Dungeons & Dragons 5th Ed. – My Take, Episode.068

After a considerable hiatus, I have returned to continue writing as I am inspired.

His decision was critical as his companions faced certain doom.  The black dragon reared its huge head in preparation of unleashing its fiery acidic breath blasting down upon the unprotected heroes.  Meanwhile the infamous necormancer, Pyrex, grinned maniacally from high above as he neared completion of his resurrection spell that would bring back the fallen the heroes had just slain.  The decision was critical or his companions were surely dead, but he couldn’t decide who to focus on…..so he brought out two pipes and played them in unison for he was the Grand Master Bard.

I am among those who resented the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons that Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast published in 2008.  Although I adored playing MMO video games such as World of Warcraft at the time, the 4th edition books felt too close to those when I wanted to play more of a traditional role playing game that reminded me of the older editions.  Perhaps I am an old man who doesn’t like change, but the game play mechanics simply did not fit my style and preference.  So I was hesitant on even giving 5th edition a try when it was released in 2014.  In took me a year before I sat down with a group to experience it for the first time.  I will say this – I am very impressed with the effort and result that Wizards of the Coast put forth in the books.  Very impressed.


For one, there doesn’t seem to be as much necessary crunch as before.  While I would say that 3rd and 3.5 editions were built to be more of a strategic role playing game, utilizing the innovated battle maps and miniatures, 5th edition feels more akin to the 1st and 2nd editions.  These were less of a visual game play and more of the mind.  While maps were still used back then (and even pewter miniatures were frequently sold), the maps were mostly drawn on-the-fly by the players as they ventured through dungeons.  There were few times when a top-down view of the immediate surroundings was drawn and miniatures were placed strategically on the battle field.

Fifth edition allows for battle maps to be used if desired for those who enjoy or need a better visualization on how the fights are laid out.  It caters in this regard to the 3rd edition lovers.  It isn’t necessary, however, to use them, and in fact many times I have gone through entire fights without them.

Another feature that I really like is the advantage/disadvantage system.  This is a simple but very effective way for a Dungeon Master to make a challenge difficult without having to do much math on adding modifiers to a roll.  On either account, you roll 2 D20s rather than one, but depending on whether you have advantage or disadvantage, you take the best or worst roll of the two.  There are still options to add the thousands of modifiers to a roll if desired, which was very common in 3rd edition, but if you wish to just give your players a little edge or challenge to their roll without having to over think it, this feature gives a quick result.  And that makes a good point in that streamline and pace, which I have talked about numerous times on how important they are, can be maintained with this feature.  Dungeon Masters need not look at a chart on their screen in front of them and hunt for the right situation modifier that will probably wind up being +1, +2, or +3 to their rolls.


Short and long rests are a wonderful addition to the rules.  All too often the typical “rest” that a party faced in the past would result in an 8-hour stoppage of adventuring.  This would be mostly for the magic-users to regain their spells after blowing them all.  I always felt that it bogged play down and hindered magic-users a bit too much.  I would often find myself being very hesitant on casting a spell at an enemy because it was “early in the day” and I didn’t want to use up my 4 spells so soon.  Instead, we now have a short rest, typically 30 or so minutes of downtime for the characters before continuing on.  One of the classes fairly new to the list of Dungeons & Dragons game is the Warlock, which benefits greatly from this feature.  Although they are severely limited to the number of spells they can cast per day, they are given the ability to regain all of their spent spell slots after just a short rest.  This allows them to cast theoretically as many spells or more as a wizard or sorcerer if the party takes necessary short rests throughout the day.  Warlocks could then regain the spell slots right before a fight and concocting a plan of attack with whatever spells he knew.  Wizards would have been stuck with whatever they studied the night before and face possible expended spells used earlier that day.

Cantrip spells have become more useful.  Spells like Eldritch Blast now unleash considerable damage for magic-users who don’t want to spend any of their hard hitting spells but wish to contribute during common encounter fights.  There are even “bonus spells” that allow magic-users to cast more than one spell during a turn, giving them more options.

