Thursday, September 19, 2013


In the previous installment, we talked about character generation. Now we’re going to talk about something much more fun: encounters!

Running encounters with kids should be a very lively experience, more of an interactive story than a war game. Numbers and crunch (except for the crunch of broken bones!) interest your crowd much less than cool stunts and awesome power displays. They’re playing for the juicy descriptions, the life-and-death drama, the unpredictable twists, and — of course — the rewards!

This article provides tips and ideas for DMs wishing to run smooth, fun encounters with young players. As always, keep in mind that the guidelines presented below are just that: guidelines. They are aimed at the “average” player. But, the “average” player does not exist. Nothing stated here is universal. Nothing. So even more than with adult gamers, your highest commandment is:

1. Know Thy Players!
Before we continue to the specifics, there are two issues I would like to stress. The first one might sound banal, but it is of the uttermost importance, so please pay attention:

2. Know The Rules of the Game!
A low-level character in D&D doesn’t have access to that many powers. There is no excuse for you to be taken by surprise by anything the kids (or your NPCs) do. Nothing is more ruinous to creating a good atmosphere than a DM ponderously flipping through the Player’s Handbook. An occasional glance into a book, especially one that the players don’t have access to, only increases the kids’ curiosity about their foes and enhances your aura of mystery and authority. A long rules consultation kills it dead.

If you’re caught flatfooted — then make stuff up! It’s better to inflict a few extra points of damage on a hero or a monster, than to have even a single boring minute during combat. It’s D&D, not rocket science; fun is your top priority, adherence to the rules is secondary!

The second issue involves kids losing track of reality. Hardly as scary as Patricia Pulling and her ilk try to portray it, this is nevertheless something you should be aware. Thus:
3. Thou Shalt Let None Escape Reality!
Younger kids (ages 7-8) often get very involved in fast-paced and exciting games. This is a good thing, but it is important to ensure they don’t get carried away and lose sight of reality. A couple of years ago, I joined the respectable club of people who had a shoe thrown in their face. The target wasn’t me, per se, but rather an evil wizard who taunted one of the heroes. However, it was not the wizard who took a shoeprint to the face, but me. So be careful—always be watchful for kids who get overly excited, and make sure to curb their enthusiasm.

You should also be vigilant for friction between kids in and out of game. Disagreements in-game can lead to bad blood in real life. Bad blood leads to arguments, which may even lead to physical violence. Strangle this demon in the cradle by spilling cold water on young minds that get too hot.
Reminding the kids that it's "only a game" can feel somewhat blasphemous, but trust me, it's better than the alternative.

4. Thou Shalt Maintain the Peace Around the Table!
Some quick guidelines:
  • Insist on fair treasure distribution (see below).
  • Don’t allow the heroes to attack each other without a very good IC reason. I found that if you demand kids to give a reasonable explanation for their actions, they will rather forgo the action than waste the brain power trying to come up with a well-structured argument. If, on the other hand, they do come up with a good argument, perhaps the IC fighting is justified.
  • If a player is going against the group try to talk sense into him before letting the others gang up on him.
If a hero accidentally hits another hero in combat stress that it’s an accident. Kids often feel like attacking the characters of other kids because of some unrelated argument between them in real life. Explain to them that while they might have some cause for quarrel, their characters are best buddies who saved each other’s lives many times over. There is no reason in the world for them to fight and, come to think of it, no reason for the kids to fight either. Personally, I'm not above asking a kid, "yeah? and how many siblings did you kill today because they replaced your saves with their saves in Assassin's Creed?"

In any case, don't tell kids, "you can't do that" or "this fails" without even rolling dice. This kill suspension of disbelief and testifies to a general lack of creativity.

Now, having removed these fundamentals out of the way, let’s get down to some of the subtler commandments.

5. Thou Shalt Be Concise and Unbridled!
Dungeons & Dragons is a mostly verbal game, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that words and body language have a great effect. However, few kids have the patience to listen to long and flowery descriptions of strange creatures or exotic locales.

Kids do love seeing pictures of fantastic creatures, and some DMs come to games armed with a folder full of lovely, full-color illustrations. Personally, I use this option very rarely. D&D is a game of the imagination, and showing pictures deprives kids of the chance to see these monsters in their mind’s eye.

