• Justin Handlin

D&D: 5 Tips to Help You Become a Better Dungeon Master | Volume 2

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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 is 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!

Fighting Smart and Dumb

When was the last time you had your kobolds set traps for the players? Do your enemies prioritize healers and spellcasters in combat, or do they just attack the closest foe? Have you ever had enemies gather information about the players before engaging so that they know what sort of tricks to expect?

Your NPCs and monsters don’t simply have to be a pile of hit points and melee damage. Look at the enemies’ intelligence scores ㄧ are they smart? Stupid? A smart foe is as deadly as they are prepared, so have your high-intelligence monsters set traps, coordinate attacks, train minions, and so on. They might prepare protections against the players’ most common spells and attacks, or lure them into traps using treasures that they know the players are looking for.

Don’t forget the stupid enemies either! They can have just as much depth as intelligent enemies. A low-intelligence monster might not fight until death and instead, choose to flee. Conversely, they might not realize escape is an option, so they might keep fighting until their dying breath! If a high-Challenge Rating monster has low intelligence, they may use sub-optimal tactics or they might be easy to fool or avoid. It’s up to you if you want to award less experience in such a case.

Whatever the case, you want your monsters to feel like living, breathing, dynamic characters, and using their intelligence is a great way to do it!

Roll With It

You’re running your players through a dungeon, and one of the players says he wants to search for secret doors. You know there aren’t any secret doors, but you tell them to go ahead and roll anyway so as not to reveal that there are none. However, the player rolls a natural 20. What to do?

You could put a secret door there that wasn’t supposed to be there. It doesn’t have to be hiding treasure or something good; it could easily lead to a different part of the dungeon that you weren’t sure how to fit into the adventure. Maybe it’s locked, and now you can have the players find a key in the evil wizard’s pocket which will open the door. Maybe the door hides a secret that will lead into the next adventure.

Whatever the case, when a player wants to do something you didn’t expect (particularly a skill check when one wasn’t necessary), try to roll with it. Tell them to roll, and while they’re rolling think about what you could add to the adventure that would make good use of the player’s idea. It can be good to reward players for clever thinking ㄧ even when it wasn’t necessary ㄧ because it will reinforce the idea that clever thinking can produce results. If you’re always shutting players down when they do something unexpected, it can make them think that trying new things is a bad idea.

You can even use players’ ideas as a way to add new features to an adventure! Let’s say the players are talking amongst themselves about who might be behind the series of murders in town, and one of them mentions how that creepy shopkeeper gave them a weird look. Meanwhile, you were planning on having it just be a random gang of orcs that wandered through. Go ahead and roll with it; if the players’ idea is more interesting than yours, don’t hesitate to swap out the players’ idea for what you had planned. Not only will it result in a better game in the end, but it will make the players feel satisfied that they were picking up on the clues you were totally putting out the whole time!

Related Article: Conveying Information to Players in Dungeons and Dragons

Populate Your Rooms

The players are searching through a dungeon, and the room they just entered is a 10x10 square with a door leading in and leading out. They go to the next room and find another 10x10 square with a door leading in and leading out. The next room is the same, and so on, and so on.

As you can expect, this can get boring really fast. Empty rooms are never interesting. Think about what these rooms were and what purpose they served. Was this room a kitchen? A weapon storage room? A latrine? Describe the features of the room: an empty rack on the wall, a shelf with a few crumbling books, a locked chest (that may or may not be empty), all of these details are incredibly simple to add. Not only that, but you can use these details to foreshadow upcoming events or provide a clue as to how to bypass traps or defeat the enemy. So, populate your rooms, even if the room isn’t relevant to the story.

Give Non-Treasure Rewards

Getting treasure is awesome, but treasure comes and goes. If you complete a quest for the king and receive 1,000 gold pieces, that’s cool, but what if, instead, you’re granted a title? Or maybe a plot of land? What if a parade is arranged in your honor? Non-treasure rewards can be so much more interesting and life-altering than another thousand gold. Titles can be something that exemplifies your character’s traits (such as “Champion” or “Archmage”), and plots of land can be turned into strongholds and/or businesses (which could then generate more income for your players in the long run). Parades or feasts in your honor can be great plot hooks and can lead to plenty of adventures in the future!

Err On the Side of the Players

You’re running an encounter, and the players are losing. You’re trying a new monster, and it turned out to be way more powerful than you thought it would. You don’t want the campaign to end in a TPK, especially if it’s because you misjudged the monsters’ stat block, so what to do?

The answer: err on the side of the players. If you made a mistake, do whatever is best for the players. If you made the encounter too difficult, then maybe just knock off some of the monsters’ hit points so that they’ll go down sooner. Maybe have a bigger monster show up and chase the smaller monsters off, leaving the players for dead. As long as you don’t make a habit of pulling out a deus ex machina on your players, I doubt anyone is going to mind getting saved by the DM once or twice (and that’s if they even realize it’s happening).

If there’s a reason the players should have taken damage or something and you forgot about it, then do whatever is most beneficial for them. If you forgot to have them make a save last round, then find some reason for why they didn’t have to. Don’t ever have a player take damage or make a save retroactively (unless it’s something that benefits them.). Use the mistake as an opportunity to make sure that you keep better track of things from now on

Related Article: 5 Tips to help you become the Best Dungeon Master in Dungeons and Dragons

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