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The Five Maxims of the Dungeon Master

Written by Nicholas - Published on November 14, 2009

Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

shutupYou can, and indeed I and other bloggers have, write hundreds of thousands of words about what it takes to be a good dungeon master. We have covered specific facets of the craft and how to handle narrow situations. Today I want to take a step back and lay down the absolute most basic rules it takes to be a good dungeon master overall.

1. …..

It is said that being a dungeon master used to be all about saying no. These days the philosophy is that the dungeon master should be saying yes as much as possible. I think a big part of being a DM is shutting up entirely.

Your players are perfectly capable of crafting a world together, deciding of their own goals and story, delivering awesome narrations and so much else traditionally in the realm of the DM. You just need to let them. Sometimes it takes some wrangling to make it all fit together, but that’s behind the screen stuff they don’t need to know about. So be quiet. Make sure your players understand they they don’t need to come to you for approval and they will see what they can really do.

2. Identify your weaknesses

A big part of this is knowing your DMing style. You have to know yourself. Lets say you realize you’re great at crafting memorable NPCs and social interactions, but all your combats take place in a 10 by 10 blank room. Now you know what the problem is. You can either try to avoid combats and focus on your strengths or you can try to branch out. Try to throw in traps, alternate combat goals, obstacles and room features and monsters that affect terrain. There’s enough DMing books and sites out there to deal with almost any specific problem. The hardest part is finding out your problem. If they are comfortable enough to tell you then your players can be a big help here.

3. Just go for it

Dignity should have no place behind the screen. Your primary role is to help craft an entertaining experience for yourself and your players. Funny voices and monster sounds, faces and gestures, comic relief characters and jumping up and down on your chair are all in your arsenals. That does not mean every game needs to be silly, just that you should engage in whatever tone you are going with. You might feel like a huge dork when you’re making the gelatinous cube noise with your mouth, but is that really worse than the folks who paint their chest to go to football games? If it makes your group have more fun, go with it!

4. You are not a computer and this is not a video game

This rule implies a lot of things to me. In a video game there is often only one way to solve each problem. You can’t break down the rotting wooden door, they need to slay the demon king to get the key. In your D&D game, you players might fly over obstacles, rig up MacGuyver-esque traps and use their abilities in combination you never predicted. As long it is fun for the group, go for it! You’re not a computer, you can change your plans.

It also means that the world is not tailored for your players. The characters cannot loot innocent people’s homes. They might get into fights that are too much for them. The characters are usually heroes of the story and they should feel like it, but they also need to know they are part of a larger world.

Finally it means that your NPCs are also not computers. Townspeople do more than repeat a potentially helpful phrase. Monsters are more than sacks of hit points to be beat down. Everyone has motivations and lives. Villagers had a life before the party rolled into town and they will continue to have one when the group is not around. Who are they and what motivates them? Monsters have priorities that may reveal themselves even in combat. Is the goblin warchief just buying time while the women and children are evacuated? Will he fight to the death or retreat to join them? How will he react as his friends and family fall around him?

5. Know when to stop

There’s an old show business saying, “always leave them wanting more”. The same is true for your D&D game. Even the more high energy game makes the players tired and disinterested eventually. It can be tempting to push tired players on to a clean stopping point or the end of that particular arc. Resist it! Tired players miss details, don’t bring their energy in and can ruin what should be great moments in play. Lets use an example. The party is right outside the throne room of the big baddie they have been hunting the entire time. The energy level of the players is starting to fade. If the group pushes on then players are not going to be fully engaged in the climactic battle and next session they are going to be picking up a new story arc at a dead start. If you wait until next week then the players fight the big baddie at maximum enthusiasm and then carry that momentum straight into the next story. A good ending can leave the group hungry for next time!

What are your golden rules for dungeon mastering? Tell us about them in the comments!

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Written by Nicholas

Nick DiPetrillo is the original author behind the games Arete and Zombie Murder Mystery available at http://games.dungeonmastering.com

Nick is no longer active with DungeonMastering.com, however he is an accomplished writer and published his first game in 2009.

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Nicholas is the columnist in charge of Nerd Watching and part-time Expy wrangler. He also works as the community manager, so keep an eye out for him on RPG blogs and forums.

