Every Dungeon Master wants to be remembered for creating an engaging story for their players. We’ve got five quick ideas today to wake up your table and get them talking.
Even better? Players see or hear something unexpected and it halts them in their tracks, immediately causing tension and lighting up their problem-solving brain cells. They’re focused, engaged, and excited about the session. They talk about the scene for months to come.
Sound good? Let’s get started.
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Creating an Engaging Story Through Minor Surprise
Not every memorable moment in a Dungeons & Dragons game, or any tabletop RPG for that matter, needs to be a major plot twist reveal. There have been plenty of times for me as both a player and a GM when an exciting moment or an unforgettable turn of events took place from something that was actually really minor.
In many cases, the way the Dungeon Master approaches the content is as important, or even more important, than the content itself. If the DM is flat, bored, and unenthusiastic, it’s likely some of that will be transferred to their players. On the other hand, if we pause dramatically, single out a player and make eye contact for specific information to make it seem particularly presented for THAT PLAYER, play well-timed, escalating music…? Even smaller plot points can become game-elevating, spine-tingling moments for our players.
Take a look at the five ideas below, and think about how your table would respond to each one. Bonus if you can incorporate sound effects or music.
A Shadowy Figure at the End of a Long Hallway
As you make your way down the dimly lit hallway, the sound of your footsteps echo against the cold stone walls. ((Highest passive perception Player, look a them, point, and say with an edge of nervousness)), you begin to sense something, a sort of presence, just beyond the edge of your vision. The hairs on the back of your neck prickle, and you feel a shiver run down your spine just as you turn a corner in this hallway.
You look up, and forty feet away, you see a shadowy figure, barely visible in the gloom. Its features are obscured by the darkness, and you can’t quite make out its shape or form. It seems to be moving, but only slightly. The only thing you can see for sure is the glint of its eyes, reflecting back at you, two points of sharp light in the darkness beyond.
As you begin this description, music starts playing:
Decide Who the Figure is, DM
Who is this at the end of the hallway? Well, it can be whoever or whatever you want. Maybe it’s a villain, waiting for a fight. Maybe it’s a sentry statue. Maybe it’s a chained up prisoner. Maybe it’s an illusion that dissipates as the players advance. It’s up to you. Regardless, you better believe that with a solid (but simple!) description and a little bit of spooky music, your players are going to want to pause for a moment and figure out their plan.
If you have a particularly nervous group, they may demand to wait before they go around the corner, and just sneak a peek before they continue. Even better.
A Closed Door — With a Twist
Everyone loves the mystery of a closed door. Who or what is behind it? Is it treasure? Danger? A dead end?
Bump the mystery up a notch by making the door unusual or interesting in some way. Add a moving eye within or behind the door, or perhaps use an instance of Magic Mouth. You can quickly have ChatGPT come up with something if it’s an on the fly moment at your table.
You could add a trap that’s been recently sprung with part of a goblin stuck in it. Or, perhaps the deadly trap mechanism is in the process of trying to complete its motion, but it’s stuck on an amazing looking sword the players will definitely want find a way to acquire.
You could add a playful element, like a sign that explains exactly how to disarm the trap, but it’s written in Goblin and is completely incorrect. There’s loads of ways to flavor a door to make it memorable for your players, and get them talking about “that one weird door” for sessions to come.
This is a great example of elevating your Dungeon Mastering skills from fine or bland to really excellent. Use creativity to enhance moments where your players already have a set of expectations. Prove them wrong.
A Sudden Follower… With Unsettling Habits
Your players are traversing a location or dungeon of some kind, and suddenly find themselves with a new “friend.” This NPC has decided to tag along for one reason or another. Instead of inspiring hope, though, this NPC is just a little bit… off, making players uneasy and feeling like some kind of threat may be on the way.
This concept is a little more challenging to pull off than the others on this list, though weird NPCs are amongst my favorite tools as a DM. If your group tends to murder everything in sight, this probably won’t work without some kind of promise of a grand fortune or prize waiting for them, should they help this unlikely wanderer.
Unsettling Characteristics for Your NPC
Here’s a list of slightly unsettling characteristics to get you started:
- Constantly whispering to themselves, even in public.
- Always wearing a cloak or hood that obscures their face. Refuses to show face under any circumstances.
- Refusing to eat anything other than raw meat.
- Having an unsettling laugh that they use frequently.
- Collecting unusual or macabre items, such as bones or taxidermy animals.
- Always standing very close to others when speaking.
- Having an obsession with death and the afterlife.
- Speaking in a monotone voice, never showing emotion.
- Being overly interested in the PCs’ personal lives and habits.
- Displaying sudden mood swings or erratic behavior.
- Referring to themselves in the third person.
- Frequently staring at people in the party with intense, unblinking eyes.
- Being able to predict things before they happen, without explanation.
- Wearing a mask or makeup that obscures their face in some way.
- Having a strange, unplaceable accent or way of speaking.
- Making bizarre, nonsensical statements that no one else can understand, that are threatening in nature.
- Seeming to know more about the PCs than they should, without explanation.
- Having a room or space that is filled with disturbing or unsettling items.
- Displaying a lack of personal hygiene or grooming.
- Having an unusually high or low body temperature.
Know the Motive
What does this person want? Do they actually have a connection to one of the party members? Are they seeking revenge for some misunderstanding or social slight from years ago? All that is up to you. Just be warned: If you make an interesting NPC, you’ll want to make sure you tie it into the story somehow. Your players are likely to want to revisit this character for some reason or another, so make sure it works for you.
A Floating Dungeon
The party is on their way to a pretty standard side quest. Hunting a raiding orc party, tracking down a local necromancer causing problems, etc.
This is fine, but YOU think it’s time to spice things up a bit. Try this on:
As you traverse through the wilderness, the first strange thing you notice is the birds have stopped singing. It is completely, utterly silent. Then, a shadow in the distance grows, and you spot a strange vessel sailing through the air. The ship is old and dilapidated, with tattered sails and a rotten hull. The ship seems to be flying erratically, almost as if it’s searching for something. You’ve never seen this vessel before.
You watch in awe and confusion as the ship suddenly changes course and begins heading straight towards you. You can hear the creaking of its timbers and its flapping sails as it draws closer, and a chill runs down your spine.
As the ship draws near, you see that it has long, gnarled ropes trailing from its sides. The ropes whip around in the air like tendrils, and as the ship approaches, they reach out towards you, lashing out in an attempt to snare you. The ship is 60 feet away, and 120 feet in the air.
You have only moments to decide whether to flee or stand your ground and face this terrifying spectral ship. Whatever your choice, the outcome may be grim. You have one real-world minute to discuss this and decide as a group: What do you do?
Quick Decisions Mean Engaged Players
By surprising players with an immediate threat and giving only seconds to decide a course of action, they are sure to find the scene engaging and memorable.
Think about the last time you played a scary video game and had only seconds to hide. Loads of games do this these days, but I remember the first time I saw it in “Resident Evil 3: Nemesis.” When you heard that growly voice saying “STARS,” and your choices flashed on screen, it was terrifying. This is a similar psychological concept.
Give players a brief window to decide their fate. Let them know they have 30 seconds, or a minute, or whatever, and set a real timer. When time is up, you move the story forward.
Aside: Actually, the first hiding mechanic I remember was on a C-64. My parents put me in front of Seahorses as a young child, and as an adult, I remember it being MUCH scarier than it was intended to be. I think Resident Evil 3 is probably a better example.
An Item Transports Someone
Players touch an item and are transported somewhere else. A different room perhaps, or even a different plane of existence. A different time. A different setting.
A mirror, a lake, a small fountain, a book… the list of potential triggers is endless. Perhaps the item teleports just the person, or perhaps it moves the whole party. Either way, your players are essentially picked up and dropped into a new scene, causing them to problem-solve not only their new surroundings, but how to get back. If the party is split by this, make sure there’s a way to reunite them. Consider taking inspiration from video games: there are plenty with puzzles that require players being in two different locations in order to solve them.
This could also be the start of a mini-story arc (or a much larger one), or it could simply be a fun diversion for a change of scenery within a dungeon.
This is also a great way to embed a one shot into our campaigns, try out a new setting, or flex a scary villain for a brief time without truly endangering our party.
These ideas all have one thing in common: the fear of the unknown.
If we routinely present our players with interesting, open-ended scenarios and deliver a variety of outcomes based on their actions, we will have a routinely delighted table.
Maybe sometimes it IS just a statue at the end of a creepy hallway. Maybe sometimes it’s an eccentric, unlikely friend. Maybe sometimes it’s a fight that nearly kills them all. Mix it up and your players will certainly stay on their toes, making the game more engaging and exciting for all of you.
Do you have an attention-grabber you like to use at your table? I’d love to read about it in the comments below.
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