Monday, 6 August 2018

Dungeon Master: Session Postmortems

There are many issues that can occur during the course of a campaign. Many have simple solutions, many others have complex issues, but regardless you still need to be aware of a problem to address it. A newly formed group will also tend to have more issues than a veteran one, where players haven't had time to work out their issues and get into the flow of things. What I've seen used, and used myself in these cases, is the idea of a postmortem. At the end of some milestone, you have your players look back over what happened and give their opinions.

Being On The Same Page

One of the big things in tabletop gaming is being on the same page. Players need to know what actions they can take and reasonably know what their odds of success is within limits. Dungeon Masters need to know what tools they have at their disposal and what players are willing to tolerate. All of this starts with an understanding between players and Dungeon Master that their concerns will be addressed. Communication break downs and differences of expectation are what postmortems give you the opportunity to address by having a structured system built in where players know they can be heard. You also don't want this kind of stuff to quietly simmer if your players have a problem.

How Often

It depends on your group and their experiences. Doing one per arc is very manageable and makes sure that player concerns are heard. However, earlier in a campaign you might seriously wish to consider doing one per session. This is especially true if you didn't know your players before the campaign started. The more distance there is between you, the more of a necessity there is. Eventually you can get to a point where you don't need them anymore, but I'd still recommend calling for one if concerns are brought up. The big thing to address in this case is if there's a difference of opinion. If fixing the problem for one will cause a problem for another, you'll need a clever compromise or to pick a side and have your players understand.

Taking Too Much Time

The issue that can often happen here is that the postmortems run too long. And especially at the start, this will happen. However, as Dungeon Master you can move on to other topics and then circle back around to the issues that result in a lot of discussions. If necessary, you can have that discussion outside of the session and take it into your favourite chat program or email. Having a structure that people are aware of is also extremely helpful in these cases. Have people mention what they liked (that way you know what is well received and maybe can be used again), what they didn't like (potential problems that need to be solved), and any other comments they might have. I find this setup works well as it touches on the aspects we are really after: what are the likes and dislikes of our players. It may also be an execution thing in some cases, and having that feedback is important.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Dungeon Master: Unexpected Magic Items

Players often have items in mind for their characters. And why shouldn't they? It really should come as no surprise that the sword and board fighter in a vampire centred campaign dreams of having a sun blade. However, often times the most memorable and loved items are the ones they never expected to have. The trouble is that many items can end up getting sold off, so how do we make items that players want to keep that they never wanted?

Selling Off Items is Fine

Having the party sell off excess magic items is fine. It makes sense, particularly in a high magic setting, that not all of the items they get from their enemies would find a use in the party. It also gives you a nice way out in case you miss. The worst case scenario is have a quest to sell it off and another small shortfall of money.

Why Bother?

Sometimes players like surprises. Finding a really useful magic item they never considered is one of those times. There are a lot of cool magic items already in D&D so I've typically found that new players are often impressed by some of the classics. Veteran players have already seen those items so you need something else to get their sense of wonder going. There are also holes in the list of magic items that you don't always realize until running a campaign. You may want specific items to resist and kill illithid in your campaign, and it makes sense that a group whose goal is to hunt illithids will be trying to develop countermeasures.

Look At Things They Miss

There are a few things that I find my players often don't notice when thinking about useful items. One of which has to do with sight. If you are a human, being able to see at night can be a massive advantage if combat often happens at night. It may also be useful to be able to reveal undead with a magic lantern. Alternatively, building on the existing abilities of a class in ways the player didn't expect often goes over well. I remember one campaign where the fighter got a battleaxe that allowed them to use a modified version of the blink spell. Seeing them dark around the battlefield hitting people was something special and it became one of that player's favourite items. 

Non Combat Uses

Players often think about items that give them an edge in combat. Combat is a tense moment where an extra +1 could have made a difference. However, there is more to magic items than that. This is especially true if you have new players that don't have experience with items like bags of holding. Such an item changes inventory management and makes things more convenient for players. However, it also changes the game. The players are no longer concerned about being attacked while they lead a cart of equipment through dangerous terrain. They no longer have to protect the horse pulling the cart, or devote players to push the cart if it died during an attack. 

Some items have minor effects or only good for role-play. In one campaign I ran a ring was given to the party. It was a plane band, but it had the continual flame spell cast upon it. It diminished the need for lanterns, left the hand open for use since it could be worn, and when the party wizard learned the spell they made similar items for the rest of the party. Characters could easily stash it away and pull it out later when they needed light, which was very useful since they were often traveling at night. Role-play are similar but are even more minor in effect. Clothes that don't dirty or a candle that never runs out are handy, but they don't drastically change the game. The ring I mentioned earlier was used similarly to how a never ending candle could be used: to read at night. However, it was a favourite item since it saved on minor costs and was commonly used by the character since they would read or write often. They were a wizard after all.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Dungeon Master: Unique Magic Items

There are many reasons to put unique magic items in the hands of your players. They range from rewarding players for accomplishing great deeds, to necessity in a campaign featuring sparse use of magic items. However, regardless of the reason, the end goal is the same: to create special items that your players will remember for years to come and are uniquely their own. Though I am far from a master of this art, I hope to share some of my experience in my pursuit and in the process hope to help someone out there. And of course get inspiration for a few new items, but that doesn't sound as noble.

Special Touch

One little well thought out thing that pulls everything together can work wonders. Of course, we can also go bigger and add a massive benefit. However, I generally feel a collection of abilities that work cohesively are the most effective. Of course, it isn't a general rule and I'm sure you can find cases where two unrelated abilities make sense by expanding the magic item's utility. It can also help expand the item's story.

Common Magic Item Creation Types

Combination of Magic Items

Often in a campaign where magic items are rare, you'll end up with a magic item that is really an amalgamation of multiple magic items together. A flame tongue might also reflect a spell back to the caster if the save is good enough and also give advantage against spells. This is a reasonable thing to do, but it can be a bit uninspired. However, if the combination is chosen intelligently it can lead to amazing items. A common one I've seen is a mash between 2 different staffs to give the user access to more spells. Cool, and allows for more choices for the wizard using it, but I would argue this is an example of an uninspired item. To fix this add a special touch. A flame tongue mashed with staff of fire is a bit more inspired though it has the same origins.

