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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Evil D&D

Troika Games/Atari

Warning: this post mentions topics that some may find disturbing or upsetting.

Chapter 3 of the Player’s Handbook (‘Classes’) begins like this:

‘Adventurers are extraordinary people, driven by a thirst for excitement into a life that others would never dare lead. They are heroes, compelled to explore the dark places of the world and take on the challenges that – ’

Hang on: heroes? Who said anything about heroes?

Defining evil

The term ‘evil’ will mean different things to different people. For some people, evil is an absolute, supernatural, even eternal force which stands in binary opposition to good. For other people, there may be evil acts, but the existence of evil people is a matter of debate. Some other people find the whole concept of evil unhelpful and find it more useful to see personal evil as a product of unbalanced behaviour: selfishness, ignorance, hatred, anger, and so on, but not necessarily an innate wickedness.

To some extent, the definition of ‘evil’ in your D&D games is likely to be shaped by your own moral beliefs. Gary Gygax was a devout Christian. Contrary to what the moral panic of the 1980s might have had us believe, his world was one of righteous paladins and chaotic evil demons: a world where moral alignment mattered. But in some settings, good and evil are less black and white and more shades of grey. In Eberron, for example, which was heavily influenced by film noir, good people can do evil things and vice versa.

Wizards of the Coast

The Book of Vile Darkness, an accessory by Monte Cook for 3rd-edition D&D, devotes the entire first chapter to ‘the nature of evil’ and provides a list of ‘evil acts’:

  • lying
  • cheating
  • betrayal
  • murder
  • vengeance
  • worshiping evil gods and demons
  • animating the dead or creating undead
  • casting evil spells
  • damning or harming souls
  • consorting with fiends
  • creating evil creatures
  • using others for personal gain
  • greed
  • bullying and cowing innocents
  • bringing despair
  • tempting others

That’s a long list! And yet, how many of them are exclusively evil? I can think of many player characters who have lied, cheated, bullied, sought vengeance, or succumbed to greed. Their behavior was hardly righteous, but was it evil? Context and intent are everything.

Ultimately, how you define evil is something for your table to discuss as a group (more on this later). A question to think about is, what is the difference between being evil and being not good (ie, neutral)? Neutral characters don’t make personal sacrifices to help others, but that doesn’t make them evil. D&D defines evil as hurting, oppressing, and killing others. As a corollary to this, I think it can be argued that evil characters are also fundamentally self-interested: either because they ambitiously pursue personal power (like Magneto and Emperor Palpatine) or because they follow their own lust and greed in a completely hedonistic sense (like the Joker). Self-sacrificing and altruistic they ain’t.

Putting this question to one side for the moment, how and why would you run an evil D&D game – and should you?

Playing an evil campaign

Wizards of the Coast

If you’re playing with a party of evil characters, there are two important obstacles to overcome.

The first is sensitivity. If you are set on running an evil campaign, you probably want to agree some ground rules about ‘how evil’ you want to go. In some way or another, everyone will have encountered evil in storytelling already, whether it’s Satan, Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, or the Sheriff of Nottingham. But there are many kinds of evil that are difficult for people to talk about, or even taboo. Cannibalism, sadism, torture, abuse: these can be extremely uncomfortable subjects for people to engage with, and they shouldn’t have to if they don’t want to.

No kind of improvisation is 100-percent safe, but, as a bare minimum, run a session zero, even if you all know each other well. (Frankly, a session zerio is a good idea for lots of reasons, but this is certainly one of them.) Give players the space to discuss how far they want to go. You might want to talk about your campaign as if it had a film rating: ‘is this PG, mature, or adult?’ Some gamers talk about lines and veils, terms coined by Ron Edwards: lines are hard limits on content, meaning these things won’t show up in the game at all, whereas veils are soft limits, things that might get alluded to or implied but will never be directly described (in the same way that a film might ‘fade to black’). Lines and veils are helpful but not perfect: until it comes up, people don’t necessarily know they will find something uncomfortable. So, you may also want to employ John Stavropoulos’ X-Card approach. Give players the chance to pause, rewind, or fast forward a scene that they are not OK with.

