Category Archives: Dungeon Master Tips

Provide Your Players with Situations Rather than Scenes

The best book I’ve read on gamemastering so far is Matt Shea’s The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. The key philosophy is to prep only those things that you find hard to improv. Session prep typically follows this template:

  1. Characters
  2. Strong Start
  3. Scenes
  4. Secrets and Clues
  5. Fantastic Locations
  6. Important NPCs
  7. Potential Monsters
  8. Potential Treasure

While still following Matt Shea’s advice, instead of “Scenes”, I’ve relabeled that section in my notes “Situations”. Here’s a good example of why.

Last night my PCs encountered a band of 19 orcs: I had prepped interesting terrain for a battle or a staged retreat, plus I had written a sentence about the leader’s motivation. The players could engage with this situation in any of the Three Pillars of roleplaying: exploration, social, or combat.

One of the PCs had ended up in prison at the end of the prior session (he had been possessed by a ghost and then, possessed, tried to commit regicide). So his player introduced a new PC, whom I knew nothing about beforehand: a 16-charisma dragonborn archeologist.

Heck, I didn’t even know there were dragonborn in this world!

That provided me with a good reminder that roleplaying is co-creation between players and the DM, even in a homebrew setting.

While I never would have expected an archeologist, the overall campaign arc is about exploring ancient ruins to learn why the empire fell, so that was a good call on the player’s part.

As mentioned, an hour or two into play, 19 orcs appear on the horizon. Selma, our naïve half-orc PC, wants to approach the orcs but gets talked out of it. The dragonborn player, whose regular PC has by now been broken out of prison, decides to make a point of how evil the orcs are and sacrifice his new character by marching him off to the orcs all alone.

Off the dragonborn goes. But he rolls a 24 on a Persuasion check!

All I knew about the orc leader, besides his name, Jomongen, was that it was his motivation to study the old empire to establish a new one. So now Jomongen wants to bring the architect back to his citadel to explain his land’s role in the old empire!

With this unexpected new ally, suddenly secrets and clues (again from Sly Flourish’s guide for session prep) now end up being volunteered by their new orc ally instead of discovered in other ways!

And I accidentally have the orc leader talk about the dragonborn’s tail, so now dragonborn have tails in this world. (That’s canon now.)

So, yeah. The DM’s job is to provide *situations*. The players’ decisions will create the scenes.

Questions to Ask During Session Zero

I ran a Session Zero on Friday for our new homebrew campaign. We had just wrapped up a 41-session, open-table campaign set in Melvaunt in Forgotten Realms, and this time we’re doing a homebrew, closed-table campaign. Every group’s Session Zero has different things to cover, but here’s what we found useful.

The questions I asked to better tailor this campaign:

  • What was your favorite moment from the last campaign? Least favorite?
  • What did you like in general about the last campaign? What did you dislike?
  • Do you want to play one character over the new campaign or play multiple characters?
  • Should we allow players to be resurrected or not?
  • Do you like creating maps?
  • Do you like codes and ciphers?
  • What kind of records are you as a team going to keep about the world and your adventures?
  • What types of monsters would you like to encounter?
  • How would you feel about a session with no combat?
  • How can we speed up combat? [We have 7 players, so I feel like it can bog down, though not every player felt that way.]

Introduction to any house rules. For instance:

  • For a player who is not present during a session, their character is assumed to be present and along for the ride but not contributing much. An absent player’s character cannot be killed.
  • At the end of a session, the players reach consensus on where they want to go the next session. [A complaint was how long it took them to decide which clue/quest to follow at the start of a session.]
  • While the DM’s guide says a permanent magic item every five levels, we are going to have some different items that come along more often.
  • Combat ideas:
    • Everyone rolls for initiative (including me as DM for monsters). High roll goes first, then combat proceeds in clockwise order around the table.
    • Players can postpone their turn if they are not ready. [We were already doing this.]
    • If the AC is obvious (humanoid wearing armor), I’ll tell the players it. Everyone will roll d20 and damage die together, ignoring damage die if they didn’t hit.
    • I’m going to provide better feedback into the declining health of the opponents.

Discussion of how the world differs from Forgotten Realms or other player expectations. In my case:

  • There’s a shop with common magic items only, but anything rarer – even uncommon – will require tracking rumors and legends to find.
  • Rather than copper, silver, electrum, gold, and platinum pieces, the lands use electrum pieces universally, though their home city is unique in that it has copper pennies too. The electrum pieces are the only reminders of the wider world of the vanished empire: which city-states used the minotaur coins, the winged horse, and the lion?

After much discussion of character races and classes, I had every player tell us about their character. I had already encouraged them to think of a high concept and troubled aspect of their character’s background. Then also had to tell us how their character knows the character of the player to their right.

I’ve already tweaked the encounter tables based on what I learnt from the session, and I have changed some of the clues and potential story lines. For instance, while one of our past players loved riddles and ciphers, that wasn’t something any of the current players wanted much of, so that series of clues is being revamped.

I believe the Session Zero is going to pave the way for another great 40-session campaign.

Photo by Donald Tong from Pexels.

Floored – Floor Plans for RPGs

I’ve been running an open-table Dungeons & Dragons 5e campaign since September at my FLGS. One of the players earned enough loot that he wanted to buy a house in the city at the center of our campaign (Melvaunt, on the Moonsea, in Forgotten Realms, using 9 great modules from Baldman Games).

I searched for some house floor plans for RPGs, and most that I found looked like something from Zillow rather than something from a medieval setting. One from Wizards of the Coast even had indoor plumbing (not sure what level spell that is!).

Older houses had few rooms, and if they did have bedrooms there was a big bed or a few big beds. For those in North America, we don’t have any medieval construction, but if you get a chance to visit Colonial Williamsburg or Plimoth Plantation you’ll find better analogs. Having toured Paul Revere’s house, I turned to its floor plan as an example of an upper class home in Melvaunt:

scan of floor plan of the Paul Revere House