First, what is a good Dungeon Master? Rule 1 of this hobby is to have fun. A good Dungeon Master facilitates fun, owns the table, and makes memorable sessions. There’s plenty more that you will do, but those are the three I wanted to put in that sentence. Over the next few posts, and maybe in some type of order, I want to provide you with enough information, confidence, and tools for you to grab your friends or some strangers (figuratively) and get in on this fantastically fulfilling thing that I’ve turned into a full-time job.
This is my first blog post ever, it’s aimed at beginners and veterans alike, and it’s ultimately half of what I want this whole website/blog thingy to be all about; the other majority will be “How to Be A Better Player.” Stay tuned for that post… It may be next! The reason I chose this particular topic is that the worry/concern of being a bad Dungeon Master (DM) is what made me wait so long before I started. Now, years later and with many satisfied players, I wish I hadn’t waited so long.
I will always be speaking from the perspective of a Fifth Edition (5E) Dungeons and Dragons DM, but these principles, tips, and whatever-else-they-may-bes can and DO apply to other people in this role – often referred to as Game Masters (GM) in other TTRPGs. Consider the two titles interchangeable for the sake of simplicity.
So let’s dive right in!!!
Have A Session 0
Many of the techniques that follow rely on this – the “zero session.” This is the time to sit down and talk with your friends, or even the strangers you just met on Reddit, or at the local hobby shop. This is a fantastic opportunity to hammer out a lot of details and drop hints about what’s to come. Here, you can lay out the expectations regarding behavior and attendance/schedule.
For example, in my Storm king;s Thunder campaign, I always recommend to players that someone in the party should be able to speak Giant and/or Draconic because that campaign deals heavily with giants and sometimes dragons. Furthermore, this is where the players and their characters begin to mesh. They can discuss backstories and intertwine them with one another.
Fundamentally though, it’s the foundation of a good game. This is where you talk with your players about what the kind of game you want to run and listen to them about the kind of game they want to be in. For example, if your players want or expect some type of nautical, ship-based pirate game, then you can delve deeper into that venue as well as establishing boundaries (this is a point I’m about to elaborate on). If you end up have problems with the campaign or players down the line during a campaign, look back and wonder if this is something you could have addressed during the zero session.
Other good things to discuss are character creation rules and limitations, house rules/variants in use, and The Social Contract (which I’ll discuss further down). You (or even other players) can also take this opportunity to help newcomers to the hobby that have no idea what they are doing build their characters and explore creation options. Again, this is a good opportunity to get the party meshing before game play happens – which means better role play and less awkward moments, ideally.
Set Boundaries For Your Game – The Social Contract
The social contract serves as a regulatory device. Any player that violates the “agreed upon norms” can be reminded of the initial commitments outlined therein.
Most of my DMing is done online via Discord and a Virtual Tabletop – Fantasy Grounds. When people come to me and join my server, they can’t make any progress or see anything until they read my “read me” and agree to the social contract. Within the contract is a “safe word” that they must tell me in order to prove they read it. You’re welcome to put what you want here, but I include some ground rules based on the type of game I want to play and the community I’m trying to foster. My social contract is as follows and you should feel free to just copy and paste it if you like.
I run a light game. What this means is there’s no dark fantasy, excessive torture, or other “edgy” and taboo themes, etc. D&D has room for these things to be added, but not here, not with us.
If at ANY POINT AT ANY TIME there is conversation going that is offensive or makes anyone feel uncomfortable, our safe word is: SUBMARINE
We stop, and move forward tangentially – no explanation needed.
I use a word that’s near and dear to my heart because I served on submarines during my time in the Navy, and it’s a word that usually won’t be mentioned during sessions. Another common method I’ve seen is just have people use an “x” card or something if you’re doing this at the table instead of online. In the years that I’ve employed this, I’ve only ever had two people actually use utilize it. I was playing an NPC that made someone uncomfortable. We spoke afterwards and that person and I were able to address their concerns privately. I adjusted my methods from there on out and we’ve not had any more problems.
You have no way of knowing what’s going to trigger, offend, or in some other way bother someone – and many people are grateful and are more comfortable at the table knowing that they can easily let you know that it’s time to move on past a topic.
Know Your Players
This is easier over the table (OTT) or in real life (IRL) than it is online. It also becomes less laborious the longer you and the group remain together. I try to attract new players to the hobby as often as I can because I love to teach and I know that the DM-to-player-ratio is atrocious. Because of that, I often don’t know my players at all and they are also strangers to one another. This hearkens back to the importance of a zero-session, but I don’t want to beat a dead horse so I’ll move on.
Read the room! This was almost the title of this post, but I intend to make a separate entry based on that. This is a group-based story-telling experience. If you want to learn how to be a good dungeon master and make memorable sessions, you need players and you need those players to work together and alongside you. Similar to other group activities, games, sports, or apples: it only takes one to spoil the bunch.
Not every DM is for every player. Not ever player is for ever DM. And not every group will work well together. Don’t be afraid to prune the weeds out. There are plenty of players to choose from; and if not, don’t create bad memories or ruin friendships by putting yourself or others in situations that lead to uncomfortable situations.
Once you find a group with great synergy, you’re going to have sessions that fly by and memories that last a lifetime.
Know The Game
This isn’t as vital as the points above, but it definitely helps to move things along. In a rules-heavy game, such as Dungeons & Dragons, it really is a boon to know what you’re doing. If you come to a point where you nor your players know what to do, DO NOT let it inhibit the flow of the game. Make a ruling and move on. It’s your job as the Dungeon Master to be the enforcer and arbiter of whatever “rules” you find are necessary. I use quotes around “rules” because they really are more like guidelines, just as the Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master Guide says in the opening pages. Gary Gygax said it best: “The secret we should never let the game masters know is that they don’t need any rules.”
I’m sure I seem to contradict myself here, especially with that last sentence. However, if you aren’t passionate or knowledgeable about the rules or the campaign setting, then why should your players be. You need boundaries and guidelines and rules in order to keep things in order. Story time! When I introduce new players into my campaigns, I always tell them that I am the arbiter of the rules and the facilitator of fun. If they want to be that swashbuckling rogue that somersaults over an enemy to dash and grab onto a rope with one hand while simultaneously slashing the knot so that the attached chandelier comes crashing down on your enemies…. You can do that! It’s nowhere in the rules, but because I’m familiar with the guidelines, I can make a ruling and move forward.
Conversely, I once had a player fall into a 30-foot deep pit. He said “I want to fart so hard that I fly out of the pit and land on the gnoll!” I told him no. It just didn’t make sense in my game. He argued and said “well there’s spells and stuff!” To which I responded “Then what spell would you like to cast?” While that might have been fun, it didn’t make sense to me within my game world. I knew my game, I knew my rules and guidelines. I made a ruling and we moved on.
More To Come!
This really is the tip of the iceberg regarding all I have to say from my experience at the table. I will be adding to this, editing it, and making more elaborate and amazing posts in the weeks to come. I hope that I’ve at least started you down the path of getting you started and provided a little insight of what goes on “behind the screen.” PLEASE feel free to comment below what you liked, what you disliked, and mention what you’d like to hear more about.
Signing off with finger guns! *pew pew*