Don't Be Afraid to Change Your D&D World

Dungeons & Dragons worlds are malleable. Being creations of imagination, they are subject to change at will. An enchanted valley rife with woodland fey can easily become a desolate wasteland scoured by devastating magic years ago; all it takes is a decision by its creator to change it. However, being Dungeon Masters, they must be sure to enact this one key rule: once characters interact with a part of the world, it becomes a real part of the world. If the party enters the enchanted valley and meets an elf queen and her fairy servants one day and returns to the area a week later and it’s become a desert skittering with thri-kreen, something is wrong. Once characters visit a place, meet a person, or use an item, it can’t be changed nonchalantly. Before that pivotal moment, the world is malleable.

Changing the World

I had this important realization as I was soaring over the Pacific Ocean toward Hawai'i. I brought along the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide to reread and, as I pored over the first section, I realized I wasn’t building the world I wanted. I’d gone crazy with the number of nations, civilized places, and societies in a world I wanted to be dark and wild. I didn’t want points of light to be illuminating the darkness, I wanted specs of light in a sea of unending wickedness and despair.

However, I had a brief conundrum. But my players have been in this world for so long, how could I change it now? Well, of course, they’ve only seen a portion of it. The tone of it won’t change for them. Those places won’t change for them. The people they’ve met won’t change. The only information I’m changing is information I or a select few players know about. And that’s the key: it’s me and a few players, not their characters. I came to the realization that I’ve always held true to an important rule in D&D: once a character interacts with something in the world, it becomes a part of it.

If the thing I want to change hasn’t been touched while playing, I’m free to change it. Thus, when I was flying to Hawaii, I began rewriting my setting guide. There were no longer 20+ nations on Aphesus, the main continent of my world — there were nine. And these nine were far more disparate and small than they were before; countries with bandit-ridden roads, diabolical prophets, and far apart regions of safety. They all were frightened by an overarching threat: the great dragon empire, and empire that’s been present in my home games for over two years now. See? The minutia, the tens of nations my parties haven’t visited could be changed, but the dragon empire, a keystone of our game, couldn’t.

As I changed my D&D world, I had fascinating new ideas and was reminded what kind of world I really wanted to make. This remastering of my world felt freeing, despite me tossing many hours of writing and creation away. And while I say this, I’m not truly throwing away anything. Everything I wrote is still available to me and I can always go back to it for inspiration on my new take on my setting. I’m super happy with what I’m making so far, and I’m doing it without trivializing my world to my players in the slightest. It’s still the same world they’ve always adventured in, with all the places and people they’ve come to love and hate — just better on the back-end.

I'd like to emphasize that this rule only applies to things the characters have encountered, not the players. Sure, maybe you've discussed the disenfranchised, honor-bound goblinoid culture on a far off continent with a player, but that doesn't mean it's canon. Their character hasn't encountered it in the world, the player themselves heard about it in the real world. That doesn't count.

If you’re curious in the difference between my present day setting and the setting in the past, here are the two campaign guides for reference:

Those of you who regularly read my articles will probably recognize the former guide. I reference it constantly and have completed a plethora of worldbuilding topics all about it. As I look over them now, almost all of them are staying in the new version of my world. I’m really just cutting the bloat and focusing on what I really enjoy about my world, in addition to what my players love about it.

The Dungeon Master's Guides

As mentioned earlier, this radical change was brought about by reading the fifth edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. It’s an amazing book, probably my favorite of fifth edition D&D. If you haven’t read it in a while, give it a ponder. It might make you realize what you want to change about your D&D world and give you brand new ideas to implement. On top of reading this, I’m looking into the third and fourth edition DMG’s again. I remember the 4E guide being incredible, not only for worldbuilding and new ideas but for how to run a believable game using the mechanics. The 3E guide, I barely remember. I think I only read portions of it when I was eleven or twelve — it’s definitely time to reread it. Maybe it will give me more ways to enhance my homebrew setting, too!

And that’s really what this article is about: giving you ideas on how to enhance your setting. I’m giving you permission to change whatever you want about your D&D world as long as the characters haven’t interacted with it. Don’t turn that valley they traveled through into a desert — it won’t go over well. Changes like this radically destroy trust between the Dungeon Master and players. With the destruction of that trust, no one will believe they’re playing in a living, breathing world that their characters are a part of. They’ll think it’s just a game that can change on a whim, regardless of their actions or choices. That’s not what we want our D&D settings to be.

