DMing D&D 5th Edition: Rooting for the Players

As my good friend, Jonathan Henry always says: “I’m a big fan of my players.” We’ve all heard the debate before when it comes to roleplaying games that there is or isn’t some validity and usefulness to an adversarial relationship between game master or dungeon master and player. To address this, today we have games that are all about player agency. Fate Core and Apocalypse World games come to mind off the bat, but we even see this with Pathfinder Hero Points and how numerous people have modified Advantage inside of 5th Edition.

“How can they attack? We have their plans!”

For me, however, I don’t feel the need for some meta game currency for players to help steer a story. Instead, I believe it rests on me as the DM/GM and the actions player characters take during the game. I also believe in encouraging player agency by listening to what players have to say out of game. And, I’ll give you what I think is a pretty cool example of that.


So, I’ve been running Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition for my wife and kids and it has been a lot of fun—both for me and them. Now, I did a few things that would make many a DM turn over in their Star Wars coffin covers, but I did these things for a reason. In short, I cheated. I let each of the players roll their stats using one of the most broken methods I’ve ever seen or used over the years—4d6 drop lowest, roll 7 times and drop lowest. I also let each player choose a feat at first level. Why would I do that? Yes, D&D is about starting out somewhat weak and building up to the fantasy themed super hero. But, maybe I look at it and realize they aren’t at that super level yet—still a long ways to go. But, it does make them a bit overpowered. You know what I say to that? Who cares?! It’s our game—not the Adventurer’s League.


Okay, so maybe there is a point in that I shouldn’t make the kids’ first game so easy on them. Well, a few things. It really isn’t much easier on them. I didn’t start at a higher level, though, because I didn’t want them to have too many moves and options available to them while they’re just trying to learn the rules for the first time. I’ve also made sure they know they are starting out stronger than usual and they know what that means. But, if they didn’t get to be a bit awesome in the early levels, I think I’d lose them. So, it’s a delicate balance.


Cheering for their Successes


You know when you’re rolling dice and that Natural 20 comes up? That cheer you light out as to take a major slice out of your opponents? Yeah, I cheer that way for my players, too. When the roll well or do something creative, I laugh and cheer with the rest of them. When I roll a big hit against them, I empathize with them. I tell them the damage almost begrudgingly rather than manically delivering the news as some GMs and DMs do.


In all honesty, Fifth Edition makes it a bit easier to avoid fudging rules and delivering the bad news straight. The reason for this is because while I have heard many a tale about TPK (total player kills) in D&D 5E games, but it also seems harder to die. The new Death Saves—at least in my experience—has limited the necessity for rolling up new characters or GM resurrection fiat.


Having More Fun


During our second adventure, there were two awesome lines delivered by my wife. We all sit around and joke during the game. We’re having a good time and still finding our roleplaying stride. But, what is it without some good one liners? In fact, when we all laugh because of something a PC says or does, they get extra XP. That’s how it is at my table anyhow. I’ll share these with you.


At one point, the party defeats some goblin minions and then their boss. They find attack plans the goblins have for a nearby town. The party argues about what to do. Should they return to the town immediately and try to help? Should they venture at least a little further into the dungeon? My wife’s character—a chaotic neutral chaos sorcerer of the dragonborn variety wants to go further and makes perhaps one of the best arguments I’ve ever heard—the best in that it took us all off-guard and made us laugh. She says: “How can they attack? We have their plans!” It got us all laughing and I marked down +10 XP.


Later on, during the same game, Elementria’s witchbolt was interrupted by the Eye of Gruumsh’s command to stop. My wife was quizzical at first then realized what happened. Suddenly, she breaks into a little chant—something that originally came from Bring it On, a movie from a few years back. I think I can put a video in here of that bit. My wife shrugs it off “That’s alright. That’s okay. I’m gonna kick yer ass anyway.” We all recognize the chant and laugh, another +10 XP. She then proceeds to mop the floor with her opponent with two crits in a row and I decide to move her entertaining +10 XP to +25 for both entertaining and foretelling.


By the same token, my son tries this really elaborate move with his rogue. If he would’ve pulled it off, he would’ve gotten bonus XP because it was just awesome. If we would’ve tried hard on explaining how things went wrong, he would’ve gotten bonus XP as well, because sometimes the awesome failures are just as entertaining as the awesome failures. Unfortunately, he didn’t even try and explain it in an interesting way. I explained to him THAT is why he didn’t get the bonus XP there. He seemed to get it—can’t wait until this Friday’s session.


Tweaking the Game and Gear


Another thing I do to show my character fandom is tweak things to the character. This is especially true with the gear I give out. I look at the DMG and online for ideas, but that’s not usually the stuff I use. The characters have already found a hoard and I like dropping stuff here and there. So, toward the end of our first session when my wife had a horrible time rolling—particularly for her ranged spell attacks—she had made a comment about how she was advised not to worry about Dexterity. So, she found a ring that grants +1 to range spell attack rolls. It’s not huge—a little bump.


Let’s talk about other stuff. My son’s rogue has tried backstab at every opportunity. He probably has about a 50/50 success rate. However, he always seems to roll some of the worst damage when he’s rolling for backstab. So, he got a bandit mask that does +2 to backstab damage only. My eldest wants her cleric to be a better healer. She found a rod that adds bonus to healing spells—just a +1 or _2, I can’t remember—but, something small that fits what she wants her character to do.


During the game, my wife got to roll a few times of chaotic effects chart for her magic. Originally, we accidently read the rules wrong and though the effect happened on a 19 or 20. I really don’t know how that happened. When we realized it was only supposed to be a 5% chance, we decided to keep it at the 10%, because she wants the chance for weird stuff to happen to be more likely. So, it’s at 10%–we kept it at 19 or20. My wife has gone so far as to make a copy of that effects sheet and start highlighting effects that have happened. She is a completionist and wants to go through each of those things at least once. Maybe I’ll even give her a reward of some sort if/when that happens. She got an item that allows her to move her results on that chart up or down by one. Maybe it’s a mostly useless item but it is taking into account when the character wants.


So, how do you show your love for the player characters? Or, how have DMs helped personalize the game and gear to the players and characters at your table?

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