Episode 1: Improv, Magic Items, and Player Engagement
This blog series is a written form of our weekly YouTube video where we answer some of your Dungeons and Dragons questions, offer a piece or two of storytelling advice, and wrap things up with a few suggestions on books, movies, music, or anything else that might bring value to your D&D hobby!
How do you improvise well?
My response is one that many of you will have heard before, but that’s because it’s solid advice that actually works. One of the easiest things you can start doing to become a better improver is learn to say “yes” to your players as often as possible. Some Quest Masters are too quick to say “no” to their players when they attempt to do something. However, I don’t mean that the QM just flat out says “no” out of character. Rather, I mean the QM conveniently works in story elements that make it difficult or impossible for the character to accomplish what they set out to do.
For example, let’s say you have a character who wants to go speak to the enormous dragonborn dressed in priest’s robes sitting in the corner of the crowded tavern. You might not have a whole lot figured out about this NPC yet, and you think you might want to hold off on this interaction to give you more time to flesh out the character. So rather than go along with the interaction, you have a different NPC step in and begin speaking to the character before they reach the dragonborn. By the time they get out of that conversation, the dragonborn has left and is nowhere to be seen. In this instance you didn’t actually say “no,” but you got the same end result through in-game events.
Don’t do this. As often as you possibly can, say yes to your players. This might mean jumping into a character you haven’t fleshed out, delving into a dungeon that isn’t fully mapped, or revealing some plot points that you wanted to save for later, but I promise you’re only doing your players and yourself a disservice by refusing these things. By restricting the players' ability to interact with the world, your essentially turning them into NPCs, and by not forcing yourself to practice coming up with things on the fly, you’re ensuring you never improve your improvisation skills.
I have players who are obsessed with magical items, but it’s too early. What should I do?
The first thing I would do if I were you is accept that it is NEVER too early to start handing out magic items! Collecting magic items and other fantastic treasures is a huge part of why people play the game, so denying players that opportunity only diminishes their fun. It doesn’t matter if your players are 1st level or 20th level, you can hand out a quirky magic item every session so long as you’re smart about it! The key is designing magic items that are tailored to the character without offering game-altering mechanics.
Do you have a gun-slinging half-orc in your party who’s got a smoking addiction? Give them a smoking pipe that never runs out of tobacco and can make fantastic shapes with the smoke they exhale. Have a dragonborn druid who’s painfully awkward in social situations? Give them ring of flirtatious smiles that helps them always make a good first impression with the perfect toothy smile. Have a half-elf rogue who’s been searching for her missing daughter for several years? Give her a pearl of memory recollection that lets her perfectly recall one memory from her past so that she can hear her daughter’s laugh every night before she goes to sleep.
None of these items are game-breaking in any sense of the word which is what I believe you’re nervous about when it comes to handing out magical items. Rather, these items are specifically designed to be fun, simple, and have as minimal an impact as possible on the actual mechanics of the game. If you take the time to sit down and brainstorm up some clever homebrew magic items themed around your players’ characters and their personalities, I promise that you’ll have no shortage of exciting treasures to hand out at every session.
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My players have a hard time staying invested. Any suggestions?
This was a very common question, and I’m not surprised by it at all. This is something I still suffer with to this day, whether it be players on their phones at the table, players dozing off while other characters interact with NPCs, or players simply not showing up to the table with an exciting attitude as we’d hope. It’s a tricky problem to have, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. However, I have two tips that I believe can have a fast and dramatic impact on your players’ investment.
The first and simplest thing you can do to boost player investment is up your own energy levels. When your players arrive for the night, eagerly greet each of them as they walk through the door and try to recall something exciting their character did in the last session. When you’re ready to begin playing, give a dramatic recap of the last session in which you highlight the party’s accomplishments and then transition into an encounter of some sort. Throughout the night, be consciousness of your tone and body language. Make sure you’re leaning forward in your seat and pump up your language with inflection and strong vocabulary (unless the NPC you're portraying demands otherwise). You’ll be amazed at how quickly the players pick up on your energy and incorporate it into their own roleplaying.
