It’s in the Details

This week we get into some of smaller details of DMing (and I need more questions!):

The PCs enter a castle, and don’t find much other than animals & a couple of monsters that have moved in. You mention bookshelves in one room. The players now think they are supposed to find something valuable on the book shelves. What kind of things do you stock it with that would be safe?

Once again we return to one of my favorite Dungeon Mastering topics: improvisation.  Inevitably, your players are going to do unexpected things, and unless you’re the Nazi lord of DMs, there’s not always much you can do to stop them.

As DMs we want to make our worlds and settings as rich as possible.  It adds some realism and believability to a fantasy setting where suspension of disbelief is essential.  We want players to be able to explore every corner of the world, and interact with their settings in meaningful ways.  For some DMs this means months and months of preparation for a campaign before it even gets started.  But if you’re like me, you get the basic outline done and then you want to get started as soon as possible, because you have the patience of a 7 year-old with ADHD.

So, if you’re not into endless, late-night planning for ungrateful players, what else can you do?  Sometimes we don’t need to do much of anything at all.  The players want to search someone’s bedside table?  Tell them there’s a quill and blank paper in the drawer.  Totally innocuous, but it adds a little extra detail.  They want to search some bookshelves?  Tell them the owner really had a thing for romance novels.  Nothing interesting, nothing useful, but you’ve still filled in the blanks.

Just because our players WANT something awesome and useful to be hiding on every shelf, under every floorboard, or behind every locked door, doesn’t mean we have to acquiesce to their desires.  It’s okay if not all of our NPCs have hidden treasure stashes, badass magic devices, and dark secrets.  Sometimes a book is just a book, and a ring is just a ring.

That being said, sometimes we should reward our players for doing the unexpected.  As DMs we should always encourage players to be as thorough and detailed as possible, otherwise they’ll eventually stop searching and investigating, and when we need them to figure something out on their own, they’ll be at a loss.  If they come to believe that searching everything is a waste of time, they won’t do it.  Every now and then it’s good to throw them a bone, even if we didn’t plan on it.

Here are some ideas I’ll use on the fly in order to keep players happy:

1. Hidden treasure: Maybe a book is actually a box with an heirloom ring worth a decent sum of gold, or a dresser drawer has a false bottom (DC 15 or so to find it).

2. Rare books & antiquities: Have them succeed at an Appraise check of your choosing for them to realize that a book or statue is a rarity and worth some good coin.

3. Spell books and Scrolls: Usually I won’t randomly throw anything too good at them, but you can satisfy some of their needs with a little bit of magic.

4. Skill books: This is something I use only on rare occasions, but I’m of the belief that reading should have some practical in-game benefits for everyone.  Every now and then I’ll stick a how-to book on a shelf; something like Sleight Of Hand for Dumb Asses.  These books always grant a permanent +1 bonus to a certain skill, and generally I require the PC has 15 to 20 hours of uninterrupted reading time before they can gain the bonus.  I will also deny the bonus to certain PCs if their Skill level is too high to benefit from a particular book.

As a Dungeon Master, improvisation is an important skill to have in your arsenal of doom.  Preparation goes a long way, but the more players we have, the more likely we are to face the unexpected.  The more prepared you are to deal with these moments of unpreparedness, the more immersed your players will become in the game, and the more fun everyone will have. 

Roll it like you mean it,
The Dungeon Master

Please submit more questions! 

If you wish to submit a question to the Dungeon Master, please e-mail them to, or you can Tweet me a question @AskthedDM. And make sure to review the disclaimer.

You can also see me in action in One Die Short.

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2 Responses to It’s in the Details

  1. DaddyDM says:

    Something I have done before is to make a secret door open based on the players messing with stuff. Then created a side story of this particular building was used in times past by someone who was hiding escaped slaves. The room was covered in dust and anything that might have had value at one time is falling apart because it was so long ago. The current/previous owner appears to have had no knowledge this room was even here.

    • Ask the DM says:

      Also a great idea! Sometimes just filling in the blanks is all you need to do. Extra details and interesting story elements help to make things more engrossing and don’t always have to have an impact on the game itself.

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