 

 Comments

12 Responses to “The Five Maxims of the Dungeon Master”
  1. misterecho says:

    Very helpful. i especially agree with no. 5, a good cliff hanger can have you thinking about your next game for days!

  2. Yax says:

    My strengths are going for it and coming up with cliffhangers on the fly. My weakness is identifying my weaknesses!

  3. Nicholas says:

    I’m best at knowing my weaknesses. Every time I plan a game I set a goal to improve something I haven’t been good at. For instance, try to make better use of traps, have monsters with more personality, or include more roleplaying encounters.

    As much as I like cliffhangers myself, it’s something I’m bad at doing. If I planned something as a single session, episodic adventure then I always want to get through it in one session. That doesn’t always work out.

  4. Bartoneus says:

    Some great advice and baselines for DMing, great work Nick! I especially like the suggestion of thinking about how a monster like a goblin would react with all of its family/friends dying around it, something which I think a lot of DMs would improve leaps and bounds by doing – putting themselves in the shoes of the monsters/characters they’re playing.

    As for the last one, a great suggestion to always keep in mind! I would also throw in something intriguing, interesting, and unexpected even if you never planned for it – such as if a large explosion or loud noise sounds from inside of the throne room, and the adventure ends as the PCs enter the room. They will hopefully be excited to figure out what happens, and if you didn’t figure it all out yet you should have at least a week to hammer things out before the next session.

  5. Yax says:

    Anyone has maxims or guidelines they use that aren’t here?

    I could throw one out there: always assess if all players are involved and are having fun.

  6. GroovyTaxi says:

    Here’s another one :
    Make sure your players have compatible tastes. It’s what kills every single game I make, because my usual group of players is always arguing and fighting (one of them goes with the ”we’re not here to have fun, we’re here to play D&D!” mentality, while the rest just wants to laugh and tell jokes while rolling dice). We can have much more fun if I just match players with other players that have the same vision of D&D.

  7. Yax says:

    @ GroovyTaxi: that one is right on. Same thing for the setting or theme – some players want to smash things, others like investigation style games.

  8. Nicholas says:

    @GroovyTaxi: That’s always a tough one because you can’t know until you’ve played with them before. I’m lucky that the group I usually run if pretty flexible, but I still have to be aware of what they will enjoy and how much they will tolerate.

  9. Day DM says:

    so i’m running my game (DnD) and i keep having one problem that hurts the group on being a team. they are mix of evil people with good people.

    can anyone give me tips on how to get my team of players together?

    i know if i say they all come the same village and have some little background slips that makes them close in there background

    (ex: “player to the 3th right of DM and the player to the 1 left of the DM, when were kids stole a house for the local farm, later after there fun with the house there mothers fond them and they were in big trouble”)

    they work better together. but if i let them make there oun background they all just want to kill one another. i mean WTF? can some one shot me some tips?

  10. Nicholas says:

    @Day DM: Usually I have players make their characters together, it makes them a lot more likely to make complementary characters.

    Another way of dealing with it is to introduce a threat greater and more evil than the evil characters. In one of my games the party does not get along at all, but the land they live in is overwhelmed with undead. In any other situation they would not be seen together, but they have banded together to survive. The characters argue sometimes, but it would be too dangerous to split up.

    One more thing. There are people who make characters who are jerks, like rogues who constantly rob from the party. Then when they piss everyone off they’ll say “I’m just playing my character”. That’s not an excuse! If you make a character who will purposely ruin everyone else’s fun at the table that you are the jerk, not your character.

  11. Day DM says:

    i got a jerk on the table the thing is he says it’s fine that he is a jerk. man i’m going to kill that player. over and over. I’ll keep in mind what you said.

    anyways thank you. i like the first one it gave me a flash back to a time when i was playing and that what we did everyone fit the role in the party. and we had fun.

    and the undead thing. that make me smile. you are mad man of thoughts i may just use that.

  12. DandDGuy says:

    Number 4 is right dead on, DND in any form 3rd ED, 4th ED, or any earlier editions of the game need thought and preparation and are not computers the Game evolves and changes over time and it is defiantly Not a machine that you can turn ON and OFF at will.

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