Dungeon Mastering (DnD Guideline)
From D&D Wiki
Being a good dungeon master will be what makes or breaks your campaign and your player's experience. There are many do's and don'ts that you will need to know to improve the gaming experience for your players when hosting a game. There are also many pitfalls that even experienced DMs can fall into, and irresponsible players may try to take advantage of an inexperienced DM.
This guide was originally intended to give a helping hand to beginner DMs, but has since grown to be a compilation of collected advice from dozens of Dungeon Masters. When reading this guide, it is important to know that no DM does everything that every other DM does. There is no perfect combination, no set criteria for how to run the perfect game. Every DM has their own methods and techniques, and those techniques are a unique expression of their own individuality as people. Most DMS use different techniques from one game to another, even! Instead of reading everything, end-to-end, it is better to approach this as a technical guide. Look for the subject you are struggling with, and skip to that section. While there is a great deal to be learned from one another, the RPG hobby was founded upon personal innovation and creativity, so simply aping others won't get you very far, or feel very satisfying. While learning from the greats can give you a good head start, or get you over a bump in the road, their methods alone will not make you great. Ultimately, the thing that will set you apart as a successful DM will be your own influence on how you run the game, your own insights and inventions that enrich the lives of other hobbyists. Be bold, be confident, be creative.
If your gaming experience is enriched by the innovations of those who came before you, do those who will follow in your footsteps a favor, and give back to the community by sharing your new insights with them. When contributing to these guides, try to fit your tips and tricks into the correct chapter, or place it in the discussions page and it can be placed for you. Feel free to create a new chapter if an appropriate one does not exist.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Basics
- 3 Advanced
- 4 Stuff to be used
- 5 What is a DM?
- 6 The DM as an Organizer: Creating and Hosting a Game
- 7 The DM as a God: Creating A World
- 7.1 The world
- 7.1.1 Top-Down Design
- 7.1.2 Bottoms-Up Design
- 7.1.3 Maps
- 220.127.116.11 World Maps
- 18.104.22.168.1 Geology
- 22.214.171.124.2 Geography
- 126.96.36.199.3 Meteorology
- 188.8.131.52.4 Ecology
- 184.108.40.206 Other Scales
- 220.127.116.11 World Maps
- 7.1.4 Time
- 7.2 Populating the World
- 7.3 The Local Area
- 7.1 The world
- 8 The DM as a Story Teller: Creating a Narrative
- 8.1 Spotlight
- 8.2 Storytelling
- 8.3 Interactions & Task Resolution
- 8.4 Encounters
- 8.5 Adventures
- 8.5.1 Roleplay: The Thread Connecting Encounters
- 8.5.2 Freeplay
- 8.5.3 Plot Hooks
- 8.5.4 Invisible Walls
- 8.5.5 Non-Standard Play
- 8.5.6 Adventure Types
- 8.5.7 Adventure Objectives
- 8.6 Campaigns
- 8.7 The DM as a Patron: Rewarding your Players
- 9 The DM as a Moderator: Handling Players
- 9.1 Confidence & Authority, AKA: Balls for all
- 9.2 Slobs, AKA: The Grognard
- 9.3 Poor Sportsmanship, AKA: Children!
- 9.4 Cheating, AKA: The Issue With Morals
- 9.5 Metagaming, AKA: The Issue With Ethics
- 9.6 Rules-Lawyering, AKA: Because I Can Talk Circles Around You!
- 9.7 Powergaming, AKA: If God Wanted Men to Fly...
- 9.8 Munchkinism AKA: You People ARE The Game!
- 9.9 Bullies
- 9.10 Impartiality, AKA: The Problem With Love
- 9.11 Elitism
- 9.12 Juvinility AKA: The Censorship of an Art Form
- 9.13 Helping People, AKA: When Things Get Too Real
- 9.14 Bad Play
- 10 The DM as a Game Designer: Making Stuff Up
- 11 The DM as a Human Being: General Advice
- 12 Appendix N: Inspiration Resources
Never touched a polyhedral die or played a role? Welcome to the hobby! This guide focuses on how to go about starting up and running that first game, starting from nothing.
A general guide. This covers practical technique, all of the information regarding world building, playing characters, rules guidance, etc. This is a guide to the actual practice of Dungeon Mastering.
The advanced section of the guide requires a fair bit of maturity on your behalf. This section discusses psychology at the table, social contract issues, game design theory, aesthetics, and more. Many of the topics discussed here are either a rabbit-hole, (a path that will lead you to the knowledge of a university graduate) or has a high bar for understanding, (initially requires the knowledge of a university graduate). Luckily, Wikipedia has a lot of useful pages which we will link to when we feel a topic has a great deal of additional reading beyond the scope of the guide.
Everything below this line is from the original guide, and has yet to be migrated to a sub-guide.
Stuff to be used
Eric and the Dread Gazebo for a discussion about clarity and communication.
Garg and Moonslicer for a discussion about storytelling and characterization.
Glossary Since this article, and the hobby at large, use slang and jargon, we should help them grok.
Barker makes some amazing recaps. This is for a section about running the game, session-wise.
Party Splitting Again, for running the game. (Gets a little aggressive at one point...)
Again, no idea how to include it, but this is needed Playing evil
I'd like to make a section comparing editions
- A look at OD&D as it was actually played by the developers
- The History of D&D
- The sitch as it stands
- Early D&D was rubbish
- Mid-period D&D wasn't great
- 4th Edition is terrible
- Spoony slams 5e
- Spoony continues to slam 5e
- Nerdarchy defends 5e
- Nerdarchy downtalks 5e
- Which edition should I play?
- 5e: Why?
- The downside to Pathfinder (Because we include it here on the wiki)
- An Original Fighter
- A Not-So-Original Fighter
- A Basic Fighter
- An Advanced Fighter
- An Unearthed Fighter
- A More Advanced Fighter
What is a DM?
This is the person running the game, and usually the host for the event. The DM controls everything that is not the players. Their purpose is to arbitrate the rules, referee player disputes, play an impartial role behind the determination of NPCs, (Non-Player Characters) manage the setting, and create content to give the game guidance and theme, playing a primary role in the ongoing creation of a narrative. More importantly, the DM's singular goal in all of their responsibilities is to create fun.
A DM, or dungeon master, is a lot of things- a story teller, a mediator, a judge, a referee, and more. You will be guiding your players on an adventure of treachery, deceit, mystery, glory and death. You will be showing them a world to explore, from the forests, to the caverns, to the coasts and even to worlds beyond. You'll be rewarding players when they do well and punishing their mistakes. And you'll be enforcing the rules of the game, judging what can succeed and what is impossible. Outside of the game you will be a mediator for your players, it's your responsibility to make sure that everyone is enjoying a fun and safe gaming environment. You'll be responsible for player conduct and you'll have the final say if someone is out of the group. You'll also be preventing metagaming, min-maxing, munchkinism, cheating, and other forms of poor sportsmanship.
Being a dungeon master can seem like an overwhelming task and you must be prepared to spend a lot of time preparing for each meeting. Your players will test you and they will try to provoke you, no matter how good a friend they may be. Your job is to be prepared, to be calm, and to keep things moving.
- The DM is not the "director" or "author", as the protagonists are entirely out of direct control. You can't tell the players how to play their characters.
- The DM is not the enemy; their purpose is to create fun, excitement, and challenge- not to torment and kill the PCs. Any schmoe can say "Rocks fall from the sky, everyone dies!"
- The DM is more than just a referee; neutral arbitration is mere clerical work- part of the job.
- The DM is a creator and artist, inventing people, worlds, battles, treasure, and the whole of fantasy, writing stories, acting out character roles, making illustrations, and so much more.
- The DM is a player too, they just fulfill a different role, as an equal and necessary participant to the player group.
- The DM is your friend, not some abstract authority; they invited you into their world (and possibly their home) because they want you there.
Being a DM is the most challenging participant position. It requires a strong understanding of the game and game design, play experience, vast amounts of creativity, great effort in preparation, lots of social and leadership skills, and great patience. It can be deeply satisfying and rewarding, but also very lonely and demanding. And, most importantly, you can do it!
- What's In A Name?
- So, let's take a moment to talk about the title itself. There are a bajillion names for this title, and most of them are dependent on the game being played. For example, D&D has a Dungeon Master, while Adventure! has a Storyteller. Outside of any particular system, the "Dungeon Master" is a Game Master. For this article, because we are primarily discussing Dungeons and Dragons, we refer to the GM as a DM in all instances.
Now, without any further adieu, let's begin your training! Here's some videos that'll give you some very basic tips!
The DM as an Organizer: Creating and Hosting a Game
D&D, (And, really, all RPGs) is a form of theme-party style game. It is played in quiet events called sessions. The host of the event is the person who is providing the space in which the game is to be played, typically the host's home. The host is also usually the Dungeon Master, though this is not necessarily always the case. If the host and DM are not the same person, their duties and responsibilities in the real-world side of running a game may overlap quite a bit. As such, it is important for people involved in such a situation to communicate and cooperate with one another as much as possible. This chapter goes over a lot of the logistics for running a typical session of D&D, and most of it deals specifically with the responsibilities of the host.
Things to Have
Let's take a moment to go over the basics: Just the literal stuff that you need to have prepared before you go starting a game. We can divide this into two groups: Necessities are the absolute bare minimum material things you NEED in order to run a game. Everything else on top of that is just really nice stuff to have. Keep in mind that many experienced DMs use the bare minimum of necessary supplies, and some have even found ways to do away with certain items, like the core books, or paper! The sheer quantity of stuff you have prepared is not alone going to make you a better DM- it's all about how you use what you have.
The Lazy DM gives an overview of his supplies. (Hint: His book should be in your toolbox too)
- RPGs, including D&D, are a social activity! Although it is possible to play alone, it is the most futile, self-defeating endeavor imaginable. Go find some people you'd like to play with and find out of they'd like to play too. D&D has helped millions of people make friends they would never have met before, and through these social connections, changed the lives of countless people.
- A copy of the Dungeon Master's Guide for your chosen edition of the game, which contains useful information on hosting games. Read it from front to cover twice and then, just to be sure, read it again. Understand the mechanics of the game, how to gauge the challenge of an encounter, how to manipulate the rules and make new content, and how to handle exceptional situations or checks.
- A copy of the Player's Handbook. You will need this book as a reference for feats, skills and spells; also combat mechanics are described in here. It will be hard to learn all spells available to players, but be sure to know what you can expect from your players as not to be surprised by them. Trust me, they will do anything in their power to surprise you! Plus, if one or more of your players does not have a copy, it is extremely helpful to have one to share.
- A copy of the Monster Manual is highly recommended. It is an absolute prerequisite if you are new to DMing, but experienced DMs, who make almost all of their own content, may happily leave this book on the shelf. The Monster Manual is your main reference to monsters and NPCs that may inhabit your world. The book is detailed and provides flavour texts that you can use for your story telling. The Monster Manual also describes how difficult it will be to face a particular monster or character by it's challenge rating. You do not have to learn every monster in the book, but you must understand how challenge ratings work, and what kind of modifiers can be placed into effect. This knowledge is essential or you will end up placing a far too easy / deadly creature as a challenge into your game.
- You will need a set of dice, at least one each of d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20. It is recommended that you have one d20 for each player and one for yourself, since it is the primary die used in combat and for skill and ability checks. Also, if you have two d10s then it makes it easier to roll a percentile. There are random number applications available for download that imitates dice rolls which can be used instead.
- Paper & Pencils.
- These can be easy to overlook, but are absolutely critical for a successful game. Players will need them to update and mark their character sheets, you'll need them to make notes and to keep track of battles, plot hooks, and NPCs, as well as for passing along information to players that other characters wouldn't know. A good recommendation is to get a zippered binder that has space for note paper, folders and a copy of the DMG. However you can do just as well with some scrap paper.
- A Venue.
- The area should be available to you and your group for the whole duration of play, so your game isn't interrupted by people rushing you out when your "time is up". (The living room might be great- up until dad says his football game is about to start!) The venue may be private or public, but it should be relatively free of interruptions in any case. (An empty classroom is good; the cafeteria during lunch hour is not.) If you are playing in a public venue, such as a school, library, community center, or gaming store, make sure that your presence will be respected, (being surrounded by people who keep telling you to move, making fun of you, asking what you're doing, or in general getting in the way, is no fun.) and that your group will be respectful of the venue and others who may be witnessing the game take place, (clean up after yourselves, don't break things, respect the manners of those around you, etc.). The venue may be outdoors, but this is not advised, as even a sudden slight wind can make a huge mess out of your game, and have everyone scrambling to save their record sheets! If you do play outdoors, have a backup plan, and be prepared for both weather and wildlife. The venue should be a safe and sanitary place. (No storage closets, mechanical rooms, abandoned buildings, burial vaults, bathrooms, food cellars, or other such locations which may bring harm to the people involved.) The venue should be fairly well-lit, such that players won't need to strain their eyes to read character sheets, books, or dice. The venue should have adequate seating, that players will be comfortable, and able to participate in the game together- not spread out in all different areas of a large room. (A bedroom is often a poor choice, as these rooms are often cramped with a distinct absence of seating.) The venue should have a decent sized table at which people may play, if for no other reason than to have a hard surface for writing and rolling dice. (This can be worked around. If either everyone has access to at least a small table or small portable hard surface, then no singular table is necessary for anything but miniatures combat. Alternatively, everyone can sit on the flat, hard ground.) The venue should be free of significant distractions, such as TV, radio, gaming consoles, the activities of other people, loud noise, etc.
- More Books!
- There's a reason D&D is characterized as a nerdy activity: it involves a lot of reading. Generally, the more you read, the more complex and deep your gaming experiences can be. There are, however, certain books which stand out above the rest in utility.
- Sly Flourish's the Lazy Dungeon Master should be on every DM's bookshelf. It will change the way you game.
- Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering has enriched the lives of many a DM.
- Play Unsafe, by Graham Walmsley is all about letting loose and having a little bit of fun through improvisation.
- the Art of Fiction may be a straight-up text book, but if you want to tell good stories, you actually need to study the art of story telling.
- 36 Dramatic Situations is a wonderful supplement to the above.
- Writing Down the Bones is... an interesting beast. Definitely not for kids, the language gets shockingly... err... "informal".
- Play Dirty, for better or for worse. I can't say I agree with every letter- but that's part of why it's so great. It gives us perspectives to think about, talk about, and act upon in a way that can only enrich our games- even if we think he's a raving nut.
- Extreme Dungeon Mastery, also known around the community as "the" XDM, is a fairly influential book about breathing some fun and excitement into dead-end games.
- the Art of Game Design is basically the seminal text book for game design as a hobby, as a craft, as a profession, and as an art form. You should read it.
- Odyssey: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Campaign Management is a little bit wordy and OCD for my taste, but I cannot deny that it has helped many gamers.
- Never Unprepared teaches campaign planning and session prep as a process, explaining everything in a clear, organized, practical way.
- Unframed is another book all about improv, specifically directed at gaming. I don't think you can really learn improv from just a book, but it's a place to start if you're new to this.
- Kobold Guide to Worldbuilding is a collection of essays from leading industry professionals about the theory and practice of worldbuilding for gaming. Nominated for multiple awards, this is a must.
- Tome of Adventure Design is a bit of an odd duck. There are quite a few good books of random lists out there, though I've avoided them because any DM with a pulse can build those himself. This book, however, is full of random charts which do not produce anything generic or stereotypical. It is designed to function as a writing prompt and inspiration springboard, not a shortcut to get over some writer's block.
- Mythic Game Master Emulator is one of the strangest literary utilities ever invented for gaming. You should own it simply for the absurdity of a book that can write stories.
- Hamlet's Hit Points is a dry, abstract, theoretical text on narrative creation in RPGs. Not a simple read.
- Role Playing Mastery is a good book if you want to learn straight from the world's first DM, the late Gary Gygax.
- Fantasy Genesis is an art and illustration inspiration tool constructed out of RPG system trappings. Coincidentally, it is a powerful tool for homebrewing all sorts of stuff for your game on the fly.
- the Book of Weird, a comedy dictionary of fantasy terms, recommended reading for DMs by Mike Mornard, who played OD&D with Gygax and Arneson.
- The Emotion Thesaurus is an excellent guide to describing and playing out the emotions of fictional characters.
- The Positive Trait Thesaurus and The Negative Trait Thesaurus are excellent tools for character creation.
- Cue Cards.
- Also called recipe or index cards. These are great for all kinds of stuff! You can write quick notes on them. You can make a deck of many things. You can make table tents and screen flags out of them. You can turn your random charts into decks, eliminating the need for a roll. You can use them as coasters. You can make small impromptu origami or papercraft objects to set into the game as props. You can write item information on them, and just have people track their inventory as cards. The possibilities are nearly endless!
- Eldritch Dice.
- Let's face it, as gamers, we just love dice. As RPG players, we are also fans of really weird dice. In addition to all the fancy dice we use in D&D, there is a whole universe of bizarre dice out there that we almost never see! Having a few of these freaks of geometry just gives you more tools to work with.
- Idea dice are always useful. Buy them or make them!
- Blank dice are usually available in gaming stores that focus on RPGs in general, rather than some other hobby, or only one game. (A place that caters to D&D,m for example, likely would not have these. Nor would a place that caters to model plain enthusiasts but happens to sell RPG books somewhere. You can use a permanent marker or pen to put anything you like on the faces. These can be used to create virtually any other type of modified standard die, including physical forms of half-dice!
- Some brave people have actually succeeded in creating real versions of various odd-sided half-dice. These novelty dice are pretty rare and hard to come by. Also, the even distribution of the pentagonal prism d5 is still questionable, and a subject of debate among staticians and physicists.
- Of course, we also like to make dice for ranges that nobody asked for. Case in point: the d7, just in case you ever wanted something that was completely mathematically obscure and statistically frustrating.
- And then you have the classic gaming novelty: THE D100!!! It... Doesn't work very well... It's kind of like rolling a golf ball.
- A little bit easier to find than those alien geometries are barrel dice. These things are usually found anywhere you can buy blank dice. Personally, I think they should be more popular among gamers. They look like little crystal shards, like the kind you'd see in a Final Fantasy game!
- For the ultimate novelty dicing experience, you could always purchase one of these insane double-dice! Because rolling one large hollow die has always been easier than rolling two equal-sized dice!
- For those who are into antiques, you can collect these fascinating spinning top / dice hybrids. The tradition behind these started thousands of years ago, with an ancient, unnamed game which inspired the dradel. These are pretty anachronistic these days. I don't think anyone even makes them any more... Which is sad, because I get the impression that these were far less likely to knock over your miniatures or go rolling off the table. Also, Beyblades could be an RPG with these.
- Sticky Notes.
- Like cue cards, sticky notes are of insane utility. You can use them to literally attach conditions to record sheets. You can use them to cover hidden portions of the playmat. You can use them as name tags. You can use them to stick notes to your DM screen. You can use them to bookmark important pages in your rule books. You can use them as organizational tabs in your adventure binder. You can use them as tape to stick other stuff together temporarily.
- Dice Accessories.
- A dice bag is a common sight among gamers. It denotes that you
have too much money and choose to waste it on piles of extra dice you never use but carry around anywaylove the game and have been playing for a long time! Most people buy these cheap little bags with pull-string openings, but some people buy really fancy dice bags, with novelty shapes, or made from cool materials. There are an infinite number of different forms these can take, and they're the hobby equivalent of keychains or bumper stickers.
- A dice cup is an object that you roll dice in. The idea is that it prevents people from pulling feats of sleight-of-hand to swap dice in casinos. (In reality, this backfired- it made it easier to swap dice in casinos.) Still, they're kind of a neat accessory to have, and very useful when rolling more than a few dice- you won't drop any from between your fingers now!
- A dice bag is a common sight among gamers. It denotes that you
- A Dice Tower is a really fancy table-piece that will randomize your dice for you. You DO NOT need a dice tower. However, they are a pretty impressive fixture to have at a regular gaming table. Most people make these things for themselves, because the whole point of a dice tower is to look cool, and most manufactured dice towers are, well, kinda' bland. That said, they're really easy to make, and can be made out of any stiff material- even cereal box cardboard. There's plenty of free templates and tutorials online.
- Another randomizer that is not so readily available is the dice popper. Good luck finding these for sale off the shelf. Finding one you can put your own dice in is even harder. They're totally unnecessary, and totally cool.
- A dice tray is simply a shallow basin that you roll your dice in to keep them from going all over or off of the table. You can buy all kinds of fancy professionally made dice trays, but that is completely unnecessary. Know what else works as a dice tray? Literally any shallow dish with a flat bottom. Common alternatives include cardboard boxes and other packaging, baking sheets, serving trays, and picture frames with the glass removed. Any of these can be decorated, painted, or even have felt lined to reduce the clatter from rolling.
- A Playmat.
- Playmats are just a surface your group can use to represent events in the game spatially. It can be as simple as a map drawn on paper, or as convoluted as a 3D papercraft model of the immediate surroundings. A playmat is not necessary- every edition of D&D can be played in what is called the "theater of the mind", in which all of the participants mentally visualize events. Both methods of play are perfectly viable. Playmats are particularly useful in representing detailed specifics of geometry, which are sometimes important in highly tactical combat situations. However, they can often be limiting to the imaginative, expressive, descriptive, or cinematic aspect of play.
- Here's an introduction to terrain
- A pad of graph paper may be all you need! Draw permanent map features in pen, and mark the positions of players and NPCs in pencil so they can be moved about. When you're done with a map, tear it off and file it away!
