Tremendous value of D&D Session Zero

Whether you’re gathering a group of players together for a new D&D game or you and your friends are in the midst of a long campaign, investing time in a Session Zero is a terrific practice that benefits DMs and players alike.

The idea behind a Session Zero is providing a platform for the DM to present the setting, introduce nuances and quirks of the world and explain their expectations of playstyle and how they imagine the game might run. For players, it is an opportunity to let the DM know how they envision their characters interacting with the world, and their goals, motivations and expectations both for themselves as players and for their characters.

Typically, a Session Zero unsurprisingly takes place before any actual gaming begins, but depending on the circumstances of your group can be an effective resource at any time. In later cases it’s more of a “state of the game” session, but the spirit is the same.

In the game i’m running, i have players from a variety of tabletop RPG experiences. Our first session included a mishmash of players. One has never played any TTRPG before but was interested to dive in and become a regular at the table. Another had played 1st edition AD&D many years ago in high school, and he brought along a friend visiting from Japan for just the one session, who also had no TTRPG experience. A friend of mine who i’ve been gaming with for over ten years was there as well.

As the DM, i was excited for the simple chance to play at all, and i wanted to get the group right into the action. To that end i pulled out a sort of tutorial adventure i’ve had for a while that thrusts the characters into a pivotal battle as conscripts in a conflict between three human kingdoms, beginning in medias res on the front lines.

Taking time for a Session Zero in our situation wasn’t in the cards, since everyone wanted to dive in and start playing. They received a short introduction to the world and their place in it, and they were off and running.

One of the greatest joys i get as a DM is running a game for new players and watching for that moment when recognition clicks that they can try to do anything they can imagine, and with two new players at the table i got that secret glee twice. Everyone had a blast that first session, so i considered my DMing a success.

With a rotating cast of characters in subsequent sessions, running through the tutorial adventure, i began to think of ways to do things a little differently. Once the idea for adding elements of the Spelljammer setting came to mind, my imagination took off for the stars. At the end of our third session and the climax of the tutorial quest – a quasi-adaptation of the classic Against the Cult of the Reptile God – the party discovered a strange vessel after defeating the deadly spirit naga Explictica Defilus. At that point the party were all 3rd level characters and they were shocked and delighted to find the universe literally open up to vast possibilities for adventure.

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Because of the dramatic change in the campaign and setting, we started our next get together with a Session Zero. All of the players were excited for the opportunity to slow things down and really start discovering who their characters are beyond the numbers on the character sheets. Until then, they’d been plowing ahead at a breakneck speed, approaching D&D more along the lines of a video game. They wanted to get through the quest, defeat the evil cult and free the tropical island of the curse of winter that had isolated it from the rest of the world.

Our Session Zero took place as the party, aboard Illrigger, their newfound spelljamming ship, was escorted to the Rock of Bral for debriefing. As such, members of the escort ship Resolute’s crew came aboard Illrigger to aid in piloting and share supplies for the long journey. i let the players direct the action, asking questions of Resolute’s crew and talking amongst themselves.

What i picked up from them is that they all seemed eager to approach their characters from a more realistic perspective. As one player pointed out, they had acquired a lot of treasure and were essentially very wealthy. The entire party could live a comfortable lifestyle for about a year. With their own ship, they surmised that they could take on various jobs of their choosing, instead of letting adventure come to them.

They discussed coming up with a business name and hiring themselves out, using examples of shows like “Firefly” and “Cowboy Bebop” as inspiration for how they envisioned their characters’ lives. Looking over the blueprint of Illrigger they began planning how they’d renovate the ship, hire a crew and so on.

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Several other things emerged from their conversations as well that helped their characters become more fully realized. One of the characters is a dragonborn warlock, Krex, with a Great Old One pact. We’d never explored what that meant beyond the game mechanics. Krex’s player described that an otherworldly draconic presence reached out to him, offering magical might. One of the major features of the setting is a draconic threat from the Void, so it was a perfect fit that Krex’s patron was a part of that arc.

