Almost every roleplaying game that supports combat scenes has a rule for surprise. The surprised side gets some disadvantage, usually for the first round. Today I’m talking about when the player characters get surprised by the GM’s characters (NPCs or GMCs depending on your system), not the other way around.

SurpriseWhy bother with surprise? How does it translate into fun at your table?

  • The default kind of fun is a more challenging combat. This is a great way to stress the PCs, and is particularly fun if the players are getting just a little too cocky. How long has it been since the players sweated the outcome of a combat? Standing there with targets on their faces while the opposition gets free shots is sure to get their attention.
  • Surprise can help in world building. Maybe here in drow territory, drow have ambush points set up all over the place. You can tilt the odds of whatever surprise mechanics your system has to make it favor the drow in these encounters. As the players venture deep underground, drow ambushes become part of their world. “We go north, we need to be extra careful for drow surprises.”
  • Surprise can help in shared world building. If the dice dictate the PCs are surprised, you can ask the players “Why are you surprised?” They can come up with all sorts of explanations you would never think of: “I’m so tired. Henrik’s ghost stories didn’t let me sleep last night.”
  • Surprise can help build story. An antagonist might run ahead of the PCs, helping potential adversaries set up ambushes. Maybe it’s because they feel the PCs have cheated them. The GM can leave clues such as “this is the third ambush in a row that has the hallmarks of a Dr. Wild setup. The doctor sure seems to have it in for you.”
  • Avoiding surprise by roleplaying can be rewarding. The players may meet someone who knows about the ambush ahead. If the players make friends, they find out about it. If the players are all murder-hobos, they’ll never learn that information.
  • Avoiding surprise can be a good use of resources. Maybe use of a magic spell can reveal the ambush ahead. In a game like 13th Age, spending an icon boon could have icon send a message about the ambush. In a 5E type of game, a PC that is part of a faction may get the info as a faction favore. In a GUMSHOE game, players can spend their Sense Trouble points. The players can feel very good that they avoided walking into that trap, by spending a resource wisely to avoid it.
  • In some systems, surprising the PCs can end up giving them resources. In Numenera and other Cypher System games, the GM can just declare the party is surprised as part of a group-wide GM Intrusion. Each PC then gets an experience point.

How have you used combat surprises to make your game more fun?

Inspired Inspiration in 5E

inspirationInspiration is one of my favorite parts of Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons. It works great as written, but I’m going to steal an idea from Lex Starwalker and show how to use inspiration for group storytelling.

Normally, you can spend inspiration to gain advantage to an attack, saving throw, or ability check. That still works.

However, you can also spend inspiration to make up something in the game world. It might be a detail that works with your background or skills. It could be a clue, a secret passage, or a one use item like a level-appropriate potion or a scroll.

For example, Qua the cleric is down on spells, but has inspiration. “I’m spending my inspiration to search that pile of skulls and find a potion of greater healing.”

Or Kay the paladin is desperate to find the Lady Vonya. “I spend my inspiration and look at the track and find a clue.” At this point, as the GM, you improvise a clue, “It’s a scrap of parchment. In Lady Vonya’s hand it reads ‘we leave the Black Tower, our captors driving us west. Ahead lie the glass caverns. If any shall find this, send help.'”

Or Troik the bard just want another spotlight moment. “I’m spending my inspiration to have the farmers in from their fields for a local holiday. The village is full of people in good cheer. If only a very handsome someone just happened by to provide it. I tune up my lute.”

Obviously, it’s up to the GM to stop player abuse. Advantage is a great boon, but not a wish (or even a fireball). Spending inspiration might push over an apple cart during a chase scene, but will not push a combatant off a cliff.

Ask yourself:

  • Is it overpowered, like the effects of a powerful spell? Or something small, along the lines of a cantrip?
  • Does it break the story? If you are just starting a three session murder mystery, inspiration can’t give away the culprit. It could point to information “Barkeep Barlo hears all sorts of things…”
  • Does it take the fun out of the adventure? Some players try to play it safe all the time. And you want thrills, so don’t let the players nurf the exciting bits.
  • Does it open up a new fun avenue for adventure? Don’t be afraid to improvise and go with player ideas that make the game fun. Sure, you had your own fun encounter directly ahead of them, but if they say they found a secret passage, improvise something fun in the passage. If they never see your planned encounter, you can reuse it in a future adventure.

