Sunday, 26 March 2017

Dungeon Master: Survival

The world is often trying to kill you. This is even more true in tabletop role-playing games where the trees themselves can run after you and avenge their brethren. Regardless of the reason, survival elements can come up in a typical D&D game as your players attempt to cross a desert or climb a mountain. With that in mind, I hope to share some of my thoughts for consideration and comment.

What Do I Mean?

For my purposes, I tend to think of survival in tabletop role-playing games as quite a broad idea. Hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and weather effects are the easiest things to think of and generally included in rule sets (in D&D 5th edition they are covered though some probably prefer more in depth rules). I'd also say they are some of the most common ones I've seen. However, I also include things such as dangerous terrain, poisonous food or plants, sickness, ease of tracking and navigating as well. Things that hinder your players from making it to their objective that aren't social or combat are generally a good place to look at. It isn't necessarily always the case, but it leaves room for a lot of creativity. For example, wind might not play a big role for your normal party getting around on horses. On a sailboat, however, it becomes a serious problem as does spending time at sea without being able to resupply.

Side Consideration

When talking about survival in tabletop role-playing games, you probably don't want to drop your players in the middle of nowhere and let them try to survive the hunger and cold. Instead, the survival elements are usually present in order to add extra tension and difficulty in accomplishing the main goal. This means that they should generally be impactful, but not overly annoying. They are also not the focus when used in this way. You don't want to annoy your players with this kind of thing.


The situation itself plays a big role in deciding if a survival element will make sense. We can all agree that characters should be wearing warm clothes at -30 Celsius, but before that point can be tricky. There are also many factors that go into it. It might make sense to use the rules for cold situations or make your own situational ones if it's a particularly cold night and one of your players ended up in the river. Those situations where it's obvious that some survival aspect is at play are easy to rule. However, they aren't the only situations where such rules may apply. I've seen someone use the heat exhaustion rules in D&D 5th edition for a quick method to handle a character with a fever (I can't remember if they made changes to it but I seem to recall it reminding me of the heat exhaustion rules).

Who Does it Hurt

Some elements of a game will hurt certain people more than others. If your rules system is class based, it also means some classes take more of a hit from certain survival elements. One example is cold weather. If you decide everyone can wear warm clothing over whatever they usually wear, things will go as normal. However, anyone who needs to rely on their armour will take a big hit if you don't allow them to wear it underneath. There may be some survival situations, such as being poisoned by something or particularly cold weather, where you might decide that a wizard will need to roll concentration. Not handling this like a rule (they don't need to roll every time they are in cold weather) gives you some flexibility as a Dungeon Master to tailor things to the situation but also not expand the rules (keeping it as a ruling, not a rule).

What's the Result?

Hunger and thirst usually do one of two things. It forces the players to slow down and forage for food on their route. The result is they can't travel overland as fast. It also helps your ranger shine if they like that kind of thing. If time is a critical element in your game, this can be a big deal. It also allows your players to plan out their route. They can buy enough rations for their trip and resupply in cities along their path. This might be overall longer than the direct route but could be faster in terms of time because the roads are better. It will also allow the characters to arrive at their destination without taking levels of exhaustion. In some cases, if the path is particularly long without a chance to resupply, the players will need to think of a way to proceed. They might plan for half and forage the rest, they might jump in straight away and not waste time buying supplies, or they might take extra horses or a cart to carry their extra supplies.

A group tends to have a clear cut answer in these kinds of situations. I've seen some prefer to just start moving now and worry about supplies later. If their ranger has a good history of making due just fine, this helps to contribute to the selection of this option. Balancing these kinds of situations can be a bit difficult and also depends on how adverse to risk your players/and or characters are. To tempt players to take the riskier forage option might take a lot for risk adverse groups, or it could be the without-a-doubt best choice for a group that loves risk.

In Context of Travel

I find it easiest to consider survival aspects in the context of travel. It's also the most common situation I've come across and it probably extends to other tables as well. They are factors that players need to consider when traveling and influence their path. A path that might look absolutely nonsensical can be made promising because of the sources of water along it, for example. Beyond the rules dealing with exhaustion, some terrain features overlap with survival aspects. They also behave in a similar way. If your players come across an area with places of quicksand, deep snow (that 10-foot pole can be very handy when going across icy terrain to check for hidden places you could fall into), or swampland, your players are forced to make a choice about the best way to go towards their objective. Similarly, there is a risk with going through the dangerous terrain, and there is the less dangerous but more time consuming way of avoiding it.