The second thing you can start doing to get your players invested is to incorporate the characters’ backstories into the game as often as possible. Very few things will hook a player’s attention then presenting them with an encounter or adventure hook themed around their specific character, and that’s because every player loves to be in the spotlight. Is one of the characters an elderly wizard trying to unlock the secrets of the cosmos? Offer up an adventure in which they have to explore an abandoned observatory. Is one of the characters a retired gladiator? Have the party enter a city where a major tournament is being held at the colosseum promising a large reward to any group who defeats the Emperor’s chosen warriors in combat. Moments like these are what the players live for even if they aren’t aware of it. Get creative and offer up as many chances as possible for the players to flesh out their character’s backstory, and you’ll have everyone at your table on the edge of their seat.
Don’t be afraid to meta-talk.
During my most recent Dungeons and Dragons session, I tried something at the end of the night that I had previously avoided up to that point. I asked my players to think ahead and tell me what their characters were most likely going to do over the next two to three sessions. I had previously avoided this question because I felt that it was too “meta.” I thought that by asking this question, I was forcing the players to forfeit some of their agency as players or that I was committing them to a path that they didn’t want to go down. To my surprise though, the players eagerly shared the adventure hooks they wanted to pursue as well as the places and NPCs they wanted to visit in the next few sessions.
This was a major relief for several reasons. First, it meant that I knew what I needed to prioritize when it came to session prep. Up to that point, I had been doing my best to try and flesh out more and more of the entire region every week so that I would be prepared for anything. Consequently, I was under-prepared in many instances when my players decided to travel somewhere that I had only made a few brief notes on. Now that I knew where they’d be heading, however, I could put 90% of my time into preparing those encounters while still expanding the rest of my world. Second, I’m a big fan of using miniatures, but similar to my session prep issue, I was trying to paint everything at once as I had no clue what they would encounter next. Now my next two weeks of painting projects can be focused in on exactly what I know I’ll need, and I’m no longer stressing about painting the wrong thing.
I had been avoiding asking my players to tell me their plans out-of-character because I felt it would detract from the roleplaying experience. I can now say that it turned out to be quite the opposite. The players enjoyed and appreciated getting on the same page as me, and I’m no longer stressing over session prep (Who am I kidding? Of course I still stress about it). If your wrestling with any of the same issues I was or if you feel like your campaign is beginning to fall off the rails, do yourself a favor and ask your players what their plan is. You might be pleasantly surprised at how quickly it can get everything back on track.
R.A. Salvatore, The Collected Stories.
This 370-page collection of short stories, written by the tremendously talented R.A. Salvatore, is an easy recommendation to anyone working to improve their storytelling skills. The book itself contains 12 individual stories, each one sitting around 35 pages, which are entertaining and often suspenseful to read. However, the true value of these stories is in the various themes they visit. They’re not all hack-and-slack adventure type stories. Rather, they examine topics such as what drives young street urchins to turn to a life of professional crime as well as how common townsfolk can actually endanger adventurers by trying to get involved in the action.
My favorite story in this collection is titled “Dark Mirror,” and it tells of a goblin who is being held prisoner by a small town. The goblin is accused of theft to which they claim innocence, but the people have made up their mind about goblins and refuse to listen. The protagonist of the story is faced with a decision: do they help this innocent goblin or do they leave them to their fate at the hands of the villagers. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll say that it had me really thinking about notions of prejudice in a D&D setting, how they would exist within my own campaign setting, and how they would impact interactions between NPCs.
If you don’t own this book, pick up a copy and read through a few of the stories. I’m confident you’ll find loads of inspiration on thematic elements to work into your stories as well as how to better get into the mindset of different types of characters so that you can tell more unforgettable stories.
Hobby Lobby Goldmine
As I was preparing to run my Tomb of Annihilation campaign, I found it surprisingly difficult to find dinosaur miniatures that were well-sculpted but also not outrageously expensive. Reaper Bones is usually my go-to supplier of miniatures, but their selection of dinosaur miniatures is very small and a bit pricey for what I was looking for. That’s when I discovered the secret goldmine of dinosaur and animal miniatures that is Hobby Lobby’s toy aisle.
For only $10, I was able to pick up an entire bag filled with 12 different dinosaur figures. Now at first glance, you would assume that the quality of detail on the figures is terrible, but I promise you, it’s not. Once I cleaned off the mold lines with an Exacto knife and filled the seams with some liquid greenstuff, I thought they looked pretty decent. It wasn’t until I got a few of them primed and painted, however, that I realized just how awesome these dinosaur models were going to look at the table. I’ve attached a few images of my recently-finished allosauruses below for you to check out and see what I’m talking about.
If you’re looking for a place to pick up miniatures for all your different beasts and wild animals, I promise you, Hobby Lobby is that place.