Category Archives: Advice

Confidence game: Why Faking Confidence Makes You a Better Dungeon Master

Some dungeon masters boast unshakable confidence in their skill, even though their games only attract players because no one else wants the DM’s chair. Overconfidence leaves these DMs blind to their flaws. I should know. As a DM, I have been that overconfident, and it led me to run bad games.

bills_tableNow I know that my skills can always stand improvement. That my next session could be a dud. That however well my last game went, I can find ways to do better. When I finish running a game, I reflect back on the session and wonder how I can recreate the moments that went well and fix any missteps.

My lesser confidence makes me a better dungeon master. Don’t tell my players. I need to seem confident.

When expert DMs name the qualities of a good DM, they often cite confidence. I agree with 100% certainty.

As a dungeon master, you channel an imaginary world to your players. When you seem uncertain about what happens in that world, it yanks the players out of their imagination and reminds them that you just make things up.

In a confidence game, a con man schemes to gain someone’s trust in order to rob them. As a dungeon master, you don’t chase anyone’s retirement savings, but your game still needs trust. If you speak of the game world with confidence, players trust you as their eyes into it. They throw their alter egos into an imaginary world and trust that it will react in ways the make sense.

For dungeon masters like me who sometimes lack confidence, this insight should feel encouraging.

If you lack confidence, you can fake it. No dungeon master always feels confident. You just need to pretend enough to show authority. No problem. As role players, we all practice pretending.

Even though you can fabricate confidence from pure bluster, I prefer to reach the table armed with the real thing. You do not need 10,000 hours of GM experience to build the sort of confidence that helps at the table. You just need to master the sliver of your game world that players will see. By doing the preparation you probably already do, you can reach the table with confidence.

As a dungeon master, you may worry that someone at your table will know the rules better than you do. Don’t let this shake your confidence. Someone usually knows more, and that doesn’t matter. In a prior Dungeon Master’s Guide, designer James Wyatt wrote, “When I started working at Wizards of the Coast, it took a long time before I felt comfortable running a game for any of my coworkers, even though I used to always DM for my friends back home. They all knew the rules better than I did, and I didn’t want to get caught in a stupid mistake. Eventually, I got over that.”

You need to know enough of the rules to keep your game moving, but you do not need to match the rules lawyer. You can delegate mastery of the rules. Have someone look up that spell for you. Let the lawyers explain the corner case. They relish the chance.

“The DM is the person who prepares adventures, plans a campaign, and runs the monsters and NPCs,” Wyatt wrote. “I don’t want to be a referee or judge, and my players don’t expect me to.”

Of course, the rules leave many decisions to the DM’s judgement.

Confidence—or an imitation of it—lets you make these rulings with authority. If your rulings seem to rely on the players’ approval, you encourage them to quibble. They start to lobby for favorable rulings. I’ve sat at tables where players see the DM as unsure. They try to wheedle advantages and the game lurches along. Despite the merits of saying yes, compelling stories require obstacles. Immersion requires a game world that doesn’t change as the DM waffles. Listen to the players, make a confident ruling that seems fun and fair, and then move on.

The secret to projecting confidence at the table lies in role playing. Play the character of a confident, expert dungeon master. A dungeon master much like you. If you come prepared to bring a sliver of your game world to life, playing the role should come easy. You can run a great game. Your players sat to roll some dice and have fun. They want you to succeed.

This post originally appeared in October 2016.

Add Tension and Interesting Choices to D&D Adventures With This Potion

In an adventure that features a race against time or against unseen ememies, players will ask if they have time to rest,  search, or prepare. If the adventure lacks a way to reveal how much time remains, such decisions become guesswork. Informed choices make roleplaying games fun, but guessing can just feel frustrating. Players wonder if their blind decisions really matter or if their choices just get ignored so the session tracks a narrative. Often, story conventions win, so choices don’t matter. How often do parties of adventurers reach a diabolical ritual seconds before its completion? Such luck! All those guesses led to the most improbable, dramatic conclusion. (I don‘t condemn it; I’ve done it.)

The movie version of the race to foil a ritual would cut speeding characters against shots revealing the cultists’ nearing success. For drama, a dungeon master could take the storytelling liberty of describing events the characters can’t see, but that gives players actionable information their characters lack. To play in character, does the group have to pretend they don’t know what they can’t know?

Potions photo by Jan Ranft

Some years ago, the multi-table epic adventure Return to White Plume Mountain suffered from such an information gap. In it, some tables worked to create a distraction to divert foes from other groups who might otherwise be overwhelmed. At the end of the adventure, groups that drew more foes faced more monsters. The best strategy balanced making some distration without drawing a lethal amount of attention. But the players lacked feedback revealing the rising threat they faced, so I wished for some divination magic that would give players a better sense of how their actions shaped their future.

