While there are many ways to prepare your tabletop roleplaying games as a dungeon master, I have found that after writing 4 pages of storyline, I would get bogged down with a forest of information during the game. I decided to give myself limits by keeping everything on one sheet and discovered that if I used more visual models, I could reference the material quickly and trigger my mind into action.
Here are the opening steps for a seamless session while playing Dungeons and Dragons. First, read the introduction to describe the setting. This sets the stage for the players upon which to act.
Bonus tip! Before the session, have 1 player prepare an opening scene by give a monologue introduction (a prayer, journal entry, letter to home, dream, or even a song. This brings the players into building the stage of the setting.
Session Challenge: For the sake of keeping the table’s story intact, describe out loud to yourself the challenge presented for the session. Here, I state that the war machine is inoperable, requires repair in order for the sojourners to safely arrive at their destination given their limited time and resources. By taking time to describe the challenge, I do my part as a dungeon master to keep the tension in the game, providing happy players and meaningful choices.
Without further blathering, see below are 4 examples of a visual session preparation involving a social interaction, an exploration, a skill challenge and a combat encounter. The balloons are there as quick glance references to trigger your memory on your preparation. The dungeon master can one by one visit the scenes by either inviting the sojourner to participate or challenge them to overcome. If a conflict arises, feel free to increase the stakes in the game by advancing to an encounter. If this happens, the sojourner may lose or gain something from the encounter. Otherwise, the scene simply unfolds and great roleplay is enjoyed by all.
Imagine how satisfied you will be when, at the end of your session, you can check off each of those bubbles, one by one! This method is easy to read, easy to store and will help you make sure you don’t leave anything out of your session that you prepared.
In the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons Wild Beyond the Witchlight, the book recommends that this module can be run without engaging in combat resulting in bloodshed. I’ve heard on the world wide web that this has caused a little stir since most of D&D’s history, character features and plots involve mostly combat. May I suggest that yes, you can run any D&D game without ever engaging in combat, but you cannot play any game without risk and reward. Every story must have conflict (read more about that here in An Easy to Use Method for Storytelling)
Pay attention now, how you can modify the rules to play a non-combat game that still involves risk and reward.
Inform your players of the following changes in the game mechanics.
Charisma modifier plus 10 will equal the new Armor Class.
Hit points will stay the same based on Constitution.
Fey Touch Points
As usual, encounters will begin non hostile unless a player character engages in hostility. Instead of drawing a weapon, this can include the following and can be done on purpose, or by accident.
Declining an invitation
Failing to acknowledge someone important
While not engaging in bloodshed combat, have the players roll initiative as soon as the hostile action occurs. Keep in mind that this may only occur when the players perform the hostility. Give them a chance to recover their insult during initiative to resolve the encounter. The NPC who is insulted will perform the following actions to provide risk.
Banishment into a Mushroom
Fear into Paralyzation
Charm into Hilarity
Transform into a Toad
To make an attack, the NPC will make a Charisma check with proficiency. The DC will equal the PC’s new armor class based on charisma. If the check is successful, the NPC will roll 1d8 + charisma modifier of dice multiplied by the average party level. The PC will take damage according to that number. If the PC drops to zero, the NPC will use one of the five choices above to permanently retire the PC into the fey wild.
What do the PCs do for initiative then?
During initiative, the PCs will use their features, spells, and proficiencies to repair the situation, or flee. The DC for resolving the encounter equals the Charisma modifier plus 10 of the NPC hostile and must succeed a number of times equal to the party number total minus 1 PC. So, in a party of 5, 4 successful checks would need to be made to abate the insult.
The party dines with a large butterfly discussing politics. Unaware, the barbarian lets out a belch, insulting the host. The host is insulted and decides to frighten the PC. Roll initiative. Each PC including the barbarian takes a turn to resolve or flee the encounter. If this is successful before the host acts, the encounter and threat is resolved. If the host takes a turn, they roll a charisma check, and if successful against the barbarian’s new charisma based armor class, then the host rolls damage. The party level is 3, so the host rolls 3d8+charisma. If the host reduces the barbarian to zero hit points, the barbarian suffers 1 fey touched point and takes frightened condition. If any PC takes 3 points of fey touched, the PC is retired as a permanent wanderer of the fey wild. If the barbarian is not reduced to 0 HP, repeat initiative until the encounter is resolved.
The risk of course, is retiring the PC. The reward can be described as reconciliation. If the PCs resolve the encounter, have them gain a magic item, piece of advice, and of course, a friendship with this NPC that was once insulted.
This is not playtest material, an requires some improvisation on the dungeon master’s part. Use with caution. Use with Creativity!
And if you see a wandering soul in the land of dreams and fairies, take heed their warnings.
How to Run Tomb of Annihilation Dungeons and Dragons Adventure for Children
Tomb of Annihilation is so difficult, quite often in the adventure, the text suggests on how to include new characters in the most likely case that one or more characters die. This is especially true in the end adventure, within Acerak’s tomb.
Nevertheless, besides the meat-grinding playground that the temple is, this adventure provides an amazing setting for jungle adventures.
I plan to show how you can customize Tomb of Annihilation for your kids tabletop roleplaying games. May your story continue.
