Balancing Act: Campaign Prep

One of the most exciting moments in any new RPG is the start of a new campaign: you have a new world, new characters, and a new story full of excitement and possibility. You have gathered your party and are ready to begin your saga, each adventure more exciting than the last, with challenges around every corner and new faces in every town…but after a while, things can get a bit stale. This town feels a little too familiar, that monster battle felt like the dozens before…and does this dungeon ever actually end? Although a campaign may start strong, many can meet a disappointingly dwindling end with stories left unfinished and players and DMs alike feeling burnt out. So how do you keep it engaging?

If you’re too role-play heavy without unique NPCs or igniting events, then your game risks adopting a “slice of life” feel instead of a sword and sorcery quest.

If you rely too much on combat to keep the story going, the campaign may turn into a constant grind, with little opportunity for character development.

The key to a dynamic campaign is balance: you want to keep each session narratively consistent, but with enough variety in the game play that your players stay engaged and can really explore their characters’ abilities. Here are some quick tips to help you plan out your next sessions!

Start small, then grow.

At the early stages of the campaign, focus first on the immediate situation at hand: was there a kidnapping? A theft? An unexpected attack in the town square? Whatever you choose, use the first few sessions to build the locale your players started in and allow them to explore their PC’s abilities. Don’t jump right into your end-game plot or start introducing big players in the world too early. This puts you in an awkward storytelling position where the scope of your campaign is too large for the level of your players. You also run the risk of burning all those “cool” points by showing your hand prematurely, and it’ll get even harder to raise the stakes later on.

Review the Pillars

When I’m planning out my sessions, I tie the plot back to these three pillars of gameplay: Combat, Interaction (interacting with other characters), and Exploration (interacting with the world). These three pillars are good ways for you to plot out the significant events and encounters your party will face in order to progress the story. While I don’t actually tally up XP these days, I do determine a player’s progress to the next level by how they tackle each challenge.

Each session I prepare is weighted towards one or two of the three pillars, and I try to vary it from game to game. For example, if we finish up a particularly combat-heavy segment, it’s important to break it up with down time and opportunities to learn about the world through lore drops or skill-based challenges. If we have a session that’s more focused on exploration, I’ll incorporate events and/or encounters that draw from either combat or interaction for the next game. It’s also helpful to combine pillars in more integrated ways to give your players a chance to showcase different strengths and problem-solving methods in a single session.

Make Bold Choices

Every now and then, your players can get overwhelmed by sandbox nature of D&D and they simply don’t know where to go next. You could have a plethora of different options and story lines available for them to explore, but while the leads and clues may seem obvious to you, don’t forget that your players are experiencing the world for the first time. They’re often too distracted with taking everything in to try to hunt for those campaign hooks. When you see them start to flounder, it’s time to introduce some sort of plot-propelling event. It could draw from any of the three pillars that you wish, but the key is that you need to put the players in a position where they have to act. It could be an NPC approaching them needing help, an external event or combat encounter…the possibilities are virtually limitless! Many first-time DMs are hesitant to push the players in any direction too forcefully…and this isn’t necessarily a proposal for rail-roading! This isn’t a method of feeding the players a decision or specific solution, but rather putting them in a situation where they must make a decision. This also gives them an opportunity to explore how their characters react in a stressful or urgent situation, which is very helpful in a new campaign.

Regardless of your players’ preferred style of gameplay, keeping your sessions balanced and diverse will keep you from falling into repetitive tropes and patterns. No matter how much you love a good dungeon crawl, it does get old after a while! If your goal is to enjoy a long-running campaign, remember to mix it up a bit! You’ll find yourself enjoying the campaign prep more and your players will certainly thank you for it!

Game Mechanics: Character Growth and Social Engagement

D&D has a lot of options for customizing a character with different abilities and personality traits, but not as much as far as built-in mechanics go for role-playing said character. At the end of the day, D&D was originally a monster hunting/sword and sorcery game that eventually adopted a more narrative focus in the most recent 5th edition. As a result, there are plenty of rules and guidelines for combat and spellcasting mechanics, but when it comes to encouraging social engagement and character development, it’s actually a bit lacking outside of d20-based skill checks. Sure, the DM can reward players for creative role playing with things like Inspiration and lore drops, but that’s difficult if the players are having trouble knowing where to begin in the first place. It’s very easy to feel like you’ve been put “on the spot” when you’re faced with social interaction but not yet used to role-playing. I’ve seen many a player simply freeze up, paralysed by the seemingly endless options ahead of them and not yet feeling comfortable enough in their PC’s “skin” to roll with the punches. In those situations, it then falls to the DM to try to coax the player into the spotlight, which is made even more challenging if the player doesn’t know their PC’s motivations in the first place! It can become quite the awkward cycle.

That’s not to say that you can’t have a role-play and narrative-heavy game of D&D! It just requires a little more structure here and there. The wide-open nature of the game is both my favourite aspect and the most challenging, as it leaves plenty of room for creative interpretation, but that can be intimidating for newcomers who may need a little more guidance. Here are some things you can incorporate to help players and DMs alike really explore character growth and avoid that dreaded “deer-in-the-headlights” feeling!

