Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Plan for failure to allow for actual stakes

If the campaign story requires that the party win every fight, it can be tempting to hold back punches to ensure the party survives. But what’s the point of playing the game if you already know what will happen?

In order to allow for the possibility of failure, we need combats that are not fights to the death. Introducing different stakes to combat encounters helps keep them exciting and memorable.

For example:

  • The players are trying to stop cultists from completing a ritual which progresses each turn they maintain concentration.
  • Members of a Thieves’ Guild are trying to escape with an artifact they stole.

In these scenarios, the enemies have other objectives other than just killing the party, so it’s not the end of the world if the enemies succeed. It takes the story in a different and interesting direction. As a DM, you can give both sides a legitimate chance and see how it turns out. Success is only meaningful if there is chance of failure.

What other encounters or stakes have you used to great effect?

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Finding VTT Maps

Maps are a great way to build immersion and help a location feel memorable. Thankfully, there are tons of free resources out there for battlemaps. 

Lost atlas:

This site has an index of over 5,000 battle maps and is incredibly useful for searching for a specific type of map. You can search for keywords, filter by environment, etc. Generally I’ve found the results to be a lot better than Google images.

Other useful map collection sites:

Map making communities:

There are many awesome map making programs such as Dungeondraft, Wonderdraft, and Inkarnate. Equally awesome are the communities surrounding the software. People who love making maps will post their creations for others to enjoy. Although the map quality can vary, there are always new maps being posted and the backlog is enormous. 

There are a few subreddits and Discord servers where people post their creations:

Patreon previews:

Many map makers on Patreon will post some free maps so that people can see what kind of work they do.

Let me know if there are other places you go to for maps!

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Treating low-CR creatures as traps

As your party advances in level, certain monsters no longer pose much of a threat. If a combat encounter would be so lopsided that the enemies have no chance of winning, should you roll initiative and run a full battle?

Imagine a level 10 party facing the following monsters: 

  • A skeleton lying near a treasure chest
  • A dust mephit springing out of a desk
  • A violet fungus lashing out at anyone who enters a cave

These types of encounters make sense for the situation, and shouldn’t go away just because the party leveled up. With these types of low-risk encounters, instead of running a full combat, you can treat the monster like a trap. Tell the player what their character would see or hear, let them narrate how they would handle the situation, and then have them make the appropriate roll. 

For example:

  • If the character would try to jump out of the way or raise their shield, have them make a Dex save. 
  • If the character would try to kill the creature before it attacks them, have the character make an attack roll.
If the character makes their roll, they are able to avoid any damage. Otherwise, the monster lands an attack before being destroyed by the high level party. 

This has several advantages:

  • You can include creatures that make sense for the environment and situation without slowing the game down.
  • The players feel powerful when they can swiftly handle threats that previously required a full combat.
  • There is still a chance the character suffers minor damage from the “trap,” encouraging the party to proceed cautiously and thoughtfully.

Friday, May 5, 2023

The Different Types of Player Choices

I’ve written about how you shouldn’t know everything that will happen in your game. An important aspect of that is presenting your players with interesting decisions to make. The story can then unfold naturally from those choices. 

There are several kinds of choices players can make:

  1. Tactical decisions
    • Which enemy should we focus on first?
    • What’s the best way we can position ourselves in this battle?
    • Should I use my spell slots now or save them for later?
  2. Moral dilemmas
    • Do we let a bad guy go if there’s a reward for us?
    • Should we keep this magic item or return it to its rightful owner?
    • How far do we go to protect those we care about?
  3. Assessing risk vs. reward
    • Should we take the safer path or the more dangerous shortcut?
    • How much stock should we put in this informant’s information?
    • Should we try to sneak past the guards?
    • Is it worth trying to rest here?
  4. Personal choices
    • Which faction do we help / side with?
    • Which quests interest me?

Interesting choices should have the following aspects:

  1. Genuine impact. The player’s decision should shape the story in a unique and interesting way.
  2. Shades of gray. With each decision, each option has its merits. There should not be an overwhelmingly “right” or “optimal” choice the players must make.
  3. Clarity. The players should understand the potential outcomes of their decision, especially any information their characters would know. When in doubt, it’s better to overshare and clarify.

Let me know what interesting choices you gave your players!

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Alternate Death Saves

I came across this alternate method for handling death saves and wanted to pass it along. It looks like a fun system that allows characters to be involved in combat while still giving meaning to the death saves. Does this seem like a good system? Let me know what you think! (Original source)


Thursday, March 16, 2023

Don’t punish players for exploring a dungeon

Although it’s important for dungeons to feel challenging, they should also be fun for the players to explore. When every room is filled with traps, mimics, and hostile creatures, the players won’t want to explore (until the Plot™️ forces them to). We want our players to interact with our content, therefore we should ensure the players feel encouraged to do so.

Here are my thoughts on how to keep dungeons fun:

  1. Not every room needs to have dangerous traps or hostile creatures. Certain areas might even help the players (a healing fountain, for example) or provide the players with useful information.
  2. Clever and careful play should keep the characters safer. One example of this is adding visual indicators for traps to reward observant players. You can also include environmental challenges in lieu of traps to facilitate create problem solving.
  3. When the party does encounter a setback, make sure they are rewarded. After all, why have a trap if there’s no valuable treasure it’s protecting?
  4. Random combat encounters should not turn into slogs. Save your deadly encounters for the boss flight.
  5. Don’t throw in setbacks for the hell of it. They should serve a purpose.
  6. Keep in mind the party’s motivation for entering the dungeon. Overcoming obstacles should move them closer towards their goal (or at least provide some cool information or loot for their troubles). 

(This is something I noticed as a player, not a DM. Being a player and watching other DMs can give you valuable insights and perspectives as to what’s fun and what’s not!)


Tuesday, February 21, 2023

GM Cross-training

In previous articles I’ve talked about the importance of practice as well as my favorite podcasts & blogs for GMs. But there are still countless other ways we can improve as GMs:

  1. Read adventures & sourcebooks. Even if you don’t plan on running a certain adventure, there are tons of ideas you can lift from it. If you’re running a homebrew campaign, it’s particularly useful to see how experienced designers create an adventure.
  2. Design homebrew. Through the process of creating homebrew materials (magic items, monsters, spells, etc.) you will better understand how those things work mechanically.
  3. Watch / listen to actual plays. Each GM has their own techniques they bring to the game. Leverage their experience and ideas to make your game even better.
  4. Play in games as a character. As a player, you can pick up on what makes a game fun and what might not.
  5. Check out different TTRPG systems. Each system has its own way of doing things, and a lot of those cool ideas can be adapted for whatever system you’re running.
  6. Consume fiction. TV shows, movies, and fantasy novels are all great sources of inspiration for plot points, cool locations, NPCs, etc. “We’re only as good as the obscurity of the references we steal from.” –Matt Colville

Let me know other ways you work to improve!