One question I often come across in various Dungeons and Dragons conversations is “How do I balance my combat encounters?” It’s far from a bad question, but reading through the various responses, it seems that it only scratches the surface of its intent. Based on the answers, there seems to be this assumption that a “balanced” encounter somehow guarantees a “fun” encounter, that if an enemy’s statistics are perfectly calculated, the party will be engaged and energized. Now I’m not at all saying that game balance is irrelevant to this topic, but oftentimes it's treated as if it's the only component worth talking about. So, if game balance is only one piece of the puzzle, what are other tools we can use to build combat encounters that reward players for their engagement?
Tool #1: Game Balance and Setting Values
Game Balance is a term that gets thrown around a lot in DMing circles, but do we know what it actually means? To keep myself accountable, I went to the most reliable information source I had: Wikipedia. Wikipedia defines game balance as a “part of game design (that) can be described as a mathematical-algorithmic model of a game’s numbers, game mechanics, and relations between those. Therefore, game balancing consists in adjusting those to create the intended experiences, usually positive ones.” And although we can debate the legitimacy of Wikipedia as a reputable source, I do agree with this definition.
The key takeaway from this is that the reason we’re adjusting game statistics is to create an “intended experience”. The game system’s numbers are set so that they give players a certain feeling when they discover them. To do this effectively with a creature stat block you tend to run in combat, you have to consider your player characters’ statistics when setting them. The only real meaning to quantities in Dungeons and Dragons is to compare them to each other. It doesn’t matter if a player character has a Strength of 20 or 40, as long as it’s in proportion to what that character should feel like compared to a commoner. If a player character has a Strength of 40, and a commoner has a Strength of 35, your player character won’t feel as exceptional.
So let’s take a look at some values we can set for our creatures, and the impact they have on the experience we intend to deliver.
Armor Class and Attack Bonus
Armor Class (AC) determines how often your creature gets hit, and will largely inform your players if Attack Rolls or Saving Throws are more reliable to use. Do note that Martial Classes rely on Attack Rolls to hit, so if you create a creature with a virtually prohibitive AC, you may invalidate the efforts of at least half of the available character classes in the game. This is fine for presenting a creature the party isn’t intended to fight, but it can be soul-crushing when the party fighter feels completely ineffective because they are excluded from participating in the fight due to statistics.
When I set a creature’s AC, I first look at my players’ average Attack Bonus. For example, in my latest game, my players were all 5th level, meaning they have a proficiency bonus of +3. If they didn’t intentionally misbuild their characters, their primary stat is probably a +3 or +4, meaning that they have an average attack bonus of +6 or +7. Therefore, if I have a creature with an AC of 17, they’ll have to roll at least a 10 or 11 on the d20 to hit, meaning they have a 50-55% chance to hit my creature. If I increase the AC any higher, that chance decreases even more. I find that when players have a 40% chance or lower to hit a creature, they’ll feel as if they’re not meant to hit it. Although we can justify the reasoning why a creature may have an AC of 18 or 19, is that reasoning more important than giving your players the excitement of hitting and dealing damage?
Of course, as with anything in TTRPGs, there are exceptions. One factor I consider when designing the environment of the encounter is how easy it is for my players to get advantage on their attack rolls. Advantage accounts for an average of an additional +5 to their attack rolls, meaning characters with a set attack bonus of +6 or +7 are now functionally rolling with a +11 or +12, and they have a greater chance to land a critical hit. If I set up an encounter where it's easy to flank, or I know one of my players brought a Druid or Mastermind Rogue that has features or spells that grant their allies advantage, I have to rethink my math. Maybe an AC of 19 or 20, especially if I’m overt about the strategic clues my players can leverage to make the most out of each of their attacks. To reiterate, this is a mechanical approach in order to deliver an intended experience that is justified with description and story afterward.
One last piece of feedback I’ve taken to heart (in terms of Armor Class) was from one of my long time players and friends. “It always feels better to have a creature with a lower AC and more Hit Points because then at least I feel like I’m doing something.”
Now the flip side to Armor Class is the Attack Bonus, the modifier that’s added to an attack roll to determine if you hit a creature’s Armor Class. Just like I calculate my creature’s AC based off of my player’s attack bonuses, I also take their AC into account when designing my creature’s attack bonus. For example, if I know one my players have an AC of 14, a +8 attack bonus means my creature has to roll a 6 or higher on the d20 to hit. Add on multiple attacks, and they are hitting far more often than they miss.
Now that same +8 to hit the tanky fighter with an 18 AC? The creature has to roll a 10 or higher, meaning they have a 55% hit rate against that character. But is that the feeling I want my fighter to have? Do I want the party fighter to get hit more than half of the time? My answer, as always, is that it depends. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If the party is fighting a single, tough monster like a troll or otyugh, then maybe the fighter takes some hits for the sake of the party. If the party is fighting a bandit captain and his goons, maybe I want the party fighter to feel a little unhittable and get excited by the fact that the goons aren’t able to make it past their masterful defense. After all, if they built their character with a high armor class, don’t we want to reward them with an encounter where they feel like they have a high armor class?
So to summarize this one quickly, first I look at the party’s average AC. The number of attacks matters here. Two attacks with a +8 modifier is a different game than one attack with +9. Remember, if a creature gets two attacks, both with +8, it's almost like they’re rolling with advantage (so really it's like one attack with a +13) with the difference being that if they roll high on both attacks, the damage is essentially doubled. In Fifth Edition’s simple math, a one point change in Attack Bonus or Armor Class can lead to a huge gap in probability, and adding or subtracting attacks or actions will quickly widen that gap further.
HP and Damage Output
Hit points are a measurement of progress in a fight, and I actually find that the average hit points presented in the Monster Manual cause combat to get over with a little too quickly. However, maxing out a creature’s potential hit points is a great way to create tension in a combat encounter. Remember that game statistics are used for reference. If your 5th level Barbarian has sixty something hit points, and the thing their fighting has 240, how will your Barbarian feel in comparison?
Also remember that you as the DM are at liberty to change a creature’s hit points on the fly (a contentious opinion, but my opinion nonetheless). For example, I remember a one shot I participated in where we were introducing a brand new player to Dungeons and Dragons. We were all 4th level, and were fighting a young green dragon as an end boss. The new player, a Paladin, had used a potion of flying, which the DM described as giving him two luminescent angel wings. On his next turn, just as the dragon’s breath weapon knocked out my druid (the healer) and the sorcerer (our primary damage dealer up until that point), the paladin catapulted toward the dragon, hit with a Natural 20, used Divine Smite, and slayed the beast. After the game, the DM admitted to me in a private message that really, the dragon would have had 1 hit point left, but what made for a better story? The paladin (again, played by a NEW player) charging forward with heavenly wings and smiting with the wrath of Celestia? Or the ranger shooting another mundane arrow. When there’s an epic moment that can generate a memorable finish to a fight, why does the last hit point matter?
My final piece of advice on hit points is to include more resistances and vulnerabilities to your creatures. I took this from Zee Bashew’s Making Enemies in 5e Witchery (link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhjkPv4qo5w&t=46s), and it’s only made my combats more exciting since. One of our goals in crafting exciting encounters is to reward players with engagement, meaning they’re paying attention to story clues that can help them strategize in combat. I can’t count the number of times a DM has given a lengthy and vivid description of their monster, and when I went to act on that description to give me an edge in combat, they’re response is “Well, that was for flavor. There are no mechanics to take advantage of”. To me, they might have well have said “Thank you for listening to my lengthy description. It doesn’t actually matter if you did or not. I’m just using it to justify a bunch of custom mechanics to make your life more difficult”. And I’m not picking on one person. I’ve played with a lot of different DMs, and this has come up time and time again.
Rather, wouldn’t it reward engagement if it did matter? For example, if I said, “The aboleth’s skin glistens with a slimy coat of mucus as it cranes its body over the party”, and a player said, “Slimy? If I use a cold spell, will it restrict its movement?”, I may double movement penalties caused by a ray of frost, or give it disadvantage on a Constitution save against cone of cold. If my players are engaged with my descriptions, shouldn’t I reward them for that (even if I didn’t think of it during prep)? Even better, I may have cold damage deal double to this aboleth because of their logic. By offering different creatures with different vulnerabilities, it encourages players to try different spells and damage types in order to discover what works best against each kind of enemy. And, even though they’re dealing double damage, the creature’s hit points are maxed anyways so the rhythm of the fight isn’t really disrupted.
Resistances also give the players new information. If you present a creature with a resistance (that makes sense given its lore), then players may find that their go-to damage choice isn’t working, and encourages players to prepare two or more options of damage types to switch between. This way, a player doesn’t go through multiple combats relying on a single choice, then feeling as if an encounter was designed against them because their only prepared option doesn’t work. One thing to note on vulnerabilities and resistances: I almost never use them for physical damage (bludgeoning, piercing, slashing). If a creature is resistant in this way, it's to non-magical attacks. Most martial characters are built with a single weapon specialty in mind, and often only have one weapon damage type as their only option. When a DM enforces carry weight and variant encumbrance (like I do), it also complicates matters. Fifth Edition rewards casting characters much more than martial characters as is, so reducing the complications of feeling successful as a martial character improves the health of the party’s relationships.
As for damage output, I find that many times the default monster actions tend to do a great job at conveying how hard a creature can hit. If anything, I may increase or decrease the damage die by one size (like making a 2d6 attack 2d8), but I find that the number of attacks or actions is a much more relevant value to adjust rather than the damage it hits for. Like I said before, two attacks with a +8 attack bonus can be much more deadly than one attack with a +9, and understanding how much damage a creature is likely to output has to do with its action economy (more on that later).
Saving Throw Bonuses and Spell Save DC
It makes sense that each creature would have natural defenses against certain kinds of attacks, and that they should have greater saving throw bonuses to match. Like with vulnerabilities and resistances, the key to creating an exciting encounter is to give the enemy creature a discoverable weakness the players can leverage into their strategy. Also, as said before, those high and low saving throws should be based on context clues you include in your description, encouraging your players to remain engaged with the details you give them. A spindly creature with spider-like movements may have a high Dexterity save, but hitting them with a Wisdom saving spell may have a higher chance to succeed. A calculating enemy wizard may have studied how to protect their mind, but requiring them to succeed Dexterity saves may be more difficult for them.
Now each creature in Fifth Edition has a Saving Throw bonus to each of its main six abilities. However, three of them are more common than the rest, and these are the ones that matter in terms of game balance: Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom. When designing an encounter I usually have one of these saves be higher and one be lower, or keep all of them at relatively neutral values. Like how we set AC in relation to the party’s average Attack Bonus, taking their Spell Save DC into account. A +7 bonus to a Saving Throw might not sound like much, but if a player’s Spell Save DC is only 13, then it’s more likely than not your creature will succeed its save, and the player may not feel that spell is effective.
One counter example I’ve heard is that “old monsters are old for a reason”, and that they would have developed natural defenses to these common kinds of attacks. The logic does track. An ancient dragon is ancient because it figured out how to withstand Dexterity saves, is tough enough to handle a Constitution save, and may be wily enough to avoid a Wisdom save. However, if a creature has no weakness, it's just as boring as an encounter where everything always works.
