Sunday, 31 January 2016

Dungeon Master: Dead vs. Empty

It should be fairly obvious at this point that I'm generally a fan of using undead. However, the location that undead are used in is also important for establishing the mood of a session. As I result, I'll be talking about some key things to consider in such a case and focus on the difference between a location that is empty and a location that is dead.

How Is Dead Different from Empty?

The difference between these two words and their meaning is important, particularly when dealing with a location that was hit by a catastrophe (large undead typically result from a catastrophe). If a place is empty, it feels like no one was there before. That sounds obvious, but it is distinctly different from a location being dead. A dead location was once alive and there should be evidence that suggests what the place looked like in life. Depending on the location (even the amount of time passed since the catastrophe occurred), the impression and approach will be different. If the city has been abandoned for centuries, the grandeur it once could be gone and torn away by looters. On the other hand, an area hit by a fresh catastrophe could look exactly the way it looked before but lacking characters. Each of these will lead to a different mood and overall different feeling game.


I don't have anything against the idea of a location being empty. A small area hit by a catastrophe (giant magic accident, maybe?) could have been abandoned by even the animals that would normally be there. Such a situation can be very eerie for the players, especially if they are used to bustling cities. Another example could be a mostly empty and difficult to inhabit place (extreme desert or arctic). The emptiness in these cases would make finding something that much more exciting, even if the find is rather mundane by the standards of a city (e.g. finally seeing an animal or a person).

How to Create a Dead Location?

If you want to make a location that feels like it was once alive but then died, I feel that you have to consider what it was like in life. The easy way in such a case is to create the location as if it was alive and then go through the steps that lead to its death. A city that died from disease may look completely different from a city that died due to an undead army, a regular army or simply fell into disuse. The process that would be applied to the city in each of these cases would most likely be different. It will take more work than just coming up with the final product but doing so helps me come up with more details as well as flesh out the location. It's important to do the same with special rooms. Is the dust even or are there rather fresh footprints and drag lines when entering an old room in a tomb? Are there scorch marks from torches on the wall? What's the smell like? Are there nicks in the wall from furniture that was moved? Scratches in the floor? Broken pieces of pottery on the floor (broken during quick looting)? Are the people who lived there still there (body in the corner or as skeletons)? Are there the broken remains of 4 bunk beds but only 3 skulls on the ground?

Applies to Characters Too

The same kind of approach works for characters too. If you have an evil character, I find I achieve better results if I start with a character that is good or neutral and then apply a process. This way, I'm forced to write the backstory and really think about the character. I also like to do this for characters that are older.  

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Dungeon Master: Describing Environments

A good Dungeon Master is able to bring a location to life. An important part of doing so is to provide details on locations. However, especially for new Dungeon Masters, it can be a challenge. For that reason I hope to cover a few basic tips that should help make bring locations to life and make them memorable.

Other than Sight

I tend to fine just about every Dungeon Master I've played with is able to describe the visuals of an area. There may be some details left out that would have really helped to bring the location to life, but the visuals of a location will still be explained. However, I find that sound and smell are often left out. Temperature can be very important too but I find this is usually handled brought up when dealing with extremes but not mentioned when going into an underground cavern.

How Much to Describe?

You don't want to spend too long describing a room because the game has to keep rolling. Also, keep in mind that the players can ask you questions about the location. However, I try to make sure the visual aspects of the room are described (if you use miniatures, the grid and map layout help greatly) because they are incredibly important to combat considerations. Light and obscurement are also important here so that you and the players don't forget about any bonuses or penalties they may have from these factors (these factors also don't appear on the board if you forget). However, I also try to describe noteworthy sounds or lack of them as well intense smells. These other elements are extremely important when they act as a warning to the players (noises and a foul smell coming from the other side of the door).

Forgetting to Describe Changes

One problem I've seen is that certain senses will get attention in a certain room (rotting smell) but won't be addressed when you move into another room. In my case, my players understand that if I don't change my description, the sound or smell is still present unless it doesn't make sense (if you travel away from town and into the forest, you won't hear crowds anymore). However, your players might also assume that if you don't describe a sound or smell, it is neutral. It's important that the Dungeon Master understands what their players assume and treats them accordingly. For me and my players, having to think through this can break immersion. It's also generally good to establish an understanding with your players so that they realize sometime you may forget and they should ask if they aren't sure.


