Dungeon Masterclass Part 3

When I was a young and inexperienced Dungeon Master, I once ran the criminally underappreciated Night of the Walking Dead. In that adventure, there’s an insane NPC who is supposed to follow the party around, occasionally spouting jumbled up sentences, which serve as a clue to the unfolding plot. Unfortunately, when my players first met him, they assumed he was attempting to cast some sort of dark ritual and instantly killed him.

I couldn’t use any of the other NPCs, because they all had their own part to play, and I couldn’t just make a new one up, as I’d already established certain other plot elements that meant this guy had to be the one. So I was forced to repeatedly bring him back as a ghost to ramble at the players in order to keep the story on track. It was clunky, and while the guys who played it with me now remember it with comedic fondness, as an inexperienced DM I was basically shitting my pants the entire time. Ultimately, it was a stressful experience for me.

It’s likely that your first adventures as a DM will be published ones. The fantastic Starter Set, which comes packaged with The Lost Mines of Phandelver, is a great introduction to 5th edition D&D. However, you’re eventually going to see the limitations posed by them, much like I did. You’ll soon realise that the obvious solution to your players killing key NPCs is for you to have total power to decide who is and who is not a key NPC, at a moment’s notice. It’s at this point that you’re going to try and create a homebrew adventure.

A what?

So, before we kick this off, I feel it’s important to say that every DM will have their own idea of what makes a successful adventure. My way of thinking is certainly not universal, but it will hopefully give you the tools to forge your own path.

There are a number of elements of an adventure that I won’t be covering in this guide. In fact, it’s fair to say that everything about D&D can, in some way, be tied to adventure design. Dungeons, stat blocks, loot distribution, religious pantheons. The list could go on forever. And while these are all important elements of the big, cheesy pizza that is D&D, they’re also very large subjects that would require an entire article of their own. For this reason, I’ll be focusing on what I feel are the two most important elements of creating a compelling RPG narrative.

The main ingredients

There are, in my opinion, two things that are key to creating a successful homebrew setting – locations and NPCs.

Location, location, location

Locations and the flavour text that comes with them are extremely important. At the end of the day, if we aren’t trying to suspend our players’ disbelief and fully immerse them in our world, then we might as well just play Monopoly or something. It can be extremely difficult to come up with compelling descriptions of locations on the fly, and they’re never quite as good as the ones you write up in advance, so every room/area in my homebrew comes with a little bit of descriptive flair.

This doesn’t have to be a wall of text, in fact, a sentence or two is preferable. After all, brevity is the soul of wit and the imagination of your players will fill in the gaps if you allow it to. So stick to short, simple explanations and always remember that you’re describing what they can sense. Touch, smell, sound and sight are what you need to consider. Something like the following is more than adequate.

The interior of the mausoleum is cramped and dark, its slick stones drip with dank water and the smell of rot and mildew permeates the air.

In just 26 words, we’ve given our players an absolute treasure trove of information. They know there’s no light source and that space is limited – both important tactical considerations should a fight break out. There’s water in the mausoleum. Is it coming from outside, or is there some internal source that’s causing it? There’s a scent of rot in here. Is it from the buried bodies inside, or something else?

These are the kinds of questions that your players will be asking themselves and, if they’re decent dungeoneers, they’ll probably ask you as well. Such questions will lead to dice rolls – nature checks for the kind of rot they can smell, history checks to discover who might be buried here etc. Rolls lead to roleplaying opportunities, which ultimately creates a compelling and involved narrative.

You can even take this process and apply it to those aforementioned rolls. Perhaps you’d like to have a pre-written line about the history of the mausoleum and the family buried within, or a particularly gross bit of fluff about ‘rotting meat’, hinting at the undead horrors awaiting our heroes further down the path. This is by no means crucial, but every bit of descriptive text you prepare is another opportunity to draw your players deeper into the world. Ultimately, by giving them info to work with, we craft opportunities for the game to transcend its mechanical nature and become an altogether more intellectually involved experience.

Making friends

NPCs are the bread and butter of a world that feels real. If flavour text gives us the opportunity to anchor our players to the physicality of our world, then NPCs are an opportunity to make them emotionally connect with it.

