Each week, I sit down with five wonderful players (and sometimes a guest player) for our weekly game of D&D. After recapping the events of the last session, we do a roleplay warm up: a question that each player must answer on behalf of their characters. They can do this in character, or they can simply answer the question in their own words.
Roleplay warm ups have made a huge difference at our table. We love to explore our characters, bringing them to life through social encounters, challenges, and decisions. Though we’re not actors by trade, these questions help us to “get into character.” They prompt us to think of our characters as real people. What are their hopes and dreams? Do they have a favorite food? What do they do when they aren’t adventuring?
At the end of it (usually around 5-10 minutes max), the players choose someone to receive inspiration for their answer. I try to frame the question for any given week around the session I’ve prepared or its major themes. For example, if the characters were heading to Candlekeep, I might ask them something like, “If you were an author, what would be the title of your first book?”
Improvisation is hard. It takes practice, vulnerability, and a willingness to fail. Regardless of the size of your table’s audience—it’s okay if it’s just you and your players—you might benefit from adding a roleplay warm up before each session.
Roleplay Warm Ups
Below, you’ll find a running list of roleplay warm up questions that I’ve asked on Twitter (@justicearman). Please feel free to use them in your games.
In your character’s opinion, what quality should EVERY adventurer have?
What would your character say to the party with their dying breath?
What’s one errand your character has to take care of the next time they’re in town?
What is the best meal your character has ever eaten?
You’re at the Tipsy Lobster, a tavern in giant glass bottle that hugs a rocky shore-cliff. A spunky halfling in a blue doublet arrives to take your order. What do you tell them?
What is the best gift your character has ever received?
What is one title your character has earned that makes them proud?
What is your character’s retirement plan?
Your character stands at the front gate of Candlekeep, the Castle of Tomes. However, you can’t get in until you provide the monks with a rare book or piece of writing. What did you bring?
With which school of magic does your character most identify?
What is your character’s favorite thing about adventuring?
For what would your character sell their soul?
What did your character last dream about?
What is one thing your character prefers to do alone? (don’t be gross please)
What is one thing your character has changed their mind about?
When is the last time your character was cold to someone else?
When is the last time your character failed?
Does your character see the mug as half empty or half full? Also, what’s in the mug?
Is your character a clean person or a messy person?
What does your character do on their day off?
How would the other party members describe your character?
What song would your character sing at karaoke night?
What is your character’s pet peeve?
If your character had a warning label, what would it say?
What is one of your character’s fondest memories?
What is one rule your character never breaks?
A new adventurer approaches your character, asking them for wisdom. What lesson does your character impart to the young adventurer?
Describe one of your character’s childhood friends.
If your character could ask an all-knowing entity one question, what would it be?
If your character was an animal, which one would they be?
Where was your character educated? If they didn’t have a formal education, how were they taught?
What is one secret the rest of the party doesn’t know about your character?
When was the last time your character said, “I love you,” if ever?
What is your character’s catch phrase?
When’s the last time your character has used a set of tools?
What deity does your character worship? How do they show their devotion?
Tell me about one trinket your character possesses.
What is one thing your character admires about someone else in the party?
How does your character relax after a hard day’s work?
What does your character see when they look in the mirror?
If your character was an author, what would be the title of their first book?
Describe your character’s personal hell.
What’s one thing that always makes your character smile?
What is one way that someone can earn your character’s trust?
What is one thing your character has seen or done that no one would ever believe?
What is one goal your character hopes to accomplish in the next year?
What is something your character does every morning?
What does your character look like when they get angry?
What is one sacrifice your character has made?
Describe your character’s aesthetic in one word.
Your character is given a magic hourglass. With it, they can change one decision they made in the past year. Which one do they pick?
What’s one thing your character does when no one is around?
How would you describe your character’s fashion style?
What is one way that your character shows they care about someone else?
What is something your character doesn’t have enough of?
If your character was a drink, what would they be and why?
How can someone new earn your character’s trust?
If your character were to start a business, what would it be? What would make it special?
What is one thing your character has seen or done that no one would ever believe?
We recently released the definitive guide to Candlekeep in 5th Edition D&D, Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. Featuring design and consultation by creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood, this supplement is packed with lore, new player options, and the first-ever map of the library fortress!
If you didn’t already know, I’m a huge fan of Norse mythology. I love the most recent God of War game, Neil Gaiman’s masterful reimaginings of the classic myths, and am looking forward to playing the Fate of the Norns RPG when I get some free time—it uses runes instead of dice! I ran a homebrew Norse-themed campaign that lasted about two years in which Loki was the overarching villain. My players still maintain the occasional suspicion that one of my good-hearted NPCs is just another illusion of the trickster god. In fact, my old domain name and twitter handle was actually Norse DM. I changed this over time as 1) I’m actually Middle Eastern, and 2) I’ve written far more about devils than I ever did vikings.
When I got my start on the DMs Guild, my first subclass was the Oath of the Aesir paladin. I released it in June of 2019. My original hope was to do a trio of subclasses, including a cosmic monk tied to Yggdrasil, the World Tree, but my attention was called to other pursuits. Recently, I was going through my old files and found a Norse-mythology-inspired sorcerer subclass that I made months ago.
I’ve been fortunate enough over the past year to stay busy in a constant stream of TTRPG work. so take this free subclass as a thank you. Let me know what you think in the comments!
Sorcerous Origin: Thread of the Norns
Magic has been woven into your lineage by the Norns, a coven of prophetic hags residing beneath the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. Maybe a Norn chose you to avert or bring about an apocalyptic event. Perhaps one of your ancestors drank from Urðarbrunnr, the well beneath the World Tree. Regardless of the origin, Norn magic empowers you to manipulate fate itself.
In Norse mythology, the three named Norns— Urd, Verdandi, and Skuld—control the fate of all beings, including the gods. These ancient hags spin threads of destiny within their halls, weaving the past, present, and future into existence as if it were a great tapestry. Interestingly, the Poetic Edda mentions the existence of many lesser Norns. Some acolytes claim that a Norn is present at every birth, entwining the child’s life with fortune or failure. Thus, any hag that focuses her time on prophecy or fate may be deemed a Norn.
Norn Sorcerer Quirks
At your option, you can pick from or roll on the Norn Quirks table to create an interesting personality trait for your character.
I am in possession of a cryptic prophecy from which I constantly extrapolate meaning.
I knit excessively and often create garments for people I meet throughout my adventures.
When my companions or I attempt a difficult feat, I attempt to read the threads of fate, commenting on the likelihood of success or failure.
I have a trinket which I stroke when reciting strange omens.
Some say I resemble an old crone when I laugh.
I believe I’ve foreseen my own death. Until that time comes, I’ll live every day to its fullest.
Norns of the Realms While the Forgotten Realms contain more outward references to Norse mythology, such as Thrym and Surtr in the giant pantheon, allusions to the Norns are more subtle. Volo’s Guide to Monsters offers three thematic alternatives to hag coven spells, one of which is linked to prophecy and includes fate-altering spells like bane and bless. A trio of stone giants resides in the underground library of Gravenhollow in Out of the Abyss. Ulthar, Urmas, and Ustova are Keepers of the Past, Present, and Future, respectively. If you know what to look for, you’ll find evidence of the Norns woven into other tales.
