Sunday, 25 March 2018

Dungeon Master: Let's Improvise

Planning is a big part of being a Dungeon Master. However, sooner or later our best laid plans will be left behind. Our planned scenario could have gone by faster than we anticipated, it could have been that players did something completely unexpected, or a bunch of other reasons. However, when it does happen the Dungeon Master will be need to improvise. Such a thing, particularly if you aren't used to it, can be challenging. It is for that reason I hope to give some advice. If you have your own, I'd love to hear it too.

Constraints Can Be Good

The first I want to say is that some constraints can be a good thing, particularly if you don't have much time to think of something. Some of the techniques I'll be mentioning do just that. They help narrow things down, which is one of the major issues when improving. When you can do anything, how do you decide what to do? If you are going into a campaign, there will be some implied constraints you'll end up putting on yourself. Your fight against a necromancer will probably features undead and necromancers. If you need to come up with an encounter, it'll probably involve one of the two. Of course, this situation is a bit awkward since almost anything can be undead, but still it narrows things down a bit.

Making Characters on the Spot

From my experience one of the most common things that happens is that you will need to make up a new character on the spot. The players are meant to walk into a bar and talk to a person. Of course, they decide to talk to someone else first on their way in. In these kinds of cases, you have a few options. You could just make things up on the spot and in a lot of cases, this will work out just fine. However, I find that I typically hit a wall when this happens enough times in a session. The most common issues here tend to be things like difficulty finding a name, a different enough personality or deciding on mannerisms. You could also plan out everyone in the bar ahead of time. That'll work, but I find that it tends to be more trouble than its worth. My preferred method is to have a cheat sheet of a few names, personalities, and mannerisms ready to go. That way, I can just grab a bunch quickly if I need to and continue. There is more power in this than you would expect at first since you can easily modify elements, or combines them together. There are long lists of names that you can use but for practicality I find it easier to have a smaller list ready to go as well. This list will need to be remade every now and then but this tends to take a couple minutes at most and I take care of this while planning the session.

There is another, more restrictive approach that works fairly well sparingly. There will be a couple of run-ins that you might want to have with certain characters. Typically, they are warnings not to go somewhere. However, they can be hard to fit in. Having the character and parts of their dialogue ready to go and throw in at a good time can be very effective. Since the players went to the barkeeper to ask a question, maybe he'll be the one to warn them about being out past dark. This is additionally made more powerful since you don't have to use the whole character. You can take elements (parts of dialogue is most common in my case) and give it to the barkeeper character you already wrote. You can bring out your other character later if needed, or if they avoided the barkeeper entirely. Everyone in town knows things are bad at night after all.

Think Like The Character

If you are new, you'll be understandably worried about doing things off the cuff. However, it's important to try to keep your character in mind and just go with it. Unfortunately, this is one of those things that comes with practice. However, it is also one of those things where Dungeon Masters have it harder than players do. Having to think up a character on the spot and play them is not uncommon for a Dungeon Master, and it's rather challenging at first. This isn't an excuse for lack of planning, but the attempt at improvisation is worth more than none at all, and it will be needed. Again, in this case it's about some restrictions imposed on us by the character we are playing. Part of the improvisation process is coming up with these restrictions. What do they know? What do they say? How do they speak? You'll be feeling for those questions and be making decisions right there. Like with names, you can have some cheats prepared a head of time. Still, I would recommend being some what comfortable with this situation because player actions can force you into this situation anyway. Just try to put your self in the character's situation and roll with it.

