Posts Tagged ‘DM Advice’

A new episode of Table Top Babble is now up!

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James Introcaso sits down with game designers Mike Shea, Ruth Tillman, and Wade Rockett to discuss what GMs should do when players and an adventure go off the rails.

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If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

How great is The Adventure Zone? If you haven’t heard this hilarious fifth edition actual play podcast, stop whatever you’re doing and give it a shot right now. While the normal cast on the show is the crem dela crem of actual play awesomeness, during the holidays they went on hiatus and allowed the crew from The Flop House podcast (another great one) to take over the story for an episode. This special game was DMed by the great Stuart Wellington who has inspired me to write about an important topic: keeping the game moving.

Wellington’s players, The Hogsbottom Three, attended a dinner party undercover to complete a sensitive mission. I won’t go into more detail as to not spoil the story. What I will say is that this mission, like many heists in RPGs, had a lot of discussion among players as to what they should do next. It’s the kind of conversation that keeps players talking in circles about whether they should hide in apple barrels or sacks of potatoes. While this conversation can be fun to an extent, it also considerably slows down the game while tens of minutes are wasted talking about whether the kitchen or the drawing room should be searched for clues. A lengthy discussion about which duchess seems a more worthy target of a detect thoughts spell can cut into the chunk of time you need for an awesome boss fight (or other set piece) at the end of the adventure. Wellington knows this, and that’s why he kept the game the moving.

Whenever the adventurers started to overthink or argue in circles about what to do next, a new NPC would walk over an engage them in conversation or the butler would ring the bell and ask everyone to proceed into the dining room for dinner. Startling announcements were made. Surprising events happened! Wellington pulled out all the stops to push the adventure forward and so can you. It’s easier than it seems. You don’t need to plan for every conversation the characters are going to have to make this happen. Just follow my Wellington-inspired tips below.

List Out Events Chronologically

Wellington kept his game going by simply moving the action of a dinner party forward as it might normally occur without the adventurers there. You can do the same for any sort of structured event (such as a ball, thieves’ guild meeting, or night spent in a spooky cabin) by simply jotting down a quick list of events in the order you think they’d happen. This will take less than five minutes. Here’s an example.

The characters are attending a fancy dinner party honoring a newly named baroness because they have gotten wind she might be assassinated by a rival faction. Her assassination could spark a war, so it’s up to the heroes to stop them. Here’s what your list might look like.

  1. Cocktail hour on the castle balcony.
  2. Many important NPCs arrive.
  3. The PCs are recognized by Lady Duafaine, who slips them a note saying not to trust the baroness’ husband.
  4. The baroness arrives with husband on her arm and gives a welcome toast.
  5. Dinner is served in the great hall.
  6. PCs are seated at a table with Lord Marquet, who likes to gossip and knows all about the noble holdings in the area.
  7. The baroness’ husband gets up to give a toast in honor of his wife.
  8. After the meal, the band begins playing and the PCs are asked by guests to dance including the baroness and her husband,
  9. During the dance the baroness reveals in some way she is unhappy in her marriage.
  10. Lady Duafaine asks the band to stop playing and reveals she is the lich Necronstalla in disguise and some of the wait staff are her zombie henchmen! They attack immediately.

The example above shows how the party might flow if the characters chose to do nothing. Odds are most groups will take action, and you may not have every scene in your timeline play out. That’s totally fine. In fact that’s the hope. The list exists so the next time you find the characters talking in circles about what to do next, you can say, “And that’s when Lady Duafaine wanders over…” A new conversation or a change of scene reminds them of the ticking clock and provides them with some new information that allows them to take action. Whenever you feel the characters are dragging their feet, simply move to the next item on your list.

If the characters figure out Lady Duafaine is Necronstalla and attack before dinner is served, that’s ok. This list is to here help you move things along not be a full outline for the adventure. They might also take her advice and arrest the barroness’ husband (which is exactly the distraction the lich wants) which would also shake up the timeline.

A chronological list like this also helps you out when the players go somewhere you didn’t expect. Maybe one of them wants to investigate the kitchen because they’re worried the baroness might be poisoned. Depending on when they sneak into the kitchen, you might describe the wait staff moving mechanically as they lift trays and prepare to bring them to the hall. They don’t speak with one another and go about their tasks like focused robots. Your list told you that because dinner hasn’t been served yet, this is what the zombies would be setting up. Similarly, if a character goes into the kitchen during dinner to see what desserts are offered, they might be surprised to find none are being made… a tip that something indeed is wrong!