I’ve considered all this as I prepare to run the adventure Necropolis of the Mailed Fist, a “punishing” tournament adventure sure to be relished by a particular group of gluttons for punishment. Author Sersa Victory favors competition over immersion by sometimes telling DMs to make metagame announcements or to issue challenges:

“Announce to players that ‘the constellation of living spheres of annihilation has been awakened!’”

“Tell characters that they have one minute to choose between supremacy for themselves or subjugation for their enemies.”

I imagine an unseen narrator’s announcements sounding across the necropolis, and the characters looking quizzically for the source, Instead, I want a way to bring these announcements out of the metagame and into the game world.

Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons scenarios would play better when the players gain feedback that would lead to interesting choices and added tension. Often, the characters have no ordinary way to get that information. Fortunately, D&D characters live in a magical world where divination exists.

Potion of Omens
Potion, rare
After drinking this potion, you begin seeing visions or hearing phrases that reveal your progress toward whatever short-term goal you feel is most important. These omens may also reveal the most likely outcome of current activities meant to reach the goal. The DM chooses the frequency and the exact nature of the omens. The effects last for 10 days or until your goal changes.

By providing the capability in a potion, the DM controls access, so when a mission works better with extra information, characters can happen upon a potion that helps.

How to End Combat Encounters Before They Become a Grind

Every Dungeons & Dragons player experiences a battle that drags near the end, when the monsters have spent their best attacks and lack the numbers to threaten the PCs. As a dungeon master, I want to cut to the next scene, but thanks to focused fire, the remaining monsters stand near full health. Players won’t spend any resources on a fight that seems won, so they chip away with cantrips and basic attacks. The battle wears on.

After a battle’s outcome becomes obvious, the game can drag. I have had many chances to test ways to move on. Some of my schemes have worked better than others.

Endings to avoid

Avoid having monsters flee or surrender. Some argue that monsters would possess a sense of self preservation. That in the face of death, they would flee or surrender. I used to agree, but then I learned that bloodthirsty treasure hunters never show mercy.

Having monsters flee or surrender seems like a quick way to end a battle, but neither tactic saves time. PCs always pursue fleeing monsters, resulting in a chase. Only have monsters flee when you want a chase, or when the PCs simply cannot follow.

Surrender leads to an ugly interrogation scene followed by the dreary dispute over killing helpless captives. Finally, during the paladin’s bathroom break, the rogue murders the prisoners. (If you have never run these scenes, welcome first-time dungeon master!)

Sometimes, a surrender can lead to an interesting role-playing scene, or a real dilemma. Usually this requires foes who can (a) trade for their lives or (b) offer a good reason they should be freed. In these cases, a surrender can enrich a game by creating interesting choices. See Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing. Nonetheless, surrender never saves time.

With either a chase or a surrender, you spend 30 minutes to save 5.

I suspect that in the monster community, word has spread about murderous treasure hunters and their rogues and paladins. Better to fall in battle than to die on your knees or with a knife in your back.

Don’t call the fight. When a winner becomes obvious, some DMs recommend calling the fight. Just sweep the monsters off the map. This fix seems tempting, but players hate it.

As a DM, you know more about the monsters’ conditions than the players. You may see an obvious win, while the players still feel tension. To players, the fight remains undecided and they want to play to the end.

Even when everyone sees the inevitable, calling a fight jars the players out of their immersion in the game world. It leaves players feeling robbed of a victory they earned. “When a player rolls a successful attack, deals damage, and the bad guy dies, that’s something that THEY did. They own that moment,” writes Justin Alexander. “If you, as the GM, interrupt that process, and declare a fiat success, you take that moment away from them: They didn’t kill the monster; you did.”

“As DMs, we might get tired. We might get frustrated because the PCs dominated what otherwise would have been a tough fight,” Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea writes. “Don’t spread your disinterest to your players, revel in their excitement! Be fans of the PCs and come up with interesting ways to end the battle in a powerful in-story conclusion.”

In the worst time crunch, use narration to ease players out of the scene and give some sense of victory. Describe the characters’ final strikes—or invite the players to tell the tale.

Endings to use

Plan an out. The best combat encounters feature an objective different from kill all the monsters. Charactrers attempt to stop a ritual, defend a wall, close a dark portal, destroy an artifact, steal the brain in the jar, or accomplish some other task. Dave “The Game” Chalker calls this The Combat Out.

