Dungeon Master Lessons - Part 2

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.

Collaborative World Building

Here's a major problem when you decide to DM a game: before you even think about getting players, or anything else, you need to decide on your world. You can either use an existing setting, such as eberron or forgotten realms, or make your own setting. A lot of DMs want to create their own world, but the problem is, making your own world is a lot of work. So there is this idea amongst DMs that it is entirely their responsibility to make these worlds, which is completely false. Players like world building just as much as DMs do; many players probably hop between playing and DMing, and even so, it's still a creative game. You're going to have players who have their own ideas about this sort of thing.

So, you don't need to, nor SHOULD you take all the responsibility on yourself. This idea of collaborative building isn't exactly a new one. Take a look at something like Wikipedia. Wikipedia is massive; what would be considered an impossible task for a private entity to catalog the world's knowledge is made infinitely easier when you have the people of the world catalog their own knowledge. In fact, a wiki is a great way to do collaborative world building. This is because, when you're writing an article, when you want to create a new article, you just put brackets around words. So, you'll be writing an article about one aspect of your world, and put brackets around something else that comes up, to fill out later. You'll think "oh that's cool" and you'll go to that article and start writing about that, and ideas will naturally branch out as you write. The players can participate in this as well; they can editi a wiki as well as you can, and they'll have ideas they think are cool. They'll end up doing a lot of work for you. This is something they need to do anyway when they create their characters, because they come up where they came from, what life was like, and what their motivation was to start adventuring. They can create cities, countries, they can even create their own continents. Plenty of times, they'll probably end up making something really cool that everyone will want to explore within the game world. If you just read through these locations or people they've written about, you'll start finding tons of potential plot hooks.

You can start the game with almost nothing in the world and have it grow out organically around you and your players as the game progresses. You don't have to have all your ideas laid out before you even start playing. Say, for example, you're a few sessions in and someone gets this idea for a location and it's really cool. Your whole party wants to go there, so you do. There is no reason to set the world in stone, and there's no reason to do all of the world building on your own.


Reskinning is an idea that is just starting to pick up a lot of steam. Let me pose a hypothetical: I have this idea for a character. It's a half-dragon, half-vampire spellcaster that shoots elemental bolts. So, I make a half-dragon, half-vampire sorcerer, and only select spells that are elemental based. This is called "class as identity." You take your class as the identity of your character, rather than just as a set of mechanics.

Now, what if I don't like the sorcerer class, or I can't actually BE a half-dragon, half-vampire in the rules. Well, the class as identity player will say 'nope, can't be that character, not allowed in the rules.' So, I can't do it. This is where reskinning comes in. A class is really nothing more than a set of mechanics that fill a particular role in the game. So let's say I'm looking at the mechanics for a class, and I like the ranger. I like twin-strike, I like the powers that are available, and I like how they function. The reskinner goes and creates a ranger, and let's say he makes it a human because he likes the mechanical benefits humans get; however, when the game starts, he's not a human ranger, he's a half-dragon half-vampire sorcerer that shoots elemental bolts. When he created his character, he made a class that he liked, but when he plays the character, it's this ridiculous dragon-vampire thing. In combat, when he shoots at an enemy, he doesn't shoot arrows, he shoots elemental bolts. Mechanically, he still works the same, he's still a ranged striker, but appearance-wise, flavour-wise, he's a completely different character. He just used the mechanics that he likes to use, and created the character he likes to play. The mechanics and the character do not have to be connected.

This also works for the DM. The monster manual 3 just came out, wherein they made massive, sweeping changes to how they handle monsters. Essentially they do more damage, and have lower defences and less health, making them easier to hit. The result is that combat is faster and more deadly. This is because fast and deadly combat is fun and exciting. Now, you could try to use only monsters from the monster manual 3 in your game. In fact, I would recommend it; you should probably have about 80% of all your stuff from it. However, with the MM3, when it comes to actual monster ideas, they were really starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel. Monster Manual 1 and 2 contained most of what people would consider the classic monsters. This could pose a problem when making encounters, at least to the "class as identity" player. Say your players are in an underground tomb fighting undead, and you're looking through the MM3, and you really like how a particular monster works mechanically. Unfortunately, this monster is a sentient fungus; it's not undead. The "class as identity" player says 'well, I can't use this guy then, he's not undead. Sentient fungus would look pretty ridiculous next to skeletons and zombies.' The reskinner, though, says "ok, this is undead now. It's some sort of bone golem" and you put it in your encounter. When the players fight that encounter, and they see this monster, as far as they're concerned, it was never a sentient fungus. They have no reason to believe it was.

Another thing you can do is you can also reskin rules and the setting. Say you want to have guns in your game; you could either wait for those official rules to come out, or you could use some crazy home-brew rules that some random stranger has whipped up, which are probably not balanced. Or you could just reskin.

So now, a sling becomes a pistol, a bow becomes a rifle, and here's where it gets fancy, a bastard sword becomes a shotgun. On the map, one square doesn't equal five feet; one square equals twenty feet to reflect the longer distances that take place with gun-based combat. The rules don't change mechanically, but now the players get to imagine they're shooting guns instead of bows and magic.

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