Let the Players be the Heroes

Table Top RPG - Baltrons Beacon

“We came for him!”, yelled the dwarf, staring at the chamber filled with goblin guards. Confused yellow eyes stared back dumbly, as the dwarf grabbed one of their companions and dragged him out of the room!

You never know what players may do in your games, but if you allow them to, they will create a story and events that takes your world and breaths further life into it. Sometimes this happens naturally. Sometimes you have a player at your table that helps the story and the action along. But sometimes your job as a GM (Game Master) is to help your players become the heroes.

Here are my suggestions on ways you as the GM can empower your players be the heroes.


The most important thing a GM can do is build trust with the players. Whether you’re running a game at a FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store), a convention, online or at home, building trust with your players is imperative to giving them the freedom to be a hero.

GM’s may feel our job is to protect the players from themselves though. We laugh and tell stories about the ‘stupid’ actions of players. However, that those same stupid actions, when given a little creative latitude, may become the center of a great adventure.

Trust with players is about building the awareness that you’re also on their side. Players should feel that even if there’s a TPK (Total Player Kill), the story doesn’t end. They should know you’ve already figured how to work their characters back into the story. Perhaps with being captured, and having to escape. Or a NPC (Non-Player Character) can rescue them, also providing further opportunities for adventures or help later. What ever your plan, the players need to know that you’ve got their back!

“We came for him!” – Trust

I reward quick wit and thinking. As I described the room and they realized there were more goblins than they could handle, rather than rolling initiative the party heroes jumped into action.

Immediately the dwarf player blurted out “We came for him!”, grabbed a nearby goblin and ran back through the door.

Wanting to encourage this type of role-playing, no rolls were required. His quick thinking worked, leaving the rest of the room stunned.

The players trusted me, to know eventually the big room of goblins would need to be dealt with, but they had a chance to help frame the story before I called for initiative. I allowed them to knock the goblin out (again without a need for a die roll), and even to try their ruse one more time.

There were no complaints with the players however, when the goblins didn’t allow another of their guards to be grabbed and hauled away.

Let the Players get it Wrong

As a player, it’s very hard to pick up on the clues that a GM may think are completely obvious. They don’t have the same picture of your adventure that you do. So they’re acting on their understanding of a situation and not yours.

Players want their characters to be heroes. They want to be Han Solo, charging down a hall way chasing the storm troopers, just as much as they want to stumble into a whole platoon and have to flee screaming.

Look for opportunities for players to get it wrong, or do stupid things. You don’t have to protect them, but you should give them chances to ‘run away’ (and enjoy doing so), when they realize the folly of their mistake.

This means that as soon as they’re in a dangerous situation, don’t just announce “Rocks fall, everyone dies!”. Build the moment up. Tell them they feel deep rumbling vibrations coming from the ceiling above them. Cracks start to appear in the ceiling. Small pebbles start to fall. Larger rocks fall, If they still haven’t run…perhaps even crushing a dented discarded shield in the corner that they didn’t notice before. Give them a round choking in the dust from the rubble of a few near misses for any players still unsure if they should leave. If after that…well.

“We came for him!” – Let the players get it Wrong

When the battle with the Goblins began, the party was quickly out numbered, and it was obvious. As the goblins scrambled to get their weapons and defenses ready for the fight, I let the apprehension build. I also encouraged it by counting out dozens of d20’s and laying them on the table to illustrate just how many attacks they party was going to be facing.

Before a call for initiative was made, the party had already committed to running away. The only question was would they be able to.

Your Creatures are Stupid Too

Let your monsters, bad guys and bosses make stupid mistakes. Many times it’s what players notice more than any clue to defeat a monster that you hope they’ll learn and more importantly use.

Don’t make it too obvious. Perhaps you can expose an unprotected flank. Leave an opening for a rogue to sneak past and attack the enemy from behind. Or fail to remember to put up a wizards defenses. Most battles are won not by having a better plan, but by exploiting weakness and mistakes.

Allowing the players to notice a weakness or tactical mistake, gives them the feeling they actually ‘beat’ the bad guy, instead of just being lucky.

“We came for him!” – Your creatures are stupid too

As the heroes fled from the room, wondering how many of the goblin guards would pursue them, I built up the howling and shouts behind them.

The heroes fled quickly into the darkness.

The goblins, however, spotting their unconscious companion, all stopped to make sure he was ok, letting the players make their escape. As the players made good their escape, I secretly decided that the goblin they had earlier pulled from the room, was actually the Captain of the goblin guards. Without their captain, they lacked the initiative to give pursuit.

Let the Bad Luck Roll

Roll your dice openly in front of everyone and let the results stand.

When a GM rolls their dice in secret, they may trust that the GM is fudging results to help their characters survive. But that also means that a GM is fudging numbers to let their creatures survive too.

By letting the players see the rolls and perhaps even help to track wounds or hit points, you involve them not only in the story, but help to grow trust with them.

I’ve found that players are more brave when they see the monsters rolling poorly, or know that the big boss is one hit away from defeat.

“We came for him!” – Let the bad luck roll

The heroes, after learning none of the goblins were giving chase, decided to return to the guard room and gain surprise on the goblins again. Surely the goblins wouldn’t think they would be back….right?

However, having restored their Captain to consciousness and not wanting to be literally ‘taken’ by surprise again, he set an ambush of his two biggest goblin guards by the door to attack any who entered the room again.