I recently ran an adventure in my own grimdark horror setting where the players were tasked with tracking down a shaman. This guy was using some bad juju to create a hallucinogenic drug, which he was then distributing throughout the city. When the players finally caught up with him, he pointed out that what he was doing actually helped ease people’s tensions, and that the line between recreational drugs and antidepressants was a very fine one.

The players ended up agreeing with him, and instead of the spell-slinging, epic final battle that I’d planned for, they wound up recruiting him into their organisation as an ally. This bit of unexpected narrative awesomeness happened because I wrote down four sentences about the shaman before running the adventure. You can call these sentences whatever you like, but the Player’s Handbook likes to roll with ‘personality, ideal, bond and flaw’.

Let’s create an NPC

Meet Dunmir Forkbeard – Dwarf – Male – Master of the Thieves’ Guild
  • Personality: Jovial, polite, but has no time for fools.
  • Ideal: Nobody should be entitled to more wealth than they can spend.
  • Bond: A threat to any member of my guild is a threat to me.
  • Flaw: Quick to temper at any perceived accusation of immorality.

As you can see, by noting down a handful of attitudes, we’ve created a nuanced character who you can roleplay on the fly. Pretty much any question, statement, or request can generally be covered by making a note of these four characteristics.

For example, we know that Dunmir is, at least on the surface, a pretty nice guy. He’s polite, and will likely offer the players a seat and a drink, asking what he can do to be of service. Perhaps the party’s lawful-good paladin will show scorn towards the den of thieves that Dunmir manages, to which Dunmir will likely react poorly, given his somewhat quick temper. Maybe the master thief will engage the party in a bit of politically-charged philosophical debate, expressing his somewhat left-of-centre ideas about the redistribution of wealth, perhaps leading the players to offer their own views and develop their characters further.

You don’t need to think long and hard about every NPC in your homebrew. In this example, Dunmir is an important character in our unfolding narrative. The local blacksmith, however,  doesn’t require an extensively developed backstory with an arsenal of insecurities and secret motivations. He’s just there to sell swords and armour. But there will be certain key individuals that your players could have deep conversations with and those guys are what will ultimately breathe life into your world.

The reason I’ve focused on these two elements of the huge ensemble that makes up a successful homebrew is because they are the ones that will give your players the opportunity to be a part of your world. Drawing out a dungeon map, making a note of your monster’s stats, and deciding what treasure to hand out is all very important, but they’re ultimately mechanical concerns. Having an organic world, full of places and people that feel natural, is what’s going to turn your game of D&D into the kind of epic campaign that you hear about in the war stories of veteran players.


Dungeon Masterclass Part 2

When aspiring dungeon masters come to me for advice, they often end up telling me a variation of the following story.

“My players are enjoying my campaign, and they really like the plot and characters I’ve created. But every time they get into a fight, it really breaks the flow of play and ends up being drawn-out and boring.”

This is something that, as Dungeon Masters, we all experience at some point. Particularly at lower levels, the options for enemy combatants are often limited to gangs of goblins, kobolds, or some other generic, low-level antagonist. The solution I hear from most DMs is something along the lines of ‘run less combat encounters’. Respectfully, that’s a bullshit response. It would be nice if Dungeons & Dragons, the game that almost everyone is introduced to the hobby via, was a great balance of role-playing and fighting, but it just isn’t. While there are many great RPGs out there, such as ‘Call of Cthulhu’ or ‘Vampire: the Masquerade’, which are entirely about storytelling and atmosphere, D&D is not one of them. Few other systems have such a huge number of rules governing combat. Put simply, D&D is a combat-oriented game and most sessions will involve at least a couple of scraps.

The issue lies, not with the number or frequency of fights in your session, but with the way they are often perceived by both players and DMs. When a fight breaks out, we transition from a free-flowing, narrative-driven, verbal style of play, to a turn-based, mechanics-driven, rigid style of play. It’s jarring, kinda like those old Final Fantasy style JRPGs, where the overworld map fades away and we’re presented with a battle screen.

