Category Archives: Advice

Stop Favoring Perception for Searches in D&D

When Dungeons & Dragons characters search, what check should players make? Based on my experience playing with a hundred or so fifth-edition dungeon masters, most answer Wisdom (Perception). Nonetheless, many DMs ask for Intelligence (Investigation) checks instead.

So what character should search a door for traps? Based on the Dungeon Master’s Guide, pick the wise cleric. Based on the skill descriptions, pick the clever wizard. Based on tradition, pick the thief and—if you play fifth edition—run for cover because they can’t spot anything. Besides initiative checks, search checks rate as the second most common in the game, so you would think everyone would agree. We don’t.

All this uncertainty means that as a DM making a call for your table, you decide. I’m here to help.

Some players like to call for their own checks. A character enters a room and the player announces something like, “I use perception and roll a 17. What do I find?” Rolling a check that the DM didn’t request counts as a small lapse of table decorum. Only the DM decides whether a situation merits a check, whether the character can succeed, what check suits the circumstances, and which characters deserve the roll. If a player just announces such a check, say “First, tell me what you’re examining. Do you touch it?” That question grabs attention.

To complement Perception, D&D’s fifth-edition playtest included a Search skill. So during exploration, PCs “make a Wisdom (Perception) check to detect hidden creatures and an Intelligence (Search) check to detect hidden objects (such as traps and secret doors)”. This makes the difference between Perception and Search seem like noticing creatures versus spotting objects—surely not the intended distinction, and perhaps one source of confusion that led the designers to drop Search in favor of Investigation. At least everyone could agree to use Search for searching.

The game rules for Investigation explain, “When you look around for clues and make deductions based on those clues, you make an Intelligence (Investigation) check.” The bit about looking around for clues makes Investigation seem like a more useful superset of Search. Aside from treasure, clues rank as the most common thing for a search to uncover. Even traps only prove fun when players find clues to their presence. Falling down a pit: no fun. Investigating a puddle and finding an edge where the liquid meets a seam in the floor: fun.

For searches, opt for Intelligence (Investigation) checks. Investigators notice clues and uncover things outside of plain sight. Investigators know where to look, so they check under a drawer to find the envelope tucked in the joint. Most characters ignore the scuffs on a stone floor, but an investigator notices them because the marks show where the statue slides to reveal a trap door. Someone skilled at Investigation spots the ordinary but significant details that the keen-sensed barbarian overlooks because such details seem insignificant. Sometimes players know where to look too, so if a player asks to peer under drawers, they spot that letter.

In contrast, perception enables characters to notice things that simply require keen senses, for example the sounds of an invisible creature, the master rogue Waldo in a crowd, or the cat obscured by shadows. “Your Wisdom (Perception) check lets you spot, hear, or otherwise detect the presence of something. It measures your general awareness of your surroundings and the keenness of your senses.” Perception can reveal the obscure, but it can’t expose something hidden from all the senses.

Many D&D fans, including me, tend to think of Investigation and searching as active in contrast to passive Perception. While this pattern frequently holds, don’t rely on it to distinguish the skills.

Such thinking leads players to make two checks to look around, one for percieving and one for investigating. Better to avoid such repetition. See How to Avoid Boring Rerolls of D&D’s Ability Checks. Players who make one check to find nothing in an empty room feel disappointed. Why invite a second, time-wasting check?

Freelance designer Teos “Alphasteam” Abadia explains how a distinction between active and inactive skills leads players to game the system. “Spycraft did that, with one skill for actively looking and another for possible noticing. It led to absurd behavior. You would enter an enemy camp, but state you were not looking around. That way, your better Notice skill would kick in.”

Sometimes the difference between Investigation and Perception blurs. Typically, when characters pause to examine and interact as they look, call for an Investigation check. This tends to reinforce the distinction of an investigator noticing the details in the mundane, plus it balances the value of the overvalued Wisdom (Perception) check with the undervalued Intelligence ability and Investigation skill.

D&D is a team game and when different character architypes skills and abilities contribute to a group’s success. By using the Intelligence ability and the Investigation skill, players who excel at those less pervasive knacks gain a chance to shine.

This approach amplifies the importance of not completely blocking a group’s progress with an Intelligence (Investigation) check. Fifth edition minimizes the value of the Intelligence ability so much that unless a party includes a Wizard, then no character may have a score higher than 10. In an essential investigation, give any required information, and then reward the sleuths with additional insights.

As for all those 8 and 10 Intelligence characters played by smart D&D players, they show the changing fashions of tabletop roleplaying. In the hobby’s early days of random ability scores, players who valued character immersion often felt obligated to play a low intelligence character as a knucklehead, complete with dangerously foolish decisions. Now, I rarely see such a commitment.

To Run a Great Dungeon, Write All Over the Map

For running a dungeon, the familiar map with numbers sets dungeon masters up for trouble. Many times when characters enter a dungeon room, I turn to a room’s key, and then learn that the party just passed a trapped door. “Wait! You can’t go in yet because…no particular reason.” Other times, when dungeon expeditions recklessly make noise, I want to find any monsters that hear. After all, dungeons should feel like active places where dangers lurk and where actions bring consequences. I check the map, spot 10 or so nearby room numbers, and realize that paging through the adventure text would stall the game for minutes. So I wind up supposing the werebats next door failed to hear the thunderwave. I guess monsters can wear headphones. Meanwhile, a dog in the yard hears a bag of chips opening in the attic.

Really, as a tool for running a dungeon, the typical map with just numbered locations sucks. But DMs can easily improve maps and the process leaves you better prepared for adventure.

Annotated dungeon map for CORE 2-1

My best tip for running a great dungeon: Write all over the map.

This tradition of minimally-useful maps dates to the publication of Palace of the Vampire Queen and F’Chelrak’s Tomb. For 40-some years published adventures almost always include maps that suck. Designers should stop following a bad example. For a better example of useful dungeon maps, look to entries in the one-page-dungeon contest.

Meanwhile, few DMs considered improving their maps by marking up a brand new copy of, say, G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. In 1978 its $4.49 price amounted to $18 today. You couldn’t even mark a copy of the maps, which TSR printed in blue to thwart Xerox.

