There are many resources online for Dungeon Masters that are just starting out, but I wanted to take a conceptual look at this important role. A little navel gazing never hurt anyone.
I think most people start out as players, which makes sense. But if you’ve only ever been a player, I highly recommend that you try out sitting behind the screen.
Here are 5 Reasons Why You Should Try DMing.
Running a game of D&D is extremely rewarding. In this one function, you have the chance to take on several exciting and ever-changing roles: storyteller, narrator, actor, arbiter, and coordinator. This post discusses each of these in detail.
An heir apparent mysteriously disappears and throws the kingdom into chaos as the unruly royal family squabbles over who will take control of the realm. An ancient evil awakens in the briny depths of the sea and begins a slow but inexorable march to the elven realms in order to complete some vile rite. Crafting an epic story arch for your players to navigate is one of the most fun parts of being a Dungeon Master.
The wide world of D&D offers loads of inspiration for weaving together compelling stories and presenting your characters with unforgettable experiences. Whether you are running a published module, building up your own world from scratch, or blending the two, there are many resources out there.
Regardless of the source for your campaign, as the DM, you get to lay out great adventures, manage the overall arch, and bring your stories to their rewarding climax.
From the breathtaking beauty of the setting sun to the squish of a helmet collapsing into the brainpan of an enemy, it is your job to faithfully describe the world to your player(s) in all of its glorious and gritty detail.
Role playing games are all about creating a shared world. Your players are the source of much of the tension and drama and should be making the key decisions, but the Dungeon Master is responsible for the bulk of the description and setting the scenes and scenarios.
Speaking this world into existence is incredibly fun, but it can also be intimidating at first. There are a few key things that a Dungeon Master should keep in mind when narrating.
- Be thorough. If the party is not told that there is a riddle in Elvish written on the lintel of the magically sealed door, they are not going to have the opportunity to solve it.
- Invoke the senses. Tell the party what they see and hear. But don’t forget to also include how the acrid smoke from the sacrificial pyre smells, how the suckling pig served at the noble’s dinner tastes, or how the spray of warm blood feels.
- Roll with it. Oftentimes the most memorable moments at the table come from the players asking questions about things nearby. It is almost always preferable to take a “yes, and” approach than to stick strictly to the script.
Oftentimes, I take cues from the professionals when writing narration. Most often, to me, a game of Dungeons and Dragons plays out like a movie in my mind, and so I try to do what Hollywood does.
Getting the Shot
Think about starting with an establishing shot, setting the larger scene. Then zoom in and capture more important details. Finally add in flavor and specificity.
“The sun is just peaking over the mountains to the West causing the light to refract beautifully off the icy glacier behind. In the distance, a valley of evergreens break up the bleak white of the snow with a shock of hunter green. A long, low howl emits from somewhere in that claustrophobic forest as a light snow slowly descends from the heavens, dusting the shoulders of you and your companions as you trudge forward precariously on the icy path.”
With that narration, we have painted a mental picture, using sensory details and also projected some of the events that may happen including a skill check for navigating the path and a possible encounter with unfriendly forest beasts.
Narration is key to immersing your players in the world of your game.
The kindly old shopkeeper with a glint in his eye and a penchant for driving a bargain squawks that the price for the long sword will now be double because of the bard’s brusque tone. The vampire taunts and monologues just out of sight as the party descends the ever-darkening spiral stairs into his crypt. Dungeon Masters bring the world of fantasy to life by embodying both Non-Player Characters and Monsters.
One of the best ways to make your games better is to consider what the NPCs and Monsters in your world want and how that puts them in contact, either helpfully or harmfully, with your players. The more believable the motivations for your NPCs and Monsters, the more immersive your game.
