Humour in D&D

This post was difficult to write, for a number of reasons.

  1. It’s ironic, but writing about comedy can be distinctly unfunny. Is there anything more humourless than picking apart a joke to explain how it works?
  2. Comedy is a matter of personal taste. Take my comedy touchstones, for example: films like Monty Python, Airplane!, Anchorman, Four Lions, and In Bruges. Great films: but universally loved? No.
  3. Roleplaying games are collaborative and unpredictable: in D&D, comedy just happens. You don’t need to force it. So write about it?
  4. I have really bad RSI thanks to working from home, and I want to be able to sleep tonight without clutching my arm in pain. (If you think that was a contrived attempt at a joke, it wasn’t.)

So, with all this considered, why write about humour in D&D? Because it’s a fundamental part of the game. Having written a few posts recently that are rather academic or serious (eg, this one), I want to take a break and embrace something fun.

This post is meant to spark inspiration and give a few tips about using humour in your games. If I’ve missed something, comment at the end!

Serious fun: why humour matters

To the uninitiated, the D&D rulebooks can seem pretty heavy going or even intimidating. You’ve got acronyms and appendices, tables and diagrams, columns of 9.5-point text, and all that before you get to the polyhedral dice (‘what the heck is a d100?’). The content itself can get pretty dark, too. There’s violence (lots of it), death, evil, horror: often all four. ‘All this for a game?’

Drama teachers often refer to drama as serious fun, and I think this is a useful term for roleplaying games as well. D&D is serious, but it is also fun. The seriousness enables the fun, and the fun offsets the seriousness. In fact, the more serious the game becomes, the more you need humour to dial things back.

Wizards of the Coast have clearly embraced this in 5th edition. Look at this table, for example, from page 104 of the Player’s Handbook:

Wild Magic Table in 2021 | Dungeon master's guide, Magic table, Dungeons  and dragons homebrew

This is hilarious!

Look at the monsters, too: 5th edition has brought back classics like the flumph, the modron, the flail snail, the almiraj, and the froghemoth, and featured them prominently in published adventures.

Speaking of which, the published adventures are stuffed with comedy. In fact, generally speaking, the darker the theme, the more humour you will find. Thus, Curse of Strahd has Blinksy toys and the crypts of Castle Ravenloft, Tomb of Annihilation has Yellyark and mad monkey fruit, and Descent into Avernus has Lulu the hollyphant and abyssal chickens. Sometimes, D&D needs comedy.

Going too far

And the man in the back said everyone attack… | Dragon Heist

As I said in starting, comedy is a matter of personal taste. Few things in life are universally funny, and many things are almost universally unfunny. So, as any successful comedian will tell you: know your audience, and read the room.

It’s important to have a few safety tools in place for when a joke goes south and someone gets hurt. Again: D&D is serious fun. Monte Cook’s Consent in Gaming is an excellent (and free) PDF, and the Pathfinder baseline is a great starting point for mature content, too.

There’s another way in which humour can go ‘too far’. What if the comedy starts to derail the campaign? What if playing D&D becomes secondary to piss-takes and wisecracks?

For some people, piss-takes and wisecracks what D&D is all about! A session is an opportunity to hang out and make jokes. But if you feel it’s going too far, then talk to your players. If they want something light-hearted, then perhaps you’re fighting a losing battle by trying to make the campaign more serious. But at the same time, you are meant to be having fun as a DM, too, and your wishes matter just as much as anyone else’s. So if you feel that the game is becoming irrevocably silly, see if there’s a compromise to be had. Ultimately, though, if the rest of the group wants something very different to you, then maybe it’s better to step back for a while. No D&D is better than bad D&D.

Funny business

For the most part, D&D will be funny without you even trying. Players come up with madcap schemes all the time, and every failed dice roll is an opportunity for bathos. If you feel things are getting a bit serious, though, here are some suggestions for ways to inject a little levity in your game.

Absurd/surreal comedy. This is already a big part of D&D, as, thanks to dice rolls, much of the humour is so unpredictable. Subvert your players’ expectations now and then with something bizarre or incongruous. Descent into Avernus, for example, features a subplot where a night hag asks the players to watch her den while she goes off to visit a spa.

Anachronism. Deliberate historical inconsistency can be great fun. The Monkey Island series does this brilliantly, with vending machines, T-shirts, and fast-talking, arm-waving used car ship salesmen. Anachronism can also be hilarious in D&D. After all, it’s not like it’s particularly medieval to start with.

Jany on Twitter: "Just finished Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge as well.  As an adult, I gotta say, I can now truly appreciate Stan's epic  salesmanship 😄 Time to dive into the

Callbacks. If your campaign has been running for a while, throw in an allusion to something that happened ages ago. It’s a nice reminder of how far the players have come.

Caricature. Characters in D&D don’t need to be three-dimensional and psychologically real. NPCs are often little more than cartoons. Embrace this.

Catchphrases. Curse of Strahd has ‘Is No Fun, Is No Blinksy’. I enjoyed throwing this in at unexpected moments.

Gadof Blinsky | Curse of Strahd | Obsidian Portal

Lean into failure. By default, D&D only offers three outcomes: success, failure, and critical hits. Many players use ‘fumbles’ (critical misses) to add a bit of humour to combat.

Music. If you have background music in your games, this can be a great source of comedy. For example, ‘Yackety Sax’ (better known as the Benny Hill theme) is fanastic for chase sequences.

Parody and pastiche. Not quite the same thing: parody is generally mocking, whereas pastiche is more celebratory. Both are fun. Try imitating the style of a film, TV series, or video game, and see if the players notice, or model an NPC on a real-life celebrity or historical figure, subtly or more obviously.

D&D 5E - Check Out WizKids' Infernal War Machine Mini | EN World | Dungeons  & Dragons | Tabletop Roleplaying Games

Definitely not a Mad Max reference

Randomness. There are lots of funny random tables in 5th edition D&D, like the sorcerer’s wild magic table and the deck of many things. Randomness is great!

Ribaldry. Also known as blue comedy, this includes anything that’s off-colour, risqué, or bawdy, like innuendo. Another one that needs to be used in moderation. Use safety tools to check whether this is something your group is (occasionally) OK with.

Roasting. Insults are funny! Perhaps best between NPCs: insults between players can become personal unintentionally (or, I suppose, intentionally).

Toilet humour. Really? Weeing, pooping, farting? Well, if they’re good enough for Chaucer and Shakespeare, they’re good enough for you. Once again, though, use this sparingly, and know your audience.

Trick monsters and cursed items. Part of D&D from the very beginning, you don’t want to overuse these, but, deployed sparingly, they’re great. Mimics can be particularly fun.

Art] Modern day mimic. : DnD

Look! Trap monsters AND anachronism! Credit: u/not_that_guy_at_work

Voice acting. What are the funniest voices you can do? You don’t have to be Matt Mercer for this, and it’s a great way of making a memorable NPC. A nice trick is to have a voice that is somewhat unexpected. For example, your death knight could speaks with a high-pitched squeak, and your ancient red dragon could have a tickly cough.

Wordplay. In the catacombs beneath Castle Ravenloft, there is a crypt for Sir Klutz Tripalotsky, who ‘fell on his own sword.’ Puns are great. So are spoonerisms, malapropisms, alliteration, and so on.

Why so serious?  

