Zen and the Art of Dungeon Mastering #5: Make it Mean Something!

As modern RPGs develop more complex ways of doing stuff, I often find myself bored to tears by spending  long periods playing with numbers instead of playing with the story. I think this is where a lot of the Old School Crowd gets its gripes from. Back in the day, most everything was resolved in seconds by rolling low on a D6 or something similar. When things took so little time, it didn’t matter that each dice roll was linked to some  grander plot…  Often the plot itself was whatever story arose from those dice rolls.

Grognard: “When the DM rolled those 35  Giant Rats on the encounter table while we tried to sleep in the dungeon, we escaped with but a few HPs each… Of course, we fled right into the lair of the Ghouls.  Fortunately the cleric rolled a 20 on his Turn Undead and they all fled. We ran through the Ghoul’s lair, the rats refusing to follow us into that undead’s nest…”

You get the idea…

In more modern editions of the game, the story often rests on a series of thematically linked encounters. In a good adventure, each encounter should move the story forward in a significant and exciting manner. In practice, it often isn’t the case, at least in my experience.  I’ve seen countless scenarios and home brewed games fall flat because of one simple thing:  scenes where players waste significant amount of time doing tasks that have no direct impact on the story, stall it or worse, act as bottlenecks (i.e. failure to perform the tasks means the adventure grinds to a halt).

The bottleneck issue will have a post of its own. I’ll stay on target here.

The best example of a meaningless scene is the “Guardians vs Invaders” encounter in D&D and its direct descendants. A group of characters must get somewhere and perform some actions, but somewhere along the way, they enter a room, or a clearing, or a market square, or a tavern. In that space, a group of (insert threat) awaits and, wait for it… “attacks on sight”.

I don’t like those. Your buttkickers may like them though, and I’m honest enough to say that the various versions of D&D have fun enough combat rules to occupy an hour or two.

But I’m not JUST a buttkicker. I like stories, inner drama and exploration. I like to know that the baron’s son is one of the goons that set the ambush in the forest to steal the tax money we’re returning. I like to be given the chance to explore if I really want to give the money back to the corrupt baron or steal it from the party and finance the rebellion according to my secret quest.  And I love to find a clue on the slain orc that shows that they were working with the Gnolls all along and the tribe war we were trying to entice was all a front.

So please, think about all your players and make sure that each encounters/scene/room you run has at least a minor impact on the overall story. Put in clues, NPCs and locales that will matter to at least one character. Something that will make one player go “Hey Guys…”

For example, after the fight, pass a note saying that the guy they killed was NOT the Necromancer’s nephew but a shapeshifter belonging to the Guild of Shadow.

Pepper your scenes with those, don’t be afraid. Heck, explore the 5X5 methods Dave pioneered if you need some help there. If you use published adventures that don’t have them… create side stories and quests and sprinkle the clues and quest items among them.

Another way of looking at it. If the encounter is the main movie of a DVD, add some bonus content to it so that the aficionado can have their own bone to chew on.

Okay, tell you what, lets dive into hooks and examples to get your noggin going:

Put a magic item in your adventure, but break it down in pieces and scatter them over the area the adventure takes place. Make finding and fixing the item part of a minor quest (a severely underused source of XP in the 4th Edition of D&D).  Or make the item VERY powerful but make finding it a longer quest. That’s a classic Trope predating the Rod of Seven Parts.

Add a named NPC in each combat encounter that the PCs either have seen before, or who swears that a relative will avenge his/her/its death.

Add a few scrollcase here and there. Have coded messages and maps with special areas marked on them. Hell, have a goblin keep track of his grocery list behind a scroll of Fireball.

And one of my favourite ones (which i wrote before I’m sure): add Sam to each and every combat encounter.

Sam is just this low level thug. With the unfortunate side effect that he’s got an eternal contract as a minion. No matter how often he dies, he comes back… in some slightly different but recognizable form. He usually takes the path of undeath, as this is one of the easiest way to explain his nearly-comedic return: Thug, Sarge, Zombie Sarge, Stiched Up Zombie Sarge, Juiced-up Zombie Ogre, Wraith, Spectre… and so on.