This is where I like to employ conditional weaknesses. For example, let’s say the party is fighting an ancient red dragon. The dragon has decent saves across the board, and its immunity to fire damage and resistance to cold (at least, my dragon) is proving to be a challenge. However, when the dragon tries to fly, one of my players (who played Pokémon) decides to try to hit it with a call lightning spell. While the dragon isn’t vulnerable to lightning damage, it does have disadvantage on saving throws against lightning while it’s flying. By creating a condition that reveals the creature’s weakness, it encourages the party to strategize to solve the puzzle of the combat.
The last piece of this puzzle is legendary resistances, a mechanic I despise because it’s never been used to create excitement. Because legendary resistances are only used after the DM knows that the monster’s saving throw has failed, they retroactively rewrite a player’s success by design, which can leave a player feeling that their choice was meaningless. Now this doesn’t mean I don’t use legendary resistances at all, but the form they take is definitely adjusted from the by-the-book approach.
And like each of these sections, the flip side of calculating my creature’s Saving Throw bonuses is their Spell Save DC (or just DCs for whatever nasty effect they may have up their sleeves). However, unless the creature’s main abilities will revolve around the Spell Save DC rather than Attack Rolls, I’ll try to keep the Spell Save DC a little lower (usually between 13 and 15). The reason for this is that I usually tinker with my monsters’ action economy to balance out certain effects against the party, meaning they can spam Saving Throw features that inflict conditions that can really hamper the party. Because party members are more likely to have to make these saves, to me it creates a better flow to have them succeed slightly more than they fail. If that Save DC is too high, my players can be overwhelmed easily. Like I said before though, if the party is facing off against a dedicated caster whose whole schtick is using Saving Throw spells, then the Spell Save DC will be a little higher (probably a 17 or 18), although I usually design some kind of other flaw into their Stat Block that the party can take advantage of.
In summary of this tool, keep your players’ stats in mind while setting or adjusting the stats for the creatures you want to run. If you don’t know your players’ stats, build a quick character at their level and see what stats you’d generate. It’ll give you a pretty good idea of what numbers to work with to create an exciting experience. Just remember, little changes make a big difference, and even a one point change can be the difference between an exciting battle, a frustrating one, or worse yet a boring one.
Tool #2: Action Economy
One resource that fundamentally changed the way I look at running enemy creatures was Matt Coleville’s Action Oriented Monsters video (link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_zl8WWaSyI&t=1282s), which posits that giving monsters a full action economy can change the dynamic between player characters and their foes. Most creatures don’t get a bonus action or reaction in the same way that PCs with Class Levels get. If you break down a standard action economy, a single big creature gets one turn for every four turns that an enemy party gets, which means the player character party gets to hit four times as many times as the one big monster. While this might be balanced by just giving the one big monster higher stats, like we determined earlier, four times as many actions is a very different economy then two bigger attacks.
Now there is a little bit of divergence I’ve taken from Coleville’s approach. Coleville grants his monsters extra actions that coincide with the same language as the players. Oftentimes, I ignore this mechanical language to bring my players’ attention to the action at hand, both in description and in function. Rather than have my creatures choose between casting a spell or attacking twice, I let them do both. Why? I’m the DM, I say so, and it creates more exciting encounters. Not only do my solo monsters deal damage, they usually have an additional condition-inflicting effect that can change the circumstances of the encounter. It’s one thing to know that the giant we’re fighting deals a nasty amount of damage. It’s another when they can swing twice, then use a third action to attempt to knock another creature prone with a Dexterity save. This may change the party’s strategy and position, and the team may have to pivot rolls to best deal with this threat.
Of course, another simple solution is to just add more pieces to the board you control. While I think this may ultimately slow down play (as the DM has to now remember the actions and features of more than one creature), it can work to divide the party’s attention between multiple threats and give them more targeting choices than just the one big monster.
My favorite approach lies somewhere in the middle. Have one big monster with usually two attacks and some kind of spell/condition effect, then give them a bunch of minions to annoy the party. The more variables you add to the encounter, the more chances your players have to utilize situational spells and create memorable moments.
Tool #3: Changing Circumstances
This is a term I’ve used a bit throughout this post, but it does ring true. When we talk about dynamic combat, we’re literally talking about combat that changes and progresses. Oftentimes, high level encounters amount to facing enemies with a bevy of defenses and immunities, which encourages players to choose reliable damage dealing options because there’s virtually no chance for success.
Remember how I mentioned I hate Legendary Resistances? Well this final tool is what’s turned my combat encounters from predictable, stale damage slogs into dynamic and engaging puzzles. Circumstances change as the battles progress. By including puzzle pieces like damage vulnerabilities and resistances, players at my table know that by trying different options, there is new information to discover. Newly discovered information is a change to the battle’s structure. I’m also not above changing those static values we mentioned earlier due to logical happenstance. For example, if I present a stone golem with a high AC, but a caster uses an acid spell (a damage type that’s often ignored because of its lower damage output), then often I reason that the acid erodes the golem’s tough armor, and maybe even lowers its AC, making it easier for the martial characters to hit. And those legendary resistances? Each time my players deplete a creature’s hit points past certain thresholds, my legendary monsters lose their legendary resistances accordingly. Legendary resistances prevent legendary monsters from being defeated instantly due to a bad roll against a feeblemind or eyebite spell, but having those spells never work is just as boring. So by relegating those spells toward the end of the fight, it encourages my players to save their best spells for when the legendary monster is tired and hurt, and as such can’t use legendary resistances even if they haven’t used one all fight. I distinctly remember the collective cheer at the table when my player’s lowered by ancient dragon’s hit points below 25% maximum, and I told them it meant that there were no more legendary resistances left. It’s a celebratory moment that opens the possibilities to more dramatic endings to epic set piece encounters.
My last point for this section is that you can let your players know their choice mattered through mechanical change. For example, if your players are interested in having their social interaction mid-combat affect the enemy’s behavior, have your enemy choose their targets differently. If your player has a clever description or idea, introducing game elements that can get in the way of it succeeding discourages your player from pursuing such ideas in the future. Whether a certain line of thinking excites you or not, remember that how you rule situations mechanically determines the storytelling potential you allow for at your table. And there is nothing wrong with saying “No”.
There were a few tools within tools I mentioned here, and all of this may be overwhelming to take in at first. Do note that while this is a fairly comprehensive list of the factors I take into account when designing my encounters, this was by no means learned overnight. It was years of running encounter after encounter, including small changes over time that lead to this. Hopefully you’ve found something useful in these notes, and you might even find yourself coming back to them to slowly integrate different elements. The overarching theme is to pay attention to what energizes your players. I’ve run encounters of simple goblins with no real strategy and had my players have a blast, and I’ve run more complex encounters with players feeling like it wasn’t fair. Use what works for you and leave the rest. This is just what’s worked for me, and as I learn more, I’ll be sure to share that with you as well.
Study Hard, Play Hard
World-building. It’s a term that you’ll hear in a variety of contexts including literature, cinema, television series, video games, and our usual focus, Dungeons and Dragons. A lot of Dungeon Masters became Dungeon Masters because of the creative control they have over their own world, and a lot of players come to Dungeons and Dragons to relax into an immersive experience that combines the intricacies of careful craftsmanship and the thrill of spontaneous play. It’s a space that not only allows us to momentarily escape the troubles of our real lives, but also empowers us to confront those same troubles in a practiced and graceful way. That being said, if mishandled, worldbuilding can also be confusing, exclusionary, and at its worst prohibitive to a player’s enjoyment of a D&D experience.
Now I will be the last person to downplay the value of worldbuilding when crafting an immersive experience, but the prep work alone doesn’t contribute to immersion. Immersion is all about the delivery of intricate information you as the Dungeon Master have spent time carefully crafting, and when mishandled this can have a variety of less than ideal outcomes. Reserve too much information and it's easier for the players to resist immersing themselves in your vision. Ramble too much where the players don’t have the chance to make choices and interact, and they get bored. So what’s the solution?
In my experience, it all comes down to frequent and honest communication. Some players will be more interested in the world than others. Some players will have extremely detailed backgrounds while others are fine creating characters they learn about as they go. So let’s create a space where everyone wins, including you, the world-builder.
Let Your Players Create Too
Now I will admit, my world building is nothing exceptional. I have little interest and skill in crafting highly specific settings with complex layers of intrigue and novel ideas that keep my players guessing. Most of my interesting world-building concepts are rearranged ideas from other sources (but then again, isn’t all art?). So this is a little tip that has gone a long way for me.
My players often create locations, home towns, and points of interest in their back stories that become focal points for a campaign. For example, in my latest game, I had a player create a town next to a forest of fairies. Boom. In the game. This is probably the most direct way that a player can be included in the world-building process, and it doesn’t mean you have to forgo your boundaries for creating your world. If that player mentions something about the world’s overall economy, or another major component you’ve thought through, ask what they’re really trying to convey, and then ask if you can edit or include additional details that further integrates their setting more closely with the overall world you’re creating. You’re creating something together, just like the story you’ll spontaneously tell later on at the table.
Organizing A Reference Document
Now, it goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic caused many sudden shifts for many different people. In terms of D&D, this led to a shift of at-the-table play to online play, which led to my greatest discovery: Google Drive. And this in turn led to the greatest world-building tool I’ve ever had: the Google Doc. What this tool allows for is you, the Dungeon Master, to detail a world’s common knowledge to your heart’s content, as well as include homebrew rules and systems, with your players’ understanding that you can edit and expand on information you present.
With the shift from tabletop to online gaming, one of the biggest discoveries I’ve had about myself and my gaming preferences is how much I love storytelling in gaming, and how my focus on mechanical understanding was to deliver the story I wanted to tell on my terms, without the DM telling me my idea didn’t fit what the book said. So when I sit down to DM games in my latest world, I view my players as storytelling contributors that write for their own characters, and I want them to have every tool imaginable.
So, I started with a Setting Reference Document (not to be confused with 5e’s SRD, which is a whole different can of worms). The Setting Reference Doc includes a gazetteer (in the fashion of Eberron: Rising from the Last War or Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount) with brief descriptions of the major regions that any character would reasonably know about. For an analogue to our real world, you don’t need a Harvard education to know that England has a Queen and Japan had warriors in its history named samurai. By elaborating on a few key iconic details from each region of the world, it gives each player a sense of what the overall world is like, as well as decide where their character hails from.
Once they make that decision, it’s time for a one-on-one conversation with each player. While every player knows the information in the living document about each region, I give each individual player more specific information about their home region, that they are free to share with other players (or not). This is how you create complex systems of character information without making it feel as if the DM is gating information from everyone. Each player has a little more information in one area than the others, and it allows them to express unique perspectives on different situations as the party dynamics mature and develop.
The key concept here is conversation. It’s not about hiding things from your players. It's about giving them the proper tools to allow themselves to immerse themselves into your world and ask better questions to drive the story. This happens by communicating what you want, and listening to how they communicate what they want. And it's not going to be perfect each time, but the more you respect the angle they’re taking with their character, and rewarding that with exclusive details about your world, the more trust they’ll have in you to take them through an immersive and rich experience.
Nuts and Bolts Tip: If you’re planning on using a Google Doc to communicate your world-building, expectations, or other homebrew systems, make sure you’re the only one who can edit it and the players you invite to view it are commenters. You don’t want one of your players to accidentally delete all of your hard work.
Now, I’ve played in plenty of games where I’ve really thought through the world building process. However, in the heat of the game, not every player is going to pick up on every little detail you describe, and some may not even interpret the same detail the same way. By having your world-building details written down and accessible to your players, your players can clarify details with each other. If they remember a location but don’t remember its name, they can look it up. If they hear the name of something, and they know if they’ve heard it before, they can look it up. And if your players discover secrets about the world they’re characters may not have known before, you as the DM can always update the document to contain the most detailed information all players would reasonably have access to.