The heroes opened the door and I rolled the guards sneak attack. Two natural 1’s appeared on the d20 rolls as the result, and everyone cheered (including me) as the goblins ambush struck each other on the heads, knocking each other out!

Reward Big Actions

Players want their characters to be remembered, both in game and in real life.

When a player’s character accomplishes something big, encourage it! If you want your players to be great heroes, you need to acknowledge their deeds, or they’ll stop trying. By recognizing their heroic deeds, you’ll be reinforcing their wish to do more.

Point out how impressed you may be by some action they just tried, whether they succeeded or not. The story is most fun when both the GM and the players encourage, recognize and reinforce each other.

Players new to the hobby of role-playing, will forever have their enjoyment of it formed by how you and others react to their big deed! The more encouragement of heroic actions you give, the more you will get.

“We came for him!” – Reward big actions

The heroes committed themselves to battling the goblin guards who out numbered them four fold. As the elves began loosing their bows into the guards, the dwarf rushed forward, upended a crude table and set it as a defensive barrier for the elves to fire from behind.

Holding the table against the guards trying to pull it down required the dwarf player to do little else. He decided to use the goblins attempts to pull the table against them, and start pushing the table into the goblins.

Soon, the dwarf managed to pin a large number of goblins between the wall and the table. Giving his companions the chance they needed to even the odds.

Share the Big Reveal

Adventures are a living breathing thing. The action isn’t just happening where the players are. Make sure that big plot points and NPC actions are shared someway with the players. Even if it means giving one of the players a secret of what is going on ‘behind the scenes’.

When players know more of the big picture, or even some secret knowledge, it creates a feeling that they’re truly a part of the story.

Knowing not only their part of the story, but also how the story reacts to their actions, creates full emersion into the world or adventure you’re running.

“We came for him!” – Share the big reveal

Seeing his goblin guards trapped and slain by the heroes, the captain fled to the shadows to make his escape further into the tunnels and warn the others of the heroes coming. Rather then simply slipping into the dark though, I made his escape personal.

The captain stepped into the light, made a rude gesture at the heroes, and speaking in the common tongue exclaimed, “You will all pay! My father, the Goblin King, will see you all die!” Then quickly stepped into the darkness, but not before tossing a grenade into the room that exploded in a green cloud poisoning everyone within.

The wizard and most of the remaining guards collapsed choking and dying on the floor. His cowardly attack and taunting made the heroes want to see him pay.

Celebrate Player Victories

Cheer when they perform something daring, or roll great, or just do something worth acknowledging. Let the players know you’re on their side by being their biggest cheer leader.

When they roll a crit in D&D or a raise in Savage Worlds, cheer right along side them. When you roll great for their foes, don’t celebrate or laud it over the players.

By celebrating along side the players, you’ll create a feeling that you’re on their side of the story. Their attempts to be more of an active part of the story, grow based on knowing that.

“We came for him!” – Celebrate Player Victories

Having now made this little moment of surprise, turn into a mini quest in the adventure by making it personal, and getting the players involved with a quest they felt was their own making, It was fun to watch the heroes take a particular interest in defeating the Goblin King and his son the captain.

As the final blow was delivered, we shared the victory together. The players feeling as if they had both beaten the odds of the first encounter with the guards, and in denying the captain his revenge.

Even the mage (still suffering lingering effects from the poison from the grenade) enjoyed the moment, offering a reprieve if the captain had the antidote. The captain offered it for his life, and the heroes decided to let him keep it.

There were other encounters with this goblin captain, in other adventures. It was always fun to include him occasionally when they encountered a new group of goblins.

All from a quick role-playing moment of “We came for him!”

Go Off the Beaten Path

As more adventures being run at conventions and public play are printed modules, don’t be afraid to let your players ignore the adventure path in the book and discover their own. You can always guide them back to the main plot of the adventure, but you’ll discover treasures of heroic tales along the path the players choose if you let them.

When I first started playing, we drew up massive senseless geomorphic dungeons, designed with the intent of using every square of each precious piece of graph paper we had. Players didn’t ask questions, they just wanted to journey into your dungeon and have fun.

Over the years, adventures have turned into mini-novels. Many GM’s and players feel they’re being led down a path of narration and initiative rolls. They don’t feel as if they’ve helped create a story as much as they’ve been led down one.

If you let them discover their own path, years from now you’ll share those adventure stories with laughter and pride when you’re together again.

6 thoughts on “Let the Players be the Heroes”

  • “We came for him!” Trust/ Let the players get it wrong. Let your player cater a meal at the lords household hoping in fact to kill him over a flight of wine and a marvelous five course meal only to not let him kill the lord but have the local thieves guild leader instead slice his throat and kill his family before you have a chance to bring out the baked Alaska you strived to make in the dinky kitchen over a hot stove, and on top of that blackmail him that he killed them as he holds the said baked Alaska. Then at the end waste all the players efforts by running him out of town with some fake gems and two silver candlesticks.

    • Perfect example of “Letting the players get it wrong”. From “Lost Mine of Phandelver”. in which you attempted to kill the town’s mayor, for some imagined slight.

      I wonder how that encounter had gone, if you had only checked the slain mayor and his family for a pulse? Instead, I had fun convincing you to run from a crime that you wanted to commit, but didn’t…but got framed for…but never even checked if it had actually been real. 🙂

      Also a great example of all the side adventures we had from Lost Mine, all based on your animosity with the town mayor.

      Perhaps, one day…we’ll have to return, and see if you’re remembered.

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