Palms sweating as you peer over your screen. The paladin of the party is almost dead, the rest of the party is down, your monster is close to death, but your roll to attack just landed on a natural 20. The campaign of 6 months and 24 sessions about to draw to a close on a sour note. You look at your player.
“Whats your AC again?”
“The beast lunges forward and narrowly misses the paladins neck with its claw. It appears to be wavering and weakened"
Now doesn’t that sound much better than killing the paladin and having to start over? I think so personally, but everyone’s tables are different. Today I just plan on sharing with you 10 ways I’ve improved the gaming experience to make my table more enjoyable for the players. Please take these with a grain of salt, not everything I do is within the “rules" (I much prefer the rule of fun).
1. Create an Immersive World
I cannot tell you how many tables I sat at and I could immediately tell which book the DM used for the campaign. It makes it so hard not to meta game when we play the same adventures over and over. This is why everytime I am DM, I do homebrew adventures. Keeps things fresh and keeps things unknown to the players. I also will refuse to do things in the Faerun, Barovia, etc. I will build a world for my players.
Is it easy? Not at all. But it is worth it. Think about the world you’re putting them in. Whats the political landscape? What cities are the biggest and where are they located? Whats the region look like? Are you in a thick forest or close to a desert?
I have found a few map making tools online that have made getting the gist of the lands down easy, and a word document makes it simple to keep track of Important people and political spectrum.
2. Create Unique NPCs
You got Bob in charge of the Red Raven Inn. He’s a human just trying to make a living. Or you can have Sigurd Hanseldor, owner of the Dargons Beak Tavern, an escaped convict from the Dwarven Kingdom, laying low while passing information along to potential adventurers not afraid of a little danger. Which one does your party want to talk to? Obviously they want to talk to Sigurd who comes across as mysterious, yet helpful.
Just having a handful of NPCs is okay, but you really want a few who standout tremendously. You want to give your players reasons to want to speak with these people. A Generic Bob will interest your players about as much as a book on how to watch paint dry.
Keep things lively, have a lineup of unique NPCs with all sorts of background information for just random occurrences.
I believe my favorite NPC I’ve ever made was Balthazar the Destroyer. Two Goblins, Balth and Za’ar, standing on one anothers shoulders using broken rusted armor and a spatula that would occasionally harass my players on the road trying to intimidate them into paying “The Toll of Balthazar”(1 gp). It always brought laughs to the table and everyone loved him.
3. Allow Your Players to Write Themselves into the World
Session Zero usually starts with rolling stats at most tables. At mine, its telling players about the world first. I want them to know where they are, and what everything is like. Then, I have them tell me about their characters. Where are they, what are they doing, what are they like, how do they view the world. Then we roll stats.
This not only makes it easier for you as a DM to incorporate them into your story, but also invests them into their characters. It can also encourage more, dare I say, role play. I know, I know, most people think of D&D as a dungeon crawling murder-hobo experience, but believe it or not, D&D is a RPG, or ROLE PLAYING Game.
Some of the best games I’ve ever had were actually in a play by post on discord. Players during down time would just interact with each other. Get to know each others characters. Get into the shoes of their own characters and develop a bond with their own character and everyone else’s character. This will help immerse your players into the experience, and help keep everyone involved.
4. Use Puzzles and Riddles
How many times have you made a dungeon filled with traps, monsters, and mazes? Probably more times than you can count. What if you tried using different strategies to keep players entertained? Sure slaying kobolds by the dozen is entertaining (Sarcasm), but solving a puzzle or riddle leaves your players feeling satisfied.
One example I have is a simple word riddle, that had a fork in the road. It stated:
“Doom and despair is all that is left in these halls. Only the righteous shall find the way.”
If the players choose the left path, they will be greeted by a large chest, overflowing with gold. Of course, your party rogue is going to go for it, and when he/she does, the chest and him/her will fall into the abyss.
However, if they realize what the sign means, and go right, they will continue deeper into the dungeon. Puzzles and riddles can be simple like this, or if you’re feeling brave, you could design and intricate series of buttons and levers that if done in the correct order can reveal the way forward. Much more satisfying than slaying hundreds of Kobolds yeah?
5. Make Things Difficult, but Not Impossible (Unless it really is Impossible)
What’s the difference between a human barbarian trying to jump to the moon, and an amateur rogue trying to pick a lock? The Rogue can get lucky. There are somethings which are just impossible in the realms, however, i have noticed a lot of DMs completely miss the fact someone can just simply get lucky in a improbable situation.
Take this for example. An evil wizard casts a high level illusion spell against the party, and they perceive a dragon trying to kill them. So far everyone has failed. The druid rolls a natural 20. Does this druid succeed? Depends on how you play. I play 20 is autosuccess in certain scenarios. In this one, the druid who is unfamiliar with illusion magic, just so happens to notice the image waver just slightly. This druid may not know what the wizard did, but he knows the dragon isn’t real.