One of the most annoying rules that 3rd edition introduced was Attack of Opportunity or AOO.  This came into play when a character or opponent would pass by close enough to a target who could attack them.  There were ridiculous options and feats to this that really made players have to talk out the results on whether or not the situation even called for an AOO.  In 5th edition, AOO is only granted when an engaged combatant leaves their opponent’s melee area.  As long as they stay within that zone, they can move about as freely as they wish.  Just having to pay attention to characters leaving combat zones is much easier.


And then there is the Dungeon Master’s Guide, which I have only gotten to work a bit through.  However, what I have seen so far is even more impressive.  There is a good portion of the book dedicated to people who want to become a Dungeon Master, which is to be expected in a book like this.  I have been asked many times by people wanting to know how to step into the Dungeon Master’s chair, and this book is a great start.  It works on NPCs, which honestly is an unnecessary task of creating and working with since many times they are here-and-gone in an encounter.  Creating monsters and spells is another area that Dungeon Masters like to produce, and both are thoroughly explained in the book.  Monsters are more modular, in my opinion, being able to swap abilities among other monsters for unique experiences.  If one monster has a sting ability but you want that ability on another monster, it can be done and the calculations of its improved difficulty is a snap to follow.

There’s a section to make random dungeons on-the-fly by dice rolling.  This is almost exactly what can be found in the 1st edition.  It provides all kinds of listings that can be rolled and sought out, allowing you to not have to really give a lot of thought into whether a turn in the corridor is a good idea here or if a 10×20 foot room is needed and with what to fill it with.  If anything the book is inspirational for Dungeon Masters with a lack of experience or a lack of ideas.

In the end, we all have our own preferences when it comes to what we enjoy playing.  You may not even like the fantasy genre and focus just on RIFTS, Shadowrun, or Traveller.  You may just focus on the Weird West of Deadlands.  You may only wish to play Paizo’s Pathfinder because you still have a sore attitude towards Wizards of the Coast for releasing a “3.5” edition only 3 years after releasing their 3rd edition (even though Pathfinder plays much like 3.5 and you paid $50-60 on a book after refusing to buy the 3.5 books, thus ironically doing the very thing you said you wouldn’t do).


Fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons is one of the most flexible systems I have ever played.  Wizards of the Coast allowed for gamers to voice their opinions on what they wanted in a rule book, and the publishing company actually listened and made the book for them.  The result is satisfying (and if it didn’t become successful, it was the gamers’ fault because it was their creation essentially).  You can play it like 1st edition with charts and exclusively with the mind or you can crunch it up with modifiers and battle maps like 3rd edition.

I encourage those still with hesitation from 4th edition to find yourself playing the game in the future.  Empty your mind and biased feelings of any previous editions you didn’t enjoy and focus on the features this new set of rule books has to offer.  You may be surprised and have a new system to spend your money on and clutter up your already cluttered bookshelf.

Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Session 2: Creating NPCs Episode.021

The old man is hunched over his book, decades of wear on his back gives him a permanent curvature of the spine.  A few puffs from his pipe before resting it on the table to turn the giant page.  He has always shown calm in his actions, yet deep inside he constantly is tortured and hammered with anxiety, stress, and obsession over his work.  A lifetime of following adventurers around the world in hopes they might stumble upon this tome he now has resting on his table has removed handfuls of years off of his life, but he doesn’t care.  To him, the long years and sleepless nights were worth it as the words on each page pour into his soul.  These are the words that will bring the world to its knees.  He knows his motivation is cliché, but he doesn’t mind.  Long has it been since the world found the utopia his mind has concocted.  And it shall be so.


I feel NPCs are challenging to a lot of GMs.  When you are the players in an RPG, you have a single character to develop.  You take the character under your wing and nurture him into something memorable.  Your focus is on that individual and what lies ahead for just him.  When you are a GM, you have short-lived, temporary characters and long-term more permanent characters…and potentially a lot of them.  You’re required to bring life into hopefully every NPC the players come across because, well, they are supposed to be living, breathing entities within the game world.  Even if the players are casually talking to a pig farmer on the side of the road about an army he saw 2 days east of here, that pig farmer has a life and history, albeit less interesting than the players’.  Just as if you chat with a stranger at some restaurant, everyone has some kind of a personality, even if they don’t seem to have a personality.  GMs are expected to bring life into everyone, make them non-clone-like, and give them character.  Without this, the role playing portion of an RPG would become stale and static.  There would be no flair in dialogue.  But creating a bunch of NPCs is a bit of tedious work.


