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Hello again! In this edition of Dungeon Mastering for Beginners, I wanted to talk about the three pillars. You might have heard of these before. In roleplaying, there are three basic principles that make up the entire experience for your players. Some players may prefer one over the other, and discussing what type of game a player wants to experience can be made much simpler by using the three pillars as part of that discussion.
The three pillars are Combat, Exploration, and Social. These three things are needed to make a well-rounded game. Each of them is very unique from the other two as well, and require their own sets of skill and experience in order to run well. You might be a whiz at running balanced, engaging combat scenarios, but have absolutely no clue how to make a dungeon that isn’t just sequential rooms of fights. Or you might have the biggest wizard tower with the coolest magical traps, but zero confidence when it comes time to roleplay the mad wizard at the top of the tower. So, let’s talk about each of them.
First up is combat. Mechanically, this is probably the most complex part of dungeons and dragons, and the most relevant in terms of balance for the game. One look at a character sheet, and you’ll see that combat dominates a lot of real estate. Making combat fun requires a lot. You need to make sure your players have a fighting chance, but you don’t want them to just steamroll the enemy. If you just give enemies tons of hit points, fights devolve into long, drawn out slogs that aren’t fun either. Combat needs to be dynamic. Tiny sized goblins hiding in trees shooting toothpicks at the party? That’s dynamic. It uses the environment to add another aspect to the fight. Fighting an undead titan over a pool of lava? Environment makes the combat interesting. Mixed unit tactics are another way to up your combat game. Against soldiers, with archers hiding behind walls of shield-bearing soldiers that prevent easy access. Wolves fighting alongside bandits to harass and hamper efforts by the tanks to hold off the attackers. A mad wizard summoning a god-child to help him fight. These are all ways to make combat require more involvement. And of course, having objectives beyond killing all the bad guys is a good way to change combat up. Protecting the gate during a siege to buy time for those trapped inside to escape through the tunnels, or racing an assassin to their target, or maneuvering through a trapped treasure trove while dealing with pirates who are also after the treasure? All great ways of making a different objective to fighting besides “winning”. Combat that is only about killing the other guy is fine. But it gets old if there’s not more going on.
The second pillar of roleplaying is exploration. Dungeons and dragons takes place in a variety of locations, from a recently destroyed tavern in Waterdeep, to the undead-infested jungles of Chult, to the nine hells. Dungeons designed by a lich to capture adventurers, portals leading to a maze of caverns underground, any exploration of the world… this is the second pillar of roleplaying. There is a novelty to delving into a new dungeon. There is a feeling of the unknown that the environment can instill. Imagine being contracted by a temple of Kelemvor as adventurers to delve into a mausoleum for dead gods hidden high in the mountains to investigate why the high priest has been having foreboding dreams. The air is cold and biting, and you can see your breath and feel the chill in your bones as you ascend the mountain path, up seven hundred and seventy-seven steps. You feel a dark presence emanating from the tomb as you approach. Frighteningly, the carved amber and stone entrance that had once been sealed shut has been cracked open to one side by a massive earthquake, and a roiling purple mist is billowing out from the opening. You delve deeper, and notice that the construction is built in such a way that going in is much simpler than getting back out, and that every trap and defensive mechanism is designed to keep things contained within. You also feel the temperature dropping drastically, getting colder and colder the further your party ventures into the tomb of dead gods. How do you feel reading that? There’s a sense of excitement and wonder and a strong urge to see more, right? You want to know what’s in there. You want to explore. Put effort into your environments, and let them tell part of the story for you.
Finally, there is the social aspect of the game. Every NPC and character the party interacts with is included in this section. For many people, this is the hardest to roleplay. But having believable NPCs is key to making an immersive world, and clever social encounters can make your characters feel like geniuses for seeing through a NPC’s lie or predicting a threat before it materializes. Dungeons and dragons has a lot of abilities that center around social encounters, from spells like Charm Person and Glibness, to class abilities that influence character interactions. If you want a character to be important as more than a throwaway encounter or boss, put some effort into their personality and backstory, and give the players a chance to socialize, even if that socialization comes before combat that everyone knows is coming. Although, strong social play can sometimes avoid what seemed like inevitable combat all together.
I hope this gives you some idea of how to round out your game. The three pillars are representative of what people enjoy the most about the game. Whenever I build a new campaign or put together a group to play a module, I ask who likes what on a scale of 1 to 10. If someone likes combat way more than social encounters, I can build encounters that speak to that. If someone is new and just wants to talk to the nobles and play a political intrigue game, I can build for that. But it helps to have that conversation ahead of time, and the three pillars are easy to understand and give players and dungeon masters a clear way to communicate what they expect or want from a game.