Improvising Dungeons

Wizards of the Coast

For teachers like me, this week marks the start of a new term: a busy time. If you’re a DM, real-life workload can be a significant barrier to your game prep. How do you get ready for a session when you’re completely snowed under?

This article explores how we can prep less and improvise more, with a focus on dungeons.

Option one: steal

If time is an issue, remind yourself that you don’t have to make something new for your players to have a good time! Reuse old modules, have a look at the DMs Guild, go back through old notes. If you’ve got something serviceable, be kind to yourself and spend your planning time on something else.

In my current campaign, the party was exploring a creepy rural town called Gimmerton (a name Wuthering Heights fans might recognize). I had to improvise something, and I remembered that there was a whole section of Curse of Strahd, Wachterhaus, which I had never used, despite DMing the adventure twice. So I stole it in its entirety. It worked fine, and I don’t think any of the players were particularly conscious of my stealing it.

A good map

If you can’t steal an adventure, you can at least find a good map. Dyson Logos has a fantastic range, but it’s also worth following cartographers on social media, like Mike Shley, Anna B Meyer, and 2-Minute Tabletop, to name a few. Reddit has some great mapping communities, too, like r/battlemaps, r/dndmaps, and r/mapmaking.

If none of these maps is quite what you’re looking for, you can, of course, generate one. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has random dungeon tables in Appendix A, and donjon has a great random dungeon generator with a considerable number of ‘dials’ to play with. Donjon maps can also be imported into Dungeon Scrawl, a very cool map-maker, still in beta, but well worth checking out.

A black-and-white style Dungeon Scrawl map

Five-room dungeons

These dungeons are simple enough to make in your head, and can probably provide enough for fun for a couple of hours’ play at least. You only need these five steps:

  1. Entrance with a guardian
  2. A puzzle or roleplaying challenge
  3. A trick or setback
  4. A big climax
  5. Reward and revelation

The idea is generally credited to JohnnFour, and you will find numerous examples of it in action across the Internet (eg, here). It’s such a good idea that Wizards of the Coast used it for their model adventure in the 4th edition DMG.

Wizards of the Coast

Inhabitants and treasure

This post is titled ‘Improvising Dungeons’, and a dungeon, of course, is more than just a map. If you’re having to improvise encounters and rewards, how do you do that?

Encounters can be tricky. To some extent, it takes a bit of practice to get a feel for it. There are decent online encounter calculators like Kobold Fight Club and the one on D&D Beyond (still currently in beta), but, in truth, there’s no such thing as perfect encounter balance, and 5th edition is filled with spiky edges that can make encounters unpredictable. Use these calculators to get a sense of difficulty levels and which monsters are going to be too easy or too hard, but then improvise from there. Encounter balance matters more at lower levels when characters have fewer hit points and players have fewer options to avoid difficult situations.

As a general rule of thumb:

  • avoid solos
  • aim for encounters of ‘medium’ difficulty
  • try to use one or two monsters per player

Making an encounter more challenging is always easier than making it less deadly.

Part of my prep for a session is to jot down a few monsters of different challenge ratings with a note as to how many I can use without overwhelming the party. In my campaign, characters tend to level up once every three or four sessions, so these notes remain useful for several weeks, usually.

An example of my session notes. This is for a group of four 8th-level characters.

If you’re improvising a dungeon, don’t worry too much about treasure. If you give out too much, just hold back a bit on the rewards for a few sessions before you give out any more. Be careful with major (ie, permanent) magic items, though. As a general guide, an adventuring group should only get a couple of uncommon items in Tier 2, and probably shouldn’t get to see rare, very rare, and legendary items until 10th, 16th, and 19th level, respectively. But, of course, you do you. Characters in Curse of Strahd can pick up a legendary item at level 3, so, if it fits your story, go for it.

