On a Guide for New Dungeon Masters

What's the difference between most games and role playing games?

The Dungeon Master.

Call them what you want -- the idea that one person creates a world while the others play in it is both the greatest strength and critical weakness of role-playing games.

How do you Dungeon Master well?

Here's the most effective beginners guide you'll ever read!


Calm down. Take a deep breath.

You are going to hang out with your friends for a few hours. It's going to be fun.

You don't have to entertain them. You are not responsible for their fun. Your job is to present interesting situations and facilitate the game. Responding to your players, listening to what they have to say, and deducing what they are interested in, while reacting to their crazy plans, is fun for you and will insure they have a good time.


You hang out with your friends all the time. Screw all that stuff. That stuff is there for resources when you go looking for it. You don't have to do anything, other than a minimal amount of preparation. Sometimes as little as 15 minutes.


You are preparing an environment for your friends to adventure in. Some games come with a strong built in structure (Shadowrun, Dungeons & Dragons). Some games come with a player driven structure (Vampire: The Masquerade).

You come up with an idea or structure for the adventure.

It is ok, and certainly a good idea, for your first game to be explicit about this structure! You can simply say "You have gathered together to explore the mystery of the Dungeon of Dragon Mountain for the reward offered by the town council." Or "You meet with your Johnson and he tells you the mission is to extract a Saeder-Krupp employee for 10,000 credits each." Or "You have all gathered together to meet the Prince of Hot Springs. He says your first task as his subjects is to clear out a gang of drug dealers operating out of one of his bars."

Remember. The Play is the Thing.


Well, you flesh out the structure of the adventure.

How do you do that?

It's up to you!

See, you are the one who is going to be running this adventure. You should prepare it in a way that works for you.(1) You know best how you work. Here are the basics:

All traditional role-playing game design is effectively the same. Your players will be playing characters that will be interacting with you and each other in a scene. These scenes will have some method of connecting with each other.

In each scene you will have one or more of six things.

An antagonist, a reward, something unusual, a plot twist or unexpected challenge, something bad or harmful or nothing (Monster, treasure, special, trick, trap and nothing)


Essentially yes. You should conceive or design at least 5 of these to last for a four to six hour session. Some games (like in Dungeons & Dragons) it's very easy to conceive of more so that the players can choose which ones they want to encounter. But it isn't terribly difficult in other games either. A successful scene in Vampire, for example requires nothing but an antagonist.

Even in free form games these connections between scenes can be explicit. In a dungeon your exits and corridors act as connections between the scenes, but even in a game like Vampire, after the prince gives you your mission, you can say "Do you wish to contact the Justicar for supplies, Jeff's sire for guidance, or return to your haven to plan?"


For creating your first session, that's it!

In general, your game is improved by having a scene for each of the following five items.

  • Introduction
  • Puzzle or Role-Playing Opportunity
  • Red Herring
  • Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict
  • Plot Twist


Oh yeah? Let me tell you how you're going to screw it up.

You are going to imagine an exciting scene and then be tempted to try to force it to happen. Don't. This is agency destroying.

You are going to imagine a wonderful NPC, and then have him do all sorts of cool, bad-ass things. Don't. Nothing is less fun then sitting listening to how awesome someone else is. Seriously. The Worst.

Fudging the game. If you feel the need to fudge (change) a die roll, then you rolled a die for something you shouldn't have. Be very careful! If you are playing with adults, letting bad things happen to them will benefit the game, because then their choices have meaning. It is important that players feel a sense of agency. This includes such traditional errors such as having the bad guy escape/teleport away at the last second.

Attempting to dictate player actions. Don't. You want to know what's worse than a conversation about religion or politics? A discussion about what someone's character should do! Like any conversation not based in verifiable fact, it goes nowhere. Worse, the player takes it as a personal critique. If the players behavior is disruptive, then it should be dealt with directly and assertively; not using the argument 'your character wouldn't do that' to avoid a confrontation.

Opening your big fat mouth about what you had planned or what they missed. Don't. Talking about this stuff makes the game less fun for the players. Let them enjoy the sense of mystery.

