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How to be a Good Dungeon Master: Part 1

Dungeons and Dragons is a fun game to play with your friends. But you know what’s even more fun than playing? Being the Dungeon Master. However, it’s difficult to be a good Dungeon Master. After all, there’s so much to keep up with! This series aims to help Dungeon Masters old and new learn some tips and tricks to make their campaigns fun and engrossing.

How to Be a Good Dungeon Master (In a Nutshell)

Yawning Portal
Wizards of the Coast

Part 1: It’s All About Them

The most important thing for a Dungeon Master to keep in mind is that the story needs to be about the players. No one wants to be read to, especially when they’re setting aside time for an RPG. If you’re simply reading off the cool things that NPCs and villains do, and not giving your players a chance to shine, why not just go write a novel instead?

One trick for combat is to ask the player how they kill a baddie when they land the killshot. Whether they take off their head, pin them to the door with arrows or kick them into toxic slugdge, letting your player describe how they do the deed is not only giving them a chance to immerse themselves further into the game, it also takes a little work off of you as the DM! It’s a win-win.

You Vs. Them

It’s very important that you don’t view your job as the DM as an adversarial one. You create challenges and incite conflict, but at the end of the day, you’re rooting for your players. You want to be fair, of course, when you apply the challenges.

But you certainly don’t want to stack the odds against the players for the sole purpose of “beating” them. If you’re looking for that kind of game, there are tons of PVP video games that have that gameplay loop.

Part of the reason you have a Dungeon Master screen is to fudge numbers. I’ve met plenty of DMs who claim to play it straight by the numbers, but when it comes down to it, if your party is having fun why be the buzzkill and punish a few bad roles? On the other hand, if your players ignore all wisdom and do something incredibly stupid? Well, it may be time to let fate decide.

Expectations

Let’s say you’ve written a cool adventure with a bunch of dungeons and acts of derring-do for the players to go through. But, when they encounter the person giving them the quest, they laugh at his accent, tell him to get lost and then go mess around with their favorite barkeeper.

This isn’t a problem. They’re having fun! Let them have fun how they want. Then, have their favorite barkeeper be a buddy of the quest giver from before, and have him pass the quest through the grapevine. In short: make sure every adventure you write has tons of hooks. Make the players very aware of the adventure, so that no matter how they have fun they’ll get roped into the adventure.

To new DMs, improvising is probably the scariest thing you can think of. Don’t fret though, just roll with it. And if you need a few minutes to think things through, then tell the players to go grab a drink or another slice of pizza. They understand you have a lot on your plate. Taking 5 to plot out some new threads for your adventure is not a faux pas.

Collaboration

Your players have just encountered the big bad of your favorite adventure. He’s monologuing, as villains do, and so one of the players hits him with a high-level lightning bolt, the rogue backstabs him and the barbarian goes into a rage and takes his head clean off. Big bad dead, adventure over, right?

Not necessarily! Remember, D&D is about collaborative storytelling. If they killed this “big bad,” just write in a new guy. His overpowered, ridiculously scary boss now takes direct control of his cabal. Now the players have an interest in this story, because a bigger, scarier evil dude now has a blood oath to hunt them down!

Check out our follow up article on running a game here!

Cameron Norris

Cameron Norris

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