Category Archives: DM Corner for D&D

Exploration in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons: Putting the Adventure back into Adventuring

It seems that much of the content out there today for role playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) focus heavily on dungeons and politics or rescuing the village and various other tired troupes. Whether this is the case for you or not, I’ve noticed that many adventures are lacking the element of exploration, which leaves a huge untapped reserve of mystery. Sometimes people refer to this as the sandbox game, where the players are going in their own direction and the GM keeps up, supplying the adventure as the game progresses.

For me, what has been lacking from games over the last several years has been the mystery in exploration. All to often it seems that exploring has been dumbed down or glossed over by the need to keep the story going, to keep the narrative on track, keep the momentum bouncing. This isn’t a bad thing, but the details, the efforts of travelling in a (fantasy) world are completely missed.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

This is a shame, because years ago the old AD&D adventure modules contained heavy elements of exploration, where the players were encouraged to explore and reveal the mysteries of a forgotten land. Adventure modules such as the Isle of Dread (X1, 1981 & 1983), a wilderness adventure designed for beginners back in the day (a long, long time ago) were designed purely with exploration in mind.

In my hunt to recapture the feelings of excitement and wonder (a running theme in my blog articles at the moment) I did a thing. I’ve sailed the ‘net sea, battled excessive blogs and wrangled with the web in the search of good, wholesome and entertaining ideas to make travel and exploration exciting again. Here are my thoughts and the results of my search with some helpful links at the end for your own ‘further reading’ on the subject.

If you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll begin…

Perceived Problems with Exploration

Mention in-game travelling and most players will groan. Understandably, players have not really had a series of exploration adventures that has given them a fun game, even popular digital games such as Skyrim or the classical Baldur’s Gate allow you to travel instantly or in a series of chunks in seconds. But that’s OK, it’s why you’re here reading this article.

Exploration games are said to take their toll on the GM / DM both in preparation and in running the game session. This is a fair point – as the GM of any game you are responsible for hours of planning (or maybe just 30 minutes before the game, if that’s your gig), which often you don’t want to see wasted and unused in the event of player party mistakes. So why would you waste hours of planning on just travelling and exploring new locations?

Finally, keeping the flow and narrative exciting can be a challenge. Inclusive adventures must bring elements to the gaming table where any character of any build or design with even the most jaded of tastes, offers a challenge to each player, a chance in the spotlight.

Are these issues insurmountable? Of course not!

So here are the suggestions I’m putting forward for you, should you ever consider running an exploration themes adventure game of your own.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

Setup & Writing

Character & Plot Hooks

It’s always important to have your players hooked into the concept of the game right from the start. How do you write or plan this sort of thing? Well I’ve written a previous article which you can find here, it gives some suggestions on how to approach a character hook by making the hook relevant to the character, which, hopefully, will entice the player too. As always, it’s best to get a feel for what your player wants from the game, and hook them in based on this information.

It may be that your party is simply travelling overland to get to a place that is uncharted, and the plot of your story is already written. This makes it very easy as the plot hook is the adventure idea you already have.

I’ve written a few examples here to give you an idea:

  • Searching for a missing person(s) of importance: perhaps they were kidnapped and the characters have been hired to locate and return them safely (imagine King Osric’s daughter from the Original Conan film, 1982).
  • Searching for a lost city or civilisation which may hold the key to discovering how to deal with a threat to a characters homelands.
  • Manhunt – a traitor, criminal, dangerous individual or group has evaded the law and must be hunted down to pay for their crimes.
  • The player characters are being persecuted either on their own or with a group of people and have been forced to flee into the wilderness or an unmapped land.
  • Expedition – the player characters are hired to explore the new world and discover its rich resources and lift the veil on its mysteries… and its threats.

dungeons dragons adventure RPG DnD tabletop games

Setting up the Player Party

Every expedition known to man has always had planning at the forefront. Without planning, any expedition is doomed from the moment it takes its first step, leading to a variety of disasters, starvation being the primary one. So it’s important to get your players into the frame of mind that travelling and exploring brings its own dangers. Sure, there will be monsters in the untamed wilds, but losing your food supply or drinking all of your clean water, brings challenges all of their own.

Ask the players some of the following questions before you plan to start your game:

  • How much can your character carry?
  • What food and water supplies will you be taking?
  • Are you equipped for exploration or a dungeon crawl?

An important aspect of any RPG is the role play, above all else it is what glues the game together. Some people find this awkward, but when players have something to talk about, the role play becomes natural. Asking player characters to assume one of several roles in a travelling adventurer party is a great way to overcome this, and also lends itself to more of a game.

These roles are real life examples of what we often overlook during play. In reality, how many of us note down how much of our rations we’re eating? Probably not that many because it’s considered a minor portion of the RPG experience.

Giving the players extra roles also reduces some of the work for GM / DM. By allowing the players to organise themselves and keep track of encumbrance, rations and other supplies, along with mapping duties, it frees up the GM to give a greater insight into surroundings and encounters.

Here are some of the role ideas:

Leader / Voice

The leader is responsible for announcing all final party activity to the GM with regards to direction and pace. Characters can still act in a solo fashion as normal. The leader also consults with and organises the marching order of the other characters present, including any allies that may be travelling with them.

Watchers / Castellan

Let’s face it, you will be stomping through unknown and wild lands, it pays to give someone the task of checking the horizon for trouble, the bushes for traps and the camp for snakes! Watchers and guards are also responsible for finding a suitable place to set camp and how the camp should be organised. For the GM, this gives them time to decide what happens in the night, or if the player party gets surprised.

Navigator / Cartographer

The navigator and cartographer are responsible for guiding the player party on their adventure, keeping a look out for points of interest and landmarks. Their role also involves the blank hex map you will have provided them (more on this later), updating and annotating as they travel. In this way they answer the questions of other characters in a role play manner, rather than relying on the GM to constantly keep checking their notes.

For a character to create a worthy map in game will require some sort of cartographers tools (for D&D) or a surveyor’s kit. Get the players to roll any necessary skill checks to determine the quality of their notes and drawings in case they get lost, or someone else relies on the map in their absence.

Hunter / Quartermaster

Hunters and Quartermasters keep track of resources and the carrying capacity of the party and its allies. Their most important role is to keep track of food and water and find replacements when they feel times are getting desperate. This has a great element of role play as the characters fret over how much they are going to use and what happens if they start to run low.

Generally if the quarter master has no record of something, such as equipment, it does not exist within the party. And if there’s a tonne of things to keep track of, there’s no reason why two characters can’t assume this role together. All characters should have their own equipment list, but the quartermasters will keep a copy of that and update it, especially if one character is lost down a ravine while carrying all of the rope!

(Re)Defining the GMs Role

The GMs primary roles will have lessened from traditional expectations. The key responsibility, other than role playing villains and monsters and refereeing the turn sequence and dice rolls etc, is to keep a track of time. In an exploration adventure keeping a track of time gives the gaming session more purpose and also allows the players to note down exactly what they’ve used up or require more of. It also means the players are told when they are getting tired or possibly feeling the effects of fatigue.

mountain surrounded with trees

Friends, Enemies and Adversaries

It pays to have non-playing characters (NPCs) with the player party, at least for some of the exploration, particularly if you think that there may be character deaths likely to happen – you’ll need a way of introducing new characters for the players when this happens.

