Dungeons and Dragons is marketed as “the world’s greatest roleplaying game,” and at this point, it’s hard to disagree. If anyone mentions Tabletop Role-Playing Games (TTRPGs), it’s practically inevitable that D&D will enter the conversation as it’s the one that most people have heard of.
D&D 5th Edition was already a dominant force before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, its popularity has surged to even greater heights, as hordes of gamers in lockdown flocked to experience the game’s fantastical escapism with their friends.
With new players come new Dungeon Masters (DMs), to whom it falls the perhaps daunting task of crafting adventures, enforcing rules, engaging the players, and hopefully having fun along with everyone else. With that in mind, we have assembled the following list of Dungeon Masters tips and tricks to help you run the world’s greatest roleplaying game
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1. Start with an off-the-shelf adventure
The prospect of creating your own story-driven adventure from scratch will understandably seem overwhelming at first, particularly if you are only just getting into DMing. As such, it is recommended that you consider running a pre-written module to get you started – there’s no shame in making use of someone else’s work, especially when there’s so much to choose from.
There are many pre-written options available to you, ranging from the official published D&D 5e adventures to the great variety of third-party material to be found on the Dungeon Masters Guild and other sites like Reddit.
For a solid all-in-one deal, consider the official D&D Essentials Kit: In one bundle, you get a rulebook, an introductory adventure, a DM screen, character sheets, info cards, a full-sized map, and a set of dice. Just like that, you’re on your way.
2. Know the game
D&D is a game with a lot of rules, which help to give structure to the free-form role-playing the game offers. As the Dungeon Master, you are the referee, an impartial mediator who uses the rules to help the players achieve their goals. If you don’t know where to begin, the Basic Rules are free to read and download and cover the core of the game’s rules and mechanics.
There are three core rulebooks for D&D:
- The Player’s Handbook – For all players, of course, this contains the main rules you need to play the game.
- The Dungeon Master’s Guide – This is for DMs, which you will need to help you run the game.
- The Monster Manual – Also for DMs, the monster manual is your resource for filling the world with characters and creatures for your players to encounter.
You do not have to memorize the rules, but it helps to have a clear idea of their contents, so you know where to look when you need to make a ruling. Keep a rulebook close to hand or bookmark useful websites to help you decide when something comes up in-game.
3. Run a Session Zero
One of the best tips for Dungeon Masters is “Talk To You Players.” Communication is key in a social roleplaying game, and holding a Session Zero is an excellent example of the benefits. Before anyone makes a character and starts the adventure, you should get together with your players and discuss the game so that everyone is on the same page.
Telling your players what kind of adventure you’re looking to run and the setting you’re going for will help them create characters that fit in and thrive. You can also use this session to help your players work together to form a party of characters with shared backstories and connections and help them make decisions regarding their character race, class, and background.
If you are looking to implement any house rules – where you customize the game’s rules to suit everyone’s tastes – Session Zero is a great time to bring them up. An example of this would be the popular change to make drinking a potion a Bonus Action rather than an Action.
Lastly, Session Zero gives the Dungeon Master the chance to get an idea of what your players are interested in: Do they prefer combat over role-play? Do they enjoy solving puzzles? Are they interested in classic Dungeon exploration, or do they want to try urban heist shenanigans?
4. Hard and soft limits
You should cover this during your Session Zero, but it’s important enough that it deserves its own point. D&D is a game that is meant to be fun for everyone – you and all your players. If one or more participants aren’t having fun, odds are the game won’t last long.
Use Session Zero to establish boundaries and discuss topics, themes, and behaviors that your players may find inappropriate or uncomfortable, whether in-game or out-of-game.
A soft limit is a threshold that people should think twice about crossing, as it is likely to create genuine anxiety, discomfort, and fear. A hard limit is a threshold that players should never cross.
Common limits can include violence towards children and animals, sexual themes, gratuitous language, slavery, intra-party romance, shouting, and generally disrespectful behavior.
You may want to discuss these limits privately with your players, as some may not want to share them publicly with the group, and discuss these matters with care as even sharing these limits can be a painful experience for some people.
5. Step up your role play
D&D runs on dice – any time a player, NPC, or monster tries to do something, dice invariably get rolled. Get yourself a few sets of physical dice for that satisfying click-clack in your hand. A dice tower and dice tray will round out your dice rolling needs: Wyrmwood Gaming is a prime example of quality gear to get you set up.
As a technological alternative, you can utilize online dice roller programs, like this one, to save you manually rolling dice and totaling up the numbers all the time. There is no chance of losing any dice and no sums for you to work out when you roll 20d6 falling damage after the wizard loses concentration on their Fly spell.
Depending on how well they serve you, you’ll likely shift regularly between trusting and hating your physical dice or chosen dice roller, so you can build up an array of dice options to keep things fresh and give you a variety to choose from.
Also, consider pre-rolling your dice if you have an intense encounter or multiple fights and don’t want to slow things down. Roll your dice and record the results, and use them at the appropriate time to keep things moving.
