Delegate to run better role-playing game sessions by doing less

If you are a game master, the easiest way to improve your game sessions might be to do less. Rather than doing all the tasks of running the game, delegate some to the players.

This lesson took me a long time to learn. I found Dungeons & Dragons in an era when gamers took the master part of dungeon master seriously. Some control freaks even thought game masters should make all the players’ die rolls to better conceal ACs and other secrets. (Hint: Don’t do that.) I never went so far, but I never considered imposing DM chores on the players. Besides, I felt happy to do the chores myself.

Years of running tables in 4-hour convention games made me change. Especially with D&D’s fourth edition, convention sessions threatened to push past the time allowed, robbing the players of a satisfying conclusion. Rather than let a session go long, I found ways to speed the game. I learned to delegate parts of the game to the players.

I've learned a lot about game mastering in rooms like this at Origins

I’ve learned a lot about game mastering in rooms like this one at Origins.

The benefits surprised me. Delegating did more than help end a session on time. It led to better games.

Typically, game masters run all the non-player characters, describe the action, track initiative, set up maps and figures, make rulings, and so on and on. The players mostly wait for the GM’s attention. A GM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck at the game master. Games move faster, so everyone enjoys more time adventuring. Plus, when players gain more to do, they remain engaged in the game and have more fun.

What tasks can you delegate?

Tracking initiative. If you poll your players for initiative scores and keep track yourself, you should change your method. Unless you run games for young kids or new players, let the players manage most of the initiative. I drape initiative tents over my DM screen so that I can reference stats on the cards, but players fill the cards—even monster names—and put them in order. Typically, they call out turns. For more, see “Everything I know about tracking initiative.”

Referencing rules. Stopping a session to page through the rules robs the game of momentum. Ask your players to look things up. Usually, I just need to understand a spell and can resolve other actions until I get the details.

Drawing the battle map. If someone can draw the room while I grab miniatures, combat starts faster. Don’t bother describing every detail to sketch. Just ask someone to draw, say, a 40 by 60 room, then you can draw the doors and profane altars and other features as you describe them.

Running allied non-player characters. Whenever an NPC might take the side of the players in a fight, I always print an extra sheet with the NPC’s combat stats. My regular players lobby for the chance to run an NPC. If the ally doesn’t require bring much personality or motive, anyone can run it. If I need someone to show the NPCs’ fear of fire or hatred of magic, I pick the role players with character portraits on their table tents—the players who introduce their characters in funny voices.

Recapping the last session. When you continue a campaign, ask if anyone can recap the last session. This allows you another moment to prepare while giving you a sense of what the players considered interesting or important. Plus, you may uncover things you told the players that proved confusing or misleading.

Tracking conditions. Fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons loyalists can benefit from letting one player mark figures suffering from conditions such as bloodied, dazed and so on. If the player consistently remembers when conditions lift, then they keep better track than I ever could.

Tallying experience points. I haven’t recruited a player to keep track of experience rewards yet, but I should have started last night. After each encounter, while you still have the monsters and encounter notes in view, give the experience values to a volunteer accountant.

Track damage dealt to foes. Damage dealt is not secret information for the GM. (Seeking a tactical advantage, my Dungeons & Dragons Championship teams kept track of damage, yet that data never vaulted us into first place.) Delegate damage tracking to that player who likes to deduce monster ACs and can total 8d6 fireball damage at a glance. This player can keep track in plain sight: in dry erase on a white board or the edge of the battle map. If that proves impractical, then when a monster takes damage, have the tracker report its total damage. If the total exceeds the monster’s hit points, describe the kill.

Or let the player describe the kill. Delegate. The game doesn’t just belong to the game master. It belongs to everyone at the table.

10 thoughts on “Delegate to run better role-playing game sessions by doing less

  1. Chris

    Thanks for the very helpful information. I am considering volunteering to DM games at conventions (I live within driving distance from Winter Fantasy, Origins and Gen Con) and this information is extremely helpful.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Chris,
      I’m glad my advice proved encouraging. If you do judge any of those cons, you’ll find me on the judge team too. Be sure and say hi.


  2. Geoffrey Greer

    Wow, David. What a great idea, and thanks so much for suggesting it. Just the other day I was thinking [again] about how overwhelming it is to GM an RPG of any type, and how I am incessantly left feeling like I’m not sure I followed the rules correctly. Now, after reading this, I feel very de-stressed about it, and I’m already brainstorming other ways to make my sessions more “collective” in terms of gaming, instead of it being so GM-centered. Thanks for stirring the pot on this one.

    1. DM David Post author

      Hi Geoffrey,
      Thanks for the kind words. Dungeon Masters used to be called referees or judges, but unlike those jobs, a dungeon master doesn’t need to master every nuance of the rules. Duties like host and storyteller come first. If you welcome input from players who know the rules, they’re usually pleased to help. If none of the players have mastered the rules, then just make a ruling and look it up later. During sessions, I have made lists of rules questions that I wanted to check later.


  3. Brent


    I will be printing this off and slipping it inside the cover of my DM’s Guide for future reference.


  4. Matty

    Great ideas! Reminds me a bit of the ‘flipping the classroom’ concept. I do a few of these, and will incorporate the ones I hadn’t thought of. I agree, recapping the session is useful and will sometimes tip you off as to what aspect of the game (combat, RP, etc.) the players find most memorable or enjoyable. I use DM screens from different systems and editions which are littered with post-it notes from the most common rule checks that aren’t on any of the screens.

    I also disallow the use of smart phones at the table (except for actual telephone calls), and have the players rat each other out when they catch each other checking texts, etc.

  5. Cory Cardwell

    Agree with Don, Great blog! it is very helpful to DMs out here.

    Lots of good videos out there too but none seem to tie things to the historical roots of the game.

    // As to this post, I started delegating initiative and the post adventure summary for our obsidian portal page to my players after reading this. Worked well. Thanks.

  6. Pingback: From B1 to Pinebrook: Every D&D Adventure That Includes DM Advice and What They Taught | DMDavid

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