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    Sly Flourish

  • VideoRime of the Frostmaiden Session Zero

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    This article discusses how to run a session zero for the D&D hardcover adventure, Rime of the Frostmaiden and contains spoilers for the adventure.

    For a video on this topic, watch my Frostmaiden Session Zero YouTube Video.

    Clarifying the Theme of Rime of the Frostmaiden

    Unlike other adventures, Rime of the Frostmaiden is designed as a book of related quests than a single cohesive storyline. While one might assume the drive of Rime of the Frostmaiden is to "end the eternal night", that drive isn't the best way to motivate the characters in the early parts of the adventure. Instead, we can motivate the characters to follow the wide range of quests in this adventure with the following theme:

    "Help the people of Ten Towns survive the endless night."

    This gives our characters a clear motivation to follow quests in the adventure wherever they may lead. A common complaint of Frostmaiden is that it lacks this single cohesive narrative that drives the characters through all of the material of the book. If, instead, we reinforce the theme that the characters are there to help the people of Ten Towns, just about every quest works well.

    Frostmaiden Session Zero Checklist

    When we run a session zero, it helps to clarify our goals in a checklist. Here's my own Frostmaiden session zero checklist:

    • Give out the Frostmaiden one-page Frostmaiden Campaign Handout and discuss it.
    • Discuss Frostmaiden's themes and our group's safety tools.
    • Work with the players to choose a group patron.
    • Give players their character's secret.
    • Work with the players to build characters together.
    • Give the players the optional Icewind Dale backgrounds in the book's introduction.
    • Give each character a trinket from Appendix A.
    • Run a short introductory adventure.

    Beginning in Bryn Shander

    Rime of the Frostmaiden gives you the option to start in any of the ten towns of Ten Towns. It recommends, if you cannot choose, to select Bryn Shander, which is what I did. I've seen many discussions online about which town to start in but this one worked well for me.

    Frostmaiden One-Page Campaign Guide

    For every campaign I run I like to give out a one-page campaign handout. Here's the PDF of my one-page Frostmaiden Campaign Handout. I usually give out these handouts a couple of days before the session zero so the players have enough of a chance to give it a read but not so much that their imaginations go wild and they come to the game with characters fully fleshed out. We want the players to build characters together so they fill in the right roles and build some inter-character relationships before we start.

    The Importance of Safety Tools

    Rime of the Frostmaiden is a rough adventure. Reading through the adventure, I came to the following potentially uncomfortable material:

    • Darkness
    • Deadly Cold
    • Betrayal
    • Paranoia
    • Murder
    • Incest
    • Isolation
    • Cannibalism
    • Mental assault
    • Ritual sacrifice
    • Parasitic monsters
    • Child endangerment
    • Violence towards animals

    It's worth discussing the content of this adventure before you choose to run it, even before a session zero, but its certainly worth discussing during your session zero as well.

    Consider using the checklist from Monte Cook Games's Consent in Gaming to see if there are any issues players might have with the content in Icewind Dale.

    Even after you've worked with your players to discuss the themes they're comfortable and uncomfortable with, you'll want some sort of safety tool in place during the game. Situations can come up quickly that may push a player out of their comfort zone and you want to ensure you can grab onto this quickly and move the story away from the subject at hand. This may seem overly cautious but it can happen to anyone, regardless of how long they've been gaming, and it's best to ensure you're steering the game towards enjoyment for all.

    See this excellent safety tool reference by Tomer Gurantz for details on lines, veils, X cards, and so on.

    In my own game I chose to use lines, veils, and a verbal X-card for our group in which anyone can say "pause for a second" over chat to break character and discuss whats going on out of character.

    You can see more about how I use these in my safety tools video.

    Group Patrons

    Tasha's Cauldron of Everything describes options for adding group patrons to our game and Frostmaiden is a great place to do it. You can spend some time reading through the adventure and choosing your own group patrons. I chose the following four:

    • Vellynne Harpell. A neutral-aligned Member of the Arcane Brotherhood, Vellynne becomes more important in the later parts of the adventure but she'd make for a fun and somewhat sinister group patron early on. Vellynne can be inclined to aid the people of Ten Towns to restore the damage done by Vaelish Gant years before and to gather more information about the secrets locked under the ice of Icewind Dale. Potential Tasha's group patron benefits: Academy.

    • Sheriff Markham Southwell. A lawful good sheriff of Bryn Shander, Sheriff Markham makes for a very solid group patron with ties to Bryn Shander's speaker, Duvessa Shane, and knowledge of the other towns. The sheriff would bring on the characters to take care of the jobs that he and the town guard cannot do themselves, including building stronger relationships with the other towns and aiding in their problems. Potential Tasha's group patron benefits: Military Force.

    • Hlin Trollbane. The neutral good Hlin can make for a good group patron serving outside of the law but with the drive to serve as a bastion of good in the darkness surrounding Ten Towns. Her first drive to hunt down the cold hearted murderer is a great start. Potential Tasha's group patron benefits: Guild.

    • Dannika Graysteel. The chaotic good half-elf scholar who comes to Ten Towns to understand what strange phenomena brought the endless night to Ten Towns can make a strong group patron. Like the others, she desires to help the people of Ten Towns but in particular wants to understand what has changed the natural order of things in Icewind Dale. Potential Tasha's group patron benefits: Religious Order.

    Alternative Character Secrets

    If you're using the character secrets in Frostmaiden, it's better to let players choose them before they start building characters. In many cases the secrets have racial limitations and won't work if the players choose races outside of those tied to the secret.

    I wasn't crazy about the secrets in the book. I found them too limiting and felt they took agency away from the player when building their characters. Instead, I offered randomly selected options from the list below which includes more open-ended secrets so the player has more room to fill it in with their own details. Use this list of alternative secrets if you prefer them:

    1. You are a spy keeping an eye out for the Arcane Brotherhood.
    2. You are being hunted by a noble family for a crime or slight you committed.
    3. You are fleeing from gangsters of the city of Luskin.
    4. As a child you were left in the cold to die but an owl-shaped humanoid saved you.
    5. You were secretly raised by yetis.
    6. You were infected by an otherworldly parasite.
    7. You are the secret heir for royalty in hiding.
    8. You have hazy dreams of being kidnapped by an alien race and then crashing down in the ice.
    9. You seek an heirloom was stolen from you long ago.
    10. You covet a small amulet made of a strange black and silver metal. Sometimes you hear it speaking to you.
    11. You have dreams of a massive strange black structure, a city, buried under the ice.
    12. Someone you love was murdered by a ghost.
    13. You are actually an escaped clone, a construct, built by the Arcane Brotherhood for some unknown purpose.
    14. You were reincarnated into your current form by a mysterious druid.
    15. You are outcast for having documented forbidden text. It could be dark magic or a tell-all book.
    16. You are an escaped and hunted prisoner.
    17. You have a phobia of talking animals.
    18. You witnessed a terrible crime and fear the one who committed it.
    19. You escaped a mark for sacrifice to Auril.
    20. Your dreams are filled with tentacled nightmares.

    One important tip for assigning secrets is to not let the players see the whole list so they can't guess what the secret is for another player. Instead, have them roll 1d20 and tell them privately what the secret is. If they like it, they keep it. If they hate it, they roll again for a new secret. They never, however, see the entire list of secrets so they can't guess what secrets another character has.

