DMs: Don’t Make a Pet NPC, But Sometimes You Can Play a Guide

When I started gaming, people tended to play Dungeons & Dragons with larger parties than now. When game sessions fell short of 8 or more players, dungeon masters often added their own character to fill the group. While common, the practice seemed like a necessary evil at best. The spotlight belongs on the player characters. The players’ choices steer the adventure; their characters’ actions create the story.

Now, DMs never add their player characters to the party, but sometimes they get the same kicks by adding a pet NPC. These game-world avatars let game masters indulge in wish fulfillment. They turn other NPCs into admirers and turn PCs into sidekicks. (Aaron at RPG Musings tells how to spot a pet NPC.)

Over my career as a DM, I’ve read countless how-to-DM guides. They all warn against letting non-player characters overshadow the PCs. I read this advice and probably shared a typical reaction: No duh. I never felt tempted to create a pet NPC, but I never even created an NPC who traveled with the players.

I have run some adventures that added NPCs to the party. To my surprise, the additions worked. They enhanced the game.

Out of the Abyss begins with the new PCs held captive. They meet several other prisoners, and everyone joins in an escape. The PCs and NPCs find themselves deep in the Underdark, traveling together for as long as their paths overlap.

As the adventure progressed, NPCs left the group, leaving a pair traveling companions: Jim Jar, the gambling deep gnome, and Sprout, the young Myconid. I started to see them enrich the game. The ongoing characters became more vivid than the usual walk-on NPCs. The players enjoyed interacting with them. Players never care about the NPCs they meet in passing, but they became emotionally attached to a silent mushroom tot.

Plus, the traveling NPCs served as guides. Most D&D players feel at home in a fantasy setting, but the Underdark should seem alien. The party’s Underdark natives helped me reveal the strange environment. They could give background information and show the way.

Walk-on NPCs could have met the party and dispensed information, but having a guide creates a certain economy. The players don’t need to keep meeting characters they never see again. Instead, the guides save time while they build bonds. (See Use the Small World Principle to Build a Better Game.)

The adventure Cloud Giant’s Bargain also adds an NPC who guides the players. This adventure takes place in a typical (for D&D), flying castle, so its guide doesn’t help introduce the background. But this adventure aims to introduce D&D to new players, so instructor Tulahk guides novices through the adventure. Designer Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Instructor Tulahk is something I added because it was likely that new DMs would be running the adventure, and it was a higher level adventure with some impressive foes.” Tulahk the NPC gave DMs a voice to remind players to do the sneaking, investigating, and diplomacy that will lead to success. Plus, Tulahk is crabby, talking skull, so when I ran the adventure, I had fun channeling J. Jonah Jameson while calling the PCs empty-headed boneheads and numskulls.

Despite the advantages of giving a party an NPC guide, only add them when they serve a role. And then keep the guide out of the spotlight.

To prevent a NPC from stealing the spotlight, follow two principles:

A guide can’t make decisions for the party. Either create a guide with little interest in the party’s goal, or make the guide too young, too foolish, or too weird to direct the party. Ed Greenwood prevented his NPC wizard Elminster from overshadowing players by making him eccentric. “I never wanted Elminster to be anything more than the ‘old storyteller’ figure,” Greenwood said. “He was the mind-wandering, irritatingly whimsical old man who could OCCASIONALLY be of help to PCs.”

The players must prove more capable than their guide. Tolkien understood the risks of letting a powerful figure upstage his main characters. He kept contriving to have Gandalf leave for important business elsewhere. If a guide brings more power than the PCs, the players will wonder why they showed up. On the other hand, if you mix in NPCs who the players can upstage, and who admire the PC’s exploits, the PCs shine even brighter.

This post lightly updates a version that appeared in January, 2017. In the comments, Alphastream talks more about writing Cloud Giant’s Bargain.

Related: How to Make Non-Player Characters That Your Players Will Like
How to Create Loveable Non-Player Characters While You Supercharge Your Sex Appeal

If Dungeons Offer Riches, Why Don’t the Authorities Loot Them?

During the 70s, the debates that raged in the pages of fantasy game fanzines mostly matched the gaming topics argued on Facebook and Reddit today. For example, forty-some years ago, gamers debated if dungeon masters should break the rules for the sake of story.

But we have forgotten some arguments that raged in places like Alarums & Excursions. Today’s post revisits an interesting debate that now seems as contentious as angels on pinheads.

First, some background. The original Dungeons & Dragons rules recommend 20 players as an ideal number for a campaign, although the text says one referee can handle as many as 50 players. Of course, 50 D&D players probably never crowded a basement at once. Smaller parties formed from the available players and mounted treasure hunts into the huge dungeons that dominated play. At the peak of the  Blackmoor and Greyhawk campaigns run by D&D co-designers Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, such sessions ran several times a week.

Instead of talking about a dungeon master’s campaign or game world, most gamers talked about a DM’s dungeon, because that’s what they played. (See When Megadungeons Ruled Dungeons & Dragons.) Active players took characters from one DM’s dungeon to another. As long as DMs played in similar styles, that worked. (Early fanzines included much talk about coping with PCs coming from incorrectly run dungeons, but no one agreed on, say, the correct ratio of casualties to treasure.)

Popular dungeons saw lots of traffic from twenty or more players, each with a collection of characters at different levels, some recuperating from injury. Gamers started to notice that these dungeons resembled tourist attractions that drew crowds hoping a few risks would lead to a quick score, much like Las Vegas.

Dave Arneson and his group saw how much his dungeon resembled a tourist trap and they exaggerated it. The elves who managed the site of Blackmoor dungeon created a faire at the entrance boasting “hundreds of fabulous deals (some worth what you pay for!)” The elves constructed turnstiles at the dungeon entrance and charged 1 gp admission.  “You can also sign the Adventurers Book, which gets you a genuine ‘I Visited Blackmoor Dungeon’ button when you come out the main entrance. No winners yet.”