Until the next encounter, farewell!

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How to Keep Battles Moving in D&D

A massive roper flings its tentacles at a crouched wood elf shadow, thrusting him into the air. A half-devil dragonborn lets loose a bolt of electricity that arcs across the battlefield, zapping multiple tiny ropers. On the other side of the cavern, a blue dragonborn monk leaps into the fray, pummeling the massive roper with reinforced fists and claws while dodging his companion's lightning strike. And then a halfling bard — is not prepared. He fumbles with his lute, unsure of what to do. Unfortunately, the battle stalls to a halt.

Everyone wants a battle to go smoothly. Everyone takes their turn, one by one, until one side achieves victory. All of the orcs are slain. The kobold prisoners are saved. The abyssal portal is closed. The mercenary reinforcements arrive. The green dragon concedes. However, there are plenty of possible hindrances to a smooth combat.

One of them is a player, including the Dungeon Master, not knowing what to do on their turn.

How can we solve that problem and keep the battle moving?

Pay Attention and Prepare!

The easiest way to solve being out of touch and unprepared is to pay attention and prepare. Instead of looking at your phone, perusing the internet on your laptop, or talking about something out-of-game during combat, ready what you want to do. Pay attention to the layout of the battlefield and what your companions and enemies are doing. If you know what you’re going to do on your turn, think of a way to connect your action to the action of one of the battle’s participants. If the thri-kreen lancer impales her spear into the ground after a missed attack, change your attack description to include taking advantage of her momentary weakness. By the time you’ve thought up an exciting move, it will be your turn. If it’s not, just pay attention to your fellow players. You’re there to play D&D, not scroll through Reddit, Twitter, or Facebook.

Recap the Battle

Primarily, this is a tip for Dungeon Masters. To ensure everyone is paying attention and immersed in the action, constantly describe the battlefield. Let’s say Joras and Wren are fighting a deadly phase spider. Instead of going from turn to turn with no description, at the beginning of Joras’ turn, urgently say:

“The phase spider crawls before you, blood spurting out of multiple wounds on its body. It screams out in pain as its mandibles grow closer to your tiny form. Joras, what are you doing?”

This creates a sense of urgency in the battle and gives them a springboard for Joras’ player’s description. If we move to Wren next, state:

“As Joras stabs the phase spider with his steel dagger, it stumbles backward a few steps — straight toward you, Wren. What are you doing?”

Again, a jumping off point and a sense of urgency is present. Brief recaps of the battlefield help immerse the players, understand where they are in the combat, and what their enemy is doing between every turn.

Dodge or Cower

If you have no idea what to do on your turn, simply take the dodge action. It’s a defensive move that keeps you safe and is simple to remember. Dungeon Masters, if you want to force your players to plan out their turns to keep the battle moving, enlist the cower action. Characters only take the cower action if they can’t decide what to do on their turn. When a character cowers, it loses 2 armor class and has disadvantage on dexterity saving throws. It’s a harsh penalty, but a good way to reinforce your desire to keep the battle flowing.

Skip and Come Back

The final solution to stalling out battles is to just skip your turn and return to you before the end of the round. This solution only works in some groups, because intelligent players know how to manipulate this rule. What might start out as a way to give slower thinkers a way to plan their turn will transform into a deliberate strategy to change the order of initiative. It’s not a great solution but it’s one that will suffice for some of you out there.

In Summary

It’s never fun to stall the battle because you don’t know what to do on your turn. Here are a few remedies:
  1. Pay attention and prepare. Try to relate your action to someone else’s.
  2. Dungeon Masters, briefly recap the battlefield between every turn.
  3. If you don’t know what to do, take the dodge action. If Dungeon Masters wants to be particularly brutal, force players to take the homebrewed cower action.
  4. If your table is forgiving, just skip your turn and return to you before the end of the round. Be wary, though, this solution can be abused by intelligent players.
That’s all for today, folks. Thanks for reading!