    A Better Cold Open

    Rime of the Frostmaiden offers 13 potential starter quests but gives us no idea which ones work well at any given level. Instead, we have to figure it out or we face the potential of our characters becoming overwhelmed by a deadly encounter. Most of the time, at 2nd level and above, the characters my get over their head but can probably escape. 1st level, however, is the deadliest level in D&D by far. It really should have its own rules for encounter building.

    Thus, I recommend running a short adventure specifically designed for 1st level characters to get them to 2nd level quickly.

    In my own game, I began with the characters making their way to the Northlook Inn to meet with their group patron when they saw a number of figures (one for every two characters) hunched over and chewing on a body. When the characters investigate, these creatures reveal themselves to be ghouls. When the characters dispatch the ghouls, they investigate the body and discover that the ghouls were eating it but they clearly didn't kill it. Instead it was killed with an frozen dagger, the icy blade still in the lethal wound.

    When they take their findings to their patron, they get 2nd level and are now better prepared for the trials of Ten Towns.

    This introduction leads the characters to the larger Cold Open quest and their hunt for Sephek Kaltro. Sephek is deadly for 1st level characters but can be defeated at higher levels. If the characters face him at 3rd or 4th level, you can have him summon some icy ghouls tied to his connection to Auril to make the encounter even more dangerous.

    A Strong Introduction to an Icy Adventure

    Session zeros are vital for running excellent cohesive campaigns in which the characters are tied to one another and to the theme and drive of the campaign's story.

    There's more to come as we dig deeper into Rime of the Frostmaiden including grouping the chapter 1 quests into more manageable batches.

    Hopefully this article gave you your own tools to run an awesome session zero and begin a fantastic adventure with your friends.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • Handling Rests in D&D

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    The frequency of rests, both long rests and short rests, is critical to the pacing of our D&D games. Too many rests and the characters enter every situation armed with the full force of their character at their disposal. Too few and players feel helpless and frustrated as they watch their characters dwindle down to their last remaining hit point.

    It behooves DMs to recognize how and when we offer rests to the characters. It helps when we pay conscious attention to it and arm ourselves with the tools to manage rests and maintain the right exciting pacing of our D&D games.

    Reviewing the Core Books

    On any topic like this, it always helps to go back to the core books and see what they have to say on the topic. Chapter 8 of the Player's Handbook includes the basic descriptions of short and long rests. An interesting note, the default rules state that a character only regains half their maximum hit dice on a single long rest. That often gets omitted in play. The section is worth reviewing but offers no guidance for DMs on how best to offer or control such rests. Also worth noting is that a character can only benefit from one long rest in 24 hours.

    Chapter 3 of the Dungeon Master's Guide describes the expectation that characters receive two short rests per adventuring day. Xanathar's Guide to Everything offers optional exhaustion rules should characters choose to forgo a long rest during a 24 hour period of time.

    An oft-described and, in my opinion, misinterpreted description in the Dungeon Master's Guide states the following:

    "Assuming typical adventuring conditions and average luck, most adventuring parties can handle about six to eight medium or hard encounters in a day."

    This is often interpreted that characters should face six to eight encounters in an adventuring day. I disagree. Instead, characters should face as many encounters as makes sense given the situation and circumstances. More on this in a moment.

    With all of their descriptions, the Dungeon Master's Guide and Xanathar's Guide don't offer much guidance on how best to handle rests in our D&D games to maintain the right pacing. Let's fix that now.

    Rests and Combat Challenge

    How well rested the characters are is a major factor in how challenging they find combat encounters. Well-rested characters, particularly at high levels, have many more resources at their disposal and can often succeed in very difficult battles, sometimes with ease. Characters that have faced a significant number of foes and expended many of their daily resources will have a much harder time when facing difficult encounters.

    Ensuring the characters don't face a final battle fully prepared is one of the top suggested ways to ensure the characters don't destroy boss monsters too easily.

    When designing a combat encounter intended to be challenging, it helps to burn down the characters' resources with previous battles and little chance to rest. This is why waves of monsters works particularly well in boss fights. Two waves of monsters before a final boss is a great way to ensure the boss doesn't face fully-rested characters ready to nuke them from orbit.

    When to Offer Rests

    The easiest way to manage rests is to let the story dictate when and where rests can take place. If the characters are on a long journey on a well-traveled road or exploring a safe city, it's likely they'll be able to take long rests without difficulty. If they're deep in a dungeon filled with terrible monsters and few safe rooms, it's unlikely the characters can stop in the middle of a four-way hallway and rest for eight hours undisturbed. Much of the time we can let the story dictate how often the characters can take short or long rests. Even then, we may need to be explicit in describing these opportunities to the players.

    Explicitly Describe Opportunities for Rests or the Lack Thereof

    Players don't understand what's going on about half the time. This is a common rule of mine to help me recognize that while the story and situation may be perfectly clear in my mind, it isn't necessarily as clear to my players. This is equally true with rests. It may not be clear to the players that their characters can take the opportunity for a short or long rest or what might happen if they do.

    For this reason it's best to be explicit in describing the opportunities and risks for taking rests. If you know they've reached a chamber in a dungeon monsters avoid, you might mention to the players that they can take this opportunity for a short rest without risk. If they've cleared out a chamber likely safe for eight hours or more, you can mention that they have the opportunity for a long rest without risk.

    Likewise, when they enter dangerous locations for the first time, mention to them that their opportunities for rests will be rare, or even non-existent, and that they should plan accordingly. Mention this up front so players know they must manage their resources accordingly. You may go a step further and mention that they may have only one or two opportunities for a short rest in such a place.

    Managing Rests with Time Sensitive Quests

    While dangerous locations ensure characters can't take a lot of rests, spells like Leomund's Tiny Hut can make even the most dangerous locations safe. The best way to threaten the characters here isn't with wandering monsters or random encounters but with time-sensitive quests. If the characters are trying to stop a villain from completing a ritual, you can mention that the villains will certainly be done with the ritual before the characters can complete a long rest. Likewise, if they're chasing a particular villain, that villain may escape or move on if the characters wait too long. As the DM you can keep your hand on this dial, informing the players that they do not have time for a long rest if they want to successfully complete their quest but may have time for a short rest.

    Running time-sensitive quests is one of the most effective ways to manage rests in your D&D games.

    Rest Interrupters

    If rests come too quickly and easily, you may need to inject environmental effects or situations that prevent the characters from resting too often. Here are ten examples of effects or situations that prevent the characters from taking either a short or long rest (your choice).

    1. Spectral wailing
    2. A character's disease will overtake them
    3. Planar instability
    4. Hostile environments (too cold, too hot)
    5. Psychic resonance
    6. Tectonic shifts
    7. The drive of an intelligent item
    8. A lifedraining effect
    9. Horrible nightmares
    10. Continual loud noises

    Characters can only take rests in areas conducive to such rests. Many circumstances may continually interrupt the characters in ways they cannot control. Spells like Leomand's Tiny Hut, however, will likely bypass such difficulties.

    If you need to better control the rests the characters can take, tailor one or more of the effects above to prevent the characters from taking short or long rests too easily.