- A large dry-erase board can be laid upon a table surface to make a huge playmat. You can use permanent markers to apply a permanent grid to the mat for tactical play, even! A dry-erase board could be replaced with a large sheet of glass or plexiglass too- they work the same, and particularly large sheets can be cheaper to buy than a huge white board.
- If you own a laminator, you can make your own Playmats with ease! Either print or draw your mat, then laminate it for use! The lamination allows dry-erase marker use.
- You can buy a sheet of transparent vinyl from some hardware or fabric stores. Cover a table in paper, draw out your grid, and put the vinyl over top. You can now safely draw on the vinyl with dry-erase markers.
- Lots of companies sell pre-made Playmats, sometimes of incredibly high quality production. These are often accessories to go with officially published adventures- but anything can be repurposed!
- Some crafty people have even used legos to build entire play sets and personalized figures!
- Some very crafty people use the modern art of papercraft to build small props or structures on which games may be played.
- If you're feeling especially constructive, artistic, and obsessive-compulsive, you could go the full hobbyist route- using foam, paint, resin, sculpy, wood, and all manner of other materials, to build elaborate structures and table sets on which the game can be played!
- The single most impressive playmat I have ever seen was a projector mounted on the ceiling, pointing downward at a table surface. The table was white, so it acted like a projector screen. The DM could present anything he wanted and the whole table surface would transform. Rather expensive though.
- A token is a small object used to represent a character. They are usually used in conjunction with playmats to represent the tactical positions of characters, relative to one-another. In order for tokens to be effective, each unique character should have a distinctly unique token to match, to prevent confusion. Tokens should also all be of relatively the same size, so that any tactical decisions made are correct to the intended geometry, not the quirks of the individual objects chosen for play.
- These can be anything, from chess pieces to glass baubles, and can be easily be cannibalized from other games like Cluedo or Monopoly. Generally, tokens which literally resemble what they represent are called figures. If the figure directly resembles the specific character in detail, it is called a miniature, or mini, for short.
- It is totally viable to make home-made tokens of all sorts. The simplest tokens are just cardboard squares, cut to the grid-size of your playmat, with some symbol to show who/what they represent. You can also make various sorts of flat or triangular paper stands with a picture of what they represent drawn on the front. There are an infinite number of ways to make tokens- be creative, have fun, and share with the community!
- Some companies, such as Sleich, or Lego, produce a huge line of toys all built in a common scale, relative to one another. Such toys can be repurposed as figures very easily!
- Wizards of the coast and many, many other companies sell sets of complete pre-made miniatures or miniatures that can be shaped and painted.
- The Hero Forge is a website that allows you to build your own models for NPCs and players and have them 3D printed.
- A DM screen is a flat paper/board object, designed to stand upright, obscuring the players' view of the DM's table space. The DM screen serves one purpose and one purpose only: passive information control. The primary function is to obscure player view of DM notes, (which may contain meta-knowledge that the characters should not know, like the exact probability of hitting a target, or which enemy has the most/least HP.) and to hide the results of DM die rolls. Screens can also be used to store important notes and reference material for the DM in such a way that it is available at a glance. Finally, on the player-side, the screen can be used as a communication tool, to present passive information to the players. Not all DMs use a screen, and their use has been highly controversial in the hobby since day one, 40 years ago- don't get too bent out of shape about it in any case. If you'd like a detailed discussion on its values, check this out.
- The classic DM screen is just a big binder! Set it up so it's standing in front of you, blocking prying eyes from enemy notes and die roll results. The binder can hold all the notes you need to run the game! It may seem silly, but many experienced DMs have found that the best binder-screens are those cheap 2$ paper report folders that don't even have binding, or duotang folders- the kind you used in elementary school.
- Another great practical screen is to just use your laptop as a visual barrier! You can pile an infinite amount of information, reference materials, notes, maps, records, and utility applications on your screen, and as long as nobody is sitting right beside you, nobody can see any of it but you!
- A standard DIY DM screen consists of cutting sheets of a stiff material, (such as cardboard) and taping them together. This makes a screen of whatever size you'd like! Many people like to keep notes on their DM screen. To facilitate this, and make it so you can change those notes, tape plastic page protectors to the flat faces of your screen. Any time you have a new set of notes relevant to your campaign, just slide that sheet into a sleeve!
- A similar customizable DIY DM screen involves buying binders of different types, cutting them apart, and then taping them together again to suit your needs.
- If you do buy official screens, and you happen to get a pile of them, you can totally recycle the things. You can cut them apart, tape them to each other, glue new information over the old charts you memorized or don't use, all kinds of stuff! You can also expand your old screens by just making and attaching new pages, or flaps, which allow you to pack more information into less space by layering it.
- Screen Flags are paper cards folded in half and draped over the edge of your screen. DMs who use these typically use them to track initiative, with character names on the player side and basic stats like AC and HP on the DM side. Screen flags can be used to visually communicate and track all kinds of information though. A flag could be used to show whether it is day or night, by simply flipping it around at time changes. They can show the current date or season in your fictional calendar. Flags can also be used to show the current weather conditions. Be creative! Some people make very fancy screen flags by taping information to the handles of binder clips.
- Sticky notes are extremely useful for small, temporary notes, the kind you'll only need for one session or really big encounter. Just jot down what you need to remember, and stick it to some unimportant spot on the screen, or on the table in front of you!
- Clips. Binder clips can be used to attach multiple pages worth of notes to your screen temporarily. So, for instance, you could make up 13 pages of notes on everything that matters about a city. Every time the players go there, just clip the stack to your screen and carry on! When they leave, take the stack off and put it back in a binder! This can be done with just about anything that fills a full page or more.
- Why not give the players something? Lots of DM screens have just pretty art on the player side- but players usually have more questions than DMs! Why not put useful reference material, like xp charts, a list of combat actions, or the effects of various conditions, on their side too?
- If you really want to pack heaps of info on to your screen, you can make index pockets. Simply take a piece of card/paper slightly larger than your index cards, then tape it to the screen on only three edges, leaving the top open. Then simply pile your reference cards into this home-made pocket! Great for storing screen flags or flat tokens!
- Handouts & Props.
- One of the most effective immersion tools a DM can use to get players invested in a game is to hand out well-made props from time to time. For example, if a letter from the king is an important plot item, and the players are going to interact with it a lot, you could go buy a sheet of velum and actually write the letter from the king with a dip pen! Cheap costume jewelry can also be handed out to represent important magic items. You can make fancy name-plates for player characters by folding paper into triangles, (called table tents) and decorating them. You can make papercraft models of important objects and hand those out. Buy cryptic-looking steel puzzles and hand those out to players who are trying to pick a lock, rather than having them roll dice. When characters have visions, or gain access to exclusive information, provide it to them on a note and then take it back once they're done reading it. There are a million-bajillion ways that you can add that little extra spice to your game.
- A laptop, tablet, or smart phone with which to access the D&D wiki and other helpful websites, including DM blogs, the developers website, pdf copies of your core books, virtual note-keeping, random number generators, or even Skype to involve players who couldn't make it in person!
- How much tech do you use?
- The distraction of electronics
Here's a list of common resources you may turn to while planning and running a game.
- The single most useful tool at your disposal. case in point.
- Have you ever suddenly realized you don't know much about something? Look it up. Drawing a map for a castle? Look up castles and find out how they were built. Have a player who wants to be a blacksmith and play it out? Look up blackmsithing. Look up medieval weapons. Look up metallurgy. Want to make something based on King Arthur, but find the books to boring to read? Look up Arthurian legend! This website can even teach you some basic psychology, law, science, history, and mathematics. Every aspect of your game can be supplemented with reality from this site.
- TV Tropes
- This is the single greatest pool of media knowledge in existence. Want to know something about a genre? Look it up! Want ideas for main villains? Look em up! Want to know more about the tropes associated with a setting? Look up the show! Chances are, your perspective on the subject is only the tip of the iceburg. (Just, try not to get too lost, wandering around the site.)
- RPG Stack Exchange
- Ever had a question that your source material just doesn't answer? Go here, and search it up! If nobody's asked it yet, post your question and see what the answer is! (A question being closed is, in its own way, an answer, not an insult) Rules questions are common, but people also ask more esoteric questions, like how to resolve specific issues in roleplay.
- is a great place to ask questions, get inspiration, and just in general interact with the community. There's a lot of other RPG and D&D related reddit sites out there, so be sure to explore! (This is just the one I keep running into, so it seems the most active at the moment)
- EN World
- A HUGE community forum. Seriously, these people have their fingers on the pulse of the community.
- The other HUGE community forum. Between this and ENWorld, you're looking at most of the online roleplaying community.
- Google Translate
- A wonderfully powerful tool for inventing stuff. Want to give a town a fantasy name? Take a generic english name, and translate it into another one! Name made up of multiple words? Translate each one into a different language! Write the translation backwards to make a whole new sound! Use it to create foreshadowing apparent to players who have some knowledge of a foreign language!
- Thesaurus and Dictionary dot com
- One of the most important tools in a DM's toolbox is their vocabulary. A good dictionary and thesaurus should go hand-in-hand with your corebooks. These are the best dictionary and thesaurus I've ever seen.
- Deviant Art
- A picture is worth a thousand words. This site has over a hundred billion pictures. All are available for free. Just use them in privacy and don't try to make money off some other artist's work, and nobody will know enough to care what you make of it. (Seriously, if I ever see you use some artist's work to make a profit without including them, you will be facing some serious consequences)
Planning With Your Players
The first thing to make sure of is that everyone playing your campaign knows all of the rules, not only the rules in the Players Handbook, but also the rules you will be enforcing that diverge from the PHB.
Let them know as soon as possible (during the planning stages if possible) what, if anything, makes your game different from the one in the PHB, and keep a reference sheet available for both yourself and your players. Developing and enforcing those specific rules can enhance the feeling of the world or era that inspires your game and make your campaign feel unique. However, as a general rule of thumb, you should try and keep these restrictions to a minimum so they can be easier to remember and keep track of.
Failing to warn your players of these changes in advance can hurt their experience, say if they spend an hour making a kick-ass elf character only to find out afterwards that elves aren't allowed. (A good way to deal with this is to adjust the character to something that is allowed. You can make elves into slim humans, or gnomes into children, etc. (This last suggestion is what I used in a medieval based period on the normal world where the player playing a gnome got carried away role-playing it as a supposed child which led to a few laughs along the way.)
Make sure that your players are allowed to choose any starting item or equipment they would like as long as they can afford it or make a reasonable case for having it. A first level character would only have enough gold to buy some basic gear, while a 7th level player could have 8-10 thousand gold at his disposition and may opt to use that gold to buy a magical weapon or armor. If you're starting a campaign at a higher level, make sure that you adjust to accommodate that.
Simply put, this is THE single most difficult responsibility of being a Dungeon Master. The older you and your players get, the harder this will get- until you all retire. For a start, go to your friends. They like you, and probably share some common interests with you, so it's likely that some of them might also be interested. Almost all gaming groups are composed of people who were already friends to begin with. Another potential source is family, especially siblings if they're old enough. (Anyone under 15 is likely going to struggle, frankly) Sometimes you may be surprised to discover that one of your parents, or another older relative actually used to play D&D, (or some other RPG) when they were a kid. Some parents, even if they don't know anything about the game, may be actively interested in connecting with you, and take the chance to see what this game is all about. Getting parents involved is a good way to show them what the game actually is, and will help dispel the pre-millennial negative stigma. If you are lucky enough to be a parent, and you think your kid might be interested and mature enough to play, you could always see if they'd enjoy participating in the game- it's a great way to connect with your child in a way that builds a bridge between their life today and your youth. The next option is to seek out like-minded peers in your local environment. This is easier in school, especially college, where it can be pretty simple to start a club or advertise an after school activity. Adults can also do this at work, and the bigger your workplace is, the more success you'll find. However, in both instances, you're going to run into a couple of jerks who will judge/mock you. You will be dealing with these people for the rest of your life, no matter what you do, so you might as well get used to it. Luckily, these days, you're far less likely to get your nose broken, compared to when I was a kid. The next option is to seek out pre-existing groups. Look for gaming clubs at schools, libraries, and even some churches. Go to gaming/hobby stores and find out if they host regular sessions. If they don't, and you're an extremely polite and highly responsible person, ask if they're willing to let you host regular events at their establishment. (Hobby stores may require you to sign formal agreements, and use only supplies sold in-shop.) The last option is to advertise. Bulletin boards, both physical and electronic, can be used to put together groups of strangers for gaming. You can advertise your own table, or look for other people who are seeking players. This is... Not ideal, and I would NOT recommend it unless you are an adult. Simply put, you have no idea who these people are, and they very well could be dangerous. The last resort is the online gaming environment. These are a little harder to find, as they tend to operate in really esoteric sorts of ways. Large gaming communities often have people advertising online gaming groups, and some even have their own dedicated gaming servers, which is pretty cool. Online gaming is not as fun as gaming in person, but it has its own unique charm; who knows, maybe you'll prefer it. The downside to online gaming is that it is unlikely to form any long-lasting or meaningful relationships, the way a face-to-face game will. Other than that, just be open about the fact that you play D&D. Don't talk about it every chance you get, or shove it down peoples' throats, just don't avoid the subject or cover it up if some insight from it is genuinely relevant to the topic at hand. You never know who might be listening and looking for a game to join.
- Group Size
- The Smallest Group
- The 1-On-1 Game
- Large Groups
- Don't run large groups.
- 7 Tips to run large groups
- Building a Better Group
Reconciling age differences. There is a chance that you may find yourself composing a group of people with significant age differences. This is most likely to happen if you begin running public events somewhere like a gaming store or a library. There are two parts to this problem, which can be handled in a wide variety of ways.
- First, any time you have adults (anyone over the age of 20-25) playing any kind of game with children (anyone under the age of 20) the parents of those kids get paranoid. The greater the age difference, the worse this gets. The more adult players are in the group, the worse this gets. The older you, the host, become, the worse this gets. Fact is, people are judgmental of others and rightfully protective of their children. The best way to maintain legitimacy is to keep a clean, safe, welcoming venue. Another method is to make and enforce explicit behavioral rules, prohibiting abusive language and behavior, or explicit references to violence, sex, or drug use. Showing that you protect the mental and emotional wellbeing of the people who are in your care is a good thing, and you should really do this regardless. You can also encourage parents to sit-in or participate in events. By showing them the reality of the game session as a peaceful, quiet, recreational activity, you can easily dispel the myth that D&D is socially deviant. Finally, you could designate or employ a session host- a person who is not involved in the game. Their job is to enforce social rules, provide refreshments, give people rides if they need them, etc. It is best if this person has some kind of qualification for the care of others, such as first aide. If they are also connected to the establishment, like a store owner or librarian, that also helps reinforce the idea that this isn't some satanist trap, suicide club, drug ring, or sex trafficking organization. (which is, sadly, the stigma our game somehow faces.)
- Second, children think very differently than adults. They have a smaller vocabulary, limited life experience, incomplete knowledge, difficulties with self-control, and often suck at acting. (No offense, kids. Keep practicing, you'll get better- and older.) Additionally, the older a gamer is, the more gaming experience they are likely to have. A 50 year old gamer may have extensive knowledge of multiple editions of D&D, wargaming, hobby slang, and maybe even RPG theory or game design theory. Creating an environment in which a 16 year old kid who's never seen a d20, and a 37 year old 3.5e veteran can both have fun at the end of the day is very difficult. The good thing is, it's usually pretty easy to target any problems and resolve them. The source of the problems is almost always one of the oldest people at the table. They are typically inconsiderate of younger players, expressing snide superiority, talking over "lesser" players. If you see this, take this jerk aside and lay down the law. If he can't participate without walking all over other people, he doesn't deserve to be at the table. You can also enlist them as experienced players- especially if they have DM experience- to help you teach these new players how to play well. On the rare occasion that it's one of the younger players, it's likely that they just misunderstand the nature of role playing in a group. Talk to them plainly about why their behavior is disruptive. Rarely, you'll run into a kid who just has a bad attitude. Sometimes you have to kick people out.
- Play D&D With Your Kids
- Playing D&D With Kids
Occasionally, someone with a significant disability is going to want to play. Can they? I wish I could say "yes absolutely" but the truth is that it depends on how severe the disability is, and the nature of that disability. I can say "very likely yes, but play may need to change slightly to accommodate them". Ultimately, it's going to come down to a case-by-case basis, and you're going to have to decide if any person can join in your group. This is a sensitive topic, so there's a section dedicated to it later, in handling players. Here, we will discuss options for how to accommodate people with various disabilities.
- It may surprise some of you to know that being blind has nearly no impact on a person's ability to play D&D! Unless you're drifting the game into something very unusual, like a parlor or LARP kind of thing, it mostly involves sitting and talking, neither of which require your eyes. (If you don't believe me, try this exercise: blindfold yourself and play a game. You might discover a few things about the nature of roleplaying.) There are generally only three stumbling blocks:
- Books. Sadly, as far as I know, they are not printed in braille, not that it would help people who haven't taken the time to learn it. So, you can either have a PDF of the books and use a text-reader application voice the content, or you can have a friend read it out to you. You don't need books often anyways if your group is playing well.
- Dice. Kind of a pain if you can't see the number you rolled. Find a group you trust and have them read out the number. The DM would probably just do this anyways. With a disorganized group, a DM can resolve this by simply doing all the rolls in the open himself. It may sound strange, but that's actually how things were played back in the good ol' days!
- Miniatures Combat. This is where the disability will actually impact play. For a blind person, theater of the mind is the only way to play. They cannot see the arrangement of the pieces on the board. Even if that arrangement is described to them, they must reconstruct the scene in their imagination. That said, having the Miniatures on the table can really streamline TotM combat scene descriptions! A DM who is comfortable with TotM play should have no difficulties constructing meaningful combat scenes for a blind player from the battle mat.
- The congenitally blind, those who have never seen, may struggle further with D&D. In the same way that it is difficult to imagine what it would be like to fly by the muscle of your own wings, or breathe water through your own gills, it is difficult for them to understand the vast majority of the descriptive content in a game. Even describing the layout of a battle mat to such a person may be futile if they are not yet familiar with it, and TotM may be completely lost on them as well. Generally, the older they are the better they will be at emulating the imagined ability to see, (as happens with people emulating the imagined ability to communicate telepathically, or transcend planar bonds.) but it will require some significant cooperation with the DM.
- Aspergers, OCD, ADD, ADHD, Tourette's, and other sensory/social conditions
- Initiative. Mental conditions which interfere with social functionality make complex things like initiative nearly impossible to use. Just go around the table in a circle.
- Assumptions. D&D relies on a lot of assumptions based on what the game represents. When a mental condition interferes with a person's capacity to understand representation, these are nolonger assumptions. They are rules which need to be enforced.
- Setting. For people with sensory disorders, the table needs to feel safe, welcoming, and comfortable to them. This can be difficult, because it is often hard to understand how they are experiencing a given situation. Even the arrangement of people around the table matters.
- Balance. People who have difficulties understanding social cues will often talk over others and interrupt at random, going off on long tangents. Others may fail to respond to a direct question or direction. As frustrating as these behaviors may be, it's just them being themselves. Be a rock against the wave of questions. Be a safe harbor for the overwhelmed. Be calm and rational, and remember to keep the pace.
- KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. Starting a combat? Design it so that it will almost certainly be resolved in a round or two. Make those couple of rounds intense and exciting, but get out of it fast. Avoid fiddly things that could set people off.
- Teamwork. Some people have an aid. They are that person's most trusted ally. This means they need to be your ally too. You need to work together to take care of the people at your table.
- Online Gaming Communities
Obsidian Portal is an interesting wiki-like social media tool that cna be used to plan an entire campaign setting and find a local group to play with. It's free to use, but obviously gains some significant additional features if you pay.
The Giant in the Playground forums is a massive gaming community who have been highly influential in the hobby for a little over a decade now.
7chan Tabletop Games is a strong and relatively active community, though they spend a lot of time pirating stuff, and the rest of the site is more than a little sketchy.
The Social Contract
Here's a quick history lesson to teach you the roots of the problem this whole "social contract" thing evolved out of.
Sometimes gets lumped in with "table rules" or "house rules" by inexperienced DMs who can't tell the difference. This is the official agreement that everyone at the table is joining into by participating in the game. Let's start off by putting this into as simple of terms as possible. In total, the social contract can be boiled down into one phrase:
- "Don't be a jerk."
Put more clearly, we can use the three precious rules:
- The Silver Rule: "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."
- The Golden Rule: "Do unto others what you would have them do unto you."
- The Platinum Rule: "Treat others the way they like to be treated."
In particular, there is one extremely contentious aspect of the social contract in RPGs, often referred to as "rule 0" by hobbyists. Rule 0 is the manifestation of what is known as DM Fiat in RPG theory. Basically, the DM has absolute authority over the setting. The DM can follow or ignore the rules at will and on a whim. What the DM says goes. There is only one limitation to DM authority: The DM has no authority over the player characters' choices. The DM can make their choices irrelevant, even kill a character on a whim, but the DM cannot make decisions for you. The DM cannot make your character think, say, or do, anything. (Unless the character is, like, hypnotized or something, and even that is still considered a little rude.) Unfortunately, rule 0 is often HORRIBLY misused, and most people get the impression that rule 0 is just the word "No." This comes from lazy DMs who are completely closed off from ever letting anyone do anything that goes against their plan. It's called railroading, and everybody hates it. Don't railroad the players. So, the next important rule of the social contract is:
- Rule 0: "Players, respect Dungeon Master authority over the rules and setting. Do not try to use the RAW to lawyer yourself into a preferable result- you are not the DM. Dungeon masters, with great power comes great responsibility- use it wisely and respect the players' authority over their characters. Never dismiss anything out of hand, and be prepared to change your plans- giving players the freedom to make their own choices and have those choices mean something is essential."
