Category: Play Advice

Rules Spotlight: Surprise and the Assassin

The rules for the Assassin (a Roguish archetype) in the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons include an extremely powerful ability: Assassinate. It’s the signature ability of the class, and it can be very effective. A reminder of what it does:

You have advantage on attack rolls against any creature that hasn’t taken a turn in the combat yet. In addition, any hit you score against a creature that is surprised is a critical hit.

However, as it uses the Surprise rules – and those rules were different in earlier versions of the game – I’ve seen many people be confused about how it works. This article discusses the rules and their interpretation.

The starting point is Jeremy Crawford’s explanation of surprise, from Sage Advice November 2015:

The first step of any combat is this: the DM determines whether anyone in the combat is surprised (reread “Combat Step by Step” on page 189 of the Player’s Handbook). This determination happens only once during a fight and only at the beginning. In other words, once a fight starts, you can’t be surprised again, although a hidden foe can still gain the normal benefits from being unseen (see “Unseen Attackers and Targets” on page 194 of the Player’s Handbook).

To be surprised, you must be caught off guard, usually because you failed to notice foes being stealthy or you were startled by an enemy with a special ability, such as the gelatinous cube’s Transparent trait, that makes it exceptionally surprising. You can be surprised even if your companions aren’t, and you aren’t surprised if even one of your foes fails to catch you unawares.

If anyone is surprised, no actions are taken yet. First, initiative is rolled as normal. Then, the first round of combat starts, and the unsurprised combatants act in initiative order. A surprised creature can’t move or take an action or a reaction until its first turn ends (remember that being unable to take an action also means you can’t take a bonus action). In effect, a surprised creature skips its first turn in a fight. Once that turn ends, the creature is no longer surprised.

In short, activity in a combat is always ordered by initiative, whether or not someone is surprised, and after the first round of combat has passed, surprise is no longer a factor. You can still try to hide from your foes and gain the benefits conferred by being hidden, but you don’t deprive your foes of their turns when you do so.

One of the notable things to take away from the explanation of surprise is this: You can’t surprise a creature if it has spotted (or heard) any foe. Not just you. If you’re hidden, but your dwarven fighter friend is clanking away and rolled a 0 for their Dexterity (Stealth) check, you’ll still be hidden (and can gain advantage against targets that haven’t spotted you), but because the foe spotted your friend, it isn’t surprised. Surprise is a state that individual creatures can be in; it’s no longer the case that the entire opposition is surprised or not.

The next thing is that surprise ends once a creature’s first turn in the initiative order has finished. This has some unfortunate implications to the assassin who rolls low for initiative. Those high-Dexterity creatures who rolled better initiative than you? They’re not surprised any more by the time you act. Although the weapon of warning (can’t be surprised, advantage on initiative rolls) is very good at frustrating assassins, it’s also the assassin’s friend. Advantage on initiative checks? Yes, please!

Given all of this, the Assassin has one major problem using Assassinate – the other members of the party. Those dwarven fighters just keep causing you to lose surprise, don’t they!

Back in AD&D, the entry for elves and halflings read like this:

If alone and not in metal armor (or if well in advance – 90′ or more – of a party which does not consist entirely of elves and/or halflings) an elven character moves so silently that he or she will surprise monsters 66 2/3% (d6, 1 through 4) of the time

That suggests the solution. All you need to do is adventure alone! Or adventure by scouting ahead – 90 feet or more – in front of the party. (Talk to your DM about how far you need to be ahead of the party to be considered “on your own”). Of course, the trouble with doing so is that your friends can’t help you when you get into trouble…

A related issue that often comes up in play is the player who announces “I attack” and expects to surprise the opponents (and thus get to attack before anyone else). The transition from negotiation to combat (or exploration to combat) is not explicitly handled as an exception the rules. Thus, if a player wishes to attack first before anyone can react, this is not possible. Upon a player indicating their intention to attack, move into the combat sequence – determine surprise, and determine initiative. Yes, the player might end up attacking last; the initiative roll indicates that he’s not as fast as he thinks, and everyone else has reacted.