Magic Item Reskin

My player likes the ability of the arrow catching shield, but doesn't like the shield part. I could give them gloves of arrow snaring, but I could also make a greatsword with the perks of the arrow catching shield, but not too much of it to make the new item just better than the gloves (bigger damage die and same AC increase, oh yeah). This is a very common technique. Like the flame tongue ability but are a bow character? You now have a bow with similar abilities. Maybe the Dungeon Master will lower the damage a little, but it will still mostly be a reskinned flame tongue. Like combining items, this can be uninspired and the reskin not different enough to make it really unique or memorable. Again, try to add a little special touch to make it a bit more unique. Examples I've seen done is to give the bow charges and let it used burning hands and fireball (similar to a flame tongue mixed with a staff of fire), immunity to fire damage and the ability to regain 1d6 health when taking fire damage, and the ability to teleport to sources of fire within 30 feet.

Look At Spells

We have a wealth of spells included with each version of D&D. Even 5th edition, being a relative baby compared to its older brothers, has a fairly wide selection of spells for us to choose from. These spells can be combined or tweaked in interesting ways to create cool magical items. For example, in one of my games I had a flame tongue. However, it wasn't just a flame tongue. It was a +3 flame tongue with the ability to use blink once per day without an action cost and to use a bonus action to teleport 10 feet. Jumping into a group of enemies and jumping all over the place using this magic item was something special. I do find, however, that the magic items best received aren't just mirroring a spell. The spell is somehow changed to better reflect its new purpose. With this item, it was the intent of the Dungeon Master to let me use both the teleport and the blink ability at the same time, so it needed to be tweaked.

Break A Rule

We have a wide range of rules. However, I would say that a good amount of magic items at their core are about bending, modifying or breaking a rule to the player's advantage. You roll a d20 + strength + proficiency to see if you hit? Well, my +2 sword modifies it in my favour further. Fall damage is 1d6 per 10 feet? Well, maybe my magic item lets me ignore this rule. Opportunity attacks are also a good candidate. Once we identify what rule we want to break or bend, we also need to identify how. We could just let a player fall as far as they want and not take damage. We could also give them a casting of feather fall once per day.

What Do We Want To Do?

Another way to go about this is to come up with a concept for something cool you want to do. One thing a player might say is, “I want to be able to touch people and do fire damage as well as catch swords”. Well, if we want to give them what they want, we can make gloves that make a punch or touch do 1d4 + strength modifier fire damage instead of the normal one. Also, if they are hit with a melee or ranged weapon attack they can use their reaction to reduce the damage by 1d10 + dex modifier if they have a free hand. This is similar to an existing item (gloves of missile snaring), but also has its own new touch that allows it to do what our player wanted. In this interpretation, the enemy can pry or slide the sword out of your hand afterwards. You could also let the player grab the weapon if the damage is reduced to 0 damage, but this will make it significantly strong. I typically recommend looking at existing items to see if we can modify them to do what we want. This is both for balance, as it makes it easier for new Dungeon Masters to make balanced items, and it is a surprisingly effective way to get the creative juices flowing. Of course, we can still horribly break items in this way but I think often the risks are lower. It also can narrow things down since we don't have to wrestle with how we are going to do the sword catching part of the item. Steal the arrow catching part from an existing item and also apply it to melee weapons. A player may want to bring an existing item from some other medium to life instead of having a concept. This is fine, but I also typically tell my player to do something slightly different to make it their own.

Add Drawbacks

Not all magic items need drawbacks, but they can make an item more interesting. It also lets you impose a cost for suing an incredibly powerful item. Extreme care is needed here. Be too punishing, and you've created a magic item that might as well not exist: it will never be used in your campaign. Common methods are to allow health to be traded for damage output, though the damage output often needs to be higher in order to justify the costs. For some reason I've seen hit point cost resulting in 2 hit points of damage to the enemy done most often. They can also be role-play related draw backs. If the local church recognize a soul stealer sword, they may have some unkind words with you. Again, exercise care here. Often having charge limits on an item is enough to prevent overuse but in some cases, such as items with infinite uses, a different cost may be required.

All Of The Above

When we make an item, it could purely be one of the above sections. More often though, I find it's a mix of multiple ways. For example a player may want to do something, and there is already a spell that's close to what they want that we could add to an item. We may add an extra perk for them because it makes sense in context, and add something that breaks a rule. The point of the above wasn't to give exact answers on how to make a magic item, but instead some of the most common ways I've seen to make magic items. There is always room for other techniques and strikes of inspiration. 

Monday, 16 July 2018

Dungeon Master: Magic Items as Stories

Magic items are capable of a great many things. They can give players and villains alike a needed boost in strength. They can be the source of entire adventures, or trinkets that the players don't think twice about. However, they tend to get stories associated with them over the course of adventures. Even otherwise seemingly useless items may gain life for their utility, or be remembered fondly for the one time they proved to be useful. At this point they become more than just a magic item, they become a story. And it is this topic I hope to explore today.

More Than A +1 Longsword

An easy first step is to avoid giving +1 weapons. Make the item something special by adding a couple of details. Even something small like a few notched on the cross guard can lead to an interesting story when someone they run into finds it familiar. Now, I'd usually recommend something bigger but subtly can be surprisingly effective too.

In terms of function, I've found going big is most memorable. Something that changes the game. The real potential for story telling with these items isn't that it's just a sword like my old one but does more damage. It's that it opened up new options previously beyond the player's reach. The new options that open up allow for new stories to be told. However, you can do both aspects or one or the other. The great part about an item, even if it's just a +1 longsword in combat, is that it might open up role-play opportunities not otherwise possible. A +1 longsword in a world with almost no +1 longswords becomes something more. It will be coveted.

Let's Find Them!

There is always the classic story of trying to find an item. A whole campaign could revolve around finding an item. Whether that's because it's valuable to the players or the NPC that hired them is irrelevant: the item has value and they'll look for it. It takes care though, and players who are willing to go after such a goal.

However, I think that you can't rely on the item itself in this case to drive the whole campaign and story. Instead it's a catalyst for the players and forces who want it to perform actions. As such, the location where the item is and the path to getting to it is the real core of the story. Where and how an item is found, even one that wasn't sought, tells quite a lot about that item and can hint to a larger story. This may sound obvious but I've seen all too often that an item becomes all that is important in a campaign instead of a setup.

Purpose

An item needs to be made by someone for some reason, and if the players aren't going to pawn it off at the nearest stand they'll need a purpose for it too. The purpose may not be foreseen, since it's up to the players to find creative methods to use items. However, if the players realize they are about to face a dangerous situation it isn't uncommon for them to look for ways to change the odds more in their favour. And a common method is through magic items. Scrolls, magic rings, world shattering devices, a sun blade in a vampire centred campaign, take your pick. What's great about these situations is that since the players are actively seeking these items out, it means they already have a purpose. Of course, the trouble with this method is that if the players always break to look for magic items and resources, a good portion of the tension will fly out the window. They can't always run into a situation perfectly prepared.

