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?
Towards the end of 2018, my home game was wrapping up Storm King’s Thunder when I noticed a precipice before me. My players were in love with their characters, and they wanted to go the distance. They wanted their characters to reach epic levels and, as a result, tell appropriately epic stories. To battle waves of giants without NPC assistance. To wield legendary magic items with names and history from adventurers’ past. To travel beyond the material plane in defense of the entire realms.
This was uncharted territory for me as a Dungeon Master. I was going to have to write and run a high-level game, rather than spice up the existing framework in a published adventure.
During a few weeks of real-world downtime between sessions, I solicited feedback from my players with a Campaign Refresher survey. I analyzed the results of the survey while stringing together a campaign outline spanning levels 12-20. The final confrontation would pit the characters against the ancient kraken Slarkathrel in the depths of the elemental plane of water!
A week later, I trashedthat outline and started a new one. Why? Well, thanks to the survey, I finally knew what my players wanted. They liked the elements of the campaign that I’d added. They enjoyed the Norse mythology I’d mixed in, and they enjoyed one of the side villains in particular: Cantu, the Pale Sorcerer, a goliath trying to unite the tribes of the Frozenfar. Most importantly, they wanted to have choices, and they wanted those choices to matter.
In an effort to give weight to the choices they’d made, I flipped back through my notes, thinking about the consequences of their actions (or inaction).
What changed while the characters were off fighting the BBEG from Storm King’s Thunder?
What happened to towns that the characters saved after they left? What about the ones that they ignored?
How would the fire giant kingdom respond to characters killing a member of the royal family?
Where was Cantu, and how much had he achieved after nearly three months without the character’s heroic interruptions?
It all started coming together. I knew what Cantu had accomplished. I decided how King Snurre Ironbelly would react in the Hall of the Fire Giants. I filled my notes with possible dramatic scenes. However, without a book to guide me, I wanted something constant to keep the party from going off the rails, something they could reference as the campaign unfolded before them.
I decided to write a prophecy.
Are Prophecies Railroading?
Before we talk about prophecies, we should talk about railroading. In movies and television, prophecies are often depicted as a pre-determined pathway of events that will befall a character. I think of the three hags (aka the Fates) in Disney’s Hercules, predicting the alignment of the planets “in precisely eighteen years’ time.” All of the events come to pass, including Hades’ failure when Hercules intervenes. How do you work this into the table without railroading?
It’s no surprise that some players grimace at the thought of a prophecy driving their campaign. In some stories, prophecies are quite literally set in stone. This is in direct conflict with the underlying philosophy of TTRPGs. We want to have choices, and we want those choices to matter. Wouldn’t this be a bad fantasy trope to implement in tabletop RPGs?
You’re Probably Already Railroading Your Players
While I certainly believe that some group out there is doing it, I have never seen a completely improvisational campaign. To some extent, every D&D campaign is on rails, and there’s nothing wrong with that.When I sit down to prepare for a session, I’m making assumptions about future events, trying to anticipate the characters’ actions and frame possible events around them. The tracks might diverge, or the players may get off at one stop and board an entirely different train, but I’m always planning.
Published adventures have rails. Session outlines have rails. My campaigns certainly have rails. In fact, when I made an attempt to provide a completely sandbox game, my players told me they didn’t like it as much because they weren’t sure what to do — there was too much choice!
Dungeon Masters must strike a balance between narrative and agency. On the one hand, a game that is entirely plot-driven deprives players of agency. On the other hand, putting all of narrative on the players can lead to aimless wandering in an endless sandbox. With devoted and creative players, the latter could be rewarding (if you like this, you might check out the collaborative storytelling system in the Apocalypse World RPG), but every table is different. Ultimately, your game depends on the experience desired by your players.
I believe that Chris Perkins, the lead adventure designer for D&D, said it best in his “The Invisible Railroad” article for his DM Experience column at Wizards of the Coast:
Although I think it’s possible to run a campaign that is 100 percent driven by the players, I’m not the kind of Dungeon Master who can relinquish narrative control to the point where I’m simply reacting to the players’ desires and “winging it” week after week. I like coming up with adventure ideas and stringing them together to form a cohesive arc that unfolds over multiple levels. When I plan out an adventure, I usually have a good idea where, when, and how it will end—assuming the heroes don’t get sidetracked or TPK’ed en route. I like to call it my invisible railroad.
– Chris Perkins, The DM Experience (9/22/2011)
The goal of the invisible railroad is not to assert control over players. It’s to guide them to moments you’ve worked to make more rewarding than those imagined on the fly. Dungeon Masters create NPCs with secret connections who might betray the PCs in a future session. We try to line up pivotal moments of the campaign in fantastic locations rather than having the villain stabbed in the back while on a grocery run. We place the legendary item in the most interesting room of the dungeon instead of in the grasp of a skeleton near the entrance. We steer the players back to point B because we hope that it will be fun and memorable than the alternative.
