Tabletop gaming is fun. I know that’s an overly simple premise, and every gaming group has a different definition of the term; however, if we aren’t at least having our own brand of fun, then why play the game? And as we can all attest from experience: when this game is fun, it creates memories that last a lifetime.
But when it isn’t fun… it can be devastating for everyone around the table, staring at a shattered story, dead characters, and a free night to binge more Netflix because your gaming group just broke up. But this scenario can be avoided, and you can consistently create game sessions that are memorable, engaging, and fun, or course, with the following five guidelines that I’ve picked up over the years.
Know Your World, Not Your Story
Easy Tolkien, I’m not saying you can’t have an epic story that stretches over years leading to an amazing conclusion; I’ve done it before (check out Episode 12 of The Knowledge Check podcast for some easy ways to pull it off) and it can be a lot of fun. But many Dungeon Masters make the mistake of knowing the story they want to tell like the back of their hand, only for the players to have other ideas and immediately hop off of the rails.
A much better approach is to have your story in the back of your head: what clues do the players need to discover this session, which NPC’s should they meet, which villains show up, etc; but rather than focusing on knowing your plot, you should know your world. Before your session starts, ask yourself some of the following questions: What region of the world are we in? What are the common creatures that live here? What notable cities are nearby? Who are some of the bigger politics and/or criminal figures in this part of the world? What is the history of this part of the world? As long as you have answers to these questions (and more) then your players will never be able to catch you unprepared. You can easily drop in your story element into whatever quest your players find themselves in, and you will need to practice this skill because your players will find a way to go off on their own, outside of whatever you had planned for that week.
Be the Cart, Not the Horse
When Dungeon Masters have a carefully crafted tale they are trying to tell over the course of a session, an adventure, or even a whole campaign, it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it is their job to move the story forward. You are presenting the monsters, the obstacles, the friendly NPCs, and the grand epic tale, so therefore you should keep them moving along that path. This is a very natural impulse, because the last thing that sounds fun is your players aimlessly wandering around, not quite sure where they should be headed. At the same time though, I think we can all agree that the term “railroading” has become a dirty word in the world of DMing (perhaps unfairly, but that’s the nature of the beast). There is a happy middle ground however, called wagoning (or wagon ride, not sure…just made it up).
“Wagoning” means that you do not move the story forward. The players are the horses, they keep the game going, and without them there wouldn’t be a story to tell. The DM is the wagon, you carry all of the baggage (interesting NPC’s, plot points, villainous plans) and you do your best to steer the players in the right direction with the aforementioned baggage (I never said it was a perfect metaphor).
So if you know your world really well, then you can let your players hone in on what seems interesting to them while “steering” them with your story. Do they want to go check out those ancient ruins, even though you had planned on them heading into town? That’s fine: the scroll that once belonged to the archmage that you were going to have them find in the apothecary shop? Now it’s sealed in an ancient chest amongst the ruins. That’s all there is to it, your players get to have a fun session battling whatever your decided were the guardians of the ancient ruins (skeletons, goblins, ghosts, the possibilities are endless!) and they found a clue about your story, that’s what we call a win-win…well except for whoever your players killed to get to the scroll, they definitely lost.
The Story Can Be Sweet Loot
Far too often at tabletops all over the world you can hear a collective sigh as players realize that there is about to be a 20+ minute long DM exposition dump. It is time for the players to marvel at the genius and clever tale their DM has woven together over the past couple sessions, culminating at this very moment. There’s just one problem: Your players aren’t playing. As a DM you’ve got a lot of jobs, but if at any point you stop the players in their tracks to do one of your jobs then something has gone horribly wrong.
Instead, look at the type of session we’ve begun building up to this point in the list: You are ready for anything the players can throw at you, they are moving the story forward, and you are peppering elements of your story throughout the session. What this does for you as a DM is builds suspense, because the players feel in control. They are driving the story forward through their actions, after all if they hadn’t gone to check out those ruins they never would have found the ancient scroll describing the spell your Big Bad Evil Guy is planning on unleashing out into the world, and the story isn’t being thrown in their face; it is unveiling itself as they go along, because it is THEIR story rather than being a story told to them.