Adding allies to mix will also give the players some impetus if the motivation dips during play, because allies need help and tasks undertaken which they could not normally do on their own. Here are a few examples of NPCs to keep in mind, depending on the type of exploration adventure you’re writing…

Allies

The expedition financier or their representatives, the young noble out to cut their teeth, the enthusiastic but clueless scribe seeking lost lore, or the mysterious elf apparently seeking to discover the lost homeland of his or her people – these are all NPCs which can give motivation to the players when they are out exploring. It’s probably best if these NPC stay at base camp, several days behind the party. These can provide quests literally or inadvertently and give guidance if the player characters are struggling with concepts.

Collective Adversaries

If you want to quicken the pace of the adventure and give the players some tension when they are making the important choices, you can introduce another adventuring party who are seeking similar goals. This competition can be right behind, or always one step ahead of the ultimate goal, or they can be unfriendly and unhelpful if they’ve managed to get across the ravine but cut the ropes to the bridge!

Perhaps these other adventuring groups need rescuing instead, the price of their impetus or ignorance!

Enemies!

Perhaps the land under exploration is not entirely empty, and savage tribes use it as a hunting ground. Perhaps one of those tribes sees the party as a target for initiation into adulthood or worse, required components in a bloody ritual!

two person riding boat on body of water

Mapping: Hex or no Hex, you’re travelling

Hex maps have been around for decades and carry with them a nostalgic feel for the days of mystery. Whether you like them or not, the humble hex is a great way of mapping out where the player characters have been, are currently and where they will be, because a hex is more dynamic than a square and easier to handle than a circle.

A hex has six sides, allowing you to plan the direction of the party – there are 8 easily identifiable paths the party can take on a hex, using either a flat side of the hex tile or a point of the hex. If you make your map and overlay a series of hex tiles onto it, you can track the adventurer’s progress with distance, speed and direction.

I suggest you start by making a world map, nothing larger than you need for the landmass your adventurers are crossing or exploring. Each hex should cover maybe a half or a full days worth of travelling, so in theory the party is moving one or two hex spaces in a session. This gives you plenty of opportunity to write and pace the adventure.

Look at your map and make a note of the terrain type of each hex, or whichever is more dominant. Terrain types can be forests, plains, desert etc. You can go one level deeper than this to have varieties of these terrain types, such as adding a height or incline like hills and mountains or valleys which can block or provide a line of sight (more on this later).

Once you’ve got this sorted, you can begin to define potential problems with different terrain types – it can be as simple of slowing progress or speeding it up, using important resources such as food and water, or allowing the characters to restock. There may be monsters which lurk in certain parts of the map, such as green dragons in the forest, or trolls in the swamps (or whatever). Think about your land of mystery and get creative. As the adventure grows you’ll likely want to think about the same challenges repeating. This could get bland so be prepared to allow some hex spaces to be easier to get across.

pine trees by lake in forest against sky

Creating a Map

You’re going to want potentially a large map with plenty of areas and space to explore. Sometime over the next week I’ll write small tutorial on how to put in hex grids in programs like Inkarnate (the free version) and the GIMP . In the meantime, you could do some planning of your own and take into consideration some of the important aspects of your map.

Whether you’re creating something entirely home-brew or using a pre-written adventure or setting, you need to consider the ecology of your map. Just like anything in the real world, things in a region or area run alongside each other and effect each other like an ecology. This won’t apply so much in a fantasy setting, but your map should reflect a realistic expectation so that your players can make logical choices in how they travel and where.

Consider some of the following suggestions and ideas…

Travelling Speed

As a guide, you can break each day down into 4 hour slots, of which most characters will require sleep and rest for 8 hours. How far they can travel will depend on what they wish to do, and how fast they travel, such as by foot or on a horse. As the GM, you will know how far each hex is in miles or kilometers and can set the pace of travel accordingly.

Landmarks

Landmarks are vital to the exploration and travelling game. Without landmarks your players are simply making arbitrary choices based on cardinal directions on a compass. This is incredibly dull and likely to put your players off right away. Landmarks give the players a real choice, offering tantalizing bits of mystery and story to get them to move and explore.

But what can they see?

Well it’s fairly simply: when the players arrive at the edge of the map they will want to plan their direction. Did anyone pack a spyglass? Good – then they can start scanning the horizon. Are they in a forest, is there anything obstructing them from scanning the distant horizon? If so, they’ll need to get to higher ground… and already they’ve determined their first objective – find higher ground.

As a general rule, player characters can probably see about 3 miles over flat ground, far less in forests or hilly terrain unless they’re at a peak in the region.

The player characters should be encouraged to scan the horizon each time they stop to rest. As the GM you can now give them tidbits of information about the surrounding area (hex tiles) allowing them to assume control of their own destiny.

Landmarks also give the players something to talk about, mark on their own maps or confirm their location if they get lost – everyone gets to use the role they have been assigned or chosen when they planned the expedition. Let’s hope they packed some sort of compass…

Landmarks can be constructed buildings such as towers, or natural phenomenon such as giant waterfalls, unusual rock formations or the sun bleached bones of titanic creatures!

white and black abstract painting

Locations

Locations  can be considered like any other encounter in RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. They will be the meat of your adventurer meal. Don’t overlook the dangers of exploring. Exploration is dangerous in real life, and so it should be more so in a fantasy RPG! Stay your hand though, exploring locations should be about the story and not everything should be dealing damage or killing off players! Instead, capitalise on the mystery and narrative of discovering a new land – temples, hallow cities, strange structures and signs of ancient battles – not everything will be covered in traps or occupied by hobgoblins.

This is the hardest part for the GM, but should also be the portion of planning that takes up the most time. Once your map has been created, you should start to focus on the set pieces of your adventure (because it is still your adventure). A location, like any good dungeon should offer potential challenges to each character type in your player party, whether that’s physical obstructions, strange traps, ancient lore, riddles, clues or puzzles which help unlock or reveal something about the area. This shouldn’t always be the case though – otherwise it may become a formulation of ‘we need to use the rogue, and now the fighter and now the mage,’ which takes the narrative aspect of the game away.

If you can tie the revelation of this location into other locations, you begin to knit your world together. For example, let’s say the player party successfully breaks into an ancient temple and reveal a mysterious artifact, such as a key. What does this key unlock? Does it tie into a different temple or building in the region? What does it unlock, treasure, monsters, a terrible and ancient evil?

By all means include things to fight and slay, but try to ensure that the fight isn’t just a random event. It makes much more sense to disturb a nest or lair, or tackle a timeless guardian creature than hack their way through hordes of pointless minions. Use the monster or creature wisely, build up to its big reveal and make the fight mean something. If they can’t defeat it, they must flee… but where do they flee to? Are they in any fit state to fight, should they fight? These are the tension building moments for your player party in an exploration game.

Throw in monsters and creatures that they clearly cannot defeat to get the player characters to consider their options more deeply, but again, don’t make a habit of putting in impossible odds all the time. That sleeping dragon can be left to sleep if they just tiptoe backwards slowly and come back another time!

beautiful countryside creek environment

So how do they explore a hex tile?

First of all, describe exactly what stands out about a region or hex tile – does that rock formation look like anything? Then, if they decide to stop and explore the area in more detail, you can begin a series of encounters. One very simple suggestion is to draw up a small chart based on how many hours the player party wishes to explore the area. You can begin by asking the players how long they intend to stay and search the area in terms of hours. Then, consulting your small chart you can determine that if the party stops and searches for say 3 hours, they will come across up to 2 encounters for that region. Here’s my example:

  1. Hour 1 – They find nothing, but are slowed by the forest and rough terrain
  2. Hour 2 – As above
  3. Hour 3 – They stumble upon the grotto of a forest troll, roll against the parties passive perception to see if either side is surprised.
  4. Hour 4 – They find a cache of old supplies and a few ripped up skeletons, likely the result of a troll attack.
  5. Hour 5 – A small hatch in the earth that looked like a bolt hole for a temporary encampment ( a micro dungeon).

