December 24, 2023

Heroic Gifts

’Tis the season of giving for many folks this time of year — and why should the player characters in your campaign be left out? Here are a few ideas for special gifts, gratuities, bonuses, and benefactions you can bestow on the characters after a successful adventure leaves them in the debt of a monarch, a noble, a fey lord, a grateful dragon, or some other NPC with wealth and influence to spare. Sure, you can dish out gold and gems easily enough, but a truly memorable gift should be something the characters can cherish — and might just happen to come wrapped up a few new campaign hooks for your next adventures.

Wealthy Estate Starter Kit

The characters are bequeathed a hundred acres of “exclusive hunting estate” that turns out to be a monster-haunted bog. Time and investigation soon reveal that the livery of the numerous undead humanoids in the area suggests that those who died here generations ago were the palace guard from a distant realm that fell to invasion — and whose crown jewels were stolen away before the palace fell and never found. The characters’ new lands might just hold a missing fortune, but they’ll need to clear those lands of threats if they hope to find it.

Heirlooms of Evil

Each character receives a valuable piece of ornamental finery seemingly perfect for them (a fine cloak pin for a paladin, a jeweled scabbard for a fighter, a beautiful necklace for a stylish warlock, and so forth). The pieces all share a similar design that suggests they are part of a set, though their provenance is unknown. As it turns out, the pieces belonged to a legendary group of evil adventurers who were executed for horrendous crimes a century ago — and who managed to instill their blighted souls in each of the items so as to corrupt whoever now wears them.

Research Grant

The party is gifted with a special badge that allows them lifetime access to the services of any royal sage or scholar across the land. Using the badge can grant the party mundane information, advantage on checks to seek old lore, and so forth. But the badge was also once the secret sign of membership of an assassins guild that operated within the order of royal sages, using the order’s operations as cover. The characters might find themselves mistaken for members of this still-operating guild, and either recruited for a dastardly mission, or suspected of trying to infiltrate the guild and targeted for elimination.

Sweet Ride

The party is given a magical means of conveyance consistent with the campaign and the characters’ idiom — a magical wagon, a small flying ship, a number of tokens that allow each character to summon a magical steed, and so forth. Only it turns out that the conveyance was originally claimed as treasure from its extradimensional original owner — a fiend, a celestial, a fey prince, et al — and has a failsafe mode that triggers to bring the characters to the dangerous realm where that owner now dwells.

Gallant Tapestry

As a reward for their adventures, the characters receive a huge custom-made tapestry depicting one or more events from those adventures. The tapestry might provide some initial opportunities for planning and roleplaying as the characters try to figure out where to hang it and how to move it (with the tapestry as arbitrarily large and heavy as it needs to be to make both those things complicated). And it can then provide fodder for darker adventures as NPCs at the location where the tapestry is ultimately displayed begin to suddenly vanish — even as they appear as terrified figures within the tapestry’s epic images.

In Repertory

The characters receive a heroic homage in the form of a dramatic play detailing their exploits, which is to be performed over a month-long run in a major city. It might turn out that the night of the premiere before the nobility of the city becomes a night of adventure, whether from an attempted assassination against someone in the audience, or because nefarious elements plan on targeting multiple nobles’ estates while they’re all out on the town. Or it could be that a powerful villain the characters defeated but didn’t capture during their adventures plans on using the play as a kind of template to magically undo the events of the past, rewriting the play so as to rewrite history and defeat the characters.

December 6, 2023

Foundations From Fast Prep

Last week, the marvelous M.T. Black posted on the social mediaz to ask whether anyone had “a proven formula for creating an enjoyable 2-hour session of #dnd with less than 10 minutes prep?” I responded with the following:

  1. Map of old ruins, five rooms or so. 
  2. Two cool traps or hazards, one placed conspicuously at the entrance. 
  3. Place two easy encounters. 
  4. Have one incorporeal or teleporting hard encounter stalk the characters, then attack just after the second easy fight finishes.

This was an easy response for me because it’s a formula I’ve used a lot — mostly because I really like the kind of focused adventure it creates, not because I’m consistently short of prep time. But in ruminating on why I like this setup and how it works for me, I thought it would be fun to break the formula down a bit and explore what it’s actually doing. Because through that process, we can think about the underlying foundations of each step of the process, and how those steps can create actionable hooks for adventures of all kinds.

1) An Adventure Flowchart

“The entrance to the old dungeons can be easily located as a flight of broad stone steps leading down into darkness,” were the words I read in the Holmes blue box version of Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager. “But the few adventurous souls who have descended into crypts below the ruin have either reported only empty stone corridors or have failed to return at all.”

And with that, I was hooked. I saw the blue-box rulebook’s Tower of Zenopus in my mind as clearly as any place I’d actually visited in real life, because there’s something so primally attractive about the idea of being brave enough to walk through a site where secrets, history, and danger surround you on all sides.

Dungeons are fun. But they’re more importantly one of the best frameworks for adventure design, as the name of the game has pointed out for nearly fifty years now. A map of a ruined keep, a subterranean temple, a warren of rough-walled caverns, or any other isolated site cut up into a number of distinct locations makes an easy-to-follow flowchart for exploration, intrigue, and adventure. If you don’t have a lot of time to figure out the shape of the adventure you want to run, a dungeon map gives you that shape, creating a literal path that the characters are compelled to follow.

2) Seeing the Unseen

Traps and hazards are one of the most effective ways to remind the players and characters that what they can’t see is potentially as big a threat as what they can see. Traps and hazards help to focus the players on their characters’ surroundings, giving you the opportunity to bring those surroundings fully to life. But one chronic problem of traps and hazards is that when the characters don’t spot them in time, those threats can end up feeling like a sucker punch — a beat of punishment narrative built on failure.

So give the characters an automatic success against unseen environmental threats early on in an adventure to give them a feeling of accomplishment. A trap or hazard that reveals itself easily feels like a victory, and can focus the players right from the start into problem-solving mode as they figure out how to get past the trap or hazard. By establishing early on that the players’ thinking is at least as important to getting past challenges as the characters’ capabilities, you set up a framework to have the players and characters fully engage with their adventuring environment, and that engagement helps bring an adventure to life better than anything else.

