How to become a better DM

Dungeon Master's Guide

In the vast realms of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and other tabletop role-playing games, the Dungeon Master (DM) stands as the storyteller, the world-builder, and the orchestrator of epic adventures. It's the DM's skill, creativity, and finesse that breathe life into the unfolding narrative and shape the players' destinies.

If you're looking to don the DM mantle or become a better DM, you're in the right place. In this article, we'll delve into 11 tips to help you become a good DM, along with other crucial insights that will help you craft unforgettable tales and guide your players through thrilling adventures.

Is it fun being a DM?

Yes, it can be fun being a Dungeon Master! Being a DM can be an immensely enjoyable and rewarding experience. While it might seem like a lot of work, it offers several unique aspects that set it apart from being a player.

As a DM, you have the power to shape entire worlds, unleash your creativity, and watch your creations come to life. Crafting stories, designing settings, and inventing characters can be incredibly satisfying. The joy of seeing your players react to your narratives, dilemmas, and plot twists is a thrill like no other.

It provides a unique sense of accomplishment when you witness your players fully immersed in your world, their laughter, cheers, and gasps echoing your success. While it's different from being a player, the satisfaction derived from orchestrating an unforgettable adventure is a kind of fun that is truly unparalleled in the realm of tabletop role-playing games.

Tips for being a good DM in D&D

It's entirely natural to be nervous or anxious before stepping into the role of Dungeon Master. For those seeking guidance on managing these feelings, we have a dedicated guide offering advice for playing D&D with anxiety.

Here are our tips for becoming a good DM:

1. Manage your expectations

Dungeons & Dragons has evolved significantly over the years, with the rise of actual play streams like Critical Role often setting the bar high for aspiring Dungeon Masters. It's essential to remember that these are professionals who have dedicated their lives to their craft.

To become a better DM, start by understanding your unique style. Are you a merciful or a challenging DM? Do you strictly follow the rules or prefer to improvise? Are you more focused on creating immersive narratives or diving into intricate mechanics? Embracing your DM identity allows you to play to your strengths and deliver an authentic and engaging experience for your players. Remember, your style is what makes your games special, and there's no one-size-fits-all approach to being a great DM.

2. Prepare to just the right extent

Finding the balance between preparation and spontaneity is crucial. Every Dungeon Master has their own style, and it can take some trial and error to find your sweet spot. For new DMs, it might be better to err on the side of overpreparation for your initial sessions until you get a feel for the ideal level of readiness. However, avoid falling into the trap of feeling obligated to plan every tiny detail meticulously.

Overpreparation can lead to rigidity and a lack of flexibility when players inevitably go off-script. Instead, focus on creating a solid foundation: outline key plot points, design memorable NPCs, and craft a captivating setting. Leave room for improvisation and be prepared to adapt to your players' choices and actions. Embrace the unexpected, as some of the most memorable D&D moments arise from unscripted player decisions. Remember, D&D is a collaborative storytelling experience, and finding that perfect balance of preparation and spontaneity will keep your games engaging and enjoyable.

3. Keep your notes handy

In the world of Dungeons & Dragons, surprises are the norm, and it's essential to be prepared for the unexpected. To help you navigate these twists and turns, keep an assortment of resources within reach during your sessions. These might include rulebooks, the Dungeon Master's Guide, or a collection of loose papers and sticky notes. You might also want to keep some spare dice handy – for more information, check out our guide that explains how many dice a DM should have.

One of the most practical tools you can have on hand is a list of generic NPC names. Players have an uncanny knack for asking about characters you never anticipated, so having a pool of names at your fingertips can save you from that deer-in-the-headlights moment. Likewise, having a few spare monster stat blocks readily available can help during improvised combat encounters.

However, no matter how meticulously you plan, be mentally prepared for your carefully crafted storyline to go off the rails. The beauty of D&D lies in its unpredictability, and players will often surprise you with their decisions and actions. Embrace the chaos and remember that the unexpected can lead to some of the most memorable moments in your campaigns.