The party may not stay for too long, or they may wish to camp, in which case the troll may come out at night looking for food (an encounter in itself) which provides something for the watchers and guards in the party to deal with before the attack starts in full.

How fast they move, how much attention they decide to dedicate to the searching and investigating is up to the players. They will soon learn that just stomping over ground in the hopes of bumping into something may prove detrimental!

Getting Lost

Sometimes even the most experienced rangers can get lost, particularly in a new land! Becoming lost should always be an option and you should never allow the players to simply retrace their steps if they’ve surged onward without paying attention or exploring different regions or hex tiles.

Perhaps permit them to roll for skills to see if they can get back on track by setting a high difficulty based on the terrain they are in, and any landmarks they can see from where they are, lowering the difficulty for each point of recognition they can muster. If they fail, they are lost and must spend time (and resources) trying to find their original path!

photography of mountain range during winter

Keeping the Motivation During Play

How do you reward characters in exploration adventures? We want to reward the players for exploring, because we want them to enjoy the exploration aspect of the game alongside all the other aspects of RPGs.

Well, I think it depends on the scope of your adventure and the desire driving the party onward. Beyond gaining experience for slaying monsters and villains, perhaps the player characters also receive experience for discovering new areas, locations and landmarks, BUT they then also get experience for making a region safe (multiple hex tiles in the same region) for anyone following them, such as the baggage train.

If you feel a particularly hard region to explore exists because it contains high powered monsters or traps, you could assign different hex regions a challenge rating to reflect the adversity of making it safe.

Perhaps early locations were inaccessible at the start of their adventure, but now they’ve discovered a key, a token or something which will help them get to the that earlier region. This is a great idea because it means that previously explored hex tiles and areas or regions are not simply redundant after use. It can also lead the player characters to explore for specific things, giving them even more motivation to search and explore areas!

Phew! That is quite a long article, apologies!

If you think you’ve benefited from any of this information, leave a comment below – it really helps us if people think we’re doing good, and gives us direction for future articles!

Further Reading

How to be the Dungeon Master (DM)

How to be the DM (new and old) Part 2: Setting the Atmosphere

D&D and Dice Manipulation – Two opposing styles of Dungeon Masters

The Retired Adventurer

The Angry GM (really angry and potty-mouthed!

Giants in the Playground

Killing in the Name of: Dungeons & Dragons and the unbridled passion of slaying the adventuring party – A few lessons learned

For the last three gaming sessions, I’ve been guiding my players as they attempt to uncover and solve the mystery surrounding the small fishing town of Sharholme. People have gone missing. There’s a taciturn lighthouse keeper who no one likes. Weird and exotic fish are turning up in the nets of the fishermen. What did it all mean?

Well I’m not going to give you all the details, where’s the fun in that? No, I’m going to give you an insight into when the adventuring party were fooled and the Dungeon Master commits to running the adventure to its inevitable end, whether that’s the final encounter or much sooner!

‘Some of your characters may die towards the end of this adventure – I’m testing the adventure on you guys.’

These were my first words when describing the adventure idea I had to my players, a week before they started. Perhaps subconsciously I was giving them a clue to play tougher or optimised characters, or perhaps I was trying to defend myself from any fallout that may occur if it all went wrong. Whatever the reason, the very next gaming session we started the adventure.

The beginning was cryptic – they were called north, along  the Sword Coast by a voiceless whisperer who would not allow them to rest unless they were moving. A brief stop at Candlekeep is all they needed. Get there, and perhaps some clues could give them answers.

But they will never know.

Dungeons and Dragons D&D D&D logo Wizards of the Coast WotC RPG Gaming Tabletop gaming
Photo by ahmed adly on Pexels.com

The first adventure was to warm them up. I was going to let them be goddam heroes and throw small hordes of easily defeated monsters at them. I was going to give them hostages to break out in a daring escape, maybe face off with the enemy leader and thwart the even stranger, deadlier nemesis who defines the backdrop of the narrative.

Alas, it was not to be. They believed they had reached the final encounter. They had not. The Prince Under the Reef was not the monster’s commander as they thought. I’m chuckling as I write this because some of them will only realise as they read this… yeah, it gives me an amusing tingle.

The adventuring party had, in fact, only reached the third to last encounter in the natural dungeon setting. They had suffered some terrible wounds and faced some unsightly horrors, many of them surprises. Up to this point they had advanced in a somnambulistic way perhaps thinking that, being the first part of a what was promised to be a long running campaign, they would have it easy. To some degree this was right.

grey skulls piled on ground
Photo by Renato Danyi on Pexels.com

Allow me to explain:

As a DM I had done my research, read endless articles by other DMs & GMs, consulted the oracle that is Reddit and gone back to basics. I even wrote this article, which, if any of them had read it, may have given them a clue into what to expect. I threw low-challenge creatures at them, made the monsters act in a fantastically pulp manner, unthinking but not to be mocked.

Then I hit them with a monster whose challenge rating was a single point higher than their party level. He was a large humanoid, fighting on even terms. He didn’t even rush them, instead he paused and waited to see if they would parley, to see if they could talk to him and see if they could find peace. They outnumbered him but they seemed tired – his minions had carried out their task of killing the adventuring party with a thousand paper cuts. All he had to do now was thrust his trident into the open wounds and finish them off.

What followed was five rounds of bloody mayhem.

The bird-man monk fell first, the priest next, followed by the halfling rogue who couldn’t quite dash into cover, leaving the archer as last-elf-standing. It was a bold gesture to cast away that bow and draw a long sword, after-all, the enemy had thrown his trident at them previously, disarming himself in the process. Both combatants were heavily wounded.

Dungeons and Dragons D&D D&D logo Wizards of the Coast WotC RPG Gaming Tabletop gaming
Taken from media-waterdeep.cursecdn.com 6/2/19

The elf stood little chance.

While the fight continued, his comrades bled to death on the wet subterranean sands of the oceanic grotto. Some would stabilize but be useless to sway the flow of battle. As the sun’s final rays set against the turbulent waves above, my heroic adventuring party slumped to the ground in a final gasp below the waves.

As the DM, I had defined my dungeoneering destiny and finalised the characters fates by not holding back. I had lulled them into a false sense of security and then pounced upon them with a well calculated challenge. Or so I thought.

The daft thing is: I expected them to get to the final encounter and then suffer tremendously through a terrifying race across an underground, underwater grotto ala Indiana Jones’ cinematic dash, avoiding natural traps and pitfalls as they barrelled along heroically.

In a nutshell, the DM did not hold the player’s hands and guide them through. I realised that if there is to be any fun in the game, it has to be risky. I knew this already, but the temptation to guide the players through the story had flattened the experience for me… it had simply lost some of its fun.

As for the players, well the fun reached a happy height above our gaming table. Although they were getting ripped to pieces, bleeding all over the place and possibly facing death (well, actually they did) they all seemed happy to go along with it.

Here’s the kicker for the players though – that challenging encounter left the monster with just twelve hit points. TWELVE! That’s one good or two average hits with a long sword… but the dice rolling was poor, and I was using my specially reserved Dungeon Master Dice. They never let me down.

So there you have it:

Dungeon and Games Masters, don’t be afraid to roll up your sleeves and kick their arses if it’s all going wrong, you’ll all enjoy it!

And Players; never trust the DM. Ever.

We’re sly a bunch.

