When to use a “DM PC”

The classic DM PC. 'Julia' by  Magdalena Roeseler

The classic DM PC. ‘Julia’ by Magdalena Roeseler

Let me introduce you to Dale. Dale’s a new Dungeon Master, six sessions into running his first Dungeons & Dragons campaign. He’s a nice guy, who wants his players to have fun.

Dale has a problem. He needs to introduce an non-player character (NPC) who will stick with the party for a while. However, he’s heard horror stories about “DM PCs” that take over the game.

Let’s start with a quick definition. Every tabletop RPG includes NPCs. a DM PC is an NPC that stays with the adventuring party.

In my opinion, there are two times to use a DM PC:

1) The PCs need a guide. They may be entering an completely new environment, and they need a local who can identify dangers. Or, they may need a friendly introduction to politically powerful circles.

2) The PCs need to protect someone. Perhaps they’re escorting a merchant’s daughter to her wedding, or escorting a politician as he or she travels to his new appointment in a distant land, or guarding a noble from assassination.

In both cases, there are two qualities that will keep the DM PC from sucking the fun out of the game:

Keep the character in question within his or her rigidly defined role. The DM PC should be much less effective in combat than the heroes, though some contribution is fine. Also, the DM PC should not be important the plot outside of the temporary help needed to get the PCs to the next stage of the story. In other words, the DM PC should be as important to the story as the abandoned temple that the PCs explore or the boss of the local band of goblins: a vivid character, perhaps, but only relevant within one brief segment of the story, and in specific ways.

Which leads to the second point: keep the DM PC temporary. This character should not stay around for more than a few sessions. Combine this with the character’s limited utility, and he or she won’t take over the party.

Categories: GM Advice | Leave a comment

Hit Points Don’t Represent Physical Wounds (Necessarily)

by Frederic C81

by Frederic C81

What does a loss of Hit Points mean?

Some of you already “know” the answer to this, but it bears repeating, and there’s a hidden message.

As the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook puts it:

Hit Points measure your ability to stand up to punishment, turn deadly strikes into glancing blows, and stay on your feet throughout a battle. Hit Points represent more than physical endurance. They represent your character’s luck, skill, and resolve–all the factors that combine to help you stay alive in a combat situation.

Indeed, some prefer to play under the notion that there is only one successful strike as you lose Hit Points: the one that brings you to zero. Every loss of HP before that point simply represents your gradual loss of stamina, mental acuity, and luck, until finally a blade penetrates your armor and you fall.

Some of you have heard this before. But wait a moment.

If Hit Points can mean more than their surface meaning, what does that imply for your role-play of it? How do you act when your character loses Hit Points? Do you? How might this other interpretation add depth to your actions in combat?

How about healing? Or a nature check? What if those don’t represent exactly what you thought they did?

What existing mechanics can you reframe in a way that adds depth to your character and story?

Categories: GM Advice, Player Advice | Leave a comment

How to Run Practically Any RPG Concept with Risus

mashup by Alex Sacui

mashup by Alex Sacui

Ben has a concept he wants to run as a tabletop RPG, but it doesn’t fit any system he knows. It’s a weird mashup of genres.

Ben decides to go for it anyway.

Because the players won’t have crystal clear ideas for their characters, Ben ideally wants to create characters during play. He’d prefer to start with basic character concepts, then define cool things they do as they play.

Then, Ben comes across an article I wrote about running practically any RPG concept in Risus and decides to adapt that to building characters in play. Risus works best with more pulpy genres, which fortunately fits Ben’s concept nicely.

He starts by messaging his players ahead of time about the basic genre, and asks them to think about the look for their characters. He suggests that they think of the look like, say, describing an Overwatch character. No need to get really detailed.

Then, when the players gather for the session, he gives them each a piece of paper and a pencil, and has them write down the look for their character and read it out to everyone.

Ben then explains the Risus system, and tells everyone that each character will have a 4-dice catchphrase, a 3-dice catchphrase, a 2-dice catchphrase, and a 1-die catchphrase.

He asks if anyone has any catchphrase ideas yet. Somebody probably does, so he encourages them to write those down.

Then Ben jumps into the session. He quickly introduces the characters and a big conflict. He asks the players what their characters do.