When it's on the other side of the DM screen I find that the items should help further the goal of the NPC in some way. If the NPC or villain is also chasing after the same item, they need to have a reason. Money is an easy one, but something more personal can often lead to better results. Potions to prevent aging, or the severed limb of a now crippled death knight who wants to regain his power. Those sorts of things.

History

Magic items can become part of the identity of a character. I think we can all remember a character we had that had a certain item that was closely associated with the character in question. Even if it's a published item like a sun blade, the moment it was used cleverly to kill 3 vampire spawn goes down in campaign history and leaves an impact. What it requires to become more in this case is a special moment and use for it. After all, a sun blade wouldn't have been nearly as fondly remembered in a campaign with no vampires, though it would still prove to be more useful than a regular old short sword. This also means that if a player character dies, their old magic items have a history attached to them. I've seen this occur both in cases where players reacquired items their old characters used to have (the campaign was set a thousand years after their previous ones), or where a new player joining a group received the items from their recently dead friend. The responsibility to do justice to their fallen comrade that the player role-played was something hard to describe. The reactions the players had to regaining their old items that now had a long storied history in the world was also hard to describe. The item became a character in the campaign itself, and it was like seeing an old friend NPC come back.

On top of that, some magic items can help tell the story of a character. It's not that uncommon to see a player character who is a disgraced noble or hero. Besides their magic sword, and memories of grander days, they have virtually nothing. You can also have the item grow in power over the course of the campaign as the player becomes more powerful and gains more control over their magic item. In this case, their starting weapon is closely linked to their personal story and has a history all their own. It's also a history you can let the player come up with. Whether it's the magic sword of their fallen friend that they will take to finish their work or whatever else, such a history is a great opportunity for telling stories and role-playing.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Dungeon Master: When to End a Session

Part of plotting a session is trying to figure out when you will call it a day. Eventually time runs out and we need to take a break. However, we also want the sessions to be fun and interesting. This is why it is so hard and so much of a skill. Balancing interesting things, and allowing players the chances to do what they wish within a defined time is tough. It's made even tougher by the nature of role-playing games: things often don't go as planned. Hopefully my thoughts on the matter will be useful and as always, I'm happy to hear other opinions.

Too Short Better Than Too Long

I am of the opinion that running too short is better than running too long in most cases. There are some exceptions that immediately come to mind, but the good thing about running short is that it means you still got through what you had planned. This usually means that there isn't much of a risk of a dead session where nothing happened. Some sessions will naturally be more interesting than others, but something happening is better than nothing. Of course, things could have gone off track but full of interesting events. My group also tends to have strictly timed sessions because of other commitments so I have this opinion by necessity.

What happens if we get through everything we planned? We could of course keep going and in many cases, I'd say this is the correct choice. We have the time so let's use it and continue in the story. The risk we run into is pacing and structure issues. Jumping into a half completed segments, combat encounters especially, can be rough. If we know that we only have 20 minutes left, it may be a good idea to break early instead of expecting everyone to jump right back into a half finished encounter. We could also end up ending on a low note after a tough and engaging combat encounter. In practice, I'm not really worried about this option. I find players often appreciate some breathing time after and to reflect on what happened. Still though, it should progress even if slowly. Some extra time at the end is also perfect if you plan to do a session postmortem.

When Is it Better To Run Longer?

There is also the option of running the session a bit longer sometimes. It will depend on who you have. It could be the only thing they have left for the day so whether they leave at 11pm or 11:20 doesn't matter as long as it ends reasonably close. In these cases, the right choice might be to just do the encounter and end on the high note. We'll run long but we can afford it. It is also sometimes a good idea to let your players know the session will run longer if you know ahead of time. This is especially true for the end of a campaign. If you normally have sessions that run 2-3 hours, it might be a good idea to run a longer 4 hour session and finish everything in one chunk. That way everything is fresh and rolls together well.

Why Are Breaks Bad?

It's been my experience that sessions tend to be scheduled weekly or by-weekly for groups. A week or two are perfect amounts of time to forget things and even with experienced groups, it can take a little bit of time to file the rust off and continue. I find it's somewhere in the 10-15 minute range. For this reason, starting a session in a half-completed combat encounter doesn't generally work the best. If you are using digital tools, it's less of a concern because the map will be untouched. Physical maps and miniatures need to be put away unless you don't need that table for 2 weeks. Sometimes it's unavoidable. I found my players prefer ending a bit early and starting the combat encounter next time. Some combat encounters can be very large and ornate, and in those it's more reasonable to find a logical spot to stop and commence. If the fight takes place in a tower where floors are breaking, stopping just as they fell to the final floor is better a less defined and memorable situation. And obviously the longer the time span between sessions, the worse it is.

Play Until Done

I've played in sessions where the target was about 2 hours, but everyone would stay until it was done. As a result things would often run long (3 hours, and once 4 hours) but each session felt like a complete experience. This worked great for this group, but not everyone has that kind of flexibility and out-of-game factors overrule the game in these cases. But man, is it satisfying to spend a most of a day playing a tabletop game.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Dungeon Master: What A Roll Says

Chance is an important part of a tabletop game and the dice is our tool for introducing it. That little object can determine success or failure for our actions. However, one thing I've wrestled with for as long as I've been gaming is what the roll actually says. In some cases it is rather straight forward. You swung your sword and you hit. In others, such as rolling to determine if someone is lying, things get weirder. As a player, you can even ignore your roll in this case. And it is with the intent to explore this idea that I write today.

Same Idea

Regardless, I find things work best when the meaning of a roll and its result is understood by all at the table. It makes things work far smoother. That way a player knows what the roll failure means and can role-play accordingly. Restarting a scene is something I feel should not happen during play. It takes away one of the great strengths of tabletop gaming: the commitment to choices and progression of story. It is also a major thing that marks it to be different than most video games, though some try to do this as well (though some fiddling with your appdata folders is still possible).

The Roll

So I roll my dice to see if the character was lying. Whether I succeed or fail, we are in a bit of an odd situation. If I failed, and they are in fact lying, do I think they are telling the truth? If they are telling the truth, do I think they are lying? This also adds an extra issue: if I do this consistently, the meta-game becomes obvious. If I failed I get the opposite result. If I rolled a 1 I know what is going on by process of elimination. I can obfuscate it and sometimes tell the truth and sometimes lie. I can also say they don't know when they fail and give the players an answer when they succeed. I'd say this last one is the most common and the simplest to implement. In general, it would be my suggestion for those things that involve recollection or mind related checks. Of course, introducing some exceptions into the mix can make for fun gameplay moments.

