I showed a real lack of willpower recently when I casually Googled and shortly after ordered an Xbox Series X despite having a Series S in my possession. I could give all manner of excuses for why I actually bought the dang thing, but the real answer is that I wanted one and it was available. With a massive new console in my possession I had to figure out what to do with the Series S that served as my primary console for the past two years, so I went ahead and plopped it in our living room, set up an account for my partner, installed some titles off of Game Pass I thought they’d enjoy and went on my merry way. Little did I know that I had just taken the first steps towards allowing a Disney-themed game monopolize all of their free time.
At first they just wanted to continue playing our cooperative game of the month, Battleblock Theater, but eventually curiosity got the better of them when I booted up Disney Dreamlight Valley, a game I promptly decided was not gonna be the next ‘big thing’ for me. But their affinity for Disney characters mixed with the slightly more mechanically rich Animal Crossing-esque gameplay loop must have resonated with them because all they wanna do now is hang out with Goofy, Elsa and a horrifying dead-eyed version of Mickey who never seems to close his mouth.
What first started as a vague curiosity has turned into something that resembles an addiction, but in a good way. When I first asked them about their feelings on the game I was met with a lot of, “it’s okay,” and “I just wanna see where it goes.” Recently however they’ve approached me with a gleeful sense of pride while asking, “do you wanna see what I’ve done with my town in that game?” I’ve even checked the Xbox app while I was on my lunchbreak and caught a certain someone tending to their village while ‘working’ from home.
I tease them about their newfound addiction but it genuinely makes me happy to see that they’re having fun with this console that I basically replaced with a bigger, stronger version. They’re a fairly casual gamer and to see them get hooked on a game the way I can sometimes get sucked into games makes me weirdly happy. I don’t know how to exactly explain it but it’s kind of vindicating in a weird way. It isn’t as if they judge me for spending time playing games or anything, if anything they’re incredibly supportive of my gaming hobby and the time and energy I spend on it.
Knowing how bored of the game I would get within a few hours, I’ve already prepped them for the burnout by just installing a bunch of other games I thought they might enjoy on the console, just hoping curiosity will take hold and lead them into something newer and more visually exciting to watch. As of writing this however, that has not been the case as we’re both ‘hotly anticipating’ the Toy Story update for the game, which I think we can all agree is really gonna shake things up.
How I feel about Disney Dreamlight Valley is irrelevant though, because all that matters is that they’re having a good time with it and getting that feeling of satisfaction that a good game can provide. While I wouldn’t mind seeing something different on our TV, or more specifically, hear something other than the same 3 bars of the Mickey Mouse Club theme song, I’m just happy that my partner is happy. What more can you really ask for?
I’ve often heard from other creative-minded folks that one of their biggest problems is actually following through on an idea or a concept. I know I’ve encountered that a whole lot on this very website what with all the “grand plans” that never come to fruition, but instead of examining every aspect of my life that’s been a letdown, I want to look at this problem through the lens of running campaigns in Dungeons & Dragons. I’m always thinking of the next grand adventure I can take my players on even if it’s at the expense of what we’re actively doing, and that’s not great.
At the moment, my group is one month into what’s looking to be a two month hiatus from our Eberron campaign that we’ve been playing for what feels like an eternity. At first I considered this to be a boon considering I had been feeling pretty worn out from the constant creative output needed to sustain our weekly play schedule. I thought that this time away would allow me to essentially get the creative juices flowing once more, which they did… just in a different way.
I had a lot of grand plans ranging from content to mechanics that for our Eberron campaign that for the most part were included. I wanted to make sure that the story wasn’t exclusively told by me, which ultimately led to player decisions (and consequences) being the catalyst for most of the storytelling. I managed this by making sure that character creation was a more in-depth process, where I’d learn not only about their characters, but the NPCs that are important to said characters. Having all this lore and backstory come from the players themselves allowed me to craft a story that’s uniquely tailored to them. Sure, Dungeon’s & Dragons is all about reactive storytelling, but that usually takes some time to really be a factor in any campaign. Ultimately what I’m trying to say is that most of what I prepared for took place before the campaign actually started, which led to me having players that were engaged with the world and its events from the jump.
But even though I’d prepped and planned and put all this time and effort into our campaign, over the weeks and months that we’ve been playing, I’ve started to see the pieces of the experience that aren’t coalescing as well I’d have liked it to. From the setting to the lore, I’m seeing all of these things that I could have improved upon if only I had known how they’d eventually turn out, or if I could have seen how much of a pain in the ass a particular plot point or magic item would have been. Sure I can consider this a learning experience whose lessons I can utilize in our next campaign, but instead of waiting for that transition to come naturally, all I can think about is what could be next instead of what I can do right now.
Whether it be a D&D module, some home brewed setting or even an entirely different game altogether, the waterfall of ideas just keeps flowing. I’ve had ideas for classic fantasy bullshit themed games, space themed games, alternate history, wild west, modern day and so on and so forth, all of which I daydream about way more than our current campaign.