4. Don’t burn yourself out

The role of Dungeon Master can be incredibly rewarding, but it's crucial to avoid DM fatigue or burnout. The pressure to deliver fantastic sessions can lead to overworking yourself, which ultimately hinders your enjoyment of the game. Remember that D&D is meant to be fun for both players and the DM.

To prevent DM burnout, establish a manageable schedule that allows you to balance your DM duties with other aspects of your life. Don't feel compelled to run sessions too frequently if it's affecting your well-being. Taking breaks and setting realistic expectations for yourself is essential for sustaining your enthusiasm and creativity in the long run.

Also, try not to overextend yourself. Playing a PC as the DM might sound fun, but in reality it's another character sheet you have to keep track of. When you already have lots to think about, adding another character sheet, set of abilities, and inventory can be too much.

5. Learn more and improve yourself

One of the joys of being a Dungeon Master is the opportunity for continuous growth and learning. Fortunately, there's an abundance of resources available to help you enhance your DMing skills. Whether you're interested in worldbuilding, roleplaying, creating memorable NPCs, or mastering the art of voice acting, there are countless guides. Here are some that we recommend:

Take the time to explore these resources and learn from experienced DMs. Experiment with new techniques and strategies in your games. Embrace feedback from your players and be open to evolving your style. The path to becoming a better DM is an ongoing journey, and the more you invest in learning and improvement, the more rewarding your role at the gaming table will become.

6. Surround yourself with the right people

The people at your D&D table play a crucial role in shaping the experience. With a plethora of players available, both in-person and online, it's easier than ever to find a D&D group. However, it's essential not to settle for just any players. Taking the time to find the right people can greatly enhance your enjoyment as a DM. This includes finding the ideal D&D party size for you.

Consider using session 0 pre-game meeting to establish clear boundaries, discuss expectations, and reach a consensus on the kind of game you all want to play. This not only ensures that everyone is on the same page but also helps identify any potential issues or conflicts early on. Surrounding yourself with respectful, engaged, and like-minded players can turn your DMing experience into a truly memorable adventure.

7. Communicate with your players

Honest and open communication is the cornerstone of a successful Dungeon Master's journey. To improve your DMing skills, engage with your players regularly and ask for their feedback. What did they enjoy about the last session? What aspects didn't resonate with them? What would they like to see more of in future sessions? Inquire if they had fun, and if not, what could be improved.

At the end of each session, encourage your players to express their desires for the next session. This not only helps you tailor your adventures to their preferences but also demonstrates your commitment to crafting an enjoyable experience for everyone. Always provide opportunities for players to ask questions or seek clarification regarding any past sessions. Understanding your players' preferences, playstyles, and expectations is a valuable asset when preparing for your next session.

8. Be confident in yourself

Confidence is key when you're in the Dungeon Master's chair. Whether you prefer the ‘fake it until you make it’ approach or simply being yourself, projecting confidence in your role is vital. When rules are debated, which is quite common, sounding unsure can break immersion and remind players that they're in a fantasy world.

Instead, strive to be confident and decisive in your rulings. This helps maintain the game's flow and keeps players engaged in the story. Remember, you're the authority at the table. For example, if someone’s dice fall off the table, make a clear and decisive ruling about what happens, and communicate that with your players.

If you need a moment to think or gather your thoughts, don't hesitate to call for a quick break. Maintaining your composure and projecting confidence, even if you're learning on the go, can significantly enhance the D&D experience for both you and your players.

9. Lean into your players for support

Players can be a tremendous resource for Dungeon Masters. They often bring creative ideas and energy to the table, and you can harness this to enhance the game. If a player has written detailed backstories with NPCs, weave those characters into the campaign. If someone expresses interest in finding a specific magical item, craft a quest or adventure around obtaining it. This not only keeps players engaged but also empowers them to shape the story collaboratively.

However, it's essential to maintain a balance. You don't have to incorporate every suggestion or idea from your players. Use them as a source of inspiration, but feel free to adapt and repurpose their input to fit your narrative. In many cases, engaged and happy players translate to a satisfied DM.

Moreover, don't hesitate to delegate tasks to your players. Assign responsibilities like scheduling sessions, tracking initiative, or referencing rules during play. This shared workload helps create a more enjoyable and cooperative experience.

