Category: Play Advice

Crafting Magic Items – and the Effect on the Campaign

Some things you learn through experience.

When I first played Dungeons & Dragons, while AD&D 1st Edition was the main edition, I got very frustrated by the magic item creation rules. Too vague! The DM had to do too much work! Where do you get those ingredients anyway?

I understood that crafting magic items was an important part of the magic-user’s abilities – the book told me so! – and though I didn’t have the 12th level magic-user required to craft those items, it didn’t stop me thinking about how the rules worked.

I discovered I wasn’t alone in thinking that the crafting rules could be clearer because, with the release of D&D 3E in 2000, there was a new, simple-to-explain system for crafting magic items. All the wizard need was enough gold, access to the correct spells and to spend a little XP!


It turns out that allowing players to have exactly the items they want causes a few balance issues. If every fighter wears magical platemail, a magical shield and a cloak of displacement, then the mathematics on the system gets out of hand, fast. Yes, I could increase the attack bonuses of the monsters, but then I slaughtered every party member that couldn’t wield those items.

At least in 3E, there was that XP cost. It’s not that much, it did give the crafters some pause in just creating anything they wanted. Pathfinder got rid of that XP cost. The results, based on the two campaigns I ran of it, were not good.

I’ve somewhat cooled on crafting magic items due to my experiences in 3E and Pathfinder.

However, it’s still something I want to include in the game. This time, I wouldn’t abrogate the responsibility of the DM in keeping the game balanced! I scanned the 5E rules and then went back to the AD&D rules. How did they work again? Then I got distracted by the rules for creating a new spell. Why did I get distracted? Because those rules are better than those for crafting magic items. The basic method? Get a laboratory, spend time in research – with a chance of success each week. Repeat until the spell is researched. For a magic item, I see it as using the research method to determine how to create the item – special ingredients and spells needed, etc. – then use the other process to allow the crafting of the item.

The rules for crafting an item I can adapt from those given in the 5E rules and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. The idea of using bits of monsters in magic item creation – ghoulish though it might be – has the benefit of promoting adventure. Why does the wizard go out of the lab? To find components for magic items! This form of crafting does assume a different form of the game: one where the players drive adventures rather than adventure coming to them. (I feel early D&D was more aimed towards going in search of adventure, while later versions were based more on adventurers being swept up into a story, but that’s a generalisation that isn’t universally true).

The idea of the campaign where the players choose which adventure they wish to experience is one I repeatedly approach, with varying degrees of success.

The other aspect of this method of crafting items is the idea of time management. If the character is crafting items or researching spells, they’re not available for adventures. This brings up the potential for players creating multiple characters and choosing which one goes on an adventure depending on availability!

In a recent session of my Greyhawk game, the players discovered an old manuscript that described how to construct a couple of magic items, alleviating the need for research. The items still need special components to craft, as well as crafting time, but the research isn’t necessary.

If the campaign continues down the path of offering the players more freedom as to what they do – rather than saying “this is the adventure, go on that one – do I institute training times to gain levels? Perhaps not!

Incidentally, one of the items the ancient manuscript described was the staff of life. What’s a staff of life? Well, it wasn’t in AD&D or 5E! I thought it was, but it’s only a 3E item! It permits the casting of heal and raise dead. I’ll have to think about how I implement it in 5E – I may go back to a non-rechargeable staff in its case!

Addendum: I think the best form of crafting items is brand-new items from the minds of the players. “This sounds cool? Can I create it?” The research then becomes the way where they discover if it’s possible – with the DM working out how to implement it in the game without breaking the game!

Running Storm King’s Thunder: The Spirit Mounds

Over the past few weeks, the adventurers have recovered all the giant relics from the Uthgardt spirit mounds. This probably took us a week or two longer than I wanted, because it delays the story and a few of the mounds aren’t that interesting.

In a lot of ways, this is like recovering the puzzle cubes from Omu in Tomb of Annihilation. Each spirit mound provides a short quest that shouldn’t take more than an hour to resolve.

It is not, in fact, necessary to recover all the relics. However, most players will do so. Give players a dungeon level or a set of quests, and they’ll want to explore everything and complete them all. That’s human nature. In Tomb, you can adjust the length of the section to your tastes because other people can recover the cubes. In Storm King’s Thunder, there isn’t that release valve. The solution? Pay attention to your players, and if they seem to be getting bored, suggest they may have enough relics to appease the Oracle.

We did them all. That’s over. Hooray!

The play of this section works a lot better if the characters have access to the airship of the Dragon Cultists; either piloted by the cultists or the characters. You get to avoid a lot of tedious wilderness travel that way. In fact, even without the airship, I’d drop most of the random wilderness encounters and instead get the characters to their destination without interference.