I’d consider this to be a pattern of behavior, where I get really excited about a thing and throw myself headfirst into it, only to burn out on it before I can finish. The amount of maps, music, and artwork I’ve made and sourced for this specific campaign is kind of staggering when I try to take stock of it all. From tons and tons of adventures I can plug into the game, to NPCs who might never see the light of day, to entire game systems that will never be played, to just pure story and lore I’ve written that’s just never going to be utilized, I have a lot of things I could do with our campaign but just never seem to have the energy to follow through on.
But I recognized this as a problem a few weeks ago when I found myself prioritizing literally anything else above actually working on the campaign. But now we’re in the middle of a hiatus, and all I want to do is just play D&D again, something I won’t be able to do for another few weeks. In that time I’ve looked into plenty of settings, modules and games that we could utilize for whatever is next, but with so many options and the inability to meet with all of my players to consider them, all I can do right now is really just work on our current campaign.
But just because our current campaign is the only D&D thing I can confidently work on right now doesn’t mean that I haven’t regained some excitement for it. Being away from that world has given a lot of time to reflect on what I can do to revitalize the experience for myself. While I’ve generated some cool new ideas I’m excited to implement, I’ve also had time to reconsider parts of the campaign that I had planned. It feels weird to say that I’ve been cutting content from our adventure, but I think removing those things is going to help the adventure feel more cohesive and understandable. It also means I can focus on the ending of our story and how I’m possibly going to put a neat little bow on this whole experience.
The moral of this story is that you shouldn’t be afraid to take a break from any creative endeavor if you need it. I personally was feeling drained for so long, and just needed time away from the entire concept of rolling dice and adding numbers. Now I feel refreshed and energized, eagerly waiting for the next session to finally come along, but there’s still more waiting and planning to be done before that happens. I should also consider writing down some of these ideas and expanding upon them rather than just having a list with meandering phrases on them like “dragon(s?)” or “A mountain with legs.”
When I first started running games my gut instinct was to try and make my sessions all be well rounded, providing drama, comedy, excitement and so on and so forth, all at once. The idea was that one person would have a funny quest for players while another would have a more dour objective for them. That’s how it kind of works in video games, so why wouldn’t it work here? Well it wasn’t that it couldn’t work here, it was more that it sometimes led to a sense of emotional whiplash. The party would go from joking with a bartender while breaking the fourth wall, to talking to a grieving widow who is desperate to uncover the culprit for her partner’s murder. It was tonally inconsistent in a way that was very noticeable. More to the point, it made keeping my players engaged and role-playing, incredibly difficult.
Going from joking about a funny looking cow or whatever, to talking about the vast political corruption in the city might work in the real world because we’re all emotionally broken, but in game I’ve found that tonal consistency is valued more than it is in our world. Now, that isn’t to say that I’m forbidding jokes when we’re having a serious conversation, but the way you address that kind of thing is important.
Everyone in every adventuring party wants to crack a joke that’s going to make everyone at the table erupt into laughter, which is fine, but if they’re talking to that poor widow from the example earlier, that widow is gonna call them out. It isn’t about whether I, the DM am calling them out or not, it’s about if the NPC they’re practicing their standup routine on is willing to put up with their shit. There’s no use in me as the DM breaking the flow of the game to tell my players to get serious about our game where dragons and goblins are kicking it with raptors and dwarves or whatever, cause that would be a fun new take on ludo-narrative dissonance.
I guess my point ultimately is that while you as the DM have the power to do whatever you want, wielding that power and using it is a bit trickier. Aside from lambasting my players as the NPCs they interact with, I’ve found that splitting my sessions into arcs has been really helpful for establishing tones. For instance, we’ve had sessions that were very mission focused and others that were just nebulous, allowing the players to go off and do what they want and suffer the consequences in classic D&D fashion. I treat the tone in our games like a pendulum, where some of them are gonna be goof-fests, while others are going to have the characters make tough choices. Trying to keep the pendulum stuck in one direction for too long will almost certainly lead to a harsh swing in the other direction, so it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re not sticking with one theme or tone for too long.
Ironically, that very reason was why we all ultimately decided to stop playing through the Rime of the Frostmaiden module that came out late last year. It was so overly drab and depressing, with an insistence on being dour and bleak throughout the vast majority of the adventure. It sucked and was a colossal downer, so we pivoted. Consider that a lesson learned on my end though, because from here on out, I’m making sure that any game I run has both highs and lows without lingering too much on either.
I recognize that this entire concept of a malleable and shifting tone might be something I value more than a lot of other game masters and players, but I’ve found a lot of success in using this mentality. I allow my players to joke and goof till their heart’s content, but I also know that in a few sessions I’m going to hit one of them with a tough choice that’s going to make their character grow. In a long term campaign, I think these situations and encounters are absolutely necessary to keep both the story interesting and your players engaged. While this post is about adjusting the tone to match the content of the session, all of this stuff is, in my opinion, extremely important to another very instrumental part of campaigns, which is allowing the characters to grow.
