d12 Ways To Surprise And Delight Your Players And Their Characters

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1221

d12 Ways To Surprise And Delight Your Players And Their Characters

Happy New Year!

I hope your holidays were great. I spent mine eating way too much delicious baking. I wish I’d asked Santa for a bigger belt.

The New Year always feels like a fresh start. So I am curious what your gaming plans are.

If you have a moment, let me know via this quick poll.

Me? I’m continuing with my Old School Essentials Basilica campaign. I’m also starting a Pathfinder 2E campaign. And I am planning some one-shots based on my long bucket list of games I want to try.

Here’s to a fun and game-full year for us all!


In This Issue…


  • d12 Ways To Surprise Your Players & Their Characters

Reader Tips of the Week

  • d12 Ways of Delivering Potions
  • Add Interactibles to Your Maps
  • Use Maps Strategically
  • Revealing Campaign Spoilers is OK
  • One-Hour Session Tips

d12 Ways To Surprise Your Players & Their Characters

From Johnn Four

Taking time to gather surprises, craft delights, and celebrate your friends gives everyone the warm-and-fuzzies. Small gifts, regardless of monetary value, make people feel seen and respected. This improves group morale, increases engagement, and makes it easy to share how you feel about others without the awkward conversation.

Here are d12 ways to surprise and delight your players and their characters:

d12 Player Surprises

  1. Give out homemade cookies, baking, or other treat halfway through the session to represent the treasure hoard just earned. Bonus points if you decorate your baking with in-game content, like a giant +1.
  2. Use fidget toys to represent magic items and other treasure. Players not only get cool treasure, but you arm them with focus tools as well. Here’s the exact bundle I got from Amazon (affiliate link) and I’ve been enjoying the marble-in-mesh one best so far.
  3. Create a scroll for every player. Use them for actual scrolls in-game if desired. But the main surprise here is you’ve written three things they do well or reasons why you are grateful they are your friend.
  4. Use assigned seating and tape something under each chair to be revealed when found in-game. Examples: handouts, treasure, clues, puzzles.
  5. Write out notable player quotes you’ve recorded during the campaign in big crayon writing and mount them in picture frames or hang the sheets around the play area.
  6. Hire a local or online artist to draw each character. Bonus: in future have drawings for hirelings, companions, and familiars.
  7. Get some old trophies and turn them into session rewards. Best Roleplaying, Best Tactics, Best Teammate might be good candidates for your group.
  8. Record player birthdays and group-join dates. Celebrate each with a song, speech, something on this list, or just a simple acknowledgement and expression of gratitude.
  9. Get old magazines or warm up your printer. Cut out things representing party, character, and player goals and glue them to a large sheet of paper. Mount the paper in the game area to offer reminders and help players focus.
  10. Make or give each player a cool or funny hat or prop that in some way represents their character.
  11. Write a new inspirational quote, RPG style, on a whiteboard or mirror before each session.
  12. Create a desktop wallpaper of the party or other things players would enjoy.

d12 Character Surprises

  1. Free gold/credits/cash. Ever find money on the ground? It’s a great feeling. I found $20 in my winter coat last September when getting it out of storage. Whoop whoop!
  2. Free treasure. By treasure I mean items that are not money. Let them find potions, scrolls, guns, an abandoned ship, etc. If possible, make the treasure a one-shot or limited time item (i.e. 3 charges left, low on fuel, etc.) to protect game balance.
  3. Help them make a new ally. Often characters have to turn the world upside down to earn the respect of their peers. Let them make a new ally through a friendly conversation or simple deed.
  4. Hold a “last dinner” feast in the party’s honor before they hit the dungeon. Have NPCs stand up and tell each character one thing they respect about them.
  5. Let characters find or make a good deal. Maybe a store has a needed piece of equipment and it’s half-price. Perhaps a rare item is discovered for sale. Mayhap a merchant gives them too much in change. Or, gasp, the PCs pay for an item and discover it is of higher than normal quality.
  6. A new family member, or a long-lost one, contacts a PC. Make this family member friendly and useful to the party in some way.
  7. Create a balloon avalanche to celebrate after a major victory.
  8. Give a PC a free, useful, non-annoying companion. Everybody likes a servant, helper, and gopher.
  9. In similar fashion, let the party earn a valuable agent who can take care of some of the boring in-game tasks like guarding home base.
  10. Have the BBEG make a mistake in the PCs’ favor. Or perhaps an unexpected boon gives the party an advantage over their enemy.
  11. I asked my wife for ideas on surprising players. She doesn’t roleplay but among her suggestions, some of which are above, was to give the characters pig snouts so they could snuff out truffles. Er, well, make of it what you will but I decided to include it for completeness.
  12. And here’s the grand-daddy of all the happy, unexpected player surprises: their plan works.

