Is D&D art?

A few months ago, following an interesting discussion on Reddit provoked by my post on creating awesome characters, I put the following question to Twitter: are roleplaying games an art form?

In hindsight, it might have been better to ask, ‘can roleplaying games be an art form’. Perhaps the wording would have made a difference. For what it’s worth, 17 out of 20 respondents agreed that yes, roleplaying games are an art form. Of course, a sample size of 20 is clearly not representative of much, but, nonetheless, it is interesting that the response was not unanimous. If the question had been ‘can photography be an art form’ ­– or ‘cinema’, or ‘the novel’ – would 15 percent of respondents have said ‘no’?   

It is a question that interests me. As a player, as a DM, and as an English teacher, I lean towards the storytelling aspects of the game, and I think storytelling is one of the key distinguishers between roleplaying games and other kinds of tabletop board games. And if other kinds of storytelling are considered art, why not roleplaying games? Does it even matter? I would argue that yes, it does.

I believe not only that roleplaying games can be considered as a form of art, but also, in many ways, that they should be.   

Defining ‘art’

Shakespeare's Globe: 'Without emergency funding from government, we will  not be able to survive this crisis' | WhatsOnStage

Shakespeare’s Globe

There is, of course, no universal consensus on what constitutes art. However, looking up definitions of ‘art’ in a dictionary or an encyclopedia, there are, at least, some recurring ideas:

  • Creativity
  • Expression
  • Imagination
  • Concepts
  • Emotional power
  • Technical skill

I would argue that a roleplaying game can possess all these qualities, and I don’t think it is particularly controversial to say so. The first three bullets, especially, are clearly fundamental to roleplaying games as a form. By their very nature, roleplaying games are creative, expressive, and imaginative. But what about the next three?

Roleplaying games are certainly capable of exploring big concepts, just as all stories are. A D&D campaign could choose to focus on a the horror of war, for example, or the lure of power, or even some of the most profound and universal questions in world literature like mortality and morality: what it means to be human and what it means to be evil. And with these questions comes emotional power. Just watch Matt Colville’s passion here as he discusses the climax of Critical Role’s first season (spoilers):

From a rules perspective, this moment was about burning a 9th-level spell slot to cast counterspell. But fans of the series will appreciate that there was far more to it than this, and Sam Riegel’s tears are a powerful testament to the impact the decision had on him. (Incidentally, Matt Colville explicitly refers to Critical Role as a work of art here.)       

What about technical skill? After all, the greatest revolution in 20th-century art was the creation of conceptual art, and with it the recognition that an artwork can be judged on something other than the artist’s technical skill. Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) is widely recognized as the formative example of this. So, of the six bullet points, technical skill is arguably the least essential. Regardless, even if that is one of our criteria, it is clear to anyone who has DMed a game of D&D that roleplaying games require skill, especially if you then go on to watch master like Matt Mercer or Chris Perkins do it. If DMing isn’t a skill, then neither is acting or writing. To some extent, it is a combination of both, yet something else entirely at the same time.

If, then, to be considered art, something needs to be creative, expressive, and imaginative, to have emotional power and the potential to explore big concepts, and if it should in some way showcase technical skill: well, roleplaying games tick all the boxes. But perhaps there is a definition of ‘art’ which somehow excludes roleplaying games like D&D.

Why roleplaying games are not art

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog wallpaper in 1280x720 resolution | Island  wallpaper, Wallpaper, Nature wallpaper

Casper David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). Kunsthalle Hamburg.

In my very first post for this blog, I reflected that roleplaying games are special because they are collaborative, immersive, improvised, and unpredictable. Do any of these things preclude RPGs from being ‘art’?

We like to think of artists as geniuses: individuals of exceptional ability and skill. We build statues to them, hang their portraits in galleries. And certainly, there have been some truly extraordinary people throughout history who have created truly extraordinary art. But it is a mistake to think that art cannot be collaborative. Shakespeare, for example, was known to work with other writers of his day and stole liberally from them, to the extent that Robert Greene famously called Shakespeare an ‘upstart crow’ (Shakespeare having reworked Greene’s Pandosto into The Winter’s Tale). And can a playwright’s vision truly be accomplished without a performance by actors? Likewise, many of the great masters were known to paint only the hands and faces of their larger pieces, and would leave the rest of the composition for the artists in their studios to complete.

Art can be immersive, too. Immersion is essential in cinema, for example, and is arguably part of what the Romantics referred to as the sublime, masterfully captured in Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (pictured above). But what about improvisation and unpredictability? There are, of course, improvisational theatre companies, but even beyond the theatre world, there are many artists would argue that there is an improvisational quality to their work: an unconscious burst of creativity or moment of inspiration where the artist is not completely in control. It is perhaps most vividly demonstrated in the work of Jackson Pollock (eg, below). In D&D, that randomness is provided by dice rolls. Does that devalue it as a form of art?

Jackson Pollock | Biography & Facts | Britannica

Jackson Pollock, Number 1A (1948). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

I do not think these distinctive qualities – collaboration, immersion, improvisation, and unpredictability – should be seen as a sign that RPGs should be excluded from being ‘art’. Rather, I believe they are exciting and unique innovations. Cinema is not theatre, and roleplaying games not literature, but all have the potential to be art.

It is perhaps worth mentioning here that virtually every new art form was controversial when it first emerged. Prose (‘novel’ literally means new, of course) had a lower status than poetry. So did drama. Until the late Middle ages, English – the vernacular – had a lower status than French and Latin. Incredibly, the University of Oxford did not consider English Literature to be a subject worthy of academic study until well into the 19th century. And even today, there are still art critics who believe that cinema and photography are not true artforms.

