You'd Make A Great Dungeon Master

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dungeons & dragons

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There Will Be Games

You may not think you have what it take to runs a game of Dungeons & Dragons, but you might just surprise yourself.

Dungeons & Dragons has never been more popular in its 45-year history than it is now. As a result, there is a bumper crop of new people coming into game, both players and DMs. But as has always been the case, there are many more new players than new DMs. Dungeon Mastering remains the most challenging part of D&D, or any other tabletop roleplaying game for that matter. If you can’t find a group to play with, there’s a good chance you’ll have to be the DM. I’m here to tell you that you have what it takes. You would be a great Dungeon Master.

Now I know what you’re saying. You probably watch a show like Critical Role, where noted famous person Matt Mercer DMs with every colorful character and goofy voice in his arsenal. You might lurk around on websites like /r/dnd, and you see pictures of ridiculous terrain, detailed miniatures, and people in costume. Or you follow other personalities like Matt Colville, who dispense valuable advice for new DMs, and you don’t think you have it in you to create all the detail necessary to give your players a great experience. You might have great acting skills, great resources for fun props, or a bottomless well of creativity for a campaign setting, and if so that’s great. But you don’t need any of those things to be a great DM.

So what do you need? More than anything else, you need to know something about yourself. You need to have some idea of what you are good at, and then put your energy of DM preparation into that. Maybe you already know where your gifts lie. If you’re a writer who likes to put together terrific characters and storylines, that might be a good clue to what you should try. But if you’ve spent any amount of time as a D&D player, you already have an inkling of what matters to you. What did you really enjoy in your other sessions? More importantly, what drives you crazy as a player? Of course, you might not actually know what aspect of Dungeon Mastering you are good at. I was in this camp myself. If that’s you, the best way to learn is to practice. You will learn a lot about what does and doesn’t work for you by failing and succeeding by accident. Consider this article permission to experiment.

I’ll use myself as an example here, because I’m not much of a world-builder. (I’m more the type to write an essay on world-building, which as a skill is less in-demand.) I get irritated at the amount of abstract work that goes into creating pantheons, coming up with NPCs, stuff like that. Instead I’ve focused on pacing in the context of the actual session, because very few things drive me crazy like a session that feels like its bogging down. I’m a decent improvisational thinker too, so if I put in the time to read a published adventure before running it, I’ll be able to fill in details that aren’t there, or that I might forget in the moment. It still requires work, but reading an adventure is the sort of thing I enjoy doing anyway, so I’m cool with it.

And sorry to say, there’s no way to be a Dungeon Master without putting in at least a little work. I’ve never met anyone who can run a good session with basically no prep. But when you know yourself better you’ll know what kind of work you need to do. You may have read about people who spend hours prepping for every session, which sounds bananas to me, because I’m frankly a little lazy. But I do reread the chunk of the adventure I intend to run, and this is after reading the whole thing in the first place. I make notes on what monsters I’ll need, what traps I’ll use, and what NPCs might show up. But if your bag is to spend the multiple hours in world-building and precisely-constructed encounters, then I heartily encourage you to do so.

Another piece of advice you will hear from many different DMs will be to stop comparing yourself to others, and I would agree with this. You aren’t Matt Mercer, and you won’t do things the same way as Colville or Sly Flourish. That’s a good thing, by the way. The key aspect of Dungeons & Dragons, what makes the game so special, is that every person has specific things they bring to the table that will make their game utterly unique, something that has never been seen before. This goes for players and DMs. The sooner you quit punishing yourself for not being able to do a strange voice as effectively as the professional voice actor, the sooner you’ll be able to come into your own and figure out how you can be a great DM.

Don’t be offended when your players somehow bypass the deep world-building you created, because in the end it’s about them having a good time. Sometimes you’ll run a session that kind of ends up being a turkey. There will definitely be games where whatever you prepared will be very different from what your group actually does. But you can’t let those frustrating moments derail you, because one thing your players need from you is reliability. They need to know that you’ll be willing to learn when things are rough, that you’ll listen to them when they have in-game problems and other personal ones. Dungeon Mastering is not a pastime for those who aren’t able to be flexible.

Here’s my point: you’ve got this. You have what it takes to run a great game of Dungeons & Dragons. You don’t need to be hyper-organized, an improv comic, or a published author, because there’s already something about you that has prepared you to try this out. It may take some time, and it may take a lot of practice, but I truly believe you’d be a great Dungeon Master.

There Will Be Games dungeons & dragons
dungeons & dragons
Nate Owens (He/Him)
Staff Writer

After a childhood spent pestering his parents and sister to play Monopoly, Scrabble, and Mille Bornes, Nate discovered The Settlers of Catan in college. From there it was only a matter of time before he fell down the rabbit hole of board gaming. Nate has been blogging since college, and writing about board games since 2007. His reviews have appeared on his blog, sanildefanso.wordpress.com, and on Miniature Market. Nate enjoys games with a lot of interaction, as well as games with an unconventional approach to theme.

