Monday, May 1, 2017

[D&D] DM Tips for Encounters

A D&D-related essay I wrote a couple years ago:

DM tips for encounters to break the monotony of hack & slash:


  1. Not everything needs to be hostile: In most circumstances (outside of things like invading a fortress or a crypt full of undead) most monsters shouldn't initially be hostile. The rules include the reaction table (and the Charisma stat) for a reason, and even most animals and other non-intelligent monsters are likely to hesitate for at least a bit and give the party a chance to make friendly overtures if they want to. Even if there's no room for friendly communication, this delay probably gives the party a head-start on running away (see #5 below). Intelligent monsters, even evil-aligned ones, can often be bribed into allowing safe passage or even giving information, and not everything in the dungeon needs to be evil. The encounter charts in the rules (and in products like the Monster and Treasure Assortments) show lots of good and neutral-aligned monsters likely to be encountered. Those encounters should almost never end in combat - rather they're likely to involve an exchange of information, perhaps payment of a toll or gift, and maybe a temporary alliance. Of course the players might want to attack everything they meet, and having most monsters hesitate just gives them a round of free attacks, but items 2-8 offer various suggestions for why the players might ultimately realize that always attacking everything isn't the best strategy for success.
  2. Use the morale rules: Most monsters won't fight to the death. Even animals and vermin are likely to run off if they realize they're overmatched (and might run off even before combat starts - many animals are afraid of fire, for instance), and intelligent ones might surrender - offering information or bribes in exchange for their lives. Both of these create complications - if the monsters successfully escape they might come back, and might bring reinforcements. If a monster surrenders it becomes a roleplaying challenge - can you believe them? are you obligated by your alignment to keep promises? etc. [Remember that morale also applies to NPCs on the players' side: players who wade into unnecessarily or inadvisable combat might well find themselves abandoned or betrayed by their own men-at-arms, or even their henchmen.]
  3. Monsters aren't static: Monsters shouldn't sit in their numbered encounter area waiting for a group of PCs to show up and kill them. They should move around and communicate with the other monsters and react to what the PCs are doing - this might mean sounding an alarm, or setting an ambush, or even gathering up their treasure and running away. The more combat the PCs engage in and the more noise they make the more opportunity the monsters have to react. Sooner or later the players should figure this out, and strive to be stealthier, and to end combats quickly, in order to avoid either bringing the whole place down on their heads or having monsters gather up and move or hide their treasure.
  4. Overpowered opponents: Don't be afraid to include at least occasional monsters in your adventures that are too powerful for the PCs to beat in straight-up combat. Ideally the players should be able to figure out this is the case before they enter combat with them - by appearance, by info from other dungeon inhabitants, by seeing a demonstration of its danger, etc. This means the PCs need to either avoid those monsters or they need to find some unconventional means of defeating them (or both - first the former, then the latter).
  5. Resource-wasters: In most TSR editions of A/D&D fighting monsters isn't a very efficient way to gain XP - you're better off not fighting the monster and taking its treasure. Therefore, monsters that don't have any treasure (which generally includes almost all wandering monsters and most non-intelligent monsters (animals, vermin, etc.)) are generally wasted effort to fight, even if the PCs can defeat them fairly easily (even if the PCs aren't using up their spells and ammo and hit points fighting them, they're still using up their player-level time at the table). Help the players to realize this - show them how the XP awards work, and that the 45 minutes they spent fighting a bunch of giant ants got them a whole lot less XP than that treasure they found behind the secret door, in order to hopefully encourage them to focus more on the latter and make an effort to avoid, rather than seeking out, the former. There's a reason the rules include detailed sections on running away from and being chased by monsters: because it was expected that PCs would do a lot of running away from monsters they didn't need to fight. That's one of the reasons to make a map - so you can run away and not get lost. Food, treasure, and pools of burning oil can all be left behind to deter pursuit. Heavy gear might have to be dropped so you can run more quickly than the pursuers. This should be a pretty common part of the game.
  6. Things aren't always what they seem: Players won't know a monster's capabilities when they encounter it - even those who have memorized the Monster Manual don't know if this particular monster has non-standard abilities and might be tougher (or less tough) than it appears. To emphasize this the DM should generally describe monsters by their physical appearance - emphasizing things that make them seem dangerous - rather than by name, at least the first time they're encountered. If you tell them it's an owl bear they'll probably know what that means, but if you describe it physically they might not recognize it and think it's some new, fearsome beast of unknown capabilities that they need to be extra-cautious with. A corollary to this is to seek out and use new and non-standard monsters pretty frequently - not every monster should be new and unique and never seen before or after (that weakens the genre-appeal and makes the game feel more arbitrary: players like some level of the familiar and recognizable, and to be able to use their knowledge), but it's probably a good idea to include at least one new monster in every game. At risk of being self-promoting (since I contributed a couple entries), Monsters of Myth contains a ton of new monsters which your players are unlikely to be familiar with, all statted for use with 1E AD&D (and thus on-the-fly convertible to any TSR edition).
  7. Special Attacks are scary: Poison, paralyzation, petrification, level drain, limb-severing, crushing, swallowing whole - the list goes on and on. Many monsters in TSR editions of A/D&D, including many low-level ones, have special attacks that permanently disable a character in a single hit, sometimes without even allowing a saving throw. Later editions tended to tone down a lot of these effects by making their effects less harsh or more easy to recover from, but when that isn't done the wide variety (and widespread occurrence) of these character-killer attacks should cause players to be much more cautious about entering combat when other alternatives are available.
  8. Opportunity costs: A monster is worth more alive than dead - it has a piece of information the PCs want, or can help them in some way to overcome some other challenge (such as an overpowered challenge, as above). The players can find out about this ahead of time, or they can only discover it after the fact, when it might already be too late but they've learned a lesson for next time.
  9. Open communication loop between players and DM: Talk to the players between encounters about what's going on in the game and why - whether good or bad - and explain how items 1-8 above are playing out, for or against them. Don't count on them to pick these things up on their own, especially item 3: if you just have monster reinforcements show up or monsters leave with their treasure and don't help the players to understand why that's happened and what they can do differently to prevent it they're likely to just assume that your dungeons are too tough and too stingy on treasure and they'll be unhappy and the game will fizzle. Once the players are more experienced, and have gotten more used to your DMing style, you can do less of this, but for at least the first few sessions feedback - both positive and negative - is key.
  10. Some hack & slash is okay: As long as it's not the only thing happening in the game and doesn't become monotonous, hack & slash combat can be fun. It's true to the genre, the game obviously expects it since there are a ton of rules covering it, and most players think it's fun. The object of the list above isn't to eliminate hack & slash combat altogether - even with all of these suggestions there will probably still be at least a couple fights every session - just to make sure there are other things in the mix as well, that the game has some variety and every encounter isn't assumed to automatically mean combat.


