World Building Guide. Part 2.


To continue this series on world building,  we are going to start by giving a creative example so that you can more easily follow the process. In the first part we talked about the idea of a region and a starting town or village. We also explored a few options. Well let’s begin by naming it. Hence forth we shall call it Newton.

We decided that Newton would have grown up besides a Riverbank, and close to a forest. This will provide Newton with a water source, a resource for building and trade and some available food options. We also desired that it would have a road leading to it from East, West and North. We examined the idea that it also raised small livestock, specifically chickens. So we have these basic notes down on paper about Newton, so let’s start structuring things and detailing the various aspects and entities of the settlement..

Once again I am telling you that you will probably never finish. Oh you could finish Newton, as it is not that big and even with the depth of detail we are going to add, it is well within your ability to complete. In reality however, you don’t want to, and shouldn’t. We are going to detail each building, social group, notable person etc but we will also be creating some blank canvases.

When you begin the initial detailing phase, there will be some things you miss. Some aspects that once your players begin exploring Newton you will realize you may have omitted or wish you had included. This is where the blank canvases come in to play. I always have a few unlabeled buildings. I ensure I have some people that I have not yet named or detailed. Doing this allows me the freedom to add and grow in a favorable way. In short, I don’t pigeon hole my settlement.

So first lets decide on the population of Newton. Well I want it to be a reasonable sized Village that has several opportunities either within or close by for my players. We are dealing with a medieval fantasy settlement here, so lets assume the average family is three persons, and maybe we have about thirty families. We have a few single people and persons of note so I am going with a population of about one hundred and twenty people.

At this point lets look at a few demographics that work for a fantasy setting based on some medieval studies.

  • Typical Village:  20 to 1,000 people, (50 to 300 being average).
  • Typical Town:    1,000 to 8,000 people, (2500 being average).
  • Typical City:        8,000 to 12,000 people.
  • Major City:           12,000 to 100,000 people.

These are good guide numbers for determining settlement size and population.

So now I need to make sure I have enough housing to support the population so around forty five houses will suffice. Now to support them I need to examine the ancillary buildings that I need. Different businesses and trades have different Support Values (the number of people required to support a single business of its type). We will start with the Inn and tavern. Its only a village so a single Inn/tavern is plenty. The support value of this kind of establishment is around two thousand so until we get close to that we wouldn’t want a second Inn. We have a forest full of furry critters so their is a need for a furrier. Typically a single one would support a village of this size, but as it is a prominent resource and trade commodity, I am going to include two. we will have a Baker, a Tailor, a Blacksmith and a single General store. We will have a Fishmonger and prominent Lumber yard. We will also throw in a couple of less essential establishments. A local Herbalist would make sense due to the forest being so close, and we will add a local Barber/Surgeon to handle cutting hair, pulling teeth and basic medical needs. I decide not to include a church here, but instead shall include a church in the next closest town, that I am going to make reachable within a days travel. instead we will add a shrine and a single local priest to tend it. The mayor and five council members we decided upon previously, will need a place to meet, so we will include a simplistic town hall, that will also serve as a base of operations for the local militia (three militia men will be plenty) and a single jail cell.

This gives me a basic idea of how to put the town map together and decide upon the layout. If I decide to make this village sit on a popular trade route, I may want to add a few more services to support extra non resident people.

Next I need to create a Non Player Character and his or her family that belongs in each of the main buildings. I need to flesh them out enough to make them a viable source of interaction for our players. I do this by again making simple notes.

Lets start with the Inn Keeper.

  • Name: Johan Stevenson
  • Age: Forty two
  • Spouse: Maggie Stevenson
  • Children: None
  • Siblings: Dorian Stevenson (Local baker)
  • Born here: Yes
  • Demeanor: Jovial, Happy, enthusiastic, sociable.
  • Appearance: Five ft nine, Chubby, brown hair (slightly greying), no facial hair.

This is enough info for now. It tells me I need to create a relationship for him and Maggie Stevenson, as well as Dorian Stevenson. Of course I also need to make similar notes on both of these individuals too.

I will not do this for every single family. although I will probably flesh out about half of them beyond those essential, just so I have some ready to go at a moments notice. I will also create a few solo individuals.

When I work on the relationships I create a few different levels. I create the social relationships, Business relationships, political relationships and special relationships.

So for example. Johan Stevenson has obvious social relationships with Maggie and Dorian, but will have several others too. He also has a business relationship with Dorian as well as the Fishmonger, Chicken farmers, Blacksmith and more. He has a political relationship with the mayor and council (as he runs a business, and has taxes and fees to pay). We could decide that as Inn keeper he may be one of the elected council men, but I do not want to have him in that roll. I decide he has a special relationship with a local thief. For a cut of the take, Sometimes Johan informs the thief about any wealthy looking guests he has staying, and what room they are sleeping in. He may also ensure that a wealthy person has one of two rooms that he keeps reserved, that have windows with broken locks.

A simple little addition of information like the special relationship between Johan and the local thief, already creates opportunities for interaction or an encounter. Maybe the players will end up in one of these two rooms and become victims of the thief. Maybe they will be in the Inn the following morning when a wealthy Nobleman comes downstairs proclaiming that he was robbed during the night. This could become an enticing adventure hook.

By now we have the basic requirements to make Newton a visit able place for our players, but we will not stop there.  We need to decide on how the village is run. We look at the mayors demeanor as well as the demeanor of the council members and decide are they just, fair, crooked, power crazed etc? We decide that the council will be fair and just, but the mayor will be a bit on the shady side. He is fond of visiting the closest town and loves the gambling hall. It is not uncommon for him to gamble with tax money and he frequently gets himself in financial hot water. Again possible adventure hooks spring to life. We need to look at laws and in particular any that are non standard. Also punishments and how they are handled. The town has three militia men which can handle day to day petty crime etc, but what happens when something major happens? Maybe the mayor calls for aid from the closest town, or appeals to the lord of this region for aid.

Next we will look at the religious and philosophical aspects of the village. We have a shrine and a single priest. The shrine is to a deity that has forests as part of his domain. This makes sense as the forest is a big part of what keeps Newton thriving. The local priest will be Father Herbert Fallen. We will of course have already fleshed him out and have a basic profile for him. However as he has an actual class (a cleric) we need to go a bit further and detail more about him to include his main spells etc. I would make a short form character sheet for the priest too and detail his level, stats, prominent skills and Hit points etc. Sundays father Fallen holds a service in the village hall for the citizens of Newton. he also offers a blessing each day to those heading into the woods to hunt and cut lumber etc. The town for the most part are all religious, so the service is attended well. Visitors to the town will often hear comments such as “thanks be to (insert forest deity here)”.

Next we take a look at the economy. The general economy of the village should be fairly decent, as it is largely self sufficient. However the village is heavily taxed due to current personal financial problems of the mayor. We will set up trade routes with the other close by settlements and in particular ones for items that the village needs that it can not produce itself. Importing metals, beef, pork, textiles etc as well as exporting of lumber and maybe fish northwards where there are some settlements that are not situated on a natural water source.

