DMing with Intent part 1: Role-Playing Monsters

While a Dungeon Master knows that they shouldn’t set up overly imbalanced scenarios designed only for the purpose of murdering the party, many DMs go to the opposite direction and make their encounters too easy, which is just as much of an abuse to players as Killer DMing is. It isn’t that they intend to create them that way, typically they are following the rules, but what they aren’t doing is running the monsters to their full potential.

The DM is expected to be an impassive witness to the game; unfortunately, when a DM doesn’t understand that he is also expected to actually role-play his monsters, then he isn’t bringing his best to the table, nor the best out of his players. Some DMs assume that players are running through encounters because they are so good at it, and choose to over-compensate by throwing more power monsters at the players, which they don’t role-play either.

Your intent while running the encounter should be to keep your monsters alive and to kill all of the players while still following the rules. We aren’t telling stories, we are running an encounter, and if we do a good job running it, then the players will see a story in it. We want to make each and every encounter as dangerous as we possibly can with the tools that we have. This applies for both Module adventures as well as the encounters which we create ourselves. If we stick to the rules of creating balanced encounters, we can really bring a lot of danger to each one.


Intelligence is clearly listed in the Monstrous Manual, and we need to observe it. Naturally a 0 INT character is going to be a machine: A zombie does not care if it is going to get hurt, an Iron Golem is going to work only as it was designed to, and a deadly pudding is going to satisfy its hunger. 0 INT creatures will never stop until they are dead.  

Creatures with INT of 1-2 are animals. If they are untrained, they may or may not try to run away once they realize that their lives are in danger. We can run this randomly by applying Morale checks every round. Animals should act like animals.

Creatures with normal Intelligence are far more dangerous then you might be giving them credit for. They won’t just feed themselves to a meat grinder, they need to be role-played and they should hatch plots and value things that they enjoy.  Thinking of motivations for them should be fun for the DM, though it would be a waste of time to figure out specific motivations for each and every creature living in a lair, we can assign a group motivation and have one or two that have alternative motives, typically having something to do with personal ambitions.

The boss of an area should be more thought out; he is the most dangerous thing in the lair because of his mind. He is leading a small army, and he should have a personal goal assigned to him, in particularly keeping his army alive and his personal power intact.


Many modules tell the DM what the monsters are doing, this in no way implies that they won’t investigate noises unless the key specifically says that they won't. The key takes for granted that the party isn’t standing around arguing about which direction to go, or who has the right to take the magical item, and all of the other stuff that players like to complain about. Once the alarm is tripped, things shouldn’t go so good for the players; all of those monsters should be free to start roaming the dungeon.

You and your monsters need a solid plan. Prior to play you should really study your map, and pick out good ambush spots where you can surround the players, or sneak up behind them. Once an intruder is detected, word should spread around really fast, and all monsters should report to their battle stations.. A patrol will be sent out to locate the invaders, and try to identify the nature of the party; instead of attacking, they’ll do their best to report this information to their allies.


The MM holds clues about tactics of each monster, but it is up to the DM to really bring them to life and keep them as safe as possible. Survival is key! The lower the monsters HD, the less likely they’ll engage in direct combat. Instead, they’ll prefer ranged combat and the use of traps, only entering direct combat if they have no other options. These are complex creatures and the encounters with them starts with the planning stage. They will use their lairs to their advantage, setting up traps that they’ll trigger themselves, else know how to avoid. What they won’t do is all go rushing out of their lair to defend it. The lair itself is their preferred weapon and it is defensively superior to any melee weapons that they have.

Same goes for wilderness encounters; they will set up traps and do their best to catch their intended victims, namely merchants. If a caravan looks too dangerous they’ll probably let it go unless they are really in need of supplies, then they will become braver, and this is when they are most likely to encounter PCs. They should have plans set in place to favor them, and keep them from having to engage in direct combat. This should also include a great escape route, because lets face it, bravery and overt boldness are two different things.