8 comments:

  1. Its a good spiel. Is this a continuation of the first post? As an aside, I'd emphasize xp for traps/tricks, and gained allies/captured foes.

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    1. This one was actually written about a year before the first one but they were both responses to "how do you explain things to n00bs?"' type questions at Dragonsfoot so they have a similar assumed audience.

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  2. The lure of combat is so strong...it's funny, because at cons avoiding combat should be at a premium presuming you're trying to see as much of the dungeon/map/whatever in 4 hours, but I always catch myself wading in just to trash some stuff.

    For whatever reason a lot of DMs apply all the advice about not making the game a give-away while neglecting to consider that they aren't running the sort of campaigns where players have 79th level characters after 9 months that prompted said advice in the 1st place. And so the hard DM always trying to keep their players on the edge of death (usually through a series of "roll for initiative" encounters) is a more common (these days) aspect receiving very little consideration.

    Running is why every PC should look for a dwarf henchmen and outfit them in plate.

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  3. Playing with my kids and nephews, I think this is something that comes a lot more intuitively to kids than it does adults. Adults, especially those who've been playing "hobby games" and crpgs a lot seem to be fixated on "the one way" to overcome challenges, while kids are far more likely to just want to play pretend and come up with off the wall stuff. I think it's an inhibitions thing.

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    1. I agree, and it ties in to my previous post on "Perspectives" - I've come to feel that an adult perspective is needed to be a good DM (both to come up with good adventure content and to be comfortable and effective at improvising and making judgment calls) but that the kid perspective works better for players - be less analytical, don't get hung up on procedural stuff, give in to the fanasy and let your imagination run free

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    2. That's a really good way to look at the difference. Now, how to get the players (some, anyway) to be more uninhibited...

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  4. I do not like to emphasize kids and D&D even though a kid might sit in from time to time. My ideal player is an adult and rehabilitating failed rpg players is my bag.

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    1. Playing with kids (especially kids who aren't really into it) definitely raises its own set of issues. I don't think I'd like running a game for a tableful of actual kids. I just think the adult players should try to maintain some of that kid-like enthusiasm, sense of wonder, and open-mindedness, and having an actual kid sitting in sometimes helps as a reminder of that - plus it tends to keep some other players' rude & inappropriate behavior in check, which is also a good thing.

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