How To DM: Fighting on the Fly

This week’s How-To post is by my good friend yourdorkmaterials

So. You’ve meticulously planned your big boss fight, carefully balanced your CR’s and come up with cool, integral roles tailored beautifully for each player. It’s going to be epic! Aaaaannnd…two players can’t show. Or the wizard goes down early. Or what was supposed to be a running battle turns into a stubborn slug-fest to the death. 

We’ve all had this happen, and – for me – it’s one of the most challenging aspects of DMing to deal with. 

So let’s talk about tips on how to adjust our combat encounters on the fly in this week’s How To DM!

Manage the Damage: I use the average damage provided in the stat blocks for big fights. It dramatically speeds up combat and lets me manage how much damage I’m putting out each round (especially critical hit damage.)

Build a Weak Wave: Build a wave of weaker enemies to shave off some of those Moon Druid/Bear Barbarian hit points. Those players tend to be overly confident (for good reason) and tend to be less worried about combat initially. I might plan on a weak wave reducing their HP by 30%. Once they reach that total, you can always have them “fail a morale check” and retreat. Need some more damage? Bring them in as reinforcements or have them rally.

PCs Don’t Have to Know the Roll: I roll everything openly at my table. I always hated it when I figured out the DM was letting up to save us. They don’t have to know what those extra rolls are for; and they make players more nervous as the combat wears on. For example, if they’re fighting something that has a chance to give them a disease, I make those saves for them without telling them specifically what they’re for. Players tend to get really nervous, really quick when they’re making “mystery saves”. I find it makes them invest more in the fight.

Take ‘Em Alive: Let enemies grapple. If you’re using optional combat rules from the DMD (which I do), let your enemies trip them, shove them prone, or disarm them. This gives you “attacks” to use that don’t necessarily cause damage. I always bring this up in Session 0 and ultimately allow the players to decide which optional rules they want to include, but – anything they can do, their enemies can do!

Give Them Their Clues: If your Big Bad Evils fly, maybe foreshadow that a bit. One time, I had a flying enemy swoop in, fail a grapple check, and fly off before the player really knew what was happening. He was more than a little freaked out. If they need to use fire to stop the enemy from regenerating, find a way to give subtle hints about that weakness (and then make sure they have a way of using that information in case the wizards/sorcerers are down or absent).

What tips, tricks and advice do you folks have? Put them in the comments below, so we can all share in the info. Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you next week for another installment on How To DM!

How to DM: Creating Memorable Villains

What do you think of when you hear names like, Cruella DeVille, Melificent, Jafar, Scar (other than I can only seem to think of things Disney rolled out…)? They are memorable villains! Who can forget how awesome that fight between Prince Philip and Melificent was when she turned into a dragon? Who can forget the epic fight between an all-powerful sorcerer and a simple rogue? Who, in their right mind, can forget the voice of Jeremy Iron as Scar, his claws in that of Mufasa, leaning in and saying “Long live the king…” while throwing Mufasa to his death?!

What was it about these horrible people that made them so memorable? They had depth and motive. Melificent was evil, but wronged for not being invited to the party for baby Aurora. Jafar was eager to take power over the sultan and take the throne for himself. Scar was similarly motivated, but desired the rulership of the Pridelands to be the ultimate revenge for his brother taking what he believed to be his birthright.

So, how do you build these villains?

Remember how we were building the adventure? Let’s go back there. Let’s say that our adventure is exploring a dungeon with a long buried treasure. Of course there’s going to be plenty of monster encounters, traps, puzzles, etc…You’re an expert now in building encounters, right? Right! But what’s guarding the final treasure room?

This encounter is what is commonly referred to as a BBEG: Big Bad Evil Guy. Of course it doesn’t have to be a guy, but this is the term generally used. The BBEG is the “final boss” of the adventure. In our adventure, depending on the level of the party, it could be as simple as a mummy, or maybe as dangerous as a lich or demilich! The sky’s the limit on this.

One of my favorite movies is The Incredibles. The final villain in the first movie is absolutely awesome, if you think about it. It’s a kid who felt wronged and hurt, who turned that hurt into anger and revenge. His whole goal was to eliminate Mr. Incredible. Also, if you look at it, Mr. Incredible was responsible for creating Syndrome!

