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How to Be a Dungeon Master




Edited by Chrisgocountyjr, Vivek Kumar Rohra, Rob S, Sondra C and 15 others
Be a Dungeon Master
The term Dungeon Master (DM for short) was coined by Dungeons & Dragons© in the early 70s, but has now become a catch-all term for anyone who runs a Role-Playing Game (generally however, the title DM[Dungeon Master] applies to Dungeons and Dragons, whereas GM [Game Master] refers to the "DM" of another RPG than Dungeons and Dragons.) Being a Dungeon Master sounds easy; you control everything and just tell people what they can and can't do. However, that couldn't be further from the truth. You are charged with both creating the details and challenges of the adventure while maintaining a realistic continuity of events in your dungeon. You must also have a good knowledge and understanding of the rules of the game. While a fair DM can make an enjoyable experience for everyone, a poor one can ruin any game. The following is biased toward D&D, though they are more or less general enough to be applied to any RPG.


  1. 1
    Understand the Role of a DM - The descriptions you may have heard of a Dungeon Master probably range from "the one who does all the work" to "You are god here". Those descriptions are usually exaggerations from people who are either ignorant of what a DM really is or the extreme interpretation of a half-truth.

    As a DM, you control everything and everyone that is not a Player Character (PC for short). That means everyone or anything the players may come across or interact with is controlled by you. However, the goal of any RPG should be a fun time for everyoneinvolved. I cannot stress everyone enough. Your responses to the players, the situations you present, the challenges you create, the stories you build together, all of it should be balanced so as to provide an enjoyable experience for you and your players. What you are not is against the PCs. If your goal is to destroy the player characters any chance you get, then you are most certainly doing it wrong.
  2. 2
    Know the Rules - As the DM, you are expected to have a strong grasp of the rules of the game. It may be helpful to think of yourself as an impartial judge in this respect. Just as a Judge cannot do his/her job without knowing the law of the land, a DM cannot run the game without knowing the rules of the game. To aid in this, most RPGs provide basic entry books known as "Core" rulebooks. Anything considered Core is what you need to have, at very least, a passing familiarity with. In D&D, the Core Books are the Player's Handbook, the Dungeon Master Guide and the Monster Manual. The rest is gravy, and should not be considered necessary for running a game.

    You describe the surroundings, manage the plot, and administer all of the elements of the game, including determining the outcome of battles between players and dungeon dwellers. If your players encounter a creature, and choose a plan of battle, it may be up to you to roll the dice to decide the outcome, and although the rules apply specific guidelines, you may use your own judgment to work that outcome in the best way to maintain the flow and continuity of the game. It's a daunting task, but I guarantee that it will become easier with time, patience, and practice.
  3. 3
    Prepare. - For some DMs, the thrill of writing their own adventures and stories to present to their players is the reason for doing it. For others, it's a sense of balance they can provide, or simply the fact that you control everything. And for some, it's simply their turn to DM this session. Regardless of why you do it, the how you get ready is what can make or break the game. The ways you can prepare could fill its own wiki, but here are the basics for first time DMs. Remember that everyone will be comfortable with different ways and it is best to only use what works for you. Don't try to force something that doesn't feel right. Again, the end result should always be a fun game for everyone. If it feels too much like work, don't hesitate to take it down a notch.

    • IF you have no time in between games - Consider running modules. They will be presented for characters between a certain levels, with challenges scaled to fit. This is the easiest and fastest way to run a game, as most of everything is done for you. The only thing you have to do is read the adventure. It is suggested that you re-read a few pages ahead of where you stop at every session right before the next session, to refresh your memory for the game at hand.
    • IF you have a few hours to devote between games - Running modules is still a strong option. However, you may want to re-write parts of the module to fit the game or particular story line(s) you're running with the PCs. Changing descriptions of locations or replacing treasure found in the module with items better suited for your players are good and easy places to start. As you progress in skill, you may start lifting whole encounters from one module and writing it into another. Not only does this allow you to essentially cherry-pick the best parts of an otherwise so-so module, but players who may have read or run through the module before will be in for a surprise!
    • IF you have lots of time OR really enjoy writing fiction - Writing your own adventures is a possibility. For new DMs it is still recommended that you run a module first, just so you're only juggling one major concept at a time (learning the rules). However, you will be more inclined to change things and write new scenarios yourself. Pulling encounters from published works and writing the bridges between them all would be a good start, then slowly replacing published works with your own.
  4. 4
    Take Notes - During and immediately after the game session, be sure to jot down a few notes about what the players did, what your NPCs did, how your other NPCs and Bad guys will respond to new events, the names of NPCs you may have made up on the fly, and any other details you may find important. This will help build continuity, and allow you to use NPCs previously met to make reoccuring characters. The side effect of that is you can limit the amount of NPCs you have in the story, which keeps confusion to a minimum and allows for more character development or enjoyable depth.
  5. 5
    Be willing to make mistakes - Sometimes things will not go as you plan. Whether it is a mistake on how a rule works, or confusion of how a spell would affect an NPC, or your carefully written adventure is thrown aside by players that think a random NPC you had nothing written for is FAR more interesting than your save-the-maiden quest, problems will occur. Frequently. The best tool any DM has in their toolkit is the ability AND willingness to roll with the punches.

