July 11, 2024

The Lone and Level Sands

I’ve had desert exploration on my mind recently, both as a result of my current campaign and a recent editing project, which has inspired a collection of random desert encounters. These encounter setups are organized around multiple possible throughlines (a topic I talked about not long ago), and are a follow-up to a selection of nautical encounter setups.

These encounter ideas work for characters traveling through desert, badlands, scrubland, or other remote locales. They can be used as random encounters, as the setup for a series of encounters you build out from these initial ideas, or as an initial-encounter hook for an even larger adventure.

(As an aside, the title of this piece is taken from the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem “Ozymandias,” which ties to the recent editing project mentioned above — the new book from Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea. You can find a teaser here.)

Art from the 4e Dark Sun Campaign Setting

The Empty Village

While crossing uninhabited badlands in pursuit of a villain they’ve promised to capture alive, the characters come across a ruined village abandoned decades before. The site might now mark the territory of a clan of basilisks who petrified the villain, and who the characters must defeat so they can claim the villain’s statue form, then restore it. Alternatively, the site might be subject to a terrible curse that destroyed its original inhabitants and the villain alike — and which has trapped the spirits of some of the lost into scattered gemstones from which they might be returned to life.

Shelter from the Storm

An advancing sandstorm sees the characters forced to quickly seek shelter in a series of caverns accessed through a crumbling stone bluff. But as they explore the cave complex, they realize that they aren’t the only ones seeking shelter there. The other group might be a party of desert raiders who use the caves as a secret hiding place to lie low after attacks on trade caravans, and who are willing to kill to keep its location a secret. Or they might be spectral undead spawned from long-dead travelers who tried to wait out a storm centuries past and were killed when rising dunes sealed them inside — and who the characters can convince to stand down in exchange for finding, then properly interring their remains.

Unusual Oasis

Characters traveling through the desert spot an oasis appearing on no known maps, with humanoid figures seen on the outskirts, beckoning frantically. The inhabitants of the oasis might be a noble’s hunting party who became lost during a storm, and who promise a rich reward if the characters return them to their home city. The oasis might be the headquarters of a gang of brigands, who manage to keep the site a secret by drawing in, robbing, then killing every traveller who passes by. Or the site might be unknown because it marks the lair of an elder water elemental recently spawned from an ancient underground aquifer — and who has taken a local nomadic tribe hostage, forcing them to worship the elemental as a god.

Mirage Arcana

A dry lakebed is well known as a site for mirages, but characters exploring the area discover that some of those mirages are magical illusions concealing a crumbling fortress. The site might be home to a friendly master illusionist who loves their solitude, and who is happy to hire adventurers to run errands for them. Or the fortress might be intentionally concealed by teams of spellcasters working for a powerful warlord, who plans to use the hidden site as a staging ground for attacks against nearby settlements.

Lost Merchant

While traveling a well-established trade route through the desert, the characters catch up to a lone merchant pulling a handcart, who claims to have become separated from a larger caravan that came under bandit attack. The merchant might secretly be a merchant lord, desperate for an escort to the nearest settlement and willing to reward the characters with treasure and adventure hooks. They might be a good rakshasa in disguise, looking for selfless heroes to undertake a dangerous mission. Or the merchant might be possessed by the spirit of an ancient sorcerer entombed nearby as a penance for their evil deeds, and who hopes to convince the characters to break the seal on the sorcerer’s tomb and restore them to power.

Carnival of Shadows

While enjoying a seasonal carnival in a scrubland town, the characters are caught in the middle of a skirmish between members of two rival bandit gangs violating the carnival truce. It might be the case that one of the gangs is attempting to assimilate the other, threatening to plunge the whole settlement into violence unless the characters intervene. It could be that a wandering assassin is set to fulfil a contract on a powerful figure in the town, and set off the gang violence as a distraction. Or the violence might be the result of a fell magical relic recently brought into town by an unknowing treasure hunter, its spreading magic turning folk violent and threatening to turn the carnival into a bloodbath.

June 19, 2024

Getting Away From It All

Like speak with dead and a number of other spells that are foundational to the D&D game, the teleport spell is one that can inspire great consternation in some DMs for its ability to derail a well-thought-out encounter — or even upend a whole campaign. Whenever group teleportation first becomes a thing a party can do, we as GMs need to always keep that in the back of our minds, fretting constantly over when and how the party’s arcanist will play the “Get Out of This Encounter Free” card. 

Except that a lot of GMs (including me, once upon a time) can easily forget that what the teleport spell actually does and what a gang of overly excited players assume the spell does aren’t necessarily the same thing.

Art from the Dungeon Master’s Guide

The Fine Print

It’s easy to assume that teleport allows a group of characters with access to that spell to safely and instantaneously travel wherever they want. But that’s not actually what the spell says. What the stock 5e version of the spell says is: “The destination you choose must be known to you, and it must be on the same plane of existence as you. Your familiarity with the destination determines whether you arrive there successfully.”

That “known to you” clause makes teleport a much more interesting spell from a GM’s perspective. Because the actual mechanics of what “known to you” means (as laid out in the table that accompanies the spell) can add a lot to the narrative of using the spell.