One of the most memorable things for my players is transitions. How does the room come to life when the light of their torches peels back the dark? Does something reflect the light back (reflections can create uniqueness by themselves)?

Aim for One Unique Thing

I try to make sure that one part of my dungeon or session is something unique my players will remember. There can be obvious parts such as a shocking plot development or a challenging fight. However, it can be a weird and unique room that captures their imagination. One example I can think of recently is that there was a room we entered that was brightly lit but where nothing cast a shadow. It's those kinds of descriptions and unique details that can etch themselves into the memories of your players.  

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition OGL and SRD Thoughts

This last week has been an important one for D&D 5th edition. We have an OGL and SRD for this new edition of D&D. We didn't have one for all of 4th edition but now have one fairly early for this edition. We also have the release of the Dungeon Master's Guild. Though it's early, I hope to give a few of my thoughts.

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition OGL

I would have preferred something like this at launch (to help clear up the legalities of non-Wizards of the Coast content) but better late than never. As it is, it's quite impressive. Even if you have no intention of making any content at this moment, it provides rules for many classes that up until now were only available in the Player's Handbook (sorcerer, paladin, etc.). It also includes many more spells, monsters and races (if you wanted to play a tielfing without buying the Player's Handbook, now you can).

There are some limitations. It only provides one archetype per class and duplicates some content from the basic rules. However, if you intended to use this as a search-able PDF for 5th edition, it mostly works. There is content such as backgrounds that are not fully replicated in the SRD. As a result, you will need to flip through multiple books. Not all of the spells are included either and based on twitter posts I've seen so far, it is largely limited to things that were previously published in a SRD but for the current edition. Monsters seem a bit odd to me. If you wanted to get as many monsters as you can for free, you would have to look through the basic rules, the SRD and the free supplements for the currently published adventures. I kind of wish all the content in the SRD was also included in the basic rules so that almost everything could be found in one place (I'm not sure if they could roll in the monsters and other material from the free adventure supplements).

Dungeon Master's Guild

It seems that the main difference between normal publication using the OGL and using the Dungeon Master's Guild is access to the special Dungeon Master's Guild store, possibly having material incorporated in the current edition as well as using Forgotten Realms properties. There has already been quite a good amount of images and map material provided on the website to be used by authors. I could be missing something, but that seems to be the main thing (the author gets 50% of revenue).

So far, there seems to be quite a lot of material already coming in. I'm really happy to see it, but I mostly love adventures and I haven't seen too much of that besides the Adventurer's League ones Wizards of the Coast has put online for sale (it's nice to see that normal people can buy these now, though be aware they are of the same quality as we have seen in Dungeon+). It's nice to be able to search in one place. I'm hoping we get a tag just for the new OGL soon as well to make searching the rest of DriveThruRPG easy.

Increase in Content

The above should help increase the amount of content published for this edition of D&D (now that the legality is handled) and make it more accessible. I'll also be doing my best to review and comment on material when there isn't officially published stuff to review. Hopefully it'll be a help to all of you who read this (if there are any).  

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Dungeon Master: Adventures as Problems

There are many different ways to design an adventure or a dungeon. None of them are wrong as long as they result in fun experiences for players. However, using a different method can yield fresh and new experiences for players. For this reason I hope to try and explain the idea of thinking of these things as problems presented to the player. Some of this is similar to one of my earlier pieces about the world, but this is more aimed at designing and analyzing situations.

What I Mean

When looking at what the players will do, it's easy and even natural at times to think about their actions and include them in your design. This, however, can lead to railroading at times, though a good adventure designer will notice it and correct it. The alternative is to not even consider what the players will do but instead create the situation. As a result, the goal is internal consistency and an interesting situation. I go after this goal by thinking of the adventure as a problem we are posing for the players.

Basic Format

  1. The first step is to think of a problem for the players. “Get item X from the cave.” “Kill this person.” “Win the trust of X.”
  2. Who is preventing the players progress?
  3. Why are they doing so?
  4. Life would be far less eventful if everything was as easy as walking up to the problem and fixing it. There will probably be some complications, restrictions or opportunities for the players. “Half of the occupants walk away on day 5 because the bad guy refused to pay their wages.” “Guards change every 8 hours and it's easier to sneak/ambush when the guards are tired close to the end of their shift.” “Reinforcements are coming in 2 weeks.” “The ritual will begin as soon as everything is in order (in 1d4 days).”