Final thoughts: describing on the fly

6/30/18 | Heroes of Dolgetta | Obsidian Portal

Wizards of the Coast

For me, maps and monsters are the easy bit. The challenging bit is coming up with an evocative description. Some tricks, then:

  • Focus on one or two prominent features: an altar, a pit, a statue
  • Keep it brief and give players the chance to ask further questions
  • Think about the five senses, not just the visual
  • Steal! If you want your own Bridge of Khazad-dûm or rolling boulder idol trap, go for it!
  • It’s improv, not creative writing: a quick, brief, clear description is infinitely better than a long, slow, flowery one
  • Don’t worry too much about verisimilitude (your players probably won’t).

Finally – a controversial tip – ask your players to contribute to the description. ‘What does the mural show?’ ‘What are you looking for at the desk?’ ‘What do you think is beyond the door?’ Great DMing doesn’t happen in a vacuum: a great game absolutely requires players to do their bit, too. We all build the world together.

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Creating Awesome Characters

Wizards of the Coast

How do you go about creating a character in D&D?

Most of us follow the step-by-step approach in Chapter 1 of the Player’s Handbook. We roll stats, we choose a class, a race, and a background, and we pick out equipment and spells. We might shake up the order a bit, but I imagine this is where most of us start.

What if someone told you that none of this really mattered that much?

In praise of human fighters

In fantasy fiction, there is no character more common than a human fighter.

In A Song of Ice and Fire, Jaime Lannister is a human fighter. So is the Hound. So is Oberyn Martell. Boromir is a human fighter in The Lord of the Rings. So is Aragorn. So is Éowyn. They are all fantastic characters, but in D&D terms, they are the same class and race. Not only that, but they are probably the most ‘vanilla’ race and class in the game. Being a human fighter doesn’t have to be boring.

via Twitter (@DMEducational)

In the same vein, unusual race-class combinations don’t make your character interesting. Or rather, they don’t necessarily make your character interesting. Plenty of great fantasy characters would have had an unusual race or class if they had existed in D&D. Smaug, Treebeard, and Gollum are definitely not human fighters, and they’re great: but it’s not being a dragon, ent treant, or a skinny, grey fish-chomper that makes them memorable or special. If the only interesting thing about your barbarian is the fact that he or she is a gnome . . . well, that’s probably not going to be interesting forever.

(It’s the same reason why I’m sceptical about the ever expanding list of playable races in 5e D&D. As of writing, we now have elephant-people, lion-people, cat-people, hyena-people, snake-people, fish-people, two kinds of birdpeople, and seven kinds of elf: yeesh. Your world isn’t more interesting just because it looks like a Mos Eisley cantina. In fact, I would go even further: the less human your character is, the less real they seem, the less we empathize with them, and, ultimately, the less we care about what happens them.)

From a mechanical standpoint, race, class, equipment, spells etc can all make a character interesting to play. But from a roleplaying perspective, you need something more.

It’s the difference between character and characterization.

Choices under pressure

What’s the most important part of your character sheet? Your ability scores? Skill proficiencies? Inventory? Spell list? Hit points?

I would argue that it’s this bit, here:

It’s a section many of us don’t think about too much, tucked away in a corner of the character sheet somewhere. It’s often an afterthought: we pick a few ideas from the background tables in the Player’s Handbook or roll it randomly, but it’s not very important to us. Some players don’t even fill it in at all, and never plan to.

In D&D, I think of race, class, equipment and so on as characterization: attributes. And that’s just for starters. You could also add stuff like backstory, appearance, height and weight, age, family, friends. Don’t get me wrong: this stuff matters enormously. When you introduce someone for the first time, this is the stuff you tend to lead with in your description of them. But it’s still not character.

Robert McKee is an author and lecturer. His students include Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Finding Nemo), Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby), and Peter Jackson (yes, that one). He calls character this: the choices we make under pressure. Fiction is driven by conflict, and it’s when we push our characters into difficult situations that we really start to know who they are. What motivates them? What are their values? What are their dreams? What are they most afraid of? What will they kill for? Who will they die for? Without these internal conflicts, our characters are a detailed description, but flat, hollow. It is not until we reveal their deepest internal conflicts that we start to breathe life into our characters.

