Sunday, 29 January 2017

Dungeon Master: Overpreparing

Knowing how to prepare for a session is an important skill for Dungeon Master to have. However, I've often heard about the dangers of overpreparing for a session and how it can lead to railroading. Spending too much time preparing is also an inefficient way to spend your time. There is a lot to be said on this topic and I hope sharing my current thoughts on the matter will help someone.

Not Every Path

I assume during this piece that we are not talking about someone who is trying to predict every path an adventure might take and run it like an in person computer role-playing game. It's a lot of work and often gets invalidated anyway because a person might thing of a solution or option you never considered.

Who Am I?

People can be very different and this also has an effect on overpreparing. I've seen people who would just run a game of D&D on the spot because someone asked them to. Of course, in this case it wasn't a pre-published adventure. They had enough games under their belts that they could just run a concept that they've always wanted to run but haven't gotten the chance to yet (it was also theatre of mind with no rulebooks and with new players). Not everyone can do this (in fact I'd be very careful with even trying). New Dungeon Masters who don't have the experience will probably need considerably more time to get to the same level of preparation as an experienced one and may even need to quite commonly reference the rules, further slowing things down. Not all experienced Dungeon Masters will prepare equally, both in terms of time and quantity of things they prepare. Strengths and weaknesses need to be factored in. For these and other reasons, quantifying “overprepared” is not easy. As you get a chance to run games, you learn more about yourself and are able to figure out what you need.

Limited Time

All of our time is limited and some of us have more time than others. At a certain point, preparing more won't improve the session. Before this point there will also be a point where preparing more just isn't worth the investment even if there is an extremely tiny benefit. There are other things to do, maybe even some things that need to be taken care of for future sessions.


Tabletop role-playing games, regardless of what system you use or who you play with, are supposed to be fun. Don't treat it like a test where you need to cram as much as you can (also, if you are like me this won't work anyway and you are better off getting a good night's sleep). Regardless of how long you spend to prepare, there will be some guy (probably a bard or rogue) who thinks of something else.

What Stage Are We At?

Different parts of a campaign or even an adventure will need more or less time. I tend to take more time at the start of the campaign than many other parts. This is because I want to have a rough idea of what my themes are, what characters are in my world, to have some fallback characters ready in case my players try to talk to a minor character, and to develop the setting the campaign takes place in. Even if you set your campaign in an already established setting, you will need to fit your own story into the world, assuming you aren't running a published adventure. If you are, you will probably also spend a considerable amount of time at the start reading the adventure and making notes.

Running a standalone adventure is also a skill. Different people may allocate their preparation time differently depending on how comfortable they are with certain parts. I tend to take more time with encounters I want to be memorable. That way I know what I'm doing when I jump in. I'll also spend more time on maps I find particularly troublesome or confusing. You also can't rule out needing to make your own hotfix or modification to some portion of the adventure. The longer adventures are closer to a campaign in terms of length but pure creation and interpreting a published adventure are different beasts.

The Root of the Problem

I don't think that preparing for too long needs to lead to railroading. I think the real root of the problem is getting too attached to the plan you made. If you spend a long time preparing a session, you might get attached to your plan and not want to stray. If you did overprepare, there is a chance that you wasted some of your time. That's fine. I've seen quite a few people in my time that had no issue abandoning their plans if things just didn't go that way. Just because you don't use what you've prepared this session doesn't mean you never will. Write it down and file it away somewhere. Even if you don't use it in the exact same form, you can still find some use for it later and as a result it won't go to waste. There will be some prep-work that will be closely tied to the adventure and hard to reuse. Keep this as small as you can but you will always need some. If you go too far, you'll have probably wasted some time if things go off the path (unless you can draw something from the experience, get more ideas, or reuse it cleverly later) but the session can still go well if you just roll with it. It's sometimes just part of the process. 

Of course, this all assumes you'll be running more than one session. You might still have this problem if you are the Dungeon Master for a one off adventure and then plan to return being a player forever after. To this point I say: beware. You may find the role of Dungeon Master will find you again. And when it does, you might find something of use in what you didn't use before. Sometimes your rejected ideas also make for good inspiration for new characters that you want to play. 

