Author Archives: David Hartlage

How to Bring Player Character Backstory Into Campaigns Without Overstepping

The Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook tells players to create backstories for new characters. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything adds pages of tables to help players invent their characters’ backstories. The books‘ support for backstory makes sense: Such imagined histories help roleplay and when dungeon masters connect the characters’ backstories to their campaign, the game feels more personal to players.

Like any creative collaboration, using character backstory in a campaign proves harder than it seems. When a DM adapts or elaborates on a character’s backstory to fit the campaign, the additions might not fit the player’s vision. In a game, players only enjoy full creative control over their own characters. They deserve to keep that control without unwanted meddling, and that goes beyond not seeing people in their character’s backstory killed for dramatic effect. When a DM tinkers with backgrounds, player characters may stop feeling familiar and the players may lose a sense of owning their characters. I’m always hesitant to introduce important NPCs from PC backgrounds because I’m worried I won’t do the characters justice or portray the relationship the way the player envisioned it.

One method of incorporating character backstory works without ever returning to the people or places in a character’s history. Create new situations or characters that resemble the events from the character’s history. So if character left magic school after being falsely accused of stealing a valuable tome, put them in situations where other folks face false accusations or face exile from their home. If a character lost someone, don’t try to kill more of their family, but do create new situations that recall those memories. Such rhymes with the past help players reveal their characters.

Of course, most DMs want to go beyond mere rhymes. For a more powerful use of backstory, visit people and places from the characters’ histories. Reappearances highlight a player character’s unique importance to the campaign and follow the Small World Principle, but using characters from backstories takes more care.

I once played in an Adventurers League scenario that the DM started by asking everyone to name someone beloved from their character’s background. I named my monk’s master teacher. Later my teacher and the other beloved non-player characters appeared as prisoners to be rescued by the bad guy. The master my monk idolized died. Although I felt comfortable with the twist, this wasn’t the story I imagined.

Back when few players invented a backstory for characters because new characters died so often, I ran a campaign that included a paladin, and I invented an anti-paladin twin for the character. I liked the drama and failed to notice how trite and campy evil twins would eventually seem. I got lucky. My contribution to the character’s backstory worked. The player liked his character’s special importance as the brother of the group’s arch enemy. And no one mocked the evil twin trope. That was a different time.

Both those examples of DMs meddling in backstory ended fine, but either could have ended with hard feelings because the riskiest method for including character backstory is when DMs surprise players by plundering their histories for cheap motivation or lazy pathos. The motivation comes when, say, a character’s teacher just happens to be kidnapped for human sacrifice. The pathos comes when villain murders your character’s parents. Both combine when the DM opts to make a loved one into a villain. This I’m-your-father twist starts with a backstory that includes kind grandmother, and then ends when the DM turns her into a cult leader spilling blood for Orcus. Surprise!

Such surprises can sink a campaign even though similar twists can work fine in fiction. Writers of fiction create their characters and make them suffer as parts of the same job. In a D&D campaign such tricks can feel like the DM has forced a character into certain choices or trashed the creative work a player invested in backstory. A player could see Nana wielding the sacrificial blade and think not in my world and check out of the game. Early in D&D’s history, such stunts proved so irresistible to some DMs that many players felt most comfortable imagining their characters as orphans without a single attachment to their past.

Finding victims and villains from backstory works in D&D when the DM and player settle which parts of the backstory should be preserved in history and which parts a DM can revisit and elaborate for the campaign. Some players would welcome villains from their backstories as ongoing foes. Some might happily see Nana leading the cult of Orcus and the teacher they idolize captured despite his deadly fists of fury.

Collaborative planning does lose a potential surprise, but only to the one player behind the backstory. You can surprise the other players, the biggest audience for their story.

So, discuss ways to bring backstory into the game before play. As a DM, look over a character’s backstory and ask questions like these:

  • What characters and places from your backstory would you like to revisit in the game?
  • Based on your background, what unfinished business does your character have?
  • What sorts of situations would give your character a chance to resolve those loose ends, and how do you imagine the outcome?

None of this discussion means that you need to let players script situations and outcomes. D&D remains a game with dice, where unplanned twists can add to the fun, but the players‘ answers to these questions can inspire your preparation.

Credit D&D’s Push Into to the Multiverse for Spelljammer

Wizards of the Coast releases new settings for Dungeons & Dragons faster than ever. Those settings include worlds borrowed from Magic: The Gathering like Ravnica and Theros, a world taken from Critical Role, older settings like Eberron and Ravenloft, and now the Spelljammer setting. The last time the D&D team released so many settings, the flood of options split the D&D market and helped send TSR, the game’s owner, to the brink of bankruptcy. Then as now, D&D players only have so much time and money. Faced with a game store full of D&D campaign options, most customers will skip some. Each setting still costs to develop, but it competes with others, splitting the D&D customer base and potentially leading to financial losses.

Clearly, today’s D&D team doesn’t fear repeating the history that brought TSR to ruin. Part of that fearlessness comes from D&D’s surging popularity. So many folks play the game now that numerous campaign releases can profit despite a diluted audience. Of course, some enthusiasts buy them all, so more of my money goes to Hasbro.

Also, the product lines for D&D settings released now just include a set of miniatures and a book, or for Spelljammer a slipcase of 3 slim harcovers. From 1989 to 1993, the original Spelljammer line included 4 boxed sets, 6 adventures, 11 accessories, plus novels and comics. A committed Spelljammer fan could spend their entire budget on D&D in space without buying other products. TSR spent money creating all these products to support a setting that surely trailed other D&D settings in popularity.

In 2015, Wizards polled to rank their campaign settings’ popularity and then reported the results. “Our most popular settings from prior editions landed at the top of the rankings, with Eberron, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Planescape, and the Forgotten Realms all proving equally popular. Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and Spelljammer all shared a similar level of second-tier popularity, followed by a fairly steep drop-off to the rest of the settings. My sense is that Spelljammer has often lagged behind the broad popularity of other settings, falling into love-it-or-hate-it status depending on personal tastes.”

Gamers mostly remember Spelljammer for its silliest ideas, like hippo people and giant space hamsters powering ships by running on wheels attached like paddle wheels. “The infamous giant space hamster also came out of ship designs,” writes original Spelljammer designer Jeff Grubb. “The gnome ship looked like a galleon and a sidewheeler slammed into each other. Someone asked what the big paddle wheel housings were for, since there was no air other than in the air bubbles. I said they were giant hamster wheels. Roger Moore (editor of Dragon) thought that was hilarious and it was off to the races with the giant space hamster.” Sometimes Spelljammer treats D&D as seriously as the 60s Batman TV show treated the dark knight. To some fans, Spelljammer felt like a setting that mocked their passion for D&D by making the game seem ridiculous and childish.

