On the Art of Improvisation

One of the most important skills in the Dungeon Master’s toolbox is the ability to improvise.

And, based on my long experience with the game, it’s a skill that takes time to develop. Like most skills, you get better at improvisation by actually improvising, and paying attention to what your players think of the result. Many of the games I’ve run have been improvised. Even when you prepare material, there’s likely to be some improvisation involved. After all, it’s the key thing that distinguishes role-playing games from other games like Chess, where the rules are cut and dried. However, the amount of improvisation you use in a session will vary.

The advantage of preparing for a session is that you can get a better grasp of what is available for the players to do. You can think about various avenues of approach beforehand, and try to anticipate what choices the players might make.

The advantage of improvising a session is that the players aren’t bound by your preconceived ideas of where they will go. The flip side of this is that you might need to make up a lot of stuff. And continually coming up with good stuff – or any stuff at all – is hard work. Honestly, for many DMs, you’re better off preparing rather than just relying on improvisation. You’ll need to improvise anyway, because that’s how the game works.

And beginning DMs are unlikely to be that good at it. That’s based on my experience. Thirty years ago when I began DMing? I was terrible!

You get better at improvising and design the more experience you have. What kind of experience? Any kind! Of course, doing a lot of improvising helps you get better at improvising, but simple life experience gives you a huge resource of things that you can incorporate in your game. Every book you read, every person you meet, every job you do – it can all be used when improvising an adventure.

There are two pieces of advice I can give you:

#1: Trust Yourself. Pick an idea and go with it. See where it leads. Elaborate on it. Don’t second-guess yourself.

#2: Pay Attention to your Players. If something isn’t working, the reactions of your players will tell you about it. Don’t exclude them from your consideration as you proceed.

Of course, those two directly contradict each other at times. Can you trust yourself when your players hate your idea? Well, yes, you can. And yes, there will be times when whatever you do, things go badly. Can I run terrible sessions, even with thirty years of DMing experience? Absolutely I can!

About a month back, I discovered that only one player had turned up for my regularly scheduled game of Curse of Strahd. Meanwhile, another table had just collapsed – and we hadn’t yet organised a replacement DM (or players). So, instead of just cancelling the game entirely, I decided to improvise a short adventure so everyone could enjoy themselves. After we finished, I decided to write it down – the result got published on the DM’s Guild today as The Witch of Underwillow.

I knew, going into the session, that it was for a group of characters that would likely soon be playing Curse of Strahd, so I set it up in that milieu, with the characters having just arrived in the village of Barovia. It needed to be a quick quest, so I knew that a quest followed a particular structure: a hook, the challenges, the final encounter. The hook? Let’s have a baby kidnapped by wolves.

So: the characters investigate, find the trail, and set off along it. They meet wolves and fight them. Then they get to the place the baby was taken: the witch’s lair. Witches make good low-level opponents in Barovia. I wanted to make it feel strange and unearthly, so I described how the path led underground, under a willow tree. Good unsettling stuff.

I set a couple of challenges – not directly fighting challenges – that I wanted the players to accomplish before they fight the witch. For one of them, I took as inspiration the Knights and Knaves puzzle. That’s where you have two guards, one of whom lies and one of whom tells the truth. Then I told the players that both of the guards are liars. And got amused by the results. (I’m pretty pleased with the solution to that one).

Finally, I was prepared to spring the final twist on the adventure – what the witch was actually doing. I had a plan. I was all ready to reveal it… when they attacked and immediately killed her. Oh well. There goes that idea… I had to make something else up. Such are the perils of improvisation and role-playing games in general. At least I could use the idea in the adventure!

The point of the story is that I improvised the adventure primarily based on my previous experience of adventure structure and encounters. (The two guardsmen came directly from Doctor Who: The Pyramids of Mars, though I’ve encountered the puzzle many times since then). I just put my own spin on the material. Improvising doesn’t mean you have to be original all the time. Get your inspiration from anywhere you can – and then twist it slightly.

Introducing Dungeons & Dragons Through in-Store Play

One of my delights in life is introducing the game of Dungeons & Dragons to new players, who then discover that it’s something they want to play again. In this quest, my local gaming store has become integral to the process of acquiring new players.

