By Goblin Gaming on March 25th, 2021 ~ 12 minutes Read
Being a DM is one of the best parts about playing Dungeons & Dragons, in my opinion. When someone comes to me and asks “What do I need to do to be a great Dungeon Master?”, I always fall back on a tried and tested model – the 6 Ps. These are some quick Dungeon Master tips and tools you can use to make sure that you are covering all of the bases as a DM. These are presented in no particular order but are things that you will want to consider when preparing to be a great DM. So, read on for our ultimate Dungeons and Dragons DM guide.
We all know that being a good DM involves preparation. The old adage “If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail” is never more true in my experience. Preparing a session (for either a campaign or a one-shot) is vital. When preparing for your role as DM, you need to think about:
- Your story arc – make sure you have the overall narrative of your session down. You need to know what the drive is for your adventure after all.
- Your story beats – these are the parts of your adventure. Do you know where your characters need to go and what they are going to do while they are there?
- Your players – have you reviewed their sheets, are they correct? Can you spot the curve balls that players are amazing at throwing DMs?
- Your encounters – are they balanced? Do they make sense? And are they enjoyable?
This links in quite heavily with players too. Spend some time getting to know your players (the people and the characters!) and you will find you can build a rapport before a single d20 even hits the table. This will help with pacing and will let you hit the ground role-playing come D&D game day as everyone will have (hopefully) been chatting long before the game starts.
Don’t forget as well that if you are using a VTT (Virtual Tabletop), you need to make sure that your players have tokens and know how to use the VTT platform too. This links into the presentation, which we’ll delve into in more detail later.
Pacing is so important and, in my experience, this is where a lot of DMs go wrong. Pacing is all about driving the adventure forward. We have all been there where a conversation with a minor NPC (non-player character) gets out of control and takes a lot longer than it should. Or where combat is over too quickly because the monsters are too underpowered. That isn’t to say that combat or encounters can’t be short or long (see “Purpose”), but rather that this shouldn’t happen by accident.
A top tip for being a good DM is to be careful that you don’t end up railroading your players. Striking the balance between proper pacing and railroading is a tricky one to get right – especially in a one-shot where time is limited and you don’t have the luxury of a follow-up session. This falls back on preparation, you need to make sure you know where you want your party to be in relation to the planned story beats so that you know if your pacing is on track or not.
To be a good DM, you need to keep a check on pacing throughout the game. This is important as, if you don’t, your game is likely to end early or, more likely, run over which can put pressure on you to rush your final encounter, ruining the climax of your session. You need to build some flexibility into your game when you are preparing to allow you to slow your game down, or to speed encounters up. Most likely you will need to push the narrative on to allow your party to hit the story beats, in those cases tools like monsters fleeing at low HP, or surrendering to the party can be good ways to bring a combat encounter to a conclusion.
Players are essential to your D&D adventure. Without them, you have no game! You need to take the time to review their character sheets and look for anything wrong (for example miscalculated ability score modifiers), or for those curve balls that players can throw you. Some combinations will blow your encounter balances out of the water if you solely rely on Level vs CR. As a DM, it’s your job to make sure you understand what the players can do, what their class abilities are, and have some awareness of their spells, too. You don’t need to remember them all, but your players are likely to try to use something in a way you have never thought of so knowing how it works will only benefit you. Plus, if there’s a rules query it puts you in a good position to make a fair and considered call.
Another consideration with players is making sure that the whole group is engaged. This is much easier when playing face to face as it is easy to see a player becoming disengaged. But to be a good DM, you should be monitoring player involvement. Have ways of bringing players back to the game, even if it is through something like a minor perception check to give them a hint of what’s going on, or having an NPC address them directly. One of my favourite things to do is to directly ask the player “Chris, what do you do?” and seeing what they say. This not only encourages action, but it will also allow you to see what information they have retained so you can reiterate any details that you feel are needed.
One of my best DM tips is to remember that players are key and should be at the forefront of everything you think about. When a player takes the time to send you a masterfully crafted backstory, you should return to your preparation and tie that player into your story. Hook them in and make them part of the narrative. You will get better engagement from the players, they will enjoy the game more and they will come back time and time again.
Lastly, you need to make sure that you engage with your players from the off. Your job as a Dungeon Master doesn’t start at the gaming table, it starts well before then. As part of your planning you want to have your players’ characters to hand as this will allow you to write them into the story (as above). This means you need to communicate with the group from the off. They need to know some key information like the starting level, how to generate starting stats and what content you are allowing. You might even decide to feed them a story hook before the game just to help with pacing if you know it’s a full-on adventure.
