Dungeon Masters, Study Your Players' Characters

It’s Wednesday night. The Karlith Straits group is flying away from an erupting volcano where their hexblade’s clan once resided. Once he awakens from unconsciousness, there will surely be a hostile confrontation between him and the unintentional vanquishers of his vanquished clan. Later that same night, the party fights Taris Xaglomandra, a black half-dragon enforcer of the Obsidian Circle and cleric of Takhsis. They’re battling atop a partially-singed grassy knoll and Taris is near death and on the ground; he calls out to his shadow wyvern to grasp him in his talons and retreat. Not so fast! As the wyvern rises into the air with Taris, the order domain cleric Alovnek narrowly slams it with his maul. As the weapon connects, misty blue chains appear from its head and shackle the wyvern to the ground. After fifteen sessions, Taris would finally fall to the group (even though he took down a likable NPC and a PC with him).

Characters drive Dungeons & Dragons games forward. The most important ones are the player characters. If you find yourself questioning this statement, you most likely disagree with me about the fundamentals of D&D or you haven’t had this epiphany yet. Who do the villains plot and compete against? The PCs. Who affects the fantastic locations and stories spread across your campaign? The PCs. Who interacts with the carefully crafted NPCs who populate your world? The PCs. Thus, it’s important that you understand each one of them if you’re striving for the best possible experience at the table and in the game.

This idea might seem rudimentary, but to some, it’s a revelation they need to read. So, with that in mind, let’s delve into what parts of your players’ characters you need to study as a Dungeon Master.

Their Backstory

Understanding the various backstories of the party you’re running the game for can drastically improve everyone’s enjoyment at the table. Good news! It doesn’t require much work on your end. If each of your players wrote a single paragraph or even a single sentence for their respective character, read and incorporate it into the campaign or adventure.

The arms merchant the fighter had a hostile run-in with when he bought his first sword? He’s opening the new weapon shop in town. How about the cold bandit king who slaughtered the ranger’s bear companion for her beautiful pelt? he’s behind the string of disappearances driving the adventure. Who’s the victim of one of these disappearances? The dwarf wizard’s mother who paid for his arcane academy tuition!

See? It’s easy and will help invest your players into your world and the collaborative story you’re all telling.

Their Goals

Arguably more important than knowing each PC’s backstory is understanding what their goals are as individuals and as a collective. If you know them, it’s even easier to weave a narrative that piques their interest. Sadly, some players don’t arrive at the table with a clear goal in mind; ask them to! In particular, ask for two short term goals and one long term goal. That should give you more than enough ammunition for quests now and in the future.

Short term goals should be simple and concise: Alovnek yearns for the death of Enforcer Taris; Ra seeks a forgotten temple of his patron; Qoyish wants a weapon forged specially for her; Grobbolith needs to find new varieties of mushrooms. Most of the time, they’re attainable quickly (the time frame changes group by group), but this doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. Short term goals can start as mere side quests and become main story beats or embody the core story from the very beginning.

Long terms goals are different. They’re complicated, far-off, and most likely require an arduous journey to attain: Alovnek wants to become a deity; Ra wishes to release his patron who’s imprisoned in the Elemental Plane of Fire; Qoyish yearns for her hated kind to be accepted by their kin; Grobbolith seeks the power his archdruid mentor. Long terms goals aren’t attainable in a day or two. They require months of adventuring and scheming.

As for collective goals, those should arise naturally during play. Sometimes, party’s begin with a concrete motive in mind: Stop the death curse plaguing the realm (Tomb of Annihilation); defeat Strahd (Curse of Strahd). But even those can change over time! Perhaps your group decides the death curse can be harnessed. Maybe they think Strahd is a fecund individual, what he’s done with Barovia is fantastic! The point being that collective goals can arise naturally during play, while short and long term goals (at least initially) should be pitched by the players.

So, make sure to study your players’ characters! If they have goals, great, use them. If they don’t, ask them to form a few. The entire game becomes much more fun when each individual has a motivation. As for a collective goal, well, that’s why the party exists; those arise and grow naturally.

Their Mechanical Abilities

Now we’re moving a bit away from the story-side of D&D. The next aspect of your players’ characters that you should be looking at is their mechanical abilities. I’m not talking about how hard they hit or what their armor class is; instead, what special abilities does their class give them? What spells are on their spell list? What do they do over and over and what do they have available to them that’s being underutilized? Once you’ve done a bit of research, building challenging and interesting encounters becomes much easier. It’s a fine line, encounter design. You want to challenge your players’ characters but you also want them to shine and show their strength.

In the battle I described in this article’s opening, I did just that. Enforcer Taris, a black half-dragon cleric, took advantage of the Karlith Straits group’s weaknesses all while allowing their strengths to shine through. Their lack of range is an issue, leading them to constantly group up around a creature; so, Taris unleashed acidic breath upon them multiple times, leading to the death of a beloved NPC and a player character. However, Taris wasn’t able to escape because of Alovnek’s clutch use of ensnaring strike.

This isn’t a video game. We don’t need to build our encounters for a varying cast of characters that surmounts 1,000 possibilities. We need to build them for our group. Shape your encounters around your group and you’ll start having a much better and easier time.

Their Items

After class abilities, items play the next most important role in how characters interact with the world around them. You should think about them when designing encounters as well! Follow what I outlined above: give characters with awesome, useful items moments to shine. If the half-orc ranger has a pair of water-walking boots, set an epic battle against drow in an underground river or lake. If the halfling rogue has a grappling hook, give her a chasm to throw it across! Players feel amazing when their items come in use — play on that! It’s something I need to do more of and I’m getting better at it every time I play.

As a side note, also be sure to not reward your party with the same reward twice. Switch it up! No need to hand out two vorpal blades, boots of water-walking, or the same old 1,000 gold pieces reward. In fact, I think there's an entire article on this topic waiting to be written...

In Summary

Dungeon Masters, study your players’ character. In particular, pay attention to these four aspects:
  1. Their backstory. Incorporate it into your game at every opportunity.
  2. Their goals. Use them to drive your collaborative story forward.
  3. Their mechanical abilities. Build encounters with them in mind.
  4. Their items. Create encounters with them in mind and don’t hand out the same reward twice.
If you do that, your D&D game is guaranteed to improve.

Until next time, farewell!

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