The general contentment level of the village will be a little disheveled. The excessive taxation without evidence of where the money goes, has most of the population at unrest. They may not be rioting or resorting to an uprising, but to an observant outsider it may be apparent.  Once again here is a great opportunity for adventure.

There is still work to do, and you will have left yourself room for later expansion or adding situational details. You now have the workings of a functioning village and its inner factions and social makeup.

In the next part of the series will will look at developing the region, and adding external features and places of interest.

Happy World Building……………….

World Building Guide. Part 1.

Map of the world of Saemmyr for the Pathfinder fantasy roleplaying game

Every Dungeon Master at some point decides he wants to build his own world. He wants to create something magical and unique and introduce his players to his own vision. We are going to start with this, the first in a series of posts tackling the subject of world creation, and just how much work it is to do it right!

Why Create a world?

Creating a world and I mean a world,  is a tremendous undertaking. Most Dungeon masters draw a map, add towns, cities, rivers, mountains, swamps etc. Label everything and then think they have created a world. What they have in fact created is a map. Nothing more. To create a world you have to develop its geography, ecology, society, sociology,climatology, cultures, commerce, system of government etc etc. There are several fully developed, published campaign worlds out there, like Forgotten realms, Ravenloft, Planescape, Eberron, Mystara and Greyhawk to name but a few. Unless you are willing to put the work in to truly create a world, my advice is DON’T! Go with one that is already created and developed. You can still set your own adventures and create your own stories so I seriously recommend for the bulk of you , that you take that path.

Now IF you think you are willing to put the work in and want to create your own world, read on.

We will start by examining a few facts about true world building.

  1. You are going to spend a vast amount of time to create a worthwhile world!
  2. You are going to have to do a lot of research and learning!
  3. You are going to burn out from time to time!
  4. you will NEVER finish your world!

While you are indeed making a fantasy world, for it to be successful, your players are going to have to believe in it. They must feel the immersion and feel like they are part of a living breathing land. It must change overtime, and certain aspects must change and others must evolve. Lets look at the world we live in. It is vastly different today than it was ten years ago, and each decade that passes yield huge changes. Your world will need to be different, yet it must still feel similar in many ways so as to be believable. A land covered in lava or fully submerged in water will feel alien, and the work you will need to do to make it viable will be monumental.

I have created several worlds over the decades, and most I look back at now and laugh at. My earlier successes as Dungeon Master were with Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft and Greyhawk. Not with my own creative disasters. In fact I don’t believe I had a world that I could look back on and say anything positive about it (if I am being honest) until 2003. Even then it only held glimmers of promise and made no real strides. However in 2004 I began a process. I had evolved from the classic three act concepts of adventure building, and towards truly non linear game sessions. I had Broken free of the shackles of how most Dungeon Masters think and moved towards a truer creative process. At this time I realized I needed a world that could support this way of gaming. This world would be living, and evolving and would support itself and hold up to scrutiny from even the most veteran players. Any aspect of my world could be explained with logical and viable explanations. It would feel familiar so as to make the players feel comfortable, yet different enough so as to en-capture their sense of wonder. Over a decade later it is less than thirty percent finished and it never will be.

Currently I have two worlds. One that I use for pen and paper games around a physical tabletop and another that I use for Virtual tabletop gaming. It is simply not possible to play truly organic sessions and deliver the quality graphical content that I need to on Howreroll. While virtual tabletops do allow this in theory, as most do allow a free hand drawing option, I only use fully produced graphics and maps for encounters on the show, so I must make sure I have content for everything. It simply is not possible to have content ready for every possible eventuality, so as such I have to operate a sub linear approach. I will explain what I mean by truly organic gaming in another topic but for now lets get back to world building.

There are really three basic ways to begin building a world. The first method is to sketch and draw the outlines of the world map, and then pick a place to start and begin filling in the details for that area and region. The second way is to ignore the boundaries of the world itself and just develop a starting area and surrounding areas in depth, and allow the world to grow outwards. The third and my favored method is somewhere between the two. I create the outline of the world, but then go farther and create regions. I spend time developing a structure and overall concept for each region. Then I dig down to a starting area and develop it fully, and all the supporting areas around it. My intent will be to concentrate my sessions and adventures in this are to begin with, and while my players explore this full and richly developed area, I can work on expanding the areas around it.

First steps and research.

I suggest you begin by studying maps. Real world maps. Pay attention to the coast lines, where the mountains are and what appears around them. Look how the rivers flow, and the affects on areas due to climate and elevation. Look to see where towns and cities are and ask yourself, why are they where they are? This will give you a basic understanding of how a world grows. Yes a world is a living thing that grows over time. Villages become towns, towns become cities but only if the region around them supports. You can see how the land is vastly different from continent to continent. How distances between settlements varies based on the archaeology of the land and where the larger cities seem to be placed.

Next, look at history and see how major events have altered the world. Pay attention to wars and events of economic impact and see how they affect the world. Not just the populations, but the geography and cultural changes they cause.

If you have access to one or more published worlds I advise you to study those next. See how others tackled the subject of world building, and examine their outlook on creation. You will usually see they have a lot of information about each region. They detail the economy, the small and large settlements, the areas of interest and much more. These are all things you are going to want to tackle in your world. You should also be getting a really good idea of just how much work this really is going to be by now…

A beginning.

Once you think you have an understanding prepare to begin the real work! Draw your first map and look at it. Then draw a second, a third and maybe a fourth. Why? well because I can tell you from experience you will see things you are not happy with in the first one and you will make corrections as you go. Several maps later you may have something you are happy with. This is your blank canvas as such so it needs to be right before you start. In truth, you can always plug your developed areas into a new map, but for the most part its easier to begin with a decent frame work. You can go as large as an entire world, or just start with one decent sized continent. Bare in mind though you will need to set a basic geography for each continent or land mass. Then next step is to add mountains and rivers. If you did what you were told to do earlier, and study maps you should have seen a format in how mountains and rivers seem to be geographically located. Rivers run from the high points down to the low points and typically will end up at the ocean or some other geographical low point so as to make lakes or swamps. Once you have placed your mountain regions and main rivers you can start to imagine the lay of the land.

Now you need to pick a starting point. This is where your players are going to begin life in your world. As the world develops and you run subsequent campaigns, you will have options, but for now you will need to work on the first region. You are going to have a lot of things to consider at this point. Distance, modes of travel, ecological features, social development, natural occurrences, political structure, philosophical outlook and unnatural inhabitants. Your first settlement (which is a good place to start) will need to be able to support its population. It will need access to water, and food sources. A form of potential trade, such as forestry or farming and a hierarchy and system of government. It will need to be able to be self sufficient or have avenues of trade. It will need to have a cultural outlook and philosophical outlook. Begin by making a few short notes. For example.

