Archive for November, 2015

It’s time for another RPG Blog Carnival post. This month’s theme is “A Stack of Surprises” hosted by Mike Bourke over at Campaign Mastery. What a theme it is! I’ve already covered this theme from a few angles on this blog. I wrote about building up to a big story plot twist in a campaign and used my fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons Eberron game as an example of my methods in action. There’s another post on this blog about what to do as a dungeon master when the players surprise you. Then there’s all the surprising magic items, monstersD&D fifth edition rules modulesspellsadventures, backgrounds, and more you’ll find in the Free Game Resources section of this site. What’s left in this theme that I haven’t covered? Plenty. Surprises make the game fun and memorable. As a dungeon master they make you feel accomplished and satisfied. So I need to keep them coming.

One of the best ways to do just that is to set up a story that has a seemingly obvious outcome, and then twist those expectations. What follows are a few tips and tricks that will make players gasp and eat the phrase, “I know where this is going.”

It’s All About The Setup

If you want to surprise your players in this way, set up is key. You’re players have to think they know where the story is going and that means you need to give them misdirecting clues. Here’s a few things to rely on which can set up a great surprise.

  1. Tropes. Most players coming to the table have consumed a least a bit of genre fiction. Go ahead and use expectations brought to the table to really surprise them. For instance, your players are tasked to with hunting a savage beast who tears apart unfortunate citizens in the rat-infested slums of a city whenever the moon is full. Many will naturally assume, “That’s clearly a lycanthrope.” After some investigation and throwing a red herring at the PCs, like a werewolf living in the slums who swears she has her transformations under control, they might find that the problem is far worse than they ever imagined. These aren’t lycanthrope attacks. Moonrats, magic rodents who gain super intelligence as the moon grows fuller, are behind the attacks. Worse still – these attacks are just the first step in their evil plan for dominance of the city.
  2. What’s Hot. Sometimes we build our campaigns around stories that are popular in the moment (for instance zombies are pretty hot right now thanks to The Walking Dead… one could also imagine a D&D game set in a Westros-style world thanks to Game of Thrones). This gets even more specific than a single trope, so much so that your players will probably roll their eyes when you initially describe the setup to them. Keeping players engaged during the setup may be difficult, but if you can keep them in the game, they’ll be even more shocked when the big twist happens. When I was 11 years old I saw the movie Titanic with a bunch of friends and the next day our game was centered around the PCs taking the largest passenger ship ever built across an ocean. Even at age 11 we exchanged get-a-load-of-this-guy looks with one another concerning our DM as he described an iceberg hitting the ship. Imagine our surprise when demonic sharks showed up and a demon worshipping wizard in the belly of the cargo hold was revealed to have caused the accident in order to serve up a huge sacrifice to his aquatic demon overlords.
  3. DM Habits. If you’ve been running with the same group of players for a while, odds are they’ve begun to identify some of your favorite monsters, traps, encounter set-ups, plot twists, and story hooks. Let this expectation set your players up for a big surprise. I apparently have a tendency to put the romantic interests of PCs in trouble to get investment in a story. I even had a player email me his character’s backstory and mention in big capital letters that his fiance was a super capable combatant and spellcaster. To play on that trope I had said fiance show up mid-enounter and offer to hold off a hoard of aberrations by herself while the PCs made an escape. The PCs were pleasantly surprised to learn that not only did said fiance not get captured or killed during her desperate play, she also managed to hold off the enemy long enough to let the PCs get to where they were going without further trouble.
  4. Published Adventures. Want to set up and surprise your players with minimal effort? Take a popular adventure module and change an iconic detail of it. Some may cry sacrilege, but I cry surprise (you can always go back and play the module as written later). Imagine the reactions if the villain in Ravenloft turned out to be a deranged, shapeshifting gold dragon who loved pretending to be a vampire or if at the end of Rise of Tiamat it was actually Zuggtmoy who rose.
  5. Small Details. Not every surprise needs to be a huge, memorable story twist. Sometimes you can set up something quick based on a player’s expectation about a creature or situation and give it a small twist to create a memorable surprise. A red dragon could breathe acid because its mother was a black dragon. A troll could be immune to fire because it wears a magic ring. These surprises will knock players back and give them something to talk about for years to come.