So what do you do when your players blindside you with something you never imagined while planning? Enter...
- The Rule of Yes: Simply put, whenever a player comes up with a new idea; interprets a rule differently; tries to do something outside the scope of the core material; or otherwise blindsides you, before you just Rule 0 it away, consider saying yes first. To some people, this may seem counterintuitive- after all, isn't the purpose of a rule to tell you what you can't do? No. It isn't. The rules in D&D are an abstract framework which the DM uses to impartially determine success or failure and action order. In reality, the only rules the players need to follow is the interpretation by the DM. As for how the DM should interpret those rules, well... As pirate Captain Barbosa would say, they're really more like "guidelines" than actual "rules". "Yes" can be a powerful word. In improvisational theater, (which has a TON in common with RPGs) actors are taught to always "say yes", because it opens doors for the scene to continue. "Saying Yes" does not always imply actually saying the word "Yes" of course, rather, it means accepting what the other actor is saying as possibility and not turning down ideas for potential directions the scene can go in. Nothing grinds a game to a halt faster than a no ruling. Nothing frustrates a player more than being told their brilliant idea is no good. Nothing creates animosity towards the DM greater than a closed door policy on new ideas or rule interpretations. A no ruling at a normal game usually results in at least one player pulling out the PHB looking for clarification on the rule. It slows things down, it’s a distraction, it’s no fun. There are instances when no is the correct call, but I urge to always consider the possibilities of yes before shutting an idea down. Obviously, there are always consequences for the actions your players take and you should make sure that such consequences occur. You should be careful however, to ensure that the consequences which occur are not unreasonable, unfair, or unlikely. If you allow the PCs to do something, only to torment them mercilessly and brutally for it afterwards, that isn't "saying yes", that is punishing your players for their creativity, and your players will recognize what you're doing. Yeah... don't do that. Unless the idea is clearly absurd, learn how to say yes. It will change your gaming life. Saying no is lazy. Learn to say yes, challenge yourself and your players to be more creative. You’ll become a better DM, your adventures will appear more compelling and your players will come back each week craving more. If you don’t know, say yes. If you don’t care, say yes. If it makes sense, say yes. Nothing is worse than a DM who can’t make a decision on a ruling. If you find yourself in this position, say yes. Your players will love you for it. The best Dungeon Masters are pros at going with the flow. If you have plot planned, and the PCs do something you aren't expecting, this shouldn't close any doors - only open new ones. The trick, and the hallmark of a great DM, is to make absolutely everything that happens in a session look like you planned for it, even if you have no idea what's going to happen next.
- The Rule of Cool: If nobody likes what the rules say should heppen, then it doesn't happen. If everyone thinks it would be amazing if something happened, but some rules structure won't allow it, then it happens anyways.
- The Rule of Uncool: If it sucks, stop. Bad play is worse than no play at all.
From those basic, fundamental ideals of the nature of player authority and mutual respect for each others' entertainment, we can write out a pretty comprehensive and detailed list of specific group participation rules.
- The first job of everyone playing the game, the point of the exercise, is to enjoy it. If you're not having fun why are you here? If you're not having fun, try to do something constructive about it. Don’t be disruptive in the name of finding something to do, but don’t expect someone else to come along and inflict fun upon you either. Your participation is a desired, even necessary component and you're not here just to be passively entertained. The worst thing a player can do is to do nothing.
- Communicate! Even though you may think it's very obvious, the DM might not know you aren't having fun unless you say something. DMs also don’t have to put up with not enjoying the experience either. Nobody can force you to run a game, and if players are unappreciative of the sacrifices a DM makes, they don’t deserve to be rewarded with the fruit of your efforts. If you have a problem then say so. You can read online every week about another campaign blowing up (or about to) which can ALWAYS be traced to the fact that nobody spoke up before it festered into a truly destructive problem.
- The day a DM can't deal with a helpful suggestion or sincere criticism from players about the campaign is the day the DM needs to give up the chair. The game does not revolve around stroking the DM's ego.
- A campaign is not absolutely under a DM's control, but there’s a reason he’s in The Chair. The PCs have to live and function with some fantasy approximation of a life. That means that when characters take actions within the campaign, the campaign needs to take those actions into account. Through their characters the players make changes to the campaign. Therefore the DM cannot and should not attempt to force the campaign to progress ONLY in predestined directions. The freedom of action that is necessary for player characters can and will foil prearranged plans.
- Since things do not always go as the DM plans, the DM should really not be seeking to tell a story with predetermined results. The only way to do that would be to force the players into it. Campaigns are supposed to be about the Player Characters, not the NPCs. If the PCs are plugged into a story whose details are preordained by the DM, if the PCs are mere witnesses to more important events being decided by a cast of NPCs rather than being influential participants themselves, then players will frequently and rightfully chafe. You must provide opportunity for the characters to do things, but not dictate what they do.
- The most satisfying combats are usually the ones that take characters right to the dangerous edge of death, yet without actually crossing that threshold unnecessarily. The game is random and contains so many variables that it is impossible to plan perfectly. Combat encounters are never a sure thing regardless of how meticulously designed they are. Playing at the edge of disaster is the most exciting place to be, but it is also more likely for events to slip out of control. This is just something that needs to be kept in mind by everyone.
- A DM who truly sets out to deliberately kill the PCs has no business being a DM. The DM has at all times and in all ways the ability to kill the PCs whenever he bloody well feels like it. Simply having the next encounter be intentionally lethal is as easy as breathing. Intending to kill the PCs... what kind of fun is that for anybody? A DM who acts that way doesn't deserve the patience that players undoubtedly have to give him.
- Even given all above it is still justifiable for a campaign to have plenty of places, creatures, or encounters, that the PCs are not actually able to defeat. It gives a campaign world a needed aura that it does not exist purely for the benefit of the PCs advancement but has a life of its own. This is important for having any kind of verisimilitude and willing suspension of disbelief. Without that, the game world and its dangers always scale precisely to the PCs capabilities, which feels fake when it doesn't need to be.
- If the characters ignore in-game or out-of-game warnings about dangers to their characters, then the DM is justified in applying what he actually knows to be lethal force in an encounter. Still doesn't mean he should, but it can’t really be held against him if he does. It also means that players are doing themselves no favors by never retreating or backing down and always pushing mindlessly for victory in a fight, because this leaves the DM with no options except mindlessly pushing back.
- It is generally in the interest of "fair play" for the DM to have his campaign world operating under generally the same rules that the PCs do... But to get fanatical about “being fair” is not in anyone’s best interests either. The DM should not be needlessly restricted in creating new and interesting challenges for the characters. Creating new rules, singular exceptions to rules, and even things that would not otherwise be possible under the rules is a DM's prerogative. Only if the DM overuses or abuses this privilege to no good purpose should players consider it an issue. Don't assume that the DM has not, or will not alter rules for his campaign. Those alterations don't have to apply both to NPCs and PCs. Still, the DM may need to explain some of those alterations up front while others remain entirely secret.
- The players and their characters are not always bound by "the rules" in what they can do (or at least in what they can attempt.) There simply isn’t a rule for everything. One of a DM's biggest jobs is adjudication and adaptation of rules to the many situations that arise within a game. So, by definition, PC's can at least attempt to do things outside of the rules (and generally get a little extra credit for such creativity, unless they make themselves a pest by constantly trying to do things not covered by the rules). To deny the same privilege to the DM would be silly.
- The DM is not a slave to the dice. Dice don’t run the game, the DM does. At the very least, the DM should be free to alter dice rolls that would negatively affect the PCs but, again, just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. It is a useful tool to have so long as the sting of PC death is not being entirely removed as a result. To arbitrarily adjust results against the PCs is a questionable move because it often serves no purpose but to force the game to play out exactly the way the DM has pictured it in his mind. Slavish obedience to the dice and their results is often actually an attempt to dodge the responsibilities of the DM as primary instigator of a fun, interesting, and exciting game: “Don't blame ME, that's what the dice dictated...” The DM already has vast latitude in deciding how many and how often dice rolls get made as well as in applying many of the modifiers that would affect them, so to simply short-circuit the process and dictate the die roll is functionally no different.
- The DM is not required to roll his dice in the open. There are often factors at work that the players need not – even should not – know, suspect, or be able to infer by meta-game mathematics. It enables the occasions when dice are rolled publicly to have inherent tension. The DM can communicate an attitude about the outcome of a roll if it is unusual to roll it publicly without needing to "break character" in order explain the whys and wherefores behind the screen. Players should always roll their dice openly, only AS needed or requested (no rolling ahead of time and saving a good result for your "next" roll), must use dice that the DM can read and verify results of at all times, and in general are expected to be honest and above-board regarding dice rolls. Nothing is kept secret from the DM once it is put into play because the DM has adjudication and veto power.
- There WILL be differences of opinion about rules between anyone at the table, player or DM. When feasible, rules-lawyering should be kept to a minimum during the game. Players should state the substance of objections, the DM should make a ruling after listening to all sides, and if players take exception to the ruling it should be noted for later consideration - but then play should proceed. If something can be resolved by simply looking it up quickly in the rules, do it. Still, the DM is not perfect and not every ruling in a game is a new a law graven in stone.
- Retconning, or Retcon, is short for Retroactive Continuity and means making everything better by saying, "Okay, what really happened instead was this...” It is the cousin to the deus ex machina. It's a “Do-Over”. When bad rulings, mistakes, oversights, meta-game complications, or bad/boring plots go really bad, this is one way to fix things. It works, but it is never very satisfying, so it may still be better to simply accept what has taken place - no matter how stupidly or badly it was done. When a situation has degraded to where this sort of action is even contemplated, it frequently seems to involve a character's death, making the resolution more emotionally charged for a player than would normally be the case.
- The DM is not there to oppose the players. A DM should want to see the PCs succeed, but that success should be earned. The DM provides the world for the characters, things for them to do within it, and adjudicates their actions. If the DM sees himself as the opponent for the players, he cannot help but win because that is the power given to the DM – but it wasn't given so that he could use it to win. It is given so that he can use it to make the game more fun for the players; to create or override rules when necessary in doing that.
- Characters die, and occasionally should die permanently. Playing on the edge of disaster is more fun and exciting, but if permanent character death never really occurs, then playing “on the edge” is actually meaningless. Players easily forget and become reckless; they always seem to push an encounter to its limits with their characters and even moreso when they know resurrection is available. This leads to an unsatisfying fearlessness in all characters and prevents the DM from planning any sort of fight other than Last Man Standing. The DM can’t predict who will die or when. Players must be willing to have their characters flee to survive and the DM must accept that when that happens he should almost certainly let them go. Players must then not attempt to turn THAT against the DM; a kindness is not a weakness.
- Players must learn the rules. Nobody needs to pass a written test - not even the DM - but it's reasonable to expect that players read the entire Players Handbook and be able to understand it. Everyone new to the game must accept that they will need to do a lot of reading and put effort into learning the game, and there is a lot of information they need to absorb right from the start. The basics have always been learnable in perhaps an hour or maybe a game session. After a few sessions of play they should NOT require having basics repeatedly explained. Pay attention to the application of the rules by other players and their characters, not just your own. Players who can't be bothered to learn the game should only be given so much leeway before a DM asks them to leave. Only if the DM informs players up front that the rules don't matter, or the player actually has learning disabilities is anyone excused from achieving a general, functional knowledge of the game.
- Regarding "Table Rules": Wherever the game session is taking place, respect the host and the host's property. Don't make a mess. Clean it up if you do. Behave. You are a GUEST, even if you are in the house of a friend you have known since birth, so act accordingly. Sadly, it is necessary to state that this includes being mindful of your own hygiene. Just because nobody tells you, "You stink!" doesn't mean that you don't. Often they want to tell you so, but are TOO polite to do so. Perhaps they don't know how to tactfully tell you you're acting like a jerk, need a shower and clean shirt, have breath that will drop a rhino because you don't brush your teeth, etc. Perhaps they just fear that no matter how they phrase it you'll take it the wrong way. Assist the host/DM in getting others to respect the Table Rules as well as yourself. This shouldn't be necessary to even list, but sadly it seems it too often is, since the subject repeatedly pops up for discussion online. Any simple request that you bathe, brush your teeth, stop interrupting, stop being a jerk, pay attention to the game instead of your phone/computer/book/TV/navel-lint/etc., must NOT be considered an insult. It will be considered a FAVOR to you, and an opportunity to better yourself as a person if not as a player. A simple, direct apology and correction of the situation is all that should be necessary. Players are typically responsible for their own food, drinks, etc., unless arrangements are made ahead of time. It is BASIC manners to reciprocate other players hospitality if/when it comes to be your turn to host the game. If you do not wish to, or cannot afford to, then advise people ahead of time so that other arrangements can be made. Be on time. Many people have limited hours to devote to the game so don't waste it for them. If you will be late or can't make the game, let people know. Bring the things you need to bring (dice, character sheets, players handbook, etc.) and be ready to play when you arrive without wasting time.
- There are some game details which are simply subject to wide interpretation no matter what. The meaning of alignment and how it works is probably chief among these. Paladins and their obligations are related and a close second. How certain abilities actually function, or maybe just what you will and won't generally allow players/PCs to do are variables. These things MUST be clarified at the start and perhaps even occasionally restated - even if you go by the book. Really, this should be assumed, but communication (or really the lack thereof) is the single most common cause of ALL problems in D&D. The DM should not always assume the players know what he wants, how he interprets things, or runs things. These things must be TOLD to players early and often to eliminate misunderstandings and arguments. If players are not given this information then they should demand it - or else they must not be held liable for having not been provided it.
- Players are obliged to be fair and reasonable to other players, as well as for their characters to act likewise towards other PCs. There is no excuse for either you or your character to be a jerk. NONE. An exception can be granted if the ALL the players are mature enough for their characters to be openly antagonistic of each other, and the DM has made it clear from the start that such behavior is allowed, as well as how it will be kept in line. This is NOT an unreasonable restriction upon roleplaying, but is in fact a very basic supposition of the game: that an often radically diverse party of adventurers nonetheless DO work together for money, glory, and other mutually agreeable ends. This means that right from the start, as a player, you are largely obliged to find reasons for your character to LIKE the other PC's, not openly antagonize them. It means that no single player OR character gets to dictate to the others the circumstances of their participation in the game in general, or the PC party in particular without MUTUAL consent, nor may an exclusive collection of two or more players/characters do so. The DM is obliged to maintain this atmosphere of civility and cooperation, or, if it has been agreed by all beforehand to allow crossing that line, he is obliged to keep in- and out-of-character attitudes and behavior from becoming disruptive.
- The DM is not required to accommodate or allow everything that the player wants to actually play out in the game. In other words, if the player is about to do something the DM feels is either really stupid or openly disruptive he should stop the game and get clarification or correction before proceeding. For example, if a character is about to kill an NPC for no apparent reason, then rather than allow it to happen and then get angry that it was done, the DM should stop the player and find out what's going on. If the player's response is unsatisfactory, he might even disallow the action from taking place at all and let play proceed from THAT point instead of proceeding from the point AFTER the disruptive act has been allowed to occur and trying to pick up the pieces. This idea certainly extends to actions which in the real world are openly offensive, or even simply socially inappropriate. While D&D inherently involves violence in particular, going into pornographic details of, say, torture or sex, is not acceptable without express agreement of everyone at the table of where the boundries will be moved to. Specifically, acts against children and women are of concern because of how some players react to those subjects. D&D is not now and never will be intended as a vehicle to casually engage the twisted, deviant fantasies of immature players. Not all behavior is appropriate to bring to the table in the first place and CERTAINLY not handling such things in degrading detail in the game. DMs can simply state they will not allow certain actions because they are needlessly disruptive, or disallow detailed description of certain actions as being inappropriate for the game. -But ONLY in service to the entertainment of the group.
- Communication flows both ways, and the DM does not need to act as though players should be forbidden to ever know what goes on in a DM's mind or behind the DM shield. When a DM makes rulings, there is no reason not to freely explain why he rules as he does unless there is in-game information involved that PCs should not be privy to.
- The players run their characters - the DM does NOT. Unless players are being disruptive, the DM should keep his stinking paws off the PCs. The DM does not control what the PCs do except if some form of in-game magical control has removed it from the player (such as charm, or lycanthropy) - and then the DM needs to be VERY judicious about what he does with the character. The ONE THING players get to control in the game is the attempted actions of their characters. DMs should interfere with or overrule that control only in extremes and with great care and caution even then. DMs must also remember that when players are given choices, ALL the possible options must be equally acceptable to the DM or else removed as possibilities in the first place.
This is the first session. It is where everyone makes their characters. Chances are, that is all that anyone will do in this session. When you build your characters together, you're not just building one character- which can take quite a bit of time on its own- you are working with a committee to build a whole cast of characters. That is a very difficult task, and it will take hours, even if everyone knows the rules inside out.
Tutorial. Session 0 is bogged down the most by new players. They don't know anything, and there is a LOT to digest right away during chargen. If you have new players, you are going to be spending most of your time explaining and answering their questions. Do not become agitated, frustrated, or dismissive. This introduction is the single most important moment for a new player. If they can get past this hurdle, they will likely stay. Help them overcome the learning curb and earn their trust.
Exposition. Before players begin making their characters, give a quick overview of the setting and the gist of the upcoming campaign and starting adventure. Don't give away anything in detail, just enough for players to know the themes, style, and flavor of your game. This will help them make appropriate characters who will fit into the game world. This will prevent things like a comedy character in a dark and brooding campaign, or a wilderness survivalist in an all-urban campaign world. In particular, you should state clearly:
- Tone. How serious or silly is the game going to be? Will the world be harsh and nightmarish? Bright and joyful? Realistic and complicated? Mysterious and exciting?
- Genre. Is it fantasy? Historical fiction? Sword and sandal? Sword and sorcery? Sword and planet? Science fiction? Science fantasy? Modern? Wild west?
- Magic availability. Clearly state how widely available or present magic is. A wizard in a world where magic is rarely seen and thought to be a myth will have a very different experience compared to a wizard in a world where magic is plentiful, readily available, or omnipresent.
- Technology level. Let the players know how technologically advanced the setting will be, and the nature of that technology. Is it prehistoric/stone-age? Medieval? Age of sail? Futuristic? Steam punk? Cyberpunk? Postapocalyptic, like the movie Wizards? Maybe their world has the same technology as us, but it's all powered by magic instead of science!
- Combat/Roleplay/Exploration. Clearly state to your players how much the game is going to focus on these three elements. A combat heavy game will demand different build choices for the PCs than a Roleplay focused game.
- Give them a general idea of the type of environment they'll be starting in, so they can make appropriate gear decisions. For example, if you're having the players start out in a frozen, polar region, those players are going to want to pack a jacket and a tent!
- Likely and unlikely threats. If the players are going to be spending a lot of time fighting certain types of enemies (*cough*undead*cough*) let them know so that they don't go gearing themselves up for stuff they're never going to see. Also tell them about regular challenges that they might face, like recurring dungeon crawls, sea battles, siege warfare, prison escapes, etc.
- For the sake of clerics and paladins, have a brief overview of your setting's deities and religious factions.
Houserules. Any deviation from the core book content that directly affects the players during or shortly after chargen should be stated to them. It is possible to keep some secrets. For example, a whole set of rules which allow players to keep playing in the afterlife if their character dies might be something you hold back on as a surprise for when it happens. Houserules which alter the way monsters work in combat may also be something the players should not be privy to.
Cast Construction. This is the most important aspect of session 0. Everyone comes in with nothing but ideas, and they walk out with fully fleshed out and detailed characters. In the absence of session 0, it is possible for your players to create entirely incoherent parties. You could get a group composed of 5 half-orc bards! Or five evil characters and one lawful-good paladin! Or a demon-worshipping sorcerer and a highly dogmatic good cleric! Or any number of character combinations that just can't logically work together! By having the players make their characters together as a group, you can completely eliminate these issues before they even become a problem. And that's a good thing!
To do this right, you need to have the group build their characters together. Don't spend a whole bunch of one-on-one time with each player in turn; that just puts blinders on the process and defeats the purpose of it all. Instead, talk to the whole group. (This is the best time to begin teaching your newbies, by the way) Don't force them to choose anything, or bar them from building certain things, unless some sort of house rule requires it. (IE: There are no spellcasters in this setting, so you can't play a wizard, sorry.) For the most part, you should be a resource of knowledge, helping the group build their characters as fast as possible. More subtly though, you should be a guide, leading them toward a collaborative process, not of building a group of separate characters, but of building the party as a character, with each individual PC playing a meaningful role in that "creature's" existence. By the end of session 0, the players should have a lot (But not neceassarily all) of the following done:
- A backstory for each character justifying their beliefs, behavior, and their presence in the group and setting.
- Here is a great video about creating a wonderful backstory
- Character Types part 1
- Character Types part 2
- The finishing details
- A reason for each character to want to work wih the group.
- Personal goals, conflicting or coherent, that each character plans to work toward.
- A number of hooks that you can use to motivate the group in different ways.
- A list of supporting cast, (contacts, friends, family, former employers, enemies, etc.) for you to draw meaningful NPCs from.
- An idea of where each character game from and belongs in the setting.
- Aspects of their characters which have been specifically defined by aspects of the setting.
- A number of stressors, or minor personal conflicts within the party, that the group can manipulate to tell deeper stories.
- A general description of the party's scope of knowledge and experience, or "worldliness".
