Tony Petrecca is a DMsGuild author responsible for the platinum best-seller Journey Through the Centre of the Underdark and the gold best-seller Killer Kobolds! Tony is a real veteran on the Guild, and knows all there is to know about making encounters deadly, even when using low CR creatures! You can find Tony on Facebook and Twitter.
What drew you to publish on the DMsGuild, and what was your first published product?
I’d been a DM for decades, and for many years I’d kicked around the idea of getting some of my adventures published, but I kept coming up with excuses not to – not knowing how to apply for writing gigs, too hard to figure out the open gaming license, that sort of thing. None of my excuses were particularly valid but they were my own mental roadblocks keeping me from going for it. Then the Guild opened up with simple guidelines, access to actual D&D IP, and the ability to self publish with relative ease, and my excuses melted away.
My first published product was Journey Through the Center of the Underdark, and I’m amazed at how well its been received.
What inspires your projects?
Everything I do with regards to D&D is about having fun, and that includes my writing projects. As a DM I enjoy creating adventures and seeing them entertain my friends at the table. As a writer, I get just as much enjoyment putting in the hours to polish those adventures into products that other tables can enjoy. Fun is the entire point of the game, so fun is my first inspiration. If I don’t enjoy it, my player’s won’t enjoy it, and neither will my readers.
As for creative inspirations? Oh, I suppose my muse shows up all over and in unpredictable ways, though I’m often inspired visually – I see a cool map, or an excellent piece of fantasy art, and the possibilities start churning in my brain. Hunted!, for example, was inspired by Dean Spencer’s beautiful Orc Huntress image – I took one look at her and knew I wanted her in a story.
That said, my greatest source of inspiration are my friends at the table. I write to entertain them first and foremost, and when we end a session and I think back on all the crazy, unpredictable ways they broke my “plans” I head right back to the drawing board with ideas churning for next week. Frankly, if they’d have all chosen to negotiate in good faith with a couple kobold merchants, then Killer Kobolds! would never have been a thing. But when those negotiations went south, the die was cast, and the end result was hours of fast paced fun.
Out of all your products, which is your favourite and why?
They’re all works of love but my favourite is certainly Killer Kobolds! The kobold defences of Crag Canyon were created in my home game, and provided many of my long running table’s most memorable moments. I had a great time coming up with over the top defences, and they had an absolute blast running through it. When we finished I thought “this would make a great stand alone module”, which is when I first seriously considered getting into D&D publishing.
Talk to me about Killer Kobolds! What influenced your choice to use kobolds rather than goblins or other similar races?
Kobolds have been one of my favorite D&D creatures for as long as I can remember… probably since I first read of Tucker’s genius way back when in Dragon Magazine. I love their cunning, their wicked trap making skills, their indefatigable will and ability to survive in spite of their size. As a species, they know they’re out gunned as individuals, so they naturally help each other (pack tactics), even going so far as to forego their own lives to ensure their clan survives.
Their historical connection to dragons makes them that much more of a joy to work with. Dragon blooded Kobold sorcerers, or as I like to call them, Kobold Mobile Artillery Platforms, are an absolutely natural fit in the clan, and the existence of winged kobolds gives us Kobold Air Cavalry to up the defensive ante that much more. Finally, of course, there’s a good chance that if you tangle with enough kobolds you just might run afoul of the dragon their clan serves.
Have you got any advice for DMs who want to use low CR creatures in a deadly way? What kind of tactics would you employ?
Thanks to 5e’s bounded accuracy and action economy there’s strength in numbers. Packs of low CR creatures, especially when played intelligently, can quickly overwhelm a party many levels higher than their CR suggests. Surprise assaults, flanking, and hit and run tactics can all be employed to frustrate a group of seasoned adventurers.
Also, be sure to build encounters with mixed threats. Like a balanced adventuring party, a challenging encounter benefits enormously from a solid mix of melee, missile, and magic wielding enemies. Traps and environmental hazards round off the challenge quite well. For example, the Killer Kobolds! have magic missile and fireball tossing sorcerers who draw the PCs ire, luring charging paladins and raging barbarians through enemy and trap filled gauntlets. As chases ensue, the party can get split, and then the kobolds truly swarm.
Sometimes in 5th edition, the CR of creatures can be a little swingy. Have you got any encounter building tips to help DMs challenge their players?
I cut my teeth on Blue Box Basic D&D and AD&D, where there was no such thing as a challenge rating. The concept of some mathematically perfect challenge rating equation, balancing monster stats on one side versus party size, level, and a precise anticipation of what gear a party of a given level should have on the other, didn’t come about until 3.X. For me, building encounters has always been more art form than science, so 5th edition’s relaxation of the calculus is something I’m quite comfortable with. Ultimately 5e’s challenge ratings can provide a generalised guideline for how difficult a creature might be, but they can’t anticipate the composition of every party out there. That’s the DMs job.
First and foremost, I recommend remaining flexible when running a session. Don’t be constrained by what’s written down on either your notes or the published adventure you’re running. Improvise on the fly, adding enemies if the battle is too easy, or, if you like, nerfing if the party is being slaughtered.
I’m a big fan of waves of enemies, as they allow for planned flexibility built right into the encounter. The party might confront the ogre chieftain and her winter wolf pet on round one, while on round two her guards emerge from flanking caverns. If the battle’s going too well, an ogre hunting party returns to the cave on round three, and the party is surrounded. If the party is struggling, all the DM need do is hold a wave back to avoid the TPK.
Finally, remember that action economy is king in 5th edition. Unless their CR is well beyond a deadly rating for a party, solo monsters are doomed when confronted by a group of adventurers. There’s strength in numbers – give that BBEG minions, guards, traps and tricks to keep it interesting.
Have you got any advice for new authors on the DMsGuild?
Well, I could comment on the usual stuff – Re-writing is the essence of writing, an editor is worth every penny, have a good looking, eye catching cover, be sure to market your work – that sorta thing. But instead I’d like to point out that the DMsGuild community has an amazingly supportive batch of contributors. Check out the Dungeon Master’s Guild Fanclub and Dungeon Masters Guild Creator’s Circle groups on Facebook, look into Ashley Warren’s outstanding writing workshops, and seek out other Guild creators on social media. We’re all quite happy to help.
But, most importantly – have fun!