The idea of being a Dungeon Master in a tabletop RPG is, understandably, pretty daunting. A table full of people looking at you constantly, listening to your every word, stumbling clumsily through your well-crafted world with all the grace of an out-of-control semi-trailer? A nightmare by anybody’s standards. But don’t worry! You got this. We got this — together.
I’m going to tell you... The Three Golden Rules of DMing.
Say it with me, aspiring Dungeon Master: it’s not about you. It’s tempting to think that because everybody is paying attention to you and listening to your every word, that the game is, broadly speaking, about you. “No!” I say, slapping your beautifully written world-building out of your perfectly manicured hand. It is not. It is about the players.
Do your players want a hack-and-slash dungeon crawl? Give them endless monsters and pre-write some chunky descriptive text for when the barbarian rolls a crit and the goblin’s head explodes in a shower of blood as your axe thunders through it, smashing into the tree behind and carving off a huge chunk of wood.
Do they want insanely intricate collaborative story-building with a cast of their favourite NPCs showing up every other day? Draw up that family tree and flesh out that map, quizzing your players on detailed things like exactly what businesses does your family own in this town and how would you say your great-uncle was assassinated, exactly?
The reality is that most groups want a mix of both, in greater or lesser quantities. Every player group is different and they want different things. If you can give them what they want, they’ll be happy. Happy players are happy people, and happy people bring snacks that you don’t have to pay for. If you find yourself being really frustrated because the players aren’t doing what you want — suck it up. It’s not about you.
Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write beautiful world building or have perfectly manicured hands. But what I am saying is that if you only want players in your game so that they can admire your perfectly-pre-written world building, and they’re resenting every perfectly-pre-written moment because all they want to do is put their fist into the torso of an owlbear and pull out an sparkly amulet, then you have a problem. Change what you’re doing, or step down and let someone else DM.
You gotta put the players first. They outnumber you, if nothing else.
Coming up with your own material is hard. There’s so many great stories out there waiting to be told, and sure, you could be the one to tell them. But you’re a busy person and you got shit to do. Fortunately, I’ve got the answer: stealing (also known as theft). Just to be clear: I am explicitly advocating that you steal ideas from other people and present them as your own.
Steal relentlessly. Steal from TV and movies. Steal from books and comics. Steal from another D&D game you watched on Twitch. Listen: just stop acting like such a goody two-shoes and fuckin’ steal the shit out of everything. I am deadly serious and it will make you a better Dungeon Master if you do this.
Take your favourite character from something you read or watched and give them a sword instead of a gun. Bam! You got an NPC. Use that shocking twist from the end of Your Favourite Crime Procedural Show, but set it in a peaceful village or hamlet instead. Bam! You got a plot. Maybe change the gender of the character or the name of the macguffin or something if you’re worried that people will recognise it all. But my advice to you is that they won’t, because they’ll be too busy enjoying it.
Once I stole the entire plot of Metroid Prime (a great game! -Ed) and presented it as my own entire adventure. I even re-created the maps by hand (I was in high school and I had a lot of time). You too can be this kind of disgusting and un-repentant thief, or as they’re known around the table, “a bloody good DM”. And there’s never been a better time for outright theft, with so many resources available digitally — and for free.
In a recent D&D 5E game, my players investigated a rundown shack on the outskirts of a country town. We were playing using the Roll20 digital tabletop, so I needed a map background to display. I didn’t have the time or the skills to make one myself, but I had just the thing: theft. There’s a similar shack inhabited by redneck mutant ogres in a Pathfinder adventure called Rise of the Runelords that I’d read previously, so I looked it up, found that some kind soul on DeviantArt had made their own version of that map, stole it, and uploaded it into Roll20.
Then I simply tweaked (stole) the existing Pathfinder adventure text and replaced the monsters with my own so that it fit into the story I was telling. And nobody was the wiser! Until now, if you’re reading this. Sorry not sorry.
No plan survives the battle — and no plot survives the players. It happens. Players will do what they want, latching into an innocuous word you said that actually means nothing, fixating on a detail, or deciding that your gainfully-employed ogre NPC must be evil because all ogres are evil (stop racially profiling people, Tom). Maybe a rules question will come up that stops the table cold while five more books are hauled over from the shelf to cross-reference.
This happens and you can’t avoid it. The important thing is to remember this: don’t worry about it, and keep the game going. It is possible to recover from lost momentum in a game, but in my experience, once everyone’s out of the right headspace it’s difficult to pull them back. It’s just the way our brains work.
If a rules question is coming up that threatens to stop the game, rule in favour of the players (it’s fine!) but say “We’ll talk about it after the game and decide how it’ll work next time,” and keep playing. If you’ve hit a dead end with a subplot, be honest with your players. Say “I haven’t got anything prepared for this forest. We’ll have to come back in a future game,” and keep playing. Being upfront and transparent and consistent makes your games more fun.
“But what if the players are wrecking my story and I’m panicking!” you say, frantically whispering in the kitchen as you “refill your drink” for the eighth time this hour. Roll with it, and incorporate what the players are doing into the adventure if they can. Players love this shit (yeah you do, you players out there).
Are they fixated on the NPC? Make them adore it and then kill the NPC brutally once they’ve grown attached. Is one of them absolutely determined that this weirdly shaped rock you randomly rolled on a loot table is magic? Make it magic. It’s fine! It doesn’t have to be anything insanely overpowered: it’s about them having fun and feeling like their actions are important. (Later, have the main villain steal the magic item.)
Do not be afraid to alter a pre-written adventure. Your players will never know.
It’s not always easy to just wave your hand and plow ahead, because it can often feel like you’ve either failed or are having your hard work ignored (see Golden Rule #1!). When I started DMing I would often get into really bitter rules arguments with my high school friends, or throw bigger and bigger monsters at them the further they went away from my Carefully Constructed Railroad Of A Plot.
It’s something that takes time, and you will figure it out if you keep trying, until you’re doing it so smoothly that nobody even notices. And when everybody is having too much fun to notice that you’re making it up as you go along and are in a constant but invisible state of absolute panic, well — that’s when you know you’ve become a pretty decent DM.
The internet is overflowing with advice on how to be a good DM, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But it never hurts to learn more, so if you’re after some great places to start, let me show you some of my favourites.
Roleplaying Tips: This is a weekly newsletter, partially crowdsourced and partially curated, where DMs ask each other questions and exchange tips. There’s loads of randomly generated tables being thrown about, new and wacky ideas for handling basic mechanics, and advice on world building, table setups, and more. You can look at it here and browse the back issues here.
The Dungeon Bastard: Bill “The Dungeon Bastard” Cavalier is a great read if you’re into the “I attack the darkness” school of DMing, with a real focus on old-school flavour, monsters that spray gold out of them when they die, and, of course, dungeon crawling.
Gnome Stew: This blog is written by a team of Game Masters and it’s all about Game Mastering (unsurprisingly). Look through this blog for really solid advice on a range of topics — not all of which may be relevant to you, but it’s a great resource nevertheless.
Play Dirty: This book, written by John Wick, is one of my favourite resources on DMing. I wouldn’t recommend that first-time Dungeon Masters jump into this book and apply all the advice straight away, but once you’ve found your feet, this book will show you how to kick your players’ out from under them. It’s a brutal read.
Tim Colwill is the founder of Point & Clickbait, a satirical website about video games, and one of the co-founders of of Ten Copper, a website about roleplaying games, board games, and everything tabletop. You can shout at him on Twitter here.