Running Games for Children
There are tons of “how to DM for kids’ ‘ videos and articles, but the best single piece of advice I can give you is this: The best way to DM for kids is to DM for your kids. Remember that for children, love is spelled T-I-M-E. It doesn’t really matter the techniques so long as you show up as a loving family member or friend and tell a great story. I know this because my kids were my first players and they watched me struggle through my first games and they didn’t care, so long as dad played with them and gave them attention. With that being said, here are a few tips I have for running the game for kids!
I have found that character death doesn’t matter to children so much as character failure. It may come as a surprise, but if a player’s character dies, they simply scratch up a new one, but if that character fails, that’s when the tears start to form. So, be more attentive to “failure” of tasks in game. Anything from falling off a horse, to breaking a sword. Be careful when describing failure and remember to empower the player by allowing them to partake in the description of the failure.
Another point, remember that pets and things mean more to kids than their characters do. Each of my kids take on some animal companion. My advice is to not risk the player’s losing their pet or pet item (sometimes kids will adopt a thing as a pet instead of a cute fluffy animal). Instead of drawing up stats for this creature, simply have them run in the background for flavor text only. Bring the pet into the interactions and descriptions, but when conflict occurs, wave your hand over any damage the pet would incur. I would leave it up to your discretion on whether or not to put the pet’s life in jeopardy to further the plot. For example, if the player wakes up and discovers their pet is gone, please believe me, they will move heaven and hell to find that creature before the hour is up. This can be useful, but use with caution. Avoid overdoing it and make each interaction meaningful by bringing the relationship to the forefront of the plot.
Another point to remember is that kids love to collect items. They love crafting and building and this in of itself can be the point of playing the game. The main plot in ToA is to shut down the Soulmonger, an item. Along the way, they can gather a collection of powerful items, build robots, adopt animals along the way to aid them in accomplishing their goal. Able to collect and store items propels interest in the game.
The Adventure Overview
So, now that we have those tips out of the way, let’s look at the adventure.
A long time ago, an ancient kingdom made the chief god, Omu mad. So Omu left the people and they were adopted by 9 trickster gods who led the people into destruction. An evil lich named Acerak saw that he could take part in this destruction so he built a giant battery called the soulmonger. This battery sucked up any soul when someone died and has been working for the last 20 days. This means that no one has been able to pass onto into the afterlife but have been stuck in the soulmonger battery, charging up for Acerakt to selfishly keep all the soul power for himself, so he can live forever.
Surefire Story Hooks
So now that the main plot is expressed, I would accomplish this in the hearing of the players for the first session. The best way to make sure they stick with the mission is to tie their characters into the person, places and things of the adventure.
Acerak – while I wouldn’t tie in the players to this villain, I want them to oppose everything he stands for. Acererak is selfish, takes, is greedy and will taunt the players.
Syndra Sylvane – make sure that each player has some connection with her. She is described as a wizard, but what I would do is learn your player’s classes and decide Syndra is one of their mentors. If your player picks a fighter, then she is a fighter. If your player picks a druid, then she is a druid. That way, she acts as a mentor to the younger adventurer and the hook is firmly set to finish off the story. She is sick from the soul curse, having died once in battle and then raised. So the soul monger’s effects eat away at her, prompting a call to action.
Liara Portyr – Liara works with Syndra and hires a flaming fist member to accompany the mission. Tie in one of the characters into the Flaming Fist and give them a glorious cause to protect Chult. Again, this doesn’t have to be class specific, only find out what class the player takes and adapt it to the Flaming Fist. Clerics, Fighters, Rogues, and Paladins work easily into this faction.
Sewn Sisters – built into the final battleground, this group of hags could somehow be related to the characters. The character on a previous mission acquired a skeleton key that they can use in the tomb to unlock the skeleton gate. Having this item will ensure the player sees the adventure though to the end. For some trickster reason, one of the hags visited the player and gifted them with the key in exchange for helping the hag cross a busy road. The player was told to visit Syndra and “do what she tells you!”
Guide – consider choosing an appropriate guide for the players that sits in Syndra’s office. Along with that guide is another player character who is commissioned to ensure the mission is successful. Kids often will enjoy guides like Shago, River Mist (keep the guide down to one person) and Eku (especially if he reveals his true identity as a couatl). Tie in one of the characters as an assistant to this guide.
While the book has the adventure beginning in Chult, there are many other places this story can kick off. Jahaka Anchorage could start off the players in a pirate adventure and learn of the death curse from a pirate captain. While pirates are usually evil, children enjoy twisting tropes with elements of purity. So, there can be a kind hearted pirate that “robs from the rich and gives to the poor” and wants to see Chult restored. In this adventure thread, consider having most if not all of the player characters of Omu or Chultan descent.
Another place to begin the adventure is Camp Vengeance with Niles Breakbone. While fighting off undead, the Flaming Fist could learn of the death curse and the party be sent to find the soulmonger and destroy it once and for all.
As long as you tie in the people into the characters and clearly state the mission to destroy the soulmonger, you are guaranteed to have a good time.
