• Justin Handlin

D&D: 5 Tips to help you become the BEST Dungeon Master in Dungeons and Dragon | Volume 1

Heros fighting orcs in a dungeon
Art: Dean Spencer

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Let's not deny it. Being a Dungeon Master is tough work. You are in charge of developing a story, roleplaying NPCs, running monsters in combat, and adjudicating the rules. The amount of work can sometimes be very challenging. Over years of play, you begin to pick up little tricks and techniques that help you improve your skills at running the games and entertaining your friends. What if you could just pick up an ancient tome with a plethora of that knowledge compressed and stored in short, concise segments that are easy to memorize and reference? Well, now you can. Our Unearthed Tips and Tricks magazines contain a mountain of resources. Similar to a bag of holding packed to the brim with verbal loot to help you deliver the best gaming experience you can

How do I become a better Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons?

I’m sure I’m not the only person to ask myself this question. The simple answer is often, experience. Much like our fabled characters, experience helps us build up the tools for excellent storytelling. Whether these tools take on the form of tips, tricks or actual resources we can use is really based on what you’ve had access to during your journey to becoming the best Dungeon Master ever!

As the DM, it is up to us to make sure we are delivering. Using trial and error or watching someone else, there are a multitude of ways to build this experience. In the first part of this ongoing series, we will offer you some guidance and insight for you to use to gain that experience. Think of it as an experience bonus. Some of these tools you may already use, some you may not. But I can promise, throughout this series, you are certainly going to find something that will help you become the best Dungeon Master you can be!

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First things first…S#!t Happens!

The battle has been tense. The party has taken some serious damage, and the spellcasters are all out of spell slots. The Big Bad Evil Guy is wounded, but he’s still standing. The party fighter raises their weapon to make one final attack that will end the fight, and… misses. It’s okay, better luck next time. Then the Big Bad goes to attack… Uh-oh, Natural 20. The damage is at its maximum. Everyone at the table is whipping out their calculators, scrambling to figure out if there are any Temporary Hit Points they forgot to incorporate, but it’s no use. You just killed one of the player characters. Everyone loved that character, and the player had lots of plans for that character’s future.

While you can probably spend all day beating yourself up over it, don’t. Misfortune is part of the game. If it wasn’t a possibility the game wouldn’t be as fun. If a player character dies as a result of an unlucky dice roll, then that’s just how it is. It isn’t your fault, it isn’t anybody else’s fault, it’s just how it is. Conversely, if the players completely destroy a villain you’d spent a long time working into a future campaign, don’t worry about it. You can come up with something better. If the PC died, that player can make a new character, or the party can pool their money and get that character raised. As long as the players had a chance to run, then the encounter wasn’t unfair. When the dice fall a certain way, there’s nobody that needs to feel bad about it.

Don’t go out of your way to kill a player character, but don’t go out of your way to avoid it, either. Let the dice fall where they may, and whatever happens, you and the rest of the players will find a way to make the best of it. The fighter might come back with a new lease on life, or maybe the player will choose to start taking levels in Cleric because they saw the divine and now can’t go back to hitting things with a sharp stick. Who knows, maybe that fighter’s death will turn out to be the best thing that happened to them.

Free Speech Phase

Think of your favorite intense battles in popular fiction. The hero and villain lock swords, and they taunt or plead with each other between sword blows. The villain begins monologuing as the battle moves from one phase to another.

The current Dungeons & Dragons ruleset doesn’t exactly allow for this type of situation to happen smoothly in combat. So you might try implementing a special phase in battle. For me, I add it at the end or start of every initiative round. Both the players (and NPCs) can speak freely amongst themselves before starting the next round. The players can use this to discuss tactics, the villain can use this to challenge the players or ridicule them and their beliefs, or you can have NPCs providing commentary on the events so far. This is one of my favorite parts of any game. While some people get hung up on the “it’s only six seconds” I want my combat to be especially memorable. It gives me an opportunity to humanize the villains, while at the same time talking a lot of smack at my players.

Whatever you use it for, it’s a quick and easy way to make your battles more cinematic and memorable. It’s also important to note that both sides can hear this conversation, so be careful what you say. This may not be for everyone. But I highly recommend giving it a try at least once.

Related Article: D&D 10 Tips to Help You Become a Better Player

Evolving Weapons

Finding magic items in D&D is a lot of fun; not many people will argue that. However, not all DMs like giving them out often some want them to be rare and significant whenever they appear. Rather than giving out a +1 sword, and then later giving out a +2 sword so the player can chuck out that old +1, what if you gave out items that grow and develop as the players perform epic feats of courage?

