How to not be *That* DM

If you, like me, enjoy consuming D&D-based media content because it is enjoyable and helps you improve your own game, you’ve probably watched Critical Role at some point. And if you’re really into Critical Role, that probably means you’ve seen a panel or two from the cast at a con. One of the most common questions that Critical Role’s esteemed Dungeon Master Matt Mercer seems to get is “Why/how did you start DMing?” This is a fascinating question to ask DMs, for there are as many unique answers as there are DMs, but I always find Mercer’s answer to be particularly fascinating. When asked, he mentions that he started out as a player, but his group had an awful DM. This inspired him to start DMing himself, and the years of investment and hard work has turned him into the master of the craft that we know today.

Even though this story is fascinating and explains a lot about Mercer and probably many DMs today, every time I hear this story there is one worry that crosses my mind: What if I’m that original DM? What if I am so bad of a Dungeon Master that people tell stories of how bad I am thirty years from now? I think that most DMs have that fear; we constantly worry if our players are having fun, if a good story is being told, if we’re remaining impartial, and all of the other million things that DMs have to or tend to worry about. So how do we, as DMs, keep ourselves from becoming that DM? After thinking about this heavily over this subject the last week, I have come up with some ways that I think new DMs can keep themselves from falling into the Bad DM Trap, both as a storyteller and as a friend to your players.

  • Listen to your players

This may seem like a fairly obvious tip, but often on Twitter or in Facebook groups I hear players complaining about their DM not listening to them or ignoring their wishes (this goes both ways; I see a lot of DMs upset that their players won’t listen to ground rules set or trust them, so make sure that there is respect on both sides). Sometimes the things that players want their DMs to do are a bit outlandish, but more often than not these things are simple requests that should at least be talked through with the player. D&D is a not just a game, it’s a form of collaborative storytelling, and if the players don’t get a certain amount of input, they’re going to feel cheated and that they might as well be playing Candyland. This doesn’t just go for story ideas however; if your players are having an issue at the table, pay attention to what they’re saying. Maybe there is some turmoil between two of the players, or perhaps something that happened in the story went too far and the players are no longer comfortable with the direction that the story is taking. D&D is a great way to challenge players, particularly their creativity and expectations, but it is important not to push them past a breaking point. This is a great way to lose players and even friends forever. Listening to your players as a friend and a Dungeon Master is the most important thing you can do.

  • Use the backstories of your PCs

Often when you have a group of players, each of them will come up with a unique backstory for their characters. Not everyone gets invested in the backstories, but most people will come up with at least a little something. When creating a story for the game, it is important to pay attention to the stories that the players have given you. It can be tempting to focus on the epic story you might have in mind, and often the players will still go along with what you have, but applying elements from the backgrounds of your player’s characters will get the players invested and make the story feel more real. Bringing back an old mentor, a dead lover, or a fierce rival from a character’s past can widen the scope of the adventure and provide some emotional investment that a player might not otherwise have. The more you can get your players invested and pay attention to the characters they have created, the better of a DM you will become.

  • Constantly be working on your world

This point is particularly relevant for homebrew campaigns, but whether you are creating everything from scratch or using a pre-made module, it is vital to constantly be working on the adventure and shaping the world that the players exist in. This will not only help you as a storyteller, but it will also give the players a lot to work with and help make the world feel real. Often the players will have questions about the circumstances they have found themselves in or the background of the town or kingdom they are currently occupying. If you can produce an answer quickly, either off the top of your head or through a quick notes search, it will appear that you have put so much thought into the game. In reality, you don’t have to know everything ahead of time; you can make something up on the spot as long as you write it down, because if it comes up again and you don’t remember what you said, the players might catch on. However, when I say constantly I certainly don’t mean 24/7. (Believe me, I work three part-time jobs, go to school full time, and suck at time management, so I know how precious of a resource that is). However, it is good to spend time throughout each week working on aspects of the world, even if you aren’t prepping for a session. Maybe it’s ten minutes each day, or a full hour once a week; however you can fit in, try to make a habit out of occasionally world-building to make your world even more awesome. The players will appreciate how much work you put into the game for them, and your creative skills will keep growing.