I thought I would end with six rules of good comedy (or at least, comedy where D&D is concerned).

  1. Safety first. Yes, comedy can be cruel, but this is meant to be a fun game. Never lose sight of that.
  2. Know your audience. Comedy is subjective, and not everyone has the same tastes as you. If in doubt, imagine the game is rated PG.
  3. Timing is everything. Whether you’re a player or the DM, think about the ‘beats’ of the game and read the room. Don’t ruin a powerful moment with a bad joke, and try not to smother a potentially funny situation with unnecessary seriousness.
  4. Keep it natural. The motto of the Cambridge Footlights is ars est celare artem: ‘the art is to conceal the art’. Comedy shouldn’t be forced, and some of the best comedy is grounded and natural.
  5. Start with character. This comes from Brent Forrester, the head writer for The Office (US version). It’s good advice.
  6. Be warm. Before he wrote the hit sitcom Gavin & Stacey with Ruth Jones, James Corden turned to the great British playwright Alan Bennett for advice. His one tip: ‘be warm’.

Life is short and full of meanness. Cynicism is cheap. Joy is hard. Be warm. Bring a bit of humour to your game.

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Gods in D&D

Do you have deities in your campaign? How many? What are they called? What are their portfolios? Are they active in the world or mysterious and withdrawn?

For some DMs, deities are one of the most enjoyable aspects of world-building: a fun way to define their setting. For others, gods and demigods are just a headache, a chore, and something they wish the game could do without. In this article, I’m going to look at the history of deities within the game and some suggestions for how to introduce divinity into your game in perhaps more imaginative ways.

A (selective) history

Do clerics need a deity? Many players assume the answer is ‘yes’ and has always been the case. The reality is perhaps a little more nuanced.

Image result for 1974 basic set D&D

I wasn’t able to consult the 1974 boxed set (‘original D&D’), but from what I could find online, there is no list of deities, and clerics are more or less a half-way house between ‘magic-users’ and ‘fighting-men’. I’m not even sure there are any references to ‘gods’ or ‘deities’ in the original Men & Magic booklet. What’s more, from what I’ve read of Gygax and home campaign, he didn’t bother much with specific deities in the earlier years either. Since his players’ characters were generally low level, he assumed they were unlikely to interact directly with the gods, so he glossed over them. Some of his players ended up taking matters into their own hands and started to call on deities from Greek and Norse mythology and even Howard’s Conan stories. When his players evenntually asked Gygax to give them a deity of his own creation – something less vague than just ‘the gods’ – he jokingly invented Saint Cuthbert. In-game stats were eventually presented for Thor, Zeus, and so on in the fourth D&D supplement, Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes, in 1976.

Image result for D&D red box basic set

The 1977 ‘Basic Rules’ (as opposed to ‘Advanced D&D’) describes clerics as ‘humans who have dedicated themselves to one or more of the gods.’ Are these gods listed? No. The ‘red box’ of 1983 goes one step further, saying that the cleric is ‘dedicated to serving a great and worthy cause [. . .] usually the cleric’s Alignment; for example, a cleric may be dedicated to spreading law and order.’ Strikingly, it goes on to say this: ‘In D&D games, as in real life, people have ethical and theological beliefs. This game does not deal with those beliefs.’ Correspondingly, no gods or deities are listed.

From what I can see, the 1st edition AD&D Player’s Handbook (1978) also doesn’t have much to say on the subject of gods. It states that ‘a cleric is dedicated to a deity, or deities’ (italics mine), and that their spells are ‘bestowed upon them by a deity for correct and diligent prayers and deeds’, but again, no list of deities is provided or referred to.

Image result for dieties and demigods

This all changed in 1980 with the publication of Deities & Demigods, a 144-page hardcover supplement which provided background details and in-game stats for 17 different pantheons: some from fiction (eg, Cthulhu), some for nonhumans (eg, Moradin and Gruumsh), and the rest from real-life sources (eg, Egyptian, Norse, and Celtic). Deities & Demigods also addressed questions like how clerics of these religions should behave and how they are affected by the afterlife. The book was later repackaged as Legends & Lore to avoid potential conflicts with fundamentalist Christians, but the content remained more or less the same.

Like the first edition, the 2nd edition of AD&D (1989) does not provide a list of deities. Again, the Player’s Handbook refers to the cleric (now a type of ‘priest’) as ‘a believer and advocate of a god from a particular mythos,’ but goes on to say this, which is interesting: ‘In the simplest version of the AD&D game, clerics serve religions that can be generally described as “good” or “evil.” Nothing more needs to be said about it; the game will play perfectly well at this level.’ The game continued to assume that clerics were servants of a divine power, however, and a second edition of Legends & Lore was published using much of the original text.

An interesting change came in 2000 with the advent of 3rd edition. Here, as with the red box, the Player’s Handbook explicitly states that ‘some clerics devote themselves not to a god but to cause or source of divine power.’ The gods of the Player’s Handbook were borrowed from Greyhawk. Deities and Demigods returned to D&D in April 2002 and discussed different models of religion, from the traditional ‘loose’ pantheon of D&D, to monotheism, dualism, and animism. 4th edition in 2008 arguably tightened things up again, stating that a cleric ‘must choose a deity compatible with [their] alignment’.

And now 5e. Here again, as in fourth edition, it is assumed that clerics are ‘divine agents’. Indeed, the Player’s Handbook even states that ‘the most important question to eonsider is whieh deity to serve and what principies you want your character to embody.’ An appendix, ‘Gods of the Multiverse,’ provides a summary of various fictional and historical pantheons, but with none of the detail of Deities and Demigods.

Your world, your rules

Image result for shar selune

Todd Lockwood

Many D&D players assume that a D&D world has to have gods. Not just gods, but a pantheon of gods: something for every alignment, every domain. This is certainly an option, but there are others.

Monotheism. Perhaps the people of your world worship an overdeity or creator god. The different domains could be different aspects of the same deity. Perhaps the deity is worshipped by different names in different churches. Is the god neutral, at the centre of all things? Good: a force for hope? Or evil: an inescapable darkness that haunts every corner of the world?

Dualism. Instead of a pantheon, you could have just two deities in opposition with one another. What do they represent? Sun and moon? Law and chaos? Life and death? In the same way that the world of The Dark Crystal is ruled by the mystical urRu and the hideous skeksis, your world could be defined by two primal forces. Perhaps, like the urRu and the skeksis, your deities started as a single god that split somehow into two.

Pantheons. The default for many D&D worlds: perhaps you want lots and lots of gods. If so, consider the various cleric domains, the nine alignments, the twelve core classes. Is there someone for everyone to worship? You need to decide if it is a ‘tight’ pantheon where all the gods belong to one religion (eg, the gods of Asgard or Mount Olympus) or a ‘loose’ pantheon like hte gods of Greyhawk and Faerûn. Are there different deities for different ancestries: gnomes, dwarves, elves, and so on?

Animism. This is the idea that spirits inhabit every part of the natural world: animals, plants, stones, fire, wind. In Legend of the Five Rings, for instance, shugenja cast their spells by calling on spirits called the kami to aid them.

Cheats. Do you want to steal the deities from another campaign setting, or skip over the lore completely? Don’t feel bad about it! You can always introduce new elements later, and if it’s good enough for Gygax, it’s good enough for you. Even if you use the gods of Asgard and Olypmus in your world, they will still be defined by your fiction, not the myths and legends of our world. (I would, however, avoid real-life religions: apart from running the risk of offending someone, it’s also jarring, and potentially breaks the immersion in a fantasy setting.)