There’s a certain beauty in being able to say “look it up in the doc” or “you can find it in the doc”. And just to clarify, this isn’t intended as a punishment, or a “gotcha!” It just empowers your players to create compelling characters using details you’ve provided them so that they can respect the work you’ve put in while creating unique characters that allow them to express themselves. Everyone wins.
As a DM, I’ve forgotten details. As a player, I’ve forgotten details. As a player, I’ve seen a DM forget details, and then try to scramble to pretend that they didn’t. And this situation only gets messier if none of it is written down. It gets even messier if a player wrote it down, and the DM tries to cover their butt by saying they misinterpreted or wrote it down wrong, creating tension with that player.
If anything, not only does a living document organize your thoughts and creations into a useful tool, it also keeps everyone at the table accountable. If a player tries to say they didn’t understand something you’ve made abundantly clear, other players are empowered to help you adjudicate. If you’ve made a mistake, other players have something you’ve written to keep you on track. I’ve found ever since implementing a living document detailing my world, my players have felt that I’ve been more accountable in delivering a quality experience, which has actually led to more trust in my judgment. Fear of accountability is a symptom of doubt in ability. The DM that fears accountability or being called out for a misruling they’ve laid the precedent for is one that tends to be more interested in maintaining an unbalanced power dynamic than one that’s interested in crafting the most quality experience for everyone, including themselves.
And ultimately, this is our goal. When your players are included in your thought process, imagination, and creativity, they become more interested in the little things that make your world yours. And that leads to their investment and ultimately their immersion. It’s okay to hold onto some secrets about your world for your players to discover. In fact, it’s encouraged. However, it's a whole other thing to get them to care about the secrets your world holds that they can discover. And the best way I’ve found to get players to care about your world is to make them a part of it, from its design to its play at the table.
When you present your document, I recommend running it as part of a session zero. Explain your expectations, variant game mechanics and why they’re more appropriate to the style of game you’re going for, then dive into the nitty gritty. Where are the players going to go? What races can they play, and do they conform or differ from the traditions set by the PHB? What are the problems in each region, and how could they fit into a character’s story?
A great tool to ignite a player’s imagination while character building is the ten question exercise I posed in the previous Study Hall post. If you can ground the players in the world, while also having a consistent resource for information you freely give, and give them exclusive information based on the choices they make at character creation, you present far more investment into your world, and they begin to actually care about it. That’s what increases immersion. And that’s what makes D&D so magical.
Study Hard, Play Hard
My wife and I love Star Trek.
We have for a long time, in our separate lives, and it was strangely a new discovery for the both of us as we were surfing the Netflix and Prime catalogues seeking to scratch that interstellar itch.
She began expositing on the 2009 reboot, which we were searching for, but unwilling to pay for at the time, and I chimed in on my love for Star Trek: Generations, despite how "meh" it's aged over the years. My favorite of the TNG run was always First Contact (#8 in the classic run, and #2 with the TNG crew), but I was quite pleased with the 2009 reboot.
And so...we seem to be working through a bunch of Star Trek films, rewatching old loves of cinema, and poking fun at them through a modern lens. Some stack up better than others, standing the test of time through snappy writing, strong dialogue, and some kick-ass music. In fact, that's something the 2009 Star Trek had going for it, more so than many other films that came out at the same time.
It felt like something familiar and nostalgic, despite its shiny lens-flaring new model. This effect, for those of us listening intently, was no accident. Composer Michael Giacchinno sculpted the entire soundtrack as a rising action and resolution into the original TV series theme by Alexander Courage. And the theme is heard all over the place! If one isn't careful, one might assume it's being beaten over your head, but it never feels that way. Giacchino skillfully explores the musical theme in various styles to fit the action and setting; sometimes its reverent chordal structures, other times bombastic horns and strings, sometimes just a haunting choir. It is masterfully done.
And this immersive element, coupled with great cinematography, wonderful sound design, strong characters, and excellent story beats...makes you happily overlook the moments in the story where the YouTube-critic in us all would nit-pick the hell out of it. Yes, why wasn't Vulcan already evacuating? Yeah, how the heck does Earth not have ships or planetary defenses engaging Nero? Why do the Romulans look so weird?
Still. I'm down to watch it again, and I've listened to its musical score hundreds of times.
Which got me thinking.
Film was, for many, the natural evolution of the theater. And the theater was our first great lesson in IMMERSION.
Imagine, for a moment, entering a theater with a stage that protrudes into the audience. You settle into your seats and talk amongst yourselves, perusing the program that has just been handed to you. On its front, in brilliant stylized lettering, you find the words, "The Phantom Of The Opera". Scanning the cast, you find familiar names, and new ones; some leads, some barely mentioned - perhaps you skip to the back and read up on a few. Somewhere under the stage, in a pit below, an errant violin tunes its strings, poised to play; you listen a moment longer before turning back to the program in your lap. Beyond the title, you are presented with an act structure, and, if it's a musical, the song order and who sings it. You are given the entire story's structure, framing, and resolution in a tight little package at the onset - yet there's still such an electricity in the air. This is a LIVE performance.
The lights dim, and two actors take the stage as the curtain slowly rises, revealing a destroyed and dilapidated set. A fallen chandelier rests in the center of the stage, rubble and ruin surrounding it. The two actors, well-dressed businessmen, discuss an upcoming auction and of the terrible accident that ended this theater's life. The two actors leave as the room grows darker, all eyes on the chandelier. A chill wind rolls across the stage, distant thunder booming somewhere outside. And then, you hear it.
Wind swirls around the rubble, the rocks and stone moving and shifting back into place. Lanterns and torchlight flicker to life surrounding the stage, a brilliance returning to the space. And then, the chandelier...RISES, as light flows across its crystalline visage. The stage turns back in time, drawing you in to the time before, transporting you to this story. The music, the visuals, the sounds, the smells, everything draws you to this singular moment.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is what they call an Overture.
The Death Of The Overture
An Overture is not unheard of in film. In fact, under the synonym "Opening Titles", was utilized by a multitude of film, especially those in the 90s. It was a clear and effective way to draw in your audience.
The first, and probably most iconic, overture that springs to mind...is Superman.
And who better to usher in the 1978 classic than the immortal John Williams. The guy is a masterclass in the Overture.
But what is the musical purpose of an Overture?
Well, in a stage production, it would fall into one of two categories: A Medley - showing off segments of all of the musical cues and leitmotifs you're about to experience in broader forms; or an Opening Number - a lead-in to the first big showstopping number. In film...that still happens. Star Wars is a great example of the "Opening Number" - we get the iconic theme, the text crawl, and we're into the opening scene and off running. Here, though, we are instead treated to a Medley of sorts; an extended version of the hero's theme with elements intertwined that highlight other cues in the film.
Two others fall into this framework. One, more like Superman, with a reverence and patience to its Overture, and the other with a sharp cue that pulls us directly into the opening scene, and both have beautifully stood the test of time in my memory. Let me share them with you.
Listening to these again, even after all this time, is truly an arresting experience. It quiets me. Reminds me of the sheer power and beauty of the aesthetic. Just shut up and LISTEN to that. Put your damn phone down, and listen; be drawn into this world.
And this wasn't a rare thing. I'm not that old, and yet I've watched this trend evolve, change, and steadily die. Films nowadays hold little reverence for their music, despite soundtracks being lauded. Musicians are given little time to construct a great score, and I wonder sometimes what it must be like in this modern age of speed and satisfaction to know that your audience can't seem to give you the time of day for the next few minutes so you can flex something beautiful.
And yet, we still crave it. I wonder if this immersive novelty is one of many reasons that has ensnared me with the art of cooperative storytelling. Why so many of my campaigns have evolved to support and explore deep social, emotional encounters as opposed to fast action. How so many crave the rich lore that surrounds them and beg for just another moment inside their imaginary world.
The Overture At The Table
We as gamers and masters draw each other into our collective imaginations; it is no small part of what makes this powerful hobby so rewarding. To join together in collective reverence and immersion, all in pursuit of creating a more satisfying and rewarding experience, is one of the greatest feats a table can achieve.
But that respect for each other, and your game master, is paramount.
We can set up a practiced intro crawl, different voices to set the mood, cool music to set the tone, but we need the PLAYERS to come along for the journey. And if you are a player that struggles with this; if you find yourself bored or distracted, itching for that phone or that desktop or that next round of Fall Guys...I challenge you to slow down.
I challenge you:
Walk into that theater. Sit down. Allow yourself to be drawn slowly into something magical. And when that first cue hits, ride it all the way down the rabbit hole. You might be surprised what you'll find when you allow yourself to really feel something special.
Now pick up your sword and your favorite Drink Me. The musicians are tuning their instruments...the show's about to start.
See you at the table.
PS: One more for the road. ;)
I miss my childhood.
Not just the ample time, easy access to food, friends, and conversation, or the constant knowledge that I was (luckily) loved and cared for. No, these feelings don't even come close to that overwhelming, nostalgic, feeling evoked through play.
I was always a gamer, and our family would play early and often. Board games, you know, are a huge facet of my family's life, but for my brothers and I, the most powerful past time was playing video games together.
Gathered around the dull glow of our old monitor in a dark basement, our eyes transfixed by the image of an intergalactic bounty hunter absolutely wrecking a literal brain with teeth and legs, we watch in awe as our eldest brother, Eric, plays through the climax of Super Metroid. After months of saved games, each of us trying to push a little farther than the other, eager to show and share our techniques and discovered secrets, happily competing for the lead in story acquisition - we were here: Eric was on the final boss. And though we would play on our own, we enjoyed watching each other play, entranced by seeing them retread our steps or find new ways to progress. It was this friendly competition for story and progress that served as the most formative years of my life. It is why I akin playing a video game to reading a good book; you're living the story in front of you.
And in today's world, you can easily look up countless videos of the gameplay we experienced and re-live a modicum of our excitement, but at that time, in the 90s... That was ours. No Twitch stream; no YouTube commentary; no blog post afterward. Just the memory.
No Business Being That Good
I'm going to talk to you about Donkey Kong Country.
A game released on the Super Nintendo in 1994 by Rare Entertainment, "DKC" was a side-scrolling platform game that was one of the first home console games to feature pre-rendered graphics, achieved through the compression of 3D models into sprites. The game is a reboot to the classic Donkey Kong franchise, and expands upon a simple story with new characters, over 40 levels, a main villain, and a whole family of Kongs.
You play the game with Donkey Kong and his much faster nephew, Diddy Kong. You tend to run around each level with both characters, one not controlled by the player following behind like a shaded ghost. When you take damage (or when you voluntarily hit a button), you switch between characters, the former being them getting knocked off the screen and the latter of them switching positions. With the two characters, and two controllers, you could actually play cooperatively or race each other.
Now when I say that there was an expanded plot... King K. Rool stole all of Kong's bananas. You have to get them back. Go.
Not a lot of deep thinking here. That's still more complex than "DK stole a princess and must now be defeated by a stout Italian plumber."
Where DKC shines is where many games of its time shine; its mechanics, execution, and music.
To this day, DKC stands the test of time in its mechanical flow. Moves are millisecond responsive (and they have to be, the game can be downright hard), puzzles are ingenious, it's FUN to play, the environments are slick and interesting, and the game's lessons are intrinsic and consistent. I really miss that last one the most; a good game of this era TEACHES you how to play...through playing. No random text boxes here.
