combat additions to make it actually take more than a round for your players to kill your cool boss
difficult terrain. flood that cavern! oops the floor is lava! make the walls attack and grapple!
environmental effects in general. make an avalanche happen as soon as combat starts. combat during a storm is a great opportunity for lightning to strike. rain, snow, darkness, distance, fog, anything that'll impose disadvantage on their hits.
charm and fear effects. charm/fear conditions on a PC or two can totally turn the tide of an encounter.
straight up just swallow somebody. sometimes ingestion is the answer.
official statblock be damned, your boss should ALWAYS have additional legendary actions and/or resistances, condition and damage resistances/immunities, multiple attacks (probably more than the statblock says) and a motherfucking escape plan!
portals. seriously, just chuck some portals in there. I've never run a combat that couldn't be improved by the addition of a portal or two.
time constraints, mid-combat puzzles, a non-combat goal, anything the PCs have to do during the fight that isn't actually fighting.
in general, just get weird with it! wizards of the coast doesn't own you! no gods no masters! hit harder and have more fun!
do you have any resources or guides for worldbuilding and reimagining the feywild? not looking for adventure prompts or npcs just your thoughts on setting and how to make the feywild feel dangerous and mystical
Planescape: The Feywild
I won’t lie, the introduction if the feywild is one of the best additions to the default d&d cosmology in a while, not only from a thematic perspective, but gameplay aswell, as it allows any podunk patch of land to act as a doorway to wild adventure. That said, too often this wonderland is treated as a place where things are just wacky, without real attention paid to the narrative possibilities introducing the feywild into a story can have.
To that end, I’m going propose a few different aspects of the feywild, different visions of how things could be drawn from different mythologies and storytelling conventions:
The feywild has no geography: like the notes of a song or the lines of a play, the reality of faerie is reinterpreted with every visitation, Coloring itself based on the expectations and emotions of those exploring it. This is why a child can stumble into a mushroom ring and have themselves a whimsical romp full of talking animal friends and life lessons, whereas adults tend to find themselves ensnared by echoes of their deepest desires and why adventurers ALWAYS find something to fight. If you want to go anywhere in the feywild you don’t need a map, you need a thematic structure that will carry you to your destination: whether that be staying on a yellow brick road through a number of distractions and tribulations, or winning a game of riddles against a talking bird who’ll swear to drop you off at your destination.
The feywild is a place of stories: When a peasant family leaves out milk and performs small acts of thanks for the brownie, they are unwittingly inviting the primal energies of the feywild to fill the space they have made for it, creating a creature that had always been there, looking out for them. Likewise, when folk tell of wonderous places just beyond the edge of the map, the feywild becomes those places, taking solidity from repeated tellings of the tale and incorporating different interpretations to give themselves depth. This is not to say that the translation is perfect, as one can’t simply make up a story, tell it to an audience, and expect it to suddenly become true as it takes a powerful and engrained sort of lies, embelishment, or folktales to give shape to the otherworld. When populating your local fairy-realm or those areas near enough to it, consider what sort of stories people tell about that place, whether it be about monsters that gobble up wayward children or treasure hidden there by bandits long ago.
The feywild responds to your emotions: When your party takes a rest, ask them how they think their characters are feeling. Consider whether they are frightened or foolheardy, adventurous or avricious, and then sketch out some random encounter to spice in along the way as the realm of whimsy responds to the vibes they’re putting out. A party that’s feeling hungry may encounter a friendly fey teaparty or a dangerous lure disguised as a snack, a group that’s feeling pressed for time may hear the horn of a savage hunter stalking them, or a parable about stopping to help others can actually speed you along your own path. In this way, the fairyland is in diolog with the party’s desire to press their narrative forward, and will test or reward them according to its whim.
The feywild is everywhere: one of the underutilized aspects of having the feywild in our games is that a portal to the “shallower” areas of the otherworld can pop up anywhere overtaken by nature, allowing fey beings and other oddities to cross over in a way that creates all manner of adventure hooks. If I’m building a dungeon in the wilderness, I’m personally fond of having a mounting fey presence the deeper in you get, replacing the normal ruin dwelling hazards with troops of hobgoblins, odd enchantments, and various tricksters. For smaller dungeons, the closed off fey portal can be an adventure hook for later, encouraging them to come back when they need to delve into whimsy, whereas for the larger dungeons, a non contiguous fey realm connecting multiple points can serve as a combination of fast travel AND bonus stage. Even for non dungeon locations, consider how much fun of an adventure it’d be if someone discovered that their cellar had been replaced with a fairy’s larder, or that the vine-covered lot where neighborhood kids play during the day transforms into a vast battlefield for sprites during the night.