When we last left off, the lighthouse structure was more or less completed and documented, and even some of the concepts of who dwelled within and the general outlining plot were thought of.  But in order for a GM to be able to pick up this document, glance at it in 5-10 minutes, and be ready to roll smoothly, the document needs to have a list of NPCs with a bit more than stat blocks.  Here is who could potentially be in this scenario.  We might weed out some of them in the end.

  • Vipros, ancient red dragon
  • Hrothgar Bennington, blacksmith
  • Kasandra Lonefellow, tailor
  • Jyk Thorne, glassblower
  • Nicodemus, summoner
  • Wizholme, sage
  • Bartholomew Blackbeard, lighthouse keeper
  • Various Cavern Citizens
  • Various Ghost Citizens


This gives a rounded selection of individuals who can be interacted with in some form or another whether that be violent or peaceful.  The next step is to give them all some kind of life.  In the previous article, I explained that a GM really should not need a novella-length description of any NPC.  Ever.  Two pages for an NPC is simply more information than someone is going to retain or utilized in the game.  Essentially an NPC should have motivation, personality, and any quirks or special behaviors.  You can’t expect to write down how the NPC would react to every situation.  Instead given a well described personality and motivation, they can react to any situation appropriately.  If there is a significant background story for a major NPC that is going to be around for more than one battle, then that should be included in the background portion of the document along with the rest of the plot.  I see a lot of redundancy in modules where by the time I reach the NPC section to read their info, I already know why the character is doing what he’s doing that pertains to the story.  The rest is either fluff or filler.

If the character is a non-threatening NPC, someone the players will role play and not roll play with, then there’s really no need for a stat block, even a small one.  I know some companies insist on keeping every single Tom, Dick and Harry flowing with continuity to their layout guidelines, but it’s totally unnecessary.  No XP, no HP, no level.  Nothing.  You don’t even need to put their alignment because that should be clear in their description.  Case in point, Hrothgar, the blacksmith.

Hrothgar Bennington [Dwarf, Legendary Blacksmith]

Motivation or Life Goal: Creation of the perfect weapon made only through the fires of a dragon.

Personality: Hrothgar is always in a great mood while working, but if he is ever interrupted for any reason, even for news of a family member’s death, he will become short and cranky with whoever caused the interruption.  That’s not to say he won’t appreciate some coin in his pocket selling his wares; he just won’t show appreciation for it.  He’s greedy and selfish and spends each day perfecting his near-perfect art of metalwork in the hopes of one day creating the perfect weapon.  He was granted ten year access to the Forever Fiery Fountain after winning King Jeroff’s tournament, creating an unbreakable sword, which he is in his 9th year.  He wears one of the three rings that unlock the secret cellar door located on the fountain’s base, but he will only give it up for the right price or if granted longer access to the fountain.  Vipros is the only one to grant such a gift.  Hrothar despises the other vendors, especially the annoying Kasandra and generally ignores them all.  Although he won’t admit it, he has a weakness for kittens.


And there’s a paragraph that easily gives the GM something to chew on with ease of remembering without any numbers to crunch or complex story backgrounds.  Granted, he is not a major NPC, but he does have a history that is briefly mentioned in the block.  Although some inexperienced GMs need to be given information in order to get a good understanding of how to run a particular adventure, they still are a GM, which requires them to ad lib portions of the story sooner or later.  Give them a little bit of information here and there, such as him winning a tournament by making an unbreakable sword, and let the GM run with it and make it his own.  Now let’s try one that may be needed for combat: Vipros, the ancient red dragon.