Wanting things to happen. Let it go. No, Let It Go. Really. Let them miss the treasure or avoid the encounter. It feels like you are wasting work or they are missing fun, but in the end your players have to have the freedom to fail. There are always ways of reusing content.

Making the players jump through hoops. Don't. If it seems like they are about to make a colossally stupid decision then you have failed to communicate well. Don't punish them because you presented a situation poorly; clear up the misunderstanding. This can also be known as pixel bitching.

You may think there's only one solution to your situation. There's not. Design encounter with flexible solutions and allow the opportunity for your players to come up with their own solutions.


Some general advice.

Consistency. Prepare in a way that's clear to you and take a moment to write down things that you develop in play, like names of NPC's (or if you're really dedicated, record sessions).

Don't worry about rules. If you're smart enough to be running a game, you probably don't need to be told this, but you might have some compulsion or hang-up on 'doing it correctly'. Don't waste time during the game looking for the correct rule in the book. Make a judgement call and move on. Look it up later.

Listen to player comments, both in game and out of game. Let them know how you will address their actions in the future. Don't defend or debate your previous choices. Simply acknowledge what they are saying.

Involve the players. Remember, the game is about player choices. They are playing a game. If you just have them sit there powerless to affect things that are happening they will not be having fun.

Make sure the players are informed about their options. A choice between two identical dungeon corridors isn't a choice. It's a random selection. Make sure that for any choice, the players are given at least one piece of information about that choice.


A final word. A lot of advice is about how to handle problem situations. But the fact is, if you are having problems situations often it isn't a problem with the game. It's a personal issue. If you think to yourself "Ah-ha! He didn't say he lit a torch! Take 1-6 damage because you fall in the dark!" you do not need advice on how to DM. You need advice on how to get your needs met in an appropriate way in life.

 (1)This could be different locations in a sandbox environment, Designing a flow-charted space or sequence of events, (making sure you do so in a format that's useful to you). or using a more advanced technique, such as outlining a spider web of non-player character influences.

Like this post? Support me on Patreon!

On the Most Useful Tool

Why isn't Abulafia bigger than it is?

(What's Abulafia, you say)

It's a wiki, filled with random generators for RPG's.

So you can go there, and click a link like Taverns, and BAM. You instantly have a tavern.

What's that? Not quite interesting enough for you? Maybe you have a table you like better? WELL IT'S A WIKI, so get on it and start adding.

There are several obnoxious hurdles to getting started. Here, today we are going to cover them all.


  • Spam problems require e-mailing the owner Dave Younce to open an account. He says "If you need to contact me directly, I am on G+ or you can email me on gmail using my first and last name with a . inbetween."
  • You create a new page by searching for the title of the page! It will bring up mentions of the phrase, and a red link that you can click to create the page.
  • You can edit current tables to make them more interesting by just editing the wiki.
  • An Example:
    • [main]
    • ;main
    • 1,you find 8 swords
    • 1,you find 8 bows
  • You create new tables using the tag [main]. Iterations ("X") is the number of times the table runs. 
  • [main] links to the table, listed below within the tags as ";main" without the quotes.
  • Brackets link to subtables.
  • The numbers in the tables are relative percentages.
  • Subtables can be from any page on the site, or further down on the same page! You could find 8 [items] and create an ;items table with the options, bows, swords, rats, shields etc.
  • What's really useful about this?

    You are probably gaming on a computer or with a tablet at the table. You can create your own user page, where you have links to all the tables.

    Then while you are gaming, you can simply click the link to the table to randomly generate results instead of having to roll dice or reference tables!

    Here's a sample of some of the gold that's on the site!

    Someone else converted my Armor Generation table from my posts about Armor I and II!
    Holy crap, look at these 1e DMG tables!
    Automated Megadungeon Zone Names? From my blog? Don't mind if you do!
    You know the Endless Bag of Tricks from Roger GS? Here it is, automated!

    Now who's going to start turning the Dungeon Dozen into tables?

    That's right, YOU!

    On Points About the Hit

    I was listening to the D&D Next G+ hangout.

    They say: Everyone handles hit points differently.