To convey more information in less time, pepper your descriptions with a generous helping of physical demonstration. Show them how the zombie drags his rotting corpse toward them. Don’t be shy; groan and moan, stick out your tongue, drag your feet — don’t just describe the zombie, be it! Have your goblins snicker and chafe their hands like the sniveling little wretches they are. Don’t be a dry husk of a teacher, be a carefree storyteller! You’ll know you’re doing your job right when they jump from their seats to describe what their heroes do, demonstrating each brutal slash with their pens and rolled character sheets.

Words and gestures are of major importance — so choose them carefully! If you describe an enemy as scary and powerful, the kids might choose to run away, even if they outnumber him ten to one and have nothing to fear. On one occasion, I had a group of ten 4th-level heroes flee a drunken blacksmith because I became overenthusiastic in describing his bulging muscles, prison tattoos, and pure animal rage. I roared and slurred and punched the table and... I guess I played the role too well. The thug was no threat to the heroes, but an angry adult is a threat to the players. They reacted, quite naturally for people of their age and size, by fleeing — not from the smith, but from the DM.

Describing an enemy as perfectly cool or sardonically amused in the face of danger also has a very demoralizing effect on younger kids. (“Why isn’t he afraid? Perhaps we’re the ones who should be afraid...”) I usually reserve this attitude for master villains or very challenging encounters.

On the other hand, if you describe a famous wizard, or even a deity, as “a fat little man who can’t keep his finger out of his nose,” and demonstrate his manners whimsically, don’t be surprised if the kids treat him as no threat at all. Talking in a hysterical, high-pitched tone or describing a creature as effeminate (as opposed to merely soft-spoken) are also likely to get it discredited as a threat, although the latter will often unnerve older (9-12) players.

The great (and some might argue lamentable) importance that kids ascribe to outward appearance can be used against them. Each race already has stereotypes based on its appearance and the group’s past experiences. For example, a common belief is that dragonborn are big and powerful, while goblins are small and pathetic. In truth, from a mechanical standpoint, the two races are equally powerful; dragonborn are slightly stronger and goblins are slightly more dexterous, but that’s about it. However, in the kids’ minds, dragonborn are almost dragons, while goblins are little more than vermin. An encounter with a 10th-level goblin barbarian whose arms are as thick as some heroes’ thighs will certainly catch them off guard and give them something to talk about in days to come... if they survive.

So, we talked about how to bring monsters into the scene. Now let’s talk about how to take them out of it. 

The short answer is:

6. Thou Shalt Be Gory, Goofy, and Cool!
Gore in children’s games is a controversial subject on which I hold a controversial position.

Kids love gore. They love hearing how their hammers crush their enemies’ skulls, sending brains and bone shards flying in all directions. They love to know their Flames of Phlegethos have reduced their victim to a charred kebab that smells just about ready to serve. And they love to hear how the goblin they just pushed off a cliff is not unlike a watermelon being struck with a hammer while his remains now resemble what remains after you pick up a piece pizza from the floor when it fell down cheese-first. (In other words, be creative!)

Overly-anatomical descriptions make kids uncomfortable. The most universal solution I’ve found is making the violence over the top and very metaphorical — blood shoots as if from a sprinkler, enemies are burned to a crisp or blow up to tiny little bits like New Year’s confetti. While satisfying the kid’s need to feel powerful and destructive, this reduces the violence to a non-threatening caricature.

If you can make the descriptions cool or funny through one-liners or grotesque metaphors — even better! For example, “The peasant sticks his pitchfork into the goblin’s stomach and rolls it in his intestines like someone eating spaghetti,” is at once horrible and funny.

Be especially careful with how you describe the heroes’ actions, particularly when those actions relate to other kids’ heroes. If you describe a hero who, while shooting into melee and accidentally hitting a friend, as doing “eeny, meeny, miny, moe/who am I shooting with this bow?” don’t be surprised if the hero with the arrow sticking from his butt decides to repay in kind — even though it was you and not the player who made fun of the situation.

Knowing how to talk and act is important, but not less important is knowing how to listen. I’m not talking about the sensitive “pour your heart” sort of listening, but the devious “I will use your worst fears against you” sort of listening. Didn’t expect that, huh?

7. Thou Shalt Listen to Thy Players!
Many kids have very active imaginations and can come up with ways of complicating an encounter you’d never have dreamed. They’ll see the most horrible traps in the most innocent locations, treason in the best meaning shopkeeper, and ascribe eldritch powers to the lowliest kobold that would make dragons die of envy. There’s no reason for you not to use those paranoiac suspicions against them. If you hear a particularly good (by “good” I of course mean “horrifying”) idea, discreetly write it down for later use.

