The Creme Filling Of The DM Soul

Today's mimic knows that cinnamon rolls, not treasure chests, are a much better means of attracting unwary adventurers.

There’s a few reasons I like talking about my D&D game in my weekly column. One, it makes coming up with a topic much easier. Two,writing about my DMing troubles helps me identify what those troubles actually are. Last, if I talk about something I’m having trouble with, the community is awesome, and I have a veritable cornucopia of good ideas to choose from for next time. Seriously, you guys rock. I took a lot of notes from the last two weeks, and I think last week’s D&D session went considerably better.


The Unfortunate Bits

This not to say, of course, that there weren’t some bumps in the road. We had a player leave the group due to scheduling conflicts, so his spot went to the next guy on our waiting list. Naturally, the other guy on our waiting list  wanted to play too. I initially told him no and was devastated by the ensuing puppy dog eyes. I took 5 ongoing guilt damage, and kept rolling 5’s for my save for the rest of the night. Also, I wanted him to play. So, against the advice of the village elders, I approached the group about adding a seventh member. There were some concerns aired about too much chaos at the table and combat taking too long, but everybody was OK with giving a group of 7 the ol’ provisional college try.
I won’t lie. We need to work on speeding up combat. We have a problem in our group with analysis paralysis. My gut tells me at least part of this stems from unfamiliarity with their powers. We’re only a few sessions in, we have a week between games, and only about half of us have the appropriate sourcebooks – relying only on Character Builder sheets for crunchy stuff. I’ve been prescribed a few fixes for this. Señor The Game recommended that make the new guy run initiative, which I totally forgot to do. ( I’ll get you next time, Gadget. NEXT TIME.) Another was to say who’s turn it is, and to also announce who’s on deck. I’ve also seen a few DMs over the years who impose a time limit on a player’s turn and either skip over them or have them automatically hold their initiative, but that just seems like a good way to irritate already-frustrated players. I never liked it when it happened to me. Coming up with weird crap to do takes time, dammit.


The Climactic Battle That Wasn’t

I tried hard this week to set up situations and hooks instead of railroading my players. I think they’re sufficiently used to me shoving them around that they recognized where the plot was and went without question. Hopefully that’ll change soon. I set up two combat encounters this week: one big bad and what I thought was a throwaway “kill some cultists” encounter as a lead-in. As it turned out, the “throwaway” took up most of the night, and wound up being probably our most exciting combat to date. It was the first time I’d used terrain effects, and the party took some adjusting. That, and I also used a reskinned Brain In A Jar type monster to dominate the PCs. On a few recommendations I’d read over the last week, I decided to throw a healthy amount of minions in with relatively few heavy hitters. I was honestly expecting the usual to happen: the mage comes in and nukes all the minions off the map, then the party gangs up on the bigger guys and we’re done by round 5. Somehow, the tank got separated and surrounded, the other melee fighters were separated (and also surrounded), and the party’s best ranged attacker was dominated and continuously pelting the paladin in the back of the head with arrows due to a statistically unlikely number of failed saves (I think we were approaching 10 by the time it was over.) I had decided from the start that I wasn’t going to fudge dice and try to let this one play out, and I’m pretty sure everyone at the table was wondering which way this battle was going to end. It was exciting. 100% all natural no-preservatives exciting. And no trans fats.

One thing I do regret is continuously attacking the paladin. I found myself trying to juggle between what I thought was a good tactical strategy (focus fire on one until dead, move on to the next) and trying to keep things fun (random/suboptimal target selection). I decided to go the tactical route, and I think I wound up with a frustrated player. I want things to be tense and exciting and to feel real, but not at the expense of people hating the game. The player knows I wasn’t just singling him out for personal reasons or anything like that, but I still felt bad. I never expected to have to think about this stuff before.


The Thing I Love Most

All that thinking about my campaign being somewhat devoid of humor last week made me realize something I had been missing since DMing: coming up with unusual character concepts and roleplaying my face off. Playing one of these characters was always a roll of the dice as a player. About 30% of the time, I’d find a deep vein of awesome and wind up having the time of my life for the whole campaign. The rest of the time, I find out about three sessions in that this schtick only goes so deep, it’s getting in the way of me being effective in combat, and/or it’s annoying the crap out of everyone else at the table. As a DM, however, my NPCs aren’t always right there breathing down everyone’s neck. Their on-stage insanity can be administered in measured doses, and I am no longer limited to ideas that would work for an adventurer. I realized at one point that a lot of these not-fun-to-play PCs all had one fatal flaw: they were NPCs born into the wrong side of the DM screen.

