Ok, they aren’t that kind of occult. Occult as in hidden from view. These are techniques that you won’t find in most books and usually have to figure out yourself.
I have been a forever DM for 15 years, and explored systems far and wide. In my heart though, I crave heroic tales of fantasy, and so the games I run are about tricking/helping players into doing that. This post serves as a collection of the most common tips and advice I give DMs struggling to engage players.
I also specialize in running games for new players who were dragged to the table by a friend or loved one or just saw DND on the internet and wanted to see what it’s all about, so my advice is flavored around these new players.
Note that all games are different. All players want different things. All DMs have fun in different ways. Rule zero is to have fun first, no matter what. Rule zero.one is to communicate with each other and be open about what does and does not work.
If you think you can’t just talk about things with your players, that’s a far worse issue than a game being less than what you wanted.
1. Upgrade Your Encounters Away From Dudes in a Cube to Toyboxes and Goals.
Something that DMs old and new are guilty of is throwing a few monsters in a room and calling it an encounter. This is by far the most boring way to play the game. What are these monsters doing? what’s in the room? Why are you even bothering to risk your life here? One easy trick to immediately improve your game is to think of your encounters not in terms of bodies to murder, but as a toybox. What fun things can be in this place to make a memorable and fun encounter?
Try to include one if not more objects that players will obviously want to use. Think of the classic chandelier swinging above, or a conveyor belt moving rusted parts down a line. These allow fun movement options and break players out of the “move 30 ft and attack” mentality. Beyond movement, what can they use to get an advantage in this fight? Is there a loose column barely holding the roof up here? what about some loose netting to let them climb on a cliff for a drop attack? Don’t be afraid to describe these things in more detail than you normally would so they know they’re not just set pieces.
If you’re players aren’t taking the fun bait, let the enemies! Kobolds are weak, but kobolds using siege weapons aren’t! Maybe this room is the wasp breeding chamber and it just so happens one of these rods releases all the wasps! It’s likely that your monsters live in or around where the encounter happens, so they should know about the secret paths, traps, and other fun toys you’ve left around the place.
Higher Goals beyond Murder
While these interactables spice up a fight, that still doesn’t always explain why you are risking your life. Try to give encounters some higher goal. You need to pull the level on top of the alter to disable the pain aura, but it’s guarded by orcs. The bandits didn’t just attack your caravan – they kidnapped your family/friend/the bar keep from your favorite tavern and are going to escape with them if you don’t hurry! But the wagon is on fire too – so which is more important? All of this means the fight is happening and initiatives are rolled, but now players aren’t just thinking about dealing damage and spell slots. They’re engaged with the fiction and more willing to take risks to accomplish something.
2. Create a Strong and Obvious Clock to put Pressure on the Players
New DMs often grow frustrated that players constantly want to stop and rest. This is especially true in 5th edition DND, where a short rest can get you spell slots or some healing. Consider ways to prevent a safe rest without “earning” one. Are you REALLY going to sleep in a dungeon full of zombies? Beyond this though, you need a clock that spurns the party to feel urgency and tension, and a clock that can resolve that tension.
If your want more defined rules for clocks, Blades in the Dark has a great system for this. The Alexandrian has a great article on them as well.
I have used an adventure that has players going into a sea side cavern that starts raining gently during the start of the adventure, then grows more intense as they dawdle. It goes from a benign detail to “oh no, this place is going to flood” the longer players sit there wasting precious time. Every time, the party starts to burst down doors, take risks, and rescues the targets drenched in water and shark blood.
You could also use a sacrificial ritual with an important NPC, or maybe a big ritual to summon a far more powerful foe is going on very loudly in the back of the mansion/church/graveyard. Can you stop the ritual before it’s too late?
For a more long term tension that allows for travel and consulting with NPCs, you can have a player or NPC fall prey to an insidious curse or disease that grows worse with time. If the nearest healer is a 2 day ride through the wilds, the disease gets a little bad now, and gets REALLY bad in 2 days. You don’t want to hit 3 days, and 4 days probably means death.
I prefer doing this to an NPC so one player doesn’t feel like they are a burden or not contributing, but this also works if a player misses a session. They have a high fever and are ranting about some mad terror in the night! You don’t have to make it so dire either. A trade deal or alliance between to enemies would be a disaster, and you need to break it up before they can sign is tense and has some weight but doesn’t threaten an specific life.
3. Make a likeable NPC that You Can Put in Front of Risks to Spurn Heroic Action
You may have noticed this already in the past two examples. I firmly believe in this principle.
The moment players latch onto an NPC, even if they are some side character you just made up, you need to put them in harms way.
This can be a person, a place, a pet, anything. The only way I ever got a party to truly care about the story beyond being strong was to set their favorite bar on fire. At that point, they didn’t need any prompting – they took the reins and the adventure followed.
Don’t overdo it though, and don’t use a background NPC. This works best for people they’ve been attached to they met in game and have known for a few sessions, or at least a few hours into the adventure.
4. Tie PCs Together at the Start
If this is the first session, make sure to never let anyone be the weirdo loner who knows no one. This is the opportunity to derail a game. Even the most paranoid thief has a friend or someone they have worked with before. I also do not trust players to “play along” with hooks, so I offer players an opportunity to roll or pick a hook that I write for the adventure. This is something I do for one shots or smaller 2-5 session games especially where you don’t want to waste time “Building the party” – that is, finding weak reasons why these characters suddenly work together.
I like to tie the personal hooks while players introduce their character by asking a guided question related to their character. “You study arcane patterns in old sites. Who here once found you sleeping outside at a site and saved you from angry locals?” or “you once pickpocketed this person, but somehow you ended up friends in the end. Who was that?” I push for 2, but even 1 will work.
Here is a sample of adventure hooks I created for an upcoming adventure I am writing. I avoid only making one hook – that one hook isn’t going to be interesting to everyone, and adding multiple concurrent hooks that all lead together ads an element of discovery and mystery in my experience. Each player picks one or rolls one as they see fit. This also lets them start with some vital information that their character knows about the situation which helps to role play right out of the gate.
5. Skip the Physical Descriptions; Acquire A-Team Montages
This one might seem silly, but I now swear by it. Usually, a DM will ask players to describe their character by what they look like. In terms of improv acting and setting people up to get into characters, this is a weak set up. It doesn’t tell you anything about their personality or background or themes about the character at all!
So instead, ask each person to narrate a sequence or montage of their character as if they were a character on a 80s or 90s show. Think A Team. Is your character lowering themselves down on a rope to nab a diamond, then escape into the night with a smirk? Are they laughing and drinking in a bar when they take a bet to wrestle a crocodile? This is the secret weapon for me that gets even the most reserved new player engaged and willing to speak up. I know it sounds a little silly, but honestly, aren’t all tabletop RPGs a little silly?
So that’s the big 5 inside secrets for making games more engaging. They aren’t going to work for every type of game, but if you want to start out strong and keep a good pace, all while pushing players to be big damn heroes, this is how I do it. I hope it helps you make some fun at your own table!
I would love to hear your advice for budding new DMs. Do you have a secret weapon up your own sleeve?