This is something that Fate Core really appreciates. In Fate, when you make a character, you define their ‘high concept’ first and their ‘trouble’ second, and your trouble should be something that complicates your character’s existence in a significant, meaningful way: a dark impulse, a problematic relationship, a temptation, a personal struggle. To some extent, the ‘trouble’ in D&D is externalized (‘whatever the DM throws at us’) or randomized (‘my low Dexterity makes me clumsy and slow’), but is that enough on its own? If you want your character to be engaging, convincing, developed, and unique, start with the internal conflict.

This article is already getting a bit long, so I will keep the next bit short.

Tips and tricks

  • Work with your DM. Tie your character’s story to the game world.
  • Move away from the random tables in the Player’s Handbook, brilliant though they are. See what you can come up with yourself.
  • Your flaw should be an actual problem. This isnt like the platitudes we spout in job interviews (‘I work too hard! I’m just too kind!’). Every character has a darkness in their soul, so what’s yours?
  • Turn off the gamist part of your brain for a moment and think about your character as a living, breathing human being (yes, even if they are kenku sorcerer or what have you). Whether they’re aliens, robots, dragons, or talking animals, we interpret all characters through a human lens.
  • If you’re stuck, start with alignment and ask this: ‘if this is my character 90 percent of the time, what would tempt them away from it?’ Is your Lawful Good paladin tempted by ambition (Macbeth)? Will your Neutral Evil queen do anything to protect her children (Cersei Lannister)?
  • There is no shame in stealing ideas from film, TV, books, and video games. I particularly like Game of Thrones for this, as it has a huge cast of rich, complex characters.
  • None of this means anything if you see it as a finished product. A good character will grow and change: a bad character will stay the same.
  • Despite everything above: maybe you don’t care that much about the story of the game. That’s OK. But if so, think about your role in the team. If you see D&D as a game first and a story second, maybe you should play a character who is tactically interesting but won’t hog the spotlight as the leader or party face.

What really matters

At the start of this article, I suggested that race, class, background and so forth don’t really matter that much. It was meant provocatively, of course. D&D is a fantasy roleplaying game, and from a gamist perspective, these decisions matter a great deal. However: if you’re interested not just in playing a great game but in telling great stories, then characters matter, and great characters are more than a cool race-class combination.

Planning a Campaign Story

Wizards of the Coast

When planning a game of Dungeons & Dragons, a DM has to consider the short term, the mid term, and the long term.

In our context, ‘short term’ means encounters: short scenes based around combat, exploration, or social interaction. ‘Mid term’ would be an adventure: a series of encounters linked together. ‘Long term’, then, depending on your scope, is either a story arc or a campaign.

Planning a campaign from 1st level to 20th is not an easy undertaking. Tellingly, since 5th edition began, Wizards of the Coast have only published one complete adventure of this length, and that’s the Tyranny of Dragons storyline. (I suppose you could make a case for Dragon Heist and Mad Mage, too, but they don’t really form a connected ‘arc’ in the same way.) Mapping out a whole storyline over 100+ hours of play is a challenge. Before we move on, it’s worth considering why this is, and whether we should approach roleplaying games differently to other forms of storytelling.

Roleplaying games as a form

Roleplaying games are not just a ‘genre’ of fiction: they are a distinct form. And if we reflect on what makes this form unique, we start to appreciate why it is so difficult to plan a roleplaying game over the long term.

Two things make roleplaying games unusual.

Firstly, they are collaborative. A DM doesn’t play the game on their own: the players create the narrative, too. It is a shared story.

Secondly, they are unpredictable. No other form of storytelling relies on dice rolls and random chance to determine where it is going next.

