If The Dungeon Mama Ain’t Happy, Ain’t Nobody Happy

I’ll admit it: I’d been dreading running last week’s D&D game. It had been over a month since we played, and my trepidation was as much laziness as it was not wanting to dungeon crawl. I’d imagine it was much more my fault than the dungeon module we were running, but I’d somehow managed to suck all the fun out of the game for me. That’s the last thing you want running through the DM’s mind in any group — sooner or later things start to suck for everybody else. A few months later, the group breaks up and one of your roleplayers goes to prison for stabbing a minmaxer. I knew I had to do something. But what?

For me, running a pre-made dungeon module drove home for me the things that I like and the things that I can’t stand when it comes to D&D. The more I think about every adventure I’ve run so far, I realize that three things get me fired up about D&D: story, character development, and things that further story and character development. I didn’t used to be like this. I used to care about girls in chainmail bikinis, treasure, and monsters (in that exact order). Now, unless those three things serve a story in some way, I find them boring. I kind of wish I could go back to this, and I’d imagine my players do too sometimes.

Me Me Me Me Me Me

As I mentioned last week, I once played in a campaign where the DM’s idea of fun diverged wildly from that of the players. I felt like I was kind of in a weird inverse variant of that, where my group is having fun but I’m not. It should be said loudly here so there’s no confusion: my group kicks ass and are lots of fun to play with. Something about the game itself was bugging me. So I decided to put my tech support hat on and tinker with things a bit.

I’ve never ever liked playing in pre-made modules as long as I’ve played D&D, and I’m sure my lack of enthusiasm was affecting the game. Step one was to get the hell out of that and start doing it from scratch again. I’d dropped the PC’s into the module I was running as part of a larger overarching plot. and since the module was broken neatly into a couple of sub-adventures (the first of which we’d finished), I decided simply to take things back on a course I’d created. I know some of my more roleplay-friendly players were glad to be rid of the box text and classic dungeon-crawl, but I want to make sure the minmaxers are happy too.

One thing in particular I’ve noticed since I’ve started DMing is that I don’t get very excited about combat anymore, especially since The Great Lie was uncovered. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. As I’ve mentioned in these pages several times, emotional investment is what does it for me in D&D. As a player, it’s a lot easier — primarily because your character is frequently in mortal danger. As a DM, I started feeling like I was just setting up bowling pins for the PCs to knock down. Part of this is because I haven’t quite mastered how to balance an encounter to be challenging for the party, and they keep mowing everything down with ease. This is not a good recipe for emotional investment in a battle. In a situation where the DM has already predestined that the PCs won’t die and will intervene to save them, I can’t even see a reason to run the combat. I realize the players might not know the DM’s intentions, and a DM really good at this could pluck the players’ heartstrings to keep it exciting, but I can’t handle that.

While planning the night’s adventure, I decided I was going to kick the difficulty up a notch. Hell, I would kick the difficulty up two notches and try really hard not to intervene if people started dropping like flies. Everybody was level 8, I had 5 players (instead of my usual 7 or 8), so I decided to throw 3 solo level 10 creatures at them (some Berbalangs I reskinned as giant half-fish abominations).

I also decided to try to mix my combat peanut butter with my roleplay chocolate a little, and tried to organize a combination combat/RP encounter. The PCs would get ambushed by some orcs, and then everybody would get attacked by a superior force (the aforementioned Berbalangs). I was hoping this would add some flavor.

The Tilt

A monkey wrench got thrown into my combat plans at the start of the night when I realized I had no idea where my wet-erase battlemat was. I was about to use some Gaming Paper when I decided just to try and see what happened if I ran this combat without a mat, like we used to do back in the 3.5 days. I got some weird looks, but everybody rolled with it. Another monkey wrench got thrown in when the party’s mage nuked all the orcs on the board with a fireball. I reminded people twice that the orcs weren’t attacking them anymore, but at one point I realized it’s their story and I should just let them stomp all over my carefully planned encounters even if it ends with their dismemberment. Why is that so hard?

4e without a mat is a bit weird. So many powers involve squares and shifting and sliding that I felt like I was nerfing some of my PCs. Here’s the weird part, though: we’ve always had an awful problem with analysis paralysis in our game. My players will huddle up and spend minutes at a time figuring out the optimum place to go to trigger a power or blow up the most bad guys with a fireball. One of our group quit playing D&D because he was always stressed about what to choose in combat. Matless, there was none of this. Choices got made within 10-15 seconds. People asked me how many baddies a fireball would hit, and I made a rough estimate in my head and told them. Just like the old days. Combat got less boring and stressful for everyone, including me. That’s when it hit me.

