View Full Version : Pheonix-IV's Tips for DnD (Specifically DM's)

September 30th, 2008, 02:22
I made this post over on the Wizards forums in relation to somone who was having trouble with making their game interesting. I think it will also be relevant here, so here it is.

This sounds like a combination of bad encounter design and poor player design.

First up, i would like to make two points:

One: It is possible to 'min-max' (i hate that term) and still roleplay. Roleplaying does not immediately discount decent character design. And example would be my Kobold Rogue Kreet, who i really enjoyed roleplaying and made a brilliant backstory for him. He was also insanely mobile (with an action point he could move up to 14 squares in 1 turn if he was lucky, and 8 of those squares were shifts.) at level 4 and thanks to said mobility he could almost always have combat advantage and thus an inane damage output.

Two: Why is it surprising that in order to win in combat you need to have characters who are good at fighting? When i see people complaining about 'min-maxing' it puts me in the mind of somone putting an old man or a little girl into a boxing ring, and then complaining that they lost. Of course they lost, they're weaker than the boxer!

With that out of the way, i shall now do my best to analyse why you have a problem.

First up, an even level combat encounter should never take more than 3 - 4 rounds on average. I've run test encounters up to level 28, and they all averaged at 3 and a bit rounds to end. If your encounters are taking longer than 4 rounds on average, then you have a problem somewhere.

As we've already ascertained, your partys potential damage output is not as high as it could be, this in itself is not a problem, as it can be compensated for with good design and combat choices, which i'll now go onto.

Encounter design is a biggie. You as the DM are running a story for your players, as such you should be designing the encounters to be interesting. Sure i can just throw up a forest trail and have some random encounter pop up and attack, but that's probably going to get pretty boring pretty quickly. Instead you should put some thought into encounters, one game i'm running has two rangers (both with bow spec), a warlock, a laser priest and a fighter with some decent ranged abilities, so basically we have a mostly ranged party. As such, i've done alot of design (and redesign when i use WotC materials) to emphasize this. Many encounters involve some kind of high ground which gives a bonus to hit or damage, often i'll leave artillery creatures out as the high ranged power makes them very easy to kill, instead i try and put the players in positions where they have to avoid getting cornered, or need to block up a choke point. Interactive terrain such as ice, damaged cobbles, carnivorous flora ect all work together to make an encounter more interesting.

In general i apply a simple rule to all my encounters: What's the interesting thing that happens here? I try to have at least two interesting things in every encounter, an interesting thing can be anything from a lurker monster to a hidden trap to a magical glyph that gives a +1 to AC to some high ground that gives a +1 to hit on lower enemies to reinforcements and so on and so forth. Anything in the environment or the monsters which doesn't act as you might expect and does something different.
The DM's friend is a good thing to remember, add +1 (+2 in Paragon and +3 in Epic) to a given stat for whatever, it's enough to give the PC's a bit of an advantage (or the monsters if they're smart) without breaking the game.

The next important part about encounters is of course, monsters. The following sentance is in itself probably enough to turn your entire game around, especially if you have players who like heavy RP.


I cannot be any clearer than this, remember that your monsters are living beings too, roleplay them! Sure i can just take five Hobgoblins and throw them willy-nilly at my players, but that's no fun at all. It's much more entertaining when the monsters roleplay, maybe they shout tactics to each other, two attempt to push a character away from the rest so they can gang up on him, maybe another one calls out commands from the rear, and then when they're blooded they fall back and stage an ambush around the corner.

Think about it, how are these trained Hobgoblins going to react to two of their number getting killed while the players seem only marginally wounded? How would these untrained Goblins act differently? How about these religious fanatics or these wild animals? They're all going to do different things in different situations, work out what those things are in those situations, and then when those situations crop up, make them do those things!

The monsters should be as mobile as your players, if not more mobile, and they should act as living breathing creatures as well. Kobolds skitter between legs while shouting out orders in draconic and flee in terror at the first sign of serious resistance. Goblins dodge weapons and slide into new positions, giggling to themselves as they avoid even the strongest blow, but fleeing if things look like they're going badly. Hobgoblins line up and form an unbreakable phalanx while pushing slowly forward. An Ogre might go mad at the sight of blood and rampage through the Hobgoblin line, knocking Hobgoblins flying everywhere in it's charge to get at the PC's.

Make your monsters interesting, if they're just silent mindless things to get killed, then theres no fun at all in killing them. It's fun to fight with an opponant, somone who trades verbal insults, who searches for weaknesses and who reacts to your actions, it's not fun to fight a wooden dummy that just sits there. If your monsters are silently standing around attacking things, then they're no better than wooden dummies.

Finally, 4th edition puts alot more in the hands of the DM than 3.5 did. In 3.5 there were rules for everything, hell there were even rules for how to engage in sex (although that was a third party book). 4th takes a much simpler approach, 4th lets the DM do it.