It’s often unsaid, but there is also a certain snobbery in the art world around art that is made to be popular and enjoyable. Comedy often has lower status, for example, and popular, modern creators like Banksy, Stormzy, and J K Rowling are given less status than older, more establised ‘greats’. D&D is, of course, a game, and Rule Zero is, essentially, to have fun. Perhaps this seems antithetical to the purpose of art.

However: once again, this is a misconception. There is a rich history of art that is both popular and critically admired. Shakespeare was enormously successful in the London theatre scene. Dickens was the most popular novelist of his time. There are more surviving copies of The Canterbury Tales than just about any other literary text in English from the period. It was the medieval equivalent of a ‘bestseller’. So, yes, D&D is designed first and foremost to be a fun game. But why on earth should that mean that it can’t also be art?

Why does this matter?

Dungeons & Dragons | Stranger Things Wiki | Fandom

Netflix

If D&D a game, and primarily intended to be fun, why does it matter if it is considered an art form or not?

It’s a fair question, and perhaps to some readers, it doesn’t matter. For many people, though, deciding whether or not to classify something as ‘art’ is also a value judgement. ‘Art’ is superior: for better or worse, if something is seen as ‘art’ then its cultural status is raised. It transcends normal entertainment. It becomes part of our broader conversation about what it means to be human. It is recognized and respected.

For me, then, this debate isn’t about pretension: it’s about validation. It’s about recognizing the emotional, creative, intellectual power that RPGs have and pushing the boundaries of what RPGs can do as a form still further. Shows like Critical Role have been trailblazers here. But the debate about whether RPGs are art is also about aspiration: about acknowledging that the golden age of RPGs that we are living in is the start of something, and that artist will be doing even more exciting things with RPGs in the years to come.

Consider the novel, which first emerged as a form in the early 1700s. The golden age of novel-writing – and this is of course extremely subjective, but also not particularly controversial – began around a century later, culminating in works like Middlemarch (1871–72), Anna Karenina (1877), Madame Bovary (1856), and Ulysses (1922). Similarly, the first talkies appeared in the late 1920s, but the Golden Age of Hollywood – and again, this is subjective, but also backed by critical consensus – was the late 30s into the 40s, 50s, and 60s. D&D was the first commerical roleplaying game in 1974: now, in 2020, thanks largely to streaming and the popularity of the 5th edition ruleset, it’s the closest it’s been to mainstream that it has been at any point in my lifetime. Long may it continue.

In closing, though, I do want to be clear that this is not about ‘gatekeeping’ what D&D is, or what roleplaying games are in general. I don’t get to define what D&D is: it means different things to different people. For some, it’s a tactical wargame. For others, it’s improvisational theatre. For many, it’s an ingenious mix of the two. And for hundreds of people, it’s just a lot of fun. This article is about the potential for roleplaying games to be considered art, and it is my belief that, for too long, they have been left out of our cultural conversations, and undervalued. By recognizing RPGs for the potential they have, this can, I hope, be finally reversed.

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In Praise of Adventures in Middle-Earth

I was very sad to learn (belatedly) that Cubicle 7 would no longer be publishing new material for their excellent Adventures in Middle-Earth roleplaying game, created by Dominic McDowall and Jon Hodgson. 2019 was Cubicle 7’s most successful year to date, and Adventures in Middle-Earth won the 2017 Origins Award for Best Role-Playing Game, but the Irish company, which also publishes the fourth edition of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, has chosen to end its agreement with the licence-holder over contractual differences.

Adventures in Middle-Earth (AiME henceforth) is based on 5th edition D&D but makes a number of tweaks to the system to better incorporate the themes of Tolkien’s storytelling. This article will highlight some of the most innovative changes and consider how they might work well in other D&D games.

New classes

Cubicle 7

I have long been a fan of low-magic fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, conventional D&D is a lot of fun, too! But for me, the less overt fantasy there is in the setting, the more wonderful and fantastical it becomes. Thanks to the addition of bonded accuracy, 5th edition feels like a better fit for a low-magic setting than earlier versions of D&D might.

However, in 5th edition, most classes are spellcasters or have the option to be. Spellcasters have much more freedom over the spells they can cast: cantrips can be used at will, and Vancian magic has largely been replaced with spontaneous spellcasting. To all intents and purposes, magic is now routine. It might make spellcasters easier to play, or more fun, but it’s a stumbling block for those looking to create a world where magic is subtle or hidden.

There is little in the way of ‘blatant’ or ‘showy’ magic in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, and, to recreate this atmosphere, AiME uses six new character classes. One, the scholar, is a loremaster and rudimentary healer (more on healing later). The other five, to a greater or lesser degree, are modelled on existing D&D classes, with a Middle-Earth twist: slayer, treasure hunter, wanderer, warden, and warrior, modelled on the 5e barbarian, rogue, ranger, bard, and fighter, respectively. (On a side-note, I do wish they hadn’t chosen three classes beginning with ‘w’.)

An experienced D&D player might look at these classes and think they are ‘weak’ or ‘broken’, and yes, if you were to drop them into a regular D&D game, they might feel under-powered, the scholar especially. However, this is because these classes are not designed for conventional D&D. Journeys and exploration play a far greater role in AiME, and what might seem like ‘fluff’ or ‘flavour’ at first glance could become vitally important in a long period of exploration. More on this later.