Often completing the objective returns undead foes to dust, turns summoned foes to mist, makes constructs inanimate, or causes the cultists to rout. Unlike most combat encounters, if the losing foes surrender or run, the players may skip the torture and chase scenes. After all, the victorious players have no information to gain. And if the heroes insist on bringing the fleeing cultists to justice, nobody minds if the DM summarizes that endgame.

Turn monsters into minions. You can bring a fight to a quick end by silently deciding that all the monsters stand at only 1 hit point. The next hit kills. I used to feel conflicted about this technique because it felt like a way for a DM to steer the game—I want the players’ actions and the dice to decide the characters‘ fate. But the characters have settled their fate and won. Rounding up their damage rolls to let them quickly finish monsters just gives the players a victory lap.

Let everyone roll at once. Near the end of a battle, typically only one type of monster remains—often just one creature at nearly full health. These survivors all act on the same initiative count, then all the players act. This situation permits my favorite way to close a battle: everyone roll at once. By now, the outcome has been decided, so no one would waste a spell slot. No player’s action requires my full attention. I announce the monsters’ armor class and invite everyone to roll their attacks and damage at once. If you need to move, just do it. I call out names in initiative order and tally damage. In the time usually spent on one turn, all the players act.

This post updates and improves on a version that appeared in 2016.

Two Ways to Exploit D&D’s Ready Action In Tricky Ways

Usually, D&D games feel the most fun and immediate when the game’s rules aren’t the center of attention. So for example, the fifth edition uses the blunt simplicity of advantage and disadvantage instead of the fussy lists of pluses and minuses found in prior editions. But the Ready action adds rules where players and dungeon masters can wring benefits by exploiting the game text. Using these tricks throws a spotlight on the game’s rules and might send players to the books or to search for rulings from lead designer Jeremy Crawford, so the tricks don’t fit every table.

A Dungeons & Dragons round unravels 6 seconds of mayhem where combatants all fight at once into turns played at the game table. The ready action lets players hesitate a moment to take an action outside their usual turn. Since all the turns in a round share the same 6 seconds, Ready actions leave space for wonky rules exploits.

Use this one weird trick to avoid counterspell

You cast counterspell as a reaction “you take when you see a creature within 60 feet of you casting a spell.” So if you cast a spell out of sight, no foes can counter it. “When you ready a spell, you cast it as normal but hold its energy, which you release with your reaction when the trigger occurs.”

To avoid a counterspell, just ready a spell by casting it around the corner or beyond the 60-foot range of a counter, and then choose to trigger the action when your target comes into view or within range of your spell. Jeremy Crawford writes, “Counterspell foils the casting of a spell, not the release of a spell that was cast previously using the Ready action.”

Nothing in the ready action prevents you from readying and then moving while concentrating on the ready spell. As an added bonus, readying a spell out of view enables you to release it without the mystic movements or words that would expose you as the source of the spell. Of course, with many spells, something like flames jetting from your fingertips reveals you as the caster.

Although this exploit works, I never use it because—despite Jeremy’s defense of the rules as written—it feels like an unintended consequence of the fifth edition text, allowing a trick that only a rules lawyer could love.

Slow ranged attackers by a third just by moving out of sight between turns

Creatures in fifth edition D&D can move into view, fire an attack or spell, and then duck back into complete cover. Such duck-and-cover tactics make the most effective defense against ranged attackers who can’t shoot through walls and other obstacles. The typical archer has to choose between two options:

  • Circle the obstacle and potentially move dangerously close to the target.
  • Ready an attack for the moment a target pops into view.
archer photo

Photo by Alireza Sahebi

Few D&D players appreciate how much using a Ready action hurts their ranged characters. Combatants forced to ready attacks suffer from two disadvantages that tend to fall more heavily on players.

  • The Extra Attack feature only works “when you take the Attack action on your turn.” Because Ready actions trigger on another creature’s turn, a character with Extra Attack who readies an Attack action only gets a single attack despite the feature.
  • The Ready action only lets you postpone an action, not an action plus a bonus action, so characters typically able to trade a bonus action for another attack lose that addition.

Combined, this means that martial characters who typically attack three times per turn thanks to the Extra Attack feature and feats like crossbow expert can only ready a single strike.

Because most adventuring parties include ranged attackers who can prove brutally effective in fifth edition, this technique tends to bring more advantages to DMs. But should DMs use this bit of rules mastery to frustrate players? If the party lacks characters with the Sharpshooter feat, I opt for just keeping foes in sight to gain the simple benefit of cover. But Sharpshooter negates cover and ranks as the most efficient feat in the game, so against it, I reluctantly adopt tactics that force players to ready actions.

