Engage your players by surprising them, not just their characters.

a surprised "smiley"

If your players look like this when surprised, call the doctor. They have turned into a smiley.

It can be so hard to surprise your players these days. The stats on every magic item are available in a digital, indexed format. The population at large is far more knowledgeable about common literary tropes than ever before. There is a pervasive feeling of, “It’s all been done before.”

As game masters, how do we combat this growing cynicism and craft a word that is unique and full of surprises? We keep our yappers shut and do not say a dang thing to our players.

Okay, that may not be entirely true, but it is a good lesson to keep in mind. The temptation to share just a little bit of our plans and secrets can be nearly overwhelming at times, but learning to hold back and not reveal anything can greatly enhance your game.

On many weekends, I play in a fantasy LARP called simply the Realms, a persistent game world that has been running for roughly 25 years. Very, very few of the original players or game masters remain, and with 16 years in the game, I am one of the most seasoned veterans at this point. This past weekend, my in-game nation, Chimeron, marched to war.

In the first battle of the first day of fighting, our line of soldiers formed up opposite the goblins, trolls and snake men of the enemy army. The battle began and our line advanced, when from the other side of a small hillock , a lone battle cry erupted. “Fight! Fight to defend Chimeron!” Running over the hill was Sir Shane Cambeul, avatar of the god of war and former hero of the nation of Chimeron. The soldiers could not help but cheer and scream, and we broke formation and charged the enemy line with a ferocity that will likely be retold around camp fires for years.

Why was this so special? Colin, the guy who plays Sir Shane, has not been to a Realms LARP event in close to ten years. His character, Shane, is now something of a legend, with tales of his exploits and status as the ascended avatar of the god of war being told and retold to each new generation of players. This all would have made it really neat and fun to fight by his side for the weekend, but the real kicker was that no one knew Colin was even at the LARP event. When he charged over the hill, it was a complete and total surprise to all of the players.

After the LARP event was over, my buddy, the game master for the event, turned to me and exclaimed, “You have no idea how hard this was. I have been sitting on this secret for three months!” I do not doubt that it was very, very difficult to tell no one outside if his core staff about his plans, but that effort was repaid by the shock and surprise experienced by the players.

Bringing It Back to the Table

In your tabletop game, surprises and secrets are just as useful a tool for engaging your players. Just like at the LARP event, however, it is important to surprise not only the characters, but your players as well. A treasure chest turning into a mimic might surprise the party fighter, but his player is likely used to that trope by now. If you want to really engage your players this way, you need to pull one over on the players themselves. Violate their sense of normalcy in the game, and they will be engaged, even if that violation is small.

If you are stuck on how to surprise your players, these are a few tricks you might try at some point:

Write out a secret note from an NPC and leave it at the table for the players to find. This can be as simple as writing it on an index card and dropping it on the table when the player next to you is not looking. Keep playing as if nothing has happened. When the player finds the index card is when the character finds the note.

Place a new piece of equipment on the player’s character sheet. It could be a gift from an anonymous benefactor, a sign from the gods, or a manifestation of the artifact they are seeking. Alternatively, you could replace a power card with a new power even go so far as to change their race or class. You should only make such strong changes with a solid story reason, and you should be careful to choose a player who will not mind trying something new. The point is not to say, “Jim, your character is a wizard now,” but instead get Jim to say, “Wait a minute, why can I suddenly throw lightning bolts?”

Greet the players “in-character” as the local baron or similar dignitary, and escort them to a table where you have their character sheets set up as well as a nice meal. Invite them to dinner. This could be a social skill challenge or just a role-playing chance to further your campaign story.

Place a few item cards in a plastic, waterproof container and set it up as a geocache. Give the coordinates to the players as the result of a math puzzle they find in a dungeon.

Set up a blog that is actually the journal of an important NPC. Drop hints about it to your players, but do not outright speak about it. When the players find the blog, the heroes have found a magical book that copies everything the NPC writes in his or her journal.

The big lesson here is that when you do anything like this, do not telegraph it to your players. If you place a geocache, do not tell your players you are doing it, even if you insist it is for some other reason. If you set up the blog-journal, then do not talk to your players about how you have been working hard on a website. You want to surprise the players, so make it real.

