Mastering The Game: The Environment

Snow Fight by Deevad @ Wikimedia Commons


When players think of foes to defeat, they usually think goblins, trolls, vampires, and dragons; Each more deadly than the last. But what most players don’t know, and what many DMs seem to have forgotten, is that adventure rarely takes place in temperate climes with perfect weather. Often, adventure calls the party to stinking swamps, blazing deserts, frigid tundra, or storm-tossed oceans. And here is where the players will be tested by the ultimate opponent; the environment. Knowing how to handle the environment, and its effects, can make the stakes for your game that much higher, and that much more immersive.

Weather and its perils are briefly covered in the DMG on pages 109 to 111 and list general guidelines for survival checks in these areas; how to deal with heat, how to forage, and so on are sketched in for the DM to use, or not. Usually, most DMs don’t bother with such things, instead focusing on the “one overland encounter per day” tradition, but they definitely should consider a change in their habits. Depending upon your adventure, the environment – weather, its perils, and related challenges – could be the greatest obstacle to the party, mostly because it is unexpected. Most gamers, especially experienced ones, know that an empty room is sure to have a peril and thus are usually on guard. There’s even a tendency to meta-game; John rolled a “2” on his Perception check so Sarah suddenly pipes up “I’m going to look around too” because they know that John duffed his roll and they know something is up with this room. They’re ready for all manner of mousetraps waiting for their toes in the dark and so prepare for dungeon-delving as any professional would. But few players ever think about the environment; a wide-open plain is just that, a wide-open plain. No need to percieve anything or to lore it or to history-check it. It’s just a plain, stupid. Sure, “Survival” is a skill on the sheet, but how often is it called upon? Almost never, really. Many savvy players, when forced to choose between Survival and some other skill will usually choose the other skill.

And that’s where you can surprise them. No matter how prepared a group of people are for their task ahead, it is nearly impossible to prepare for every situation they could come across, and players know that; they prioritize the most likely acute threats to their success, stock up on protective agents, healing spells, and ammunition. Thus the environment is often left at the bottom of the worry list, much to their peril. For example, the classic party probably has one or two heavily-armored characters (fighters, paladins, clerics, and such) who don their armor every single say, just in case goblins attack while headed to the dungeon. Why? Because trying to “tank” without armor is just plain silly; it puts you at a disadvantage. Therefore, the fighters don their armor every day (and keep it on when on watch). They’ve done the meta-game calculus that it is highly likely that they will be attacked at some point, that those attacks will need to overcome an AC, and a high AC is the best chance to deflect those attacks. Armor is an all-positive precaution to take, thus it should ALWAYS be on. Some players will even insist that they sleep in their armor; something real medieval knights would never do because it is uncomfortable and you can get sores which fester if you leave it on too long. But I digress.

But what if they had to cross a vast, hot desert? That armor quickly turns from an asset to a liability as heat builds up and scorches the unprepared player; a DC5 in the first hour (disadvantage for heavy or medium armor) that climbs by 1 every hour exposed to the sun. Now the players have a choice to make; do they stop and maybe risk the desert at night (where humans, Dragonborn, and Halflings are disadvantaged) or press on and risk the tanks/healers suffering the effects of exhaustion (pages 181, 185, and 291 PHB). The players must now think not about how much damage they can do, but what ways they can overcome this foe; an opponent who has no AC, no saving throws, and no hit points but nonetheless will kill the party if ignored. Not only does this make largely-ignored skill checks more important, but it also makes the players think about their mission as something more than “go to the dungeon, kill everything, take the loot, repeat.” They have to take into consideration that the overland journey is causing hardship for their characters and they have to take care of them; there is glory in dying to defeat a demon, but none for the idiot who forgot to bring water to the Anauroch desert.

Some environs also work for the monsters deliberately; a dragon’s influence slowly seeps into the region around its lair and should provide adequate challenge – sometimes absolute peril – to adventurers who would dare violate those lands. Ettercaps, undead, and other creatures who make places their lair will all add increased peril to the adventurers’ travels as well. Don’t forget that adventurers are plentiful in Faerun, as are the ways in which they can meet their ends. There’s a reason the region is unpopulated, dangerous, or both.