“More than a door” -- Alan Miller’s random tables for adding special details to dungeon doors, from the “Bazaar of the Bizarre” column of Dragon 41, TSR, September 1980. Some of these table entries require a little creative interpretation. Intelligent doors might open if you match alignments, speak a password, answer a riddle, or wear the robes of the cult that rules the dungeon. A door that “contains treasure” might have a secret compartment revealed if smashed, or simply have gold or silver plated fittings that are tarnished but noticeable upon inspection.
Some sources suggested doors should be found locked 1/3 of the time, and in old dungeons 1/3 might be stuck shut, with only 1/3 opening freely without effort. Many of the special table entries above assume that the party will have to physically bash open stuck or locked doors fairly often (after the thief fails to pick the lock, the lock is “thiefproof” because no parts are accessible from this side, or the wizard has no knock spells available).
The other obvious results of physically pounding on a door include the chance of breaking the door instead of forcing it open cleanly, and the loud noise that can alert nearby encounters. This is why I still always make a party roll every STR check to force a door even if the eventual success is inevitable (and I say “BOOM!” after each attempt to remind the players that they aren’t being stealthy). Extreme number results can mean the door swings open without damage, or is broken down off its hinges, or becomes stuck worse between twisted hinges, lock, and frame. The number of attempts will determine whether someone on the other side is surprised or has time to surprise the party by flipping a table for cover and leveling their crossbows at the door while sending a runner for help that might circle back around the party to close the ambush.
Me and a DM friend of mine got to talk for a while. We're both DMs, but I almost never play, and I explained to him that this was because I am very attention seeking (which I can't control very well), and this is very bad if you need to share the DM's attention with 3 other people. We tried to think of ways to deal with this, but haven't really found any good ideas, do you have any ideas?
Supporting Attention Seeking Players
There are things both the DM and the Attention Seeking Player (ASP) can do to help everyone have a good time.
The DM can:
Engage with the ASP outside of the game itself. This way, the player gets some of that focused attention they love in a way that enhances the game. This can include asking the ASP about their backstory, maybe doing some collaborative world building, talking about something cool that happened during the session, getting feedback about the campaign, talking about cool things they want to happen, discussing character builds, etc. Most DMs love having someone to talk to about their craft, and there's plenty to discuss about a campaign without getting spoilerific. This can be very enjoyable for both parties.
Put the Attention Seeking Player to work. Giving the ASP a task to do during the game can channel their energy into something positive and give your more time/attention to split with everyone else. Maybe you could ask them to track and display initiatives, or take notes, or coordinate splitting loot, or mentor/assist another player. Be sure to thank the ASP for taking on this helping role.
Use Attention as a Reward. Make sure to intentionally give the ASP attention when they are being a good teammate and player. On the flip side, ignore them or call them out if you notice them talking over others or trying to hog the spotlight. I wrote a couple posts about using rewards and punishments to encourage the kind of play you want to see at your table.
The Attention Seeking Player Can:
Practice Self Awareness. If you know you struggle with wanting to be the center of attention all the time, make a conscious effort to be considerate to your fellow players. Listen when they speak, try not to talk over them, and make an effort to keep things moving along. Don't beat yourself up if you catch yourself slipping up, just apologize and move on, e.g. "Sorry, Chris, I didn't mean to interrupt you. You go". Your fellow players will almost always be understanding if they can tell you are making an effort.
Be a Cheerleader. If you want to be a part of every scene, there are ways to do that without always hogging the spotlight. Cheer on and encourage your fellow players! It keeps you actively participating, but lets your friends feel like super stars as well. Don't forget to praise your DM too!
Ask Permission for Attention. If you're reading this, you're probably aware that there are times when attention seeking can come off as annoying or selfish. But you should also know that there are times people will be happy to give you their attention - genuinely. Not just tolerating you or humoring you, but genuinely happy to witness your enthusiasm. When in doubt, ask.
"Can I tell you about my backstory?"
"I have some ideas for this setting. Would you like to hear them?"
"Ooo, do you guys mind if I do a monologue here?"
Sometimes, they'll let you know that now isn't a good time for it, and that's okay. And sometimes, it'll be perfect.
Remember your Value. Having players that engage enthusiastically with the campaign is lifeblood to a roleplaying game. You are the reason the DM works so hard to craft a fun experience. You are a star bringing their vision to life. You are awesome! Just remember you are part of an ensemble cast, and everyone else needs time to showcase their talents as well.
How distinct are weapons like clubs from improvised weapons? I have a player (in Pathfinder/3.P) who insists that since clubs have no cost (are easily made), any improvised weapon that could use club damage is a club (i.e., is as easy to use as a club, so no attack penalty). I can't help but think that the improvised weapon rules exist to simulate something realistic, like balance in hand, but I know basically nothing about weapons in real life.
