Making Monsters Challenging – Part 1, Mechanics

It’s pretty common knowledge nowadays that the monsters created by WotC don’t really match up to the promise of their Challenge Rating. Even after the adjustments made in Monsters of the Multiverse, there are still many monsters that are hitting well below their CR, even according the to maths that WotC has laid out in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

For DMs, this can be a frustrating situation to encounter. If you’re the kind of DM who meticulously plans out combat encounters, it can be bad because all that work you put in (which assumes that CR is an accurate measure of monster challenge) might fall down when you run the encounter. If you’re the kind of DM who flies by the seat of their trousers, it can be bad because the CR 7 monster you just pulled out of the Monster Manual and reskinned gets pummelled by the party in one round flat, forcing you to further improvise.

I sympathise with this. It’s annoying that monsters don’t always deal enough damage to scare characters, or have enough hit points to last long enough to use all their cool attacks. I frequently have to double the damage output on monsters at my table (I’m looking at you, Strahd). However, adjusting the damage isn’t the only way to make your monsters scary! In the next two blogs, I’m going to cover mechanical and narrative ways to make monsters drive fear into the heart of your players.

10 Ways to Make Monsters Scary

Reduce Maximum Hit Points

When the hit point maximum of characters is reduced, it’s a scary time for all! Suddenly even healing can’t help that much, and having your hit point maximum reduced to 0 means instant death. If the reduction lingers, even scarier. Typically these reduction effects last until the creature finishes a long rest, but there’s no reason not to have it end on a different trigger, such as a casting of a certain spell (greater restoration is a good example). Reducing the hit point maximum of characters, instantly dropping them to 0 hit points with an attack, and even reducing hit dice are good ways of adding challenge. Here are some examples:

  • The specter has an attack that reduces hit point maximums.
    • Life Drain. Melee Spell Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 10 (3d6) necrotic damage. The target must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw or its hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken. This reduction lasts until the creature finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0.
  • The banshee can reduce characters to 0 hit points in one attack.
    • Wail (1/Day). The banshee releases a mournful wail, provided that she isn’t in sunlight. This wail has no effect on constructs and undead. All other creatures within 30 feet of her that can hear her must make a DC 13 Constitution saving throw. On a failure, a creature drops to 0 hit points. On a success, a creature takes 10 (3d6) psychic damage.
  • A different version can be found on the mind flayer.
    • Extract Brain. Melee Weapon Attack: +7 to hit, reach 5 ft., one incapacitated humanoid grappled by the mind flayer. Hit: The target takes 55 (10d10) piercing damage. If this damage reduces the target to 0 hit points, the mind flayer kills the target by extracting and devouring its brain.
  • I’m not sure if there’s a monster that can deal ‘hit dice damage’, but if there were, I think it would like like this.
    • Soul Syphon. Melee Spell Attack: +8 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 20 (6d6) necrotic damage. The target must succeed on a DC 15 Constitution saving throw or have their maximum number of Hit Dice reduced by 1d4. The reduction lasts until the creature finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its maximum number of Hit Dice to 0.

Lingering Damage and Stacking Wounds

If you don’t mind the bookkeeping of tracking lingering damage and stacking wounds, these are a good way to make a monster more dangerous. These monsters have attacks that leave a lasting wound that continues to deal damage each round, or do something to perpetuate damage across rounds (such as setting the target of their attacks on fire). The main consideration here is whether the damage lingers (deals a set amount at the start/end of each turn) or stacks (deals increasing damage at the start/end of each turn based on the number of hits, the number of turns it’s lasted, etc.). Think too about how to remove the lingering damage or stacking wounds. Is an action enough? An ability check? Magical healing? Here are some examples:

  • The fire elemental has an attack that deals lingering damage.
    • Touch. Melee Weapon Attack: +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 10 (2d6 + 3) fire damage. If the target is a creature or a flammable object, it ignites. Until a creature takes an action to douse the fire, the target takes 5 (1d10) fire damage at the start of each of its turns.
  • Another kind of lingering damage can be found on the giant toad.
    • Swallow. The toad makes one bite attack against a Medium or smaller target it is grappling. If the attack hits, the target is swallowed, and the grapple ends. The swallowed target is blinded and restrained, it has total cover against attacks and other effects outside the toad, and it takes 10 (3d6) acid damage at the start of each of the toad’s turns. The toad can have only one target swallowed at a time. If the toad dies, a swallowed creature is no longer restrained by it and can escape from the corpse using 5 feet of movement, exiting prone.
  • Auras are also similar to lingering damage, except the damage only lingers if characters don’t move about a bit. This example is from the balor.
    • Fire Aura. At the start of each of the balor’s turns, each creature within 5 feet of it takes 10 (3d6) fire damage, and flammable objects in the aura that aren’t being worn or carried ignite. A creature that touches the balor or hits it with a melee attack while within 5 feet of it takes 10 (3d6) fire damage.
  • The bearded devil has an attack that stacks wounds.
    • Glaive. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 10 ft., one target. Hit: 8 (1d10 + 3) slashing damage. If the target is a creature other than an undead or a construct, it must succeed on a DC 12 Constitution saving throw or lose 5 (1d10) hit points at the start of each of its turns due to an infernal wound. Each time the devil hits the wounded target with this attack, the damage dealt by the wound increases by 5 (1d10). Any creature can take an action to stanch the wound with a successful DC 12 Wisdom (Medicine) check. The wound also closes if the target receives magical healing.

Drain Ability Scores

A classic way to kill characters is to drain their ability scores. It’s a nasty trick that can require a bit of bookkeeping depending on the ability. Changing ability scores has a knock-on effect on other aspects of a character, such as their saving throw bonuses, the damage they deal, and even their hit point maximums. If any of a character’s ability scores are reduced to 0, they die. Here are some examples:

  • The shadow has an ability draining attack, despite being only CR 1/2!
    • Strength Drain. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 9 (2d6 + 2) necrotic damage, and the target’s Strength score is reduced by 1d4. The target dies if this reduces its Strength to 0. Otherwise, the reduction lasts until the target finishes a short or long rest.
      If a non-evil humanoid dies from this attack, a new shadow rises from the corpse 1d4 hours later.
  • A less lethal version can be found on the intellect devourer, though bear in mind it has a follow-up attack that can then kill the character by replacing its brain!
    • Devour Intellect. The intellect devourer targets one creature it can see within 10 feet of it that has a brain. The target must succeed on a DC 12 Intelligence saving throw against this magic or take 11 (2d10) psychic damage. Also on a failure, roll 3d6: If the total equals or exceeds the target’s Intelligence score, that score is reduced to 0. The target is stunned until it regains at least one point of Intelligence.

Add Exhaustion Levels

This one is particularly lethal, and best used sparingly. Attacks and abilities that cause characters to gain levels of exhaustion kill them quickly. Here’s what levels of exhaustion can do to a character (bear in mind that a creature suffers the effect of its current level of exhaustion as well as all lower levels).

Reach level six on this nasty little table and your character is dead. The death spiral of exhaustion makes it harder and harder to avoid getting more and more levels, so be wary of overusing this particular threat! Here are some examples:

  • The archomental of fire, Imix, can dish out exhaustion as a legendary action.
    • Heat Wave. Imix creates a blast of heat within 300 feet of himself. Each creature in the area in physical contact with metal objects (for example, carrying metal weapons or wearing metal armor) takes 9 (2d8) fire damage. Each creature in the area that isn’t resistant or immune to fire damage must make a DC 21 Constitution saving throw or gain one level of exhaustion.
  • So can the atropal.
    • Wail (Costs 3 Actions). The atropal lets out a withering wail. Any creature within 120 feet of the atropal that can hear the wail must succeed on a DC 19 Constitution saving throw or gain 1 level of exhaustion.

Add Poison Counters (or any counter)

I stole this idea right from Magic: the Gathering: ‘A poison counter is a counter that, unlike most other counters, is placed on players rather than objects. When a player has ten or more poison counters, that player loses the game. A player with at least one poison counter is considered poisoned.’

It’s really easy to steal this mechanic for our D&D games, and it doesn’t have to be restricted to poison either! We need to introduce an additional rule to the game for this to work. It could be appended to all attacks that add counters, but I’ll state it here (with a few levels of lethality) for ease:

  • A creature that has at least one poison counter is poisoned (and takes 1d4/6/10 poison damage at the start of each of its turns). If a creature has ten (or five, or three) or more poison counters, it drops to 0 hit points (and is dying, or dies outright). Finishing a long rest (or the protection from poison spell, or the greater restoration spell) removes one poison counter from a creature.

We can also change this easily to something like a stress counter, by swapping poisoned for stunned, poison damage for psychic damage, etc. Using counters like this isn’t dissimilar to exhaustion, but it removes the ‘death spiral’ associated with exhuastion. We can tack counters (such as poison counters) onto the attacks of other creatures that would normally do related damage. It’s worth considering whether targets of the attacks get a counter automatically, or if they have to make a save. Here are some examples:

  • A poisonous snake could be made far deadlier with the following attack alteration:
    • Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 1 piercing damage, and the target must make a DC 10 Constitution saving throw, taking 5 (2d4) poison damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one. If a creature takes poison damage in this way it gains one poison counter.
  • A magmic could dole out incineration tokens, which burn a creature to ash once they have too many of them.
    • Touch. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (2d6) fire damage. If the target is a creature and isn’t immune to fire damage it gains an incineration counter. A creature that has at least one incineration counter ignites. Until all its incineration counters are removed, the creature takes 2 (1d4) fire damage at the end of each of its turns. If a creature has ten or more incineration counters, it dies and burns to ash.

Drain Spell Slots

If you want to scare the spellcasters in your party, consider draining their spell slots. Although this isn’t lethal (unless you want to introduce a rule that having all your spell slots drained kills you) it is scary. In my experience, players are very protective of the old spell slots! I don’t think there are any examples of spell-slot draining monsters from WotC, but here’s an example of what it might look like:

  • Suck Spells. The spell sucker targets one creature with spell slots that it can see within 60 feet of it. That creature must succeed on a DC 16 Constitution saving throw or lose one of its current highest (or lowest) level spell slots.