DMs like to hide treasure around their dungeons, but if a monster is aware of it, and knows how to use it, he most certainly will, and it might not just be the head boss that has the treasure, if you were an underling with ambition for better things, would you tell your boss that you have found a Ring of Protection, or a Sword+3? If you are into telling stories, this is where you should hide it. Is the party even going to notice the ring on a dead gnoll’s finger? What would his peers think about the gnoll not knowing his secret? Maybe a couple of them do know and have been looking for an opportunity to take it from him? This is role-playing! And while it won’t stop the players from beating you, it will slow them down and they won’t get anything for free, which will make the encounter more special to them in the long run.

Spell Research, House Rule

For every table around the world, there is probably a unique way of handling spells. I do my best to keep things as core as possible, I like to control what the players know, but we do work together so that the player is happy.

Typically, I give spells to the players through treasure that they find by using scrolls. This lets the player decide if they want to use the scroll, or try and learn the spell. If they try to learn it I stick to the rules in the PHB, but what if a wizard has access to a lab, and he just wants a specific spell? Well, he should be allowed to learn that spell. Spell research in this instance is horribly vague in 2nd Edition rules, so house rule it is!

The wizard must have access to a lab, and be able to cast spells from that spell level, and the school of magic. Depending how much gold he has to spend on equipment and components, increases the chances of learning that spell.

Below I’ve listed the cost as per 10%, the second number is how much you would need to get a 100% chance to successfully research the spell. The time that this takes is 1 week per spell level.

1st Level Spell: 1,000gp – 10,000gp
2nd Level Spell: 2,000gp – 20,000gp
3rd Level Spell: 4,000gp – 40,000gp
4th Level Spell: 8,000gp – 80,000gp
5th Level Spell: 16,000gp – 160,000gp
6th Level Spell: 32,000gp – 320,000gp
7th Level Spell: 64,000gp – 640,000gp
8th Level Spell: 128,000gp – 1,280,000gp
9th Level Spell: 256,000gp – 2,560,000gp

I know that you folks love examples, so here you go!

Say the wizard Boaldordask really wants to learn the 6th level spell Globe of Invulnerability, but I won’t give it to him because I’m mean. He is willing to spend 200,000 hard earned gold pieces, and invest in 6 weeks in the lab. 200,000 divided by 32,000 equals 6.25, so he will have a 63% chance to learn the spell because I rounded up.

Spell Plague? How about, No!

As a long time 2e hold-out, and somebody who doesn’t really get out all that much, the only contact that I have with other players is at my table. I know that the game is popular, but I am stuck reading stuff online to get a grasp on how things are out in the rest of the world. This means that I only know what people choose to write about, so I am deeply curious of how other Dungeon Masters are working.

There has always been a void between myself and other players ever since Wizards of the Coast took over and said that we’re all going to be playing 3e now, and from the get-go I said no. I didn’t like the optional core rules that were put out by TSR, I found them unnecessary. We did jump into the use of Proficiencies as soon as they came out, we liked them and they seemed to make the game better, however the Player’s Options series was just too much. To me, the hardest part of the game is rolling up new characters, and all of that stuff about adding flaws in exchange for stuff just doesn’t jive well with how I play. We weren’t just a fan of the game, we were fans of the system; we played it and played it a lot! We knew the rules, and we knew how to find stuff fast. That offers great freedom that you can’t get from starting a new system just because somebody says so.

So, other tables moved on, and I never did. I actually am quite hostel to the new additions, I just don’t get them, and I rarely agree with the practices of big business. I did feel ripped off by feeling compelled to buy all of those books when I know that they could had packed all of that stuff in less volumes, and then came the day that it finally dawned on me . . . why use all of those books? Why not just stick to the 3 core books: The Players Handbook, The Dungeon Masters Guide, & The Monstrous Manual, and really get to know them. I mean REALLY get to know them, as in think about why each rule is there, and get a deep understanding of the system that I chose to call home.

This thought process came because of one book that initially I was excited about called, Domains of Dread. I was a Ravenloft guy, and I was already sick of running those kinds of games. I had started running Ravenloft because my fellow players had the thought of each of us specializing at a different setting, I chose Ravenloft and then, after the others taught me to be a proper Dungeon Master, they wanted me to do it full time so that they could play, which was fine with me, as I discovered that DMing was more rewarding to me then just playing. I had bought the box set, which is really restrictive but it was what it was! Then the Grand Conjunction happened, and since I was playing modules, it happened to my table and it sucked. It took out everything!