Cultures embedded in the setting

New Line Cinema

By my reckoning, there are now close to 40 playable races in 5th edition D&D, including seven kinds of elf. Some players love this. For me, it’s system bloat. To paraphrase Keith Baker, creator of Eberron, I prefer to focus on fewer races but make sure that each one has a strong place in the setting. I don’t want my taverns to resemble a Mos Eisley cantina.

This is something AiME does really well. There are eleven cultures, most of them human (‘men’): the exceptions are, unsurprisingly, dwarves, elves, and hobbits. Your choice of culture affects not just your ability scores and racial features but also the way other NPCs respond to you: the Dúnedain, for example, are considered somewhat suspect by Bree-folk, hobbits, and the people of Minas Tirith, whereas hobbits are openly welcomed by Bardings, Bree-folk, and dwarves. Your culture also affects your starting equipment: wealthy dwarves begin with the better equipment than the more frugal Woodmen.

AiME also replaces feats with virtues, only five of which are open to all cultures. The others are culturally specific, meaning that only elves can take ‘Deadly Archery’, for instance, and only the Rohirrim can choose ‘Born to the Saddle’. Each virtue comes with a quote from Tolkien’s work, so you feel like your choice of culture matters and you are part of a wider world.

There and back again

Lord of the Rings - Choose Your Own Adventure

New Line Cinema

5th edition D&D claims to be built upon three pillars: combat, exploration, and social interaction. When you experience D&D in play, though, you could be forgiven for thinking that only the first of these mattered. After all, the Player’s Handbook devotes an entire chapter to combat: exploration gets maybe a couple of pages.

In AiME, however, journeys are more important than dungeons. As the rules themselves say, ‘travelling is not simply a means of getting to a destination, nor something to be undertaken lightly.’ Heroes have to make a number of ability checks along the way, and depending on their successes, the DM’s die rolls, the length of the journey, and the difficulty of the terrain they are crossing, the company can arrive at its destination inspired and invigorated or crushed and exhausted.

It’s worth noting that, by default, heroes may only take short rests while on the road, and, of course, as befits the rest the low-magic atmosphere of Tolkien’s work, there is little magical healing. The mechanics of the game encourage players to find allies and build friendships on their travels in the hope that they can rely on their hospitality. Thus, the new rules for ‘audiences’ (social interaction) and ‘the fellowship phase’ (downtime) become very important.

The Shadow and corruption

I came, I saw...: Fog of War, Part 12: Mordor & Barad-Dur

New Line Cinema

AiME does not use the alignment system. Player characters are assumed to be heroes (and are referred to as such in the rules), and every hero has a Shadow Weakness: a failing in their character that the Shadow seeks to exploit. This is based on their class: thus, a slayer might succumb to the curse of vengance, becoming spiteful or cruel or murderous, whereas a warden or a warrior can feel the lure of power, becoming arrogant, overconfident, or even tyrannical.

Characters can acquire Shadow points from behaving dishonourably, from experiencing distressing events, or from crosing an area tainted by the Shadow, as well as from taking possession of a cursed treasure. Overtime, this corruption can lead to degeneration and bouts of madness. Eventually, a hero who falls under the Shadow’s influence can be removed from the game. An elf of Mirkwood must sail to the West, and a character from any another culture will either starve to death in a solitary place, forsaken by men and beasts, or threaten others to the extent that they must be killed.

Deceit, theft, murder, even violent threats will quickly inrease your Shadow points, and once your Shadow points exceed your Wisdom score, you start to suffer bouts of madness. There are no murder hobos in AiME.

The road goes ever on and on

Virtual Tolkien Is A Free VR Recreation Of An Iconic LOTR Film Scene

New Line Cinema

With a bit of tweaking, AiME could work for any 5e game. I could see it as the basis for a low-magic Game of Thrones campaign or a D&D version of Legend of the Five Rings, where taint and corruption are a key part of the story. It’s a real shame the line has been discontinued, but with multiple region guides out there and even entire campaigns, there’s plenty of material on offer to help you get started. Give it a try.

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Rolling Stats

Wizards of the Coast

In 5th edition, there are three main ways of determining your ability scores.

One method is point buy, listed as a ‘variant’ in the Player’s Handbook. Another method – the simplest – is to take the array: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. But for many players, the default method, rolling, is going to be the most fun.

On average, rolling your ability scores will give you slightly better stats than you would get from point buy or the array. A party of four can hope for at least a couple of 18s between them, and they would be unlucky to roll anything lower than a five between them. Most players rolling their ability scores will get at least three good stats.

Sometimes, you roll well, and you have a golden opportunity to explore a character concept that might not have been possible with point buy. Sometimes, though, you roll badly, and you have to plan your character a little more carefully. This article looks at different ability contours and what you can do with them.

Preamble

4d6 drop lowest, free 18 - YouTube

In some ways, ability scores don’t matter as much in 5th edition as they did in previous editions.

In 3rd edition, for instance, ability scores were often a prerequisite for feats. A fighter need a Dexterity of 13 for Dodge or an Intelligence of 13 for Expertise. And there was no cap on ability scores, so you had to pump them higher and higher as you gained levels. This was even more of an issue in 4th edition.

5th edition doesn’t really have ability requirements except for multiclassing, which is itself an optional rule. 5th edition also has an ability score cap of 20, so, if you get a +2 bonus from your race selection, it is possible to start the game with one of your ability scores already ‘maxed out’. Bonded accuracy means that target numbers (enemy ACs, save DCs, skill check DCs) progress more slowly than they did in previous editions, so there’s less pressure to keep pushing stats higher and higher, and if you want to take some feats instead, the game won’t punish you for it (much).

