Low Fantasy in D&D

Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Ravenloft… almost all of the major campaign settings in D&D were built for epic high fantasy. In these worlds, a typical city might contain a shop with magic items for sale on the shelves, a temple run by a priest whose touch can heal wounds and disease, and a dwarf tending a bar where humans, elves, and half-orcs sit down for a drink.

There’s a certain whimsical charm to that sort of setting, but if you’re anything like me, after playing countless games like those, you start to yearn for a world where magic and monsters aren’t so mundane—where even a simple encounter with an elf or a dwarf feels, well… fantastical.

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An elf, a dwarf, and a tiefling walk into a bar…

So when I was getting ready to run my first campaign in D&D 5E, I decided to go with a low fantasy setting. My approach was to put the research I did for my graduate degree to use (for once) and go back to the original folktales and legends that inspired D&D’s mythos. If you’re interested in doing something similar, here are some ideas for you to try in your next D&D campaign.

Magic

Magic in this setting is rare and widely distrusted. Most folk regard the use of magic as cowardly, dangerous, and blasphemous. Spellcasters tend to practice their art in secret, for if their sorcerous ways were exposed, they’d be accused of weaving curses and hunted down like criminals. At the same time, some towns have a chieftain or a mysterious hermit who is respected and consulted for their miraculous abilities. And it’s not unusual to see folk carrying charms to ward off evil or bring good luck. But this kind of magic is more subtle than the typical D&D spell. In fact, the players should have difficulty figuring out if the chieftain’s ritual sacrifice or the hermit’s ominous prophecy is true magic or mere superstition.

Non-Human Races

Elves look just like humans, but have a supernatural beauty and grace about them. They live in their own secret world known as Alfheim (essentially just another name for the “Feywild” of the D&D cosmos), which can only be reached through “elf-gates” hidden deep in the forests. An elf-gate is a portal tied to some prominent natural feature, such as an ancient tree or a cave shrouded by a waterfall. Usually the elf-gate is hidden by an illusion or enchanted to open only under special circumstances. Even when open, the elf-gate is invisible, so entering Alfheim is a seamless experience. That is, if you step into Alfheim, you might not even realize it at first. The high elves and the wood elves coexist, with the high elves serving as the nobility in the courts deep within Alfheim and the wood elves acting more as scouts and nomads who range around the borders between the two worlds. The dark elves are the descendants of a clan that was banished from Alfheim long ago. After their banishment, they hid in caves underground. Over time, their subterranean dwelling changed them into the dark-skinned, white-haired people they are now.

Half-Elves are extremely rare, since most elves never associate with humankind. However, an elf with a bit of a mischievous streak might seduce a human who wanders too deep into the woods alone. A man who has such an encounter may find an eerily beautiful babe on his doorstep several months later, for a half-elven child could never be raised in Alfheim.

Dwarves live deep in the bowels of the earth and have an innate affinity for stonework and blacksmithing. It’s no easy task to find a dwarf—they rarely travel to the surface, and the entrances to their subterranean fortresses are carefully camouflaged to resemble solid rock.

Gnomes and halflings live in burrows found in the mountains, hills, and forests. Humans have difficulty telling the two apart and refer to them both as “little folk.” Humans tend to leave the little folk alone, not because they’re hard to find, but because it’s considered bad luck to disturb them. And the gnomes and halflings, valuing their privacy, do nothing to dissuade humans of this age-old superstition.

Orcs have no permanent homes, roaming instead in rival tribes. If these tribes all came together and cooperated, they would pose a significant threat to the human kingdoms, but their enmity for each other is much too great. Unable to stand up to the might of organized human armies, the scattered orc tribes stick to forests, mountains, and caves, striking only when opportunity arises, and then retreating back into the wilderness. Survivors of orc raids are rare—people usually find only the burnt ruins and mutilated corpses they leave behind. The few hunting parties humans have sent out after the orcs have always failed to return.

Half-Orcs are, sadly, almost always the children of human women who have been ravaged by orc marauders. They’re practically unheard of since most orcs won’t let their victims escape alive. Sadder still, half-orc children who defy the odds and live to be born are generally abandoned due to their grotesque features. Half-orcs are strong, however, and one could easily survive in the wilderness on its own. When grown, a half-orc might even pass for an abnormally large and misshapen human, but it’ll have trouble finding a place in society other than as a beggar or some other kind of outcast.

Tieflings and dragonborn are regarded as demons and hunted by humans on sight. Only a handful remain, and they go to great lengths to hide themselves.

Knocking on Death’s Door: Alternative Rules for Lingering Injuries & Losing Consciousness in D&D 5E

Ever noticed how tough battles in D&D tend to turn into a game of whack-a-mole? One hero reaches 0 HP and falls over. One of their friends runs over and casts cure wounds or force-feeds them a potion and they’re back up again. A round or two later, someone else drops and the cycle repeats.