In the First Fantasy Campaign (1977), Arneson described the entrance to his dungeon.

After the second destruction of Blackmoor Castle, the EIves were made responsible for the care and protection of the area and it’s defense. Our
Elf player took a number of steps to do this:

  1. They have set up a barricade at the foot of the hill leading to the Castle that forces each entrant to pass a test of Purity (generally anti-Vampire), including a drink of Holy Water for each (provided at bargain rate by the Church of the Facts of Life run by Bishop Carr).
  2. Making it through that, the would-be adventures enter the Castle where the Elves have set up a great fair that fills the courtyard. There are  hundreds of fabulous deals (some worth what you pay for!) and some shady types (cutpurses and the like). This lets the Judge wheel and deal with the players to empty their purses and make them wonder what is going on.
  3. There are now turnstiles into the Dungeon (1 GP admission as well as taking an Elven Tour (since canceled when the two Dwarves let Fang out of his box) (see attached short tout sample). You can also sign the Adventurers Book, which gets you a genuine “I Visited Blackmoor Dungeon” Button when you come out the main entrance. No winners yet.
  4. Each of the regular exit/entrances from the Dungeon are heavily guarded by Elves armed with Holy Water Hoses, and other anti-Evil charms plus an Elven Prince and two Elven Lords! So, if you can reach a door and are still good, the pursuit will break off and the Elves let you in.

Other DMs treated dungeons as tourist attractions, although with less silliness.  In the Forgotten Realms, a famous tavern called the Yawning Portal monetizes the main entrance into the Undermountain dungeon. The innkeeper “Durnan charges adventurers 1 gp each to descend into the well, whether they opt to use the rope or not. The return trip also costs a piece of gold, sent up in a bucket in advance.”

The debate came when game masters wondered how authorities would react to the heavily trafficked dungeons that made homes to monsters and sources of treasure.

Arduin Grimoire Volume IX End War

Ed Simbalist and Wilf Backhaus, the creators of Chivalry & Sorcery (1978), favored adventures outside dungeons. They imagined a society that eliminated dungeons. “A large concentration of ‘evil’ will attract the Church and might bring down a ‘Crusade’ against it. A large concentration of loot will attract the King, a personage always in need of money. Nor is it possible to keep such a dungeon complex secret for long. Myths and legends about such a place and what is to be found in it soon become common knowledge.”

Meanwhile, Dave Hargrave loved dungeons. Page 1 of The Arduin Grimoire Volume IX includes the topic, “Dungeons and why the authorities don’t shut them down,” which counters the opinion voiced in C&S.

Nowadays, few campaigns run in the style that made Blackmoor seem like Six Flags, so few wonder why the Lords of Waterdeep never send their troops into Undermountain for coin. But if anyone asks, some of Dave Hargrave’s points seem plausible.

Dungeons and Why the Authorities Don’t Shut Them Down by Dave Hargrave

I am sure the question of why local authorities don’t just run troops into the “dungeons” of the land has come up now and again. I mean, what could be a more intelligent and logical method to deal with the creature-ridden madness and loose magik of these places? Here are a few reasons to wet your appetite on why they don’t just do that.

  1. With such a large contingent of troops away from their stations, it would be easy to attack the kingdom directly since there would be fewer defenders to face.
  2. It would be too easy for a “bad guy” associated with such a place to trap the soldiers in the dungeon, perhaps sealing them away forever. This directly relates to point one above.
  3. With the high casualties of this kind of action, soon there would be few willing to join the constantly thinning ranks of the army, no matter what the price. Most men are not fools when it comes to dying for no good cause. Again, this directly relates to point # 1.
  4. The troops mucking about in one of these places could open some old gate or cause some awesome and terrible bane to come forth upon the land, thus turning the people against the fool who caused such a calamity.
  5. The “dungeons” act as a constant “honey pot” that ensnares the more adventurous (read that as trouble makers) and any loot they manage to bring out, is, of course, taxable. A hell of a lot cheaper way to make money.
  6. With such a spot to attract undesirable things, it is easier to be aware of just what nasty beings are about. You don’t have to go hacking about the dark and dreary countryside; you know where all the uglies are hiding.

There are still other reasons, but I hope I have made my point. It just isn’t worth all the risk for a king to send his troops into such a mess.

The Movies and Stories than Inspired Dave Arneson to Invent the Dungeon Crawl

Around 1971 Dave Arneson and his circle of Minneapolis gamers invented games where players controlled individual characters who grew with experience and who could try anything because dice and a referee determined the outcomes. The group tried this style of play in various settings, but Dave invented one that proved irresistible: the dungeon.

Dave’s Blackmoor game—the campaign that spawned Dungeons & Dragons—began with a gaming group playing fictional versions of themselves in a fantasy world. The characters became champions in a series of miniature battles featuring armies clashing above ground. Without dungeons, the Blackmoor game might have stayed miniature wargaming rather than becoming D&D and a game nearly as well known as Monopoly. But by creating the dungeon crawl, Dave invented a new activity that transformed the campaign and ultimately made a lasting addition to popular culture.

The dungeons under Castle Blackmoor began as a minor diversion to the campaign’s fantasy battles above ground, but the Blackmoor bunch spent so much time underground that Arneson ultimately declared the above-ground conflicts lost to forfeit. In a recollection of that first dungeon adventure, player Greg Svenson writes, “By the end of the weekend I had fallen in love with the game.” Dave Megarry of the Blackmoor game wanted to capture the dungeon experience during Arneson’s down time, so he created the Dungeon! board game.

The dungeon crawl contributed as much to the initial popularity of D&D as roleplaying. In the dungeon, D&D brought a fun and evocative activity for a group of players. See (How the Dungeon Powered the Success of D&D and the First Role-Playing Games.