Reduce Speed

Although it’s on the less deadly end of the spectrum, reducing a character’s speed is pretty nasty, as it prevents them from escaping from ranged attacks, fleeing from nasty melee combatants, and exiting auras and other area-of-effect spells and abilities. If you wanted to make this more lethal, you could add a rule that having your speed reduced to 0 has an additional effect, such as petrification or death. Here are some examples:

  • The water elemental myrmidon has the following attack option that reduces speed.
    • Freezing Strikes (Recharge 6). The myrmidon uses Multiattack. Each attack that hits deals an extra 5 (1d10) cold damage. A target that is hit by one or more of these attacks has its speed reduced by 10 feet until the end of the myrmidon’s next turn.
  • You could also add an attack to a creature that reduced speed and had an additional effect once a speed of 0 is reached.
    • Slowing Strike. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 6 (1d6 + 3) bludgeoning damage. If the target is a creature, it has its speed reduced by 10 feet. The target is stunned (petrified/dies) if this reduces its speed to 0. Otherwise, the reduction lasts until the target finishes a short or long rest.

Add Failed Death Saves

Failed death saves are scary things! Oftentimes, healers will wait until creatures have failed 2 of their potential 3 before healing their dying allies. Similarly, they’ll wait until a creature is at 0 hit points to heal, because a creature fights just as well at 1 hit point as they do at 100 hit points. A way to shake this up is to add failed death saves to creatures with attacks and abilities, or to add extra threat to dying characters. Remember that if you take any damage while you have 0 hit points, you suffer a death saving throw failure. If the damage is from a critical hit, you suffer two failures instead. If the damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum, you suffer instant death. This means you can add extra threat just by attacking creatures that are already dying, but you can add extra abilities to make this worse. Here are some examples:

  • The will-o’-wisp has this nasty trick up its sleeve, and it’s not even an entire action!
    • Consume Life. As a bonus action, the will-o’-wisp can target one creature it can see within 5 feet of it that has 0 hit points and is still alive. The target must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw against this magic or die. If the target dies, the will-o’-wisp regains 10 (3d6) hit points.
  • I don’t think there are creatures that stack death saving throw failures onto attacks, but if there were any, this might look like this.
    • Vicious Slash. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 6 (1d6 + 3) slashing damage. If this damage reduces the target to 0 hit points, they suffer a death saving throw failure.

Physical and Mental Damage

There are so many ways to mess with the bodies and minds of characters, but many of them might not be appropriate for your table. More than any other extra threat, this requires a frank conversation with your players about what they’re comfortable with at the table. Here are a few kinds of physical and mental damage you can inflict on a character:

  • Physical Damage. This includes any effect or condition that changes a character’s physical form. This might be things like petrification, mutations, disease, blinding, aging, shrinking, etc. Here are a few examples:
    • Horrifying Visage. Each non-undead creature within 60 feet of the ghost that can see it must succeed on a DC 13 Wisdom saving throw or be frightened for 1 minute. If the save fails by 5 or more, the target also ages 1d4 × 10 years. A frightened target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the frightened condition on itself on a success. If a target’s saving throw is successful or the effect ends for it, the target is immune to this ghost’s Horrifying Visage for the next 24 hours. The aging effect can be reversed with a greater restoration spell, but only within 24 hours of it occurring.
    • Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 3 (1d4 + 1) piercing damage, and the target must succeed on a DC 11 Constitution saving throw against being magically petrified. On a failed save, the creature begins to turn to stone and is restrained. It must repeat the saving throw at the end of its next turn. On a success, the effect ends. On a failure, the creature is petrified for 24 hours.
    • Warp Creature. The sibriex targets up to three creatures it can see within 120 feet of it. Each target must make a DC 20 Constitution saving throw. On a successful save, a creature becomes immune to this sibriex’s Warp Creature. On a failed save, the target is poisoned, which causes it to also gain 1 level of exhaustion. While poisoned in this way, the target must repeat the saving throw at the start of each of its turns. Three successful saves against the poison end it, and ending the poison removes any levels of exhaustion caused by it. Each failed save causes the target to suffer another level of exhaustion. Once the target reaches 6 levels of exhaustion, it dies and instantly transforms into a living abyssal wretch under the sibriex’s control. The transformation of the body can be undone only by a wish spell.
  • Mental Damage. This includes any effect or condition that changes a character’s mental capacities. This includes things like stunning, madness, mind-control, hallucinations, mental impairment, etc. Here are a few examples:
    • Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 8 (2d4 + 3) piercing damage, and the target must succeed on a DC 12 Constitution saving throw or be stunned until the end of its next turn. On a failed save, the target begins to hallucinate and is afflicted with a short-term madness effect (determined randomly or by the DM; see “Madness” in chapter 8 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide). The effect lasts 10 minutes.
    • Whispers of Madness. The allip chooses up to three creatures it can see within 60 feet of it. Each target must succeed on a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw, or it takes 7 (1d8 + 3) psychic damage and must use its reaction to make a melee weapon attack against one creature of the allip’s choice that the allip can see. Constructs and undead are immune to this effect.

Suffocation and Drowning

Honestly, suffocation is one of the deadliest things in D&D 5e. A creature can hold its breath for a number of minutes equal to 1 + its Constitution modifier (minimum of 30 seconds). When a creature runs out of breath or is choking, it can survive for a number of rounds equal to its Constitution modifier (minimum of 1 round). At the start of its next turn, it drops to 0 hit points and is dying, and it can’t regain hit points or be stabilized until it can breathe again. This means a character with a low Constitution score can die very quickly, and then be unable to regain hit points for who knows how long! Although it’s rare, some creatures can suffocate or drown others. Here are some examples:

  • The rug of smothering has a rather mundane version of suffocation.
    • Smother. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one Medium or smaller creature. Hit: The creature is grappled (escape DC 13). Until this grapple ends, the target is restrained, blinded, and at risk of suffocating, and the rug can’t smother another target. In addition, at the start of each of the target’s turns, the target takes 10 (2d6 + 3) bludgeoning damage.
    • I don’t know why this ability is caveated with ‘at risk of’ suffocating. If I run a rug, if it gets you there’s no chance to hold your breath, and therefore you immediately run out of breath.
  • A better example of suffocating can be found on the variant ettercap.
    • Web Garrote. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one Medium or Small creature against which the ettercap has advantage on the attack roll. Hit: 4 (1d4 + 2) bludgeoning damage, and the target is grappled (escape DC 12). Until this grapple ends, the target can’t breathe, and the ettercap has advantage on attack rolls against it.
    • Again the wording is a little weird, but I think we can assume that ‘can’t breathe’ here means the creature ‘runs out of breath’ as per the suffocation rules.
  • The nereid will drown you with a single kiss, and has perhaps the best worded version of this threat (apart from the no speaking bit, which seems redundant).
    • Drowning Kiss (Recharge 5–6). The nereid touches one creature it can see within 5 feet of it. The target must succeed on a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or take 22 (3d12 + 3) acid damage. On a failure, it also runs out of breath and can’t speak for 1 minute. At the end of each of its turns, it can repeat the save, ending the effect on itself on a success.
  • The kelpie can also drown creatures through charming them. It’s quite a long effect, so get your reading glasses on.
    • Drowning Hypnosis. The kelpie chooses one humanoid it can see within 150 feet of it. If the target can see the kelpie, the target must succeed on a DC 11 Wisdom saving throw or be magically charmed while the kelpie maintains concentration, up to 10 minutes (as if concentrating on a spell).
      The charmed target is incapacitated, and instead of holding its breath underwater, it tries to breathe normally and immediately runs out of breath, unless it can breathe water.
      If the charmed target is more than 5 feet away from the kelpie, the target must move on its turn toward the kelpie by the most direct route, trying to get within 5 feet. It doesn’t avoid opportunity attacks.
      Before moving into damaging terrain, such as lava or a pit, and whenever it takes damage from a source other than the kelpie or drowning, the target can repeat the saving throw. A charmed target can also repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns. If the saving throw is successful, the effect ends on it.
      A target that successfully saves is immune to this kelpie’s hypnosis for the next 24 hours.

Bonus Tips

  • When adding extra threat to a monster, try to start with the narrative first. Does it make sense for a raven’s bite to add poison counters? Probably not. If you still decide you want that to happen, how does that impact the narrative? Does the raven’s beak drip with green venom? Does it smell of bile and ammonia?
  • Consider where the extra threat coming from. Is it triggered by an attack, or is it from a passive effect such as an aura? See the fire elemental’s fire form, or the bodak’s death gaze.
  • Consider whether the extra threat is tied to being hit by an attack, or whether the target gets to make a saving throw to avoid it. Does it occur without either? A creature that dishes out levels of exhaustion to other creatures that start their turn within 10 feet of it without them making a save will kill characters fast.
  • Beware save or suck effects! Some conditions like stunned or incapacitated are often gifted to characters with just one failed saving throw. This means one roll might take them out of the entire fight. If you use these abilities, use them sparingly. Or, take Mike’s advice!


If you feel like your creatures aren’t punching as hard as their CR indicates, you can just double their damage. However, if you’re worried that adding damage is boring, consider using one or more of these 10 extra threats! Next week, I’ll talk a little about how you can add challenge using narrative, not mechanics.

The speak with dead Dilemma

Recently on the weekly Nord Games livestream, I chatted with Ben, Chris, Lou, and Ralph about how to design, write, and run murder mystery games for D&D. I think there was some good advice given in that chat, but I’d like to delve a little deeper into one of the topics that was raised.

Speak with Dead

One of the issues that comes up time and time again when murder mysteries corp up in D&D is the spell speak with dead.