Whatever model of divinity you go with, you should probably think about your answers to some of the questions below.

  • Are the gods all powerful, or are there limits to their divinity?
  • What do they know that mortals do not?
  • How did they become gods? Is it possible to ascend to godhood or give it up? Can divinity be stolen or earned?
  • Do they need worshippers? Why do mortals worship them? Out of love? Fear? Gratitude?
  • Are the gods benevolent, hostile, or indifferent? Are they active or distant?
  • Where do they reside? Why do they live there? Can mortals reach them?
  • Can they die? If so, how?

In my current campaign, which started as a dark fantasy one-shot, the gods are almost forgotten: they slumber in distant worlds beyond the prime material, and the churches and cults that do exist are both corrupt and corrupting. Yet there are occasional glimpses of divine power: an answered prayer, perhaps, or an ancient artifact. It’s a story thread I plan to take further.

And no religion, too

Finally: there’s nothing wrong with a godless campaign setting.

‘Blasphemy!’ Really? Let’s take an example of how it might work.

Image result for aeris gainsborough

Meet Aerith Gainsborough (originally transliterated as ‘Aeris’). If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you played Final Fantasy VII. Aeris is never given a class in the game, but she is clearly part of the white mage tradition within the Final Fantasy franchise. She has high magic stats, fights with rods and staves, and her special abilities (‘limit breaks’) heal the party. In D&D, she would probably be a healing-domain cleric. She even grows flowers in a church. Yet there is no organized religion in the world of Final Fantasy VII. Neither are there deities, only ‘the Planet’ and a mysterious, ethereal substance called ‘Lifestream’.

To me, Final Fantasy VII is a really neat example of how you can have divine magic without deities. Don’t feel beholden to what has gone before: make your gods unique.

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Four Problems with Fantasy (and How to Fix Them)

Don’t get me wrong: I love fantasy roleplaying games. After all, I do write a blog about Dungeons & Dragons. But I also believe that fantasy, and D&D in particular, is not without its problems, some of which can be fixed, or at least mitigated.

In this article, I plan to run through four issues I see with D&D and fantasy RPGs generally, and then offer some possible solutions to them.

1. Tired tropes and chronic clichés

Sidharth Chaturvedi on Twitter: "D&D: Yawning Portal Tavern. From 'Dungeon  of the Mad Mage.' AD: Kate Irwin. This was SO MUCH FUN to paint. Also one  of the few that I didn't

Wizards of the Coast

D&D has been around for nearly half a century, and there has been a huge amount of innovation in that time. But there are also some tired, tired tropes that have been done to death. Dwarves with Scottish accents. Everyone’s an orphan. ‘You all meet in a tavern.’

As TV Tropes explains, tropes are tools, and they’re not necessarily a bad thing. There is nothing new under the sun, after all, and even well used tropes can be subverted or deployed skilfully. But tropes can definitely be overused, becoming shallow, predictable, or unoriginal. And in a genre that revolves around magic and imagination, that’s a death blow.

To some extent, fantasy is an inherently conservative genre. It is nostalgic for the past. It draws on ancient myths and legends. It is almost pastoral: a land of beautiful landscapes and wild adventure, an escape from modern life. Roleplaying games like D&D emerged from historical war games, and for many gamers the association between fantasy and the medieval is pretty unbreakable. (Incidentally, D&D is not, and never has been, a particularly realistic simulation of the medieval world. Apart from being curiously resistant to the inclusion of gunpowder, which was invented in China in the 9th century, D&D has Renaissance-level technology like telescopes and rapiers, completely ahistorical technology like studded leather and hand crossbows, and a wealth-based, free-market economy: no feudalism for adventurers, it would seem.)

Of course, not all fantasy need be like this, and there are numerous fantasy settings that reinvent traditional tropes in exciting ways. Final Fantasy VII, arguably a form of eco-fiction, uses an industrialized setting with an environmentally destructive megacorporation. Eberron takes inspiration from pulp serials and film noir. Planescape is grungy, gothic, neo-Victorian, and weird in the China Miéville sense of the word.

How to fix it: know your tropes and use them carefully (this applies as much to players as to DMs). Work with your players and try new genres: try gothic fantasy, or dying earth fantasy, or D&D in space. Resist the urge to fixate too much on historical accuracy: embrace the fantasy.

2. Prejudice and discrimination

Why Orcs Are Problematic in Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Buckle up: this one’s controversial.

D&D, and fantasy games in general, have been slow to adapt when it comes to inclusivity, representation, and diversity. To pick a few examples: the 2nd edition AD&D Player’s Handbook used male pronouns exclusively; Gary Gygax, a self-proclaimed ‘biological determinist’ on race and gender, believed that most ‘females’ do not play RPGs because of ‘a difference in brain function’; and in one of the first Dragon magazines, Len Lakofka argued that women should have ‘beauty’ instead of Charisma and have the ability to ‘seduce’ NPCs to make up for their lower Strength (because it goes without saying that women are physically weaker than men).

In some ways, D&D has come on leaps and bounds here. The portrait for ‘human’ in the 5th-edition Player’s Handbook is a black woman, for example, and the title page features a heroic, dark-skinned fighter. Chapter 4 explicitly declares that ‘you don’t need to be confined to binary notions of sex and gender’, adding ‘your character’s sexual orientation is for you to decide.’ Gone, too, are the chainmail bikinis and sexualized poses of earlier depictions of women in fantasy artwork.

But there are still battles to be fought. The Black Lives Matter protests led to a lively debate within the D&D community about the representation of so called ‘monstrous’ races and whether orcs were fundamentally racist. Disability consultant Sara Thompson faced a backlash for her awesome combat wheelchair rules, and the suggestion that D&D dungeons can, and should, be wheelchair accessible has been met with ridicule, with some users on social media even declaring that DMs should ‘target’ wheelchair users in-game because they are ‘easy targets’: textbook ableism. And while not technically a D&D incident, Adam Koebel, the co-author of Dungeon World, had to apologize after livestreaming a sexual assault scenario, seemingly for laughs. All of these things happened last year. Sexism, racism, and ableism are, sadly, alive and well within the D&D community, and while D&D is by no means unique in having toxic views within its fanbase, it is fair to say that the game has not always moved with the times.

How to fix it: support RPG creatives from a wide range of backgrounds, and read what they have to say about the game. Think about how many of your characters are straight, white, able-bodied, and male: we are all responsible for the fiction we co-create, even if you play in a group of able-bodied straight white men, so play your part. Get away from biological essentialism by using alternative approaches like Ancestry & Culture or the rules in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Talk about lines and veils with your group. Introduce an X-card.

3. Combat fatigue

Wizards of the Coast

5th edition D&D claims to be built on three pillars: combat, exploration, and social interaction. Why, then, is combat such a huge focus within the game?

To some extent, this goes back to D&D’s roots in wargaming. It’s certainly part of the game’s tradition, and arguably requires a lot less effort for many players than compelling roleplay might. But it’s also what the game’s mechanics reward. There is so much of an incentive within the rules to be good at combat. What is your reward for exploration, for social interaction? Inspiration? Maybe a secret door with a magic item behind it? By default, killing things gives you XP, and XP levels you up. It’s not hard to see, then, why min-maxing is a thing.

