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With the release of 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons, the game took some big steps in a new direction. For the most part these changes streamlined the game and made it more accessible to an audience new(er) to RPGs. Additionally, it gives us crusty old veterans a chance to re-learn the game. In the spirit of learning new things, today's post will simply be a list of tips and tricks for DMs that I've learned over the twelve or so years I've been doing it for (yes I am counting those first few years when my writing skills were on par with E. L. James).
My first point (and I don't want to call this a "tip" or a "trick" because it's integral that all DMs understand this) is that Dungeons & Dragons is a game. I know that sounds silly and obvious but this is a game in its own league. People get heavily invested in it and it can be the source of a lot of conflict if a situation arises that is handled poorly. At the end of the day, your job as the DM is to make sure that everyone is enjoying themselves. This does not mean you need to bend over backwards to please every player's desires, but a DM is essentially a referee of the game. If players get upset over something, you need to consider what it is that upset them and how it can be resolved in a fair and appropriate manner. I won't give an example here because there will be plenty throughout the article. If you have any questions, stories or tips of your own, please post a comment below. I would love to hear your feedback and get some community chat going.
Note: I receive a little email every time somebody leaves a comment and did some research and sadly there is no way (within my means) that I can get it to do the same for replies for you guys. Sadly this means if you're expecting a response you'll have to keep checking back :( If it's any consolation, it generally takes me 1-2 days to respond.
Story and World
There is no shame in running pre-written missions and campaigns in your group. If they're published on an official platform, chances are they are going to be good. Your players won't care where the adventure comes from if it's fun to play. If you're writing your own content, standalone missions (aka sidequests) are great for integrating into an overarching campaign to keep your players busy while you scrabble to write the next chapter of your campaign behind the scenes.
Personally I prefer to roll my own when it comes to missions because it allows me to tailor the experience to the party who will be undertaking it. While it's good to have a variety of encounters to keep the PCs on their toes, having a mission every now and then that allows them to make the most of their specializations can be incredibly satisfying for the players involved. On the contrary, say you have a rogue who disregarded combat expertise to become excellent at espionage, their player is going to become bored pretty quickly if every mission revolves around combat encounters.
Having goals for PCs that span multiple levels is a great way of keeping players engaged over a longer time. Reoccurring NPCs and locations can help build player investment in your game world and make the resolution of your campaign more satisfying. Villains who harass the PCs in their efforts yet elude capture or defeat until later in the campaign make for dramatic encounters with large emotional payoffs.
Similarly, locations the PCs visit multiple times can hold significance and set the mood of the session before it even begins. The Tomb of Horrors has a reputation that precedes it and players venturing into its depths may feel dread even before the first encounter. The destruction/desecration of a haven will be all the more harrowing on the PCs if they've been seeking refuge there throughout your entire campaign.
History is a great way for creating immersion. Unveiling a story piece by piece through the perspective of the PCs is always exciting, be it hidden diary entries, forgotten scriptures, lost tapestries etc. Although it takes a while to set up, the payoff is worthwhile as it creates a sense of time and scale for your world. The PCs will be more likely to feel like they are contributing to something greater. You have to be careful not to tell it all at once though. It's easy to fall into the trap of trying to show off how much work you've done and at the end of the day, the PCs care more about their own experience than any NPC you've made.
One thing that I find works for making memorable missions is a solid balance of combat, NPC interaction and puzzles/riddles. Combat can be exhilarating if executed well and tedious if not. There are a multitude of ways to make combat encounters more interesting; hazards, mobility restrictions, time pressure etc. One of my favourite ways to spice things up is to use the environment itself. Sometimes where a combat encounter occurs is more interesting than the actual fight. Imagine a scrap in a burning building where the combatants' mobility is gradually restricted as the fire gets closer, their vision is blurred by the smog and each turn they have to save against choking on the smoke.
NPC interaction is a core pillar of roleplaying. It doesn't have to be limited to simply asking questions either. In one mission I had the PCs play a live game of poker to wager their money against an NPC's local knowledge. We set aside the D&D papers and props and set the table up for poker, playing rounds until the PCs ran out of money or got the information they needed. Not all NPCs have to be of use either. Having mundane encounters can help flesh out the world you're building because realistically, not every person the PCs meet is going to contribute to the plot. It also helps the players appreciate when they do find valuable information. One of my favourite things to do when my players reach a new area is to have a rumor wheel where gather information checks return random tit-bits of information, some of it contradictory, some of it insightful and some of it red herrings altogether.