Tip: Plant Character Knowledge Before the Game

Characters in Dungeons & Dragons worlds bring knowledge that players lack. And that knowledge goes beyond sword swinging and spell crafting. Rolls that call for religion, nature, arcana, and history all check a character’s in-world knowledge. Sometimes characters know better than players. For example, as a DM, I warn players whenever their characters’ knowledge of the world says that a particular monster will likely kill them in a fight. Maybe your 1st-level characters shouldn’t attack the manticore.

For my latest game, I planned an investigation where the characters’ knowledge might help connect clues and would certainly provide perspective. For instance, the players could succeed without knowing Zuggtmoy and Lloth feuded as hated rivals, but that tidbit would help explain a discovery on the Abyssal plane of Shedaklah. I preferred not to interrupt the narrative for a Religion check and information dump. (Believe me, when the characters made the discovery, nobody wanted to pause for my lecture on religion.) I considered planting the lore in the world, but describing, say, an open book turned to a page about the rivalry seemed forced at best. So I adopted a tip from DM Tom Christy.

Before an adventure, Tom considers the essential backstory and pertinent lore that might arise, and then reveals it to individual players before play. “I love to find out which characters are trained in pertinent skills, and then feed their players information ahead of the session.” This knowledge can come from skill proficiencies but also from each character’s background, nature, and outlook. For instance, the druid knows of the cursed trees surrounding the grove, while the dwarf knows about the flooded mine.

During the game, players can share their knowledge in-character. When a player reveals knowledge, Tom rewards inspiration.

slips containing written adventure background information

For my latest adventure, I wrote the useful bits of game-world lore on slips of paper. Before the game, I awarded the slips based on the characters’ experience in the world. So the elf who knew religion got facts about the demon queens. These tidbits even included personal information about a key non-player character one adventurer would have met.

I explained, “These slips list things that your character knows. Right now, they’re just some of the countless facts you happen to know. Sometime during the adventure, this information may become pertinent, and then you should share it.”

This technique boasts key advantages: The information sharing comes when players find it important and feels organic to the in-world narrative. More importantly, players get the spotlight to share lore as their character instead of just having the DM tell what characters know. DMs already spend enough time talking.

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

4 Tips For When One Player Scouts the Dungeon

Does find familiar rank as the most unbalanced spell in Dungeons & Dragons? For the price of learning a mere 1st-level spell, wizards gain a scout, an extension to all their touch spells, and a battlefield helper. If players make good use of familiars, the spell rates a better value than fireball. But still, does it rate as unbalanced?

When designers aim to balance characters’ spells and abilities, they look to give each character equal time as the focus of attention—as the lead character contributing to the party’s success. Mainly, gamers question balance whenever one character proves so deadly in combat that the other players wonder why they showed up for the game. In a fight, a familiar can use the Help action to boost allies, but no one minds that support.

Instead, familiars can feel unbalanced during D&D’s exploration pillar. Smart players can use a bat or an owl to scout cave systems from end to end or to peer into every window of the villain’s lair. Such scouting isn’t limited to familiars. Druids can wild shape into a creature like a tiny spider and creep unnoticed through a dungeon. One of my players used an arcane eye to scout 5 levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods without ever leaving the entry hall. An arcane eye can’t pass solid objects, but that dungeon’s halls, caves, and central atrium mostly lack doors. The player controlling the eye could have exhausted the entire session spying, but noticed impatient players and called the scouting short. Nonetheless, for an hour or so, I frantically scanned the adventure trying to summarize the visible parts of 50 pages of dungeon. I don’t blame the scrying wizard for smart play, I love gaining familiars and scout for as long as the other players’ patience can bear.

Familiars, wild shaping druids, and scrying wizards all challenge dungeon masters to reward smart play and the players who choose scouting abilities, without turning the rest of the party into passive bystanders who wonder why they showed up. Stealthy or invisible characters can also scout and create similar challenges. Finding a good balance proves difficult because no approach works for every dungeon and lair.

What tricks can help DMs strike the right balance?

1. Include doors and window covers.

The sort of creatures able to spy unnoticed typically lack the strength or thumbs needed to open doors, so the best limit to scouting becomes snug doors. Create dungeons with enough open paths to reward short scouting trips, but enough doors to force characters ahead. If a player quibbles that surely some doors leave gaps for a mouse or spider, roll and let the dice decide.

As for my own character’s favorite trick of sending an owl to peer into windows, consider balancing the temptation of open windows with a few drapes, shutters, soot stains, and just dark interior rooms.

