Just released! A guide to being a good player!
I just released a new thing: “I Want To Try! Tips on becoming a better player” is live now and shipping on the Guild.
 
There is tons of helpful information out there about how to be a better DM. Books, websites, blogs, Youtube video series, you name it. I’ve noticed, however, that there is precious little about how to be a better D&D player. This monograph seeks to address that lack, if only slightly, and in a more-than-slightly opinionated way.
 
It is based on more than 30 years of experience playing D&D and other tabletop roleplaying games, as well as observations about basic human nature and inspiration from such luminaries as Kenneth Hite, Robin Laws, Dawnforgedcast, Matthew Mercer, Geek & Sundry, Matt Colville, “DnD” and “RPG” on Reddit, con panels, and many more I can’t possibly remember.
 
This is the companion volume to my best-selling “You Can Try: Tips on becoming a better DM.”
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Tips for DMs Series – Critical Fail?

If a natural 20 is OMGTOTALLYRAD, a natural 1 should suck. That’s what most D&D people these days say, right? Roll a 1, something bad happens. What’s the problem with that?

It’s stupid, that’s the problem.

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Tips for DMs Series – Manage Expectations

Manage expectations. This is the first and fundamental mission you have as a Dungeon Master.

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Reviews are awesome!

Chris Bissette over at Loot The Room was kind enough to include “Spells of Kara-Tur” in his most recent set of DM’s Guild reviews, and he liked it! Good reviews are always good, and a good review from a great reviewer is even better.

There’s a bunch of other great products reviewed in that list, too, so go take a look.

 

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Tips for DMs – Passive skills?

The Skills section of Ability Scores portion of the PHB gives a rule for Passive Checks. This is usually only ever used with Perception; there’s even a special spot on every character sheet I’ve ever seen for passive Perception.

That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. If Perception can have a passive score, why not Insight? Why not Nature? After all, what we classify as knowledge is senses and neurons firing away. When you see a dog, you don’t roll Nature to figure out it’s a dog; your brain simply provides the information. If you see a hyena, your brain remembers the National Geographic episode you watched ten years ago that featured that African something which resembles a dog, and had a weird bark like a laugh, oh yeah, a hyena.

I’ve been making things move at my table more easily by making passive uses of skills automatic. Skills were turning into a game within a game, a game of asking questions until they ask the right one which lets them make a skill check.

Under this principle, all skills are assumed to represent both active uses of the skills and relevant background knowledge, lore, information, and awareness. When a character with proficiency in a skill encounters something in the game, I simply give them any relevant information based on that expertise. I filter how much information I give based on skill-proficiency “DCs.” Advanced knowledge and specific knowledge is still dependent on a skill-check die roll to simulate actively using that proficiency.

I’m going to start putting that into the adventures I write and sell through the DMs Guild, too. Descriptive flavor text will be written with cues for passive skill scores. Like this:

You enter an ornately-carved chamber, featuring statues of dwarf deities. There is a dais at the far end of the chamber on which stands a stone altar inscribed with a stylized hammer and runes.

[Religion] The runes praise Berronar Truesilver.

[Religion 14] The altar was used by priests to bless and heal.

[Religion 18] If a creature spends a short rest meditating within 10 feet of the altar, that creature adds +2 to each hit die they spend to regain hit points during that rest.

That’s just one example. It really speeds up exploration, though it can reduce player engagement. But since player engagement in this instance is based on die rolls which often make little sense, it works. For example, by the RAW, if a character proficient in Religion examined the altar, they might roll a 2. It’s pretty stupid that they suddenly remember nothing. If their passive Religion was 15, they’d not get the Religion 18 entry (which they would have had they rolled a d20 score totaling 18 or more), but they would get the Religion 14 information without even trying. This simulates those times when you rack your brain trying to remember something but only succeed in driving it farther from your conscious mind.

Of course you should remind that character an hour later about that information, just to rub it in. “Oh, Durin? You just remembered something interesting about that altar…”

This is going in the new edition of You Can Try: Tips on Becoming a Better DM

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Fudging die rolls – good or bad?

It’s a common question in gaming discussions online. Should I, as the DM, fudge die rolls? It crops up with distressing frequency. I have a standard answer, and I’m sick of typing it out over and over again, so I decided I’d toss it on my blog and refer to that from now on.

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Spells from Kara-Tur JUST RELEASED!

I’ve been working on this for a while now, and I’m really excited about it.

One night weeks and weeks ago, I had just gone to bed, and on a goof pulled my original copy of AD&D’s Oriental Adventures to re-read for about the 10,923rd time.

Leaving aside the casual racism of the title (it was the early 1980s, and we’re talking about Gary Gygax, here), I discovered there’s a ton of great material in there begging to be converted to 5e. I started dreaming about stuff  from Oriental Adventures I could convert/create, test, and release on the DMs Guild.

Of course, I’m not the first to think of this. There’s a slew of really awesome Asian-flavored 5e products on the Guild, as I discovered the following morning. But what the hell, I thought. I didn’t see any specifically spell-related material, and little in direct conversion from the AD&D book, so I decided to go ahead with it.

(You should really do yourself a favor and go check out stuff like Marc Altfuldisch’s material. Dang.)

This is the first product I’ve made using NaturalCrit’s “The Homebrewery.” If you want to make stuff that’s visually very, very similar to WotC’s hardbacks, this is the way to go. It’s nowhere near as powerful as InDesign or even Word, but I think that’s one of its strengths — its simplicity means the learning curve is much more palatable.

Go check out Spells from Kara-Tur. If you need cool spells for your 5e game, you’ll have quite a few to pick from.