    Restful Opportunities

    The flip side of this is dropping opportunities for rests, short or long, when it may not seem like such an opportunity would be available. Here are ten ways to drop opportunities to rest in the middle of hostile locations, like dungeons. Many of these can restore the characters as though they had taken a short or long rest without actually requiring the time. This helps offer rests even when time is tight.

    1. A secret door leads to a lost healing font
    2. The characters find potions that offer the equivalent of a rest
    3. The villain's plans have been set back, offering time for a rest
    4. A trapped celestial entity offers to restore the characters
    5. A forgotten passage leads to a hidden room safe for rests
    6. The characters find a magic item with a single use of Leomund's tiny hut
    7. The characters enter a dream state that offers them a rest in shorter time
    8. A divine caster's god or patron bestows a restful blessing upon the party
    9. Infighting between hostile factions draws attention away from the characters
    10. Invigorated by their recent victories, the characters earn the equivalent of a short rest

    Control Rests and Control the Pacing of your Games

    By taking an active hand in managing how and when short and long rests become available, you have a better hand in controlling the pacing of your game. Players feel powerful and optimistic when rested, and vulnerable and cautious when they haven't rested in some time. Most of the time you can let the story dictate when the characters can rest. Other times, however, you'll want to carefully plan how and when the characters can take rests, both short and long, and describe this to your players so they know how to manage their resources up front. Use rests as a dial to manage the upward beats, downward beats, and pacing of your D&D games.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • VideoBuilding Villains Like Pro-Wrestlers

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    I read a fantastic Reddit post called How to Create Pay-Per-View Worthy Adventures or How to Stop Worrying and Start DMing Like Vince McMahon I wanted to ponder and share with you. I recommend reading the whole post if you can. The premise of the article is that there's a big overlap between the storytelling of pro wrestling and how we run our D&D games.

    Not being into pro wrestling, it took me some work to dissect the ideas in the article and turn them into ones I could understand and embrace.

    Gross Storytelling

    From my understanding, pro-wrestling is about gross storytelling. There's not much subtlety in the story. Not much nuance. It's about big bold moves, big actions, big events. Everything is over the top. Look how Vince McMahon walks. It's like Japanese theater where the warriors have to throw their knees out when they walk to show how big and powerful they are.

    This same lack of subtlety can help us in our D&D games. Players aren't grasping half of what we DMs throw out during a game. Subtlety gets easily lost. Big gross moves get attention. Most of the specific ideas in the original post come from this idea. Big moves matter.

    Give Villains Nicknames

    Good villains are known many ways. It isn't just "Leto Skalle". It's Leto Skalle; the Scourge of Xen-drik, Slayer of Nartholex the Depraved, Platinum Hand of the Aurum, and the Black Blade of Sora Ketra. Good villains are known across the land for various deeds and the more of those deeds the characters hear about, the more they'll be intrigued by that villain. Give your villain lots of nicknames.

    Give the Villains a Sidekick

    Good villains have great sidekicks, the sidekicks players hate nearly as much as the villains. The sidekicks do their dirty work. The sidekicks announce their presence. The sidekicks are the annoying voices and worshipers of the villains. With a good sidekick, your players now have two villains to hate.

    Give Villains a Gimmick

    Maybe your villain always has a cup of tea in their hand, regardless of where they are or what they're doing. Maybe they have a pet flying snake. Give your villains a gimmick. Maybe they hide their identity with a toothpick. Think Blofeld and the white cat in James Bond. Players will dig this. They'll remember it. Give your villains a gimmick.

    Leave Mysterious Blanks in Your Villain's Origin

    No one knows where Leto Skalle came from. He seemed to be in the upper ranks of the Droaam for as long as anyone knew him. Suddenly he's a platinum ringer in the Aurum or off for a multi-year expedition in Xen'drik. He went into the tomb of Narthotex with forty soldiers and came out alone with one eye turned bright blue. He comes from "parts unknown". Leave mysterious gaps in your villain's history.

    Recast Your Villains

    If your villain dies early, bring them back. Give them a new origin, an new nickname. Leto Skalle may die early on but once resurrected by the Dreaming Dark, he now speaks with the voice of the Quori within him and has a stable of new powers. We DMs have an unlimited stable of villains but when the players are invested in one of them, we can recast them even when defeated; bringing them back as something worse than they were before. This works well with lichs and vampires in particular. Recast villains when defeated.

    Build a Stable of Villains

    Build a stable of villains. Leto Skalle is bad but not nearly as bad as Leto Skalle, his sister Cavellah, and the three Daughters of Sora Kell working together to build the new Weapon of Mourning. Build an evil Justice League working against the characters. Build your own Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. A stable of villains is much harder to defeat than one villain alone.

    Villains Don't Fight Fair

    Villains always fight when they have the upper hand. They cheat. They'll punch you in your injured shoulder. It's important, however, to watch those beats. While it's good fun for a villain to fight when the environment supports them, you don't want the battle to feel hopeless. Fight dirty until the characters get the upper hand. More on this in a moment.

    Exploit the Villain's Weakness

    Likely, in an evolving game, the characters themselves may find a way to exploit the villain's gimmick. Maybe we poison his tea. Maybe we steal the Xanathar's goldfish. Let the characters find a way to use a villain's own gimmick against them.

    Stick it to the Metagamers

    In the wrestling world you have "smarts", "marks", and "smarks". Smarts see the theater for what it is — theater. Marks like to believe every moment of it. They're in the story. Smarks known the story is theater but go with it anyway. In our game, metagamers are the smarts. They know how beholders work. They know how many hit points a dragon roughly has. Change things up. Give mages spells from Deep Magic that none of the players have heard of. Give the Lord of Blades a stable of warforged horrors from Arcana of the Ancients and Beasts of Flesh and Steel Change things up, shock them, surprise them.

    Inject the "Swerve"

    Let the story take unexpected twists and turns. Villains become bad guys. Good guys become villains. Villains try to ally with the characters against more dangerous foes. Often our games take strange turns all on their own but if things feel too straight, give them a shock. This is fine to do in the middle of a game but don't do it at the end of a game or you end up with Game of Thrones. Swerving is fine but at the end, give them what they want.

    Let Players Get the Upper Hand

    Vince McMahon may walk like a theatrical Japanese warrior but even he knows when it's time to get beat up with his own bedpan in his underwear. Your bosses may be complete dicks but your player almost certainly find ways to get the upper hand and, when they do, let them. Ham it up. Let the villain beg for forgiveness or scream about how unfair it all is. Let them fall into their own traps and burn in their own pyres.

    Good Tips for an Evolving Game

    One thing I love about these tips is that they don't assume what the characters will do. We can use all of these ideas without requiring that the characters go in one direction or another. When we focus on our villains, fill them out with gimmicks and sidekicks and stables of other villains, that work serves us whatever direction the game goes. This makes it a great tool for us lazy dungeon masters. Our effort is well spent because we know that, no matter what direction things go, our efforts will bear fruit.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • Running Descent into Avernus Chapter 4 and 5

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    This article offers tips and tricks for running Chapters 4 and 5 of Descent into Avernus and includes my thoughts and recommendations for the adventure overall. Note that this article contains spoilers.

    This article is one in a series of article covering Descent into Avernus including:

    If you'd rather watch videos, you can watch my entire Descent into Avernus Youtube Playlist.

