Tag Archives: dnd

The Trap of D&D

Growing up in a religious and conservative family in the 80s, I remember a few scares that swept through churches across America. Someone thought Teletubbies was an attempt to foist the “gay agenda” onto our children. Others worried that Star Wars embodied Eastern mysticism, turning precious young minds away from the truth of God’s Word, turning them toward duality. Eventually, card games like Magic the Gathering took the place of “greatest threat to American youth,” followed by the sweeping craze of young people reading a book series called Harry Potter.

But nothing held so much dark, terrible power as the bastion of evil, Dungeons & Dragons.

As part of my “intense training” I cast Level 2 Bag of Cheetos, Level 5 Mountain Dew, and Level 8 Vanishing Money… just a few more rulebooks and miniatures… that’s all I need…

Churches had tracts (small comics with a Christian message) that warned parents of the dangers. Christian musicians sang about how Satan-worshipers kept D&D books out as part of their natural paraphenalia and rituals. The game was no game, but rather a gateway straight to hell! After all, someone knew someone who knew someone who maybe killed themselves because their D&D character died in the game — nevermind the fact that, much like Superman or other heroes dying in comic books, the rules have always made it possible for characters to return to life. The game taught kids to cast spells, inducting them into real witchcraft and satanic rituals… or so the stories were told from church to church, parent to parent.

Plus, let’s face it, D&D kids can come off pretty weird, ranting about how “with his last conscious breath, my wizard used his level 4 burning hands to bathe the evil demon queen in flames while Tordek the dwarf cleric rolled a natural crit when he summoned the power of his gods to close the portal that led to the Abyss.”

And so it was that parents who never watched a moment of the game nor looked at a single page out of a book “knew” exactly what this devil-spawned trap held in store for their precious innocent ones.

It wasn’t until about 2007 that I really took a serious look at D&D and discovered what it is, and what it isn’t. I ran a few groups with co-workers and friends, and had immense fun. D&D is about telling cooperative stories… scripting surprises, twists, and turns into the various adventures… creating characters with exciting backstories, heroic ideals, and all-too-human flaws… learning to role-play the traits and qualities that might seem completely foreign in the real world.

Every group has a Story-teller or Dungeon Master a.k.a. DM, someone who puts together the setting, provides the description, plots out the battles, plans out the course of events, and portrays all the various faces that populate the world of the game. In groups I’ve seen, the DM and the players work together (to some extent) to figure out what makes for the best story, the most fun, the moments of high adventure and glorious victory. It’s a lot of work, but when everything goes smooth, it’s the most rewarding place at the table.

All the action is resolved with a roll of a 20-sided die and some number off a character sheet. Even if it seems ridiculous, players can try anything they want, and the DM has to (Fairly!) determine whether the effort succeeds or fails based on the roll of the dice plus the character’s ability to do whatever was attempted.

Player: “I want to somersault over the orc’s head to reach the princess before she falls into the death trap.”

DM: “That’s going to be some difficult acrobatics to pull off… but with some luck, you might do it. Give me a roll…”

A few weeks ago, one of my son’s friends found out I used to be a Dungeon Master, or DM. He and his friend had been trying to start a D&D game for some time, but they couldn’t find someone to be the DM. I volunteered, and started planning the campaign. Sure enough, a dear friend found out my son was getting involved in a D&D group, and responded with a concerned gasp. After all, it’s such a dangerous and evil thing.

To be fair, she’s a counselor and has seen some people go off the deep end with this or other hobbies. I think her concern is more for the risk that could be true of any of us–when something harmless and enjoyable starts to dominate our free time and energy.

But regarding those old fears I heard for years… Saying that playing D&D is a gateway to witchcraft and satanism is like saying that Axis & Allies makes a person more likely to become a skinhead and try to rebuild the Third Reich. It’s like claiming my Madden skills on the PS4 are a step on the path to an NFL contract.

Do some people go nuts with it? Certainly – just as we do with all sorts of hobbies and interests. But the camaraderie and joy I’ve seen around a table have been life-giving and inspirational.

Here’s a clip of Matthew Mercer – a voice actor in a number of video games and animated movies/shows – talking about the impact of this game and the style of art it involves. He really captures the essence of what makes this thing awesome.

Is D&D a trap, some gateway to dangerous places? Perhaps–but not in the way my church friends from the 80s thought. There’s a  magic involved, for sure, but it isn’t in make-believe treasures and pretend spellcasting…

It’s the power of cooperative story, the hush that comes over the room as someone describes what’s happening, and the rush of creative excitement as we decide what comes next.

It’s a trap, alright, and a hard one to escape. Want to try? Give me a roll.


Forced Extended Rest

I saw this on the shelves of our local bookstore yesterday.

Urge to spend... rising... RISING...
Urge to spend… rising… RISING…

My PHB and copy of Hoard are in the mail, ordered from Amazon a couple days ago. It has to make the long trip across the Pacific to reach my mailbox, which usually takes about a week.

