The Yarning Portal mazzmatazz's blog

DM Tutorials - DCs And How To Make Them More Interesting

I will return to the homebrew world building post next week - I'm getting my internet upgraded so that I can stream at a better rate, and I'd like to stream the next part as well as write about it! So this week I'm going to look at another part of the game; difficulty checks.

A Difficulty Check (DC) is one of the basic components of any D&D session. The rogue wants to pick that lock? Dexterity check with Thieves’ Tools. The ranger is trying to forage for some food? Survival check. The DM determines how difficult that task is going to be, some dice are rolled, and then the players succeed or fail. That’s the most straightforward way of looking at it. There’s a lot more you can do with DCs however.

One of the most common things you may hear is ‘failing forward’. I didn’t even know what this meant in a D&D context when I first heard it said, so I had to go and read up on it, and then I learned I was doing this already without even realising!

The simplest way of using a DC is as already mentioned. You set a difficulty as per the rules, the player rolls, you say yay or nay depending on the outcome. Failing forward however, means that regardless of the outcome, the story still moves forwards. For example, that rogue picking a lock rolled a fail? Perhaps it just takes longer to pick the lock and they have less time to carry out their task, or a patrol gets closer and they have to be more quiet? Perhaps they didn’t check the door was already unlocked and so the door swings open as they push their lockpick in?

If you want a good example of failing forward in movies, I once heard Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie used to demonstrate it. He failed on a lot of stuff (got Greedo to pull his gun on him, failed to persuade stormtroopers on the death star) but still moved the plot along and succeeded when he needed to (shooting Greedo and coming to Luke's aid).

I recently published an adventure for the first time, and something that has been commented on was my table for perception checks, which could be considered failing forward. Depending on the roll result, more things are noticed, but something is noticed regardless of the roll.


I don't do critical success, it's not RAW, and there are situations where it's not really feasible that automatic success happens. I also don’t really do critical failure unless I can think of something amusing that doesn’t cause detriment to the PCs. Going back to the rogue lockpicking example, a rogue in my home game recently rolled a nat 1 on that check. So, I told him he broke his favourite lockpick. It didn’t adversely affect the movement of the story (he could have tried again, but in the end the barbarian smashed the door open in frustration) and it didn’t adversely affect the PC directly (he had other lockpicks, also he found the parts and got another PC to cast mending to repair it) but it gave everyone a chuckle at the table, and it made it feel more real, as everyone who uses a set of tools for a job has their favourite ones (I’m looking at my crochet hook collection and feeling this right now)

Another thing I do, is to use unexpected skills, because to me it gets dull asking people to roll perception or investigation all the time, and it allows the lesser used skills to get some love. It also prevents minmaxing (something I don’t personally enjoy at my table, as I feel the best stories come from characters with flaws) as my players aren’t building their characters around a great passive perception score. One of my pet peeves as a DM is people making an assumption about what I am going to ask them to roll and rolling it, without waiting to hear what I am going to ask. I don't always ask for what a player expects! So, for example, the aforementioned rogue that I play with wanted to check a door for traps. I had him roll performance, and as he checked, he hummed a song he remembered the bard singing… and something behind the door started humming along...

Sometimes I ask my players to choose the skill they would like to use and justify it. That’s how I ended up with a wizard using an acrobatics check to find a mushroom once. He stood on his head and contemplated what it was like to be a mushroom. He failed, but it made everyone laugh and as you can see, it was memorable (for me at least). I like doing this in skill challenges. Skill challenges are 4th edition mechanics, but haven’t really found their way into 5th edition. Basically it is where you have a task that needs undertaking, and you have to succeed a certain amount of times before you build up too many failures, and failing has consequences. Here are some examples of skill challenges to give you an idea of how they work - perhaps you could modify them for your games.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to use DCs more creatively to bring life to your sessions. I hope this has sparked your imagination to find ways to use DCs more creatively!