Sometimes you can even use it right away. Yes, it’s kind of cheating, but everything is fair in love and war — and D&D is both. For example, I ran an adventure once, in which the heroes had to retrieve a series of colored keys needed to access a laboratory where a shortsighted sorceress had managed to freeze herself while creating a deadly elemental. Except for the puzzle of locating the hidden keys, using them in the right order and then defeating the elemental, I had no further challenges in mind for the adventure. But one kid was full of ideas. “I bet there’s an ice bomb under the pillow! I bet the books come alive and eat anyone who enters the library! I bet the enemy will use both summer and winter powers against us!” Guess what? Their mission suddenly became much more interesting!

Listening is not always used for evil purposes. Kids often talk among themselves about what they want to find and who they want to meet. They will even talk about you (when they think you aren’t listening) and about your strengths and weaknesses. Keep your ears open and designing the right encounters will become much easier.

All right, enough with communication. Let’s talk about action.

8. Thou Shalt Use Initiative!
The issue of who acts first is of prime importance to kids. Many get fiercely competitive over this seemingly trifling issue. Choosing a kid arbitrarily or simply pointing at the one nearest to you will often start a scandal you won’t see the end of. As far as some players are concerned, it’s better to spend ten minutes arguing over who goes first than to wait five minutes for their turn.

My suggestion is therefore to always roll for initiative — and beyond. Roll initiative for who acts first in combat, for who gets to pick the first item from the slain monster, for the order in which the heroes wake up in the morning. Note that in some cases you may want to omit the customary Dexterity bonus to avoid fewer complaints that “it’s not fair, he always gets the loot.”

The Savage Worlds system suggests drawing cards instead of rolling dice. In theory, this sounds like something kids would enjoy better than rolling dice. However, I didn't have a chance to test this hypothesis yet, so take it with a grain of salt.

Kids will still try to come up with various reasons as to why their character should act first. Worse, some will try to bribe or sweet-talk (or bitter-cry) you into giving them the coveted privilege of acting first. However, you will have the dice (or cards) to blame for the order of action. Additionally, you’ll be able to offer them the conciliation that any minute now, their fortunes might turn and they’ll be the first to act.

In any case, initiative is one more excuse to roll dice and, as every gamer knows, rolling the dice is half the fun.

9. Thou Shalt Take Into Account the Age and Experience of Your Players!
Novice players are fiercely individualistic, unimaginably greedy, and absolutely self-centered. This makes novice groups very vulnerable in combat, particularly in their first few encounters. Even an experienced player can often decide that seeing a fellow hero dissolved in acid would be much more “awesome” than rescuing him. When designing your encounters, keep this aspect of young player in mind. I like to call it “Long Swords, Short Attention Span” (LSSAS).

New players stray easily. In the middle of a pitched battle, new players might ignore the murderous vampires and go check a curious looking door, not caring about the half-a-dozen attacks of opportunity this provokes, or the fact that opening the door will probably introduce more monsters to this already challenging encounter. Unless encouraged to fight, they’ll act like a group of hamsters released in a python’s cage and just wander around until they’re eaten.

New players don’t work as a team. Even if they decide to fight, new players do whatever they feel like at the moment, teamwork feeling like surrender; wizards will charge brandishing axes they’re not proficient with, fighters will hide behind counters and shoot crossbows, rogues will try to climb to the ceiling and cut the chandelier just so that it falls on someone. Even worse, some kids just can’t be bothered to change their plans due to an unscheduled ambush. They might simply ignore the arrow that suddenly pierced their left lung and continue walking as if nothing has happened. After all, you told them that if they retrieve the legion’s standard they’d get 300 XP—what do they care about strange green people with bows shooting at them from the bushes?

New players don’t know when they’re conquered. Possibly because they’re used to grownups bailing them out of any serious trouble in real life, young players never retreat or surrender once they decide to start fighting. No matter how badly the battle goes — even if all the heroes are down and the last man standing has to fight with his teeth because both his hands were eaten long ago — they won’t even contemplate giving up. They will bark a quick: “This is Sparta!” and jump back into the fray... achieving the same sort of victory as the original speaker of that line.