Traits, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws

We’ll start with something that’s already built into D&D Character Development, but is frequently left untouched after the first few games! These categories allow you to come up with some examples of unique personality traits, character flaws, and closely held beliefs or convictions your PC has about themselves, the people they interact with, and the world around them. Here are some examples, using one of my own PCs: Kreevali the Aaracokra Ranger (Horizon Walker subclass).

  • Trait: If there is a weird tunnel or passagway, I will investigate it. Fate doesn’t reward hesitation!
  • Ideal: It’s important to be self-sufficient, but the health of the flock is of utmost importance.
  • Bond: I will do anything to ensure the survival of my team.
  • Flaw: My recklessness can lead to disaster…and there have been troubles in the past that I feel responsible for.

Much of the time, players will use these during the early stages of a campaign, but then not use them past the first few sessions, or forget that they can use them as guides for role-playing. These are meant to provide an initial idea of how a PC will react in certain situations, and what drives them, but too often they fall by the wayside…especially if the chosen traits aren’t conducive to the scenario at hand.

Another pitfall lies in never changing these elements over the course of the game. There should be instances of character growth and evolution as the party overcomes challenge after challenge. Wouldn’t it make sense if the traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws evolved over time? For example, Kreevali started out very reckless and a bit cavalier when it came to following the rules. Unfortunately, that behaviour landed her in hot water…now she has become much more cautious as a result and will sometimes overcompensate in an attempt to appear more mature. Therefore some of her behaviours and values will likely change.

It’s always good for both the players and DMs to reflect on how events will shape their characters’ perceptions of the world, and allow the initial personality elements to change over time! DMs can even use these elements to deliberately expose players to decision points that will lead to character growth.

Bonds

I’ve mentioned this tip before, but it’s worth repeating! The Dungeon World game gives examples of Bonds that link character backstories to that of another party member. This creates built-in relationships or objectives that a player must act upon during role-playing scenarios.

For example, Kreevali’s first (accidental) venture was to the Feywild, where she met an Eladrin named Velavyre. Velavyre taught her how to speak Sylvan and was there when Kreevali took her first flight and a young fledgling. A good Bond for this relationship could be that Velavyre is the only one who can help Kreevali feel care-free and adventurous again.

As a player, this means that I should allow my character to loosen up and maybe give in to some of Velavyre’s wacky antics, rather than give her the cold shoulder the way Kreevali would towards strangers.

As a DM, I would use this sort of bond to purposely create scenes for Velavyre to get into trouble, just to see how Kreevali would act. Knowledge of these bonds would also give me opportunities to challenge players and the strength of their convictions.

Beliefs

Similar to “Ideals” in the first section, Beliefs represent the character’s core assumptions about the world. This idea comes from the The Burning Wheel RPG and, mechanically speaking, is used as a way to not only represent beliefs about the world but how a character would act upon them (in a similar fashion to goals, described below).

An example of a Belief for Kreevali would be that Earth-bound races are more short-sighted than the Aaracokra people, and are too easily swept up in petty squabbles. To show how Kreevali acts upon that Belief, I would have her be more impatient, sometimes even critical, of non-flying races. She’s quite haughty…

As a DM, I would take that Belief and find ways to challenge it. Maybe Kreevali will find a non-flying NPC who can outsmart her, and force her to reconsider her previous assumptions.

Another Belief that wouldn’t necessarily change in that same way, could be that Kreevali believes that there are other Horizon Walkers outside of her own tribe. The related action would be that she is going to try to find them and learn from them.

As a DM, I would take this and use it as player motivation. I’d drop hints and clues to the presence of others who can traverse the planes for Kreevali to explore and expand her understanding of the role she has been given.

Goals

Goal-Setting is one of my favourite ways to help players find their PC’s motivations. These can change after each session, and are most effectively organized into short and long-term goals. For example:

Kreevali hasn’t seen Velavyre since she was a fledgling, and was never able to find a doorway to the Feywild again. During our very first session, who suddenly appears but Velavyre, sent into the Material Plane by some powerful being! Some good goals after this encounter could include:

  • Short-Term: Keeping Velavyre out of trouble– she’s never been on the Material Plane before…(Wow is this what your cities look like? What’s that smell? Who are those people? What is this “money” thing?)
  • Long-Term: Finding a doorway to the Feywild to help Velavyre get back home

As a player, setting goals gives me something to work towards during a session, and helps create a sense of direction for my PC’s actions. If I have goals, I will be less likely to freeze up at a decision point…I’ll simply think about the problem and decide whether or not it relates to one of my goals. If it is unrelated, and unrelated to a goal of one of my allies…is it something I’d still be interested in?

As a DM, this gives me something to pull from when creating scenes. If I know my players’ goals, then I know what inspires their PCs to action– this makes it much easier to weave compelling stories and challenges for them! You can also tie goals to milestone levelling…if a player is able to satisfy one of their chosen goals you can reward them with character progression. This will also help their character’s traits evolve in interesting, and sometimes unexpected, ways!

That’s all I’ve got for now! I hope you find these examples useful 🙂 Remember, with all of the open space in the D&D mechanics, there’s nothing wrong with taking a look at other systems for house rule inspiration! Your game is your own. As long as you’re having a good time, customize it to your heart’s content! Finally, don’t forget to share some more ideas in the comments below!