Currently, the dragon is set to be simply campaign-endingly big.  He would take legendary weapons and armor, and he would be able to take a lot of damage before falling.  It would be a huge event, perhaps something that would affect the entire kingdom and not just the community of people in the cave.  Nevertheless, he is a dragon, and players like killing them.  So off we go:

Vipros [Ancient Red Dragon]

[HP: 700][AC 43]

Motivation or Life Goal: Collection of wealth, finding amusement, keeping everything in the lighthouse a secret

Personality: Vipros is purely evil and highly intelligent.  One of the oldest living beings known in the world, he has witnessed firsthand nearly every war, catastrophic event, or major change.  His wealth in knowledge is seemingly unending as he has such a strong mind that he has never forgotten anything he has either learned or observed.  He doesn’t enjoy riddles or puzzles, but he does enjoy learning something he doesn’t already know, which can be used to any player’s advantage.  Currently his amusement is fulfilled by tormenting the fellow villagers of the cavern community, Neishek, by occasionally flying overhead to provide much needed light for their crops to grow.  Although magically enhanced to grow at an accelerated rate, they require a few minutes of light, which only comes from the lighthouse on Vipros’ back.  He avoids combat whenever possible as very little can challenge him.  When in battle, however, despite his size he is ferocious and agile.  When he uses his breath weapon, the fountain in the lighthouse will burst up the tube at an alarming speed, sending a beam-like trail of fire from his back.


Vipros might need some stats, and depending on what system you are using, some GMs will need more, some less.  Some prefer to give special abilities such as invisibility, damage reduction, etc., to the creature.  Every GM is different in preference, and if you want a detailed stat block, go for it.  If I am running a Pathfinder game, which I would cringe at the combat for an ancient dragon, I would most likely extend the stats with his attack bonus and damage, but that is it.  I don’t need to really give him too many abilities because he already has the traditional aspects of a dragon: some claws, some teeth, a tail, and maybe some wings if I am in a bad mood with the players.  But I ultimately try to keep things as light as I can get away with so that combat flows more smoothly.  Refer to Mastering as Game Master: Efficient Combat Timeframe Episode.002 for more information on getting through combat quicker.  In the meantime, here are the last of the NPCs listed above:

Kasandra Lonefellow [Dwarf, Seamstress]

Motivation or Life Goal: Find her lost mother, create something for every person she meets, see Hrothgar smile.

Personality: Kasandra is cheerful and talkative to a fault.  Her stall is beside Hrothgar because she has a crush on him that she blatantly tells him daily among a million other things.  She loves to hum melodies her mother used to sing to her, and her voice is beautiful and can be heard as high as the 2nd floor.  Her prices are surprisingly low for what she makes as she has the ability to create magical items that border legendary artifacts.  She’s always willing to tell anyone about her mother and that she last saw her when she was a child on a caravan to the Myrtle Clan, which are her kinfolk.  She believes her mother is still alive and that she was captured by beastmen near the hidden entrance to the clan at the base of Gilamonroe Mountain.  She wears a ring, but it is not one of the three that will open the fountain door although she is not aware of this.  It resembles one of the runes, however, and the others will keep her believing it works by mixing it with the others.  Her favorite color is blue, and she likes to click her teeth when she is nervous.

Jyk Thorne [Elf, Glassblower]

Motivation or Life Goal: His human wife is rapidly dying from his long-living perspective, and he wishes to create a special glass heart that will contain the fire of Vipros, which he has been told by Nicodemus will extend her life exponentially.

Personality:  Jyk clings onto optimism, but his eyes betray his true turmoil of doubt that grows larger everyday he fails at constructing the heart.  He has always been a businessman and enjoys making a few coins from his wares, which are usually quite high in both value and quality.  However, there is always hesitation in his voice when he knows he is losing precious time working towards his wife’s cure.  He is best known for making glass containers that can withstand extreme temperatures, but he can make virtually any shape or form given the right amount of time.  He will often subconsciously whistle in elven harmony with Kasandra as he works.  He doesn’t trust anyone but Kasandra in the lighthouse as he can read deeper motives within each other their eyes.  Most of this is chocked up to paranoia that was caused when he first arrived and had to work so close to a dragon he knows is evil.

Nicodemus [Tiefling, Summoner]

Motivation or Life Goal:  To become a true summoner and not rely on trinkets to do his work.  Ultimately he would like to learn how to capture creatures and have the ability to summon them whenever he desired.