One last note, despite how useful it is, you do not need a session 0. For newer DMs and tables with new players, it is highly recommended, but still not necessary. Many players and DMs consider session 0 to actually be a sort of lazy excuse to a deeper problem; a lack of creative maturity. For example, such a player would need to creatively roleplay themselves into justifying their character's presence and participation in the group, even if it makes no rational sense. To such a player, the challenge of creating a coherent narrative through the creative roleplay of such conflicts is part of the fun of the game, and a badge of success for those who can achieve it. While I can certainly see the fun in that, I don't think it is fair to dismiss the value of session 0 simply because of a handfull of peoples' playstyles. Simply put, although session 0 does resolve the negative consequences of creative immatureity, there is nothing wrong with being creative and immature!
If finding players is the hardest task, then teaching them how to play is the most frustrating.
- Set the books aside. Do not teach your players by just telling them to read the PHB. It is hundreds of pages long and contains heaps of information that they do not need to know right now. Talk to them face-to-face, and teach them by walking them through the process. If you have multiple newbies, talk to them together, like a teacher in a classroom. Explain a concept to the group, then open the floor for questions. This reduces the number of times you need to explain something, and allows everyone to learn from each others' questions. It also allows the new players to be building their characters simultaneously without constant direct assistance from you. Certainly, keep your corebooks with you as reference, but don't just orate the text to your newbies. The PHB is not the best book for story-time.
- Hold off on the numbers. A new player really doesn't need to know what numbers they have or how they're generated, or how they work. What the new player needs to know is what their numbers mean. So, for example, when assigning ability scores, don't have the newbie roll for them and then leave them to assign the numbers alone. Instead, ask them to prioritize which abilities are most important to their character, and just roll and assign the numbers for them according to that. It's faster, and it shows them how ability scores are generated and assigned. The same goes for describing races and classes; don't describe things by their impact on the numbers, describe the intended effects, themes, or fluff that those mechanical rules represent. For example, instead of saying "halforcs get +# to STR", you should say "Halforcs are stronger than normal people." Later, after the player has learned the core mechanic and has been working with ability scores and modifiers a bit, they'll understand the system well enough to roll up a character as if they knew all the rules like the back of their hand.
- Avoid pregens. A lot of DMs have a stack of premade characters that newbies to the group can use as a sort of "grab 'n' go" style of play. This can be useful if you want to start out teaching the player how to play the game, so that they understand what all the mechanical stuff in chargen is for. This works great if you're trying to teach D&D as a game only, but not very well if you're trying to teach them about roleplaying as well. It undermines the creativity and personal attachment/investment inherent in character creation, and gives the newbie very little to care about in the game environment, aside from their own personal metagame interests. Basically, this is how powergamers are born. Certainly, have a few pregens available for those who desire that pick-up-and-play game, but if at all possible, start a newbie off right by helping them create their dreams and make those dreams fly. In my experience, it's actually the more experienced players who desire pregens, as it makes it easier for them to join a table and get a feel for the setting and group while they work on a character of their own design for later when their pregen inevitably heroically dies, valiantly sacrificing himself so his allies may continue on.
- Start with chargen, and start simple. Ultimately, D&D is about the heroes, so start with the heroes! Give them a two-sentence description of each race, and let them choose. Then give them a three-sentence description of each class, and again let them choose. Remember, you aren't describing what these things are on a mechanical level, you want to create a strong symbolic image in the newbie's mind for each option. In 5e, you also have backgrounds, which are so easily invented on the spot, I would recommend just making up a background to represent whatever the player dreams up, rather than trying to describe them all.
- No magic for newbies. This may seem harsh, but spellcasting is an extremely complex mechanic in every edition, and spellcasters typically depend on effective spellcasting for their very survival. Simply choosing their one or two starting spells and cantrips can take a beginner HOURS, as even the smallest D&D spellbooks are overwhelming in the extreme. To pick the right spells, the newbie not only needs to read through all the spells to determine which ones are the most useful to them, (as they have no prior knowledge) they must also somehow divine what all the mechanical mumbo-jumbo in each spell description means! They haven't even gotten to playing yet. So, no spellcasting races or classes for newbies.
- Start at Level 1. Level 1 is simple, slow, and fragile. For many experienced players, level 1 is boring. For a beginner, level 1 is essential. It allows the newbie to get used to the rules, the core mechanics, roleplaying, combat, and their character's capabilities. There is very little to deal with, which makes it easier to learn. Additionally, characters are more likely to die at level 1. This gives them the opportunity to get used to that aspect of the game before they get deeply attached to a character.
- Keep it vanilla. At least to start with, do not let your newbie dabble in the "expansion packs". No splatbooks, PHB#s, DMG optional content, Unearthed Arcana, online homebrew, etc. Core rules content only to start. Everything else is an addition to the game, built upon all the core material the player hasn't even learned yet. Also, don't distort their understanding of the game by playing with a bunch of houserules. It can be hard for a player to learn properly if everyone is playing a deviated form of the core game.
- Explain the core mechanic. Once they have a character down- maybe not fully calculated and fleshed out, but a character nonetheless, teach your newbie how to play the game on its most fundamental level. Explain to them that they have full authority over their character's thoughts, decisions and actions, while the DM has full control over the surrounding environment and situation, and that there is NO overlap. (In reality, there can be a great deal of overlap as the group forms stronger trust in each others' roleplaying, but for now, keep it simple and clear.) Explain that any time they say their character tries to do something, and the DM thinks they could fail at it, they will be asked to make a check to determine success. Explain what a check is and how it is done- this is best done by simply reading the explanation from your corebook, the developers usually do a very good job of explaining it. You do not need to go into details about statistical probability, or how to stack modifiers, or skill point management, or any of that crud. It doesn't matter to a newbie at this stage of the game.
- Run a beginner's campaign. Don't put a newbie in a science fantasy world where people use wands that are carved into the shape of guns, and the players are sailing between planets on the cosmic cobwebs of a great spider deity, or anything else extremely alien/foreign to your new player. The abstraction, and confusion of adjusting to a world that is extraordinarily different from common literary settings, will severely limit their ability to learn the system, and leave them wallowing in a fog of confusion. If your setting relies on recognizable tropes and benchmarks of literature, your player will be able to absorb the setting much quicker, adapting their prior knowledge to the world at hand, allowing them to focus on getting the game part right. For now, the game is called Dungeons & Dragons- that's what the newbie is expecting, so cater to them! For their sake, put a dragon in a dungeon! Maybe don't let them kill it, but at least give them the thrill of encountering one of the iconic monsters!
- Allow OOC chatter. A lot of groups try to remain immersed in imagination as much as possible, and put a limit on the amount of out-of-character conversation that can happen. This is antagonizing to a newbie, who not only needs to talk OOC to ask questions about the system in abstract, but also probably doesn't have much experience or confidence in their roleplaying. If your group, or your personal playstile, frowns upon OOC chatter, introduce a table rule which will allow the newbie to break immersion without distracting from the game. An extremely easy way to do this, is to borrow the OOC handsign from LARP games. Whenever a player needs to speak OOC, they simply cross their fingers, and hold their hand upward, to show that they are breaking immersion. When OOC chatter is done, everyone involved drops their hands and returns to the game like nothing ever happened. This works well for teachning newbies at such a table, because the gesture is a close analogue to holding up ones hand to ask a question in school. In any case, you're going to have to tolerate a fair bit of OOC conversation with your newbies for your first couple of sessions.
- Teach rules on the go. Do not explain every facet of combat before a newbie has even had his bard buy its first drink. Wait for certain aspects of the game, like survival rules or combat, to inevitably arise, and teach the player what they need to know about it in order to keep playing. When you do get to new rules, you don't need to explain every little facet about the subject, just cover the essentials for play, and get the dice rolling again as quickly as possible, while still ensuring the player has a firm grasp of what has been explained. You can also bring up rules intentionally, by manually constructing circumstances which expose the new character to that material. In this way, you can sort of covertly tutorialize your player's learning experience. Intentionally exposing the player to rules can also allow you to teach them things in a preferred order, such as teaching them simple mechanics first, (like basic role playing, ability checks, and skill use) and complex mechanics later, (like combat, spellcasting, and character development). The key here is that you don't want to overwhelm your player, so break down the information into smaller, manageable chunks, and expose them to this information through example, rather than exposition.
- Fudge it. Keep in mind that newbies don't really know what they're doing. They don't know what their characters are and are-not capable of, or how strong/weak they really are. For the first little bit, probably just the first couple of sessions, cushion them from their own mistakes. When something really bad is about to happen, tell them why and how, and then step in as the DM to keep the action going. (IE: They attack a person with a weapon, and the die says they murder the guy. Maybe just have him get knocked out. Player decides to charge the elder dragon at 1st level? Have the dragon capture him and try to threaten him into serving it, rather than roasting him into a black stain on the dungeon floor.) Certainly, have consequences for their mistakes, but soften those consequences to simple, resolvable challenges, rather than irreversible mistakes. Let them change their character. Maybe they decide they don't like being an elf, and want to try some other race. For this little bit, while they're learning, just go with it, and help them make decisions they'll be happier with in the future. Explain to them that you're only allowing these sorts of things because they're still learning, so it is clear to them what the actual expectations of play are.
- Or throw them to the wolves. For some DMs, character death is a fundamental part of the game. Like Dark Souls, Dwarf Fortress, Mine craft, or an old Roguelike game, dying is part of the fun. It's like Lego, or block castles, or snowforts, or sand castles: half of the fun is in knocking it over to make a new one! If this is your viewpoint, you need to teach them why that is fun and show them how to enjoy it. Have them roll up several reserve characters so that, when they lose one, they're already prepared to just jump right back into the game. The main reason newbies hate character death is because the process of making a new character feels like a punishment, they're forced to sit out for however long it takes them, while everyone else gets to keep having fun. Reduce that cycle time. If a new player does need to roll up a new character, go help them until they're fast enough to do it alone.
- Give them reference tools. Make a simple quick-reference cheat sheet that the players can look at whenever they get lost or forget something. Better yet, after showing them a rule in-play, have them write down a simplified version of the rule on their own cheat-sheet- people remember words written by their own hand better. Provide the player with a pre-made character sheet. DO NOT have them make their character sheet while simultaneously filling it out, they have no idea what they're doing, or what's most important, or what stats relate to one another. Simplify their character sheet. Color code groups of information using highlighters, so they know where to look for certain types of information. ("Skill check? Skills are yellow.. Um... I have +2 to survival.") Have the PHB available, and mark important rules with tabs stating what is on that page. This will allow easier and faster rules referencing by everyone at the table. Use color-coded dice; each different die size should be a different color, so newbies can distinguish between them with a glance. (Newbies frequently mistake the d12 with the d20, and the d8 with the d10)
The DM as a God: Creating A World
- D&D as a setting
- Mystery as a setting
- Horror as a setting
- Sci-Fi as a setting
- Cyberpunk as a setting
- Apocalypse as a setting
Whether you're playing in your own setting or picking up a setting that has already been developed, it is up to you to bring the world to life for your players. You will be the one sharing stories overheard at a tavern, telling them what the cliff face they are climbing feels like, your players will look to you to find out where they can go and what they can discover once they get there, and you will need to be ready to answer..
It takes a lot of time and effort to create a believable world for people to play in, yet it is a very important aspect of the game and care must be taken to get it right. As you can imagine creating a world has many variables to consider. To start with, ask yourself the following questions:
- What era are you playing in?
- Is it a futuristic era like Star Wars, is it medieval like the era when witch hunting was Europe's biggest spectator sport, or is it a primitive era when everyone wore a lot less clothes and old people complained about this new-fangled "agriculture" nonsense? There is no "right" answer to this question and it is largely up to the feel you want your world to have and the stories you want to tell. Keep in mind though that as a game, D&D is tuned towards a more medieval setting, and diverging significantly from that will require more planning on your part.
- How big is the world?
- Your campaign can be as large as a multiverse or as small as a deserted island. (One of my campaigns was set in a medieval era on a tiny island that was inspired by my visit to Mt. Saint. Michelle (Look up some photo’s and you will be amazed how epic this place looks like!). I set out an campaign from level 5 to 10 just there, within a few hundred feet of space which turned out to be an excellent location to fill their minds with riddles and mystery for many game sessions. With this example I limited my world to a very small area but I made sure that small world was very, and I mean very detailed. (If I can find the campaign map I will post it) while reserving the possibility to go back to the main land at any time and continue the campaign there. I did not have to bother to detail the outside world until the campaign was almost over.)) Think of games like Lineage or Myst where a small setting feels open and massive.
- What kind of magic is inside your world?
- Is magic in your world as mundane as electricity here, or is it rare and only found among certain people and places? How do people perceive magic in your world, is it an annoyance? Is it considered as evidence that there is a god and he hates you? Or is it seen as a myth? How do people handle being able to be raised from the dead? How do governments manage travel available through teleportation circles? How do people handle being able to return from the grave?
- What is your world's history?
- This will take a lot of time, but believable worlds have history. We still discuss wars that happened Millenia ago, our culture is shaped by our history and the people and things that occupied it. For the sake of your players and your world, Think of history on a sliding set of scales, like a map
- A world map shows everything, but doesn't have many fine details, empires rise and fall, continents drift, people migrate, but world history is perceived as nations, not people and the time-frames discussed usually are measured by the century or even the millennia. A lot of different things can happen at once when you look at a world scale (ex. the mammoths were still alive when the egyptians were building their pyramids)
- A map of a continent shows the progress of nations and kingdoms as people band together and carve out their own little stretch of dirt. These are the movements of cultures and armies, the only individuals that history is concerned with on this scale are kings and conquerors and the like. Time on this scale is measured by the century or the decade.
- A nation's map is everything within its borders with some looks at the neighbors. This is the advance of kingdoms and the rise and fall of notable individuals, National history is filled with notables, folk heroes, statesmen, celebrities, nobility, authors. This is where the details start to bubble to the surface, each nation has its own history and those histories are long and varied and can change depending on who you ask.
- This will take a lot of time, but believable worlds have history. We still discuss wars that happened Millenia ago, our culture is shaped by our history and the people and things that occupied it. For the sake of your players and your world, Think of history on a sliding set of scales, like a map
These questions will be important regardless of whether this is a homebrew or "official" campaign, you won't need to have all the answers, but you will need to have at least considered these and other questions. After all, nobody can predict what their players will do.
Raising the Roof
- Cosmology that mirrors reality
- Cosmology that does not
Tectonic Plates & Fault Lines
Oceans & Continents
Glaciers & Rivers
- Supernatural Life
- An example food chain
- An example food web
Theres a wide range of scales for regional maps. A regional map may only show major settlements and roads, and may only show national boundaries, this would be a kingdom or national scale map. A closer scale may show provincial boundaries and even small thorps. This would be a closer, or provincial scale map. A very close regional map may show individual buildings, backalleys, the locations of specific trees and monuments, the position and shape of bridges, and other sorts of highly detailed information. This would be a city or settlement scale map.
- roads and trails
- major and minor settlements
- lesser bodies of water
- wooded areas
- governing boundaries
- place names
- specific buildings
The local map shows, in detail, all of the stuff in your immediate surroundings. Your typical local map is made for navigation mainly, and usually uses a grid where each square is 10-20ft. A play map is typically used for miniatures combat, and uses very large scale for the grid, typically 5ft, and can be used to track the exact positions and movements of creatures.
- walls, halls, and rooms
- doors and other furniture
- locations of people and objects
This type of map doesnt appear much in your typical fantasy game. Even if your players do a lot of planeswalking, knowing the exact metaphysical arrangement of the planes is rarely necessary. However, in sci-fi type games, or in settings where the cosmology allows for multiple worlds on the same plane, a cosmic-scale map, sometimes called a star-map, may actually be necessary to track travel. This would be just as important as a world map, but thankfully, must easier to make.
- Axial tilt
- Satelites & Tides
- Tools people use to track their movement
- The Sun
- Local Bodies
- Tools people use to track their movement
- Impact on navigation
- Early History
- Golden Ages
- Dark Ages
Populating the World
Stories are often connected to us through the people that are in them, they make the world more than just a series of adjectives and give events weight and context. Make sure that there are people inside of the world that you have your players explore.
Most of the time your NPCs will be bit parts, someone they only see once or twice and then never again, but mixed in with that will be characters that matter to campaigns, and more importantly characters that matter to the players.
Most of these "important" characters should already be developed before the campaign or session begins. Any characters you've planned for your players to interact with should already have at least an outline ready with both personality and backstory.
One good thing to do is to have a sheet for each of your "important" NPCs, start with all the information that you developed beforehand with personality and backstory and their family, allies and enemies. Then you can add details as you come up with them during the campaign.
When you characterize your NPCs, remember that position they hold and the people they interact with, and their impression of the players. When they talk with players are they forthcoming or reluctant? Are they dismissive or in awe? This can also be a good way to show the effect that your players have had on the world, and the reputations that they carry.
Another thing to remember is that people have quirks, try not to make your characters rote stereotypes by adding unusual little details that go against what the players would expect. Perhaps a brutal warrior really likes puns. Maybe a priest feels too hassled to be devout all the time. Or a fair princess is really into bloody combat. These little quirks makes the characters more real, it can make them matter more to your players and make the players care what happens to them.
While you're inventing the people, think about where they live. The people define how the world is formed, and the world defines what those people are like. Barker gives us a good look at the kinds of thoughts that go into this, through a good old-fashioned brainstorm.
Families & Clans
- Family Roles
- Martial Arts
- The Oral Tradition
- Death & Beyond
- Law & Justice
Barker shows us how to use NPCs as an immersion tool. (Among other useful tips)
The Dungeon Master Player Character is an extremely advanced and complex tool that is at your disposal. They are very rarely used, and their use is highly contentious in the hobby. Some DMs always have one. Most DMs take one look at the idea and laugh. Some players would prefer one in the party. Most players hate the idea absolutely. Why all the conflict? And what is the actual value and practical use of such a character? Considering there is objective proof that this can be done and can be fun, (As there are many players and DMs who love it) we should give it adequate consideration as a legitimate technique, rather than dismissing the subject out-of-hand. Let's start with a clear definition so we can talk about this. A tight definition is more useful than a broad one, as it gives us something specific to discuss. We can make up new names for anything that is excluded.
We need to exclude things that some people call a DMPC, to give it a specific form. A DMPC is not...
- An NPC. NPCs typically have static stat blocks, or at most only a partially developed character sheet, they don't collect xp or gain levels, their scores and capabilities are arbitrary, and they are just all-around simple, mechanically.
- A background character. The DMPC is more than fluff with a mouth. They're nothing like the amorphous blob of ideas that is the king, or the shopkeep, or the tavern wench. A DMPC has teeth.
- Temporary. They're in it for the long haul. (Even if they get killed on the way)
- Your time to shine. Nobody deserves more spotlight than anyone else, so don't hog it.
- A new way to terrorize/antagonize your players. (Seriously, who is this jerk DM I keep hearing horror stories about? He needs a swift boot to the butt.)
- A PC controlled by the DM to account for an absent player. (That's just doing someone a favor)
- A Party-controlled character, whose actions are determined primarily by group consensus. (That's just the DM giving the party an inordinate amount of control over an NPC.)
OK, so what does the exclusions leave us with? A DMPC is...
- A character, with a full character sheet with levels, xp, the works- who is controlled by the DM.
- An active member of the party who contributes to combat, exploration, and socialization.
- A character who takes part in the rewards of adventure.
- In the case where the role of DM switches from session to session, and the players continue to control their character during their time in The Chair, their character may count as a DMPC during that time, despite not being explicitly constructed to serve that function.
To run a DMPC correctly, the DM must play fair and abide by the rules regarding their character. They can't fudge their rolls the way they would for a monster, for example. Any rules that apply to the players must, then, also apply to the DM when he is operating his character. (For example, if players must make check rolls in the open, so must the DM for his DMPC) Furthermore, the DMPC cannot be favored by the DM, and just as players should be discouraged from employing player knowledge in character, DMs are to be equally modest about their meta-knowledge advantage, and choose not to use it. Nothing can stop a DM from including a mary-sue DMPC that ruins the game, except that DM's desire to not ruin their own campaign.
So, what are the benefits?
- The DM gets to join in on the fun! This may seem a little juvinile, but DMing is a tough gig, and there's rarely anyone willing or able to sub-in for you. Having a PC kicking around where you can be personally invested in the current events of the game can be a nice way to keep your attention.
- The DM can have a personal avatar in the game through which he can directly interact with, incentivize, inform, and guide. Remember Gandalf in The Hobbit? He is a good example of what a DMPC is all about, in this regard.
- The DMPC can be used as filler, to flesh out the party. You can use the DMPC to make up for low numbers, or to provide some tactical versatility to the party. (Like, if they didn't make a healer or a fighter.)
- The DMPC can be used as a teaching tool, a sort of guide to the world and system to accompany (and protect) the newbies while they get their legs.
Now, what are the problems with it, and how have people overcome them?
- It's a whole bunch of extra work. Remember, your players spend their whole time at the table just running and planning their one character apiece. Meaningful roleplaying, good build planning, and effective cooperative combat tactics, together make for a great deal of work. You need to manage your character's finances, inventory, physical needs, downtime, backstory, ethical and moral values, relationships, xp and leveling, etc.- and you'll have to do it while simultaneously describing environments, controlling every monster in every encounter, ensuring time passes, awarding treasure and xp, keeping your notes organized, managing the spotlight, and all of the other stuff you already have to do as a DM. It can be a big attention sink if you get too carried away, and it can reduce the quality of the rest of your game. The key to preventing this is, as with everything else the DM does, good planning and preparation. First off, make yourself some extra time to plan your character so it doesn't eat into the prep time for your session. If you already know how much xp is going to be awarded throughout an adventure, then you don't need to bother handing it out piece-meal as you go, just give the DMPC the xp first and level him later. Because you know how much xp will be distributed, you also know when your characters are going to level. You can use that information to make a premade character sheet for what your character will look like when that happens. When it does, just toss the old sheet! Finally, to help prevent your character from distracting from the game, use your character as an instrument to support your delivery of game material. Your character's reactions to the world can be more descriptive than your exposition- and more personal to your players, because it adds an emotional or value charge to it, which may even be different than the charge you gave it during your exposition! (IE: Describe the attacking dragon in excruciating, horrifying detail. Describe your character looking at this wall of destruction and yawning. Or something like that.)
