D&D Tips – Best Dungeon Master Skills | beerwithdragons


The question:

What would you consider to be your best skill as a DM?

On my Twitter feed @beerwithdragons, I post RPG (Role Playing Games) tabletop questions daily. I love to see what other Dungeon Masters from all over the world have to say. Their advice is very valuable and it is often the product of learning the hard way.

I would like to purpose that there are three pillars that make up the foundation for any DM skill set.

1. Storytelling

2. Improvisation

3. Facilitating the Gift of Player Agency

The first skill is is based in the art of Storytelling. Make sure that you are telling a story your players want to hear. Before starting a campaign, take a poll or make a Survey Monkey. Ask your players how much they value the three pillars of Role Playing Games: Exploration, Roleplaying, and Combat.

Each one of these pillars will tell you what kind of story they want to create with you.

The second skill is learning Improvisation. I started with the 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. The starter set is a straightforward linear campaign. The adventure is laid out in such a way that it teaches you incrementally how to be a Dungeon Master and tell a proper story. It also teaches the players how to play the game.

I started experimenting with storytelling about a third world way in to the starter set campaign. I created subplots, secrets, mined back story’s and made whole other dungeons and map areas not included in the adventure. Some of those subplots are still an undercurrent in my current campaign.

With each step away from the material I made, I had to improvise on the fly. I didn’t have page X to refer to to keep me on track. I was out on a limb and had to rely on my at the time, green DM skills. I learned the subtle art of fake confidence.

If I rolled a random dice and wrung my hands together, it gave me a few moments to come up with the next story arc or line from one of my NPC’s (non-playing characters). With enough practice, you can smooth out any pauses and make it seem like you planned it all along.

The third is Facilitating the Gift of Player Agency.

I discovered that improvisation was a powerful tool for Player Agency. A simple definition of Player Agency is letting go of your predetermined narrative and letting the players create their own stories and adventure in the world your all are creating. Don’t be afraid to go off book!

This gift frees you up from the fear of railroading your players into your storyline. You of course can have an outline and story you want to tell, however, don’t force your story on your players. You know as the DM where you want your players to end up. Have the players help you get there by having them go off book.

I see two variations of this. I think right in-between is best.

The first version is going too far and letting your players go on past the edges of the figurative world. This can, but not always needlessly prolong a narrative arc that has no hope of returning your players back to any semblance of story. It could bring about a new explosive story arc if you work with your players. You must then carefully bring them back with a trail of breadcrumbs they want to follow.

This is different from side quests.

Temper this with knowledge of your players. If your player’s are just pushing you into areas to do so at their own whim then maybe its time to have a conversation about what kind of story they want. They may be board. Reformulate the story your cooperatatively telling and try again.

The second version is push your players into the direction you want to go without considering any of their actions. This makes the choices that your players characters choose irrelevant with little or no change to the outcome. This can turn off your players to the session, the game or even worse hurt feelings and ruin friendships.

I combat this tendency to fall into either version by making only the very next story choices after each session. All my factions, villains, NPC’s make choices in and in between sessions based off the last player choices.

For example:

Bad guy #1 makes a choice to ambush the party at X area. The players go another direction. Bad guy #1 has failed and but this may be a way to create an interesting story. Perhaps Bad guy #1’s henchman ambushed and kidnapped the princes fiance that rode through the ambush area and bring Bad guy #1 the princess instead of the party.

What does Bad guy #1 do now and what do the players do when they hear about this from another NPC/plot device? Is there a Bad guy #2 that had plans for the princess? Was he foiled or his plan affected? Who knows?

This demonstrates that the protagonist’s have made their choices and acted on them but also the antagonist’s have as well. The central tension, drama or conflict has now taken a completely new turn and player and NPC agency has been salvaged.

We’ll talk more next time.

Until then, may the wind be at your back and the dice ever roll in your favor.


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