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Learning To Play D&D: Being a Dungeon Master

by: Lynda Mc Donald ; edited by: Michael Hartman ; updated: 4/17/2012 • Leave a comment

Dungeons Masters have the most work to do in order for a Dungeons and Dragons game to be successful. They create the NPCs, the setting, the quests and loot. They are basically the god of the D&D world, so becoming one takes a little practice.

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    What does a Dungeons Master Do?

    playershandbook The Dungeons Master co-ordinates a game for the other players – he creates a storyline, characters and sorts out the various monsters and loot that the adventuring party are going to encounter along the way.

    Preparing a game takes a lot of effort and time, especially if you have a large group or a long adventure.

    Preparing A Storyline

    Being the Dungeons Master means that you control the storyline, although you cannot control how your players will react to it. Creating an adventure requires:

    • Characters (old or new)
    • A setting
    • A reason for the adventure

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    Creating Characters


    Making your own characters is always fun, and is something you really need to enjoy doing in order to become a successful Dungeons Master. You can literally have as many characters as you want in your world, although it is advisable to have a few of the same characters run into your party occasionally or give them frequent quests. For example a good character to use would be the town mayor, especially if you have an adventuring guild set up in the town, as this would make you the mayor's obvious choice. The mayor is a good character to have pop up occasionally with a problem for your players to solve. Also don't forget to include any relationship developments that happen along the way e.g. if one of the adventuring party have an argument with the mayor about being underpaid then the mayor will act differently towards the party from then on. Likewise if your party completes a quest for a local merchant, he or she will obviously be more open to giving the party a discount or help identifying items (depending on their personality of course).

    Character development is a big part of Dungeons and Dragons, as is role playing. Dungeons and Dragons can be played without role playing but it becomes very boring after a while and is not the full experience that D&D can be. Dungeons Masters have to be willing to be the first person in the group to role play if necessary, and to encourage everyone else to participate.

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    Building a Setting

    During the first game you will have to describe the town to the party. It is a good idea to encourage everyone to decide on a story about how they all met and decided to adventure together e.g. two of the players were childhood friends who always wanted to become adventurers and thus began the local adventuring guild, they recruited the second two players who had been adventuring alone until now.

    The town can be very basic at the beginning – it will become more detailed as you all play anyway. Drawing out a basic layout of the town can be helpful. Decide if the town has higher, middle and lower-class sections, and which part the guild hall is in as this will affect the type of quests you will face.

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    Deciding On a Reason For the Adventure

    This can be as detailed or as basic as you like. The easiest way to initiate a quest is to have a character confront your players about going on a quest for him. The quest can be as basic as to clear out a local cave of goblins or as detailed as finding the leader of a local gang (this one took my adventuring party hours of questioning and fighting various local thugs to figure out) and taking back an item that he stole from the character. Whatever your reason behind the adventure make sure you have the basic outline of it in your mind, and don't get frustrated if it doesn't go exactly as you thought it would - the adventuring party will have their own way of doing things, a lot of which you won't have foreseen, to DM well you have to be able to enjoy the opportunism that the game allows.

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    Rolling for Loot

    Most players really look forward to the loot at the end of a quest. It's nice to have some loot to be found during the quest too, but it's optional. Most quests are paid, although some can be done purely because they are the right thing to do.

    When you roll for loot make sure you write it all down, loot can be rolled manually using a dice or using loot roller applications online, which are easier for a beginner DM to use. Make sure that any magical loot you roll is at the right strength for the party – giving a low level party extremely powerful magical items may seem like a nice idea but it will eventually make the game too easy and boring.

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    Monster Manual 

    Monsters are a huge part of adventuring. Dungeons Masters will all have their own style on how they layout monsters – some like to only have a few powerful enemies in a quest while others like to have mobs varying in strength until the players reach the final boss monster. However you lay it out is up to you, but make sure you don't overwhelm the party – dying is a part of the game at times but it is always unwelcome. Having monsters a level or two higher than a party should suffice as a good challenge.

    Monster's range and effects can also be a factor to consider in later games as you come to know the adventuring party e.g. if the party is full of archers then you need to decide if you want to give them a real challenge with some close combat fighting. Certain monsters' effects can terrify a party depending on its structure e.g. a party I was playing in had a lot of player wearing metal armour and using various enchanted metal accessories; our DM introduced monsters whose effect was to disintegrate any nearby metal which sent most of my party running from the room and leaving only a few of us to deal with them.

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    Difficult Players

    Sometimes as a DM you may find yourself becoming referee between players. Certain players might not get along, for instance we had a player who wanted to keep a quest item for himself and not allow the party to return it for their reward. A fight ensued and he almost killed a fellow part member. Although this is uncommon in most parties, as a DM you have to be ready to step in (as a character if you must) and referee arguments. Dungeons Masters may sometimes have a player argue with them in-game. In a situation like this it is important not to abuse your power, but to solve the argument in a civil way, even if that means a duel between characters.

    You may also find a player asking why they cannot just kill a character rather than handing over a very useful magical item for a reward. It is a fair point, what is stopping them from just doing what they want and, in effect becoming an evil party? To keep the peace obviously local law-enforcers and regularly occurring characters like the mayor should be high-level characters. If you think that the part may be leaning towards the less lawful path it might be useful to fill out a character sheet for any important characters you create in case the party ends up duelling them.

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    All Work and No Play

    player handbook 

    If you find your game is becoming too labour-intensive, or that you have to keep track of so much that you are no longer enjoying the game then it may be advisable to recruit a Dungeons Master Assistant.

    An good Dungeons Master Assistant is someone who want to learn how to DM. They should help you play out every aspect of the game and even role play some (new) characters if you want.

    It is not advisable to have a player double as a Dungeons Master Assistant as knowing details of a quest stops it from being enjoyable and allows them, and possibly the entire party and unfair advantage over enemies.

    If the game has gotten so detailed that you need a Dungeon Master Assistant then you may even need to train them to DM properly so that you can DM simultaneously and make the work load easier on yourself.