What are the challenges one must overcome to be a great dungeon master? While I am not the greatest and wisest of all dungeon masters, I have divined the most crucial steps to become a great (or at least better) DM.
The 5 Steps to Dungeon Master Enlightenment
- Core Rule Competency
- Table Leadership
- Creativity & Improvisation
- Game Design Comprehension
- Game Mastery
Core Rules Competency
The most important thing you can do as a game master is to learn the rules of the system you are running. Few things are as annoying as playing a campaign where the game master has not reached rules competency. And that’s what you should focus on when learning the rules system, core rules competency. The 20% of the rules that make up 80% of each gaming session (Pareto Principle).
When you have competency of the core rules. You know how to apply the rules of the game as situations arise. When a player says their character listens at the closed door, you know that’s a Wisdom, Perception check. Even if you don’t remember there’s a situational modifier that increases the DC.
And the best thing that comes from core rules competency is it gives you the foundation to make judgments. Whether that’s rules with unclear wording or undetailed parts of the game.
Step two on the path to DM Enlightenment is learning how to lead a table of players. An important part of being a successful DM is learning how to run the table. It’s not just guiding the characters, but guiding the players as well. Unfortunately, not every player has the best social graces and it falls to you to keep the table focused. The first thing to learn is all players have different ways of playing and enjoying the game.
The best advice I can offer is work to diversify your game. Keep a continuous mix of the three pillars: combat, exploration, and social situations. Then, create situations that play to each player character’s strengths. How boring is a rogue if the game was devoid of locked doors, traps, and dark corridors to sneak around.
Another veteran trick is to ask players what the characters are doing when they’re not involved in the current scene. Asking a pointed question like this to your players goes a long way to limiting the dreaded cross talk. Its’ also a great way to nudge players towards first-person role playing with each other. Resting and downtime are prime times for the party to role play and develop characters.
The second way to better lead your table is to learn how and when to say no. There’s a lot of failing forward, always answer yes, advice out there. The intent of this advice is great, but in practice with a green dungeon master it can mean disaster. Instead, it’s far more important to understand how to say no. Because you are the players’ view into the world they depend on you to know what is and is not possible. Allow players to succeed without a roll when there’s no risk or repercussion for failure. A rogue can pick a lock without a roll if…
- It’s possible and
- They have no time restrictions
By the same token you should clearly tell players when a course of action is impossible.
Talking the Player off the Ledge
- Player wants to try and jump a hundred foot wide chasm (something doomed to fail).
- You tell the player no and why (characters cannot jump further than their speed 30ft).
- You can lead players towards a viable alternative. A different way to achieve the same effect (if they can get a grapple and rope across they would be able to cross the chasm).
- If the player insists with the failing course of action allow them to fail (you jump forward and after thirty feet, fall to the bottom of the chasm. Roll an Dexterity, Acrobatics check to half the falling damage).
Often when players get upset it’s because there’s been a DM failure in communication. It’s our job when running the table to define the obstacle, perceived difficulty, failure, and success. You don’t need to tell your players the DCs and target numbers, but you can give them a ball park idea. In 5e the medium difficulty floats between 13 and 17. So, anything 18+ would be difficult, anything under 13 would is easy. My key advice for clear communication is trying to imagine the scenario from the character’s point of view. Also, talk with your hands and when needed, draw it out. This can especially help your visual players. Don’t be afraid to ask if they have any other questions and correct wrong assumptions.
Additionally, let them know what success and failure entail. To the previous example, success for jumping across a chasm is self explanatory. But, you can let players know that failure means falling in a chasm that’s deeper than you can see (60ft+). A quick player knows in 5e that means 6d6 damage. So if the player character has less than 36 hit points they know death is a real potential.
Another of the dungeon master’s jobs is to save players from circular conversations. You definitely want to give your players time to plan and talk out possible courses of action. But it’s a fine line between discussing options and not making a decision. The players often are missing pertinent information to make a decision or they’re failing to put the puzzle pieces together. If your players begin talking in circles it’s time to push them into a new situation. The easiest way to do that in a dungeon is to throw a wandering monster combat at them. Or better yet, let the player characters perceive footsteps approaching from behind. The players will make a decision to avoid the encounter or they will make a decision after finishing the combat. Regardless, the players get the poke in the butt they need to keep moving.
