Category Archives: Advice

How to Bring Player Character Backstory Into Campaigns Without Overstepping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DM: Zand, have you ever gambled in Waterdeep?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related:

Next: More on bringing backstory into campaigns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the best spells to cast at higher levels?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morale Checks: Does Wisdom Make One Courageous or Wise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why would monsters fight to the end?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Players fear encounters designed for a full party.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start players with a goal

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

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

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

Add notices

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

Bring non-player characters to the players

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

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

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

Have someone offer to guide

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

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

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

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

Create events that foster interaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add visual aids

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

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

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

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.