2. Scout between sessions.

I like to end each session by asking for players to outline their plans for the next session. This helps my preparation. Also, if the players plan to tackle a dungeon or stronghold, you can handle scouting either through a 1-on-1 mini session or just by sketching a players’ map and planning a quick summary of discoveries for the full group. If that seems too passive, you can ask the scout to make, say, a stealth check and base the amount of information on their degree of success or failure.

3. Consider dungeon inhabitants.

Monsters and even ordinary critters can create a barrier to spying. Players scouting in a beast shape or using a familiar tend to dismiss the risk of something noticing or attacking a bat or spider. As a dungeon master, be clear about the risks and the checks a scouting critter might need to make to pass dungeon predators.

When familiars or characters scout alone, encounters that would never challenge a party or even a single adventurer can create interesting dilemmas. A servant who spots a cat prowling the manor might put a character or familiar in a pickle simply by closing the window leading out.

For creatures as small as a spider, consider adding wandering monsters, vermin really, that might try to make a meal of the scout. Sure, a cave centipede poses no risk to a druid, but in spider shape, the druid faces a choice of retreat or the price of shifting to humanoid form to squash the critter. As with any wandering monsters, I recommend making the rolls for an encounter openly. For such encounters, don’t bother creating a list of potential monsters. Just imagine one creature that suits the environment capable of forcing the scout to weigh risks and rewards.

4. Split the party.

Occasionally, entertain the idle players waiting for the scouting to finish by giving both the waiting characters and the scout something to do. By “something to do,” I mean fight. And by “entertain,” I mean threaten their characters’ lives. Characters waiting for scouts to return still face risks from patrols or wandering monsters. The most entertaining situations engage both the scout and the remaining party at the same time. In these predicaments, follow my advice for handling split parties.

These split-party jams work best when they feel like the natural consequence of a risky situation when both the scout and the waiting party know monsters lurk nearby. If scouting leads to a pattern of attacks from behind, players will feel punished for smart play. Still, the invisible, flying, or wild-shaped scout who presses their luck too far can lead to some of the game’s most exciting moments.

How to Run an Ambush So Sneaky Monsters Bring More Than Claw/Claw/Bite

Dungeons & Dragons includes lots of sneaky creatures proficient in Stealth, from Abominable Yeti to Yeti. That alphabetical range somehow fails to make my point, but more than 500 creatures fit in between. The game includes creeping monsters who work as ambush predators like spiders (Stealth +7), crafty ambushers like goblins (Stealth +6), as well as potential jump scares from wights, and jumping oh-shit surprises from bulettes.

When these creatures get some chances to lie in wait or to sneak up for surprise, they show the traits that make them more interesting than a claw/claw/bite sequence. Combat scenes feel more varied. Plus the barbarian gets to show off Feral Instinct. However, I have almost never run sneaky monsters for surprise, and based on countless convention games virtually every other DM plays sneaky wrong too.

Part of the blame rests on the fifth edition rule for hiding before an attack. “Compare the Dexterity (Stealth) checks of anyone hiding with the passive Wisdom (Perception) score of each creature on the opposing side. Any character or monster that doesn’t notice a threat is surprised at the start of the encounter.” In the highly technical jargon of game design, this rule is rubbish.

The worst check among the hiders determines surprise, so with multiple foes and checks, the chance of success veers quickly toward impossible. Based on real life, you might suppose that ambushes often work. Based on the D&D rules, the word “ambush” describes a imaginary event that can never happen, at least for groups of sneaky monsters. (For a look at the reverse of this dynamic, see In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?.)

To fix the rule so ambushers can surprise, skip the roll to hide. As a dungeon master, you can set the difficulty class to spot an ambush just as you set DCs for other checks. Then, compare each character’s passive Wisdom (Perception) score against the DC to determine if the character is surprised. This matches the procedure you might use for a trap.

As a technique for setting the DC to detect an ambush, just add 10 to the ambushers’ Stealth bonus, so hiding goblins with Stealth +6 require a DC 16 to spot. If the sneaky creature has advantage, add 5 to the DC. For disadvantage, subtract 5 from the DC. A group setting an ambush has the edge of planning, preparation, and familiarity with the location, so a DM focused on realism might allow advantage and enable many surprises, but not the kind players favor. More entertaining ambushes probably lead to a mix of surprised characters and characters who act immediately. Such situations reward characters with high perception.

