the campaign. Everything from the resources available to the players to how death is handled is impacted. For this reason, I hope to go over some of the reasons to have a large group of player characters as well as some of the difficulties that results.

Many Players, Many Characters

Having the right sized group is important for creating a fun game, since too few players doesn't give enough for people to build off each-other and too many players leads to large breaks during combat as well as conflicts when role-playing. However, it's not always practical to break a larger group into 2 smaller groups. When run correctly, a large group of many players also means that the players can build off each-other more effectively since the larger group allows a larger variety of ideas.


The main issue that can be solved in a large group is the large breaks during combat. Part of the problem in these cases typically comes from players wanting to make good decisions in a life or death situation and as such taking time to think through their decisions. The more players there are, the more this will become apparent. Knowing your group is especially important to solve this, but even something as simple as making people talk through their entire turn can help players take less time to take their turn. In extreme cases, you can impose a time limit (some groups even prefer this to make it more tense and because they have other people's turns to think). To make things fair, the Dungeon Master should follow the same rules (though leeway may need to be given since the Dungeon Master is responsible for for more).

Multiple Characters Move at Once

The Dungeon Master can also make the players take their turns at once. This allows them to collaborate on strategies but also makes it more interesting for people who are watching since there is more to keep track. There are some minor rules considerations for this situation, such as how to decide who goes when (let players choose their groups based on a group size determined by the Dungeon Master and let the best initiative bonus roll for initiative). In extreme cases, you can even determine surprise and initiative completely by group instead of individual characters. The dungeon master can also do the same to reduce rolls and make it fair.

Few Players, Many Characters

The more player characters there are, the more resources the players have available to them. I've been careful up to this point of saying player character because the Dungeon Master can always allow each player to have more than one character if that number of players isn't available. There are many benefits to doing so. It gives the players more options in combat. The power of numbers can allow the party to accomplish feats impossible with a smaller party. It gives them more options in role-playing situations (they have more skills in total to distribute). It also makes the death of a character less of a hassle for the player, since they have other characters to play in the meantime. There are also all of the some disadvantages of having many players and many characters present.

Multiple Characters Move at Once

Like with the previous example, allowing multiple characters to act at once helps speed things up and keeps people engaged. In this case, however, instead of multiple players moving at once it will be only once player at a time but they will move all of their characters at once. As in the previous case, I suggest determining initiative and possibly even surprise on a group basis (in this case, it is also a player basis).  

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Dungeon Master: Host's Poison

There are many different tools available to assassins. One particularly noteworthy tool is a strange necklace I was able to study from an undisclosed source. The necklace in particular didn't seem to be that unique in terms of appearance except for a small valve like feature that released water, despite no water ever being poured into the necklace. I was warned to be very careful about not ingesting it. A slow death would follow if I did.


The design of the item doesn't matter. Any item can be used for this purpose, though jeweler and other non-suspicious items are most common. Regardless, there is some kind of hidden compartment in the item. This hidden compartment is filled either with water or a powder (nicknamed host poison though it is magical in nature). A wearer of the amulet is immune to all effects of the contents of the item of equal strength or weaker. When ingested, it acts as a curse that will kill that creature within 24 hours (the strength of the creature of the amulet determines the level of spell needed to remove the curse). Slight symptoms appear after 2d4 hours of being ingested. Such an item is typically used to treat someone with poisoned food while the assassin also eats the same food in order to try and deflect suspicion.

D&D 5th Edition Rules

The strength of the item ranges from 1-9, corresponding to the level of spell used in the construction (3 is most common). The powder or water is only created from the item once a day but can be stored for a week (it evaporates, is corrupted from the humidity, or the magic wears off after 2 weeks). After 2d4, any creature that was not wearing a “host's poison” item of equal strength starts to feel slightly off. The effect tends to be minimum until the target finally drops dead after 24 hours.

