Making memorable D&D characters

i’ve rolled up many, many more D&D and other RPG characters than i’ve ever used, as either a DM or player. Whether inspired by films, like Navarre from the classic “Ladyhawke” with his double crossbow, who translated into a 1st edition AD&D ranger…

navarre

Double crossbow, shortsword, bastard sword, leather armor, trusty steed, trained hawk – Captain Navarre is a total bad ass

…or knights both shining and fallen, a la “Excalibur,” to video games, like the “Final Fantasy” style lancer/dragoon that’s informed several character across multiple editions (personal favorite: 3.5 edition 9th level fighter).

dragoon

The current game i’m DMing evolved from a one-shot session to a maybe-we’ll-try-to-get-together-again group, to an ongoing quest, to what is now a sandbox game set amidst the stars and crystal spheres of a Spelljammer universe. To this end, i’m letting the players basically tell me what they’d like their characters to do, and sprinkling in people, places, things, events and scenarios for them to interact with (or not).

The running spreadsheet i created already has hundreds of entries. It’s my hope that, years from now, the players will have encountered quite a few of them, but with many more still in reserve – the list is ever-growing! For the NPCs on the list, the notes i’ve made include details to remind me what my initial thoughts were about the character. Things like their motivation, fears, background, or visual or audio clues to give them a distinct flavor. (i come up with a lot of voices while driving.)

There’s as many ways to come up with interesting characters as there are playstyles for TTRPGs, from inspiration through other forms of media to a couple of details to help bring your characters to life.

rpgheroes

The 5th edition Player’s Handbook even has built-in mechanics to help players turn a collection of numbers, stats and abilities into concrete concepts through the background features. Examples of characteristics like personality traits, bonds, ideals and flaws provide a guide for players to fall back on in roleplaying their character. For example, one of the suggested flaws for a criminal is “when faced with a choice between money and my friends, I usually choose the money.” A player can get a lot of mileage out of something like that. The rest of the party might be put off by such a flaw. Over time, they might come to accept that their companion has a compulsion to get that loot above all else. And it can provide drama, too. When dire situation arises later in the party’s adventuring career, perhaps the criminal PC overcomes his flaw, and chooses his friends over a pile of gold.

An additional mechanical benefit to characteristics is the inspiration option in 5E D&D. A DM can award inspiration whenever a PCs acts in accord with their characteristics, whether that is exemplifying their personality traits, giving in to a flaw or sticking to a bond at great risk. Inspiration allows a player to gain advantage on an attack roll, saving throw or ability check at the time of their choosing. This is a great incentive for roleplaying a character.

The PHB backgrounds also include special features unique to each one. The aforementioned criminal’s feature is a contact the PC has, someone connected to the world of shady dealings that they can rely on and trust (for the most part). These are great details for DMs as well. One of my players has the hermit background, and mentioned that he thought his discovery feature could be related to cosmic enlightenment somehow. Boy, was he surprised to find himself on a spacefaring ship later on – especially after he was the only party member who failed a series of saving throws and hence received a vision of the larger universe.

A terrific DM tip from Wil Wheaton’s excellent Titansgrave series from Geek & Sundry is to encourage players to come up with secrets that their characters keep from the other players. These can be a secret about their own character that they don’t want anyone else to know, or a secret that they know about another character.

“It changes the way that they think, it brings depth and complexity to their characters and it lets me serve the story in ways that will be appealing to them,” Wheaton says in the Chapter 0 introduction to Titansgrave.

As the webseries progressed, all of the different secrets, quirks and details of the characters’ backstories were woven into the narrative in dramatic ways. It is a fantastic example of how several different elements of RPGs that both players and DMs bring to the table before, during and after actual play, combine to tell their particular story.

Whether your group uses the backgrounds and traits in the PHB to flesh out their characters, coming up with a backstory is a longtime tradition in TTRPGs. Setting aside the mechanical options, backstories are a way for players to integrate their characters into the world using their imagination. The elements of a backstory can absolutely be informed by the mechanics like backgrounds, race, class and even ability scores.

A good backstory weaves those elements into a tale of what happened to the character up to the time when the table gaming sessions begin. Working with your DM is extremely useful, so they can help steer your ideas in ways that fit into the world where your adventures will take place. For example, the 3.5 “dragoon” fighter was for a campaign based around the dominance of chromatic dragons in the world, and the party were part of a rebellion against them. My character was an air genasi from a secluded mountaintop village (inspired by Machu Picchu) dedicated to Bahamut, that was decimated by a dragon attack. The lone survivor, he discovered the village temple’s hidden sepulchre that held the weapons and armor of an ancient champion that were designed to aid in battle against evil dragons. (Since we were starting at 9th level, it was really awesome to basically use the starting gold to choose completely customized equipment including magic items.)

Here’s a list of some things to keep in mind when coming up with characters and their backstories:

  • Where are they from? This could be a specific city or region in your campaign world, or something vague like a farming village, port town, capital city or mining outpost. Knowing where your character is from gives you an idea of their outlook in the wider world. If their home is remote, perhaps they’ve never seen other sentient races or experienced metropolitan life. If they’re from the capital of the kingdom, maybe they consider rural folk to be simpletons. Miners will place high value on hard work, and so on.
  • What are their desires? Power, money, prestige, knowledge – these are only a few of the things a character might long for. Revenge and love are powerful desires as well. Clerics might desire to spread their faith. One of my players is a pseudo-cleric who recognizes all the gods, and carries a large key ring with holy symbols of all of them. His goals include finding lost relics of divine origin.
  • What sort of disposition do they have? Characters can be quick to anger, or reluctant to get into a fight. They could be cheerful in the face of danger, mistrustful of authority or prone to get lost in thought.
  • What do they look like? There are general parameters for all of the player racial choices for things like height and weight. Maybe your character’s hair turned white from a terrifying experience as a child, or they’re missing a finger from a deal gone bad. They could have a scar or tattoo, or always wear a distinctive hat. They might keep the hood of their cloak up at all times, wary of showing their face in public.
  • What’s the character’s outlook? A character can assume everyone is trustworthy, or give everyone the benefit of the doubt. They might be an opportunist, or trust in the gods to keep them safe. Perhaps they’re positive all the time, or a perennial downer.
  • What’s their motivation? Similar to desires, motivation drives the character to continue the life of an adventurer as opposed to settling down. What keeps them moving forward in a life fraught with danger? Fun, thrills, responsibilities – there are countless motivations for characters to become adventurers.
  • What’s their family like? This doesn’t always have to be tragic – a fairly common PC backstory. A character’s family can be safe and happy back at home while they pursue a life of adventure. Siblings, parents, extended relatives and chosen families like close friends and community can all be a part of a character’s backstory. On the flip side, a family that was killed when the village was destroyed by monsters is perfectly okay, too. Perhaps the character’s parents split up for any number of reasons. A sibling might have left home on an adventure, and the PC is following their example.
  • What does the character sound like? Not all players are comfortable speaking in character or coming up with a unique voice even if they do so, but they can certainly describe and keep in mind what their character sounds like. Their voice could be shrill, gravely, baritone, singsong, or have some sort of accent. Beyond the actual audio quality, they might speak very little, or too much.
  • Do they have peculiar mannerisms? Maybe a character is twitchy, always fingering a concealed dagger. Spectacles could be sliding down their nose. A defensive person might always cross their arms or clench their fists. They could bite their fingernails a lot, fidget and tap their foot nervously. A character could mindlessly hum a tune whenever they’re concentrating on a task, or never look anyone directly in the eyes.
  • Anything to refluff? Often overlooked, refluffing character abilities is a great way of customizing PCs. A warlock’s eldritch blast could take the form of a tentacle that whips out from a small rift-like portal. A monk’s darts can be ninja stars, or a fighter’s action surge can be an alchemical pill they pop to give them a surge of energy (keyed to work for only them, of course). A valor bard’s combat inspiration could be tactical shouting of commands. Check with your DM if you want to reimagine any of your character’s abilities,even if the mechanics stay the same.
  • Does the character have any enemies or friends? Some of these are worked into background features, but it’s perfectly okay (and great DM fodder) to give your character people they’ve fun afoul of in the past, or formed friendships with.
  • What’s their personal history? Characters might have had regular workaday jobs before embarking on a life of adventure. Class and backgrounds inform a lot of these details. But maybe they had a strange encounter or experience as a child, perhaps one that led them to pursue their profession and class.
  • Does the character fit any sort of archetype? You might imagine your character a consummate schemer, a sophisticate or a bumpkin. They could be an innocent, an orphan, caregiver, explorer, rebel, lover, jester, sage or hero.

Here’s another list of some questions you can answer about your characters, from +1 Gaming (link for further description of questions):

  1. What emotion best describes your character?
  2. What emotion does your character evoke in others?
  3. What does your character need most?
  4. What is your character’s goal in life?
  5. How does your character believe this goal can be accomplished?
  6. Where did your character come from?
  7. When did you grow up?
  8. What values does your character hold?
  9. How does your character dress?
  10. What are your character’s means?
  11. What are your character’s personal tastes?
  12. What are your character’s opinions?
  13. What is your character’s comfort zone?
  14. Who has had the biggest impact on your character’s life?
  15. What are some of your character’s unexpected quirks?
  16. What kind of story does your character belong in?
  17. What role does your character fill?
  18. What should the other players know about your character?
  19. What is your play style?
  20. How do you want your character to die?

There’s even online resources like this Random Background Generator!

As you can guess, there’s a million ways to flesh out your RPG characters. No matter what your group’s playstyle, over time it’s inevitable that your character will grow and evolve, encountering opportunities that challenge and inspire both them and the players. The best sorts of characters are those who, in time, tell their players how they respond and interact with the world. When starting a new character, thinking about some of these things can guide you on that journey of discovery.

In addition, great characters and backstories are a fantastic aid to DMs, giving them insight into the sorts of experiences players and their characters hope to have. Imagine the satisfaction when a character whose motivation is seeking revenge for a terrible wrong done to their family actually succeeds in that personal goal.

 

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D&D all about dem dice

With improvisation, I just do it. It might be a total failure but then you just throw the dice again. – Christian Marclay

Contributing to a fun experience for everyone at the table is the only real “rule” i adhere to as a D&D dungeon master. All the other guidelines, tips and tricks contained in the rulebooks and offered by Sage Advice, countless YouTubers, Twitch streamers, blogs and articles are purely optional. If they work in your game to add more fun, that’s terrific and you should totally utilize them. If not, there’s no harm done in completely disregarding them.

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However, D&D remains a game no matter your approach to it, and the thing that makes it unique is the trove of oddly-shaped dice laid out on the table. Along with pencils, paper and whatever version of the rules your group prefers, dice are the only other necessary component to playing a game of D&D.

