What is a Dungeon Master
What is a Dungeon Master, and what do they do?
A Dungeon Master (DM), and sometimes referred to as a Game Master (GM), is the narrator of the story being played out by the players. They are also the officiator and judge of the game. They are the voice and mind behind every NPC and enemy that the party will encounter. Ultimately, they are the god of the game.
Being a DM, in my view, is best summed up by this quote, from the writings of Gary Gygax in the module “The Keep on the Borderlands”.
“You are not entering this world in the usual manner, for you are setting forth to be a Dungeon Master. Certainly there are stout fighters, mighty magic-users, wily thieves, and courageous clerics who will make their mark in the magical lands of D&D adventure. You, however, are above even the greatest of these, for as DM you are to become the Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to all the universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow. The others in your group will assume the roles of individuals and play their parts, but each can only perform within the bounds you will set. It is now up to you to create a magical realm filled with danger, mystery, and excitement, complete with countless challenges. Though your role is the greatest, it is also the most difficult. You must now prepare to become all things to all people.”
― Gary Gygax, Keep on the Borderlands 1979, Pg 2
Gary Gygax was the first modern DM, and co-founder, alongside Dave Arneson, of Dungeons & Dragons. Their roots stretched back through all of gaming history, from the first game of odds or skill, to 19th century and earlier tabletop war games. Gary and Dave introduced fantasy to gaming, and although not for the first time, the concept of players controlling an individual character that they advanced and role played.
Although D&D itself would go through many iterations, now currently on it’s 5th edition, the core structures and ideas have stayed the same. For an easily accessible and highly enjoyable history of D&D, I recommend David Ewalt’s, Of Dice and Men. You can also read my brief write up on D&D here. (link pending)
Although Gary’s description of becoming a Dungeon Master may seem incredible and grand, it doesn’t take any unordinary level of skill or talent to be a good DM. Good DM’s do typically share specific character traits. For instance, they tend to be gracious, detail-oriented, and to some degree or another enjoy improvisation and preparation.
DM’s have to be gracious to keep players entertained and to prevent them from feeling trapped by the plot or too limited to explore innovative solutions. Sometimes you have to let that Rogue do a deception roll to convince the servant of the party’s arch-nemesis to tell them the one critical flaw in the plan.
Other times you might have to let the Druid spend 15 minutes trying to resurrect a tree. Being gracious makes the players feel unique and true to their characters in ways that just rigidly sticking to the plot often fails to do.
DM’s have to be equitable to keep the game flowing, without spending too much time on any one character or detail. Often players prefer different things as part of their D&D experience, some prefer combat, others a good old dungeon crawl, and some prefer straight-up role-playing. Knowing your players and their preferences lets you tailor the experience in equitable terms for each player. While that Druid’s trying to figure out how to resurrect the tree, make sure your other players aren’t just waiting ideally. Bring an NPC up to the party for a chat, and offer up a tantalizing secret. Often, as a DM, you can’t host two different scenarios at the same time, and in those cases, understand that you have a passive audience and do your best to make it enjoyable for them as well.
DM’s should be self-aware, and aware of their audience. Knowing when you’re going off in the weeds, and where you’re missing critical information for your players is vital to the success of the game and the party’s enjoyment. Knowing your players preferences, and their characters backstories allows you to spin a tail that makes them truly feel involved in the story as full blown contributors. That Paladin was raised in a monastery, so introducing a Monk NPC from that character’s past is a great way to increase your players connection to their character. It helps to creates a sense of a living world with unexpected connections throughout.
Ultimately, a DM must balance these things, and when successfully done, they can create a truly immersive world that sucks the players into it. When a DM creates that sense of immersion, it lasts with players long after the session has ended, and keeps them coming back for more. As I write this last line, my mind brought up mental images of my last Tuesday play session, and I instantly can’t wait for our next game!
In regards to preparation, every DM approaches this task in a different way and depending on the type of content being prepared. Some make simple bullet point outlines, others prefer more detailed notes and complete sentences depicting various facets of any given situation, story, or NPC. Still others can read through the module a number of times and get by with quick references throughout play sessions. It will be up to you as a DM to determine what works best for your own style. Check out my article on DM prepping and the checklist I follow for my own sessions.
Nate, the Dungeon Master
Note to the reader…
I write all of this having only played for a few years, and as a very novice DM. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the history of D&D and role-playing, and I actively read up on popular sources of DM wisdom. I’ve done my best to relay the core notes about being a DM, as well as my personal experiences as a player and novice DM. I look forward to updating this guide as I progress through the ranks of the true elders of D&D, those who have been playing and running games for decades.