Nails of the Norns
Beginning at 1st level, your connection with destiny gives you a tactical edge in combat. Whenever you roll initiative, you may add or subtract your Charisma modifier from your result.
The thread of the Norns connects you to fate-altering magic. You gain one of two spells at the listed sorcerer level in the Norn Spells table, representing the two sides of fate. These spells don’t count against the number of sorcerer spells you know, but you cannot replace them later.
bane or bless
augury or ray of enfeeblement
crusader’s mantle or speak with dead
death ward or blight
contact other plane or dream
Entwine the Fates
Starting at 6th level, you can create a tapestry from raw magic that lets you shape the future.
As an action, you weave a glowing tapestry onto the battlefield. You choose the shape and color of the tapestry when it appears, though it always originates from you (see the Tapestry Shapes By Level table). If you move to another space after creating the tapestry, it remains in its original shape, orientation, and location for 1 minute, or until you dismiss it as a Bonus Action.
Your tapestry grants you two the following two abilities:
Favor. Whenever a friendly creature within your tapestry must make a saving throw, you can use your reaction to spend 2 sorcery points to give it advantage on the roll. You can grant this benefit to multiple creatures at once, but you must spend 2 sorcery points for each creature.
Fall. As a bonus action, you can spend 3 sorcery points to force a creature within your tapestry to make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failure, choose one type of damage. Until the start of your next turn, you and your allies ignore resistance to damage of the chosen type for that creature. Creatures with immunity to the chosen damage type instead have resistance to it until the start of your next turn. You can target multiple creatures at once with this ability, but you must spend 3 sorcery points for each creature.
Once you have woven your tapestry, you cannot do so again until you have finished a short or long rest.
The range of your tapestry increases at 14th level, as shown in the Tapestry Shapes By Level table.
Tapestry Shapes By Level
10 ft x 60 ft
10 ft x 120 ft
Thread of Gold
At 14th level, your Norn ancestry tethers you to the weave of magic that permeates all things. You gain advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.
Judgement of the Norns
When you reach 18th level, your connection to the Norns allows you to cement a creature in destiny or doom.
Destiny. As an action, choose a creature within 30 feet of you and expend 1 to 10 sorcery points. The creature regains 1d8 hit points per sorcery point spent.
Doom. As an action, choose a creature within 30 feet of you and expend 1 to 10 sorcery points. The creature must make a Constitution saving throw, taking 2d8 necrotic damage per sorcery point spent on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
We just released the definitive guide to Candlekeep in 5th Edition D&D, Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. Featuring design and consultation by creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood, this supplement is packed with lore, new player options, and the first-ever map of the library fortress!
In my day job, I manage three departments, one of which is a pool that supports several clinics when they are short-staffed with per-need associates. A lot of the folks in my pool go from per-need to full-time rather quickly, so I’m essentially always conducting interviews. Last year, I interviewed a woman who left me with a piece of simple yet profound advice that I would integrate in both my marriage and my D&D games.
The interviewee—we will call her Darcy— had worked at a local children’s home that helps youth through difficult times with foster care, residential programs, and other services. Not surprisingly, many of these children have endured hardship, processing it in their own way. Working at this facility requires patience, empathy, and dedication. As Darcy spoke to me about her experiences working there, she mentioned a phrase that stuck with me: “Can I get a redo?”
What’s a Redo?
When one of the kids in the program made a mistake, said something hurtful, or even just had the wrong tone, Darcy would ask them if they would like a redo. She didn’t pass judgement or threaten punishment, but rather sought to understand and offer the person grace. Often, the child would stop, process for a moment, and repeat the statement either in a more respectful manner, or one where their thoughts and feelings were conveyed more clearly.
Over time, Darcy said that children would ask her if they could have redos. They’d say something they regretted, and they’d say, “Miss, can I please have a redo?” Of course, Darcy would oblige them, happy that they are practicing self-awareness and kindness.
The night after I interviewed Darcy, I told my wife Samantha about redos, and we’ve since implemented them in our relationship. Every once and a while, I’ll see on her face that my words didn’t quite come out how they should have and ask for a redo. Sammy smiles and tells me I can try again, and she doesn’t fault me for the previous statement. I do the same for her when she’s having an off day. It’s been a great tool for us in our relationship to recognize and forgive each other for those slights, while painting over them with more wholesome statements.
But you don’t come here for relationship advice! You come here for tabletop roleplaying game content, right? So how do you use this in your games? It’s pretty simple, actually.
Redos in D&D
A redo at the game table is basically an instant retcon. If you’re not familiar with the term, to retcon is to change or remove something that happened in the past, i.e., to say “That never happened.” For a redo, the player and Dungeon Master agree with one another to hit the rewind button and take another shot at collaborative storytelling during a session. After all, roleplaying games involve a lot of improvisation, and improv is hard. Even talented actors flub a line every now and then. Unlike other mediums, you and your DM have the power to control the narrative. There’s no need to record every spoken word in stone.
Even Jim Darkmagic knows the importance of a good redo. Check out the gift of gab spell from Acquisitions Incorporated, which lets you basically erase the past 6 seconds of any conversation your character has with an NPC:
Reasons for redos are numerous, but they have their roots in the most critical aspect of the game: having fun! Here are a few scenarios where you might need a redo:
You’re at a pivotal moment for your character, but you didn’t know it was coming. Perhaps it’s a sudden reunion with a long-lost friend, or your character is parleying with their arch nemesis as the dungeon crumbles around you. In the excitement, you’re at a loss for words and blurt out something you now find embarrassing. “Can I get a redo?”
You’re the DM. Tonight, on top of everything else, you’re playing an intelligent negotiator. You forget a critical piece of information when offering a laughable retort. “Can I get a redo?”
There’s miscommunication between the DM and the player. Your character responds to some misinterpreted signals, and you end up offending an important NPC. “Can I get a redo?”
Video games have quicksaves, why can’t your D&D game? My philosophy is to stick to the rules 90% of the time, but bend or change them when they’re preventing a player from having fun. You picked a cantrip that you haven’t used in any of our sessions, and you want to change it? Swap it out. I think we could all use could allow a little wiggle room here and there, so long as no one’s taking advantage of you or your DM at your table.
Redos vs. Retcons
There have been plenty of moments in my campaigns where I’ve had to adjust something that happened over the course of a session which I didn’t have a chance to redo. These times require a more formal announcement and some reaffirming come session time to make sure that everyone is on the same page, especially if it’s something the characters have relied on for more than one session.
A few times, it’s been something in the background I forgot to mention that I’ve slipped into the weekly recap to affirm information for foreshadowing. Other times, it’s more significant, so I’ll send a message in the group chat stating, “Hey friends, it looks like that war happened more recently than I realized. The two elves in the party could have actually been in it, so I’ll need to follow up with them individually. Sound good?” Then everyone digitally nods unless they have questions, we put it in the recap, and we move on.