But here’s the thing, the fact that you’ve cleared all the crap off the table so you can stretch out your map and ready your minis, doesn’t mean you have to abandon the narrative elements that were present a moment ago. With a miniscule amount of prep, you can give a fight a sense of character and narrative charm that will leave your players feeling entertained and, with a little luck, like absolute badasses. So, with that in mind, let’s build a combat encounter together.

Your money or your life?

Here’s a classic 1st level D&D encounter. The players are travelling through the city streets at night when they find themselves in a dangerous part of town. They’re set upon by a small gang of bandits who aren’t interested in negotiation. Their demands are simple. “Hand over all of your money and equipment, or die.” The players don’t fancy being naked, and the bandits won’t listen to reason, so a fight breaks out.

As it stands, this is an incredibly boring fight. Four identical enemies, all just waiting to be chipped down to zero hit points. But here’s the thing, with about two minutes of preparation, this dull, mechanical experience can become a story in itself. The key to all of this is right there on the stat block.

In fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons, every monster and NPC has a dice value next to its hit points. I very rarely see DMs using these, which is a shame, because they can inspire you to create cool characters on the fly. Let’s roll some dice!

For each bandit I rolled 2D8 and added 2. They now all have different amounts of HP and we can begin to imagine how that might influence, not only their strategic attitudes, but also their personalities. It doesn’t make much sense to me that a group of guys with such varied thresholds for punishment would all have the same physical attributes, so let’s switch them around a bit.

I’ve decided that our weakling is going to be the gang’s resident sneaky guy and that beefcake will be the gang’s brutish leader. Weakling’s DEX goes up by two so I offset it by nerfing his STR by the same amount. I want beefcake to be able to handle more than his underlings, so I simply buff up his STR. We can already see characters forming here. There’s no way two guys with such differing attributes would be identically armed, so let’s play with their equipment.

Our weakling now has a couple of tricks up his sleeve. I’ve given him two daggers, making him capable of dealing a significant amount of damage, providing he can get into position without taking any himself. His slightly higher DEX has also increased his AC to 13, giving him a fighting chance. As for the beefcake, his AC has also been boosted by an upgrade to studded leather armour. Furthermore, we’ve given him a warhammer, slightly increasing his damage-dealing potential. He’ll now provide a challenge for the party’s most heavily armoured member, who’ll need to protect any squishy casters from him.

Now let’s turn our attention to Average Joe and Jim. While it would be perfectly fine to leave them as they are (after all, they’ve barely changed as it is), we’d be missing a great opportunity for diversity if we did.

So far, all of the enemies have had a damage increase, so I’ve decided that average Joe is a new member of the gang and hasn’t had the chance to get a decent weapon yet. He’s just carrying a lump of wood, which he uses to club people. This balances things out, but it also distinguishes him as less of a risk to the players. At 9 HP, Average Jim has slightly below the default 11 for a bandit, so he’s going to be the gang’s resident artillery expert. I’ve taken away his scimitar, leaving him with just a basic shiv (I used the standard dagger stats, but shiv sounds cooler.) Jim will only use the shiv if he has to though. He prefers to stay away from melee and fire his crossbow at enemies.

After what amounts to no more than two minutes’ preparation, we now have a nuanced and diverse gang of ruffians to throw at the players. Lets go over them.

Our assassin carries two daggers and prefers to engage party members who are distracted by his allies. Failing that, he will go for whoever is least heavily armoured, hoping to take them down before they have a chance to strike back.

The new recruit is nervous, poorly equipped, and prone to fleeing. He can see that he’s no match for the party and doesn’t want to die on the streets for the sake of a few gold coins. If he’s reduced to half health, or if the leader falls, he uses the disengage action and flees the fight. He’s also susceptible to intimidation attempts.

The crossbow-wielding bandit will use his movement to remain at ranged attack length from the party, firing a crossbow bolt at whoever he perceives to be the most likely to close the gap. If that happens, he pulls out his shiv and tries to dispose of his assailant as quickly as possible.

The leader of the gang charges immediately and engages whoever seems to be the most defensively capable member of the party. He hopes that by taking down a heavily armoured fighter or paladin, he can keep up the morale of his fellow gang members and scare the party into surrendering. He is too arrogant and stupid to flee, even when death is a certainty.