    One person (I forget who) says "I like to have everyone heal up to half hit points after the battle!" because that is the part of wounds that aren't physical damage?

    This made no sense to me. But it did spark an idea.

    Real physical wounds count up from zero.
    Stamina, fatigue, and luck wounds count down from the total.
    Subdual, non-lethal damage, is tracked as an integer, added to the physical wound total.

    When the numbers meet, characters fall down.

    This allows many variations, criticals do real damage, all wounds do 1 point of real damage, etc. Just a new and interesting way of looking at hit point damage.

    On Reader Mail, Skills a Road in the Middle

    "My question concerns the skill system that you pointed out (Skills: The Middle Road).  Could you give me a little more background about how you use the system?  Is the system only used for opposed checks, or can the system be used for "static" checks (like using blacksmithing to make a horseshoe or to recognize a statue using a knowledge of ancient history)?  Do you use "static" checks like that in your game?  If not, how do you determine what the player knows?

    Do you compile a list of defined skills that the character has when he is created or is it "free form" and it is determined if the character has the skill (and what to what level he has mastered it) when the player makes a decision that would require a check?"

    Sure! I'd be glad to talk about Skills: The Middle Road. It's a great system, and I love it! It's a good system because it's simple, skills aren't tied to level, and it doesn't prevent any player from attempting skills.

    Many of your questions are about how people use skills in general. I talk a lot about skills and how to use them while maintaining agency. Let's take a look at your questions.

    Is the system only used for opposed checks, or can the system be used for "static" checks (like using blacksmithing to make a horseshoe or to recognize a statue using a knowledge of ancient history).   Do you use "static" checks like that in your game?  If not, how do you determine what the player knows?

    I would say that I use the system almost universally just for static checks. But often they are static checks for character abilities, not player knowledge. This is because I am unconcerned about mechanically representing what the player knows - I talk about it at length here, but in the example you gave, what would be gained by preventing them from making a horseshoe or recognize a statue? Neither of them improves the game. 

    Do you compile a list of defined skills that the character has when he is created or is it "free form" and it is determined if the character has the skill (and what to what level he has mastered it) when the player makes a decision that would require a check?"

    That depends on the campaign. For a traditional D&D campaign or sandbox driven by player involvement, I usually keep a fairly free-form system, allowing players to pick whatever skills they feel they need to define their character. For Numenhalla, my megadungeon campaign, I have a very specific list of skills, each with a very specific mechanical function.

    On the Hobby Factory

    I've been collating my Numenhalla material in a single notebook, and updating some of my design.

    Designing a campaign setting (much less one you are preparing for playtesting for pre-publication) is less like trying to build a car, then it is trying to assemble all parts of the car simultaneously without assistance, mechanical or otherwise.

    Just a short selection of the inter-relationships of a single area that must be dealt with. . .

    Random encounter tables, requiring a NPC party generator, faction descriptions, new monster descriptions and dragon generator. Monsters requires a trinket generator for items found on the monster. Each area requires its own rumor tables, treasure maps, and faction quests. Each area, requires that you are aware of every connected node to the area. And this hasn't even begun to touch the actual design required for each area. All these things have to be functional, unique, and interesting for each area.

    It's a lot of work.

    The payoff? Being calm, collected, and having your players be very, very, certain it is their own fault that their characters died.

    On a Small Gift

    Look at what I did for you!

    It is less meaningful in the sense of "Oh, I can complete that task of rolling fifty pairs of dice instantly' and more meaningful in the sense of 'Oh, I figured out how to use abulafia.'

    On the Misrepresentation of Facts II

    Did you hear, the blogosphere is dying!

    Rank Idiocy.

    Some people have commented lately that there don't seem to be as many blog posts as of late. They have drawn the conclusion from this that the era of OSR and blogging is done!

    Here are today's "MYTHS OF THE BLOGOSPHERE" dispelled.

    The blogosphere/role-playing/gaming is dying!

    For those of you lost at home, let's take a look at exactly what is happening.