The strangest thing about focusing a game on parties of adventures who explore monster-infested dungeons for treasure is that this activity never happens in the fantasies that inspired the game. At best, you can find elements: traps and treasure in the mummy’s tomb, orcs in Moria, and so on.

The Kibri Castle Branzoll like the one owned by Dave Arneson

The Blackmoor campaign first adapted the Chainmail rules, co-written by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. But Chainmail never mentions dungeons. At most, the rules suggest using graph paper to map efforts to tunnel under fortifications.

Dave’s Blackmoor games featured a toy castle, which served as the focus for the above-ground battles. Castles can have dungeons, although in 1971 the dungeon of popular fiction was an underground jail rather than a sprawling compound stocked with monsters and treasure.

Nonetheless, in 1972’s second issue of the campaign newsletter, the “Blackmoor Gazette and Rumormonger”, Arneson reported on dungeons below the castle where “heroes went looking for adventure and treasure.” In Playing at the World, Jon Peterson writes, “By this point, Arneson had mapped, on a pad of graph paper, a dungeon six levels deep beneath the castle, with each level containing progressively more formidable adversaries.”

How did Dave Arneson invent the dungeon crawl? By the time people started asking about it, he no longer remembered all the details. Enough clues remain to reveal the specific stories and movies that probably inspired his creation, likely during a June weekend in 1971.

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings offer obvious inspiration. J.R.R Tolkien imagines parties of heroes who keep finding themselves in sprawling, underground compounds.

The Hobbit takes readers into the goblin king’s warrens under the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo gets lost in the tunnels and encounters Gollum. Later, Bilbo and his party reach the abandoned dwarven city under the Lonely Mountain, where Smaug sleeps in the “great bottommost cellar or dungeon-hall of the ancient dwarves right at the Mountain’s root.” Even though the tunnels under Lonely Mountain do not fit the definition of a dungeon as an underground jail, Tolkien takes a bit of poetic license and refers to the halls as a dungeon. The Lord of the Rings revisits the dungeon again with Moria, the vast underground compound where the fellowship encounters both orcs and the demonic Balrog.

Dave cites a different inspiration for dungeons. In a 1978 interview that appeared in Wargaming issue 4, he explains. “A local TV station had on several old monster movies, which I watched while eating popcorn and reading old Conan novels. It was then that Blackmoor Dungeon was first conceived.”

Different Worlds issue 3 June/July 1979

His next account of inventing the dungeon crawl comes from his “My Life in Role Playing” article for Different Worlds issue 3, from June/July 1979. “How did it all start in Blackmoor? I can’t really say. I had spent the previous day watching about five monster movies on Creature Feature weekend (ch. 5), reading a Conan book (I cannot recall which one but I always thought they were much the same) and stuffing myself with popcorn, doodling on a piece of graph paper. I was also quite tired of my [Napoleonic] Campaign with all its rigid rules, etc., and was perhaps rebelling against it too (in fact I’m sure I was!!).”

Dave forgot the Conan book and never names the movies that sparked his imagination, but clues lead to some likely answers.

To start, the Horror Incorporated Project compiles a list of all the creature features broadcast on KSTP-TV in Saint Paul – Minneapolis throughout the 1970s.

Blackmoor started with Dave’s toy castle. “I had this neat German plastic kit and I just imagined what sort of fantasy setting it would make,” he recalled in a 2009 interview in Kobold Quarterly issue 9. Meanwhile, on Saturday May 29, 1971, The Black Room (1935) aired on the local station. The movie features a baron’s castle that, like Castle Blackmoor, sits atop a rocky hill and includes a bricked, secret room. But most revealing, the names of the movie and of Dave’s creation just swap two letters. “All this happened a few weeks before the first adventurers caught sight of [the castle].”

So Dave had a castle backdrop for fantasy miniature battles, but perhaps no dungeons yet.

Two weeks later, House of Dracula (1945) aired. This one movie might seem like five because it features all of Universal’s most famous monsters, Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s creation. In a remarkable piece of detective work, Daniel H. Boggs lists several similarities between the House of Dracula castle and Blackmoor. Both stand on rocky pinnacles overlooking a graveyard, a village, and the sea. Both include laboratories and torture chambers. Tunnels underneath both lead to seaside caves.

Castles with underground tunnels, monsters, and torture chambers offer much inspiration, but the Conan book surely provided even more.

While Robert E. Howard never has Conan willingly enter a dungeon, the barbarian often finds himself trapped in dungeons, forced to overcome monsters to earn freedom.

Weird Tales 1935 -The Hour of the Dragon

In “Hour of the Dragon,” Conan is imprisoned in the dungeon under the palace of King Tarascus in the Nemedian empire. A sympathetic slave girl gives Conan a rough map of the tunnels, and then warns, “Beyond these dungeons lie the pits which are the doors to Hell.” To escape, Conan defeats a monster that was one of “the goblins of Hyborian legendry, and were in reality ogres of the natural world.”

In “Rogues in the House,” Conan is lost in the pits below the house of the Red Priest, where he evades the traps that slay companions who lack Conan’s “steel-spring quickness.” Although the covered city of “Red Nails” lies above ground, its interior shares the ambiance of a dungeon.

Still, one story presents a dungeon that best resembles those in D&D. In the “Scarlet Citadel,” Conan escapes from “tunnels and dungeons” where an evil sorcerer “performed horrible experiments with beings human, bestial, and, it was whispered, demoniac, tampering blasphemously with the naked basic elements of life itself.” With a torch and sword, Conan explores a maze of tunnels while overcoming monsters.

In 1971, Dave Arneson started with a toy castle, a location inspired by creature features,  and the notion that something might lurk underneath. “[The model] was too small for the scale I wanted,” Dave said. “But it was a neat kit and I didn’t want to abandon it, so the only way to go was down [into the dungeons].”

