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This week's column looks at worldbuilding from D&D art director Richard Whitters.
Welcome to Behind the Screens, a regular column by Dungeon Masters for Dungeon Masters that presents helpful tips for use in your D&D campaign. Each month, guest DMs will present an item from his or her tool kit that you can adopt to make running your game easier, more fun, or both. Some of these DMs work in R&D, while others are fellow enthusiasts from the wider Wizards community who are eager to share what they've learned. Here you'll find house rules, ideas for bringing a campaign, lessons won from hard experience, and more.
My name is Richard, and I am a DM.
I've tried to get treatment, but nothing has worked . . . so I have to live with it.
When I was asked to write an article on DMing, my mind was flooded with ideas: neat little add-on mechanics, worldbuilding tips, trick monsters, and a dozen of other thoughts that I'd made notes on. In the end, I thought I'd describe how I run a game, and give a few tips that might be helpful to new DMs.
I typically make all of my campaigns from scratch, since I am an obsessive worldbuilder. So here is my basic DM's toolkit.
Make a Rough Map
When I decide to run a game, I typically start with a little microcosm that allows room for myself and the players to build on. I'll make a rough map, throw some interesting names on it, establish a starting point for the group, write down a few encounter ideas—and wing it from there.
If you're not great at making maps, you can use this generic one that I made. I chose the town of Dhun Crowe as a starting point for characters, since it is pretty central (maybe I'll do a map of the town for my next article).
Since Dhun Crowe is the players' "home base," I place lower-level encounters closer to the center and more dangerous ones toward the outer edges of the map. Right now these are just rough notes and Monster Manual page references. Neat ideas are more important than stat blocks at this stage.
Jot Down Plot Hooks
A DM forcing players down a path is generally referred to as "railroading." This is not a great way to get them into the adventure. Instead, lead your players in by using plot hooks: interesting rumors and mysteries you seed into your game.
Rumors from nonplayer characters (NPCs) are the most common plot hooks, though you can also use other tricks. Scrolls containing cryptic prophecies, strange runes carved on a stone obelisk, an ancient talking crow, or just an odd compass that points roughly northwest—your players will get curious about them and follow them up eventually.
Example Plot Hook: The Bog Walker
Not all rumors need to be accurate. For example, the locals may tell tales of the "bog walker." Some say it moves in complete silence and eats whole cows. Others claim it's the ghost of a fallen paladin, or that it's the specter of death itself. They players will need to go to the swamp and look for themselves to find the truth.
In this case, let's say the bog walker is actually an albino troll that is cursed with silence in a 10-foot radius around it. The curse was placed on it by a warlock, who wanted to keep it from telling a secret (the troll cannot read or write). With this brief note, you have now defined a fun encounter, and you might later drop another plot hook: what secret is the troll keeping? To find the answer, the characters will need to break the curse or find another way to communicate with the troll; maybe the spell is broken when the troll is killed, and it moans part of the secret with its dying breath.
NPCs at the Ready
Your cast of nonplayer characters will need names. Collections of baby names are great for this purpose, so keep a book of them at the ready or look them up on a baby-name website. Give your NPCs variety as well. Some might be jerks, others friendly, and a few odd or just insane. Give each one unique motivations, and add distinctive quirks, such as a wandering left eye, a beard crawling with roaches, or a word repeated too often.
Sometimes you just have to create NPCs on the fly. An unexpected situation leads to interesting roleplay. Here's a snippet from one of my games.
Me: You hear a rustle in the bushes.
Emi: Who's Russell?
Me: Russell is a dwarf who wanders around eating berries from random bushes.
This often gives him panicked disentery, so he spends a lot of time outdoors.
Emi: I wave to Russell!
Me: Russell pops up from the bushes and waves back as your wagon passes.
Bang—new NPC created. Maybe Russell will be a herbalist who can help a poisoned player in the future.
As well, here are a few character portraits for when you need an NPC in a hurry. Just choosing a face can give you great ideas for the character's personality.
Use All the Senses
This is an oldie but a goodie. Your job is to describe what your players see, hear, smell, taste and touch: the gloomy lighting of a dragon's den, the slimy texture of a dungeon wall, the stench of a sweaty ogre, the squishy sound a green slime makes while going downstairs, or the foul taste of a healing potion (like tequila mixed with cough syrup). There's no special effects team or 3D animation studio—just you!
The Sixth Sense
In addition to the five physical senses, you can use the "sixth sense" to your advantage. An altar to an ancient god might just feel "wrong," making the hairs on the back of the characters' necks stand up. An elf senses that a fey forest has been corrupted; she just "feels it in her bones." The trick with describing the sixth sense is to be vague—"You feel like you're being watched"—then move on. It's a lot of fun.
Listen to Your Players
The kinds of characters your players create are telling you what they want to happen in the game. So be sure to read their character sheets and mine them for adventure ideas. For example, if a player makes a swashbuckling character who knows everything about sailing, it's probably a good idea to work a sea voyage into your game.
After each game session, discuss with your players what they liked, what they didn't like, and most importantly, what they are curious about. Use this feedback to adjust your DMing style and plot out further sessions. If they really dislike an adversarial NPC, great! You can exploit that character to lead them on an adventure. If they're interested in exploring a plot hook you've seeded, prepare for it. You have a week until your next game session: lots of time to make up some intriguing and surprising ideas and prep a few notes.
If your players leave the table asking you and questions and making plans for the next session;
If they obsessively want to thwart the villain in the next adventure;
If they are excited about the next place they get to explore;
If they feel like they have been watching (and helping to make) the most amazing television series that has ever been created . . .
. . . you win D&D*!
*Official Rules Note: You also win D&D by high fiving Mike Mearls or telling Chris Perkins he's handsome and/or suave.
I could write a full article on any of these topics, so if you're interested in that (or articles on other topics), leave me a note in the comments section.
’Til next time!
About the Author
My name is Richard Whitters, and I am a DM. I’m also an art director and artist for Dungeons & Dragons. I have sought a cure for all of these afflictions, but have yet to find one.