Presentation needs to be thought about, and I don’t just mean of the game, but you as the Dungeon Master.
When you look at your game presentation, think about your use of maps and miniatures. If you’re playing online, are you making the best use of all the tools of your Virtual Tabletop? VTTs like Roll20, Fantasy Grounds and Foundry all have great features which can add to your game, but which can also make it very complicated if your players aren’t very tech-savvy. Again, this links back to the players and chatting to them pre-game.
Even when we think about running a game in a “theatre of the mind” setting, presentation is really important – perhaps even more so. The descriptions that you give and the images which you paint equal your presentation. Pre-writing these descriptions rather than trying to “ad hoc” them means you won’t miss important details. This all falls back into preparation, making sure that you have everything you need sorted and in place. As part of the preparation, make sure you practice reading these descriptions aloud so that it sounds natural and not like you’re reading a book to a group of school children.
When we look at how you present yourself there are some important things to consider. Have you ever considered where you play? Are there other distractions for you or your players? This is especially relevant when you play online. Background noise can really detract from your game so making sure you remove these distractions will improve the overall presentation. Sticking with the online theme, do you put yourself on camera for your players to see? What about if all of your players are on camera but you are not?
There is one last thing to mention with presentation, and it’s a biggy! Thanks to a certain popular YouTube channel that plays D&D with a group of voice actors, putting on voices has become something that some players have come to expect. Whether you do voices or not is up to you, but it can add some character to important people. If you want an NPC or BBEG (big bad evil guy/girl) to be memorable, give them a voice as part of your preparation! Something unique and distinctive can help the presentation of that character or creature.
I’m not suggesting you create a unique voice for every person in your game because that just doesn’t work, but giving important protagonists in your narrative a unique voice is something that can improve the presentation of your game. Having said that, some people find the notion of putting on a voice intimidating. To those people I would say, push yourself. Try it. You never know you might like it! Use your normal voice but make it a touch higher or lower, nothing crazy but enough for it to be different. Once you do it as a DM, your players will for their characters and before you know it you’ll be away. Of course, if you really don’t want to then don’t. You are there to have fun too after all.
Making sure your game is purposeful is something to consider when learning how to be a better DM. It’s what will take your dungeon mastering to the next level. What’s the reason for something being in your game? Does it drive the narrative forward? Does it tie into a player’s backstory? Or is it in there purely for fun? These are all good questions to ask yourself to ensure there is purpose and meaning behind your game.
When you prepare a game, make sure you think about why you are including what you are including and what it adds to the session as a whole. Especially with a one-shot, considering the purpose of what you are including will also help with your pacing of the session too.
Some really obvious things fall under patience that links back to your players. If you have done your player preparation properly, you should know what experience levels your players have. This means that you will know who to give a bit more time to, and who might need those basic rules going back over.
The bit that a lot of DMs miss is to be patient with silence. Silence is a tool that you can and should use as a DM. Humans naturally try to fill silence with conversation and when your party dries up you should fight the urge to jump in. Let your players find their way, let players’ agency take over and let them explore the situation. They might ask more questions, that’s fine. They might take an action, that’s fine, too. Or they may even just leave – equally as fine. Don’t jump in and fill a void of silence as a DM, let your players do it and foster that player agency.
Don’t forget to have fun!
As you can see, these 6 golden rules all link together to form a solid base for a D&D DM. They are the tools that you can use to plan or review your games. If your game didn’t go as well as you would like, think about the 6 Ps and you might just find what you were missing. As well as using the 6 Ps to improve your dungeon mastering, there is one other thing to mention which you should always remember and I always remind the people I teach to DM the same thing – you are there to have fun too. Don’t neglect your own fun, make sure you are enjoying it and if you’re not, re-visit these Dungeon Master tips and find out what you’re missing.
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About the Author
Ash is the Chairman of the Charity Gaming Guild, a group dedicated to raising money for various charities through playing games of D&D online and in person. Setting games in their own world (The Allhavens), the players help to define the narrative and directly impact the story by playing smaller online games and large in-person events (when COVID allows!). Everyone is welcome to join the Guild regardless of experience level or location. Ash heads up a group of DMs who write and run all of the main adventures and helps to develop the DMing skills of this group and anyone who is part of the Guild who wants to learn. Follow the Charity Gaming Guild on Facebook or email them at email@example.com