The difference between a mediocre dungeon master and a great Dungeon Master is their dedication to self improvement. A great DM is always seeking how to run the perfect game of Dungeons & Dragons, but also knows that’s more of a journey than a destination. So, as a great Dungeon Master your are always looking for ways to improve your craft. To help you on your journey I put together 7 Easy Ways to Improve Your D&D Games.
Easy Ways to Improve Your D&D Game #1 Random DCs for Random Attempts
Sometimes you need to come up with a Difficulty Challenge on the fly because your players once again are on a tangent and doing something you hadn’t anticipated. But, you also don’t want it to seem like you’re making numbers up in your head or fall into a subconscious routine of setting DCs at the same level. That’s when I roll 3d6 to determine the DC.
How 3d6 DCs Work
To start, take 3d6 and roll them. Ignore the right most die and total the remaining dice. This tells you the base DC as it is laid out in the Dungeon Masters Guide for 5e.
2d6 | Base DC
- 2: 0
- 3-4: 5
- 5-9: 10
- 10-11: 15
- 12: 20
For standard ability checks add the remaining 1d6 to the total. For ability checks that require proficiency to perform such as lockpicking or knowledge checks, double the value of the final die. This method creates a range of DCs from 1-32 that averages in the 13-17 range that is standard for fifth edition D&D.
3d6 Random Difficulty Challenge Example
During the last battle the wizard’s shatter spell accidentally destroyed the bridge crossing the dungeon chasm. The party has decided the fighter will take a rope and attempt to jump over the bottomless breach. You pick up your 3d6 and roll them: 5,6,4.
An eleven makes this a somewhat difficult base DC of 15. No proficiencies are required to attempt a jump so we do not double the final die’s value of four. Your final DC for jumping the chasm is a respectable DC 19.
You may need to write down the 2d6 bell curve chart for reference the first few times, but quickly you’ll memorize it so you can roll the dice straight and determine the DC without looking anything up. This method works just as well if you want to ignore the roll results and set a more appropriate DC without tipping off players about what the dice mean.
#2 Active Stealth vs Passive Perception
Few things are more frustrating than a group of players making overzealous Perception checks. New room? Perception check. Closed door? Perception check. Found a trap? New Perception checks every 10 feet of movement. It can quickly slow the game to a slog.
Perhaps the only thing more frustrating than too many Perception checks is the implementation of Passive Perception. Since bursting on the scene in 2008, Passive Perception’s intent and implementation has been a source of contention for players, dungeon masters, and designers. It doesn’t help that Wizards of the Coast is often very vague and answers about its use seem to flip flop through the years. So, how can you turn it from a hindrance into an easy way to improve your D&D game?
Try flipping the script with a simple house rule. Players no longer make active perception checks to notice things outside of combat. Hazards, ambushes, tricks, and traps instead make active stealth checks against the player character passive perception.
Implementing this easy change stops players from stopping progress by checking every hallway, door, and room for traps, while also providing a very clear use for Investigation as the way to find other non-hazardous secrets such as treasure, clues, and secret doors. Active stealth versus passive perception also stops waterfall perception checks, where one character fails the checks so everyone else in the party starts rolling perception checks. Overall, it means your table gets to the meaty action bits of the session faster.
Easy Ways to Improve Your D&D Game #3 Simple Improvised Damage
Sometimes you need to make up damage for a trap, hazard, or spell. There’s a handy chart in the DMG, but it’s not easy to memorize and you may not have it in front of you at the table. This easier improvised damage follows the DMG table, but is much easier to use off the top of your head. You only need to know the party’s level.
Whatever the source, damage on one creature it’s Xd10+X. For an area effect or damage targeting more than one creature it’s Xd6+X. X in this case is the party’s level. This can deal KO level damage for characters with small hit dice so keep that in mind. While it’s unlikely to outright kill a PC, characters who are not at full hit points have a decent chance of being knocked out if they’re hit with the single target d10s of damage.
Simple Improvised Damage Example
Your party has gone off the rails and you’ve decided to throw a falling rocks hazard at them as you figure out what’s coming up next. You roll your random 3d6 DC for a DC 12. They’re a third level party so reduce the DC by 10 (8 + 2 [3rd level proficiency modifier]) to determine the hazard will make a +2 Stealth check against the party’s passive perceptions to ambush them. The falling rocks target all creatures so the hazard does 3d6+3 damage on a failed DC 12 Dexterity saving throw, half damage on a success. PCs who are surprised have disadvantage on the saving throw.