3) An Early Win

Easy encounters are the fastest way to turn new or uncertain players into adventure-obsessed veterans. Success in combat spikes a special kind of RPG dopamine straight into the gamer brain. And just as with regular dopamine, once we get that first hit, we want more. As every GM understands, a campaign composed of nothing but easy combat encounters can get stale quickly, but easy encounters are a great tool for a one-shot or a campaign start. Give the characters and players a chance to feel heroic right from the get-go, and they’ll keep coming back for that heroism fix — along with the gradually increasing levels of challenge that make the fix that much sweeter.

4) The Threat That’s Coming

A lot of adventures (especially site-based adventures) set up a kind of rhythm around first seeing monsters, then fighting monsters. It’s a reasonable and logical approach most of the time. But when the characters have very little time between the revelation of a threat and the process of dealing with the threat, the players sometimes don’t have a real opportunity to feel the weight of that threat. That’s where it can be handy to have a formidable foe who can teleport, move through walls, or otherwise reveal themself to the characters, then quickly slip away in a manner that prevents them being followed. 

Playing up a slow-build threat goes hand in hand with the players’ engagement with the environment (which you’ve set up initially by letting them see the unseen). As the characters focus on interacting with what’s around them to stay ahead of unknown dangers, they inevitably end up face to face with the danger that’s watching them, slipping away from them, waiting for them, watching them again. Then when that danger finally strikes, it does so at a point when the feeling of impending threat has been escalated to its highest possible level. The result is an encounter that engages the players fully — because they’ve been engaging with it from way before the encounter even begins.

November 21, 2023

Alternatives to the NPC in Need

D&D adventures have been around for fifty years now, and over that much time, it’s inevitable that elements of newer adventures will start to retread old ground. Sometimes that’s for good reasons, as when a designer wants to create an homage to a classic adventure, or to invert tired adventure tropes to do something now. Sometimes it’s because original ideas are hard to come by, and every writer inevitably writes something that someone else has written before.

But a third factor that often leads to tired adventure design is the fundamental paradigm of RPG adventures needing to be a bounded framework for an absolutely unbounded story. Because that paradigm sets hard limits to what kinds of story we can tell in certain parts of an adventure. And there’s no part of an adventure in which that’s truer than the adventure hook.

In a novel, a short story, a film, an episode of a TV series, or any other form of locked-down story, an author can start that story any way they like. Most often, the start of a story is directly set up by the characters, either through their direct choices or their indirect reactions to unexpected events around them. But in an adventure, that initial hook (what’s often referred to as the inciting incident in fiction discourse) can’t be customized to the characters — because an adventure has no idea who the characters are. The hook has to be generic enough that it can work for literally any group of players, any party, any GM.

And so, long, long ago in Lake Geneva, the extraordinarily tired hook of “An NPC hires the characters to solve some problem” was born.

As you can probably tell from my tone, I’m not a huge fan of the NPC-in-need-hiring-the-heroes adventure hook. And there are two specific variations on that hook that I dislike most of all: the “characters hired by farmers and ranchers to take on some great peril” hook, and the “1st-level party recruited to fight some great evil” hook.

For the former, I grew up in cattle ranching country, and I can tell you with great authority that when farmers and ranchers face peril, they deal with that crap themselves. If any of the ranchers who were neighbors of mine when I was a kid had ever seen an owlbear stray onto their property, that handsome monstrosity would have been a stuffed head over the mantelpiece by the end of the day. The 1st-level troubleshooters hook is equally frustrating by virtue of how badly it breaks the verisimilitude of the adventuring world, because in a world with adventurers, no one has any real reason to hire 1st-level characters to fight evil when higher-level characters must be out there somewhere. Especially when the evil in question has huge stakes, all of which are known in advance. (I’m looking at you, Tomb of Annihilation.)

Mixing Things Up

Whether you’re looking at running a published adventure with the “An NPC tasks the characters with X” hook, or are running your own adventures and looking for ways to break past the oldest of D&D tropes, here are a few suggested alternatives. With just a bit of fine-tuning for your own game and its players and characters, you should be able to work in any of these hooks as an easy replacement for the NPC in need.

Part of the Solution

Instead of helpless NPCs beseeching the adventurers for aid, have the characters come across NPCs who are fully capable of looking after themselves — but who will happily take any additional assistance offered to them. Rather then being the only ones who can accomplish the adventure’s central task, the characters become part of a larger group capable of doing so — searchers, hunters, researchers, survivors of a natural disaster, and so forth, depending on the task. Then the characters just happen to be the one part of the larger group in the right place at the right time to jump into the larger adventure.

Close to Home

Rather than being hired by an NPC stranger, the characters discover that someone they know personally is in peril, create immediate stakes and a sense of urgency. Be cautious with this hook, though. Using it once or twice in one campaign with an NPC who has a habit of getting into trouble can be great fun. Using it multiple times — and especially with vulnerable NPCs placed into real peril — will quickly put the players into a mindset of seeing every NPC you introduce in the campaign as a potential plot-trigger victim.

Mistaken Identity

Having a plot hook handed to the characters takes on a different feel when the hook was intended for someone else. Being mistaken for another group of adventurers or specialist troubleshooters offers an ironic or comedic take on this alternative hook if your campaign runs in that direction. Or you can take a hard left from humor by having one of the characters targeted for attack or assassination after being mistaken for someone else.

Does This Sound Familiar?

A bit of prophetic prognostication given by a soothsayer, found in a previous adventure, or tied to a character’s backstory seems trite on the face of it — until events unfolding around the characters start to echo the prophecy a little too closely. By virtue of its potential to seem contrived, this hook can be problematic in its own right. But granting the players and characters a sense of being caught up in events they might be able to control is a powerful draw, even if that control turns out to be illusory. 

Mysterious Lore

A trope far older than D&D, stumbling across secret information is a great way to inspire the curiosity of players and lead the characters into an adventure. The discovery of an old map is a great way to draw the party into a site-based adventure. Likewise, finding part of a note or a letter can introduce the characters to a problem needing solving, while a troubadour’s song can tease a legend that needs investigating. The trick to making this hook shine is to introduce the revelation before it becomes relevant. Have the characters find the lore in the course of a previous adventure and not think anything of it, then discover a second bit of context (recognizing a location on the map, hearing a name from a mysterious note, and so forth) that fully hooks them in. 

