5 Tips to Become a Great Dungeon Master
I started playing tabletop RPGs back in 2010. Like most people, the only system I'd ever heard of was Dungeons and Dragons. I didn't want to spend any money on a system, so I made up my own.
Since 2010, I've tried many systems. Savage Worlds, D&D 4th edition, Pathfinder, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire and many others. I've made up several systems, including one meant to be played during road trips and one for the zombie apocalypse.
I've learned a heck of a lot of things in that time. This advice can be applied to any system; the tips have more to do with social interaction than game mechanisms.
5. Dice Rolling
Here's one that I only heard recently and it was an epiphany: Don't roll the dice unless the outcome is uncertain. In other words, only roll the dice if there is a chance of failure. In many of my early games I thought the dice needed to roll for every possible situation, leading to strange scenarios where players would fail something trivial like stepping over a puddle.
Unless the players are in combat, you can assume that with any reasonable amount of time they will complete a given task. Say the players want to break down the door to an old haunted cottage. They're not in any apparent danger. It's a sunny day and everyone is rested and fed. If the GM has them roll the die and they fail, they're just going to roll again until they get the door open. Save them all of the needless rolling and just let the door fall down the first time they ask.
Imagine the same scenario except in combat: The players are being attacked by archers hiding in the forest. The players are trying to seek refuge in the cottage, but it's locked! Now it's appropriate for a dice roll to break down the door because of the way combat is structured into turns. Each turn a player fails to break down the door is another turn they are exposed to danger.
4. Say "Yes, And"
When I first started running games, my players would come up with all kinds of crazy ideas.
"I grab onto the pterodactyl and it flies me up into the sky!" says one player.
"No, that doesn't happen," I say.
Do you see how terrible this is? The moment the player is finally having fun, I shoot him down. Now instead of having a fun pterodactyl-mounted chase, the player is going to sit in the corner and placidly watch the rest of the proceedings. With four words, I've made the game boring.
Instead of denying them fun, get used to saying "yes, and." In the above scenario, I would have said, "yes, and in the distance you see an even bigger pterodactyl. Perhaps it's the mother?"
As a result, everyone at the table has a more interesting scenario to play with. Nobody's feeling are hurt and the entire game has gotten better.
On a side note, there will be times when players do suggest ridiculous things ("I have a nuclear bomb in my back pocket and I detonate it!") that simply can't happen. Have the players come to a consensus as to whether or not it can be allowed to happen in the story. Either way, try to avoid giving a hard "no."
3. Know Your Players
Imagine you're making a snack platter for your favorite holiday get-together with friends. You would make sure there was something for everyone, right? You know that Jack hates celery, so make sure there's other things to eat.
In terms of RPGs, you need to make sure that a given adventure has something that everyone can enjoy. Typically the players' character will reflect their desires in a game.
• Jack has made his character very high in Shooting, Computers and Piloting.
• Mark has made his character an assassin (and so on for the remaining players).
Make a note of what each player likes (and what their characters are good at) and then meet those needs as much as possible. I made the following table for my players in our Star Wars: Edge of the Empire campaign:
Obviously the table doesn't need to be fancy. Mine was made in 10 minutes using Adobe Illustrator, but your tables can easily be hand-drawn. It's only ever going to be seen by you (the GM) anyway.
If you're looking for inspiration for what a good campaign should look like, look no further than your favorite TV shows. For my example, lets look at LOST.
• Every episode of LOST examined one character in detail. How they became who they are, how they react to things now.
• Each character episode revealed something about the overall plot. In writing terms that's called a story arc. There are little arcs (a character's personal journey), bigger ones (a whole season) and perhaps one for the entire series itself.
If you are the kind of person who likes to plan a lot for RPGs, start by picking a character to focus on. How does this particular story affect them? How might they overcome it? Leave in lots of ways for them to both fail and persevere. The ultimate choice is up to the player.
This also lets you build toward some ultimate confrontation. I like to call it the "season finale." If you're finishing a campaign, it's the series finale and it should be suitably epic.
Here's a flow chart that maps out an entire "season" of gaming in a zombie apocalypse campaign.
1. Rules Come Second
You've probably heard this one time and again, but it's still true: If a rules question comes up and it's a cloudy situation, make an immediate judgment and look it up later. Do NOT stop the game to look up the rule.
Once the game ends, then and only then should you consult the rules. From then on you'll know the correct answer to that particular situation.
At the end of the day, you're still playing an imaginary game in your head. It's your job as GM to facilitate the pace of the game and make sure everybody's having a great time. Don't bring the game to a screeching halt for the sake of one rule.
Do you have any tips for running a good game? Stories of things that happened when your game ran off the rails? Sound off in the comments below!