Dungeons & Dragons can be a wonderful experience. But many Dungeon Masters develop a set of limiting beliefs that hurt their games. Let’s look at three of the biggest assumptions hurting your D&D game and how to avoid them.

Combat Resolution: Kill or Be Killed

Most Dungeon Masters spend a lot of time preparing and running combat. So it’s important to get it right. But many of us don’t. We design combat encounters with a single goal: to be the last side standing. A victory for the player characters means the enemies are dead, unconscious, or ran away. A failure for the player characters means a TPK (total party kill) or capture if you’re generous. All in all, this is a very limiting way to approach combat.

Consider objectives that break this model of thinking. Make the combat secondary to some important goal. Here are a few examples:

  • Destroy something
  • Stop something from being destroyed
  • Steal something
  • Stop something from being stolen
  • Solve a mystery (figure out who the killer is and keep them alive for questioning)
  • Protect someone or something until reinforcements arrive

Now combat is just something you’re dealing with while trying to achieve something more important. Player characters will be encouraged to use their abilities in creative ways. Success now drives the story in more dynamic ways. Failure can too without killing off the party.

The 3 Pillars of D&D Are Mutually Exclusive

We hear a lot about the 3 Pillars of Adventure in D&D. According to the Player’s Handbook (2014):

Exploration includes both the adventurers’ movement through the world and their interaction with objects and situations that require their attention. Social interaction features the adventurers talking to someone (or something) else. Combat, involves characters and other creatures swinging weapons, casting spells, maneuvering for position, and so on…

When we design encounters, we often think about designing for a specific pillar. We want to balance the number of “exploration” encounters with “combat” encounters. This is another limiting belief.

Think about all three of these pillars at every stage of the adventure. Each encounter should include elements from multiple (if not all) pillars. This compliments our first point about combat resolution. Exploring the environment or social interaction can encourage better combat objectives.

Think about a roleplaying encounter with the local duke. The party could stand and talk to him. But that can be boring. Introduce exploration into the encounter. Maybe the duke is walking around his study, examining all matter of interesting trinkets. The characters can do the same to learn more about the duke and his history.

Always be thinking about all three pillars of adventure.

Ability Checks Succeed or Fail

When calling for an ability check, we have a usually have a Difficulty Class (DC) in mind. That single number usually acts as a wall—you either get over it or you don’t. Success or failure. This is fine for certain checks but ultimately limits our game and story.

The worst place you can find yourself in is when failure means that nothing happens. Think about it. Your players are engaging with the game and rolling dice. And then nothing happens. Avoid this at all costs.

Let the DC determine success and failure. But introduce varying degrees of success and failure. For a DC 15 check, make a 21 more valuable than a 16. Make a 7 worse than a 14. Give more or less knowledge or lore for History (Intelligence) checks. Allow a barely failed Strength check to weaken a door for future attempts to break it down.

Example Trap with Degrees of Success and Failure

For this trap, a successful DC 15 Dexterity check using thieves’ tools disables it.

Roll Result
1-10 The trap triggers and deal 2x damage.
11-14 The trap triggers normally.
15-20 The trap is successfully disarmed.
21+ The trap is disarmed and dismantled. It can now be reset anytime.

Keep your games interesting by introducing alternate combat objectives, always thinking about the three pillars, and using degrees of success and failure.

Happy gaming!