Idea: Variable Success

This past weekend I ran a weekend-long game for my friends as I have been doing every eight weeks for the past nine months. One of the hardest part of running that game is that, because we meet so infrequently but play for around 18 hours, the game might feel forced as I want to make sure I include aspects of the game that the players enjoy doing. Playing so infrequently means that they’ve been waiting a long time to try out this power or use that item—presenting them the opportunities to play with those toys is pivotal to the enjoyment factor for this kind of game.

I’m mostly talking about the adventuring part of the game like exploration, skill challenges and combat encounters. Personality, character development, setting and story are easier to knead into the game, as the players can choose to include that as much as they’d like. Opportunities for heroism on the other hand is where preparing wisely comes in. But if you set up a jungle gym for the players that is uniquely suited to all their particular powers and abilities, you might end up losing the aspect of choice and control that makes this game so great.

Choice is Important for Players

Some players like to go off book. They like to skirt a situation either intentionally or obliviously. And I can see why; it can be fun to have control over the world your character is existing in. You can’t step outside the boundaries in a video game, you can’t see behind the set in a film, you can’t ask the author about a particular character in a book. D&D offers you the ability to be given a scenario and react to the aspects of it that engage you the most. When it comes to combat and other challenges, players can sometimes surprise you in how they react to those obstacles. Presumably they want to use all their powers and items and toys to defeat the bad guys in combat, but they may also need to learn more information, or attempt to reserve their resources by subverting or skirting a challenge altogether.

I applaud these attempts, but with weekend long games I find myself having to deny off book adventuring because I’m just not prepared for a scenario where such and such battle or skill challenge doesn’t occur in the adventure. I’ve come to terms with this, and have found lots of ways to still provide players with a modicum of immersion and control over the world. I’m not afraid to allow them the opportunity to attempt sneaking around a clan of orcs instead of fighting them, I’m actually pretty decent at on-the-fly skill challenges or adjudicating creative solutions by the players. But if the idol that requires them to get into the dragon’s lair is in the possession of those orcs, they’ll have to confront them one way or another. Case in point: the orc confrontation provides the players an opportunity to use all the fun stuff they’ve been waiting eight weeks to play with, and going around them would make for an overall less enjoyable experience.

A Dash of Choice

Skill challenges are a great way to give the players an alternative to combat, but they can also just cast the combat in the light or position that they want to fight it in. This has become especially helpful for me with these long weekend games because if I have a schedule, order or timeline for the adventure to retain a balanced and rewarding experience, then skill challenges give me the opportunity to have the story be more in my court, but the story telling more in theirs.

One of the things I don’t really fully enjoy about skill challenges is how they designed them to either be a success for a failure. While preparing for this long weekend game I realized that it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, the level of success or failure is what can determine the outcome of the challenge altogether. Along the way, the multiple successes your players rack up may open the door for more choices. Since players want to play with their toys (powers, items, feats, etc), but they also want to feel like their choices matter in the game world, why not put ball in their court?

If you succeed a little, the battle will be easier for you. If you succeed a lot, you can opt to circumvent the battle entirely. If you fail a little, the battle will be a little more difficult. If you fail a lot, you have very little choice in the matter.

I’m Surprised How Many Ideas My Players Have

When I ran a large scale assault on a castle with this same crowd a few sessions ago (read: 4 months ago), I was astounded how many ideas they each had to contribute to the overall skill challenge to prepare for war. Many of their ideas I hadn’t thought of at all but they were creative and unique. There’s no way you can prepare for that as a DM. Looking back at the challenge, I wish I could have just let them keep coming up with ideas to improve their situation, using skills and coming up with ideas. Unfortunately I had delicately laid out the complexity of the skill challenge, so when they reached a certain amount of successes they just didn’t have to keep trying. But it was almost as if they wanted to keep using their skills and brainstorming. It was so fun, but I had to put a damper on it for the sake of balance and time. Pfaw, why did I do that?