    Chapter 4 of Descent into Avernus begins the conclusion of the adventure, drawing things in from the wide-open sandbox portion in chapter 3. Unlike Chapter 3, we don't have to do a lot of work to wrangle this chapter into something usable. It's a straight-forward story of the characters infiltrating the Bleeding Citadel, dropping into some dream sequences, and acquiring the Sword of Zariel.

    We can, if we want, throw more gnolls around the outside of the Bleeding Citadel to turn it into more of a situation to navigate. An army of a few hundred gnolls, some Fangs of Yeenoghu, and maybe a couple of flind leaders can be fun. The characters have to figure out how to get into one of the rifts in the side of the giant hell-boil that surrounds the citadel.

    Once they're inside, you can run Chapter 3 as a typical dungeon crawl. Drop in one or two gnolls the characters can interact with, squeezing them for information or trailing them to see what's going on in the cyst-tunnels.

    When the characters make it inside the citadel, they're treated to a series of dream encounters that reveal the moment Zariel realized she'd have to ride into hell to stop the demonic hordes. This is the beginning of her eventual transformation to the arch devil of Avernus.

    We can use these dreams to reveal the other Hellrider generals who rode beside her before they transformed into her twisted servants. These include Yael, Olanthius, Harumon, Jandar, and Gideon.

    These dream sequences let us pour on the secrets and clues; revealing the full story of Zariel's fall from grace and the one thing that can bring her back — taking hold of the Sword of Zariel.

    Advice from the Author

    I had a chance to talk to one of the authors of Descent into Avernus, James Introcaso, who offered up his own advice for running this chapter. James's advice is included in the thoughts below.

    Dial in the Gore

    This chapter, with its huge hill-sized wound in the surface of hell, can be as gory as you want it to be. Know how much gore your players want and dial it in appropriately. You can simply describe it as caverns cut into the stone surface of Avernus or as a squirming organic material covered in slime and stuff if you and your players are into it. Know the level of comfort your players desire and have an X Card or other safety tool ready if it goes beyond someone's level of comfort.

    Do More with the Crokek'toeck

    James Introcaso wrote up a series of encounters for Descent into Avernus called Abyssal Incursions that includes a whole dungeon crawl through the insides of the enormous Crokek'toeck. You can use it as inspiration or take it as-is and drop it into the Crokek'toeck section of the Scab. Personally, I ran it as a Jonas and the Whale type situation with a gnoll who preferred not to be vomited up into war spending his days comfortably in the creature's gullet. Giving the Crokek'toeck a purple-worm-like swallow attack meant a swallowed character could meet this pacifist gnoll and learn more about what lay ahead.

    Scale the Dreams

    Not everyone digs dream sequences in D&D. They can feel like a waste of time since they rarely have an effect on the real world. There are seven events in the Idyllglen dream sequence and you don't need to run them all. A skirmish with a bunch of gnolls followed by a confrontation with Yeenoghu and Zariel's arrival can work just fine. Don't overdo it if it doesn't seem enjoyable.

    Regarding Gargauth

    Once the characters come back out of the dream, one of them can take hold of the Sword of Zariel. This may be Gargauth's chance for escape, either by manipulating the character holding the shield or simply asking them to shatter the shield with the sword. Doing so releases Gargauth, the arch-devil, who may offer to help dethrone Zariel for his own chance to take it. Gargauth may clear a path through any remaining gnolls so the characters can make their final ride back to Elturel where Zariel and her floating fortress reside before dragging Elturel through the River Styx and turning all of its remaining citizens into devils.

    Chapter 5

    Chapter 5 largely deals with the wide range of endings this adventure can have but gives little guidance on how to run them. Before you get to this point you'll want to decide how things play out. In my own game, I assumed Zariel flew her flying fortress to Elturel as the characters got the sword and the characters would confront her there; convincing her to grasp the blade and breaking her pact with Asmodeus.

    Give Them What They Want

    Since we're closing in on the end of the adventure, now is a good time to give the players what they want. We may have an idea for a strange twist at the end but since we're here and the campaign is about to close, it's a good time to let the story end in the way most satisfying for the players. Hold back your temptation for a big twist on the end and give them what they want.

    The Final Ride

    With the sword in hand, the characters can use their infernal war machine to roar across Avernus once again, arriving at Elturel in time to see it being slowly submerged into the river Styx. Along the way they may run into Mahadi's Wandering Emporium for a final rest or face Zariel's remaining generals if they haven't already in what may be the big final encounter before facing Zariel herself.

    In my own game, the characters faced Olanthus, Harumon, and Gideon all riding in on nightmares. One of Harumon's hellfire lances destroyed the characters' war machine but, when the characters defeated the generals, they received three figurines of wondrous power able to summon nightmares. These nightmares let the characters fly to Zariel's fortress disguised as her returning generals.

    Confrontation with Zariel

    When the characters confront Zariel we have a chance to bring Thavius Kreeg back into the picture. This is an example of a great D&D tip I heard: whenever possible, reintroduce NPCs the characters already know. It's far more meaningful to run into a villain they've already seen than to introduce a new villain right at the end. Kreeg may send in the final wave of devils after the characters before they can parlay with Zariel herself and convince her to take the blade.

    Our instinct is to ask the characters to make a persuasion check for such convincing but while that might steer the nature of the conversation, in the end, we want Zariel to take the sword as much as the players do. Poor rolls may result in a tense conversation but don't let the whole balance of the game hang on a single die roll.

    Return to Faerun

    Assuming Zariel takes the blade, she returns to her angelic self. Her remaining devils flee and her flying fortress collapses. She teleports the characters back to Elturel where they can meet Reya Mantlemourn, Uldar Ravengard, and Grace Lyn; the young girl they rescued in The Fall of Elturel. Since we're at the end of the adventure, now is a great time to reintroduce all the NPCs we can.

    With the characters back in Elturel, Zariel severs the chains and sends the city back to Faerun. The city is saved.

    This is a great chance to jump forward one year and ask each of the players where they find their characters. What did they do after Elturel returned to Faerun? Did they become members of a new uncorrupted Hellriders? Did they return to Avernus to become one of Mahadi's prized musicians? Did they return to Candlekeep to become a sage? Ask the players and find out! These final stories can often be the best and most memorable stories in the campaign.

    Final Overall Thoughts on Descent into Avernus

    Here are some of my thoughts on Baldur's Gate: Descent into Avernus overall.

    Running Descent into Avernus took more work than I like from a published adventure. The artwork, design, and editing is wonderful and the general idea of the story is cool and unique. The story as written, though, is a mess. If you're running the adventure, hopefully these articles helped you wrangle it into an epic tale of high adventure in the depths of hell.

    I will leave you with my seven big tips for running Descent into Avernus.

    1. Understand the theme you want for the campaign and steer your game towards that theme. Make sure your players are on board with that theme.
    2. In your session zero, tie the characters to the Hellriders, Reya Mantlemorn, and Elturel.
    3. Build your own path through chapter 3 by choosing the locations you want to run and tying them together with a network of quests that takes them from Elturel to the Bleeding Citadel.
    4. Let the characters fuel infernal war machines with demonic ichor instead of soul coins.
    5. Choose how gory you want the details of the adventure and make sure your players are comfortable with it.
    6. Choose which waves to run in the dream sequences in Idyllglen; you don't have to run them all.
    7. Give the players what they want in the end. Let them save Elturel and perhaps save Zariel if they played their cards right.

