Category Archives: DM Advice

Play the Objective

If you’re Dungeon Mastering a game, regardless of its system, you’re having to keep a lot in mind during a session.  Heck, you’re literally entertaining everybody at the table.  All the rules, all the math, all the mechanics can become overbearing if you allow it to, so you’ll often find yourself looking for systems to stay organized, focused, and engaging.  What’s more important than what’s in the rulebooks and the campaign, however, is who the characters are in your story and what their objective is.  If you’ve got all the monster stat blocks memorized but you’re not playing the characters’ objectives, you’re not running a game that gets the players personally invested.

A character’s objective is what gives them velocity in your story.  Whether they’re looking to avenge the death of a loved one, locate an ancient artifact they’ve long sought, or discover a prophesied secret, every character in your story is looking for fulfillment by achieving an objective that’s aside from your campaign.  As the DM, you’re responsible for keeping track of it.  In fact, it’s likely the most importatnt piece of information you have at your disposal to create a game that’s exciting and rewarding.

So how do you describe an objective?

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An objective consists of three parts:

  1. Who’s looking for it.
  2. What’s in the way.
  3. What it means.

Knowing what your player characters are searching for, understanding what it is that’s keeping them from reaching it, and what it would mean should they ever achieve it will help you make informed decisions about the types of encounters that will mean the most to your players.

The next time you sit down at the table with your players, show them this little diagram and ask each of them to describe their character objective.  Write it on a piece of paper clipped to your DM screen, and whenever you start introducing new scenarios, see what objectives you can play on.

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It’s a Trap!

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I’ve run a lot of sessions that include traps, and I’ve seen them played out any number of ways, but I’m about to share with you the best piece of advice I’ve ever received on the topic of including traps in your game.  As a DM, you might find this counter-intuitive, but consider what I’m about to say as it will make running traps a lot more fun than they usually are.

If you take a look through any number of campaign materials, you’ll often run across a trap described as follows:  “There is spike pit trap in the middle of the hallway that can be detected by a DC 10 Perception Check.”  At face value, this encounter might run as follows:

“At the end of the hallway you see a wooden door.”  You say.
“I want to see if there are any traps in this hallway.  My character does a visual check to see if there’s any danger.”  The player replies.  He rolls a perception check and rolls an 8.
“You look around at the walls and the floor, but you don’t detect any traps in this hallway.”
The player decides to take his character down the hallway and activates the trap.

This style of gameplay is very straightforward, creating a scene wherein the player fails the check and doesn’t spot the trap, but it’s horribly boring and makes for some frustrating play.  So how can you, as a DM, phrase the scene in a way that adds some intrigue to the trap and makes the encounter more intesting?

Don’t hide the traps.
Instead, reveal them.

True, the player will need to pass the required check to identify that there’s a spike trap in the floor of the hallway, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some clue which would indicate there’s something amiss.  Revealing to your players that a trap is present in the scene creates tension, forces them to think critically about the situation, and makes the game much more enjoyable.

Consider this alternate narrative to the previous example:

“At the end of the hallway you see a wooden door.”  You say.  “Leading down the hallway you see footprints in the dusty floor from somebody who had passed this way before.  The footprints lead only about halfway down the hallway before they disappear.”
“The footprints going down the hall disappear?”  The player asks.
“From what you can tell, yes.”
Now the player is curious.  “Does it look like somebody could have climbed the walls in this hallway?”
“There are no hand holds in the wall which would allow it.” You reply.
“Something is clearly wrong.”  The player begins to muse.  “I bet there’s something in the floor.  Either that, or somebody invisible is stalking this hallway!”

Suddenly what once had been a basic roll check has now turned into a full-fledged investigation.  By telling the player that there’s a trap in the room without revealing its identity, you’re adding tension and interest to the scene that is lost by following the trap rules “by the book”.