The past 3 years, after each month of Dungeons & Dragons articles (this years theme was Realism and Verisimilitude) I went through some tips for new Dungeon Masters. Let’s do it again!
Keep an Open Mind
D&D is a very expansive game. There are a million different ways to play, between the adventures, characters, and even rules that you can choose to use or not use. Every time there is a new campaign beginning, the game is a little different, even if you are playing with the same people you’ve always played with, what they want out of the game might have changed. Perhaps you just finished an Underdark dungeoncrawl, and now they want to go into the Abyss to do a dungeoncrawl, that slight change could still be enough for you to consider changing how you play. If a player, whether or not they are new to you, wants to try something different this time, be open to changing the game. Who knows? You might find a way to play that’s even better than before.
Keep an Open Table
D&D is a fast growing hobby, and more people are playing now than ever before. With that, the conversation of Gatekeeping has come up. The idea here, is that longtime players have found how they like to play the game, and they don’t want new players joining and trying to change that, and keep them out of the hobby as a result. But like I mentioned above, change can be good.
I always want to say, however, that not every person has a place at every table. It is not gatekeeping to say that you shouldn’t try to play with any group you find. When someone comes to your table, or you come to a new table, and you realize that your playstyles are different, you can’t demand they change or leave, because that is gatekeeping. Instead, have a conversation like two adults, see what you like, what your playstyle tries to emulate, and what will make you not want to play, and the same for the other people at the table.
When we talk about creating safe spaces in the Tabletop Roleplaying Game (TtRPG) hobby, it doesn’t have to mean creating a game without offensive, mature, dark topics. A common response is “me and my players don’t WANT a safe space in our game!” which, ironically, means they have created a safe space. A safe space is merely a place where everyone involved has made it clear that they are okay with the offensive, mature, dark topics in the game.
So, when a new player joins your table, and they say they don’t want rape or slavery in their game, ask yourself if those topics are actually necessary to your game. Play an adventure without it, and see if you’re still having fun. This is keeping an open table.
However, sometimes people just don’t play well together. In my games, racism, classism, and the corruption of power are common themes. If you don’t want those real world politics entering your game, I’d be willing to run an adventure without it, and talk to you about what about it makes you uncomfortable, but it’s probably going to become a point of tension, and maybe we just aren’t the right group for each other, and that’s okay.
There is no right or wrong way to play, so be open to this collaborative game getting influence from unexpected places, and letting your game evolve.
So, you know you want to play games with these people, but it’s still a good idea to talk about aspects of storytelling that make you uncomfortable, and not want to play anymore. Dudebros call this getting “Triggered” or that you’re a “Snowflake” for not wanting to deal with certain topics, but every single person in the world has things that “Trigger” them, because we are human. There are things that are going to upset you, and that’s not a weakness. Instead, just be open and honest.
I’m about to run a game of Curse of Strahd, and that game is scary, it’s the point of the adventure. If you don’t want to be scared, don’t play Curse of Strahd. But I know a buddy of mine, if I were to simply mention that there were snakes in a dungeon, not only would he be scared, but he wouldn’t want to continue playing. He would literally get up from the table and leave, because he has such a fear of snakes that it would no longer be fun. That is a trigger, and it would be asinine to say that he should get over it because we are here to get scared. I’m just going to make sure there aren’t any snakes, and try to scare him in other, more exciting ways. It’s a boundary, and I would respect it.
So, before I run Curse of Strahd, I’m going to go through a list of topics that the story will cover (cannibalism, torture, psychological abuse, etc) and see where my players would be so uncomfortable that they wouldn’t want to play anymore. Then, I’ll ask them what they personally are too afraid of, and then ask what their characters are afraid of.
Boundaries are safe, and if you players are having fun, it is only because you’ve created a safe space.
Be a Crossing Guard
One of the toughest skills I’ve had to learn is how to manage the flow of conversation and action in the game. If you notice that one player is doing all the talking, or doing all the epic kills in combat, check in with the other players. For this to flow, look at their body language. Are they engaged, sitting up, watching the action unfold, or are they leaning back on their phone, barely paying attention? While it is the responsibility of the players to stay focused during a session, occasionally you need to slow down one player, and give another a solo chance to do something cool. Maybe that’s a specific skill check, or a type of NPC to talk to, or just a big monster to throw at the party. Whatever it is, learn how your players have fun, and make sure each of them has a chance to do that thing in your session.