The second problem with an evil campaign is the group dynamic. D&D assumes that you and your friends are working as a team. It’s right there in the introduction of the Player’s Handbook: ‘In the Dungeons & Dragons game, each player creates an adventurer (also called a character) and teams up with other adventurers (played by friends).’ Evil characters, however, have a tendency to be self-serving. They don’t make sacrifices for other people. They are not, on the whole, altruistic, benevolent, humane, or compassionate. They don’t care very much whether anyone else is hurt or hindered by their actions. In a team game, this matters.

How do we get around this? One option is to only allow characters who are lawful evil. This is the approach taken by the Adventurers League, and even then you can only play LE if you are part of a faction like the Zhentarim or the Lords’ Alliance. Lawful evil characters are still self-serving, but they at least have a semblance of honour or ‘play by the rules’. But what if your group wants to play characters who are neutral evil or even chaotic evil?

Well, there are two considerations. Firstly, while evil characters are generally self-serving, they aren’t necessarily stupid. If five evil characters are trying to steal a dragon’s hoard, basic game theory suggests that they are better off working together, and even once the dragon is defeated, it is still in the interests of individual characters to split things fairly as to do otherwise would jeopardize their future chances of commerical gain. In short: if you try to screw over your teammates, they will do the same to you. It’s not a good long-term strategy really.

Secondly, evil doesn’t have to be absolute. Neither do good, law, chaos, and neutrality, come to that. Alignment is a tool for defining a character’s identity. There’s no need to be fundamentalist about it: very, very few human beings are truly consistent, and no one said it had to a straitjacket. In fact, some of the most interesting characters in fiction are also some of most nuanced. Cersei Lannister will do anything to protect her children. Albus Dumbledore is kind but also manipulative and arrogant. Gregory House is selfish, a liar, and a consumate jerk, yet he is genuinely committed to his patients throughout the series. Just as ‘good’ heroes have flaws, good villains have redeeming qualities. And characters can grow over time, of course (and should).

So yes, you can play an evil campaign, provided it is handled sensitively. But the question remains: why would you?

Why evil

Wizards of the Coast

Now we get into pop psychology.

Tabletop roleplaying games are a form of escapism. They offer us a freedom many of us wish we had. The more we play D&D, the more powerful our characters become. Not only that, but the game actively encourages us to amass wealth and defeat enemies in combat. Is it any wonder that we are tempted to play evil characters? There’s a reason the murderhobo archetype is so prevalent.

An evil character can be intensely liberating, but perhaps there is a deeper reason as to why we are drawn towards murky morality. Jung believed we needed to confront our ‘shadow selves’ in order to grow as human beings. Freud wrote about the id, our most basic desires: our biological instinct to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Doing the right thing all the time is hard. Sometimes, it’s easier – and more fun – just to do whatever you want. Everyone wants to unleash their inner Hyde once in a while.

An evil D&D game, then, can be extremely fun, either as a one-shot or even as a full campaign. But it’s not for everyone. And that’s OK.

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Pros and cons of online play

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many of us will have moved our D&D games online recently. Others have been playing online for a while, though, either because our friends have moved away or because modern life just makes online play easier than getting a group together in person.

Online play is not without its challenges, of course. That said, it can also bring with it certain advantages, and, done properly, it can be almost as fun as live play. In this article, I’m going to suggest some ways of making online play enjoyable and offer some reflections on the opportunities it brings.

Pros: technology

For some players, online play is the only way of making D&D happen. Over the last four years, I have played and DMed online with a group of ten other people (not all at once, of course), and it is only since January that we have all been playing regularly in the same time zone. (I think the record may have been six players in three different countries.)