    Hopefully these tips and guides have helped you run this adventure. When steered right, Descent into Avernus can be wrangled into a grand adventure of good and evil in the wastelands of hell.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • A DM's Reading List

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    This article contains a reading list of some of my favorite books and articles DMs can use to better run D&D games. Obviously it would be crass of me to include my own book, Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, so I omitted it from the list...

    In a previous article I've talked about Paths of DM Expertise. A big part of getting better as a DM is digging into all of the knowledge other DMs and game creators can share with us. There's a lot of great material out there we can read, cull, and harvest to give us great ideas while running our games. This list represents some of this material.

    The Core Books

    Spend time reading and re-reading the core books. There's a lot of great stuff in them easily missed like monster environments in the Monster Manual and tons of stuff in the Dungeon Master's Guide easily forgotten. Review them all every few months to remind yourself what's in them.

    Top Five

    If I could only pick five books to help DMs get a better grip on D&D, these would be them.

    RPG Design Books

    These are a handful of books I found very useful. Many of these ended up in the bibilography of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master as well. I'm particularly fond of the books capturing the ideas of many of the top RPG designers in the past few decades. Kobold Press's guides often include such essays. It's a rare thing to get into the minds of such titans in the industry.

    Books on Writing

    Stepping out to books on writing and creativity in general, here are three I've always enjoyed.

    Articles

    A full list of the best articles is impossible but here are a few articles I find myself returning to over and over again.

    Other Game Systems

    One of the best ways to improve as a dungeon master is to try out other systems. Here are some of my favorites. Even if you don't get a chance to run them, being able to read through them will give you lots of good ideas.

    MT Black's Reading List

    My friend MT Black, a prolific and popular DM Guild creator, wrote up an excellent list of books he recommended for adventure writers likely just as useful to dungeon masters. Here they are.

    Adventure Models I Dig

    When I think about the types of adventures I've enjoyed the most, they follow a common model I call the "yam-shaped design". These adventures have a narrow focus in the beginning, expand out into a sandbox adventure in the middle, and then focus back down again at the end. This makes adventures feel more like campaigns but still have a clear overall story thread.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • VideoPointcrawls for Cities and Overland Travel in D&D

    New to Sly Flourish? Start Here!

    Pointcrawls provide a valuable model for overland travel focusing on fantastic locations and the in-world paths connecting them.

    A pointcrawl is a DM tool for handling overland travel in D&D. Much like building a dungeon from rooms and hallways, pointcrawls are built from meaningful locations connected by in-world pathways. Since they're built like dungeons, we can use good dungeon design characteristics (see the Alexandrian's Jaquaying the Dungeon) to make our pointcrawls interesting and give players meaningful options while traveling. These characteristics include multiple paths, loopbacks, shortcuts, and secret paths. Pointcrawls offer a flexible structure for overland, wilderness, and city-based adventures.

    For a video on this topic, you can watch my Pointcrawls for Overland Travel in D&D Youtube video.

    Here's an example of a pointcrawl for the Glass Plateau in Eberron.

    Pointcrawl of the Glass Plateau in Eberron

    Pointcrawls from the Dungeon Master's Guide

    The Dungeon Master's Guide describes pointcrawls without actually defining them as such. Here's a quote from chapter 5 of the DMG when discussing overland travel:

    One solution is to think of an outdoor setting in the same way you think about a dungeon. Even the most wide-open terrain presents clear pathways. Roads seldom run straight
 because they follow the contours of the land, finding
 the most level or otherwise easiest routes across uneven ground. Valleys and ridges channel travel in 
certain directions. Mountain ranges present forbidding barriers traversed only by remote passes. Even the most trackless desert reveals favored routes, where explorers and caravan drivers have discovered areas of wind-blasted rock that are easier to traverse than shifting sand.

    Thinking about building overland travel the same way we build dungeons is a helpful model. It gives us a usable but flexible structure when thinking about above-ground areas.

    The idea of pointcrawls grew from hexcrawls, the typical way D&D has handled overland travel for the past 40 years. Chris Kutalik described the original concept of pointcrawls in the article Crawling Without Hexes: the Pointcrawl back in 2012.

    Quick Pointcrawl Construction

    Here's one way to build a pointcrawl intended to support both improvisational play and lazy dungeon mastering.

    1. Write down ten interesting locations and landmarks the characters might visit while traveling through the area.
    2. Connect these locations with in-game routes such as rivers, paths, game trails, roads, portals, mountain passes or any other in-world pathway between two locations.
    3. Build in multiple paths, loopbacks, shortcuts, and secret paths between locations.

    Our goal is to make overland travel interesting, fun to explore, and offer meaningful choices to the characters along the way. We can drop encounters in at locations, the paths between locations, or both. Such encounters might involve meeting NPCs, exploring strange signs, learning something of the history of the area, getting into a fight, or all of the above.

    Tools for Building Pointcrawl Charts

    The easiest tools for documenting a pointcrawl are likely a pencil and a piece of paper. We can easily draw out a pointcrawl in a few minutes, take a picture with our phone, and we can take it wherever we need. Sticky notes might be a good way to document locations and reorganize them depending on the path. Mind mapping software can also do the trick if it's something you already use.

    There's a digital solution I stumbled across called GraphViz.it. It takes in a particular text-based format for the pointcrawl (actually a network) and renders that network out.

    Example: The City of Making

    Here's another example pointcrawl using GraphViz.it for the city of Making in Eberron.

    Pointcrawl of the city of Making in Eberron

    and here's the input generating this pointcrawl:

    # http://graphviz.it/#/new
    graph{
    "Entry - Gates of Making" -- "The Impaled" [label="Road of Triumph"]
    "The Impaled" -- "Fallen Colossus" [label="Massive Footsteps"]
    "Fallen Colossus" -- "Fortress of Blades" [label="Road of Fallen Blades"]
    "Fortress of Blades" -- "Skydancer Wreck" [label="Scorched Trench"]
    "Skydancer Wreck" -- "Entry - The Runoff" [label="Blackwater Way"]
    "Fortress of Blades" -- "Clawrift" [label="Road of Dead Machines"]
    "The Impaled" -- "Clawrift" [label="Road of Triumph"]
    "The Impaled" -- "Daughters' Earthmote" [label="The Slaughterfield"]
    "Silver Flame Spire" -- "Clawrift" [label="Cracked Road"]
    "Silver Flame Spire" -- "Shattered Laboratory" [label="Old Tunnel"]
    "Shattered Laboratory" -- "Clawrift" [label="Teleporter"]
    "The Impaled" -- "Living Weird" [label="Dreamwalk"]
    "Living Weird" -- "Silver Flame Spire" [label="Twisting Black Thread"]
    "Daughters' Earthmote" -- "Clawrift" [label="Trollhaunt Road"]
    }

    I tried to add some Jaquay-style designs to the map including multiple entrances, loops, and secret paths (like the path between the Shattered Laboratory and Clawrift). I also labeled the paths here to identify what connects these locations. The evocative names help me improvise what the characters might run into while going along that path.