How have you surprised the players at your table? What have you tried to break the expectations of the game? Do you find players to be more cynical of the traditional fantasy trappings than they used to be?

Giving your heroes a home base opens up new options for fun at the table.

a castle

Keeps and castles are a staple of old school "paragon level" play.

How old were you when you started playing Dungeons and Dragons? If the answer to that question ends in, “-teen,” then you probably at some point spent hours and hours hunched over sheets of graph paper, meticulously drafting your favorite character’s castle, house, grove, or ship. Homework left untouched and fingers black with graphite dust, days could go into perfecting this imaginary space. One need only look at the castles people build in Minecraft to see that for many gamers, this desire for creation and design does not really go away in adulthood.

Give Them What They Want

Do the heroes in your game have a home base? Since basic D&D, heroes have always been able to use their hard-earned loot and prestige to get fancy digs. Giving the heroes a base of operations can provide all sorts of adventure hooks. If the heroes are gifted a frontier keep by a grateful noble, then they will need to defend it from savage orc barbarians. If they take up a life of opulence and luxury in a major city, then their home may be at the center of all sorts of scandalous rumors. Basing out of old dungeon they have cleared is certainly a viable option, but what happens when the original owner comes to take it back? Giving the heroes a space to call home and then drawing it into the story can help engage your players.

cover shot of DMGR2 The Castle GuideAs a player, a big part of the fun of having a stronghold lies in the design. Make this part of your game! Let the players design their own fort, and then let them know how much time and gold it will cost to build. One good reference for this, and many other aspects of medieval life, is DMGR2 The Castle Guide from Dungeons and Dragons 2e. Wizards of the Coast released this book as a free PDF a while ago, though it is no longer on their website. You can find copies online, though I am unsure of the legality of their distribution since Wizards took it down. You can also purchase a dead tree copy from any of several used game shops online. Another option is find a copy of the Birthright campaign setting, which contained rules for building castles as part of ruling a domain.

Once the PCs have a design on paper, convert it to a full (1″ = 5′ scale) battle map. This could end up being huge, but it is also a great tool to have handy in your campaign. If you really want to have the base be a focal point of the campaign, then there are all sorts of low cost printable, customizable terrain options on the web. Pick up an appropriate set and you can really go to town, giving your players time to build their base in 3D.

The Plan for My Game

In my home campaign, one of the parties has settled down as the lord and leaders of a frontier province. They have established a capital city, which is now really just a village, and they hope to grow at the game years go by. I have been wondering how to make this work as a battle map, and I think I came up with an answer.

The base will be a very large grass battle mat. From there, all of the buildings, roads, etc. can be modular, as separate pieces laid on top of the mat. Players can design their own buildings, like the wizard’s smithy, and choose their location. Now, as the village grows and the heroes add things like a fort and maybe eventually a full castle, they can just be added as a modular piece to the map as needed. Keeping all of the components modular means that the village will take a bit more time to set up when it is needed, but I will have all of the components available for other scenarios when I am hosting a different crew. Being a bit of a 3d terrain junky, I think this could be a lot of fun.

Giving heroes a home within the game world increases their stake in many aspects of the game. Give it a try and see how your players like it. I will include any results people share with my own results in a future post, once the village terrain gets off the ground in my home game.

Do the players in your game already have a place to call home? Do you map it out, or just play things fast and loose when it comes to specifics? Are there any books, supplements, or websites you recommend for would-be stronghold builders?

Running exploration similarly to combat means that all players can be engaged.

a dungeon entrance

Dungeons are the classic location for exploration.

Exploration play can be one of the most fun aspects of a good role-playing game session. Many players enjoy the sense of discovery and the apprehension of what can be lurking around the next corner. Exploration play is also a scenario where many players feel lost and confused. It can easily favor those with stronger imaginations, louder mouths, or a better grasp of the rules, depending upon the precise style you choose. Let’s level the exploration playing filed so all players can engage in that part of the adventure.

Every Player Should be Engaged

In my home game, I tried to first identify what I wanted out of exploration play at my table. I came up with the following list:

  • It should be easy for all players to engage in exploration.
  • The space should be sufficiently complex to support meaningful discovery
  • Heroes should get to move or do something every time it is their turn – multiple turns for a single action is no fun

This list lead me to the idea of handling exploration in initiative order, much like combat. We roll initiative once, at the beginning of the exploration, and keep the same order as players move and reveal new terrain. Just like in 4e combat, each player gets a standard, move, and minor action before we switch to the next. By going in turn order, every player has a chance to participate, regardless of if his or her character is optimized for exploration.