What Should I Prepare?

I prepare the following at the very least:
  • Rough story line including what will happen, if anything, if players don't take the bait (a couple of alternate outcomes are probably fine, but don't dig down too deep)
  • Combat encounters I want to be memorable or are more complicated (these two tend to go hand in hand)
  • Look over the big characters and understand them (big ones, not an NPC that will show up for 5 minutes)
  • Have some side characters you can throw in just in case (a list with a few names and a printout of a stat block or two from the basic rules, possibly with a couple sentences of notes, is usually enough)
  • Have the maps in some sort of easy to reference manner (photocopy, printout, bookmarks, whatever)
  • Find some tiles, maps, and miniatures for the session (I tend to use them so I need them ready to go)
  • If it's been a while or I'm running multiple systems, a quick skim of the rules

You may need to prepare more or less. Depending on how into miniatures you are, you could spend more time preparing a set piece.  

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Dungeon Master: Side Quests

Making and running good sidequests is a bit of an art. They take emphasis off the main story. If the adventure your players are going on is time critical, a side-quest doesn't make much narrative sense in most cases. However, they provide an opportunity to try new things and mix the situation up. The trouble is fitting them effectively into a session. With that in mind, I'll be sharing my thoughts on the matter in the hope that it helps someone out there. 

Do Your Players Even Like Them?

Sidequests are a tool. Some groups might not want any at all. They'd prefer a narrative tight story and want to go towards its end. However, I've also seen situations where people prefer to jump around more often. Each session was mostly self-contained and allowed for a wide variety of different types of quests at the expense of a greater narrative. This is quite similar to the different styles of television series.

A Break

Sometimes players want to take a small break from the main quest and do something new for a little bit. They don't want to abandon the main story but just want something different. Often it is something lighter and more relaxing. I most often see this kind of thing in horror heavy and/or high casualty games. These two often go hand in hand. It can also be a chance for the players to see how far they've come. An adventure that would have killed them earlier is now something they can breeze through in their spare time.

Time Gap

There are some adventures where there may be a more relaxing period. Things take time even in a fictitious world. If your players found an item and it'll take time for learned people to research it, you have options. You could skip past all of the uneventful things and go right to the point the story starts up again. However, you could also use the chance to mix things up with a sidequest. Some players prefer to have an interesting though less important adventure in that time instead of skipping past it by using the downtime rules or hand-waving it away. The rewards for this kind of thing are better than the downtime rules in Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition as well. Another way is to have a main story that is composed of multiple stories that intersect. In such a case, it's not just a sidequest but an important task related to the story that needs to be dealt with sooner or later. 

Part of the Design

Having multiple quests that on the surface have nothing to do with the main goal could be part of the design of the adventure. A classic example I can think of is needing to raise money for some purpose. In this case, the results of the quest influence the main story but the story of the sidequest doesn't relate beyond the monetary factor. Trying to find items or equipment is similar but material instead of monetary.

If the basis of the campaign isn't a story but instead the adventures of a group within a particular faction that gets different jobs, the campaign is kind of a collection of sidequests already. You might have the equivalent of a season finale or a special, just like a television show might, where there is a larger story that takes more time than your typical story. Multiple ones might be related and become the biggest story of your campaign, but you'll still have other more disconnected adventures.

How Related?

There are degrees to how closely related a sidequest is to the events of the main story. It can be completely or nearly completely disconnected. Helping someone you ran into on the streets is one such example. Sure, maybe the party has some connections with some temple of a good aligned god that helps people who need it, but that's as closely related as things are. Another situation is where the party will need to help a faction that one or more members of the party belong to and are aiding the party in their goal. In such a case helping the faction is also helping themselves, but the connection to the story isn't as clear. It is still present though, since there could be consequences to not helping. 

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Dungeons & Dragons: Volo's Guide to Monsters Late Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

A little late to the review party as usual, but better late than never.

