Over the 50-year history of Dungeons & Dragons, the game has changed enough that some gamers prefer the early versions of the rules to duplicate the play style of 1974. Have the qualities of good dungeon master changed too? For a tour of DM advice over D&D history, I sought the D&D adventures that included advice, from In Search of the Unknown (1979), to Peril in Pinebrook (2023), and pulled the best, worst, and most dated guidance. Most advice remains timeless, revisited in print over the decades, so this post only mentions guidance when it first appears.
B1 In Search of the Unknown (1979) by Dave Carr
Most adventures that include advice aim to help new DMs through their first session. Later printings of the 1977 Basic Set packaged In Search of the Unknown as a start. Originally, this Basic Set just included unkeyed dungeon maps that DMs could cut apart and rearrange into different configurations. Following the original dungeon design standards, new DMs could just roll for monsters and treasure to stock the map. B1 keeps some of this learn-by-doing approach. The adventure included vacant locations along with separate lists of monsters and treasures to pair with the open locations.
Designate a caller
One player in the group should be designated as the leader, or ‘caller’ for the party, while another one or two players can be selected as mappers (at least one is a must!).
Early on, DMs proved much scarcer than players so groups often included 8-12 players and D&D co-creator Gary Gygax ran sessions for as many as 20. Designating a caller to speak for the group helped speed play. For more on the lost role of mapper, see The Dungeon Mapper: From Half of D&D to a Forgotten Role.
Make the game enjoyable and challenging
The DM’s foremost concern should be to provide an enjoyable game which is challenging to the players. A good DM does not attempt to influence player actions or channel the activity in a particular direction. Although you may set up situations to challenge players, you must understand that you are not their adversary, nor are you necessarily out to defeat them. However, if your players abandon caution or make stupid mistakes, let them pay the price—but be fair.
As Dungeon Master, you are the game moderator. This means you set the tempo of the game and are responsible for keeping it moving. If players are unusually slow or dilly-dally unnecessarily, remind them that time is wasting. If they persist, allow additional chances for wandering monsters to appear—or at least start rolling the dice to make the players think that you are doing so.
In the 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary Gygax suggests speeding characters by rolling dice behind the screen, mainly to hint at the threat of wandering monsters. As random encounters fell out of favor, I figured this advice became outdated, but a recent adventure discussed in this post, The Hidden Halls of Hazacor (2018), recommends the same trick. For some of my advice on the subject, see Getting Players Moving, Especially When No One Wants to Drive.
Lastly, it is important to remember that the Dungeon Master is the final arbiter in his or her game. If players disagree with you, hear them out and reasonably consider their complaint. With human nature as it is, players will undoubtedly attempt to try to talk you into (or out of) all sorts of things; part of the fun of being a DM is this verbal interplay. But in the end, what you say is what goes.
T1 Village of Hommlet (1979) by Gary Gygax
By 1979, D&D publisher TSR had split Advanced Dungeons & Dragons from the original game. As an introduction to AD&D, Gygax penned Village of Hommlet, a module that added a village as a home base complete with non-player characters the players might not kill. For more on creating NPCs that players might not kill, see How to Create Loveable Non-Player Characters While You Supercharge Your Sex Appeal. (That title is not pure click bait; the post really does explain how to supercharge your sex appeal.)
The persons met at the inn, along the road, and so forth, are you; for the Dungeon Master is all-monsters, NPCs, the gods, everything. Play it to the hilt. Do it with flair and wit. Be fair both to the characters and to yourself. Be deceitful, clever, and thoroughly dishonest when acting the part of a thief. Be cunning but just when in the role of a warding ranger. Actually think of it as if the part you are taking is that of a character you are playing, and act accordingly, but temper actions with disinterest in the eventual outcome and only from the viewpoint of that particular role. Wearing two, three, or a half dozen or more different hats is challenging, but that is part of being an outstanding DM.
For more on roleplaying NPCs and modelling good roleplaying for players, see Most Advice for Encouraging Role-playing Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff.