Another character, played by the brand new player, was an eladrin swordsman with the sailor background. He’d come up with a basic backstory previously, but was excited to explore how his background interacted with their situation running a ship now. He became quite interested in establishing a crew and making sure the ship ran efficiently.

The other core player, playing an elven monk with the hermit background, decided that his Discovery involved wildspace and the crystal spheres, paths that his mind wandered to during his hundreds of years in meditation.

As a DM, this was wonderful material that the player was adding to the campaign. The stuff that comes out of a Session Zero gives DMs a wealth of ideas to implement into adventures. They could be the basis of a grand adventure or a small detail the party comes across. Either way, the players will feel like they had a hand in the creation and that their characters have a unique place in the world.

The sailor swordsman player offhandedly asked if there were illicit substances like drugs out there in space, and found it hysterical that indeed i’d made some notes about that very topic. While making a stop to refresh their air and supplies, the party encountered a shady tiefling and one natural 20 Persuasion check later they had established a minor link to the illicit drug trade. The player seemed fascinated by this and took a few more opportunities to explore this aspect of the setting.

The most noteworthy moment of our Session Zero came while the party visited an underground club owned by a beholder. Chazzledazzel is also a popular crooner and the party was just in time to catch his show. Although i described the lounge and the performance area, when one of the players asked more about it, another player described how the room was deeply inclined with seating arranged in tiers down towards the circular pit in the center from which Chazzledazzel floated up to perform his show. The noteworthy part was that i hadn’t said anything about the seating arrangement, but the player let his own imagination add to the setting. It was a small moment, and i doubt anyone else thought much of it, but to me as the DM i felt like i’d achieved success by inspiring the player’s imagination. It was pretty cool.

A lot of our Session Zero played out that way. While it wasn’t a true Session Zero where the discussions take place outside of the game, the results came across the same way. We integrated the dramatic change in playstyle and setting, with the players presenting a lot of how they’d like their game to be through actual gameplay. Instead of instinctively looking to me to guide them on what to do next, they invoked their agency. It was a subtle shift from relying on the DM for prompting, to them telling me what they wanted to do.

It was less of me asking “what do you want to do?” and “can I try to intimidate the guard to open the gate?” and more of the players initiating the action by telling me “I want to persuade him to join our crew.”

After a while, when the thirst for adventure became too great, the players started their own investigations to find some action. There were a few hooks they discovered and ultimately decided to pursue a bit of clean up work for Chazzledazzel, who had a financial interest in some old docks that were disused and infested with vermin.

With his eyes towards renovating the area, and a natural 20 Persuasion check, the party struck a deal with the beholder for 3 percent of the profits over six months on whatever the old docks develop into in exchange for clearing the area up. They proceeded to do so in a somewhat unorthodox way (as players will always do).

For my part, i was thankful that i’d spent a lot of time developing vast amounts of random information to pull out as needed. These players want to know everything! As a DM, it is extremely satisfying to be able to provide as many good answers as possible. But that is a topic for another post.

TL;DR

Taking time from regular play to have a Session Zero is an invaluable resource for DMs and players. It gives the DM an opportunity to speak outside of the game to let the players know how they envision the game world and what sort of game they are offering. Players have the chance to let the DM know how they see their characters and what they expect to do in the game.

It’s not much fun to create a character who is an expert in Nature, for example, if the adventures never involve a need for that skill, or a character who is exceptional in social situations if the party never encounters other rational creatures.

Likewise, a DM can spend a great deal of time developing plots, arcs, timelines, NPCs, towns, cities and the like, but if all the players want to do is kick down dungeon doors and slay monsters, then that disconnect is going to make the game suffer for everyone.

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Session Zero works best at the start of a new game, when everyone is creating characters and the DM has prepared a starting point for the party. But a Session Zero can be implemented any time. Perhaps there is a dramatic shift in the campaign, or the players come or leave the group.

