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Friday, July 10, 2015

Dungeons & Dragons - The Difficulties of Being a Dungeon Master

In today's article, I am going to use art by Todd Lockwood, who seems to really like painting dragons. In this image above, we can see a red dragon backing up a who's who of D&D: Mordenkainen (Greyhawk), Kylie (Planescape), Elminster (Forgotten Realms), Raistlin (Dragonlance) Strahd Von Zarovich (Ravenloft), and... a space marine.

I've been doing a lot of D&D work lately. I decided to go full steam ahead on my Planescape campaign. I've been reading and preparing classic Planescape scenarios by Monte Cook and Chris Perkins.

While doing this, I was thinking about the type of dungeon master I am. I mulled over my flaws and how to improve. I am keenly aware that my group likes it best when I give them almost complete control. They "wake up" and get into all sorts of shenanigans. But when I run a published adventure, they tend to sit back and go along for the ride. They are almost startled when there is a moment that they have to make a big decision. Yet here I am running published adventures, because I enjoy running official "classic" stuff.

Common Pitfalls of Running a Game

I was thinking about the other dungeon masters I've encountered in my life, and just how hard it is to be a truly good DM. These are the types of dungeon masters I've run into over the years who've fallen into one kind of trap or another:
  • The DM who pummels you in every encounter, but then saves you when you should die.
  • The DM who is on a complete power trip but needs your praise and tries to get it through presentation of cool concepts or NPCs.
  • The new DM who has a lot of potential but is crippled by insecurity, ultimately second-guessing themselves right out of the DM chair.
  • The DM who has their pet NPC/character that is super-awesome and does everything while the PCs watch on resentfully.
  • The old school DM who is set in their ways, hates all new rules or ideas, and resents the modern concept of game balance.
  • The DM who lets their significant other get special treatment over everyone else.
  • The meticulous DM who is such a perfectionist that it takes them months to run a single session of campaign.
The Great Dungeon Master Conference Call

I decided that I wanted to see where other DMs of the world were at mentally. So I asked people on reddit to talk about what kind of DM they were, and I collected the responses. I have sifted through this information, looking for trends and common themes, to see if there are any particular things that most DMs have in common. What are people struggling with? What kind of games do they run?

I got about 50 responses in under 24 hours. Not too shabby! I broke the whole thing down into 4 categories. We'll go over them one at a time:


I wanted to know how the dungeon masters of the world ran their games - on the fly? Beer and pretzels? Super-serious? Here was the number one response, by far:

Stick to the Rules, but Allow for Creative Ideas: Almost every single person said this is what they do. One DM cited an example of allowing a wizard to disarm a foe through the clever use of a teleportation spell.

Making It Up as you Go Along: I was shocked at how many DMs said they run their games "on the fly". It might have been 30% or more! This makes sense to a degree, as a lot of people simply don't have the time to prepare a campaign. I admire this balls to the wall attitude, but I personally am terrible at it.

One comment many of these free-wheeling adrenaline junkies made was that their method was to think about the NPCs in the campaign and what they would do. Then, they'd just react to what the PCs did, or operate on their own schedule. I've done this quite a bit and it always works out well.

Power Trip: A couple DMs were willing to admit that they ran their games with an iron fist. "I'm an asshole DM," proclaimed one. This person explained that they are the one individual in the group who does their best to make sure the group keeps going, and sometimes that requires being an asshole.

Another dungeon master talked about running a challenging game: "I'm a difficulty-oriented DM. I want my players to notice there are risks involved with every choice they make. More risks to fail, die, get eyes gouged out (etc) means the stakes are higher and the adventure more epic. Make smart decisions and you look like a hero."

I personally would love this style as a player, but as I've noted in this blog many times before, there is a massive percentage of D&D players who don't like this and can't handle it.

Another DM had a bone-chilling response: "I am a cruel god."

Overpreparing: One dungeon master made a startling claim: "I will easily spend 20-30 hours preparing a session, but I never over prepare to the point where I can't handle my players doing unexpected things."

