I have now switched to my new schedule. I will be posting an article every Monday, except perhaps on the second Monday of the month. Not so coincidentally, WotC publishes its Unearthed Arcana that day. Today’s topic is Interactions, and how you can encourage your player to interact with your content, thus be more pro-active. Check my other tips here.
Putting the play back into players
Sometimes, a DM experiences the greatest woe, one that can shatter their spirit, and ruin their drive. Silence. You have prepared a good deal of content, have all those ideas in mind and on the paper, tonight’s session is going to be a blast! But the unthinkable happens. None of them come to life. The players didn’t play with them, and your content stayed dead on paper, just like your spirit now.
One likely reason is that the content is out of their reach. If the players must go through hoops to access it, then they can’t interact with it. It won’t come to life. To fix the problem, you need to encourage interactions with your content, increasing player’s involvement. You need to put in the work at first, but it is really rewarding. DMs need to have fun too — if not, something is very wrong.
Traps and Obstacles, how to avoid the hit-point tax
«I check for traps»
In a dungeon, I once had a player asked every time we entered some new place or trot along some corridors «I check for traps», or «And of course, I am checking for traps». I did not react appropriately at the time. I let them do their things, just repeating over and over «You don’t find anything». It is not that there weren’t any, but I minimize the hit-point tax to one or two traps.
What is the hit-point tax? It expresses perfectly what passive traps accomplish. You find them, they do nothing, you don’t find them, they deal damage and other effects. In average, they exhaust some of the party resources, in particular hit points. If I use one or two, it’s to convey a very specific message (they don’t want you to touch the holy statues, this is a really unfriendly place, etc.).
Otherwise, I use interactive traps, or expect the trap detection to happen when the players interact with the environment. For instance, the party arrives at a door. The door is an obstacle, it might be locked, it might be trapped. The party naturally wants to check for those, which creates the opportunity for an interaction, beyond a mere roll. Describe the door, what makes it unique. How does the lock react to the thieves’ tool? What happens when the trapsweeper works their craft?
Green patina covers the massive copper door, sign of its old age. Something immediately catch your attention. The handle rotates in twelve increments, thus describing a complete circle. An engraving on the door depicts the battle of Altaïr, where Lady Lyndis slew the white sorcerer, putting an end to its rule of terror. Above, «The Fated Hour» is engraved in Celestial on a golden plaque.
To open the door, the party must turn the handle right as it indicates five o’clock. The solution can be worked from the title and the picture: the fight happened during the fifth month of the year 1738 PC.
Otherwise, on the first mistake, the door deal 2d6 lightning damage. And then on the second mistake for the next 24 hours, the real trap triggers and releases Cone of Cold (DC17).
Of course, most doors are just doors. One or two rolls is enough to deal with them. If every door in the dungeon requires a long sequence, then you are going to break the party’s immersion as you turn this into a very repetitive game. They might question the sanity of the dungeon maker — that is, in effect or by proxy, you.
Put the party to work.
But then the same concept applies to other interactive environments. To grab a gem, a character puts their hand into the mouth of a lion statue. The lion bites down, crushing the arm, trapping the greedy paladin in a difficult position. Now the party must work together to prevent amputation, and maybe at the end, they can get the gem too. When a character walks on a pressure plate, describe the slight click they hear. Ask them what immediate action they take. Circumstantial hints might drive them to either jump off, or on the contrary to stay put. And if the trap does not trigger in that case, then the party has some work to do. Not only do they need disarm the trap, but they want to prevent any injuries.
What traps to use?
In the end, to improve the game’s experience, stay away from the hit-point tax. Have traps be part of interactive environments. Use traps that give a bit of warning through the senses (a click, a flash, air pressure on the skin, etc.). Even further, make the trap an obvious obstacle, like a Wall of Fire. I once used a Prismatic Wall to block the access to the next room from a low-level party, and it was quite some fun to gather all the tools they needed to remove the layers.
