How to Be a Better Dungeon Master

Want to level-up your Dungeon Mastering skills and learn from others while still keeping your own sense of creativity? Give these three tips a try…

1. Run a Published Adventure

Professional campaign books have come a long way. Over the years, there’ve been classic, original and AD&D modules like Keep on the Borderlands or Temple of Elemental Evil. Adventure modules were even printed monthly in Dungeon Magazine – if you’re old enough to remember printed magazines. 

Paizo also did an outstanding job over the years with their Adventure Paths for Pathfinder. 

And for 5e, we’re lucky enough to have the Wizards of the Coast adventure books like Curse of Strahd or Tales from the Yawning Portal.

Keep in mind that professional adventure books are just that: professional. They were designed and developed by a group of experts. Just take a look at the credits. You’ll see a lead designer, story designers, art directors, cartographers, and the list goes on.

So if you’re just stepping into your role as a DM, running a published adventure may be a great way to start. You’ll see how a group of experts plan their story with encounters and maps, handle treasure and experience, and do a ton of things that you probably haven’t considered. 

Then again, some of you may be thinking, Brian, I want to run my own adventures. That’s why I became the DM in the first place. I hear you. I do. I actually didn’t run a published adventure until years after I had started DM-ing. And yes, “DM-ing” is a verb in my world.

But here’s the thing: I probably would have been a better DM sooner if I had run a published adventure. I would have had a better understanding of how the system worked as a whole. It’s one of the reasons that the D&D 5e Starter Set includes the Lost Mine of Phandelver, because it shows you how to be a DM and ramps you up into that responsibility.

I’ll offer you a compromise though. If you don’t want to run a published adventure first, at least read through and study one. You’ll see how they put it together, and you’ll be able to apply that knowledge to your own home-brew campaign design

However, in my humble opinion, it’s best to start with what the game designers (and I mean D&D game designers) had in mind first, then change whatever you like. Which brings me to my next point. 

2. You’re the DM change, whatever you want.

The biggest and maybe most underutilized tool, believe it or not, is the ability to change it on the fly. 

Is the encounter much easier than you had planned it to be? Good. Change it on the fly. 

Harder than you planned? Good. Change it on the fly. 

Players take things in a completely different direction from what you had planned? Good. Change it on the fly. 

I know, I know. That’s easy to say. But how do you actually change it on the fly? In some ways this advice is kind of vague because I could never describe every circumstance where you have to change it on the fly. 

But here are some specific examples to get you thinking in the right direction. 

So let’s go back to the first one: The encounter is too easy. 

  • If the players are walking right through it. Add an environmental feature. This could be a thunderstorm or an earthquake or a swarm of locusts…whatever you’d like.
  • Then call for disadvantage on attack rolls, or ability checks, or saving throws, or concentration checks…whatever makes the most sense. 

What if the encounter is too hard and you’re worried about a TPK?

Maybe you chose the wrong bad guys for the party’s level, or maybe you threw too many at them. It’s okay. It happens. And we learned. So here are a couple of really easy options.

  • Decrease the bad guys’ AC. Making it a little easier to hit the bad guys keeps the intent of the encounter, but it tones it down. So it’s closer to what you had planned for the characters. 
  • Decrease the bad guys’ hit points. The players don’t know what the hit points were to start with so it’s much less noticeable when you do it. 

Remember that these are your monsters and villains and they have whatever hit points and abilities and special powers and hair color that you want them to have. It does not have to match the adventure book or the monster manual.

As a point of caution, whatever you do, don’t have NPCs arrive and just save the day. That takes the game away from the players. And I’ve made this mistake before and instantly regretted it. You can actually just see it on your players’ face when they feel like they just got that taken away from them.

So what about that example of the players going in a completely different direction than you planned for. By the way, this is going to happen all the time.. 

This can actually be one of the best things that can happen to your campaign. If you see it in the right light. If you see that the players take the game in a reasonable and appropriate-fo- the-story direction, why fight it? Just go with it. It’s their game too. 

For example, you have a murder mystery scenario that you’ve been working on. The players are investigating it well, and you’ve planned the true villain. You’ve left clues along the way. You may even be worried that you made it too obvious 

And then the players all think someone else did it. Well, crap.

It’s okay. First, is it absolutely necessary for the villain to be the one that you planned? If so, no worries. Maybe the person that the players guessed is an underling of the BBEG. 

Or does it make sense that it could be the players’ guess instead? If so, change on the fly! 

You’re the only one who will know that it changed. Don’t be too stubborn to accept this gift. They will think they did a great job working out all the clues and may even think that you did an amazing job at putting together this murder mystery. 

3. Don’t change too much. 

Okay. Brian, your geek philosophy is starting to sound a little contradictory.

Well, yes, but as a great Jedi once said, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.I will do what I must.” 

Sometimes the players will take the story in a direction that you didn’t plan for and you won’t be able to think of a change in the moment that would make the session successful.

First, you have to acknowledge that the players came up with a great idea. Don’t make them think that they’re screwing something up because they want to do something different than you had planned. 

You need to let them know that you didn’t think of this scenario. It’s a great idea, but you didn’t plan for it.You want to help take them in this direction, but you need some time to put it together.

If they’re okay with postponing the game until you’ve had a chance to prepare for the new direction that they want to take it in, then awesome. That’s it. 

  1. Press pause
  2. Ask for a little time to prep. 
  3. Then run the revised session.

It’s a great way of making sure people stay happy and the game keeps going. The key here is finesse. It’ll take practice, but it’ll also ensure that everybody has fun.

Here’s a small caveat. Sometimes they might say, “You know what, let’s go with the original plan.” This is likely because they just want to play. And as long as everybody’s okay with that, go for it.