J.D. Ferris

Is Playing DnD Online Better Than In Real Life?

A new game of Dungeons and Dragons is always a nerve-wracking event as a Dungeon Master. There is so much to do, especially if you want to write your own adventure. Then you have to consider your players, you never really know what they are going to do, or if the content you’ve written will be “enough”.

Well last night I embarked upon a new campaign, written in about a week, using a digital tabletop which I’d never used before (I also haven’t ran many campaigns online), with an entire party of players I didn’t know. I don’t think it’s possible to present a DM with more of a psychological or physical challenge.

And frankly it was one of the best sessions I’d ever had.

This article is an attempt to get more people into DnD online. As a DM, you invest so much time and effort that it can be hard to step out of your comfort zone, but this session reminded me why that’s important.

We used Roll20: the free virtual tabletop which provides an absolute ton of functionality and really brings you as close as you can possibly come to being around a table. The dice roller even lets you roll big 3D dice!

https://roll20.net

As the DM, I found that every little need I had was met: I could set up encounter tokens, NPCs, new maps, handouts and even track initiative on the tabletop. This allowed me to involve the players in every part of my preparation. They could see the gears in motion so the session never really stalled or lost pace when I was setting up the next encounter.

For tracking characters we used DnD Beyond. An amazing official website by Wizards Of The Coast, which basically gives you every tool and rule to set up a campaign and actually play it. The site requires an entire article of its own, but suffice it to say that as a DMs and character’s toolbox, this site has it all.

https://www.dndbeyond.com

Then lastly we come to my players. I was so nervous about these guys, I’d never met any of them before, we just set up the game on a discord server I frequent before christmas then last night, there we were, confronted by a whole slew of new experiences.

As a DM, you always hope that your players are going to “get” your game, and certainly I was worried that my game style wasn’t necessarily going to be compatible with how they wanted to play. My fears turned out to be completely unfounded, as they really got their teeth into my session in a way that made the effort totally worth it!

This proves to me, that playing DnD online, with strangers is not such a daunting task as it used to be. The free tools are so good these days that you hardly feel divorced from the table. It certainly opened my eyes and I hope you give it a chance too! Especially if you can’t give up the time and effort it takes to get together with people on a particular day. As a 29 year old who works odd hours, that’s become of great concern to me in recent years, so last night’s session was almost a weight off my mind:
As long as you have a computer, you can play DnD.

Until next time,

Fozzie.

How to Write Single Session Adventures for RPGs (with examples)

Whether you’re new to RPGs like D&D or you just want a fresh perspective as a veteran, we’ve got some suggestions to creating a single session adventure in a couple of hours (which, over a week isn’t that long at all when you think about it).

Writing a whole campaign for table top role-play games like Dungeons & Dragons can be daunting, especially if you’re new to the role of games master (GM) or dungeon master (DM). It doesn’t need to be difficult, which is why I’m setting out how to write a single session adventure and how make it a worthy story!

Definition

A single session adventure takes place for a single gaming session – usually around 3 hours or an evening of game play. It is designed to resolve itself by player interaction at the end of the session, allowing the players to move their characters on. It is a great way to introduce yourself as a new GM to the game because the effort involved is minimal compared to writing a full campaign. That said, extra credit for proper design such as maps and non-playing characters really helps!

Single session adventures need to be concise, so some of the work the GM has to undertake can be a bit more intense: the game needs to start succinctly, the players need to be hooked in right from the start and the game needs to build up to the end smoothly.

I’m going to be running with an adventure example so you can see how it builds up. If you’re lucky I’ll throw in some diagrams to explain what I’m talking about.

Note: I’m not writing this with any game system in mind, although I’ll use generic fantasy elements like those found in D&D. The advice and technique should apply to just about any setting or game.

First Step: The Facts

Identify what the facts are in your adventure – this is the most creative part of the design stage because what you’re doing is setting the plot. The players don’t need to know these facts – it is their job to find the clues and put the pieces of the puzzle together much like a murder mystery show. The clues culminate into the facts and then there is a resolution, in games like Dungeons & Dragons this is normally the second to last encounter: facing the enemy.

Look on the facts of your adventure like the synopsis of a story or a film. It needs to be only be a line or two at most.

Example fact: A Hag is living near a village and has sleep-charmed one or more of the villagers to kidnap young children and take them to her grotto where she devours them or uses them in dark rituals to proliferate her coven. Travellers have also gone missing in the night, leaving all of their belongings behind in the small village inn.

From this simple factual synopsis, we have the antagonist of our story, the method and locations of their actions and finally a reason as to why – creating her own coven of hangs or witches.

Second Step: The Clues & Encounters

A single session adventure should have no more than 3-4 key encounters where the players are able to discover clues. Clues are simple bits of information that, when combined with other clues point the finger or give a direction for the players to investigate further, leading to the showdown encounter which is the resolution. Clues do not have to be combat engagements – your players will be playing different characters with different skills and abilities and you are going to want to provide something for everyone in some of your encounters. Each clue should involve a different style of play to accommodate skills and abilities. This is a story, not a series of fights.

Here’s a diagram showing ways you can organise your clues to make the adventure coherent to you and your players. It is not a comprehensive diagram, but covers the basics which should be more than enough for your single session adventure:

clues for resolutions

Route 1 is linear and fair for first time players. Route 2 starts with the first clue, requiring at least clue two or three to be discovered before heading to the final resolution. Route 3 implies that any clue may lead to the end resolution. Personally, Route 2 is my chosen style as it gives the players a natural feel for the progression of the plot and doesn’t lead right to the resolution after a single clue.

Examples clue encounters

I’ve picked four clues which the players may encounter.

The first clue is that a child vanished in the night from the family’s log cabin. The players can investigate the cabin and realise that there are no signs of forced entry, and under questioning the parents, the bar to the front door was still in place in the morning. Rogue like characters, or trap masters will enjoy setting up their own traps to see where the thief comes from, or analysing the events, possibly suspecting the parents (which is true, but the parents are not aware of their actions).

The second clue is that the elders of the village have been having dreams where they have taken up their young ones and carried them through the forest in the dead of night, to a stone altar where a beautiful woman waits in a strange scant clothing, a tall horned figure lingers in her shadow, never quite realised clearly. Stone altars, strange large creatures and witch-like individuals should inspire the lore masters and religious or cult focused characters.

The third clue involves tracking bare footprints that lead from the village into the forest. Outdoor characters and hunters / trackers will enjoy finding clues such as broken branches or torn clothing (matching the villagers nightwear). Nature characters such as druids will likely notice that the fauna of the forest is very quiet, and that there is evidence of corruption in the flora: leaves are slightly yellowed, new growth is not as vibrant or strong.

The fourth clue is optional, as the players may not try to set up a watch and see if another child or traveller goes missing. This clue / encounter should lead the party into the thick of the forest where the hag will be awaiting her sacrifice. The players will likely forcibly engage the hag, who will make her escape and let the horned figure do her fighting. Tracking the hag from here will lead to the final resolution.

If you feel the party is going too fast, you can include some other encounters as red herrings – bandits camped nearby the main road, wandering monsters which, once dealt with, turn out not to be the culprit!

You should write short introduction paragraphs for each area which gives the details the players need to start investigating. Use the clues you have already written to help you with this. My example is attached to the first clue – clues two and three can probably fit into the map of the village we’ve already given to the players.

“The abandoned cabin sits in shadow, empty of life. The door has been flung open, the bar that held it shut discarded on the floor. From the outside, the various windows have remained closed, firmly held shut by their wooden bars. Inside is cold, hidden away from sunlight and without a fire to keep the house dry. The three rooms are separated by door frames covered in heavy fabrics. The beds are disturbed.”