It really depends on the club, or the quality of the improvised weapon in question. I mean, there isn't going to be a huge quality difference between a broken off chair leg, and cheap wooden club. But, at the same time we are talking about Pathfinder, so, realism isn't exactly the highest priority.
In theory, Pathfinder's (and D&D's) improvised weapon rules are built around the idea that you're just grabbing whatever is at hand. It probably doesn't have a proper grip, it may be flimsy, it could still be attached to something in the environment. Whatever it is, it's certainly not a weapon, and the rules are generally meant to reflect that. If he wants to convert a broken chair leg into a proper club, that's what the Craft (Broken Chair Legs) skill is for.
You have is a player trying to minmax. I'm not 100% certain about Pathfinder's improvised weapon rules, but in 3.5 it was a flat, you do not get proficiency from any improvised weapon. So, you take a -4 penalty on all rolls to hit. (There's actually a boatload of additional rules which you can apply if you think the player is trying to pull a fast one, such as actually tracking hardness and item HP to destroy their, "club," from use.)
That said, Pathfinder is a little different, because there are feats (Catch Off-Guard and Improvised Weapon Mastery) which ignores the non-proficient penalty, and grant bonuses to improvised weapons, there's a level 1 spell that allows the caster to convert an improvised weapon into its simple or martial counterpart (Refine Improvised Weapon in the Wizard/Sorc, and Cleric spellbooks, among others,) there's a PRC (the Nature Warden) that gains the ability to do the same as an Extraordinary Ability (meaning, it's non-magical for them.) And, there's an entire Rogue archetype that focuses on using improvised weapons (in the Melee Tactics Toolbox.) There's probably a ton of other specific rule interactions with improvised weapons in Pathfinder I'm unaware of.
What you have is a player who is trying to circumvent the rules to munchkin their character. If they want their character to use improvised weapons on a regular basis, without taking a penalty on every attack roll, there are multiple, explicit, paths to achieving that, and I don't know exactly what your player's end goal is, but this is a case where they're asking for a free feat. It's okay to say, "no," no matter how concrete their logic seems. If they want want to use Improvised Weapons, Catch Off-Guard exists for a reason and has no prerequisites.
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over our last two sessions, I ran something a little different. Our cleric, Oggie, has a (complicated) relationship with this NPC, Elliot. Elliot is a gay half-elf man whose father is a politician and diplomat; Elliot’s father has decided that since Elliot has a criminal record (he was framed for treason) the best way to ensure he is provided for is to marry him off to another political family, neatly tucking him away where he can’t cause a scandal.
Now, his father isn’t too interested in Elliot’s desire for romance or attraction, so he’s arranged a marriage with a young woman from a prominent elven family. The party quickly decided that this cannot stand. They agreed to attend the wedding in order to prevent it from happening.
Upon arrival at the venue, however, a few key things were going to pop off. First, it turns out Oggie’s estranged family lives in the town. Second, the whole region is deeply haunted and extremely sinister. Third, messing up the bride’s life was a non-option, because when I introduced the character of the bride, a friend of ours came out of the bedroom where I’d stashed them and introduced themself as Gloria, the bride herself (an air genasi monk in a family of elves, another outsider).
this was already clearly a rousing success, but we still had to get through the wedding, and I had to run it in a way that felt dynamic and tense. People go from room to room and building to building, indoors and outdoors and making visits to the village. It’s the day of a wedding!
So I developed a method for running the Day of the Wedding, and I’m sharing it with you for any extended roleplay and intrigue encounters you want to tangle up in plot threads.
First things first: run it like a combat.
What I mean by that is when the party woke up on the day of the wedding, I asked them all to roll for initiative. Instead of a round taking six seconds, each round lasted one hour, enough time for a movement (go to 2 areas near one another or 1 place that’s a bit further away), an action (a primary roleplay scene or investigation), and a bonus action (a conversation with a fellow player character, a quick search of an area, etc.). As the DM, use your discretion to decide what constitutes a suitable bonus action vs action.
Now, unlike combat, this type of encounter should permit player characters to team up and act together. When a PC that is high in initiative order decides to do something, other PCs that rolled lower can opt to join them if they want to act in the same location or engage with the same NPCs. (This is a great option to keep the action moving and lets players work together more.)
In order to keep this situation rolling, I prepared a few key notes. I focused on regional effects; that is, the overall culture and vibe of the area. I decided early on that the region is haunted, and that the locals are suspicious, superstitious, and obsessed with cleanliness. These features are tied into the overall plot conflicts that would develop over time. I also chose to include the effects of the Haunted table from Tasha’s Cauldron to add some spiciness to my haunting. In essence, think of the tensions the NPCs in the region are already experiencing prior to the party getting involved. A recent assassination might make a court intrigue more complicated as they now distrust strangers, for instance, while a new trade war over tariffs can complicate a diplomatic mission.
