Sunday, 25 December 2016

Dungeon Master: Creature Twists

I recently wrote about bosses in tabletop role-playing games and one of the things I mentioned was using twists. What I meant by twists was some kind of monster ability that changes the tactical situation. I only devoted a little bit of time to twists then and I hope to expand on it now. Remember that these kinds of twists are different than a plot twist.

When Is It Needed?

The most common times I see I need to add a twist is when there is a “boss” or when the encounter is composed of a horde of the same creature. When it's a horde, finding a few different creatures can go a long way to helping remove this kind of problem, assuming the added creatures are reasonably complex enough or result in different tactics. The other things I mentioned in my previous article still apply and can be used instead of or along with twists. You should also consider them in situations when you want to expose your players to something new.

Not Only For Bosses

Boss fights aren't the only time an encounter can turn into a slog. Adding a bit of variety to the enemies players face can greatly change the feeling of an encounter. It might make sense to throw as many skeletons as your party is big. However, do this a couple of times and it can get old without twists.

Don't Forget About What's Already There

I've seen often that a Dungeon Master, especially when starting out, will forget about the actions presented in the Player's Handbook. A couple of big ones such as hide and disengage are rarely forgotten but many of the others are. Allowing your horde of zombies to grapple players instead of just throwing attack after attack opens many tactical options. There is also something unsettling for players to see their fighter in the front rank pulled back by zombies, opening a path to the delicious wizard right behind (every zombie knows that wizards taste better). Remembering these options is particularly important for creatures that have fewer options in their stat blocks (zombies are one such example). There are also some items that already open up new tactics for enemies and players. Just also remember that these items may fall into the players hands, opening up new tactics for them too.

The current rules already give something similar to legendary creatures through the use of legendary actions and lair actions when in their lairs. Doing something similar can help change things up. Make sure these new actions aren't all similar though or you'll run into a similar problem through overuse. They also won't be as special and impressive when they do show up. Keeping legendary and lair actions rare helps to keep them legendary instead of commonplace.


One of the most common methods I've seen to add a twist to a character is to play with how they can move. Flight, teleportation, and becoming incorporeal all allow a creature to have a very different movement style. They also prevent the party from cornering the creature and hitting it until it dies. The creature will be able to escape a turn later (in the case of flight it might need to make a trade for some attacks of opportunity).

Tactical Options

Does the creature want to do a lot of damage to one target or less to multiple? Does it want to do a lot of damage or send a player flying through the air, giving the creature some distance as well as leaving the player prone when they land (maybe let the player roll to land on their feet)? Maybe the creature gets advantage for having an ally close by. The idea is that the creature needs to make a choice between effective alternatives. These alternatives can be situational. If they are it means that the players may need to alter their play style in order to prevent their enemy from using their ability. Also don't forget that standard actions aren't the only kind of action. Bonus actions and reactions can also be played with in order to make new interesting and challenging encounters.

Game Changers

If you look through some of the classic D&D creatures, you'll find there are some abilities that completely change how encounters go. Medusas are a classic example of a creature that completely change how an encounter needs to be approached due to their special abilities. I'd also include abilities such as “Frightful Presence” and auras in this class as well. The end result is that the ability incentives a certain kind of play, forces a choice between different disadvantages (turn to stone or be unable to see the medusa), or forces a puzzle to be solved (using a reflective surface against a medusa).

Too Many

While it can be very useful for making an encounter different, this kind of thing inherently adds complexity on the side of the Dungeon Master. If you are putting your party against 12 skeletons, having 12 different twists and keeping track of them all is usually not feasible because of how much work it. Having 4 skeletons all using the same twist can be enough. Remember to keep in mind the trade-off between making the encounter more complex through things such as twists and the difficulty of running the encounter.  

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Dungeon Master: Boss Battles

Play video games for a little bit of time and you'll probably run into a boss battle. In tabletop role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, there might be times that a party will end up taking on a single creature or bad guy. Often times it happens to be a dragon. People who are used to video games might find it natural to throw in a boss fight. However, they are some of the hardest encounters to design and run. It's easy for the players to just steam roll the poor lonely creature or to turn the encounter into an overlong test of endurance instead of an interesting fight. With this in mind, I hope to present some of what I've seen on this topic. 