For years, D&D enthusiasts online joked about any slim hint of a Spelljammer revival by announcing, “Spelljammer confirmed!” The humor came from treating a sometimes ridiculous second-tier setting as an eagerly awaited release when in truth Spelljammer seemed like one of the least likely targets for return. Even Chris Perkins, the architect of Spelljammer’s return, jokes about Spelljammer’s lesser popularity.

So if the gleeful shouts of “Spelljammer confirmed’’ come from a joke rather than a groundswell of fans, then how did Spelljammer get confirmed? Credit Chris Perkins’s true passion for the setting. He even embraces the setting’s gonzo elements like killer space clowns and murder comets—ideas that made some gamers snub the original.

Mainly credit D&D’s new emphasis on the multiverse for Spelljammer. D&D’s lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford explained the shift. “We’ve been letting fans know for the last year or two that we are going out there to other worlds, to other planes, and there’s going to be a lot of exciting journeys ahead.” D&D is headed to “this wonderful array of worlds that make the D&D multiverse special because it’s not just one fantasy setting, it’s a dizzying array of fantasy settings, including each DM’s home setting all in one massive multiversal setting.”

Rather than asking players to select a world and stick to it, the focus on a multiverse encourages D&D fans to dabble in different settings, skipping from world to world or gathering their favorite bits for their own worlds in the wonderful array. Hints of a D&D multiverse date back to Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980) where the Demonweb included gates to parallel worlds on the material plane, but Spelljammer made the game’s worlds accessible by Spelljamming ships.

The multiverse gives D&D room for settings that feel less conventional. By design, Spelljammer delivers. “I wanted to push the envelope on what D&D fantasy was,” Jeff Gubb writes. “We had done Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, but those had been written down as typical fantasy worlds. Vanilla fantasy. Default fantasy. Background static. Here was a chance to go out on more of a limb and push the envelope. So this was the chance to do D&D in space. I’m sorry—Innnnn Spaaaaaaace!” Spelljammer brings a different tone than those grounded settings. Fans love the setting’s swashbuckling flavor, ships like the mind flayer nautiloid, heroes like the hippo folk on safari, villains like the half-spider/half-eel neogi, and the chance to explore strange new D&D worlds.

Jeff Grubb pitched Spelljammer by describing a knight standing on the open deck of a ship in space. Based on the preview of the new Spelljammer, the setting moves from shining armor and wizards in pointy hats to the Guardians of the Galaxy and a cast as varied as the Star Wars cantina scene.

Spelljamming lets characters take the scenic route while they travel the D&D multiverse, leading to more adventure than using spells like plane shift. “Spelljammer was initially thought of as being AD&D in space, but soon became obvious as a way to tie the existing campaigns together.” In the revised setting, D&D worlds exist in spheres of magical space called wildspace. In wildspace, even objects as small as ships have enough gravity to capture bubbles of air and for sailors to walk the decks.

The emphasis on the multiverse shows in changes to the Spelljammer cosmology. In the old version, indestructible crystal spheres locked each world into a bubble suspended in phlogiston, “a turbulent, unstable, multicolored, fluorescent gas.” The designers imagined the crystal shells to account for different gods and rules in different spheres. “Want to run a hard science version? It works that way in the sphere. Want the constellations to move around? There you go. Want a flat world resting on elephants, with iterative turtles below? Go for it.” But the crystal barriers strike me as unnecessarily clutter separating magical pockets. Meanwhile, phlogiston overlaps too much with existing D&D lore around the astral plane. So at the edge of wildspace, the bubbles now transition to the astral sea where explorers might meet gith, astral dreadnoughts, and planetoid-sized bodies of dead gods. Here, Spelljammer blends into Planescape. Planescape confirmed!

The No-Prep Way to Use Character Backstory In a Campaign

When dungeon masters connect the characters’ backstories to their campaign, the game feels more personal to players. Revisiting a backstory shines a spotlight on a character and includes them in a way that highlights a character’s unique importance to the campaign. Through character backstory, players contribute to the campaign world. Using that backstory in the game recognizes the value of the player’s creative contribution. That recognition feels great.

But the Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks include no advice for dungeon masters aiming to use these backstories in play. I’m here to help.

The easiest method for pulling a backstory into a D&D game follows the techniques of another type of real-time, collaborative storytelling: improv theater. “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES,” Tina Fey writes in Bossypants. “When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,’ our improvised scene has ground to a halt.”

Improv’s “Yes and…” principle enables DMs and players to work together to bring character backstory into scenes. Suppose the party visited Waterdeep and you, as DM, wanted to use something from a character’s backstory to draw them in. If a character’s backstory included a history as a gambler wandering from town to town, fleeing angry marks and gambling debts, then the scene might start like this.

DM: Zand, have you ever gambled in Waterdeep?

Zand’s player: Yes, and I’m keeping my eyes open for… (looks at hands) …Knuckles. I owe him.

DM: As luck would have it, you spot Knuckles going across a crowded market square. He looks your way.

Zand’s player: I walk to Knuckles and say, “Hello friend, I have an irresistible opportunity that will pay you back for what I owe.”

Sometimes players can contribute backstory to suit a scene without much improvisation, because they imagined more of their characters’ histories than the DM knows or remembers.

“Yes and…” builds creatively. The scene and the game moves forward instead of getting stuck finding agreement. Second City explains, “The basic concept of these two words is that you are up for anything, and will go along with whatever gets thrown your way.”

Unlike performers in an improv scene, players don’t need to be up for anything. When a DM elaborates on a character’s backstory to fit the campaign, the additions might not fit the player’s vision. In a game, players invest time and imagination in their characters, so they deserve to keep control of their proxies. Players can always pause the game and explain that a bit of invented backstory doesn’t match their vision.

This sort of spontaneous addition of character backstory resembles another technique where the DM has the players contribute to the world-building during a session. Examples range from asking the players to invent a distinguishing feature for a monster to having players describe the folks in the inn. That practice can become a jarring reminder that the characters live in a made-up world without any truth. Inventing or recalling backstory feels more comfortable because players feel accustomed to imagining that part of the story. The DM asks questions and the characters know the answers, even if the players have to dream up the details.

Of course just a few actors and storytellers understand this sort of in-game collaboration. Sometimes such offers stumble. The DM says, “As you eat your meal, someone you recognize from your battalion walks in. Which one grew up here?” And then the player locks up. I don’t remember anything about that, the player thinks. What do you want from me? You can nudge the scene along by spelling out the offer. “Would you like to expand on your character’s backstory by telling me the name of someone you fought beside in the last war? What do you remember about them?”

When the technique works, it feels like creative magic—the best case for connecting backstory to the game in progress.

Related:

Next: More on bringing backstory into campaigns.

The Best D&D Spells to Cast With a Higher Level Slot

Last week when I asked D&D enthusiasts to name their favorite spells to up-cast at a higher level, I learned a fault of my own to confess.

