D&D: How to Be a Great DM -Tips & Tricks

D&D: How to Be a good DM
Master, Master! Master of Dungeons is behind the screen! A roll of the dice can be so mean.

Want to Master Dungeons like the best of them?

So, you want to be a Dungeon Master?

Maybe you've spent upwards of $100 dollars on the assorted books and accouterments of the trade, but feel like there is still something missing.

Perhaps, you have run a game or two and feel like it didn't quite go the way you had been hoping. 

Maybe you've ran a year long campaign that didn't go quite the way you had planned, and now you want to know how to do it better next time.

Whatever your reasoning for wanting to be a better DM here are 10 tips and tricks to take your game to the next level.

10. What Kind of DM Do you Want To Be?

What kind of game do you want to run? This is the biggest and possibly hardest question to answer. In my decade or so of playing this game and subsequently interacting with players from outside my home group I've become convinced that my home group plays a different version of D&D than anyone in my area.

Maybe that is changing now that Matt Mercer and Griffin McElroy are bringing a brand of game that I'm used to into the mainstream. A lot of the people I've encountered who try to talk to me about D&D leave me bewildered at the kind of game they play.

Usually they tell me about their character sheet rather than telling me about their character.. Boiling a character down to stats in this way derives from a different style of play that emphasizes level progression over character or story progression. In my home game we played with a fully home-brewed world with stories and lore that our DM made up herself, and in the grand scheme of things the players at our table know little to nothing about the lore of the Forgotten Realms;I honestly wouldn't have it any other way.

How does this help you be a better DM? Well, you have to decide if you're willing to put in that kind of work to make a world live and breathe, or if you are more comfortable running modules and existing in the ready made world that comes packaged with the books. Maybe you don’t care for a story and would rather guide your players through a sandbox adventure where the goal is to gain levels and become legends through feats of strength or great quests..

There is no good or bad to any approach just good or bad execution of them. Don't feel like you have to be beholden to either way, if you feel comfortable playing with modules and wind up in a world of your own creation, that is awesome, but if you try to create a world and campaign of your own design and decide to start using modules to bolster that then that's the way. Whatever your approach just make sure to commit to it.

Decide the type of game you want to run and then run it. Personally, I would always encourage trying to make the world your own, because it is incredibly satisfying to have crafted the whole thing yourself and watch the players dig through this campaign, for good or ill, toward an ending that you barely have a vague understanding of.

9. You're Not the Enemy of the Players

This one is going to be short and sweet.  Just as it says above. YOU AREN”T THE ENEMY OF THE PLAYERS. Yes, you as the DM will be playing every character that the players encounter, and that includes the villains who want to kill them, but this does not mean that YOUR goal should be to kill them.

Don't wash every roll you make just to save the party or any one character, far from it, but never go into any battle trying to win the game. It is a precarious balancing act you have to pull off.

As Dungeon Master it is your job to make the world dangerous and deadly, but it is not your duty to go out of your way to wrack up deaths inside of the party.

Don't go easy on them by any means, but don't try to kill them by any means necessary. This game is meant to be cooperative and fun. Overcoming and besting what felt like an impossible task is what the fun is made of for your players, feeling like the hand of god is out to get you is the antithesis of a good time.

8. You're Not the Star of the Show

This game is about stories and how we build them together. It's about friends coming together to overcome insurmountable odds and becoming legends. The player characters are the stars of this show. Your story will get told if you and the players work together to tell it, but your player's characters have their own arcs to complete within that story.

Don't let the game become about placating your own ego, and center around getting people to tell you that you are a good storyteller. If you are doing your job correctly, then they will say that with different words.

Rather than tell you that you’re a good storyteller they will say things like “that was fun”, or you will have to hear the story of how their character single handedly saved the party at the last minute by coming up with another hare-brained scheme In the words of a blinking nebula that Bender met in an excellent episode of Futurama “When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.”

To put it in metaphor, your story is the vehicle,the players are the drivers, and the rules are the traffic laws. You are the road, the signs along the highway, and the traffic signals. they couldn’t reach their destination without you, but by the end they will be congratulating themselves for making good time and driving well to get there.

7. It's Partially About Power Fantasy

Tying it back in to number 9 in our list, part of why we as players want to play a game such as Dungeons & Dragons is because of the fantasy of absolute power.

Just like with playing video games, like Morrowind or the Witcher 3, this is all about being more than you are in the real world. Actively seeing and charting your growth across time in a quantifiable, tangible way. This is going to mean different things at different times, sometimes translating to forcing them into a battle that seems unwinnable after a long slog through a dungeon with nasty traps, while at other times it will turn out that you need to “allow” them to mow through a bunch of seemingly powerful baddies just to let them do something cool.

When your players level-up don't just make it an off camera moment of meta number crunching, but instead exhibit the level-up through the cinematic language of storytelling. Bake those progressions into your game, find ways to illustrate that their characters are getting stronger, and then encourage the players to react and act out that they are growing ever more powerful.