Imagine a hero who is gifted a sword forged by a fabled blacksmith who has passed away. Later, when he uses that sword to slay a red dragon terrorizing a town, something different happens. Maybe, with the final blow, the hero pierces the dragon’s heart, bathing the sword in its blood. After the great beast is slain, the hero lifts the sword and finds that the blade shines with an unearthly power. Its blade has become supernaturally sharp. By killing this red dragon, the sword has become +1! Then, later on, the player uses the sword to kill a powerful ice giant that was trying to freeze the continent through an arcane ritual. Upon striking down the frozen giant, the hero finds the sword’s blade has become supernaturally cold, and now it functions as a +1 Frost Brand!

As a DM, you can let players’ weapons, armor, staves, and all kinds of magic items evolve as they level up. The item might be an ordinary weapon that becomes magical as it is used to perform feats of greatness. It might be an item that already has a storied past but has been long forgotten, and as the players uncover its past it becomes a legendary artifact when it was originally used as a doorstop in the shopkeeper’s storage room. It lets DMs put a lot more work into fewer items to keep the total number of magic items low, but it also keeps players interested by making each item a deep and intricate character all on its own.

Who’s that Monster?

Imagine this: the players are on an expedition to chart an unexplored region of the jungle. On the way, they pass a cave, and they decide to check inside for a possible shelter against the rain. The DM tells the players to roll for initiative, and when the first round begins, the players hear, “You hear a noise from the shadows, and the Medusa hiding behind a corner pulls out a bow and fires at you!” One player might immediately perk up and say, “Oh, a Medusa? They can petrify you with their gaze, so I’m going to close my eyes and attack blindly.”

In this scenario, several mistakes were made. If the players have never encountered a specific monster and/or they have no reason to know what the monster is, then saying the name of the monster (as it appears in the Monster Manual) can be a mistake. It’ll clue experienced players into recalling information that they might not have in-game. Even if the player is trying not to metagame (i.e., use outside knowledge in-game) it can still make the game harder for them because it’ll force them to put themselves in danger to avoid metagaming. Either way, it’s a lose-lose for the player.

Instead, don’t refer to monsters by their names unless the characters have a way of knowing what they are. Try referring to them by their appearances. A Medusa might be “a scaly-skinned woman with snakes slithering around her face.” Trolls might be “rubber-skinned giants with nasty claws.” If a stalagmite whips out a tentacle to attack a player, calling it a Roper will probably clue in savvy players to start attacking the stalagmite. If you just say that a tentacle whips out to attack, the players might think there’s a monster hiding behind it. If a doppelganger had taken the place of an NPC, you surely wouldn’t start off the session by saying, “The doppelganger walks up and speaks to you,” would you? Of course not! You’d play on the knowledge that the characters have so that the players might not suspect anything until it’s too late.

The players can make skill checks to identify monsters, but that information shouldn’t be offered up immediately or without request. Once the players encounter the monster for the first time, feel free to let them know any information they need during the next encounter, as is appropriate.

Overpowered Monsters

Let me ask a question: how often do your players run away from combat? Probably not very often. Escape may not always be an option but chances are your players probably never run away because they’re used to monsters always being an appropriately-leveled challenge for their party. While this isn’t a problem in and of itself, it can engender an attitude within your players that will make them feel like their only option, in any case, is to just keep attacking.

If this is something you would like to change, then the first thing you can do is to stop keeping combats appropriately leveled! Throw a legendary monster at your party that is far, far too high of a level for your party to defeat. Don’t necessarily have it run in and kill the party, a TPK is rarely fun and it might make your point a bit too well. But let the players see it (and make skill checks to determine whether they know how impossible of a fight it would be) so they can decide to avoid the encounter if they wish. This will teach your players that they aren’t the biggest fish in the pond, and if you make this a semi-regular occurrence then it will constantly remind them that running from combat is always an option.

If you want to see more of this series please share with your friends on social media, Youtube, TikTok or any place you hang out. If we get enough views, we will continue this blog series and grow together.

If you have any fantastic Dungeon Master advice that you want to share with us and the community, you can submit it here.

If you enjoy this content, please consider picking up our Unearthed Tips & Tricks books. This information is right from this best-selling Dungeon Master resource.

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