They Aren't That Great in Video Games

I'd argue that most boss battles in video games aren't very good. There are a few that might be well designed and fun but from my experience there are many more that are a slog to get through at best. If you come from mainly a video game background, don't feel like you need to have one. Some creatures will prefer to go in groups. There is nothing wrong with that. Even “bosses” in games often appear with minions. Don't force them in just because it's a convention in video games, and a convention I feel fails more than it succeeds. You can boil down this advice to “why bother?” but I'd argue that isn't such bad advice. Don't have one for the sake of having one. A possibly deadly encounter that propels the story forward can be done in many different ways, and it is what we should be aiming for.

Sometimes It's Unavoidable

Some creatures and some people prefer to be alone. When given the option, players will try to go about their business as safely as possible. As such, it really shouldn't be a surprise if players try to corner a big bad when they are on their own. It really only makes sense. However, doing so can force us into a “boss” fight. If the party worked for that opportunity, it could be very reasonable to let the players have an easier battle. It could also be very reasonable to let the party gang up on the target. If not, the “boss” has their own strategies they can employ to try and turn the odds better (call guards, escape, summon creatures using magic/items, find a good tactical position, etc.). They may try to run away when they realize they got into such a difficult situation. This results in a change from beating on a bag of hit points to trying to chase and corner the big bad. What this tries to do is change things from a slog to a different kind of situation.

Less Room For Error

Games have a number of things that are different than tabletop role-playing games. Saving and loading means that the margin of error for players can be far smaller in a video game than a tabletop one. You don't have the luxury of reloading and I find players prefer to move forward instead of being stuck anyway. Chance, however, still plays a big role in tabletop role-playing games and it means the tide of battle could turn against the players through no fault of their own. For this reason, be careful with constructing encounters where the math could easily go either way. At the same time, remember that players will need to discover the weaknesses of their enemies as well as tactics as they are playing. This means we can't expect the kind of perfect play we could if reloading was possible. A player who's already failed a couple of times can jump straight to the tactic that works: our players can't.

Bag of Hit Points

The usual failure I see from “bosses” is that it devolves into the boss being surrounded and beaten until dying. Combat encounters tend to be most interesting when things change from round to round and as a result tactical options are presented. These options mean decisions need to be made and weighed. Avoiding this pitfall is usually done by adding some kind of “twists” to the boss (maybe they can teleport away when surrounded, have special actions such as legendary actions or lair actions, they can fly, they can try to keep the party at range, etc.), adding support for the boss through goons (also known as henchmen, minions, etc.), creating an environment that allows for many tactics or has its own twists, or adding other goals to the encounter. The advice involving adding more creatures to the encounter kind of moves it from a “boss battle” and more into a dangerous and story important encounter. I don't see the problem when the encounter is fun and allows for more options.

Damage Out

A party of adventurers can do a lot of damage in one round. If the “boss” only has one attack, it will probably have difficulty keeping pace. It's my interpretation that this is one of the reasons legendary creatures get legendary actions (and lair actions when in their lair) in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. These extra actions give the legendary creature more attacks per turn and help it to keep pace. If you take a non-legendary creature and run it as a “boss”, you might see that the encounter is easier than challenge rating might seem to show because of this. You might also see that it's harder than expected because the creature had an ability that lets it hit above its rating (intellect devourer can be hard to take down without at least one death even at higher level).

Enemy Twists

A wide range of things can be given to a “boss” to help make them more interesting. I typically call them twists since they change encounters from what otherwise would be expected. Flying, and teleporting are ones I've seen commonly used. These two options give the “boss” more tactics they can employ and also help prevent being permanently surrounded and beaten into submission. There are many other twists you can employ. Giving a particular item to the boss (item to turn them invisible, etc.) is often the way chosen to add this twist. However, the item needs to add something significant. A few +1s here and there isn't enough to change the tactical considerations. You also need to account for the item possibly falling into the hands of your players. Legendary actions and lair actions are elements that I would describe as being very twist like and they are already in D&D 5th edition. However, you might want to add more or add some more craziness to keep things interesting.