To avoid embarrassment or TPKs, I recommend having a defeat scenario handy. Typical choices would be getting sold as gladiators (older kids love this one!), imprisoned, or left for dead and being rescued by kindly strangers in need of help.

Because of LSSAS, consider the first few combat encounters as an exercise in tactics and teamwork. Tutor your players; don’t assume strategic thinking will occur naturally to children who were raised on shows were one guy kills hundreds of orcs simply by waving his swords around. A possible tactic is to have the first combat end with the heroes captured by an inferior enemy and imprisoned. While they’re in prison, lecture them on the importance of teamwork and give them a chance to practice those principles by working together to escape captivity and avenge themselves on the enemies that have previously defeated them.

Tools of the Trade
Cool battle tiles and a boxful of miniatures will be extremely well met. However, if you value your little plastic friends, don’t use them regularly in games. Kids are likely to hurl miniatures at each other at some stage, unthinkingly crumple tiles, or possibly fail a Wisdom check and pocket a few minis. Tokens, being much cheaper and less seductive, are my weapons of choice these days.

Don't forget our old friend, the whiteboard. Because few classes are equipped with whiteboards with squares, I recommend using a ruler instead, replacing squares with two-inch increments. Use colorful markers to quickly draw important features on the battlefield. Mark heroes and allies in one color and enemies in another. Some DMs like to write current hp/damage adjacent to the combatant’s icon, but I prefer damage tables because they’re more easily readable.

Here is an example of how an average battle would look like. It’s not pretty, but it’s efficient and very comfortable:

Although this article is about encounter management rather than encounter design, there is a point I feel is worth making. Of course, it will be made in the imperative voice:

10. Thou Shalt Not Neglect the Classics!
You may have played dozens of adventures, killed thousands of monsters, survived hundreds of traps, used all the powers in the book, bought and sold each magic item in the system and can predict how an adventure will end by the first paragraph of the first encounter. The kids are playing for the first time in their life, so don’t ruin it for them with your jaded cynicism. Don’t deprive them of the pleasure of being petrified by a beholder or smashed by a deadfall for the first time. Remember: orcs and goblins are cool, and there’s nothing wrong with a quest to return the farmer’s prized cow that was stolen by goblin bandits or to rescue the mayor’s daughter before she’s sacrificed to Gruumsh. It’s heroic, it’s fantastic, and it’s the stuff that legends are made!

To please your crowd, you don’t need to convert monsters from obscure books from the 70’s or write Shakespearean plots. Going down into the sewers to fight mutant rats led by a deranged wizard, while banal for you, is new and exciting for your young adventurers. You will be amazed how seriously they’ll take this mission!

And a battle with a beholder or a dragon is something kids will remember for months. They’ve read about these creatures in your Monster Manual while you weren’t looking, they’ve heard rumors about them from older siblings, they’ve talked about them in hushed whispers after school... trust me, saying the word “beholder” alone is enough to evoke a response from the group that will leave your ears ringing for an hour.

Same goes for the setting. Don’t start your campaign in a magic gas giant planet of floating sentient islands and gibbering idiot deities; the only thing you’ll achieve is killing the suspension of disbelief and confusing your players. A quaint village with a grumpy dwarf smith, a jolly halfling publican, and a mysterious eladrin witch is a much better adventuring location. Many beginner DMs make the mistake of starting with the epics — bad idea! 1st-level heroes should protect caravans from desert raiders, rescue maidens in distress from kobolds, or uncover evil cultists of Orcus. They don’t decide the fate of the universe or slay gods with super-weapons.

Also, thri-kreen seem to be particularly popular for some reason. Just FYI.
And now, a word of warning:

11. Thou Shalt Not Treat Cities Lightly!
A city offers so much to do. You can try to recruit new NPCs for your group, collect clues, get new quests, buy new items, train for new skills, stir up trouble, join the underground or the police, get a job, marry, start a popular uprising, make enemies, collect bounties, make friends, or get a few cheap laughs from a nasty practical joke….

Another thing they offer is major headaches. Cities present you with a plethora of problems you should be aware of before embarking down this treacherous path. A colleague of mine just wanted to let his players refresh their inventory in a generic town. He ended up with hundreds dead and the national guard patrolling the ruined streets, looking for the instigators (guess who they were?). Was it fun? Sure! Did he have to rewrite his campaign from scratch afterward? Yep!