Dungeon Tiles

I tend to use dungeon tiles quite often. They can also be useful to help narrow down the general shape of an encounter location on the fly. You might have a couple of ready made locations (be it tile configuration or existing map) ready to go. You can also lay out a quick outline while describing some of the important elements. This is a bit of a skill that needs to be practiced as well but I found there are a few commonly used stall techniques. They aren't really stall techniques, since the Dungeon Master needs to specify these things anyway, but they do make it more seamless. After all, they don't need to sit there and wait. Thinking of any sounds, smells or obvious visual elements as they enter the room and giving them a quick mention eats up a few seconds. It tends to be one or maybe two, depending on how important the encounter is. An important element to think about is light (otherwise the human character will be confused about what they can see), hiding places, and sounds. You shouldn't make room interactions too long either. The magic is to be able to set up the encounter quickly while describing the location so your players don't ever need to wait. It's not easy to do and of course you'll miss now and then, but it's the ideal I try to aim for. Hit close and you are still fine. Dungeon Masters are often self-conscious of this situation, but players are often none-the-wiser and are just enjoying the game.


Another thing to keep in mind is that the rules are kind of malleable. Generally speaking, players prefer to play the game than rule lawyer in my experience. This means you can come up with your own when needed. You don't remember what the health of a skeleton is? Think of a number and use it. I say that with a caveat since it may set some expectations. Why was the zombie dragon we fought at level one so much easier? They are best handled when you have some justification as well (zombie dragon was clearly worn, couldn't even move as quickly, was clearly damaged, and made clicking sounds when trying to move). This will depend a bit on your group but I find it's more advantageous to keep things moving. At the end, think of standards, review the rules and make some notes for next time, or whatever else you need to do. It can be easy to forget a precise rule when you are new, when you are playing a complicated system with many supplements, or when you took a break. It will also happen eventually. Just keep going, try not to do it again, and when it happens don't let it grind the game to a halt. You have a rough idea, so you'll be reasonably close.

Write Stuff Down

If you had plans and things went according to them, you can get away with just reading over your planning notes in many cases. When improvising, this is not the case. Write stuff down. Maybe not at the exact moment since it's not always possible, but at least that day. It will save yourself a lot of issues down the line. Characters get filled in through interaction as well so you may need to make notes about your player characters that can be used later.


How reasonable things are is important to have in the back of your mind. This goes for both things you create off the cuff and for requests your players make. You want to let your players make creative actions. However, unless it's a very special kind of game you probably won't allow your ranger, without any arcana skill, to write a chalk circle allowing the party to teleport away. This goes both for how reasonable a player action is and how reasonable your response is. Again, there is no perfect answer for this as it depends on the group, but you should have a rough feel for it.


When improvising, it's easy to forget something. Even when you are not, there could be questions you forgot to consider. It's a big room and we have torches. How far can the humans in the party see? Expect questions. This isn't a bad thing, since it is a collaborative story telling. It also shouldn't make you too nervous. However, when such a question is asked it is best to address it clearly and quickly. If you are asked if they can see a creature on the tile, you could answer “yes”. You could also quickly point out which they can see and which they can't to avoid further questions. “How long will it take to get to that other city over there?” This is one of those that will need to be written down. It's also worth considering if the player character would know or if they would need to ask a potentially unreliable towns-person (well, he never has traveled that far in his life). Since players often ask questions, it should be no surprise that some level of improvisation is often needed like in the previously mentioned situations. However, I find new Dungeon Masters find these sorts of things easier to improvise than characters.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Dungeon Master: What and Who Characters Are

When playing games, the story and mechanics have an interesting relationship. They are linked and the way we interact with the mechanics are part of the story we experience. It is one thing to imagine your character as an awesome fighter, it's another to see them take on 4 skeletons without much trouble. The trouble is that sometimes we can get lost in the mechanics, the what, and forget to go back to the who. I know I'm guilty of this as well. Having been there, I hope my thoughts on the manner will help someone out there.

What vs. Who

For the purposes of this post/article thing, the what part of a character is what the sheet says. What is the character? What class are they? What's their background (mechanically)? What do they carry? The who is a bit more of a nuanced topic. However, a big part of it is “why”? Why do they choose to fight the way they do? Why did they turn out the way they did? There are also more nuanced questions of “what would the character do?” and “what would it take for them to do something?” The answers to these questions help tell us who the character is. If you ever feel that a tug towards an action that doesn't make sense from an optimization standpoint just because it's what your character would do, you probably found it.