He added a treasure hunt from Tolkien, traps from Robert E. Howard, lurking monsters from both authors—and perhaps from some creature features—to invent a new activity for the characters in his Blackmoor campaign. When Gary Gygax played one of Dave’s Blackmoor games, the experience so fired Gary’s imagination that he went on to flesh out the game that would become Dungeons & Dragons. In the process, Gary’s imagination and broad knowledge of sword and sorcery would add countless details inseparable from the game. Ultimately, the dungeon crawl proved so compelling that it took root in popular culture.

The Strange Mystery of the D&D Monster Called a Thoul

A theory of mine led me to check the dungeon encounter tables in the original Dungeons & Dragons rules booklets. There, I spotted a monster that made me immediately stop chasing my theory and start investigating a new mystery.

What’s a thoul?

The dungeon encounter tables in Underworld & Wilderness Adventures include a listing for Thouls, a D&D monster that I’ve never seen mentioned in my decades of playing the game. What’s a thoul? Why do thouls lack a description or statistics?

Theory 1: The “Thouls” entry should read “Ghouls”, but was mistyped. But an entry for “Ghouls” appears immediately after “Thouls,” wrecking this theory. None of the dungeon monster tables include duplicate entries.

Theory 2: Thouls come from the Mars books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. D&D author Gary Gygax loved Burroughs’ Mars series and stocked volume 3’s desert wilderness tables with Barsoom creatures like tharks, thoats, and sith. Like the thouls, all these creatures lack game descriptions. However, a quick search reveals that thouls never appear in Barsoom or anywhere but D&D.

Theory 3: Gary Gygax invented thouls, but forgot to include a description. If the lack of statistics came from an oversight, no one rushed to correct it. All the D&D supplements omit thouls, as does the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual in 1977. The first mention of a thoul appears in 1978 in the Monster & Treasure Assortment – Set 3. The entry reveals almost nothing. “#AT: 2/1; AL: 8; AC: 6; ST/F 3; SA: Paralysis by touch.” The monster finally gains a description in the 1981 edition of the D&D Basic Set from Tom Moldvay.

None of these descriptions come from Gary’s lost notes. Other D&D designers spotted the creature’s name in the original book, and then created the monster.

The 1981 description explains why thouls failed to gain much traction in D&D lore. They look and play like hobgoblins with a gotcha, which hardly seems memorable.

The mystery has one more clue: Thouls first appear in the fifth printing of the original D&D box. The table in earlier printings includes “Toads” in the same spot, right before the entry for ghouls. This makes thouls seem like a typo.

Thoul from Mystara Monsterous Compendium Appendix

In 1975, typesetters entered a document’s text at a keyboard to get printed strips of text. Then layout artists would paste the columns onto boards representing the document’s full pages. Printers duplicated those camera-ready, paste-up boards.

So a typesetter in 1975 started entering the table row for “Toads” when their gaze skipped one row down to the line for “Ghouls.” They mistyped “Thouls” and made D&D history. Who can blame the typesetter? Half the manuscript surely seemed like nonsense words. Who has ever heard of a sith?

But why would such a mistake appear in the fifth printing rather than the first? Because TSR corrected rough-looking text in the first four printings by redoing the type for the fifth. Before desktop publishing, that meant a typesetter needed to retype the text. That person accidentally contributed a monster to D&D.

Meanwhile, I failed to find support for my theory.

The original Charm Person reads, “If this spell is successful, it will cause the charmed entity to come completely under the influence of the Magic-User until such time as the ‘charm’ is dispelled.” That seems strong. By my theory, original Charm Person rated as less powerful than it seems because the game focused on places that lacked any persons to charm stronger than 1 hit die bandits or brigands. But the encounter tables include plenty of higher-level targets, listed by level titles like superhero, sorcerer, and evil high priest. A lucky first-level magic user could charm someone quite powerful.

Pre-Selected Best Spells for Wizards

Even though I love playing wizards, I sometimes wish I could skip spell selection. I can easily get mired among all the options—so many seem appealing.

This page serves players like me who want a shortcut through the spell catalog. The page also helps newer players who want to focus on stronger choices without getting lost in spell descriptions.

Cantrips

For a typical wizard, pick these cantrips: Mage Hand, Minor Illusion, Shocking Grasp, and Firebolt. Instead of Minor Illusion, many players favor Light, Prestidigitation, or Mending.

Spell selections

To select spells for an effective wizard from levels 1-17, fill your spell book with the second column up to your level, and then prepare the spells listed in the third. If you want some customization, the last column gives some strong alternatives that you can swap for the regular picks. For these spells, I note the school of magic so specialists can select more spells that fit their specialty.

