D&D’s Advice for Dungeon Masters Offers Nothing on Running Dungeons

Even as a game with dungeons in the title, Dungeons & Dragons offers zero advice for dungeon masters aiming to run dungeons. The game provides plenty of help for the solo fun of sitting with a blank sheet of graph paper and designing dungeons, but nothing for sitting behind a DM screen across from players entering the underworld.

Seeking to fill this gap, I paged through a stack of guides and volumes of advice, many with titles like Dungeonscape and even just Dungeons. The dungeon-related content breaks down like this:

65% designing dungeons
35% exploring dungeons
0% running dungeons

To be fair, the 0% appears because I never counted D&D’s original volume 3, Underworld & Wilderness Adventures. That book includes Gary Gygax’s attempt to describe dungeon crawls in terms familiar to miniature-wargame grognards. So the explanation has parties taking turns marking inches of movement. Today, only groups seeking D&D’s roots attempt such formality.

Why so few tips for running the dungeon part of a dungeon adventure?

Partly, we givers of advice tend to suppose that dungeon masters already know how to master dungeons. After all, the game’s 3-step loop works underground. (1) Describe the situation. (2) Ask what the players want to do. (3) Resolve the action. Newcomers easily learn these 3 steps at the heart of roleplaying games, becoming players and potentially DMs. Beyond that, most advice for game masters works perfectly well underground.

Also, dungeon advice can prove situational. That original procedure with turns and movement works fine in a mythic underworld, but in other locations it amounts to tedium.

Still, when I started writing tips for running dungeons, and then asked for help from D&D fans on Twitter, I uncovered plenty of help specific to running secrets and challenges mapped on a sheet of graph paper. In a follow-up post, I reveal my favorite tip.

9 thoughts on “D&D’s Advice for Dungeon Masters Offers Nothing on Running Dungeons

  1. Vanveen

    DMs aren’t the audience for the game. Players are, something that’s been formally enshrined in the past few editions. They buy as many gimme tomes–like Tasha’s–as you can crank out. Plus, most people aren’t playing the game, but buying things that they will (possibly) read, the infamous “lonely fun.” So it’s no wonder that there’s so little in the way of “how to” guides.

    The real insight is that optimizing for this is directly counterproductive to optimizing running a game. Adventure modules should read more like stage directions, not some half-wit’s musings on an improbable “world.” That is, if you intend to play them instead of read them and think about playing them. There are plenty of “dungeon running tips” out there, typically by independent creators. Note that *none* of them are reflected in actual modules for play.

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    1. ThrorII

      Vanveen is 100% correct. Look at the latest outings of WotC: They are all beautifully designed, colored, and drawn. But they read like novels, not adventures. Information to run encounter 3E, on page 34, needs information found in section 12B, page 134. That is not a way to build an adventure. Also, 10’s or 100’s of pages of ‘backstory’ that the players will never learn is a) wasted and bloated page count; and b) essentially fan-fic from game designers who are stiffled authors.

      The DM is the forgotten player of the game. When he is remembered, he is treated like the dancing monkey for the player’s enjoyment.

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      1. Vanveen

        Apparently this imbalance dates from the earliest days–one reason old school parties were 8 or 10 or 12 players was because the ratio of players was 8 or 10 or 12 to 1 DM. They’ve never really solved this problem, even after bringing on pro product folks from Hasbro (as a product person myself, I can see the fingerprints on their methodology and results). In fact, I’m pretty certain they’ve given up, letting the DMs take care of themselves, more or less, and trying to bring in new players to sink or swim on their own or to play in one of the official events.

        Most Americans, as a cohort, are in their late twenties, which both suggests the game’s recent popularity and warns the market will crash in the next 3-5 years as Gen Y has kids and moves to the suburbs. A similar phenomenon happened to the Boomers in the early 80s, the initial death knell for wargaming and Avalon Hill.

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  2. Treeclmr

    I unfortunately fall I to the “lonely fun” category. I aspire to be a DM, but the shutdowns have not helped me. So I fill my time with reading the adventures and drawing up dungeons, PCs, NPCs, and encounters.
    I do wish there was more for the DM out there. I can build and imagine all day, but running a dungeon isn’t covered.

