I am a complete nerd. I’m not sure I made that obvious yet or not, but it is true. I love classic tabletop RPGs and play them every chance I get. Naturally when you play a good amount of games, you do your share of being a player and being the ‘game master’ or ‘dungeon master’ whichever you prefer. Both aspects of the game are fun and challenging in their own ways. Personally I am a fan of being the DM/GM. I am the creative sort who likes to create big bold adventures and test my friends skills in different environments and settings.
Being a DM is not easy though. It takes a certain mind to be able to create a creative and fun story that immerses your fellow game players into the world. In a way you are the narrator in a novel. You are simply telling the story of these ‘protagonists’. You are omnipresent, moving the plot along while the characters in your story live them. Some people can’t grasp this concept at first and struggle to DM a good game for various reasons.
The following is a list of six tips that I use as a ‘rule of thumb’ whenever I DM a campaign.
1: Roll with the Punches
As a DM, you need to be able to improvise and move along with what the party is giving to you, just as they have to adapt to what you are throwing at them. The DM/PC relationship is one of give and take, DMs should never be too stern with the storyline they have created.
From the few times that I have DMed, the campaigns that I had written a conclusive beginning, a middle, and an end and it was my job as the DM to get them from point A to point B. And even that was relatively vague about the setting and context. I took it week by week, leading the party to their next adventure and adjusting accordingly to the way character arcs developed and the way players adjusted to the game play.
If you set a certain path for the PCs to go on and you are so rigid that you are unwilling to compromise when things don’t go your way, the PCs will gain the feeling that they have no control of their own destiny and gain the feeling that their destiny was planned for them step by step, which it was, and there is really no reason to play forward in what is essentially a ‘create your own game’ type of setting.
Being a DM means you have to improvise. Granted this comes easier for some than others and that is understandable. If you are not someone that works well with improvisation my suggestion for you is to work a little harder. Especially if you are playing with people that you know, try to plan ahead and anticipate when a player might attempt to shift gears, have back up plans in case that something unexpected happens. Remember you are playing a game that might change and you must change with it.
2: Don’t treat the books as gospel but treat the Dice Roll as gospel
NOW I know that there are going to be a lot of people who disagree with me on this but please hear me out.
The main game that I love to play is D&D 3.5 and I also have been known to delve into some Pathfinder and Old World of Darkness. For all intents and purposes I am going to use D&D 3.5 as my reference here since it is the one I have the most experience in.
So let me put this into perspective for you… D&D 3.5 has 69 books that are connected to the D&D mythos with each of the books averaging around 150-200 pages a piece. I don’t know about you, but I really don’t have time to read 69 books front to cover and memorize them page to page.
Now granted I’m sure many have and I have a whole other level of respect for that person. You are truly committed to the game and it is impressive that you can read all that information and have an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. But for the majority of us we just don’t have the time, energy, or ability to be that hardcore.
This is not a bad thing, usually it is best to make sure you have read and are familiar with the three major books, the monster manuel, players guide, and Dungeon Masters Guide and the rest you can pick up depending on what type of campaign you wish to run. In order to be a great DM you don’t have to know the Book of Exalted Deeds or Book of Vile Darkness word for word but it helps if you have them on hand.
HOWEVER, the one thing that you need to remember is the dice roll is the most important part of this game and should always be taken with the up most regard.
I know a lot of DMs that take the storyline first and will do anything to make sure their storyline stays intact. Since you are the DM, you do have complete power as most of the time you are the only person who sees the dice roll for the NPC, monsters, and other various encounters. It is very easy for a DM to cheat and say that there was a crit whenever there wasn’t; there was a hit when in actuality it was a nat 1, and that a player did not succeed in a skill check when they obviously did. Remember this is a game that is based on dice and this goes hand in hand with improvisation. You have to work with the dice roll you get and keep the game fair and honest.
3. Let the players make their own characters
This is another thing that a lot of DMs will get mad at me for but honestly I feel it justified. I can’t stand it whenever I play a campaign of any variety and the DM tells me that I cannot play this type of class, this type of race, or that I can’t be a certain alignment of my choosing.
We are going to split this section into two parts, first alignment and then characters
Yes before you get started, we have all heard the stories of the asshole Paladin ruining a campaign because he is a goody-two-shoes and the Chaotic Evil character who revels in being absurdly evil and burns down orphanages, but for the most part I feel like pigeon holing players to a certain alignments takes away from a vital aspect of the game… Diversity.
Usually when a DM does this, it tells me that the DM in question does not want to deal with the situations that might arise from the party if a character was created that is out of alignment with other members of the party. Now of course there are always exceptions and if you do have a party in which a paladin is mixed with five evil characters you might want to talk to the guy in question and explain that problems WILL arise from this…. Like breaking the game completely perhaps. But for the most part diversity is a great thing and something that makes RPGs a whole lot of fun.
One of my favorite campaigns was where we had a Lawful Evil noble and he was in the same group as a Chaotic Good dwarf from the mountains. What was great is that even though these two characters were on completely different sides of the spectrum, they were able to work together and were even able to form a begrudging respect for each other.
