by Mike Shea on 4 January 2016
This article has been updated from the original published in November 2012.
It's often better to be positive than negative when thinking about improving our skills as dungeon masters. Sometimes, however, it's worth looking at the bad so we can better understand the good. Today we're going to look at common dungeon master mistakes we might see, might even do, and might spend some time learning to avoid so we can run the best D&D games we can. Let's put our egos aside and dig in.
We DMs love to tell stories. Storytelling is likely what got us to play D&D in the first place. It's hard to remember that we DMs don't create the story, the group does. D&D stories aren't written ahead of time—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 without ever considering how the characters might go left instead of right. What if the story you planned out ahead of time isn't the one the characters, or the players, want?
When writing The Lazy Dungeon Master and Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master, I came to the conclusion that not only are we able to spend less time preparing our games than we might think but that the less time we prepare, the more flexible our games become. Instead of building the story of the characters ahead of time, build situations and let the characters navigate them. Play to see what happens as Dungeon World describes.
Forcing our games to go down one path when the drive of the game may head down another is one of the biggest pitfalls even expert GMs fall into.
Let the story unfold at the table.
Much has been said about the concepts of "yes, and" or "no, but" in D&D. We want to give the characters freedom in the world. We want them swinging from chandeliers or climbing huge statues of ancient heroes to drop upon their foes. We want the characters to live in a world of fantasy and high adventure. We want the characters to live in a world of limitless options.
The opposite of this lies in taking away these options. We imprison the characters. We force battles against unsurmountable foes. We take away their abilities, their spells, or their magic items. We force limits on the characters.
Sometimes, when done very carefully, this can work out. Starting off the characters imprisoned, as they do in Out of the Abyss, can work because they're already imprisoned when the game begins. Throwing the characters against an army of sleep-poisoning drow with the expectation that they will be captured and brought to an arena, as one D&D Adventurer's League adventure did, commits multiple sins. First, it forces a single story (one that actually rarely worked in practice from my understanding) and it also takes away character agency with an imprisonment for the sake of that story.
Other adventures might have magic items stolen or destroyed. Others still might remove the effectiveness of spells. Sometimes this is ok, as it is to remove teleportation spells in the Tomb of the Nine Gods in Tomb of Annihilation. This should be done carefully, however, and it should make sense first by the story. The story shouldn't be moulded in a way that fits around troublesome spells. The spells should be removed when their removal makes sense because of the story (like teleporting in the Tomb of the Nine Gods).
Secret Tip: Heroic Resolve. There are certain spells or effects in D&D that remove agency from characters. Stuns, fears, charms, dominations, and any other effect that prevents a character from acting or acting the way they wish are examples of this. We can give some agency back to the player by making a deal with them. When a character is under an effect like this, they can take 3 (1d6) psychic damage per CR of the creature who applied the effect to remove that effect. The player may choose to do so at the beginning of their turn or may stay under the effect. Thus, if a character is enslaved by an aboleth. They may take 35 (10d6) damage to break the effect and still act on their turn. Its painful, but it gives back agency.
Beware taking away character agency. It's almost sure to be a bad time for the player.
The heavy mechanics of previous versions of D&D and its wargaming roots has the potential effect of turning DMs into the adversaries of the characters instead of being their biggest fans. We DMs are not meant to be competitors to the characters. We are their collaborators. We are facilitators to help fantastic stories unfold at the table.
It's important that we listen to our players and understand their goals for their characters. What do they want from the story? What arcs do they have going on? Can you name all of the characters? Do you know where they've come from and what they want?
Putting the characters into difficult situations is what D&D's all about but we must not lose the fact that we're here to help them succeed. We're not here to play chess against them.
This most likely becomes a problem in combat. Are you continually putting the characters up against hard and deadly battles? Are you spending more time tuning battles than considering the other aspects of the game? Do you find yourself denying the player's intent? You may be taking on an adversarial role.
We can break out of this adversarial relationship by asking the players for their intent and helping them meet it. We can take a step back from the tactical balance of encounters and build situations that make sense for the story. We can run more battles in the theater of the mind and lean our decisions in favor of the characters.
Be fans of the characters, not their adversaries.
The more we pour ourselves into our stories, our campaigns, and our worlds without considering the backgrounds of the PCs and the desires of our players, the less likely we are to pay attention to what the players actually want from the game themselves. Everyone comes to the table with an expectation for the type of game we want to play. As a DM, we owe it to ourselves and our players to take the time to figure out what sort of game our players want to play.
The easiest way to handle this is to bring our players into the conversation before we begin building out our campaign. We can ask them what they want to get out of the game. As we run our campaign, we can use character-focused campaign worksheets to keep our own visual focus where it belongs, on the characters.
Understand the goals and desires of the characters and their players.
Many of the mistakes described above come down to a single problem: taking too much control over the game. The group drives the story, not the DM alone. Lose control. Focus on the bigger picture of the story. Be fans of the characters. Build a world around them and enjoy watching the story unfold in ways you could never have imagined.
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