Common Dungeon Master Mistakes

by Mike Shea on 26 November 2012

It's often better to be positive than negative when writing advice for dungeon masters. Sometimes, however, it is worth looking at the bad so we can better understand the good. Today we're going to look at a handfull of common dungeon master mistakes. These are mistakes we might often see, might often even do, and might spend some time learning to avoid so we can run the best D&D game we can. Let's put our egos aside and dig right in.

A potential indicator your game isn't resonating with your players

Above: Keep an eye out for potential indicators that your game is not resonating with your players

Forcing your story

We love our stories. It's what got us to play D&D in the first place. Our drive to tell stories often gives us the desire to run games. It's a hard thing to remember that you don't create the story, the group does. D&D stories aren't written — they're created during the game.

We all know this. It's an easy thing to say. It is equally easy to forget it and let our overactive imaginations run wild, building seven volume epic stories that push players from point A to point B.

This is a big problem and you're going to hear a lot more about this on the site over the next couple of months.

Saying "No"

We DMs can often have a path already laid out in our mind. We have an expectation for how an campaign, adventure, session, or battle will go and when it doesn't go that way, we start to bring down the iron doors. Players start to figure out interesting ways to move things in a new direction, like the players in Chris Perkins's game who nuked an entire adventure area instead of playing it out like they were supposed to.

Saying "no" shuts down interesting pathways players create. Yet it's these very pathways that make our world live and breathe. Instead of shutting things down, take the D&D improvisation tip of Steve Townshend and learn how to say "yes, and".

Losing our shit

This is a big personal failing of mine. Sometimes in our D&D games, things just don't go like we want it to go. Players find a broken rule or an exploit in their character design or the dice just don't go our way and we blow our stack. We lose our patience.

We're all here to have fun and enjoy the game. The tighter we squeeze, the more pissed off we can get when things slip through our fingers.

Take it easy. Relax. Be patient. Don't rush through things. Try to do less in each game so you're not in a rush.

Ignoring the desires of our players

Everyone comes to the table with an expectation for the type of game we want to play. As a DM, you owe it to yourself and your players to take the time to figure out what sort of game they want to play. Engage in some character building sessions before you get too far into the game so you have an idea what people want. If everyone wants to roll some dice and stab some monsters, they're going to be disappointed with your intricate nuanced take on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. If they're looking for some interesting political and economic storytelling, don't throw them seven levels down into the pits of dispair. Give your players the right balance of combat, exploration, and roleplaying.

Between sessions, ask them what they want. Ask them how things have gone and listen to them without getting defensive if they offer up suggestions for how things go forward. You'll all have a better time in the long run.

The above mistakes come down to a single problem: taking too much control over the game. Don't forget that the group drives the story, not the dungeon master. These mistakes aren't the only mistakes, however. In my quick Twitter survey, folks mentioned being underprepared as another common mistake. We're going to take a bit more time to discuss that one in the future. In the mean time, take things easy, focus on the seeds of adventure, and let the game get a little out of control. We'll all be happier for it.

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