Dungeons and Dragons is here to stay. The greatest role-playing game of all time has been taking the world by storm for 40 solid years, sweeping up new and passionate players with each passing day. Now tabletop fans are flocking to D&D in droves and they need a dungeon master. For all of the new dungeon masters out there, we have crafted a detailed guide of important tips to help enhance your game mastering.
1. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Your Own Story
It can seem overwhelming to make your own D&D campaign for your players. However, the experience can be just as rewarding as it is challenging.
If you are just starting out as a dungeon master, then it is suggested that you try out a few pre-written adventures first. This way, you can get a feel for the format, pacing and other patterns in most D&D campaigns. A list of free D&D campaigns can be found here. For more free adventures, check out dmsguild.com.
Once you have a few adventures under your belt, it’s time to start making your own stories. An easy way to ease into this process is by finding a story outside of D&D you enjoy and translating it to Dungeons and Dragons.
For instance, consider using Lord of the Rings or even a classic epic like Beowulf as a template for your story. This will take care of much of the writing leg work concerning your story. From there, you will eventually find yourself feeling more and more comfortable branching out and starting your own, original stories.
2. Make Critical Failures Just as Fun as Critical Successes
Critical rolls are a huge part of Dungeons and Dragons. When a player lands a critical hit, try to make the process fun for everyone. For instance, you can let your player describe how they land their critical strike as a way to make them feel in control of their character’s agency. However, you can make critical fails fun for the party too.
For instance, a player that rolls a natural one on an attack roll could potentially stub his toe and have to spend the next few rounds hopping on one foot. Applying unique and creative scenarios such as this can be an easy way to keep things feeling fresh and spontaneous.
3. Make a Party Contract as the Dungeon Master
Whenever there is friction among players in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, the culprit is often miscommunication. Before you start your game, consider laying out a party contract for your players to honor.
The details of the contract can vary, but consider adding in things such as how loot will be split among the party after battles or if players are allowed to steal from each other. By discussing a rule set with your players that the entire party can agree to, you can avoid quite a bit of stress and friction down the road.
4. Lay Down Your Rules
While the party contract is all about how the party wants to do things, the DM rules are all about you. Tell your players early on if you plan on implementing any non-standard rule variations or unexpected stat changes to monsters and the like. Once again, by communicating your intentions ahead of time, you will be saving yourself stress and friction down the road. Not to mention, the campaign is for your entire group. Going over your intentions early on is a great way for your players to gauge if they are on board for your game or not.
5. Sit Down and Talk With Your Party
Just like with almost anything else, communication is key to a good game of Dungeons and Dragons. Take the time to sit down with your players and have a discussion about the game. Try to read the room and get a feeling for everyone’s goals and expectations.
Ask what each player is hoping for out of their D&D experience. Are your players more combat oriented or focused on role-playing? Asking questions like this can be a great way to get a good feel for how you can cater your campaign and the overall D&D experience to your particular group of players.
6. Make a Recap of the Campaign as the Dungeon Master
It cannot be stressed enough how useful recapping each game can really be. Sometimes it is really hard to find time to play D&D. Consequently, players will sometimes go months without playing.
Even if you play every week, there is still a lot of information to keep up with in a D&D game. Consequently, it is highly suggested that you recap important moments from the previous game before starting the day’s campaign.
A way to make this process more fun is to go around the room each week and ask a new player to recap the last game. Rather than you having to recap every game, each player can have a chance to break down their thoughts on the last game’s most important moments.
Also, this is a great way to keep your players on the toes and to get them engaged in the game right from the start.
7. Pre-Roll Before the Game
This may seem tedious, but it can really help you keep up the pacing during an intense moment in your game.
There are a series of rolls you are likely going to have to make each and every game. For instance, you will likely have more than a few combat encounters planned. Consequently, you know you will eventually have to do some initiative rolls.
Having to pause the game so that you can make these rolls is not going to kill the mood. However, it can be tasking at times. If you want to really keep the game moving at a fast pace, consider pre-rolling some of the rolls you know you will have to make during your gaming session beforehand.
If rolling your die time and time again before each game seems tedious, consider using this dice rolling program to cut down on effort and time.
8. You Don’t Have to Memorize Every Rule
Dungeons and Dragons has a lot of information. The incredible scope of content available in this game can seem overwhelming at times. That being said, don’t worry. You do not have to know everything.
Just like with anything else, both efficiency and proficiency come with time and experience. Beyond that, there are a series of tools you can use to make your life easier from the start. For instance, a list of useful dungeon master cheat sheets can be found here.
And, don’t be afraid to look something up. Your players are not going to expect you to simply know every little detail of, well, everything. It is only natural that you will have to often revert to your various sources to double check your information.
To make things run a little smoother, try to note every time you find yourself repeatedly revisiting a certain section. For instance if you consistently find yourself looking up the weapons section in the Player’s Handbook, mark that page with a sticky note or something similar. This way, you can quickly flip back to useful pages when necessary.