I think the main reason for this is the sudden transition from up and fighting to comatose and bleeding out on the floor. True, the players can see their HP dropping, so they know they’re getting closer to death, but there’s no mechanic that really drives that home, that says, “Hey, buddy—maybe it’s time to cut your losses and retreat.” Without that nudge, players tend to keep fighting until they drop, and at that point there’s nothing they can do but wait for someone to tag them back in.

To address this issue, I’ve added a house rule to my D&D games. It gets the job done, and my players enjoy it, too. But before I explain how it works, let me give credit where credit’s due. I modeled this idea off of a post by the Angry GM. I tweaked it to suit my taste, but he’s the one who came up with the basic concept.

It involves adding a new condition called “dispirited.” A PC becomes dispirited when they reach 0 HP. When the PC becomes dispirited, they gain 1 level of exhaustion. As soon as they have at least 1 HP, they’re no longer dispirited.

The effects of being dispirited are:

  • You can’t attack or cast spells.
  • If you’re damaged again, you suffer a lingering injury. Also, you must make a Constitution saving throw. If the result is lower than 10 or the amount of damage you just took (whichever is higher), you become unconscious and unstable.

The idea here is to encourage the PC to pull back by cutting off their ability to contribute to the battle while adding the threat of real, long-term consequences. It also has the benefit of giving players something to do when they reach 0 HP and giving the GM a fair mechanic for introducing lingering injuries, which make the battles feel more brutal and realistic.

Speaking of lingering injuries, I find the table in the Dungeon Master’s Guide too complex for my taste. Here’s my own trimmed down version:

Lingering Injury. If you take damage while at 0 HP or if the damage is of an especially serious nature, you gain a lingering injury. The GM can choose something from the table below or have you roll 1d20. Only magical healing of 6th level or higher removes a lingering injury.

  • (1-5) Permanent Scar. A nice conversation starter.
  • (6-8) Impaired Arm. Disadvantage on any action that requires the injured arm, such as attacking, climbing, grappling, or swimming. Heals after a 10-day rest.
  • (9-11) Limp. Total movement speed reduced by 5. Disadvantage on climbing, jumping, etc. Heals after a 10-day rest.
  • (12-13) Internal Wound. You must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution save in order to take any combat action or reaction. Heals after a 10-day rest.
  • (14-15) Festering Wound. Your maximum HP drops by 1 each day. If you reach 0 max HP, you die. Heals after you have been successfully treated five times (DC 15 Medicine check once per day).
  • (16-17) Disfigured. Disadvantage on Persuasion. Advantage on Intimidation.
  • (18) Ruined/Lost Leg. Your total movement speed is halved. Disadvantage on climbing, jumping, etc.
  • (19) Ruined/Lost Arm. You can’t use your left or right hand. Disadvantage on climbing, grappling, swimming, etc.
  • (20) Lost Eye. Disadvantage on Perception. If you have already lost an eye, you become blind.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to D&D 5E

Let’s face it. D&D’s a great game, but it can get a bit overly complicated at times. I know not everyone agrees, but I like my game sessions to be fast-paced and relatively simple. And, as a GM, I prefer to spend as little of my prep time as possible flipping through rulebooks. If you feel the same way I do, this rant is for you. Here are all the cuts and edits I’ve made to D&D’s core rules in order to keep my gaming nights moving and the headaches at a minimum.

Combat

Ah, combat. The focal point of D&D’s mechanics and yet arguably the part of the game that needs the most work. Where to begin?

Special Attacks. I think there are several separate mechanics here that can be combined. You can replace a normal attack action with any of the following actions.

  • Disarm. Make your attack roll, but instead of rolling against the opponent’s armor class, the opponent sets the DC with an Acrobatics or Athletics roll. If the opponent is wielding a two-handed weapon, make your attack roll with disadvantage.
    • Note: One of my house rules is that a creature gains advantage on an Athletics roll when facing off against a smaller opponent. And if the creature is larger by 2 sizes or more, the larger creature wins the contest automatically.
  • Grapple, Throw, or Trip. To attempt any of these moves, roll Acrobatics or Athletics (your choice). The opponent resists by rolling Acrobatics or Athletics as well (their choice). If you throw a creature, you can move it up to 5 feet away and deal 1d4 damage.
  • Overrun or Shove. If you want to force your way past an enemy creature or push it to an adjacent space, make a contested Athletics roll with it.

Climb a Creature. As an action, you can climb on top of a creature larger than you. Make a contested Acrobatics roll with the creature.