For the uninitiated, here’s a rundown of the different die denominations and their place in the current D&D environment:

d4

  • d4: The smallest of the dice, this four-sided pyramidal caltrop-like die gives a random number between one and four. This is most often used to determine the damage on small weapons like daggers and clubs, additional magical benefits like those granted from the bless spell or crusader’s mantle’s ongoing radiant damage, and increments of time like 1-4 rounds, hours or days.

d6

  • d6: Rogue characters will need several of these six-sided cubes for all the extra sneak attack damage they’ll get, and squishy characters will be familiar with them because their hit points are determined with them. For those into a totally random D&D experience, 5th edition’s backgrounds have tables to come up with characters’ bonds, ideals and flaws with d6 rolls. A step up with small weapons, things like maces, handaxes and scimitars use these for damage, and suffering from a fall means rolling one of these for every ten feet of distance to see how badly the character is hurt. A lot of spells and monster attacks use the d6 for damage as well, often in multiples. The ever-popular fireball deals at least 8d6 damage, while an ancient red dragon’s fire breath doles out a massive 26d6 damage! More than any other die, the d6 is one that gets rolled in multiple.

d8

  • d8: Still in the lower half of the array of denominations, this diamond-shaped die is a workhorse. Middle-rank classes like bards, clerics, rogues and warlocks use this one for their hit points. Spells and weapons that use a d8 are reliable damage dealers. On the flip side, healing effects determined with the eight-sided die can swing the tide of a battle. Like for the d6, the backgrounds have d8-based tables for random determination of characters’ personality traits. Also like the d6, the d8 gets rolled in multiple for lots of spells and monster attacks like chain lighting.

2d10

  • d10: Front-line combatants like fighter and paladins use these for hit points, and correspondingly big weapons use these for their damage. Quite a few mid- to high-level spells use d10s for damage as well – very often in multiple. Unique to the d10, distinct for any of the other dice, is using them for percentile rolls. Two d10 are rolled, to represent the tens and ones places. For example, if there is a 50 percent chance of success at something, the player rolls 2d10 resulting in a three and a nine, for 39. Since 39 is less than 50, the action is successful. There are several ways to roll percentile dice. Most dice sets come with two d10s, one of which has single digits and one with double digits, to show which is the tens and ones place. Or a player could use two differently colored d10, say a red and a yellow and call “yellow high” meaning the yellow will be the tens place. Or just roll the same die twice, with the first roll the tens and the second the ones. In 5th edition, there’s little usage of percentile rolls compared to older editions. Notably in the Player’s Handbook, the wild magic sorcerer can trigger a d100-determined wild magic surge anytime they cast a spell, and new characters can roll d100 to get a random mysterious trinket. As a DM i use percentile rolls quite a bit behind the scenes. In my group’s last session, they freed some prisoners from a cultist lair, and debated whether to continue on with the prisoners in tow, escort them back to town or simply let them find their own way back. A simple table i made beforehand provided their chances of survival. The party decided to let them loose to find their own way back, which gave them pretty low chances of living. However, they outfitted the freed prisoners with extra armor, weapons and supplies they had and that greatly increased their odds. A roll of the percentile dice behind the screen let me know whether they made it back alive or not on their own. The players haven’t checked back in town yet, so they have no idea what fate befell those they liberated (and i don’t want to spoil it for any of them if they read this).

d12

  • d12: Traditionally the barbarian’s die, this one is mostly used for determining a barbarian’s hit points and the weapon most associated with them: the greataxe. The role of the d12 role gets a bit of expansion in 5th edition though, with a couple of the bard’s special abilities employing it at higher levels. An evocation wizard also has one ability that uses the d12, except it’s as the negative effect on themselves after overchanneling arcane energy. And there are two spells that use d12 for damage: poison spray and witch bolt.

d20

  • d20: This will be the most oft-rolled die at the table, no question. Swing your mace at that fire giant? Roll a d20. Try to persuade an alchemist to give you a discount on some potions of healing? Roll a d20. Picking a lock? Climbing a wall? Deciphering ancient runes? Roll d20s all around. The meat-and-potatoes of D&D takes place through d20 rolls pretty much since 3rd edition, which introduced the d20 system that’s stuck with D&D ever since. All modifiers to die rolls aside, rolling a one on a d20 always results in failure, and at the other end of the spectrum a roll of 20 is always a success. But there’s more! Rolling a natural 20 not just a success – it’s a critical success. That means the outcome is more spectacular than just a positive result. In combat, rolling a natural 20 is a critical hit, and all the dice for damage are doubled. So if that character scores a critical hit on that fire giant, they’d roll 2d6 to determine how much damage they deal with their mace. Additional dice, like those from a rogue’s sneak attack or a paladin’s smite, are also doubled. Outside of combat, critical successes can mean that alchemist gives you a discount for life, or you glean special insight into those runes.

nat20shirt

Some groups’ playstyle leans away from too much dice rolling, preferring instead a more narrative approach to their roleplaying and even combat situations. That’s perfectly okay; as we’ve established, the primary goal of D&D is to have fun however you wish.

i like to have players roll dice as much as possible. They’ll describe what they want to do in any given situation, and i tell them sure, and have them roll a check of some sort. Even in social encounters, when players act in character and have a conversation with an NPC, it comes down to a roll of the dice. The behind-the-scene trick here is to let the players’ words and action simply modify the difficulty of success on the die roll. Using the above example of buying potions from an alchemist, i would determine the difficulty of convincing them to sell their wares for cheaper is pretty high to start off. There’s not really any benefit for them to make less money. But maybe the player makes an argument that they’ll spread word-of-mouth positive advertising for the shop, or that the town is in danger and helping them ultimately helps the shop, or whatever the player comes up with to try and change the alchemist’s mind. At the end of the day, i’ll still have it come down to a die roll, except the bar of difficulty to success is lower. Doing so encourages players to engage more with the world, and simultaneously inject the random element of dice rolling that makes D&D a game.

The added benefit of rolling dice a lot means there are more chances to roll natural 20s and achieve critical successes. Players love rolling 20s. It’s arguably the most exciting moments during play. The probability of critical rolls is always the same, but the more you roll, the more 20s will come up. My DMing style cleaves to encouraging players to try anything they imagine that makes the game more fun for them, having them describe or act out what they want to do or say, then letting the dice land where they may.

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There’s plenty of times when it might not even have a direct effect mechanically. For instance, a few sessions ago the party gunslinger wanted to run forward and slide on the ground between another of the group’s characters to take a shot at a cultist down the hall. He rolled an acrobatics check and failed, so it wasn’t a very graceful manuever. But he did end up prone on the ground where he wanted to be and took his shot. If he’d succeeded, he would still be prone and able to attack. If he’d rolled a one, he might have knocked his companion over or been unable to shoot, and on a 20 would have deftly got into position and had advantage on his attack (which would have been a die-doubling critical hit).

