Published on April 4th, 2014 | by Luke Turpeinen0
Top 5 Tips for Dungeon Masters
The internet has a lot of advice on how to run a role playing game campaign, but there are a couple tricks that I feel are still typically over looked by people running RPG campaigns. Even experienced Dungeon Masters or Hollyhock Gods can use a reminder on what makes things fun from a player standpoint. So here are my Top 5 Tips for Dungeon Masters:
Make Dice Rolling Matter
There seems to be a certain under current in the RPG community that we should move away from the tradition of rolling dice to replicate the things in life you can’t predict. While I highly value the parts of roleplaying that encourage group story telling that makes RPGs more than just people rolling dice at each other, there is something to be said for dice rolling.
The flip side to this are those dungeon masters that seemingly always want you to roll dice. “I go up to the bar,” leads to “Roll ‘socialize’ or ‘barter’ to see how long it takes to get your drink.” Those situations aren’t fun either because there is no repercussion from failing at the dice roll- and if there is it’s inevitably lame. Having to constantly roll dice in effect makes each roll worth LESS, not more.
So if rolling too-much and not-enough are bad and should be discouraged, where is the middle ground? Typically, good DMs ask for a roll if the situation is important, complex or difficult. Here’s a different suggestion: only roll dice when the result (good or bad) will be interesting. Sure, this will overlap with the three previous criteria quite a bit. But just thinking about how you can make the outcomes interesting before you ask for a roll can really keep your games dynamic and engaging.
Use Degrees of Success and Failure
While many RPG systems use a rolling system that accounts for situations more complex than success/failure, it seems that many people tend to ignore this system in practice. It’s much easier to say “Oh yes, you jumped the fence, good job!” than to make things a little more engaging.
Instead, using the idea that success is often bittersweet or that failure can have an upside will make your games be more deep and emotionally resonant. If you only got one success on your roll to jump the fence then instead of being unscathed perhaps you tore your tuxedo (that you needed perfect to infiltrate the United Nations gala) or you dropped an item that the police can use to find out your secret identity. Maybe you failed the mission to protect the ambassador, resulting in his injury and a break down of relations- but on the upside, that side deal you had going with a third party worked out pretty well.
Once you learn to use marginal success and failure to introduce ambiguity you will find that stories don’t seem to evolve quite so linearly. Players pick up on the DM doing this and are usually quick to point out ways that things could go better or worse for them.
Know What Will Happen Before the Roll
Every time you ask a player to make a roll, describe to them what will happen if they pass or fail that particular roll. Doing this lets everyone playing know that you’re all on the same page and it means less upset feelings when you have to explain what happens afterwards.
This suggestion plays right into keeping results of rolls interesting. Rolling to scout the villain’s base of operations could result in finding a series of exploits in their defenses, or by having guards encounter your scouting group. By establishing this up front, players are now mentally prepared to run with the results, no matter what they are. They’re invested in getting a success, but they know they’ll have fun dealing with the failure.
Setting players up with this knowledge helps them improvise the story, much in the same way that players explain their character motivations in order to help the DM know how to improvise her part of the story.
Failure Should Fundamentally Change the Game State
One of the most boring things that can happen during a role playing game is watching someone make a dice roll multiple times in an attempt to get a certain result. A good DM trick is to make a failure during a roll a game changing experience. “You either pick the lock in time, or the alarm goes off- after which you can’t roll to pick the lock again as guards are bearing down on your position.”
This keeps things from just turning into a series of dice rolls with a loose narrative associated with them. By inherently changing the state of the game after a failure you compel the story to move forward and do something interesting. This suggestion is strongest when you pair it with the “degrees of success/failure” above. Maybe you fail the roll to infiltrate the palace- that doesn’t mean you don’t get in (that’s boring), maybe it means you get inside and are immediately spotted and are now on the run! This changes the game so that you’re now free to make new decisions that may require rolls that make the game even more interesting. That’s good DMing.
Trust Your Players
Even though they control the protagonists and you control the antagonists doesn’t mean that the Players and the DM should be antagonistic towards each other. You’re all coming together to make something fun, and that requires working together and trusting each other.
In practice this means you should trust your players to know what is fun for them. If something hasn’t been established and a player has an idea on how an NPC would act, what kinds of items would be in a warehouse or something along those lines- just run with it. You don’t lose anything by doing so, your players feel great about integrating their ideas into the story in a new way, and they’re more likely to engage with the situation because they helped set something up.