No, not that kind. Get your head out of the gutter! I’m talking about the kind that builds fantastical worlds, coerces hapless adventurers into fighting dragons and portrays every tavern owner in every town in every realm in existence.
If you play Dungeons & Dragons, you’ve likely encountered a variety of different dungeon masters in your time. There’s the stingy type, the kinds that play by the rules and rarely deviate, keeping the game fixed in reality, or as close to reality as a fantasy world can be. Then, there are those who play it fast and loose, introducing you to monsters like Steve the Necromancer and dishing out magical items that are just the fantasy equivalent to Amiibos (like the “Solid [silver] Snake statuette that creates the illusion of a box around you).
There’s a broad spectrum of Dungeon Masters, just as there is a broad spectrum of players, but if you’re reading this, you’ve likely found that finding someone to DM can be much more difficult than finding players, and so you’ve decided to take one for the team and assumed the role out of necessity. Or maybe you haven’t, and you’re just looking for some useful tips and tricks to make your life easier. Either way, here are some suggestions to help you get started:
Every dungeon master should study the Dungeon Masters Guide book, and keep it handy for reference because no one in their right mind should be expected to memorize it. Having a solid foundation in the rules is crucial, but don’t be afraid to deviate when the situation arises. You’ll save everyone a lot of grief if you’re all on the same page about the ground rules, and while you may not know it all, you can always turn to your notes, or myriad free internet sources and reference guides, to keep you grounded in whatever reality you choose to explore.
A good dungeon master needs to be able to think on the fly, and, depending on your play style that can mean anything from pulling obscure pop culture references out of your metaphorical hat for players whenever they ask for the name of one of your many NPCs, to being able to quickly reference magical item charts and stat checks. D&D is a game built on choice, storytelling and chaos, and if you can’t handle your players deviating from your narrative path, then you need to either find a creative way to herd them, or you need to hand the reins over to someone who can.
As stated previously, guiding the party can be a lot like herding cats (read: near impossible). That doesn’t mean you can’t have story structure and a plot, and you should, if you don’t want your game to just be a series of monster mashes. You can, if you want to, but not everyone is into a monster-of-the-week experience. Don’t expect to write up a Homer’s Odyssey for every new campaign but try to start the game with a rough idea of your player’s motivations and an overarching goal for your players to work toward. This can be anything from building up strength to take on a vampire lord to returning a stolen relic to its rightful tomb. If you’re feeling creatively burnt out, I suggest listening to D&D podcasts like Critical Role or The Adventure Zone or checking out D&D YouTube channels to help you get into the storytelling mindset and provide you with inspiration and ideas. And don’t be afraid to pull reference from outside, unrelated media like TV shows and movies. It’s your world, and where you take it is up to you. Be creative, be original, and when you can’t be that, be funny and have fun with it.
Different kinds of players have different kinds of needs and may have different expectations or ideas for how they want to play the game. It’s important to check in with all your players before a new campaign to figure out how involved their character backstories are, what they plan to do, and what their motivations are, regardless of how story intensive your game will be. Above all that, however, you should always keep the channel of communication open with all members of your party, both in and out of the game. It’s always annoying to find out at the last minute that someone can’t make it to game night, and if players have questions or suggestions between meetings, it’s crucial for game flow that you address their concerns. Better to do so earlier in the week than to spend a half-hour answering questions before the game can start.
A notebook or journal is going to be your best friend here, regardless of your narrative style. You are going to be holding onto a lot of information, and while your players should be in charge of keeping their own character sheets and levels up to date, you may find it helpful to keep track of baseline info like their stat numbers and unique abilities, not only for accountability reasons, but also to make calculating things like passive perception faster and easier for everyone. It can also be difficult to keep track of narrative progress or what you have and haven’t told the players yet and keeping notes can make this a whole lot easier. Just make sure your players never see your notes, nobody likes a spoiler.
These tips are only meant to give you a solid foundation in the art of Dungeon Mastering. When it comes to Dungeons & Dragons, it’s really up to you (and your party). Everyone is different, and not every group is going to be perfect, but the more you communicate and the more enthusiasm you bring to the table, the more fun you’ll have, and the easier it will be for everyone. So, go out, get weird and above all, have fun with it.
Sarah Nowack is a senior professional writing major who is minoring in graphic design. Her days are spent haunting the local library, consuming copious amounts of coffee, playing unpopular video games, and making terrible puns. She can be found at @battlerouge on Twitter and @shiverbound on Instagram.