GM’s Guide: Combat Encounters

Running Combat Encounters

“I rolled a sixteen to hit, an eight for damage, and I don’t want to hear how he died.”
“Is it my turn yet? I want to shoot another one in the eye!”

The most important thing to know about running combat encounters is that you shouldn’t do it as much as most GMs do. It’s understandable why GMs tend to guide encounters towards violence. The combat rules in almost any major RPG (certainly in every edition of D&D) are more fleshed out than any one other field of activity, and that makes it easy to run. It’s important not to try and nudge players towards specific approaches towards encounters, though. For the same reason GMs tend to fall back on them, players will fall back on combat regularly as well. They’ll also want not to do that sometimes, however, and you should let them explore alternative options to resolving an encounter besides stabbing it to death. Don’t think of any encounter as a “combat encounter.” Players get to decide what kind of encounter it is. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling like you’re doing something wrong if your players end up talking their way through most or all of the encounters.

Continue reading “GM’s Guide: Combat Encounters”

GM’s Guide: Introduction to Encounters

Art of Encounters

What is an encounter? An encounter is a series of actions (resolved with rules and rulings) strung together around overcoming the opposition a specific goal. It’s one scene of the story. It begins with a question and it ends with an answer. If there’s no significant opposition to the goal, there’s no obstacle to overcome, no actions to take to overcome it, and the player can just say “I do a thing” and you say “the thing is done” and it’s over. On the other hand, if there’s no goal, it’s not worth spending time on. Players may fight monsters for no other reason except that they’re there, but they will get bored with that about as quickly as they will get bored with being forced to describe their unopposed hike from one town to another in excruciating detail. This is why Monte Cook’s shortest possible adventure has both an orc and a pie. You need at least one complete encounter for an adventure, so the world’s smallest adventure is exactly one encounter with only the absolutely necessary elements, a goal (the pie) and opposition (the orc). As a corollary to this, whenever players face opposition to their goals, they should have an encounter.

The question that begins an encounter might be something like “will the party get past these marauding orcs alive?” Or it might be something like “which members of the Lord’s Alliance, if any, are willing to commit forces to combatting this month’s apocalypse?” The former is a wilderness encounter, the latter is a council meeting, but both of them begin with a question. Likewise, both of them end as soon as possible, as soon as the question is answered. In screenwriting they call this principle “in late, out early,” and it applies to most kinds of fiction, including role playing. Pace is greatly improved when you start a scene at the moment it becomes interesting, and end it at the moment the conclusion is obvious. If it’s become clear that the orcs are going to lose, or if it’s become clear which members of the Alliance are going to help the party’s cause, it’s time to wrap up, even if the orcs have some hit points left or there’s still some formalities to go through before the Alliance’s support is official.

Continue reading “GM’s Guide: Introduction to Encounters”

GM’s Guide: Ruling Guidelines for CHA

CHA: Deception

Deception is often rolled against an Insight check, but sometimes a fixed DC makes more sense, particularly if talking to a random villager or town guard or someone else whose stats you might not have readily available. For all of these DCs, the assumption is that the target in question is some random schmoe. If they’re any kind of named character, have them roll Insight (possibly with advantage or disadvantage).

DC 5: Trick someone into believing something they already believe, like convincing a peasant that the king, whose death they have not yet heard about, is still alive.
DC 10: Trick someone into believing something they’d like to believe already, like convincing a peasant that an army of orcs has been defeated.
DC 15: Trick someone into believing something when they have no particular reason to believe you one way or another, like convincing a peasant farmer that it’s illegal to run a ferry after sunset.
DC 20: Trick someone into believing something inconvenient for them, like convincing a peasant that his farm is built on cursed lands, or unlikely, like convincing a local merchant that you’ve got a bridge to sell him.
DC 25: Trick someone into believing something that is both inconvenient for them and harmful to their sense of identity, like convincing a happily married peasant that his wife has been cannibalizing children in secret.
DC 30: Trick someone into believing something that is bizarre to the point of immediate incredulity, like convincing a happily married peasant that his wife is five kobolds standing on each other’s shoulders and wearing a coat.

Continue reading “GM’s Guide: Ruling Guidelines for CHA”

GM’s Guide: Ruling Guidelines For INT and WIS

INT: Arcana

Casters are going to have an easy time recognizing spells they personally know, so any caster can automatically identify spells on their list. Spells they don’t know, either because they aren’t high enough level or because they have a limited number of spells learned per level (or because they aren’t a caster at all), are the realm of Arcana checks.

DC 5: Recall the existence of the outer planes and that arcane and divine magic are different.
DC 10: Recall the names and basic natures of each of the planes, know the difference between demons and devils, recall the eight different schools of arcane magic and the eight major domains of divine magic (don’t forget the Death domain from the DMG!), recognize a specific cantrip, 1st, or 2nd level spell.
DC 15: Recall major landmarks of a specific otherworldly plane, like the City of Brass in the Plane of Fire, identify a specific type of outsider like an ice devil or a famous individual outsider like Orcus, recognize a 3rd or 4th level spell.
DC 20: Recall specific details about major landmarks of a specific otherworldly plane, like the street layout of the City of Brass, identify a high-ranking individual outsider like a specific balor or marilith, recognize a 5th or 6th level spell.
DC 25: Create a complete map of an otherworldly plane including all major landmarks and most minor ones such that it could be used to navigate the plane, recognize a 7th or 8th level spell.
DC 30: Create a complete and detailed map of an otherworldly plane including all major and local landmarks, including many secret ones, recognize a 9th level spell.
DC 35: Intimate familiarity with an otherworldly plane’s structure (or lack thereof) such that even very local and obscure customs and secrets are known to you.

