Answering Your Newbie Dungeon Master Questions About Running DnD

Running a Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) campaign can be an exciting but challenging endeavor, especially for a new Dungeon Master (DM). In this guide, we’ll address some of the most common questions new DMs have, divided into five key sections: Overall Game, Campaign, Session Prep, World-Building, and Running the Table.


General Newbie Dungeon Master Questions

What D&D Homebrew Content Should I Allow in My D&D Game?

Homebrew content is a great way to knock the rust from a game system that’s become repetitive, even stale as you play it game after game, year after year. So really, the question is, does that previous sentence describe you? As this is primarily targeted as a newbie dungeon master question, I suspect not. 

For new DMs I strongly suggest KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and play strictly with first-party, published play materials. In fact, I might even suggest constricting player choices to certain books, or even the basic rules. That way you can focus on learning the ropes of the system and running the game without being clinched by dealing with more advanced and fiddly Dungeon Master worries like splat-book power creep and amateur designed PC nonsense from someone on the internet who doesn’t know the bones of the system and how to design for it. Consider instead how to reskin or swap out ancestries, backgrounds, and classes with official alternatives first.

In all honesty, I’ve been running and playing D&D 5e since its first playtest and I still rarely allow third-party and homebrew PC options. Often I just don’t have enough time to sift through the design to ensure it’s not unbalanced. And, because I don’t want to get three adventures into a campaign to veto a PC that’s just started to show how unbalanced it is. Instead, I rely heavily on swapping out official pieces of content to ensure player’s get the customization they’re seeking with no detriment to the game.

However, that’s only the player side of homebrew. But the advice is near the same. Until you really get under the hood of D&D, or whatever your prepared system, and learn it well you won’t have a good idea of how mechanical tweaks and swaps will careen your game into the side ditch. Regular fiends of the blog know, I am a DM homebrew tinkerer. I think a good place to start with homebrew is your game’s setting. 

From there, I suggest introducing or modifying parts of the game your group aren’t engaging with. Things like encumbrance, overland travel, exploration, running a business, crafting, hirelings, etc. Just stick to testing one piece of homebrew at a time.

How Do I Handle Large Groups as a Dungeon Master?

Don’t, this is ill-advised. While early D&D had games with a dozen plus players on the regular, it’s a different system from modern D&D and has helpful additions, like the players’ caller role. Personally, I love a group of three players. It ensures there’s always an easy missing slice of the party role pie I can pinch them with or offer easy supplementary rewards. Most DMs fall into that 3-5 player range. At six or more, I generally find it’s time to break into two separate groups. 

The one way I would encourage running for a large group is for attendance reasons. Having a group of eight or so people to get a consister 4-5 player session sounds OK to me. The needs must. Just don’t plan to focus on a PC-specific adventure as that is precisely when they always suddenly can’t make the next three sessions in a row, grinding the game to a halt.

When and How Often Should I Give Magic Items in My D&D Campaign?

Yeah, this is more of a D&D 5e problem than a new-to-the-game problem. Prior WoTC era D&D editions generally had a nice clear table about when and what type of magic items the PCs should have at each level. The official D&D guidelines for doling out magic items in 5e is a quizzical-faced shrug. 

You can find competent guides for this online though. I’m partial to Angry GM’s table myself. And, other than magic weapons for the martial classes and some healing potions, you probably don’t need any. Players might be a little disappointed with the game’s loot though, so think about that one first.  

What Percentage of the D&D Rules Should Dungeon Masters Have Memorized?

Rules mastery is one of the first and more common questions for someone even a little interested in stepping behind the screen. The retort is always they could never do what you do. The first hurdle to hop is knowing the rules well enough to run things. Luckily, that’s a low bar. 

Such as knowing the difference between an attack, ability check, and saving throw roll. Be able to parse a stat block. Know when to call for a roll and when to not. Outside of that, I would say print out a handy quick reference sheet and give it a few reads. Between the memorized basics and the reference you should be able to quickly handle most normal stuff that comes up in a D&D session.

Moreover, rules mastery comes with time and regular use. Every veteran Dungeon Master forgets rules, confuses editions and other systems, or begins to believe their homebrew changes are official. No sense memorizing the underwater combat and drowning rules if you’re not running an adventure dealing with water. And when in doubt, keep the game running. Make a rules call and ask someone to look up the specifics to confirm later.

How Do I Run a Good Game of Dungeons & Dragons?

Well, you offered to run the game so you should already be in your players’ good graces. Other tips: try to say yes most of the time, keep the game quick in pace and length, and try to share the spotlight enough so everyone can have an all-eyes-on-them moment. 

Advocate for your players, not their characters. Let them fail if they make bad decisions and their dice lose favor. Don’t take things too seriously until the scene that calls for it and then lean in. Otherwise, treat people well and cut yourself some slack. Being a Dungeon Master is a lot of work and it takes experience. You’ll get better so long as you keep running the game and trying to get better.

D&D Campaign Newbie Dungeon Master Questions

What is Railroading in DnD? How Do I Keep It Away from My Game?

Well, there’s what railroading is and what people sometimes misconstrue it as. Railroading is an example of bad DMing, where each part of the game is scripted by the Dungeon Master ahead of time and the events cannot be altered by anyone playing the game. The game is “on rails”, like a train. But, there are people who confuse linear adventures with railroading. 

Linear adventures are like dungeons, the set pieces are static, there may even be the odd quantum ogre. But what you do in each of those different parts of the adventure and the decisions you make do affect the adventure, the level of challenge, and how it plays out. That should be made clear by you as a Dungeon Master to the players.

Fortunately, railroading is easy to keep out of your D&D games. All you have to do is honor your players’ choices. Allow their actions to have consequences bad and good. Yes, that means letting them screw up and fail, but also providing moments of clever play where they can savor the “Ah ha!” moment when implementing a clever idea. 

