Sunday, 30 July 2017

Dungeon Master: Confined Spaces

There are many different locations in which combat can occur. However, due to the nature of dungeons, often times it's in a confined space. It could be inside a small building, inside the tunnels of a mine, or on a floating platform. Regardless, these kinds of situations restrict the movement of players and enemies alike and come with their own challenges. It is these elements that I hope to discuss. As always, I'd be happy to hear other opinions.

Getting Locked Down

One of my big enemies when designing combat encounters is the static encounter. I don't want my players to get locked into one position where they'll just spend their turns rolling dice and nothing else. The problem is that confined places make it easier for this to occur. There isn't much distance to cross so the enemy can quickly get up close. There is also often nowhere to go. In systems that have some form of penalty for leaving reach, moving away is often not worth the penalty and we end up with a static encounter. In a confined space this is compounded further. Even if we do try to move away, there's often not much room for us to move.

Quick Encounters

One of the best solutions I've found in these kinds of situations is for the encounter not to last long. This way, even if players do get locked into a position, combat will be over soon after. What this often means is enemies are easily dropped and tend to deal a large amount of damage. This can be a bit hard to balance, particularly at higher levels, since this kind of combat can be very swingy. At low levels most enemies do a fairly large amount of damage relative to the health of a player character anyway. However, doing things this way ensures that the position chosen matters (a good position will result in fewer resources lost) but avoids the long slog. They can do normal amounts of damage too, but in that case it'll be a series of encounters that tries to chip away at the party. It naturally doesn't work as well with set-piece encounters though. In those cases you'll want something else since the idea is to have something a bit longer and more epic.

Sub-Optimal Dungeon Master Actions

It takes two sides to get locked down. What this means is that in situations where you can't reasonably expect players to move since it's against their own interests, you can break the stalemate. This way things get to be more dynamic. So what if your NPC gets an opportunity attack against it? The player can now move now and make for an interesting encounter. Of course, there will be times when someone will get past the player. This is great because the players will now need to decide how to deal with the NPC that slipped past their defenses. In some cases, though, this won't make sense. It will also get stale quickly if we take the same sub-optimal actions every time. The enemy shouldn't be leaving reach only for the sake of making combat more interesting. There should be an in-game reason for doing so, such as wanting to take out the spellcaster or retrieve an item held by a different player.


In a confined area with no obstacles, often the only thing blocking line of sight and preventing movement are other people. In a small enough place this can be a real limiting factor. However, we can also put obstacles into the area to further block line of sight in certain situations and extend the movement needed to reach someone. Sometimes these kinds of constraints can be exactly what we need to change things up. The extra distance can also work wonders for creating different kinds of situations. We want to keep multiple paths so that meaningful decisions involving movement still need to be made. With small enough rooms, we can link multiple ones together to make a less uniform area.Not all obstacles will prevent both line of sight and movement. It could be one or the other.

Bends in the Road

The reason I thought of this topic was because of a situation I ran into during one of my sessions. The session involved some plane and time hopping. Naturally, the players had found themselves in trenches in a roughly WW1 situation where I had used a tile set to build a trench system. One particular combat encounter happened around the bend in the trench. Different characters were lying in wait for people to try to peek around while others party members were peeking around and trying to attract attention. One tried to use the flooring to build some impromptu cover. It's a different kind of encounter but it's one worth considering. It's also something that can be kept in mind when creating an encounter close to a bend in a dungeon. You may accidentally run into this situation. In this case, the confined space itself provides ways to break line of sight. Doorways can result in similar situations as can other choke points.

Temporary Area Denial

Confined areas can be full of many things. Some of these things are flammable and can prevent certain areas from being used. I say this because in my last session, a barrel caught in a fireball ended up exploding and blocked off access to part of the room. Traps are another common method to temporarily block access to part of a room. This is especially true for some traps that need to be reset since once they are set off, they may be no-longer a hazard. If there was a span of time since players were there, rain could have made rather large muddles or have made certain parts of the dungeon slippery. When possible though, don't forget to apply them to your own NPCs unless they have some kind of immunity. There is nothing wrong with a fire-immune demon walking through a wall of flames or a ghost walking straight through a trap. However, your regular bandit shouldn't be able to without consequences.

