Table of Contents
Dungeon Master Basics
Dungeon Master should view players not as foes, but as partners in a grand tale. Among those new to the mantle of Dungeon Master, this misperception is oft encountered. The DM may toil through the night, crafting traps most cunning and encounters fraught with peril, laying in wait for the unwary players. Should these players, with wit and guile, swiftly render these challenges null or bypass them altogether, the DM may feel bested, a loss most personal, and thus a thirst to retaliate may arise.
Yet in the realm of role-playing, there exists no true battle twixt Dungeon Master and player, for such a duel would be unjust. To unleash ever more fearsome beasts upon the party, seeking to balance some unseen ledger, challenges not the DM. Likewise, it brings no joy to those who play. In truth, the task of the DM is to weave a story with the players, not to defeat them, creating a journey filled with challenge, triumph, and enjoyment for all.
Embrace the triumphs of your players’ party by designing Non-Player Characters (NPCs) that accompany them temporarily, participating in their escapades. It’s common for Dungeon Masters (DMs) to furnish a guide or a similar character to aid the players at some stage of the game. However, these guides rarely engage actively in the campaign. Avoid dominating the player characters (PCs) through the guide, but make sure to bestow the NPC with a unique and vibrant personality. Should the players attempt to cheat the guide out of their share of the treasure, don’t hesitate to make the guide object. Let the guide be an integral part of the adventure for the duration of their time with the group.
Never simply declare, “You can’t do that,” without offering an explanation. Instead of bluntly stating that a character can’t perform a specific action, seek alternative ways to impose logic within the game. If a player acts out of character, penalize them with a loss of experience points. If they attempt a challenging feat, require a difficult die roll. If the task is blatantly impossible, assign a corresponding die roll that reflects its impossibility. For instance, if a 4-foot Halfling aims to leap over a 25-foot wall, respond with, “Certainly, the Difficulty Class (DC) is 30.”
Prepare Not Over Prepare
Dungeon Master’s should prepare yet avoid over-preparation. Sidestepping this pitfall enables the Dungeon Master (DM) to evade many previously mentioned issues. Consider the scenario where the DM invests 12 hours in crafting a temple complex, intending for the player characters (PCs) to eliminate a high priest they’ve continually encountered. Rather than infiltrating the temple as anticipated, the players embark on a rumor-driven campaign, leading to the king executing the priest. This illustrates a case of over-planning by the DM.
The outcome? The DM struggles to counter every conceivable objection to a brilliantly conceived propaganda crusade, one that even includes evidence of treason. In frustration, the DM may attempt to “settle the score” with the players for the wasted effort, a misstep that numerous players might unfortunately recognize.
The essential truth is that overplanning hinders the Dungeon Master’s (DM’s) ability to respond to the players with adaptability and stifles the free flow of creativity. A night’s adventure should be manageable from several pages of notes and a couple of small maps. This approach to Dungeon Mastering compels the DM to engage in the same kind of quick, on-the-spot thinking that players are expected to employ. It also enhances the DM’s enjoyment of the game. Even I must admit to being guilty of overplanning at times. Trust me on this.
Maintain firm control over both the players and the adventures. When a novice party begins to amass a multitude of magical items, they may acquire a level of power that is disproportionate to their actual level. Such potent artifacts can enable players to brute-force solutions to challenges that should demand more thoughtful approaches. This, in turn, requires the DM to present obstacles and creatures typically reserved for higher-level characters to adequately challenge the players.
Resist the allure of excess, both in rewarding players and in devising the trials they must overcome. Overindulgence in either aspect can upset the game’s balance. The Dungeon Master’s role is to preserve equilibrium and maintain control. Refer to the linked article for a more in-depth exploration of this concept.
Take a few extra moments to infuse unique flavor into your storytelling. For instance, if characters inquire about the presence of a tavern in town, seize that opportunity to immerse them in interaction with the townspeople. Role-play that engagement, rather than simply stating, “The townspeople said yes, up ahead.” Engaging in this way brings depth to the world, making it more vivid and memorable for the players.
Realisms in RPG
Realism in role-playing games? Yes, indeed! While some play these games to escape reality, understanding the importance of realism within the fictional context is crucial. What makes the game enjoyable is that it’s a shared fictional creation, crafted by both players and Dungeon Masters (DMs). If this fictional work is inconsistent or unrealistic within its own world’s rules, it can detract from the entertainment value.
For example, if a character is an immensely high-level wizard at the young age of 22, even the flexible boundaries of a fantasy world are strained. If an army of 100 armored men can march 25 miles a day for a week without fatigue, ready to fight, then realism—and with it, the game’s playability—is banished to the obscure corners of the Ethereal Plane.
Confronting players with realistic challenges fosters intellectual growth and better gaming skills. A player faced with the genuine problems of leadership might develop sharper wit and strategic thinking. Such achievements, stemming from their own actions, can lead to a richer enjoyment of the game, as players feel a sense of accomplishment that they have shaped and earned within the game’s universe.
Do Not Argue
Avoid arguing with players; this stands as a fundamental principle in Dungeon Mastering. However, if a player presents a valid argument, give them your attention. Don’t disregard what they view as crucial by deeming it insignificant. Take the time to articulate why a particular decision has been reached. Once the situation has been thoroughly examined and deliberated, remain firm in your ruling. If the Dungeon Master’s decisions are consistent and just, they should not create tension or discord within the game.
Uphold Commitments. If a player declares that their character is attempting something, follow through with that action. Recall the example of our Halfling friend attempting to jump a 25-foot wall? The character should indeed spend one melee round attempting that jump. When a player announces an action, hold them to their statement and don’t allow them to retract it. This rule encourages players to think carefully about their actions and adds a layer of realism and consequence to the game.
Foster immersion by encouraging players to truly inhabit their characters. Role-playing is a form of acting, and the game thrives when players become their characters. Strive to keep the dialogue at the table character-driven. Utilize NPCs and provide information through them rather than directly as the DM. Be concise and don’t over-explain. Reward good role-playing with extra experience points, and be transparent about why a character is receiving those points.
If a player has a question about the game mechanics, it’s acceptable to address it as the DM. However, if they wish to know something about the in-game setting, their player character (PC) must seek out the information from an NPC within the world. This approach maintains the integrity of the game’s reality and enhances the immersive experience.
Reward both quick thinking and consistent play. While games typically have standard criteria for awarding points for combat and spellcasting, often the clever character who tactically maneuvers the party out of a complex situation goes unrecognized. Experience points should be granted when a player creatively uses intellect, rewarding both immediate cleverness and strategic planning.
Even small achievements or lessons learned from mistakes, such as managing a group, experiencing love, or making a significant blunder, should be recognized with experience points. People learn from both success and failure.
XP for Tactics
More vital than the mere allocation of experience points is allowing players to genuinely employ tactics, deceit, and strategies. If a player devises a way to lower the morale of enemy troops, let that maneuver directly influence the battle’s outcome. Don’t merely award experience points and overlook the real-world impact; don’t make success too easy.
Encourage players to explore unconventional approaches beyond the typical attack-or-die scenarios. Let them try new strategies, even if they risk failure. Embrace the unexpected twists that may arise, akin to Murphy’s Law: The more intricate the plan, the more likely something can go wrong. Whether a strategy succeeds or fails, the game’s enjoyment will be enriched by the mere attempt, rewarding creativity and initiative.
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