I really, really hate using a battlemat.

Before the masses come to exterminate the heretic, I understand the good a battlemat can do. I just think it works for a style of play that I don’t care for. Combat on a battlemat is too explicit for me. I feel like everything is spelled out in the game mechanics, and it doesn’t fire up my imagination. I’m not quite sure what to do about this.

In the end, the party was victorious (though I finally did manage to at least bloody one of the PCs). Somebody covered the floor in immobilizing thorns, and the Berbalangs all took the death train to AoE-town. There’s the part of me that wants everything to be “realistic” and knows the combat would have gone much differently had we used a mat, but I’m not sure how much I care about that yet.

No One Expects The Spanish Imposition

The thing I’m not quite sure how to deal with here is that I’m all about trying to make choices that ensures everybody in the group has the maximum fun — yet here I am trying to adjust things to the way I like them. On one hand, I definitely think I should take myself into account when thinking about these things, but I’m uncomfortably aware of the slippery slope that can lead down.

Another extremely slippery slope that keeps beckoning to me is that I’m the DM, and maybe my way of running the game should carry more weight as far as the game I run goes. Not because I’m awesome, but because I need to play to my strengths. A guy whose passions are tactical combat may not be the best choice to run a story-heavy game, so it makes sense that story and roleplay would feature more prominently in the game I run.

Of course, I have no intentions of just arbitrarily throwing everything I don’t like in the trash (at least, not without consulting my group). I suspect I’ll like combat more with practice, and I’m always about trying to work on my weaknesses as a DM. At this point, though, I’m just glad to discover (and maybe even just admit) what was taking the fun out of my game. At least now I can stare it in the face, even if punching it isn’t in my group’s best interests.

Of course, working all this out with my group will be the hard part, especially considering I’m not sure what the next steps will be. Communication is much more fun when you don’t have to say anything important.

Photo Credit


  1. A solution for your battle mat issue, so you don’t necessarily nerf your guys: a battle mat without grids, this way people won’t go into square burst range confusion planning paralysis. That way people can visually see where doors, walls, and enemies are, but don’t have squares to count. Just a thought.

  2. I totally hear you on this, its something I’ve been struggling with recently. I think you’ve already boiled it down to the same basic point I did–if the DM isn’t having fun, the game will be ruined. I think there has been so much emphasis in the past few years of D&D to always say yes to the players, build stuff around their play types, and so forth, that the DM has gotten lost in the mix. This may be because there are more than a few bad DMs who abuse their power and need to be told to back off, but if taken to the extreme it implies a doormat DM who just wants to please his players at every opportunity.

    Not what I imagined doing when I first got the Red Box as a kid.

    Of course its good to know what your players like and work that into the game, but it has to be your game first and foremost. If the players get to determine how everything goes, what’s the point of the DM? The DM puts waaaaaaay more time into the game than any of the players (even all combined), so he should have more of a say in how the game goes. The DM isn’t an absolute monarch or a dictator, but the DM is an elected leader.

    Truth is, you’ll be a better DM if you play to your strengths and focus on things that get you excited. I sometimes get caught in the false idea that since the campaign is going a certain way so far, I can’t change direction without pissing off my players. Give it a shot anyway. An unexpected u-turn that’s really exciting is better than driving straight into dullsville. In theory you’re gaming with friends, who are pretty understanding, and they chose you to DM, so they trust you.

    (Angry DM wrote a good guest article, http://diceofdoom.com/blog/2011/08/i-am-the-game/ , about the subject.)

  3. If you have a different goal for what you want the style of your game to be, you need to be up front with your players. I think AIsling’s idea of a gridless map might work really well for you, satisfying the people who need help visualizing and people who want a little more free form. The important thing is to have as clear picture in everyone’s head of what is happening. I’m sure you and your players can find a compromise. That being said, you are putting more work than anyone at the table into this, and at the end of the day without you there is no game. Worry about making sure you’re happy with the game you’re running because otherwise you’ll just loose steam entirely.

  4. My passion is tactical combat, but I still wouldn’t enjoy running fights where no one even got to bloodied. No wonder you’re not having fun.