Next, I considered my locations. In this instance, my locations included the inn where the party slept, various rooms in the manor house hosting the wedding, a handful of outdoor areas, and the chapel. I focused on creating detailed descriptions of the ambiance for each location.
Then, I wrote out a quick description of each major NPC - in this case, the wedding party, the family of the intended, and a few locals and guests. In a roleplay/intrigue scenario like this, it’s vital to include motivations, secrets, and goals for each of these NPCs, even if those goals are very simple. You’ll need them for the last step:
Create a round-by-round timeline. Write out your list of locations and pair them with the NPCs that will be there during each round (hour). In my notes, I added what the NPC was doing there or what they were thinking about--linking their motivation to their location. For example, a character in the garden was leaving an early-morning meeting with her lover, the new gardener, while the fathers of the bride and groom met in the library to discuss the cover-up they had just pulled off (a politician and wedding guest had died mysteriously at midnight, and to keep the wedding from being derailed, they had hidden the body and were intimidating the only witness).
Party members who arrived at each location were therefore entering existing scenes they didn’t have full context for. Each hour, the NPCs would move on to the next phase of their day, seek out other NPCs to interact with, etc. NPCs could still be influenced by the party’s actions, so each round you might adjust exactly what they’re doing or where they’ve gone--the beauty of improv!
Keep in mind that situations should still be developing when the party isn’t witnessing them. An NPC no one had spoken to yet turned out to have spent the morning searching for her missing father, which led the party to the gravesite that they’d spotted earlier in the game, while the gardener turned out to be a villain they’d met before who was acting in secret during the session! Use your best judgment, though. Just because you wrote content for an NPC doesn’t mean the party will engage with it, so follow their lead; sprinkle the clues, and then let the party’s focus drive which storylines get developed.
So long as every NPC has a goal or secret to influence their opinions and decisions, they will feel like nuanced actors within the roleplay scenario; the timeline you lay out in advance gives them a sort of “Artificial Intelligence” that can be influenced by the player’s actions.
Personally, I also recommend setting a natural deadline for the party. If my players didn’t stop the wedding by 1pm, for instance, the ceremony would go forward and they would either be forced to object in public or let the marriage take place. Thus, they only had 5 total “rounds” to disrupt things enough that the wedding would be called off.
You can create similar deadlines depending on the central goal of the party. A vote on whether to pass a controversial law could serve as one for a court intrigue arc, while a crime-solving arc might have a threatened time when a kidnapping victim will be murdered (”You have 24 hours to deliver the ransom”, for example). The sense of a ticking time-bomb gives the players a much-needed urgency. The round-by-round timeline also helps to ensure that you won’t have to continue prepping rounds ad infinitum; instead, you need only prepare up until shit pops off and the deadline is reached.
You may find you won’t reach the deadline, though. In this arc, the party discovered the corpse of a major politician who had died in the night and was secretly buried by the gardener. They used the cover-up as leverage to blackmail the parents of the bride and groom into calling off the marriage, which was helped along by the ranger revealing that Elliot’s father was concealing Elliot’s criminal record to keep the marriage arrangement intact. They managed to prevent the wedding with an hour to spare.
However, as Alice the sorcerer went downstairs to announce the cancellation, she spotted a person who looked just like her weaving through the crowd to leave the manor. She followed, and discovered that she was tracking the semi-villainous NPC who had crossed paths with the party a few times before, disguised as Alice. The NPC, Florian, had been playing the role of the gardener, and blackmailed the bride’s father into giving up a precious family heirloom in exchange for concealing the body; now that the cover-up has been revealed, they’re getting out of Dodge with their prize. This revelation serves as the plot hook for the next dungeon!
Note: This system builds upon an iniative system developed by Bob World Builder (whose stuff you can find on YouTube), so please be aware of that.
So initiative... The question of tracking initiative and how initiative distribution can lead to players having difficulties following combat encounters (and thus only focusing on their own turns) is one which vexes a lot of DMs and even regular players. So here is my solution for how to deal with initiative without sacrificing the satisfaction players get when they roll initiative (plus certain classes like the barbarian and certain subclasses like the Gloom Stalker ranger have features which are directly linked to rolling initiative, so of course I don't want to negate that for players who have these class features).
Here are the six basic principles of this system:
1) Players still roll for initiative, no matter the party size.
2) Enemies however do not roll initiative, instead when building the encounter the DM sorts the enemies within it into one of three categories, namely Fast, Regular, and Other.
3) Fast has an initiative of 19 and is reserved for creatures which are noted for their speed or their reliance on ambushes, however it should be used sparingly for reasons I will explain when creating sample encounters.