  • Practice your poker face

A lot of DMs worry about struggling with NPCs because they aren’t particularly good with accents or body language. All of these do help provide a fun and authentic experience for the players, but they’re not absolutely crucial to the gameplay. One item that a DM should have in their toolbox however is a good poker face. I personally struggle with this; even as someone who did theatre for seven years, I always sucked at staying in character when something went awry. When my players do something like predict the plot twist or joke about something that might actually happen way down the line, I have a hard time hiding the big goofy smile that has wound up on my face. During my time as a DM, I have become slowly better at holding a poker face when it comes to important things (there’s a difference between smiling while in character because a PC made a joke and grinning because the players guessed something really important that will pop up by the end of the session). However, I still have a lot of problems with this, and it’s something that I hope to keep working on. A good poker face can be a powerful asset to a DM, both when acting as an NPC and while simply observing the players interacting and planning, so working to perfect it can take your game to the next level.

In the end, there’s no formula for how to be the perfect DM. Everyone makes mistakes, even Matt Mercer, Matt Colville, Chris Perkins, and undoubtedly Gary Gygax himself. That’s one of the best things about D&D; it’s a game with a lot of rules but a fluid nature, and we as DMs are in charge of figuring out how to work within the rules, or even throw them out. The only true guideline to being a good DM is to ensure that your players are having fun. Whether that fun is nitty-gritty realism and depression or bust-a-gut laughter, you as a DM are responsible for it, and to make sure it happens we must pay attention to our players and give them what they ask. As long as we DMs allow our players to have fun and facilitate a thrilling and creative story for them, we are not that DM, and we can be proud of the work we have put into the game.


Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM.

The Five Room Dungeon

In the 21st century, Dungeons and Dragons has made an enormous shift from-well, dungeons and dragons. With the introduction of Fifth Edition and the rise of shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, the focus of D&D has started to shift away from the pillage-and-loot style of play and more towards a narrative-based gameplay. Stories that could not ever be told before are now being brought to life through RPGs. That’s not to say however that the age of the murder hobo is entirely past, nor are the dungeons and dragons of D&D extinct. It is rather how DMs incorporate these elements in their stories that makes them great.

One of my personal favorite ways to incorporate dungeons into my campaign is by using the Five Room Dungeon format. This format allows a DM to drop a dungeon into their campaign with relatively little effort, and gives the players a chance to experience the adventurous nature of a dungeon without anyone having to commit to seven sessions worth of a deadly, resource-taxing dungeon. If your players tend to get frustrated if certain plot points take too long or if things regularly slog, the Five Room Dungeon is great for a quick pinch of adventure to pep things up. The format is flexible, allowing for DMs to rearrange as needed and perhaps drop in special plot points related to other quests the PCs might have going on. Similarly, because of its effective but relatively short nature, this type of dungeon works extremely well for creating one-shots.

I first heard about the Five Room Dungeon back in August when I was trying to create the three separate options for Session 3. I knew that I wanted one of the options to lead to an ice dungeon, but I had never created a dungeon crawl and was absolutely clueless on how to start. Frantically, I Googled around, trying to find some semblance of advice to help my creative process. Luckily, I stumbled across this fantastic post by Johnn Four rather quickly into my search. Using the format, I was able to whip up an outline for the ice dungeon, and although there was a lot more work to be done to make the dungeon functional, knowing what I needed to do made the whole process so much easier.