The SoulMonger is by far the easiest item to link the characters in the adventure, but it is a villain that needs to be destroyed. Consider having each of the players desire to obtain one of the powerful items within the Tomb at the end of the adventure. This ensures they always have a personal goal to reach along with saving the world.
Staff of the Forgotten One – good for wizards, sorcerers, warlocks or anyone who knows them. Currently in Acerak’s possession, so it should be difficult to obtain.
Ring of Winter – consider hiding this in the Tomb giving every a desire to search for it.
Relics of the Past – page 189
Consider assigning each player to desire one of these rare items. Possible motivations for searching for them include restoring family honor, impressing a god, returning it to it’s rightful owner, delivering a people from an outstanding debt, forgiveness from a rival.
There you have it! Use these persons, places and things to tie in the players into the adventure.
Game Play Suggestions
Now that you have established clear motivations and connections for the players, they can begin the adventure. Remember that when playing an rpg with children, most sessions will last between 45 minutes to just over an hour. If you do play for more than an hour, include a break during that time.
During the break, have the kids go to the bathroom, go into another room to get a snack or play outside. The break lasts 10-15 minutes and then you can resume the game.
While I wouldn’t play games with my kids for more than 2 hours, I would recommend a 15 minute break every hour.
If you are playing rpgs with children and you plan to occupy their time for more than 2 hours, consider having the kids perform a craft to space out the game time. Between sessions, they can build maps, paint terrain, build miniatures out of clay, draw pictures of their sessions, update their character sheets, read books or play actively outside.
You can brew your very own healing potions with this recipe
Clear seltzer water
Juice – various colors
Mix the ingredients 3:1 ratio
Place them in bottles with stoppers or simply juice cups and serve
The adventures in Chult provide plenty of outdoor survival. Assign one of the players an inventory log by which they can keep track of supplies, rations and water. Some children will enjoy this greatly and enjoy planning for their travels. You can use paper and pencil to help the player keep track of supplies.
Players enjoy the rule of cool, but children absolutely love their ideas coming to life. As you progress through conflict within the story, consider using dice rolls and DC’s for resolutions, but allow the children to describe the results. For example, if the DC is 10 and the player rolls a 2, state that this idea doesn’t work, so why not? Rather than describing an outright failure, consider describing a complication instead. So that means a low dice roll would not stop the game, but rather complicate the success. Then look to the player to describe the outcome. This can occur with your help, of course. Now, you can pull in the other players to “notice” the complication and generate their ideas on how to resolve it.
Using the Rule of Cool
The Rule of Cool can be applied to boost morale at the table. If you notice the players waning in energy, rather than relying on the dice to decide success, allow the players to go around the table and describe their contributions to resolving a situation.
For example, if their canoe springs a leak, have each player describe their contribution to fixing the problem. They might decide to pull over the boat and camp, repair it using an interesting supply, or completely scrap the boat and hitch a ride on that hippopotamus they befriended.
Use the rule of cool to bypass risky dice rolls and keep the story moving.
My own Adventure Outline
On page 7, the book describes the adventure as a “ticking” clock. Part of the fun of Chult is the expiration, and while there is threat of all of the world absorbed into the soul monger, I would not use time as a pressure. Instead, lay out the adventure in a way that allows for the players to explore each module in a linear fashion. Here is how our story progressed.
We began in Chult, had a dinosaur race, received the quest, a random urban encounter, a shopping trip and plotted a course to Camp Righteous
We travelled down the river, had 2 random encounters and 3 campsites. During these 5 encounters, the players discovered wildlife such as plants and animals as well as hints of the Omu people.
Arriving in Camp Righteous, the players then discovered Camp Vengeance and were guided to go to Camp Vengeance.
Arriving in Camp Vengeance, they met Niles Breakbone the players discovered Vorn and the Biting Ant Tribe
Arriving in the Biting Ant Tribe, the players discovered Nanny PuPu (hilarious name) and Mbala.
Now the players have had encounters with interesting wildlife and hints at the Omu ruins via conversations with explorers, the hag, and old stone work showing the history of Omu.
They returned to Camp Vengeance with Vorn, satisfied the goblin tribe with a relic from the hag, defeated the hag and freed her flesh golem, and leveled up their characters. I plan to have them explore the jungle, searching for Omu until they reach a level appropriate for the forgotten city. I will then keep the story confined to the city until they discover the tomb of the nine gods. After they reach a certain level, they will gain enough information to enter the tomb with surety of the location of the soul monger. They will navigate the challenges of the tomb until the final showdown with Acerak.
That is as far as the game play has progressed, stay tuned for more!
Death and Difficulty in D&D
Killing in D&D can be morally conflicting. When playing arcade games, minions have no story, and therefore are not personable, but the power of TTRPGs is that even a goblin can have a backstory and if that’s true, then has a personality, soul and destiny and who are you to quench that spirit?
That’s the beauty of RPGs, so what I propose with combat and killing in the game, here are some tips when playing with children.
Realize it’s just a game and sometimes it’s fun to blast the bad guys
Allow for silly ends for villains (embarrassment is worse than death).
Allow for off screen death (falling down a hole, blasted in fire, underwater).