Redos Outside of Roleplay
Redos are easier to integrate into social encounters as the guidelines are more relaxed. You might make a few checks during roleplay, or you may have an entire conversation without ever rolling a d20. In combat, however, the rules are much more explicit, and tactical decisions have consequences—sometimes ones we do not like.
My recommendation in combat is to extend a redo to a player so long as 1) it’s their turn and 2) they haven’t rolled any dice. Otherwise, you begin to take the teeth out of encounters and step on other characters’ toes. If a player can change their mind after rolling a natural 1, there’s an explicit mechanical benefit. Thankfully, the Player’s Handbook contains a multitude of ways to allow for combat redos within the bounds of the rules, such as Halfling Luck, Bardic Inspiration, or a fighter’s Indomitable ability.
Do you agree with me, or do I need a redo on this article? Let me know in the comments!
We just released the definitive guide to Candlekeep in 5th Edition D&D, Elminster’s Candlekeep Companion. Featuring design and consultation by creator of the Forgotten Realms, Ed Greenwood, this supplement is packed with lore, new player options, and the first-ever map of the library fortress!
As the shelter in place restrictions slowly start to loosen up here in Texas, I’m gearing up to run our next campaign. Thankfully, we finished Waterdeep: Dragon Heist just before the pandemic began, but I’ve been itching to break out my Platinum Edition of Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus by Beadle and Grimm’s for a few months now.
If you didn’t get a chance to get this amazing box, B&G is actually offering a Silver Edition for less than half the cost, and everything is 10% off for Nurses’ Week starting on Wednesday, May 7th, with another 10% of all proceeds going to the Feeding America charity. See what’s in the box using the video below.
With all the writing I’ve been doing, I actually felt like I was slacking during my Waterdeep: Dragon Heist campaign. Luckily, my players didn’t feel that way. However, I’ve written a lot of content for Descent into Avernus, so I’m confident I can do this one justice. That said, I’d like to start the campaign off on the right foot. I’ll be running the alternative introductory adventure The Fall of Elturel that Anthony Joyce and I released a few months ago. For that supplement, I wrote three new backgrounds, including one for the Hellriders that lets you commandeer a warhorse.
Session Zero Companion
While doing my campaign research, I came across a Player’s Guide for Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus that included helpful information about the city. Most of it appears to have been summarized from the adventure text, but I cannot for the life of me find the original source of it, so I’ve decided to build off of the information there and write a Session 0 guide for my own players. (If you do happen to know where the guide came from, please let me know so I can contact the original creator and credit them here.)
This document is freely available and created in accordance with the Wizard’s of the Coast Fan Content Policy. Much of the information came from Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus and the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. In this Session Zero document, you’ll find:
A spoiler-free adventure set up
Baldur’s Gate lore, including government, city districts, and quick facts
Mechanics-free descriptions of the backgrounds in the Baldur’s Gate Gazetteer
Elturgard lore, including the Companion, the Hellriders, and quick facts
Three new background options (created by me), each including ranks for advancement
A brief introduction to Dark Secrets
You can download the companion using the button below.
During our last campaign, the party received a scroll penned by a god. It detailed a list of four components – all on different planes – that could be combined in a ritual spell to create an artifact known as the phoenix elixir, a liquid capable of resurrecting a dead god. Due to the potential ramifications, the divine scribe scrambled the letters on the scroll with an ever-changing script that was impervious to the strongest of divination spells to read its contents. Even the great wizard Mordenkainen only knew of one such method to translate the scroll: an ancient codex created by a god of knowledge named Kvasir.
The codex’s last known location was at the top of an enormous tower library in Ysgard. (Technically, the codex was destroyed and would be cleverly reconstructed using the plucked eye of one of Kvasir’s immortal librarians who was able to see into the past, but that’s another story.)
The party at this point was 18th level, and they knew this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. Kvasir was no longer around, but many of his sworn agents were. (If you’re familiar with Norse mythology, which was a big part of this campaign, you’ll know that the god Kvasir was killed and turned into the Mead of Poetry.) His had a host of constructs, giants, and angels guarding what was essentially ruined city of knowledge surrounded by a dedicated mythal. There was even a Valkyrie-inspired planetar who was just itching for a fight after centuries of guarding the near-impenetrable fortress.
I used this awesome Cloudspire Ruins map by Venatus Maps to represent Kvasir’s library city. Venatus has a ton of maps available on their Patreon that are just as good as this one. You should consider becoming a patron if you use digital maps or run a lot of homebrew.
Eventually, the party made it inside the library, which, like all libraries, included its own specific set of rules. One of these was stressed above all others by the modron in the entrance foyer:
Please be quiet while in the library.
As the party entered the first room of the library, an aged wizard sat at one of the reading tables. With a beard nearly five feet in length, this mage had certainly been here a long time. Excited to have human contact once more, he leapt to his feet and exclaimed in joy at the characters, only to promptly cover his mouth in horror at violating the principle rule of Kvasir’s library.
Protruding from some one of the floating bookcases was the carving of an aged woman. She appeared almost as a wooden lich, similar to the mouth of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings. She raised one finger to her lips, shushing the mage while pointing towards him with her other hand. A ray of green light sprung from her index finger, and in an instant, the mage was but a pile of dust. These were the librarians.
With that, the session ended, and I let the party I’d be sending them some alternative rules on sneaking within the library. Naturally, one of the party members wanted to know if they were restricted to spells that didn’t have verbal components. Realizing that this could be an opportunity to give structure to sneaking mages in the future, I whipped up the following variant rule.
Disclaimer: Stealth Sequences and Minions Note that this rule loses its potency in later levels unless you institute minion rules from 4th Edition D&D. Matt Colville has a great video on minions which really opened my eyes to their potential in 5th Edition. Many players ask about stealth-killing guards when sneaking, but only the rogue has enough gusto to make this a reality at later levels unless the enemies are significantly weaker than your party’s casters. When someone only has one hit point, or even a small number of hit points, these Quiet Casting rules really shine.
Variant Rule: Quiet Casting
Sometimes, a caster will want to cast a spell with a verbal component while sneaking up on a foe without attracting the attention of nearby enemies. Whisper casting provides a trade-off for a shorter range in exchange for lower volume during stealth sequences that involve one or more casters.
Assumption: Normal Spells are Spoken from Your Heart’s Fire In Disney Pixar’s Onward, Barley Lightfoot tells his brother that in order for a spell to work, it must be spoken confidently and with a richness and power to one’s voice. Barley calls this “speaking from your heart’s fire.” We’re going to assume that this is the requirement for spells with verbal components in Dungeons and Dragons, i.e., normal spells are spoken loudly and with gusto, drawing the attention of enemies in the same way shouting would.
Thankfully the majority of spells in D&D 5th Edition are divisible by three. There are a few exceptions, such as touch spells, some cube spells, and spells with long ranges (locate object, dimension door). This makes our job quite easy, so long as you’re okay with a little bit of quick math. With this variant rule, there are three ways to cast a spell:
Speak From Your Heart’s Fire
A spell spoken from your heart’s fire maintains the spell’s normal range but is treated as a shout. This attracts the attention of most enemies in the area as if you were yelling at your foe as a distraction. The exact range is up to your DM and may be subject to an Intelligence (Investigation) or Wisdom (Insight or Perception) check. Your ray of frost spell may take out that orc guard 60 feet away, but his friends are on the way.
