How To Be A Great Dungeon Master

The idea of being a Dungeon Master in a tabletop RPG is, understandably, pretty daunting. A table full of people looking at you constantly, listening to your every word, stumbling clumsily through your well-crafted world with all the grace of an out-of-control semi-trailer? A nightmare by anybody’s standards. But don’t worry! You got this. We got this -- together.

I’m going to tell you... The Three Golden Rules of DMing.

It’s Not About You, It’s About The Players

Say it with me, aspiring Dungeon Master: it’s not about you. It’s tempting to think that because everybody is paying attention to you and listening to your every word, that the game is, broadly speaking, about you. “No!” I say, slapping your beautifully written world-building out of your perfectly manicured hand. It is not. It is about the players.

Do your players want a hack-and-slash dungeon crawl? Give them endless monsters and pre-write some chunky descriptive text for when the barbarian rolls a crit and the goblin’s head explodes in a shower of blood as your axe thunders through it, smashing into the tree behind and carving off a huge chunk of wood.

Do they want insanely intricate collaborative story-building with a cast of their favourite NPCs showing up every other day? Draw up that family tree and flesh out that map, quizzing your players on detailed things like exactly what businesses does your family own in this town and how would you say your great-uncle was assassinated, exactly?

The reality is that most groups want a mix of both, in greater or lesser quantities. Every player group is different and they want different things. If you can give them what they want, they’ll be happy. Happy players are happy people, and happy people bring snacks that you don’t have to pay for. If you find yourself being really frustrated because the players aren’t doing what you want -- suck it up. It’s not about you.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that you shouldn’t write beautiful world building or have perfectly manicured hands. But what I am saying is that if you only want players in your game so that they can admire your perfectly-pre-written world building, and they’re resenting every perfectly-pre-written moment because all they want to do is put their fist into the torso of an owlbear and pull out an sparkly amulet, then you have a problem. Change what you’re doing, or step down and let someone else DM.

You gotta put the players first. They outnumber you, if nothing else.

Steal Everything, Never Apologise

Coming up with your own material is hard. There’s so many great stories out there waiting to be told, and sure, you could be the one to tell them. But you’re a busy person and you got shit to do. Fortunately, I’ve got the answer: stealing (also known as theft). Just to be clear: I am explicitly advocating that you steal ideas from other people and present them as your own.

Steal relentlessly. Steal from TV and movies. Steal from books and comics. Steal from another D&D game you watched on Twitch. Listen: just stop acting like such a goody two-shoes and fuckin’ steal the shit out of everything. I am deadly serious and it will make you a better Dungeon Master if you do this.

Take your favourite character from something you read or watched and give them a sword instead of a gun. Bam! You got an NPC. Use that shocking twist from the end of Your Favourite Crime Procedural Show, but set it in a peaceful village or hamlet instead. Bam! You got a plot. Maybe change the gender of the character or the name of the macguffin or something if you’re worried that people will recognise it all. But my advice to you is that they won't, because they’ll be too busy enjoying it.

Once I stole the entire plot of Metroid Prime (a great game! -Ed) and presented it as my own entire adventure. I even re-created the maps by hand (I was in high school and I had a lot of time). You too can be this kind of disgusting and un-repentant thief, or as they’re known around the table, “a bloody good DM”. And there’s never been a better time for outright theft, with so many resources available digitally -- and for free.

In a recent D&D 5E game, my players investigated a rundown shack on the outskirts of a country town. We were playing using the Roll20 digital tabletop, so I needed a map background to display. I didn’t have the time or the skills to make one myself, but I had just the thing: theft. There’s a similar shack inhabited by redneck mutant ogres in a Pathfinder adventure called Rise of the Runelords that I’d read previously, so I looked it up, found that some kind soul on DeviantArt had made their own version of that map, stole it, and uploaded it into Roll20.

Then I simply tweaked (stole) the existing Pathfinder adventure text and replaced the monsters with my own so that it fit into the story I was telling. And nobody was the wiser! Until now, if you’re reading this. Sorry not sorry.

Don’t Worry, Keep Playing

No plan survives the battle -- and no plot survives the players. It happens. Players will do what they want, latching into an innocuous word you said that actually means nothing, fixating on a detail, or deciding that your gainfully-employed ogre NPC must be evil because all ogres are evil (stop racially profiling people, Tom). Maybe a rules question will come up that stops the table cold while five more books are hauled over from the shelf to cross-reference.

This happens and you can’t avoid it. The important thing is to remember this: don’t worry about it, and keep the game going. It is possible to recover from lost momentum in a game, but in my experience, once everyone’s out of the right headspace it’s difficult to pull them back. It’s just the way our brains work.

If a rules question is coming up that threatens to stop the game, rule in favour of the players (it’s fine!) but say “We’ll talk about it after the game and decide how it’ll work next time,” and keep playing. If you’ve hit a dead end with a subplot, be honest with your players. Say “I haven’t got anything prepared for this forest. We’ll have to come back in a future game,” and keep playing. Being upfront and transparent and consistent makes your games more fun.