I have always been of the understanding that you should never prepare longer than your session will last. I break this rule often, but I always keep it in mind. I can't fathom spending 20-30 hours a week (?) preparing for a 5 hour game.


I wanted to know if DMs preferred to run published adventures or homebrewed stuff and what their campaign was like. I was utterly stunned at the response. Out of about 50 dungeon masters, all but a handful said that they run homebrew campaigns!

Homebrew Bastards: Get a load of this montage of DM responses - a salute to the homebrew:
  • "I refer to myself as a 'homebrew bastard'"
  • "All homebrew all the time" 
  • "Almost always homebrew."
  • "I usually prefer homebrews, because I like control and knowledge over my lore (makes improv easier)." 
  • "The last campaign and the most recent both take place within a homebrew setting."
  • "Homebrew set in Faerun. Basically one big campaign with a bunch of arcs."
  • "Because of my style, I just about have to home brew it (plus world building is the best)."
  • "I run a homebrew setting. All lore is some basic background and history, but other than that the rest are previous campaigns." 
  • "I write fiction as a hobby, so I always come up with my own ideas and sometimes test my story ideas on players."
  • "I always write my own and never used published adventures. I have nothing against them - I learned to love D&D through modules and still have a soft spot in my heart for Castle Amber - but I will never know as much about Krynn or Faerun as one of my players and that lack of knowledge kills the fantasy for me."
Many of these people have said that they use the Forgotten Realms setting but make up their own adventures. A few of them will take encounters or traps from published adventures, but by and large they make up their own stuff.

Does this mean wizards of the coast should focus on supplements? Princes of the Apocalypse does have races, spells and monsters in it, but are people going to pay $50 for 40 pages of material in the back of the book (most of which wizards offers for free online)?

I feel so alone all of the sudden. I love running published adventures. They are full of great ideas and flavor. Running White Plume Mountain last year was one of the greatest things ever. I personally can't fathom coming up with cool adventures like that on a weekly basis. It sounds exhausting.

One dungeon master talked about why he hated pre-made adventures: "It just feels like me, as a DM, have almost no point in being there."

Running Published Adventures: A handful of dungeon masters claimed to run published stuff. One DM said: "I've run one homebrewed campaign, and I'm currently running LMoP online and PotA live. I'm finding published adventurers surprisingly more difficult, as there is a lot of information and NPCs to memorize."

He is right. Preparing a published adventure, especially one like Princes of the Apocalypse, is like doing homework. It's basically a textbook that you need to know backwards and forwards, and you are tested on it every week by your peers.

Another DM said: "I'm always torn on premade vs. homebrew. When I have the time and energy, homebrewing always leads to a better game. But I am prone to burnout, and the lower effort involved in premade games keeps them running longer."


I asked the dungeon masters to talk about the things that they are struggling with in their game. All of us are always trying to improve. I was wondering what some of the more common issues are when it comes to bettering yourself as a DM.

Too Easy: This was the number one response. Many dungeon masters feel they are too soft on their players. One DM said: "I'm a bit too forgiving with my PC's and will often let them pass rolls that should be failed by one or two points, but only if it wont affect the narrative too heavily."

Another chimed in: "I'm far too soft-hearted and forgiving to my players. In the last campaign I ran (very first time being a DM), I didn't want to hinder their fun but this lead to a few issues at the table so this time I'm going to be less soft on them."

One dungeon master went so far as to say that he or she was too "chickenshit" in combat.

I struggle with this too, and I have over my entire career as a DM. A couple things to remember:
  1. Players like easy encounters. Not all the time, but more than you'd think. Truly dangerous encounters can be stressful when the player really cares about his or her character.
  2. Put extra thought into your big encounters. Add dangerous terrain, minions, and gimmicks (example: The villain is surrounded by a force shield the PCs must destroy four statues before they can harm him). Study 4e poster map fights for ideas.
Death By a Million Cuts: There was a lot of other random complaints:
  • Many DMs said they simply didn't have enough spare time to prepare their campaign properly.
  • One said: "I get frustrated when players don't put as much effort into a world as I put into the world."
  • Optional side quests end up taking up the entire night, which can be boring. The DM feels pressure to make it fun.
  • The DM is good at numbers, has a hard time running mysteries or investigation. I suggested that this person study some old Shadowrun adventures, as they are a perfect template for how to run an investigation.
  • "Long sessions burn me out (4 hours is my max these days)." I feel the same way!
  • More than one DM said that they lose enthusiasm for a campaign but the players want to keep going.
  • One DM sometimes forgets something cool they were planning to do. I think we've all been there. There is so much stuff to juggle.
Player Problems