Mysterious Relic

A party member comes into possession of some odd trinket or bit of minor magic that reacts strangely when the characters wander into a specific location or engage with particular creatures or NPCs. The relic can most easily have some connection to an adventure location you want the characters to go to, rumors you want them to investigate, an NPC you want them to meet, and so forth. As with mysterious lore, this hook works better if the relic is something picked up earlier, and which seems innocuous until its purpose is revealed.

Old Obligations

Tying to the characters’ backstories or backgrounds, some piece of the past suddenly reveals itself, drawing one or more characters back into unfinished business that conveniently ties to the adventure at hand. This hook can incorporate all kinds of fun scenarios, from an old enemy seeking the characters out to settle a vendetta, to a rival or ex-lover showing up unexpectedly, to a revealed secret putting the character and their companions into peril.

Dreams and Visions

One or more characters experiences a strange dream that lingers in memory, granting an urge to engage in some quest, seek out a specific location, seek an NPC they’ve never heard of before, and so forth. This one can feel pretty hokey as a concept, but it works surprising well in action, as dreams and visions create a strong connection between character and campaign story in the players’ minds. Properly wrapping up this sort of hook usually requires the characters discovering the actual source of the vision, whether it connects to a character’s deity, a supernatural agent involved in the eventual adventure, and so forth.

Movers and Shakers

Rather than the characters cultivating a positive but predictable relationship with NPCs in need, think about a relationship with someone in power who hates them. Operatives moving against the characters can easily push them in the direction of many different types of adventures, especially if the operatives are more powerful than they are, or if the characters are prevented from openly fighting back.

In the Thick of It

A monster terrorizing the countryside is always good fun for a GM. But rather than having the locals warn the characters about an existing terror in the area and plead with them for help against the threat, have the characters attacked first by happenstance, then put into the position of having to warn the locals. To make the hook even more engaging, have the locals not believe them.

Cash on Delivery

A scenario in which the characters are hired to take care of business as bounty hunters is obviously just a specific instance of the characters-as-hired-troubleshooters hook. But it can put enough of a spin on that hook to make it feel fresh, especially if the characters stumble across the bounty offer as a mysterious lore setup (above) rather than having someone seek them out with the offer. For added oomph, make sure the characters are aware of other adventurers or mercenaries on the trail of the same prize, so that the goal of attaining the prize is complicated by the need to prevent others from doing so first.

October 25, 2023

Go Your Own Way

In my regular Sunday game two weeks ago, thanks to a teleport scroll that could carry too few people, we wound up with the party of four (plus a bunch of NPCs) (including two characters the party was kidnapping) (but in a good way) (well, for one of them) divided up into three groups, each about thirty miles apart. Now, that’s probably an extreme example of splitting the party — but as with a lot of such examples, keeping the game running when characters decide or need to go off on their own isn’t as insurmountable a task as many GMs and players think.

State of Play

“Don’t split the party” is an oft-heard refrain in RPGs, for two fairly solid reasons. First, in any game that focuses on combat, any subgroup of the party will have a tougher time dealing with threats than the party as a whole would. If a GM’s setup involves encounters balanced for a large group, things can quickly go sideways if a bunch of foes are suddenly surrounding a lone scout doing recon, or if an encounter that expects a full range of magic and martial prowess is suddenly being taken on with swords or spells but not both. And second, splitting the party creates logistical challenges in the way the game is run. It requires the GM to effectively run two or more scenarios simultaneously, as separate storylines spin out from the actions of different groups of characters.

The first point can be a challenge for sure. If splitting the party means that the GM of a combat-heavy game needs to rebuild encounters on the fly or run the risk of flattening characters without meaning to, that game can bog down or go off the rails quickly. And even for a GM deftly able to adjust encounters during play, doing so can break the sense of verisimilitude if what should have been a full squad of guards turns into a single sentry with no backup, or if a monster whose threat level the players know has clearly been scaled back to not overwhelm one or two characters.

Outside of combat, though, the challenge of splitting the party can actually be an asset to your game, as long as players and GM approach the process in the right way.

Making a Break

Part of the reason that splitting the party is a constant topic of conversation among players and GMs is that splitting the party often makes narrative sense. Breaking things up and allowing different characters to take on individual tasks can be a great opportunity for character development, especially when certain characters are typically overlooked in certain types of encounters and scenarios. When a party features a charismatic bard with a Persuasion modifier in the double digits, that character likely does most of the talking during negotiation or diplomacy scenarios. A warrior defended by plate armor and a ton of hit points likely always takes point in melee. So it can be fun to give the players of other characters a chance to take on a role outside those characters’ core strengths.

Splitting the party also makes it easy to add additional layers of complexity to a game’s narrative. When all the characters are in the same position to see events unfold and to glean the insights of exposition at the same time, the game typically advances as a single path with forks, with players and characters collectively advancing, making decisions on which new direction to go in, then taking up that direction collectively. But when characters have a chance to do their own thing, the story of the game gets to flow in parallel for a while, with different narrative streams advancing and complicating independently, and the players subsequently determining how to resolve those complications in ways more interesting than simply choosing whether to go left or right.

In almost all cases, popular vote among the characters and players is the definitive way to choose the best option for moving forward as a group. But sometimes it can be fun for a player to mess around with an unpopular option, and giving that character a moment of split-the-party spotlight does that. As well, the kinds of focused moments that splitting the party provides can also give quieter players a chance to step up that they might otherwise have trouble finding within a full-party scene. And under some circumstances, one or two characters working alone can make discoveries or come into possession of unique secrets in ways that heighten the presence of those revelations in the narrative. (But read on for additional thoughts on handling exposition in split-party play.)

Timing is Everything

It’s up the GM to keep a rough sense of how much time is being focused on each individual group when the party is split. In some cases — especially during fast-paced, high-tension encounters — shifting back and forth between short scenes of five or ten minutes can heighten the roleplaying experience. In other cases — especially when separate scenes might take a drastically different amount of time to play out — it works just fine to run a full scene with one group of characters, then run the other group’s scene next.

A conversation between GM and players is the best way to determine what approach feels right for a split-the-party session, and all players should feel free to speak up if one approach or the other is causing the game to flag. This can easily happen when short scenes aren’t providing enough time for players to really dig into what their characters are doing, or when long scenes cause players to lose track of what’s going on in their own side of the story.