That said, if your ability scores are in the wrong place, you will feel it, and if your most used ability score is on the low side, your character won’t be as fun to play. A rogue needs a good Dexterity. A cleric’s effectiveness rests on Wisdom. And a paladin ideally needs Strength, Constitution, and Charisma.

Before we begin, then, it’s worth considering what we mean by a ‘good’ stat and whether there is a point where poor ability scores are essentially unplayable.

  • For the purposes of this article, I interpret a ‘good’ stat to be 14. To some extent, this is an arbitrary decision on my part, and you might feel that a 13 is viable if you’re playing a race with a +2 bonus in the right place. But anything lower than that just feels a bit ‘average’.
  • As for ‘unplayable’ scores, this, too, is arbitrary. 3rd edition had the following advice, which my group continues to stick to: ‘Your scores are considered too low if the sum of your modifiers (before adjustments because of race) is 0 or lower, or if your highest score is 13 or lower.’ However, 5th edition has no such proviso, and some groups might takae a dim view of rerolling low stats. Discuss this before you roll.

OK, then: you’ve rolled your stats, and you want to see if your character is viable. Let’s start from the bottom and go up from there.

No good stats

Blue Bear Barbarian and Cave Bear | Artist: Lake Hurwitz | Fantasy art,  Art, Dungeons and dragons

Wizards of the Coast

So, you rolled really, really badly, and your DM isn’t giving you a chance to reroll. What can you play? (Firstly, your DM is mean. Secondly, you are really unlucky. Only 7.2 percent of characters will roll no higher than a 13.)

The best option here is, as far as possible, to avoid playing a character who uses their ability scores for attack rolls and spell DCs. Of these, the stand-out choice for me is the Circle of the Moon druid. Once you hit 2nd level, you will be spending most of your time running around as a bear or what have you, and your low stats won’t matter. A wizard is also possible: you can choose spells which don’t require attack rolls or saves like colour spray, magic missile, and sleep. A wizard is probably better than a sorcerer here since a sorcerer’s spell selection is considerably more limited: a wizard can afford to pick some of the more utilitarian options available without feeling bound to them.

One good stat

This isn’t as rare as you might expect. In fact, if you roll your ability scores using 4d6 drop lowest, nearly 31 percent of characters will only roll one stat of 14 or higher. So there’s probably going to be someone at your table who ends up in this position.

If you only roll one good score, make it Dexterity. Why? Because Dexterity is the only ability score that can be used for offence and defence, not to mention skills and Initiative. There’s a reason some players online refer to it as the ‘god stat’.

If you have a good Dexterity and nothing else, the obvious route forward is a rogue. Cunning Action lets you jump in and out of combat without provoking opportunity attacks, and if that’s a bit risky, you can also use Sneak Attack from a distance. An archer-style ranger or fighter could also work well.

If you only have one good stat, other classes are going to be tricky. This is because most classes need not only a key ability score but a defensive ability score: Dexterity or Constituion. Dexterity helps you avoid getting hit: Constitution helps you survive getting hit. If both are low, you are going to have a hard time. A rogue is great in this regard because they use Dexterity for pretty much everything. A spellcaster can survive with one good stat if they play carefully, but, ideally, they want a good Constitution or Dexterity to survive combat.

Dungeons & Dragons 5E rogue class explained | Dicebreaker

Wizrads of the Coast

Two good stats

Most classes are perfectly feasible at this point. After all, this is what the default array will give you: two good stats. And if you’re rolling, most characters (69 percent of them, in fact) will get at least two 14s. Rather than going through every feasible class option, then, it’s perhaps more worthwhile to think about the classes that aren’t quite optimal yet, largely because they are MAD (multiple ability dependent).

Again, previous editions were arguably worse for this. Nonetheless, 5th edition still has a few MAD classes. The top two offenders are monks and paladins. Monks can get by with a good Dexterity and Wisdom, but with only a 1d8 hit die, they would benefit from Constitution, too. Paladins really need Strength and Constitution and Charisma to make the most of their potential.

Some might add barbarians and rangers to this list. Barbarians ideally want to have good scores in Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity, as they generally eschew armour. But the Dexterity is not essential. Similarly, rangers might want to have good scores in Dexterity, Wisdom, and Constitution, especially if they are wandering into melee fairly often, but there are builds that don’t require this.

There is, of course, one other route which can be multi-ability dependent, and that’s multiclassing. As I’ve written about here, some multiclass combinations are better than others, and MAD is a key factor in this. If you have two good stats, you are going to want classes that rely on the same ability scores, like Charisma-based spellcasters or Dex-based fighters.

Three good stats

Dungeons & Dragons: Best Monk Builds | Game Rant

Wizards of the Coast

As explained above, you are now in a place to play characters who are MAD. Yay! 36.29 percent of characters roll three or more scores of 14 or higher, which is 36.29 percent more than those playing with the default array. You took a risk with rolling, and it paid off. So, if you want to play a paladin, a monk, a barbarian, or a ranger, you should find your stats are in good shape.

So: what can a player with four good stats do?

Four or more good stats

Only 12.29 percent of characters roll four stats of 14 or higher. If you’re lucky enough to be in that situation, you can start to play some really MAD multiclass builds. Barbarian/warlock! Monk/wizard! Cleric/sorcerer! Or, take a single-class character and build them in a more unconventional way. A ranger with heavy weapons. A sorcerer who wanders into melee. A monk with all the social skills.