From this description, your players will want to begin their investigation of the various rooms, asking you questions and poking around for more clues. In this instance, it is clear that the kidnapper did not force their way in, suggesting there is another way into the cabin (which there is not). After a thorough search the players will probably conclude that the kidnapper came from inside the house and may suspect the family – which is another intense encounter which can develop from the clue.

Third Step: Draw the Players In

This is often referred to in RPGs as the plot hook – the device you use to draw the players in and make them want to participate in the adventure. For longer games that last several sessions you can play on plot hooks by enticing players one at a time, but in single sessions you can’t afford to spend the time tailoring the hook for each character.

This is usually the last step for me, as don’t often use personal character hooks (my players are pretty good at that themselves). Arguably this step could be the first or last for many GMs – it’s all down to how you feel about it.

Start the game by asking their characters why they are on the road or why they may be in the village. Take no more than 5 minutes to round this information up. If you have completely new players, you’ll want to do this before the gaming session.

You’ll find that some players are quite good at giving you a little bit of character plot themselves – likely they will provide you some of their own motivation.

Fourth Step: Extra Credits

Maps will be essential to the players immersion for a single session game. Keep them simple: a map of the village will suffice as a centerpiece for the gaming table or space. Make it larger than it needs to be so the players can add to it as they explore or learn about points of interest from the locals – particularly the outdoor type characters, your Rangers, Druids, Hunter etc.

20181113_194321.jpg

Have a dungeon, by all means, but keep it small, maybe 4-6 areas in said dungeon at most. Again, add elements that will give each class or character type something to play with to utilise their abilities such as traps, moral obligations, conundrums, and obviously monsters and bad-guys.

Have a two tailed ending. This is where the clues may allow for different approaches to affect the resolution of the adventure. This could be helping one faction over the other, using a faction to thwart the other or toppling both factions at once. In order for this to happen, consider two or more factions where one is a definite enemy, and the others as possible enemies.

In our current example, one of the townsfolk may have control of the hag, perhaps they hold a fetish which stop the hag from killing them, and so they use the hag for their own agenda, perhaps they suffered at the hands of the villagers years ago and now have an avenue for their revenge. You’ll need to edit your primary fact from your first step.

Fifth Step: Running the Game, Pacing and Rhythm

You should start the gaming session from this point and describe the setting to them from the outset. Leave no room for them to be in different places or occupied with other events unless you can trust the players to come together quickly. I’ve including an example opening description, feel free to use it as a template.

‘Winter in the northern reaches comes sharply this time of year and is unforgiving to the lost and weary. You have been travelling through dark forests for several days. Seeing the first village in what seems like months, you happily head to the warm glow of fires. The village is quiet as occasional snowflakes fall silently. Well wrapped stragglers hurry indoors, some clutching babies close to their chests or dragging resisting children indoors. A single guard approaches holding a torch high to see you all clearly in the growing darkness. She carries a well service sword on her hip. “We don’t see travellers much here – we’re shunned,” she points to a large, scruffy two-story building in the centre of the village, ‘You’ll find rest there, but beware, people have gone missing in the night, locals and travellers alike. If it wasn’t for the coming blizzard, I’d tell you to keep walking.” She nods curtly and continues her patrol.’

In this opening, we set the scene: winter and cold, the characters should be seeking shelter. We give them a location, the village. Being dark, children and being called in, which seems normal at first. The guard, although taciturn doesn’t provide the mission as such, but she does lay the ground work, suggesting the village is not a highly regarded by outsiders and that people go missing. Finally, the players are told a blizzard is coming, so they will likely want to seek shelter and stay a while. Once the players are at the Inn, they can begin questioning the suspicious and untrusting locals, which is an encounter in itself and helps you set up the clues.

So, it is a bit cliché, but this is a working example which I hope gives you an idea of how to draw the players in without making it seem forced. Nothing kills the immersion that keeping your players rigidly in the story, you need them to feel like they want to stay and investigate.

So far, we have the clues, encounters and the plot hook to get the players drawn in. You’ve already got the meat of the adventure set out, now you need to add the garnishes and side orders.

And the last bit…

Keeping the flow of the game is vital for single session adventures. More than ever the party must not dawdle about, wondering where to go next – if they do, they’re eating into the valuable session time and need to get moving. My simple advice here is to keep the players active. If they don’t seem to be doing anything, for example in the evening of the first night at the Inn, then get them to commit to sleep or carry out an action.

If the players are stumped and are not sure what to do next, bring an encounter to them, but make them work for it – don’t spoon feed them! If the following morning they are sat outside wondering where to start, add a small encounter where another child has gone missing: a mother’s shriek. If they still don’t investigate, the villagers gather around the house and begin weeping – another child is missing and then they active ask the characters to help them investigate, which should lead them to the first clue.

There you have it – a single session game planned out and underway in a couple of hours of work. If, like me, you get the odd 10 minutes here or there, jot down your ideas, add to them, let them grow.

If you give yourself a finite number of key encounters, the rest pretty much writes itself and you’ll be steaming ahead with tonnes of possible ideas, just waiting to be played!

That’s all for today!

We’ve been working hard on NaNoWriMo, Pulp RPG, adventures modules, proofing, editing and brainstorm, all whilst holding down full-time jobs. We’re getting there 😉

J.D Ferris, CC

Panic & Perturbation: When Dungeons & Dragons came Under Fire

Dungeons & Dragons had a bad rep in the 80’s and 90’s and was subjected to the moral bashing of the Satanic Panic during those decades. I’d like to tackle some of those moral implications and compare to some of my personal experiences growing up with RPGs.

Moral panic, according to Google’s dictionary is determined as; “an instance of public anxiety or alarm in response to a problem regarded as threatening the moral standards of society.” Moral standing sometimes seems to be the self imposed mantle of older generations and I guess you could also describe it as a fear of the new, or a fear of change, or of the unknown.

Nearly a month ago I wrote an article on the benefits of games like Dungeons & Dragons for friends and family, outlining the educational needs of not only standard subjects such as math, but also of morals and ethics, which could be learnt through experience in a safe role-play game environment.

We have seen a lot of moral panic historically: Puritans and the fear of Witchcraft in the 1600’s caused the murder of both men and women, purely on superstition. The prohibition era banned alcoholic drinks, where normal people had to go underground to get a drink or two in polite society. Most drug propaganda is scientifically defunct, and has been for years yet people still believe the end times will be the result of drug use. Marijuana is now legal for recreational use in places like Canada.

Back to D&D. I touched on a subject in the original draft which I later removed because some readers thought it would alienate the crowd I was trying to help. This article is the debate I removed; why dungeons and dragons got such a bad in previous decades and is still considered sinful.

I wanted to find out where the bad rep for Dungeons & Dragons came from, and what sources I could muster to get the message across that it is not a masterpiece of the devil, and is actually good for people.

ash background beautiful blaze

A simple google search ‘problems with D&D’ finds material related to the moral and ethical implications of playing Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) for kids. Websites like this still exist, where people are denouncing the “dangerous” act of playing this wonderful game. They are also the sort of groups that are pro-life and offer little evidence other than their own testimony. Here’s an excerpt on their opinion of D&D:

“We have serious concerns about “Dungeons and Dragons,” as well as some of the other popular fantasy role-playing games (RPGs).