It has no business being this good. Before we go any further, give this a listen:
I can see it. Every button press, the background, the beautiful graphics, and every feeling woven into exploring this new landscape, finding secrets and short-cuts, and trying my best not be eaten by a shark. Though we were Nintendo Power kids, I wasn't one to use maps or guides in the first play through - I think I wanted to experience the game without bias.
Which is so hard to achieve nowadays. Reviews are abound, and games cost a lot, and there's a NAUTICAL TON of them that are poorly made, so we don't want to waste our money. I get it.
I miss the blind trust, in a way. The belief that the game was worth investing in, so I was willing to find value in the struggle. Too often I think people get angry before they even give something a chance. It was my young belief that there was always a diamond hidden somewhere; I just have to find it.
The Second Go Made Me Cry
The first video game soundtrack I ever purchased was Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy's Kong Quest. All puns aside, the game was great, but I had the soundtrack long before I even played the game. Heck, I never owned the game; I rented it three times, and not once beat it.
But playing it marked the only other time I paused the game to legit listen to the music. The first time I did this was while playing The Legend Of Zelda: A Link To The Past to listen to the Dark World Theme, cuz I'm a monster and I needed to study to something.
THIS time around, though, it was different. And it was this track.
Maybe I was just feeling a lot that day, maybe I was just that locked in, who knows, but that level's music was ARRESTING. I paused the game and closed my eyes and listened to it four times through at least. When I opened my eyes, I felt better...and found myself crying. Quietly, simply, crying.
Now this isn't some groundbreaking piece of superior storytelling. I'm not emotionally connected to the characters on the screen, I'm not synergizing with their personal plight of retrieving bananas from a crocodile in a pirate hat, and I'm not just so invested in their personal quest that I was OVERWHELMED with feeling. The game is silly - that's not the point here.
So why THIS, why then, would I feel something so powerful?
A Connection To My Brothers
Especially to my eldest brother, Eric, who shares many of my side interests.
I think back on a specific memory; a turning point in my life.
As a family, we had a tradition. Every Thanksgiving or Christmas, we would go to the movies, as often there was some big film we all wanted to see. One year it was Batman, another year The Lion King (still one of my favorites). This year it was Apollo 13 (gifted music by the late James Horner). It was an excellent film, I remember, but then the credits rolled.
When credits roll, often that's when the audience evacuates. The story's over, why stay? I began gathering my things, following my parents and siblings out the door to fight for the restroom and be on our way. Then I looked around for Eric and didn't see him. I overheard my mother say something to the effect of, "he wants to stay and watch the credits." Intrigued, and still hero-worshipping my older brother, I ducked back inside to sit next to him and watch the credits too! And when I did, I heard this:
If you want to experience wonder, awe, beauty, and love in a piece of music, there it was. I urge you to listen to this piece in a dark room, quietly. Let it wash over you. Become open to the experience, and let the rest of the world melt away for a moment.
I miss this reverence. I miss composers that had the balls to write something only for those of us that are going to stick around.
There's no mid-credit sequence. No post-credit stinger. Just names scrolling and this masterpiece playing. I felt it in my soul, and it changed me forever.
After that time, I would consume the instrumental scores and soundtracks of every film that graced my eyes. I would listen intently to the instrumentation, electronic and symphonic, and study well the intentions of the composer to convey emotion, tension, characterization; the subtle moments between major and minor iterations, unresolved cadences, and the hidden layers of a film found in its music.
Sitting in that dark, empty room, in complete silence next to my brother...just listening...was the catalyst for the trajectory of my life. It awakened something in me. And moving forward, that extra layer of listening, has impacted how I enjoy stories and how I tell them.
It is why I write music for my campaigns. Why I spend countless hours mixing down a 25-minute medley of battle music. Why I put on sounds as people enter the "room" to invoke a certain mood or emotion.
To many, I'm sure it's just some background sounds, and to me, it matters.
Bringing It Back Around Slowly
Music moves me. It always has.
And, to be perfectly honest, in recent years and recent games and recent films, it has failed to do so. Soundtracks aren't what they used to be; they're lazier, boring, and chock-full of idiot pop music that doesn't fit. And now I sound like a crotchety old fart (get off my I-V-VI-IV lawn!).
But tell me you haven't noticed.
Everyone and their grandma can sing you the Avengers theme, but no other music is memorable enough to mention. I only took notice of Thor because of Ragnarok (and the awesome tones of Mark Mothersbaugh), and I can barely think on Captain America's theme, Captain Marvel's forgettable, Black Panther's boss (WAKANDA FOREVER), and the rest feel...distant. Yet I can sing for you note for note the entire score of 2009's Star Trek (a subject for next time).
It is strange to finally reach a point in my life where I can non-ironically say that they don't make them like they used to, and yet there's more to this than I can put into words at the moment. For now, the easy observation is that I miss the wonder that music played in my films and my games. As it is my lens, there might have been a plethora more that I missed, and many more today that can be argued...but for all this I cannot shake the striking disappointment I have in entertainment.
Disney is a money-grubbing conglomerate that will butcher its own musical backbone for a quick buck.
Composers take less and less risks each year.
The time of the fanfare, opening titles, and end credits as tracks is a rarity, rather than a staple.
And yet, the 8-bit and 80s synth wave markets are booming in certain niches. Because the rest of us still clinging to that child fishing for a diamond are eager for something special.
Never stop digging. More to say next time (maybe it'll have a point).
See you at the table.
When you play Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons long enough (especially from the DM side of the screen), you’ll start to notice some patterns in the game’s design. The most powerful magic items always bestow no more than a +3 bonus to attack and damage rolls. You almost never see the upper limit of a player’s ability score go above 20, and even from monsters they cap at an absolute ceiling of 30. No matter how many numbers you try to stack, there’s a limit to how high you’ll get your attack bonus to hit and how many hit points your character can build to. So why limit these numbers? What’s the difference between the bounded accuracy model of 5e and the treadmill model of Pathfinder? Which one is preferable, and what is the upside and downside of each?
First, let’s dive into the term “Bounded Accuracy”. Like I stated earlier, no matter how savvy you are character building, your bonus to hit can only be so high. In 5e, the upper limit to a reasonable player’s bonus to hit is fairly standard, and the upper limit to a creature’s armor class also tends to be set. Heck, even Tiamat, a literal god in Faerun, has an Armor Class of 25, meaning that anything with a higher AC has a higher AC than a god. What this does is give even lower level creatures a reasonable chance to hit a much higher level creature, even if that chance lowers with a wider power gap. It means with favorable luck (and tactics), even a lower level party can potentially defeat a much greater enemy.
Let’s compare this to the “treadmill effect” of similar d20 systems. For example, in Pathfinder, certain creatures can have ACs in the upwards of 40s, and the system rewards mathematically minded players to combine as many features as possible to create a statistically superior character with the right choices. What this ends up meaning is that a low enough level character has virtually no chance to hit a creature with a wide enough power gap. A goblin just plain won’t hit a player of a high enough level with a high enough AC. And while Pathfinder has a bevvy of conditional modifiers a clever player can take advantage of in order to close that statistical gap with careful planning, ultimately the odds are still stacked against the lower level combatant.
So let’s look at the pros of a treadmill model first. It rewards players with an exhaustive understanding of the rules (given that your table is playing by the rules-as-written, which most Pathfinder games I’ve heard tend to do) and by making optimized characters. Of course, the cons are that the encounters that a Game Master can use are bounded in scope. At one point, if the minions of one tier are no longer valid threats, they have to use minions of an appropriate tier. The minions have to keep up with the players, which may feel forced or may not make sense in the context of the world.
The pros of a Bounded Accuracy model like D&D are that the numbers tend to be simpler. Rather than having players focus on mechanical advantages they can leverage to statistical superiority, a bounded accuracy model brings the focus of play to description and effects, and although numbers are relevant, oftentimes it's the qualities and conditions of the pieces in play that make D&D combat engaging. A goblin has the possibility of hitting a 20th level player character in 5e, meaning they can still present a threat in high numbers or if they get to attack with advantage. The con of course, is that players that use quantities to measure their character’s power may not be rewarded for optimizing their character. After all, especially when using standard arrays, there are only so many “optimized” builds you can create in 5e’s system.
In his series Happy Fun Hour, Mike Mearls once said that “the more small choices you give players when making a character, the more small schisms in power you’re creating”. To find evidence of this, look no further than 5e’s Feat system in comparison to Pathfinder. In Pathfinder, feats are small bonuses to your character you get every other level (at least from what I can remember, I have a very obvious bias here). In 5e, Feats are larger packages of benefits you get every fourth level, meaning that 5e characters usually only get five opportunities to customize their characters in this way. These larger choices mean that the schisms in power are also less in number, and more importantly, more obvious. I’ve had plenty of conversations with Pathfinder enthusiasts that to make some character concepts work, there is a specific chain of feats needed. While some may argue it exists in 5e, the need is far smaller.
So Why Do We Care?
Great question. I mean, like I say in most of these, it’s the question to end all questions.
My answer is that understanding the design process behind a game system allows the adjudicator of that system (in this case the Dungeon Master) to deliver an experience with greater skill and information. If a DM understands that only the most powerful creatures of a realm have an AC of 25, it gives them a reference on how strong a creature they create is in relation to the party in a more meaningful way. If a DM wants to create custom content, including magic items, subclasses, or custom features, they know how to balance that content in relation to the system.
As silly as it sounds, creating a +4 magic weapon in 5e actually breaks the system, whether you agree with it or not. It breaks the upper limit of the Bounded Accuracy model the system is intentionally designed with, and if you try to fix this break with stronger monsters, then you risk changing to the treadmill model of Pathfinder, and the focus of the game changes.
Bounded Accuracy exists so that players will actually think less about the game’s math and more about the game’s story. 5e’s mechanics are intentionally simple and flexible to allow DMs to deliver custom, satisfying experiences to their players. The mechanics are a tool, not the experience, and by understanding the design process, it empowers a DM to create their own custom content to deepen their world without breaking the system that’s been so elegantly crafted for them.
That isn’t to say you should never mess with rules or purposely break your own system to deliver a specific experience: it just means if you break the rules, you’re doing so intentionally with knowledge of some of the consequences of doing so. I’ve played with +4 and +5 weapons before, and it leads to disastrous power gaps that invalidate the stories of other party members. (Now putting such abilities on some kind of charge mechanic…)
So that’s all I have to say on Bounded Accuracy for now. Hopefully this gives y’all something to chew on, especially for the creative DMs out there.
Study Hard, Play Hard
A while ago, Adamus released a blog post detailing ten questions that he asks his players in order to create dynamic stories and engaging characters. Recently, I did a similar practice, and asked ten of my own questions as part of a session zero for my latest story-based campaign. This is due to some profound discoveries I’ve made about myself and my relationship with Dungeons and Dragons, including that I’m energized by story developments over combat, and that my focus on mechanics has been motivated by story reasons, not quantitative ones. I want to tell my character’s story, not have it told to me by the Dungeon Master.
The centerpiece of all my favorite stories is the characters. A hackneyed plot can be saved by unique and deep character development, while often the opposite can’t be true. I tend to reject stories that have deep world building that lack great characters. So what makes a great character?
Personally, I find my favorite characters to have the following traits:
1) Great characters have some kind of conflict, whether it’s the conflict of their view versus reality, or a conflict between what they preach versus how they act. However this conflict manifests, it’s something that hangs over their head.
