Being a Dungeon Master: 14 Hard Learned Lessons​

Do you want to know how to be a good dungeon master? There are subtleties to being a dungeon master. Typically you learn these lessons over time through failures that are unpleasant for you and your players. Why not skip all that pain and suffering? I’ve got 14 pain free lessons for you right here.

1. The mechanics aren’t actually fun.

It’s easy for the dungeon master to get bamboozled into thinking that the game system itself is fun and fulfilling. It’s not. 

Don’t give the players X-Com or Invisible Inc – the combat, stealth, and  movement systems are not actually fun enough to hold up on their own. Compelling storylines centered around the PC’s motivations are essential. 

The players are excited about their characters, and in association with that they may be excited about the idea of using the mechanics their character excels at. I’ll let you in on a little secret though, in practice the players will find the game mechanics alone often feel underwhelming and disappointing. 

The process of rolling a die and adding a modifier is the least interesting aspect of the game. What the players really want is to roleplay their character, participate in the act of collaborative storytelling, and occasionally have a feel-good moment when their character’s strength comes into play and benefits the party in some way.

2. You are not telling the story. 

You are preparing a world and contributing to a story that the players are telling. The party will usually steer the campaign better than you do, so let them. Build yourself strong main content and a bit of strong filler content, and then do everything in your power to link the players actions and desires with your best content.

How should you go about that?

3. Use freeform association to tie it all together.

Make your content flexible and use freeform association to bring your content to wherever the players choose to go.

What’s freeform association? Take a list of a elements and quickly come up with ways that they are connected to each other.

General example: Big Bird, Lamborghini, Enchanted Amulet.

General Solution: Big Bird drove his Lamborghini off a cliff and plummeted into the lake. It wasn’t all bad though because he found an enchanted amulet beneath the lake. 

Game Example: They players have shown a special interest in the cat they saw on their way into town. You need them to investigate the tower at the top of the hill, but they would rather go visit the local blacksmith. 

Game Solution: The blacksmith is now distraught, concerned about their missing cousin. He suspects it has something to do with that damned tower atop the hill. Rumor has it an evil sorcerer lives there and uses cats to spy on the townsfolk.  

Don’t shove in their face! When they still choose not to go to point A, that’s ok. When they go somewhere random, they overhear something loosely connecting the plot with point A. 

If they continue to avoid point A, you can just move your content from A to wherever they have decided to go, and you can quickly adjust it to fit the new reality. Don’t do this constantly, try to hide it so that they don’t feel like you’re just railroading them. Give them plenty of opportunity to find their way to the content, but if things start to drag just find a way to deliver your strongest content into the story that the players are currently invested in telling.

4. Leave the extras as backup. 

Just because you made it, doesn’t mean you need to use it. The extras are just cushioning to help slide between primary plots. You may think “The players must go to point A and point B and then we will end at Point C.” 

The players aren’t interested in going to any of those points. The players want to do what they want to do. They will assume that most things you mention must be somehow relevant. They will usually try to engage with everything you give them and form ideas about how it might be related to the plot or to their own personal stories.

You may be tempted to open slowly and use filler content to get things started with the intention of slowly ramping up into all the juicy stuff you’ve written. You just can’t wait for the players to get there, the anticipation is killing you. If only they’d hurry up and play through all this unimportant stuff. 

Guess what? The players assume anything they are interacting with is the juicy good stuff you’ve prepared for them. When you make them slog through weak content to cushion or fill time, it gives them the impression that the campaign sucks and is boring. Not good!

You do not need to create a bunch of extra content to try to expand how long things take. Players will do a great job on their own of making everything that should be quick and painless as slow and overly complicated as possible. That’s the players specialty.

5. Improvise and encourage.

The players are improvising, and that’s what you’ll need to do if you want to be a part of their collaborative story. You should encourage them when they get creative, or when they really get into character. You should let them get away with a little bit here and there to facilitate their cool ideas. Don’t be the obstacle standing between your group and a compelling collaborative storytelling experience. Your job is not to be the biggest bummer in the world, your job is to facilitate fun. 

6. Know when to use the dice.

Don’t make the players roll for anything when there are no stakes for failure. The only unnecessary rolling should be from when you occasionally bait the party into making an active perception check when there’s actually no need. This is a really useful tool to increase tension. Don’t abuse it though, because it can distract from what’s actually going on, and rolling causes the game too slow to a crawl. 

7. Don’t use standard pass fail mechanics for plot related skill checks. 

Every time you make the player roll, you are setting them up for failure. Remember when I mentioned it’s the players specialty to make everything take longer than it should? Why the hell would you want to set them up for a failure that will further slow the plot?