House Rules

There are a LOT of rules in D&D and other TTRPGs, so the thought of adding more rules and stipulations doesn’t exactly seem enticing…but if you’ve followed this blog for a while you’ll know that our approach to the game is a bit more fluid. I’m not a fan of sticking strictly to the book, I prefer instead to use the rules as a means to help the game flow more smoothly, or add another dimension to the gameplay in such a way that makes it more engaging. The rules should amplify the experience, not limit it!

There aren’t really any guidelines for creating house rules of your own and they can vary from game to game, adapted to the story you’re telling and the play style of the people around the table. You might adopt new guidelines to make combat flow more easily, help to balance a party, or add more complexity to role playing certain social interactions…the possibilities truly are endless! In fact, I asked some of the Scribblers on Twitter what kind of custom rules they use in their games. Most of them had to do with combat, but there are examples to be found for just about any aspect of the game. …take a look! You may find some you’d like to include at your table too 🙂

Combat

While 5 th Edition D&D isn’t quite as “crunchy” as past editions, combat can still be pretty complicated for new players. Here are some house rules that can keep it engaging and help the players feel more heroic:

Healing in Battle:

  • Taking a potion for yourself as a Bonus Action, use an Action to give it to someone else
  • Clerics get an extra spell slot reserved purely for healing spells, which gives them more flexibility without sacrificing the ability to help their allies

Critical Hits:

  • Double the damage rolled, versus doubling the number of dice
  • Deal maximum possible damage, then roll with modifiers

Dealing the Final Blow:

  • Once the big baddie’s HP drops to zero, allow the party to role play the ending instead of maintaining initiative order

Role-Play

While the established rules for Combat are pretty robust, D&D doesn’t really have as many built-in rules to guide role-playing and social interactions, so some tables have included these alternate rules to reward creative role playing and character interaction.

Ability Checks:

  • Using alternate, non-Charisma abilities when charming, intimidating, or persuading someone. For example, using Strength or Athletics if trying to Intimidate, or relying on Intelligence when trying to persuade. Think in terms of the desired effect and get creative with how you achieve it!
  • Assisted rolls can add the helper’s modifier rather than simply provide advantage

Contested Social Checks

  • Making a “Willpower” or “Resolve” role in defense of a persuasion or intimidation check– you can add Intelligence, Wisdom, or even Constitution to a Charisma modifier.

Miscelleneous

  • Lasting Injury or Character Death: if you fail your death saves, you have the option of taking a permanent injury or ability decrease rather than losing the character
  • Spell Components: Unless it’s a high-value item, common components aren’t used by the spell.
  • Arcane classes can learn eachother’s spells (for a price)
  • Backstory-specific class features and abilities
  • Rewarding XP for things other than combat to encourage creative problem solving
  • If dice fall off the table, automatic disadvantage
  • Max HP for levels 1-3, roll for 4 and higher
  • Creating short and long term goals…extra XP if a player achieves them

These were just a few examples submitted by these fantastic Scribblers on Twitter! Check out the thread for more!

@mountain_foot @HungryScribbler @daniyogani @Dungeon_Camp @Bosco_ca @harra979 @o_cael @Monsters_Multi @quasidog1 @MunterBacon @LisaBwpg @BlackTomePress @Barrok @WorryWrite @HeatherRitchiie @shtoopy @RStorm31 @worlds_by_river @TheSithChicken @Starshinescrib @Red_Dazes @medik68 @RollForSanity @ThreeKobolds @DuncanWatson @CCrowbars @DM_Drakkoli @revMikeGarcia @melazera @MaesterRory @vicnedel02 @SJamoose @VeinexesVideos @althebard @ccpodcasthost @SCrapps_McGee @Keith0363 @Ellwood_46 @victhhe

There are plenty of additional house rules out there, but remember that it’s all about your game and the players at the table. Don’t be afraid to experiment and come up with something new…I’d love to hear more of your examples in the comments below!

Factions of Iyastera: The Shabaka

It’s time for another Iyastera lore post!! This one details a criminal network within Tashkil– perfect goes for those cunning and resourceful party Rogues (or College of Whispers Bards) who like to have connections across the kingdoms.

The Shabaka is a network of thieves and information brokers in Tashkil, are used by politicians and nobles alike for missions of espionage, blackmail, and behind-doors dealings.  There are two branches within the Shabaka:

Ukasa

Usaka wield information like a weapon, and very little goes on in Tashkil without their knowledge. With all of this knowledge comes great power and influence, and Tashkil rulers know that the Ukasa could could topple the kingdom with a word, though with that power comes a code of honor. Ukasa are sworn to protect the information they gather, and should any member use that information irresponsibly or cause irreparable damage to the people of Tashkil, then they would be killed by their own brethren.

Dhahab

The Dhahab are the thieves of Shabaka, and can both extract and insert items of value. They specialize in rare and dangerous goods, often confiscated from a corrupt noble exposed by the Ukasa, or resold illicitly.  The Dhahab make up the darker backbone of Tashkil’s economy which does not outwardly promote things of an unusual or arcane nature, but the Dhahab know that all kingdoms are connected by the shadow market.  They are called upon to investigate suspicious goods, steal items of value (either monetary or informational), or sometimes plant items in specified areas.