Another way to up both your game and your dungeon master skill learning when to end the game session. The rule of thumb for an average RPG session is three to four hours. But, there’s nothing to keep you from pushing a little longer or ending short. It can be far more impactful to end your session at the natural peak or trough of tension. Like calling the session right before rolling initiative or with a quiet night at the local inn. My advice, start looking for a good place to end your game session once you’ve been playing 2.5 – 3 hours.
And the last thing to help you lead the table and improve your dungeon master craft? Don’t let your players see how the sausage is made. Magicians are successful because the audience doesn’t know how the magic tricks work. That’s what makes it magic. Now, imagine at the end of the show the magician explained how the tricks worked. The magic of showmanship is lost. If you’re like me, the people you play with are your friends. And sometimes players want to ask ‘what if we had done X’. If you tell them, lay flat the DM screen and explain everything out, you kill the showmanship magic. One thing that makes Matt Mercer a great DM is he doesn’t let his players or the audience know about the paths not taken.
Creativity & Improvisation
The third step on the way to DM Enlightenment is to unlock your creativity and improvisation. At its most basic form that’s reskinning and frankensteining. This frees you from the what’s written in the core books. Recently I wanted my players to deal with a hippopotamus. Hippos don’t exist in the 5e Monster Manual. Why? A hippo is more likely to kill a person than a shark. So I had three options. First, create a hippo from scratch. But this is a “maybe” wilderness encounter, that’s way too much work. Second, find hippo stats from some other edition or game and convert the stats to 5e. In truth, that’s more work than making it from scratch. But, the third option was to reskin an existing monster. I need a riparian-based creature. I re-used the crocodile stats from an earlier encounter. I didn’t even need to adjust the CR. I put emphasis on the description of the hippo. The players never questioned it was the same stat block a crocodile.
Frankensteining is reskinning taken a step further. In a different situation my hippo might need to be a different CR. Or, I wanted it to have some sort of slam, crushing attack. Then I’d start pulling bits and pieces from other monsters and swapping their parts. I’d add a grapple condition to the bite and then automatic damage while creatures are in the mouth. I could reskin a tail whip attack to a slam.
This plays right into the next part of understanding and using tropes. Think of a dwarf, picture the dwarf in your mind. Did you imagine a short, male with a thick beard and a Scottish accent. He’s probably a curmudgeon sporting an ax or hammer with a taste for large tankards of beer. Let me guess, he doesn’t like elves either. Tropes are very useful for us, like Plato’s Theory of the Forms, and director visual shorthand. They do the heavy lifting and help everybody get on the same page. For a quick illustration of Plato’s Theory of Forms, imagine a chair. Now think of a different kind of chair. It may be completely different in style and composition, but it’s still a chair right? Visual shorthand is the same concept, but for movies. You may have picked up that many DMs lean on cinematic terms to explain things. It’s because it’s a shorthand we understand. Good guys wear white, bad guys wear black. Want your bad guys to seem organized, competent, and Bad with a capital B? Give them Nazi vibes. Both examples are key to the success of the original Star Wars.
You can tell players the party reaches an overgrown graveyard as twilight fades and shadows stretch and coalesce into darkness. Read: one spooky graveyard at night, check and check. Your players don’t need additional set dressing. They know what a spooky graveyard looks like. And better yet, what a spooky graveyard looks like to each player. Lean into the tropes with your homebrew content and there’s less chance for player confusion.
The last way to up your creativity and improvisation is knowing when to say YES. We know that saying no is a way for us as the DM to protect players from themselves. But, we also want to reward good ideas and creative play. This is as simple as making sure dead bad guys have stuff in their pockets. People keep things in their pockets and if your players check pockets they’ll find things. It might be money, a snack, or today’s password phrase because they haven’t memorized it.
If you want your players to use the environment to defeat the enemies you need to reinforce that. Why would a character push a creature out a second story window for 1d6 falling damage if the character can do 1d10+3 damage with a battleaxe? Reward the type of play you want. Someone pushed out the windows suffers 1d6 falling, 1d6 slashing (broken glass), and gains the grappled condition from being tangled up in the drapes. But, if you add a secret door once your players will look for secret doors in every dungeon room until the end of time. If that starts happening use the approaching footsteps/wandering monster tactic to get them moving.