#4 Improve Exploration with Choice, Risk, and Reward
For many D&D players the exploration pillar is their least favorite aspect of the game. And that’s not surprising considering many games’ exploration consists of one-off random encounters, traps, puzzles, resource management, and dreaded skill challenges.
None of these at face value offer any substantial gameplay through choice, risk, and reward. In my experience the biggest offender is random encounters. They rarely offer any choice, instead the DM rolls on a table and tells the party they get attacked by 1d6 orcs. Because traveling the party is not likely to fight more than one encounter a day letting them “Go Nova,” resulting in no risk. And unless the DM is randomizing all encounter loot the players aren’t going to pick up any cool magic items, material wealth, or insight for the coming adventures. So instead it ends up being just a time waster.
Instead think of exploration and overland travel as opportunities to present your players with a choice and consequences of their decision through risk and reward. Doing so is an easy way to improve your D&D games. Take the 1d6 orcs from above. Instead of rolling initiative try putting them on the rise of a nearby hill, watching the PCs pass by. In this situation the choice and risk are self-explanatory. Does the party ignore them and risk being followed and attacked while they sleep? Do they charge up the hill and initiate combat? Are there more orcs hiding just beyond eyesight? Should the party try to parlay with the orcs, make trade, even gather some information? Maybe the party can hire the orc band as guides and more quickly reach their destination.
Simply creating a situation where the stakes are understood and providing the players a choice for how they would like to proceed makes exploration so much more fulfilling. It comes down to creating a situation and uttering the iconic DM line, “what do you do?” This can be done with any part of the exploration tier, not just random encounters, and it will get your players to engaged with this often overlooked area of the game.
Easy Ways to Improve Your D&D Game #5 Foreshadowing
Running the game you may feel compelled to play everything about your villains and their plans very close to the vest. And that’s really great, in moderation. Like above, making meaningful choices in a game requires having enough information to make a choice. A dungeon intersection that goes left and right doesn’t offer a meaningful choice, because without any additional information the players cannot discern a good choice from a bad choice, it’s random; a coin flip.
Instead you need to provide breadcrumbs of information for the players to collect as they go through the adventure. The worst case scenario of providing clues is one of your players will straight up guess what’s going on. If so, play it cool with your poker face and continue ahead. When all is revealed, that player is going to feel awesome they guessed what was going on five sessions back. If the worst case scenario is your players feel smart.. that’s not a very bad outcome.
The best games of D&D involve a lot of player speculation as they put together clues and draw conclusions. Provide a steady stream of cryptic clues helps keep your players’ minds humming. Your foreshadowing doesn’t need to be 100% accurate. Toss out the occasional red herring so your players aren’t always sure the information they’ve discovered is factual. I wouldn’t use a red herring more than 20% of the time. This can also give you the flexibility to alter the narrative of the game as needed.
For example, your players find a note that describes a giant beast’s roar deep in the dungeon. But, you know at the bottom of the dungeon there’s isn’t a bellowing beast, but a grand, mechanical machine that occasionally lets out a howling exhaust that distorts as it echoes through the dungeon. Perfect clue that’s not 100% accurate.
Sometimes your players are going to speculate something that’s way cooler than what you have planned. This is the best case scenario because you can just take their much cooler idea and run with it and it’ll seem like you had it planned the whole time. In the above example, your players may decipher it’s something mechanical making the roar. And now they’re hooked on the idea of a clockwork dragon. Hey, if that’s cooler than the original mechanical machine, make it a freaking dragon construct because that sounds awesome.
Include foreshadowing and clues as “plot rewards,” in encounters. It could be a note, directions, a usable item like a key or half a future puzzle’s solution, coded message, or just a bit of hearsay and rumor. These clues are really great things for your players to obsess about in the days between game sessions. It can also help your players get through puzzle sections if they’re not big puzzle solvers.
#6 Introduce the Resource Die Mechanic
Bookkeeping isn’t fun. Keeping track of rations, spell components, ammunition, and encumbrance are the first things groups throw out the window. Tracking them is frankly, a pain in the butt, and a big reason why players and Dungeon Masters aren’t keen on the exploration pillar. In fact, most RPG systems have magic spells and items that specifically handwave the resource management aspect of the game.
