Cooking Tips for DMs

What does cooking and D&D have in common?

Although a meal that has been made as instructed in a cook book might be perfectly good, the experience can become dull once we’re used to it. And what if you are catering for a group of friends and you want to surprise them? This is the same problem Dungeons Masters (DMs) encounter when running a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. How do they keep things interesting for players and avoid repetition?

“The dish always tastes better when you do it like this…”
This is the homebrew option. If you and your players agree that a certain rule variation makes the game more fun, then you are effectively customising it for your group the same way you might add more salt or take out an ingredient from a recipe. One example might be the old D&D 3.5 rules for a grapple. They were cumbersome and slowed down the gaming. Much easier to agree a workaround with the players to keep the action flowing. Another important area to agree on are the rules for reincarnation when a creature dies. For example, should the players have to do more to prevent the soul of their comrade from leaving the material plane?

In this example, the DM Matt Mercer of Critical Role combines the Revivify spells their cleric used with a group-assisted roll. Critical Role’s Resurrection Rules can be found here.

“Wow, I didn’t expect that!”
This is the sense of wonderment option. This is when the DM customises a monster or item to surprise the players. In catering terms, you might change the ingredients or appearance of dishes the guests are used to in order to make the meal extra special. See Satine Phoenix’ video exploring this option with Luke Gygax. For the DM, this is especially useful once the players have experience and know what to expect when facing certain creatures or finding magical items. For example, have a cold-weather hybrid of a lizardman, have tactical goblins, a giant, mutated kobold, create a monk character but make their race (or simply appearance) a dryad. As for magical items, the Wand of Wonder is a lot of fun but what about varying it with a bag of means that on a roll might provide you with what you need or could backfire and give you something useless or harmful instead

So happy cooking, whatever you decide to create next! And don’t forget that not every meal or gaming session is perfect, but with work and creativity they’ll continue to be memorable and sometimes they’ll be wonderful.

DM Notes #9

In the Roleplays you have played, what Player Characters stood out? Which ones are still memorable and why? By a stand-out character I mean player characters that were unique, and memorable in some way.

For my second choice, I pick Sir Rengar. For the campaign Jungles of Nocturnal Madness, the DMs allowed us to choose our own PC, but they had to be from specific books available in Unearthed Arcana, which is an area of D&D designed to create custom character and creatures not available in the Players Handbook or Monster Manual, in my case I was given Eberron, Waterborne and That Old Black Magic. As a race of creature, I chose a Krynn (Sea-faring race of Minotaur) and was asked to select 3 types of classes. From those, the DM selected paladin. I was excited!

For a visual idea, see this brilliant picture by brianvadell.

Sir Rengar Gutlub is a fearsome agent of order and took the Oath of the Crown, dedicating himself to society and the just laws that hold it together. In appearance he is a very resplendent bull of legend created to inspire allies and terrify agents of chaos. In his owns words, he had a privileged background but never forgot that his mother did not. He treads the line between the honest working folk and the pillars of society. In truth, he can be a bit of a hypocrite; he believes in upholding moral standards of society, but is immensely proud of his noble birth and can be arrogant and let praise go to his head.

In the first two instalments of Jungles of Nocturnal Madness, the PCs encountered each other in a sea battle between crusaders and pirates during a devastating storm. The survivors ended up on an unknown island. Sir Rengar’s mettle was tested in a jungle full of terrifying creatures (especially at night!). He battled with the need to work together with piratical chaos-agents for the greater good and survival. Without the glue that society brings, he had to refocus and found moments of chivalry and aid kept him in check. When they found a corrupt city with segregated layers of society based on wealth and status, his goal became clear – to purge the city of corruption! I’m looking forward to the next part of this saga.

DM Notes #8

In the Roleplays you have played, what Player Characters stood out? Which ones are still memorable and why?

This is the question I asked myself recently when thinking when creating new characters for my D&D modules.  I think it’s important to mention that by a stand-out character I do not mean that one character should dominate the game to the detriment of the other players, but that the player characters can certainly be unique, eccentric, dogged or their journey more poignant somehow.    For each player or viewer, they will have their own favourites and certain memories will stay with them that differ from the other players.  For example, Critical Role’s Vox Machina’s player characters are all very unique and distinctive and each had their moments to shine over the course of the campaign.

