Sunday, 31 July 2016

Dungeon Master: Twists

Twists are those things people tend to love or hate. However, when done well they can do amazing things for a story. As a result, I hope to go over some of the important things to think about when plotting twists in tabletop role-playing game campaigns. Hopefully someone out there will find it useful.

Do Your Players Like Twists?

If your players really don't like twists in movies, books and other things, I'd be weary or at the very least careful with plot twists. It's that idea of trying to give players an experience that they enjoy. It gets a bit trickier if the group is split on plot twists. In these cases, I find a few carefully executed ones tend to go over well. It also helps to know your players. I've seen people who hate the “Outer Limits” style twists at the end but are fine with twists in the middle of the story that make sense in retrospect (back stabbed by that one guy who, looking back on it, makes sense).

Too Many Twists

I find it's easy to get too twist happy. If your players like the hilarious insanity of twists within twists, that's fine. However, if it unintentionally sneaks up on you, that's a problem. I'd focus on a few (around 3 tops) main twists that might occur through the campaign. There might be situations where a spontaneous twist will arise and it is here where things will need to be reeled in. The power of a twist, in my experience, partially comes from expectations being broken. If the players expect a twist, it loses some of its power. For that reason, not throwing a twist every opportunity you have is for your own benefit.

Scale of Twist

I briefly touched on this, but the size of the twist at play could play a role. All right, so your good friend turns out to be a good vampire. That might be fine (assuming it's not an evil vampire pretending to be good). The rest of the campaign is still fine since it doesn't paint all of the events up until now in a new light. It also probably doesn't change the course of the campaign and force the party to re-evaluate their decisions (though it could, and if it did it would be a bigger twist). However, if it turns out the players were working for the bad guy (quite common plot twist), their achievements before this point start looking like losses for the good guys. Some people like this, some don't. At the very least, thinking about how much is affected by a twist is important. I've seen situations before where a twist had quite large rippling effects through a campaign. It lead to some great fun, but not all Dungeon Masters like that level of unpredictability brought on by themselves (they prefer that the unpredictability comes from the players).  

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Dungeon Master: Challenging Players

Getting the level of challenge right is a bit of an art. It is, however, important in order to engage players. I hope to give my advice on how challenge should be considered in tabletop role-playing games.

Remember That There is No Reload

When playing tabletop role-playing games, there is typically no reload (you could, in theory, allow for a Prince of Persia style time rewinding mechanic). Even if present, players probably often don't want one. They want to get on with the story, see new things and role-play new situations. However, this means that players can't retry a combat encounter and use the very best tactics. There will be some experimentation needed. Also, since dice are a core part of the game, bad luck is possible. This means that the level of difficulty will need to allow for some less-than-optimal gameplay.

Different Groups Need Different Challenges

The experience of the group as well as their knowledge outside the game plays a massive part. Some players are very good at combat systems in general and can make what the rules call a difficult encounter look easy through great tactical use. Others may have issues with a normal encounter, especially if the terrain is used against them. It's not only limited to combat though. A too rough riddle or puzzle can cause a massive problem for a party, especially if answering the riddle or puzzle is the only way to progress. The preference of the group to the kind of challenge (thinking through puzzles or through combat) also effects the enjoyment of the players.

Different Kinds of Challenges

A mix of different kinds of challenges is also generally helpful. Some people could play combat encounters in D&D until the universe ends. My players prefer that the challenges they face are varied. I'd say this is more typical than not but still, knowing your players is important. The most obvious ones are combat encounters and puzzles. However, convincing someone can also be a challenge (this relies heavily on role-play). Battles tend to be similar to combat encounters but have different rules. They also tend to have more pieces on the board in my experience and different tactics. In other cases, the challenge can come from solving a mystery. This is kind of like solving a puzzle, but it's a bit different than solving the puzzle lock on a door in a dungeon. Instead, the challenge comes from finding or noticing clues, creating plausible conclusions and then trying to cleverly confirm or reject them. There is also a different way to look at puzzle besides just difficulty. Convincing a king may be difficult because of the work, time, and effort they need to use to do it. The favours required would be long and dangerous. In this case, the challenge isn't necessarily one event (role-play and/or dice roll) but the long journey to accomplish the goal (with many smaller challenges were failure may lurk).

