With a rise in the popularity of podcasts like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, and appearances on mainstream shows like Community and Stranger Things, tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs) have never been more popular. The best known of these is Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) which has been riding high since the launch of the 5th edition of the game back in 2014.
Recent figures suggest that since its creation in 1974 over 40 million people have played D&D, with an estimated 9.5 million people watching some form of D&D game online on services like Twitch or Youtube. That’s a lot of interest in one game!
For those of you not in that 40 million: in D&D, players roleplay as characters who engage in a variety of adventures; while one player acts as a referee, telling the story and controlling all other elements of the world. The latter is referred to as “The Dungeon Master” (DM); and this role carries a lot of weight behind it, since without a DM there could be no adventure to begin with.
While there are plenty of adventures already written for you to try your hand at, being able to craft your own story to lead players on is one of the biggest draws for taking on the role. This can prove to be a stressful experience – but hopefully we can help with a few handy pointers on how to get the most of your RPG experience!
1. Lay out the social contract
Tabletop RPGs are a social commitment, so you need everyone to get (and play!) along. One of the worst experiences you can go through as a DM is putting hours of hard work into a game, only for your players to take one look at the set up and say “I stab the tavern owner because I think he is a bad guy.” This instantly derails the game, and gets things off to a bad start. To help things run smoother, it’s always good to have a “session zero”, where you lay out what the adventure will be about. This way players get a feel as to what will happen, and can also make their characters with that knowledge in mind.
A good way to think about it is like a social contract:
- as a DM, you are agreeing to take these people on a story you’ve crafted, but you accept that because of the way RPG games work not everything will go the way you expect;
- as players, they understand you’ve put time and effort into writing a story for them to experience; and while the story is flexible in some ways, they shouldn’t seek to break it just because they can.
2. Plan for player’s unpredicability
Even if your players are well-behaved, they have enough agency to make it unlikely that everything will go exactly according to your plan. This is known as “going into the white”, and is what happens when a group decides for example not to go into the dungeon, but instead climb on a boat and travel somewhere off your map.
An easy trap for DMs to fall into is immediately punishing players who deviate from the story. However, keep in mind that unlike most games, in tabletop RPGs there are no winners or losers. You simply experience the adventure from different points of view. Those unexpected twists are difficult moments, where you’ll need to think on your feet, but you should try to gently nudge your players back on track without being too dramatic.
One way you can do this is through random encounters: “A creature drops from the sky” or “Zombies suddenly burst through the door.” Though this isn’t always appropriate – talk to your players to find out what they’re trying to get from this.
For example if your players are convinced this is the right path, allow them to follow it for a moment or two before looping them back into the story. Try not to get angry or force them to go back to a previous place to start again. No one wants to feel like they’ve wasted their time, so moving pieces around to accommodate wandering players will always work better than railroading them back to where you want them to be.
3. Build up your NPCs – but choose wisely
A good story is only as interesting as the characters that take part in it. From the humble shopkeeper to the boisterous town guard causing trouble at the city entrance, your support characters need to be brought to life in order to make your team feel they’re journeying through a vibrant world. As a DM, your job is to make sure that the Non-Player Characters (or NPCs for short) the group encounters are full of life, personality, and are memorable to the adventurers.
Not every character should be like this however. It might be tempting to cram your story full of exciting personalities, but in this case groups may get attached to the first people they talk to. It’s very easy for the adventuring party to decide that the one eyed gnome who sold them weapons is someone they want to know more about, instead of moving on to the local wizard you were hoping to use to lead them to their first dungeon. This happens to even the most seasoned DM: you want to make sure your vital NPCs are the ones that stand out from the rest.
Don’t be afraid to skim over characters you want your group to just move on from. That isn’t to say you should not be open to the idea of some of them becoming permanent fixtures. Keeping a list of names for NPCs is always handy, and if by chance your team does become fixated on someone, this way you can at least expand on it later. But first, focus on making the key people stand out, instead of trying to build a world chock-full of interesting characters – otherwise you’ll spoil your group for choice and leave them racked with indecision over who to go to.
4. Break the rules, but not the game
Sometimes D&D is brutal on its players. Characters die, saves are failed, traps are sprung. Part of the game’s appeal is that it is based both on skill and luck. When dice rolls become involved, you can only hope that the odds are in your favour.
The creator of D&D Gary Gygax once said “A DM only rolls the dice because of the noise they make.” While we don’t quite agree with that extreme, he does however raise a great point: one of the key elements of being a DM is reading the situation, and knowing to react accordingly.
If you can feel the group is struggling in combat, don’t be afraid to look down at that natural 20 and say “Well, I rolled a 10. I guess I miss.” While to some this is heresy, the point is that, as a DM, you need to adapt to the situation. Sometimes combat encounters you created on paper turn out to be harder (or easier) in action.
Don’t become a slave to the rules as written in the book, because you will just be adding misery to an already difficult situation. Unlike most games, as a DM you’re not trying to “win” D&D – you’re trying to provide a fun experience to your group. “Sorry, the giant I thought you could kill easily ended up wiping the group” is not a fun way to end a session.
Try not to do this too much however, otherwise your group will spot what is going on. No one wants to feel like they’re being coddled. Especially in a game that relies on some element of luck. The crushing lows and amazing highs that come from the dice rolls are just as much a part of D&D as any other element.
In the end, it’s a balancing act, and, as long as you know loaded dice are an option, and you use them judiciously, you will find it a lot easier to direct the flow of your games.
5. Get the most out it with a mixture of games
While D&D is the first roleplaying game, ironically it’s also an anomaly. In the game, players will mostly be assuming the role of proactive adventurers who venture out into the world looking for challenges. However, the bulk of tabletop RPGs do the opposite of this; more likely than not your team will be reacting to events drawing them into whatever storyline you as Game Master (GM) have concocted.
While D&D provides tools to create in depth, fleshed out characters, a lot of that comes in the form of exposition and background, which from time to time will grind against the mechanics of the game. It’s very easy to play D&D without doing any roleplaying or character building; instead seeing it like a video game where you’re the fighter who does X amount of damage. While this is a valid way to play the game, you might find over time your players will want to make their characters feel more alive in your story.
The tabletop RPG genre has many alternative options to help you experiment with this. You can be vampires living in the modern day in Vampire: The Masquerade; children investigating the dark secrets of your sleepy town in Tales from the Loop; or even go on adventures in the settings of your favourite fictional universes like Star Wars or Star Trek. All these games and more have different rules and focuses. Some are built more around social situations, or investigation, rather than combat. But they will all provide your group with a varied experience, which in turn will help your players to build stronger and more diverse characters in D&D, and let you as a DM experiment with different ideas for adventures.
Free action: Don’t sweat the small stuff
When it comes down to it, there is no real right or wrong way to run a D&D or any tabletop RPG game. Have fun letting your imagination loose, and ensure that while the people in your group are enjoying themselves, you are as well. Never let the stress of the role become too much. It’s just a game at the end of the day, and if you’re not happy don’t be afraid to say so.
As we wrap up this session, I have some good news: everyone who’s read up to now gets bonus XP. Though if you really want to level up, why don’t you help the rest of your party by leaving a comment with some of your own DM tips below?