Skill challenges could instead be based on ‘how far you can get?’ rather than ‘can you get this far?’ Sure, there might be a level of “failure” if they don’t meet a certain difficulty threshold, but if the players can supersede that threshold, and they want to go for more, that could be a great way to offer a modicum of choice to the players through the mechanics. If the players reach only complexity 2 before they reach 3 failures, then they may have to take the result of the fail because the threshold is reaching complexity 3. If they reach complexity 3 before reaching 3 failures, however, then perhaps they have a choice to continue on with the challenge, shooting for complexity 4 or even 5. This puts the ball in the players court, and can make for an exciting twist on your challenges.


I wanted to include a hydra living in and defending a lake that the characters needed to cross because it was a great scenario that allowed opportunities for the players to use all the cool stuff that they have and do well (Water Walk ritual, good powers against solo creatures, etc). It was a great challenge for these players and would allow them to feel great in the end by defeating a classic creature, even on its own turf, so it was high on the list of things that must be included in the adventure.

But I don’t like to say it MUST go this way or that. So I developed a variable skill challenge that would put the decision of fighting the hydra in the players’ hands. It would go like this:

  • Lead up: Including several checks to outrun and outwit the unseen creature in the lake
  • Reveal: The hydra comes out of the water and blocks them off
  • Choice: With enough successes they could choose to go for a more strategic advantage on the lake, or outrun it altogether
  • Resolution: If the players get enough successes to be given the choice of fight or flight, resolve their choice.

When I built the encounter, I made a small table based on the skill challenge success and failure chart in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Instead of determining the complexity of the skill challenge during preparation, I decided that the characters would determine the length of the challenge by building in a Fight or Flight threshold if they reached complexity 3.

I decided that I wouldn’t show the monster until a set number of successes were made, and that would be point of decision for the characters. They should be given the opportunity to stand and fight, gain better ground for fighting, or outrun the hydra altogether.

In the end the players actually wanted to fight the beast when they hit 8 successes (complexity 3), not willing to risk a disadvantage for the prospect of escaping it unscathed altogether. But I don’t think they were deterred necessarily by the risk, I just think they wanted to see what battling a hydra was like. Either way, the challenge was presented to them, and rather than deciding beforehand that the players must defeat this hydra before moving on to the next challenge, or allowing my whim on that day to determine whether or not they could escape the hydra completely, I built a system and gave the players the choice. I get a pivotal challenge, they get a choice, and there’s good game play all around. What more can you ask for?

Idea: Mini Sandbox

(and a few adventure hooks)

If you’re a DM that likes a modicum of control over a campaign but your players enjoy having plenty of choices that can affect the game, consider bridging the two with a Mini Sandbox. A Dungeon Master can create an “Invisible Railroad” for the plot, as described recently by Chris Sims in Dragon Magazine, but still lay down a framework of switches which give the players choices that may affect the outcome of an adventure. To take the metaphor further, for every railroad there can be a junction.

I call it a Mini Sandbox because your overall campaign can run how you like, guided like a railroad or one great big sandbox, but this little technique can fit in all. The Mini Sandbox can be as small as a single encounter or skill challenge, or as large as an entire level’s adventure, so everything here is versatile.


To begin with, take a part of your adventure and surround it somehow, physically or otherwise, so the players feel as if they have entered a space that isn’t necessarily affected by the rest of the world. At the root of classic Dungeons & Dragons adventures, this is known as a dungeon. It doesn’t have to be an abandoned haunted mine or the lair of a red dragon, it can be outdoors, in the sky, or even in a space that isn’t physical at all. Some examples:

  • A banderhobb has manipulated the sleeping PCs into dreamscape that it has woven. The characters all wake in a world that isn’t a part of reality, but they can affect it in certain ways and must use their wits to escape.
  • A wizard shrinks all of the PCs to the size of chickpeas, and drops them in his terrarium filled with fly traps and ants.
  • A rakshasa noble has a notorious garden maze that surrounds his estate where he is said to spend many hours crafting his schemes and weaving his rituals.
  • To get to the floating city, the PCs must be transported by a gigantic flying barge that ships everything from crates of gold to crates of prisoners.