Personality: Nicodemus is two faced.  The outside projects a charismatic, often jovial, attitude towards anyone he meets, but his true desire is conniving and deceitful.  He cares nothing of selling his magical pictures to buyers.  In fact, he would rather keep them for himself, but he knows the demand is exceedingly high, so he prices them astronomically.  He always pretends to be happy to aid another, and he is often playing head games with the other vendors as he grows bored often in the lighthouse.  Out of all those living in the building, he is the only one there against his own free will.  Wizholme, the sage, summoned and enslaved Nicodemus years ago when he was caught attempting to summon the sage.  Nicodemus is the only living creature who discovered Wizholme’s true identity and attempted to summon him for his own bidding only to have it backfire as the old sage was more powerful than he anticipated.  The other vendors, especially Kasandra, snicker whenever Wizholme calls downstairs to demand he join him in the library as they know Nicodemus always has to go despite his scowl.  Nicodemus enjoys salmon and only eats fish.


Wizholme [Unknown, Sage]

Motivation or Life Goal: Little is known of this creature down to what it actually is.  Secretly, he is a powerful demon, challenging demi-god-like, and he thrives on seeking knowledge.  He has no true morals and disregards any significant alteration to life, time, or space if his acquired wealth of knowledge always expands.  He most recently is interested in the death of Lenora, goddess of night, who vanished from existence and any awareness of the other gods.  Bartholomew Blackbeard was especially keen on communicating with her, and Wizholme considered him one of his only true friends.

Personality: Nothing pleases Wizholme greater than knowledge.  He doesn’t need to eat or sleep.  His eyes are heavily covered in thick, white eyebrows, and his mouth is hidden from a goatee that trails down to the floor.  Indeed it is difficult to identify what Wizholme really is.  He doesn’t care about anyone but a very select few.  He uses anyone without a second thought.  He’s brash, almost arrogant though his demeanor is subtle and calm.  It compares to the moment before a storm without the storm ever approaching.  He never shows happiness, but he revels at mocking Nicodemus for meaningless tasks.  Incapable of addiction, he obsessively takes opium.  When confronted or challenged, he will present riddles and puzzles before answering.  One particular riddle’s answer is the title of a trigger book in the library that opens the 2nd floor above.  He won’t hesitate to send those foolish enough on wild goose chases in exchange for an answer or bit of knowledge.

Bartholomew Blackbeard [Human Ghost, Lighthouse Keeper]

Motivation or Life Goal: Communicate with Lenora, goddess of night.

Personality:  Bartholomew has long since passed away after a long life of hopeless romanticism and sadness.  His heart was filled with love of a deity he never truly knew.  Each night, he would gaze upon the stars she created and concoct his own image of the goddess.  He spent years, most of his life in fact, pouring over charts and maps from all over the world in hopes of locating a magical artifact called the Pinpoint Sunrise, which was said to communicate with anyone at any point in time.  His hopes was to thank the goddess for her creation and profess his love for her.  He is a kind man and would stop his research to always do his job in maintaining the lighthouse.  However, the numerous ships trapped in bottles in the cellar are a result of his neglect from time to time over the years, which accumulated to a considerable amount.  He giggles instead of laughing and always holds his large belly when doing so.  He’s always looking for the pencil behind his ear to make markings and notes on maps despite being a ghost.  He is always happy to talk about Lenora, but his perception is skewed and exaggerated to any holy scholar’s account.

Various Neishek Citizens [Cavern People]

These simple humanoid people are rather small in size standing between 18 and 24 inches tall with rotund bodies and faces.  They can be traced back to relating to dwarves and orcs, prior to their split in race.  They are essentially the “leftover” portion of the original race having much of the good genes going to either the dwarves or orcs.  What was left was excellent labors and knowledge in basic survival.  They developed vegetation that has accelerated growth that requires very limited sunlight.  Their lives depend on Vipros flying through to provide the illumination from his lighthouse.  Vipros destroyed all fungi that grew on the walls and floor of the cavern that fueled the plants prior to his arrival.  They are such a nice race they have never shown signs of negativity, malice, or hatred from anyone including Vipros.  Instead they use excuses to blame for the bad luck or ill fate that might befall them.


At this point, I have obviously written far more than I initially set out to do because some ideas I liked came to mind.  However, a big bulk of this will need to be condensed in order to fit the one page goal I set out to accomplish earlier.  The rest of this can be added to a supplemental appendix if necessary, or, yes, you could just make a 2nd page.  However, I feel this is a sufficient amount of information to compile with the earlier structure segment and the next installment consisting of the plots, which will have one major idea and a few minor side notions players could investigate such as Bartholomew’s obsession.