This approach boosts sneaky monsters and perceptive characters, but it eliminates die rolls and the fun uncertainty that dice add. By choosing a DC, the DM essentially decides who becomes surprised, and it’s always the same, oblivious characters. The D&D designers favor passive perception because it avoids slowing the game for rolling Wisdom (Perception) checks. In dungeons that encourage players to look frequently for traps, passive checks can speed past a lot of rolls. But lurking monsters deserve a different procedure: Just have players roll a Wisdom (Perception) check before the likely roll for initiative. The characters who fail their check begin surprised.

In an ambush, initiative can start at one of two times:

  • When the monsters attack.
  • When one or more characters notice the potential ambush.

This second case leads to judgement calls from the DM, but can also lead to interesting scenes. How the realization plays depends on how the perceptive characters react to spotting the attackers.

If the ranger draws a sword and yells, “To Arms!” then initiative starts and the less perceptive players begin surprised. Meanwhile, the monsters are already aware of their foes, so they start without surprise.

If the ranger plays it cool and tries to alert the party, then the scene turns on whether the ambushers happen to attack immediately. Does the ambushers’ insight reveal that the archer spotted them? If so, they strike and may surprise some characters. Can the ranger deceive the ambushers into waiting just a moment longer while covertly signaling the party? Ask what the alert characters do, and then call for checks to play the scene.

Distance factors into the situation too. In daylight, if the eagle-eyed ranger spots a group of yuan-ti hiding among desert rocks a half-mile ahead, then any surprise hardly matters. During that first round, no one without meteor swarm is in range to attack. The players can select the best angle of approach or can just avoid the monsters. Since yuan-ti have darkvision to 120 feet, they surely wait until night when most adventurers with darkvision see 60 feet and still suffer disadvantage to Wisdom (Perception) checks unless they carry a light source. Such scenes allow characters to show their special traits, like the drow character’s enhanced night vision that lets the party turn the tables.

For that ambush in darkness, you must judge how close the party will approach the yuan-ti before any characters can detect the snakes. Perhaps at 60 feet, allow the ranger leading the party one check at disadvantage due to dim light. At 30 feet, in the moment the monsters spring their attack, allow a second check for the entire party.

Ultimately, many ambush attempts lead into situations that demand DMs ready to balance distance, skills, and traits to create fun and exciting situations. An ’80s roleplaying game might have included a table that factored Stealth scores, Perception scores, terrain and lighting into a roll that revealed encounter distance. The authors of the Player’s Handbook skipped all that complexity in favor of simplicity. The approach relies on a DM’s judgement, but isn’t that part of what makes being a dungeon master fun?

When You Describe Outcomes, Flatter Your Game’s Heroes and Monsters

Dungeons & Dragons games live in our imagination, so we can only share the action through our description. Critical hits, high-stakes saves, and successful checks against long odds all encourage dungeon masters and players to describe the game’s action in ways that flaunt the characters’ power and talent. Everyone loves a crit; even narrating one is fun.

As a DM, I look for characters’ heroic moments. In a movie, a heroic moment might come when Wonder Woman rushes a foe through a window, crashing out in a shower of glass and debris. In a game, heroic moments come when a hero grapples Acererak and heaves him into a pool of lava, or when a hero stops fleeing an onrushing boulder and turns to drive the sword Shatterspike into it. Whenever you spot a heroic moment, put game time into slow motion and lavish description on the heroics. Make it awesome. Many players enjoy describing their characters’ heroic moments. Invite them to.

In D&D and in fiction, a heroes prove their mettle by facing villains who seem at least as capable of winning the day. So look for villainous moments—baddass occasions when your monsters get to flaunt their menace. Think of the 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 badass moments by letting villains shrug off a hero’s best shot and laugh at the character’s weakness.

Surely none of this advice surprises you. Here’s the unexpected tip: When someone fumbles, instead of describing the failure in a way the makes the hero or monster seem inept or comical, describe the stumble so the fault comes from tough opposition or an imposible situation. DMs feel tempted to narrate bad rolls for laughs. We can narrate a 1 with a description of how someone’s hat tilted to cover their eyes and gain an easy laugh that feels fun in the moment. But too many descriptions like that turn characters into clowns and their opponents into jokes. Instead, use a 1 to describe a foe’s superhuman speed or the swirling hot ash clogging the air and stinging the heroes’ eyes. When you describe outcomes, even the fumbles, flatter your heroes and monsters.

Postscript: Before anyone runs to the comment section, I know that D&D lacks fumbles, but you know what I mean. Don’t be pedantic.