Make A List Of Random Events

Of course not all adventures are so structured. The most classic of heists, the bank variety, could follow the bank’s schedule if the characters are using stealth and deception to obtain their goals, or it could take on a less structured vibe if the characters are doing more of an old-fashioned stick up. In cases like these, where there isn’t a set schedule, you’ll just need a list of random events ready to go. You might event put them into a table like the one below. Whenever the characters are talking in circles, roll on the table or pick and event to shake things up.

d10 Event
1 The PCs are alerted their getaway vehicle is compromised.
2 The PCs get word their heist is trending on social media or in the news.
3 The bank enters lockdown mode. All the doors shut and lock making it nigh impossible to leave.
4 A security guard who is late for duty arrives on the scene.
5 An alarm the PCs didn’t know or plan for about begins to sound.
6 A hostage offers considerable wealth or information for their release.
7 A hostage recognizes a PC.
8 3d4 heroic hostages take it on themselves to assault the PCs.
9 A pregnant hostage goes into labor.
10 A voice calls from outside, “This is the police! We have you surrounded.”

Events like these should really keep the pressure on your PCs to keep moving. The longer they dillydally, the more the problems will start to pile up. This method isn’t just for ban heists. Zombie outbreaks, battlefield operations, and all kinds of other missions benefit from having a table like this.

Have A List Of NPCs Handy

No matter what you do, it helps to keep a list of NPCs that might engage the characters to move the story along handy. Don’t spend too much time on this. A sentence or two should be enough for you to improv a quick scene with the characters to keep their butts moving. Use this list in conjunction with your event list to really make your story work. In the bank example above a list like this might give you an idea of which hostage leads the charge against the PCs. Or the list could even make you think of some new events on the spot. Why wouldn’t intrepid reporter Maria Carrana try to engage the PCs for an interview as they rob her bank?

Here are some sample entries for an NPC list:

  • Maria Carrana – Bold reporter for The Daily Drift who will stop at nothing for a good story.
  • Gruff McGriffles – An old dwarf who loves talking about his days as a captain in the orc war.
  • Admiral Gutpunch – A spacemarine android who takes everything literally.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, like World Builder Blog on Facebook, check out my podcasts, find my products on the DMs Guild, tell your friends about the blog, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I’m a busy dude. I’ve got this blog, two podcasts, a job, a girlfriend, and awesome people in my life. All of these deserve my attention on a regular basis. Not to mention all the normal life stuff we do each day like commuting, cooking, cleaning, exercising, laundry, and more.  Some of you might have all those commitments, plus a few more like, oh I don’t know… pets or kids. So what are we to do when we also have D&D games to run?

Prep Time

Now, my life isn’t always so crazy. I often have at least some time to prepare for my D&D games, though almost always less than I would like. So how do I go about preparing for an adventure? I always start with an outline. It’s very bare bones to start but I try to at least put the following in there.

  1. A very basic idea of what might happen during the session. Sometimes this is no more than a paragraph or a few bullet points.
  2. A basic description of expected combat encounters, including number and names of creatures to be used. Descriptions start as simple as “5 orcs, 2 shamans, and a pit trap.”
  3. Names of NPCs the players will come across, their motive, and a quick distinguishing characteristic such as a club foot or funny accent to help make them memorable. This could be something like, “Famnoodle Breswick, gnome bard of Dark Whispers, wants to kill Bragonian nobles who are also slavers, has hook instead of left hand.”
  4. I jot down twists and turns I could throw into the session to make things interesting in the main storyline as it comes to me (to make this easier, use Google Drive so you can ideas on the fly). These things might include, but are not limited to, a villain having a hidden weakness or strength, a helpful NPC showing up, revealing an NPC as a double-crosser, other threats coming into play the party may not be aware of, and pieces of a character’s background coming into play. These are good for me to have in the case of the unexpected, I can whip out a PC’s long lost brother returning after decades if the players are having trouble figuring out what to do or if a story feels boring or uninteresting. It helps keep the players on their toes. Remember that not every twist needs to be a Red Wedding.

After that I go back and flesh out my outline depending on how much prep time I have. I usually start by fleshing out encounters and dungeons fully, then bullet points for any social interactions and exploration, followed by descriptive read aloud text (in the rare event that I have time for it). Of course I don’t want to over prepare.

Be An Idea Pack Rat

If I do over prepare, I find I try and steer my players too hard in the direction I prepared for, mostly because I don’t want my work to go to waste. Remember, D&D is a collaborative story, and it’s best when you let everyone have a say. If players want to go off the rails let them. Not over preparing will help with that, but when you have a cool idea you’re excited about and the time to do so, you can’t help but flesh it out. Also, sometimes you don’t over prepare, but players go to the unexpected place or so far off the rails, anything you did prepare still feels like it was for naught. Fear not! If players miss something you spent time on, save it for later. After all, when players go off the rails, its often because they’re doing something fun and unexpected, and that’s the kind of play we all want to embrace. Heck, I’d venture to say that for many people, it’s the reason they play tabletop RPGs.