When players prepare for an adventure, be sure to inform them of the known (or rumored) environments they will have to traverse in order to reach their destination. Give them the chance to prepare for extreme heat or cold, strong winds, heavy rains, storms, and even high altitude whenever feasible. But if the players make the mistake of underestimating the need for proper preparation, don’t forget that you are the DM and as much as you’d like them to succeed, you’re also the world in which they live. A world that can be unforgiving to the foolish, the reckless, and the unprepared.

Mastering the Game: Monster Tactics



Your party is doing very well, overcoming amazing challenges and responding to monsters’ onslaughts with ease and now the thing you fear has come to pass; your players are bored. Most DMs respond to player boredom or apathy with increased CR monsters; if the 5 level 6 players are sweeping through the Hobgoblin band led by one Hobgoblin Captain, then maybe two or three, or maybe all the hobgoblins should be captains? While it may be tempting to throw overwhelming odds at the players in the mistaken belief that tough fights make better gaming, you might want to re-examine the ways that your monsters act; how do they think? What are their strengths and weaknesses? Are they aware of those strengths and weaknesses? And will every monster stay to fight even when the battle is going badly? Thinking about the nature of your monsters, not just the number or CR of them, can make encounters more challenging, interesting, or memorable.


In most published encounters, the general scenery of encounters are set individually and without context. For example, as the players assault a castle, there might have been five guards in an outpost, or seven kobolds in the caves, or fifteen giant boars in any given forest. The result is a slug-fest between the players and the monsters which, nearly invariably, will wind up with the players on top. With repeated cycles of this kind of encounter paradigm, it is no wonder players get bored or arrogant: walk into the room, battle the monsters, win, and repeat. Numerically, the players get way more actions and attacks than the monsters and thus more damage is done to the monsters. Add to this the fact that monsters rarely have “balanced party roles” (healer, tank, etc.), leading them to throw themselves at the party like so many rain drops against a stone wall, and you have a recipe for disaster for the monsters and many players wind up dismissing the enemy. If kobolds, goblins, or spiders were so easy to dispatch, why were the villagers being terrorized in the first place?


That’s because the DM has failed to make the monsters living creatures who are familiar with their home. Think about it; human villages, elf outposts, dwarven strongholds, and even halfling villages have residents who are not only familiar with the lay of the land, but also know the secrets of the place; what areas make the best defensive spots, where to set ambushes, how to funnel attackers into choke points, and so on. While kobolds and goblins might not be as smart as humand and halflings, they are cunning and clever little hunters; you’d have to be when you’re 2′ tall lizard critters in a world of giants, trolls, and dragons. This is where the ‘ecology’ of the creatures come into play; will they use terrain, spies, and magic to their advantage? For example, if in our hypothetical kobold warren we have seven kobolds and a kobold shaman in a room down the corridor, it is possible that the party might have snuck up on the room and surprised, or at least caught the kobolds before they’re prepared for the “tall folk.” But most likely, the kobolds are aware of the adventurers at some point and will make preparations; setting up hit-and-run tactics or ambushes to whittle down the HPs or resolve of their attackers, then fleeing the first chance they get. They might use deadfall traps, poison, use the darkness against human, halfling, or Dragonborn characters, or lob the occasional flask of oil to slow the party. Remember, the creatures want to live as much as the party does and will pull out all the sneaky stops to delay and frustrate the party. When the party does eventually catch up to the kobolds (and they will, let’s face it), imagine how worked up the party will be and how satisfying the final encounter with the Kobolds will be. Maybe next time the party will think twice about accepting a commission to root out some kobolds, goblins, or orcs for a village?

A word of warning, however. It is important to balance the nature of these encounters with the party’s preparations. It is unfair, frustrating, and alienating for the DM to act as omnipotent informant for the monsters providing perfect foilf for the PCs careful scouting, scrying, planning and preparation. If the party is engaged and taking the threat seriously, let them have a good chance at executing their plans. For example, having learned from the near death experience of fighting kobolds in their warrens, maybe the party will use silence spells to prevent other rooms from hearing the fighting. This makes the assault on a castle, warren, or forest much easier as the party takes down the enemy in smaller chunks. Don’t worry that the party is steamrolling enemies at this point; they’re thinking in-game about the repercussions of their actions and how that may affect the ultimate goal. That is the kind of party you want at your table; thinking, engaged, and satisfied.