  • Lots of full colour art (as we have come to expect of this edition)
  • Lair maps are included
  • Quite detailed descriptions of a subset of creatures from the Monster Manual (beholders, giants, gnolls, goblinoids, hags, kobolds, mind flayers, orcs, yuan-ti)
  • New races seem alright but closer to half-elf than human in terms of abilities though more play could change my opinion
  • 124 (give or take a couple if I miscounted) new stat blocks of creatures and NPCs (most of which are humanoids) with those not mentioned in the first chapter being treated the same way as monsters in the Monster Manual
Could Go Either Way
  • Again, there is a Forgotten Realms focus though it is subtle (similar to the Monster Manual)
  • The book contains notes by Elminster and Volo, many of which are trying to be comedic. You might find some of them a waste of space if you don't find them funny. They are similar in frequency to the notes in the Monster Manual.
  • If you played D&D heavily in previous editions, you probably already know a lot of the lore of most of the creatures presented and can make your own version using the creature creation rules in the Dungeon Master's Guide or your own personal system
  • Some repetition between the stats section at the end and the creature descriptions earlier (usually in different words)
  • At 224 pages, it's around 30 pages shorter than an adventure and much shorter than the core books released so far but at the same suggested price
  • No PDF*

* Denotes nitpicking.

Dungeons & Dragons Volo's Guide to Monsters Standard Cover
The standard cover for Volo's Guide to Monsters


Volo's Guide to Monsters was officially released for the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons on November 15th, 2016. Instead of focusing on a location, this book instead focuses on monsters as they are in the Forgotten Realms. The majority of the book focuses on giving background lore on creatures from the Monster Manual (98 pages) as well as stats for new creatures and non-player characters (99 pages not including lists). Mixed in are 13 new player character races (18 pages), 6 of which are monstrous.

The Internals

First and foremost, this book is focused on monsters. Adventures until now have contained a bit of everything. There were a few new monsters for the adventure, quite a bit of effort on the setting, the adventure itself and sometimes a player option or two (spells, etc.). This book is kind of like that but there is no adventure. Instead we get about 124 new stat blocks and a lot of lore and description of the monsters. Some groups are described more than others (chapter 1 is the majority of the lore and it covers 9 types of creatures).

The Monsters

The majority of stat blocks in this book focus on humanoids of different types (there aren't very many new undead, which you all should know by now are my personal favourites). The table of contents of the book is provided on the Wizards of the Coast website and has an alphabetically ordered list of all of the stat blocks contained within the book. As mentioned before, I counted about 124 different stat blocks. Some of these monsters are variants of already existing monsters. While this doesn't compared to the the number of stat blocks in the Monster Manual or the overall length of that book, it is still a good amount of new monsters. You can also create more monsters for your players by using the new races presented in the book, which I go over below. Most of the monsters provided are at a challenge rating of 10 or below. Below 10, they are fairly well spread out. The first chapter also has quite detailed descriptions of lairs and example lair maps for beholders, giants, gnolls, goblinoids, hags, kobolds, mind flayers, orcs, and yuan-ti. Those creatures get the most focus and the most detailed lore explanations.

Volo's Guide to Monsters Dungeons & Dragons Beholder Image
One of the images from the book showing beholders. Some of the new art is very nice like this.

Some of these are non-player characters such as new types of wizards. If you've been looking through the DMs Guild, you probably already have some variants of these (more don't hurt but you probably wouldn't want to pay a lot for them). They are not the majority but there are a few. I don't think the book is as well balanced as the Monster Manual. There are some that are more situation and silly. There are also some nice variants to already existing monsters and some creatures that caught my eye (how have we not had elder brain stats before this?). For these reasons, I'd recommend a quick skim of that table of contents provided on the website.

The stats in general are fine and present some interesting tactical opportunities. There were some rare cases where I thought the math seemed odd, particularly for NPCs based on character classes. One particular example I noticed is the differences in health for different kinds of warlocks. The one with the highest spell casting level doesn't have the most health even though it matches the constitution score of the one with the most health. If this bugs you, I'd bump up the random health component to spellcasting level * d8, giving you a different variant you can use (the basic formula for NPCs based on a player class seems to be level * hit die + level * con modifier). However, this is the exception not the rule.