I’m guilty of choosing spells without reading the full descriptions, and I suspect I’m not alone. This misdeed always follows the same pattern: When my spellcaster gains higher level spells, I pick a couple to prepare and dutifully read the descriptions, skipping the bits at the end labeled At Higher Levels. Why bother? My character can’t cast at higher levels yet. But when my character reaches those higher levels, I never return to the spell descriptions.

So when people cited spells like command, blindness, and mass suggestion, their picks surprised me because I never realized that those spells included options for higher levels.

The spells that deliver the biggest boosts when cast at higher levels fit two categories:

  • Spells that deal damage every turn over a longer duration. When cast at higher levels, these spells typically multiply extra damage by many turns leading to big effects. I love playing clerics who cast spirit guardians at levels as high as 8, dealing 8d8 damage to every foe within 15 feet, and repeating the damage every turn.
  • Spells that add an extra target for each level cast above the base level. Often this means doubling from one to two targets with just a spell slot one level higher. Evil archmages could wipe out a lot of adventurers by up-casting banishment at 7th level to dismiss half the party, enabling their allies to kill the stragglers. However, most players won’t enjoy facing this tactic.

Warlock spells like armor of Agathys tend to scale well at higher levels, but I skipped listing those because warlocks never face a choice to cast at higher levels. They always cast at the highest available level.

What are the best spells to cast at higher levels?

Aid (3rd level) – You raise the hit point maximum and the current hit points of 3 creatures by 5. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, a target’s hit points increase by an additional 5 for each slot level above 2nd.

Animate Objects (5th level) – You animate 10 small objects. If you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, you can animate two additional objects for each slot level above 5th.

Banishment (4th level) – You banish one creature. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 4th.

Bless (1st level) – You bless up to three creatures. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.

Blindness (2nd level) – You blind one foe. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd.

Call Lightning (3rd level) – You create a storm cloud that lasts 10 minutes and can strike lighting that deals 3d10 damage. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th or higher level, the damage increases by 1d10 for each slot level above 3rd.

Chain Lightning (6th level) – You create a bolt of lighting that forks to strike a total of four targets. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 7th level or higher, one additional bolt leaps from the first target to another target for each slot level above 6th.

Cloudkill (5th level) – You create a cloud of poison fog that deals up to 5d8 damage per turn. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, the damage increases by 1d8 for each slot level above 5th.

Command (1st level) – You speak a one-word command to a creature. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, you can affect one additional creature for each slot level above 1st.

Hold Monster (5th level) – You paralyze a creature. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 6th level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 5th. The creatures must be within 30 feet of each other when you target them.

Invisibility (2nd level) – You make a creature invisible. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, you can target one additional creature for each slot level above 2nd.

Mass Suggestion (6th level) – You magically influence up to twelve creatures. When you cast this spell using a 7th-level spell slot, the duration is 10 days. When you use an 8th-level spell slot, the duration is 30 days. When you use a 9th-level spell slot, the duration is a year and a day.

Moonbeam (2nd level) – You create a beam of light from above that deals up to 2d10 radiant damage per turn and that lasts a minute. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the damage increases by 1d10 for each slot level above 2nd.

Sleep (1st level) – You send creatures with up to 5d8 hit points into a magical slumber. This spell offers no saving throw. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, roll an additional 2d8 for each slot level above 1st.

Spirit Guardians (3rd level) – Spirits circle you at a distance of 15 feet, dealing up to 3d8 radiant damage per turn for 10 minutes. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the damage increases by 1d8 for each slot level above 3rd.

Spiritual Weapon (2nd level) – You create a floating weapon that you can use to attack for force damage equal to 1d8 + your spellcasting ability modifier. The weapon lasts a minute. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 3rd level or higher, the damage increases by 1d8 for every two slot levels above 2nd.

Storm Sphere (4th level) – You create a 20-foot radius sphere of whirling air that lasts a minute, deals 2d6 bludgeoning damage to creatures inside, and can throw a lighting every turn for 4d6 damage. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 5th level or higher, the damage increases for each of its effects by 1d6 for each slot level above 4th.

Summon Fey, Shadowspawn, Undead and other summoning spells from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (Levels 3-6) – You summon a creature. The creatures’ AC, hit points, and damage all increased when cast with a higher-level spell slot.

Next post April 19. To avoid missing out, sign up to get my posts by email using the box at right.

7 Discarded D&D Rules That Could Still Improve the Game

Past editions of Dungeons & Dragons include many, many rules that fifth edition drops. No one misses racial level caps, any of the old grappling rules, or the unplayable AD&D initiative system. But old editions also included rules that improved the game, often in subtle ways. Some might have improved the fifth edition. Still, the D&D designers dropped each rule for a reason, but did they make the right choices?

1. Add the bloodied condition

Fourth edition included a bloodied condition triggered when creatures lost half their hit points. The designers likely dropped bloodied because it seemed to offer too little benefit to merit the weight of another condition. Besides, DMs hardly need a rule to describe the status. The Dungeon Master’s Guide explains, “You can describe a monster taken to half its hit points as bloodied, giving the players a sense of progress in a fight against a tough opponent, and helping them judge when to use their most powerful spells and abilities.”

But the bloodied condition added more than a sense of progress. The bloodied condition can trigger extra abilities that show a creature’s rage or desperation, adding a useful way to bring a second stage to boss battles. Just as a showdown settles into a familiar pattern, a bloodied monster could gain new powers, transforming to add new excitement. The bloodied trigger proved so irresistible that the D&D designers designed something similar when they gave some high-level monsters the mythic trait. “If you wish to increase a battle’s stakes, though, using a monster’s mythic trait results in some mid-battle twist that changes the way the monster behaves, restores its resources, or provides it with new actions to use.” The bloodied condition could enhance monsters of all levels.

2. Limit hit point increases after 10th level

By the time fifth edition D&D characters near level 10, few monsters inflict enough damage to seem threatening. Obviously, DMs can still create challenging encounters by adding more and more dangerous monsters, but that solution can prolong battles, turning exciting fights into grinds.

The obvious fix to high-level creatures and their feeble damage is to make monsters’ attacks deal more damage. This adds challenge, but it makes concentration spells much weaker.

What if the solution doesn’t come from the monsters? What if characters at double-digit levels just have too many hit points? If high-level characters had fewer hit points, high-level monsters with their puny attacks would suddenly become a bit more threatening. Lower-level monsters could pose more of a threat to high-level heroes without becoming too dangerous to low-level characters. High-level PCs would still rip through weak foes, but the survivors could deal enough damage to seem dangerous rather than laughable.

Lower hit points at high levels would suit the reality that characters typically enter every fight at maximum health. In more battles, foes would seem like credible opponents.