Every campaign I’ve run starts with at least one person trying to make a joke character, which is fine. But I always tell them that making a joke character and giving them a goofy name is really going to bite them in the ass further down the line. When the king of the land comes to you, hat in hand, and begs your party for help in finding his missing wife, it’s really going to undercut the whole mood of the campaign when he has to say, “I come to seek the aid of the noble knight, Fart Garfunkel. I shall pay a king’s bounty for the retrieval of my missing beloved wife.” Like, that whole scene is going to suck on so many levels. Maybe the first time it happens, it’ll be hilarious. The second, third, hell, maybe even the tenth time it happens it’ll still be a gut-buster. But doing that puts this artificial ceiling on how much your character can grow because they’ll never be taken seriously by anyone in your party, let alone the actual human beings at the table.
Every party, campaign, player, and character are so different, so maybe my advice doesn’t apply to your current situation. But I truly believe through extensive trial and error, that being able to set a tone from session to session is extremely important to allowing the players to experience a great story. While they might not remember the name of the big bad guy or whatever, they’ll remember the ebbs and flow of a campaign that tonally mimics the real life experience. Some days are good, some days are sad, and it’s okay to have your player-characters experience that too. Otherwise, they’re nothing more than a series of stats on a page with a name like Fart Garfunkel.
One of the best things about tabletop role-playing games is just how much versatility a player has in any given situation. Any good GM should be able to accommodate any reasonable request from their players, but the real fun come in when a player completely sideswipes you with some genuine shenanigans. Having to adjust and improvise on-the-fly is an absolute thrill that really tests my abilities to honor the request of the player while adhering to the rules and story. It’s a tough thing to develop, but it’s a necessary skill to have when running a game.
During one of my first ever games I ran, the first thing that a player of mine did was just say they were doing something, which in this case was taking a pouch of gold off of an NPC. My first reaction was to prompt them for a sleight of hand check which seemed pretty reasonable in my mind, but then they clarified and said “no, I’m just taking it.” They made it clear that there was no intent for being sneaky or surreptitious at all, they just literally wanted to take a thing that belonged to another character without any resistance. Knowing what I know now, I shouldn’t have relented and instead made them roll a contested strength check or just tell them that wasn’t going to fly without a check, but when you’re starting out you just want to please everyone and let them run free.
Don’t do that. While it may seem counterintuitive to tell your players they can’t do something, sometimes you need to remind them that TTRPGs, while a great forum for wild improvisation, are by and large very rules-heavy games. It isn’t about just saying “no” to your players, rather you need to refocus their energy so they can work within the guard rails of whatever system you’re playing. Saying “no” repeatedly to a player might result in them just checking out entirely or feeling as if they’re being picked on, so usually I try to encourage my players to try a different tactic or work with them to accomplish whatever ridiculous thing they’re trying to do.
Because I play with my friends, there’s a built in level of respect between all of us. They know that I’m trying to give them as much flexibility as I can without completely throwing out the rule book, and I know that they’re going to respect me when I tell them that there’s going to be a couple of extra steps required in the insane shit they’re trying to pull off. I ultimately want their characters to succeed in whatever they’re doing, but that doesn’t mean I have to make it easy on them and let them dictate what rules are and aren’t enforced.
There are plenty of ways that you can help work with your players to accomplish their goals, but for my money I’ve found that just asking my players if they have any abilities that would aid them in their wild requests is something I’ve found not only reinforces the rules of the game, but makes sure they’re paying attention to their character’s unique abilities. But lets say you wanted to be fun for once in your life and just let the players have a good time, well that’s when luck checks, high dice checks and even some deus ex machina can help you loosen up.
Honestly, that’s kind of the secret. If the players want to do a near impossible thing, let them try it and set the DC at 30 and give them disadvantage if you have to. They’ll probably fail miserably if they actually try which could lead to even more hilarious situations. Or maybe they’ll succeed, which might ruin an encounter, but it’ll be a moment they talk about forever. In my experience, I’ve never been so happy to get fucked over by the dice thanks to a rogue natural 20, because the players eat that shit up.
Allowing your players to try something rather than just shutting them down is something that I truly believe you have to do in order to foster a positive gaming environment. If you don’t let your players have fun, they’ll eventually stop caring and stop playing, but if you let them get away with anything then you’ll probably want to stop playing. Having been on both sides of that divide I can attest to how difficult striking that balance can be, but I assure you that striving for that balance is well worth the effort.
I currently play in two Dungeons & Dragons groups, one of which I run and the other I just play in. For my group, we’d been running the newly released Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, while my other was neck-deep in a Dragonlance campaign. However, as we crept closer towards the end of 2020, we found ourselves in the middle of one of the weirdest holiday seasons of all time. So with a lot of people unable to see family and get particularly festive this year, I wanted to do something special for them the only way I knew how to: A holiday themed one-shot. It was also an opportunity for me to move away from the lackluster module of Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden, but that’s a story for another time. Instead, I’d like to tell you the story of Holiday Havoc: The Clausening, the holiday one-shot I ran for both of my D&D groups.