So what happens after they discover the trap door that leads beneath the ruins (which was originally in the back room of the apothecary’s shop, but you are a crafty and clever DM that has no problem adapting) which inevitably leads them to a rescuing someone who was being experimented on by your Big Bad Evil Guy’s organization? The players will want to know what in the world is happening! You won’t need to have the victim launch into exposition mode, because before you even have the chance your players will be throwing questions at him left and right. They want the story, they are invested in the story, and chunks of the story can become a form of loot. Your players will begin investigating dungeons, castles, and haunted mansions; not because they want the hidden treasures (I mean, they’ll be stoked about the magic sword still…they are human after all) but because they want to know what’s going to happen next, how can they stop the villain, and they want to be the heroes of the story.
Be the Villains You Wish To See
Most Dungeon Masters know that your Big Bad Evil Guys need to be fleshed out characters with their own motivations and desires (If you need a refresher go check out Episode 3 of The Knowledge Check). But what goes overlooked far too often is, well, everyone else. I have both played in and ran combat encounters where the villains might as well have been giant wooden blocks, they have no personality, no ambition, and no voice. They simply existed to be in the party’s way before the next bit of narrative and added nothing to the session.
What we should all be doing instead is injecting these rank and file bad guys with ambitions and desires of their own. That’s not to say you should write an in-depth back story for each and every monster the party encounters, but rather you should view the group of villains as parts of a whole. They are fighting the party for some reason, even if they aren’t humanoid. The party of heroes are not average people who a pack of wolves would think are an easy meal, so why are the wolves so desperate to fight the party? Are they starving because there’s been an unnatural famine in the area? Have they taken up residence in a nearby cave that the party can explore? Or are they being controlled by an evil druid that lives in these woods?
Take our running example and let’s apply this concept. Now I could hear some of you exclaiming during the last entry: “But what if the party doesn’t find the trap door?!” And I acknowledge that it is risky to hinge a big story moment on a Perception check, although you are a good enough DM to store that encounter away for another day. But I have a solution for you, let the party know it’s there. No, I don’t mean you as the DM say, “Hey guys, check out that trap door back there!” What I am saying is why are the guardians there? If they are skeletons, does the magic animating them emanate from the back of the ruins (where the trap door is)? Do the orc guards shout “Take these puny thieves down or else the creepy wizard man won’t pay us?” Or if your party has stealth tendencies, then how about letting them see some of the guards walk towards the back of the ruins and not come back because they went down the trap door? Giving your henchmen the ability to have agency and impart knowledge to the party not only makes the story telling easier, but it enriches your world to the point of getting that player investment, because they will view every fight as a chance to get the sweetest loot of all: more story.
Don’t Be Afraid to Sit Back and Enjoy the Show
I was talking to a friend once about Dungeons and Dragons, and he complained that he doesn’t get to play very much because he can’t find a DM. I chuckled as I asked him, “Why don’t you do it?” He responded that he couldn’t even imagine talking that much. I was taken aback a bit by that. I started thinking about my own table, and whether or not I was the one doing the most talking. Sadly, I was. Every since then I have taken the approach that everyone should talk the same amount, at most. Ideally I do as little talking as possible at the table, because I want the party driving the story, talking to each other, planning out their next move, and discussing the latest crazy discovery they’ve just made.
It is easy to fall into the habit of doing the majority of the speaking at the table as the DM, in fact I’ve known some great Dungeon Masters that run their tables that way. But most of the time what happens is the DM starts describing some aspect of the world, going into great detail about the attire of an NPC, or the bartender starts giving the PC’s the entire history of the nearby kingdom; and the cell phones slowly start coming out, dice pyramids start getting built, and bathroom breaks become more frequent. You’ve lost your players, and getting them back is not easy.
But if you’ve taken all of the previous tips to heart, then you should have your players primed to take over the talking role from you. With invested players, they are going to want to know why the deposed prince of the next kingdom over was kidnapped by the crazy necromancer that had skeletons guarding the ancient ruins that sat over his hideout as he tinkered with an experimental spell that his unknown boss had told him to look into for him. And amazingly, they will begin discussing what to do next without any prompting from you. The best thing you can do in moments like this is get out of their way.
So what do you think? How many of these tips have you already been doings at your table? And please let me know if I missed anything. What do you do at your table to make sessions as memorable as possible?