The town is on the bank of a river and close to a forest. It has a road going through it from east to west and also one going north. The town uses wood as a main source of material and trade commodity. It relies on small animal farming such as chicken, and hunting for its main food supply. It supplements this with fishing. It has a town council that has five electoral seats and a mayor. It comes under the protection of the local lord. It has no formal church but gives thanks to the nature goddess. It holds a yearly festival to celebrate the “rutting season” of the forest deer. Common food types found here are chicken, eggs, Deer, boar and fish. Their lack of availability of metal means that this is a main import for them, as would be textiles other than animal pelts. The main exports would be lumber and furs.

Once you have these notes down, you can find a spot on the map and fill in the details such as the forest and situate the town on the river next to the forest. Now you can draw in the start of the east to west road and north road.

This gives you a very rough starting point. Now you are going to want to elaborate and begin to structure everything. What buildings make up the town? What is the population? How many men, women and children? Are their any other racial inhabitants, and if so what is the social situation regarding them? Who is on the council and how and why would they be chosen? What form of law enforcement does the town employ? Is there a criminal element and if so why? How content are the average citizens in the town? Are those that rule just or unjust?

Many of these things can be answered by creating social groups and then addressing the relationships between each. We have the merchants, the farmers, the foresters, the council members and mayor. We have the law enforcers, we have the criminal element and maybe some homeless. How each of these groups views the other is part of creating a believable social structure.

You will also have to start thinking about what other natural features and settlements are around your town, and how far away are they. The distance between your town and these things will also have an impact on its structure and society. If the main mode of transport is horse and cart then a days travel will cover fifteen to twenty miles. This means that if the closest town is seventy five miles away, you are looking at five days travel to reach it. How far away is a metal source? or a town that mines? If it is a long way away the cost of metal items will be higher in your town due to the import costs.

Now you see why I say it is a massive undertaking to build a world. The good news is you do not have to make it in one day. You can’t. You wont even finish in a year or a decade. You will never truly finish your world but that’s OK. You only need to create enough world as your players can explore. In fact you do not want to finish it. If you do then you have no room to add something new.

In part two we will look at how to add individual details and objects to your region, and how to record and detail your world information.

Happy World Building………………..

Metagaming. The worst kind of cheating.


What is Metagaming? Metagaming is any action, method or strategy used inside of the game environment which is taken from an external factor. It is taking knowledge gained or known from outside the game world ,and then utilized and deployed during game play in such a way as to usually gain advantage, or avoid a negative situation. It is knowledge a player has that his or her character does not!

Metagaming is by far one of the worst things for a Dungeon Master to deal with, and a player to employ. I consider it the worst form of cheating! It takes a well disciplined player to have a ton of game knowledge, and then act in contrary to this knowledge because he knows his character is unaware. Yet that is what is expected. When a Dungeon Master is confronted by obvious meta gaming he typically has only a couple of choices open to him. he can call “foul” and tell the player your character would not know to do that and as such deny the action, or he can let it go unchallenged. Either way it causes an issue.

So why is metagaming such a taboo in Role Playing Games? Well as a Player your job is to take on the role of a character. You have to act and behave in a way as to become that character. Your character is an entirely different persona than you, and has a different skill set and a different upbringing and education. When you deploy knowledge that you have as a player, and transfer it to your character you are breaking down the walls of division. The real world crosses over into the game world and causes damage to the integrity of the world as well as to the immersion for all involved. As a Dungeon Master I consider it treason to the game!

Lets give you a good example of metagaming. A Fighter who grew up in a small town as a blacksmiths son has been adventuring for several years. He enters a dark damp cave and encounters a ghoul. It is clear to him that it is a form of undead, but he has never encounter the undead before. So far the Fighter has entered every combat with his broadsword and shield and battled valiantly against all the foes he has faced. After hearing the description of the creature from the Dungeon Master, the player announces that instead he wishes to use his short bow instead. The player knows that ghouls can cause paralysis if they touch you, the character does not. The player in this case is metagaming by using his knowledge of the ghoul special attacks to avoid risk to his character in a situation where the character has no way to know this information.

Now if the character had typically used his short bow in the past in similar situations, the Dungeon master may accept the action as typical, but it is the non typical when deployed in these situations that cause the Dungeon Master to expect metagaming. As the Dungeon Master it is down to you to determine when metagaming is afoot. Some players are crafty, and may argue a path of reason to try to justify their action. In the above example the player could say “well it looks nasty and it smells so i just don’t want it close to me”. Is that a reasonable reason to change from his higher damage broadsword to his lower damage short bow, in the dark where he will take penalties to hit at this range with the short bow? Sometimes it can be hard to determine if the player action is a direct attempt to metagame or not, but typically a metagamer will commit multiple and frequent offenses and develop a visible pattern.

Now for the player let me say this in regards to metagaming. DON’T! just DON’T! I do not care how attached you are to your character, or how much you think that you need your fighter to survive to help his fellow adventurers. Metagaming is cheating and ruins the game for everyone.

For the Dungeon Master I say DO NOT tolerate it and confront it when it happens. Challenge a suspected metagamer (I always suggest privately when possible) and explain why you want him to stop. Also remeber you can change anything at anytime as the Dungeon Master, so i often change things up from the norm so a metagamer who expects his knowledge to be accurate finds often that in my world it is not. This is also a great way to baffle rules lawyers.

NOTE: I want to take this opportunity to tell you, the players, something you may not have realized. You can only discover any one piece of information once for the first time. The first time you encounter the ghoul, and through actual play learn about it, is unique. The first time you discover that a glowing golden sword is a sun blade is exciting. Much like a child with life, a new player has the full wonder of the game ahead of them. Once you know almost everything about every monster, every magic item and every spell the game is forever changed for you. It is tempting as a new player to look up monsters, spells, magic items etc that do not relate to you. I suggest strongly that you DON’T. You deprive yourself from a sense of wonder and discovery, which is a fun  aspect of the game, but also you open yourself up to potential metagaming or worse the act of over compensating where metagaming is concerned.

One complex issue regarding metagaming is when a player overcompensates to ensure they are NOT meatagaming. This is when a reasonable course of action may be open to your character, but you refrain from doing it so as to avoid metagaming. In this situation, trust between you and the Dungeon Master comes in, as well as a mutual gained respect. If you are a good player that does not metagame, and a situation presents itself where you feel a certain action is reasonable, even though there could be a case raised against you for metagaming the Dungeon Master will probably respect your choice and allow it.

There are a few forms of metagaming that are a little less obvious and not standard. One such type is acquiring “on the fly” knowledge. This is when a player looks up information on the spot. The Dungeon master describes a monster and then the player reaches for the monster manual or whips out his phone to google it so he can know what it can do etc. A player may not intend to use this information to his characters advantage, but it is poor practice. It not only artificially alters the tension level of the encounter, but it ruins the wonderment for the player and often those around him. If I see a player reach for a monster manual or attempt to google it I tell them STOP! Firstly it is not the players concern at that time, and distracts from the current mood. Secondly people will assume that any action taken that seems like metagaming during that encounter is so! I have been challenged in the past by players saying things like “well Rob knows what it is, so what does it matter if I look it up?” my reply is always “I cant control what Rob already knows, but now is not the time to look things up. We are involved in the encounter and your attention is required.”