Clearly state the villains as those who kill, steal and destroy and therefore need to be stopped.
While some children will go to great lengths to describe gore, you are still the DM. Gently announce to everyone (not singling one out) that we won’t be describing evisceration, beheadings, organ removal, torture, dismemberment…etc. You know which kid I am talking about and you have a good read at the tolerance for violence children have.
Have the villains be monsters rather than humanoid.
Have the villains be predators in the wild, or undead that have no hope.
Be careful with the Yuan Ti themes of morphing, cannibalisms, sacrifice and sadism. Generally, I would say the yuan ti all be abominations and bloodthirsty, but never appearing human. Don’t delve into the morality of transitioning from one species to the next, but keep it simple. They are evil snake monsters that want to rule the world.
Acererak is selfish and takes all of the cupcakes for himself. While the concept of soul might be heavy for some, children I have found treat it simply, like part of their body and therefore precious but not mysterious. Children understand selfishness and this theme can help them identify themes of selfish acts from themselves, with the hope of maturing to selflessness.
9 trickster gods can be an easy segway into personality concepts such as the enneagram. For more conceptual children, this can provide a healthy role play of personality virtue and vices.
Reiterate that Omu fell because of greed and will be saved through generosity.
To keep things simple, have the players identify NPCs as either greedy or generous.
When a player dies and that might happen, describe the characters soul as now trapped in the soul monger. This will ensure the party continues on the adventure to now “save their friends from eternal prison”. I have had more of my kids’ characters die in the game rather than adults that I have played with. With that being said, children assume there will be some level of sacrifice required of their characters. If death is to be the end, allow them to make it meaningful, and drive home the theme of greed vs generosity. RPGs are great ways to influence morals, and display character traits as living people in the game. Children can do this splendidly and will often sacrifice their character for the good of the party. If a player’s character is at risk for death, do not allow the death to be the result of a stupid accidennt or worse, a player failure. Let them drive the narrative and navigate the risk assessment of losing a character. Unlike life, with RPGs we often have an ample amount of time to consider our options. Allow a pause to discuss the outcome of the story as you talk about it around the table. Then you can get back to the game.
To achieve the reward, the players must collect skeleton keys and puzzle cubes. Space these items out appropriately throughout the adventure. Consider starting the adventure by giving the players one of each and directing them to the last known location of each. ToA is a great adventure for a scavenger hunt leading all the way into the final battle in chapter 5 Tomb of the 9 gods.
Tomb of Annihilation can be a graphic resource for harsh violence. When playing with children, simply substitute any violence or gore with gross. Boogers, Slime, and Puke are great descriptors to engage child players. Children can be grossed out, but not frightened of creatures with multiple appendages, or appendages in the wrong location, such as a flesh golem with a giant hand for a head, or a chattering skeleton hopping on 1 leg.
Throughout the adventure and well into the Tomb of the 9 gods, puzzles are a major part of the adventure. Children may or may not enjoy the puzzles depending on their personality. Puzzles can be incredibly frustrating if this is the only way to solve the encounter. The same can be said for social interactions for shyer and more reserved children. The main point is to include more than one possible solution in any encounter, whether it be combat, social or puzzle.
A possible idea for puzzle solutions is to have a real life puzzle placed before the players that they must solve together before their characters can press on to the next part of the adventure. This can be a jigsaw puzzle, a hangman riddle, a game of jenga, a color by number painting, a game of tic tac toe, a memory concentration game of cards, or even a simple math problem.
Clearly, the puzzle should be age appropriate and in the case you have a wide range of ages within the party, use the puzzle to divert attention to one or two children of the same age group and state to the other players to provide support alone in the puzzle encounter. Allow the players to roll for hints if they get stuck with 10-20 being a success and 1-9 being a success, but with some sort of setback.
Setbacks can include a monster arriving, poison gas or water filling the room, one of the characters falling asleep, or a trap encasing one of the characters. Keep with the method of low dice rolls providing complications, not determining success.
Increasing Difficulty and Adding Encounters
To further complicate the adventures, the characters develop sickness, dehydration, and injuries. My kids love their characters coming down with sickness and injury and this is a great way to incorporate humor into the game…I’m looking at you dysentery.
Spend as much time as you want going through the locales of Chult. Remember that unless the players have access to your master map, you can place the encounters anywhere on the island. Firefinger statue, the Heart of Ubtao and even Jahaka Anchorage can occur at any time, anyplace in the adventure. My advice is to prepare the top 3 encounters and place them close by.
To keep the player on track, have each encounter end with a conversation with the NPC or some discovery that reminds the children of the SoulMonger’s threat. Another great way to reiterate the adventure is to have a friendly NPC ask the players about their adventure so far. Have the players tell their characters’ story around a campfire, while holed up in a mine, or waiting in a prison cell.
My own History with my Children Players
I have run Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat for my 3 children ages 5-9. My 7 and 9 year old provided most of the gameplay, but my 5 year old chimed in with social interactions (seriously, she is a genius when it comes to negotiations). Regarding combat, damage dice and clever use of spells, I relied on my other two children. I have to say that even by level 16 in stopping the summoning, I didn’t pull any punches regarding monster AC, HP and overall battle tactics. I’m mostly a storytelling DM and don’t like to have TPKs that don’t serve a story. In fact, I don’t like anything to be an accident in my games. With that being said, I’m impressed that my kids successfully ran through the entire adventure and did a great job!