Let’s dissect this further. Syndrome obviously had an intimate relationship with Mirage, who turned on him when Mr. Incredible threatened to kill her during his capture. This shows the ruthlessness of Syndrome even in his personal relationships when it comes to his revenge plans. Further, you can see how Syndrome, although he makes the occasional blunder (like making the robot AI too smart), he shows himself to be an insanely smart villain. He planned and executed the death of several of the super heroes. He lured Mr. Incredible to his capture. His technology sales created a mass fortune, enough that he purchased an island, built a huge and elaborate base, and had a personal army/security force at his beck and call.

Then there are his flaws: he believed his plan unstoppable. He monologues enough to nearly be defeated by Mr. Incredible. His arrogance at his belief that his technology was enough to do what superheroes could do. These are all flaws, and some of them fatal.

There’s another school of thought on villains. That of the good guy who is following a path because he truly believes what he is doing is right. I’m not talking about that evil witch “Professor” Umbridge of the Harry Potter universe. She was absolute evil incarnate, and frankly, worse of a villain than that of Voldemort. Fight me if you think I’m wrong. No, I’m talking about those antagonists that believe whose goals are directly opposed to that of the protagonist, but who, themselves, are not “bad guys.” These are awesome and memorable antagonists, because it combines the need to ensure the party’s goals, with the moral and ethical dilemma of defeating a good person. Why are their goals different? Who knows. Maybe it’s a Boromir situation, in which they are taunted by the magical artifact.

Sometimes, and this is a great adventure and even campaign plot, the party are inadvertently the bad guys! One of my favorite episodes of Puffin Forrest involves the party working for a mysterious person, who has tasked them with finding some magic crystals. The only problem? This figure was the BBEG, and the party was inadvertantly putting together his ability to rise to power again!

Then there is this story (beware, wall of text):

I know it’s a little blurry, but hopefully you get the idea. Sometimes the BBEG can be the best good guy.

Personally, I love these kinds of BBEG. The ones you think, “Hmm, I think he has a point…”

When I play video games, especially the ones like Mass Effect or Fable, or even the Fallout series, when I play an evil character, they always have a single virtue (conversely my good characters have a flaw; for example, my good character had a wife in every town, where my evil character was faithful to his wife: Lady Grey). This helps give more depth to the villain.

The other thing I give my villains is a memorable “voice.” Maybe it’s an accent or way of speaking when I, as the DM, speak for him. Maybe he’s got the accent of a Bond Villain. Maybe he’s more “Dr. Evil.” Whatever the case, make your villain’s dialogue unique.

One Villain, the Emperor from my (in)famous pirate campaign was voiced by the player who played him. Beforehand, however, we discussed his cadence, his speech pattern, all of these things when he unmasked himself as the primary villain of the campaign (sort of). Great villain.

So, go out, make a villain, and make him/her awesome!

Until next time, dear readers!

DM How To: Campaign Building

Last week we talked about plot hooks. Remember that post. It becomes important.

Start with building a home base. Usually it’s best to make this a small to medium village where you can flush out a number of NPCs and build out an area from there. All the characters should have a reason for being here. Maybe they are from the area and are starting their adventuring career from here. Maybe they are new adventurers who happen to be passing through. No matter the case, the starting area should have some basic things: and in where they can stay or some other similar place, a general good store where they can purchase adventuring supplies (they don’t have to be able to get everything there necessarily, they just have to be able to get the basics at the least), and usually a blacksmith where they can purchase weapons and/or armor.Now, this is the most common way of doing this, but there’s no reason why you can’t start them in a large metropolis, or a larger town. Additionally, you could start them off as travelers on the road in the middle of a wilderness, or in some harsher environment, like a desert or tundra and their first goal is to find civilization and survive. Just remember, that their home base, wherever it may be, is going to be the basis for where the party will return in between adventures.

Next you want to focus on building your adventures while seating in campaign events. Maybe your campaign is focused on the return of an ancient and powerful dragon. Your first adventure may only have some kind of reference to said dragon or its return. Maybe it’s a kobold cult dedicated to this dragon. Maybe they simply find a shrine or inscription vaguely relating to the return of this dragon. Whatever the case may be, you start seeding in campaign events or minor plot points early, and continue to do so in greater and more blatant numbers as your campaign progresses.