For published adventures, make a copy of dungeon map pages. For your own maps, either write on your original or save a clean copy. Then get out your colored pens and highlighters and mark the maps with the notes you need to run.

  • List monsters in their locations.
  • Mark traps and locked doors.
  • Circle areas where characters may hear or smell things in the dungeon like waterfalls, forges, unholy rituals, and so on.
  • If guards might call for reinforcements, mark the travel times between key locations.
  • Circle areas controlled by factions.

Time spent writing on the map doubles as preparation for running the adventure. If you mark enough, you can run direcly from the map.

Smaller map marked for adventure

Smaller map marked for adventure

Lacking a copier, I used sticky notes

Improve Roleplaying Investigation Scenes With These 23 Reasons an NPC Won’t Cooperate

Roleplaying scenes prove most compelling when players start with a goal and face an obstacle to overcome. Even encounters with the most vivid and fascinating non-player characters fall flat without these two essential elements. When characters lack a goal and a dungeon master launches a role-playing scene anyway, players wind up wondering they are supposed to do. When a scene lacks an obstacle, it bores. (See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure and Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens.) So as a DM, when a roleplaying scene lacks a goal and an obstacle, either summarize the scene and move on, or add the goal or obstacle that the scene needs.

Typically, roleplaying encounters combine an objective of gaining information or help, with the obstacle of an uncooperative non-player character.

Sometimes the players simply try to persuade the NPC, succeed at a diplomacy check, and move on, but if every interaction amounts to a skill roll, the game loses interest. At times the bard’s honeyed words may overcome any objections; at times an NPC faces conflicts or repercussions that require action.

Just as the puzzles in a Dungeons & Dragons game have solutions, and locked doors have keys, NPCs can have keys of a sort too. Every NPC who stands unwilling to cooperate must have a reason for it. To unlock the NPC’s help, players must find ways to defuse or overcome the NPC’s objections.

If an NPC enters an interaction with a reason not to help the players, you should ultimately give the players enough clues to find a way past the objection.

The NPC may reveal the reason, but sometimes the players may need to figure it out for themselves. The key might not even be apparent on first meeting. If players learn something about a character that helps in a later meeting, then the world feels richer, the NPCs more vibrant, and the players cleverer.

To spark ideas and aid with improvisation, I created a list of potential reasons an NPC might have for refusing to cooperate with the player characters. Low-numbered items work best for ad-libbed objections from walk-on characters; they require less planning and fewer details about the NPC. Higher-numbered items work better when you have time to plan for your adventure’s most important NPCs.

Reasons non-player characters refuse to cooperate.

d100 Reason
01-05 Doesn’t want to get involved.
06-08 Doesn’t like your type. I recommend avoiding racism analogs in D&D games, so don’t select even a fantasy race or lineage as a type. Instead, choose a role like bards, adventurers, or meddling kids.
09-13 Doesn’t believe anyone can help.
14-19 Thinks the players will only make things worse and should leave well enough alone.
20-27 Wants something: a bribe, an errand done, or to be convinced that they stand to gain if the players succeed.
28-31 Was paid to keep silent or to stay out.
32-36 Insulted or offended by the players.
37-40 Thinks the players efforts are dangerous because they don’t understand what’s really going on. The NPC might know something the players don’t.
41-43 The players have unwittingly caused the NPC to suffer a loss.
44-46 Feels that helping the players will betray the NPC’s duties or obligations.
47-51 Needs more information to support the players case.
52-54 Knows or suspects that either the NPC or the players are watched.
55-57 Told not to help by someone the the NPC loves or respects.
58-60 Told not to cooperate by an authority.
61-65 Secretly involved with the other side.
66-70 The situation benefits the NPC, for example, by raising the value of the NPC’s trade goods, or by hurting competitors or rivals.
71-74 Fears the players might claim a treasure or reward that the NPC expects to get.
75-77 Is allied with rivals or competitors to the party.
78-82 Has been threatened.
83-87 Someone the NPC loves is threatened.
88-92 Someone the NPC loves is involved with the other side.
93-97 Not involved but might be implicated, perhaps for doing things that once seemed innocent.
98-00 Blackmailed for a misdeed unrelated to the players’ concerns.

When you play an uncooperative NPC, remember that the NPC may seem helpful. An uncooperative NPC can say all the right things while they lie or let the players down.

Still, I suggest feeding the players lies only when the deception leads to a new development. Lies that lead to false leads and dead ends will prove frustrating and un-fun. For example, the countess can lie and say than her hated rival stole the broach, but then the rival must reveal a new piece to a puzzle, perhaps a secret that the countess fought to hide.

The Last Five GM’s Commandments Updated for Today

Back in 1987, Dragon magazine issue 122 published “The GM’s Ten Commandments: Ten dos and don’ts for game masters everywhere,” a list of tips that author Rig Volný likely wrote 35 years ago. In my last post, I updated the first 5 commandments into 5 tips for today. Can I update commandments 6-10 into exactly 5 more tips for a nice, round 10? That depends on they style of game you want, so don’t get the stone tablets yet. Roman numerals count off the original commandments; my updates appear in boxes.

VI. Try for consistency and realism.

The author of the 10 commandments writes, “If a fictional work has inconsistencies or is unrealistic, then it does not entertain the reader.”

If your magical Dungeons & Dragons world seems realistic, you might want to dial back the rats in basements in favor of fairies, giants, and vampires. Instead, game worlds aim for verisimilitude, the appearance of being true or real. Often this includes genre emulation where the game tries to stay true to its source material. So a comic book superhero game might include unrealistic rules that ensure heroes never die and villains always escape until a future issue. D&D aims to evoke the fantasy yarns from authors listed in the game’s Appendix N.

Verisimilitude makes suspension of disbelief easier and immersion deeper. Dungeon Mastering 4th Edition for Dummies (p.121) advises, “Imagination is fabrication, and like any good fabrication, it should be grounded in truth. The more things from the normal, mundane, everyday world are true in in your game world, the easier it is for your players to imagine.”

“Anything that doesn’t fit expectations and forces the players to reevaluate what they know about the game—or the setting where the game takes place—drags the players out of active visualization and lets their natural disbelief come rushing back in.”