4) Regular has an initiative of 11 and will be applied to most enemies, especially the toughest enemy of the encounter.
5) Other has an initiative of 1 and gets used for summoned creatures, minor enemies, or creatures known for their slow speed.
6) Ties get resolved through the dexterity score like normal.
Now how would this look like in-game?
Let's presume the players are fighting a group of bandits. There's a bandit chief, four bandits (two use only scimitars, two use only crossbows), and a tamed dire wolf. Now the bandit chief clearly goes into the Regular category, as they form the centerpiece of the encounter. Now one can think about where to place the other five enemies. Personally I would place the two scimitar bandits also in the Regular category, while the crossbow bandits go in the Other category, while the direwolf is in the Fast category, but it could also go into the Other category. But for the sake of this example, let's say it is Fast.
That way the combat flow will could be Player(s) -> Dire Wolf -> Player(s) -> Melee Bandits -> Player(s) -> Crossbow Bandits, leading to a nice back and forth. Players who roll very high initiative results will gain the benefit of being in the turn order before the dire wolf, making the nat 20 on the initiative roll feel impactful, while making bad rolls invoke a sense of dread, since the players know that a bunch of powerful enemies will be before them in the order guaranteed.
Now Fast is an optional category and doesn't need to be included, plus it can be used as an actual boss category, especially in higher levels of play, since it is also very appropriate for an ancient chromatic dragon or a powerful celestial or air elemental. The Other category is also optional, especially when designing combat encounters for small parties, but as soon as you have at least four players combat encounters should consist of at least two enemy initiative categories to create a nice back and forth between players and enemies.
War and battle are a not just attack rolls. You can weaponize Anything for an advantage. Social interaction (role play is in fact the Most effect tool of battle) to gain allies, feint the enemy, do a big bad bluff, or halt hostilities to save yourself for another day. Exploration such as trapping, scouting, finding advantageous fields of battle. Combat itself, the art of winning the battles when they start, which, is really less reliant on personal might, but on where you place yourself and how you use it.
This all wraps up into combat being so much more interesting than just walk in fight. It wraps up tool use, social, and well placed brute force. If you let your players use their tools and wits, you get to use the fancy stuff in your DM box more.
The party will find way more fun in dnd when they get to leverage their prowess, and when you get to really play the game in the same way as the monsters. Being new is hard, but this is stuff I wish I knew early on. Final words on this letter to a newer DM: it's your job to keep the world and the rules, the players write their own stories, and death happens. May the gods be fickle, and the dice be good
A wise DM once said, “you’re only as original as the obscurity of the things you steal from.”
So here’s a few ideas I stole from my brother, books, TV, other DMs, and my own campaign notes! These descriptors can be purely atmospheric, or you can use the unique circumstances to complicate things for your players!
I’ve marked the ones I’ve actually played with a ♥, in case you want to hear some specifics of how it went. I’ll be updating this list, so keep your eyes open.
♥ A translucent and fragile-looking spire made of ice, amber, glass, or crystal
The hollowed insides of an old, giant tree (dead or alive)
Above the beanstalk, up in the clouds
♥ A forgotten underground tunnel system connecting two cities
A ruined castle half-buried in snow/sand/earth/water
An abandoned mining pit
A Labyrinth, complete with a wandering monster, and a curse which breaks navigational magic
The forgotten corridor between dimensions where outsiders, stragglers, and ideas live
The bones of an ancient, colossal creature
♥ A magic library, with living books and other hazards
♥ An abandoned Frankenstein lab, or construct factory
A high-security bank, prison, etc.
♥ This dungeon seems to appear and disappear at different intervals and locations, meaning coming in (or leaving) is sometimes impossible
♥ Gravity works strangely here. You may find yourself upside-down to the rest of the world, standing on floating platforms that crumble and break in odd directions
♥ This is a pocket dimension with its own set of rules--perhaps literally using the rules of a different board game, arcade game, or rpg
♥ There is a spirit living here who represents the dungeon itself. It is ancient, enormous, eccentric, and with uncertain morality.
The place was built too small or too large for the party (Kobold made, Giant made, etc.)
♥ Magic is distorted here, and spells sometimes cause wild magic surges, or fail entirely
♥ This place has funhouse elements--slides, platforms, and silly, gamey rituals that must be overcome
These are hallowed/desecrated grounds, and as such the land has some effect on holy/unholy magic
♥ This is a malleable mirror/dream world, built by someone’s psyche
Party members swap bodies when they enter. Enjoy your new character sheet!
Local beasties have moved in and built nests
♥ A gang or cult has made this their base
The original host is long dead, but half-broken sentries still patrol...
This place was built and guarded specifically to keep THAT THING contained...i.e. monster types with specific abilities and resistances
♥ There are prisoners who must be evacuated, and monsters which are best left alone...but which are which?