This 3rd-level spell is available to 5th-level bards and clerics, and 9th-level warlocks as per the Basic Rules, but can be acquired in many other ways when we take into account the full melange of 5e rules. The reason that people struggle with speak with dead is that it essentially allows you to interview the best witness to the crime: the individual who was murdered. People often worry that this will totally derail a murder mystery, finishing the adventure before it’s even begun, but I think that’s entirely untrue. Used well, speak with dead can be a way to seed further clues to the characters and, even if you’ve been blindsided by it and are forced to use it poorly, it can at least be mitigated.

Stop the Spell

The easiest way to prevent speak with dead from ruining your murder mystery is simply to have the spell stopped in some way. We can get clues for this from the spell’s text, but also from other sources. Here are a few ways that speak with dead can be stopped.

  • Run the mystery for characters below 5th level. These characters are unlikely to have access to the spell, and are thus unlikely to cast it.
  • Keep the corpse out of range. The range for the spell is 10 ft. If the characters can’t ever get close enough (maybe the corpse is in a morgue, or was removed from the crime scene) then they can’t cast the spell.
  • Remove the corpse’s mouth. The spell doesn’t work if the corpse is mouthless. Maybe the killer cut out their tongue, tore off their jaw, or beheaded them.
  • Make the corpse undead. If the corpse is or was undead, the spell won’t work. This lets you have a zombie lurch at the cleric too, which is fun. Once the undead is killed it’s a little fuzzy as to whether you can cast speak with dead on the undead’s corpse. I’d rule no.
  • Consecutive casting. The spell fails if the corpse was already the target of this spell within the last 10 days. Maybe the killer already cast the spell to prevent it from being cast again, maybe the town guard did it, maybe there’s a PI on the case?
  • Unwilling/unable to return. If the soul of the creature is unable or unwilling to return, the spell would likely fail. The soul might be scared of returning to its own corpse, might abstain due to religious reasons, or might have already been dipped into the River Styx and had its memories wiped.
  • Counterspell/antimagic. Maybe the attacker left something on or near the body that prevents the casting of spells upon it?

Deflect the Spell

If you don’t want to stop the spell from being cast outright, you can instead ‘deflect’ the spell. It is still cast, but the characters just can’t quite get the information they need.

  • Unseen attacker. The victim never saw who murdered them because they were attacked from behind, in the dark, etc.
  • Disguised attacker. The victim saw their attacker, but they were disguised in some way. Perhaps they wore a mask, or were coated by illusion.
  • Different languages. The victim doesn’t share any languages with the characters. Maybe this prevents the victim from understanding the questions, or prevents the characters from understanding the responses. The investigation may be extended or complicated as characters try to translate.
  • Filibustering. The speak with dead spell has a duration of 10 minutes. If it takes the victim 10 minutes to answer one question, that limits the information characters can acquire.
  • Limited Questions. The caster only gets to ask the victim 5 questions. Be sure to listen out for any ‘accidental’ questions they might ask, such as ‘Hello?’ or ‘Did the spell work?’. This is a pretty cheap trick but can be amusing for the right group.
  • Brief. Answers given by the victim can be brief, forcing characters to use up further questions to gather additional, essential detail.
  • Repetitive. Questions that are similar by subtly different might be too nuanced for the victim, who simply repeats their previous answer (thus wasting a question from the caster).
  • Untruthful. If the victim recognises the characters as a potential threat or enemy, it can answer questions untruthfully. I’d also extend this to the victim feeling worried about their soul in the afterlife. Maybe they’ve received threats in the afterlife?

Use the Spell

The best response the speak with dead spell is to use it to deliver clues to the characters, but not give the whole game away. This way, characters are rewarded for using the spell, and the narrative is propelled forward, rather than coming to a screeching halt.

  • Unwilling attacker. The attacker was seen by the victim and can be identified. However, they committed the murder under duress. Maybe they were mind-controlled by a magic item or charmed by a spell.
  • Unusual death. If the attacker died in an unusual, particularly a delayed, fashion, they might be unable to give a full picture of their death, only able to reveal clues instead. If they were poisoned, they might never have realised. If they have been stabbed, perhaps a spell was cast upon them that forced them to conduct suicide.
  • Limited information. Perhaps the victim saw part of the attacker, but never the entire individual. They might know it was someone with black hair, someone wearing an apron, or someone with a certain signet ring, etc.
  • Cryptic. Answers given by the victim can be cryptic i.e. mysterious or obscure. Perhaps the victim knows who killed them, but their attempts to reveal it appear cryptic due to ‘magical transmission issues’. They might speak in riddles, for example.

Planned v Improvised

The tactic you use to get around the speak with dead spell might depend on whether you’re improvising (because you forgot about it, or didn’t realise the characters could cast it), or whether you’re preparing for it to be cast (because you already know the characters will use it). When improvising, it’s often better to simply stop or deflect the spell. If you choose to use the spell instead, you might find yourself adding details to the mystery that you’ve not accounted for. Be careful not to add new threads to the mystery by accident, as you might trip up on them later.

However, if you’re preparing your mystery in advance, then you can absolutely try to use the spell to seed in clues that hint at a more complex mystery, one involving mind-control or poison, for example.


Don’t let one spell put you off running a murder mystery. There are plenty of ways to stop speak with dead in its tracks, to make it less useful through deflection, or even to use it to your own advantage to seed clues to the characters.

Dark Magic Surge

As I’m running Curse of Strahd, I’m finding myself writing more and more content for running games in that Domain of Dread. Here’s a little snippet for use at your own tables. As part of a Dark Gift I’m creating to offer to one of my characters, I’ve rewritten the Wild Magic Surge from the Sorcerer class in the Player’s Handbook to be a little on the darker side…

Dark Magic Surge

01–02Roll on this table at the start of each of your turns for the next minute, ignoring this result on subsequent rolls.
03–04For the next minute, you can see any invisible creature if you have line of sight to it. Invisible creatures appear as skeletal versions of their true selves.
05–06A zombie rises from the earth in an unoccupied space within 5 feet of you. It tries to smash open your skull and eat your brain.
07–08You cast fireball as a 3rd-level spell centred on yourself. It appears as a burst of searing black smoke.
09–10You cast magic missile as a 5th-level spell. The darts resemble ethereal skulls.
11–12Roll a d10. Your weight changes by a number of stone (14 lbs.) equal to the roll. If the roll is odd, you shrink. If the roll is even, you grow.
13–14You cast confusion centred on yourself. While the spell lasts you babble incoherently.
15–16For the next minute, you lose 5 hit points at the start of each of your turns as open wounds appear all over your body. Magical healing ends this effect early.
17–18A plague of boils spread across your skin until you sneeze, at which point they explode.
19–20You cast grease centred on yourself as you vomit forth black ichor.
21–22Creatures have disadvantage on saving throws against the next spell you cast in the next minute that involves a saving throw. Until this occurs, you are shrouded in a tenebrous aura.
23–24Your skin turns the colour of ash. A remove curse spell can end this effect.
25–26A bloodshot eye appears on your forehead for the next minute. During that time, you have advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight.
27–28For the next minute, all your spells with a casting time of 1 action have a casting time of 1 bonus action. Each time you cast a spell, magical sigils bleed from your eyes.
29–30Your body melts into a gory sludge and instantaneously glides through the air up to 60 feet to an unoccupied space of your choice that you can see, where you reform.
31–32You are transported to the Astral Plane until the end of your next turn, after which time you return to the space you previously occupied or the nearest unoccupied space if that space is occupied.
33–34Maximize the damage of the next damaging spell you cast within the next minute. The next attack that hits you within the next minute deals maximum damage.
35–36Roll a d10. Your age changes by a number of years equal to the roll. If the roll is odd, you get younger (minimum 1 year old). If the roll is even, you get older.
37–381d6 stirges appear in unoccupied spaces within 60 feet of you. They try to drain you of your blood, but disappear after 1 minute.
39–40You lose 2d10 hit points as your skin sloughs off your flesh.
41–42You turn into an arm-sized maggot until the start of your next turn. While a maggot, you are incapacitated and have vulnerability to all damage. If you drop to 0 hit points, the maggot bursts, and your form reverts.
43–44For the next minute, you can teleport up to 20 feet as a bonus action on each of your turns. Each time you do, you turn into mist.
45–46You cast levitate on yourself as dark tendrils erupt from your chest and lift you aloft.
47–48You vomit up a black pudding that appears in a space within 5 feet of you. It tries to smother you, but disappears 1 minute later.
49–50You can’t speak for the next minute as your mouth is stitched shut.
51–52Bone-like protrusions erupt from your skin and remain for 1 minute, granting you a +2 bonus to AC.
53–54You are immune to being intoxicated by alcohol for the next 5d6 days, but each time you drink an alcoholic beverage it gives you an irrepressibly itchy rash.
55–56Your hair falls out but grows back within 24 hours.
57–58For the next minute, any flammable object you touch that isn’t being worn or carried by another creature bursts into screaming purple flame.
59–60You regain your lowest-level expended spell slot as all shadows within 30 feet of you are sucked into your own.
61–62For the next minute, you must scream when you speak.
63–64You cast fog cloud centred on yourself. Skeletal figures can be seen dancing in the fog.
65–66Up to three creatures you choose within 30 feet of you take 4d10 psychic damage as they see a false glimpse of their own demise.
67–68You are frightened by the nearest creature until the end of your next turn. While frightened, you think that creature is trying to kill you.
69–70Each creature within 30 feet of you becomes invisible for the next minute. The invisibility ends on a creature when it attacks or casts a spell. When a creature’s invisibility ends, they appear covered in blood.
71–72You gain resistance to all damage for the next minute as your skin is covered by a thick, scab-like layer.
73–74A random creature within 60 feet of you becomes poisoned for 1d4 hours. During this time, they vomit noisily and productively.
75–76You glow with bright, blood-red light in a 30-foot radius for the next minute. Any creature that ends its turn within 5 feet of you is blinded until the end of its next turn.
77–78You cast polymorph on yourself. If you fail the saving throw, you turn into a toad for the spell’s duration.
79–80Illusory bats or locusts swarm in the air within 10 feet of you for the next minute.
81–82You can take one additional action immediately. The strain of it causes your bones to crack and flesh to stretch. You suffer one level of exhaustion.
83–84Each creature within 30 feet of you takes 1d10 necrotic damage. You regain hit points equal to the sum of the necrotic damage dealt. Their noses bleed, and the blood flows into your mouth.
85–86You cast mirror image. You and the illusory duplicates appear corpselike until the spell ends.
87–88You cast fly on a random creature within 60 feet of you. That creature sprouts bat-like wings for the duration of the spell.
89–90You become petrified for the next minute. You can make attempt a DC 15 Charisma saving throw at the end of each of your turns, ending the effect on a success.
91–92If you die within the next minute, your corpse immediately reanimates as if by the animate dead spell. When your corpse is slain, you immediately come back to life as if by the reincarnate spell.
93–94Your size increases by one size category for the next minute as your body bloats into a fleshy mound.
95–96You and all creatures within 30 feet of you gain vulnerability to piercing damage for the next minute as your skin turns papery thin.
97–98You are surrounded by haunting, ethereal music for the next minute.
99–00You die.