Give a Little Hint If You Can

If you can give players a small hint that not everything is as it seems before you reveal the twist, that will make your payoff all the more sweeter. Be careful not to give too much away as you don’t want players guessing the surprise early. This is a case where less really is more. In the moonrat example above, mentioning the presence of large rats in the slums is a great hint to give your players. Odds are they’ll think that’s just descriptive flavor, but it’s an image they’ll recall when the intelligent rodents come gunning for them.

Twist In The Moment

While setups may seem like they take a little work, if you’re good on your feet, you can twist a story in the moment. If you find midsession your story is going to some place expected. Go ahead and make something that surprises even you happen. If you can twist the plot in a way that makes sense, go for it. If not, it can be totally random. You don’t even need to justify to the players why a troupe of mummy bards is suddenly attacking them, you can figure that out later.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!


I sit down with Wade Kemper, Rudy Basso, and Topher Kohan to discuss the Witch Hunter Class created by Matt Mercer and played by Vin Diesel on Critical Role. This podcast was recorded on October 29, 2015.

Please rate and review us on iTunes, it helps a boat load!


If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, Bonus Action and Gamer to Gamer, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

UPDATE: The partial background found in this article is a preview. It is fully available as a Pay What You Want product on the DMs Guild in a pretty PDF with art and 14 other ready to roll backgrounds.

So last month I published a quartet of spooky Halloween-themed backgrounds. I know the season is over and we’ve moved onto to turkeys, pies, and gluttony here in America, but I have one more background I thought of that fits this mould. So it is with a wicked grin I turn the quartet of possessed, lycanthrope, dead, and cursed into a quintet by adding the polymorphed background.


You were transformed into an animal or monster and lived that way for years. You most-likely entered this form unwillingly. How you came down with this affliction is up to you. A caster with an ax to grind may have cast true polymorph for some petty offense committed by you or a loved one. Maybe you unwittingly donned a cursed magic item. Perhaps you activated some arcane trap when you accidentally stumbled into an ancient ruin. You could have made the choice willingly to infiltrate some group of monsters or hide as a beast from someone hunting you. You also should decided who or what changed you back into your true form.

Whatever the case you were in your alternate form for years. How was living in that form different from the way you lived your life before? In what ways were you more powerful? Less powerful? Do you miss the strength of your old form or are you glad to be back in your own flesh?

Skills: Survival and Animal Handling or Deception

Languages: Two of your choice

Equipment: A bag of caltrops, a realistic ink drawing of your polymorphed form, a set of common clothes, and a belt pouch with 5 gp.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I’ve been running a fifth edition game for almost a year and it’s clear to me that there aren’t enough high challenge rating monsters to provide me with the variety of combat encounters I like to have at my disposal. Yes, bounded accuracy lets me use the old standbys far after the PCs’ level is much higher than the bugbear’s CR. I just need to keep adding bugbears… but combat with a lot of baddies is slow and can become a grind. That’s not the kind of variety I’m looking for.

That’s why I submitted a series of monster articles to EN World EN5ideran online magazine which publishes content for the fifth edition of the world’s most popular tabletop roleplaying game. The first of those articles, “Epic Threats: High Level NPCs,” presents five new NPCs with challenge ratings of 12 and above to add to your game. If all goes well, there might be another article or two presenting some more of these high level threats to add to your game.