    • If the problem is a rule disagreement, don't let that derail your game. Spend no more than two minutes looking up anything, unless the character in question may die from the result. Calmly explain your ruling on how it will work, resolve to look it up after the game or between sessions and move on. Nothing kills a game faster than bickering for 15 minutes between two people while the rest of the group is bored. Keeping the game going in a fair manner is better than killing the game while trying to get every detail right every time.
    • If the problem is that the players did something that you didn't plan for, anticipate, or want them to do... be willing to say "Yes"... or at the very least don't say "No". Some DMs can make things up on the fly - do so if you can. If you're not comfortable with that, ask for a short break (people can go to the bathroom, smoke, whatever) while you write up some ideas and make a short outline plan for this new and exciting direction they are going... which leads us to...
  6. 6
    The Golden Rule of DMing - The players will always do something you never thought of and could never have anticipated in a million years. No matter how many solutions or tangents you plan for, it is likely they will go in the one you did not. It is best that you accept this reality now, otherwise you're setting yourself up for pretty frequent frustration when it happens... over, and over, and over... Don't be discouraged by this though! This detail keeps the game exciting and surprising for you, which can be very enjoyable.
  7. 7
    Be confident. - Not only will this make the game more decisive, it will make it more fun. No one wants to be playing when the dungeon master is saying "ummm...well...you just...found a cave, yeah. And in the cave...is...ummm...an imp. Ummm...what do you do?" Instead, say "You stumble across a cave, and what do you find? An imp, of all things. What do you do?" Preparing is a good way to build this confidence. Remember that until you say it exists, no one knows what is on that piece of paper behind your screen. Whether you read it directly or change details as you go along, unless you tell the players that they will think it was meant to be that way all along. Use this to your advantage.
  8. 8
    Be involved, creative and reasonably realistic. - Don't just drone on about the surroundings; change your voice to show you actually care. Taking on accents of various NPC's also adds a bit of flavor to your dungeon. Additionally, the point of going on an Adventure is to see and experience new things. Be creative with your descriptions and scenarios to give every location and interaction its own flavor. Don't let your creativity run amok, however. There is a thing called "suspension of disbelief" that you want to establish. While you may be pretending to be in a fantasy world where magic is common, there are still rules to how that works. Keeping your work within those guidelines can mean the difference between an engaging fantasy story and a parody where everything seems hokey and dumb.
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  • For first time DMs, it is actually recommended that you limit yourself and players to the options/rules ONLY from the Core Books. Not all additional books are well balanced in relation, and you will quickly find one player very overpowered compared to others. This generally is not a good thing.
  • When you're just starting out, play with friends; a relaxed and familiar group of people will help everyone learn the game much more, especially when you can joke around.
  • One of the most important things for a DM is the ability to think on your feet. Things will happen that you'd never expect. The players may kill the person they were supposed to get the vital information from, or they may end up going to the only section of town that you haven't detailed yet. Make it up as you go along, just be sure to jot down notes so you can incorporate them into the story later.
  • Books aren't completely necessary for all players; you can play just fine without them, but at minimum the DM should have one copy of each which can be shared around the table.
  • Description is really important in D&D. Unlike a movie or tv show, the players are actually just watching you. The better your descriptions, the more vivid it will be for your players, and the better your game will be. (Ex. a foul stench flows forth from the cavern entrance. Water trickles down around the outside of it's mouth, spilling into two tiny streams along the rock floor. It seems there is a grooved channel in the rock.)
  • Have fun. It may seem hard, but it will get easier. Just keep having fun with it. If your players see that you're not having a good time, they won't have a good time, either.
  • The bull session - Over time, you'll notice as you play with the same gamers, you'll talk a few minutes before the start of the game. It's okay to have this. It loosens up your players, gives you time to re-check that you have all that you need, and are prepared to begin, to answer any questions the players might have, or even a chance to see what everyone has been up to since your last game. Don't let it last too long, though. Say 15 to 30 minutes. Anything more, and you're burning daylight (well, sort of...).
  • Name Vault - Make a name vault starting after your first game. Over time, you'll find yourself in need of names, so start keeping track of interesting ones you think of or come across. My favorite's still Ozell ( a Nice guy, he was!)
  • Instead of fighting a horde of weaker monsters, fighting a few tougher monsters is sometimes more enjoyable. Fighting a horde of weaklings means you have to roll a lot of dice. Running tougher monsters means you can focus on individual strategy more.
  • You aren't a good DM if you're just a referee (i.e. you always use dungeon ideas off the net ), so use these sometimes but make it your own (add your own monsters, stuff like that) but come up with dungeons on your own by using your imagination well.
  • Don't "not allow" someone to do something. If you're trying to get your players to go to a certain place, don't just say "you can't go there;" instead, say something like "a lady over there says just happened at . Would you like to check it out? You can also have them roll a passive insight to see how likely their character would want to go in the direction... in this case, set the DC (Difficulty Check) low."
  • There are generally 2 types of dungeon masters: one that kills all player characters in the very first microsecond, & the kind that likes the player characters to have an adventure; You could follow one of their personalities if you want, but it's kinda healthy to follow both!


