What’s that you say? We just took our old comics about aquatic combat and grappling and smashed them together? Well yeah. But then again, that’s exactly what games do.

Maybe it’s just on my mind because of my recent Spider-Man playthrough, what with its beat-em-up skill tree unlocking new moves every other level, but it seems to me that gaming is a learn-as-you-go prospect. We’re used to thinking about this concept as players: planning out character progression and waiting for our builds to “turn on” at Xth level. But I think that learning to GM works on the same principle.

You ever notice how a lot of modules like to start out with carnival games? The idea is to give first-time players (and GMs!) a chance to get used to skill checks and DCs in a low-stakes environment. Same deal with the all-important first combat encounter. Even when it’s a bog-standard goblin attack, there are a number of core mechanics to contend with. The basics of initiative, to-hit rolls, and damage are all in there. Depending on the setup there might be a surprise round. You might bring flanking into play. One plucky goblin might even set off some fireworks by accident, giving the team a taste of Reflex saves.

In the next couple of encounters, you add more and more complexity. Venomous critters appear. The orc shaman starts casting spells. Lair actions crop up when you finally meet that baby dragon at the end of the baby dungeon. It’s all cumulative, and it’s all meant to help prepare you for the actual end-boss of GMing: running high-level combat. These are the hardest encounters in the game, chock-full of dudes like today’s kraken that combine various subsystems into a single experience. They’re all about slinging spells while doing fly-by attacks. Using invisibility and level drain in the same round. Forcing you to contend with their fear aura and spell resistance before summoning fiendish anacondas that grab and constrict your silenced wizard.

You can try and study up ahead of time, and you probably should. But in the same way that you don’t introduce D&D to people by starting at 20th level, you probably don’t want to begin DMing with the CR 20+ part of the bestiary. In my experience, learning as you go is the most effective approach, picking up new rules and new tactics as you play.

So what do you say, kids? What’s the most mechanically complex encounter you’ve run? Were you its equal, or did you find yourself overwhelmed by all the rules and options? Tell us your best tales of high level fightin’ down in the comments!


ARE YOU AN IMPATIENT GAMER? If so, you should check out the “Henchman” reward level over on The Handbook of Heroes Patreon. For just one buck a month, you can get each and every Handbook of Heroes comic a day earlier than the rest of your party members. That’s bragging rights right there!