In addition to the two new books, I’ve ordered the set of minis that go along with the Starter Set. Hopefully, once all has arrived, I can sit down on a Saturday with my in-home natural D&D party (my wife and three kids old enough to understand the rules) to get a feel for 5E.

So for now, I impatiently wait.

How to Play and Combat

I started digging into my delicious Starter Set this morning.

This has been sitting in my flight bag for a day or two. Time to get started (har har) with 5th ed!
This has been sitting in my flight bag for a day or two. Time to get started (har har) with 5th ed!

I’m reading through and noting what sticks out to me based on my 4th edition experiences. When I notice what seems like a change, someone may say, “Well in 4th edition DMG page 125 the same sort of rule is clearly written there.” If that’s the case, great, chalk it up to inattention to detail. But this is just my first-read experience and captures what catches my eye.

Chapter 1: How to Play gives you the standard explanation of “What is D&D?” It covers the basics about checks, and how abilities, skills, proficiencies, and saving throws all come into play when rolling dice to determine an outcome.

The skills seemed like a decent set. Nothing seemed missing. Some (Bluff, Diplomacy) are refined and given names and examples with wider applications (Deception, Persuasion). I like Investigation as a concept – putting together the pieces and clues, gathering intel of a sort. It seemed like that always fell under Perception in 4th ed, which is kind of dumb. Perception sees things that might be otherwise easy to miss. Investigation sees things and figures out the details that others might miss. To use examples from the book, Perception sees the orcs hiding in ambush along the road. Investigation sees the wounds dealt to the ambush victims and figures out it was probably a band of orcs.

Animal Handling always makes me chuckle. It has uses, I’m sure, but I can’t stop picturing a pink-haired Druid character named Fluttershy.

One interesting change for 5th edition is the Advantage / Disadvantage system. In either case, you roll two d20s when you make a check. If you have an advantage, you take the higher of the two. If you have a disadvantage, you take the lower. I’m curious how this will play out in a group. Maybe it does away with some of the “+5 for this, -3 for that, but I have combat advantage so +2, and this is my quarry so I have that one feat that gives me another +2…”

I have advantage. I roll two dice and take the better number. Simple. Done.

I can see some potential flaws, though. For example if you’re fighting some monsters in darkness, does it turn into a bunch of flailing around? I imagine everyone would get a lot of low rolls. Then again, if everyone shares the same disadvantage, maybe it’s prudent to eliminate that from the equation and only take other disadvantages into account. I didn’t see that stated explicitly, so I imagine that might be my first house rule to reduce rolling and wasted time.

Filed this under “We’ll see…”

Moving on.

Chapter 2: Combat contains one noteworthy difference from 4E: language involving maps and squares doesn’t appear in the rulebook. Maybe that’s an “advanced” option they’ll incorporate later (because I’m sure Wizards of the Coast wants to sell us some map packs and such), or maybe they know that describing everything in # feet gives the DM and players enough to effectively utilize maps.

But this does inherently free up groups to use things like simple description or generic drawings on whiteboards or paper to run combat without counting out squares or laying down rulers for line of sight determinations.

Could you do that in 4E? Sure, but it seemed pretty obvious that wasn’t what they were pushing for. Now tiles, maps, and minis are an available option instead of the default.

First off, the Combat chapter lists available actions you can take on your turn. Everyone can take a move and an action. I’m liking some of the updated choices: You can take a Disengage action to avoid provoking opportunity attacks when you move; you can take a Dodge action to give attackers a disadvantage against you (as well as permit Dex saving throws with advantage); you can Help another creature in completing a task, meaning you give them an advantage to do the stated thing so long as they attempt it before the start of your next turn.

Opportunity attacks count as a “reaction” – and you only get one reaction per turn. So there’s no more taking five opportunity attacks in a turn as I’ve seen sometimes argued in 4th edition.

Also, everybody gets critical hits on a roll of 20, and everyone misses on a 1. Sauce for the goose (player characters) is sauce for the gander (monsters). And crits look decidedly deadly… deadlier I suppose is the correct term.

Instead of max damage for the base attack, you roll any damage die twice and add it all together. So a rogue with Sneak Attack rolls those dice twice too.

A glance at the character sheet for the pre-made rogue tells me at level 5, they roll 3d6 for Sneak Attack. Let’s assume 1d4 for a dagger, 3d6 for a sneak attack. A successful crit sneak attack nets you 2d4 plus a whopping 6d6 damage just from dice rolls with no other modifiers? Egad.

Rogue carves the Kobold for infinity damage, exploding it like a blood sausage.

At least a fighter gets a crit on 19 or 20. But yeah… Sneak Attack crits look sick and dare I say it, broken. Another thing I look forward to seeing fleshed out when I get to play this with a group…

Next post – Chapter 3: Adventuring and Chapter 4: Spellcasting

D&D Next: Skills

“I’m going to need to have you start rolling dice on camera…”  – My online DM (who clearly has trust issues)

A few weeks ago, my friend and I started playtesting D&D Next in order to set up an online group that he could turn into a podcast.

