The Downside of Awesome

First there was the Rule of Cool. Sometime after, I asked if there was such a thing as too much cool.  I said no, and some people eventually challenged that.

Now, I’m starting to challenge my thoughts on it. Not the Rule itself, as it is a great tool to help inexperienced GMs let go of the dogma of “logic over fun”and saying “no” in RPGs. What I’m starting to wonder is if trying to awesome up adventures all the time can become a hindrance for some types of GMs, including my own.

I’ve recently discovered a pattern common to the gaming sessions that leave me somewhat unsatisfied.  I realized that it’s partly because encounters reach a state of complexity such that players become confused about the best way to navigate through them.  The goals becomes fuzzy or the options are either too numerous or too complex mechanically to be used in full.

It’s not just the players though, I too become lost in options and end up dropping or forgetting powers, tricks and other things that looked awesome on paper while writing such encounters.

This happened at PAX while running the DM Challenge and last week in my last Gears of Ruin session. Too much stuff end up going on at the same time,  more than was necessary to hit that sweet spot where players and myself are sufficiently challenged but aren’t bored with a generic encounter.

Lets look into that and see if there are lessons to be learned here.

I’m allergic to boring!

I swear to all the gods of the D&D pantheon, if I read about one more encounter made of generic humanoids where the only features are a table, 2 barrels and 4 squares of difficult terrain, I will light the adventure on fire (or the computer it sits on). If you look at the 4e’s Dungeon Master Guide adventure, Kobold Hall (an excellent model to follow for beginners doing dungeon crawls) you can see that each of the five room has at least one cool special feature:

1) A pit of goo, a portcullis and kobold slingers

2) Dart traps and kobolds that dodge underneath them

3) A very well designed  trap/trick encounter (The Skull Rock game)

4) A boulder trap that crushes PCs in its circular path, surrounded by kobolds on elevated platforms

5) A classic dragon in a cave encounter.

This is the zen of D&D encounter design, each (be it combat or non-combat) displays at least one original element that differentiates it from an encounter that is philosophically identical to Monte’s Orc and Pie (which, as much as I love the joke, is also the perfect example of what I define as mechanically boring).

But herein lies the danger of pushing this to extremes.  If adding one element makes an encounter cooler, how about 2 or 3 or 6?  Where are the lines between generic, interesting, sweet and “too freaking much” drawn?

My recent experience says that 1 or 2 elements per encounter is usually enough.  The players’ interaction with the core of the encounter and the added element will make it awesome, not your piling up of concepts on top of it all.

Speaking of which…

Do ideas have expiry dates?

While reading Roger von Oech’s excellent book on creativity last summer I re-learned that not everyone has the ability to generate several dozen ideas about everything and nothing in the space of a few minutes like some bloggers here.

When I write encounters, I can’t stop ideas from pouring in to make each encounter more interesting.  Such ideas, while great on paper, end up muddling the waters and making the encounter too complex to run smoothly, therefore making it less fun than if I had left some ideas on the side for later.

For example, in the 2nd encounter of The Font of Sorrows (PAX version), I had the following elements planned, all in the same room.

  • An insubstantial Elite Ghostskull (based on the fireskull)
  • Several Icy Water Vapour Wraiths that slowed PCs on a hit
  • The Wraiths turned to ice creatures at the beginning of every rounds, gaining Temp HP, dealing more damage and gaining a power that made them explode in a shower of ice slivers.
  • Hitting a solid Wraith broke it back to vapour form.
  • The floor was covered in water and squares froze semi-randomly each round, then spikes grew out the next round, then they exploded the round after that.
  • Some floor tiles could be broken by PCs to create whirlpools that pulled in the Wraiths

(Phil collapses, exhausted)

It still sounds awesome up there, but it was HELL to DM properly and I ended up forgetting to freeze water tiles and using the proper powers at the proper time.

Now it wasn’t so much my fear of boredom that fed me all these elements but my incapacity to close the gates to new ideas during design.  Each new idea sounded simple in itself, but the sum of all elements made for an ungainly monster of an encounter.

So all in all, I realize that each encounter can afford to have one to three cool tricks/special monster powers and that should my mind insist on feeding me with cool ideas, I should pick the ones most likely to make for a great encounter and jot down the others for later use.