DM Tutorials - Creating a Homebrew World, Part 1 - Starting Small

Premade adventures are great, but the large campaign books can be daunting. However, making up your own world can also be a pretty daunting prospect. Where do you start? I mean, you need at least one culture, religions, a magic system, cities, continents, world maps…

Guess what. You don’t. You really don’t. The DMG even says “start small” on page 25. When your PCs are levels 1-5, they are local heroes, only really known in the area they are from. Think about MMORPG starter areas - they are designed with similar principles in mind, they are self contained areas to get characters to a certain level without too much difficulty and with a small storyline. So you only really need that starter town to get stuck into your campaign and get the ball rolling.

There are advantages and disadvantages to creating a small starter area vs mapping out a whole world. Making a whole world upfront is a lot of work but it means you have a concrete vision of how cultures interact, how the map works, how religion and magic work. Making small chunks as you go can make your world vaguer and more nebulous, but it also means you can shape your world to match your campaign as you go along. Another advantage of starting small is that that if your campaign fizzles out, you haven’t wasted a lot of time building a big, complex world for it to be wasted.

This doesn’t mean to say that if you have a great idea for a pantheon of gods, a whole culture of dog-headed Anubisath Egyptian-like peoples, or a magic system drawn from nature, then you should forget about that - don’t. Incorporate that in, but you don’t necessarily need to overwhelm players with these levels of detail at the outset. It could flavour other areas, perhaps their starter town has trade links to the Anubisath types so there are strange trinkets around, or there are temples to various gods from your big pantheon. Little touches like that help you to make your world seem bigger even if you haven’t gotten most of the details nailed down.

Bearing these points in mind, I started my homebrew with two towns (one for each group) and a vague idea of what the long term plot was. I drew a small map of each town. I created a bunch of NPCs. I didn’t know where they were within the world, but as we went on, I placed them near a city which both groups visited. I didn’t even have a name for the world to start with, and 6 months in, I still don’t really have much of a world map outside of that small area. It grows as our need for areas to explore grows.

So, what are the most basic things you need for a starter area in a sandbox style homebrew? I usually begin with the amenities and a bulletin board with tasks on. A simple, basic village will usually have an inn, probably a blacksmith and general store (with limited supplies), housing, surrounding farms, and probably some sort of worship space for the religion in the area. This informs the NPCs I’ll make, so to run these amenities there will be the innkeeper, perhaps an assistant like a barmaid, a blacksmith, store clerk, a few farmers, villagers and clerics or other religious persons. There may also be some sort of town elder, marshal, or representative of the noble who owns the wider area, (depending on your hierarchy). I then think about how these people look and act, but I’ll talk more about creating NPCs in another article.

The bulletin board will provide tasks for your adventurers, and is my favourite part to create, and it gives a really free feel to questing as the players can choose which quest they want to pursue first. I have a PSD file which is a wooden board with nails in, and a folder of parchment textures. I think of quests, or use online generators to come up with ideas, then type them up so they become notes pinned on the board. I add in notices such as fees for posting, upcoming festivals or events, or things for sale, to make it feel more like a noticeboard and to add interest. It then becomes a handout for my players to browse.


In the next part, we'll look at how to fill the board up with some simple quests, and how you can fill out other features of your town!

Happy gaming!


DM Tutorials - What do your players need from you?

I rarely play as a PC. Like, honestly. I’ve played in 2 games, but DMed over 60 at time of writing. It’s not because I haven’t been asked, it’s just my personal preference. I love running the story, bouncing between NPCs, and watching what my players come up with to react to the situation. Because of that, I often forget what they need to know when I set up a game. I therefore made a list of questions that players tend to ask me because I’ve forgotten to make this information clear.