In my case it was a combination of all of those things as well as giving my players new to TTRPGs a chance to understand more what the game is like before exploring bigger concepts. They had a chance to do some adventuring and learn the ropes of the game itself for a few sessions, and develop ideas on how they wanted to play from there.

Call it Session Zero, a “state of the game” or simply table talk, spending time to let your players tell you what kind of game they’d like to play gives DMs invaluable information that helps them craft and guide experiences for everyone to have fun.

Playing D&D with class: Rogue

Coming up with a great backstory, personality, motivations and goals goes a long way toward making memorable D&D characters. But when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of what you can do, it’s all about class. Consider it your character’s vocation, calling, profession or craft, a character’s class picks up where their backstory leaves off, giving them the skills and abilities they’ll use on their life of adventure.

Rather than analyze the mechanics of each class, extolling the benefits of one option and admonishing the suboptimal drawbacks of another, what you’ll find in this “Playing D&D with class” is the usual musings that accompany any topic and hopefully some insight into different ways to approach the various classes in D&D 5E.

As a longtime player and DM, i’ve never put much emphasis on mathematical optimization, and when it comes to making characters i’m a purist – multi-class characters have never appealed to me. Instead, it’s always been about the concept, the who of a character more than the what.

The ultimate dungeon delver

As one of the core four classes in D&D, along with the fighter, cleric and wizard, the rogue as it’s called today fills the spot not covered by the other three. A scout, stealth master and surprise striker, a rogue is the character you want watching your back. With their focus on a variety of skills, the rogue is one of the most versatile classes in D&D and in 5E is certainly one of the most popular as well.

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The thief’s first appearance in D&D

Originally a fan creation, the thief as initially presented in 1975’s Greyhawk supplement quickly became a favorite class. The suite of special skills that a thief brought to the table – climbing walls, picking locks, disarming traps, hiding in the shadows, moving silently, picking pockets, listening (??) and striking unaware enemies for extra damage – were all activities that players found invaluable. In those earlier days of D&D, gameplay was centered around dungeon delving, with DMs creating dangerous labyrinths for players to defeat rather than elaborate sprawling sagas for characters to take part in.

To that end, i imagine there had to be a fair number of players who were put off by the thief. After all, why couldn’t their fighting-men and magic-users engage in those same activities? Wouldn’t it behoove any of them to be sneaky, ambush the bad guys and unlock those treasure chests? Codifying the rules for those and handing them off to the thief might have felt like to players like their non-thief characters had diminished abilities.

On the other hand, having a thief in your party meant the other classes could focus on what they did best, leaving the thief to become the master of his own responsibilities in the dungeon. The original thieves were very, very squishy, without the clutch evasion ability and other defenses they’re known for today.

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By the time AD&D came around, thieves were solidly in the mix with other classes, expanding their versatility by allowing characters of any race to pursue the class without a level limit. They also gained a subclass of their own, the thief-acrobat introduced in Dragon Magazine #69 and officially added in 1985’s Unearthed Arcana.

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The thief-acrobat began here. Since the advent of straight-up skills in D&D this class became superfluous

In 2nd edition AD&D, the thief became a subclass of a sort under the Rogue group, along with bards. Thematically, thieves retained their identity as robbers but added the notion of being treasure hunters and skill specialists, moving away from being considered straight-up criminals.

When 3rd edition rolled around, the “thief” was left behind for good, solidly becoming the rogue class. As such, they reflected their place in the D&D class pantheon as masters of skills. Gaining their signature evasion ability, rogues became an excellent “dip” class, with many character builds benefitting greatly by a two-level jaunt in the rogue class for a ton of skill points and that sweet, sweet evasion.

D&D 4E, with its focus on tactical grid-based combat, gave the rogue a ton of mobility to get around the battlefield and strike at key targets, along with defining some of their flavor options as swashbucklers and brutal thugs.