Of course, not all players like having to problem solve; riddles, cowardly opponents, or moving goal posts can frustrate certain types of players which will result in the opposite of what you intended; players that quit. Be sure to gauge your players style and proclivities before thinking about using the creatures’ brains against the party. Some people just want to smash things, kill imaginary fiends, and win the epic battle. And that’s okay. But for some players, such play style quickly becomes empty and devoid of any lasting meaning. Knowing the players at your table, and knowing the monsters they will face, will help you mater the game even more.

Around the Web: Matt Mercer’s “Rule of Cool”

by Michael Hinckley Hathorus

Probably best known for his voicework in video games and cartoons, Matt Mercer is also a well-known DM in the voice acting community in and around Los Angeles. Geek & Sundry’s Twitch stream featuring Mercer and eight of his friends playing D&D, known as “Critical Role,” is a fast-growing and fun romp through the world of 5th Edition. HERE, Matt shares his thoughts on “The Rule of Cool” – that is the implicit rule that the characters can sometimes play fast and loose with the rules in order to pull off an epic stunt and thus feel “cool” for having done that. We’ll let Matt fill you in on the rest:


Mastering The Game: Setbacks and Recovery

Mastering The Game: Setbacks and Recovery

by Michael Hinckley Hathorus

You have your time slot, your adventure, everyone is at the table, dice are rolling and monsters are being slain. And then it happens. You get off track, lose yourself in the role-play, the rules, the intra-party drama, have to answer questions from new players, or look something up only to realize that you’ve lost track of time. The clock ticks like the thunderous beat of the Tell Tale Heart, the players are looking at their watches, the other tables are disbanding…oh god! You haven’t even gotten to the “good part” yet! You’ve run out of time. It happens (or will) at some point, especially while DMing at conventions. But what can you do about it? Several things, it turns out.

Optimally, you’ll want to be prepared; have read the adventure, understood the general gist of the quest and its role in the overarching plot, and have DMed it even just a little. One way to get the experience of the adventure under your belt is to run it as a stand-alone game at your local group’s next session or at the very least, volunteer to run or play in one of BMG’s “Slot 0” sessions. As either a player or a DM, you will see how the battle plans forged by the Adventurer’s League pan out, what works and what needs work. You’ll be familiar with what happens, what doesn’t happen, what should happen, and what should definitely not happen. This gives you an edge, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day; you’ve been there and done that. This allows you the opportunity to to anticipate what might cause players confusion or angst, and come up with ways to clarify or mollify them. It will also give you a sense of how long the players can spend doing their own thing – interrogation, investigation, role-playing, tracking, etc. – before you have to nudge them along.

Slightly less optimal is having a crib sheet with the major plot points, actors in your little drama, and the timing that should happen. Clipping the cheat-sheet to your DM screen is a good way to keep yourself on-point especially in those first few games of the Con. Who is the informant or quest-giver? What are the players trying to accomplish? What obstacles might be in their way? How long can I let them flounder around before we need a minor miracle? All of these are important points you will definitely need to know in order to progress in the story, otherwise the players will spend the rest of the hours together cooling their heels in a tavern (or so it’ll seem). One good thing about the crib sheet is that it can be compiled relatively quickly in a brief read-through of the adventure, even if you have to do so to cover a shortfall in DMs at the last minute.

Alternatively, and slightly more intimidating for some folk, is the option to make it up as you go along (within reason, of course). Some DMs really like to play extemporaneously and let the players riff of of each other and as long as everyone had fun, that’s sort of fine. Just remember that some objectives, items, and people encountered still have to make an appearance if the players hope to put their characters through a larger plot at the Con or beyond. The caveat with this form of play is two-fold; first, you might run into players who feel they’re being cheated by the DM who ‘made it all up’ and robbed them of the story as it was written. Second, your narrative might run afoul of the larger story arc of the con; important people might die or you might award the wrong item at the wrong time or for the wrong reason. Be sure that your on-the-fly play doesn’t derail your colleagues’ roles at the Con.