10. Prioritise self-care

Being a Dungeon Master can be demanding, both creatively and mentally. It's crucial to take time for self-care to ensure you're in the best state to run a game. Try starting your sessions with a brief ‘catch-up’ period, allowing everyone to chat before the game begins. This informal and relaxed moment can help ease any tension and help you calm down before diving into the game.

Taking these few minutes to connect with your players on a personal level not only strengthens your rapport but also fosters a more positive and relaxed atmosphere at the table. Remember that your well-being is essential for a successful and enjoyable D&D experience, so don't neglect self-care.

11. Remember you’re here to have fun

Never forget the primary purpose of playing Dungeons & Dragons: to have fun. As a Dungeon Master, you're there to facilitate this enjoyment for your players. Embrace the fact that mistakes are a natural part of the game. We're all human, and no one expects you to be perfect.

Sometimes, sessions might not go as planned, and that's perfectly okay. D&D is a low-stakes endeavour. A bad session is just that – one session out of many more to come. Learn from any hiccups, grow as a DM, and keep the focus on creating an enjoyable and engaging experience for everyone at the table.

By prioritising fun and embracing the occasional mishap, you'll create a positive gaming environment that fosters creativity, storytelling, and memorable adventures. After all, the essence of D&D lies in the shared enjoyment of weaving epic tales in a fantastical world.

Why is being a DM so hard?

Yes, being a DM is hard. It takes a lot of hard work to become a great Dungeon Master. This is because, fundamentally, the Dungeon Master’s role is creating the adventures the party will go on. You're the architect of the world, the narrator of the story, and the guide through the unknown. It's a multifaceted role that demands creativity, adaptability, and a knack for storytelling.

The more you DM, the better you will get. You, as the DM, are the thread that brings everyone at the table together - you create the world, shape its history, and breathe life into its inhabitants. It's a position of immense responsibility, but it's also one of boundless creativity and fulfilment. So be proud of that and go forth with confidence in yourself and your abilities. Even if you're not the most skilled version of yourself right now, on your DM journey, you will learn lessons and grow with enough practice.

Rules and mechanics can be quite complex and can occasionally be at odds with enjoyment. While rules are there to make a stable framework for games, part of being a good GM is knowing when to bend or break the rules in favour of enjoyment. This is called the ‘rule of cool’. It's about prioritising the epic, cinematic, and unforgettable moments over strict adherence to the rulebook.

Balancing this fine line between structure and spontaneity is another reason why being a DM can be a formidable challenge. But remember, with each challenge you overcome, you become a more adept and accomplished Dungeon Master.

What are good skills for a DM?

DMing online versus DMing in person presents distinct challenges. In-person games allow you to observe subtle cues like body language, facial expressions, and posture, enriching your understanding of your players' reactions. On the other hand, DMing online places greater emphasis on your voice, the descriptions you provide, and the visual aids you employ, such as character tokens, visual maps, and battle maps, to convey the world you're weaving.

To excel as a Dungeon Master, consider developing the following skills:

  • Interpersonal communication: the ability to convey information clearly, engage players in the narrative, and foster a collaborative storytelling experience.
  • Conflict resolution: managing in-game conflicts and ensuring a fair and enjoyable experience for all players, including dealing with problem players fairly.
  • Improvisation: quick thinking and the capacity to adapt to unexpected player choices or plot twists, keeping the game flowing seamlessly.
  • Adaptability: flexibility to adjust your storytelling and game mechanics to suit the preferences and needs of your players.
  • Emotional intelligence: empathy and the capacity to gauge your players' emotions and tailor the experience to their comfort and enjoyment.
  • Engagement: understanding that your players are not your adversaries (unless, of course, it's that kind of game). D&D is a collaborative storytelling experience, and your role is to create an engaging and immersive world that captivates your players.

DMing is a dynamic craft, and while these skills are valuable, each DM brings their unique style and strengths to the game. Practicing your DMing skills through one-shots or short adventures, where D&D only lasts one or a few sessions, can be a fantastic way to refine your abilities without the pressure of a long campaign. Ultimately, the most effective DMs are those who continuously strive to learn, grow, and adapt.