If things are slowed to a crawl, and the party is spinning it’s wheels, then it’s time to soften failure on skill checks that would provide information or overcome an obstacle. That means giving partial success, or full success with a negative consequence.  

Have you ever let the player hard fail on a skill check that would have moved the plot forward? How did that feel for you, the player, and the party? I bet no one enjoyed it. Next time let them fail on a sliding scale. 

What not to do:

Player: Davin picks up the metal disk, I would like to roll an arcana check to see if there’s anything unusual about this object.

GM: Sure go ahead (sets hard dc to 15 for the player to discover that this is a magical key that opens a secret door nearby. The party must pass through this door to find the villains’ lair.)

Player: 13, not terrible. Do I know anything?

GM: No, you’re not really sure what this magic item does. (internally panicking because the party progress is halted.)

What to do instead:

Player: Davin picks up the metal disk, I would like to roll an arcana check to see if there’s anything unusual about this object.

GM: Sure go ahead (sets soft dc to 15 for the player to discover that this is a magical key that opens a secret door nearby. The party must pass through this door to find the villain.)

Player: 13, not terrible. Do I know anything?

GM: You’re able to determine that this is the key to opening a secret door nearby, but as you are holding the disk you do not feel the tingling in your fingers until it’s too late. This shoddily crafted magic key has built up a type of arcane toxicity that leaks into your bloodstream through your skin. Roll a constitution save against this magical sickness. (Improvises magical sickness based on existing status effects),

They still succeed enough to advance the plot, but there are consequences. 

Don’t forget that it’s still important to have the players fail completely on inconsequential uses of their skills. Those failures reinforce the idea that failure is possible at any time which is helpful because it adds to the overall tension. 

8. Use rolls for excitement and tension.

Rolling to climb a high wall, swim in the rapids, or talk your way out of being thrown in jail are all compelling rolls. Those rolls carry weight to the players, so they will typically enjoy performing them. Be sure to ask for these rolls and any other rolls with an element of danger when the situation presents itself.

Be careful not to have the party constantly under threat. It can be tempting to run the campaign with a breathless thriller pacing. It’s especially tempting for me because it’s the pacing I most enjoy as a viewer/reader/player. The players will get burned out quickly if it’s all spectacle all the time. If they are under constant threat, they will become desensitized to it. You need to take them on a rollercoaster ride and occasionally go long enough without any peaks or valleys that they start to let their guard down.

9. Using contrast to prevent player burnout.

Contrast amplifies experience. If you’ve just spent 5 years living in a 1 bedroom apartment, and then you move into a 5 bedroom house it’s going to have a huge affect on you. You’re going to appreciate a lot of things about that new living space, it may even elevate your mood. If you’ve lived in a 5 bedroom house your whole life, you don’t really notice the benefits anymore, and it’s probably no longer a factor in your mood. Don’t let the players become desensitized to their current situation, cycle them through contrasting experiences.

Give them plenty of time to roleplay their characters in a non-combat, non-exploration setting. This will make them more attached to the characters, and the party will grow in closeness. The next time they find themselves in an impossible and deadly situation, the sense of dread is going to be palpable. 

10. Use the “Yes but…/No and…” method to keep them on their toes.

This is a method used by genre fiction writers to create stories that are constantly evolving, and you can use it on your players.

Yes but…

Player: Do I reach the top of the cliff? 

GM: Yes, but you find yourself face to face with a venomous cobra.

No and…

Player: I entered the castle, is the princess in the castle? 

GM: No, and a rude little mushroom person in the throne room taunts you about it.

Don’t overuse this method because it detracts a bit from the players’ successes. It’s important to let the players have a few satisfying moments of success or perceived success. 

11.Use less combat, but make it more dangerous. 

If my players are reading this they probably think I’m a hypocrite because I tend to go a little combat crazy. Because of my misguided focus on combat I’ve learned important things every GM should take into consideration when it comes to combat.

Yes it’s a good idea to throw a mixture of difficult foes and fodder at the party to both test them and make them feel powerful. Yes, good game design involves keeping the players rollercoaster going up and down just within the bounds of frustration on the high end and boredom on the low end. 

Despite that, when it comes to combat I am of the strong opinion that you should try to throw deadly encounters at your party most of the time. If you do throw fodder at them, and the player nearly kills the fodder in a single blow, you should just let the fodder die then and there. The purpose of fodder is making the players feel powerful, not eating up 2 hours of their evening on monotonous combat. If you’re going to use their precious time on combat, it should have high stakes so they feel engaged. 