Now with them being ages 7-11, Tomb of Annihilation provides a great challenge! To highlight my knowledge of my own children’s interests, here are some things I notice.
My 11 year old son enjoys leveling up his character, gaining access to feats and spells, and performing well in combat. With social interaction, he cuts to the quest and does a great job keeping up with the party’s inventory. I allow him to provide a lot of guidance to his younger sisters in order to optimize the party, as long as he roleplays the interactions. I also allow him to play his youngest sister’s character sheet in combat. He also has been the only child to completely read through the player’s handbook and monster manual. He’s memorized most of the 5e spells statistics, class abilities and feats.
My 10 year old daughter enjoys leveling up her character, gathering pets, collecting items, and heavy amounts of exploration. Her game would be enjoyed if she simply got to explore rich locations and make discoveries. She enjoys combat strictly from a simple point of view, and does not like to use spellcasters in battle. Even as a bard now, she only wields a rapier in battle. She will cast spells outside of combat and has to be reminded of bardic inspiration, and song of rest. She fidgets quite a bit in game, so I usually allow her to play with clay, draw, or even look through a light book during game.
My 7 year old daughter does not level up her character, but leaves it to me, or her siblings. She enjoys heavy amounts of social interaction in game, memorizing the NPCs names and motives, is incredibly immersed in worldbuilding and sure to bring the players back into the plot. For most of the game, she plays with clay, draws, and speaks (in perfect character) her sentiments. When called upon for descriptions, she excels since her linguistic style is higher than the older two. She also has been the only child of mine to show interest in being a dungeon master.
Right now, they play a balanced party of a dwarven warlock, human bard, and githzerai cleric. These characters were all randomly generated and I had them select the sheets for themselves. I was surprised that they have enjoyed the game as much as they do, even without creating their own race and class. My son loves oozes so his patron is the Lord of Slime, but to override him making a pact with a demon lord, we decided that his warlock discovered a “leak” in power and has been making good use of it without the patron noticing (yet). My daughter loves animals, particularly birds as of now, so her parakeet sits on her shoulder as her spellcasting instrument. The bird sings and casts spells. This feature keeps her engaged with her character. My youngest daughter plays the cleric of the God of Life. As a githyanki who left her homeworld, she now serves the Life God and Flaming Fist. She also has two mice, a white and black one that live in her armor, representing good and evil, light and darkness, her idea, not mine.
This is a general overview of How to Run Tomb of Annihilation for Kids! Stay tuned for more details into each chapter on how to make a memorable storytime with your children. And as always, sojourner, may your story continue.
A theme is a literary tool used to convey to the reader the deeper meaning of the story beyond just the story told. In classical music, the musicians play the theme as a memorable piece right at the beginning of the song in order to establish the overall idea of the piece of music. In pop music, a theme is the melody lick that everyone recognizes as the song is beginning.
Roleplaying games, like Dungeons and Dragons (I play 5th edition), are played over not 3 minutes like a pop song, or even 100 minutes, like a classical piece. Some campaigns last anywhere from a 2 hour one shot to 10 years of friends gathering around the table.
So, how then would you deepen the meaning of your roleplaying games with themes? Here is how i think you can!
The first thing you can do
Besides setting up great encounters (I view them as recipes for adventure), you may want decide sometime during your campaign an overall idea that you want your players to take away from each game. Some themes that I think work well with roleplaying games include the following:
no matter how bad it gets, good always wins
light vs dark
hope for a new dawn
confronting the evil within
the horizon always holds adventure and fun
Do a quick search for “literary themes” and find websites like this one!
The above themes are melodies that you want your players to take away from each game, but besides overtly stating the theme at the beginning and ending of each game (nothing wrong with that!) you can associate icons to the themes.
For example in light vs dark, the theme explores the competing forces of light and dark and whether they correlate to good and evil, respectively. The dungeon master asks each of the players to describe a feature of their character that they would like to highlight to embody a theme. The dungeon master then makes the effort to bring up those features all throughout important moments in the campaign. Also, the dungeon master uses similar features in the descriptions of the worlds to convey the theme in the moment of the story.
Player’s responsibility: Ted chooses a dwarven fighter that features a warhammer to exemplfy his stubborn resolve to hold out the light even in darkest of times. You had better believe a thematic dungeon master will make sure to bring up that warhammer at key times in the adventure
Where to place the theme:
the beginning as the war hammer glistens in the morning light
the middle as the war hammer soiled with dirt and blood
the climax as the war hammer, still clutched in the frozen grip of the fighter fallen, dying in the shadows
the resolution as the war hammer erupts in burning blue light charactering the fighters successful death save
One time I had a player who chose red ale as their feature. All throughout the campaign, the theme was ‘making the world a better place than how you found it” and along the way, that mug of red ale at level 3 turned into a tavern selling red ale by level 10! Every time I wanted to highlight that theme, I brought red ale in the scene to make an example of “making the world a better place.”