Many of your favourite characters in film will have four or more high stats. James Bond is at the peak of his physical fitness, for example, but also perceptive, charming, and highly intelligent. Likewise Batman. Likewise Indiana Jones. Even Gandalf wades into the fray swinging Glamdring through the orcs. If you are lucky enough to get four or more good stats, make the most of it. You probably have the best stats in the party: if ever there were a time to do something a bit special, this is it.

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DMing with no 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.

Wizards of the Coast

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.

Wizards of the Coast

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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Tomb Raider in D&D

Over the summer, I replayed through some of the latest Tomb Raider games. I’m a big fan. For me, they achieve a really nice balance between several different gameplay elements: exploration, puzzles, stealth, and, of course, combat. And these are all elements you can embrace in D&D!

In this article, I’m going to explore how you could recreate the ‘feel’ of Tomb Raider in your Dungeons & Dragons campaign. If you’re a fan of similar games – the Uncharted series or even some of the old LucasArts Indy games – much of this advice is transferable. However, this is not really a guide to recreating Lara Croft as a D&D character. But, hey: if you want to be a thief-archetype human rogue with dual hand crossbows and the noble background, I’m sure no one will mind.

A few limitations

There are a few stumbling blocks to cross with a Tomb Raider–style approach to D&D.

Firstly, Tomb Raider is a very visual video game, and many of its platformer elements – jumping, climbing, balancing, tumbling, etc – may need to be stripped back a bit for tabletop play, especially where there are multiple moving parts involved and the exploration takes place across all three dimensions at once (eg, here and here).

Secondly, D&D is a fantasy game with spells and magic, and some of the Tomb Raiderstyle puzzles are going to prove less of a challenge to groups with access fly, teleport, telekinesis, and so on. Even low-level spells like misty step and mage hand could be used imaginatively to negate many Tomb Raider puzzles.

Finally, for most of the games in the series, Lara is on her own and has to be self-sufficient, whereas D&D is fundamentally a party-based game. This last problem is arguably less significant than the others (not least because solo play is possible) but could still prove tricky for the dynamics of the game. If a puzzle requires athleticism and acrobatics, for example, and you’re playing a slow and clumsy dwarven cleric in full plate . . . you’re going to have a hard time.

Rise Of The Tomb Raider Guide: Finding The Ice Ship Optional Tomb | Attack  of the Fanboy

What are the solutions?

  • Work with the group to create characters who are better suited for the game style you have in mind. If players are happy to eschew magic and make their own versions of Lara (or Nate or Indy come to that), then it could be a very fun diversion from traditional D&D!
  • Tone down the physical aspect of the puzzles, and focus instead on puzzles that are more cerebral. Tomb Raider puzzles often involve pushing objects around, moving around a 3D map, timing a jump just right . . . as a DM, this can all be wearisome to describe without a decent visual aid to help you. Consider reducing the movement to simple skill checks and make the puzzle itself the interesting part.
  • Up the ante and give the characters multiple threats to deal with at once. Puzzles are harder to solve when enemies are trying to kill you, and the range of threats on offer will give all the players in the party something to focus on.
  • Very occasionally, use your DM powers to negate some of the party’s powers. In Tomb of Annihilation and Dungeon of the Mad Mage, for instance, many divination and teleportation spells don’t function normally. Be careful not to overuse this, though, as it can be frustrating for a player to have their character ‘nerfed’ like this.

The world of Tomb Raider

By default, D&D settings are quasi-medieval fantasy. Gun-toting Lara Croft, on the other hand, is fundamentally modern. So what makes a D&D world feel like Tomb Raider?

  • Myths and legends are real. So far, the Tomb Raider series has given us, among other things: Atlantis; Area 51; the Egyptian god Set; Excalibur; Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir; the Dragon’s Triangle; Kitezh; Baba Yaga; Paititi. Whatever the lore of your world, these people, items, and places need to be central to the story.
  • Powerful enemy organizations. Whether it’s Natla Technologies, the Fiamma Nera, R.X.Tech, or Trinity, your world needs some kind of well-outfitted international hit mob. In Faerûn, this could be the Red Wizards or the Zhentarim; in Eberron, the Order of the Emerald Claw or the Aurum would be a good fit. Make sure the leader is misguided and power-hungry
  • Ancient wonders. In Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Mike Shea encourages us to make locations fantastic using age and size. Never has this been more relevant.

Puzzles and exploration

Tomb of the Nine Gods | Forgotten Realms Wiki | Fandom

Wizards of the Coast

Tomb Raider has never been just an action game, and if it were a D&D game, exploration would be the most important of the three pillars. How, then, can we capture the excitement of exploring a new tomb and solving ancient puzzles?

