Describe, don't explain. The story of the D&D game exists here and now. Also, it is hard to figure out what the character would say and how the world would respond, takes a moment to think.
It should be about collectively crafting the story, but every now and then the party can start focusing on crafting "The Play" - how to take turns faster, more efficiently, discussing how to make the decisions and so on. That is fine, but too much is too much.
It isn't you, it's me
When a player fails a skill check, in describing the outcome I recommend not using phrases like "Your character slipped", "You character was too tired to notice something" - yes, it feels like the natural and logical thing to do because player rolled to test his skill, but try to instead blame it on the current situation: "The rock was loose and couldn't withstand the weight of your character" or "It got very dark, also the goblin knows this location and knew where to hide the stone so you can't find it". There are a few reasons to do it this way:
This will avoid the party feeling clumsy.
Hearing "You missed and couldn't hit the door in the right place to break it" is prompting a natural "Then I'll try[ROLL] again" response. But "The door turned out to be reinforced with steel bars" has a more defining sound to it.
In some way, it means that the player is deciding what kind of challenge was in front of him by rolling a dice, which should be DM's power. But I like to think that we are creating the story together. And in that context, it is ok to acknowledge that things are undefined/non-existent until we tell what they are.
Information as a timer
In a tense situation, where players need to decide between saving the victim or chasing the attacker, for example, ration the information: As they enter the scene, give the first impression. As they move along, give more. When they ask for additional details, make it clear that their character is actively looking around (and spends time) to learn more. "Are there any other exits from this place?" "As you look to your left and right, you only notice one door with a heavy lock on it to your right."
This helps avoid a sense of a pause. But there are two more things to keep in mind:
Don't do this when they want to clarify something character noticed already.
Ask each player to avoid feeling like one character is using everyone's time pool.
Ask each player before answering the first
It is good to avoid party feeling like a single entity. It is assumed by default that if the player doesn't say otherwise, he is moving with the group, which creates that feeling of passivity. Not something that can be avoided entirely. But in certain situations, mainly downtime, I do the following: Ask a player "What do you do?" and instead of giving an answer ask the next player, and then the next. Knowing where everyone is I start framing the event "While Luthien and Rickon stay in the tavern, Lorely takes a walk to her temple and Talin is searching for his old friend. Which town places does Talin explore?". From the perspective of each player, some time passed from the moment they decided what to do to the moment the activity progressed, which creates a good flow and adds the feeling of time passing. This is similar to how in movies and TV-shows they cut from one character to another while he is travelling to a new location.
Rules serve the story
When a character uses his last most powerful spell-slot for an attack on the boss, gets a blessing, but fails and then remembers "O, I should have used my inspiration" I would totally allow him to roll that second advantage dice. Even though, in accordance with the rules, it should have been declared beforehand. The reasoning being that the character was going all-in, he would have used all tool at his disposal.
Having a failed roll adds a moment to the story "Our heroes gave their best shot but failed". But forgetting an advantage would mean a player failed at the game, which takes him out of the character, out of the world and into the player seat. Also, ideally, the player would just describe his actions while DM guides which dice to roll. So unless I have a suspicion that a player is being childish and intentionally forgets something or lies about forgetting something, there is no reason not to be forgiving about the rules. On the other hand, if the situation is not tense, maybe a casual random encounter, then there is also no harm in giving small punishments. If the caster forgot to mention saving throws on a spell then the creatures get a 1d6 backup, for example.
Not every adventure needs to be about solving a great puzzle. In D&D the DM creates his/her very own world. But I personally feel more engaged when trying to describe the world while hinting at something. Describe a street? "It is a street. Houses to left, houses to the right, and the road in the middle". But trying to describe a street controlled by a gang, which the party knows nothing about, is likely to prompt DM to consider how that context would change inhabitants and look of the area. Describing this will form some picture in players minds, and after they actually learn about the gang they will be like "I knew there was something shady about this place". I would argue that the world built on assumptions is more engaging than the one delivered with straight info.
Aside from DM screen, core rulebooks, Dice and a Notepad I don't have many tools. Well, recently I did make that grid map you see above. But one improvised thing that helped streamline the combat was colourful round tokens from another board game. Basically, assign each player colour from the tokens you have (can be any colourful set of objects). And use them to track, whose turn it is.