Still, this commandment aims for another sort of realism.

6. Make the characters’ actions in the game world result in plausible effects.

This sort of realism lets players make decisions based on a shared understanding of the game world and feel confidence that the outcomes will make sense. Dungeon Mastering 4th Edition for Dummies (p.131) explains, “Players expect that their actions in the world result in logical consequences. DMs sometimes fall into the illogical consequences trap by sticking too closely to the script. If the person who designed the adventure had no idea that the characters might figure out a way to get into the vault right at the beginning, it’s tempting to just say ‘you can’t get in,’ or ‘the treasure isn’t here.’ But the better answer is to reward the player ingenuity and resourcefulness with the success they earned, even if that ‘breaks’ the adventure and causes you to do some fast thinking.”

Much of the shared understanding that leads to plausible outcomes stems more from genre emulation than from realism.

VII. Don’t let the players argue with the GM.

This commandment comes from an era when the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules lacked ability checks and many other tools that gamers now use to decide between success and failure. Instead, game masters relied on judging the odds and rolling a die, a loose process that left room for arguments.

The article suggests a way to avoid debate. “Explain why a decision is made. When the situation has been discussed and weighed out carefully, stick to it.”

This recommendation remains sound, though today, most disputes focus on rules rather than a GM’s rulings.

7. Never slow the action to quibble over the rules.

The Pathfinder second edition Gamemastery Guide (p.28) puts this best. “Often the best ruling is the one that keeps the game moving. Avoid getting so bogged down that it takes you several minutes to decide what ruling you’ll proceed with. Take what’s close enough and keep playing. If necessary, you can tell your group ‘This is how we’re playing it now, but we can have more discussion between sessions.’ This gets you back in the action, puts a clear stamp on the fact that this is your decision in the moment, and empowers you players with permission to express their opinions on the ruling at a later time. When in doubt, rule in favor of the player’s request and then review the situation later.”

VIII. Enforce statements.

This serves as the GM’s “no backsies” commandment. “When a player says his character tries something, that character tries it.” In 1987, many game tables enforced similar rules, mainly to get more thoughtful play from players who blurt out reckless or outrageous actions, before seeing horror in the other players’ faces and attempting to rewind. In those days, D&D tended toward a more lethal style. Rash actions could get imaginary people killed. Plus, the no-takebacks policy leads to faster, more intense games. It leads to a particular style of play.

An opposite extreme allows timeouts for side conversations and rewinds for better ideas. This leads to looser style where players aim to spin a yarn for some laughs. With this free style the potential for stalling and flip-flopping may frustrate players who just want to get on with the game.

Even for groups seeking and intense, immediate game, the “enforce statements” commandment suffers two faults: (1) the wording is unclear and (2) sometimes players ask for rash actions because they misunderstand the situation. Enforcing a no-takebacks rule means letting a character attempt something risky without knowing the odds, and that defies tip number 2.

Instead, for a similar game style, follow two guidelines.

8. Run the game as if what the players say in the real world reflects into the game world.

When players talk at the table, their characters in the game world communicate basically the same messages, though perhaps in different words. See How Much Talk at Your Game Table Reaches Into the Game World?. When a player blurts out, “He’s lying,” the character voices something similar. When players at the table exchange jokes and banter, characters in the game joke and banter.

9. Limit discussion on each player’s turn to questions for the game master and resolution of the character’s actions.

Players can still talk tactics between turns. Perhaps they can even call out things like, “Don’t stand there! I’m casting fireball.” (Although their foes will hear the same shouts.) This guideline leads players to focus on playing their own characters without telling the other players what to do. It limits the ability of players to suspend instants of combat to workshop tactics.

These two guidelines hardly rate as commandments. Game masters can treat them as dials and decide how much enforcement suits the moment. For example, before a particularly intense negotiation scene or dangerous showdown, allow planning, and then tell the players when the action goes live and table chatter ends.

IX. Encourage the players to play their characters.

“Roleplaying is acting. The GM is most successful when the players are the characters. Give out experience points for good roleplaying and let the other players know why that character is getting extra points.”

Acting the part of characters heightens the immediacy of roleplaying games. It leads players to immerse themselves to the game world. It dramatizes relationships between characters. For good roleplaying, fifth edition encourages DMs to award inspiration rather than XP. In my experience, inspiration alone seldom encourages acting, but I’ve heard tales of players who make a scene whenever they need fresh inspiration. Top that, Shamu!

To encourage players to act in character, demonstrate that style of interaction using tip number 5: Roleplay your supporting cast as if you are a player and each NPC is your character. Make your non-player characters come alive by portraying their tone, mannerism, and speaking patterns.

For more help promoting roleplaying, see Most Advice for Encouraging Role-playing Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff.

X. Reward wit, quick thinking, and consistency.

“Experience points should be awarded whenever a player has successfully exercised his gray matter. Both rapid thinking and long-term strategy should be rewarded.”

Today, fewer game masters opt to award and have players track experience points. Even the game’s designers fail to see the point. In games that do feature XP, I recommend awarding points for overcoming obstacles, without judging ingenuity. (See Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling.) Instead, many DMs award inspiration for clever thinking, and that gives players a good feeling.

But rewarding wit and quick thinking goes beyond inspiration.

10. Welcome inventive solutions to problems, even when they don’t match the solutions you expected.

In Your Best Game Ever (p.161), Monte Cook writes, “When resolving actions, reward ingenuity even more than good die rolls or efficiently created characters. This means that for every challenge, there should be a straightforward solution and a not-so-straightforward one. It’s not your responsibility as the GM to come up with both. The players will come up with the not-so-straightforward solutions. You just have to be willing to go with their ideas.

“This doesn’t mean you have to let them succeed just because they try something you hadn’t thought of. On the contrary, the not-so-straightforward solution might end up being as hard or harder than the straightforward one. But you have to be ready to adjudicate the idea no matter what. If you don’t, and you shut down the players’ outside-the-box ideas, they will learn that the obvious solution is the only possible solution. Eventually, this will make for boring play because things will seem repetitive and too tightly structured.”