Dash. As an action, you can double your total movement for the turn. You gain a point of exhaustion if you dash for a number of consecutive turns equal to 3 + your Constitution modifier.

Search. This isn’t specified as an action in D&D, but in my opinion it should be. As an action, you can make a Perception roll to check the area around you for hidden creatures and objects. The DC for detecting a hidden creature is 10 + its Stealth bonus.

Opportunity Attack. When a creature within reach of your weapon moves out of your reach or takes a non-combat action, you can use your reaction to make an immediate attack against them, even if it’s not your turn. Only one adjacent creature can make an opportunity attack for each space the target creature moves through (otherwise you get into ridiculous situations where 7 enemies stab you all at the same time as soon as you take a step in the wrong direction). You can’t make an opportunity attack if you used the Dash action on your last turn.

Mobs. For something that comes up all the time, D&D has a really convoluted way of handling a violent mob trying to attack the same target at once. I think it’s fair to say simply that, when a large group of creatures gang up on a single target, the DM can forego making attack rolls to save time and just assume that they get 1 hit in for every 3 attackers or so. This also serves to make large groups of enemies more threatening to the PCs. If you play by the rules as written, you may find that a PC with heavy armor can essentially wade through a sea of smaller enemies without getting scratched.

Cover. In D&D 5E, they came up with this brilliant advantage/disadvantage mechanic so the players wouldn’t have to keep track of a whole bunch of circumstantial plus and minus modifiers to rolls. But for some reason they decided hiding behind cover in combat needed its own special mechanic. Bollocks, I say! If you have cover, attacks against you have disadvantage.

Underwater Combat. This one doesn’t come up too often, but D&D has some overly complex rules here, too. The following simplified mechanics should work just fine.

  • Bludgeoning and Slashing Attacks. Unless you have a swim speed, you attack with disadvantage when using a bludgeoning or slashing weapon underwater.
  • Ranged Attacks. All ranged attacks have disadvantage at normal range and miss automatically at long range.
  • Fire Attacks. All creatures have resistance to fire damage while underwater.

Movement

Counting spaces during a battle isn’t usually so bad, but there can be a lot to keep track of once you start getting into nitty-gritty stuff, like difficult terrain. The following rules are based on the actual D&D mechanics, but with some of the details removed to make them easier to remember and apply during play.

Slow Move. Each time you move 1 space (5 feet), count 1 extra space from your movement total if any of these factors apply: climbing, crawling, difficult terrain, or moving through an occupied or tight space.

Half Move. It costs half of your movement total to do any of the following: dismount an animal, mount an animal, stand up.

Encumbrance. If you’re pushing or pulling something heavier or larger than what you can normally carry, your total speed is reduced to 1 space (5 feet) per turn and you have disadvantage on all rolls you make.

Jump. Roll Acrobatics or Athletics. For a long jump, the result of the roll is equal to the number of feet you can cover (a roll of 15 means you can jump a distance of 15 feet). For a high jump, divide the result by 3 (a roll of 15 means you can jump up to 5 feet). If you can’t get a running start, roll with disadvantage.

Tumble. If you want to dodge around an enemy creature blocking your path, you can use a bonus action (not a normal action), to make a contested Acrobatics roll with the creature. You don’t need to roll if the creature is larger than you by 2 sizes or more (i.e., if you’re medium and it’s huge).

Conditions

Is it just me, or are the D&D conditions largely redundant? After some tinkering, I managed to smush the similar ones together to make for a more streamlined, easier to remember list. (The conditions that I didn’t change aren’t included here.)

Disadvantaged (Frightened, Poisoned)

  • You have disadvantage on attacks and ability rolls.
  • If you’re frightened, you can’t approach the object of your fear or take any offensive action against it.

Hindered (Grappled, Prone, Restrained)

  • You have disadvantage on attacks and Dexterity saves.
  • Melee attacks against you have advantage.
  • Ranged attacks against you have disadvantage.
  • If grappled or restrained, your speed is reduced to 0. You can roll Acrobatics or Athletics to escape.

Immobilized (Incapacitated, Paralyzed, Petrified, Stunned, Unconscious)

  • You can’t move, speak, or take actions of any kind.
  • Attacks against you automatically hit.
  • You automatically fail all saving throws.
  • If you’re petrified, you have resistance to all damage and any poison or disease in your system stops affecting you (it starts affecting you again as soon as you stop being petrified).

Exhaustion

The rules for how much exhaustion you gain due to lack of water, sleep, and food are convoluted and make little sense. Here’s a simpler system, which is also closer to the real-world effects of dehydration, sleep deprivation, and starvation:

  • Gain 1 level of exhaustion after 1 day with no water.
  • Gain 1 level of exhaustion after 2 days with no sleep.
  • Gain 1 level of exhaustion after 3 days with no food.