Reader Tips of the Week

Tips, ideas, and inspiration from your fellow RPT GMs.

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

d12 Ways of Delivering Potions

From Jesse Cohoon

It’s up to you to decide when “imbibing” the potion whether the delivery method is consumed or reduced, or if characters can quest to “refill” the item for reuse.

  1. Temporary tattoo via a tattoo pen or quill
  2. Cigarettes, pipe, vape
  3.  Pills
  4. Candy, gummies, gum
  5. Essential oil
  6. Food condiment or sauce
  7. Ceramic runestones that break after use
  8. Nanites – thank your local artificer
  9. Dust that’s inhaled
  10. Runes whittled into wood, carved into stone, etched into metal
  11. Living plants, seeds, seedlings
  12. Bandages, special cloth, or clothing
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Add Interactibles to Your Maps

From RPT GM Triston

I like to add interactive objects to my maps.

For example, a chilling temple map with frozen ice crystals and a blizzard. A cool set piece to be sure! But inside the crystals are looming and strange shadows, distorted by refracted light….

Have some useful or interesting items contained inside the crystals. Or even more devious, monsters. Have some empty crystals as well. You could even make a roll chart to determine what’s inside.

What really sells it to me is when NPCs or monsters interact with the objects you’ve added to maps. As the yeti defends its lair, it smashes a crystal, showering the players in shards of ice, and releasing the object within.

Will the players receive a helpful item? Or will an ice mephit join the fight instead? Drama ensues!

Best of luck and good gaming!

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Use Maps Strategically

From RPT GM Ben Lucas

I find myself only pulling out the maps when combat actually starts. I often add a picture of a point of interest in some rooms or areas, but for the most part I use descriptive text as my main method of conveying information. It’s probably more habit from my early D&D days, but I find that maps are best used only when you really need to know exactly where the PCs are.

Of course, since more often than not when the map comes out something happens, my players know to expect action at that time. I have used this a few times out of combat as well just to keep the players on their toes. I created maps for dungeon (a cave system) only to have zero combat or map-required encounters inside. The real combat was as they left the cave, and by that stage they were so used to the map coming out that the bugbear ambush caught them completely off guard.

My advice for other DMs who use maps all the time and have players not investigating enough is the same for others who have that issue even without maps.

Have someone or something go through the place the PCs have finished with afterwards and discover treasure or excitement. Have a story in town of another group of adventurers that explored the same ruins only to find them empty (because the players killed or chased everything off) but then discover a secret treasure room or hidden enemy.

You can even use this approach to re-use a map set with new excitement if the other party uncovered a secret area and unleashed new enemies they had to flee from. Now the PCs are likely to return to finish what they started and thought they had finished. Those same maps will now be investigated much closer.

Another method is having enemies come from a place the PCs considered safe, such as through a secret door they failed to search for. Have this happen only a few times and they will spend more time looking around just in case.

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Revealing Campaign Spoilers is OK

From Wizard of Adventure Morgan Joeck

According to this article, spoilers make you enjoy the story more:


Do you rewatch movies or reread books? But you already know the ending! Do you like them less the second time through? Probably not or else why would you have read or watched them again?

I don’t want my players spoiling things for others who don’t want to know, and I don’t want my players metagaming the fun out of it. (Though, what if the party is going in the wrong direction or going to miss out on a cool side quest? If a metagaming player gives a little unobtrusive nudge in that direction, is it an inherently bad thing?)

But I’m fine if they’re going to enjoy it. My pleasure in running things isn’t being able to surprise all my players all the time. That’s fun sometimes, and I’ll still get that with some of the players anyway. It’s really interesting food for thought.

[Comment from Johnn: Great tip, Morgan. If I had to choose, I’d rather players be armed with more information than less, as well. Gameplay means no one knows yet how things will turn out, and that’s where the majority of our fun exists – making choices and seeing what happens.]

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One-Hour Session Tips

From RPT GM Paul Martz

I’ve been running an hour-session monthly campaign for more than a year. It is very challenging because you want to give the players meaningful choices, but also feel like they are getting somewhere. Luckily, my players are more into having fun than advancing.

If I were to give three pieces of advice:

  • Let players know where things stand when the session begins. Let them know where they left off, what their current goal is, and where that fits into any larger goal they are pursuing.
  • Make combat scary, quick, and meaningful. Don’t fill your precious minutes fighting unimportant filler kobolds the way you might in a longer game.
  • Don’t use xp. Level the players up after a meaningful achievement.

At least that is my experience.

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That’s it for this week’s newsletter.

If you want to chat with fellow RPT GMs about today’s tips or ask me questions, join the conversation here at my forum.


Johnn Four
Have more fun at every game!