Maybe fighting things is where you get your fun. If so, don’t let me stand in your way! But I’ve had a number of experiences with players new to D&D who have been surprised by the game’s focus on killing things. ‘Why do we have to kill the goblins? Can I pet the dire rat? Is fighting the only thing we do in this game?’

There are other game systems that do things differently. The Cypher System has a nice focus on exploration, for instance, and Fate promotes storytelling over all else – so much so that it is entirely possible to run a game without fighting at all.

How to fix it: Don’t only offer XP for killing things! Consider switching to milestone XP instead. Talk to your group and see what they enjoy. Try playing other game systems for mechanics you can steal: cyphers, for example, offer a really nice way of promoting exploration. Think about how you can make downtime interesting. If you are going to run combats, make them engaging, and try to have an interesting battlefield environment. Always try to make sure that combat makes sense within the story, and, if possible, an oppportunity to be avoided.

4. Characterization over character

via Twitter (@DMEducational)

Imagine you are writing a story, in a genre other than fantasy. You’re thinking about your main character. What do you think of first?

I bet it’s not ‘race’ and ‘class’. It’s probably not ability scores, either. Yet this is how most of us create a character in a fantasy RPG. Kind of odd, no?

I’ve written about this before (‘Creating Awesome Characters’), but I think it’s something D&D players in general are weirdly fixated on. (Myself included, at times – it’s a hard habit to break.) Being a dwarf or an elf doesn’t make your character interesting, and neither does being a warlock or a paladin. There’s also something more than a little icky about the idea that a character is so defined by their biology and ancestry. Do we really need this in our storytelling? Again, other systems do things differently. There is no need to pick a race in the Cypher System or Fate, and the game is no worse off for it.

How to fix it: Again, try alternatives to D&D. See what you like. Try using the new rules for customizing your origin in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. Take time to think about your character’s values and personality: what makes them tick? Try to explain who they are without referring to their race or class.

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Far Cry in D&D

Ubisoft

I have recently been playing through some of the Far Cry games, and it occurred to me that much of what makes the series distinctive could also be fun in a D&D campaign.

On the face of it, this might be surprising. The Far Cry games are first-person shooters: D&D is a collaborative fantasy roleplaying game. What the Far Cry series does well, though, is facilitating open-world gameplay, which has been part of D&D since its earliest editions and has recently seen something of a resurgence.   

In this article, I want to examine what makes the Far Cry games special and how you could incorporate these elements into your D&D campaigns.

Key features

Ubisoft

There have been five main entries in the Far Cry series since 2004 and three standalone expansions. Let’s take a moment to pinpoint what they have in common. (Because the original Far Cry was a more typical first-person shooter, without the open-world elements, I will exclude it from consideration here.)

  • A varied, lawless land. Far Cry 2 was set somewhere in central Africa, 3 in Indonesia, 4 in ‘Kyrat’ (the Himalayas), and 5 in Montana. While these settings are beautiful, each with its own rich history, they are also presented as wartorn and sparsely populated. They might not be especially vast in real-life terms – you can walk across Kyrat in 43 minutes – but the variety of biomes makes each world more interesting to explore.
  • Memorable villains. Despite their open-world credentials, the Far Cry games usually have a strong central storyline with prominent, interesting antagonists. Far Cry 3 has Vaas, a violent, unstable psychopath: 4 has Pagan Min, a ruthless autocrat.
  • Wildlife. Far Cry 2 only really features human mercenaries, but from 3 onwards there is a big focus on animals in the world: lions and tigers and bears, oh my!
  • Vehicles. In Far Cry, you may find yourself in a car, on a boat, flying a plane, or driving cross country in an ATV. Getting from A to B quickly (and in one piece) is often part of the fun.
  • Side quests. You don’t have to stick to the main storyline, and there is a huge number of optional missions. They could involve assassinations, delivering supplies, rescuing hostages, or controlling local wildlife. Some of the NPC ‘quest givers’ are almost as memorable as the main villains.
  • Guns, guns, guns. Yes, there are a lot of guns in Far Cry. Choosing and upgrading them is part of the fun.
  • Outposts and hub towns. In order to explore the map, players have to take control of outposts: fortified strongholds guarded by mercenaries, snipers, dogs, and so on.
  • Factions. There are usually at least three factions in the Far Cry games, and the player often has to make a choice between two groups of allies.

How, then, can we adapt these elements to D&D?

Converting to D&D

Ubisoft

Many of the features listed above are already part of D&D or simply need tweaking.

  • A varied, lawless land. This is the big one, really. A Far Cry open-world game is essentially a hexcrawl with random encounters. Justin Alexander has written extensively on how to run hexcrawls (@hexcrawl is his Twitter handle!), so I would start there. It’s important to have a variety of terrain types to create a sense of increasing challenge: TV Tropes even has a page on this.
  • Memorable villains. See my post on how to run a big bad. The Far Cry villains are an excellent template for D&D campaigns.
  • Wildlife. There are stats for lions and tigers and bears in the Monster Manual, of course, but there’s nothing to stop you adding a D&D flourish to your flora and fauna. Embrace the fantasy: replace bears with owlbears, wolves with worgs, cougars with displacer beasts.
  • Vehicles. This might be trickier in D&D, considering the medieval setting, unless you’re playing a magitek campaign like Eberron. Instead, consider having a range of different mounts. Depending on the setting, this might include dire wolves, dinosaurs, flying creatures like griffons and pegasi, even dragons and wyverns.
  • Side quests. These can be generated randomly using the tables in Chapter Three of the DMG. Really! And the monster lists in Appendix B can give you a sense of what to use as adversaries.
  • Guns, guns, guns. For this, I recommend The Complete Armorer’s Handbook on the DMs Guild. At $9.95, it’s well worth your money, and gives you some really cool options for upgrading arms and armour.
  • Outposts and hub towns. This requires a bit of prep on your part. There are around 20 outposts in every Far Cry game (from 3 onward), and they are satisfying because they are a tactical challenge. So, put some maps together (or borrow one from the brilliant Dyson Logos) and come up with an adversary roster. Be sure to account for reinforcements when the alarms go off!
  • Factions. You don’t necessarily need new mechanics for this. Just think about two or three main factions, what makes them distinctive, who leads them, and go from there. As I wrote in using publish campaign settings, three big schemers is plenty. Consider using the alignment system as a starting point (eg, Neutral Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Evil). Sly Flourish has a good post on this, too, where he takes inspiration from Dungeon World.

Final thoughts

Ubisoft

This post is meant as a starting point, not a complete guide, so here’s some more food for thought.

