Ten Things DMs Should Know About the PCs in Their Game

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5th editionHey nerds!

As the Dungeon Master it can be a chore sometimes to keep the action moving, and many of us want to give each PC a shot in the spotlight by picking on them individually.

That can be difficult though, if you don’t know much about them. I’m not talking AC or hit point totals, though, I’m talking about backgrounds, preferences – generally the fluffy bits.

So today, we’re going to talk about ten things you can ask your players about their characters that make for good points to pick at when it comes to tailoring sessions specifically for them.

I’m going into this assuming you already know to keep it even and get around to everybody, and that playing favorites is bad.

If we’re all on the same page, then here come the questions.

1 – What does your character want so badly they would walk through hell for it? – This question, just like this. The way it’s set up, the player can still say ‘nothing’ if they really want to. They can. But most of them won’t. The PCs should have their own goals separate from the party and when you know what they want, you know what to dangle in front of them. Just remember, the carrot on the string only works as long as you keep pulling the string away and you can’t pull that string forever or your players will start to feel cheated. Once or twice, and shift focus in between those moments, so when they finally get what they were after it’s towards the end and it feels climactic. This is a powerful motivator. Use it wisely.

2 – What does your character regret doing the most? – The past coming to bite you in the rear is another great thing to pick at. Again, you are going to get players that say “I regret nothing” and this is valid. Some characters are just not prone to guilt over their actions. But for the ones who give you a proper answer this is gold, and not just because you can use it to torment them. Say someone says “I was unable to save my younger brother from drowning when we were kids.” You can follow up by asking what the brother looked like and what he was like as a person, and it doesn’t even have to be exactly about drowning; sometimes a face in the crowd that kind of looks like the brother will be enough to really spice up an RP encounter for them.

3 – What is your character the most afraid of? – I’ve hit this point before and I’ll do it again. Fears are what make us people and everybody is afraid of something. It isn’t always something tangible like clowns or spiders. Sometimes it’s losing the ones you love or not being good enough. Those are good answers too. You’re going to get players that want to say ‘nothing’ for this one. It’s okay to let them do it if you don’t want to push the issue, but on this one in particular it’s valid to tell them to pick something. While existential fears can be more difficult to use, and are going to require some real doing (you can’t just drop someone’s personal insecurities about their fighting ability in front of them for example, they have to be bested or close to it) they can lead to some very poignant RP moments. Just remember those are in the hands of the players to remember to play.

4 – If your character lives long enough, what do they see themselves doing after they stop adventuring? – This one isn’t as obvious and you probably won’t get a lot of drama out of it, but it’s a good indicator of what the player is looking for for their PC. If they say “nothing, I want to go out in a blaze of glory,” give them opportunities to do that. If they say “probably settle down in a quiet town with a family,” that means they’re probably going to want to get married, and introducing NPCs they might romance is a good idea. If they say “I want to take a throne and rule a kingdom,” and the other PCs are on board with that detour, absolutely consider introducing the politics game because with the right group that can be really fun.

5 – What situation is your character likely to intervene for if it has nothing to do with them directly? – It might be a hard one to answer. You might have to give suggestions. But these are great for micro-encounters when being in town starts to lag or you need something random for the road. Some of them will have a real thing about wanting to free slaves. Some of them won’t brook with seeing children mistreated. Others will be willing to step in any time they see somebody shaking down a merchant or know someone is being cheated. Write these down. Keep them handy. If you space them out enough you can dip into these pools over and over again.

6 – What is your character’s family like? – This one might not net you much. I have at least two players that I run for regularly that are forever orphans because one of them doesn’t want to be arsed into making more characters and the other knows I’m the kind of DM that isn’t afraid to threaten the family. I did that once. He wasn’t down with it. I learned something from it. Ask them if they’re comfortable with their family being a target and if they say no, don’t do it. There are a lot of other things you can do with a character’s family. Parents have expectations of their children. A noble’s family might try to pressure them into an arranged marriage or a mother in the smithing business might passive-aggressively imply that it’s the family’s way of doing things. A father might ask why you’re not studying to become a wizard instead. A sibling might get themselves into some trouble with gambling debt and need help getting out of it. The threat doesn’t have to be direct. The key here is to ask them what they would like to see happen if it comes up, and what they don’t want to happen, and respect those boundaries.

7 – What existing enemies or rivals does your character have and what happened to make them so at odds? – It’s a free excuse for a player to give input on their personal bad guy and there’s a big spectrum this could fall under. Whether it’s the man who burned down their village and killed everyone they cared about or just some guy that was always one upping them in swordplay school, it’s thrilling to have somebody suddenly show up that you’ve got personal beef with. Asking about it lets them set the tone for the nature of this conflict, so it’s unlikely to press past their comfort zones, and it should be fun whenever it comes up.

8 – Is there anything you the player would want to happen to your character that the character would not be entirely pleased about? – If the answer is ‘nothing,’ respect that. Some players, though, do want situations where their fighter has to navigate their way through a dungeon without their signature weapon, or their rogue ends up tied up and has to figure out a way to escape. Some players want to be almost executed and narrowly escape by the skin of their teeth. Some might even be cool with the enemy getting their hands on their character and trying to torture information out of them just so they can stay stoically silent or shout obscenities at their captors, but if that’s the case you want to be super careful and make sure you’re not making the rest of the table uncomfortable in the process. You know best what your group’s limits are, and if you don’t know, ask or maybe have them anonymously write them down or send them to you via Sarahah or something.

9 – How does your character know the character of the player sitting to the right of you? – Possibly, encourage them to talk about it. It doesn’t have to be that particular character but if you go down the line in order everybody has at least two connections and while that might not be super useful to you, it will be to them. And it might be to you depending on what they say. They could mention that they used to serve in the same town guard and then you can kill two birds with one stone by bringing up an NPC from back in their guard days and basing an adventure around that, for example.

10 – What is something your character has never admitted to anyone? – Sometimes this will be useful to you and sometimes it won’t be. Some players are going to say something like “I used to pee the bed.” But some of them will go right for “this is where I hid the bodies” and that makes for a good hook. Especially if you ask them this where the rest of the party can’t hear it so when somebody digs up a body in that location and you mention it no one else knows what’s going on but that one character starts to sweat.

Always bear in mind, the reason for all of this is not to say “gotcha” to the players or find a way to trap them, it’s to maximize the fun at the table for everyone, especially the person you’re picking on. The character won’t always be okay with it but as long as the player is it should be a blast.

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Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Megan R. Miller lives in southern Ohio where she keeps mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. She has a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and she is happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Her fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.

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