Dming Tips: Skill Checks

Hi Everyone! Sorry for the gap between articles! That annoying thing called life and laziness got in the way :).

Today I bring a topic requested by Sean. Sean asks, “I wanted to see if you could write about perception and spots. It seems that once a scout says I want to spot, and fails everyone jumps on the check as well. Same with knowledge checks.”

Thanks for the question! This is a really great topic, and one I think every DM, and most players, can sympathize with. I have used three different ways to deal with this.

FailedKnowledge

Method 1: MetaGaming

While a player may have certain knowledge, the character would not. A character would not necessarily know that someone rolled low on Perception, Insight, Investigation, ect. Gently reminding a player of this can solve the issue of characters jumping on skill checks.

This problem with this method is that often, rather then accepting this, a player then makes an argument of why their character actually would check, which derails the game. Even in the best circumstances, if you have to state “that is knowledge your character doesn’t know,” then you have taken players out of the moment. This really is my least favorite method, and I generally avoid it.

It is important to note that there are circumstances I think it makes sense to allow multiple characters to do skill checks. If the party is advancing through known hostile territory, even though the Scout may be the main eyes and ears, everyone else would certainly be alert as well. Gauging each individual situation is important.

Spot Checks

Method 2: Limited/Multiple Checks

Basically what it says, allow only a certain amount of checks in each situation. Perhaps some situations only one is allowed, in others 2-3.

This does have issues though. Often certain characters are plain better at doing stuff, so the party trusts them with it, until they roll low. Allowing other players to take part in the check could solve the issue, but then the original character, who may be a trap expert, is suddenly no longer trusted with their main roll, which seems silly. To solve this you could allow a character multiple checks before saying the skill failed.

For example, the Wizard attempts a Knowledge check rolls a 4; however, you judge that due to extra time, background knowledge, or what ever, the Wizard can make up to 2 more checks.

Method 3: Hidden Skill Checks

This is my favorite method, and the one I am currently using. Basically, my party has given me the skills they are proficient in, and also have given me their stats. When they do a check, I roll behind my DM screen, add the results mentally, and then just describe the results.

I have really loved this method, as it puts some real tension when players check traps, scout ahead, or on watch for enemies. It is also great because it forces the players to emphasize their roleplaying and actions, rather then focusing on the raw numbers and dice rolling. Finally, it speeds up play. I have a few party members still getting used to the rules. With this method it’s not an issue, because they just tell me the actions, I worry about the mechanics. You can also use description of the character’s actions as a way of hinting the results to the players, while still allowing them to stay immersed in the roleplaying.

For example, Aldo the Halfling Bard keeps hearing references to the Death’s Head Cult, he has Knowledge History, and wants to see if there is any chance the cult was active in the area. I roll (without the players seeing) a pitiful 4 for a total of 7. I then state, “Scrambling your memory you remember vague mentions here and there, but nothing particularly specific or useful.” The players will be able to tell that there may be something, but Aldo won’t know it, at least not at the moment. If another character has an appropriate skill they may jump in.

In other situations, you could be vaguer, or describe a failure. I also like to write notes to party members, so that they can decide how to describe certain things. This also heightens the tension!

Well Sean, I hope that helps you with your game! I would love to hear if any of these sounds worth trying to you, and if they helped.

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Adventure Log: A Bard’s Tale

Hey Everyone! Aldo Hardbottle the Halfling Bard, whom you may remember took extensive notes on our past session, has completed the first portion of an epic tale detailing his party’s adventures. Give it a read, hope you enjoy. Afterwards, I discuss the value of players jumping in and creating stuff in between sessions.

The Bards Tale
By Aldo Hardbottle

The Tale of Our Meeting and the Following Bar Fight

It’s been several days since I left my home,
I gathered my belongings and decided to roam.
I set out in search of fortune and fame
And perhaps win the heart a pretty young dame.

I stumbled along into the town of Oakhurst
And thought to meself, “this place is the worst.”
It cannot compare to my grand city of stone,
Among these locals I may be alone.