Steal This Rule: Numenera and XP for Discovery

By popular reckoning, the original Dungeons & Dragons play style centered on killing monsters and taking their loot. But D&D’s experience rules focused less on killing than folks think. The monster and treasure tables provided as much as three times as many XP for gold as for slaying. Savvy players learned to snatch treasure without a fight. Their characters lived longer that way.

Still, gamers criticized the rule for awarding experience for gold as unrealistic. For example, in the original Arduin Grimoire (1977), Dave Hargrave wrote that in his campaign experience “points are given for many reasons, but NOT for gold or other treasure. After all, it is the act of robbery, not the amount stolen, that gives the thief his experience.” The second-edition designers agreed, because they removed XP-for-gold from D&D.

But D&D co-creator Gary Gygax never aimed for realism. He intended to reward players with XP and levels for doing the things that made D&D fun—for exploring dungeons and for taking risks when surely the Oerth merchant trade promised wealth with no chance of a painful death in some murder pit. D&D’s third-edition designer Monte Cook gets the point. He writes, “I’m a firm believer in awarding players experience points for the thing you expect them to do in the game. Experience points are the reward pellets players get. Give the players XP for doing a thing and that thing is what they’ll do.”

Over time, D&D players started spinning stories about topics other than that time we killed a troll for gold. Originally, every character chased treasure; now, characters pursue adventure for justice or for honor or for countless other reasons, including treasure. For this sort of campaign, the classic awards of XP for gold and XP for slaying both fall short. In Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling, I suggest awarding XP for overcoming obstacles, but during D&D’s exploration pillar, the obstacles often miss the point.

If a party finds a secret door to the magic fountain, should they earn less XP than the party that killed the monsters guarding the obvious route? If obstacles bring rewards, then the party who finds the secret misses XP. If discoveries win points, then both groups gain for finding the fountain, and perhaps the observant party gains for finding the secret way.

Discovery is the soul of Monte Cook’s Numenera roleplaying game, so the game awards XP for discoveries rather than for overcoming challenges or killing foes. In D&D, similar awards can spotlight the goal of exploration: discovery.

For investigation and exploration adventures, the obstacles come from a lack of information. Reward the party for the discoveries they make.

To reward explorers for discovery, get a copy of your map and highlight the features to find: magic fountains, hidden shrines, magic items, keys, maps, hidden passages, and clues to the prince’s disappearance. Divide the number of XP characters need to level by the number of discoveries you hope they make before advancing. Then mark each discovery with the point award it brings. (See Using Experience Points To Make D&D More Compelling for a helpful table of points.) If you like precision, adjust the points so bigger discoveries bring bigger rewards. Optionally, you can mark obstacles the group must overcome and include them with the discoveries. Some gamers favor calling D&D’s exploration pillar its discovery pillar instead. This XP method fits that notion perfectly.

Flashing back to 1973, perhaps Gary should have chosen this XP system for his dungeon-crawling game. How would that small change have shaped the way we played?

Related: XP Started as One of D&D’s Breakthrough Ideas. Now the Designers Don’t See the Point

Dungeons & Dragons stopped giving XP for gold, but the insane economy remains

How to Improve Your D&D Game by Posing Difficult Dilemmas

As a game master, my favorite moments during session come when I sit idle as the players’ debate the tough choices open to their characters. Each option balances hope with a price. All the options lead to consequences that will spin the game in a different direction. Watching these discussions, I know the game world has come alive. No one tries to metagame what they’re supposed to do. Later, when those same players wonder what might have happened if they had chosen the other path, I bask in that moment.

If players just wanted to follow a story, they could have read a book. In role-playing games, much of the players’ fun comes from making choices and then experiencing the consequences as the game spins into a new direction. A hard choice lets players reveal their characters, reminds players that they control their characters’ fates, and turns the game world into a vibrant place that reacts and changes.

Occasionally tough choices spring naturally from the twists of your game, but you can plan your game to pose more dilemmas for players.

What makes a good dilemma?

Dilemmas have consequences

Much of the fun of making game choices comes from seeing the effects. If the adventurers get a call for help from a fishing town threatened by raiders, the hard choice comes when they learn of a far more lucrative job: The cunning Lady Redblade wants a magical curiosity retrieved before her rivals can snatch it. When the curiosity proves to be a dangerous artifact, the hard choice comes when the players must decide whether to hand it over. Every GM can tell such choices matter, but the consequences must ripple into the game. If the players spurn the town, it burns (even if you prepared for a rescue session). If the players betray Lady Redblade, she treats them as enemies (even if your plot assumed she would remain an ally). If players seldom see their actions lead to repercussions, they learn that their actions hardly matter.

