Beg, Borrow, and Steal, Part 1 — Player Roles in D&D

As many of you know, I’m a fan of roleplaying games in general but don’t have the time to run or play as many different systems as often as I’d like to. These days I seem to run a lot of 5th Edition D&D — which is great fun. Sometimes, though, I find myself thinking, “I really like this mechanic from this system and that mechanic from that system. I wish I was running those games instead!”

For whatever reason, I’ve generally avoided house rules. My thinking has always been that rules as written gives everyone the opportunity to bring their knowledge and experience to the table without having to also learn whatever I’ve cooked up.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to be a better Dungeon Master and create more engagement at the table. This led me to thinking about mechanics like the infamous caller from original D&D, travel roles in The One Ring Roleplaying Game, and the conflict captain in Torchbearer. I began to wonder if I could introduce some of the intent of those mechanics to D&D 5e without actually introducing new rules or giving my players the impression that their characters were losing some of their agency.

One of the ideas that I landed on involves creating a number of unique roles for the players to take on. It’s probably best that these roles rotate from session to session though I could see a case in some groups for at least some of the roles to always fall to a certain player. That’s something that would need to be decided on a group by group basis.

After thinking through these roles and writing them out, I realized that more or less all of the associated activities are already being performed by someone, albeit in a less formal manner. Many of the activities fall to me as the DM when they don’t necessarily need to. By having the players take the reins on some of these, I believe it will create engagement at some points where perhaps there was not as well as create more time for me to describe the world and judge the proceedings.

Here’s a breakdown of the roles as I see them:

  • Bearer — When the party disagrees on a course of action, the Bearer helps the party reach a resolution before conveying their intention to the DM. The Bearer need not be partial and has no more sway over the final decision than any other player.
  • Cartographer — The Cartographer keeps track of the party’s location. Unlike, early editions of D&D, it’s not necessary to draw a map for everything. Instead, notes and small maps are made as needed.
  • Guide — The Guide keeps the party moving in the dungeon and the wild. This is done by organizing marching order, setting travel pace, determining whether or not the party is moving stealthily, and the like. As with the Bearer, the Guide helps resolve disagreements regarding the course the party should take before letting the DM know the final decision.
  • Scribe — The Scribe takes notes on the session, writes a recap, and recounts the party’s adventures at the start of the next session.
  • Tactician — The Tactician keeps the party in the fight. This is done by managing initiative order, encouraging the party to use their features to maximum benefit, reminding players to roll to hit and damage die at the same time, and the like.
  • Ward — The Ward keeps the party safe. This is done by setting the watch, encouraging the party to be cautious by checking for traps and moving stealthily, suggesting when to take rests, and the like.

I’ll put this to my group, get their feedback, then try to put it into action the next time we play. I’ll follow up here on Little Wars to let you know how it goes.

DMs, what do you do to engage your players? Players, what do you do to engage yourself or other players? Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.