In my case:
Rogue - Green Paladin - Yellow Warlock - Black Wizard - Blue Cleric - White Enemies - Red
I flip them to remember that the person took it's turn already. I keep them so that everyone can see. This helps with planning.
One more thing: tiny colourful sticky notes to put on the board or on the characters. For example, can be used to mark who is affected by Fiery Fire.
Sidenote. When there are other board games around I cannibalize them (with permission) for additional tokens, figures, etc. to show where enemies are.
But keep in mind: if one of your friends has some of those Kickstarter games with amazing miniatures, he may also be one of the people who feel some OCD when one of their games is mixed into something else.
As for digital tools:
I also used Dice Ex App (iOS) for when I need to roll like 10d6 or something for an army of enemies.
I must say that one of the most charming and inviting things about D&D is pen & paper. Learning that a sheet of A4 and a pencil, which are usually associated with tedious studying or work, can be used for something so fun, is the true magic of it all.
"Character sheet, pencil, dice - Let's go!"
Tools for online
I'm thinking about playing online. So far I found inkarnate.com to make some cool maps. Also owlbear.rodeo is very "jump in and play" kind of thing. Minimalistic and all.
D&D Beyond to share character sheets of course.
I did play once and used jamboard.google.com for us to collectively see the maps and paint on them. Mainly, the laser tool that allows us to paint self-erasing lines, similar to the one in Slack.
Secondary, it is good to have something that allows everyone to see each other's faces and hear the voice. I will try to use the phone for communication and PC for jam board next time. It is cool to think that only a phone may be needed to play.
A creative instinct may demand your story to be something never heard before - an adventure that feels so very fresh and new, unlike so many other stories that seem to remix same old concepts over and over again. While coming from a good place, striving to be original can often turn into a mechanical habit of replacing familiar things with unfamiliar. Which in turn makes the world harder to imagine. My friend ran a simple introductory campaign that felt very generic in many places, but I found myself extremely immersed because of the sensation like I've heard this story before and should know what is coming. That feeling of familiarity engages the part of our brains that tries to predict the future. Understanding/Anticipating the world makes it feel real. To be clear, it is not a story twist that players should be able to predict, but something more straight forward, like "This bridge is old, I should check how stable it is". Not a far future, but here and now, understand what are the things that surround them.
The most natural way to build the story around the player's choices is by not preparing how the story will go and trusting your improvisation skills. Preparing locations, characters, events will not go to waste. But when I don't know how to stitch them together I am incentivised to look for opportunities in what players do and say.
When asked how I reward individual experience I say it is for something that is important to a character. That experience isn't coming from the world but from the character himself. If Wizard who is obsessed with knowledge is taking unnecessary risks to learn something about a certain object of power, that would be something he gets rewarded for while another player yields not from the same actions.
Music from Skyrim.
Unless I know specifically which music/ambience I want, I'll just put some Skyrim OST on YouTube.
Non-combat initiative rolls
Every time you present players with a situation, before you are done describing it, they will come up with something they want to try. Especially in social situations, actions of one player may completely undermine the plans of another. Ideally, everything goes smoothly without the need for arbitrating from the DM. But if you feel like the louder player is about to disrupt an ambition of someone shyer, ask everyone to roll for initiative adding skill modifier if they want to use one of their skills for the action. Optionally, ask players not to discuss something if their characters can't discuss it: if they are trying to be silent and stealthy or if they are in a tense negotiation. After the initiative roll, when it is decided which player goes first, other players may still do it: if it feels like useful assistance to the first player, the first player gets an advantage to any rolls he or she may perform. But if another player tries to do a different thing, then this creates a disadvantage for both players. Also, players can still disrupt plans of each other, but this way it will be clear that character has disrupted the other character and not player dominated another player.
Actions not plans
"Can I do a....?" kind of question should be met with a "You can try" kind of response. Encourage players to try stuff and not plan too much. The moment you have a sequence of actions you might as well say "Ok, roll a skill check and it is all done". Ideal flow outside of the combat can resemble the time during the combat: DM asks each player what their character does and describes what happens.
Fair > Exciting
Good concept to think about is this "It is not an interesting story why players enjoy D&D, but a possibility of one". Just like imagining the current situation on the board, every participant also predicts where it can all go, all the possible outcomes. It is never wrong to sacrifice an opportunity for something "cool" in favour of the overall consistency of the story, a less cool but fair thing.