Since discovering the Five Room Dungeon, I have used it twice in my campaign. Both of the dungeons were unique creations and had very different atmospheres to them. The format is designed to be flexible and balanced, meaning that you can run a similar format multiple times many different ways without them feeling like a repetitious slog. The Five Room Dungeon format has, naturally, five distinct sections: Entrance/Guardian, Puzzle/Roleplaying Challenge, Red Herring/Trick or Setback, Climax/Battle, and the Reward/Revelation/Plot Twist. While there is a relatively basic order that the rooms should appear in, you can often switch pieces around among the first three rooms to provide unique moments for your players.

  • Entrance and Guardian

The first room in the FRD format is relatively simple and self-explanatory. Every good dungeon needs a worthy entrance to scare off potential adventurers. A good guardian will do wonders to strike fear in the hearts of your players if utilized correctly. For the ice dungeon, I ended up using a very young white dragon as the guardian, which at the time was a fantastic way to terrify my players in the moment, but (as you might know if you have read my Session 3 post) in the long run has made my players a bit fearless. Having to face a dragon, or any fearsome creature, before you even get into the dungeon is certainly a wake-up call for players. However, the FRD doesn’t necessarily require a guardian in the form of a creature. In our 7th session, the first thing my players encountered was a riddle embedded in the metal door in the ground. Scattered around the hatch were tiles, each one holding a letter that could be put into the notches to answer the riddle. Once the tiles were correctly placed, the hatch would click open and grant the PCs access to the dungeon. The puzzle was as effective as the dragon in forcing the players to strategize and work together, but it set a much different tone for the rest of the dungeon. Putting yourself into the mindset of the creator of the dungeon can be very helpful on determining 1) what theme the dungeon should carry throughout it, 2) why the creator would want to keep people out/what the creator wants to keep secret so bad that they would build this entire dungeon, and 3) what steps the creator would take to keep people out of this place. Having a worthy guardian or puzzle at the entrance of your dungeon is key to making sure your players are having fun and being challenged.

  • Puzzle or Role-Playing Challenge

The second portion of your dungeon when using the FRD format should generally be some sort of puzzle or role-playing challenge. This section will depend somewhat on what you chose to do for the first room. If you used a guardian or some sort of monster that the PCs were forced to confront before making it further in, then it would be wise to stick to a puzzle challenge so as to ensure that the PCs get a break from combat and do not drain too many of their resources. That’s not to say however that the puzzle room should not come without risks; perhaps if the PCs get the answer to the puzzle wrong multiple times, a minor trap is set off, causing the characters to take small amounts of damage. However, it is wise to be cautious with this. In the ice dungeon, the second room consisted of a music puzzle that forced the PCs to step on certain tiles in the room in a certain order to reveal the door; if the tiles were pressed in the wrong order, they would get pelleted by darts and the puzzle would be reset. The puzzle ended up being more difficult than intended, resulting in the players being repeatedly pelted with the minor trap. In the future I would say after the first few times of this happening the players would be anticipating the darts and simply mention that they managed to avoid it in order to make the puzzle feel less like a slog. However, if you used a puzzle for the first room, you can flip the rooms somewhat and make the second room a combat or damage-heavy encounter. The second time I used the FRD format, I used one of the complex trap examples from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. This trap involved a mix of a path of blades, pillars of crushing, and a sphere of annihilation. Although I ended up running the trap much differently than had been intended, it still ended up knocking a lot of hit points out of all of the characters. If I had done this on top of a heavy encounter it could have been extremely deadly to the PCs, but by having one of the rooms be a puzzle and the other a combat/trap encounter, both dungeons were dangerous without being overtly lethal.