My favorite topic! I just wanted to see if other people have the same problems I do - mainly players who can't handle adversity/low die rolls. If this seems like gleeful player bashing, just know that I plan on writing a post about "DM Horror Stories" in the near future.

Cell Phones: A number of dungeon masters complained about this. The cell phone is a major distraction. I just tell my players to put them away. There was one instance in a game store where I had a really annoying player, and I'd let him play on his cell phone as it kept him quiet and he didn't bother anybody.

One DM had this to say: "Oh man, if there's something I find difficult it's making 5 people pay attention, be it D&D, school project, Organizing something, coordinating a job project, people's brains are completely burnt by smartphones and shit, that's almost like drugs for them."

Cheating: One DM realized he had a cheater, so he decided to ask the players to move closer so their die rolls can be seen.

Another DM chimed in about cheating. His player said that he was playing the game to have fun, and that "It's about fun, and I have fun not failing". So this DM ran the whole session where every time the heroes rolled, he declared it a natural 20. The monsters rolled a critical fumble every time. The players loved it. They got to the main villain and killed it in one round. This DM says that they never cheated again after this.

That seems really excessive. I have a hard time dealing with some stuff in D&D, but cheating is something I have no tolerance for. I just call the player out on it and demand that they roll right in front of me. "If I don't see it, it doesn't count". I had one player who bought these tiny metal dice that were hard for me to read from across the table. I made him use bigger dice. This is a grown man we are talking about.

Running Games Online: One DM talked about running games online with Roll20, and the players sometimes just miss a session with little warning. It seems like players are much prone to flake out when it's not a face-to-face meeting. I read about one DM who actually had players just quit out of his game mid-session!

Players Not Writing Things Down: "Among the folks I play with now if I have a pet peeve, it's when they aren't prepared. So I have the rule ;If it's not on your character sheet it doesn't exist; - and I will know if they were ever to add something that shouldn't be there."

I have this problem, too. I still have players who don't bring a pencil to the game. A pencil! How is that possible?!

Rules Lawyers: "I had one player hold the game hostage and refuse to take his turn to look something up and prove me wrong. 9/10 (times) he couldn't even find what he wanted, but insisted he was right. He would take a half hour each time, too. Eventually I ended up just telling him he would lose his turn if he didn't take it within X amount of time. He threw a tantrum over it."

I would really like to see a campaign where every single player and the DM is a rules lawyer. It sounds completely exhausting.

Epic Rant Number One: "Player Problem: Everyone. I have hardly been able to find a player who doesn't have some major deficiency. The guy who loves to roleplay can't be bothered to remember what a d20 looks like even though he's played for years. The guy who loves gaming the system can't view their character as more than a pile of numbers. Then there's the guy who takes it all as a big sketch comedy, the guy who can't make it to half the sessions, the guy who wants to continually demand special treatment, and the guy who just needs a shower."

Full disclosure: I'd probably be the sketch comedy guy.

Epic Rant Number Two: "I can't stand players who think I'm railroading them, when they put themselves in a position that can't be free. If you push the Duke down a flight of stairs, don't expect him to not imprison you for an attempt on his life. If you escape, awesome. If not, I'll happily imprison you instead of killing your character off on the spot, which only makes me happy."

Bonus Round

One dungeon master included this extra comment that I thought would be a pleasant way to end this article. I hope this has been helpful to some of you, or at least amusing in some way. Here it is:

"The night before we play, I usually spend some time making up the Roll20 boards and writing a lot of notes, and at the end of the night, I have this perfectly set up world loaded with potential energy. It's like I lock all the doors, set all the traps, and tell all the monsters, "So guys, I can't promise you what they're going to do, but if everything goes right, I'll bring you a party full of tasty PCs tomorrow, so just sleep tight, OK?"