I made my way to what passed for a pub.
The Ol’ Boar Inn seemed the local hub,
Of boozers and farmers, of ale and food,
I played my flute in the corner and simply viewed.

At a table in the taproom a lively old man
his story of magic and sheep just began.
A tiefling maid with fliers would tell
The plight of her people, the children of hell.

There were Dwarven locals and Humans from the farm,
Even a Mul, who was heavily armed.
These people laughed at the old man’s tale
One enchanted listener even bought him an ale.

Then something happened that I thought queer
A cleric walked in, a servant of Tyr,
Dressed in his best silks and a noble air
A Drow above ground is awfully rare.

The farmers didn’t like it, not one bit
With liquid courage they threw a fit.
They walked right up to the young noble Drow
And blamed him for the disappearance of their cow.

The Drow was not one to take this abuse,
“You peasants are reeking of booze
Unhand me or you will live to regret
Your foolishness,” he ended his threat.

The old man stood up as though to speak,
He was so old you could hear his bones creak.
“Shalazim Shalazoom!” Was all that was said
“This spell shall be your doom,” his robes began to glow red.

The other farmer looked on in horrible fear,
He ran out the tavern as fleet as a deer,
But his friends were bent on noble destruction,
But I had a plan of beguiling seduction.

It was evident to all that a brawl was near,
I thought a new direction I can this situation steer.
I tootled my flute and winked at the staff,
Then one of the brawlers started to laugh.

The farmer fell to the ground with a resounding flop.
He was laughing at nothing, and he couldn’t stop.
The two dwarves went on undeterred
They didn’t care about the humans, they were not scurd.

The poor tiefling maid tried casting a spell,
But she took a mug to the face, so it didn’t end well.
The dwarves looked at the Drow and went to attack.
The Mul backed him up, but hit the table with a “crack!”

One of the dwarf’s attacks connected,
They were so drunk it was unexpected.
“Blood for Blood!” The noble drow cried
And with great care whacked a dwarf on the side.

The proprietor of the inn pulled out a crossbow
“No one move!” he shouted as some tried to go.
“Think that’s the first time I’ve had a crossbow on me?”
“Don’t be stupid drow,” I gave my plea.

The barman told the trouble makers to leave,
The bar maid began a healing spell to weave.
She healed up the tiefling and gave me a wink,
“Nice work with the magic,” then she bought me a drink.

We sat around boozing and learning about the town.
“You should check old Gunter’s farm,” The barkeep said with a frown.
So Millbee the Wizard, and the noble Drow,
Ahman the Mul, and Starfall sat down for some chow.

Your humble Bard saw an adventure form.
I’ll follow them far and into the storm.
Tomorrow they will set forth from this very inn,
And here my friends is where the story begins.

Halfling_Bard

Hope you all had as much fun reading that as I did! I think this is really neat for a few reasons.

  • It shows some real investment and excitement about the campaign from Aldo’s player, which gets me as a DM excited for our next session.
  • It helps flesh out Aldo as a character and gives more ways that the player is interacting and immersed in the world. This also helps Aldo’s player grow more invested in his character, which helps the character grow and evolve with the game.
  • Writing it forces Aldo to reflect on the session, and any of my other players that read it will also reflect on the game, which can only be a good thing.
  • As a DM it is nice to see a player putting in some work in between sessions, since I am expected to plan in between sessions :).
  • It’s fun, and anything fun, but within the tone of the game, can only enhance the experience.

I have had a few other players invest time in between sessions. Legon, my cowardly Rogue, made an inspirational speech for his guild. This was shown through a series of clips from inspirational speeches in movies, stitched together in a fun way that made sense for the game. Aldo’s player also in the past came to a session when playing as a Lawful Good Monk with a list of proverbs, which he used throughout the session. One final example, after a particularly difficult fight in an epic level campaign, which had our entire group stumped, my Uncle came to the next session with a complicated solution, involving graphs, equations, and 15 minutes of preparation spells (I will tell this story sometime in the near future).