If you’re feeling kind, you might allow a character who attacks whilst in the middle of a negotiation to make a Charisma (Deception) check against the passive Wisdom (Insight) scores of everyone else; creatures that don’t perceive the character’s attentions could potentially be considered surprised. However, this is a non-standard ruling and should be used only if you feel it enhances your game.

Although rare, it can happen that a creature is unaware of the existence of enemies, yet is not surprised and gets to act before its foes. In this case, I would have the creature acts on its initiative count as normal, doing whatever it was doing before the combat sequence started.

Running Princes of the Apocalypse: Temple of Black Earth

Over the course of running Princes of the Apocalypse, the characters spent a lot of time in the Temple of Black Earth and its connected outpost, the Sacred Stone Monastery. When my group first encountered the Monastery, they weren’t powerful enough. They could defeat the gate guards, but that fight left them hurt and needing to rest. So, they would retreat and come back the next day. Meanwhile, the monastery replaced the gate guards – with tougher and tougher foes. And sent some scouts to find the party (the adventurers killed the scouts).

Eventually, getting sick of this, one of the priests in the temple, Qarbo, invited the characters in and explained to them that they were attacking the wrong people. Did they really want to find the delegation? Go bother the cultists in Feathergale Spire. Qarbo even demonstrated a couple of brainwashed delegates to them who told the adventurers that everything was fine.

My group, being extremely easy to lead around, followed Qarbo’s suggestion. Unfortunately for Qarbo, my group was extremely easy to lead around, and so were sent right back to the monastery by the Feathergale Knights. And then they slaughtered Qarbo, freed the prisoners, and took their first view of the temple below – and discovered that it was very dangerous. Thankfully, they retreated and used information from the rescued prisoners to go back to the Feathergale Knights and start bothering them again, eventually leading to their sacking of the Air Temple.

The entrance to the Temple of Black Earth is one of the most dangerous in the adventure. The cult has it very well-defended. In theory, a group of characters who are too low-level will go away and try to find some other way in (as my group did), but the danger comes from the players being stubborn and just trying again and again and again (see above for how my group handled the monastery). One of the biggest challenges in Princes of the Apocalypse is giving the players enough leads and quests so that when they reach a place that is too difficult, they can attempt something different – and letting them know that this is an option. There’s enough material in the adventure so you can do it, but actually conveying that information to the players isn’t always easy.

When my players returned to the Temple of Black Earth, it was from below – from the connecting passages through the Fane of the Eye. This time, they were higher level, but the opposition was still dangerous. There’s a lot of opportunity for the Earth Cultists to attack them from multiple directions. When you’re running Princes of the Apocalypse, it’s a good idea to make a copy of the map, then write on it where each of the groups of enemies are… and then move them in relation to the adventurers as the game progresses. Opponents fleeing from a combat can alert further groups, until the entire complex is alerted and defending against the adventurers. It requires some smart play to overcome the massed opposition.

The most dangerous thing for a group of adventurers to do is to follow retreating cultists. If you check the map of the Temple, there’s a lot of connecting passages and loops. So, it’s very easy for the party to be attacked from both sides at once. It’s definitely entertaining for the DM – and likely the players as well. You want to give the players a feeling of accomplishment, and that works best when they feel like they’re fighting something dangerous. The Temple of Black Earth gives plenty of opportunity for that to occur. In my game, while the adventurers were fighting in area 23, I had reinforcements coming along the corridors from the north and east. The group got the idea in a hurry and fled, though they were able to slay their target.

The other aspect of the Temple that makes it interesting to run is Yarsha (in area B6), who would like nothing more for the characters to murder the second in command, Miraj, for her, so she can become the new deputy, and then to go away. This occurred in my game: she allied with the characters, told them where the “prophet” was – actually Miraj, rather than the prophet – and then laughed maniacally to herself once the characters left.

