Sunday, 27 November 2016

Dungeon Master: Skill Challenges Revisited

One of the things heavily pushed in 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons was the idea of skill challenges. Even something like navigating a town and finding the bad guy turned into a skill challenge. When 5th edition was released, quite a few of the people I knew playing 4th edition switched over. When they did, however, a few of them took the idea of skill challenges with them. Due to this exposure, and coming across one recently when looking for free stuff to review on the Dungeon Masters Guild, I decided to talk about it a little bit. In particular I'll try to focus on what I felt worked, what elements are useful and what I felt didn't work.

What Is a Skill Challenge?

Put simply, a skill challenge was a method of determining if the players succeeded in a task by using multiple checks to achieve successes or failures. If enough failures were achieved, the players failed and if enough successes were achieved, they would succeed. They'd often allow different skills to be used and were heavily used in 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons adventures. 


My issue with them in 4th edition was that I felt they were often overused. We get to a similar place as a result of regular play without the idea of a skill challenge. If a player wants to climb a wall and then try to jump from on top of the wall to grab a ledge, it can be easily handled by 2 different checks. Depending on which fails, the results could be different (misses the jump and landing back on the top of the wall, falling, or failing to climb at all). All of this is done without the introduction of a new mechanic.

What's Good?

One particular area that I liked skill challenges was for combat encounters. Having a short skill challenge (3 successes before 3 failures is about the longest I would try) where a player can use their skills to get a significant benefit often worked very well. Often it would force the rest of the party to protect the wizard while they tried to weaken a seal to let them advance, to prevent the summoning of an enemy later (such as a trap activation as they get closer to their objective), or breaking the magical and non-magical layers of protection of a sarcophagus. This forces another choice on the players: do we use our actions to try and do these checks or do we fight? If you have an Eldritch Knight with the arcana skill, does he keep the enemies off the wizard's back and let him concentrate, or do they both try to work on the portal to seal it, leaving the cleric and rogue to protect them? If something is complicated, it makes sense that it might take longer than one round to do. 

Be Careful with Dispel Magic

What I've sometimes seen is a skill challenge like thing for something that dispel magic could do anyway. In these cases, I typically found a few different solutions. First, having a way to solve a problem without burning spell slots is not a bad thing so I don't mind it (at earlier levels they might not even have the spell or already used the slots). In others, such as trying to close a portal ripped into existence by a powerful being, you might decide that a skill challenge like thing on top of the slot is called for (you might want to provide a bonus based on the spell slot used though so it doesn't feel like they wasted a 9th level slot). There may also be some magic or some problem (old tomb defense, for example) that can't be so easily dispelled. Maybe it's not arcane but innate to the area, or after being dispelled it quickly reforms because the cause is not destroyed (the magic trap is just temporarily deactivated).

Let's Be More General

The thing about skill challenges is that they are really just a sequence of skill checks. I've always felt that treating them as such is far more effective and versatile. Instead of “failing” after 3 unsuccessful skill checks, you give 1d10 necrotic damage each time they fail. When they successfully make 3 skill checks, they succeed. Additionally, failing or succeeding any check that is part of a skill check can lead to other outcomes. Maybe because of how well the wizard was doing, the next check is made easier. Maybe since they failed, 1d4 skeletons come back to life and attack the party (they all drop dead after 3 checks, failures or not).

This more general version comes down to this: it takes multiple skill checks to succeed at something. Failing/succeeding a certain number of times might have a bad outcome, and so failing/succeeding one time might have a bad/good outcome. When I think about it, it makes sense that some things take more than one skill and/or more than one success to accomplish. Thinking about what makes sense in context will lead to skill checks that feel much more natural. It's just sometimes they might resemble what was called a skill challenge in 4th edition. However, there is far more you can play around with that wasn't included in the description of a skill challenge. I don't think we should miss out on those situations just because our tool didn't consider them. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Devil's Rest Review

A look at Devil's Rest, a small adventure side trek available on the Dungeon Masters Guild. 

  • Solid and complete package
  • Good source of inspiration for a mini-quest
  • Though references material specific to Hand of the Wychlaran, it can easily be converted
  • Map included for the combat encounter
  • Free!

Could Go Either Way
  • Only 4 pages in length (on one it's hand short, on another that makes it a quick read and easy to run)

  • A similar encounter can be thought up by a Dungeon Master without too much difficulty (it's more of a time saver than something truly innovative)


There are a lot of very nice things about pre-written encounters/adventures. They tend to be playtested. They are a great source of inspiration (I enjoy seeing what other Dungeon Masters have done). They also just might have something that can be “reused”. Devil's Rest is one that I came across recently and felt was worth mentioning. It's short and simple but overall a nice package.

