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11 Great Dungeon Master Tips Revealed at Winter Fantasy 2020

The Winter Fantasy convention fits into one hall at the convention center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Despite the event’s compact size, it delivers as much Dungeons & Dragons as far larger conventions such as Origins or Gen Con. Plus, the con offers plenty of inexpensive hotel rooms. Sure, Fort Wayne suffers an icy February, but you come to game.

For dungeon masters who aim to improve their game, nothing beats running games for strangers. In close second comes playing at other DMs’ tables and learning their best techniques. (See If You Want to Write Games for Everyone, Game with Everyone).

At the 2020 convention, I came to play, and I found myself noting tips gleaned from every session.

1. When you have to deliver background, have players roll for it so it feels like a reward.

We all see adventures that start with bullet lists of background information for some patron to recite. Often, letting everyone roll, say, a history check makes a better way to reveal such backstory. Once everyone rolls, reward the lower results with the common knowledge, and the higher rolls with the lesser-known details. See In D&D, Letting Everyone Roll Certain Checks Guarantees Success, So Why Bother Rolling?.

2. Try to award every attempt to gather information with something.

I used to reveal every descriptive detail of a door, altar, or dungeon room right away. This made for long descriptions and held nothing for when players explored. You want to reward players’ investigations with some information, even just bits of color and flavor. I used to fear that holding back would deprive players of some necessary description. Now I trust that players will gather whatever details I hold back.

3. Show the written names of key non-player characters. Pictures are even better.

DMs love when players show enough interest to take notes, writing names and other details. This year I resolved to take such notes as I played. But fantasy character names became a problem. I would write what I thought I heard and always get it wrong. Even for non-note takers, seeing a name written helps scribe it in memory. Teachers write on a board for a reason. As a DM, you probably have an erasable grid surface in your kit. Use it to show names as well as maps.

For the most important characters, try to find a picture that suits them. Showing a picture makes the impression even stronger.

4. In interaction scenes, make sure players know their goal and see at least one potential route to success.

The best thing about combat scenes is that players rarely enter one without some idea of what they aim to accomplish. They have a goal and understand what to do. (Typically, kill the monsters.) Too often, adventurers start interaction scenes without seeing a potential route to success. Players flounder as they try to figure out what to do. That never makes for the most fun. See Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens.

5. You can say, “You have learned all you can here,” or “You’ve done all you can here.”

Sometimes players continue searching a place or questioning someone well after accomplishing everything they can. DMs feel hesitant to say, “You have learned all you can here,” because it reveals something the characters would not know. Just say it. If you like, you can imagine that hours more of unproductive conversation happened off screen.

6. When players attempt something, make sure they understand the odds and the stakes.

We all love when players stake their characters’ lives on some reckless, nearly impossible stunt. Whether they succeed or fail, such moments make unforgettable gaming. But before any foolhardy undertaking, make sure the players know the odds and the result of failure. I typically share difficulty classes before players roll. These DC numbers help span the gulf between a character’s vivid sense of the game world and what a player learns from a DM’s description. DCs prevent misunderstandings. As for risks, make sure players know that, say, falling from the Earth mote means plunging into a sea of lava. That works better than rewinding the action for a player who heard “sea” and not “lava.” See Would You Play With a Dungeon Master Who Kept Your Character Sheet and Hid Your PC’s Hit Points?.

7. For a convention game, encourage players to put their character’s name on a table tent.

Based on anecdotal evidence collected from a few hundred convention games, I’m convinced that players need about 2 hours to learn the names of their partners in adventure. Table tents bring a simple remedy. Veteran convention players know this and bring their own. I suggest bringing note cards and a Sharpie so every player can make a tent.

8. Add, don’t subtract.

When you track damage to a monster, add the damage until it reaches the monster’s hit points. Some DMs subtract until they reach 0, which seems more cumbersome to us non-savants.

9. In roleplaying interactions, go ahead and split the party.

Never split the party applies to combat and exploration, but in roleplaying challenges, splitting up often proves more fun. Rather than the player with the most forceful personality taking most of the time in the spotlight, more players participate. As a bonus, ability checks work better when just a couple of players participate.

To make the most of a split party, cut between the smaller groups’ scenes. Every role-playing game reaches moments when the players make plans while the DM sits idle. Those moments bring my favorite times to switch scenes. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Instead of waiting for decisions, I can give more players time in the spotlight. The tempo of the game feels faster. See Never Split the Party—Except When It Adds Fun.

10. Every time you ask for a check, you write a check.

Remember paper checks? Once, long ago, folks used to pay money by writing a promise to pay on a special slip of paper. With checks, you needed to back that promise with actual money in the bank. Ability checks sometimes work like paper checks. If you ask for a check, you promise to allow for failure. This year I saw bad rolls test a few DMs who realized a failure had to succeed for the adventure to continue. I watched their damage control as they hunted for a way to drag me to success. If the adventure leaves no room for failure, skip the check.