The problem with planning a D&D campaign over the long term is that it overlooks these two fundamentals. Collaboration and unpredictability make RPGs fun. Without collaboration and unpredictability, you essentially have a railroad, with the DM pushing the players through their own pre-written narrative. That might be fun for some people, but it rather misses the point of what a roleplaying game sets out to do. It owes more to novel-writing than shared storytelling, and ultimately robs the players of their freedom to choose, which isn’t very fun.

At the same time, a series of disconnected adventures can start to feel a bit purposeless. If you care at all about the story of your game (and some players don’t, and that’s cool), then you probably want to see causality: ‘this happened because this happened.’ You probably want to see change, conflict. You want to see character growth. How does that happen in a game of D&D if there’s no long-term plan?

‘Don’t prep plots’

Wizards of the Coast

One of the best essay series I have read about RPGs is ‘Don’t Prep Plots’ by Justin Alexander. Sly Flourish has recently written a similar post on ‘Building Situations in D&D’ and the idea of letting go of defined encounters. Both posts are well worth reading in their entirety, but the central thrust is this: a D&D game is better off with a looser approach to planning.

To play D&D is to improvise, and if you’re the DM, you are probably going to do a good deal more improvisation than the players. Embrace this: don’t try to curtail it. If you go into a session thinking ‘the characters are going to do this, then this, then this’ then you are essentially going in with the intention of removing player agency. Stop. Much better to use the lazy approach from Sly Flourish: start strong, come up with a few key scenes and secrets, jot down a few encounter ideas and treasure parcels, then see where the players take you. It can be nerve-wracking at first, but the more you adapt to this approach, the more fun it is for the players and you.

However, this only really covers short- and mid-term planning. We’ve said that we want to see causality, conflict, change, character development. If we only plan one session at a time, how does that happen?

Emergent narratives

Even if you don’t plot a whole campaign, a story will emerge over time.

When you think about it, this is how stories work in real life (that is, in non-fiction). History isn’t plotted, but by looking at the past, we can trace how a series of interconnected triggers can lead to massive change. In fact, it is one of the great lessons of history that a seemingly random and unpredictable event can change everything that happens next, just like a fluky die roll in D&D. How many of us would have predicted in 2010 that, a decade later, Donald Trump would be US president, the UK would be leaving the EU, and a deadly coronavirus would be sending the whole planet into lockdown? These stories weren’t plotted: they emerged. And in 100 years time, they will be part of our human story, just like World War I and the industrial revolution and other complex historical events.

You don’t need a plotted narrative to have a fantastic D&D campaign. But there is one more trick I would recommend if you are looking for an overarching narrative in your games.

20 levels of story beats

Wizards of the Coast

I have written before about the concept of story beats: originally a concept in filmmaking but now increasingly relevant in RPGs, largely thanks to Robin D Laws. Beats are the transition points or building blocks of a narrative, and while you can’t necessarily plan a plot for your campaign, you can certainly think about its beats. In 5th edition D&D, story beats overlap fairly neatly with the transitions between tiers of play (DMG 36).

What follows is adapted from Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat!’ beat sheet, but adjusted for D&D using the guidelines in the DMG for session-based advancement (p 261). That is to say, I am working on the basis that a typical group gets through the first few levels of play quite quickly, and thereafter spends two to three sessions between levels. Your mileage may vary.

Two disclaimers. Firstly, you might be tempted to use this as a fairly rigid structure. In doing so, you run the risk of railroading and all the problems that come with it. Forecast, don’t plan. Secondly, most campaigns don’t hit level 20, and that’s fine. In fact, many campaigns don’t get much past Tier 1. You could adjust this structure for a shorter campaign and it would work just as well.

So, here goes: a 20-level guide to planning a long-term campaign.

The beat sheet

1. Think of the game in terms of three acts: setup, rising action, climax. These correspond roughly to Tier 1, Tiers 2 and 3, and Tier 4.

