Master the Table With One Essential Ingredient

This is the final part of a series on How to Make Encounters Fun. Read Part I, Part II, and Part III here.

The final part of this series about making encounters fun is a bit fluffy, but critical.

I received a nice compliment from one of my players recently about the energy I bring to the table each session: “As a GM, I amazed about how long you are keeping that up.”

Enthusiasm is so important for making game sessions fun that it was the fourth topic I ever covered in the newsletter back in 1999.

We can have awesome adventures, foes, maps, and props prepared. But if we do not GM with energy, sessions fall flat. Players will feel like something’s missing. They won’t have a lot of fun with your encounters.

In my experience, energy is a feedback loop. A self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have low energy, player energy drops too. When poor enthusiasm gets reflected back, your energy falls, causing theirs to descend even further.

But, good news — the opposite is true too! Show up excited, stay excited, and players will pick up on that vibe. They’ll absorb some of your positivity, gaining some vitality points.

Therefore, we must often carry a little energy in our back pocket so we have some extra to give. I’ll stay in my lane here and only mention once that good rest, nutrition, and exercise raise our baseline energy. Avoiding sugary snacks, calling breaks, and taking a deep breath once in awhile are all table stakes for zeal, pun intended!

So what else can we do to keep energy levels up during sessions?

I think the main thing is to be excited about what’s happening. To be excited about what’s happening involves focusing on the details and romancing them in a storytelling way.

For example:

Johnn: The troll moves 50 feet. Roghan, it’s your turn.

Roghan: I draw my sword and attack. I get a 15.

Johnn: Hit. What’s the damage?

Roghan: 36.

Johnn: Ok. The troll’s turn. I rolled a 1. Miss. You get a free hack.

Zzzzzzzzz. What a boring encounter. If we can just add some GM charisma to this encounter, we can amp up the energy and get our players excited too.

To do this, we:

  • Use action-oriented language
  • Celebrate the small details
  • Draw players into our celebrations

For example:

Johnn: The ice troll charges straight at you, Roghan, fury contorting its face. It skids to a stop a mere dozen inches from your face. It raises a massive spiked club — a tree really — and prepares to crush you. You can feel the murderous rage boiling behind its winter blue eyes. What are you doing?

Roghan: I draw my sword and attack. I get a 15.

Johnn: Smack. Your sink your blade deep into its grey thigh. But the monster just laughs at you. What’s the damage?

Roghan: 36.

Johnn: Wow. Your blade stabs all the way through its leg and you wipe the grin off its feral face. Now it’s really mad. The spiked tree comes flying at your head.

Crap. I rolled a 1. You duck under the mighty swing. As you do so, your red cloak swirls up into its eyes, and you blind it for a moment. You get a free hack. And you better make it count, because if it connects next time, you’re not sure you’ll survive getting hit by a tree with a huge bloody spike longer than Little Phingers jutting out of it.

Hopefully that round was more exciting to you than in the first example. And note that no exclamation marks were used. There’s a lot to unpack there as to why the second example injects a wider band of energy into your encounter, and Jeremy Brown will treat us to such fantastic description tips in February to help you achieve the same effect.

Today, though, I want to call out three things:

  • Notice how the descriptions were action-oriented. Everyone was doing things. The ice troll charges, It skids to a stop, Your sink your blade deep.
  • Also notice how I described things from the player or character point of view. This gets players into the scene so they can envision it better and get energized by the details.
  • And character details explained outcomes. “…your red cloak swirls up into its face” to explain the fumble puts the player into the moment, helping players live vicariously.

The point here isn’t about vivid descriptions. It’s that we get excited if what’s happening becomes exciting to us. There were still numbers flying around. We still used mechanics like hitting and fumbles and free hacks. But we took the time to celebrate the small moments, be enthusiastic about them, and inject some energy into the scene.

We can offer Devil’s Bargains, feed character arcs, and make rewards challenging to earn. But without some great GM energy, our encounters won’t be half as fun as they could be.

Have more fun at every game!

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