Teleport absolutely gives the players an almost foolproof get-out-of-danger-now move (but see below for how that “almost” might play out against savvy foes). In the midst of a knockdown battle, characters who can coordinate regrouping with the wizard’s casting of teleport can flee a fight they can’t win or that they don’t want to finish. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A bit of general wisdom that’s useful for all GMs is to ensure that battles have exit points that characters and their foes can take if they want or need to. Not every battle needs to be a fight to the finish, and teleport simply gives the characters and players an additional out if they want it.

Likewise, teleport allows characters to go back to any specific location they’ve been to before, which can make for fast side treks. If it turns out that talking with the sage the party met three levels earlier might help with cracking a puzzle or deciphering coded lore, it’s totally fine to just let that happen. By the time the characters are of a level where a party member is casting teleport, it’s expected that they can get access to all kinds of exceptional resources, so don’t worry about them gaining long-distance access to resources they’ve already used.

For everything else, though? Using teleport can be much trickier than the players and characters initially expect.

Who’s Got the Map?

One thing to keep in mind is that teleport takes its caster and any friends tagging along to a specific location. Not to a city in general, but to a particular street corner in that city. Not to a random spot in a dungeon or a castle, but to a particular room in such a site. Characters who’ve heard of the most magnificent city in your campaign world or the richest hidden vaults but who have never visited those sites have zero chance to teleport there. And that’s where teleportation can make an adventure interesting.

Teleporting to a site the characters don’t know requires tracking down a description of that site. That’s a side quest right there, which you can have as much fun with as you like. The end of such a side quest should unveil the lore describing a location in very specific detail, most commonly in the form of written or illustrated records, or by talking to an NPC who’s been at that location and can describe it. But the characters’ goal of getting to their magical destination doesn’t necessarily end there.

Go Left… I Mean Right

Characters who seek a description of a location with the intent of teleporting there are always working with the very optimistic hope that that description is accurate. But whether that’s the case or not is known only to you. A written account or sketch of a specific site might miss out on a number of key details. A retired warrior who once fought a battle out in front of the Lost Shrine of Unfindability might have only hazy memories of the place now, though they swear their recollection is crystal clear when the characters offer to pay for it. A popular tavern that can be described with perfect accuracy by anyone who’s spent time there might have burned down when the characters decide to drop in from the other side of the continent.

The Off Target result on the table for the teleport spell gives you a degree of carte blanche for deciding where the characters end up. This can provide a perfect excuse to bust out a premade random encounter using a map you’ve previously selected for just this purpose, as the characters arrive in middle-of-nowhere monster territory rather than their intended destination. But the Similar Area result on the teleport spell’s table can be even more fun. Are the characters trying to teleport into the common room of the merchants’ guild to pull off a daring heist? Maybe the ex-guild member who described the site was fired for drinking on the job, and their shoddy description sees the characters end up in the common room of the assassin’s guild two blocks over instead.

Also, don’t forget that the best-known locations the characters might attempt to teleport to in settlements, fortresses, or dungeons are often the busiest and most populated locations. It might be an automatic success for the bard to teleport the party to a public market they know well in a previously visited city. But the bard might need to then turn on the charm to explain why the characters have just appeared in the middle of a panicking merchant’s stall before the local guards are called.

You Shall Not Pass

One thing that’s always easy for a GM to forget is that just as you have to worry about the effects that powerful magic can have in the campaign, your villains also spend a lot of time worrying about that. As such, powerful figures and monsters who are painfully aware of the hassle that a group of characters teleporting into their sanctum would cause will absolutely set up defenses to protect against that if they can. 

Formidable wizards or priests channeling peak divine power might have their towers or temples protected by unique magical effects that negate or interfere with teleportation, both incoming and outgoing. If a local cavern is suffused with natural magic that causes teleportation to automatically go off target, it’s a safe bet that some intelligent apex monster will have decided that’s a premium spot for a lair.

On a less epic level, having a lair or sanctum protected by the glyph of warding spell or similar effects won’t prevent characters from teleporting straight in, but will provide them with a most unpleasant welcome. And even the most low-level illusion magic filling a location with false features can hinder attempts to teleport there after viewing that location with scrying or similar magic.

Final Destination

One important note: Don’t treat any of the ideas here as punitive or retaliatory. Your intent should never be to punish the characters because their relentless pursuit of experience lets them learn to do new cool stuff. But as is often said, the destination should never be the point of any journey. Teleportation in the game can and should give the characters access to a wider world. But you as the GM can still have fun with how they get there.

May 1, 2024

Down by the Seaside

Inspired by some seafaring adventuring in the earlier sessions of my current campaign, and by some writing on a project that cannot yet be named, I was thinking recently about random encounters with a nautical theme. And because I talked not long ago about always setting up encounters with multiple possible directions, sharing some nautical encounter setups seemed like a fine idea.

These encounter setups work for characters on a ship at sea or traveling along the coastline close to the water. They can be used as random encounters, as the setup for a series of encounters you build out from these initial ideas, or as an initial-encounter hook for an even larger adventure.

Art from the Dungeon Master’s Guide

Yo Ho Ho

As the characters approach a small fishing village, they spot a pirate vessel anchored offshore and bloodthirsty buccaneers shouting in the streets. If the characters storm in looking for a fight, the pirates might simply be enjoying some shore leave and paying the locals well for food, drink, and entertainment. Alternatively, the settlement might be the hiding place of a first mate who fled the pirates’ service with a collection of treasure maps, and the buccaneers will tear the town apart unless the first mate and the maps are found — or the characters stop them.