  • Exploration is all about pathfinding. Make the journey as exciting as the destination. Give players meaningful choices and intriguing obstacles to overcome.
  • Go big on your descriptions. As alluded to above, make your locations big, old, and wondrous. Make your players gasp with awe, and make sure it keeps getting cooler and cooler. A zigguarat in the desert is one thing, but having a lost city beneath it is even cooler.
  • Don’t overthink the realism of it. In Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara finds a lost Byzantine ship preserved in a glacial cavern. Who cares how it got there? D&D is a world of fantasy. If something seems a bit crazy and fantastical, you’re doing it right. Just say a wizard did it.
  • Make the environment interactive. Water, mud, lava, natural gas, pits, chasms, machinery, ropes: whatever it is, make your locations a playground. I have written about battlefield environments here. Don’t be afraid to change or even destroy your adventurers’ surroundings. at some point in the reboot series, Lara will always have to escape a tomb that is falling apart. It might be a cliché, but it’s fun: embrace it.
  • Steal puzzles from everywhere. Stories, films, video games, subreddits, old modules: don’t be afraid to take inspiration for your puzzles from a variety of sources. Tomb of Annihilation has some particularly good puzzles, both in Omu and within the eponymous tomb itself. Players won’t necessarily notice if you reflavour the details in some way. Heck, steal from the Tomb Raider games themselves!
  • The natural world can be Lara’s playground, too. How will your D&D characters survive in frozen mountains? Desert sands? The deepest jungles? This is more a feature of the rebooted series from 2013 onwards, but it’s a welcome addition to the game. Give your players scenarios where they lose everything and have to hunt for resources to survive.
  • Make rewards feel special and part of the game’s lore. Like Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake, Lara Croft is an archaeologist who prizes historical artefacts. Consider portioning off your treasure in small parcels, and go big on your descriptions to make them feel special. Let the players learn about the world and its stories through the items they find on their travels.

Combat

Lara Croft Fights a Bear in Rise of the Tomb Raider - YouTube

Gunfights seem to have become a bigger part of the Tomb Raider series over time, especially since the 2013 reboot, but it’s clearly an element that many fans of the series are OK with. Tomb Raider is still not a first-person shooter, though, and combat in the game comes with its own particular flavour.

  • Aim for waves of enemies over big solo boss fights. Actually, this is good advice for 5th edition D&D in general. More than ten can start to get a bit unwieldy, so start with, say, five or six enemies, and add more and more as the battle goes on.
  • Make boss fights a puzzle in their own right. In the Tomb Raider games, a boss is rarely just a bag of hit points. There needs to be some kind of vulnerability that the characters can exploit: a weakness or ‘trick’ that will bring the enemy down.
  • Give players the chance to see enemies get tougher as they level up. In the rebooted Tomb Raider series, Lara starts off against lightly armoured opponents, wolves, and the like, before progressing to better equiped soldiers and, ultimately, supernatural threats. D&D is good at simulating this anyway, but it bears mentioning. Guards (CR ⅛) are replace by veterans (CR 3) who are replaced by barbed devils, mezzoloths, or wraiths (CR 5).
  • Give players the chance to avoid combat. Sometimes Lara doesn’t have a choice, and the challenge is surviving wave after wave of enemies. But often, with a bit of planning and stealth, there’s an alternative route. Let players choose their own path.

A Tomb Raider–style game might be a fun one-shot or it could form the basis for a whole campaign. Give it a try!

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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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What Next for 5th Edition?

Wizards of the Coast

On Monday, Wizards of the Coast revealed that their next product would be Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, a collection of new rules and character options in the vein of 2017’s Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Tasha’s Cauldron promises to include new subclasses, new spells and magic items, new rules for running sidekicks, and some intriguing guidance on how to run a session zero, as well as some reprinted material from Eberron: Rising from the Last War (including group patrons and the artificer class). Judging by the responses on social media, fans generally seem to be pretty excited about this.

Thinking about this new sourcebook, I asked Twitter and Reddit for what people would like to see from D&D over the next couple of years. After 400-plus comments, there are definite trends emerging: some expected, some rather surprising.

Spelljammer confirmed’

Giff Playable Race | New Player Option for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition  – FREE Fifth Edition Monsters, Maps, and More

Wizards of the Coast

Calls on D&D forums for a new Spelljammer book are the RPG equivalent of ‘Play “Free Bird”!’ at rock concerts. The setting which introduced the idea of D&D in space was born in 1989 and hasn’t been given any official rules support this side of the millennium, yet there is clearly a diehard group of fans who would be overjoyed by a new Spelljammer book and are hanging on Wizards of the Coast’s every word. There have been teases, perhaps – neogi were introduced in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, giffs in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, and illithid ships makes appearances in both Dungeon of the Mad Mage and the upcoming Baldur’s Gate III – but there hasn’t been anything official, yet.

Maybe it’s not Spelljammer’s time. Either way, there is clearly an appetite for a non-Faerûnian campaign setting. Planescape is a common request, as is Dark Sun, which was revived in 4th edition, but Greyhawk, Ravenloft, and even Nentir Vale have been put forward. Frankly, even somewhere outside the Sword Coast would be a breath of fresh air. So far, Chult is the only other part of the Forgotten Realms we have seen in an official adventure, and Ghosts of Saltmarsh is the only adventure to be set outside Faerûn (although Curse of Strahd takes place almost entirely within its own demiplane, so that probably should count, too).

Another popular request is non-European fantasy, especially settings that are Middle Eastern, Mesoamerican, East Asian, or African in flavour. However, this would need to be handled carefully, and Wizards of the Coast are probably wary of insensitivity. Tomb of Annihilation has been criticized for stereotypical tropes, and older sourcebooks like Oriental Adventures – still available for sale on DriveThruRPG, despite the disclaimer – are even worse. Regardless, the demand for such settings remains high.

The return of the module?

‘Campaign-adventures’ like Curse of Strahd and Storm King’s Thunder have become the norm in 5th edition. These hardback tomes run to 250 pages and cover at least two tiers of play (usually), offering potentially hours of material. But it wasn’t always thus. Before 5th edition, ‘modules’ were often much shorter, not to mention cheaper: softcover booklets of 32 pages or so, and normally just a single dungeon like The Sunless Citadel or The Forge of Fury. There would be enough content for one or two levels of play, and if the adventure was event based, the plot would be simple and fairly linear.

