A good dungeon always presents choice. Or at least the illusion of choice.
Recently, with our group letting an inexperienced DM run, and having two other players interested in getting ready to try DMing, I’ve been thinking about what the quintessential elements of good DMing are. I’ve spent tons of time thinking about things like “He choose to handle the story way X, I would have handled it way Y. What makes both approaches good and bad?”. This process has given me incite into why I DM the way I do, and why I believe that’s the best way to DM.
So, below are 5 tips that I’ve distilled down based on my 15 or so years with various DMs.
- Story: A DM needs to narrate the players story. Not tell their own story. [I learned this from Critical Hit‘s Rodrigo Lopez and WotC‘s Chris Perkins]
- Choice: Players should (almost) always have the option to choose how they handle a situation. These choices should be important. Never give them a single option, particularly when they’re faced with a journey or a plan. [This one’s based on my own experience. Nothing is more frustrating for a player than not being able to effect the narrative with the choices they make.]
- Use the railroad station, but not the tracks: Sure, you need to hit certain points after you launch the party from the station, but it should be more like a boat leaving a dock, not a train getting locked into a set of tracks. [I learned this one from Chris Perkins, one of my favorite DMs. If you want to see Chris in action, download the D&D Podcast’s episodes that feature the guys from Penny Arcade playing D&D]
- Don’t make plans for the party: Never, ever throw an NPC in the party’s way that says “Here’s the plan”. NPCs should always ask “What’s the plan”. [Combination of personal experience and Rodrigo’s influence here]
- Keep them Engaged: Pay attention to your players. If they seem more interested in their own interpersonal struggles than with your story, take a good hard look at your story and figure out why the story isn’t compelling to them. The story should support the characters and engage the characters/players fully. If they don’t care what’s next, they have no reason to want to move on to what’s next.
There it is, what I consider the most critical elements of DMing. Oddly, most of them reflect the collaborative storytelling part of DMing, stressing the importance of the idea that the DM isn’t telling the players a story, the DM and players together are creating a story based on an agreed upon world…
Which I guess shouldn’t shock my players, at least. I’m a DM who writes a character driven campaign in a world that she’s helped develop from the ground up over the course of almost 15 years…
I’m going to start numbering these serial posts to make it easier to keep things sorted. I’ve decided to pull more suggested reading for gaming from D&D Insider, my favorite 100% digital publication. One of these is even holiday appropriate!
- The Dungeon Master Experience: Where’s the Love? by Chris Perkins
Dungeons and Dragons is about exploring themes and genres and tropes. One trope that is possibly the hardest of all is the romantic sort. In this article Mr. Perkins explores the pitfalls and challenges of love for himself and potentially for other DMs. I found this article particularly interesting because in both of our current home games right now one of the themes that is strongest is the growing emotional loyalty the party members have for one another. He actually applauds what we’re doing as brave, and anytime my Favorite big-name DM calls out something I’m involved in both running and playing, I’m a happy camper.
- Forging the Realms: How Many Hidden Cults Is Too Many? by Ed Greenwood
I found this article interesting because in 2 of 2 of our current home games we’ve got hidden cults. I’ve got no clue what Wiley has in the pipes, but I suspect some sort of hidden cult might happen. Though it’s too early to tell much about what He’s going to do, since the game only just barley has characters at this point…
- The Dungeon Master Experience: The Old DM and the Sea by Chris Perkins
Mr. Perkins talks about DMing through a series of editions, and talks about the upcoming D&D Next. It’s interesting, but I’m not sure that Next will be for me. It might be 4e from here on out for this Fox.
I’m a loyal subscriber to D&D Insider. This may or may not be a regular feature, as I’m a 4e player, and we’re on a timer for new materials.
- When Stuff Happens, What’s a DM to Do? By Ed Greenwood
I love the unforseen moment, however complicated they can make life. Ed Greenwood goes over some ways to deal with those moments, giving advise on dealing with the twists that you didn’t manage to plan for.
- Wandering Monsters: Chosen of Bahamut By James Wyatt
I’ve got a thing for dragons. Really, I do. This installment of wandering monsters is focused on dragonkind. Including the Dragonturtle. Because everyone needs a dragonturtle.
This one is short, but I do recomned reading both of them and finding a way to use them in your advature!
Well, another week, another D&D Session. Exactly how life should be running. I’m proud to start in on another series of posts that will bring you the adventures of our still nameless party. This time audio-enabled since I totally recorded during the session, and audio is fun! Excuse any fails in audio quality, as this was recorded with a simple laptop built in mic.
Due to the fact that I don’t have any good ideas for what to post today, and I have these sitting in my game notes from last session, I figured that I would slap these up here and let y’all enjoy them.
First, from the amazing mind of one Wiley “Rasp” A.:
Violence: It’s the bind that ties.
Then, an interchange from the full table.
Kelly: Oh! Those are sleeping bags? **points at the drawings Paul is doing on the battle map. Of graves.**
Paul: Kind of.
Wiley: The permeant kind.
This report complies treasure collected and processed by our Keep at the Shadowfell group. It compiles collected treasure from the following parts of the adventure, which comprise the first gaming session:    
Marl: 1 bone dragon-skull mask (to wear as a hat & on belt), 1 ram-skull Orcas Pendant
Yari: 1 +1 Dwarven Chainmail
Party: 382 gold, 7 silver
Herein lies the final installment of the writeup of our group’s first adventure. I hope you enjoy the exciting conclusion of our epic adventure, and tune in at the end of next week (our DM demanded his vacation from work off from running games, too) for our next installment of the story!
We ended up taking a break and sleeping a little bit before resuming our session as if nothing had interrupted us. Sometimes a person needs some sleep, and none of us are as young as we used to be (or so they tell us…) It should be noted that this particular adventure was played on 1 January 2012.
Our D&D adventure picks up where the previous one left off. If you’ll remember, the intrepid party had just arrived at the walls of the city of Winterhaven, where rumors of the cult they had been hired to deal with had led them.
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