♥ Haunted by ghosts
Mostly/entirely abandoned, but prickling with traps and hazards
Note: There’s no reason you can’t mash a bunch from each list together. Have your ruined castle be on the moon. Have your magical library be a shifting labyrinth. Have your mine be harvesting mana from the bones of a long-dead magical creature. It doesn’t even need to make sense--maybe these catacombs were built like a funhouse by a lich with a strange sense of humour. Get weird with it!
My brother’s wonderful holiday one-shot got me inspired to add a little confusion and whimsy into my world, and so I pass my inspiration on to you. Have fun!
Hiding comes up a lot if you have a thief in your party. However, it tends to matter a whole lot less at higher levels. Why? Well, rogues typically take expertise in stealth and they usually have a +4 Dexterity modifier by fourth level, so when their proficiency bonus hits +3 at 5th level, they’re already at a +10 stealth bonus! Throw in a few spells and magic items to that bonus and suddenly rolling matters even less... especially when the rogue’s a lucky halfling. This brings up a great tension within game design around niche protection. The reason thieves have such a big bonus is to make their assassinations and advantage attacks common (since they only have one attack). But, an unintended consequence of this design is that it makes it almost impossible for a rogue to fail at hiding. In short, if any ability or class bonus is too high, the connected roll becomes somewhat meaningless. For rogues, this can steal a lot of tension from sneaky activities. What’s the solution? I cap the proficiency bonus in my game at +3 (which isn’t tough because statistically most games fizzle by 7th or 8th level anyway). This helps keep most contested checks, DC’s and attack rolls within a dramatic sandbox. For instance, even with the archery fighting style, a ranger could only have a +10 to hit (+3 proficiency, +2 archery, +5 Dexterity). This keeps the chance of failure around 20-25% for most monsters, which is right where it should be.
a dm’s worst fear is the pcs taking the plot where you don’t want it to go, or where you haven’t planned it to go. the instinct to “railroad” (force players onto a certain path) is strong but one of the worst things you can do - dnd is about the players’ story and choices, and taking this away from them negates the fun of the game.
improv is scary, but it doesn’t have to be! because of this i decided to put together this short guide on how best to deal with improv in your games.
leave space in your plot
the easiest way to deal with something is, naturally, prevention. if you’re terrified of having to deal with improv in your game, make sure the plot you write has space for things to develop and change in your game. if you want to set your party off on a quest out of town but are worried they won’t take the bait, set up multiple pathways to this outcome - say you want the pcs to go out of town to catch some bandits: you could introduce an npc whose relative has been taken by the bandits, or a guardsman who is putting up wanted posters for the bandits, or even a girl who says her dog ran off right to where the bandits are camping. this way, if your party refuse to speak to that Very Important npc you still have other options to advance the plot.
in my very first campaign, i needed the party to go a guard’s house to start a quest. in order to push this but not railroad, i created two stems the pc could take: upon entering town, they would see two npcs they could wish to help out, each who would eventually lead them to that house. they weren’t very detailed, just barebones in case i needed to use them. if they didn’t approach either of the npcs, i had a planned encounter where the guard stepped into town and gave a big speech and explicitly called upon the party for help. this allowed the plot to still develop even when it wasn’t going according to plan.
when things don’t go the way you planned, take advantage of the new opportunities you are presented with. if your pcs are spending more time with a random npc than a plot-relevant npc, tie the random one into your story - maybe they are the next victim of x’s master plan, or they happen to know information that will help the party. if the party goes a different way than you want them to, move around events and adjust them according to setting - the preacher they were going to meet in the town square to give them a prophecy now turns into a drunkard in a tavern who tells the party all the gossip he hears.
in the campaign i’m playing right now, our party ended up killing an npc and setting fire to his hut. his companion, in her grief, set off lightning strikes that scorched our hometown and killed everyone in it. when talking to the dm, i found out she never planned for that npc to die - the scorching was planned, but she had originally wanted a band of humans to come and set fire to the town while we were at the npc’s hut. but, once we killed the guy, she saw an opportunity and took it: she followed the exact same plot, but adjusted details to tie it into our choices.
speed up plot where necessary
if you’re in a situation where you have nothing for the pcs to do, speeding up your plot is a good way to ensure your party is never bored and always have something to do. for example, if a player decides to search an npc’s house and you have nothing planned for that, pull a revelation/piece of information you planned to explain later down the line and use it here. you want to reward your players for taking initative and being active, so make sure their choices don’t result in nothing. if they have decided to eavesdrop on a conversation because they thought the npcs were suspicion, use this as an opportunity to advance the plot - perhaps down the line you were going to unveil one of those as a traitor: do it now! perhaps you were going to involve them in the plot in a few sessions: do it now!
you will, of course, have to then rearrange your plot to account for these moved details, but it ensures you are not struggling to come out with a brand new thing for your players to do/experience.