The main conceit of Holiday Havoc was that Santa Claus had essentially transformed his yearly package deliveries into a full, Amazon-esque logistics company called The Holly Jolly Corporation. How this was a sustainable business, I don’t know, but at the North Pole Santa had a big ol’ shipping and receiving center called The Holly Jolly Wish Fulfillment Center. The characters were all seasonal hires that were to be couriers for the evening, with the explanation that Santa is old and figured out a way to avoid doing the work himself. Adventurers were perfect for being holiday couriers, considering they have a knack for problem solving and Santa’s list might not be super accurate, resulting in the players wandering into dangerous situations.
They were outfitted with a sleigh, reindeer, and a magic Santa suit that had illusory capabilities that would make people think they were seeing the actual Santa in their house, and not just a goblin wearing a red jacket. I also needed a way to not have them murder everyone they encountered, cause you know, it’s a festive one-shot. So I gave them these magic bracers that transmutate all their spells into nicer and less deadly holiday themed variants of themselves. For instance, casting fire bolt would result in a piping hot beam of hot cocoa being lobbed at their face. Technically it’s still super deadly, but it’s hot cocoa so my players thankfully stopped asking questions at that odd logic. I also turned their weapons into candy canes, hard candies and peppermint bark, all of which still did the normal amount of weapon damage, but were all non-lethal variants of their armaments.
The general flow of the game was broken down into 3 different encounter types, all of which were important and added something positive or negative to the final scene of the campaign. The first encounter was your standard D&D dungeon crawl, where they would fight against enemies that I Photoshopped festive hats onto, and also find items that could help them later.
The second and most prevalent encounter was the delivery aspect of the game. I had around 10 handmade deliveries that I could send them on, but both groups only made it about 5 of them before we moved to finish the campaign. In these scenarios, I’d describe a home or locale where a present or present needed to be delivered. I made sure to let them know that deliveries weren’t complete until a present was under the tree in an effort to keep them in a situation rather than just run away from one. They could look at their bracers to see who the gift was for, their age, and what the present they wanted was. Here’s an example of what I’d read to them to get them started:
And once they figure out a way inside of the house I’d read this:
Both simple descriptions that give you just enough information with being overly exhaustive. The idea was to essentially let the players help me fill in the blanks of this world via dice rolls and role playing. One of the later houses for instance had a dog inside of it, but the players wouldn’t have known that from the description I wrote of the place. So while they were scoping the perimiter of the house, one of the players gave me a perception check looking for something that I can’t quite remember, but they mentioned a dog. Since they rolled well, I manifested a “beware of dog” sign that was covered in snow that they had uncovered. Building off of that knowledge, they asked if there was a doggy door on the backdoor. They rolled an investigation check and thus found a doggy door that was big enough for their Kenku party member to fit through.
I kept encouraging each player to do something in these scenarios because it would help them in the third encounter type I had made for this campaign. The players were tasked with delivering to 100 houses and a minimum of 1 high-risk location (dungeon crawls). Since I had only made about 10 deliveries like the one described above, I needed a way to simulate their success in these ambiguous deliveries that felt like they had an impact on it, so I devised a new mechanic: the delivery roll. I figured it would be incredibly unfair if I picked a skill from the list and said that it was the delivery skill they’d roll for success, so the delivery roll would just be a straight d20 roll. Something needed to augment this roll though, and I figured tying a modifier to the success and participation level of the previous encounters would be just the thing.
So I told everyone that their successes and failures in the second encounter type would either grant them a +d6 or a -d6 to the ambiguous delivery rolls, and would keep track of their successful and unsuccessful skill checks during these scenes. I told them that not participating meant you’d just get no modifier on the ambiguous delivery rolls, along with the fact that doing well on those meant getting buffs or boons like a random potion or temp HP. There wasn’t an exact science to tracking this stuff, and usually if they ended up doing something hilariously funny or clever I’d reward them for it regardless of how the dice worked out for them.
They had other narrative things to contend with like a rival courier group and the prospect of a prize from Santa for completing deliveries quickly, efficiently and safely as well to keep them engaged in the little story that there was. I also included a Chuck E. Cheese analog in the for of Cheddar Chandler’s Exploratorium, a place that was in the middle of renovations to become a more teen friendly affair called Cheddar Chandler’s Extreme Teen-a-torium. It was a place of dangerous and unfinished challenges like rope swings, scaling big walls, and vague obstacle courses, all of which culminated on the arcade and show floor of the establishment, where the party would face off against a monstrous version of Cheddar Chandler himself, along with his army of break dancing teens.
While that was a blast, there were some other missions that didn’t make the cut for time purposes. For instance, there was an abandoned guild hall that a bunch of goblins had turned into an evil snowman production facility, which seems really normal when you consider that the other scenarios were Home Alone and Die Hard related missions. I wanted to really hit those classic holiday themes hard.