Saved from the Sea

Shattered wreckage spotted on the water turns out to have a near-unconscious humanoid clinging to it — a survivor of a shipwreck. The survivor might be a sailor whose gratitude for being rescued sees them offer to lead the characters to a site of buried treasure. Or the survivor might secretly be a member of a cult, pretending to be adrift and waiting to be rescued, and leading the characters not to treasure but to the cult’s island enclave to be sacrificed.

Merfolk Meeting

The characters spot a strange vessel rising from the water — an open-deck magic submersible crewed by merfolk. The merfolk might be making initial forays toward trading with the folk of coastal towns, giving the characters the opportunity to set up initial contacts or even act as brokers for trade between the settlements of the coast and the undersea. Alternatively, the merfolk might be on a mission of vengeance, looking for a pirate vessel or local warship whose crew slaughtered a pod of dolphins under the merfolk’s protection — and willing to take their revenge against any surface folk.

Strange Waters

One or more rare sea creatures — whales, dragon turtles, and so forth — are seen swimming through shipping lanes, local fishing grounds, or other waters they would never normally travel through. The characters first need to deal with the creatures damaging watercraft or docks, then determine what’s caused this strange migration. It might turn out that the creatures have been driven from their usual waters by some sort of magical disaster that needs investigation. It could be the case that corrupted merfolk druids or sahuagin enchanters have directed the creatures to attack folk of the surface. Or the creatures might be under the magical control of a cult seeking to claim territory along the coast, acting as the vanguard of a much larger aquatic assault.

Sudden Shipwreck

Along a coastline the characters have traveled multiple times, a shipwreck is suddenly visible at low tide where no wreck was seen before, in waters with no dangerous obstructions and with no storms in recent weeks. The wreck might be a vessel that foundered when a cursed but valuable magical relic on board forced the crew to abandon ship. It might have been disgorged by a natural portal recently opened in the seabed, and through which aquatic monsters from another part of the world will be drawn if the portal isn’t closed. Or it might be a rare mega-mimic with a penchant for feeding on underwater treasure hunters.

Mysterious Lighthouse

When traveling in a storm or attacked by seafaring monsters, the characters take refuge in a remote lighthouse that reveals itself to be empty, despite its magical light shining from dusk to dawn. As the characters explore, they might discover the lighthouse staffed by the benevolent ghosts of all its former keepers, who have a quest they need fulfilled. Or they might discover that the magically automated site is now used as a meeting place by a nefarious seafaring cult, whose members arrive to deal with the intruders who tripped their magical alarms.

April 12, 2024

Going in All Directions

Encounter setups that have a single throughline are often the main way that the narrative of a D&D game is advanced. Investigating an unusual phenomena leads to an ambush. A gauntlet of traps and hazards needs to be run. A chance meeting in a tavern brings the characters into contact with a powerful ally. A noble takes umbrage at a perceived slight and becomes the party’s nemesis. In any and all such scenarios, there’s a clear sense that one thing is meant to happen in response to the characters’ entrance, and that’s how the scene should play out.

Setting up encounters that have only a single primary narrative goal usually works just fine in the game (at least within a larger framework where the characters have enough agency to shape which encounters they undertake and how their story advances when those encounters are done). Sometimes, though, the players and the characters can surprise you in ways that can quickly make a single-thread setup go off the rails. An encounter that you expect to be a social challenge suddenly turns into combat when the characters grow overly suspicious of an NPC’s actions. The players ignore what felt like an obvious hook meant to draw them to a specific location and instead wander off in a different direction.

Art by Carmen Sinek from the Dungeon Master’s Guide

As a general rule, combat scenarios make good examples of how having only one way for the characters to push through them can lead to problems. As most GMs have experienced at one time or another, setting up the single win condition of “one side beats the other side into submission” can lead to a disastrous outcome when the players want their characters to flee or attempt to bargain with their foes, but the encounter offers no good way for them to do so. (You can get great advice for building more open-ended combat encounters in lots of places, including the excellent book Forge of Foes that I had a hand in.) But the kind of narrative bottleneck that shows up easily in a straight-line combat encounter can easily derail any type of in-game scenario.

Just Winging It
As a GM, I usually have a great time when the game goes off in unexpected directions, because I’ve been playing long enough that I can quickly work up alternative scenarios to where I was expecting an encounter to go. But if you sometimes have trouble reworking story on the fly or improvising resolutions to unexpected developments in the campaign story, it can be a great exercise to build uncertainty into your encounters right from the start. 

When setting up an encounter, whether that means creating encounters from whole cloth in a homebrew story or making notes on encounters while running a published adventure, think about ways that each encounter might play out along two or more different threads of narrative. That way, whichever of the threads the characters tug at, you know ahead of time how you’re going to handle that. And even if the players decide to ignore all the prepared threads in favor of unspooling an unexpected thread of their own, having thought about the encounter and the surrounding scenario as a range of possibilities rather than a single throughline puts you in a better position to reassemble the narrative on the fly.