While the unveiling of a new ‘storyline’ is always a big event for Wizards of the Coast, there is clearly some fondness for shorter, more modular adventures. They’re quicker to read, kinder on the wallet, and easier to slot into an existing homebrew campaign. It feels like Wizards may be listening to fans on this as Ghosts of Saltmarsh and Rime of the Frostmaiden, two of the most recent adventures, are designed around a series of shorter, more self-contained adventures that can be run separately or as a longer, connected narrative.

Interestingly, D&D’s closest competitor, Pathfinder, made extensive use of shorter modules throughout its first edition, and seems to be following a similar approach in its new, second edition. While some of these adventures had a tendency to be a bit railroady, a number of them were very well liked, and two, Rise of the Runelords and Curse of the Crimson Throne, ended up being released as special hardbook editions. Maybe there’s something for Wizards to take note of here.

More character options

D&D Adventurers League: The Secret Your DM Doesn't Want You to Know! -  Wizard's Laboratory

Wizards of the Coast

Other than new settings, the most popular request on Reddit was for more options: feats, spells, classes, subclasses, races, subraces, monsters, magic items. Tashas Cauldron of Everything, then, is much anticipated!

Several users have noted that despite multiple treatments in Unearthed Arcana, including a new ‘mystic’ class, psionics has still not appeared as official content. In both 3rd and 4th editions, rules for psionics were released relatively early, in 2001 and 2010 respectively. Yet in 5th edition, the game designers haven’t been able to make the mystic work, and it’s looking increasingly likely that psionics will appear as subclasses of existing classes (a psychic warrior fighter, for example) rather than a whole new set of mechanics. Given the importance of psionics within the world of Athas, a Dark Sun campaign setting would be a fitting place to publish them.

It has also been pointed out that 5th edition is relatively light in terms of its support for higher level play. For example, only two of the official hardback adventures so far have covered the fourth tier of play: Rise of Tiamat and Dungeon of the Mad Mage. There are reasons for this: 90 percent of D&D campaigns never progress beyond 10th level, and encounter balancing gets increasingly unwieldy the higher up you go. As time rolls by, though, there are only going to be more and more groups gaining access to high-level play. A Manual of the Planes for 5th edition – Leomund’s Guide, perhaps? – could tie in well with this. There has been some kind of planar guide in every edition except 2nd, so a 5th-edition equivalent would be welcome. It would also be interesting to see whether 5th edition could return to the paragon paths and epic destinies of 4th edition: player choices which, like subclasses, had a significant impact on the growth of a character over time.

6th Edition?

Sapphire dragon | Forgotten Realms Wiki | Fandom

The sapphire dragon for D&D’s 45th anniversary

There seemed to be a firm consensus that another edition in the next two years was neither likely nor necessary. 5th edition is probably the most popular edition of Dungeons & Dragons ever. It took several years to playtest and has one won over thousands of new players, and won back plenty of others who jumped ship to other RPGs after 4th edition left them disappointed. Wizards of the Coast have deliberately avoided rushing out new products and have generally stuck to a model of one or two campaign adventures a year plus one or two sourcebooks. Generally speaking, this has kept quality high and helped to aoid the ‘rules bloat’ that came to define 3rd edition and games based upon it. A new edition would probably alienate more players than it would win over.

That said, it’s clear that there are fundamental problems with the skeleton of 5th edition which can’t be ironed out with house rules and other hacks. The issue of linear warriors, quadratic wizards remains. Encounter balancing is a bit of a mess. The game is supposedly built around the three pillars, yet the rulebooks have whole chapters on combat and next to nothing on exploration and social interaciton. For some players, D&D is ‘broken’ enough to make them explore other RPGs, whether it’s Old School Revival retroclones like Old School Essentials or crunchier systems like Pathfinder 2e. For most people, though, it seems like 5th edition succeeds more than it fails. At least, that’s what the sales would suggest.

Unless D&D stops making money or its popularity starts to wane dramatically, 5th edition is here to stay. But who knows? Maybe ‘5.5’ will be announced in time for the 50th anniversary in 2024. D&D: Gold Edition?

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How to Run a ‘Big Bad’

Wizards of the Coast

At some point in your D&D game, the party is going to come up against a villain of serious stature: a major enemy who has played a key role in the story so far and needs to be taken down.

In this article, we’re going to look at how to create a compelling and memorable villain who is also fun to play. For these purposes, the term ‘Big Bad’ refers to any major villain, not just the ultimate villain of the campaign. That said, most of the advice herein would apply just as well to a final villain, too.

Let’s start with the story side of things for the moment. How do we create a unique antagonist who will hold the players’ interest over the long term?

Memorable villains

An antagonist is fundamentally an opponent or obstacle for the players. All stories have a conflict somewhere, and at some point, the heroes have to face their enemy.

This, of course, is an incredibly reductive approach, and rather mechanical. An effective antagonist should be more than just a bump in the road. After the player characters, they are some of the most important figures in your campaign.

Wizards of the Coast

A villain can be every bit as complex and rounded as the heroes. Like the heroes, they have goals, flaws, internal conflicts. They can grow and change. They make choices under pressure. Much of what makes a good player character can be applied to a good villain. What drives them? What makes them evil (or not)? How have they changed over time, and how will they continue to change? What is their deepest flaw, and what is their one redeeming quality?

It’s also worth thinking about your villain as a leader. Why do others follow them? In game terms, does your villain have a high Intelligence, Charisma, or both? Where does their power come from? Of course, some villains are so powerful that they don’t need allies and underlings. If this is the case, why have they not acted until now?