Updating the 35-Year-Old GM’s Ten Commandments for Today

Back in 1987, Dragon magazine issue 122 published “The GM’s Ten Commandments: Ten dos and don’ts for game masters everywhere,” a list of tips that author Rig Volný likely wrote 35 years ago. Since then, play styles and advice for game masters have evolved. How well have the commandments stood the test of time? Roman numerals count off the original commandments; my updates appear in boxes.

I. Do not consider the players as adversaries.

The article explains, “In role-playing, the situation is not one of GM vs. players: It isn’t a fair fight.”

In 1987, many GMs framed players as adversaries. Now, everyone sees this as a bad mindset, but today’s advice goes farther.

1. Be a fan of the characters.

The Dungeon World (p.162) game recommends thinking of the players’ characters as protagonists in a story you enjoy. “Cheer for their victories and lament their defeats. You’re not here to push them in any particular direction, merely to participate in fiction that features them and their action.”

As a fan, GMs still get to test characters. In Your Best Game Ever (p.93), Monte Cook recommends game masters take this approach: “Have a playful attitude of, ‘I’m making this really challenging for you.’ This isn’t adversarial, just a way to—on a metagame level—inject a bit of tension into the game. When the PCs are victorious, the players will feel even greater satisfaction from believing that you were pushing them to their limits.”

II. Never say “You can’t do that.”

The original article cites two cases when a GM might make the mistake of telling players, “You can’t do that.”

  • When players want to attempt something very difficult or even impossible.
  • When players want to violate their characters’ alignment.

“The point of this commandment is that it gives the players a degree of control in the game—one that adds desirable unpredictability. This makes the GM ‘play’ the adventure rather than just direct a prewritten script.”

Sometimes as GMs, we imagine our games will follow a particular path, all according to our plans. Perhaps we devise a clever puzzle or challenge and want it to work so players can appreciate our ingenuity. Perhaps we lay twists for future sessions. Sometimes we favor a game that sticks to the comfort of familiar rules rather than one that strays into untested judgement calls. When the game veers from plan, we feel tempted to nudge or even wrench it back on course. Remember this temptation, because the GM’s 10 commandments will suggest ways to avoid succumbing.

When players try some stunt that might launch the game in an unexpected direction, let them. “If a player attempts a difficult task, have him make a difficult die roll.”

The article acknowledges that some tasks are impossible, and then suggests giving the player a clearly impossible die roll such as a 7 on 1d6 to avoid saying, “You can’t.”

Usually players who ask to attempt something impossible are confused by the situation in the game world. For example, they picture jumping a 3-foot wall when they actually face 25 feet of stone. Asking for a roll of 7 on a d6 just feels like mockery. Instead of this suggestion, substitute guidance inspired by my 4 Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break.

2. Whenever players attempt a difficult or risky task, make sure the players know the odds and the likely result of failure.

For impossible tasks, you can say, “You can’t.”

As for a character who violates a good alignment by attacking innocent people, the article suggests letting in-game consequences result. “Don’t tell him he just doesn’t do that sort of thing. Let the local constabulary enforce his conscience.”

In 1987, Dungeons & Dragons emphasized alignment as the one rule that limited a character’s behavior. Characters whose actions failed to match their alignment faced punishment. However, as long as characters remained true to their evil alignment, then torture and murder just rated as good roleplay. By the ethos of 1987, any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. Now, gamers focus more on how disruptive that sort of play can become.

3. Decide with your group about the sort of game everyone wishes to play and insist that players create characters that fit that game.

As a game master doing the heavy lifting, you deserve at least as much say as the players. If you want characters in your Curse of Strahd game to play do-gooders who help folks, rather than evil types seeking an alliance with Strahd, ask players to imagine characters who fit that campaign.

As a player, your first role-playing obligation is to imagine a character who can cooperate with the rest of the party to achieve the common goals of the game. (See A role-playing game player’s obligation.)

III. Don’t overplan.

“Overplanning prevents the GM from meeting the actions of the players with flexibility and interferes with spontaneous creativity.” This commandment circles back to avoiding the temptation to limit players to particular path. “If the GM prepares extensively for the players to do A, B, or C, and they do D instead, he is faced with the temptation to dismiss a good plan as irrelevant to play.”

The commandment still holds, but in The Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea offers a more useful refinement.

4. Prepare what benefits your game, and omit what does not.

All GMs and groups are different, so what you need to prepare to run an RPG session varies. Mike’s Lazy Dungeon Master argues that most game masters benefit from less preparation rather than more, and then describes the steps most likely to benefit a session.

For me, preparation lets me reach past the “stereotyped situations” that I might improvise to find more evocative ideas. Lazy Dungeon Master (p.21) recognizes the same dynamic when it recommends preparing secrets for a session. “Sometimes thinking up ten secrets is hard. But as you wrack your brain for those final few, you’ll often come up with the most interesting ones. It sometimes takes great mental effort to dig deep into one’s mind and find the diamonds buried within.”

The article gives the example of a GM who spends 12 hours designing a dungeon lair just to see the players find a way to skip it. Dungeons rate as higher-prep scenarios. To avoid such wasted design, ask the players to outline their plans for your next session so you can prepare with more certainty.

IV. Keep adventures within reason.

This commandment recommends two types of restraint that seem unrelated to me.

  • “Don’t engage in stereotyped situations.”
  • “Don’t cheapen magic, gold, or fantastic creatures by making them too common.”

The article cites examples of the “stereotyped situations” that GMs should avoid, including ultimate battles between good and evil, one-dimensional characters, and totally evil bad guys. As a counterpoint, Dungeon Master 4th Edition for Dummies (p.54) advises, “Don’t be afraid to make your villains totally evil. The worse they are the more satisfying it will be for player characters to defeat them.” Games that avoid overused tropes can feel fresher, but this tip fails to merit a commandment.

The second limit seeks to avoid D&D’s classic problem of magical loot breaking the game. “When a beginning party starts to collect scores of magical items, the members begin to obtain a degree of strength that is often out of proportion with their level.” Thanks to item attunement and better guidance on treasure rewards, today’s D&D game does a better job of avoiding this trouble, even without a commandment. (See Too much magic kept breaking Dungeons & Dragons—how fifth edition fixes it and What is the typical amount of treasure awarded in a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign?.)