One Way or Another
Here are five quick encounter scenarios to give you a sense of what I’m talking about. Each of the following scenarios is set up with two broad approaches that the characters and players might pick up on, just to keep things simple. But you can just as easily come up with three or four possible throughlines — just as you can expect the players to come up with throughlines of their own that you never anticipated.

Thief! Thief?
A pickpocket appears to have stolen a valuable possession from a character (a weapon, a magic item, and so forth), but the character immediately realizes that they still have the seemingly stolen item on their person. If the characters pursue the thief to figure out what’s going on, it turns out that the stolen object was an illusion intended to draw them into a chase and an ambush. If the characters ignore the thief (perhaps because they assume the above scenario is playing out), it turns out that the thief magically swapped the real possession for a shapechanging item carrying a powerful curse that spreads to all the characters one by one — and which can be lifted only by passing on the item in the same way.

Too Quiet
Entering a nondescript tavern, the characters discover the patrons and staff all acting unusual — strangely distracted, speaking in whispers, ignoring their ordered food and drink, and so forth. If the characters are instinctively suspicious of the people in the tavern, it turns out that this is the secret meeting place of a cult planning a humanoid sacrifice for later that night. If the characters initially assume that the patrons and staff are victims of foul play, it turns out that the patron at a corner table is a powerful enchanter testing out an unstable magical relic that lets him control people en masse.

Wild Party
The characters receive an invitation to a gentry’s grand ball, where the duke of the realm is the most prestigious guest. At midnight, the duke is suddenly grabbed by armed intruders who attempt to spirit them away. If the characters do nothing, the duke is kidnapped and the party is accused of being complicit through their inaction. If the characters intervene to protect the duke, the intruders are out-of-uniform guards attacking because they know the duke is actually a doppelganger — who might be the only person who knows the whereabouts of the actual duke, kidnapped hours earlier. 

Our Flag Means One of Two Things
While traveling along a remote section of seacoast, the characters come across a hidden cove occupied by armed sailors who appear to be running a well-established pirate operation. If the characters attempt to treat with the pirates, the group is revealed to be working for a local merchant lord who sends the pirates after the ships of their enemies — and who can’t let the party leave the cove to reveal their secret. If the characters instinctively attack the pirates, they turn out to be a group fighting against a corrupt local leader whose warships have been attacking settlements behind in their tax payments.

Hag Hijinks
The characters come across a remote village whose folk are ravaged by a magical malady, and who blame a hag dwelling in a nearby grove for their plight. If the characters go after the hag directly, the hag is revealed to be trying to help the villagers, and can reveal that the source of the malady is a cursed magic relic brought to the village by a secret cultist. If the characters investigate the situation in the village first, they discover that a local alchemist has incurred the wrath of the hag by kidnapping her toad familiar — which has escaped and must now be found before it can be returned.

March 20, 2024

Ride Easy

Your mileage may vary, but when I first started playing D&D, it was a bit of a thrill when things got to the point wealth-wise when any of my characters could afford a horse. Owning an imaginary horse always felt really cool to me, because horses in fantasy games are fun. Having friends who play fantasy games who are really into horses and can tell you what type of IRL horse your character should ride makes it even more fun, as is those friends’ ability to point out how bad the rules for horses are in most games. But that’s incidental to the current topic.

The addition of mounts to the game cuts down travel time, allows for the easy outrunning of less nimble monsters, lets the characters dramatically storm into town in a cloud of dust, and ties into all other kinds of archetypes from the medieval/Wild West-hero playbook. But horses and other mounts can introduce a particular logistical issue with the story of a campaign — a problem unrelated to the actual rules for running mounts — that’s worth thinking about.

An armored paladin rides a warhorse in full barding.
Art by Darlene from the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide

Don’t Hurt the Horse!

Animals becoming endangered in a story is a huge trauma trigger for many people, and for pretty obvious reasons. A lot of us generate intense amounts of emotional attachment to the animals we make part of our lives, and the experience of loving and being loved by a furry friend can be life changing. Many folks easily develop emotional attachments to animals in fiction for the same reason. And because RPGs connect our real lives and our engagement with stories in extraordinarily powerful ways, it’s not a surprise that when characters’ mounts are threatened in the game, it can easily mess with the fun.

Talking about animal welfare in the game is an excellent topic for session 0. During the preamble to a new campaign, players discussing their expectations for play can note how comfortable they are with violence directed toward animals, whether mounts, companion creatures, or animals acting as threats in the game. Some might want the campaign to avoid the topic entirely. Others might be fine with having animals as threats fighting against the player characters, while wanting to avoid threats to the characters’ mounts and companions. Other others might be fine with threats against the characters’ four-legged friends as long as the GM doesn’t arbitrarily target them for no reason.

In the event that the topic doesn’t come up in session 0, all players should understand that they can bring it up during a game session. If a story goes into narrative territory that’s making them uncomfortable, players should say so, whether that’s harm befalling a character’s companion, mount, or pet, or the party being expected to mow through non-evil animal threats with no options for noncombat resolution to the conflict.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

A problem that comes up more often with mounts than animal companions (most of whom are either kitted out for combat themselves or small enough to hide during a fight) is worrying about what happens to them if they’re left on their own. Especially for characters traveling the uninhabited frontier that’s typical of many fantasy campaigns, it can be especially advantageous for a party to be able to roll up to the dungeon on horseback. But it can be equally easy for the players to then worry about what might happen when the party’s horses are left alone in the monster-haunted wilderness while the characters delve into the nearby ruins.