As we talk about campaign progression, is worth noting that many campaigns tend to fizzle out around the tier 3 mark, between 11th and 16th level. Not many campaigns go into the higher levels. Plan your campaigns based on how far and what level you want your adventures to be when the campaign ends. Do you want your campaign to take them all the way to 20th level? This is a daunting task but is very doable. It just takes careful planning.It is always helpful, just like doing so for adventures, to do a rough flow chart or outline for the general direction you want the the campaign to go. Again, don’t forget to plant seeds for your plot as it is being revealed.Next, create a local region. After you have created the home base, you want a local region where, either them majority of the campaign, or the entire campaign, take place. Doing a bit of cartography helps in this. Maybe there is a large forest where the elf kingdom lay. Maybe there is a mountain range where, in our earlier example, the ancient dragon is supposed to be summoned from. Whatever You choose, make sure that you flush it out just enough to give it some structure. If you know exactly what adventures the party will encounter, as well as the level progression you expect, either by milestone leveling or by experience points (this is where doing a flowchart and/or an outline really helps), You can divide the areas out by level. Just remember, players make the decisions for the characters. This is where you’re amazing plot hooks come in, drawing them into the story and keeping them on track within the areas for their own levels. Of course, we don’t want to railroad our players. Maybe we want to give options to where certain adventures can take place. This is why we flesh out the region just enough to give it some structure, but leave us with some flexibility as to where certain events can take place.

Campaign Events

The Dungeon Master guide, as it should, has a lot of good ideas for major campaign events. They refer to them as world – shaking events. It is a good idea to check out that section of chapter one. One of their major recommendations is to have three good campaign shaking events. I highly recommend that you read that section. It should be noted that the campaign does not have to be just about the story you have crafted. Character backgrounds, when provided, offer great opportunities for character development as well as campaign development. Maybe the party has decided they don’t have the strength or power to defeat the big bad evil guy (BBEG). Using the characters backgrounds you can craft adventures that help them gain the power, or maybe find legendary weapons or artifacts, that will help them in defeating the BBEG. Maybe The characters themselves just gain a bit of depth during these adventures. Having your players create a good structure for their backgrounds really helps out here. The podcast/show critical role does a very good job for this in their first season. As a result of the character development, each character also gets an ending/epilogue.

All Good Things Come To An End

It is my belief, that secretly, in the depths of every dungeon master (at least, the very good ones) wants each character to have their “happily ever after.” Of course, campaign events and bad rolls can lead to character death. That said, for the most part, with the exception of a total party wipe out, the individual characters, as well as the party as a whole, should have a nice wrap up with their characters epilogue. These do not have to be elaborate, although they can be, but should provide some sort of satisfying conclusion to the campaign and campaign events. This usually is done by each player, as well as with significant input and inclusion with, the dungeon master.

Well, that’s my counsel and advice on building a campaign. Do you think I missed something? Let me know in the comments below. Is there a topic you would like me to cover, again, let me know in the comments! 

Next week, we will discuss creating memorable villians!

Until tomorrow readers.

DM How To: Creating Adventure Hooks

So you know how to DM. And you know how to build an adventure. And you know how to build an encounter.

The next question, then, is this: how do you get those @#&$+%! players to jump into your awesome adventure filled with equally awesome encounters?

You give ’em a hook, a PLOT HOOK!!

So let’s go fishing.

There are basically only a few kinds of plot hooks: agnostic/general, background-based, story-based, and Deus Ex Machina.

AGNOSTIC/GENERAL

These plot hooks are the ones you may be most familiar with. These are the plot hooks that involve helping a random stranger, for riches and glory, etc… These ones only work if your players are the kind to do things for riches and glory, or out of the kindness of their hearts with no true promise of reward. Examples of this one would be a mysterious stranger approaching the party about an ancient legend of a dungeon guarding an ancient treasure, or the party coming across a strange house in the middle of nowhere. The possibilities here are endless, but many of them have been overdone and not too many players are willing to bite on these poorly baited plot hooks.