All In

When splitting the party, a GM’s first instinct is often to physically divide the characters, setting up in different rooms of a physical play space or in separate video feeds or chat streams online. Indeed, the old adage of “Never split the party!” is often trotted out in response to the complexity of running a game in two locations simultaneously, whether physical or virtual. But there’s another option.

In any split-party scene, let all the players take part — not just the players of the characters in the scene. Players whose characters aren’t present can ask questions of the GM and offer suggestions for the players engaged in the scene, just as they might for a scene in which all the party members appear. In the same way, the players of absent characters will watch the developments in the scene as they happen, even as their characters will learn of those developments only when they regroup with their comrades.

As always, the players whose characters appear in a scene can decide which questions are worth following up on and which suggestions they’d like to explore. Each player is always the sole arbiter of their character’s decisions and actions. But being able to consider the other players’ ideas can make those decisions more interesting.

When a stealthy rogue makes a solo incursion into a noble’s office in the middle of the night, any player can make suggestions as to which features of the office seem worthy of investigation, just as if their characters were there. When the paladin and the cleric meet with the temple high priest to try to convince them of the danger presented by a dragon cult, the players of the other characters can offer up suggestions about how best to make the party’s case, or even offer up pithy one-liners that the characters present might say.

This approach absolutely breaks dramatic realism. But it creates a better play experience by keeping all players engaged in the scene, and by giving the characters in the scene the widest possible range of options and decisions as they navigate the narrative. Under certain circumstances, if it’s important for only the characters in the scene to learn something, you can pass that information on as a note, a text, a private message in chat, and so forth. (And of course, never be afraid to pass a note or private message asking a player to pretend the note said something important, just to keep the other players on their toes.) But that approach should be the exception, not the rule.

Most of the time, letting the players interact regardless of whether their characters are interacting helps maximize the flow of ideas between players and the fun of the game. And letting everyone engage in this way also helps to ensure that the players who aren’t running characters in a scene remain focused on what’s happening in the scene, even as they’re thinking ahead about their own characters’ course of action for when the focus shifts to them. 

An absent-character player who tries to overtly direct the other players’ characters is a problem in this sort of scenario, to be sure. But such players can be a problem in general if they fall into the habit of telling other players what they should do, whether providing unsolicited combat advice, suggesting another character’s course of action, and so forth. As such, talking to such players about where to draw the line on offering advice is the same conversation regardless of whether you’re in a split-party or a full-party scenario.

September 26, 2023

Embracing the Awesome

In pretty much every fantasy RPG, every adventurer fancies themself a cut above the common folk. Whether we’re playing heroes, antiheroes, altruists, egoists, or any of the other possibilities on the adventuring-character checklist, the story of the game revolves around the idea that our characters are exceptional, both in their abilities and the things they do with those abilities. The barbarian is the ultimate battle machine. The rogue is the consummate confidence artist. The wizard is the master of magic that can remake the world.

So why is the GM asking my world-class adventurer to make an Athletics check to climb a rope? And does it serve any real purpose when a low roll on an ability check makes a character fail at a task that has no real consequences other than wasting time or looking kind of foolish? Is that really the best way to play the game?

The Hero Fast Track

D&D and every other fantasy RPG is a game of heightened and accelerated character progression. As people living in the real world, we’re all generally conscious that we’re not the same people now that we were five or ten years ago. We can look at ourselves and see where we’ve grown and where we’ve improved, even though the process of growth and improvement is often so gradual that we don’t see it happening.

Adventurers have an easier time of it. As a character levels up, the boons and benefits that improve their class features, skills, ability scores, combat prowess, magic use, and more are a benchmark of their growing expertise. Everything a character is good at feeds into experience or story milestones. Experience and story milestones feed leveling up. Leveling up feeds getting even better at things.

In real life, we often take our time getting better at things. But adventuring characters make self-improvement into a speedrun. Even in the grittiest, most low-magic, slowest-leveling campaigns, the math of advancement makes player characters exceptional. So don’t be afraid to embrace that idea by moving away from rolling dice when the characters undertake even challenging tasks, whether breaking down a door, gathering intelligence, deciphering lore, finding tracks, clambering up a wall, or any other of the activities of an adventuring life.

Getting Rolling with Not Rolling

Players and GMs have a number of different options for deciding when it’s the right time to allow characters to automatically succeed on ability checks, and how that can feed the narrative.

Skills, Tools, and Backgrounds

Establishing a baseline for automatic success is a good idea. Requiring that a character have proficiency in a skill is an obvious starting point, as is making sure that a task feels like something a skilled character could pull off under generally favorable circumstances. But in addition to skill proficiencies, don’t forget tool proficiencies. Because checks requiring artisan’s tools often come up less often than skill checks, allowing automatic successes on such checks can help make them memorable. Likewise, character backgrounds offer a rich array of possibilities for things a character should be able to pull off automatically with time and focus, from a sailor character skillfully untying a complex knot to a folk hero gathering intelligence in a city under the control of corrupt officials.

Planning Ahead

Automatic successes are a great fit for checks that extend from strategizing on the part of the characters and players. If everyone at the table spends time and effort thinking about the best way to get access to the headquarters of the thieves’ guild, give the rogue an automatic success on the check to open the secret exit in the back alley, or give the fighter an automatic success on breaking through the drain grate that gives the characters access to the guild’s cellars. Whenever the players are actively engaging in planning how to overcome a challenge, one or more automatic successes as they put that plan into action make a great reward.

The (Role)play’s the Thing

Automatic successes also make great rewards for roleplaying, whether social encounters or players fully digging into describing their characters’ actions during investigation, exploration, or even combat. If a bard has a great idea for dropping a chandelier into the middle of a ballroom to distract the duke’s house guards, with the player explaining in detail how they plan to make use of that diversion, don’t risk messing up the fun of that plan with a botched skill check to untie the rope that holds the chandelier aloft. Likewise, when the player of a bard sets up an elaborate scene of striking up a conversation with a local politician in an attempt to learn who’s bankrolling them, grant them an automatic success on their Persuasion check. Rewarding roleplaying in this way is a great way to encourage roleplaying — in contrast to having a great bit of roleplaying followed up by a failed skill check, which is a great way to make players wonder why they bothered with the roleplaying in the first place.

Setting Up Success

As the players and the GM get comfortable with automatic successes for ability checks, they’ll also learn to look for opportunities to allow one character’s success to feed the success of other characters. When the party needs to clamber up a cliff to reach the far side of a chasm, having the rogue make the climb with a breezy bit of narrative is undercut by having the Strength 8 wizard or the paladin weighted down by a hundred pounds of plate armor, weapons, and gear failing skill checks. 

