Sunday, 29 May 2016

Dungeon Master: Player Income

Income plays a big role in tabletop role-playing games. The options and assets available to a player are partially dependent on the money they have available to spend. In some cases, the assets they have also force a certain amount of income towards the players. In some campaigns, this plays more of a role since there are bigger expenses. For these kinds of situations, I hope to outline some tips.

Expenses Needing More Income

If you plan to have your characters managing a kingdom, they will need access to far more money and resources than a typical dungeon delving campaign. This will also be true if they will need to craft expensive one-of-a-kind items. If the players will be outmatched (see my previous article), they may also need more money to help hire help, bodyguards and to buy items to help tip the odds. There could also be role-playing reasons for doing so. Instead of raiding shiny things for their income, they may be getting paid a salary in order to serve an organization. A portion of their income may be taken to pay off a debt or something similar.

Spending Money

Though it may seem apparent, it's important to keep in mind the different ways players can spend money. If you want your players to spend money for role-play reasons, they need to have the money available and spending money should create results that are beneficial enough. If not, they'll take the best option and ignore the rest. If they have too much money to spend, money won't matter anymore. Summarized, if you want to make the players rich, they should still have reasons to spend money and things to spend money on.

Guides Are Suggestions

Dungeon Master Guides tend to have tables for rolling general things like treasure. It's good to remember that these are suggestions and can be easily manipulated or changed by the Dungeon Master. If more money needs to be sent towards the players, you can either increase it however you want or just take the maximum value from the table depending on the needs. A particularly rich dragon could have much more than the tables say. Make sure it makes sense in the narrative, including consequences that result.

Making Money Outside Combat

In my opinion, the section of the Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide on running a business isn't very good. Instead, thinking about how much an enterprise (or castle, etc.) should cost and how much it should take to break even (I'd imagine most people wouldn't want an enterprise that takes 3 lifetimes to break even). After that, decide on possible consequences of good time period versus a bad one to use as a modifier on income. People tend to be fine with these kinds of things if they make of them themselves.  

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Dungeon Master: Fighting Above Level

Sometimes, it makes sense that a party will be fighting a challenge that is beyond their normal means. Proper tactics can also turn an impossible battle into a winnable, even if extremely difficult, one. However, a lot of the time I've seen this occur, it did not end well. For this reason, I hope to go over some tips that can help make situations that are winnable, enjoyable and make sense.

Players Shouldn't Always Win

I don't think players should always win. If they go out of their way to find and proceed to pick a fight with an ancient dragon at level 1, I don't feel bad if they die. There will probably be ways out and there could be good reason to end up on bad terms with an ancient dragon (trying to steal something from its hoard), but these are different than picking an unwinnable fight. Clearly stupid actions can lead to death and should in a serious game (comedy games are a different story). What I'm talking about here is different. If the intention from the start is to let the players fight above their level and triumph in a difficult situation, this when what I'm suggesting should be used.

Magic and Other Items

Magic items present a very effective way to let a party hit above their level. For example, a sun blade gives a party a much better chance against a vampire spawn. Mathematically, it would allow a level 4-5 character (if they have a high armor class and didn't roll hit points poorly) to take on a challenge rating 5 vampire spawn. The item needs to either specifically target a weakness or give a significant enough effect that it can make up for a level difference. Failing that, multiple items can be given to the party but care needs to be taken. Depending on the magic items given, future situations may be made easier as well. This can be adjusted by giving tougher enemies, but this should be considered ahead of time.

Godly Intervention

Fighting a powerful enemy, the players may find themselves with a powerful godly ally. In the most basic case, such a godly being can bestow benefits similar to a magic item. However, there are also many other effects a godly being can grant. They can also give connections, locations, and access to allies that otherwise would not be accessible. In the most dire of circumstances, they may even intervene themselves (make sure the players still play an important role if this happens).

External Help

The number of players is not necessarily the size of the party. If the party is facing a true threat, it makes sense that other people will be willing to help since their own livelihood depends on it. Even if the threat is smaller, there are potential allies out there that can help. Having 8 people instead of 4 can greatly even out the odds, even if the additional 4 people are weaker than the player characters. Also, tools and weapons like ballistas, canons, battlements, alchemist's fire, and the like can be used to improve the odds of an extremely difficult situation. A young black dragon is going to be too much for a level 5 party. It's a different situation if the level 5 party has 4 ballistas and can lure the dragon into range by using the egg they stole.