If you feel like your adventure is just a random set of encounters, a theme will help tie up your encounters to give that deeper meaning you are looking for. Dare I say, it will feel more than a game, it will feel like a story.
The second thing you can do
in developing a theme in your games is to decorate your monsters with that theme.
In the light vs dark theme, every monster, especially the main ones, should have a feature that holds up the antithesis of your chosen theme.
Color them in shadows, black holes and secretive whispers. Let them be orcs, but with hollow eyes and blindsight. Let them be dragons, but able to shift silently in shadows, able to cast pass without a trace on their minions. Let your monsters drive home the threat if the players fail to accomplish their mission.
To use a more funny example, each monster who fought against the Red Ale crew somehow featured really poor quality beer. The villain, with all of their crimes committed, also sold nasty beverages that furthered the resolve of the heroes to get out there and make a difference!
This is a simple technique to choose one theme for your campaign and then connect it to each of your player’s features for their character. Then go ahead and choose 3 other features in your world to exemplify your theme. Bring the features up as often as possible to play your theme and enjoy!
Dungeons and Dragons is a Team Game of Collaborative Storytelling
I encountered this question on @twitter the other day and wanted to write my response. In my opinion, challenge ratings in ttrpgs have nothing to do with the monster, but rather the play styles of those at the table.
First of all, great follow up as a DM for “talking to the player first”. This increases the flow of communication both ways.
For a refresher, let’s make up 4 play styles regarding combat
Problem Solvers – clever, prepared and calculated
Dice Rollers – loves to roll tons of dice and do tons of damage
Partyfacers – in it for the monologues and catch phrases
Plotfinders – wants to know “why” combat
With combat, I try to vary the reasons for combat to occur.
Monsters attack and we must kill them to survive – great for dice rollers!
Evil cultists attack, but some of them give clues they may be turned – great for partyfacers!
Predatory creatures in a lair with area effects, traps and environmental hazards – great for problem solvers!
A portal opens to another realm and out walks a deranged old wizard ready for combat – turns out he reveals a mystery right before dropping unconcious – great for plotfinders!
Starting out with that package deal for each table I recognize that individual challenges will arise as varied as the beautiful people bringing those challenges. So what if your player is off searching (for what???) during combat instead of laying down the damage, healing and support?
First off, I would have the DC of the search be at least higher than the monsters AC. This is because it’s hard to find something when blood and fire are spewing all around. Secondly, I would not have the item revealed until the end of combat. The player might “find” something but it will be as non descript as possible until combat is resolved. “You find a necklace.” That’s it. Thirdly, I would make it a hell of a challenge to get to the item. I’m thinking Indiana Jones reaching for a holy grail, in a crevice of rock WHILE goblins are stabbing into the player. Combat comes to you, because you FOUND the shiny item! Congratulations!
A lot can happen only 120 feet away given ranged attacks. From what I know of predatory wildlife, they like to gang up on loners, wounded and the young, so bring that element of world building into the combat.
The other consequence of leaving the group is that your player story is PAUSED during combat. You step away from the main scenes, then you are off scene and we will get back to you after this situation is resolved.
It’s ok to directly confront a player who seems to be dragging the game down. Whether they are combating during exploration, or exploring during combat, both are wrong time/wrong place. D&D is certainly a collaborative storytelling game requiring a hive mind of teamwork. When you have a “rogue” player who plays … well, a thieving rogue, the flow of the gameplay is thrown and believe me, everyone feels it. As the DM, it’s ok to say, “hello, for the sake of the gameplay, I would like you to contribute to the overall team goal. There is always a time to run away, but make sure the team is on board before doing so.
At the end of the day, I would attempt to find a way for the player’s actions to directly affect the outcome, even if it’s a poor outcome. Dungeon Masters connect the dots of player’s actions into the larger story.
Occasionally the players will state they wish to attempt to bend the rules or push the boundaries of gameplay. Traditionally, the rule of cool is allowed to keep the gameplay going and allow the players to pull off their stunts. Another approach is to use “high risk/high reward”. In using this rule, the dungeon master and the player both agree that the request is outside the normal action economy of the game, that a dice roll is involved and that even if the feat is successful, it may come at a cost to the party.
First the player must request to push the boundary of the game. It could look like
hey DM, I know my character already used their movement speed for that turn, but could I try something extra?
Jenn, the monk
The DM senses the player wants to push those boundaries, so allows the extra “action” with stating
yes, but this will be high risk high reward.
Jon, dungeon master
The player agrees and proceeds with her description of action. Otherwise, she decides the result is not worth the risk and ends her turn.
“Okay, so my character knows she doesn’t have the speed to make it through the portcullis in time, but she wants to try her best because she hates losing.
Jenn, the monk
The dungeon master calls for an athletics roll and states the DC out loud (15). The player achieves a total score of 16 – a success!
“You press upon every muscle in your body and make a flying leap, sliding underneath the portcullis as it slams shut upon the ground. As you stand up, you feel a tug and the purse around your waist carrying the gemstone is now pinned beneath the metal spikes in the ground.”