A common complaint about such structured play is that it limits good role-playing and creativity. This does not need to be the case at all. As the dungeon master, your roll is to encourage creative thinking and people taking actions that make in-character sense. You are not limiting the players’ ability to take unique actions – you are just limiting their ability to do so at the expense of the involvement of other players.

a large map of a dungeon, drawn at the 5'=1" scale normally used for battle mats

Large dungeons with many choices are the best for exploring. Having the entire dungeon pre-drawn as a battle map allows the players to freely explore as they wish.

Some Changes Are Needed

In order to use turn-based exploration, you may need to make a few changes to the game is played. These changes are specific to Dungeons and Dragons 4e, but they give an idea of what sort of changes could be needed in any game.

A round is a fairly arbitrary unit of time. Do not stick to the six-second rule for a combat round. Allow as much conversation between players as they would like, so long as it is not just a couple of them belaboring a point and preventing the others from taking their turns. Remember that the goal of this style is player involvement, not simulation.

Lessen the time needed to perform common actions. Searching is normally a standard action and applies to a limited area. Instead, make searching a minor action, and have it apply to the entire distance moved by the hero that turn. This keeps play moving and reveals new terrain at a good pace. Similarly, consider having actions like detecting magic with Arcana and some rituals only take a standard action to perform when exploring this way. No player want to miss 10+ rounds of action because his or her characters is taking a complex action, and other players at the table may resent being asked to have their characters “just sit tight” for several rounds.

Combat begins when it begins, not at the top of the order. If the heroes encounter some monster half way through a turn, just roll with it. Yes, this can slightly penalize characters and monsters who are built around going first, but they still get that bonus almost all of the time.

As your players explore the dungeon, you may need to tweak a few more rules to help them fit. No one at the table generally minds having the rules slightly altered to make the game flow easily, especially when it is in the players’ favor.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Miniatures are on a large dungeon battle mat. Most of the battle mat is covered in index cards, blocking the players' view of what lies beneath.

Set your map out ahead of time. Index cards make a great fog of war because they are cheap, a decent size, and can be moved easily.

For this sort of setup to work, you need to front load a good deal of your work as a DM. The advantage of this approach is that running your dungeon is a cakewalk once exploration begins.


Set up your dungeon ahead of time. Lay your dungeon out on the game table before any of the players arrive. Once it is out, make liberal use of the fog of war. I have found that index cards make for great fog of war on 2d terrain, and a light bed sheet isd’t bad on 3d terrain. Just pull back the fog of war as the heroes explore further and further into the unknown.

Make it difficult to take short rests. Maybe there are monsters trying to chase the heroes out of the dungeon. Maybe the walls are collapsing around them. Maybe necrotic energy is sucking away their life energy. The reason doesn’t matter – just make it risky to take a short rest. This is primarily to prevent abuse of certain powers, like those that give hefty skill bonuses, but it also adds a new layer of dread for the PCs.

Design most of your encounters at half or two-thirds normal power. Even the best parties get a bit spread out when they are exploring. You cannot count on the fighter being able to get to the rogue and take some hits before the rogue will go down, so make your encounters slightly easier than normal. Combined with few or no short rests, this can make for a great exercise in resource management for the players.

Include some beneficial terrain. A magic circle where leaders can use their Healing Word type power without it counting against their encounter limit is a great choice.  The real goal here is to reward the players who take the time to really investigate the dungeon.

Provide brief, but rich, descriptions for every room. Have no blank rooms or hallways. Provide descriptions of furniture, carving, the smell of the mold, and anything else you can think of for every location. Write them all down ahead of time, like you see in the older adventure modules. Exploration is not as engaging when the hero enters yet another blank room.

If you take the time to prepare an exciting, dynamic exploration scenario, your players will thank you. If you go one step further, and take actions to ensure every player can equally engage in the content, then you will have a really great adventure on your hands.

How do you handle dungeon exploration in your game? What might you change, if anything, for using this approach for exploration in an outdoor setting? How do you engage players who tune out during exploration?

