Dungeon Masters Appreciation Month is right around the corner, and I wanted to do something Dungeon Master-ish. You know, the whole “paying my dues,” seeing how the other half lives, reap adoration and high regard from my peers. And then it came to me! I’ll learn how to write my own encounter!
(Remind me next year to just send flowers.)
There are three reasons outside of DM Appreciation Month that led to my curiosity about how adventure design works.
- I’ve been playing in a lunchtime D&D Encounters game but can’t for the life of me figure out how each encounter takes almost exactly an hour. We come out beaten and bloodied and almost TPK’d but always manage to escape (sometimes thanks to a sensitive DM) just before our 1:00 meetings start.
- Quality time with New DM! He loves telling me what to do!
- If I don’t learn how to write an encounter, I’m going to use this space to psychoanalyze each and every Real Housewife of New York, which may be fun but probably not appropriate for Dragon Magazine.
New DM agreed to help me out with the tutorial. I think any chance he gets to show me how hard his job as Dungeon Master is, he’ll take. He also seems to enjoy any opportunity to torture me when our roles are reversed. I told him he could play in my encounter when it was finished.
I showed up in the conference room with my dog-eared Monster Manual 3. “Where’s your Dungeon Master's Guide?” he asked.
“I’m looking at him,” I said. New DM had that thing memorized. I was hoping for the Cliff Notes version.
New DM sighed and flipped his copy of the DMG open to chapter 4, which is about—what else—writing and running encounters.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, thanks! You’ve been a huge help!”
Fortunately, New DM likes talking about how to run a D&D game almost as much as running one.
“Okay,” he began, “what are you trying to do here?”
New DM must be real busy, because I thought we covered what we were doing here.
“I want to build an encounter,” I explained.
“I know,” he said, rolling his eyes like he did last Tuesday when I insisted Tabby was bending over to pick up a penny when that minion’s arrow came at her. “What kind of encounter?”
“How about a good encounter?” I said, not sure of what my choices were. I didn’t want it to suck. “And one that won’t give me an ulcer trying to figure out how to run it.” I still have anxiety dreams over the last one.
“Well, it’s your encounter,” he reminded me. “You’re going to have some freedom to play around with it if you find it’s sucking.”
That’s a relief, I thought. If it starts going off the rails, I can just drop the entire party in a pit and call it done.
I told New DM that ideally this encounter would be one appropriate for the Wyld Stallyns. No need to create new characters, and if something horrible should happen to them, we can always pretend it happened to their evil twins.
New DM explained that for a party of six 7th-level adventurers, I would need about that many monsters. Which was odd, considering that we always seem to fight at least twice that many in his games.
“One way to look at building it would be to include one monster for every player.”
The chart in the DMG puts it in a different perspective by listing varying encounter XP targets depending on level and number of PCs.
“In your case,” New DM said, “you’ve got about 1,800 XP to spend.”
“Awesome!” I said. I felt like I was about to go shopping in the Wheel of Fortune store. I’ll take a fire giant lavamaster for 1,600, please! “Let’s just buy the biggest monster I can for 1,800 XP and call it good. There. Done.”
“Not so fast,” New DM said. “That would be a really boring encounter. You can spend your XP on traps, hazards, and skill challenges, too.”
He showed me a chart in the DMG to calculate those kinds of things.
“Every encounter should be a free-standing adventure,” he said. “You want to include as much for the players to do as you’re comfortable running.”
Again, I suggested just one monster . . . a big, slow, lazy monster.
“I can handle sitting back and subtracting a few hit points here and there,” I said.
New DM tried another tactic in an effort to make me understand his point.
“Say you’re having a dinner party for six of your closet friends and you have a budget of $100. Would you buy a gigantic ice cream cake and call it good?”
“For a dinner party, no. For myself on a Friday night? Always,” I said.
But New DM has been a guest at my dinner parties on more than one occasion. He knows how I would spend it.
“I’d have 45 different appetizers, a giant pan of lasagna, and a crepe bar for dessert.”
