The Five Crimes of Dungeon Masters

We’ve already discussed that when gaming parties go bad that you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villianry. There’s an analogy about one bad apple and a basket of fruit somewhere in there, but I think Star Wars covered it. This type of game destroying behavior isn’t just limited to the players. The dungeon master (DM) can be just as liable and the behavior just as destructive.

In some cases it can actually be worse. Since a DM holds all the cards, they can usually mitigate the circumstances when one PC goes rogue (pun!). In contrast, there’s very little the party can do about a bad DM. So here they are, the five biggest crimes a dungeon master can commit. As before, they’re presented in no particular order.

Excessive Railroading

One of the great struggles that DMs have is keeping the players from venturing off the main story too much. We know that can be hard since players get distracted easily by shiny things or stuff they can kill. At times a DM may need to nudge the party in one direction or another, or briefly take away choices like whether to enter the dungeon or not for the sake of the greater game. This can easily be abused.

The biggest advantage Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) has over other games is the level of freedom it offers. The go anywhere and do anything concept is why many of us reach for dice before reaching for a console controller. We’re sure the story you developed is lovely. We’re certain that we’d love the characters or revel in the little flavor text as we enter a new dungeon (“the pungent smell of mildew emanates”). That’s all well and good, but D&D is not like story time at the library. Players are not sitting around just waiting to be wow’d by the DM.

In fact, it’s better to aspire to a goal which in current trends is called “emergent story.” The name is something of a misnomer because, really, there is no story. The only plot is what happens at the table when the d20s start flying.

As DM, you create NPC motivations and create events in your campaign world, but the only story being told is the one that you and the players create together. Monte Cooks says “While being a Dungeon Master is a wildly creative enterprise, the idea of “DM as storyteller” gives me pause because, in truth, the entire group is the storyteller. The DM creates a world and characters and plots, but the story doesn’t get told until everyone at the table gets involved” in one of the more recent Legends & Lore.

Table Tyrants

You should try to keep a firm hand on the tiller as DM, and don’t let strong personalities cause the game to fall apart, but there’s a difference between responsible torch-bearing and becoming totally inflexible. If players want something special in the game, try and give it to them. From homebrew classes to the chance to get knighted to a long-term goal of ascending to godhood, letting players live out their fantasies is what the game is all about. It’s why we play RPGs, after all.

The “Say Yes” movement was never more prominent than in the days of 4th Edition’s launch, but recently that zeal has been tempered with prudence. Say yes to your players, because it keeps them invested in the game when they can do what they want, but don’t blindly turn the game into a giveaway where the PCs fill their pockets with powerups in the style of the most loot-happy MMOs. In fact, giving your players an inch is a great opportunity to twist their dreams into something fiendish. Learn from the best on this one: Read Chris Perkins’ column.

Also remember that as the DM you are running the entire game and thus the table. It is your job to control everything from the pace of the game to how much time you allow for out of character shenanigans. Of course people are there to hang out as well as play so they’ll be plenty of inside jokes, pop culture references, pauses to watch a Youtube video and memories of gaming sessions long past.

There’s a time and a place for all of this, and it may be necessary for the DM to refocus everyone from time to time. That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t mean a DM should lord over everyone else at the table and create rules about what can or cannot be said. D&D is a very social experience and everyone isn’t going to be in character every second.

Trying to Win

We said it once and we’ll say it again. There is no way to actually win D&D. Players can’t win and the DM can’t win. A total player kill does not mean you won, it means that somewhere along the line you failed at your game design, or maybe your players are really incompetent. Either way, if that’s your goal as a DM you should probably go play a different game.

As a DM you need to remember that this is not your game or your story. A D&D adventure is a collective effort. Your job as the DM is not to “win” anything, it is to help that story along and make it as exciting and fun as possible. If you do want to define a win condition for yourself, count your victories by the number of players that return to your table the next time you want to run a game. Beyond that, nothing else matters.

Preparation has serious advantages

Lack of Preparation

Not everyone is cut out to be a DM, and being a good D&D player doesn’t mean you’re automatically a shoe in to get behind the screen. Players can just sit down at the table, crack open a can of Mountain Dew and be off without too much trouble. DMs cannot do that, they must prepare.

A DM who stops every five minutes to look up a rule or decide what is going to happen next is awful. You don’t need to spend days putting together a session, but even an hour of prep can make all the difference.

Of course a DM will have to ad lib eventually, especially if they aren’t railroading the party at every turn. Even so, a DM should try to think of how a party might act and at least have some notes on what to do if the players do something rash. Maybe have stats for town guards or an encounter at the inn already planned out in case insanity strikes and the party decides to start a bar room brawl or assault the armory.

Holding a Grudge

DMs take a lot of time to prepare for games. They have to devise stories, balance encounters, build skill checks, develop characters and basically construct a world out of nothing, all while trying to manage of group of characters who at any time might deviate and create untold havoc. Sort of a thankless job at times.

That being said, the best laid plans of even the most diligent DM are GOING to be destroyed from time to time. This is inevitable, and as a DM you need to just accept it. Jeff Rients, an excellent games blogger in his own right, espouses a mantra of “Your NPCs suck and they are all going to die.” Holding a grudge against the party because they easily beat an encounter you thought would crush them, or found a way to take advantage of some loophole you forgot to account for is petty AT BEST.

If this happens, just make another encounter and maybe challenge the players more, but don’t succumb to cheating. Don’t start fudging dice rolls in your favor or using monsters with stats that you know will make it nearly impossible for the party to hit them. Your players will quickly deduce what is happening and once the DM/player relationship goes sour, you might as well just take your dice and go home.

Here are a few other crimes that aren’t quite as bad, but should still be avoided (mostly related to those dreaded NPCs):

  • Having NPCs talk to each other (we aren’t here for a one man show).
  • Using NPCs as a way for the DM to lead the party and act as a PC.