Monthly Archives: March 2016

When They Won’t Jump Through Your Hoops

Dungeon Masters love creating awesome encounters for our players. We love layering a story, developing unforgettable NPCs, and springing complex traps upon our players. We spend hours lost in thought at our day jobs planning the campaign. We spend late nights behind stacks of books and graph paper, carefully crafting and fitting every piece of the puzzle that the players will have to solve along the way. (Okay…old school guys like me are behind books and graph paper. Most of you are staring bleary eyed at your iPad screens.)

And then sometimes the players don’t want to play along.

I don’t mean they don’t want to play D&D. I mean that they come up with their own way of doing things that you did not think of when spending all that time designing the scenario. Sometimes they want to go an entirely different direction from the one you had planned. This means that, above all of your players, a DM needs to be an improvisational master. There are two things a DM can do at times like these. Well…three, but I’ll save that third option for a different post.

First, let me tell you what you don’t want to do. Above all else, you do not want to railroad your players into following your idea, anyway. As the DM, you really are god in your world. It’s easy to limit your player’s choices until they have no choice at all. This is not what players come to D&D, or any RPG, for. If your players feel like a cog in a machine, if they feel like cattle running down the one-way chute to the slaughterhouse, they are not going to have fun. It doesn’t matter how great you think your idea is; if your players aren’t having fun, they won’t come back. You might think “Well, I’ll just find other players.” You might find other players once or twice, but word will get around that you suck as a DM. You can’t DM without players. Therefore, it is in your own best interest to respond in a way that lets everybody have fun.

There really are ways you can handle the situation which are wins for both you and your players. As the DM, your job will be harder…but that’s why the DM gets the big bucks, right? 😉

  1. Go With the Flow

The first thing you can do when players depart from your script is try to find a work-around. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge, you find ways to adapt, adjust, and overcome. Is there any way you can tweak your idea to make it fit into the direction your players go?

For instance, I had an encounter planned for a group that involved making up a special prop—a wanted poster with one of the player’s pictures on it. This would let the players know that the Bad Guy was onto them. A group of hobgoblins had the poster and were looking to collect the bounty. They knew generally where the group would be–heading south along a forest edge. The hobgoblins wanted to go north along the forest edge until they found the players. As an extra twist, the hobgoblins had an ogre with them whom they used for bait. They had the ogre head north outside of the forest while they followed along just inside the forest. They knew the players were aggressive and would attack the ogre if they spotted it first. While the players were occupied with the ogre, the hobgoblins could get into a good position to ambush the players, hopefully after they had taken damage from the ogre. If the players defeated the hobgoblins, they would find the wanted poster and know that the Bad Guy was onto them.

I was stoked to play out this little scenario. However, the first thing the players did when they started heading south was declare that they were paralleling the forest, but staying about a mile away from it.

Great. This would have them avoid the entire encounter that I had planned for the evening. The key for the encounter was the ogre engaging more or less in the open and distracting the players, while the hobgoblins ambushed from the forest. How could I mesh together my plans with the player actions?

I decided that even as far out from the forest as they were, there was a chance they could see the tall ogre silhouetted against the forest. One player did see the ogre. It worked out that it was the most aggressive player who saw it. Nice. I’ll save time here and avoid all of the details, but this battle started out as long range arrow fire at the ogre. The ogre rushed to attack.

I still could not use the hobgoblins as I had intended–close range ambush from the forest–so I had some decisions to make. What did the hobgoblins see? What did they think?

They saw the ogre rush away from the forest. One of the hobgoblins said “What in the world is Grom doing now?!”

The cautiously left the edge of the forest for the brushy hills. Soon they could see arrows flying through the air towards the ogre. They stayed low and crept forward. They could eventually see the battle, and realized that Grom had indeed found the party they had been looking for. However, the battle was going against their ogre bait.

“Let’s go help him!”

“I don’t think we’d get there in time to make any difference. Now that we know where they are, we could shadow them and attack their camp tonight.”

“Forget that! I wanna kill me a human!”

Seriously…this was the conversation among the hobgoblins I played in my head while fighting the ogre against the players. They decided to sneak up on the players while they were gloating over their ogre kill.

The hobgoblins should have waited until dark. So it goes.