The Dhahab and Ukasa work hand in hand to simultaneously exploit and defend the kingdom of Tashkil. If matters were left entirely to the councils, the Shabaka know it would only be a matter of time before Iyastera plunged into war once more.

While agents will attempt to protect eachother when possible, each agent is trained to be self-sufficient and independent, to survive on their own. Though many prefer to travel without any identifying mark, some members does carry with them a copper coin with the Shabaka symbol pressed into it: a web with a single eye in the center. This coin cam be presented to prove alliance, but is easily disposed of, or even planted on someone, should they risk exposure.

D&D for Kids: Game to Grow

On Monday, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Adam J. from Game to Grow, a Seattle-based organization devoted to helping children develop healthy inter- and intrapersonal skills through therapeutic RPGs! Adam and co-founder Adam (yes, they’re both named Adam) embarked on this journey back in 2013 when they decided to combine their experiences in counseling, therapy, and education with tabletop games, and established Wheelhouse Workshop, the predecessor to today’s Game to Grow.  Since then, they’ve been helping young gamers across the U.S. learn how to develop empathy, frustration tolerance, creative problem-solving abilities, and leadership skills. In 2017, Wheelhouse Workshop evolved into Game to Grow, expanding this service by working with volunteer GMs who, after passing a special screening, run regular Social Skills groups. They also offer consultations, training, and conference events for therapists and advocates around the world!

I’ve found their work inspiring for years, and it was the primary motivation for starting the kids’ D&D campaigns and workshops, so once I saw that some of their free consultation windows became available, I had to sign up! In addition to learning a more about their programs, Adam J. and I had the chance to discuss the D&D for Kids workshops, family-friendly campaigns, and some great techniques for boosting young players’ confidence and social skills through storytelling and role-playing! The biggest thing I learned, is that the Game to Grow approach focuses on enabling growth during the game experience, and finding ways to increase the intrinsic appreciation for the social skills players use around the table.

Here are some techniques he shared…

…for Fostering Confidence

Create leadership opportunities. When it comes to helping a more shy or uncertain player come out of their shell, Adam recommended using game he calls “Goblin Ghost“, which can be dropped into any game or campaign session:

Imagine the party entering an empty room, the door behind them has disappeared and there’s no other way out. All they can see is a rocking chair, a rug, and perhaps a few other pieces of simple furniture…and the rocking chair is moving as if someone was sitting in it. To most of the party, it looks as though the chair is moving on its own, but one player can see the ghost of a Goblin there, watching them expectantly. This player (specifically chosen by the GM) is the only one who can see and hear the ghost, so it’s up to them to guide the discussion and relay information to the rest of the party. The ghost knows the password that will reveal the exit to the room, but they will only share it if the party has something to offer in return. This could be a riddle, joke, story…anything at all!

The offering itself isn’t really important, the point is to create instances in which the player can find their voice and have the opportunity to take the lead.

Ensure each player has a different class. This is a technique I also use for our family one-shots, with pre-generated characters. While I typically don’t mind having doubles of the same class (we just focus on different sub-archetypes to make unique PCs), ensuring diversity of strengths and abilities within the party ensures that everyone has something to bring to the table. As a DM/GM, you also need to ensure that you have a variety of options for problem solving. Ensure that the different challenges can’t all be solved the same way and have moments that will highlight the strengths of each player.

…for Encouraging Inter-Party Role Playing

RPGs create numerous opportunities for developing healthy social skills, empathy, and teamwork…and yet one of the challenges every newly-formed party faces is the inevitable awkwardness that comes along with interacting in character for the first time. This can be particularly intimidating for new players, and they will often try to interact with the environment or their fellow adventurers almost exclusively through the DM. To help them become more comfortable with exploring the world together, Adam recommended these techniques:

Offer prompts for storytelling and relationship-building moments. Even if provided with an opportunity for “down-time”, or sitting around the campfire, it can still be difficult for players to engage in what can feel like awkward small talk. Although our players understand the concept of metagaming quite well, it seems redundant to ask the Ranger what they found in the tunnel when everyone around the table witnessed it as it happened. In these instances, Adam recommended offering up prompts or scene-setting narrative to encourage the party to discuss what their PCs are feeling and experiencing. For example:

“You return to camp, eager to ease your tired muscles close to the warm and welcoming fire and discuss the strange creatures you just encountered.”

You can also facilitate interactions with an NPC who knows the players, like a merchant or travelling companion who will be curious about the party’s exploits and well-being.

Create shared backstories. A wonderful feature in the Dungeon World game is the creation of Bonds. These fill-in-the-blank statements allow the players to determine who in the party they already have some sort of familiarity with. Each of the core bonds are associated with the different PC classes and help to develop inter-party relationships. Here are some examples:

     [Druid] The spirits spoke to me of a great danger that follows ________.

            [Bard] ______ trusted me with a secret.

            [Paladin] _____ has stood by me in battle and can be trusted completely!

I really like this mechanic because the players choose the bonds themselves, which encourages them to discuss and develop their backstories and character perspectives together!

