Sunday, 27 December 2015

Dungeon Master: Small Player Character Groups

A little while ago I wrote a little bit about the benefits, draw backs and difficulties of having large group of player characters (even possibly giving players more than one character). However, there is the other extreme as well. Having fewer player characters provides its own opportunities and drawbacks and I hope to talk about a few of those as well as a few solutions.

Why Bother?

I Don't Want to Play Multiple Characters

Some people just prefer to play one character and get immersed in that role. In those kinds of situations, though there may be benefits to having a player play more than one character, it would detract from the player's experience. In these kinds of cases, there are other ways to still give some of the benefits of multiple characters while also respecting the player's wish to play one character.

A More Heroic Feeling

There are many people who would say that fighting a group of 12 undead feels a lot more heroic if there are 2 players than if there were a full party of 4 (or 8, 2 for each player). Honestly, I'd agree with them in general principle (the types of undead matter too).

How to Implement It?


We have two characters. No problem, we can just scale the adventure to the same difficulty but to two players. On paper this sounds fine and will provide players with a challenge. However, it will also be less dynamic of an encounter (there are less enemies) and the Dungeon Master will need to do some weird things to certain encounters, especially when facing a boss like encounter (the encounter makes sense with a dragon so we can't easily swap it out but the players are too weak and as a result the Dungeon Master will be forced to modify the stats). This will obviously not be a problem if you are making the adventure from scratch yourself. Even the problem of less dynamic encounters can be solved by having higher level PCs though some concerns still exist (you can't through an army of skeletons against a cleric who was turn undead that destroys undead and there will be holes in party roles).


There's an obvious solution to the problems of scaling. If you only have 2 players and they wish to tackle an adventure meant for 4 characters, they can play the adventure with characters that are higher level. Doing this can provide a great sense of power for the players while at the same time the large amounts of enemies makes death a real possibility. The problem with this kind of approach is that it takes quite a bit of skill to pull off. The math for doing this is usually provided in the rule books (compare difficulty at suggested level to charts for higher level characters), however, a party of 2 characters will have holes in their abilities compared to a full party. They may lack healing magic. They may lack arcane magic. They may lack a stealthy guy. They may lack a heavily armored bag of hit points. As a result, some adjusting on the fly may be needed. When done from scratch

Two Characters in One

Up until now I've gone over solutions that work within the rules. However, there's another solution. A player character can be allowed to be 2 classes (in a classless system, do the equivalent of granting double health, roles, etc.) at once and level in both classes at once (at the Dungeon Master's discretion, they can be the same class twice). This way, they have the hit points of two characters. You can also give the character two actions, two reactions and two bonus actions (I leave it at 1 move action because otherwise players are as fast as warhorses). I'd also suggest tracking actions per class (mainly to prevent hilarious action surge and spell combos). For role-play, it counts as one character. In combat, it's essentially two characters grafted together (when thinking about the rules, it should be considered this way).

Naturally, doing this has some major concerns. Synergies that were never possible before suddenly become possible. Can a player take the fighter class twice (if so, can they action surge twice in one “turn”, since now they get two turns interlaced together)? Do you let them take the same fighting style twice (treating it as two characters grafted together, even though this allows for a higher AC?)? Doing this essentially creates a brand new rule system that the Dungeon Master now has to rule on (not being a published, ruling will need to happen more often). If done correctly it allows the Dungeon Master to run a published adventure as written (for a few sessions I tried running this kind of monstrosity and played in such house rule systems before with great). It also gives the players a general feeling of tremendous power.


There we have the reasons for having smaller parties and some ways to implement them in role-playing, but specifically D&D 5th edition. The solution under “Two Characters in One” is something I'd only recommend experienced Dungeon Masters or Dungeon Masters who are ready to essentially make their own system attempt. However, there is still much fun to be had when playing with a smaller party. As always, feel free to comment and I'd especially like to hear other solutions and suggestions for this kind of situation.  

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Dungeon Master: Themes

I mentioned a little while ago how themes can play a role in encounter design. However, theme is a rather big general concept that applies to more than just encounters. I obviously won't be able to cover everything, but I hope I can at least give a general idea of what it means to consider themes as well as some quick tips.

