Endless DM hacks to help you run a smoother game…
Running a game of Adventurous, D&D, Knave or Mörk Borg is a lot harder than it sounds, even if most of the games on that list are rules-light. Everyone that has ever been a DM knows that it’s very complex and demanding, and that is exactly the reason why I’ve put together this list of 53 DM tips, tricks and hacks, it’s sort of the output of my 20 years of running games.
The goal with this list is to help you run a better, smoother and less stressful game by giving you hacks that add much more value to the game than they require in prep time and brain power from you.
53 DM tips, tricks and hacks
- NPC IOUs: Ever thought of rewarding players with a simple “I owe you one” from an NPC? It’s like giving them a wildcard, and trust me, it’s gold. Plus, it’s way more intriguing than another gold coin.
- The Ultimate Question: Next time a player is up to something, hit them with a “What are you looking for?” It’s the Swiss Army knife of questions. Direct, to the point, and opens up a world of possibilities.
- Recap Roulette: Before diving into a session, let your players do the recap. It’s not just a time-saver; it’s a window into their minds. You’ll quickly see what resonated and what flew under the radar. Plus, less work for you!
- Body Search Bonanza: Spice up those body searches with a solid “I search the body…” table. It’s not just about finding a rusty dagger anymore. Maybe they’ll stumble upon a cryptic note or a mysterious trinket. Who knows where that could lead?
- Rule on the Fly: Stuck on a rule? Don’t sweat it. Make a call and keep the story rolling. No one’s here for a rules seminar. They’re here for the adventure. Keep it gritty, keep it moving.
- Hireling Descriptions: When players are on the hunt for hirelings, flip the script. Ask them, “Among this motley crew of misfits, who catches your eye?” Let them paint the picture, then sprinkle in some humor. Maybe the burly warrior has a pet chicken or the rogue is oddly obsessed with knitting. The quirkier, the better.
- Detail Detective: Drop tiny details here and there. A peculiar scar, an odd-looking coin, a whispered rumor. Players are like detectives, they’ll latch onto these breadcrumbs. And guess what? You’ve got a treasure trove of future adventures right there. It’s like planting seeds and watching them grow into wild tales.
- Intent Inquiry: When a player’s character is up to something, hit them with a “What’s the endgame here?” It’s not just about the action; it’s about the motive. It clarifies things for both of you and might even reveal some unexpected twists. Plus, it’s a gentle nudge to remind them of the gritty reality of the world they’re in.
- Challenging Authority: Give players an arrogant authority figure, and watch the magic unfold. They’ll concoct elaborate schemes just to knock them down a peg or two. It’s like handing them a toy they didn’t know they wanted. Sit back and enjoy the show.
- Nameless Mysteries: Next time they encounter a creature or spell, hold back on the name. Let the suspense build. And when they start throwing out names? Go with it. Maybe that fire-breathing beastie is now “Fluffy the Inferno.” Embrace the unexpected and let the players shape the lore.
- Fantastical Cuisine: Always keep a list of both ordinary and extraordinary foods and drinks. Players might enjoy a simple ale, but they’ll remember the shimmering cocktail that made their character’s skin glow. It’s not just about quenching thirst; it’s about adding layers to your world.
- The Name List: Save yourself the name-fumbling. Keep a list of names, one for each letter of the alphabet or just a random list you can roll on. Cross them off as they’re used and replace them. It’s a simple tool that ensures you’re always ready when a new NPC steps onto the scene. If you need a jumpstart, check out our NPC generator, it contains 36 unique male and female names for you to use.
- Irresistible Sidequests: Introduce low-stakes contests. Whether it’s a local pie-eating competition or a friendly archery match, players often can’t resist the allure of a challenge, even if the stakes are just bragging rights.
- Faction-Driven Encounters: Populate your encounter tables with representatives from local factions. But don’t stop there. Occasionally throw in encounters from broader factions. Remember, every location should have at least three local factions. It’s about creating a dynamic, interconnected world.
- Worldly Customs: Introduce unique customs and traditions. Maybe villagers always toss a coin into a well for good luck, or travelers recite a short prayer when crossing water bodies. These small rituals breathe life into your world, making it feel lived-in and rich.
- Animal-Inspired Creativity: Keep a list of animals close by. It’s a versatile tool for on-the-fly creativity. Need an NPC quirk? Maybe they’re as sneaky as a fox. Looking for a place name? Welcome to Owl’s Peak. From spell ingredients like raven feathers to visual details like a wolf-emblazoned shield, animals offer a treasure trove of inspiration.