  5. I like to periodically ditch the battlemap. But I also really love how 4E adds a true tactical layer. A swinging rope bridge over a chasm, where every round the rope bridge shits 2 squares, and there are flying combatants. A party in a raft going down a river as they escape forces along the banks. These kinds of things can be half puzzle and half story and all fun. What I never do is just have a featureless plain or empty room. There is little place for that in 4E.

  6. Another option could be for the DM to have the actual gridded map, ala Masterplan or MapTool on a laptop. So he describes the situation and the pcs respond. That way the PC’s still get their exact plans, but the DM can play a little fast and loose with distances and character perception thereof.

  7. Battlemats… Told. You. So. That is all. Carry on.

  8. Sounds like you are struggling with breaking away from a system that is heavily invested in battle maps. As long as your players are happy with not using a battlemap it shouldn’t be a problem. If you are struggling to threaten you players in a meaningful way on the battle map perhaps it’s better to threaten them with non-combat issues. Something that only RP will solve.

    Otherwise you may have to steal encounters from pre-written modules that have the stuff you need to challenge your players.


  9. I’ve also experimented with “only the DM sees the map, and explains what’s happening” games; I found that it worked with 2 players, but beyond that, there were just too many too-specific questions to make it practical. But it depends how feverishly-tactical your players are.

    But I also want to say: 5 level 8 heroes took on 3 level 10 solos AND the mob of orcs that was suppose to be their allies, and only one guy got bloodied?! That doesn’t sound like you “haven’t quite mastered how to balance an encounter”, that sounds like something is terribly broken.

  10. PolaroidNinja says:

    The problem isn’t the battlemat – it’s you and your group’s perception of the mat.

    Let me explain. I disliked the mat to begin with, I felt that it “sterilized” combat, and made the game into two distinct parts – a roleplaying game and a tactical combat board game.

    Then I had a discussion with a fellow DM who said this to me – “The mat is just a tool for framing a scene. You describe what happens when the players roll a skill check, and you describe what happens when an NPC gets mad because they found out someone was lying, so why is it that as soon as the mat comes out you stop describing things?”

    My initial reaction was “Because the mat determines what happens, not me.” I don’t remember the exact examples I gave in that conversation so I’ll go through the process we went through.

    Me: “When a player casts fireball, it does the same thing every time – square radius burst that deals X amount of damage. I have no say in that, it just happens.”

    Fellow DM: “You are correct, but the fact that it’s spelled out who that burst hits, and what happens when it hits them doesn’t mean that the narrative has to be compromised. You should take that information as a trigger for what is happening in the narration and make sure to paint that picture just a vividly as you do the rest of the game. Describe the screams of the people being hit with it, describe the way the energy is drawn up by the caster, and for God’s sake damage the environment – set things on fire, crumble the ceilings, or describe the sparks that fly when the sword swing misses!”

    We argued about the strictness of the system a bunch, and in the end I came to the conclusion that just because it doesn’t explicitly state that fireball creates a “Zone of ongoing fire damage” there is nothing stopping you from creating a room with a wooden floor that lights on fire when fire damage is done to it. If you want rules for it – say each square has “when this square takes any fire damage it creates a zone 1 of fire that deals X amount of damage to any creature that starts/ends their turn in the zone.” Of course, as the DM you don’t even need that much justification – just do it and if a player complains be ready to rattle off something that sounds like you had it planned as a rules element.

    After that I started to make my battle mat a tool for my narrative, instead of vica versa. And after a while, I found that my players were really engaged when I would describe each action in the combat individually and kept things fluid. Because combat is almost simulations it can be fun to describe it like a scene from 300. For example, most people would hear this around a game table:

    Player 1: I use “Knockdown Assault” on that Orc… 25 vs AC.
    DM: That’s a hit.
    Player 1: 5 damage and he is knocked prone.
    DM: Cool. Player 2, your turn.
    Player 2: I move here – into flanking, even though he’s prone – and use Sly Flourish… 16 vs AC… 18 with Combat Advantage.
    DM: You hit with combat advantage.
    Player 2: Great!… 40 damage!
    DM: Woah! Nice damage!

    BORING! It tells you what’s happening – but it’s not evocative at all.

