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Top Tips for Dungeon Masters

by Mike on 25 October 2021

For fifteen years I've run games, talked to other DMs, written articles, shot videos, wrote books, designed adventures, and collected as much advice about DMing as I could have from the far reaches of the hobby.

This article contains my top DM tips for running great games, whether online or in-person. These ideas come from the experiences of many DMs and go one level deeper than surface-level advice like "relax and have fun". These tips are both practical and opinionated. Some DMs likely disagree with them and still run great games. But, for me, these are the best tips I have to offer.

Let the Story Unfold at the Table

Don't build stories during prep. Watch them unfold at the table. Bring the world, the situation, the quests, and the non-player characters to the table and 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. Remember that the story unfolds at the table, and not before.

Set Up Situations and Let the Characters Navigate Them

Instead of developing plots with directions we expect the characters to follow, develop situations in which the characters get involved. Think of these situations like a heist movie. There's a location, a goal, and 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

Players aren't the competition. They're your collaborators for the story you share. DMs are 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 describe and the characters are much more aware of what's going on than players are. Help players avoid doing clearly stupid things because they don't understand the situation. Treat characters as the heroic experienced adventurers they are. Build adventures to showcase the characters.

Use Tools and Techniques that Help You Prepare to Improvise

The best tips, tricks, and tools are those that 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. For online play, use the tools and virtual tabletops that most easily support an evolving game. The best tools are those you can keep in your head like knowing that difficulty checks are generally between 10 and 20 or that roughly one quarter of a horde of attacking skeletons likely hit or succeed on saving throws. Grab on to the simplest and most useful tools that helps you run a flexible game.

Focus on your Next Game

You may have big ideas for a multi-year campaign but the only game to worry about is the next one you'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 monsters they may face, what they might find, and what secrets and clues they might uncover while there. As big as your campaign is, the only session that matters is the next one you're going to run. Focus on that one.

Build Your World, Campaign, and Adventures from the Characters Outwards

When developing your own campaign or game world, instead of starting with a full pantheon of gods, histories of the kingdom, and your own planes of existence, focus on what matters to the characters in the next session you run. What is the central theme of your campaign? What makes it unique among campaigns? Where do the characters start? What locations might the characters be interested in next? What gods matter to them? What histories might they uncover? What adventure locations lie just over the horizon, or right below the adventurer's feet? Focus your attention in the characters and what's around them before building out the larger world outside their view.

Pay Attention to Pacing

Proper pacing is a huge challenge and potentially the most important factor in keeping your game fun. Start strong. Jump right into the story Track your time. Move things forward. Lower monster hit points if battles get stale. End on a cliffhanger. Use a mixture of upward beats (good things happening to the characters) and downward beats (heavy challenges to the characters) to keep the pacing fresh. Run easy battles. Run exciting boss fights. Give the characters someone to talk to even in the deepest dungeon.

Focus on the Fiction First and Mechanics Second

It's easy to get lost in the mechanics of the game and lose track of how they matter to the story. Use the story to drive the mechanics. Choose monsters that make sense for the story. Choose DCs based on what makes sense for the situation. Think about what's going on at that location before building combat encounters. Use random tables to spark new ideas about what's going on in the world. Put yourself in the world and let that drive the design of your adventure.

An Endless Evolving Hobby

Tabletop roleplaying games aren't like other games. They continually evolve. And we evolve with them. We can change our games however we want and learn entirely new ways to play. Bring in new ideas, test them against what you already know. Try them out and see if they work. Over the years our styles can change and evolve, bringing all new ways to enjoy this fantastic hobby.

If you want to improve, embrace these three words:

Always be learning.

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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