Articles by Nate

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MattFantastic's Avatar
MattFantastic replied the topic: #297332 20 May 2019 10:23
This is great, but I think it’s even easier to DM than you make it out to be.

It’s a collaborative storytelling game (at least if we set aside the Tomb of Horrors era adversarial vibes), and if you are interested enough to not only want to play D&D, but to want to be the DM you will be fine.

Using a published adventure to start can sometimes make things way harder because then your flow is all tied up in knowing a document. And while there are tons of great adventures available, they are still mostly tropes you already know.

Come up with a hook, some tropey characters, and set your party loose. Pick up the D&D monster deck of cards, sort out a pile of them that are level approripate, and you can mostly just wing it. Players will ALWAYS go off the tracks and if you are using a published adventure it’s actually much harder to pull them back rather than to let them go off as they will. Railroading well is a much harder skill to master than linking encounters with a vague story arc.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #297333 20 May 2019 10:26
You are absolutely right. It's really a matter of figuring out what makes you the most comfortable. If that's a published adventure, awesome. If it's your method of mostly just sticking with connected encounters, that's great too. There are those who spend hours coming up with content, and bully for them.

In general I think it's easy to come away from most D&D related material and think it's a much bigger job than it really is. It's easy to be intimidated.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #297363 20 May 2019 12:33
I know that I'm a good DM, but my biggest hangup is my own self-expectations. Plus I feel like I have to be "on stage," which is exhausting. Lately I just want to have some beers and play games with friends and not think too hard.

Funny story: The actor in the photo from Freak and Geeks, is Stephen Lea Sheppard, who is a longtime moderator over at RPG.net. Although apparently he hasn't acted in years, and doesn't even play RPGs anymore.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #297367 20 May 2019 12:49
Great article.

DMing is so intimidating. It's one of those things that's hard to start because the view from the bottom, before you start doing any creative prep, is scary.

I also think people underestimate just how creative an activity DMing is. From my perspective, it can easily be more creative and demanding than writing, visual arts, etc.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #297370 20 May 2019 13:36
Great topic. Running an rpg is a broad challenge because there are so many aspects to the task that it seems impossible to master them all. But it becomes manageable when you identify your strengths and then lean on published products to fill in the gaps.

I got into role-playing in 1978 without anybody showing me the ropes. I bought the 1st edition Gamma World box at a comic book convention, and the D&D blue box from a local hobby store, and read through the rules repeatedly. B1 In Search of the Unknown helped me understand how to make a dungeon, and early issues of Dragon Magazine helped me become a better DM. I also asked for feedback from my group, and gradually adapted my DM style based on what my players enjoyed. I also went to my first GenCon at age 16, so I learned a lot from playing in one-shot adventures run by industry pros like Jim Ward, Bill Willingham, and Steve Perrin.

There are certain aspects of DMing that I have never mastered. I'm okay at role-playing NPCs, but I recognize my limits when it comes to doing funny voices or accents. I don't have time for world-building or writing adventures, so I purchase and adapt what I need. I can improv to some extent, but I am no longer afraid to cut short an unpromising tangent like a long conversation with an NPC shopkeeper, by just summarizing and moving on. I try to keep the focus on entertaining the players, and things tend to work out.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #297378 20 May 2019 15:08
I think new DMs sometimes feel a lot of pressure to be prepared for all possibilities, and to always be able to smoothly keep things running along. I think it is important for them to know that sometimes a DM just needs to say, "Hey, everyone let's break for 10 minutes. Something unexpected just happened, and I need a few minutes to re-think some things." And that's totally cool.
GorillaGrody's Avatar
GorillaGrody replied the topic: #297383 20 May 2019 16:23
I’d just like to put in a quick shout out to Happy Jack’s RPG Podcast. It's funny, and full of great advice for new GMs. I’ve been listening to it for years.

Just listening to people talk about the craft of GMing can do a lot in terms of boosting one’s confidence.
RolandHemisphere's Avatar
RolandHemisphere replied the topic: #297395 21 May 2019 01:28
Your experience as a DM is very group dependent, though I've found it to be more enjoyable than I ever thought I would.... as soon as I understood the rules.

DMs do put a lot of unnecessary pressure on themselves often because they forget that the reason everyone is getting together to hang out. There's a lot of "shared storytelling," and all that talk, but D&D and RPGs in general are basically an excuse to sit down with some friends and goof off.

Seriously, don't get hung up on all the bullshit, it's a game, make some characters, make a dungeon, have a blast.

And if you want inspiration and like podcasts, Dungeon Master of None is the GOAT. followed by Fear the Boot and Happy Jacks. Matt Colville's YouTube is also a must. Critical Roll is not my jam.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #297396 21 May 2019 01:50
I like Colville, but I sometimes feel like he approaches the experience much more as a novelist. He clearly places a lot of importance on internal consistency within the game world, which takes a lot of work for someone like me. I think the moment-to-moment narrative is what players take with them more often.

My favorite person to get advice from is Sly Flourish, author of the Lazy Dungeon Master. A lot of the best practices I have originally came from him. His stuff is all about presenting with an eye toward improvisation at the table, which I think is just right.