2). Great characters learn as they go. They aren’t the same person at the end of their story as they were at the beginning. I find characters that repeat the same mistakes over and over again to be frustrating, especially if the lesson they learn is the same one. That doesn’t mean their character has to do a 180 every time they fail, but there should be some kind of change, even if it’s gradual.
3). Great characters have a goal, even if it changes as it goes. Sometimes I’ll hear, “My character doesn’t have a goal. They’re just in it for the coin.” THAT’S A GOAL! They do stuff because they want stuff. And just because they start a journey where they’re in it for the money doesn’t mean they don’t create attachments and relationships as the story progresses. In fact, that may create a conflict that they learn from, changing their goal as they go. It can be a cycle.
Obviously this is a gross reduction of the complexity we could discuss when it comes to great characterization, but the last point I’d like to make is that none of these traits have to be big in scope. Some of my favorite stories are more intimate, personal journeys than they are grand quests that span the globe. Aang’s quest (from Avatar: The Last Airbender, now on Netflix and you should totally watch it) to convey his feelings to Katara is just as if not more important to him than defeating Fire Lord Ozai and saving the world from the Fire Nation military. Another great example is the Mandalorian, where the titular character’s quest of protecting Baby Yoda (don’t care what his canon name is) tends to be more praised than the entirety of The Rise of Skywalker. The rise of stakes does not mean the rise of investment, and often it’s the little changes that make the biggest difference.
So with that in mind, the ten questions I asked my players were intended to ignite their creative energy and deepen their understanding of the characters they wanted to portray. I started by asking my players these questions sequentially, gave them some time to let them simmer, and then worked through each question with the players in one-on-one follow up conversations. That way, they wouldn’t feel silly in front of other people. It was just them and me.
Here are the ten (and some of them have multiple parts):
1). Where were you born, and who was your family? Are any of them still alive?
2). Did you grow up in poverty, nobility, or the middle class?
3). How did you come upon your current profession (character class)? Who trained you?
4). Who else helped or hindered you along the way?
5). What’s your character’s view on politics and religion? (Ambivalence is a perfectly fine answer)
6). What is your character’s current goal(s)?
7). What does your character regret?
8). What lie does your character tell themselves to make things easier?
9). How does your character see their story ending?
10). How is your character acquainted with the party, or what about the mission hooked them in?
Now the first six are standard fare session zero questions. There are plenty of content creators that have spoken eloquently to the value of considering those factors when designing a character and their story, especially if you want to prepare your players to be situated in the world.
Question 1 allows the DM to give you extra information on your home town or region that you as a player can leverage in-game by calling out specific details that heighten the table’s immersion.
Questions 2 and 5 may heavily impact your outlook on the world and social dynamics.
Question 3 grounds your character’s abilities in the world.
The second half of Question 1, the second half of Question 3, and all of Question 4 help create NPCs that the DM can use as informants, allies, and even possibly rivals for your character.
And, Question 6 gives your character a motive and direction to create their own objectives if they so choose.
You’d be surprised how many players have trouble with Question 6. Until they get into gameplay, goals may feel abstract or silly. After all, the DM gives the party their initial mission that then helps the players leverage into proactive goals, right?
Questions 7 and 8 are the ones I noticed give my players pause. At Session Zero, nothing about them seemed too out of the ordinary, but in one-on-one conversations, every single one of my players had to take extra time to answer them. They’re hard questions we as a culture don’t have enough practice in exploring in an articulate way, and by making Dungeons and Dragons a safe space where you get to make an entirely new person to explore these questions, it can give us judgment-free practice to ask these questions of ourselves.
Now to pause for a second, let me make this clear: D&D is not therapy. It can feel therapeutic, but it is not a substitute for therapy. Your friends are not therapists, and even if they are, a recreational game is not the place for dealing with very real issues of mental health and wellness. What I’m saying here is that tabletop role-playing can be a launch pad for personal growth and development, but I will repeat: This is not therapy. Therapy is therapy. D&D is D&D. Both are valuable, both have their place, and there are many professionals much smarter and much more equipped than me that can speak to D&D’s relationship to therapy as a supplement, not a substitute.
With that out of the way, we have another interesting thought experiment with Question 9. How does your character see their story ending? This can be an easy one to dismiss by saying “They don’t think about that”, but if forced to come up with an answer, what would you say? It’s another hard question, but again allows for a safe space exercise to really map out your character’s arc. And just like any of these questions, the answer can change over time.
And then Question 10…is just more standard stuff. Build an adventurer, someone who can at least have a coworker relationship with the party if not an invested friendship.
Really, the meat and potatoes of these questions are 7, 8, and 9, and how they can inform the answers for earlier questions. I can’t tell you the number of times having conversations that a player would give me a regret and I would reply “Does that inform your goal?” or “That sounds like someone that hindered you along the way”. These questions aren’t disconnected from each other.
Now just to give an example of how these questions fit together, let’s go back to talk about our Last Airbender, Aang, and how we might answer these questions for him:
1). Aang comes from the Southern Air Temple, and his family is unknown.
2). Aang grew up with the Air Nomads, meaning he lives outside of the economic hierarchy of most communities. Technically, this also means he’s impoverished.
3). Aang was trained by Monk Gyatso, who taught him everything he knows about Airbending (abilities of which would be reflected in his character class). Later, he learns to communicate with his past life, Avatar Roku, in order to learn what it means to be the Avatar (again, reflected in his character class).
4). Aang is helped by the waterbender that discovered him, Katara, and her brother Sokka. He is often hindered by his rival, the Firebending Prince Zuko (we’re talking just season 1, so no spoilers).
5). Aang is technically the center of a loose religion dedicated to the Avatar, of which he’s a Messiah figure tasked to rebalance the world. He detests the War, and has vowed to defeat Fire Lord Ozai to end it.
6). Aang’s current goal (season 1) is to travel to the North Pole and learn waterbending, after which he’ll learn earth and fire so he’ll be properly trained when taking on Ozai.
7). Aang regrets leaving the Southern Air Temple, believing he could’ve helped fight off the Fire Nation invaders if he had stayed behind.
8). One of the reasons Aang is such a dynamic character is because of how he lies to himself. One of the best lies is “I’m just a simple monk” before entertaining a flock of young girls.
9). Aang isn’t sure how his story will end, but as he progresses through Season 1, he can at least see the end of his current arc: becoming a master waterbender.
10). Aang joined the party when Katara discovered him in the iceberg.
Now to drive this point home further, Avatar was awarded the Peabody award for excellent character development. Part of this is that Aang’s rival, Prince Zuko, can answer these questions as well (if not better) than the protagonist himself.
1). Fire Prince Zuko is the son of Fire Lord Ozai of the Fire Nation.
2). He was born into nobility and is accustomed to underlings following his orders.
3). He’s still being taught firebending and philosophy by his Uncle Iroh, who is his greatest ally on the hunt for the Avatar.
4). His father permanently scarred his face after publically forcing him into a duel after “dishonoring” him, and his current efforts are often hindered by the interference of the Fire Nation’s Commander Zhao.
5). Zuko believes the Fire Nation will win the war, and although he believes the Avatar is still alive, he rejects any worship of him.
6). Zuko’s current goal is to defeat the Avatar and regain his lost honor following the duel with his father, Fire Lord Ozai.
7). Zuko regrets having spoken up at a war meeting, where he criticized the heartless tactics of a high ranking Fire Lord officer. His father interpreted this as dishonoring his family, and the Fire Lord punished him in a highly publicized duel where Zuko was scarred.
8). The lie Zuko tells himself is that if he defeats the Avatar, his father will finally love him.
9). Zuko sees his story ending by defeating Aang in combat and returning home with honor, where he’ll inherit the throne of the Fire Lord.
10). Zuko met the party after seeing a column of light caused by Aang’s reawakening from the Iceberg.
Now you tell me. Which character sounds more compelling? I’ve done this exercise myself with the character’s I’m currently playing, and it’s revealed a lot about them and my preferences in character creation. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself too as you answer them for your characters.
I’m excited to hear your thoughts about this. If you found this blog through Facebook, make sure to comment below or shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Study Hard, Play Hard,
Campaign: Ionian Shadowfell, across the Ocean Styx
When: as Styx is flooded in direct parallel to the Material Plane being flooded, we must be somewhere in the 4th Age Of Shar.
The Ionian Shadowfell
In Dungeons & Dragons's legacy, the Shadowfell is a bleak, desolate place full of decay and death. A dark reflection of the Material Plane, like a mourning echo, it is said to pull color and vitality away from those that pass into it, like color itself were bleached from its lands. As a mirror to the Material world, its geography is similar, but not identical, and because it passes into the prime world much the same way the Ethereal Plane would, skilled arcanists and cosmologists can use the Shadowfell as a means to travel great distances across the known world.
But to LIVE in the Shadowfell is very different. Adventurers of any merit would have been unheard of, as it is assumed that creatures who reside here are so devoid of hope and purpose that they would never amount to more than a pile of sad, broken bits of useless flesh and bone...
But that's boring and stupid sad.
So in Ionian Lore, there came a moment in cosmological history called The Sewing. As the Astral Seas churned, the Material Plane found its seasons in the Elemental Chaos, its laws and legends by the positive and negative planes beyond, and its magic from the influences of the multiverse. And the days and nights...from the Feywild and Shadowfell.
At the close of the 3rd Age of Io, when an Ancient called The Riftskin tore open the Plane Of Water and the battlefields of Acheron, a flood of magic and mayhem spilled across the Material Plane. However, its echoes - the Feywild and the Shadowfell, so too mirrored this cataclysm, and what they tore open...was each other.
Influences of the Fey seeped into the lands of Shadow, while dark beings wormed their way into the lands of fairies beyond. The Darklands gained surges of color and inspiration, and the Torchwick gained its first true form of depression and malice. Tears and veils between both worlds; pockets and portals shifting with the tides. These connections - new threads of travel and magic - would help maintain the vitality of both planes. At least, for now...
And with this, a surge of vitality. Inspiration, heroism, and creatures who come from dark beginnings fighting for purpose and perhaps a small measure of good, whilst surrounded by vampire lords, devilish valkyries, and a flooded ocean of the dead.
The War Of Dominion (Shar 146-195)
As the pirate lords of The Ashen Horn and Scarborough battled for dominance over the new world in the Material Plane, their parallels did the same, carving out new territory across the Ocean Styx and claiming dominion over the ruined and dissonant nations still scrambling to survive.
During this time, five cities arose to seize power.
The Valkurym Of The Evernight - the Honor Guard of the Shadowfell's Capitol
The Thuulian Imperium - a motivated sect of Mindflayer engineers and alchemists.
The Brakenork of Krakenspire - The Orks of the Blake - an orc-like civilization that values strength and renown.
The Factories Of Kennrock - Eldritch machines and industrial weaponry.
The Gladiators Of Jotunheim - a city of many races, battle, and coin.
The next 50 years would cut a bloody swath across the dark sea, where no nation was safe and no action disavowed. In the chaos, the Valkurym, with their dread wings and fallen celestial tactics, easily seized control of the skies. After only 10 years in the fray, they rained fire upon Jotunheim and Kennrock, reducing the proud cities nearly to rubble. Each swore allegiance to the Evernight, if only to cease the heavenly onslaught.