When the story makes me happy and engaged - nothing else matters. But when I feel like I should step it up, I refer to the following rules. Not actual guidelines of storytelling, but certain realities that one needs to keep in mind:
How to write it. I was inspired by The Strange Things Starter Set adventure. It has an example of a story presented as it was prepared by a kid. While preparing for the next session I sometimes imagine that I prepare notes for someone else. Nice and simple ideas.
Reading monster descriptions in Monster Manual is like the ultimate way to give an adventure that true D&D flavour.
A more interesting path. "An ancient God is trying to take hold of a powerful relic which will allow him to make light into darkness and darkness into light, souls will be extracted from all living things living them wandering husks" - what a horrific possibility, we need to stop it!... but, it is kind of interesting how it will look if we don't... right? Like, darkness will become light? What will it even look like? Often the villain and the bad outcome is more intriguing than the idea of saving the world. Just something to consider.
Additionally, having characters who don't just go by the flow but go above and beyond what can be expected makes for a much richer story. It is good to answer "What if he tried really hard to make it work?" or "What would have happened if his plan worked exactly as intended". Very often a story is built around "an accident happaned", leaving the question "What would have happened if it were to go as planned?" unanswered.
More isn't better. While "Make the world feel vivid" may have a compelling ring to it, I'd say: "Don't force it". It may seem like giving an NPC some distinct traits, describing in details the inn, giving a name to everyone you encounter, may make the world a richer place. But it is an interconnectedness of elements, not the abundance of qualities that make it feel real. "O, right, this shop doesn't sell exotic items because we already met this criminal lord guy at a party who told us that he is controlling all the luxury trade around the city".
Tell the story straight
I have a range of habits that I try to get rid of. One of them is to start the sentence with "I assume the party is... " - to signify that this statement can be contested if I am mistaken. I do that to save time, and if there are no objections we go on. "I assume the party kept walking while discussing this so now you are nearing the entrance...". And usually, there are no objections, so in the interest of time, this is a win. Which is a nice solution, but it is also one of the things that harm the overall experience. You need to hear definitively that something happened to start imagining it.
This is probably one of the smallest issues one can have, but I use it as an example to explain that these habits are coming from a good place, from good intentions and they feel like clever solutions, which they are. But they are solutions to the problem that shouldn't be solved. Because there is no need to speed up those moments. Better to wait for the players to ask the DM how the road is going.
What is roleplaying
I was looking for a simple way to explain what mindset is needed for a smooth play. Usually, players will intuitively act with each other as their characters, but in case someone doesn't feel comfortable or needs a solid concept, I came up with the following: What would an average player say when asked "Where do you want to go?", "What do you want to do?". Some will come up with something but I think big part will say "I don't know, let's do something already". So I tell them to assume that other players at the table don't really care too much about what happens. But if you ask them what their characters want to do, that one they will know. So roleplaying is making sure there is a difference between you and your character. If you ask other players that the party should go somewhere they might say "Sure, no problem, we will find a way to have our characters go there".
Just doing what feels natural and figuring out as it goes is the right way. It most cases everyone will intuitively try to help each other have fun. But when flow doesn't flow, I have a few general guidelines:
You are all making a story. Imagine that every sentence you say will be written in a book.
Take turns - roleplaying should be respectful. Every time you don't know what to do, ask each player what they are doing.
Make sure that it is always clear where the party is (street, tavern, near the entrance).
When a character decides Logic isn't the most important factor. Here are two reasons:
Going God knows where risking your life is not an optimal course of action. Only a one driven by a strong determination, the deep personal motive would do that. So in a way, having the party go for rational and optimal choices isn't always very logical in terms of the story. Party is not logical by default.
Players are expected to play their characters, so it takes time to say anything or make a decision: putting yourself into character's shoes, the right mindset, just figuring out what he/she would say. Making the right logical decision often requires players to have a debate and debate takes a lot of cognitive effort that often results in players dropping the roles and arguing outside of the story.
If the party does start to discuss the plans it shouldn't feel like the game is on pause. Ask them to role-play the discussion. For example, instead of "Let's go here because..." the player should start with something like "Legolas comes to the table, points at the desert temple on the map and says: Let's go here because...". Incentivises them to worry more about how the character appears rather than winning an argument. You can ask each to make s speech and give an inspiration to the one everyone votes to follow.
For characters and NPCs projecting authority and strength is more important than rational arguments in the world of D&D. It is medieval after all.
