Ten tips for Dungeon Masters of any level

Tim Murphy
July 22, 2020
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Running a game of Dungeons & Dragons is the best fun you can have with your friends in quarantine! There are plenty of online tool sets you and your crew can use to launch a game and start adventuring together, or with just a little extra imagination you could do it over a conference call. But, every game needs a dungeon master! It can be exhausting to plan that much content for a game night with your friends but the hardest part of any game is getting it off the ground. 

These are ten tips that I wish I knew when I started running D&D sessions years ago, advice that any new dungeon master should hear. I’ve got five tips for game planning and five tips for running the session that should help you stop stressing. I recommend reading this article with a pen and paper because I hope to inspire you with ideas that you can use to launch your own game. Let’s dive into the DM Tips:

Prepare Games of Different Sizes:

There’s going to be game nights where not everyone can make it or someone is going to be several hours late and it just wouldn’t be worth it to jump back into your story for a half hour. For nights like these it’s good to have a few different sizes of sessions prepared. Of course you want to have the next session in your current adventure ready, but it can also be a great boon to have a couple extra quick adventures sitting in a folder off to the side. If you only have two players, you could have them escort a small caravan to the next trade town, maybe the caravan is attacked by goons of the arch nemesis and now the attending players have intel to share with the players that couldn’t make it. Sessions with absent players can also be a great time to work on a character backstory mission. When there are less players at the table you can focus more on each character and talk about their own individual arcs. Be careful however, preparing extra sessions can lead you down a rabbit hole of preparing for every “What-if?” scenario. Your extra sessions don’t need to be anything bigger than an arena combat or a simple retrieval quest. I really like to include in these quick sessions a tie-in to the larger plot so that the players that did attend can tell the missing players not only what they didn’t get to see and fight, but also how it lends to the larger adventure. We all like to imagine that our playgroup is going to be the punctual one but few people are that lucky. If it comes down to scrapping the game night or playing without some friends, you should be prepared to play without some friends. 

Have a Couple of Random Encounters Ready:

Similar to the above tip, sometimes everyone can attend but they finish the adventure early and now are on their way back to town and it’s only 6:00pm. Sure, you could end the session there and break out the card games, but you never know who you’re going to run into on the dark roads back to town. Tired adventurers weighed down by treasure are easy-pickings for bandits along the side of the road. Bandits attacking, a caravan broken down on the side of the road, a person screaming for help in the distance, these are the siren’s songs that pull adventurers in. These kinds of easy to run encounters can also be good if your players don’t want to continue the main plot or if they have subverted it in some way. You can keep them entertained with the bandit's kidnapping the blacksmith’s daughter while you think about what the dragon at the top of the mountain is doing to prepare. Keep a few adjustable encounters in your folder ready to break out whenever your players surprise you and you need more time. If you can, try to connect these mini-encounters into a subplot. Are the bandit’s that rob your players on the side of the road wearing the same bandanas that the ruffians that kidnapped the blacksmith’s daughter wore? Did the dragon hire them to bring back treasure or are they a separate enemy entirely? These adjustable, adaptable, and seemingly random encounters get a new breath of life when your players find that they are connected and part of a larger plot. 

Start Worldbuilding on a Small Scale:

I promise, your players are not going to ask what the street names are and if they do you can just make it up. I’ve seen plenty of new dungeon masters get bogged down building a city before they know what adventure they want to run in it. This is a very common mistake for new DM’s. Worldbuilding can be its own separate, and incredibly large, hobby. Crafting worlds and towns can be a lot of fun for a DM but it is less important than actually preparing and running the session. You only need a small village to start your game and you can let it grow organically from there. It can be too easy to stress out and over prepare only to find that your players never asked the Tavernkeep’s part-time busboy what his middle name is! All you need to start is 2-5 NPC's, a single shop, an enemy, and a quest. Everything else is extra. The shopkeep only needs to have the items for sale that are listed in the Player’s Handbook (page 143-154) The NPC’s should be diverse but they don’t need to be very deep. Give them a couple of personality traits each and practice acting as them in front of the mirror. You don’t need to be a great actor, you can even be really silly and cheesy with it. As long as your players can tell the characters apart and are smiling you’ve done more than enough. If you are playing in a larger city and you aren’t sure how much detail to add then ask your players what kind of shops or places in town they will want to go to. Eventually you will need to make something up on the spot so only prepare the things you know you’re going to need and be ready to improvise the rest. 