Actually, to show how fluid this was in my mind, if the players had immediately pressed on after defeating the ogre, the hobgoblins would have waited until dark. Because the players took the time to loot the ogre’s body, have a rest, and take the time to talk about Life, the Universe, and Everything, the hobgoblins saw that the party was being inattentive right then and decided to attack. I adapted my plan to the player’s actions every step of the way, so as far as I’m concerned, that particular game session was a win.

2. Abandon

The other option you have when players don’t follow your plan is to abandon the plan that you had, or at least postpone it for a more opportune time. This is a far better option than coercing players into jumping through your hoop. It is far better that you go through the challenges of adjusting and adapting than for you to force your players down the slaughterhouse chute. If nobody in the party had spotted that ogre, they would have totally passed that encounter by…and I would have had to be okay with that. This is one of the things that makes DMing tougher than playing, adjusting to these unforeseen left turns.

There are things you can do to lessen the impact of these times. This is why it helps to adventure in a fully fleshed out world. It gives you more options when the game doesn’t go according to plan. This is an advantage to playing in a commercially available world like The Forgotten Realms. Much of that detail is already there for you. If the players had avoided the hobgoblin/ogre ambush above, they simply would have arrived at their destination sooner and the game would have continued. I would have been bummed that I still had an unplayed encounter, but the players wouldn’t have known any different, and they would still have had fun. Mission accomplished.

However, even in a home brew world, you should have more material ready to go than you plan to use in any particular game session. This is why there is no rest for the productive DM with a home brew world. You can never have too many side stories or NPCs in a home brew world. You never know when you might need them.

The bright side to these unused encounters is that they become another tool in your DMs tool box. So you didn’t use that idea today. The day will come when you can use it, and it will be so nice that you have it, and it’s ready to go. See? It’s never for nothing!




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The Dragon and the Witch

This battle occurred during my son Joshua’s Icewind Dale D&D 5E campaign he is running from a Wizards of the Coast adventure book.

Here there be some spoilers!


The dragon chased us to Good Mead.

He had cut us off from Easthaven in the pre-dawn, so we turned our horses and made for Good Mead. We started out with a half mile lead. To our good fortune, the dragon never took wing but pursued us on foot. We made it to the gate with only a quarter mile lead. The gate closed behind us. I climbed the stairs to the rampart. Clarisse and Granela followed. Varus, Cass, and Glacia stayed on the ground behind the gates.

The Ice Witch rode the dragon, which was close enough to see clearly now even though the sun was still below the horizon. This was like no dragon of which we had ever heard. This dragon was mostly skeleton with bits of dried skin shrunken tightly to its frame. He had not flown because most of the membrane composing his wings was gone. His wings were mostly a skeletal frame, with only some pieces of dried skin taut between the bones like a drum head. The sight was horrifying to behold. However, if this decomposed but animated dragon corpse could not fly, then perhaps its state of decay meant it could not unleash fire or frost from its terrible maw, either.

The dragon charged the gate, and the witch looked up to see us on the wall. Her popular name, Ice Witch, fit her well. She looked unnaturally white. She raised a hand and pointed a finger. A fog cloud grew out of the damp air and enveloped the battlements, blinding us to what was going on outside. We felt as well as heard the dragon hit the gate. I moved left along the rampart to try and get out of the fog. Clarisse and Garnela followed. As soon as I cleared the fog and could see the Ice Witch, I snapped my fingers and pointed at the witch, hurling a fire mote at her head. She ducked as Clarisse also fired her crossbow. My fire bolt and Clarisse’s quarrel both missed…but Garnela’s eldritch blast did not. The bright energy bolt lanced out from Garnela’s wand and connected squarely with the Ice Witch’s shoulder.

The Ice Witch flinched and took the blast. She looked on Garnela with cold fury. The witch waved her hand. A swirling glow stretched out and took on a spear shape. The Ice Witch hurled the spear at Garnela. The spear, a monstrous icicle, flew impossibly fast to the top of the battlement. Garnela had no chance to dodge as the ice spear took her solidly through the chest. Garnela fell back from the battlement in a splash of her own blood.

Everybody on the rampart ducked. The wall shook again as the dragon once more hit the gates. This time, the gates did not hold.

The dragon and the Ice Witch entered Good Mead.