One of the last 3.5 campaigns I played with my home group was all about being chosen avatars of immutable virtues and being played like chess pieces against an evil non-player party that were chosen representatives of negative virtues. When we leveled up our DM would stress that we were getting more powerful.

She allowed my character, a raptoran monk, and my character's best friend, a human fighter, to spar as a way to show off our new abilities to each other. This made sense for our boys since they were both basically Dragonball Z characters whether we meant to make them that way or not. Meanwhile, our wizard character would practice their new spells during these boxing matches, and everyone was able to gloat in character about their cool new feats and abilities without shattering the 4th wall.

This allowed us to show, in character, that we were becoming more than we began as, and that the increase in power was noticeable.

6. Give Every Character Their Time To Shine

Don't make any one character the “main character”.  Let the story be the story, and allow each character big moments of their own. Create moments for the characters to have ; personal side-quests,big time savior scenes, putting the party in situations that only one of them has the skills to solve these are the stories your players will wistfully tell again and again. Let the players do wild stupid things that you want to see the characters do.

In the first long form campaign I played in, our party was in a hidden valley. A place of legend that the stories say is the birthplace of all magic, and perhaps all life. My bard and our resident smiling pirate walked into an old ruined temple to find a terrifyingly large reptilian creature. The Tarrasque, as my character later had explained to him, was an abomination believed to be a world destroyer created by the old gods.

As most of the party fled from this terrible tortoise my little gnome climbed on the shoulder of his orc friend, and pulled two sticks of dynamite from his bag. He unlatched the clasp of the necklace of fireballs, which the tiny jester always wore,and handed the three items to the large pirate. The bard asked the pirate to use the necklace to tie the dynamite to one of the harpoons which the orc carried. Using a quick spell the gnome lit the fuses and told the sailor to do what he did best. Of course when the harpoon bounced off the thick hide of the great beast the Tarrasque moved in for the attack.

As our characters foolishly braced themselves for a fight the hiss of the fuse went quiet for a split second, and thinking on his feet the orc stuck the gnome under his arm and began running. The explosion was such that it shook the ground for miles and as the building caved in around us, the fireball growing ever bigger we barely managed to leap out of the way of the falling debris. We were safe, and decided we were the greatest battle team to ever live because we had killed the unkillable. We were legends.

5. Let the Story Unfold Naturally

You're a storyteller before all else in this type of game, and as a storyteller you have to understand that sometimes, if not most of the time, the ending of a story reveals itself to you rather than being planned. 

You want to tell a big epic tale of good vs. evil and have an inkling of an idea for how it will all shake out in the end, that is spectacular, now throw that speculation into the garbage, because your players are going to take control of this story and steer it through the scenic route. You have to let that happen. Fighting against the natural movements of the cooperative storytelling will only wind up feeling like your wishes for the ending are more important than where the players took the game.

Oftentimes the players will do something, or not do something as the case may be, in the early game that allows for opportunities to make the ending unfold in wild ways. Your goal is to take those opportunities and mold them into naturally occurring events within the fiction.

4. Work With What Your Players Give You

Every person has a story, and the same is true for the player characters. When it is time to build characters take a moment to work with each player on their character backstory. Your goal here is to make sure their backstory is something they can be happy with that informs the person they are role-playing as while fitting into the world you are all building together.

If the atmosphere of your world is tense and unforgiving then you can't have someone trying to play a living meme character that exists to be a joke, on the opposite end of that if you are building a world that has a bit more fun and whimsy while still having it's dark corners having someone whose backstory is all about how grim their life is might clash with the universe. Don't take these things away from them, but help them mold this personal history  to fit into the world.

3. Don't Be Afraid of Non-Combat/Role-play Heavy Sessions

We all know that this is a power fantasy where great characters accomplish incredible feats, but sometimes to get to those monumental moments you're gonna have to have some down time. I could regale you with a thousand stories of cool instances of battle from my 10 years of play, but in every instance those moments would have far less meaning if it weren't for the incredible character building moments that happened in between.

My most recent game wasn't even a D&D game, instead we decided to play in the sci-fi realm by picking up the Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars RPG. This is an amazing system that I suggest to everyone who will listen, but the important part here is how we played it.

The party we played were, for all intents and purposes, bad guys. Not evil by any means, but criminals all the same. My character was the captain of the ship, and a glass canon of a gunslinger, a pirate and smuggler by trade he was a scoundrel that would make Han Solo blush. He was out for himself, his ship, and his crew, in that order, no matter what may have come.

This myopic thinking led him to some poor decision making and a constant habit of double crossing and triple crossing nearly every NPC they came into contact with. To him it was just a part of the trade and a way to stay alive. He was the epitome of bad guy turned reluctant hero.