Ignoring Them

I don't mean ignoring them like when you don't bother to roll because a player role-played their character well and brought up an excellent point that doesn't need a charisma check. What I mean is that even if a player thinks a character isn't lying, they may still choose not to believe them. This is where things get a bit rough. Is a lie of omission a lie? Technically it is, and I'd argue that a roll should help you figure out that something is being hidden from you based on things you notice from the person who told the lie. However, even if that checks out, a player may still choose to ignore the result and not believe the character. This character broke their word thrice already. Why would I believe them again? Even if they don't lie, they are setting something up. There is a trick somewhere. These moments are great since it's the character the player created overpowering what the player knows or think they know. The roll gave them something, be it knowledge or a new position after climbing a wall. What they choose to do with what they gained is their business.

Did We Succeed?

Your character is trying to convince someone of something. Maybe they are lying, maybe they aren't. Still, how do you know if you succeeded? In this situation, it's hard to tell until the results come back to you. If a bad guy saw through your lie because they are better at reading your actions, or because they know something that directly contradicts what you said, you won't know until they spring their trap. Sometimes you will by a change in disposition. However, sometimes the result of the roll won't be known until farther along, because they'll use the chance to trap you. Again, it's fine and niche in application, but still important. Just make sure to note it for later use. It's easy to forget that your bad guy noticed if you don't.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Dungeon Master: Maintaining Player Interest

I recently wrote a little bit about hooking players. However, that's just phase one. Once we have them hooked, we need to keep them. This is far more subtle, and still requires serious attention. It involves delivering things that were promised, but often not in ways originally expected. Part of it is also getting your players to think of the future, and look forward to their options. And of course, there is much more to it as well. So let's jump into it.

Giving Players What They Want

Part of a campaign is giving players what they want. Now, this could mean a lot of things and be delivered in different ways. It could also change from player to player. Some players will want elaborate, complex, and challenging combat encounters. Others will want situations they can talk their way out, or rally allies to their cause. Others still will want to unravel a mystery, or navigate the complex political relationships between kingdoms, alliances and empires. Keep hitting these notes that your players love, and they'll be looking forward to more. Seems simple right? Well, not necessarily.

What If They Don't Know?

There is more than that. It's great if your players know themselves well enough to be able to tell you what they want. However, they may miss things. Likewise there will be constraints. You can't have massive battles every session at the same time as deep political intrigue, and a hunt for a lost magical item without it getting jumbled occasionally. So the player who likes political intrigue may need to wait a session or two to have their favourite part come back.

These situations are tough. Finding out what your players like when they don't can be a game of trial and error. However, don't be too worried. Well executed searches that are in the right ballpark go over fine. There just might be other things your players enjoy more that you'll find as you search. You may need to balance everyone's wants as well, and a player might not get their favourite thing but still get enough to enjoy coming back every time. Sometimes players want something new. What is that? Well, they'll know when they find it. It's not exactly helpful advice but it does remind us that looking for novel things isn't a bad thing.

You can also hit something else. There may be a root cause to why your player likes what they like. You may also learn that your player likes the other aspects of the game too, even if they didn't previously say it. This could happen for a wide variety of reasons from their previous game experience, to something just working in ways they didn't foresee. You might have also hit the real root cause of why they like what they do. A player who loves combat encounters may end up really enjoying a political intrigue campaign because they have many options to try to bring people over to their side instead of their enemy. This situation of weighing options, each with their advantages and drawbacks, and making decisions could be the real reason they like combat encounters. You can target this, of course, but more often I find you'll stumble upon these kinds of revelations. Just keep an eye and try not to miss when they fall into your lap.

Paying Off Promises

There are promises that are made when starting a campaign and bringing in players. If you said there would be combat encounters, they expect some combat. Chances are your players were looking forward to them. Some may have been pushed over the edge and decided to join the campaign because of them. Likewise, as you build things during the campaign, players expect them to lead somewhere. Anywhere. You can't guarantee players will like twists and turns as much as their own ideas, but they tend to be far more interested when they know that they are building towards things, and that there will be a reveal.

Also, when thinking about this topic, be careful about going too specific. That there will be kobolds is probably far too specific to be the kind of promise I am talking about here. What makes this difficult is that the promise that the campaign will involve hunting vampires may not be too specific. Some players may really have decided to join the campaign to get the experience of hunting vampires. They loved the idea of living a version of their favourite fiction. However, often times the promise will be higher level. Figuring out what promises you made, and making them accurately in the first place is difficult. However, carefully keeping this in mind is important. Sometimes you can break them but you need to give something in return that is as valuable. What? I don't know. It will depend on your group and it's part of what makes running campaigns hard. However, exercise caution since it's very easy to fail when subverting a promise for something better. You also don't want to do it too often, otherwise promises become meaningless.


Sometimes People's Opinions Change

It's easy to get the idea that things are fine and keep doing it. And often times, this works well for a group. However, it's also important to note that sometimes people's opinions change. The players who were super into dungeon crawling may want a break for a few sessions. If you notice this, or are informed, incorporate it into your campaign. Don't take it personally either. You could make the best spaghetti in the world, but sometimes people want something else. It can happen to the Dungeon Master too, or just makes sense as the campaign evolves. Your intrigue campaign about gathering forces to stop an undead army may in fact end with a combat encounter. After all, doesn't it make sense for a massive battle to occur after so much buildup? It's not necessary, but more often than not your players will want such an awesome combat encounter after so much buildup.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Dungeon Master: Traveling Between Locations

Sooner or later, players need to cross some area to get to somewhere else. Whether it's moving from one city to another, or even one dimension to another, it's a process and there are many ways to handle it. Do we just skim past it and go to the action after? Do we give side content (some levity and variety could be welcome)? If we do, is it a distraction or does it give them resources they need later? Do we do meaningful stuff that somehow ties back into everything? There are many ways to handle such a situation and what makes things even harder is that it can be very situationally dependent. For these reasons I wish to explore the topic a little.

It's Not Easy

Traveling between locations is difficult in tabletop role-playing games. You want to make it interesting as a Dungeon Master, but it's easy to get mired in side details that people don't enjoy. At the same time, you'll find yourself needing to do something involving it if you have a ranger. Otherwise they'll feel a bit ripped off. Part of this is choosing the right granularity. If there's only one choice to be made for a 3 week journey, you might not want to do a day-by-day (asking everyone on every day what they wish to do) unless it feels like something can happen in between. You might want to give your players a day-by-day break down after they set their path and made decisions, especially if they know where they are and where to go. Or, they might want to know every time something in the journey changes and make a decision. There's a swamp in the way. Go around or go through it? Lose time in one, lose resources because of combat and struggles in the other. If you go this route, I'd recommend at least knowing generally what the location is like. A map makes things far easier. Still I find opinions can greatly vary from player to player.