Virtual tabletops (VTTs) have come on leaps and bounds in recent years. After an initial learning curve, we are now very happy with Fantasy Grounds as our platform of choice, although some of us have branched out to Roll20 on occasion and found it fairly intuitive. Fantasy Ground has the edge in terms of its ‘effects’ coding (more on this in a moment), but Roll20 benefits from built-in support for audio and video. Some of my friends have switched to Foundry, and I’ve also heard good things about Astral. Similarly, though, I have also played some really fun games with nothing but Skype, Discord, or Google Hangouts.

Once you know your way around Fantasy Grounds, you start to appreciate how much of the game can be automated. From Tier 2 onwards, D&D has the potential to become increasingly ‘tactically rich’ – ie, complicated – and even experienced players can start to overlook things. With a good VTT, more and more of the game can be left to run in the background. Conditions, spells, class features, magic item effects: with a bit of know-how, you can set these up to run in perpetuity, or even code in ‘triggers’ based on if-statements. It’s also nice to manage big dice rolls with a single click: no more waiting for the wizard to add up the eight d6s for fireball.

When I ran the finale of Tomb of Annihilation at the end of October – and if you haven’t been lucky enough to play it yet, let’s just say it happens around 10th level and there is a lot going on – two of the players joined me to play the session in person, and the other three joined us online. But here’s the thing: all six of us continued playing with Fantasy Grounds because it’s just such a useful tool at higher levels. The Avrae bot for Discord offers similar functionality, although, having started with Fantasy Grounds, we haven’t really needed to switch to something new (yet).

Playing online can also give you easy access to other technologies like virtual character sheets, searchable rulebooks, and evocative background music. Many of these tools can be employed equally effectively at the game table, of course, and you see many DMs doing exactly this in their liveplay videos on Twitch and YouTube.

Cons: technology

Make sure your IT is up to scratch

If technology is a boon, it can also be a curse. Connection difficulties, poor sound quality, slow internet speeds, unintuitive interfaces: these things can rapidly sap the fun out of online D&D, and need to be addressed preemptively, if possible.

I’m not knowledgeable enough about computer technology to start recommending webcams, microphones, ISPs, and so on. Every participant needs to test out their equipment ahead of time and find what works for them. It’s worth agreeing beforehand how you plan to handle connection issues: do you play on, pause for a few minutes, or ‘bubble’ the character until they return? It’s also worth pointing out that some players will have more luck with their phone camera than they will with their laptop’s built-in webcam. So, experiment: find the solutions that work for you. For example, we have one player in our group who cannot use Discord without his audio going haywire, for some reason. Hangouts and Roll20 work fine for him, though, so we just use that.

Playing online is also perilous because you are constantly surrounded by distractions. It can be hard to resist the temptation of emails, social media, and online shopping while you are waiting for your turn to come round. There are a number of ways to minimize this, however, as I explain below.

Tricks of the trade

For all the technological benefits a VTT can provide, online play can be slow. Really slow. It can take a while for players to click through their character sheets to the right section, and if you are playing with a grid, dragging tokens around on a map will never be as fast or as satistfying as moving miniatures across a table.

One solution: streamline the game. Yes, some players will balk at this, but at the end of the day, rule zero of D&D is having fun, and for some players, there comes a point where it’s worth sacrificing tactical depth for speed of play. Some suggestions, then:

  • Keep the group small (maybe three or four players);
  • Let players roll physical dice;
  • Switch to group initiative;
  • Tell players the AC of the enemies after one or two rounds;
  • Use static monster damage;
  • Abstract large encounters with the DMG mob rules;
  • Run more combat in theatre of the mind;
  • Fudge hit points where it satisfies the narrative;
  • Rule in the players’ favour where possible.

‘Theatre of the mind’ might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but in 5th edition, playing with a grid is technically optional. I recommend theatre of the mind for online play. Gridded combat has its place, particularly with complex boss battles, but it can definitely be dispensed with for most fights when playing online. Whether it’s more enjoyable to play without a grid is something for you and your group to discuss and decide upon.