Things to consider when asking players to create characters

  • What level are the characters going to be starting at?
  • How are stats going to be chosen? Standard array; Point Buy, Dice rolls?
  • If using dice rolls, how do you want that to be evidenced?
  • Are there any class or race restrictions? Are homebrew races or classes allowed? How about multiclassing?
  • Where is the campaign going to be set? Forgotten Realms? A homebrew world? If in a homebrew world, give a brief summary of the world, to aid in backstory creation. Are there any backstory elements you’re going to allow or disallow for your PCs?
  • For classes such as Paladin or Cleric, is there a specific pantheon of Gods that the player should be drawing from? What patrons are Warlocks allowed?
  • How serious do you want the PCs to be? Will it be proper RP characters only, or would you allow Randy the Savage, Barbarian Wrestler Extraordinaire?
  • What level of min-maxing are you going to allow your players to undertake, if at all? Would you prefer them to make flawed characters to add depth to the story, or are you happy for them to make killing machines?
  • Which variant rules are you going to allow? Are you going to let your players take feats?

If you are recruiting for a game, it might be worth trying to incorporate as many answers to these questions as possible in your recruitment post, to make it simpler for people to submit applications. If you already have players, perhaps a handout with these answers will help players to get on with character creation, without too much back and forth waiting for responses to questions on either side.

If you don’t feel comfortable and confident with things such as a homebrew class, or letting people roll for stats, tell them. If you are running the game, you get to make this decision, because you are going to be controlling the world they are playing in. Yes, players may argue, complain, or try to persuade you, but if they really want to play, then they will accept your decisions. In my games, I flat out refused to let any homebrew classes to start with, and I am not letting my players multiclass until they hit level 6, because I felt this was too complicated for me starting out, and I was still learning how to balance the game. To be honest, I still am. I throw combat at them that is meant to be deadly on the CR, and they breeze through it, and content that is supposed to be simple sometimes knocks party members out. You can never gauge how the dice will fall or the tactics your players will take - but how to work those situations is a topic for another day.

I hope this article was useful in helping you consider a few aspects of your world that you need to establish as well as for helping your players to create a character for your world.

Once again, thank you to Frank for reading over the article before posting, and also for contributing several points to the list.

Happy Gaming!


DM Tutorials - Session Zero - Why should you bother with it?

Session Zero is probably the most important session you will have if you are going to be running a campaign, even if it is with friends. It’s the session in which you set expectations for the campaign going forward.

For those that are new to these terms, a campaign is a story told over a series of game sessions, whereas a one-shot is a self contained game in a single session. A campaign can last for weeks, months, or even years, whereas one-shots can be as little as an hour long.

Top tip: An agenda is a great idea. It will help you ensure that you cover everything you need to. Things you can cover in this session can be character creation, or going over character sheets; working out if characters know each other previously; and setting rules going forwards. In my online games, because I am usually bringing strangers together, I also like to run a short one-shot to see what the dynamic is like within the group, and if any players are potentially going to be a problem. This also helps the players to see my style of DMing and to see if they like it - it’s a two way process after all!

If you’re new to each other, take some time to introduce yourselves. It can help to find out what each person’s experience is with D&D, so you are aware of which players may need more coaching. You can support them yourself when asking for rolls by clearly stating what you are asking for, or you can team them up with a more experienced player (if you have one at the table) who can help them understand what they need to do. I teach new players quite often, so I explain what I’m asking for quite clearly (“I’d like you to roll a perception check, so that’s a d20 plus your perception modifier which is on the skills list”), and I have various handouts that I’ve written that I can give to new players to help them along. It’s also good to find out what people want from their games. Some players love combat, and would like to have one or two encounters per session, whereas others love the roleplay aspect, and would be happy to have sessions where there is no combat present at all. Knowing this at the outset helps you tailor your game so the players can get the most enjoyment from their sessions, as you will all be aware of where the balance needs to lie between roleplay and combat.

An important thing to do in this session is to write conduct rules. Make this a collaborative process and make sure everyone agrees by the rules you come up with. As a DM, it’s your role to enforce them, and by setting these out right at the beginning, there is less chance for any disagreements later on. Having said that, make your rules flexible enough so that you can add a rule in later on if it doesn’t occur to you at the time.

