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?

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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.

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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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New weekly blog series – Tips for DMs

I’ve been really remiss about posting to this blog.

That’s because I’ve been way too busy writing other stuff! I finished a super-secret project a week or so ago, and just put the finishing touches on my latest Guild offerings. (You can get my Castle Spulzeer conversion and the latest Aristobulus’s Artificers catalog, if you’re interested.) I’ve also been super busy with work.

Well, that changes now. I’m going to start posting a regular series of advice and tips for Dungeon Masters. Short little snippets. Every Wednesday you’ll get a new bit.

The first bit comes now, though, because I have time.

Make better NPCs.

Index cards are great for this. Keep notes on NPCs – who they are, their names, what’s important to them, their relationship to the party, that sort of thing – so you’ll have their information at hand when you need it.

This isn’t about stat blocks. You don’t need to have combat information on neutral or friendly NPCs. If you need to know the village sage’s combat stats, you have a murderhobo problem, and that’s a different essay.

What you do need is information that will impact how the PCs will interact with the NPC. Jot down a basic idea of the NPC’s morality, for example. If the PCs are on the run from the local authorities, will the sage sell them out to the fuzz? With which other NPCs is the NPC allied? Does the sage share tea with the local priest? You don’t have to do this with every NPC; start with the ones the PCs will be dealing with most often.

Of course, remember your players will send everything sideways given half a chance. You think you don’t need full background on the butcher, and you do need it for the local bishop. Now watch as your players decide that the bishop is a twerp and the butcher should be their best friend and patron. Be ready to improvise. The good news is you can often just swap names on the index cards. The butcher can’t give them potions of healing or raise them from the dead, but he can give them the same wise counsel as the bishop would have, and point them to new quests.

It’s also wise to note roleplaying cues. What accent does she have? Does she have a high-pitched voice? Does she have a facial tic or some other unique mannerism? Is she well-disposed to the party or have they angered her? If you have all of that on an index card, when they encounter her again six real-time months after their last interaction with her, you won’t have that concussed-duckling moment when you realize you have no idea how to role-play her.

If you’re into minute detail, give the NPC a quirk or two. The sage, to continue the example, has an irrational fear of owlbears. So when the PCs bring him an owlbear figurine of wondrous power, he freaks out just looking at the chess-piece-sized piece of stone.

Take notes on the NPC’s attitude toward the party, and how what happens during the game can influence that. Is the sage well-disposed to the party? If so, why? Have they alienated him by their actions? Make a note of it. When they come back to town after looting an abandoned monastery, he might be angry that they ignored the monastery’s library full of rare tomes and instead brought him a terrifying miniature owlbear.

If you take away one thing from this, here it is: Make your NPCs memorable. Making your NPCs memorable will help to limit your players’ tendency to set fire to every hamlet and town they pass through. You don’t even need to do all that much creative work. You can get any number of pregenerated NPCs from DMs Guild. Just search for them.

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Chult collaboration released!

I’m proud to say I’m one of ten DM’s Guild creators who teamed up to bring you 27 new subclasses, 101 spells, new races and subraces, new backgrounds, and more. Nearly 160 pages of content, all designed to fit seamlessly into the Tomb of Annihilation storyline and other 5th Edition D&D games set in the Forgotten Realms and beyond.

Click here to download a free preview of Raiders of the Lost Tomb, with the full table of contents, setting info, and rules for an entire new race.

Thanks as always for your support!

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Aristobulus’s Armory – NEW on the Guild!

Just uploaded my latest project to the DM’s Guild!

Aristobulus’s Armory

Useful Items for Adventurers!

If you missed the last catalog from Aristobulus’s Artificers, you won’t want to miss this one! A selection of items of immediate use to adventurers throughou Faerûn, the Armory has things you need to help you survive the dangers of a life on the road.


Aristobulus’s Armory is an assortment of magical items with which DMs can personalize their setting, presented in the style of a modern catalog. It is suitable as a campaign handout, providing interesting, useful magical doodads for your players!

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All-New Original Adventure JUST RELEASED!

Just released on DMs Guild, ready for your group: Blacktide Cove!

Optimized for six 5e characters of 6th to 8th level, your players explore an obscure section of Impiltur’s coastline after receiving a mysterious treasure map.

BLACKTIDE COVE

THE CULT OF THE FISH-MEN

From the Ship’s Log of the Sprite: “…I can hear them fish-men. All the time with their chanting and hissing and whatnot. There’s some kind of religion going on here, down below. We can’t understand what they say, but it’s something God-like, sure as spray on the foc’sle.”

A century ago, during the Spellplague, pirates hid a treasure at a shrine in a remote area of Impiltur’s coast. Can the heroes claim it from that which lurks there?

Set on the coast of Impiltur along the Easting Reach, Blacktide Cove can be placed anywhere there’s a stretch of lonely coastline and the possibility of pirates.

Blacktide Cove is 32 pages of adventure for you and your table!

Includes a handy index, cartography by Dyson Logos, new magic items, and full-color player handouts – including exclusive art from Patrick E Pullen!

Now includes print-friendly version!

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