The Strings Puller

I have a long-held theory that the motivations assigned to players by Robin Laws and his predecessors are also present as is when they DM (they just manifest differently).  In my case, I’m an instigator (I like to make things happen), a psychodramatist (I like to explore plot from an inner, often perverted perspective) and a butt kicker.  I’m impatient and I want things to go forward both in and outside of combat.

Thus, when I add too many ideas to an encounter, even when I plan to have them appear over a long period of time, I often rush to add them all, in the spirit of making things happen or keeping things interesting.  It’s like I have all these strings I can pull to make the adventure more challenging but yank at all of them at the same time for fear that the adventure will slow down and people will be… wait for it… bored.

And so we come full circle.

I fully realize that my special combination of impatience, wariness of the ordinary and propensity to generate too many ideas in a short time has calibrated my ‘boring” and ‘I can manage this” gauges into a range beyond the average player. But the advice to avoid it leads to sound adventure design paradigms.

The trick here is to once again set a few strings, one or two for the GM to pull to surprise the party: like a lurking monster exploiting some form of hindering terrain or a surprise encounter should the action slow to a crawl during a session.  Then set one or two strings for the PCs to pull themselves that are off-limits for the DM.  Thus, the temptation to pull a five-alarm situations is going to be harder for the instigator GM. Thus, your players can still do it if they feel like it (and if you want to feed your other instigators).

It all boils down to this:

GM know thyself as well as your players, and plan your adventures accordingly.

Oh and here’s another one:

Simplify, simplify, simplify

Took me 27 years to learn the first lesson, I’m still working on the second one.

How about you?  Are you subjected to design adventures that don’t fit your natural GMing style?  Do you add too many elements to your encounters an become lost in them?  Or do you stick to overly generic adventures and can’t find a way to add those often mention “one of two” special elements?


  1. Well said!

    I try to make my encounters do two things (rarely three): One item that is steady and somewhat cyclical (like combat) and one thing that is dynamic and evolving. If one of the elements is “big” enough, it’s usually enough.

    I’ve definitely had that put 500 things in and cause everyone to burn out fight though.
    .-= gamefiend´s last blog ..Optimize This: Minotaur Fighter =-.

  2. I feel into that trap this past weekend with my first self-generated 4e adventure. I tried to plan this marketplace encounter with 20 monsters of 5 different types, lots of traps, secret passages, height, and terrain features, but it certainly fell flat. Not only did I forget about half of my NPCs powers, but the party killed half the monsters before they could even be a threat. In the end I think they sat back and went “what was that all about?” Overall it was saved by the players being the ones who did the awesome things. For example, Sarah Darkmagic’s assassin totally prevented the leader from escaping.
    .-= Mike Katz´s last blog ..Top Ten Things to Put in Your Keep =-.

  3. Chgowiz says:

    I’ll repost here what I said on twitter: “Creative discipline. The players can discover the world as YOU do. Give yourself some open ends for inspiration.”

    Just because you put all that stuff there doesn’t mean the players HAVE to find it or the monsters HAVE to use it. Think of it like hidden tricks to play if you need to have more fun with what you’re doing.

    Consider this – the d30. It’s the ultimate wild card in my games and it opens the door for things like nuclear lanterns. Yet it’s not required, it’s just there.

  4. @Gamefiend: I’m a hardheaded sumbitch for some of these lessons. And I’m fighting who I am. I want my ideas applied and used as soon as possible… with the predictable THUNK that it causes when the game loses a wheel. 🙂

    @Mike: Yeah, it will be a useful lesson for you I’m sure. There are ways to make Epic large scale fights, but it takes time to master that. We’ll sit down when next I go to Boston so we can discuss this. My buddy Yan excels at this stuff and he’ll be at Pax next year for sure.

    @Chgowiz: It’s the Discipline that hard for me man! I know what you’re saying but the urge is strong. But I hear ya and yes, not overloading things leaves room for such things as making stuff at the whim of lady chance, like Nuclear Old School Lanterns.

    Man, I’ll remember that game forever!

  5. I believe that “never say no” applies from the GM to the players… not from the GM to the GM.

    I also think you can actually stifle your player’s creativity by drowning them in too many options. A few cool options (as I read you doing most of the time) is amazing and actually stimulates. For a lot of players (me included), too many opened options means that whatever I choose, I’ll miss out one something cool the DM planned.