Meanwhile, the seas churned with cannon fire, blood, and steel. Dennisen Thuul, Lord King Corsair of the Mindscythe, was busy. The Mindscythe is a ship of legend; living and breathing and slicing through the black sea, it sails as if to drink the ocean dry. Flanked by his vicious Echo Fleet, Dennisen, in the name of the Imperium, continued to stake and stretch the borders on his massive nation. Only the proud barbarian Orks of the Blake were able to push Dennisen back from their waters, but only just. And as the Mindflayer nation continued to sink its tendrils into the fallen ruins and outposts deep beneath the Styx, a sixth nation chose neutrality in the conflict.
These would be the Artisans of the Kuriale.
A nation of twin cities, Onyxheart and Undraaken, Kuriale was tasked with protecting the ancient relics drudged up from the flooded ruins beneath the Ocean Styx. They are a mixed people of elven tribes; beliefs in high art, study, and creative expression rule their ideals, laws, and exports. In fact, marked at the edge of the Azraelian Kretch, they are the region's main source of magical weapons, items, potions, scrolls, and magical services.
Though news of the War reached their shores quickly, the people of Kuriale decided against entering the conflict. In fact, when Jotunheim and Krakenspire each approached the Artisan Guilds for aid, the Drow council of Onyxheart emphatically refused. Even the sister city of Undraaken, and their Council of Seven, spoke no ill will of the visiting nations, but declared themselves neutral ground to any side. No trade, however, was to be given to participants in the conflict.
And though Kuriale remained neutral in this conflict for its total 54 years of bloodshed, this choice painted them as cowards on every side. Their kindness was exploited, and their artisan work raided and plundered by every city. Though they remain nearly pacifists, the backlash following the Dominion War has forced the city to raise its own elemental protections.
The Plight Of The Drow
Under the Evernight Vale (the region where our main campaign began) Drow women are not treated particularly badly, but they tend to be pushed toward lower class work and servanthood. However, the males of the species, are treated more like cattle. Creatures to be herded, expendable, and worthless; a leftover stigma from the soldiers of Lolth.
This belief, especially the latter, has informed an extra layer of prejudice toward the Kuriale, especially their "princes." The Vampire Lords, their Courts, and others with cruel, long memory enjoy dominating these Drow; crushing their will and expression, as a last insult to their neutrality. Even the White Court, the most empathetic of the Vampire Lords, deem these creatures "mongrels," as they chose indecision over carving their own destiny...so they must deserve to be forever used and manipulated. Many Lords will take these Drow and use them as humiliating labor, then toss them to the hounds, or sell them to another Lord as a joke. But those that have been around long enough realize the value a Kuriale can have, even as a bargaining chip, and will risk renown and rebuke to protect all those that cross their threshold, even if they dominate them first to steal claim from another more vicious lord.
The Difficulty Of Prejudice and Racism
Though these elements exist in the world, none of them are painted in a positive light. When they have shown up, the players are distinctly uncomfortable or frustrated, and will find ways to either divert attention away, cause a disturbance, or even try to undermine the system from within. They know it's wrong, and though they don't have a lot of power yet, they're planning to fix it. No matter our setting, the players nor the DM are siding with these manipulative Lords and Ladies; it's definitely NOT a good thing.
But it IS the Shadowfell, and I am honored to share a table with people mature enough to tackle these painful challenges and seek the light on the other side.
No matter what realm we share, it's worth it to fight for one another.
See you at the table.
“You remember the Deal we made, right? You would give me the power to be free of my oppressors, and in return, I would smite those who defied your calling. My Vow is still ironclad, and I hear your Commandments. Mother Night, Mother Night, by the call of your Moonlight. I am here to rectify the evil deeds of those that spread horrific Blight. I will become a monster in others’ Sight, and with your Grace the Shadows grant me Flight.”
That’s the back story of a character I’ve been role-playing in a game that started as a spontaneous pick-up game with a few players toward the start of Quarantine. So, I ask you, based on this text alone, which class am I playing? And no, it’s not a multiclass. It’s a single class build, using some Unearthed Arcana material, but even so I could build the same character without the UA.
I’ll give you another second. Ready?
Is it a Warlock? Maybe. After all, the text references a “Deal”, which is a common term used in warlock back stories involving Pacts.
Is it a Paladin? Maybe. Apparently this character made a capital-V Vow, a role-playing feature of Paladins included in every one of their subclasses.
Maybe it’s a Cleric? Commandments are a common characteristic of Pantheons in D&D worlds, which are highlighted in the latest official product, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount.
Maybe it’s a different character entirely. Still curious?
The answer is…drum roll please…option number 3! This text describes a Cleric, an agent of the lesser deity Mother Night who calls upon the Domain of Twilight to grant flight while in darkness. Are the other options wrong? Certainly not. All of the other classes I mentioned fit the story I wanted to tell, and there were even some classes I didn’t mention that might have also fit the bill. Shadow sorcerer, Shadow monk, even maybe a Fighter that had a religious element to their story. The thing that made me choose Cleric though was its play style.
Recognizing Play Style
Each turn in combat, a player can choose how to use their action, movement, and possibly a bonus action. Here, play style refers to how each character class makes the most out of those options, and also what a character’s player needs to keep in mind to make the most of their class features and spells.
For example, a rogue player tries to make the most out of each attack every turn, because, unlike other martial classes, they don’t get an extra attack when they take the Attack action. However, if the right conditions are met, a rogue can sneak attack, and a single hit can deliver damage more efficiently than any other martial class (key word, efficiently). So, a rogue player pays attention to which enemies have a hostile creature next to them to know which creatures would take the most damage from their one attack. Then, they can use their bonus action to get out of dodge and reposition for their next turn.
A monk on the other hand can make a free unarmed strike as a bonus action, given that they’ve attacked with a monk weapon or unarmed strike already that turn. While a monk can reposition as its bonus action, there’s a ki cost that goes with it, so it usually is more efficient to double down on attacking the nearest creature. And, while a rogue only gets one attack that can deal a lot of damage to a single target, a monk has a lot of chances to hit, but the damage of each hit is much less by comparison.
This comparison is an example of a difference in play style. Both classes are regarded as mobile, Dexterity-based characters that can move easily around a grid and roll high on initiative. However, what each player needs to be effective, as well as what they prioritize, are going to be different. Rogues are team dependent; they need an ally willing to be within melee range of their target to be effective. Monks are great initiators; while they don’t need an ally to let off their flurry of attacks, each attack may also land a stunning strike, which by its namesake inflicts the Stunned condition on the target and potentially setting up the rogue’s sneak attack.
Which is the last little nugget of wisdom I’ll leave in this section: as valuable as it is to recognize play style, it’s even more valuable to recognize the play style of your fellow party members so you can all play off of each other.
Earlier, I wrote a blog post on the Four Roles you typically find in a D&D party. To recap, you’ve got:
-Tank: Someone who draws an enemy's attention and can take damage
-DPR: Someone who can efficiently and reliably deal damage
-Support: Someone who heals and empowers allies
-Control: Someone who compromises the decision-making power of opponents
When we talk about each class’s play style, we’re also talking about the category of role your decision falls under. Roles aren’t something that’s static to a character. Often, they’re a turn by turn decision you’re making for the party’s benefit.
A rogue sneak attacks an enemy: DPR decision.
Same rogue uses their action to administer a healing potion: Support decision.
Now some classes do this more efficiently than others, and have garnered a reputation of fulfilling certain roles well. But a class isn’t defined by its reputation or story, but by the concrete choices it gives its player to interact with the game state.
So Why Do We Care?
The question to end all questions. Let’s bring it back to the above example. Oftentimes, I hear DMs and fellow players give character-building advice through incomplete ideas. If we look at the character example I started this post with, I can already hear the voices of individuals I know that would say, “Well it has to be (insert opinion here)”. And the question I always ask is, “Does it have to be?”
While this may belabor a point I made earlier, one way to look at a class is by the concrete choices it grants you, not its prescribed lore. Do you want to have gained your powers through a Deal? Sounds like a Warlock to me! But maybe you don’t want to just cast eldritch blast again and again. Maybe your pact granted you supernatural auras and the ability to channel energy through your sword. With this perspective, paladin would probably be a better option.
The reason we care is because we want to tell the story we want to tell, and the mechanics we’re offered by our class are the expression of that story. We’re looking for the marriage of the story we want to tell with the mechanics that let us tell that story. Sometimes, that marriage is found in an unlikely place. You tell the story usually given to a warlock through the mechanics of a chain-smoking cleric recovering from trauma. Sometimes, the story of an aspiring entertainer is told through the mechanics of a warlock.
If you’re like me and love to help new players discover the wonder of D&D, I urge you to keep this mind. Listen to what they want their character to do, not the backstory of where their character came from. If they want to fight like a hardened warrior, guide them to a class that lets them be a hardened warrior. If they want to fight cleverly with a bow, offer them the classes that have a bow (and how to understand the differences between them).
Each Class's Schtick
Now, to conclude this little segment, I’ll just lay out what each class does most efficiently and one of their weaknesses. These are little blurbs, not all encompassing descriptions. We’re also posting further breakdowns of each of these classes on our YouTube channel (DM Shower Thoughts, go subscribe now), so if this kind of stuff tickles your fancy go check it out. Without further ado, here we go:
Barbarian – Great tank, melee DPR, and very survivable, not great at all ranges
Bard – Great single target support, Single target healing, most offensive spells are Wisdom saving throws (kind of limiting)
Cleric – Excellent ability to pivot from Support to Control to DPR, not the most efficient healers but they have healing options
Druid – Excellent healers and controllers, set up allies very well, not very good DPR
Fighter – Spammable, short rest abilities, easy to understand, can be outperformed by other classes in a similar specialty
Monk – Great movement and single target control, very independent, not as good DPR as you’d think
Paladin – Excellent passive support with auras, competitive damage with smites, not great at all ranges
Ranger – Oof, What are they good at? (Kidding), Competitive DPR, great support and control options, many iconic abilities are too situational
Rogue – The DPR class. Like the most consistent one. Great action economy, but it does need a team that acts like a team to work right
Sorcerer – Efficient and flexible action economy, limited by their spells known
Warlock – Eldritch Blast engines, lots of customization, even fewer spellcasting options than Sorcerer
Wizard – Lots of utility, support, control, and damage options. Squishier than French Fries left in the fridge
Artificer – The Support/Control master, maybe even more so than the Wizard. Extremely hard to manage and not for new players.
Well that’s my genius (?) breakdown of each class’s play style. Like I said, any mechanics of a class can be re-flavored to match the story in your head. The key thing is to understand how a class actually works in the context of 5e’s system, and then to tell the story of why it works that way. Play style and action economy can be abstract concepts to wrap your head around, but once you do, a whole new level to the D&D play experience reveals itself to you to enrich your games and your understanding of yourself and others. And after all, isn’t being our best self what we’re all about?
Study Hard, Play Hard
We’ve all been there. We’ve all been a Beginner at some point in our lives, and hopefully even as we navigate adulthood we’ll never lose the joyous curiosity that comes with the Beginner’s Mind. Whether it’s Benjamin Hoff describing the childlike wonder of the Uncarved Block in The Tao of Pooh or coming to Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, being a beginner is both a wondrous and terrifying place.