For the spirit mounds that don’t have interesting encounters, you can supplement the material with wandering giants and barbarians. It’s baffling that most of the spirit mounds don’t seem to have barbarians around, but most barbarians wouldn’t be a threat for these level characters.

The Oracle bookends the spirit mounds. The Oracles’ dungeon is straightforward; it’s the interactions with Harshnag that provide most of the interest. I find it a lot easier to role-play a character who appears several times rather than just once, and when the character has interesting things to say. That, Harshnag does.

Harshnag gives you another chance to prove that not all giants are evil. For a while, the adventurers gain an ally. I found it amusing to play Harshnag as not quite understanding human culture. He’s familiar with it, sure, but he sees it from a giant’s point of view. can lead to wonderful misunderstandings. I do enjoy providing humour in the game.

Notes on individual locations in this section:

Beorunna’s Well. My favourite of the spirit mounds. The terrain is intriguing, and the combat was very entertaining. I had the manticore fly around in the darkness attacking the illuminated PCs, while the barbarians crept closer.

Flint Rock. The suggested encounter isn’t interesting, but the length of time needed to excavate the relic allows for random encounters in the meantime. I chose for some giants to arrive!

Grandfather Tree. Using the airship bypassed the barbarians. My players negotiated with the dryads. No combat! Hooray!

Great Worm Cavern. My second-favourite mound. The icy floor makes combat very difficult. The couatl provides interesting role-playing opportunities, and you should definitely use the remorhaz to attack the PCs. The barbarians in the suggested encounter are fairly uninteresting for this level of PCs.

Morghur’s Mound. Nice surprise encounter with animated skeletons! Strangely, my party – despite having bludgeoning weapons – didn’t use them. Skeletons are typically vulnerable to mauls!

One Stone. Nice call-back to Princes of the Apocalypse. I had the bulette attack from below the PCs with surprise rather than arrive a distance away.

Raven Rock. Very boring suggested encounters, though the location is interesting. I replaced them with more giants.

Shining White. Keeping the griffons separated helps protect them from fireball spells. The curse is a nice touch.

Stone Stand. The first ghost is interesting. The second can be a surprise. The third and the fourth are boring. Do you roll initiative each time? If not, the PCs just ready actions and wait for the next to arrive. This encounter would be more interesting with a Blue Bear shaman explaining to the party the mound was cursed, and asking for their aid.

The Essential Spells for Dungeon-Delving

If you’ve ever played an old-school dungeon-delve, or a new-school death trap (see Tomb of Annihilation), you’ve likely needed a variety of spells to save you from a horrible fate. Or rather, your horrible fate would have been avoided if you’d had these spells.

The current edition of D&D doesn’t require these spells to the same extent as previous editions (notably 3E), but you’re likely to want these ones anyway whenever you delve into the dangerous dungeons.

Note that these are typically utility spells to get past dangers of the dungeon, or curative spells to help you if you’ve been affected by said dangers. A wizard who only prepares these spells is likely to run into trouble when a monster attacks – you need combat spells as well!

Not every spell-caster in the group needs to prepare all of these spells, and there are some that duplicate each other (greater restoration obviates the need for some lower-level spells, for instance), but if each spell-caster prepares part of the list, you’ll be better equipped when the DM throws his latest death trap at you!

First-level Spells

Comprehend Languages. Tombs are full of inscriptions giving the answers to puzzles or clues as to what lies ahead, often in a language you don’t understand. This is where comprehend languages comes in. It doesn’t let you speak to monsters, but you can understand what they’re saying. (Bard, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard).

Cure Wounds. You don’t have this spell? There are substitutes, but it’s the default one – it or Healing Word. (Bard, Cleric, Druid, Paladin, Ranger).

Detect Magic. Many a magical trap is foiled with this spell. Knowing it is there is the first defense. It also works well to easily find which items are magical! (Bard, Cleric, Druid, Paladin, Ranger, Sorcerer, Wizard).

Heroism. The target is immune to being frightened. (Paladin).

Identify. Quickly discovering what an item does isn’t always needed, but there are times when it’s the only way – especially if you’ve got a DM who doesn’t like identification through a rest. (Bard, Wizard).

Protection from Evil and Good. The spell doesn’t work against evil mages, but the fiends, elemental and fey in the dungeon? It prevents you from being charmed or frightened by them. That’s useful! (Cleric, Paladin, Warlock, Wizard)

Speak with Animals. Animals aren’t that smart, but they may have noticed something important. (Druid, Ranger).

Second-level Spells

Augury. When you’re in a trap-filled maze, this spell helps you navigate through the right way. (Cleric).