Up to D&D’s third edition, when D&D characters reached level 9 or so, they started gaining hit points at a much slower rate. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, fighters rising above 9th level gained 3 hit points per level with no bonus for constitution. Other classes gained even fewer points. Continuing to let characters gain a full hit die plus a constitution bonus at every level defies D&D’s origins.

In a fifth edition version of this rule, after level 10, barbarians that gain d12 hp per level would only gain 3 hp, d10 classes like fighter would gain 2 hp, d8 classes like cleric would gain 1 hp, and wizards would gain 0 hp. High-level wizards get plenty of goodies to make the difference.

Suppose Gary Gygax had hit points right all along. Would D&D play better if characters stopped gaining so many after level 9? For more, see Would Dungeons & Dragons Play Better If It Stayed Loyal to How Gary Gygax Awarded Hit Points?.

3. Award skills for high Intelligence

In modern D&D, Intelligence vies with Strength as the most common stat where players dump their characters’ lowest ability score. See Should PC Intelligence Matter? Of the classes in the Player’s Handbook , only wizard requires Intelligence, a prime requisite that rarely figures in saving throws. Unlike in earlier editions, high Intelligence no longer brings more skills or even languages, contributing to the attribute’s low value.

The D&D designers found good reasons to stop awarding smart characters more skills. Fifth edition awards skills based on background instead. This emphasizes the importance of a character’s history by pairing it with mechanical benefits. By ignoring Intelligence, the designers let every character gain enough skills to get ample mechanical benefits based on their history. Besides, if Intelligence led to even more skills, wizards would check almost every box and those brainiacs show off enough.

If the game awarded fewer skills based on background, class, and race, and awarded more skills based on Intelligence, then Intelligence would switch from an easy place to dump a score of 8 to a worthwhile choice.

4. Require some recovery period after dropping to 0 hp

In first edition, characters reduced to 0 hit points needed a week of rest. “The character cannot attack, defend, cast spells, use magic devices, carry burdens, run, study, research, or do anything else.”

All that rest seems too limiting for a heroic game, but fifth edition not only lacks any consequences for reaching death’s door, the game offers a sort of reward. Players intent on wringing every advantage from the rules will only heal characters when they drop to 0 hp, because damage below 0 heals for free. Imagine being injured but denied healing until you lie dying on the dungeon floor because the magic somehow works better that way. As an adventurer, I would find a less psycho group of comrades in arms.

The remedy ranks as one of fifth edition’s most popular house rules: Characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion.

By making characters who fail a death save suffer a level of exhaustion, the dying condition becomes something to be realistically feared rather than an inconvenience where players can exploit their metagame understanding of fifth edition’s lack of negative hit points.

Players gain an incentive to heal their allies before anyone drops to 0, losing the incentive to let party members drop and revive in a macabre dance.

5. Require magic ammunition to overcome resistance

When you blog about D&D long enough you gain a limited ability to see the future. So when I post, I can predict many of the comments. For example, if I gripe about an overpowered character feature, some readers will advise countering by giving foes the same capability. As if players would return for a campaign where every monster took the Sharpshooter feat.

If I gripe that the fifth edition rules make archers too effective, readers will remind me that historically, bows do beat swords. Weapons that let you poke holes from a distance always rule. For example, polearms also beat swords. Still, thanks to millennia of promotion by a ruling class of men on horses with swords, we romanticize swords and most D&D players favor them over polearms.

Like punching monks and loincloth-wearing barbarians, D&D gives swords and other melee weapons a boost to make fun but fanciful characters attractive options.

Still, the boost falls short. The rules make ranged weapons far better than swords, axes, and such. This imbalance weakens the game. Players choosing swords and spears for their characters must accept weaker characters. Also ranged combat usually proves less fun. Movement and terrain disappears. Instead, characters stand at the door and shoot, tallying damage until the battle ends. I could list more consequences, but I already did.

Fifth edition skips a few rules that made ranged attacks a bit less attractive in past editions.

  • Arrows shot into melee used to suffer a chance of hitting allies.
  • Ranged attacks used to lack a damage bonus based on Dexterity to match the damage bonus melee attacks gained from Strength.
  • To overcome resistance to magic weapons, attackers used to need magic ammunition rather than a magic bow.

The first rule deserves to stay on the scrap heap. Hitting allies hardly feels heroic and the risk creates bad feelings between archers and melee attackers. No one wants to shut down their ranger once the barbarian reaches melee.

As for the second rule, D&D’s math rests on damage bonuses based on Strength or Dexterity. Removing the Dexterity plus for ranged weapon damage would crack the game’s foundation.

The third rule boasts potential. In D&D, ranged martial attacks gain their biggest edge because no one bothers tracking arrows or crossbow bolts. Even if a DM required the chore, a 1 gp quiver of 20 arrows only weighs a pound, so players will argue they can easily carry 20 quivers totaling 400 arrows. Some gamers recommend using toothpicks to track arrows. That’s a lot of toothpicks. But what if only magic ammunition overcame resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing from nonmagical attacks?

Such a rule makes sense; after all, the silver arrow hurts the werewolf, not the silver bow. Even if DMs give out more magic ammo, magic arrows merit counting. At low levels the lack of magic arrows would hardly matter, but as levels rose and more foes brought resistance, a demand for magic arrows would create interesting and realistic resource management choices.

6. Use healing surges or hit dice as a limit to healing

In early D&D editions, limited healing challenged players to carefully manage their hit points and healing spells. Except for days of bed rest, the game offered no easy substitutes for healing spells. Players faced thorny decisions over how to best use their healing resources. Should the party delve deeper into the dungeon toward greater rewards despite the risk of running low on hit points and healing?

Third edition erased that resource management strategy. Even 2nd-level characters could afford enough wands of cure light wounds to completely heal between fights without using a single spell. In modern D&D, inexpensive healing potions create the same effect.

The fourth edition designers aimed to return some of the old resource management strategy to the game. The edition added healing surges to limit the healing characters could use between encounters. Characters had a set number of healing surges. During a short rest, players could spend surges to restore lost hit points, so healing surges worked much like fifth edition’s hit dice. But healing surges also capped the magical healing available to characters. In battle, spells and healing magic like potions let characters trade surges for hit points without stopping to rest. Fourth edition’s treatment of hit points and healing ranks as one of the edition’s best innovations.

Without a limit like healing surges, fifth edition campaigns can’t recapture the slow loss of healing resources and the strategy that limit created.

For a house rule that turns hit dice into a resource more like healing surges, see D&D’s Designers Can’t Decide Whether Characters Must Rest for Hit Points and Healing, but You Can Choose.

7. Add the dazed condition

The stunned condition brings a harsh penalty. Stunned shuts down a player for a turn or more. A stunned monster can’t take actions, turning a potentially fun battle against a legendary evil into a quick beatdown of a helpless opponent. I’ll roll my damage in advance and go make a snack. The most common source of the stunned condition comes from the monk’s Stunning Strike ability, a power that can turn every boss into a piñata and that tempts DMs to “cheat.” Well-designed monks stun frequently enough to diminish the fun. Other players wind up beating helpless foes while the DM just counts damage and runs monsters with cartoon stars circling their heads.