Did the new Dungeon Masters reading this get scared? Well, don't be. It doesn't instantly mean that all your players will hate your game if you get it wrong. Just be aware of the possible issues that might arise and be prepared to change your approach if your group likes things differently. Experienced Dungeon Masters also run into this when playing with new groups or players. They just know how to handle it due to their experience.

Choosing Granularity

If you have a map in a pre-made adventure, you know roughly what the party will run across when setting a course and can describe it in ways that best suits your group. If you are making a map, that's where it gets difficult. You typically at least want to describe the general layout of the land, and possibly weather. If there is a change of location, such as rolling hills to desert, you'll also want to describe that. However, the big thing is to keep in mind when decisions will be made and these decisions often result in a time vs risk trade off.

Story or Simulation?

Part of this comes down to if you want a more simulationist or story driven experience. For some, role-play the travel can be the highlight of an adventure. Keeping an eye on food, trying to avoid detection, facing the elements, and still trying to arrive on time to their destination. On the other hand, the environment can be something to just skip past. Maybe nothing happened. A bear attack doesn't happen every time someone goes into a forest. Likewise, the trip can be unimportant. So make your choice.

Pressure

When traveling between to locations, I find that there should be some sort of pressure. Whether it's a competing group trying to reach a legendary ruin first, weather getting progressively worse, or the threat of supplies running out, there needs to be a catalyst for tough decisions. It also means that the travel paces in D&D 5th edition start to have meaning where usually they don't. Without this kind of thing, a fast travel pace will very rarely be chosen. Why are your players traveling anyway if they don't have a reason to?

Being Chased

A common and rather effective method for getting players from one place to another is through a chase. Such a setup ideally forces difficult choices to be made and provides a sense of tension. However, we also need to put some complications in. Otherwise it'll just involve the party running away as fast as possible. There also needs to be some solution to the problem at hand. We can't have an unwinnable situation behind the players, forcing them to run forward at full speed right into an ambush they can't win. And at the same time, if the situation they are supposed to run from is unwinnable, the players should know. Looking back, a hilarious number of situations that were meant to be chases ended up as slaughters because players picked fights they thought they could win and failed.

Risk vs Reward

There is an idea of risk and reward when talking about going between two locations. Why wouldn't I explore every place I run across between here and my destination? Well, often times it's the risk of losing time towards our goal. Perhaps having that town indebted to me would be helpful in the long run, but I'll also lose time and give my enemy a head start on the important magic item stored in the vault of the city 4 days away. If I only have so many rations and no ranger, I might not be able to enter every ruin I come across either. Instead, I need to selectively pick them, mark them down, and maybe revisit them later.

This idea also comes back into getting lost. What does it matter if the party gets lost if there is no risk or penalty for doing so? Oh, it takes me longer to get to my destination? So what? The exception to this is when inadvertently finding locations. In this case, getting lost found me a new cool location, new resources and/or allies. However, without risk and reward the party may often just go at a normal pace because they don't want to deal with getting lost. Or they might go at a slow pace because they want to sneak. This decision depends on your party, of course, but the party will typically have one approach they use for everything. This can be fine in general, but there will be cases where you want that added pressure.

Approaches

If decisions are being made there should be some outcomes at some point. Approaching a camp in the woods might allow multiple approaches. If we sneak, we might be able to get a sneak attack or poison their water. If we go fast, maybe we can get their before their hunting party gets back and use divide and conquer. Maybe we know they have hunting parties looking for us. If decisions are being made while traveling, they journey will probably be glossed over with a quick description. That's fine as it lets the party get to what they consider the good stuff. However, keeping in mind what choices the party has over their travels is a good starting place to make it more interesting. 

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Dungeon Master: Yanking Narratives

A common topic of discussion with tabletop role-playing games as well as role-playing games in general is the idea of freedom. The desire to avoid railroading is commonly mentioned and player control is important. However, at the same time, players don't have unlimited control over a game either. That's part of the point of having rules as opposed to just sitting together with friends and coming up with a story. In my experience, regardless of your feelings on railroading or player control, yanking your players back on track doesn't go over well. This, however, is different than just railroading players. It's about taking control from your players, and yanking them to where you think they should have gone. And it is this topic that I will talk about today.

Some Situations Have Fewer Options

Based on your player characters, their level, their magic items, the help they have access to and many other factors, your players have a set of tools at their disposal to solve problems you throw at them. However, it also means that not all campaigns are created equal and not all parties need or want the same tools. This also means that some situations will be more desperate with the players having fewer options at their disposal. I find it that in these kinds of situations, limitations are important. Working within limitations in creative ways is part of the fun You don't want to make your players irreverent either. Find a balance between these two for your players and things will be fine. I've played with groups who liked playing more structured narratives. However, they still wanted choice. Don't take away all choice from the players.

Yanking Back On Course

Problems often happen when players are trying to play the game and they keep getting yanked back on course. You want to avoid situations where players need to replay a scene except in special circumstances in particular. What this does is takes away the meaning of choices and forces them to make the choices that you make. This is one of the more extreme examples, however. In general the game should be going forward with players making decisions to keep pushing the story forward.

This doesn't mean that players can't make mistakes. However, if they do, it works best if they realize that a mistake happen and try to correct things. The alternative is you throwing something in their way that forces them to change paths. The specifics here are important but not really well defined. However, there is a difference between a nudge in the right direction when players are lost (from my experience they often appreciate it) and taking all control by yanking their leash. That said, giving nudges is a bit of a skill in itself.

Different From Hints

Though it was hinted in what I said before, we have to note that there is a difference between yanking players back on track and providing hints. Hints need to be decoded and players then need to use them to set course. They also don't always tell a player what to do, just what they need to work towards. Them being told where they can find information about what they are looking for doesn't help them get their. It only sets their direction. These distinctions are important because it's an inherit part of the give and take relationship of tabletop role-playing games. Dungeon Masters set up a world and conflict while players navigate them and try to influence outcomes through their agency.

Player Sabotage

Players who don't want to play can sabotage a game. However, trying to yank them into the story you want won't help. They'll be unhappy and you'll be unhappy that they aren't playing. I don't think it helps anyone to try and solve these kinds of problems at the table. They are personal problems that need to be handled as people. Once the real problem is handled, the game can continue and you can all have fun. After all, you can throw you players into an undead apocalypse and have them want to do nothing. Then, if you attack them, they can choose to forgo their actions and get killed. At a certain point you need to realize that you can't force them to play. You can put challenges in their way, you can put restrictions on them that make the struggle meaningful, but you can't and shouldn't play for them.