  • How big a map? The DMG has some good advice on this on page 14. I would strongly consider province scale (1 hex per mile) to create a sense of meaningful travel, although kingdom scale could work after the first few levels of play.
  • Random encounters. The trick here is not to overcomplicate things. Why not make a simple table of 1d6 encounters? Or 1d12? Don’t make more work for yourself on the basis of verisimilitude. The players won’t notice it, it probably won’t make the game more enjoyable, and you’ll end up burning yourself out.
  • Level range. There are points in 5th edition D&D where the game starts to feel fundamentally different. Level 5 is a big one: spellcasters get 3rd-level spells, front liners get a second attack, and so on. Things also start to feel different around 10th or 11th level (Tier 3). Personally, I would probably go the route of the published campaign-adventures and keep this kind of playstyle to Tiers 1 and 2.
  • How many players? Given the focus on free choice and going wherever you want, this style of play could actually work well a very small party, or even one player and a sidekick (using the rules in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything).
  • Resting. Consider using the rules for slow natural healing or healing kit dependency on page 266 of the DMG. Give the players an incentive to use tactics when liberating outposts, and make sanctuaries feel precious.
  • Low magic. If you want to preserve a gritty, survivalist feel, consider using the classes in Adventures in Middle-Earth. They are roughly equivalent in power to 5th edition classes but they lack routine access to magic.
  • Reward systems. The Far Cry series tends to have multiple reward systems. For example, in Far Cry 4 you have cash (Kyrati Rupees) and experience points (which buy skills), just like in D&D, but also karma, which unlocks allies and loot, and bell towers, which, once liberated, reveal more of the world map. Perhaps you could have a ‘reputation meter’ in your game which gives the players access to new mounts and magic items.
  • Skill challenges. If you want to abstractify the outpost challenges of Far Cry 3, 4, and 5, consider using the skill challenge mechanic from 4th edition. There’s a great post on how to do this by Jon Lemich at critical-hits.com. His table for skill challenge construction shows a really neat way of upping the difficulty with each successive outpost, and could work equally well for climbing bell towers.

Would you run a Far Cry–style campaign? What would you do differently? Feel free to comment below.

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Death in D&D

Wizards of the Coast

Dying in D&D is momentous. A big part of what makes the game fun is creating a character, investing in them, breathing life into them, and watching them grow from session to session. You don’t ‘win’ D&D by killing things and gaining XP: you win when you have stories to reminisce over with your friends. So when you watch a character die before their time – when you realize that you are never going to play them again – that can be a surprisingly moving moment. And it’s important, therefore, that it’s handled properly.

Talk it through

Character death can be unpredictable. It can be caused by a nasty trap, a stupid decision, a dragon’s fiery breath, or insurmountable odds. But it can also be truly random. I’ve seen low-level characters get killed by an animated broom.

If you’re running a session zero (and you should), have a conversation about character death. How do characters feel about it? Is it off the table? Is it part and parcel of adventuring life? Does it make for a good story? Are there means of bringing characters back to life? If so, how easy are they to come by? Perhaps the characters simply ‘respawn’ like they might in a video game; perhaps they need the aid of rare and powerful magic or divine intervention. Plenty of great characters in fiction have come back from the dead – Gandalf, Harry Potter, Jon Snow, Sherlock Holmes, Kenny McCormick – but it’s usually an important and memorable moment, so savour it. Consider whether the character comes back changed somehow, either spiritually or physically.

It’s important to have this conversation early as 1st level as the deadliest in the game. A single crit from a half-decent enemy can knock a character unconscious, and crits happen five percent of the time. It can also be an important conversation to have if you’re running some of the deadlier campaign adventures. Rime of the Frostmaiden and Lost Mine of Phandelver both have some very deadly encounters at low levels, and Tomb of Annhilation even recommennds a ‘meat grinder mode’.

Tomb of Annihilation | Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Perhaps your players are divided: some want embrace the risk, while others seek the assurance of playing the same character session after session, even if they make a really bad mistake. D&D is meant to be fun, so don’t force something on the group if they’re not happy with it. Perhaps you can agree on some alternatives to dying (see my ideas below). Perhaps you decide that, in some situations, it’s OK for the DM to make a judgement call: if the death is heroic, fitting, memorable, or just, then the character dies permanently, but if it’s anticlimactic, ridiculous, inconvenient, or unfair somehow, then perhaps the DM comes up with an alternative.

What might those alternatives look like?

Cheating death

Sometimes death isn’t the right option. Below are some variants you might want to use.

  • Casual difficulty. Instead of dying, a character gains a level of exhaustion. (What happens if they reach six levels of exhaustion, though? Something to consider.)
  • War wounds. Instead of dying, a character gains a random lingering injury from the table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
  • Revenant. The character is spared from death but returns to earth on borrowed time. The ‘Hollow One’ rules in Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount work well here.
  • Taken out. This is adapted an idea from Fate. Essentially, it’s a way of recasting what ‘death’ means. Instead of ‘dying’ , you are ‘taken out’ and the DM gets to decide what happens next to your character. Torture? Imprisonment? Transformation?
  • Nine lives. Roll 1d8 when a character dies to see how many lives they have left. (I borrowed this idea from Gnome Stew.)
  • New-U station. Perhaps it is possible to respawn but it costs a percentage of gold and/or XP.
  • Marked to die. For some reason, you don’t die – this time. But death is coming. At some point in the future (perhaps when the player rolls a 1 on their Initiative score), the character’s nemesis appears as if summoned, and they will die permanently if the monster cannot be defeated. A fiend, celestial, grim reaper, yeth hound: something wants them dead and they can’t escape.
  • Doppelganger. That’s right: the character wasn’t really who you thought they were! Perhaps they were a clone, an imposter, a psionic projection, or something else. Be careful not to overuse this one.
  • Came back wrong. The character returns to life, but they’re not . . . right, somehow. Perhaps they now register as undead to spells and spell-like abilities, and cats hiss at them in the street.
  • Harrowed. A brush with death is traumatic. The character returns to life, but roll on the long-term madness table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
  • Soul transfer. Perhaps the soul survives but finds a new body. Something on their character sheet changes (race, class, gender, age) but everything else stays the same.
  • Unexplained revival. The character doesn’t die – and no one knows why. Their return from the brink becomes a story in itself. Is it a prophecy? A twist in the fabric of time? The interference of the Raven Queen? Tell a story from it.
Shadowfell | Artio Wiki | Fandom

Wizards of the Coast

The undiscovered country

Some DMs take a very adversarial, old-school approach with their players, and character death is common. Others try to make sure that the same characters are there from one session to the next, and see character death as a terrible mistake. For me, character death is an opportunity for fantastic storytelling, but it needs to be given the attention it deserves. If the death doesn’t feel ‘right’, then think carefully about whether it’s something you want to go through with.

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Player Surveys: Talking to the Team

Wizards of the Coast

In this post, I am going to look at feedback surveys as a way of hearing from your players. They don’t need to be done frequently to provide a useful insight into how the game is going.

D&D rests upon good relationships. People put a lot of themselves into this hobby: not just time, money, and energy, but potentially an element of personal vulnerability, too. If you’re giving up three or four hours a week to sit at a table with your friends, building stories together, you want to have fun while you’re doing it.

The problem is, different players enjoy different things, and in a game that rests on personal relationships, it’s not always easy to bring this up. What if you want a game like Critical Role – immersion heavy with lots of roleplaying and storytelling – but your DM is more interested in wargaming over five-inch battle grids? What if you want something light-hearted and humorous, but everyone else wants to take the game a bit more seriously?

Emotional intelligence and the ability to read the room are key qualities in a good DM, but even the most perceptive DM is going to misread the players sometimes, especially if you’re playing online. It’s very easy for DMs to get caught up in their own personal experience and forget that the players might be looking for something different.

This is where a feedback survey can be, literally, a gamechanger. If it’s done online, it can be anonymous, unfiltered, and personalized: a chance to speak openly about how things are going. That does mean, of course, that you might get feedback you’re not expecting. But that’s kind of the point.