    This is an extensive pointcrawl for a big city, not exactly what one might call lazy, but it didn't take terribly long and it may be useful for many sessions so I don't see the effort wasted. Many of these locations may end up as their own dungeons to crawl, such as the Shattered Laboratory, the Daughters' Earthmote, the Fallen Colossus, the Skydancer Wreck, the Fortress of Blades, and, of course, Clawrift itself which ends up as a multi-level dungeon all on its own.

    Another Tool for Lazy Dungeon Masters

    Pointcrawls aren't the end-all-be-all of our D&D games but they're a good structure when planning out overland travel, one backed by decades of use. Build pointcrawls by outlining interesting locations, the paths between them, ad interesting encounters they might engage with while there. Such pointcrawls give us a nice model and yet help us build a world that feels open and exciting to the players.

    Further Reading

    In researching this topic, I found numerous helpful articles on the topic pointcrawls and their parent hex crawls. Here's a list of the ones I found most useful:

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • Replace Flanking with Cinematic Advantage

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    Instead of using the optional flanking rule, offer deals to players to trade ability checks using in-world features to gain advantage on their next attack.

    Chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master's Guide offers an optional rule for flanking in which creatures gain advantage against an enemy if an ally is on the opposite side of the enemy. It's a popular rule, used by about half of nearly 1,200 DMs polled on Twitter. I'm not a fan of it. First, it only works when playing with a 5 foot per square grid. It's not easy to use in combat using the theater of the mind. It also offers a major bonus for little risk. It's not hard to get around the other side of an enemy. Previous versions of D&D used to offer a +2 bonus for flanking while advantage results in something closer to +4 or +5. It also removes the value of many other features offering advantage in certain circumstances such as hiding, pack tactics, and others.

    Instead of offering flanking for positioning, why not offer advantage for big risky cinematic actions the characters take. Characters can get advantage for scaling a steep wall to gain the high ground. They can leap off of balconies, swing from chandeliers, or leap up onto a monster's back. There are so many cool cinematic ways we might offer advantage to a character beyond "I'm on the other side of it".

    Offering Deals

    Injecting cinematic advantage into your game is all about offering deals; trading in-world fiction and a skill check from players for advantage on their next attack. This helps draw players out of the mechanics of their characters and into the story of the situation itself.

    Most of the time the transactions of cinematic advantage comes down to the following:

    • While describing the situation, the DM describes interesting features in the area.
    • The player describes how they want to use a feature to get a cinematic advantage.
    • The DM determines what attribute and skill (or skills) might be used to accomplish the feat and how difficult it is on a scale of DC 10 to 20. Tell the player what the DC is and what penalty they face if they fail so they can make an informed choice.
    • The player rolls the check as part of their move or action. On a success, they get advantage on their next attack. On a failure something bad happens depending on what they tried, often falling prone.

    When you describe the situation during combat, clarify what features can be used. Write them down on a 3x5 card and stick them on the table if you want. This is an old trick from Fate in which we write down aspects of the scenes characters invoke to gain a bonus on their action. When each character is about to take their turn, remind them what options they have to gain a cinematic advantage. Offer them deals. Let them know what the DC is and what happens if they fail. Sometimes players riff off of these ideas and come up with something new — go for it!

    The goal of cinematic advantage to draw the players into the fiction and get the characters to take fun risks to get a boost. Offer good deals. Work with your players, not against them, to take the deal.

    Benefits of the Cinematic Advantage

    Cinematic advantage trades the pure mechanical aspects of flanking with cool action-packed in-world storytelling. It doesn't require miniatures or a grid, you can do it with any type of combat you run whether it's deep tactical play or free-wheeling theater of the mind. It draws the players into the fiction but still offers a clear mechanical boost for their creative effort. It lets players show off the capabilities of their characters, grabbing cinematic advantages with skills their characters are clearly good at.

    Don't set the DCs based on the characters, however. That chandelier doesn't get more awkward just because the character who wants to swing from it happens to be proficient in acrobatics and has a dexterity bonus of +5. Set the difficulty independently from the characters attempting the check. You want players to take these deals.

    Twenty Examples of Cinematic Advantage

    Here are twenty examples of ways characters might get advantage on an enemy. Most of these ways involve a succeeding on a skill check as part of their attack action to gain the advantage.

    • Leaping off of a balcony
    • Climbing onto the back of a larger foe
    • Sliding underneath a big foe and slashing at its vitals
    • Banking a shot off of a reflective wall
    • Leaping over dangerous terrain
    • Swinging from a chandelier or rope
    • Smashing something an adversary is standing on
    • Pocket sand!
    • Climbing and leaping off a big statue
    • Drawing arcane energy from a shattered crystal
    • Climbing to get the high ground
    • Drawing energy from a magical monument
    • Letting the anger of a desecrated altar flow over you
    • Drawing holy energy from an ancient elven fountain
    • Vaulting off of a crumbling wall
    • Pulling power from an unstable summoning circle
    • Balancing on a precarious perch
    • Smashing through a door to surprise your foes
    • Leaping off of a moving vehicle
    • Calling the troubled spirits of the fallen for aid

    Trading Mechanics for Fiction

    Take any opportunity you can to draw players into the fiction of the game. Instead of offering a purely mechanical benefit like flanking, consider offering cinematic opportunities for the characters to gain advantage. Work with them to tell action-packed stories of high adventure and take risks to gain the upper hand on their foes. Such techniques work across any combat style whether you play on a gridded battle map or using pure theater of the mind combat and can help your stories come alive at the table.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • Darkvision Isn't As Good As You Think

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    Creatures with darkvision in darkness have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks and -5 to their passive perception. Light up those torches, dungeon explorers!

    In many D&D games, any sort of light such as torches, lanterns, use of the light cantrip, or other forms of illumination are shunned in favor of character races possessing darkvision. Darkvision is treated as a perfect way to navigate the darkest corridors, tunnels, and dungeons in our D&D games.

    Except it doesn't work that way.

    This is actually the combination of three rules so it's easy for players and DMs to miss it. Here's the description of darkvision from chapter 8 of the Player's Handbook:

    Darkvision. Many creatures in fantasy gaming worlds, especially those that dwell underground, have darkvision. Within a specified range, a creature with darkvision can see in darkness as if the darkness were dim light, so areas of darkness are only lightly obscured as far as that creature is concerned. However, the creature can't discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.

    Here's what happens when you're in dim light also in chapter 8 of the Player's Handbook:

    A given area might be lightly or heavily obscured. In a lightly obscured area, such as dim light, patchy fog, or moderate foliage, creatures have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.

    And finally under "Passive Checks" in chapter 7 of the Player's Handbook:

    If the character has advantage on the check, add 5. For disadvantage, subtract 5.

    Joining these three rules together we come to this:

    A character with darkvision has -5 to passive Perception checks while within darkness.

    Light Those Torches

    Most of the time, characters in dangerous areas won't want -5 to their passive Perception checks or to have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks. They'll want to light the area up if they want to be careful. Darkvision is no longer Superman's see-everything vision. If the group decides they want to be sneaky, they're going to miss those traps. If they light up those torches, they might give themselves away to lurking enemies.