Player Side

Player Creation

Get into a class based RPG system and you'll find yourself needing to choose a class. There are two main ways you can go about doing things here. You can have a character in mind and try to pick the mechanical choices that will make that character a reality. Of course you might not be able to have everything you wanted at level 1, but you can plan ahead for that. You could also take a look at the classes that are there, pick one that looks fun to play, and build a character around that. Both are fine options, and in fact picking the class first can help you get out of your comfort zone, but it does sometimes lead to the situation where we forget to tie it back to who the character is. After getting the class, we still need to go back to the start and thinking about who the character is. Some people can do this during the session and just roll with things as they happen. For the right people, that can work amazingly well, but sooner or later we'll need to consider who our character is.

How Events Influence Character

Over the course of a campaign, characters find themselves in a wide assortment of situations. They will gain and they will lose. All of these situations are potentials for character change and growth. Of course, every combat encounter shouldn't result in massive changes of character (unless you are playing a character with 50 souls in one body), but there will be some that can have an effect on your character going forward. Even if they don't have a long term effect, they can provide interesting ideas to explore in the short term.

Too often, especially with newer players, characters will end the campaign exactly as they started but with much more wealth. Coming with this, they'll approach every situation the same way. When you find yourself in a new situation and keep your character in mind, you may be surprised what you might learn about them. Or how the character seems to come to life and has a will of its own. Those moments of inspiration are magic and honestly one of my favourite parts playing tabletop role-playing games. You can't think of every situation for your character going into a campaign (and even if you could, it would ruin some of the fun), so those kinds of situations are important to building who your player is.

Magic Items

Magic items are an often missed chance for players to consider who their characters are. They are a way to do the previously impossible and a source of great power. How do they handle that? How far will they go for it? Is what they have enough? Especially in games that deal with themes of power, these questions can lead to many interesting role-playing opportunities. This is without even going into sentient magic items. Having someone to interact with so close and at the ready is an interesting situation. A classic situation is to have a magic item you vehemently disagree with and force to do what you think is right. However, even if you see eye-to-pommel with your magic item most of the time, there could be edge-cases where that is no longer true.

Dungeon Master

Our Characters

We are in a bit of a different position than players when it comes to characters. A player typically has one character that they know inside out. They go for depth. As a Dungeon Master we have to go both for depth and breadth. When playing villains we want to know very well who they are. However, with some characters it isn't needed. We can't fully flesh out every character either. We also don't get as much time to test our characters in-game and let them naturally evolve. As a result, I'd argue improvisation is far more important for us. Many of are characters tend to be just a couple sentences with an alignment and a stat block.

Being able to go from a mechanics to a character on the fly is difficult to say the least. For that reason I suggest some level of cheating. I've mentioned before how I like to have lists of names ready to go, as do tons of other Dungeon Masters I've had to the pleasure of playing with, but there are other things we can do as well. Instead of thinking about single characters in large groups of bad guys meant to be thrown away in an encounter, we can think about who the group are. Are they uniform? Do they share some kind of similarity? Why? Those questions tend to be a good start to be ready for improvisation. If we think about the larger story at large, we'll typically need to answer most of these anyway. Even in the case of wandering monsters, we'd need to know why they are there. The goal here is to reduce how much we need to make up on the spot. Now instead of thinking about the whole group, the campaign as a whole (why are they here?) and then the individual, we only need to think of the individual. We even have some names ready to go.

The first step tends to be the hardest because there is the most to consider. After that, we get into the stage where interacting with our players helps fill in the details for our characters. Our characters, again, tend not to be as complete as those of our players. There will be many gaps that need to be filled in to make them a complete character. However, this discovery over the course of the game is important to good improvisation in my opinion. I also find this stage easier since there is less to consider at once. It would be similar to what we would do if we were player playing our character. Remember though, players will get to know characters over time. They won't know everything about them at once. Often we both get to know the characters we create as we play.