Challenges Should Reflect the Story

The challenges presented to the players should be coherent. In my case, my players typically pay special attention to this kind of thing. The villain, if established as extremely powerful, should be so when they face them in combat. There is some allowance (maybe when they were lower level the villains henchmen were harder than the villain after they prepared for the final battle) but the relative difficulty of tasks should be considered to prevent breaking immersion. Storming a castle should be harder for a single person than storming a small house in the middle of the forest.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Dungeon Master: The Idea of Balance

Up until this point I've written quite a bit on the idea and issue of balance in tabletop role-playing games and in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. However, looking back on it, I feel I put the cart before the horse. Balance is not the most important thing, though it can impact a game. However, it is also heavily dependent on those playing. For those that are new to D&D or tabletop role-playing, I would say not too worry too much about it and not to be scared off by my talks about balance or anyone else's. However, I have a few things I want to say on the matter.

Fun and Playing First

The goal of the game is to have fun, and not to create a perfectly balanced experience. The way games are designed and that many people like playing, there is an asymmetry built into the game and the players have to work together to utilize their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. Even then, there is nothing preventing a party of bards from having adventures in the country side (in fact, it's quite fun). The goal is to have fun and tell a good (or at the very least entertaining) story.

When Is It Important?

If players are not contributing to the action for a while, they will probably start to get bored. Some might be perfectly happy to take a break and watch the story unfold, but others prefer to interact. You probably don't want one person monopolizing a large period of time during play because their character is simply the best. If that happens, and everyone else doesn't contribute, that is when there is a problem. Some people have a higher threshold for this kind of thing.

At the same time, some players care about results that their characters bring. In this case, even if the player really likes the idea of playing a ranger, they might make a DEX based bow fighter because they feel they perform better in combat and reasonably well enough for scouting and the like with a multiclass into rouge. In these situations it's not game breaking (and features that rangers get will still not be available) and the core rules tend to be at least somewhat balanced. However, balance will be important if you decide to make your own class. If your new class is perceived as just worse, no one will take it and the time you could have spent doing other things is gone. If your class is too good, you'll have classes that are no longer used.

Happy Players

The important thing to extract from the above is that the players should be happy or at least alright with how things are. Different groups have different ideas of what is fair and what they find enjoyable. Generally, though, having multiple options and tactics available for the players is a key part of it. If one player is handling everything for 20 minutes straight, chances are someone else is bored. Emphasizing role-play is also something that takes the focus away from mechanics and balance, instead focusing on the experience.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Dungeon Master: Know Your Players

I've mentioned what I'm about to say here and looking back on it, I regret not dedicating a post to it earlier. This is mainly because of how important it is to home games and how often I say it. Do what's fun and know your players (that way you know what's fun). The goal is to have fun and knowing your players is invaluable to attack that goal. By knowing what your players like, don't like, what they would see coming, what they wouldn't, what they could solve, and what they couldn't, you are better able to prepare a game. 

What If You Don't Know?

There are cases when you might not know some or all of your players. Maybe you are running a game for a new group for the first time. Maybe you are running a game at a public event. In these cases, my advice is hard to implement. Over the course of playing, however, you get to know your players.

You can also ask your players ahead of time if you are doing a home game. I typically have many different campaign ideas or old modules I would like to run. By asking players some questions about some of the big pictures things they want, I can narrow down my choices and also make sure as many players as possible find something they like.

What If You Can't Find Out Ahead of Time?

There is a limit to how much you can ask your players before they start running the game themselves. In public play you can't ask ahead of time either. In these cases you need to just run the game and do your best to let your players do what they want as they go through. In public play, there is also a far stricter time constraint so it is more directed as well.

The Dungeon Master should also be having fun running the game. That doesn't mean that the Dungeon Master having fun is enough for a game to be successful and fun, but I find it is far more likely than a Dungeon Master who doesn't want to be there. If the Dungeon Master has no clue about what the players like, doing something they like and having the players go along, live through and modify the story typically works well. The important thing to remember is the story belongs to everyone.