This is a good time to remind players and Dungeon Masters alike, it is good practice not to allow players to have access to certain books, Ipads, laptops or smart phones during game play. It is the one thing I wish I could control on Howreroll. A few unique matagaming opportunities exist when using a virtual tabletop that do not exist around a physical table. Sadly as we play using a virtual tabletop, a computer is essential for the players. As I only see their head and upper torso die to playing with web cameras, I can not see what devices or books they may have around them, or if they google something in a different window. They could metagame by chatting privately using our text chat program. Character chat should always be heard by the Dungeon Master and is part of play. Here is an example. John (who plays Ragnar the barbarian) privately messages Sandra (who plays Salindra the cleric) and tells her to cast hold person on the chief when it is her action. In reality the characters are in the heat of battle and Ragnar would have to shout this suggestion to Salindra. In doing so the chief would be forewarned. make no mistake this IS metagaming. They could even get passed info privately by some of our experienced viewers ,in the same way and told how to do something that they themselves would not realize to do. I have to trust that they are not doing so. I would be deeply disappointed in them if they did. If you play over a virtual tabletop you just have to trust your players do not employ any of these methods.

Another form of metagaming is what I call probing. This is when you ask deliberate questions in order to try to create justification for your desired actions. Asking questions is fine, but you need to consider why you are asking them. Is it to clarify something for the character, or is it to create a window of opportunity in which you can get away with something. For example. The party rogue has been deprived of his share of treasure because he was not present when it was found. Due to some of his past indiscretions the rest of the party have decided not to include him in this round of wealth sharing. He begins to ask questions like, “Does Ragnar the Barbarians back pack look fuller than usual?” or “When Salindra goes to sell her jewelery can I follow her to see what she tries to sell?” These actions are being made because the player knows what happened but his character does not. He know better than to react openly, so instead he tries to alter the situation to gain knowledge to be able to react. This too is metagaming.

Now a final point on metagaming. Dungeon Masters can be guilty of metagaming too! “What?” I hear you ask. “How can the Dungeon Master metagame, he knows everything and can alter things at will. How can he be accused of metagaming?” Well if you adjust a course of predetermined action due to something a player just did in a way that is directly aimed to counter his action, that is metagaming. If an Non Player Character alters his course of action due to something you know about the players that the Non Player Character could not possibly know, that too is metagaming. If players feel that their good ideas have been thwarted by the Dungeon Master in an unfair way, or in such a way as to force an action to happen the way he wants it too, it can cause distrust. As the Dungeon Master you have to have the trust of your players, and doing anything that damages that trust is a failing on your part.

In closing. Metagaming is a vial form of cheating in pen and paper Role Playing Games and something that every player and Dungeon master alike should strive to eradicate from their game. It can be hard sometimes to allow your character do act in a way that you know he should but as a player you also know it is to his detriment. You should do it anyway. The integrity of the story and the game demands it!

The structure of a successful game session.


You want to play or run a role playing game. You set a time and a venue and show up with your character, dice, pen and paper and snacks. You all sit down and start playing and hours later you all had a ton of fun. Its just that easy….right?

Sadly to get the full potential out of a game session there is a lot more to it, and if the above comment sounds like your game sessions then pay attention.

Many requirements are different for both Dungeon Masters and players alike, so we will address both separately starting with the Dungeon Master. Some are alike however so we will address the mutual ones at the end.

For the Dungeon Master.

Your preparation for the game session started way before you show up or set up to play. You should refresh yourselves with the players character sheets, made sure you know your adventure fluidly and have all your materials gathered and at hand. I am not going to get into details on all of this here, but obviously before you can run a story or adventure you have to have it ready to go. You should know the adventure you plan on running inside out. If you created it, then go over it all and make sure you are happy with it. If it is a published adventure you should have read it ALL cover to cover (and maybe twice). It is not adequate to “skim over” the published product not is it acceptable to read just enough to cover the current game session. You have to know what is coming in the future to be able to understand the present. You should understand how the characters will fit into the adventure, and should have made sure the encounters “work” with your characters.

One thing I HATE with a passion is a fledgling Dungeon Master who thinks he can wing an entirely successful session without reparation. You can’t, and if you think you can you are wrong! You may be able to string along a few improvised encounters and somehow hold it all together with a few lame interactions, but you are not running a successful session! A vastly experienced Dungeon Master who has evolved to running truly organic sessions may be able to do this, (I will cover this in a different topic) but even then he will have done a vast amount of preparation of a different kind before hand.

Game day you should get to the venue early, and get setup with all the materials you will need and make sure you have ample dice, pencils and paper and are able to provide the players with anything they will need including a copy of their character sheet when they forget to bring it. Ensure that your play area is adequate and clearly defined as “your space”. Next ensure you have a comfortable and workable space around you for your players.

Once the game begins (which should not be until at least thirty minutes after you all arrive, see bellow,) you should begin by recapping the last session and remind everyone where you left off. Ask the players if they have any questions before you begin play. Next slip into your Dungeon Master persona and ensure that all the players are ready to begin.

You should begin by re-setting the scene. Just like a good Television Show that begins with a preview of the last episode and then begins with the last scene from the last episode.

Now the game is underway you should be paying attention and making sure that ALL your players are remaining engaged. Stop for scheduled breaks to allow everyone brief respites to use the bathroom, get a snack etc but discourage anyone from just getting up and leaving the table during play. Remind yourself frequently that your job is to provide the game for the players (sometimes in the heat of game play we forget). Be aware and read your players (a skill you should have developed as a Dungeon Master). If you feel you are losing the attention of a player you should know what will pull them back in, and should act immediately to re-engage them. If and when your players ask for a detail that you did not prepare for, be ready to improvise and answer the question but ALWAYS write a note for yourself so that you remember this information next game session.

As an example if a player asks “What is the stable boys last name?” and you only had him down as Robin, throw out a last name but record it so that you remember for next time. They may well ask again and you look foolish if you cant remember your own Non Player Characters sir name.

As the session comes to an end be ready to wrap it up and ensure you know exactly where you need to pick the game up at the start of the next session. Make notes to help you pick up where you left off.

Finally ask your players how they felt the session went, and if they have and ideas on how to improve it? Park your ego and listen to the players when they do give you feed back. Remember your job is to provide THEM with the game and they know better than you what they enjoy. Be ready to answer your players questions at this time too.

For the Players.

Know your character! It is YOUR job to know your characters attributes, skills and feats. You should know your racial traits and class abilities. This includes understanding what your spells do. Your Dungeon Master has enough to keep up with, without having to manage your character for you as well. Remember to bring your gaming materials and your character sheet (if your Dungeon Master doesn’t keep it with him). Make sure you have at least a basic understanding of the rules.

Be on time. Your Dungeon Master goes to considerable work to provide you with a story and a great game so do not disrespect his or her efforts by being tardy. I for one HATE that. If you are going to be unavoidably late then have the courtesy to notify your Dungeon master personally (do not send a message with another player).