How can I be a more confident DM?

Building confidence as a Dungeon Master is an ongoing journey that can significantly enhance your storytelling prowess. Here are some strategies to boost your confidence:

  • Communicate with your players: ask your players what they expect from the next session or what kind of adventures they enjoy most. This feedback can guide your storytelling and help you tailor the game to their preferences.
  • Play more: practice makes perfect. The more you immerse yourself in the role of the DM, the more confident you'll become. If you are comfortable, try and host one-shots, short adventures, or even play D&D solo to refine your skills.
  • Understand the rules: a solid understanding of the rules can bolster your confidence. Read up on the game's mechanics, including abilities, spells, and combat rules relevant to your players’ characters.
  • Review your sessions: if your players are comfortable, consider recording your sessions and watching them afterward. While it's important not to be overly critical, reviewing the footage can help you identify areas for improvement.
  • Reflect on your experiences: instead of aiming for generic improvement, take time to assess your strengths and weaknesses as a DM. Seek out help or inspiration by watching other DMs online. While your expectations should be reasonable, observing experienced DMs can provide valuable insights and techniques.
  • Seek inspiration: explore different storytelling mediums such as books, movies, and podcasts, and analyse the techniques of great storytellers. Experiment with different character voices and narrative styles to expand your repertoire. Resources like The Monsters Know What They're Doing offer insights into creature tactics, if you want to improve your combat encounters for example.
  • Create content: challenge your creativity and knowledge of the game by crafting custom content. Design magic items, monsters, spells, races, classes, encounters, maps, and adventures. This not only enhances your understanding of the game but also infuses your campaign with unique elements.

Remember that confidence is a journey, and it's okay to make mistakes along the way. By continuously seeking to improve your skills, learning from others, and listening to your players, you'll become a more confident and effective Dungeon Master.

Can you be a DM without the DM’s guide?

Yes, you can be a DM without having read the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG). While the DMG is a treasure trove of tips, rules, and inspiration for DMs, it's not a mandatory prerequisite for running a successful game.

However, if you're new to the role of DM, the DMG can be an invaluable resource. It offers guidance on world-building, encounter design, and storytelling techniques that can help you navigate the complexities of running a D&D campaign. Additionally, it provides an extensive list of magical items, spells, and guidelines for creating custom content, which can be handy as your campaign progresses.

As a new DM, you might find it helpful to start with a one-shot adventure or a pre-written module like Dragons of Stormwreck Isle to get a feel for the role before diving into a fully-fledged campaign. These modules come with detailed instructions, maps, and NPCs, making your early DMing experiences more manageable.

How do you know if you’re a good DM?

The measure of a good Dungeon Master often boils down to a simple but vital factor: fun. If you and your players are having fun, you're likely doing a fantastic job as a DM. The key is creating an enjoyable and immersive experience that keeps everyone engaged and eager for the next session.

One significant sign of being a good DM is when your players feel included and comfortable expressing themselves in the game. A welcoming and respectful atmosphere allows everyone to contribute to the story, fostering a sense of agency and belonging.

Punctuality is another marker of success. If your players consistently show up on time, it's a testament to your ability to craft a compelling adventure that keeps them eager for each session. After all, a DM's world should be enticing enough to draw players in and make them look forward to the next installment.

So, don't be too hard on yourself; if you're creating a fun, inclusive, and timely gaming experience, you're likely a great DM. Keep refining your skills, listen to feedback, and enjoy the journey of storytelling and adventure with your players.

Being a Dungeon Master is an exhilarating journey, offering endless opportunities for creativity and storytelling. As you embark on this quest to become a better DM, remember that practice makes perfect. Embrace the learning process, and cherish the moments of laughter, suspense, and awe that you and your players will experience together.

As you enhance your DMing skills, don't forget to explore our range of D&D dice sets and tabletop accessories. Whether you're looking for exquisite dice sets or practical tools to enhance your gaming experience, we have you covered. Elevate your adventures, and may the dice roll ever in your favour!

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