As it happened, because the characters had already killed the Air Prophet, the real Earth Prophet was down below in the Fane. They encountered and slew him later. However, as I never really told the players that each prophet had his own special weapon (they worked it out later), they weren’t aware of the deception. Yarsha is still down there, but given the characters were eventually successful at closing the nodes, I don’t she’s living the life of power she expected.

Running Out of the Abyss: Gauntlgrym

Life has been a bit crazy recently, with work, more work, and even more work conspiring to take me away from blogging and reviewing. However, with a few projects now on pause for a few days, I’m getting the chance to return to the blog and have a few updates (and, with luck, more than a few reviews).

One of the odder circumstances that recently presented itself was what happened with my Saturday evening D&D group. Instead of saying, “Hey, we’ve finished Curse of Strahd, let’s play Storm King’s Thunder!“, they went “Hey, we’ve finished Curse of Strahd, let’s keep the same characters!” Now, running a group of 7th and 8th level characters through Storm King’s Thunder doesn’t allow that much play. It’s written for levels 1-10. You do the last two chapters and finish. So, instead, I gave them a choice: The Rise of Tiamat or midway through Out of the Abyss. They chose the latter. And so I’m now running Out of the Abyss, which is the adventure we skipped. We played Princes of the Apocalypse for a year, then went directly to Curse of Strahd. So this is all new to us.

So, let’s talk about my experiences with Out of the Abyss

We began with the events in Chapter 8: Gauntlgrym. If you’re playing the adventure from the beginning, this is the point where, after finally escaping the Underdark and all the Demon Lords, you take leave of your senses and go back down. For higher-level groups, such as my own, this is the hook for the characters to enter the adventure.

The PCs are summoned by King Bruenor Battlehammer, are asked to find a way of stopping the madness infecting the Underdark, and they also get a chance to recruit some allies from the factions.

King Bruenor should be extremely familiar to anyone who has read R.A. Salvatore’s novels – he’s first introduced in The Crystal Shard and is a main character for many of the sequels. At this point in the series, he’s been killed, reincarnated, and just led the dwarves to a great victory against the drow that had claimed Gauntlgrym (as related in Archmage). Although the definition of “just” is a little up to debate. Out of the Abyss states it was “in recent years”. The taking of Gauntlgrym occurs at the same time that the Demon Lords first get released, so this implies that the Demon Lords have now been around for a few years.

Bruenor is basically everything you want of a dwarf: brave, gruff, occasionally kind-hearted, and an exceptional leader. He knows of a lot of the things the characters have done, at least in major population centres, so he respects their heroism. And, because Gauntlgrym is a place where the forces of the Underdark are likely to attack, the madness down below is a real problem.

At this point, the characters gain a very definite quest: get to a repository of knowledge known as Gravenhollow, and use it to discover the cause of the madness in the Underdark. This is an A-B quest, where the characters must first go to a Zhentarim trading post, and learn how to get to Gravenhollow. (Of course, the trading post has its own challenges, but more on those later).

The characters also need to interact with the factions, who can offer them aid in the Underdark. At least, the factions call them aid. I, as the DM, call them “more annoying NPCs to keep track of!” Here’s the thing: when you have five-foot wide corridors (as much of the Underdark is), a group of 21 characters entering combat is going to lead to a lot of frustration from the characters at the back who can’t participate. It just calls for some strategically placed rockfalls. Lots of NPCs really means two things. One, you can kill them to demonstrate how dangerous it is. Two, you can split the party, perhaps leaving some behind to fortify areas, or deal with two locations at once. If you choose the latter option, give the NPCs to those players who aren’t taking their PCs along.

It’s nice to see the factions taking an active interest in events. After they play a large part of Rise of Tiamat, the factions slip away in Princes of the Apocalypse and the early part of Out of the Abyss. They’re not going to play a big part in this adventure, but they will make some difference.