Regardless of how you prepare (or don’t), the key though is flexibility. Even the most experienced DM running an adventure he’/she’s moderated a dozen times will, occasionally, run into a problem player, problem scenario, or something else which will eat up precious table time. Suddenly, you have a time disparity. While it is generally okay to disband the table a little bit early, it is generally bad form to end late because you begin to interfere with other players’ game time or other DMs duties (and they have to try to make up the difference, which puts them behind). This is where flexibility really needs to be exercised and that preparation or crib sheet comes in handy. Know what parts of the adventure you can “montage” or skill-check through rather than have the players role-play or combat through can allow you to make up for lost time. The reverse is also true; if the players are outpacing the adventure – especially during the epic multi-tier event involving other tables – you might want to slow them down with an additional encounter (especially if they’re powergamers) or some skill checks that are relatively plausible (picking up a trail in the Underdark or fighting a sudden squall on the Sea of Swords). Whatever the reason, though, do not be hide-bound to every little detail in the adventure and think a step or two ahead of your players to that they have as seamless a play session as possible. You don’t want players for the next slot looming over the shoulders of the players for the current slot; it ruins the game for all involved.

Time can sometimes be our enemy as DMs and the play style of your players can contribute to losing track of time, leaving them unsatisfied with their game. You don’t want them to walk away from the table unhappy and feeling like they wasted their time; that is a certain sign that you’ve failed as a DM. Instead, try to prepare for your adventures or, barring that at least set up an outline to keep you on task. Of course, at the end of the day, the key is staying flexible, catering to your players, and making sure they feel like the true heroes they believe themselves to be.

Mastering The Game: Trinkets, the Forgotten Adventure Hooks

by Michael Hinckley Hathorus

The party is drinking in a tavern, summoned by the king, appealed to by orphans, or is plopped smack in front of the dungeon to explore. The stage is set, the party is ready and raring to go, it’s “lights, camera…Action!” Or so you think. One player decides they want to hit on the waitress rather than adventure, or they insult the king by not showing up, or they simply groan their disappointment and complain “Another tavern?” You’ve had the bubble of willing suspense of disbelief popped by the bored player. And you’ve run into a decades-old problem confounding DMs for forty years; How do you sustain players’ interest in a long-running campaign without reverting to cliches? One way is through the humble trinket. Laced into the game without anyone noticing is the plot hook that breaks the mold.

trinketsTrinkets, as outlined in the PHB on pages 160 to 161, are tiny, innocuous items that seem like they’ve been rooted out of Elminster’s junk drawer; little things with no outward value or powerful magical aura. But what they don’t know is that that little piece of detritus they found in the goblin camp three or four sessions ago was the first piece in a larger puzzle put in place by you, the DM.

It takes a little bit of practice to weave the trinket into the narrative, especially if the players are so focused on loot that you feel compelled to make every treasure worthy of such lofty expectations. Reading the campaign and thinking ahead to the places where the characters might opt for something disastrous, or might be confused as to how to proceed, is important to the proper use of the trinket as plot mover. Sometimes, the players will get it right (or right-ish) and that’s okay; you don’t need to activate the trinket’s “hidden power” or higher purpose yet. Most of the time, however, players might bog down in debate over how to proceed and you feel the need to nudge the players into making a decision; in comes the trinket.

Maybe the bone finger twitches in someone’s pocket, or the cube of unknown material changes temperature drastically, or the music box plays a tune suddenly then stops, or maybe the handkerchief’s twin is seen hanging out of the pocket of a stranger who quickly leaves the tavern. Regardless of what happens, it should not directly answer any questions put to it by the player and should definitely NOT be a result of the way you think the players should act or decide. Like prophecy, the responsiveness or value of the trinket’s input should remain vague, yet prompt the players to action.

For example; players are arguing over a map in their room at the inn. Some want to go to the swamp, others want to go to the hills, and some others want to move on to the city. All are perfectly fine decisions, but the party is bickering and this is getting nowhere. The wind of the storm outside blows open the window to the room, causing a stack of papers to fall to the floor, including the map the players are arguing over. When retrieved, have only one or two players (those picking up the papers, most likely) roll perceptions checks. Now, you have their attention and they’re going to check the room, the papers, anything for the thing to be perceived. It’s a map of a partial floorplan of a keep or manor house that the players found many days before. Do any of those destinations have ruined castles or manor houses? Maybe none of those places have any such structure. Regardless, congratulations because your party is out of the rut and making decisions again, thus moving the plot along.