Know When to Scrap or Save:

A good dungeon master has to know when things are going well and when it’s time to try something new. This means listening to your players, knowing which parts they are having fun with and which they aren’t.  Maybe your characters didn’t like the personality of their patron so they’re looking for a new quest giver. You can throw out everything you know about their old patron, or you could keep those notes and make him the next big villain. There is a lot of behind the scenes work that the players will never see: battlemaps, bugbear camps, secret plots. But just because your players didn't see it doesnt mean it needs to go. You can hold on to those ideas and develop them in secret. If your players didn’t take the quest to clear out the bugbear camp then maybe a competing adventuring group took the job and are now gaining fame. Or maybe the bugbear camp continued to grow and now threatens to invade the town. On the other hand, you have to listen to your players and know when something isn’t working. If you give your players a mission to retrieve seven sacred spell scrolls and the barbarian is getting bored then consider putting the seventh wizard tower away for later and put the last scroll on the top of a snowy mountain guarded by plenty of squishy enemies for the barbarian to fight. Not every encounter will be especially engaging for every player but as dungeon masters it is our job to monitor the game and edit the upcoming sessions to take out things that our players didn’t find fun, and to highlight the things everyone enjoyed.  

Be Emotionally Honest with Your Friends:

For a lot of players this can be the hardest part. In order for every player to enjoy the campaign you all have to be at similar levels of commitment to the game and the way that you ensure that is by talking before or after every session about what happened in the game, what your players want to happen next week,  and what their expectations are for the campaign. There are horror stories everywhere of terrible game nights that ended with the group breaking up because they all wanted something else from the game and didn't properly communicate. 

As the dungeon master it is your job to facilitate these conversations. It is more than just asking your players if they had fun; they will always say yes. You should ask your players direct and specific questions about the game. Ask things such as: “Hey Mike, I really liked that long-range javelin throw at the gladiator, did you have fun with that part?” or “Team, I know that last session was a lot of combat and not as much story, did you enjoy that level of combat or would you like to tone it down?” 

This can even become a larger conversation about the themes and tones that the game can have and which ones they want to explore. Do they want to try the gothic horror of Curse of Strahd? Or the grimdark combat of Tomb of Annihilation? There are an infinite number of different ways to play Dungeons & Dragons and every playgroup is going to have different interests. It is your job to tailor the gameplay to you and your group’s idea of fun. If someone isn’t having fun then ask them privately why and make sure that they feel heard. If one player is hogging all the action then ask them to please leave room for the other players to be heroes also.  You are the arbitrator in these situations and it can be an awkward role to fill. But as long as in the end everyone is having fun around the table together then you have done your job.

Supply Your Players with the Tools They Need:

Most settings within your game will be fleshed out more by players’ questions than by your initial description, try to answer these questions in a fulfilling way that gives your players something to move forward with. You may give the players a lavishly detailed mental image of the shop they are in but the plot can’t move forward until they ask a question based on the description and you answer it. “Are there arrows for sale here?”, “Do they have enough rope for sale here that we could repair the bridge over the chasm?”. How you answer questions like these will determine how the game proceeds. You can give a simple yes or no answer and leave it to your players to put the pieces together, that is a perfectly acceptable way to run a game that many players prefer, but for newer players it is better to give an extra tidbit of information for every question that your players ask, you want them to feel like it was a smart question to have asked. You can say things such as: “yes there are arrows for sale here however there are only twenty as some men in green cloaks came in yesterday and bought all the rest” or “There is enough rope to repair the bridge here and the shopkeep recommends that you buy spikes and a hammer also if you minted to repair the bridge.” By answering questions in this way you make the world feel more alive and connected, you bring the players deeper into their imagination and you give them extra information with which to combat the quest at hand. 

