Dungeon Mastering, Elementary (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 dos 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 experienced players may try to take advantage of an inexperienced DM.
This page is mainly intended to give a helping hand to beginner DM's but even experienced DM's can learn a thing or two from others.
When contributing to this page 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 What is a DM?
- 2 The DM as an Organizer: Creating and Hosting a Game
- 3 The DM as a God: Creating A World
- 4 The DM as a Story Teller: Creating a campaign
- 5 The DM as a Moderator: Handling Players
- 6 The DM as a Patron: Rewarding your Players
- 7 The DM as a Human Being: General Advice
What is a DM?
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 out of the group. You'll also be preventing metagaming and other attempts of players to cheat.
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 as an Organizer: Creating and Hosting a Game
Things to Have
- 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, combat, how difficulty ratings work and how to handle exceptional situations or skill 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. This book is your main reference to monsters and NPC's 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, 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 that can be used instead.
- Some paper & pencils, these can be easy to over look, 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 plastic coated grid and dry-erase markers with which you may draw maps for the players and place miniatures (break out your stratego box, or buy some decent ones) to mark their characters positions.
- These maps are not very expensive and can be found in many specialized boardgames stores or on the internet. It's also possible to make one yourself with poster/presentation-sized graph paper and a cheap poster frame. Alternatively you can use paper and pencil to draw quick situational maps.
- A set of tokens, these are to represent the positions of players relative to each other, the landscape and NPCs. These can be anything, from chess pieces to glass baubles, and can be easily be cannibalized from other games like Cluedo or Monopoly. ((I had to use the strangest pawns as my character (Donald Duck) while fighting some very evil cleric (Mickey Mouse). It didn't bother the game and even got some funny remarks while playing. Nowadays I use the awesome miniatures from a game called Runewars (it's a nice game) which has nicer looking miniatures.))
- Wizards of the coast and 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 laptop with which to access the D&D wiki and other helpful websites.
- A DM screen, these are usually designed with helpful references for the DM on the back and are useful for disguising your dice rolls so you can "fudge" the results if you don't want your players to be killed by a fluke in the game's mechanics (or more likely by their own stupidity), or if you want to make a situation more dramatic. Note cards can also be hung on them so your players have references to look straight at.
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.
The DM as a God: Creating A World
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 your players. You are the one that allows them to walk through this new place, 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.
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.
Interaction with the world
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 DM as a Story Teller: Creating a campaign
Your campaign is your primary focus as a dungeon master, 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.
Playing your campaign
Players exploring your world and campaign will most likely behave strangely, and why shouldn't they? There are no "real" consequences to their actions and everything they do should be for fun. However often one (or more) players may take their fantasies to extreme levels and go berserk on the world you have created for them. Sometimes this may even lead to frustration from other players that want to play the game normally and occasionally it may lead to a player leaving the table in a childish tantrum not agreeing to any of your decisions. A lot of these frustrations can be handled by proper DM-ing and making sure they understand that you got a pair. Does that sound strange? Well it isn't- most players will try to push you over and ignore common sense and some are there to play the game. This may be very confusing and frustrating for beginning DM's, but you need to handle it. Try the next do's and dont's to avoid common pitfalls. And remember when you are DM-ing you are not only leading a party of fantasy players but also a table full of real people.
The DM as a Moderator: Handling Players
The first and golden rule you must obey is that you are the go-to-guy, and you are the only one that may decide true outcomes and you decide fates. This makes you god over the game and you must use that power very wisely. A weak god will be pushed around by it's players and the game will fall apart rapidly, while a god that is too strict may enforce so many rules in the game that it starts to look like real life and the fun of playing the game is gone. You must find a balance between the two extremes, and it is harder then you think. Also, leave personal matters outside of the game. If someone just played a nasty prank on you, it will be all too easy to seek revenge inside the game and kill of his character in a few minutes. There is also the other extreme, maybe you like one of the players more than the others and you may be inclined to give him or her help that shouldn't be there. In both cases, other players or party members will also become victims of your mental state and they will get angry about it at some point.
1: Don't be a pushover, especially when starting to DM you may be insecure on your conduct. You may ask yourself if you did not make the encounters hard or easy enough and you may be inclined to listen to more experienced players on how to handle certain situations. Some players will provide useful information and may even provide useful pieces of advice, but most players smell your fear and will exploit it in every conceivable way and always in their favor. When in doubt, consult a rulebook (the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide or Monsters Manual, whichever you need) and be wary of advice from players.
2: The best conduct of playing a DM is to be a passive referee. You should be emotionless and stick by the rules at all times. If someone does something insanely stupid and the logical result is that player should die from that action, you should let him die. If you are inclined to let impossible actions happen just because you do not want to kill off someone's characte, then your players will turn wild and you lose control of the game. Just remember how you played the original Doom with God Mode cheats on, I bet it was quite different than when you played it without the cheats on ^^
3: Do not prevent your players from playing their characters or alignments even if it screws with your campaign. If someone important dies that's the players loss for being reckless not yours, even if it messes up 5 hours of preparation. You set up the world and campaign as a challenge before them- if they decide to massacre everything in their way they will most likely not solve the mystery and end up empty handed. This rule is gold. Your players, especially the more experienced ones, are smart and will recognize if they made a mistake and will even taunt you in order to let loose the next step they just missed by killing some important NPC. Do not give in to their demands and they will only try that tactic once. Give in and you will be tossed around like a rag doll until you realize what is written here is true. Beware of smart people- they will try to screw you over even quicker and you may not even notice it until it is too late.