- It's a conflict of interests. Generally, the players are at the mercy of the DM. (Have some mercy for your players.) A DMPC, however, is in a unique position that it doesn't have to be. A DM who is invested in their personal character has great incentives to fudge the rules in his favor. Now, most DMs do fudge the rules a bit for the purposes of keeping the adventure exciting, and the adventurers not anticlimactically killed for nothing, so some fudging should be considered reasonable if that's the way they roll anyways. The problem comes when the DM goes too far, and where the line stands, exactly, can be extremely hard to tell. Generally, though, a good rule of thumb is to ask yourself, "would I do this for a PC? Have I already decided against it for a PC?" You will need to cross-examine yourself as well. Every time a consequence lands on a PC, you need to think, at least quickly in the back of your mind, whether or not you have fudged that exact thing for your character, and why. For example, if you fudge a damage roll because you like your character alive, but then don't do it for a player's character, and they become aware of it, you will be facing some angry players, because you have been unfair. And that's really what the whole conflict of interests thing comes down to: Fairness. If it's true for a PC, it must be true for a DMPC, and vice-versa, otherwise it is unfair. The problems arise when baseless accuastions are made because someone feels slighted where they have not been, and that's just something you're going to have to contend with. Sadly, there's no way to mandate maturity at the table, and misunderstandings can and will happen. Being honest and polite is the best solution.
- It's competition for attention. The number one reason players dislike DMPCs, is because they take up spotlight that could otherwise be used on the setting or the PCs, and that seems unfair and unnecessary to the players. Remember that the DM can have as much spotlight as he wants, while players need to invent ways of roleplaying their characters into the scene in order to get any. So, how do you overcome this? Well, first off, you need to manage your time well and consume as little spotlight as possible as the DM. There are many strategies to do this, and they're described throughout this page, so we'll focus on how to reduce the spotlight consumption of your DMPC. For one thing, make them less interesting! Make them interesting enough to deserve the spotlight when they need it, but bland enough that there's not much else to say... Like Watson is to Sherlock Holms! For another, try your best to keep the DMPC's activities focused on the players. In all instances, interact with them, prod them, que them, instigate them, and inspire them. Think of it kind of like an awards ceremony host; their only job is to segue the spotlight on to someone else. Now, that doesn't mean their time in the spotlight must be uninteresting- the opposite in fact. The DMPC should always strive to start something interesting and put it in the players hands to use. In this way, the DMPC can actually be used to manually dispense spotlight to players who aren't recieving much! In the instances where the DMPC does interact with the environment in isolation, in a way that does not or can not involve the PCs, make sure that interaction is important. Use the DMPC as a plot device to instigate events in the narrative that the protagonists probably shouldn't be involved in.
- It's confusing. Many DMs dislike the DMPC because it adds a new layer of difficulty in separating meta-knowledge from character knowledge. In other words, it is extremely easy to accidentally metagame through your DMPC. This can be bad in a few ways, but mostly it's just unfair if you can get away with it but your players can't. The main way it can be bad, is when the DM uses their personal knowledge of the setting to personally go out and get itself the best of everything without regard for the PCs. That's just plain immature, and if you can't help yourself, you shouldn't be in The Chair. The other way it can be bad is when the DM goes overboard on exposition from the DMPC and trails off into TMI-land, giving away important plot hooks, pointing out subtle foreshadowing, and otherwise just spoiling it for the party. Let me put it to you this way: If you don't do that with your NPCs, then you can handle not doing it with your DMPC, you simply have to choose not to. Otherwise, you are too inexperienced and need to get out there and play more!
The Local Area
Hamenopi gets emotional about empty rooms, and gives us some food for thought on how we describe and build our worlds.
The DM as a Story Teller: Creating a Narrative
The typical D&D game typically follows a fairly standardized flow of play, composed of a series of nested constructs assembled by the DM. This game flow can be thought of kind of like an elaborate language, which is used to tell a story. The basic unit of this "language of the DMs" is the encounter- a single eventful and thematic moment. These encounters are strung together like a sentence to tell an important part of a story, called an adventure, and are connected by segues of roleplay, which function like grammatical particles, (the, it, to, etc.). Adventures can also be thought of as chapters in a book, or episodes in a serialized television program. A series of adventures are then strung together to tell a whole story, from beginning to end, and this is called a campaign. A full campaign can be thought of as being similar to a complete book, or full season of a TV show. It is possible to run a series of campaigns, if you have multiple unrelated story arcs which pick up from the end of the one preceding it. Most groups just treat this as a continuation of a single campaign, but the point is mostly irrelevant. Regardless which conceptualization you use, the effect is the same: the show goes on.
- Campaign: Tyrany of Dragons Expeditions
- Adventure: Defiance in Phlan
- Encounter: Non-Combat, roleplay, quest-giver, The Harper.
- Encounter: Non-Combat, roleplay, skill checks, the bargain.
- Encounter: Combat, roleplay, the uninvited guests.
- Encounter: Non-Combat, Roleplay, the delivery.
- Encounter: Etc...
- Adventure: Secrets of Sokol Keep
- Encounter: Non-Combat, Roleplay.
- Encounter: Combat
- Encounter: Non-Combat, Roleplay, Hook Delivery.
- Encounter: Etc....
- Adventure: Shadows Over the Moonsea
- Encounter: Etc....
- Adventure: Dues for the Dead
- Encounter: Etc...
- Adventure: The Courting of Fire
- Adventure: The Scroll Thief
- Adventure: Drums in the Marsh
- Adventure: Tales Trees Tell
- Adventure: Etc...
Not all groups follow this structuralized form of play, however. There are two major deviations from the standard flow of play.
Oneshot. Oneshot games are a whole story told in a single adventure. Even if the group plays the same characters from one adventure to the next, the stories told have no literary connection. This is often seen in groups that play only official content, as few officially published adventures are sold as a series that tells a coherent story the way a campaign would. Some people would regard a series of one-shot games with the same characters as a campaign, as the continuous presence of a central cast of protagonists inherently turns the disconnected events into a narrative- regardless how shallow. For the purposes of this article however, we are assuming that the purpose of a campaign is to tell a story by intent, and that the absence of such an intent falls outside the normal structure. Such a game is built entirely through bottom-up construction, with no pre-planned overarching goals.
Free-Roam, Open-World, or Sandbox. In this type of game, players are given freedom to explore an environemnt at will, while the DM simply reacts to their input, effectively simulating a naturalistic environment. No specific stories are intended, and the objective is for players to emergently produce a narrative through the cumulative effect of their conflicting objectives. As a result, there are no pre-built adventures, no benchmarks or checkpoimts for the players to pass, no grand overarching story to guide them. Such a game is built entirely through top-down construction, with details generated only at the moment of necessity- whenever the players encounter something. Freeform games are unlikely to even have preconstructed encounters, as the DM will likely adlib everything on the fly.
To be clear, however: A knowledge of the formal construction of play will dramatically improve your ability to run other forms of games. It's like poetry; knowing meter, rhythm, and rhyme will improve your freeform poetry, regardless of whether you appreciate them.
But first, a word on the primary tool that the DM and players use to create the narrative and pacing: the spotlight. This is a seriously bad way to look at things, but a lot of what D&D boils down to, particularly the roleplaying side of it, is a contest for attention. The players are competing with each other for the attention of the group. Now, this shouldn't be an overt contest, and everyone should be gracious about giving attention more than they recieve it, and sharing in that attentiion, that's just part of being a good sport, but there is no denying that there is a limited amount of attention that can be given, and it can be measured in time. How much time is available in the session, from beginning to end, and how many people it is divided between, will determine how valuable that time is. This effect is what we in the hobby call spotlight. Management of the spotlight, (who it shines on, and for how long) generates the effects of narrative and pacing in the game. Thus, manipulation of the spotlight is a product of time management.
One thing you may hear some DMs and players talk about is the so-called "premium" on spotlight. What they're talking about is how valuable that spotlight is, based on how scarce it is. Let's imagine spotlight is divided evenly between the players at a 4-player table, with the DM soaking up about half of the session time for descriptions, explanations, question answering, etc., then each player only gets 7 and a half minutes of spotlight per hour. In order for each player to get 1 hour of downtime under such a system, the session would need to last 8 hours. So, the more players there are in the group, the more valuable the spotlight is, not only because there's less of it to go around, but because the audience is bigger, there are more eyes on you.
Add into this situation the fact that not all players pay attention to everything all the time, off-topic table conversation during which the spotlight is effectively "off", or players who hog the spotlight, and you can see why a lot of strong emotions can flare up at the table! In fact, almost every type of social problem at the gaming table, (powergaming, rules lawyering, disruptive play, etc.) stems from inappropriate allocation of spotlight due to a lack of communication between players about the issue. So, being able to manage the spotlight effectively is absolutely paramount to running a successful game! As I said earlier, effective management of the spotlight comes down to practicing good time management.
First and foremost, you, as the DM, should strive to consume as little spotlight as possible, while still getting your story across with as much depth as possible.
- Having a big vocabulary is an asset here, as it will allow you to say far more in fewer words with greater clarity and emotion. Having a thesaurus handy when planning your sessions and building your world can be a great benefit.
- When describing new things, take descriptive shortcuts by starting with similes or comparisons and then modifying the image with description.
- A picture is worth a thousand words. If you can make art, then do so. It doesn't need to be amazing, just clear. (Look at how successful Order of the Stick has been!) If you aren't confident there, you can still describe a ton through maps and diagrams, and you can always troll the internet for art you can print and use!
- Try to turn your spotlight into their spotlight. Either make your descriptions about the PCs, or pass it off to them immediately afterward.
- Encourage your players to share the spotlight.
To begin, you need a story to tell! While, technically, any series of events is a plot, that doesn't mean that every series of events is worth talking about, or even remembering. We could go really in-depth about literary theory here, but we won't, mainly because storytelling through an RPG is so drastically different from any other artist medium. And make no mistake: when used as a work of collaborative fiction through improve performance to construct a meaningful narrative, RPGs are more than just a game- they have the capacity for true art in its technical and theoretical sense. No, instead we're going to cover the parts that are actually useful to a DM!
In literature, the literary element of conflict is an inherent incompatibility between the objectives of two or more characters or forces. Conflict creates tension and interest in a story by adding doubt as to the outcome. A narrative is not limited to a single conflict. While conflicts may not always resolve in narrative, the resolution of a conflict creates closure, which may or may not occur at a story's end. There are essentially 3 fundamental types of conflict, when it comes to RPGs. (There are 4 in literature)
Man vs. Man
Two people, a protagonist and an antagonist, want opposing results. In the literary sense, this is 1v1, while 1v# is typically handled separately, and labelled "Man vs. Society". Personally, I think the society group os just a misunderstanding of the forces at play, and that it breaks down under exploration during gameplay. Ultimately, being opposed by the wills of many people is exactly the same as being opposed by a single will, it's just harder to win. As for the psychological impact of societal pressures, that is literally the driving force of Man vs. Self. So, Man vs. Society can be boiled down to many overlapping instances of Man vs. Man, and one very big instance of Man vs. Self.
Man vs. Self
The protagonist antagonizes himself because their values oppose their desires or past actions.
Man vs. Environment
In literature, people keep breaking this one down into Man vs. God/Fate/Technology/Nature/etc., and they usually call it Man vs. Nature, which is extremely limited- thus all the people trying to add additional variants. It all boils down to the same damn thing though: An external, non-human force is acting in opposition to the protagonist's goals. (As the DM, that would be you.)
The 36 Dramatic Situations
The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations is a descriptive list which was created by Georges Polti to categorize every dramatic situation that might occur in a story or performance. To do this Polti analyzed classical Greek texts, plus classical and contemporaneous French works. He also analyzed a handful of non-French authors. In his introduction, Polti claims to be continuing the work of Carlo Gozzi, who also identified 36 situations.
Each situation is stated, then followed by the necessary elements for each situation and a brief description.
- Power in Authority whose decision is doubtful
The Supplicant is chased, harmed or otherwise threatened by the Persecutor and begs for help from the Power in Authority.
A. fugitives imploring the powerful for help against their enemies
assistance implored for the performance of a pious duty which has been forbidden appeals for a refuge in which to die
B. hospitality besought by the shipwrecked
charity entreated by those cast off by their own people, whom they have disgraced
expiation, the seeking of pardon, healing or deliverance
the surrender of a corpse, or of a relic, solicited
C. supplication of the powerful for those dear to the suppliant
supplication to a relative in behalf of another relative
supplication to a mother's lover, in her behalf
'Supplication' is begging, humbly asking for something that someone else has and you do not have. The fact that you cannot just take it, whether through an imbalance of power or moral codes means throwing yourself on the charity of the person who can help is the only option.
The position of the shady Persecutor is not very clear, who may be chasing or having harmed the Supplicant. This does add desperation, however, to the Supplicant's position, adding to the sympathy that we will offer (and perhaps removing any disgust at begging).
It can also offer another story strand that beggars, having humbled themselves to the lowest position can become very vengeful if they are rejected.
This situation echoes the child begging its parent for something and thus tugs at very early strings. The situation of having to beg is, in itself, very humbling and we thus may feel sorry for the protagonist.
- Example: A village is being run by an incompetent &/or domineering mayor so the people ask the king to remove him. The PC's could be citizens in the village, assigned the task of arresting the mayor or verifying the story for the king, or interested observers who take it upon themselves to see to it the mayor is deposed.
- An Unfortunate
- A Threatener
- A Rescuer
The Unfortunate is threatened in some way by the Threatener and is saved by the Rescuer.
A. Appearance of a rescuer to the condemned.
B. A parent replaced upon the throne by his children.
Rescue by friends or by strangers grateful for benefits or hospitality.
Being rescued plays to the primitive need for safety and echoes the childhood theme of being 'saved' by parents from the various messes into which children get themselves.
The general field of psychoanalysis is full of observations around the theme of patterns that originate from infancy
- Example: Ifigenia in Tauride
- Example: VERY common RPG plot where a town is threatened by Orc hordes and the PC's must rescue them. But what if roles are juggled a bit? How about if the Orcs are threatened by the PC's and are "rescued" by an ally of the orcs? What if the PC's are the ones who need rescuing?
- Vengeance of a Crime
- An Avenger
- A Criminal
The Avenger wreaks vengeance on the Criminal for past crimes.
A. The avenging of a slain parent or ancestor
The avenging of a slain child or descendant
Vengeance for a child dishonored
The avenging of a slain wife or husband
Vengeance for the dishonor or attempted dishonoring of a wife
vengeance for a mistress slain
Vengeance for a slain or injured friend
Vengeance for a sister seduced
B. Vengeance for intentional injury or spoliation
Vengeance for having been despoiled during absence
Revenge for a false accusation
Vengeance for violation
Vengeance for having been robbed of one's own
Vengeance on a whole sex for a deception by one
C. Professional pursuit of criminals
Revenge is a common topic within our everyday lives, although the effect in terms of preventing recurrence of the crime is often negligible. 'Vengeance', even more than the very similar 'revenge' is done for the satisfaction of those who have been harmed in some way, and can be an act of great anger, sometimes arguably worse than the original crime.
Seeing vengeance in a story provides us with a vicarious release, allowing us to harmlessly channel our vengeful anger that might otherwise get us into trouble. Seeing the villain punished gives a sense of righteous satisfaction and confirmation that right will always be done.
- Example: The Count of Monte Cristo
- Example: A PC seeks revenge upon an NPC or powerful monster for a wrong done to him; a PC is the object of revenge by someone or something which survives an attack by him; the PC's are caught up in someone else's plot for revenge.
- Vengeance taken for kin upon kin
- Guilty Kinsman; an Avenging Kinsman; remembrance of the Victim, a relative of both.
Two entities, the Guilty and the Avenging Kinsmen, are put into conflict over wrongdoing to the Victim, who is allied to both.
- Example: Hamlet
- Example: Hatfield vs. McCoy? Capulet vs. Montague? That's Romeo and Juliet for the heathens out there though R&J also clearly falls under #28 & #29. But then that shows how plots can be combined. That story also provides all kinds of places for the PC's to fit in. They need not be standing in as Romeo or Juliet but could be friends or members of either of their families.
- punishment; a fugitive
the fugitive flees punishment for a misunderstood conflict.
- Example: Les Misérables
- a vanquished power; a victorious enemy or a messenger
the power falls from their place after being defeated by the victorious enemy or being informed of such a defeat by the messenger.
- Example: Agamemnon (play)
- Example: A common theme for Greek tragedy with Fate being a common source for somebody's woes. Oedipus Rex springs to mind as fitting this mold as does the plot of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.
- Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune
- an unfortunate; a master or a misfortune
the unfortunate suffers from misfortune and/or at the hands of the master.
- Example: Job (biblical figure)
- Example: I guess "disaster" put me in mind of Irwin Allen movies but it fits. Take his classic disaster movie Towering Inferno. The fire is in a sense the power that gets vanquished with Steve McQueen's fire Chief being one part of the victorious power and the messenger who brings up the moral of the story.
- a tyrant; a conspirator
the tyrant, a cruel power, is plotted against by the conspirator.
- Example: Julius Caesar (play)
- Example: Star Wars? American Revolution? French Revolution? Russian Revolution? I would HIGHLY recommend looking into the American Revolution as a source here.
- Daring enterprise
- a bold leader; an object; an adversary
the bold leader takes the object from the adversary by overpowering the adversary.
- Example: Queste del Saint Graal
- Example: Must be THE most common plot for D&D. PC's boldly go to the dungeon to defeat monsters &/or retrieve a specific treasure.
- an abductor; the abducted; a guardian
the abductor takes the abducted from the guardian.
- Example: Helen of Troy
- Example: Another well-known D&D plot better known as "Save the Princess/Prince".
- The enigma
- a problem; an interrogator; a seeker
the interrogator poses a problem to the seeker and gives a seeker better ability to reach the seeker's goals.
- Example: Oedipus and the Sphinx
- Example: Common plot with the PC's as investigators of mysteries.
- (a Solicitor & an adversary who is refusing) or (an arbitrator & opposing parties)
the solicitor is at odds with the adversary who refuses to give the solicitor what they object in the possession of the adversary, or an arbitrator decides who gets the object desired by opposing parties (the solicitor and the adversary).
- Example: Apple of Discord
- Example: Less common I think because there's a tendency to think of the only opposition to the PC's being deadly opposition when a competitive arrangement can be more interesting. A good template that springs to mind is from Raider of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones (the obvious PC stand-in) competes with Belloq, the French archeologist. I'm thinking of a campaign where the PC's form a party that is continually competing against a rival group of adventurers for the prime dungeons to loot. Over the course of the campaign it escalates with their opposition becoming more ruthless or associating with powers even less scrupulous than they.
- Enmity of kin
- a Malevolent Kinsman; a Hated or a reciprocally-hating Kinsman
The Malevolent Kinsman and the Hated or a second Malevolent Kinsman conspire together.
- Example: A good basis for events directly related (no pun) to a PC or PC's being involved in the consequences of such events.
- Rivalry of kin
- the Preferred Kinsman; the Rejected Kinsman; the Object of Rivalry
The Object of Rivalry chooses the Preferred Kinsman over the Rejected Kinsman.
- Example: Wuthering Heights
- Example: Similar, but often with no less dire consequences. Another Shakespeare example - the daughters of King Lear fighting over who should inherit the land.
- Murderous adultery
- two Adulterers; a Betrayed Spouse
Two Adulterers conspire to kill the Betrayed Spouse.
- Example: Clytemnestra and Aegisthus
- Example: Extremely common in movies but I've never seen anything approaching it in an RPG although the adventure fodder from it can be very fertile. Even more so as the adulterers involved are more powerful.
- a Madman; a Victim
The Madman goes insane and wrongs the Victim.
- Example: The limit of involvement of madness seems to be a few isolated sages, the stereotypical mad wizard, and the relationship between madness and alignment. Literature and plays (mostly classical stuff) are good sources for game ideas involving madness. Greek tragedy and Shakespeare used it often. I'd say it's fallen out of use in modern times though, or at least it's use has changed with the advent of medicine and psychology.
- Fatal imprudence
- the Imprudent; a Victim or an Object Lost
The Imprudent, by neglect or ignorance, loses the Object Lost or wrongs the Victim.
- Example: Generally involved on a more interpersonal scale as when a young boy is careless with matches and burns down his house. However, I think another example might be Custer's Last Stand where his ignorance &/or arrogance led to a massacre of his troops.
- Involuntary crimes of love
- a Lover; a Beloved; a Revealer
The Lover and the Beloved have unknowningly broken a taboo through their romantic relationship, and the Revealer reveals this to them.
- Example: Oedipus, Jocasta and the messenger from Corinth.
- Example: Note that this is actions other than adultery committed out of love. Maybe something like a brother murdering his sister's boyfriend because he doesn't think him worthy of her and is seen in the act by a blackmailer. Another possibility: a businessman who commits crimes to save his business and a loyal employee who wrestles with the choice of turning in his admired employer versus his civil duty.
