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It’s in the Small Stuff

Written by One Die Short - Published on April 26, 2012

Greetings! I have finally returned for another edition of One Die Short.  The ODS site fell apart, and so I had to rebuild it, but it’s back and better than ever, and so am I.  This week I want to talk about the little things in D&D:

In the above page from ODS, there are a few things I want to point out about the Half-Orc character, Matilda.  She has a necklace, earrings and tattoos.  These are supposedly inconsequential to gaming, and are little more than extra fluff to add some depth to a character.  Those of us that like well-rounded and interesting characters never forget to leave out the details, but for a lot of people, these things get lost.

I don’t know if it’s generational, or a result of the ever-evolving rule system, but I know when I used to play AD&D back in the day, these little details were essential.  I remember spending hours on my character sketch until is was just right.  And then of course, being the artistically inclined one in the group, I was forced to draw everyone else’s character.  I’ve spoken with other DMs that have expressed similar complaints recently, so why do these little things seem to fading away, and what can we do about it?

Some players love roleplaying and character development, and others just want to get in there, kill some things, and level up.  It’s the latter players that tend to gloss over the more roleplaying heavy elements of the game, and it’s these players that often couldn’t care less about what color their tunic is, or whether or not their character likes to wear jewelry.  If a piece of clothing or item isn’t magical, it isn’t worth their time to think about.

Personally, I love RPGs because I love ROLE-playing.  Character development is important to me, not just for my own characters and NPCs but for my players PCs as well.  I want to know their character’s motivations, likes and dislikes, and the location of ever freckle on their body (okay, even I’m not that bad).  I want interesting PCs in my game – not just PCs optimized for dice rolling – and the solution I’ve come up with works well for me and for my more stats focused players.  But best of all, it’s already built into the rule system.

Returning to the above page from ODS, let’s look at the necklace.  Is it magical?  No.  Is it an important plot piece?  No.  It’s just there.  One of my current players has a similar necklace that he has slowly been fashioning out of the bones of his enemies.  I enjoy this, because it’s good roleplaying, and I like to reward players for good roleplaying.  So, all I do is offer various circumstance bonuses, which become equipment bonuses, as they are usually a permanent effect.  I say usually because even a bonus from an object might not apply to every situation.  For example, a necklace with gnome skulls dangling from it is pretty scary, so I might grant +1 or +2 Intimidation bonus, unless you’re trying to intimidate a Hill Giant.  A lot of us are used to granting circumstance bonuses, but most of the DMs I know tend to focus more on combat bonuses than anything else, and sometimes they get overlooked completely.

Here are some other bonuses I like to give:

  • Diplomacy bonuses for dressing fancy
  • Charisma bonuses for being well bathed and smelling nice
  • Intimidation and/or Charisma bonuses for having awesome tattoos

There are a great many possibilities, so be creative with it.  I think the circumstance bonus is one of the most overlooked tools of good DMing, and one we can use to add more depth to our game and our players.  Sometimes a little bribery can go a long way, and really, what’s a +1 bonus every now and then if it keeps the DM and the players happy?  Sometimes we get so wrapped up in game “balance” that we start forgetting to have fun.

Thanks for reading, and please be sure to check out the rest of One Die Short, as well as my personal opinion/advice blog, Ask the Dungeon Master, all about Life, the Universe, and Roleplaying.

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Written by One Die Short

I’m a long-time Dungeon Master and roleplayer and will bring my dice to the grave with me. I write a webcomic entitled One Die Short. It’s a story of love, life, nerds and roleplaying. Both the adventures and “real-life” segements are based on my own roleplaying experiences as a DM of over fifteen years.

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20 Responses to “It’s in the Small Stuff”
  1. C.T. says:

    Can you guys stop truncating your RSS feed? It is annoying and unnecessary. I use RSS for a reason, and if I want to make a comment on your blog, I will come here. Forcing your readers into coming to your URL is nearly as shortsighted as offering no RSS feed at all.

  2. Fenixius says:

    That’s a great idea, and I’ve used it briefly in the past. I once had a Barbarian who adamantly demanded that he be allowed to skin a group of standard wolves, and I made him find a tailor, convince them to take on the unusual work, and then pay for that work. Gave him lots of things to do, cost a fair amount, and got him a +2 to intimidate!

    Harder to think what might boost streetwise, arcana, dungeoneering, history, etc. Any ideas for those slightly more cerebral or abstract skills?

  3. TheCaptainOfMine says:

    This is actually quite good advice.

    I had one particularly memorable instance where one of my players did something in this vein.
    Her character was half-demon (so not particularly concerned with the whole morality thing). The party killed some bandits in a cave, and I described one of them as being rather fat. She latched onto this and decided to skin the fat man to make a fat suit. Which she used both as a distraction in later combat and to freak people out. She got some intimidation bonuses, if I do recall….

    But yes. Very good article. I’ll put this to use.

  4. Rambage says:

    Well, when I played my crazed gnome archeologist I always made sure of bringing with me a walking cane. Complelty useless, but it adds flavour!

  5. Glad (most of) you enjoyed it! Sorry about the RSS feed C.T., but I just write for the website and have no control over it.

    Fenixius: The mental skills are indeed a lot harder to find bonuses for. Some things I can think of off the top of my head would be a having a magnifying glass around for Appraise checks and maybe earmuffs to aid in Concentration? And it has the added effect of making you look silly and lowering Intimidation checks.