I stripped the descriptions down to very minimal, yet the NPCs still took up an entire page.  So I removed the description of the cave people, who I called the Neishek.  I also removed Kasandra because her cheerful, good natured heart didn’t fit the rest of the vendors or the sage.  The entire atmosphere of the lighthouse is more somber with so many deceitful and evil creatures.  As a result, the three vendors will each have a ring instead of the false 4th.

These one-page exercises can be equally as challenging to those who have no trouble thinking of ideas for their game much like how a short story demands each word to be carefully chosen in order to make an efficient, concise document.  But by this point, after having created the building and fleshed out the NPCs, the plot should basically already have been written and just requires a little cleanup.  We’ll find out in the final session in this 3-part mini-blog series.  Meanwhile, here is the final layout we have so far with included NPCs:

The Roaming Lighthouse


This lighthouse was once a part of the seaport city Cascade, but when the ancient red dragon Vipros completely leveled the community, a stroke of luck left the lighthouse suck against his thick scales and now resides upon his back.  Over the years, his scales conformed around the base of the structure, solidifying it even more where it is a part of his body.


Standing 60’-0” tall, its base reaches 75’-0” across and tapers to 15’-0” at the top floor.  It is double-walled so the outer wall rotates every ten minutes, allowing entry for a few seconds.  There are four floors total with a hidden wine cellar below.  The ground floor contains a small market with several vendors.  A blacksmith, a glassblower, and a summoner (described further below).  The first floor contains an extensive library, spanning 50’-0” across and hosted by a sage who enjoys challenging riddles and puzzles for those seeking knowledge.  Only by means of moving a specific book will open the circular doorway in the ceiling to the third floor, which contains a mischievous portal.  This portal’s sister end randomly changes locations from one extreme location to another and requires a key to access that end.  The rest of the room is filled with star charts and nautical maps with various locations marked.  These were used by the original keeper in search of a great artifact used to communicate with deities.  The top floor’s light source is from a fountain on the ground floor that is filled with dragon’s fire and rises through a tube to gently spout into collecting trays.  A reflective disk provides the directional illumination.  This fire is used among the vendors in creating their powerful magic.  By inserting three rings from the vendors into the fountain, a hidden doorway grants access to the wine cellar, which each contain actual ships that wrecked years ago.  Uncorking releases the ship in working order with a crew, but it scales proportionately to the nearest water source.


Hrothgar Bennington [Dwarf, Legendary Blacksmith]

Motivation or Life Goal: Creation of the perfect weapon made only through the fires of a dragon.

Personality: Happy when working, disgruntled when interrupted.  Annoyed by the other vendors.  Obsessed on the perfect weapon.  He has a secret weakness for kittens.

Vipros [Ancient Red Dragon]

Motivation or Life Goal: Collection of wealth, finding amusement, keeping everything in the lighthouse a secret.

Personality: Highly intelligent, insanely evil.  His knowledge is almost endless and unforgettable.  Torments the Keishek for amusement.  Extremely agile.  Hates riddles.  Loves learning the unknown.

Jyk Thorne [Elf, Glassblower]

Motivation or Life Goal: Create a magical glass heart to save his dying human wife.

Personality:  Optimistic with hidden doubt.  Huge heart.  Enjoys whistling harmonically.  Paranoid about others.  Hesitant to stop his construction of the heart but will always happily do so.

Nicodemus [Tiefling, Summoner]

Motivation or Life Goal:  Capture and summon any creature at will.

Personality: Two-faced, charismatic, jovial, conniving, deceitful.  Hates Wizholme for enslaving him.  Scowls when summoned.  Only eats fish; loves salmon.  Enjoys playing head games.  Easily bored.

Wizholme [Unknown, Sage]

Motivation or Life Goal: Obtain all truths by any means.

Personality: No morals, evil.  Unknown race.  Demi-god-like demon.  Opium obssesion.  Timeless.  Enjoys riddles/puzzles and sending people on wild goose chases.  Brash, almost arrogant, subtle and calm.