2. The game begins at 1st level, but don’t feel pressured to start the story immediately. For the first few levels, let the players learn about each other’s characters: show them what the world is like before their adventures begin.

3. At some point towards the end of Tier 1 – I would suggest 4th level – introduce some kind of catalyst or inciting incident. Think of this as your ‘no going back’ moment: a call to adventure. Here again, take your time. Give your players a chance to ask: ‘now what?’ and mull over the next steps.

4. Think of ‘Act 2’ as starting around 6th level. This is where you can really start to expand your world and introduce new allies, enemies, and mentors. Most characters receive a significant power boost around this time, progressing from ‘local heroes’ to ‘heroes of the realm’. Try to end Tier 2 with some kind of midpoint. A false victory works well here: the players think things are going great, but they are actually about to get a whole lot worse.  

5. From Tier 3 onwards, the players are over half-way through the story. This is where the bad guys close in and the world starts to unravel. If there’s going to be a moment when the heroes hit rock bottom, save it for the end of Tier 3. As with the inciting incident in Tier 1, give the players a chance to react to this: a ‘dark night of the soul’, where all seems lost.    

6. Tier 4 is your finale. The heroes realize what they need to do and face their foes once and for all. The last four levels of the game focus entirely on the drama of the heroes’ final plan and the showdown with the antagonists.

In summary:

  • forecast, don’t plan;
  • embrace improvisation;
  • let the players lead you.

If nothing else, allow the narrative to emerge naturally. Like a good wine, a narrative needs to breathe, so let things take their time.

Battlefield Environments

In a hot, dusty forge, an escaped pirate trades sword blows with the blacksmith’s apprentice. Alarmed by the fighting, a braying donkey starts the grindstone turning, and the two men have to duck in and out of the great rotating cogwheel festooned with swords and chains.

It’s late, and the bartender is alone for the night, when four thugs come to the tavern looking for an artefact. In the ensuing fight, a hot poker is knocked from the hearth and hits a curtain, which quickly catch fire. Before long the flames are working their way across the ceiling. A tables is flipped on its side for cover and glasses come smashing to the floor. The young bartender crawls behind the bar, grabs a burning log, and brings it down on someone’s head with a thwack.

An elf shoots arrow after arrow as more and more orcs threaten to overwhelm the battlements. It’s a narrow walkway, slick with rainwater, and soldiers go flying to their doom. Seeing his dwarf friend in trouble down below, he kicks a shield forward and uses it surf down the steps, peppering the crowd with arrows as he does so.

It’s easy to forget about the battlefield environment when playing a game of D&D. When we come up with adventures, we tend to focus on cool monster encounters and colourful NPCs: the setting is often a bit of an afterthought But as the examples above suggest – from Pirates of the Caribbean, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers respectively – no combat takes place in a vacuum, and even one or two terrain features can make a fight memorable and unique.

Battlefield environments are not just about combat. For roleplayers and storytellers, environments are a way of making combat more descriptive and immersive. For explorers, a battlefield environment enriches the game world, providing new scenes and situations to interact with. The environment of a battlefield can affect every type of character, from sword-and-board fighters to sneaky rogues to spell-slinging mages. This article is about ways to make environments interesting in your game.

Rethinking the battlefield

The environment of a battle is more than just window dressing. It needs to affect both the narrative and gameplay.

In game terms, terrain is probably going to do one of the following things:

  • Restrict movement (a wall, a locked door)
  • Provide new modes of movement (teleports, stairs)
  • Provide cover (a tree, a pillar)
  • Act as difficult terrain (snow, rubble)
  • Deal damage (pit traps, whirling blades)
  • Obscure vision (fog, darkness)
  • Impose a condition (sleep gas, the symbol spell)
  • Offer interaction (an object to throw, a lever to switch)

If it doesn’t meaningfully change gameplay, it is essentially window dressing. That’s still cool, of course, but if it doesn’t affect the game in some way, players are probably going to forget about it (as are you).