Some situations favour the party. Even if they are outmatched normally, they can take advantage of a situation to give them the edge. Since the Dungeon Master controls the scene and chose to pit the players against something difficult to kill, it is also partly their job to think of situations that will allow the party to win. Against a vampire, the day time can be exploited to great effect. 

Consider Escape

Even in a perfectly balanced encounter, die rolls may go poorly and tactics can unexpectedly backfire. In cases where players are fighting something normally out of their league, such a situation is even worse. In these cases, retreat may be the only option left. Since the odds are already weighed against the players and only brought back to a similar level due to the above techniques, the group will most likely lack tools available to a party of the right level for the encounter (most noticeably hit points and class abilities). The result is that escape will probably be taken more often. Expecting this, consider what ways a party can use to escape and leave such opportunities open. There will be some situations where escape will be less feasible, but in these cases the choice of when to strike can be left up to the players. It is then their responsibility to choose the option with the best odds of success and the best odds of escape if things go wrong.  

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Dungeon Master: Fear in Games

I, like many others in my group, appreciate a good horror movie. However, movies and tabletop role-playing games are two different kinds of media and as such the methods available are different. Though I by no means will claim to be a master of tabletop horror, I've seen what works for the games I've run and hope that someone else can benefit.

Jump Scares and Reveals

Short of paying someone to dress up in a monster costume and scare people while they are lost in the game (that sounds a little tempting now...), a Dungeon Master can't really use jump scares. If a Dungeon Master is really sneaky, they can slip some creepy sound effects. I've seen it have some really good reactions if the players didn't see it coming. Otherwise, the appearance of a miniature doesn't have that same reaction as a jump scare in a film (I'm not a very big fan of them in movies either). For it to inspire some kind of reaction, the players needed to have some kind of experience in the past. If they run into the creature unprepared after having seen the damage it can do, it creates the sense of danger that makes them fear for their character's lives. As a result, it is more based on the build up to the reveal.

Properly describing a particularly monstrous creature can create a reaction, but that fear of death is generally more powerful to creating horror in my experience. If a player has a character they don't care about and they run across a particularly nasty sounding creature, they might think it sounds cool but they probably won't be afraid.

Unease and Dread

Creating suspense, dread and good environments is where the main meat of the horror is. Doing this isn't easy, but it can become fairly natural with some practice. There tend to be certain kinds of creepy and unsettling that Dungeon Master's like. I generally liked the unexpected detail under the seemingly normal. In order to do this, you try to make something appear as normal as possible from a distance and in passing. However, as the players spend more time at the location and interacting with the inhabitants, strange details start coming up. It can also be directed at people instead of a location. The seemingly reliable ally can slowly start looking more and more sinister and suspicious as time goes on.

A major thing I found that generally works is the breaking of a norm or rule. A door broken off its hinges isn't unsettling because of what is seen. It's unsettling because the party heard it moments ago and even the 20 strength fighter would struggle to match such a feat. The implication that something not normal is now close by and capable of damage is what makes it unsettling. The reasonable expectations of discovering the source also factors in.

Cornering the Party

If the players are trying to accomplish a goal after they got something scary mad at them, losing their options one by one creates suspense and builds that tension before the reveal (wizards they can consult keep showing up missing or dead). It also helps to foster that reveal of the unknown and the feeling of powerless-ness. However, this needs to be done extremely carefully. Because they are playing a tabletop role-playing game, players need to continue to have some choice over their actions. You want to make them feel like they are running out of options and desperate but that there may be some kind of hope out there as well as choices to make. It also partially depends on your party, since some people/characters may be optimistic even in the face of impossible odds. It may even give them reason to try harder (they want to prove they can survive). As always, consider your audience.

The Details

Properly describing the environment in a way that builds a feeling of creepiness is a necessity. You want that uneasiness. However, the details can vary depending on the players you have. If in the door example there are also claw marks, it helps give some information about the threat that may be present. For some people, this might make it less scary because it takes away some of the unknown. For others, knowing that the creature also has sharp claws adds to the danger. Regardless, details are important. Even if there are no claw marks, you can describe the way the wood or other material broke to hammer in the oddness and the threat without ever saying it.  

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Curse of Strahd Top 3 Reuse

Adventures present many opportunities for reuse, though some adventures produce more opportunities than others. With the release of Curse of Strahd recently, I want to go over the top 3 things from the adventure that can be reused as well as some honourable mentions.