By and large, players are eager to do more than robotically swing their weapons and hit or miss, or get shut down with a DM saying no whenever they ask if they can do this-or-that. They elegance of D&D and other tabletop roleplaying games is that, without the boundaries of video game programming, contained board game rules and the like, players are free to let their characters attempt anything they can imagine. It can be disappointing to fail, but players often remember those failures with a smile just as much as their great successes.

One of the greatest joys i get as a DM is playing with people who have never played D&D before, and waiting for that moment when it clicks for them that they can attempt anything. i love when players start off saying “can i…?” to which the classic DM response is “you can certainly try.”

It all comes down to a roll of the dice.

The more you put in, the more you get out

It’s true that the more you put in the more you get out and that has to be there I think, If you aren’t really hooked on your instrument this job would be a hell on earth but if you are, it’s the best.

Internationally-renowned master guitarist Leo Kottke is credited with the above quote, and while he was referring to playing music, there’s a D&D lesson in there for both players and DM’s alike. The differences worth noting: D&D is a game, not a job, and less than total dedication isn’t going to make playing it hell on earth.

On the other hand, it can most certainly be the best, so the odds are in your favor (even if the dice sometimes are not).

The common assumption is that the bulk of the work for a D&D game lies with the DM. That’s mostly true, in large part because players generally don’t need to spend much time out-of-game doing anything. They can, of course, plot and plan, scheme and devise tactics for the future. But to a large extent, they don’t know what lies ahead in their path of adventure. (Unless you’re playing a West Marches style campaign. Dammit, should have included that with the overview of different playstyles!)

By the same token, the DM doesn’t know how the players will react to whatever comes their way. With a healthy degree of certainty, i can say that every DM from Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson all the way down to yours truly has made notes on potential actions our players will take and they invariably do something wholly unexpected.

The focus for this thought exploration though is a practice players and DMs employ at the table that enhances the game experience for everyone involved.

The art of description

D&D is a game that takes place in the imagination of the players. Unlike a video game, film, television or web series there are no graphics or visual components. Use of miniature figures, maps and props add to the experience, and there are online “virtual tabletops” with visual elements, but at a basic level, D&D is a game rooted in description. It takes place in the theatre of the mind.

The shared storytelling aspect is reminiscent of collaborative writing, with participants adding their contributions and passing it on to another who picks up where they left off. Each chunk of the story builds off the previous portion, sometimes making a logical progression, sometimes going in a completely different direction. Regardless of the content, taken together all the segments create a unique narrative.

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One of the DM’s more abstract roles at the table is setting the tone for players in this experience, or leading by example. After all, the DM is the one in charge of running everything in their game world except the PCs, and it’s up to them to make that world start to come alive. To that end, one of the best practices for a DM is taking the time to vividly describe what characters see throughout their adventures, and the actions of the people and monsters they encounter.

It’s perfectly okay to tell players exploring a cave system that they’re in a tunnel ten feet wide and 30 feet long. Especially if one of the players has a penchant for making graph paper maps as they explore, this information is practical and one of the hallmarks of play.

dndmap

Beyond the mechanical description however, it’s much more evocative to tell players they descend into a crudely constructed tunnel system, the earthen walls damp with trickles of brackish water that turn the ground into a muddy morass riddled with puddles of dirty water that makes their footsteps squish in the ground beneath their travel-worn boots. Rotted wooden timbers haphazardly spaced along the length of the corridor serve to reinforce the walls, with sporadically placed torches providing light but also filling the air with wisps of acrid black smoke. Every so often, a clump of the wall sloughs away and plops to the ground.

Description such as this serves another function beyond bringing the world to life in the players’ imaginations – it prompts them to engage with their surroundings. They should grow concerned that a tunnel could collapse at any moment, cutting off escape or even burying them alive. They might wonder what kind of wood the timbers are, where it came from and what creature put them there. Their plodding movement might ruin any chances at stealth, and those puddles on the ground may hold hidden dangers.

Evoking that kind of thinking in the players offers them opportunities to use their characters skills and knowledge outside of the more obvious situations that arise through the encounters the DM presents. A character with a background as a carpenter might want to examine the timbers. The party tracker could try to find out if anyone else has recently passed through by searching for a trail in the mud. Characters who can see in the dark might want to snuff out the torches, reasoning that whoever put them there would be at a disadvantage in the darkness.

In short, describing the world to the players gives them chances and inspires their imagination to interact with it, and in turn more creatively describe their PCs actions to the DM.

When it comes time for action, description is equally important to create a sense of excitement, fun and danger for players. One of the most enjoyable things for most D&D players is the combat, and by-and-large they love it when fights amount to more than die rolls, successful attacks and hitting the orc for five points of damage with a longsword.

otyugh

Otyughs are one of the most disgusting D&D creatures. The 5E Monster Manual describes how it buries itself under mounds of offal and carrion, leaving only its sensory stalk exposed. When an edible creature happens by, the otyugh’s tentacles erupt from the filth and grab hold of it.

Combat is bloody business, so don’t be afraid to describe the outcomes. A sword attack that only results in two hit points of damage could mean the fighter squaring off against the otyugh barely manages to weave under the disgusting creature’s flailing tentacles, knocking them aside with their shield just enough to strike out with their blade, that only nicks the thing’s tough exterior enough that a thin line of vile juice seeps from the small wound. Even a basic fighter who consistently makes the same sword attack mechanically speaking can still bob and weave, lunge and parry, stab or slice, shout curses and taunt their enemies. The results might be the same numbers-wise but the experience is memorable. (And who knows, the DM might even give advantage or recognize other ways to reward creative description.)