Once the Dungeon Master lets you know the game session is about to start get your mind ready and get in the game. Refrain from derailing the game session with non game related chatter ( you will have had time for this prior to game, see bellow). Be courteous of other players and do not hog valuable session time gratifying your own selfishness by engaging in unnecessary solo play. While you may enjoy taking a solo walk through the merchant district of the town while the other characters are sleeping, it is no fun for the rest of the players. PAY ATTENTION to the Dungeon Master! If he gives you a description or has a Non Player Character engage you with detailed conversation there is probably a reason. Also if he has gone to the trouble to create this session for you, its just plain rude not to give him your undivided attention. On this subject silence and leave your dam cell phone in your pocket, and keep non gaming items clear of the table. A cell phone ringing can kill the mood of the game. IF you are expecting a call that may be important warn everyone at the table ahead of time. Other than that check your phone at breaks! Keep notes so you do not have to keep asking other player of the Dungeon Master for information you should know. NEVER and I mean NEVER argue with your Dungeon Master during game play. If he rules something you feel is unjust, you can by all means question it (once), and he should then consider your input and make a decision to adhere to or change the ruling. After that it is a done deal and over. If you still feel the ruling is incorrect, just accept it (for now) and keep the game flowing. You can address any ruling issues after the game session if you feel it is necessary. Do your best to stay in character and remind yourself that the decisions you make are those that your character would consider doing and not you, the player.

Keep your emotions in check. Part of role playing is getting into character. This means you will be acting out character emotions and feelings. The key word here is ACTING. Do not allow yourself to get angry, annoyed, or upset if you can help it. At the end of the day it is all just a game. Often as a player, your personal emotions will lead you to make bad decisions and act on impulse, so keep them in check.

Be ready and willing to give your Dungeon Master constructive feed back on the game session and be sure to let him know the aspects you enjoyed most. A decent Dungeon Master will take this to heart, and ensure to include these aspects in future sessions.

For Everyone.

Arrive at least thirty minutes before you want to actually start playing. This is important! From years and years of experience I can tell you everyone like to chit chat when they first get together. They want to talk about interesting aspects of their day, or last nights episode of Game of Thrones etc. Often they may have come straight form work or class and need time to get their head in a different gear. If you do not provide yourselves with this time, do not be surprised if these things leak into the game session itself. It also covers you if a player of  two show up a few minutes late. You should consider this (prior to session) social interaction window a part of your regular gaming routine.

Make sure you bring fuel. Snacks and drinks are an integral part of long gaming sessions. Feed your brain and keep your attention on the game and off of your rumbling stomach.

A note on posture. DON’T SLOUCH! Sit up straight when around the table (or hold a good camera presence if playing around a virtual tabletop). Poor posture sends the wrong message to the Dungeon master and the players, and if you are being viewed during play, (as we are on Howreroll)  to the viewers.

Come with expectations. What do I mean by this? Well I mean do not just show up and wait to see what happens, try to have a goal for yourself for the session, or a mutual party goal. Maybe its to get a particular player to open up more and embrace the role playing aspect of the game. maybe it is to find away for your bard to utilize his bardic knowledge skill more. Even if your goal or expectation is not reached during this particular session, it is good to strive towards something.

Finally remember its about FUN! If you do not enjoy your time at the physical or virtual tabletop, you shouldn’t do it. If you are not having fun, you will most likely be sucking some of the fun out of the game for everyone else………..

How to handle difficult players!


As a Dungeon Master, sooner or later (or even at your very first game session), you are going to encounter difficult players. I use the term difficult rather than bad because many players just need educating and can learn to become better players.

More often than not, the reason the player may be difficult, is due less to their skill as a player and more because they have a certain type of personality trait. Because of this, part of their education is going to be in controlling that part of their personality. As the Dungeon Master, you must first remember that you are there for the players, and not the other way around, but you have every right to expect certain standards and behavior from your players, and should strive to ensure that those standards are adhered too. If a player is difficult it is ultimately down to you (sometimes with the aid of the other players) to correct the issue.

Dungeons and Dragons is a game we all play for fun. If one or more players are causing the game to be less fun for you or the other players, it is time to step in and educate them in a constructive and meaningful way. We are going to look at ways to achieve that. However to do this we are going to detail a few of the typical types of difficult player. Before I go any further I will say that to try to put a person or a player in a category or type is not a good thing. For one thing, most people are complicated and may fit in one or multiple categories and each individual is probably worthy of their own individual classification. The reason for these “difficulty types” is to help show examples and ways to deal with them. I am in no way trying to state that all players fall under one of these types. On the other hand you may have players that seem to “fit” one or more of these, and present these difficulties around the table. We will detail the typical player difficulty types first, and then discuss how to deal with them. Finally I will close with some important advice on when and how to address things in general.

The rules lawyer.

“I disagree. If you look at page one hundred and forty fore you will see that speaking is a free action. You say it is a speech and therefore takes an action but it clearly says speaking beyond more than a few sentences is generally beyond the limits of a free action, but that was only a few sentences. They may have been long sentences, but I specifically chose the words and spoke the way i did with that in mind.”

This is the type of player that knows the “rules” inside out and is going to quote them frequently. They are going to question your calls as a Dungeon Master and may well argue the point with you at the table. Often they will be quick to point out an error to another player also, and not only cause disruptions to the flow of the game, but typically create tension and in some cases resentments.

SOLUTIONS: Remind this player that you are the Dungeon Master and you have some house rules in place that override some of the rules in the manual. affirm to him that the “rules” are in fact only guidelines and are not all going to be strictly adhered too. Inform this player that there are often reasons why things do not happen as he expected them to, and that he trust your judgement.

The Meta Gamer.

“I have decided even though my character has no idea what the armored four legged creature with strange antenna is, I am going to use my wooden club and not my plus two magic tow handed sword for this fight.”

This type of player is going to use player knowledge about a particular encounter, spell or situation and apply it to his character in some way  to benefit his or herself. Regardless of whether or not their character would or should have this information. They make choices that there is no logical reason for their character to make, and will often try to come up with a flimsy excuse to justify their chosen course of action.

SOLUTIONS: Remind the player that he is playing a character and ask him to justify why his character would choose to do that, or how his character acquired knowledge that would lead him to act in such a way. Change things up so that often the information the player uses to act upon is incorrect in this situation. This will cause him to second guess his information in subsequent future situations. For example maybe this particular Babau demon is not vulnerable to cold iron, and instead is vulnerable to silver. Or the creature that looks in every way like a rust monster is in fact a hybrid and spits acid to eat through metal as apposed to touching it.

The Min Max er.

“So I dropping my wisdom to three as I have very few skills that require wisdom and boosting my Dexterity to sixteen. That way I can add another point to dexterity at level four and again at level eight and twelve to get to nineteen, and by then my base attack bonus will be high enough to take the Improved Precise Shot feat.”