A murmured spell has two-thirds its normal range. A murmer is less likely to attract unwanted attention. Continuing with our ray of frost example, the spell now has a range of 40 feet, rather than 60 feet, but it’s less of a risk. Your other party members may be able to take out the other orc guard nearby before she has a chance to act. The ones on the other side of the clearing aren’t going to hear you cast the spell.
A whispered spell has one-third its normal range. However, unlike a murmer or shout, a whispered spell can only be heard by enemies in close proximity, i.e., the same small room, guarding the same door, or engaged with one another in an activity. Now our ray of frost is just 20 feet, but just as stealthy as an assassin’s blade (or at least pretty close).
Shortcomings of this Variant Rule
This rule unfortunately doesn’t work for every spell, as there are a few spells that either don’t quite fit the bill due to range or because they have some obviously recognizable effect (such as the booming sound of thunderwave or shatter). In addition, the exact proximity for detection is intentionally vague to prevent bogging down the pace of your game. After all, it wouldn’t be D&D if the DM didn’t have to do a bit of adjudicating!
Some quick suggestions:
Spells with a range of touch must always be shouted and cannot use Quiet Casting rules
Spells with 10-foot range become 5-foot range when murmured and touch when spoken
Sorcerers with the Subtle spell trait can treat all their spells as spoken from the heart without suffering a detection penalty
Dimension door’s ranges follow this range 500 feet > 300 feet > 150 feet
Any spell with a range longer than 500 feet cannot be cast using these rules
Everything else, you’re going to have to eyeball it!
In late 2018, my weekly D&D group was just finishing up our Storm King’s Thunder campaign, for which I was the Dungeon Master. Over the course of the campaign, I’d learned a lot about being a DM and had worked hard to improve classic GMing skills such as improvisation, descriptive narration, and familiarity with the system. It was clear to me that the players at my table absolutely loved their characters, and they universally expressed a desire to tell epic-level stories. They wanted to go the distance, all the way to level 20! And who could blame them? Many of us (myself included) like to fantasize about a 20th-level version of our characters.
If there was any group of players in my life for which such a feat was possible, it was this one. After all, how many D&D tables are privileged to have regular attendance from each player, effective communication, and – to toot my own horn – a Dungeon Master who’s straight up obsessed with the game and making sure each player has fun? My D&D players are a collective unicorn when it comes to finding a solid gaming group, and I wasn’t about to let them down.
With few Tier 3 campaigns available at the time (Dungeon of the Mad Mage wouldn’t be announced until the following Spring), I knew that I’d have to write most of it myself. No worries. As a divination wizard IRL, I had been planting plot seeds and foreshadowing possible adventures for a couple of months. That said, I needed to check in with my players and make sure I was on the right track.
The Campaign Refresher
Knowing I had a long road ahead of me and much, much more to learn as a DM (spells like teleport and scrying would become regular occurrences), I set out to collect feedback from my players via a short survey of 10 questions. This campaign refresher was designed to:
Determine what parts of my prep were most worth my time based on player enjoyment
Learn what style of play and narrative my players desired
Analyze key areas of our D&D sessions, such as combat difficulty and pacing
See what moments, NPCs, and villains resonated with my players from the previous campaign and why
I broke that survey down in a thread on Twitter, but I’ve since revamped the survey for 1) my own players and 2) to share with others. You can see what the new campaign refresher is like by taking the survey using the button below. Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone your answers.
In this blog post, I’ll provide a breakdown of my latest campaign refresher (the one accessible via the button above), explaining why I’ve decided to include certain questions as well as suggestions for how you could improve or customize it for your own campaign. At the end of this post, you can request a copy my campaign refresher, either to give to your own players or to edit the survey to better suit your table.
Other Forms of Feedback In addition to electronic surveys, there are some less formal ways to solicit feedback from your players, such as: – A regular post-session handout with no more than five questions – Weekly 1:1 check-ins with each player through text, GroupMe, etc. – Open time before or after session to talk about the campaign, ask questions, and comment on what did and didn’t work (also a great time to do some healthy snacking)
Section 1: General Refresher
I’ve divided my survey into three distinct sections, the first of which is a general refresher designed to remind the Dungeon Master of player preferences when preparing for session. Mainly, I want DMs to be able to weed out elements that their players dislike or want to avoid. This way, the DM can focus their efforts on aspects that will give them the most bang for their buck in terms of prep.
Typically, I like to use a 5-point Likert scale for these, with 1 being something a player would like to remove or does not have fun during, 3 being indifferent, i.e., “Keep it the same,” and 5 being something they love and would enjoy more of.
The Three Pillars
The survey starts with the three pillars of D&D. If you’ve never heard of these before, I’m glad I get to share them with you! Exploration is sometimes referred to as the forgotten pillar, but that’s mainly because it’s a slightly more amorphous compared to the other two. We all recognize when we’re in combat or role-playing, but we don’t traditionally think of the small choices in between as “exploring,” even though they probably are.
This is a high-level view of your players preferences. From a DM standpoint, it’s probably not going to lead to any epiphanies, but if half of the party says they hate social interaction, you should consider less dialogue and more dungeon crawls.
Common elements are where the survey starts getting good, in my opinion. This is a great question that you can customize with common elements from your D&D sessions. I, for example, enjoy writing and acting out villainous monologues (you should hear my evil laugh). The last time I ran this survey, my players said they loved them – my monologues even came up as a free-text answer later! However, some players hate monologues and gleefully interrupt the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) with an axe to the face.
Unearthed Arcana, house rules, or other variant options
Strongholds or businesses
Images of NPCs or enemies that you painstakingly cut out each week and tape onto your DM screen
I got a lot of these adventure styles from the available adventure tags on the DMs Guild when you post a new product. You’re only allowed to select three on the DMs Guild, which made classifying my milk-themed carnival horror adventure a bit difficult at the time. Thankfully, there’s no such restriction here. Fire away!
The type of adventure has a huge effect on individual sessions and player enjoyment. I would have said before that my players enjoy any adventure, but after seeing them squirm during Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, I’ve realized they can only spend so much time in the city before it begins to feel oppressive and constraining. That said, I did learn that they quite liked the mystery and investigation portions of that and previous adventures we’ve run, so there’s sure to be some element of that in future campaigns.
Styles of Play
Styles of play, like the three pillars, are more to get rid of the universally disliked options, rather than providing a helpful analysis of those your players enjoy. I can already tell you from looking at this question (which was not on my original survey from 2018) that my players don’t like Resource Management or Heavy Social Interaction enough to select those boxes. In fact, they will probably only select Gritty Realism and Comedic, but my players have surprised me before!