The whole thing culminated in a showdown on the warehouse floor of the Holly Jolly Wish Fulfillment Center against the rival courier group and a bunch of Santa’s elves. They’d come to find that Santa had been corrupted by the magic of being Santa for so long and became just wildly evil, to the point where he had brainwashed the rival couriers into fighting the party. There were some cool things in the factory the party could mess with such as dangerously high speed conveyor belts, explosive barrels and forklifts which one player did try to use, but lacked a key to turn the thing on.
At the end of it all, they’d be tasked with picking a new Santa Claus for the next few centuries. I had no idea how that would end or who they would choose, so I just kind of didn’t write an ending outside of some flowery language around how beautiful the holidays were. Alas, neither group ever made it that far but I sure had a blast running this campaign anyway, and I know they did too. And that’s kind of the only thing that matters, isn’t it?
It’s been a bit since I’ve actually told a story from my D&D games, hasn’t it? Lately I’ve been prattling on about my ethos and how I prep for games, but sometimes all you need is a good story about players being overly confident. So buckle in everyone, cause this one is short but oh so sweet.
For context, our DM had a lot of affinity for the Dragonlance universe, so we ultimately decided to play through a module of their choosing using the D&D rule-set. I don’t know if Dragonlance is its own game or set of modules or something, but I was interested to play it regardless, and so was the rest of my party.
The story was mostly spearheaded through our cleric, a man on a mission to restore the power of the gods who had abandoned the region for some reason. So in a very Wizard of Oz kind of way, the backstory was set up with the cleric meeting each of us on his travels, conscripting us into is mission. Each character had their motivation for finding the gods except mine, who was more loyal to the cleric than his mission. They were buds.
So we wandered around, going village to village in search of anyone who could help point us in the direction of a way to achieve our goal of bringing the gods back. After a few sessions, an NPC we all hated, and a terrible boating incident, we found ourselves deep in a forest where we were on the trail of a derelict temple to the gods. In said forest, we found a village of these dragonborn folks who were praying to an effigy of a big dragon. We had no reason to engage with them outside of the fact that this was the first non-swamp related thing we’d seen in about 3 sessions.
One of the many problems we had was that we’d been fighting these dudes in small packs all throughout the swamp, so they had made it clear they were hostile. We luckily had the drop on them, as they were staring at their effigy in prayer while we approached from behind them. Just to be clear, there were enough of them to fuck us up as efficiently as possible. So we had to devise a clever plan to get by them for reasons I still am not entirely sure about. But unfortunately, overconfidence trumped careful planning which prompted our warlock to flex his charismatic muscles.
He elegantly pranced over to the dragonborn clan, whispering sweet nothings into their ears and caressing their cheeks with the back of his palm. It was like watching a ribbon dancer perform without said ribbon. As he performed his floor routine in front of the dragonborns, who were now facing in the direction of where we were hiding, he played his dumbest card yet. Quick side note here, he was not a dragonborn, he was just a dude. That’s important to know because he literally tried to convince these fools that he was their god in humanoid form as a way to get them to not attack us anymore.
It was sultry, it was sexy, and it was the best plan he could come up with. With a plan this stupid, how could it not work? Well the dice found a way to fuck us, and our warlock couldn’t charm these lads with his puny roll of 13. So suddenly our warlock found himself on the wrong side of a wall of fire that placed him in a closed arena with about 15 angry dragonborn who just witnessed this megalomaniac try to be the focus of their idolatry. Not a great position to be in.
Initiative was rolled, the dragonborn all got into perfect ass-kicking formation around our warlock, and then my turn came around. I was a tiefling monk, which meant I could both move very quickly and resist fire damage. Wall of Fire is a spell that requires you to make a dexteriy saving throw that if you fail, you take 5d8 fire damage, also known as just enough damage to kill a stupid warlock. So I used my mobility spells and natural fire resistance in tandem, couple that with a good saving throw to avoid the brunt of the fire damage, and I was able to leap through the wall of fire, grab a stupid warlock, and drag him back to the other side.
He failed his saving throw to get through the fire, but we were able to heal him quickly enough and bail out on the entire dragon cult thing. We chastised him appropriately and continued our adventure. But for the briefest of moments, there was the possibility that we could have made an army of dragonborn wreck shop in our stead. And honestly, isn’t that what D&D is all about?
One of the most interesting, fun and tedious parts about being a Dungeon Master is preparing from session to session, but even more of a challenge is preparing a new campaign entirely. My group and I are currently wrapping up our “one-shot” of The Sunless Citadel, a pretty decent Dungeons & Dragons adventure, and are gearing up for our next big campaign. As luck would have it, Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden released just as we were finishing up, so we decided that it would be our next adventure. Being that this is my first time prepping a full campaign, I figured I do it as meticulously as possible. Here’s what’s happened.
Considering I’ve always had some difficulty with absorbing the things I read, I had to approach preparing for Rime of the Frostmaiden from an overly redundant and thorough angle. I can’t just read something once or twice and commit it to memory. My brain just never worked like that so I had to bust out old my note-taking methods from my school days in order to properly tackle this behemoth of a book. What that meant was that I had to essentially read the book paragraph by paragraph, rewriting everything I was reading into a notebook.