The whole thrust of the game was that our ship of “anything for some credits” smugglers whose captain had an itchy trigger finger and thieving hands was that the crew found themselves caught in the beginnings of a budding civil war. Early on they were hired to transport some highly sensitive information that could mean the life or death of the galactic republic and all force users within the system. Through many hours of roleplay, and some terrible mistakes, the captain of the ship went from being a “it isn't my problem” type of guy into someone willing to throw it all away for a galaxy that never knew him or cared for him.

The ending of that game will stick with me for the rest of my life if only because of all the small moments that brought us there. Key moments in this characters life weren't spent on a battlefield fighting to survive they were spent in the mess hall of the ship sharing a drink with his friends, discussing his changing mindset and trying to figure out how they fit into this whole mess.

My DM says that you should always try to have one combat per game, even if it is small and simple, but to always be pushing for those character building moments in between. The stories worth telling aren't the times the player wiped out a small army with only six bullets, but how they got to that point.

Try to play it as a 1:1 ratio if you can manage. If we spent one whole session having fun on the ship and visiting a town to progress the plot in the background, then we would almost always spend the next session in a protracted battle sequence.

2. Help Your Players Stay in their Lane

This one is simple, and thus easily overlooked. Each class has an ostensible role, and every uniquely built character has a way of fitting into that role. Let that happen, in fact, make sure that it happens by being certain that no player steps on another player's toes. If one of your players is a nearly non-combative bard type whose whole gimmick is that they are the best at using their charisma to get the job done then let that character be the talker.

Don't allow some rogue to step in and usurp that position, because as a player nothing feels worse than being made useless in the one thing your character was built for. Some players are bad about this and will build characters designed to be good at everything, taking every opportunity they can to show off that their character could pretty much be doing this all by themselves. Fight this with everything you have at your disposal.

Allowing one player to take control of another player's role within the party unbalances the mechanics and makes it fun for only the player that purposefully built their character to show-off how good they are at reading min/max and optimization guides.

These players aren't looking to have fun in an interactive cooperative role-playing experience, they are there to win a game that has no win-state. To be the best at D&D just because they think they can. If you have one of these players push against it. Ask specific characters to make the checks rather than leaving it open-ended, hobble the character that thinks they can do anything/everything for a session with a well placed spell or poison that affects their stats until they take a long rest, distract them with other tasks, and if all else fails tell them to go back to playing Skyrim if they want to be the chosen-one, or encourage them to be Dungeon Masters of their own group. Sometimes you have to cut a player to preserve the game, but try to mitigate the behavior before it gets out of hand.

1. Don't Let Anything Get in the way of FUN

Look, I know that this is a game and that games have rules and regulations which exist to ensure it doesn't devolve into unmitigated chaos, but rules are guidelines to keep things moving. Toss out what you don't need within the moment to keep the game fun for everyone involved. We don't play Dungeons & Dragons to read almanacs worth of dense boring rules we play  to have fun with our friends, in a world where we need that sort of connection more than ever, don’t let anything stand in the way of that fun.

Yes, a rules lawyer player is a necessary component to every table, but that shouldn't come at the expense of making the game a memorable one that all involved will laugh and tell stories about for years to come. Some players do have fun coloring within the lines, but sometimes the cool thing to do isn't the prescribed way to do them. Always remember to defer to Rule 0: the DM is always right.

Sometimes this is hard for players to get along with. They don't want to let go of the fact that they know more than the Dungeon Master and that the books have a specific set of guidelines that must be followed in order to make the game run smoothly, but that is unfortunately their problem to deal with.

Tell them that you understand what the rule says, but in this instance Rule 0 supersedes that. Hopefully, letting them know that you know they are correct will be satisfying enough for them that they drop the argument.

Slowing down the pacing of them game for arguments over rules and technicalities is only fun for the person making the argument, and unfortunately if they continue to detract from the fun for their silly rules lawyering then they can join the Master-of-All-Skills in their new game, because not even a player should stand in the way of fun for the rest of the party.

Never be afraid to scrap whole sessions worth of ideas if they turn out to be less fun than you thought it would be originally. Basically just don’t forget to HAVE FUN, it is the most important secret to being a great DM.

Not every session will go perfectly, not every game will be an epic legend, but overall the campaign should resolve with everyone agreeing that they had a good time playing the game. Don’t be afraid to ask your players at the end of sessions if they are having fun, and ask them if there are ways it could be more fun for them personally.

Granted, you should never cater to their desires at the expense of your own enjoyment, but you can glean insight into how to run the game better by asking the people you run the game with.

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Chris arrived fully formed on this earth 5 years ago when a sentient star exploded over the swamps near Texas' Gulf Coast. Enjoys laughter & controlled chaos
Gamer Since: 1994
Favorite Genre: RPG
Currently Playing: Pokemon Sword
Top 3 Favorite Games:The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Psychonauts

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