It’s the sign of a RPG going well, when the players in the game are talking about it afterwards. Do you remember when we did this? Do you remember when that happened? It’s what as a player or a DM you want in your game. So how do you make those moments happen?
First, I would say that you can’t truly make those moments happen. It’s going to happen naturally in your game, but you can try and encourage those situations. Whenever you have a huge aha moment, that might get remembered, but the ones that are going to be talked about are going to happen more organically.
Now, like any good organic garden, you still have to plan the seeds and tend it, this stuff doesn’t happen on it’s own.
So you can lay the groundwork, starting in session zero to encourage those fun moments. In session zero, when players are creating their characters, don’t just think about combat and what you’re going to do with that. Your character is a whole lot more than just swinging a sword for a lot of damage or shooting some crossbows for damage. And while you might have a martial character who really cares about combat, put ore into your character than that. They can easily not know social norms because they grew up with the sword being their best friend. Or maybe they have a very unique set fighting moves and sword preparation, but let your character be unique and don’t create Joe Soldier who has no personality except for hitting stuff with a sword.
Also, consider giving the character a signature move. Now, it might be in combat or it might not be. But in combat, maybe you are a rogue who uses a crossbow. So your special move is a dive and roll while firing and getting yourself in hiding. Or maybe you are a hopeless flirt and every single bartender that you meet hoping to get information from them.
Why would those things give you cool moments?
Because as the rogue, you roll behind the pillar and find a surprised enemy who is also hiding behind the game pillar, now what do you do? Or you are in a dark cave and you roll behind a rock outcropping and find that there are stairs going down, as you slowly roll and bounce down them. Or for the character who flirts every time with the bartender for information, it will be a running joke that they never get any good information and maybe you end up on wild goose chases (literally) because of some information that you’ve gotten. Or, what happens when the bartender flirts back, or when the bartender actually has some real information. The cheer that will go up around the table because it was actually worth it, people will remember those moments.
So, those are some things that are more player focused, what can you do as a DM?
First, keep combat interesting. While you don’t need to do something super special every time, make it unique from time to time. Also go with alternate objectives. Combat doesn’t just have to be about knocking heads. I’ll touch a bit more on alternate combat objectives, but if you want a good podcast on it, check out this one by Total Party Thrill. Alternate objectives in combat can be things like stopping a sacrifice from happening. Sure, you might lop off a few heads of the acolytes guarding the cultists, but will you get to the cultists before they finish their chanting in four rounds of combat. Or are you having to try and keep the villains away from the caravan that you were hired to protect. These alternate objectives will give some memorable moments and keep the combat feeling different.
Likewise, it doesn’t have to just be an alternate way to beat the combat, it can be a unique combat setting. Maybe you are fighting on a narrow ledge next to flowing lava. Now, you could give advantage for having the higher ground, because as Star Wars Episode III taught us, that’s important. Also, don’t take any more life lessons from Star Wars Episode III than that. That one has a clear idea of pushing someone into the lava, but you can make unique terrains. Recently I ran a combat where there were two different levels of the combat. A barbarian jumped down into a pit to fight some monsters while two other character stayed up top, however, some of monsters crawled up to them as well. That gives a combat moment that is different than it would have been before.
Then, there are ways you can do that out of combat. And the easiest way is to just have interesting characters. I need to be better at this personally, because a lot of the NPC’s, I’m coming up with them on the fly, so they aren’t always the most unique. Thankfully, I have a player who is good at giving me a lot to work with in terms of dialog and lies that he is telling the NPC’s, so that gives me time to build out the character that I came up with. But we had a fun situation, one time, that players will likely remember, where one of the characters had gotten to the shore of a pirate island, found a very flirty dwarf pirate captain, and they had to figure out as a player and for their character, how not to insult the pirate captain so that they didn’t lose their head. It ended up being pretty memorable, because fake in game flirting can be hilarious a lot of the time, just make sure everyone is comfortable enough with it.
What are some other ideas that you have to help those more organic moments of surprise and stories that people remember happen in your game? Have you used any of these before? Keep in mind, if you do use some of these ideas as a player or as a DM, there is no guarantee that you will have those really memorable moments, but some of these ideas might tease out more. And find what works best for your group, maybe you have modules that you like to run, and what your group really remembers is the big boss battles at the end, that is equally as good a memorable moment for your group, but figure out if it’s social interactions, weird combats, big combats, or shocking twists that your group remembers most and go from there.
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