Category Archives: Advice

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

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.

Narrating Your D&D Game: The Essentials

Everyone can describe things, which makes narration seem like a skill everyone does naturally, but we have all played with dungeon masters who fumbled the task. I’ve been that DM, although I hope not recently. After decades of running games, my narration skills have improved, even in the last few years, and I plan to keep learning and improving. This post starts a series that shares what I know.

In a Dungeons & Dragons adventure, the characters’ experience—what they see, hear, and otherwise sense—reaches the players through the DM’s descriptions of the game world. Vivid description encourages immersion, a sense of living in the fictional world. That makes strong narration a vital part of a great adventure. But books of game mastering advice rarely give the topic much attention. Perhaps the authors include a paragraph urging descriptions that include five senses, and then move to fudging dice. Narration seems to defy advice, but no source of GM advice lacks an opinion on fudging.

Nonetheless, if description falls flat, heroic adventures in wondrous locations feel dull. If narration goes wrong, players wind up confused or frustrated.

Good narration goes beyond revealing how the dungeon smells. (Pretty bad, I suppose.) What deserves description? How much time should a DM spend on description? In what order should DMs describe things? All that matters, and I have answers.

Spare but steady narration

Nobody sits for a D&D game hoping the DM as narrator will spend most of the session yakking. Recorded books talk nonstop better. Instead, players relish the times they talk and their characters act.

Model and photo by Java Cat

So as a DM, make your goal to wring the most vivid, evocative narration from the fewest words.

Overlong descriptions lead the players’ attention to drift. Rather than visualizing the eons of weathering that mark the vermilion masonry, players consider their next move. For the biggest impact, fit concise, evocative descriptions between the characters’ actions.

On the pages of a screenplay, the shape of text gives a sense of how a scene will play. Scenes with monologues feature unbroken rectangles of text. Scenes with back and forth between actors have short lines of text with whitespace between. Rather than dropping overlong boxes of DM dialog into the screenplay for Your D&D Game—the Movie, try for shorter bits with more back-and-forth. Don’t test your players’ patience as they wait to talk.

I used to take brevity too far, rushing to describe locations and skipping descriptions to reach the next turn. The habit came from a good motive: I wanted to spend less time talking so the players do more playing.

Fewer words speed play, but something like a battle with no description feels flat. Spare but steady narration keeps the game alive.

I fight an urge to hasten narration by speaking faster, and I see plenty of other DMs suffer from the same tendency to hurry. But fast talk just makes the description seem lifeless and unimportant. If you recite descriptions like the legal text at the end of a drug ad, players will pay as much attention as they do to dry mouth and palm sweat. The best DMs adjust their tempo, often slowing to give their words weight. They pause to emphasize, their tone expresses emotion, and it captures attention.

Tools for clarity

In D&D, players make choices based on description, so clarity matters as much as immersion.

To help make the players’ vision of the game world clear enough for (imaginary) life and death decisions, go beyond verbal description. If you have pictures of non-player characters, locations, and monsters, then show them. No one listens for 1000 words, but everyone looks up to see a picture. You can print pictures, load them on your phone or tablet, or load them online for a virtual game.

Think of yourself as an expert instructor with chalk in hand. To help reveal the game world to the players, I use my dry-erase grids as white boards. I write key names and critical details for players to remember. As I describe complicated scenes, I sketch maps and location features. Even if you plan to skip a grid in favor of narrative combat, the visual aid of a sketched, abstract map helps players understand. Beyond the map, a rough diagram of, say, a statue of Moloch can remind players of its gem eyes and the fire-filled bowl it it’s hands.

Next: How To Make Descriptions Vivid and Evocative

Use a White Paint Pen to Label Miniatures

I suspect most folks organize their miniatures by category. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains this approach, along with recommendations for storage options. I organize by set, and then use a resource like MinisCollector to find the figures I need. But unlike the older Wizards of the Coast miniatures, the newer WizKids miniatures lack any label that reveals their set. To help organize these figures, I write the set’s initials on the bases using a white, fine-tipped Sharpie paint pen.

Bonus tips: Use a white paint pen to label your wall-wart power blocks so you know what device they power. Also, if you become a famous artist and need to sign your glossy prints, the paint pen works beautifully.