One thing to take notice of is that none of this player creations were perfect. The players worked hard on them, and they were excellent and fun, but they weren’t award winning. This is important because I honestly think anyone willing to take the time can find ways to enhance the game through some in between session work :). When in doubt, discuss your idea with your DM (as all my players did) before telling others, or getting too deep into the work. Of course don’t try to force material, but when you see a hesitation, don’t hesitate to ask and create!

Product Review: Out of Print Sources for Character Ideas

Hello everyone! Today I bring another product review, talking about Masters of the Wild, Tome and Blood, and Defenders of the Faith. These books were part of a series, that focused on a group of specific classes, picked them apart, discussed how they would play, and provided new feats, rules, and prestige classes. I don’t actually own the books that talked about Bards and Rogues, or Fighters and Monks, but I am sure they are equally as useful.

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While the new rules in these books is nice, their real value is in the chapters they have which cover ideas and concepts, rather then rules. Each of these books was filled with amazing ideas that can be utilized in any fantasy roleplaying game. For example, Defenders of the Faith has an excellent section on playing an effective Paladin, discussing topics such as the Paladin “Code.” This section talks about different rules you may consider applying to your Paladin, to represent their Lawful alignment.

It should be noted that a lot of the concepts are covered before and during discussions of specific classes, prestige classes, and other very rules centered content; however, unless you are playing 3.0 I suggest skipping over all that and just read for the ideas and inspiration.

These books show why the best D&D books can be useful no matter what edition they were written for. The great thing about D&D is that the majority of the flavor and content for the game comes from free form imaginative exploration, which obviously has no limits based on hard rules. A cool concept for an urban Ranger, even if written with 3rd edition in mind, can easily be used as a springing off point for another edition, or even game!

As a DM I find flipping through these books can be very useful when I hit blocks during planning. I also show certain sections to players looking for ideas.

Well that is it for today, hope you enjoyed my discussion of these blasts from the past!

Random Encounters: Owlbear

Hey everyone! Today I write about the noble and majestic… um Owlbear… ok not really either of those things they are actually awkward monsters 😀 !

Shout out to Logan for the request of this topic. When asked why Owlbears, he replied, “They are the closest thing I have seen to Man-Bear-Pig.” HA!

Owlbear 1

The above image is the one I am most familiar with of the Owlbear. It is from the 3.5 Monster Manual, and sort of highlights a lot of my thoughts on Owlbears. They are weird bizarre monsters. I mean an owl and a bear? In the past Owlbears were largely unthinking, blood thirsty beasts. Thought to originally be the creation of some sort of magical experiment, they normally roamed solo, attacking and hunting where ever they went. Normally found in forests of some sort, I always felt Owlbears felt shoe-horned into the game as a potential go to Random Monster.

This often led me to rarely if ever use them, I just could not picture a place for them in my games. However; I doubt Logan wanted to just hear me write off this creature :).

owlbear

One potential use for an Owlbear would be to use in corrupted and mutated forests, then they would fit right in. Owlbears could also be used in a demented Wizard’s lair, as his pet creation, sort of like a Flesh Construct. Perhaps even more spooky would be a Druid, obsessed with tinkering with creation and the food chain. The Druid has magically bred several Owlbears, which serve as his minions. In either of these instances the Owlbear should be described as moving awkwardly and unnaturally, seeming to be uncomfortable or in pain, really play up the aspect that these things should not be!

D&D 5th edition has fleshed out the Owlbear to make them mesh better with a more “natural” landscape. They continue to be fierce, aggressive, and predators; however, they have been given more intelligence, and can even be trained by resourceful  creatures. Apparently this revised version of the Owlbear is even often encouraged to create dens at the foot of Elven tree villages, the Owlbears then serve as additional protection for the elves, cool!

This revised image comes with a much more natural looking image as well:

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The origins of this creature remain a mystery with rumors of a wizard being the first creator, though some creatures, such as Fey disagree stating Owlbears have always been a thing. This is great because it still leaves plenty of variety of ways the mighty Owlbear can be used.

Have you ever faced or used an Owlbear? What are your thoughts on this bizarre creature?