We run D&D Adventurers League games at the store every Wednesday and Saturday evening. The games are a mixture of the shorter (2-4 hours) DDAL adventures and the longer hardcover adventures released by Wizards of the Coast. This allows us to offer a variety of experience for all types of players – and with varying schedules. All the games are D&D Adventurers League legal, so players can reuse their characters at other tables – and other stores and conventions if desired.

In recent days, I’ve noticed a larger influx of new players than normal; although we always tend to have people starting with us. It’s very pleasing.

The advantage we have in getting new players is that we play in a publicly-accessible location. All the gamers in Ballarat tend to know about Guf – a combination Internet-café and game store (trading card, board games and RPGs). And because we run D&D consistently, week after week, players know that they can reliably play games with us.

Having this consistency of playing times is tremendously important. A potential player might discover that we play D&D months before they join us, but because we always are there on Wednesdays and Saturdays, they don’t have to wonder when the next game will be. If you can achieve this, it’s a great advantage.

The other consideration is in offering games suitable for new players. This can be a struggle, and it’s especially a problem for a store that only has a handful of players. The solution of the 4E years was for the main program to primarily be for new players. Which was great for them, but much harder for everyone else to stay enthusiastic when they never got to experience higher-level play. The hardcover adventures are much better for keeping long-term players around, but they can be a struggle to integrate new players into.

These days, I accept that not every time is great for a new player, although they can still jump into an established game. We have enough players that we can run a low-level games at least once per night, providing new players with at least some opportunity to join in, even if not every time slot has a low-level game. Staggering the start of the hardcovers (so that new campaign begins every few weeks) and running a lot of level 1-4 DDAL adventures helps give new entry points for players. When the experienced players are willing to play a lower-level character for a week or two to help a new player in their first games, you have a good community.

The rules of D&D aren’t that hard to learn – at least, not from the player’s side – but the use of pregenerated character sheets makes it much easier for the new player to jump right in. I design my own (the Season 4 set are on the DMs Guild), and my chief target was the new player. Thus, the character sheets put the important information in front of the player, offer advice on how to play them, and try to be interesting whilst not too complicated. It’s a challenge to get them right, and one that I’ll continue to refine as we continue the program. The sheets have been very successful, however.

The other aspect of this is to have a table of helpful players and a helpful DM to make things welcoming to the new player. It doesn’t always work that way, but I’m pleased that – for the most part – the players are very welcoming to new players. Having an experienced DM or other player at the table to help with the rules (and lead by example) is good, but I was watching a table last night where only the Dungeon Master was experienced – all the others had been playing for 3 months or less, with one of them in their first session. But everyone helped each other, and they had a great game.

As the organiser, I do have to pay attention to table dynamics. When you have disruptive players, then you have a problem. If players don’t want to return due to one player’s behaviour, it behoves you to intervene. It’s not a task I enjoy, but it’s one that, if you want a healthy community, you must apply. You’re likely to handle these situations better than I do, but you shouldn’t ignore them.

So, to summarise, what I consider most conducive to introducing new players to D&D in a store environment:

  • Regular playing times, with tables suitable for new players
  • Running adventures suitable for new players (and adventures for more experienced players, to build the community)
  • Pre-generated characters, to aid them in their first sessions before they decide on the character they want to play
  • Having a tables of DM and players that are friendly and willing to answer the questions of the new player

The big advantage of playing in a store over playing at home is that you can build a community of players. Most of our players also play in home campaigns, but coming in at least once each week allows them to keep in touch with the greater local gaming community. This also helps work against the disintegration of home games: if players have to drop out, the rest of the players know people who could possibly replace them.

The choice of running D&D Adventurers League adventures (and the hardcovers with DDAL rules) was a deliberate one, so that players had consistency of play and a shared experience; another aspect of the game that can be very important.

