10 Tips for Dungeon Masters - Part I

As an experienced Dungeon Master for D&D I have been running games for over 20 years now. My current campaign world "Korovia" has been running successfully since 1999, with various versions of it over the years. At present I am exploring different points in the Korovia Timeline, which leads to historical events that helps to fill out the timeline.

From November 2010 to August 2016 I ran a Stone Age / Bronze Age Cusp campaign dubbed "Ancient Tales of Korovia" which featured the "Heroes of Olde", the Korovian equivalent of Hercules, Atalanta, etc. At present we have fast forwarded several millennia, to a time period which is essentially the "Dark Ages of Korovia"... which has more of a Ravenloft feel to it.

Anyway, enough about that. Those are just my credentials (and it ignores that time I won Best DM at a D&D Competition).

Here are 10 Tips for Dungeon Masters

#1. Prepare for Every Session.

You are there to a specific job and I believe in having a strong work ethic. You should therefore be coming up with adventure hooks, adventure ideas, designing dungeons to explore, villains/monsters to encounter, important NPCs that the party might meet more multiple times. You should have many of these details designed and worked out in advance so that you are prepared and ready to run the game and don't have invent everything on the fly.

#2. Expect the Unexpected, Learn How to Adlib

Assuming you did #1, you should now expect the party to ignore some of the things you did to prepare and do something completely unexpected. In which case you need to learn how to make up things on the fly. I generally follow the KISS approach. Keep It Simple Stupid.

For example a few months ago the party met a fence where they could sell stolen goods for a portion of their value, and also buy stolen goods for half their normal value. However I had neglected to give the fence a name. Following the KISS approach I named him "Honest Ned", which was a play on both Eddard Stark from Game of Thrones, and also Honest Ed Mirvish (a Toronto personality known for his "Honest Ed's Department Store" on Bloor Street). The name was easy to remember and now PCs whenever they want to buy or sell something stolen they make a trip to Honest Ned's.

#3. Don't Waste Time on Things Not Important to the Plot or Flavour of the Game

and HOW

Those are the six things DMs should be worried about describing, especially if they are important to the plot or flavour of the game. Describe important NPCs, do not bother describing every beggar on the street unless they happen to be an important beggar. eg. The Beggar King deserves attention.

Describe monsters the first time they are encountered. Do not describe every orc you meet. Important orcs are the exception.

Describe locations in detail only if they are somehow important to the plot. Otherwise keep it brief.

If there are historical details you need to give the players as background flavour, set the mood and do so. Don't half-ass it and assume the players read the *Introduction to your World* (see further below), sometimes you will need to reiterate the details so you get the flavour and historical details embedded in the minds of your players.

Describe how things work sometimes. This could be as complex as some special magical device or artifact, or it could be as simple as describing how the headsman chops off the heads of convicted criminals who are doomed to execution. How you should only be taking the time to do these things if it is important to the flavour of the scene or to the plot.

#4. Invest in a Few Miniatures and a Playing Mat

While miniatures are not mandatory to run a D&D game, they do help when people need to visualize what they are doing, where their characters are, where the baddies are, etc. There are cheap alternatives like tokens. Wooden blocks are also handy for trees, columns, architecture, etc.

Having a vinyl Playing Mat with squares on it (or Hex grid if you prefer) is also extremely handy when running miniatures, but you can also use large 1-inch easel graph paper from Staples which can be purchased in a large pad of 50 sheets, 24" x 36". ($18.96 CDN according to Staples.ca.) In my case I use both the vinyl playing mats and the easel graph paper. The graph paper is great for making large scale maps, for dungeons you are planning reuse again and again, taverns you plan to revisit, etc. This way you only have to draw things on the paper once, add lots of minute details, and then you can reuse it again and again.

See also my past post about Painting Miniatures.

