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How to Be a Great D&D Dungeon Master

by Mike on 25 October 2021

I've spent the past decade running D&D games, talking to other DMs, writing articles, shooting videos, writing books, and designing adventures for both publication and running in my own games. I've spent much of this time collecting as much good advice as I could from the far reaches of the hobby.

This article contains my top advice to DMs for running great D&D games. These ideas aren't original. They're also one level deeper than the surface-level advice of the "relax and have fun" variety. I aimed for practicality. They're often opinionated ideas. Some DMs no doubt run great games either ignoring these suggestions or going directly against them. As always, your mileage may vary.

Let the story unfold at the table. The tales of our games don't happen when we prepare them but at the table itself. DMs bring the world, the situation, the quests, and the non-player characters to the table and then watch and react as the characters crash into them. We don't know what's going to happen. Expecting the game to go a certain way is the most common mistake DMs make and have made for nearly four decades. Instead, remember that the story unfolds at the table, and not before.

Set up situations and let the characters navigate them. Instead of developing plots for our games, with directions we expect the characters to follow, develop situations in which the characters get involved. Think of this like a heist movie. There's a location, there's a goal, and there are inhabitants at the location. The situation changes as the characters choose their path and engage with the situation in whatever way they choose. Ensure there are multiple possible ways the characters can deal with the situation and don't let the whole situation hang on a single ability check.

Be on the characters' side. DMs are not competitors to the players. We're facilitators for the game. It's our job to help the characters look awesome. We want to help them meet their intent. Players only understand about half of what we're describing and the characters are much more aware of what's going on than the players are. Remember that and help players avoid doing clearly stupid things because they don't grab the whole situation. Treat characters as the heroic experienced adventurers they are.

Use tools and techniques that help you prepare to improvise. The tips, tricks, and tools that best serve us are the ones most easily used to help us improvise during the game. A blank dry-erase poster map is far more useful than one with a map printed on it. A set of general purpose tokens more easily serves the game than crates of pre-painted miniatures. The best tools are the ones you can keep directly in your head like knowing that difficulty checks are generally between 10 and 20 or that roughly one quarter of a mob of attacking skeletons are likely to hit or make their saving throws. Grab on to the most useful and simple tools you can to help you stay flexible during the game.

Focus on your next game. We may have big ideas for a multi-year campaign but the only game we should worry about is the next one we're going to run. Don't worry about preparing the next six sessions of a game or spending hours building out your huge end-game dungeon. Worry about where your next game is going to start, what may happen during that session, where they are going to go, what they might find there, and what secrets and clues they might uncover while there. As huge as our campaigns may be, we only have to worry about having the material to fill in the specific hours of our very next session. Worry about that.

Build your world, campaign, and adventures from the characters outwards. When developing your own campaign or game world, instead of starting with gods and histories and huge maps, focus the campaign down to what matters to the characters and what matters to the players. As much as you love your huge campaign world, your players love their characters and largely aren't paying attention to the larger world. What is the central theme of your campaign? What makes it unique among campaigns? Where do the characters start? What local locations might the characters be interested in? What three adventure locations lie just over the horizon, or just below the adventurer's feet? Focus your attention in the characters and what's around them before building out the larger world far outside their view.

Pay attention to pacing. I've played in a lot of D&D games and the most common problem I see is with pacing. It is really hard not to get stuck in a scene with no way out and really easy to lose track of time and find yourself halfway through a planned session with twenty minutes left in the game. Track your time and find ways to continually move things forward. Get into the action. Drop monster hit points to 1 when it's time for a battle to end. Have minions turn to dust when the final boss is defeated. Always be ready to cut the middle of your adventure to get to the end.

Focus on the fiction first and the mechanics second. It's easy to get lost in the dice and the mechanics of D&D's monsters and characters. The story comes first and the mechanics support that story. Instead of starting with the mechanics for things like a series of skill checks, puzzles, or combat encounter building; start by asking yourself what makes sense in the world itself and let that drive the mechanics to represent it.

An Endless Evolving Hobby

Dungeons & Dragons isn't like other games. It continually evolves and we evolve with it. We can make it whatever we want and learn entirely new ways to play it. Every tip we take in we can match up against what we know about the game and shift our style just a little bit to test it out and see how it goes. The DMs we are today are not the type of DMs we might have been years ago or the types of DMs we'll be years into the future. Above all, if we want to improve as DMs, it comes down to three words:

Always be learning.

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