So let the rogue’s easy ascent extend into letting the rest of the party also climb up without difficulty, whether the climb lets the rogue mark out an easy route up marked by numerous handholds, or whether they drop down a knotted rope ladder conveniently hidden at the top of the cliff. Likewise, an automatic Intimidation success when the sorcerer challenges a guildmaster in a tense negotiation can spread to the other characters as well — perhaps not granting automatic successes on Intimidation or Persuasion checks of their own to deal with the guildmaster’s entourage, but with advantage on those checks.

August 24, 2023

Hazardous Behavior

Sometimes I find myself so busy writing game stuff that I find it really hard to find the time to work on the writing-about-playing-the-game stuff. This is a good problem to have, overall. And it also gives me an occasional excuse to share 5e mechanical stuff rather than tips and advice. So to whit:

New Hazards for 5e

I was working on hazards for CORE20 recently, and thought that some of the stuff I was coming up with would make an excellent conversion to 5e for GMs and players tired of the usual encounters with green slime and yellow mold. These new slimes and mosses are all inspired by some of the classic dungeon threats of previous editions (as reworking stuff from previous editions is something I love to do), but have a lot of potential for use in both dungeon campaigns and other adventures.

For GMs, enjoy! For players, run! And have fun either way.

July 19, 2023

Collaborative Storytelling Expanded

Collaborative storytelling is the essence of what makes D&D and every other RPG unique among games and other pastimes. But beyond the baseline sense that campaigns create narrative shaped by the details laid down by the GM and then reshaped by the choices of the players and the actions of the characters, RPGs offer plenty of opportunity for more advanced approaches to shared storytelling. 

One of the coolest of those approaches comes from having players come up with some of the details of the campaign, whether as one-off reveals or as details connected to their character’s backstory. Details and hooks for nonplayer characters, events, locations, and more can all be worked into the campaign by the players this way, creating an optimally dynamic story framework that takes some of the pressure to be continually creative off of the GM. 

However, this process of having the players contribute story can be hard to navigate sometimes. This is particularly true for groups used to the traditional setup wherein the players focus only on directing their characters through a world of events, locations, and creatures that are the province of GM. So for groups who want to engage in richer storytelling, here are a few tips.

Talk It Over

As is true for almost everything in the game, the first step to trying something new is to talk about it. Setting up the idea that players are encouraged to bring their worldbuilding A-game to the table is an excellent topic for your game’s session 0, or for whatever email and messaging about the upcoming campaign precedes your session 0. Whether you’re a GM wanting to make the other players a more active force in the story of the game, or whether you’re a player pitching the GM on the idea of a more collaborative campaign, talk about your goals and expectations. Do your best to get all the players on board with this approach, but be respectful if players who are happiest just focusing on the moment-by-moment story of their own character prefer to let others sketch out the larger world.

Especially if many of the players are new to the game, or if experienced players are taking on a broader role in creating narrative for the first time, talk about how the players’ input in the campaign story should play out at the table. It’s easy to start with the GM calling for the players’ input, focusing on relatively easy campaign details, and encouraging any or all players to work together on those easy details as a means of getting everyone used to the process. “Spending a bit of time in town, it’s pretty easy to learn which tavern offers the best chance to find a somewhat shady broker of information. So what’s that tavern called and what’s it like there? Tell me about it.”

Shared Secrets

As a player looking to pitch in on shared story, your character’s backstory can be a great starting point, letting you shape details in the campaign that feel personal to you. So don’t skimp on sketching out that backstory before and during the campaign. Digging up story nuggets from your backstory helps the GM with that all-important goal of making the campaign feel meaningful to the players by connecting it to their characters. And what better way to do that than by having the players create those connections? An NPC your character knows or has heard of, a location you visited or whose secrets you know, a legend you recall from childhood, a rumor you overheard that offers a hint of what peril the party is about to face — all of it is great grist for the shared story mill.

Timing is Everything

Especially if this style of play is new for a group, think about the best approach and timing to having all the players feed lore into the game. As talked about above, having the GM prompt the other players for information can be good starting point, asking for details when an NPC is met, when the party enters a new village, when a mysterious note is found whose contents the GM hasn’t prepared, and so forth. 

Then at some point, you’ll find that the prompting is no longer necessary. As things start to get more dynamic, the decision of when players should introduce story elements will flow naturally from the way the campaign story unfolds during play. The points at which lore is revealed in the story don’t change with a more collaborative approach. They simply shift their focus away from the GM as the center of all revelations.

The way the game naturally unfolds places most moments of revelation into roleplaying and exploration scenes. But don’t overlook the potential of having players introduce new story elements in combat. This works especially well when experienced players know details about a monster (defenses, weaknesses, tactics, and so forth) that their inexperienced characters don’t. At any point during the fight, a player might suggest that their character recalls having heard some important bit of monster lore that can lend them an edge in the battle. But players shouldn’t try to push this into “cheat code” territory by having their character suddenly remember that the lich lord they’re fighting can be momentarily incapacitated by vigorous tickling.

Trading in Trust

As part of establishing the goal of shared storytelling in session 0, the GM and the other players should talk about the need for trust as they shape narrative together. All good GMs avoid “gotcha” moments involving unbeatable monsters in combat, or traps that have no chance to be detected or avoided while exploring, knowing that such things can violate the other players’ sense of trust. Likewise, all good players know to avoid unwanted character conflict or the tired trope of “But stealing and selling the paladin’s holy avenger is totally what my character would do!” So all players should treat the sharing of story in the same way.

As a player, look to contribute backstory details that potentially enrich the campaign for all the players and characters, not just for you. As a GM, embrace and absorb the lore handed to you by the players. Never reject outright a player’s story detail unless that detail feels seriously at odds with the overall campaign narrative — and even then, talk to the player about your reservations and see if you can come up with a compromise that works. 

“Yes, and dragons!”

One thing that can make some GMs wary of a collaborative approach to game story is the idea that giving players more involvement in sketching out the shape of the campaign will make it more difficult to surprise the players. So as a GM, you want to always look for ways that you can take a story detail provided by the players and give it a subtle twist, turning it into something that holds an element of surprise for both of you.