People are multi facaded. Creature’s chaotic good and lawful evil can get along if you give them a chance. They may not like each other but they can get along to the same goal.
So bottom line, unless you are running a campaign in which the guidelines are clearly defined as a campaign for “good” or “evil” or “lawful” or “chaotic”, keep your options open. Let the characters be the alignment of their choosing and it will open itself up for great diversity and interesting confrontations.
Classes and Races
Once again I think this category falls under DMs in question not wanting to deal with the problems that might arise from having characters of certain races or classes.
I can understand this, certain games have certain flaws and certain classes can end up INSANELY good to the point where it might break the game and in some ways they do and players should be discouraged from playing certain classes… HOWEVER if a player is dead set on playing a certain class, then I say go ahead and let them. Once again we go back to number one, roll with the punches. In the same game, the lawful evil character was a courtier and by level 2 had a base Diplomacy Skill of +20 something… That is INSANE!!!! And did he make things difficult? You bet it did! But that is what made it fun.
Whenever you run across a situation like this, don’t get frustrated and don’t cheat. Find ways around the checks, start attacking their weaknesses instead of their strengths. If you have to, take it as a personal challenge to get around an insanely skilled character.
Sometimes you will succeed and sometimes you will look like an ass but at the end of the day the point of the game is to have fun. Be prepared to get creative and keep those players in check.
4. Let the players control their character
Whenever a player creates a character, for the most part they get creative. They start thinking of back story and they start to get immersed into this character’s back story. This character is in every since of the word, their character! Do not blunt force trauma back story for the character, let them create that. Once again you are the DM and have the power to do so, after all you are the one telling the story so whenever you make up some back story there is little you can do to change this and 9/10 players will resent this and grow angry at this.
One example that this happened is whenever I was playing a game called Dark Heresy with a friend of mine who will remain nameless, but for my friend if you ever see this video I’m sorry, I love you bro, you know I do, you are one of my best friends… But this annoyed me. The character I created for this game was an arbitrator and for anyone who isn’t familiar with Dark Heresy, I was essentially a Judge Dredd character mixed with a 90s Anti Hero who loved guns (redundancy is redundant but I digress). I was lawful neutral to the core and I even acted like Sly Stallone and said “law” in that really cheesy way.
My back story was that I was that when I was a cadet in the academy and I witnessed my partner get murdered by a thief with a chainsword. It is basically a chainsaw mixed with a sword. Ever since then I dedicated my life to bringing law to the lawless and my quirk was I was afraid of swords, knives, and so forth so I only used guns.
Well what happened was our GM for the game decided it would be funny to make me a cadet drop out who wore the arbitrator uniform and patrolled the streets even though I wasn’t a real arbitrator. Essentially this made my character insane and I just hated it because that was not who I envisioned this guy to be.
Once again sorry buddy but I was finally able to put some Preparation H on that butthurt I had going on there.
Anyway as a DM you have the power to retcon back story into a character’s past but you should refrain, let the character make their own back story then work with that character to enhance that back story they created. It makes the game that much more personal because you are making the game personal and immersive for the player and not alienate them or potentially anger them by doing whatever you feel like.
5. Stay Positive
Whenever I say stay positive I do not mean keep the campaign positive at all. Some of the best campaigns are gritty, dirty, nasty, and by all accounts of the word dark. Whenever I say stay positive I mean keep the morale within the group positive.
It is important to remember that you are playing a game. Roleplaying games are suppose to be played for fun and because you get a lot of enjoyment out of them, don’t ruin it by being overly negative or getting obscenely angry whenever someone decides to meta game or cracks a joke during a dark situation. Should these things be discouraged during the game? Oh of course but remember after it is all over make some jokes, have some fun, don’t take things too seriously because at the end of the day it is just a table top game meant for enjoyment and not who can be more serious than the other.
6 Be enthusiastic
Number 6 and Number 1 of this list are by far the two most important aspects to DMing a great game and being a fantastic Dungeon master or Game Master in general. Others are just guidelines but I really think being creative and innovative as well as being enthusiastic are the two areas that DMs HAVE TO HAVE in order to succeed. So let’s get into just what I mean whenever I say ‘be enthusiastic’.
This does go back to the old idea with selling something, “How can you expect your customers to be invested when you yourself are not invested?”
The glorious and the curse of table top RPGs is the fact that you do have to have a person leading the charge in order for the game to succeed. Unlike your standard board games like Clue or Monopoly you have to be willing to set aside A LOT of time in order to play them and I’m not talking hours with monopoly, I’m talking a couple of hours a week for playing a table top RPG, they are continuing epics and in order for them to succeed you as the DM and the players have to be enthusiastic about playing it.
You can’t go into a game saying “Hey who wants to play D&D?” And the rest of the group proclaiming “Meh.” It won’t work, you might get started with a couple of sessions but eventually your campaign will fail. In order to really get a successful campaign going you have to be enthusiastic and you have to be able to transfer that enthusiasm to the other characters, make them want to come back, make them want to know what is next for their character to face.
A great campaign is what you make of it. If you are a DM spend hours creating the perfect characters, the perfect setting, the perfect everything, and then share that enthusiasm with your friends. If you truly put your all into a game it will show and it will become very successful.