Initially, I was going to title this post “DM Playbook: How I Govern My Games”. Maybe govern is too a strong word, but then again maybe it isn’t. More appropriately I’ve changed it the title to “DM Playbook: Mantras & Guidelines” because really, that’s what the following list truly is.
As any strong DM should know, you have a responsibility to your players to keep your game fun and interesting while keeping the players engaged and tending to their in game needs. Dungeon Master = Game Manager = Mayor of the Session. It is quite the burden to bear, but those that seek the office of GM have to be a little bit of a masochist themselves. You have to dwell in chaos without letting it overwhelm you. How to do this and retain your sanity? HERE is how I manage.
I have a set of personal rules that I use to keep me on track and focused. These are my pre-game mantras. These compiled make up my ever evolving DM Playbook. Here it is current state, it has gone through at least five revisions to date.
First the high level look:
- INSPIRATION: Don’t Forget to Reward it!
- Keeping Combat Short & To-The-Point
- Make epic battles memorable, and terrifying. (16 HP Dragon)
- Telegraph your monsters’ attacks – give players more choice in reactions
- Offering Players “Would You Rather” Scenarios After Dice Outcomes
- Allow the PCs to fail forward on die rolls
- Remember to Ask PCs How Their Character Feels After Events Take Place
- Ask the PCs How They Know What They Know to Establish a Richer Backstory
- Describe Environments in Detail Beyond Just Visual Components
Now, the deep dive! Some of these are self explanatory, while others are not.
1. INSPIRATION: Don’t Forget to Reward it!
This is a D&D 5e specific reminder. It is top of the list because I find it is most easily forgotten. If you are playing to the rules strictly, this is a big one to remember. It gives the players a little extra incentive to stay in character. I find it becomes easiest to forget when you regularly get great performances and participation from the party in general.
2. Keeping Combat Short & To-The-Point
Combat can drag on far too long in any RPG and typically becomes the biggest time sink. If your group loves combat, then embellish it and make it last. Most groups in my experience tend to get more excited by engaging narrative. Nothing slows and disrupts a great narrative like a two hours of taking turns rolling dice. Combat can also become part of the narrative. Keep NPCs vocal, have them move about the environment and try to escape or pull some ominous lever of doom. Then the battle’s focus is all about taking turns to solve a puzzle rather than mundanely hacking and slashing. In most stories, mindless battles don’t typically happen. They become essential in D&D for gaining XP when you stick to the rules strictly. One way I have worked around this is to award XP on a milestone basis. This has allowed me to remove the “grind” from the game.
3. Make epic battles memorable, and terrifying. (16 HP Dragon)
While cruising r/Gametales on reddit, I came across a fabulous story of a 16 HP dragon. The principle here is to adopt The Hobbit approach to a big beastie versus the death by 1000 papercuts model used by Final Fantasy and WoW. In The Hobbit, Smaug has one critical flaw and that is a missing patch of scales that makes him vulnerable to a well placed arrow. Rather than having the party grind on a giant beast that requires them to be a crazy high level, allow them to be the heroes they are via roleplaying. Make it ok for a level 2 Ranger to snipe down a dragon with a well placed shot to the eye. Keep the battles as part of the narrative, make the players sweat, make them feel the weight of the impending doom… but don’t make the fights impossible. (More on this in a future post regarding and impromptu battle/puzzle where I pitted my party against a dragon turtle at level 5, and they won!)
4. Telegraph your monsters’ attacks – give players more choice in reactions
Basically, build a narrative around the combat at hand (noticing a theme here yet? 😉 ). Dungeon World does this beautifully and naturally through the rules. Many ways to do this in other game systems of course. A few examples:
A player shifts his focus to attack a monster that was previously occupied. Now, that monster turns his head and gives a look of disgust at the player, it full focus is now on that player.
Rather than just moving a monster, explain where the monster is headed. “The goblin notices you closing in. He runs towards a lever on the wall. What the lever does, you do not know.” Now the party is suddenly aware that something more interesting may be about to happen and they can choose to deal with it or not.
5. Offering Players “Would You Rather” Scenarios After Dice Outcomes
On an unsuccessful roll in D&D, give the player the option of how they would like to fail. Such as, “You fail to cleanly dodge the swinging chandelier. You can catch it and be grappled with it as it continues to swing, or you can take 1d6 damage but you remain on your feet“. This way, things don’t just happen to the players and gives them the choice to react as their player might naturally.
6. Allow the PCs to fail forward on die rolls
This is similar to point number 5, but is more linear. If you need to advance the story and the players have failed the roll, allow them to continue on but with a penalty. A good example would be if they go to unlock a door that allows them to advance to the next plot milestone, but they fail the roll. If they can’t get through then they can’t advance they would simply be stuck. You also want to avoid having players just sit and roll dice until someone succeeds, that slows down the game, kills the momentum, and most importantly makes the roll irrelevant since they were bound to succeed no matter what. Instead, consider on that failed attempt on the locked door to succeed at opening the door but at a detriment such as: You get the door open but make a terrible racket doing so. You can hear guards in the distance shouting and now hear footsteps moving quickly in your direction.
7. Remember to Ask PCs How Their Character Feels After Events Take Place
This is just a good way to (HERE I GO AGAIN) further drive the narrative while keeping the players engaged in the narrative from their character’s perspective.
8. Ask the PCs How They Know What They Know to Establish a Richer Backstory
Self explanatory. Don’t over do it, but with significant plot points or just interesting pieces of the story.
9. Describe Environments in Detail Beyond Just Visual Components
Take the detail to this level: What is the temperature / weather / humidity of the space? What do the surfaces feel like? What smells linger in the air? What sounds can be heard? You don’t need to over embellish or spend hours prepping intricate details, but this can make the space the party is exploring really come to life. Something else that can help is doing a google image search for fantasy art and landscapes so that you can easily give them a memorable visual. It’s all about mentally immersing the party to feel like they are in that location and then the narrative naturally incorporates the location.