Puzzle encounters and great for shifting up the pacing of a game session and generating several minutes of applied focus. Puzzles becoming significantly more interesting when they are tied to in-game consequences and not just speed bumps for player progress. Solving a riddle becomes a lot more intense if it emits a siren after two minutes to wake up a nearby dragon.
Fun fact: not all encounters have to be winnable. There's nothing like the fear of death to get players engaged in the game. Sometimes it's good to knock the PCs down a peg by putting them in a situation they're meant to lose. This will help prevent players from getting into the mindset that their level acts as a safety net. There are a number of interesting scenarios that can arise from having the PCs beaten. Perhaps they are taken captive and have to stage a break-out of a torture chamber. Or a noble puts a price on their heads and they need to go undercover for a time. Even a humble retreat can be dramatic. Which leads me to my next point...
Don't be afraid to kill a PC. Sometimes the dice just disagree and criticals happen. If the players sense you going easy on them every time someone nears death, any threat or intensity in the scenario will be dispelled and immersion will be lost as a result. This does not mean you can't pull punches, however. A good technique is to consistently cover your dice rolls. Ye olde DM screens were great for this, albeit somewhat dorky. A simple palm shield does the trick. By covering your rolls, the players become dependent on your description and storytelling to understand what is going on. It allows you to draw out tension and cut corners when things get hairy because of bad luck (e..g. your big baddie gets three critical hits on top of five critical fails from the party and nearly wipes the whole team; or the rogue fails a crucial search check to locate an item integral to plot development). You're allowed to call a miss or two and vice versa. Just don't abuse it. More often than not the dice tell their own story anyway.
On the note of covering dice rolls, most skill checks PCs make are rolled in the open. You are never obliged to give a DC. I find Difficulty Classes and Armour Classes of opponents are best left hidden from player knowledge. You can hint at how close they get through description (e.g. a player misses an opponent by two points and you describe the attack to "swing close to their head but they duck under it at the last second"). Skill checks that reveal hidden information, such as a PC checking for traps or discerning whether or not they are being lied to, are best rolled by you instead of the player themself. This way the player cannot tell whether or not they succeeded and have to trust the information you give them. The most common situation this defends against is a rogue rolling a 17 or higher on a search check and you telling them "you find no traps." In this situation the player of the rogue knows they rolled well and can be certain the area ahead is safe. Instead, if they see you roll a dice behind your hand and say "you find no traps," they may remain cautious, as their character in the game world would most likely be. You can even throw in a smirk or stifle a laugh when you see the result, regardless of what it is, just to mess with them.
There are plenty or storytelling techniques to help build atmosphere in your games. A common and basic one is to use different voices for characters the PCs interact with. Even shifting your tone a little if you're not a confident voice-actor can make a difference. It helps the players differentiate between characters they are interacting with and is also a fun way of letting you in on the role-playing. It is significantly better for players to be on a campaign run by a DM who is enjoying themselves. For shy DMs; pre-record dialogue for NPC encounters if you don't like acting in front of an audience. You can even get other people to contribute to recordings for added variety.
Music is another way to generate a compelling atmosphere. The genre of the music can support your narration to create a mood for the events of your campaign. Even having fifteen- to thirty-second stings to preface segments can help set the tone. Some people even like to have constant background tracks from their favourite films or games during combat to increase the intensity of the situation. Something to keep in mind is that D&D is very dialogue heavy and you don't want your music dominating the scene. At one point I deliberately started playing Hello Zepp during a maze where the PCs had a time limit to escape before the whole thing was flooded with water. After the initial sarcastic laughter it wrought, the song genuinely increased anxiety about the puzzle and the players' relief once they completed it was significant.
As I said above: the rules described in the books are not concrete. I would definitely encourage you to find your own style as a DM, and that includes tweaking the ruleset. If you find a way of playing you really like or disagree with something in the original, change it. The important thing to do is to make it clear what exactly it is you are changing and how. For your players' sake it is paramount that you are consistent with the new rules. They need to understand the change as well as you do to keep it fair. Some of my favourite house rules are as follows:
Double-dip Healing - any spell or item that rolls dice for generating a value for healing gets two rolls instead of one. Both the healer and the recipient roll for the healing and the recipient receives the higher of the two values that were rolled. If the healer and the recipient are the same person, controlled by the same player, or the source is an item; the DM makes the second roll. This makes healing more effective on average (though it is still possible for both people to roll 1s) and PCs become a little more durable.