As players describe their characters’ actions, he encourages framing those as catchphrases. For example, Tracy says her lanky, cloaked character jumps from one rooftop to the next. Ben says, “Oh, so she’s really agile? Do you want to make a catchphrase out of that, like maybe ‘Flies like the wind’?”

If a player faces a conflict and hasn’t filled out any catchphrases, Ben lets the player roll one d6, always against a target difficulty number of 6.

Within 30 minutes, almost all of the characters’ catchphrases are filled out, and the session is rocking along. Ben’s brought his weird genre mashup to the table.

And that’s how you can run practically any genre concept with almost no prep.

Categories: GM Advice | 1 Comment

Monster Monday: Heavy Dragonrider Patrols

The feared dragonriders of Elyslanta patrol the skies of their domain, their riders searching for trouble and reporting back as necessary. The Royal Dragonriders maintain both light and heavy patrol units, using younger and older dragons, respectively, for each type.

Heavy dragonriders are only used in the skies around the capitol, or when a serious threat appears in a more remote province. They’re no joke, focusing on destroying their enemies rather than scouting or patrolling.

Heavy dragonriders usually fly in groups of 3 to 5, and begin combat by using their dragon breath, then hang back and throw javelins unless a particularly dangerous foe needs to taste the dragon’s bite and claws.

And here’s the stat block, ready for pasting into Homebrewery:

> ## Heavy Dragonrider
>*Large dragon, lawful*
> ___
> – **Armor Class** 17
> – **Hit Points** 130 (14d10 + 53)
> – **Speed** 40ft., climb 60ft., fly 80ft.
>|19 (+4)|10 (+0)|18 (+4)|12 (+1)|11 (+0)|15 (+2)|
> – **Saving Throws** Dex +3, Con +7, Wis +3, Cha +4
> – **Skills** Perception +6, Stealth +3
> – **Senses** blindsight 30ft., darkvision 120ft., passive Perception 16
> – **Languages** Draconic, Common
> – **Challenge** 6 (2,300 XP)
> ___
> ***Multiattack.*** The dragoon makes three attacks, one with its javelin, one with its bite, and one with its claws. Or, the dragoon makes two attacks, one with its javelin and one with its fire breath.
> ### Actions
> ***Javelin.*** *Ranged Weapon Attack:* +6 to hit, range 30/120, one target. *Hit* 9 (2d6 + 4) piercing damage.
> ***Bite.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +7 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. *Hit* 15 (2d10 + 4) piercing damage plus 4 (1d8) fire damage.
> ***Claws.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +7 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. *Hit* 11 (2d6 + 4) slashing damage.
> ***Fire Breath (Recharge 5-6).*** The dragon exhales fire in a 30-foot cone. Each creature in that area must make a DC 13 Dexterity saving throw, taking 45 (10d8) fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a sucessful one.
> ### Tactics
> The dragoon will typically begin by flying close enough to use its ***fire breath***, then will hang back while the rider throws ***javelins***. If one enemy becomes particularly dangerous, the dragoon will close and use its ***bite*** and ***claws.***

Categories: Monsters | Leave a comment

Faction Friday: Come See Shortfoot’s Stupendous Circus! (And Blood Cult)

Art by tristram(?) for Diablo III

Art by tristram(?) for Diablo III

A few years ago, the Shortfoot family of traveling halfling tinkers happened upon a clutch of giant lizard eggs (left behind when a group of adventurers attacked a family of giant lizards and both groups perished). They cared for them, hatched them, and turned them into a small traveling circus, which can be used either as a friendly faction that sends the PCs on quests or a foe faction that the PCs need to fight.

As a friendly faction, the Shortfoots have a problem: the magic wand they used to control the lizards has been getting less and less effective over the past few months. They need someone to find a spellcaster powerful enough to restore it to normal working order. Unfortunately, this spellcaster will reveal that the wand can only be restored by the sorcerer who made it: Miralon, who has retreated to her remote tower on the coast, which is itself surrounded by many dangers.

Plot hook: Cyril Shortfoot, the family’s flamboyant patriarch, approaches the PCs and offers them a monetary reward for retrieving the wand.

Plot hook 2: The PCs are tasked to retrieve a different artifact from Miralon, but arrive near Miralons’ tower to find three halflings in the clutches of a pack of monsters (goblins, kobolds, orcs, etc.). Once freed, the halflings will introduce themselves as enterprising members of the Shortfoot family attempting to retrieve the wand themselves. They’ll volunteer to pay the party to escort them into Miralon’s tower and let them have the wand.