The first session involved character creation, a couple combat challenges, and a couple skill challenges. I posted two blogs about the experiences (and one on my writing blog, concerning character backstory). Since those first posts, we played through another session, with mostly RP and a skill challenge.

First, I haven’t seen D&D Next refer to anything like skill challenges. There isn’t even a list of skills on the character sheet, so “skill challenge” is a misnomer in the first place.

Next – in my limited experience – appears to move away from non-combat encounters. But there are still ways to create them if desired, for situations where one simple roll of the die does not capture the complication or multifaceted nature of solving a crisis, or the length of time it might take to get through an ongoing series of events requiring the hero’s intervention.

The DM Guidelines draft does break down common tasks under the applicable ability, with basic descriptions and appropriate DCs to accomplish the desired task. For example, Strength has entries for Break an Object, Climb, Jump, Swim, and examples of Improvised Tasks.

The entries under Climb are “scale a cliff with plenty of handholds,” “climb a rough stone wall,” “climb a sheer surface with scant handholds,” and “climb an oiled rope.” Improvised Tasks include “push through an earthen tunnel that is too small,” “hang onto a wagon while being dragged behind it,” “tip over a large stone statue.” and “keep a boulder from rolling.”

Each ability has an Improvised Tasks section, as well as how hazards might affect failed checks and what sort of requirements the DM might choose in order to even attempt an ability check. (Strength might require firm footing, for example.)

None of this feels like a complete rewrite of 4E. The descriptions look very familiar. However, skills are absent as the middleman between how well your ability helps you succeed (or not) at a given task.

How did this play out?

In our sessions, when I normally might ask for a “Sense Motive” or “Insight” check, the DM simply said “Give me a Wisdom check.” If something involved sneaking around or crafting highly technical gear-work devices, we went to Dexterity. (My character’s background includes training under gnomes to craft intricate mechanical crap.)  The old terms and names of skills are a helpful jargon for players to express what exactly they’re trying to do, and for DMs to determine which ability to use.

It was a bit frustrating to see what happened when I didn’t have a bonus for a given check. At one point I rolled a 14, which was under the moderate DC 15 challenge. That implies that 75% of the time, the character would fail at any task related to that ability. The DM and I chatted about how skill checks are meant to be difficult, and no one is supposed to win all the time or else what’s the point? Also, I recognized that a party of one is going to bring inherent weaknesses.

Plus there was the quote at the top of the page, for when I rolled a 20 followed by a 19 at the beginning of the night, for checks with no inherent character bonuses. So it’s not impossible to “win.”

In order to succeed as a party, the group of players might want to take some time prior to character creation to figure out which character will have which strengths. Then again, that can create unique challenges and opportunities for creative solutions to problems.

But perhaps it takes away some of the skill tunnel vision players get in 4E:

“I want to use Diplomacy to negotiate the harsh terrain and survive the bitter winter in the mountains.”
“You can’t use Diplomacy that way.”
“Uh… how about History? Or can I get an Insight check on the storm?”

taken from 2guystalkingmetsbaseball.com
No? Well then Dungeoneering HAS to work…

Lore Have Mercy

Though skills are gone, characters now have Lore to cover areas of specialized knowledge. Any Intelligence check for an area in which the character possesses lore will net a +10 bonus. The types of Lore are broken into:

  • Cultural
  • Forbidden
  • Hobbyist
  • Magical
  • Military
  • Natural
  • Planar
  • Political
  • Religious
  • Trade

I won’t go into exactly what’s covered by each, for space and time considerations. The guidelines describe specific examples, like Military might cover fortifications or tactics, and Natural might involve the flora and fauna of a region or the usual weather cycles in an area. But you can imagine the +10 bonus makes it a player’s priority to figure out how to fit the square peg of their available lore into the circular hole of a given challenge.

How this played out:

When a situation called for making a decision or choosing a course of action, I often sought to use Lore to aid me in picking a right path. For example, my character found himself pressed for time and in need of supplies and assistance in order to (hopefully) construct a number of devices for a buyer. I was able to use Trade Lore while looking through merchant’s wares in the market to find what my character deemed a competent craftsman. And I used Cultural Lore to get a good idea on how auctions of large shipment of goods were conducted, so that I could avoid a time-consuming and more expensive process. My character was able to skip some layers of market bureaucracy and go straight to the source of supplies to haggle.

Still, the uses for lore appear fairly narrow. Hopefully that plus the shift away from lengthy skill challenges will keep lore from falling into the tunnel vision trap of highly trained skills. Clear communication between player(s) and DM will help.

I see some interesting qualities to the system, and I did find myself having to rely more on imagination to describe intended action instead of the crutch of “I do a (fill in the blank skill) check.”