“On one level, “D&D” is about strategy and mathematical skill, and there are players whose interest would remain strong even if its mystical and magical elements were replaced with other kinds of imagery. That doesn’t change the fact the game includes occultic elements. Some former players have said that “D&D” brought them into contact with demonic activity. Such claims need to be taken very seriously.”

“A second problem is that this game can become an obsession. Some gamers have been known to play for 48-hours straight, forgetting to eat or sleep due to their intense focus on “D&D.” Responsible parents worry about this particular aspect of “D&D,” and maybe you should, too. Entering a fantasy universe and assuming a different personality can be addictive for some gamers, particularly those who tend to be isolated or who have a hard time connecting with people in the real world.”

I’m going to treat this game and it’s creators as innocent until proven guilty – like any good lawyer, I don’t have to prove their innocence, I only have to cast doubt on the allegations.

Now, I’ve been playing D&D for years. It is a wondrous game filled with mythical beasts and adventures that know no real bounds. The sky isn’t even the limit. There’s no evidence provided to back up the claims that this site has made, particularly when it says:

“Some former players have said that “D&D” brought them into contact with demonic activity.”

Who said that, and on what record did they find this? Is it something they have logged themselves and have they reported this to a local authority to investigate? I suspect the answer is no – because the real world does not believe in demonic activity, only human activity, which can be evil.

While I’m at it, have you ever heard the news say that underage smoking is on the rise? Kids will say things to look cool to their peers. In all the people I knew in high school in the UK, a fraction of them smoked, the rest of us didn’t have the money or knew it was bad for you. If you ask kids if they smoke and tell them their answer will remain a secret, a good number of them will tell you they do smoke. Because it’s funny to lie to the authority and get away with it. The same can be said for coming into contact with demonic activity- sure, the demon told me to smoke, take drugs and piss on the grave of the high school mascot.

“Entering a fantasy universe and assuming a different personality can be addictive for some gamers, particularly those who tend to be isolated or who have a hard time connecting with people in the real world.”

I was one of these people who found D&D addictive. But what this fails to realise is that in order for me to play the game, I have to have people with me to play. You can’t play it on your own. It is only as addictive as reading a good book, or spending time with friends. And yeah, I had a hard time connecting with people at school – most of them were dicks. The people I enjoyed spending time with got me into the hobby, it was our escape from shitty high school politics and social constraints. It did us good and they’re all still good friends 25 years later, with families of their own and jobs which help them pay for the stuff they like.

This is the sort of argument which still goes on today. I will freely admit there have been times where I would rather be playing D&D than getting drunk under-aged on cheap alcohol (marketed specifically at kids). And yes, there have been records of people running marathon sessions of D&D for 48 hours – is it no the job of parents to know exactly where their child is and what they are doing?

As a kid, it would be impossible for me to play a 48 hour solid game of D&D and get away with it. I think they are mistaking D&D with online games like World of Warcraft. This is likely another example of a misinformed accusation, a likely bad parenting.

dark-art-2838965_1920

So where did the moral panic begin with D&D?

There was a tragic series of events which were blown out of proportion, sucked up by the media platforms of the 80’s and 90’s and amplified through TV and various fundamental groups – one of these groups starting with single instigator, probably the most famous.

I don’t have a problem with this instigators, personally. I’ll briefly explain why.

I have sympathy for her – she lost her son, a gifted young man who was considered a bit of a genius. Patricia Pulling lost her 16-year-old son to suicide and like any parent she wanted to find the cause of it. It’s a natural reaction. Since she did not understand one of her sons’ hobbies and likely had a religious upbringing herself, the game of D&D become the target of her concern. Likely she feared its nature – fantasy and fiction. As the Jedi say, fear leads to hate and hate leads to the dark-side. Right up until her death in 1997, she campaigned against role-playing games like D&D.

Why?

She believed her son had fallen foul of a real-life curse through playing D&D. Occultism played a large part in the moral panic of that era. People genuinely believed that D&D was a gateway to doom or the devil. But why? What events in the universe allowed this tenuous link to take hold?

The Devil, Satan or whatever you call the moralistically-challenged entity that some people believe exists to tempt mankind to hell, is seen in all manner of daily things. Large businesses and corporations are surrounded by conspiracy theories. Some people think the Starbucks logo is the devils head upside down, in the form of a goat-like being. Of course, Reddit was the source of much amusement for this one.

I digress.

People thought that playing in a fantasy world would allow kids of the era to lose control of themselves, lead them into madness and dark places, struggle with reality. The fact that the world was already a dark place, with war, corruption, famine, plague and terrorism on the rise, meant nothing to these groups – it had to be the thing they thought they understood and ultimately feared.

So, what is wrong with the argument that playing D&D is likely to end up with your soul lost in the other world, unable to escape (other than sounding like the main plot for Stranger Things)? Well, other than not believing in the popular misconception of the occult (I’ve read too much horror fiction), it’s that you would have to play the game with some seriously shady people to act as the third-party sales person to Hell.

I play with respected friends who are now doctors, teachers, nurses and therapists, how about you? We all started in the spare room of a family home, secluding ourselves away to enjoy an adventure of the imagination. I enjoyed the ride and not once did I feel my soul pulling away. But what about the moral implications of playing a game where the moral alignment of a character gets murky?

death-161695_1280

To see an original copy of the text that Puller was circulating to police, schools and other authorities, check out the escapist, who has scanned in the text for you to read. There’s a good page by page critique if you’ve got the time to read it too.

Most of what is said or argued is pretty loose when it comes to examining the details, and evidence is really pushing it as a description. Now, admittedly this was in the time before the internet – people didn’t have as much information at their fingertips. Education was something you either got from school, the library or church. No offence people of the 80’s, it wasn’t your fault.

The moral ambiguity partly stems from the alignment game mechanic. In D&D there is an axis of Law to Chaos, Good to Evil, with neutral being in the middle of both. You pick one from each axis, for example you could play lawful-good (a really upright member of a community) or lawful-evil (most politicians today), chaotic-good (Robin Hood sort of chap) or chaotic-evil (rampant, crazy and undoubtedly evil). So, what is to stop us all playing chaotic and evil characters and indulging in some crazy killing spree?

Well, nothing really.

But here’s where it is interesting – D&D creates situations where you may not have considered your actions thoroughly. The referee of the game, the Dungeon Master (DM) acts as the storyteller and explains what happens by interpreting the dice rolls of the players, gauging the success or failure of their actions and endeavors. The DM also tells or shows the story, acting as the narrator. A good DM thinks ahead. This DM/Player interaction is shared between a group of people, so the chances of it turning into a descriptive, murderous, sex-spree is unlikely. People are normal.

If a player wishes to play an evil character, they are usually the odd one out, and the DM, as a good referee of the game will point out that acting in evil ways will always have consequences, often resulting in the death of the evil character.

There are safe moral lessons in D&D – we may think that killing Orcs and Goblins in their cave lair is the right thing to do, but what happens when we stumble upon their young? It makes your players stop and think for a moment, asking themselves if there is a different way to approach this?

There are some powerful fictional deities in the fantasy world of D&D – do enough evil and you will attract the attention of the lawful good gods, controlled by the DM. Your character won’t last long.

Finally, D&D is a cooperative game, an evil character in the adventuring party is usually at a ratio of 1:4 – they will be outspoken by the other players and their game will not be as fun.