The next thing the Players will need is motivation while within the Mini Sandbox. Most likely they will have a motivation already determined by your plot, but part of the point of the Mini Sandbox is to offer a secondary objective. You could use the goal of a side quest to trail the characters through, but you could also present to them with an opportunity that had not been brought up before.

Using one of the examples above for instance, let’s say before the PCs went on their adventure to slay the rakshasa for the king they were presented with a side quest from an esteemed NPC to save the city’s captive daughters the rakshasa has taken. This is a side quest, and while the PCs are within the garden maze, you could bait the characters with female cries for help, motivating them to not only get through the maze to the rakshasa’s estate, but to explore the maze immediately so they could save the daughters. However, if there is no side quest involved you can also motivate the players by putting a spin on the final encounter with the rakshasa. Giving them a small bait while they are within the maze that because the rakshasa spends so much time in his garden there are indications that within there may be ways to reveal weaknesses he might have. The players then have a choice: explore the Mini Sandbox for a leg up on the final battle, or push through and take their chances with the big bad evil guy a la carte.

In short, if the goal is simply to get out of the Mini Sandbox, then it is reduced to an obstacle course. That can be fun in and of itself, but if there is an element of advantage for the characters while they are within the Mini Sandbox, they will not only be willing to explore it, but they’ll find it connects to the overall adventure and that offers an opportunity to tell a better story.


Just like any good game there has to be an interesting level of risk vs reward. You want the players to explore the Mini Sandbox, but it should include some element of risk. When you put dangers in a Mini Sandbox you are telling the players not to explore; when you put rewards in the Mini Sandbox you force them to ask whether exploring is worth it. You want to make it worth it, so the pressure should be light enough to keep the Mini Sandbox from being a death trap (or from overshadowing the showdown at the end of the adventure), but significant enough to bring out some thrill in the game.

Essentially, you want the players to pose to themselves a question: “While we’re here, what can we gain?” The ‘while we’re here’ bit is important because you’ve presented a scenario that forces the players to be idle alongside the trail that takes them to the plot’s resolution. Being idle in D&D is boring and is usually skipped, as it should be, but if you add a little bit of danger to the idleness, you can make for an interesting adventure. That danger must come with reward however, and thus, pressure ensues.

As an example I’ll use the gigantic flying barge en route to the floating city. While on the barge, the characters are simply traveling. They’re idle. Drop a little rumor about how the big flying freight ship has a covey of were-gulls nesting in the walls of the hull that have pilfered from the cargo over the years. The PCs go exploring and finding traces of the strange creatures they can follow. The crew might reveal that the captain has brokered a deal with the creatures a cut of cargo for protection of the ship. Searching around a bit for these creatures, they might find some log books in one of quarters that indicates crew members disappearing. A secret door leading into the walls of the hull, they’re met with the were-gulls and a few pet protectors they keep. They indeed find treasure in their nests, but after adventuring for more they find something else in their hidden roosts: desiccated humanoids in sailor garments. At this point the players have a choice of exploring more, risking dangerous encounters for more magic item treasures, taking the bodies back and confronting the captain, or any manner of exploration you can provide in the secret compartments of the boat. Maybe they stir an uprising from crew, maybe they find the dead crew members were actually criminal stowaways, maybe they uncover these creatures coat their feathers with residuum—anything that keeps the risk of danger at level with some form of reward, but only if they choose to explore further.

That’s the concept behind the Mini Sandbox: it’s an invitation to players to choose their adventure, alongside the main adventure.


The Mini Sandbox can still offer a connection to main adventure however, and with many groups this is something quite necessary. Many players feel like anything that isn’t a direct path to resolving the plot is a distraction and not an optimized path. If you want to use the Mini Sandbox for those kinds of players, you may have to trap them. But don’t ignore their needs, you can thread in the aspects of the contained area to the overall story quite easily.