In terms of D&D, oftentimes a beginner’s expectations are colored by either the common (often reductive) portrayals of TTRPGs in mainstream media or assume the game functions in a way it doesn’t based on their experiences with RPG video games. This means a Dungeon Master has a monumental responsibility in guiding new players to discover the most out of their experience. After all, as a Dungeon Master, you may be the individual that’s responsible for how someone views tabletop role-playing as a whole, and a bad experience can sour someone’s taste for years or possibly their whole life. And while that may sound a little dramatic, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. So my question is, what are they going to walk away with? Are they going to bask in the sheer creative possibility this space provides? Are they going to discover something new about themselves through the characters they portray? Are they going to go on and become a Dungeon Master in their own right, and be empowered to tell their own stories when all is said and done? How are you going to introduce them to this grand, sometimes overwhelming new world?
Now as with all responsibilities, you will make mistakes. That’s what this game is all about: how we deal with both failure and success. After all, it’s what the d20 represents. The best laid plans could fail and the most cockamamie of schemes can succeed. How you handle these mistakes and your tolerance to forgive others will set the standard for how others are expected to behave, and also set the mood for the new player you’ve invited to your table.
Before we proceed, I do have a small disclosure. If you’re a new DM, be kind to yourself. Like I said, you’re human and you’ll make mistakes. If it’s not in your rulings, it’ll be with handling the passionate personalities you’re bound to attract playing this kind of game. If you’re a new player, don’t sweat the small stuff. Most people are playing to tell a great story (which doesn’t necessarily mean structured or coherent), and forgetting how bonus actions work or forgetting that random racial feature that grants you advantage on saving throws against poison isn’t going to make or break a game. Come to this experience with respect and empathy, and you’ll create a culture of trust where everyone can have fun.
There are also a lot of soft skills I can’t teach through text like this. They come through experience and learning from the mistakes you will make along the way. The kind of actionable advice I can give has to do with creating an environment that reduces resistance to learning what D&D is all about. Through my experience, I’ve found that the easiest way to introduce a new player to D&D is what we’ve coined the Rule of Three: have a three hour one-shot session with characters built to 3rd level that touches on all three pillars of play.
Now I’ve introduced a lot of new players to D&D, and as I write this, I’m reflecting on every time I’ve DM’d a game with a new player, and whether or not their experience would have been enhanced by this simple setup. I’ve thankfully never had a game where I’ve turned off someone from TTRPGs (at least to my knowledge), but I do wonder how a new player’s experience could have been deepened if I approached it with these three conditions.
One more time, if a list is easier to visually process, here are the three parameters:
1. Plan for a three hour one-shot session
2. Have everyone build or play 3rd level characters
3. Include all three pillars of play
A Three Hour One-Shot
The bane of most regular D&D games is scheduling. The more people in the party, the more powerful the scheduling demon becomes and the more likely the game will stagnate and end. This is also why I’ve included this suggestion first. If a new player can’t commit to at least a three hour session, then the likelihood they’ll experience any meaningful play is reduced. That being said, I’ve also experienced games that go WAY too long. A six or seven hour session can be brutal to players (depending on their personality), and asking everyone to block out that amount of time can be prohibitive to some individuals based on their life schedule.
So if you’re a DM, plan for a three hour one-shot. Even if your usual group is in the middle of a long running campaign, it’s okay to take a break with a one shot to introduce a new player (especially if they’re friends with your usual play group). Three hours includes enough time to experience the three pillars of play (one pillar per hour) and for the party to have meaningful interactions with itself or the world.
As this is a one-shot, I would plan for the session to resolve itself before its conclusion. Plan a rough beginning, middle, and end, with wiggle room for if things go awry. After all, that’s what D&D is all about.
A 3rd-Level Character
Level 3 has a certain magic to it in 5e’s design (pun intended). Every character class is guaranteed to have a subclass feature by that level, every character has enough hit points to reduce the chances of a one hit KO, and spellcasters have enough spell slots to play with lower level spells and feel the power their class has to offer. Every character class also gets most of their distinctive features by 3rd level, and most have access to their full action economy. It’s a great place to learn and play without the fear of instant death on a wrong choice.
When it comes to creating a new player’s first character, I would sit down and build the character with them. This way, you know what to expect from their character’s features and how you might adjudicate them, rather than being blindsided by a rule you’ve forgotten and potentially taking time away from their first three hour session.
In terms of ability scores, I’m partial to using an ability score array (especially for a new player), and having that boundary with every player participating in the one shot. This way, the new player won’t feel over or underpowered based on sheer luck at character creation. Everyone starts with the same array, evening the playing field.
When it comes to picking race, class, and background, let the new player make the final choice, but remember that you’re there to clarify what those choices are without overwhelming them. Do they want to play an effective archer? Fighter, Ranger, or Rogue can all work. Do they want to be a nature lover that casts healing magic? Druid may be an obvious choice, but there is Nature Cleric if they want it. Do they want to be tough and sturdy? They may be leaning toward a dwarf or half orc for the race, which are different but share sturdiness as their common trait. In any of these cases, a 3rd level character will tap into the power of those choices and get a feel for the unique character they’ve made.
During this stage, I tend to offer choices found in the Player’s Handbook. While the supplementary material in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Volo’s Guide to Monsters and so on is fun and interesting, it can be overwhelming to a new player just trying to build a dude that swings an axe. That being said, oftentimes I’ll have excited players that will do their homework and come to me asking about specific material they’re interested in playing.
“I’ve always wanted to play a khajit from Skyrim, and I think a tabaxi monk would be cool!”
Sure! For cases like this, the only other boundary I have is that we’ll stick to official material for this session. No homebrew or Unearthed Arcana allowed, because they may not give a representative experience of play.
The final great point about using 3rd level characters is that each class’s definitive action economy is present. 3rd level Rogues can attack as an action, and then disengage as a Bonus Action. A 3rd level Cleric can cast healing word before using their action to cast sacred flame (but not bless). A 3rd level Barbarian needs to remember to bonus action rage BEFORE going in for their reckless attack. Although they don’t yet have the best or most efficient features a class may offer, a new player will still understand the distinction between the classes much more clearly than with 1st level characters.
Three Pillars Of Play
Dungeons and Dragons is designed to take players through three different kinds of scenarios dubbed by WoTC as the “Three Pillars of Play”. These are Social Interaction, Exploration, and Combat, and gameplay becomes more structured as we move in that order. In order to have a holistic experience with 5e, a new player should experience all three of these pillars in one way or another.
The easiest should be Social Interaction. Whether haggling with a merchant or intimidating a goblin scout, social interaction tends to be less structured than the other two pillars. Sometimes mechanics come into play, such as through Charisma checks or conditions like charmed or frightened, but often times how a social interaction resolves is up to a player’s approach. Dialogue and role-play are the heart of this game for a lot of individuals, and it’s not unusual for a new player to gravitate toward the “talk our way out of this” approach rather than the “stab it until it dies” approach.
The middle ground of structure is Exploration. Now recently I’ve become acquainted with an up-and-coming YouTube channel called Dungeon Coach (you should seriously check him out and subscribe, he’s got some quality content). He described Exploration perfectly, which is as “encounters and puzzles”. Sometimes, this means discovering a new section or quality of an environment. Sometimes this means solving a riddle or putting clues together. There are many players who are enamored with the world building of D&D, and you may find that you have a new player that wants to explore every nook and cranny of the environment you’ve put them in. This curiosity can be well rewarded with new knowledge about the world, their current predicament, or through additional options they take advantage of in combat.
Combat is by far the most structured pillar of play, and time in the game world comes to a screeching halt when the DM cries “Roll for Initiative!” Combat in D&D is handled in rounds and turns, and on each turn each participant in the combat has only a few options they can choose before the next participant’s turn. Teaching a new player what they can and can’t do on their turn can be difficult, especially if you have a veteran group that tries to generate momentum in a fight’s flow.
One suggestion I’ve seen is having a small card describing what a creature can do with its action. It’s also likely that the player will have bonus actions available, which you can give them friendly reminders on (especially if you helped them build their character). I’ve even heard of DM’s giving players check boxes to remind them of when they’ve used certain parts of their turn, like Movement, an Action, Bonus Action, and maybe even a Reaction. You’ll find each player processes the structure of combat differently. Some need visuals, description, or something tactile they can manipulate (like a mini). No matter how they process information, just remember to be patient. They’re a beginner, and how you treat them as such will define your relationship as Player and DM for many games to come.
So now the game is over! The world has been explored, NPCs have been spoken with, and combat has resolved. The 3rd level characters have completed their adventure together, and everyone is packing up to leave.
Following up is just as important to the D&D experience as the set up, and the closer you can do it to the conclusion of the session the better. I’ve always found more specific questions to be more insightful as a DM. For example, asking which part they liked the best, or what their favorite moment was (as opposed to “Was it good?”). I’ll even go so far as to ask which class feature they liked the best, especially if they were a spellcaster that used several different options.
Asking questions like this will reveal a lot about who they are as a person and a player, and it will help clarify which style of game may suit them best. Sometimes, you may not even be the best DM for the job, but if you have a trusting enough network you can recommend someone who is. There have been plenty of times I get a hardcore role-player in one of my games whose looking for a structured epic narrative and I recommend them to Adamus, as my games tend to be on the sillier side (with some notable exceptions).
Sometimes you’ll have a player give a suggestion. My recommendation here is to be the gatekeeper to your own mind. Sometimes, their advice is well meaning but irrelevant. Sometimes their advice can make everyone’s experience more efficient and enjoyable. Some advice I got that I didn’t take was to make every natural 1 more of a disaster, for comedy. I didn’t like how it made me feel being on the receiving end as a player, so I don’t implement that as a DM even if my players are looking for it. If they want it so bad, they can describe something awful when they do roll a natural 1.
If you do take anything away from this theory crafting, what I would ultimately say is to pay attention to how the environment from play impacts your group’s experience. For a new player, these are the environmental conditions I’ve found to creating a fulfilling first session.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
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Although Adamus, Ian, and I are usually talking about tabletop games in DM Shower Thoughts, the RPG genre is much bigger than that. From Final Fantasy to World of Warcraft, RPGs have taken a lot of different forms and their genre-defining elements are used in a variety of spaces. Heck, even just the element of collecting quantifiable experience points is something that can be found when training for corporate jobs unrelated to gaming.
Because of how many RPGs handle these various elements, the perception of various tropes can creep into our understanding of specific systems. Sure, in many RPG videogames (like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy), having a dedicated healer to cast Life and Cure spells is fundamental to the party’s composition. The same can’t be said for Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons because the proportion of Hit Points that can be regained per action is much lower. This is a really small example that makes a huge impact on gameplay.
Let’s dive into this for just a moment before getting to the meat and potatoes of this topic. In many JRPGs, many boss monsters can one-hit KO party members, leaving them in a state of incapacitation. It’s therefore the healer’s job to cast a spell to bring them back up, sometimes even fully restoring their health as they do so. There isn’t a similar ability in 5e. Even a 1st level Cure Wounds spell only heals 1d8 + spellcasting modifier hit points, meaning on average (with optimized standard array ability scores) the possibility for hit points regained ranges from 4 to 12. Most videogame RPGs don’t offer that range of possibility, and is one of the fundamental differences between tabletop games and videogames.
As such, although there are plenty of similarities between these two mediums and their expression of the genre, there are some differences to recognize. The most glaring difference is the need to pivot roles in 5e. Just because you built a healer doesn’t mean there aren’t times to shift into a control role, and if you built your character to deal damage but the enemy is immune to all of your attacks, then you may find yourself fulfilling support. It’s just how the dice roll sometimes.