An example would be one of my characters wanted to swing on a chandelier and kick a monster off a balcony in the process. I did a quick scan in the skills tab and found that this would be an acrobatics check to swing on the chandelier, but oh noes! There was no rules for kicking people in the face!

So i made one up on the spot, i said it'd be a strength attack vs reflex, and that he'd get a +2 bonus to hit because he was swinging through the air quite quickly. The attack would do a mere 1d6 damage, but would push the monster 1 square, if it failed it's saving throw it would get knocked off.

Sure enough, the attack hit, the monster failed it's saving throw and it fell off the balcony, taking 3d10 falling damage. That single attack (which i decided would be a move and a standard to perform) did more damage and was far more interesting than most at-wills would have been in the same situation.

Basically, don't be afraid to make on-the-spot judgements and to think outside the box. You may also need to point this out to your players, i have noticed that alot of players tend to bore themselves more than you do. The first few encounters were somewhat boring, although i had designed some great environments with all sorts of possibilities, the players were too used to being punished by DM's for thinking outside the box that the never did anymore, so i had to point out to them that maybe they could say push off this wall with an acrobatics check to give them a +1 to damage on their target and a push effect to boot (PoP2's wall attack as a reference).

Basically, it all boils down to some pretty simple steps.

Make your encounters interesting.
Make your monsters interesting.
Make your players interesting.

Ovbiously encounters and monsters are entirely up to you as a DM, but if your players are constantly just repeating "I use X on Y" with glazed expressions on their faces, try pointing out that there are other options. Somone here had a story about how they intimidated a Goblin into surrendering, i find this very sad, not because they didn't kill the Goblin but because they thought this sort of action was so rare that it warrents a story all by itself.

Non-combat solutions should always be viable, encourage your players to think outside the box and reward them when they do. Encourage your players to think tactically and reward them when they do, make the monsters interesting and different, make them really seem like enemies, maybe instead of killing this tribe of Goblins the PC's could try and befriend them instead, then they could get the assistance of a few Goblins in their later adventures. Make your environments interesting, they're in a 3D world, not a flat empty plane, and the ground should and does have an impact on what happens in that world. Make taking the high ground a real advantage, or fighting uphill a real disadvantage. Above all, make your players THINK.

And in the end, if it's still not working, if your players are resolutely ignoring your environment, or if you just can't think of interesting encounters, or maybe you just can't bring yourself to let them try and talk their way out of this threat, you might just be playing the wrong game.

September 30th, 2008, 02:23
DnD is all about creating your own fun, it's more like a toy than a game, it gives you some guidelines and basic rules, and from then on it's up to you to make it interesting. If your players aren't equipped for combat then ovbiously they're going to need to find a different way to achieve their objectives. I just started running a fun little short campaign involving a party of Doppelgangers, a murder mystery and a big castle. It's actually great fun and combat so far has basically amounted to a couple of failed assassination attempts and a tussle with the castle guards. The players have spent most of their time coming up with clever ways to get into various areas without killing anyone.

I know i have repeated myself several times, but i'm trying to hammer some points home. I have seen dozens of games fail because the DM didn't think outside the box and just mechanically moved things around. The DM is a person for a reason, a machine can run a DnD game just fine, it can follow the rules, but a person can elaborate upon those rules, and that's why the DM exists, to elaborate, to change, to be alive. And i've also seen dozens of games fail because the players didn't think outside the box and just mechanically walked forward slashing at enemies. Again, a machine can do this, you are a person, a human being, be creative!

If all else fails, remember that 4E is much more 'heroic action' based than 3.5. Go watch some action movies, play some action games like Prince of Persia, see all those rediculous stunts, those incredible environments that provide all sorts of interesting opportunities to do fun things like swing from ropes and run along walls? That is what 4E is trying to be. Help it along, take some ideas from the movies, let a player grab onto this thin column and spin around with his sword out, attacking all the enemies around it. Make a monster grab onto this rope and swing across the room, attacking everyone in a line. Make a monster that stands on the high ground and taunts the PC's, laughing at their pathetic attempts, and maybe let the PC's take him out with a single arrow, just like in the movies.
Let the heroes BE heroes! Let them do heroic things, encourage the players to do incredible feats of daring and strength, hell, i have a library of downloaded youtube videos that show 10 - 20 second clips of various movies with fun fights and moves, and i often break those out on my laptop for the extra pzaz, and the players do the same.

Be differerent, fun is found in inginuity and originality. Be clever, be original, but above all, be human. DnD has people in it for a reason, and that reason is not so they can mechanically follow the rules to the letter and be people shaped machines.

If anyone has any extra tips or suggestions they'd like to add, by all means, fire away. Comments, anything, i've seen alot of people fail to realise that they are people and that can ruin it for everyone.

I'll try and add tips for players to this later.