A DC 15 Arcana check to recognize an outsider works as though it were a successful History check to identify the capabilities of any celestial, construct, elemental, fiend, or undead (not all of these are outsiders, but they are made of or run on magic and have the same DC).

Continue reading “GM’s Guide: Ruling Guidelines For INT and WIS”

GM’s Guide: Ruling Guidelines for STR, DEX, and CON

In order to run any RPG, it’s important to calibrate your expectation to the system’s rules. A lot of arguments, including edition wars, stem from people expecting a game to be good at one thing when it isn’t, or not noticing when a game transitions from one tier to another. There are many valid complaints about 3.X, but several of the complaints to do with the system stem from a misunderstanding of its tiers. Legendary blacksmiths from the real world are not level 20 experts, they are level 5. The greatest heroes of many fantasy worlds are between levels 5 and 10. Higher levels are the domain of demigods. This is one reason why epic level rules for 3.X often fail. They assume that level 20 is the pinnacle of heroic potence, but not near the realm of the gods. In truth, level 20 3.X characters are firmly in the realm of the gods, with the gods of most fantasy settings being in the neighborhood of levels 15-25. The Alexandrian has an excellent article on exactly this subject, so I will let that speak for itself.

We aren’t talking about 3.X, of course, so all of this is just to present an extreme example of how far off expectations can be from experience, and the harm that can do to the play experience. Later editions, including 5e, have sought to more closely model the expectation that the average fantasy world will go from level 1 to level 20, whereas in D&D 3.X most fantasy worlds went from level 1 to about level 8. In other words, 5e made 20th level characters much less powerful so that Aragorn and Conan can be level 20 characters instead of level 8.

To calibrate expectations for 5e, here is a chart showing various DCs and at what level characters can be expected to meet them. This gives us a much more solid grasp of what it really means to be level 5, 10, or 20 in 5e. Before we dive into the chart, though, let’s define some terms. Non-specialists are assumed to have either a good attribute bonus or proficiency, but not both. Specialists are assumed to have both a proficiency and a good attribute for their level.  Experts have, in addition to the bonuses of a specialist, a double proficiency bonus from a race feature, class feature, or (particularly rarely) a feat. Generally speaking, only Rogues and Bards get expertise, but it’s reasonable to assume that an NPC blacksmith or the like would have this class feature without the rest of the Rogue or Bard class. 5e doesn’t have NPC classes like Expert, but if it did, Expertise would probably be one of the only class features that Experts got.

Continue reading “GM’s Guide: Ruling Guidelines for STR, DEX, and CON”

GM’s Guide: The Art of Rulings

Art of Rulings

This is the most important part of the guide. That is not a setup for a running gag about every part of the guide being the most important part. This is the actual most important part of the guide. Making good rulings is being a good GM. Everything else is being an adventure writer/developer, a job which is sometimes, but not always, packaged together with being a GM. If you pay Paizo or Wizards of the Coast or whoever to be your adventure writer (by buying a published adventure), you are still the GM, because you still make rulings at the table.

So here’s what a ruling is: 1) You describe the environment and anything important in it, and resolve any relevant automatic checks (perception, knowledge, etc.). 2) The players say they’re going to do something, and you determine the PCs intention and approach. 3) You figure out what the mechanics for the action are (mostly what skill to roll and what the DC is), make sure the player understands what the mechanics are, and then you roll the dice. 4) Then you determine the consequences, and if appropriate, you let the results ride. In practice, you need each of these steps to be automatic and reflexive, and odds are many of them already are. If you have any gaps, pick one thing to work on at a time until it’s second nature. Then pick another thing to work on, until you have the entire process mastered.

Continue reading “GM’s Guide: The Art of Rulings”

GM’s Guide: Preface and Introduction

Preface: When to Ignore the Advice in This Guide

Just about every GM’s guide, from the chapter on the subject in official books of major RPGs to the “how to GM” posts that get submitted to Reddit by someone who’s only been doing it for six months, will mention that the GM should change rules and ignore advice whenever it’s appropriate. Which is basically just the author completely sidestepping all responsibility for the actual quality of advice. “If you follow our advice and it turns out badly for you, that’s because you didn’t follow our advice to not follow our advice. Sometimes. Only don’t follow our advice when it wouldn’t help. Do follow our advice when it would help. So, tautologically, anytime you mess up it’s because you didn’t follow our advice.”

It’s obviously true that no guide can ever encompass the entirety of all situations faced by every GM who ever reads it, and despite being the length of a short novel, this one isn’t even getting close, so there will certainly be times when the advice in this guide does not apply to your specific situation and should be ignored. The question is, when? And the answer is, when you have a good reason to. That sounds tautological, but if you can explain to a hypothetical observer why the rule isn’t going to work for you, then you’re probably in a situation where it’s best to ignore it. All skills have a dogma to them, and true expertise always comes from understanding the limitations of the dogma and when the dogma doesn’t apply to your specific situation. “You have to understand the rules before you can break them” is a cliche because it’s true. If you have a reason to break a rule, and it’s not a shallow non-reason like “that’s not how we do things here” or “I like it better this other way,” then you’ve probably found a limitation of the rules and you should probably break that rule. This is true not just for the rules given in this guide, but for rules in general.

Continue reading “GM’s Guide: Preface and Introduction”