To that point, a character who defends the optimal path feels less like a fictional character and more like a player himself. And it takes time to think about what your character thinks and what he/she will do, so having this tension where people aren't eager to talk too fast would provide a more enjoyable role play.
In combat ask them not to discuss strategy. Allow their characters to say around 8 words during their turn.
It is probably worth mentioning that many funny moments happen when someone fails at something. Everyone laughs at one of the characters so it is probably worth being ready to remind yourself that your character isn't you.
While I have these guidelines, I also remember that they aren't something that can be enforced as a rule - it would get too complicated and they aren't specific enough. Also, I wouldn't straight up read this to the players, but rather keep in mind that this is what my previous experiences thought me.
World of D&D
Not just interesting but also practical. If the story were to take place in our real world, any supernatural event is expected to have a shattering effect on the psyche of anyone witnessing it.
"You are coming back from groceries store, checking your Instagram feed and suddenly a dragon flies over you"
- it is hard to imagine how a common person can react to this, but shock and panic would be the first step. But an existential crisis, to make the story feel cohesive, is not something players often want to reenact much. Default assumptions of D&D are that magic, monsters, gods - all exist and inhabitants are aware of it. Magic may not have a tangible presence in the day-to-day life of regular people, but when something does appear, it would not flip anyone's world view. While having a strong role-play element, D&D does a lot to make it as natural as possible to envision oneself in your character's shoes. Understanding why rules and world are the way they are helped me to feel comfortable with classic tropes and use them to my advantage. Everything that allows players to make confident assumptions makes the world more vivid in their mind.
Rules of D&D
Few ways to understand why rules are the way they are:
Most rules tell the player "Don't worry about it" to make the game go smoother. You can worry about your character but are unlikely to think too much into the percentages and probabilities of your actions. Rules are meant to keep you focused on the story and not on the numbers.
It is assumed that no ability, spell or mechanic can't be fun on its own, only in a context of a story. So there is no need to put interesting twists inside a mechanic. It should be intuitive to remember.
While making the first map I sprinkled all the key plot locations equally around the map and left some space in between for side mission. Which was alright, but after visiting all those locations the map would have looked like there isn't much interesting left. Not to complicate the process by too much, I changed my approach by a bit:
Rivers are super important:
a river doesn't split into two rivers.
A lake doesn't have more than one river draining it.
The river flows from high grounds to low grounds.
A river can't split a landmass into two.
I start from routs - an inconvenient one, not a straight line. Maybe using a ship will be needed. Later I'll just need to figure out how to fill the rest of the map so that the routes are indeed optimal (add hills, mountains, dangerous areas, swamps, etc). Complicated routes and alternative paths for some destinations will actually make the map fell useful.
Instead of plot points, I place landmarks around the map first - places that are more visual: mountains, craters, forests. And then the plot locations go to the side from those landmarks.
Place for eyes to rest. Empty chunks (where something could be placed but isn't) is a good way to avoid making the map look cluttered.
While DM's role is to set up a stage for the players and let them be a driving force in moving the story forward, the combat is one area where I allow myself to unleash all of the build-up creative impulses. Have enemies do all kinds of strategic formations, manoeuvres, and act as a character of its own. I have a list of things that I look trough when preparing an encounter.
Obscure - action may be happening in one half of the room, but shelves and half-wall may be hiding more enemies or opportunities. Players will not know until they go there.
Visibility - Not just by a wall, smoke, fog, a curtain - many things can prevent you from seeing. There are special rules related to attacking someone you don't see. Also, there are doors, closing which would prevent ranged attacks - a simple little thing that often not utilised.
Tight spaces - a good way to portion enemies or have players put forward one champion who will try to make a passage for the rest. Also, larger enemies may not fit.
Destination points - enemy guards may want to pick up their weapons from the armoury - getting there would be more important than fighting.
Cover areas - Certain area may put players in cover (AC bonus) from ranged attacks. This way, they are encouraged to move fast but aren't straight up
Don't provide players with a list of options of what they can do in the environment. Have enemies use things like Doors, cover, verticality, grapple against players, this will encourage more of a role-play thinking rather than a mechanical game of chess.
With all things mentioned, the game really flows when everyone is comfortable with the rules. Not necessarily knows all of them, but feel that they don't need to and can just describe the action they imagine and there are rules that will cover the probability mechanics. As a DM it is good to help players forget about the rules. But it never hurts to discuss them to make sure nobody is confused by what happened.