However, after all is said and done, a choice you make as a D&D player in combat really can be broadly categorized as belonging to one of four roles (and there is overlap). Those roles are DPR (Damage per Round), Tank, Support, and Control. And, although you can optimize your character to best perform in one of these roles, there will be times where the best decision is to instead fulfill another role your character isn’t designed for (which we’ll touch on later).
Know Your Role
Now, the reason there’s value in categorizing these roles is to clarify the decisions you're making as well as identify gaps in the party’s performance. Oftentimes, I find that when a party underperforms in combat, it means that somehow the flow of these four roles has been disrupted, either because a party member has been incapacitated or the best person for the role is not fulfilling it (which usually stems from someone unwilling to pivot into a role their character is not built for). That being said, the best combats I’ve participated in have had a combination of understanding with these four roles, as well as having characters built to fulfill them. To understand how to identify characters built for them, here are some characteristics:
+ Damage Per Round Maximizes the amount of damage they inflict on a single target. Also values a higher attack roll bonus and rare / changing damage types.
+ Tank Draws attention and potential damage away from other party members. Values a high Armor Class, Hit Point maximum, damage resistance, and damage reduction.
+ Support Strengthens and heals allies. Usually a spellcaster, although there are some non-casting features that fulfill this role (like a Mastermind Rogue’s Master of Tactics feature).
+ Control Weakens enemies and influences their behavior. Area of effect spells, like fireball tend to fall in this category because not only can it wipe out many smaller enemies earlier in the fight, “smart” enemies will avoid certain positional patterns to avoid falling into an area that encourages its use.
And, like I said, there will be some overlap. For example, the druid’s entangle spell creates an area of difficult terrain which can hamper an enemy’s movement (which falls under Control). However, if an enemy gets restrained by the spell, the druid's allies have Advantage on attack rolls against them (Support).
Certain classes will also fulfill these roles more obviously than others. A Barbarian’s high hit points and resistance-granting Rage ability make it a great Tank, and a Rogue’s sneak attack make it great for DPR. I've also found that players get frustrated when a character class doesn’t perform well in a role the player expects it to (like when a Cleric isn't the best Healer option).
Now let’s dive a little deeper into the roles and find character classes that fit them.
Damage Per Round
This is a short-hand term Adamus and I use with each other to describe when a player is trying to deal the most amount of damage that they can. It comes from the MMO term DPS (Damage per Second), but because 5e is played in rounds instead of real-time, you get Damage Per Round.
Now, this can also be the hardest role to categorize because it’s by far the broadest. Most characters can deal some kind of damage to an enemy, and there will be times where it’s more efficient to just attack the darn thing instead of create a cockamamie scheme that probably won’t work. However, there are some statistics to consider when optimizing a character for DPR.
First is the attack roll bonus. It doesn’t matter how much damage you can do if you can’t hit the target’s AC. Usually, this is as easy as investing in the ability score that governs your attack rolls. This same ability score will usually also help you lean into your secondary role, but we'll talk more about that later.
Second is selecting features that contribute to the amount of damage you can deal. For Fighting Styles, this is usually Dueling or Great Weapon Fighter. For Warlocks, it’s the Agonizing Blast invocation. For Rogues, it’s just investing in more rogue levels to progress your Sneak Attack.
The third factor is damage type. You either want a damage type that’s rarely resisted to or two damage types you can switch between. For example, eldritch blast is such an effective cantrip because almost nothing in 5e resists force damage (unless you homebrew something), and its damage die is also pretty high. Another example might be picking up Elemental Adept as a caster, meaning that if you love your fire spells, you can ignore resistance a creature may have to fire damage. In baseline 5e, as a weapons class, most creatures aren’t resistant to magical bludgeoning, piercing, or slashing damage, so if you can find a magic weapon you’re usually good for the rest of the campaign (unless your DM homebrews something to make you ineffective).
And that’s pretty much it for DPR. Like I said earlier, most classes have some kind of DPR option, but that doesn’t mean every class is optimized for DPR. It’s great that a Bard can Vicious Mockery (Psychic is one of those damage types that’s rarely resisted to). However, the 1d4 damage is pitiful, even at low levels, and pales in comparison to a Divine Smite or Sneak Attack. That doesn’t mean the Bard shouldn’t try to deal damage; it just means that they aren’t the “DPR” character of the party.
Tanks are much easier to build to. Invest in Constitution to get higher hit points, find some armor or features that grant you damage resistance, and do what you need to in order to invest in Armor Class. I’m a sucker for Unarmored Defense. It’s easy to maintain, can often be stronger than Plate Mail, and it can’t be destroyed by rust monsters.
With all that being said, viable options for tanking are much fewer than DPR. Barbarians are excellent tanks because of their Rage ability, and their Unarmored Defense keeps their AC competitive. Most of their subclasses also have ways to get more bang for your buck when you Rage, sometimes dealing damage and sometimes increasing the amount of resistances you have. Paladins are also excellent tanks because of their heavy armor proficiency, and because at 6th level their Aura of Protection grants them bonuses to their Saving Throws. Either way, both classes get great durability for relatively little action-investment.
Now, some critics of the term “tanking” in 5e compare the function of tanks to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, where such characters have abilities that program bigger threats to target them, relieving pressure from a less durable ally. There are some abilities like this in 5e, but because enemies are controlled by a human (the DM) rather than programming, the DM can always choose to target a less survivable ally.
This doesn’t mean that building a tank doesn’t have value. In D&D, tanking refers to a character’s survivability, and I’ve seen some ridiculous stunts in my time with 5e. I’ve seen a Barbarian swim through lava, a Barbarian/Rogue multi-class shrug off 100+ points of damage because of stacking resistance with evasion, and a well built sorlock take a meteor swarm to the face and maintain concentration (that was my Sorlock). Accounting for RAW and math, these things can happen, and even if you can keep one ally up by the end of the fight, they can run around and use healing potions to keep incapacitated allies alive.
This is also why oftentimes the best support characters also invest in their survivability. A Druid’s Wild Shape is a great tanking feature, and many Clerics have a heavy armor proficiency that lets them avoid damage and heal their allies. Healing does no good if the healer is down, so many forward thinking players build their healers accordingly.
Speaking of Support, I’m of the belief that this is the most difficult role to play effectively in combat, and is why many players avoid it. It can be a thankless job, and your impact on the party isn’t always immediately felt. A well timed bless spell can be the difference between an attack hitting and missing, and that attack finishing a dangerous enemy or giving them another turn to use legendary actions and wipe the team. There are also many overlaps with Control, so we’ll work to clarify which is which.
Support is defined as “buffing” your allies and healing. A “buff” is any spell that makes them better at their job, or strengthens them in any way. For example, the bless spell allows those it targets to add a d4 to attack rolls and saving throws, making them slightly more accurate and more survivable. If we look back at the entangle example earlier, if a character can restrain an enemy, it allows attacks against that enemy to have advantage, meaning that rogues get Sneak Attack and everyone is more likely to get a critical hit.
Healing is a much more nuanced topic. Healing and damage are not created equal in 5e, and it’s always more efficient to prevent damage than to try and heal damage taken. Let’s go back to our example of cure wounds. For a 1st level spell slot, cure wounds heals between 4 and 12 hit points with an average 1st level character. With a 1st level spell slot using inflict wounds (the same resource expended), the spell deals 3d10 damage on a hit, with a yield of between 3 and 30 damage. The ceilings aren’t even comparable.
What makes healing so difficult is the required sense of timing on the player’s part. An ill-timed healing word or cure wounds could have no effect at all, especially if the enemy is a real bruiser. Say you see an ally get hit for 15 points of damage. You cast healing word as a bonus action, healing 5 points of that damage. Then the next round they get hit for another 15 points, and get knocked unconscious. That healing word you casted was wasted.
That being said, let’s look at a counterexample. You see an ally get hit with 15 points of damage and fall unconscious. They make a death saving throw, and unfortunately roll a Natural 1, meaning they have two failures. By casting your healing word at range, the failures are negated, and the ally needs to get knocked to 0 before being in danger again. You probably just saved that character’s life.
Like tanking, there are few characters that can dedicate themselves to Support, although there are plenty of smaller features that allow an ally to support as a secondary role. Bards, Clerics, and Druids have a plethora of buffing and healing spells, with the Bard’s defining class feature (Bardic Inspiration) being one of the most efficient buffs especially at low levels. However, the aforementioned Master of Tactics feature from Mastermind Rogue and Aura of Protection from Paladin also are great support features.
Control characters look at combat differently than the other three. Rather than seeing exchanges as dealing and healing damage, control players view combat as a series of choices and possible outcomes, and work to remove choices from their opponent. While Support is about strengthening allies and allowing them to be better versions of themselves, Control is about hampering the effectiveness of their enemies.
Is there a major bruiser in the enemy team that’s being a pain? Hold Monster can remove them from the fight. Is the real threat the group of goblins shooting at us from that ledge? Fireball can take them all down at once. Control is about figuring out the enemy’s strengths and using that strength against them. Like Support, what makes Control difficult is that it’s a mindset more than a set of obvious mechanics.
Some classes are easier to use control strategies than others. The Wizard’s sheer amount of spell access allows it to be an excellent controller, because it can cast the right spell for the right situation. The Druid spell list is similar, in which many of its best support spells also hamper the enemy’s effectiveness (again, just look at entangle).
However, that doesn’t mean that to be a Control character, you need area of effect abilities or spellcasting to play this role. If you’re playing a Tank, and you manage to distract an enemy from hurting your less survivable allies, you’re influencing their behavior and removed a choice, leaving their effectiveness up to the luck of the dice. That’s a Control role even though it’s outside of the game’s mechanics.
Oftentimes, when I design my set-piece encounters, I try to have my enemies not only have a mechanical weakness (like a low stat or some kind of damage vulnerability), but also some kind of personality flaw the party can take advantage of through role-playing. Sometimes that flaw is aggravated through taunting, empathy, or targeting one of their possessions. However, it’s a way to allow any player to assume the control role if they’re clever enough to figure it out.
Primary and Secondary Roles
Now, after identifying the four roles, the hidden fifth role is that of pivoting. Fifth Edition has classically rewarded characters that are built to specialization rather than versatility. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for adapting to circumstance.
Let’s say you build a powerful melee weapons character, but you end up in a combat where there’s a ravine or pool of lava separating you and your target. You may have to play a different role in that combat than you’d like to.
To prevent circumstances where you’re only viable option is “I take the Dodge action” and don’t participate, I usually advise my players to think through a Primary and a Secondary role their character can play as. This can be as simple as “I have a melee character but I keep a crossbow on me” to “I play support but I can pivot to control as the need arises”. This also doesn’t mean to devalue the specialization this edition rewards.
Let’s look at a character I built, Kurama, as an example. Kurama, a higher level Druid, was built in order to cast healing spirit and thorn whip. However, in a well constructed party like Knight Owls, healing spirit isn’t always the most appropriate. Oftentimes, healing is covered by other characters. This means that if enough other people are willing to play Support, I’m freed to pivot to Control in order to maximize our party’s effectiveness. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to hit a big bad with contagion, or pull an enemy with thorn whip so the paladin can smite it. Also, there have been times I’ve been known to deal damage. It’s laughable that I've finished multiple big bads with a 1st level ice knife just because everyone else did such a good job of covering us that I as the Druid was left to just damage deal. These things happen, and the memories made are cherished.
Hopefully you’ve found some value from this perspective of play, and if you choose a less optimized style of play, you’re doing so intentionally. That’s the whole point of this: clarify your decisions so when you make it, you do so with intention.
Study Hard, Play Hard.
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