Challenges to Be Solved

I've written before that I find the best way to think about these kinds of things as challenges for my players to solve. However, they need to solve them. I know what's afoot. I designed it. Of course it will be influenced by their actions and I may need to adjust on the fly, but my fun comes largely from handling what my players come up with to solve the problems I put in their way. It isn't fun for me anymore if I can play the game for them. That's what I'm doing if I yank them onto my story path. But again, that is far and away different from giving hints and providing methods to achieve what they want. There is a difference between telling the characters where the magic sword is, telling them exactly how to get it down to the minute detail, and taking control from them to get it.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Dungeon Master: Hooking Players

When running a tabletop role-playing game campaign, we want to draw people in. We want to hook them and have them looking forward to the next session. And as is the pattern for this kind of thing, it isn't easy. Different people may need different things to draw them in. Though I of course cannot offer a definitive opinion or an exhaustive list, I hope I can offer a few helpful tips at the very least.

Types of Games

The nature of the games we're playing has a large impact on the kind of things we can use to hook people and how important they are. In a one shot, doing so quickly and efficiently is very important. We have very little time to work with so we need to make use of it effectively. In more relaxed settings, such as a long home campaign, we have a bit more time to work with. However, getting players interested in the goings on is still extremely important. It's just we can be more subtle and measured instead of being forced throw our players right into the thick of it.

Hooking vs. Maintaining

Hooking, grabbing the interest of players at the start, is different than maintaining interest. Of course, both are important but I want to focus just on the hook for now. It also wouldn't say one is easier than other, and there are many overlaps. However, they often work in different ways.

Start With Actions

One of the easiest, most straight forward and effective ways I've come across is to make sure things start with some sort of actions or events. It's similar to the idea of show, don't tell. Particularly when you don't have a lot of time to work with, the adventure might need to come to the players. Of course, the players still need to make the choice to go on the adventure.

What do I mean by actions? Let's take the classic situation of all the players being in an inn and meeting each other. This kind of thing is more of a setting for an adventure and not an event. If we now had the inn catching on fire, attacked by someone or have an injured stranger collapse into the room, we've got an event that can capture the interests of players. These kinds of events, from my experience, tend to work best when they hint at something bigger. They are parts of stories, and that's a source of their power. However, they should also be able to stand alone and be interesting on their own. In a long campaign your first session may be aimed with the expressed goal to try and hook your players as well as introduce them to your world. In this case, it should probably still be part of a larger story, but also function as a story on its own.

Keeping this kind of thing in mind is a good idea in general. Instead of hearing about some event, you can instead show the consequences of the event. As an example, show the large influx of people as a result of armed conflict to the north instead of just hearing people discussing it in the bar. You can still keep the discussion, especially since not all details will be immediately noticed. That's fine though. After hearing the conversation there can be that “aha!” moment. 

Also don't be upset if they don't bite at first, or go in a different direction. They may be waiting for more details before jumping in, or have great ideas you never thought of. I also find it helps to think of this as setting the stage. We'll set events into motion, and the players mess it up, twist it, and turn it towards their outcomes. Don't forget it's a shared story.

Themes

People often have their own pet themes that they love to see. I know I am guilty of it. If you know some of the themes your players find interesting, incorporating some of them is often an easy way to increase interest. Of course the execution matters too. But there are certain things that just resonate better with us. It might be time travel, or it might be the nature of undeath, but regardless it still helps. I've made my opinion on the matter of themes extremely clear. Having an overarching theme or themes helps in other ways too. It allows players to have a vague idea of the kinds of things they'll experience, without telling them what to expect. If your players are speculating about things that might happen or planning for the next session, you know you hooked their interest.

Combat

Combat, is of course, an event. It can also be a great way to get generate interest at the start of a campaign. However, there are a few things that I think need to be kept in mind. Even when doing so, the role-play considerations should be kept in mind. One of the great things about interesting combat encounters is that they have real risk and force players to weigh options. However, once over, they can often be forgotten and fade into the back ground. Having the combat encounter be an event that relates and pushes the story forward means that it is not so easily forgotten. Instead, it keeps generating interest because it still has a link with the future. Fighting random wolves in the forest doesn't do this, unless of course it turns out that the reason that the wolves are forced out of the forest is an army of undead moving ever closer.

Even if there is a reason in the background for it, your players need to know or at least have a suspicion or it won't work. Instead you'll have a revelation moment, no speculation, and no real payoff. I want my players to feel something is off and want to discover what that something is. Another thing to keep in mind is the general skill level of your players. Throwing players right into combat can be daunting for a new player. However, when planned properly, it can also be a good way to introduce them to the combat rules. It also helps establish the kind of game they will be playing. Will the battles be big and grandiose, forcing the players to use all of their skills and abilities? Will it be a longer battle of attrition where one battle won't kill them, but using the wrong resources at the wrong time will? Or is it your special blend of both? A well designed combat encounter can be talked about years later.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Dungeon Master: Unique Skills

Whether it's a player character or an NPC, people seek out ways to make their characters different. And from different classes, equipment, skills, personalities, and many more, we have many tools to do so in tabletop role-playing games. However, I want to add one more to the mix called “adding a signature skill”, and I hope someone out there finds it useful.

Unique Spell

The origin of this technique was from a campaign I was a part of where all of the players were some flavour of spellcasters. Each character got a small twist to one spell 3 times in a period. I'm fairly sure it recharged after a long rest. One example was that they could use the shield spell on someone else during their reaction. Spells are often the same no matter who casts them. The hope here was to change things a little a bit and by doing so make each character more unique in combat as well. Another character had their ice spells enhanced with non-damage related improvements such as taking away movement or being able to seal doors.

Why Bother?

These small kinds of changes can go a long way to help distinguish characters. We have other tools, as I mentioned earlier, but it's nice having another one. Sometimes you want to play the same class, but also want them to be their own character. It's that personal touch that helps. It's not in a rulebook, and the odds running into someone with the exact same character decrease drastically. Adding some new options can also be a lot of fun.

Adding a Signature Skill

The idea here is simple. Each character gets one signature skill, which is similar to the spell I mentioned earlier. Where it differs is that it doesn't need to be a spell. It can be some other unique skill not related at all with magic. In fact, it probably won't be if a character has no talent with magic. It's worth pointing out to magic based characters that it doesn't need to be based on their spells though. They can often get so caught with spells that they miss this option. It's an important distinction. The point is to help differentiate the character and make them even more unique. It could be a utility skill, it could be non-magic related, it could be related to their knowledge of magic, or whatever else they want and you are willing to allow.