Before You Roll, Do the Math: A D&D Tip Inspired by Numenera

Monte Cook’s thirty-plus years as a game designer include credits co-designing third-edition Dungeons & Dragons and his science-fantasy roleplaying game Numenera, which mirrors some broad patterns of D&D. Numenera includes characters that resemble fighters, rogues, and spellcasters who gather to explore dangerous places. Players even roll d20s and aim to reach target numbers that rate a task’s difficulty. Make no mistake though, Numenera features innovations. Monte writes, “I think I have some fresh variations on some concepts that are in games now, and some wholly new ideas as well.”

For example, Monte noticed that players have more fun rolling to attack than watching a dungeon master make a foe’s saving throw. Rolling gives us an emotional sense of involvement. So in Numenera, the players always roll the dice. When players attack, they roll to hit; when monsters attack, the players roll to defend.

Letting players always roll has the side effect of eliminating the GM’s ability to fudge rolls. “If the dice don’t mean anything, then everything is predetermined, and it’s no longer a game by any definition—just a story being told,” Monte writes. “So the dice need to matter. But that means that sometimes a PC will fail when they would succeed if it were a story, and vice versa. That’s not a flaw; it’s a feature. It’s what makes roleplaying games so exciting.” Dice make roleplaying games unpredictable and dynamic. Numenera embraces that. (You may like how fudging rolls gives a GM power fit the game into a story, but Numenera gives GMs and players other tools to help shape a thrilling narrative.)

Numenera highlights the fun and drama of rolling dice in other ways. One has influenced how I run D&D and improved my games.

The rules of D&D encourage rolling first, and then adding bonuses and penalties to learn whether the roll means success or failure. The delay of calculating after the roll often robs the roll of potential drama.

Numenera puts the calculations before the roll by making things like skills and circumstances adjust the target difficulty. By the time the players throw the dice, they know exactly the number they need. Monte explains that calculating before the roll “makes task resolution–and in particular combat–move much, much more quickly if you’re not waiting for people to add together numbers (or to ensure they have all their various miscellaneous modifiers accounted for).” Even better, calculating first gives the roll an immediate significance that everyone playing understands.

Of course D&D players and DMs can calculate the target number needed for success before rolling too. Just subtract all the bonuses from the DC. As a DM, I often announce these target numbers before open rolls to wring maximum drama from a roll of the dice. As a DM under the influence of Numenera, I find myself making such announcements before nearly every roll. I’ve always rolled in the open, but when players know what the numbers mean, they pay attention and they react to the numbers.

Calculating a target number in advance hardly takes extra effort. Sure, some very low or high rolls could have skipped the math entirely. But pre-calculating often makes up for the occasional unnecessary effort in volume. If I roll a save for the 7 ghouls in a fireball and I know they need a 13 to succeed, I can toss 7 d20s and spot all the successes in an instant. If I throw the dice with just DC 15 and +2 in my head, then making sense of 7 numbers on the dice and the 2 numbers in my head takes much longer.

The most exciting moments in games like Numenera and D&D often come from die rolls. When we throw the dice, game masters and players alike surrender control to chance. For maximum drama, don’t make players wait for calculation of the results. Tell everyone the number to look for on the die.

Related: D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.

Steal This Rule: Numenera and XP for Discovery

The Tournament Adventure That Tested My Limits as a DM

For tier 2 of my Dungeons & Dragons weekend, I ran Necropolis of the Mailed Fist, billed as a “punishing one-session tournament dungeon designed for four 8th‑level 5th Edition characters.” My group relishes punishing tournament D&D games and once made the annual D&D open championships the center of our gaming year, so the Necropolis seemed tailor made. See Why the awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship should return.

Necropolis author Sersa Victory specializes in tournament-style deathtraps flavored like the concentrated essence of every graveyard-and-murder-themed heavy metal album cover. The Necropolis delivers. In the first room, one character had his eyes torn out. The adventure includes a creature called a constellation of living spheres of annihilation. For the right audience it works brilliantly, and I ran it for the right crowd.

That said, because every room includes a page or two of connected puzzles, traps, and monsters, I often found running the adventure taxing. As I flipped pages, I sometimes worried that I failed to keep the fast pace needed for maximum engagement. Confession time: I love encounters with more in play than monsters to kill, but this adventure layers so much into every scene that I wished for a bit less. I feel so ashamed. A more measured approach to heaping punishment would have limited the simultaneous moving parts that demand a DM’s attention.

Later in the weekend, when I ran a tier 4 adventure of my own making, I took the lesson to heart and eliminated some complicating elements from an encounter that hardly seemed to need the filigree.