Or… Maybe something more sinister is at work.  Maybe he’s just a schlob who played one Fiasco-like gambit too many and gained fiend-powered immortality (and just enough power to keep up with party level) by feeding his whole family in the proverbial wood chipper. Who knows… maybe the key to unraveling the campaign’s myth arc is finding and fixing whatever ails poor Sam.

So there you have it. Make each scene significant… no matter how little, so that those like RPGs for more than combat get their dose of thrills and stay with you.

What about your tricks to add significance to your scenes?

Image Credit: Macrospace on DeviantArt



  1. Great suggestions!

    An air of mystery never hurt an encounter – if you’re running someone else’s encounter, or running a no-/low-prep encounter, and you’re not sure exactly how you want to fit it into the plot, then add some unexplained touches at the beginning and see what falls out at the end. Make one of the opponents obviously different in appearance, culture, race, equipment, native language, or behavior – and see how the players react. They might focus their ire on that standout, or try to save it for investigation later (all by itself, this is often a good indicator for what your players want to get out of the game at that moment).

    Listen to both your inner voice of inspiration and your player’s theories during the encounter, and if nothing comes, kick the can down the road a little – give the standout a map marked up in 9 different colors, or a coded message, or a blank piece of velum that detects as magic. Give it a strange tattoo in an easy-concealed location, or have it disappear in a cloud of greasy smoke rather than drop. Have it try to flee, and then consider whether the other enemies try to cover for its escape or feel betrayed.

    Even the basic OTA (Obligatory Thug Attack – old Organized Play term) can be spiced up with a tiny foray off the beaten path. Maybe your encounter features monsters with a `death burst’ of some kind; make that death burst a surprise to the monsters, and see how the players react. They might try to help, or threaten, or bluff that the death-burst is just one aspect of their own awesomeness. Maybe one of the monsters seems unsurprised, while everyone else is shocked. A simple twist like that can turn an OTA against a dozen minions into a fast combat (great for your tacticians and butt-kickers), plus an opportunity for characters to show off their personality when they help or harm (good for your story-tellers and character actors), and then open the door for investigation and speculation (where your problem-solvers and mythos players can lead the table).

  2. Good thoughts from you and Chad. One of the things that we can easily do with an “obligatory thug attack” is to make the question of who sent them interesting and part of the encounter. There might be three factions opposed to what (or whom) the PCs are investigating, plus perhaps additional unknown factions. The assailants may have a few clues, including some that can get away. Throw in some dynamic aspects (maybe fog rolls in on the second round), and we have some interesting dynamics. LFR (Living Forgotten Realms) has had some interesting variants such as an attack where they try to steal an item the PCs carry, with a particularly elusive opponent doing the stealing… leading to a mystery/exploration if the item is taken. I’ve had fun in home campaigns having two different factions attack at the same time, including each other. That makes it much more interesting and with interesting foe personalities can lead to PCs making alliances against one of the foes. Another fun thing to do (seen a few times in Living Greyhawk) is where an attack comes from a future ally. Finding clues, including during the combat that these aren’t actually bad guys can really change the nature of the encounter.

    But, I suspect the best way to avoid the sense that a fight is obligatory is to give the party options ahead of time. If the PCs have reason to anticipate an attack, then they should have fun preparing for it – with impact on what comes. An attack should usually avoid feeling just like random thugs… foes should be part of the narrative – even when they are random. One of my problems with old school play is how all the monsters (even in a dungeon) are independent of the others. Instead, there should be relationships, such that random encounters actually aren’t so random. Sure, you randomly roll up goblins… but they are on a skirmish mission to take out orc sentries. Sure, you run into a gelatinous cube, but inside are the remains of the old leader of the goblin tribe… and his not yet dissolved disc of office. Little connections make a huge difference.

  3. What about having combat outs? That helps speed things up/gives more story.

  4. Combat outs are a great tool, so much so that Dave wrote a few posts about them and I’ll distill them in a Zen post of its own for sure. Thanks for the reminder.


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