New Races

As mentioned previously, there are 13 new races for players. 6 of these are monstrous races, which are races that were previously presented in the Monster Manual as monsters that players would face (bugbear, hobgoblin, goblin, kobold, orc, and yuan-ti). The races in general are not as simple as humans. They tend to have more feat like abilities. This is why I compared them to the half-elf. Right now I don't think they are much better than what we already have and that they make a nice addition to the current line up. Since they take up so little of the page count, I can't recommend getting the book purely for the new races. It does present the opportunity to make new variations of those races though, which is something I like seeing as a Dungeon Master. As with the monsters, I'd recommend a look through the table of contents to help make a decision over buying the book.

The Writing

The closest book I can compare Volo's Guide to Monsters is the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide if it was a Monster Manual. They are both shorter than the core books. They both also focus heavily on lore and as such rely on the quality of the writing. There was lore in the Monster Manual but Volo's Guide to Monsters has a larger portion of its page count devoted to lore. Not all creatures get equal treatment though. The first chapter focuses on beholders, giants, gnolls, goblinoids, hags, kobolds, mind flayers, orcs, and yuan-ti. That first chapter is also responsible for quite a large portion of the page count.

The writing is as we've come to expect in this edition. It describes features of a creature's character or place in the world and does so in a way that makes the creature interesting. If you didn't like the Monster Manual because it was too much lore and not enough stat blocks, this part of the book won't be for you. There are some minor errors but almost all of them don't detract from the meaning. When they did, I was able to figure them out after a reread (this only had to happen a couple of times). I got the impression that the lore is focused mainly on the Forgotten Realms. However, it gives off the impression that the book is trying to use that setting as an example to inspire.

Throughout the book there are notes by Volo and Elminster. They are similar to the notes presented in previous books like the Monster Manual only this time they sometimes argue with each other. If you don't find it funny or entertaining, you probably won't appreciate it any more than in previously published books. However, it does highlight the attempt to add some character to the book instead of making it just a listing of monsters (something I feel they've done a good job of doing here and in the Monster Manual before it). It also gives options and different behaviours in place, which along with the notes and explicitly mentioned some things aren't known helps make it seem less authoritative.

The trouble is that quite a bit of the lore isn't new. If you've played through Storm King's Thunder, you'll know a lot about giants already. Likewise, if you've already read material about these creatures in previous editions the lore probably won't be as important to you. Some people might like to see what they kept, removed or changed though. It does act as a nice collection and provides a large amount of details for the creatures highlighted in the first part of the book. The good news though is that the monsters take up a good portion of the book, probably about half of the pages, so there are still quite a few useful pages if you want those stats blocks. If you've already made your own, would rather make your own versions of those creatures, or just don't care for the ones listed in the table of contents, there is less reason to buy the book.

If you are new though and liked the Monster Manual, this is very similar and you'll probably like it. You'll just be wishing there was even more. It's about 30 pages shorter than the recent published adventures (they tend to be around 255 pages long). It's longer than the Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide but it also doesn't share that book's discounted suggested retail price.

The Art and Book Build Quality

The art is also as we've come to expect. Some of it is recycled (I could swear I saw some before in the Monster Manual) but quite a bit of it is new as well. There are also some maps provided as example lairs of the creatures that are discussed in detail in chapter 1. I really like this and I hope that books with an emphasis on monsters will continue to include a few going forward. The visual is very helpful when the lair is being described and it makes it far easier to run the creature during play.


The book in general is the same style as we've seen before. My particular copy was generally good, though I'd still recommend taking a look at the cover, the binding, and checking for stuck together pages. I didn't have that issue in this one (a little bit less than perfect binding on the first page is my only nitpicky complaint) and any issues I did see seemed to have been done during shipping (it looks like someone discus threw it into a pole because of the marks on the cover). I'd still recommend keeping an eye out when picking one out at the store.


The best prices I could find doing a quick search were $29.97 on Amazon in the US and $38.85 in Canada. If you go to your local hobby store it'll probably be more expensive but you'll be able to support them. These prices may change with time as well. 