Tell them to go fluff it

As you can see, we now have a charming little band of brutes for the party to face off against. We could go even further, changing their race, skills, languages and other elements, and you should absolutely do that if you have the time/desire. But it certainly isn’t necessary, as the player’s imagination can fill in the blanks. All that’s left is to come up with a sentence or two describing them, enabling your players to gain an insight into what their strengths are. Something like the following.

As you near the end of the alleyway, four thugs step out of the shadows ahead of you. Their leader, a hulking man of at least six-and-a-half feet, brandishes a warhammer before setting his eyes directly at yours. “Hand over your equipment and gold” he demands, “or you’ll not be leaving this alley”. Behind him stand three others. One of them, a weed of a man in a filthy cloak, holds a cruel dagger in each hand and wears a sadistic smile on his lips. Next to him, a young lad, perhaps sixteen or seventeen years of age, nervously fingers a makeshift club. Finally, leaning against one of the walls is a fourth mugger. He taps a battered old crossbow against the brickwork, seemingly nonchalant to the whole affair.

This bit of fluff is key to the whole setup. While we’ve certainly crafted an aesthetically diverse group of bandits, we want those visual differences to inspire a tactical approach from the players. When your group tells war stories about their experiences in your world, they probably aren’t going to remember the individual names of the enemies they’ve slain, but they will reminisce about the time that they took out a dual-wielding assassin when he was inches away from ripping the wizard to shreds, or the Warhammer-swinging thug that just wouldn’t go down, no matter how many arrows they stuck in him.

Always remember, Dungeons & Dragons isn’t about winning, it’s about telling a story together. While you, as the dungeon master, are certainly the catalyst for that narrative, your players can and should be responsible for it as well. Never is this more apparent than in combat, where the creativity, assumptions and actions of the players will ultimately decide exactly how that chapter of the story is told.

Up next: Building an Adventure – A short guide to brewing at home


Dungeon Masterclass Part 1

No eight-year-old dreams of being a recording studio engineer. When we break out those nostalgic tales of childhood fantasy, they’re stories of singing in front 200,000 people at Glastonbury, or ripping up and down a guitar’s fretboard at Download Festival. The science of recording audio is perceived, by those outside the field, as dry, unexciting and mechanical. It’s a necessity that is respected because it allows other people to achieve glory, but let’s be honest, it’s barely thought about by the average music listener.

It’s my experience that many newbie DMs, seeing the need for a conduit of some kind, view their task as though they’re about to record a band’s album. They’ve got a group together who all want to play, but none of them are confident enough to be the DM, so they begrudgingly volunteer. To many first-timers, the Dungeon Master provides instruments, microphones, and a practice space, then they sit back and watch the players jam together. I’m here to tell you that as a DM, you are anything but a roadie. You are, in fact, the beating heart of the band. You write the songs, sing the lyrics, and choose the timbre. Then the players get to smash out face-melting guitar solos over the top of your work.

To that end, welcome to Dungeon Masterclass, a series of articles aimed at beginner and intermediate DMs in the fantasy world of Dungeons & Dragons. In this series, I’ll be going over what I feel are the key ingredients to brewing up a successful campaign. But most importantly, I’ll be pointing out how and why DMing is the most fun role at the table.

I’d like to begin with a story.

Not too long ago, I was running a campaign for my regular group. The central premise was simple. An alliance of nasty things – hobgoblins, ogres, orcs and the like, were sweeping through a secluded vale, destroying towns and murdering farmers. The players were tasked with slowing their advance long enough to allow the human populace to mount some kind of defence. This led to a series of guerilla-style attacks on outposts and scout parties, along with desperate evacuations of villages and townships.

It was during one such egress that the players heard banging coming from inside an empty tavern. They entered to find a group of four bandits looting the place, seemingly taking advantage of the local misery to make a few cheap gains for themselves. Their leader promptly told the players to get lost. This was their side of the street. The players could rob the other side if they wished. It was then that I uttered a line that forever changed the way this campaign ran.

“Careful Chent” says one of the looters. “I think these might be the guys everyone’s talking about.”