Failing Forward

In a previous article I talked about when and when not to ask for a roll in a game session. This time, I’m going to provide a little advice on what to do when rolls fail, which is a fundamental part of gaming.

One of the conditions for asking for an ability check that I outlined in the article was that ‘the consequences of failure are interesting’. What I meant by that was that if the only result of a failed roll is that the thing the character is attempting doesn’t happen, then it’s probably not worth rolling. There’s no tension there, and therefore I’d argue no real interest.

One important skill that GMs can learn is the concept of failing forward. By this, I mean turning the failed check into a success at a cost. Typically an interesting narrative or mechanical cost. It provides an interesting consequence for failure. I’m sort of lumping this in with the idea of ‘pushing a roll’, which is where a character fails but has the opportunity to roll again, or to succeed, again at a cost. I’m going to talk briefly about both parts here, but I also have a product co-written with Molly Meadows, a dear friend of mine, called Striving for Success that goes into great detail with examples, specifically for 5th Edition D&D.

Pushing the Roll

When a character attempts an ability check or roll and fails, a ‘push the roll’ mechanic allows them to either reroll or simply turn their failure into a success at a cost. I learnt about this mechanic from Call of Cthulhu and Tales from the Loop, but I’m sure it exists elsewhere too. In Tales from the Loop, you can retry a failed roll by checking a condition that has a detrimental mechanical impact on your character. It’s a neat way to allow a character to reattempt something they failed at, which means that bottlenecks and missed clues are less likely.

Sarah tries to bash open a door. She rolls and fails. She pushes the roll to try again, checks a negative condition on her sheet, and rolls again. This time she succeeds, yay!

Failing Forward

This is similar to pushing the roll in that it provides success at a cost. The failed roll stands; you succeed but not in the way you hoped, or with unforeseen consequences that negatively impact you in an interesting way. It’s slightly different to pushing the roll in that success is guaranteed from the start, but that the degree of success is altered by the result. There’s a slightly more nuanced version of this in Powered by the Apocalpyse games such as Dungeon World or a new favourite of mine, Paranormal Inc.. In these games your rolls give levels of success, some of which come at a cost. When failing forward, and having success come at a cost, it’s always best to communicate it to the players ahead of time.

Sarah tries to bash down a door. She rolls and fails the roll. Her action still succeeds; the door is bashed down, but because her roll was poor, something bad happens.


Sarah tries to bash down a door. She rolls and fails the roll. The GM offers her the option to have her action succeed, but warns that it will come at the cost of something bad happening.


The following costs can be used as costs for failure (i.e. making failure interesting) or as costs of success after a pushed roll, or when failing forward.

Narrative Costs

Narrative costs tend to be more interesting than mechanical ones. They are consequences that occur in the narrative, outside of the rules. They include things like alerting nearby guards with noise, taking extra time, giving away your real identity, or similar fictional consequences. It’s sometimes hard to improvise these sort of costs in game, so consider asking your players what narrative costs they can think of.

Sarah failed her roll to slam down the door. The door is still bashed open, but the loud bang it makes draws in a foe from a neighbouring room.

Mechanical Costs

Mechanical costs can sometimes be a bit dry, but they require less improvisation and can also serve as a sort of ‘catch all’ for costs that are linked to mental, spiritual, physical, or any other of a wide range of actions. In Tales from the Loop and other Year Zero games, the cost to push a roll is checking a condition (such as Upset or Scared). These conditions reduce the size of your dice pool, and thus make it harder to succeed. In Call of Cthulhu, the character takes a dangerous additional action to push the roll. For example, they might risk arrest by pushing a roll to try and persuade a police officer – if their second, pushed, roll fails, they get arrested. Although 5th Edition D&D doesn’t have such a mechanic, I consider levels of exhaustion to be perfectly acceptable. They’re not bad at mimicking both mental and physical exhaustion, and they’re not so punishing at low levels to be unusable. Again, see Striving for Success for more specific examples.

Sarah failed her roll to slam down the door. The door is still bashed open, but Sarah gains a level of exhaustion because of the physical exertion.


It’s not always easy to come up with interesting consequences for failed rolls, or costs that a character might take to succeed, but coming up with these things allows us to fail forward or allow pushed rolls that can stop the narrative of a game from getting stuck behind a failed roll. It’s a useful skill for a GM to have when a character fails at a clutch moment, and you feel the story stalling.

To roll, or not to roll.

To Roll or Not to Roll…

Something that I think many game masters and writers are guilty of is asking for ability checks too frequently, in a way that disturbs that narrative flow and works against the characters, rather than in their favour. In this article, I hope to give some advice on how to use ability checks in your games (forgive the cliché opening).

The D&D 5th Edtion Player’s Handbook defines an ability check thus:

An ability check tests a character’s or monster’s innate talent and training in an effort to overcome a challenge. The DM calls for an ability check when a character or monster attempts an action (other than an attack) that has a chance of failure. When the outcome is uncertain, the dice determine the results.

I think, for the most part, this is something most D&D players, especially most DMs could have had a good guess at, if not quoting it verbatim. However, I think we often forget a small part of that definition that is fundamental to helping the flow of a game: ‘has a chance of failure’. We game masters should not be asking for an ability check if the characters’ can’t fail to do something. This seems logical – we’d never ask for an ability check to breathe clean air, pick up a banana, or read a book in a language known to the character. That said, I have previously asked for ability checks to, for example, search for tracks, even though there’s a ranger with proficiency in Survival in the party. Was there really a chance that the ranger would fail given their expertise? Probably not and, in asking for the roll, we’ve slowed the game down and introduced a chance that the party misses what is likely to be an important clue or story link.

Furthermore, this ‘chance of failure’ needs to extend beyond character capability into the narrative. If the characters need to discover a piece of information for a narrative to continue, then I would argue there is no chance of failure. This is because if failure does occur, the game comes to a standstill. That’s rubbish for everyone at the table, so narratively there is no chance of failure. This is a problem I’ve encountered in games, but also in writing. Sometimes important clues are barred by ability checks which, if failed, basically ruin the adventure.

Moreover, I don’t think ‘a chance of failure’ is always quite enough. Sometimes things can fail and the result of that failure is meaningless and boring. If we refer back to the ranger example – if that ranger can’t find the tracks, what’s the consequence? They don’t get to continue on their quest? They have to turn back and forget about it? Maybe they just spend six hours searching and find the prints eventually? None of these options are exciting.

So, I’d say that ability checks should only be called for when there’s a chance of failure, and when the consequences of failure are interesting. A lot of this comes from the concept of failing forward – accepting the failed check but still advancing the narrative. In our example, the player fails the roll, but the ranger still finds the tracks – it just takes them three hours and now the goblins they’re after have had time to recruit wolf allies. Or perhaps the ranger finds the tracks quickly, but the process of searching frantically is mentally strenuous, and they gain a level of exhaustion. Another option is the ranger doesn’t get all the information they were hoping for – they can see which direction the tracks go in, but not how many goblins made them. These consequences of failure are interesting, or at least impactful on the game, and allow the narrative to continue rather than shutting it down.

I’d also urge game masters never to ask for an ability check before a player has described their character’s actions. How often has a GM asked you to make a Perception check or a Spot Hidden roll even though you didn’t mention your character was searching for something? This sort of thing can pull a player out of the narrative, and break immersion. Although D&D doesn’t have much to say on this, Dungeon World says begin and end with the fiction. Don’t ask for a check unless a character’s actions warrant it, just like a Dungeon World move is only triggered when a character does something in the fiction to trigger it.


I think we often ask for ability checks too often, and at the wrong times. When thinking about ability checks, we should ask ourselves:

  • Did the character’s action trigger this check?
  • Is there a reasonable chance of failure?
  • Does failure have interesting consequences?

If the answer to these questions isn’t yes, it’s perhaps worth just describing how the characters succeed at what they’re attempting to do, rather than slowing the game or hindering the narrative with a dice roll.

Note to Writers

Don’t hide information behind ability checks, it’ll ruin your narrative. I’ve made the mistake myself in the past, and it’s something I specifically ask editors to look out for in my writing. Players often struggle to piece together clues to reveal the full picture, so don’t deny them the satisfaction by bottlenecking or barring with checks! It’ll make your adventure a lot harder for GMs to run.

Top 5 Tips for Convention GMs

Last weekend I was at the UK Games Expo 2021 – the largest tabletop convention in the UK that covers board games, tabletop roleplaying games, collectable card games, and some of the weird and wonderful stuff in between. On Friday I attended a load of seminars about writing and design, Saturday I was filled with games, and Sunday with shopping. On the Saturday I played Tales from the Loop – a favourite of mine as well as Alien and Call of Cthulhu – both new to me. All three games were fun, and had some memorable moments, but I have a few tips here to help GMs run smoother, more exciting games at conventions.

