How to be a Dungeon Master
Dungeon Master is confused.

Thou shalt not consider players as the adversaries. This is the most common problem among starting DMs. The DM often spends long hours designing ingenious traps and encounters for the players to stumble upon. If the players quickly neutralize or bypass these clever entrapments, the GM often has the feeling that he has been beaten, and thus feels the need to “get back” at the players. In role-playing, the situation is not one of GM vs. players: It isn’t a fair fight. To keep throwing bigger monsters at a party until the score has been “evened” is no challenge for the GM. Likewise, it is no fun for the players.

Learn to enjoy the successes of the players’ party by creating NPCs that travel with them for a short time and share in their adventures. Most DMs provide a guide or some such person for the players at one point or another in the game, but very few of these guides take an active role in the campaign. Don’t take charge of a group of PCs via the guide but do give the NPC his or her own distinct personality. If a group of players intends to short-change the guide on some loot, put up a fight. For the short time the guide is with that group, be a part of the adventure.

Thou shalt not ever say, “You can’t do that.” Don’t just tell someone their character can’t do something and give no explanation. Find other ways to enforce reason in the game. If a player does something which is out of character, fine him experience points. If a player attempts a difficult task, have him make a difficult die roll. If a player attempts a clearly impossible task, give him a clearly impossible die roll. For example, if a 4 foot Halfing wants to jump over a 25 foot wall, just say, “Sure, DC 30”.

Thou shalt not over plan. Avoiding this sin allows the DM to avoid many of the problems already discussed. For example, the DM spends 12 hours designing a temple complex so that the PCs will have an opportunity to kill a high priest with whom they keep crossing swords. The players, instead of sneaking into the temple as the DM anticipated, start a rumor campaign that ends with the king beheading the priest in question. The DM has clearly over planned. The result is that the DM tries to think of every possible objection to an ingenious propaganda campaign – a campaign that even includes proof of treason. Failing this, the DM may try to “get even” with the players for all his wasted work. Several players will recognize this unfortunate experience.

The bottom line is that overplanning prevents the DM from meeting the actions of the players with flexibility and inter-feres with spontaneous creativity. It should be easy to run an evening’s adventure from several pages of notes and a small map or two. This style of Dungeon Mastering forces the DM to use the same kind of rapid-fire thinking that is expected of the players. It also improves the DM’s enjoyment of the game. Even I’m guilty of over planning, trust.

Thou shalt keep adventurers within reason. Keep a tight rein on the players and the adventures. When a beginning party starts to collect scores of magical items, the members begin to obtain a degree of strength that is often out of proportion with their level. Powerful items mean that the players sometimes muscle their way out of situations that should require them to think their way out. This means that the DM must use creatures and situations to challenge the players — creatures that might normally be reserved for higher level characters. Don’t give in to the temptation of excess when rewarding the players. Don’t overindulge when setting up the challenges that the players must face. The DM must maintain control. See this article for more details: Inflation In Dungeons & Dragons Too

Thou shalt run the adventure in color, not in black and white. Expend a few more seconds to add unique flavor to the story telling. For example, if characters mention they ask around to see if there is a tavern in town, use that to engage with the towns people, role-play that engagement, instead of saying, “The towns people said yes, up ahead.”

Thou shalt be consistent. Realism! Did he really say realism? Playing role-playing games to escape from realism means that players (and DMs) have missed an important point. The reason the game is enjoyable is because it is a work of fiction which the players have a hand in writing. If a fictional work has inconsistencies or is unrealistic (relative to genre/world), then it does not entertain the reader. If a character is an extremely high-level wizard at age 22, even the credibility of a fantasy world is stretched. If a troop of 100 armored men march 25 miles a day for a week and are still fit for battle, realism (i.e., game playability) is going straight to the nether reaches of the Ethereal Plane. The player who has to wrestle with the realistic problems of being a general is liable to develop a faster wit and better gaming skills. This player learns to enjoy the game more because she or he has accomplished something by his own doing.

Thou shalt not let the players argue with the Dungeon Master. This one is a cardinal rule in Dungeon Mastering. Still, when a player brings up a valid point, listen to them. Don’t dismiss what they consider an important factor as an irrelevant point. Explain why a decision is made. When the situation has been discussed and weighed out carefully, stick to it. If the DM is fair, rulings will cause no friction.

Thou shalt enforce statements. When a player says his character tries something, that character tries it. Remember our jumping Halfling friend and the 25’ wall? That character should lose one melee round trying to jump the wall. When a player makes an action attempt, enforce their statement, and not allow them to take the action back. This rule ensures that players think about their actions.

Thou shalt encourage players to play their characters. Role-playing is acting, to some degree or another. The DM is most successful when the players are the characters. Keep the conversation around the table between the characters. Use those NPCs. Don’t say more than needs to be said. Give out experience points for good role-playing and let the other players know why that character is getting extra points. If a player asks a question about game mechanics, that’s fine. But if she or he wants to know something about the setting in which the action takes place, their PC will have to question an NPC, not the DM.

Thou shalt reward with, quick thinking and consistency. All games have a standard for the awarding of points when it comes to hacking and slashing or chucking a spell across the room. But all too often, the sneaky little guy that fast-talked the party out of a big mess with the hill giants is left unrewarded. Experience points should be awarded whenever a player has successfully exercised hers or his gray matter. Both rapid thinking and long-term strategy should be rewarded. Also, small numbers of experience points should be given for such activities as commanding a body of men, falling in love, or fouling up completely. People learn from their mistakes. More important than the awarding of experience is letting the players actually use stratagems, trickery and ploys. If a player thinks of a way to reduce the morale of an enemy troop, let that gambit have a direct effect on the outcome of combat. Don’t dole out X experience points and ignore the effects of reduced morale; there’s no need to make it too easy for the players. But when someone comes up with a reasonable tactic other than the standard attack-or-die scenario, let them give it a go. Just sit back and wait for an opportunity to enforce Murphy’s Law. Remember: The more complicated the plan, the more likely it is that Murphy exerts himself. Even if the players try a stratagem and it fails, gaming pleasure will be enhanced by the effort.

A quick review of this article reveals the extensive use of words such as “pleasure,” “enjoy,” and “entertaining”. The purpose of playing the game is to have a good time. If these Ten Commandments are followed, Dungeon Mastering may not be made any easier, but it will surely be more rewarding for all concerned.

Jerry Spinger… just kidding LOL

Cartoon Dungeon Master giving solid piece of advise to young children.

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