That it ruined my marriage notwithstanding (I kid, I kid), Dungeons and Dragons is a great game. Many years ago I started out as the dungeon master (DM) with a group in Des Moines (DSM), but it quickly became clear that the real man with the plan was our friend Ken. When Ken took over the game got way, way better. (Bonus: I got to take over roleplaying as Ken’s sad-sack wizard Sarius, a role I miss.) It’s become a passion for him, and Ken now tweets and blogs, appropriately, as Ken the DM.
If you’re already a DM, thinking about becoming one, or just want to borrow some lessons for DM-like situations in your own life (project management, anyone?), here are Ken’s seven principles of great dungeon mastering:
1) Be inclusive
D&D has a long sordid past with inclusivity. Anyone who looks back at the older editions of the Player’s Handbook finds a fantasy world dominated by white men with goatees and perfect hair. Which is strange, because D&D is literally a game where a diverse group people come together to solve the world’s problems. While 5th edition has taken strides toward an inclusive environment, it’s your job to bring that to your table. Make the game welcoming to everyone; this includes making your table a safe place. A D&D session is shouldn’t be used as an opportunity to explore how grim-dark you can get. Don’t be that guy.
2) Ask questions
Questions make the game a shared space – As a Dungeon Master, you are often pushed to be responsible for the entire world. That’s bullshit. The game world is a shared space, and the players are just as responsible for it as you. The easiest way to start pulling information from your players is to ask leading questions. Is a Thief in the group? Why is there a 200gp bounty on their head? Is there a Cleric in the group? Who did they disappoint to get sent out with a group of adventurers? Where and from whom did the Wizard learn her spells? Why does the bard think the Blue Hand Gang is trying to kill him? Don’t forget to follow up on their answers. Ask for names of places and people. Use this to build the world. If players start offering game lore on their own, reward them.
3) Take notes
Your players are going to talk. A lot. Sometimes they are going to say something important, maybe talk about their past a little bit. Smile and then write it down. It might not make sense now, but it doesn’t have to. After a session, take 10 minutes to write down the top three things that happened and save it for when you are prepping the next session.
4) Prepare (but not too much)
You will need to prepare some for each session, how much is really up to your comfort level. At a bare minimum, ask your players where they are going, review what happened last time, and expand off of that. Have an encounter or two ready for your players to defeat or avoid. However, avoid spending too much time preparing, because your players will invariably go their own way (i.e. in a direction you didn’t expect). If you spent 12 hours preparing for the characters to go left, you are going to have a bad time when they venture right.
5) Push the fantastic
D&D is a game meant to dazzle. There are old mages in forgotten crumbly towers. Dragons that patrol the great crystal cities of the East. Dark evils older than time itself corrupting the ancient sylvan glades. The game is about the weird and the fantastic. Here is an example: At Origins, I played a pickup game where our party encountered a wizard’s tower that was stuck 45 degrees out of the ground. Once we entered, our characters immediately oriented to the tower. Did it mechanically change the game at all? No. But the fantastic sense of the tower made the game memorable. Besides, if you wanted to live the boring, non fantastic life, you could just play Catan*.
6) Be polygamerous
Some of the best dungeon master advice is contained in the books of other RPGs. My sessions wouldn’t be nearly as strong if I hadn’t ran a session or two of Dungeon World, Dungeon Crawl Classic, or Beyond the Wall. Different RPGs have different strengths and focus on different portions of the role play experience. Even if D&D is your only jam, exposure to a few sessions of different RPGs will make you a better Dungeon Master.
7) Remember rule No. 0
You and your players are there to have fun. If everyone had a great time, nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter if you forgot half the rules, miscalculated the duration of a sleep spell, or mispronounced all of the elven names. Don’t sweat it.
*Author’s note: I actually like playing Catan.
Thanks Ken! Great list. Replace “elves” with “developers” and “table” with “project” and these principles could work just as well on a design sprint. If only I could take a potion to boost my charisma at work.
*** Originally published as List No. 46 of the 7x77 newsletter project.