Intro to Dungeon Mastering
As I feel like most of you know already, although if you somehow made it to the blog without picking up on this then kudos, but I’m a fan of playing tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. Between the book centering on a clear stand-in for the series, my podcast in which I DM a group of fellow authors doing a terrible job defending the lands, and my decades of playing in dozens of systems, it’s a topic I’m public about enjoying. The consequence of this is that sometimes I’ll get folks who are trying to break into tabletop gaming as a DM, looking for advice or for me to run a game. While I only wish I had time for the latter, the former is one I’m glad to help with. So, here are some rules and guidelines I’ve set for myself over the years to try and make games run as fun and smoothly as possible. Although, as with all things D&D, remember that what works for you is what works best, and don’t be afraid to cast my methods aside if you find one better. You’re the only real DM for your group, so giving them a good game comes first.
1. No Railroading
In some ways, I think every subject I cover on this blog will touch back on this one, because it’s at the heart of every game. You are building a world, a story, a sprawling narrative with complex characters and perfectly calibrated challenges. It’s a flawless tale with highs and lows and the players would see that if only they would do the right damn quests. Yes, since the first dice were thrown, players have been doing dumb shit that their DM never saw coming. All those carefully crafted plot threads burned to ash, along with the tavern, because one character was sure he had the necessary dexterity to juggle burning lanterns and now they’re all on the run from town guards. As the DM, it can be tempting, so very tempting, to push them in the “correct” direction. A few shoves, here and there, to get the party back on storyline track. But the thing is… you can’t.
Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t have on-ramps for them to get back on the main quest if they so choose, however that’s a far cry from forcing them on there. As the DM, you control the entire world. You are every NPC, you crafted each sunset, you brewed all of the potions the party keeps guzzling. With all that power, it’s easy to think that you control everything about the game, but there is one exception. You don’t, you can’t, control the characters. What they do, the choices they make, those have to be theirs alone. Sure, they should face consequences for doing dumb crap, but it should be consequences for that decision, not for straying off the story-path. I’ve seen a lot of games fall apart in my life, and nothing will kill a game faster than a DM doing this. Because if the DM controls the characters too, then it’s not really a game anymore. It’s just one person telling a story, using the others as props.
2. Build the Game the Players Want
Maybe you’ve got a dark, horror-themed campaign in mind. You’ll do lots of subtle, creepy stuff testing the characters’ wits and courage at every turn. You build your campaign, loose enough to allow for changes when the players go off script, then turn the players loose on character creation. Aaaaaaand they decide it would be funny to roll a party of four barbarians, led by one named Cockthresher. For anyone who has never played D&D or run with a party of straight DPS-style characters, like barbarians, let me tell you, there is nothing witty or subtle about them. That group is going to smash into and through every obstacle with all the restraint of a drunken hammer. You’ll be looking up durability for walls and doors every session if you try and trap them in puzzles, because the eventual solution will just be break everything until a wall caves.
Similar to railroading, if you try and force them to play out this campaign the way you expected, it won’t be fun for them. A group doesn’t roll a cluster of barbarians because they want to dick around with puzzles and slow-building tensions. So now, you either need to tweak the concept of your campaign to something more fitting, or resolve yourself to non-conventional solutions to the problems you’re going to set forth. And honestly, that last bit can be fun. I’ve been in a game not too far off from this example, and it was actually a great time. Instead of being all research-minded and careful, we stormed into towns and picked fights with everyone who even looked at us sideways. Eventually, some of them were villains, and we ended up kind of on the story-path because someone talked shit to us, so we decided to try and wreck his base. Yeah, we wiped after not too long because we took on a spell-caster, but that was a risk we were aware of when we made the characters. It was a fair consequence to our choices, not the DM punishing us for doing the unexpected. We wanted dumb fun, and the DM gave us room to have that, even if it was an unconventional setting.
3. Keep the Game Moving
So far, we’ve talked about existential stuff, ways to treat and react to your players through a game. This part is more practical, though. A game slows down when there’s something in question that needs to be figured out. Maybe an arrow was shot through a field of wheat, and there’s uncertainty over whether that should come with a penalty or not. Your player will have an opinion, and that might not be one that meshes with how you see things.
Don’t shut them down right away. Let them make a brief argument for their interpretation of the rules, and have them cite whatever pages are relevant. Then go check those pages and make a ruling. Once that’s done, however, make it be done. Some players will want to argue the point, and let them know they are free to do so, after game. You aren’t here just for that one person, you’re here for the whole group, and its not fair to bring everything to a grinding halt just to debate this one topic longer. In general, these sorts of pauses should be long enough for everyone to pee and get a drink, the sort of natural breaks that are going to happen anyway.
A slow game is a boring game, and a boring game is one that people don’t want to play. Whether it’s a rule-lawyer, someone taking forever to use their turn, or a player not paying attention to anything going on, the group is counting on you to keep things moving. You’re the one who has to sometimes just say “we’re moving on” even if a player thinks there’s more to discuss. Now don’t be a tyrant, and make yourself available after games to have those rule discussions or help a player better understand the systems so they can have plans when their turns arrive. But during game, recognize that everyone’s time is being spent, and try to respect that.
This wasn’t exactly a comprehensive guide of how to play NPCs or build traps, I know, but that all comes with a little research. These are lessons I learned through actually playing, and if you keep them in mind then all the smaller stuff will be easier to deal with as it comes up. Just remember, this is a game you play with friends, so treat each other that way. And never play a version of D&D with THACO. Just… just trust me on that one.