Dungeon Master tips and tricks

Slow your roll, baby! S L via Unsplash

How to run some rad Dungeons & Dragons campaigns with your friends

In the last several years, Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) has been going through a resurgence. With the popularity of actual play shows such as Critical Role, Dimension 20, and Not Another D&D Podcast, more and more people have been getting into the hobby.

To put it simply, D&D is a collaborative story. One person, the Dungeon Master (DM), runs the game. They make the world, all the characters who aren’t the players, and they narrate the story. They describe the surroundings, and then the players decide what they want to do. The player, who has their own character that they’ve made, rolls a die and adds a modifier based on their character’s skills and abilities. Then, the Dungeon Master describes what happens based on the dice roll. In D&D you can roleplay as your character, fight monsters, and solve puzzles.

Being a DM can be incredibly difficult, especially for beginners. I don’t claim to be the world’s best DM, but I have picked up some tips and tricks to make things a little bit easier and to bring more life into your home games.

Making Battle Maps for Combat

This tip is more for those who play online games. Roll20 is a website where your players can make rolls and DMs can place maps that the players can move their character icons on, but you have to find the map yourself. An unexpected but great resource for mapmaking is the Sims 4. You can take an empty lot and fill it with whatever you need for your environment. You can use terrain tools and debug greenery for a forest or build a tavern. Then go into live mode, press Tab to get rid of the heads-up display, and get a good view of your map before screenshotting.

You can also use the website Inkarnate, which has a free version to create a simple map, and a paid version if you want to make lots of maps. Inkarnate is simple to use and makes great-looking battle maps or world maps.  If you prefer 3D combat maps, you can try out the game Talespire. It’s been featured on the latest seasons of the D&D actual-play show Dimension 20. You can build combat maps and go through combat using 3D models of houses and characters for combat purposes. It does cost a bit of money, but is a great investment for your DM-ing career!

Sharing World Lore

You always want world information to be accessible to your players, especially if you’re in a homebrew[1] world. My personal favourite way to make this information accessible is to make a website. I use the website-maker Carrd to create a site that features the world’s history, the cities, the pantheon, and different NPCs. Most easy website makers will work for this and it’s up to your preference on what to use.

Get an Intern

In my game, I have what we call “the intern to the DM.” The intern is someone that you can talk to about your game that isn’t in the game. It’s someone you bounce story ideas and NPCs off of to see if it works or if it makes sense. Maybe it can be someone who can help you come up with different ideas or additional world lore. They can tell you if a puzzle is too hard or if an NPC is unlikeable. Having someone who will eventually know the world but has no stakes in it with a character can be extremely beneficial. It can ground you and your story to have someone to bounce ideas off of.

Ask Your Players What Type of Learner They Are

There are four different types of learners: visual learners, who learn best using pictures, diagrams, or other visual aids; auditory learners, who learn through hearing the information; kinesthetic learners, who learn through hands-on activities; and reading and writing learners, who learn through writing notes and reading information. If you want your players to better retain the information you tell them, find out how they learn best. My players are visual and kinesthetic learners, so I use a lot of pictures of buildings or NPCs. For kinesthetic learning, I try to incorporate as many interactive pieces as possible. Instead of just reading out puzzles, I make the puzzles interactive. The best way to come up with these puzzles is to look into escape room puzzles and then attempt to recreate them as best as possible.

Reward Your Party and Let Them Know About It

Some players are shy about RP (roleplaying) and the things they want to do. Rewarding your players for having good party interactions can encourage them. When you reward them, tell them! Tell them that they’ve gained XP or that they’re closer to levelling up! When they see that their actions have positive outcomes, they will continue with the positive actions.

Embrace Failure

Failing isn’t fun, but you can only fail things you intend to win. D&D isn’t about winning, it’s about telling a story. In the words of the incredible DM Brennan Lee Mulligan of Dimension 20, “stories thrive with failure.” Let your players fail. Not everything is going to turn out exactly correct and those moments can be really important for their characters. As a DM, you should narrate your party’s failures the same way you would their successes. Play into the story of the characters. Why are they missing all of their hits in combat? Is it because another party member is hurt and they’re too emotional to see straight? By playing into your story of the character, you’re turning an embarrassing moment and making it part of their story.

Session Zero

Session zero is one of the most important things about starting a new campaign. Sitting down and talking with your players and their expectations and yours. It gives you as a DM an insight into what your players are looking for in a campaign. During this time, make sure to ask your players about things they don’t want. If something is incredibly triggering for one of your players, this is the time to ask about those things to make sure that you don’t put them into your game. Like in all things, consent and safety are really important. If you want to do something that you’re unsure of, double-check with your players if they’re comfortable. Nothing in a game is more important than your player’s well-being and mental health.

Those are some of my tips and tricks for DMing that I have found useful in my game and through my own DMing experience. I hope you find at least one of these helpful for you!

[1] Content made by the individual that is not found in any official rulebook.


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