Don’t shoot down a player’s good idea. If they figure out how to bypass a challenge or how to get the drop on the villain, let them. When you hear the term railroading it usually comes down to saying no, because it bypasses or moves away from the prepared game material. If the game could account for every situation it wouldn’t need a human game master.
Being able to roll with the punches and surprises of your players is what makes the game worth playing. Keep your cool, collected facade when the players throw you a curveball. If necessary take a break or end the session to figure out what happens next. This is one of the reasons for me that’s important to know what your bad guy wants and how he plans to achieve it. Once you know that it’s about the bad guy reacting to the players and adjusting the plan.
By the same token, you have to let your players fail and die. Often more interesting is what happens after the bad guys finish the summoning ritual. What happens if the player characters have to abandon an unconscious character to avoid a total party kill? This will always be more interesting and fulfilling than a last minute retcon or deus ex. Those can deflate the players and erases the tension in the game that mortal danger creates.
Game Design Comprehension
Step Four to DM Enlightenment is understanding game design. Part of it is experience and part of it is a desire for learning. Stop being the person who gets a fish a day and become the person who learns to fish. Understanding game design and how the pieces of your favorite rules system work opens up your possibilities for homebrew. You can be confident and capable in creating new classes, races, abilities, and spells. You can create new mechanical subsystems that integrate well with the core game. The foundation is understanding the game’s numbers and how they’re derived. Do you know why a 5e spell save DC starts with a base of eight? It’s because eight plus two (proficiency bonus at level one) is ten. And a creature rolling a saving throw with an ability score equal to the caster’s ability score should succeed on an average roll. In D&D 5e that’s a roll of ten or better on the die. As levels progress the spell becomes more difficult to save against as the proficiency bonus and ability score increases. In the same way the average monster AC for levels 1-3 is 15. Using the standard array a PC has a +5 to attack (+3 for ability, +2 for proficiency). You want them to succeed at the average roll of ten, 10 + 5 = AC 15. Let’s say a difficult AC would need a 15+ roll to hit, that’s AC 20. Easy (5+)? That’s AC 10. Keeping an up-to-date copy of your players character sheets can help you fine-tune this math to your specific players.
But beyond math you need to understand the resource mechanics of your rules system. Some classes manage different resources. Casters need a long rest to get their spells back. Martial characters, and warlocks, only need a short rest to recover most of their abilities. That means casters start off at peak in the morning and get weaker throughout the day. Whereas the peak and trough of character power for martial characters and warlocks have less variance but are easier to reset. It’s easy with that in mind to see how the 15-minute adventuring day became the optimal strategy. That’s why dungeons are a game of managing resources. It’s not safe to take an extended rest in most dungeons. You can chip away at your spell casters by providing challenges that take one or two spell slots at a time. Hitting your players with fewer, larger encounters plays right to their strength. It also makes for long, boring combats that aren’t engaging unless it’s a BBEG set piece battle.
The goal of many game masters is to hack a rules system to make it better for the game master and table. By learning about game design you avoid the common pitfall for newbie game masters. Too many neophyte game masters have ruined a campaign with unchecked, unbalanced homebrew content. Homebrew with the same mentality as an artist breaks rules; for a specific, thoughtful purpose.
When you’ve completed the first four steps you are ready to receive DM Enlightenment. You’ve learned the rules of the game. You can lead a table of players with style and aplomb. Your creativity and improvisation skills seamlessly blend prep work with ad-libbing. You also understand the theory and craft of game design. You know not just how the mechanics and numbers work, but why they work. You are ready to transcend. As a true virtuoso you know when to use the rules, change them, break them, and discard them altogether. You are worthy to fulfill the roles and responsibilities of Dungeon Master.
Heavenly Step Six
Become a Dungeon Master that follows the Socractic Paradox, “I know that I know nothing.” Focus on being a Dungeon Master that is always learning rather than a Dungeon Master that knows a lot.
Follow these five steps and dedicate yourself to continual improvement and you’ll never lack for players at your table.