I’ll take another example above to illustrate how the Mini Sandbox can weave a separated space into an overall plot:

When the players are shrunk into chickpea-sized adventurers and tossed into the wizard’s terrarium, they’re met with a Mini Sandbox where they can explore. The motivation is of course to regain their size and get out of the box, but we’re going to want something more. The first thing they do is avoid the giant fly trap plant they’ve landed next to, but let them notice that it has recently caught an ant that is slowly digesting in the plants jaws. If the PCs explore the carcass, you can reveal (through a series of skill checks perhaps) that it isn’t an ant after all, but ankheg that has been shrunken down to a miniature size, just like them. After that, you can put some pressure on them by staging an army of ankegs coming for them, perhaps a skill challenge to avoid them, and climaxing with a skirmish. When the PCs are resting, they hear a voice and explore what they think is a cave to find it. Within the cave they find a gnome NPC with a pick ax who is shuddering at a white wall he’s seemed to discover in the cave. The PCs introduce themselves and the gnome reveals he’s been surviving in this ant hill for many days, carving his way to secret nooks for protection, but now he’s discovered this roadblock. Another series of skill checks reveals the white wall is actually a life-sized pearl that is buried in the soil of the terrarium, and that it is actually a Pearl of Power. Little use to the miniature sized PCs, but a great treasure piece should they escape, they leave the pearl alone for now. The gnome says that the wizard punished one of his goons by shrinking them just yesterday, but when the punishment was through, he took the goon out of the terrarium and cast the magic words upon him to return him to his normal size. The gnome wrote the words down but doesn’t know how to use that kind of magic—and even worse, he dropped the notation when he saw a gigantic lizard on the other side of the box. The PCs are sure they can break the shrinking spell if they had the words, so they explore further to find the lizard’s lair. On the way however they come to a part in the caves where the soil meets the glass walls. Outside the glass they can see the gigantic wizard’s goons walking around a table working on some sort of model. With a few skill checks they may find that the model is a tiny replica of their hometown city. All of the sudden, the evil wizard’s motivations have gone from experimentation on ankhegs, to punishing people with shrinking magic, to a plot to shrink an entire city for whatever nefarious reasons.

You can expect the remainder of this Mini Sandbox leading to them tracking down the lizard, slaying or placating it to grab the dropped magical notation, and decrypting the words to break the shrinking spell on them. All this with more vengeance for the wizard who shrunk them because they want to thwart his plans to enslave their entire hometown into miniature pets for his evil delight. You’ve got a combat, skill usage, a helpful NPC, some challenges, some plot, and even a treasure parcel to boot. This, and you didn’t have to lay a series of underground (life-sized) tunnels and rooms leading to your BBEG that your players have all seen before.

It’s worth noting however, there was little choice for the players in this scenario; without the magic words they couldn’t be returned to their normal size, so that hook was pretty much a rail. This example was more about the Mini Sandbox being a device to reveal part of the plot and not necessarily about providing tons of avenues to discover.

It should be noted that a lot of these discoveries, dangers and rewards in the Mini Sandbox can be shuffled around just like a sandbox should. The characters may find the desiccated bodies before they find the ledger with missing crew members. They may find the lizard and the notation with the magic words before they find the gnome. Some of these clues might be more enticing, more leading than others, so be sure to sprinkle a little bit of bait at each phase of exploration.

The Mini Sandbox is just like a big sandbox adventure, but allows you to use it in conjunction with whatever other style of play you’re using in your campaign. It’s a great way to try out a more open style if you’ve never done it before and it’s a great way to give the players a little feeling of control over the game without having to prepare for everything possible they could do. I know I’d rather prepare a list of 10 things the characters might do in a contained setting than 100 things they could possibly do in the whole campaign world at large.

How do you run your games? Could you use a contained Mini Sandbox in it?

Where to Begin: the Art of the Lead-In

This is a quick idea I’ve used before and wish I used almost every combat. Now, some combats might need to be strict set pieces, especially those with adventure villains, and that’s okay, but sometimes, as a player, I’ve felt like the beginning of a battle is washed over or even arbitrary. I’m calling the idea the Lead-In.

