The role of the Dungeon Master (DM) is to keep the campaign compelling and fun for the players.
A first time DM may be intimidated by the large textbooks that are “The Player’s Handbook” and the “Dungeon Master’s Guide”. They may believe it is necessary to know every detail in these books to be successful.
The truth is: if you’ve played a few sessions of Dungeons and Dragons and you enjoyed the experience—you know the majority of what you will need to be a capable DM.
With that said, let’s look at the fundamentals you should know if you’re stepping up to the DM plate.
Below are some of the core mechanics that will have a significant effect on the story and your players. Your knowledge in these areas are crucial for smooth storytelling and gameplay. Time taken to learn and understand these gameplay elements is a must for the DM. Refer to “The Player’s Handbook” for information on these specific sections to prepare yourself.
Races and Classes: An overview of the proficiencies for each race and class will help you design non-player-characters, understand your party’s strengths and weaknesses, and design enemies.
Ability Scores and Skills: These scores represent the potential for a character to influence the quest.
Saving Throws: There are specific moments in the game where saving throws are used instead of regular rolls. The success or failure of these throws usually has a crucial impact on the player and story.
Magic and Spell Slots: Magic is a potentially limitless entity in the game. Understand the limits of magic so it can have a meaningful yet balanced impact. ‘
Conducting Encounters: You are the referee during encounters so understand the rules and proper sequence of rolls for each player.
Dungeons and Dragons is about the players and their actions as characters in the game. If you know the characters who will be in the story, along with their specific skills and traits: you can make the quest feel as if it were designed for that particular cast. The result is a more enjoyable campaign. Nothing kills the interest for a quest faster than if your players are thrown into situation after situation where their skills cannot be utilized.
For example, if you have rogues and thieves in your party, identify when in the quest that they can steal things or sneak around to accomplish a task. It is impossible to have each scene tailor to the specific skills of every party member, but you can work to include as many opportunities as possible for different members to contribute. The best way to prepare well for your party is by conducting a “Zero Session” where all players create their characters while you are present. This will take place before the first campaigning session.
Know the Quest
The purpose of knowing the story front to back is so that you know how to keep the story moving. Preparation is key. Knowledge of your characters will also serve you here as you can adjust the difficulty of the overall campaign for your party. This goes for both quests that you write and quests that come from adventure books. If you must stop and check the plot after each scene, the game will lose a natural feeling of continuity. When narrating, leave descriptions of settings and people to a minimum. Indicate to your players enough about their surroundings so they can visualize the situation but focus on the details that forward the plot.
Focus on these types of questions: What kind of world are the players in? Where in this world does the quest begin? What is the main goal of the party? What is the party’s next objective? The answer to these questions should be understood by both you and your party.
Knowledge of the quest includes encounters with enemies. Encounters are highlights in the campaign, so your ability to balance enemy difficulty with character ability is crucial for their enjoyment. Set an appropriate armor class, level, and ability score for enemies so the encounter is a worthy challenge. Know how difficult a boss fight can be without it being an impossible feat for your party. Encounters are fun but they are also time consuming. Consider the quantity, quality, and timing of encounters as you prepare your quest.
Collaborate and be Flexible
Your campaign will not go entirely as written. As a roleplaying game, the decisions of your party should impact the story. Perhaps a character with high charisma can persuade a party of orcs to hand over hostages, completely avoiding an encounter. Be able to compensate for any creative changes. Your players will appreciate the including of their ideas and their effect on the campaign. The enjoyment of your players should be the priority, not what is written word for word.
Use “How do you…?”, and “What do you…?” Questions
When a player kills an ogre in combat, instead of saying “You kill the ogre”, you can ask the player: “How do you kill the ogre?”. Give them the freedom to describe their action. Along those lines, when a player speaks to a non-player-character, instead of saying “You tell the Dwarf…”, you can ask your player, “What do you say to the Dwarf?”. Your players will feel more involved if they can use their imagination to bring their character to life.
Your skills in all of these areas will improve over time–so don’t worry. It is advisable to keep a copy of the “Player’s Handbook” with you at the table for reference, even for experienced Dungeon Masters. You can always ask a more experienced player at the table for help if you get lost. Keep in mind that as much as the players are supposed to enjoy the campaign, the Dungeon Master is supposed to enjoy the campaign too. So go forth, study, and enjoy your adventures. Excelsior!
About the author
Kyle Uy is a passionate Dungeons and Dragons player from California. He writes, takes pictures, plays video games, and plays the guitar.
Start up a conversation in the comments below.