    This would be better:

    Player 1: I use “Knockdown Assault” on that Orc… 25 vs AC.
    DM: That’s a hit.
    Player 1: 5 damage and he is knocked prone.
    DM: Cool. You body check him, knocking him to the ground. Player 2, your turn.
    Player 2: I move here – into flanking, not that I need it while he’s prone but.. and use Sly Flourish… 16 vs AC… 18 with Combat Advantage.
    DM: You hit with combat advantage.
    Player 2: Great!… 40 damage!
    DM: A nice swing! You cut open his chest and blood flows!

    But I think this is the best:
    Player 1: I use “Knockdown Assault” on that Orc… 25 vs AC.
    DM: That’s a hit.
    Player 1: 5 damage and he is knocked prone.
    DM: Great! You move into position – deflecting a few glancing blows before body checking the orc, he flies a few feet before landing sprawled on the ground – Player 2, your turn.
    Player 2: I move here – into flanking – and use Sly Flourish… 16 vs AC… 18 with Combat Advantage.
    DM: You hit.
    Player 2: Great!… 40 damage!
    DM: Nice! So your friend [Player 1’s character] has just moved in and body checked the orc, who is now flat on his back – your character moves in and what? Slices his chest as you move into an advantageous position, or do you get into position and then bring the full force of your blade down on the orc?
    Player 2: It’s a SLY flourish, so I actually stab around the fighter as he is body checking the guy, before doing a twist step around him into the flank!
    DM: Awesome, So you get around the fighter as he is body checking the orc and nimbly step into position, your blade already in motion for your next strike. Lets find out how this Orc reacts to all this – he’s up next.

    When you do it this way, not only are you left with a narrative that feels like a single sequence, but you are asking leading questions that allow your players to help make up how their characters are doing their powers.

    After having this realization and making an effort to do these things, I usually don’t even remember what ACTUALLY happened in a combat on the mat an hour later – did he move in to flank? Or did he use a power that grants him CA? I don’t know – all I can remember is that the Rogue stuck his blade into the mind flayer’s side and used his momentum to spin the blade and himself around the enemy and before skidding away from the creature.

    In my opinion it’s helped a whole bunch – because it reintroduces an aspect of the game that gets lost by using a very strict system like the battle mat.

    Wow – this got really long sorry! I suggest you give this a try and see where it goes.

  11. I like what PolaroidNinja is saying. As a player I’m usually jumping at the chance to describe some visuals that way. When DMing, it’s tougher: you have to really “get” Sly Flourish before you can think of different ways to describe attacks as “sly”. I use Jonathan Drain’s Beyond ‘You Hit’: Describing Damage technique to facilitate this. I include it in my prep — I think “what makes this monster or combat unique?” and then add a hit and miss description. For some recent examples:

    When the scene is about fighting someone who was once a high-level cleric and was raised as a wight by her god after death, I’ll narrate a hit as smashing a holy symbol on her breastplate. When the scene is about fighting the tortured spirit of a recently killed unicorn I’ll say “After you hit, the ghostly blood of the unicorn turns real and drips down your weapon,” because I think what’s cool about the fight is feeling the creepy suffering of something that shouldn’t be hurt. When the scene is about fighting an insane derro I’ll narrate a hit as “He lets you hit him on purpose, then lets out a fart and laughs hysterically.” When the scene is about a wyvern protecting her mate, I’ll say you hit because she was distracted by a squawk of pain from the male. And so on. You can use combat to characterize your opponents, and I think that might make it more fun for you.

  12. Yes, in 4e especially, combat can really drag or otherwise simply take a long time to *both* launch and resolve.

    Time that costs you – especially if you look at it as DM, who is the main creative force pushing the story ever forward – other critical aspects of the game, such as character and story development.

    You know, the simple, inspiring stuff of fantasy that draws you to D&D in the first place, right?

    In the end, too much grind and mechanics (that is, heavy combat encounters dominating a session), can really take away from the whole D&D experience.

    It’s something I’ve been blogging about on Leonine Roar since February!

    We need a better balance or rules & story/RP for a truly *great* D&D game – and so the DM doesn’t get burnt out managing combat for 80% of each session or adventure. The campaign needs to have *soul* or you’ll have those weeks or months as DM or GM where you’re just not looking forward to the next game.

    Like some folks have already pointed out, one simple tip is RPing during combat: it goes a long way to make it feel like less of a chore, physically and mentally. Personalities, design, prep, props, rules, rulings, exceptions, the list goes on and on… I hear you.