Want an example of an intense 5e encounter? Check out Intense 5e Encounters: The Slushfort (5th level).

12. Be careful when you plan your encounters! 

Mistakes in planning your encounters can transform a potentially fun evening into a snooze-fest. This happened to me recently, I reflect on my mistake in the post Being a Dungeon Master: Robbing the Player of Satisfaction.

Too many enemies causes boring pacing. Use high enemy count very sparingly. Too much AC feels very unsatisfying to fight. Use high AC carefully. Too much HP kills momentum and makes players feel less satisfaction from successfully attacking the enemy. 

My way of overcoming these issues with combat is to make enemies that are very dangerous, but that can be focused down quickly. I reward the characters who are good tacticians with smooth and successful combat. I punish the characters who are poor tacticians with painful and scary combat. 

13. Use environmental hazards, ticking clocks, friendly NPC’s in danger, and puzzle pieces to make encounters feel more dynamic and tense. 

What do I mean by combat puzzle pieces? Give the clever players things to work with in combat. Encourage unconventional solutions to combat problems. If the enemy is harmed by water, include a bucket of water on the combat map. If the enemies are all clustered in the center of the room in a phalanx, Include a flask of oil on a shelf near the door that the players can throw to cover the enemy formation in flammable oil. Just try to include interesting things on the map, the clever players will often find ways to use them. 

There are a few ways to use the environment like setting the fight on a cliffside for a static environmental hazard, or in a burning building for a dynamically evolving environmental hazard.

For the last two the party realizes there’s a literal ticking time bomb hidden in the local square where they have many beloved NPC friends. They determine the bomb will detonate in 30 minutes. As they rush to the rescue that’s when you hit them with a combat encounter. The urgency they will feel to resolve this combat and get to the square, will not only change how the combat feels, but it may change how they handle the combat all together. 

14. When someone comes up with an unconventional combat idea, embrace, praise, and encourage it. 

Keep it fair by using a check. Have various levels of success and failure based on the results of the check, not a hard dc. 

Example of play: 

Player: Dr. Valdaro moves over next to those barrels of flammable fluid, I want to use the fluid to try and create an improvised exploding arrow. Can I do something like that?

GM: Yes! That’s an awesome idea! Ok I’ll get you to roll a dexterity check to secure your improvised device to the arrow with rope, or if you are trained in sleight of hand you can use that modifier instead. (gm is quickly adapting new rules to facilitate fun.)

Player: Oh I rolled a 9…

GM: You feel that you’ve successfully created an improvised explosive arrow… (Secretly the Gm has determined that 9 is not high enough to create an explosive arrow that is safe and reliable. When the player shoots the arrow the gm will roll a d20. On 1 the arrow will explode directly on the player, under 5 and the arrow will explode 1d4 squares away from the player. Between 5-15 the arrow explodes somewhere along the line to be determined with a quick dice roll, and 15-19 the arrow explodes 20 minus the roll away from the target in the appropriate place along the trajectory. On a 20 the arrow makes it all the way to the spot it was intended to go.)

On the players next turn:

Player: I shoot my improvised explosive arrow at the group of archers on the wall. 

GM: Ok let me just do a quick roll to see how far your shoddily constructed explosive arrow makes it before it detonates. 

Player: Oh no…

GM: (rolls 18) As you loose the arrow you notice a bit of loose rope hanging off the payload where there shouldn’t be any and recognize that you’ve made an error. If it were me I’d be feeling a strong sense of dread, how does Dr. Valdaro feel in this moment? (GM steers the focus of this combat moment to the character and their feelings, not the crunchy dice rolls)

Player: Dr. Valdaro does one of those cartoon gulping noises and grits his teeth. This isn’t the first time he’s gotten complacent when throwing together a dangerous contraption so he kind of has that “I’m such an idiot” feeling. 

GM: Luckily for Dr. Valaro the payload continues on its trajectory and ends up detonating 1 space up and 1 space to the north east from where you targeted. The shockwave knocks the closest archer off the wall and the explosion sends flaming hot oil raining down in an area 2 larger than the explosion radius. You have managed to cover the entire group of archers in flaming oil. 

By embracing the players creativity, improvising rules for the activity, and allowing the player to try something unconventional, the GM was able to transform a momentum destroying “No, you can’t do that.”, into a “Yes. Let’s see what happens.” This technique makes the whole situation more interesting for both the players and the gm. 

Jade Breed

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