Lessons Learned Running an RPG

Brett wonders what kind of lessons did Sean learn when running one his most recent games. A GM’s journey is never over.


Let’s play! Topic on Discord and Forums.

Gamehole Con, come have fun!

Random Encounter

Sky comments on Discord about episode 345 modifying combats on the fly

So Re: Episode 345

My opinion is that combat “balance” in 5e doesn’t exist, chasing it is a mistake many new GMs do. IMO the most effective method of modification is to tell your players a few things in session 0

  1. The world will not be balanced to their PCs
  2. While you won’t kill their PCs outright, you won’t save them from stupid decisions either.
  3. Initiative doesn’t mean they should stop thinking about the other pillars of the game. It just means the minute of the second by second decisions is now the focus.

Then as the GM I have a few guidelines that I try to follow.

  1. Set up situations not combats (e.g. “Stop the ritual” not “kill the cultists” or “The bear is killing livestock, please find out why” not just “Kill that bear”). It rarely keeps my players from getting into some form of combat (they are just that type of player) but it frames the situation in a way where they don’t assume “kill the dudes” and has saved them in the past when they were up against a TPK level fight as well as when they could wipe the adversaries in 1 round but they needed info from them.
  2. I use different words. This quote is commonly mis-attributed but here it is:

“Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.”

So I dont say Big Bad Evil Guy I say Threat, I don’t usually say monster I say Adversary or NPC etc. By doing so it helps me avoid inbuilt habits and biases that might sway me when making up the story of a situation. 

Side note I don’t use alignment in my world – the axis is not: Good-Neutral-Evil, it’s Creation-Balance-Entropy for similar reasons. 

  1. This might be the most important thing I do and you touched on it when talking about adversaries running. 

What’s the story of this situation? 

It tells me not just what is happening, e.g. The Cult is summoning a demon, it tells me what the various goals and motivations of the forces involved, it tells me what happens when the PCs interrupt that ritual and it goes sideways.

Why do a ritual to summon a demon at all? Because if you just open the portal it’ll come through and kill everyone. So when the ranger says they want to put an arrow in the cultist running the ritual I can tell the wizard they know that would cause x,y,z to happen. 

Additionally it tells me what happens after. Why were the cultists summoning that demon? Cultists gotta cult? Nah it was bc x,y,z. Now that they didn’t get it from the demon, what is their next option?

OK so I went off a little into adventure design. 

Back to combat difficulty. So we have established with the PCs that combat is not the be all and end all solution. We have given them a goal that can be achieved multiple ways. We have changed our prep to be able to react to Player choice by figuring out how the pieces fit, as well as knowing why the “what” is happening. 

For the majority of the game that is good enough. Tough fight? Doesn’t matter, they needed the scroll the Sphinx was protecting not to kill the Sphinx so while most PCs are fighting it the rogue grabs the scroll and they GTFO. Stay in initiative and do a skill challenge chase as the Sphinx goes after them.

Easy fight? Doesn’t matter, you know the story of the situation (and the adventure/campaign) so you just smoothly move on to the next thing. You didn’t get the rug pulled from under you because you thought it would be a tough fight and it wasn’t.

The place where this method needs help is significant encounters against the Major Adversary/Threat. 

Typically this is the end of the story and it should have a certain level of gravitas. In 5e that usually means PCs dropping to 0 and getting back up. 


I still follow my guidelines. The goal isn’t to “kill all the dudes,”  but the Adversary is desperate; this is their final play, they can’t back down and the PCs probably hate them so they won’t either.

I typically have 4 major points in these encounters. I use them in others but I make sure they are all present in Significant Encounters:


  1. Main Adversary
  2. Waves of minor adversaries (mooks/minions)
  3. Environmental threats (magical energy lashing out of a portal or the whole building engulfed in flames)
  4. The actual goal

Having all this chaos as well as tweaking hp and damage allow for the situation to be massaged.

PCs have posted up and started running their “most effective damage” macro? Oh look, the minions swarm their position. Too many NPCs on the wizard now? Oops a flaming beam just fell and killed 4 of them, but also the floor starts to crack and there is a bunch of fire here. 


In some cases just upping the damage will make the combat seem more difficult. 5e NPC damage scales horribly so you can typically toss some elemental damage on an NPCs attack to make them hit harder and actually threaten a PC. 

I think that’s it. I kinda rambled but I’m not done with my 1st cup of coffee.

DM Cojo on modifying encounters on the fly and a voicemail

Brett and Sean,

I really enjoyed your takes on the topic of modifying combat encounters on the fly.  This is something that I do routinely as a GM in order to present the best challenge to my players and the most interesting story.

Coincidentally, I recently engaged in a discussion on this same topic on Facebook.  While many people seemed to take a similar approach as I do on this matter, there were a few who accused me of abusing my power to railroad the group into the story that I wanted, and that I should play things “by the book” or I’m not really playing the game.

I take my role as GM very seriously, and feel that I need to use all of the tools at my disposal in order to maximize the game for everyone.  I never use these tools in an adversarial manner, but to either increase the challenge of a battle that is proving to be too easy for the party, or to reduce the likelihood of a TPK, if it is going badly for them due to bad luck dice.

I have employed many of the techniques that you discussed on the show, including:

Changing HP up or down, secretly, on the fly.

Having monsters retreat from combat.

Having reinforcement creatures join the combat.

Reduce the damage done by an enemy attack.

Adding a random narrative element to throw the players a “curveball.”

On occasion, I over-adjust and it swings from too easy to being too difficult for the party.  In those cases, it is easy to use other tools from the list to ease the deadliness back down a bit.  It is a constant balancing act that I play when I run the game.

I do want to point out that this does not mean I am going easy on the party. Stupid choices can still lead to TPKs.  I still don’t believe in “balanced encounters,” and the PCs will sometimes need to flee to survive.  I always leave them an “out”…but they don’t always take it…which can lead to a TPK.

Ultimately, I see myself as working with what the players give me, to craft the most interesting story for everyone (including me).  That means that I may need to manipulate some encounters behind the scenes.  I don’t think this is rail-roading or unfair in any way.  I feel my players still have total agency because I am always responding, and tweaking the encounter based on their choices…never with a preconceived outcome in mine.

I hope those ramblings make sense!

Your Friend,

DM Cojo


Die Roll

  • Vece – Fear the Con, June 25-27
  • Huscarl – Great, Snakebots Can Now Burrow Underground so We’ll Never See Them Coming, on Gizmodo
  • Akodoken, Vast Grimm, Vast Grimm is a rules-light Infectious Sci-Fi Horror tabletop roleplaying game, compatible with Mörk Borg, featuring 3 new Elder Dice sets! On Gamefound. Campaign launches in 21 days from recording

Next Episode

About the Author
The 'S' of Gaming and BS podcast. Besides producing and hosting the show, Sean enjoys long walks on the beach, running rpg's, and killing player...characters.