A redesigned monk that remains fun to play calls for a condition that counts as half stunned, something like fourth edition’s dazed condition. Attacks against dazed creatures gained advantage. On a dazed creature’s turn, they could choose between moving, taking an action, or taking a bonus action. A more fun Stunning Strike ability could daze first and then stun if the dazed creature took a second strike. Such an adjustment would bring Stunning Strike down to the power of the monk’s other abilities that cost ki points. This lesser stunning strike would weaken the monk class, but a bigger allotment of ki points could make up for the change.

Of course, returning the dazed creatures could improve more than the monk. The dazed condition would add flexibility, allowing new character and monster abilities that just won’t work with a condition as punishing as stunned.

Morale Checks: Does Wisdom Make One Courageous or Wise?

In the real world, battles end when one side loses morale and surrenders or runs. Fights to the last warrior become legend because they come so rarely. In most Dungeons & Dragons games, fights routinely end with one side wiped out, often because monsters that surrender or run can spoil the fun unless dungeon masters cope with the hassles of broken morale.

If you want a D&D game where sensible monsters try to save their lives through escape or surrender, then how do you, as DM, decide when morale breaks?

Usually, DMs decide by roleplaying the monsters. The second edition Player’s Handbook touts that option. “The first (and best) way to handle morale is to determine without rolling any dice or consulting any tables. This gives the biggest range of choices and prevents illogical things from happening. To decide what a creature does, think about its goals and reasons for fighting.”

This roleplaying approach marked a break from D&D’s roots. In the wargames that led to D&D, competitors used arcane formula and impartial rolls to decide when morale broke. The fifth edition rules acknowledges this tradition by including optional rules for morale rolls. But why bother rolling? The latest edition gives no reasons.

Second edition offers a weak reason to roll. “Sometimes there are just too many things going on to keep track of all the motivations and reactions of the participants.”

Merric Blackman offers something better. “One of the big reasons to use morale rules is to provide some unpredictability. As a DM, it’s very easy to fall into patterns of thinking; morale rules allow monsters to react in ways you didn’t expect.” In D&D, the dice add an impartial element of surprise.

DMs who want morale rolls should skip fifth edition’s optional rule. The rule’s designer dutifully recognized D&D’s wargaming tradition using the game’s modern mechanics, but the result often makes no sense. “To determine whether a creature or group of creatures flees, make a DC 10 Wisdom saving throw for the creature or the group’s leader.” This works based on Wisdom as a measure of courage and resolve, but if Wisdom also works as a measure of wisdom, then a successful check would often make someone run from a bloodthirsty band of treasure-hunting killers. D&D’s Wisdom score bundles an awkward set of traits.

The 1991 Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia featured the best morale rule to appear in a D&D game. Each monster has a morale score. Abject cowards start at 2. Mindless undead, constructs, and fanatics top the scale at 12.

The book’s Morale Scores Table (p.103) suggests scores.

Morale Scores Table
Type of Personality Morale Score Range
Abjectly cowardly 2
Always frightened or very cautious 3-5
Unmotivated 6
Disinterested 7
Normal 8
Brave, determined, or stubborn 9-11
Suicidally brave or berserk 12

To make a morale check, roll 2d6. If the roll is higher than the monster’s morale, the creature either runs or surrenders. Monsters with a morale of 2 never fight, monsters with a morale of 12 always fight and never check morale.

This simple method adds unpredictability without weighing the game with calculations that only benefit simulation games. Usually though, just roleplay the monsters based on their goals and temperaments.

Next post March 22. To avoid missing out, sign up to get my posts by email using the box at right.

Monsters That Run or Surrender Raise so Many Problems. How to Cope

Page 1 of the Dungeons & Dragons strategy book The Monsters Know What They’re Doing sets a 100% true principle that usually makes running fun games harder for dungeon masters.

Author Keith Ammann writes, “With only a small number of exceptions (mostly constructs and undead), every creature wants, first and foremost, to survive. Seriously wounded creatures will try to flee, unless they’re fanatics or intelligent beings who believe they’ll be hunted down and killed if they do flee.” Plenty of other writers see the value of surviving. Game Designer Robert Schwalb writes, “I can imagine most monsters, once they’ve lost about half their numbers, will say screw it and run away. It just makes sense. Evil doesn’t usually place a lot of stock in honor and fighting to protect their fellows.”

When monsters run, players almost always chase them. Rob Schwalb writes, “Even when fleeing seems like a good thing to do, I’m reluctant to have that happen since I know my players will chase down the offending humanoids and put them to the sword.”

Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea says, “Players hate it when the monsters run away. When a monster gets away, it’s a big downward beat.”

While fleeing makes perfect sense for most creatures facing adventurers, monsters that run away or surrender can make D&D less fun. I wish that wasn’t so, but fights to the death usually play better. Still, with the right techniques, DMs can cope with monsters that retreat or surrender. Sometimes these answers even lead to a better game.

The D&D rules handle retreat badly. Unless monsters can fly, pass through walls, or otherwise go places the characters can’t follow, running from a D&D fight just means getting killed without a chance to attack back. This stems from how D&D divides 6 seconds into turns. When a fleeing creature’s turn ends, any pursuers can catch up and sometimes even attack. Then if the fleeing creature continues running, it suffers opportunity attacks. The pattern repeats until everyone running dies. Even speedy creatures rarely outpace rogues with their cunning actions. Such chases just prolong battles the players have already won.

To give retreat some chance of success, switch out of strict initiative and use some other method to resolve the escape. The Dungeon Master’s Guide includes chase rules, but in these situations, I favor a house rule from Merric Blackman. “In a pursuit situation, movement occurs simultaneously at the beginning of the round. If a creature or vehicle wishes to spend its action dashing or some other maneuver that affects movement, then those actions are resolved before any further action.”

Such house rules clearly help monsters escape, and that means players may protest. The house rule feels like the DM favors the monsters—at least until the rare fight the party chooses to flee.

Players chasing monsters can get characters killed. In a dungeon or stronghold, letting monsters escape poses a grave risk because even a single escaping goblin can rally defenders to prepare for intruders. “The retreating goblins will go get help and turn what was a manageable fight into a TPK,” Rob Schwalb writes.

Players know the risk of total party kills too, so such situations raise questions that add tension. Can the monsters reach help? Should the characters dare to chase blindly into the dungeon and toward whatever threats wait? When players face dilemmas like these, it leads to excitement. But as a DM, consider the chance of luring the characters into more trouble than they can overcome. Don’t be too careful. Players can run too. Please remind them of your generous house rule for retreat.

