Dungeon Master 101 – So You Want To Be The Dungeon Master

So, you’re going to be the DM.  Through choice or fate, or sheer blind luck, you have been thrust into the role of being the Dungeon Master, Storyteller Supreme, Master of Fate and Weaver of the Web.  Through you, heroes will rise, villains will fall and players get to go home and feel good about themselves.  It’s a tough job, you sure you’re up to it?

I jest of course.  The DM has a difficult job, for sure but sometimes the DM is treated with a sense of awe, as if they were some amazing player with a gift for improvisation and every rule for 5th Edition tattooed behind his or her eyeballs.  I assure you, this is not the case.  We’re just simple people like you who love to play Dungeons and Dragons.  We just play it in a slightly different way.  In this series, I want to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained from DMing, share some handy tips along the way and demonstrate that you don’t need to be some master storyteller to run a game of D&D.  All you need is some extra knowledge, a little bit of preparation time and a good dose of imagination.  I want to show you that anyone can be a DM and hopefully encourage some of you to give it a go.  Trust me, it’s worth the effort. 

First of all, let’s cast aside any illusions.  Being the DM can be hard work but it’s work that is ultimately rewarding.  One of the best things ever said to me is that people forget that the DM is playing too, they’re just playing a slightly different version of the game.  Let me give you an example: the players are the protagonists in the story, they’re the ones trying to work out the clues and uncover the mystery.  They are, within the context of a murder mystery, Hercule Poirot.  It’s up to them to find out who did it and bring the murderer to justice through investigation, persuasion and occasionally giving someone a smack with a war mace (ok, I don’t believe that Poirot ever did that but you get the point).  Being the DM, you’re still playing the same story but instead of being Poirot, you’re Columbo.  You know who the killer is, what he used and in what room he committed the crime.  But instead of enjoying the revelations as they happen, you get to see the players doing the discovery and vicariously enjoy their adventure as they slowly piece the puzzle together.  Same game, different perspective. 

Of course, this isn’t always the case.  As much as you will laugh as you witness your players exploring the plot, you will also despair as they focus on some inane piece of obscure information, convinced that it holds some clue to the deeper plot.  In those circumstances you need to develop a good poker face and know how to gently move them on. 

Being the DM is also great for your own creativity.  I love creating characters and monsters and being the DM is the best place to exercise those skills.  I have a vast array of characters I have designed over the years and I’ve only ever got to play a small handful of them.  However as DM, you get to play everyone other than the Player Characters.  They get stuck with playing one character over and over again, you get to play hundreds.  From the bawdy bard to the glowering villain, you can create as many characters as you like and pit them against your players.  This is often great for livening up some dull aspects of your campaign.  Have your players been sent to yet another dull town with boring citizens?  Swap them out for your own characters and have fun watching your team interact with them.  I first did it by exchanging a rather dull merchant in Tomb of Annihilation with my own Dragonborn charlatan who caused them recurring trouble as the adventure continued and I’ve been doing it ever since.  If you do it well, your players will never even know that you are using your own creations unless you tell them but they will remember the colourful encounters you have. 

“But what if I get it wrong!?”

You’re going to get it wrong.  You’re going to make mistakes all the time.  It’s inevitable.  I have forgotten how player’s magic items worked, forgotten the rules for falling damage, how Polymorph works, where players are on the combat map, people’s initiative rolls and even entire encounters sometimes.  It happens, get used to it.  As long as you’re not a jerk about it, your players will forgive you.  They want to have a great adventure and they should be forgiving about your mistakes as you’re forgiving about theirs.  Many of the mistakes you’re going to make your players won’t even realise you’ve done as they take place behind the DM’s screen.  Try not to be too hard on yourself. 

As DM, you need to do plenty of preparation and have a number of scenarios prepared.  But if you’re not going to DM until you have every possible outcome planned for, you’re never going to DM.  Prepare a little, read a lot but in the end, it often comes down to the greatest skill a DM can have: Imagination.  When my players do unexpected things or kill the wrong NPC or head off the map, no amount of planning can fix that instantly.  You have to think on your feet and guide them back to the proper course or, help them explore the new branch to your adventure that they’ve just discovered.  I added a small encounter to our most recent campaign and it’s now become a character’s main quest, something I’m having to write in the background as we go along. 

Taking up the DM’s mantle can be daunting but overall, it’s a compliment.  This is your world you’re creating and your players are choosing to come and play in it with you.  You are, in this world, a god.  You can create, destroy and manipulate to your heart’s content.  This realm, one that is made of pure imagination, is yours and yours alone.  Wizards of the Coast make this very clear in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.  This is your realm, your world, nothing is set in stone.  Sure, Dungeons and Dragons lore goes back years but it’s not stopped people from taking that lore and making it their own and very glad we should be for it too.  If people hadn’t bent and twisted the worlds to fit their campaign, we might never have got Eberron or Greyhawk or Dragonlance. 

If you’re the kind of person who would create whole worlds while daydreaming or bring characters to life with your imagination, or drew hastily scribbled characters in the back of your exercise books, you’re going to do just fine.  And even if you were never prolific, if you love fantasy worlds, enjoy creating lots of monsters and write sixteen page backstories for your characters, you’re going to be great.  It’s your world and the fun is only just beginning. 

Next time:  Source books and preparing for your campaign.

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