"Then I tuck everything in and click the light off, but that potential energy is there all night, and when I go to sleep with it in my head, it makes me happy. D&D is the perfect compromise like that. You plan this thing, but you know part of the pleasure is that the best you can do is make a really good pinball machine, which is to say that it's equal parts clever design, player participation, and chaos theory."

DMing is always an amazing thing, because it's like an enormous buffet. I don't ever have to show up at a game with our group and fill one role. If I want to play with magic, I throw casters at you guys. If I want to make you dance, I put fights in difficult terrain. If I want to scrap, you fight melee monsters. If I feel like acting, we have a talky session. A Golden Corral for my mind."


Doctor Futurity said...

That was one of the best reads I've had in a long time, and very interesting. Thanks for that! As a side note, as a GM I also run homebrew (and have five settings I use!), and only recently got back into running modules....which indeed take more time to prep for properly than writing the material myself. I lean on improv, but more in the past....old age seems to have taken the edge off of my improv abilities a bit. On problem players....I used to be very tolerant of all sorts of stuff, but not anymore, and have no problem kicking people I realize are a detriment to group enjoyment.

Coffeemate said...

I always enjoy your posts. Reading about your DMing experience is a nice change of pace.

The campaign I'm running is set in Zakhara (Al-Qadim), although the TSR adventures are more like outlines than actual modules that can be run right out of the box. This is my biggest pet peeve with written material, too often the writers just don't do the work. This has forced me to home brew a published product, and the results thus far have been for the better.

Out sessions are played out on Roll20 for about two to two-and-a-half hours, so I need to cram in as much as I can. I often resort to the five room dungeon model, although at times, it may play out as scenes. I detest railroading my players on some pre-conceived plot, so instead, set up either a series of semi-random encounters or environments that have no set outcome. I prefer to let the players choose how they want to affect the situations they find themselves in.

Like you, I would prefer to run the classics, although many of them can be a slog to either update or correct. I was hoping that this generation of rules would have modern examples of well-designed adventures and setting material, but to date, I'm stuck with only a trickle of product that has to coincide with some monstrous marketing campaign. Thus, I'm forced to home brew by default.

Patrick Mallah said...

Wow! Comprehensive, as always.

I wasn't part of this informal poll, but I'd just like to add some of my persepctive. I'm GMing two games right now. One is set in the Forgotton Realms (not my choice - the player's opted for it) and the other hinges around the Dwimmermount campaign adventure. I usually run a homebrew campaign, but I really wanted to run Dwimmermount and made the concession of setting it in that world (Telluria) so that I didn't add or change something disastrously, and the FR campaign has ventured into Planescape and is now firmly entrenched in Waterdeep (which is the first setting I ever GMed so I'm in comfortable territory). I tend to let the players dictate the world and the primary adventure so I rarely do a lot of prep, and often I just play off of the things they give me. A side quest becomes a main quest only if the PCs focus on it, and I rarely try to compel a single story into the group (the Dwimmermount campaign is one of the rare exceptions).

I have found that the key to making a really good campaign that leaves the players wanting more is to have a world that makes sense and reacts realistically. If the PCs are hearing rumors about orcs in the hills to the east and do nothing about it, then maybe that village in the east gets burned down and they can't rest there the next time they head east. If the PCs are hearing rumors about the King's bastard petitioning for the throne since no other heir exists and they don't investigate then maybe the bastard takes over the throne after a month of game time, or maybe a civil war starts. If the PCs are tracking down and questioning members of a thieves guild but one player is doubling back and assassinating those that they question, then at some point a higher up in the guild is going to put a contract out for the entire group, and if that fails then he may plead with them to spare his life (this actually happened in a game I ran). By having NPCs and a world that constantly changes and does it's own thing but then also reacts to the PCs' actions, the players end up caring more about how their roles can affect things. I never worry about game balance or making things easy, I just try to have the wider world react and move forward realistically. So far it's worked!