Ethan Gilsdorf says it better than I can in his book on fantasy role-playing. It was given to me as a gift by a good friend when at University who I had introduced to the game. Gilsdorf says:

“For me, the most interesting D&D games ask players to face murky ethical and morals situations, and force them into questionable behaviour” … “Does your ‘good’ character torture a goblin to get useful information that serves a higher goal? Is it okay to use a magic item that exerts mind control over other creatures to defeat a foe? D&D poses all these questions and provides opportunities for role-playing and testing ideas and decisions, all in a safe way, one that has no consequences in the real world but does teach us important lessons about how we might, or should, behave in the real world ourselves. Triumphing over that evil force helps reset our moral compasses.”

Ultimately society has to become far more objective and skeptical when we are approached by people trying to help us out, who tell is that we need to fear something based on their knee-jerk reactions and anecdotal data – even those who act as scientists have fallen fowl to speaking up without actually collecting facts and viewing them with an objective eye.

Fortunately science was able to correct the problem in the mid 90’s and sort out much of the lies and misinformation and admit that some of what was said as fact by therapists and officials was simply wrong. Science is good, but is easily misconstrued by false prophets.

Ultimately we have to learn, as a society, to see a moral panic when it happens. If we can do that, and not get caught up in the stinking mess, we may actually stand a chance at peace and harmony. Particularly if we learn from the mistakes of our ancestors – something which we need to maintain now that the generations of the world war are nearly gone.

J.D Ferris, CC

baphomet-1268555_1920

D&D and Dice Manipulation – Two opposing styles of Dungeon Masters

I’ve been thinking really hard recently about why I enjoy some Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) games over others.

Let me explain; we run a gaming session where the DM chair is a hot seat – we take it in turns to run a game that lasts 3 or more sessions to keep the game fresh. We play once a week for about 3 hours. The world is continuous, so whatever happens in one adventure still happened when a new DM takes over. We each have a personal pool of characters we choose for each new adventure, which kind of builds up a nice cohort experience (oh cool, today I’m playing alongside Sam quick-fingers, I love that guy!)

Switching DMs has its good points; we never burn out as the DM and if a style of play or game session isn’t working, we aren’t stuck with it for too long. We have our own styles of adventure design and things go well.

What I’ve struggled with over the last couple of years is the fudging of dice rolls as a DM. I know I do it on rare occasions to ensure that most of what I’ve written is never missed, so long as the narrative of the game is maintained, and I know it happens with the other DMs in the group, and of course outside of that group (I play D&D over a large area of players).

wallpaper_1280x960 (1)

What am I talking about?

Dice fudging is when you, as the DM, roll your dice behind your nice screen in secret and choose to omit a certain dice roll for whatever reason; avoid killing a character by accident or in a lame fashion, making that save for the NPC so the encounter has some meaning etc. I prefer the term dice manipulation, as we’re not always disregarding the dice wholly, we’re just trying to make our session better.

It isn’t cool for a player to fudge their dice rolls – we call that cheating, so why do we as DMs accept it as part of our game?

I’m in two minds about it currently, and I’m hoping to put a case forward for each style of play.

Benefits of dice manipulation

When we manipulate the result of a dice roll, often we are doing so to keep our narrative on track and stop the train from derailing itself by chance. This isn’t really a bad thing, as the effort we put into the design of the game and the story should be fully realised. Sometimes the party will miss a vital clue or aspect of your game which they really need to see, so it is more of a gentle nudge.

Encouraging new players to games like D&D may require them to enjoy their first few sessions in a safe environment. Since our first characters to the game are often the fondest, losing that character can really put a new player down, especially for the younger ones.

As a DM, we can cover up our mistakes by smoothing over something we hadn’t taken into account, such as forgetting about a creature’s ability to survive certain conditions (or not) or realising too late that the monsters stat line makes it too easy to kill a character in a single, easy to hit roll.

These ideas are all fine and dandy, but when we take a closer look, are we not just pandering to players expectations of an easy game or covering our own shortcomings of a poorly written or thought out adventure?

Why we should NOT manipulate the dice

For better or worse, luck is part of the game – it’s why we use dice. As mentioned before, in a situation where a player decides to manipulate the dice roll, we call it cheating. Technically the DM can’t cheat as they are the arbiter of the rules and guidelines, but the element of chance should stand up to our rolling too – if there’s a critical roll of the dice that decides the outcome of the whole adventure, chances are we’ve done something wrong in our design step. Whatever the roll is, the players must keep to it, so why shouldn’t we?

The game is hard and so surviving the game should be the greatest reward of all. If we take away this element of danger from our players, we’re allowing them to succeed with ease and that isn’t in the spirit of things. Nothing adds tension to the game like knowing your DM is not averse to wiping your lovely creation out with not so much as a grin.

Every action has a consequence, and if the players rely on stupid ideas working when in the reality they didn’t or shouldn’t, we’re not doing them any favours. Knowing the action could fail, knowing that their character is on the knife edge means they come up with creative but believable ideas and they accept that chance alone is not enough to succeed.

Both styles of DM are valid, I think, and I will expect that if I change my own style to the harsh reality check, then those players I game with are likely to get a little miffed. But they’ll do the same to me, which may rekindle that aspect of the game which I desire most…

Ball-tightening fear.

Fantasy-Art-Images-0134

In an odd sort of way I’m chastising myself for allowing my player base to get it too comfortable, which has turned both running a game and playing a game stale, unrewarding. A bit of realistic grit in their eye will help my style of game. To that end I have, over the last few months, stopped:

  • Handing the players treasure they wouldn’t have found,
  • Avoiding critical hits – they take that damage and they smile at me for it,
  • Creating useless traps that rely on dice rolls only.

Some things I have started to:

  • Create encounters that don’t completely challenge the party right away – I want them to feel like they’re in control right up until the last encounter, where the bad guys don’t mess around.
  • Punish stupid ideas, unless I find them completely amusing – think you can kill a bear with a teaspoon? Try it…

And the result of these changes?

Fully engaged, role-playing groups who soak up the atmosphere and think wisely about what they do. They don’t always get it right, but when they do they really do, and when they don’t? They often end up travelling home to rest before planning another expedition out.

Let me know if you’ve experienced anything I’ve mentioned. We can learn from these opinions…

J.D Ferris, CC

The Awkward, the Bad and the Great – Dealing with the Players

It is often all down to the DM to run the game and make it a good one. There’s always the expectation that this game is going to be as good as the last one or better. It’s capitalism of the RPG world – they want more and more each session. But the game isn’t purely the responsibility of the DM; players are there too and the expectations of all involved should be considered.

The expectations of the players are more varied than we might think; some are there for the story, others for the thrill of the dice and fewer, thankfully, are there to roll dice and crunch the numbers like Scrooge on Tax Day. Unfortunately for you, as the DM, you have to balance all of these aspects, but you shouldn’t pander to them all – it’s your game too.

I’m going to assume that you play with people you know, that they are reasonable people. I expect there are unreasonable players out there – the internet is full of those stories, so I’ll touch on those style of players too.

This article is about the bad players, the awkward players, but also the good players – and we’ll cover how to deal with the bad ones, and encourage the good ones. But first, let’s talk about the ones that aren’t bad players, they’re just… awkward.

This is all my opinion, and you’re welcome to discuss them, share some stories of your own – we can only learn more.

human fist

The Awkward Ones

The awkward ones, like the Deep Ones, are often hidden at first. We may think that their first character is just a bit of a buffoon and that soon they’ll get into the story. Sadly however this will not always be the case; sometimes we see an Awkward One develop and we need to make sure they don’t derail the story accidentally, or otherwise.

slippery foot dangerous fall

Comedic or one-dimensional characters may seem like a little light relief the first time have a tendency to become habit for some players. The first time it’s all fun and there’s no problems, but often these players will see it as scoring social points for themselves; it will feel good for them and so the habitual pathology sets in, the player now thinking that funny = best game ever! Eventually this will ruin the flavour and immersion of the game.

