You are probably reading this topic from one of two different stand points. Either you are wanting to become or are a New Dungeon Master, or you think you already know what it is to be a Dungeon Master and are just curious to read what I have to say about the subject. In the first case hopefully I can enlighten you as to what a Dungeon Masters job really is. In the second case you will either be agreeing with me or I will be reeducating you!
This topic is not aimed at telling you how to perform each duty or action or improve it. It is instead aimed at telling you what your duties are and pointing out pitfalls. The items bellow will be covered in depth individually in other posts at other times.
So lets begin.
I know more “Dungeon Masters” than I care too, if I use this term loosely. However as it is used as a title, or to describe a position at the gaming table it really is a little misleading. The word master is often misconstrued in this situation as it implies excellence. If I take the word in the title to mean excellent, then I would say I know very FEW Dungeon MASTERS!
So many people decide to become Dungeon Masters, or are nominated to take on the role, and they never really learn about the task they are undertaking. Yes they have a conception of what a Dungeon Master is, but they usually do not fully realize what it truly entails.
The biggest and first mistake that many fledgling Dungeon Masters make is in not understanding their primary responsibility. They become so empowered by the position that they buy into this the “Dungeon Master is GOD” ideal. This could not be more wrong. In fact the Dungeon Master is a servant! The Dungeon Masters primary job is to serve the players and provide them with the best story and game session he can. It is a position of responsibility and trust. If you are going to expect people to spend a valuable currency on a product that you are going to deliver, you should be ethical enough to provide the best darn product you can. The currency is time and the product is your game session! I cringe when I hear Dungeon Masters brag about how their encounter stumped their players. Or scoff at how dumb they thought their players were when it came to solving a problem. Yes as a Dungeon Master you have a power. One that most will abuse!
Those that know me have probably heard me say the following statement at some point. “As a Dungeon Master, you are there to serve the players, and not the other way around”!
Yes you are the referee and adjudicator but that is only a duty and responsibility that you take on. When you decide to become a Dungeon Master you are taking on a work load. If you think you can just spend an hour or two reading books, scribbling down notes and throwing together adventures for your players to bumble through, well you are going to be one of the masses of piss poor Dungeon Masters out there. Is this how you run a game? Could you be better prepared? A hard thing to do in life is to examine yourself and your skills and be honest about it. Yet to be a Good Dungeon Master you must. My first experience as a Dungeon Master was in October 1980. After a couple of years and a few campaigns under my belt I used to think I was a good Dungeon Master. I was wrong. A decade later I thought I was a veteran Dungeon Master as I had over a decade of experience. I was still wrong! Yes I was better than I had been, and I continued to learn and improve, but then I was a fanatic about improving. I played every second I could, and I was never ashamed or so proud as to refuse to learn from those that had more experience or had put more hours in. Here I am over thirty three years later as a Dungeon Master, with thousands of hours invested and only the last decade do I really think I have honed my craft. Paid offers to write adventures for people or come and run games for them now come due to the opinion that I actually know what I am talking about. Well for the most part I do but I still come from the stand point of opinion. My way is not the only way, but it is a tried, tested and proven way.
Before I continue about what the real job of a Dungeon Master is, lets look at some of the mistakes that lead to being a poor Dungeon Master or worse!
The worst kind of so called Dungeon Master is that idiot that thinks he is playing against the players. He tries to defeat them, even if not obviously or openly. He gets of on beating them. This is the moron that brags about how his encounter defeated his players or how they miss used a spell or screwed up the use of a wish. They even enjoy being viewed as a bit of a tyrant. I have zero respect for this type of Dungeon Master and do not entertain them, yet more of them exist than you would realize. If you can be honest with yourself know you are guilty of any of this, STOP IT NOW or go back to playing! This is the Anti Dungeon Master. A good Dungeon Master never tries to serve his own ego and plays WITH the players to tell the story, and not against them.
Another failing that some Dungeon Masters have is in poor preparation. They think they can wing it, and for over ninety five percent of them they are wrong. Yeah they may get through a session but they really are robbing their players of the quality game that they deserve. They fail to read a published adventure thoroughly before running it, or just come to the table with a scrap of notes and just do not have the talent or experience to fill in the blanks as they go. A good Dungeon Master is studious and well prepared.
Others are inconsistent. They change the rules to frequently or apply them differently to the players and Non Player Characters or monsters. Or they change their play style or try to emulate a style that is just not inline with their personality. A good Dungeon Master is consistent and learns his OWN style.
Some lack communication skills and do not talk to their players about the game outside of the game itself. They feel the players should just go along with whatever they line up and are oblivious to realizing what the players may actually want from the game. A good Dungeon Master talks to his players.