And when they break the barrier of the adventure and go far afield, let them know. It’s OK to tell players they’ve gone beyond the session’s prep. If you’re comfortable, improvise. But, it’s also OK to tell them you need additional prep and call for a short recess or even the session’s end so you can prepare something to put in front of them.

What Makes for a Compelling DnD Adventure Hook?

Fishing for your D&D party isn’t much fun as a Dungeon Master. The best advice I’ve seen for this comes from Chris Perkins himself. He says to make it personal for one, and only one, PC. Now that doesn’t mean Princess Peach got kidnapped again this week. Instead lure them in with a familiar name, location, or clue towards the PC’s personal goal. Treat it like a trail of breadcrumbs, rotating each PC through between adventures and the campaign will always feel connected even if you’re chaining a bunch of disparate adventures.

Two more tips for a compelling D&D adventure hook are shiny rewards and clear, timely stakes. Rewards of course can be shiny, but consider offering unique rewards. Instead of coins and gems, drop in some quirky minor magic items. And try some intangible rewards like favors, access, and introductions of things the party would otherwise not be allowed to engage with. Such things will often hold a lot more value than a treasure split of 87 gold pieces and potion of healing. 

I admit, this upcoming bit is a little hero manipulation but do you really want to spend 20 minutes of your game time as the players dance around the hook of the adventure you planned doing nothing? A lot of inexperienced DMs fail to make clear the stakes of the adventure quickly and clearly. 

Such as there’s not just a monster that’s attacked town. Instead there is a monster that’s been attacking town and killing people in their homes each night. And if the PCs don’t help now someone else is going to die tonight. Being the capable people able to stop the murderous monster they have a moral imperative to help. The players’ characters are sentencing an innocent person to death if they choose to not bite the hook. You need clear stakes. Be overt in what and how soon the consequences of the PCs’ inaction will befall them.

How Do I Create an Enthralling Story for My Campaign?

Hmm, this subject can be a landmine. So if you’ll indulge me. I’m pretty open that I’m in the iterative story camp. I believe the game’s “plot” is the experiences of the characters as they navigate the game. Not a campaign climax that I can’t present until I’ve punched enough plot coupons in lead up adventures. In my opinion, this is where the DM as a frustrated writer lives, and is the fastest way to traipse into railroading your players.

By its very definition, I think a story has not just a definitive start but also an end. And in a D&D campaign I think it must already be decided because it has a clear climax. For me, that cleaves a bit too close to true railroading as explained previously. Where as a Dungeon Master, I find the most enthralling story is the game as a journey. Because on the way I can take a different fork in the road and still have a fulfilling game no matter what direction the players and their characters go.

As a DM, the beginning of any campaign is mostly spaghetti thrown against the wall. I’m just waiting to see what sticks, what resonates with the players. Given the opportunity, players will eventually hyperfocus on something. Bingo! That’s the throughline for my campaign. It can be a monster, a magic item, a piece of lore, an NPC, even some nonsensical dungeon graffiti. 

That’s the dirty little secret, it’s not about making an enthralling story for your players, it’s giving them the chance to draft one themselves. A tale that reacts to their input and that’s just not something a traditional story framework has the flexibility to do. But, that said, there are some places where you can focus your efforts.

Setting the Right Tone

Make it clear the type of game you’re wanting to run beforehand. Communicating expectations clearly is essential, as is being consistent on your end. 

When you’re running the game, treat the tone at the table like one practices meditation. Meditation is about trying to relax the muscle of your brain from actively thinking. Easier said than done. Practicing is about noticing you’ve strayed, focusing on a specific train of thought, recognizing it and releasing the thought back into your stream of consciousness.

Do the same at the game table. When you’re Lord of the Rings vibes start declining into Monty Python. Accept it, even have a laugh, then pull the focus back. Immersion techniques like lighting, music, ambient noise, tactile props, or even specific Dungeon Master mannerisms that tell everyone it’s time to get back into it. 

Two other tips: make sure to give real world breaks during the game and give tone breaks in game. Even the heaviest of media has some moments of levity to release tension. It’s those lighter moments that make the heavy feel even heavier.

What Goes into Planning and Executing a Great DnD Campaign Arc?

I’m going to assume by arc, we mean a single adventure or two connected adventures. Well, run a good session is what comes first to my mind. The truth is most people fondly remember specific moments of a campaign rather than the campaign overall.

The best advice I can give to newbie DMs when it comes to creating a great D&D campaign arc is learning how to blend the transition between adventures. It’s pretty simple, I’ve talked about it before in reference to the 5×5 campaign method. The idea is to connect adventures together with a shared location, NPC, item, or other element. This connective tissue can be as simple as having the quest giver talk about the new mission as they’re doling out quest rewards from the first adventure. 

Immediately those adventures will feel connected because one NPC straddles the seam between them. You can do this easily with premade adventures by swapping out minor elements with those from previous adventures. For example, if there’s a cursed shrine in your new dungeon, have it dedicated to the same entity the cultists worshiped in the party’s first adventure. 

These elements can be what players fixate on and voila! Because of their interest, you know what to set as a central pillar to your overall campaign!

What is Campaign Fatigue? How Do I Avoid it as a Dungeon Master?

Campaign fatigue is often a common symptom of a bigger problem, which is Dungeon Master Burnout. So, you’re tired of your campaign, why? Sometimes things take too long and interest drifts to some new and shiny idea. I like to document those ideas. Keep a list of running campaign ideas, it will help you proof a campaign idea if it still sounds fun months down the line and you’ll always have a campaign ready to go when it’s actually needed!

But, I think campaign fatigue often succumbs to the weight of its own story. I suspect the most stricken Dungeon Masters are those who miss the goldilocks zone by planning too little or too far in advance. The worst-afflicted campaign fatigue Dungeon Master I’ve ever known did it because he didn’t plan enough. By that I mean he rarely planned anything before the players arrived and wouldn’t take notes during sessions. 