5E Adventure Review: Mad Mage’s Mansion

Vladimir Arabadzhi’s Mad Mage’s Mansion is a four-hour adventure for two characters of levels 1-2, and is presented as a 33-page pdf file. He describes it as a “small party adventure”, and such things are a rarity – and useful for a DM who has a couple of players who want to play a game, but can’t find more players! In the case of only having a single player, the suggestion is made to play a second adventurers, either as a DM PC, or have the player control both characters. I fully support this decision; playing adventures with just a single character is extremely difficult, mainly because a run of bad luck will take the character down without anyone to back them up.

The adventure also has a page of useful tips for playing with small parties, well worth considering.

The adventure describes the small hamlet nearby and the road to the mansion, which employs the fun trick of having a pair of rogues saying they’ll guide the party to the mansion, only to try to rob the party. That’s something I haven’t seen since The Village of Hommlet, although in that case, the rogues waited until after the players left the mansion with loot!

This is primarily an exploration scenario; there’s little role-playing in it. It does include number of combat encounter, although the combats will likely run very quickly. Low level and only two characters? Yes, combats should speed by. And there’s probably going to be some running involved. The inclusion of a cockatrice is just mean! A few CR 1 combats could be tricky if the adventurers meet them before gaining a level.

What Mad Mage’s Mansion does really well is the exploration aspect. It describes every room, and has numerous clues and areas of interest. Some of the areas are just mundane and as described, others have secrets that the players can prise out.

The formatting of the adventure is excellent, with appendices containing much useful information for the DM. The proof-reading is, alas, erratic. There’s a lot of clumsy phrasing and numerous errors. I also noted that many of the ability checks required are quite difficult for first-level characters.

Ultimately, though, this is a very entertaining adventure. I would not find it difficult to scale up for a larger party of adventurers, but it’s nice to see something written for the very small group in mind.

5E Adventure Review: The Claw of Winter

The Claw of Winter is an adventure for 8th-level characters written by John Prichard. It is set in the kingdom of Cormyr in the Forgotten Realms. The presentation of the adventure draws very heavily that of the D&D Adventurers League adventures, even to having a similar format of rewards, monster statistics and encounters. It even includes downtime days and renown, although this is not an official DDAL adventure.

The form of the adventure, which leans heavily towards role-playing and investigation, would also be familiar to those who have played D&D Adventurers League scenarios. The basic idea of the adventure, which sees the adventurers investigate a murder in a small village near to a monastery, is excellent, and the story includes a number of very good plot twists. One of my contentions about writing good investigations is that you need to have a number of overlapping stories, enough to provide entertaining diversions and false paths for the players to investigate while tracking down the true solution. The Claw of Winter manages to provide those stories.

That said, the adventure still has a number of significant flaws, primarily in the early and middle stages of the investigation. The writing is often rough, and requires more polishing. At one point, the text draws attention to a key suspect leaving a tavern, but fails to explain what’s happening. You can work it out from a later encounter, but it’s something that can confuse a DM running the adventure.

The adventure makes use of a few interesting pieces of Realmslore, which I was happy to see, and includes two conversions of monsters that haven’t appeared before. I was very happy to see a catoblepas presented here; it is nicely done, although perhaps not quite as deadly as it was in the early editions of AD&D.

The formatting of the adventure is quite basic, but mostly clear. It suffers from a poor choice of font sizes; the boxed text, in particular, looks miniscule compared to the regular text. The headings likewise prove a poor fit for the main font; it’s likely the main text was increased in size without the remainder of the text styles being updated to match.

Ultimately, the realisation of The Claw of Winter doesn’t quite live up to the quality of its ideas. Despite the problems with its presentation, you should be able to untangle the strands and use it to present an entertaining adventure, but you’ll probably have to do a bit of work to clean it up.

D&D Player Tips: Paying Attention

One of the things that occasionally occurs in Dungeons & Dragons games is an outbreak of player arrogance. The belief that the player characters are the biggest, baddest people in the game, and that nothing can touch them.

This often ends very badly for the player characters.

I’ve been playing D&D for a very long time, and many of my early games were played with Dungeon Masters who weren’t concerned with balance. So, I quickly learnt that I should pay attention to what the monsters are doing, and be very prepared to run.