B2 Keep on the Borderlands (1979) by Gary Gygax
In 1981, Keep on the Borderlands replaced B1 in the Basic Set. The adventure reprises the familiar advice, but Gygax adds a lofty pep talk for novice DMs.
As DM you are to become the Shaper of the Cosmos. It is you who will give form and content to all the universe. You will breathe life into the stillness, giving meaning and purpose to all the actions which are to follow. The others in your group will assume the roles of individuals and play their parts, but each can only perform within the bounds you will set. It is now up to you to create a magical realm filled with danger, mystery, and excitement, complete with countless challenges. Though your role is the greatest, it is also the most difficult. You must now prepare to become all things to all people.
If all of this seems too difficult, never fear! Just as your players are learning and gaining experience at D&D play, so too will you be improving your ability as a DM. The work necessary to become a master at the art is great, far greater than that necessary to be a top player, but the rewards are even greater. You will bring untold enjoyment to many players in your role as DM, and all the while you will have the opportunity to exercise your imagination and creative ability to the fullest. May each of your dungeon adventure episodes always be a wondrous experience!
When the players experience their first encounter with a monster, you must be ready to play the part fully. If the monster is basically unintelligent, you must have it act accordingly. Make the encounter exciting with the proper dramatics of the animal sort – including noises! If the encounter is with an intelligent monster, it is up to the DM to not only provide an exciting description but also to correctly act the part of the monster.
B10 Night’s Dark Terror (1986) by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris and Phil Gallagher
In the 80s, the D&D line sold in a series of boxed sets. The Basic Set started players with dungeon adventures, and then the Expert Set expanded the game to the wilderness. Night’s Dark Terror helped introduce players to the great outdoors. This adventure rates as one of the best ever.
Adventuring is, above all, about enjoying yourself, and sometimes in order to do so it is necessary to overrule some dice throws. It is your job as DM to give your players an exciting and fun time, relying entirely on the dice is not always the best way to do so—they are an aid, not a means in themselves. But be discrete—you don ‘t want your players to get the idea that you are pulling any punches!
No other adventure suggests fudging die rolls, but when Peril in Pinebrook (2023) suggested that DMs play to avoid killing player characters, the recommendation took heavy criticism from some gamers. That adventure appears later in this post.
B11 King’s Festival (1989) by Carl Sargent
By 1989, most of the earlier introductory adventures lapsed out of print, so TSR started a new set with B11 King’s Festival.
Description and the senses
Never forget that you are the eyes and ears of the player characters during the game. Players are wholly dependent on you to tell them what their PCs see, hear, and so on. Good DMs are able to convey the feel and atmosphere of an adventure, the thrills and scares, by using good descriptions of what actions are taking place and what the PC can see around them.
A good DM details more than simply what PCs see. Don’t forget noises (scurrying vermin, voices, whistling wind, owl hoots, the scraping of something on stone-is it metal, chitinous claws, or something even more horrid?), smells (food, garbage, the reek of a filthy ogre aiming a club at a PC), and tactile senses (“you feel hair rising at the nape of your neck,” or “the stone feels cold and slimy as you touch it”).
DDA2 Legions of Thyatis (1990) by John Nephew
One quick way to characterize an NPC is to visualize him as an animal, and picture that animal as you describe and play him. Another way to create stock characters is to use foils, or opposites. One example is the wimpy, fast-talking thief teamed up with a hulking mountain of a thug.
“Winging it” means running an adventure without a detailed script or area key. Like all skills, doing it will be easier after you’ve tried it a few times. When winging a plotted adventure, just identify the main turning points of the plot; how the players get there is less important than the fun they have doing it.
Don’t worry at first if the encounter sends the party away from the main plot—you can practice steering them back to it! Players depend on you dropping clues to guide them, and they can easily get lost if they miss something vital. Don’t panic; keep giving them chances to get on the right track until they connect, if your first clues were too subtle. If they don’t connect, you can decide after the session whether you want to get them back on track or modify the adventure to go in their direction.