“All that plus a crepe bar?” New DM questioned. He’s quite the entertainer himself. “That’s pretty heavy.”
“You’re probably right,” I agreed. “Maybe a grilled pound cake with macerated fruit.”
“Lots of eggs in pound cake,” he said. “Maybe just some grilled pineapple or peaches.”
“Oh yes! With rum infused homemade whipped cream!”
After a good 15-minute diversion, I had three new dessert recipes to try and clarity into New DM’s thinking. It’s all about a well-rounded menu—the starters, the main course and the sweet finale.
Another tactic he let me in on? Figure out your location or your villain and let one inform the other. All I know is that I wanted to pick a really cool, new monster from Monster Manual 3, so chances would be good that the Wyld Stallyns haven’t fought it before and won’t know what to expect.
“You need to know who your villain is,” New DM explained. “Who are his allies? What is his goal?”
This was starting to sound a lot like my 9th grade creative writing class, which in a way, is exactly what it was.
I decided to go with one of the new catastrophic dragons. I mean, come on—it already sounds intimidating and bad-ass. I chose the Young Earthquake Dragon in honor of the story I just heard on NPR about the Seattle Fault.
“It’s only like a mile below ground,” I said. “Do you realize that a can of beans falling out of your pantry could set that thing off and we’d all be toast?”
“Breadcrumbs, more likely.”
Maybe I could work that into my encounter somehow.
“Let’s just stick to fantasy,” New DM said.
My dragon was 9th level, which is apparently fine for 7th-level adventurers.
“You don’t want to stray more than two levels in either direction,” New DM explained. Too high and it’s not a fair fight, too low and it’s not enough of a challenge. “Pay attention to XP, not level.”
Once I had my villain and a little information about his habit and habitats, New DM suggested I go back to the setting of my previous adventure—the one I ran my group through when I first tried my hand at dungeon mastering (with disastrous results, I reminded New DM.)
“Ah, you’re an old hand at it now,” he smiled.
I looked sheepishly down at my hands. Yeah, I could use a manicure, I guess.
The town of Charlesburg is near and dear to me but the thought of those puppy-loving peaceful dwellers facing any more unjust strife is hard to bear.
“You’re already familiar with the setting,” New DM said. “And the Wyld Stallyns have gained some notoriety. It wouldn’t be weird for the townspeople to call upon them for help.”
Personally, if I were in deep doo doo, I probably wouldn’t call on the Wyld Stallyns, but it’s sweet of New DM to say so. Situating this encounter in Charlesburg made sense. I already wrote much of the setting, and I could feel the story taking shape in my mind.
We return to Charlesburg—a once-peaceful town nestled high in the hills, surrounded by war-torn villages. All that changed when the animal-loving inhabitants were forced into battle by the mysterious, night-time vanishings of their beloved dogs. A ragtag team of adventurers were called upon to locate the mayor’s two pitbulls, Paco and Peanut.
A bloody battle ensued on the grounds of the famed but deserted animal shelter, Howl Haunt. Paco and Peanut were returned to their owner, and all was right in the world. The adventurers even used part of their reward to rebuild Howl Haunt.
Now a thriving animal shelter once again, Howl Haunt enjoys a 100% success rate in placing dogs with their forever homes. No euthanizing ever! The town of Charlesburg believes in No Dog Left Behind. Things were perfect in Charlesburg until …
“Wait a minute. I don’t know if I can kill a dragon,” I told New DM. “Dragons are animals too. I’ll feel bad.”
“Didn’t a dragon kill your beloved barbarian minotaur?” New DM asked. “What was his stupid name?”
Man, Kevin can’t catch a break. “Yes, but still. This is my dragon.”
New DM sighed. “You wanted to kill a pig-farming NPC who was trying to help you because you didn’t like his voice. But killing a dragon who is terrorizing your idealistic little town and its canine inhabitants is a no-no?”
“The heart wants what the heart wants.”