In particular, I pay attention to how difficult it is to hit the opponents, how much damage they are suffering, and how much damage they’re pushing out. Before a combat, I try to judge – as much as possible – how dangerous they are. Once a combat starts, I’m ready to get out if things go badly.

Good DMs will generally try to give you clues if you’re getting over your heads. They’re probably not going to tell you outright; after all, part of the fun of being a Dungeon Master is to demonstrate to the players the exact consequences of their actions. However, if you’re talking to a potential foe who doesn’t seem to be scared of you and enjoys insulting you, pay attention. Although there are lots of weak bullies out there, if you try to force the issue with someone stronger than you, you’re in for a world of pain.

This is on my mind due to a recent incident in one of my Curse of Strahd games. The situation was this: the party, a group of fifth-level characters, have found the Amber Temple and were interested in exploring it… knowing nothing about it in advance. They’d heard a group of humans inside, chatting about their exploits in a recent battle, but their initial explorations led them in a different direction. This path led to a scared, frightened apprentice, who told them about how his master had been killed by flameskulls, and how he’d been hiding ever since.

This group likely hasn’t played through the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure, because otherwise they likely would have realised that a report of multiple flameskulls meant this area was going to be tough. I eventually mentioned to them (in character as the wizard) that the flameskulls could cast fireball, and they finally got the idea that perhaps there were areas in the Temple they didn’t want to visit just yet. However, they did resolve to find the humans they’d heard earlier, and – though some in the party were doubtful – they returned to the temple and continued onwards.

And they found them. It was then that the trouble started. I described the humans as a group of wild warriors with a pet dire wolf (the party had listened at the door just previously and heard them talking about hunting), and they were not friendly to the player characters when greeted. It wasn’t an “attack on sight” situation, but it was in no means friendly. Instead, they basically told the adventurers to go away and stop bothering them. The ranger in the group pushed the issue: he continued to ask insulting questions of the wild men, despite their continued hostility. The wild men, fed up with this, decided to throw a javelin at the party to get them to leave. (It hit, dealing 10 damage, a significant amount of damage for fifth-level characters). The wild men told the group to leave, again.

Instead, the rogue and ranger attacked, much to the surprise of the other two adventurers.

Let’s look at the situation: there are four fifth-level characters (barbarian, cleric, rogue, ranger) against a group of six human warriors and their pet dire wolf; and the players had just witnessed one of the warriors dealing 10 damage with a thrown javelin. These are not good odds. But the party still attacked.

The first round saw the barbarian and cleric in melee, while the rogue and ranger stood back a bit, lobbing in missile weapons. The warriors pushed out of the chamber, and hit the barbarian and cleric with most of their attacks, dealing a significant amount of damage. Then the warriors pushed past the barbarian and cleric, moving behind them to cut off their easy retreat. (A twenty-foot-wide hallway makes it very difficult to properly control combat against superior numbers). No thought of retreat entered the mind of the rogue and ranger; they continued to attack. The cleric thought of retreat, but he couldn’t see a way to do it.

Two of the wild men were slain, but their numbers were still overwhelming. Both the barbarian and cleric went down in the same round, and the wild men moved up to the ranger.

At this point, the ranger did something smart: He dropped his weapon and surrendered.

The rogue readied an attack, watching to see what the wild men did. They approached him, so he attacked. They killed him.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you don’t pay attention!

Watching the rogue commit suicide (in the true Discworld sense) was awe-inspiring, though not in a good way. The ranger almost followed him: both displayed a complete lack of understanding of the actual situation. They didn’t grasp that there might be enemies tougher than them. They didn’t pay attention to how little damage the wild men were suffering, nor to how much the wild men were inflicting in turn. I was very pleased to see the ranger finally admit that he’d provoked a situation he couldn’t control; him surrendering was the one good thing that came out of the session. The rogue’s actions? Sigh.

One interesting point: after the session, the cleric’s player said to me that he wanted to flee, but that he couldn’t see a way to do so. My advice: He should ask me (the DM) if there’s a way to do something. Typically, in such situations, it’s likely the characters would notice something their players don’t know about. The players are limited by what the DM has described to them, but it may be that there are other things the DM knows about that might be relevant. The only way to discover this? Asking. Yes, the DM might say there’s no way to flee… but perhaps it will focus the DM’s mind on finding a way to help you.