I have some preset conduct rules for my games, and I invite players to read them, agree them, and contribute their own suggestions. They’re very straightforward standard things, but what I allow and disallow at my table might be different for your table. For example, I am personally uncomfortable with graphic sexual descriptions. I won’t allow erotic roleplay or any descriptions of this type at my table. However, if you want to go into gruesome detail as to how your character has brutally maimed this orc chieftain, be my guest. I also have some house rules on critical hits that I use in non Adventurer’s League games, that I like to explain to my players.

If there are rules, there also need to be consequences for breaking those rules, and if these are also clear at the outset, then a player who is penalized should not be surprised when this happens. I tend not to remove people from my table unless it is really warranted. Again, I highlight communication here. Usually speaking to a player in private is enough to highlight an issue and rectify it. Some players may not even realize they are breaking a rule, if it is something like “no metagaming”. Give people a chance to change their behaviors where you think it is appropriate.

Something you can do if players are breaking minor rules is to impose setbacks at the table. If you give a player a clear warning to not talk over you or to abide by a ruling you have made, and they continue to disregard your warning, then you could impose disadvantage on their next roll. This doesn’t remove their agency or harshly penalize their character, but it does give consequences to behavior. And ultimately, if you cannot resolve issues, you do reserve the right to remove someone from your table. As DM, you are there to have fun as much as the players are, and managing a disruptive element is generally not a fun task.

Here are a few examples of things I include in my agendas and rules. They are not an exhaustive list, and as ever, what works for me may not work for you. This is just intended as inspiration, for you to use and amend as your own.

Sample Agenda:

  • Introductions
  • What do you want from the game?
  • Character Creation
  • Rules and how to apply them
  • One-shot (if running at session zero)
  • Agree schedule going forwards
  • What we will do if people can’t make a session

My rule examples:

  1. HAVE FUN! (This is the most important rule!)
  2. Respect everyone at the table. Be engaged when it’s not your turn and not on your phone or having a conversation with someone else. Personally I find that kind of behavior rude, and I will ask people to focus if they are not doing so.
  3. No real world sexism/racism/other isms are acceptable. I may incorporate NPCs who have prejudices to affect interactions, and equally I will allow PCs with prejudices in my game, as this can add an interesting dynamic, but this does not represent my real world views and I do not condone that sort of behavior outside of the game world.
  4. No graphic sexual descriptions or erotic role play. It’s not necessary to tell a good story. I have no problem with romance, I just do not need to know exactly how it played out in the bedroom.
  5. I don’t do critical success or failure on skill checks. RAW, that’s not a thing, although I know a lot of DMs rule that it is. That’s their table, this is mine. Also, don’t assume you succeed or fail on a roll. I’m the one that determines the success, and I work DCs in my own way. I may have a sliding scale of information, I might have a higher or lower DC than you anticipate, or it might be different for different PCs depending on their character, background or environmental factors! I also don’t like players saying “I’ll roll perception/investigation/whatever”. Again, you should describe to me what your character wants to do, and I’ll tell you what skill to roll, because it might not be what you are expecting!
  6. Leading on from that, I don’t like people to rules lawyer, metagame, or otherwise ruin people’s fun in this way. My table is there to collaborate and tell a shared story. As a DM, I am here to interpret the rules. I don’t know all the rules, so I may have to pause and look something up. Sometimes the answer won’t be immediately obvious. I’ll make a ruling that makes sense at the time based on my judgement of the situation and we’ll move on. Abide by that ruling at the time. When I go and check up on it later, if I find that I’ve got it wrong, I’ll own up, and we’ll work out a fix going forwards, but at the time, we’ll adjudicate, move on, and enjoy the game.

Frank has given me some good points to add in regarding the last rule. If you don’t know the rules well, having someone more experienced at the table who does can be a huge help and you can lean on their experience and ask them to help adjudicate. This was certainly my situation to begin with. Later on, once I was confident enough with my knowledge, I had to step up and say to my players that I was now confident enough, and that whilst their experience was valued, I was now taking charge and would only solicit that experience if absolutely necessary. At my tables, my word is final and that is how it should be with any DM running a game. This doesn’t mean you should be in an adversarial situation. The point is to avoid the argument by saying “this is what we will do on this occasion, let’s move on with the game and look at the detail later”

I hope this article has helped you understand why Session Zero is a good idea, and given you some inspiration for what to include in your Session Zeroes! 


