Josh Wash
Author Archives: Josh Wash

Use “Adventure Hooks” To Create Exciting Stories

gold dragon

Start Simple.

I think the best way to start a story for your dungeons and dragons game is to find out what the players want and integrate their backstories into your plot.

This gives you a great foundation to build on. This way you aren't totally starting from scratch and it lets the players be involved in the process.

The DM isn't the only one who wants to be creative, so let your players give you ideas and goals for their characters.

Use MacGuffins. A MacGuffin is an artifact or a goal that the players are trying to find or fight for. The term was created by Alfred Hitchcock for his style of storytelling.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin

The best part is, a MacGuffin can be anything, including characters.

 The best examples are; the plans to the death star, the lost ark, the wizard of oz, or the infinity stones.

 In Wizard of Oz, the characters goal was to make it back home.

The MacGuffin was getting the wizards help.

A MacGuffin is a means to an end.

A driving force to keep the characters motivated to do something and the plot to move forward.

In a mystery story, every lead or clue, that the detective finds is a MacGuffin.

A suspect or missing character can be a MacGuffin too.

 Like Will Byers in the first season of stranger things. The characters were all motivated to find Will and they wind up getting caught up in the their own stories.

Making Up a MacGuffin.

Use a treasure the party needs to find, or a magic item that needs to be sought out to complete their quest.

Do you have a wizard who wants to learn new or obscure magic? Give them a hidden staff or an ancient spell book to find.

Do you have a character with a missing family member or a bad guy that the player wants to bring to justice?

These can be MacGuffins too.

 Have a mission where players have to protect a caravan or cargo ship from bandits or pirates.

Maybe a cult or a mafia organization is terrorizing a city and the players need kill all the bad guys who are hiding underground.

Don't worry about being original.

Yes, these stories are simple. Yes, they have been done before. That's okay. Do it. Have fun with it.

 It's OK to have stories and ideas prepared for just a couple play sessions.

 Don't overwhelm yourself by trying to create a grand epic like Game of Thrones. The epic is slowly built one session/session at a time.

Keep it simple. One session at a time.

Of course you can plant seeds and foreshadow your ideas for things to come. Let those seeds grow over time instead of trying to cram a ton of story, lore, and exposition into one session.

Keep the end goal simple.

Dorothy just wanted to get home.

The avengers needed to stop and invasion and close a portal above New York.

Indie wanted to find the Ark.

The goal can always be simple, and it's more memorable  that way.

The obstacles and conflicts makes up the story.

Characters in movies always need to find or protect nuclear launch codes, simple idea.

 In The Girl in the Spiders Web movie, the kid who knows the launch code is the MacGuffin. The story in that movie is Lizbeths' relationship with her sister and the conflict between them.

A simple goal will always work.

Especially when you have obstacles and conflict that are in the heroes way.

A simple goal could be that the players want the treasure that is behind a locked door.

The obstacle is  to find pieces of a magic key that can open the door. Now you can add as many obstacles you want.

  • A thief that has a piece of the key needs to be tracked down.
  •  A monster needs to be killed in order to get a key piece.
  • A grumpy swamp witch won't give up her piece until you fetch some herbs in for her.

The goal is still the same, but the quest now has multiple parts.

This simple quest could take as long as you want it to take.

Story Sample.

Part One.

Let's say one of your players is a wizard who wants to learn a forgotten spell on a magic scroll. Simple story with the scroll as the MacGuffin.                                                                    
Now, let's add some obstacles.  First problem may be finding the location of the scroll.

 The players could ask around town, meet NPC's that might be important later.

Players get info from some ancient myths or local legends about a hidden temple or crypt. Maybe they have to seek out a NPC who is lost in the woods somewhere before they get the right information.

The temple can be your "dungeon" where players will have to fight through different monsters, riddles, and traps in order to find the scroll.

All these are obstacles in your players way.

You can even add obstacles on the way to the dungeon. Add a gorge in the forest that needs crossing and the old rope bridge there has fallen apart.

The players fight their way through the dungeon, solve some puzzles, and obtain the scroll.

Part Two.

A boss or some bandits steal the scroll for their own goals, and now the players have to track down the enemy.

One of the enemies could be introduced in the starting town, and she hears about the players looking for the scroll. This big bad wants the scroll for herself.

The enemies can be anything, vampires, orcs, bandits of any race and class, and a character or two relating to a players backstory.

Make it personal by adding a bad guy from a players backstory, a guy who killed Uncle Ben, or an orc from a tribe that killed a players parents.

This gives the players more motivation to find the bad guys and it makes the story personal to the characters.

The players still have the same goal of retrieving the scroll, but now it's personal.

The players might want revenge.

After the enemies steal the scroll, they hide it in one of their hideouts, which could be the next "dungeon" location the players have to get through.

Same MacGuffin, new obstacles.

The next location can be anything that is part of the PC's or enemies stories. A warehouse, a thieves guild or a valley hidden in the mountains.

Same formula, the players have to fight enemies and get past traps in the second location.

After fighting through the dungeon and defeating a mini boss at this second location, The players could finally get the scroll.

The story setup with the scroll is now paid off and a players got what he wanted.

But now the adventuring party is involved in a plot with the bad guys!

The big bad evil guy continues her evil plans without the MacGuffin scroll.

Part Three.

The players find out that the baddies are going to enslave, take over, or destroy the town where the players live.

Lives are at stake!

The players have family that lives in this town.

The Players have to stop them!

Stopping the enemy and saving the town is the new MacGuffin.

The enemy is now the goal and the obstacle.

The villains could send out mercenaries or assassins to try to get rid of the players before the players even get back to town.

The bad guys are now consciously putting obstacles in the player way.

Once our heroes arrive in town, they have more problems and obstacles.

Treat the town itself as a "dungeon" location.

The bad guys have barricaded the roads and buildings, lighting houses on fire, creating obstacles for our players.

Add new goals.

An NPC runs up to the players and tells them that the players family is locked up or are about to be sacrificed to an evil god.

Make sure you have some NPC or another story device that lets the players know what their new goals are and what is at stake.

The villain doesn't need to know that it's the family, they just needed sacrifices and the family just happened to be there.

If you want the villain to be extra evil, she would know about the family in order to make the players suffer.

Not only do the players have to fight through enemies and defeat the villain, they have the new goal of saving the family and townspeople people as well.

The enemies will use as many obstacles as they can in order to slow down the heroes so they can achieve their goal.

Remember to Start Simple

What started out as a simple fetch quest to find a scroll is now an epic story line that spans multiple sessions and game nights.

The first night of playing, you might just be searching the town for clues, fighting a monster and getting across a broken bridge.

So don't worry right away about specific details and obstacles in your second and third locations.

Plan only one or two sessions at a time so you don't overwhelm yourself.

Plant clues about what you think might come next.

The story comes from the obstacles in the way of the players goals.

Use details and characters from players backstories to make it personal.

Make the obstacles, enemies, and puzzles interesting instead of a really complicated plot and obscure goals.

Making the enemies create obstacles can be really fun and it specifically involves the players.

Use whatever ideas that inspires you and make them your own!

Thank You!

Here at GamesMastery we want to give our appreciation and support to gamers everywhere. Our mission is to inspire creativity and help everyone enjoy the best life possible.

If you are interested in learning all that you can about being a great Dungeon Master take a look at the DM's Aresenal.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase with no extra cost to you.

How to handle Your Villains Getting Killed Too Early

baddie bad boi

How to handle your villain getting killed before their time.

Good job! They win. Game over. Go home.

Did you have a high level werewolf that you set up as a big bad? But the players somehow kill him before the final boss fight.

Let them do it! Give them a victory, especially if it is a very clever way of winning.

Being a good DM means being adaptable and working with what the players want to do. Within reason. Don't let them burn down your city. But Let them kill your big bad early. They'll feel accomplished for taking down something powerful and they'll appreciate you for allowing them to be creative.

Just because a big bad is dead, doesn't mean the story is over. It means you will have to adapt and improvise your way through the story.

 Anyway you "had a plan" all along. Keep the story going.

Use a new boss with the same exact stats that you have already prepared.


The enemies should be adaptable too. They heard about what the players did and now the new boss can prepare for that situation.

The vampire lord, that got killed too early, has an evil step sister who now wants revenge for her brothers death. Use the same final battle you had planned with a different character. A different character that has a special defense against what the players did to win last time.

The story isn't over. In the star wars books, the emperor cloned himself. Final battles for days!

There will always be one more power orb to destroy, one more magic weapon to find. One more town to save.

The story isn't over.

The players might have killed your robber baron but they still have to find the deed to the ranch. The Players still need to clear out the dungeon of kobold minions and evil cultists who were working for the dead boss.

Don't give up and don't let the players stop your game. There is always something else that needs to get done.

Protect your villain during battle.


Fudge the dice! Change your stats mid-battle! This is one of the best powers a DM has at her disposal.

 If you have 5 players attacking one bad guy, that's 5 attacks versus the bad guys 1 turn.  So the enemy needs a lot of extra HP or other bad guys that the players can target their attacks.

If you see the players are doing too much damage to your big bad, ending your epic fight too early, give your big bad 100 extra HP. An intelligent enemy will always try to heal themselves. Give your big bad as any healing potions as he needs.

Give your bad guys special resistances or a powerful magical shield that the players can't penetrate until you decide when the baddie gets hurt.
  
Give the big bad an extra spell every turn. Matt Coville calls them Villainous actions. ledgendary actions are neccecary whenever the party gets too strong.

Let your big bad get in an extra attack or special spell to control the flow of battle. Let your boss go into a rage that lets him deal out and extra dice of damage. Have a second or third wave of minions come in to help the boss out.

 The players can't take down your big bad right away if they have to deal with his bodyguards first. Let the big bad run away.  Let your villain use a teleport or fly spell to escape a loosing battle.

Have goals set up that aren't just about killing things.


Make sure the players have a goal that is more complicated then just killing the bad guys.

They need to turn off the doomsday machine before time runs out. Dispel or de-power the magic orb the enemy was using to open portals.

If you have goals already set up, you can put in as many obstacles in the way as you want. This way when the boss does die too early, your story can continue and the players still have things to do.

If you need more time to prepare, send some skeletons or robots after the party. The players won't be able to talk or charm their way out of battle with mindless creatures.

During the battle you can have some time to think up whats next.

It's okay to take a 10-15 minute break mid-game to think up something new.



Thank You!

Here at GamesMastery we want to give our appreciation and support to gamers everywhere. Our mission is to inspire creativity and help everyone enjoy the best life possible.

If you are interested in learning all that you can about being a great Dungeon Master take a look at the DM's Aresenal.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase with no extra cost to you.

How To Improve Your Tabletop Role-Playing. (Without Having To Improvise.)

D&D nerds

If you want more role-playing at your table, or you want to improve your skills, you came to the right place. This article will help you play a character that people will be talking about for years to come.

Here you will learn how to implement new character aspects you can use right away to add to your character and grow your role-playing skills.

Improvising is important, but if you aren't good at that, it's okay.

The purpose of this post is to look at things you can prepare for almost any situation. Instead of feeling the nervous pressure to improvise, you can have a few details and lines already to go.

This will take the anxiety off of you when you are trying to think on your feet, and you'll get the added bonus of fleshing out your character.

Now you and your character be ready for any situation!

Put some thought into your character.

First of all make sure you have a backstory created and a simple goal for your character to eventually accomplish. Having even a few sentences of your characters backstory and goals is a lot better than nothing at all.

If you are lucky enough to have a session zero, make sure to be utilizing that time.

If you jump into a game and don't have time to prepare a character, that's OK. Characters grow best just like anything else, they need to be nurtured and have time to grow during multiple game sessions. 

It's totally OK to develop your character in game. It happens all the time. Players are always making decisions about their characters during the game. Let them evolve naturally instead of trying to force personality detail right away.

 It's great to be a supporting player, As long as you are consciously making decisions and using your abilities that help out the rest of your party.

The more time you spend with the character and the more encounters you are exposed to, the more you will get to know them.

Create a catch-phrase

If you do have a catch-phrase, I would suggest making it reflect you characters goals or alignments. 

Captain America says "I could do this all day." This shows that he will always stand up to bullies and never back down. 

Maybe your catchphrase reflects what you believe in or what you care about. "Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. ... I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come." 

Or a specific philosophy, "Do, or do not, there is no try."


You don't need to read that deeply into finding a catch phrase.


"I’m really bad at stealthing. We should go."
–Scanlan, Critical Roll episode 6.

How about a fighter or barbarian who says, "It's clobberin' time!"  Ben Grimm knows what he is good at and isn't afraid to say so.

Say something that reflects your goals. "You killed my father, prepare to die."

What actions  can your character do in a pinch?

If you have a simple action ready to go, you'll cut down on the need to perform or think on your feet.

How does your cleric or wizard meditate? How do they cast their spells?

What does your character do when they are standing watch? Does your character have a victory dance they do after they make a kill? Are they obsessed with making sure all the adventuring gear is organized? 

Do they take time to talk to horses or other pets? Is your character always using magic to change their hair color?

Does your character keep a journal? Do they write poems or songs? Are they always doing some kind of research?

Does your character like to whittle or carve wood? Make toys? Forge weapons? Tell stories? Buy low and sell high? Knit sweaters? Make jewelry? Constantly make bets? Flirt? Host parties? Wear costumes?

Making small character choices will prepare you when you need to make more drastic choices.

Use actions that don't disrupt the game flow or stop other players from doing what they want to do.

Simple choices can be made while still be participating in the game. Keep these specific actions prepared and ready to go, any time there is a chance to role-play.

Put your character in social circles.

Being part of a social circle makes your character more connected to the world around you and gives you connections you might not normally have.

Your character can make a group or a guild part of their identity. Like the wizard who feels the need to remind you that he went to Harvard.

Is your character part of a athletic or golf club? A group of adventurers? Do they frequent a specific tavern or coffee shop or weapon smith? 

Do they hang out with old college buddies on the weekend? Are you a part of a study group? Are you in a choir or a acting troupe? Gamble or attend a poker night?

Have your character talk about the people in these groups. Or maybe your character needs to get back to town to have a drink with the boys.

Give your character an item that they can't live without.

Having something specific that your character plays with gives you something to focus on when you don't know what else to do. If you don't have a plan, fall back on sharpening your sword or tuning your lute.

Arthur Dent just wants to find a good cup of tea. Sam-wise has his pots and pans. Gandalf is always puffing on his pipe. Maybe you have a pocket watch that belonged to your grandpa.

Or a locket with your lovers picture in it. 

Get specific weapons or armor that you can't leave without. Or other accessories. A very comfy robe you need to travel with. Or that impressive cape you like to wear to parties.

If your character is awkward at a party, you can tug at your fancy cape, or fiddle with your necklace.

Hold up your holy symbol and pray to your gods that the awkwardness will end soon.

Bring a real life prop to the table.

Don't think about how intelligent you are, think about how you are intelligent.

Everybody is smart in some way, or an expert in some specific area. Take your knowledge skills to the next level. With your DM's permission.

This isn't just a profession, this is what your character enjoys and excels at.

Do you know how to play five different musical instruments? Do you know all the landmarks between here and the mountains? Can you track every deer trail and footprint you see?

Can you read magic without a second thought? Can you navigate your way through any social situation?

You might not be able to read but you know all the critical areas of the human body and know exactly how to strike. You may be knowledgeable about 17 different types of poison and their effects.

Maybe you can recount every bit of gossip or scandal in the royal court? You can talk endlessly about the history of the region and never be bored of it.

Can you identify 53 different species of monster or magical creature and list their weaknesses? Do you understand all the trade agreements from 7 different countries?

Do you know how to sail a ship? Identify weather patterns?

Are you a talented artist or sculptor? Can you brew potions and recognize every spell component?

You might not know how to act in front of the queen, but you can forge the strongest sword out of any type of metal.

These ideas can be another weapon in your arsenal when you want to contribute to the story or you don't know what else your character can talk about.

How is your character is intelligent?

What does your character like or dislike about themselves.

Are you proud to be a dragon-born. Ashamed to be half demon? Hiding the fact that you are half-goblin? Do you agree with the fact that your fellow dwarves might have dug too deep?

Do you support your elfin nation making alliances with the orcs?

What part of your backstory are you ashamed of? What do you regret?

What abilities do you resent? Are you ashamed of being born as a sorcerer? Do you hate the fact that you can sing to inspire people?

Are you constantly healing people that don't deserve it? Are you dismayed of turning into a rage monster whenever you get angry?

How does your character react when they know they can't do something? Or fail to do something?

What about your backstory are you the most proud of? What do you like to brag about?

What powers and abilities do you want to show off? Showing off is a great thing to role-play.

Knowing what your character likes or supports, goes a long way toward knowing how to react and respond to specific situations.

Talk to the other players characters.

Now that you have more inspiration about your character, you need to put your character in the action.

Don't be afraid to start a conversation or set the scene. 

Relate your character to what the other characters are doing.

If you want to role play, you can't do it by yourself.  Involve others in it too!

Ask the monk where he learned how to fight. Ask your wizard why he wastes so much time reading. Talk about your family or why your character wants to protect innocent people.

 Ask another player why they need that fancy cape at all the parties. 

Tell the other characters what you care about. Show off your magic sword you got from the holy order of knights. Talk about why the pots and pans always need to be clean.

Tell other characters why you are so good at picking locks.

Brag about your favorite things in your backstory.

Tell the players that you are ashamed of being a sorcerer and you didn't choose to be born with it.

The more you work with others to develop characters the more they will work with you too. Create moments together.

A good DM will let the players role play a scene without micromanaging or rushing the plot forward.

If you are planning a character arc, plan it with the group.

If the party knows what is going on, they can, and should be helping you out with your character development.

Other players can then make informed decisions and role-play their reactions, based on where they know your character wants to go.

The DM can have time to prepare, give you specific scenes and opportunities to role play towards that goal.

Be reactive in character.

This is one of the best things the actors in Critical Role do. Their characters are so much more alive because they react to what is happening around them.

It's baffling how many players don't do this. Your party is travelling together, camping out together,  fighting side by side constantly, and yet so many players don't react or play off of the other characters.

React to other players stories and support their character arcs.

If you want good role-play and character development, this is how you do it.

Create friendship and camaraderie with the party members. Grow your personalities and interactions together!

Interacting with other PCs will create so many chances for good role-play and too many players don't even think about this! 

React to your friends making a great kill or executing a creative plan. 

Support other players when they are role playing, get involved with the conversation.

Work with your DM and players to create your characters story. You should be helping them do the same.

React to the story in order to move the plot forward.

If the NPC gnomes tell you that their friends were kidnapped by goblins, you should get the hint and maybe go save them.

Getting the hint means moving the plot forward. Ask questions. Why were the goblins kidnapping people in the first place? Why are the goblins working with a bunch of skeletons?

What happened in your tragic backstory that is relatable to this situation? 

Utilize The Character abilities

Ask other PC's to help you out.

Get the fighter to cause a distraction. Ask the rogue to scout ahead or pick some locks. Ask the cleric to turn the undead. Ask the bard to help talk your way out of a situation.

Work together to plan ahead and use each others skills to support each other.

Take advantage of your skill proficiencies, magic spells and racial bonuses. This is what makes your character unique. This is how you contribute to working with the party.

Do not dismiss other players ideas.
Be inclusive, adaptable and supportive.

Let other players try out their ideas. Next time you have a creative idea they might listen to you.

The crazier the idea, the more interesting the game will be. Tabletop RPGs are designed to allow freedom of creativity.

If you are denying creative freedom, you are denying a main element of the game and denying what makes the game fun in the first place.

If players are afraid to be wrong, or make the wrong choice, they won't be able to create anything. Be supportive so you won't be the reason why people  are afraid to be creative.

Advance your characters goals.

Having a cool backstory and a goal doesn't mean much if you aren't including it in the game.

Follow the adventure hooks. 

Use your goals to drive your character and the role-playing ever forward.

Use your backstory to relate it to other characters whatever else is going on in game.

Work with the group.

Why is your paladin is willing to travel with a bunch of thieves. Why does your necromancer work with a group of clerics? How does a wizard work with a bunch of hack-n-slash barbarians who can't read?

Adapt to the DM's style of play. If the DM wants a game about killing monsters and you want to role-play, put some effort into making a compromise and work together.

Some of the best role play I've seen is during battle. Don't just attack on your turn during battle. Take advantage of the spotlight on your turn to role play as well as fight.

Make sure the DM knows how you want to play so you both can adapt to each others styles.

If the Dungeon Master doesn't know what you want out of the game, they can't give it to you. It's your job to communicate to them what you want and how you want to play.

If that doesn't work, find a different group to play with.

Be responsible for your character.

Be proud of what you create. Be confident in your choices.

The more confidence you have, the more realistic your character becomes.

Don't rely on the DM to remember that you sent a love letter to your main squeeze. Remind the DM that you are waiting for a reply. Ask the DM if you recognize someone specific from your backstory.

The more you ask about things, the more likely the dungeon master will add things in for you.

Take your special magic sword to the blacksmith for repairs. Go home to visit your family. Create your potions and scrolls. Look for leads to solve a mystery. Find out what kind of enemies you are fighting next and get their weaknesses.

Be responsible for moving your story forward.

Do not wait for the DM to say what you are going to do. You need to take action and make decisions for your character. Ask if you can try something. Tell the DM what you are planning on doing.

If your character isn't making decisions or taking action, you aren't role playing.

Deciding to stay back at the farmhouse while the rest of the players continue the game without you, is not a decision. If you choose to stay behind, you deserve to be left behind.

The DM can only give you so many options as far as where to go and what to do. Making smart choices based off of those options.

You are responsible for how much role-playing you want to do and how much fun you have with it. No one else is going to play your character for you.

Remember why you are playing in the first place. Have fun with it.

The more effort you put into the game, the more you will enjoy it.

Let's face it, you'll still have to improvise a little.

In fact you will probably be improvising a lot, thus is the nature of the game. Be prepared for it. And practice it.

It's okay if you aren't good at improvising. Use your backstory, your characters goals, and alignment to inform your decisions.

It's totally okay to plan what you want to say beforehand or follow another players lead. You can even print out the ideas here or other character questionnaires to motivate you in the midst of the game.

 As long as you can interact with the game, you will be having fun.

When you don't know what to do, have something prepared that your character can say or do. This gives you something to fall back on. 

Experiment with your character.

You'll never get good at anything if you don't test things out and practice. It's okay to experiment who your character is.

Trying new things is the only way to grow and learn.

Don't be afraid to change something you don't like about your character.

Practice asking questions in character.

Practice relating your character to the story and react to what is going on.

Ask yourself how your player feels, and role play that emotion.

Take the time to listen, support, and allow other players to role-play. Don't dismiss others ideas.

Drive your characters story forward.

Use these skills to find out who your character is, and what is working for you.

Thank You!

Here at GamesMastery we want to give our appreciation and support to gamers everywhere. Our mission is to inspire creativity and help everyone enjoy the best life possible.

If you are interested in learning all that you can about being a great Dungeon Master take a look at the DM's Aresenal.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase with no extra cost to you.

How To Make Your RPG Battles More Exciting!

Dragon Min

Do you feel like your battles are getting slow and stagnant? Are your players zoning out immidiatley after their turn? Here are some tricks and tactics to help engage your players and enhance your battle prowess. 

use different weapons and terrian

Do you have a battle prepared with bandits on the road? Sounds simple. But we can do more!

 Instead of all the bandits lining up and using swords, have a few bandits in up the trees. Using archers shooting down onto the party adds a new level to the combat. Players will have to defend from above and below.

 Give your enemies different types of weapons and magic items.

If you are looking for specific monster tactics, The Monsters Know is essential reading.

use more magic

Place a bandit who is hiding in the trees with a wand of magic missile to shake things up. Make sure players are using at least one different type of saving throw during a combat.

Spell casting can add a lot more obstacles to a simple battle.

A bad guy can mess up the battleground by using entangle or a fog cloud.

 Don't forget that enemies can heal themselves with potions and magic.

Enemies using magic will always be more memorable than a couple grunts with swords.

Use traps and magical effects

Maybe the bandits placed traps in the road for the players to avoid or disable.

The terrain itself can end up being an encounter on its own. Use traps, pressure plates, caltrops or simple trip wires to slow the players down.

Getting attacked by swords is fun, but a sword fight where you have to avoid traps is a lot more engaging.

Maybe the players will have to get around a cloud of poison gas. Or Get through a couple locked doors.

Have spike traps that pop up every other round or a magic trap that damages players every turn until they  solve a puzzle. 

use the environment

Make the land itself more exciting. Fighting bandits on the road in the forest? Good start. Perhaps the road is now on the edge of a cliff and the enemies try to push the players off. Have bandits attack the players while they are on an old crumbling bridge.

 Maybe the fight takes place in the fire swamp where everyone will have to avoid quicksand and fire traps.

How about a duel inside a building on fire with the roof crashing down on the combatants. Maybe a cave is collapsing around as the battle rages on.

diversify monster types

Have monsters with different abilities fight alongside the bandits.

A sword fight against bandits suddenly gets weird when one of them changes into a werewolf.

Maybe the fight disturbs a nest of giant spiders or an owl-bear nearby. It's not such simple a sword fight anymore when some wood nymphs are trying to protect their trees.

Maybe the enemies and players team up to defeat a random monster that has just appeared.

The fight with the wizard just got more complicated when you find out he has an ogre body guard or he commands a tribe of knolls to fight for him.

add personality to the bad guys

 Make the enemies more human and relate-able. Give all the random bandits some names if they survive.

The bandits, John and Erin, get sad or angry when they see their comrades die in battle.

 The enemies can talk to the players on their turns and try to make deals. Role-play always makes a battle more intersting.

Maybe your enemies decide to run away and get revenge on the players later. Or maybe they fortify in a castle or fort to defend against the players

 Maybe the bandits were just following orders and don't want to get killed in a random battle.

When a goblin gets killed by a player, another one suddenly cries out, "Gratz! Don't die today! you are my only brother!"

 This is great for adding detail and world building. The enemies aren't just random bowling pins to be knocked down anymore when they have thoughts and feelings.

The NPC's aren't just simple meat for the grinder. The best battles will mean something to somebody. make it personal for oe of the players or the enemies.

During the obligatory tavern brawl, the players might have accidentally killed the daughter of a nobleman. Now it's not just a random bar fight, its part of the continuing story.

  -The players will have to figure out what to do when the guards come asking around.

   -The nobles could do a lot to try to get revenge.

  -They could send assassins to kill the players.

   -The nobles could outlaw weapons and magic items throughout the land.

  -The players could get arrested for murder.

put obstacles in the players way

The players might need to solve a puzzle or get into a magic portal before they can kill the bad guy.

Make the players fight through a few waves of enemies before they reach the boss.

Give the big boss a shield or force field the players need to take down before they can hurt him. All while the boss can still hit them.

If your bosses are dying quickly, or your players ar getting overpowered, read how to handle your villains getting killed to early.

Make the players cast a ritual spell that takes more than one turn to cast while the battle rages around them.

establish goals to Accomplish aside from just killing monsters

The party needs to get the contents of a treasure chest before the bandits do.

The bandits could have hostages that the players need to save before the battle ends.

Maybe a bandit is using a weapon or magic item that the players need to obtain for their quest.

The players could be tasked with stopping an evil cult from performing a ritual before time runs out and the bandits are in the way.

Creating some kind of time limit will make a battle more intense. They only have 4 rounds before the magic orb explodes and destroys everyone.

Stop a magic artifact before it burns down the whole forest.

add narrative flavor to attacks and abilities

Focusing on the numbers can get boring really quickly.

 Explain why the goblin rolled a 1. He tripped and missed his attack.He just saw his fellow tribesmen get slaughtered by one of the players, of course he would get a little rattled.

 If a roll is close but doesn't hit, talk about how the arrow hit the armor and bounced off. The attack connected but it didn't do any damage.

Describe how a player with high dexterity was able to dogde the attack. The player was just an inch away from dodging a sword to the face.

Let players describe how their attacks and spells look. Let the players describe what they do for the killing blow of an enemy.

Everyone likes to explain in detail how they hit a guy. Describe the misses too.

make it personal

 If you have ample time to prepare an ongoing campaign, make each encounter personal to the characters back story or connect it to a goal of a mission or side quest.

A player is on the way to find their missing brother?

Erin the bandit used to work with the missing brother and has info on him. Hopefully the players don't kill her first...

If you are a good DM you can make this stuff up on the spot.

Have the characters talk during battle. John the bandit might know the location of the lost dungeon the players are looking for.

The missing brother could have owed money to the bandits, or there was a secret love triangle with some of them.

If you plan this well, you won't ever need random encounters. The villains goals can be just as much a part of the story as the players.

You don't have to add all of these things to every battle of course, that would make things complicated very quickly. I suggest one plot or backstory battle per session.

Communicate with your players

Give players hints about monster resistances and other special abilities.

The game will go slowly if you have skeletons who resist piercing damage and all the players are using swords. Let the players notice that the swords aren't as effective as they should be. Let players use investiate or perception checks to understand their enemeis.

Let your players use knowledge checks to realize that a hammer or club would do a better job.

Don't let the battle go on forever when each player is only doing 3 damage. This just makes the battle last longer and wastes everyones time.

Players will appreciate the help and feel more accomplished when they figure stuff out. But you have to give them clues.

Characters have a lot of abilities and sometimes players won't know about them, or won't know what they do.

 It is your job as the DM to give hints and suggestions. Make sure players are aware of all their class abilities, spells and items that could be useful.

Have more experienced players help out the group to free up your precious time as the dungeon master.

speed up the battle

 Delegate what you can to your players in order make the battles go faster. Then you can more easily focus on what you need to.

Have a player keep track of initiative for you.

Have a player check the stats or hit points of each other character so the players know what they have.

If you have a small battle with goblins that are not imperative to the plot line, have a player keep track of the goblins hit points. 

Having players help out gives you extra time to plan on whats next, or role play a conversation during battle.

 Have players draw maps for you.

Ask for a players help to move around minis and other game pieces.

Most players are always willing to help, and you should let them. It frees up your time and the players feel more involved.

Tell players that you expect them to know what dice they are rolling and what modifiers and bonuses to add.

The DM should take time at the beginning of the game to help players out so battle will run smoothly later on.

If players are ready for their turn and know what they are doing, you can shave off a ton of extra time in battle. Have players roll all their attacks and damage dice at the same time.

I have a way to use initiative that speeds up the battles and helps communicate whats going on in my games. Maybe you should ask about it.

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