Every choice this player makes is designed to improve his character to be the best statistical and most effective character he could possibly have. Choices are not made based on the story, or role playing aspects of the game, and are often planned many levels ahead. Each action during play will also typically be based on aspects like, what will do the most damage, or result in the least amount of harm or inconvenience for their character.


If this type of player is a difficulty to you, you are probably playing a story driven and role play intensive campaign. Insist that the player can only do something if his character has the opportunity to do so. Can only learn a feat that his character has circumstantially had reason or ability to learn. Make encounters that have there success dependent on role playing and not on statistics or dice rolls. Create situations that highlight the minimum aspect of their character and not the maximums (although not constantly so  as to be picking on the player). Bring attention to how much fun the players with more rounded and realistic characters are having. Finally if you like a points buy system for character creation, I suggest using one of the dice roll methods instead with these kinds of players.

The Antagonist.

“My character is going to wait for Jim’s character to go to sleep and then I am going to break into his room and steel his gold from his back pack. If Jim’s character catches me I am going to kill him.”

“My character does not want to go with the group, instead he goes off into the forest by himself.”

“I am a rogue so I am going to try to steal the gem from Robs mage because that’s what my character would do”.

This player typically is going to do things that do not go along with the rest of the group and will often be aimed at acquiring personal gain. This gain may be for the betterment of his or her character, or in getting more attention from the Dungeon Master or more personal play time. Typically his actions will damage the flow and time management of the game, and cause party unity to fail. Often it will spill over in to real life situations and tension between the players and sometimes also with the Dungeon Master.

SOLUTIONS: Create situations where the consequences of antagonistic behavior only apply to that persons character. Maybe an Non Player Character saw the offending player casing out the window that leads to Jim’s room, and suspecting a potential robbery he warns everyone in the inn of what he saw (the other characters included). It may become necessary to remind the offending player that this is not a player verses player game, and that everyone else is unhappy with his choices of character and actions, and he should reconsider his behavior, alignment or character personality. You can also choose to restrict certain alignments that lead to justification of this type of action.

The Clown.

“My character is going to make fart noises as the princess walks past.”

“Instead of listening to the nobleman as he tells us about his daughters kidnapping, I am going to get drunk and dance on the table.”

This type of player just doesn’t take the game seriously. They do random things for their own amusement of in an attempt to amuse others. Often their choice of actions cause undesired consequences during game play or just dam right annoy others at the table. They will often also attempt to “troll” the Dungeon Master or other players.

SOLUTIONS: Never pander or laugh at the clownish behavior. Skip over it and dismiss the acts quickly and do not elaborate on the outcome of the actions. From time to time you may want to introduce a negative consequence that only applies to the clown and not the other players. Be seen to reward players that get into the moment and maintain the mood of the game.

The Obsessive Compulsive.

“I had twenty four arrows at the start of the fight. I now only have sixteen. I pull the four arrows out of the corpse of the ogre but I want to go and find the other four arrows that missed.”

“I know the bard is wearing a red shirt, but what material does it look like it is made from, and what kind of patter is on it.”

This player typically obsesses over the tiniest of details to the point where it is disrupting and slows down game play. From time to time the little details matter but to this player every detail matters constantly. They obsess over things like durations (to the second).

SOLUTIONS: Remind the player that the information is not necessary and for the sake of keeping the game flowing you are not elaborating beyond what you already have. Make simple rules to resolve certain situations such as for every arrow that misses we will assume you find half of them in an unusable state, and we will say this is the case from here on out. Point out that their as the players character has been distracted wandering around the dark tunnels their is no way he can know how many minutes of light his lantern has left. The less you allow this kind of player to extract the information he wants from you, the less he will continue to ask or expect it.

The Distracted Player.

“Sorry can you repeat what the guard said to me again? I was looking at my phone”.

“Oh is it my turn to act, err OK so what just happened?”

This player is usually only playing to “hang out with his buddies”. Generally has less interest in the actual story and game itself, and more in just being part of a social experience. They will often be doing other things when their character is not directly expected to act, and can cause a distraction to the others around them also. They slow down the game play and hinder the effectiveness of the group, and often make unnecessary mistakes due to not listening or paying attention.

SOLUTIONS: Globally ban distracting devices from the table. “OK guys time to start the game, so please put your cell phones in your pocket and put away anything that is not directly required to play the game”. Try to make sure that even when you are not specifically dealing with a particular character, the actions that are going on are interesting for everyone, and make sure to rotate your time between players equally and fairly. If you notice a player becoming distracted, you should immediately engage them with a simple acknowledgment. “Are you OK Tom, you look a little distracted”. Often this is enough to pull their attention back. You can also tell the players that you expect them to be ready to tell you what their next action is going to be as soon as you get to them, so while it is not their turn, they should be preparing for their action.

The control freak.

“OK John your warrior should charge the Ogre, while Dave takes his rogue into the bushes and attempts to sneak up behind it for a back stab. Helen you have your sorceress cast magic missile as John runs in, so there is no danger to John and its a guaranteed hit. Robs cleric needs to be ready to heal John should he get hit”.

This player wants to run the entire game. Typically they deem themselves good players and are eager to dictate a course of action for the other players in their group. Usually this is not because their character is one that has a leadership roll (although they will often choose these types of characters)but because they as a player feel the need to control the situation.

SOLUTIONS: use simple statements like “tell me what YOUR character is doing”. Remind the other players that it is their characters job to put a bossy character in place, however remember it is your job to put a bossy player in his place. Inform the player that he can not dictate the actions of any other player, and only his own, and then ask the other characters what THEY would like their character to do. If he complains and says something like “that’s dumb if you do that we will all get killed,” Tell him that as they do not have time to discuss the actions before they happen his character is not aware of the other characters actions until they are actually being performed.

I could detail more fringe types but for the most part the above covers it.

So if you have one or more of these players in your group (and bare in mind some players may fit multiple types) what do you do? Well first I will say to some Dungeon Masters, not all of the above are really seen as a problem. You may like a very detail orientated game so the Obsessive Compulsive player may not be an issue to you. However when you are having difficulty with a player that acts in one of these ways, and its lessening or even ruining the enjoyment for yourself and the other players its time to act.


The very first thing to do is not to over react, and to ensure that before you take action that it is a continuing pattern of behavior. Even the best player may sometimes exhibit a behavior that you are not happy with, but as long as it is the exception and not the rule, you should let it slide.

The next thing to do is to talk to the offending player ALONE (at least initially). Do not pull him up and embarrass in front of his peers, instead catch him one on one before or after the game or at another opportune moment when the other players are not present. When you do confront him, begin by asking him does he realize what effects his actions are having on the game, and is he aware that he even does what he does? This may sound odd but often people do not realize they act a certain way. Sometimes just pointing it out and asking them to be aware of it in future and to do their best to keep it in check will work.

If they do know they are doing it, then it is your job to explain to them why it is not a good course of action, and the consequences that it has on the game. Explain to them the way you do things and why you do it. Be sure to explain to them the benefits of acting in an alternative way and not just the negatives of their actions. In some cases it may be a good idea to ask the other players (privately) to talk to their fellow player, especially if it is a friend and tell them that they think the game would be better if they refrained from or changed their choices of actions.

