A huge chunk of it comes down to understanding the Dungeon Masters role. You are the narrator of the world, the judge of events, and the hand and voice behind all non-player characters. Your players represent characters in the world which you control and present in a narrative format. From one perspective, you’re a performance artist, relaying an environment, a story, and the characters in that world to your players, the participating audience.
Practically speaking, a Dungeon Master runs the gaming session. They tell the players where their characters are and who they’re near. The players in turn direct their characters actions through the Dungeon Master to impact the world around them. For example, Ron wants his 1st level Barbarian to attempt to behead the Skeleton. The Dungeon Master facilitates that interaction and determines whether the skeleton’s head was chopped off, or if the attack hit, but didn’t quite decapitate, or if it missed altogether.
This requires rules.
A Dungeon Master is the judge and arbiter of all interactions. The judgements are made based on a set of rules that are written to cover almost every perceivable action in the game world. Continuing our example, the Barbarian’s attack is predicated on Ron’s roll of a D20 to determine whether the attack will hit. If the d20 comes up as an 8, and the AC, or Armor Class, of the Skeleton is 12, then the attack misses. However due to the Barbarian’s skills and proficiencies, he gets +5 bonus to any attack roll, which now means that his attack roll was a 13 and he hits the skeleton. Next he has to determine the damage done. Ron rolls a d12 because his Barbarians Axe’s damage potential calls for the use of a d12, as opposed to a d4, d6, or d8. Ron rolls an 11 and gets a +3 to the damage roll based on his skills. This means he hits the skeleton for 14 points of damage. The skeleton who has 12 hit points total, dies. With the results of the encounter decided, the Dungeon Master then narrates this action to the party.
“The mighty Barbarian in a fit of rage swings his giant axe through the air, cleaving the skeletons head from its body. The head lands with a crack, the sound of bone breaking. As it comes to a rest, you see it wriggle as it attempts to move its jaw one last time.”
This is one example of how a DM might narrate a player action, but not all interactions have to be violent. Often a DM will need to roleplay an NPC in an interaction with the players. As the DM generally only describes the players environment and surroundings, a DM does not directly provide the Players with information that might otherwise come from an NPC. To do that, the DM steps into the NPC’s shoes, and role-plays its part in a conversation with the Player’s characters.
Elise, Barmaid of the Sparrow’s Rest Inn – “Aye if you aren’t the most strapping young adventurer’s I’ve ever seen! Come in, come in! Take a seat anywhere you’d like. A tankard of ale for everyone?”
Ron, 1st Level Barbarian – “Thank you my love, I’ll have a black tea if you can, I’m trying to watch me figure.” Ron mentions that he’d like his Barbarian to wink at the barmaid. “If you’d be interested in earning a silver piece, might you tell me where I can get my axe, Blood Reaver, serviced by a reputable smithy?”
Elise – “My aren’t you an interesting one… you’ll be looking for Marden, he’s our village blacksmith. I’ve heard nothing but good things of him. I hear he even has some enchanted items that he recently acquired!”
In this interaction the DM provides the Players with a chance to learn more about the town they’re in while also allowing them to use their own agency to act out their character.
This leads to a critical point. Dungeons and Dragons is not meant to be just a war game, or just a roleplaying game, or just a dungeon crawler. D&D was created to combine the best aspects of all of these things. Every player has a preference and a good DM must balance their game sessions so that players of all preferences can enjoy the game in equal parts. That’s not to say that every game has to be an even split, but over the course of a campaign, every player should frequently experience the parts they enjoy most.
In D&D rules are important. They prevent players from going all Neo on the Matrix, or becoming so powerful that they never face a challenge. Understanding the rules and subtly, or sometimes not so subtly enforcing them, forces your players to work together and actually think about what they want to do. A 1st level character charging into combat, even 1 on 1, is likely to die. Enforcing the rules encourages group play and critical thinking to solve problems. Understanding the rules, as found in the Player’s Handbook, is the critical foundation on which a DM runs any D&D session. I recommend reading through the entire book once or twice, and taking notes on critical rules like ability checks, combat, and spellcasting. I’ve also created a Cheat Sheet for Players that is very handy for DM’s to keep as a printed resource in their DM binder. Check it out here.
Once a DM is comfortable with rules, they’ll start preparing for their first game session. This is a completely subjective experience for every person. Some might take volumes of notes in a myriad of formats, others might simply read through the module once or twice. You’ll need to find your preferred approach with an eye towards being able to present the world smoothly and without interruption to your players. This ties into a critical role of being a DM, Narration. You don’t have to be an expert storyteller, nor do you have to be an expert voice actor, but you should be comfortable and knowledgeable about the world or at least the immediate aspects of the world that your Players are exploring. Your familiarity with the plot and environment and your improvisational skills will provide the majority of what is needed to present a seamless and immersive world to your Players.
Finally a Dungeon Master is the organizer, planner, officiator, and mediator of the group. These all occur outside of the actual game but are critical parts to the DM role. Typically the DM will facilitate the planning for the next session, including a time, location, and requirements. This can be a challenge based on your location. In larger towns and most cities, finding a place that is either free or very cheap to play at is generally quite easy. In rural locations, this can be significantly more challenging. Playing in Littleton, NH where there are more moose than people is a challenge for finding a location. Often you or your players may be able to host at home, however this isn’t always an option based on distance, space, and family. Check out my guide to finding a place to play for both DM’s and players here.
One of the most difficult roles as a DM is that of an interpersonal manager. You may have many diverse personalities in your group, especially if it’s not a primary group of friends. Managing those personalities so that one does not monopolize the game or create barriers to success or enjoyment is an unfortunately critical role. Thankfully as a DM it’s not your responsibility alone. Encourage players to take initiative and to offer counter arguments or courses of action. If you notice players are being left out or ran over, make it a point to ask them what they would like to do. If one player is consistently forcing the parties hand into early combat or non-ideal situations, have an NPC call specifically to another player. Use the tools you have available to you as the Dungeon Master to minimize disruptive players as necessary without trampling their agency to play how they want.
Being a DM is a complex art. It’s as much storytelling, improvisation, and people management skills as it is knowledge of rules and preparations. If I can offer one piece of advice, don’t try to be a master of every role of being a DM. Focus on enjoying the art and the specific parts you enjoy. Do due diligence, but remember that nobody expects you to be perfect. Players truly do create their own worlds in their minds and influence it through their character interactions. It is your job to paint that world in broad strokes and to facilitate the players interactions with that world. Understanding NPC’s loose associations with the plot takes priority over hand writing a dozen lines of dialogue and knowing their entire background and history. Prioritize where necessary and remember to enjoy yourself.
I hope this article has helped shed some light on the fundamentals of being a Dungeon Master. Share your thoughts in the comments!
Nate, the Dungeon Master.