As players interact with the situation, they will add their own compilations, restrictions or opportunities. Having a couple there help give a starting point for more elaborate plans (it's also possible you'll think of a few things that the players won't, leading to more fun as they try to find weak points in the situation they can exploit). Eventually, they will succeed or fail and as a result end up in a new situation (bad guy is chasing after them, they need to get the artifact from the bad guy's keep instead of the less well defended country side, etc.).

Don't Assume Player Actions

The key in this approach is that the situation is designed and understood by the Dungeon Master but the Dungeon Master did not assume player actions. As a result, the situation will change based on the players actions as they try to go after their goals and hopefully not railroad the players.

It's Not Perfect

You can still end up railroading players to some extent just by the nature of the situation and other factors (the cave system you designed has one entrance and one path through it). When everything is done, look at the situation and think about different approaches that players can try to use to accomplish their goals. You don't want to be exhaustive and you don't want to let the options influence your design. However, if you have serious trouble thinking of 3 or 4 general ideas quickly, the situation may be too restrictive (for my players, it probably is).

As a Diagnostic Tool

Even if you already designed a dungeon with particular important events for the characters, thinking about internal consistency is still important. By looking at the dungeon through the lens of the baddies and their plans you can at the very least verify the dungeon's consistency and at most make changes that make the dungeon more coherent and engaging. Most of the Dungeon Masters I know already do this. However, it's important to verify that the situation makes sense without the players there.  

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Dungeon Master: D&D 5th Edition Rules Reflection 2015

At this point, we've had some time to get used to the new D&D rule set. In general I've been very happy running it. There have, however, been a couple of areas I felt the reals were lacking (I've already mentioned my feelings on the stealth rules and expertise). However, there are other things that I haven't talked about yet have come to my attention.

Overland Travel

I usually used the Dungeon Master's Guide to determine overland travel speed, though you can figure it out by looking at the travel speeds provided in the basic rules and comparing it to mounts. However, the basic rules mention that most mounts can travel twice the fastest player speed for an hour and then don't mention how long it takes until the mount can do it again. Also, why wouldn't a party travelling at a fast pace not have their mount sprint like that (is there some penalty that is missing?)? On a mount, can you sneak (on one hand, it makes sense to say no but on the other, how do cavalry ambushes happen?)?

So far my verdict has been no to sneaking (it is hard to notice people from far away when there is cover even when they aren't sneaking) and to just use the speeds of the mount and perform calculations for longer periods of time (this is included in the Dungeon Master's Guide). I allow slower mounts to sprint twice the speed of a fast travel pace for an hour and then have an hour break. For faster mounts (60 ft.), I allow them to have double their normal speed. This last part about sprinting can be removed (though it makes the text in the Player's Handbook and basic rules mean nothing).

Ready Action

Ready action and extra attack don't go together well in the rules. In fact, as written, they don't go together at all. However, I feel it is perfectly valid to allow the extra attacks especially when wizards can ready a spell. The character readying an attack already loses their action and reaction, and I feel that is enough punishment. The fighter can't ready 2 actions anyway (they get only 1 reaction) so action surge isn't even useful in this way.

Wizard/Fighter Multiclassing

The fighter's action surge ability is an incredibly potent and useful ability. You can also take 2 levels of fighter to get it and cast a 9th level spell followed by an 8th level spell in one turn (assuming a 18/2 wizard/fighter multiclass). This may seem a bit much, especially when looking at what 9th level spells there are. If you don't like this, either spells themselves can be looked at to make sure casting two in one turn isn't too good (I generally think 8th level spells are largely fine but have some problems with 9th level spells) or multiclassing can be restricted by the Dungeon Master (I've already played in games that did just that). I also think this is mostly an issue at higher levels of play.

Master of Death

I'm not a fan of this perk for a monk, unless I'm missing something (I'm generally cautious of any ability that lets players shrug off death). I don't have too much of problem with the ability but I think 1 ki is a bit too cheap. Bumping it up to 5 or so makes it more it more reasonable I think (attaching it to a reaction could also work but would make it less useful since a monk could just be attacked twice in one turn).