BACKGROUND BASED

These plot hugs require quite a bit more work on both your and the player’s parts. The player, out of necessity, should have a background on how and why they became adventurers and what they were doing beforehand. I’m not just talking about that character trait on their character sheet that gives them a proficiency and languages and maybe some gold. I’m talking at least a paragraph of backstory on why that character is the way they are. Using this, you can craft plot hooks that reel in a single player, who can turn to his party and ask for help. Some examples of this are the family farm is going to be overrun by orcs, or the players uncle is leaving the player a keep on his deathbed, or bandits have captured a character’s mentor. With a decent background, there are lots of possibilities here.

DEUS EX MACHINA

This sort of plot hook should be avoided, unless absolutely necessary. These kind of plot hooks involve someone or something of great power pushing the characters into action. An example of this would be a commandment to a divine caster from their deity, or a powerful NPC threatening the characters with total destruction unless they undertake the quest. These sort of plot hooks make players feel as if their characters are being railroaded.

STORY-BASED

These are easily some of the best plot hooks you can find. These are the sort of plot hooks you find in continuing campaigns. The plot hook from Adventure to Adventure revolves around something left undone or some new information that the characters get from a previous adventure. In this way, the characters are prodded on by their own willingness to be part of the story. Examples of this can be found in so many places and in so many pre-published adventures that they are too numerous to list. Practically, one technique that I use is keeping a sort of “quest log” for the party. I list out all unresolved story points that the players haven’t addressed, that I can later exploit for writing an adventure. A recent example, if you’re reading this blog, is the fact that the party is looking for a magic item salesman / wizard named Connor. Why are they looking for Connor? Because Connor has something the party needs that they previously sold to him by mistake. Therefore, the party is willing to undergo a number of tasks in order to get the information and ability to travel to Connor’s location. The party spent the better part of a month and a half simply trying to find where Connor was and gaining the ability to travel to his location. This doesn’t even include the adventures had along the way while they were traveling. an example of this would be the trip from Waterdeep to Memnon, the trip from Memnon to Calimport, the events that occurred there, and their trip back to Waterdeep. These were all story-based adventure hooks. With the party have willingly escorted the princess to Calimport from Memnon? Maybe, maybe not. but the fact that the party needed to get to Calimport anyways made their willingness to accept the plot hook all the easier. Many agnostic / general plot hooks can be made into story plot hooks.

So there you have it. Now you know how to get your players invested into your adventures.

Next week we’re going to talk about campaign building. If there are any other topics you would like me to cover, comment below.

Until tomorrow dear readers.

How To: Miniature Painting

So this week I had time to paint only two miniatures. The one we’re going to discuss today is Robin Hood.

The last time we discussed painting miniatures, my advice was just a pain miniatures despite how good or not so good You are skills may be. Today we’re going to discuss the tools of the trade.

It seems to go without saying, but you need a few good brushes. There are several types out there, but in reality you could do with five decent brushes. You would need a large brush for painting on shading, a medium brush for doing some larger areas, a small brush for smaller details, and then a very small fine detail brush for doing fine detail work. For me, I have a rather nice and large brush set that my wife purchased for me for Christmas. I use maybe four brushes out of the whole thing. mostly because they’re nice brushes, I use older brushes for things like slathering on shade. Now, I know some of these terms I’m using maybe foreign but will explain those later, at a different date.

In addition to brushes, you obviously need paints. there are several paints from various companies that you can choose from. Vallejo is one commonly trusted name, as are the paints from Games Workshop, typically used for Warhammer games, but work well for any miniature painting. Personally, I have enjoyed using the Army Painter brand. They are the same quality as the other brands, but come in droppers, which make mixing paints and measuring out just the right amount of paint you need much easier than with paint pots from other brands. Again, this is just my humble opinion. There are other brands of acrylic paints, but remember: you get what you pay for. If you buy cheap paints, they won’t likely last very long. Trust me, I know this from personal experience.

Next up, you’re going to need something to use as a palette. I use a specific brand of plant-based breakfast sausage cartons which work very nicely for me. You can, of course, purchase a paint palette from any hobby store. I think that’s a waste of money. You do you.