I chose, very deliberately, not to have the big dinner with all the faction representatives. It sounds great, and it could be, but for me to run it properly it’d rely on gaining about six more co-DMs to run all the faction representatives and Bruenor. Running multiple conversations at once is not my idea as fun as a DM. I prefer to keep my interactions more on the one-to-one level; it’s much easier to provide characterisation that way without being distracted by having to run other NPCs. (That said, if you can recruit some people to do a proper dinner and act in-character as the representatives, you’ll have a very memorable session).

Throughout all the negotiation, the less roleplaying-orientated players in your group may be getting bored. Thankfully, Gauntlgrym is a place where monsters can turn up at any time. Not only that, but there are suggestions in the adventure for a little intrigue using doppelgangers and assassins if you so desire.

My own choice was to have external forces attack the dwarves, rather than adding more intrigue. I like to think of Gauntlgrym being like Moria when Balin was there: the dwarves controlling a small part of it, but the deeper parts still under control of dark things. If you play this right, you can show the players what a precarious situation Bruenor and the dwarves are actually in; the threat of the madness in the Underdark overwhelming them is very, very real.

I rushed through this section a little faster than I could have. It’s quite easy to spend three or four sessions exploring the relationships here, and fighting Bad Things as they appear. If you’re running this as part of the D&D Adventurers League, you probably want to do this, because being unable to use milestones means you’re often lacking in ways to give experience points to the characters; Gauntlgrym gives you a few interesting monsters and situations with which to challenge the characters.

In the end, we spent a little over one session (about 2-1/2 hours) in Gauntlgrym. The Harper character, a Wizard, was able to gain the aid of a Shield Guardian. The two Zhentarim gained a bunch of rogues to aid them. The Order of the Gauntlet sent a few soldiers. And the Lords’ Alliance representative met the Lords’ Alliance character. Neither was that convinced there was a problem down below – so the Alliance didn’t send anyone with them. The Emerald Enclave didn’t feature.

Two attacks occurred during their stay: fire elementals and a wraith. The wraith was really interesting, as it had already killed a lot of dwarves and twisted their spirits into spectres. So, the spectres attacked first and then, when the characters engaged, the wraith attacked from behind. The characters were victorious in both instances, but the battle against the wraith had some scary moments.

And then, they left for the Zhentarim trading post. More on that later!

Adventure Complexity and the New Dungeon Master

Dungeons & Dragons is an amazing game. It’s one of the most enjoyable pastimes you can have and, especially for Dungeon Masters, can require varying amounts of your time: from just a couple of hours running a session, to many, many hours preparing, designing and planning your world and future adventures.

These days, I typically use published adventures for most of my games. They allow me to run games that are completely different to what I’d design myself (which can, at times, get repetitive). I’m an experienced Dungeon Master with several decades of experience and can run most adventures you put in front of me. If you’re starting out, it’s different.

Here’s a secret: Not all adventures are good for beginning DMs to run. Some require more skill than you currently possess.

This is especially true of the current run of official Wizards of the Coast adventures. Most beginning DMs should be able to handle the adventure in the D&D Starter Set – just as well! However, if you’re a first-time Dungeon Master, you’re likely to find the beginning section of Out of the Abyss extremely challenging, if not impossible, to run well or to run at all. Indeed, I am very wary about running the start of Out of the Abyss, and I’ve been DMing for about three decades!

So, should these adventures have warning labels on them? “Experienced DMs only”?

My belief on this issue is no; although perusing a few reviews of an adventure before buying it is probably a good idea. The reason I don’t think such a label helps is because the reasons that people find DMing some adventures difficult vary from person to person. Dungeon Mastering is a collection of several skills: running combat, running non-player characters (NPCs), crafting storylines, evoking the world through descriptions and so on. We all differ on the areas we’re good at handling and the areas that give us trouble. Where I have trouble having just two NPCs accompany an adventuring group, there are new Dungeon Masters out there who delight in this, and create a much better game than mine with the same material.

An adventure I find complex is not necessarily an adventure someone finds difficult to run.