Set boundaries, but let players guide the scene: I strongly believe that your world doesn’t come to life until the players interact with it! If you’ve seen or played Microscope, you’ll be familiar with its unique, GM-less approach to collaborative narrative and worldbuilding. You start out with a beginning and ending for a story line, but it’s up to the players to determine what happens between those two points. This way, they have the freedom to create a story of their own but have to work together to do it. This is also a great way for them to role play different scenes in the narrative as they go along. This is something I will definitely be using in future iterations of the D&D Storytelling Workshops but may be a bit trickier to implement during a game session…though I think allowing the players to have a role in creating the world (with defined parameters) will definitely help them become invested in the story and emphasize that sense of intrinsic value we mentioned earlier!

I hope you find these tips and tricks helpful…I guarantee that I will be using them in my own D&D for Kids workshops and games! I only wish I had more time to pick Adam’s brain, because he and the Game to Grow family have so much more to share.

If you’re interested in learning more about the wonderful things they do, be sure to visit their website, where you can sign up for the newsletter, book a consultation, and learn about their game groups and training webinars.

If you’re interested in findings ways to support Game to Grow and their services, don’t be afraid to ask them about volunteer opportunities. One of the best ways to support them, though, is by gifting donations! They’re a non-profit organization, so they rely on donations and support from the community to keep providing the wonderful services they have to offer!

Head to gametogrow.org to learn more!

D&D for Kids: Alignment

There are a lot of different opinions and interpretations of character alignment in the RPG world and just as many ways to use it in your game! Some groups use it as a definitive compass for how their characters will handle situations, while others see it as more of a flexible guideline. Some groups don’t really use alignment at all. There is really no right or wrong way to use this mechanic– it very much depends on the style of your gameplay and how comfortable your party is with role-playing. For Heroes of Iyastera, we don’t focus on alignment too much and you may have noticed that it isn’t even included on the Scribbler’s Character Sheet.

There are pros and cons to using Alignment– new players especially have enough to keep track of without needing to make sense of the complex topic of character morality. As a DM and player, I would rather alignment develop naturally and organically than choose it right out of the gate before I’ve really gotten to know my characters…but as with all things, there are pros and cons:

The Pros: When the player has a good understanding of their character’s sense of morality and motivations, having a defined alignment can aid them in making difficult or complicated decisions. It can also help maintain conscious consistency in the role-playing. Defined alignment can also help the DM formulate interactions between the PCs and NPCs. For example, if a player tends towards more Lawful behaviour, an NPC with a shiftier background may naturally try to avoid them.

The Cons: Choosing alignment right away can restrict character interactions and cause a player to make generic decisions based purely on the definition of their PCs alignment rather than thinking critically about what makes sense for their character’s personality. Alignment can also shift and change over time so, for some players, having to decide on a label too soon may make them feel as though their characters can’t change or develop over the course of a story.

The inherent duality in the way alignments are portrayed can sometimes oversimplify the complex motivations which drive both PCs and NPCs and make it difficult to have any sort of “gray area” themes which, depending on the nature of your part and storytelling, may not be a sticking point.

I typically tell my players to not even worry about their alignments and focus instead on backstory and personality. As I mentioned at thestart of this article, I would rather them find their characters’ moral compass as they become more and more familiar with their motivations and perspectives. In the case that we are using alignment– usually with more experienced players– I try to bring everyone to shared definitions of the various alignments during character creation, to help them get a feel for how they would work in our home games. For us, boils down to a player’s motivation and intent, not necessarily their personality and emotional attachments. Here is the breakdown we use:

Good and Evil

This one is fairly self-explanatory, at least as far as the “Good” alignments go.

Good characters tend to do what they can to help others and combat injustice…this is the typical alignment of the classic hero. They do what they can to minimize pain or suffering and put the needs of others above their own. In short, they are motivated by helping those around them.

Evil characters, contrary to popular belief, aren’t always driven by an insatiable desire to kill or steal (I see you, murder-hobos). The way we handle Evil alignments in our campaign is more along the lines of motivation and intent. These are characters who act of out of self-interest or self-preservation, who put their needs above those of others. They may not feel remorse or guilt if they cause hurt or suffering for someone else, so long as their own desires are fulfilled.

It is possible to have both Good and Evil characters in the same party, working towards common goals. It would just require inter-party conversation, and sometimes negotiation, to determine if their goals align with the methods being used to reach them. For example, a Good character might have to be persuaded to see that the actions of an Evil party member would have good outcomes. Conversely, the Evil player may decide that it is in their best interests to go along with the Good player’s methods…at least for the time being.

Lawful and Chaotic

This is often translated into “Following the rules all the time” versus “I act in the most random and contrarian ways possible”. While this isn’t necessarily wrong, here’s a slightly different take on this duality:

Lawful characters adhere to some sort of chosen code. This might be socially-prescribed norms, laws enacted by a governing entity, personal codes of conduct, or rules for behaviour dictated by an organization they follow. They are unlikely to challenge the code they have adopted nor will they stand by when others violate their rules. Remember, though, that it doesn’t always have to match the code presented by the society around them. A Lawful Good character may uphold the values of the society they are part of, but Lawful Neutral or Evil characters may have different codes that they follow just as strictly.

A Chaotic character, on the other hand, follows their whims of emotion and gut feeling, regardless of established codes, laws, and so on. That is not to say that they are immoral, but more that they are led by their instincts (which can be extreme or inconsistent) and don’t typically concern themselves with the consequences of their actions.