Extra carrying capacity, extradimensional bags, ioun stones, rings, create food & water, magical quivers, floating disk, etc. In some cases, the rules system tries to create a better system for resource management. Like the encumbrance system from Starfinder/Pathfinder 2 and the 5e spell component pouch/arcane focus.
That may leave you wondering, why this relic of D&D yesteryear isn’t just omitted. First, doing so makes exploitative players more exploitative if they can magically carry any number of items and be prepared for every situation at every time. The other is that resource management still has a place in modern D&D. I mean, it’s baked into spell slots and PC non-magical abilities. So if we’re not removing resource management from wizards, why would we do it for archers?
Removing or nullifying resource management undercuts specific aspects of the game. And, I didn’t really think about it until I read this post years ago, Does Ammunition Really Matter? Spoiler alert, it does. By limiting other player resources in the same way spell slots limit casters, you force players to think critically, make decisions, and approach problems in creative ways. And isn’t that exactly what you want your players to do?
Resource Die Mechanic
1d8 > 1d6 > 1d4 > 1 > 0
The resource die helps provide that by abstracting resource management. For example, instead of carrying 20 arrows, the ranger has 1d6 arrows. At the end of the day, after one or more combats the ranger loosed an arrow, they roll their 1d6 arrow die. On, 2-6 everything is fine. On a one, the die size is reduced to 1d4. If they roll a one on the 1d4 the ranger has a single arrow left. This abstraction includes arrows the ranger recovered after battle, plus any arrows that are lost or broken.
I use this same mechanic to track water/rations for the whole party as one die roll. The party may have packed enough rations for their journey, but sometimes rations spoil, get infested by bugs, get wet, or the party eats more than their daily allotment. Like packing for any trip, you have to use your best guess as to what and how much of something to bring and that’s tempered by things like encumbrance, vehicles, animals, and container space.
It helps create tension as they travel out in the world because the longer they’re on the road the more chance is that they will run out of ammunition, animal feed, torches, food, or water. Leading to choices like do they spend time foraging for food or ask the cleric to burn a third level spell so the party can eat. Should they delve deeper into the caves and risk running out of torches? Creating an emphasis on resource management makes stopping to forage or running into town to resupply more common and the prospect of conducting a cross country expedition, more daunting.
The resource die mechanic is an easy way to improve your D&D game. It makes the resource management process simple, injects some randomness, and make this aspect of D&D a more interesting part of the game than simply ticking boxes.
Easy Ways to Improve Your D&D Game #7 Callbacks & Recurrences
Players love when the world feels like it changes because of their actions. Most of the time this means visiting a recovered settlement after the party slayed the monster terrorizing it two months ago.
An easy way to improve your D&D game is by adding in these callbacks and recurrences. Whenever I have loose ends in a completed adventure I add them to a running list that uses the resource die mechanic from above. After a game session I roll the resource die for loose ends. When a loose end reaches zero, I know it’s going to show back up in the game in the next few sessions. Imagine the recovered settlement from before, the party is in a tavern in a different town and discover an ale from the terrorized settlement is back in stock. Players love these little callback Easter egg moments. Matt Mercer uses them in Critical Role all the time.
This can be used for more than a cool moment of “hey, remember this?” You can use it to move the tension slider in your game up or down. The choices your PCs make create their karma and can be a boon or bane for your players. Remember the bugbear lieutenant from the last dungeon who escaped? Well, he’s holding a grudge. The bugbear grabbed some friends and tracked you down to throw a wrench into your current adventure. Who knows where or when an NPC from a previous adventure could come across the party and give them the piece of information, boat ride, or introduction they need in the adventure as thanks.
Using callbacks and recurrences to improve your D&D game will make your players feel like the world remembers what they did and responds appropriately. This has the unintentional effect of often punishing groups who operate as “murder hobos.” Slowly they will build a reputation and people will not trust them, ask for their help, sell them goods, or just actively flee and hide when they approach.
That’s 7 Easy Ways to Improve Your D&D Games
Implementing these easy tips will take your D&D games and your overall DM-craft to the next level. If you like the content please share it online with the great DMs you know. If you love the content and want to support the website I have Pay-What-You-Want items in the RRF DriveThruRPG Shop. I suggest my DM Quick Reference Guide for 5e. Or, you can contribute to supporting the site directly by buying me a Ko-Fi. I don’t run advertising or use affiliate links so your direct support is appreciated!