I personally felt like I got tricked. I enjoyed the original box set, and then the modules that I had been playing destroyed it. I decided to ignore it, but I was looking forward to a new source book to be released: The Grand Conjunction was described, but I didn’t know what the land looked like until this book came out . . . well, even then, instead of spending the money on a decent map, it put a two page spread of the land of Ravenloft and it was printed so dark that it was worthless. Then, to make matters even worse, Grim Harvest came out, and that was the killer for me. I quit playing after that. It was a death nail in my setting and I wasn’t smart enough to move on; well, maybe smart isn’t the right word. I wasn’t brave enough to move on.

Cataclysm: why did TSR think that they had to do it? Through their writing, they destroyed a really great world. I was fed up with them, so I went backwards. Greyhawk! That setting was untouched and pure . . . too bad none of my players ever got excited about the world. Now I’m on Forgotten Realms, which they love! It was actually our first world as a group, we cherished playing in it, but I was so stuck on running things core that I was scared of it. Now I wish that I had done this a long time ago.

After seeing my Core Ravenloft blow up and crumble around me, it dawned on me that TSR and Wizards of the Coast are a ship of fools that really don’t know what is best for my game. I do. I still want the world to be recognizable, but I want to keep true to the one thing that TSR did do right, and that is the box sets!

The Forgotten Realms Box Set is a wonderful product. It isn’t perfect for me and my group, but I have modified enough of those damned modules to know that nothing ever is. I am a much superior DM now than I used to be, and know how to read that stuff better. But, just like Ravenloft, after the Forgotten Realms came out, the people who are in charge started to meddle.

Time of Troubles

The gods were forced to walk the earth for a time, which happened before the box which I use as core came out, so it isn’t a big deal to me. I have also read the original Box Set for the Realms and I do see the Times of Troubles as a good thing which was masterly done. It gave designers time to really look at the pantheon and flesh it out unlike anything that I’ve ever seen before. This cataclysm didn’t mess up the world, but deeply improved it by adding lots of color to everything that it touched.

It killed a couple of gods, but it also gave you the tools that you could use to resurrect them if you chose to. If a character had been a cleric of a god that was a casualty, then it offered suggestions on how to handle it.

This Cataclysm is a success.

The Hoard

Again, I think that this cataclysm took place before my box was released. I think that it did more good then harm; it detailed a previously sketchy part of the map, and it wasn’t overly invasive to what most people were doing. One could still pick up and run a module that took place afterwards and even if they didn’t use this addition to the game, they could still run the mod. That makes it a success in my book. But then . . . then friends, 3e came out and Wizards of the Coast really started their meddling. This crap shouldn’t effect me and it doesn’t, but yet, it kind of does.

Spell Plague

I honestly don’t know what this is, and I don’t care. This was, from my reading and looking for maps and tales of other DM’s games, exactly like the Grand Conjunction that destroyed Ravenloft forever. This crap did affect me immediately, because how I got in the realms was that my wife purchased the 5e Starter Set which I converted to 2e because that was easier then trying to learn a new system that I honestly had no desire for.

What I didn’t know was that that adventure has been tainted by the Spell Plague, and I had already begun running the dungeon before I ordered the old box set, while not specifically detrimental to my world, it did make it harder to figure out what happened then is should have.

I consider The Spell Plague to be a failure in marketing because it does taint the world in a negative way. It causes dissention among tables everywhere: some who use it, and others who don’t. Part of me thinks that when you’re playing a setting written for the masses, you should keep it that way, else what is the point, while another side of me says, “Screw you, this is my world now and if there are any major changes to it, then it will be me that enacts them, not you.” Isn’t that fair?

What irritates me is when a player who has cut their teeth on a modern version of the game sits at the table, and already he has misconceptions about the world and how it works, and he has to learn a system new to him on top of that. It makes things harder then they really should be.


I am going to be nice, and say that they wanted to give players and DMs an epic storyline. I know that that wasn’t why they did what they did, but that is my answer and I’m sticking to it, so here is the rub; you can’t mass market epic storylines! Epic storylines are meant to push the lines of everything that they touch. A DM who chooses to run one, is pushing the boundaries of what this system can handle doing to its breaking point, along with the setting (which will break, which is why we are running it), and the player characters as well. That is the nature of the beast; but an epic story is meant to correct something, or change something so that it better reflects the attitude of both the Dungeon Master and the players running the scenario, not just, because. Just because is never a good reason to do anything that has long term effects.