By session three he would struggle to remember what was going on in the game and decide he wanted to move on to something else. I soon became frustrated by this until I learned to enjoy the group as a quick way to cycle through many different character concepts and game systems. That said, the games themselves were a hollow experience knowing there was never long-term viability.

Most DMs have the opposite problem though. They build up a grand blueprint for a campaign and build it up in their heads, and then the reality of the game table doesn’t meet those long-awaited expectations. Another reason for the iterative journey approach. 

Instead of being a Dungeon Master who’s always waiting for the dramatic payoff that may be hours, weeks, or months away, I get to be surprised session after session by a clever idea gone right or an absolute flub at the most critical moment. Because, how can I be exhausted by something I’ve yet to discover?

Dungeon Master Burnout

As far as avoiding Dungeon Master burnout, I have two pieces of advice. One, take breaks. Ask someone else to run a one-shot adventure or have a standing rule that every fourth session is a board game get together instead. No Dungeon Master’s battery is bottomless. Two, spend some time looking at what professional creatives do to keep themselves creative. Most consume a lot of media around the same subject matter and let it help their thoughts percolate. 

Read some books and watch some movies. Often the more obscure, weirder, and even straight up the worse they are, the better. They’re likely to provide ideas for your game that most players have never dreamed of. Much more interesting than the infinitely trotted-out Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Critical Role spinner of inspiration.

Many professional creatives also indulge in a different creative hobby. Writers that enjoy dance, and painters who play a musical instrument. By re-energizing their creativity through a different media they can keep the imagination juices flowing.

Newbie Dungeon Master Questions About Session Prep

As a Dungeon Master, How Much Time Should I Spend Preparing for a DnD Session?

Well, that’s the million dollar question, right? Prep unfortunately is an area of dungeon mastering that’s more art than science. At the end of the day, only you can actually answer that question. And, as a newbie, worrisome Dungeon Master, the answer is probably less than you did prepare.

The best advice I have for it comes from Web DM: “Prep whatever you’re not comfortable improvising.” Do you go deer in the headlights when a player asks for an NPC’s name? Prepare a list of names to use. Just remember that you can’t prepare for every eventuality, especially once the players are involved. Prepare random encounters, minor loot packets, traps, hazards, etc. for aspects of the game that are most daunting for you to improvise. 

One trick I use is to look at what I expect to happen in the next session. What am I convinced they’ll be stymied at one point, and what happens when they succeed? What happens when  they get stuck behind the trivial obstacle I was sure they would speed right by? This exercise helps me think of what “unexpected” things might happen, and ways to keep the adventure moving when things go sideways.

Probably should include a little bit of practical advice, right? Well, a decent prep rule of thumb is a standard four player group gets through one scene or encounter per 45 minutes of game time. Just remember that’s GAME time, it doesn’t include pre-game chatter and breaks. It can help you dial in just how much content you really need for an average session with your group.

Assuming a standard 4-player group and 3-4 hour session, most DMs need to prepare about five fleshed-out encounters/scenes per session. This magic number is why the 5-Room Dungeon method is so attractive and useful for Dungeon Masters. 

Another piece of advice is the detail of focus. The closer a scene or encounter is to encountering the party, the more attention you should give it in your prep. For each session of D&D you’re only guaranteed the very first scene you prep will happen, because you control the start point of every session.

So start with that encounter. That’s the strong, purposeful start to a session that’s passed around as gold-plated Dungeon Master advice. You can exposit the players finishing a rest and traveling to the location of the first encounter of the session. Just make it clear the players can do usual stuff but can’t change what they agreed to do at the end of last session. They may grumble, but hold them to the plans they made last session because that’s what you used to inform your prep.

My last tidbit for prep is playing for time. It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on the clock when running a game. It can tell you where to cut a session, but also, when to slow things down and how much. 

Imagine the players were on their A game and breezed through your prep and are getting to a spot you definitely need to plan for (stay calm, it happens to every Dungeon Master). It’s time to start throwing in some speed bumps. I call these speed bumps, asides, and interscene fluff. They’re a great way to control pace by slowing down progress or by injecting a moment of novelty when the game hits a lull.

I often have a small list filled with ideas related to the adventurers’ location. It could be a city street food vendor, a peculiar traveler on the road, or a random dead body to investigate. I think of them as seeds for improvised mini-scenes. An amuse-bouche to detain your friends as you stall to the end of the session. 

Weirdly, it’s often these throwaway bits in sessions where I get the most compliments. How engaging the campaign is because they got to go back again and again to half-orc with the falafel cart. Or the time they chased a mind-controlled rat in circles through the dungeon.

How Does a Dungeon Master Create Balanced Combat Encounters?

Very important question and another spot where the D&D 5e developers just shrugged and said, “you’ll figure it out.” For expediency sake, use an online encounter builder that will crunch the numbers. I usually use Kobold Club Plus.

Now, when it comes to designing encounters it’s important to keep in mind that every group is different in player sensibilities and character abilities. Personally, where I start is by setting the party size and level. Then I create an encounter just under the Deadly threshold of Hard with a 1:1 ratio of tough but appropriate CR monsters. For many of my groups, these encounters can often be nail biters. So, adjust at your discretion.

Truthfully though, I think it’s more vital for your game to focus on making a “balance” of encounters over balanced encounters. Variety in deadliness is important. Include easy, medium, and hard encounters. It keeps things fresh, with a cadence of tension and relief. That’s where the next step of my encounter balancing happens. 

With the high end of difficulty set, I’ll create some die rolls for how many of a certain type of monster will appear. Say my encounter calls for two of Monster A and four of Monster B. I may decide on 1d2 Monster A and 1d4 Monster B. When the party reaches the encounter they may end up with the nailbiter or a cupcake. But overall they should fall in the ballpark of medium difficulty more often than not.

And, because the randomness gives off a more organic feel for monster groupings, it can have a side effect of adding to the realism or verisimilitude of your games.