I decided to test this hypothesis using Lionel Pureheart, the first PC I ever had this issue with. He was gifted in the black art of necromancy, but had the kindest heart in the land. So he would offer his services (dubbed “Gentle Necromancy”) to the local townsfolk, such as having skeletons do the landscaping or bringing Grandma back from the dead to visit the family for a day. I had dreams of zany misadventures like these all through the campaign, but my DM at the time wasn’t having any of it. Every time he’d ply his trade, he’d be run out of town by a lynch mob. This was 3.5e, and I had him specialize in the Necromancy school of magic. Turns out that sort of mages aren’t particularly combat-effective. We eventually found some massively overpowered necromancy spell in some third party sourcebook, and Lionel was no longer a liability in combat. But he wasn’t much fun to play.

Since I’d just trapped our current group in what  the Shadowfell, I thought it’d be interesting if poor Lionel managed to piss off the Raven Queen due to his, er, creative implementation of the black arts and she imprisoned him in the same realm as the PCs. However, since he’s the only one around who can help other poor souls trapped here, he can finally feel fulfilled. In fact, he’s never been happier. So I had him set up a nice little refugee camp, surrounded by picket fences made from various bones (with little hearts engraved on them) and set up signs around the area with a simple large pink heart and an arrow pointing to his camp. I got a lot of weird looks from my players, and then even more weird looks when I told them he smelled like fresh cinnamon rolls. It was totally worth it.

This, of course, comes with a few warning labels stuck on it. I’m thrilled that I get to have my particular brand of fun at D&D again. I need to be extra careful to make sure this story still belongs to the PCs. I need to make sure I don’t go too far off the deep end and go from entertaining to annoying. I’m not sure where the line is, but I do know that putting in the work planning everything seems a lot less like work when you get to do the thing you love most.

Strange as it sounds, it’s almost as if I feel like I’d just given myself license to play the game a little bit instead of just running it. I don’t know if that’s the “right” way to do run a game, but if you don’t like it then ROCKS FALL, EVERYONE DIES.

I could get used to this.




Photo Credit


  1. Oh, I’m curious how that’ll work out for you. If I tried to pull something like that, a dozen Insight rolls later _my_ players would kill a guy of Lionel’s sort just to be sure SURE to foil his plans, whatever they are.

    And I’m totally borrowing the ide with the mimic!

  2. Another great post. Don’t worry too much about singling out the paladin. After all, a defender’s job in 4ed is to get attacked. The paladin should be happy to get targetted most of the time as each attack sent his way is one less attack sent toward the squishies. Of course, it can get old if the paladin is constantly being knocked unconscious, but in general, a defender should be happy to be targetted.

    As for ganging up on one PC (even a defender), though I think one thing you can do is look at the intelligence of your creatures. An intelligent vampire who’s vulnerable to radiant damage is generally going to think twice before ignoring the paladin’s mark for instance. A brainless zombie on the other hand will likely just go after the closest target. Keeping the creature’s intelligence in mind is a good way to mix things up and make all the players feel important (including allowing some of the defender’s mark punishment to go off). Thing to remember though is that this works both ways. That intelligent vampire may well be willing to take the punishment for violating the mark if it helps him kill a more dangerous target first. Likewise, an intelligent beholder is unlikely to choose not to take its free attacks at the start of each PC’s turn simply because of the mark. After all, doing so will make it a lot less effective overall.

    Finally, with regard to status effects on PCs, I would agree that you need to be careful with how often you use certain effects like Dominate, Stun, Petrify, etc. Although certainly effective, these effects suck all the fun out of an encounter for that particular player if they cannot save. That doesn’t necessarily mean don’t use these effects ever, just be careful with them, or to spread their use around. It may make logical sense for the beholder to keep using its petrify ray on the lone defender or the lone striker, but if it does it for the entire combat, you are effectively telling that player to just sit by and watch for an hour or so. So for the sake of fun, its almost better to spread that petrify ray around the party, or reserve it for the beholder’s random attacks, etc.

    Long story short, smart creatures will use tactics, dumb ones won’t. Even with smart creatures though its sometimes wise to use less than optimal tactics for the sake of fun.

  3. Love Lionel Pureheart! And don’t feel bad about targeting the paladin – it’s what they’re for!

  4. Another great article. I’m also a fan of Lionel. I’ve been wondering lately if there is some way to use the new Heroes of Shadow book to make a 4E version of Miles Strom from Lost. It feels like an interesting way to try and play the well intentioned necromancer.