Important Note: Although, as the DM, you are deciding the actions of the various NPCs and monsters, it quickly turns problematic to think about the in-game scenario as a Player vs. DM relationship. Even worse is the DM vs. Player scenario. As the DM, you have the powers of creation and destruction. If you say, “Rocks fall and you all die,” that’s what happens. As DM, you are god-like and it’s not fair to be out to get the mere mortals. Instead, remember that you are co-telling the story with your player(s). You’ve put a lot of work and thought into the world. They’ve put a lot of time and emotion into embodying an important, complex individual in this world. Viewing the game as collaborative instead of combative mutually respects everyone’s investment.
There is a ton to do as far as bringing NPCs and creatures to life. Think about how they would speak. What do they look like? What mannerisms do they have? What are their quirks? Motivations? And how can you communicate all of this to your players in a natural way?
As much as possible, become the NPC or Monster. Throw yourself into the role. Ham it up! If the being you are portraying is a bit outrageous, meet them there. You can do so much with your voice and gestures to throw your players believably into a scenario. They will thank you for it, and it will help encourage their RP as well.
Does the sleeping golden dragon wake up as the party’s halfling rogue tiptoes past its smoking nostrils? Will the Carpet of Flying scoop up the half-orc barbarian that is plunging to his death before or after the grappled Stone Golem delivers the coup de grace? As the chief adjudicator of rules, ultimately the Dungeon Master has final say as to how these tense moments find resolution.
Rules are one of the things that can turn people off to even trying out a tabletop rpg. However, if you understand that the rules are there to give the story weight and the decisions consequences, they become another tool for crafting a great shared story and for making sure that story has stakes.
Especially starting out, knowing what rolls to ask for or determining if a skill check of some variety is successful or ends in failure is a daunting task. The main thing here is to be consistent for the session, but make a note to figure it out for next time and communicate that you are doing so to your player(s).
With the release of 5th edition, D&D moved more towards flexibility. As a Dungeon Master, this gives you more space to go with your gut. It is critical to not allow your game to become mired in rules lawyering. Keep the action moving forward and pick up the pieces later.
Finally, though it is not one of the sexier parts of running the game, it often falls to the Dungeon Master to figure out when and where everyone can meet up to play. If you want good attendance, you should set aside a particular day and time with your players and stick with it. There are a thousand things pulling you and your players in a thousand different directions. Having an agreed-upon day and time to meet (ideally every week) lets everyone know to adjust their schedule around that commitment.
A day or two before you meet up with your players, text them a reminder and express your excitement. You could also, as the Dungeon Master, tease them about what will be happening in the upcoming session to build anticipation.
If (when) players flake out, it isn’t the end of the world. Even if you do not run a game of D&D because one or more players cannot make it, still try to do something to keep that consistency and momentum. Perhaps the players that can make it explore some of their character history in a cool flashback. Maybe the party drops off to sleep and the players that show up have a shared dream. One offs like this are great opportunities to put your players in unique situations that can reveal and depthen their characters. And if all else fails or the DM needs a break, it’s board game night!
This has been my favorite part about running a duet with Beth. We can play whenever we like and we don’t have to worry about anyone else’s schedule but our own. We typically play on Saturday evenings, but if grading papers gets in the way or we have some function to go to, it’s cool. We’ll just play the following day. Or on a weeknight (gasp!)
Being a Dungeon Master in a Duet is awesome because you get to have all the fun of running the game without a lot of the headaches that can emerge from playing with a traditional 4-6 player party. If you haven’t considered starting one yet, try it out. Here’s How to Start Playing a Duet.
We’ve also added our first playable adventure to DMsGuild so you can try out playing a duet! *We do receive a small commission from DMsGuild, at no cost to you, when you follow the link from our site to theirs and make a purchase.
Also, if you’re looking for some amazing resources for expanding your horizons as a DM, we have a list just for you in our online bookstore!
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If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting the blog by purchasing our adventures and supplements in our shop or on DMsGuild or sponsoring us on Patreon. We’d also love for you to follow us on Twitter and Instagram. We appreciate you so much! Thank you for reading. – Beth and Jonathan