I have also recently seen the suggestion that adventures should be simple so everyone can run them. This is something I strongly oppose. The original run of 4th edition adventures were written simply so that anyone could run them. The result? The most depressing set of linear, boring adventures you could imagine. Not every adventure was bad (there are a few good ones), but the homogeneity of the approach became less and less appropriate, so that the high-level adventures, which needed to show off the best of the game, were extremely underwhelming. The amazing bits in some of the original designs were flattened out to fit the linear approach, and the result was less than it should have been.

Having an adventure that is challenging to run isn’t a mistake; it’s what should happen. These are adventures that challenge the DM to improve their skills, to become a better Dungeon Master. Relish them!

Nor should complexity just be limited to the higher levels of play. If the story works better with a complex beginning to the adventure, that’s where it should be.

If you’re a new Dungeon Master, it’s fine to not be ready to run every adventure that is published. It’s probably still a good idea to own and read the official adventures, just so you can become aware at the range of play available (and this run of adventures is one of the finest I’ve seen in the history of the game). However, if you think running multiple NPCs at the beginning of Out of the Abyss is too much? You can leave that adventure for later and run something else.

Each adventure provides its own set of challenges. Hoard of the Dragon Queen needs you to run set of potentially deadly encounters at its beginning for first-level characters and try not to kill all the PCs in your group. Princes of the Apocalypse requires you to craft a story that gets the PCs where they need to be (and not trying to take on 10th-level foes at 3rd level!) Curse of Strahd requires you to evoke a horror setting and have an ancient vampire play games with the characters. Storm King’s Thunder requires you to handle political intrigue. Learn from them, and rejoice in the range of different play that Dungeons & Dragons allows!

Dungeon Master Tips: When Crowds are Attacked

It’s a staple of fantasy adventures. The adventurers are in a crowded marketplace when they hear a scream, and they see goblins pouring from the sewers. They need to fight!

At this point, what happen to the crowd? And how do you represent that in game?

The standard answer for me and many other DMs is not great: we simply have the crowd mysteriously escape. We run a combat between the adventurers and the goblins, and the non-combatants are simply ignored. There are some good reasons why we do this. Primary amongst them is that keeping track of multiple, independent characters is very hard. It’s difficult enough to do when they’re actively interacting with the characters. Working out what a NPC is doing while a combat is going one when they’re not just attacking like everyone else? That’s difficult.

Then there’s the problem that your average commoner doesn’t have statistics that make them interesting in combat. If a goblin attacks a commoner, any successful attack will see the commoner unconscious or dead.

Given that, is it possible to make these combats in public places more interesting? Yes, it is. But it typically requires a little forethought and preparation. The solution I lean towards is creating a few “vignettes” – small one- or two-round encounters or situations that play out as the main combat progresses. They need to be important enough for the players to want to interact with them; if the players feel that they’re getting closer to victory by interacting both with the vignettes and the main fight, then thing are going well.

The other side of this is that the main force of the opposition can’t be so dangerous that the players would be foolish to split up; if dealing with a side force means that the remaining adventurers are slaughtered by the main force, then you’ve got a problem. Keep the situations manageable.

It is vitally important to describe the situations so that the players can make informed decisions about which to tackle. You don’t want the descriptions to go overlong – most players can only deal with a limited amount of information at one time – so you need to be short and to the point. Remember the film The Two Towers? How would you describe this guy?

You want the players to notice him and send someone to deal with him. “You see an orc running towards the tunnel” isn’t enough information. “You see an orc running towards the tunnel with a big flaming torch” makes him stand out a lot more – especially if you then remind the players of the explosives in the tunnel!

Of course, most vignettes won’t be so important. However, consider the following possibilities:

  • You see two children hiding behind a wagon; three goblins are moving towards them.
  • There’s a burst of flame from a nearby stall; you realise that flames are moving towards a large stock of alchemist’s fire.
  • A young woman is carried screaming into the air by a pair of winged kobolds.
  • A heavy, abandoned cart starts rolling towards a group of townsfolk trapped in an alley.
  • A sniper is moving on the rooftops, taking shots at children he can see.