There was no way we were going to last under the onslaught of both the dragon and the witch. The witch’s magic was clearly more advanced than mine to have any hope of winning a mage duel, and her Ice Spears were capable of dropping as hardy a soul as our tiefling, Garnela, in one blow. I had to get the witch out of this fight somehow.

Recalling a drow tactic which I had discovered when researching The Shard, I scooped a pinch of bat fur and pitch from my spell pouch and rubbed them between my index finger and thumb as I spoke the word of Darkness. I centered the black globe on the Ice Witch’s head.

She can’t hit us if she can’t see us. I hope.

Cass, Glacia, and Varus threw themselves valiantly at the dragon. Cass’s glaive bounced off a dragon’s rib, and a sweep of the dragon’s tail sent the elf warrior sprawling. Glacia screamed her war cry and furiously chopped away at the dragon with her axe.

Clarisse knelt alongside Garnela’s fallen form. She still lived, but not for long unless she received immediate aid. Clarisse reached into Garnela’s pack for a flask. The flask contained not brandy, though brandy would have been most welcome, but a healing elixir. Clarisse spilled some into Garnela’s mouth. The bleeding stopped. The rent tissue of her chest knit closed. Garnella’s eyes opened, and she picked her head up.

I concentrated on maintaining the darkness surrounding the witch, but I realized that this was only a temporary help. At some point, and probably sooner rather than later, we would have to switch to the offensive. I edged along the rampart while concentrating on the darkness globe. When I dropped the darkness spell, I needed to be close enough to the witch to engage her with a witch bolt electrical blast.

Having healed Garnela, Clarisse drew her two rapiers. She sprinted along the rampart and leaped with a cry onto the dragon’s back. She advanced with the rapiers into the black globe, knowing the witch was in this fifteen foot sphere. Clarisse felt a tug and a tear along the upper arm of her tunic. I saw another ice spear fly out of the darkness globe and sail over the battlement into the darkness beyond.

The melee on the ground between the two elves, the barbarian, and the dragon raged. Claw bashed on shield. Glaive chopped at bone. Axe bit into rotten dragon flesh and bone. Teeth snapped at Glacia. Glacia staggered back, then shook herself, howled again, and threw herself once more at the dragon with renewed fury.

Suddenly, the temperature dropped. I heard a howling wind, though I felt no accompanying blowing. Then the sleet hit me in the face. And the arms. And legs. I was surrounded by a whirling, blowing sleet cloud. As I struggled to keep to my feet, my concentration was disturbed, and the darkness globe surrounding the witch fell.

I suppose the Ice Witch didn’t actually have to see me to throw that one.

At this moment, our mighty Glacia delivered a final glorious blow up through the chest of the dragon, nearly cleaving the beast in two. The two halves shuddered and dropped. Thus ended the dragon.

Clarisse and the Ice Witch faced each other as they rode out the dragon’s fall. Off balance from the jarring of the dragon’s fall, Clarisse delivered weak thrusts with her rapiers. The Ice Witch began moving her hands. We had no idea what was coming this time. Would it be another Ice Spear, or something worse? Garnela, on her feet now, cast an eldritch blast that staggered the witch, but the witch’s hands continued their arcane motions. Suddenly from the ground, a flash of light leaped from Varus to the witch as he spoke a word of divine magic and pointed with a flourish. The witch was wrapped in an impossibly bright light. She screamed. Her form seemed as a snow carving, then melted and broke apart in the light. A pile of snow remained where she had stood on the twice-dead dragon’s back, and then even the snow disappeared.

It hadn’t been the real Ice Witch–merely a form of the witch she had sent in her stead. A wizard that could create such a form was far, far above my own powers. And she was still out there somewhere.

I carefully made my way down the stairs through the sleet slush. On the ground, I approached one of the town guards as he stood immobile, jaw agape at the battle he had just witnessed.

I asked, “Good Guard, where is the nearest place I could get a beer?”


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Ep 66: Bringing the Magic of Magic to D&D; If You Guild it They Will Come

This was a cool podcast by Dungeon Master’s Block about using Guilds in your fantasy world. They use guilds from a Magic: The Gathering setting to illustrate some Guild possibilities. The Green/Black guild was intriguing!