Bartholomew Blackbeard [Human Ghost, Lighthouse Keeper]

Motivation or Life Goal: Communicate with Lenora, goddess of night.

Personality:  Giggles with hands on his belly.  Neglects duties searching for the Pinpoint Sunrise so he can talk to Lenora.  Hopeless romantic.  Delusional in love with goddess.  Loses the pencil behind his ear.


Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Mastering as Game Master: Introductory Episode.000

The merchant looks at you with a cold, hard stare, knowing your intentions are no good.  With a flick of his wrist, a dagger launches from a mechanical device, piercing the air and embedding into a thick piece of wood just over your left shoulder.  He clicks his teeth with his tongue, clearly disappointed.  “You can steal anywhere in this city but not in my store.  If you want to get better, however, let me know.  I know a guy.”

When I first learned how to play role playing games in 1992, I was overwhelmingly inspired to run my own games.  Everyone who has played for more than a decade will refer to what edition of Dungeons & Dragons they learned how to play a role playing game.  Mine was 2nd edition mainly because it was brand new about the time I was old enough to play the game.  One of my friends at the time explained the general concept although he was only 12 at the time and going off of who knows what.  I don’t remember how I acquired the books except for getting the Monstrous Manual as a birthday present.  Because I was the one who had the books, my friends expected me to run the game and know the rules.  They weren’t the excited type who were looking forward to playing Dungeons & Dragons, but they were curious enough to try something new out they weren’t quite sure what it was about.


I think I did alright my first 4 or 5 years playing the game though as I went into high school, the game sessions became fewer and fewer.  What few moments I did experience, I always ran and never played.  In fact, the first time I played a game was at a convention in 1994.  Looking back, I remember making up a few rules that I really thought was how the rules were written in the books.  For example, as ThAC0 was created in 2nd edition, I referred to it simply as “Fighting.”  “What’s your Fighting?  14?  Then with the monster’s armor class of 3, you need to roll an 11 or better on a d20.”  That’s how I called it every time.  I didn’t use the charts, I made up the numbers.  I knew experience points existed, but I didn’t know how to properly give out them, so I didn’t know how their attributes would change or their ThAC0 would decrease over time.

Sound familiar?  If you are like me, there was a time when we knew nothing about any particular rule system, but our imaginations were so overactive that we didn’t care.  We found enjoyment playing the game.  Much of this accounts to the fact our imaginations at a younger age are usually more powerful and discovering new concepts at the time whereas when you are an adult, those experiences have been thought of dozens if not hundreds of times and the excitement is gone.

I am asked a lot by players how to run a role playing game.  They ask for advice, they ask for rule clarification, and they ask for a miracle.  The problem is that being asked that question is easy, but trying to answer it without writing an entire book is nearly impossible.  You can sum it up perhaps in one sentence.  Perhaps something like imagine a general story, describe it in pieces, and then constantly ask them what do they do.  However, there really is so much more to being a game master.

Depending on the situation, I may give a number of solid pieces of advice that I practice each time I run a game:

  • Keep the pace faster than you think is necessary
  • Cut corners in combat to get each player their turn quicker
  • Never make players draw maps during game play
  • Be more player-driven in your campaign rather than story-driven
  • Know your players to know their loves and hates
  • Learn to improvise, practice improvisational conversations with friends

Each one of these can help a Game Master have more success within his game.  Some of these take practice and time to perfect.  Others seem like no brainers.  Yet I have seen many GM’s fail at several of these issues during game play.  And the list is by no means definitive.  There are other areas a GM can take note on such as never giving out too much gold to any player, Keep the peace between the players with no peer stealing or friendly fire, or allowing the party to ever split up.

These initial six areas are the most important aspects to running an effective game.  I’m beginning a 6-part series, beginning with this introductory article, going further into detail of each of these points, explaining the positives and negatives of each, and how to utilize them to benefit your campaign.

We will take a closer look at how to get your feet wet as a GM and also how your veteran skills can be resharpened and perhaps revitalized.


Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.

Adding Flair to the Classic Tavern

The gentle flickering of firelight escaping through the front windows of the Weary Traveler Inn breathes new life into your tired bones.  Four weeks on open road in search of the ebony falcon statuette and nothing to show only adds more weight on your already heavy shoulders.  For hours, you have been pressing yourself to travel faster as the darkness of a thunderstorm is quickly chasing you from where you came as if a reminder of your ill fortune for journeying from that part of the world.  You only hope the inn keeper has a comfortable bed, a warm meal, and fresh mead.