A house rule I came up with long before I’d even heard of the concept of session 0 is to go all meta and establish ahead of time that the GM isn’t going to mess with the character’s mounts as long as the characters do their level best to keep their mounts out of danger. If the horses are left hidden in the forest while the characters head off on their dungeon long weekend, they’ll fend for themselves and be right as rain when the party makes it back into the light. During a random encounter on the road, if the mounts are quickly hopped off and ordered away from the fight, they’ll steer clear of danger while the characters finish dealing with it. This approach will definitely stretch realism from time to time, but that stretch is more than worth the players not having to worry about a trusty mount ending up as part of a wandering dire wolf buffet.

A Horse of a Different Color

Although horses are the typical mount in most fantasy campaigns, the fun of obtaining a mount for the first time can be made even more enjoyable with an unusual mount. Griffons and hippogriffs are apex-cool flying mounts, carrying an enormous amount of predator gravitas, while giant dragonflies make equally great aerial steeds for Small characters. In a subterranean-focused campaign, giant spiders and cave lizards make excellent mount choices — especially when fitted with saddles that allow a rider to stay on board while their mount clambers upside down along ceilings. Axe beaks and polar bears make formidable mounts in arctic climes. And in a plane-hopping campaign, a phase spider makes a most iconic ride.

Moreover, the best part about obtaining an unusual mount often isn’t the mount themself — it’s the story setting up how your character and that mount got together. Did you earn a creature’s trust after saving their life? Were they a mount trained by someone else and offered to you as a reward for service, or who you rescued from an abusive owner? Being able to afford a mount is a nice milestone for a starting character. But being able to say you truly earned a mount is even better.


March 6, 2024

NPCs Who Go Both Ways

No, not like that. Though I think we can all agree that the best NPCs… well, let’s save that for another post.

What I want to talk about today are nonplayer characters who can serve double duty in terms of the part they play in a fantasy campaign, because you as GM have set them up to be useful allies to the characters, or to be sinister foes for the characters — and you don’t get to decide which path they take or who they ultimately are.

I make the following point a lot, so if you’ve heard it before, please bear with me. For me, RPGs are the most fun when unexpected things happen, but as GMs, we don’t get to deal with as much of the unexpected as the players do. Every new encounter, every dungeon door opened, every conversation with a mysterious hermit or suspicious barkeep kicks the game forward on a moment of uncertainty that hooks the players in because they want to know what happens next. But because the GM ostensibly knows what happens next almost all of the time, the fun of not knowing is largely denied us during the game. 

Loving that feel of uncertainty in the game is why I love things like wandering monsters done right, or rolling for random magic items and seeing what the players and characters do with them. It’s why I love the idea of dropping NPCs into a campaign without knowing what their true goals and personality are, or how well those things might or might not line up with what the player characters are doing. Because when I set up those NPCs, I know that I’m going to let the players decide those things, without them even realizing it.

First Impressions

When the characters first interact with an NPC, they might be drawn in by an empathetic reaction to whatever problem that NPC is going through. They might be instinctively suspicious because of circumstances, or because they’re aware that their enemies are plotting against them and they don’t know who they can trust. They might be indifferent, warily trusting but wanting to learn more information before engaging fully. And all those options are fine — unless you break out your NPCs with a clear and singular sense of who they’re meant to be. Because when you do that, you’ll eventually end up with the player characters loving NPCs you’d explicitly expected them to hate, or suspicious of NPCs who are there to lend them important aid, or indifferent to NPCs who you needed the characters to engage with in order to advance the story.

Every GM has had these sorts of experiences. Quest givers who the characters ignore, people needing help who the players assume are villains, villains who the characters get chummy with because their setup as NPCs makes them feel more nuanced than you’d ever intended, and on and on. But if you set up your NPCs instead as a kind of weathervane that can spin freely as the player characters engage with them, you can let the players easily and safely decide who those NPCs are, why they’re there, and what part they’re meant to play in the game.

Enter, Stage Left

I present to you here a few examples of the kinds of NPC setups I’m talking about, taken from an actual game — a three-year homebrew CORE20 campaign I ran a few years ago called “The Serpent and the Rose,” whose main villains were a lycanthrope order unimaginatively known as the Pack. The players in that campaign don’t actually know some of what’s expressed here in terms of the potential these NPCs might have had versus the way they turned out — because the way they turned out was driven entirely by the players’ collective reaction to the NPCs, and the relationships their characters ultimately forged with them as a result.

Hopcyn Raonull (Sheriff of Raharnwyd)

  • Scrupulously lawful, has a reputation for turning a blind eye for honest mistakes. He enjoys exchanging favors with others, understanding the long-term bond that creates. 
  • Secretly corrupt. He has a terminal condition that responds to remove disease, but not permanently. Has been quietly selling off stolen goods and magic confiscated by the militia for years to pay for magical healing. The Pack will discover this and turn him to their service in exchange for making him a lycanthrope, helping prolong his life.