I find that I cannot have enough maps. As such, adventures like this are a good source of reusable maps. You already bought it, why not get some more mileage out of it? Some are very situation and as such aren't as useful for reuse. In the case of Curse of Strahd, there is a mix of situational and reusable maps. There are towers and villages that can easily be reused as needed. There are also some harder to reuse examples like Castle Ravenloft. Reusing Castle Ravenloft in its entirety, while possible, isn't that practical in my opinion. However, floors can be reused in order to get a basic floor plan of a keep or a castle. Some staircases may need to be removed or lead to completely different maps though. If you are doing theatre of mind and forcing players to sketch the rooms as they go through, it'll be even easier. A large portion of the maps from the adventure detail Castle Ravenloft. There are some more generic maps as well, such as the general layout of a church, camp, shop and winery that can easily be reused. The werewolf den can also be easily used to create a personalized dungeon.

Scares and False Scares

Curse of Strahd is the only adventure out of all of those published by Wizards of the Coast for D&D 5th edition that embraces horror. As a result, there are some scares and false scares that can be lifted, converted or be used as inspiration to create brand new scares (K10 and K27 are two of my favourites, though K27 is easier to reuse). Most of the scares will need some level of conversation or only be inspiration since they tend to be closely tied to a location or idea. However, it's still a good resource to have and if needed, entire rooms can be lifted along with the scare inside. The ones that are located in Castle Ravenloft are very similar or exactly the same as in I6:Ravenloft and as such I6:Ravenloft can be consulted if you have it. I think the ones that occur outside of Castle Ravenloft are unique to Curse of Strahd (someone correct me if I'm wrong).

Amber Temple

Some locations in Curse of Strahd can be easily lifted and reused with some minor tweaks such as Argynvostholt and the Krezk Abbey. However, my favourite is the Amber Temple. The sarcophagi are very well done. The descriptions and the trade that is purposed is something that has a great amount of atmosphere. I also find that a place of forbidden knowledge, or a place of evil and power comes up often when playing D&D. As a result, such a location becomes easy to reuse. It's very easy to make it smaller if needed and to add a revelation for a campaign that isn't related to Strahd. Even if the entire map is changed, the sarcophagi are very intriguing. The idea of a place made to house evil things to keep them from the wrong hands being misused is also a great concept. Out of all of the locations in the adventure, this is the one I am most likely to lift.

Honourable Mentions

I also want to give an honourable mention to the phantom warrior. Some of the NPCs are very specific to the adventure (Strahd) but the phantom warrior is really easy to reuse. The Barovian witch is also quite easy to reuse and due to its low challenge rating is a good possibility even at level 1. Removing the claws and changing their appearance, they can easily be turned into a wizard that a level 1 party could comfortably face. The guardian portrait, Strahd zombie, broom of animated attack, tree blight, animated halberds, and wereravens are easily converted and used in other adventures.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Dungeon Master: Necromancer Cult Formation

I've did it before, so I'll do it again. This time it'll be a group of death cultists and their leaders. Hopefully someone will find of use and even if they don't, I'll probably use it somewhere.

8 Cultists
1 Acolyte (Bless, Cure Wound, Inflict Wound) *

* Can be increased to 2 if greater challenge is needed.
** Find stats for both here.


The cultists will swarm hostile targets and attack until they get other orders. The leaders will try to keep their cultists alive but also keep one spell slot in reserve for an inflict wound. Using the screen of their cultists it allows the acolyte leaders to come within range. If the fight is clearly lost, the acolytes will try to escape while leaving their cultists to hold up the enemy. They could also try to gather reinforcements and come back if such an option presents itself.


The size of the cult should be planned ahead of time, I think, as well as the type of cult. Doing so allows for possible reinforcements to be planned as well as story points. The loss of part of a larger cult could result in hunting parties to find out what happened, who did it and to avenge the loss. It also helps determine the role of the cult in a campaign. A small one may play a small role in one particular part. A bigger cult could provide for resistance through the entire campaign.


One cult could have good or bad relations with another or with established and well accepted religions. This could mean that the players gain unexpected allies through their conflict with the cultists. They could also gain unexpected enemies in the same way. This could be more complicated as well. A group may be against the cultists, but also against the players because of how they handled the situations they encountered the cultists in. The loss of an acolyte could also set plans back days, weeks, or even months depending on the importance of the figure.

Things Not Going as Planned

Decide before hand if the group is so devoted to their cause that they will not retreat, or if they will retreat if their leader(s) are killed. When this occurs, they will retreat without any roll being made. Otherwise, they will continue to push forward unless an order made by their leader(s) tells them otherwise. Depending on the kind of cult, the leader may be the most important consideration. In other cases, a particular item could be fallen back to and defended instead (in such a case, the leader would be less important than the goal of the group).