10 June 2012

How To Be A DM

Saruman, the master of dungeons

Apparently there's a lot of confusion, because people are always asking for advice on how to be a DM. But it's actually easy. Look at that picture up there. That's Saruman, the White Wizard. He's famous mostly for being a dick, for being a thorn in the side of the heroes and massing a gigantic army that, while threatening, never really did much aside from make the important people (the Fellowship, if you haven't heard) basically get really nervous and keep them on track.

To be a decent DM, Saruman needs to be you. Setting aside the old debates of how much you should prepare (however much you need based on your ability to improvise), or whether you should run a premade adventure for your first couple sessions as a DM (probably), or even what system to run for your first games (who cares?), you need to be able to give the players something to do, and make them earn it. That's it.

The Lord of the Rings wouldn't have been even half as good as it was if the Fellowship walked to Mordor by hacking their way through a horde of impossibly inept orcs, found 1d10 x100 gold in a cave, six magic swords and a greater artifact and then casually tossed the ring into the volcano while the realm cheered would it? The characters, instead, suffered their way through the world. They squabbled, split up, snuck around, got stupid and got captured, talked with elves and tried to figure out Mr. Gollum. They wandered through hellscapes, had their fingers bitten off, got poisoned, lost one of their friends, nearly got eaten by a giant spider, and so on and so on and so on. It was difficult. It was deadly. It was interesting.

And that needs to be you. I've read a lot about how to be a DM, and I've read about both good DMs and bad DMs. I'll be honest- some of the successful sessions that people report online seem like the most boring sessions in the world, full of melodrama, or hours of endless tactical combat, or whatever. But it works for them, and do you want to know why? Because they're giving their players (who aren't me) what they want, and they're making them work for it. That's it. Take your player's goal, and put it on the other side of the world. Put it inside a volcano, through a cave filled with spiders and trolls. Put another good guy in between them, and have them have an honest misunderstanding. Just do something. Make them sweat. Make them wonder if they'll win or if they'll lose.

The Mouth of Saruon, sweating a bit

My advice? Get ready because this is hard for new DMs: Really let them lose if they mess up. Make their mistakes matter. Make there be consequences. You want to see them really sweat? Make your players understand that if they do mess up, there aren't any Deus Ex Machina waiting in the corner to save them. There aren't any DM-controlled characters ready to rush in to help them along. There isn't any "You failed but it turns out it doesn't matter anyways! Yay!" There's no better way to cheapen victory than to make defeat hollow.

On the flip side, don't make losing so harsh that the game might as well be over. So Frodo dies on the way to destroy the ring and now Gollum has it. So now what happens? Does Sauron come back? What do the players do about it? Do they rally the kingdoms of Men? Do they reforge Narsil (the sword that sliced Sauron's hand in the first place) and find a champion to wield it? Do they help in the defense of the remaining keeps and castles? Make the consequences of losing almost as fun as what happens if they win.

Remember: You're Saruman, not Gandalf. You're the evil mastermind plotting against them. It's not quite a perfect analogy, since you're the DM, not an opponent. You could easily win if you want ("Rocks fall and you all die. Game over."), and you could make the players win if you wanted to ("You walk from the Shire to Mordor. Nothing happens on the way. You throw the One Ring in and you win. The realm hails you as its champion. Game over.") So don't do either. Let the players do it. 
It's kind of what they're playing the game for.

If you remember one phrase from this post, let it be that: Let the players do it.

Take this knowledge, go forth, and have fun. That's how to be a DM.

Now go DM.


  1. Great post. Gaming reflectIng life. The students I lead are on a journey. My motto is : Don't do for a kid what a kid can do for themselves. Sounds like you nailed that philosophy in your post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Amen.

    My greatest D&D memories are all TPKS, or near TPKS, or surviving an epic battle with 1 HP, or getting the Magic Doohickey Needed to Save the World but immediately losing it because the PC who took it had been cursed to lose the next magic item he got.

    THAT is action, tension and drama. I wouldn't have it any other way.

  3. This is a great post. Even if I don't consider myself as a Saruman-like GM (actually I believe that the role stands for making things fun, but what is fun in a given game depends on the group and system) I find it very true.

    There is nothing worse that having everything served and not having to struggle during the entire campaign. But if every plan gets thwarted, that's also not funny.

    In other words, I give my players challenges and see how they try to overcome them. By wits or brute force, avoidance or head-first, it does not matter to me. As long as everybody's having fun, that is.

  4. I really appreciate this post as I'll be GMing soon (Pathfinder) for the first time in 20+ years (yeah, I took a really long gaming break). I've been listening to podcasts, reading articles, and exposing myself to as many different GMs and gaming groups as possible in preparation. I want my first campaign to be memorable and fun for my players.

    This article is giving me lots to think about. :)