So, you’ve decided to play God. Luckily, there’s an appropriate outlet for that need, and it’s called being a Dungeon Master, Game Master, Story Teller, or whatever you call the person in your game who acts as the impartial referee in the barely controlled chaos you call Role-Playing Games. That’s the keyword, as well. Impartial. You see, some players have it in their head that the Dungeon Master is there to be their enemy, and if they ever take up the shield they think that’s how it’s done. But it’s not.
When you take on the responsibility, and it is a big one, of acting as the Dungeon Master for your group, your job is to ensure that everyone is having fun. That means the players are not your enemy, they are telling the story just like you are, they just have a more focused version of it. This shouldn’t be construed as letting your players do whatever they like, win every encounter, and amass hordes and hordes of treasure. (Unless that’s what your group is into, in which case, go for it!) Instead, think of the game as a novel, told from the points of view of the player characters.
In storytelling, the protagonists (and they don’t always have to be a good guy!) should have their successes, yes, but conflict is what keeps a story interesting. Luke successfully destroyed the Death Star, but Darth Vader escaped to strike back in the next movie. Indiana Jones escaped with his life as well as The Ark, only to have it taken away to be studied by ‘top men.’ The point, you see, is that the players should succeed, yes, but they should always have another goal, another hook, another villain to play off of.
So far this article makes it sound like Dungeon Masters have huge egos. There’s no way it could be that hard! You’re right. It’s not hard to be a Dungeon Master. What’s hard is being a good one. It’s not a matter of knowing the rules inside and out, or having the best voices, or the coolest monsters, although that can certainly help. What’s important is that your players are having fun and they keep coming back, week after week, month after month.
So, you want to be a Dungeon Master, and I haven’t scared you off or bored you to tears. Well, you came here for advice, so here’s a few in no particular order, starting with what you Don’t Do.
- Create situations that make your players uncomfortable. I don’t mean anxious, or scared, or creeped out by your awesome game, because that’s what we do. What I mean is don’t trigger your players. Knowing your players is half the game for a Dungeon Master, so don’t bring in adult situations if that’s not what your players are into.
- Over Prepare. You’re going to do it, I know it, and it’s okay. It’s okay that your players didn’t make it to that tower you spent all week constructing. It’s okay that your Super Awesome Big Bad Evil Guy bit the dust in three rounds because you forgot you gave a player an arrow of Lich Slaying last month. It’s okay that you had a whole town prepared, but your players never left the dungeon. This happens all the time, and you can’t control what your players will do. This brings me to my next point.
- Railroad your players. Your story is not a set of rails with your players on a train, chugging along at whatever speed you set. Just because you made a tower doesn’t mean your players are going to want to explore it. That awesome forest encounter you spent all night on, getting the stats and flavor text just right? They decided to go to the desert instead. Don’t get mad at them. Don’t tell them what their characters decide to do. Don’t surround them by 1000 guards in the middle of a sleepy village just because they want to hit the road. Let them decide what to do, it’s their story as well.
- Get attached to NPCs. My favorite NPC from a game years ago was a butler named Henceforth. He was a blast to role-play and my players absolutely loved him. During an invasion of vampires, he sacrificed himself to blow up several kegs of gunpowder, collapsing the tunnel that they were using to assault a walled village. My players were upset, which surprised me, and so I made a big mistake. I let him live. He somehow dug his way out and rejoined the party, and everyone was happy, but what I didn’t consider was the story. It would have been a better story if he died, there was a funeral, and the party, both characters and players, mourned. Don’t get attached.
- Talk too much. I know, it sounds weird, aren’t you the guy who is supposed to be talking? You need to set the scene, play the NPCs, and keep track of everything else, but the spotlight isn’t on you. It’s on the players. Don’t have the players sit there quietly while you talk to yourself for half an hour. Don’t have NPCs that outshine the players if they aren’t villains. Don’t summon your inner J.R.R. Tolkien and spend an hour describing a tree, just don’t do it. As much as I compare Role-Playing Games to novels, you’re not writing one. The best part of a game for me as a Dungeon Master is when I don’t have to say anything and the players are role-playing with each other. Don’t talk too much.
- Have a session zero. This is where you sit down with your players and decide what kind of game you’ll be playing. I’m not saying what system, because that’s typically decided before hand, but what themes, major conflicts, and environments will the game have? One player may want a desert adventure, while another wants there to be a huge war going on. This is also when you, as a DM, get to know your players and find out their likes and dislikes when it comes to role-playing. This is also a good time to hammer out character concepts and backgrounds.
- Create characters early. Don’t create characters the day of the first game, especially if you’re the only one with a copy of the book. Sitting around for two hours while Billy argues with the Dungeon Master about the exact length of Elf ears is not fun for everyone else. Either create characters with players one on one between session zero and the first game, or do it as a group during session zero.
- Encourage Role-play. Even the staunchest of murder hobos can appreciate good role-play, and it might even help mend their ways. Do you have one player in particular who’s really quiet and doesn’t role-play much, or at all? Have an NPC talk to them. Force them to make decisions. Give them consequences to those decisions. Don’t put a gun to their head, but this method is great for forcing a new player to try it out.
- Reward cooperation and teamwork. My own Dungeon Master, who I’ve played with since college, tells every new player the same thing: No matter how evil, vile, retched, or Lawful Good your characters are, they need a reason to be a party and work together. It’s great advice, and it’s something some people don’t consider. Everyone knows the lone wolf, the dark and mysterious stranger who sits in the corner of the tavern, brooding. It worked for Aragon because he had similar goals to the Hobbits, but new players tend to leave that out. Stick with the party, have a common goal, work together. You don’t have to be friends, you can even be enemies, but you need a reason for your alliance. It’s your job as the Dungeon Master to ensure this happens before session one.
- Keep notes. You may have forgotten the name of a random NPC, but your players might not have. Keep notes of things, people, and places you introduce. It doesn’t need to be much, just a name and a couple details to help you remember. It will also remind you about the Lich Slaying arrow you gave your party last month…
- Have fun. All this talk about Fun and we’ve only mentioned the players. Well, you are supposed to be having fun, too. Being a Dungeon Master shouldn’t feel like a chore, and if it does, you might need a break. Come back fresh, excited, and full of new ideas.
I have one last piece of advice for you, and I think it’s the most important advice of all. Us nerds have a saying:
No D&D at all is better than bad D&D. Good luck. -Some Nerd