Random Events

Even in confined spaces, some interesting events can occur to break things up. A third group could join the fight, the statue in the centre of the room could be attacking the party and their enemy indiscriminately, shells could be exploding (in the case of the trench example above) or a host of other situations. From my experience the ones that work best will somehow chance the area. Either areas will be further restricted, new temporary ways of breaking line of sight appear, or obstacles previously there are taken away.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Dungeon Master: Splitting the Party

A sage old piece of advice is to never split the party. It usually ends badly for the players, and some monster out there becoming extremely wealthy. “Why is that the case?” some innocent new player might ask. Is it always true? I've seen this occur a few times, mostly with horrible failure as a result but a hand full of times with amazing success. And so, I'll be recording the situations and issues I've seen in the hopes that it helps someone out there. That way it can be avoided or the issues can be minimized.

Encounter Balance

How an encounter is balanced and constructed plays a bit of a role when talking about splitting the party. If you had an adventure meant for solo play and ran your party through it, splitting up wouldn't be a problem. However, combat encounters are typically balanced around the size and level of the party. In the case that set-piece style encounters aren't used, the number and type of enemies are still roughly determined based on the strength of the players in some way. If you bring less than expected into a combat encounter, things can go very badly very quickly. It's kind of like taking some party member(s), throwing them into a room with the big bad and locking the door. The only difference is that in this case, the party members are going there willingly and locking the door behind themselves.

Of course, not everyone balances their encounters in this way. If your Dungeon Master likes to send weaker encounters that are meant to whittle down your resources, splitting the party can be a viable option. However, having everyone committed to one encounter instead usually results in a far easier time and fewer resources spent. It's just a result of typical action economy and being able to do more per turn. 

Risk vs Reward

Players will make risk vs reward calculations for the positions they are in. In many campaigns, there isn't much benefit from splitting up and the risk massively increases. Most of the times this happens, it involves stealth. However, players typically attack from stealth for an advantage, which is more effective if backup is close by and more people are involved, or when trying to sneak into somewhere. The deeper they sneak in, however, the more risk.

There can of course be exceptions. If the intention is that players will split up, the Dungeon Master might try to make it lucrative to do so. However, if the threat is too high they still won't do so and prefer to go after one objective. If they know that they can go after the second objective afterwards, this further shifts the risk vs reward calculation. They also might feel it's a trick because it was never the right choice before and staying together is safer. This is one of the challenges of making it lucrative to split the party. Even if you do, they could choose not to. If you modify the encounter depending on decision of the party, it changes the nature of the choice. This is especially true if they notice it's happening after trying enough times. The choice is no longer about which choice has the best chances of success, but which approach is more advantageous from a meta-game perspective. This could be mostly a non-issue if your players don't meta-game though. Of course, the encounters should still make sense in context. How death and retreat are handles also factors in.

Ease of Running a Session

It's typically easier to run a session for one group of adventurers. This also means that this is the more common option to go for. As a result, trying to split up in such a situation leads to fighting 2 encounters undermanned. The encounters just might not have been setup for such situation. The Dungeon Master might skew things a couple of times and put fewer things to fight, but most of the time they'll just run it as it was. This does mean, however, that the adventure was intended to be tackled as a group. This is good, since it gives everyone something to do and a challenge. However, it also has a way of making splitting up not worth it.

Why is it easier? If your party is split up, you have to give both smaller parties things to do. Giving them equal attention while keeping the party members that aren't playing from being bored can be difficult. If everyone is good at what they do, the other party might have fun just watching. However, if things go unexpectedly well or badly, the attention each party gets shifted. Keeping it somewhat equal and both groups engaged is tough. It's often just easier to have everyone together. Something else needs attention? Send the NPC party there while yours handles this. If players often like to split up, what you sometimes end up with two sessions that are going on at the same time. I've been witness to a campaign where the Dungeon Master just gave each group their own time and then a week or two later they rejoined into one bigger group. I've only seen that once though.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Dungeon Master: Players Killing Everything

At a certain point a Dungeon Master typically reaches that phase where they no longer want their players to be a death-mobile killing everything that stands in their path. However, the methods to do so and even the reasons that it previously happened are numerous. As such, I want to try to collect them here along with my thoughts.As usually, hopefully it helps someone out there. And as usual, I'd be happy to hear what other people think.

Player Side

Some players are more likely to want to go around killing everyone than others. Combat is one of the things they enjoy, or they want to play a character who embraces the dark side. Even a role-player tends to want some combat in their games. Though that's an often used excuse, it sometimes is a legitimate desire from a player. Naturally then, they'll want to go around picking fights they think they can win.

However, there can be other reasons your players often get into fights or at the very least end up killing most things they come across. Doing so in games tends to reward players. They get treasure and experience. What can be better? If this is combined with a lack of consequences for killing, you end up in a situation where even people who generally don't want to kill everything in their way will. It's just clearly the best choice and players can typically only hamstring themselves for so long when you are trying to kill them.