Bad railroading confines player choice without subtlety. The players are in a story-train on a set of tracks built by the DM, who’s planned all the stops with no possible change in course. There are few options, if any, and if a player takes an alternative route, there is no satisfying reward. Everything is designed to funnel back into some overarching plot determined by the DM. The players lose agency, their actions have little impact, and the game feels meaningless. It’s like handing you the second Wii-mote in Super Mario Galaxy while your older sibling plays as Mario. Sure, you can collect star bits, but you’re not really doing anything. The feature mostly there to entertain younger children. (I’m sorry to any adults who enjoy collecting star bits with the second Wii-mote.)
Writing Good Prophecies
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about how write a great prophecy. I’ll show you the prophecy I wrote for my last campaign, and then I’ll offer some tips to keep in mind when writing your own.
The Prophecy of Everlasting Ice was inspired by 1) the frost giant plot in Storm King’s Thunder and 2) the one-hundred-year winter preceding Ragnarok in Norse mythology known as Fimbulwinter. I split the prophecy in two halves of a frost giant tapestry.
The Prophecy of Everlasting Ice “If the Ordning is shattered, a King of Ice rises from a lowly tribe. The Isenkong duels the highest Jarl for Thrym’s Favor. As frost dampens flame, Surtur chooses his champion.
On the last day of winter, branches part unscathed. The Heart of the First Flame is pierced by its own sword, sealing the buds of spring with Everlasting Ice.Only warriors endure the winter; those without thick hides perish.“
The second half of the prophecy, which was inscribed in glowing blue runes on the petrified hide of a great whale, was given to the main Tier 3 villain, the Isenkong (“Ice King” in giant). This allowed some flexibility if I needed to end up changing something later (shhh, don’t tell my players), but also made for an dramatic reveal when the characters would find it in the lair of the Isenkong, where they discovered that the charismatic frost giant was none other than their old friend Cantu, the Pale Sorcerer – but that’s a story for another time.
Leave Prophecies Open to Interpretation
The best prophecies can be interpreted differently from different viewpoints. They refer to individuals through symbolism or titles. They never give hard dates. Your villain may look at the prophecy and see themselves as the savior it speaks of. This makes your puzzle more exciting. Characters can look for it as meaning, or try to interpret omens as fulfilling certain aspects of its words. One of my players actually printed out the prophecy and kept it on the front of her binder. The party would stop and ask each other if something was fulfilling the prophecy from time to time.
My prophecy was tied to awesome moments I wanted to happen when I was planning the campaign, but ultimately they shook out differently than I thought. I drew an image on the second half of the prophecy that depicted five silhouettes – the same number as party members – fighting the Isenkong. One of them was glowing in flame. Who was that person? When I planned, I hoped that it would be one of the characters. I thought it was going to be the party barbarian, Kav, who was Cantu’s brother, or perhaps maybe the cleric, Bertha. It ended up being the hafling bard! Keeping the prophecy open to interpretation allowed it to be flexible and tell stories with my players, not for them.
At any point, I was prepared to have the players alter the prophecy. The prophecy was the Cantu’s weakness. He clung to it as inspiration. To him, he could not fail for fate was on his side. Every time it looked like Cantu was going to fail, he grew desperate and made mistakes. During Tier 4, the characters showed Cantu that he was wrong about the prophecy. Not only did it break his spirit, it caused him to become a powerful ally against an even greater threat.
The Draconic Prophecy section in Eberron: Rising from the Last War (check out Beadle & Grimm’s Gold Edition here) has some fantastic advice for spinning cryptic prophecies into fantastic adventures. For examples of prophecies in the Forgotten Realms, you can look to the Prophecies of the seer Alaundo, immortalized in the Endless Chant of Candlekeep. (I just might have something coming out related to this soon.)
Surprise Players With New Information
Giving players new information later can give clarity to the prophecy — or turn their world upside down! In my example, I split the prophecy in two. When they received the first half, the events were already in place. Cantu had risen to the Isenkong. But when they ventured into his lair in the Blue Mountain, they discovered the other half of the prophecy, none of which had come to pass. They had a significant chance to alter the course of history. There were thirty days left until the last day of winter.
New information reminds your characters of the prophecy and helps them see it in a new light. It also allows you to add new developments or reconcile something that didn’t quite translate the way you’d hoped at the table. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the party learns in Wan Shi Tong’s library that they will have an opportunity to stop the fire lord based on the darkest day in fire nation history.