Some published skill challenges suggest adding monsters to an upcoming battle for failure, some might even suggest reducing monsters for success. These aren’t bad ideas, but also consider allowing the characters to simply get the jump on the enemies off the bat, or having less than ideal positions when they do get to the skirmish.

The Lead-In doesn’t have to be a whole skill challenge, it can be a single skill check or group check. Whether the players are being cautious with stealth or bombastic by kicking in the door, each might provide them with a tactic that can easily be translated into a nice little cookie to give to the players to keep them invested and engrossed.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Provide a situation, challenge or opportunity for the characters that could affect an upcoming battle
  2. Keep your eyes and ears open for when players attempt to make opportunities for themselves and ride with their ideas (nothing makes a player feel better than suggesting an idea that the DM endorses)
  3. Simply come up with an appropriate skill check that makes sense for the opportunity and have the player(s) roll it
  4. If the player succeeds on the Easy DC, everything begins per normal. If they hit the Moderate DC, provide them with a small bonus, and if they hit the Hard DC provide them with a significant bonus. Leave failures out of this or keep them in more fleshed out skill challenges, there’s no need to dock your players for a little ingenuity
  5. Keep trying out new Lead-Ins before battle to stir up the creativity and get the players reved up to extend their abilities past what’s written in the Rules Compendium.

Sample Lead-In: Starting Position

Much like the surprise round, a Starting Position Lead-In can provide an advantage in terms of placement and tactics for a group who is good at sneaking, detecting or those strong on their feet. In your module or your notes, determine the starting position by picking a square at a distance from the enemies, usually between 5 and 10 squares away is typical. Set up the situation or opportunity, have the appropriate characters make their checks and then provide them with leeway on that position depending on their checks.

Skill Check:

Easy DC: Burst 1 from starting position square
Moderate DC: Burst 2 from starting position square
Hard DC: Burst 3 (or 4 or 5 for large maps) from starting position square

Skills to consider:

Perception: The players are exploring a dark and open cavern when the twittering of cave spiders begin to surround them beyond the reach of their light sources. Waiting for the right moment to pounce, the creatures are nearly silent in their movement to perfect striking positions, but your heroes are no fools and came to this dungeon just as skilled.

Stealth: The adventurers just cut down an orc search party outside of their camp where they’re to rescue a kidnapped noble. They may not be able to infiltrate the entire site to get to the target and get out, but they can at least get a jump on the first few guards at the watch points. It’s really a matter of how much distance they can close before they’re spotted.

Acrobatics: The mountain pass that leads to the ogre clan is known for being watched over by a den of wolves. It’s the gravel and rocky terrain of the area that give those wolves such an advantage over wandering prey. When the wolves finally howl out and set upon them, can the adventurers make use of the craggy rubble beneath their feet to hold up against the assault?

Where to put the players at the beginning of combat has always been one of the last things I prepare and it deserves a little more attention. Where you begin can really steer a battle, and since I don’t like to tell my players their exact positions after the map has been drawn I’ve found it’s better to just choose a square and tell them they can start in a burst 1 from that square. This gives them the choice of whether to be back, front, a little to the side or right in the middle. With the Starting Position Lead-In, you can take this one step further and offer the group an often missed opportunity to not only make good use of their skills, but make them feel more heroic when they gain a decent advantage over their enemies every once in a while.

At the root of it, Lead-Ins are like a supplement to initiative checks. Where initiative often feels like nothing more than a d20 roll to determine a rather abstract system for the order combatants take to wail on each other, Lead-Ins can provide a customized opportunity for advantage making each combat encounter a more memorable and rewarding experience.

Stand Up Like a PC and Play Your Character

I know this is a blog about D&D crunch, but it’s so hard to play the game every week and not expound on what I consider an integral part of the game. But this is Rules As UNWritten, so there’ll definitely be some crunchy cookies here at the end. If you can’t wait til the end, there’s a sample of the Personality Boons below, and you can click here for a pdf of all the cards to use in your game immediately! If you just want to see them all on their dedicated page, go here.