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  3. alphastream

    This is why I disagree when fans rate Lost Mines of Phandelver so highly. I like it, I do, but it is not great at introducing new players and teaching how to run the various parts of the adventure. It is a missed opportunity to provide vital guidance that would bolster a new DM and reinforce principles for a moderately experienced DM.

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  4. Laura Mumma

    This is a shortfall in the info being published. I feel many people are afraid to DM and want to, but don’t know how to start. The Box Set for 5E to get started playing is useful but thank goodness I have DMed before grant you there was a huge gap in play years and editions. D&D can be intimidating to new DMs. The get started box could use improvement, it is not set up as easy as it could be… no one at WotC seems to be thinking I am 10 and have never done creative writing or drama and I want to DM! They really should be starting from that perspective of how do you help a kid learn to play D&D and run the game with no adults around. I was 10 the oldest kid btw figuring out how to play with another 10 year old, 9 and 8 year old all on our own when we first played… not a single adult we knew outside of hobby store dudes selling us stuff played D&D and we were not allowed to play with stranger adults, that was in 1978 I do believe. My husband says he started playing at 9 as well in 1978 with his friends no adults involved. I think the “how to would vastly improve” if WotC started thinking how do we explain this rule to a kid… so the kid can explain it to other kids, how do we help the kids with the layout of the module and where things are in the books. I can of course figure it out after years of playing but new folks regardless of age seem so unsure of trying to DM now.

    In one adult play group what we did was have everyone DM, first the most experienced D&D folks DMed, then the totally new to the game DMed… this gave them time to learn the game a bit, ask questions, everyone look over materials we were collectively using and develop an idea from. Plus the folks who normally DM got to play a character for a change. Btw we took turns as kids DMing too. Maybe that tip should be in the books.

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    1. Vanveen

      Interesting. Again, I think they’ve decided kids aren’t the most valuable customers. Moms got really mad at TSR back in the day, arguably a reason for 1e’s downfall, and nowadays kids might not be spending as much money as other fan groups. Anyone else having trouble introducing people to the game, including yourself? What’s the biggest problem? I’m playing with some ideas to fix that.

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      1. Laura Mumma

        Well I still think they need to evaluate the public’s ability to understand D&D without other people around to answer questions in their Basic Box set, pretend no one can call or text for help when putting the product together… and please stop putting the important info to play the module at the back.. like the monsters. They need to make it super easy on new DMs for gosh sake, who are usually super self conscious about doing it all wrong and who have not learned all the tricks, tips and things experienced DMs have. The first basic module in the Box Kit should be as bomb proof, hold people’s hands as possible. Tips should be right inside that first learn to play adventure for the new DM to then use right then but also apply to future games on their own. I understand they are not marketing towards kids but based on playing with adults they are lost unless someone can mentor them through that first game.

        As an adult I have introduced people by simply inviting people to play. For awhile we were hosting game night at my house… we played different stuff, board games, tactical games, various role playing games old and new, Wii, and more… usually we did some sort of pot luck or BBQ… we scheduled them monthly. We did a few game days at pizza places too. Right now we have had that on hold due to first health reasons of family members, deaths in the family and currently the great lock down. So just working on stuff and playing with the family.

        The other thing is new people finding people to play with them that they are comfortable with is an issue… obviously if people know me and I them that’s less of an issue, but totally new folks have to build a network from the ground up. So advice on how to network might help people or at least reassure them the RPG community really is mostly helpful folks.

        I really think we need to be good ambassadors of the RPGs we love and play. Which I do think people do try to do…

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        1. Laura Mumma

          PS The beginning box set isn’t bad, I do know I had to put sticky notes throughout it though… when I jumped from playing 1E-2E rules to deciding to up date to 5E… and I keep bumping into confused and frustrated people trying to DM the first time using it. Part of it I sure is the learning curve but also most are not prepared for the players to go off the grid so to speak.

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