Adding more targets is an easy way to get around the surrounded “boss” issue. The minions allow for more complex tactics, different targets, and force players to work to get close to the boss in order to surround them. It also means that the “boss” doesn't need as many hit points to be a challenge since some of the damage is being shifted to the henchmen. There are many ways to do so. If in combat, the “boss” might call for help from nearby. If the players snuck into the big bad's tent to try and assassinate them, such a move is very reasonable. There are also magical means to gain allies. Powerful demons can summon weaker demons to help them and a necromancer might be able to raise some nearby skeletons to help out. They don't all have to come at once, as the calling for backup example shows. Doing so forces a bit of a time limit on players since they need to take care of the “boss” before too many reinforcements come.


The area that an encounter takes place in allows for different tactics. The way players act in a 10 foot wide tunnel will be different than a dense forest, or a desert. Hazards such as large drops (for throwing people into), lava, fires, and flowing water (doubly so for vampires) again provide more tactical options for players. The environment is also tied into how well both players and creatures can employ stealth, cover and flanking.

What's the Goal?

The goal in an encounter is important. The goal in an encounter might not simply be “hit the boss until it dies”. The more general goal of “sending the evil being back from where it came” allows different options. Can they dispel it? Can they trap it in an item or use an item to weaken it (obtaining the item involves a large quest but renders the final boss battle easier)? Can they interrupt the ritual before its finished, meaning the “boss” will just fade away? All of these are aimed at fighting the bad guy directly. Maybe just keeping them busy for long enough to free the prisoners and trapping them in the cave will be enough. However, in this case, freeing the prisoners could be the main goal. This change forces tactics to be different, especially if the bad guy will try to kill or take the prisoners hostage when they realize what is going on.

Player Side

You don't have to focus only on the side of the enemies. Giving your players an extra option or two in combat helps make things more interesting. Many of the things I mentioned earlier such as environment and goals will affect both sides. Even something like a necklace of fireball with a single bead can greatly change the methods employed in an encounter. If players have more options and are better equipped, you can also safely throw more at them.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Modular Inn – Map-Tile Set Review

Review copy of Modular Inn – Map-Tile Set courtesy of Black Scroll Games.

  • Made for the 1 inch is 5 feet standard scale.
  • Beautifully done inn tiles. The lighting from candles and windows is very well done.
  • There are 55 different tile images here (not including doors, walls and corners), 30 of which are populated with items (the other 25 are empty in order to allow you to allow to populate them yourself using printed items though quite a few of these are variations with different lighting)
  • Door pieces, wall pieces and corner pieces allow for open walls and not filled in corners to be filled in and result in a better looking final result.
  • The set, as the name “Modular Inn” suggests, is modular and allows for many different combinations.
  • VTT use is considered and files for that specific purpose are provided in .jpg form.
  • Draft tiles are provided in order to plan out an inn before printing a large number of tiles.

Could Go Either Way
  • I personally really like the 3D style that Black Scroll Games uses for their terrain but it might not be your thing if you prefer a 2D art style.
  • Your campaign might not include combat in an inn, which isn't as common as a classic dungeon, and as a result you may prefer to role-play through the situation and not use a combat map. You could still use it to map out your inn, but it wouldn't be as useful. If you are planning some combat encounters indoors, this set will look a lot more tempting.

  • The great lighting, which gives the set a great daytime appearance, doesn't work for night.
  • There isn't a staircase going down tile (you can get around this by using the staircase tile that's present and overlapping it with another, but for more complete workaround see below).


On December 6th 2016, Black Scroll Games released a set of tiles to help Game Masters easily create inns for their tabletop games called Modular Inn – Map-Tile Set. These new inn tiles are in the same 3D style as The Keeper of the Realms, which I reviewed earlier and liked. It was perfect timing too, since I got them in time for a D&D game that involved an inn combat encounter.

