Greetings fellow DMs! And greetings to players who might be reading along as well. I know there are tons of DM advice blogs, videos, etc. out there, but I figured why not write some of the things that have helped me become a better DM over the past few years. So occasionally that's what I will be doing here. I also have been posting my campaign diaries at the Dragon of Icespire Peak subreddit, if you want any idea of how I run a game.
Why should you keep reading or listen to this nobody? Well I don't have a good reason, other than hopefully some of my experiences, triumphs, and failures will help you run or play a better game of D&D or other similar tabletop RPG. So without further delay, I will get to the meat and potatoes of the post (or meat and cheese if you are low carb).
Your players' characters are the stars, not your npcs.
If I had to offer my number one piece of advice for DMs who want their players to have the most fun possible, then this is it. Run your game like a movie starring the PCs as the heroes. One mistake I have made in the past, and I have to remind myself to avoid still today, is that my favorite NPCs, villains, and plotlines are not the stars of the show. I think I realized this when I played in a game run by a friend, and every time we met an NPC it seemed like he was trying to outdo our characters in combat with his new NPC (usually more like a DM PC), and we players felt like supporting cast.
Since understanding how that feels, I try my best to make any NPCs that go with the party only participate in the background or offer occasional guidance. Matt Colville discusses this in a few of his videos. The players will try to milk an NPC for everything they can give: advice, combat help, treasure, etc. But the point of the game is to let the players solve the puzzles, kill the monsters, and earn the treasure. So how do we deal with things when the party keeps begging a friendly NPC to help them kill the dragon?
Remind them that they are the heroes
As the title suggests, when players want to lean too much on NPC allies, we must remind them that they are the heroes. Perhaps that NPC wizard has other business with a necromancer to the south (Gandalf). Maybe the wilderness guide has to return to the lodge he manages because he is expecting some nobles for a hunting trip soon and must make preparations (Falcon the Hunter from Dragon of Icespire Peak). That knight you rescued from the goblins has to stay in town to help manage things there because the townmaster is incompetent (Sildar Hallwinter from LMoP).
These are just a few examples. Find a reason the NPC has to leave, because after all, this adventure stars the PCs as the heroes, and ultimately they must make decisions and take action if the villains are to be defeated and the town saved from the goblinoid host. Heck, if the players are too persistent in begging NPC help, I would remind them out of character, "You guys are the heroes here. This NPC has a life of their own to live, and while they are willing to help you, they ultimately are not the ones to save the town."
Give them moments to shine
So once you remove that strong NPC from the spotlight, how do you shine it upon the player characters? First, when there is a question about rules that is a bit fuzzy, lean toward fun for the player. Just last night, I had the party facing an orc shaman riding a wyvern, plus several other orcs. The goliath barbarian was standing on the ground and wanted to attack the shaman, who was concentrating on a bane spell that affected her and another ally. I first said, "Well he is 10 feet in the air," but then I thought, "Why not let her do this?" I changed my mind and said, "Well, you're a goliath and using a greatsword, so I'm going to say you can reach the shaman. Unfortunately for her, the shaman did not lose concentration, but I gave the chance for her to be heroic. She was already facing down a wyvern and its rider by herself while the others stayed back.
Another example of this happens often during combat. I run one of my games on roll20, and I just steal maps from wherever I can find them. I don't have a lot of time to make my own, and there are a lot of good ones out there. Some have grids and some don't, so I try to make the scale correct to match the roll20 distance measurer. Sometimes a player will want to move in and attack and they measure that it's 33 feet. In those cases I say, "You can get there." Why? What fun would it be to move 30 feet, stop just out of range and have the fighter try to throw a handaxe instead of slashing with his greataxe? Give them the 3 feet and let them have fun!
Give them inspiration
A second way I have begun to help improve my players' fun is with inspiration. No matter how you look at it, in D&D it is fun to roll well and not as much fun to roll poorly. Yes we "advanced" players can roleplay the failures just as well as the successes, but if we are honest, we want to hit instead of miss right? Using inspiration can be a way to help a player turn a failure into a success, roleplaying the situation as the character digging deep into their energy reserves and scraping out a victory on the brink of failure.
I played around with different inspiration options. The official option is declare inspiration before you roll and roll at advantage. The often used variant is to let a player re-roll a failure. My friend even allows a second re-roll, as she allows stocking of multiple points of inspiration. I once created a system of different options to use advantage like 1 point to regain a level 1 spell slot, 2 points to automatically stabilize when making death saves, etc. That was too complicated and nobody ever remembered to use any of them.
My current and favorite system for advantage so far goes as follows:
- The DM may award inspiration for good roleplay, heroic or clever actions, or because he thinks it is deserved for some other reason. The players may also nominate one another for inspiration.
- Players may accumulate multiple inspiration points.
- When a player fails a dice roll, they may use a point of inspiration to a) re-roll the failed check or b) add +5 to the roll.
Why is this my favorite? First, it is simple. You can make a resource tracker on roll20 or on paper to track your inspiration points, and adding 5 or re-rolling is easy to do. Second, as we said, hitting is more fun than missing, so if you roll a 13 and needed a 17 to hit that monster, then you add 5 and you just turned a miss into a hit, which means turning less fun into more fun. Finally, doing inspiration this way means it feels more satisfying. I lost count of how many times I used inspiration after rolling a 9 only to roll another 9. So much for being inspired! This version of inspiration can turn that 9 into a 14, which surprisingly hits a lot of things in the monster manual and passes a lot of saving throws.
Matt Colville said that he has fun when his players have fun. I have found that to be true. The times I have left a game feeling frustrated and did not enjoy it, then the odds are that my players likely did not either. If I can find more ways to make the player characters be the stars, tilt the rules to favor their funfactor, and reward good roleplay with inspiration, which really pays off when it turns that failure into a success, then I feel like I am increasing their fun, which then increases my fun.
So when your players want to try crazy things, don't come up with ways to thwart their plans every time. Come up with ways their plan can succeed in a plausible way that feels earned and makes their characters shine. Let them have their goblin sidekick. Sure he may try to escape a couple of times, but eventually he feels safer with the party than with the abusive bugbears back at his camp. Let them tame an owlbear. Sure it might maul a couple of players in the process, but if they can pass enough checks and put in the work then reward them with a cool companion.
Here's to having more fun playing D&D, making our characters the stars, and in turn have them love you as a DM and want to continue to play in your games.
- Party Inspiration; or how I solved the problem with inspiration
- Hero points and Proficiency dice, do they make the game funner.
- Letting your players be exceptional. They are heroes, don’t try to “balance” that.
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "DM Lessons #1 Your Players are the Stars" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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