Use downtime to level up your hero’s D&D combat skills

In the introduction to classic first edition Dungeons & Dragons module Against the Giants, author Gary Gygax cautions would-be players that the module wasn’t just designed for high-level characters; it was also designed for highly experienced players. The author explained that novice players who simply rolled up powerful characters wouldn’t have the tactical expertise necessary for those characters to survive the module. Gygax pointed to a widely ignored gaming truth: there is no instant replacement for months or years of player tactical cooperation.

It does indeed take a great deal of time for an adventuring party to learn all the nuances of working together. When a party actually does so – when a group of players actually obtains equipment, develops tactics, and chooses skills, feats and spells based on how they will contribute to group success – enjoyment of the game is exponentially higher.

In games that focus on the tactical elements of combat, the group can, if the players and dungeon master agree, use down time for players to practice directing their characters cooperatively in mock combat. Such an activity may be an option when one or more players cannot attend, and other campaign-related gaming activities aren’t as appealing. Of course, these fights never take place from a campaign or narrative standpoint; rather, they’re more of a metagaming experience where players test their heroes against monsters of the DM’s choosing.

There are several advantages in spending this time at practice:

  • Someone at the table can run characters for absent players without fear of anything happening to those characters;
  • Players can attempt combinations of field position, equipment, weapons, feats, powers, opportunity attacks, magic items and timing (through delaying actions and such) without fear of their characters dying in-game; as a result, players can and often do try outrageous  and/or convoluted plans. After all, there are no campaign consequences for success or failure. Particularly effective combinations should be documented for future reference, as described in the list-making section of this post;
  • The DM may choose to use monsters that he or she may have always wanted to use, but never had the opportunity;
  • These practice combats are a great way for the DM to practice skills for the other side of the screen, including seldom-used rules for weaponless, aerial or underwater combat;
  • There is very little preparation time required on the part of the DM or players for this activity; and
  • The players can also have a bit of good-natured metagaming fun by trying to see who can do the most damage to a single target, who can slay the most enemies, or how many ongoing conditions or effects the party can place on a single target.
  • Players may even want to take this opportunity to fight each other, just to see the result.

While using downtime for practice effectively turns D&D into a rather complicated skirmish game, the practice can be a useful exercise, especially for novice players or DMs.


Five things a D&D group can learn from a corporate board meeting

There are plenty of things I really enjoy about my day job as a senior manager at a publishing company. One thing I don’t like so much is the mandatory, weekly operating committee meeting, at which our company’s department heads provide lengthy reports to the chief executive and chief operating officers.

During a slow period of last week’s meeting, I browsed over some of the agenda items and came to the conclusion that thinking through some of the concepts described there may provide a benefit to a group of D&D players, with regard to how their characters operate and succeed in the game world. Of course, this is purely a metagame exercise; characters obviously wouldn’t discuss their life circumstances in these terms. Players, however, may find some benefit in viewing their heroes through the lens about to be presented, both for in-game circumstances like recruiting allies or amassing enough treasure to finance a project, and for external considerations, like whether or not a given feat is giving optimal in-game results. Continue reading

Missing some D&D players? Try these six rarely-used alternatives

For most of us, gaming is a hobby, meaning that actual life responsibilities can and often do take precedence over playing games. It is to be expected, then, that one or more players may not be able to attend a regularly scheduled D&D session for such reasons, leaving those in attendance questioning how best to proceed. Fortunately, having one or more missing players doesn’t mean that those players able to attend are relegated to the most common or, for campaign purposes, inane solutions to player absenteeism such as watching fantasy films, playing a different tabletop game or turning on a video game console. Neither does having absent players make it necessary to run the player characters (PCs) of missing players in their absence.

The challenge is finding a way to enrich the ongoing D&D campaign for those present – without cheating attending players out of the role-playing fun the missing players would have brought, or exposing the PCs normally controlled by missing players to harm. After all, no one wants to hear that their favorite character was killed in action while they were away at a family function. This challenge – as it is with all  challenges – conceals an opportunity, and this post will discuss how a well-prepared Dungeon Master (DM) can capitalize on that opportunity to provide a game experience relevant to the current campaign, even if the evening’s session doesn’t move the central campaign story forward. Continue reading

How players can help streamline the D&D play experience

A particularly astute observation made in the fourth edition D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide is the mandate to “get to the fun” as quickly as possible. It is not surprising to find the mandate in that volume, as most of the time-wasting in a typical Dungeons & Dragons session is linked to insufficient preparation on the part of the dungeon master.

It is a pity, though, that the mandate to get to the fun doesn’t also appear in the Player’s Handbook, since there are numerous things players can do to streamline play and help everyone else to enjoy the game.  Continue reading

Balancing a 4e D&D adventuring party

One marked difference between the fourth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons game (4e) and its predecessors is the assignment of roles, or tactical capabilities, to each player character class. While these roles can provide assistance to a neophyte player about how his character might behave in D&D combat, the roles also create a higher level of  interdependence between classes. Combining that interdependence with 4e’s more exacting, miniatures-based combat system makes creating a balanced party a different process than in previous editions, a fact that my players and I learned the hard way.

The 4e rules are clear that a “balanced” party – i.e., one that is equipped to handle most situations – should be comprised of one hero from each of the conroller, defender, leader and striker roles, adding that parties exceeding four members in size should add extra defenders. Continue reading

Managing Player Expectations for a D&D Game

The first time I saw the film The War Lord starring Charlton Heston, I remember feeling bothered by the writers’ apparent disinterest in historical accuracy. The film was set during the time period most would ascribe to the Dark Ages, but the film featured costumes, armor and fortifications that weren’t to evolve until hundreds of years after the story was reportedly happening.

Upon further thought, though, it occurred to me that I was something of an unusual viewer; most people viewing such a film wouldn’t have my interests in Medieval and military history, tabletop wargaming or Medieval fantasy role-playing, all of which are niche hobbies at best. I came to the conclusion that the writers were doing what the best storytellers do: take the images and preconceptions in a listener’s head and build upon the details that were already there, making the story more real to them in the process. Continue reading