Personality Boons: Give them out when players typify their characters in great role playing scenes

First things first, for all you players out there: Play your freaking character. And I’m not talking about showing up with a pencil, character sheet and dice on the table, taking role appropriate actions and pulling your weight in the challenges. Don’t play the character on the sheet, play the character in the world. I’m talking about personality and how you can technically have a character on paper but a vacuous representation of them in the game world. Don’t do this people, you’ve got a great opportunity to have fun here, so never forget walk in their shoes and talk with their motivations.

You have look at your character and ask yourself what makes them different from every other character. It’s really important, not just for your enjoyment, but for the enjoyment of everyone else at the table. If another PC has an elaborate character, they’re not only having fun painting the game a different color, but they’re sending you a message to step up your game and make something out of your robotic expected “hero.” You can have a strong and charismatic paladin, but you don’t have to be a knight in shining armor. Nor do you have to be the extreme opposite just so you feel like it’s completely different. There are so many shades of grey in character development that can be extremely interesting and fulfilling, so find what makes them unique and make it happen at the table! But if you have a hard time doing this, and I can understand if you do, there are a couple guidelines below to help make your character more rewarding.

Guidelines for Players

  1. Five Words: Give your character five words to describe her demeanor, personality and perspective on life. Put those five words on your character sheet, reference them often and play them out.
  2. Need Help? Look At Your Build: If you don’t know how to identify your character, it’s all right there in front of you. Your character is defined by all the choices you make every time you level. Oh, you took Toughness? No, he didn’t just wake up and have a thicker neck. Announce to the group that your character has been eating a lot more and doing push-ups after every extended rest. “That’s it,” he’s says, “if we’re going to keep getting into these fights, I’m gonna beef up the ole sack of potatoes.” Have him stretching his neck while the rogue is searching for traps. Have him constantly eating jerky right after a battle. Have him dance on his feet to keep his muscles warm right after a short rest. See, you took a feat and made it a character trait. It’s easy.
  3. One Character Trait Per Game: Sure, you could say he’s a funny guy because he has a high charisma. Come on man, push it further. If you really want to play a character who is humorous, don’t say it, show it. Come to every game with a joke. Do it, it’s your homework. It’s not hard, it’s a simple character trait, so don’t just say he’s funny, make him funny.
  4. One Development Per Level: At the beginning of each level, look at a part of your character’s history, identity or relationships and choose to develop one thing about them. Just one thing. It’s more difficult than you think. Take that one small part of your character and change it slowly so it is different by the end of the level.
  5. Remember Those Five Words? Change Them: Great characters never stay the same. You don’t have to change all five words actually, you get to keep the ones you just can’t live without, the ones that DEFINE your character. But the others? Change them. Develop them. Over time your holier-than-thou perfect paladin begins to doubt herself. Over time your I’d-do-anything-for-money gangster rogue begins to grow a heart.

Follow these guidelines for some serious fun with your character. They’ll feel brand new; they’ll have dimension and substance that you can really put your finger on. You’ll feel more like your character is a real person, but the best part about role playing like this is that it’s contagious. Because it’s really hard to role play a character by yourself, you’ll confront their characters with a rich personality, and hopefully then they’ll want to distinguish their characters from yours, and it spirals into what is known as fun. I therefore have one more guideline to add to the list above:

  • Help Your Party Members Develop Their Own Characters: Do you see that warlock struggling with the weight of her dark patron? Don’t just stand there rogue-without-a-heart! You could give her a shoulder to lean on while working on your character’s own struggles with companionship, or drive her to reject the chains of coward patron entities that won’t show their faces to drive home your character’s immovable personality. There are so many options, but most importantly, remember to help the other character get closer to a resolution with the quality they’re trying to refine.

For the Dungeon Master

You’re not getting off free at all here. Just because you’re not the one running the characters doesn’t mean you get to sit idly by while they do all the heavy lifting. On the contrary in fact, your job could be the hardest. Number one, the thing that contributes most to a lack of role playing at the table is inspiration. The players can get stifled or shy and your job is to make it as easy as possible, to light the tiniest of sparks at the feet of the players. A lot of players actually need some lighter fluid, a stack of kindling and a blowtorch to get the inspiration moving, but start small with any stimulus you offer so that they can feel like they own the character that much more when they do get to developing them.