#5. Write an Introduction to your World

If this is your own campaign world you are using then you should write and then read an introduction to the world that players are going to running their characters in. The introduction should contain several elements:

  • A visual description of the landscape, possibly including atmospheric conditions.
  • A variety of historical references so PCs are familiar with recent / important historical events.
  • A list of any current political tensions that the PCs should also be aware of, if any.
  • And... Flavour Text to set the Tone. This is to get your players visualizing what the world looks and feels like, thus setting a tone for your campaign world.

The Introduction should be approx. half a page to possibly two pages long, which you should print out and give a copy to each player. The Introduction might also include a map or two and a list of gods.

#6. Maps and Cosmology of the Gods

You should make a map of your game world and also a 2nd larger map of the local area the PCs are currently in. This is both handy to have and adds flavour. The easel graph paper mentioned above is very handy for large scale map-making.

If not using a standard list of gods then you should make up a list of gods by creating a Cosmology. Eg. I use the Korovia Cosmology in my Friday campaign. Once you have this it will allow PCs to pick and choose which god(s) they worship, which is important for clerics, but also handy for other classes as well.

Record of Lodoss War is definitely worth watching.
#7. Find Good Sources of Inspiration and Write them Down

It is okay to be inspired by other sources. You need to get your ideas for plots somewhere. Here are a few that are quite good with respect to fantasy plots:

  • Conan (Book Series by Robert E. Howard)
  • Dragonlance (Book Series)
    Forgotten Realms (Book Series)
  • Game of Thrones (HBO TV show or the book series "A Song of Ice and Fire")
  • Inuyasha (Japanese Anime) 
  • Mythology (Book by Edith Hamilton)
  • Record of Lodoss War (Japanese Anime)
  • Slayers (Japanese Anime)
  • Sword Art Online I and II (Japanese Anime)
  • The Hobbit / The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien books or Peter Jackson films, both are good)

Inspiration is all around you. You should explore different avenues for inspiration and then WRITE THEM DOWN. I recommend keeping a campaign journal that you write down ideas in. Ideas for plots, characters, locations, everything.

#8. Play in other people's campaigns...

Look for good experienced DMs and play in their campaigns. Look at what they are doing right, try to figure out what they are doing wrong or what could be done better, and then try to emulate / improve upon what you have learned from their skills.

This includes trying other editions. Don't limit yourself to playing X edition of D&D. Play 1st edition, play 2nd edition, play 3rd, 4th (even though I boycotted it I still tried it first), play 5th. Play Pathfinder too.

By playing multiple editions of D&D you will become familiar with many different ways of playing the game and gain a deeper understanding of how to run games regardless of which set of rules you are using.

#9. Keep it Fun for Everyone

This means making sure the following things happen:
  • Everyone gets to play and has roughly equal time to play. Don't play favourites.
  • Everything is fair. For both PCs and NPCs the rules should be applied the same regardless of who it is.
  • Make sure both female and male players are treated equally.
  • Don't discriminate against players for whatever reasons.
  • Don't date your players. This just creates a potentially bad situation and it should be avoided if possible. (Exceptions: You are married, in a long term relationship.)
  • Try to have only one person speaking at once. It becomes chaotic and unhappiness results if too many people are speaking at the same time, wanting the DM's attention. I use a round table system for answering player questions, starting on one side of the table and going around in a circle.
  • If a character is unconscious or killed, ask if they would like to roleplay a henchmen, hireling or even a baddie until they have a character up and running.

#10. Read the Core Books Again and Again

On a regular basis, often while simultaneously designing dungeons and plots, you should be reading the Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Masters Guide and the Monster Manual regularly. By reading the books regularly you will become an expert at all the rules (cough cough, rules lawyer) and thus be better equiped to adjudicate the rules. If you don't know the rules then you have no business running a D&D game. A DM should have a strong understanding of the rules and should not need to be checking books / looking rules all the time, as such things waste game time.


I have more. Many more in fact. But I set myself a limit of 10 when I sat down to write this. You can subscribe to Nerdovore or bookmark the page to come back sometime. I have made a note to endeavour to write a Part II to this post in the future.

See also my previous post titled "Bad Dungeon Masters" to get a better idea of what DMs should NOT be doing.

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