- Slaying of kin unrecognized
- the Slayer; an Unrecognized Victim
The Slayer kills the Unrecognized Victim.
- Example: Oedipus and Laius
- Example: Shakespeare used this sort of theme frequently as he used the device of people in disguise a LOT.
- Self-sacrifice for an ideal
- a Hero; an Ideal; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
The Hero sacrifices the Person or Thing for their Ideal, which is then taken by the Creditor.
- Example: This is good for more than LG or Paladin types to be involved in as they are not the only type of characters who would have such deeply held beliefs. They're just the most obvious association.
- Self-sacrifice for kin
- a Hero; a Kinsman; a Creditor or a Person/Thing sacrificed
The Hero sacrifices a Person or Thing for their Kinsman, which is then taken by the Creditor.
- Example: Now this is a rare one as its impact seldom rises above the interpersonal level. The first example that comes to mind is a child who sacrifices their own dreams and desires in order to provide for an ill parent or sibling.
- All sacrificed for passion
- a Lover; an Object of fatal Passion; the Person/Thing sacrificed
A Lover sacrifices a Person or Thing for the Object of their Passion, which is then lost forever.
- Example: Not an overly common archetype but seen often enough in teen movies. For example, a geek who sells a prized collection in order to pay for something to win the affection of a girl he is infatuated with.
- Necessity of sacrificing loved ones
- a Hero; a Beloved Victim; the Necessity for the Sacrifice
The Hero wrongs the Beloved Victim because of the Necessity for their Sacrifice.
- Example: The first thing that comes to mind here is from the Bible where God tests Abraham's faith and obedience by commanding him to sacrifice his son which God prevents at the last moment when he is about to follow through.
- Rivalry of superior vs. inferior
- a Superior Rival; an Inferior Rival; the Object of Rivalry
A Superior Rival bests an Inferior Rival and wins the Object of Rivalry.
- Example: This is not necessarily indicating a personal relationship but possibly competitive standing or public perception of it. I'm thinking of all what is now an established genre in movies of the underdog team (generally sports teams) of misfits winning out over their rivals who are usually painted as obnoxious and arrogant.
- two Adulterers; a Deceived Spouse
Two Adulterers conspire against the Deceived Spouse.
- Example: Simple - Arthur, Guenivere, and Lancelot. This personal betrayal leads to the downfall of Camelot and similar circumstances could occur in a campaign.
- Crimes of love
- a Lover; the Beloved
A Lover and the Beloved break a taboo by initiating a romantic relationship.
- Example: Sigmund and his sister in Wagner's opera "The Valkyrie"
- Example: Indicates a situation where love is dissolved or destroyed because the actions of one are unacceptable to the other(s) though those actions are not directly related to the relationship. A businessman ruthlessly crushes his competition and his behavior causes his wife to leave him.
- Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one
- a Discoverer; the Guilty One
The Discoverer discovers the wrongdoing committed by the Guilty One.
- Example: A girl learns her best friend and schoolmate has cheated on a test. A noble learns his brother has fathered a child out of wedlock that will scandalize the family and lead to disfavor at court.
- Obstacles to love
- two Lovers; an Obstacle
Two Lovers face an Obstacle together.
Example: So common it's barely worth providing examples. Name any 5-hankie weeper of your choice and if it's not about the disease-of-the-week it'll be about two lovers driven apart by obstacles or overcoming those obstacles to join or remain together.
- An enemy loved
- a Lover; the Beloved Enemy; the Hater
The allied Lover and Hater have diametrically opposed attitudes towards the Beloved Enemy.
- Example: Romeo & Juliet. Enemy Mine.
- an Ambitious Person; a Thing Coveted; an Adversary
The Ambitious Person seeks the Thing Coveted and is opposed by the Adversary.
- Example: A general archetype that covers a lot of ground. Could be as low-key as someone overcoming shyness to win his girls heart, or as sweeping as the Red Wizards trying to take over the world and being opposed by the Harpers.
- Conflict with a god
- a Mortal; an Immortal
The Mortal and the Immortal enter a conflict.
- Example: How often do you hear of a PC being in conflict with HIS deity? Something to think about.
- Mistaken jealousy
- a Jealous One; an Object of whose Possession He is Jealous; a Supposed Accomplice; a Cause or an Author of the Mistake
The Jealous One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and becomes jealous of the Object and becomes conflicted with the Supposed Accomplice.
- Erroneous judgment
- a Mistaken One; a Victim of the Mistake; a Cause or Author of the Mistake; the Guilty One
The Mistaken One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and passes judgment against the Victim of the Mistake when it should be passed against the Guilty One instead.
- Example: Andy's prize widget is stolen. Bob has always been jealous of Andy's widget so Andy assumes it was him. It is ultimately revealed, however, that Carl borrowed Andy's widget to show to the widget prize committee so that Andy could be justly rewarded.
- a Culprit; a Victim or the Sin; an Interrogator
The Culprit wrongs the Victim or commits the Sin, and is at odds with the Interrogator who seeks to understand the situation.
- Example: I like a good story of redemption. Try The Shawshank Redemption on for size.
- Recovery of a lost one
- a Seeker; the One Found
The Seeker finds the One Found.
- Example: Could be Lassie looking for Timmy in the woods or the PC's returning the Black Skull of Death to the Keepers of Dangerous Things.
- Loss of loved ones
- a Kinsman Slain; a Kinsman Spectator; an Executioner
The killing of the Kinsman Slain by the Executioner is witnessed by the Kinsman
- Example: Would seem to often be used in conjunction with other plot types like Revenge or Madness but it would start with this.
Interactions & Task Resolution
No world is a static object, worlds are filled with people that can be simple, complicated, patient or irrational, landscapes change from earthquakes and tsunamis, borders shift as peoples go to war or sign documents. Most importantly, powerful adventurers are roaming the world and they will want to feel that their presence there matters and that the places they visit matter as well.
As the players move through the world, you will need to supply them with the scene and with the characters occupying it. If you slack on this, the world will feel empty, bland and boring. You will be bringing the world to life and making your world feel like more than just a setting.
Your player's first interaction with the world is in how you describe it as they find it. A common mistake people make as a DM is focusing exclusively on their story or on combat. They are within a world, filled with little things that make it feel more present, more lived in. With people and places that existed before they came along.
Detail is a very important part of your description of the world. Say your players are walking down a road. Is the road cobbled? Paved? Is it just rutted dirt? Where does the road go? How frequently do people travel along it? These little things can set the stage of the world and the people in it.
These details can be a good hook to get your players involved in a story, or to send them somewhere you want them to go. Say there's a fork in the road, one's clean, the other is muddy with fresh footprints and deep ruts, your players will want to take the second path.
Involve the NPCs in your world too , say your players find a caravan, and one wagon is sitting especially low, and a group of men are staying around it, looking suspiciously around them. Without having your players do anything you already have a hook for them to go on an adventure and to get them wondering. The world interacted with the players on a passive bases, no conversation has been made but the information/interaction with the players may have led them to believe that certain opportunities may lie ahead.
When you're describing a setting for your players, consider the following details. A good rule of thumb is to pick the ones that are directly relevant to what you want your players to know, and then add one or two extra details to give it more texture, and to make it seem less leading.
- What does the ground or terrain look like? Rocky? Sandy? Barren? Wooded? Are there fields or valleys?
- What has been built there? Is this a city with tall buildings of stone? A village with thatch cottages? Are there crumbling ruins or lean-to shelters?
- People have stuff and tend to leave it around, this can tell your players about the location they're in and the people that occupy it. Is it cluttered or clean, what kind of things are there? religious icons? books? trash? Is this a city with all sorts of detritus? Or is this the woods, with very few marks of people?
- Who's there? Is it crowded or abandoned? What race are they, is it all one race or a mixed crowd? How are the people dressed? How are they behaving? Where are they looking? Are the focused on anything? There are a lot of different things that people could be doing, and a lot of different ways for them to be doing it. Until your players interact with them though, you'll be safe with general details.
- What else is there, buzzing, biting, insects? Flittering birds or bats? Is there something snuffling at the edge of the campsite? Are there stray animals roaming the city, or herds in the forests or plains?
- Do your players hear anything? Are the birds tweeting? Is there a rattle of disturbed junk or stone? Are people talking or whispering or singing?
- Is it fresh or gross? Is there any special smells the setting might have? Sulfurous volcanoes, fresh woods, savory foods, all are distinct. These smells can be clues to something your players might not see, or might not be obvious.
- Are there any sensations that your players notice? Is it cold or hot? Is the air humid or dry? Is the surface gritty or smooth?
Unlike movies or video games, you can present your world with details other than just sights and sounds. Adding these details might seem like a lot of work but really it is easy, as long as you have a clear image in your head that you can use to describe your world. Important details like footprints on a sandy road should never be omitted. Your players are interested in what kind they are walking into (and if there are traps).
Just imagine a warrior in heavy plate charging an enemy and you suddenly tell him that he needs to roll a balance check because you forgot to tell that he is charging on mud.
Once your players have an idea who and what is around them, they will want to play with it. They'll want to talk with NPCs, fight monsters, push buttons, and you'll need to be ready for that. Be prepared to improvise and change roles quickly when players enter an area with many different NPCs.
One of the main interactions that your players will be undergoing is with NPCs and they are a player's primary source of information. Have a few "stock characters" prepared so you aren't taken by surprise when you need to react.
An NPC may be forthcoming or reluctant. NPCs can be offended or pleased by things players say. Some may have unusual quirks or tics and can have different moods depending on the situation and how they fit into it. Refer back to the Populating the World section for more advice on NPCs.
There are also going to be many things that the players want to interact with. Try and have a general sense for their props that you're including in the scene and how players would interact with them. Is a lever rusty or has the mechanism been maintained? What happens when they press that big shiny button? This doesn't just extend to traps, everything reacts to interaction in some way, and staying on top of it will make thing more weighty or more real, and keep your players better engaged.
Action and Reaction
Your players will want their actions to matter, and the best way to feed this desire is to show the effects their actions (and the actions of major NPCs) have had on the world around them. These are both immediate reactions (like the guard being called over a drunk & disorderly) and lasting reactions (people in that town remembering that you got drunk and peed on a goat after insisting it wouldn't marry you).
If you manage this well it can make your players think twice before they act, and consider the world that their characters are in instead of just their whims.
Think of both how NPCs will react to your players actions, which NPCs would know about it, how far the news would carry and who it would carry to. Say your players get into a street fight and kill someone. Innocent bystanders will run and scream, and the guard will be called to arrest them. From that point on, only some of the civilians will remember their faces, but most of the guard should know them, and guards in other cities may have heard about them. Not just that, but people who knew the victim will know about your players and the criminal underground will have heard. People will also react differently depending on who was killed, if they were an innocent bystander, the reaction will be very different from if they were a criminal kingpin. Different people will also react differently, a busy city will be less concerned than a small town, a group of hardened criminals will be less concerned than a collection of peasants.
As your players progress through the world they will begin to develop reputations, both as individuals and as a group, consider how their actions will be perceived by the general public. Many campaigns include various factions, you can create some of your own to track how the people will remember your players. Factions can be specific groups (ex. the thieves guild, a merchant company, a political group) or can be general groups of people (ex. nobility, upper class, lower class/ butchers, bakers, candlestick makers) or be divided between locales (ex. Philadelphia, New York, Boston/ England, France).
Every action has a reaction, do not be afraid to enforce them.
Here are a few other ways your players can effect the world
- Their actions can have an economic impact. Say your players have just stopped a vast beast in a mine, allowing the miners to get back to work. To reflect that outside the world, you could have the price of metal drop and prices reduced for certain items in shops.
The encounter is the basic unit of communication at the DM's disposal. Basically, every time the DM intends to direct the narrative in a specific direction, he exposes the players to an encounter. Every encounter should, ideally, make a significant impact on the direction or tone of the story. Every encounter is centered around a obstacle, or challenge, which must be overcome, with success and failure rendering different results. As such, every encounter can be thought of as an IF function in a scripting language. In a linear story, an encounter will typically result in challenges in the following encounters being adjusted by the seccesses or failures of the encounters preceding them, while a non-linear story may result in the plot taking a totally new direction, depending on success or failure in specific encounters.
Challenge & Difficulty
Here's a blogger who knows what's what. The key thing to understand is that, in game design, challenge, difficulty, and risk are very different and very specific things. Using them interchangeably is a colloquialism that will negatively impact your ability to run and talk about your games.
Challenge is what the player must overcome- not their character. Anything that requires some enginuity, knowledge, skill, or talent on the behalf of the player, is a challenge. In essence, challenge is created by presenting the players with a problem, and the fun comes from them solving it. By definition, you cannot challenge the character, because the character is not a real person, they are a piece of paper covered in numbers and ideas. Challenge is what makes the game fun for the people at the table, and you need to provide it to them. Giving players combat encounters that are statistically risky, but conceptually boil down to "bring enemy in range, roll attacks until it dies" is plainly boring. At that point, nobody is playing a game, they are simply fulfilling the function of a mechanical simulation, like a computer.
This brings us to the subject of difficulty. Difficulty is directly proportional to the probability of failure. The less likely the players, or their characters, are to succeed, the more difficult that obstacle is. All checks and saves in the game are pure difficulty, as the player has no direct impact, die rolls are a pure gamble. High difficulty is the most fun, because it has the highest risk, and offers the most excitement from success, and the most thrill from taking the plunge and making the gamble anyways.
Avoid the hell out of fake difficulty. It's mostly a videgame problem, but really any type of game can suffer from this kind of error. It is useful to be aware of it.
Non-Combat Encounters (Less Math)
Beware the Moon-Logic Puzzle, it will dead-end your game.
Combat Encounters (More Math)
This is what D&D combat is supposed to represent, according to Mike Mornard. Watch that video and remember it well. Always aim to bring that level of energy and exuberance to combat. Combat is not dice- they are a means to an end.
Building a Battle
One of the most difficult tasks for new DMs is to create well-made combat encounters. Although it is possible to play D&D with little to no combat, such play is rather outside of the intent behind the game's design. When people sit down at a game called "Dungeons & Dragons", they are expecting to fight things- particularly dragons- probably in dungeon settings. Even if you are playing a more roleplay focused game, it may come about that some characters get into a scuffle, or happen to get caught by wild animals in some empty wilderness or some such. When this kind of thing happens, you need to know how to balance it right.
Your combat encounters should create challenge by forcing the players to solve a new problem in order to proceed. For example, a combat encounter where the enemies will likely win in a head-on fight due to an action economy advantage, (perhaps there's lots of them) presents the players with the problem of finding a way to reduce that advantage to a manageable level. (Set up a trap, separate them into smaller groups, trick them into leaving or scattering, bargain with them to procure safe passage, immobilize a significant portion of them, etc.) For challenge to work, you must do the following:
- Actually create a problem to be solved.
- Make it possible to identify the problem without killing yourself, or rendering it unsolvable.
- Provide at least a few accessible tools which can be used to create several resolutions to the problem.
- As an aside, it is up to the table to decide whether or not meta-knowledge, or player knowledge, is allowed to be used in overcoming a challenge, or whether players should roleplay the actual mental capabilities of their characters. This really boils down to whether the table focuses on D&D primarily as a game or a performance. At a table where D&D is a game, it is likely that anyone who refuses to make tactical decisions they themselves are aware of on the basis that their character would not know it, will be scolded, and their behavior frowned upon. However, some game-focused tables may consider roleplay as part of the challenge, and consider blatant use of meta-knowledge to be a form of cheating! (The stupid barbarian isn't the party leader, he has no knowledge of tactics, so you shouldn't be giving strategic directions in-character.) Meanwhile, a roleplay-focused table will likely be strongly opposed to in-game use of meta-knowledge, seeing it as a break of immersion and betrayal of the genuine expression of a persona. However, a roleplay-focused table may see the indirect and creative inclusion of meta-knowledge as a sign of extremely talented roleplay. (IE: The stupid barbarian is too dumb to know the answer to a riddle, but the player knows it. So the player starts dropping hints toward the answer through his character as if that character were making a genuine attempt to solve the riddle.) Personally, I would discourage any behavior which slows or impedes play, (obstinately refusing to contribute because "my character wouldn't do/know that") and encourage any behavior which actively contributes to the game, (Incorporating player knowledge, either indirectly through creative roleplay, or directly by simply passing that knowledge to the player of the appropriate character OOC).
Low difficulty is not as fun, but more safe. In combat, this means players will have the most fun riding the edge of disaster. However, this means that, being a gamble, some disasters are bound to happen. Characters will die. Your objective as a DM is to present the players with moderate to higher-risk obstacles that the players, as a group, are likely able to overcome in the long run, even if maybe one character is coincidentally killed in the process. Ideally, you do not want any characters to die. Realistically, for your risk and difficulty to have any meaning in combat, it has to be a real threat. As you gain experience as a DM and build more and more combat encounters, you will begin to get a better feel for your game system, and eventually get very good at presenting well-balanced obstacles that offer risk, without accidentally wrecking someone's night.
Generally, the way you want your combat encounters to work, is that no single one of them is a significant threat to the entire party on its own. However, each encounter should be at least capable of draining some portion of the party's resources, such as spells, healing potions, ammunition, points, HP, etc. As a consequence, the risk, and difficulty, of each subsequent fight is slowly and artificially raised, as the capacity of the players to deal with more obstacles is worn away. The more combat encounters the party is to face, the weaker all of those encounters will need to be, in order to more evenly distribute the difficulty being imposed upon the party over time.
Part of appropriately balancing the difficulty of an encounter, is to accurately estimate the resource demand that encounter will have on the party. Doing this is... Tricky. It takes practice, experience, and knowledge. For a starting point, go to your DMG and look up all the sections on encounter building. Most editions have pretty effective systems at approximating encounters. You can use this as a starting point, but these systems are inherently inaccurate. They were reverse-engineered from countless hours of test-playing. The fact is, you will never have a perfect formula that will allow you to always calculate perfect combat balance every time. There's an art to it.
One way to refine the system is to redo the developers work, but instead of assigning challenge ratings to every monster based on their theoretical effectiveness against most players of every class, you will assign personal challenge ratings to only the monsters you plan to use based on their effectiveness against your party as they are at the time of encounter.
The easiest way to tweak an encounter to have exactly the demand you expect it to, is to keep a copy of your group's characters as they were at the end of the last adventure. Openly, these are useful in case someone forgets their character sheet. Covertly, however, you can use these prototypes of your party to test-run your combat encounters. As long as you play in a way that you'd expect from your group, your results are likely going to be a realistic reflection of the demand placed on the party.
Now, not every fight should scale perfect and even with the party. Such a thing would be highly artificial, contrived, and boring. There need to be some fights that are unusually difficult, or surprisingly easy. There need to be some things in the world that the players simply can not kill. So, it's pretty easy to make intentionally imbalanced things, the question then is where, when, and why would you use such combat encounters?
- TPK Encounters
- These threatening enemies can and will annihilate the party if provoked. And that, right there, is the key. Powerful enemies should be used as obstacles and messengers. For example, a powerful giant guarding a specific area is a good sign that you should go elsewhere. They can also encourage specific behavior- like forcing the party to sneak through a room because the dragon in here is currently sleeping. Finally, they can communicate important information. For example, if the party is out scouting and come across the camp of an enemy army's legions, the message is "go back and warn your guys!" not "go slay this army". The DM must be careful to emphasize that the party is significantly outclassed, implying that they should turn back. If the players clearly do not understand, the DM should stop the game the moment before initiating combat and explain that this course of action will most likely lead to their character's death and ask if they would still like to proceed. The DM should also make a plan, if possible, for what to do if the players do push into such an encounter. Intelligent enemies may kidnap them, or rob them, or curse them, changing the challenge into a new type of problem for the players to solve. Wild, predatory monsters, such as wyverns for example, are pretty likely to just kill and eat people though. One very intelligent trick is to use powerful enemies as foreshadowing. "You can't go here now, because that giant is guarding it... but your current quest is to obtain the sword of giant-slaying." This is used to great effect in the game Dark Souls, where every enemy and location you see in the background is a place you will go and a thing you will kill... eventually.
- Underpowered encounters are fights with creatures who do not require the party to consume many (if any) resources to fight- all they take is time. Do not waste the players' time flailing at random mooks for nothing. It is just redundant combat. Rather, use Mooks to serve some purpose. You can use them as a stalling tactic, so there is plausible time for other NPCs to do what you need them to do. You can use them as an information source for players who are smart enough to take prisoners. You can use them as a covert resupply for the players, by having them carrying/containing/protecting practical loot, like food, water, ammunition, healing potions, torches, or a safe place to rest. You can have them be indirect quest-givers by having the fight, or their loot, drop a quest hook. Ultimately, the purpose of such an encounter is not the fight, but the doors that fight opens.
Running a Fight
- What Initiative Represents
- When to call initiative.
- How to do it without alerting the players
- Styles of rolling init.
- At the start vs. per round
- Initiative grouping
- By Affiliation
- By Action
- By Location
- Permanent Init
This is a community-generated term for what it is called when a player wants to make a specific attack against an enemy, like stabbing them in the eye, or shooting an arrow in their knee to incapacitate them. Players who make these kinds of requests are generally expressing dissatisfaction with the simplicity and abstraction of the combat mechanics.
Before making a ruling on a called shot, you need to understand what an attack roll actually represents. An attack roll is not a single swing of a weapon against a stationary target. It is a quick series of exchanges between the two combattants- it is the thrust and riposte of fencing. The attack roll also represents your activity for the full duration of the round, not just the momentary instance of your turn. It is an abstraction of a high degree, and the two characters may "actually" be exchanging several blows over the 6 seconds a round represents. In this symbolic resolution mechanic, it is assumed that both characters are making every logical attempt to injure each other and protect themselves based on whatever openings are actually available to them.