For my first choice, I am going to select a PC that I once played.  My favourite and certainly most memorable has to be Lupa.  I joined a sandbox game (a game with a very open plot based on what the characters chose to do) after the first session so I took over an NPC that they players met.  The Co-Dungeon Masters had to customise her special abilities to match her NPC background.  She was found in a glacier and could control and manipulate ice and hard rocks.  Like a Monk using Ki points in D&D 5e, the co-DMs gave her power points that she could spend each day on her abilities. It was so much fun trying to make larger objects move in this tundra-like wilderness such as throwing boulders into battle.  She was very useful in combat, but the point-based system prevented her being too overpowered.

For visual reference, I imagine her to look similar to this stunning image drawn by Anndr.

Her story didn’t go how I expected at all.  The party met a lot of refugees in the wastelands that they were unable to help. Then two of the party saw a giant rock cow marching across the landscape.  Lupa attempted to control and befriend the cow.  To all our surprise, it worked (natural 20)!  Suddenly we had a cow so big it had trees and grass growing on its back. We steered the cow back to the refugees and picked them up.  From that moment on, my mission became clear.  I was still interested in helping out the party but my priority was to look after these refugees and secure their future.  By the end of the roleplay, I had found them a home and created my own civilisation!

DM Notes #7

Meet the Players

Ralph plays Ikki.
He is an intelligent and seasoned D&D player who fancied trying something different when he chose to be Ikki, a young, adventurous bird woman.

Finn plays Orix.
He is the son of Terry.  He likes to try things in the game to see what will happen – a young player with a curious nature and lots of potential.

Terry plays Nomo.  As a player he is a committed and can communicate very well.  As his character, he is quite a fatherly figure in a way and tries to keep the balance and harmony within the group.  He is lethal with a bow.

Dan plays Pevel.
Dan is an enthusiastic roleplayer who really gets into character, so he really plays up the oafish, cowardly character of Pevel.  Pevel is useful as a rogue however (unlocking doors, being stealthy and quick-thinking).

Ben plays Hector, who is an individual and playful with a glint in his eye, both as a player and character.  When Hector is not bored or disinterested he likes to self-indulge especially in drinking wine. His character is selfish and evil but he likes the group.

Rob plays Leigheas.
He loves to laugh and hang out. He makes a lot of jokes out-of-character but is also an enthusiastic player.  He is completely different to his character, who is world-weary and feels that his god has forsaken him.   However, despite all of this, Leigheas is always determined to help the party out of danger.

DM Note #6

Story Paths

This refers to Series 2, Episode 1 of Agora Core: Gifts of Pelor.

After the party was formed, their initial actions caused the original side-stories to be cut because they were never going to be able to walk around the town of Mid-Nis as free men.

And so the possible stories and adventures had to start anew.  I really like the moment in the episode when the well does seem to have run dry.  They are sitting in a tavern having a quiet drink and wondering where to go from here.

From here, their world is both limitless and directionless.  They have no burdens apart from staying clear of Mid-Nis.
Storylines were in place but needed them to make the first move.  It was interesting to see what happened next.  Orix even mentioned becoming pirates!

By talking to Dais in the tavern they heard the local gossip that they could profit from; a new ‘grave’ site discovered in the desert landscape known as the Da and the Mid-Nis mines requiring a Kobold elimination squad.

Their visionary dreams, brought about by the mysterious ‘Summit’, gave the players personal missions.  The visions also gave them insight into other sordid activities going on.

They decided to pursue the treasures in the desert, but they may yet return to the other options.  The Kobolds may yet grow stronger and Orix showed an interest in looking in on his friend Vian who left home to go to the mysterious Mara Society.  But first, let’s see what the Da has in store…

DM Note #5

Rules for Horse Riding

This refers to Episode 5 Agora Core: Escape.

The conclusion of the episode involves the party trying to escape on horsebackPevel’s attempt has to be a series highlight.

This leads me onto today’s topic.  How do you decide how capable a Player Character (PC) is at riding a particular creature?

In version 3.5 on Dungeons & Dragons, there was a Ride skill, and so the simple way to determine if you could successfully ride a creature was for the player to roll a d20 and add their Ride skill number to the total.  If this was equal or higher than the Difficulty Class (DC) total that the Dungeon Master (DM) decided on, then the player would have succeeded.  If not, the player failed to complete the task, in this case, ride a horse.

In the 5th edition (5e) of Dungeons & Dragons there is no such thing as a Ride skill and no set way of determining
the skill according to the Player’s Handbook. Instead there are a series of ability-based skills that PCs can be proficient in – proficiency is a bonus number added to particular skills.  Here is how I applied the ability-based
skills to this task.