I do the whole "if it's not on your character sheet then it doesn't exist" thing as well, but only because I don't want to keep track of everything. It's the player's responsibility to know what their character is capable of. I've only ever played with two cheaters but my solution is simple, confront them when I catch them. Usually they leave after being called out, if they stay then every roll they make is suspect if I don't see it (fool me once...).

I also tend to make all of my rolls where everyone can see them, so if a PC gets killed then everybody knows I didn't fudge the dice. But if a character gets killed then I leave it to the player to decide how they go out. In a fantasy game they could get resurrected later, in a scifi game they could potentially have their body rebuilt (at great financial cost), or in a modern game they might just get lucky and be knocked out of the action rather than killed, and about 75% of the time when I put it into the players hands they let the character die and roll up a new one.

Anonymous said...

Does everyone us maps, or do you use theatre of the mind? Do you map out battles like 4th edition, or just use location maps to tell where the party is?

Jason R said...

I was surprised by what sounded like a big chunk of DMs in your poll opting for "100% home-brew" or close to it. Although I know what kind of time and effort many published adventures need to be usable in a particular campaign, long gone are the days when I even considered drafting up a complete major adventure from scratch. My preferred method is to spend time "combing the archives" for material that kind of fits the overall situation the group is building on, and then modify it to fit seamlessly into the game. Not only does it (arguably) save time, but the quality is higher as mining the work of better writers than me is always going to produce superior results.

That said, I love building all the bridge pieces between material, writing in all manner of ongoing plot threads, and otherwise mixing and matching. The end result certainly resembles home-brew, but without all the writer's block. It works for me.

Great post as always Sean.

Sean said...

Nicholas Bergquist: Thank you! It's funny, modules are supposed to save people time, but more and more it seems like modules actually take more time to prepare than just making up your own stuff!

Coffeemate: Thanks! Yeah some of those al qadim adventures are a bit short on details... they are awesome though. That is really cool that you are running an Al Qadim campaign.

Patrick Henry Downs: I kind of can't control myself when it comes to writing/research. I try to keep it concise but it is not easy. I totally agree with your example about the orcs - that makes the world feel real, and the PCs choices matter. That's interesting that most of your player prefer to make a new character... I didn't expect that.

Anonymous: I generally use theater of the mind, but if a fight is big or complicated, I'll use a map and minis. Theater of the mind has certain pitfalls you have to be careful of - you have to describe the room well, and you have to establish where everyone is before things get underway. I think most people use a grid as a default - a big, wipeable mat.

Jason Raabis: Many of my best campaigns were ones that were full of random dungeon magazine adventures linked together in some haphazard fashioned, dictated by the whim of the players. Thank you!

xarop_pa_toss said...

This was an amazing read and I'm so sad I didn't catch this reddit post. I'd be complaining about all those player issues.
My group is made of just three guys that I've play with for a year or so and a recent female lady addition that has never played before.

Player 1 rerolled his character 2 times, to a total of 3 characters in LMoP. This guys first character was a wizard and 2 months later he still didn't know how Spell Slots work. Yes.. that guy that doesn't bring a pencil to the table (even though we play at his house). He has no idea what the hell is going on, still doesn't get what I'm asking him when I say "make a dex check for me please" and he is NEVER prepared to play.

Player 2 thinks I'm there to make the game has less fun as possible for him. The kind of guy that says that a Hold Person spell is BS because he's a fighter and has low Wis. He's constantly using his laptop and even goes outside for a smoke after his round in combat. His character has zero personality and he can't roleplay to save his own life.

Player 3 actually cares about the game, gives nice suggestions, corrects me when I get an rule wrong but without being an ahole about it. He did pull the Chaotic Neutral Rogue on me but he saw how easy it was to disrupt the game with it and backed out.

The new girl is just delightful. New players are always a blast to have at the table, they are like fascinated kids with a world of imagination to explore in front of them.

