Dungeons & Dragons Online

DND is a hot potato

The term spotlight in dnd refers to any player’s opportunity to play and be seen by the other players. It refers to the “camera” of game time being focused on a particular character. Lately I’ve been thinking of the spotlight as more of a hot potato. My goal as a DM is to thrust the scalding hot potato into my players’ hands, as aggressively and as often as possible.

When you begin a typical game, you recap what happened last. If you’re lucky or skilled, this recap sets up your session with drama. You want your recap to build up to a big boiling potato steaming in your hand. Of course, the recap shouldn’t be about every important thing over the course of the campaign. But the recap’s most important element isn’t even the summary of the previous game: it’s how you set up the first moment of the session you’re in. You bake the hell out of your potato. Your players watch you baking it with uncertainty and excitement. They know that soon, one or more of them must hold it.

“After traveling deep into the sewers with about a dozen city guard plodding behind you, you find the hidden harbor. The yugoloth mercenaries eye you with malice. The nautiloid clinging to the cavern ceiling suddenly detaches, falling heavily into the dark water.”

In the above recap, I set the scene for players by emphasizing the hot potato, the choice. Will the party fight the yugoloths or leave their NPCs to it and try to breach the nautiloid?

A truly hot potato has two opposing elements. The first is, you want the potato. The potato is a hearty and fulfilling meal. The spotlight is precious, the warmth of our friends’ attention gives us energy and fun. A good dnd potato is a compelling choice, a real choice. Those moments when the players are able to truly shape the game. They aren’t all epic potatoes either. Revealing information to an NPC or keeping it a secret is a potato. Fighting a dragon to save the town or its cultists to save the leader is a potato. Destroy the evil artifact forever or attune to it and outwit the BBEG is a potato. Make your meeting with the merchant or save the stable boy from a mugging is a potato. When a player holds a good potato, the rest of the table feels compelled to pause and watch, because the drama of what that person does with the potato is the basis of the game. The story unfolds precisely in these moments of choice.

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The second element of a hot potato is the heat. What is heat? Potatoes have to do with offering meaningful choices to your players, choices with nearly equal drawbacks or benefits. The heat has to do with the urgency behind their choice. You don’t want to start your game with a potato the players can take all session to pass around. “Plan how to siege the city” is a room temperature potato that will require three excruciating hours in the oven of your game session. While siege planning can be great dnd, it doesn’t exactly spark a momentous game to begin one that way. Instead, what if, as the players sit down to start their siege plan, an NPC rushes in to share that they’ve captured a scout. Now you offer your players a hot potato that will shape the siege planning. Do they wish to interrogate the scout or leave him with NPCs? If they visit the scout, the next potato is how do they treat the scout? Is the interrogation friendly or hostile? Is the NPC trying to deceive them, to change sides, or being upfront and direct? And what about what information the NPC tells them? That’s the next potato: you need to offer an alternative to planning the city siege. A piece of knowledge that invites or demands immediate action (“my boss is willing to unlock the outer gate at midnight if you do x, y, or z.”) All of these choices you make in prep will increase the heat of your potato.

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A perfect hot potato makes your players squirm. Do you ally with the lich against Orcus, or reject his alliance and possibly drive the lich to ally with the demon lord instead? Do you tell the duke about the accusations the BBEG leveled at him as it died, or do you sit on the uncomfortable claims you heard? Do you return the town’s precious stolen chandelier, or sell it to the genasi for an airship?

The main benefit of Hot Potato DMing is this: players naturally return the potato to you- the process is naturally cyclical. As DMs, often one of our greatest challenges is simply ensuring our players get to hold the potato at all, regardless of its heat. The spotlight is not always an easy thing to control. Hot Potato keeps you focused on pacing, on sharing narrative focus, and on building the story. If there aren’t any hot potatoes, it doesn’t feel like the main characters are actually creating the story as it goes. Without hot potatoes, your players get dragged into the dullness of story time. Not listening, but being talked to. Nobody wants that.

As you pass the potato around more, you get better at recognizing different problems with the game. One person has held it too long- steal it from them, microwave the potato quickly, and toss it into the hands of another player. Or maybe your potatoes are cold, ice cold! Heat them up with an active statblock crashing into your scene, by revealing a key piece of info, or concluding a scene and looking for the next place to heat up the potato. Or, you may realize you aren’t sharing the potato enough. Maybe you are plotting too much, or you aren’t offering players choices that actually shape the game.

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We play Hot Potato for the joy, excitement, and unpredictability. How do people act as they hold a ridiculously hot potato? Or, how do they handle the pressure of fighting over chairs and wondering when the song will stop? DND is the same. There’s no thrill quite like devising a truly excruciating choice and then thrusting it into the hands of your players. That is drama at its heart, wondering “what will they do next?”, and drama is made much better when the conditions turn the question into “what the hell will they decide to do NOW?!”

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