If the player characters scatter, think ahead to the next point in your plot at which you can bring them all back together. Try to do this as soon as possible; it’s most important to have all the players in the game, for player boredom is certain death for an evening’s fun.
Finally, you may have a situation where things have gone out of control. In such cases, stopping the game for a few minutes to sort things out is perfectly okay.
WGA4 Vecna Lives! (1990) by David Cook
Unlike all the prior adventures on this list, Vecna Lives! targeted experienced DMs. However, this module aimed to create a more structured story and a more horrific mood than a typical D&D romp.
Allowing the player characters to succeed against a seemingly major villain, deadly trap, or a puzzle increases their confidence. This victory may be followed by a stinging defeat or the discovery that their accomplishment was only a small part of something greater and more powerful.
This technique must be used sparingly, however. You don’t want to take away all your player’s accomplishments or they will get discouraged. Wait until they are overconfident and cocky, then give them a reverse and it will remind them that things are not as easy as they seem.
To make your players sweat, you must let them know they are in danger before anything actually happens.
Which creates more tension—the player characters open the door and discover the monsters, or the player characters hear a strange noise on the other side before they open the door? In the second case, the players suddenly stop and have to judge the amount of risk. They know something is there, but don’t know what.
The trick is to give your players hints that they are in danger without revealing enough for them to avoid that danger. In movies, this can be done by showing the audience the threat (the monsters lurking behind the door) but not showing it to the hero (about to open the door). This is a little harder in a role-playing game, since players are both audience and heroes.
You can use foreshadowing techniques to some extent. Fleeting, incomplete, and inaccurate glimpses of the major villains will put characters on their toes. The characters can discover Vecna’s grim handiwork just moments after the fact. Ancient manuscripts suggest the full extent of Vecna’s power. Even his Hand and his Eye, as powerful artifacts, only suggest the full extent of Vecna’s power.
Eye of the Wyvern (1999) by Jeff Grubb
The adventures even include scripted text for the DM to read to new players who apparently have no idea what activity awaits them.
“What we’re going to do here is tell a story, a story that you’re going to help create. Each of you has a character: a fighter, a wizard, or a rogue. The story takes place in a world filled with monsters, treasure, and adventure. I’m going to be the Dungeon Master, or DM. I’ll describe what your characters see, and you’re going to tell me what your characters do in response.“
The adventure gives advice for character deaths that I’ve never seen before or since. “Just replay.” in video games gamers routinely replay bad outcomes often, but on the tabletop the suggestion feels like a violation of the social contract. Perhaps replaying should not feel like a transgression, especially with a table of new players.
With some lucky dice rolls for the ghoul and some unlucky ones for the characters, the ghoul might be able to paralyze and defeat all the characters if it decides to stay around and fight. This might be a cruel thing to do to the characters (and their players), but it would be a good way to show the players how dangerous a monster like the ghoul can be. (And you can always back up and start the adventure over, or just replay the scene in the library, if you want to give the characters another chance.)
Eye of the Wyvern includes ravenous little lizard-gremlins called wyverlings, and Grubb gives DMs fun advice for playing them while using your hands as puppets.
One easy prop to use to show wyvernling action is to hold up your hand, thumb in front of the palm. Touch the ring and middle fingers to your thumb and extend the whole outward. You now have a rough approximation of a wyvernling head, which you can use to demonstrate all types of wyvernling activity. Sock puppets work, too, but this is good on the fly.
Crypt of the Smoke Dragon (1999) by Jeff Grubb
Despite already publishing two starter adventures in the same year, TSR later printed a third, free intoduction also by Jeff Grubb. Crypt of the Smoke Dragon uses a “demo version” of D&D that only requires d6s. It includes 3d6 rolls to hit and for ability checks. Plus, none of the foes have parents, so it meets another of my starter adventure rules. (See 6 Things to Include in a 1st-Level D&D Adventure.) It even includes a (smoke) dragon boss battle.