So why are cities so problematic? First and foremost, cities are horrible time guzzlers. Children like to buy stuff, even stuff they don’t need (unlike us adults, yes?) and a city presents them with an excuse to start going over every item in every book available, plus some items they just made up, and check to see if they’re for sale in the city. And don’t expect them to do this searching during other players’ turns. They’ll wait for their turn to start leafing through books. Getting kids out of a city is almost as difficult as getting them to eat spinach.

Another issue with cities is the fact that they’re full of people and places. You can’t account for them all unless you’ve very thoroughly prepared. You will have to improvise, and improvisation can often have unexpectedly destructive consequences such as the heroes ending up with an overly strong ally (or enemy), or getting arrested and thrown into jail. Even more destructive to the game is making up names and locations and then forgetting half of them by next session. There is nothing more embarrassing than a DM who has to ask the players to tell him about his own setting… except perhaps a DM whose cities and NPCs suddenly change because he didn’t take notes.

A good way to close this month’s article is by discussing the sticky (often literally) issue of character death:

12. Thou Shalt Kill Heroes Discriminately!
Character death is a touchy issue. Some kids could have their hero killed just for kicks. Others try to stay alive, but would die for a worthy cause and won’t start too much of a fuss if they’re felled by a stray arrow. Still others tear their sheet to bits, curse you and your mother, and storm out of the room if their hero is so much as bloodied.

With groups aged 9 or less, I recommend avoiding the death issue altogether. Heroes brought to negative hit points are simply knocked unconscious. TPKs result in the whole group waking up in some damp dungeon stripped of their gold and equipment. Either the guards are conveniently lax in their duties, enabling the intrepid adventurers to escape and reclaim their equipment, or the heroes are given a quest by their captors in return for their freedom.

Of course, a player may occasionally do something incredible stupid, such as giving Orcus a wedgie (true story). On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll have players who nobly sacrifice themselves to further the adventure or save a friend. The former should result in death and penalty (we can’t have players changing heroes like socks, now can we?), the latter should grant a reward for their next hero.

With older players I recommend making combat deadly, as it adds excitement to the action. However, overly sensitive players are still an issue. The solution I found to be the most effective is allowing a slain hero to return as a ghost or a spirit (see below) until the old hero is resurrected or a new hero is generated (player’s choice). Playing a supernatural being is very cool for most kids and takes some of the sting out of death.
Heroic ghosts are disembodied spirits that hang around the group, helping or interfering until their bodies are resurrected. They are not the malevolent ghosts from the Monster Manual, nor loveable Caspers, but a method for the player to exorcise his will without a hero. Because of this, unless your campaign setting has a spirit world with other spirits the dead hero can interact with, ghosts are characterized only by their powers.

Telekinesis (At Will * Standard Action): You can slowly move an item weighting up to five pounds one square in any direction.

Possession (Encounter * Standard Action* Charisma vs. Will): On a successful hit, the target makes a basic melee attack against one of its adjacent allies of your choice, utters a short phrase of your choice, or is stunned (save ends).

Whisper (Daily * Standard Action): You can speak with a single creature for up to five minutes. You manifest as a whispering voice in his head. This can scare unprepared creatures, dazing them (Charisma vs. Will, save ends).

Spirit Sight (At Will * Minor Action): You see other ghosts and spirits. This does not reveal invisible or otherwise hidden creatures. When interacting with spirit creatures, use the characteristics you had in life. With the exception of spirit sight, ghost powers cannot be used on spirit creatures.

Optional Rule: Last Chance
The dead hero’s soul only has a few hours left in this world before it ascends to the afterlife. This adds an air of hysteria to the game as the surviving heroes frantically look for someone capable of raising their slain friend before he is lost forever. Conversely, it can be used to let loved heroes leave the campaign in a more memorable way, using their last few hours to leave a mark on the world that will ensure their memory will live on. Use the latter only on serious and imaginative players, or all you’ll get is a long string of increasingly destructive practical jokes.

Lastly, although this subject will be discussed at length in a future article, a few words on rewards:

13. Thou Shalt Be Generous with XP!
Time moves much more slowly for kids than it does for adults. Don’t make them wait months before they gain their first level. Grant them at least five times as much XP as you would in a regular campaign. Don’t be an XP-miser, turning your campaign into a pointless monster grinder—instead, allow kids to experience the meteoric rise of their heroes to fame and power!

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