The Adventure

The adventure itself is quite simple and straight forward. However, it presents an interesting encounter that has multiple ways of being solved (including inaction). It can be used in place of a random encounter. It can also be used as a hint of things to come. Just because something is simple doesn't mean it can't be fun (it really can be, especially compared to a typical random encounter), and the fact that everything is included in this ready to go package is greatly appreciated. The idea of forcing players to try to keep something evil locked up is easy to come up with. However, having all of the details and specifics ready to go makes it far easier for new Dungeon Masters and less time consuming for experienced ones (we can modify it as we see fit and benefit from the time saved). 

The actual sealing part takes the form of a Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition like skill challenge. This means that a fluke won't doom the party. The way it's presented and used here is fine, and people who missed Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition might see something they can use. I'll be talking about skill challenges a bit more in a later post. 

It isn't the most innovative or unique encounter you'll ever read and with a bit of time you can come up with something similar. However, it's a nice overall package and while not being unique, it's the kind of encounter that comes up fairly often. A great deal of how much you like this one will come from your appreciation for the package and not expecting something you've never seen before. It's also not very long but can be a good starting point for something more. If you are new to being a Dungeon Master, it will be a good thing to see at the very least.


MAP. It's sized for miniatures too. It's finally happened. All this time complaining has led to someone listening. Alright, there's no way that's the reason. However, if everyone included maps like this with their encounters and adventures, the world would be a better place. Thank you so much. A smaller map detailing the locations of enemies in a D&D 4th edition style is also included as well as a drawing of the baddie. For something free, this is really nice. The map itself is generally well done and I could see myself reusing it. It probably won't be as exciting for people who already have a fair amount of wilderness tiles and maps.


I would grab this thing for the map alone. It's a rather short file and I'm sure you capable Dungeon Masters out there can think of something similar. However, new and old Dungeon Masters looking for an encounter can add this encounter to their game quite easily. The encounter is a complete package as well, requiring only a little bit of converting to fit into the desired setting (probably a few minutes at most). Even though I'm not new to this kind of thing, I appreciate when the details of an encounter are filled out like this. That way I can keep it to spring later. It includes everything needed so even if I forget, it's all here. It's also a good way to check out what the author is like before buying one of their full adventures.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Dungeon Master: Know Your World


By this point in my tabletop career, I've had the pleasure of running many a module and many a campaign (as relative as that measure is). I've also had the opportunity to take part as a player. As a result, I've come to see certain things that give people issues when running published adventures. The one I want to cover today is the issue of not knowing the world the adventure takes place in. I also want to go over what knowing it well buys. 

Adventures Are Incomplete

Adventures by their nature cannot cover everything. They tend to focus on the most obvious options and the way the author originally envisioned. Players can and if you run enough adventures eventually will run off the rails. However, as a Dungeon Master you don't really want it to feel like the adventure went off the rails. You want it to feel like one big whole. If there is a big difference between the two parts there is going to be a disconnected, which is something you probably want to avoid (in the right cases it might be exactly what you want).

Adventures typically give you a few of the solutions that the author thought of. One of your players might think of a clever (or not so clever) alternative to the situation. In these cases it's even more important to try to be consistent with the rest of the adventure. It's fine if a brief rest has a different feeling than the long journey to the destination. However, it probably won't be fine if a slightly different route than was intended contradicts the themes of the adventure.


The overall idea is simple. If you have a good feeling for the world you are in, you can better improvise and make your additions feel natural. For this goal there are some things that I think are more useful than others. Knowing the themes an adventure is chasing after is important. It is hard to build up a theme and atmosphere but easy to accidentally tear it down. Being aware of them is important. However, it can be quite nuanced and specific. A setting can be dark, but that may not give enough credit to the themes. Themes such as “death comes suddenly”, “power corrupts”, “anything can be bought for the right price”, “it takes a monster to kill a monster”, “for there to be light there must be darkness”, and “anything can be forgotten” can all contribute to a dark setting. However, the specific themes that are being addressed will contribute to the overall feeling. Switching themes and switching back can be a bit jarring.

Another thing to know and understand is the characters. You can of course modify characters to your liking, but understanding them beforehand helps to better make such changes. More often, if you understand your characters you can better and more believably react to your players. Having characters acting out of character is usually more jarring than going off theme in my experience.

Knowing the general area and environment is also important for consistency. The choices you make in populating the environment as well as the locations contained within influence the themes but also build up the environment. You usually want to have some level of consistency in an environment. How that consistency looks may differ (the trees, the foliage, the general darkness, language spoken, etc.). At the very least, feeling comfortable in the environment and knowing what it generally looks like makes improvisation and exploration far easier.