Random encounters, preparing content
Preparation should be intuitive and flow easily. I usually come up with something that feels right if I imagine our next session: Us sitting down, reminding ourself of what happened last time, etc. But between the good ideas are gaps. For example, I may know what the final boss will be, but not the road to him. Making your own tables with monsters/events that inspire you may help. I'll provide some examples by the end of the article. Right now I'll talk about encounter tables. There are many tables in the Dungeon Master's Guide. At first, they didn't seem all that needed, and they weren't. Start the game with just one very focused idea: one task, few NPCs, few encounters. But as we made up more stuff, more characters came into play, things happened, I looked back at those tables and used them as examples to create some of my own, filling them with stuff relating to our story. Here are some of the things to consider:
d12+d8 table - an example of a simple probability table. It is different from a d20 table because rolling 9,10, 11 with d12+d8 is around 8 times more likely than rolling 19, 20 or 2, 3 with it. So if you put more likely events in the middle of the table and very unlikely ones closer to the start or the end that should work well.
Sub-tables and sub-probabilities. After you get a result on one table, there could be additional branching based on circumstances. In my case, on a d100 table, rolling 1-20 results in a possible encounter. But if the rolled value is above the number of hours they are travelling, multiplied by danger level of the area, then they avoid the encounter but notice the tracks or see the potential enemy from the distance. So travelling for 1 hour gives a 1% chance of actual combat encounter in a safe area.
Parallel tables. I have one with interesting locations, one with echos - good and bad things they did that should catch up to them. And one with characters, groups, kingdoms that players have or will encounter. And I could sometimes roll on 2 of them and try combining the results if possible.
I should note that the first example is not perfect since travelling longer should probably result in more encounters, not just higher possibility. But those tables don't need to form a comprehensive system that dictates everything. Use of the table should start when DM feels like "I need a random idea right now".
SOME OF MY HOUSE RULES
I place tokens in a circle to represent the initiative. But I also break the circle into 4 segments using 2 pencils. Segments are for those with initiative 1-5, 6-10,11-15, and the rest. So far nothing is different. But, if a creature isn't planning to move more then 5 feet, isn't casting a concentration spell, and will not use a bonus action or interaction, it can move it's token one way up the initiative track - meaning, it may take the turn sooner this time and for the rest of the battle. Yes, that creatures who stand still and don't do much may have an extra turn or 2 for the battle.
There are optional rules for minionizing monsters: means that instead of one monster you will have 3 or 4, but with 1 HP. Useful for when you are attacked by a horde of skeletons, for example. Any DM would know how hard it is to track the health of the large horde. I have a bit of a twist on the minionizing rule: instead of 1 HP, the monster can have 2,3, 4 HP. If the monster isn't killed in one hit I mark it as damaged (usually by replacing with a different token). Any next successful hit will be fatal. This means that minionized creature with 4HP can be killed with two 1-damage hits.
Minionization is best used for monsters who are weak enough that most of the time players will be killing them with one-two hits anyway. And it is always the best to have one boss-monster that has standard HP for players to dump their high-damage abilities on.
Long tedious actions
What if players want to attempt something until it is done. I made up a rule that allows me to somewhat give the feeling of a long-term process. And as with any other boring work I want players to feel tempted to give up at a certain point.
Step 0: Explain to the players this whole mechanic, they need to know how the dice works in this thing.
Step 1: There will be 10 chunks of work. I ask how much time & resources(gold, food, etc.) players PLAN to use per chunk of t.
Searching through a city for somethig would be an example of that. Chunks would be streets. Spending 10 minutes/chunk would mean players only browse through the crowd as they walk around. At the same time, spending a day would mean they the will explore each location more therally.
Step 2: I take into account the time they plan to spend and come up with a DC.
Step 3a: Sidenote: Obviously, it would be cool to give each location name, pick the correct one based on the story, and players will take turns selecting a location to search through it using their Perception...
Step 3b: But this method is more generic than that. And here it is: I roll 2d10, subtract 10, take the absolute value and that will be the chunk where the job may succeed. That was confusing, wasn't it?
2d10 = 8 .... subtract 10 = -2. So the second chunk is the one.
The reason for this is that we want success to be most likely found early on. Rolling 2d10 gives higher probability to get values closer to 10. So after finishing the first 8 chunks they will know the chances are very slim.