Expanded Combat Critical Failure - If a player rolls a natural 1 on an attack roll, they roll another d20 (like confirming a critical threat). Rolling an unmodified 1-15 results in the player fumbling and falling prone. Rolling an unmodified 16-20 damages the item they were using (-1 to hit an damage until repaired via a mending spell or natural means - often costing money). Damaging your weapon on a 16-20 does not end your turn, meaning players with subsequent attack actions may use them as normal, albeit with the new penalty. The penalty stacks with each fumbled attack. This penalty is contextual as well (e.g. a critical fail made with a bow will snap the string, rendering it unusable; critical failure with a natural weapon not only applies the -1 penalty, but also inflicts 1 point of lethal damage).
Level Tax - Each time a player levels up they have to pay x amount of gold for each prior level (e.g. level 1 to level 2 costs 100gp, level 2 to level three costs 200gp etc.). This cost goes towards the upkeep of that player's personal facilities, be it a fighter's personal trainer, a mage's spell components, or a cleric's tithes. Particularly expensive or rare spell components or similar items should still be covered separately in-game as they can make for interesting plot points. I personally treat inns the same way (the cost of which becomes pretty irrelevant after about 5th level anyway) as it allows an opportunity for the PCs to interact with the locals of wherever they are rather than just saying "we stop at the nearest inn for the night" and be done with it. In a campaign where magic items are readily available for purchase, a level tax can help keep a cap on what players can afford each level. If PCs are able to go out and buy all the equipment they need, it cheapens the excitement of finding the treasure room at the end of a series of trails and earning your new shiny gear properly.
Fame and Glory - In general, once a PC reaches about 5th level they have achieved enough to gain recognition in their local area by officials and people of social significance/influence. At 10th level the PC's reputation extends throughout their province/city with enough popularity that many locals will have heard of them. At this point they are able to claim a title (e.g. Obediah Hallowsong, the Black Knight of Eastfurt). Whether or not they are recognised by that title is up to your discretion as a DM. By 15th level the PC ascends to celebrity status. Locals have all heard of them, for better or worse, and people in other cities know who they are. Their title is recognised and acknowledged to be part of their identity. Bards and story-spinners even give them titles of their own. At 20th level the PC becomes a legend. Their name goes down in history. Their deeds are recorded and will be spoken of for generations. This house rule has been very popular in my own community because it makes players feel like a badass when their character is recognised by their title; the classic "your name precedes you."
Don't let your PCs get overpowered. If one person gets ahead of the party by too much other players may resent them or simply get bored because their character feels useless by comparison. Similarly, if the whole party gets too strong it can be a hassle to DM and finding suitable challenges gets harder and harder. The players may start to get complacent and eventually everyone tires of the game. Don't be afraid to beat certain items or attributes with the nerf-stick to maintain game balance. Permanent curses or item eating traps etc. will help you achieve this through an in-game context that keeps the PCs on their toes.
It is not you versus the PCs. You are the referee of the game, not the enemy of the players. They must be able to trust you as a DM. That does not mean you can't give them misleading information in the context of the game. As I mentioned above, people fail skill checks. I find it to be a useful habit to tailor your phrasing so it is directed at the character in-game; "the area appears to be safe" versus meta-game "the area is safe." If you tell a player one thing then have the opposite happen to them, they might feel betrayed by you. However if you speak to their character, it is their character's perception of the situation that carried the fault.
Notes are great. Passing a player a secret note for them to open under specific circumstances always piques the curiosity of the table. There's something about being privy to private information that gets people excited. My godsister had a note given to her that she was only allowed to open if her character died. It was always a point of discussion whenever we played together and she stayed true to keeping it secret. It drove me nuts. Just so you can share in my suffering I'm not going to put up here what it said.
I could go on and on about this but I'll bring it to a close here. Hopefully this got some wheels turning for you Dungeon Masters out there and maybe inspired a few of you who have been considering it to give it a try. To be honest, I probably enjoy DMing more than playing nowadays, but that's the game designer in me speaking. I still get excited about diving into Scarlet Hughes' persona for what it's worth.