    Of course, the same thing is true for our enemies. Monsters with darkvision are just as likely to miss that stealthy rogue if they don't have lights of their own. Will they risk it? Only creatures with blindsense have no need to worry.

    Choosing whether to light up or not is one of those fun in-world decisions that makes D&D fun. Instead of having a cure-all to the problem ("I have darkvision, we're fine), the players have to make hard choices with consequences. Sure, you can rely on darkvision, but you may step into a spiked pit trap you might otherwise see.

    The next time the characters enter an old crypt, best to remind them of the dangers of relying completely on darkvisioon.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • VideoD&D 5e Numbers to Keep In Your Head

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    Note: This article has been updated since the original written in February 2015.

    The following tools are intended to make it easier to improvise situations in your D&D games. These numbers are designed to be simple and straight forward enough to keep in your head. You can, of course, write them out on a 3x5 card or sticky note and paste it in the inside of your DM screen as well. These numbers help you create challenges, traps, encounters, environmental effects, and horde battles without needing to look anything up in a complicated chart.

    Most of these numbers are based on a challenge rating for the sitiuation. This challenge rating is roughly equivalant to the average character level of a group of adventures between 1 (1st level characters) and 20 (20th level characters). This challenge rating is based on the situation, however, not the actual level of the characters in the game. The world does not conform to the level of the characters.

    For more tools like these, check out the Lazy DM's Workbook.

    Here's a summary of D&D numbers you can keep in your head:

    • DC, AC, Saving Throw DC: 10 (easy) to 20 (hard)
    • Attack Bonuses, Trained Skills, Primary Saves: +3 (easy) to +12 (hard)
    • Single Target Damage: 5 (1d10) per challenge level.
    • Multi-target Damage: 3 (1d6) per challenge level.
    • Hit Points: 20 per challenge level.
    • Deadly Encounter Benchmark: 1/2 or 1/4 of total character levels. An encounter may be deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than half the sum total of character levels, or one quarter if the characters are below 5th level.
    • Fighting a Horde of Weaker Monsters. 1/4th succeed. About one quarter of the horde succeed on attacks or saving throws; adjust up or down depending on the situation.

    Difficulty Check, Armor Class, Saving Throw DC: 10 to 20

    When a situation comes up requiring a difficulty check, choose a number between 10 (easy) and 20 (hard) as the target. The harder the challenge, the higher the number. A 10 is considered relatively easy yet still challenging enough to warrant a roll. A 20 is considered nearly impossible for most common folk.

    This number also works for an improvised armor class and saving throw DCs if needed. If you happen to improvise a trap or an effect of some sort, or the characters start attacking a stone statue, you can use this range to set the AC of the statue or the DC of the trap's saving throw.

    Example: The Icebolt Trap

    Say you've decided a particular room has an icebolt trap in it. How tough was the wizard who planted the trap? Was he an apprentice or an archmage? Choose a number between 10 and 20 to determine the difficulty of finding and disarming the trap. For this example, let's say this icebolt trap has a DC of 14 to detect and disarm.

    Note, we're not setting the trap based on the level of the characters. The world is a dynamic place and the characters are just living there. The world does not change it's DCs based on the characters who face it.

    Attack Bonus: +3 to +12

    If we ever need to improvise an attack score, choose a number between +3 (not particularly accurate) and +12 (very accurate). Anything lower is going to be unlikely to hit and not worth rolling. There are some situations where the attack is lower or higher than this but this range is likely for most situations. When you have an improvised attack, choose a bonus based on the accuracy of the attack.

    Example: The Icebolt's Attack

    Going back to our example from before, let's look again our icebolt trap. If a character fails to detect it or disarm it, it fires an icebolt at the one who triggered the trap with a +6 to attack.

    5 (1d10) Damage Per Challenge Level

    If you need to inflict some improvised damage, 5 (1d10) damage per challenge level is a good rule of thumb. It's roughly the challenge faced by four characters so a challenge 6 is the equivalent of four level 6 characters. If this damage would affect more than one creature, reduce it to 3 (1d6) per challenge level. As mentioned before, this challenge rating isn't necessarily based on the level of the PCs but instead the level of the challenge they face.

    Note, for the examples below I'm using the average of a die to determine the static damage, rounded down. Thus, 5 is the average of 1d10 but 11 is the average for 2d10 (5.5 x 2).

    Example: The Icebolt's Damage

    Returning to our icebolt trap example, we'll have to decide how dangerous this icebolt is and choose 6 damage per challenge level. Assuming the goblin wizard was a challenge rating of 3, the ice bolt inflicts 16 (3d10) cold damage. If this ice bolt had been placed by the lich Xathron, a challenge 16 monster, the bolt might inflict 90 (16d10) cold damage instead. The challenge rating of the villain setting up the trap gives you the idea how much damage to dish out.

    20 Hit Points Per Level

    If you need to improvise hit points for an object, use 20 hit points per challenge level. This doesn't match up perfectly to the hit points of monsters in the Monster Manual or the Monster Statistics by Challenge Rating chart on page 274 of the Dungeon Master's Guide, but it's close enough.

    Example: Xathron's Icy Automaton

    Let's say the PCs have invaded the lich Xathron's treasure vault and inside is Xathron's Icy Automaton. This isn't Xathron's best guardian, but it's pretty solid. We'll consider it a level 5 challenge.

    The PCs fail to notice the Automaton's danger (failed on a DC 15 perception) and it begins to fire icebolts at random PCs (two attacks, +7 to attack, 15 damage). The PCs can't seem to get it disarmed (failed on three potential DC 15 Arcana or Athletics checks) and now they want to bash it down (AC 15, 100 hps). After inflicting 100 damage to it, the automaton falls apart.

    Not Intended for Monster Building

    Looking at these number ranges, you may be tempted to use them to build a monster. Instead, consider reskinning existing monsters from the Monster Manual rather than building a monster from scratch with these numbers. While you might be able to build a reasonable monster with these scores, the asymmetrical nature of the stats in the Monster Manual makes creatures much more fun to fight than a static box of perfectly aligned scores.

    Deadly Encounter Benchmark: 1/2 or 1/4 of total character levels

    When building combat encounters, you can skip the complicated math outlined in the Dungeon Master's Guide and instead use this simple encounter building benchmark:

    First, build encounters based on what makes sense for the story and the situation. Let the story drive the number and types of monsters.

    Then, if needed, check to see if the encounter may be deadly. An encounter may be deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than one half the sum total of character levels, or one quarter of character levels if the characters are below 5th level.

    This isn't perfect and lots of variable can change up how difficult a battle is but it's a good rough benchmark that, I'd argue, is as good as any of the fancier methods for benchmarking encounter difficultly found in the Dungeon Master's Guide, Xanathar's Guide, Kobold Fight Club, or any other encounter calculator.

    Here's a Youtube video on the Deadly Encounter Benchmark.

    Running Hordes of Monsters: One Quarter Succeed

    Sometimes the stories of our games lead to the characters facing large hordes of monsters. Rolling tons of attacks and saving throws can suck the energy out of what would otherwise be a really exciting fight. The Dungeon Master's Guide includes rules for adjudicating a lot of attacks from a large number of monsters. So does the [Lazy DM's Workbook]Lazy DM's Workbook.