Not Too General and Not Too Specific

First, care needs to taken to find a good theme. Something like, “good vs. evil”, is a start but I'd say it's a bit too general to inspire me for a campaign. Something too specific will leave the Dungeon Master with many situations where they can't use their themes or will require many themes (too many themes becomes too hard to remember). When I talk about theme, I'm not talking about some rule that has to be followed at all times by the Dungeon Master. Instead, it is a central idea that helps inspire the Dungeon Master. For example, “the difference between good and evil is in their motivation”, is an example of a theme that tends to inspire. Always been running evil liches? Well, with that theme I can have a good lich that became a lich for noble reasons. The real strength in good themes is that they give you a quick framework to work off of when you improvise.


When I start planning a new campaign, I usually start with the themes. As I expressed before, this generally helps with unpredicted situations where the Dungeon Master needs to make a call, but it still needs to be consistent with the world. However, I find it also helps in other situation such as NPC creation and encounter design, because it gives me a starting point. It's also important that it is meant to help you, so if you think of a really cool encounter but it doesn't fit into your theme, that's fine. The theme is meant to be a tool. I typically aim for 3 good themes. For example, we could have “good and evil are indistinguishable”, “enough money can buy anything”, and “magic can be dangerous and unpredictable”. You will probably end up thinking about the setting and story as you think about the theme. That's actually a very good thing because all of those elements should mesh together.

Combat Encounters

Combat encounters tend to be a little more hit and miss when it comes to themes. However, themes can still inspire combat encounters or solutions to combat encounters. Using the themes from the “Campaigns” section, we can decide that the party could actually hire the mercenaries that are about to attack as bodyguards if they paid enough. We could also decide to have a 3 way fight as all three groups compete for the same prize but for different motivations. Again, themes aren't a rule. They are a tool for the Dungeon Master.


Characters can fall into the more general themes we discussed. We can also think of a theme or a single quote to help inspire us when talking about a character. I find quotes about a character work well for this. Something like, “ever seen a man get so angry over cold soup that he slammed his fists onto the table and broke the table's leg?” helps inspire and create the character and could even be powerful enough that you can create the character with nothing else to go by (I find having a bunch of these, along with names, ready to go help me come up with characters on the spot). It may not encompass the entire character (is he clever?), but it helps me as a starting point.  

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Dungeon Master: Ask Why

Someone recently asked me what my advice would be for a new Dungeon Master. I thought about it for a second and came up with the advice, “ask why” (if you don't, your players will). I realized I never really tackled this before but I felt it is worth writing down, especially since those two words are deceptively simple. The idea is that if the Dungeon Master at least considers this question, things will make sense. 

Why Are the Players Playing?

As a Dungeon Master, I find knowing what my players like and why they want to play lets me be a better Dungeon Master. A party that wants role-playing would be disappointed with dungeon after dungeon. However, there are people who really do like dungeon delving (think Indiana Jones but with more undead). Since it's a group, you could have both people at once. However, identifying this and knowing why they play will let you address that and make things more fun for your players.

Why Are the Characters Here?

Why are the players in Baldur's Gate? Why did the villain pick this spot for their secret plan? Why are the characters going to the Dungeon? The answers to these will depend on the situation. Some parties I've seen need no other reason than the possibility of valuable loot to go to a deadly dungeon. Others need a noble quest to risk their lives for. It's also important to consider these questions for enemies. For unintelligent undead, this question is easy (“I am here because evil powers rose me from the grave as an undead creature that has been ordered to protect this room”). However, for intelligent creatures, this question can be far more elaborate and complex. It may even determine how a fight ends (if they think they can't accomplish their goal, would they fight to the death?).

Other Examples of Why

Why Is This Room Here?

If there is a room in a creature created area, there should be a reason for it. This should be true even if it isn't made by a creature but is currently used by a creature (a cave complex). You should be able to explain what it is used for and why the creature is there (was carved by water and the creature thought it made a good home). It also helps if you have a gameplay reason as well as an in world reason for a room since at the end of the day the game should be fun.

Why Is This Dungeon Here?

Usually easier to explain, but helps avoid the castle in a completely useless position problem. Just try not to forget this detail and don't be surprised if players ask.

Why Is This Evil Guy Evil?

The title kind of says it all this time. The evil guy needs a reason for being evil that makes sense (I think even a straightforward, “I'm undead and hate life” is better than nothing).

Why Is This NPC Helping?

NPCs have lives of their own too (which the Dungeon Master completely controls). If an NPC is helping the players, there should be a good reason behind it (though sometimes that reason will be an evil one). 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Dungeon Master: Designing a Combat Encounter

Designing combat encounters that are fun, interesting and challenging is not easy. I don't claim to be perfect at it, but I hope that I can at least help a few people by sharing my general method for thinking about combat encounters. It will be high level so that it can be used for any system.