Calm Emotions. How do you get rid of the frightened condition? This is the way. (Bard, Cleric).

Detect Thoughts. Need to learn a password from a guard? This is how to do it. (Bard, Sorcerer, Wizard).

Find Traps. The instantaneous nature of the spell makes it less useful than in previous editions (in AD&D it lasted 30 minutes), but this can help you in treasure rooms. (Cleric, Druid, Ranger).

Knock. When the lock defeats your rogue – or you don’t have a rogue, or it’s magical – use knock. It’s noisy, but it works! (Bard, Sorcerer, Wizard).

Lesser Restoration. Gets rid of disease, blindness, deafened, paralysed or poisoned. Very useful. (Bard, Cleric, Druid, Paladin, Ranger).

Pass without Trace. If you need to sneak past your foes, or escape without being tracked, this is the spell you need. (Druid, Ranger).

See Invisibility. Not just for invisible monsters, it also helps you find invisible objects. (Bard, Sorcerer, Wizard).

Spider Climb. The floor is not always safe! (Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard).

Third-level Spells

Clairvoyance. For scouting ahead without risking yourself. Rather limited at such, but it has its uses. (Bard, Cleric, Sorcerer, Wizard).

Dispel Magic. You will discover many magical traps and tricks that can be overcome by this spell. It’s a very good one to cast when you need to get past a magical barrier. (Bard, Cleric, Druid, Paladin, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard).

Fly. There are times when this is the best option for crossing obstacles. (Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard).

Remove Curse. Curse are bad. Get rid of them! (Cleric, Paladin, Warlock, Wizard)

Speak With Dead. Not always useful, but interrogating the dead can give you a lot of important information. (Bard, Cleric).

Speak with Plants. Again, depends a bit on your DM, but you can learn a lot from plants. (Druid).

Tongues. You can’t read the languages (see Comprehend Languages), but you can talk to and understand the creatures you meet. Very useful! (Bard, Cleric, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard).

Water Breathing. There are times when you need to go underwater. (Druid, Ranger, Sorcerer, Wizard).

Water Walk. Don’t have a boat? This gets past a lot of obstacles. (Cleric, Druid, Ranger, Sorcerer).

Fourth-level Spells

Arcane Eye. This is how to scout ahead! (Wizard).

Death Ward. In a death-trap, you can go from maximum hit points to zero very quickly. It’s a marginal spell, but sometimes very useful. (Cleric, Paladin).

Divination. As with Augury, this can save you a lot of trouble when you’re unsure about how to proceed. It’s limited, but powerful. (Cleric).

Freedom of Movement. How do you get out of a magical trap that restrains you? This spell does that! Also useful if you’re underwater. (Bard, Cleric, Druid, Ranger).

Stone Shape. Need a quick exit through that wall? (Druid, Wizard).

Fifth-level Spells

Commune. Like Divination and Augury, but even more powerful at getting you the answers you need. (Cleric).

Contact Other Plane. See Commune. (Warlock, Wizard).

Greater Restoration. It reduces exhaustion, and stops or fixes charm, petrification, curses, reduced ability scores, and maximum hit point loss. Why don’t you have this spell? (Bard, Cleric, Druid).

Legend Lore. The more dangerous the dungeon, the more likely some of its areas will need this spell to understand what they do and how to overcome them! (Bard, Cleric, Wizard).

Passwall. Another way to get past an annoying obstacle. (Wizard).

Raise Dead. Self-explanatory. (Bard, Cleric, Paladin).

Teleportation Circle. When you absolutely need to leave the dungeon when trapped. (Bard, Sorcerer, Wizard).

Sixth-level Spells

Arcane Gate. Another way of getting past obstacles and traps. (Sorcerer, Wizard).

Contingency. There are times you need to have precast this spell. (Wizard).

Find the Path. When you fall foul of a teleport trap and you need to get out. Not always that useful, but it’s worth considering. (Bard, Cleric, Druid).

Heal. Because – massive healing, plus removal of blindness, deafness and disease. It doesn’t stop curses, though. (Cleric, Druid).

Heroes’ Feast. This spell grants immunity to poison and being frightened, cures diseases and allows you to make Wisdom saves with advantage. You should use this spell. (Cleric, Druid).

True Seeing. You see everything as it is. And you can see into the Ethereal plane. This is good! (Bard, Cleric, Sorcerer, Wizard).

Wind Walk. A good way of leaving, or bypassing certain traps. It has its drawbacks, however. (Druid).

Word of Recall. When everything goes wrong and you need to leave quickly. (Cleric).

Seventh-level Spells

Etherealness. This and plane shift can be useful in the right circumstance. Generally because of a specific dungeon feature. (Bard, Cleric, Sorcerer, Warlock, Wizard).

