Dungeon Master Lessons - Part 3

Recently I was asked to run a Dungeon Master workshop where I gave a lesson on good DMing practices and did a Q&A for common problems. Below is the rough transcript of that lesson from notes taken during. There are some parts that are specifically catered towards 4th edition D&D, but the bulk of the lesson is compatible with any ruleset. Also note that since this was me actually talking with someone else trying to quickly type it up, it's probably not going to be the most cleanly written article, but I did go through and clean it up as best I could. All of these come from a variety of sources, some from the books, some from other sites, and some from my head, but the whole thing was just a meandering train of thought.

Encounter Design

There are three keys to a good encounter: make it interesting, make it threatening, and make it rewarding. There are two main kinds of encounters in 4th: combat and skill challenges. I'm not going to talk too much about skill challenges here, as they are a little bit messy right now. This is understandable, as this is the first edition they've ever had skill challenges, so there's going to be some growing pains. The DMG2 changes the rules on skill challenges a bit, as well as some third party systems. I wrote an article about using Obsidian and powers/tactical maps in skill challenges, which you can read if you're interested in spicing up your challenges.

Combat encounters, though, are much more polished than they've ever been in any edition. It's easier now to just whip up an encounter; improvised encounters are pretty easy to do as well. How it works is, you've got an encounter budget that defines the difficulty of the encounter, and every monster has an xp cost. However much of this budget you use up will ultimately determine the encounter's difficulty. The key to a harder encounter isn't more expensive monsters, but just more monsters in general. You should generally not use monsters that are three levels above or below your party, because that means either the monsters won't be able to hit, or the players won't be able to hit, and hitting is fun. Missing is not fun. The bulk of your powers are meant to function on a hit. Also you can play around more with encounter budget/difficulty and monster groups with my encounter builder.

As mentioned, the MM3 came out, and soldiers and brutes were changed the most. They were made easier to hit, do more damage, and have less health. They were changed quite a bit, as they used to be very annoying to have in your encounters. So if you're using monsters from an earlier book or module, it's recommended that you don't use soldiers or brutes. If you don't have access to the MM3 and still want soldiers or brutes, then do some looking around online to find the changed rules for MM3. Roughly it equates to defenses and accuracy that are more in line with other creatures, and about a 50% damage boost.

The other thing that makes an encounter challenging is having a cohesive group of monsters. Similar to how a well-balanced player party is more effective at defeating monsters, a well-balanced and cooperative monster party is much better at challenging players. There are four types of monsters: standard; minions, which die in a single hit; elites, which have more health and more powers than standard monsters, and solos, which you should never use. The problem with solos is that they have a lot of health, not enough powers to make combat interesting, and they use up a ton of your encounter budget, so you won't be able to have much else on top of the solo. Generally you just end up with your players all huddled around the solo, trying to get through its health reserves. Minions have a similar problem: they're really cheap, so you might be tempted to load up your encounters with them. However, they either tend to not be that threatening, or add far too many status conditions to the encounter. Also, grinding through all those minions gets just as tedious as grinding through the huge health pool on a solo monster.

Generally, you should have standards, elites, and a few minions in your encounters. On top of that, each monster has a role: there are controllers, skirmishers, lurkers, soldiers, brutes, and artillery. Controllers function much like the player class, they debuff players and change the layout of the combat to be more favourable to the monsters. They are a great way of adding a lot of interest to the encounter; however, they don't have a lot of health or do a lot of damage, so they need something to make up for that. Lurkers and skirmishers do quite a bit of damage, and while skirmishers can generally hold up in melee, lurkers tend to do well if there is something else to take attention away from them. Lurkers and skirmishes both tend to be pretty low on health, though skirmishers have a bit more in the way of defences than lurkers.

Another important role which isn't actually a specific type of role is the leader. It will generally appear on one of the existing types, that also has the leader role tacked onto it. Leaders are great, they buff the monsters, hand out additional attacks, and are another way to make the encounters more interesting. You should definitely keep an eye out for monsters that have the leader role added onto them. Be forewarned, however: the leader role doesn't affect the encounter budget, but they will significantly enhance the amount of damage that your monsters do.

The other idea is that, when you're going out and fighting monsters on their home turf, you are fighting them on their own terms. This means, terrain. The two types of terrain you can have to enhance the monsters are traps and hazards. For example, artillery can have dangerous terrain between them and the party, melee fighters can have choke points where they can get in there and do lots of damage. Traps and hazards have an xp cost just like monsters do, and they add to your encounter budget, which means they benefit the monsters. You don't want to go overboard here, because too much hostile terrain punishes melee. If there are too many hurdles to overcome, your melee will find it too difficult to get in there and do damage.

However, there is terrain you can add to your encounter that doesn't use up your budget. If both sides can make use of that terrain, it's equally beneficial to either side, and thus doesn't have an XP cost associated with it. This also has the side benefit of adding more tactical options to your combat for both sides to consider. For example, say you have combat taking place on the side of a cliff. Either side could push the other off that cliff. Either side has tactical options to consider in both pushing their enemies off the cliff and avoiding having the same happen to them. The more of this sort of thing you have, the more options you have and the more interesting your encounter is.

Encounter Running

The bulk of the time you'll spend with D&D is within encounters, be they combat encounters, skill challenge encounters, puzzle encounters, social encounters, etc. The point that they tried to accomplish in 4th edition is that everything is an encounter, and thus everything has a reward associated with it. However, the more people you have playing, the more slowly these things tend to go. There are two things that slow down your encounters: indecisiveness and bookkeeping.

If a player waits until their turn comes up before deciding what to do, everyone has to sit and wait for them. This can happen with every player around the table as they look through their powers and options available to them. You should instead give incentives to players to work out their turn ahead of time. One thing you can do to provide incentive is to offer rewards; give someone a +1 bonus to damage or something similar if they are ready when their turn comes up.

Another thing that will contribute to indecisiveness is combat changing. Combat should change; new things come in, stuff happens, people move around, people take damage. But, you want to avoid the encounter changing on a turn by turn basis. Every time the encounter changes, all those players need to re-think their decisions and figure out what they're going to do. What you can do to fix this, is to separate initiative into more concentrated blocks. Have a group of players go, then a group of monsters, then a group of players, etc.

You want to avoid completely concentrating everything, like having all the players go and then all the enemies go, because this tends to cause things to get focus fired down really fast. It's not really fun when a player gets focused fired down by all the enemies without having a chance to react.

If you use blocks of players, however, those three players can collaborate and work together on their turns to better help each other out and create more complex plans. So instead of having one player going at a time, you have three players all taking their turn at the same time, which is a more time-efficient way of doing things.

The other thing that can slow the game down is bookkeeping, particularly at the paragon tier, when everything has status conditions. Generally what you want to do is limit these status conditions to a manageable amount, by just limiting how many status conditions the monsters can inflict, and try to avoid selecting too many monsters that have a lot of status condition powers.

Another way around excessive bookkeeping is by using tools, but there is no perfect solution. Stuff like iplay4e and masterplan are good tools to use, maptools lets you play online if everyone can't make it to the table, and community forums will have lots of suggestions on other tools you can incorporate into your game. I also have a number of tools and articles in my D&D section. It's ultimately something you're going to have to play around with, so you should always be open to trying out new tools and ask your friends about what they use.

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