5. Listen to the Players

This is such a basic tip that it almost shouldn’t be here. Too often during the games the GM was not listening to the players. They might have asked to do one thing, and then the GM narrates a scene where they do something else. Or the GM might shut down the ideas of a player without any real justification. Being able to communicate clearly with players is a fundamental part of being a good GM, and listening is the foundation of that skill.

4. Don’t Ask for Unnecessary Checks

The basic format of a roleplaying game is;

  1. GM describes a scene
  2. The player describes how their character reacts
  3. The GM narrates the result

Sometimes it’s necessary to add another couple of steps;

  1. GM describes a scene
  2. The player describes how their character reacts
  3. The GM asks for a roll
  4. The player rolls
  5. The GM narrates the result

There are variations on this – what kind of roll is made, whether the player narrates the result instead of the GM, etc. – but it is structurally similar. The trouble I saw a few times in my games at UKGE was GMs asking for unnecessary checks. Most characters are simply capable of doing things – a pilot can fly a ship when they’re not under any stress, for example, or a history buff can tell what era a common military uniform is from. In my opinion, a GM should only ask for a check when at least one of the following is true:

  • There is a reasonable chance of failure
  • There is an interesting consequence of failure

When we ask for too many checks, it slows down sessions and can make players feel that their characters are inept. This is also true for GMs asking the players for checks before the players describe what they’re doing. If the characters walk into a library, and you ask for a Spot Hidden roll before the players describe their characters searching the room, you’ve broken the natural flow of the game. Some games have passive skills to combat this, which I think is a great solution.

In short, only ask for checks when failure is likely and/or interesting, and only ever ask for checks in response to something occurring in the narrative of the game. I’ll probably write a full article about this topic at some point.

3. Let the Players Win

Like SlyFlourish says; ‘be a fan of the characters’. This concept, coined in Dungeon World, is another fundamental skill of a great GM. You should enjoy it when the characters succeed against all odds, and show only an appropriate amount of glee when they fail. In my games, this was certainly true for the most part. However, there were some occasions where it seemed like the GM thought we’d done ‘too well’. For example, during the Alien game, we managed to escape an alien-infested ship in the nick of time, saving the members of our own crew in a tense final chase through the ship’s corridors. However, once we’d succeeded, we didn’t get a final hurrah, we instead had to make three more checks to get away. We felt like we’d already succeeded, but we still had to make more checks that felt meaningless. What would have happened if we failed? Would the ship have exploded? Would the alien have got on board? We were already running over time… In this instance, it felt as if the GM wanted to give us a few more chances to mess up, rather than let us relish the victory.

Instead, I’d recommend rolling with the punches as the GM. If the players unexpectedly do incredibly well, lean into it! Let them enjoy it, and you’ll enjoy it too. Similarly, if things are going awfully for the characters and, importantly, the players aren’t enjoying that, then give them a chance to catch their breath, a lucky break that raises their spirits.

2. Start Strong

I’ve spoken about this in an article before, but it’s especially important in one-shots or at conventions. Wherever possible, start in media res. In the Call of Cthulhu game, we started out hunting pheasants. We went through three rounds of game hunting before the inciting event occurred that ‘started’ the mystery. This was fine, in fact it was vaguely amusing seeing people hit or miss the birds, but it also used up 15 minutes that we could really have used toward the finale of the adventure (see below).

The other advantage of starting strong is that it gives the characters (and players) an idea of what they can expect from the rest of the session. It sets the tone quickly and helps the players dive into the story rather than umming and erring about who their characters are.

1. Watch the Time

Every single game I played over the weekend overran. Some by more than an hour. In two cases, we had to rush the end, in the third, the GM kept play running even though we’d clearly already finished the scenario (see Let the Players Win). I’ve already covered the latter game, so I’ll talk about the first two instead.

In the first of these games, we’d spent a lot of time early on making no progress. It was sorta frustrating, and the GM didn’t seem bothered about pushing the narrative. We eventually found the main crux of the adventure, and the neat things the GM had set up for us, but by the time we had there was no time for us to do anything. Instead, the GM just narrated exactly what happened without asking us at all, and then told us all how great we were for saving the day, despite the fact we’d done nothing… 

In the second of these games, we spent a lot of time investigating to no avail. I got the impression we’d failed some important rolls, though eventually we managed to put it all together and solve the mystery. An important NPC was supposed to make a sacrifice, so instead we shipped them off to the seaside where they couldn’t continue with their ritual. Unfortunately, the GM just continued the adventure as if we’d done nothing. The ritual still happened, and we had to squeeze in a final encounter that was really rushed.

In both of these instances, the GMs hadn’t kept an eye on the clock, and thus the pacing was off. We didn’t have any time for the final encounters, and thus the GM took control of the game and deprived us of agency. Thus, my top tip for convention GMs is to keep your eye on the clock! Have a rough idea of how long your adventure is going to take, and cut stuff from the beginning and middle to ensure the end is satisfying.


These tips should help you to run better convention games, one-shots, and I think single sessions of a campaign too, especially if you treat them episodically. It might be the case that you’re already great at some of these elements, but there are others that you feel weaker in. That’s fine, the only way to get better is to practice! Even though I think the games I played could have been better, I still had a good time in each of them – roleplaying games are a forgiving storytelling medium that are easy to enjoy!

Running Short Sessions

Here in the UK, I’m moving back to gaming in person with my group! It’s a welcome change from online play but, due to scheduling issues, we’re still having to play online every now and then. While I can play for hours in person, I find that when I’m playing online my attention starts to wane pretty quickly. This article’s going to talk about running short sessions; both why and how.

Why Run Short Sessions?

There are two main reasons to run short sessions:

  • Not everyone has a great attention span – especially not when playing online
  • Scheduling issues – sometimes we might only have a couple of hours to play

Speaking for myself, my attention span for online games is awful. I basically stop paying any attention after about 2 hours, I just can’t keep my mind focused. I’m the sort of person that is revitalised by social interaction, but for some reason I find that the ‘indirect’ interaction of online play just doesn’t work for me. I also think that 2 hours is a good length because it’s around the length of a film, and our brains are used to watching films. We’ve decided that 1.5-2.5 hours is enough time for a satisfying narrative arc in other media, so why not stick with that trick?

My group is also spread out across a couple of counties, for some folks that means a 40-minute drive to get here (which is far in the UK). If we can’t set aside a weekend day to play, we pretty much have to play online as by the time everyone’s got home from work, had dinner, and driven here, we wouldn’t have long to play at all – nevermind if someone forgot their character sheet!

So, I suggest that we adopt the philosophy of running short sessions. It should mean people stay focused, and you might find time to play when you otherwise struggle.

How to Run Short Sessions

There’s plenty of advice out there on how to run short sessions, not least this VERY detailed article from RPG Bot about running 1 hour sessions (too short in my opinion). It contains a lot of useful information, but it’s a long read, and I think it goes a little too deep into the minutiae, to the extent that your prep for the game is going to take longer for your game to be shorter. I’m the sort of DM that likes to do intense prep, but I think that increasing prep time to decrease session time is a little self-defeating. Instead, here are my top 5 tips for running short sessions:

  1. Cut boring content
  2. Trim descriptions
  3. Run fast and deadly combat
  4. Skip scenes
  5. Structure your Session

Cut Boring Content

This tip sort of assumes you’re running a published campaign, or at least one that you’ve got pre-planned content for. In writing, we’re encouraged to ‘kill our darlings’ i.e. remove stuff that, even though we like it, is unnecessary for the main story. You need to do the same thing when you’re running a short session. If there’s an awesome NPC you wanted the characters to meet, but they’re not really relevant to the main plot, you should probably discard them, or find a way to link them to the plot. The latter is more work, and we’re not trying to increase prep time, so I’d say cut them out, and save them for another day. The same is true for empty dungeon rooms, needless random encounters, and a range of other boring content that you can bin. Stick with the plot-heavy stuff.

Trim Descriptions

Some published campaigns, and some DMs, like to give amazingly vivid descriptions that engage all the senses and thrill the players. There’s a real art to this, and it almost becomes a piece of media on its own, a kind of flash fiction meets poetry reading that we all get to enjoy at the table. However, when you’re running short sessions, especially when running online or when attention spans are slipping, you need to trim these down. This serves three purposes. First, it saves time as you’re speaking less. Second, it prevents players losing focus while you talk. Third, it stops characters investigating things that are atmospheric, but not key to the plot.

Here’s an example of read-aloud text from Curse of Strahd that can easily be trimmed (spoilers):

Flickering candles in iron holders fill this room with light and shadows. This room has a ten-foot-high ceiling and a large black pentagram inscribed on the stone floor. At each point of the pentagram rests a wooden chair. Seated in four of the five chairs are men and women in black robes with hoods: a young man who has the face of an angel; a balding hulk of a man; a squat, middle-aged woman; and a taller, younger woman with an unsettling glare. They rise to confront you.

All this to describe a room with some nameless cult fanatics. All that happens in this room is the cultists get up and fight the characters. If you’re not cutting it entirely (see previous point), at least trim down the read-aloud.

Flickering candles fill this room with dim light. The chamber has a large black pentagram inscribed on the floor, at each point of which is a wooden chair. Seated in these are four black-robed individuals.

Who really cares how high the ceiling is anyway? Why mention what the candles are in? Why mention the cultists’ response, which only happens if they actually see the characters? If you spend 5 minutes before your session trimming description, I guarantee it’ll save 30 minutes in-game.

Run Fast and Deadly Combat

Combat is the slowest part of any D&D game, and probably the slowest part of any TTRPG. It tends to be the area with the most associated rules (though not always) and thus takes a lot of rolling dice, looking up features, comparing numbers, and so on. My suggestion to combat this is to run fast and deadly combat. Up the monster damage, and drop their hit points. If you’re worried about balance – don’t be! You can always adjust on the fly, and remember that we’re cutting boring content already, which might include non-threatening combat scenes.

