D&D: The Tiers of Play for DMs

I made a post about the different tiers of play in Dungeons and Dragons. I mentioned that as the PCs progress in power, so do the monsters.

Today, I want to talk about how the tiers of play affect the Dungeon Master.

Contrary to what some people might think, the DM’s goal is not to kill the PCs.

The goal is to almost kill them.

Remember that scene in the Return of the Jedi where the Death Star is operational, the deflector shield is still up, Han and Leia are captured, and Luke is with the Emperor? The Emperor taunts Luke describing how deeply the Rebels’ plan has failed.

That’s the point the DM wants to get to with their players. Where all seems lost and only a sliver of hope remains. And then the PCs are miraculously delivered from their despair, defeat the villain and save the day.

The perfect encounter in D&D will incapacitate about half the players before the foe is defeated.

Designing challenges at the low and middle tiers is easy enough. A bunch of Orcs, a Troll or an Ogre. There’s plenty of simple bad guys that provide credible threats to the party.

With multiple enemies it’s easy enough to modify an encounter to get just the right challenge. If the PCs are having an easy time of it, reinforcements arrive. If the encounter looks as if it may overwhelm them, perhaps the enemies retreat. After all, the PCs have surely slain a few of their foes and those who remain may not be willing to die for their cause.

At the high tiers, encounters become a little more difficult to design. Most anything in the books can be thrown at the PCS, dragons, devils, giants,you name it. But it’s difficult to gauge exactly how challenging a monster will be.

At any tier it’s okay if an encounter is too easy, but the advantage of high tier play is that it’s okay if an encounter is too hard as well.

The monster kills two of the PCs and they have to retreat? That’s okay, they can just bring the PCs back from the dead, research the monster’s weakness, and return two days later to slay it.

Epic tier challenges have even more problems as the players can often just wish the encounter away. The DM needs to be firm about what can and cannot be wished away to prevent all future challenges from being trivialized.

As powerful as the wish and miracle spells are, they usually won’t entirely invalidate playing D&D beyond 17th level.

The DM’s job is to limit the scope of what the wish and miracle spells can do through careful interpretation. Additionally, the in game mechanics give severe consequences to using the spells. Finally, the players may limit their usage themselves as they don’t want to take the fun and challenge out of the game either.

Regardless, epic level challenges still need to feel different than the previous tiers. I’ve been DMing at the epic tier for awhile and have designed a few encounters that should hopefully prove useful for others in the future.

But I’ve reached the end of this blog post so I’ll talk about the design of those encounters another time!

-GoCorral

The Other Room in D&D

D&D is typically played with everyone in the same room or on the same video call if you’re my group.

The DM plays out the action and all the other players interact with each other and the DM.

Sometimes a change is needed.

What if one PC scouts ahead and the DM doesn’t want the other players to share the information that PC gets?

You could trust the players to only act on information their characters would know, but its difficult to rely on that. It’s easy for the DM and the players to forget where the line between character knowledge and their own knowledge is.

The problem is easily solved by restricting such knowledge.

When a player scouts the next room in a dungeon without the others the DM will take him into the other room with his character sheet and dice.

The player then explores the room on his own.

If there’s a monster in there, he has to fight it on his own. He can still call for help to the others, but they won’t necessarily hear him.

If there’s treasure in the other room, the PC could claim it for himself and not tell the others what he found. Golden chalice? Sweet! Since the PC found it on his own, he doesn’t need to share.

At the end of this week’s session I took one of my players into the other room (separate video call).

His PC hadn’t gone into another room, but instead was taking a vacation separate from the other PCs.

Not as exotic as a fancy golden chalice in the other room of a dungeon, but it was still something we felt should be separate.

The other PCs wouldn’t know what happened there unless they are told. Additionally, watching it probably would’ve been boring for them and disruptive for the player whose PC was there.

That’s all for tonight!

-Mister Ed

How Dungeons and Dragons Works Part 1

Sunday is the day I typically play D&D with my friends, so I am thinking about making Mondays into my “talk about D&D days.”

Last week I talked about the history of D&D and said a little about how I feel when I play D&D in contrast to video games. Today I’ll be talking about how D&D and other pen and paper roleplaying games work in practice.

First, a group of friends get together and decide they want to play. Typical group sizes range from four people to as large as eight. Most groups meet in person. My group meets on the internet using a program called Roll20 which I’ll talk about another time.

My group has six people in it including me. Out of the six players, only one is the Dungeon Master (DM). The other five are Player Characters (PCs). The PCs usually form a team while the DM plays against them. If D&D were a typical competitive game like Scrabble or Monopoly, then the PCs would cooperate to beat the DM.

Each PC designs one character to represent themselves in the D&D world. There are essentially no limitations in what you can design. When I first started playing I wanted to be a talking bat that cast spells. D&D does allow for this option, but my dad eventually convinced my nine year-old self to play a delinquent elf teenager. I’ve since played hobbit gladiators, dwarven drunks, and elf pirates among many others.

So the PCs each create a hero to play. The PCs control every aspect of that hero, how old he is, what his hair color is, how tall he is, how he fights, how he talks. Everything. But that’s only five people, what about all the others that inhabit the fantasy world that the heroes live in?

The DM creates and plays everything else in the world. If the PCs go to a city, the DM decides what that city looks like and what businesses are there and it is the DM’s responsibility to tell the players that information. The DM creates challenges for the PCs, the traditional challenge being a dungeon with a dragon at the bottom of it (The game is called Dungeons and Dragons for a reason).

The PCs could do anything they wanted. They could open a T-shirt shop together if they wanted to; however, most don’t open shops. D&D is most fun when fighting monsters or overcoming other violent challenges. My villains in my current world are vampires. There are also zombies, dragons, giants, ogres, evil wizards, and many other evil threats to the imaginary innocent people in my world. The PCs try to make the world a better place through their actions. The fun comes from how they decide to do that and the choices they have to make along the way as well as the thrilling action scenes that we play out.

That’s all for now, but more to come next week!

-Mister Ed