Final thoughts

Wizards of the Coast

In this article, I’ve largely focused on the issues that are unique to online play. Many of the issues that affect online D&D are just as much of a problem offline, but they do tend to be amplified when playing over the internet. In closing, then, a few words of caution for players and DMs who want to move their game online:

Players: be ready on your turn. Learn how your character’s class features work. Save rules disputes until after the session. Listen to the DM. Try not to talk over other players. Don’t hog the spotlight (and if you don’t know who the spotlight hog is in your group: could it be you?).

DMs: relax. Be generous. Listen to the players. Try not to talk over other players. Don’t hog the spotlight. And read the room! This is so much hardler online, so consider an occasional survey to gauge how you’re getting on (I plan to do an entire article on this at some point).

The issues that come with online play are largely preventable, and, handled properly, a VTT can even enhance your game. Give it a try!

Diablo D&D

Blizzard Entertainment

Last Monday marked the 20th anniversary of Diablo II. What a game!

Back when it was released in 2000, it was the fastest selling computer game ever. It is still highly regarded and has appeared on numerous ‘best of’ lists, including Time’s ‘50 Best Video Games of All Time’ list in 2016.

Diablo has a very distinctive (and fun) playstyle, which could definitely work well in 5th edition D&D. However, it requires a few tweaks to pull off.

Tone and flavour

The original Diablo takes place entirely within the town of Tristram. The player has to hack their way through 16 levels of dungeons beneath the cathedral until they face off with the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo.

Diablo II expands the world of Sanctuary considerably. Act II takes place in a desert city, Lut Gholein, and Act III goes to Kurast, a corrupted city on the edge of a jungle. The expansion, Lord of Destruction, adds a fifth act set in the icy wastes and caves of Mount Arreat.

Despite this changing scenery, however, the game never loses its dark and gothic atmosphere, so any D&D adaptation needs to keep this front and centre. Whatever the setting, there needs to be a constant sense of gloom and dread. I wrote recently about some of the ways DMs can achieve this, but for our purposes we would be most interested in description and choice of monsters. Feel free to reskin here. Goblins could become fallen, for example, and gnolls could become goatmen.

Fast play

Wizards of the Coast

When Diablo II was released in 2000, Wizards of the Coast partnered with Blizzard Entertainment to produce a number of D&D tie-ins. Bill Slavicsek and Jeff Grubb produced a ‘Diablo II Fast-Play Game’ based on the rules for 2nd-edition AD&D (3rd edition was released later that year).

The name here is telling. Hack and slash play needs to be fast to be fun, and for a tabletop game to be fast, it also needs to be streamlined (ie, simplified). But here’s the rub: a Diablo-style game also has the potential to become more complex because it adds things like skill trees, loot, and mobs of enemies, so a D&D Diablo game is going to need a few tricks.

In terms of skill trees, there’s no need to change much about D&D as written. Feats and subclasses are specialization enough. But in regard to making your game play faster, I highly recommend some of the tips from Sly Flourish. If you want to run a Diablo-style adventure, give the following articles read:

Grid-based combat has its place. So, too, does rolling initiative and rolling monster damage. For many groups, they are habits formed after many years of playing different editions of D&D. However: if you want to give your players the feeling that they can mow through hordes of enemies with gusto, consider a grid-free approach.

Fast play does not have to mean fast progression, of course. Diablo has an absurdly high level cap compared to D&D, so there’s no need to gun through all 20 levels at once. If you’re used to milestone levelling, I would suggest going back to traditional XP for this style of game. It’s a better way of tracking the scale of the slaughter.

Loot, loot, and more loot

Blizzard Entertainment

The designers of 5th edition deliberately moved away from the magic item economics of 4th edition and 3.5. Magic items are now meant to be more meaningful: unique, special. But in Diablo, magic items are everywhere.