As always, I would love to hear from any readers, and am more then happy to take requests for future monsters or topics!

DMing Tips: Read, a lot!

Hello everyone! One of the main concerns I hear prospective Dms voice is a worry that they won’t be creative enough to run an interesting game. I have had several friends ask me how I come up with my own ideas. While there is not any one answer, I do have one very important fountain of inspiration, books! One of my top tips to all DMs is to read, a lot.

Books are an amazing source to draw ideas, and excitement for an adventure. Who hasn’t read about the Fellowship in the Mines of Moria and not wanted to play an adventure exploring a ruined dwarven mine? Similarly, if you read a lot as a DM, you can take snippets of various stories, tweak and combine them during character, world, or adventure creation, and come up with a really fun original idea, just by drawing on multiple stories you enjoyed.

Any form of media can be a great source of inspiration; however, I have found that the written word serves not only to inspire, but also to model. Unlike a movie, compelling books need to get their readers to picture the scenes and actions only through words, similar to DM describing an adventure. If a author or story does an excellent job depicting a scene pay attention to the descriptive words used, the sentence structure, the amount of description vs action that happens, and then try to mimic the style yourself.

It is important to read a wide range of books as well, each author will hit different situations and tones, and by reading a wider range you will be more prepared to describe a variety of situations. I have also found it very useful to read in styles that either I am struggling with or know my game will hit upon a great deal.

For example, I really would love to run a campaign which has a lot of scary moments, almost a horror campaign; however, with the tools for destruction at the finger tips of a player it is quite hard to actually unsettle them. To step up the scares in my game I decided to read some of the best or most noteworthy horror works/ authors. I started with Frankenstein and then read a TON of H.P. Lovecraft, while reading I have tried to reflect on why certain moments or stories unsettle or scare me more, and then try to recreate these things in my own games.

Another example is combat descriptions, something in my early years of DMing I really lacked. Combats aren’t as much fun when you just say, “You hit, how much damage, ok who is next.” It’s much more exciting to describe the twang of a bowstring as a character’s arrow plunges into the chest of the charging orc. There is a lot of great stories which describe action well, a personal favorite of mine is the Original Dragonlance Trilogy.

I have found assembling a “DM Bucket List” of books to read is helpful, this gives you a starting point, rather then trying to just dive in, and can be a nice way to try to balance styles.

As a DM I would also strongly suggest continually reading source material on D&D. I have found old Dragon and Dungeon magazines an excellent source of ideas and tips. Dungeon Master Guides, older editions campaign books, and the internet are all great sources to find additional tips and techniques to try. To be a great DM you need a lot of tools and tricks to use.

As a final point I am going to leave a list of a few of my favorite books or authors I think all DMs and even players should consider reading in no particular order:

  1. Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman (Great examples of a varied adventuring party working together, some great characters, and fun action)
  2. Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (Excellent descriptions of magic, can get the mind thinking about the heroes journey)
  3. Monster Hunter International by Larry Correia (A really fun book, amazing action descriptions, great examples of using horror creatures but not in a scary way)
  4. The Lurking Fear by H.P. Lovecraft (Master of horror descriptions and creepy pacing, honestly any Lovecraft story will do, but this is one of my favorites)
  5. Fellowship of the Ring/The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (I shouldn’t even have to explain why 🙂 )

The Sunless Citadel: Session 1

The_Sunless_Citadel

Hello Everyone! Over the weekend I had my first session of my new D&D campaign. While I can’t share all the details of the start of the campaign, because my party reads this blog, I will share what details I can.

The first half of our session was centered around character creation. After about 2 and 1/2 hours of socializing and creating my party was ready to adventure.

The party was composed of:

-Aman the Mul Fighter, a defensive brute armed with a Warhammer and Shield, I was excited to see someone take this race.