Some players don’t like open choice when it comes to narrative style. Mine fall into that boat. Every player wants their choices to matter, but I’ve found that my players get choice paralysis when their are too many options (another lesson learned from Waterdeep: Dragon Heist). I’ve found most players fall in the middle at Malleable, but some, like my wife Samantha, “just want to be part of our D&D movie.”
Many published adventures have multiple side quests, sometimes in each chapter. While some are relatively short, mine tend to run adjacent to the main plot and slowly develop over time. An individual side quest may take three or more in-game months and have five mini quests within it! If there’s too many irons in the fire, however, some players feel overwhelmed.
During our Storm King’s Thunder campaign, I introduced the party barbarian’s brother, Cantu. Cantu was a goliath sorcerer who sought to unite all of the northern tribes against the nations who had driven them into the Frozenfar and defiled their burial mounds. After two Cantu-themed side quests and given the urgency of the main quest, the players instead chose to pursue the main quest, leaving Cantu to develop his plans in peace. I got to ask myself, “How would Cantu’s plans proceed uninterrupted?” and as a result, the Pale Sorcerer played a pivotal role in the plot of our epic-level campaign.
Character-driven quests can be extremely rewarding given the play style of your table. While I hesitate to make this comparison, given that none of us are professional actors, our group functions similarly to Critical Role, in that our campaigns are heavily influenced by the characters and their individual arcs. Often times, they are tied heavily into the main quest, such that by the end of our 20-level campaign, it felt entirely personal. This style of play requires players to let other characters have the spotlight, sometimes for an extended period of time, and go on quests for which their character may not entirely relate. It’s not for everyone, but we very much enjoy it.
If all but one player answers positively to this question, you might consider talking to that player about it, keeping arcs short, or developing something special for their character that makes the time worth the wait.
Section 2: Campaign Refresher
You could give this section of the survey to your players every 5-10 sessions or after a major adventure. The true campaign refresher is basically a pulse check on combat and memorable moments. I tend to focus more heavily on combat (see below), but you could expand upon other important facets of your sessions.
If I wanted to make this survey longer or more thorough, I would probably add comparable sections on the other two pillars, as well as some general questions to look for common pitfalls of DMing, such as a problem player not being addressed.
Combat Difficulty & Frequency
Combat is a big part of our D&D games, so I ask a lot of questions about it. So much of the Player’s Handbook is devoted to combat, whether it’s through character abilities or battle magic. The designers of 5th Edition obviously thought combat was an important part of the game, so I want to give it proper attention and make sure that my players are enjoying it. At the same time, remember that even good combat can grow stale if it’s too frequent.
Other Combat Questions
Like I said, I wanted to know a lot about combat. A big part of what makes combat feel “fun” for me as a player is getting to use my abilities. One of these prompts, “I feel my abilities are being canceled out or subverted,” is a check on myself to ensure I’m not hindering that fun. While I never want to intentionally stifle a player’s abilities, I do like to challenge my players. There’s a fine line between challenging a player and negating a character’s capabilities. If the party monk suddenly finds themselves fighting only constructs after landing one too many stunning strikes, they’re going to think it’s your doing, even if you’re running Temple of the Stone Golems.
Memorable Villains, NPCs, and Moments
This one is relatively straightforward, but I wanted to know what resonated with my players. “What’s going right in the stories we’re telling together?” If an NPC or villain that I put a lot of work into doesn’t make the cut, why didn’t they, and is such an NPC worth that kind of investment the next time around? In addition, this is a chance for the players to reminisce about your games and validate the hard work of their DM.
These questions are open-ended, so it’s up to my players exactly how much use I’ll get out of them. Take the answers with a grain of salt, though. Even though your awesome NPC that was critical to the story doesn’t get a mention, that doesn’t mean they didn’t make an impact or that your hard work wasn’t necessary. It might just mean you did an especially good job at role-playing that eccentric gnome shopkeep, Fiddlesticks.
Section 3: Character Refresher
This last section is all about the player character. Platforms like this survey encourage players to ground themselves every once and a while. D&D brain may have set in over time, or a player may have forgotten their character’s roots. These questions prompt each player to think about their character and motivations. I’m a firm believer that the DM should take time to think about each character when prepping for a session, working in opportunities for them to shine, moral quandaries, or elements from their past – or perhaps their future. These answers hopefully will make that process easier.
In my opinion, a campaign can only hold about 10 major NPCs, i.e., individuals who the characters will see multiple times and who play a pivotal role in the overall story. Beyond that, I think you can probably have 20-30 lesser NPCs, i.e., those who play a minor role but are otherwise memorable, such as shopkeeps, town leaders, or a villain’s second in command. When writing adventures, or building stories off of existing adventures, consider working in at least one NPC with which each character can “bond,” whether that takes the form of a bitter rivalry, apprenticeship, or duty to protect.
The other question, “What’s something you want your character to do in this campaign?” is totally in the player’s court. I recommend watching James Haeck talk about the Heroic Chronicle from the upcoming official setting guide, Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, for inspiration on making these “prophecies” happen in your games.
Understandably, many people have requested this survey from me! However, some people on the internet like to ruin things for others, and I haven’t discovered a way to make the Google Form survey both copy-able and free from everyone having edit access. (If you know of a way, please let me know.)
Recently, I had the pleasure of acting as the developmental editor for Anthony Joyce’s adventure, The Blood Hunter, which is designed for one player and one Dungeon Master. There’s some debate in the community surrounding the correct terminology for these adventures, which are sometimes referred to as “solo adventures,” “one-on-one adventures,” or “duets.” Regardless of what they’re called, Anthony and I quickly realized that these adventures present unique challenges to designers.
Anthony is a good friend of mine. We talk often, so I knew that this project impacted him as a designer. I asked Anthony how he felt about designing this one-player adventure and what lessons he learned from it. He decided to share some wisdom for future designers.
At the time of writing this article, The Blood Hunter has sold over 200 copies in less than a single week.
Anthony Joyce is a Hispanic, ENnie-nominated Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition designer, husband, father of three boys, and U.S. Army Strategist. His works include The Heir of Orcus: Verse I, II, III, & IV; Weekend at Strahd’s; The Curse of Skull Island, Baldur’s Gate: The Fall of Elturel, Baldur’s Gate: City Encounters, The Little Astralnaut, and The Dreams of Prince Papo.
Designing Adventures for One Dungeon Master and One Player
Anthony Joyce’s Top Three Lessons Learned from Designing The Blood Hunter
“Trying to keep each chapter to one page. Four chapters total. A four page adventure?! Can I do it?!” These were the famous last words I wrote in Discord to my friend Justice Arman as I ventured on the endeavor to design The Blood Hunter, a two-hour Blood Hunter adventure for one dungeon master and one player. I thought since I’d authored several well-received adventures, I could easily design an adventure for one-on-one play. I was wrong.
Below are the top three lessons I learned while designing The Blood Hunter.
Design the Adventure Around the Character
When I first started writing, I realized that every scene, every moment, needs to be tailored to a single character. I decided the one way to maximize immersion is to design the one-on-one adventure around a class, so that I can design encounters or situations around their character’s class features and thematic flavor. In The Blood Hunter, every creature, every ability check, and even the theme of the adventure is tailored around Matt Mercer’s Blood Hunter class to make the player feel 100% useful and epic throughout the entire session.