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Now, in 5E, the rogue is firmly cemented in D&D gameplay. Many people consider the 5E rogue one of the most balanced and well-designed classes in the edition, with a solid core of abilities and terrific archetypes to choose from like the classic thief, assassin and arcane trickster. Adding to those already excellent choices are two more from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide: the mastermind and the swashbuckler.

Everyone loves a rogue

As a testament to 5E’s design, it’s pretty difficult to make a bad character of any class. Math and mechanics aside, i’m not just talking about optimization here – even characters without really high stats and with unusual combinations of backgrounds, races, classes and skills can still be effective and fun to play.

The rogue in particular benefits from 5E design because they have no resource management to worry about and all of their core abilities are passive bonuses. Even for the things that require a roll based on an ability score, because of 5E’s bounded accuracy (i.e. flat math) a lower ability score won’t have a too terribly adverse effect.

Interestingly, many of the rogue’s areas of expertise in previous editions are not their sole purview in 5E. Mobility, stealth – even picking locks – are no longer rogue-only activities. Anyone with a set of thieves’ tools can attempt to pick a lock. Proficiency with said tools makes the task easier, and rogues by default have proficiency. But! There are several other ways for nonrogues to become proficient with thieves tools.

Basically, what 5E rogues offer is skill in a broad array of areas, expertise in a narrow selection of skills and an overall canny character that can get around quickly and easily, with several unique defenses that make up for their squishiness compared to classes like fighters and other physical combatants.

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So why does everyone love a rogue? Rogues as a base represent a certain relatability for players, akin in many ways to fighters. They don’t rely on magic, supernatural connections, spiritual fortitude or otherworldly influence, nor do they have a limited pool of resources like spell slots, rage or ki.  Instead they rely on the same sort of training and discipline that a real-life person could achieve. Rogues are dashing adventurers who represent a gamut from the best to the worst that a person can achieve through cunning, guile and skill.

Any sort of character concept can be fulfilled by the rogue, because when it comes right down to it, the rogue is simply synonymous with skill experts. Taking backgrounds into account, a rogue could just as easily be an acolyte, folk hero, hermit or sage as a criminal, charlatan, entertainer or pirate.

A rogue can rely on strength or dexterity for fighting, and avoid direct combat altogether and instead bolster their allies – something the mastermind archetype in particular excels at. They can bend their will towards arcane magic, focus on thiefy skills or concentrate on deadly attacks.

Looking for inspiration

There are countless fictional characters that showcase the versatility of rogues to inspire your D&D characters. The Gray Mouser comes to mind immediately as an arcane trickster, as does Bilbo Baggins as a thief. Solid Snake is definitely a rogue assassin. Inara from Firefly is very mastermind-y.

One of my favorite characters that i’ve played was Zorax the neutral half-orc rogue assassin, very clearly a rip-off of Zarak the Evil Half-orc Assassin.

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Everyone in the party advised me away from the assassin archetype and often urged me to use a weapon other than a dagger (rapiers being the obvious suggestion). But i stuck to my guns…or knives in this case. With an urchin background and a story that involved being on the downlow after being set-up by his gang leader (or sort of evil Fagin who led a gang of adolescent thieves), Zarak evolved from a brutal, greedy thug to…a brutal, greedy thug with a conscience, loyalty to his adventuring company the Red Larch Irregulars, and his own version of a soft spot for unfortunate children.

Come to think of it, my very first D&D character ever was a thief named Zorax, too, way back in the mid-80s when i started playing D&D. That never occurred to me! That iteration of Zorax was an elf IIRC who spent his days adventuring with Mordecai the fighter. The pair of them made  a great team, with Mordecai tanking and Zorax flanking, while both of them shared the spotlight when it came to talking with NPCs, exploring dungeons and investigating plots, intrigues and situations they became involved with. i only have a few solid memories of the character. One is a dramatic showdown fight on some docks in the rain against a dark elf assassin. Another is he and Mordecai traveling to the Nine Hells, where all the devil lords were having a meeting and we fought all of them. Lastly, after the Immortals Rules were released, Zorax and Mordecai entered the realm of superheroism. The Nine Hells incident may have coincided with that; my memories are pretty fuzzy.