As the horses were no familiar with the players, they had to see compatible they were, in other words, how comfortable the horses were being handled by a PC.  I used the skill Animal Handling (a Wisdom-based skill) for this.  However, even if a horse is comfortable around a PC, that doesn’t make the character agile enough to be a rider.  So the second roll I believe the players should do is an Athletics check (a Dexterity-based skill) to see if they could
successfully get onto the horse and balance whilst the horse moves.   Both these challenges can be done against a Difficulty Class determined by the DM.   If the PC and creature have a history together I wouldn’t ask for a check to be made as the rider and horse already have this level of understanding and ability.

This was my solution to this challenge.  In the finale (episode 5) to Series 1, I just got the players to roll animal handling as we were running short of time.  To further save time, there were two levels of Difficulty to the rolI – 15 or above to start riding in 1 round (6 seconds) and 10 or above to start riding in 2 rounds (12 seconds).  In the case of Pevel his desperate second attempt was more desperate and needed a swift move, so I got him to make an additional Athletics Check as well to pull it off.

So how do other DMs and groups work out their riding skill?  Let me know.

This is the end of the DM Notes for Series 1.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the content and found some of them useful.  Stay tuned for Series 2 later in the summer.

DM Note #4b

Dealing with Death

This refers to Episode 4, Confined: Part 2 of Agora Core.

a certain event happened to one of the party in this episode… you can hear it in all its glorious, gory and somewhat hilarious details.   I should say up front that the player involved took it all really well, which was a relief.

I have to say that I’m a fan of the new Death Saving Throws used in the 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons.  The ‘3 strikes (failed throws of 10 or under on a d20) and you’re out’ approach gives a sense of drama and also provides comrades a chance to revive the fallen player.

But if this doesn’t happen – if the dice gods are not kind and allies are busy elsewhere – what happens when the Player Character (PC) actually dies?

I have played in games where the PCs do die – indeed, in one-shot roleplays high-stakes and player vs player conflict makes it inevitable, but when the game is longer there is a lot of player investment in a character and it’s not a good feeling to lose the character, for the character sheet to be metaphorically and sometimes literally torn up.

On the other hand, what if your character comes back from the dead?  What if they are given another life, or the Dungeon Master (DM) tweaks events in the player’s favour?  To me that cheapens the drama, like playing a computer game in cheat-mode.  The roleplay may not be the same for the players either after such an event if they
feel they are effectively immortal.

So how can a balance be struck between giving the player a fair chance of survival without potentially damaging the authenticity of the roleplay experience?

This is how it was managed when Laura Bailey’s character Vex’ahlia died in Critical Role episode 44.  The DM Matt Mercer combines the Revivify spells their cleric used with a group-assisted roll.

It seems fair that in order to avoid death to a PC there has to be a price to pay, either in gold or through effort in  order to bring the player back to the land of the living. Such a gift has to be earned for the rules to be bent in the player’s favour.  If death cannot be negotiated with, then they players could always try to direct approach and go to the realm of the dead (the underworld sometimes also known as Hades or Hel).  A mission could be attempted to bring the person back such as with Orpheus and Eurydice.

Finally, in considering roleplay authenticity and loss, there is a blog entry by Will Wheaton where he describes the events of Aeofel’s death as part of the Acquisitions Incorporated roleplay series.  On this event, Will says “I’m happy that I stayed true to Aeofel’s beliefs and played him the way I wrote him.”

DM Note #3


This refers to the third episode of Agora Core:

I spoke briefly in #1 about characters having backstory and how in Agora Core, the players were allowed to create their own.  In part 2, the characters experienced visionary dreams which they could partly manipulate if their minds were alert enough.  This was the first time that I tried to interact with their backstory.  Based on the information they provided, I could work some information in that either shed light on a past experience or about events that will happen soon.  A good example of visions in roleplay is in Titans Grave, and also Critical Role.

It is hard to say how much the players digested of this information because they were in the middle of a mission at the time.  The cause of the visions themselves is a longer plot arc that is playing out in the background for now but it provides a way to give the players insight.

  • Will Orix go after Vian, the boy who he had helped to expel from magic college?
  • Will Ikki be visited by his kind and have to face the Trial of Talons?
  • Will Hector face an assassination attempt for having stolen a precious medallion?
  • Will Long ever find his leader and prevent a disaster from befalling his clan?
  • Will Nomo be tempted to visit the site where he was attacked and burned by an orc and where he witnessed a monk burying an artefact?
  • Will Pevel overcome the demons of his childhood and be able to face conflict head on?