Exhaustion gained in this way does not “stack.” For example, if you’re already gaining exhaustion due to lack of water, you can ignore any exhaustion you would gain from lack of sleep or food.

A Critical Look at Critical Fumbles in D&D 5E

Most players of D&D are familiar with this little optional rule—when a character rolls a 1 on an attack roll, they not only whiff but hit themselves in the face or send their weapon flying out of their hands, or any number of other harmful or at least embarrassing screw-ups. Of course, it’s not terribly realistic. While someone who’s never held a sword before may do more damage to themselves than the enemy, the majority of people who make attack rolls in D&D are trained—if not expert—fighters. A battle-worn champion shouldn’t be flailing wildly with every twentieth swing.

So if you prefer to run serious, dramatic, and realistic scenes, you’re probably better off doing without critical fumbles. But I’ve always preferred to keep my games on the silly side. There’s nothing like a hero accidentally conking an ally over the head at the worst possible time, or a villain delivering a menacing monologue and then immediately tripping over their own feet. Some of the most memorable moments from my games have come from critical fumbles.

The problem is in finding a quick and dirty way to resolve these moments when they do pop up. Combat in D&D is already a bit clunky and stilted under the best of circumstances—the last thing it needs is another complicated series of tables to slow things down.

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Yeah, no thanks. I’m good.

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Please stop…

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Oh god why

As you can see, some people out there really like their critical fumbles. And if you’re one of them, hey, don’t let me stop you. But after considerable experimenting, the approach I’ve had the most success with is this little table of mine:


Critical Fumble! When you roll a 1 on an attack, roll 1d6.

  1. Distracted. Your turn ends. You can’t use a reaction until your next turn.
  2. Opening. One enemy may use a reaction to attack you now.
  3. Trip. Stumble 5 feet in a random direction or fall prone (GM’s choice).
  4. Self-Inflicted Wound. Roll your weapon damage. You take half that amount.
  5. Friendly Fire. Deal half your weapon’s damage to the creature closest to your original target.
  6. Disarmed. Your weapon (or something else you’re carrying) flies off in a random direction for 15 feet or until it hits a creature or obstacle. If it hits a creature, that creature takes 1d4 damage. If it hits an obstacle, the item becomes damaged or stuck (roll Athletics DC 10 to dislodge).
    • Ranged Attack Variation: If wielding a bow or crossbow, the drawstring breaks.

It may not look like much, but that list is robust enough to trigger some interesting situations without totally derailing the scene. It also works well because about half of the items on the list aren’t all that bad and seem like something even a skilled fighter might do from time to time (like getting distracted by something around them or swinging too wide and leaving an opening for the enemy to take advantage of). And, finally, it has the benefit of being short enough that you can memorize it pretty easily. After a few sessions, you won’t even need the table anymore.

Welp, that’s all I’ve got for today. Happy rolling!

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The Rules: A Blessing in Disguise

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This rant should really be called a “GM Rumination”—it’s more a memo to myself than a piece of advice. But I’ve decided to make it a “GM Tip” anyway, on the offchance other like-minded GMs find it helpful.

I’ve experimented with homebrew mechanics for as long as I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs (holy crap, I just realized it’s been over 20 years). Ahem, anyway—I started homebrewing because I didn’t have the right rulebooks on hand; I just made my own, starting with whatever I could remember from flipping through the books my friends had and throwing in bits and pieces of other board games and video games I had played. Once I had a good set of books handy, though, my main motivation for homebrewing was that the official rules seemed so unnecessarily clunky. I felt that most of them didn’t add anything to the game and could be thrown out.

I made several attempts at building my own systems from scratch over the years. These worked well enough, but they inevitably required tweaking during gameplay as unforeseen situations came up and hidden glitches were revealed. My systems were rarely balanced and lacked the depth of a long-standing classic like D&D.

My inclination toward simpler systems has naturally drawn me to what I’m going to call “improv RPGs,” which encourage the GM and players to make up most of the story without many rules as they go. And that brings me to the point of this rant—those games sound awesome in theory, but each time I try one, I remember that I actually kind of hate them.

Before I explain why, let me make sure we’re on the same page. When I say “improv RPG,” I’m talking about games like The Window and Fate. In Window, players have a set of ability scores and a handful of skills, and the skills are totally up to the players to invent out of the blue. A “skill” in that system is just a phrase describing an aspect of your character with a die assigned to it. The lower your roll, the better the success, so a small die (like a d6) is much better than a large die (like a d20). And that’s it. Those are the rules. There are no concrete rules telling you how to create balanced characters, what to do when a character gets hurt, how equipment could help you, or what spells a wizard can cast… you’re just supposed to resolve each action however it makes sense in the story, with the die roll as inspiration.

