Advice for Dungeon Masters


#1

So like, your friend come up to you and is like, “I want to run some [tabletop RPG]. I know you do that. What’s the one piece of advice you could give me?”

I’ll start:

"Do these 20 questions: http://jrients.blogspot.com/2011/04/twenty-quick-questions-for-your.html

(and then after the game, think about why you thought about it)."


#2

Don’t get too invested to anything you craft. Your players will change the game and story and you need to be flexible to just go with it. Obviously, there’s some give and take, but don’t get mad when you build some big, clever puzzle or challenging encounter and your players figure out how to skip it altogether.


#3

Set up the situation and ask your players what they do. When they try to do something, either go “Yes and” for it works and then this happens to keep the narrative going, or “No but” for it doesn’t work but something else happened or there are alternatives. You should be making sure the story keeps moving. The stuff on a character sheet is a player saying “These are things I want to do in the game”, so tailor your game to include those things.


#4

Yeah, this is generally good advice. Also… do the things that excite you but don’t invest a ton of time in preparing them. It’s like 70/30 that the players won’t go for any given thing you put on the table.


#5

A simple but often overlooked tip for new GMs: Don’t be afraid to talk to your dang players outside of the game, before the campaign starts and between sessions, and ask them what kinds of things they want for their characters and the game in general.

Remember that your players are your collaborators as much as they are your audience.


#6

Whether it’s from directly asking or just noticing how they behave, take note of what it is that your players want. What are things they respond to and what do they spend their effort in the game doing. This is both individually but also as a party.

I was planning a heist style session where they’d have to infiltrate a castle and set up that there’d be a ball going on. The players became very enraptured with the idea of the ball instead, wanting to sneak into that. So now I’m building a cast of nobles for them to mingle with towards their goal.


#7

Idk how applicable it is to DM’ing, but one of the first rules you learn in improv is the principle of “Yes, and…”; accepting offers from scene partners and carrying the scene on as if they were true makes the storytelling much more collaborative/interesting, and I’d imagine that carries over to a certain extent to tabletop storytelling, too.


#8

I love threads like this since I am super new to GMing and an eager learner!

Not sure if this thread is meant for this but I do have a situation I need help with:

I have recently started GMing a game with three friends (all of us are relatively new to tabletop gaming, though all of us have experience with role playing), and I find I have a hard time balancing how much attention every PC gets. One of my friends is a listener more than an active talker, so their character doesn’t get as much time to shine if it was only up to the personality of the players. I’ve been engaging them in conversation about their character and what their character thinks of the situations and other PCs, but I still feel like they’re in the shadows a little. Does anyone have any advice for finding the right balance?


#9

So, I have some issues with this as well in some of my groups, but I think the thing to remember is everyone is getting something different out of rpg’s. Some people want to engage with every aspect of the story and others just want to roll some dice and have fun with their friends. Putting the spotlight on someone unprepared might make them feel pretty uncomfortable. I generally don’t worry too much about the amount of time per character in the spotlight as long as someone isn’t hogging all the attention. If you think it’s an issue, you can always talk to the player, but don’t force the spotlight on someone who doesn’t necessarily want it.


#10

This one is tricky since player personalities will mean some people do naturally tend to dominate. I’m a lot like that as a player because I get so into it and want to be involved, so I have spent time thinking about how to counter my own tendencies.

One thing I do is look at character sheets and what everyone specializes in. If everyone is good at different things, you can try to set up different encounters so that everyone has something to do at different points.

But I’d also talk to the person who you feel is in the shadows. See if they feel like they’re being overshadowed because they might not. They might be having a good time already. You’re already talking to them in the game and including them. You might not need to do other things.


#11

All of the above is good advice. I would also add that it can sometimes take players a couple of sessions to feel comfortable with/ figure out their characters, and that might also be something to consider.


#12

Yeah. Yes to the above. The trick is sussing out whether the player wants to be quiet or is just intimidated or shy. I mostly GM and when i’m on the other side of the table, tend to be very quiet. If someone is new, encourage them to take the spotlight a bit more and if they aren’t really digging it, then suggest maybe they’re more of a laid back player and remind them there’s nothing wrong with that. Depending on the system, let them re-visit their character concept or just let them re-roll someone else or even play as an NPC you’ve already had them meet. Older D&D makes liberal use of NPC henchmen, and those can be another reliable source for alternates.

Finally, if it really is a player that talks over everyone else, that’s usually a social issue and often one that exists outside of play (though not always!). Unless it’s clearly pissing other people off, I tend to just let the loud ones do their thing but interrupt regularly to turn to other people and ask, so what do you do, think, say, etc?