Level Add to Spell book Prepared (Wizard Level + Int Bonus) Strong Alternatives
1 (Int 16) Detect Magic
Find Familiar
Mage Armor
Magic Missile
Shield
Charm Person
Mage Armor
Magic Missile
Shield
Charm Person (levels 1-2)
Level 1
Sleep (En)
Tasha’s Hideous Laughter (En)
Protection from Evil and Good (A)
2 Comprehend Languages
Thunderwave
Thunderwave (levels 2-5)
3 Misty Step
Shatter
Misty Step
Shatter  (levels 3-4)
Level 2
Detect Thoughts (D)
Dragon’s Breath (T) (for familiars)
Flaming Sphere (C)
Phantasmal Force (I)
4 (Int 18) Suggestion
See Invisibility
Suggestion
See Invisibility (Levels 4-10)
5 Fireball
Fly
Fireball
Fly (Levels 5-6)
Level 3
Hypnotic Pattern* (I)
Leomund’s Tiny Hut (Ev)
Summon Undead (N)
6 Dispel Magic
Counterspell
Dispel Magic
7 Greater Invisibility
Polymorph
Polymorph
Counterspell*
Level 4
Banishment* (A)
Charm Monster (En)
Summon Aberration (C)
Wall of Fire (Ev)
8 (Int 20) Dimension Door
Haste
Dimension Door
Haste
9 Rary’s Telepathic Bond
Wall of Force
Wall of Force Level 5
Animate Objects* (T)
Conjure Elemental (C)
Contact Higher Plane (D)
Synaptic Static (En)
10 Bigby’s Hand
Passwall
Passwall
11 Chain Lightning
True Seeing
Chain Lightning
True Seeing
Level 6
Mass Suggestion (En)
Otto’s Irresistible Dance (En)
Programmed Illusion (I)
12 Disintegrate
Scrying
Disintegrate
13 Plane Shift
Teleport
Teleport Level 7
Forcecage* (Ev)
Reverse Gravity (T)
14 Crown of Stars
Etherealness
Crown of Stars
15 Antimagic Field
Sunburst
Antimagic Field Level 8
Dominate Monster (En)
Incendiary Cloud (C)
Power Word Stun (En)
16 Contingency
Mordenkainen’s Magnificent Mansion
Sunburst
17 Foresight
Shapechange
Foresight Level 9
Meteor Swarm (Ev)
Wish (C)

The spell selection table assumes your Intelligence matches the scores in the level column. Most will. For different Intelligence scores, you may need to adjust the number of prepared spells.

Especially at lower levels, some spells get surpassed by more powerful options. For these spells, the table lists a recommended level range to prepare the spell. Higher-level wizards can still prepare these spells, but that means dropping other options. Once your level rises above the recommended range for a spell, cross it off your list of prepared spells. If you create a higher-level wizard, just skip preparing the spells that recommend a level below yours.

A few powerful spells may diminish the fun of the game, for example Banishment and Animate Objects both appear on my lists of annoying spells. I put asterisks by these spells and only one, Counterspell, appears among my regular selections. In other cases the list favors more fun spells that fill similar roles. For example, like Banishment, Polymorph can remove foes as threats, plus it offers more versatility.

How would your choices differ from mine?

The One Best Way to Make Perception Checks Doesn’t Exist. Here’s Your Toolkit

When players make Wisdom (Perception), Spot, Search, Insight, and other rolls to gain information, the number on the die reveals things: A low roll with no discovery suggests the character missed something; a high roll without a discovery confirms nothing to find. Unlike the players, their characters never see the die roll, so they lack the same insight.

In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, dungeon masters avoided revealing such metagame clues by rolling secretly. To see if someone spotted a secret door, Gary Gygax rolled a 6-sided die behind a screen. Elves locate hidden passages on a roll of 1-4.

But when a die roll affects the characters’ fate, players like throwing their own dice. We all feel like if we want a certain roll strongly enough, we might sway the outcome. Sure, those of us who play D&D rather than Las Vegas recognize that sense of control for a lie, but we feel it all the same. Plus, dungeon masters see player rolls bring other benefits: Die rolls grab the players’ attention and keeps them physically engaged. (See How to Wring Maximum Drama from a Roll of the Dice.)

Fifth edition D&D skips the roll with the innovation of passive checks. Just compare the DC against a passive score. In theory, passive checks speed play, avoiding all those secret die rolls to spot hidden doors. The DM simply decides in advance what hidden doors the party will find, and then sets the DCs accordingly. Phrased like that, the procedure seems like no fun at all. Die rolls add surprise, uncertainty, and even a sense of fairness to our games. (See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.)

Aside from secret rolls (less fun) and passive checks (no fun), gamers account for the metagame insights that come from seeing the die roll in different ways:

  • The players roll, and then roleplay as if they didn’t see the die.
  • The players roll, but the DM sometimes asks for red-herring checks.

Over the years, I’ve gone through periods where I’ve favored each of those approaches. When I asked folks on twitter for their favorite techniques, I even learned a new one thanks to Alyssa Visscher.

  • The players roll, but the DM doesn’t tell what the roll is for.

For this technique, the DM has to know the characters’ perception bonuses. Just ask for a d20 roll, add the bonus, and go with the outcome. This lets players roll and grabs attention. For advantage or disadvantage, ask for two rolls.

I used to hope for a perfect method that brought player engagement without revealing metagame clues, but I’ve given up that search. Now I see a toolkit of methods, each with advantages.

How should you choose the right fit for a situation?

One situation always leads to a best approach. If a roll for initiative or damage would immediately follow a perception check, just let the player roll. Even players with imperceptive PCs immediately learn what t hey missed, so DMs gain nothing from a passive check or from metagame-thwarting tricks. (See How to Run an Ambush So Sneaky Monsters Bring More Than Claw/Claw/Bite.)

Other situations offer nearly as much clarity. If the players have to find something like a clue or a secret door for the adventure to continue, just let them find it without a roll. Or play the odds and let everyone roll. Someone will nearly always succeed. I’ve used both tricks to guarantee success, but I’m never proud of it. Checks that require success hint at fragile adventures that require a dash of railroading. (See In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?.)

Also, specific actions can eliminate any need for die rolls. The characters leading the party might need to make a perception check to notice a hidden pit, but if they probe the floor with their 10-foot pole, the discovery becomes automatic.

Choosing from the other methods calls for more judgment.

DM rolls secretly. Aside from depriving players of the fun of rolling, secret rolls suffer from a second disadvantage: In today’s roleplaying games, characters bring extra abilities likely to affect their chance of making a particular check. DMs can never expect to learn them all.

Still, for high-stakes insight checks that steer the course of an adventure, I ask players for their insight modifier and roll in secret. (See Insight Played Wrong Can Become the Most Unrealistic Thing In D&D, a Game With Djinns In Bottles Who Grant Wishes.)

