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?
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!
The DM as an Organizer: Creating and Hosting a Game
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Internet.
- 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!
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.
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.
The Social Contract
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.
If finding players is the hardest task, then teaching them how to play is the most frustrating.
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
- 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)