So how do these trinkets wind up in the possession of the characters in the first place? The obvious answer is in the horde of some defeated foe, but there are other ways to acquire such trinkets. Perhaps as part of the starting package to tie in their character traits (background, flaws, ties, etc.), or maybe as part of a larger quest a character has (the Bard seeks forgotten lore, or the Cleric seeks a sign from her god), or maybe completely by accident (a toy soldier found in the pocket of a disguise used to get into the cult’s temple). Be creative and be flexible.

Whatever the source, don’t feel obliged to give trinkets to every character, or at least to make those trinkets worthwhile. When all is said and done, trinkets are there to help add story, nuance, and flavor to the game; if your characters are fine without them, then by all means, don’t ‘activate’ these items or even have them found. It would not be a bad idea, however, to drop one or two into the mix, just to be sure. You never know when the party needs a little shove to keep the story going.

You don’t have to be Good; You just have to be Willing

by Robert Dorgan

Running Dungeons and Dragons games as the Dungeon Master (or Game Master) or any type of role-playing game can be a lot of fun.  One of the challenges players have is attention drift and having to wait to take their turn.  The DM doesn’t have this problem as they will nearly always be involved with whatever is going on.  In addition, the DM gets to spend time prepping the adventure, which can also be an enjoyable activity.  So, with this double bonus of being more involved during the play of the adventure and spending extra time reading and prepping the adventure it begs the question why aren’t there more people out there willing to DM?

dungeon master photo
Photo by mikeleger

In a nutshell, DM’ing calls upon so many different skills that I don’t think there is anyone out there who is an expert in all of them and that means to some degree you will spend some time outside of your comfort zone or at least skirting being less than fully competent.

DM’ing an adventure can call upon improvisation skills when the players do something unexpected, making different types of voices for NPCs, strategy and tactics during combat, on the fly rules adjudication when something comes up that isn’t covered in the rules, artistic skills in terms of drawing maps, acting chops for portraying NPCs and villains and social awareness in gauging that everyone is being entertained and having their particular desires met (at least some of the time) in terms of what they enjoy about gaming.

Whew!  That’s quite a list and I could expand on it even further by adding things like miniature painting, terrain crafting, digital and technical skills for adding audio/visual effects to a game, etc.

I think given all of these diverse skills that it’s likely you will be good to great at some of them, average at others and perhaps weak in others.  It can also vary in relation to your players.  Your great tactical skills to make an exciting combat for one group of players may break down when you have a table of war gamers who have fully optimized all of their character choices and operate more like a Navy Seal team.  Your acting skills may be just fine to portray the mayor for a group of teenagers who are more interested in getting out of town to slay some orcs and then you feel inadequate when you have a bunch of theater majors who want to spend half the time in social interactions with the various townsfolk.

Yes, one can get better and improve in any of these areas over time.  However, unless you only play with the exact same group of players all the time you are subject, like at a convention or other public play event to run for people you don’t know and thus experience the feeling of not being good enough.

However, the secret is you don’t have to necessarily be good in any of these areas, you just have to be willing.  Also, the even bigger secret is that if you’re primary purpose is to entertain your players, to make sure they all have a great time and you leave your any shred of being self-conscious at the door then you’ll do great.

If you think about comedic movie stars there are several examples of people who aren’t necessarily the best actors in the world and their movies won’t be nominated for Oscars or Golden Globe awards but they do make you laugh.

I still chuckle when I think about Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly going at each other in Step Brothers.  It’s not a great movie by artistic standards and it still got a 3.6 audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6.9 on IMDb.  What makes comic actors like Will Ferrell successful is his willingness to fully embrace his role in the pursuit of entertaining the audience.

I practice the same thing in my own DM’ing.  During 4th edition I played a lot of Living Forgotten Realms (4th ed. organized play) with a group of players who were collectively (and many individually) smarter than me and much better at the tactical aspects of the game.  I had little hope when during the combats of doing much to threaten them.  Fortunately, like many gamers I’ve met, they didn’t have a problem smashing the monsters and barely breaking a sweat.