The Tiles

There is quite a large variety of tiles included in the set. From bathroom to kitchen, the common rooms you can think of are here. The more exhaustive list is kitchen, bar, cellar, bathroom, fireplace, stable, bath, table and chair in the open, and fireplace. Some of these also have different variations, resulting in 30 different tiles populated with items. There are also staircase tiles that show stairs going up a floor. There isn't one for staircases going down, which makes it a little difficult to make a second floor that mirrors the first. However, I was able to get around this by covering everything but the staircase on the staircase tile with the other tile I wanted to use and then covering one row with the next tile (this is to keep the same number of squares). You could also leave one of the walls open, representing where the staircase would be, and overlap one row of squares afterwards so that they match. As long as the overlap doesn't produce odd results, you can get away with this. Just like with The Keeper of the Realms, empty versions of the tiles are provided as well. This allows you to decorate the room yourself if you'd like.

The tiles are detailed nicely and there is some serious attention to detail. Extra doors are provided in order to provide easy entrance to other rooms you might attach. There are also corner pieces added, which are a really great idea. Since the set is 3D, the outer edges of the map are the walls in perspective. This means that when you combine tiles, there will be a gap between the beams in some cases and the corner pieces fill this part in. Similarly, there are also wall pieces that allow walls to be added to any of the tiles present.

In the files there is also an option to use a less vibrant colour overlay. It gives the tiles a different look when used and in the case of tiles with windows, gives it a cloudy day look. Light still comes through the windows in this setting though. I like having the option between the two though.

There are smaller draft tiles with references to the pages where the full sized tiles can be found. If you don't want to print everything in one go and only want to grab what you need to save colour ink or something, this is very handy.

The Art

The tiles themselves look very good. Just look at the sample images here. The 3D style adds a perspective that really gives the tiles a sense of depth even though they were on paper. The lighting also adds to this while also looking very nice. Some tiles have windows that let sunlight in. This sunlight is rendered and further helps to give the tiles a sense of depth. The stables in particular have strands of light coming from outside through the wood and they really add something to the appearance as well.

The grids aren't obvious on this tile even though they are meant to be used with the standard 1 inch is 5 feet miniatures. This means that the stone floor components are visibly rough as you'd expect from stonework, even though they do conform to a grid. The result is that the grids fade into the artwork. The wooden floor components use the same style where one of the 5 feet section may be made of multiple smaller planks.

Other Considerations

Inns aren't as common a site for combat as an underground dungeon is from my experience. However, if you are planning to run a few inn or indoor encounters, this set will look very tempting. The tiles can be quite easily used for the interiors of houses, particularly bigger ones. Instead of an inn, you can use it for a rich person's big house or for a feasting hall. For smaller sized houses, you can quite easily combine the kitchen tile with another tile and form a small house (for space reasons the owner might roll out their bed on the ground at night). This doesn't work in all cases though because some tiles have too many tables. The bedroom tiles also have 2 beds, but if you need to you can always cut these out yourself from a full tile and place them in the room if you bought the PDF version. The down side is that it wastes some ink.

What I felt Was Missing

Often when players finally reach an inn, it's night time. A fair number of the tiles have windows and show sunlight coming through. You can use the reduced saturation option to try to make it look more like night time and rationalize that the light is moonlight, but I don't think it's a perfect solution since it seems a bit too bright still. It would have been nice if the rooms had windowless versions as well and windows could be placed the same way the doors can. These windows could then be made dark and these windowless tiles could be used for both windowless rooms and dark times of day. This may be unreasonable for the printed sets but would have made for a welcome addition to the PDF document.

As mentioned earlier, there isn't a staircase going down tile or cut-out. This makes it harder to mirror the first floor in the second floor. This means you either need to get clever with covering up parts of one tile with another to have things match, just remember that the first row of a particular tile would be the stairs, or design your inn in a way to account for this (have the main area have a high ceiling and have the rooms be over the kitchen and behind the bar). I also thought it would be nice to have a ladder alternative for the cellar since it would be helpful to make the interiors of smaller houses.