Retreat and surrender makes running dungeons harder. When fleeing monsters bring reinforcements, an extra burden lands on the DM. Typically DMs can run dungeons without remembering the details of every room because usually only the delve’s current location matters. That one-location focus makes dungeons easy for DMs. But a fleeing monster raises questions that demand a broad mastery of the dungeon. Justin Alexander lists a sampling of those questions: “Where are they running to? What are they going to do there? If they’re looking for help or trying to summon reinforcements, where are the other enemies located? If they reach those enemies, what do those enemies do?” As word of intruders ripples through the stronghold, the DM suddenly needs to know every room.

To prepare for these situations, make a copy of the dungeon map and write the number of monsters in each location. Now you can see where fleeing monsters will reach allies and how the reinforcements might react to intruders. See To Run a Great Dungeon, Write All Over the Map.

If you lack such preparation, call for a break and take a few minutes to review the dungeon. A monster’s escape creates a tense moment that offers an excellent cliffhanger.

A surrender can also test a DM’s memory of the whole dungeon. Players will question captives about treasure, traps, and foes. If the captives talk, the DM needs to provide answers, and a marked up dungeon map can help. If the captives refuse to talk, the situation creates ugly new problems.

Captives lead to troubling scenes of torture and murder. In my games, I consider torture scenes off limits. Author Oren Ashkenazi agrees. “Deliberately inflicting pain on someone who’s at your mercy is a horrible thing, and it’s not something we should be doing around the RPG table, for our own mental health if nothing else.” I typically make captives cooperative because they’re typically evil and willing to betray their allies.

After the questioning, comes the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Typically, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. I like moral dilemmas that reveal character, but disputes over murdering helpless captives are best skipped. To avoid such scenes, have NPCs around who can take captives to proper authorities. How convenient!

Chases and surrenders can still drag the game. Despite these techniques for making the best of fleeing and surrendering monsters, monsters who fight to the death often make for a quicker game and fewer hassles.

Why would monsters fight to the end?

  • Adventurers bring such a reputation for blood lust that monsters choose to die fighting.
  • In D&D worlds, the plain truth of gods and the afterlife inspires foes and leads them to seek their god’s approval in death.
  • Supernatural evil or chaos drives monsters to behave differently than natural, evolved creatures in our world.

D&D asks gamers to accept some outrageously unrealistic assumptions that make the game more fun. Those premises include hit points and the notion that characters can get 8 hours of restful sleep anywhere, anytime. Add the uncanny courage of monsters to that list.

3 Reasons to Never Split the Party and How to Ignore Them

Everyone who plays roleplaying games learns the Dungeons & Dragons adage never split the party.

In the hobby’s early days, when dungeon masters were referees and players chose difficulty by dungeon level, never splitting the party always made good strategy. Parties found safety in numbers. In a dungeon stocked with encounters suited for a full party, splitting the party jeopardizes everyone.

In today’s game, player characters do more than assault dungeons. Sometimes the elf and wizard must persuade the emissary, the thief and warlock need to infiltrate a manor house, and the bard and noble paladin need to charm guests at a ball. They could work better separately, but players insist on keeping the party together. So the dwarf insults the emissary, the paladin’s chainmail racket alerts the manor guards, and a motley band of killers sours the ball. Then midnight tolls and evil triumphs.

Never split the party started as a good strategy, but now it feels like part of the game’s social contract. Even when splitting the party seems logical, players keep the group together for three metagame reasons.

1. Players fear encounters designed for a full party.

Players expect combat encounters designed to challenge a group of 4 to 7 characters. If they split up before a fight erupts, then an undermanned party becomes overmatched.

Typically though, groups split to tackle roleplaying, stealth, and investigation challenges that seem unlikely to lead to fights.

If half of a split party lands in a fight, DMs can adjust the difficulty of the foes, but leaving the opposition unchanged may play better. Players who split up despite perilous situations know they’re taking an extra risk and they feel a greater sense of peril, especially when their own decisions lead to danger. They use stealth and cunning in ways they might not with a full group, when they assume they can defeat any monsters set before them. In a way, adjusting threats steals the players’ agency by nullifying the consequences of their actions. (See How to Scare D&D Players—Even When They Play Mighty Heroes.)

2. Players stay together as a courtesy to the game master.

By staying together, players avoid forcing the GM to juggle two separate narratives. But splitting attention between two groups can play well as long as each of the smaller groups faces their own challenges. The trick comes from devising situations that keep each part of the group thinking.

When a subgroup needs time to plan or plot their next move, cut from their scene to a scene featuring players ready for action. With a full group, planning means waiting for a decision while you as the DM worries that the idle time creates a slow place. With a split group, the game hurtles ahead and the subgroup facing a choice can plan without feeling rushed. The session feels brisk and pacing feels effortless!

Usually, game time between the subgroups can pass at different rates as long as the players in real time feel engaged. D&D scenarios seldom rely on precise timekeeping anyway.

The troublesome situations come when one party member wanders while the rest wait. A short scouting mission can give some players a break to grab a snack, but when reconnaissance takes too long, restless players start wondering why they showed up. For advice on handling scouting, see 4 Tips For When One Player Scouts the Dungeon.

3. Players stay together to keep everyone involved in the action.

A split party inevitably forces some players to wait until the spotlight returns to them. But unexpectedly, splitting the party can make players feel more active. In a smaller subgroup, each individual gains a greater role. And as the DM cuts between subgroups, the inactive players can stay busy planning their next move.

Even when the entire party faces a roleplaying scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes the player with the most charismatic character serves as the face with the highest bonus. Often the player with the most forceful personality does all the talking.

But when a party splits, soft-spoken players gain time in the spotlight. Player characters gain unique chances to reveal their character’s personality and talents. So the wizard finally gets to cast Sending and the thief gets to sneak without some armored clod making a racket.

Instead of avoiding challenges suited to split parties, look for situations where dividing the party gives everyone a chance to show their talents and to roleplay.

Typically, time pressure leads groups to split up. If the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must help. Forcing a party to divide and conquer invites everyone to contribute.

If done well, splitting the party creates more spotlight time for every player at the table.

Cut from one group to the next every few minutes. Some DMs even set a timer for about 4 minutes. If you tend to lose track of time, then a countdown helps.

The best moment to switch subgroups comes when the active group faces a choice. While players debate their next move, cut to the other half of the table. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Such decision points typically come after the group makes a discovery or when their situation changes. These situations make players wonder what happens next, and that curiosity keeps them engaged while they wait to regain the spotlight.

If you can’t switch scenes on a decision point, switch on a moment of tension, ideally a cliffhanger.

A split party invites some techniques that help one keep everyone busy.

If two subgroups land in a fight, run both battles on the same initiative count. This keeps everyone busy while using a familiar game mechanic to cut between scenes. The technique works so well that, as a DM, I feel tempted to start a second fight whenever half of a split party buys trouble. Time to roll a random encounter behind the screen.