For me, there is (or at least used to be) enormous appeal in such a streamlined system. You can teach someone the rules in under a minute and create a character in however much time it takes to write down your concept. Everything you need to know about your character can fit on an index card. No need to buy rulebooks or pause to consult them during play. Most attractive of all, the only limit on the kinds of characters and scenarios you can play is your imagination.

I have no doubt that something like The Window works wonderfully for lots of people out there, but after giving it several tries and having little luck, I went running back to D&D. It’s not that the games I ran fell apart or anything like that—the system worked well enough. The problem was that it was an enormous headache trying to keep the game going. As all GMs know, running a game in any system is a daunting mental exercise. While the players are each responsible for a single character, the GM is in charge of describing and keeping track of literally everything else. Picture it this way: if you’re a player, you’re throwing a ball back and forth with the GM. If you’re the GM, you’ve got to play catch with each of your players while simultaneously juggling several more balls.

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Accurate.

When you don’t have a set of rules to determine what happens in at least the most commonly encountered situations, that freedom just adds to the number of balls the GM needs to juggle. Your character was hit? In D&D, I’d just check my monster’s stats, roll for damage, and tell you to subtract the result from your hit points. Describing how the blow landed is an optional piece of narrative flair I sometimes add in for especially dramatic moments, but just as often leave out in order to get on with the scene. The damage carries its own weight. Without any narrative input from the GM, a player winces when their character takes a big hit.

But, in a system like The Window, narration is everything, so I’m constantly having to come up with new and interesting descriptions for how each and every attack hits or misses. There is a loose set of rules for determining when a character loses consciousness, but about half the time a hit has no lingering game effect on the character. Unless the GM decides to impose some kind of arbitrary penalty, there’s nothing in the rules to reinforce the fact that your character is taking a beating. If the narration isn’t suitably dramatic, the event loses its gravitas.

This is just an example. I understand that The Window is not a combat-centric system. But these sorts of problems come up in any situation when using those kinds of rules. Playing D&D, I can automatically figure out what roll is required in most situations and what the roll means, but in The Window, it’s all up in the air, which means it falls on the GM to figure it out on the spot. And that shit is exhausting!

I also understand that systems like The Window encourage the players to share in the role of determining the narrative, but despite constantly reminding my players that they have that ability, they rarely take up the reins. Perhaps it’s because they’ve been trained by systems like D&D, but I find that most of my players prefer to propose an action and let the dice and the GM tell them how it goes down. Giving the players narrative control robs them of a sense of immersion—you can’t pretend you are your character if you are simultaneously deciding what happens to your character.

Another problem with The Window is it lacks tactical depth. When the rules are so streamlined, the players have few options available to them other than simply rolling and hoping for the best. There are no rules for multiple characters trying to work together, for example, or for flanking an enemy. If I want to reward player ingenuity, I’m forced to either come up with a bonus myself or tell the players their plan isn’t going to do any good.

Finally, running a game in The Window makes it difficult to keep things fair and consistent. So much burden is on the GM to invent rulings on the fly that, inevitably, you’re going to make a bad call. I found myself often wanting to undo decisions I had made earlier.

In my longest running Window adventure, I tried to save myself some trouble by coming up with charts for things like injuries and options for tactical combat. That’s when I realized I was basically recreating D&D, but in a much less efficient form. With the set of Window combat rules I came up with, a single attack action required multiple rolls: one to decide if the attack itself was any good, another to decide if the target was able to dodge, a third to decide if their armor could absorb the hit, a fourth to decide what kind of injury they received if the attack finally landed, and a fifth to decide if the character lost health or not as a result. In D&D, you’ve got the time-saving abstraction of Armor Class and Hit Points. One roll compared to a target’s Armor Class to decide if they dodged or if the armor blocked the hit, and a second roll to decide how much damage they take if they are hit. And best of all, the numbers have already been carefully playtested and balanced, and the players will feel the sting of each hit whether or not the GM decides to describe it.

It was that realization that caused me to give up on using The Window and continue the adventure with D&D 5th edition. But, about a year later, I discovered a little system called Fate. Long story short, Fate is considerably more robust than The Window, but it’s riddled with many of the same pitfalls. Too much is left open, meaning the GM and the players are constantly forced to improvise new ideas to resolve even the simplest of actions. Paradoxically, just like The Window, the pared-down rules of Fate end up being more complicated than just having books full of rules in the first place.