As a foe faction, the Shortfoot family are secretly members of a cult to Tharrash, a minor god of wounds and healing. The group requires occasional victims, whom the family members ritually cut in gruesome ways, then patch up and mind-wipe. The victim goes home believing he or she fell into an unusually nasty briar patch, was discovered by the Shortfoots, and healed by them.

Plot hook: The party is in town for a performance by the Shortfoots. They notice one quiet, cloaked figure in the back, not responding to the performance. This individual will eventually introduce herself to the party as Nagi, the 18-year-old daughter of a man who fell victim to the Shortfoot’s foul ritual a few months ago. She was suspicious of the nature of her father’s wounds and has been following the caravan ever since, living off the land. She asks the PCs to help her get into the caravan (perhaps through a distraction) and find out what’s going on.

Investigative PCs will find a small, curved, blood-stained dagger hidden somewhere in each sleeping caravan, and Cyril’s wagon will contain a large chest filled with pages of dark ritual notes and a black orb that absorbs blood.

Categories: Faction | Leave a comment

I Ran Tomb of Horrors, and It Was Awesome. Here’s How.

Recently, I ran the Tomb of Horrors for a handful of friends. They had a blast, and repeatedly said so. For what it’s worth, Tales from the Yawning Portal hadn’t come out yet, so I used a 5th Edition conversion I found online, combined with the original module.

In pitching the Tomb to the players, I explained that it was very deadly, and that the first characters they threw at the Tomb were unlikely to survive. I further told them that I’d provide pre-gens. I then went online and printed off 30 pre-generated level 10 D&D 5E character sheets from Digital Dungeon Master.

This was the secret: use a bundle of pre-generated characters.

The players arrived, grabbed random character sheets, and spent a minute glancing them over. Then I jumped into the module.

The players began investigating, and soon triggered a tunnel collapse. The first character death came as a surprise, then they grabbed another character sheet and I could see the realization dawn on their faces: I matter more than my character.

We spent two sessions getting through the Tomb, and to give you an idea of how much fun they were having, after the first session the players came to me to schedule the second. I skipped a couple of rooms for time, and one that was just a little too silly and complex for me to run (multiple secret doors in a row, for those familiar with the module).

The players turned into investigation machines. The character became a tool, a thing to inhabit because it’s useful and fun. Sure, you wanted your character to survive, but character death lost its horror.

And that, to me, is the biggest reason to run the Tomb. It teaches players that their characters don’t have to be carefully considered, multi-dimensional characters with complex backstories. It teaches them what it feels like to lose a character, in a context where doing so is expected. It allows their characters to die, and realize that’s okay, because it’s fiction and death happens. And death isn’t scary in a tabletop game because there’s always another character.




Categories: GM Advice | Leave a comment

In defense of the Tomb of Horrors

It’s become fashionable to decry the Tomb of Horrors as a paragon of bad design. It’s got things that will kill characters outright. It’s got things that will kill them without a saving throw, even. Surely that’s a sign of bad dungeon design, right?

No, it’s not, given the module’s parameters.

I’m going to give you two reasons why Tomb of Horrors is a usable dungeon. Not necessarily the kind of dungeon you want to run, but a viable one.

  1. This is the resting place of a demi-lich. It’s his Holy of Holies. If someone makes it far enough, they can destroy Acererak. He doesn’t want that to happen, so of course he’s going to make it deadly. But he’s crazy, so it’s a winnable dungeon. Acererak enjoys teasing adventurers with the realization that the Tomb is solvable.
  2. The module explicitly warns you that it’s deadly, and that if your adventurers are hack-and-slashers, you shouldn’t even run the module.

I suspect that much of the online complaints about the Tomb of Horrors comes from groups where the DM didn’t properly prepare the players for the Tomb. If you just spring the Tomb on your players, especially if they’re running beloved characters central to a long-running campaign, you’re not running it effectively.

Again, to be clear, you don’t have to run the Tomb of Horrors. But it can be run in a way that’s fun for all involved.

How best to run it? I’m writing a separate post about that, which also explains what my players learned. Here’s a hint: Use pre-gens.

Categories: GM Advice | Leave a comment

Monster Monday: Light Dragonrider Patrols

The feared dragonriders of Elyslanta patrol the skies of their domain, their riders searching for trouble and reporting back as necessary. The Royal Dragonriders maintain both light and heavy patrol units, using younger and older dragons, respectively, for each type.