When discussing theatrical improvisation, people often talk about the importance of saying “Yes, and…”. This is the idea that an improv actor builds on what the other actors are developing around them by acknowledging and embracing those developments, then adding to them. You always want to work with what the other performers give you, rather than rejecting their contribution. For GMs who need to be able to work with the other players’ story building suggestions in real time, this means working to not get flustered if a player’s suggestion seems like it might take things in the wrong direction.

For example, when the party is looking for a wealthy thief willing to buy a hot magical relic currently being searched for by the city guard, having a player offer up that their character just happens to know such a person can seem too easy. If you’re the GM in that scenario, it might appear that the player is trying to just work around the challenges that the game needs in order to be fun. But rather than rejecting the player’s suggestion out of hand, think about what happens if you say, “Cool. But what was the event that put you both on bad terms the last time you met?” Working with a player’s suggestion, then taking it in a new direction, complicates the narrative to make it interesting again. So instead of the initial challenge of finding a buyer for the relic, the party now has a new challenge — convincing a prospective buyer to help someone they might be holding a grudge toward.

May 31, 2023

No-Hassle Summoning

For a spellcaster to summon monsters from the magical aether to the real world is one of the most iconic moves in a fantasy RPG. The essential idea of calling forth creatures from nothingness to do your bidding is always a cool move — especially in combat, where unexpected allies can easily tip the balance of a fight.

But because those unexpected allies each need to take full turns in combat, handling summoned creatures can quickly become one of the most frustrating aspects of a game, for everyone at the table. For the GM, each extra foe added to a fight increases the complexity of running that fight. And for the other players, all the extra actions, tactical decisions, and dice rolling that comes from madditional combatants can turn the fastest-paced fight into a slog of waiting endlessly for one’s turn.

So if summoning creatures has ever been a hassle at your table, the following options might help make the process easier.

Agree That Casters Shouldn’t Use Summoning Spells

This is definitely the nuclear option for dealing with summoning being a problem, but it’s not an entirely unreasonable approach. If you’re a GM (especially a relatively new GM still finding your way), feel free to say to the players: “Summoning spells absolutely wreck me, please don’t cast them.” If you’re a player who’s noticed that summoning spells are causing the GM grief and slowing the game down, you can just have your character cast something else. All RPGs are a continuum of choices, and making choices that make the game fun for everyone is always a good idea.

Share the Responsibility

Rather than automatically assuming that the player of the caster or the GM should handle all the tactics and die rolling for summoned creatures, get other players to help share that load. For a single summoned creature, ask the player with the most straightforward character — or the player with a demonstrated ability to get through their turn quickly even with a more complex character — to make the summoned creature’s die rolls and track their hit points. Especially if the player of the summoning spellcaster has a more complex range of choices to make while casting other spells in subsequent turns, they can focus on giving the summoned creature general directives, then leave the fiddly bits to someone else.

In the event of multiple summoned creatures, it can be great fun to have all the players take on a summoned creature or two like short-term secondary characters or companions. The player of the caster might continue to make tactical choices for summoned creatures in such circumstances, or that could be given over to other players as well, creating the strongest sense of summoned creatures as intelligent, independent combatants.

Simplify Combat

Use whatever tricks you can to make the presence of additional creatures in combat flow as smoothly as possible. Even if your game doesn’t normally use average damage for monsters, do that for summoned creatures. If you know that summoned creatures are badly outclassed in a combat encounter, rather than wasting time on missed attack rolls, let those creatures use the Help action rather than attacking on their own. Or at lower levels, when a single summoned creature can likely hold their own with the party, let the player of the weakest combatant use the Help action to give the summoned creature advantage on attacks, with that player running the summoned creature as above.

Plan Ahead

Sometimes the problem with summoning spells is less about how much they slow down a combat session, and more about how much they grind the session to a halt before combat even starts. Players using spells that summon distinct creatures (as opposed to generic “summoned monster” stat blocks) should think about what sorts of creatures their character is likely to summon, then have those creatures’ stat blocks ready to go — bookmarked in a monster tome, printed out for table use, saved on a tablet, and so forth.

If you’re playing a summoning caster, have two or three options prepared — one creature you like for scouting and recon, one creature built for combat, one creature for mischief and skullduggery. Even if those creatures turn out to not be ideal for a particular scenario, run with them anyway, rather than run the risk of derailing a session by having to quickly through a book of creatures looking for the perfect option.

GMs can likewise have a few easy-to-run creature stat blocks on hand — and are within their rights to ask players to use those stat blocks if they haven’t come prepared.

May 16, 2023

Learning to Live with Speak With Dead

 A lot of GMs actively hate the speak with dead spell for making it impossible to run a cool murder-mystery campaign in D&D. But in my experience, the reason many GMs feel that way is that they’ve let themselves be convinced by forceful players that the text of speak with dead says words to the effect of: 

“You grant the semblance of life and intelligence to a corpse of your choice within range, allowing it to answer any question relating to its death with perfect accuracy, including the name, description, mailing address, and shoe size of their murderer.” 

Except, of course, the spell doesn’t say that. And within the scope of what the spell doesn’t say, there’s lot of room to make sure speak with dead doesn’t mess with your ability to get your detective story on.

First, always remember that a person (dead or alive) can’t name what they can’t see. Magical disguise is a potent hedge against identification by the living or the dead. But so is a simple mask, a hood pulled down in an area of dim light, or a scarf quickly tied beneath the eyes. Creatures intent on evil deeds typically understand the importance of not being seen — and further understand that in a magical milieu, a victim is always a potential observer even after their demise.

Even when the victim is aware of who’s responsible for shuffling them off this mortal coil, remember that speak with dead allows a caster to question a corpse’s animating spirit — not to access the full consciousness of the person who died. Villains will thus understand how easy it is to confuse that spirit with false information. As a victim breathes their last, imagine a killer they don’t know leaning over them and saying clearly, “My name is John Smith! Remember that John Smith did this to you!” In the hands of a canny villain and a deft DM, speak with dead can be a perfect vehicle not just for deflecting suspicion from the real killer, but for framing someone else for a crime they didn’t commit.