Quietly redundant plot hooks can push your players in the right direction.

A lone man sits on the ice. He is ice fishing.

Any moment now, the fish will come. Any moment now.

I think it is great that we try to engage our players in the stories we craft through a tool called “plot hooks”. Plot hooks make me think of fishing, and the analogy could not be more apt.

Have you ever gone fishing?

For the uninitiated, allow me to explain how fishing works. You go out on a boat/a dock/the ice and you put a hook in the water with a little bit of bait on it. Then you wait for the fish to come and take the bait, getting caught on your hook.

Except the fish don’t come.

You wait and wait and wait, and no fish ever take your dang hook. Sure, some people get lucky in the first five minutes they are at the lake, but they are by far the exception, not the rule. You could be here all day, and you might not get so much as a nibble.

Plot hooks are like fish hooks. Even the best DMs sometimes just cannot get the party to take the bait on a particular plot point. Knowing your group well helps, as does general experience at the table, but sometimes you just cannot get the players to bite.

How can you get the players to grab the hook and move the story forward without forcing their hand? You can troll them.

Trolling: Maybe Not What You Expected

The trollface character is fishing off the side of a dock, with a trollface hook, trying to catch angry face "fish".

If this is your idea of trolling when fishing, you may want to go outside more often.

Trolling is when you go out on a boat and drag several lines behind you, each line with a baited hook. It works because it is not much more effort for you to troll with several hooks than it is to troll with just one. The fish, however, never see that you are dragging several baited lines. They are just more likely to see a hook and go for it. The fish is oblivious to your strategy – it just likes bait.

One way that our games do a very poor job of mirroring the nature of the real world is that the players can only know what we tell them. In the real world, people are being bombarded with constant data from their surroundings, and their brains can put together a complex understanding of the universe from this information. In our games, the players get, “You search the room carefully and find a small golden pin underneath one jar of alchemical reagents.”

You will frequently hear DMs talk about how their PCs are dumb. This usually is not the case – the players are just not mind readers. Even when we give them all of the information they theoretically need to advance the story, they may not realize it. If they do realize it, they may be wary for other reasons. If we want to catch the players with our plot, we need to cast out multiple hooks.

In my first article about playing in a sandbox environment, I provided an example of how to use flow charts to plan a campaign story arc. Looking back on this example, I had several hooks that could lead to a confrontation with the Manslayer. Over the course of five levels, the heroes actually grabbed onto a few of these hooks. By the time the Manslayer began massing his army, the heroes had plenty of reasons to stop him. Setting the hook and reeling them in was easy.

Let’s say you want the heroes to investigate the abandoned Keep of the Scarlet Torch and discover a hidden sect of Vecna cultists that live there. Do not just have them overhear about the keep while staying at the local inn. Plan out a few different hooks for them to grab onto if they wish.

  1. A young woman has gone missing – her best friend says she planned to meet a handsome eladrin man at the old keep and never returned.
  2. The brewer’s hops vines have caught the blight and died. The hops at the keep were said to be blight-resistant, but they are jealously guarded by goblin brewers who have taken up in the barracks.
  3. When riding past the keep at night, the party wizard sees a red light shining in the uppermost room of the tallest tower. This is odd, since the other heroes see nothing.
  4. A local family had a recently deceased loved one disinterred because he was accidentally buried with an important heirloom. Imagine their surprise when they find the body is missing. If the PCs investigate, they will find that missing bodies have recently become common in all the villages surrounding the keep.

You do not need to share all of these hooks at once; you do not need to share them all at all. The real advantage of having these hooks is that you can give a story tie-in no matter what the party chooses to do in the area. Since none of the hooks tie in directly with the Vecna cult, you can flesh out others if the PCs decide to pursue them once the Vecna cultists have been dealt with.

By setting out many hooks, you increase the odds that the players will find one interesting and run with it. By making the hooks only indirectly related to the central story element, you do not risk the players getting annoyed when you repeatedly smash them over the head with a clue-by-four.

If you are also using a flow chart, then come up with a few hooks that fill the gaps between any two connected spaces on the chart. If the elf’s mother has important information for her, then have several reasons ready for why the elf might need to travel back to her homeland. If war is brewing, then plot out a few different ways by which the heroes can get to the climactic battle. You are not reducing choice to an illusion – you are simply stacking the deck in response to the limited information the players can glean about the game world. It all comes back to that idea that in the real world we take in and process far more information than any DM could ever provide to a player.

