This is Part 2 of the Being a Better DM writeup with Adie Bernhardt! We hope these articles provide you with some new inspirations for your tabletop games and we invite you to stay alongside us for our RPG focus month. Now on to point 6 of improving your DM experience…
#6 Build adventures around the players
When you’re cutting your teeth on RPG’s the best place to start is the premade adventure packs available in starter sets, published modules and even online. These are handy set adventures for players to run through, which provide all the information a dungeon master might need. They are however linear by nature and (almost) never put the characters on the table as the focus of the story. There’s nothing inherently bad about that, after all people want to see these strange new places and bizarre new people to converse with… and probably kill.
Once you have your footing as an adjudicator you have the chance to construct your own adventures and this gives you the greatest advantage; The chance to make the player characters a real part of the adventure. From their backstories to their motives these sheets will contain so much story fodder for you to use, as well as developing them through their experiences at the table.
There is no longer a need to have typical quest givers or the timeless ‘meet in a tavern’ beginnings when your players are the ones deciding their way in the world. I won’t lie to you, sometimes this can be a challenge. If you build a story line around the allegiances of one of your players characters and they suddenly decide to go turn-coat, or more possibly die in some sinister dungeon trap, then your campaign suddenly needs some serious changes! But the rewards speak for themselves when you get to drop an “I am your father” moment and have it really mean something. Your players will appreciate being a part of the world they are forging a path in- most of the time you won’t need to think of story hooks, they’ll do all the work for you.
#7 Be dangerous, but rewarding
Have you ever tweaked a rule or faked a dice roll to save one of your players from death?
There’s no shame in it, most DM’s have at some point. It’s a universal truth that nobody wants their character to die in an unsatisfactory way, and this is usually true for DM’s as well. But if you coddle too much in the players favour then the world you build around them seems a little less real- a little TOO free from consequence. That’s why my advice for balancing your adventures is to keep the world dangerous, but rewarding. Yes, if your cleric decides to rugby tackle an Owlbear they will probably be taking a dirt nap… and then leave the whole team with no Heals. Don’t soften the blow at times like this and allow the players to feel challenged, make them work together to find solutions and feel the sting of that 1 roll. Why? Because danger is exciting. It makes people lean over the table and think hard about what they want to do, and how to achieve it. It inspires team work and in the best cases, truly outlandish solutions. (Also why I stick with the Critical Fail rule for 1’s)
How to make all that danger and peril feel worthwhile? Don’t hesitate to reward your players for the risks they take. Players will avoid perils and difficult decisions if the only outcome they expect from it is, well, death. But if you make it clear that great dangers come with greater rewards you’ll find people more willing to step up to challenges or push their limits.
Which may well lead to more death. But you’re playing a game that uses dice, so of course there’s always a gamble involved!
#8 Set expectations
All players will have a different mindset when gathering around the table for the first time. It’s important to set the tone for what kind of game you’re running and make sure your players are aware of what they can expect. If you’re playing standard D&D but your ideas lead towards survival horror it’s important to communicate that so people don’t build their characters- or even just their table habits- with the wrong assumptions.
I’ve entered games under the wrong impression before and It didn’t gel at all, since then I’ve accepted that even the most open-ended of game systems require a little context. Will you be playing a character driven adventure? Or a one shot comedy session? Anything from the expected length of your campaign to the kind of attachment the DM wants you to form with the world can greatly inform what people expect from the game they’re about to play.
It’s also very important to take this chance to inform your players how you intend to DM. If you’re new to the system don’t try and hide the fact, let people know if the adventure they’re about to head down is a linear story or more open-ended, giving them the chance to adapt their play style. One of the worst things you can experience as a player is feeling like you’ve been baited with false expectations of a game. Knowing ahead of time that your DM might need to do a little railroading softens the blow and helps keep the table friendly!
#9 Pace your adventures/campaign
Have you ever heard of something called the ‘engagement curve’? It’s a popular tool in constructing fiction, one of the best examples being the original Star Wars movie. If you take all the major events of the film, and the emotional change it seeks to bring, you get the engagement curve. The moral being; You cannot have non-stop action from start to finish and still have it mean anything. You also cannot hold on long periods of calm nothingness without people getting bored and distracted. Much like in books and movies this same philosophy applies to RPG sessions… and more so it applies over the length of an entire campaign.
Even though people do not (in my experience) sit down to play an entire campaign in a single sitting that ever-changing curve remains between every mission. People will remember the evocations of their last sitting, and feel it in the situation of their characters. Did they just come out of a life and death struggle, barely scraping by? Or have they been living opulent, with more money than can be spent and not a scratch on them? Keeping track of the ups and downs of an adventure is deceptively important, as too much of anything grows tiresome.
Every adventure you plan will be different, so there are no set-in-stone rules to follow in guiding the pace of your games, that’s down to you as the Game Master. The best thing to keep in mind is looking at your games as a whole. If they’re short- or even one shots- have a nice mixed bag of intense scenes and moments of rest. Build tension where it’s needed and let players have some rest between large encounters or busy sections of the game. The same can be said for longer campaigns, if every session is a three-hour bloodbath you might want to set some calm moments in there, just so players can refresh themselves with the world… and who it is they’re playing!
10# The most important rule- FUN
It may sound cliché, but if there is one piece of advice on this list you MUST listen to, let it be this one: The most important thing about being a Dungeon Master is that you are responsible for others people’s fun at the table. That’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s also endlessly rewarding as you start getting good at it. The most important decision you can make when governing the game, no matter what any book or rules errata says, is choosing Fun over all else.
At its heart any tabletop RPG is a social occasion, which means people coming together to have a good time. This is what’s on every players mind, and sometimes it can be easy for DM’s to slip into the trap of doing everything ‘right’. Enforcing the right rules, building the right characters, telling the right story. But perfection isn’t fun, and most of the epic tales of people’s dice-rolling experiences come from surprises and failures. Even if it means giving up something you thought was important, is it really worth it if you can have your table laughing instead…?
Consider this most important question for every decision you make, every answer you give, and every session you plan. Following this golden rule will guarantee that even if you aren’t the most knowledgeable DM, or the most experienced, you will be among the most loved.