  • It's important to know your players
  • Go with the flow and follow what players want to do (the story belongs to everyone)
  • As a Dungeon Master, you should also be having fun

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Dungeon Master: Games for 2

Over the course of my time running tabletop role-playing games, I've run groups of many sizes. I've even talked about running games for small groups before. However, today I'd like to focus on running games with 2 people including the Dungeon Master. It's quite a difficult kind of game to run and keep interesting. It also has challenges that are unique to it. While some of these will sound similar to my article on small groups, the problems are magnified further since there isn't a group anymore. It also becomes much easier to accidentally outshine the players and make it a game where you, the Dungeon Master, are just playing alone with occasional input.


Sometimes, you'll find that getting a bigger group isn't feasible but your player still wants to play a tabletop role-playing game such as D&D. Most often, it's a couple playing or a younger child with an older sibling or a parent. In these situations, playing with only 1 player can still be preferable to not playing at all. I would avoid doing this because the rest of the group failed to show. A single player wouldn't be able to realistically face the threat in that kind of situation and you don't want to cut out important plot occurrences for other players. I've seen cases where a game was run and a benefit to the campaign was provided, but it was not major and didn't involve the main plot. The best way to describe it is a side quest that happened during the party's downtime.

The Dungeon Master Filling In

Arguably the most straightforward way of running a D&D game for a single player this is to have the Dungeon Master fill in for the other 3 players in the party. I've done this before and seen it done. It's hard to keep track of everything, to role-play 3 major characters as well as doing the background stuff. There is also a bigger problem. The Dungeon Master will have knowledge about what is coming in the future, since they run the game, but also has to play the main characters. This means that you run the risk of having moments of the Dungeon Master party members looking completely useless or out shinning the one player.

I'd personally not recommend doing it the above way. Instead, have the single player hire specialists and body guards. This way, the one player can still do the majority of talking, interactions and furthering the plot. The hired NPCs may even be quite a few levels below the player. The Dungeon Master can still use the player rules to make the hired characters, but take special care to make sure the player isn't out shown. It also means that since they are hired, they won't have as close of a connection to the story and plot points. The result is that it is far more believable that the Dungeon Master controlled characters won't know what to do and defer to their leader. The Dungeon Master will still need to role-play a lot, but I find it's a lot less taxing this way. Doing this, however, still doesn't fix the added strain on the Dungeon Master in Combat since they have to play both sides.

The One Player Controls the Entire Party

If the single player controls an entire party, we have the reverse problem. 4 characters or more are a lot to control as a player and talking to yourself is even more awkward as a player. However, it does solve the conflict the Dungeon Master is in between being a player and running the game.

Combine the Above

Finally, we arrive to the most stable solution in my opinion. You let the player control the party by giving orders in combat and other situations but you, as the Dungeon Master, role-play them. It also lets you occasionally be defiant, have realistic conflict within the party and gives many other options. The role-play situation is solved since being hired help and more distant from the conflict as well as less knowledgeable, the rest of the party will be in a worse position to interact. If they are lower level as well, it gives more opportunity for the player to shine.

The down side is that it results in a rather limiting situation. It only makes sense when hired people make sense. If something is super-secret, you wouldn't want some random people you hired off the street. It also doesn't work with some kinds of characters, such as the solitary character forced into a group by circumstance. It works really well for a noble character who often hires body guards, court magicians and similar personnel. It also often works for a soldier character who can call up old army buddies. In these cases, there are often times where a clever Dungeon Master can think of something (help provided from the local church of a god since interests align) but in some cases it will be awkward. If the NPCs need to be paid (the help from the Church may not need to be paid), money may need to come more readily to the player in order to afford the new expense. Having a single share of the loot may be enough to hire everyone else or a sharing scheme can be worked out (if the player is higher level, they'll probably get a bigger cut).

Level the Player Accordingly

Of course, the situation can be handles by leveling the character higher as mentioned in my previous article about small groups of player characters. It can also be handled by reducing the challenge to a level their character can handle (can be a lot less impressive in combat at low levels, and makes running officially published adventures harder, but works reasonably well for role-play heavy games) or letting the player have more than one class at once. All of these methods are mentioned in the previous article. It also has the added result of making the player feel more awesome. It can be combined with the above, but the people hired will need to be significantly weaker than the player. In those cases, the hired party members are there to make things more exciting since they allow even more enemies can be added in combat. However, they play a lesser role than in the above situations.