  • Red herring, trick, or setback

This room is the one that can have the most variety to it. Often this room is used to provide a sense of false security, or conversely to build the tension for what is to come. Sometimes there is an illusion that might make it seem as if the dungeon is a dead end, or that there is only a small amount of treasure and that’s it, no more hiding behind this spell at all, no sir. Other times it can be a puzzle that forces the players to pause and think things through, or even another combat or roleplay encounter. Two good guidelines for this room to consider are 1) consider what types of encounters your parties the most and put another dose of that here, and 2) if your players took some pretty hard hits in the first two rooms and you still have a tough combat encounter planned ahead, make this area a potential safe spot for a short rest. When I first used this format, the third room was actually that of a long hallway, wherein the players met a group of thieves which would later betray them. The second time I used this format I put in place a puzzle. In front of the players were six doors, and the inscription on the ground stated “Go through the seventh door”. The trick was to go through two doors consecutively that equaled seven in order to move on; otherwise they would reappear through the first door into the room. Both of these rooms allowed the players to keep their minds going and stay in character without causing any further damage to their hit points.

  • Climax, big battle, or conflict

This room is one that I also take quite a bit of liberty with at times. In theory, this is the last big stretch of the dungeon; the room where the players meet the final guardian or are betrayed by the ally that they brought into the dungeon with them or met inside the dungeon. When employing this method, it is often useful to start off with some sort of roleplay so that the PCs know what the “baddies” intentions are. During the second time using the format, the fourth room was a strange hallway in which lived a clay golem that was assigned to guard the last room. It was essentially the boss of the dungeon, and because he could not talk, it was important that he be a major conflict for the party. However, when I ran the ice dungeon, I wanted the players to have more time with the thieves, to get to know them a bit before the thieves turned on them. I ended up making the fourth room another puzzle, so as to help flesh out the characters I had introduced and allow the players some time to feel comfortable with them. Although it is often recommended to be the room with the big conflict, the FRD format is perfect for adjusting little things like this to best suit a DM’s needs.

  • Reward, revelation, or plot twist

Finally, the party has arrived at the final room. Here is where everything goes down, or at least comes to fruition. If the party is after loot, they should find it here. Similarly, if you as a DM and worldbuilder have been leading up to important information, this would be an excellent place to put it. Alternatively, you can pull a plot twist in the form of the information/loot being gone entirely, taken by another person or moved years ago by the dungeon’s creator. In the ice dungeon, this is the moment where the thieves turned on the PCs, insisting that all they wanted was the map inside the room and that they would let the others leave without harming anyone. For the second run through, the fifth room held the long-abandoned study of an old researcher and inventor. They had been sent to retrieve a set of plans, and soon enough they found them-except the plans appeared to be for that of a gun. In a world where guns do not exist yet, it was hard for the characters to understand, but they all had a horrible feeling about what was to occur. Sometimes, the revelation or the reward that comes at the end of the long journey can be bittersweet, or even unsatisfactory, but it needs to feel earned. If there isn’t any good loot, there should be a reason why, perhaps another quest or a hook into the campaign’s overall narrative. As a DM, the fifth room is your opportunity not to end your dungeon, but rather to further the entire game for your players.

The Five Room Dungeon format is one of the most useful tools I have encountered so far as a DM. Its useful and versatile nature allow me to use the same basic idea multiple times, and it takes some of the workload off knowing at least a basic structure of what to do. It’s important to remember however that these are just guidelines; if you don’t like the format, there are plenty of other ways to build not only dungeons but campaigns. There is no right or wrong way to play D&D and create your world, as long as you are having fun.

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Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM

Burnout

Sometimes while playing this fantastic game of Dungeons and Dragons people get burnt out. Players, DMs, even consumers of D&D based media, at some point tend to run into this obstacle. I know, blasphemous, right? How could anyone get tired of such a fantastic game. But the reality is is that it happens, whether we like it or not. So how do we, as DMs, combat when we get burnt out from running the game, or when our players get burnt out from playing?

Originally on this blog I had intended to recap the sessions I had DMed up to the present day and impart the lessons I learned from those games onto you before moving on to more strictly generic advice posts. However, I have recently begun to experience burnout, and I felt that it was pertinent and appropriate to bring this up on my blog. Today I want to tackle things like why burnout happens and different ways to overcome it.