What is the Right Balance of Combat, Exploration and Roleplay for My Game?

It can never be a simple answer with these, can it? The most straightforward answer is to get to know your players and yourself. What parts of the game does everyone engage with and which do they lose focus during? 

Do more of the stuff everyone likes, less of what they don’t. Be sure every person gets a taste of their specific favorite bits, including yourself. Yes, it’s OK for your players to suffer a silly riddle challenge every once in a while because you love them. If everyone agrees to give a little, your group can get a lot of fun out of the game.

As a general D&D 5e tendency, I would lean heavier on the combat (it is the primary focus of the game’s rules) and lighter on the exploration bits. Newer edition players often enter the hobby with a heavy predisposition for combat or roleplay, but neither tends to engage much with investigations and explorations. Many old grognards have the same fixation but for combat or exploration, dumping role play. 

I like to change it up per adventure so things don’t get stale. One way I do this is when drafting adventure I use a pyramid system. For example, in an upcoming adventure I want it to be mostly COMBAT, some EXPLORATION, and a little SOCIAL ROLEPLAY. In mathematical terms, encounters are:

  • 50% Combat
  • 33% Exploration
  • 17% Social RP

Why are Overpowered Characters an Issue and How Do I Deal with One?

Luckily, not an issue I’ve had to face often. But, I know it’s a tough one for a lot of Dungeon Masters, especially new ones. So consider first, is it an issue? Has anyone said they have a problem with it? And do you have a problem with it or do you think you’re SUPPOSED to have an issue with an overpowered PC?

Maybe it makes building encounters more rewarding for you. If no one’s said anything and you’re happy with it, then it’s not a problem. Still, communication is key. Be available for players to come to you about aspects of the game they’re not happy with. There’s only an issue if the OP character is spoiling someone’s fun.

More practicals then. Some of the worst advice I see online is about Dungeon Masters struggling to challenge the party in combat. And someone always says build more difficult encounters. To me, that’s saying throw grease on a fire. More difficult encounters reward more optimization to keep up with more difficult encounters… self-fulfilling prophecy, Ouroboros, etc. If anything, trend difficulty down so players can feel it’s OK to take more characterizing and flavorful roleplay choices for their PC.

But, what is the PC doing to be OP? Most often it’s combat related. Reduce opportunities for that specific combination of abilities to fire. And remember that every min-maxer’s max has a min. Look over their character sheet and find the soft underbelly. And remember, this is not done to punish the player of the PC, but to create challenges where the other characters can also get their moment in the spotlight.

Another keen tactic is to start pushing other aspects of the game more. With combat buttoned up as an easy win you can now start placing progression behind role play and exploration challenges, where pulling a sword isn’t going to be much help.

Of course, if the feelings persist you should all talk to the overpowered character’s player. Let them know other people are feeling overshadowed. Good players will be receptive, may even be persuaded to re-spec their PC with more frivolous choices with the understanding combat difficulty will adjust to keep things interesting.

Bad players will react, well, bad. Occasionally you may need to let a player go. Inform them the group’s tastes are diverging and other players don’t want to focus their PCs on power gaming to keep up. Wish them well and know they’ll find a game that’s a better fit for their tendencies. And rip the band-aid off quick. Don’t let your game and group suffer because you’re all not willing to remove an element that’s bleeding the experience for everyone else.

What’s the Best Way to Incorporate World Lore in My DnD Game?

Good question, focus on immediate information. That’s lore relevant to what the party is doing, when it is, where it is, or why it’s being done. This lore should provide directly useful information and clues to players, or provide context for something they already know. Such as finding the token of an infamous cat burglar at a missing person’s bedroom only to quickly discover it’s a fake. The players learn something about the greater world but also the person was probably kidnapped and by someone who thinks they’re smarter than they are, considering cat burglars don’t steal people!

If you focus on incorporating lore in this inward-out way, you’ll go far. Better yet, it will save you from the evil lure of exposition. Sometimes exposition is needed, but often it’s not. First because players rarely have the full context necessary to judge a piece of information’s importance. 

Second, because it’s kind of boring. 

It can be a hard pill to swallow if you’re running games for your friends because it feels personal, or worse, you’re a DM afflicted with the dreaded worldbuilder syndrome. If players don’t sink their teeth into the lore, don’t worry. It’s not your fault. You just can’t force players to be anywhere near invested as you are in the personal creation that is your game world.

World-Building Newbie Dungeon Master Questions

How Do I Start Worldbuilding for a DnD Campaign?

A very common question for new Dungeon Masters. We can continue building off the answer to the previous question about incorporating lore into your sessions. When it comes to worldbuilding, often a lot less is a lot more. You’re probably brimming with cool ideas and trope reversals that will make your world one of a kind, as uniquely yours as your fingerprints.


Truth is, the more often and further you stray away from the standard fantasy tropes the more difficult time your players are going to have keeping things straight. It’s important to pick and choose a limited selection of potent alterations from the generic D&D setting backdrop. Just because you can change it doesn’t mean you should. So make sure the worldbuilding changes you incorporate into your world are meaningful. 

For instance, I ran a campaign in the aftermath of a Mongol-inspired steppe empire’s fall, initiated by a pandemic that drove horses to the edge of extinction. A very minimal change for day-to-day adventuring but it made communication, travel, and trade slower and more expensive on a global scale.

As practical advice, keep your worldbuilding tightly focused and bottom-up. Now, through the blog we’ve been doing a massive top-down worldbuilding project but that is definitely NOT something I recommend to any Dungeon Master gearing up to start a game. 

Instead think small. Zoom in on the local starting area and goings-on. Talk with your players, see what part of the game interests them and review their character sheets. Doing so will inform you what if any deities to create, what faction and organization ties you would do well to formulate. Like with the previous advice on lore, if it’s not actionable for your players and the party, it’s unnecessary. Developing a kingdom on the other side of the world from the current action isn’t a great use of your prep time as a Dungeon Master and an exposition dump in-session is a terrible use of table time.