Dungeons & Dragons rarely gives you perfect information about the situation. If you want to play it well, pay attention to what the Dungeon Master tells you, and to what occurs in the game. And be prepared to change plans if something goes wrong.

As for this group? I ended the session there because I needed time to work out a way they could continue the adventure. I think what the wild men will do is take all of the party’s gold (as a weregild for the slain wild men), and throw them out of the temple. The rogue might be resurrected by the intervention of the Dark Powers; I haven’t quite settled on it yet. Whatever happens, I hope they’ll be more cautious in future!

AD&D Review: Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure

The earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons saw Gary Gygax run many people through his Greyhawk campaigns, including a young Rob Kuntz. Rob, being something of an inventive sort, soon became a Dungeon Master himself. He DMed Gary through a number of games – giving the creator of D&D a chance to play the game he’d invented rather than just running it. One particular adventure that Kuntz ran in 1973 would eventually be published as Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure. It would be ten years before it would be released as a commercial adventure.

When it was, it was converted to the AD&D system from the pre-publication D&D it was written for, and it was placed in the World of Greyhawk. As noted, Kuntz’s own campaign world was Kalibruhn, but the primary D&D setting at the time was Greyhawk, and so that’s where it was set.

The adventures of 1984 were changing in nature, becoming more story-based and goal-orientated, led by the work of Tracy Hickman. In contrast, Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure dates from before D&D was released commercially. It’s a very old adventure, coming from the days where the primary style of adventure was the dungeon delve, and inventiveness in the tricks, traps and monsters the players encountered was paramount. Gygax described it as the most difficult adventure he’d played; and, indeed, his original expedition beyond the Unopenable Doors met with disaster, with Mordenkainen, his high-level wizard, becoming petrified by an iron golem wielding a whip of cockatrice feathers! Only a second expedition with his other characters was able to recover the petrified wizard and defeat the further challenges of the dungeon.

The adventure describes three levels of the dungeons beneath Maure Castle, the Greyhawkified version of Kuntz’s dungeon complex: El Raja Key. The dungeon is accessed through a set of doors that – until now – have been impassable. Unopenable. However, with the aid of a magic key acquired from Dalt, the Lord of Portals, Mordenkainen and his friends were able to access these dungeon levels. Thus, the adventure’s hook is “here’s somewhere no-one has been able to enter. Let’s find out what’s there.”

The first dungeon level is the one I really like. Apart from the Terrible Iron Golem, it has Arley the Weaver, an ogre mage, who sells cursed garments to those foolish enough to trust his lies. It also has a particularly unfair encounter: a room where adventurers who fail to make a saving throw versus spells will drop a number of their valuable items into holes that crush them. Perhaps just one, but there’s a small chance they’ll permanently lose six items to that trap!

The first level is large in dimension; indeed, the chamber where the golem is met measures about 200 feet by 300 feet! Despite its size, many of the rooms are empty or have little of interest. The attraction is that Arley is great fun to role-play, and the Terrible Iron Golem is incredibly inventive and difficult to fight.

The two levels below are, ahem, problematic.

Now, it should be said that they have a lot of good ideas in them. There’s this fabled “Lost City of the Elders”, that can be accessed through a magic item that the great demon Kerzit guards. And then you have Eli Tormorast, an evil wizard, and his servant “Lord” Hubehn, who command the forces in the lower levels. There’s the potential for the players to stop an evil wizard from whatever he plans. The trouble is, of course, that this is an exploration scenario, and Eli Tomorast exists only to try to kill the adventurers. He has a history, but no motivations. When he encounters the adventurers, he attacks, and only ceases the attack if badly hurt – whereupon he retreats to raise the rest of the dungeon against the characters. And, unfortunately, the design of the Lost City is left up to you. No follow-up adventure would materialise detailing it. In fact, it’s quite likely no adventurer ever visited it, so there was no need to design it!