My players and I all have busy lives with work and (in most of our cases) school. This plus the distance between some of us makes it difficult for us to play, so we try to schedule a monthly all-day session. While it works well for us, most of my players would love to play more. However, I know from experience that it takes me nearly a month to prepare everything I need for the next session (which would probably not happen if we were to play four hours instead of eight, but I digress). Often after each session, I give myself some time to stew over what the players did in the last session and brainstorm what I can do for the next session. Since I have had problems with railroading them in the past, I want to be careful and make sure that there are plenty of ways that players can choose to go or multiple options for them to solve a puzzle. If you’ve been a DM, you know how much work this is. If you’re not a DM, keep this in mind for if you ever do want to try your hand at it.

I tend to work on my session plans on Thursdays. One of my jobs is a tutor at the local community college, and this semester I work 1-8 on Thursdays. (Yes, I know boring personal stuff. Feel free to skip to the actual advice but I promise this won’t take long.) If there are no students to tutor, the tutors and teachers are free to do as they please, be it doing homework, reading a book, or working on D&D stuff. This semester has been fairly slow for students, meaning that I essentially have seven hours to work on my campaign. Last Thursday (11/16) was the first Thursday after our latest session, and normally I would take things slow when planning for the next session, but I had thrown something pretty important at my players that I hadn’t really fleshed out at all and I knew that I needed to get to work on these elements ASAP.

However, as I was trying to work on my campaign it felt like I was crawling through mud. Every time I would try to type something into my document, I wanted to cry. Thinking about what I needed to do made my chest feel heavy. I simply could not bring myself to work on a game that had, for the past year and a half, brought me such joy. I’ve never been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, and I don’t think I have either one, but that day I think I had a taste of what both must feel like.

That day I wound up closing my laptop, putting away my books, and contemplating why I felt that way and what I could do about it. After a bit I realized that I had tried to plan so soon after the latest session, and that I must have gotten burnt out for the game. I resolved to spend the weekend not thinking about D&D at all, giving myself a break and allowing me to reinvigorate my love for the game. What I did spend time thinking about however was different ways that DMs can prevent or recover from burnout either themselves or with their group. I think that this list will be particularly helpful for games that meet more than once a month.

  • Try a different system

Sure, D&D is an awesome game with lots of versatility and wonder, but there are a lot of options, a lot of rules, and a looooot of dice. Trying a new system for a one-shot can be something that allows you, as the DM, to engage in a story that you otherwise might not have been able to tell using the rules of Dungeons and Dragons. Three systems that are simple to learn and use but lend themselves to a different kind of story are Dread, Honey Heist, and Roll for Shoes. All of these are tabletop RPGs with relatively simple premises and executions.

Dread stories usually take the form of a horror story, perhaps an abandoned spaceship infested with aliens or a monster stalking a group of kids through the woods. Instead of dice and character sheets, however, the system uses simple character questionnaires and a Jenga tower. When a player wants to do something that their character would not or could not normally do, they make a pull from the tower. If they manage to pull without knocking over the tower, they succeed. However, if the tower falls during a pull, the character is removed from the game, usually due to death or insanity. Players can choose to stop pulling if they feel that the tower will give out, at the consequence of something bad happening. Alternatively, a player can choose to knock over the tower on purpose to sacrifice themselves. The tower provides a unique suspense that lends itself to horror stories, and allows for a very simple roleplaying experience.

Honey Heist is nearly the opposite of Dread. In this game, the players are bears attending HoneyCon and they are attempting to steal the honey. The players have two stats, Bear and Criminal, that they are trying to keep balanced. To achieve something, the players must roll a d6 (or two depending on if they are particularly good at that skill) for either Bear or Criminal, and try to get below the number of their stat. There are six different bear types to choose from, six different roles to fill (from driver to hacker and even the brains of the operation) and seven-that’s right, seven-different hats that can be worn. The rules are simple, one page for the players and one page for the GM. If you’re looking for a silly, unique, and fun roleplaying experience, Honey Heist is one that your players will love and will require little preparation.