Note from the Editor: A Game for 2-6 Players As the editor for this project, I worked with Anthony to develop some of these concepts and make sure the adventure was truly balanced for a single character. It reminded me of the many board games that my wife, Samantha, and I have played, eager at their advertisement of 2-4 or 2-6 players, only to realize the game loses its teeth when it’s just the two of us. Just as fantastic two-player board games like Seven Wonders: Duel, Onitama, and Spirit of the Wild require dedicated design, so do one-on-one D&D adventures.
I knew it would be different, but I think the moment that it dawned on me was when Anthony toyed with the idea of making a banshee from the Lost Mines of Phandelver be a primary figure in chapter 4. Initially, this was an attractive option because he could include alternative ways (other than combat) to solve the encounter without harming what was already a beloved NPC to some tables – players and DMs who’d met the banshee during Lost Mines of Phandelver.
“Can you include a banshee?” I mentioned while chewing on a protein bar during one of our afternoon calls. “You’ll have to be careful, otherwise she could kill the character outright,” I said, thinking of the banshee’s Wail ability, which can instantly drop a character to 0 Hit Points, with no remaining party members to rescue them in a one-on-one adventure. Ultimately, Anthony elected to swap the banshee for Gilgar the wraith, as monsters in 5th Edition are designed around a a party of four adventurers!
One-on-One Adventures Require A Higher Word Count Than Traditional Adventures
During initial playtesting with my wife, Jen, I discovered combat encounters lasted roughly five minutes as opposed to ~30 minutes during traditional group play. Roleplaying went quickly and seamlessly, since the character doesn’t need to consult with other characters or achieve consensus. This required much more content to fill a 2-hour period – hence more words. I was blown away by the amount of content required to fill 2-hours for one-on-one play. Heed this advice before deciding to write your own one-on-one adventure since it’s likely going to take 8,000 words for 2-hours instead of a conservative 4,000-5,000 words for a party of 4-6 adventurers.
Keep a Tight Focus on Your Hook
Gameplay during one-on-one play moves much faster than traditional group play; it also relies on a single player making decisions without the need to consult others. This dynamic alters the traditional story hook concept, in which a majority of characters must buy into the story hook and pursue a common goal. This requires you to design an adventure in which the story hook universally always applies to and invests the character. It must be precise and focused to immerse the player in their characters’ story. The adventure is all about that character, so make sure the hook is strong enough to captivate them during play, especially since there are no comedic party members at the table to capture their attention, it’s just the Dungeon Master, the player, and their story.
I hope these lessons are useful to any designers out there looking to make a one-on-one adventure. The main takeaway if anything, is that one-one-one adventures require a fundamentally different design approach than normal group play adventures.
The first week in January brings with it many New Year’s resolutions, either hopefully received by those with shared goals or scoffed at by jaded recipients of one too many overly ambitious goals from New Years’ past. I fall into the former category. Each January, I reflect on the prior year – what went well, what was important, what fell behind – and pick an handful of goals with the aim of self-improvement. Along with millions of other people around the world, one of my New Year’s resolutions involves healthy eating.
I’ve always had a binge eating personality, especially when it comes to sweets. When I was a kid, I remember destroying this value pack of Fruit Roll Ups in about an hour; I must have had thirty of them in one sitting. In middle school, I spent the night at a friend’s house. He lived in an upscale neighborhood. When we sat down for dinner, there was water in all the glasses. I remember thinking, Wow. I guess rich people just drink water with everything, because I subsisted on Coke, sweet tea, and other sugary beverages. (Something I deeply regret after many cavities.) Needless to say, healthy snacking is a personal struggle for me.
Thinking back on my year, there have been several nights where I ended a D&D session feeling guilty about what or how much I ate. Even if the session was spectacular, I can’t help but ruminate on my overindulgence and how much it may have set me back. If you’ve felt this way after a TTRPG session, you might enjoy this short article with tips on health-conscious snacking during your favorite game.
My undergraduate degree was in Public Health, with a focus in Health Science. While I am familiar with the science of nutrition and have acted as a personal trainer in the past, I am not a medical professional. I simply have a passion for empowering others to take charge of their health. As always, talk with your doctor if you have concerns about implementing changes in your diet.
While my advice in this post is targeted towards those who want to build healthy snacking habits during their favorite TTRPG, these are just general suggestions. You may take some, none, or all of the suggestions below. You could even expand upon or modify them.
I don’t like the word diet, as it has become synonymous with a temporary change in food intake to achieve some goal, only to return to normal eating habits once complete. Whether it’s Keto, Whole 30, Atkins, or Paleo, few participants see lasting benefits once these regiments are abandoned. Furthermore, some of these diets are tricky to attain proper nutrition while adhering to them. I’ve seen my share of folks partaking in Keto, for example, doing things I would not associate as “healthy,” like eating multiple burger patties along with several high-cholesterol eggs.
True health comes with lasting lifestyle change, not the latest fad diet. Thus, my goal is to develop good, sustainable habits without setting unrealistic expectations.
Tips for Healthy Snacking
Before you begin, you may consider informing the rest of the folks at your gaming table that you’re trying to snack healthier. Just like working out, it’s easier to stick with eating healthy if you’ve got a partner. Even if they don’t want to join your quest, you can ask that they support you or, at the very least, respect your efforts by not teasing or offering you junk food.
One simple way to curb binge eating during your TTRPG session is to enjoy your snacks in moderation. It will take time to adjust to eating less of the things you enjoy, but you won’t regret it down the line.
Serving Sizes. When eating snacks, pay attention to the serving sizes on the back of the package. You’d be surprised how deceptive some of them are!
Buy Less. Not only will it save you money, but buying less snacks will force you to snack less. Once you’re out, you’re out! Make sure you set your self up for success at the grocery store; don’t go shopping hungry.
Track Calories. I use an app called Lose It to track my intake throughout the day. While counting calories doesn’t necessarily equate to perfect health, it’s a good way to gauge how much food remains in your daily “bank” without going overboard.
Substitutions & Alternatives
Of course, avoiding junk food all together will net you better results. However, it can be incredibly difficult to not eat anything during your game. Instead, I recommend substituting common junk foods with some nutritious alternatives.
If you’re going to kick anything, it should probably be soda. Sparkling water, zero-calorie fruit sweeteners for water, tea, or coffee can satisfy that flavor craving without all of the negative outcomes associated with soda.
I love sour gummies. All gummies, in fact. Though after eating a bag at D&D, I feel sick to my stomach. You know what doesn’t make me feel sick to my stomach? Nuts. Pistachios, almonds, cashews, even lightly salted peanuts.
There are many great alternatives to a bag of potato chips these days. Consider oven-roasted sweet potato fries, rice chips, veggie sticks, baked vegetable chips (I like Terra), or kale chips.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good donut. In fact, I could outright destroy a dozen of just about any variety. Same goes for danishes, strudels, and basically anything with icing. Consider having thin wafers with coffee. There are also some great protein bars as well that can function as a healthy “dessert,” such as those by Power Crunch or Quest. If you’re looking for something a bit sweeter, Lara Bars are a nice treat. I love dates.TheHow Not to Die Cookbook (one of my favorites) uses dates to sweeten up many foods, including goji berry superfood breakfast bites.