Dungeon Master


Out of the gate, experience points can have a big impact on these sorts of situations. If you reward experience on kills, players will go for it. The alternative is to reward experience on a victory. In this case, they'll still receive experience for making enemies flee. This removes the desire to hunt down everyone who flees for experience. This option is still open in order to prevent intel from reaching the enemy. However, there is the metagame implication that for long term experience, it may be best to always let fleeing enemies go. It's sort of like catch and release fishing. They'll come back with more loot and experience. Milestones get around this entirely (awarding levels based on progress in the story), but change the experience for players.

By Design

When I design an combat encounter, how to avoid it completely tends to be one of the last questions on my mind. However, it's still an important question to ask. If you put your players into a dungeon, with the door closed behind them, fighting room through room, it should not be too much of a surprise if they start thinking of combat as the first option. In these kinds of dungeon crawls, it may not be much of a problem either. It could be what your players are here for. However, you can accidentally create these kinds of situations as well. When someone is trying to kill their character, a player is rarely in a talking mood. This means often the default choice is to fight. It also relies on the precedence previously set. You can't throw one encounter that should be solved through non-violence into a dungeon crawl full of nothing else and be surprised when they fight through it. If they run into at least one non-violent situation though, next time there's a better chance that they'll investigate first.

My suggestions for these kinds of situations are quite simple. Establish quite earlier that there are other ways to solve the problem and put a consequence for killing. If it's someone innocent, they might be able to get away with it once or twice but eventually there will be issues. Maybe more guards will be present in the streets, creating problems for your band of ragtag thieves. The point is that it should make sense. Loud noises in a dungeon can draw more attention. A missing patrol sets a camp on edge though sometimes people do skip watch duty to sleep or do other things. The last is to try and have some kind of alternatives ready and if not, not to be afraid of rolling with them. This is where it gets tricky. You also don't want a min-maxed charisma character to just talk through your entire campaign. In these cases the best advice I can think of to give is to remember that what is said is also important, not just how it's said, and that not every fight can be talked out seconds before erupting. It tends to be quite specific and on a case-by-case basis though. Remember that actions have consequences.

Doesn't Work?

Worst case scenario might be needing an out of character talk about what the players want from their campaign and what you want. You need to be on the same page or nothing works. Things get stale quickly if your players decide to just hang out at the inn every session instead of doing things. Only so many bandit groups can keep attacking the inn for protection money. Just like we have expectations that our players will go after something, players have expectations about what they'll be doing in a session. Of course, such talks can be had far earlier, such as at the start of the campaign. For experienced players, this may be needed. Dungeon Masters each have their own style of game and players, coming from a different style, may be expecting something that isn't coming. Sometimes it's for the best, sometimes it's for the worst, but those expectations are important to consider. A good part of our a Dungeon Master's job is managing expectation.You could have a lot of fun with a death-mobile party. However, people need to be alright with it and expect it. Typically, however, people prefer a mix of combat, role-play and storytelling (add humour to taste).

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Player: Hitting A Slump

Players can hit a slump just like Dungeon Masters can. However, the ways to deal with them tend to be very different due to the nature of the role. In some ways, players have more tools to work with. In others, they aren't nearly as free. For this reason, I'll be talking about it in this separate post than the one I did focusing on the Dungeon Master side of the screen.

Being the Dungeon Master

Making the switch to Dungeon Master could help get over the slump. The role is vastly different so some people really do enjoy the large change. However, it's also a large commitment and usually needs more preparation time than being a player. You don't really want to start a campaign you don't think you can finish. I think it's also far more common to have Dungeon Masters who have previous experience as players than players who have previous experience as Dungeon Masters (though I have met the occasional Dungeon Master who started in that role and never left). This lack of experience can make things quite a bit tougher at first and more stressful. It's not that the switch can't be done or that it's necessarily a bad idea, but I can't blanket recommend it. It will depend heavily on the player in question.

Playing a New Character

As a player, your character has a large impact on your game. It's also quite common to fall into a pattern of making rather similar characters. These similarities are usually the personality of the character, or the class. Either way, trying something new in either of these categories can help make things seem new again. The switch between a martial class, a skill monkey class or a magic class tends to be the most pronounced in terms of changes. The way they handle themselves in combat and outside of it is different enough that it can make the game feel completely different. It often also leads to making different characters to suit the strengths of the new class, though this isn't always the class. Switching up the background of a character can also go a long way due to the large changes and challenge role-playing presents in those cases. It may also be worth thinking about your spell list from an in-world perspective. I also often see (I'm guilty of this too) spells being chosen for their usefulness in combat instead of if they make sense for a character to have. Choosing spells you wouldn't have normally can lead to interesting combat solutions and unorthodox utility use.