Make the adventure your own
When the heroes try something that isn’t covered in the text, just make it up! Even better, make something up in each scene so that the adventure is uniquely your own. That’s the fun of the D&D game.
Call to adventure
Crypt of the Smoke Dragon gives each pregenerated PC a motivation to go adventure even though the players will proceed just because they sat for a D&D game. One seeks the destruction of evil, one treasure, one knowledge, and one just feels loyal to the other PCs. For more on motivating adventurers, see The D&D Adventures That Stumble by Missing the Hook.
H1 Keep on the Shadowfell (2008) by Bruce Cordell and Mike Mearls
The fourth edition’s introductory adventure, Keep on the Shadowfell, makes subtle change that marks a big improvement. The 1999 introductory modules included four characters, three male and one female. This adventure leaves the names and genders of the pregenerated character blank so players set a gender. Too bad all the PCs’ illustrations appear male.
Way back in 1987, I embarrassed myself by creating a batch of male pregenerated for my event at Gen Con. A woman sat down and asked if any of the characters were female.
Hint: If you ever create characters for other players, always leave the gender unspecified. The (hopefully) ambiguous names I used for my last batch of PCs include Doc (cleric), Lucky (rogue), Sparky (wizard), Sprig (druid), Moxie (fighter), Roamy (Ranger). I could have left the names blank, but making names proved too much fun.
Make the adventure your own, part 2
You want to create a seamless world that seems both deep and exciting. You can accomplish this by adding story elements to the game when the opportunity arises.
Perhaps you think Wrafton’s Inn needs a bard stroking a lyre by the fire as he sings of Sir Keegan’s tragedy. Or perhaps you want to add flavor to a mundane object, such as the wyrmpriest’s necklace from the Kobold Ambush encounter.
Anything you can do to add your personal touch to an adventure makes it that much more distinctive and memorable to your players. Immerse them in the story, and you’ll all be rewarded with a unique experience.
The adventure recommends making NPCs distinct by giving them an accent or favorite saying, showing them with a favorite thing like a lucky coin or pet cat, or adding a personality-related adjective like “greedy, bored, suspicious, tired, enthusiastic, sly, nervous, dumb, zealous, and so on.”
Helping indecisive players
Sometimes when you ask players what they want to do next, they won’t know. If this happens, try to move them in a certain direction by asking a leading question. For example, if players spend a long time after the kobold fight considering what to do next, you can ask, “Are you ready to continue toward Winterhaven?”
This advice works for novice DMs running their first adventure, but if the players have already decided to travel to Winterhaven, you can typically let their decision stand without revisiting whether they want to continue. To break through indecision while giving players a better sense of autonomy, list their most promising three options, and then remind them that they can chose an entirely different action. See The Best DM Tricks for Helping a Party Make Choices.
Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) by Richard Baker and Chris Perkins
Don’t let rules questions stall the game
When in doubt, make it up! It’s better to keep the game moving than to get bogged down in the rules.
Be consistent. If you decide that a rule works a certain way in one session, make sure it works that way the next time it comes into play.
For advice on delegating rules questions, see Delegate to run better role-playing game sessions by doing less.
Share the narrative
It’s a shared story. It’s the group’s story, so let the players contribute to the outcome through the actions of their characters. Dungeons & Dragons is about imagination and coming together to tell a story as a group. Let the players participate in the storytelling.
Make sure everyone is involved. Ensure every character has a chance to shine. If some players are reluctant to speak up, remember to ask them what their characters are doing.
This reverses the early advice to designate a caller to speak for the party.
Read the table
Pay attention. Make sure you look around the table occasionally to see if the game is going well. If everyone seems to be having fun, relax and keep going. If the fun is waning, it might be time for a break, or you can try to liven things up.
Cloud Giant’s Bargain (2016) by Teos Abadia
When an Acquisitions Incorporated game streamed live to theaters, audiences received Cloud Giant’s Bargain as a perk. Although the adventure works for character levels 5-7, it also seeks to encourage fans of live play to run their first game.
