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

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.



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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New Classic Modules Today conversion complete!

Here is my latest AD&D -> 5E conversion!

The land lies under a curse. Fruit drops to the ground, its pulp black and rotten. Leaves curl and wither on the branches. Animals flee the parched vale, or starve. 

Long ago, the Downs prospered under the care of Druids, but the priests of nature have retreated deep into the woods and rarely show themselves. One old man claims that the Druids have the power to save the valley, if only someone could find their Oracle to seek help. Will you reach the Forest Oracle of the Druids in time? And if you do, can they really lift the curse? 

Or does the answer lie elsewhere? 

Only the most daring and cunning adventurers will save the Downs.

For characters level 2-4

Shannon Appelcline, the author of Designers & Dragons, has this to day about the original module:

N2 The Forest Oracle (1984) is the second AD&D adventure in the novice (N-) series. Unlike its predecessor, it is not intended for 1st-level adventurers, but instead for 2nd level and up.

A Generic Adventure. Whereas N1: “Against The Cult of the Reptile God” (1982) was very clearly set in Greyhawk, N2 takes the opposite tactic: It doesn’t detail the community (“The Downs”) where the adventure starts, nor does it include any specific world detail, thus leaving the novice GM to set it in the world of his choice. There is a generic European / Old World feel to the adventure, which might even make it appropriate for some of the HR campaigns (1992-1994), released much later by TSR.

A Bit of Wilderness. “Forest Oracle” mixes together wilderness adventuring – which was relatively rare in the era outside of Expert D&D – with dungeons, giving novice players the opportunity to interact with a variety of adventuring environments.

About the Creators. 1984 was author Carl Smith’s most prolific year ever in the roleplaying industry. Early in the year he was a member of the Dragonlance Design Team, contributing to Tracy Hickman’s DL1: “Dragons of Despair” (1984) and Douglas Niles’ DL2: “Dragons of Flame” (1984). By mid-year, he’d left TSR to co-found new publisher Pacesetter. Here he contributed to two of their three new games: Star Ace (1984) and Timemaster (1984).


The link leads to my conversion of the original module for use in 5e play. If you’re into D&D classics, it’s worth a look!

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Priceless DM advice

A pretty much constant question asked among RPG referees is “What do I do about this problem player?” Now, I’m connected to a ton of online gaming communities, so I see it multiple times a day. But every “DM help” group I watch sees this scenario multiple times per week.

Here is all the advice you’ll ever be given on solving relationship and personal problems at the gaming table, distilled into a flow chart.

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