It’s easy to overthink magic items. In reality, if adding too many magic items makes the game ‘unbalanced’, it’s easy enough to ‘rebalance’ things by fielding harder encounters. In a Diablo-style game, most encounters will be large mobs of individually easy opponents, so it is relatively painless for a DM to keep adding enemies to the fight until the players start to feel the pinch.

So: go with what feels right. If you want to start giving out a few magic items at 1st level, try it out. If it makes them too powerful, throw more enemies at them. Rinse and repeat. That said, the number of magic items is not as important as their rarity. If you give out ‘very rare’ magic items in Tier 1, other magic items are going to feel less interesting as a result, so take care.

However, one important part of Diablo loot is its randomness. To that end, consider using random magic item tables like the ones in Chapter 7 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, or online versions like this great tool from Donjon. I would suggest rolling at least 50 percent more often than in a regular D&D campaign. Consider rolling hoards in advance, also, to save time.

One more suggestion: don’t use gems and art objects. Don’t use copper, silver, electrum, etc. Stick to gold. In a hack-and-slash game, gold is fine.

Other variant rules

There are more than 90 optional rules in the core rulebooks. These variants are ‘dials’ you can turn to fine-tune the game to your specifications. So, which rules work well for a Diablo-style game?

  • Healing Surges (p 266). This was standard for all characters in 4th edition and will help your characters live longer. You could even let characters use healing surges as a bonus action if you want to make players feel truly invincible.
  • Rest Variants: Epic Heroism (p 267). Who rests in Diablo? No one, that’s who! If resting is faster, you can throw even more baddies at your party.
  • Cleaving through Creatures (p 272). Fun, fast, full of flavour.
  • Spell Points (p 288). Controversial, this one. It may be a bit less balanced. However, if you want to recreate the feel of ‘mana’, this is certainly one way to do it.

If you have access to Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, you might also want to give players the option of crafting, buying, and selling magic items (pp 128, 126, and 133 respectively). For many players, this is a huge part of Diablo, and it gives them something to do in town and a way to spend their gold.

Tying it all together

Blizzard Entertainment

Whether you want to run a Diablo-style one-shot or a 20-level campaign, it’s worth thinking how to bring this all together.

  • Encounters. In Diablo, solo opponents are rare: usually very powerful bosses. Large mobs with waves and waves of opponents are the norm. Use Donjon’s Encounter Size Calculator to get a sense of what your party can cope with. If in doubt, go with many easy opponents over fewer, more challenging ones.
  • Adventures. Keep the focus simple. The first quest of Diablo II is literally ‘kill all the enemies in a cave’. In fact, most quests in the game can be boiled down to ‘kill enemy x’ or ‘retrieve enemy y’. The players aren’t looking for deep immersion roleplaying here. Consider rolling random dungeons from the appendices of the DMG. Pick a cool setting and run with it (caves, ruins, hell).
  • Campaigns. Whether or not you set your game in the world of Sanctuary is up to you. Other than a few settlements (Tristram, Lut Gholein, Kurast, Caldeum) most of the map is unexplored, so you still have creative freedom here. Given the more casual nature of a hack-and-slash campaign, you may want to adopt a more sandboxy West Marches model where players can drop in and out as they like.

Destruction awaits

If D&D to you is mainly about immersive roleplaying, rich backstories, political intrigue, and layered world-building . . . this maybe isn’t for you. But if it’s all about the ‘mayhem’ and the ‘sick loot’, give Diablo-style D&D a try!

Horror in D&D

Wizards of the Coast

Last month, the D&D team revealed that the next hardcover adventure would be Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, a tale of dark terror set in the far north of the Forgotten Realms. Chris Perkins is back in the driving seat as lead designer, having played a key role in both Curse of Strahd and Tomb of Annihilation, two of the most popular adventures in 5th edition. With John Carpenter’s The Thing being given as one of the primary influences, expectations are – understandably – running high.