6. Assemble your toolkit
Online dice rollers are one example of the convenient tools out there to make D&D more straightforward to play. Here’s a few choice examples of online resources that any Dungeon Master should consider adding to their bag of tricks:
- D&D Beyond – The official D&D 5e digital toolset, with a full character sheet builder and the. Option to purchase official digital content.
- Roll20 – A virtual tabletop system to aid in playing in person and remotely.
- D&D Character Sheets – If you’re not a fan of the digital options available on the two sites above, the official D&D 5e character sheet is available for free download.
- DMsGuild – It cannot be overstated just how valuable this site is – it’s free to sign up, and there is a great deal of content that is either totally free or “pay-what-you-feel.”
- World Anvil – A world-building tool and RPG campaign manager for creating your world and keeping notes.
- Inkarnate – An online map maker for small-scale rooms and buildings, all the way up to full world maps.
- Kobold Fight Club – A helpful tool for quickly checking the difficulty of a combat encounter.
- Donjon – A rich resource of various generators, ranging from NPC names and details to magic items and entire dungeons.
- Sly Flourish – A blog dedicated to helping DMs run great D&D games.
- The Monsters Know What They Are Doing – A blog aimed at helping DMs run their monsters in a way that challenges their players.
These are just a few of the resources out there to be found for Dungeon Masters. As time goes on, you will build up your collection and work out what meets your needs the best.
7. A DM lives and dies by their notes
Consistency is key to a believable fictional world. Your player’s actions matter as they impact the world you are exploring together. Take notes of what they have done so that you can work out what effect this will have on future events. This will make your players feel like their characters are part of a living world that changes and grows with them.
As linked above, World Anvil is a popular RPG campaign managing tool that creates detailed, inter-linked and illustrated articles for your campaign. Another popular option is Microsoft OneNote, with its simple and streamlined design enabling rapid notetaking and straightforward linking of related sections.
This is not to say that handwriting your DM notes is the wrong way to go, far from it. There’s nothing worse than losing your Internet connection or your device crashing, and you can’t access the notes you need. Just make sure to write your notes succinctly and keep them in a system or order that you can easily work with so that you can read back when needed without losing your place.
7. Player agency
The players decide what their characters do – As the Dungeon Master, you do not make their decisions for them. You can advise, maybe reminding them of a relevant rule or bringing up information that the characters would know but the players forgot. Ultimately, the players control their characters and choose how to proceed. To take this control away from them is to make them more of a spectator than a player.
Similarly, do not tell the players what their character is feeling in a situation, instead describe the scenario and let the player work out what their character is thinking and decide how they would react.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that an acceptable exception from this would be magical effects. If a character is magically frightened, charmed, or even possessed, feel free to inform the player accordingly and let them know that the magic has temporarily robbed them of their control.
9. Plans change
One of the most important tips for any Dungeon Master is this: always have more than one plan. Inevitably, your players will not do the thing you have so carefully set up for them, and instead, they will send their characters off in the complete other direction. They decide they don’t want to potentially die a crispy death trying to slay the dragon you’ve spent hours setting up but will instead go to the other side of the kingdom to clear out the much more manageable bandits in the hills.
Tying in with the above point regarding player agency, don’t “railroad” your players so that regardless of what they want to do, they are forced to go along with whatever you had planned – players will not have fun if you shut them down at every turn until they comply.
Also, it’s practically guaranteed that your players will think of something you didn’t. It could be the Barbarian bashing down your cunning puzzle door, the Wizard teleporting to the other side of the impassable lake of fire, or the rogue setting fire to the guard garrison and blocking all exits.
If your players manage to think of a rules-legal, creative solution to something you challenged them with, then reward them for their ingenuity – and make detailed notes so it can’t happen again.
11.Watch, listen and learn.
The best way to learn D&D is by playing the game, but a much easier method would be watching someone else. There’s so much content available online, ranging from full-length epic campaigns and raucous live shows to ridiculous ones shots and helpful DM guides. Here’s just a few out there:
- Critical Role – 2 epic campaigns with hundreds of episodes and 1000s of hours of videos, plus a host of other projects. The big one, a real investment to get into.
- The Adventure Zone – A high-energy podcast series, very dramatic and entertaining.
- Dimension 20 – D&D by CollegeHumor, with shorter, edited episodes and a focus on comedy.
- Matt Colville’s Running The Game series – Advice from game designer and DM Matt Colville on… running the game.
Honestly, there’s so much to choose from with YouTube, Twitch, podcasts, and other streaming services. Watch a few episodes of an actual-play series, and you’ll get an immediate feel for the DM style and can then work out how you will compare.
12. Have fun
In case it isn’t clear by now, Dungeons and Dragons is a game, and the purpose of the game is to get everyone enjoying themselves together. This does include you, the Dungeon Master.
You’re going to put in a lot of time and effort to run D&D 5e, whether it’s a one-shot adventure or a years-long campaign, and if you aren’t enjoying yourself, then why bother? Take care of yourself, relax and get comfortable with your friends. You’ll find the game flows for everybody, even when the tension builds to a fever pitch.
Not a proper DM tip or trick to finish on, but a pretty important one nonetheless.