If you are a new DM, it is perfectly normal to feel a bit apprehensive before your first session. Just remember: players need DMs to play. What you are doing is valuable and coveted. You don’t need a perfect understanding of the rules or to have Chris Perkins’ improvisational skills for players to have a great time. When in doubt, make decisions that you think the players will enjoy. The more often you run games as a DM, the easier it gets!
Create a name tent by taking a note card or similar piece of cardstock and folding it in half. Open the fold to a right angle, so that it forms a display tent when the edges are placed on the table. Give one to each player and have them write their character’s name, race, and class on each outer side of the tent. This will allow you and the other players to remember character names and important details.
For advice on name tents and more, see 11 Great Dungeon Master Tips Revealed at Winter Fantasy 2020.
Going off script
If players lose sight of their goals or start chasing red herrings, the adventure recommends luring them back. “One thing to remember is that players often respond to something exciting, interesting, or profitable.”
An old school approach to failure
Unlucky dice can always turn against characters, however, allowing them to be overwhelmed. Defeat is always a possibility in Dungeons & Dragons-but that’s what makes victory so sweet.
The Hidden Halls of Hazacor (2018) by Scott Fitzgerald Gray
Most introductory D&D adventures come directly from the TSR or Wizards of the Coast. After all, D&D’s publisher stands to reach virtually all new DMs first. Nonetheless this independent adventure, The Hidden Halls of Hazacor, gives first-time DMs an adventure stocked with guidance. And the adventure stands out for being the first and only adventure to give advice for some situations that have vexed DMs since 1974. The adventure targets kids and the writing aims for youngsters, but the advice works for any age.
Dealing with murderous treasure hunters
When some new players start playing a game that allows any choice of action, they relish the chance to shatter society’s rules of behavior, often in ways that disrupt the game for players who want to work together without making war with villagers.
Characters can be arrested in the stronghold for getting into fights, stealing from NPCs, climbing the stronghold walls, or trying to break into shops or apartments. So if any players talk about their characters wanting to do such things, it’s up to you to convince them it’s a bad idea.
Describe how there are guards everywhere in Purdey’s Rest, patrolling the streets and the market court. But also, characters will see guards eating in the taverns and visiting people at the inn. Purdey’s Rest is a safe place for its people, and the guards will keep it that way by kicking troublemakers out of the stronghold. If you need to, remind the players that they’ll have lots of chances to fight things in the dungeon.
For more on players who feel tempted to attack townsfolk, see Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.
Helping distressed players
If you see that a player is uncomfortable with your descriptions, change what you say so it doesn’t seem as real. A player will feel better about monsters and scary descriptions after they play for a while. One way to help with that is to give the player a chance to feel like a hero. During combat, describe how a successful hit by a character makes a monster stagger or fall back. This lets the player know they are in control, and that they don’t need to worry.
For a time my scary descriptions may have wrecked the fun, see My 5 Biggest Game Mastering Blunders Ever and What I Learned.
Running for empathetic players
When you run adventures as a GM, you might see that some players don’t like the idea of killing intelligent creatures, or monsters they feel sorry for. Some players might be upset if they feel as though the game is making them kill other creatures. So it’s important for you to remind the players that they always get to decide what their characters do. Instead of killing intelligent creatures like orcs, goblins, and kobolds, the characters can defeat them in combat, then threaten them into leaving.
The crates, barrels, and boxes of loot that the orcs and the goblins have collected are all stolen from merchants and travelers. It’s okay for the characters to take the stolen loot and sell it if that’s what they want to do. If any players are worried about taking things that were stolen, they can return the stolen goods to the guards in Purdey’s rest instead of selling them.
Arguments among players
Sometimes arguments are more serious. But you can still solve many serious arguments by talking to the players. If two of them want their characters to kill goblin bandits but the other players want to let the goblins go, ask all the players why they feel the way they do. The players who want to kill the goblins might just be worried that the sneaky goblins will come back and attack the party again. So ask for Wisdom (Insight) checks if you want the characters to know that the goblins are too scared to come back, and that the players don’t need to worry.