Exactly how much you split the group is worth considering. DDAL4-04 The Marionette takes the vignette method of combat design to its logical extreme: lots of small situations are described, and it’s expected that each adventurer takes one to deal with. Is this what you want, or do you just want them as sidelights to the main fight?

Selecting vignettes to reinforce the actions of the crowd as the combat progresses is also good. Start with ones that rely on masses of people; run ones with stragglers towards the end. Give the feeling that time is passing and people outside the main combat are still acting.

It is important to consider which characters will be free to deal with the situation; it will typically be the skirmishers, ranged characters and arcane spell-casters, so designing vignettes they can deal with is advised. If the heavily-armoured fighters are engaged in melee, it’s very hard to find a situation that warrants them disengaging. Yes, you might make it important enough, but it isn’t going to be a good decision if they take opportunity attacks and lose offensive opportunities as they race to deal with another threat.

However, having the rogue of the group racing over rooftops to catch a sniper is something that is fun – as long as it only takes a round or two. D&D is a group game, and having one character stuck away from the others rarely is as enjoyable as everyone participating together.

Creating a library of vignettes, so that you can pull out ones as appropriate to give the feeling of the fight not being just about the PCs, is something worth aiming for. A few alterations will allow them to be reused, and create more interesting situations for your players to face: a more textured approach to combat.

Integrating Characters into Published Adventures

Although it is perfectly possible to run a published adventure as-written, using the various hooks and plot strands to engage the interest of your players, it is also possible to run something richer. To give the players more engagement with the story than just “a guy in a tavern needs you to do a job”.

Yes, this is easier to do when you’re writing the adventure yourself. However, published adventures offer you the chance to be inspired by someone else’s writing and ideas – especially if, like me, you don’t really have enough time to invent all-new material for the games you’re running.

The objective here is to engage the players more with the game. This works best when important events in their characters’ backgrounds link to the events of the story. To use this technique, you must first read the adventure and pick out important NPCs and places that you think will be good to use: ones that can interact with the player characters more than just “kill on sight”. Then, as the players create their characters, suggest various background elements for them to include that will become relevant later.

The hard part of all of this is remembering that those characters are meant to be important – it’s all-too-easily forgotten, both by the DM and the players! I know I struggle with it. Making reminder notes in the adventure text might be a good idea…

You can see this idea being employed in some of the unique bonds for the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure. Major NPCs of the adventure: Leosin, Onthar Frume, Talis and Frulam Mondath appear as potential background elements: people the adventurers know, and have a history with. The significance of these bonds then depends on the DM and the players. Including them doesn’t mean that when you encounter Talis that great role-playing will occur, but it does give the potential that such will happen.

In fact, the bonds of Hoard are mostly a starting point. To be properly significant, the DM and players should expand on the basic ideas before the game starts. Onthar Frume is your mentor? What does that actually mean? How long have you known each other? What’s your relationship like? Do you both serve the Order of the Gauntlet? (And again, especially for the DM, make notes in the relevant part of the adventure. It’s very easy to forget to draw attention to the significant elements, especially when you’re dealing with all the other things you need to run a good adventure!)

Storm King’s Thunder doesn’t set out the bonds like Hoard of the Dragon Queen does. However, it struck me when examining the early part of the adventure, that there’s a hook that requires you to deliver news of a NPC’s death to a town. That’s something that works best if a character in the group has history with that NPC, interacts a little with the NPC during play, and so has a good reason to care when they die. Or perhaps another PC has links to the NPC’s home town which the adventurers must now visit.

Later in the adventure, other NPCs give the players more quests. More potential for previous interactions – with them or with the destinations of the quests. Is there a town in danger? Link a PC to the town, and have them interact with NPCs they care about.

You don’t need to treat every adventure in this way. It would be very difficult to have previous history with NPCs in the land Barovia from Curse of Strahd, for instance. However, allowing the players to have moments where their previous background becomes important? That can provide some nice moments. One only has to see the previous relationship between Kitiara and the adventurers in the Dragonlance Chronicles to see exactly how significant the past relationships can become.