Regenerate. If you come up against a trap that severs the fighter’s arm, you’ll be glad you had this spell! (Bard, Cleric, Druid).

Resurrection. See Raise Dead. (Bard, Cleric).

Teleport. For leaving and returning. (Bard, Sorcerer, Wizard).

Eighth-level Spells

Anti-Magic Field. Did you know that most golems become inert in an anti-magic field? It has its uses! (Cleric, Wizard).

Mind Blank. Of less general usefulness, but research what threats you’re going against. Will there be mind flayers? Prepare this spell! (Bard, Wizard).

Ninth-level Spells.

True Resurrection. For when things go really wrong. (Cleric, Druid).

Wish. It solves problems. (Sorcerer, Wizard).

D&D Tips: How to set the Difficulty of Skill Checks

031518_2035_DDTipsRole1.pngThe Dungeon Master’s Guide gives a handy table of sample DCs for skill checks. However, what they don’t tell you is the context in which they should be used. This article explores the potential skill bonuses at various levels of play and suggests DCs to use in various circumstances.

First, we need to examine what bonuses the characters have. In a group of adventurers, skill bonuses tend to fall into these categories:

  • Unskilled users. Let’s assume they have a 10 in the ability score being used.
  • Skilled users with a non-primary ability score (that is, one they don’t increase with ability score increases). Let’s assume they have a 12 in the ability score.
  • Skilled users with a primary ability score. Rogues using Sleight of Hand with Dexterity. At some point, their Dexterity score will move up to 20. I assume 16 at level 1, 18 at level 4, and 20 at level 8 for these calculations
  • Expert users with a non-primary ability score. (Expert = Expertise, available mainly to rogues and bards).
  • Expert users with a primary ability score.

Here’s a table setting out the bonuses you can expect from these characters:





































Magic items, spells and a couple of feats (for Perception) can alter those numbers, but they’re accurate in most cases.

The basic DCs given in the DMG are as follows:

Very Easy DC 5
Easy DC 10
Moderate DC 15
Hard DC 20
Very Hard DC 25
Nearly Impossible DC 30

When you compare the DCs to the bonuses above, you can easily see that “Nearly Impossible” is indeed impossible for most characters, although true experts can do the nearly impossible 40% of the time – or 64% of the time if they have advantage!

One thing to consider when setting DCs is that the titles of those DC bands tell you what the difficulty is in the world; not for your characters. A Hard check may have only a 5% chance of success if all the party are unskilled or be only moderately challenging for expert characters at higher levels.

So, an Unskilled character will fail at a Easy task almost half the time, meanwhile most skilled characters will succeed at that task most of the time – with their chance of succeeding increasing significantly if they’re higher level or they have expertise.

When I set DCs I first consider this: Who is making the check?

  • Is one character acting alone?
  • Are a party of characters aiding each other?
  • Are all the characters acting separately?

If only one character in the party must make the check, then it will be the most skilled character, and a DC of 15 or higher may be appropriate. If each character makes the check separately and suffers the consequences for failure, then unless the check is very easy, many characters will fail.

Consider if the characters must climb a cliff.

  • You could ask each character to make the Strength (Athletics) check separately. There’s very limited scope for characters to aid each other.
  • You could have the first player to climb it lower a rope. The rope could
    • allow the other characters to climb it without a check,
    • allow characters to climb it with a Very Easy check, or
    • allow them to climb with advantage.

If each character must check – even with advantage – then a Hard check makes the check impossible for anyone with a Strength of 8! However, if you only need one character to succeed, then a Hard check could be a trivial task for a high-level, expert character.

It’s also worth considering if the characters need to make the check to proceed in the adventure. If they can’t get to the end without navigating the cliff, then you don’t want the characters to fail. Use a lower DC! However, if it’s optional then using a higher DC is a good idea.

Do the players need to succeed at multiple checks? If this is the case, consider reducing the DC by 5 from what it would be otherwise. A 50% chance of succeeding with one check becomes a 75% chance of failing with two checks; multiple checks can be brutal for increasing the chances of failure.

Contrariwise, do the players only get one chance to make the check? This is often the case with Arcana, Nature and Religion checks: Either you know something or you don’t. You can’t keep wracking your brain for an answer. If you only get one shot at something, the check should be easier than it would otherwise, especially if it’s necessary for the adventure to proceed.

So, putting these ideas into a table:

Yes No
Does only one PC need to succeed? Higher DC Lower DC
Is it essential to the plot? Lower DC Higher DC
Does the task require multiple checks? Lower DC Normal DC
Can you retry the check? Higher DC Lower DC

If you’re writing a home adventure, you can look at the skill bonuses of the characters and tailor the adventure to them. If you’re writing a published adventure, and so you’re unaware of the skill bonuses, then most checks should be in the realm of DC 10 to DC 15, with a few challenging tasks at DC 20. I’d use DC 5 to 10 for tasks that everyone needs to take where there are penalties for failure.