Still, I find placing a restriction on how often it can be used in the session helps prevent balance issues due to this addition. It's an extra bit of spice, so don't go eating the whole bag was the ideas. It also helps prevent this from turning into getting a feat for free. There is nothing wrong with giving players a free feat or having them come up with their own. I've seen it work wonders. However, what makes this different is the limitation placed on it. This tends to cut down on potential problems, and let's you be fairly significant. I also find that generally avoiding combat enhancements works well, though some non-damage related ones have worked fine in the past. Some feats help with combat so you can come up with some custom feats instead. If you want to add combat enhancements, I'd advise giving two unique skills just so that non-combat is also being addressed and so that everyone gets a boost. Balance in combat isn't the most important thing in the world but I'd advise a light touch since we are additional potential balance issues on top of what the rules already contain. Alternatively I've also seen this used to help a class that everyone at the table felt was wanting.

Completely Unique?

One thing to think about is if you want to make the skill completely unique. Should there be one NPC with a similar skill? Should an entire school of mages have it? Or should no other character have the skill? The answer to this question varies a lot so it should be up to the Dungeon Master. However, I do find that there is an upside to being a bit strict and not allowing repeats in a group, not even in new campaigns. That way it forces them to come up with a new concept for a new character instead of falling into an old character. This, of course, requires players who want to play new characters and will be grateful for catching them before they accidentally remade the same character without thinking. There are also story arguments for giving everyone a unique skill that marks them as somehow special and others. They work well for their own reasons, but these reasons aren't typically related to helping make the characters more unique.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Dungeons & Dragons: Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Review

Review copy courtesy of Wizards of the Coast.

Pros:
  • Lots more of full colour art. I've been saying this throughout this iteration of D&D, but it's been consistently good and plentiful. My favourite illustrations continue to be the more photorealistic style environment shots.
  • New monsters are provided for Dungeon Masters. About half the book is basically a Monster Manual. Many of them are generally useful demons, devils, humanoids and undead.
  • New player options are provided here in the form of subraces, and one new race. These get a fair amount of detail. Treat these as a bonus though as this is a rather Dungeon Master focused book.
  • Well written exploration of the Blood War (yes please, one of my favourites), gith, dwarves, gnomes and elves.
  • The limited edition covers have looked consistently good and the option being present is nice. I also like this limited edition cover.
  • At 256 pages, this book is about 60 pages fatter than Xanathar's Guide to Everything, which I felt was getting too light. Great to see the page count go back to roughly 250.
  • A nice breakdown of monster by environment, and challenge rating. Not too impressive page count wise but so very useful.

Could Go Either Way:
  • Topics such as the Blood War, gnomes and elves are well covered in previous editions. This reduces the value of the book for those that already read about these things in previous editions and aren't curious about the changes made for this one.
  • A more even distribution of challenge ratings compared to the Monster Manual. About 2/3rds of the creatures are challenge rating 7 or higher.
Cons:
  • My copy had quality issues. Both of my books had improperly cut pages that were folded into the book. Now, this doesn't make the book impossible to use but I'd recommend taking a careful look when picking the book out at the store. If you see a section with folded corners, there's a good chance it'll have this issue. Look below for pictures.
  • The demon princes are taken from the existing adventure Out of the Abyss. If you don't have that adventure you won't notice but for those of us who do, the usable page count of the book decreases.
  • No PDF*


* Denotes nitpicking.

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Covers
The standard cover (left) and deluxe cover (right). Not bad, right? I prefer the deluxe one myself.

Introduction

It's been rather quiet this year on the D&D book front, however the silence has now been broken. Having a full release on May 29, Mordenkeinen's Tome of Foes bring new subrace player options (which also nicely double as things we DMs can use), monsters, and more to help build worlds and adventures. The Blood War is back. Gnomes and elves are getting attention. If I had to describe it in one sentence I'd say it's a rather good book that's a sprinkle of Player's Handbook and mainly Monster Manual, which should have been expected from a name like Mordenkeinen's Tome of Foes. And with that description, let's jump into the meat of the book.

New Player Options

The new player options here are in the form of new subraces (8 tiefling, 3 elf, 1 dwarf, and 1 gnome) for established races and a new race for gith. They also come with flaws, bonds, and other roleplay goodies. As always, this also can double to aid the creative Dungeon Master in creating NPCs. If you were looking for a lot of mechanics and crunch to help create new characters, there is some but you might be left wanting more. The majority of this first section is instead chronicles what these groups look like from a society and history stand point. Naturally this is interesting to both Dungeon Masters and player. It also includes ideal, flaw, bond, and some organization tables such as what a traveling group of dwarves looks like. It's a good read, but as always with this sort of thing it may be lost on you if you are running your own campaign where dwarves, tieflings and elves are drastically different from their published versions.

New Monsters

First thing's first, there are some repeats from previous books. In particular the demon lords from Out of the Abyss return along with their art. If you missed that book you'll probably like it, but if you have Out of the Abyss this does reduce the useful page count a bit.

The monsters themselves span a very impressive range. Earlier books, such as the Monster Manual, tended to have a clustering of low level monsters and then a sprinkling of higher level ones. This book, on the other hand, has a more even distribution of creatures. Roughly 2/3rd of the creatures are challenge rating 7 or higher. The basic rules, SRD and Monster Manual provide a good basis for low level campaigns so an emphasis on higher challenge ratings is what I think we needed.

Quite a few of the monsters here have a gimmick. Chokers can suffocate players on a critical, for example. Again, this is what I like to see since it prevents combat from devolving into hitting a hit point pinata and instead allows for interesting things to happen. And outside of combat, there are many monsters that just beg for an adventure to be written about them. I'm glad to see the boneclaw back, and vampiric mist seems like a fun one to run too. Since the Blood War is a focus of this book, there are a lot of fiends. There's also a lot of humanoids as you'd expect with chapters on drow, gnomes, and dwarves. There's also a smaller number of undead, constructs, monstrosities and aberrations. If you are planning to run a devil centred campaign, this will come in very handy. Humanoids, demons and devils are very common in campaigns so I wouldn't call these creatures niche either. High level creatures are less general purpose but challenge rating 20 creatures and higher tend to be unique.

Demonic Boons

Since we have demons, and cults, there are boons provided here. These boons are granted to cultists from their patron and enhance them in some way. I really like these. It allows for easy customization of cultists, and makes a whole lot of sense. They provide stat bonuses, and special abilities to cult member and cult leaders. And of course, you can use them as templates for making your own. Or disregard them because you have a better idea for one of your cults.

World Building

There is quite a bit of emphasis on world building here. From the Blood War to the gith, to the Raven Queen, many different aspects get focus. A common theme through this book is that the knowledge presented isn't the be all and end all. For the Raven Queen, for example, is mysterious and the text provided details doesn't sound definitive. This is really nice from a Dungeon Master perspective because it gives us leeway and leaves a lot in our hands. I like this aspect of this edition in general.