Always remember that characters living in a fantasy world filled with magic are aware of that magic, even if they’ve never seen or experienced it themselves. So NPCs and villains being aware of speak with dead and what it does can keep the effect of the spell in mind if they find themselves involved in a lethal altercation. An easy analogy in our own world is taking fingerprints as crime-scene evidence — a practice for which most people have no idea how it actually works, but which we’re all generally aware of. Anyone who’s seen a police procedural has seen criminals and other ne’er-do-wells wiping fingerprints off surfaces before the investigators arrive. And in the same way, a villain in a fantasy campaign is going to understand the risks involved in a dead character telling the story of how they met their end, and will do what’s necessary to work around that.

April 24, 2023

The Fine Art of Forgetting

Here’s a bit of advice for people like me who are really, really good at forgetting things while they’re running an RPG.

Consider the following scenario. The characters are doing X, and you made a note at some point that Y should happen. But then in the rewarding chaos of running a combat encounter, you forget the exact details of how Y works, so you run it wrong. There are lots of different scenarios that this encounter algebra can cover. Y can be the fine details of what an illusion can or can’t do, or misremembering a creature’s resistance to a damage type as immunity, or forgetting that an effect should have ended after just 1 round. It’s a complicated game, and forgetting things is easy.

First off, understand that it’s simple enough to just say to the players, “Sorry, I messed that up. Let’s just assume that Y happened in a different way than what we played out.” Everyone makes mistakes from time to time. Your players understand that. Especially if you’re playing with people you know well, no one’s going to get uptight or hold a grudge over you slipping up. (If they do get uptight or hold a grudge, you might be playing with the wrong people, but that’s another topic.)

Alternatively, though, it’s often possible — and remarkably easy — to roll with your mistakes and figure out ways to cover for them after the fact. 

Here’s an example near and dear to me. Every time I run troglodytes in combat (and I sincerely mean: every single time, for the last 40-odd years), I forget to ask for saving throws for their stench at the start of the fight. Every time. And usually when this happens, one of the players points this out in round 2 or 3, and I just say, “Oh, right. Let’s assume you saved earlier and we’ll start rolling now.”

But you can also embrace that mistake whole-heartedly, by saying words to the effect of: “Yeah, that’s unusual. These troglodytes aren’t exuding their normal stench, and you have no idea why.” 

Then at some point after the combat, you get to figure out why. Depending on the timing, you might have the entire length of the break between your game sessions to think of something.

Maybe these troglodytes are suffering some magical malady that’s weakening their tribe, putting the characters in a position to do them a favor by discovering the source of the malady and ending it. Maybe they’ve all become cultists of the god of hygiene. Who knows? 

Well, you know. Because you can pivot off of that innocuous error to make your the game’s narrative line up with the error any way you like.

Always remember how much of what’s fun in an RPG comes about because of randomness. Players and characters doing things that no one could possibly have predicted. And in the same way, the act of GMs making mistakes — the simple process of forgetting details in the way all GMs do from time to time — can create the same kind of fun by taking the session or the campaign as a whole in a different direction.


February 4, 2023

What’s the Story?

If you haven't seen it already, there's a new update on the CORE20RPG design and development blog: Skills and Story. And thinking about story in relation to skills — and specifically, thinking about how to describe the new setup for handling skill success in CORE20 — put me mind of the following.

• • •

When I talk about story in RPGs, and about story in D&D in particular, there’s often a response (usually measured; sometimes not) of: “But D&D isn’t a story game.” And that’s entirely true; but also not at all true, in the way of all conundrums that are less about fact and more about how we define the things we’re trying to factually assess.

For folks who define story games as games with specific mechanics for telling story, it’s absolutely true that D&D isn’t a story game. It doesn’t have those mechanics. No version of D&D has ever really worked on that level. But for folks (like me) who define story games as games in which a story can be unfolded and told, D&D has been a story game since its inception.

How do I know? I was there. I was there three thousand years ago, when Isildur took… Sorry, I mean I was there in the 1980s (which only sometimes seems like three thousand years ago), playing AD&D without so much as a standard mechanic for using skills unless you were playing a thief. And with those completely non-storytelling rules, I created stories with my friends that still resonate in my heart and mind to this day.

Were they good stories? Not always. But the characters we  created and the narratives we shaped never failed to hit all the touchstones for what story can and should be made of. Goals and desires. Conflict and tension. Secrets and revelation. Villainous monologues. Dramatically revealed character backstory. All that good stuff. 

For better or for worse, D&D is a game that lets people tell stories. And I like to think that the strength of the kinds of stories it tells — the kinds of allegorical tales that fantasy excels at — are a big part of the game’s enduring success. Much more so than mechanics, because there are many other games whose mechanics are much more elegant than D&D’s nearly-five-decades-old rebuilt war-game engine. 

Story ties to mechanics, to be sure. The randomness of combat and skill challenges can help create the uncertainty that defines the dramatic tension of an encounter or a scene, with the overall up-and-down movement of that tension tracking the shape of story as it unfolds. But even though the mechanics of D&D in its earliest forms ignored story completely, story became an unavoidable byproduct of the game nonetheless. And for me, that speaks to story as being the single most important part of the game’s ongoing legacy.

January 15, 2023

Three Pieces of Advice

I’ve been gaming since 1980, and I’ve been working on D&D since 2004, and I’m happy to tell people that I don’t feel like I have any more insight into what makes the game work than anyone else. Because more so than any other creative form, what makes roleplaying games work happens in the moment, forged where the creative energies of a bunch of people crash together to tell a story that couldn’t ever exist in any other way.

In general, I’m not ever about giving advice. I can talk to you about things that work for me in the game, and things that have entered the lexicon of D&D’s design and philosophical foundations. I can and do talk about things that I’ve seen work for other people, because learning what works for other people always invariably teaches me something about my own approach to the game. And I like talking about the evolution the game has made in multiple areas, edition by edition, that make it better at certain things than it was before. 

When it comes to regular advice, though, I try to avoid talking about things that other people have already talked about, unless I’ve got some specific insight or a fresh angle on it. Lots of D&D advice is pretty straightforward. And that’s totally cool. D&D and other RPGs rely on a constant stream of new players coming into their space, and every question that an experienced player has been collecting answers to for years is a question that a brand-new player somewhere is asking for the first time. 

In my experience, though, there are certain less obvious pieces of gaming advice that don’t get talked about as often as they should. So for this initial entry in Missives From Mooncastle, I thought I would talk about three of those things.