As for the bit about cheapening fantastic creatures by making them too common, tastes vary, but in most D&D worlds “monsters are everywhere.” The Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.9) gives advice for DMs who prefer to imagine worlds with rare monsters.

V. Run the adventures in color, not in black and white.

The article cites an example of boring play to avoid.

Player: We ask around to see if there’s a tavern in the town.
GM: There’s one a mile up the road.

Instead, the author recommends acting out the scene, complete with an accent for the NPC. In many situations, acting as an NPC creates a more vivid and dramatic game. Dungeon Master 4th Edition for Dummies (p.54) explains, “Whether an NPC serves as a walk-on or has a minor or major role in the story, play each one as an individual. Roleplay! Nothing makes an NPC come alive like roleplaying a key feature to give him or her personality and pizzazz. For major NPCs, such as the dastardly villain or the regal king who hires the adventurers, roleplay to the hilt. Even the lowliest kobold minions, though, really come alive if they have distinctive voices—even if all they ever say is, ‘I am slain!’ Ham it up, act it out, and make each character memorable in the scene.”

5. Roleplay your supporting cast as if you are a player and each NPC is your character.

The article’s example of getting directions leads me to a quibble: The example expands a two-line exchange between player and GM into inches of text, wasting time by exaggerating the importance of a minor moment. Because the GM gave the bystander so much attention, the players will keep talking, seeking the apparent importance in an inconsequential exchange.

Typically, an interaction without (1) a goal and (2) an obstacle only merits the sort of summary in the “boring” example. See How to Use Scenes and Summaries to Focus on the Best Parts of a Role-Playing Adventure. If the bystander happens to have more backstory to share, you might drop into character for a more colorful delivery. For a full scene, introduce a minor obstacle for the players to overcome. “I really shouldn’t say. The sheriff doesn’t approve of adventurers. Not since that last bunch.” Now the players need to find a way to overcome the NPC’s reticence, and the information shared seems worthy of attention.

Next: Can I update commandments 6-10 into exactly 5 more tips? Check back next Tuesday.

9 Best Collections of Inspirational Tables and Lists to Help DMs Create and Improvise

Never underestimate the value of a good list seeded with ideas or just evocative words. Inspirational tables include numbers for die rolls. I suspect the tables for traits, ideals, bonds, and flaws in the fifth edition Players Handbook developed more characters’ personalities, and therefor encouraged more role playing than anything in past Dungeons & Dragons history. And the table of trinkets on page 161 has probably been rolled against more than any other in the current game.

The dice in D&D, especially when combined with random tables, can fire imagination. Bestselling DM’s Guild author M.T. Black explains, “I use randomness all the time when I’m creating an adventure. Otherwise I find I’m just slipping back into very comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness really helps me bring something fresh to the table.” (For more on how M.T. Black creates, see his book The Anatomy of Adventure.)

Use the power of random thoughts colliding to fuel creativity. I like to generate ideas by taking two notions that strike my interest, but that seem unrelated, and then inventing ways to put the two thoughts together. (See Ask this question to create ideas and mysteries that grab players’ attention and D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.) M.T. Black uses the same trick to create. “Some of my best adventures had their genesis through the amalgamation of two seemingly unrelated ideas. So very often in this business, the magic happens through an inspired combination.”

What’s the quickest source of random thoughts? Tables like ones for adventures starting on page 73 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide or for dungeons on page 292. You probably already have that book. Count it as number 10.

Random tables especially help give life to the parts of the game world that seem routine. Recently, I needed market square vendors colorful enough for roleplaying scenes. A few rolls on tables gave enough inspiration for me to imagine merchants that excited me.

For improvisation, random tables help me avoid the first thought that comes to mind—the thought process that lead to my introduction of a recurring NPC named Kendle Stick. Never again.

Books of this sort benefit from indexes that organize various tables. When I reference these documents from my tablet, I like hyperlinks from the lists of tables to the tables themselves. Alas, neither feature is common.

What are the best resources for DMs who want more inspiration than the Dungeon Master’s Guide can offer?

9. GM Gems: A Tome of Game Master Inspiration
$11.99. 84 pages.

GM Gems devotes most of its pages to creations like 6 memorable caravans (described in 3 pages) or 15 unusual holidays (spanning 5 pages). All these nuggets suggest adventure hooks and reward browsing. My favorite tables include Memorable NPC Frills and Empty Rooms Worth Describing. The list of smell words appeals to both writers and 8-year-olds.

Sample roll from Short Encounters for Short Attention Spans. 32: The party finds an enormous tome written in Draconic with the title “Indigestion: What Creatures to Avoid.”

8. The Mother of All Treasure Tables
$15.99. 162 Pages.

While I like the idea of giving characters unique and evocative loot rather than lists of coinage, the chore of imagining such hoards exhausts me. The authors of The Mother of All Treasure Tables did my homework. Tables inside list treasure parcels by values up to 50,000 gp and even epic treasure.

Sample roll from 50 Gold Pieces. 25: A wooden box [1 gp] is as long as a dagger but twice as wide, and is painted black. Inside you find a thin bed of red wax that is dimpled with dozens of small depressions. Five gems are pressed into the wax: an azurite, a piece of blue quartz, a chunk of lapis lazuli, a freshwater pearl and a moss agate [10 gp each]. [Total 51 gp]

7. 650 Fantasy City Encounter Seeds & Plots
Free. 65 pages.

This document features a single list of urban adventure seeds and scene ideas.

Sample roll. 599: The PCs come across a tavern where an artist is trying to trade one of his paintings for drinks. The painting is truly bad.

6. d30 Sandbox Companion
$4.95. 56 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.

The d30 Sandbox Companion presents a way to improvise a wilderness, sandbox adventure using the rarely seen 30-sided die. (Hint: Ask your phone to roll.) Surely author Richard J. LeBlanc, Jr. ranks as the world biggest fan of the die that just won’t stop rolling. Some of the most useful tables describe NPCs, shops and shopkeepers, and name taverns.