What makes a great horror adventure? How can DMs pull of a fantastic horror campaign?

Why we love horror

Horror is a broad genre with ancient origins. Frankenstein was greatly influenced by the myth of Hippolytus, for example. There are stories about ghosts, demons, witches, and shapeshifters to be found all over the world. Horror taps into something primal. H P Lovecraft famously wrote that ‘the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear’, and ultimately, this is what we seek out in horror: a ‘controlled thrill’ like we might get from a rollercoaster, a catharsis that reminds us that we are alive.

Horror comes in different flavours, of course:

Gothic horror is probably the oldest subgenre of horror. It is preoccupied with atmosphere and strange settings, especially those that are menacing or mysterious. The gothic world is a place of isolation or imprisonment where the present is haunted by the past. Curse of Strahd is gothic, drawing as it does from the original Ravenloft module, which itself is heavily inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Wizards of the Coast

Cosmic horror, codified by H P Lovecraft, is probably its spiritual successor: an intensely pessimistic, almost nihilistic subgenre which revolves around humanity’s insignificance and powerlessness in the face of a vast, indifferent, indescribable, and unstoppable alien threat. In D&D, we see hints of this with monsters like aboleths, chuuls, and mind flayers.

Rime of the Frostmaiden sounds like it might be drawing on elements of psychological horror by introducing an intriguing new ‘secrets’ mechanic to sow paranoia and distrust among the players. Many of Stephen King’s novels are psychological horrors.

There are plenty of other horror subgenres that have never quite made it into mainstream D&D, such as survival horror (Resident Evil, Darkest Dungeon), religious horror (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist), and even slashers or splatter horror (John Carpenter’s Halloween, Friday the 13th). There’s no reason why they wouldn’t work, though, either as one-off adventures or as full-length campaigns.  

Session zero

If you want to run a horror adventure in D&D, or even a horror campaign, the first rule is this: run a session zero.

More than any other play style, horror needs agreed expectations and clear boundaries. Horror runs the gamut from silly pastiche to real terror, and people have different thresholds for what they enjoy. Talk about books, games, and films you like, the characters you want to play.

Similarly, horror can touch on issues that make people very uncomfortable. Curse of Strahd, for example, includes stereotypical (and arguably ableist) depictions of madness, women who are imprisoned and predated upon, and a mini-adventure, ‘Death House’, where there are references to both dead children and stillbirth. D&D is meant to be fun, and your table needs to be a safe place. Mistakes can still happen, of course, but talking things through in advance is definitely helpful.  

A session zero is also important because it helps you gauge buy-in. Creating a great atmosphere is as much the players’ responsibility as it is the DM’s, and if some people in your group aren’t really into it, that can make the game less fun for everyone else. You’re going to end up in trouble when one player wants to be an edgy Van Helsing–style undead hunter and another wants to play a Treehouse of Horror–inspired Dracula parody. As with any adventure, see what people want to play and try to find a compromise.

Horror at the table

How, then, do we make a horror adventure awesome? There are three things to think about: description, gameplay, and – for want of a better word – window dressing.

Describing horror

The introduction of Curse of Strahd features a really nice section called ‘Marks of Horror’ (page 7) which summarizes how to pull off a gothic atmosphere. In essence, it means drawing on established gothic tropes: the uncanny, the unknown, the sublime, the unnatural. Horror is often more unsettling if you hint at it and build up to it instead of describing it outright, so focus on sensory details. Less is more.

Another useful concept here is the idea of ‘story beats’, originally a concept from filmmaking but now equally relevant in game design and adventure writing. In Hamlet’s Hit Points, Robin D Laws uses this concept to track how stories move back and forth between hope and fear, using examples like Casablanca and Dr No to show how it works. Think about story beats in a horror adventure. Relentless, inescapable dread is ultimately unsustainable: you need hope, levity, and even humour in a horror story to balance out the bits that are most frightening. (Choose your moments, though. Curse of Strahd offers a fantastic climax in the catacombs of Castle Ravenloft, but the comedy names on the epitaphs – ‘Sir Klutz Tripalotsky’ the clumsy and the treacherous ‘Stahbal Indi-Bhak’, for example – somewhat undermine the atmosphere.)   