The concept of time and timing is an important part of plotting a campaign. For that reason, it is a far broader topic than I will cover today. Still, the timing can have a great deal of impact on a combat encounter. For the purposes of this piece, I don't mean the physical time (night, day and visibility in general could be considered as part of the environment) but instead the timing of elements in the encounter and the timing of the encounter in regards to the campaign itself. A showdown with the villain may actually be 3 encounters where in the first encounter the players are just trying to escape, in the second one they will try to escape but first do something that will inhibit the villain, and in the third and final one will be when they finally win (the timing in the campaign that these encounters happen can contribute to the tension and excitement). It's also important to note that not every enemy needs to be there at the start of an encounter. They can call for reinforcements instead, which can make combat easier but also more dynamic (4 soldiers followed by 4 reinforcements in 3 rounds is easier to deal with than 8 soldiers at once).


In a campaign, there will be an overall theme. I won't go into too much detail here today, but themes that can be incorporated into an encounter help tie it into the rest of the world. If themes are broken, it can even be jarring (though sometimes that is the aim). It can include things such as enemy types (undead, for example), locations and ways combat will play out (do you reward retreats?).

Now that I got the context out of the way, let's talk about designing the encounter itself.

The Players

The composition of the party as well as their general experience will play a role in what is considered a good encounter. If the players are too inexperienced, an encounter designed for experience players may be too difficult for them. At the same time, some encounters that end up being fairly dynamic for one party may break down because of certain abilities or strategies a different party could employ. When designing an encounter, be careful to consider possible holes that the party has that may make things harder than you intend (missing healing, magic, etc.). Also note the strengths of the party, their general experience and their ability to think outside the box.

The Enemies

The things that the party will fight will contribute to how dynamic the fight is. Mixing different abilities together can create completely new situations for players to tackle even without considering other factors. As the Dungeon Master, you can also add a couple of modifications to the creatures to change things up a bit (maybe some enemies will use nets, or there's an eldritch knight who uses teleportation to get close to wizards). That's not to say that a crowd of kobolds can't be fun to fight. However, if they've been doing this for multiple encounters in a row, some variety may help (even if it's through a wizard kobold).

The Environment

Fighting in an open plane is distinctly different to fighting in a 20 foot by 20 foot room which is distinctly different than fighting on a 10 foot across bridge. Thinking and implementing good environments is partially an art. However, at the very least cover and elevation need to be considered. Both of these are instrumental in breaking up static strategies (fighters block the tunnel). It's also important to make sure the baddies you populated the environment with use the environment to their advantage if they are intelligent or don't at all if they are unintelligent. You can also throw in a couple of unique features into your environment. Teleporting environment features are a good example, since they help break up the usual environment and break the rules. I've also seen special material deposits that reflect magic, make magic weaker or even empower magic. The point it to consider how the environment will change tactics and to use it to make combat more interesting (this also means that there needs to be a benefit to using the environment in creative ways or at the very least it should be memorable).


I previously mentioned reinforcements coming after 3 rounds. That would be an example of what I call a twist. It also related to timing but there is no problem with multiple parts of my model overlapping. In my model, a twist is a feature of the encounter that is outside the enemies, players and environment that helps make the combat different. An earthquake every 1d4 rounds is an example (it may sound close to environment and ideally all of the elements should combine together to make a seamless whole, but I tend to consider the environment as a bit more static). It could be a plot point as well (big bad wizard turns out to be a big bad lich wizard in disguise). The most common thing, however, is to add some kind of goal besides beating the other guys. Interrupting a ritual, chasing after a certain character, or even destroying the entire room could all be used to change the flow of combat (obviously, if the players are trying to bring the entire place down it will be a different experience than just beating the bad guys). The twist, depending what it is, could make the encounter easier or harder (bringing down an entire temple by knocking out the support pillars could make it easier since the players wouldn't need to defeat all the cultists, or could make it harder because of how hard a pillar is to destroy and that more shadows will come until the temple is destroyed). It could also be a non-combat puzzle that needs to be accomplished to seal away the demons (I'm quite fond of non-combat + combat encounters).


I hope my model of using time and theme as considerations as well as the players, enemies, environment and twists helps plan, analyze and inspire combat encounters. It is still challenging to come up with dynamic and memorable encounters, but I think every little bit helps. As always, feel free to comment.