There’s one final type of skill check: the check for a non-essential task that rewards a character for specializing in a skill. If there’s a hidden panel with a great treasure, or a shortcut to the boss monster (like the garbage chute in the goblin cave of Lost Mine of Phandelver), then you offer an opportunity for those expert skill-users to be rewarded for their choices.

Things I learnt from Amber Diceless Roleplaying

When I was at university – so many years ago – a game was released based on the works of Roger Zelazny. Called Amber Diceless Roleplaying, it cast the player characters as the sons and daughters of an immortal, immensely powerful family, who were basically gods.

The interesting thing about the game was that the characters didn’t like each other that much. The game was designed so that typical play wasn’t the characters dealing with a threat invented by the Dungeon Master, they were instead dealing with the plans of the other player characters! The purest expression of this came during the game known as a Throne War. In that, the characters were vying for the throne of Amber. Whoever ended up on the throne was the winner of the game.

You know how there’s said to not be a “winner” in most RPGs? Not the case in a Throne War. There was definitely a winner in that game!

An auction at the beginning of the campaign determined how good the players were in relationship to each other in four basic statistics: Warfare, Endurance, Strength and Psyche. The initial bidding helped set up the rivalries between the characters. You wanted to be the best spellcaster? Well, that person over there beat you! And, because you were rarely working together, that meant something. It meant that if you wanted to beat them, you needed to be tricky. Or have allies. And there came the fun of the game.

Amber was a great game to role-play in. And it helped promote role-playing because the best allies for your character were the other characters. So, you had to talk to them. And because your goals didn’t all align, you had this wonderful interaction where the players would discuss something, all looking to gain advantage for their character, while not letting any of the others get too far ahead.

Many of the games I ran I’d just adjudicate competitions between player characters (they might fight each other or engage in a mind duel), while occasionally throwing in an external threat to distract them (or some of them) from their “main” goal. Did they work together to defeat it, or did some take the opportunity to gain an advantage?

This level of rivalry doesn’t work with most RPGs, but it does point to a way to promote better role-playing in your games: You need to give the characters reasons to interact.

The fact is that role-playing between the player and the Dungeon Master is somewhat limited. It often devolves to one-on-one, or at least has a very limited participation rate. After all, when you do a regular negotiation, it’s rarely six people on one side talking at once to another! It will primarily be one or two people talking, with others contributing a much lesser amount. And the Dungeon Master also needs to concentrate on other matters. So, the more role-playing the characters do with each other, the better the overall role-playing experience will be.

This isn’t to say that the NPCs the DM controls don’t have a valuable role to play in interactions. The trick here is to provide a character that is interesting to interact with… and can be interacted with in separate ways by different PCs. At the D&D table, you don’t want party members fighting each other, but if their goals are slightly divergent, and the NPC could figure in achieving one but not all? That gives rise to an interesting situation.

Another thing Amber taught me was about player-driven scenarios (of which we tend to refer to in D&D as sandboxes). Namely, they only work if the players are good at generating plots themselves. For players who are reactive in play and prefer to go on missions designed by the DM, they’re not so good. However, this isn’t a problem if you have a couple of players who are proactive and go seeking to fulfil their goals; the other players will follow them!

Part of this comes from a lack of knowledge about the setting. I find it very difficult to generate my own goals and take my player character in interesting directions if I’m ignorant of what’s in the game world and how it will be run. It’s no good creating a character that is the Scourge of Undead when you never encounter an undead creature! It’s in character creation that the DM needs to work with the players to explain the basic set-up of the campaign. It very much helps players if the DM can suggest some potential goals for characters, giving a view as to what directions the campaign may go. Of course, these things can be changed and adapted when the campaign starts, but at least have a starting point.

It’ll make things much easier for everyone!

Running Storm King’s Thunder – Wilderness Encounters in Chapter 3

My current campaign of Storm King’s Thunder is run using the D&D Adventurers League rules. One of the aspects of those rules is that I can’t use milestones. XP must come from the players overcoming monsters, whether through negotiation or combat and set XP awards in the text. In the case of SKT, it’s almost entirely overcoming monsters. The little quests in the adventure don’t have XP awards upon completion, which they likely would have if the adventure were written solely for DDAL play.

So, to give the characters enough XP to progress to level 7 by the end of the chapter, I’m making liberal use of the “random” encounters while they are travelling. I’m not determining them randomly. Instead, I’m choosing each one to further the story (and award lots of XP).