This is all more like advice and less like real crunch, so below I present some tangible tools for the Dungeon Master to help dig out those character personalities.

Personality Boons

To download the pdf of all Personality Boons that you can cut into cards and use in your own games click here. You can also see all the boons on its dedicated page here. Here’s how they work:

  • Hand out Personality Boons when players…
    • show off the qualities that make their characters distinct
    • make a strong effort to develop their character
    • role play a particularly great interchange with other PCs or NPCs
  • Choose the most appropriate trait from the bank of cards. Every possible trait may not be in there, but something close to the character’s disposition will still provide a reward.
  • Avoid handing out too many Personality Boons, the benefits should be encouraging but not expected. A good measure is one boon per session.

The idea with Personality Boons is to foster good role playing, not to hand out a lot of random bonuses, so consider carefully when you choose to hand out these awards. These are a great alternative to the recently introduced Fortune Cards, but in my opinion better as they do not simply supply players with a stack of chance perks, they promote the identity and growth of the characters’ personalities at the table.

It’s worth noting that even though some of the Personality Boons may seem to have a negative connotation, all of them provide a benefit of some kind. If a player seems uneasy with the fact that they are rewarded with a quality that they find unsavory or doesn’t depict them in a clear light, let them know that it’s a great opportunity to see how others perceive them and they can choose to play their character differently in the future. And that there’s nothing wrong with playing a character with less than moral motivations, so long as the game still functions cooperatively and everyone is having fun. Remind them that great characters never stay the same, and perhaps this is part of their character’s journey. They could also choose to embrace the quality they’ve been acknowledged for (especially if they like the boon that comes along with it), and that too can help develop their character.

I hope you get a chance to flip through these little morsels and use them in your game. They’re great for ice breaking new groups and reinvigorating old characters with their classic eccentricities. Enjoy!

Idea: Alertness Scale

"Sneak Attack" Artwork by Christopher Johnston

Okay, you’re building an adventure that’s pretty contained. It might span a level or two, include a dungeon or lair and effectively have lots of baddies roaming around looking to eat or kill the characters for trespassing. You’ve got some monsters that you’d love to run, maybe some traps you’d like to place, and even a skill challenge or two to keep things interesting during the dive. If the adventure is contained however, you can help keep the excitement up and add a little spice to the adventure by adding this home brewed feature, the Alertness Scale.

It’s pretty simple in concept, but can be variable for whatever your dungeon’s details are. I can see this idea working in several classic scenarios: Escaping from prison, Infiltrating an enemy base, Undercover presence in a dangerous city, Exploration of ancient ruins, etc.

Any situation where you, the adventure designer, could envision there being a lot more pressure on the players the more they attract attention would be perfect.

The Alertness Scale was built for two main reasons: bolstering the risk/reward challenge of the game and providing a nice pitch of things to plug in for simple choices that players make. Because the Alertness Scale alters the frame of the game ever so slightly when certain events occur, you make the players feel like every decision they make is affecting the scenario. This is key to an immersive style of game and can be immensely rewarding if things are communicated well across the table. It also just gives the DM a great little outline of the adventure and a list of things to reference to keep the scenario active and realistic.

Okay, here’s how it works:

  1. Make a list called Potential Actions that you envision the characters might take while on their quest. These can be general actions, like picking a locked door, or taking a short rest; they can also be actions attached to the specifics of the area, like deciding to kidnap the stray guard down the hall, or pulling an unmarked lever, or chopping up the safe that’s built into the wall, or deciding to take a short rest in the witch’s cupboard.
  2. Make another list from 1 to 5 called Alertness Scale that will act as a indicator to how alert the denizens of the area are to the characters’ presence. 1 means the denizens have an inclination their lair has been breached and 5 has all denizens aware, awake and ready for confrontation should they find the infiltrators.
  3. Fill in a condition to the lair or adventure based on each level of alertness. Each level should be additive, so that while the Alertness Scale is at level 5, the denizens gain all five conditions. Some examples are listed below.
  4. Make a final list of Potential Countermeasures that you anticipate the characters may attempt in order to thwart the growing attention they are gathering.