Stay focused on the here and now, only make small and thoughtful changes to the understood D&D fantasy, and keep worldbuilding centered on points that will make a difference for the player characters. And remember, you can always add more as the game progresses but it’s much more difficult to cut things that are already in.

What is World Builder Syndrome and How Do Dungeon Masters Avoid It?

To put it simply, world builder syndrome is when a Dungeon Master gets lost in the details of their personal fantasy world and spends precious session prep time fleshing out the world in ways that are non-productive for the current state of the game. It’s a sickness that can plague new Dungeon Masters to the point where it can even stop you from running your first game because “the world’s not ready.”

I, and many Dungeon Masters, love worldbuilding. It’s fun and rewarding. I’m the only person who’s going to see any significant part of it but making a world that moves and functions in a simulacrum of reality is very rewarding. Just don’t let it take away focus from the time you’re supposed to be using to prep your next session. Eat your DM veggies before you indulge in that sweet dessert of worldbuilding!

It’s worth remembering most campaigns don’t fly for long before they crash and burn. Personally, other than creating a small sandbox for a starting area I don’t often do a lot of worldbuilding until the campaign proves flight worthy. If you want to know more about the starting area sandbox, I go over a little bit of it and what I try to accomplish with similar sandboxes in the video below.

Why Don’t My Players Care About My D&D Worldbuilding?

Truth is, your world probably isn’t that interesting. The Forgotten Realms is the most well-known D&D campaign setting, and I’ve been playing games in it for decades, but I don’t really know much about Faerun or care about the world. Only what happens in it as it affects the current campaign, PC, or adventure I’m in. 

The world is our thing as Dungeon Masters. They’re our babies, that’s why we care about them. That’s why I say when it comes to worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake, make sure it’s something you like to do. Because you’ll likely be the only person who ever sees it.

A revelation I’ve shared that resonates with other Dungeon Masters about their D&D games and worlds is this: even the most invested player in your game will learn and care about your world less than 10% the amount you do. For most players, D&D is a fun activity to do with their friends. It’s blowing off steam, enjoying some power fantasy, killing monsters, grabbing sparkly loot, leveling up, and triumphing over evil. 

You may notice that all has nothing to do about the grander setting the PCs inhabit.

Once I stopped taking my games and worlds so seriously, and instead focused on leaning into the occasional silliness and hijinks of my players I started having more fun. I realized worldbuilding is mainly for my own enjoyment. It’s one of the reasons I started building a custom homebrew world to set games in, so I could have fun making a world and use it for many many campaigns into the future. 

Today, when a player bites on a tasty bit of bespoke world lore I’m excited to highlight that one thing instead of word vomiting the last dozen bits they passed over without blinking. Reframing your expectations will help you stay motivated, avoid burnout, and have more fun at the table.

What is the Right Level of Detail and Flexibility in Worldbuilding?

I think there’s a very clear throughline for my opinions about worldbuilding. Less is usually better. Keep things broad, even vague until they actually become important in session at the table. Sure, let players know the kingdom across the sea exists. But you don’t need to decide anything else about the kingdom until it starts impacting the actual game at the table.

Similarly, the only way to get players to care about your worldbuilding is to get their buy-in. The easiest way to do that is to ground the characters in the world by connecting them to physical locations, NPCs, and factions in the world. It works best if the player also has some influence about those connections. If you have a player with the noble background, help them choose a spot in the world where their family lives, and together develop the family with their current struggles, goals, and feelings on the PC’s adventuring nature.

If you’re running a persistent world for your games, you can always decide after the campaign whether you want to keep those bits of player-specific worldbuilding or reset it. Regardless, during the campaign that player is going to feel like their PC is a part of the world because they’re anchored to people and places in it.

As a Dungeon Master, How Do I Foster Player Agency in My DnD Games?

First off, review what we discussed around railroading. If your players can make choices that resolve into better and worse plot outcomes that impact their reputation and future dealings, you’re doing it right! Stay laser-focused on the idea the PCs are the main characters of this specific narrative and you’ll do fine.

That said, this situation is another new style versus old style player dichotomy. Old grognards from the dungeon/wilderness crawl days generally expect to be in the game’s driver seat. Their PCs come to the table with some sort of personal goal they’re trying to accomplish, even if that goal is just to get rich quick and retire at any cost.

For these players, generally providing space for them to take the wheel is enough.

Meanwhile, there is a tendency for new players entering with the current narrative-style of D&D to be more passive, part player part audience for the game. Often they expect an adventure to be pushed to them and the Dungeon Master to unveil what to do, where, when, and how. Their PCs generally aren’t tied directly to the central struggle of any adventure until it is forced upon them by the Dungeon Master.

My advice? You have to get them over the hump of passivity. The game isn’t a TTRPG stream for them to consume as an audience. They have to be an active force in the game and drive its plot. 

You can try to do this by forcing PCs to make some difficult choices with strong consequences, and let them flounder. Sometimes it doesn’t click with a specific player or group that what they choose to do and how is tied to the end result of an adventure until they sink one. Some of my favorite one-off short adventures have spun out into completely new adventures because the PCs beefed it. The villain accomplished their goal and now the PCs need to make it right.

Let them make a hard choice, screw up, and have to deal with the consequences in future sessions. Outside of that, talk to each player about their PC and try to get them to come up with some backstory and a personal goal for their character. 

One of the big questions I ask players during character creation (thanks How to Be a Great GM!) is “why did your PC leave their life behind to become an adventurer?” Typically I frame this as the PC is either running towards a goal or away from the consequences of their past. It could be skipping out on gambling debts, or proving themselves to a rival adventurer by obtaining a dragon’s tooth. 

Doing so will give them PC-specific motivation to take the initiative in your game, and provide you with plenty of inspiration to create customized adventures that put each PC center stage.