Finally you have to realize some times in life some people just do not gel with the rest of the group. If you have done everything you can to correct the difficult players behavior and it has had no affect, then you may have to break down as a last course of action ant tell them that their playing style just does not fit the rest of the group and that they may want to consider finding a different group of more like minded players. While this sucks, your job is to provide a great game for the players, and if one person continually makes that an unachievable goal, then it may be time to cut them lose……

The differences between running a game at the physical table and online.

danddtablegame AND howrerollscreenshot

So as many of you by now know, I have been running Dungeons and Dragons and other Role Playing Games for over three decades. An unfathomable amount of hours of my life has been spent sitting around a table with a group of people, and bringing stories to life. More recently I began using virtual tabletops and playing the same games online. Since October 2014, I have also been broadcasting these games live on the internet on my channel Howreroll. Since then I have come to realize the vast differences in how I run a game between these two mediums. This article is aimed at explaining those differences and if you are a viewer of my online show it may explain a few things to you as well. Please note that there are even more differences to draw upon between private virtual tabletop games and live broadcasting virtual tabletop games. I will detail those where applicable also. My goal will be to break this down into sections and draw the comparisons as I do so. Here goes.

Story Preparation.

This is one area that is pretty much the same. I still do hours of work writing my stories and developing my plot lines, no matter if the table is physical or virtual so really no differences of note here. The one thing I will say is when I am writing for my online show I do think of it from a viewer perspective. For the show I try  not to make the story overly complicated and as such difficult for a new viewer to follow or pick up on. I also only display good quality visual maps and tiles (and  do not draw them on the fly, which is an option with most virtual tabletops), so I have to keep the adventures somewhat linear and when I allow them to become more open I have to create multiple maps to cover multiple eventualities. Which brings me to the next section.

Map Creation.

Huge differences here. When playing around a physical table I am afforded the luxury of total freedom. No matter what the players do I can improvise and create either a quick sketch or give a good verbal description of just about anything. Even though I would still draw out my dungeon or town layout, Its not needed to be visual to the players. If I want it to be visual or if we are using miniatures then I can use dungeon tiles and lay them out as we go. For the virtual table top I am confined a good bit in this regard. Now again while hand drawing the maps as you go is an option, for me it is not because we are producing a high quality show and as such it needs to look good and I am by no means a virtual artist. Because of this I have to manually digitally create each map. Every Inn, shop, village, forest encounter etc has to be created and made visual. This takes many hours of work. A typical live show takes ten to sixteen hours of behind the scenes work for a three hour broadcast, and most of this is tile and map creation. Of course, not all live shows go to these lengths, and many just show a world map and live cameras but for the quality of show I want to produce, that is not an option.

Dungeon Master style.

In some ways it is the same but in others it is very different. Either way I am a voice actor. Each and every Non Player Character that I bring to life will have his and her own voice and mannerisms. I role play these out regardless of it being a physical or virtual tabletop. The big difference is that around the physical table I am incredibly animated. I leap around, I rarely stay seated and I can put more physical aspects into my role playing. Instead of just describing a sword swing ill act it as well! online and at the virtual tabletop, I am stuck inside a little pip box on a screen, and confined to the field of view of a web cam so I am limited to minor hand movements and facial expressions only. Another difference is in the way I describe a scene or area. Around the physical table unless I have a hand out ready to show the players I have to leave much to their imagination, and have to be careful to make sure that I verbal describe important details. For the virtual tabletop I have the luxury of producing nice graphical images, tiles and maps, so less verbal description is needed, and all the players (and viewers for the live show) can see the same thing.

Player Interaction.

Some minor differences here. Around a physical table the players can take ques from the Dungeon Master and other players to know when it is their turn to speak etc. Online it is a little harder and especially when we are playing on the live show, we have to be careful not to talk over one another. Also as the players are not in the same room (and in Howrerolls case not even the same state or country), they all have different personal distractions that have to be overcome. The cat, the neighbors dog, the climate etc. While this may not be something you would at first consider, it makes a difference when it comes to interacting and the level of distractions that can be present.

Player character decisions.

For the most part again there is not a huge difference, but in a couple of areas it is substantial. Around the physical tabletop, if your character is currently not involved in the situation at hand you can get up and go to the fridge etc and still hear the Dungeon Master and be aware of what is happening. For virtual tabletop play you use a microphone and either a headset or ear buds, because if you have the sound coming through your speakers you get sound reverberations. Because of this if you leave the Virtual table you are typically cut off from play and anything that is happening. This issue is amplified for the live broadcast show. The other big aspect which again is vastly amplified when we are live is what happens when a character goes of on his own and does not stick with the party. well apart from the obvious possible dangers for the character in game, how it affects the other players is different. Again around the physical table you can occupy yourself a little if your character is not involved in the action. When playing at the virtual table, you are pretty much stuck staring at a screen and just listening. Because of this I try to discourage players from taking their characters off on their own to often, and only when it is a necessary action.

Player Meta game control.

This within itself is kind of an odd subject as you can never really stop a player from trying to meta game, only deal and react to it. Good players will not meta game or at least will not do so frequently, where as poorer players will meta game their asses off. What I refer to here is what I can see with my own two eyes. Around the physical tabletop, I can see if a player reaches for the Monster Manual or pulls out his smartphone to google what weakness a monster may have. At the virtual tabletop I can not. If a player goes online and looks something up I can not stop him, or even know he has done it. Online I have to rely on the integrity of my players to not meta game or use player knowledge where their character would in fact be oblivious. Players can also chat privately using chat programs and discuss strategy in private. At the physical tabletop i do not permit players to pass private notes unless I know the reason and content of said note. ALL in game chat should be done by the characters, and if the characters want to discuss something it should be done in real time and in front of the Dungeon Master. Private text chatting allows for discussion to be had in a non realistic way, alter the game play and, can fudge the time mechanics of the game. here is an example. John (who plays Ragnar the barbarian) privately messages Sandra (who plays Salindra the cleric) and tells her to cast hold person on the chief when it is her action. In reality the characters are in the heat of battle and Ragnar would have to shout this suggestion to Salindra. In doing so the chief would be forewarned. make no mistake this IS metagaming.

Session length.

Typically you can play way longer around a physical table than you can a virtual one. Staring at a monitor causes some people to feel tired, causes eye strain or even causes headaches. We take scheduled breaks while we play on line to help alleviate some of this, but even then a longtime at the computer is more draining than sitting at a real world table. Due to this, we tend to play shorter sessions. Howreroll runs for three hours each session we play.

Dice rolling.

The only thing to note here is one of the fun aspects of any table top game is the physical act of rolling the dice. Feeling that polyhedral dice roll around in your hand and then drop to the table to come up a natural 20 is a good feeling. At the virtual table this is taken away from you and replaced with a mouse click or typing a command like /r 1D20. Now as the Dungeon Master at the virtual table,  I use the fact that the players can only see head and upper torso as my Dungeon Masters Screen, so I still get to roll physical dice. However the players do not of course as it is necessary for the Dungeon Master to see the dice rolls they make.

