How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

If you are a dungeon 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 dungeon masters should make all the players’ die rolls to better conceal ACs and other secrets. (See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?) 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 dungeon mastering in rooms like this at Origins

I’ve learned a lot about dungeon 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, dungeon 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 DM’s attention. A DM’s pace tends to bottleneck the pace of a role-playing session.

Delegation reduces the bottleneck at the dungeon 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 The Best Ways to Track Initiative in Dungeons & Dragons.

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.

Running allied non-player characters. Whenever an non-player character might take the side of the players in a fight, I always print an extra sheet with the character’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.

Tallying experience points. Players keep track of the gold they win. Why not have a player keep track of experience points too? After each encounter, while you still have the monsters and encounter notes in view, give the experience values to a volunteer accountant.

Githyanki marked with numbered disks

Githyanki marked with numbered disks

Numbering monsters. I use numbered markers to distinguish the miniature figures on my battle map. Compared to players attacking “this” and “that” monster, the numbers avoid confusion and speed play. Tracking damage becomes easier. See Number Your Monsters to Stop Wasting Time Finding Them on the Battle Map. Usually, I hand one player a stack of numbered markers and let them tag the monsters.

Track damage dealt to foes. Damage dealt is not secret information for the DM. (Seeking a tactical advantage, my Dungeons & Dragons Championship teams kept track of damage.) Delegate damage tracking to that player who likes to deduce monster ACs and can total 8d6 fireball damage at a glance. 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 their moment. Delegate. The game doesn’t just belong to the dungeon master. It belongs to everyone at the table. See Should a Dungeon Master Invite Players to Help Create the D&D World Beyond Their Characters?

14 thoughts on “How to Run Better D&D Games By Doing Less

  1. prabe

    Eh. I’ve never had much luck with delegating anything other than recapping (because my wife takes astounding notes) and referencing rules (which usually happens because there’s something they want to look up–I rarely crack a rulebook while GMing). Pretty much everything else seems to run better with simpler approaches. Initiative? A sheet of paper with the initiatives in order. Numbering enemies? Either individual miniatures or dice; I have sets of 10 d10s that work astonishingly well for this, because you can use all the dice. Battle maps are no more detailed than they need to be; if I need something specific and complex, I use mats or tiles (in principle; it’s not something that’s arisen yet).

    Obviously, different people run differently, and different tables have different needs and capabilities. I guess it’s important to realize that something that improves Table A may not improve Table B, and might actually detract from Table C.

    1. Simon

      I agree. There are many things I can do so much faster than my players that delegating just slows the game down. Eg I got very good at WoTC-D&D intiative chart over the years, asking a player “Who’s next?” can get tiresome.

  2. Nicholas Qualls (@nikoscream)

    I had started delegating initiative and it went well, but then I also started doing initiative tents and just decided to take initiative back since I did all the tent work. I love the tents since I also keep AC, PP, and DCs on them. I also bought a set of creature and npc initiative tents that have all their basic stats on the DM side.

    Plus I always worry that things happening mid combat would throw the players keeping reach off. Like lair actions specifically at initiative 20, or new combatants mid fight.

    1. prabe

      Things mid-combat is my big reason not to have players handle initiative. Lair actions are an example; hidden enemies, or ones who haven’t entered the combat yet, are another.

    2. Zach

      Best way I have found for initiative: Legos. Each player picks a colored Lego and puts it in front of them. I have an identically colored Lego behind my screen as well as a bunch of numbered white Legos. When initiative is rolled I form a tower with highest initiative on top, lowest on bottom, white Legos as monsters/NPCs.

  3. Ilbranteloth

    Oh how I love dropping the battle map/minis not to mention initiative!

    Most of the things you describe that slow down the game are related to combat, especially while using minis. Of course, my group tries to avoid combat itself where possible too. Our approach is much closer to the AD&D system, except we’ve turned initiative into am opposed roll in the event we need to know what happened first.

    Obviously this doesn’t work at conventions where you have to stick to the RAW, but getting out of the “combat mini-game” (or most of the game) that D&D has become since Combat & Tactics takes it back to what made the game great to me in the first place. Characters, exploration, and the narrative they create.

  4. Henry Walsh

    I number monsters, but the rest of this? H-E-Double Hockey Sticks No!

    I’m a knight of the old code. I’ve been doing this since the ’80s. I will NEVER let my players track their own experience. I will NOT let my players track monster HP. I will draw the map thank-you-very-much, if I’m running at a con, I’ll have the maps pre-prepared.

    You are the Dungeon MASTER if your game is too slow then the fault is on you. You dropped the ball.

  5. FluffyPandas

    Few things one: I had played less than five sessions(no longer than 3hrs to) when I first DMed and had DMed less than 5 sessions when I started a long term campaign: I may not be the most experienced, but…
    I have found that a short prep time is more than enough I spend a total of less than an hour preparing for a session (I have done as little as 10 minutes) but I have found this adds to the fun and when there’s a plot twist it kinda surprises you to: the Npcs stabs you *wait crap he does what a betrayal why did I say that* but it always creates fun and shanagins. Also y’all are going to freak when I say this… I don’t roll initiative I just let the combat flow and it makes it more dynamic and interesting

  6. Silvain

    A lot of these aren’t major timewasters for those of us who play online, and most of the ones that are can’t be easily delegated (no one else can make maps for me, for example, because the players don’t have dm access to our roll20 campaign). I do delegate recaps and occasionally rule checks, however (generally, checking a rule is up to whoever’s wondering… unfortunately that’s… usually still me).

  7. Dan Doyle

    Use transparancies for battle maps. Then place ok grids when needed-pre drawn.

    Use excel for initiative results. It can roll for the players and auto sort. Can give different initiatives for cohorts and pets.

  8. Daniel

    My players enjoyed reciting expository dialogue (usually in the form of flashback conversations involving NPCs). Maybe this is because some of them had more of an acting than a gaming background. It does mean that I had to compose and print the dialogue in advance but it then saved me having to do too much talking (and switching personas) during a session.

  9. Gary Paul Kimzey

    The single simplest thing I’ve done is to stop trying to remember what all the spells, feats, and cantrips do. I make the players tell me. So much less stressful.

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