Sample rolls from NPC Background, Eccentricities, and Talents. 30: Baker 21: father was a noble, had title stripped after “incident” 8: hates their life 29: whistles incessantly 24: talent for reading body language.

5. Masks: 1,000 Memorable NPCs for Any Roleplaying Game
$16.95. 338 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.

Masks presents 3 to 4 characters per page, with sub-headings for appearance, roleplaying, personality, motivation, and background. The book divides characters into sections for the fantasy, sci-fi, and modern genres. The index lets you find NPCs by traits like “Charming” and “Merchant.”

4. Eureka: 501 Adventure Plots to inspire Game Masters
$16.95. 316 pages. Indexed. Linked table of contents.

Eureka presents 2 adventure plots per page divided into sections for the fantasy, sci-fi, and modern genres. The index lets you find plots using tags like “Intrigue,” “Combat-heavy,” and “Betrayal.”

3. Dungeon Dozen
$8. 225 pages. Indexed.

Tables in Dungeon Dozen range from the useful ones (Also in Residence at the Inn and What’s on the Guard Monster’s Mind?) to gonzo (Occupants of the Colossal UFO Anchored to the Mountaintop). Everything seems evocative enough to supercharge your imagination.

Sample roll from Even the Doors are Weird. 5: Randomly opens and closes with damaging force.

2. Tome of Adventure Design
$12.60. 308 pages. Indexed.

The 400-something tables Tome of Adventure Design starts with help outlining adventure plots and villains, venture to dungeon tricks and decoration, and finish in cities and crossing planes.

Sample roll from Specific Tactical Situations. 77: Areas where spells have unusual effects; possibly weapons or movement also (underwater, for example).

1. GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing, Urban Dressing, & Wilderness Dressing
$13.99 each; discounted in a bundle. Linked tables of contents.

The GM’s Miscellany series rates as the best of the random-table genre. These volumes mix inspirational tables and a dash of advice into collections focused on dungeon, urban, and wilderness environments. A bundle that includes print and PDF versions of all the volumes offers the best value.

GM’s Miscellany: Dungeon Dressing. 216 pages.

Sample roll from Mundane Chest Contents: Wizard’s Chests. 95: The charcoal-rubbed papers in this chest appear to be of gravestone etchings.

GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing. 178 pages.

Sample roll from Market Stalls: Hooks, Complications & Opportunities. 4: An irate young man complains that he was almost killed by his last purchase. When pressed he explains ludicrous extraordinary circumstances.

GM’s Miscellany: Urban Dressing II. 118 pages.

Sample roll from Decadent Town: Sights & Sounds. 80: At least a dozen footmen and attendants clear the street to make way for a woman reclining on an opulent litter.

GM’s Miscellany: Wilderness Dressing. 122 pages.

Sample roll from Desert: Minor Events. 88: Two small scorpions are engaged in their own duel for a dead beetle.

How to Avoid Boring Rerolls of D&D’s Ability Checks

Dungeons & Dragons plays best when players can only retry ability checks if something changed after the first roll.

For many ability checks, this makes sense because failing makes trying the same thing again impossible. The Dungeon Master’s Guide gives this example: “If the rogue loses a contest of Charisma (Deception) against the guard’s Wisdom (Insight), the same lie told again won’t work.” Typically, Intelligence and Charisma checks only allow one attempt.

Still, the realization that DMs should avoid allowing rerolls surprised me because some checks naturally invite retries. Typically, Strength and Dexterity checks seem open to multiple attempts. Why not try to pick a lock again? The Dungeon Master’s Guide even includes advice for multiple checks. “In some cases, the only real cost is the time it takes. To speed things up, assume that a character spending ten times the normal amount of time needed to complete a task automatically succeeds at that task.”

That suggestion seems like advice for retrying checks, but at the core, it tells when to skip them. If a character can succeed and has time, then skip the roll. This guideline never explains how to determine whether characters have enough skill and talent to succeed. (Spoiler: I will recommend rolling a check.)

DMs aim to run an exciting game, and skipping rerolls helps. The outcome of a roll should launch—or at least nudge—the game ahead or into a new direction. Even a failure that blocks progress should inspire ingenuity. If a failure does nothing more than prompt a player to fish for a higher number, then the game stalls. Boring. Third edition even created rules to avoid such fizzles. A player could take 20 and spend 20 times as long in exchange for an automatic 20 on a check attempt.

For checks that seem to allow multiple retries, the take 20 rule answers the can-I question using addition. While fifth edition skips the take-20 rule, the math remains the same. If a character’s check bonus plus 20 meets or beats a task’s DC, then mathematically the character could succeed. But this take-20 math leads to unsatisfying play for two reasons:

If bending the bars of dungeon cells requires success against a DC 20, which the game calls “hard,” then anyone with an average Strength of 10 and time to spare gets loose. The same goes for a hard lock and an untrained thief with no aptitude. For dungeons to hold athletes and locks to deter thieves, the iron and the mechanisms need a DC 25 and talented beginners still get through. I think we can all agree that prisons work better than that. But we contrive DCs to create a fun and challenging game. D&D aims for heroics where the barbarian bends the portcullis and the rogue picks the lock, all before the approaching monsters arrive. So the game recommends DCs based on the assumption that characters only get one attempt.

Instead of using take-20 math to decide whether a character has enough talent and skill to succeed, the game usually plays better when one ability check decides. Knowledge checks already work that way. When players ask if their characters know the history of Netheril, a check answers without rerolls or taking 20. For any check where failure blocks a retry, one die roll decides whether a character can succeed. Can the paladin persuade the mayor? Can the wizard decipher the sigil?

Checks that decide what a character can accomplish date back to first edition and attempts to bend bars or lift gates. “The attempt may be made but once, and if the score required is not made, the character will never succeed at the task.” Does a failed check reveal thicker bars? Maybe. Such checks fit D&D’s long tradition of rolling to learn things about the game world, things like whether a door is locked or if the skies are clear.

Die rolls bring more fun than letting take-20 math or a DM’s ruling decide between success and failure. Plus, you only roll once so the game never stalls while someone fishes for a higher number.

Now that you know to never allow a character to repeat a check, I will weaken that principle by revealing exceptions.