Sometimes you might have a different situation. Most of the players don’t want to kill the goblins because they feel sorry for them. But one player says they’re going to kill the goblins just to make the other players feel bad. You might have a player who ignores other players when they want to talk to monsters, and who always attacks instead. Or a player might say that since their character killed most of the monsters in an encounter, they deserve more treasure than anyone else. Fixing those kinds of arguments is harder. Because when a player tries to wreck the fun for other players on purpose, that’s a kind of bullying.
Just like with other arguments and problems in the game, you should try to fix bullying first by talking. Remind everyone that characters do best in the game when they work together. Tell the player that as the GM, you want everyone to have fun, and what they’re doing is hurting the fun for the other players. But sometimes a player who’s being a bully won’t stop. And if that happens, that’s the one time when you get to use your power as the GM to tell the player that their character can’t do what they want. You might even need to tell the player that if they don’t stop, they won’t be allowed to play in your game.
For more on player cooperation, see A Roleplaying Game Player’s Obligation.
Summarize the boring parts
When you decide things aren’t important, you can give the players a short summary instead. Traveling is often best summarized. If the characters leave the dungeon to rest up, then come back, you don’t need to play out having them move through every room like you did when they first explored. You can just tell them that the dungeon is dark and quiet as they go back to where they left off.
Peril in Pinebrook (2023) by Shawn Merwin
Peril in Pinebrook is a free, introductory adventure designed for new and young Dungeons & Dragons players and inspired by The Practically Complete Guide to Dragons. For a more accessible experience, it includes a simplified version of fifth edition’s rules and premade character sheets.
Let players succeed
Use “Yes, and …” or “No, but …” Allow the players to succeed as much as possible, and let them participate in the telling of the story. If they want to try something unexpected, try to say “yes” and then work their ideas into the story. If you have to say “no” to a player’s idea, suggest options that let them do something similar.
Allow Alternatives. D&D is a game of fantasy, where heroes use wits, skill, and determination to overcome obstacles. Sometimes those obstacles are defeated with weapons and spells. But characters can succeed in other ways. Communicating with monsters, tricking them or frightening them away, or avoiding a fight while cleverly sneaking past a challenge can be just as much fun. Such options are ideal if anyone playing the game wants to avoid violence.
The advice to let players succeed reminds DMs to allow player ingenuity rather than looking for whatever solution we have in mind, but still acknowledges that not every idea works. See Challenging Your Players’ Skill Without Risking Frustration and Sometimes I Tell Players No, but “Say Yes” Made Me a Better Dungeon Master.
Listening as a safety tool
Encourage your players to speak to you, publicly or privately, if something in the game upsets them. Then respond appropriately. For instance, you can move past upsetting topics by quickly narrating a resolution to a scene, then quickly move to the next part of the story.
Avoid character deaths
Peril in Pinebrook started a controversy by suggesting ways for DMs to avoid killing new player’s characters. “You can intervene if the characters seem to be losing the battle. For instance, you can give the characters advantage on attack rolls or give the monsters disadvantage on attack rolls.” The adventure also advises DMs to avoid focusing fire on a single PC. For more on sparing characters, see How To Adjust Combat Difficulty on the Fly Using the Magic of Roleplaying.
Before scorning the advice, consider that even Gary Gygax recommended occasional mercy for characters. In the original Dungeon Master’s Guide (p.110), he wrote, “Now and then a player will die through no fault of his own. He or she will have done everything correctly, taken every reasonable precaution, but still the freakish roll of the dice will kill the character. In the long run you should let such things pass as the players will kill more than one opponent with their own freakish rolls at some later time. Yet you do have the right to arbitrate the situation. You can rule that the player, instead of dying, is knocked unconscious, loses a limb, is blinded in one eye or invoke any reasonable severe penalty that still takes into account what the monster has done. It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for-player character when they have played well.”