Set the Pace of the Game and the Movement of Time:

As the Dungeon Master it is your job to control the pace of the game and the movement of time within your world, the time needs to flow fast enough that the players have a chance of accomplishing their task within the hours you have for your game night, but not so fast that the players feel rushed. This comes up most often when the players are trying to get to the quest location from the quest giver. The players may say that they want to leave town and make way to the fiery portal but they can not get there until you either say that they have arrived or that they were interrupted in their journey. You want everyone at the table to be on the same page about where the characters are in fantasy space/time. Tell them when they are leaving town and give a description of travel so they have a clear beginning, middle, and end to their path. You should start your sessions by describing where the players are and what time of day it is. Did they pick up at the exact moment where you ended the last session or have a few days passed? Did they just wake up to a bird calling the start of the new day or are they already around the table meeting to decide their next course of action? After you describe where they are you should give them a hint or two on places they can go. If they are still working on the quest from the last session then now is the best time to summarize what they already know about the mission and where they left off last time. If they are looking for a new quest then you should include in your opening description some local places they might find work. Don’t be afraid to give occasional reminders of the passing time to your players, they should know when they leave the dungeon whether the sun will be up or not. By keeping track of time for your players and pacing the movement of the party you make the game feel like it takes place as a real living world. 

Be Relaxed and Imaginative during Gameplay:

As much as there is to keep track of, it will be much easier if you let yourself relax and enjoy the game as much as your players. If you let yourself be stressed during the game then you will never be having as much fun as you could. Your players will be relying on you throughout the game to provide details of settings and characters to them. You will never be able to imagine and prepare everything they might ask so you have to play the game in a mood to do some improv. I have found a lot of success in playing the game with my eyes closed at any time that I don’t need to be checking my notes. This allows me to keep myself in the mental image I have of the setting so that I can quickly answer my players questions. They may ask what color the ogre’s loincloth is, something you likely didn’t prepare in your pre-game notes. You don’t want your players to know every time which details you made up on the spot and which you prepared. By leaving yourself relaxed and open to imagination you can answer questions like these without the awful “ughhhh well uhmmm…” that clues in the players that the color of the ogre’s loincloth never actually mattered. Keep a glass of water next to you while you play and anytime your players ask something that you didn’t already have an answer to just close your eyes, take a breath, take a drink, and then respond. They’ll be built up in anticipation, you’ll have extra time to think without them knowing that you’re improvising, and you’ll stay hydrated! 

Know When to Take a Break:

Taking a break in your sessions can be a great benefit to your players and to the game itself. After hours of town politics and wilderness travel your players may want a break before going into the dragon’s den. Large combat encounters can take several hours of intense gameplay and it’s best to leave the most intense part of the game until after the break. If you are running a shorter session you may not feel the need to take a break but I recommend taking at least a fifteen minute break if your game is going to go on longer than four hours. As the dungeon master it is your responsibility to call a break and to decide how long it will be. This is the best time for your players to use the bathroom, get snacks, and step out of the costumes of their characters, as well as for you to get rid of notes you don’t need any more and to prepare for whatever is going to happen after the break. If your players know that there will be a break then they won’t be getting up from the table as much during gameplay and they will be more invested in the story you are all telling together. You should tell your players before the game begins if you intend for there to be a break and ask them to get any water or snacks or pencils that they may need before the game begins so that you can maintain the flow of the game with full player attention until the break. 

Switch Dungeon Masters to Prevent Burnout:

Every dungeon master will get tired eventually and want to be a player instead of a DM. Don’t make yourself feel guilty if you are starting to get burnt out. It is good to have multiple players in the group that can DM so you can switch when one gets tired. You can do this in between campaigns or you could ask one of the other players to DM for just a single session so that you can take a break or have extra time to prepare for the next part of your campaign. It is important to bring this up to your players before you get too tired because the next DM will need time to learn how to run a game and to prepare their session. Share with them everything you’ve learned, send them this guide, and take a breath and enjoy being a player for a session or two before going back behind the DM screen.