I love to live by the “Anything is Possible in the Forgotten Realms" philosophy, to an extent. Some things just won’t be possible for players, however I will never stop a roll for it. You wanna jump to the moon? Roll an athletics check. Natural 20? You’ve jumped higher than any of your kind ever has. The sheer strength sends you high for a jump, but no where near the moon.
I’m also a big fan of natural 20s not necessarily giving a success, but will always help. Trapped in a room, rogue attempts to lock pick the door, rolls a 20. Realizes he can’t get the lock to budge because it is an Arcane Lock. These things will bring you players satisfaction in rolling that rare 20, and keep the players invovled.
6. Help Your Players Understand Their Abilities
A big pet peeve of mine at a table is when a player is trying a new class and someone gets upset they didn’t use a certain ability or chose mostly attack spells and not enough utility spells. This is more of a general word of advice to players and DMs, don’t be afraid to help someone out.
If Johnny always plays a Champion Fighter and decides this campaign he wants to try out a Draconic Sorcerer, why wouldn’t you want to sit with him and help him understand the class he’s getting into? Talk with your players. Obviously someone who always runs warlock won’t need help choosing their warlock invocations, but maybe that career barbarian needs help when he decides to try out being a Bard. Otherwise you just wind up with a Bard swinging his lute around like a great axe.
7. Make Some Amazing Custom Bad Guys
This is my favorite thing to do. I love creating characters, but even more so, I love creating three dimensional BBEGs (Big Bad Evil Guys/Gals) and even some custom mobs. It gets so boring seeing the same ones pop up and players instinctively know what to do about it. Throw a wrench into their plans. Got a cave infested with Goblins? Let’s make a Goblin cleric their chief and get some stats and abilities going.
Three dimensional bad guys should be the bread and butter of your campaign. You have Arklov the Infernal Sorcerer trying to take over the world, but why is he doing it? Just because he can? BORING. How about he’s trying to take over the world because he sees the evil in every day people. Greed, lust, betrayal, slavery, he just believes he can put an end to it if he were in charge. Maybe he believes his God didn’t want the world this way and seeks to take it over in order to completely destroy it for life to begin again in his gods image?
Whatever the case, you should always look for new ways to make your players think harder rather than just grind it out like a video game made by Blizzard.
8. Keep Your Plot Open
A huge mistake any DM makes is deciding to write down every bit of their campaign like an adventure book and expecting the party to follow it. I’ve got a newsflash for yall, sometimes (most of the time) your party is going to go off the beaten path for whatever the reason. Now you’re scrambling to get them back on track. Should you railroad them? Of course not!
The key here is to design your campaign with as little detail as possible. Your NPCs, the World, the Villain should have great detail, but your story should be fluid and easily changed. You should always be ready to improvise the next step, should a player decide that old mining tunnel looks good enough to explore.
As a personal note, I keep a black notebook with me when we play. One time I had a player ask what it was, and I told them its the campaign. I got up later that evening to get a drink while they were trying to solve a puzzle and a player decided to look for the answer (They had spent the better part of an hour trying to solve it). The player confronted me saying the only parts I had written down were everything we had done. There’s nothing in there for the current session or future ones. I told him I know, because I write in it after every session. Where we go is up to the players, not me.
9. Incorperate Player Backgrounds
As for incorporating player backgrounds, what better way to keep a player looped in than to tie their background to the plot itself? How boring would it be if you made this elaborate background, and throughout the campaign, nothing came of it? Now imagine your orphaned rogue who grew up near the harbor (Cliché background I know) being on the run from some guards with the party, when they happen to recognize an old friend working in a warehouse by the docks? They save the party by hiding them in the warehouse and your player now feels their background held more merit than just a few skill and language bonuses.
This can be something small or huge in your plot, but realize including the background of your players into the story can really help keep them involved and excited for sessions.
10. Fudging Rolls is Okay Sometimes
This one is going to get me some not so nice comments from rules lawyers, but on occasion I will fudge dice rolls. Sometimes its just better to leave a party member barely alive after an encounter, rather than dead and rolling up a new character. Sometimes that bad guy has so little HP, and you want to see the Paladin describe decapitating the baddie but the pally rolls just a few damage points short of killing it. In that instance, I would tell them to describe the kill and call it good. Rule of Cool beats any rules in my book.
Please note this is a purely opinionated article and I understand every table is played differently. These are just things I do at my tables to keep players loving the game and coming back for more. They work at my table, if it doesn’t work at yours I get it. Leave a comment with how you keep your players involved and included so we can all grow as DMs. Until next time Adventurer..