Delegate the non-player characters and even monsters to the idle players. For groups who particularly enjoy roleplaying and collaborative storytelling, write down a few quick notes about NPCs on a card. When the NPC enters a scene, give control of the character to a player.

Depending on your players’ dispositions, you might also recruit idle players to run monsters in a battle. This works especially well in a simple fight where you expect the PCs to win. If the foes bring complicated abilities or motives, or if their power threatens to slay characters, I would avoid giving up control. When a GM kills a character, it comes in the line of duty, but a player should not take the heat for killing a PC.

Separate the players into their own rooms. Even when you split a party, players tend to remain at the same table. This lets inactive players watch the story and lets the DM switch easily from one subgroup to another.

While sharing a table, the spectators learn things that their characters don’t. Most players take it as a point of honor not to use their unearned knowledge. If not, remind them to play in character based on what their character knows.

Occasionaly separating players to different rooms can add fun though. No player has access to hidden information, so decisions become more interesting. Everyone feels an added sense of peril and concern for their missing comrades.

If you separate players, frequent switches become more important, so the groups should be as near as the kitchen and the dining room. Make the separation temporary. Your players came to play together.

Go ahead. Split the party. For a DM running a divided party, the second hardest trick comes from finding situations where all the subgroups remain engaged. The hardest trick? Encouraging the players to defy protocol and split up when splitting makes sense.

Monsters of the Multiverse Should Have Given Foes a Boost, But it Didn’t. Next Chance: 2024

As part of setting the math at the foundation of a Dungeons & Dragons edition, the game’s designers target the number of rounds a typical fight should last. Fifth edition aims for 3-4 rounds. Monsters deal enough damage to feel threatening to level-appropriate characters over those 3 or so rounds. In a deadly fight, that damage might match the characters’ hit points.

PCs Avg HPs/PC Party HPs CR of 4-5 monsters, barely deadly challenge Avg MM/Volp’s Dmg, monster of that CR Avg Dmg/rnd, 4 monsters Rounds to defeat all PCs
Five Level 2 PCs 17 85 5 x CR 1 10 50 1.7
Five Level 4 PCs 31 155 2 x CR 1
2 x CR 2
10
15
50 3.1
Five Level 8 PCs 59 295 5 x CR 4 25 125 2.36
Five Level 12 PCs 87 435 5 x CR 6 35 175 2.485714
Five Level 16 PCs 115 575 4 x CR 6
3 x CR 5
30
35
230 2.5
Five Level 20 PCs 143 715 4 x CR 9 45 280 2.553571

According to a table calculated by freelance designer Teos “Alphastream” Abadia, fifth edition lands that 3-round target . At most levels, a deadly group of monsters needs about 2.5 rounds to slay typical characters. That number assumes every monster attack hits, and that the characters never bother to heal while failing to kill a single foe. Short of terrible luck, most groups will survive 5 rounds or more, finish their foes in 3-4 rounds, and win a potentially deadly encounter.

Fifth edition’s linear math seems sound, but as characters level, they keep adding on extra abilities that resist, block, and heal. Character power doesn’t grow linearly, it surges. As levels climb, that linear increase in monster damage becomes increasingly ineffectual.

From player feedback, the D&D team learned that monsters often fail to bring as big a threat as their challenge rating suggests.

Combat encounters can be fun for many reasons: Sometimes players relish a chance to flaunt their characters’ power by destroying overmatched foes. Sometimes players think of an ingenious tactic that leads to an easy victory—everyone loves when a plan comes together. But for most players, such romps would become tiresome if the game never offered hard battles. Difficult fights challenge players to fight smart, work as a team, and stretch their characters’ abilities. Tension builds until the group almost always wins. Fifth edition’s design makes hard fights feel more dangerous than they are. That’s one of the edition’s best features. But fifth edition lacks monsters able to consistently deliver fights that feel hard at higher levels.

When a battle falls short of expectations, we all feel disappointed. Teos writes, “The worst games I encounter are those where the story of the game, and the expectations of players and DM, don’t match the challenge level. It’s supposed to be the cinematic clash with the great demon, but it’s lame. It’s an ambush by a terrifying beast…that can’t deal any real damage.”

Sure, DMs can swap tougher monsters, but as levels rise, the options dwindle. And the game’s weak monsters force changes to every published adventure not aimed at low-level characters.

DMs can always add more monsters, but that approach suffers drawbacks too. More monsters means more mental load and more time running foes for the DM. all that adds more idle time for the players. More monsters also take more damage to defeat, potentially turning a slugfest into a grind. Fewer monsters mean faster paced, more exciting fights, as long as the monsters can threaten.

To help DMs run foes at the threat set by their challenge rating, Monsters of the Multiverse changes some monsters. These changes mainly appear in monsters that cast spells. Rather than burying the best combat options in a spell list, the new stat blocks spotlight the most potent powers with full descriptions. This helps DMs run a creature effectively during its typical 3-4 rounds of survival.

Still, better tactics can only do so much. If every monster book included a copy of The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, the poor creatures would still prove overmatched.

The problem circles back to how the monsters’ linear rise in damage fails to match the characters’ escalating ability to heal, block, and avoid damage. Somewhere in tier 2 the monsters start falling behind and the gap widens as levels increase.

So I hoped that Monsters of the Multiverse might update monsters to close the gap by increasing damage. The book does not.

To be clear, extra damage doesn’t aim to kill characters. At low levels, the designers assume players have little invested in their characters and will accept a few casualties. But for experienced characters, fifth edition boasts a design that makes deaths rare. By level 5, revivify makes total-party kills more common than individual deaths. By level 9, raise dead and more powerful spells can make death a dramatic choice. Players only fear disintegration. Extra damage does make players feel jeopardy though, even in a game that makes death a mere setback.

So what are the D&D designers afraid of? Why no changes?

Are the designers aiming for a game where monsters just serve to help PCs show off? I call this the Washington Generals style of game, and it offers a perfectly fine style for folks who enjoy it. The Washington Generals were the deliberately ineffective opponents who enabled the Harlem Globetrotters to showcase their basketball skills.

Are the designers afraid of making the game too dangerous for newer players who happen to play mid- to high- level games? Ironically, the game causes far more deaths at 1st and 2nd level. Just look at the 1.7 rounds 2nd-level characters survive a near-deadly encounter. Every fifth-edition character I’ve lost died at 2nd level.

Are the designers wary of side effects? For example, in games I’ve played where monsters automatically deal double damage, concentration spells become much weaker. I love wall of fire and spirit guardians and want them to last.

Do the designers want to avoid trashing their challenge rating spreadsheet and the game’s assumptions so close to an edition update coming in 2024? Surely the designers take some pride in their game and feel reluctant to change the math behind its monsters. The designers know DMs can adjust their games to account for what might seem like matters of taste. Besides, most campaigns hardly reach the levels where monsters fall seriously behind.