I look forward to seeing more of it. Sadly, my character was in a bit of a pickle at the end of the last session. That will be my next post, but as a spoiler, here’s this quote from my DM:

“Oh man. Well… that will be interesting.” (sigh) “I made it clear – so very clear – that this was a lawful city.”

D&D Next: Combat

D&D Next: Combat

AKA Lamoncha, the One-shot Wonder


“Oh, man, I might need to level those guys down a bit.”

On the list of Things I don’t want to hear the DM say, this might not be tops, but it’s close.

With the character creation process complete, my friend and I decided to check out combat. He took two level 4 monsters and put them up against my one level 1 ranger. Sure, it was going to be a challenge, but we figured it might work out fine.

We’re testing out a few things at once. Our conversation takes place over Skype. He set up a campaign page on roll20, something I’ve wanted to do but never got around to doing. So I’m looking at a grid with a couple features, two circular pics of enemies, and one pic for my character. As a joke, I send the DM a whisper using roll20’s in-window chat function. I’m using Dicenomicon on my iPad to roll everything. If there were any doubts, the app lets you copy a history of rolls to show proof. But we trust each other so that’s not necessary.

Keep in mind, these are just my initial experiences as a player. I haven’t dug into the rules packets yet.

We roll initiative. I get it, and I roll something low for my attack. Maybe a 3. Better luck next round.

One of the two walks up, hits me with its weapon, and the end result is 4 damage. 4 out of 10 total hit points. My character already feels much more fragile than 4E.

“Oh, wait, they have poison, sorry. Roll to save against that.”

I roll incredibly low again.

“Yeah, the poison hits you for…” Dice roll in the background, determining my fate. “Six damage.”

I laugh. “Uh, I’m dead. Well, unconscious, I guess, but defeated.” In one round.

That’s when he utters the quote at the top of the post. Maybe levels make a more significant difference here. Also, I didn’t create the “ideal” character, otherwise I’d have had a few more HP. But still… one shot kills hurt the confidence a little bit.

Round 2…. FIGHT

A few minutes later, healed up and ready for a fight, Lamoncha faces off against two level 1 fire beetles. This goes decidedly better.

Unlike 4E, with multiple powers to choose from each level, Lamoncha has exactly zero combat powers. He has his hand crossbows, with blades built into the structure like handguards in front of the pistol grips. So I declare I am shooting a loaded bolt, or I am slashing something up close.

No dailies. No marks. No encounters. No burst attack. That’s it.

Of course, this is only level 1. There will be special abilities and cool combat attacks coming with later levels.

While I liked the 4E descriptions of what each attack looked like, I see how this is more beneficial both for ease of creating the materials (they don’t need a new list of powers and crazy description of each action every time something comes along) and for running the character.

For one, this cuts down some of the potential delay in combat I see with 4th Edition. No one has to stop and consider what power to use out of a page full of text. Two, this might force some thought and role-playing into the combat.

What if I want to fire both crossbows? That’s something to discuss with the DM. Maybe I want to jab the blade on the crossbow into the creature, then fire the bolt point-blank. I picture this working like called shots, where the DM could set a higher difficulty to hit, but allow the roll as an expression of creativity.

One of the beetles is dead, and the other closes in. I ask, “Are there still opportunity attacks if I use a ranged weapon next to an enemy?” There are.

Lamoncha has taken a hit, and is about half conscious. But the way I pictured him working involves shifting around or between foes and using something like “gun-kata” in a dance of crossbow-bolting death. So I take the risk.

He shifts around the beetle and takes aim, giving it the chance to strike. It rakes its clawed legs at him, scratches leather armor, but does no damage. He fires and kills it, and the DM sings the Final Fantasy victory theme for me.

How is combat in Next?

It’s different, for sure, and a huge shift from 4E. But that’s not a bad thing.

D&D Next: Character Creation

Note: My updated post concerning my character creation experience in 5th Edition D&D is found here. Check it out and let me know if I’ve missed an important subject or left a question unanswered.
This post was written when a friend and I were trying out the then-newly-released rules for D&D Next, almost a year before the Player’s Handbook for 5th Edition was published. This post receives more weekly views than anything else I’ve posted, but it’s based on out-of-date material.

“Where are the skills on this character sheet?”

That’s the first comment my friend-turned-online-DM made when I opened the D&D Next playtesting materials. He made it as a joke, because my reaction amounted to “What the–?!”

Yes, the character sheet is a little bit different.

As promised before, here are some of my first experiences with D&D Next, or D&D 5th Edition, or D&D “Wizards of the Coast tries to fix what everyone hates about 4th edition” Edition, or whatever you want to call it.

The playtest materials consist of a bunch of .pdf files for various excerpts of rules. We popped open the Character Creation document, eager to see what else changed. Step 1 was comforting in its familiarity.