When items from the Potential Actions List occur in the game, you simply move the current conditions of the lair up one on the Alertness Scale. Attempts to reduce the alertness of the denizens on the Potential Countermeasures should always require a ritual or skill check at a hard DC. Failure should also raise the number on the Alertness Scale by one. Remember to give small indications to the players about how they may be drawing attention. There is no need to spell out the mechanical benefits necessarily, but continue to do your job as the Dungeon Master and paint the picture of what’s going on around them accurately.


Potential Actions List:

  1. Characters take a short rest while within the main compound of the Wizard’s Dungeon
  2. Characters attempt to break into the warded treasure chest in the lieutenant’s bedchamber
  3. Characters trigger a trap in area A, B or C
  4. Characters make no attempt to cover the gnoll guardian corpses from encounters X, Y or Z
  5. Characters attempt and fail to break the Arcane Lock on doors H, I or J
  6. Characters fail the skill challenge “Sneaking Past the Sleeping Purple Worm”
  7. Characters deal any thunder damage in areas L, M or N

Alertness Scale:

  1. Denizens have an inclination something is awry:
    All denizens gain a +2 bonus to Perception
  2. Some denizens have heard or seen the characters.
    All non-sleeping denizens are not distracted and gain a +1 bonus to Initiative
  3. Notice of the characters’ presence has been filtered to elites and lieutenants:
    All denizens cannot be surprised, all sleeping denizens are awake and alert
  4. The Denizens are on high alert and aware they have been infiltrated:
    For every combat encounter add 3 minions of the characters’ level or lower. All traps gain a +2 bonus to hit and the Perception DC to detect them goes up by 2.
  5. The Denizens have mustered their forces and are prepared for anything:
    All denizens gain a +4 bonus to initiative, 5 temporary hit points and a +2 bonus to their first attack in a combat.

Potential Counter Measures:

  1. Character casts a ritual that distracts the denizens, covers up their tracks, or otherwise masks their presence
  2. Character makes a skill check that masks their presence at a hard DC. Failure raises the Alertness Scale by one.
  3. Character forces a lieutenant denizen to surrender (this may play out as the lieutenant revealing a secret about the area to avoid detection, having the lieutenant gather his guards and vacating the dungeon entirely, or something along those lines)

There you have it, an easy and simple method to provide meaning behind all the choices the players make along their quest. As any experienced Dungeon Master knows, you simply cannot accommodate for every action that the players may make along the adventure, and so this Alertness Scale provides a great outline to reference to keep the air of the mission consistent. If a player decides to trash a library looking for clues, pulling every book off the shelves and rummaging through every stack of papers, but that action isn’t accounted for on your Potential Actions list, it would make sense that it would, and so you simply adjust the Alertness Scale up by one.

The best part about the Potential Actions List in my opinion is how you can tailor it so well to what’s going on in your own game. Take off all the conventional actions and apply them to a particular adventure for instance. Let’s say perhaps that the evil rakshasa wizard at the end of the dungeon has several scrying mirrors around his lair. When the players come to a room with a mirror, adjust the Alertness Scale up by one and call for a Perception check. Those that reach a hard DC can be told that they feel like they are being watched. Each time it happens again, adjust the Alertness Scale and slowly indicate that there is something odd about the mirrors. The players may slowly get the idea, attempt to thwart the scrying devices, set up ruses for the wizard, or simply plow through the dungeon, making for a customized dungeon dive according the tactics or whims of the players.

Tailored dungeon diving adventures with a cat-and-mouse element that keeps the players feeling like every decision they make matters? That’s what makes D&D great, and so I hope you steal and enjoy this little convention for your own adventures.

(Special thanks to Christopher Johnston for his artwork “Sneak Attack”. See more of his work here.)