This has become my standard tactic in hardcover adventures: I choose the wilderness encounters, although there are still times when I let the dice decide.

Each of the random wilderness encounters suggests a basic set-up. The giants are trying to excavate something. The orcs have prisoners. However, many of the details of the encounter are left up to you. Consider the following when fleshing an encounter out:

  • What time of day do the adventurers meet the monsters?
  • What is the terrain?
  • Are the monsters all together, or are some set as scouts? Are any hidden?
  • Are there any buildings or ruins nearby?
  • At what distance to the adventurers become aware of the monsters? Alternatively, what distance to the monsters become aware of the characters? There are times when the monsters are aware first and can set an ambush!
  • Are the monsters travelling or stationary?
  • What are the goals of the monsters? Do they want to kill the PCs? Or are they willing to avoid them or converse with them?

These are questions you should be asking for most encounters; however, they are especially pertinent when you’re running encounters for the adventurers while they’re travelling. It’s very easy to default to “you see orcs 60 feet away, roll for initiative”. There are times when you need no more than that, but spending a little more time framing the encounter can help engage the players with the story.

For Storm King’s Thunder, the encounters should mostly relate back to the giants’ activity. To summarise:

  • Fire giants are looking for parts of an adamantine monument
  • Cloud giants are seeking ancient magic
  • Frost giants are looking for the Ring of Winter
  • Stone giants wish to destroy all structures built by small folk
  • Hill giants are looking for food

Encounters with non-giants should tend towards folk that have already encountered the giants. They could be terrified, looking for a new home, taking out their frustrations on the PCs, or hoping to get past as quickly as possible. Have the stone giants ordered the orcs to destroy all the human settlements, but the orcs have decided that they should get some slaves as compensation? That forms the basis of an encounter.

If you use miniatures, finding good wilderness maps helps significantly. Paizo’s range of Flip-mats or the new D&D Dungeon Tiles (for Wilderness!) both can aid this. There are other products out there as well. I find wilderness maps the hardest to represent without these sorts of aids.

You want to make the encounters relevant so that they help tell the story, difficult enough to challenge the adventurers without slaughtering them all, and provide a sense of how dangerous the Sword Coast has become with the giants causing chaos! Good luck!

Running Dungeons & Dragons at Conventions

As you may already know, I spent the Easter long weekend down in Melbourne, running and organising D&D Adventurers League games at the Conquest games convention.

It was the first time I’d managed to get to the convention since the early 1990s; I’d planned to attend a couple of years ago, but an inconvenient bushfire almost destroyed our house about a month prior, but finally, the stars aligned.

Compared to the attendance at PAX Australia, this was a small convention. And, as it was our first time running games there, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I planned to run a maximum of 3 tables, and we got between 1 and 4, depending on the time slot. (People weren’t always happy about getting up to play at 9 am, it seemed!)

We were DMing a different type of player than PAX. At PAX, most of the players are new. At Conquest, the players knew what to do (for the most part). They understood the game and knew what they wanted. The trick was to give it to them!

No DM is good at everything. Players don’t all want the same thing. So, how do you give the players an enjoyable time?

The answer is obvious: You pay attention. You observe how the players react to various elements of the adventure and your DMing style, and you try to give them more of that.

If there are a puzzle and the players are struggling and getting frustrated, you help them past it, and minimise the puzzles in later sections.

If the players are enjoying role-playing with each other and the NPCs, you expand on the role-playing sections in the adventure.

If one player is creating a Pathfinder character at the table during the role-playing parts (which the other players are enjoying) but comes alive in the combats? You let him, especially when he’s not distracting the other players. And you try to make the combats interesting enough so that player enjoys those bits as much as possible.

The point is to enable the players’ fun. Pay attention and react to what the players do.

What are the other parts of it? They’re the usual bits of playing D&D. Read the adventure in advance. Know where your dice are. Don’t spend too long looking up rules. Keep things moving. Finish the game in the time-slot! That last may require some people management, especially if the players are spending a lot of time arguing about what to do next.

One of the trickier bits to consider is whether you use miniatures (or tokens) or not. In general, I would advise using them. My home style may be primarily Theatre of the Mind, but in a convention setting, the players don’t have long to get used to my way of playing. That said, for an adventure where every fight was against at most two monsters, I didn’t bother bringing out the battle map. If there had been a more complicated fight? Then, I would have used it.

One significant benefit of running games at a convention – besides just allowing more people to enjoy the game – is that you get exposed to more players and more play styles. It helps expand your ability to DM. For those reasons, it’s worth giving a shot once you’re comfortable running games. See what else you can do!

Running Storm King’s Thunder: Chapter 3

In this chapter, it’s all about the pacing.