  • Alignment can be a sticky situation from time to time. Remember, evil isn't stupid, it's just evil. As the DM, it's your job to be all three sides: the good, the bad, and the scenery.
  • D&D can be addicting, it is a game after all. Allow yourself to rest mentally and physically from the game; maybe even a fifteen minute minute break every three hours of game play would be sufficient for most DM's. Don't overexhaust yourself or your players (this just makes everyone in bad moods, and the game becomes less enjoyable.)
  • Beware of rulers, lawyers and metagamers, and don't play their game just to punish them. Come up with interesting in-game ways to deal with their characters instead.
  • Know when the amount of information you give the players is too much, not enough, or just right. Keep your answers to questions concise, and don't give away too much information.
  • Don't let your players dictate how things "should" be from novels or published stories. Otherwise, the one person who has read the thirty novels based in that world can try to manipulate you with knowledge only he has. In the end, the DM is the final word on what does and does not exist. However, a balance is best - work with them to incorporate some of those details so long as it does not give anyone an unreasonable advantage.
  • some people might think parts of your dungeons story are silly ( monsters hatched from pumpkin farms next door, All NPCs are alien invaders) but that's their problem not yours. It is your story after all.
  • Don't let yourself get bullied by other players. What you say is as good as divine law in your dungeon.
  • While you may want to make your dungeon challenging, don't make it impossible. What's the point of doing it if it's going to be too difficult for the PC (Player's Character)?
  • Some people really do want to learn how to play D&D, some may just be interested in what you're up to, and some will be downright mean about their opinions. As the DM, be sure to show respect to all three types of people. Doing so for the first group might net you some new gamers (to go with your new DM-ness), for the second group it might get people who eventually might want to learn how to play, and for the third it might dispel a myth. At the very least, it will show your players how to behave in those situations (as some players get overzealous from time to time).

EditRelated wikiHows

EditSources and Citations

  • Dungeons & Dragons Core Rulebook II: Dungeon Master Guide (ISBN 0-7869-2889-1)
  • Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering
    • Originally printed by Steve Jackson's Games (ISBN 1-55634-629-8), but later incorpoated and reprinted specifically for Dungeons & Dragons within the Dungeon Master Guide II (ISBN 0-78693-687-8). Note that the DMG2 is not a "Core" book.
  • Role-Playing Mastery - By: Gary E. Gygax (ISBN 0-39951-293-4)
  • Roleplaying Tips - Free Online Resource - [1]

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Categories: Role Playing Games
Recent edits by: Teresa, MrAsheSin, Tryme2

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