“But what if the players are wrecking my story and I’m panicking!” you say, frantically whispering in the kitchen as you "refill your drink" for the eighth time this hour. Roll with it, and incorporate what the players are doing into the adventure if they can. Players love this shit (yeah you do, you players out there).

Are they fixated on the NPC? Make them adore it and then kill the NPC brutally once they’ve grown attached. Is one of them absolutely determined that this weirdly shaped rock you randomly rolled on a loot table is magic? Make it magic. It’s fine! It doesn’t have to be anything insanely overpowered: it’s about them having fun and feeling like their actions are important. (Later, have the main villain steal the magic item.)

Do not be afraid to alter a pre-written adventure. Your players will never know.

It’s not always easy to just wave your hand and plow ahead, because it can often feel like you’ve either failed or are having your hard work ignored (see Golden Rule #1!). When I started DMing I would often get into really bitter rules arguments with my high school friends, or throw bigger and bigger monsters at them the further they went away from my Carefully Constructed Railroad Of A Plot.

It’s something that takes time, and you will figure it out if you keep trying, until you’re doing it so smoothly that nobody even notices. And when everybody is having too much fun to notice that you’re making it up as you go along and are in a constant but invisible state of absolute panic, well -- that’s when you know you’ve become a pretty decent DM.

Further reading

The internet is overflowing with advice on how to be a good DM, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But it never hurts to learn more, so if you’re after some great places to start, let me show you some of my favourites.

Roleplaying Tips: This is a weekly newsletter, partially crowdsourced and partially curated, where DMs ask each other questions and exchange tips. There’s loads of randomly generated tables being thrown about, new and wacky ideas for handling basic mechanics, and advice on world building, table setups, and more. You can look at it here and browse the back issues here.

The Dungeon Bastard: Bill “The Dungeon Bastard” Cavalier is a great read if you’re into the “I attack the darkness” school of DMing, with a real focus on old-school flavour, monsters that spray gold out of them when they die, and, of course, dungeon crawling.

Gnome Stew: This blog is written by a team of Game Masters and it’s all about Game Mastering (unsurprisingly). Look through this blog for really solid advice on a range of topics -- not all of which may be relevant to you, but it’s a great resource nevertheless.

D&D With Porn Stars: This is exactly what it says on the tin, so don’t browse it at work. Run by Zak S (a porn star), he shares his anecdotes and DMing advice about games that he plays with his group (who are, you guessed it, porn stars). It’s not actually about porn (in any way), but what it is about is great advice for dungeon masters who enjoy randomly-generated tables, completely insane storylines and who don’t care about the rules at all. I find Zak and the team a very refreshing read after watching people arguing about rule interpretations on Reddit for 600 pages.

Play Dirty: This book, written by John Wick, is one of my favourite resources on DMing. I wouldn’t recommend that first-time Dungeon Masters jump into this book and apply all the advice straight away, but once you’ve found your feet, this book will show you how to kick your players’ out from under them. It’s a brutal read.

Tim Colwill is one of the co-founders of Ten Copper, a website about roleplaying games, board games, and everything tabletop. You can shout at him on Twitter here.


    My favourite whole-cloth steal was The Weaver from Perdido Street Station. Even if @mawt managed to call it

      It probably wouldn't have been so obvious to me if it wasn't already something that I had been thinking about stealing myself.

    If you're in the mood to watch some D&D, check out Critical Role and their DM, Matt Mercer who is absolutely brilliant. I try to model my style a bit after him, just infinitely less skilled.

      Absolutely love Critical Role... Mercer does some standalone tips and tricks videos for DMing too which are pretty great.

    Just visit the Angry GM website and you're good.

    I would recommend ProJareds D&D series talking about experiences like this. Good Watch coming from a person who was always intrigued by D&D (and other games of the like).

    I love random magical items that have no real use. Like a ring of detect fire that's range is touch. Or a ring of teleportation that only teleports the ring itself, not the wearer. Or a fork that transforms into a spoon for 30 minutes every hour etc etc

    Disagree with point #1
    everyone always says it and its wrong.
    because it doesn't work in practice. maybe if you have the perfect group
    who all want the same thing, but the thing is you inevitably have;
    1) the sneaky guy who wants to stealth kill
    2) the charisma guy who wants to talk
    3) the fighty guy who wants to fight
    4) the guy who just doesnt give a shit
    and the problem is giving the players what they want means that 4 of 5 players are always bored,
    while the talky guy is talking everyone is bored, while the stealthy guy is stealthing everyone else is bored
    the fighty guy usually makes everyone not bored but tends to cause the most fights at the table.
    the truth of the matter is, make a good world/story/encounter first because then it's interesting
    if everyone is invested in whats happening then everyone is interested regardless of the actual approach.