Here are some other ways that you can reveal new information about your prophecy:
Part of the prophecy is in another language
The prophecy is a key to a larger event
There is a missing piece of the prophecy — a smudge, a torn page, or an alteration made by the antagonist
The characters learn the prophecy was written by a faithless narrator
The prophecy is a fake, and the characters are unknowingly carrying out the villain’s scheme for them
Give Prophecies Proper Attention
In the words of Ron Swanson, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” If you choose to give your characters a prophecy, you need to spend time on it. Your players are likely more clever than you give them credit! You don’t want your players to be able to connect the dots right off the bat. They’re going to pore over it, talk about it with each other, and reference it hopefully multiple times over future sessions.
Don’t treat your prophecy like a puzzle. You don’t want it to be something you can “figure out” without key events or details to give it shape. It’s best to structure your prophecy with at least one or two details that the characters don’t know, be they NPCs, locations, events, or something else.
Consider accompanying your prophecy with physical props, designs, or drawings. I provided my players with a handout of the prophecy with burned edges and drawings. That Christmas, one of my players gave me a dice box she made for Secret Santa; it had the prophecy wood-burned into the lid!
Running Good Prophecies
Writing a good prophecy is only half the battle. You have to run it well at the table, too! Just as you gave it proper attention during synthesis, you want to do so at the table.
Remind Players of the Prophecy Often
Writing a good prophecy is only half the battle. You have to run it well at the table, too! Just as you gave it proper attention during synthesis, you want to do so at the table.
Have wise NPCs question the characters about the prophecy. Maybe the prophecy is whispered among stone giants deep in the Underdark, or has become so widespread that it is a common children’s story in a kingdom. Foreshadow events with symbolism. If your prophecy speaks of birds, perhaps the characters see flocks circling them during important moments.
Throw in a Catalyst
You can also add a catalyst to your prophecy. This is someone or something that accelerates the prophecy’s events, bringing them to the forefront of the story. You might consider incorporating a catalyst after a major side quest or character arc to get the characters back “on track.”
A catalyst could be someone who wants the prophecy to happen. Maybe they benefit from its completion, but bear no ties to the villain. Perhaps the catalyst is someone who wants to obstruct the prophecy, but in some way they inadvertently accomplish one of its tenants. The catalyst could also be an event, such the solar eclipse deadline imposed on Aang and his companions in Avatar: the Last Airbender.
Propheciescan have a place in tabletop roleplaying games, but we have to be careful as game masters that plot doesn’t eclipse player agency. Whether this article has inspired you to include a prophecy in your campaign, I hope you’ve found my advice valuable.
Back in 1985, when Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was in its prime, TSR released Unearthed Arcana, a collection of supplemental rules written by Gary Gygax. It contained new races, classes, and previously published material from sources such as Dragon Magazine. The book included the first hardcover iteration of the barbarian as a class (originally detailed in Dragon #63), details on using subraces such as the drow and deep gnome (now staples of D&D 5e), and some new spells. It was unfortunately met with criticism due to its editing, binding, and some of the content within, such as the comeliness attribute. Gary intended to incorporate much of the optional content into a second edition for the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules, but Unearthed Arcana is the last TSR hardcover to bear his name on its cover.
Unearthed Arcana Today
Today, Unearthed Arcana (UA) is alive and well in 5th Edition D&D, though there’s no hardcover book. Instead, it takes the form of a series of articles published by Wizards of the Coast containing PDFs with new subclasses, races, or rules for D&D 5e. These articles stay true to the original Unearthed Arcana by introducing variant options for players and Dungeon Masters who want to customize their games.
Why Should I Use Unearthed Arcana?
There’s been a lot of great Unearthed Arcana coming out lately. We’ve had astral monks, a huge supplement on class feature variants, and most recently, psionics! If that’s not enough to convince you to check it out, here are a few additional reasons:
You can technically play D&D 5e using just the standard ruleset. If you’re strapped for cash but still want some new options, these playtest options slot right into the existing 5e rules without requiring access to any other published books.
You Can Shape the Future of D&D
After each Unearthed Arcana release, Wizards of the Coast puts up a survey where you can rate the options that were presented. The most recent survey is for Class Feature Variants. You can complete it here. That page also details the new psionic subclasses for the fighter, rogue, and wizard. Who doesn’t want to make their fighter the equivalent of fantasy Darth Vader?
D&D 5th Edition has seen multiple years of double-digit growth and is arguably more popular than ever. The lead designers for 5th Edition have attributed much of its success to the extensive playtesting conducted before its release. Bummed that you didn’t get to participate in the 5e playtest? Jump in now! That’s basically what Unearthed Arcana is!