#13

Not sure how other GM’s feel about this but I let my players break/bend the rules if something interesting will come of it assuming it’s not them just knowingly abusing the rules.


#14

Same. I’ll also let my players do stuff that’s outright stupid if I think it will be entertaining.
I have one player whose character routinely wanders off before/during combat. I’ll have to come up with some fun consequences at some point, but for now it’s hilarious.

I also abuse the dice a great deal in order to make things more interesting, whether it’s a boss lasting a little longer to make the encounter more threatening, or killing her outright thanks to an awesome crit, even though she’d otherwise have another 5 hp.


#15

There’s a couple things I do for players who don’t get to talk as much.

Whenever there’s cross talk of multiple people speaking at once, make sure that you deal with one (without taking too long) and then come back to the other person and don’t just expect them to pipe up with what they had been saying. I also tend to defer to the quietest person first.

Another thing is that I’ll often take the initiative in asking people “So what is [your character] doing?”, rather than leaving it entirely up to them. I find this particularly works if other people in the party have already taken actions, but the party is still generally lingering in a room. I sometimes use it too to interrupt a determined player that’s hogging the spotlight and keeps trying one thing after another. Just “Ok we can come back to that, but what is [other character] doing?”


#16

Everyone is saying great stuff! I have a bit of out-of-session advice.

What kills most parties are when you can’t do sessions for a while because someone is busy or away, then the next session just… never happens. Or when it does, everyone has forgotten what they were doing.

When I know when we will have long breaks, I switch to play-by-post. Last time, it was them all being arrested and interrogated separately. I told them not to discuss their individual “letters” with everyone, so that I could set up the classic prisoners dilemma. (Something you rarely can do in an actual session, without a pull-aside).

Now we’re in a part where they’ve killed every enemy in a temple, so they take turn asking questions to rescued prisoners or searching the temple, contributing to a common text document.

This way, people stay excited about the campaign, and the players keep in mind what their characters are doing.


#17

I think a good way to do this is find engaging character hooks about their character and tug on those–foreground their importance in the campaign to get the player invested/having a stake in how things go for their character. Ask them if their character has any family or mentors or friends in the area; if they like a particular NPC, you can set up a situation where that NPC is at risk, or where they brings the party a lead that needs to be investigated together with them.

If you can find what makes that character tick–not even “who they care about” necessarily, you can also sate a lust for knowledge by rediscovering an ancient library, etc, then put it at risk of being plundered/destroyed–you can tailor the situations the party runs into in order to draw out a reaction or investment from that more-quiet player.

In a similar vein, you can set them up as the expert in an area where they need to call the shots for a session or so. If they’re a thief, have the party infiltrate an area. If they’re a shaman, have an encounter with irate spirits that rage against some worldly trespass against a sacred space that must now be purified.


#18

There’s a pretty good book I read recently on exactly this topic - it’s something that all GMs are going to be doing a fair part of the time ( or pretty much all of it, depending on the system ) and there’s a lot to be learned from people with a good handle on improv.


#19

A really great GM tip that I heard ( possibly on the Rusty Quill Gaming podcast, which is a lot of fun ) is that if you are voicing NPCs, a useful trick is to do an impression of someone famous. Most of us are rubbish at impressions, so it won’t be recognisable at all to the players, but we usually think we’re good at them, so we can reproduce the voice on demand quite well. Then you just need to make a note whose voice the character has…


#20

i come from a heavy storygame background, so idk how generally applicable my advice is, but if you’re running something pbta or anything in that vein, basically one of the best techniques you can use is to delegate your work to your players with liberal use of questions (sure this is restating the principles, but it’s important enough to be worth repeating). so your gunlugger wants to shoot up the hideout of some rival gang and you haven’t the slightest clue what it’s like–have some other player at the table tell you what kind of building it was in the before time, then when they tell you that it was a cannery ask them if it still stinks of fish two hundred years later (leading questions often produce the most interesting results because they give people concrete details they can either elaborate on or reject and substitute with their own). when you bring players actively into the process of crafting the story it can really jumpstart engagement, create a much more dynamic world that everyone feels like they have a stake in. this is also a great way to bring in players who aren’t finding it so easy to actively participate–throw the question to one of them first. you don’t have to force them to answer, but you’d be surprised what you get if you just give them a low-pressure stage to come out of their shell. there’s really nothing quite like the moment where the whole table just brims over with creative energy as someone’s idea catches on and everyone at the table helps to give it their own twist and really bring it to life.