- Color Coordination: Simplify puzzles and clues with color-coding. If there’s a silver key, there’s likely a silver lock waiting somewhere. It’s straightforward, intuitive, and players often appreciate the clarity amidst the chaos.
- Eerie Combat Questions: Add a touch of suspense in combat. When players face a creature, ask unsettling questions. Facing a siren? “Are you listening to her song?” It’s a subtle way to keep them on their toes and add an extra layer of tension.
- The Charm of Trinkets: Never underestimate a well-crafted trinket or minor magical item table. Sometimes, it’s the oddities that players cherish the most. A glass eye or an old, cryptic book might not have gold value, but they’re priceless in terms of intrigue and storytelling. Check out our list of 10 magical trinkets for inspiration.
- Unexpectedly Kind NPCs: Throw in NPCs that defy expectations. Imagine the surprise when the ominous, shadowy figure in the corner just wants to share their collection of rare teas. Or when the terrifying demon-spider is more interested in discussing pastry recipes than devouring souls. It’s these unexpected twists that players remember and talk about for sessions to come.
- Potions with a Twist: Think beyond the usual potions. Why not introduce drugs with unique effects? Maybe there’s a herb that grants visions or a concoction that temporarily boosts strength. It’s a fresh take that can lead to some intriguing scenarios.
- Family Ties: Remember, NPCs aren’t just standalone characters; they’re part of a bigger world. Give them connections, siblings, parents, or even estranged relatives. It adds depth and offers potential plot hooks.
- Emergency Supplies: When players are rummaging through crates or barrels, occasionally let them find something explosive or flammable. It’s not just loot; it’s an opportunity for creative problem-solving in tight spots.
- Symbols of Power: Badges, flags, and symbols aren’t just for show. They tell a story, signify allegiance, or even intimidate foes. So, next time you introduce a villain, consider giving them a distinctive badge or emblem. It’s a small detail that can add layers to their character.
- Detail in Materials: When describing environments or objects, get specific with materials. Don’t just say “stone”; say “granite” or “marble.” Instead of generic “wood,” specify “oak” or “birch.” It paints a clearer picture and makes the world feel more tangible.
- NPC Quirks: Add life to your NPCs with simple tics. Maybe the blacksmith is always chewing on a straw, or the librarian has a habit of tapping her fingers. These small behaviors not only make NPCs memorable but also give them a touch of realism. Our NPC generator contains 36 unique quirks to pick and choose from.
- Unreliable Intel: Feed players information, but with a catch. Maybe it’s a map that’s a decade old or a rumor that’s been twisted with each retelling. Let them know it’s not 100% reliable. It’s a test of judgment: do they risk acting on it, or do they seek out a more recent source?
- Twisted Companions: Pets are great, but pets with complications? Even better. Perhaps that adorable owl they adopted is cursed and turns into stone during the day. Or that seemingly innocent cat? It’s been sent by a rival to eavesdrop on their plans.
- Telltale Signs: Use physical reactions to hint at unseen forces. If a player’s hair stands on end, it could be a sign of a lurking magical presence or an impending electrical storm. It’s a subtle way to signal that something’s amiss.
- Crowd Dynamics: Players causing a ruckus in a town square? Let a crowd gather. Some might cheer them on, others might jeer, and a few might even offer unsolicited advice. It’s a reminder that their actions have consequences and that the world around them is always watching and reacting.
- Hospitality Amidst Chaos: In a world teeming with danger, sprinkle in some genuinely kind NPCs. Maybe there’s a farmer who offers a warm meal or a librarian who shares a cup of tea. Such gestures not only endear NPCs to players but also accentuate the world’s perilous parts.
- Rationalizing Immunities: When a creature is immune to something, delve into the why. Take the D&D gargoyle, for instance. Its immunity to non-magical weapons? Probably because you can’t slash through stone. But what about a sledgehammer or pickaxe? Instead of blanket restrictions, think of in-world logic. It’s about turning game mechanics into tangible, in-universe qualities.
- Momentum Keeper: If a player’s taking too long deciding what to do on their turn, start a 10-second countdown. More often than not, they’ll snap to a decision before you hit 5. It’s a not so gentle nudge to keep the game flowing, but sometimes its necessary.
- Goblin Goals: Throw in a goblin with a personal agenda. Maybe it’s eyeing a player’s shiny amulet or harbors a grudge against another goblin. These quirks add humor and unpredictability to encounters.
- Neutral Dungeon Dwellers: Populate dungeons with non-combatants. Maybe there’s a lost merchant or a curious scholar. They might be technically against the players, but they’re a goldmine of information and potential allies.