    To my sense, the options are supposed to be unlimited because of player’s creativity.

    That being said, I try to spec the sh*t out of my prepped campaigns, drown the scenario in campaign hooks and plot twists. Then I get nervous and make the so subtle the players don’t see the story or the hooks. Then, I thoughtfully panic, railroad them, draw them in a huge fight, fall asleep during a short break and stop playing for an undefined number of months.

    I’m revising my strategy.
    .-= Eric Maziade´s last blog ..Revenge of the dailies =-.

  6. Maybe this is not directly related to the post at hand, but it is something that came to my mind when reading all the links (and the links in the links) of your post:

    One of the big problems of the proponents, and detractors, of the rule of cool, is that often, neither is thinking that “losing can be cool too”. It seems to me that one thing that doesn’t often go into prepping is “what happens if the players lose?” – and since it doesn’t go into prepping, the common default is “everyone dies, game over” – and a pure “game over – black screen” is usually un-cool.

    I think a pretty easy way to make a game “cool” without handing it to the players in a gold platter, is to at least outline what happens in case of failure, and if possible try to make the result of failure interesting to the players as well.

    All of this reminds me a bit of Chatty’s descriptions of “burning wheel”, where all the confrontations had two sides, each side trying to reach some sort of objective, which are not necessarily completely opposite to each other. Often people prepare encounters with the implicit assumption that the players will “win” the encounter, and don’t prepare a simple “what the monsters want”.

    One example I’ll take from Chatty’s blog itself, was when he described that S&W game where the last living member of the party fled from the witch den, with goblins trying to grab him at every corner, and his former party members being sacrificed by the witch in the meanwhile.

    Another example I had in my last 4E season, where due to lack of time I ran a delve from “dungeon delves” as a one shot. The party suffered a TPK from the Solo Necromancer at the end of the dungeon, and then were treated to a short epilogue describing how their corpses were risen again as undead by the necromancer and used to lay waste to the hamlet that had hired them to investigate the dungeon in the first place. Wicked cool, and it happened after the players failed to complete the encounter.
    .-= Claus´s last blog ..Happy Food =-.

  7. Great post as ever!

    Cool is not additive; once something is cool, adding more stuff doesn’t make it more cool – in fact you run the risk of tipping the cool-scale into the realms of parody, and that will never do.

    I’d argue that not every encounter should have a cool element tacked on, especially not just for the sake of it. Sometimes a fight against Hobgoblins is just that – a fight against Hobgoblins. It doesn’t need for one of them to turn into a wereboar part way through, the ceiling to start descending or spikes to appear randomly up from the floor. Do it too often, and it stops being cool

    That said, it’s worth remembering that it’s possible to add cool without resorting to rules mechanics every time. If one of the Hobgoblins points at a PC and shouts “Oi! That’s my old sword!” and spends the entire encounter targeting that hero then that’s cool – you’ve spotlighted a player and potentially woven another story thread into the game. Or maybe the Hobgoblins have burning eyes or blue horns. Mechanically it means nothing. But it’s cool.

    Hey, even Orc and Pie can be cool. So long as it’s cherry pie.
    .-= greywulf´s last blog ..Dear Wizards: Cease and Desist sending Cease and Desist letters =-.

  8. Denubis says:

    The links to your blog don’t work. 🙁

    Gave this article to my GM and um… he’s now whining at me.

  9. Very nice. I’m goint to show this to my DM. Things are good now, but I think they can be great.
    .-= Charisma´s last blog ..Flying Mounts, Really? =-.

  10. @Eric: Not sure what you meant by ‘GM to GM’… As for the rest, why does that story sound eerily familiar? 🙂

    @Claus: You are 100% right, many GMs don’t stop to think about ‘What if PC lose’ and the default conclusions when they do lose often feel cheap (you’re all dead) or a badly thought out asspull driven by fear of player revolt.

    There’s a lot of room for posts on failure planning. You’ve given me good ideas. Thanks!

    @Denubi: I fixed the 1st one, the others seem fine. Do note that some of my older posts (2007) were done on a different platform and the URLs weren’t updated when I imported them to the 1st WordPress blog I used.