One of my players discovered a mace crafted in the shape of a snake head and he seemed so excited to finally have a chance to use it that i decided on the spot to describe how when the mace struck, the fangs of the snake bit into the cultists arms and the veins around the bite turned black with poison (it was meant to be only a decorative mace).

At the other end of the spectrum in combat is the killing blow. Taking down even the weakest combatants in a fight is exhilarating for players. A thrown dagger buries itself into the goblin’s eye, its head snapping back as the life leaves the pitiful creature’s body and it slumps to the ground, blood leaking from the wound and pooling on the ground. One of my players years ago was playing a paladin whose first kill resulted in arterial spray covering his shining armor in blood. It became a running joke that despite his best efforts at keeping clean, he undoubtedly wound up coated in ichors, gore and nasty fluids on a regular basis.

emptycloak

During a recent play session with my group, when the party attacked some robed cultists in the midst of worshiping their dark benefactor, they discovered they weren’t robed cultists at all, but animated robes that swirled about trying to grapple characters. When they were defeated, the smokelike energy animated them simply burst into wisps of black mist that dissipated in the air around them. That was something i threw in on the spur of the moment (i improv A LOT) – it felt like a cool idea since they’d already fought a lot of cultists.

Fans of Critical Role will certainly recognize one of DM Matt Mercer’s most famous phrases: “How do you want to do this?” When his players land the final strike against  significant opponents, he let’s them describe how their PCs finish the job. This serves a twofold purpose. First, as soon as he says those words, the group erupts in cheers because they know the threat is over and they’ve won. And second, it gives the players a chance to take ownership of their characters’ actions, greatly increasing their agency in the game.

cr-hdywtdt

i’m sure i’m not the only DM who’s added HDYWTDT to their bag of tricks, either. In our last session, the party’s monk was thrilled when he got to finish their very narrowly won battle with the self-style Reptile God, Explictica Defilus the spirit naga, by swinging around her neck and tearing out her throat. (DM note: her insane ramblings and threats throughout the fight must have worked enough that he didn’t want to hear another word!)

Magic offers up even more opportunities for colorful description, with effects that blast, burn, freeze, poison, drain life and much more. My personal favorite is the disintegrate spell. Devastatingly effective in the damage department on a mechanical basis, from a descriptive standpoint even if the target isn’t killed outright parts of it are disintegrated! A thin beam of sickly green energy streaks forth from the wizard’s finger, striking the front giant in the shoulder. You watch the horror on the creature’s face as its entire arm and parts of its torso are simply…gone.

Vivid description is useful in any situation – not only for exploration and combat. Some playstyles allow for quite a bit of time spend hanging around the PCs hometown or major cities, and bringing these locales to life is just as important for creating the sense of a living world.

Often, even the most innocuous details will stick in players’ minds and add personality and flavor to their encounters. During the first session with my current group, when describing a bar maid i mentioned she wore a little cloth cap, which to me was a throwaway detail only to help flesh out the description of a tavern the group visited. When one of the players asked about her during a later session, i thought it was really cool that they asked about the bartender with the cloth cap.

The next time your group gets together to play some D&D, try to add some descriptive flair to the session. Describe the surroundings, how characters walk and talk, what they’re wearing and how they handle themselves in a fight. Both DMs and players contributing their creative energies together is what takes D&D from a fun game to an experience filled with memorable moments that last a lifetime.

Finding your D&D playstyle

With over 40 years of history behind it, Dungeons & Dragons has changed and evolved as much as anything else in that time. Under the umbrella of five distinct editions of the rules, plus the original basic (or BECMI) set, the Rules Cyclopedia, the current basic rules (that are totally free online) and a literal universe of settings ranging from Greyhawk to the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun to Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Spelljammer that takes adventurers into outer space, and countless others, there are limitless possibilities to explore.

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Classic BECMI D&D: Basic, Expert, Companion, Master and Immortals rulesets

Just as varied as the rulesets and settings are different styles of play. From kick-in-the-door dungeon delving to intricate plots woven into a socio-political stage, players have been finding their niche at the gaming table for decades.

Whether you’re a first-timer or a seasoned vet, finding the style of play that works for your group can be a challenging experiment. Group dynamics apply as much for players of fantasy roleplaying games as they do in any real life scenarios. Team cohesion depends on the interplay of individuals’ wants as needs from the game, through a social contract aimed to allow everyone a chance to enjoy themselves. This includes the DM as well, whose duty is to manage all of the players’ expectations and steer them towards a fun experience.

The playstyle for your D&D group isn’t something that needs to be set in stone or decided upon beforehand. The fluid nature of a game can change over time or even from session to session. If you’ve never played before, or you’re playing in a newly-formed group, there’s no telling what your game might evolve into.

A good DM, beyond having a decent grasp of the rules and an ability to keep the play moving forward, would do well to note the sorts of things their players enjoy and the times when it feels like a slog. Learning what your players like makes a DM’s job much easier. For example, players who have a blast exploring caverns and fighting monsters, and never engage with the elaborate storylines a DM spent hours developing, can better serve up a fun experience by spending their prep time making a few maps and populating them with fantastic beasts and magical treasure.

That being said, the beauty of D&D as a shared storytelling game is that whatever story the group ends up telling is never written ahead of time – it’s only after the group plays that the story emerges and comes to life. Classic dungeon delving adventures will, over time, tell their own tale through the memorable moments that the players create.