- The Gray Area of 0 HP: When NPCs hit 0 HP, they’re not necessarily gone for good. They could be disarmed, unconscious, or just too terrified to continue. Emphasize that players have non-lethal options. It’s not always about the kill.
- Treasure Map Throwback: Old-school modules loved their treasure maps. And for a good reason. They’re intriguing, they promise adventure, and they should be a staple in your loot list.
- Equipment Lists: Players love perusing detailed equipment lists with prices. Whip one up or borrow from existing sources. It’s not just about utility; it’s about the joy of window shopping in a fantasy world. Here is one from Adventurous.
- Name Juxtaposition: Mix and match mundane names with fantastical beings. Meet Gary the Griffin or Tina the Troll. It’s a touch of humor that players will remember.
- Simple Puzzles, Big Engagement: Players love puzzles, even the straightforward ones. Split a treasure map into fragments or create a basic jigsaw. The brief “Aha!” moment when they piece things together is pure gold.
- Monster Makeovers: A little tweak goes a long way. Got a horde of undead? Why not have vines and moss growing over them? Goblins in the vicinity? Maybe they’re adorned with bird feathers or sport shiny copper armor. These small changes can drastically shift the mood and make encounters more memorable.
- Borrow and Blend: Don’t shy away from drawing inspiration from other media. The beauty lies in the mix. Your campaign might be a cocktail of “Castle in the Sky,” “Chrono Trigger,” “Hollow Knight,” with a dash of “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.” The more diverse your sources, the richer and more unique your world becomes.
- Achilles’ Heel: Introduce formidable foes, but with clear vulnerabilities. Maybe the invincible golem has a fragile crystal core, or the mighty dragon is terrified of a specific melody. It’s about balancing challenge with opportunity.
- Chatty Companions: Whether it’s a squirrel with a penchant for gossip or a sword that won’t stop giving unsolicited advice, talking animals and objects are always a hit. They add humor, depth, and often become unforgettable allies (or annoyances) for the players.
- The Power of Reaction Rolls: Embrace the reaction roll and morale check. It’s a versatile tool for gauging NPC responses. Does the merchant believe the player’s tall tale? Is the captured bandit truly terrified of the threats? It’s a dynamic way to determine outcomes and keep things unpredictable.
- Physiological Reactions: Dive into the visceral reactions of characters during intense moments. Describe the sting of sweat in their eyes, the rawness in their throat, or the tremble in their hands. It’s not just about the external events; it’s about how they’re felt from within.
- Lootable Landscapes: Scatter crates, barrels, and other containers around the environment. They’re not just set pieces; they’re opportunities for elevation play, looting, and discovery. And don’t forget the flora—those mushrooms might just be the rare ingredient a player has been searching for.
- Combat Flair: Elevate combat descriptions beyond mere hits and misses. Maybe the rogue’s arrow doesn’t just strike the enemy but causes them to stumble backward into a campfire. Or the warrior’s parry sends sparks flying, momentarily blinding their opponent. It’s about painting a vivid picture of the battlefield.
- Steed Spectacle: Introduce unconventional mounts. Whether it’s a bear with a penchant for honey or a snail that’s surprisingly fast, these creatures add a touch of whimsy. And don’t forget those horses with personalities—like the one that’s secretly horse royalty or the one that’s just plain ornery. And yes, every steed deserves a name.
- Clever Underdogs: Sometimes, the most unassuming foes can be the most challenging. Maybe that group of goblins has set up a series of traps, or the lone kobold has found a vantage point that makes him hard to reach. It’s about brains over brawn.
- Fishy Details: Add depth to your world with unique aquatic life. A visit to the market isn’t just about haggling; it’s about marveling at stalls filled with ancient coelacanths or the shimmering scales of radiodonta.
- Dice Deliberation: When you’re unsure, let the dice guide you. A quick roll can buy you time and might just inspire your next move. It’s a blend of chance and strategy that keeps things fresh. In Adventurous it’s called the Oracle die.
- Diverse Biomes: While you can have multiple similar biomes, give each a distinct character. Two marshes might seem the same, but one could be teeming with life while the other reeks of decay. It’s about creating varied and immersive landscapes.
Closing thoughts on these 53 DM tips
Every time I sit behind the GM screen, I pick up something new. It’s like leveling up in real-time. So I’ve compiled these 53 DM tips, tricks, and hacks from countless sessions with the hope that they help you run a better, smoother and less stressful game. Because, let’s face it, being a game master is hard work, and we can all use a little boost now and then.