    I’ve also encountered the ‘who do I hit?’issue. Like yourself, I’ve only recently started running games after years as a player. I’ve heard the monster intelligence argument,and it makes some sense. I’ve also tried to apply the basic aggro mechanic you see in most videogames; hit the last PC that hit the monster. This works okay, and seems to keep the players satisfied that they aren’t getting ganged up on/singled out.

    But sometimes my brain freezes. What happens when they are fighting a solo and they are all attacking it? What if one of the party is running low on HP and this monster/monster group is actually trying to kill the party, as opposed to being a group of guards who just want to make the party flee?(Knowing what the goals of your monster group are as a DM was a great piece of advice I got from another DM)Do I have me monster move in for the kill, or do I use DM fiat and move to a stronger target to prevent a PC from dying when the monster could kill them, and it even might suit its goals?

    My solution is laughable in its simplicity. All other things being equal, if I have to choose between players to attack and I don’t have a decent reason for picking one over the other, I roll a die. I made this up on the fly in the first game I ran and its worked pretty well so far. My players know I do it to, as I have discussed my troubles with this targeting issue with them casually out of game. Nobody seems upset by it, and its random enough that no one tends to get singled out. Also, I find I only need to do this once or twice during a session anyway. Soon enough, one of them will get back to pulling hate from the monster, or doing something that would make a smarter monster single them out and I can go back to the aggro/intelligence based choices I normally make.

    Lastly, and I apologize for this massive text wall, I’ve decided on a general strategy for combat that suits my style. I don’t like to coddle PCs, because I don’t like being coddled as a player. Also, I don’t really want to kill them(unless its a one shot; then the gloves come off)because I wouldn’t want to lose a PC to a brutal DM either. As such, I have set the following goal for myself. Use the encounter to create tension by reducing the party’s resources. By this I mean spreading out damage so they all have to use surges throughout a fight and building monsters into every encounter that are worth dropping a Daily on. I’ve found that this is pretty effective. There is less immediate threat of death from any one encounter, but the adventure as a whole gets more and more threatening as the players see their ability to attack and survive get reduced over the long run. I combine this with resting restrictions. They can short rest anytime they like, but they either don’t have the option for an extended without retreat, or I build in specific places of safety into a larger tomb/dungeon crawl that function as a reward and natural break point for each session.

    Once again, thanks for all the interesting work you do here. I look forward to reading more on your adventures as a new DM. I’m enjoying learning with you.

  5. Having played the game now for about 31 years, my insight into the fun-factor is seasoned, though perhaps not sincerely on the level. As a gamemaster, I have added a repitoire of dirty tricks, bait-and-switch tactics, and I have come to the conclusion that being a GM is almost too easy for my tastes.

    What players want is a challenge to be overcome. They also want plenty of attention and highlight. From my absolute closest of friends, I have asked the sincere honesty of why they cry out for my games, when others are available to them. The answer? : Personal attention.

    Each character has a story to tell – even if they die in the end. Kill a character for no good reason – instant game failure. Kill a character for a damn good reason, with a (perhaps new and rising) villain at the other end? Not bad. Kill a character, and the local townsfolk sing hymns about her for a century, through the repression of an evil necromancer, and it gives them the strength to rebel? You’ve got a dedicated player for life, dead character or no.

    This RPG – perhaps more than any other, has the potential for being epic. Sincerely, if the Paladin up front is taking the hits, then DESCRIBE the scene: The enemy commander spits as he sees the paladin’s holy symbol, and his rage overtakes his reason as he commands his troops to kill that man. THEN let the players take a tactical advantage by using the paladin as bait!

    I’ve seen many GMs play out many scenes. The ones players accept will be the ones with story behind them. The ones players won’t accept are mediocre battles, with “Well, it’s tactically sound – what would you do?” as the DM’s defense.

    Running combat against PCs is like engaging in the martial arts. Certainly, there will be times when skill levels are uneven – but it is up to the superior player (and, I count a DM as a player) to ease back and make the encounter fun. Superior strength is balanced by superior speed, which in turn is balanced by superior endurance, et cetera, et cetera.

    Every combat should be close, or it’s not worth running. Every character should be on edge. Every player should understand that they are meant to win, but are a little hesitant that, if they make bad decisions, they will lose.