    1. It's summer. People universally post less in the summer, because gaming is a seasonal activity.
    2. Both I and Chris Kutalik of Hill Cantons have recently become new fathers. 
    3. Heavy hitting bloggers like Jeff Reints (Broodmother Sky Fortress), Michael Curtis (Dungeon Alphabet Reprint), and James Maliszewski (Dwimmermount) are hard at work on new projects. I've had fewer opportunities to post because I've been busy at work finishing Alchemy.
    4. People are actually gaming a lot more, which means more discussion on G+, more time spent playing games, and more time spend using blogs for archival purposes instead of actual discussion.
    5. For all the people who have lost interest and drifted out of blogging, new people have been drifting in, and you haven't been adding them. So although the blogosphere is as rich as it ever was, you just aren't reading it!
    Everyone misses the old days and wishes that Cyclopetron would post again, or Sham, or that Gogonmilk might post more often. Even older, how nice it would be to see another post from the old days of Sickly Purple Death Ray or more frequent updates from Beyond the Black Gate.
    So what to do about your blogsphere being empty? Here are the current heavy hitters in the blogosphere. I've given a bit of description to each one, so you aren't clicking through blindly. I'd bold the ones worth following, but if they are in the list, they are worth following.

    Now can we stop propagating myths and get back to writing about games?

    On the Expert

    There's been some talk about the thief lately.

    I have a very elegant solution and wish to share.

    This system works no matter which version you run.

    I have eliminated the thief class and replaced it with a class called Expert. Expert works exactly like a thief regarding saves, hit points, and all other relevant aspects of the thief class except for the following differences.

    Experts can re-roll any one roll they make, once per session per level. This is to support their playstyle niche which is risk-taker.

    Experts select 5 skills from the following list. They do this instead of gaining their default skills. I use Skills: the Middle Road* as the system in my game because it doesn't tie skills into level, but X in d6 or % both work. Each level the thief selects a new skill, or raises a skill from skilled to expert to master.

    The key to this following list is each of these skills resolves a specific in game 'lock'. It is a literal toolset as the magic users bag of spells, or the fighters bag of murder.

    Agility/Athletics: For resolving feats of derring do.
    Alchemy: For the creation and identification of alchemical items.
    Appraisal: For determining the value of objects in the dungeon.
    Arcana: For the identification and use of out of class magic items (wands/scrolls, etc.)
    Backstab: For doing additional damage in combat.
    Healing: For restoring hp to comrades after a battle.
    Listening: For gathering information behind closed doors.
    Nature Affinity: For calming and working with animals. This also allows you to use your charisma to have animal companions in addition to henchmen.
    Poison Use: Use, identify and treat poison.
    Campaign Specific Lore skills: Specifically useful skills that provide additional info in your campaign.
    Sleight of Hand: Picking pockets, palming, and other feats of prestidigitation.
    Stealth: Hiding, Movement to surprise monsters, and taking a round to set up a backstab in combat.
    Stonelore: Identification of slopes, new construction, sliding walls, pit traps depth underground and stonework.
    Tinkering/Devices: Disarming traps on chests and doors. and working with machinery.

    Note that searching and parley are not on the list by design. The X in 6 chances to locate secret doors once players have given up looking and reaction rolls are not systems that are improved by allowing people to become 'skilled' in them. It is highly likely those will become 'skill taxes'.

    The difference between these skills and the usual assortment, is that each of these provides a specific in game mechanical use. There aren't skills for flavor or background (those should be non-mechanical in nature). The system is expandable for subsystems you might use in your campaign (such as my alchemy rules)

    *All non-supernatural tasks have a target number of two to seven. Those unskilled may attempt a task by rolling a d6. Those skilled at a task roll a d8. Those that are experts at a task roll a d10. Those that are masters roll a d12. Target numbers may be modified situationally.

    On the Thursday Trick, An Index

    There have been a lot of Thursday Trick posts, a bit too many to keep running after them with tags. I've done a fairly thorough overview of basic trap types and adding agency to them.

    I've created an index for the series that lists each trap and gives a small description. This should give some guidance to those who are looking for a specific trap.

    The index is located at the top of the page, as one of the blog pages.
    Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...