This is what the visions were for; to ask questions of the player characters and see if they pay heed to the warning of thing to come or want to pursue an answer for themselves.


DM Note #2

How far down does the rabbit hole go?

This refers to the second episode of Agora Core:

The journey between the towns of Nis-Ton and Mid-Nis was designed to be 2 episodes at most, adding some intrigue, action and a chance for the Player Characters (PCs) to get to know their characters better along the way.  This episode was part 2 of their journey.  The intrigue was to create a room in the inn where they were to rest for the night that had a sign on it which said ‘Keep Out’ and a quiet wailing noise…

This side quest could have stopped there.  They had no need to snoop, and yet they snooped.  Once inside the room the windows were boarded up and there was no visible source of the wailing sound.  Orix’s curiosity got the better of him and he stabbed holes into the paintings on the wall. They found a hole…

The hole had spiritual entities living inside it.  Having got this far, the prepared sucker-punch was that if they stuck their head inside the hole they would have to pass a wisdom saving throw or be possessed by an animal spirit and behave oddly for a time until the group could seek clericial aid. The players, however, wanted to find the source of the wailing.  They wanted to see how far down the hole went…

From now on, the plot was completely off-book, with Long in very real peril having dropped off the pages and into the abyss.

The resultant actions and decisions took the group on a very different path to the one originally planned.

As a DM this was an exciting challenge – how much would their employer, Elstan, suspect and how would he react?  What consequences would this have when the group reached the town of Mid-Nis?  In such situations the DM is roleplaying as much as the players are.  Their employer is a Non-Player Character (NPC) with a motive and resources of his own.  I decided that he would have been in the next room to the merchant Lanir and so would have heard the group force entry and attack him.  As a response, he would have sent a message ahead to the town guards through means of a messenger bird to request the group’s arrest.  They were no longer trusted by their Employer, Elstan, and through his actions they would no longer be able to enjoy Mid-Nis Festival of the Clans and would face a trial, which could result in their execution.

DM Notes #1

The Meeting

This refers to the first episode of Agora Core:

It is a conundrum, because however original your plot may
seem, you need to contrive a reason for a group to form.  How should they begin?  Perhaps there is a backstory connecting some
or all of the players.  An example of
this approach is in Will Wheton’s Titans Grave where character backstories are
discussed and secret bonds are disclosed to the Games Master.

Another simpler approach is a reason that attracts the
players to one spot, such as a call for adventures and the promise of riches
for successfully completing a mission.  I
decided to loosely follow this second approach, bringing the group together at
the docks of the town of Nis-Ton.  Their
reasons for being there were their own, but each was looking for an
opportunity; perhaps to earn more money, perhaps for adventuring, perhaps they
hoped to escape the land of DaNis altogether.

In much the same way as Character Creation, I left the
players to choose their reasons for being there.  This has both advantages and
disadvantages.  The main advantage, as I
see it, is that they are in total control of their characters and can develop
them organically.  I can then suggest
paths for them to follow during the roleplay but they can choose where they go
from there.  The main disadvantage is
that they are complete strangers and they have no bonds to each other or to a
central plot.  The introduction of Long
mid-way through this episode highlights the loose bonds between the characters

What worked really well at the docks was that the players
grasped the situation quickly and decided that there was an opportunity worth
exploring.  They then advanced the plot
with their actions and dice rolling.  

The finding of a horse and cart was a single line plot
that developed because Hector did not roll well when perceiving where to look
for a horse and did not ask anyone.  So
rather than go straight to the transportation store, they successfully deceived
a resident and took their horse.  Then
they had to deal with the transportation store for the cart.  In this case, the characters of Nomo and
Hector started out being civil and ran an errand for the store owner; collecting
flowers that grew on the cliffs ledges, but when that didn’t work out they
resorted to tossing him over the side of the cliff.  Hector is definitely a bad influence on
Nomo!  The interesting part is that they
had already secured a horse and cart but decided that they needed an extra
horse!  The poor store owner needn’t have
been so roughly discarded!  But this is
what makes roleplays so interesting – you never know how players and plot will

A lovely moment was when Orix decided to pay special
attention to the horse they commandeered and named it Loki.  I liked that personal touch, which he also
displayed when creating the Weasel familiar.
Another character-driven bonus was the strange friction between
man-of-the-wilds Long and the dry-witted drow Hector.  Long simply didn’t trust Hector.  To be fair to Hector, if someone threw a warhammer at me I would not warm to them either!
Still, it is moments such as these that make each party unique, for
which I am very grateful.