Maili Mairald (Sage/Historian)

  • An absent-minded retired scholar. She pays for rumors, tales, legends, stories, and verifiable history with a seemingly endless supply of coin. (Rumors that she has a permanent everfull purse hidden somewhere on the premises.)
  • When the stories she collects have connections to the lore the Pack seeks, she sells that lore freely. The Pack’s fascination with the past promises her a place among them as their control spreads, and she’ll use that to protect herself when the bloodshed starts.

Conor Amastacia (Animyst Healer)

  • A retired healer who keeps to himself. A reputation as an old-school type who never cast a spell for anyone who didn’t pay in advance. In secret, he gives free healing to anyone who can’t afford it by taking promises of labor or installment payments that he then never calls in.
  • A secret dabbler in fell mind control magic. Working for the Pack, who use that magic to secretly bind local leaders to their control.

Brodrick Rathaill (Militia Captain)

  • Talented weapon master and trainer. Can appear overbearing when trying to encourage others to succeed. Dedicated to defending Raharnwyd to the point of needing to be convinced that problems in the wider area are important.
  • Driven entirely by ego. Has a problem with anyone except gentry-born like him in positions of militia leadership. Will embrace the influence of the Pack if it helps him get ahead.

The Path Not Taken

With this Schrodinger’s NPCs setup, a character can be both good and evil, both an ally and an enemy, until the players make a decision about who that NPC truly is and the game takes shape around that. Talking about the examples above, the players gravitated toward Sheriff Hopcyn Raonull so fast that I swear I heard an audible “Woosh!” during the game. They became fast friends right from the start, and that was great. In my notes, I dropped his potential for corruption even as I respun the narrative of him needing magical healing for secret reasons a couple of times to make it work within the context of a trusted ally. But in the end, even that got set aside when I realized it wasn’t necessary anymore. Because the players and characters had already forged the bond with Hopcyn that I had wanted that detail to catalyze.

Likewise, the absent-minded Maili Mairald became someone the players and characters felt responsible for and began watching over. Working off that, her corruption angle got replaced by a magical secret she held that could feed the characters important information — and which would make gaining that information always feel earned because of the players’ love for the character.

Conor Amastacia and Brodrick Rathaill, by contrast, were distrusted from the moment the characters set eyes on them. The story driven by that antipathy subsequently unfolded in legendary fashion, because it was built on a foundation of the players freely and honestly deciding how to react to an NPC, then having that reaction pay off. But there’s a never-played alternative version of the campaign out there in the multiverse somewhere where the healer and the militia captain became the party’s two strongest allies, while the corrupt sheriff and the conniving lorist became enemies who would have actively tried to take the characters down. And in either version of the campaign, the strength of the bond between the players, the characters, and the NPCs has been decided by the players, letting me as GM build on that unexpected outcome either way.

February 22, 2024

Less than Legendary

This is a follow-up to “Beautifully Broken,” which talks about the satisfaction that comes from playing a character inspired more by story and less by the considerations of class, subclass, and other mechanical benefits. (TL/DR: Playing suboptimized characters can be great fun.)

However, maintaining the fun of playing a suboptimized character over the course of a series of adventures or a full campaign requires more than just the players’ interest in running their characters from a story-first perspective. It requires a certain amount of buy-in from a GM who understands the players’ goals for their characters — because that GM will figure out pretty quickly that the traditional approaches to D&D encounter and adventure design aren’t set up with mechanically suboptimized characters in mind.

Balance of Power

As a GM running a game that works for characters who are less mechanically robust than the Player’s Handbook norm, you’ll need to deal with the pernicious expectation that D&D (along with many other fantasy games) should cleave to a philosophy of “balanced encounter design.” Narrative-focused characters often come up short in terms of average hit points, damage output per round, and access to magic that the game assumes the heroes automatically have at certain levels (particularly healing spells and area-effect attacks). As such, you need to keep an eye on whether so-called balanced encounters are likely to go seriously off-balance because the characters on one side of the scale have less adventuring mass than expected.

Thankfully, there’s really no such thing as balanced encounter design (which is why that’s in quotation marks above). And understanding that fact actually works in your favor when you’re running a game with suboptimized characters. All the usual tricks for adjusting encounters that are meant to be balanced but go quickly off the rails in any game can play an even stronger part in a campaign with suboptimized characters. Adjusting the foes’ AC, hit points, and damage output are the easy options, and are discussed endlessly by GMs. But even more important is making sure that combat encounters have endgame options other than one side or the other fighting to the death. When building or prepping combat encounters, think about circumstances under which foes might surrender, or how monsters might respond to the characters capitulating or fleeing. Make sure that if the characters or their enemies might flee, the area in which combat takes place allows for a quick exit. Think about options for ambush, or ways in which characters can use the features of the area around them to make up for specific weaknesses in combat. (It behooves me to mention that the book The Lazy DM’s Forge of Foes, lovingly handcrafted by Teos Abadía, Mike Shea, and myself, talks a lot about these exact topics.)

That said, having fun with suboptimized characters is usually about more than just combat — especially given that the concept for many suboptimized characters involves moving away from the expectation that combat skill should be the baseline for heroic potential. 