Neutral

This one can be tricky…Neutral is, as the name suggests, neither completely Lawful nor Chaotic, Good nor Evil, but somewhere in between. Characters don’t devote themselves so strongly to established laws, but nor are they completely mercurial in their decision making. Neutral characters tend to seek or provide balance and the neutrally-aligned variants of Lawful, Chaotic, Good, and Evil lean towards the accompanying alignment, but still tend to steer clear of taking extreme sides in battles of morality or legality. True Neutral characters believe in true balance and the natural state of the world or universe, with little regard for constructed conventions of what societies see as “right” or “wrong”, but prefer instead to see what “is” to the extent that they are able. Many players misconstrue this as apathetic, but neutral players can still be excited, passionate, fearful…all of the normal emotions any other character would exhibit– again, it’s about what motivates them.

Whether you use alignment or not depends completely on the nature of your party and how comfortable they are with Role Playing. For young players, however, try having the discussion about what different alignments mean for your campaign setting, but don’t have them adhere to a strict label. Instead, give them the time to think through problem solving in character and feel out their PCs perspectives and motivations more naturally. Encourage conversations and exploration versus telling them to simply adhere to a generic alignment.

D&D for Kids: Roll for Loot

How much do I love RPGs? Let me count the ways…I love the role-playing, the sense of community, the exploration and storytelling…but let’s be real here. One of the most exciting things in D&D is, without a doubt, the loot!! It’s a great way to reward your players, help balance out a party and make the drag between levels a bit more rewarding. These things are especially important when running D&D for young players who can sometimes get discouraged by unlucky rolls or become bored with the “grind” that us older players sometimes pride ourselves on enduring!

There are nearly endless source materials out there for you to populate dungeons, towers, and bandit camps with fantastic treasure…but how do you decide which ones to use? Unless you have something specific in mind, it can be easy to become paralyzed by all the options at your fingertips!

While random item tables are great for making a world feel populated and”lived-in”, there are certain items that could and should be chosen more deliberately. Think about a set for your favourite movie or TV show: more often than not, the items you see in the backdrop were chosen for a reason, to convey some aspect of the scene or characters that isn’t necessarily spoken outright. By applying that same concept to some of the items in your game, you can convey meaningful details to your players and build upon that sense of wonder and exploration.

Here are some things to consider when choosing rewards and loot drops for your D&D parties:

Player Goals and Backstory

Are there certain things your PCs are trying to accomplish? Are they working their way through a major (or minor) story arc? Loot drops are a great way to leave breadcrumbs in the form of clues and lore-filled items to keep them motivated and moving in the right direction. Maybe one of the items they find holds the answer to one of the questions they’re trying to solve. Or they might find a piece of a larger item or mechanism that will be integral to the plot in some way, like the Rod of Seven Parts.

You can also use loot drops to leave clues about certain backstory elements. It could be a piece of armor that belonged to a relative or ally they thought was long gone, or an item from their childhood, mysteriously found in a place that it shouldn’t have been.

Balancing the Party

Not all parties are perfectly balanced and I don’t always think they should be! Sure, it’s easier to balance out a party with the “perfect” combination of classes and specialities: melee tank, spell caster, healer, etc…but I generally try to encourage players to create a character they want to play, and leave the balancing to me as the DM.

One of the ways you can help balance a party is through the items you place in their path. Now, when I say “balance”, I don’t mean that you should give all PCs the same skill sets. I mean you can give them items that enhance their strengths while helping minimize some of their vulnerabilities that might make them more cautious during an encounter.

Take the classically “squishy” spell caster, with powerhouse spells but a downright laughable AC of 10. That player is going to be less likely to take certain risks out of fear that they may lose their PC. You can help balance this by dropping in some enchanted armour or wearable item that raises their AC, to help them gain a bit more confidence before taking on that Beholder you’ve been saving up for them 😉

Lore and Setting

Similar to Player Goals and Backstory, you can use loot drops to deliver some serious lore in a manner that gives the party something more tangible to interact with. Something they can actively use and take with them as opposed to a history lesson from an NPC (though I still love a good lore-master NPC)! Feel free to drop in some forgotten tomes or items from a long-forgotten kingdom. It gives a sense of the age of a setting or complexity of an encounter, like having undead in the catacombs wearing the armour of a mythic adventurer.

It’s also a good idea to ensure that the loot makes sense for the setting, or at least the plot lines that you’re weaving in. Unless they’re part of a smuggling ring or hiding a secret hobby, it’s unlikely that a farmer will keep spell scrolls in their closet. Think about where you’re placing valuable or rare items and what it means for them to be there.

DIY Magic Items

What if the thing you have in mind doesn’t yet exist in the published resources? One of my favourite things about home-brew is the opportunity to create original magic items tailored to your players! Don’t get me wrong, the DMG (Dungeon Master’s Guide) and other sourcebooks are chock-full of fantastic treasures, but the light in a player’s eyes when they find an item that was specifically crafted for them is simply priceless.