A pointer I can make here for anyone using a virtual tabletop, as the Dungeon Master you can still create the anticipation of the physical dice roll by hamming up the need for a good roll, or being a little more descriptive about the potential outcome of the action. This is something we have achieved very well on our live show, and as such have found a way to recreate that feeling of tension you get when you actually roll the dice.

Game Mechanics use and game flow.

Around the physical tabletop, you all have access to the same resources and books. A bunch of players can share a players handbook for example. When playing at the virtual tabletop, you are on your own. You have to have your own resources. Some virtual tabletops include game systems (for a price) but if not you need your own books or pdfs. Another consideration that really only applies to live broadcasting Dungeons and Dragons is keeping the game flowing. We have an audience when we play on Howreroll so I sometimes simplify game mechanics and as such have a set of home brew or house rules that I apply. I also make certain other concessions in the interest of live entertainment.

Viewer interactions.

So this one ONLY applies to running the game over a virtual tabletop and making it live for viewing. Howreroll has an amazing community that chat to us and each other via a text interface while they watch our show. All the players and myself can see the flowing sea of text and as such it is hard sometimes not to be distracted. A particular pet peeve is when a player gets distracted or the tone of the chat changes the mood or attitude of the player during a key moment. A comedic comment or two can have a player laughing when the mood should be tense and anxious. We are all human and all of us (me included) fall foul to it all the time, but it is something you do not have to contend with around a physical table or even a private virtual table. Fortunately most of our regular viewers know we can’t really interact during game play, and that we do a Questions And Answer session during each break and at the end of each show.

I am sure if I spent more time I would come up with more differences and if I do I will edit the post to include them.

If you are thinking of starting playing virtually, then these are some of the things you will realize and find a little different. Also if you are a viewer of our show maybe this gives you insight into why we do somethings the way we do……..

I like my monsters rare!


The many worlds of Dungeons and Dragons are home to an incredible stable of creatures, races and monsters. From halflings to storm giants and from fleas to the mighty Tarrasque (pictured above). Every Dungeon Master has gotten excited about using crazy exotic creatures to test, challenge and even kill his beloved players. Back in 1980 when I first started down the path of becoming a Dungeon Master I was guilty of just randomly picking the coolest monsters I could find in the monster manual or fiend folio, and hurling them at my players with over zealous disregard for their ability, level or geographical location.

“As you wander down the path that leads to the Hamlet of Flearun, you hear a rustling in the trees. Suddenly five beholders burst from the undergrowth. What does your level four cleric, fighter, wizard and rogue do?”

Granted I was Ten years old, but I see adult Dungeon Masters doing much the same thing. They start a new campaign and within the first few game sessions the players have faced all manner of rare and exotic creatures, even such things as greater demons, dragons and giants.  Months later the players have little to no wonderment left in them when it comes to encounters, and have no belief in the echo system or archeology of the world they are trying to imagine.

“WELL each to their own” I hear you say. While I agree with this statement, it is still a poor use of monsters and a terrible way to create any real long term excitement in newer players. In short it’s a newbie Dungeon Master mistake. The fledgling Dungeon Master who does this is probably throwing around artifacts, powerful and unique magic items, or wishes like candy too. This is a topic for another time and probably a sister topic to this one, so for now let’s get back to the monsters at hand.

When you look at the profile of any monster you will see comments on it’s frequency and the environments it can be found in. Depending on which edition you are running, you will either see it specifically stated in the profile block (such as in 2nd or 3.5 edition) or in its description (in 5th edition). In some cases it is a combination of both.  If the monster is rare or unique then next to no one will have encountered them. Granted, player characters go places and explore terrain that few else would, and as such are more likely to find such exotic beasts, but even then not with any frequency. Such creatures and enemies should be reserved for special or climactic encounters,  and not random or minor ones. Over frequent use of such nasties will leave your players asking questions like “With all these incredibly dangerous monsters everywhere, how does a simple village survive?” Or “Who the hell dares leave their home?” And they would be right to do so. One minute I see a group of players in a village and the next minute (a mile or or two down the road) a storm giant just happens by. Lets say it together shall we, “THAT Is Bullshit Dungeon Mastering.” Now there is a time and a place for such things and maybe, just maybe that is the hook for the adventure. Defend the village from the giant or better yet find out what is the giant doing so far from home and in the open? If is not just a random encounter, but the main aspect of the entire adventure that is a little different.

Higher level parties of course need bigger and tougher challenges, so a slight increase in powerful and rarer monsters is expected. Where they are encountered however, they should still be a huge factor and probably the players have traveled to remote or dangerous locations to find them. You simply will not see a frost salamander wandering in the desert or in a nice warm tropical forest.

Where and when a monster is encountered is as important as it’s rarity. I was speaking to a player in another game last week and they we’re telling me about an encounter they we’re playing through. The player in question has only been playing around six or seven months and he was introduced to playing a high level character in this his second game (another error in my book. If you play Mass Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games like World of Warcraft, I know many of you get pissed when someone has purchased a Max level character and has no idea how to play it right? Learn before you leap, and yes it’s your fault Dungeon Master!)

well he was telling me of this encounter with a greater demon. The Dungeon Master had no real explanation as to how or why this monstrosity was present. He had done no real work building up to what in my opinion should have been an epic encounter. The player in question had lost some interest in the campaign and some respect for the Dungeon Master. I asked him if he knew how experienced his Dungeon Master was and he told me that he was sure he had not been a Dungeon Master very long, maybe a year at most. I explained to him that as much as he (being a new player) expected people to cut him some slack due to his inexperience, he should afford the same courtesy to his Newish Dungeon Master. Now this being said we can blame inexperience for the encounter lacking any depth but the effect is still the same. The Dungeon Master probably thought (as I did decades ago) that the players may be wowed by the greater demon battle and think ” our DM is awesome and makes such epic encounters,” where the actual truth was to the contrary.

Some of the best and most memorable encounters that my players tell tales of are the ones with clever and exciting use of common creatures and monsters. Not the time they battled Tiamat or that army of storm giants. Incidentally I have used Tiamat one time in the past three decades.

If you want your players to respect your encounters, you need to be sure they make sense first and foremost, and that you have a darn good reason to explain anything that may not seem to fit naturally.

“Excuse me Mr Dungeon Master but why is this polar bear walking down the road on this blistering hot day two thousand miles from the nearest snowy environment?” “Well remember that circus that was set up in the town ten miles to the south that you passed through. And the bear tamer who was mumbling about losing his star attraction?”

See you can come up with a plausible reason but make sure it makes sense and even then keep such I’ll fitting encounters to a minimum. Treat rare monsters and creatures with respect and use them to increase the depth and power of the story you are telling. Its hard to get to a climactic campaign or adventure conclusion with a dragon if the players have already battled way worse and with more frequency…….