Role With It

D&D is a roleplaying game, so reminding people of that feels a bit reductive. But when folks at the table are playing characters who are less than perfectly optimized in their combat stats, their exploration-focused features, or their social skill checks, it’s worth remembering that pure roleplaying can easily fill in all those gaps. Players aren’t keen to take on a monstrous threat they don’t think their characters can defeat? Let them roleplay the planning that takes the characters around that threat, or that lets them set two or more potential foes into conflict so that they take each other down. No one in the party has the skill to deal with the locked door leading to the king’s treasury? Let them roleplay the social scenario that’ll allow them to steal the key, or to trick someone else into opening the door for them.

As a GM building adventure scenarios for a party of beautifully broken characters, you’ll want to think beyond encounters that have a single entry point and only one expected outcome. Especially in published adventures, whether the scene is focused on combat, exploration, or social interaction, encounters are often set up with a strong sense of the best and most obvious way the characters are expected to approach a challenge, and the default means by which they’ll overcome it. So spend some time thinking before the game about the less obvious ways into and out of an encounter — and expect that the players will come up with ways you haven’t thought of, which you can incorporate during the game. As a bonus, by making this thinking part of your default GM’s mindset, you’ll find that having multiple approaches and success scenarios for encounters will make your games more interesting even for a fully optimized party.

Resources as Rewards

Players of suboptimized characters have a strong sense of what those characters are good at and where they come up short. So when you’re planning out encounters and the rewards for overcoming those encounters, feel free to offer up specific resources and benefits that can help characters overcome some of those shortcomings.

In a conventional campaign where min-maxed characters are reliant on stock magic item rewards to keep their combat numbers in the sweet spot expected for their tier, receiving useful information, maps showing secret shortcuts through a dungeon, and similar information-based rewards might earn a disinterested shrug from the players. But the players of story-focused characters often treat those rewards as even more significant than magic, understanding how such rewards allow them to get creative. A group of characters who know they’re going to struggle to defeat a boss will make great use of information and maps that allow them to set an ambush for that boss rather than having to confront them in their lair. In a campaign focused on courtly intrigue where the characters are on the outside of the court looking in, the mundane opportunity to pose as servants at the castle might be the most significant reward the party can receive.

As a general rule, suboptimized characters understand that they’re starting out somewhat less than legendary. They know that different choices made in the past, different life paths taken, might have granted them a more typically heroic stature. But they also know that none of that is going to stop them from taking on the challenges that the campaign presents to them — and that they can be just as heroic as any min-maxed legend, given the right insight, the opportunity to collect the necessary intelligence, and the desire to succeed.

January 24, 2024

Beautifully Broken

Let me tell you about one of the best characters I ever played — a sorcerer who didn’t want to be a sorcerer. This was for a Pathfinder 1e campaign some years ago, where the characters were setting out to create a new settlement in a monster-haunted wilderness. The original concept for the character was a multiclass sorcerer/archer, a ranged attack-focused, tactically minded double threat with weapon or spell. But then I remembered the inherent problems with D&D 3.5e/Pathfinder 1e contrast multiclassing (as opposed to class combos that feed each other), which inevitably builds characters who can do twice as much stuff but are always half as good at that stuff as everybody else.

So at some point, I thought to myself, “What happens if you play a sorcerer who actually really, really wants to be ranger but could never pull it off?”

On that day, Zabbas Kindark was born — a half-elf sorcerer whose selection of spells was based entirely on making her look and act like the ranger she’d always wanted to be. She used a bow in combat (courtesy of the Ancestral Arms ancestry trait), and filled out her starting spell list with things like magic weapon, true strike, gravity bow, arrow eruption, and the like. And as I put her together and started playing her, I realized very quickly that the coolest thing about Zabbas was that even maxed out with magic, she was never going to be anywhere as good a ranger as a regular ranger would have been. 

Zabbas was absolutely and wonderfully suboptimized. A character whose build was beautifully broken — which meant that I never wasted a moment worrying about how to maximize her mechanical potential. I just let her run headfirst into the challenges of the campaign story without a care.

The Fine Art of Suboptimization

Playing characters who are the best at what they do can be fun. If you’re playing in a campaign that you know comes with specific thresholds of endless combat challenge, there’s nothing wrong with fine-tuning a character and selecting feats and multiclass options that maximize their combat potential. But until the first time you try not worrying about any of that and just focusing on building a character who feels like the right choice as your avatar in the campaign story, you might not realize how liberating the experience is. 

Whenever I’ve played D&D, I’m the sort of player who comes up a cool character concept relatively easily, then spends a lot of time trying to figure out the best ancestry, class, and multiclass/subclass/prestige-class building blocks with which to build the perfect incarnation of that character. And if that’s you too, the next time you’re building a character for a game, try taking a left turn away from that. 

Think about how you want and expect the baseline character concept to fit into the campaign. Then ask yourself, “How would that work as a cleric? As a monk? As a barbarian?” Go down the list of your favorite classes and imagine the feel of each class as a lens through which your character will be filtered. Or think about some of the classes you’ve never been inspired to play, and think about whether a character concept not rigidly tied to maximizing the benefits of that class would be a good way to try it out.

Next time: Advice for GMs and players on how to make the most out of beautifully broken characters in a campaign — especially campaigns making use of published adventures, which don’t expect that sort of thing.