Watch, Listen, Engage 

Playing a roleplaying game is like no other kind of creativity or entertainment. An RPG is a storytelling machine, taking in the raw materials of narrative choices and dramatic possibilities that the GM and players create, and churning out amazing stories in emotionally resonant, finished form. But the fuel of that engine is you, the player — meaning your energy is the most important part of keeping the RPG engine running.

Watch the game before you, taking in all aspects of the narrative as it unfolds. Listen to what the other players are doing, especially when it’s not your turn. And engage in the story as strongly as you can while it develops. It’s easy sometimes for all of us to just want to focus on our own characters, especially when we’re roleplaying those characters well. But RPGs like D&D aren’t generally designed to spool the story thread of a single character. They weave story from multiple threads, and watching all those threads as they move, not just your own, puts you in the best position to help shape the pattern they create.

Failing for the Right Reasons

All RPGs are built around the idea of characters attempting actions, and resolving those actions as failure, success, or some relative degree of partial success in between. In the game, as in life, it’s much more fun to succeed than to fail. In real life, being in a position of never failing at anything would be pretty sweet, all things considered. But in the game, never failing can get boring pretty quickly, because without the risk of failure, the achievement of success can start to feel flat with nothing to judge it against.

One of the key aspects of D&D and games like it is the idea that failure shouldn’t be a static endpoint. A failed check should never mean that the adventure stops, just as a failed attack roll doesn’t mean a fight is unwinnable. All good GMs understand that when the characters fail, that just translates into an opportunity to succeed in a different way the next time. If an attempt to sneak in through the sally port of a castle fails, it gives you and the other characters a chance to think about other ways to make the same approach. A series of misses when attacking a heavily armored foe are an opportunity to think tactically about how to compromise that foes’ defenses with magic, by knocking them prone, or what have you.

This isn’t something a GM figures out automatically, of course. Like every part of running a game, understanding how to keep the game moving forward through failure takes time and practice. And one of the best ways for a GM to practice this is with the help of you and the other players as you focus on moving past failure with new ideas. Because every time you make a suggestion for a different approach to solving the problem at hand, you remind the GM that every problem can be solved in different ways — including ways the GM might not actually have thought about until you brought them up.

Empathy as Endgame

Empathy, as everyone knows, is the ability to mentally and emotionally put ourselves into someone else’s place in order to get a sense of how the world (or some specific aspect of it) looks and feels to them. By doing so, we gain understanding as we compare how the world looks and feels to others and how it looks and feels to us. Empathy is one of the core components of being human. Some (including me) might call it the most important component.

The concept of empathy is extremely important in fiction writing. It’s the foundation of our ability as readers to mentally and emotionally inhabit the characters we read in books or watch in movies, shows, and streams. And given that, it probably won’t surprise anyone when I say that empathy is one of the core foundations on which RPGs are built. When we create a character to portray in the game, we are putting ourselves emotionally and intellectually into that character’s place. We want to experience the world as they experience it — which becomes an even more exciting prospect the more different that world is than the world of our own lives.

As an added bonus, being cognizant of how empathy drives us while we’re within the game can make it easier to think about empathy in the space around the game. We can empathize with our fellow players, thinking about how the experience of playing the game feels to them, and how that experience might be different than our own. For experienced players, empathy helps make it clear when a newer player might need assistance that we can offer. As new players, empathy can help us remember that experienced players once had the same questions we have, as a means of making it easier to ask those questions without feeling self-conscious.

Understanding our own capacity for empathy is also the best way to recognize when certain players come up short in that department. The experienced players who make fun of newbies who ask questions. The players who insist that their experience of playing the game is the only legitimate one, as they make it clear they have no interest in the experience of anyone else. Those are players you want to avoid in your games, and engaging in empathy yourself lets you experience the game from those players’ point of view — and by doing so, makes it clear that the way they play the game isn’t worth your time.

January 13, 2023


This is the official intro post to the Missives From Mooncastle blog, the online home of the email newsletter of Insane Angel Studios and Scott Fitzgerald Gray.

Scott Who?

Scott Fitzgerald Gray (9th-level layabout, vindictive good) is a writer of fantasy and speculative fiction, a fiction editor, a story editor, and an editor and designer of roleplaying games — all of which means he finally has the job he really wanted when he was sixteen. His work in gaming covers three editions of the Dungeons & Dragons RPG, including working as an editor on the fifth edition Monster ManualDungeon Master’s GuidePlayer’s HandbookStarter Set, and Essentials Kit

All told, Scott has written or edited upwards of two hundred books, adventures, and articles for Wizards of the Coast, including writing Dead in Thay in the Tales from the Yawning Portal anthology and being managing editor and co-creative director for the Acquisitions Incorporated book from Wizards of the Coast and Penny Arcade. He’s written or edited for MCDM, Ghostfire Gaming, Schwalb Entertainment, Sly Flourish, Gamehole Publishing, Green Ronin, Frog God Games, and others, as well as for DragonDungeonDragon+, and Arcadia magazines. He also creates and publishes under his own Insane Angel Studios imprint, including the recent monstrous-advice-and-tools tome Forge of Foes, created with Mike Shea and Teos Abadía, and the CORE20 RPG — a new classless, freeform-character approach to story-focused d20 fantasy.

Scott shares his life in the Western Canadian hinterland with a schoolteacher, two itinerant daughters, and a number of animal and spirit companions. More info on him and his work (some of it even occasionally truthful) can be found on BlueSkyMastodon, and Twitter (all @scottfgray), and by reading between the lines at

What to Expect

The Missives From Mooncastle newsletter covers a broad range of random ideas revolving around Scott’s love of D&D and fantasy gaming. Sometimes this means digging into game mechanics. Other times, it means talking about things we can learn from the older editions of the game that are all but unknown to most new players. Sometimes it’s about making up random adventure or encounter generators, new magic items, or mysterious dungeon maps. And a lot of the time, it’s just a lot of thinking about the unique nature of fantasy RPGs as a medium for shared storytelling.

The blog is updated with new newsletter material on the newsletter’s irregular schedule. But if you’d prefer to get Missives From Mooncastle delivered straight to your inbox, you can subscribe!

The Old Lore

If you glance at the Blog Archive sidebar to the right of the page, you’ll note that even though this is the official intro post to the Missives From Mooncastle blog, there are a bunch of older entries. These are a selection of RPG-themed entries from Scott’s no-longer-extant personal blog, more details of which can be found here.