-Milbee the senile Human Wizard. He is an elderly Wizard and introduced himself to the party by rambling about how he used to be a Shepard. This was complimented by a ramblely old man voice from Milbee’s player. (Think Fizbin from Dragonlance)

-Noble the Drow noble Cleric, who felt too dignified to give his official name yet. (Player of Legion in the Lost City)

-Starfall the Persistent a Tiefling Druid, whose life struggle is for equal rights for Tieflings. (My player described his character as Britta from Community) (Player of Sol Mina in the Lost City)

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-Aldo Hardbottle the Halfling Bard, who proceeded to in detail record the session to regal us with in the future. (Player of Fizzywinks in addition to other characters in the Lost City)

Overall I was quite pleased with the balance of my party, there was a lot of diversity, three classes which could heal, and quite a bit of casting ability. Despite such a great blend of classes and background though, no one in my party took Investigation as a skill, which would quickly come to give problems when venturing through The Sunless Citadel. (Note if any of my players read this I will allow up to two party members swap a skill for Investigation, consider this an Easter Egg for those of you who read the blog 🙂 ).

I kicked off the session by having the party describe themselves and what they were doing in the inn Ol’ Boar Inn. After some great roleplaying from my various players, four bar patrons, 2 dwarves and 2 human farmers, confronted the strangers in town, singling out Noble the arrogant Cleric of Tyr to pick on.

The bar patrons were quite drunk, and scared about recent bloody disappearances of live stock in surrounding farms. With alcohol lending courage, the desperate commoners blamed and confronted the new strangers in town.

TAVERN

The confrontation devolved into a brawl, some highlights included Milbee shouting an intimidating incantation, and using the Light spell to make himself glow, scaring the one ignorant farmer. Aldo, while playing an instrument in the corner incapacitated a common with Tasha’s Hideous Laughter. Starfall took a shattered mug to the face. Noble the Cleric, disgusted over being touched knocked two dwarves out with non-lethal melee attacks.

This was a great way to start the session, as it gave some roleplaying opportunity and then jumped right into some action. It was also a good opportunity for players to use non-lethal techniques and abilities.

The party eventually moved to go investigate Gunter Blaise’s farm, the most recent victim of livestock abduction. Starfall communicated with the surviving sheep gaining feelings of fear, unnaturalness, and twigs or trees moving. Using this unique Druid spell was a really nice choice, and one I hadn’t even thought of, kudos to him!

From here the party moved into The Sunless Citadel. Initial forays into the citadel involved players falling and being shoved down a ravine, taking quite a bit of damage, fighting several Giant Rats, falling into pits, and prying open a sealed door, only to decide to turn around and go a different direction.

We left off with the party having found a Keg in a room, with pipes leading out into the floor. The party, naturally thought booze and went to investigate, prying the lid off. It took quite a bit of effort, but with some help Aman did it, only to free the small water elemental inside! After a brief scramble, a critical hit from Aman, as the rest of the party ran, the elemental fled back into the pipes. We then called it a night.

Some thoughts, overall it was a blast. Everyone got in some good moments and roleplaying. Characters jelled fast, but did not sacrifice their background stories. I do think my group was a little bit sillier then I would prefer, but for a first session it kept everyone involved and excited which is great. I need to do a better job in my descriptions of The Sunless Citadel to make it clear this place fell into ruins centuries ago, as it was once a base for the Death’s Head cult, not certain I made that clear enough.

For those of you following along, my next session should be in about 2 weeks, and will hopefully have some very exciting moments in them, when I begin to put my own spin on The Sunless Citadel as my own preferences, and player choices begin to influence and change the module.

Readers I am curious what you thought of this synopsis, my session ran about 5 hours, and there was a lot to cram in. I tried to give some highlights, and really give the feel of the group, while not getting bogged down into details. What worked and what would you like to see changed?

DMing Tips: Handling Character Deaths

Hello everyone! Today I am going to discuss character deaths, a topic which I am sure every DM, and many players, have experienced.

This is something I have often heard  DMs and players chat about. It seems like some people view character death as a form of punishment that DMs can dish out to their players.