The end of Chapter 2 gives the adventurers several adventure hooks; missions suggested by the NPCs they’ve saved that give treasure and other rewards. Chapter 3 is the “sandbox” chapter, where the players can explore the Sword Coast doing little missions on the way. It’s all very Baldur’s Gate.

The DM’s role here is to maintain the story and keep things flowing. The worst thing to do is just let things drift. There are four types of encounter here:

  • Quest-defined encounters. These are the encounters related to the quests in Chapter 2.
  • Location-quest encounters. There are additional quests given in the various settlements in Chapter 3.
  • Random encounters.
  • Story encounters. These are the encounters given in the end of Chapter 3, which can be inserted at appropriate points as the players explore.

Those are the tools available to entertain the players.

So, what are your goals as a DM?

  • Get the adventurers to level 7
  • Give them a view of the chaos of the Sword Coast with the giants running amok
  • Introduce the different behaviours of the giant tribes so the players understand the backstory when they reach a giant stronghold.

Although you could roll randomly for the random encounters, it’s far better to choose ones that are appropriate to the players. You’ll get a sense of the types of encounters that the players want – role-playing, combat or mysteries – and you can tilt things towards those. If the players get very interested in what the Fire Giants are doing, use more Fire Giant encounters, or use NPCs to point the players to where Fire Giants might be.

When you get down to it, this isn’t meant to go forever. The players start at level 6, they should move on when they get to level 7. Under the assumed speed of play, that’s only 8 hours of play! Each of the individual quests can be played quickly (no more than 2 hours, I’d guess, and likely less), so you can get through them all, throw in a few random encounters, and then you’re ready to move on. The groups I’ve heard about that found this frustrating? They wandered around randomly and didn’t learn anything of the situation. So, take control of the pacing. Run travel in a couple of sentences if the destination is more interesting than what lies beyond. Use random encounters to give a feel for how dangerous the land is. And pick a mix of encounters that suits your players.

Once the players have a better idea of the situation of the Sword Coast and a glimpse of the strange behaviour of the giants, have Harstag encounter the adventurers and move them on to the next chapter!

Hoard of the Dragon Queen – Adventure Structure

In my last article, I talked about the importance of the overall structure of campaign adventures.

It’s very hard to run an adventure when you don’t understand the steps the characters must take to navigate their way through it. Each adventure has its own structure, and some have multiple paths.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen is relatively straight-forward. However, there’s a couple of areas that can be obscure to DMs and players. Here’s a summary of the main plot points:

  • The adventurers come to the aid of Greenest, which is being attacked by the Cult of the Dragon (Episode 1)
    • Why are the adventurers helping? The default reason is they’re heroes! However, you can look to the adventure hooks in the appendix for alternative reasons. If they don’t want to be heroic, this may not be the campaign for them.
  • The adventurers are asked by the mayor of Greenest to scout the Cultist camp and see what their plans are. They are also asked to rescue a monk named Leosin. (Episode 2)
  • The adventurers are asked by Leosin to scout the caves near the camp, and then join him in a nearby town, Elturel, for debriefing. (Episode 3).
  • The adventurers learn that the Cult is gathering treasure and taking it north. (Episode 3).
  • Leosin and Onthar Frume, representatives of the Harpers and the Order of the Gauntlet, give the PCs a mission: Find out where the treasure is going, and what the cult plan to do with it. (Episode 4)
  • The adventurers travel with the treasure, facing diverse challenges along the way. (Episodes 4-7).
  • The adventurers learn the goal of the cult from Talis the White: To summon Tiamat! (Episode 7)
  • The adventurers learn of the alliance between the giants and the Cult, and can act to stop it (Episode 8)
  • The adventurers learn the destination of the treasure from Blagothkus: The Well of Dragons. (Episode 8).
  • With the PCs having completed the factions’ mission (destination + goal), the adventure ends – although not before they probably fight for control of the Cloud Castle!

What is most likely to confuse players? It’s forgetting the goals given by Leosin and Onthar at the beginning of Chapter 3, since they take many sessions to complete. Chapters 4-6 aren’t revealing much new information; they’re instead providing the characters with the challenge of following the Cult. As secondary goals, they give the players a view of the Forgotten Realms and a glimpse of the scale of the threat.

My advice to anyone running Hoard of the Dragon Queen is to remind players of these goals regularly, perhaps in a recap at the beginning of each session.

What is most likely to be missed by the DM? I think it’s that they need to have Talis or one of her minions tell the adventurers that the Cult want to summon Tiamat. When I ran it, I also described the split of the Cult from its old form under its new leader (and cast Talis as one of the disaffected old guard).

