One of the greatest things about being a D&D player these days is the opportunities to game with lots of different people. Whether it’s through Adventurers League, online games or the huge number of people out there excited or curious to try fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons to invite to the table at home, I’ve been fortunate to play way more D&D than ever before in my 30 years of gaming. It’s provided so many chances to improve as a Dungeon Master and as a player. And I’ve learned that running D&D benefits your time as a player and vice versa. You can learn a lot about what you enjoy as a player through being a DM, and carry what you learn as a DM to the other side of the screen, too.
Take those adventure hooks
One of the insights I recently recognized about myself as a player is I’m fully on board to bite on a DM’s adventure hooks. Sometimes this is really easy, like when you’re playing in a published adventure. I’ve been a player in a Princes of the Apocalypse campaign, Curse of Strahd, Tomb of Annihilation, and Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. A couple of those weren’t played to completion, and one is currently ongoing in my home group. But in all the cases, everyone in the group knew what we were getting into ahead of time. There’s a built-in understanding from the get-go of what sort of adventure the party can expect.
In homebrew campaigns, sometimes the adventure hooks aren’t as clear. Sure, when the townsperson bursts into the tavern, frantic about the goblins who kidnapped their child, it’s pretty clear what the DM has in mind. But I’ve also played in games where several session pass without any clear sign what the characters should — or even could — be doing. These sorts of games can be tricky to play, at least for me. I enjoy freeform roleplaying experiences as much as the next nerd, but at the same time, it can be frustrating when adventure doesn’t present itself. I can only take so much “then what do you do?” before I wonder if anything is going to happen to pull the party into a quest.
Maybe it is a product of my earliest days of playing D&D in the 1980s, but I am a big fan of starting a game with the assumption there is adventure to be had and the characters are on task by the time the DM first asks, “What do you do?” If there’s a choice between searching around to find adventure or letting the adventure find me, I’ll take the latter please.
I know I’m not alone in this. Granted, I’ve read or talked with lots of people who seek advice on how to get players to take their adventure hooks. A common scenario is the characters lack individual motivation to take on a quest. Anything from “solving the death curse” to “rescuing the kidnapped villager” is met with “yeah but why does my character care about doing that?” What a frustrating response! I’m not advocating characters be tabula rasa for the DM to imprint whatever they want to move things forward, but at the same time, all characters are adventurers. They, and their players, should care because D&D is designed around the concept of going on adventures. A different way to look at it for a potentially unmotivated character is consider it a creative endeavor to imagine why your character would follow an adventure hook.
Here’s a few personal examples. My favorite character to play, Mesmogdu the Magnificent, is a drow charlatan wizard. I’ve played this character in two campaigns: a friend’s version of Matt Colville’s Delian Tomb that spun into Tomb of Annihilation, and Waterdeep: Dragon Heist. In the first, the DM let us paint the scene for our characters and I suggested Mesmogdu was pinched by the city watch for running cons on the streets and put into a sort of Task Force X scenario where he could work off his prison time by taking on a quest. In the second, he’s a reformed and retired con man who rounds up a ragtag group of washed up scoundrels for one last shot at the Big Score. In neither of these cases do his motivations have much to do with his weird backstory, but that’s okay — I trust the DM to pepper bits and pieces personal to him within the adventure.In another ongoing game, Secrets of Castle Greyhawk, I play a svirfneblin Circle of Spores druid in a party with Ye Olde Goal of exploring the dungeon beneath Castle Greyhawk. We all have our own quirks and reasons (many of them secret) for delving deeper and deeper into the classic dungeon. But we all also understand those are great resources for the DM to use and not the primary thrust of our adventures. First and foremost, we dungeon delve because that’s just what adventurers do.
In both cases, there’s a very important thread making those games great, and that’s mutual trust between the players and the DM. They trust that we, the players, will go along for the ride they have in their imagination. And we trust our DMs to leave enough space for our characters to explore their individuality within those adventure hooks. Whenever I get a chance to be a player, I find it super refreshing when there are clear goals for my character and their adventuring companions to pursue. It’s not exactly railroading (although I do think a bit of that is perfectly okay too). Rather, it’s a boundary with a very low clearance. Explore the Sunless Citadel, rescue Floon Blagmaar, find the delegation from Mirabar. It’s great to have a goal, and you can very easily pursue those goals while maintaining a huge swath of space for personal character development as well as interparty dynamics.
Discovering the appreciation for clear goals as a player has really helped me as a DM too. Along with the old school mentality I mentioned before, this has helped me make and run adventures much smoother (I hope so anyway). At the very least, it’s helped me refine and define my DM style and play to my what I think are my strengths.
I tend to approach every session like an episode of a show. They each start with a title, and this helps me stay on track for what I envision in broad terms. Next comes the 5 W’s, essentially the synopsis statement. After that I write an introduction that places the characters where I’d like the adventure to start, which always ends with passing the ball to the players by asking, “What do you do?” Rounding it out are chunks of notes for a few things like bullet points for encounters or an unusual circumstance. These could be anything, from a puzzle or environmental hazard to overcome, a chance for characters to uncover special information, or an idea to tie in something from a character’s backstory or party history.
This isn’t a flawless method by a long shot, but so far it works pretty well for me the more I work at it, the more refined it becomes. What works best for me is because of the trust I strive to build between players and DMs, it develops into a reference guide allowing players to explore at their own pace and focus on the things they enjoy, ready to deploy what seems natural whenever there’s a lull. More often than not I spend most of my time as a DM making notes on what the players and their characters say and do. That way I can draw on these things for the next adventure guide and engage them with their own material!
All of this is part and parcel to one simple point, for both people on both sides of the screen. For DMs, create clear adventure hooks for the adventurers who band together. And players, take those adventure hooks! There’ll be plenty of time to develop your character and progress their personal journey during the quest, trust me. Adventuring is risky business, but when your character took that first level in a class they knew what they were getting into.
In other words, DMs: don’t make adventurers search around to find the adventure hidden in your world, just present it clearly and players out there, when adventure finds you, take it.
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Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, world building, or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy or his own blog The Long Shot, he’s a newspaper designer, copy editor and journalist. He loves advocating the RPG hobby and connecting with other nerds and gamers on social media and his site thelongshotist.com.