Variant: Instead of acting as a curse, a poisonous powder or liquid seeps from the hidden compartment (it is created magically, but not magical itself). Someone with experience in poisons will be able to make an antidote (acts like applying a dispel magic spell but requires 50GP * level of the item to create).

False Legends?

Some have expressed the idea that such items don't really exist and instead came about from the legend of other items. Items that allow immunity to poison and containing a secret compartment for poison would allow the same strategies to be used. In order to match the legend perfectly, the poison used would need to be slow acting.

In-game: Grants immunity to poison and contains space to store 1 dose of poison inside a secret compartment (other liquids or powders can also be stored).

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Dungeon Master: No or Limited Death

Having talked about the various ways to handle death in role-playing games (and specifically D&D 5th edition), I think it's the perfect time to talk about how to handle campaigns without player character death at all (or at least, player character death in the traditional sense) or with restricted character death. Is this heresy? Yes, but just stay with me for a little bit.

No Death Doesn't Mean No Consequences

Just because you don't have death for player characters doesn't mean there can't be consequences. If we take for example a campaign where the players are gods and when they die they just create a new avatar, you can still impose consequences on the players for losing an avatar. Maybe they will be weaker after wards. Maybe they will have 2d4 weeks of time missing. Also, a campaign without player character death doesn't necessarily mean there can't be a total party kill (if everyone dies, everyone dies or a bigger penalty is given).

Why Would You?

There can be many different reasons to motivate the decision to remove player character death. If you don't allow a permanent character death but do allow a temporary death, you can save a lot of time and frustration from your players when they die horrible painful deaths in a campaign whose difficulty is cranked to 11+. It also allows you to emphasize different aspects of the campaign. Instead of focusing on staying alive and accomplishing something, the players can be fully focused on accomplishing an objective. While this may not sound that impressive at first glance, it allows a whole slew of suicidal tactics that won't be punished (normally, suicidal tactics are punished by the game rules) as well as much less lenient time constraints (if the whole party dies, it may take 7 days for them to get new bodies by which time the big bad has won and the players will need to do damage control) that may force players to fight on without rest. 

It's Hard to Get Right

I'm not going to lie; getting a campaign that doesn't have player death isn't easy. It should make sense in the game world. The players themselves should be fine with it as well. If you still have hit points, they should mean something (in the god example, it's the hit points of the body and not the god). It basically has to be tailor fit for the situation. It should not wear out its welcome and it should mean something.

No Death Examples

  • Epic eternal fight between life (living people) and death (undead army of evil). Naturally, you got some weird turn coats. Necromantic energy is leaking out of the ground itself, reanimating the dead unless it can be resealed. Dead characters will be revived as they were in life but upon completing their quest, with no more necromantic energy to sustain them, the player characters who died during the campaign will die with the rest of the undead.
    Note: Dying as an undead means you will be a corpse until you reanimate some time later (maybe 2d6?).
  • The characters are gods. Their avatars can be destroyed but doing so does not kill their godly soul. They can regain a body 2d6 days later a certain number of times (chosen by DM, could also use hit die). After regaining a body too many times, they must wait 2d6 years (or decades) to gain a new body. For this to work, the story should span an extremely long time.
  • * Includes above variants. Both players and villains cannot be permanently killed. They are bound by certain rules. Their success or failure is determined by how they influence the world itself.
  • Give the players an artifact or multiple artifacts that allows them to revive the dead. This takes away player character death but doesn't remove a total party kill (if there is no-one left alive to use the artifact, they are dead).
  • Give each player a certain number of free deaths (represents favours from the god of death). Instead of dying when meeting the conditions for death, they regain all hit points and lose all conditions (unconscious players can also spend a favour, though you can do this by points and rule that this kind of favour costs half as much as revival from the dead).
  • Make all the characters liches.
  • Make all the characters revenants, having to succeed on their revenge on the same guy before their time runs out.

Note: Techniques above can be used for the villain instead, in order to discourage head to head confrontations unless necessary. Can also use a lich instead.