I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons for 28 years and I’ve been a DM for 20 of those. I’m currently running a 5e campaign that I built specifically for my group. As a Dungeon Master, I love to add in little bits of flair to spice up the time between encounters and adventures, add interesting challenges to fights, and to create interesting adventure hooks. Crafting an adventure is a bit like cooking a meal, you need a balance of ingredients and flavours. I like to weave non-combat encounters and social interactions into the adventure, sometimes they are unrelated to the adventure goals (seemingly random) and sometimes they lead the party down unexpected paths, but they always serve a purpose: creating an engaging and story-worthy adventure.
Full disclosure, I spend entirely too much time combing through rules books looking for more ways to engage my players and more ways to surprise them. I take way too much pleasure from re-discovering some underused portion of a rulebook or some connection between a monster and the story arc that I can weave into an encounter. Below I’ve listed some of the less popular rules found in the DMG, at least in my opinion, that can be used to create sustained story arcs or simple but memorable encounters.
Here are a few of my favourite “underused” rules from the DMG.
1. Extreme Weather (p. 110)
In my experience, weather is used almost exclusively as a mood setting tool in most adventures; think, “Dark rolling clouds hang low over the tiny village, a light rain soaks through your cloak as your party approaches the manor gate”; this kind of imagery is awesome, and I strongly encourage it. There is something universal about weather and how it affects our psyche. We all understand how an overcast day can put us on edge or how a bright blue sky with fluffy clouds makes us smile. That being said, extreme weather events can add some spice that can be leveraged into the adventure to add challenge as well. Extreme cold and heat both add levels of exhaustion that can, ultimately, lead to death (the beauty of the exhaustion rules in the PHB are that the more you get, the harder it is to reverse). The normal party of adventurers stocked up on food and water for their long desert/arctic voyage now has to make some tough decisions or become very clever when one of their party members speed is halved.
Strong Wind is also a great tool to keep in the back pocket of your special DM pants. I’m not the only one who has special DM pants right? It’s great for those moments when you need to limit ranged attacks; vision; or, less often; aerial movement. A windstorm will give you a rule structure that the players can’t argue with and plenty of realistic moodiness. I’ve experienced more than a few encounters where the villain should have escaped, if not for a lucky crit that threw a wrench in my plans. So, I learned to prepare for these inevitabilities by incorporating mundane and natural events into the encounter. By using weather as an integral part of the encounter you avoid player discontent of misplaced suspicion; I’ve learned that they tend to get sceptical if just as the Ranger pulls his string back a random wind knocks him on his ass, and they feel more than a little railroaded.
Pro tip: heavy precipitation causes disadvantage on perception checks that rely on vision or hearing. Mix that in with some strong wind and a couple days of extreme cold exhaustion and you have a recipe for some encounter jambalaya; that band of goblins isn’t so easy anymore!
2. Carousing pg. 128
One of my favourite things about carousing is that it is an excellent tool for introducing side quests. Basically it works like this, your hedonistic PC goes on a binge while taking a break between adventures or just as a reward for a long hard trek. Who doesn’t deserve a couple days of binge drinking and gambling after walking for 2 months through the forest!? They spend money like it’s going out of style (4 GP/Day minimum, which I think is low) and at the end of it they roll a percentile die to see exactly what kind of trouble they got into. There are five standard results and if you use the rules exactly as presented there is a 50% chance that the results of the festivities are an easy to use hook for a side quest or the introduction of a recurrent NPC.
Pro tip: Use carousing to push the characters forward in a campaign without making them feel forced. Let them get crazy for a couple days and roll the dice, throw your own results onto the table and spoon feed them something important (e.g., you wake up naked in a strange room covered in mystical writing).
3. Other Rewards pg. 227
I’m not a big fan of giving piles of gold as rewards and I’m always looking for other ways to entice the PCs onto the road, beside the promise of maiming innocent goblins. Supernatural gifts and Marks of Prestige are great tools that can make the campaign more interesting and give the PCs something useful that they might not have thought of negotiating for. I don’t usually play epic level campaigns so I tend to shy away from Blessings, but I do use Charms, and what are Blessings if not Charms on steroids. Contrary to video game logic, the local witch doctor or seer likely doesn’t have a pile of gold sitting around that they can give to the adventurer who brings them the missing ingredient, but they could reasonably have access to a charm that they made or were given (p.s., the beauty of charms is their limited use – making them great rewards for low level characters).
I’ve done entire adventures around securing a letter of recommendation as part of a larger campaign; and parcels of land for the druid or ranger, deeds to property in the city, or an impressive title add something to the game that gold and magical items can’t, pride. Sure players are proud of their Thief after amassing a certain amount of wealth and items, but that pride is usually centred on the victories they won to get there, whereas “Lord Backstabbath” adds a whole new dimension to their character.
Pro tip: Parcels of land and Special Favours are side adventures waiting to happen. Maybe that plot of land isn’t as uninhabited as the King thought or maybe the person that owes them the favour isn’t too concerned with collateral damage.
4. Charisma Check p. 245
Ok, so the Charisma Check is less about adding spice than it is about streamlining play. It seems I always have one player who isn’t very good at role-playing social interactions or maybe I don’t really know how the NPC baker would respond to the characters. The Charisma check rules are quick and easy and basing some of the player’s social interactions on die rolls can mimic the seeming randomness of actual social interactions. I’ve found that it can also have surprising results, which you can capitalize on as a DM to turn an otherwise dull interaction into a memorable encounter that the players will talk about for a long time. Remember that time the Bard convinced the bartender to slip poison into the warlocks drink? Oh yeah, his bar burned to the ground and he lost everything, bad Bard!
5. Diseases p. 256
Few things scare us more than unknown sickness. Diseases can be used as adventure hooks or to add a sense of impending doom. One of my favourites is Sight Rot, you want the party to finish the mission right now, infect some or all of them with Sight Rot and let them know the villain has the cure. Of course, entire adventures can be built around Cackle Fever, a disease that manifests only in times of stress (fighting, or stealthing behind the baddie for the sneak attack) and causes the victim to break out in mad laughter, infecting everyone around them. But why stop there, in a world of magic anything is possible, why not a disease that slowly turns the victim incorporeal, or slowly reduces their stats leaving them helpless and drooling. Adding disease into your adventure can be as big or as small as you like, a plague ship sitting in the bay or a kingdom-wide epidemic; either way the players are introduced to something that they can’t kill with a sword and something that is inherently scary and stressful – this is especially impactful in low/no magic settings.
Every DM should have a variety of non-violent encounters in their tackle box to provide a break from the bloodbath, or to use if the adventure is getting predictable. These were just a few of my go-to tools but the rule books are chock full of them. If you're new to the DM chair, my advice is to spend extra time reading the books, because, to be honest, I had completely forgotten about Carousing … in the game that is. I try to get a little IRL carousing in every month between running games and working. I hope this article gets your creative juices flowing and helps add something memorable to your game sessions.
Bryan is not a rules lawyer, but he is a lover of table-top role-playing games and board games. Bryan is also a professional coach and lives in Alberta Canada where he enjoys the mountains and wide open spaces. He is known to quote Archer and binge watch anything to do with superheroes.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.