11. Speak like a storyteller.

When I DM, I tend to rush through my speaking parts. The habit comes from a good motive: I want to spend less time talking so the players do more playing. Seeing more measured DMs proves that sometimes going slower works better. The best DMs adjust their tempo, often slowing to give their words weight. They pause to emphasize, their tone expresses emotion, and it works. Fireside storytellers and preachers show it, and we DMs can learn it. Through practice, I hope to capture some of that knack.

Running Group Roleplaying Scenes—How Permission From an RPG Legend Made Me Stop Talking to Myself

Much of a dungeon master’s skill amounts to choosing the technique that suits a moment in the game. I have two examples:

Use the right tool for the job.

For years, because I used the wrong tool, a type of roleplaying scene sometimes left my players confused. Adopting a better technique would have forced me to accept a limitation that just about every DM shares. Few of us can stage a good one-performer show. Lucky for my players, a giant of roleplaying game design set me straight.

In Dungeons & Dragons, the DM plays every non-player character. Speaking in character makes these NPCs more vivid, makes scenes feel more immediate, and encourages roleplaying. (See Most Advice for Encouraging Roleplaying Stinks, But I Found the Good Stuff.)

As a DM, when I portray two NPCs at once, I often see the players grow confused about who is talking. I figured if I performed better, then the confusion would lessen. So I worked on character voices and doing a better job attributing each speaker. Sometimes I even held up a picture of the current speaker. Despite any improvement, players still often became confused. Perhaps worse, players sat idle. Roleplaying games should encourage interaction and my one-man show discouraged it.

Permission to change my approach came from Sandy Petersen, designer of Call of Cthulhu—probably the most critically acclaimed roleplaying game ever. In a convention presentation, he says, “Never let two NPCs have a discussion, because then it’s just the gamemaster talking to himself.” Thank you, Sandy.

Instead of acting two parts in character, just tell the players what the two characters say. “The elders disagree about the best way to stop the raids. Some want to strike back the chief. Others suspect the attacks seek a stolen totem held by cultists in the village.”

Such a narrative approach falls short of ideal, but it works better than talking to yourself.

Still, the best roleplaying scenes feature a small number of players speaking to one NPC at a time.

In your favorite TV comedy, have you ever noticed how cast members with nothing to do leave the scene? Partly, this happens because actors hate standing in a scene with nothing to do, but moving extraneous characters offstage also focuses attention on the important ones.

Find an excuse to trot out your NPCs one at a time, play their part, and then have them excuse themselves to go to the loo or to take cookies from the oven. (Many dark necromancers enjoy baking to unwind.) If you need two characters to argue two points of view, let one convince the players, and then leave. Then have a second NPC meet to present an opposing point of view. Now you can act as each NPC in character without fostering confusion.

But suppose you have the acting chops to fill a crowd scene with distinctive voices chatting among themselves. Awesome! Can I play at your table? Still, avoid putting more than one NPC onstage at once, you showoff.

Dungeon masters should work to offer each player as much time to play and interact as possible. That means that even if you can portray every member of the king’s council as they argue strategy, resist the temptation. Give the players a bigger role in the discussion by limiting yourself to a single NPC. If the players wanted to see a one-man show, they would have gone to the theater.

As you deploy your cast of characters, weigh the advantages of forcing the party to split up to meet NPCs separately. Splitting the party makes everyone contribute. Less-vocal party members gain time in the spotlight. In the dungeon, never split the party, but in the castle or guild hall, send them on their separate ways. (See Never Split the Party—Except When it Adds Fun.)

Never split the party—except when it adds fun

Everyone who plays role-playing games learns the Dungeons & Dragons adage never split the party.

In the hobby’s early days, when dungeon masters were referees and players chose difficulty by dungeon level, never splitting the party always made good strategy. Parties found safety in numbers.

defending-the-bridgeThe danger of splitting the party

In a dungeon stocked with encounters suited for a full party, splitting the party jeopardizes everyone. But despite the adage, players sometimes find reasons to split the party. New players and kids always seem tempted.

Faced with a divided group, some dungeon masters will scale the challenges for smaller groups. Typically, I don’t. I usually only shrink the challenges for those new players and kids.

Experienced players who split up know they’re taking an extra risk. They feel a sense of jeopardy that the usual game can’t match. They use stealth and cunning in ways they might not with a full group, when they assume they can defeat any monsters set before them. I don’t want to lose that sense of peril, or to block their chance to approach the game differently. In a way, adjusting threats steals the players’ agency by nullifying the consequences of their actions.

Why split the party?