Listen here:

#MagicMark is back to talk with us about building Guilds for your D&D worlds and Campaigns. To delve in deeper into the MTG Universe, we will look at the plane of Ravnica and the 10 guilds that rule there. Patreon @DMs_Block Facebook Stitcher iTunes Intro Music in this episode is Dreams By Hired Beats is licensed under a Creative Commons License. Release:… License:… This episode edited by: DM Mitch

Source: Ep 66: Bringing the Magic of Magic to D&D; If You Guild it They Will Come


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AD&D vs. 5E: It’s a Harsher World Out There

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons players moving into D&D, 5th Edition might think that because their characters are beefed up in 5E, the usual adventurer-fodder of orcs, kobolds, and goblins would be even more of a pushover in 5E.

Not so.

Take your average orc. AD&D orcs had one hit die for 1-8 hit points. Orc guards had 11 hit points, and chieftains had 13-16 hit points. Most weapons are going to be able to kill your average orc in one swing. Guards and chiefs lasted a little bit longer. AD&D orcs inflicted 1-6 points of damage, or by weapon type. They had no other special abilities or talents not even guards or chieftains. The experience point value for beating one was 10+1/hp.

Orcs in 5E have 2d8+6 hit points, making them tougher off the bat, or maybe the ‘mace’ in this world. They are normally armed with a great axe, inflicting 1d12+3 damage. Ordinary orcs have two special abilities. The have the Intimidation skill at +2, which is rolled when attempting to influence anybody through “overt threats, hostile actions, and physical violence”. (5E Player’s Handbook, p.179) (This would be rolled versus NPCs.) They are also Aggressive, and can move faster than you would expect under normal circumstances. Orcs normally move thirty feet in a turn. As a bonus action, which is a free action in addition to its regular action, it can move an additional thirty feet towards an opponent it can see. I have seen this play out interestingly in games. The player said “I honestly didn’t think he could get to me there.” Oops. The experience point value for beating a 5E orc is 100.

Orc war chiefs are even tougher. They have 11d8+44 hit points. (Yes. You read that right. An average one will have 88 hit points.) They are also Aggressive. They have Intimidation +5. They also get multi-attacks, giving them two attacks per turn with a melee weapon. Once per day, they can also Battle Cry. “Each creature of the war chief’s choice that is within thirty feet of it, can hear it, and is not already affected by Battle Cry gain advantage on attack rolls until the start of the war chief’s next turn. The war chief can then make one attack as a bonus action.” (5E Monster Manual, p.246) The experience point value for beating an orc war chief is 1100. (I would imagine that this is so high because they are never encountered alone, but are always surrounded by a good sized band of orcs and are a force multiplier.)

Orcs in 5E are more Tolkien-ish than cartoon-ish.

These improved abilities apply to other creatures as well. Goblins have Nimble Escape, which means they can disengage from a melee without triggering an opportunity attack against them. Hobgoblins have Martial Advantage. They train to work together as a fighting team. Once per turn, they can inflict an extra 2d6 damage if their target is within five feet of a hobgoblin ally. Bugbears have Brute (one extra dice of damage for the weapon used in melee attacks—a morning star that normally does 1d8 damage does 2d8 in the hands of a bugbear) and Surprise Attack (surprised targets take an extra 2d6 damage from an attack). Yes, if you are surprised by a bugbear and he lands his blow, you are taking 2d8+2d6 damage. Even lowly kobolds now have 3d6-3 hit points and Pack Attack, giving them advantage on attack rolls if they have an ally within at least five feet of their target.

And if that is not enough for sadistic creative Dungeon Masters, you can give ‘special creatures’ abilities that player characters might have. Fighters in my group were really beating up on creatures with their Second Wind and Action Surge abilities. Then they met a band of orcs whose leader, while not technically a ‘war chief’, had maximum hit points for an orc plus the same Second Wind and Action Surge they had been using to run roughshod over poor monsters. Boy, where they surprised!

In all, 5E monsters really are new and improved over their AD&D counterparts—and they come with more surprises!

*Creature statistics are from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide (TSR; 6th printing, January, 1980), and Dungeons & Dragons, 5th Edition Monster Manual (Wizards of the Coast; 1st printing, September, 2014).


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