Sincerely, I think my players just go by the rules to much. I still have to say "but what do you say to him to try and convince him?" when they say "I roll Persuasion", which trust me, is ALL the time! NPC engages in conversation leads immediately to "I roll Intimidate" just like that! I was thinking of playing Apocalypse World with them but the idea soon vanished from my mind when I thought about how blandly they play D&D

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Anonymous said...

The Space Marine is from the cover of the Alternity Player's Handbook - I assume that picture is from the late 90s when TSR was convinced Sci Fi roleplaying would be as big as Fantasy.

MarkGardner said...

I'm prepping to start DM-ing our first live stream show for our group and this article makes me feel WAY better. I'm probably over-preparing and knowing our players there's no way they're going to do all the things I want them to. I think there's a level of joy when they do something unexpected. We'll see how it goes though. I've learned a lot from our DM Brandon. He's been a great resource on how to have fun with an adventure. Here's hoping I can live up to it.

MarkGardner said...

Oh and for the record, to give you an idea of how long I've been working on the Dominion of Essalund setting for our livestream... I've got almost 80 pages of encounters and adventures as well as an island mapped out that's about 30,000 miles in area. What is WRONG with me?! Then again I really LOVE the storyworld for the show.

jradcliffe said...

I just started DMing, and as a former player, I am familiar with how the game runs. But DMing is a whole new animal. I recently started a group with fresh players, and we're running The Lost Mines of Phandelin campaign from the starter set. This was done deliberately so that the players can learn the basics of the game and how to roleplay, and so I can learn how to DM. For the first campaign, I have been extremely lenient in allowing rerolls on failed checks and dropping big hints to players when they don't pick up important information from an NPC, and after our first session, they picked up the basics of roleplaying very well! I'm really proud of them, especially after them skipping a plot piece of the campaign by making an entire cave of goblins fall asleep and silently knocking out the goblin second-in-command in one hit!

But like I said, I'm using this particular campaign to get everyone in the group, including myself, acclimated to how the game runs, and while there are blunders and mistakes, we're having fun; and I think that's the point. I've had several DMs who are perfectionists and want their worlds realized, but I'm quickly learning that, as a DM, I'm guiding my players through a challenging story and seeing the story itself realized. I'm having fun seeing my players succeed, one of them my baby sister who hesitantly joined and quickly had fun, and to see how they approach combat and problems. Once we get started on other campaigns, I'm going to be more strict on how they roleplay as their characters, but since they're using premade characters, I let it slide, since them learning how to adventure right now is a more important objective.

But I think nothing else is as fun as a group getting together to have fun and experience fun moments together; and that is what you take away from this game. Being a god or wanting your players to suffer as DM is not the point of the DM, as stated in the rulebooks. It's be a story guide, to fill the NPC roles, and to guide your friends through a magical realm of adventure. And I thank that's what players want out of that too.

Sean said...

Ricardo Giro: No pencil and it's his house...! That is pretty bad! Don't be too hard on them, a lot of players just aren't comfortable role-playing.. i think it might be a bit like having a fear of public speaking. The new player might have a ripple effect that will change things a bit. Thanks!

Anonymous: Alternity! I always get that mixed p with Amazing Engine. Thanks!

Mark Gardner: Awesome.. no matter what you do, there's a certain amount of winging it in a game. You should plan for it by cooking up a list of names and NPCs that you can draw from if the heroes go off on some weird tangent. Good luck!

jradcliffe: One of the best things I've read is that the DM should be a fan of the characters. You root for them from behind the DM screen. I've had a lot of DMs who let the power go to their head and it leads to crappy games. Sounds like you are doing an awesome job!

Scotty Hood said...

I really liked that last quote, probably because it matches well with how I treat everything I plan as a DM. I prepare what I can, but leave many options for the PCs. Better to prepare a buffet where everyone can get a little bit of what they want than a fancy 3-course meal that they may not have even wanted to begin with.

On that same philosophy, that is why I prefer homebrew over modules. At least for me, it is a lot more stressful to go on the fly for a pre-made adventure if the PCs do something that breaks how the module is made.

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