If you have a plot point that you want the heroes to find, make sure you set out plenty of varied hooks to get the players running in that direction. If you rely on a single hook, you may end up like that guy on the ice, waiting for fish that are not going to bite.

Do you use multiple plot hooks in your sandbox-style games? How do you avoid the problem of the PCs simply not knowing what they can or should do next? Is it “cheating” to give the players more than one shot at discovering something, or is it just good practice?

Use inherent bonuses to make magic items feel special in your game.

A hand rises from a lake, lifting Excalibur from the water. A knight looks on.

Arthur earned Excalibur because he was great. He was not great because he wielded Excalibur.

Fantasy literature is rife with magical swords, amulets, cloaks, and many other enchanted items, but there is a unifying theme to most all of the magical objects in our favorite stories: they are special. Bilbo did not find his bravery fighting spiders with his +2 dagger of goblin slaying, he wielded Sting. Richard Cypher faces his foes with the Sword of Truth, not a Holy Avenger +5. Even the quasi-magical Valyrian steel blades from Game of Thrones bear unique names and storied histories.

Contrast this with the standard swords and sorcery fantasy game, where magic items are ubiquitous, mechanical tools for character progression. In both Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons 4e, magic items are a necessity for a character to “keep up” with the monsters and bad guys as he or she levels up. In many ways, a 15th level warrior without his or her +3 magic sword is really a 9th level warrior with a couple more feats and hit points. The equipment makes the hero.

This progression-based necessity of magic items makes them feel much less special. Monte Cook wrote a great Legends and Lore article about this very topic (and the inspiration for this article), which I strong recommend you check out.

Keeping Up with the Joneses Goblins

You can activate the inherent bonuses in the 4e Character Builder by clicking on the "Manage Character" tab and then the "Inherent Bonuses" check box. The check box is highlighted in this picture (click to enlarge).

By far, the best solution I have seen for this problem is through the use of inherent bonuses. Simply award your players with the proper bonuses to their attack rolls, defenses, and anything else necessary as part of the leveling-up process. For Dungeon Masters in 4e, this is an easy task. Pick up a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 – the math is all in there. You can also check a box in the character builder that does this automatically.

This may not be news to experienced 4e Dungeon Masters, my experience on Twitter tells me that those who joined the fold via Essentials never learned about this great feature.

Inherent bonuses can be done in Pathfinder and 3e, but it may require a bit more finessing on the part of the game master. Since each class progresses differently with regards to expected defense and attack bonus levels, you would need to do some simple math to get your numbers to add up in a way that works for the system. It is worth the twenty minutes it might take you to figure this out for your party.

Why Do This?

Congratulations! With this simple change to your campaign, you are now free to do whatever you would like with magic items. Do you want to run a low-magic game? Now you can do so without worrying about the character power level falling too far behind the monsters. Do you want to reward to reward the party with a hugely powerful sword? You can now give a very “powerful” weapon to them without them going, “Yeah, it’s cool and all, but its bonus is only a +2.” This lets you focus on the fun aspects of magic items – the unique powers and special attributes. This solution even lets you get rid of the magic item shops that seem to be a requirement in every major city.

Besides allowing me to run my game in a low-magic setting, my favorite part of inherent bonuses is that they have allowed me to completely ignore the magic item lists when delivering loot to the heroes. If I want them to get a fun item, I can just design one that is interesting, rather than worrying about the mechanical bonuses of the object.

Give this a try and be open with your players about why you are using this approach. Be clear that they will still be just as “powerful” as before, but now you can focus on giving them items that are interesting and carry more flavor. I have not yet encountered a player who got upset that I gave them their bonuses automatically, rather than attached to an item that will be useless in a few levels. You can even consider allowing the players to earn magic items far above their current level, since the bonus is no longer a factor. No matter what, separating magic items from the numbers treadmill is a choice for your game you are not likely to regret.

Do you use inherent bonuses in your game? How could they impact the feel of your campaign? Do you use a different method of making magic items feel special again?

© 2013 Blood, Sweat, and Dice Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha

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