Overstay Welcome

These kinds of elements should add something to the game and your players should enjoy them. If they generally don't, you can probably get away with it once or twice. If it's their first time in the northern ice lands of [insert land here], it can help accent their new location. However, if you hammer them with it every 15 minutes of play it could get tedious quickly. In such situations you'd either want the problem to go away as soon as they get proper clothing or not spring it on them in the first place. It's similar to how long everyone enjoys tracking experience or encumbrance. Some people really like how it adds to the world and makes it seem more real while others find it tedious. When used sparingly, such as encumbrance stuff coming into play when trying to move a very heavy object, it disappears into the game and it isn't a problem.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Dungeon Master: The Rare and Wondrous

Wonder often plays an important part in a fantasy world. Discovering alien environments, monstrosities beyond imagination and items of nearly unbelievable power are common parts of many campaigns and contribute to the wonder. However, there is quite a lot you can play with in these areas. And as you run more and more campaigns with the same group, you'll need to come up with new ways to make the world full of wonder.

The Value of Rareness

Rareness by its own has a large impact on what fills players with a sense of wonder. A while ago I played in a campaign where the first large part was spent out in the wilderness. It was nice, but the contrast of the big city when we finally got there was something special. The fact that we hadn't been to one and experienced the difference made it something that created a sense of wonder. Similarly, I ran a campaign a while ago that was heavy on political intrigue and so was largely set in cities. However, due to a series of events that involved assassins and a political overthrow, they were forced into the wilderness. That the players hadn't experienced much wilderness exploration and features made it interesting, a welcome change, and gave the new environment a sense of wonder. These same kinds of ideas extend to creatures, magic items, etc.

The Impossible

Impossible situations or locations are a common method I've seen to create wonder. This is similar to the above, however, it's one step further. Instead of playing with rareness in terms of physical things, impossible situations play with the rules themselves. Rare exceptions to the rules can themselves create a sense of wonder. Again, the trick is to not break the rules too often. If you do, it really is more like a new rule instead of being an exception to a rule. How much such a rule is broken is very situational. For some, having a situation where falling is greatly slowed down will be enough to inspire wonder. For others, it might take full weightlessness to be wowed.

What Kinds of Things?

Big, impressive things tend to be best remembered from my experience. Incredibly large pieces of architecture, giant forest fires, large armies clashing, tall waterfalls, the vast open oceans (ship based campaigns are a bit tough to run but a one-shot on the open seas tends to go over well after a classic campaign) and kilometer long cliff drops are all examples of such big things. However, when I say big things, I don't mean just in terms of physical size. Big and impressive effects are enough. There was a very low magic mini-campaign I was a part of where one of the magic items we got was an old music box that seemed to be impervious to damage and time. In such a situation, even such a seemingly small and non-useful effect seemed wondrous. It also helped that the party was offered a lot of money on multiple occasions for it.

Over Description

We of course want to occasionally inspire wonder, but the line between that and tedious can be very thin. In these kinds of cases it's better to just cut your losses and move forward. An interesting location that doesn't quite inspire wonder is better than a situation that bores players by running too long. Careful choice of words and situation are far more effective. Choosing at least one sense when possible is also a good idea. When close to the tall waterfall, maybe describe the sound or the feeling of the mist. Architecture is usually more difficult in this situation because you mostly have appearance to go on. Complicated architecture is also hard to get across in a succinct way. However, I'll usually try to identify at least one architectural feature to focus on and describe. You don't have to describe all of it at once either. If they are far away, you can leave out the fine carving detail on the door.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Dungeon Master: Reducing Difficulty Through Situation

Creating entertaining encounters is a difficult but rewarding activity. One thing I haven't talked about in depth yet, though I've touched on it, is how to reduce the difficulty of a combat encounter through situational advantages. For this reason I'll go over some of the ones I've seen and personally used. I'll focus primarily on decreasing difficulty because such techniques can be used against the players in order to increase difficulty. Hopefully someone will find something of use. If there's something I missed, feel free to comment below.