Jon, dungeon master
The player is successful, but at a cost. If she had rolled unsuccessful, she still would have made it through, but losing the satchel and losing HP as she grates her shoulder on the side of the metal gate. The reason this method is so intriguing is it allows for negotiation between DM and PC and views everything in D&D as a resource for gambling.
Not only does this facilitate exciting gameplay, it also increases the drama.
In another example, my PCs are gathering around my NPC noble trying to gain access into his land so they can achieve some research. I informed them to make their attempts within 3 rounds and the roleplay begins. But the dice rolls are terrible and failure seems imminent. I want to keep my word, stay consistent with the NPC’s reality so I describe how the noble calls for their removal from his court. They will just have to find another way to gain access into the land. But then, one of my players speaks up.
Wait! I want to try something.
I sense that this might be good, so I ask, “High Risk High Reward?” The player nods to me and proceeds to describe how he offers a bribe to the noble and the court gasps.
One player begs the DM, “wait, I want to try one last thing!” The DM realizes that something cool is about to happen and bends the aforementioned rules by saying, “high risk high reward?” He agrees and then makes a grand gesture of bribery to the noble, allowing for a final persuasion check. The DM determines the DC and should tell the table, for this increases the tension as all wait for the dice result. Upon success (>15), the noble is turned, but decides to have them supervised by one of his courtesans. Upon failure (10-14), the noble is turned but decides to keep the specific PC in question in prison until the mission is finished and upon a failure (<9) the noble is enraged and orders the execution of all of the PCs. Now the challenge has moved from gaining access into the land for research into escaping the executioner’s blade! Either way, the DM connected the player’s choices, although risky, into the larger world and kept the story going in dynamic ways.
Ultimately, high risk high reward is a great tool for ramping up the tension and keeping the story from falling flat with a poor dice roll. You, not the dice, are in charge of describing the results. Allow for dice rolls to open up a new loop of challenge, which will eventually need resolution. If players want to persist and push those boundaries, this is a great way to allow them to do so!
Check out the word verisimilitude! In fact, to improve your storytelling, you should study literary terms regularly and you’ll be surprised how often you already use them in your Dungeons and Dragons games. Verisimilitude means “it appears real.” When playing games and telling stories, if you keep your fantasy world consistent, then 99% of the time your table will enjoy a realistic roleplaying experience.
If you would like more examples of how to improve your world building, then browse through the 11 signs of life. You may have had to study these for a biology exam, and I believe by using these signs as principles in your games, your table will enjoy a more realistic and rich roleplaying experience. You can also read here of how to improve your descriptions.
The ingredients necessary to express these principles are utilizing the 5 senses, and incorporating player choices.
11 signs of life
Life seeks order. Cellular order means the world must be organized for it to feel alive. We see this as cells gather together in organized manner to “be alive.” Notice this great infographic!
When gathering the data points of the story, one must organize them in a way that appeals to our humanity. In Dungeons and Dragons, any dungeon master can tell a story, but if the world is build upon organized and consistent principles, the story will for sure, be a lasting one in our memories.
Life reacts. Stimulus response means the world must react to stimulus. An easy way to implement this principle in your stories is to provide consequences that affect the characters. After all, the story is about them and therefore, should effect them. In other words, the wilds should be dangerous! Click here For great tips on Wilderness Guides in Dungeons and Dragons
Life reproduces like kind. Reproduction means duplication occurs through division and living things pass life along the timeline. The best way to include reproduction in your world is to demonstrate the family system, children and offspring. Another way is to include the mentor/student relationships, bring in teachers and guides to pass along information and wisdom to the characters. In the end, bring about the story full circle of life and have the characters start families of their own or take on a student!
Life adapts. Adaptation means everything wants to survive and will do it’s best to live in its environment. There’s a great book out there titled The Monsters Know what they’re Doing by Keith Amman. When a dungeon master gives the survival instinct to a monster encounter, the combat goes from hitting a bag of hit points to dealing with a sentient creature that has a desire to live another day. By studying real life biological tactics of defense in the wilds of nature, dungeon masters can design enthralling encounters for their players.
Life matures. Growth means life matures in order to pass down information to it’s younger forms. I think this can be utilized by keeping a note of the meaningful encounters the characters had in a village only to jot down the ways those encounters would mature over time when the characters arrive back after plane walking. Real NPCs wouldn’t stay exactly where or how the players found them and demonstrate maturity by growing, leaving, getting old, or developing grudges.
Life regulates. Regulations means life ensures the transport of nutrients and expulsion of waste. This might seem like a good place to add a potty joke, and…well, I guess it’s a good place as any. While rolling for constipation might seem arduous, keeping in mind that cities require plumbing, or they fall into plague, helps the dungeon master create a real world feel for the players. Regarding nutrition, many D&D games bring in food and drink (quite literally begin in a tavern) in order to establish that real world feel. Nothing is relatable to all as a home cooked meal!
Life moves. Metabolism means the transfer of energy is life. This is where I feel maps and minis fail. In combat, many times the movement speed is simply expressed by dragging your character across a grid. To enchant your players, describe movement in relationship to the world around. “You move 30 feet” has no real world marker. But “you bolt ahead through the jungle, branches slapping at your arms and face.” <— much better! Like with the smells of barbecued meats, the player can now experience movement through the world through their senses.