Instead of rolling, use passive checks.  Despite my distaste for how passive checks rob players of rolls in favor of a mechanic uncomfortably close to DM fiat, I sometimes account for passive scores during low-stakes descriptions. Characters with high perceptions may notice clues or interesting details that deserve extra attention. When using this technique, mention that the character’s keen perception led to the discovery. Players deserve to know that their character choices paid off.

Players roll and roleplay as if they didn’t see the die. This method works best for low-stakes situations where the players have little fear of overlooking something dangerous or valuable. In perilous situations, the technique forces players into an uncomfortable conflict between risking their characters and playing their role. Also, by eliminating some natural uncertainty, instead of truly feeling unease and a sense of mystery, players just pretend to feel.

Players roll but the DM sometimes asks for red-herring checks. Every DM intuits one bluff: If characters search a door for traps, then someone rolls even if the door has no traps. But characters can notice hidden doors even when no player asked to look, which means asking players to roll checks. To add extra uncertainty, ask for checks at times when nothing important can be found. This camouflages the important checks and heightens the tension that comes from knowing peril might hide nearby.

For extra misdirection, respond to every knowledge check with some information, even something familiar. So if the players fail a check to spot the spy following them through the market, tell them about the smell from the fishmonger, the buskers playing at the fountain, or the urchin looking for pockets to pick.

When players gain such information, they feel unsure of whether they missed their check or successfully learned something unremarkable.

Players roll, but a table rule adds uncertainty. Years ago, I proposed letting players make their own information checks, but occasionally overriding their due based on a secret roll. Whenever a player makes a check for information, secretly roll a d6 and a d20. If the d6 comes up 1, substitute your d20 result for the player’s.

In life, people tend to get a sense of how well they accomplish a task. Likewise, using this method, players gain a sense of whether their character succeeded, but as in life, that intuition may sometimes prove false.

Players must know about this uncertainty in advance, or they will suspect their DM of overriding rolls to hurt the characters. So this technique requires a rule of the table that everyone accepts.

What‘s your favorite method?

Narrating Combat, Actions, and Outcomes

In roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, not all of a dungeon master’s descriptions set a scene. DMs spend even more words describing the results of actions, often during combat. That narrative demands the skills of a radio play-by-play announcer describing the events in a sporting event, except the DM imagines the scene.

Photo by Fringer Cat on Unsplash

For a strong RPG play-by-play, feature the characters—player and non-player, but mostly player. No sports play-by-play announcer just talks about the ball. Folks tune in to hear about players and their athletic mastery. Likewise, the players at your table want to hear about their characters and their prowess.

For captivating descriptions of actions and outcomes, focus as much on a character’s actions as you do on the outcome. If the barbarian jumps a fissure and rolls a hit, tell how she vaults across the chasm while winding back her great sword, and then describe the blade cleaving into the beholder’s carapace.

We DMs tend to slant our descriptions to the game world and to avoid describing the player characters. It feels polite to avoid other people’s toys. But a DM doing play-by-play lets the players keep control. Your description comes after a player explains their character’s action and after the dice determine the outcome. Just relate the deed and its outcome with the most captivating description you can muster.

As a DM, spot the moments when characters do some remarkable feat. The characters represent extraordinary heroes, so those feats should come often. Put game time into slow motion and lavish description on the heroics. Make it awesome.

But shouldn’t players describe their own character’s exploits?

Players absolutely can contribute descriptions for their characters. As a player, you know your character better than anyone, plus you decide their actions. If you want other players to pay attention to your turn, try describing your character’s deeds as a play-by-play. You can even describe what the character feels. I promise that the others at the table will look up and listen even when they would normally tune out.

As a DM, you can encourage players to describe their characters’ heroic moments. Some players relish the chance. For others, such a performance makes them uncomfortable. That’s okay.

Have you ever overheard people talking about how well you did something? It’s the best feeling. Hearing the DM as play-by-play announcer describe your character’s exploits captures some of the same joy.

When a character does something noteworthy, give a short, vivid description of the event—or invite the player to describe it. Some DMs ask players to describe their kills. D&D includes a lot of kills, so for my taste, describing them all becomes tiresome and too gruesome. Especially with kids at the table. Especially when those kids set their imaginations loose. Besides, your play-by-play should center on character rather than severed arteries. Instead, focus on describing the big spells, stunts, transformations, setbacks, and feats of valor.

Even when the characters fail, describe them as talented and skilled heroes who come short because of the difficult challenges they face. In the first Rocky film, the hero loses, but against the odds, the outcome feels like a triumph. So a miss comes from a foe’s supernatural agility or the flying ash stinging a character’s eyes, rather than a botched swing. Avoid turning a roll of 1 into a comic fumble. Such descriptions might get some cheap laughs, but they turn characters into buffoons, rather than legends.
See When You Describe Outcomes, Flatter Your Game’s Heroes and Monsters

Your game’s villains deserve the same flattering descriptions. After all, dangerous threats add a sense of peril to the game. And heroes must defeat deadly foes instead of cupcakes. So look for villainous moments—badass occasions when your monsters get to flaunt their menace. Think of Darth Vader demolishing rebels in pursuit of the stolen Death Star plans. D&D monsters typically arrive outmatched by heroes, so make the most of every badass turn. Legendary resistances invite villainous moments by letting foes shrug off a hero’s best shot and laugh at the character’s weakness.

Much of a DM’s play-by-play comes during combat scenes. For that, narrate every turn with two steps:

  1. Describe the turn by capturing the character’s action and its outcome. Step 1 centers on the characters and their deeds.
  2. Set up the next turn by calling the next player to act and by spotlighting the most threatening foe or urgent crisis on the battlefield.

For step 2, look for the part of the battle that poses the most urgent threat to the party. Perhaps foes have the rogue surrounded, or a character lies unconscious, or a sentry runs to sound an alarm. This step gains both practical and dramatic benefits. As a practical gain, you call the next player to attention and focus on the most pressing threat in the battle. Inattentive players get a quick review that helps them choose an action without dithering. As a dramatic gain, you build the sense of peril and strengthen the urgency players feel.