Newbie Dungeon Master Questions About Running the Table

How Do I Manage Table Dynamics in My DnD Game?

An unfortunate stigma that’s been long attached to Dungeons & Dragons has been its players and their behavior. Often lampooned as socially underdeveloped troglodytes, basement-dwelling man-babies, and burgeoning psychopaths, D&D has… a reputation. And, it’s not completely underserved. 

I’ve had personal experiences with many players in person and online who are problems for the game. These problem players and Dungeon Masters are often personified as the dreaded That Guy. The one awful person it seems every D&D player and DM has to deal with in their TTRPG career, even ending some! 

All that is to say it’s unfair to put the burden of social-occasion schoolhouse marm on a Dungeon Master. A position where players come running to you after the game to tell you how Player X ignores them and talks over them at the table. Yes, I’m the person running the game and yes, Dungeon Masters (as noted) are responsible for ensuring everyone gets the limelight, but it’s not my job to serve as moderator for out-of-character group conversations. 

I find this is especially damning when you’re running games for an established friend group. Where one player is essentially sticking you between themselves and another friend and asking you to DM your IRL friend group dynamics. That’s wild.

OK, enough soapboxing, that’s all I’m going to say about non-game-related dynamics. As far as running the table, get in front of issues as soon as you can. You can do this by looking up one of many social contract examples online for your group. Make clear the expectations you have for players, the game, and its content. Your guidelines should deal with those grey areas that come up like refreshment and device expectations. Plus in-game grey zones like lying to other PCs, stealing from the party, PVP allowances, game subjects and content warnings, and safety tools.

Let’s get down to brass tacks, this question is often about one of two scenarios. One, dealing with the “that’s why my character would do” problem player, and two, dealing with That Guy. For the first, I’m going to go a different route than I see most people suggest. 

If the player’s character isn’t interested in the adventure or is working in a way that’s not in the group’s benefit for the game, let them. Playing for a long time, I’ve had plenty of instances where a PC’s motivation, wealth, or experience would make it reasonable they would stop adventuring. And that’s what I do. I work with the DM to phase the PC out and bring in a new character that will make sense for the campaign going forward. 

Talk to the player in question and let them know they need to find a way for their character to get back on the bandwagon or it’s time to roll up a new one that will. Often, this “threat” of not being able to play their beloved PC will encourage a problem player to step back in line.

Have a That Guy you need to deal with? Talk to the other players first. Make sure this is an ongoing problem for all the group and it’s not just a one-and-done, you thing. If that’s the case, the best advice I can give is rip the bandage off. Don’t let the entire group’s enjoyment suffer game after game because of one bad apple. 

And, that doesn’t even necessarily mean the player’s a social problem for the group. A few years back, one of my groups decided to exit a player after a couple of conversations about their lack of engagement in the game outside of combat. 

The player would be on their phone, not listening to what was going on, and all but refused to engage with other players when their PC was invited into RP situations. We’re not talking about demanding them to do first-person RP with a silly accent. Simply to engage with the other 67% of the game we were collectively playing. The DM had a conversation with the player, then the rest of the group, a further warning some sessions later, and then the boot. 

Essentially, it’s not worth making your game suffer in the hopes that a problem player will come around. If they’re aware of the issue and not making an effort to change it, they’re putting their fun above the group and it’s time to ask them to leave. D&D is more popular than ever, finding a new player who’s a good fit to join a group is way easier than trying to reform a bad one.

Good table dynamics is about finding a good mesh of personalities and playstyles. Keep this in mind when looking for players as well. Inviting a tactics-focused power gamer to your heavy-RP court intrigue game is just a recipe for less fun game experience.

What Can I Do to Encourage Players to Role Play in My DnD Game?

I think this is primarily targeted towards new player groups. For me at least, it’s about keeping in mind the difference between encouraging role play and forcing players to role play. Let’s be honest, it’s a little silly to pretend you’re an elf, cat person, or wizard. Society in general might even call it childish behavior. 

Good roleplay is about being vulnerable playing make-believe in front of current and soon-to-be friends. The sort of behavior often relegated to singing into a hairbrush alone in your bedroom and having a conversation with the bathroom mirror. To help you out, I have two simple tactics. 

First, do your roleplay as NPCs in-person in meaningful scenes. By that I mean not every shopkeeper and random NPC on the street needs a first-person 5-10 minute conversation. This can help take some of the pressure off for players by showing them they don’t have to be 100% in-character for hours. 

If the PCs want to buy rations, they can just buy rations. Let transactions be… transactional. If players start asking additional questions as part of that scene, such as asking a traveling merchant for news, that’s your cue as a Dungeon Master to slip into first-person and begin roleplaying. 

An ancillary benefit is that by reducing the overall amount of RP you perform during a session you make each instance more impactful and become a Pavlovian cue for players that things are about to get serious, so pay attention!

Lead by example, and remember that role play means different things to different people. For some it’s funny voices and accents. For others it’s demeanor and body language. And, for others still, it’s about who they are by the decisions they make, their motivations, goals, and what they’re willing to sacrifice to achieve them.

My second tip, make a habit of asking the players how their characters feel. When an NPC brings up a sensitive subject related to a PC’s backstory, ask the player how their character reacts to it entering the conversation. Ask players what their PCs are doing in the background when they’re not the focus of a particular scene/encounter. 

When they ask questions or speak to an NPC, ask them for the specific words they say and how. Doing so helps you know how to react in first person as the NPC but also encourages the player to gently wade into first-person RP and think about what their PC does, how, and why. 

At the end of the day, however, some players are not interested in the social/RP side of the game. I’ve played with many people over the years who are focused on kicking down doors and slaying monsters to get loot. They’re often called beer & pretzel games, and they’re a lot of fun too. I’d say to try and play or run a few adventures like this to really showcase to yourself how differently the game can be played and still be enjoyable for many players.

Like lots of Dungeon Mastering the work is in managing expectations and finding the right combination of game type and players for your table.

