A Dungeon Master is a downright despicable creature, possessing a cruel mind capable of describing and carrying out terrible, wicked depravity. And that’s the way it should be.
Even if you are running the most granola-loving example of collaborative roleplaying, it’s really your job to put the characters through the wringer. You may do that with crafty decision points that make the ones provided in Dragon Age: Origins seem quaint, but you still do it. This month I’m going to treat you to some of my favorite little dirty DM tricks. Keep in mind these tricks aren’t meant to take advantage of your players. They’re best used to ensure a fun and challenging game experience, not to show your dominance over others. Use them fairly and wisely, because while it is good to be cruel and devious, the best DMs are seemingly unaligned. One might say neutral.
One of the best tricks that a DM can learn is that the truth is fluid in D&D. I’m not just talking about NPC motives, the duplicity of so-called allies in the story, and the inaccuracy of ancient reports of a treasure’s location (although all are fun); I mean the so-called truths of the world are fluid.
The world of D&D is a lot like the dream world in the movie Inception. If we gave it an ounce of real scrutiny, our BS alarms would be a-ringin'. It is a world of fantasy, after all. It is also a game, so every so often we find awkward borders and strange constraints. But it is so much fun that we are engaged by it, and we suspend our disbelief.
At the same time, many DMs treat their game notes or the text in this adventure or that supplement as things carved in stone. So it is written, so it is done! Throw that out the window. Don’t be afraid to change things on the fly in the midst of play. Riff off your players. Let their good ideas become your own.
For instance, let’s say you had an ordinary boring human serve as the magister of a small town with a predominantly human population. He was supposed to give the characters a hard time for a bar brawl, but his main purpose was to introduce them to a possible employer and to showcase a bit of local color. But just before this encounter occurred, the characters were discussing how they don’t trust tieflings in this town, because they seem to be running the local crime and gangs. One player may even (jokingly) say he is thinking of attacking every tiefling in sight, because they’ve been such a pain in the butt. It’s time to kick that human out of there, and make the magister a tiefling. There is more story in it that way, and making that story talk directly to the characters’ observations creates engagement. It will build more tension as the characters are forced to decide whether they can trust this guy. This small change makes a good encounter better.
Like anything, you can overdo this. I have in the past. I’ve changed names of NPCs I thought I hadn’t used yet. I’ve gotten caught in seeming contradictions only to have to reason myself a way out (which can be done). If you are fast on your feet, you can turn screw-ups into opportunities. This is a feature, not a glitch of unscripted storytelling.
Take the swap to tiefling example above. Let’s say I had already stated earlier that the magister was human. When a player questions this, have the tiefling respond: “Because I don’t share the vices of my kin, many in town see me as human.” Such a response makes the magister more ambiguous. Is he telling the truth, or is this just more evidence that he is a slick imposter in cahoots with the town’s underground? The plot thickens.
Proper lying takes finesse. Cheating tends to be easier, at least for us DMs. The strength of a DM’s authority comes in the form of ultimate arbitration. We are DMs, we do what we want! But it’s never good to be as blatant as the coppers in a David Peace novel. The trick is to subtly manipulate the game toward your direction, and that direction should be toward increased fun, challenge, immersion, and excitement.
With the changes of monster damage numbers and skill DCs, the reasons to cheat become fewer and fewer, but a few will always be there, because it depends on the situation. Here are some extreme examples:
- When a roadblock encounter becomes a bog of bad dice rolls, it’s time to cheat a little.
- When everyone is rolling under 5 for their skill challenges, it’s time to cheat a little.
- When your wizards just inexplicably killed all 15 minions, it’s time to cheat a little.
This type of cheating is easy. Often it can be as blatant as a wave of the hand and on to the next encounter. Usually you can do this when you are cheating in the player’s favor. If it speeds up the action and they benefit from it, they’ll take the pass. When it's not in their favor, you need to be a little more tricksy.
I’ll often change creature levels on the fly. For each level tacked on, boost hit points by 10 and attacks, defenses, and skill bonuses by one. Down is the opposite. It’s not precise, but it's close enough when you're working fast. As a rule of thumb, I never downshift or upshift a monster more than two levels.
Even with the fantastic changes to the skill DC chart, from time to time I’ll still upshift or downshift DCs on the fly. Typically that's either to add information or add tension. For instance, consider an optimized rogue who tries to pick a lock in a deity’s dominion. He rolls a 13 and with his maxed-out bonus, that's high enough to succeed. But this is a deity's lock! It ought to be tougher to spring open than that even for a top-notch thief. I may up the DC then and there so that a roll of 14 or 15 is needed. Eventually the player will get the roll that he needs, and the delay gets across how nearly perfect things are within the realms of the gods.
The trick of this monster change is to do it before the players gain true intelligence of the actual numbers, and to notate it on your monster or DC notes. That way you can avoid WTF moments a month down the road.
What's the art of keeping monsters alive? That’s a whole column. I’ve often experimented with or changed the rules for minions. Living Forgotten Realms adventures feature some interesting variations on the minion rules to fit climactic encounters. I’ve found inspiration from many of them. I’m sure a lot of you reading this have, too.
See, you’re already a cheater. Certainly, cheater is too harsh a description.
James Wyatt mentioned this in his last Dungeoncraft column, but it’s worth restating: plagiarize, plagiarize, and plagiarize. This is sometimes hard for a DM to do, because many of us harbor deep-seated desires to have our opus see published form one day. Go ahead; it’s OK to admit it. But I’m going to tell you something. It’s a hard truth; it’s a real truth. That’s not going to happen. Well, not anytime soon, and before then, you will have plenty of time to scrub out all the crap you stole.
