Top Tips from a Sample of 4,000 Dungeon Masters

by Mike Shea on 16 October 2017

Each one of us has opinions and ideas on how to make our D&D games great. It's harder, however, to group all of these opinions together to find the commonalities.

By categorizing a random sample of 400 DM tips from a selection of over 4,000 such tips submitted as part of the 2016 Dungeon Master's Survey, I give you a summarized list of the top advice offered by D&D dungeon masters:

Manually Categorizing DM Tips

Though I had conducted a number of automated processes to categorize the 4,153 results of the 2016 DM survey, I decided instead to conduct a sample categorization by hand to see what trends occurred. I didn't use any special machine learning or natural language processing techniques for this analysis. I simply read them and categorized them myself.

I conducted this analysis to look at what DMs advise to other DMs in aggregate so we can learn from hundreds of DMs at once.

I chose four hundred responses because it's a large enough sample to have some statistical significance. It isn't a perfect representation but its a likely (95% confident) look at what topics bubble up to the top (with about plus or minus 4% error).

Here's a table of the top eleven results, cut off when there were less than ten responses for any particular category.

Summarized Top DM TipsRespondents% estimate
Prepare to improvise.6216%
Use the ideas that players bring to the table.4311%
Focus the game on the characters.359%
Pay attention to the pacing of the game.267%
Say yes.215%
Understand the desires of the players.154%
Prepare for your game.144%
Develop interesting NPCs.144%
Build rich worlds.144%
Provide evocative narration.113%
Prepare lightly.103%

You'll notice that these results are similar to the top traits for D&D Dungeon Masters. In particular, both lists focus heavily on the need to improvise and the drive to pull as much from the game from the ideas of the players as we can.

This also isn't far off from the results of our clustering analysis of the full range of tips:

A Heavy Focus on Improvisation

All of these analyses have a heavy focus on the importance of improvisation and our preparation to improvise. This was a focus of our DM Deep Dive with Tom Lommel. A popular trick described often in DM-tip-focused surveys, discussions, videos, and blog articles was to keep a list of names we can quickly reference to improvise NPCs. There are many other tricks for good improvisation but keeping a list of NPC names comes up often.

"Saying yes" also came up often in both the 2016 DM survey and our study of top DM traits. This is a complicated topic with many facets. Tom Lommell, for example, recommends replacing "yes and" with "no but". This also brings us to the topic of failing forward, where we must improvise the results of failures into new and interesting events that keep propelling the story forward.

Improvisation isn't an easy technique to master, which makes its prominence in all these surveys and studies valuable. When we take a wide view of the tips offered by DMs; grouping together topics like improvisation, NPC development, evocative narration, "saying yes", and light preparation; it accounts for roughly 50% of the tips offered.

Based on this prominence, I argue that improving our skills, tools, tips, and tricks for improvisation may have the biggest benefit to our game.

A Focus on the Players and the Characters

Many other tips from numerous studies centered around focusing our attention on the players and the characters. We often discuss this topic here on Sly Flourish. We DMs can get so caught up in our own worlds and our own ideas for the stories that the characters almost become secondary. Focusing on the characters, understanding the desires of the players, and using what they give you to build the story accounted for roughly 34% of the sampled responses above.

Pacing

Pacing came up high in our sample from the 2016 survey but didn't show up in our top DM tips from the Facebook poll. Still, experienced DMs and RPG designers often discuss the importance of pacing in our games. Monte Cook discusses it in his introduction to Weird Discoveries for Numenera and RPG luminary Robin Laws wrote a book on the topic filled with excellent and practical advice called Hamlet's Hit Points. If you read no other book on the topic of pacing, read *Hamlet's Hit Points*. The main concept is easy to digest and easy to implement in your game right away.

The Importance of Preparation

Our sampled DM tips split between heavy and light preparation recommendations. Some described a high degree of preparation to remove uncertainty when running the game. Others discussed the importance of light preparation and building the flexibility to react to a changing game. It is no secret, being the author of the Lazy Dungeon Master that I prefer and recommend lighter preparation with a focus on flexibility and improvisation.

What we can agree on is the importance of some preparation. In my experience, even the laziest dungeon master is best served by preparing components for their next session that aid them in running a fun and fluid game. Some of our light preparation steps might include:

Worldbuilding

9% of the sample also recommended the importance of building a rich world. Worldbuilding gave DMs the material they needed when the characters took an unexpected side trek. The more these DMs knew their world and the more details that existed in that world; the more real it felt to them and to their players regardless of the situation.

Because it doesn't feed well into the ideas of the lazy dungeon master, I've often avoided digging into the topic of worldbuilding, leaving it to the experts, but many DMs find worldbuilding a useful and highly entertaining activity. How often can we find a way to flee from our regular lives with our regular problems and escape to an entire universe we can build from our own limitless imaginations?

Worldbuilding also ties into the tip mentioned roughly 7% of the time to provide evocative descriptions in narration. Capturing the imaginations of our players requires that we evoke fantastic imagery. The more we have developed this imagery ahead of time, the easier it is to evoke fantastic descriptions when we need them. This was a large focus of Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations.

Powerful Skills for Lifelong Learning

Combing through hundreds (and thousands) of DM tips helps us recognize where many DMs have found the greatest value in their games. While each of us might have a unique way of making our game great, it helps us to see the ways that have worked well for so many other DMs.

Here's a boiled-down summary of the advice of thousands of dungeon masters:

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the Lazy Dungeon Master and Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide.

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