The notes themselves, while useful, aren’t really why I’m doing all of this extra busy work. The problem I have is that I need to rewrite something to commit it to memory. I don’t think that’s too uncommon, but it definitely adds a lot more time and effort to whatever it is I’m trying to absorb. But I wanted to be as meticulous as possible, and luckily the book is actually really interesting which has fueled me to continue with this overly redundant way of learning.
Both my notebook and the module itself have tiny little bookmark tabs everywhere that denote all of the important information I might need at a moments notice. I do it in a way that is more granular than the format of the book itself can account for allowing me to quickly access anything from notable characters, town lore, quests, items, hazards and more. On top of that, my notes also point me to whichever page in the book I need to get to, so I’m covering all of my bases to make sure I am never more than a few pages away from relevant information my players might need.
But I don’t want to paint all of this as an exercise in futility or anything, because I’m genuinely enjoying the book on its own. The story in Rime of the Frostmaiden is interesting and captivating as written, and all of my efforts in documenting it are just so I can provide my players with the best campaign I can muster. I get to enjoy the book as is, but my players are relying on me to deliver them an exciting and cohesive story to go along with the actual game itself. If I don’t nail this thing then they might have a pretty lackluster impression of the module, and that would be upsetting on a lot of levels.
Other things that I’ve done in preparation outside of just reading the book has involved making generic encounter maps for the frozen wasteland of Icewind Dale, along with listening to well over a hundred instrumental pieces of music and “soundscapes,” and categorizing them into several different playlists that I can quickly switch between. Is the place they arrived in a happy town? Well I’ll play the happy town songs for them. Is this battle an intense and dramatic one? Got it covered.
I even went as far as to make a 4-page syllabus of just about everything they need to know in order to create characters for this campaign. When I say that out loud it sounds truly insane, but they genuinely appreciated me doing that. When I’m head down on preparing for campaign, the thought that I might be more “into it” than my players always creeps into my mind, but their reaction to getting a literal syllabus was overwhelmingly encouraging.
All of the little seemingly superfluous things I’ve done in preparation I do because I know that it’s worth it. I can describe a battle in the middle of the frozen wasteland just fine, but having a generic snow-covered battle map I can toss up for them will help give them a sense of place and another opportunity to tangibly interact with their characters. Picking out hundreds of music tracks and categorizing them by their “emotional weight” seems ridiculous, but music is so damn important to setting the tone and atmosphere that I find it’s necessary to a successful campaign.
Maybe this article is just going to be met with other Dungeon Masters feeling like I’ve just described what they all do all the time, but to me I feel like I’m really putting in the extra effort to make this campaign a success. Like I said, this is my first time truly preparing for something this large and intricate, and I don’t want to mess it up. Luckily my players seem just as excited for this new campaign as I am, so I don’t think my efforts will go unnoticed.
People often talk about the three pillars of Dungeons & Dragons and how crucial they are when making a well rounded campaign. Of the three pillars, exploration, role-playing and combat, I usually tend to focus on the role-playing pillar the most while paying less attention to the others. I’ve always felt that exploration was the toughest one for me, but as I run more Dungeons & Dragons games with different groups, I find that combat ends up feeling the weakest and least interesting.
Combat always seemed like a layup to me, wherein I could just launch enough monsters at the players and call it a day. It wasn’t until I had to deal with a real slog of a combat encounter where everyone was rolling terribly, that I realized just how bad at these encounters I actually was. Simply pitting stronger enemies against a party doesn’t make for an inherently fun encounter, so I wanted to outline some things that I’ve started to fold into my combat scenarios to make them more interesting.
One of my biggest issues with a lot of Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules, particularly the lower level ones, is that they don’t provide much in the way of variety for the players. Take the 5e book of one-shots, Tales from the Yawning Portal (TYP) for example. In TYP there’s a level 1-3 scenario called The Sunless Citadel, in which a group of adventurers has to go to this mysterious citadel that exists at the bottom of a ravine. While I’ve enjoyed running my players through this scenario, I’ve found that the majority of the fights they’ve gotten into basically turn into slug-fests where it’s just about standing your ground and hoping you hit more than your enemy does.
Most of the battles in The Sunless Citadel go this way, where there isn’t enough space or location variety to do any of the crazy stuff that makes Dungeons & Dragons so special. No one is going to swing from a chandelier or knock a dude into a pit if that stuff just isn’t there, and that’s the problem. These locations tend to lack a lot of variety often just being some dusty old dungeon where something was worshiped in a time long forgotten.
My solution to this is to invite people to flex their creative muscles by allowing them to basically manifest room features (within reason) if they succeed on a good enough investigation or other appropriate check. It can be something as simple as letting them scoop up dust to throw in an enemy’s eyes to blind them, or finding an empty bottle to hurl at a threat. I’m not gonna let them just find a rocket launcher or anything like that, but I think it’s important to allow players to get wacky and shake up the mundanity of just rolling dice to hit armor classes.