Back on track though, a starting point for imagining a rogue character is anyone who relies primarily on skills and savvy to succeed. Going from there, your rogue can work towards and evolve in so many different directions as to how you want to fight, explore and interact with your game world.

Roles not rolls

As with any class in D&D, the best advice i can offer is to set mechanical concerns aside and instead focus on creating memorable characters. Unusual race, class and background combinations are just as viable as character built to take advantage of every stat and ability. What you’re giving up from category A only means you’ll be stronger at something in category B or C.

D&D gives players a chance to create the kind of game they want to play, using as many or as few of the rules as those gathered at the table wish. At the core, it is a group-centered game and your characters come to life as individuals working with others to achieve their goals, so what works in one group might not be optimal in another, and that’s something number crunchers might overlook.

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For the rogue class, high Dexterity and Intelligence and sneak attacking from the shadow is a perfectly excellent way to play a rogue. But don’t rule out the countless other ways to bring your rogue to life. A thief might rely more on Strength and athleticism to traverse crumbling ruins or scale a tower to reach the treasure inside. An assassin might use Charisma and disguises to infiltrate and gather intel. An arcane trickster can be the party’s scout and battlefield controller, relying on their Intelligence and magic to charm opponents and create distractions. A goliath can be a brutal striker, and a dwarf might be a crossbow-wielding master of locks, traps and gadgetry.

The next time you’re creating a character, whether as a DM or player, give the rogue a try. At their core, rogues are nimble and mobile, utilizing a smattering of skills with expertise in a few to overcome all sorts of challenges. No matter what path you choose, a rogue is going to shine when their expertise is needed, be difficult for enemies to pin down and offer a wide variety of options for players to explore as they progress in level.

Consider the role your rogue will play, how their background and skills combine to make them a unique individual in the game world. Will they become a hero of the people? A criminal with a heart of gold? An elite operative? An expert in their field?  Like any character, your rogue comes to the table with a story to tell, as well as one that has yet to be written.

Playing D&D with class: Barbarians

Coming up with a great backstory, personality, motivations and goals goes a long way toward making memorable D&D characters. But when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of what you can do, it’s all about class. Consider it your character’s vocation, calling, profession or craft, a character’s class picks up where their backstory leaves off, giving them the skills and abilities they’ll use on their life of adventure.

Rather than analyze the mechanics of each class, extolling the benefits of one option and admonishing the suboptimal drawbacks of another, what you’ll find in this “Playing D&D with class” is the usual musings that accompany any topic and hopefully some insight into different ways to approach the various classes in D&D 5E.

As a longtime player and DM, i’ve never put much emphasis on mathematical optimization, and when it comes to making characters i’m a purist – multi-class characters have never appealed to me. Instead, it’s always been about the concept, the who of a character more than the what.

The big, bad barbarian

With an origin dating back to 1982’s Dragon Magazine #63, the barbarian was introduced by Gary Gygax as a subclass of fighter. Presented as a tough survivalist with many skills suited to living a life in difficult terrain, the barbarian had the largest hit die of any class – d12 – that persists to this day. Coupled with their mobility and canny senses, they were adept at staying alive. Barbarians also had a large number of skills that were unlike other classes at the time, focused on wilderness survival. In that way, they were kind of like the thief, who had all the dungeon-delving skills one could want, making that class very popular when it was new. i imagine as D&D evolved and adventurers explored what lay above ground – away from subterranean labyrinths – the barbarian offered the kind of skillset that offered players a mechanical way to interact with the game.

Barbarians also hated magic.

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AD&D second edition relegated barbarians to a fighter kit, later getting their own Complete Handbook.

In 3rd edition, barbarians gained their most distinctive feature – their rage. Unlike fighters, who gained their martial ability through training and discipline, the barbarian relied on primal fury in combat. Barbarians also decided that magic wasn’t so bad.