The mechanics do not represent your character's injuries, because the entirely negative HP system is supposed to simulate that effect by making you more afraid of losing your character as their health decreases, thus encouraging you to flee at some point. Technically, by the original conception of combat in D&D, choosing to fight on in the face of low health because of meta-knowledge about the probability of incoming damage is a form of metagaming, as it circumvents the intended effect of the HP system. The DM is supposed to run his monsters with the same reasoning, that they will flee if they feel overly threatened, not when the DM feels overly threatened, and this is a classic example of a DM metagaming in every single edition.
So, knowing all of that, there are really only 3 ways to handle called shots:
1. Explain the combat resolution mechanic and leave it at that.
2. Allow the player to make called shots as fluff. Let them have their moment in the sun. Sure, they are traying to slit the goblin's throat, but in the process they only dealt 3 damage. Maybe, if they kill the goblin on a called shot, you could describe the death of the goblin in a manner based on their called shot. This livens up combat without doing anything to the game, and it's a great way to play!
3. Actually write out a bunch of houserules handling the effects of called shots. This is a rabbit hole that goes far, far deeper than you can ever imagine.
- First off, everyone is using different types of weapons. This means the kinds of shots they want to make, and the effects of those attacks, will vary from one weapon to another. You'd have a hard time breaking someone's leg with an arrow, or poking out someone's eye with a sledge hammer.
- Next, you need to consider the enemies they'd be fighting. Not every enemy is a humanoid. That means some called shots won't work, or will work differently, depending on the anatomy of the monster they're attacking, and certain monsters may have called shots which are unique unto themselves! So, now you're going to have to take your whole array of called shots by weapon type, and redo it for every single monster in your arsenal. Many will be easily copy-pasted, (Like nearly all medium humanoids) but some will need to be created entirely from scratch, (like ochre jelly).
- Finally, as your players get used to these called shots, they will continue to get more creative and invent ever more interesting ways of tearing creatures apart, and you will need to make a ruling on every single new called shot a player invents, record it, and check it against every single weapon and monster in your now massive called shots array. And, as if that isn't daunting enough, you will need to remember all of these called shots for all of your monsters when building encounters, in order to build fights with interest and complexity that is capable of challenging these newly empowered players.
- Still not discouraged? This will dramatically change combat balance, and not in the players favor either. Technically, anything the players do to the monsters, the monsters could ostensibly do to the players. Generally, the players are well outnumbered. This means the monsters may get many more called shots on the PCs than the reverse. As a consequence, as an example, a small team of goblin sharpshooters turn into a death sentence. They can incapacitate the players by shooting for their legs, rendering their turns meaningless and gaining a meta-initiative advantage, then one-shot the PARTY with arrows through their skulls. Any party who survive in a game which incorporates mechanical called shots, survive only by the kindness of the DM to play his monsters dumb.
A single adventure can be thought of as a short story, in its most basic form. As part of a campaign, it can be thought of as a chapter in a book, or episode in a series. Particularly large adventures, (like a three-session adventure) can be thought of as books in a series of short novels. Adventures can also be thought of as levels or stages in a videogame. Ideally, every adventure should be able to stand on its own, telling its own story, with a beginning, rise, climax, and resolution, while also telling part of a much larger story in the background. For example, an adventure detailing the besieging of a castle and how that siege was broken, (or not) could also tell just one part of the story of a war between two great empires.
Angry explains what he calls the "slaughterhouse" system. It's just organizational chucking of large amounts of information in a manner which takes advantage of the PCs ignorance of what goes on behind the screen. That said, it's a brilliant organizational tool and underlines a Flaw in the structure of this guide: adventure design and world building are one activity, not two separate ones. That needs to be clarified here.
Roleplay: The Thread Connecting Encounters
- Tabletop Terrors on the three phases of becoming a roleplayer
- Basics of roleplay
- Roleplaying 2
- Dawnforges Cast does some voices.
- Roleplaying together
- Role Play vs Roll Play
- Roleplaying your rolls
A plot hook is a type of plot device unique to the narrative medium of Role Playing Games, and appears in video RPGs just as frequently. The purpose of a plot hook is to engage the player in a given narrative, thus allowing it to be played out. Such a plot device is not necessary in other media, such as literature or film, as those media do not incorporate the audience as an active component- they are rather passively absorbing the story.
There are a few ways to think about plot hooks, and the style in which they are used depends a lot on the style of the GM in how they construct their campaigns, and the kind of story they plan to tell.
A GM who is running a more free-form or sandbox style campaign will likely use plot hooks that act kind of like fish hooks. The GM is placing lures throughout the local environment to attract, and possibly "hook" the players into the story they want to tell. In the absolute most free-form of play, (while still allowing for a specific narrative, as opposed to an emergent one) the GM may actually have multiple stories laying around the world, each with their own set of plot hooks to try and grab the players' attentions.
A GM who is running a more traditional, or formal campaign structure, (either linear or branching) will likely treat plot hooks as major narrative moments. Turning points, if you will, which define the direction and tone of the adventure. In this sense, they're kind of like a coat hook- they're an important, stationary point from which the plot literally hangs. In this sense, the plot hooks are used to keep the adventure on track. When done very well, this method allows players great freedom in activity of play, significantly reducing the extent of invisible walls employed by the GM, allowing substantially more inventive improvisational play, and even incentivising creative workarounds of the main challenges, while still giving the GM a series of clear "waypoints" to direct the effects of their actions towards, thereby ensuring meaningful progression. Done poorly, this results in a style of play called "railroading" where the GM denies and prevents any activity which does not follow their plot hooks directly as planned.
These two methods can be, and often are, mixed.
For example, a game may be a sandbox full of "quest-giver" type plot hooks, but each of those initial hooks engage the player in a more traditional campaign structure composed of stationary hooks to tell their separate stories. The narrative between these separate stories then uses the world-sandbox as a way to segue from one adventure to the next in a seamless, believable way, sustaining the willing suspension of disbelief.
Plot hooks can work on different scales as well. While the players are carrying out a campaign, there may be smaller side-quests or side-stories playing out in the background, each composed of their own hooks to initiate and sustain them. Additionally, each adventure the players participate in may be, itself, a single massive plot hook in a much grander, overarching narrative, sometimes called a story arch or metaplot.
Finally, plot hooks can be used to tell stories that have already happened, such as major historical moments in the setting which lead up to the current situation. This can be done by exposing the players to subjects and situations in the current setting which clearly exemplify their cause, or explicitly state a piece of that prologue. It would then be up to the players to remember these points and sort them out chronologically to learn what actually happened in the past.
The 5 Minute Working Day & Going Nova
An adventure where the only participant is the DM, who runs a game for their own character. This is typically done as a part of playtesting for homebrew content.
An adventure with one DM running a game for one player. There are a variety of reasons this may be done.
- Teaching. Many DMs do this for new players who feel threatened by the prospect of potentially embarrassing themselves in front of the group.
- Sidequests. Maybe a player has been broken off from the group and is going through their own separate adventure in the meantime. The DM can separate the event into two separate games to address the issue without allowing player knowledge overlap.
- Necessity. Maybe you're really unlucky, and live in an extremely unenlightened, low-population area, with little access to large social groups, and you only have one other person who wants to play.
- Playtesting. Get someone else to use your homebrewed content, and see what happens when it's put in the hands of a unique, free-thinking imagination!
Joe Schmoe is invading and has besieged our castle with his army of nobodies!
Do you want to build a snowman? You'll need to travel to the peaks of Mt.Wits, Mt.Will, and Mt.Smarts and make three holy snowballs, then bring them to the frozen temple of singalongsong to bring it to life.
Get away from (or catch) Joe Schmoe!
Protect the MacGuffin (or Joe-Schmoe). King of the hill. Siege mode. Escourt.
Take this MacGuffin to Joe-Schmoe.
Go talk to Joe-Schmoe. Deal with a problem primarily through roleplay, with only occasional, intellectual or socialization-related checks. Often includes politics and intrigue.
Something strange just happened to Joe-Schmoe! You are presented with a problem that you can resolve... Or ignore.
Who killed Joe-Schmoe? Something strange is going on here... Find out what, or get out while you still can.
Your traditional dungeon crawl. An obstacle course or maze. Also, tournaments and combat arenas. Breaking into a keep, or out of confinement.
Go find the MacGuffin. I need you to go find this place, but all we have is some unreliable intel and part of a map. Have fun!
Beat Joe-Schmoe to the MacGuffin.
Bring me the MacGuffin (or Joe-Schmoe).
Go kill Joe-Schmoe, who also happens to be a 50ft, fire breathing sky-lizard. Also includes assassinations, hunting, and clearing threats, (like Joe Schmoe) from a region.
So Joe Schmoe walks into a bar with a MacGuffin and says "knock knock"!
Joe Schmoe wants to know about your dead parents, and/or knows where to find your lost family MacGuffin.
Can you survive until Joe Schmoe comes to rescue you? Can your survive the journey to MacGuffin town?
Building and running the campaign is going to be as much of your day to day as the world you've built. It is not uncommon to first create the campaign and to create a world that will accommodate it.
Try and figure out while you're creating a campaign a few different things. An antagonist or challenge for the players to overcome. A theme to base the campaign on and to call back to if you need an idea. And a setting, which is covered in the earlier section.
Each campaign can more or less be set up in the same fashion as other campaigns.
As described earlier you need to steer your party where you want them to go. Your first means towards achieving this goal is to hook your players like a fish and reel thim in, into your next campaign. The best way to do this is by knowing your players a bit and provide the correct bait. As an example on of the players in my group is somewhat of a loot addict and I only had to hint the notion of epic loot to be found somewhere and he would do the work for me. You may not be so lucky and you may want to find other hooks to lure your players into your trap... eeeh, campaign.
Try to place the bait carefully and do not make it blatantly obvious to them that you are trying to hook them, a good start would be common NPC's gossiping about something nearby or some place became weird and didn't want to trade with them anymore. Make it subtle so the players feel like they want to go there maybe you can even play along a bit and pretend (CAREFULLY) that you do not want your players to go there. Amazingly enough, they always go where you do not want them to go.
If they ignore all your baits or they just ignore them, then you can increase the lure a bit and send in some newly arived people on a cart that are all dead except for the horse, or some mayor in distress that runs towards the adventurers and begs them for their help promising riches or the like. If your master campaign includes some form of nemesis for them then you can use its name or discription to lure the players into your next campaign.
The best lure is a campaign that needs no lure. These are campaigns that can happen anywhere in your world at any time. As an example I created a campaign that I could start anywhere on a forest road. Since they travel on those roads often, I had to set no lure and they walked right into the next campaign. I then threw in a storm and a trader, some falling trees and a big bright purple flash, and they had no idea that they were trapped on a microworld and were about to discover the village with no escape.
Once your players are hooked to the campaign, the plot can start.
Now what is a story if there is no story? There must be some form of story. Creating a story unfortunately (or fortunately) is limited only by your imagination and can range from a simple dungeon to a complex web of intrigue and conspiracy inside a palacial palace. Creating a plot for your campaign will help to unfold the story in front of the players.
From experience I found that the best way for a story or plot to unfold is to build it up gradually. Starting off with a climatic battle will in most cases be quite deadly for events to follow. However this is not always true. If your plot involves them starting off on a massive battlefield just to uncover some gruesome secret of the general they serve may make certain plots more believable.
Try to build twists into your plot, a evil necromancer my actually not be so evil after all, but the cleric of the church you met earlier may have been. I can recall one campaign where at the end, it had so many twists that we didn't know who was who anymore until we got to the climax and the puzzle pieces fell into play. It was a good campaign.
If you have trouble creating your own campaign, you can always opt to buy a premade campaign instead, available at many specialised board game shops around the globe or you can purchase one online. They are very cheap (3 dollars or so) and contain a detailed campaign for 2-3 level advancement available for nearly every character starting level. Everything in these campaigns are well worked out into detail with decent stories behind them.
This is the part where the players will finally learn the truth of what's really going on. It often includes a heavy battle or a massive twist inside the plot. Did your party unravel the truth behind the campaign? Did they kill the right person or steal the right object? The climax will tell them. Sometimes if the players did not solve the mystery and the climax actually does not take place, that missing piece of information may come and hunt them later in one of your next campaigns.
If players fail to realize the true situation of a plot you presented them, you should not be tempted to just unravel the plot before them but use their failure as an added difficutly later in the game. If they come to realize their mistake the supposedly ended campaign will gain a nice climax after all and probably will create a few faces of disbelief around the table. These faces are priceless :P.
Also try to avoid fight to the death climaxes, if the players are having a bad day and they want to retreat then let them. Their defeat can come and hunt them later on. Or maybe the evil sorcerer fears that he will be defeated and will try to escape, preferably destroying any evidence of his actions in the process. A general exception may be the last showdown of your campaign, after which the campaign comes to a close. In this case, a last fight to the death may be in order.
Mutli-path campaigns are campaigns that have different options that the players may take when playing your main campaign. These type of campaigns take lots and lots of work but give unprecedented freedom to players inside your world. In essence, you need to create three or four different campaigns and truly let the players choose where they want to go first. Every action they make from that point should influence the other campaigns available and open up new options to travel to. I started out with one of these campaigns but soon figured out that I did not have the time to create such elaborate campaigns and they started to degrade in quality which was clearly noted by the players. This is something one must avoid. It is better to have a good single campaign and lure them into it than to create five shabby ones and let them choose from free will. However if you do have the time to create multi-path campaigns, please do so as they can offer players a large amount of freedom and this really enhances the gameplay.
The DM as a Patron: Rewarding your Players
Epic Loot, Beware
Now the point of every adventure is to gain something out of it. Most of the time this will be riches and gold in the form of loot. Some of this loot may be some sort of epic magical equipment. Handing out such loot and seeing their cute little smiles grow in their faces may give a fuzzy feeling inside but be wary as too much candy for a child will make his/her tummy hurt.
Handing Out Loot
This portion was the first major mistake I made as a DM to the point that I effectively destroyed my campaign and I decided to abandon it afterwards. As a beginning DM, I had the urge to reward my players too much, I guess to keep them happy. The end result of this was them becoming completely imbalanced. They became far too powerful in the offense while being completely squishy due to having a low level. I had to place more and more powerful creatures into each encounter in order to make fighting monsters not a one-day fly, but this made them hit so hard that a party wipe-out was becomming inevitable. I had to adjust the creatures in such ways that they became bizarre monsters or I would have to "change" the outcomes from rolls (so I cheated) in order to give them a chance to stay alive. The campaign was unrecoverable at this point and I was forced to either take away their candy or abandon the campaign, which I did. I started a new one with what I have learned from my first campaign.
Now this doesn't mean you cannot give away nice loot but don't overdo it. A few less powerful items are far better then a single very powerful item. I gave each player home made magical items (it was a good fun to create them) but they were so immensely powerful that the campaign fell appart. So how should one distribute candy to children?
Assigning Loot to Creatures
First off, only very strong bosses should carry special loot. Grunts and slaves should have crappy items just like in real life. This special loot should either be rolled according to the Dungeon Master's Guide or the Monsters Manual, or chosen with their levels in mind.
From levels 2 - 5, you can hand out "masterwork" items to players. Masterwork items are already very good for these levels. However, they will not insanely alter the players' combat capabilities. Nevertheless, don't hand them out like cookies.
Around levels 5-6, the first +1/+1 loot without any magical properties may be handed out but never hand out cartloads of them. Just one, maaaybe 2 items (for large parties) should be available to players per boss killed or campaign succesfully finished. For one campaign, I would never drop more than one +1/+1 item per player in the group.
From levels 7-8, you can start to drop magical loot. These are extremely valuable and should not be thrown around lightly. I would suggest half the party size for one campaign for +1 magical items. At this point, their gold should have reached decent proportions where every player should be able to buy ONE magical weapon or armour on his own. Magical weapons cost around 8301 to 8800 gold. Where they may find such shops to buy them from is up to you but I usually incorporate at least one major city in my world that contains specialized shops where such items may be aquired or crafted.
From levels 9-10, more +1 magical loot may be found so every player may posses some magical items. For levels 11 and above, the better forms of loot may be aquired but never more than one per campaign.
Assigning your own loot instead of rolling it randomly may give every player something they can use, but personally I like to keep it random and often give them something they cannot use. They can then sell those items if they wish or use them to bargain or do other things with them. This has the added bonus that everyone in the group may benefit from the loot (as in gold or game progression) while no-one will feel left out.
Creating Custom Loot
Custom loot that is not described in the manuals are a lot of fun to create and may posses special abilities otherwise not found. There is no reason you shouldn't create custom loot but do not make the same mistake as I did and create custom loot that is far too powerful compared to other loot of the same level. Custom loot often have a name and a history behind them. For examples of custom loot, you can search the homebrew (3.5e) in the magical weapons and item section to see examples of custom-made loot. As a rule of thumb, any custom-made loot that does not exist in the manual should be of at least +2 bonus and should be adjusted appropriately for every power or unique property it possesses. Such loot should never be given away at low levels unless the effect is limited and minor. For example, a mithral dagger that allows the wielder to become invisible for X rounds once per day is powerful but not as such that it cannot be aquired around level 10. A heavy ademantite waraxe with double damage is an extremely powerful weapon and should not be handed out before levels 16-17.
But do not stick with weapons only. Other items like rings, books or statues are all valid items that may posses magical properties. For example, I once gave my party a chest with the spellholding ability. Anyone opening the chest exept for the mage that casted the spell into it would be subjected by the spell. At first they just used it as a secure chest but later in the game they got creative and used the chest in different ways. On one occasion, they placed the chest in to an enemy camp and casted fireball onto the chest. Needless to say some curious guard found the chest and delivered it to his leader who opened it to see what is inside. (BOOM).
Unusual magic items may become great fun as long as they are not too powerful for their levels.
The DM as a Moderator: Handling Players
This is the most important topic regarding your responsibilities as a DM... It's also the topic pretty much nobody wants to talk about. No dungeon master's guide or corebook discusses this topic. If they even mention table problems, they discuss the issue in as immature a manner imagniable. That's a shame, and it is an absolute disservice to the hobby for the game developers to say, "social problems aren't game problems, so it's up to you to figure that out." This is where relationships and careers have been ruined by D&D. (Or, rather, by the people who play it poorly) This is how to deal with problems once they have arisen at the table. Some issues are simple to resolve, like tweaking a rule to restore balance, or retconing an event everybody hated. Others are complicated, like dealing with someone who becomes verbally abusive, when someone is being singled out for poor behavior, or if someone at your table commits a crime. Here's the score: You, as the DM, are responsible for the experience your players have at the table. If someone at your table is ruining the experience, it is your responsibility to deal with it. Yes, people should stand up for themselves... But people should also stand together, and for each other. You, as the DM, are also responsible for the behavior of your group. If you're playing in a public space, like a rented room in a community center, or the gaming table at a hobby shop, you as the organizer of the event are responsible for the impact your group has on that space. It is you who must hold your players accountable for their actions or inactions. Even if you are still young and living with your parents, even though your parents are likely legally responsible for you and your friends in their home, I seriously doubt your mom is flipping the pages of the DMG or rolling your dice for you. (And if she is, that is a whole different issue that I am not qualified to deal with here!) Ultimately, part of creating fun is preventing those things which ruin fun- and some of those things can be pretty serious and dark. You must foster a safe, healthy, supportive, inclusive, respectful environment, where everyone can be friends- even if they're a bunch of strangers who just showed up for drop-in night at Hubert's Hobby Hut. For an idea of how hard it is to talk about this subject, here is the great Spoony One, an extremely experienced DM, struggling for words because of it, in his most rambling, disorganized, awkward video ever: Problem Players (He even ends it by just begging for everyone to get along! Valiant effort, good sir! At least you tried.)
This is a great big long story about the real problems the game can create. It's long, and extremely informative.
Confidence & Authority, AKA: Balls for all
The original version of this section was written by someone with a pretty negative attitude toward their player group. It was dismissive, rude, aggressive, antagonistic, and just overall offensive to read. But that author did say one thing that is true in this regard: Grow a pair. Seriously, if you find yourself facing some truly messed up social behavior at your table, it is time to man-up, and fast. (No sexism intended, it's just a phrase that happens to carry the exact message necessary. If you're a female DM, you can still grow a pair and be the badass defender-of-justice DM.) This section is going to talk about the single most important aspect of being a DM: Having confidence. This is how to build up self-confidence in your abilities as a DM, how to get comfortable with the game and the position, and what to do when things go south. All the following sections will be based on this section, simply discussing the root causes of certain types of problems, giving examples, and discussing the unique resolutions that pertain to a given type of problem- but they will all refer back to the techniques discussed here.
- This is the #1 way to become a great DM. TALK TO YOUR PLAYERS. Do not allow problems to fester. Do not manipulate your players through in-game inventions. Every time you see a problem, or think there might be a problem, just talk to your group. Clear, open, honest conversation can make a game run smoother than anything else. Telling players your expectations of the game, and having them tell you theirs, before the game starts, will allow you to make and run a game that is appealing to the whole table. That's what session 0 is all about! And when I say communicate, I don't mean you should dictate to the players while they subserviently obey. I mean you need to let them talk to you too. You need to actually listen to their thoughts, and consider them. Consider that they might be right. Appreciate that they were willing to engage in that communication with you. In other words, practice good listening skills.
- The Same Game Tool is an excellent ice-breaker utility for session 0 with a group of people you've never met.