I often steal strange little story hooks. Other times I steal characters. Many times I make those thefts rather blatant, so at least some of my players will get the joke; hokey, I know, but often effective. It’s OK to be a little meta, because D&D is a game with a bunch of meta. Monsters are stolen or rehashed from every mythology on the planet and a host of preceeding fantasy fiction. As D&D talks to MMORPGs and vice versa, they swap a lot of spit. We aren’t writing A Game of Thrones here, we are good old-fashioned Cops and Robbers. We are Vaudeville unplugged. And that’s awesome!
If you aren't willing to seem even a little hokey, it can be hard to steal effectively. Among a group of friends, a shared canon of geek works arises. Comics and novels get swapped, you go to the same movies, and you watch the same TV shows. This is where it pays to be quirky. For me, that means old movies. I’m a sucker for any historical movie made before 1970. Many of them are bad, but I still find strange characters and story points in these films. I think every character from the old Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton flick Becket has appeared in my game at some point or another. King Henry is actually the model of an eladrin lord that comes in and out of the characters' lives from time to time. He is spoiled, duplicitous, capricious, and always fun.
I steal art for NPC illustrations. I steal encounter ideas from the pages of Dungeon Magazine all the time. Unless you are writing an article for Dungeon or you are earning money, professional recognition, or educational recognition for your ideas though from the work, stealing is just good clean fun between friends around a table. It’s like a cowboy camp or the courts of 12th century France. Let the tall tales and the half-truths fly.
It’s that time in the column—let’s look in the mailbag. If you have one of those hard questions about being a DM, post on the Save My Game group in the Wizards Community. It features a community of helpful DMs that will give you their own sound advice. Every month, I take a few of these questions and give you my take here. This month, I’m tackling one, big question asked by a player. It’s a dozy.
The Big Question
Don't get me wrong, my DM is a good one, who seems to follow all the expert advice from all of the 4e communities, and really does put the effort in.
However, maybe it's because I can see too far through the curtain, or maybe I'm not the sort of person 4th edition was designed for, but leveling up and getting magic items aren't fun anymore.
I can really feel the entire world leveling up with us, but only numerically. As much as I'd love to confront the DM about this, I don't know what to say. How can I suggest he make a level 15 encounter FEEL like it isn't a level 14 encounter? How can I get "DC 20 insight check" to feel different from an insight check of any other level? How can I get the normal and limited damage expressions of improvised ideas, to feel appropriate to how much damage they actually do, instead of the level of the encounter?
—Jonydude from the Save My Game group
It may seem strange that I’m answering a player’s question in SMG, but this is one I get over and over. And not always from players—often it comes from DMs. There is no magic answer for this one. The game itself only gives you brief and sometimes scattered advice on this subject.
I think that most people think the game, as written, is thematically fine in the Heroic Tier. You find out where bad guys are and you stomp them in the place where they live. But by paragon tier, players start to expect more. They’re paragons, damn it. The stories should be bigger. More often than not, paragon characters are humping it in the dungeons of the bad dude the same way they were doing when they were 1st level.
The first thing the DM should do is find a way to make his stories seem more paragon. What’s the difference between heroic and paragon? Here is my theory. In heroic tier, the characters are nobodies—the thorn in the side of the local Federation of D&D Villains. In paragon tier, they are somebodies. Kings vie for their favor, local tyrants fear them, and orc bands run from them. Because of this, characters will need to make hard choices of a political nature, or at least on issues that reach beyond their own small concerns. Their decision points aren't limited to, should I take the left corridor or the right. Instead they should be, do I help Duke Vendros hold off the monstrosities surging from the demon gate, or should I heed the call of the treacherous Baron Trask because he raised the entire party when they fell in the Caverns of Tanga-Na.
Making this switch can be rough, especially for new DMs. There's the comfortable momentum of continuing to do what's worked so far. Beyond that, you might feel that you've finally mastered the skill of building good heroic-tier encounters right about the time that characters reach paragon tier. You have to shake out of it. There are new challenges to be had.
The second thing the DM should do is look at each character’s paragon path and create adventures and challenges that talk directly to those paragon paths. If a player wants their wizard to be a blood mage, start asking how people feel about blood magic. While you can riff on (maybe even steal) the ideas in Dragon Age: Origins, you don’t need to. Blood Mages may be overseen by the church of Pelor, as blood mages are often in danger of the sin of lichdom. Most paragon paths don’t have loads of story in them, but don’t let that limit you. Being a paragon is a lot like being a teenager—everything is about the characters. Their choices should create their struggles.
So what about epic play? I like to think of epic play as the place where characters find out they are not nearly as powerful as they once thought. They find that their concerns before were petty and small compared to the concerns that they discover. At that point, epic almost becomes a superhero campaign. I equate epic play to the Justice League.
But I’ll be honest with you—my current campaigns aren’t there yet. Give me a few more months to see whether I change my mind.
About the Author
Stephen Radney-MacFarland caught the D&D bug at an impressionable age. Once the content manager for the RPGA, and a developer for the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules, he is now a freelance game designer doing work for Wizards of the Coast and Paizo Publishing, and he is part of a fledgling group of game commentators and game designers called NeoGrognard. During the daylight hours, he teaches game production classes at the International Academy of Design and Technology of Seattle.