Dungeon Master Lessons

Recently I was asked to run a Dungeon Master workshop where I gave a lesson on good DMing practices and did a Q&A for common problems. Below is the rough transcript of that lesson from notes taken during. There are some parts that are specifically catered towards 4th edition D&D, but the bulk of the lesson is compatible with any ruleset. Also note that since this was me actually talking with someone else trying to quickly type it up, it's probably not going to be the most cleanly written article, but I did go through and clean it up as best I could. All of these come from a variety of sources, some from the books, some from other sites, and some from my head, but the whole thing was just a meandering train of thought.

Say Yes Philosophy

Tabletop gaming is really about only one thing; it's not about playing make-believe, it's not about the rules, it's not about your world, or your story. It's about a group of friends getting together and having fun. Generally the most common way of manufacturing fun, at least in game design, is setting and meeting goals. Players like to overcome a challenge, and generally you do that by setting some sort of goal, such as defeating a group of monsters.

The key to these challenges is that they need to actually be threatening. That's why there's health and death; that's why there are dice rolls with ups and downs. It's knowing you're on the edge of failure. That feeling greatly enhances the enjoyment of success. You will often see two types of extremes when it comes to creating these types of challenges. First of all, there's the "buddy" DM, who just sort of hands the players everything. You often hear the players saying that they never really feel like they're in danger with this type of DM. This is something that hurts the enjoyment. It doesn't necessarily ruin the enjoyment, but it does put you a little bit off par. The other DM type is the adversarial DM, who tries very hard to kill the players, and he often succeeds, because if you want to kill a player it is fairly easy.

So, you don't want to make it too hard or easy. Generally the sweet spot is if you have a line, and one end is trivial, and the other end is impossible, and right in the middle is average, you actually want to put it three quarters of the way to impossible. Somewhere between average and impossible. Players need to feel threatened, and new DMs don't always realize this.

Now, another way players have fun is by doing cool stuff, and there are going to be times, probably several times a session, when players will come up with something that isn't covered by the rules. Your answer to this should always, ALWAYS be yes. Always say yes to the crazy idea. Here's the thing: as the DM, you're the arbiter of their enjoyment. You aren't the arbiter of the rules. There are books for that. There is errata for that. There are rules lawyer players for that. It's ultimately not your job to enforce the rules; so many other things are. What the DM is there for, is to allow the players to break the rules. You have the ability to make up rules on the spot, because the books can't do that. It's your job to come up with rules that are enjoyable for everyone at your table.

The main limitation here is that these actions the players do that are not in the rules, they still need to be balanced against the existing rules. You shouldn't have a single player trivialize the encounter, because that makes it less fun for everyone else, and you shouldn't make their cool attack mean nothing. Now, the DMG actually has rules on improvised attacks, for whatever sort of improvised attack a player could come up with, like, say, picking up tables and smashing them over an enemy's head. But the improvised weapons aren't very powerful, they are actually fairly weak. The powers should actually be roughly equivalent to an at-will attack, although maybe one or two points below, so that there's still incentive and enjoyment for buying new gear. Weakening improvised weapons only punishes melee characters; spellcasters are still unaffected. Even though it might not seem realistic to increase the damage of improvised attacks, it's ultimately unfair not to, which is something you want to avoid.

Essentially, the point is you should always say yes to whatever a player wants to do, because it is not your job to limit your players. It's your job to enable and balance those actions so that they are ultimately still challenged, because challenge is fun. You're really shooting yourself in the foot if you don't let a player do something for a reason as trite as the sanctity of your imaginary world or plot.

Plot Grids

Books tend to run in a straight line; they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This works really well for books and makes an interesting plot arc where you can see stuff develop. You can generally trust the narrator to deliver a compelling story, at least if the narrator is good. Now, while this is good for a book, it's not so good for a game. Some DMs like to speak AT their players, much like a book, but the players will ultimately get bored if it's just you talking at them, and you making all the important decisions the whole time. You're not there to make them bored, you're there to have fun. You're there to set goals, and complete those goals by making choices. This is how your players will have fun.

Generally how these profound player choices tend to materialize, particularly in video games, are these branching decision points, which branch you into one of two paths. You say yes to something, or you say no to something, and the world changes as a result. The problem with this, is that it creates significantly more development time. You have to create both possibilities of that choice ahead of time, one of which won't even be seen by the players. That one that doesn't get used, you end up doing all that work for nothing, but the DM's time is just as valuable as the player's time. Don't spend a lot of time doing stuff that doesn't get used. If that does happen, recycle that encounter that you didn't use for later, because the players aren't going to know anyway.

Here's where the idea of the plot grid comes in. You have a number of columns and a number of rows; each column represents a story arc or major quest. Each individual cell in the column is a step in that story arc, encounter, or quest, like your standard RPG quest. You do this for each row, for all their columns, so you are coming up with different story arcs or major quests. So, that ends up being many many individual little quests or adventures that the players can go on. Then, you present these columns, these major quests to the players and let them pick what they want to do. The players will get to do all of these individual points at some time, so all the work you've planned out will get used, but the players decide how they weave their way through this grid of plots that you've come up with. The players are free to start or continue any of the arcs at any time. For example, say they do the second part of arc two where they investigate a cult and then they realize that the third part, where they research a ritual they've found, is really far away but the next step in arc four, where they defend a town from a siege is nearby, so they go and do that instead, putting off the next step in arc two for later. And so, the players are hopping between these story points and crafting their own narrative and path through your plot.

Arc 1 Arc 2 Arc 3 Arc 4 Arc 5
Part 1 Root out the undead Solve the disappearances Explore the shipwreck Stop the goblin guerillas and train militia The seer's warning
Part 2 Explore the crypt Investigate the cult base Stop the Naga Ceremony Find and destroy the scout base Infiltrate the castle ranks
Part 3 Pass the dead hero's trial Research the ritual Sailor's Favour Defend the town from the siege The test of nobility
Part 4 Find the Dawn's Light Stop the summoning Kill the Sea Monster Research the Ogre King Totems The King's favour
Part 5 Defeat the Necromancer Explose and defeat the cult leader politician Seal the underwater cavern Assault the Warrens and fight the Ogre King The royal assassin unmasked
\ \ | / /
Defeat the Black Dragon Mastermind

Generally you will find that players like to find the path of least resistance. They won't go point to point to point in a single arc; they'll actually zig zag or do a bunch in the same area and make a really efficient route through all your plot points scattered around your map, because they like to create a very optimized route. What this does is gives the players this open world feeling; they're making decisions about how it all plays out. You can even add a ticking clock to this; if they don't make it to one of these plot points within a certain amount of time, it gets tougher, either by an increased difficulty in the encounter, fewer resources, or some sort of penalty. It's important that they know about the ticking clock, however, because what this does is it adds another tactical layer onto their decision process. They'll end up making a very time efficient route with this method.

Once they do all of these little cells on your grid, that's pretty much an entire tier; that could be the entire heroic tier. Once all points are done, you could do one big finale fight, where all these different plots come together, and then move them on to the paragon tier. Then, in the paragon tier, the whole process starts over again, except now you have an arc that takes place in sigil, and another that takes place in the underdark, and the players hop through these locations with an expanded travel scope. You go from a single continent in heroic to hopping around the planes in paragon. Or if you do a small grid with just encounters done in this one area the entire grid could represent a level, with the boss fight being the finale.

What this does is allows you to give control to your players over the plot without feeling like you've wasted effort in crafting storylines and encounters that won't be seen. Think about this: Mario 64 uses a plot grid.