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How to Phase Out Player Characters in D&D

As a rainstorm rages in the coastal city of Merlint, Merk and his party stand in a dark alleyway near the Moon Castle. Merk is overtaken by a foul desire to grasp Ruaka’s sentient blade, Flindlint, for his shadowy patron, Scopos. The hexblade entity whispers to Merk and begins to materialize in the mortal world as the party readies for combat. Merk is frightened, he’s not sure whether to side with his party or his warlock patron. In a flash of black smoke, Scopos emerges from Merk’s trident and tears through Ruaka, reaching for the magma sword. Confidently, Alovnek steps forward, holy symbol in hand, and banishes Scopos back to the Shadowfell. Everyone gasps in the rainy alleyway, relieved, but Merk knows he must leave his companions behind or risk Scopos’ darkness overtaking them — and him — in the future.

Not every player character is meant to survive until they’re slaughtered by an orc warlord’s sentient falchion, incinerated by a red dragon’s fire breath, or lobotomized by a mindflayer’s voracious tentacles. Some of them yearn to retire with the gold found in dungeons, return to their life as a quiet botanist, or immerse themselves in written worlds — those are frightening enough. After all, it’s not their choice, it’s their player’s choice.

How do you phase out a player character from your campaign seamlessly? 

It’s a question I’ve heard asked constantly. I’ve constructed a few answers, many stem from my home campaigns. Some of my players enjoy cycling through characters. Maybe yours are the same.

Collaborate with the Player

The most important part of phasing out a player character is collaborating with the character’s player. If they want to leave the group and create a new character, discuss the options below with them. Don’t thrust a choice upon them, merely suggest avenues that are better than others, ones that fit with the campaign. If the group is on Avernus, First Layer of the Nine Hells, it’s unlikely the character can retire amongst the warring demons & devils.

A Glorious Demise

The party races after the hasty & injured halfling wererat as she dips into a sewer grate and slides down the ladder. Not caring for his safety, a half-orc bard leaps after her, ripping her off the ladder and bringing them both to the bottom of the pit. This marks the end of Bruno the half-orc bard. Bruno’s player wanted a new character because Bruno wasn’t meshing with the group. However, he wished for Bruno to experience an epic demise. The next session, I gave him the opportunity and he responded. Dying to defeat a villain or save your party is a great way to exit the party with no strings attached. You can ensure the character won’t return and your group can rest easily.

Time For Conflict

The example with Merk and his hexblade patron is an example of conflict igniting between party members. This is another great reason for a character to leave the party. What’s special about this method is that it opens up future avenues for the Dungeon Master. Does the departed member seek revenge? Will they ally with the group in the future? If the Dungeon Master thinks they’ll be able to accurately portray the departing character and their former player is okay with it, this can make for a great twist in a campaign. I might bring back Merk as a brief side plot in my campaign’s future, the triton emboldened and corrupted by the might of the nightwalker Scopos.

It’s Time to Go Home

Walking into the sunset is the best option for those who want their characters to survive and live happily ever after...for a time. If your character retires from adventuring, they become a civilian: a farmer, a carpenter, or a noble. They’re not exploring ancient lizardfolk crypts, tainted wood elf shrines, or forests touched by the Feywild. They’re setting down their bloody sword for a child’s hand or the touch of a partner. It’s happy, yes, but if the Dungeon Master is particularly devilish, they might utilize this retired player character in vile ways. Remember your friend, Wargen the alchemist? He’s been captured by the conniving Lord Elyas Embong and trapped in the dungeons of the Moon Castle. Are you going to let him rot or return him to his happy ending?

In Summary

Phasing a player character out of your D&D campaign can be tricky. With some coordination between you and their player, you can make the transition quite seamless. Remember the following approaches:
  1. Always collaborate with the character’s play on how they will go out.
  2. Death is always an option; go out in a blaze of glory.
  3. A disagreement between party members on how to progress can be a good exit for a PC and an excellent way for them to return as an enemy.
  4. Sometimes retiring is the best option, especially for a character who just wants to rest.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this article, make sure to share it or comment below.

Until next time, stay creative.

Eager for more RJD20? Begin here, subscribe to the RJD20 newsletter, and explore RJD20 videos on YouTube.

Check out Villain Backgrounds Volume I, a supplement that crafts compelling villains.

Please send inquiries to