If you don’t think a specific player is going to be interested in an RP-focused adventure you want to run, be frank with them about it beforehand. And if they say yes to playing, let them know you’re going to be on top of them about the RP and if they don’t meet expectations you’re going to ask them to sit this one out.

As a Dungeon Master, How Can I Get Players to Engage More in the Game?

I addressed a big chunk of this in the above section, so let’s focus on some other areas. Real talk for a second, how interesting is it to listen to someone talk about a player character they played in a campaign years ago? 

Not very interesting. 

Well, that’s how most people feel about your game. Sorry, it’s a hard life lesson we need to learn as a Dungeon Master. Truth is, D&D and other tabletop RPGs became so much more fun once I learned to stop taking it so seriously. And if you’re lucky, you’ll have decades of memories with the hobby. One specific session or adventure isn’t that special in the long run, it’s the memory of time well spent that’s special. If you can reach that point, you’ll stop worrying about questions like these.

For me the turning point was a first-level adventure I ran where three parties were fighting over a dragon egg in a barn after a deal gone wrong and through a series of poor die rolls ended up chasing it down the hill in the middle of the night, falling over each other like American football players trying to grab a fumble.


That’s just an objectively funny situation and I did something different, I leaned into that feeling, and it is now one of my favorite TTRPG memories.  

At that moment, something clicked within my mind. These are silly, made up situations the participants take very seriously. That’s the basic formula for good comedy. And D&D parties, especially low-level PCs, are at their core dangerous, well-armed, often daft maniacs. And I started having NPCs regard them as wild and unhinged as they act. It creates in-universe levity, which I think is important to bring to the table as Dungeon Master. 

Otherwise, like stated beforehand, focus on the players’ characters, not some grand narrative you want to tell, or world you built. By focusing on their actions, inaction, and choices I can construct results, and consequences (good and bad) from their inputs. 

To me, this is the easiest way to engage players in the game. Helping players realize they are in the pilot’s seat. They can pursue their own character’s personal goals and the world dynamically reacts to their decisions and acts upon them correspondingly. In a way it’s karmic.

What Tips Can Help Me Improvise Better as a Dungeon Master?

Such a common question. We touched on DM improvising in the session prep question above. Really, there’s no substitute for experience. You have to do it to get better at it. Years have taught me, and plenty of Dungeon Masters, that a large part of running D&D is improvisation. That’s because you really only have control in determining the first scene of each game session. 

After the initial scene, the players are in the driver’s seat by choosing where to go, what to do, and how. You’ll often be reacting more to them than leading them.

Now, you probably have some decent idea of where they will go next depending on what happens in the first scene. Most of the time, but not always, it’s an A/B choice. But after that the possibilities are too great to practically prepare for in detail. So, being prepped and ready to improvise will serve you well as a Dungeon Master.

Again, Web DM’s advice of “prep anything you’re not comfortable improvising” is the gold standard. It’s something you’ll have to learn about yourself. I can only tell you my journey and what works well for me.

I have a session prep sheet and some improvisation aids in my Dungeon Master Binder. You can read more about drafting my personal DM Binder, or watch me go through the finished product over on YouTube. Below are my common improv aids.

Common Dungeon Master Improv Aids

  • Interscene Fluff & Interactions
  • Drop-in NPCs/Name List
  • Location-Specific Random Encounter Table(s)
  • Minor Treasure & Pocket Contents Tables
  • 1-3 Location-Relevant One-Shot Adventures
  • Improvised Damage/DCs
  • Monster Preoccupation Table
  • Improvised Traps/Hazards Tables
  • Dungeon/Settlement/Wilderness Dressing Tables
  • What’s Happening in Town Table
  • Random 100 NPC/Shop Tables

That list probably looks overwhelming, but most of these are static resources located in my DM Binder, collected over years. It’s a living resource that changes to fit my specific needs. For me, it’s more important to HAVE the resources available than actually use them. Often I can top-of-head a response. Like any improv aid, they’re a safety net, inspiration, and resource to fall back on when the players hand me a real stumper of a situation. 

For those who have been watching my solo D&D adventure, you’ve seen me use many of these resources in conjunction with a custom GM Oracle, and GM Quick Reference (available as a PWYW title on DriveThruRPG) to improvise scene info and other adventure details quickly. 

Consider what parts of your DMing are the weakest, and what aspects of the game you want to engage with more. These are often the best place to start creating personal resources. In regards to myself, the first places I landed were on the dressing, wilderness random encounters,  and monster preoccupation tables. 

I often found myself defaulting to a small selection of environmental descriptions. I wanted a resource to help me be more diverse in descriptions and also to improve the exploration aspect of my game by providing non-combat oriented aspects of different biomes for the players to engage. 

Similarly, I wanted a generic list of wilderness encounters by biome that spanned average party levels 1-16. While rare, an APL 1 party can run across an APL 16 balanced encounter. Again, I like exploration as a significant focus of my games. I also want to represent a wilderness that does not scale with the PCs. 

It’s also important that I remind players I don’t use XP leveling, so often there’s little reward for the big risk of fighting a dangerous monster while on the way to an adventure location. Sure, they may have some treasure, but it’s not the amount they might find in a dungeon or other monster lair. Running is always a good option. But I’m also not a sadist who will have a random pair of displacer beasts hunt down fleeing level one PCs. 

But they may get separated, even lost, in their flight!

Adventures (homebrew and published alike) are often lacking in description of what the monsters are doing. Too often they default to video game style idle animations, just waiting for someone to step into their sight range. Many times parties would be sneaking around the dungeon and simply ask what the monsters were doing. Often I didn’t have a good answer, so I made a simple 1d10 table and stuck it into my DM Binder. 

“What are the monsters doing? [Rolls on Table] They are picking lice and debris out of each other’s hair, combing out tangles, and greasing it with what looks and smells like rancid butter.