Some lack personality and are a little self conscious . While you can be a good technical Dungeon Master without much personality, I will argue you will be missing the ability to bring real depth and emotion to your game. Their is a reason that not everyone should be a Dungeon Master. Many should not. At the very least they should play to their strengths and accept their lack of certain skills. This is not to say that they should not attempt to acquire new skills or improve, but they should not try be who they are not. For example. I voice act almost all of my Non Player Characters, and use my voice to perform sound affects for monsters. I pull funny faces and really try to “become” the characters I present. I am comfortable with this and have some skill at it. Many I see try to do this with awkwardness, or inconsistency and to be honest it takes away from their game instead of adding to it. Not everyone is comfortable doing this or has a talent for it. If this is the case they should not do it. Instead they should focus on aspects or skills that they do have. They should also find players that are OK with a more technical game.
In order for you to be able to perform your duties to the best of your abilities you must establish a trust. Your players must trust you to always be fair and even handed. They have to believe that you will not alter the rules you put in place, and that you will be consistent. If you do alter a rule they should understand why you have done so, and know that it applies to everyone. They should know that you do not play favorites and will treat each player equally. They should be able to trust that you have done your homework, and prepared the game you offer them to the best of your ability. Above all they must trust that you will not abuse your position or in anyway serve your own ego or try to compete with them.
From time to time some situations will arise where opinions differ, or something happens in such a way that you and the players may disagree. Maybe there is a conflict between players. A rule may have more than one interpretation or may be misconstrued. In these situations you are the one expected to make a decision and adjudicate. To be able to do this and have your ruling respected you again must have established trust with your players. They have to know that your decision is based solely on the nest interests of the game and was made impartially and fairly. You are not the judge, jury and executioner. You are the even handed council that ways everything before making a decision. You should also have the social skills to never belittle a player at the table or reprimand them.
Being a Dungeon Master you are expected to know the rules. The rules are vast, so knowing each and every little detail is not realistic or necessary, but the rules that pertain to running a good flowing game is necessary for any decent Dungeon Master. The less you have to pick up a book and research something during the game session the better, so try to minimize this.
It is also your job to be the lead in telling the story. As Dungeon Master it is not your soul responsibility to tell the story, but you are the one who guides it along and manages it. The players have equal responsibility when it comes to the story, but you are expected to drive it. Being a great story teller is a skill and one that you should strive to improve or acquire.
You need to be creative. Especially if you want to make and run your own adventures, or build your own world. You need experience to do these things well so it is a good idea to run several published adventures first. If you do decide to run published material then READ IT! do not just skim over it, read it all and make sure you understand the flow of the adventure from start to finish. Do not just read the first few chapters and think that its enough to cover the next gaming session. If you do not understand the end you can not appreciate the beginning or the journey and you will fail and let down your players.
One final skill that any good Dungeon Master should have or learn is to SELL. Learn to sell yourself to your players and sell them the story. Make them believe in your world and believe in you as their Dungeon Master. You want to feel pride when your players refer to you as “their Dungeon Master’ and not as “A Dungeon Master”. I get messages on face book, or on twitter often from players reminiscing about games past. I feel great pride when a player from twenty years ago says that they still have not had a Dungeon Master since provided the same level of game as I had done. This is mostly due to the work I was willing to put in.
The most important thing any Dungeon Master can learn and realize is that he is only there to provide the game for the players. Yes this within itself is fun and rewarding, so it is not like a thankless and laborious task with little reward, but he is not there FOR his or her own fun. Selfish people make poor Dungeon Masters. This is a fact I have come to realize over the past three plus decades. Egotistical people make poor Dungeon Masters too. At least those who allow their ego to compete with the players.
Some people make (what I refer to as) good “technical” Dungeon Masters. They have a great grasp on the rules, the game mechanics and are walking encyclopedias about the subject. This being said they may lack a little of the personality to really bring the game to life. Others make great “immersion” Dungeon Masters. They have a talent for really bringing the game to life and pulling their players into their world on a deeper level, even if they are not walking rules lawyers. Some are both. Not many are suited to be both, but those that are are the potential GREAT Dungeon Masters.
Now for a quick rant.
What I am about to say may sound harsh, but with new media outlets to play Dungeons & Dragons online, I am able to observe many more games being played and many more Dungeon Masters at work than I was once able. I am typically disappointed. My disappointment does not stem from those that I view having a lack of experience, but in the lack of effort put forth or in how weak the story telling and prep work obviously is. There are a few that I enjoy however and a couple are fairly new to the task. Most unfortunately, come across as fumbling novices that would do better to concentrate on playing the game in private and improving their skills, rather than trying to broadcast it. This being said Dungeon Mastering over a virtual tabletop is very different than around the physical table. I have discussed this in another topic you can find here. This is not the reason why I do not care for them however. I feel that to many today see Dungeons & Dragons as a pen and paper version of a video game and not as a story telling social experience. The substance of their games are hack and slash, or weak story plot lines held together by combat encounters. As such few Dungeon Masters seem to bother to acquire or improve many of the skills we discussed above. If this is what you want from your game of course, that is your prerogative it just is not for me. As mentioned earlier everything comes from a stand point of opinion. Mine just comes from one with a wealth of experience and decades of hard work……