And that’s the whole reason I’m writing this rambling rant—to share with you a realization that probably should have been obvious. Systems like The Window and Fate may seem easier, simpler, and faster on the surface, but that’s an illusion. They replace rules with improvisational storytelling, and improv is no easy or simple task. As any actor or comedian can tell you, improv is a difficult skill that takes long sessions of practice to get right. Personally, I think rules-intensive games like D&D already demand enough improv to keep me busy, and learning the rules is easier and faster for me than making them up as I go.

That being said, balance is key. There are lots of systems out there that have far too many rules for my liking. I think D&D has struck a pretty good balance. At least it’s come a long way since I started playing it 20 years ago. It’s much simpler now than it used to be. And I still have my own streamlined homebrew rules that I use when I play. The key, I think, is to find what amount of rules work well for you and your group.

D&D co-creator Gary Gygax once said, “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.” And he’s right—we don’t need the rules, but they certainly come in handy. So hats off to you, Gary, whether you think you deserve it or not. RIP.

4 Easy Ways to Amp Up Your Combat

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Everyone who’s played RPGs (players and GMs alike) has been there: your characters are in the midst of what’s supposed to be a nail-biting melee—the climax of the adventure—but, for the players, it’s a dull routine of rolling dice and crunching numbers, interrupted only by debating strategy or flipping through rulebooks, until the last enemy falls over or retreats.

It’s a paradox. As far as the story is concerned, combat, by definition, is exciting—the characters are thrown into a life-or-death scenario and must rely on their strength and wits to survive. But the act of playing out the combat all too often fails to capture the tension in the story. As the stakes of the narrative rise, the time needed for calculating each action increases. A single swing of a sword could spell doom, so the story must be slowed down. In D&D, one round of combat represents six seconds of the characters’ lives, but it can easily eat up half an hour of the players’ lives if you’re not careful.

So here are four simple ways to make combat more exciting and fast-paced. I’ve tested them in my own games, and my players agree that our sessions are more fun because of them. Best of all, any GM can start using these right away, with little effort.
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#1. Timed Turns

One of the quickest ways to slow a good game down is for the players to take too long to make up their damned minds. This is such a common problem that we have a catchy name for it: analysis paralysis.

So how do you stop the players from over-analyzing their actions? Simple: give them a deadline! I find a small sand timer (about 1 minute) works well, but an egg timer or smartphone app, or even a countdown should work in a pinch.

This is not just a technique for combat—you can use it whenever the characters have a limited time to act but the players start debating what to do. For example, I recently ran an adventure in which Thokk, the party’s half-orc barbarian, came across the camp of an orc tribe that had enslaved him as a child. Of course the party wanted to deliberate the most strategic plan of attack, so I placed my sand timer on the table and said, “When this runs out, Thokk loses his patience and charges into battle.” And before you complain that I was taking freedom away from the players, Thokk’s player agreed wholeheartedly with a grin.

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#2. Roll ‘Em in Plain Sight

You might think that rolling behind a GM screen would be an effective way to keep tension high. After all, when a monster hits one of the PCs for 27 damage, they don’t know if the monster got lucky or if it’s just warming up. I argue, however, that hiding rolls takes away from the tension.

I used to play with a GM screen, but a year or so ago I decided to see how it felt without it, and I’ve never looked back. When you roll in front of your players, they share the thrill of watching the dice tumble on the table and spell their fate. It’s both empowering and frightening for them… empowering because the GM becomes just another player at the table, bound by the same rules they are; frightening because they know you’re not pulling any punches—if a monster rolls a 20 and kills someone in the party, them’s the breaks.

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#3. Initiative Cards

In D&D (and most other RPGs I’m aware of), the GM and players make “initiative” rolls when combat starts to see who gets to go first. GMs typically handle this in one of two ways. The first is to roll for each individual combatant, record their rolls from highest to lowest, and proceed in that order. The GM may even require a fresh set of initiative rolls at the start of each new round. To save time, many GMs use a simpler method: make one roll for the good guys and another roll for the bad guys. When it’s the good guys’ turn, each player acts, usually in the order they’re sitting around the table. On the bad guys’ turn, the GM has each enemy act, in whatever order makes the most sense at the time. GMs using the second method typically make only one initiative roll at the beginning of the combat, and each side alternates turns from there.

Both methods have their flaws. The first method eats up a lot of time because it requires so many rolls and quite a bit of accounting. An organized GM can get through the process relatively quickly, but personally I find it immediately grinds the tension of the game to a halt when I have to make upwards of a dozen rolls right off the bat and write down each one. It also gives the game a kind of “classroom” feel, as the GM reads names off the list, telling each player when it’s their turn.

The second method saves time but lacks balance and variety. If the players go first, the combat might be over before the enemies get a chance to fire a shot, and vice versa. Moreover, on the bad guys’ turn, the players must wait for the GM to finish resolving each enemy’s action, and the GM gets no break in between deciding what each enemy does. This often turns into a headache for the GM and a snore for the players.