DM Punishment

While I think the majority of people realize this perspective is a joke, I honestly think some people really do have sessions which end like this. This is one of the reasons I am very selective about who I allow in my campaigns, D&D is supposed to be a nice combination of tactical challenge, group story telling, and social interaction. If a party ever pisses a DM off enough that this reaction is warranted, well then why was that party formed in the first place?

Other people seem to view it as something which should only be a last resort, used to further the story. Monster critical hits fudged, in order to keep party members from dying to say random orcs. I also disagree with this approach. Combat, ALL combat, should be viewed with at least a little wariness, otherwise players get cocky, act invincible. Without an element of danger, except in major fights, 75% if the combats in the game start to feel like pointless grinds to award experience. I don’t play MMOs for a reason, and I don’t want the flow of my D&D campaign to start to feel like one.

My personal approach is a blend of danger, narrative, and consequences. I try to make all my combats have an element of danger, unless they are specifically engineered to feel pathetic. If the party fights an ambush of 6 goblins poorly, even if it is the opening encounter of a dungeon, they may lose someone. That is the risk of adventuring. I keeps combats raw and engaging. It also makes every combat feel somewhat rewarding upon completion.

That being said a character death should never be a mundane thing.

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Even if the character dies from a swarm of stirges (has almost happened in one of my campaigns), that death should be given a great description. Example, “As the swarm of stirges crawls over your body, jabbing and probing you in numerous spots, your party watches on in horror as your face becomes completely white. You drop to the ground, and black out, the last image you see is half a dozen stirges hopping and buzzing over you.” When appropriate describe a characters heroics as helping save the rest of the party. A character death should have sting to it for a player, but should also add to the story in some way.

Recently, when I think it makes very little sense for a party member to die, or I see a story telling opportunity in keeping them alive, I inflict long term injuries to a character and/or capture them.

For instance, Grimgon, the dwarf samurai, was brought down by 2 wizards with quarterstaffs, after he and his party made a daring escape from captivity. The party grew quite distressed as they were forced to abandoned their heroic friend, or be captured by reinforcements.

Right after this, I wrote a note to Grimgon’s player, told him he was still alive, but badly hurt. I asked him for his sheet and to remain quiet. The rest of the party presumed he was dead, and returned to the wizards’ lair, with reinforcements, after a quick rest. They were quite angry, slaying all they found, shouting for Grimgon. Needless to say they were amazed when they saw their friend beaten, badly hurt, but alive. To reflect his near death experience Grimgon was given a permanent limp, slowing him slightly, and his scars lowered his Charisma. However, the scars also gave him a boost to Intimidate and other appropriate abilities.

This made an amazing story, much more interesting then just having him die.

Perhaps the most common cause of player deaths I have found is from very poor player decisions. On two separate occasions players decided they wanted to venture forth alone in a big city, despite knowing demons and a cult had been hunting them.

In the first instance, my player was soundly beaten by someone he was trying to murder for a Prestige class requirement. His equipment was taken; however, he was returned alive to his party. At 7th level my player was very distraught over losing his gear, and asked if he could just restart a character. I said no, and he took it in-stride and slowly regained a new stockpile of gear.

In the second occasion, the character, Mina, was knocked out, and actually became partially possessed by Zargon, the demon within the Lost City:

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This possession would manifest itself in times of great stress, aka combats. Mina would then take a Will save, or I would get to do her actions. This really pushed this character to doggedly pursue slaying Zargon, which helped deeper entrench the player with the campaign.

I also found that the party as a whole started to make less silly illogical choices. They didn’t see a character death as just an opportunity for a reset; instead, there was the threat of worse consequences, when the situation warranted it.

Those are my brief thoughts on character deaths, how to handle them, and what role they play in the game. My methods will not work for every party, the key is to figure out your stance as a DM, and what your party would most enjoy. My party really came to love how cut throat my encounters could be, and the consequences of near character deaths have been talked about far longer then I think they would have been if the character merely died. For a period I even had a wall of fallen heroes, thumb tacking dead character sheets to my wall.

How do you handle character deaths? As a player do you mind the threat of death to be constant? What do you think of my thoughts and methods? I would love to hear back from more people, so please comment! 🙂