    Hey, it’s D&D 4e… Faster Combat can be hard, trust me, I know! In fact, that’s why I worked on FasterCombat.com, freshly launched this week. Huzzah!

    Also, Id DM recently wrote “Roleplaying Failure” on this – excellent read. And Temporary Hit Points just wrote up a great piece called “How to Help Your DM Get His Groove Back” this week too.

  13. It helps if you believe that combat in D&D is actually a reward. Use it that way.

    Also, create goals and purposes that don’t involve grinding every monster on the map into a fine slurry. It won’t matter if you kill all the orcs… if you didn’t defuse the BOMB in time…

  14. rabbitiswise says:

    As a PC and a DM in two different games… I would never play without a battlemat.
    To break analysis by paralysis is hard, a one minute sand timer and levity helped our group. Our groups like to roleplay our roleplay and fight our fights… what i mean by that is we dont use over-flowery speach in combat to describe what were doing we enjoy the tactical part… and in roleplay situations we do worry about how long it takes to cross the kings ballroom to talk to the duke… its my turn and he’s 8 sq away but my speed is 6… (handwave it)…

    My advice to DM’s and PC’s alike enjoy the different aspects of a game with many different aspects…. dont feel like you have to put great roleplay into a tactics heavy encounter. that way no 2 parts of the game are the same and it provides DM’s and PC’s alike with different aspects to look forward to.

    and if your serious about throwing 3 level 10 solo creatures at your level 8 PC’s and barely getting one of them bloodied. Dude that is the worst for you and your PC’s nothing is more boring than rolling through “every encounter”
    Buy yourself a screen start rolling behind it and LIE LIE LIE…
    If my combat heavy built character was never challenged in combat, why play?
    I hope you figure things out bud… good bloggin

  15. Danny Peck says:

    I’m glad to see other people come to these revelations rather than just leave the game in disgust without ever figuring it out! Check out Mike Mearls’ blog “Keep on the Gaming Lands” for some great suggestions on how to run 4th edition “off the grid.”

    I’ve been running 4th edition pretty much since it came out and had the same problems with the strange dichotomy of “in-combat” and “out of combat” play. This bothered me a little bit, but we resolved it eventually by encouraging players to make their decisions faster(not with a timer though, you will not make players happy by telling them to operate faster or lose their turn!) We made players purchase power cards or make their own on 3×5 notecards. Players that were not willing to do either would print/photocopy the pages with their powers on them and cut them out. We were able to get our “epic 4e battles’ down to about 30 mins apiece on average which is pretty much the best you can hope for and still maintain awesome dramatic tension and interesting tactical decision making.

    Regardless, we were still playing two games a night. The D&D Roleplaying Game and The D&D Miniatures Game and switching off every 30 minutes or so! I polled my players and it turned out they were remembering the battle grid and not the game it was supposed to represent.

    This is important. People were no longer imagining the cavern walls, the rope bridge spanning the chasm or the savage, snarling orcs they faced on the bridge. They were remembering things in terms of the combat grid, number of squares they had to move and the way they had to make combat advantage happen with powers while the orcs held the bridge. The combat grid, which originally served as an aid to represent the game we were all imagining in our heads had BECOME the game.

    And that’s a damn shame.

  16. Joe Thomas says:

    PolaroidNinja’s got it right on the general problem with the battlemat (I often play online with far-flung friends on MapTool, and there’s a similar problem). You don’t need to describe every single thing in detail, but just have some ideas, especially for whatever the “big thing” is. An enemy’s encounter power, for instance, should get some description-lovin’, and putting in even minor terrain powers (like a wooden floor that ignites with fire damage) helps put you in the right mindset to make the battle evocative. The key (in my experience) is to have 2-5 “cool things” about the encounter in your head as stuff you really want to emphasize, mechanically or not.

    I also second Mudlock’s point about possibly having something broken with that degree of PC-unstoppability. That’s. . .not right. Something wasn’t hard enough, or else there was some truly absurd streak of PC luck.

    Last but not least, the best way to be unafraid about being brutal to your party is have a backup plan! If my players get overwhelmed on the deck of the pirate ship, they get dragged before the Sea Prince and given a chance to live if they do his bidding — or they’ll get locked up in Dreadhold prison, where there’s always a plan to escape being hatched. This way, I have no qualms about tossing wave after wave of enemies at them, since the game won’t end even with a TPK. There’s real tension in the fight for me as well as the players, since I don’t know which fork the plot will take.