Everyone who has ever played a fantasy themed role playing game knows of the famous tavern.  Sooner or later, usually much sooner, you find yourself staying for a meal at a tavern or sleeping the night away at an inn.  They are essentially the staple of how many campaigns begin.  However, GMs often throw players into them as quick filler while they transition from one story arc to the next.  I’ve read plenty of articles taking the approach to use taverns as a focal point for an adventure, but usually it involves them leaving it at some point.

Taverns don’t always have to be traditional, even in your traditional fantasy campaign.  They can be magically enchanted, opening up to a vast outdoor courtyard when they walk through the front door.  Perhaps a permanent dimensional door has been placed on a solid wall down an alley so narrow the patrons have to sidestep to reach it.  Taverns can be spiced up and made unique by their environment by taking a step back and trying not to look at the tavern as a business that serves food and drink but an interesting encounter location you would place in the middle of your adventure.  Environment can be the key.

One example I used several years ago involved a gnome illusionist.  One of the players had acquired a gem that was entirely my fault for letting them having it.  I decided to try to get it from him without being too obvious.  A gnome was in the bar they were sitting in and took interest of the character’s ruby.  He made an offer, which was reasonable, but the player refused because he had other plans for it.  So the gnome illusionist created a fantastic spell that fooled pretty much everyone.  A storm picked up over time outside followed by a stranger from the night bursting in and covered in blood.  Events led to the sound of horns not far off as a large band of orcs were passing by, too large for the party to handle.  The barkeep urged everyone to enter a hidden access tunnel built into one of his enormous kegs in the back of the bar where he would escort them to an escape route not far.  The tunnel proved to be bizarre, but not so much to make them want to try think it was all an illusion.  The situation grew more severe as the walls began to crack from the force of so much weight from above, water began pouring in as the nearby water supply came in.  The gnome pretended to cast a spell to hold back everything, stating he was a powerful wizard who could take them all to anywhere they wish, but they had to agree on selling the ruby at the price he offered earlier.  The player finally agreed as the suspense was so tight from the danger that decisions were made in haste.  The moment the transaction was made, everything except the gnome and the players melted away as if paint washing off a building, leaving them sitting back in the tavern, none of the patrons even noticing the situation.

The entire adventure was held in the tavern.  Even veteran GMs who have ran countless games in their sleep can account that many of the cliche or traditional encounters can be reused completely refreshed by taking them from another angle.  It doesn’t have to be just taverns.

Another very typical location found in fantasy setting role playing games would be a dungeon.  Ask anyone who has played an RPG and they will automatically think of underground stone walls and corridors leading from room to room and laced with traps and monsters.  Almost maze-like, they have been drawn over and over again in very similar fashions.  Yet taking it from a different approach can rejuvenate dungeons.  Do they have to be underground?  All enclosed?  Dark and foreboding?  Absolutely not.  Give your dungeon a twist by making it completely unusual.  The dungeon is really a dangerous sector of a large city where creatures from another part of the world have claimed that area as their home.  The streets can be narrow to give the cliche dungeon feeling, but anything that is confined can be considered a dungeon.  A flying fortress ship can act as a dungeon because there is little to be done about leaving it once airborne.  It could have multiple levels, rooms, and hallways.  The ship could temporarily submerge under water and fill some rooms partially with water, giving players more challenge to get around a seemingly routine environment.

It need to be taken to extreme unless your entire campaign fits the motif.  Otherwise you may confuse or throw off your players so much that they lose their grip on the immersion that which is your campaign.  If you wish you go crazy with an extreme concept of a location such as a tavern, add other elements before and after to buffer the moment and transition the players into, through, and out of that unique chapter of the story line.  Have them find a vessel that launches straight up into the atmosphere only to come down at precisely where they need to be, which is outside the tavern.  When they leave for their next segment of their adventure, have them ride off on giant racing snails.  Give them more to chew when throwing something unusual to your setting into the mix so they can digest it a bit easier.


Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with.  Thanks for stopping by.