What I felt Was Missing

Again, we are missing a PDF. I would've liked a PDF bundled with these books since the beginning but they are extremely helpful when searching through stat blocks for monsters such as here. As far as providing things for monsters, this has all of the elements you'd expect (monsters, and lore) as well as some that are very nice to see (lair maps). I just wish it was a little bit longer so that it would be matching the length of the published adventures. Some more undead in particular would be welcome since they are a common type of enemy. Don't expect monster tokens like the 4e Monster's Vault either. 


It's basically a miniature Monster Manual with a heavier emphasis on lore and containing some new player race options. Beholders, giants, gnolls, goblinoids, hags, kobolds, mind flayers, orcs, and yuan-ti get the majority of the attention with the entire first chapter being devoted to them. Included in these chapters are details about their lairs (not just lair actions) and an example map in a style very similar to Storm King's Thunder. Despite being shorter, it's still the same suggested retail price. If you don't have an issue with that you'll probably enjoy it. Around 50% of the book is new stat blocks, totally about 124 new stat blocks, with the majority of them being humanoids. If you already know the lore of the listed creatures from previous editions, you are probably here for the new races, to see what changed/was kept, and/or the stat block. There is new art but there is also some that is reused. I also wish it was 30 pages longer to put it in line with the length of the recently published adventures. To make your choice, look at the table of contents. If you like the creatures there or want the more detailed lore for those 9 creatures, you'll probably like it. If you already know the lore and prefer to make your own stat blocks, there's not much I can say. I generally found it an enjoyable read and I like having more monsters to throw at my players. It's not a book I'd recommend for someone who is trying to get into D&D, since I think the core books are far more important. It's a nice addition afterwards when you want new monsters, more lore and/or like the look of the table of contents.

Other Stuff
  • Reading over this book, I noticed 14 minor typos and mistakes. They didn't influence meaning but one of two of them were written in an ambiguously so I had to reread them. If you've read the Monster Manual, you'll be fine.
  • Free parts of the book are available on the Wizards of the Coast website including the a table of contents that shows the names of all monsters provided
  • One particular example I noticed is the differences in health for different kinds of warlocks. The one with the highest spell casting level doesn't have the most health even though it matches the constitution score of the warlock with the most health. If this bugs you, I'd bump up the random health component to spellcasting level * d8, giving you a different variant you can use (the basic formula for NPCs based on a player class seems to usually be level * hit die + level * con modifier)

Sunday, 8 January 2017

The Hound of Cabell's Tomb Review

A review of the adventure The Hound of Cabell's Tomb, which can be found on the Dungeon Masters Guild.

  • Small and quick adventure scenario with a focus
  • Plenty of opportunity for role-playing
  • Can easily be dropped into a campaign as a side-quest
  • Requires only the basic rules to run (perfect for newer Dungeon Masters)
  • Contains a handout (I found it best to open it in a browser instead of Adobe Acrobat so that the text was displayed correctly) and map
  • Printer-friendly version present
  • Free (well, pay what you want)!

Could Go Either Way
  • It'll probably be short without the role-playing component (quite role-play heavy)
  • There is a riddle component (I wouldn't let this turn you away if you find them hard though because there is still an ending if it isn't solved)

  • Map will need to be recreated with tiles (it's not supplied in a printable form)
  • It may not last you the entire session, being only 5 pages in length, especially if you don't role-play it out heavily (be prepared with more or run it as a side-quest, especially if your group goes through role-play quickly)

Note: The adventure has a handout that says “on the date shown” but doesn't write a date. I'd recommend writing a date that fits your campaign minus 400 somewhere on handout, probably close to the signatures.


The Dungeon Masters Guild has become a good place to find quests. Many of them are shorter and as such make for good side-quests or quick one shots. One example I ran across recently, and I thought was worth mentioning, is The Hound of Cabell's Tomb. Requiring only the basic rules to run, it's a nice little adventure that has a rather good atmosphere and allows for many interesting situations. Me and my players had a good time with this one and it's an easy read.


There are 3 pieces of art in the adventure including the cover image. They make the package look more polished and the map itself helps make sense of one of the encounters. The map is also provided in a separate PDF file in a full page form. It is, however, not ready for printing as a tactical map like some of the other maps I've looked at before. I wouldn't recommend blowing it up either as it will degrade the image, though if you don't mind it being a bit blurry it is an option. You will probably end up having to recreate it using some sort of tiles or just running it using theatre of mind. If you usually use theatre of mind anyway, this will cause you no problems.