Given this I didn’t want them to just remember the games I ran as the ones where they walked through most of the adventure (and a lot of LFR adventures were heavily combat focused).  So, I looked at the role-playing opportunities and mined them for ideas about how to present such far out ways to present stuff that it would be more memorable than the combats.

dungeon master photo
Photo by nocturn444

As an example, there are a lot of small details given in many adventures that at first glance can seem to be a throw away, some minor description for adding a little bit of flavor to a scene.  For example, there was one adventure that mentioned a bard singing in a tavern about the Queen of Thorns, a harbinger of doom for the country of Cormyr.  In a Weird Al Yankovic like parody I rewrote the lyrics to a Duran Duran song to feature the Queen of Thorns and the destruction of Cormyr.  I have Rio cued up on my Rock Band game which one can perform as lead singer of  a song.  The TV was turned off so the players had no idea what was in store.

I ran the game until the point at which they saw the bard’s performance.  After briefly describing the tavern and the bard getting ready to perform I excused myself from the table, did a quick “costume” change into a flashy shiny shirt, turned on the TV and sang proceeded to best/worst karaoke.  I say best/worst because I am not technically a good singer at all and I put so much physical gyration and heart into the performance that everyone was quite entertained.

On a less flashy scale there was another adventure featuring a halfling NPC who sends the characters on a quest.  He is described as asking the characters odd questions though no description was given of what they might be.  I went ahead and typed up 20 “odd questions” that I was then able to refer to during the role-playing encounter and thus add more flavor and make it more memorable and interesting.  Years later one person in that game still remembers one of the questions.

My invitation to anyone out there who is thinking about DM’ing and hasn’t yet or even to those people who are already DM’ing is to worry less about what you’re good at and focus more on what you’re willing to do to provide your players with an awesome entertainment experience that they may be talking about for years to come.

Speaking of which, “Why is Morgrim Soulforge so awesome?”

Photo by mikeleger

Rankings update

The Herald’s Guild ranking updates were sent out this week and since we saw some questions pup up repeatedly we added a short explanation to the site.

You can find it here

But to save you the click,  what you will find on that page is this:

So, you got an email with your ratings info and are wondering what all of it means. Let us try to shed some light and explain our current ranking rules:

  • If you have an average rating of at least 16, a minimum of 10 forms in our system and have judged for us at at least 1 show… You are level 2.
  • If you have an average rating of at least 18.5, a minimum of 20 forms in our system, have judged for us at at least 2 shows and have been with us for at least 6 months … You are level 3.
  • If you have an average rating of at least 19, a minimum of 40 forms in our system, have judged for us at at least 4 shows and have been with us for at least a year… You are eligible for level 4.

Eligible for level 4?rankings 2
Yes, eligible for level 4. Promotion to ranks 4 (and beyond) is not an automatic process. Once a year, after Gen Con has been tallied, there will be a round of voting where the current level 4’s get to weigh in on who joins their ranks. We will announce the new Level 4 DM’s at Winter Fantasy at the HG Members meeting.

If after reading this questions remain, please mail us at


News from the Herald’s Guild

Spring is here and the convention Summer is on the horizon. Time for some updates:

I am, still, working diligently a revamped website, so we can add more content and functionality to the Herald’s Guild. However the work is getting lonely and the process could do with some extra eyes, ears, hands and commenting mouths. In short I could do with a few web (WordPress?) savvy volunteers.

If working on websites is not your thing, but writing is, we are also still looking for people who are willing to spend some time creating content. An article on DM-ing, game preparation, pictures of a great setup you built, stories from the front lines. Everything is welcome.

If you are willing to help out, drop me a line at and please add “Volunteering” in the subject 🙂

In other news. We know, that signup, ranking and other questions regarding the Herald’s Guild exist and that, while we are working to create light in that darkness, answers can be tricky to find. Because some people have been waiting a long time, I would like to request that if you have a burning question, or are waiting on an answer from a while back, shoot us an email so I can try to get you answers.

Either way we will get an updated ranking list up asap.

Any other comments, (constructive) criticism, ideas and the like. I welcome them.

~Krishna Simonse, for the Herald’s Guild