I have actually looked at the Horde Box Set and thought about just changing it to orcs, but decided against it, because my true intentions are to take the forgotten realms setting, and publicly divorce it from  the Core timeline; and specifically why I am doing this is because of the Spell Plague. That is NOT the direction that I want to go. I think that we all bought an old setting Box Set because we do love the setting. Settings Boxes offered nothing but magic, potential, and growth. What will my forgotten realms look like in 20 years of real time play? That is an exciting question to me.

The Spell Plague bothers me more then just for what it implicates to me personally; it makes me question the state of the gaming community. There is an old-school renaissance taking place, which is a beautiful thing that sends a message to those who actually own these properties, but is it loud enough to actually send a message? What is it that we as a giant monster with a hive mentality want from this game? Is it to do nothing but run modules, or write our own campaigns? When brought up on message boards, the most common answer is to just do it yourself and ignore what you don’t like, but isn’t that fatalism? Me personally, I like to do both! But I have a very definite opinion on what a module should and shouldn’t do, and what it shouldn’t do is that it shouldn’t be more than just a blip on the radar. There should never be any long term repercussions from running a module. Ever! And I resent any module that does not stick to this view.

Four Old Castles

Castles, one of the great staples of Dungeons and Dragons! Entire books have been written about them. The blue Castle Guide has been a faithful friend for many years now, but coming up with floor plans can be difficult, especially for those of us that have never actually been to a castle. Typically I used old recycled ones that I acquired with modules.

Castles serve a function, some are built right off of the get-go, while others are just rooms that kept getting added on. Some castles protect, while other castles pamper, even if we do reuse floor plans, each castle should be unique. Lets examine four different styles and purposes of the castle.


Out in the wilderness, or on a kingdoms border things can get hairy. These kinds of castles are quickly built and then reinforced over time. The purpose of them is to protect the men inside from enemies outside. Much like a ship, these structures were not made for comfort, the best room was given to the man in charge of it while the ever changing soldiers sleep and eat together. All of the requirements of the warriors are kept within it, from stables to places where craftsmen can work. During sieges food is the weakness, so food is stockpiled. All of the nonmilitary staff serves a specific function.


This kind of a castle, while it may hold a king and his family, its primary purpose is to act as an office for government. A place of business, and that business is law and in making decisions for the kingdom. The fanciest room would be the Throne room where nobility and lords may address Royalty. While not as secure as a military outpost, this castle is strong enough to withstand most attacks, and is built slowly over the years to keep up with the demands put upon the people who work inside.


This kind of castle is very elaborate and as far as castles go, tactically weak. They are designed for beauty and grandeur, and while they are terrible at repelling enemy attacks, they do draw people. This kind of castle brags of great wealth and noble safety. These castles take artists, architects, and careful planning. People see this and have faith in your rule. A castle fit for a king is expensive to run and offers luxury to the people who must spend their lives in it. They require a huge number of staff to operate at its full potential, and last only as long as the money and prosperity of the empire does.


These grand structures are homes for gods. They are built over centuries by many different rulers. They are built for faith, either public or private. They are awe inspiring and complex works of art that serve specific purposes such as housing powerful priests, paladins, and clerics. While beautiful on the outside as well as in, they are also strong enough to survive war. These grand structures are social symbols, perhaps a wealthy man begging for forgiveness. Much like any other kind of castle which serves a king, this castle does to. A Cathedral is much more then just an oversized church, it is a place to hold records, and make decisions which effect all of the faithful. Like the romantic castle, this is meant to be seen as a beacon of progress and safety.

This is just a short description, but I hope it helps those of us who’ll only visit these things in our mind’s eye. It might be something to think about when you are drawing your maps and writing your keys. What functions are held here? While our houses suit our own individual personalities, a castle, especially an old one, will be built upon many personalities of the past which have become tradition, how can we reflect this in our keys? What were the interests of other people who once lived here? What sorts of skeletons are walled up in hidden rooms? A simple castle can be a milieu all unto itself if we let it.

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