The morning sun rises over the horizon as you and your party stretch and walk out of your homes with the start of your adventuring career moments away. You fumble with your gear, feeling the awkwardness of strapping on armor for the first time or the density of the oaken staff in your hand. With a glance around, you silently bid your hometown farewell as you know dreaming of returning is moot. It’s as if you sense……suddenly soaring above the treetops, screeches from two black dragons fills your ears and turns your blood cold. Panic fills your nerves as you scramble to get with your other companions in hope of fending off the oncoming enemies. Yet you can’t help but wonder, why are we pitted up against this level of creature at 1st level?
Many GMs, especially newcomers, fall into a strict set of guidelines in running a campaign or adventure. The party is about this level, so they should be facing the monsters in this list. The rules state that a player is not allowed to do this, so I’m prohibiting the players from doing so. It’s always been done this way for decades since D&D was a gleam in Gygax’s eye. It really is time to learn how to be a GM and shed the cloak that has navigated our creativity and methods for so long.
What in the world am I meaning? We can do whatever we want as GMs! But do we? Do we throw adult black dragons at the party of 1st level characters? No, of course we haven’t because they would be killed before they had a chance to attack, and they wouldn’t be able to shed any damage off the dragons….right? Why is it that creatures have to be used at appointed times and not any time?
I believe often times GMs get either lazy or overwhelmed by the notion of altering situations to better fit the party. More and more rule books are standardizing how each encounter is supposed to be run. That manticore looks like it would be a great encounter for the party….but it’s 6 “levels” higher than the group so that’s out of the question. So are we to just allow these sourcebooks dictate everything? They encourage us to make the world our own….within their guidelines. The important notation is that nearly all of them say at one point or another to alter anything in the book to fit our own playstyle. Anything! And yes, we commonly have home rules that we incorporate that adds to our system, but seldom do we really make serious alterations because….well….we paid $50-60 for the book. What’s the point if we are going to just end up writing it from scratch?
One of the most enjoyable features I like implementing into a campaign is the concept of the world being alive and vast rather than built for the players. I don’t place a dungeon near where they are that is built for their level because the world becomes a convenience for them and lacks life. Sometimes you wind up in a bad part of town where you shouldn’t be. You get into situations that are dangerous. Life isn’t built for you; you are built to adapt to life. Whether that is to fight, negotiate, or run away, it is up to you to recognize the situation and make the choice.
So sometimes I will create a campaign that is just like that: dragons can appear at any time or the party may stumble upon a ruin filled with creatures far more powerful than they are, yet they have to get inside to a tomb to get an amulet. This isn’t something I surprise them with because they would be killed in seconds. I always write up a document that explains the various nuances of the world, races, acceptable and unacceptable rules/features, etc. They are fully prepared to approach every situation with caution and judge the situation as they see fit. It adds much more realism and tension with the players knowing that the world is a deadly place not catered to them.
You could adjust the difficulty greatly and still have the freedom to present anything you want to the players, regardless of level, by adjusting the world to fit the players. This is definitely something new GMs should not tackle because you are essentially stripping down monsters and challenges to accommodate the players. For example, a dragon might have two claw attacks, a hind leg attack, a tail, their wings, and a bite before blasting their breath weapon. Instead, the creature could have severely lowered damage, say, 1D4 on all attacks, and no two attacks could be done on one player each round. Special abilities such as paralyze could simply be removed or altered to last only 1 round.
Creatures that fly would hover low enough off the ground that melee with long weapons such as spears and halberds could still attack, giving reason to carry more unique or less common weapons. The trick is to not fall in love with a creature so when you are trying to strip it down to a suitable level, you aren’t wishing you could keep a special ability because it’s cool. Introducing creatures at different times of the campaign will add spice because players are somewhat expecting certain creatures at certain times. Kobolds and goblins right off the bat, beholders, liches, mind flayers, and demons toward the end. The point is don’t allow guidelines guide you too much. Remember back when we were kids and the rules neither mattered nor made any sense and we just played what we enjoyed? We have to follow rules every day that structure our lives, which is why we love role playing games so much. We can break away from the classifications, categories, restrictions, procedures, protocols, and laws in order to truly do whatever we want.
Keep your players in the know of what your intentions are without saying you are fudging the dice or nerfing the monsters. Explain that you are implementing a living world where any creature is possible. While you are unable to mix and match lethal versions of a dragon with tolerable versions (they wouldn’t know whether to run or not until it was too late), both options are available for campaigns.
Now I understand there are games out there that already have this in mind such as Dungeon World. However, their game, although extremely enjoyable, can also be terrifyingly lethal. It has the same mentality as mentioned earlier in that the world is a dangerous place, tread lightly and don’t assume you know the creatures in a meta-game view point because you don’t. With Dungeon World, literally anything can happen at any time, and the game encourages the more fantastical situations than tradition.
Whichever you decide, make sure you are running the game according to your plan and not the plans of others. Take what you will as advice, guidelines, suggestions or the like, but keep in mind no one outside of your game room gives 2 craps to how you run your game. You aren’t out to satisfy Paizo by running their game by the book because no one at Paizo cares. At all. These are all merely suggestions as well and not law because it may not suit your playstyle. Perhaps you prefer the structure of a particular ruleset. If that is the case, go crazy with it and enjoy. However, sometimes repetition for too long, even the things we love to do, become stale and demand a sprinkling of change here and there.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.