4: Be a judge, not a god, when it comes to combat. Be honest and fair and stick with it. You will encounter a fight where your players may overpower your enemy through the sheer luck of their rolls. Do not be tempted to "increase" the difficulty out of the blue. It feels good to fight an easy enemy from time to time and you should not deny them that opportunity.
5: Especially in the beginning of your DM-ing, your party may be extremely reckless and charge into battle with little to no regard for the enemy. When this happens, do not grant them any favors. Do not make an impossible fight possible by adjusting damage on players or cutting monster hitpoints into half. Retarded actions deserve death or defeat, if they survive every insane action they will become even more reckless. See point 2. Keep your emotions and thoughts outside the game and when that fighter charges 100 goblins fight him like goblins would do and he most likely die instantly (or if he is extremely lucky he might get away without dying).
6: Enforce logical reactions from the world when some player does an action. For example, cleaving 5 people in half on a busy market will make the crowd panic and will catch the attention of the town guard. The person murdering the innocent people will most likely be chased by the guard and be killed in the process. On the other hand, murdering someone on a busy street in the middle of a pirate town will most likely raise a few eyebrows from the townspeople but will not be that impressed by it. Those kinds of actions are "normal" there. If the player goes on a rampage, then some powerful lord or leader may wish to hunt that player before he or she kills his men and steals his loot. This actually happened in one of my campaigns. A player felt like massacring the city and I logically assumed that the town guard would have a problem with that. So I sent out the entire army of the city on him and they wiped him from the table fast. I did not cheat on the combat nor did I feel bad when he finally died. The player on the other hand was upset that I killed off his character and started to argue with me. I simply lifted my shoulders to indicate that I didn't care and asked him what he would expect what would happen if I started to shoot people in the center of a large city. He quickly agreed with me that I would be hunted down by the police and be shot on sight.
7: Do not be afraid to let a party member die, if the game has no challenge there is no game to play.
8: Do incorporate fun challenges for your party other then just fighting. A good puzzle or riddle will increase the gameplay. For example you could throw in your own cut out three layer compass with sliding disks from cardboard and use it to let the party solve puzzles with it. However, I did go overboard at some point and made the puzzles too difficult and it took far too long for them to solve them, thus killing the game play. Puzzles are fun but keep them relatively simple.
9: Reward ingenuity, players that are thinking outside of the box and use their environment or spells towards their favour must be rewarded with some extra experience or an easier fight. This is exactly what you are aiming for. If a player figures that some invisible mage can be seen inside a rainstorm or water on the floor, and he produces rain then that will effectively cancel out the invisibility by just plainly smart thinking. This kind of actions are highly rewarded by me as a DM to stimulate the group to come up with more brilliant ideas.
10: Punish idiocy. If someone does something insanely stupid, for example walk into a very obvious trap while the rest of the group plants his hand into his face and shakes their heads out of disbelieve I generally tend to punish such actions by awarding (a little) negative XP for such dumb actions, IF he survives it in the first place.
11: Do not give away too much information about your enemies. Some hardcore players will know every creature in the book and they know what they can do but most players do not. Do not give away any details about your enemies except appearance. Giving away information destroys the mysticism around your enemies and over time will make the game play less fun. Players are generally smart and learn your way of thinking which enables them to predict what something can or cannot do.
12: Oops, looks like I rolled a double critical strike with my Barbarian in Rage. Let's see now, that would be a total of 124 damage. Hmmm, that would kill their tank twice. In this case, let the tank die twice. He was unlucky the barbarian attacking him was lucky, it's the challenge of the game.
13: Do not roll back events, you will hear this one a LOT: I always expect a trap and would naturally move through a corridor searching for traps. *CRY* I want my roll *CRY*. Keep it simple and point to the rules: A person looking for traps needs to say so and can only move at half speed. As far as you are concerned, the issue is resolved and you are right. Now he may cry some more but dont give in. Do not roll back events unless >you< actually made a major mistake, and 99.9% of the time, you were right.
14: If your players are in control and they know they will not get away with everything they do and they know you will not cut them any favors, the party will eventually start to govern themselves. Players that realy step out of line will be put into place by his own group and you can sleep easy by knowing that your DM-ing is functioning correctly.
15: Do not cheat, it is all too easy to cheat fumbles (natural 1) and ignore it altogether. Your creatures can and must be able to be as unlucky or lucky as the players.
(Note: Tip 12 through 15 is written in a mildly offensive manner, and has incorrect grammar. It would be wise to consider changing them.)
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 Human Being: General Advice
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)