It's interesting and well written. The Blood War in particular was a bit overdue for this edition so it's really nice to see it here. Many a campaign had the Blood War as a backdrop including one of my earliest. The other sections (gith, dwarves, deurgar, halflings, gnomes, and elves) are also well written. I may be a bit biased towards the Blood War though. There are also a good number of tables to help you customize these groups. This is very useful and I love this addition. The only big problems I could foresee here is people not liking some of what is done in this edition with things they already knew from previous editions, and that it would be familiar to D&D veterans. If D&D 5th edition is your first, I think you'll have a pleasant read. 

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Gith
Gith image from Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes. Rather typical example of the art style in this book.

The Art

If you've bought any books in this edition you know what to expect. Art is plentiful and maintains the same style found in the previous books. Typically this means stylized depictions of monsters, people and places with the occasional water painting like location. The water painting style was always my favourite of the bunch and the rest didn't appeal to me in the same way. I've also included the cover images for both. I think I prefer the deluxe version again. Unfortunately, the art for the demon lords is reused from Out of the Abyss. It's not bad, and the two page spread of Zuggtmoy still looks great to me, but it would have been nice to have some new art too. In the original Monster Manual I really liked the depiction of the wraith. In this one, image I've included below was one of my favourites. This style is an outlier in this book though. Other monsters deserving a shoutout are the boneclaw, astral dreadnought, and leviathan. 

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Tower
One of my favourite images from this book. The environment art continues to be great. More of this please.

Book Build Quality

The overall design of the book, the quality of the pages and the cover are all things we've seen before. Put this book on a shelf with another book from this edition and they'll look like they belong together. However, both of my books had some quality issues. It looks like the pages were improperly cut and folded into the book. It's easier if you just look at my example picture. This occurred on both my deluxe and standard edition so I'd suggest that if you are picking up the book from your local game store, take a quick peek for any folded corners. 


Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes Defect
Keep an eye out for this when picking out your book. The pages weren't properly cut.

Price

Nothing new here. MSRP is $50 USD for both the standard and limited editions, and you can get it for cheaper by looking online and going used. If the quality issues I mentioned above concern you, the extra cost of getting the book in person may very well be worth it.

What I felt was Missing

This is a solid book. However, I would have liked to see more maps and lairs in the same vein as Volo's Guide to Monsters. This book is heavier on the crunch for new monsters, but maps are always a big help for Dungeon Masters looking to run them. We also have a lot of monsters included here and I would have liked to see some encounter groups included in Dragon+ and linked on book page on the Wizards of the Coast website. We got the stats for some archdevils but it would have been nice to have all of the archdevils defined here as well. As it is now, you read through the section on the current archdevils, and are disappointed when your favourite doesn't have stats.

Free Stuff

These later books have not been as consistent for free stuff as some of the older ones. Indeed, this book doesn't lend itself to it as well as the adventurers where the introduction section like Death House could be given out for free. Actually, I think we got more stuff in the form of free maps from previous adventures leading up to this edition (I'd recommend taking a look for those here). The adventure there, The Risen Mists, is also of interest in that edition. It's a bit odd that the free things don't directly advertise the new book, but I guess that what keeps people playing helps in the long run. You can see some art from the book. That's mostly it. So unfortunately, not much free material for this particular book.

Summary

Overall, I enjoyed this book but by far enjoyed the Blood War, githzerai and githyanki, and monster sections the most. This easily takes up more than half the book, so I'd say it's an interesting book for Dungeon Masters wanting to throw more creatures at their players. It's well written, and the subject matter is widely applicable to campaigns thanks to the focus on common creatures like devils, demons, undead, and humanoids. These creatures are also more spread out than previous books, and many monsters are meant to challenge higher level characters. It'll be a harder sell to veteran players who already know these topics, but the second half being a mini Monster Manual will still make it tempting. Just keep an eye out for the defect I mentioned. 

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Monster Ideas: Bandits

I'd be very surprised if someone went their role-playing career without encountering a bandit. These guys are everywhere. And not only are they an easy source of low level baddies in campaigns, they say something about the location they are found in. From brazen daylight robberies or late night pick-pocketing, there are a lot of schemes these guys can be used for. And it is in the hopes of arriving at more ideas to use these baddies that we'll explore them today.

Scheme

A group of bandits should have some sort of money making scheme. Pick-pocketing the rich, attacking caravans, and extorting high ranked people for favours are all examples of things that they can be trying to do. However, this element is very important for your group of bandits as it will determine their motivations and often their skill level. A group of assassins in a big city will not be comparable to a bunch of highway robbers far from civilization. It will also affect how exactly the party will be hindered by them and in what manner. Change the scheme, and you change the entire situation with these guys.

Organization

A few thoughts about the organization of the bandits is a good idea. Is it a centralized structure with some outside groups responding and doing as they are told? Is this a small operation so there is only one level of management close to where the action is? Or is it a large, decentralized organization that occasionally gets some orders but has a lot of leeway as well. What this does, besides helping us understand how the group might act and whether they can get help from another office, is let us think about the heads. How many levels of organization are there? Is there the regular bandits at the bottom and one level 2 leader above them? Or is there an evil level 18 wizard leading a level of level 10 enforcers who have another 3 levels below them? With that kind of organization, they could get into conspiracy theory territory.

Good Henchmen

Of course, bandits could be convenient henchmen for something bigger. They could be a front set up by a noble to take care of business that can't be dealt with legally. The operation could've been taken over by mindflayers or vampires. Do they know? Maybe yes, maybe no. Regardless there is a layering of threats in this case. Making sure these layers make sense together is important. Also, the bandits could eventually become the henchmen of your characters. Perhaps they are competing with your players to steal something.

Facade

Oh, it turns out they aren't bandits. They are an invading army looting or something. Kind of a copout? Yeah, but it can work. The important part here is that banditry is an occupation, and people can use it as a front for something else.

Fighting Style

How do these bandits fight? By the D&D 5th edition book, they'll have a scimitar and a crossbow. However, we can play with this a lot and in fact likely will need to. If this is all in a city, you wouldn't expect your bandits to walk past guards wearing weapons in a slum. Instead they might be wearing concealed knives. Likewise, they don't all have to be the same bandits. One might use a whip and short sword, one might hand back with a bow and help their wizard, and another two might try to hold the enemy in a desirable location with shields and swords. Perhaps they don't actually fight. Instead they lay quick ambushes, attack, and then disappear. Or maybe they are experienced and rely on a combination of martial prowess and magic. Not every group in the bandit organization needs to have the same outfit either. In general, I'd recommend treating the entries in the Monster Manual for bandits as a starting point.