Most of the wildest stories you here when people describe their experiences with Dungeons & Dragons tend to come out of some wacky combat scenario, but planning for wackiness is an impossibility. Sure you can put some fun stuff in every room to entice the players, but they might not always take the bait. Instead, I tend to entertain just about every wild thing they want to search for in the midst of combat, and will make a decision then and there.
Level design is incredibly important when making a combat scenario, and I often find that limiting the playing field both in width or height makes for a boring encounter. It’s easy to craft a battle in a single story room, but that doesn’t really afford the players or enemies any opportunities to do much besides just run at or away from each other. Things like pillars and furniture can help for sure, but I find that the best encounters are the ones where the enemies aren’t always in your line of sight.
I prefer battles that span larger areas as opposed to confined spaces, but that’s a broad sentiment that needs to be explained. You can make a combat encounter be on the first floor of a house and call it a day, but it would be far more engaging if the entire house and both front and backyard were in play as well. Sure a battle could just naturally spill out into those areas, but that might not happen which could lead to a bland encounter.
What really makes these encounters slow down to a crawl is when the party starts out all bunched together and there’s no incentive for any of them to move. That’s why you need a diverse location with plenty for the players to explore beforehand that could have them start the encounter off a little scattered. It isn’t a way for me as a DM to punish the party for splitting up, instead it’s a way to make combat encounters more than just a war of attrition. Are the wizard and rogue looking through an office on the second floor while the fighter and cleric explore the lower floors? Great, now the players have to really take into account their strengths and weaknesses and open their decisions up beyond just “what attack do I use?”
If they’re determined to group up again, make that an exciting event that might involve them using a full dash or disengage action. The act of self-preservation shouldn’t feel laborious, it should feel like a triumph. As a DM, you have be able to paint these less flashy actions as a victory for whoever needs to utilize them. Players have so many non-combat oriented abilities they can utilize, but no one will ever do any of them if it’s just about making sure the tank can take all the hits while casters do their work from a distance. My method is to make sure that every player has the opportunity to shine in a given combat encounter, while also putting them in positions where their characters might not be primed to be in. Just don’t be malicious about it.
Make sure everyone has the chance to bail out and regroup if they need to, but give them a chance to be the focal point at all times in combat. Sure all the characters combined are a party that needs to work together, but being a party shouldn’t steal their individualism as characters. The line is quite thin, but making sure that a character both feels capable and under powered on their own is difficult, but I find that when it’s done right it makes for some very memorable moments.
LESS FREQUENT & MORE INTERESTING COMBAT SCENARIOS
This final point also builds on the previous one, but it’s important enough to be its own thing. There is nothing less interesting than opening a door to a small room, rolling initiative, beating the bad guys, then opening another door a few minutes later to do it all over again. It’s tedious and makes battle feel more like a chore than an opportunity for fun. I think combat scenarios should be bigger than just combat in general, which is confusing at first, but let me explain.
So you’ve got your big open mine where a bunch of goblins hang out. There are various natural ramps along the walls allowing for miners to reach new areas, there’s a mine cart track and a large molten lava pit in the center that’s used for smelting. We’ve got ourselves a big open combat scenario right there, but the party is bunched up together as they entered the room and don’t really have a reason to split up. That’s why you need to give them a reason.
Adding multiple objectives to combat scenarios beyond just killing everything is key. Have the players take a look around and find that there are half a dozen detonator plungers with wires leading off of them in various directions. If you visually track those wires, you can see a few of them are attached to explosive charges that are crammed into cracks in the walls. Also, this mine is right below a village of unsuspecting innocent people! Oh no! Now the party has to survive and accomplish a goal to truly be victorious.
But you need to have a contingency plan for when your players just try mage hand the wires off the explosives or something. Maybe some goblins with fire arrows will show up to detonate the charges themselves, or some fire elemental gets summoned to do it. Maybe the goblins are protected by a massive troll who is going to run interference for the party, thus emboldening the slinkier and more nimble characters to go and deal with the charges while the tankier classes try to push the troll into the lava.
That combat encounter alone is way more interesting than just a flat room with 7 goblins running up to you with swords. I firmly believe that adding in objectives, having waves of enemies show up at different times, and having a big space with a lot of different tiny stories going on in them is key. Some goblins are on planting charges duty, some are running defense, that troll is protecting both of those parties. Having all of that going on at once will make for a longer and more memorable combat scenario than the firing squad of goblin archers standing opposite the party.
I’m not the ultimate authority on this stuff, but I’ve had plenty of experience in making boring combat encounters. Adding in some of these elements alone made for a more engaged party in my experience. It’s a shame that Dungeons & Dragons often paints combat encounters into these random occurrences like something out of a Final Fantasy game where you open a door and enemies pop out.