Sometimes it's nice to put players against unlikely odds and have them come out on top. However, unlikely odds are just that: unlikely. Your players will probably be on the lookout for things they can use to tip the odds closer to their advantage. If it doesn't happen, they might (and in my experience usually will) run. However, by carefully taking advantage of the right moment and right location an encounter can become balanced even if the experience budget doesn't agree. It's also a good idea to think about different tactics that can be used in an encounter. Since many of the methods I'll mention can also be used to make things harder for the players, it's a good thing to keep in mind.

Reducing or Improving Stats

One of the easiest ways to reduce the difficulty of an encounter is to play around with the player and monster statistics. The most common methods I've seen in the past is to have injured combatants (monsters get hurt too), and to give easy access to 3/4ths (a +5 to AC in 5th edition makes a big difference, especially at low levels) and total cover. Cover generally helps with promoting tactics though you'll need to have counter tactics of your own planned. Otherwise it won't make much of a difference except needing to roll a higher number. Keeping the enemy at range is generally helpful when they need to close the distance.

Restricting Numbers of Creatures

If you throw a large number of creatures at a group of players, not all of them may be in range to threaten the players. When done this way the encounter may end up running like 2 smaller encounters with no rest in between. Often I've seen players use this strategy in order to give themselves an advantage even if the encounter could be won by going head on. Divide and conquer remains a valid tactic in tabletop role-playing games.

Using Terrain

Terrain is a very easy method to reduce the flow and number of enemies the players need to face at once. Set the action inside a 10 foot wide tunnel fighting enemies that are purely melee and the result is that the players can force it into a 2 vs 2. Depending on what kind of optional rules are used (chance of hitting person(s) in the way), it can also help restrict ranged attacks as well. However, using tunnels in this way is generally not enough for an interesting encounter. It runs the risk of forcing the players into a static situation. The general idea can be used in other ways though, such as doing something similar using a bridge over a long fall or using traps in order to narrow down the area (it also gives the party a couple easy kills).

Spreading Out Arrivals

It takes time for someone to get into range, particularly if they mainly fight melee. That means that putting them 40 feet away when they only have 30 feet of movement buys the party a turn before they get there. Using this gives a situation almost the same as spreading out arrivals but the party can see how long it'll roughly take for the enemies to get to them.

Not everyone in the entire dungeon will be in one room. Maybe the players set up a distraction to attract a significant portion of the defenders. If things go badly, someone might go running for help. Someone might yell and reinforcements will come soon after. A level one party might not stand a chance against 8 enemies. However, they might have a fighting chance against 2 waves of 4. Knowing when another wave will arrive might be tricky. You can't see the distance like you can if they are in the same location but far away. However, you can still give clues, such as sounds coming from the hallway a round before they show up, that will give players a sense of when reinforcements will arrive. Doing so lets them plan accordingly. In some situations this might not be reasonable or desirable.

Other Situations

Before the players start fighting, there are many different things they can try. Written into the rules for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition are surprise rounds, which give the players one free round to unleash death against their enemies. Using these advantageously allows players to knock out some creatures before a normal round takes place. As a result, they can safely combat more opponents at once (a surprise round against kobolds or goblins at low levels is devastating).

Of course, having allies also helps to reduce the difficulty of success for the party. However, there are many different methods to handle allies. I've seen people put NPCs in the middle of an encounter and control them the same way they do for the monsters. However, I've also seen the Dungeon Master do something similar to a lair action but to help the players. They would act at an initiative count (you can either roll one or just use 20 just like lair actions) and on that count have an effect. If the party had archers to support them, you might make 3 attacks against 3 different targets to represent the barrage of arrows (when I saw this being done, it had to be different targets in order to be similar to a cloud of arrows falling onto the enemy but you can alter this to cover an area).

Bringing out the big guns also works. If players have access to spell scrolls, items of incredible power or powerful siege weapons (especially true if the party lacks characters with good range skills), the odds can start to look very different. These toys, however, need to be taken into account when designing encounters. They allow you to create encounters that look very different but may make a normal encounter a breeze.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Dungeon Master: Describing Details

Bringing locations, items, and people to life is a big part of tabletop role-playing games. Details are a big part of this and the way we use them can have a big effect. However, there is such a thing as too much detail. As well, there is the question of who gets to create the details. It could be the Dungeon Master, the player, or a collaborative effort. Which details should be focused on? With that in mind, I hope to explore the topic and give some of my thoughts on the subject. I'll use theatre of mind for my examples in order to make the situation obvious. Miniatures add their own power and problems, since it's quite common not to be able to find the perfect miniature for a situation.