D&D 4E stuck with the rage and added a leader archetype to the mix with the thaneborn barbarian.

The iconic barbarian rage, although not what brought the class to the dance, continues to fuel the barbarian’s place in D&D 5E.

A tough nut to crack

Despite their immense popularity in D&D, i don’t have much experience with barbarians. i played one briefly that was inspired by the Marvel Comics character Troll.

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In a campaign for my friend’s kid, where they woke up to find all the adults in the world had vanished, my barbarian was an adolescent female halfling bear totem warrior. She was raised by bears and believed herself to be one of them.

The only other experience i can recall with a barbarian was a player in an Adventurers League group when we played through Princes of the Apocalypse. She was an air genasi eagle totem warrior.

Both of those characters were mechanically suboptimal (bear totem because of the race – halfling – and air genasi because of the eagle totem). However, they both contributed to their respective groups and everyone at the tables had a good time, thus reinforcing my longstanding belief that a character you enjoy playing is far superior to the mathematically optimized options.

Nevertheless, it is challenging to conceptualize outside the box when it comes to barbarians. Their rage feature is so strong and iconic, looking at them in any way other than a battle-thirsty outlander warrior is difficult.

That being said, one of the best things about 5E is the backgrounds feature that adds new dimensions to characters. Optimally, players can choose backgrounds that sync up with their class, such as the outlander or folk hero backgrounds for a barbarian for example. On the other hand, something like the criminal gives barbarians some rogue-like abilities. Or maybe your barbarian was an acolyte of their people’s faith and their rage is a divine fury. Even a noble background can work well; perhaps your barbarian is from a landed family and is prone to frightening anger.

At the very least, all barbarians are tough – that’s their signature ability. Regardless of race, skills, backgrounds or the Primal Path chosen, barbarians can dish out and take incredible amounts of punishment. Beyond that, they have just as much room for customization as any other D&D character.

By steering away from mechanical and mathematical optimization, set your imagination free and instead create characters whose stories you want to discover. While D&D is a numbers game, it’s more importantly a storytelling game that rewards clever play and engagement with fellow players and DMs. You characters are more than the facts and figures on the character sheet!

Looking for inspiration

A few fictional characters come to mind that capture the D&D barbarian spirit. Chief among them is the uber-popular Marvel Comics X-Man, Wolverine. He’s incredibly tough, which syncs with the barbarian’s reliance on Constitution. In fact in 5E, barbarians’ Constitution not only adds to their prodigious hit point totals, it provides additional protection through their Unarmored Defense ability that ups their Armor Class. And, of course, like Wolverine the barbarian can enter a rage state that makes them a beast in combat.

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For a different take on a barbarian character, modeling one on Wolverine you might forgo gravitating towards wielding the biggest weapon possible and instead try two weapon fighting with a pair of daggers refluffed as claw-like weapons. Incidentally, refluffing skills, abilities, weapons, spells and the like is one of the beauties of D&D – you can use the same mechanics along with your imagination to easily flavor characters however you like. A hill dwarf sounds pretty nifty, with their increased Wisdom enhancing your feral senses and their increased toughness.

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For another literary barbarian, consider Fafhrd from Fritz Leiber’s amazing Lankhmar stories. With his companion the Gray Mouser, the pair are a couple of rogues who in some ways flip the script. Fafhrd is typically the more practical or level-headed of the two (although he does let his romantic nature get the better of him on occasion).

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Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, from the phenomenal series of comics by Howard Chaykin and Mike Mignola. Highly recommended!

Oddly enough, Conan the Barbarian has very little in common with stereotypical D&D barbarians, despite his immense strength and shirtlessness. Conan is also highly intelligent and disciplined, and many before me have likened him more to a multiclass fighter/thief in D&D terms. On the other hand, there’s nothing keeping a player from assigning higher Intelligence to their barbarian and scaling the Tower of the Elephant to steal the treasure inside.