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Tips for DMs Series – Fire That Player

That’s the very first thing to learn.

Don’t be afraid to fire players.

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Tips for DMs Series – Managing Combat

There are basically two types of player when it comes to combat: The Tactician and The Thespian. The names are fairly self-explanatory, but they deserve a bit of detail.

The Tactician is the one who carefully plots out every permutation and sequence of the combat, carefully managing her character’s skills, powers, and resources to maximize her impact on the combat. Don’t be surprised if she uses a ruler to compute line of sight and cover. The Thespian will just say, “I leap off the balcony, swing over on the chandelier, and drop on the ogre’s head.” Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t even know what die to roll.

The key to managing combat is engaging both types of player (and other players in the spectrum, because yes, it’s a spectrum) and keep it moving.

The sweet spot is giving the Tactician enough crunch and the Thespian enough dramatics. Exactly how much is beyond the scope of this work, because it’s dependent on so many variables, every player is different, and every table has its own dynamic. You’ll have to recognize it, and you will, because when you hit the sweet spot, it’s immediately obvious.[1] The awesome part is that, if you use Rule 3 properly, both will take something cool away from the combat. The Thespian might say, “Oh, that’s cool, I didn’t know you get a bonus if you’re in front of him and I’m behind him.” The Tactician loves it when you verbally describe how his clever use of rules and strategy splatters the foe across the room. Both end up in inside-joke stories they’ll tell for years.

Either way, you need to be descriptive. Which leads us to…

Part 2 – If you’re going to be descriptive, take the time to be good at it.

Nothing is more boring to both the Tactician and the Thespian than describing combat like this:

“Okay, uh, the monster does 5 points to you, Annie. Jerry, you’re up.”

Foes are more than bags of hit points that do n damage per x strike or y ability. I mean, yeah, n x and y are all important, mechanically, because the target may be resistant to piercing damage or something, but taken by themselves they don’t make for good story.

Be aware of what the foe’s abilities are, be aware of what they do. It’s all right there in the monster description, so use it.

Let’s use Drow Elf as an example, taken right out of the SRD.

Actions

Shortsword. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d6 + 2) piercing damage.

Hand Crossbow. Ranged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, range 30/120 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d6 + 2) piercing damage, and the target must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or be poisoned for 1 hour. If the saving throw fails by 5 or more, the target is also unconscious while poisoned in this way. The target wakes up if it takes damage or if another creature takes an action to shake it awake.

All the mechanics are there. The monster can do 5 points of damage to Annie’s character. But that’s so lame, so boring. All you have to do is describe how the 5 points are done. It’s easy.

“Annie, Einreb sees the female Drow whirl toward him. She smiles evilly as she raises her hand. You see a tiny glint of metal before you hear the snap of her hand crossbow firing. The small bolt zips toward you. You try to dodge but it finds a gap in your armour, and you feel a sharp pain which begins to spread like fire throughout your body. Take 5 points of piercing damage and make a Constitution save, please.”

All of that is based on the hand crossbow information in the monster description. It’s nothing difficult or out of the ordinary. But it’s exciting, isn’t it? At least more exciting than “5 points. Next.”

[1] When everyone starts talking about “…how much fun that session was, oh, wow,” STOP. Don’t let anyone leave. Ask them what made it awesome. Make a note of that. That’s how you repeat that. By the same token, if a session ends poorly, ask why and note that, so you can find a way to mitigate or avoid it.

 

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Tips for DMs Blog Series – The 3 Most Important Words

Many moons ago, I offered to run an OSR campaign for D&D players who hadn’t played anything other than 4e. They took a long time to  learn that they could try to do stuff that wasn’t specifically listed on their character sheets. They took a long time to learn the three most important words a DM can say to a player:

“You can try.”

“You can try” is your answer to just about everything a player wants to make her character do. “I want to leap the chasm.” “I want to shoot  the ogre in the eye.” “I want to surf down the stairs on a shield.” Pretty much any time a player says “I want,” you can reply with “You can
try.”

In order to facilitate their “try,” you need to be able to do adjudicate off-the-cuff skill checks, assigning a reasonable DC to what they want to do. “I want to leap the chasm” is Athletics. “Shoot the ogre in the eye” is a basic attack roll, with a crit giving the desired result. “Surf the stairs” is Acrobatics.

Now, be forewarned: Once the players figure out they can try whatever they want to do, they’ll start chaining stuff together: “I want to leap on a discarded shield, surf it down the stairs, and shoot the orcs.” You’ll be tempted to simply say “No.” Resist this impulse. Let them try! Rather than “No,” say, “Okay, Legolas, sure. Let’s do this.”

At this point you’re probably shouting, “How, Bob? HOW?” Easy. Assign a skill or other check for every comma in the player’s stated action. “I want to leap on a discarded shield” – Athletics/Acrobatics – “surf the stairs” – again, Athletics/Acrobatics – “and shoot the orcs” – standard attack roll. Write it out if you have to, with your grammar governing where the d20 rolls happen.

Also, keep it within reason. Your players, even when they’re trying cool stuff, are still subject to action economy. Remember RAW for what a creature can do on their turn: Basic/minor/free, Move, Action. The stair-surfing stunt is no more than that! “Leap on the shield” – minor – “surf the stairs” – move – “shoot” – attack action. If the player wants to do more than that, you’ll have to have her split it up. Usually, “more than that” equals wanting to simply do too many things or move too far in one turn.

NB: I have been known to let players spend Inspiration to try something more complicated than Minor/Move/Action, but it has to be super rad. That’s a judgment call, and I make it clear that players are not to invoke that too often. Try it, but do so at your peril.

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