The beauty of Dungeons & Dragons is that it empowers your players to use their imagination to conquer any challenge in their way. Too often I find that new players will use the rules and their abilities as static things, like it’s all they can do. The rules are there to guide you and give you a way to navigate the crazy shit you want to do and not the other way around. Regardless of if you take my advice in this article or not, make sure you’re emboldening your players to be creative whether they’re in combat or not.
I’ll never forget the first time I played Dungeons & Dragons. It was a few summers ago and one of our friends offered to run us through a single session campaign, otherwise known as a one-shot. It was a ton of fun and is the event I attribute to getting me hooked on the game. But there’s one thing that will always stand out to me most about that experience, and that was when we finished the game and our DM pulled me aside and said, “Ari, I play with a lot of people and I can tell when they’re hooked, and you’ve got it.”
That single phrase always stood out to me because of just how accurate it was. He saw something in myself that I never thought would be there, and even as he said it, I thought he was full of shit and just stroking my ego a bit. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Regardless of his intent, he was a thousand percent right.
In the past few weeks, I’ve heard his voice echo in my mind louder and more frequently than ever. That probably has a lot to do with the amount of Dungeons & Dragons related purchases I’ve made in that time, a trend that tragically shows no sign of slowing up.
I’ve bought so many fucking dice and I have no idea why. Even before the pandemic, all of the games I played were online, so why the hell did I buy a ton of plastic dice along with a fancy set of metallic ones? Why did I buy a dice rolling box? Why did I buy several digital rule books and modules, and then also buy their physical editions as well?
Because I need them.
Every time I hear my friend’s voice in my head, reminding me that “I’ve got it,” I can’t help but feel like he cursed me. Right there and then, in the middle of our mutual friend’s kitchen, my DM cursed me to an eternity of buying books filled with adventures I will never experience and dice that I’ll never roll.
One day in the future when we’re allowed to congregate once again, I’d like to believe I will actually make use of these physical items that now occupy my bookshelves. But the odds are these will just be items that I’ll be pissed about having to transport when I inevitably move away from here. I just hope that I don’t start buying miniatures next. Like, yeah they’re cool and you can paint them to look like your characters and stuff… Yeah, definitely don’t want to buy those little guys.
Recently my friends and I shuffled our roles, affording me the opportunity to play in a campaign rather than run one. It’s been fantastic both from a gameplay standpoint along with freeing me up creatively to focus on other projects. Simultaneously another group of friends expressed interest in running a starter Dungeons & Dragons campaign, so being the masochist I am I obliged and started running them through The Lost Mines of Phandelver. And honestly, both games have been tremendous learning experiences that I desperately needed.
I don’t want to imply that I didn’t have fun running home-brew campaigns for my friends, but it did get pretty exhausting from a creative standpoint, which is ultimately why I needed to shift focus from running games to playing them. I agreed to run my other friends through The Lost Mines of Phandelver because I didn’t have to really prepare anything on a week to week basis. Everything is accounted for and fairly well explained, leaving little need for drastic improvisation.
Being a player again allowed me to experience how other people run their games, seeing what rules and mechanics they tend to enforce or cast aside. That’s given me a lot of perspective on just how much of my own campaigns I was glossing over in terms of rules and abilities, giving me more insight as to why they exist in the first place. Understanding the various resistances, spell components, move actions and so much more have made it really apparent as to how infuriating my DM style could be at times.
It was never something I did to intentionally upset or undermine my players, but I’m almost certain that my actions directly resulted in a lot of session to session disenfranchisement. Considering I’ve only been a player once or twice back in the very early stages of my relationship with Dungeons & Dragons, I didn’t really have any experience as a player and instead just became a DM when I had no business doing so. But everyone has to start somewhere right?
Being a player wasn’t the only thing that helped me gain some insight into proper Dungeons & Dragons gameplay, running the starter campaign has been infinitely more helpful than anything I was doing before on my own. Being able to see what a module accounts for and doesn’t has been instrumental in my better understanding of how to build worlds, maps and encounters. To see exactly what I should be accounting for when crafting my own adventures has been illuminating to say the least.
At this point I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for about 3 years or so and only now can I say that I’ve really made progress as both a player and a DM. When I first started running games, I was trying to emulate what I’d seen and heard from popular videos and actual-play podcasts, not really understanding that real games don’t work like that. As of now I can safely say that my style of running games has evolved to the point where I am taking the rules of Dungeons & Dragons more seriously, and I am more conscious and aware of so many more facets of the game itself. I believe that this will only lead to a more positive experience for whatever group I end up running games for in the future. And for the first time in a while, I feel really confident about my abilities as both a player and a dungeon master.
For anyone out there that’s aspiring to be a DM, I genuinely and sincerely recommend starting with a preexisting module and really understanding why certain things interact with others and why. Knowing and enforcing effects on moves and spells heightens the tension and importance of every combat encounter because everyone is aware of what can and cannot happen. I look back at my previous blunders and wince at how I behaved and ruled on things, but genuinely hope that one day I can give my friends the satisfying and fun campaign that they deserve.