Let’s take a look at the scene from Curse of Strahd again. There are four cult fanatics in that chamber to take on 4-6, 5th level characters. At a challenge rating of 2, using the wonky encounter building math, that’s somewhere between a Hard and Easy encounter depending on the number of characters. Cult fanatics have 33 hit points (6d8 + 6) and do an average of 27 damage a round (upcast inflict wounds for 22 (4d10) plus spiritual weapon 5 (1d8 + 1)). Now, normally I’d suggest starting with a couple castings of hold person followed up by inflict wounds, but that takes up time as characters are making saves, and you’re looking up exactly what paralysed means in-game etc.

So, make the combat fast and deadly. Characters roll initiative, you take 10 + Dex, 12 in this case. Saves a roll. Give the cult fanatics their minimum hit points, 12, or better yet say they die once they’ve taken two hits. Don’t roll their damage, use the average roll or max it out for a really deadly encounter. Fanatics dealing 49 damage a round are scary, but not so bad because they die fast. Probably by initiative 12 half of them will be dead anyway.

Running combat like this saves time by reducing the number of rounds and the number of rolls. Furthermore, it keeps the players engaged because their characters are in deadly situations!

Skip Scenes

This is like ‘Cut Boring Content’, but happens on the fly rather than during prep. I speak a little bit about this in my Episodic Sessions article. When a scene that has no impact on the plot occurs, skip it. Simple, just like when we’re cutting content beforehand. If the characters are walking across a city, don’t worry about describing it or rolling for encounters, just tell them they arrive and maybe tell them something interesting they saw on the way – don’t give them an opportunity to interact with it. If the characters are going to a shop to buy a sword, tell them the price of the sword and have them do the accounting. Don’t roleplay it out unless that shopkeeper is essential to the plot. These things would otherwise be fun, light-hearted moments, but in a short session we don’t have too much time for those. There’s plenty of fun to be had following the plot, rather than diving down rabbit holes. Yes you’re ‘railroading’ the characters a bit, but they’ll thank you when you end on a big reveal because they didn’t spend 30 minutes haggling and laughing at the bartender’s hastily thought up name.

Another thing to skip are unnecessary dice rolls. If the druid wants to identify a plant, don’t ask them to make a check, just tell them the answer unless failure is seriously interesting. If the result would just be “You can’t identify it”, “Oh okay, I’ll just leave it then”, you should just let them succeed. Similarly, if the fighter wants to move a boulder in the cave’s entrance just let them, instead of forcing them to find another way in. Don’t roll monster initiative or damage. Don’t roll random encounters. Wherever you can help it, don’t roll! This might sound like you’re no longer playing a game, and it’s not for everyone, but I find it just places greater emphasis on the rolls that do matter, and saves you table time.

Structure your Session

Think about how your session is going to flow. The RPG Bot article asks you to break your session down into 5-minute blocks. That’s a little much if you ask me. Instead, think about short and long scenes. Fast and deadly combat is probably a short scene, as is conversing with an NPC to get a plot point. Battling a BBEG or researching the next arc of the campaign is a long scene. In a two-hour game, you can probably fit in eight short scenes, and a long scene is probably worth 3 short. Try to guide your players toward the scenes you’ve prepared. It might not always be possible, but in my experience a little nudge goes a long way. Remember to open with a Strong Start and plan an Exciting End. Both of these should help engage players, and reduce the time spent re-explaining things.

Bonus: Engage the Players

Most of what we’ve covered above talks about saving time by changing the way a session runs. Another way to save time is to engage the players. This saves time because it keeps them focussed on the game. They know what they want to do on their next turn in combat. They haven’t forgotten why they’re here or who that NPC is. They’re hanging on your every word, so they don’t end up going down rabbit holes based on miscommunication. The easiest way to engage players is to constantly appeal to their characters. You can do this through deadly combat, and by weaving in character-centric plot points. Try to spotlight each character at least once by giving them a chance to do something awesome. Also, if it seems that focus is drifting by the hour mark, take a 5-10 minute break. Folks should come back a little more switched on, and all you need do is cut a short scene from your structure.


Hopefully, this article has given some guidance on how and why to run short sessions. It’s really catered for D&D sessions though. There are plenty of games that are short by nature and, if these ideas don’t work out for you, I’d encourage you to check out other games that better fit your schedule.

Combat as a Complex Trap

I often find that for cinematic combat scenes, the mechanics of D&D don’t quite achieve exactly what I need them to. Specifically, I don’t think 5th Edition is great at handling hordes of creatures – like a chamber filled with skeletons – or creatures of immense proportion and epic challenge – like a kraken that eats ships for breakfast, or any creature with the Siege Monster feature.

One way I’ve been thinking of changing things up in this regard is to use the mechanics laid out in the Complex Traps section of chapter 2, page 118, of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Here they define complex traps;

A complex trap poses multiple dangers to adventurers. After a complex trap activates, it remains dangerous round after round until the characters avoid it or disable it. Some complex traps become more dangerous over time, as they accumulate power or gain speed.

Complex traps are also more difficult to disable than simple ones. A single check is not enough. Instead, a series of checks is required to slowly disengage the trap’s components. The trap’s effect degrades with each successful check until the characters finally deactivate it.

Most complex traps are designed so that they can be disarmed only by someone who is exposed to the trap’s effect. 

Does this sound so far away from a cinematic combat encounter like we described? A monster or group thereof that poses multiple dangers to adventurers that remains dangerous round after round until avoided or disabled. Some become more dangerous over time. All require a series of checks, or perhaps attacks, to destroy. I think it’s pretty similar, and I’m going to give some guidelines here about how to run combat as a complex trap.

If you think this is awful, reply with some hate mail or call me out on Twitter!

Combat Trap Anatomy

Each complex trap is made up of certain codified elements defined in XGtE. Here I’m going to break those elements down, talk about how they can be repurposed for what I’m calling a ‘combat trap’, and give examples as I go. I’ll also give some full examples at the end of the email.

Level and Threat

We all know that challenge rating is broken. It just doesn’t accurately represent the challenge of a monster. However, in XGtE there’s a great set of tables that show us how to alter the damage, DC, and spell level of traps based on the level of character the trap is designed for, and the threat level of the trap. These tables aren’t infallible, but they’ll give a good idea of what numbers to use for your combat traps.

Example. Let’s say you want a skeletal swarm that should be a deadly threat for your 6th level characters. By following the table guidelines, we can see that their abilities should have a save DC of 20, their attacks should have a +12 to hit, they should deal 55 (10d10) points of damage to one character or 35 (10d6) damage to multiple characters (the swap of a d10 for a d6 is explained in the paragraph above the tables, which can be found on page 116). If we wanted the skeletal swarm to have spellcasting abilities (or at least abilities that might have the same effects as spells, such as fear) the table tells us that 6th level spells would be deadly.

NB. These tables work out pretty well, if we assume that the trap does, indeed, do 35 points of damage a round to the 6th level characters, they’ll be dead in two rounds (assuming they have average hit points, are hit by all effects, and do nothing to stop it).


This is probably the least important element of our combat traps, but it can make it more interesting. It’s always useful to consider ways that characters encounter monsters beyond just walking into their bedroom and finding them standing in the centre of the chamber staring deadpan at the door.

Example. Perhaps the kraken is only summoned from the depths if a ship is sailed out past the beacons, and the skeletal swarm animates from a pile of bones when a cursed treasure is picked up.


If you’re rolling initiative for your monsters you’re insane. Just take 10 + Dex and spend the time you saved arranging the initiative cards of the characters. XGtE suggests that complex traps that are slow should act on initiative count 10, fast on 20, and very fast on both 20 and 10. For our combat trap, consider how many different attacks the monster can make rather than its speed. If the monster can make one attack per round set it as ‘slow’, 2 or 3 as ‘fast’, and 4 or more as ‘very fast’. When determining the number of attacks per round, discount ‘repeat’ attacks i.e. a duplicate of the same attack from the same source, like two bites from multiattack. If you want to customise this a little more, feel free to add the initiative bonus of the monster to these static scores.

Example. Skeletons in the Monster Manual don’t have multiattack or any other way to get attacks save opportunity attacks, which I’m ignoring. Thus, I set their initiative as ‘slow’ – they act on 10. I feel like making them slightly harder on the characters though, so I boost it to 12 by adding their Dexterity modifier. A kraken can make four different kinds of attacks – tentacles as part of multiattack, fling as part of multiattack, tentacle as legendary action, and lightning storm as legendary action. I set its speed as ‘very fast’ – acting on 20 and 10.

Active Elements

These are basically the combat trap’s attacks. You just had a look at them while determining initiative, so you have an idea of the flavour, but the actual numbers should come from the table in the ‘Level and Threat’ section. That table tells what the save DC, attack bonus, and damage should be. You just need to decide what’s most relevant for your monster.

Example. Skeletons have shortsword or shortbow attacks. In my imagination, I see them clawing at the characters, so I’m going to ignore the bows and swap to slashing damage for raking claws, rather than piercing from swords. Thus, I create the ‘Raking Claws’ active element which occurs on initiative 10, has a +12 bonus to the roll, and deals 10 (3d6) slashing damage on a hit (the other 7d6 damage is coming later on).

For the kraken this process is much more involved – they should definitely have a tentacle attack in there, also a fling or something similar, plus an active element similar to a lightning storm. Always put the fiction first – think about what the kraken is doing and then make your elements.

Dynamic Elements

These represent threats that arise or evolve while the combat trap is in play. Basically things that get better or worse over time or because of the characters’ actions. If your combat trap gets deadlier over time or as the characters ‘disarm’ it, then consider starting your damage slightly lower (say two dice of damage) than the table suggests. Similarly, if the damage lessens over time or through countermeasures, start the damage of your active elements two dice of damage higher.