I have to say, if you’re playing fifth edition and craving more content, EN5ider is a great place to get it. I’m not just saying that because I’ve now written for them three times. You get one short adventure a month plus another three articles with advice on running chases, new diseasesnew druid circles, creating puzzles, and so much more. You get all that for $2 a month. If you don’t want the adventure, you can still score the articles for $1 a month. That’s less than a bottle of water in most places. The articles are of a great quality and EN World creator, Russ Morrissey, writes several of the best articles. You can grab some sample articles and an adventure for free so check it out.

I also have to give a special shoutout to EN5ider editor, James J. Haeck. He’s brilliant, creative, and a blast to work with. Every letter that man touches becomes better for it and this series of articles would be a lot worse without his input.

I think you should definitely checkout my latest article and all EN5ider has to offer. In fact I’m going to give you a little preview right now. Below is the Master of Nature, an NPC that was cut from the article for space. If you like this NPC, you’ll definitely enjoy the rest of the ones the article has to offer.

Master of Nature

Medium humanoid (any race), any alignment

Armor Class 15 (studded leather, 16 with barkskin)

Hit Points 237 (25d8 + 125)

Speed 30 ft.







12 (+1)

16 (+3)

20 (+5)

14 (+2)

20 (+5)

12 (+1)

Saving Throws Dex +9, Con +11, Wis +11

Damage Resistances acid, cold, fire, lightning, and thunder

Skills Nature +8, Perception +11

Senses passive Perception 21

Languages Druidic plus any three languages

Challenge 18 (20,000 XP)

Elemental Strike. When the master of nature makes a successful weapon attack it can deal an extra 1d12 damage to the target. The damage type is chosen by the master of nature from the following list: acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder. The master of nature can still use this ability when polymorphed by its Exceptional Polymorph trait.

Exceptional Polymorph. The master of nature can use its action to cast the polymorph spell on itself. While polymorphed in this way, the master of nature retains its Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma scores the master of nature can still use its Spellcasting trait.

Magic WeaponsThe master of nature’s weapon attacks are magical, even when polymorphed by its Exceptional Polymorph trait.

Spellcasting. The master of nature is a 20th-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Wisdom (spell save DC 19, +11 to hit with spell attacks). The master of nature has the following druid spells prepared:

Cantrips (at-will): druidcraft, poison spray, produce flame, thorn whip

1st level (4 slots): cure wounds, entangle, speak with animals, thunderwave

2nd level (3 slots): animal messenger, barkskin, flaming sphere

3rd level (3 slots): call lightning, conjure animals, meld into stone, sleet storm

4th level (3 slots): blight, dominate beast, stoneskin, wall of fire

5th level (3 slots): contagion, greater restoration, mass cure wounds, wall of stone

6th level (2 slots): conjure fey, sunbeam

7th level (2 slots): fire storm, regenerate

8th level (1 slot): earthquake

9th level (1 slot): storm of vengeance


Multiattack. The master of nature makes two attacks.

Scimitar. Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d6 + 3) slashing damage plus 7 (1d12) acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder damage (see Elemental Strike).

Sling. Ranged Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, range 30/120 ft., one target. Hit: 5 (1d4 + 3) bludgeoning damage plus 7 (1d12) acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder damage (see Elemental Strike).


Would you like this NPC in a PDF along with all the other fifth edition D&D baddies I’ve designed? Grab them below.

Master of Nature

All Monsters

If you don’t want to grab them now, but decide you want the PDFs at a future date, head on over to the Free Game Resources section of this site where the documents will live along with magic items, backgroundsD&D fifth edition rules modulesspellsadventures, and more created by yours truly.

If you like what you’re reading, please check out my podcasts on The Tome Show, follow me on Twitter, tell your friends and share this blog post, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!

I sit down with Allison Rossi, Joe Lastowski, and Topher Kohan to discuss the Unearthed Arcana article which gives us the Rune Scribe – fifth edition D&D’s first prestige class! This podcast was recorded on October 20, 2015.

If you like what you’re reading please follow me on Twitter, check out my other podcasts, Bonus Action and Gamer to Gamer, tell your friends, and/or leave me a comment and let me know you think. Thanks!