Player Characters

We as Dungeon Masters have an idea of what who our players are and who they are playing. It's important to be careful here. We want our ideas of the characters to be at the very least reasonably close to what our players intended. Seeing a wizard, we can have our own ideas that come into play. However, just remembering that we might take our own expectations for player characters tends to be enough to avoid the major pitfalls. We need to know who they are in order to come up with good role-play opportunities, but we have some leeway as well. If we are slightly off, it's just a different role-play opportunity and won't be noticed. The bigger issue is when we get major things about the characters wrong (wrong faction deciding to talk to a certain player) or presuppose character traits. There are ways out of these situations (oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else) but even so, I find keeping these in mind is helpful. I want to provide interesting situations for our players to express and develop their characters. I don't want to shatter their immersion by treating a player character in a way that makes no sense given the way they see their character. This situation happens most often when a player runs into an “old friend” played by us.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Dungeon Master: Ships and Ship Combat

Campaigns based around travel and ships can be a great experience. From pirates to epic quests against horrors from the depths of the ocean, there are many ways to get good experiences out of such a setup. However, given that I've been involved in 2 campaigns with this setup, there was one major issue I noticed: locations for battles were often the same. After all, you are on a ship. If you get attacked you will be fighting on a ship. How can we make new and interesting locations then? Well, that's what I hope to explore here now. If you have your suggestions, I would love to hear them.

One Ship

One of the big issues that can occur is a stale combat environment. If the players have only one ship for the entire length of the campaign and the enemies always come to them, a lot of combat will occur on the same deck plan. The solution seems incredibly simple and obvious: don't always attack the players and have them attack others too. Pirates don't only get attacked, they also attack. If your game doesn't have your players as pirates, it may not be as easy. They'll have an item and it will be the bad guys attacking them as they try to escape on their ship. Having this occur a few times is fine. However, I've been witness to situations where it happened again, and again, and yet again.

Get Them Off the Ship

Don't want to have fight after fight on the same ship deck? Well, the easy way around this issue is to make sure to give players motivations and reasons to leave the ship. By doing so the scenery for fights changes. The problem here is that it can result in the ship emphasis being nothing more than window dressing or a method of travel to the real adventure. This point is not exactly clear since the special concerns that accompany ship use such as their ability to reach places nothing else short of flying can, maintenance, enhanced transportation capability and more make them have their own advantages. Window dressing can also be very important.

Damage and Effects

There are many things that can happen to a ship to change it for a combat encounter. Damage can leave debris that blocks off areas of the deck, forces areas to be difficult terrain, open up holes that allow creatures to fall to lower decks, and fire that prevents passage as well as causes damage. Two ships can ram each other and be bound into one. Some bigger ships can also have multiple decks, resulting in new opportunities for fights. Ships can also be sinking, or be shaken by rough seas.

Different Ships

Players don't always have to be stuck with one ship. They can trade up as the campaign moves on to get better and better ships. This is a bit of a double edged sword though. Players can get attached to one ship or prefer to get attached to one ship. In this way it becomes almost a character or important place for the campaign.

Emplacements and Ordnance

Cannons, ballistae, catapults (can throw alchemist's fire, acid, necklaces of fireball, and many other things), flamethrowers and many more options become open when on a ship. The size and strength of a ship allows you to carry weapons that would be far too big otherwise. Crates of alchemist's fire can burst into flames as a result of a well placed fireball spell and threaten to sink a ship. There's a lot to play with when you can lug literal tons of stuff.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Dungeon Master: One-shots in the Past

The typical flow of a campaign goes in one direction. Events and plots are afoot and players are thrown into the mess. Over the course of play, they get their bearings, learn the world's rules, and journey forward towards the conclusion. This works extremely well in practice, but sometimes we want to allow players to contribute to the past as well. One-shots are one mechanism to do so and can often work amazingly well. They can allow you to mix things up, play some new characters, engage players in different scenarios while also writing part of the same story. Ever thought, “hey, this would be cool to play through”? Sometimes you want to follow through with it. It could also allow you to build up or explore new areas and items that otherwise would not be possible. They also have unique challenges and that is why I want to go over this topic today.

