10 Tips for Dungeon Masters - Part II

If you have already read my previous post 10 Tips for Dungeon Masters - Part I then you know where this is going. If you have not, well then maybe you should read that one first. Huzzah!

1. Don't Railroad the PCs. Drop Clues instead.

Instead if you have a quest you are hoping them to go, let them do their side adventure or whatever it is they are doing... but drop a clue during that adventure that leads them back to your big important quest. The clue could be a map. A mysterious magical item. A strange letter or note or symbol. A history book about the dungeon you want them to explore. Etc.

This way players never feel they are being forced to go on your big grand adventure. Instead the clues dropped will make them curious.

"Gee. I wonder what are in those Haunted Halls north of Eveningstar. This old book says there is a lot of treasure in there and a magic sword that is handy for killing both lizardmen and dragons."

2. Use Modules once in awhile.

Honestly, if you are an inexperienced DM you should probably just stick to modules until you've gained more experience. The advantages of modules are many and the disadvantages are mitigated by the fact that if you don't like something in a particular module, fine, just change it. You don't have to do everything in the module.

Even experienced DMs should use modules once in awhile to open their eyes to new ways of creating a dungeon, new ways adventures can be designed, and even just funny traps... see The Tomb of Horrors if you want to see some really funny ones.

If you are a new DM I recommend running "The Haunted Halls of Eveningstar", a classic D&D dungeon crawl. Even experienced DMs should run this quest as it is a true classic worth playing.

3. When in doubt, stick to the Core Books

You don't need to use all the books and materials that are available on the internet. Especially anything that is broken in terms of power levels. If you are inexperienced DM you should probably stick to the 3 core books. This way you know everything you are going to run into and don't have to deal with adjudicating strange spells that might not be balanced, players wanting bizarre magical items that might be overpowered, etc.

Even experienced DMs will restrict their players to the core books, just to keep it simple. Or perhaps only allow one non-core book for the sake of flavour.

4. Mysteries of the Unknown motivate PC curiousity.

It never hurts to have some mystery or a mysterious object in the game. A good riddle perhaps about the hiding place of some treasure.

For example in my own campaigns I don't let PCs know what magicals items do when they find them. That is what the spell Identify is for. Too many DMs ruin all the mystery of newfound magical items by spilling their beans on their powers right away. Let PCs try to figure out what they are...

5. Magical Item Descriptions.

Take your time describing magical items. It should never just be a Longsword +1. Describe it. What symbols are on it? Does it have a name on the blade? Is there anything special about it? It is made of silver, cold forged iron, adamantium, mythral, ornichalcum or some special metal? A silver longsword +1 named "Silverlight" is so much more interesting and special than a pathetic longsword +1.

I also recommend customizing magical items. Silverlight for example might have the ability to cast Light at caster level 12 once/day for example when its name is said. And maybe it even has a undiscovered power the party doesn't know about. Like maybe it glows when werewolves are nearby and does bonus damage against lycanthropes.

The sword also probably has a history. There might be books about it. Ancient tales about a hero who was the bane of werewolves and similar beasts. The next time the PCs are in a library or raiding a wizard's private den perhaps they will find a book titled "Silverlight : The Sword of Angus Werewolfbane".

6. Ask Players What they Want to Accomplish.

I love it when a DM does this. I have done it numerous times myself with great success, often employing a questionaire with a variety of possible quests, different possible enemies, different places they might want to visit or explore, etc. And of course a fill in the blank area for what the players would most like to do and accomplish.

Once I have this I can then weave together 90% of the things people wanted and craft adventures that suit both the themes and flavour of the campaign, while fulfulling most of the desires that players are requesting.

The most popular requests become part of a main quest, and the less popular ones are mixed together for side quests.

And the silly requests (like asking for space orcs, aka Scro) get ignored.

7. Try to avoid saying No...

And use "Yes but..." instead. This is an improv technique. The idea here is that when PCs ask for something or say that they are going to do something, don't respond with a no. Instead say "Yes but..." and then explain why that might be a bad idea or why it probably won't work, or even why that might unbalance.

An excellent example of this in action is when PCs get a Wish spell, a wish granting genie, or a Ring of Three Wishes, etc. A Wish spell can be used to potentially ruin the game and bring it to a sudden end. The DM will want to avoid this and thus will want to avoid any Wish that ends up unbalancing the game. There is also the metagaming issue. For example if a PC wishes for a nuclear weapon, assuming this is a medieval fantasy world how do they know what that is that they would be asking for it?

Wise players will usually know when to not push their luck with Wishes, knowing that a Wish can easily ruin games, but also knowing that if their Wish is not worded properly that the DM may find a way to twist their words.

eg. Wishing to be immortal might turn the PC into a vampire, and the player might want to avoid that.

Thus it is a good time to mention "Yes, but what if you end up a vampire or something similar..."

Or perhaps they become immortal in a manner similar to Dorian Gray, with his enchanted painting...

8. Know When to Compromise, but Also When to Maintain Balance.

During several 5th edition games I have run people have requested to play Dragonborn. Except I personally find Dragonborn to be unrealistic in a medieval setting. The local peasants would probably attack and kill any dragon-like creature on sight. Same thing goes with a variety of monsters, half-demons, etc. Killed on sight by peasants with pitchforks.

However I have sometimes compromised with a player by allowing them to play "Dragonkin" or "Dragonblood" individuals, which look and behave exactly like humans, but have certain dragon abilities because an ancestor of theirs was a dragon. Same abilities, human appearance. Like the mutant Mariner from "Waterworld", whose only distinguishing feature is the gills behind his ears.

9. Reserve the Right to Change the Rules, and Your Mind.

Sometimes you will come across a rule that doesn't make sense. At which point every DM has the right to change the rules and add "House Rules".

You also have the right to later change your mind and replace the old house rule with a New and Improved House Rule.

This came up years ago when I was running a 1st edition campaign and we came to the issue of Opposed Strength Checks. Opposed Strength Checks are tricky in that edition because you want to roll low normally when doing a Strength check. And the standard thing most DMs (to my knowledge) did was that the lowest roll won. But what if there is a tie? What if the weakest person fails to roll beneath their Strength, but still manages to win on a technicality because the stronger person rolled a 20 and auto-fails?

Eventually I scrapped that system for the following:

Both players roll 1d20 and then ADD their Strength to the total rolled. Ties go to the defender. Much

10. Reward Players for Not Metagaming and Roleplaying Instead.

The best reward is XP. Let me explain why, and the reasoning is two-fold.

When a situation arises (inevitably) players will sometimes be tempted to metagame (using out of game knowledge) to solve a problem or somehow get an unfair advantage.

Depending on the nature of the metagaming, DMs may even decide to not allow the metagaming action. Or to penalize the PC for attempting it.

But when a player does not metagame, and then actively works to avoid metagaming and instead roleplays their character's personality and alignment, then they deserve a XP reward for good roleplaying.

In general DMs should make an effort to reward good roleplaying, with the knowledge that not all players roleplay in the same ways - the player then knows they should continue such actions, knowing they get rewarded for it. This then encourages other players in the group to focus on roleplaying too, thus they will be rewarded for quality roleplaying too.


I have more. Lots more in fact. But I set myself a limit of 10 for each of these posts. You can subscribe to Nerdovore or bookmark the page to come back sometime. I have made a note to endeavour to write a Part III 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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