When In Doubt, Veggie Trays!
Vegetable trays can substitute most foods. Combined with salsa, hummus, or even a spinach dip, these can be a delicious, guilt-free alternative. For the actual veggies, I recommend slicing bell peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, and carrots. Olives and cherry tomatoes make great additions as well. You can substitute just about anything at the table with a veggie tray, and you don’t have to break the bank when you make your own – so long as you have a few minutes to slice some cucumbers.
Fruit trays are also a nice snack. They may be higher in sugar than their vegetable cousins, but natural sugars are often accompanied by other nutrients.
A group meal can be a great way to get healthy as a group. Eating a cooked meal is a surefire way to know exactly what you’re putting in your body, and you can tailor it to include healthy options. Typically, our D&D group meets up 30-45 minutes prior to session for a group meal about once a month. Sometimes its a casserole, other times it’s some hot dogs from Sam’s Club with some cooked vegetables. Occasionally, we bring D&D-themed foods when there’s something relevant or an epic in-game moment coming up.
We talk in the group me prior to the meal about who is bringing what. Responsibility of the main course rotates from person to person, but we always make a point to have some sort of vegetable or salad present. Nowadays, grocery stores have tasty salad kits that only require a couple minutes of prep. Typically, you can find some on a deal if they’re close to the sell by date.
You Can Do It!
Eating healthy is no small endeavor. Millions of people struggle with it each and every day, myself included. Know that every now and then, it’s okay to take a cheat day. And if you fall off the horse completely, don’t worry; we’ve all been there. Cast find steed, mount up, and you’ll be back on the road to a healthy lifestyle in no time.
I’m not a fan of Ang Lee’s Hulk movie, but it did have an interesting villain. No, I’m not talking about the 10-foot-tall gamma poodle. I’m talking about Absorbing Man! During the film’s abstract finale (which featured some ambitious CGI for 2003) there’s a brief moment where Absorbing Man becomes stone. I was only ten at the time, and I thought it was extremely cool.
Twelve years later, I’m playing Dungeons and Dragons in Utah with some friends. Fifth Edition D&D has just released, and I’ve decided to try my hand at being a Dungeon Master. All three of the core books are out, but I only own the Player’s Handbook because $50 is quite the investment. (Support your local game store!) I’ve only played 3.5e at this point, and to be honest, I didn’t really understand what’s was going on at the time.
I’m reading the PHB like crazy, trying to absorb all the info I can because my DM is about to be one of my players, and I don’t want to look like a complete fool. (I did, but that’s a story for another time.) I’m not a fast reader by any means, but going through the core rulebooks at least once a year has become an important pastime and made me a better DM. That was the first time I came across the stoneskin spell.
Here’s the spell, courtesy of D&D Beyond:
Sounds Dope. What’s the Problem?
It looks awesome at first glance, right? Thematically it is. Your skin becomes rock-hard for an entire hour so you or your buddy can go toe-to-toe with that towering stone giant without getting dropped in the first round. In fact, casting this spell on someone else is probably the most effective use of it. But I’ve never seen a player cast it, let alone take it in 5th Edition.
Why does this spell feel underwhelming? Well, there’s not really one glaring problem with the spell. In my opinion, stoneskin falls flat due to a few micro-contributions, namely:
It requires 100gp to cast. Right off the bat, you need 100 gp in diamonds every time you cast this spell. If your DM is a stickler for resource management, this one’s going to be a pain.
It’s a 4th level spell. Getting to 7th level in any class is quite the achievement! Generally, I think that 4th level spells are in the awkward place between iconic 3rd level spells like fireball and haste and game-changing 5th level spells like scrying, but there are some great ones out there.
This spell has to stand up to banishment, dimension door, fire shield, and Otiluke’s resilient sphere. That’s a tough line-up!
It lasts an hour. Sounds great at first, but this is part of the reason that the spell is both concentration and 4th level. A lot can happen in one hour in-game. Generally, I take a 1-minute duration as one encounter and a 10-minute duration as 2 combat encounters – though I’ve seen more than that due to snowballing bad decisions. An hour could be an entire dungeon!
It’s concentration. Fans of older editions absolutely despise concentration, but I generally think it’s a necessary evil to keep the gameplay flowing instead of being bogged down by mechanical upkeep. That said, there are a lot of concentration spells in 5th Edition, and it’s worth asking, “Should stoneskin be one of them?”
Stoneskin is an armor spell, which means you don’t cast it on someone unless you think they’re going to get hit. If you’re casting this on yourself, or you’re close to the ally on which you cast it, you’re going to be making a few concentration checks to avoid dropping the spell with a minimum DC of 10 (see below). Unless you’re rolling really well, you’re most likely not going to make use of that 1-hour duration because eventually you’re going to fail this check.
On top of that, fire shield doesn’t require concentration and is at the same level. Sure, it’s a bit more situational and fills a different niche, but still.
Sculpting a Better Stoneskin
I actually like the stoneskin spell, but I also like to play against type and am generally pretty easy to please. My desire to “fix” it comes from the reaction on my players’ faces when they read this spell. Despite how excited they were about the prospect of taking hits like Rocky, they end up ultimately disappointed and pass on the spell in the end.
The best part about modifying this spell is you have some options, and you can pick the one that best suits your table. Here are my proposed fixes for the stoneskin spell.
Option 1:Lower the Spell Level
Make stoneskin more accessible at lower levels by making it 3rd level. Your wizard’s Arcane Recovery and the sorcerer’s Font of Magic feature can get more use out of this spell as they level up.
There are already a ton of great 3rd level spells. However, if a player really wants to take this spell, you can offer it earlier. If you choose this option, I recommend one of two additional tweaks:
The spell still requires concentration, but the duration is now 10 minutes.
The spell does not require concentration, but it only lasts 1 minute. With a 1-minute duration, you’ll almost always use your first turn in combat to cast it.
Option 2: Remove Concentration & Lower Duration
My favorite option involves removing the concentration component and changing the duration to 10 minutes. The spell stays at 4th level. This isn’t a huge change, but it does the spell justice. You won’t have to curse under your breath and hope for a high roll every time you take damage, and the spell could potentially last for two or even three encounters. Sure, there are going to be some weird combos where someone is flying with stoneskin or something, but they’ll only last 10 minutes!
Option 3: Remove Concentration & Increase the Spell Level
If you want to cap off your 10- or 11-level campaign with a spectacular boss fight or dungeon, you could remove the concentration requirement and make stoneskin a 5th or even 6th level spell. This is my least favorite option, because 1) most campaigns fizzle out around these levels, 2) the balance seems shaky here with such a long duration, and 3) there are so many cool 5th and 6th level spells.
You’re probably better off just giving a potion of stoneskin if this is your preferred route because if you’re making this change for the long-haul, this spell is going to become a no-brainer before every dungeon. And without concentration, it’s going to be cast on multiple characters.