    For an easier method requiring no table, we can start with a baseline assumption that when a large force of weaker monsters attacks the characters about one quarter of them hit. Likewise, when a character hits a large number of monsters with a big area-of-effect ability, about one quarter of them make their saving throw.

    For example, our party of 8th level characters gets attacked by fifty skeletons. Many of the skeletons slash with swords or fire splintered recurve bows. Split the attacks evenly across the five characters so each character gets attacked ten times. Instead of doing a bunch of comparisons of attacks to AC, we can assume one quarter of them hit. If the character is particularly well armored we round down. If they're wearing lighter armor, we round up. Thus each character takes between 10 and 15 damage when attacked.

    Now the cleric casts Turn Undead. We can likewise assume one quarter of the skeletons succeed on their saving throws and three quarters fail and are destroyed as a huge wave of radiant energy blasts them to dust. Now only twelve of the skeletons remain.

    We can do a lot of math to figure all of this out but the result is essentially the same after we round it out.

    Instead we can just remember a simple rule: when a large number of weaker monsters faces the characters, about one quarter of them succeed on attacks or saving throws..

    A Quick Summary

    In summary, here are some numbers to keep in your head:

    • DC / AC / Save DC: 10 to 20
    • Attacks, Trained Skills, Primary Saves: +3 to +12
    • Single Target Damage: 6 (1d10) per Challenge Rating
    • Multi-target Damage: 3 (1d6) per Challenge Rating
    • Hit Points: 20 per Challenge Rating
    • Building Encounters: 1/2 or 1/4 of total character levels. An encounter may be deadly if the sum total of monster challenge ratings is greater than half the sum total of character levels, or one quarter if they're below 5th level.
    • Fighting a Horde of Weaker Monsters. 1/4 succeed. About one quarter of the horde succeed on attacks and saving throws.

    With those numbers in mind, you have a simple toolbox for running all sorts of challenges for your D&D 5e group.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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  • Understanding Surprise in D&D 5e

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    A few of 5th edition D&D's rules aren't quite as simple and clear as we'd like. How surprise works is one of those. Today we're going to dig deep into surprise, how the rules are intended to work, and some ways we can make it easier to run at the table.

    Art by Larry Elmore

    Rules As Written

    The rules themselves describe surprise thusly:

    The DM determines who might be surprised. If neither side tries to be stealthy, they automatically notice each other. Otherwise, the DM compares the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn't notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.

    If you're surprised, you can't move or take an action on your first turn of the combat, and you can't take a reaction until that turn ends. A member of a group can be surprised even if the other members aren't.

    Most of this is completely straight forward except for one part. It's that final sentence of the first paragraph. Where it says "doesn't notice a threat", is that "any" threat, or "all" threats?

    Given the above description, we can almost consider "surprised" to be a condition. If you are surprised, you can't move or act on your turn and you can't take reactions until your first turn ends. But what happens if you are surprised by one creature and not another? The rules don't say but the official Sage Advice Compendium does. Here's the relevant passage from page 9.

    You can be surprised even if your companions aren't, and you aren't surprised if even one of your foes fails to catch you unawares.

    I take this to mean that a creature isn't surprised if it detects any potential threat.

    When does surprise actually come into play? We'll look at two scenarios. In one, the characters attempt to surprise a bunch of monsters. In the second, a bunch of monsters try to surprise the characters. There are tricky bits to both.

    Characters Surprising Monsters

    Let's say the characters find a situation in which they can try to catch a group of gnolls off-guard in the caves of the underdark. The gnolls are coming down the cave and the characters know it. The characters spend a bit of time preparing. They each roll a stealth check. Stompy the paladin rolls a predictable 6 while Darkshadow the rogue rolls a 17. The gnolls have a passive perception of 10. When they come around the corner and the rogue pulls the trigger of their crossbow, time stops and we roll for initiative.

    Remember, there is no surprise round. The shot doesn't go off and get resolved before initiative is rolled. The minute any creature begins a hostile action against another creature, time stops and we roll for initiative.

    When rolling for initiative the rogue gets a 19, the gnolls get a 12, Stompy the paladin gets a 7. When we compare the original stealth checks to the passive Perceptions of the gnolls, the gnolls clearly hear Stompy and clearly do not see Darkshadow. They're not surprised by Stompy and therefore are not surprised. Darkshadow still gets a shot off with advantage because the gnolls totally missed them but when their turn comes around, they can move and act. They're not surprised.

    This means that the group is nearly always going to fail attempting to get surprise on their enemies because Stompy is always dragging them down. Instead, if the situation is right, we DMs might rule that instead of individual stealth checks, the characters can roll a group stealth check. See "Group Checks" in chapter 7 of the Player's Handbook. While Stompy is still dragging the group down, they are likely offset by Darkshadow's high stealth check. If the majority of the group gets a stealth chech higher than the passive Perception of the gnolls, the gnolls are surprised by the whole group.

    This interpretation highly favors the characters so we likely want to ensure it takes work to set it up. The characters should have a clear understanding of their enemy's position and intent, and the characters should have time to work together to hide. In the right circumstances, though, a group stealth check makes sense.

    Monsters Surprising Characters

    What if we switch sides, though? How does it work if the monsters are trying to ambush the characters? Let's say the gnolls know the characters are coming and they want to hide. Let's say there's sixteen gnolls. We're not about to roll 16 stealth checks. Some gnoll is going to screw it up for sure, and that makes sense. We're also not going to roll a group stealth check for 16 gnolls. Instead, we can use the passive Stealth of the gnolls. They have a passive Dexterity (Stealth) of 11. Not so great. The characters will see them if any of the characters have a passive Perception of 11 or better. However, each character has their own passive Perception. Let's say Broadchest the fighter has a passive Perception of 9; he's going to miss the gnolls and get surprised. And since Broadchest missed all of the gnolls, they're truly "surprised". They can't move or act on their turn and can't take reactions until that turn is over.

    This is pretty harsh. Players hate losing actions. While it makes sense, we should use this sparingly; only when it really reinforces a key aspect of the game.

    If you don't like the idea of a passive Dexterity (Stealth) check, you might roll a Dexterity (Stealth) check at disadvantage for the whole group and use that against the passive Perceptions of the characters to see who is surprised.

    Your Own Rulings Apply

    The above is my own interpretation of the rules as written. Many DMs have their own favorite rules they drop in for handling surprise in D&D. Some DMs use full "surprise rounds", a holdover from previous versions of D&D. Others simply let the story dictate how things go. For about five years I would give either characters or the enemies a free round of attacks if I decided one group surprised another. It was simple and worked just fine but I'd rather run the rules as written as much as I can unless I have a really good reason to avoid it.

    Hopefully this article offered a better understanding of the intent of surprise in D&D. Take it and add it to your arsenal for sharing stories of high action and adventure with your friends and family.

    New to Sly Flourish? Start here, subscribe to the weekly newsletter, watch Sly Flourish videos on Youtube, join the Sly Flourish Discord server, or support Sly Flourish on Patreon!

    Check out Mike's books including Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, the Lazy DM's Workbook, Fantastic Adventures, and Fantastic Adventures: Ruins of the Grendleroot.

    Send feedback to mike@mikeshea.net.

    This article is copyright 2020 by Mike Shea of Sly Flourish.

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