When creating a home-brewed item, I think about the same considerations listed above: does it fulfil a goal or backstory element for the PC, does it help to mitigate a vulnerability, and is it connected to the setting or world lore in some way? I also think about the level of the PC. If they’re lower level, giving them something better suited for a 9th level adventurer will probably be a bit too over-powered (OP). Likewise, if they’re levels 5 and higher, a simple +1 weapon or piece of armor will feel rather cheap. Try to match items with enchantments that will provide a unique ability formerly unavailable to the player.

For example, Amber Ironfist, our Dwarven Paladin of Skaoi (a.k.a. Lady of the Northern Lights) recently found a beautifully crafted winged helm of strange, iridescent metal. Once she attunes to it, she’ll be able to create a dazzling display of kaleidoscopic lights that can enchant and confuse her foes.

Another thing to consider is whether or not it will grow and evolve with the wielder. This is a great option for players who form attachments to certain weapons (particularly when the weapon has a backstory tie-in) and are likely to forego shiny new toys in favour of sentiment. Think about developing scaled abilities and characteristics that they might be able to unlock with time. If you like this idea (and have a dmsguild.com account), check out the Ancestral Weapons guide from Dungeon Rollers!

That’s all for now! I hope you found this helpful as you fill your dungeons treasure! Share some of your favourite loot drops below!

D&D for Kids: Personal Growth

I’ve shared a lot of posts about the act of running the game from a mechanics and stylistic point of view, but now I’d like to spend a bit more time on the interpersonal aspects of D&D.

By now, it’s more widely understood that playing D&D can have profound impacts on someone’s confidence, coping mechanisms, and social skills, and there is a growing community of psychologists and counselors who help children and teenagers overcome a multitude of challenges through RPG-based therapy. It’s an aspect of the game that has always inspired me profoundly. Though a behavioural psychologist myself, I did not set out with the family D&D campaigns with the goal of counseling in mind, but I have observed significant growth in the people around the table. Kids who began shy and reserved have found their voice. They are actively engaging in problem solving as a team, learning things about themselves along the way. It’s a beautiful thing at has driven me explore ways to facilitate that growth in a more deliberate manner.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

Confidence

Growing confidence is probably the easiest change to see, and one that requires the least additional effort to encourage! The hardest step for most new players is just getting over that feeling of self-consciousness in role playing with unfamiliar faces. If your group isn’t welcoming and inclusive, many won’t even make it to the table. Once they’re there, it’ll take some time for them to warm up.

Some of the kids in Heroes of Iyastera were quite shy and reserved at first, preferring to listen rather than take the lead and looking to me or the parents in the group to set the tone. If I pushed too hard to pull them in, they would withdraw even more. With time, some gentler questions (“what do you think about this?”), and gradual increases in engagement with NPCs, those shells began to melt away. I found that providing plenty of downtime opportunities when running errands in town and traveling to new destinations helped them familiarise themselves more with the feel of their characters. As they became more comfortable even in the mundane scenarios, they began to take bolder actions in problem-solving and combat situations as well. Now I have to find ways to pull them back in from the animated discussions that erupt!

Conflict Resolution

With confidence came the ability to solve problems more collaboratively. A reserved player may have the best solution, but not feel comfortable speaking up. Once the players got used to their PCs, they began to think about how their characters would handle different issues. We often pause gameplay to ask “what would my character do?” and the group has become much more aware when they slip into metagaming and pull themselves back into perspective.

They now are actively discussing, and even debating, solutions as a team, comparing pros and cons and finding ways to compromise when there are disagreements. Inter-party conflict has become less intimidating as well: when a wizard (Gojira) in one campaign accidentally set fire to their rogue (Kratarus) during combat, the relationship between them took a hit along with the rogue’s now-singed robes. Kratarus found that he didn’t fully trust Gojira and was wary of him for a few sessions past that moment. They have only just started to confront the issue in-game, and will hopefully find ways to repair the relationship. Whether or not they find a solution has yet to be seen, but the important thing that the characters are interacting and talking through their different perspectives!

Reading and Writing Skills

One of the best “success stories” I’ve had so far for the family sessions and workshops, came from one of the mothers. She said that her son had a test in school after the workshop series was over, and his grades in English Class had improved! After learning more about storytelling, plot, and characters, his comprehension increased and he, like many other children in the group, is becoming more interested in reading.

Yes!! D&D inspires a love for reading!!! As a bookworm myself, few things bring me more joy than children loving to read! Parents have found that the kids are more and more engaged in stories and have even begun writing adventures of their own. Some have even started DMing for their friends and might hold clubs at school!

The fact that they are still engaged in the story after leaving the table, have the confidence to start forging their own paths, and are actively creating tales of their own is more than enough evidence for the positive effects of RPGs.

In an increasingly virtual world, D&D still brings people together and inspires creative thought.

I love this game 🙂

Update Time: D&D for Kids Resources!

Hey Scribblers!

Just a quick update to tell you about the new D&D for Kids Resources page!! We now have a consolidated location for the Scriv’s Scribbler’s Character Sheets and the brand-new guide for the D&D Storytelling Workshop that started it all!

Follow the link in The Library, or check it out here!

In other news, I’ve been scribbling away like a mad-Firbolg on these new projects, too:

Uncaged Anthology: In case you hadn’t heard, Volume One of Uncaged is live and available on dmsguild.com!! Stay tuned for future volumes…you’ll see mine in Volume Three, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check it out now!