The way I solve this requires a deviation from the rules of the game, but I find the sacrifice is well worth it. At the start of each round of combat, take a red playing card for each PC and a black card for each NPC, and shuffle. Draw cards one at a time to decide who acts next. If the card is red, any player who has not yet acted may do so (they can decide amongst themselves who should go). If the card is black, the GM acts with any NPC that hasn’t had a turn. When all the cards are drawn, remove a card for each character no longer in the combat, shuffle the remaining ones, and start a new round.

There are four advantages to this system. First of all, it adds an element of tension to the game, as it keeps the players guessing about who goes next. Second, it breaks up player and GM actions so that neither side spends too long waiting for the other. Third, it gives the players the freedom to strategically decide which of their characters should act first. Lastly, it saves a significant amount of time. No rolls, no lists; just shuffle and draw.

One downside of this system is that it makes initiative completely random. In D&D, characters get bonuses or penalties to their initiative roll based on dexterity. Most other RPGs have a similar mechanic. The initiative card system ignores that, effectively stripping speedy characters of one of their advantages. That said, my players love this system and have never once complained that they’re being “cheated” by it. Besides, if you really feel the need, I’m sure you can come up with something similar to my initiative card system that still gives speedy characters the upper hand.

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#4. Keep the Pressure On

All too often, combat becomes a matter of simply trading hits until one side falls over or retreats. It could be many rounds until one side is ready to give in, and with nothing to shake things up, each round becomes basically a repeat of the last.

So how do you stop that from happening? Next time you’re planning a combat scene for your adventure, work in some kind of pressure that will force the players to get through it as quickly as possible. Actually, like the sand timer, this is a good method for making any part of the game more exciting, not just combat. It works especially well for a scene that might otherwise drag on indefinitely, such as trying to solve a puzzle or persuade an NPC to help.

My personal favorite is the ever-popular horde of encroaching skeletons. A simple encounter becomes a nightmare when you’ve got an invincible force closing in fast behind you. The PCs can fend off the skeletons for a while, but not for long—they’ll have to overcome the challenge in front of them (be it a battle, a puzzle, whatever) without wasting time. Other forms of pressure I’ve used include: erupting volcano, enchanted tree being cut down, and steam engine about to blow.

Be imaginative, be devious, and most importantly, let the players in on the stakes. Even if their characters wouldn’t have access to this information, it helps to tell the players not just that something bad is on its way, but what it is and how long they have until it arrives.

Puzzles That Make Sense!

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As you probe deeper into the necromancer’s lair, you come across a white-and-black checkered room. Several towering chess pieces are arranged on the grid, standing at attention. After some investigation, you realize that the door ahead will open only if you push the pieces into the right configuration. Make a mistake, however, and a deadly trap will be sprung…

If you’re a fan of role-playing games, I’m sure you’ve encountered something like the above. The protagonists must solve a puzzle or a riddle in order to progress through the ancient ruin, or whatever it is they happen to be exploring. The GM’s intent is obvious—to challenge the heroes’ minds, rather than their might.

But have you ever paused to think, “Who would build such a thing, and why?”

This is one of my biggest pet peeves when I look at adventures others have designed. If I were an evil villain conducting dark experiments in my secret lair, or a mistrustful emperor looking for a place to hide my wondrous treasure, I wouldn’t construct a security system that could be bypassed by anyone who took the time to think about it carefully. I’d create something that I knew would be almost guaranteed to stop or kill all trespassers (no matter how ingenious), while letting me come and go whenever I pleased.

That being said, as a GM, I love pitting the players up against puzzles. In fact, I try to include at least one puzzle in every adventure I run. So what is a GM to do?

The easy (lazy) solution is, of course, to ask your players to suspend their disbelief. Sure, the necromancer has no good reason for protecting the entrance to his lair with a chess puzzle, but who cares? In the end, the players have a good time trying to figure it out.

But, as I mentioned in my previous tip, I try to avoid breaking immersion whenever possible. I want all parts of the setting to feel consistently realistic and believable. It might take a little extra work to design not only a puzzle that’s fun to solve, but one that makes sense, but the payoff is worth the effort.

So, without further ado, here are my tips for designing believable puzzles:

#1. Literally Anything Can Be a Puzzle

First of all, what is a puzzle? The images that probably jump into the minds of most GMs and players are that of interlocking jigsaw pieces, riddles, brain teasers, and movable blocks (a la Legend of Zelda). To design a truly interesting puzzle that feels like it belongs in the game setting, however, you’re going to have to think outside such a narrow box.