While I certainly don’t think railroading adventurers is a good idea, I do think holding on to something your players missed is. Say they decided to wait outside the red dragon’s lair and fight her in the open rather than delve into her volcanic lair. Don’t throw out that graph paper or start talking to your adventurers about the cool monsters they could have fought and treasure they might have if they had “done what they were supposed to.” Save that dungeon, its secrets, and bust it out when your players take on a fire giant or clan of devils. So when you do prep something, hold onto it. It will help you in the future when you have less time to prep, and need to rely on improv.

Improv Resources

All right. Let’s get down to it. Sometimes you don’t have any time at all to prepare or sometimes players decide to zig when you were sure they’d zag. Have no fear! Improv is useful in all D&D sessions (you can’t possibly plan everything) and the more freedom you allow yourself, the more you will be comfortable giving your players.

Many of you have heard this, but the first thing to remember is saying, “Yes, and…” when a player asks if he or she can do something. Everything from, “Can we ignore the noble’s pleas to save his daughter from the vampire lord, and hunt some dragons instead?” You might say, “Yes, and you’ve heard there’s a competing band of dragon hunters in the area, who would probably have information on the closest dragon’s whereabouts.” Boom! Look at the layers of adventure you’ve just added by saying, “Yes, and…” You can always caution adventurers that if they ignore the noble his daughter might die and there could be worse consequences, but they may still choose to ignore that. Don’t worry about it. Write it down and have those consequences come back to bite them at a later date! Saying, “Yes, and…” is difficult at first, but trust me, the more you do it, the easier it becomes and the better your game will be for it.

So what else do I use to help me out in improv situations when I have no time to prepare. Check out the list of resources I use below! There’s already a lot of great fan-created resources and more out there for fifth edition D&D and having a computer or tablet will definitely make your improv life easier.

Google Drive

If you’ve been following this blog it should come as no surprise that I love Google Drive. There are two documents I use, in addition to the outline above, which help immensely when I have to improv my way through part or the entirety of a session.

  • Hooks Document This document contains all the hanging plot threads of my game. I organize them into categories, I have one for each PC, which includes threads given to me in their character’s background (my father went missing when I was a child…) and things which pop up along the way (remember last week when I snuck off on my own and robbed a dragon…). Then I have two more categories. One is for threads hanging from the game’s main story (The Brotherhood of the Moon is trying to kill all shifters) and the other is for side quests (we agreed to help the local law enforcement take out a den of orange spice dealers). If I have nothing prepared I look at the document. I might say to myself, “Oh yeah, our warforged barbarian Grolox has slavers hunting for him. Let’s have them show up at the inn.” That’s a great jumping off point for me.
  • Wiki and Recap Document I share this document with my players. One or more of them acts as a scribe for the party, listing all the characters, places, and organizations they come across and detailing the events of each session. If I don’t have anything to pull from the Hooks Document above, I’ll take a quick gander here and ask myself some fast questions. What if a defeated foe had a lover out for vengeance, or returned from the grave as an undead? Who is the real power behind The Servants? What if some new evil moved into the aberrant ruins right outside of the city where the adventurers are staying?
Official Wizards of the Coast D&D PDFs

The Players Handbook, Monster Manual, and Dungeon Master’s Guide are great, but when I’m improving I don’t want to spend a bunch of time flipping through books looking for the right rule, magic item, or monster. That’s why I rely on the PDFs below. Searchability is huge when you’re flying by the seat of your pants. Using the documents below, I can search for the exact heading I want, or for a specific phrase like “Challenge 10.” The best part is these PDFs are free so go get them!

Fan-Created Content

We’re only a few months into the release of fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons and there’s already a lot of fan created content out there. Here are a few things I like to keep open on the old laptop when I’m playing in case of improvisation. In fact I use these even when I’m in the planning stages for a session, because it makes life so much easier.

  • Encounter Builder – The rules for building encounters are difficult. If you’ve tried it, you know. Luckily Kobold Fight Club has made it super, duper easy with this encounter builder which also generates random encounters, tracks encounters, saves encounters, and allows you to manage encounters. It’s pretty awesome. Check it out!
  • Monsters By Challenge Rating – This isn’t one I actually have on my laptop, but I do have it taped to the back, inside cover of my Monster Manual. You can thank Mike Shea of Critical Hits for this perfectly sized monster by challenge rating index, which was missing from the book itself.
  • Monster Sorter – Of course, Ari Marmell’s monster sorter doesn’t fit into the back of your Monster Manual, but it does have the ability to be sorted in various categories including challenge rating, name, type, and more. This is a must have!
  • Spell Sorter – Similarly, Ari Marmell has come to the rescue again. Do you wish there was a list organizing spells by school of magic? Overall level? Class? Have no fear, Ari is here!
  • Merric’s Musings’ List of 5E Adventures – Tons of adventures for all levels, many free.
  • Free Game Resources on World Builder Blog – Magic itemsmonstersD&D fifth edition rules modulesbackgroundsspellsadventures, and more created by yours truly.

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