Light dragonriders typically fly in pairs. They will deal with minor dangers, such as a few goblins attacking a caravan, but will simply observe and report back to the closest Watch Eyrie if they see something they can’t deal with themselves (at which point the Eyrie typically sends out a unit of heavy dragonriders).

If a province is under a serious, long-term threat, light dragonriders fly in units of four under orders to engage enemies directly unless hopelessly outclassed.

And here’s the stat block, ready for pasting into Homebrewery:

> ## Light Dragonrider
>*Large dragon, lawful*
> ___
> – **Armor Class** 17
> – **Hit Points** 75 (10d8 + 30)
> – **Speed** 30 ft., climb 30 ft., fly 60 ft.
>|19 (+4)|10 (+0)|17 (+3)|12 (+1)|11 (+0)|15 (+2)|
> – **Saving Throws** Dex +2, Con +5, Wis +2, Cha +4
> – **Skills** Perception +4, Stealth +2
> – **Damage Immunities** fire
> – **Senses** blindsight 10ft., darkvision 60ft., passive Perception 14
> – **Languages** Draconic, Common
> – **Challenge** 4 (1,100 XP)
> ___
> ***Multiattack.*** The dragoon makes two attacks, one with its javelin and one with its breath or claws.
> ### Actions
> ***Javelin.*** *Ranged Weapon Attack:* +5 to hit, range 30/120, one target. *Hit* 7 (1d6 + 4) piercing damage.
> ***Claws.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +6 to hit, reach 5ft., one target. *Hit* 12 (1d10 + 7) slashing damage.
> ***Fire Breath (Recharge 5-6).*** The dragon exhales fire in a 15-foot cone. Each creature in that area must make a DC 13 Dexterity saving throw, taking 24 (7d6) fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a sucessful one.
> ### Tactics
> The dragoon will typically keep its distance, the rider throwing ***javelins***, until a dangerous target presents itself. The dragoon will then close to ***fire breath*** distance, then if necessary engage in melee.


Categories: Monsters | Leave a comment

Faction Friday: The Cult of the Werecat


Artist unknown, sadly

Tharren Ironshield really likes cats.

Granted, cats are excellent companions underground, hunting vermin and finding warm spots to nap. Several dwarf clans maintain large numbers of cats as companions and vermin control.

But something happened about ten years ago that made Tharren obsessed with cats. He was cursed by a jilted lover to become a werecat (same stats as a wererat, ironically). Instead of attempting to bury his lycanthropy or completely embrace it, he sought a third way: a meditative control. His studies and research attracted 12 other, similar-minded lycanthropes who now follow him in their attempts to control their urges.

Surprise, surprise: It hasn’t worked. In fact, it’s only driven the cult’s members further into frustration and, in Tharren’s case, near madness.

However, the cult recently learned of an artifact that might cure them: Bidala’s Ring. Enter the adventurers!

As a friendly faction, the cult’s obsession has made them eccentric as opposed to dangerously out of touch with reality. They’re desperate to control their condition, and fortunately several of them come from wealthy families.

Plot hook: Tharren contacts the PCs and asks them to hunt down Sid Majora, a famous warlock who recently recovered Bidala’s Ring from a dangerous dungeon. This can be as simple as confronting Sid in his apartment in a city, or a multi-stage operation where the PCs must learn of Sid’s various hiding places and visit each one for clues (diary entries, maps, talkative assistants) as to where he hid Bidala’s Ring.

As a foe faction, the cult’s members have been driven mad through their many ritualistic attempts to control their lycanthropy. Now they’re obsessed with Bidala’s Ring, and have taken to assaulting anyone even rumored to possess it (usually ending with the death of the victim).

Plot hook: Jade Thorn, the half-elf captain of the City Watch in this district of the city, contacts the PCs and asks them to investigate a string of attacks. Two people have been murdered; one assaulted but escaped. All were rumored to have owned Bidala’s Ring, though the Watch hasn’t made this connection yet. If the PCs take too long investigating, the cult will kill again.

Plot hook 2: The PCs are approached by Mara Mahatman, the second daughter of a merchant family and occasional adventurer. She was one of a party who went searching for Bidala’s Ring but never found it, and two other members of her party have been attacked and killed. She fears for her life and asks the PCs to investigate while she takes precautions.