Working Through It

There are times in a campaign where things need to be done to lead to better and newer things. Sometimes it's worth just going along for a bit and hoping things change soon. This will of course depend on your previous experiences in the campaign and whether you can reasonably expect such a thing. However, it's worth considering and thinking about, particularly if you want to keep your character.

A New Twist

Sometimes, all it might take is a new dynamic or event to mix things up. To achieve this, you might decide to plan something with a fellow player. Stories between players can be just as important as the stories between the players and the Dungeon Master. I do need to say that you need to be a bit careful not to hijack things from the Dungeon Master in these cases. You can also try talking about possible twists or events that involve your character with your Dungeon Master. Having your character as a central part of an event has a way of opening up new role-play opportunities. It's important to note, however, that what I'm talking about here is if you are alone in your feelings. If everyone else around the table is feeling out of it, it could be that the campaign needs to be shaken up in general. Adding an event that has your player as a central focus might not be enough. It'll need to be more drastic in scope and involve the whole party.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Dungeon Master: Hitting a Slump

Sometimes, we Dungeon Masters hit a slump. I know I do. It's one of those things where it just doesn't feel the same way. It's a hard thing to describe to someone who hasn't felt it. That spark of inspiration just isn't there the same way compared to earlier in the campaign. That feeling like you wish you could run a session right this moment isn't there either. Getting past it is hard but I hope that some of what has worked for me will help at least someone out there. I'll be focusing on home games as usual. Organized play is a different situation.


There are certain responsibilities that come with being a Dungeon Master. Even if we aren't feeling completely up to it, we need to run sessions for our players. That said, there is a certain contract between players and their Dungeon Master. If your off feeling is something just happened and you can't quite tell why, it's not much of a problem. For me, it would often go away quite quickly as I got back into the game after a few other sessions. However, if it comes from dysfunctional players or something else that is a long term factor, it's a different situation. In that case, you know what the cause is and it should be dealt with. When it's your slump or just general feeling, the cause isn't as blatant.

Other Things

Dungeon Masters are people too. It could be that something else came up. Maybe you really got into a book series, TV series, movie, video game, whatever it is. Work and other aspects of life could also make you less enthusiastic about your campaign. For me, I find that getting some preparation done or even reading through a game book, particularly Monster Manual and Dungeon Master's Guide like books, greatly helps my enthusiasm. Finding an adventure and taking some parts you find really cool can also help, since it could replace that slump feeling with a desire to run that new cool thing. It's basically a search for inspiration at that point. Of course, getting into something else can also have the opposite effect since it can jump start inspiration. Sometimes it's worth reflecting on why you got into that other thing and seeing what you can try to bring back with you. It can lead to surprising results.

Taking a Break

Sometimes, you might just need to take a break. This is a hard thing to say, because I personally don't like taking a break in the middle of a campaign. It's how I've seen many campaigns fall apart before reaching the end. However, you can take some time between running campaigns to play in someone else's game instead. Switching sides of the screen can help with that feeling. It also depends on the kind of campaigns you typically run. If it's more episodic in nature, you might be able to get someone else to guest DM for a little while. There are some things, such as family or job related stuff, that you can't ignore either. If you do decide to take a break, finding the willpower to come back may be an issue. Be prepared for that.


The frequency of sessions plays a big part in all this. You can reasonably allow yourself a week or so break if your sessions are every 2 weeks. However, it's tougher to fit in for weekly sessions or if you run multiple campaigns weekly like a Dungeon Master super star (it takes serious dedication and is appreciated). It's not uncommon to have a bit of a break between campaigns too. The start of a campaign tends to involve a lot of Dungeon Master planning and thinking, even if it's just running a published adventure. At that time, you can reasonably allow yourself a bit of a break. It really shouldn't be a chore though. I find starting can sometimes be the hardest part if I'm into something else at the same time. Once I start, I enjoy it and might continue thinking about it for some time. I recommend coming up with a self imposed deadline just to keep on track.

When Does It Happen to Me?

For me, I can get my attention shifted to something else for a bit. Usually I lose myself in a book or a book series. Pulling yourself out of that can be difficult but I usually come back with something that can inspire me. The key, I think, is to try and not letting it affect your players. Even if you are feeling slightly off, you should still be enjoying yourself when you get there. Like all things, there are layers of severity. More serious situations might need more serious and drastic solutions.