Having a container of nail polish remover is always helpful. Nail polish remover is great for taking off that dried on paint that you change your mind on which color was going to go on. It’s also helpful for removing paint from other surfaces. Just remember, nail polish remover will take varnish off of wooden furniture and surfaces.

Lastly, you’re going to need some kind of container to hold water so that you can clean your brush in between colors. Acrylic paints are water soluble. As such, you want to be able to clean your brushes off with water. My wife and I like to buy tea from a company that provides loose leaf tea in small half pint jars made of glass with a metal lid. These work perfectly for me. Again, find something that works for you. Keep in mind, plastic will get stained.

Now that you have assembled all your tools and your paints, it’s time to get painting!

Next time we’re going to talk about differing techniques in base coating.

I hope to see you then!

This is a Robin Hood mini I painted this week.
Reverse side

How To: Painting Minis

Before I begin, I want to say that I know, for some of you, the idea of taking the blank canvas of a miniature, and turning it into some sort of amazing piece of gamecraft that you are proud of is a truly daunting task.

I get that. I really do.

If you are not one of those people, I envy you. I am on the former.

Looking at a blank miniature, even worse, one that doesn’t even have primer on it, can be daunting as all can be. There are days I don’t even know how to begin! But don’t worry, today I’m going to talk to you about how to prep for painting minis.

Like most things relating to D&D, and dungeon mastering for that matter, It all boils down to your state of mind.

“But Daily DM,” you might say. “I get all anxious when even looking at blank miniatures.” So did I random reader. But you want to know how I got over that? I had, what you could call, a miniature hoarding problem. I have, literally, hundreds of miniatures. Easily half those have never had paint touch them. The worst part is that 2/3 of those actually have primer on them, as they either came pre-primed, or I’ve actually taken the time to prime it.

For me, especially since I have nothing better to do between blog posts, I have decided to paint. And paint I will do. I was discussing this very concept with a good friend of mine, whom I will call “A.”

“A” said something particularly profound. He said, “A blank miniature is like a placeholder. It’s not until you put paint that it develops a story.” Like I said, profound.

Do you know what I did, when I made the decision that my miniatures needed painting? I sat down, I prepared my tablespace, and I began to paint. Now, I won’t say my first attempt was great. I won’t say it was perfect. In fact, the shading job I did on it was pretty shoddy. Am I happy with the job I did overall? Absolutely. I painted a miniature. Granted, I still have to paint the base, but that’s fine. I’ll get to that eventually. What’s important is that the miniature itself has been given life, so to speak.

You may remember me having posted this before. As you can see, I could have done a better job with the shading. Oh well. But this is what I want you to turn your attention to: I put a lot of heart and soul into that miniature. The level of detail on the shield, the detail on the armor, the detail on the gloves and the sword. Here’s the back of it:

See the detail of the back of the shield, the detail of the dagger on the hip. The part where I’m apparently do not touch up the boot and dripped a little paint onto the boot. The detail of the hair.

Now, I’m not trying to brag by any means. I know that there are many people who could have done a better job than I did. But, it was the first miniature I had painted in over 25 years. And even then, I was too intimidated to consider the idea of painting a miniature in full. I had a half a dozen primed miniatures lying around. Most of them painted with gloss paint. I don’t prefer that any longer.

So what did I do? I stripped every single miniature that I had previously done that wasn’t completed, and I began planning on repainting it. I’ll show you some as I get them done. This particular one was just an old pewter mini that I had inherited from my dad’s collection. He looked like he needed to be painted. And so, I took the better part of an hour or two and painted him.

So when I talk about how to paint a mini, you have to get in the right headspace. The headspace that says: it is okay not to get it perfect the first time. It’s okay to do it badly the first time. I mean, seriously, have you ever been picked up anything and been perfect at it the first time? You’re likely answer is no. So give yourself enough grace to be able to paint without judging yourself before you’ve even begun.

If you are really and truly worried, pick up something easy, or relatively easy, to paint. Like a pack of spiders or a gelatinous cube or something of that nature which doesn’t require a whole lot of paints but can still be very fun to throw down on. The idea is that you just start painting.

Now, if I get some requests to do more, I’ll do a couple of posts on my process for painting miniatures as I post pictures of the miniatures I’ve painted.

So you all around!