Steal, steal, steal. DMs are under pressure to be original, but don’t punish yourself for adapting ideas from elsewhere. That’s creative, too. Films and video games can be great for inspiration, and there are some really good lists online to get you thinking, too (eg, this post from Hipsters and Dragons). The Dungeon Master’s Guide in 3.5 had whole sections on dungeons, wilderness, weather, and environment, and you can read it online at the SRD. The random tables in the 5th edition DMG (Appendix A) are also really good for sparking your imagination.

Visual aids. If you use miniatures, why not invest in some terrain pieces like those from Mantic Games or WizKids. Just having them at the table might be enough to make you use them creatively. (If you are interested in tabletop terrain that works with miniatures, I will be reviewing the new WizKids WarLock tiles when my pre-order arrives over the next few weeks.)

Some other pointers:

Remember the fantastic. It’s right there in the introduction of the Player’s Handbook: ‘The Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game is about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery.’ Instead of a stone wall, have a wall of fire. Instead of a rope bridge, use a force field. Don’t worry about explaining why the magic is there every time. It’s magic, not physics.

Think about the five senses. This is a basic creative writing tip but it works for combat encounters, too. What can the characters hear? Is there an odour in the room? What’s the air like? What’s the temperature? These things matter, and sometimes they even have an in-game effect. A noisy forge makes it easier to sneak up on your opponents. A humid jungle can be a nightmare for characters in heavy armour.

Think in three dimensions. Dungeon maps tend to be more horizontal than vertical, probably because it’s easier to draw on a single sheet of paper, but some of my most memorable battles have been in three dimensions: a mine shaft, a tower, a series of platforms floating in the sky at different heights. Try it!

Even simpler

For an even simpler approach, Fate Core has a neat way of defining Obstacles.

  • Hazards: things that hurt;
  • Blocks: things that get in the way;
  • Distractions: things that force you to figure out your priorities.

This is not a bad starting point for thinking about terrain in your adventure. Focus on your current adventure and see if you can come up with some hazards, blocks, or distractions that could use in encounters. For example, if your characters are making their way through some rocky crags, you could have steep slopes, scree, undergrowth, chasms, and cliffs, all of which are ‘blocks’ but work in different ways. You could also make an encounter memorable with bad weather like snow, wind, or rain. Use the idea of Aspects (Fate’s ‘big thing’) and give your battlefield one or two noteworthy features that the players can engage with.

Final thoughts

Less is more. One or two terrain features is all you need. More than that and you are going to end up with a very complicated encounter, for you and the players. You probably have enough to remember as it is.

Beware the grind. If a character is less effective at hitting the enemy because of the battlefield environment, two things are likely to happen. One, the combat will drag out. Two, the player will get frustrated and feel a loss of agency. If you are adding terrain elements, try to include ways that players can avoid or mitigate their effects.

Not just for boss fights. If you know you tend to forget about battlefield terrain, think about the first encounter of the session (what Mike Shea calls the ‘strong start’). You can do more preparation for this encounter than any other, so it’s a good opportunity to try something new.

Check the difficulty. In most situations, the battlefield favours the defenders, (ie, the enemy). Otherwise, what are the enemy doing there? Advantageous terrain can turn a ‘medium’ encounter into a ‘hard’ one and a ‘hard’ encounter into a ‘deadly’ one. Be careful, especially at lower levels when characters have fewer options (and hit points).

Know the rules. Depending on the environment, you may need to refamiliarize yourself with the rules for concealment, difficult terrain, squeezing into a smaller space, cover (including how it works on a grid), and even underwater combat.

An empty room is OK sometimes. Adventurers need somewhere to rest. Perhaps they want to feel powerful cutting down hordes of enemies. Perhaps the encounter is complicated enough as it is and a fairly bare arena is sufficient. Make life easy for yourself and choose when you want the environment to have the most impact.