One obvious exception: Sometimes a change in approach allows a reroll. If a character failed to move a stone, perhaps a lever will help. Gain another attempt.

The second exception requires a DM’s judgement, something right in the DM job description.

When characters risk paying a price for failure, allowing retries can create a more exciting game. If a climber can fall or if someone attempting to disarm a trap can suffer the device’s effects, the character can retry and bear the risks again. Often the price of failure comes from losing time against a ticking clock—a draining hourglass in most D&D worlds. In classic D&D games, every moment wasted raises the risk of wandering monsters. When attempting to break a door, the price of failure is often noise, whether it alerts wandering monsters or nearby guards.

Fifth edition allows for setbacks more interesting than damage or delays. Failure can mean that a character “makes progress combined with a setback determined by the DM.” For example, if a rogue blows a roll to pick a lock, the DM can decide that the lock opens but the attempt made a noise that leads to complications. Gamers call this failing forward.

The Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game includes a “pushing the roll” rule that lets players agree to pay a price for a second failure in exchange for a retry. Players describe the extra effort or time taken to justify a second chance. Plus, they give the game master “permission to bring dire consequences” if the next attempt fails. You may steal this rule for your D&D game. The idea works especially well for checks with a potentially harsh penalty for failure. For example, a character who fails a first climb attempt realizes the cliff seems too treacherous and makes no progress. If the climber pushes on despite the risk, and then fails again, they fall.

DMs who ask for a check must be ready for failure. Sometimes even published modules include checks where a failure blocks the rest of the adventure—checks with no room for failure. At conventions, I have seen bad rolls test DMs who abruptly realized that a failure left the adventure no way to continue. These DMs switched to improvising new checks as a way to drag the group to success. When we kept failing, the damage control turned comical. Failing forward lets characters fail checks and still pass ahead, but search checks and especially knowledge checks can make inventing a setback a hard challenge for a DM.

Related: In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?

Getting Players Moving, Especially When No One Wants to Drive

If you game master enough roleplaying games, you will eventually land a session that keeps stalling because no one wants to drive—no one wants to speak for the group. For instance, if the party has to pick a restaurant, then everyone spends 10 minutes saying “I don’t care. What do you want?” We’ve all been there, just probably not while in a dungeon. Most often, such tentative groups form when strangers meet for a game, often at conventions. But any group can lag, and the techniques for nudging a party ahead can prove useful beyond a convention hall.

To be clear, not every lull in a game needs an intervention. If the group enjoys slowing to roleplay, let it flow. If a group starts planning for the challenge ahead, then sit back and relish it. These situations show a group immersed in the game world. Score a win for the dungeon master.

Sometimes folks in a group of strangers feel presumptuous speaking for the whole group. When everyone keeps hesitating to call shots for the group, many DMs smooth the way by asking for individual decisions. “Making a choice for your character seems less daunting than making one for the group. Low stakes choices can break the ice,” writes Louis Bamberger. “Recently I ran a group that was pretty quiet. Their characters were at a town carnival, so I asked them what game they would play and what food or drink they would order. After each person explained their choices, a snowball of enthusiasm grew with each person’s answer.” By the end of the session, a group of players new to roleplaying games felt eager for another go.

Die rolls, even inconsequential ones, make another good ice breaker. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia gives an example. “In a marketplace, have an arcane character make a bogus check to point out a vendor’s wares could be spell components, just to get them to talk. Data tends to help us make decisions, so skill checks, even granting minor information, tend to help move us to action.”

When I serve as DM for tentative group, I tend to make two adjustments.

First, I pose more choose-your-adventure-style choices.

This helps narrow a limitless range of options to a menu of sensible actions. At worst the table can vote. Often I nominate one player as caller-for-the-moment to make a decision. DM Tom Christy sometimes selects the most charismatic character—the natural leader. You can also nominate a leader based on circumstantial qualifications. Underground, let the dwarf choose the way. At a masquerade, the bard would lead.

Second, I may increase the amount of information I give before I ask the players what they want to do. This decreases the number of minor, often inconsequential, choices slowing the group.

With a typical group, when the players meet a character with clues to share, or when the players enter a new location, I withhold some easy discoveries. This gives players more to learn as they talk and investigate. This rewards action and leads to a more interactive game. So if the room has a mosaic, I’ll assume someone will take a closer look. If a wizard’s apprentice reveals that the archmage sought reagents, I’ll assume the party will ask for details. For most groups, this technique leads to a better game.

But if a tentative group needs to know that the archmage intends to make a golem, then the apprentice may become chatty. And I’ll just tell a hesitant group that the mosaic shows a priestess burying a scepter under a mountain with three peaks.

I don’t welcome such adjustments. They can feel like I’m dragging a particularly halting group to the finish, but no one wants a game that lags.

Phil Vecchione notes that groups become indecisive when they lack enough information to make a choice. He suggests bridging that information gap. Start by recapping what the players already know. Players feel confused more often than they ever admit—and more than we DMs care to admit. Share any useful information that the characters may know based on their in-game expertise. The characters live in the game world; the players just visit.

As an ultimate remedy, Phil suggests upping the urgency by adding new developments in the game world. So if the party continues to dither at the door, have something open it from the other side.

Use the Small World Principle to Build a Better Game

Before you introduce a new non-player character to your game, seek to reuse an existing character who can fill the role.

I think of this as the Small World Principle, because I sometimes extend it beyond NPCs. Other writers call it the Law of Conservation of NPCs.

The Small World Principle brings a few benefits:

  • NPCs become more memorable and better developed because players spend more time with them.
  • The smaller number of characters creates more interaction, conflict, and drama within the cast. Drama builds rather than dissipates.
  • Game masters save the work of creating new and potentially interesting NPCs by relying on proven ones.

When I run one of the published D&D campaign adventures, I may consolidate the cast to focus on the non-player characters that I favor. Many DMs prefer to audition lots of NPCs in play and see who players fancy. Watch how players react to the characters they meet. If one sparks interest, then look for ways to expand the character’s role. See How to Make Non-Player Characters That Your Players Will Like.