Example. I like the idea that over time, more and more skeletons begin to animate and join the swarm. Thus, I say that the combat trap has the dynamic element ‘Growing Swarm’ which says that the damage from the Raking Claws element increases by 7 (2d6) each round after it activates, to a maximum of 56 (16d6). I got this maximum from the table too – the amount of damage that should be dealt to one character by a trap of this level and threat. It’s a good benchmark, and it’ll probably never rise that high anyway. For the kraken, it makes sense to keep tentacle and fling-like attacks static in damage, but maybe the gathering lightning storm increases in damage over time.

Constant Elements

Constant elements pose a threat to characters even when it’s not the combat trap’s turn. They typically make attack rolls or force saving throws. These could be things like damage-dealing auras, riotous swarms of flailing limbs, environmental effects drawn from lair actions, or similar effects. They typically affect creatures that end their turn in a certain area. Feel free to be as specific or vague as you like – within the kraken’s reach is just as good as within 30 feet of the kraken, given that these are cinematic scenes rather than strictly gridded combat.

Example. As it’s a massive, growing swarm, I figure that the pile of skeletons might surround the characters. They need to dodge the flailing limbs of these undead, which is no mean feat. I come up with the Flailing Limbs constant element; creatures that end their turn in the swarm’s area (being intentionally vague here) must succeed on a DC 20 Dexterity saving throw, taking 17 (5d6) bludgeoning damage on a failed save, or half as much on a successful one.


These combat traps are not just bags of hit points like a normal combat encounter. They’re cinematic scenes where certain conditions must be met to win, which goes beyond just pummeling the kraken to deal with a mace. Consider this text from XGtE:

A trap can be defeated in a variety of ways. A trap’s description details the checks or spells that can detect or disable it. It also specifies what happens, if anything, on a failed attempt to disable it.

Disabling a complex trap is like disarming a simple trap, except that a complex trap requires more checks. It typically takes three successful checks to disable one of a complex trap’s elements. Many of these traps have multiple elements, requiring a lot of work to shut down every part of the trap. Usually, a successful check reduces a trap element’s effectiveness even if it doesn’t disable the trap.

Try to think about which elements of your combat trap could be ‘disabled’ or defeated. What sort of spells and checks would achieve this? If attack rolls make sense i.e. the creatures in the combat trap can be stabbed to death, then include them! For an AC, rip the DC from the tables at the top, or use the actual AC of the creature. If you want, a successful hit could count as a ‘successful check’ to disarm the trap. To make it harder, consider having a damage threshold – only attacks that deal 10 damage or more count as successful, for example. If you’re using damage thresholds, I’d suggest 10 damage from a single attack for a moderate threat, 20 damage for a dangerous threat, and 50 for a deadly threat. Of course, vary this as makes sense to the narrative. Maybe your kraken is so colossal that stabbing it with a pike just doesn’t bother it at all, or perhaps it’s a sinewy creature that is easily chopped up.

Remember that countermeasures can be used to detect the trap in the first place, to disable some element of the trap once it’s been activated, or to mitigate the damage of the trap once activated. Take a look at the Path of Blades trap on page 118 for examples. Some elements can be dodged, some damaged, some are impervious, and there are a few specific ways to actually disable the trap.

Example. My skeletal swarm was triggered by a cursed treasure item, so I decide that removing the curse on that item is the only way to stop the swarm for good. The curse can be removed with three successful DC 20 Intelligence (Arcana) checks, each of which requires an action. Once a creature attempts a check for this purpose, no other character can do so until the end of that creature’s next turn. Alternatively, the curse can be disabled with three successful castings of remove curse targeting the treasure. I also decide to add in some ways that the damage of the skeletons can be lessened, such as by deliberately dodging them or by attacking them to reduce their numbers.

When to use Combat Traps

I mentioned it at the top, but it bears repeating. I would not use these combat traps all the time. Probably not even once per session. I think they’re a great way of handling combat with either massive swarms of creatures, or for enormous creatures of epic proportions that won’t mind a spear sticking out their side. I’d only use them if at least one of the following conditions is true:

  • The characters are fighting a swarm
  • The characters are fighting a creature impervious to normal damage, or that would not be bothered by all but the mightiest attacks
  • The characters don’t want to kill the creature, but do want to ‘disable’ it in some way (through diplomacy, for example)
  • You want to adjust an existing monster to make it a balanced challenge for characters of a different level

As well as the examples provided below, I like the idea of an enraged gang of goblins that attacks until they’re all killed (through dealing damage to them), they’re convinced the characters mean no harm (through successful Charisma (Persuasion) checks), or they’re scared off by the characters (through successful Charisma (Intimidation) checks). You could also reskin the complex traps in XGtE to be monsters – maybe the Path of Blades is a group of golems, one of which is engraved with a fear rune. Maybe the Sphere of Crushing Doom is a rolling galeb duhr which circles around rather than going through a portal. Perhaps the Poisoned Tempest is a gorgon exhaling noxious fumes.

Example Combat Traps

Skeletal Swarm

Combat trap (level 5-10, deadly threat)

Hidden in the vault of the lich Therax the Indomitable is a cursed treasure; a gilded skull etched with eldritch patterns and set with gemstones. The skull sits pride of place in a trophy room, surrounded by bones of deceased adventurers.
Trigger. This trap activates as soon as a non-undead creature touches the treasure, and remains active until non-undead creatures leave the trophy room or are killed.
Initiative. The trap acts on initiative count 20 and initiative count 10.
Active Elements. The Skeletal Swarm is animated, then uses its limbs to reach out and attack creatures in its area in a coordinated strike.
Swarm Animates (Initiative 20). A dozen or so skeletons animate from the piles of bones on the floor and come together as a swarm. This effect activates only once the first time the trap is triggered.

Raking Claws (Initiative 10). The skeletal swarm attacks each creature in its area, with a +12 bonus to the attack roll and dealing 10 (3d6) slashing damage on a hit.

Dynamic Elements. The skeletal swarm grows in number the longer the trap remains active, making it deadlier.

Growing Swarm. The damage from the Raking Claws element increases by 7 (2d6) each round after it activates, to a maximum of 56 (16d6).

Constant Elements. The skeletal swarm affects each creature that ends its turn in its area.

Flailing Limbs. Any creature that ends its turn in the swarm’s area must make a DC 20 Dexterity saving throw, taking 17 (5d6) bludgeoning damage on a failed save, or half as much on a successful one.

Countermeasures. The trap can only be overcome by removing the curse from the skull. The skeletal swarm can be thwarted by particular countermeasures.

Raking Claws & Failing Limbs. Characters can smash the skeletons to pieces, actively dodge their attacks, or use holy magic to neutralise them.

Damage. A creature can try to deal damage to the swarm. The creature has disadvantage on their next saving throw against the Flailing Limbs element. The swarm has AC 13, and the same saving throw bonuses as a skeleton. Dealing 20 or more damage to the swarm reduces the damage of the Raking Claws and Flailing Limbs elements by 7 (2d6), as does a failed saving throw against incapacitating spells such as hypnotic pattern.

Dodge. A creature that takes the Dodge action imposes disadvantage on the next Raking Claws attack against them, and has advantage on their next dexterity saving throw against the Flailing Limbs.

Holy Magic. Creatures can use Turn Undead, splash holy water, or use similar holy magic to disrupt the skeletal swarm. Use of any of these methods automatically succeeds, and reduces the damage of the Raking Claws and Flailing Limbs elements by 7 (2d6).

Remove the Curse. The curse can be removed from the skull with three successful DC 20 Intelligence (Arcana) checks, each of which requires an action. Once a creature attempts a check for this purpose, no other character can do so until the end of that creature’s next turn. Alternatively, the curse can be disabled with three successful castings of remove curse targeting the treasure.

The Kraken

Combat trap (level 6-11, dangerous threat)

A kraken lurks out there in the deep. It has its territory, marked by the beacons. Cross them and you’ll truly learn of the ocean’s wrath.

Trigger. This trap activates as soon as a ship crosses the beacons, and remains active until the ship crosses back or is destroyed.
Initiative. The trap acts on initiative count 20 and initiative count 10.
Active Elements. The kraken makes a tentacle attack against a ship within 30 feet of it, flings an object such as a barrel or anchor at a creature, and summons a lightning storm.

Tentacles (Initiative 20). The kraken slams its tentacles onto a ship within 30 feet of it with a +8 bonus to the attack roll and dealing 55 (10d10) bludgeoning damage on a hit. Each creature standing on the deck must succeed on a DC 15 Strength saving throw or fall prone and take 10 (3d6) bludgeoning damage.

Fling (Initiative 20). The kraken flings an object against a creature within 60 feet of it with a +8 bonus to the attack roll and dealing 55 (10d10) bludgeoning damage on a hit.

Lightning Storm (Initiative 10). A lightning bolt shoots from storm clouds above at each creature within 120 feet of the kraken, each of whom must make a DC 15 Dexterity saving throw, taking 17 (5d6) lightning damage on a failed save or half as much on a successful one.

Dynamic Elements. The lightning storm becomes more dangerous the longer the kraken sustains its attack. Furthermore, the kraken can eject ink in a cloud beneath the water to protect itself against attack.

Storm Clouds Gather. The damage from the Lightning Storm element increases by 7 (2d6) each round after it activates, to a maximum of 38 (11d6).

Ink Cloud. Each successful attempt to damage the kraken causes it to emit a cloud of ink in the water around it in a 60-foot radius. This area is heavily obscured to creatures other than the kraken. A strong current disperses the cloud, which otherwise disappears at the end of the next initiative count 10.

Constant Elements. The kraken continues to lash out with its tentacles at ships that end their turns within 30 feet of it.

Whirlwind of Tentacles. Any ship that ends its turn within 30 feet of the kraken is targeted by a tentacle attack: +8 attack bonus; 35 (10d6) bludgeoning damage on a hit.

 Countermeasures. There are a few ways that the kraken can be overcome.