But New DM did have a point, and you know how I hate to admit that. Once an akita attacked my darling albeit pugnacious old malamute and I was the only one there to stop it. I kicked the Akita right in the snout. I had to! I had no intention of letting my Char Char get hurt! The akita relented, but I still feel bad about kicking that psychotic dog in the head. This earthquake dragon is killing (nope, can’t go there) dog-napping Charlesburg’s pet population. It must be stopped.
“If you don’t want them to kill your dragon,” New DM said, “you have to give them a reason not to. Perhaps it turns into a beautiful princess as soon as it’s bloodied.”
“They would for sure attack the princess,” I said. “I know I would.”
“It could run away,” New DM suggested. “Or negotiate.”
Yeah, but that would involve roleplaying, and we all know I’m not the best negotiator. I guess I could just pretend this is a game of make-believe and no dragons were hurt in the process. Oh wait . . . what?
“What if the dragon is susceptible to tickling, and if the adventurers tickle him he laughs so hard he spits out puppies? Unharmed, of course.”
New DM shook his head, then started mumbling things like help me, please make it stop, I don’t think we’re in D&D anymore.
When New DM recovered, he explained just one of the reasons why that was a terrible idea.
“Ever notice why character actions are never part of the read-aloud text?”
“Because no one listens to that stuff?”
The same way New DM doesn’t listen to me. “You can’t predict what your characters will do,” he said. “If it’s integral to the story, you need to give them a reason to believe the villain is susceptible to special actions.”
That, or I could just make sure Bart plays in this encounter. He’s the King of Special Actions, often going out of his way to do something acrobatic, anomalous, or downright asinine. Take today’s game when we were fighting a pack of ravenous attack beasts and Bart asked if they were wearing collars.
“Yes. Big, sharp, spiky collars,” New DM answered. “Why?”
“I’m going to grab one by the neck and toss him into Tabitha’s flaming sphere.”
“If you do that, you’ll take damage from the sharp spikes on his collar,” New DM said. “But be my guest.”
“Or you could maybe hit him with your longsword,” Marty suggested. “You know, because you’re already bloodied and I’m out of healing and all.”
Yes. Bart would absolutely try to tickle the dragon.
Next, what to serve with a badass dragon? To me it wouldn’t be weird if, say, a green dragon and a red dragon were hanging out together, but according to New DM, that’s as preposterous a pairing as Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell. (And really, why am I bothering with the Monster Manual. Let’s see those two fight!)
“Your pairings need to make sense or the players will lose their sense of immersion,” New DM said.
I think some players might, but the Wyld Stallyns would probably just shrug their shoulders and take aim. New DM reverts to the food analogies.
“You wouldn’t serve mashed potatoes with lasagna, right?”
“Every day if I could.” Those are two of my favorite foods. “But no, not to my friends. Starch on starch is a horrible faux pas.”
I saw New DM’s point, so we went through the Monster Manual to find more suitable companions.
Earthquake dragons are loners; they don’t rely on allies for long. Probably shouldn’t give him any taste-bud-tempting friends either. It’s one thing to have high maintenance friends, but living in fear that they’ll not only stab you in the back but roast you on a spit and eat you for dinner? That gives new meaning to the term frenemy.
Seeing as though this encounter would involve dogs, I suggested a couple of Ironstone Gargoyles. Convenient and affordable, too. I still had enough XP left to add a handful of minions and a trap. New DM was really gunning for that trap.
“The Earthquake Dragon causes earthquakes wherever it goes,” he rationalized. “A little rubble covering a sinkhole in the floor? You got a trap door!”
“Sold for 240 XP,” I said. I hope I remember where I put it, so my minions don’t fall through. We threw in a chasm for good measure, and oh boy! Wait until you see what happens in there!
I’d love to tell you, but I’m much too busy gathering up Dungeon Tiles and minis. And maybe creating some special actions for my monsters to appease Bart. And possibly a skill challenge for Kierin. Maybe a puppy for Laura and a chocolate torte for Hilary—
Wait a minute. It’s Dungeon Master Appreciation Month.
They can bring me a cake.
About the Author
Shelly Mazzanoble will be accepting gifts all year in honor of Dungeon Master Appreciation Month.