DM Tutorials - Herding Cats

You’ve probably heard this phrase a lot. Other DMs will tell you - schedule organisation is one of the worst/toughest/soul-destroying parts of running a D&D game. We all have one of those pesky life things happening. Work, school, hobbies, clubs, TV, even just plain old emergencies can make scheduling a D&D game a nightmare.

My own schedule for games is intense. I run games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in my own homebrew world, I run two Curse of Strahd campaigns on alternate weeks on a Thursday night (So every Thursday I’m playing a CoS game, but the groups experience the sessions fortnightly), I run in person sessions every other week at my local gaming club, I have a family game that we get together every month or so to play, and I’m setting up a play by post Discord server for people who are either unable or unwilling to play in person or by voice chat, so they are able to play a text based D&D game in a safe environment.

Because I run so many games, something I have done in my groups to avoid burnout is to schedule a week off every month for the two homebrew games. My groups knew from the outset that the first week of the month is going to be a break week, so I get time to relax, catch up on writing the arc going forward, and don’t get too overwhelmed with how much I have to do. Some of my players are now stepping up in that break week to run oneshots, which is brilliant!

Depending on how you play D&D, and who you play with, scheduling games is made easier or harder. If you are running a oneshot, then you only need to find one time when people are available to commit to that game. Starting a campaign? Well… you’re going to need to work out how frequently people can commit to those sessions and hope they are often enough to keep the momentum of the story going. You’re going to need to decide how you are going to tackle this challenge before you even get to Session Zero.

If you’re setting up a new campaign, either online or at a gaming club, or starting your own weekly club, theoretically, it’s easier. You decide a time that works for YOU, and then post about it in relevant places, and watch the applications fly in. Which is mostly true. Some people will beg you to change times to slightly earlier, or later, or another day.

Set expectations early, and stick to your guns. DMs have enough to worry about without becoming the group’s Personal Assistant. You’re not there to manage their schedules. If you’re going to give warnings to people for dropping out, and/or kick them from the game if they can’t commit, make this clear at the start. Decide how many people are going to be the absolute minimum for running the session. If you have a 4 person party in your campaign and 2 drop out, is it feasible to continue to run the story that session with the other two? Could you run a sidequest or oneshot instead?

Decide how much notice people should be giving you before dropping out of a session. Obviously if there is an emergency, then it can’t be helped, but generally you should have notice so that you can make a decision on whether you want to cancel or reschedule. Some players are flakier than others, are you happy to allow that at your table? It might be that you have a good friend that is an amazing player, but they sometimes have other things going on and cancel at short notice because that’s just how they are. You might be okay with that and be able to work around it.

Don’t be afraid to put scheduling back onto the players. If they want to reschedule, tell them the times you’re available to run the session, and then make it clear that it’s up to them to organise themselves and let you know when to join them, else there will be no session. And don’t be afraid to just not have a session if people can’t get organised. Sometimes it needs to happen to make people realise that you aren’t going to be doing all the running.

Most importantly though, and a theme I will keep returning to in these articles, is communication. If you and your players all talk to each other outside of the game, scheduling and other issues will be much easier to resolve. For my online games, we have a discord server, and we are always hopping in to check times and notify each other of schedules, as well as just chatting about anything else that comes to mind. We were strangers at the start of this campaign, and we've now built up a good friendship group outside of the table.

To sum up: You’re not the groups PA. Although the DM role is to adjudicate and ostensibly run sessions, you are also there to have fun and play the game too. Everyone needs to shoulder the responsibility of scheduling themselves for a game. And don’t be afraid to take a break if you need to. It’s better to take that break and avoid burnout, rather than pushing on and potentially making your group, and yourself, resent the game you are running.

Hope this helps, and I’ll see you soon for another article!