In today’s game, player characters do more than assault dungeons. Sometimes the elf and wizard must persuade the elven emissary, the thief and warlock need to infiltrate a manor house, and the bard and noble paladin need to charm guests at a ball. They could work better separately, but players insist on keeping the party together. So the dwarf insults the emissary, the paladin’s chainmail racket alerts the manor guards, and a motley band of killers sours the ball. Then midnight tolls and evil triumphs.

Game masters often avoid challenges suited to split parties, but I invite them. Sometimes I relish a chance to split a party.

Splitting the party can give soft-spoken players a chance in the spotlight. Player characters gain unique chances to reveal their character’s personality and talents.

Way back in a post on skill challenges, I suggested using time pressure to force each PC to participate. “If the characters only need to gain the support of the head of the merchant council, then typically one player makes all the diplomacy rolls. If the characters must split up to convince every member of the merchant council before their vote, then every player must contribute.” Formal skill challenges are gone, but forcing a party to divide and conquer still invites everyone to contribute.

One limitation of role-playing games is that even when the entire party participates in a role-playing scene, typically only one or two players participate. The rest watch. Sometimes players find themselves overshadowed by players with more forceful personalities. Splitting the party gives more players a solo. Meanwhile, the thief finally gets to sneak. The wizard finally gets to cast Sending.

If done well, splitting the party creates more spotlight time for every player at the table. More on that later.

Why keep everyone together?

Never split the party started as good strategy, but now it feels like part of the game’s social contract. Even when splitting the party seems logical, players keep the group together for three metagame reasons.

1. Players fear encounters designed for a full party.

Players expect combat encounters designed to challenge a group of 4 to 7 characters. If they split up before a fight erupts, then an undermanned party becomes overmatched.

But that happens less often that you think, because you, as a game master, see the situations that invite splitting the party and can plan challenges for smaller groups.

2. Players stay together as a courtesy to the game master.

By staying together, players avoid forcing the GM to juggle two separate narratives.

For the GM, balancing two threads can be fun—in the right situation. For a split to work, either (1) it cannot take more time than the idle players need to grab a snack, or (2) each subgroup needs to meet separate challenges. You can’t leave half of the party inactive for more than 5 minutes.

So the trick of handling a split party comes from devising situations that keep each part of the group busy. If someone goes to scout while the party rests, either the scouting should be finish by the time the idle players grab a drink, or something better stumble into the campsite.

3. Players stay together to keep everyone involved in the action.

A split party inevitably forces some players to wait until the spotlight returns to them. To minimize the problem of downtime, use two techniques.

Cut between scenes

Cut from one group to the next every 2-4 minutes. Some GMs advise setting a timer for about 4 minutes. If you tend to lose track, then a timer helps, but I prefer to use my own sense of time and pacing to switch scenes.

Every role-playing game reaches moments when the players make plans while the GM sits idle. Those moments bring my favorite times to switch scenes. While players debate their next move, I cut to the other half of the table. This sort of switch keeps half the players busy planning while the rest act. Instead of waiting for decisions, I can give more players time in the spotlight. The tempo of the game feels faster.

If I can’t switch scenes on a decision point, I switch on a moment of tension, ideally a cliffhanger.

Delegate the monsters to the idle players

Depending on your players’ dispositions, you might recruit idle players to run monsters in a battle. This works especially well in a simple fight where you expect the PCs to win. If the foes bring complicated abilities or motives, or if their power threatens to slay characters, I would avoid giving up control. When a GM kills a character, it comes in the line of duty, but a player should not take the heat for killing a PC.

If half the party lands in a fight, then the split plays best if the other half finds a battle too. You can run two fights on two maps with the same initiative count.

If you run simultaneous fights and let the players run the monsters, then you can leave the room for a drink. Your greatest GM triumphs often come when you have nothing to do.

Game master Rich Howard goes beyond letting players run foes. He casts idle players as the non-player characters who interact with the rest of the party. I admire the approach, but I feel unready to surrender so much of the game world.

Splitting the room

Even when you split a party, players tend to remain at the same table. This lets inactive players watch the story and lets the GM switch easily from one subgroup to another.

While sharing a table, the spectators learn things that their characters don’t. Most players take it as a point of honor not to use their unearned knowledge. If not, remind them to play in character based on what their character knows.

Separating players to different rooms can add fun though. No player has access to hidden information, so decisions become more interesting. Everyone feels an added sense of peril and concern for their missing comrades.

If you do separate players, you still need to switch groups every 2-4 minutes, so the groups should be as near as the kitchen and the dining room. Make the separation temporary. Your players came to play together.

Back when phones featured dials, I would separate players to sow suspicion about what other party members could be plotting. This fit the early game, when players betrayed each other for loot. Now such mind games only fit Paranoia sessions. Now I insist that my D&D players contrive reasons to cooperate.

Split the party

So split the party. For a GM running a divided party, the second hardest trick comes from finding situations where all the subgroups remain engaged. The hardest trick? Encouraging the players defy protocol and split up when splitting makes sense.