Being a DM is kind of like being God, but with more paperwork.
I’ve been an avid player of tabletop RPG’s for the past eight years or so, and before that I was an addict to the Penny Arcade D&D podcasts that still continue every year at PAX. They were my introduction to the world of pen and paper, but I never got the chance to roll the dice for myself until I visited a little Texas store called ‘The Dragons Den’. Here I enjoyed my first session of Dungeons & Dragons. Living in a distant country, surrounded by unfamiliar people, stepping into a world of strange new possibility… could it have been more fitting?
Since then I’ve explored dozens of systems and played with a great many groups- some long-term, some short. Most of them in person but a couple of online too thanks to the wonders of Roll20 and Fantasy Grounds. The one consistency though is that I am hardly ever the player in the games, but instead I take the seat of the maniacal overlord out to kill the heroes.
At least, that’s how the players always see it.
In truth being a DM is about taking responsibility for the enjoyment of the game. With that comes many challenges, some seemingly high hurdles to meet, but a good DM can turn even the most standard of adventures into a memorable and cherished experience. So today I’d like to share my ten tips towards becoming a better Dungeon/Game Master.
These observations are not limited to any particular game and apply to all tabletop RPGs (and probably some other games besides). They are just the quiet insights I’ve made over my near decade of playing, and while I don’t claim to have the experience of some, I’ve seen many veteran magicians of the table supporting the same points. So without further ado;
#1 Always be willing to say “Yes!”
People gather around the table to tell gripping stories with their characters. Stories lush with people, places and most of all- Choices. For a DM it can be very tempting to try keeping people on track, to make sure they follow the right course and see all the cool stuff you’ve laid out. Be warned, t’s a guarantee in the world of tabletop that players WILL surprise you. One-hundred percent of the time.
Eventually a character will try to pickpocket that rescued princess. Or attempt to diplomacy their way out of the goblin stronghold. Resist the desire to nudge players away from their decisions, as taking away their freedom of choice will quickly frustrate the table and makes the adventure feel much less their own. Yes, if you challenge Naziir Coldblood, High Mage of the Castle to a deathly wizards duel things probably won’t go well for you… and your DM may gently advise you of that danger… but the DM should also respond with “Yes” if you choose to go ahead. If you take away the freedom of a world that’s supposed to be filled with possibilities you’re taking away from the magic.
Also, remember that you aren’t playing a video game- there is no such thing as non-interactive sequences.
#2 … but don’t be afraid to say “No!”
While I stand by the above as being one of the golden rules for a truly great DM experience there comes a time where even the most tolerant story-teller might have to intervene. Not because you believe your choices are better, but because the fun is at risk.
Most of the time this will be down to players not understanding an element of the world, or forgetting important information. In these situations advising your players and allowing them to re-judge their choice is always the best option. Or sometimes you might just get ‘that guy’…
Everyone who’s spent time rolling dice and making way too many eraser marks on paper can tell you about ‘that guy’; The player who takes all their fun in ruining the enjoyment of others. This is especially true if you DM for varying groups or clubs with open membership, but sooner or later you might come across a player who’s more interested in ruining your game than playing it. Don’t mistake this for chaotic or evil characters, people who’s backstory and motives make perfect sense for why they might try to push the King out a steeple window… we’re talking examples of at-the-table rudeness. If a player is attempting to frequently grief or even KILL other player characters, is intentionally getting in the way of other people’s decisions and desires, or just wants to play like it’s GTA you might be forced to say No. Your best bet is to take this player aside and explain your intentions for the game, and of course if they are upsetting other players at the table they should be made aware and warned.
Thankfully, this is a minority of the time! And I always recommend playing with an established group of friends.
#3 Flexibility is your greatest tool
There are many things that build up a DM’s treasure chest. Maybe they have an in-depth knowledge of the rulebook, or software for generating NPC’s and monsters… but if you ask me no tool is ever as valuable as your flexibility.
Being able to happily accept a party’s choice to go to a completely different region of the world or align with an unexpected enemy faction is a talent. Game masters will largely have documents, lists and events on-hand during an adventure to keep the game going and ensure everyone is doing amazing things. When a DM’s plans are turned on the head is when the true challenge begins. How do you fill out that huge area you never expected the players to go? What WOULD happen if the big-bad was annihilated in the first mission? Many games have been thrown to the wind for just such occurrences…
My advice? Don’t plan all the details, just know the big picture and be ready to flow with the changes. Have encounters, locations and events planned to some degree but leave room for heavy alterations… or changing them up entirely! If your party decides to backstab the baron and rob his castle instead of heading for the abandoned goblin fort, consider re-purposing the map and resources you already had to fit the baron’s abode instead. Your players won’t know the difference and you’ve given them the chance to make a truly impacting decision, and still enjoy your campaign to the fullest.
This isn’t so much a problem if you’re playing a pre-planned adventure where you can justify leading the team down a specific path, or if you’re new to being a DM… no table will blame the dungeon master for being caught off guard if they’re new to the job (and if they do get a better table).
#4 Keep downtime to a minimum
The sound of flicking through pages is like home to an RPG player. It’s always nice to know there are archives of resources and cool things to flick through and inspect- BUT there is a time and a place. You can never prepare for every eventuality so some rule exceptions will have to be checked on the fly, creating a little down time for the players while they wait on clarification. Keeping this as small a window as possible is vitally important for keeping the players engaged in the experience. If you spend ten minutes checking guide books and your characters have taken out their phones, that’s a red flag.
Playing an RPG is a lot like being absorbed in a good book. The more invested you become in the world and its inhabitants the more real it feels, and the better time people will have. Nobody can completely avoid all down time, especially when people are sat around with 2 litre bottles and have to take bathroom breaks, but the more you can thin it down the better. Knowing a good amount of the minutia beforehand is your best answer, and there’s nothing wrong with keeping several notes behind you DM screen (or just at the table) for quickly glancing at. I do it all the time, and it can be just as helpful to have special keywords listed down or a list of fantasy names so you don’t spent precious minutes looking for the right elvish word for Moonlight.
Again this is something that is more forgiving for fresh DM’s since you’ll need to refer back to the rules more often, but for that I would direct you to the next shard of wisdom…
#5 Learn the system- then ignore it.
Whether it be martial arts or chess the experts know that mastering the rules is only the first step. An understanding of the mechanics and world in play is crucial to keeping your game paced well and nobody left in the dark over simple questions- but that doesn’t make the guide-books the ‘be all end all’ for every occasion. Sometimes it’s in a DM’s best interest to throw the books out and play fast and loose with the rules!
The infamous ‘Rules Lawyer’ is prevalent through tabletop gaming. The DM (or player) who is so engrossed in following the strict guidelines set by the publishers that they overlook the damage it might be doing to their game, or worse still the enjoyment of their players. That’s not to say they should be disregarded completely, but picking your moments is a skill that will serve you well.
What if the players didn’t have to keep track of every food ration for their cross-country hike? What if that player who rolled a 2 on their turn still got to do something cool, even if they missed? You’d be surprised how these little tweaks to the experience will keep people in the game.
If a player wishes to do something that probably isn’t mesh with the rules, but would be something exciting for them and the rest of the party, you lose nothing by letting it slide. Sometimes you might even bypass the need for a roll altogether if the idea is particularly brilliant! You see veteran DM’s do this all the time, even on podcasts or live games.
As lead D&D designer Chris Perkins said, “We just make it up as we go along.”
This has been part one of Being a Better DM with Adie Bernhardt, we hope you’re enjoying RPG month here on the blog and check us out soon for part two!