Chent was just a throwaway, generic bad guy. The players were meant to beat the tar out of him, in exchange for a little XP,  before moving on with their mission. The expected scrap did occur, and our heroes swiftly dealt with the gang, but they decided to knock Chent unconscious, rather than kill him, so that he might face justice at the hands of the local sheriff. For a bit of flavour, I ruled that the knockout blow sliced off his hand, causing Chent to pass out from the pain. It sounded cool at the time. The players, being good-natured guys, bandaged his wound and stayed with him until he regained consciousness.

I now had to invent a basic personality for Chent, as the players were about to interact with him. I decided that he would be cocky, but honest. That he would see the abandoned tavern as a genuine waste of perishable resources. Someone would steal it anyway, so why leave it for the advancing goblin army? After all, he hated the war that had been forced upon his countrymen as much as the players did. I tried to imagine myself as Chent. Desperate, scared, in need of a guarantee that he can pay for food and shelter at whatever city he and his friends were about to be unwanted refugees in.

When he came around, I played this character to the best of my ability and that’s when something unexpected happened – the players felt sorry for him. They quickly forgave him, even expressing a sense of guilt for injuring him and killing his friends. Perhaps they had been too hasty in their judgement. Maybe Chent was doing them a favour by removing this food and wine from the inevitable clutches of the approaching horde.

Chent became a full-on member of the party from that point onwards, travelling with the players, offering comic relief in moments of dire gloom. Always hungry for loot, wine and women, his often sardonic commentary on the events of the campaign gave me endless opportunities to steer the players in directions that I wanted them to go. The fact that he only had one hand led to constant banter, where he’d often demand a bigger share of the loot as recompense. Eventually, he got an engineer to graft a crossbow onto his stump and he became a badass, swashbuckling rogue. When he fell during the campaign’s final battle, the players ignored their own wellbeing and, as the temple crumbled around them, stopped to heal him, ultimately rescuing Chent from certain death.

I’m telling you this story because it highlights two things. First of all, it’s a shining example of why being the DM is such a rewarding experience. I created a character, in a handful of seconds, that caused a group of friends to feel a whole range of emotions. I caused these people to question their judgement and to make reparations in accordance with their new perspective. Perhaps even more amazing is that I created a major sidekick who is now an established part of our world’s narrative. As a player, this is something that you’ll never get to experience.

Secondly, this illustrates precisely what I see as the disconnect between the accepted perception of the Dungeon Master and what the true essence of DMing really is. We often think of running the game as an exercise in preparation. The DM spends hours writing notes, learning rules, and planning for every recourse. He does this because he needs to have every eventuality planned out, just in case the players decide to explore them.

Not only is this unrealistic, but by entering into D&D with the mindset that your players can and should follow your plans, you’re guaranteeing that you won’t get to experience some of your most awesome moments as a DM. To return to our band jamming analogy, while you absolutely get to decide the genre, key, tempo and many other things about the song you’ll be playing together, it’s still a jam session. Your drummer may just slip into a reggae beat that you, as well as everyone else at the table, will have to roll with.

Your job as DM is not to keep the players picking out the same riffs over the course of an entire campaign. It’s to provide opportunities for them to surprise you with literally anything else. Ultimately, this game is an exercise in creativity and improvisation. The best games of Dungeons and Dragons are the ones where everyone walks away feeling as though they contributed to the creation of something wholly different to that which each individual at the table had expected.

Ultimately, this idea boils down to one simple fact, which us DMs must always keep in the backs of our minds. The relationship between player and Dungeon Master is a symbiotic one. While you are responsible for everyone else at the table having fun, never forget that they are also responsible for your fun. You’ve likely noticed that I’ve leaned heavily on the band analogy. That’s because I’ve spent much of my life performing music in front of crowds. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in that time, it’s that as long as the band is having a blast, the audience will also have a good time. I’ve seen ensembles that can barely play their instruments but are able to utterly captivate an audience because they were goofy, charming and obviously loving every minute of it. I’ve also seen Axel Rose booed off stage, despite having some of the world’s finest session musicians behind him because he was very vocally not enjoying the show. It’s fun to see someone having fun. So please, have fun!

Up next time: The Inevitable Scrap – How to build fun and memorable combat encounters