Consider how you plan to humanize your villain. Some of the best villains are effective because we can understand their pain in human terms. Anakin Skywalker turns to the dark side to try and save his wife from death. Sméagol is corrupted by the One Ring. Sephiroth loses his mind when he discovers his true origins. Some villains, however, are frightening precisely because of their inhumanity. Regan in The Exorcist, Hannibal Lector, Voldemort, HAL 9000, the Joker: these villains are malevolent becomes they are wrong somehow. They seem human, but aren’t quite, and this just makes them all the more frightening and malign.

Consider, too, how you plan to introduce your villain. There are different schools of thought here. Some stories prefer to ‘trail’ their villains and introduce them gradually through henchmen and hints, whereas in other works the villain is a presence from the very beginning. You can also, of course, do both: you don’t have to limit yourself to just one villain! Star Wars (1977) introduces us to Vader within the first five minutes, but we don’t meet Palpatine until well into Episode V.

On that subject: don’t feel you necessarily have to commit yourself to a single ultimate ‘bad guy’ from the start of the campaign. As I wrote in Planning a Campaign Story, mapping out a whole storyline is a huge challenge, and takes away from the collaboration and unpredictability that make RPGs fun. If you introduce the main villain of the campaign in the very first session, you’re going to struggle to maintain interest in that character for 100+ hours of play. You may instead want to come up with two or three loose concepts, see which ones your players gravitate towards, and go from there. In fact, you may want to hold off introducing a main villain at all until the end of Tier 1 (4th level). Let the characters get established first.

Wizards of the Coast

Finally, don’t fear tropes. As Salvador Dalí may or may not have said, ‘Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.’ We have to start somewhere. There’s nothing wrong with taking an existing character in tweaking them slightly. Strahd von Zarovich is essentially Dracula, yet, in the final print issue of Dragon magazine, he was ranked the greatest D&D villain of all time, surpassing Lolth, Vecna, and Tiamat. If you want to make your villain feel different, switch the gender, subvert a trope, or take two or more villains and ‘kitbash’ them together somehow. (Incidentally, this approach works well for campaign settings, too. Take samurai and World War 2, put them in space: Star Wars. Take Diablo and Mad Max, and you basically have Borderlands.)

In summary, then:

  • Round out your villains with goals, flaws, and internal conflicts.
  • Consider what makes them a leader.
  • Humanize (or dehumanize) your villain.
  • Introduce the villain gradually.
  • Don’t commit to a single villain.
  • Steal liberally.

Of course, though, it’s all well and good having a good character, but what about the stat block? You don’t want your showdown with the villain to be a disappointed. So, from a more gamist perspective, how do you make these boss fights memorable?

Memorable showdowns

Sly Flourish (aka Mike Shea) has some excellent advice on boss fights in 5e. Rather than plagiarize it, you can his thoughts here. I also highly recommend Keith Amman over at The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, not only for his write-ups on the creatures in the Monster Manual, but also for his tips on how to apply his approach to the boss fights in the hardback published adventures. Lots to be learned here.

Wizards of the Coast

To this great advice, I would add my own:

  • Give the party a taste of the villain’s power while the characters are still low level. If Strahd throws a 5th-level fireball at the party when they’re still Tier 1 . . . the party is going to remember that.
  • Don’t worry too much about challenge rating, but have a contigency plan in case the fight is too easy or difficult. Damage per round is the single biggest indicator as to whether or not you’re going to kill the party.
  • If in doubt, err on the side of a fight being too difficult. This is one situation where it is better for the enemy to seem unstoppable than too easy.
  • Don’t overuse boss fights. They should feel special.
  • Consider giving your party the benefits of a long rest for free. Players want to be able to use everything they’ve got in a situation like this, and if the fight is a hard one, they’ll need all the resources available to them.
  • Steal the ‘mythic encounters’ mechanic from Mythic Odysseys of Theros. Essentially, once the enemy gets to zero hit points, a ‘mythic trait’ is activated, and the enemy returns to full hit points but with new options available. In game terms, it’s the equivalent of fighting two creatures with the same CR one after another.
  • Think about the Plan B, whether it’s parley, minions, an escape route, eternal undeath . . . a good villain can come back, for sure.
  • Most intelligent mortals will not fight to the death unless they’re desperate or fanatical.
  • Don’t bother making new stat blocks. Reskin existing ones. Make your villain a nastier special if you like, especially if you have players who sneak a peek at the Monster Manual during the game!
  • If they don’t have it already, give your villain legendary resistance and legendary actions. A party of four or more adventurers has a significant advantage thanks to the action economy, and a boss needs a little extra to give them a fighting chance.
  • Give your villain a powerful magic item, and make sure the players see it getting some use. When the heroes win, that item is going to be a piece of loot they remember.

Boss fights are definitely a good opportunity to crack out the battlefield terrain options, too. Make sure there is plenty of space available. As a rough rule of thumb, count how many spaces you need for all combatants and square it: that’s roughly how many spaces your battlefield needs to be. For example, if there are five medium-sized player characters, each taking up one space, and one huge enemy taking up nine spaces (15 ft by 15 ft), you probably want a large battlefield with around 196 spaces: (5 + 9)². That could be a 70-ft square, a 35-by-140-ft chamber, or something more complex. It won’t be a disaster if the battlefield is smaller than that, of course, but it will give the occasion a sense of importance if it takes a place in a space with real scale to it.

Villains can be hard to run. Managed properly, though, they can be some of the most exciting and memorable encounters in the campaign.

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