Emperor RolandThe cool thing about this for players is that it gives them a chance to improvise outside of their character powers. They get to do a little shared world-building.

And for the GM, it’s another way for your players to surprise you, forcing you to improvise and keep the fun going. I don’t know about you, but I like to be surprised by my players.

Have you tried something like this? How does it work for you?

Don’t forget to visit our 5E Kickstarter: The Gods Have Spoken.

Travel Montages in 5E

OK, you’re the GM, and it’s time for your players to move from A to B. It might take hours, days, or even months in game time, but you don’t want to roleplay every single incident that takes place on the road. “You see a puddle in the road, what do you do?” “Um, we walk around it?”

mountain-road-free-clip-artYou can handwave the entire journey, and just cut to “You arrive in Plotville, everyone seems tense.”

However, that makes it feel like teleporting. Which is great if the party actually teleports, but if you want to make travel memorable, yet not take more than a few minutes at the table, you can use a travel montage.

A montage in a roleplaying game is when you go around the table, and everyone makes something up in a collaborative fashion. It’s often a time to set the dice aside and show how cool the characters are without worrying about initiative order and skill checks.

(I first ran into montages in the 13th Age roleplaying game. And I put a travel montage into The Sun Below: Sleeping Lady, a Numenera adventure. The concept is system independent.)

Here’s how it works. You (as the GM), point at one player. I like to pick someone good at improvisation. “Stace, describe a problem that stops the group’s travel. It can be anything, a flood, robbers, a three headed giant, just come up with a problem, not the solution. Your party will get by, because” (then point to the next person sitting clockwise at the table) “Jer will solve it. Don’t say how.”

After the problem has been described, turn to the next character. “Jer, how do you get the party past this obstacle? You can use your background, your class powers (which won’t be used up), or anything. This is your time to shine. Jer, what do you do?”

We allow pretty much any solution to work. We do steer the player away from things that break the mood we’re going for. Silly is great in some games, not in others. Remember the player doesn’t have to roll dice, so talking their way past robbers, jumping over a chasm, building a raft, and so on, just works.

inspirationOption: Inspiration

At our table, we’ll give each player inspiration once they tell us how they solved the problem. Some GMs use less inspiration than we do, so if this feels excessive in your game, just ignore it.

Back to the Montage

Once Jer has solved the problem, we’ll ask him to come up with a new problem for the next character to solve, going around the table clockwise. Everyone makes up a problem, and everyone makes up a solution. Once the first player solves her problem, the montage is done. Now, instead of three sessions micro-managing the travel, or handwaving the entire journey, the players have a memorable experience, each character will shine, and only a few minutes have past at the table.

Don’t forget to visit our 5E Kickstarter: The Gods Have Spoken.

The Gods Have Spoken, Kickstarting January 1st!

Kickstarting New Years Day! New gods for your 5E worlds, and new options for 5E players.


Twenty eight new fantasy gods arranged in three new Pantheons for your 5E game. Gods with passions, backstories, and agendas. So much more than a list of names and domains.

New domains and class features that work with these new gods, bringing new options to clerics, druids, paladins, and rangers.

The Gods Have Spoken!

From Dread Unicorn Games


Roll20Con is upon us! June 3rd, 24 hours of non-stop gaming. 5E, 13th Age, Numenera, and more!

The first game convention held on Roll20. Watch, game, and help support Cybersmile, the international non-profit supporting victims of cyberbullying.


I’m running ColdSnap a 13th Age adventure at 1:30 (after the 13th Age WolfSamurai Twitch Actual Play). Join in!


More information from Darcy Ross on Roll20Con can be found on GnomeStew.

Roll 20 Curious? Check out our 2 part intro.