Still, consequences don’t make a good game. If you put a dracolich behind door number 1 and a pile of +5 swords behind door 2, you just offered a choice with consequences. But your players will still drop out of your crummy game.

Dilemmas require information

Let's Make a DealIf you play Dungeons & Dragons long enough, you hear of a Monty Haul dungeon master who loads treasure on players. The name comes from the Monty Hall, host of a game show called Let’s Make a Deal. He handed out so much treasure that every bumblebee and Raggedy Ann left his studio with a vorpal sword. Sometimes, Monty offered contestants a choice of whatever lay behind three doors that concealed prizes ranging from a toilet plunger to a Chrysler Cordoba. Guess a door makes a dull decision, but Monty’s game entertained by creating dilemmas.

After a contestant picked door 1, but before revealing its prize, Monty would pull out wad of cash and count off bills that he offered in exchange for the unseen prize. Now players faced a dilemma.

Interesting choices start with information.

If the players must decide whether to travel the low road or the high road, the choice only merits a coin flip. But suppose on the low road, the hag Auntie Boil always demands some small, wicked deed of those who travel her swamp. On the high road, frost giants guard an icy pass, but one may owe the thief a favor. Now the choice becomes interesting. Players can expect their choice to take the adventure on a different spin.

Menus of choices like these let players reveal their characters or steer the game toward their own preferences. I like offering such options near the end of each game session so I can prepare for the road ahead.

Dilemmas defy correct answers

Sorry Monty, but choices with one right answer don’t count as dilemmas.

Such choices might serve as puzzles. Suppose the PCs want to pursue the Dread Baron, but wonder whether to follow the low road or the high road. If they see he left his fur boots in his tower or if they find an invitation from Auntie Boil tied to a bird in the rookery, then they know which road to take.

Puzzles like this enhance your game, especially if you occasionally allow the players to miss the clues. Virtually every adventure spins clues and other leads into the threads that draw players along. But such clear answers only offer a choice between continuing the adventure or dropping out. If players know which road to take, they gain no sense of freedom.

In a dilemma, every option brings a price

In the choice between the high road and the low road, each option brings a price: The high road means calling a giant’s dept and hoping a he will honor it; the low road requires some wicked deed.

“To craft a good dilemma,” Wolfgang Baur advises, “Don’t give the players any good options.” (See “Dungeoncraft – Temptations and Dilemmas” in Dungeon issue 148.)

Clever players may still find good options—players relish the chance to crack an unsolvable problem, but you don’t need to hand them a solution. And definitely don’t hand them a fight. Usually, a good dilemma puts PCs between forces too strong for an assault. If you make Auntie Boil or those giants look like a problem that just needs a few smacks with a warhammer, you created skirmish rather than a dilemma.

Creating dilemmas

The limits of loyalty and time can easily create dilemmas for players.

As player characters gain in renown, powerful non-player characters will begin to request or demand their loyalty. If Lady Redblade and the Master of Eyes both want the players to retrieve the same magical curiosity, then the players choose more than an ally—they choose an enemy.

The limit of time can create many torturous dilemmas. The players must understand that accepting Lady Redblade’s job means risking that besieged town.

We DMs tend to offer quests with no particular urgency. This spares us from having to rework a mission because the game world moved on. The fishing town perpetually waits on the verge of doom until the players arrive to save it.

Sometimes though, time must force the players to choose which fires to fight. This does more than test the players. Such dilemmas make the game world seem like a dynamic place that moves and changes even when the PCs turn away.

Let’s Make a Deal

Suppose you know that the paladin in the party would never spurn the townsfolk for Lady Redblade’s bounty. Now you can play Let’s Make a Deal. The heart of Monty’s game came when he started counting off the hundred-dollar bills that he would exchange for whatever prize lay behind door number 3.

For the paladin’s help, the Lady can offer that magic sword he covets. “So armed, imagine the good you could do.” If she offers to send her own men to aid the town, will the party take her job? After closing a deal, what happens when the party learns that the man assigned to rescue the town is corrupt and possibly incompetent? Do you betray the Lady and your word, or do your leave the townsfolk to their uncertain fate?

Let players feel powerful sometimes

Don’t turn every decision into test of the characters’ limits. A few tough choices add to the game, but people also play to feel powerful enough to sweep away trouble with an stroke of the blade and a fireball. Read the mood of your players.

Still, even if you work to put players in dilemmas, hard choices can be hard to create. That’s what makes them so delicious.

Related: Strong Moral Dilemmas in D&D and the Unwanted Kind that Keeps Appearing
Dungeons Masters Can Make Fake Choices for Players, But Should You?