Here’s a few different playstyles that i’ve experienced in my years of D&D gaming

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  • Kick-in-the-door: The simplest way to play, this is the one i started with as a kid. Many classic modules (published adventures) lend themselves to this style. There is often a plot, but this is glossed over as the introduction to the adventure. Essentially these are dungeon delves, with the set-up being done “off camera.” For example, one of my favorite classic adventures, White Plume Mountain, has the DM inform the players that three magical sentient weapons were stolen. The weapons’ owners received taunting messages that their weapons are located in a wizard’s dangerous dungeon at White Plume Mountain. After the DM reads through the introduction, the adventure quite simply states “Start: The party has arrived at White Plume Mountain…” There’s no town to explore ahead of time, no NPCs for the players to interact with, no negotiation of payment for the job (although the wealthy collectors have promised to grant them whatever they desire). A straight-up dungeon crawl that includes some cool puzzles, challenging terrain and a lot of different monsters including one of my all-time favorites – a manticore. This style of play is a lot of fun and gets right to the action. Kick-in-the-door adventuring is great for groups that get together sporadically, have different players all the time, or aren’t all that interested in creating a tapestry story over a long period of time.

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  • Deep immersion: In contrast to kicking in the door, this playstyle is great for those who want their setting to feel like a real place. NPCs are complex individuals that the party interacts with and there’s a sense that things are taking place in the world beyond the party’s adventures. Kingdoms rise and fall. Remote settlements are razed by hordes of orcs while the party explores a dungeon miles away. Players can spend an entire session hanging out in town, meeting shopkeepers, carousing at a tavern or learning about the local economy, politics or society. This style is great for players who imagine their characters as fully-fleshed out beings with needs and desires, hopes and dreams. Players might be just as likely to talk their way out of a fight, or discuss whether a course of action is good or evil, or “what their character would do.” This style of game can present a lot more work for the DM, with players expecting memorable encounters and NPCs anywhere they go, and maintaining consistency between sessions. If they visit an alchemist and meet Snilor the dark wizard who runs the place, when they come back months later they’ll be expecting to encounter Snilor again. (Snilor is one of my go-to NPCs who is really a sort of goth hipster who does indeed study dark arts but he’s not evil.) DMs can mitigate a lot of prep work by using online resources like donjon that generate things like NPC names, city names, tavern names, random treasure and even entire dungeons! (Make sure to take notes of the names you use for future reference.) Practicing and honing improv skills also helps a great deal, as it can be difficult to plan ahead for what the players might do and being able to come up with NPC reactions on the fly is extremely important.
  • Sandbox: This is my favorite playstyle. Sometimes called open world, this kind of game is similar to video games like Grand Theft Auto, Just Cause, The Sims and Minecraft. There is often an overarching plot that players can engage with, and outside of that the world is theirs to explore as they wish. Roaming is encouraged, and the DMs task here is to populate this exploration with encounters. Maps play an important role in this style of game. The players can be shown a map of the region where they live or even an entire continent (or planet, or solar system, etc.) They decide something looks interesting and set off to check it out. The behind-the-scenes trick here is to have things ready to drop in where they seem appropriate for the party. On their multi-day journey to check out a volcano they noticed on a map of the region, the DM might describe a ruined tower they come across, with a small scenario in reserve ready to go. Uninterested, the party passes it by, and they later discover the site of a caravan raid, with ruined carts and a few bodies left behind, with tracks leading off into the woods. Maybe the tracks lead to a bandit encampment the DM has prepared. In the campaign i’m running now, the players were completely shocked to discover a spelljamming ship and leave their planet behind. i have no idea what they’re going to do, so i keep an ever-growing list of things they might encounter in space, interesting NPCs and places to explore. There’s also a bulleted list of things related to a much larger plot that i can sprinkle in whenever it feels appropriate. If they pick up on those clues, that’s great and one day they may find themselves with important roles in that plot. If not, they can still have fun taking on jobs and traveling around wildspace.

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  • Long-term campaign: If there’s a standard playstyle these days, this is it. A compelling storyline leads players from one adventure to the next, with increasing difficulty as they rise in power. There is a balance of combat, exploration and social interaction with NPCs. There is some degree of shared commitment from players and DMs here, who work together to progress the story through various adventures that can last months or even years to come to fruition. This style works best for groups that can get together regularly. Not only does it keep the momentum going, but it keeps the story fresh in everyone’s minds. Starting a long-term campaign, but only getting together once or twice a year, will likely be pretty unsatisfying for everyone. Wizards of the Coast, the publishers of D&D, have adopted the long-term campaign as the default style of play for the products they produce. About once a year they publish a long-term campaign book designed to carry players from first level to somewhere between 10-15 in grand storylines. These are all pretty high-quality products with different flavors to appeal to different groups. There’s one focused on dragons, one on giants, one on demonic underground forces, one on undead and one on elementals.
  • Completely random: Perhaps the strangest playstyle, this one leaves everything to chance so even the DM doesn’t know what comes next. The 5th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide devotes a significant amount of space to creating adventures, and part of that includes random adventures. Everything from villains, plots, treasure, significant world events, and dungeons can all be generated on the fly with various tables and some dice rolls. New DMs in particular might find this playstyle very useful, as it takes a lot of the guesswork and uncertainty out of designing adventures for players. Even experienced DMs can make use of these resources though, whether for an unexpected session they weren’t prepared for or when the players go off the reservation into an area you didn’t anticipate. i really like their inclusion in the DMG. Randomness is a nice way for everyone at the table to experience some spontaneous adventure and, even though the random results might not make sense, they can nevertheless make for some memorable gaming moments.

Those are just a few of the playstyles that D&D lends itself too. It’s entirely possible to have a group that utilizes all or more than one of these at the table. Finding the style that’s best for your group is part of the fun of D&D. Groups grow and change just as the game itself has, and even a long-term campaign can break things up with a single-session random dungeon.

If you’ve never played D&D before, which playstyle sounds fun to you? If you’re already a D&D gamer, which style of play does your group most enjoy?

The journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single die roll

The other day i rambled on about D&D and i’d like to keep the die rolling with that so let’s dive back into it, shall we?

i touched on a common stumbling block for new and/or hopeful players, and that’s simply getting started. Before concerns about playstyles, published vs. homebrew or any of the like enters the equation, the big hurdle for both those who have never rolled up a character and folks who used to play long ago is: where to begin?

i’m here to tell you that it’s not as challenging as you suspect. Perhaps a bit more esoteric than tabletop board games contained in a box with codified rules that fit on a single sheet of paper, a board, a few tokens and some six-sided dice that can be played at the drop of a hat by a handful of people, sure. But D&D can just as easily be a one-shot session with very little work involved.

Even longtime, experienced players sometimes set their sprawling, years-long campaigns aside and play a single session game with no strings attached. Anything from a small dungeon with a few rooms to a gladiatorial arena battle pitting players against fantastic beasts – or even each other – can be put together in a few minutes, with characters of any level, for a night’s worth of gaming.

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The elegance of D&D lies in its adaptability to whatever the group wishes to make of it. At the very minimum, all that is needed to play is the basic rules, a set of polyhedral dice, paper, pencils, a few people and their imaginations. Wizards of the Coast, who publishes D&D, even offers the basic rules completely free! It’s entirely possible to play anything from a single night’s game session to a campaign lasting years that follows a group of adventurers from first to 20th level using just this free ruleset.

One person takes on the role of the Dungeon Master, or DM. (Other roleplaying games refer to this role as the Game Master, or GM.) Everyone else creates a Player Character, or PC, to interact with the world that the DM presents. The important thing to note is that the relationship between DM and players is not an adversarial one; the DM’s goal is not to kill the players.

However, there is a distinction between this and the relationship between the DM’s world and the PCs, because there ARE monsters, villains and traps whose goal most certainly is the defeat of the characters. It’s up to the players, using wits, skill, ingenuity and imagination, to devise plans and tactics to overcome these dangers – and that can sometimes include running away to fight another day. A good DM presents challenges to the players that are not inescapable.

At the same time, a DM is spinning multiple plates that need to react realistically to player actions. There’s a social contract between the DM and players that adventures are going to be tough, and that taking on risk will garner reward. But biting off more than they can chew or pressing on when resources are low holds the very real possibility of character deaths.

Back to the basic question at hand though: how to actually start? The onus of the work to get a game going lies primarily with the DM, whose job it is to come up with a scenario and set the stage – sort of like a writer and director for a film or play. The players create characters like fighters, wizards, rogues and clerics. From there, the players (and in many ways the DM as well) simply improvise what happens next in a shared storytelling experience.

This doesn’t need to be very complicated. The most classic adventure set-up is that all the PCs are in a tavern, and the adventure comes to them. The DM describes the surroundings, like the warm glow of the hearth fire in the modest tavern, where a mutton-chopped bartender wipes down the worn oak bar while a few locals mutter to themselves at a nearby table, perhaps casting sidelong glances at the out-of-town troublemaker sorts (the PCs).  A blacksmith bursts in, desperate to find someone to help save a child kidnapped by goblins; a merchant seeks caravan guards on a trip through dangerous territory; a captain of the village guard needs able-bodied folk to defend against a bandit raid; the local priest is in over their head when the dead in the town cemetery begin to rise from their graves.

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From there, players make choices on what their characters do. They tell the DM what they want to do, and the DM responds. When they talk with the blacksmith/merchant/guard/priest, the DM takes on the role of the non-player characters (NPCs). The same goes for when players confront the antagonists, whether those are goblins, bandits, zombies or the eponymous dragons. When players take action, the DM has them roll dice, modified by their characters’ skills and abilities, and determines what happens based on success or failure.

All while this mechanical stuff is taking place, everyone at the table is collectively developing a story. The adventurers set off to rescue the blacksmith’s child, and along the way, they get lost in the woods. Fortunately one of them has a background as a hunter, and manages to pick up the goblins’ trail, leading them to a ruins that the goblins have made their lair. Boldly striding inside, a goblin-laid trap catches the party unaware and a couple of them fall into a concealed pit (always remember to check for traps!). With a bit of ingenuity, and a trusty rope, they’re able to climb out and continue on their way, with a touch of healing magic to recover from falling injuries.

Getting the drop on some of the goblins, the party subdues them and learns they kidnapped the kid on orders from their boss, who from their description commands powerful magic that they fear. Forging ahead, the party finds a chamber where the goblin boss – an orc shaman – is in the midst of an arcane ritual, with the blacksmith’s child looking to be some sort of focus for the dark procedure. The party’s wizard uses their arcane knowledge to disrupt the ritual, and a battle with the shaman unfolds. Things look grim when the shaman summons two giant wolves, but the adventurers work together and take their enemies down. They rescue the child and return to the village as heroes.

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That’s about as simple as D&D can be. There’s no grandiose epic story or political intrigue, and it hits on all three pillars of play: exploration (through the woods, through the goblin lair, encountering the trap), combat (fighting the orc shaman) and social interaction (blacksmith, subdued goblins).

Just as the players improvise their actions based on what the DM presents to them, in my opinion a lot of DM work can be improvised as well. The interplay between players and DMs is where the actual storytelling aspect of D&D takes place. Even the most intricate plot a DM might devise will invariably change (usually almost immediately once play begins) based on the party’s actions. But that’s a discussion for another day.

For now, whether you’ve never played before, or used to but haven’t in a while, or if you get together with a group of friends for gaming on the regular, there’s never been a better time to give D&D a shot. The basic rules are totally free, and the current 5th edition of the game is easy to learn and very streamlined compared to older editions.

The only rule i insist adhering to is this: if everyone at the table has fun, everything else in the rules is optional.

Go forth and game

It’s been a lean year for me in the writing department, at least in terms of reporting, having segued away from newsroom editing and journalism into design work that carried me from my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio to Austin, Texas (and then back again).

What i have been writing, and reading, and watching and playing is a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, which likely comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me or picked up on any of the countless subtle or overt references i’ve made right here.