I hope these notes give you a better idea of the overall structure of the adventure.

The Structure of Campaign Adventures

I’ve run Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat three times each, Curse of Strahd twice, Out of the Abyss and Princes of the Apocalypse once each, and I am currently running Storm King’s Thunder and Tomb of Annihilation. By now, I’ve had a lot of experience running the campaign adventures of Wizards of the Coast.

Many people evaluate adventures based on how good the encounters are. I don’t. My main interest is in the story structure. I want to know if the encounters fit together and provide an environment for the players to explore? This is not to say that encounters aren’t important – they certainly are – but I feel the art of making a good encounter is far better understood than the art of creating a good story structure.

It is tremendously important not to expect a published campaign adventure to function as a homebrew campaign. They don’t. In a homebrew campaign, the DM creates material in response to the actions of the players and their desires. The published adventure needs to include that material beforehand; the DM can add additional material of their own, but I presume that one of the reasons a DM might use a published adventure is so they don’t have to keep creating material. I know it’s a reason I run so many.

In general, there are two basic types of campaign: The linear adventure (such as in Hoard of the Dragon Queen) and the sandbox adventure (such as Curse of Strahd). Both forms present challenges of design.

A linear structure is not a sin. It’s a technique of adventure design. Each encounter area follows the next is a line. This can be frustrating for some players, but many players prefer an adventure with a linear structure and well-defined goals. Being able to go wherever you want isn’t always a good thing. One advantage that the linear adventure has is that the characters get to the encounter areas in the right order. You don’t suddenly find yourself in the lair of Orcus at first level.

The drawback of the linear structure is that it can feel too forced (the dreaded railroad). One technique for combatting that is to include a lot of choice in the encounter areas. Many of the individual episodes in Hoard of the Dragon Queen give the players a lot of choice how to approach them. Do they go for a frontal assault, sneak in, or try to persuade the guards that they’re fellow cultists? The links to the next part of the adventure are set, but there’s much decision-making to make in-between.

The sandbox structure gives the player freedom of choice but courts the risk of the adventurers going into areas that are too difficult for them, or that don’t continue the story. This is very apparent in Princes of the Apocalypse, and it’s made worse by the goals of the story pushing the PCs to confront monsters too tough for them.

There is a basic question you need to ask about any encounter area: What reasons do the PCs have for going there? Curse of Strahd looks like a wide-open sandbox, but story-based reasons tend to push the PCs towards areas that work for them. These new goals are missing in Princes of the Apocalypse.

If the rationale works each time, and there is at least one path from the beginning to the end of the adventure, then you have a successful structure. When the reasons to go to a new area fail, then you have a problem.

My feeling is that in a multilevel adventure, sandboxes work only for a limited range of levels. It’s why Princes of the Apocalypse has trouble and Tomb of Annihilation is more successful. In Tomb, you’re only in sandbox mode until level 5 or so. With limited levels, the range of challenges is manageable. A level 1-15 sandbox? That’s difficult!

So, what makes a good sandbox adventure? I think it needs lots of plot-hooks for side-quests, multiple hooks for the main quest, and different paths from one story encounter area to the next. When a hook for area D appears in areas A, B and C, then you’re getting somewhere.

A major problem for published sandbox adventures is that good sandbox settings aren’t static. The DM constantly alters them and updates them in reaction to the actions of the PCs. What actions does the villain take in reaction to the PCs? Discussion of that is something missing from many sandbox adventures. Consider the factions in Tomb of Annihilation. There are many of them, and the DM can use them to take the story in interesting directions. How much does the adventure aid the DM in planning their actions? I don’t think there’s much there.

For all the problems I have with Princes of the Apocalypse, this is one area it does cover: the reactions of the villains to the adventurers’ actions. This is also something you’ll find in The Rise of Tiamat, where a chapter details the reactions of the cult to the characters. (They want them dead!)

So, how do I approach a published adventure? The first thing I do is work out what encounters are essential to the plot. Then I start ignoring everything else!

That’s an exaggeration. However, I think it’s important to not include a LOT of other encounters between important story encounters. If you have three sessions between advancement in the plot, it’s likely the players will forget what the plot was! In Tomb of Annihilation, I replaced the entire “wandering around the jungle” introductory section with an adventure by Shawn Merwin (Return of the Lizard King) that very quickly got the players to a level where they could explore Omu: the real heart of the adventure.

Try to discover why the players might go to each area, and how the areas link together. When those links are absent, and the players are wandering randomly, it’s likely you need to step in and create clues and goals for the players. Whether there’s just one or several, most players appreciate having a sense of where to go next!

For a critique of the structure of the published adventures, have a look at this article by DM David. I don’t agree with all of his points, but it’s worth reading.