Kill the Kraken. Killing the kraken is the hardest way to disable the trap. To kill the beast, the characters must first destroy its tentacles, then destroy its brain. The kraken’s tentacles have AC 15. Attacks or spells that deal 50 or more damage in a single hit reduce the damage dealt by the Tentacles effect by 11 (2d10). Once this reaches 0, the kraken’s Tentacles, Fling, and Whirlwind of Tentacles elements are disabled. The characters can then attack the kraken’s head, which has AC 18. The third attack that deals 50 damage or more to the head in a single hit kills the kraken, and disables the trap.

Outsail the Kraken. Expert sailors can try to navigate around the kraken and escape it’s wrath. They could head out beyond it, or back to the safety of the beacons. To outsail the kraken, a character must first succeed on a DC 15 Wisdom (Navigation) check to set a reasonable course. A successful DC 15 Strength (Athletics) check is then required to adjust course using the ship’s wheel. Success on a DC 15 Intelligence (Sleight of Hand) check allows the sails to be adjusted. Finally, a successful DC 15 Charisma (Deception) or Wisdom (Animal Handling) check is needed to distract the kraken for long enough to escape. Each check requires an action.

Beg for Mercy. A creature can beg the kraken for mercy with three successful DC 15 Charisma (Religion) checks. Each check requires an action. A creature must be within 30 feet of the kraken to attempt the check, and only one creature can work on this task at once. Once a creature attempts a check for this purpose, no other character can do so until the end of that creature’s turn. Successfully begging for mercy allows a ship to return to the safety of the beacons without further damage.

NPC Making Tools

This article is inspired by work I did for Dangerous Destinations, a Nord Games Kickstarter that, as well as creating interesting and hazardous environments for characters to explore, provides Antagonist Profiles based on the 12 Jungian Archetypes. During the creation of these profiles, I stumbled across a few tools that helped me come up with detailed NPCs.

If you’re anything like me, you might sometimes struggle to come up with NPCs that feel like real people. I often find myself falling back on tired fantasy tropes when improvising, and even when I’m prepping an NPC ahead of time I sometimes need to break my habits. The following tools helped me think outside the box, but also describe NPCs in ways that informed my roleplaying.

Emotion Wheel

An Emotion Wheel is a tool used to help people express how they’re feeling. For many folks, it’s second nature to be able to express exactly how you feel without relying on such a tool, but for others it’s not so easy. For a GM, these wheels can help you consider how an NPC might feel generally, and what they’re hiding beneath their surface emotions. Let’s take a struggling shopkeep for an example. They’re probably angry that their business is failing. Within the anger portion of the wheel, frustrated probably fits best to describe their emotion, and within that we can say they’re annoyed. Already we have a key emotion for the character that informs how they interact with the characters – they’re already annoyed that their business is struggling, imagine how they’ll react when the bard tries to barter! I also find it useful to consider a second emotion that lies beneath their surface feelings. In this instance, they might be feeling Sad > Vulnerable > Victimised. Maybe the business is failing because the locals refuse to buy from the same place that caters to adventurers, or because their daughter is a criminal.

I find that these wheels not only help build up my emotional literacy, but inspire me to create NPCs with depth that can be roleplayed in a pinch. Have a go yourself and see what you come up with!

Positive Psychology Character Strengths

For an NPC that might be of use to the characters, or who is likely to stick around for some time, I try to think not only of emotions, but of specific strengths and flaws that the NPC might have. Focussing first on strengths, I found that Positive Psychology’s 24 Character Strengths was a good place to start. These strengths are split into six general themes, not unlike the Emotion Wheel, which I find useful. Let’s think back to the shopkeep. Perhaps a fitting strength would be perseverance. Despite the struggling business, they’re keeping at it, trying to make it work. If we try another strength though, fairness for example, it makes a big difference to the character!

Character Flaws

It’s pretty easy to find a wealth of websites that list character flaws for authors, and they can easily be used by GMs too! Here’s one of my favourites. If I’m struggling to come up with a particular flaw for an NPC, I can just scroll through this site, stop on a random flaw, and use that to flesh out the character. In this case, I got pride – makes a lot of sense for our shopkeeper who refuses to close up, despite his failing business. If we take another random one, spiteful, it again changes the NPC entirely – now it seems like maybe the shopkeep has brought this struggle upon themselves, refusing to serve those who demean them by trying to barter for example.

Character Tropes

If all else fails, and you need an NPC in a pinch but are struggling for inspiration, you can always fall back on tropes. You can pick a character from your favourite book, film, or tv show and portray them in the role of the NPC you need. Otherwise, there are plenty of lists online. When using tropes, I try to ensure they’re not stereotyping a particular culture, race, or gender before putting them into my games. Wherever possible, I like to subvert a trope to make it more interesting too, and maybe catch the characters off guard!


When designing NPCs for our games, it’s easy to fall into the same old fantasy tropes that we see played out in a variety of media. If you’re struggling to break out of your usual patterns of creation, consider using some of the tools above; Emotion Wheels, Positive Psychology Character Strengths, and Character Flaws for Writers to create something outside of your usual purview. Remember that you can always fall back on a trope in a pinch, but try to ensure you’re not stereotyping.

Knives & Pillows

Help your players build interesting characters…

This article presents a character creation method useful for both GMs and players. It’s based on a Reddit article called the ‘Knife Theory’, but adapted by myself to make it more flexible and useful at your tables. It should help players create characters that are connected to the world, and have satisfying arcs to explore.

This method of character creation centres around four tools; knives, pillows, roots, and goals (I left some out of the title to keep it pithy). These four tools combined can make a character that is grounded in the campaign or setting you’re running, and provides potential for the GM to build a satisfying character arc for the player to enjoy. In an ideal world, every character in a campaign has two or three knives, pillows, and roots, and at least one goal they’ve worked on with the GM. These tools can be used by GMs to use to add story beats to their games.


Knives are events or people in the backstory of a character that has had a negative impact on them. Examples include a childhood bully, a rival in their wizard school, or even the memory of failing a friend. These can be thrown at the character to add drama to the campaign – normally a downward beat.


The opposite of knives. Pillows are things or people the characters can always rely on. Their friends and family, their local tavern, the quiet grotto in which they meditate when it all gets too much. A GM can use these to provide characters with respite when they’re struggling – typically an upward beat.


These tie characters to the setting or campaign in real ways. They should always include at least one proper noun that both the character and player agree on. It could be the village their partner lives in, where their parents are buried, or a faction they belong to. Roots help characters care about events in the world. These can be used for either upward or downward beats.


Perhaps obviously, this is something the character wants to achieve. I believe it’s essential for interesting characters to have something they want that exists outside of the main campaign. The GM should hopefully be able to weave these into the plot of whatever campaign they’re running.


Here I’m going to present an example from one of the Call from the Deep campaigns I ran, and talk through how I then used the tools to draw this character into the campaign, and give them a satisfying narrative arc.

Valmaer Ackotus

Player: Ethan
Character: Aasimar Celestial Pact Warlock
Backstory: Valmaer was arrested by a bounty hunter after his twin brother committed a heinous murder in the town of Fiskrbak. He was freed when his bounty hunter captive was killed, and his celestial guide saved him from death. His brother Malark now worships Bane, the god of tyranny, and hasn’t been seen for months.
– His brother Malark
– Becoming a fallen aasimar through contact with Bane
– His exile from Gundarlun
– Seraphina
– Fiskrbak
– His mother Betha
– Be accepted back into Fiskrbak
– Save Malark from damnation at the hands of Bane

I worked with Ethan to help ground Valmaer into the world the campaign was set in (the Forgotten Realms). He knew he wanted to play a character falsely accused of a crime, and that his twin brother was actually the culprit, and that his main goals would be to return home and save his brother. We worked together to find a location he could live in that was connected to the plot, Fiskrbak, and then extracted the tools from his backstory.

His knives were easy enough – his missing brother who stands for everything Valmaer is against, the worry that he might be corrupted and follow in his brother’s footsteps, and his exile from his homeland. In the game, he was forced to conceal his identity while in Fiskrbak (which features heavily in chapter 1) but was accepted back into the community when the party destroyed the crashed nautiloid there.

The only pillow the exiled aasimar could rely on was his celestial guide, Seraphina. Whenever things took a downward turn for Valmaer (which they did frequently, as Ethan’s dice rolls are consistently awful) his celestial guide was there to see him through, as well as give him advice.

His roots were closely linked in this case to his knives. Because of his exile, he was essentially homeless, working on ships until he could redeem himself. Through facing his knives, he was able to embrace his roots again. The roots also gave him a short-term goal – to revoke his exile.

Valmaer was a great character because he had two goals; one short-term and one long-term. His short-term goal was resolved within the first chapter of the campaign, as I mentioned earlier, which allowed him to turn one of his knives into a pillow: Fiskrbak now revered him as a hero. His other goal, to save his brother, didn’t occur until much later in the campaign…

To tie Valmaer to the main plot, I made his brother Malark one of the pirate lords loyal to Sea King Tentrix. Slowly, as the characters learned more and more about the villain, I dropped hints that Malark was involved. There was rumour of a pirate lord with black raven wings, whose blade couldn’t be pierced by normal blades. Not long after this rumour was uncovered, Valmaer was given an empty scabbard by Seraphina, and thus the search for a sword began. Once the characters had their own ship, Seraphina appeared again with a vision of an island, White Plume Mountain, which the characters searched out. Here, Valmaer got some time in the spotlight searching for a holy avenger within the mountain. This sword was then used to face off with Malark and slay him, freeing his soul from the hands of Bane.

All of this was mapped out before the campaign even started, which meant I didn’t have to worry each week whether or not Valmaer had narrative hooks I needed to seed.


Extracting knives, pillows, roots, and goals from a character backstory allows the creation of characters that are more exciting, better linked to the setting and campaign, and provides the GM with tools to really engage the characters.

  • Knives are things that up the ante
  • Pillows are ways of feeling safe
  • Roots are what links the character to the setting
  • Goals are what the character wants