More Important for Longer Adventures

I typically find this kind of knowledge is more important when running larger works. The currently published 250+ page adventures by Wizards of the Coast are examples of large works where the above considerations are important. You want the parts of the campaign to fit together and after you make the improvisation in the current session, you have more to go. However, if the adventure you are running is a one-shot you can easily morph it into anything you want and fit it in anywhere.

When Making Your Own Setting

When you make your own setting, you typically know all of these things already. You generally know your characters and your location. For this reason, I find it much easier to improvise when it is my setting or at the very least my adventure. I know the themes I'm shooting for and the characters. I also know what kind of location I want. Translating someone else's adventure is harder because you don't have that same knowledge or understanding. Instead, you try to gain it as best you can from what you read. Only so many words can fit into a book. Eventually you'll reach a point where you won't understand it any better and you'll just need to give things a shot. When it's my own setting, I don't really experience this problem. The only main problem left is accidentally writing myself into a corner or making something that my players just don't get (it's my job as the Dungeon Master to communicate the adventure to my players).

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Dungeon Master: Rolling Player Health

Rolling player health is a classic feature of Dungeons & Dragons and 5th edition has it included in the rules (unlike 4th edition). However, rolling health can result in problems that an inexperienced Dungeon Master may have difficulty handling. Due to pure luck the party's cleric could end up being better at taking damage than the fighter.

Is It a Problem?

What's wrong with having a fighter that's hard to hit thanks to their armour but isn't very tough? It's as valid a character as any other! If you are rolling health, your players should go into it knowing that this kind of thing is possible and be able to roll with it. Some might not like the idea of playing a flimsy fighter. They became a fighter because they wanted to be tough. From the Dungeon Master's perspective, it's potentially an issue. Statistically, the party should be roughly fine in the long term. However, especially in early levels, lucky or unlucky rolls can have a very big influence on the total amount of health a character has. In these cases, challenge ratings and experience tables can become completely inaccurate (though how accurate they were in the first place is debatable).

Too Little Health

The party may need to play smarter and use more healing potions and other things. That's perfectly fine. You may also want to send a little less stuff at the party in order not to overwhelm them. This is especially true if you've run something before for a more average party and it was difficult. However, I've seen parties play smart and get by. Through their rests, the party has a measure of control over their hit points. It may not obviously help them in a particular combat situation, but through their rests the party can control how much hit points they go with into a combat situation. As a result, the combat encounter itself may not need to be changed but the party will need to adjust their tactics and logistics to account for their weakness.

Too Much Health

This right here is why I decided to write all of this in the first place. I had a ranger that rolled an 8 and a 9 when leveling up to level 2 and 3. The result was that they were very tough early in the game. To keep the tension, the possibility of death needs to be constant. However, the other characters didn't roll as well, excluding the fighter. As a result, adjusting the difficulty of encounters before hand wasn't very easy. Anything I did to make it harder for the ranger would also punish everyone else, who had roughly the expected hit points. However, in practice it worked well. If I wanted to challenge the party, I could be more confident putting them into deadly situations. Dice can be fickle and the health turned out to be not too much of a problem in play. Lucky damage rolls helped even things out. It also let me more confidently employ tricky tactics against the party and know that they had a bit of a buffer. If you want to put your characters into more dangerous situations than normal but still level them as normal, letting them max out or almost max out their health is an option. The result is that players feel harder to take down and as such more can be thrown their way. You will want to do so, however, or things just become too easy.

Issues with Adjusting

If we are just going to adjust things anyway, there's an argument that the rolling for health doesn't matter anymore. I'm not sure I agree, since the distribution of hit points in the party still matters. Also, taking on a group, even if it's just 2 more enemies, feels more impressive for the players generally. Even if it's not by as much as before, characters will still get better when they level up so having the characters feel like they haven't grown isn't that much of a concern. I do have to note that it can change how powerful a particular level up feels to a player. Whether you want to adjust or treat them as normal, it'll still probably work (as statistics says that getting all 9s and 10s for a fighter is very unlikely).

How Badly Skewed Are We?

How badly skewed and for how long will it affect things? If it's a 10 rolled on a d10 at level 2, it's not so bad by the time they reach level 20. However, if it's 9s and 10s all the way up to level 20, the difference becomes massive. At level 2, that good roll provides similar issues as a string of great rolls from level 2 to level 20.  At a certain point you need to do something to continue threatening these kinds of characters, whether through effects that ignore health or through more things to fight. How this is done is best left up to a case by case basis but it's something worth mentioning at the least.