The Crypt of the Werecats

The cult operates out of a crypt entered through catacombs beneath a grand cathedral in the city.

The werecats avoid the corridor between the Hold and the Cistern, as it is haunted by several vicious ghosts. Otherwise, the PCs will encounter the werecats here in various numbers.

Use stats for the wererats in the Monster Manual (AC 12, HP 33, Init +2; Attack +4). Tharren also uses those stats except he has an AC of 14, 45 HP, and deals an extra +2 damage on his attacks if he’s within 10 feet of at least one other cultist.

Categories: Faction | Leave a comment

Game Design Hour: How to Get Useful Playtest Feedback

By Linux Foundation

By Linux Foundation

Playtesting your game is thrilling. You’ve finally gotten your baby game in front of other players, you’re seeing what works and doesn’t work.

And then the session comes to a close. You say, “Okay, do you have any feedback?” and stare at your playtesters, waiting for them to fall over each other to give you a wealth of suggestions.

More often than not, instead, they just look at each other, look back at you, and say, “Not really.” They may point out one thing that went wrong so clearly people in the next room could see it, but that’s all the feedback you get.

And you end up feeling frustrated. How can you get useful feedback?

To understand that, you have to understand why people don’t easily give in-depth feedback in playtesting sessions. I think there are two main reasons: social pressure and asking the right questions.

Your playtesters are human, and they see that you’ve built a game you believe in. They don’t want you to believe your game is bad. They fear that you’ll take negative feedback personally. They also don’t want to be seen as the one person with criticisms if everyone else enjoyed the game. So, nobody goes first.

Also, “Do you have feedback?” is a vague question. It’s like a parent asking “How was school today?” or a boss asking “How’s the project going?” It’s easier to just answer “Fine.”

So. You can solve this with a couple of specific questions.

First, ask this: “What should definitely remain in the game?

This starts the feedback with a question that’s both positive and probably unexpected, and subtly introduces some danger. The players realize that this game might change drastically, and it’s up to them to save some parts of the game.

It also shows you what parts of the game work, and what parts of the game the players enjoyed. Of course, these parts may not be perfect, but at least you know not to chuck them out immediately.

Then, ask this: “What would you like to see changed?”

Now that players realize that the game might change, you want to focus them on the problems.

Feel free to give the players some time to think about this. If the table’s initially silent, let that silence stretch for a while. Give people time to think. Don’t rush.

Then, ask this: “Did anything confuse you, even briefly?”

This is incredibly important. Some rules and aspects of games aren’t necessarily bad, they were just badly understood in the playtest. Many times, a rule makes sense to you but is unclear to other people, either because they have less experience than you, or more experience than you (“Oh, that term always means this to people who play these other sorts of games”). You need to know those pain points so you can rewrite the appropriate rules to be more clear.

Now, how should you be acting in the midst of all this feedback? Four things:

Write down everything the players suggest. You won’t be able to get it down word-for-word, naturally, but get the gist of it on paper. Even if you think it’s dumb. Even if you never plan to implement it.

Why? That tells the player that you care about her or his feedback, which further tells the other players that you’ll care about their feedback, too.

Also, you may look at that feedback later and realize that it’s not so crazy after all.

Ask “Why?” if a playtester doesn’t explain his or her suggestion. Meaning, if a player says “You should drop the encumbrance system,” full stop, ask them why.

You need to understand the reasoning behind their feedback, because their specific piece of advice might not be perfect, but the reason for the advice will tell you what’s going wrong.

Don’t disagree with a playtester. Your job here is not to tell the playtesters if they’re right or wrong; it’s to gather feedback. So just smile, nod, and accept whatever feedback you get.

Again, remember, you don’t have to implement any of the feedback you receive. So it’s much better to take all of it graciously and positively, so that you’ll get all the feedback you can possibly get.

Don’t explain your design decisions unless specifically asked to. This is a very common mistake, and very easy for us designers. A player will suggest that you change a rule, and you’ll launch into an explanation of why you included that rule.

You might think you’re engaging the player with that rule, to better understand the best way to change it. But more often than not, it comes across like you’re defending the game. It will make other players less likely to share feedback, because they don’t want to get into a debate.

Again, your job is to collect feedback. Collect it.

What should you do with all that feedback? I’ll write about that in the next post.

Categories: Game Design Hour | 1 Comment