Every character needs attributes. The rules present a basic set of stats, a point-buy system, and 4d6 minus the lowest. Since I had no attachment to my experiment, I chose to roll. And since I had no goal in mind, I thought the stats might help guide the rest of the character creation process. So I plugged in the numbers as I got them instead of taking the best rolls for the stats that might suit a particular class.

Nameless ended up with some unfortunate rolls. He’s a little strong, and very dextrous. He’s also slightly smarter than average. But his constitution and wisdom are average, and his charisma is poor. (Str 12, Dex 16, Int 12, Con 10, Wis 11, Cha 9, if you care. These stats include racial bonuses.)

So, whatever else is true, I knew nobody liked Nameless. Step two is choosing a race. The DM thought the high Dex might fit a half-elf, and I was fine with that. That also gave me a choice of another language. For no real reason, I picked Gnomes.

Then we discussed why it might be that no one likes this character. Perhaps he lived among elves that were strict worshipers of nature. On a trip outside his home, Nameless encountered some of the clockwork mechanisms of the Gnomes and fell in love with their intricate designs. His passion for technology and machinery ran counter to his tribe’s culture, so he became an outcast and apprenticed with Gnomish tinkers to learn the craft.

His outcast status also gave me an idea for a name. Since he is arguably crazy in the view of his peers, and since he is consumed with a sort of idealism, I went with LaMoncha, thinking of “the Man of La Mancha,” Don Quixote. Instead of charging windmills, he might build them, to the chagrin of his people.

Step three is to choose a class. Next keeps the standard four: cleric, fighter, mage, and rogue. It also offers six less common classes that may or may not fit a particular campaign: barbarian, bard, druid, monk, paladin and ranger. It doesn’t specify what particular stats are ideal for a given class, but you can look at what gets used in a few class abilities to make your decision.

I did not desire a rogue, though Dex is the obvious high stat for a combat rogue. (Then again, maybe not. Next seems to allow for a thuggish Strength-based rogue, and I’m sure there’s room for the smooth-talking Charisma-based charlatan.)

The description for ranger was that of a loner, which fit my outcast well. I thought of an old character idea for a ranger who uses twin hand crossbows as a sort of “gun kata,” spinning his way through fights and planting bolts in the skulls of his foes. This guy is supposed to be good with intricate technology. Modifying hand crossbows to suit his combat tastes would be easy.

What the class does not do is provide automatic skills like 4E did. The Ranger isn’t automatically the expert at all things nature and dungeoneering. The rogue doesn’t get perception and stealth by default. Also those skills don’t exist.

Each class does get some special features or proficiencies that make sense in the context. A druid gets proficiency with an herbalism kit. Sure, your druid might not want to mix potions, or your fighter may choose to do so. But there’s an inherent benefit for a druid to take up that trade. Rogues have a similar proficiency with thieves’ tools. For the Ranger, the special feature is tracking.

So what about skills, or their equivalent? Step four is to choose a background.  This provides the character with training in certain “lore” that sort of replaces skills. There are eleven sets of lore to choose from, some of which you can break out into subsets. For example, “cultural lore” might mean elven culture, or dwarven, or human, etc.

Any time you have a check that requires the use of lore you’re trained in, you get a +10 bonus to that check. It’s not skills per se, but it serves many of the same purposes.

Your background might be as an artisan, working some particular trade. That worked perfectly for my character. Others include soldier, thief, jester, court noble, minstrel, priest, sage, and spy. Maybe I skipped one or two. Each comes with a basic description of the back story of the particular background, a trait which might provide material or assistance in RP, a proficiency with some other item (disguise kit, artisan tools, navigation tools, etc) and suggested fields of lore. There’s a suggested equipment pack as well.

The rules suggest cooperation between player and DM to create a background that fits just right. The backgrounds provided are given as options to spark that imagination. My DM and I chatted and settled on the Artisan with minor tweaks.

Really, that covers the key steps of character creation. Step five is assigning those ability scores, but I did that on step one. Step six is purchasing equipment. I paid a little extra for the various modifications LaMoncha would have to make to his gear. The DM was fine with it. LaMoncha now has twin hand crossbows with partial scimitar blades installed underneath like handguards for the pistol grips. He wears metal hooks on his hips and carries crossbow bolts in bands around his thighs so that in one smooth motion he can cock both crossbows and retrieve two bolts to reload.

Step seven is to fill in numbers. Step eight is the final details like alignment, personality, and appearance. The 9 traditional alignments return, with Lawful-Neutral-Chaotic and Good-Neutral-Evil.

And now I have my D&D Next character. It started as a joke and an experiment, but the character creation process helped solidify a picture in my mind for a character that I came to enjoy.

Next I’ll recount how it felt to actually play the character in combat and in a skill challenge.

UPDATE 5 Jan 2013: I received orders to move overseas, and in the ensuing changes to my life, this project fell by the wayside. My friend and I have not completed any sessions in the last two months, and I don’t know if we’ll be able to restart the effort in the future. D&D Next continues to go through changes too, so this may not be entirely current. Nevertheless, it was a fun exercise, and I appreciate the attention it has received.

