• Justin Handlin

Dungeon Master Advice | Grasping at Straws

Table with sword and spellbook and blank parchment

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Dungeon Master Advice: How to be a better Dungeon Master

Being a Dungeon Master in Dungeons & Dragons is a lot of work. There is no denying that. This means we can easily be overwhelmed with creating worlds, characters, adventures, and interesting encounters. All in the name of having a good time. The truth is, that no matter how much time you spend trying to set up plots, hooks, and other points of interest, we never truly know what the characters will do. Now, some DMs can just wing it and fly by the seat of their pants. For the rest of us less blessed individuals, we need a sort of strategy. But even then, sometimes our strategy gets ripped apart and we are left grasping at straws. By the end of reading this article, you should be able to fill your big dome with some quick concepts to fill in those unexpected moves the player’s characters take.

Shopkeeper in a main village plaza

Let’s set the scene, shall we? The characters have just defeated the big bad werewolf deep in his castle. As the DM, you had brainstormed three potential options the characters would take. The most likely being delving deeper into the castle and the catacombs beneath it to unlock more secrets and treasure. But, to your chagrin, this isn’t what happened. HELL! They didn’t even do the other two things. Instead, they decided to chase the villain’s flunky who fled out a secret passage instead. That’s when the dread sets in. You’ve got literally nothing prepared.

The flunky wasn’t really supposed to be anyone of particular importance. In fact, you expected him to be slain long ago. By a sheer chance of the dice, he managed to stay alive and finally escape. You didn’t even have a plan to where he might be fleeing to. As DM, you really have a couple of choices here. First, you could just tell the players that the flunky is nobody of consequence. You could easily allow the characters to chase him down and catch him as he ducks into the back of a merchant’s wagon and let them deal with him then. Once they find him, they learn he is just a lackey and hope they get back to the finely woven story you’ve written.

Related Article: 5 Tips to Help you become a Better Dungeon Master

But, just maybe, the flunky is someone of importance. Just because he wasn’t already fleshed out, doesn’t mean we can feed into the player character’s interests. This is certainly going to make your players feel like they have control of the story and aren’t just being put on rails following a prewritten story. Spotlighting what players want to do is one of the most important jobs of the Dungeon Master. I would argue more than adjudicating the rules and building the world. Think about it, you can build the most wondrous world with complex political intrigue and massive wars. But if your players only want to delve dungeons, well both you as the DM and the players will probably find themselves a bit disappointed.

Now, because you didn’t have anything planned, or even ever gave this character much thought beyond adventurer fodder. You are left grasping at straws. Now, What I mean is how do we quickly and efficiently come up with important details of the character? It’s always important to remember that anything can be used as a source of inspiration, and I mean ANYthing. My first go-to is listening to the players. During their chase, they will come up with their own theories and plot hooks for you. How else are they going to communicate why it's better to chase down a nameless minion instead of delving deep for treasure. Next, flip through any books I have on hand and look solely at the illustrations. Perhaps you land on the picture of a monstrous Aboleth, particularly noting its mind control abilities. It wouldn’t be a hard leap in logic for the flunky to be a spy for the Aboleth or a creature under its control and is now looking to report back to its master. What if you stumble on a picture of a low-level adventurer. Maybe the flunky was actually part of another adventuring party, and they were working undercover to learn the werewolves' plans, and more importantly its weakness? What if you stumble across artwork of a thief? Maybe the flunky was actually just a thief with an excellent disguise kit, an adjust used the distraction by our characters to steal a rare item from the werewolf?

Lizardfolk with spear

If finding inspiration from illustrations doesn’t inspire you, you could always just take a quick look around the room. Let’s be honest, as nerds, we have posters, board games, video games, magazines, and much more just laying around. Say for a moment you have a picture of your vacation when you went sailing. The flunky could in fact be in contact with the werewolf leader to ship illegal goods to other cities. Maybe you take a look at the TV in the background with the news of a bank robbery. Now you can tie the flunky into a criminal thieves guild. While there is no way to know what you will find inspiration by, I can promise you. If you’re a D&D player, you will come up with something. Whatever it is, you can then consider ways to connect it back to your main plot in some fashion. After doing this once or twice, you will become an old pro.

Related Article: Treasure Trails | Alternative to Maps in D&D

In the end, as the Dungeon Master, you never want to be caught at the table completely unarmed. You want as many tools in your DM kit as possible to help inspire you with creative content. Just like prep work before a game, it takes practice to learn to create connecting ideas and thoughts quickly without panicking. Don’t let the players see your concern, call a short break, get your thoughts together, and don’t be afraid to grasp at straws.

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