    And Point 3, Just makes players special snowflakes.
    i dont think you should make a rock magic just because a player thinks it is
    I dont think players should be coddled, maybe if everyone your playing with has the ego of a 14 year old male then yeah

      Hello! (I am the author). I don't know what to say to your first point other than (in the nicest possible way) "This has never happened to me and maybe you just need to play with different people"? You're describing the worst case scenario and sure, yeah, that definitely exists, but the solution there is to quite literally just "play with different people". I've never found a story so compelling that can bring together when everybody is in it for different reasons; in fact in contrast I've definitely found on several occasions that people who were only interested in fighting didn't give a shit about the best story in the world.

      Re: Point 3, I'm not suggesting Literally Every Single Thing The Player Thinks Is Magic should become magic, just that if the players are fascinated/hooked on something, incorporate it into the story and make it cool so that they feel involved.

      It honestly seems like you're arguing against points that I'm not making but to be clear I'm not saying players should be coddled, in fact I'm saying you should hit them where it hurts by taking away the things they fall in love with.

      Step 1, get rid of the guy who doesn't give a shit. He brings down everyone.

      Point #1 I also think is wrong, it's got to be about everyone's enjoyment not the DM getting his Ego stroked for clever plot points or pandering to what everyone wants it's got to be believable. The guy who complains that magic swords aren't just lying around, or that the guy who has the Magic Sword actually uses it against the party. That guy has no place in the game. I once got told my game sucked because I wouldn't let a L1 character start with +5 Plate with a page of special abilities and some stupidly OP weapons (It kills anything it hits in one go, it hits on anything but a 1 and he get to reroll 1s).

      My favourite moment as a GM was when my Players passionately hated a minor nuisance who immediately became a major villain who was Envious of their success, hated them and wanted to make their life miserable, but was no match for them so he was more insidious about it than straight up fighting them.

      I have never encountered the player who only wants to do one thing, guess I'm lucky. And push them out of their roles from time to time, it's one thing for Charisma guy to talk his way out of a situation but what about Muscles trying to convince his latest conquests angry fiance that she never mentioned him. Sure he could beat the guy up, but that just makes him look bad, it has negative ramifications for the whole party and it could burn bridges.

      I've also only ever seen a super stealth style character played right once, scouting ahead, using Hand Signals to explain what was going on (as in actual Hand signals, not we all took sign language) and setting up simple traps (Caltrops) to allow us to ambush the enemies better.

      The story is the most important part, I agree with you there if the world is interesting people want to explore it.

        I'm more inclined towards the story myself... If I had to I'd personally change #1 to something along the lines of, "It's not about you. It's about telling a story with your players."

        One of the great things is that it's a collaborative effort unless you're one of those hyper controlling DMs who railroads anything and everything to fit your 'perfect' narrative... And I don't know anyone who's ever played D&D that found that approach entertaining.

    3 things you need to be a great Dungeon Master;
    and Ball Gags.

    One thing I learned as DM:
    If the players outsmart you, go with it. Your well laid plans and plots can and will go out the window sometimes. Let them have their victory dance, else you will lose your players. I made mistakes too, that's how all of us learn.

    Sometimes things can go horribly wrong, and by horribly I mean absolutely disaster wrong.
    I've seen things go bad with "Pilot rolls a critical fail, clips the ship on the hangar doors, fails the piloting roll, crashes into the next ship, damage causes loss of control, and the party ends up as a crater on the nearby planet, because whatever they tried, they just managed to botch it with a critical fail roll"
    "You wake up, drenched in sweat from your nightmare" was the rescue sentence.

    Youtube is your best friend. You can see almost any system in action and get an idea of how it works. On the other spectrum you can see some horrible examples of games on there so don't get put off.

      The thing I see a lot on Youtube myself is "System X is horrible for this reason... Don't use it!", and I'll never understand it purely because of the nature of what D&D is.

      A lot of people seem to forget that in a game where you can quite literally do whatever you want, DM included, you get to pick and choose what rules apply and what don't... Or simply alter them so they're in line with what you want.

      I know if I mentioned that I used D&D 5E in recent games, there'd be someone somewhere going "OMG so inferior to 3.5E!" or the likes. Even though it absolutely doesn't matter in the slightest.

      The takeaway here is that the rules of all systems are purely guidelines. All of which can be bent, broken, replaced or just thrown out completely if you deem it necessary.

        Very true. These days I just skim over sourcebooks and pick and choose what rules I am going to use and which to ignore. When in doubt halfway through a game I just toss in the old +2/-2 rule :-)

    In my admittedly limited experience DMing I've generally found putting 'rules' second to myself and the players telling the story has always worked out best...

    Example of if one fails to unlock a door, I don't allow people to just keep rolling until they succeed. It's very much a "You have failed at this, find another way." which personally I think makes it far more interesting.

    Especially when they end up burning the building down trying to get through a simple wooden door.

      Yeah, nothing that can't be fixed with a "you hear the ominous grind of metal and the lock seizes shut" Then watch the other players all glare at the player that failed heh.

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