Content of the article: "If Your Pc Has a Situational Ability, Make Up Situations Where It’s Useful"
I’ve often heard the argument that a feature or spell is weak or bad because it is “too situational.” I’ve even heard the argument that you should discourage your players from taking situational abilities for the sake of their fun. I’ve always found these arguments strange because you as a DM have almost total control over the situations your player characters get into, and so you can always create scenarios where situational abilities get to shine.
The first time I encountered this was when I was running a one-shot that I had mostly finished making, but then my players sent me their character sheets. One of them had chosen the Dungeon Delver feat, and none of the abilities from the feat were going to be useful for the one-shot, and I thought to myself, “Huh, that’s gonna be disappointing for him.” So I made two quick changes. First, instead of hiding a box of healing potions on the body of a goblin like I intended, I hid the box behind a secret door near the goblin fight. Second, instead of having a monster that could conjure a volley of arrows as an attack like I intended, I turned that ability into an arrow trap in the same room as the monster. Both of these changes took me about 5 minutes to come up with, and when we played the one-shot, my player was ecstatic that he was getting so much use out of his feat. Neither change significantly affected the balance of the adventure, but they both significantly affected how much fun the player had.
I’ve run that one-shot several times since then, and each time I run it, I make similar tweaks depending on what characters my players create:
- A character had proficiency in cartographer’s tools, so I added maps that revealed the natural dangers of the area, and if the player succeeded in their tool check when examining the map, then they would give their party a bonus to their passive perception for detecting ambushes in the area.
- A character took the Purify Food & Drink spell, so I included barrels of stagnant water and bad food that they could purify to feed rescued and starving prisoners.
- A player made a Blue Dragonborn with lightning resistance, so I changed the giant poisonous snake into an giant elemental snake and changed the poison damage into lightning.
- A player made a Tabaxi rogue, so I put pillars in one of the combat encounters and raised the ceiling 10-20 feet higher, so he could have something to climb if he wanted.
- A player made a Yuan-Ti rogue, so I added snakes for her to question.
- A player brought in a Homebrew subclass that had a feature that requires “earth or stone,” so I made sure the indoor parts of the one-shot were made of stone.
- A player chose the Noble background for her sorcerer, so I made the main quest giver a socialite who fawned over her and was more willing to divulge additional information.
Players didn’t always make use of these changes, but when they did I could see how happy it made them to be able to use the abilities they had chosen for their characters. And none of these changes took more than 5 minutes to come up with and implement, so it wasn’t a big deal if they didn’t pay off.
Now, I want to address some possible concerns regarding this approach, so I created a straw man to ask questions:
Should a DM have the burden of making a situational ability feel useful?
I think in a Homebrew campaign, a DM absolutely should carry some of that burden because it’s not a heavy burden (most of these changes are minor). And these minor changes have a disproportionately positive effect on your players’ gameplay experiences because it makes them feel like their choices matter.
Doesn’t accommodating situational features actually make player choice meaningless because all options are now good options?
The goal here isn’t to make all features equal in power. The goal is to make every feature feel useful. Just because your player now has the opportunity to use her Cartographer’s Tool proficiency doesn’t mean it’s suddenly on par with Thieves’ Tools, but your players shouldn’t have “dead options” on their character sheets. They took that proficiency because they want to look at maps, so give them some maps to look at.
Isn’t it the players’ responsibility (and part of their fun) to figure out good uses for their abilities?
Yes. Absolutely. But the DM has to be ready and willing to play along. If a player asks if there are any maps around, and I’m not prepared for that, then my gut reaction is to say no because I didn’t plan for that. If you’re better at improv and the “yes, and” game, then maybe you don’t need this! But I always like being prepared and creating situations where a player will think to ask about using their features.
Also, the DM has to be aware that their world-building decisions can either spotlight a character’s abilities or totally nullify them without the player being able to do anything about it. If I set my campaign entirely within a forested region, then my Ranger with Natural Explorer (Arctic) is gonna have a dead feature. No amount of creative thinking on his part is gonna change that. Only I have the power to make that feature useful by changing the world. So, that’s what I should do. I change the season to winter and have that same forest become blanketed in snow.
Now you can’t accommodate everyone’s various features all the time, especially if you’re running a long-term campaign. I just don’t think it’s as hard as people think to bring up “niche” situations, and it’s well worth the extra little effort you put into planning sessions.
- Hero points and Proficiency dice, do they make the game funner.
- Rules for Building Characters for a Horror-Style Game
- How much of a player’s arc should you clear with them before implementing it into your game?
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