Set Some Goals

Tabletop Tuesday

A lot of the Air Force courses I’ve attended include lessons about the importance of setting goals in order to succeed.

Today, we’ll talk about setting goals in your tabletop game. But we’re not talking about incorporating player goals into your campaign (that will probably be another post). We’re talking about giving goals to your monsters!

Everyone needs a goal in life, even your fangorious gelatinous monster. (Okay, maybe not everyone.)

In a tabletop game, your players’ characters are probably going to spend a lot of time fighting against a host of sentient creatures. They may be not be the brightest creatures, they may be evil through and through, they may be tools of some higher villain. But they will have objectives and goals they are trying to achieve.

Make your combat about those goals instead of about the monsters themselves.

Let’s face it, the “kill everything burn everything and die trying” monster makes very little sense. Villains have their own interests, their own purposes. Usually, they have some decent or even good motive that has been twisted around or blown out of proportion into a terrible evil.

“Sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet… and it’s remarkable how like an egg is the human skull.”


This guy is going to have a different set of goals and plans than these two.

Your villains’ minions need not line up like a Revolutionary War battle and march to their deaths in the hopes of defeating the heroes. Setting up a fight with no goal means setting up a long, drawn-out slugfest where the two sides try to bring their enemies to zero hit points. Yawn.

Give the monster team a reason to fight. You can speed up combat and you can make the combat matter to the story. Double win!

Perhaps they simply have to delay the heroes from an objective. They can capture or kill particular innocents or valuable NPCs. They can hold a position or activate some magic artifact or complete a ritual. They can make off with a critical object, or damage a strategic location.

“Good job, heroes… you slew fifty goblins but failed to stop the saboteur who destroyed the bridge. Now our army is stuck on this side of the river while the city is under attack.”

When you do this, mindless evil can have a place in such a setting. It stands out precisely because it has no plan, no motive, no ‘higher’ purpose than carnage and destruction. It can be the enemy that simply has to be brought to zero health, something that has to be put down. And then that combat goal tells a story different from all the others, instead of every combat feeling exactly the same.

So, what does the big bad evil guy (or girl, or gelatinous monster) want? Give your villains some goals. Your heroes will thank you for it.

Take Some Initiative

Tabletop Tuesday

One of the key phrases in my D&D games is, “Roll for initiative!”

For the unfamiliar, that’s a sign that combat is about to start. Initiative is the way the players and storyteller figure out who is going first.

Depending on the game system you use and the way you run your table, combat can really slow things down. You wouldn’t think so… everything is supposed to be fast-paced like a Hong Kong movie fight scene (with slow-motion doves flying in the background).

But oftentimes, the slow motion is around the table.

This can’t get confusing at all.

“Uh… where’d that one guy go? I was going to shoot him with an arrow.”“Dude, the fighter pushed him out the window on his turn.”

“Oh, ok, who’s the closest enemy to me?”

“Look at the map.”

“Cool, (looks over character sheet for a minute, humming and stroking chin) I guess I’ll just use the same power I always use.”

“Ok, your attack hits, the orc is bloodied. Next up, the cleric.”

“Huh what?”

“You’re up.”

“Oh right. Um… let me see here… does anyone need healing? Anyone? …Guess not? So… uh… I’m going to… let me think.”

How do you solve this?

Ideally, let’s wave our hands and make all DMs/Storytellers able to craft the most compelling and exciting encounters that absolutely rivet the players’ attentions to the table.

Ok, that didn’t work. Maybe you’re lucky and you have one of those exceptional DMs. (Thank him or her if you do.)

But the rest of us don’t. So what next?

1. Try a timer.

Get an hourglass timer that runs for 30 seconds or one minute. Set a digital timer. Use something that will make it clear when the player has run out of time to make a decision. If you as the player cannot figure out even one thing for your character to do, then call it “effective role-playing” and your character gets to stand there in confusion. Again, it depends on the system you play, but in my current D&D games, a turn is supposed to be six seconds.

I can imagine standing and wondering what to do, stunned by the chaos of combat, for six seconds. The explanation is believable, and the suck factor of skipping your turn will force a bit more forethought and attention on what’s happening in game.

2. Try default actions.

One argument is that your characters are battle-hardened heroes, capable of daring feats and snap decisions. They wouldn’t freeze in fear. Your player, on the other hand, might be a tired mom, or a guy who just got off a long day of work, or (bad news) slightly severely hung over from a night of partying, or (worse news) showing up already under the influence. So treat the characters different than you treat the frazzled player.

Set up default actions for combat. Characters probably have some basic attack for fighting up close or at range. If the ranger player gets flustered, his character shoots an arrow at the nearest enemy. Done. If the fighter isn’t sure what move he wants to use, he attacks the closest enemy. The magician shoots off a basic spell. Unless healing is limited, the healer restores some health to the character with the lowest hit points. Or the healer clobbers an enemy with a mace.