Be Their Biggest Fan
A good way to be a good crossing guard? Be a fan of the PCs at your table. Your players made these characters with the intent of them becoming heroes. If you try to love the characters just as much as the players do, then you will naturally put them in instances where they will have meaningful challenges and exciting victories. Try to make Jeff like Tina’s character just as much as Tina does, and everyone will have more fun. When it’s time to decide or create the next adventure, don’t just think about what you want to run, but what kind of situations do you want to see these really cool characters in? There are characters that you can imagine sneaking into a Masquerade Ball, and other ones that will want to fight a creature down a roaring river. You know what these characters can do, put them in situations that will be awesome to watch.
If you’re ever stuck on where to go next, ask something crazy, like “What if this major NPC died?”, or “What if all of the players loot was stolen?”, “What if a raving band of orcs ran through town?” Often times we are focused on what we had planned on happening, when the PCs inevitably take things in a new direction, it can be hard to see what you can do. So instead, ask yourself questions that you know are too big, things that would be simply ridiculous and wouldn’t work. That then opens up your field of opportunity. Sure, that NPC shouldn’t die randomly, but what if they became ill? What if another NPC died? Sure, it would be lame if all of the players loot was stolen, but what if someone tried anyway, and failed? Who or what would try? Sure, a random band of orcs would be too erratic, but what other unrelated threats are in the area, that could cause an unexpected twist? Now we have opened up some really cool ideas that can get us moving forward again.
You have a lot on your plate. So many groups of players just show up to the table with dice and a character sheet, and don’t think about the game throughout the week. They just expect that when they arrive, you’ll have everything ready for them, like their favorite weekly show. That’s a lot to as of one person. So let’s hand off some responsibility.
Off the table, do you need to be the one that manages scheduling everyone, hosting the game night, and preparing the food? I don’t think so, I think other players can be equally responsible for those meta-tasks that are required just to get butts in seats.
On the table, having someone else taking notes of the story, tracking the initiative, or even being responsible for quickly looking up rules can take a lot of responsibility off yourself. If a question of grappling comes up, you can still make the decision, but if Tom to your left has the PHB and DMG at his side, or Roll20 open, and he can read out the Rules as Written (RAW) that will speed up your ability to make those quick judgement calls.
What do you think?
You’re the DM, and ultimately what happens in this world is up to you. From who the ruler is and why their populace hates them, to how much the potato soup costs in the tavern. However, just because it’s all ultimately your decision, doesn’t mean that you have to come up with everything yourself. If you have a table that is more comfortable or experienced, whenever a question about the world is asked that you don’t have a strong opinion about, open it up to the table. What kind of drinks do dwarves like? I don’t know, hey Dwarf Cleric, what kind of drinks do your people like? Is there a Thieves Guild in town? I don’t know, hey Tiefling Rogue, do you know any other rogues in town? Give the players at the table an opportunity to add to the world in which they live, it will add ownership, which will increase the stakes of risk.
Now, when you start to do this, there are two pitfalls to avoid. One is the players not knowing how to respond, because you didn’t warn them this might happen. Give them a heads-up at the beginning of the session, say “I’m thinking about having you guys help me come up with some details about this town, so if I ask you a question, there’s no wrong answer, just whatever comes to mind”. That way, they are ready to think about it. The other pitfall, is that your players might take it too far, and expect that whatever they answer is automatically the truth. Make it clear that you are just open to suggestions. If you like what they say, you can repeat it back to them more emphatically, you might change some details to fit the context or secrets they don’t yet know, or you might not like their answer, and go with your own ideas anyway. As long as they know ahead of time that you’re only asking for inspiration, then they might be more willing to give ideas, without taking it personally if you don’t go with their idea.
Don’t Listen to Me
That’s right, this whole article, close it and walk away. No I’m kidding, but don’t listen to only me. There are hundreds of sources to listen to when it comes to DMing, and none of them will work for you perfectly. Between the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Actual Play podcasts and Twitch streams, DM coaches like Matt Colville or Jacob from XPtoLevel3, blogs, previous editions, your players, Twitter, Reddit, and so many more, you can flood your brain with different ways of doing things.
Something I like to do is listen to someone I know I disagree with. Adam Koebel is a famous GM for Roll20.net, and he had over 100 hours of GM coaching on YouTube in a series called Office Hours. So many of his ideas and theories about running TtRPGs I disagreed with, but he has such well developed and thought out ideas, that I can’t help but think about how I would handle that situation myself, or what I think is the right thing to do, and it helps me grow my style of GMing. Luckily, from everything I’ve seen of Adam, I know that he would not be offended by my saying that I disagree, because now my opinions are coming not from reactions or thoughtless responses, but carefully considered options.
There is no right way to play these games, and the only wrong way is when people aren’t having fun. So experiment, try new things, be open to suggestions and listen to what your players want.
Absorb what is useful.
Discard what is not.
Add what is uniquely your own.Bruce Lee