If nothing stands out as particularly urgent, then use step 2 as a chance to describe the threat of a foe or to act the role of a villain. Speaking for your villains transforms them from bags of hit points into enemies. In comics, villains mock the fools that oppose them, and we hate them for their contempt, arrogance, and cruelty. Some of the fun Dungeons & Dragons comes from crushing evil. Good dialog makes your villains seem more real, more detestable, and more satisfying to crush.

Plus you can reveal the monsters’ tactics through dialog. The ogre might say, “You hurt Grug, so I smash you.” The necromancer might say, “Barbarian, I have just the enchantment for weak-willed cretins like you.” This reframes the battle from the us verses the game master into us verses the monsters. I want players invested in their characters, but when I single out their character for attack, sometimes it feels personal. If the monsters explain themselves, the GM starts to disappear.

Sometimes to speed play, you can skip a narrative step. Not every blow merits careful description. Even if some chatterbox DM could manage so much commentary, such a detailed account would cause a fight to drag. Who could keep thinking of new ways to describe a few points of damage? Even the best play-by-play announcers sometimes just say, “It’s a swing and a miss.” Save the vivid descriptions for the bigger moments. Often, just a quick tally of damage suffices.

The static moments of a battle where foes simply trade blows can probably speed by without recaps.

When I used to run combated scenes, I avoided talking any more than absolutely necessary. I feared slowing the game’s pace. But I’ve learned that adding a few lines between turns rarely slows the tempo. Often, giving brief notice of the most urgent peril in the battle spurs players to act more quickly.

Plus the action seems more vivid, dramatic, and exciting, and that’s not nothing.

Descriptions That Dare Players To Act Create a Brisk Tempo

As a dungeon master, your narration stops when players understand enough of a situation to make a decision or to act. The best narration invites action, which circles back to the goal of shorter descriptions that lead to more back-and-forth with players. The quicker a description baits players to act, the sooner DMs can stop talking and players can do something. Most players like their turn to talk best. This gives the screenplay for Your D&D Game—The Movie an optimal shape, with lots of back-and-forth dialog.

When the players enter a new location, I withhold some easy discoveries from my first description. This gives players more to learn as they talk and investigate. This rewards action and leads to a more interactive game. For example, if the room has a mosaic, I’ll skip a detailed description, and instead assume someone will take a closer look.

Much of the key to having shorter descriptions comes from baiting short descriptions with details that inspire action or at least follow-up questions. For fantastic locations, the bait comes easy, but for more ordinary places include one or two unexpected details that can lead players to intact. A kitchen might seem wholly uninteresting, but if the chef snores on the floor and birds have entered an open window to peck at bread, then the players take an interest. Even something like a burning pan spurs action. In more ordinary situations, aim for two unexpected details that might interest players. This doubles the bait and gives players a choice.

When players take the bait and look closer, try to reward their interest with some tidbit of information, perhaps a useful clue or some of the story behind the adventure. Really any discovery no matter how small will encourage curiosity. Sometimes though, if you want players to feel uneasy or you aim to build a sense of mystery, you can raise questions without answers.

How well such tantalizing descriptions lead to action depends on the players. Some groups eagerly follow every reveal with activity or at least with enough curiosity to ask follow up questions. Other groups just listen patiently for the words, “Roll initiative!” For those groups, you must adjust by giving longer descriptions that skip the small choices and instead stop at the big decisions that steer the adventure. Players: If your DM keeps giving monologues, that could be your fault. Perhaps your character should become more eager to interact.

A good introduction to a scene starts with an invitation to action, so a description that fails to inspire action might predict a weak scene. You may have a dull location if you have to ask, “What do you do?” Some locations deserve two interesting details that inspire action, but many locations only deserve a summary.

Traditionally D&D players explore locations room by room, so we DMs dutifully let a party poke through all the numbered locations in a site, even when none include obstacles or require decisions. If the characters kill the monster in the attic, and then start exploring the rest of the house, and if you know the investigation requires no meaningful choices, then just summarize and skip to the next choice. “You search the house and only find rubbish and cobwebs, but a scroll case from the library captures your interest.”

Another warning sign comes when a description ends with a choice that leaves players indifferent. A simple option between two, interchangeable doors feels like no choice at all. The players have no basis for a decision. Worst case, they discuss the non-choice for five minutes because no one wants responsibility for picking heads or tails. But describe metallic scraping past one door and water seeping from under the other, and the small details make the choice interesting.

Ending descriptions with the one or two things you expect to inspire action gives insightful players metagame clues about what’s important. This fits with how DMs give more description to things of interest or importance. This is not a bug. Think of this as good and useful. That focus keeps adventures from becoming mired in minutiae.

Sometimes you might intentionally use metagame clues to draw attention. If you want someone to notice the secret door, you might even make eye contact with the dwarf as you describe some newer stonework. To players, the clue seems like the reward of having a dwarf’s keen eye for masonry. Even if the party lacks a dwarf, a lavish description of bricks will likely lead a player to look closer. Your descriptions acknowledge that the characters live in the game world and bring experience and perception that the players and your mere words cannot match—even when you include all five senses.

Next: Describing the outcomes of actions.

End Your Descriptions With Something That Inspires Players To Act

In roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons, the game master’s descriptions often end with a question: “What do you want to do?” Sometimes we skip the question, but even unspoken, that question forms part of the game’s play loop where dungeon masters depict a situation, and then players act on it.

As a DM, you stop talking when (1) players have something to do or a decision to make and (2) the players understand enough to make a sensible decision. The barbarian needs to know about the lava-filled trench before making the choice to charge the dragon. All this may seem obvious, but it leads to some less-obvious advice.