12 Days of Midwinter: This is another collaborative anthology featuring some of the same peeps from Uncaged as well as some new voices and artists! It’s going to be a fantastically festive collection of Midwinter-themed adventures from Tiers 1-4. Mine will feature some mischevious fey in a shifting forest 🙂

I also have a couple of mini-campaign collaborations featuring longer stories and lovely artwork!

Illumined Wardens: I’m working with Beetle Bomber (my good friend who also created original art for The Luminous Lake) to bring you a Lovecraftian-Fantasy adventure set in the reclusive city of Castra, a shining and proud city with a dark secret beneath the streets.

You can check out @beetlebomber52’s artwork on Instagram and Twitter…in addition to his original illustrations and paintings, he also does speed painting and cosplay commissions!

Welcome to the Guild: Foot of the Mountain Adventures is creating a collection of fantastic maps for this mini-campaign! Welcome to the Guild will centre around a new members of a classic Adventurer’s Guild who make a name for themselves doing good deeds…until their missions start to take a suspicious turn!

Find @mountain_foot on Twitter and Patreon for some amazing maps and magic items to use in your games at home!

Oh yeah…and I’ve got a new logo! Hope you guys like it 🙂

D&D Workshops: Activities for Young Players

It’s no secret (or surprise) that D&D is bigger now than it has ever been, reaching wider and more diverse audiences than ever before. Each week it seems as though I’m getting a new message from families who want to start playing this much loved pastime as a way to rekindle the joys of older editions or bond over newer interpretations of this timeless storytelling game.

The D&D Workshops are just one way in which I have partnered with Heffers Booksellers to not only introduce young players and their families to the game, but help them learn how to create RPG stories of their own! If you’ve read my previous posts on the Workshop Series, then you already know the basic focus areas. If not, you can check them out here:

As a quick re-cap, the workshop series is split into three parts: Plot/Elements of Story, Character Building, and Basic Game Mechanics. Each of these themes focuses down even further into activities that help the group develop some inter-/intra-personal skills that will help them on both sides of the DM screen: Teamwork, Empathy, Confidence, Critical Thinking, and Improvisation.

Each activity is a fun and easy way to get the group interacting with each other (instead of just sitting down and listening the whole time) and feeling more comfortable with the role-playing aspect of D&D:

Where Are We?

This activity is part of the Elements of Story lesson, in which we learn how to create immersive descriptions through our words. All you need is a set of flash cards (I just used index cards) with the names of different settings that might appear in a D&D game, such as a Wizard’s Tower, Goblin Camp, Dragon’s Lair, Swamp, Forest, and so on.

You can sit or stand in a circle (standing can bring a fun element of pantomime into the game) and take turns drawing cards. Each person takes a few minutes to think about their setting before beginning their description. The key is to describe the scene with as many of the five senses as possible, without ever saying what the setting is. The rest of the group then guesses what that setting is!

Things I’ve Learned: This has been such a hit with the groups that we will sometimes go around the circle twice! I would recommend encouraging the group to wait until the description is done before they shout out their answers, to avoid interrupting the person with the card. You can then spend a few minutes talking about the description and the senses used. If the person with the card is struggling a bit, they can ask the group for help. This game shouldn’t be a competition, but a collaborative way to transport the group into the scene.

Who’s in the Inn?

As part of the Character Building session, this activity focuses on perspectives and thinking about the NPCs of a story. We start with a simple setting (usually something that ties into the plot the group developed) and think about who might be there beyond the usual Innkeeper or farmer. We talk about each NPC’s motivations, goals, and perspectives by asking “Why are they there?”, “What do they want?”, “What do they think about [place]”.

At the end of the activity, the group can take turns introducing themselves as one of the NPCs, to experience stepping into a different character’s skin and viewpoints.

Things I’ve Learned: We don’t always have the time to complete this activity to the end, with the introductions, so I would recommend limiting the deep-dive to a few NPCs or having the group work in pairs. The workshop lead can then serve more as a guide, to ask probing questions about NPC beliefs and desires, to help the creative thinking flow.

String-Along Story

The third workshop focuses on basic improvisation and game mechanics before turning the group loose in the rotating DM/Scene-by-Scene adventure. This activity is a great way to practice the “Yes and” and “No, but” rule. The workshop lead begins by setting the scene and introducing a character or event. The story is then passed around the circle, with each person adding a bit more to the tale. The only rule is that the story has to keep progressing, and you can’t completely erase someone else’s input. They can instead use “Yes and” or “No but” to keep the plot progressing (or take it in a new direction entirely). This triggers the creative and critical thinking skill, while also respecting the inputs of others.

Things I’ve Learned: Establish the “Talking Stick” or “Microphone” rule in which only one storyteller is allowed to speak at a time, otherwise the activity could devolve into a chorus of different ideas being thrown out all at once. Also, the workshop lead should only begin the story, and leave the rest of the progression up to the group, stepping in only to ask questions, guide, or mediate as necessary.

These activities are fun for any experience level of player or DM, for a home-game group or for a school club! If you have the chance to try them out, I’d love to hear how you liked them in the comments below! Feel free to share other activity ideas too!