- plan multiple pathways so you have more than one way to lead the party into the plot
- take opportunities that arise from the player’s actions to introduce new elements to the plot
- reveal plot elements early if you are afraid of improv’d scenes getting too stale/boring
What's a good way to introduce the players to the lore/history of your campaign's world, especially in cases of homebrew?
DM Tip: Loredumps
I was going to write a whole into about how everyone knows that the fantasy genre is rightly lambasted for long, indulgent tangents ( sometimes from the very start of a work), but then I realized I was just repeating things that everyone who's picked up more than a single genre novel knows. SO, instead we're going right into storytelling mechanics, and what I've found is the best way to deliver world information to your players over the course of a campaign.
The first thing that any aspiring loremaster needs to keep in mind is immersion: the emotional bond your audience has to your work. You can have the most finely crafted, intricate lore possible but unless the players/characters already care about the subjects that the lore pertains to it's going to sluice out of their heads like water through a sieve. This is why long prologue info dumps are so generally awful, because the audience not only has no emotional connection to any of the events going on, but a longer infodump actively distances the time between the audience starting and a work and an audience caring about a work, and the longer that it takes them to care, the more likely they are to check out.
Compare and contrast the dual prologs from the extended edition of LOTR: Galadriel's distant, detached, history that deals with events so far in the past that most people have forgotten it. Vs. Bilbo's "Concerning Hobbits", a folksy little introduction that is framed as a character we can see remarking about the world he lives in, making jokes about his neighbors and endearing us to Hobbit kind.
Bilbo's prologue is an exercise in what I call "Table Setting", when the storyteller gets you up to speed on the information you NEED to know for the scenes that are about to follow, both in terms of world details all the characters know about, and in properly tuning your emotional dials to be in sync with the characters who are about to experience the story first hand.
You can sneak in details about the world this way, but through the filter of "Everybody knows", in that there is common information about big events and how they directly contrast with things that're present in the character's lives.
"Hobbits have been living and farming in the four Farthings of the Shire for many hundreds of years. Quite content to ignore and be ignored by the world of the Big Folk — Middle-Earth being, after all, full of strange creatures beyond count. Hobbits must seem of little importance, being neither renowned as great warriors, nor counted among the very wise."
THERE, we've just set the stage for the fact that this is a big world full of magic and mystery and also given the audience the emotional context that the shire is a safe and slightly boring place, the exact emotional context we'll be taking with us out into the larger world.
You can keep the lore/world information in your back pocket as a storyteller, and continue to divy it out as you come up with more " Everybody knows" information during your moment to moment narration. Everybody knows that there might be war looming soon, we know that because the king's tollmen are collecting at the bridge we're trying to cross, and traffic has totally backed up. Everybody knows there's a dragon in yonder hills, we passed a burnt out old farmstead that's been there since you were a kid, and that cute gal at the tavern you've been drinking with has drunkenly boasted that she could sneak into its lair and tie it's tail in a knot. Oh yeah, everyone knows the mages of Sul-Sifga rule the world from their seven crystal spires atop the Otol Mountains, Their sigil is printed on a stout stone in every town square and seeing them reminds you of the time your watched your brother get executed. There's no reason to bring these things in advance, when they can be whispered in as your players/audience experience the world, slowly building on their investment until they're as much experts in your world as you are.
Hope that gives you something new for your DM toolbox, Below the cut I'm going to talk about how to do loredumps the RIGHT way, and how by being clever you can actually just babble out random facts you made up and have your entire party hooked.
Remember what I said about how if people didn't already care about the things your lore was talking about, they wouldn't care about your lore? Well, I've shown you one way to get around that, here's another:
Have someone the party cares about deliver the lore, and share how much it means to them.
Since we were already talking about lord of the rings, lets consider how much more impact Gandalf's scene explaining the ring is compared to the one we stat through with Galadriel. We LIKE Gandalf, we trust him because the characters trust him, so when he's FREAKED THE FUCK OUT by a little trinket that Bilbo brought back on his adventures? We know things are serious. You can have your own NPCs loredump this way after they've ingratiated themselves to your party. When the marshal lays out their maps and shows the party why they need to undertake this mission to slay the dragon to avert the war, suddenly your party has emotional context for all the new information they're about to be given.
You can also do this Matt Mercer style, by creating an NPC who would totally infodump on people they met IRL and have the party bounce off of them in RP. They'll encode the information they gained during that loredump as part of their interaction with that person, so then later when that lore pops up in actual gameplay they'll think " OH SHIT, ITS THE THING THAT GUY WAS TALKING ABOUT". Academics are great for this, but you can also use priests to share moral norms or mythological events, political hardliners to talk about history, or shameless gossips to spill the tea on complicated interpersonal connections.