Previously released Unearthed Arcana has already made its way into published books. Designers at WOTC take survey responses seriously and use them to gauge popularity, reception, and perceived balance. Based on survey feedback, they may rework UA options over multiple iterations, repackage abilities into new classes or spells, or even scrap poorly-rated options altogether.
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, for example, was heavily influenced by Unearthed Arcana content. The Gloomstalker, Storm Sorcerer, Samurai, Drunken Fist, and many more options in that book all started with an article from Wizards of the Coast. I remember reading about the ceremony spell in UA back when it was first proposed. There was even an UA druid subclass that became a spell, guardian of nature!
Ever looked at an official subclass and saw something you didn’t like? Chances are you had an opportunity to voice your opinion to its designer. So, what are you waiting for? Get playtesting, and let your voice be heard!
It’s a Peek Behind the Curtain
If you’re an aspiring designer like me, you won’t regret following Unearthed Arcana. Jeremy Crawford is often talking with Todd Kenrick at D&D Beyond about the options and the philosophy behind them. Here he is talking about the massive Class Feature Variants UA that dropped recently. It’s a great opportunity to learn from lead designers like Jeremy, get new ideas, or study UA that earns multiple iterations (I’m looking at you, Revised Ranger). Plus, Todd and his guests are a delight to listen to due to their passion and humor.
Incorporating Unearthed Arcana into Your Games
So, I succeeded on my Charisma (Persuasion) check, and you’re thinking about testing some Unearthed Arcana in an upcoming session. Awesome. Start by communicating with your DM and/or players that you want to use these experimental options.
Here are a few ways to work these playtest options into your games.
One-shots are a great opportunity to feel out some new options. Especially with the holidays coming up, many of us have the chance to game with some new people – family who have never played D&D, friends you’ve not seen in a while, or a kind stranger at an unfamiliar gaming store. Alternatively, many D&D groups put games on hold due to low attendance around the holiday season. Who says you can’t still play D&D with a group of three, or even a one-on-one session? If you’re having trouble finding a group, try advertising your one-shot at your local game store or joining an online game through Roll20.
A one-shot is also a good chance for the DM to get a much-needed break. In addition, a player interested in DMing can take on the mantle in a low-pressure environment – aside from the usual stress of DMing – without committing to an entire campaign. Here’s a GM Tips video from Geek and Sundry where Matt Mercer talks about writing one-shots!
If you’re having trouble writing a one-shot, there are many great short adventures on the Dungeon Master’s Guild worthy of your table. Seriously, the quality in the Top 100 products has skyrocketed over the past year. Head over to the Guild, grab a Tier 1 or 2 one-shot, and roll up some new, no-strings-attached UA characters for single session of gaming! If you’re primarily playtesting subclasses, it’s best to find an adventure that doesn’t lean too heavily on any one pillar of play. If possible, give the subclass a chance to shine in combat, exploration, and social interaction.
Take Notes. As you play, consider taking notes on the Unearthed Arcana class, spell, or ruleset. What worked? What made you feel epic? What fell flat? How did other players feel about your character? These will be useful later when filling out the survey.
For those more interested in combat or just short on time, you can test most Unearthed Arcana using a quick series of encounters. Perhaps each player brings an UA character and an encounter with certain parameters, almost like the X-Men training in the Danger Room. You could take turns DMing a few scenarios, such as a trio of fire giants in a desert temple or a long, trapped hallway.
Remember, there is a “N/A” option on the surveys, so if you didn’t get a chance to try out an ability, you don’t have to rate it. This is a good way to test multiple UA options, but it’s probably not as fun as a dedicated session for most players.
Sometimes, an Unearthed Arcana option grabs you from the moment you read it. You’re ready for the long haul and want to play it every night for the foreseeable future.
Great! Talk to your DM. Have them read the class and tell them that you’d like to give it a proper try. Keep in mind, there’s likely to be some back and forth with your DM as you level up within the class; you or your DM may feel something is unbalanced and want to tweak it as you go.
If you choose to incorporate Unearthed Arcana into a campaign, remember that the surveys only last a few weeks! After you’ve had a couple sessions with the new rules, don’t forget to go back and fill out the survey before it’s too late. In addition, check in from time to time. The rules may have been updated based on previous survey responses.
Where Can I Find Unearthed Arcana?
There may never be another Unearthed Arcana hardcover, but the spirit of the original book is alive and well in 5th Edition. I think people weren’t ready for Gary Gygax’s variant rules in 1985. Sure, there might have been some obscure ones (did we really need a Thief-Acrobat?), but they were always meant to be optional. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like most D&D players today are willing to tinker, house-rule, and experiment. Perhaps it’s due to the variety of available TTRPGs or the renaissance of new board games, many of which bring unique and brilliant mechanics. Either way, I think Gary would be proud.