Breaking down the feedback survey

Tomb of Annihilation: Hex crawl procedure – Technoskald's Forge

Wizards of the Coast

So, how often should you ask your players for feedback, and what sorts of questions should you ask?

Some DMs do a quick survey after every session. Personally, that seems a bit overkill to me. You might end up with more data, but it’s not going to be as rich, potentially. You might be able to track whether players enjoyed a particular session, for example, but will the survey tell you why they enjoyed it? For most groups, a survey two or three times a year is probably about right.

I try to avoid textboxes as it helps keep the answers anonymous (and makes it quicker to complete). I tend to start with a couple of more ‘administrative’ questions (eg, session length, session frequency, preferred online platform, etc) before moving on to questions about playstyle. Here are some of the questions I would usually ask:

  • Do you prefer gridded combat, theatre of the mind, or a mix between the two?
  • Do you think the ‘three pillars of adventure’ (combat, exploration, and social interaction) have been balanced?
  • As a player, which activities do you enjoy most and least? (I use the activities on page 6 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.)
  • Is combat too easy, too difficult, or about right?
  • Do the players want to use any variant rules?
  • Are you happy with your character?

This year, I’ve included a couple of questions about DM issues and player issues. The players can rate each issue based on how much it has been a problem: ‘never’, ‘seldom’, ‘some of the time’, or ‘most of the time’. If you’re using something like SurveyMonkey, you can score each answer based on player responses: ‘never’ would be +0, ‘seldom’ would be +1, and so on, up to +3. It helps you see what the group consensus is, and whether it changes over time.

Here is my list of DM issues (adapted from a similar list by Sly Flourish):

  • Forcing the story
  • Taking away player agency
  • Being too adversarial
  • Ignoring the desires of the players
  • Inflexibility
  • Lack of creativity
  • Unfairness
  • Impatience
  • Not listening
  • Rules knowledge
  • Humourlessness
  • Lack of preparation
  • Poor description

And here’s my list of player issues:

  • Being uncooperative
  • Spotlight hogging
  • Not paying attention
  • Metagaming
  • Rules lawyering
  • Cheating
  • Not taking the game seriously
  • Whining
  • Impatience
  • Taking the game too seriously
  • Not preparing enough
  • Lateness

Your own list might be a bit different. Keeping your questions the same, though, gives you the chance to track over time whether there has been any kind of change or improvement. Earlier in the year, for instance, my biggest issues as a DM were ‘inflexibility’, ‘impatience’, ‘rules knowledge’, and ‘poor description’. When I ran the same survey last week, my scores had gone down from two ‘seldoms’ to one, and only one issue, ‘lack of preparation’, had got worse.

I like end with the simplest but most important question: Overall, how much do you enjoy playing the campaign? Again, I give options like ‘always’, ‘most of the time’, ‘sometimes’, ‘never’, but you could use other ratings.

Responding to feedback

D&D's Statement Regarding Zak Smith | Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

If you’re happy with the feedback: great! It might be that there are no great surprises: that you know your players well and can read the room. It’s still good to check.

On the other hand, there might be some unexpected negativity. If so, try not to take it personally. DMing is hard, and people get better at it over time. In fact, it’s very difficult to get better at anything without constructive feedback. Perhaps go back to your group and ask for more detail. You could talk to them separately or do another survey with the option to include fuller answers. See if there are one or two things you can focus on, like speeding up combat or prepping more efficiently. Alternatively, perhaps take a break from DMing for a while and come back to it when you’re feeling more positive.

Other surveys

What's in the Bag? | Dungeons & Dragons

Wizards of the Coast

Finally, it can also be good to do a questionnaire at the end of a campaign or before starting a new one. These will be quite different, potentially. Before a campaign, you might want to find out what sort of campaign people are looking for. Do they want a short campaign or a long one? Which campaign setting do they want to use? Do they want to use a different system?

At the end of a campaign, you might want to combine the feedback part of your survey with a jokey ‘awards’ ceremony. At the end of our Tomb of Annihilation campaign, for example, we gave out awards like the Sean Bean Award for Best Character Death and the Matt Mercer Award for Best Roleplaying. D&D might not be a game about ‘winning’, but when you replay these moments with your friends, you come pretty close.

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How to DM when you don’t have time to prep

Wizards of the Coast

Back in lockdown, I was able to DM and play in four or five games a week. Since term restarted, that has gone to pot rather. Being a DM can seem like a full-time job, and there will be weeks (like this one, in my case) where you just can’t find the time to prep.

How do you get around that?

Option 1: take a break

If you’re like me, you hate doing this. It is a last resort. As a DM and a player, I can forget an awful lot in the week between sessions, and if that goes up to two weeks, then it’s easy to lose momentum.

At the end of the day, though, DMs are human. Life gets in the way sometimes, and if your players are your friends, they will understand this. DM burnout is real, and most DMs are guilty of overthinking what the players expect of them. If you take a week or two off, no one will judge you for it. Similarly, if you come to a session having done a bit less prep than you’d like, your players probably won’t notice and probably won’t care. They want to make jokes, roll dice, and feel badass. You don’t need much prep for that.

If you do take a week or two off, why not ask if someone wants to do a one-shot? We all have a crazy character concept knocking around somewhere: now’s your chance to introduce them! (Mine was a goblin maniac called Rakanishu who cut people down to size with serrated scimitars and yelled out Borderlands-style insults like ‘I’m going to play the xylophone on your spinal column.’ It was fun – if disturbing.) Or, if your players are up for it, run a different system for a session or two. I’ve been meaning to try Feng Shui 2, Call of Cthulhu, Adventures in Middle-Earth, and Dungeon World. Who knows? Maybe you’re fall in love with the system and leave D&D behind. Maybe you’ll find an element of the system that you want to incorporate into your regular game. Or, maybe a brief diversion into another system will remind you what it is you liked about D&D all along.

100 Long Rest Events – Dndspeak

Run a dungeon

If you’re pushed for time, run a dungeon.

Storytelling is hard. Roleplaying NPCs takes energy. Both, in my experience, require a degree of nimbleness on the DM’s part. Dungeons, on the other hand, are self-contained and predictable. If you’re pushed for time, you can grab a map, roll up a few random encounters, and your players will have plenty of fun. This is D&D: combat is a big part of the game. There’s a whole chapter on it, for goodness sake.

I wrote about improvising dungeons on the fly earlier last month.

Start strong

This is a tip from Sly Flourish – and it’s a good one.

The start of your session is the one scene you have complete control over (more or less). After this point, the players can take the game in all sorts of whacky directions, but the strong start is plannable. If you’re pushed for time, then, and you can only spend half an hour prepping, think about your opening scene. Plan it in the shower, on your way to work, on your phone, in your lunch break . . . what can you throw at the players that will make them sit up and listen?

Fill time

This might seem like a bit of a cheat, but there are ways to fill the airtime of a session without increasing the prep load for yourself.