The empty tiles are a nice option. However, the tiles have some very nice items that would have been very nice and useful to be able to place myself. The ones off the top of my head that come to mind would be tables, chairs, chests, boxes, and beds. Having these would allow for basically any interior area to be made. This probably would have also been unreasonable for the printed set. This isn't that big of a deal because I can still cut these features out myself though it would be a bit inefficient from an ink perspective. It also doesn't matter if you have these things from another source, such as 3D printed items or a different set. 


The price is posted here. At the time of writing, it's $7.95 for the PDF, 19.99 for a physical printed copy and 19.99 for both a PDF version and physically printed copy. Black Scroll Games occasionally have some deals as well, which may be worth keeping an eye out for if you feel the price is too high.


This is a really good inn set despite a couple of things that hold it back from being my ideal set. Having a going down staircase piece, some options for night time, and including some of the items used on the tiles to help populate the blank tiles would have left me with no complaints. It doesn't stop the set from being a very good set for making inns, especially if you like the Black Scroll Games 3D art style. The number of tiles (55 in total, 30 of which are populated with items), the details, the art, the .jpeg files for VTT use, and the lighting effects all help make this a good set in my eyes. I'll be using it going forward when I need an inn encounter. I recommend a look at the images provided on the product page to help decide. 

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Dungeon Master: Rewards

As players achieve objectives, destroy enemies, and manage to loot their way from start to end of an adventure, they get rewards. Money and treasure are the most common types of awards but there are others that can be given as well. I hope to list a few different options in the hopes that it will help someone out there.

Items and Money

Paying people in goods (including magic items) or money is extremely common. It's the default reward system in most role-playing games. For this particular section, I am referring to a one time payment.


When you make powerful friends, it makes sense that you might be able to call in a favour. Paying off a massive gambling debt, joining on the players' side in a battle, or presenting lavish presents every now and then are all examples I've seen in the games I've run and played in. Depending on how friendly the source of the favour is, there could also be conditions attached.


You might not be able to spend it on anything you want, but from your family or other connections there might be a certain amount of money set aside for necessary things. The most common form in the games I've played in is a living allowance (basically giving you a room and food for free) or a guard/troop allowance (giving you so much money to hire guards and other personnel). You can also give your players access to some services, such as a limited amount of magic casting at a temple that they helped.


Doing something super impressive will probably leave a lasting impact. Even if they might not have tangible benefits like a money reward, bards may choose to immortalize the character(s) in song and they might get other benefits such as a free room. This is different than the above allowance since the allowance can be spent anywhere. In this case, these are benefits given to the character in appreciation of what they did and will greatly vary on a person to person basis (in some cases, it may even be hostility). It could very naturally open up opportunities that the players did not previously have. Maybe now the king will meet with the players. You might also choose to tie the characters into future games you play. I've never seen a player not liking seeing a statue of their previous character in a campaign set years in the future.


Ever have players come back from an alien realm having lost their sense of fear for creatures? Or have your players spend 5 years in a foreign land and learn the language through exposure? Or maybe they were imbued with a special magic as a result of a freak accident or perhaps the blessing of a mysterious being? Some of the rewards players gain can directly improve the capabilities of the characters in combat and other skills. I'd recommend doing it sparingly unless campaign reasons give a good reason for it (all your players are the avatars of gods on earth and their avatars have been steadily getting stronger, for example) but it's another tool to reward players over the course of the campaign.


Knowing someone who knows someone can be an extremely powerful thing. Even without something more tangible, being able to get the ear of the next in line to the throne presents new options to the player and also allows for all kinds of new stories to be created by the Dungeon Master. I will say that it's important that they are a real option over the course of the game. Making them only an option when you as the Dungeon Master want them to tends to feel cheap. Contacts are already part of the game and as the players level they tend to expand their sphere of influence. Contacts are often combined with some of the other rewards mentioned earlier, such as favours and fame.

Story Progress

Not everything needs to reward players. I've had quite a few players enjoy taking an action that they knew would not reward them. However, it was what their players would do and lead the story forward. Doing the right thing in a situation can be its own reward, especially when it leads to more story. This is especially true for players that play for the role-playing aspect.