Which Details to Focus On?

As with all things, there is a bit of a cost-benefit analysis on the kinds of details we provide. Time we spend describing things is time the players aren't acting. However, we still need to describe something otherwise no game can occur. There are some major approaches I've observed and I hope to give an outline to them.

Chekhov's Gun

You can try to describe the things that are immediately important for the thing you are dealing with. The great thing about this approach is that it is simple and keeps things in the players' court. However, it is a minimalistic approach. Taken to its extreme, you may end up describing a sword as merely its stats and location. If it's exactly the same as a previous item you encountered, however, this may be perfectly fine. It's also common to use this for some environmental features.

“The door creaks open. The room is dimly lit by the sunlight coming from the small window set into the wall opposite to your location. The room is full of barrels, leaving barely any space to enter. 5 feet by 10 feet is reachable but you don't know how big the room is due to all the barrels.”

In this kind of situation, even though I provided details, the barrels aren't described. If I embrace this approach, I get something like the below.

“You can see that the room is full of barrels, leaving barely any space to enter. 5 feet by 10 feet is reachable but you don't know how big the room is due to all the barrels.”

It's a little dull as a description. However, this doesn't mean that it's necessarily bad in every circumstance. If your players hit a metaphorical orc bee's nest (a literally orc bee's nest would also work), quick descriptions like this keep the tension going and also reflect the split second decision making process they might use. It can also be made to work by forcing players to perform actions to notice more details or to ask the Dungeon Master if they are curious.

There are a couple of issues with this approach in general use. If you plan to make a detail important, you either have to mention it (cueing your players) or not mention it until they look for it (which can come off as a bit cheap). It's also not the most immersive and interesting description method.

Couple of Details

I usually pick a couple of senses (sight and sound tend to be the most effective), describe what makes sense using those senses, and single out all/most of the important parts of the area/creature/item/thing and describe them. In the previous example, the important details of the area were the light, the amount of space possible to move, and a rough description of how many barrels were tetrised in there.

The important parts take some experience to identify easily but I find the easiest way is to ask questions. If it's a location, what will your players be doing there? Keeping some of the senses in mind helps you make nice immersive descriptions (at least compared to the previous approach) but also means that a detail isn't immediately important. It could just be a touch of character, forcing your players to do some thinking and extra searching. It may also make sense that your players cannot see an important detail because of some obstruction or features of the location.

Cinematic Entrance

Sometimes, you want something awesome to make an unforgettable entrance. In these cases, the description becomes very important. However, since an entrance is usually done by something sentient, we have to also typically describe actions. This forces more time to be spent since time also now plays a role.

If it's a dragon, you'd typically describe everything in the above section to fill out the appearance, and also need to describe its actions (how does it walk/fly in and does it say anything?). We might sometimes want to trim down some of the description and instead focus on actions. It will probably take more actions later and if you really need to, you can give a couple more details then quickly.

Details Not Covered

You typically only have a few words to get across a description, so you need to use them wisely. This means that in some situations not everything will be said (though visual aids can greatly help to save on words and get more information out more efficiently and interestingly). What happens in this situation? The obvious answer is that in the future, when it makes sense, the other details will be revealed because the Dungeon Master knows. Maybe when the player comes closer. Maybe when the player tries to actively look. Or maybe just after a moment in the room they'll notice something. There is another option, however, though I've seen it used more often for items.

There is a bit of a power dynamic between a Dungeon Master and their players. However, this power dynamic isn't necessarily the same between different groups. Say, for example, that the players beat some undead humanoid and take its magic weapon. Before leaving, they cast Speak with Dead and learned something about it. You could come up with the entire back story for the item. However, you could also give your players the chance to come up with its story as long as it relates somehow to the character they killed. If they ask 5 questions, you might even let your players answer some of them. This still keeps the collaborative storytelling that is the heart of tabletop RPGs but also results in them contributing to stories they otherwise would not have. It also drives a bigger wedge between the player and their character. The simplest examples is to let your player name a magic item they found and then construct a past (they get a name they like and you still have control). The more complex is to temporarily give your players the reigns over your part of the game. This topic is what I'll be covering next.