Likewise, consider bookmarking or shortcutting useful websites and tools you continuously use on the internet.
9. Take Organized Notes
Taking notes is a huge part of being a Dungeon Master. There will simply be too much information for you, or any single human being, to remember. Consequently, you will want to come up with a note-taking system that works for you. To that end, here is a quick list of some common note-taking strategies.
- The Classic Notebook: A tried and true system, simply take notes in a notebook or binder. This will likely seem the most attractive option at first. However, it will be more and more difficult to actually keep track of all your notes as the information begins to pile up. If you are going to use this strategy, it is suggested that you use a binder with section separators.
- Sticky Notes Galore: Some dungeon masters prefer jotting down the minimum amount of information necessary on a sticky note and then sticking that information to their DM screens. This is definitely a more fun and creative way to take notes. However, things can get chaotic when your DM screen eventually becomes engulfed in sticky notes.
- Take it All Digital: Some dungeon masters prefer to use certain programs on their phones, tablets or laptops to keep their DM spaces clean and tidy. If you choose this route, some tools to consider are D&D Beyond and Digital DM.
10. Don’t Be Afraid to Use These Dungeon Master Resources
If it is your first time being a dungeon master, don’t worry. It seems like a lot of information, but it will all become second nature in no time. The first thing you will want to do is get your hands on the Dungeon Master’s Guide. This book provides guidance and useful information on how to become a skilled storyteller and overall game master. To that end, you may also want to pick up the Monster Manual. This book provides all of the information you will need concerning the many creatures of D&D.
If money is tight at the moment, then you can find free, official rules and information here and here. Next, you can print off free, official D&D DM screens here. Once you find a DM screen of your liking, it will be time to fill out the inside of that screen. A list of useful cheat sheet to place inside your DM screen can be found here.
Now that you have all of the information you will need, you will need a nifty system to store it all. Check out these tools down below to help keep your notes and various dungeon master duties neat and organized.
- Digital DM: This service takes many of a DM’s note-taking duties and translates them into OneNote for an easy to use, free and expansive program.
- Encounter Calculator: This service makes balancing your party encounters easy and quick.
- Kobold Fight Club: This service is a more complex encounter calculator that includes lists of D&D monsters.
- A Soft Murmur: This service offers ambient sounds, which you can use to really set the scene for your players.
- Loot Generator: This application is a great way to keep your players guessing when it comes to the loot they receive for quests and combat encounters.
- D&D 5E Character Sheets: This is a link to all the free, official character sheet PDFs you and your players will need.
- Roll20: This is a website filled with all of the free information found within the D&D 5e SRD in an easy to access format.
- Dungeons and Dragons Dice Roller: This program simulates dice rolls so you don’t have to.
- D&D Beyond: This is a unique service that turns all of your work into a digital format. However, it is going to cost a monthly subscription if you want to use all of the features.
- DMs Guild: Here is a source of free adventures for you and your players to enjoy.
- Ambient Music: Composer Michael Ghelfi is a passionate dungeon master. Unhappy with the quality of readily available D&D ambient music, Ghelfi decided to compose his own. You can find a bevy of incredible tracks to use in your D&D game at his YouTube channel. You can also support him on Patreon.
11. Avoid Taking Agency of Your Players’ Characters
Being a dungeon master, in part, is about facilitating your players. However, you have to guide your players along in a way that allows them to feel a form of agency over their characters. After all, Dungeons and Dragons is an act of collaborative storytelling.
This may seem obvious at first, but there are a few ways you may be accidentally taking control of your players.
For instance, try to avoid unnecessarily telling your players how their characters react when you are setting the scene. If you feel the need to tell your party that a bolder is rolling towards them, don’t tell your players that their characters hear the bolder and quickly turn around to observe it. Rather, inform your players of the incoming danger and allow the players to decide their own reactions.
This may seem like a small matter, but it can have a huge impact on your party over time.
12. Try Milestone Leveling – Dungeon Master Tips
This tip is not for everyone. However, many experienced dungeon masters find themselves turning to this system at some point or another.
As the dungeon master, keeping up with your party’s experience can become a massive hassle. After all, the dungeon master should be enjoying the game too.
If you are on the honor system, then your players can keep up with their own experience. However, there is an even easier way. Try the milestone leveling system.
The milestone leveling system is quite simple. As the dungeon master, simply grant your players levels whenever you believe they have earned them.
Rather than counting experience for every monster killed, you can gauge your party’s progress through the quests and various impressive feats they complete each day. Once they have done enough, grant them each a level.
This system is far less rigorous, but also far less work for any dungeon master out there that is starting to feel overwhelmed.
For all your D&D needs, check out Dungeons and Dragons Guides Portal – Anything and Everything D&D.