Create Your Special GM Moves

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0960

Adventures get repetitive and boring. “Bring me another 10 scorpion tales!” Even megadungeons and campaign paths can grind you down.

I received an email from a subscriber who asked how to keep players engaged. He caught one player even playing video games on their phone during sessions.

The best way I know how to keep players engaged is to provide scenarios and encounters that pose an ever-expanding range of challenges and obstacles.

GM Moves gives you another tool in your GM Toolbox to do that. Inspired by the Dungeon World RPG, GM Moves is 5E Lair Actions meet Board Games, which I’ll explain below.

There are only so many ways you can blend the same monsters, treasures, and plots. How do you make the adventure feel like it’s the first time you played again?

In this recipe step for crafting 5 Room Dungeons, we’ll design 1d4 GM Moves and add them to your Adventure Canvas to help you create special gameplay experiences.

What Is A GM Move?

In Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition some monsters get special powers when bearded in their lair. Powers involve cool extra actions and special abilities other foes don’t get.

In this way, these monsters create challenges and obstacles even experienced players have not faced before.

For 5 Room Dungeons, we want to combo the spirit of this design with board games. I’ve been playing a lot of board games lately, especially the medium and heavy Euros.

These games have such a huge variety of fun mechanics and clever designs. And the best games integrate these in tight fashion with the game’s theme and aesthetics so it’s a real pleasure to play.

Think about it in real life. Someone changes the timeline of your work and you feel stressed out. But add a countdown track to a board game and it creates a fun experience prodding sharper strategy.

We want to combine both game design techniques so you have some clever gameplay options to wield when running your adventure.

This will make each of your 5 Room Dungeons unique and challenging.

For example, Room #4 contains a giant. A powerful giant. But he’s asleep when the PCs enter (Crucible). Each big noise the party makes increases the chances of waking the giant up.

So a big piece of your design revolves around this dynamic. We can make a GM Move with it.

But we need to add a couple more game components to make this fun.

Feedback Mechanisms

First, we need a way to let players know when they’ve triggered your GM Move of Wake The Giant. We need a feedback mechanism.

Without a feedback mechanism players won’t know what’s going on, which means there’s no actual gameplay happening there. It’s just arbitrary to them.

You have choices for feedback. You could roll secret dice behind your screen each round of combat, each time characters talk loud, and each failed physical skill check.

That, at least, communicates to players they’re doing something with risk. Each die roll gets players nervous and wondering what’s happening. They’ll try to figure out the pattern of what’s triggering the rolls.


In addition to a feedback mechanism, ideally we offer a counteraction. This improves our design tenfold because it opens up a whole new layer of options, ideas, and tactics for our players.

For example, at Room #1 the party can hear the booming snores of some terrible creature echoing off the walls. It might take players a bit to figure out what the noise actually is — a fun puzzle.

Each time you trigger Wake The Giant and roll the dice you describe whether the creature’s snores get heavier (deeper sleep) or lighter (waking up).

And maybe you roll the dice in public. And maybe you add a cumulative extra die each time the snores get lighter, making it more difficult to keep the giant asleep.

Counteractions might include the bard singing as the PCs explore, or mimicking common noises the location already makes.

With at least a couple of realistic ideas for solutions you can move on, knowing players have options and will likely think of others you can judge in the moment.

You also remove a die from your wake check each time the party succeeds in making the snores deeper and louder.

You won’t have to explain this game to your players. They’ll soon figure it out. And it’s in the figuring out of your GM Move that will make your players excited and leaning in to play.

The GM Move Simple Formula

Most adventures will put a giant in Room #4 frozen in time, waiting for the characters to come and trigger another grinding combat.

But with our designer hat on, we’ve created a cool GM Move for our 5 Room Dungeon sure to get players engaged and remembering the session for a long time.

Your goal is to create 1d4 of these for your 5 Room Dungeon.

Use this quick formula: 

Effect + Feedback Mechanism + Counteraction With practice and experience, designing GM Moves gets easier and you’ll learn which ones resonate best with your players and make your adventures the most fun.