- Study the source material (You definitely missed something.)
- Read the core books. Read them thoroughly. If you've never run a game before, then practice. Make a pile of characters. Make some encounters and run your demo PCs through them to learn how they work. Experiment to find out what is acceptable, too easy, and too hard. Learn what the players do and what they have to work with, so that you can give them meaningful challenges. If you have a chance, play a few real games as a player first. If you know anyone who is already a DM, ask them to show you the ropes, maybe ask to sit in on a game on the other side of the screen, possibly as an assistant. If you have any questions about the system that your social group can't answer, go online. There are a ton of resources available to players and DMs to learn more about the system and how it works. When you run a first game, try to keep the group very small, 1-3 people, preferably close friends who will be honest with you. Always keep the references available, just in case you forget something. Every DM forgets the rules sometimes. Every DM has missed something, or misread something, in one of the core books. Even if you remember it all, you don't necessarily remember it correctly. When designing encounters, adventures, and campaigns, use your reference books. Go back to them any time you use something in the game that doesn't get used often, just to make sure you get it right. Being a DM is pretty much all reading when you aren't at the table. (And even then, you'll probably still be reading a lot.) The more you study and practice the source material, the greater your system mastery will become, and the more comfortable The Chair will be.
- Authority and Fiat
- D&D, as is the case with most RPGs, is based on basically only one rule: The DM makes the game. The core books are just officially published guidelines to give that game a meaningful and relatively consistent structure. The DM is given full and absolute authority over the game. As DM, you even have the authority to decide PC actions if necessary. You are NOT a slave to the reference material OR the dice. In the hands of the players, the corebooks are just paper. It doesn't matter what the paper says, because all that matters is what the DM says. In effect, the DM doesn't just make the game, they are the game! This is called DM Fiat. Now, that said, for practical reasons, it is assumed that unless the DM states otherwise, they more-or-less agree with the rules in the corebooks. Furthermore, it is also assumed that the DM willingly relinquishes some of their authority to the players. The line is typically drawn at the minds of the individual PCs. The players have full authority over their PCs thoughts and decisions, but nothing else- most notably the outcome of those thoughts and decisions. This release of authority is necessary in order to play any sort of game, otherwise the DM would just be an insane novelist. Some would say that this, in a way, creates a sort of "player fiat". Ultimately though, whether you believe such a thing exists or not, such player fiat would only exist by your good graces. If there is anything you do not want in your game, for any reason, you have the right to say no. That is Rule 0. Furthermore, any player who argues with a DM ruling is effectively denying your authority over the game. They may not mean to do so, and they probably aren't malicious about it, (though some are) but the ultimate effect is the usurpment of DM authority. Unless you intend to actually give the players more authority over the game, then do not give them that authority. Always make it clear that if you choose to side with a player's argument, that it is simply because you agree with them, that they have swayed your decision, not gained some personal win over the control of the game. Unless you actively change the distribution of authority at your table- which is a totally fun way to play the game- this is your sandbox they are playing in. You don't need to be rude or heavy-handed about it, just maintain it. As long as you actively maintain your authority, you probably won't have many problems. If something gets out of hand, you can change it without much fuss. If you make a ruling, people might state their opinions on it, but they are less likely to argue with you as long as you don't start an argument with them.
- With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility & Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
- There is a caveat to DM Fiat and Rule 0, discussed much earlier in the section titled The Social Contract, called The Rule of Yes. The rule of yes is essentially the DM's promise to the people at his table that he will try his best to play fair and make an effort to ensure that the game is entertaining for everyone at the table. Despite the fact that the DM can do anything they want, they should only exercise this power in the service of the game. So, while you may not be a slave to the dice or literature, you are a slave to fun. Luckily, you aren't alone in that. This is a group game, everyone at the table is expected to entertain the group just as much as they are entertained by the group. This is why the only way to lose at the game is to not have fun. When you think about a new player idea, or need to make a ruling, always consider the best possible results that each option could provide. Which ruling do you feel will create the most fun? Go with that one. Just because you have absolute authority over the game does not mean that you have the right to be a dismissive, controlling, manipulative, narcissistic, draconian prick. If you are intentionally running a game under very strict rules interpretations and expect play to procede within that framework, make it clear to your players beforehand, and tell them what those rulings are.
- Implicit Rules
- Aside from the straight text of the page, there is an additional aspect of a game system, often called the implicit or assumed rules. These are the sort of unwritten code of expected limitations imposed by the subject matter of the game. For example, you can't equip more weapons than you have hands to utilize, or having your eyes poked out means you can't see. These kinds of limitations are very rarely written into a rulebook, because it is impossible to cover every potential idea or situation the players could dream up. So instead, developers leave gaps which are to be filled by the common-sense of the DM running the game. These gaps, the areas where the corebooks are suddenly silent on what you should do, are the areas of the game everyone argues about online, because they all ultimately boil down to DM discretion... your discretion. Anything in the game that hinges on DM discretion has the potential to cause problems at the table, if your decision goes against a player's expectations of what makes sense in the given situation. Typically, this only occurs when you are also ruling against their idea, though some players may complain about anything that doesn't fit their vision of the game, even if it benefits them. Any time you find yourself being pushed into the realm of adjudicating the implicit rules, stop and ask the group how they feel about it and why. Listen to them, do not let them argue with each other, make a decision based on what you've heard with a quick justification, and get back to playing. Write down how you ruled on this point. Players will expect you to be consistent about it in the future of this campaign. (You can change your stance on any ruling from one campaign to another, but at least be internally consistent with a given campaign.) Here's an extremely common example that you can practice on:
- You have been playing a mostly standard D&D campaign with your friends Stacy and Tony for about three months. Tony is playing a wizard, and has recently completed the creation of a simple magic wand that casts magic missile. (He did so using some optional rules the development team published that you liked) Tony has his character give Stacy's character the wand, because that was his intention in making the wand. Stacy is playing a fighter. Suddenly, Stacy gets an inspired idea: "In real life, I can hold more than one item in my hand at the same time. Can I hold my wand and my sword in the same hand at the same time?" she asks you. She then gets a second great idea and asks, "could I tie the wand to my sword's grip?" You check the rules. They are silent on the matter. This edition has no explicit rule about viable equipment use. It's left up to implicit rules. What do you do? Do rule in her favor, going with the realistic answer of yes, even though it would essentially let her hold two weapons and a shield at the same time? Do you rule against her for balance reasons and try to justify it in-game? It's up to you. There is no objectively "right" answer- only your decision of what is best in your game for these people.
- Take the plunge (Just Do It!)
- Trust your gut (Fake it til you make it!)
- Trust your group (Let them entertain you.)
- Erasers were invented to be used (So use them.)
- Being a Hero (How to do what's right)
Slobs, AKA: The Grognard
- Tolerance (If it can't be helped.)
- Preparation (Oh, sorry, I forgot my pencil. And my dice. And the snacks I promised 5 minutes ago.)
- Here's a bit about preparation as a player.
- Hygiene (Why did everyone move to the end of the table?)
- Manners (So *munch* Tannerih digs into his *munch* *slurp* backpack and pulls *snarf* out *munch* his lantern of glowing +5, *belch*...)
- Respect (Oh, yeah, sorry about yesterday, I decided to take a nap. You guys didn't have to wait two hours for me to show up!)
Poor Sportsmanship, AKA: Children!
D&D is a game, just as much as a work of collaborative fiction. As a game, there are going to be people who don't take losing very well. You know, that guys who flips the checkers board when it looks like he's not going to win, or starts screaming at the referee when his team gets a penalty- that kind of guy. The problem here is a failure of that player to understand what winning and losing actually is in an RPG. They don't see character death as a part of the game, they see it as a loss, and they take that loss personally. They may even interpret any failure at all- a bad roll on a check, or a tactical mistake in combat, as a sort of deep personal failure, and proceed to lose their composure over it.
- Luck (And how the players make their own.)
- Fairness (Cruel Calculus.)
- Failure (It happens.)
- Consequences (They happen.)
- Character Death (It happens.)
Cheating, AKA: The Issue With Morals
So, some people might be saying, "If you can't win or lose at RPGs, how can you cheat?". My answer to that is that most game developers are simply wrong about the win and lose conditions of RPGs. You can win, and you can lose. If everyone has fun, you're winning. If nobody has fun, you're losing. Cheating in D&D is bad, because it causes the group to lose, by ruining everyone's fun. Cheating is any behavior that violates the expectations the game was founded upon. In essence, every type of blatant cheating is a type of lie, and that's why it ruins the game- a person is pursuing some goal other than entertaining the group, and they're willing to violate the trust of that group to do it.
- Can the DM cheat? (Yes)
- Hidden roles (Yup, totally rolled another 20. What's wrong, guys?)
- Note peeking (How did you know this hamlet had a blacksmith?)
- Piece shuffling (I could have swore you were adjacent to him last round...)
- Stat creep (When numbers mysteriously rise or fall by 1 every few sessions.)
- Lying (It's wrong, even for the DM.)
Metagaming, AKA: The Issue With Ethics
Metagaming is a type of cheating. I'm going to be plain about that. It is, however, a different breed of cheating. It is, essentially, a thought-crime, as orwellian as that sounds. See, roleplaying is a hybrid of storytelling and acting; and RPGs, obviously, incorporate roleplay as a primary component. (That's what the RP stands for, guys.) In works of fiction, there's this concept called the "fourth wall", which basically means you aren't supposed to acknowledge the fantasy of the performance while performing. The same concept has been interpreted a little more loosely, and applied to video games, movies, books, and basically any other work of fiction. RPGs, incorporating storytelling, are a work of fiction. By violating the fourth wall, a player is basically breaking the fundamental structure of that fiction. This can be done right! Deadpool is a perfect example in modern pop culture, of a character who spends his time sitting on the fourth wall! However, in most settings, and in most stories, such a character is entirely unwelcome, and a player who wants to use such a character needs to make sure the whole table is on-board with it first. Metagaming applies to a player who breaks the fourth wall in order to gain an advantage in the game side of an RPG, and this is what makes it cheating... and then there's this guy, and he's also right, so you know you're in for a treat if this becomes an issue at the table.
- Player knowledge vs. character knowledge (They do not mix.)
- DM knowledge vs. player knowledge (Mix selectively)
- Secrets (Keep them!)
- The dice (Roll them where you feel best.)
Rules-Lawyering, AKA: Because I Can Talk Circles Around You!
This is the second biggest problem in the D&D community. Most tables can relate a tale of that one player who spent a six hour session arguing with the DM about the feasibility of evading some silly trap, or the actual effectiveness of a weapon, or the wording of a spell, or the meaning of alignment for their class, or some such. A distinction needs to be made here. There is a difference between getting into an argument about the rules, and being a rules-lawyer. A rules argument or debate is usually an isolated incident. One or two players disagree with a DM ruling, and take exception to it. That's fine, and that kind of discussion can be healthy, as long as it doesn't disrupt the game or escalate to a personal problem. A player who routinely disagrees with the DM may not necessarily be a rules-lawyer either, they may just very strongly disagree with the way the DM runs their campaign! And that's ok, but there comes a time when such a player either needs to get over it and get into the game as the DM is running it, or go find someone else to play with. A rules-lawyer is a type of bully who tries to assert themselves as an authority on how the game should be run, and tries to usurp the DM's authority over rulings. They do this through a wide variety of methods, but it mostly boils down to stubbornness and manipulation. They will not budge on their position, and they will use any phrasing, any argument, any spin to get the DM to rule in their favor. And here is the destructive part of rules-lawyering: They do it for the short-term material benefit of themselves, without consideration for the game or the group. They do it for self-gratification at the ability to obtain significant personal authority over the game as a whole, and they do it as a supplement to disruptive powergaming. Let me be plain about this: The DM has 100% authority over rulings. The rules of the game are the DM's rulings. As far as players go, the text of the corebooks is meaningless. The rules of the game are the DM's words, AND NOTHING ELSE. That is it. That is final. End of discussion.
- RAW vs RAI (Or Letter of the Law vs. Spirit of the Law)
- Listen first, and listen well (Effective communication is the root of healthy social behavior)
- Your interpretation is the rules (It's always right, even if it changes.)
- Their interpretation of the rules (It might be right too!)
Powergaming, AKA: If God Wanted Men to Fly...
This is probably the biggest problem in the D&D community. Every DM, every player, every table, has their story about that one insane character who could slay gods and destroy worlds at level 5. As disruptive and unpleasant as this type of play can be, I'm actually not going to bash on powergaming much, because it's almost never the powergamer's intention to ruin the game. There are so many smarter, easier, more effective ways to treat people like dirt, that very few people would choose this route to do it. Most of the time, powergaming is either an accident or a misunderstanding. Either the player didn't expect his build to work THAT good, or the DM let something in the game that had unforseen consequences. This section will deal primarily in the causes of powergaming, how to exclude those causes, and how to resolve the problems caused by powergaming. There will be a brief mention of what to do with disruptive powergaming as well, on the off-chance that you actually encounter it.
- OP, The DM's Mistake (If it's broken, it's because you broke it.)
- Optimization (Actually a good thing!)
- Supplements in Context (Specifically, in context of the core material, not each other)
- Minmaxing (It's not so bad- except when it's the worst.)
- Mechanics without roleplay or reason (It works, even though it shouldn't)
- Other types of power. (Or how to ruin the world without touching a weapon)
- Who is Mary-Sue?
- Sustaining Balance (The invisible hand)
Munchkinism AKA: You People ARE The Game!
So now we get to one of the weirdest pieces of RPG slang. The word munchkin has been thrown around for decades, but its meaning is pretty loose. The only consistent definition is that it is a derogatory term for a type of player who somehow doesn't play fair. For the purposes of discussion, let's make munchkin into a word for any type of player who epitmozes all of the worst table behaviors. They use a combination of manipulative tactics to benefit themselves at the expense of the group. This definition is based on the full text of the book, The Munchkin's Guide to Gaming, which was a tongue-in-cheek work of satire about every dishonest way to play D&D. Basically, any player who does it all and doesn't care, is a munchkin by this definition.
- A combination of the worst table behaviors (A munchkin is everything we hate at the table)
- D&D, The gambling board game (Let's straighten some priorities)
- D&D, The Social Mind Game (Of Narcissists and Dice)
This is a social issue. It has nothing to do with RPGs. Someone is a bully, and RPGs just happen to be in the mix somehow. The connection is incidental- a coincidence. A bully would still be a bully, regardless the social context. However, and let's be honest here, gaming has been the target of bullying a lot more than is ordinary, compared to other activities. I, and many other DMs, are old enough to remember a time when saying "I play D&D" was like saying, "Please break my nose"! Things have changed a lot since those days- and they've changed for the better really. Stories of people being harassed and attacked for their hobby have dropped to all-time lows, and there are now D&D players- even DMs- who can't relate a single story of when they felt singled out for their hobby. That's a wonderful change, and it makes me proud to be a part of a community that is undergoing such a change in social status, from targeted outsiders, to just normal people. But, and I said we need to be honest about this topic, D&D has also been the playground of bullies of a different stripe for just as long as it has been their target. Perhaps it was just victims venting their frustrations, but that doesn't seem the case. Stories of gamers and gaming groups bullying each other havn't slowed down at all. It's as common as it ever was, and that's not ok. The only way it'll ever change, is if we as a community start to stand up against this nonsense the way the rest of society has been. Almost any kind of poor table behavior can be a symptom of bullying, the key is that they are behaving that way to intentionally hurt the other players at the table. Bullying can be blatant, (name-calling, threatening, etc.) or subtle, (embarrassing people, encouraging exclusionism, manipulation, etc.).
- Who attack your players (That's NOT ok.)
- Who attack you (That's NOT ok.)
- Abuse and Violence (Responding to a crisis.)
Impartiality, AKA: The Problem With Love
- Favoritism (The hero and his buddies!)
- Exclusionism (The #1 reason people hate D&D)
- The Teacher's Pet (Accusations and their legitimacy)
- Romance at the table (More on the boundary between reality and fantasy.)
- Dating the Boss (Do not date your players.)
Spoony's Vampire Jihad is a perfect example of what elitism is, and why it is wrong.
- The Revenge of the Grognard (Senior means nothing)
- Mean Girls (When cliques form)
- Actual Prejudice (What to do about racism and other forms of social prejudice at the table)
Juvinility AKA: The Censorship of an Art Form
- Welcome to Your Stereotype (What people assume of D&D and its players, and how to overcome it)
- The Book of Vile Darkness (A section dealing with explicit roelplay of cruelty, rape, torture, drugs, erc.)
- The Book of Charnal Knowledge (A section dealing with explicit roleplay of intimacy)
- "I've banned every notion of sex from my games. Ever. Atleast detailed stuff. Sure you can 'spend the night' with some tavern girl or whatever, but that's where the description ends. I don't like my friends pretend-fucking pieces of my imagination." -Some guy named Stregen
- Fun is Evil (A brief note on social justice warriors, and how raging against them makes you into one.)
- This fear monger revived this nonsense in 2000. Part 1.
- The fear monger continues to line his pocket with fear money.
- Here's a whole show dedicated to making people fear pop culture.
- A documentary dispelling the myths.
- Egbert (A real life tragedy)
- CHICK Publications (A real life living joke)
- Go here and read this insanity.
Helping People, AKA: When Things Get Too Real
- Reality and Fantasy (I'm not a child, but some of us are. I'm mentally stable, but some of us are not)
- Moderation (The dangers of binge gaming)
- Addiction (Specifically, addictive behavior)
- Suicide (If you're a true friend, be prepared)
- Bad play is worse than no play at all
- No Gaming is Better Than Bad Gaming
- If you're having fun, you're winning! If you aren't, you are all losers.
- My Guy Syndrome
- This is typically manifested as "My guy wouldn't do this." which can best be translated to everyday speech as, "I would rather play something else."
- Going with the flow (Keep Calm and Carry On.)
The DM as a Game Designer: Making Stuff Up
Houserules & Homebrew
Houserule: A change in system
Homebrew: A change in content
Crash Course: RPG Theory & Game Design Abridged
The DM as a Human Being: General Advice
- Are you SURE you want to do that?
- This is a not-so-subtle hint to the player that what they are about to do is a terrible idea. Don't use this phrase too loosely- restrain its use to only dire situations, where a character is about to completely sabotage their own team.
- Bellisario's Maxim: Don't look at this too closely.
- Best used for when people start talking about fanciful ideas in an excessive degree of detail, or begin to scrutinize something to the point where it deconstructs the game. Don't ask why all the aliens speak english, that's not what the story is about. Don't ask how the villain beat them to the ruin after being dropped down a hole, that's not what the story is about. Don't ask why the villain didn't just shoot the hero while he had them trapped, that's not what the story is about.
- The MST3K Mantra: It's just a game, I should really just relax.
- Sometimes, you need to take a breather. People can get wrapped up in things emotionally, and it can really drag the group down. Sometimes, everyone just needs a break to sort their heads out.
- A wizard did it.
- The single most powerful hand-wave ever invented.
- So, what do you see?
- This is useful if your players blindside you and go off on a tangent you aren't prepared for, but isn't especially important. (Like exploring back-alleys in the local city, or some such.) Just let them make stuff up for themselves and each other! They can do your job for you while you plan stuff further ahead for them to run into!
- So, what do you want to do?
- Great for loose, open-ended moments where the players have a lot of leeway with their roleplay. Let them sing, and shop, and get drunk, and whatever else their characters would do. Use this as a bit of a break to be entertained by your player group's escapades while you prepare for the upcoming adventures!
- You can certainly try!
- Even if you know something is impossible, let the players try for it at least. Certainly don't waste too much time on things they cannot do. Rather, set high DCs for their meaningless attempts, and give them hints on what they should do each time they pass the DC!
- Is that really what you do?
- This one is good if you group has a case of the sillies. Let the silly stuff slide and gently nudge the group back on track. Only take their statements seriously if they say it's a real decision, not a hypothetical joke.
- I was hoping you'd do that!
- Translation: I have no idea what just happened or where you guys are going with this. Use this line to make it look like you were totally prepared for something you weren't expecting at all.
Don't be afraid to go to different sources for your ideas, or to borrow inspiration for the things you enjoy or experience. Say, you liked a particular character in a story, or you think a dungeon was well designed in a game, don't be afraid to incorporate these into your campaign. Make sure that you don't copy works exactly, modify things to work within your setting or fit your story better. For example, if you like a character in a story you've read, use the details that you like about them or parts of their backstory. If you're using a dungeon map, just use the layout and fill it yourself, or take puzzles that you especially enjoyed from the last video game you played.
- VERY IMPORTANT! Don't take credit for ideas that aren't yours, especially if you share things online!
Have sheets or note cards and USE them. Keep track of what your players have done, how much exp they've earned, who they're interacting with, where they've been. You'll never be entirely sure what your players will remember or what they'll want to revisit, so in order to accommodate them, be sure you're able to remember what happened early on in the campaign.
Music is one of the best resources you can have for getting players immersed into your setting and for establishing atmosphere. Set up a playlist of music for various different scenarios and use them whenever you want to add some extra emphasis to a moment. Music from video game soundtracks work the best for this, as they were already developed to accommodate similar scenarios and were designed to be engaging and atmospheric, but unobtrusive.
People using Roll20 for their campaigns will find that they already include a link to soundcloud as a resource for DMs which provides access to music as well as to sound effects.
When adding to this list, please only list resources that have been made available by the content producers or their affiliates, or content that is available under free use
- Zelda Reorchestrated: A collection of the Legend of Zelda soundtracks done with a full orchestra.
- The Mass Effect 3 Soundtrack (requires a Bioware social network account)