Then again, high-level play is all about challenging your players and learning how to tell the best stories in the framework of their epic abilities. If it’s too much, it doesn’t hurt to learn how to retcon something diplomatically.
Lately, I’ve noticed an increasing trend of characters with secret connections in TTRPG adventures. An NPC, sometimes prominent but usually a side character, is tied to some secret organization. Dear old granny down the street is donating the proceeds from her bake sales to the cult of Vecna that spawned from her weekly book club. The beggar in the market is actually a well-off spy for the Harpers. A group of Zhentarim thugs enjoy an indefinite stay at the local inn – so long as they take care of the inkeeper’s problem patrons discreetly.
This isn’t a new concept. Secret connections and alternative motives are long-standing tropes of both D&D and storytelling in general. However, such secrets can be problematic when pivotal moments of an adventure hinge on their discovery.
When Secret Connections Cause Problems
In theory, these connections can lead to interesting situations and the incredibly rewarding “Ah-ha!” moment for a player when revealed. In practice, however, these are often poorly executed (in my opinion, of course). Whether it’s to save space or allow the Dungeon Master more freedom, rarely do I see supporting information for DMs to handle these connections in-game beyond simply stating that they exist. Compounded with an adventure that assumes the party will unearth said NPC’s hidden connections, this lack of supporting information can lead to ambiguity, confusion, or frustration at the gaming table.
Multiple Secret Connections
Warning: Minor spoilers for Waterdeep: Dragon Heist ahead.
This is especially true when writers include multiple secret connections in one adventure. Information slips through the cracks, or connections get applied to the wrong NPCs. After all, most of us game once a week (if that), and critical information tends to trickle out over multiple sessions. It’s one of the reasons I’ve had difficulty running Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, an adventure that has its fair share of NPCs with something to hide.
Balancing multiple connections is a real challenge, especially when you factor in TTRPGs as a storytelling medium and maintaining good pacing. While Waterdeep: Dragon Heist has grown on me over the past few sessions, it’s certainly required me to be on my game. In fact, the two center panels of my DM screen from the Beadle & Grimm’s Platinum Edition is devoted to a color-coded breakdown of NPCs and the organization for which they work!
When Mirt the Moneylender paid a visit to the party in Trollskull Manor for the first time, I roleplayed him as an old-school, braggadocios bigwig looking to invest in a new property. I thought, Why would Mirt be so open about his connection to the party, especially when they met with the Zhentarim’s Master of Coin the day before? After all, Mirt hasn’t earned his station in Waterdeep by spilling his beans everywhere he goes. Formerly known as Mirt the Merciless, the Old Wolf helped to eradicate a thieves’ guild in Waterdeep by masquerading as one of its members.
With a history of keeping secrets, the party saw Mirt how he wanted to be seen. He offered a generous investment with one condition: Mirt wanted naming rights to the tavern. This, of course, prompted a “Fuck this guy!” from the party, who promptly went to the Zhentarim for a high-interest loan. Sure, they might end up with a few bashed-in kneecaps, but at least they would keep their name. Ever seen The Crucible?
Running Secret Connections
Unfortunately, when the text surrounding these associations is somewhat bare, I think DMs need to do some extra prep to make sure information gets translated to the players effectively. The good news is a lot of this can be improvised with minimal effort. Here are a couple of tips for running secret connections at your game table.
Leave something for the characters to find. Consider the actions that the NPC might take given their connection. How apparent are those actions to the characters? Clues can take dozens of forms, from a magic residue identified with an Intelligence (Arcana) check to a rumor overheard in the town market.
Don’t be too obvious, of course, but be careful not to make the information vague and useless. Can the connection be discovered before the plot-defining moment? Great! If not, why not? Is it absolutely necessary to rob the players of that “Ah-ha!” moment?
These categories are by no means exhaustive, but they might help you come up with a good clue to drop into a future session.
How high up in the organization is the NPC? Who do they report to? Does someone report to them?
What is the NPC’s main method of communication with the organization? Some options include:
Letters sent by flying snakes or as paper birds (see appendix A of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist)
Physical meetings via a teleportation circle or a private location
Coded messages that must be deciphered with a secret code or magic
Messages delivered through subjects or thralls via spells like geas or suggestion
Trances, seances, or dreams
Furthermore, how often do they communicate on behalf of the organization? What happens if they don’t communicate in time; does someone come to check up on them?
What is the NPC required to do? Are there any opportunities for them to get caught while performing these responsibilities? Does someone sign off on their work? If so, who?
How closely do these responsibilities resemble the NPC’s daily activities outside of the organization? For example, a notary forging documents is much harder to catch than a painter doing the same thing, as official stamps and wax seals are out of the ordinary in the artist’s workshop.
What opportunities for information arise from the NPCs regular operations? Here are some examples:
The NPC only meets with contacts and other members at specific intervals. Perhaps they close their shop down for a late lunch every day, or stress that they must delay meeting up with the character until after a certain hour.
What physical evidence is associated with their day-to-day operations?
Is the NPC careful or sloppy at hiding evidence of their association?
What is their go-to answer when questioned about something? Is it believable?
Make the Organization Known
The more you foreshadow an organization, the better the reveal will be. Sure, we all recognize cults are bad, but a cult of Mephistopheles is more meaningful when an old wizard boasts about how she took the “high road” to learning magic – unlike her former friend who entered into a Faustian pact with the Cold Lord.
I’m a big fan of foreshadowing in my D&D games. In tabletop roleplaying games, you have to layer information to make it stick. Few players are more versed in the lore than their DMs, so important details can feel like a passing reference amidst a sea of information.
Foreshadowing secret connections is more nuanced. You want to hint at the association without giving it away. In class, if the teacher writes something on the board, you should write it down. In D&D, when the Dungeon Master spells out a word, you should write it down. I consider something effectively foreshadowed when I’ve made three separate references to it, such as:
Having an NPC comment or speculate on it, such as placing blame on the organization for an event, whether or not it’s true for that specific instance
A sign or insignia belonging to the organization, such as graffiti on an old building
An encounter with a former or current member
Writing Secret Connections
When you’re the one writing secret connections, you have every opportunity to set Dungeon Masters up for success. Before incorporating a secret connection, ask yourself if it absolutely must be discovered for a pivotal moment to pay off or make sense; if it does, I implore you to reconsider! Even if you leave good clues for Dungeon Masters, there’s no guarantee that every table will follow them, or that every DM can incorporate them effectively. Write situations, not plot.
Other than that, here are a few tips for setting tables up for success when it comes to your adventure.
Keep it simple. One or two secret connections are great, but a web of secrets can really jumble your players’ minds unless they’re interested in other genres, such as intrigue or pulp noir.
Make NPCs with secret connections memorable. A human male noble is forgettable, but that tortle that speaks exclusively in Dwarvish will stand out with the passage of time.
Leave good clues. Three solid clues is a good rule of thumb, one of which is easy to find.
If we take a little bit of time to make secret connections less secret, they can be incredibly rewarding for the whole table.