January 8, 2024

Unusual Campaign Starts

Figuring out how to get a campaign going can be one of the most challenging parts of being a GM. It’s relatively easy to build cool encounters and social setups, and the big climactic events at the act breaks and endgame of a campaign often write themselves. But when trying to figure out how to get brand-new characters together for the first time and drag them quickly into the action, it’s easy to feel like all the obvious starting points to the story the campaign will tell feel overly tame, trite, or obvious.

Your mileage may vary, of course, and every gaming group has different needs. Every single in-game campaign start that might seem basic or antiquated to a person who’s been playing D&D for decades (like me) is going to absolutely be the essential best campaign start for some first-time GM somewhere. And even grognards like me might be totally fine with the timeworn meetup in a local tavern that’s launched tens of thousands of campaigns. The game can be just about anything, and so can incorporate just about anything.

Campaign starts are a necessary evil for fantasy RPGs. Arguably, they’re a necessary lawful evil, insofar as they follow well-defined rules but often do so in the worst way possible. Many too-familiar campaign starts can come to feel like a handshake agreement the GM sets up to give away a plot point they know they won’t be able to otherwise sell. They make the players feel obliged to say things like, “Why yes, we’ll talk to this mysterious old man who’s heard a rumor about trouble at the abandoned abattoir out of town,” ignoring obvious contrivance for the sake of getting the story going. (One of the most common campaign starts builds on the hook of the NPC in need, which I expressed my thoughts on previously.)

Getting Things Going

If you’re at the point where too many of your own campaign starts — or the starting points of specific published adventures you’d like to run — are feeling flat, the following campaign starts can be used as setup for lots of different types of campaigns, or can serve as inspiration for unusual campaign starts of your own. 

All Fired Up

Sometimes it’s fun to subvert expectations by turning a tired trope on its ear. Rather than having the characters meet up in a tavern for the first time and hear a rumor meant to draw them into the campaign, have them getting ready to meet up in a tavern — except the tavern across the street explodes before they can get introduced. The process of rescuing victims and helping to put out the ensuing fire brings the characters together, even as the cause of the explosion can tie into their first adventures.

Not-So-Secret Map

Another classic campaign start that’s easy to turn into something more interesting is the wandering NPC selling a map to an old ruin. Certainly, there must be treasure there! But then the characters quickly discover that this NPC is one of many NPCs selling copies of the same exact map in multiple settlements across the land. The question of who’s running these NPCs and why they’re trying to bring multiple adventurers to the same location becomes an initial mystery in the campaign — or perhaps even the central mystery — that the characters need to solve.

Who’s on First?

One of the most abrupt ways to kick off a campaign is to have the characters start off in a combat encounter in a cool location of your choice. Except they have no idea where they are, who they are, or how they got there, except for a vague sense that they know and trust each other — and a stronger sense that everyone else at the site is trying to kill them. When the fight’s done, the characters’ memories start to slowly return, and the magic relic or other McGuffin that caused their amnesia becomes a secret that feeds into the rest of the campaign.

Unseen Connections

A group of characters who don’t know each other learn of some secret connection between them — the same seemingly mundane trinket that each picked up at some point, a tattoo they barely remembering getting after a night of drunken revelry, an NPC they all interacted with as youths, and so forth. An unseen connection can provide a core throughline to the campaign if the reason behind it connects to an NPC or other force intentionally wanting the characters to come together. Or it could be just be a happenstance moment that the characters can look back on with a sense of “Isn’t it wild how we first met?”

Piece by Piece

If time and your gaming schedule permits, it can be a lot of fun to start a campaign as a series of short adventures for small numbers of characters, who then come together to create the party as a whole. Two characters accidentally meeting in a tavern or caught up in a monstrous attack and bonding while they fight back to back often feels more dramatically palatable than some sort of “the gang’s all here” full-party meetup. You can run this sort of small-start scenario quickly — for example, three sessions in which two different characters meet up, followed by a full session where all six characters come together. 

Alternatively, you can have different characters interact with each other during many mini-sessions, slowly building up the relationships that will define the party. As an even more interesting setup for those who are comfortable with this sort of roleplaying, bringing the party together slowly can let the players decide that their characters really don’t like each other after their first interaction, letting subsequent interactions fully build out the characters’ eventual adventuring bond. 

Hunters and Hunted

In a party where some of the characters are notable do-gooders while others are a touch shifty, having the campaign kick off with the good characters hired or inspired to track down the scoundrels can be a nicely novel approach. The trick with such a scenario is making sure that common ground can be quickly found to bring the characters together — for example, the scoundrels convincing the do-gooders that they (truthfully) have been set up or are wanted for crimes they didn’t commit. Likewise, the good characters could realize that the reason or patron behind their hunt only gave them half the story for their mission, and that delivering up the other characters is no longer in their interest.

For players who don’t know each other well or who don’t like surprises in their story setup, talk about this potential campaign start in session zero or even earlier to make sure it doesn’t present any problems. But if you’re playing with a group of friends you know well who have enjoyed similar unexpected twist scenarios in your games, try telling some of the players that the campaign is going to start out with the party wanted by the law, then tell the other players that the campaign will initially be about them working to track down some notorious criminals. Then reveal the more complex setup in the first session.