IMO though, the best way to do loredumps is to have parties seek them out themselves: going to archives and beginning research, perhaps running it like a puzzle or skill challenge, perhaps facing off against some kind of roadblock while they’re there if you want to put more focus on it. That way the loredump seems like an actual reward, rather than something you’re just heaping on them to keep track of. Said loredump should always present actionable information within both the current adventure and foreshadow future details, to make the reward worth it.
Random DM thought I had while build a dungeon for my player’s next session:
All dungeons should be self-sufficient. I think the best way to approach a dungeon is to treat it as a one-off set in your campaign’s world, design-wise at least. You have a puzzle that needs rope? Put rope in a creative place in the dungeon, or have a similar item they can use instead. Never just go “oh, so-and-so has 15 ft of rope in her pocket.” Imagine your players are walking into the dungeon with nothing, and make sure your dungeon is still clearable if that is the case.
Better yet, mention and describe the rope that you placed a few rooms ahead. When your players see the puzzle and remember the rope in the previous room, they’ll think they’ve outsmarted you and used your dungeon against you, without knowing that was the entire plan.
Always try to make your players feel like they themselves won, not just their characters.
I have this problem where I REALLY want to run a short mystery and I have so many ideas for the opening scene, something to really hook my players... and then absolutely no clue where it's going after that. I do not know the solution to this mystery. I do not know what clues may be found. It's not short if I force everyone to search every inch of the area for hints while I pray inspiration will strike & I'll make something satisfying. Help?
I really enjoy running mysteries! However, they can be tricky to pull off. It's good that you feel confident you can hook your players, because that's important! They need to be motivated to unravel the story. But if you don't have any clues to give them, they're going to quickly feel frustrated. The true satisfaction of a mystery comes from making your players feel clever for figuring it out. So, you can't make the solutions too obvious, but you also don't want them to get stuck for too long. It's a difficult balancing act, and not one that is served well by "winging it".
Unfortunately, I think you really need to plan a mystery backwards. Figure out the solution first, and then work out some clues the players can find. In a mystery campaign, you shouldn't be improvising the story or the solution. What you're improvising is where the clues are. Basically, you need to prepare a bunch of threads for the players to follow, and then sneakily place them where the players happen to look. It's like an Easter Egg hunt where you've already prepared the eggs, but most of them are hidden in your pockets, and you use slight of hand to make your players think they found them naturally.
Anyway, I wrote a whole long ass post about mystery campaigns that I'm going to link to before I rewrite it. I wish you luck with your concept!
If you're the kind of DM who absolutely loves worldbuilding and lore but struggles to write up an actual plot*, have you considered just, not writing one?
There are lots of great prewritten adventures out there that you can plug into your setting. And I don't just mean locations. You can ask "What does this look like if the cultists serve [your hombrew evil entity] instead?" odds are the only adjustments will be flavor, and hey, you rock at flavor!
Here's a tool you can use to search adventures by environment, types of monsters, and more.
saturday d&d tip: right around 6th level, player character abilities start to go from “oh, yep, a normal regular person could probably do that” to “fuck. oh fuck. what was that.” monks suddenly have magical fists. rangers learn a new language overnight. casters get new subclass features ranging from “i can raise souls i’ve killed as spirits that fight for me (hexblade warlock)” to “I steal the shadow of a dead person to magically impersonate them (bard college of whispers)”
lean into the effect by describing the magical nature of their achievements, the suddenness of the new skillsets, the physical shifts that take place when they use strange abilities.
tell them: oh cleric, it’s an odd feeling, to tap into the thoughts of another creature. but you can see it, and it would be so easy to plant a new thought among them and watch it take root. (knowledge cleric)
oh barbarian, you feel the enchantment taking over--but no, no, it rolls off you without any effect. your mind is blank, blood-hungry and furious, and you feel nothing but rage.
oh paladin, the faintest glow radiates from you; you feel warm, almost hot, but just as clearly as you feel that, you know your allies are safer in the warmth of your glow. your skin flushes and sweat forms, but they are protected in the aura you shed.
hey so i'm a newbie dm about to retry my first homebrew campaign for the second time, and while my first time around as well as my knowledge of Several D&D Pocasts and general player experience has informed how i'm dming this time around, i'd still appreciate some tips & tricks other dms (specifically those who do homebrew games) have found useful.
for clarity, i intend to focus mainly on the roleplay/puzzle-solving aspects of D&D rather than combat, and i am modifying D&D 5E and inserting my own mechanics and homebrew world just for my own sake.
literally any advice, no matter how basic it seems, is super appreciated!