I am, of course, displaying my prejudices by dismissing Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure in such a matter. The fact is, I much prefer scenarios where the players have a clear goal to work towards. Pharaoh is the design I prefer: equally inventive encounters, but with the characters striving towards breaking the curse, rather than just exploring the dungeon in search of loot. Many people I respect find this adventure one of the best published by TSR. I don’t think it’s even close.

The solution to my problems with it, of course, is to do something more with Eli Tormorast. Make him a villain who is known to the players, who they need to stop lest something terrible overcome the campaign. That said, the encounters on the lower levels still don’t quite inspire me.

It should be said that this actually is a very significant adventure in the history of the World of Greyhawk because, for the first time, the adventure is presented with pre-generated characters of note: statistics for Mordenkainen, Bigby, Lord Yrag and Riggby the Patriarch are presented in the appendix, allowing the players a chance to play these characters. The statistics for the characters are not those of Gary’s actual characters. The original D&D players were, in fact, very protective of their characters and wouldn’t allow their stats to be printed. This was the second time these characters had seen print – after 1980’s Rogue’s Gallery – but neither printing presents accurate portrayals of the characters.

The adventure also possesses a new trade dress, which would grace the next few World of Greyhawk products, based on the design of the 1983 boxed set.

This is an adventure from the earliest days of D&D, and it shows all the raw inventiveness and flaws that early products have. I’ve both played it and DMed it, and in neither instance did it really capture my imagination, but it has done so for many others. It’s a dangerous, difficult adventure, which really challenges the skills of its players and its Dungeon Master. For those interested in the early history of D&D, this is one of those to investigate.

New Players and the Slow Release Schedule of Dungeons & Dragons

It is with some surprise that I find that I’ve been running the Dungeons & Dragons organised play at Guf Ballarat for the past six years. It began slowly, but now we typically have somewhere between 20 and 40 people playing with us on a weekly basis, coming to one or other of the D&D nights we hold or, for some players, both.

We get new players trying the game pretty regularly as well. Some stay around and become permanent additions to our roster, while others try it for a while before finding it isn’t for them, or – more often – that they prefer playing with home groups. However, we’ve helped introduce them to the game and show them what a fun experience it can be, so I’m happy with that.

However, I’m finding there are a few features of this edition of D&D that I hadn’t expected.

One of them is that it is really, really good for introducing new players to the game.

This derives from a couple of factors, one of which is the excellent design of the first few levels. Players aren’t overwhelmed by a first-level character’s abilities. Instead, there’s just a few numbers to pay attention to and a limited range of “named” actions. There aren’t a lot of special cases to consider. Even the Wizard, the most complicated of the early classes, has a simple “default” mode where they use cantrips like firebolt again and again, and only need to bring out more potent first-level spells rarely – and at that time can be guided by the other players as to what to use.

A couple of my friends dislike how the rogue can’t hide as a bonus action until second level. For myself, I think dealing with that adds a layer of complication. Let the rogue get used to working with their companions – gaining sneak attack against creatures adjacent to their allies – before getting into the hide-and-attack play, which can be a little Dungeon Master-dependent.

However, I’d also rate the fact that now, two years after the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was released, there is only one player supplement available in stores (and that a minor one), to be just as significant. Quite simply, new players aren’t scared off by a wall of books. There’s the Starter Set, the Player’s Handbook… and that’s all most players need. And they’re on the same playing field as the players who have been there from the start.

This has the interesting effect of making everyone a lot more familiar with the standard rules. Make no mistake: this edition of D&D offers a lot of options in the Player’s Handbook. Although players who like to go very deeply into just one class may be feeling the need for more expansion now, players who want to explore the breath of options the game offers likely haven’t even got close to exhausting the opportunities.

Making new players feel welcome is a huge part of helping grow the game, and is something I consider tremendously important. The ease of integration of new players, the simple ways of explaining how to play the game to them, and not scaring them off with a huge pile of books? It makes me happier about the future of the game than I have been at many times in the past.

This is Dungeon & Dragons. It’s the greatest game I know. Let’s enjoy playing it together!