Seven Ways to Mess with Your Party

Screenshot from NBC's Community.

So you’ve been running a few sessions and have a pretty good handle on how this whole DMing thing works. However, your players are also getting a good handle on how the game works. In the routine of gameplay, you have lost the element of surprise and can no longer catch your players off guard. They’ve started to predict your every move! While I disagree with the “DM vs. Player” mentality, I do enjoy messing with my players from time to time. This is a fun list of strategies I have used in my Dungeons & Dragons games to make things more… interesting. There’s nothing wrong with freshening up a stagnant session and adding some surprises.

1. Conduct early planned skill checks.

There are two kinds of skill checks in D&D: spontaneous and planned. Spontaneous checks are in-the-moment actions that your players initiate without prompting from you. Planned checks are ones that you, the DM, initiate and don’t require action from your players in order to happen. These planned checks are where your control lies. You have prepared for them and the players don’t need to know why you ask for them. The results do not need to be immediately obvious.

For example: You know that a monster will attack one of your players at night. Ask all your players to make a will save well before nightfall and then continue through the day as though nothing has happened. It hasn’t… yet.

2. Hide the results.

Most of your players will get to the point where they start predicting the results of your skill checks. It’s obvious whether a player leaps across the chasm or falls to his death, but whether the thief noticed the treasure in the corner can be a mystery. If the thief’s player knows he rolled low, he will advocate to try again and again until he finds something. If you make the roll for him in secret, the player has no idea how well he did and must roleplay only on what you have told him. This can add to your player’s immersion in the game by reducing the amount of re-rolls to achieve a desired result and increasing their creativity as he searches for other methods to reach his goals.

3. Consider your phrasing.

When you announce the results of a skill check, particularly ones involving the senses, phrase it so that your players are unsure whether they succeeded or failed the roll.

For example: “You don’t think you saw anything.” You believe he is telling the truth.” “He seems friendly.” “You think the room is safe.” “The gems look like they are definitely not cursed.” When you combine this with the previous point of hiding the results, you will be able to keep your players guessing for the whole session.

Scene from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

4. Set and break patterns.

Finding patterns and making assumptions are things most players are good at. The scary, dark cave is probably an evil lair because the past three were. Spiders are always evil and should be burned with hellfire. Trapdoors are always trapped. Coins from barrows are always cursed by dead people. Sometimes I like to set my players up to make assumptions about something, and then throw in an exception.

For example: Rats attack from the ceiling in the first room of a dungeon. A rug of smothering drops down from the ceiling in the next room. Then, two doors down there’s evil green slime lurking on the ceiling. In the last room, the players don’t perceive anything on the ceiling. Now you, the DM, can take a nap while they try every spell in the book to figure out what’s on the ceiling.

5. Let your players mess with themselves.

Sometimes, you just have to encourage a misconception and let your players do the rest of the work. Your own players can be a wealth of resource when it comes to messing with them.

For example: The players are exploring an apparently-abandoned castle. They have already come across numerous magical traps and locked doors. The druid finds a hidden door, but the rest fail their skill checks to see it, therefore they suggest she is going crazy. She is determined to prove them wrong and tries everything she can think of to open this door. As the DM, you know this door can only be opened from the other side, but the druid has convinced herself it must be something magical and important.

Your players will soon learn that when you roll your special DM dice behind the Screen of Authority, something is about to go down.

6. Be specifically insignificant.

Everyone who’s ever read a book knows that when the author goes into great detail about a character, location, or object, it’s probably important and should be remembered. You can use this to your advantage.

For example: spend five minutes describing the third chair on the right at the King’s dining table and your players will be convinced it’s an important plot piece. At best, your players will set out on the Grand Quest of the Chair. At the very least they will spend ten minutes interrogating the baffled king about his chair. Win-win for you.

7. Roll the dice whenever you feel like it.

Your players will soon learn that when you roll your special DM dice behind the Screen of Authority, something is about to go down. This is the perfect chance to create paranoia in your players every time you roll. They do not need to know why you are rolling your dice. You are the DM and can roll whenever you want! It doesn’t have to mean anything to you but it will certainly mean something to your players. Make sure when you roll that you combine it with one of the following to make it more real: frowning, grinning, grimacing, wincing, cackling, or any kind of facial expression that will make your players fear you for the next five minutes.

Shuffling some papers or flipping through a rulebook adds extra tension to this tactic. When the DM goes to the rulebook, the players know something big is about to happen. Grab a pencil and write down random numbers. They will have great significance as your players scramble to unlock their meaning. Finally, the ultimate move that will strike fear into any player’s heart; ask to see their character sheet. Then smile and hand it back. Continue to throw sinister glances their way for the next ten minutes until they slide under the table in a trembling pool of gelatinous goo.

Now, “Fly, my pretties!” Run your next session with a maniacal cackle and sly grin. But in all the fun you are having while messing with your players please remember: this list is best used in moderation, as the party will get frustrated if they know they are constantly being messed with. The point of any role-playing game is for everyone to have fun, and that should never be compromised!

Sheela Cox

Sheela Cox

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
Sheela talks to horses, loves to dance, and adores making fancy outfits. She lives with a handsome young man in her cozy home filled with books and the smell of fresh-baked cookies. (Photo by Don Nowicki)
Sheela Cox

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