Lastly, it goes without saying, but draw as many ideas as you can from books, films, and video games. It’s not cheating: it’s inspiration.      

Game mechanics

If description is ‘fluff’, this is the ‘crunch’. Depending on the kind of horror you’re going for, the standard D&D rules might not work for you. Perhaps you want a low-magic campaign. Perhaps you want healing to be harder to come by, or you want to introduce lingering injuries. Perhaps you want to include rules for morale. Perhaps you need to include a Sanity score alongside the other six ability scores if madness is going to be a key theme of the campaign. Fortunately, the rules for all of these things can be found in Chapter Nine of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Think of them as ‘dials’ that you can tinker with in setting up your game.

Take care, though: some of these variant rules can have a very significant effect on the game. Talk them over with your group. Good description is often all you need to create a horror atmosphere.

The table

Horror is all about atmosphere, so the further you feel from the events of the game, the less scared you’re going to be. It’s pretty hard to take Strahd seriously when someone has just cracked open a can of Coke and sent a funny meme around on their phone, for example.

A good horror adventure doesn’t necessarily require everyone to dress up – that’s probably the boundary between D&D and LARPing – but it’s worth thinking a bit about what it feels like to play at the table. Is there music playing? What’s the lighting like? Could you light some candles or put up some pictures somewhere? Do you have any cool handouts? Are phones allowed? It all depends on your group of course, but for some players, these bits of window-dressing can really help immerse them in the game.

Horror: not just for Halloween

Horror isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, and it certainly doesn’t need to form the basis of a whole campaign. However, done well, it can be a fun change of pace from a more vanilla D&D setting.

How to embrace your rules lawyer

xkcd: Ultimate Game

This article was originally posted on Dump Stat Adventures. Dump Stat is from the odd minds of two dudes, Chris and Stephen, who swear that they must have dumped Intelligence during character creation at birth. Chris has been playing and DMing D&D off and on for the past 30 years, and Stephen has a solid two years under his belt. They strive to create compelling adventures that are easy and fun for the DM to run. Link: dumpstatadventures.com

‘Acererak rises into the air with an evil cackle and points down at the platform on which you stand. A fog of poisonous, yellow-green vapour rolls outwards in a plume – ’

‘Um, this is cloudkill, right? Doesn’t fly require concentration as well?’  

‘Acererak disappears for a moment in a silvery mist, reappearing almost instantly in a space ten yards away. A bright streak flashes from his finger towards you, then blossoms with a low roar into an explosion of flame!’

‘Er, no. If you use a spell with a casting time of one bonus action, you can’t cast another spell during the same turn, except for a cantrip with a casting time of one action.’

If you’ve ever DMed a game of D&D, you’ve probably encountered a situation like one of these. Players who argue about the rules are pejoratively known as ‘rules lawyers’, and, judging by posts on Reddit, they’re pretty common. But are rules lawyers as bad we think, and if they are, how should we tame them?

Why rules matter

There are many different ways of playing D&D. For some players, it’s akin to a wargame, with miniatures and a battle grid. This is where the game started, after all. For other groups, there’s maybe more of a focus on shared storytelling and improv, but even then they need to roll dice sometimes and track hit points and so on.

The lead rules designer, Jeremy Crawford, has this to say at the start of the Sage Advice Compendium:

Rules are a big part of what makes D&D a game, rather than simply improvised storytelling. The game’s rules are meant to help organize, and even inspire, the action of a D&D campaign. The rules are a tool, and we want our tools to be as effective as possible.  