What about the «I check for traps» issue? If a PC walks in corridors and keep telling you they are checking for traps, tell them it is unnecessary. In a dungeon, we assume the party is alert and checking for traps. To determine if the PCs find the non-interactive traps, we can use passive perception, just like many modules do. If there are circumstances that means the party is distracted, or on contrarily, overtly focused, use disadvantage/advantage. Apply it to their perception checks (+5/-5 for passive).
Here is an old interesting article written by Ben Robbins about how to design better traps.
The hidden drawer
There is a nice recommendation in the Player’s Handbook (Finding a Hidden Object, page 178) on how to deal with hidden drawers and investigation. With some style and words (the good ones), you describe a new room to your party; they are deeply amazed by your talent. But functionally, the room has a bed, a carpet, a desk with three drawers and a cupboard. Plenty of places to hide secret compartment.
Now, the most interactive way here is not to roll Investigation. Instead, describe most of the things, with one, two details, that scream for further investigation. A classic: wet footsteps on the wooden planks that just stop somewhere. An unusual smell coming from the carpet (fish, in the desert?). Less obvious: ashes in a fireplace with a squeaky clean wall
But then, what about that hidden drawer in the desk? If you are running an interactive game, chance is one of the players is going to examine the desk. This is where you need to make the sequence interactive. Describe what happens, add intriguing details, as they take further and further actions. This increase active play, and make the scene tactile, thus more immersive.
«The first drawer is empty, yet when you close it, you hear something shake, like dice in a cup.
— Alright, I remove the second and third drawer, and look at the first one from the bottom.
— You notice that the first drawer is longer than the other two, it goes a bit deeper into the desk.
— OK. I take it out and smash it to reveal that hidden compartment.
— Well, that works too… Make a Constitution Saving Throw, to resist the noxious fumes from the poison vial you just smashed.
— Dangit, did you add that just to punish me?
— No, I swear. You did not open the compartment properly, triggering the trap.»
Even better! You can always improvise on the go a secret for your own fun. It could be the perfect place to put down that obvious clue they missed two sessions ago. It does not even have to be plot-related. A small painting of an old love, a vial full of drugs, or a diary do just fine. Something that makes the desk’s user more alive, more fleshed out.
The party can interact with any content you put forth, not just with the one within their physical reach. When you describe a kingdom, an organization, a city, a monster’s den, and so on, this is the perfect occasion for a lore check. If the virtuous circle of description-interaction is already integrated in your game, chance is one of them might ask if they know more, or can roll. Otherwise, don’t hesitate to convey a specific information to one of the players. If they are not asking any questions, if they are not interacting with the scene, prompt a player to improvise a detail about the setting.
« The crimson knights’ sacred mission is to deal with «magical deviants», as they call them. According to their threat level, they will be kept on file, jailed, executed, or for the worst ones disappeared, few knows where.
— Since I am a knight, would it be fair to say I know about this order? My mentor worshiped Mystra.
— Alright, what is your angle?
— Since my mentor worshiped Mystra, maybe she warned me against those.
— Ok, very good. Roll History with Advantage.
— 7, Damn. Oh, but 16 on the second dice.
— You know that those who are disappeared are jailed in a demiplane that’s called Mini Carceri. Powerful magic wards and anti-magic fields protect the place, and no one has ever escaped from there.
— Until now!»
Do not keep essential information behind a roll wall. Dice farts can happen, so give the required information to the party (with things like the rule of three, or simply as part of the narration). Hide bonus information behind good rolls or, ideally, use it to reward active and inspired play.
See my article on passive checks for more tips on how to use passive checks.
See you next week…
DMing is a lot of work. We don’t get enough love, whether it is from the players or Wizards of the Coast. And sometimes we go through burnout that can be caused by our self-expectations and the ratio fun we get/work we put in. I hope this article helps you with the second one. By practicing, you can pick up good habits that in the end improves everyone’s fun, yours in particular.
Follow me on twitter for new updates. See you tomorrow for some homebrew.