Know More About Idle Hands are the DM’s Plaything

Recently at Necromancers Online, I wrote an article about DMs who don’t have enough time to do their DM work, and what sorts of steps they can take to improve their game.

Today I’ll be approaching the opposite problem:

If you’re a DM with a lot of extra time, what can you do to take your game from good to great, and drop your players’ jaws to the floor?

1. Create Unique Mechanical Effects For Your PCs (And Villains)

Everyone likes to feel special, and nothing says special more than having some power or ability that no one else has. Further, many players have ideas for things they would like their characters to be able to do, but which don’t translate directly into the rules.

For example, I once had a player who wanted to tweak their druid PC’s normal ability to change his shape into that of animals. In exchange for having the potential to transform into slightly better shapes than normally allowed, all his transformations would be determined randomly – he might be a woolly mammoth, or he might be a dormouse.

It took a fair amount of work. I scoured sourcebooks for appropriate monsters to fill out the list; balanced the distribution of good shapes versus bad ones; and created some additional fine print to keep the ability from being too abusable, mostly by also having a random chance he couldn’t change back for a certain duration.

Eventually, I had the whole thing rigged up in an Excel table, and with the push of a button I could determine randomly what he changed into and how long he was stuck that way (if at all).

In a smaller-scale example, another player played a gloura (a kind of Underdark moth fey) ice mage. He thought that, between the ice and the moth angle, it’d be cool if she was afraid of fire, so he wanted to have the cold subtype for free.

If you have time to put the effort into it, sit down with each player and talk about their characters from a flavor perspective. Find out what makes the character tick, and what sorts of things the player would like to see happen with that character.

This is a great way to get plot hooks and other adventure themes based on that player’s character. You can also use it to look into giving special benefits, such as providing mechanics for the character’s existing flavor, or expanding on that flavor by granting the character some kind of new power. Perhaps a paladin receives a magical blade that passes harmlessly through anyone with an innocent heart, or a wizard receives a custom spell allowing her to do something that no other spell can do.

Also give a few special and unique powers to your villains to make them stand out on the battlefield as something to watch out for, especially if those powers are interesting or different enough from the sorts of things you already see a lot of.

2. Add Embellishments To People, Places And Things

If you have the time, you should consider adding some extra details and flavor to your existing NPCs, treasure items, and locations. A +2 flaming sword is basically just a bunch of numbers. A magic sword carved with mystic runes is cool. A magic sword with a golden eagle for the crossguard and an engraving along the blade which reads “Unos Salos Victus” (which I’m told means “The Last Hope of the Doomed”) is even cooler. That same sword is cooler still if a successful Knowledge (history) check can identify that such swords belong to the Brotherhood of Pillars, an ancient and secret order of knights who are sworn to protect the kingdom from the shadows, appearing whenever a great crisis threatens the land, only to disappear again once the dust clears.

By the same token, a fat innkeeper is a placeholder, and the players will most likely pay him little mind (and be in the right to do so). A retired adventurer who opened his own inn is better, especially if he has a few scars and maybe an unusual monster head mounted on the wall somewhere. But when he has a few adventuring stories to tell over a round or two of drinks near closing time, whether simply entertaining stories about his triumphs or potential plot-hooks about treasures that got away, he starts to become a more interesting and well-rounded character. Perhaps he’ll even get the itch to go out and do some more adventuring, and the tavern will be handed over to his cousin or niece for a few adventures while he’s gone. These sorts of little details allow your campaign to feel more like a living, breathing, organic entity than a cardboard backdrop stage for your PCs to wave prop-swords around on.

3. Create Mini-Adventures That Reward PCs Who Take An Interest In Them

This is definitely an “above and beyond” sort of DM work, as there’s a good chance that your PCs may never even notice this happening. Suppose the PCs come across a giant pile of coins. These coins are ancient, and are minted with strange symbols the PCs have never seen before. Now, the PCs can use them just like any other gold pieces, and if they do, that’s the end of that. On the other hand, if they take the trouble to track down the right collector (not necessarily an easy task), maybe they can get some more value for them. Alternatively, perhaps the coins all have strange markings on the back, and by putting them together like a puzzle, the PCs can create a treasure map to an even greater hoard. If the symbol were evocative enough, the PCs might be able to determine from it that the coins are extraplanar, and may even be able to use one in place of the “tuning fork” required to cast plane shift, allowing them to travel directly to the City of Brass, or wherever strikes your fancy.

Similarly, the man staying next door to the PCs in the inn room might have some secret agenda, which the PCs can get involved in if it piques their curiosity, or can ignore if they don’t. They might get invitations to dances, balls, and other social gatherings, where they can have some fun with political intrigue.

Ultimately, the sorts of things that I’m talking about here are “side-quests” of a very small scale, which simply provide your players with optional diversions. Not only can this make for some fun gameplay, and allow for some breaks from the “main plot” (which, by the way, is important and helps enhance the plot. That’s why so many TV shows these days will have two separate, unrelated plots in a single episode), but it also helps to further flesh out your world and help give it depth, as with Tip #2.

4. Create Fun And Interesting Terrain Features For Each Encounter

I don’t know about you, but personally, I read about a lot more interesting terrain feature ideas than I ever see in play. This has nothing to do with being a game designer–to the best of my knowledge, Necromancers of the Northwest has never really done anything with interesting terrain features (with the possible exception of a couple in The War of the Goblin King), and my knowledge is pretty extensive when it comes to NNW–but simply from the fact that I just don’t see terrain features pop up that often in games I play (or, for that matter, run).

This is a shame, because terrain has a lot of potential to really spice up an otherwise so-so encounter, and because there are so many potentially cool ideas. I vividly remember reading about a suggestion for a battlefield comprised of a bunch of platforms on chains, which rise and fall in 5-foot increments each turn, and another involving blasts of steam in a maze of pipes, etc. You could also go full-on magical about it, with a chessboard (or similar) where each “square” (possibly more than 5 feet) has a different magical effect, or a hall of mirrors where the mirrors reflect spells, or serve as portals to navigate the maze, or create illusory combatants, etc.

The main problem with terrain, I think, is that it usually requires relatively complex rules, and always feels like a secondary threat when compared to the opponent, so it mostly feels like a nuisance. With a good deal of forethought, a DM can help cut down on the amount of trouble the terrain causes at the table by being sure he has mastered its mechanics, and can make sure that it’s both fun for players and a convincing threat for their characters.