One simple roll resulting in “hygiene” allows me to improvise lush situational flavor. It can also inform the players of how combat-ready the monsters are. For example, If they’re sleeping or bathing they probably don’t have their arms and armor. Something like that can turn a hard encounter into an easy one. But, it can also mean they’re more likely to flee a fight and raise alarm against the PCs. Choices, consequences, etc. 

How Do I Handle Player Character Death in My D&D Game?

I like this question because it immediately informs me of the Dungeon Master’s entrypoint to the hobby. It’s a very Hickman-informed question, a hallmark of post-Strahd D&D discussion. 

OK, you knew it was coming, a short break for some D&D history. 

Ravenloft was a watershed module for D&D, being (I believe) the first published module by TSR with a primary focus on story and secondary focus on, well, the act of playing the game. Not a surprising result being drafted by professional writers and fiction authors.

It opened a completely new mode of tabletop RPG play, which would ripple out to create a new wave of new TTRPGs. TTRPGs specifically focused on NOT being D&D. A prime example being Vampire the Masquerade. It had a modern setting where players play tortured souls, caught in the courtly machinations of vampire society while they internally wrestle with their human and monster personas. Obviously, that narrative-driven game is very different from kicking down dungeon doors, slaying monsters, and robbing tombs. 

Like the world of Conan’s Hyborian Age, life is cheap in pre-Hickman D&D. There’s a good chance in any given session that your player character might bite the dust from straight damage, or one of the many infamous save-or-die spells and abilities. To juxtapose, drafting a PC from scratch requires a piece of paper, dice, and a few minutes. Many players didn’t even need to open the PHB because the PCs were simple and they’d made a ton of them. 

Plus, OSR-style D&D dungeons were filled with prisoners and slaves, making it easy to jump back into the session in the next room with your fresh PC. 

Now look at modern D&D editions and its progeny (Pathfinder, et al). Making even a first-level PC in these systems is certainly more of a chore, especially without character building software. Go ahead, I challenge you to set a timer and make a third-level D&D 5e PC as you normally would but by hand without D&D Beyond, and pencil on paper. Flipping through stacks of books laid across a table, finding and reviewing the options spread across these books to make decisions, it’s a pain.

And we come to the real question that underlies the question of how to deal with death in your game:

As a player, do I want to play a game where my PC could realistically die in the first encounter of the first session if it took me half an hour, an hour, or even more to build it? 

Now, layer on top of that this “new” expectation of the game to be a main character in an epic fantasy story. Probably not going to be happy if your PC with a two-page backstory tied directly to the main plot bites the dust in session three, a la Boromir. Right?

Boromir’s plight is good storytelling for a book or movie, raising the stakes by showing the corrupting power of the macguffin and what people will do to get it. But… not a fun character to play for 20% of the campaign before being killed in a random encounter with orcs.

That’s a lot of words to say, be up front with the likelihood and frequency of death you anticipate for your campaign. And the more death, the easier it needs to be to draft a new PC and jump back into the game. You can fine tune this by choosing what game system you use, the range of levels you run, and the backstory you request from players. Essentially, the more investment a player makes into their character should be inverse to the chance of them taking a dirt nap at any moment. Where on that scale you fall as a Dungeon Master, and where individual players fall, will be different from others.

If you are interested in running a lower “random death” style game, here are D&D 5e homebrew death rules I’ve developed to support that specific fantasy.

High Narrative D&D Death Rules

  • No Death Saves, when a PC hits zero hit points they are out of the fight
    • Not always unconscious, but a casualty, unable to contribute to the fight
    • Can be healed and re-enter combat, but with a lingering injury
      • Lingering injuries stack in amount, severity, and permanence
        • Ex. Sprain > Concussion > Broken Bone > Scar/Mutilation > Amputation > Death
  • Regain Consciousness at Scene’s End, standard rules apply for regaining HP
  • PCs Only Die if They Are Left to Die
    • Monsters Eat/Execute* Them During Combat
    • Monsters Drag Them Away During Combat
    • Party Flees Abandoning KO’d Ally
  • Execution is something I reserve for major villains to show how dastardly they are. Also, telegraph it by showing the villain preparing to do it so the party has a chance to try to interrupt them!

That said, personally, my combat encounters are often plentiful, tough, even unfair when it makes sense. But I also make use of monster morale (including surrendering to the PCs), parlay opportunities, hostage-taking, and a reduced eagerness for killing people. 

In my games, many humanoid monsters are happy beating the snot out of a party, taking their gear, and dropping them into the wild without so much as the shirts on their backs. Humiliation, theft, and an ax to grind, gives players AND their characters strong motivation, which is great for a game! 

No death necessary.

The One True Answer to All Newbie Dungeon Master Questions

The one correct answer for all the questions we touched on in this blog is “it depends”. I don’t know you (probably) or your table of players (definitely). Dungeons & Dragons, all tabletop RPGs, are highly subjective games.

The strength of D&D compared to other types of games and hobbies is that it’s orchestrated by a real, flesh and blood person. It’s dynamic and changing and it takes the concerted effort of everyone at the table to be successful. So there’s not really a standard advice.

It’s like asking the internet, “how do I throw a good birthday party”. I don’t know, that depends almost entirely on the people you plan to include. Cake, icecream, and a bounce house in the backyard may be great for a child, but I’m not sure your middle-aged workaholic single aunt with no kids is going to love it for their birthday.

That said, I hope you found the answers to some of these questions enlightening. If you want help addressing a specific problem in your own Dungeon Mastering journey, the easiest way to get a hold of me is during one of my livestreams on YouTube so subscribe. You can also reach out to me on Reddit or Twitter, but I don’t check those very often!

And if you want to support the blog you can check out the PWYW offerings over at DriveThruRPG or make a Ko-Fi donation. Each dollar goes to keeping the website online and improving my ability to make great content for you. 

But that’s all for me this time, and I’ll see you in the next one!

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