How do you deal with this sort of situation? In my experience the best solution is tact. Quite often a player like this needs attention, which in itself is not a bad things; we all need attention sometimes, but for the comedic player, it feels new and good and they probably don’t realise.

Give them a bit of space to enjoy being comedic, but encourage wit and humour rather than outlandish and excessive. A quiet chat after the first session to explain to them that actually, yes it can be amusing, but the harmony of the game is broken by the ever increasing hair brained ideas. People will laugh, then chuckle, then get tired real quick of it. There’s no need to kick them out of the group, if they’re willing to keep their exaggerated theatrics in check. Promise to reassess the situation if they seem amenable to the idea.

police money finance funny

The DM who Hijacked your game thinks they know better or perhaps don’t realise they are not the focus of attention anymore. This is normally purely accidental; as DMs we can grow accustomed to the idea of being the focus of attention, since we run the game and very little interaction or action occurs without our help. This one is fairly simple, you call the shots for this game, don’t be bullied into changing your mind, unless of course the idea they put forward is sound.

Chatter boxes, or social annoyances, who talk about non game stuff and don’t know when to stop, potentially ruining the immersion and tension in the game. I tend to get this out of the system of players before the game starts by having a catch up chat, getting all the news out in the open and discussed before sitting everyone down. I also ask that all media that isn’t relevant to the game is taken away or turned off, or at least not in sight.

If it’s persistent, you can ask that player, politely and aside from the others at a later time, if they want to be there to play the game or just because their friends are there. It’s cool to hang out, but don’t detract from the fun of the game that we enjoy.

Showboaters just love the attention and want to get in on the action whenever they can. This isn’t bad for a game that needs a bit of life injected into it (especially if it has been a hard day at the office). What isn’t cool is overriding other players or butting in on their turns to act.

This is a hard juggle, but as DM you are justified to point out whose turn it is, and that if a player needs the showboaters help or advice, they can ask for it. Remember, we don’t want to cut off their enthusiasm, we just want to let them know that other players are entitled to the limelight too.

purple liquid poison on brown wooden surface

The Bad Ones

Before I get into the stereotypes of bad players, I’m going to talk about the nature of the conversation around your gaming table (or wherever). It is best to openly discuss with your players before you start playing what sort of behaviour you all find acceptable during the game and on the sidelines; I’m talking about racism and sexism, amongst others.

It is perfectly acceptable to have these as elements in the game, it is after all usually set in a backward or less liberal society than our own. For this reason, you should let people have a say in what they find comfortable. If it’s a no from them, it should be a no from you, and vice-versa. D&D is an inclusive and cooperative game, and relaxed participants make far better adventuring buddies!

If it does crop up during play, as the DM you should be able to tone it down and talk to the offenders after the game session to suggest they tighten up – it’s ok to hate another race of people in character, but it shouldn’t spill into the real world, the same applies for sexism. If it happens that either of these topics comes out into play and is directed player to player, rather than character to character, you must stop it right away. Call it out, quash it dead. You are the DM, and you run this game.

So, the Stereotypes…

Player stereotypes have come to be identified from the internet – the internet has given us names for the power gamers, the min/max’er, rules lawyer, and the metagamers. Before the internet (I know, was there ever such a time?) we just thought they were annoying players who happened to enjoy the same hobby, so we were delighted at having the new player along for the ride. How wrong we were!

I’ve run a good number of gaming groups beyond my primary group over the years, this is how I dealt with the unhelpful ones.

golden statue under blue skies during day time

Not to be confused with the player who creates an efficient or optimised character, the power-gamer and the Min/Max player are those who either have to have it all at the cost of nothing, or throw everything out of the window to maximise a single attribute, ability or power – and use it at every possible moment. Normally a maturity issue, or the feeling of helplessness in their real lives leads them to want to show the world that they can do the thing, and force it on every situation.

Dealing with these players can be tackled in two ways in my experience: critically evaluate any character sheet prior to your game, with time to allow for changes, or subject your players to constrained resources, for example, only character material from the core Player’s Handbook may be used. As much as I love unearthed arcana and supplemental material, they tend to promote niche ideas into the game which can feel over balanced. These players will then latch onto these cool ideas, and completely overplay them.

Rules Lawyers: Players who spend most of their game in the source material, or spend all their free time reading the books and remembering every single bit of detail are fine, even helpful, like little biological libraries you can call on just by asking. However, it is the ones who keeping calling you out as the DM for your mistakes or lax enforcement of the rules who are the problem. Nothing ruins a cool cinematic moment when the party are about to hit the jackpoint with an amazing idea when the Rules Lawyer calls a stop to the game with the immortal opening line “I think you’ll find…”

blur close up focus gavel

There are very simple ways to explain this or overcome the problem.

First, all the source books ever made for games like Dungeons & Dragons, every single one, are purely guidelines given the misnomer of rules. You, as the DM, are capable of overriding some of those rules now and again if you think it works or if you think for this occasion they can be fudged – heck, most of being a DM is fudging the rules to get the most out of player interactions.

Secondly, if you’re more diplomatic and want to avoid arguments in game, call upon your powers as a DM to completely override their opinion, but only with the promise to review the rules stated after the session and come to a compromise. Or, for this session only you can maintain your DM ruling, and endeavour to assess the rule for next time. Rules lawyers can be compromised with – if they don’t want that, then they are free to evaluate their expectations of your game. You’ll welcome them back with open arms if they wish to return.

Metagamers are those players who use information or knowledge beyond the scope of their character. Weirdly, if you’ve been playing D&D for decades, it is almost impossible to not metagame on some level. There are always repeat or extreme offenders though. It may seem like they’re just being lucky in their assumptions about that monster at first, but eventually you’ll realise that the metagamer is using his or her outside knowledge to influence their actions and maybe even the actions of others.

I deal with this foible in a few different ways: I can ‘reskin’ my monsters in their appearance or stats to keep the metagamer on their toes by describing monsters differently or altering their behaviour style and resistance qualities and combat abilities (which can get exhausting without proper planning). But what if the player is metagaming the plot or story?

Plot metagamers use their vast knowledge of fantasy and sci-fi to guess where your adventure story is going by relying on troupes, or popular fiction to base their predictions on. When this happens, it can be frustrating; the story is often the most creative part of the DM process. How did I deal with this? Well if you can’t avoid current popular stories from movies and fiction, I suggest you plan your adventures with an open ending – whatever the plan was, whoever is the bad guy, make them the second to last badguy, and put someone else who they’ve met previously as the badder bad guy.

Or tell them to get out. 😉

silhouette photography of group of people jumping during golden time

Good Players and Encouraging New Players

This is the nice, positive part to being the DM.

I’ll make this brief, but you get the idea:

Good players…

  • Role-play and encourage role-play from new and old players.
  • They go with the flow regarding your narrative choices and instead of sulking justify the response of their character to keep things going without selling out on their character.
  • They don’t argue with your choices but if they get really narked, they’ll talk to you about it after the session, like a grown-up.
  • They ask pertinent questions, sometimes thinking aloud and usually on their own turn.
  • They play balanced characters, even after 20 years of gaming and realise there’s more to the game than crunching the numbers.
  • Characters they create have flaws, and if they didnt at creation time, they relish the flaws that develop organically from the game – they don’t whine and resist when things go bad – its part of the game.
  • They don’t expect special treatment, but they enjoy their share of the stage lights.

Thoughts and opinions? I’m all ears!

J.D Ferris, CC