Roll for Shoes is another simple role-playing game that can be used for almost any scenario, from sci-fi to fantasy or anything you can imagine. Once again using d6s, players roll the corresponding skill with the appropriate amount of dice and try to get a higher roll than their opposition. For instance, all players start with the skill Do Anything-1. This means that the first time they try to do literally anything, they will roll one d6 and try to get a higher number than either the GM or another player (depending on the situation). If they succeed any roll with all sixes, they get to add a new skill related to whatever they were doing at one number higher. If they fail, they gain one experience point, which can later be used to turn a dice into a six for the purpose of leveling up a skill but not to win the roll. This system is a tad more complicated than Honey Heist or Dread, but it is still simple and enjoyable.

All of these systems are simple and unique, and allow for a very different form of storytelling than D&D normally would. However, because of the simplicity of the rules, these games rely more on the storytelling aspect. If you are like me and not very talented at stroytelling, this might not be the solution for you. I often get ideas for what to do with my players next by looking in guide books and examining creatures, traps, magical items, and other things that you won’t find in these systems. So if you have trouble coming up with a story for you group, it might be best to either use a pre-written adventure or stick to D&D.

  • Run a one shot

If you like the idea of changing things up but don’t want to change systems, another option is running a one shot using the same system you have been using. This can give your players a break from characters that they might find difficult to play or tiresome to keep track of. You can also explore new parts of your world this way too. If your main campaign is currently based in the northern human kingdom, try basing your one shot in the middle of the continent in the dwarven kingdom, or in the south where your elves live. Or if you have more than one continent, change things up even more. While this can be a fair bit of work, this will allow you to expand your world and figure out things you had no clue you needed to know. Your players will also be amazed at how big the world is, and it will help your world feel like a living entity with more than one set of adventurers.

  • Let someone else take over the DM’s seat for a while

If you have been the DM for so long you’ve forgotten what it feels like to play, it can be a weird feeling to just hand over the reins to another person. A lot of DMs like to feel in control of the game table, and that can be fine as long as it doesn’t go too far. But allowing one of your players to have a shot at being Dungeon Master for a bit can be a freeing experience. Your players are all unique people who have different stories to tell, and allowing those stories to shine can be one of the best things you as a DM will do. Even if it’s just for one session, taking a step back from the head of the table can do so much. Most of the time playing is a much less stressful experience than DMing, particularly if you play as something like a barbarian that doesn’t have twenty million spells and abilities to keep track of. Allowing yourself to experience D&D through the eyes of a player can be invigorating, fun, and a good way to destress.

  • Simply take a break

I know it sucks to not be able to play, but sometimes you have to do it. Life gets in the way, as much as we all wish it didn’t, and in the end D&D is a game. It’s supposed to be fun, and if it becomes more of an obligation or a chore, then maybe it’s time to take a break. This can be particularly helpful for groups that meet more often, such as those that gather once a week or once every other week. For monthly groups, or groups that only get to meet when everyone comes home from school or to visit for the holidays, taking a break is often less effective because they get to play so little anyways. This type of situation would lend itself more towards switching systems or letting someone else DM for a turn. Whether you end up taking a break or not, it is a good option to consider, especially if more than one person at the table is experiencing burnout.

In the end, players are often a sort of family. If anyone, especially the DM, is experiencing any kind of burnout, the most important thing is to be open and honest with their players. Sometimes you have to try new things. Other times, such as for me, you just have to spend a weekend refusing to even think about the game and things will return to normal. You as the DM are responsible for communication with your players and listening to them, just as it is your players’ responsibility to tell you if they are having a problem. An open, friendly, and communicative role-playing table is a happy role-playing table, and the sooner players talk about their issues, the sooner everyone can get back to killing dragons and cursing the DM.