Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 29, 2018
What does a DM need to know?

I recently offered a young player of D&D who was interested in becoming a Dungeon Master to give him some pointers on how to be a good DM. But while I have been a DM for nearly 4 decades now, it isn't actually all that easy to describe what makes a good DM. In some ways it is more an art than a science. And where it is a science, it is a badly documented one.

The basic role of a DM is easily described: He sets the scene, asks the players what they do, and then reacts to their answer by telling them the consequences of their actions, thus setting the next scene. Rinse, lather, repeat. What makes the description of a good DM so complicated is that different people are good DMs in very different ways. You ask a player what he specifically liked with a DM, and realize that whatever that was, it was probably something optional. For example when I ask for feedback from various players in different groups of mine, I frequently get told that they appreciate my preparation of visual playing aids: Battlemaps, 3D printed miniatures, handouts. But you can play with another good DM who doesn't use any of those! Another DM might be appreciated for his creation of fantastic worlds, but you can play great games without those as well. Some DMs are great play-actors doing accents and voices for NPCs, but you don't need that either. So what is the stuff that is actually essential?

Dungeons & Dragons, and any other pen & paper role-playing game, inherently always exists on two different levels: Horgar the barbarian swings his battleaxe and with a satisfying crunch decapitates the evil wizard. John the player of Horgar declares that he wants to attack the evil wizard and rolls a 20 on his attack. Horgar and John need each other. Without John, Horgar doesn't exist. Without Horgar, John isn't playing D&D. I believe that an awareness of those two levels, and a constant effort to keep the two levels in balance with each other, might well be the most important part of a DM's job. Concentrate too much on the story, and the players get bored because they don't get to roll dice any more. Concentrate too much on the dice, and you end up playing a board game.

Corollary to that is the need for balance between DM actions and player actions. D&D is a game of interactive story-telling. Take the interaction away, and it becomes a lot less interesting. No DM's hour-long monologue beats Netflix in entertainment value. But letting the players role-play alone without feedback on the consequences from the DM only leads to people becoming lost and confused. Players need "agency", the ability to influence the story and the outcome of situations. But that agency only makes sense in the context of there being a story and a situation to overcome. The DM needs to make sure that he tells the players enough for them to understand what is going on, so they can act, but also to leave enough room for different choices and original ideas from the players.

That gets us to another important point: The "never say no" rule. It isn't an absolute rule, because it applies only to constructive input from the players. But the idea is that as long as the player proposes something constructive, the DM should accept the proposal and try to work with it. You can still judge that the idea is very unlikely to work, and require the player to succeed in a very difficult roll. But that is still far better than letting the players propose lots of things and always saying no until by chance they come upon the one solution you previously decided was the good one. Saying yes can change the whole campaign to something you hadn't imagined, but that is the beauty of it. The goal is not to have the story proceed on predetermined rails, but to have everyone at the table contribute to the story and together create something greater than one man's story. In my Zeitgeist campaign the players were a group of policemen working for the king; but it was up to the players whether they wanted to play those policemen as the Keystone Cops or the Gestapo or something in between.

While these rules certainly don't cover everything a DM needs to do or needs to be, I do think that they are among the most important for success. What other advice would you give a new DM to help him become a good DM?


I've written a few computer games myself, and that is sort of like being a DM. But of course in a real PnP game it must be a more participative activity. In a computer game everything is planned in advancw, and players must make what they can of it.
Dm'ing for 26 years i have been told by most of my players through the years that my NPCs are awesome in colours, depth, interaction, ... I've had maybe 2-3 players leaving my table because they didnt like my (our) style of play so i guess i'm an ok dm :)

New DM advices :

I helped a few groups of friends discover the joy of rpg (mostly dnd), mostly young adults or teenagers and i always ran then through some easy adventure with pregen characters. Once they all grasped the basic of playing a character and the rules in general, i asked if someone was interested in being the DM for the next few games.

I then gave them the adventure module so they could read it and i show them what i did for preparation and how i did it. I usually take the character the new DM had and play the next few hours/games with them helping with rulings and general advices.

When i leave the group, they are usually pretty happy and can always communicate with me via messenger or email if they are stuck with something.

If i remember it right, i did that at least 4 times in the last 20 years. Every group still play rpg today.

Its all about storytelling and interactions with people. What other skills the DM has can only improve his game.

Listening to your players is the greatest advice i ever gave.
Following on from the last line of Jean-Fran├žois' comment, my first consideration when preparing a session is making sure every player will have at least one chance to shine. That is often a chance for the player character to use one of their key skills, but it could also be something that the player is looking for in their gaming.

For that, it's important to know what each of the players want. Sometimes it's obvious, but often you need to to play a few sessions together or even have a one-on-one chat to make sure you know what makes the game fun for them.

Some examples:
wants their character to progress in power - more levels, better gear
wants to play a unique (probably unoptimized) character who does unpredictable things
has a detailed backstory and wants to feel their character is part of the world
wants to make the other players (or, even better, the DM) laugh
wants to get the party into trouble to see what happens
wants to make plans and maybe be in charge of the party

Every player is unique and their preferences will change over time, and possibly when playing different games/genres. Remaining aware of these differences and changes has helped with my DMing over the last 32 years.
Frankly, finding someone who wants to DM is like stumbling upon a freakin unicorn. He is already ahead of the curve, but I'd also give him just a few pointers:

1. Before the campaign, do a small 'origins' session with your players, where they start as level 0 and get to advance to 'adventurer' status. This will help the players find out what they want to play, and it will flesh out the 'roleplay' aspect making it easier for both players and the DM to understand how each character ticks. Down the line, this will allow for easier back and forth between the DM and the party. For this to work the players need to have some sort of idea on what they want to do (elf, some sort of archer, criminal affiliations perhaps?) and then you do a little back and forth where you RP what is essentially the character creation process.

2. If you cannot remember all the rules (as can be the case with new DMs), don't let that bog you down. If the alternative is going through the books for 20 minutes to get a small detail, just wing it using it common sense. I generally skim a lot of rules that involve insignificant (to me) details, like weight capacity, gold costs of items etc.

3. Have a backup plan for when shit hits the fan. Generally DMs do not want to kill off party members, but this can also be a big downside if the players realise that they are safe in 99% of the cases. As a DM you need to know when to go by the book and when to bend the rules a little bit, so that it's always a compelling and engaging setting. Is your "final boss" getting whooped hard by the party (maybe due to a series of lucky crits), making the climax of the adventure a forgettable one? Have a backup plan to spice things up. Are they getting stomped on? Introduce a new element that they can take advantage of if they try (i.e. terrain, environmental hazards etc.)

4. As a follow up to 3, try to award players doing 'cool shit'. Swinging by the chandelier is generally not something that should give a player combat advantages, but by bending the rules a bit and allowing the rogue to do acrobatics, the archer to do trick shots, the warrior to use furniture as weapons, these are the things players will usually remember fondly even years later. Don't let them do wild shit all the time, as the stunts will then lose their flavor, but if they want to RP their way out of something, be open about it.
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