On the Art of Improvisation

One of the most important skills in the Dungeon Master’s toolbox is the ability to improvise.

And, based on my long experience with the game, it’s a skill that takes time to develop. Like most skills, you get better at improvisation by actually improvising, and paying attention to what your players think of the result. Many of the games I’ve run have been improvised. Even when you prepare material, there’s likely to be some improvisation involved. After all, it’s the key thing that distinguishes role-playing games from other games like Chess, where the rules are cut and dried. However, the amount of improvisation you use in a session will vary.

The advantage of preparing for a session is that you can get a better grasp of what is available for the players to do. You can think about various avenues of approach beforehand, and try to anticipate what choices the players might make.

The advantage of improvising a session is that the players aren’t bound by your preconceived ideas of where they will go. The flip side of this is that you might need to make up a lot of stuff. And continually coming up with good stuff – or any stuff at all – is hard work. Honestly, for many DMs, you’re better off preparing rather than just relying on improvisation. You’ll need to improvise anyway, because that’s how the game works.

And beginning DMs are unlikely to be that good at it. That’s based on my experience. Thirty years ago when I began DMing? I was terrible!

You get better at improvising and design the more experience you have. What kind of experience? Any kind! Of course, doing a lot of improvising helps you get better at improvising, but simple life experience gives you a huge resource of things that you can incorporate in your game. Every book you read, every person you meet, every job you do – it can all be used when improvising an adventure.

There are two pieces of advice I can give you:

#1: Trust Yourself. Pick an idea and go with it. See where it leads. Elaborate on it. Don’t second-guess yourself.

#2: Pay Attention to your Players. If something isn’t working, the reactions of your players will tell you about it. Don’t exclude them from your consideration as you proceed.

Of course, those two directly contradict each other at times. Can you trust yourself when your players hate your idea? Well, yes, you can. And yes, there will be times when whatever you do, things go badly. Can I run terrible sessions, even with thirty years of DMing experience? Absolutely I can!

About a month back, I discovered that only one player had turned up for my regularly scheduled game of Curse of Strahd. Meanwhile, another table had just collapsed – and we hadn’t yet organised a replacement DM (or players). So, instead of just cancelling the game entirely, I decided to improvise a short adventure so everyone could enjoy themselves. After we finished, I decided to write it down – the result got published on the DM’s Guild today as The Witch of Underwillow.

I knew, going into the session, that it was for a group of characters that would likely soon be playing Curse of Strahd, so I set it up in that milieu, with the characters having just arrived in the village of Barovia. It needed to be a quick quest, so I knew that a quest followed a particular structure: a hook, the challenges, the final encounter. The hook? Let’s have a baby kidnapped by wolves.

So: the characters investigate, find the trail, and set off along it. They meet wolves and fight them. Then they get to the place the baby was taken: the witch’s lair. Witches make good low-level opponents in Barovia. I wanted to make it feel strange and unearthly, so I described how the path led underground, under a willow tree. Good unsettling stuff.

I set a couple of challenges – not directly fighting challenges – that I wanted the players to accomplish before they fight the witch. For one of them, I took as inspiration the Knights and Knaves puzzle. That’s where you have two guards, one of whom lies and one of whom tells the truth. Then I told the players that both of the guards are liars. And got amused by the results. (I’m pretty pleased with the solution to that one).

Finally, I was prepared to spring the final twist on the adventure – what the witch was actually doing. I had a plan. I was all ready to reveal it… when they attacked and immediately killed her. Oh well. There goes that idea… I had to make something else up. Such are the perils of improvisation and role-playing games in general. At least I could use the idea in the adventure!

The point of the story is that I improvised the adventure primarily based on my previous experience of adventure structure and encounters. (The two guardsmen came directly from Doctor Who: The Pyramids of Mars, though I’ve encountered the puzzle many times since then). I just put my own spin on the material. Improvising doesn’t mean you have to be original all the time. Get your inspiration from anywhere you can – and then twist it slightly.