Strategic Choice

Which things we decide to handle in this way is a strategic choice. You don't want to break every 5 minutes to play through a flashback. These should be big, meaningful events in the story. They could also have smaller side effects. One example from one of the games I was a part of had a player hide a magic item in a particular place. 100 odd years later, the main party discovered that same item in the same spot. The important part here was that it was a cool side effect. However, the purpose of the flashback wasn't to put the item there. Instead it was to stop the big bad guy which resulted in their underling taking over and being even worse (turns out they are responsible for the big bad coming to power over his more moderate master). This also got over the big problem with making players play through a tragedy. Since they knew going into the one-shot that things wouldn't end well (or how else is there more of a game?), they were prepared to lose these characters.


That last thing I said should have popped out at you. How is there more of a game if the players end up killing the villain in the past? We end up in all of the same problems as if we suddenly had time travel in our game, but without the get-out-of-jail-free cards of needing to preserve history or time not allowing the change. The massive risk with doing this is that it can end up being rail-roady. And, really, there isn't much of a way to avoid this completely. There are some things that must happen in the past. However, we want to still leave freedom for the players to figure out solutions to the problems they find themselves. The best way around this issue is to make sure to cast a wide net. Your players need to kill the big bad and they know that an underling will take over and be even worse. However, they might not know which one is which. They may never run across them. How they take care of the big bad is all up to them. However, they also know in the back of their minds that the end of the one-shot is not the end of the story. Unfortunately, this is part of the trade-off we make if we go down this path.

Overshadowing the Main Story

You don't want to overshadow your main story. Otherwise, why are we playing this one? We should be playing that one instead. There are, again, no clear cut answers here. However, remembering that this kind of thing is a stepping stone of the larger adventure can help a lot. It's less advice and more a state of mind I find helpful when thinking about these. They also often tend to be shorter, clear to the point, and less epic. A short term victory but long term failure is often helpful in this regard.

If things are equal, the main story has a way of outgrowing the one-shot because of the emphasis and time spent on it. We know we went back to go forward. We are now back, and keep going forward. This makes the one-shot just part of the overall main story. It's possible to break this, but typically the events done in the one-shot won't be as impressive as the future. If you think to yourself that the one-shot sounds better, something needs to be re-examined. One-shots have the clarity and focus aspect going for them, however, in the overall structure of the campaign they shouldn't be more impressive, more difficult, or the bigger solution to the problem.

Building a Campaign Setting Through One-Shots

One-shots allow exploration of areas and elements of the story. The story began with the theft of a magic item by a shady cult? The players could play the shady cult and kill these characters later as part of the story. Plan on going somewhere? You can explore the area first with a one shot. The events of the campaign involve massive earth shaking events? You can introduce the campaign through one of these events (kind of like the adventurer's league). A lot of this will depend on how comfortable your players are and if they event want this kind of experience. Some people want to be connected to their characters for the whole campaign. I sometimes feel the same way.

How Often?

Again, I'd go with the rule of 3. I would be very hesitant in doing more than 3 one-shots like this over the course of the campaign. I'm sure you could have a great campaign that was more fragmented in this fashion, however, it's beyond the scope of what I'm talking about here. That way it still keeps the campaign focused but also provides a highlight for an important event in the past, or an introduction. Having the trigger for all of the events shown to the players in this way can be very beneficial and entertaining for the right campaign. I've found introductions in particular are very good candidates for a one-shot, particularly if the events of a campaign don't have that discovery component where they try to figure out what's going on. However, you could also throw your players into the thick of things and have them unravel the plot. Both are good choices.