  • Puzzles! A good puzzle can have the players scratching their heads for ages. You could devise one yourself, but you could just as easily steal one from the Internet.
  • Tough encounters. Generally speaking, the harder the encounter, the more session time it’s going to consume. If the players haven’t felt particularly stretched for a while, throw something ridiculous at them. (Of course, don’t overuse this trick, and be very careful of throwing unbalanced encounters at Tier 1 characters.)
  • Waves of enemies. These don’t necessarily have to be tough, but they are memorable nonetheless. Think about some of your favourite fight scenes in film. How many enemies were the heroes fighting?
  • Downtime. Many DMs run this in between sessions, but if you don’t have time to prep tonight, why not run your session as a downtime session? Players can have a lot of fun doing stuff which frankly doesn’t matter that much in the big scheme of things. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything has some excellent random tables for carousing, buying magic items, gambling, etc.
How to make D&D combat less stressful for novice Dungeon Masters

Wizards of the Coast

Let the players take over

DM overreach is a thing, and sometimes DMs overprep because they feel they owe the players a good time. As with rules-lawyering, it’s a sentiment that comes from a good place – but it’s problematic.

The DM is not solely responsible for the fun that’s had at the table. Players have a part to play, too.

Everyone’s a bit different in this regard. Some DMs are very active storytellers and bring a lot of themselves to the table (Matt Mercer, for example). Others – Chris Perkins, for example – can seem quieter, and seem to spend a lot more time listening. Neither approach is wrong. At the best tables, though, it is never just the DM who is contributing towards the story. So, step back a bit. Ask your players questions. Get them to describe something in the room; talk to them about what happens when they rest; find out what’s interesting about their journey. Ultimately, relax: let them do some of the prep work for you

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Using Published Campaign Settings

Wizards of the Coast

Making your own homebrew campaign setting can be a daunting undertaking. World-building can be very time-consuming, and if you’re not really that interested in cartography, demographics, cosmologies, pantheons, and so forth, you might find yourself reaching for a someone else’s work.

How should you go about using a published campaign setting?

Where to start?

A published campaign setting can be overwhelming because of the sheer volume of lore you are drawing upon. The Forgotten Realms Campaign Set was released in 1987. Greyhawk, Gary Gygax’s home setting, was created at least a decade earlier. Even Eberron, a relative newcomer on the D&D scene, is now 16 years old and has appeared in three different editions of the game. It can be hard to know where to start.

Here are my tips.

1. Choose your flavour

Published D&D settings can be very different. Think about the general ‘vibe’ you’re going for, and go from there. To summarize a few:

  • The Forgotten Realms is the official campaign setting of 5th edition and probably the most widely played. It is a fairly ‘vanilla’ fantasy world.
  • Greyhawk, too, is something of a ‘generic fantasy setting’. (That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course!)
  • Eberron might best be described as ‘magitek’ or ‘dungeon punk’, drawing its inspiration from pulp advenure stories and film noir.
  • Dragonlance, based on the novel series of the same name, is a bit more high fantasy. The balance of good and evil is a key theme.
  • Ravenloft is dark fantasy or gothic. Curse of Strahd gives you a good sense of its tone.
  • Dark Sun is a godless post-apocalyptic desert world with sword and sorcery elements.
  • Planescape centres around Sigil, the City of Doors, a strange metropolis that lies outside the multiverse and a hub for a vast network of magic portals.
  • Spelljammer is . . . D&D in space.

You’ve also got the Inner Sea region, the excellent setting of the Pathfinder RPG, and the various Magic: The Gathering crossovers, if that’s your thing.

It’s worth mentioning that only two of these settings have received substantial 5th edition support: Eberron and the Forgotten Realms. It’s also worth setting that many of these settings have many different flavours within them. Eberron, for example, could be a Raiders of the Lost Ark–style temple run in Xen’drik, a Chandleresque hard-boiler in Sharn, a Lovecraftian cosmic horror story from the Far Realms, or something else entirely.

2. Start local

Storytelling in All its Forms: The Dragon of Icespire Peak Campaign Diary -  Episode 1 - Welcome to Phandalin

Wizards of the Coast

This is the approach of Lost Mine of Phandelver and Dragon of Icespire Peak, both set in the small frontier town of Phandalin and its environs. ‘The Forgotten Forge’, the 1st-level adventure in the original Eberron Campaign Setting, takes place entirely in Sharn. There is no reason to cover the whole world at once. Start small and build out from there.

This is a good tip for any campaign, frankly, especially if you start at 1st level. The world that matters the most is the world you build with the players. However, there does come a point where you want to increase the scope. As a rule of thumb, consider expanding out a little with each tier of play. Go to Xen’drik in Tier 2. Have a big bust-up between nations in Tier 3. Walk the planes in Tier 4. Or mix it up. The Dungeon Master’s Guide has some good guidance on pages 36–38.

3. Steal, steal, steal

One of the advantages of using a published campaign setting is the abundance of material you can borrow from, so take advantage of it! Raid old modules, ask questions on subreddits, consult the Dungeon Masters Guild and DriveThruRPG for sourcebooks old and new. The biggest campaign settings have wikis that are fairly reliable, and creators like Ed Greenwood and Keith Baker (to name but two) are fantastic for regularly sharing their thoughts about their settings on Twitter and their own websites.

What can you steal? Maps, art, monsters, NPCs, dungeons, artifacts, storylines, lore. In short: anything! It’s your campaign, and the published material is there to make your life easier. There’s no shame whatsoever and borrowing liberally from any sources you can find.

4. Drill down the ‘aspects’

This is a trick from Fate Core that I find handy.

‘Aspects’ are Fate’s big thing. An aspect is a phrase that describes something unique or noteworthy about whatever it’s attached to. If you find the copious background reading on your campaign setting to be a bit much, try reducing the setting down to a series of aspects.

Silver Marches | 5th Age Campaigns' home rules | Obsidian Portal

Wizards of the Coast

For example, let’s say we’re running a campaign in the Forgotten Realms. One of my favourite parts of the Realms is the Silver Marches, sometimes called Luruar. At kingdom scale, I might pick out eight to ten key sites that want to remember and then reduce them to ‘aspects’. It might look something like this:

  • Silverymoon: beautiful city of culture and magic
  • Everlund: mercantile city ruled by council of elders
  • Sundabar: harsh fortress city
  • Citadel Adbar: massive dwarven fortress
  • Citadel Felbarr: reclaimed dwarven citadel
  • Mithral Hall: dwarven mining stronghold
  • Beorunna’s Well: ancestral home of the Black Lion barbarians
  • The Evermoors: vast, foggy, troll-infested bog

This might be a bit minimalist for some, but for time-pressed DMs, it can be a useful shorthand. You can then improvise around these descriptions and make the setting your own (see the sixth point, below).

5. Three big schemers

Published campaign settings are not just a series of locations: they are also filled with people and organizations. And sometimes, the sheer number of forces at work can be a little intimidating for someone new to the setting.

My tip: restrict yourself to three big movers and shakers at any one time. In the Forgotten Realms, your campaign might revolve around the Lords’ Alliance, the Arcane Brotherhood, and the Kingdom of Many-Arrows. For Eberron, you might focus on the Aurum, the Dark Lanterns, and House Cannith. Obviously there’s no need to make this an absolute rule – by all means throw in a fourth or fifth if you want – but too many factions can lead to gambit pileup. Give your players a chance to learn more and more about the factions they know well and let the others slip into the background.

6. Break canon: kill your darlings

Wizards of the Coast

One of the biggest problems with a published campaign setting is the feeling that you have to honour it in some way. ‘What if my players know the setting better than I do?’ ‘Is my Sharn “accurate”?’ ‘Will the players want to meet Drizzt Do’Urden?’