The same goes for role-playing. If you’re sitting there for a minute while your player tries to figure out how to use a favorite but irrelevant skill (“Can I use Diplomacy to jump across the chasm?”) or if they just can’t figure out what to use, then they support the next player in the turn order. They can roll and  on a 15 or higher they earn a bonus for the next player’s use of a skill. If this becomes a problem, you take away the bonus and their default action becomes twiddling thumbs.

3. Training practice.

Maybe your players are unfamiliar with their characters and how things should work. The rulebook and the mechanics of combat (or even role-playing) can be a maze to the new player. Perhaps you can take some one-on-one time with the players who need some additional explanation. You can show them some examples of how their powers work, or what might be useful in which situations. Talk them through a basic encounter. Help them understand some of the player basics like focusing fire on one target until it’s down, or whatever special features might be unique to their character’s class.

Don’t just complain about players. Make better players.

4. Visual aids.

You know you want one
No excuses. You’re up next, and you can see it plain as day.

Some products like the initiative tracking board might help players keep up with what’s going on. If people know when their turn is coming up, the hope is that they will get away from the distraction and get back to the game. A turn tracker like the picture gives everyone a clear idea of who’s up next. Ideally, the player can then have a plan in mind and go into their turn ready to move the combat along.5. Ban distractions.

Cell phones and computers can be fun tools for gaming. There are dice apps, and soft copy character sheets with databases and equations that automatically update. Wizards of the Coast has the D&D Character Builder that lets you manage your character online (with a subscription fee). There are ways to use computers to play virtual tabletops (check out Roll20 for example), and some DMs like me find that a laptop screen is the best DM screen ever.

The trouble is that electronics can also be a powerful monster in their own right. Make a Will save to not click alt-Tab and check Facebook or browse YouTube for hilarious videos.

Rocks fall. You lose Wi-Fi access.

6. Give monsters short-term goals.

Often combat becomes a numbers fest where each side fights to bring the other side to zero health. How realistic is that? Do our militaries engage each other in fights intended simply to bring the other side to complete destruction? Generally, both sides in the conflict have an objective to work toward. I’m going to do more with this point in another post, so I’ll stop here. But I hope you can see that a fast objective might keep attention on what’s happening and how to stop the bad guys. It’s certainly better than rolling single-digit attacks for five turns while the big boss monster flails about with a handful of hit points left, waiting for the inevitable deathblow.

7. Cut some useless rolling.

If your group is comfortable with it, cut down on the useless rolls. Does the burly fighter REALLY need to roll a check to smash through the door, or can we say he does it with a wave of the hand? Is that cheating? If you think he absolutely must roll and add bonuses and check against the difficulty of the door… and we must discuss or think about whether it is hardwood reinforced with steel or simply a shoddy construct of wood beams… and if you are fine with the idea that based on the roll of a die, the spindly wizard can walk up and kick the door down with a roll of 18 while the big fighter might batter himself against it uselessly if he rolls badly. Sure, then it’s cheating. But we can save time by simply moving on to the rolls and the actions that advance the story.

So there you have it.

Seven options you can adapt to what suits your group, in order to make the slow parts of the game pick up some speed. Take some initiative and give these a shot, then let me know if they work for you.

For those of you who regularly play, what am I forgetting? What works for your group?


Just Say "Yes"

It’s time for Tabletop Tuesday!

Roll for Imagination
Roll for initiative to see if you can keep up with your players’ insane ideas.

“What do you want to do?”

“I want to leapfrog over the rogue and flip through the air to land next to the goblin and smash his face with my hammer.”


“I want to grab hold of this powerful conduit of magical energy while casting a spell at the incoming ranks of undead, in the hopes that maybe it will, like, amp up my powers… or something?”


What do you do when your players come up with unique plans and crazy ideas?

Just say “Yes!”

Tabletop Role-Playing is all about collaborative storytelling. It’s all about the characters, the heroes of the story. “Actions speak louder than words,” so when the players come up with unexpected methods to deal with conflict and trouble, that’s an important part of defining those characters for the story you’re all telling.

Sometimes this takes a little bit of stretching, a little imagination to figure out “How do we make this work?” It can be challenging to come up with a solution on the spot, but that gives the DM more practice being flexible.

Someone wants to jump on an enemy and bite at them, Mike Tyson style? Say yes.

Someone suggests setting the whole outpost on fire in order to gain a short-term advantage? Go for it.

Someone decides to activate a mysterious magic device in an attempt to stop a powerful foe? Why not!

Page 183 of the Player’s Manual clearly defines Diplomacy, but you say in your post that you allowed your group to use it in a fight… so… can you clear up the obvious discrepancy?

Psst, to all the rules lawyers, you and I both know this is completely unacceptable. Stick with me for a bit. If nothing else, they just handed you a golden ticket as the DM.