    Another thing that can be handy is letting characters stockpile books (especially if they have a bag of holding) and allowing them to refer back to books to give them temporary bonuses to Speak Language, Dungeoneering and the like. Assuming they have to time at hand to skim through the pages for a bit. This also makes all those random bookshelves we populate the world with a lot more useful.

  6. Landshark says:

    That///that comic is terrible. I feel so much regret just having read it.
    Is the ‘bundle of references=jokes’ thing a common theme? Don’t even get me started on the artwork. It’s the attempt at movement in the bottom left panel that hurts the most.
    Woah woah, the (super)pointy-eared thing is female?! Wow…

  7. Landshark: Thank you for reading. I’m glad to know that I have enough power over your mental state to have caused you regret.

  8. Slamdance says:

    Hey Landshark,
    Why don’t you do life better and quit pooping on people’s awesomeness. You are a hater of the arts. And I feel sorry for you.


  9. Slamdance says:

    Also! Yea, so the super pointy eared creature is female, and she’s awesome, and super strong. What the hell…

  10. Thank you for the support Slamdance, but I find it best not to be too hard on people that clearly don’t have a grasp on living yet.

  11. Darkwarren says:

    Let’s all stop being snarky. There are better ways to offer and receive constructive criticism.

  12. starshard0 says:

    While I think this is a neat idea, and a good way to get players into role-playing their characters, it’s sort of sad that we have to give out bonuses just to get people to role-play in a role-playing game.

  13. Fenixius says:


    Something that’s a bit tricky to remember for experienced RPG players and GM’s is that roleplaying is a very difficult and different kind of gameplay for most people. As such, making it mechanically relevant is about more than just incentivising the roleplay, but making it meaningful. A way the game is played, rather than something you do alongside the game.

    One of many lessons I’ve gleaned from Legend of the Five Rings is the way a ruleset can really use the culture or lore it establishes as mechanics in the game. For example, the Crane clan is generally artistic, and simply making a character who is artistically inclined (or not) means you can influence people of that clan by engaging with them on that level. If you can spontaneously give a haiku, talk about the way a painting makes your character understand the artist, or if you can tell a moving story about yourself, you can really impress or even befriend a Doji or Kakita Crane. If art is above the mindset of your samurai, a Kakita might not think as much of you, which could have any number of implications. It takes an element which is in most systems mere character fluff, and makes it a functional tool that the players can use for positive or negative.

    I think I recall from my wolf-cloaked barbarian that he suffered at diplomacy or in charisma because of the violent nature of his attire. It’s all about making players actions, choices, and efforts meaningful, not merely giving bonuses to reward roleplaying behavior. While I acknowledge that there are more nuanced ways to do this, especially with NPC interaction and story development, I think any effort in this area can only be regarded as a good thing; not merely a way to circumvent a failure on the part of the players.

  14. Well said Fenixius. I think you hit on a good point: rule systems effect roleplaying quite a lot. And while I do agree with Starshardo to some extent, for me it’s not the players that make me said but the game. For good or ill, D&D has become more combat focused over the years and so, especially with newer players, it can be more difficult to get into the roleplaying side of things.

    Additionally, some people love RPGs but have a harder time with the more dramatic/story focused side of things. I play with a lot of newbies, and I find this to be most true with them, so anything that can get them deeper into roleplaying is a good thing for me.

  15. Jake says:

    Fantastic article. You hit this one right on the proverbial head. The simple fact of the matter is, not everyone was blessed (*wink) with role-playing creativity… but the elements of D&D are truly stimulating for everyone. My current party includes 2 great friends of mine who are a bit awkward in the role-playing realm. One in particular will sooner whip out his phone to quietly play tetris if the action isn’t good enough. So when we started a new campaign last weekend, I encouraged them and reminded them that EVERY decision they make on behalf of their character can have consequences. And the more interesting and fun you make your character, the more it will be rewarded.

    To parallel one of the previous articles, in order to keep some of those distractable PCs interested, I’ve included gameplay elements that take place outside of our sit-down sessions. For example, I post mark letters to their home addresses but addressed to their PC name and have the back sealed by our ‘King’ with a wax seal I made. It’s a tedious but enjoyable process to watch the growth of your friends start to truly care about the well being of their character and their supporting PCs and NPCs.

    Lastly, I agree 100% that costumes and drawn characters really add that extra element to the game. If you’re not particularly artistic, there are plenty of free programs/ apps that will draw characters for you.

  16. Jake: Thanks! And I couldn’t agree more with you. That’s fantastic that you’ve gone the extra mile for your Players! I do similar things with my Players, but I just use facebook messages :)

  17. Fenixius says:

    Hey Jake!

    It’s always admirable to see a DM go the extra mile for his or her players. Top shelf!

    You mentioned drawn (etc) representations of the characters giving a load of extra depth; as someone with ~0 artistic ability, I’d be very interested in some links to “free programs/apps that will draw characters”! Mind sharing some~?

  18. Here’s one called Hero Machine me and my players have used before. It works well for the standard races (human, elf, dwarf, etc.)


  19. Platypus Dude says:

    I would like to say that in my group we use character sketches, thank you. Many other groups characters are just numbers. How boring.

  20. Character sketches are the way to go! I used to do that, but it always meant my players forcing me to do their character sketches for them, so eventually I told them to take a hike and use Hero Machine or learn to draw.

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