Unearthed Arcana

Wizards of the Coast has been posting weekly content under the Unearthed Arcana brand, offering playtest material for the different classes. These new class options continue the tradition that 5E has established by offering new directions to take your base class without having to multiclass – a huge win in my book!

The entry for barbarians is one of the most interesting of these, presenting several new options for the primal path players get to choose at 3rd level. They’ve done an excellent job here, coming up with some new takes that keep the spirit of the barbarian but imagining their rage and connection to the natural world in interesting ways.

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The Path of the Ancestral Guardian translates that connection into a bond with the character’s past, calling on spirits of their forefathers and great historical warriors to aid them. In particular, the Consult the Spirits ability adds a new layer to the barbarian that allows them a bonus to Intelligence and Wisdom checks. This primal path reminds me a bit of the warlock class, not only mechanically but for roleplaying options, giving both the player and DM opportunities to incorporate the barbarian’s ancestral spirits into their interactions with the world. In this way, it is reminiscent of the Totem Warrior path.

storm-herald

The Path of the Storm Herald adds a bit of magic into the barbarian mix. Based on various environments – deserts, seas or tundras – these barbarians manifest their primal fury with elemental effects like a damaging aura and resistances. Later effects control the environment to make movement difficult, knock foes prone or keep them in place. The idea of your barbarian’s deep connection to their homeland environment manifesting as magical abilities lends a mystical quality to their toughness. Picking up the Magic Initiate feat would mesh well with this path.

undying

Finally, there’s the Path of the Zealot. This one adds a heavily divine aspect to the barbarian, imagining them as holy warriors called by the gods to fight the neverending fight. The guys at Web DM discussed this in their video on barbarians and came up with several really neat ideas for this path. Zealot barbarians have a strong link between life and death. Among other things, they can be brought back to life very easily via magic. In this scenario, an entire culture could be built around the warriors of their past, holding them in reverence and keeping their bodies enshrined so that, when needed, they can be called back to life to fight the good fight. The Undying Court in the Eberron setting could inspire this sort of culture, elves whose revered dead are kept enshrined in a necropolis.

Roles not rolls

As with any class in D&D, the best advice i can offer is to set mechanical concerns aside and instead focus on creating memorable characters. Unusual race, class and background combinations are just as viable as character built to take advantage of every stat and ability. What you’re giving up from category A only means you’ll be stronger at something in category B or C.

D&D gives players a chance to create the kind of game they want to play, using as many or as few of the rules as those gathered at the table wish. At the core, it is a group-centered game and your characters come to life as individuals working with others to achieve their goals, so what works in one group might not be optimal in another, and that’s something number crunchers might overlook.

For the barbarian class, jacked-up Strength and Constitution and swinging a big axe as the party damage dealer is a perfectly excellent way to play a barbarian. But don’t rule out the countless other ways to bring your barbarian to life. A wolf Totem Warrior can focus more on tactics and surgical strikes with the rest of the party. An eagle Totem Warrior makes a terrific ranged scout. A Storm Herald might be the party’s battlefield controller. Even something like an elven berserker can work well – they might not depend on their Strength for everything and instead take advantage of a barbarian’s mobility and keen senses to make sure they’re wherever they’re needed most on the battlefield.

Outside of combat, barbarians can make excellent leaders, too. Consider something like a tiefling Ancestral Guardian, using guile, cunning and force of personality along with a few mystical tricks to inspire allies and even act as the party’s face.

The next time you’re creating a character, whether as a DM or player, give the barbarian a spin. At their core, barbarians are incredibly tough and mobile, tapping into primal forces that fuel their passion and manifest in all sorts of ways. No matter what path you choose, a barbarian is going to hit hard and be difficult to take down.

Beyond that, think about what role your barbarian will play, not just in combat or in the party dynamic, but in the world and story you’re creating with your fellow players. Like any character, your barbarian is a unique individual with their own story to tell, as well as one that has yet to be written.

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.

 

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.

howiroll

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.

botchroll-2

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.

vivid

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.

becmi_dnd_boxes2

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?