When you set a scene, the end of your narration should highlight something that dares the heroes to act. The best narration can skip the what-do-you-want-to-do question because they leave players eager to take action. Sometimes, that invitation to action comes from the monsters in the room. More often, some curious feature simply begs a closer look.

When you set a scene, describe the things likely to spur the players to action last. This rule applies to the monsters in the room, so describe the dragon last even though the characters would likely notice it first. Once a description includes something like a dragon that demands action, players start considering their next move instead of paying attention to the ongoing description. So the barbarian pays no attention to that trench filled with lava. Minutes later, the DM has to stop play to rewind the raging charge attack and describe the room again. The battle loses momentum.

A combat scene can’t start with the monster and skip the description until after the fight. To act, players need to know about terrain, cover, hiding places, hazards, secondary objectives, and interactive objects. Fights with none of those elements often prove dull. None of that description can wait until after the battle, so lead with the glowing sigils, lava, and ballistas before describing foes.

The old habit of describing monsters first led to t-shirts that read, “I didn’t ask how big the room is. I said I cast fireball.” In D&D’s early editions, a fireball confined to a tight space could blow back and damage player characters. (See Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve.)

Some DMs advise starting descriptions with the monsters because characters would surely notice the threats first. But this advice ignores the limitations of describing with words. With a glance, our characters in the room notice its key features. At the game table, we need a minute of talking to paint the same picture. DMs can bridge some of that gap by showing pictures or revealing maps or terrain, but we can never recreate all the immediacy of opening a door and spotting a dragon.

Still, describing the monsters last can feel like burying the lede. The dragon rearing back to breathe acid feels like an awkward ending for a description. “Didn’t we notice the dragon before, FFS?” For the best reveals, keep the monster out of sight long enough for the players to picture the room before the threat appears from the shadows or from some other concealment. Even more compelling descriptions can hint at an unseen threat (churning water) before the dragon erupts from the lake, showering the party with icy water. (That description scores extra points for including the sense of touch with an unexpected detail.)

Even when nothing hides the threat, at least describing the monster last lets players react immediately to it rather than forcing a delay for more description. This reinforces the urgency of the danger.

For demands for action weaker than a hostile monster, describing an invitation to action last tends to give players an obvious choice to act on. Rather than trying to recall, say, the strange idol mentioned in the middle of a description, players immediately investigate that object.

Next Tuesday: How descriptions and decision points lead to an engaging tempo. To avoid missing out, sign up to get my posts by email using the box at right.

How To Make Descriptions Vivid and Evocative

During a Dungeons & Dragons game, vivid description encourages immersion, a sense of living in the fictional world. Still, long descriptions can make players feel impatient as they wait for their chance to act. This leads to two goals for dungeon masters narrating adventures.

  • Wring the most vivid, evocative narration from the fewest words.
  • Try for shorter descriptions that lead to more back-and-forth dialog with players.

My last post explained those goals; this post starts advice to help reach them.

Find vivid and evocative details.

In your descriptions, work to include two or three of the five senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Descriptions will almost always include sight, and virtually never include taste. That leaves sounds and smells as vital second impressions. In a dungeon, sound can prove particularly evocative. Do characters hear the distant roar of an underground waterfall, echoing voices in some unrecognizable language, the thrum of machinery, or just a slow patter of dripping? Touch comes in with heat, cold, and the wet squelching of water in boots as you plod through mud.

Describing senses beyond sight brings a second benefit: Those details often seem fresh enough to be interesting, but also common enough to feel familiar to players. When you imagine a swamp, details like the water squelching between your toes rarely comes to mind, but everyone knows how that feels. That makes a powerful description. The best descriptions capture a bit of the funny-because-it’s-true vibe of observational comedy. If your descriptions simply include the obvious, they never spark imagination.

Details grounded in ordinary experience can make descriptions of fantastic locations vivid and relatable. To describe an iron fortress over a lake of molten metal on the Abyss, mention the flurries of soot swirling in the air and the acid smell of ash. Such a description takes the imagination further than the obvious: “It feels hot. Really, super hot.” (🗹 touch.)

The sort of familiar-but-unexpected details that make the best descriptions work because the rarely come readily to mind. That quality makes them difficult to improvise. To prepare for a strong descriptions, think of two evocative details before the game and jot them down. Don’t bother scripting box text; you only need ideas to elaborate at the table.

Just two evocative details typically proves enough. When people see a list of two items, we spot patterns and let our imaginations expand the list. Many jokes use our tendency to create humor. The gag sets a pattern with two instances, and then makes a surprising turn with a third addition. Descriptions that include just two evocative details can rely on the listener’s imagination to paint more of the scene.

Aim for precise description.

The more specific the words and details you use for your description, the more vivid the picture the words create. Words like goblet, carpenter, and rhino create stronger mental images than cup, worker, and animal.

Focus your descriptions on single, representative things, and then widen to groups. Describe the milky eyes, needle teeth, and filthy yellow nails of the first ghoul to climb the side of the boat before mentioning that five more follow.

Favor impressions over big numbers and measurements. An army where the campfires stretch to the horizon like a starry sky makes a bigger impact than a force of 10,000. A spider the size of an elephant paints a more vivid image than one described as eight feet tall.

Stop your descriptions when players know enough to act or make a choice.

In roleplaying games such as D&D, the DM’s descriptions often end with a question: “What do you want to do?” Sometimes we skip the question, but even unspoken, that question forms part of the game’s play loop where DMs depict a situation, and then players act on it.

As a DM, you stop describing when (1) players have something to do or a decision to make and (2) the players understand enough to make a sensible decision. The barbarian needs to know about the lava-filled trench before making the choice to charge the dragon. All this may seem obvious, but it leads to some less-obvious advice.

Next Tuesday: Less-obvious advice. How descriptions and decision points lead to crackling dialog in Your D&D Game—The Movie.