    Why is your DM whining? Because you’re giving him work? He’s going to hate us both now 🙂

    @Charisma: You know that along with Denubi, you are among the first to tell me that they’re sending posts their DM’s way. Thanks for helping this one go viral 🙂 That’s quite an honor, I appreciate.

  11. @Chatty: Means that the GM uses “never say no” when speaking to players. Not when “speaking to himself” 🙂

    I do now know why the rest of the story would sound familiar. I just… uh… made it up. Yeah. Dojo. Casino. Its all in the mind.

    @Greywulf: I nod in agreement. Just as good cannot exists without evil, cool cannot exist without the mundane.
    .-= Eric Maziade´s last blog ..Revenge of the dailies =-.

  12. I am stingy with my ideas. My goal is too make each encounter as unique and interesting as possible (much the same as all of you). However, I only have a limited number of ideas floating around my head at a time. Similar to you, I get bursts of inspiriation where the ideas flow freely, and then I hit a wall where I agonize over a single concept for far too long to the exclusion of new ideas.

    So what I’ve been able to do is “stretch” out my ideas over multiple encounters. To do this I use just enough of a concept in an encounter to make it unique. Then I put my next idea into another encounter. That way I stretch out my ideas over several encounters. I tend to think over several encounters instead of a single one. This helps me to avoid putting all my best ideas into a single encounter.

    So far this has worked well for me. I can prep enough interesting encounters to keep the players busy until my next bout of inspiration strikes.
    .-= callin´s last blog ..Show How the Monster Works =-.

  13. When I DM, I feel like I put just the right amount I can cope with. However, I have only really DMed for about 1 year, that and with a lack of imagination sometimes I can struggle to make some epic adventures. Then again, I suppose I’m still learning and trying to keep it simple. I find the idea of writing up a campaign daunting and just wayyyy too much to do considering I have a full time job as well.
    I generally make adventures that last for a few hours, there are usually very weak links between each adventure but I use a map and create new towns and landmarks as I go along and I’m enjoying doing it like that. I think I’m ready to move on now and want to make more creative adventures and this post has given me some ideas! 🙂

  14. I know you’re not suggesting that Cadillacs and Dinosaurs isn’t awesome, ’cause that’s provably false.

  15. @Chatty She’s not my DM due to geographic issues, but I’ve got a Dm who I send your articles to on a hemi-regular basis.
    .-= Michael Phillips´s last blog ..GM Tips =-.

  16. PH dungeon says:

    The “rule of cool” must be applied lightly. Bigger and more explosions does not = better. The rule of cool is the dm equivalent to how Michael Bay directs movies. If that’s your thing then fine, but I like my encounters to make sense within the context of the game. I hate it when dm’s randomly throw in weird shit that makes no sense in the context of the story just to spice up an encounter and make it more tactically exciting. One or two interesting extra elements is usually plenty.

  17. Does the cool have to come from complex statistics and rules? I find the most ‘cool’ is coming from my CoC game where players will do stuff like grab onto the sides of moving cars and attempt to punch out the driver. The foes are just run of the mill gangsters kidnapping someone at a street party, it was how the encounter played out that added the cool.
    .-= Canageek´s last blog ..The Haunter of the Ring =-.

  18. I caught this one a bit late but had a thought.

    Cross pollenate. For those times when you want to pile on ideas, stop at one or two mechanical ideas and then jump to story ideas. And the same with story ideas, if you pile up more than a couple cool things, try and introduce some mechanics to the encounter.

    I guess I’m always afraid of trying to pile too many schticks on top of each other and having it turn out looking like some cheap corporate attention grab (think your average beer or car commercial or the Mortal Kombat movies).

    Or to look at it another way, Darth Vader was cool because of 3 things. Even his own people were terrified of him, he was a cunning, intelligent opponent who’s just as willing to bring you over to the dark side as he is to blow up the moon you’re standing on and finally, he has some cool magic tricks and uses them with style. One of these is crunch, the other two are story elements. Other characters have one or two of these and aren’t half as interesting. The gestalt of all 3 is pretty awesome though.


  1. […] post, but what has me fired up right now are some comments on Chatty DM’s post about cramming too much awesomeness into a single encounter. Commenters Denubis and Charisma both mentioned that were going to share that article with their […]

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