I would argue that a puzzle is any kind of mental challenge that is possible and entertaining to solve. That is, there must be at least one solution, the puzzle-solver must be aware that a solution exists, and the process of finding the solution must be a matter of critical thinking and creativity, rather than of tedious work or brute-force guessing.

So any situation that taxes the players’ mental capacities in a fair and interesting way is a puzzle. It’s quite possible that several puzzles could come and go in an adventure without the players (or even the GM) being totally aware of them as such. A trap with a hidden disarming mechanism? Puzzle. A secret door? Puzzle. A combat scenario that requires careful tactics? Puzzle. A murder mystery? Puzzle. Trying to figure out the best way through the arctic wasteland without running out of food or being attacked by dire wolves? Puzzle.

#2. Put Yourself in the Mind of the Architect

Okay, but sometimes you want to challenge your players with something more overtly puzzle-like; something that causes them to put down the dice and put on the thinking caps. There are certain players out there who get a special gleam in their eye when they see that the GM’s just dropped a puzzle in their lap, and all they need to do is figure out the answer.

This is where you need to consider the motives of whoever built the damn thing. If the architect purposefully built a solution into it, that means they wanted someone to come along and solve it. If they didn’t want that to happen, then they’d at least try to take precautions to stop potential trespassers from finding the solution.

In the same adventure I mentioned in my first GM Tip, the players found a pile of encrypted documents inside a mechanical complex. The messages were encrypted because the gnome who had written them wanted to keep notes for himself and his fellow mechanics, but he was afraid that if they fell into the wrong hands, the machines could become disastrous weapons of war. Thus the cipher the gnome created was readable only with a special decoder, which had been disassembled and hidden; and even then, actually operating the decoder was a puzzle in itself. Sure, the gnome’s plan wasn’t perfect (the players were able to read his notes in the end), but the situation is plausible. The gnome was at least trying to make things difficult.

#3. Unintended Solutions

It helps to imagine that the puzzle’s architect had no solution in mind at all; that the only way to solve the puzzle is to “break” it. Of course, you as the GM create the solution, but it should appear to the players as if they’ve discovered some flaw in the obstacle’s design.

In another adventure I ran, the PCs came across a large tree that they had reason to believe housed a hidden gate to Alfheim, the world of the elves. The elves, secretive by nature, had hidden the gate with a simple illusion that made the tree look and feel solid, even though there was in fact an opening in the trunk. However, there happened to be a pond nearby, and if any PCs paid careful attention to it, they found that the reflection in the water revealed the opening in the tree. Once they had discovered this clue, it was only a matter of experimentation until they had found a way through the illusionary wall. The clue was subtle and natural enough that the players felt as if the elves simply hadn’t accounted for the pond giving their secret away.

Along the same lines, you should definitely allow the players to progress if they find an alternative solution to the puzzle that you didn’t think of. One of the most memorable role-playing moments I’ve had came from such a situation. A snake-like monster with a human head and nearly impervious scales had challenged the players to a duel, and all they had to do to win was spill one drop of the monster’s blood. I had intended for this to be a grueling battle in which the PCs would wear down one part of the monster’s natural armor until they finally had pierced her flesh. However, one player came up with the ingenious idea to climb above the monster, wait until she was taunting the heroes, and then leap onto her head, causing her to bite her tongue.

#4. Incidental Puzzles

Sometimes a puzzle has no architect but comes into existence naturally. Perhaps the heroes come across an essential artifact that has been shattered. In order to use it, they need to find all the pieces and figure out how to put them back together in the correct arrangement.

Another version of an incidental puzzle is a battle with a foe that has a particular weakness or that inhabits an environment that grants an advantage to the players if they can find it. You can see a good example of a “puzzle battle” in this video by Drunkens & Dragons.

#5. Tests of Intelligence

Probably the only time the GM gets to use a stereotypical puzzle in an adventure and preserve believability at the same is if the puzzle is specifically meant to test the brainpower of the player characters. For example, the PCs may be trying to join a wizards’ guild, but they must first prove their intelligence by completing a series of trials.

Alternatively, the PCs may find themselves in a dungeon created by a madman, like The Riddler from Batman, who suffers an inexplicable compulsion to leave clues for his enemies. Or the PCs might be participating in a contest of wits, like the old “Challenge of Champions” adventures from Dungeon magazine (if you’ve never heard of them, look them up).

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To sum up this rant, it’s possible to insert puzzles into an adventure without breaking the players’ sense of immersion. You simply need to pause and consider what purpose the puzzle serves in the game world and why it has a solution at all. Believable puzzles are not only fun for the players to solve, they also strengthen the plot and setting of your game.

In upcoming posts, I’ll be talking more about how to design effective puzzles and including more examples of successful puzzles I’ve used in the past, so stay tuned!