The Adventure

The adventure covers the classic situation of a deal with a devil and the cost that results. As is important with this kind of adventure, there are some characters to role-play and some interesting situations that result. The final combat encounter in particular has the potential to be very memorable when run correctly. It will require the players to be a little clever though.

Being a bit clever is a big part of this adventure. Finding a way out of the contract requires that the players are on their toes and think things through. However, even if they can't, the action continues and there is an ending. It's not the happiest ending, but at the very least the players come out feeling like they made a difference even if things didn't work out perfectly. I really like this touch of the adventure. The players are given choices to make and room to be creative but they are not the only ones who are acting or thinking. This sets up some very interesting twists and options, not all of which are on the player's side.

Getting the players to the point that the adventure starts is part of the challenge and different options are provided in the adventure. However, how you handle this affects how long the adventure runs for. Role-playing heavy groups won't have too much of a problem stretching it longer but I'd be careful about jumping quickly through it. It really benefits from a buildup and taking your time but not dragging your feet. This is especially important for new Dungeon Masters who might want to get to the combat. Doing so, however, will make it fly by and not have the same impact. Don't be afraid to talk and role-play through this one to get them there.


I like this one. I really do. It kind of hits my weaknesses but I think The Hound of Cabell's Tomb makes for a very good adventure to run as a side-quest. It has a good length for it and is easy to incorporate, assuming a good aligned group. I'd recommend a look at it at the very least. The map can be re-purposed if needed, the stat block can be reused if needed and elements of the adventure can be reused in rather big parts as well (the final combat encounter in particular can be used in different ways). However, it comes together as a whole nicely in my opinion. The author has other adventures as well so don't be afraid to look through those too, and throw some money their way if you like their work and can afford it.  

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Dungeon Master: Rules are Guidelines

As a tabletop RPG Game Master, Dungeon Master, or whatever else you want to call me, I spend a lot of time reading rules, making rulings on rules and making house rules. Rules are an important part of games. They have consequences on how the game feels and what kinds of themes are expressed. Extremely relaxed healing rules take away from a game built around survival. However, at the end of the day, the rules in the books we buy are really just guidelines. This is especially important for newer people who have never made a house rule before.

Rules are Tools

The rules we use are tools to allow us, as the Dungeon Master or Game Master, to create the games we want. That means that we can change them however we wish in pursuit of that vision. However, players should be aware of rule changes we might make at the start. They might not like our changes, they might have better alternatives, or they will just need to know in order to make properly informed decisions. You can express a surprising amount about your world through the rules you use. 

This also means that not all rules have to hold in certain situations, just like in typical fantasy/science fiction. In space people can float around. Who's to say that a parallel dimension will have fall damage or not grant everyone spider climb? The rules should be appropriate to the situation. They should also allow your players to have fun. The main goal is to run a game your players enjoy. In some cases, it may be a very deadly game where characters spend weeks recovering from combat. In others, it may be the kind of game where your players go through armies before lunch, at which time they go on a new epic adventure. Regardless of the vision you choose, the rules you use should help further it and make it more enjoyable.

From Campaign to Campaign

There is nothing saying that each campaign has to have the same rules. You can add new rules as you see fit in order to bring the world you want to life. The most common modification I've seen so far is that people change the duration of rests and methods of healing. Having faster rests makes things more “heroic” and having longer rests with more restrictive healing meaning that combat becomes something to fear as well as to avoid. In political or horror based games, this has a large impact on the game.

Most Common Changes (According to Me)

  • Rest duration
  • Potency of healing
  • Spell lists
  • Classes (added, removed, gutted, etc.)
  • Extra bonuses (everyone gets bonus at character creation)
  • Weapons (adding new gunpowder weapons, removing longswords and similar later era weapons, etc.)

So don't be afraid to add some rules, modify some rules or even completely remove some rules. They should serve your game, make sense, and be fun for your group.

Also, happy new year!