Don’t let a published setting overshadow your own creativity. Ed Greenwood doesn’t want you to do that. Keith Baker doesn’t want you to do that. Your players don’t want you to do that.

More important than any of the other tips in this article is this one: make the setting your own. Do you want to run a Waterdeep campaign with Victorian-era technology? Go for it. Do you want an Eberron campaign where the Lord of Blades won the Last War and machines rule the world, Terminator style? Sounds fun. Fancy a Rime of the Frostmaiden–Dark Sun mash-up, with a post-apocalyptic tundra instead of a blasted desert world? Give it a try.

Whatever game you run, make sure the heroes at the heart of it. If you want to introduce Volo or Elminster or Drizzt or Mordenkainen, feel free to. But its your heroes’ story, not theirs. Treat a published campaign setting as a starting point, not an endpoint. If you want to rip it up and do your own thing with it, do. Make whatever changes you want.

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Making Combat Engaging

Wizards of the Coast

Of the three pillars of D&D, combat is the one most defined in the rules, and, for most groups, it’s going to take up a significant part of each session. D&D is a complex game, though, and, handled badly, combat has the chance to become repetitive, frustrating, or tedious. How, then, can we make combat as exciting and evocative as it should be?

1. Not all combats are equally engaging

This may feel like a cop-out, but it’s worth stating at the outset. Some combats are more meaningful, more challenging, or more memorable than others. Sometimes, the purpose of a combat is simply to give the players a chance to feel badass: a quick distraction from the rest of the session. Not every battle is a tense, vivdly described setpiece, and that’s a good thing.

2. Mix it up

Once you accept that combat comes in many different forms, embrace the variety that comes with it. Things to consider:

  • Are there lots of enemies or just a few?
  • Are they big or small? Weak or powerful? Cunning or instinctive?
  • Is this an easy fight, a deadly fight, or something in between?
  • Is there a mix of enemies?
  • Do the enemies come in waves?
  • Is there any interesting terrain?
  • Does either side have the chance to surprise the other?
  • Can the players avoid the fight through stealth or diplomacy?
  • What do the enemy want?
  • What do the players want?
  • Is there a third party involved in the fight?

A common mistake in 5e is to throw too many difficult encounters at a group. Challening ‘life or death’ encounters might seem exciting, but ultimately this style of play pushes the party into having a five-minute adventuring day, with all the problems thay come with it. Justin Alexander makes a good case for roster-style scenarios in a series of essays, starting here.

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3. Keep it moving

This is a big one for me, especially in a group of more than four players.

Let’s say you are playing with a group of five players and a DM. If each person spends two minutes taking their turn, you will have to wait ten minutes before you can do anything. That’s a long time of sitting around listening to other people do stuff. If each player’s turn takes 30 seconds, you’re only having to wait for two and a half minutes. Much better.

People usually take too long on their turns for one of two reasons. Either, a, they are not ready to take their turn, or, b, they are hogging the spotlight. More on this later.

If a player isn’t ready on their turn, this isn’t necessarily their fault. Perhaps something unexpected happened, and their planned course of action has been scuppered. Perhaps, frankly, they are disengaged because other players are taking too long. Perhaps you’re playing online, and they are having connection issues. Perhaps they are new to D&D. Perhaps, though, the player needs to know their character better. Have a conversation with them. Give them a hand. Make a crib sheet for what they can do on their turn. It can be particularly challenging for spellcasters or classes with lots of different options like monks and paladins. But, players, you should understand the core mechanics of your class. If the DM can manage a million different things at once, you should be able to play the same character every session without slowing down the game for everyone else.

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4. Spotlight hogging

Like rules lawyering, this one varies by group. It may not be a huge problem for you. And like rules lawyering, it comes from a good place. If a player is waxing lyrical with florid descriptions of their character’s actions, they are probably fun and wanting to make the game fun for everyone else. But it can get a bit much.

When you deconstruct a player’s turn in D&D, they are – most of the time – making attacks and dealing damage. Do you need to describe every attack? Every hit? Every miss?

An argument can be made that describing every hit and miss is a result of misunderstanding hit points. It’s worth reiterating: hit points are an abstraction. To quote the Player’s Handbook, ‘Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.’ If a frost giant takes 16 damage from a longsword, what does that mean? A big cut? A little cut? A shock? A visible reduction in his or her ‘will to live’? I often bristle a bit when players ask ‘how damaged does it look?’ and not just because it’s blatant metagaming. It just doesn’t really make sense.

A suggestion, then. Describe the first hit, the killing blow, and the blow that puts an enemy onto half hit points (‘bloodied’ in 4th edition parlance). These are the hits that matter. And DMs, if it seems bathetic for an ancient red dragon to be killed by a club or what you, just because it only had a few hit points remaining, well . . . keep it alive! And likewise, if the paladin gives it a walloping with divine smite, but it technically still has a few hit points remaining, well, fudge it, and let the paladin describe the killing blow. Rule of cool.

5. DM hacks

There are a few tricks you can use as a DM to keep combat moving, too. Some suggestions:

  • Use average damage for NPCs.
  • Use online dice rollers for big hits
  • Pre-roll attacks and damage while players are deciding their actions
  • Have enemies run away on 40 percent of their hp (a tip from Keith Ammann at The Monsters Know What They’re Doing)
  • Round damage and hit points up and down to the nearest multiple of five. Players won’t notice, and it keeps the maths manageable.
  • Eschew the grid for theatre of the mind.

This final point is not for everyone, and it depends on the type of game you want to play. Sly Flourish makes some excellent points as to why theatre of the mind has its place, and I largely agree. In general: if a combat is simple enough that a grid would slow it down, lose the grid. And, conversely, if it is complex enough to make theatre of the mind confusing, map it out.

One more DM trick: ambience! Whether it’s an exciting soundtrack ,or an awesome DM screen, or a set of really cool miniatures, art, music and props can really flesh out a combat and make it memorable. It’s always a great moment when the DM slaps down a massive mini on the table for the big boss fight. Don’t ignore these extra things.

Marisha Ray on Twitter: "The Ascended.... #CriticalRole… "

Marisha Ray on Twitter (@Marisha_Ray)

6. Evocative description

Engaging combat isn’t all about speedy pacing, of course. Evocative description is a key part of the DM’s toolkit.

I say the DM’s toolkit, but players are just as important here. After all, in most battles, the players’ turns will take up much more time than the DM’s. As explained above, you don’t need to explain every action. But when you want to go big, how do you do that?

Essentially, this is all about good descriptive writing. Some tips:

  • Focus on verbs, not adverbs. A sword can swing, slice, stab, slash, parry, whistle, impale, cut . . . These verbs are clear and vivid. Adverbs, by comparison, don’t have quite the same impact.
  • Match your description to the dice roll. A hit of ten damage does not need a paragraph.
  • Make a little thesaurus for your character! If you’re using a sword 99 percent of the time, you don’t want to run out of verbs in the first session.
  • Study action films for inspiration. Pause the action and have a go at describing what you see .
  • Don’t forget the other senses. Battle is noisy, emotional, even smelly. Capture that.

One last thought: DMs, don’t describe the players’ actions! They only have one character to roleplay: if you take that away from them, they might as well stay at home. Give them their chance to shine.

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Improvising Dungeons

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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.

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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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