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In lieu of any reporting gigs, i settled on steering this ol’ blog towards my favoritest of favorite pasttimes. A friend and i have been talking about perhaps starting a YouTube channel or podcast about D&D as well. But i don’t know much about how to do that and i already have this site going. i can talk about D&D all day so, instead of jabbering at my friends about it, i’ll dump it here instead! There’s plenty of published adventures to review, tips and advice to offer, and campaign stories to share.

A really vibrant gaming culture exists in Austin. There are at least a dozen game shops offering gamers a chance to meet others of their ilk and participate in the tabletop gaming hobby. Organized D&D games through the Adventurers League take place in at least three stores i know of, and gave me a chance to dive back into a hobby that’s captivated my interest since the early 80s when my older brother’s classic red box ensnared my imagination.

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Supplementing the already deeply ingrained love of the game, a bevy of YouTubers streaming live games, tips, advice and campaign diaries speaks to the powerful resurgence of this decades-old hobby. In particular, Matt Colville’s channel has a heaping helping of videos aimed at inspiring players and GM’s alike.

If you’re more interested in seeing what a game of D&D being played can be like, it doesn’t get much better than the immensely popular Critical Role, where a bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors stream their homebrew game on the regular every Thursday night on Twitch. (Videos are also at Geek and Sundry’s YouTube channel.)

i’ll include some additional links at the end for further exploration at your leisure.

Traditionally, i’ve always preferred to be a D&D player, rather than the DM. It’s much easier and, from a certain point of view more rewarding, to create a character and direct their actions along with the other players. This attitude is not uncommon amongst tabletop gaming enthusiasts – there are woefully fewer DMs/GMs than there are players out there. There are a lot of different playstyles, and some groups will trade DM duties every so often to give everyone a chance to play and a shot at running the game.

Despite a usual preference for playing, more often than not i wind up DMing because i’m usually the one among my friends who organizes getting a game together. But i did have an eye-opening moment a few months ago regarding the DM/player dichotomy: being the DM is like being the ultimate player – you get to create unlimited characters! Better still, they’re not bound by the same strictures as standard Player’s Handbook PCs. So to all you active and hopeful players out there: if you’re currently without a game, start one yourself! It can seem a daunting task, creating your own adventures or even running published ones. But once you sit down at the table and get going, keep in mind the only goal is for everyone to have fun so if you simply keep the flow going you’ll be all right.

And that’s exactly what i did. Over the last few months, i worked on my own campaign setting and a sort of tutorial introduction adventure. It started off with a literal bang, plunging players into the middle of a decisive battle between two opposing armies. The conscripted characters were quickly overwhelmed and their world fades to black. When they come to, a year has passed and they learn that another group of adventurers took their comatose bodies far away to recover, as they miraculously still had a spark of life in them – the only survivors of the conflict.

Despite wildly different schedules and responsibilities, i managed to get together a group of friends to play. One of them had never played a TTRPG before, and one hadn’t played since high school about 25 years ago. The other two had both played on-and-off with me over the years. At our first session, one of them asked if he could bring an out-of-town visiting friend who had never played. That fella had coincidentally gone on a high school trip to Japan with one of my close friends who’d played with me and they were both amazed to be reunited at the gaming table.

One of the most important lessons for a DM came to the forefront almost instantly once we started playing, and that is that, no matter what you anticipate your players might do and consequently plan for, they will invariably do something different that you didn’t expect. Essentially they went off script and off the reservation pretty much immediately. But that’s perfectly okay by me. i consider that an opportunity to test my improvisation skills and roll with wherever the players take the story (and hopefully steer it without them realizing it).

At the end of that first session, everyone expressed how much fun they had playing, and despite me winging it with a heck of a lot of stuff, that was the only benchmark i felt we needed to reach. Did they know there was a fully-populated village to explore? Were they aware i depowered some monsters because i didn’t expect them to go to the giantish ruins until they’d leveled up a bit? Had they picked up on the subtle clues about the nature of their benefactor, the battle they’d fallen in to start the adventure or the connections between the cultists and villagers?

Nope.

Instead, they cheered at their critical successes, laughed at their failures, relished in their participation in the story we were all creating together. They took notes, remembered NPC names and distinctive details, and slowly started to let their characters make decisions in a natural way. We all had fun, and that’s the only rule i adhere to as a DM.

Since that first game session, we’ve gotten together a few more times, and added more players to the party. Just the other night, they managed (barely) to defeat the classic boss monster Explictica Defilus, a powerful naga.

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“If you destroy me, I will return, and everyone you care about will suffer…”

In her chamber, they made a couple of amazing discoveries. The monk, failing a saving throw, was given a vision by a strange crystal beacon. Given a glimpse of the world’s cosmology, he was particularly intrigued because earlier that night the player and i discussed his hermit background discovery feature being related to this very thing. As a DM i was filled with glee, knowing what would come later that evening. As a player, he was super excited that his character’s story intersected with the adventure in a profound way.

The party also found a strange ship shaped like a cobra. On the bridge was an elaborate chair upon which a corpse sat. Using the Speak with Dead scroll they found elsewhere (thankfully they held on to it since i put it there expressly for this purpose) they were confused to learn the ship had crashed there. Sitting down in the chair, the warlock character found his senses expanding to encompass the entire vessel, and expressed his desire to get out of the chamber.

Before they knew what was happening, the island they’d been trapped on was rapidly shrinking below them as the ship hurtled upwards, through the clouds, into the blackness of space. Confronted there by a battle barge captained by a dragonborn, she hailed the ship and commanded them to stop and be boarded…and that’s where we ended.

That’s right – i took my players to the wonderful wildspace of Spelljammer.

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Next time, i’ll ramble on about something. Maybe classic modules that i enjoy? An update on what happens when the party finds themselves quite unexpectedly taken off-planet?

Links to some online D&D-ish content i enjoy: