I played with a Dungeon Master (DM) who imposed a “critical failure” whenever anyone rolled a one on any d20 rolls. Some of these fails would be harmful to another player (“you slip on the grass and stab your friend next to you.”) or plain dumb (“you swing so hard, you tear the seams of your pants and your ass is exposed”). He would often be the only one laughing at the table, at the expense of his players’ frustrations.
I hated that game because it not only took away player agency, it made the players’ heroic characters look pretty stupid and incompetent.
While the idea of fun might vary at every table, and would even differ with individual players at the same table, I think one universal strategy for DMs to consider for their table is to make your heroes feel like heroes. Here are a three tips I use at my table:
Maintain player agency. Players should feel like whatever happens to their characters is a direct result of their actions and decisions. As DM, you set the scene and adjudicate any choices that makes sense to you. However, be careful of letting the dice impose undue punishment especially since rolling a one on a d20 could happen with 5% of the time.
At my table, any 1’s rolled in combat automatically misses with no additional penalties. This is not only in the official rules, but missing an attack is enough of a bummer already – they don’t need any extra suck on top of that.
Attack strengths, not weaknesses. Many DMs think that creating a challenge for the player means exploiting a characters’ weaknesses. It’s easy to fall into the trap of designing encounters that a player could only solve with something they don’t have. Wizard with low constitution? Here, have a bandit party that targets the mage. Barbarian with low charisma? Here, have a town guard captain who wants to negotiate a favor. These encounters work, but most of the time, they’re overcome by sheer luck or shared party success – no one feels like a hero.
Instead, consider designing encounters that bring each character’s strength to the foreground. How about an encounter in a lair with an endless flow of baddies, and the only way out is a door with a lock that only the rogue can successfully pick while the party defends him? How about a trapped room that could only be stopped by a wizard interpreting arcane sigils engraved on the walls? When these encounters succeed, the player feels like a hero because their character’s skills and strengths were pivotal to the success.
Reward (potential) heroic moments. Every once in a while, a player might get a crazy idea in the middle of combat – “Is there a chandelier I can grab onto, and swing across the room towards the baddie and kick his face?” It’s quite acceptable for a DM to ask for a dexterity check to grab and hold onto the chandelier, a strength check to gather enough momentum to swing across the room and then, roll for an attack. There are many potential points of failure with these checks, and any of them would ruin what could potentially be a heroic moment for a character.
Instead, consider awarding advantage on the attack roll and skip the two prior skill checks altogether. “Fueled by a rush of adrenaline, you jump towards the chandelier and grab it with both hands. Your momentum swings you right across the room so fast the baddie didn’t see you coming. Roll for attack with advantage!” I do this at my table a lot because I like to keep the flow going in combat, and it really encourages the players to think creatively in every encounter.
The next time you run your game, think about how you want your player to feel. It’s important to remember that at the end of the day, everyone at the table wants to have fun and there’s no better way to do that than creating a hero moment for each of your characters.