Life balances. Homeostasis means life seeks balance. No matter how much mess your players make, or how inconsistent quests seem to begin, remind yourself that real life seeks balance. But that balance takes time. Nature is never in a hurry, yet everything is accomplished. This means, you too, DM, can be patient for everything to settle out in your campaign.
Countless stories have grown alongside us throughout generations. We bond through the stories we share. How much more effective those stories are when they carry the weight of our skeptical minds through believable details. Incorporate the player’s choices, draw them in through the senses, and with these principles, bring your stories to life!
Creativity in our life can become stifled for many reasons. I do believe that sometimes professional collaboration is exactly what you need. If you are a dungeon master who feels like your adventure campaign is going nowhere, then please contact me for my Dungeon Master Guidance Course. I provide one to one guidance and opportunities for inspiration on how you manage time and energy at your table. Before you burn out, get in touch with me!
The reason we love our projects, artwork, gardens and D&D games is directly related to the amount of work and love we put into the game/story. In order to increase the love, we must increase the work. Read more about The Cure for Boredom in D&D. Here are a few things I have learned about how to better prepare as a player for your upcoming Dungeons and Dragons games!
Select a Player Bond
D&D, at it’s core, is a collaborative storytelling game. Besides the relationships you share with the people at the table, your character can also develop a relationship with the other characters. Dynamics means the relationship moves over time, creating a more immersive experience. First, let’s define the terms.
Passive – this dynamic means that the relationship is accepting of the other. It asks very little and requires no major changes for the relationship to continue as usual. Two peas in a pod. Agreeable.
Active – this dynamic means that the relationship challenges the other. It asks a lot and requires changes along the way for the relationship to continue.
Harmonious – the dynamic means the relationship shares the same values with little to reconcile.
Discord – this dynamic means the relationship holds different values with much to reconcile.
Regarding relationships between character to character within Dungeons and Dragons, there are no real rules or guidelines for how each player should relate to the other players around the table.
Besides having fun, Dungeons and Dragons is a great tool for developing intra and inter personal relationships. I have developed a map that allows each player to understand the dynamics between every other player at the table. Please make sure you take the time to communicate what kind of relationship you want.
Note: This dynamic model only works if the players are already in agreement with the desired relationship. It requires the player to have a Growth Mindset, feel free to refer to this article learn more about your mindset at the table. This model is for sophisticated and established tables, but with that being expressed, if a new table decides they want more dynamics in the relationships between the player characters and are ready for a challenge, then read on and use this model!
The Four Relationships
This is one of the easiest dynamics to roleplay because the characters share common values and require little to nothing of the relationship. It is very accepting. Merry and Pippin are good examples because in the beginning, they get along, get each other’s jokes and there is no conflict between them. As I said before, these are dynamics, however and over time, they may change. A passive harmony relationship plays nice and makes up most adventuring parties.
This relationship involves shared values and vision, but requires much of the characters. It is constantly working or provoking each other, and in short, providing some challenge. The simplest model is to use the mentor/student relationship. Gandalf and Frodo are good examples because though they are in harmony, they provide challenge with Frodo growing in his leadership, eventually branching off from Gandalf as his mentor. The relationship moves. A parent/child relationship can also provide this dynamic. Too often in D&D, this relationship gets overlooked because it requires one of the players to act as the understudy to the other player. I think it can provide tons of rich roleplay, as long as each player are in agreement with the relationship.
Romantic relationships can fall under this category and require both players to agree upon the reality before proceeding. While harmonious, they still require much as are so, active.
This relationship occurs when two characters are in opposition regarding worldview. Although they do not share the same values (discord), they have “agreed to disagree” and allow for each other’s differences since they are in such opposition (passive). In short, they ask little, but require much reconciliation of differences. Gimli and Legolas are good examples in that they come from opposing backgrounds, but still allow for their own space. I think other appropriate examples would be the cleric praying for the rogue to change their ways, while the rogue robs the NPCs blind. The characters passively engage but are at complete odds, and the end result is entertaining to the players around the table.
Whew! This relationship takes the cake. Of all of the possibilities of a D&D party, this one provides the most amount of conflict at the table. Let me stress again, as with all of the relationship dynamics, ensure that both members are in agreement with the dynamics. If you fail to understand, you will take the dynamics personally. It’s one thing to say, “my character shouts, interrupting your speech and exclaims, “you never take anything seriously!” when the player knows what you are doing. It’s another to spring it upon the player. Which is why I think we don’t do this too often in D&D, is that most of it is improvisational storytelling with very little explanation.
Active discord relationships hold to different values and requires much. A good example is Boromir and Aragorn. Although apart of the same fellowship, they served very different ideals, and conflicted in methods. They did not allow for differences to go unconciliated but duked it out until the precipice of Boromir’s demise.
Hopefully you can see that these relationships are dynamic. They move, grow and evolve over time. These dynamics provide a rich roleplaying experience. If you are wanting to level up your interactions, consider experimenting with these around the table with your players and have fun! By increasing in participation as players, we increase the amount of value we enjoy at the table!