Five reasons good Dungeon Masters aren’t great.

Five ReasonsThe title of “Dungeon Master” is odd. In most circles, it’s either meaningless or translates to “permanent virgin.” To a select group, it’s a title of respect. But there’s no test for it. Like writing, once you’ve decided you’re a Dungeon Master…you are.

That doesn’t make you any good at it.

Even good Dungeon Masters often fall short of greatness. Here’s five reasons why.

Reason #1: You’re telling your story.

Many DMs are writers or storytellers in other media. Unfortunately, this blurs the purpose of roleplaying, which is collaborative storytelling. Every player at the table wants to be the hero of her own story.

If you’re telling your story, you’ve failed. Don’t mistake me: Storytelling is an essential skill for DMs. Often, players depend on you because they aren’t good storytellers. They have ideas. They trust you to bring their ideas to life.

This is the player’s story. Give her opportunities to shine.

Reason #2: You don’t offer clear choices.

I once created an ethical dilemma that stumped my group an entire session. What a waste. They could have slain monsters and progressed the plot. Instead, they split into factions, convinced of their positions, and argued.

One player was paralyzed because the “wrong” choice might compromise his paladin status, stripping him of power and ruining his character. Giving him a dilemma in which both sides were arguably right didn’t promote roleplaying. It created legalism and rigidity.

Ethical dilemma is a powerful tool, but clear choices are better. Offer your players two or three courses of action, and hint the consequences.

A crazy wizard holds the gate north, but you can bypass him through haunted woods. Which will you choose? Now the players are involved. They have a clear decision they might put to a vote. Do they want to negotiate with an NPC? Or take their chances with the undead? Each player will bring his own perspective: Spellcasters want to meet the wizard despite his reputation. Undead hunters have a clear preference.

Choices can be as large as which mission to accept, or as small as which door to open. In any two descriptions between similar objects, differentiate them in some fashion. One door is massive and locked. The other looks beaten to hell, but it springs open at a touch. Players will form opinions about which door they prefer. If you describe two identical doors, you rob them of the opportunity.

The players may argue, but they understand the implications. Choices become meaningful, not merely philosophical, and have a direct impact on gameplay.

Reason #3: You don’t offer clear objectives.

There is only one way to communicate what the players should accomplish:

Tell them.

Use NPCs if you can, overtly narrate if you must. Never let the party fumble because they’re unsure where to go or what to do. Very little is more frustrating to both the players and the DM.

Players will never complain about having a mission, even if they choose to do something else. If the group procrastinates, it should be clear what they’re procrastinating. Create consequences for their delay (clear choices).

Furthermore, giving the players an obvious mission in no way means they will accomplish it. What’s the price of failure? What if they discover their client is a criminal? What if they want to give the McGuffin to his rival? Or selfishly keep it for themselves?

Those outcomes are more interesting with clear goals at the start.

Reason #4: Railroading.

“Railroading” means taking choices away from the players, keeping them on a predetermined path with no divergence…like a railroad. When the players wonder whether cutting through the woods might be faster, and you tell them they can’t, that’s railroading. Filling the woods with unbeatable monsters is also railroading.

Note: Giving clear objectives isn’t railroading. “Find and bring me the holy grail,” does not constitute a path for the players. On the contrary, it forces them to begin inquiring what their path should be. When you create consequences for one route or another, the world begins to feel rich and dynamic. The players feel empowered.

There are many places you can guide players without railroading them. Players rarely question why a hallway didn’t have more doors. But if the hallway has six doors they can never explore, they’ll get annoyed. That’s railroading: Pretending to offer a choice, when in fact, you’ve predetermined their route.

Reason #5: The players always succeed.

Nobody likes an abusive DM who terrorizes his players. That’s obvious.

Less obvious? Most DMs let players win. Constantly.

I don’t just mean completing the quest, though there’s that. What about drinking contests at the local tavern? Magic duels? Competing bards? Does your group’s cleric compete with a larger, established religion for parishioners?  Does the group’s thief ever get robbed?

Even minor examples add up. In video games, PCs become larger than life because NPCs are static. With tabletop roleplaying, though, your NPCs aren’t static bots, they’re controlled by you. They can compete. They can win.

Whether failures are scripted (oh no! You’re too late and the hostage is dead!) or rolls of the dice, a healthy dose of reality gives enormous depth to your campaign.

I’m not saying to abuse and destroy the PCs at every opportunity. But occasionally (more often than errant attack rolls), the PCs should try and fail. It’s realistic. It can even set up a later encounter where they deliberately avoid past mistakes. That’s character development. That’s storytelling.

When they do succeed — against all odds — it will be more meaningful.

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  • Richard Schilhavy

    Precisely. I started to write a refutation of some your reasons, but realized my refutation is more merely a clarification. Its incredibly hard to balance the first four reasons, because they are all about storytelling. On one hand, you want your players to own the story, make their own decisions and carve a path through your world. On the other hand, players are paralyzed with no clear choices or clear ethical decisions (especially when a decision must be made as a cohesive party).

    Ultimately it all comes back to #1. DMs craft worlds, not stories. A good DM isn’t a dungeon master, but a dungeon guide, who is responsible for guiding the party through their world. If the player is stuck, the dungeon guide nudges them in the right direction. If the player makes a mistake, the dungeon guide let’s the player learn from the mistake. If the player choices an unexpected path, the dungeon guide shows them the way.

    • JasonRPeters

      Well said. And yes, it is incredibly hard. Posting the article means I understand the principles…not that I’m particularly good at executing them.

      I’ve gotten better by learning from mistakes. Also getting the player’s-eye-view every so often helps, I get more “aha!” moments there than the DM seat.

      Because I’m finally a player and understand what players want.

      My biggest concern with the article is that some DMs will think I’m saying give away every clue, every riddle, and that’s not the point. Giving objectives is not the same as track-lighting the path to complete them. Nor is saying, “Path to X is that way.” Forcing the players — instead of guiding them — probably deserves a separate post.

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