Embrace the Playground

In the April 13th episode of Dragon Talk, the official Dungeons & Dragons podcast, Mike Mearls gives some of the best Dungeon Mastering advice ever. The discussion is about the differences between adventure design concepts over the editions and how that has change from AD&D to 5th edition. He’s asked what advice he would give for Dungeon Masters who are picking up Tales from the Yawning Portal and want to run it for their group. Here’s what he said:

“Embrace the idea that these are environments that you are supposed to change and modify in reaction to what your group does. I think some people read this style of adventure and they look at it and they just don’t like it at all. Its like its just a room with monsters and another room with monsters and  so on. But what they miss…what I think makes these adventures fun, is that this as a Dungeon Master is your playground.

Part of is what you have to bring to the table is that performance element of really playing the role of the monsters and being as creative as the players can be. So rather than just say you see two orcs standing in the room and you fight them and they sit there and wait for you or whatever, do the thing like have the orcs run away. Have them try to plan an ambush and things like that. Don’t fall into the trap of running each room one after the other because I can guarantee if you do that – run the text strictly as written and don’t bring any creativity to it – you’re going to be bored because that’s not Dungeon Mastering. That’s just “I’m moderating a game” – I may as well be playing a video game.”

That last line rings so true with what Dungeon Mastering is all about. As the Dungeon Master, you don’t moderate the game. You bring it to life. You give the monsters, NPCs and areas life. You are what brings those things to the characters not as static events or individuals. You are what brings those things to life in a way that affects the PCs and their goals.

I love video games. I’ve been playing them since the Atari 2600 first hit the shelves and I’ve dumped enough quarters into arcade machines to finance a second home and a spare car. Having said that, video games have their place in storytelling. They do this by describing the characters, places and monsters you meet in ways that look, sound and feel (via that wonderful Rumble feature) like things you can identify with and remember. Before playing the new Mass Effect game, you had no idea what the characters and their stories would be like but once you started playing how they were introduced, how they spoke, acted and reacted began to give you memories of who or what they are. Take that concept and apply it improvisationally as you run your games. Change encounters as you play. Don’t make NPCs static or follow a specified course of action if you feel its not a good scenario for the game at hand. Don’t be afraid to change things, as these NPCs, monsters and areas are your tools to use as you see fit.

I’m currently running a group through the Sunless Citadel. This isn’t my first time running the adventure but this time through is radically different from my previous games. I’ve created 3 factions for the players (goblins, kobolds and the evil druid) and soon they’re going to have to make a decision which one or ones they are most loyal to. The others will then either become their enemy or pay fealty to the party if they feel the party is more powerful than they are. None of this is in the published adventure as I made it up on the fly as a reaction to the party wanting to just rush onwards through the dungeon. I saw that they needed a reason to fight and explore. By the time we’re done, I have no idea which faction they’ll choose but its going to be fun seeing them have to give up the other two.

Gygax said it best when he said the secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules. This is the key to having fun both as a Dungeon Master as well as for a successful Dungeons & Dragons game – as the DM you let the dungeon & monsters be your tools to having fun with the game and the group, and in no way are you limited to what the rules say, what the adventure text says, or what other people think you should do with your game. You aren’t a moderator of text – You are the Dungeon Master!

Critical Miss Hits for 2d6

I’ve been doing a lot of research for the upcoming Dungeon Mastering 101 class lately. There’s an incredible amount of information out there for new Dungeon Masters right now and I think more than any other time in the history of D&D we need it. The hobby is growing by leaps & bounds and that includes new Dungeon Masters being brought aboard.

There’s been gems, flawed gems and ugly rocks in the pile of material I’ve found. The gems are where I focus most of my energy and this article at Geek & Sundry (by the talented Terry Litorco was definitely one of the best gems of the bunch. She covers 3 great tips that all DMs, both new and old, will find useful. In this post, I’m going to focus on the first one. First, let’s have a short history lesson.

Critical hits are one pop culture’s favorite tabletop RPG terms to pirate and use often. Its fun to hit things for damage in games. It awakens a primal urge we have to see things be overpowered by our efforts. Surprisingly, D&D isn’t the father of this baby. Rather, Empire of the Petal Throne, a lesser known tabletop RPG published by TSR in 1975 by M.A.R. Barker, introduced critical hits. The rules said that they represented a “lucky hit on a vital organ”.

But what about when you miss? I don’t mean just any miss. I mean you miss so badly that bards compose songs of your epic failures. Kingdoms fall and rise thanks to how badly you handled your bastard sword on that dark day. You were forever banished from the cool kids’ table at school just because you missed that crucial swing in last night’s game. What is a player to do to overcome such ridicule?

That’s where the Dungeon Master comes in. One of the Dungeon Master’s core jobs is to make sure the game is fun for everyone. That includes Eric the Cavalier who finally picked up a sword and rolled a critical miss on his first attack. Critical Hits are almost guaranteed fun for everyone but does that mean a critical miss should provide the opposite and make sure everyone has a bad day? No way!

Just as Ms. Litorco says, Dungeon Masters have the golden opportunity to turn critical misses in interesting narratives. A missed attack deals no damage but just as hit points are more of an abstract than a true measure of health let that missed attack be more representative of the player character not damaging as they intended but the attack still happens regardless. Examples can include letting the missed sword swing still cause the enemy to dodge out of the way, avoiding damage but having to readjust their footing. Deflecting an attack means that the enemy had to focus on that attack so what else are they missing out on because of that? An intelligent monster might revel in its ability to avoid damage, shouting in triumph after it deflects an attack. Could the rest of the player characters then use that chance to sneak out of line of sight of the monster to escape? To sneak attack? To steal a treasured artifact? As Dungeon Master, these are questions you can decide because at the moment of critical failure the player is going to be focused on that dice turning up a “1”. They’re not going to see this as a winning situation but instead will most likely feel some measure of defeat. It is your job to give them the chance to refocus that and turn it into a heroic moment that might still have an impact on the game.