The Small World Principle extends beyond NPCs. Instead of letting the game sprawl, look to circle back to existing locations.

Creators of fiction rely on the Small World Principle, even when they work on larger canvases. The Star Wars tales span a galaxy, but somehow everything happens to the Skywalkers, usually on Tatooine. In Marvel comics, almost every hero and villain lives in New York City. What are the odds? Sure, the Hulk spends time in the desert, but he seems to visit New York monthly for a team up or two. People notice the unlikeliness, but few seem overly bothered by it.

Sometimes an NPC brings some qualifications to a role, but seems disqualified for some reason. For example, perhaps the character last appeared a continent away. Or maybe they were dead. Before you conclude that the existing character won’t fit, reconsider the NPC in the part and ask, How could this be true? See Ask this question to create ideas and mysteries that grab players’ attention. Perhaps the character’s reappearance just requires a line of explanation. Perhaps it sparks a mystery that enriches the game.

Related: How to Create Loveable Non-Player Characters While You Supercharge Your Sex Appeal

The 4 Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break

In Dungeons & Dragons the dungeon master gets to break the rules, but only so much. The amount of breakage varies from group to group. Some DMs stick to the rules as written, only overriding them when they defy the logic of the game world. Other DMs never track hit points and just declare monsters defeated when it suits the drama of a battle.

Despite a DM’s dominion over the rules, D&D includes some rules DMs must never break—at least if they want their players to stick with the game. Oddly, these rules never appeared in print, so successful DMs learned them by observation and insight. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax made these lessons difficult for many early DMs to learn. He set an example that seemed to encourage dungeon masters to beat players. As soon as players gained an edge, Gary created something to foil them. He and his players enjoyed the battle of wits brought by this style of play. Still, Gary just aimed to challenge players and he mostly stuck to these rules that he never wrote down.

Meanwhile, struggling DMs never deduced the unwritten rules, and often unknowingly broke them to defeat the players and to “win” D&D. Eventually, these DMs either lost all their players or they learned.

What are the dungeon master’s laws of fair play?

1. Never confront characters with threats they cannot either defeat or avoid.

The avoid part of this rule is important.

In D&D’s early days, players controlled the game’s difficulty by choosing how deep to delve into the dungeon. Certainly Gary introduced tricks aimed at luring characters deeper than they intended, but he saw such traps as avoidable tests of mapping skill. The early rules made fleeing easier and clever players knew when to run. See The Story of the Impossible Luck that Leads D&D Parties to Keep Facing Threats They Can Beat.

In today’s game, DMs more often contrive threats that the party can beat. DMs can still throw deadly, even lethal challenges, but not without giving players a warning or a way to avoid the peril. See How to Scare D&D Players—Even When They Play Mighty Heroes.

An outrageous violation of this rule appears as a living hill monster described in Booty and the Beasts, the 1979 collection of monsters and treasures co-authored by legendary D&D artist Erol Otus. Living hills look like normal, grassy hills. “They feed upon unwary travelers who camp upon their seemingly benign summits.” Campers only have a 1 in 6 chance of noticing a lost—and digested—party member. Blogger Mr. Lizard writes, “This is a perfect example of the classic ‘gotcha!’ monster. Basically, unless you actually go out of your way to check to see if you’re on a living hill, your character is dead.”

2. Assume players have taken reasonable actions.

Imagine this rule worded in a more amusing way: DMs should always assume the characters are wearing pants, even if no players said that they put them on. Obviously, this guideline exempts the anthropomorphic ducks in RuneQuest.

In the more adversarial days of D&D, some DMs insisted that players announce their intent to draw a weapon before attacking. If the battle started without weapons drawn, characters wasted a turn pulling out blades. Frustrated players took to readying weapons at every sign of danger, as if just entering a monster-infested underground death trap fell short of a sign.

3. Never let players ignorantly take a substantial risk.

We all love when players stake their characters’ lives on some reckless, nearly impossible stunt. Whether they succeed or fail, such moments make unforgettable gaming. But before any foolhardy undertaking, make sure the players know (1) the odds and (2) the result of failure. I typically share difficulty classes before players roll. These DC numbers help span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and what a player learns from a DM’s description. DCs prevent misunderstandings.

As for risks, make sure players know that, say, falling from the Earth mote means plunging into a sea of lava. That works better than rewinding the action for a player who heard “sea” and not “lava.”

4. Never plan to take the players’ freedom or stuff to support your plot.

In the early days of D&D, some gamers coached DMs to deal with excess treasure by having thieves steal it as the characters slept. Often the caper succeeded because the players never listed the reasonable precautions they would take to protect their treasures. (See rule 2.)

Early spells like Leomund’s Secret Chest seem designed to thwart thievery, so perhaps Gary indulged in such thefts. Gary had an excuse: He invented most of the game’s magic items and wanted to test them in play. His players grew accustomed to seeing gear won, lost, and melted by fireballs. Also Gary’s players probably stole from each other—they played to win back then. See Did Dave and Gary’s Gift for Finding Fun in Dungeons & Dragons Lead Them Wrong?

None of this applies to today’s game. Never take the character’s hard-won gear. They will resent the loss.

Often DMs who steal gear aim to create a powerful hook, which leads players to chase their treasure through a campaign arc. Those good intentions may make the theft seem permissible, but those schemes only make the situation worse. Such rough hooks make players feel railroaded.

The same rules for gear also apply to the loved ones players invent for their backgrounds. Those casts count as the player’s stuff. Never kill such characters to create a cheap motivation.

The most common and egregious violation of this rule comes when a DM wants players taken captive. In adventure fiction, heroes get captured regularly. So DMs dream up similar stories, and then try to force a capture despite the players’ determination to never get taken alive.

Sometimes DMs opt for capture as alternative to a total party kill. While a fair exception to this rule, don’t violate rule 1 in the process by confronting characters with a threat they cannot defeat or avoid. Save your escape-from-the-dungeon scenario for a time when players ignore warning signs, make bad choices, suffer setbacks, and ignore any chance to run. Those times happen—trust me. Then, instead of rolling new characters, have the old characters wake in chains. The players will feel grateful for a second chance.

What unwritten rules have you spotted in D&D?