Perhaps, “Oops, now the whole building is burning down, and you must race to rescue the innocent captives / recover the precious artifacts before it collapses on your heads.”

Or several sessions later, “Remember when you activated that device in order to destroy that elite monster? Yeah, you also set off a beacon that attracted the attention of an incomprehensible alien race that is now making their way to your realm. Better get ready!”

Or, “Hey, that sounds cool. Sure, you gnaw the guy’s face.” And everyone in that region now knows what this hero is willing to do in order to win.

I recall a story from a game designer recounting a session with his son. At the end of the fight, his son says, “My character goes to the statue near the altar and discovers a hidden treasure. He tries to open it, but it has a trap.” The kid starts alternate-DMing for a moment. And the game designer father had the good sense in the moment to just go with it.

The party ends up with a little extra gold, the kid’s character gets poisoned and needs to heal more than he did before, and everyone moves on with the rest of the session. But that moment told the child, “This is your game too. This is your world. Let’s explore it together.”

Just say “yes.” Your games will be better for it.

Okay… rules lawyers, it’s time for a very important caveat.

Are there limits to this suggestion? …Yes. (See what I did there?)

“Is there a way that I can use diplomacy to leap across the chasm and then maybe do an endurance check in order to disarm the trap?”

No. No, there’s absolutely not a way.

Every DM has probably had a player who gets one exceptional skill, and then tries to use it every round. “Can I use my Dungeoneering to fight the goblin? Can I use my Dungeoneering to forage for food in the sky temple? Can I use my Dungeoneering to understand complex magic and recall a historic religious ritual that will help us spot the hidden treasure? I do have a really high Dungeoneering score…”

But your players never want to hear “No.”  So what do you do?

You want your default inclination to be “Yes” so long as it makes sense.

Take advantage of that collaborative aspect of the tabletop game. Make them explain how exactly their favorite go-to skill is going to help in this particular situation. You give them the impression you’re willing to go along as long as they can come up with a convincing answer. You show them you’re willing to bend a bit for the sake of story without completely breaking the game or common sense. You put the ball back in their court and ask how it’s supposed to go from there.

Your average tabletop player is probably going to be reasonable and admit that their idea is beyond the scope of reason. If not, then once again go collaborative. Have a majority vote from your players or invite suggestions on how to make it work. And of course, as the DM you have the ultimate power to conclude that there’s no reasonable way to agree to the crazy plan. So, sometimes say, “No.”

But only if absolutely necessary.

Cooperative Storytelling

Cooperative Storytelling

This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about tabletop role-playing, but it’s the first Tabletop Tuesday post. I hope to funnel all the related topics into this weekly category: reviews of various products, ideas for how to add to your game on the cheap, thoughts about how to run a group, or accounts of silly thing my players have done in game.

Now with 100% less capes!
Write your own story, with friends

Yet for many, the idea of tabletop role-playing is quite a mystery. Some of us have probably heard a lot about the evils of games like Dungeons and Dragons, and perhaps we’ve seen groups of young (or not so young) people dressing up and playing live action games in local parks. Even my wife was worried before her first time playing a tabletop RPG.

“I don’t have to wear a cape, do I?”

The extent of role-playing is defined by the group. No one has to quote Harry Potter terms or wave a stick around yelling “You shall not pass!” If the players are open to that, more power to them. But that’s not what the games are about.

Tabletop games are all about a group of people telling a story together.

It’s not much different from the lure of major sports. We watch men and women perform challenging but ultimately useless feats of athletic skill, and we get drawn into all the rivalries and back-story of our favorite teams and superstars. No one really cares if a guy can put a ball into a hoop suspended up in the air, or if someone can hit a little white ball with a stick.

No, we get into the stories.

Will so-and-so ever lead his team to victory? Maybe this is his year to shine. Can that player overcome his public indiscretions, or will his performance on the field suffer? Will Team A triumph over Team B this year, since Team B crushed them in the finals last season?

We even go so far as to imagine “what if” with sports. What if this great player from this team and that great player from that team were actually on the same team? What if I took these five players I really like, and put them on the same team? How would they compare against other people’s choices? And thus we have Fantasy sports, so-called D&D for Jocks.

We are drawn to the characters, the conflicts, the victories and the failures. That’s ultimately what tabletop RPGs are about. You’re not merely reading a book or watching a movie, waiting for the next twist, wondering when the mystery will be explained or the hidden villain revealed. You’re not trying to comprehend and relate to whatever main character you’ve been given.

You’re helping write the plotline for a character of your choosing.

Beyond that, tabletop gaming is a social activity with friends gathering (usually) in the same place. It’s a creative activity, allowing players the chance to think outside their daily norm and even act a part. It’s a strategic activity, with rules and tactics that players can use to their advantage, like a chess game with dice. When it works out, tabletop gaming can be a great diversion, just like any hobby.

And, no, you don’t have to wear a cape.