Rules are useful because they are an agreed framework that enables everyone at the table to have fun. Good rules mean that you don’t have to constantly referee what’s going on in the game: you can instead focus on the action and adventure of an exciting fantasy story. Rules are also a check to stop the game from becoming unfair or unbalanced. Anyone can check the rules at any time, and if rulebooks are consulted to resolve a disagreement, it makes the dispute less personal. If everyone in the group is confident with the rules, there should be fewer disagreements, and if there are fewer disagreements, there should be more time available to sit back and enjoy the game.

So why are rules lawyers a bad thing?

Working with your rules lawyer

There are many good reasons for trying to minimize rules disputes.

  • Talking about rules breaks immersion for everyone else.
  • Rules disputes slow down the game.
  • The rules don’t cover every situation, and 5th Edition assumes considerable DM fiat.
  • Too much focus on the rules can hamper creativity and imagination (‘the rule of cool’).
  • Rules lawyers publicly undermine the DM’s credibility and knock their confidence.

Having said all this, it’s worth remembering that most rules lawyers are Lawful Neutral or even Lawful Good, not Lawful Evil. Many rules lawyers are only trying to help. If they care about the rules, it’s probably because they care about fairness. If you’re a new DM, perhaps they’re trying to teach you the ropes. And if you think for a moment about the rules lawyers in your own group: what is it they do for a living? If they work in a field where systems, precision, and procedure are important, it’s hardly surprising if that washes over into their D&D games sometimes.

There’s a difference between a rules lawyer and a rules expert. Embrace your rules lawyer and make them your rules consultant. If you need someone to look something up, ask the rules lawyer. At the end of every session, speak to them in private and find out if there was anything you got wrong. You can even involve them at the planning stage. Dave, how do you think an airship battle would work? What are the best rules for managing a stronghold? What are your thoughts on game balance in a low-magic campaign? There’s no such thing as a disengaged rules lawyer, so channel that engagement positively.

DMs: if you are still having problems with a rules lawyer in your group, it might be worth reflecting on your DMing before you take it up with them. Are you playing competitively, for example, DM versus the players? If so, don’t be surprised if they play back and try to win every advantage over you! Do you have a different play style to the rest of the group? Are you more interested in storytelling than wargaming? That’s fine, but it’s something to talk about. Whisper it: are you as confident in the rules as you need to be? It’s fine to get the rules wrong sometimes, and even über-DMs like Matthew Mercer make rules mistakes from time to time. The DM doesn’t have to have the best rules knowledge at the table. But they probably shouldn’t have the worst rules knowledge at the table. If you’re getting confused about basic things like attack rolls and hit points, maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world for the players to correct you once in a while. There’s no shame in admitting you got something wrong.

However: if a rules lawyer is repeatedly getting into arguments with the DM – because they are playing antagonistically, because they are trying to manipulate the game in their favour, or because there’s something personal going on between you and them – then it’s time to have a talk. Amusingly, someone on Reddit has already put together a useful flow chart for how to deal with these situations (see below).

‘Difficult conversations’ might not be fun, but sometimes they’re necessary, and if that means someone has to go . . . well, that happens sometimes. Ultimately, no D&D is better than bad D&D.  

The rules that matter the most

There are two basic rules in roleplaying which go back to the earliest days of the hobby.

This is from the first page of Basic D&D (1980). Other games have imitated it, and it’s now known affectionately as Rule Zero:

The purpose of these ‘rules’ is to provide guidelines that enable you to play and have fun, so don’t feel absolutely bound to them.

The second is the so called ‘Golden Rule’, familiar to pub quizzers everywhere. In pub quizzes, you don’t argue with the quizmaster. In D&D, you don’t argue with the DM.

I would add one more. Wherever possible, save the rules discussions for after the session.   

The three overlap. Embrace your rules lawyer, but channel their engagement positively.

Battlefield Environments

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

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

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

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

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

Rethinking the battlefield

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some other pointers:

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

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

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

Even simpler

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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