Obviously, DMs have the tools to adjust, just like we adapt all our games to the taste of our players. I just wish the D&D team had seized the chance to offer us better monstrous tools.

From Hommlet to Phandalin, Villages Written as a List of Locations Seem Ready To Run. They Lie

Villages written with nothing more than a list of locations imply that DMs need nothing more to bring adventure. They lie and I’ve fallen for it. I should know better by now.

Many starting Dungeons & Dragons pair a village with a dungeon or wilderness. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax began the custom in 1979 with T1 The Village of Hommlet and the pattern endures because most players want more than dungeon crawls in an empty world. Starting characters need a place to stay, hear rumors, gather supplies, and so on.

My mistake comes when I read keyed locations for a village and think I’m ready to run. I imagine that my players will enter town and shop, mingle, gather rumors, and, say, suspect the cult activity that leads to adventure. After all, some DMs boast of players who will enter a strange town and happily spend an evening chatting with folks for just the fun of roleplaying. Such players are a treasure.

Maybe my in-game descriptions of bystanders never prove inviting enough. In my games, the party enters the tavern, dismisses the lovingly crafted cast of characters as mere color, and then waits expectantly for me to start the adventure. (See Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens.)

To avoid repeating my mistake, I know I can’t just study the locations and stop. I have work to do. That work includes checking a few boxes:

  • Consider the players’ goals at the location and how these goals could lead to interaction.
  • For any non-player characters the party should meet, contrive events that lead to the meeting.
  • For any clues, rumors, or hooks the party should uncover, imagine interactions that lead to the disclosure.

Not every DM needs so much preparation. Many DMs improvise interactions that engage players. Mike “Sly Florish” Shea favors making a list of secrets and clues, but improvising reveals. Nonetheless, almost every DM needs to spark engagement. If you don’t, thank your all-star players.

Most villages need more than keyed locations to engage players. Here are some methods that work.

Start players with a goal

Village of Hommlet starts with this introduction for players. “You are poorly mounted, badly equipped, and have no large sums of cash. In fact, all you have is what you wear and what you ride, plus the few coins that are hidden in purses and pockets. What you do possess in quantity, though, is daring and desire to become wealthy and famous.” Gary Gygax immediately frames a goal: Shop for equipment and find ways to earn enough for better gear. To succeed, players must meet the people of Hommlet. Along the way, players learn of the Temple of Elemental Evil. You may have heard of it.

N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God (1982) pairs the village or Orlane with adventure. This one starts players with rumors that hint of evil and a mystery. For example, “People in Orlane are being altered (true), and the ‘changeling’ can be recognized by fang marks in their throats. (false).” To uncover the truth, the players must seek interaction with the people of Orlane. (See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures For Good.

Nowadays, most players create characters with individual goals, often in collaboration with the group. When players bring goals, think of ways they can lead to interaction with your supporting cast.

Add notices

Posted wanted notices make an instant adventure, but other notices can invite players to interact. How about a sale notice for a map, a magic trinket, or even something billed as a Slaad control gem? Want to buy a windmill cheap? (Must not fear ghosts.) Anything that lures players to seek folks out and ask questions works. If the players spot a “lost pet” poster showing a child’s sketch of an imp or an owlbear, the players will probably investigate. I love notice boards because they become menus of rumors and quests where players can select whatever strikes their fancy. If the players find the notices at the end of a session, you can prepare for the post they choose to investigate.

Bring non-player characters to the players

New arrivals make people curious. Townsfolk see visitors as a source of information or as an opportunity. I like having folks ask adventurers for news, usually with questions that reveal rumors. “Did you see the dragon blamed for the attacks on the High Road?” or “Did you travel past that strange storm near the standing stones?”

If the group brings a reputation, folks treat them as celebrities, buying drinks and asking for stories. People might suggest new adventures or inform on threats the party should investigate. Is the old timer really conducting diabolical experiments in his broken tower or just perfecting a recipe for the next baking contest?

A more subtle invitation can also prove potent. D&D freelancer Scott Fitzgerald Gray suggests, “In a tavern or restaurant, have one of the characters notice an NPC staring at them, as an invitation for the characters to make contact (often a stronger beat than having an NPC approach the characters). Why they’re staring depends on what hook you want to use them to reveal.”

Have someone offer to guide

People interested in learning about visitors and gaining a relationship might offer a village tour. They may even make introductions like a host circulating new guests to a party. This works especially well for guides with big personalities.

DM Rebecca introduced players to Bryn Shander by having them meet sheriff’s deputy Augrek Brighthelm, a character patterned after spitfire southern belle who volunteered to guide the group through the town. “It immediately gave the players a recognizable character they could interface with.”

Some guides might ask for coins for the service. Perhaps the party offers a few silver or perhaps they spurn the guide and he grumbles, “I wouldn’t leave your horses unattended if I were you.” How the players react reveals character.

(See Don’t Make a Pet NPC, But Sometimes You Can Play a Guide.)

Create events that foster interaction

In the Acquisitions Incorporated hardcover adventure, a visit to the town of Luskan triggers events that offer a choice of actions. “Just ahead of you, a wagon has broken down in front of a tavern. The elderly human driver calls out for help, but passersby ignore her. As she calls out once more, the tavern door behind her opens and two guards toss a young male human in bright clothing out into the street. He tumbles into the old woman, sending both of them sprawling to the ground. The door closes, then opens once more as a mandolin comes flying out of the tavern.”

I love the flying mandolin. Everything about that scene invites interaction.

Some favorite events include a fire that the villagers need to organize to quench, a panicked horse dragging someone, an argument overheard, and a child seeking a lost pet. Rescue the cat and gain a guide. Almost anything works. The thatcher might be caught on a roof after his ladder slipped down. Two women might ask the bard to judge a singing contest; neither carries a tune.

Alexander Davis offers scenes that reveal character. “Someone’s been caught stealing. The local laws against thieving are serious, and the criminal looks pathetic. Does the party intervene to save them, fetch the militia themselves, or try to talk everyone into some sort of deal?

“The local cleric approaches the party, asking for alms for the poor. He looks untrustworthy, but there are also people visibly within the nearby temple who are receiving help. Does the party donate, help directly, or even investigate the suspicious cleric?”

Some events can come from events like festivals or fairs. These can offer contests for characters to join or reveal backstory about local history.

Add visual aids

A map handout encourages players to explore. They remember the locations that raised interest even after the hunt for the cat. Sometimes, I also show pictures of important NPCs. The pictures help players notice and remember key cast members.

Artist Brandon Darrah gives extra effort. “I use over-world tokens for my maps where I draw all my PCs and NPCs. I usually draw unique/weird/cool/cute NPCs to draw in my players and that usually does it.” I’m impressed.

Related: What Murder In Balur’s gate taught me about engaging players in role playing