  6. Every player gets a game when it is their moment to do the reverse of shine. They are a black hole of suck. That’s just the way the dice, karma, the gods, etc. end up that day. Being a defender, well, when it rains it often pours.

    I dig the NPC, and it is great to borrow from what you know. Just let the PCs do the exploring instead of you doing the talking. You want it to be back-and-forth, not them sitting and listening. Let them drive the questions and use the richness of what you know to provide depth to the experience. And, always have a reason that isn’t “this guy is cool, right?”.

  7. Interesting. I always say there are two parts to grind. The PC side and the DM side.

    In addition to what you’ve posted about the player’s side I’d note that there is a way to speed up the PC aspect using positive rewards. Of course there are many ways to do this. What we currently use is a chip system that is also frequently used by the PCs to increase their hit rolls (and increasing hits reduces combat time).

    Take a look at our campaign’s Combat Notes and Rewards System for more info on how we do it.

    The flipside is the DM.
    I strongly recommend digesting Stalker0’s guide to anti-grind for this. There are a lot of very sound recommendations in there. Of course, you need to adjust based on your players, for example my group almost always needs a soldier in the opposition or they just cakewalk. But it’s an excellent start.

  8. On your point of struggling between the tactical strategy of focusing down the paladin and keeping these “fun,” I definitely identify with you there.

    I think it’s a classic issue for any DM. Sure, the player will get frustrated sometimes. But some players won’t.

    On the occasions I play instead of DM, I take it all in stride, especially if it’s *believable.*

    In other words, if you’re up against a truly wicked and intelligent enemy, you have to expect they’re out for the not only the infamous 4e trifecta of death, dying and unconscious – but out for the kill!

    You shouldn’t treat every encounter with kid gloves. Then it gets boring at some point for both you and the players because no one’s ever afraid for their character’s lives or challenged as players.

  9. I’ve played under many DMs who could use Alphastream’s advice – Never let the NPC be so cool and hog the spotlight by a monologue. Engage the PCs in back and forth conversation, even if the NPC merely comments on their fighting style, their huge sword, their hair, their tats…

    I recently wrapped a segment of my homebrew Forgotten Realms, which took the PCs to Sshamath, in the Underdark, at level 9. The NPC lead was a Drow mercenary of Bregan D’aerthe, who I knew would be “a baddass” but I didn’t want him to out-shine the PCs or be too cool. I did a cheesy Aussie-accent voice (because he’s from “down under”) and interacted with questions and comments back and forth…

    Moment of awesome was, one of the PCs had been tortured by Drow and enslaved. He was rescued. Sitting at dinner, just freed, almost naked, he grabs the dinner plates (since he’s Wild Elf Archer Ranger) and starts hurling them at a Paragon-level NPC..and he *crits*!!! Really put things in perspective and all the PCs somehow felt cooler for it. Now, he carried a dinner plate in his pack…just in case…

    I’ve played in games where the DM is so wrapped up in his NPC creations, they will always out-cool and out power the party, they will always get away…and as players, we all vote “That sucks!”. A unique and thrilling NPC is great…especially a creepy, “obviously evil” NPC who turns out to be a contact for the party for a long time, or someone who should be helpful and isn’t that powerful (guy at the city hall who makes appointments to see the mayor) and is actually a snobbish jerk…

    Thanks for a great article! Now come Game with us at Comicpalooza!

  10. Dixon Trimline says:

    You’ve just been killing it lately here on Critical Hits, and you’ve done something I would have thought was completely impossible: you’re running out an interesting “let me tell you about my game” series. Hoorah and bravo and tut-tut and what-have-you. Oh, and a good helping of, “Keep ’em coming.”

    By the way, I have a thought about tracking initiative, which may seem like a colossal pain in the string section, but I’ve found to be invaluable. I can take credit for exactly none of it.

    1. Use folded paper tents, white for monsters and yellow for characters.
    2. Preprint pictures and names on the tents.
    3. Preroll all monster initiatives.

    As a player and a DM, having a visual representation of initiative order has been a tremendous asset, even when one of the jerks–I mean players–elects to delay an action, allowing me to pull them out of order and slot them into the new spot.

    Beyond taking a bit of time in preparation (and potentially restricting off-the-cuff encounters, since I never printed out tents for the otyugh and flumph battle), I haven’t found any downside to this approach.

  11. Hmm, a necromancer with good intentions, I could use one of those for my current campaign.

    *looks around shiftily* *stuffs the idea into a box and runs off with it* Thanks sucker!