A Dungeon Master’s Guide to Good Gaming
How to be a great DM
Dungeons & Dragons has made one heck of a comeback into mainstream popularity. When I was growing up, people were afraid of this game, as the media had linked it to devil worship cults and given it a sinister reputation associated with murder and ritual sacrifice. Playing D&D during that time felt like an act of rebellion, something for outsiders and losers to unite behind and not feel so cast away from the social circles of conformity. Due to the misconceptions plaguing the game, and its complex rule system, it also was a way for people of a certain intellect to feel better about themselves, to build some confidence and self-esteem knowing they were playing a game most people either couldn’t understand, or refused to understand.
Then came the age of nostalgia. Now anything and everything that was culturally relevant to the 80’s is suddenly hip and cool. The explosive popularity of shows like Stranger Things on Netflix, in which Dungeons and Dragons played an integral part of the story, certainly helped to create the wave that pushed D&D back into the forefront of pop culture. Furthering this push, was the increased popularity of podcasts and live streaming shows, some of which smartly chose to ride the wave and began broadcasting D&D campaigns. A few of these gained extraordinary prominence, such as Critical Role, Adventure Zone, and Dimension 20. The burgeoning culture of nerd conventions, cosplay, and gaming, have all created a sort of perfect storm of populism, ripe for D&D’s niche audience to pluck from the endless trees of online media.
So, with everyone playing Dungeons and Dragons again, the question arises, what makes a good gaming experience? What separates a good Dungeon Master from a bad one? I’ve played this game since I was a teenager, under the guidance of many different DM’s, and I’ve even run quite a few campaigns myself. In my experience, this is what helps make a game fun and engaging:
Tell a Good Story
A good Dungeon Master has a good story to tell. A DM is typically someone with an overactive imagination, and should probably be either a writer, or someone who reads a lot. When plotting a D&D campaign, its important to know where the story is supposed to go before you let your characters start roaming around in your universe and breaking things. You can do this any number of ways.
If you are just starting out, you can base your campaign off any of the multitudes of pre-made adventures that are already built for you. This keeps you in the groove of a plot, and helps you drive the action from point A to point B, without going astray on too many tangents. Remember, a D&D campaign is essentially a “choose your own adventure” story that you are narrating.
The more adventurous and experienced players, or the more creative, can choose to build their own stories. Doing this requires quite a but more work, but also can be more rewarding for it. Firstly, have your players flesh out the back stories of the characters they are going to play. Then, build an outline of your story that incorporates these characters into the plot. Just like writing a good book, it’s important to know how it begins and ends, and depending on your level of world building, it can be either as complex or as straight-forward as you need it to be.
I cannot stress the importance of knowing your destination before you begin, however. If you start a game thinking that your players are going to develop the story themselves through their character actions, you are going to end up with a convoluted mess, and have lagging moments in game time where the players don’t know what to do next and just argue or babble on for long stretches of monotony. Or, you may end up like the creators of LOST, with so many story threads going at once you have no idea how to neatly wrap up everything in a satisfying way to your players.
Have Good Characters
A story is often only as good as its characters. Therefore, a good DM will make sure his/her players are coming to the table with characters that are really fleshed out and have intriguing histories to work with. You should also try to have your players really embody their characters’ personalities while they play the game, for a more immersive roleplaying experience.
To help with keeping your players in character, it should come as no surprise that the NPC’s (non-player characters), or the characters in the game that are controlled by the DM, also have to be fully realized and interesting. The DM should have the players encountering characters in the game that are as fun and unique as the player characters themselves, and the DM should find different personalities and voices for these characters to use while interacting at the table, again for a more fun and engaging gaming experience.
Having great characters also makes the game more memorable, and prevents moments from blurring together in the players’ memories in between gaming sessions. This happens to be integral to engagement in games that often go weeks in between sessions.
Keep the Action Engaging
A good story teller knows how to keep his audience engaged. This goes beyond the dynamics of having a solid plot outline. This means, aside from being able to get your players from point A to point B, you know how to do it with STYLE. A good story teller should also be a good narrator, capable of painting the scene that immerses his players in the moment.
It comes down to details and the art of description. Don’t simply settle for telling your players what is happening or the results of their actions. NARRATE their actions. Encourage the players to also narrate their own actions. And do this along with always, always, always, describing the scene within which the actions are taking place. Engage the five senses. Sure, the visual of what players are seeing is important, but the other senses, smell, taste, touch, these make the story more visceral. Think of it as a movie that happens in real time in the imaginations of the people at the table. Your job as a DM is to make it as easy as possible for your players to slip into the world of their imagination that you have made for them.
Engagement also means time management. Do not settle for lulls in story within which the players seemingly struggle to decide what to do next. Provide them with choices and keep the story moving. If they are struggling finding the clues you need them to find, don’t be afraid to drop hints, to have them roll checks to see if they are smart enough to figure it out in game, to have something happen that points to the clue, etc. The worst thing that can happen is to have your players getting bored with the game.
The Rule of Cool
Rules are rules, but rules are meant to be broken. Dungeons and Dragons as a system of gaming has an extensive and strictly built platform of rules that the players are meant to work within. This helps keep the game fair. However, a good Dungeon Master isn’t afraid to allow rules to be bent or broken when he/she sees an opportunity for something cool to happen, usually brought upon by the actions of a player.
What I am saying here, is this game is a game of imagination. As such, players are bound to come up with ideas that challenge the limits of the rulebook. There are going to be unpredictable and chaotic events that require a certain level of adaptability and elasticity to the rules. A good DM knows when to allow his/her players to try for something they didn’t see coming, in the hopes that it produces fun or interesting results. These moments can always add some flavor to the story being told, or provide that unexpected twist, that oh shit moment everyone will be talking about until the next session. This is part of what makes this game so fun.
Fair is Fair
While a good DM will often allow their players to bend the rules for a cool moment in-game, the same is not to be found from the other side of the table. The DM should always follow the rules and be as fair as possible to their players. They should never put players in positions that are unwinnable or within which there is no way out, unless it is a pivotal plot point in the story being told. The players should not be unfairly matched to creatures way out of their league or put in scenarios that will result in all their deaths because what would be the fun in killing everyone off before the story has reached its end? Remember the first point I made? TELL A GOOD STORY.
A DM should be the director of the movie. Yes, the characters have a certain level of freedom within this universe, but remember who the God is that is in ultimate control of the action. A DM is not called the Master for nothing. It is the DM’s job to predict the possible outcomes of any scenario the characters are placed in, and there should always be a way out. Always. If the characters are struggling to find it, again, don’t be afraid to push them in the right direction, or if all else fails, have a backup plan to get them out, a deus ex machina if you will.
At the end of the day, the goal of Dungeons and Dragons is to have fun. Many people take this game seriously, but ultimately, it is just a game. If you remember the points I made here, your players will have a good time, and you will have provided them with an experience they will remember for years to come. Now, get out there and build your adventure.