How To Be a Great Dungeon Master [The Ultimate DM Guide]

So, let’s say you’ve spent some time playing as a character in your Dungeons and Dragons games, you’re enjoying it so far, and you fancy having a little go at the Dungeon Master’s job…

It certainly isn’t an easy one, and if you are planning on taking on the role, we advise you have got a little Dungeons and Dragons experience from either playing or at least listening to podcasts or streams such as HighrollersDnD or NADDPOD.

These DnD podcasts are great for new players looking to see how a campaign goes, or an experienced player needing some bice entertainment. They’re also great for Dungeon Masters to snatch some inspiration!

In this article, we will take you through the different roles of a Dungeon Master, as well as the outward aspects of DMing such as our opinion of a good Dungeon Master, our top tips, examples of the historically great Dungeon Masters and how to build and create your world and campaign.

So, what do I do first?

First things first, it’s not compulsory but a DnD Dungeon Master’s Guide would be something we recommend you buy before you begin designing your own campaign.

Secondly, you’ll need to know what it is that the Dungeon Master does! A dungeon master is a player that controls it all. The storyteller who portrays both friends and villains and brings the campaign to life for their players’ lives.

Without a good Dungeon Master, the game can fall a little flat, so now that you wish to step into this role, it’s your job to make sure that you engage your players in a thrilling and exciting adventure.

A single game of DnD normally relies on a quest or task that the players need to fulfil. As it would be your first time DMing for your group, it’s perfectly normal if you were to just do a single adventure or quest commonly known as a ‘One-shot adventure’ that might take one or two sessions to complete.

Once you have the gist of things, you could feel like you’re ready for a larger campaign. A Dungeon Master gets to be the mastermind, they act as a worldbuilder, storyteller, actor of NPC’s and also monsters and Villains.

You will most likely enjoy some of these jobs better than the other ones, you may love worldbuilding but absolutely hate dictating combat, that’s how we and many of us feel at least..

How do I become a Dungeon Master?

This is a simple question to answer! If you want to be a DM, and you are already in a group, then perfect! Just ask the members in your group if they wouldn’t mind doing a couple of sessions with you as the Dungeon Master and see how it goes. If you like it and they all enjoy it, you could continue DMing for them, or forge your own group through other friends.

If you do not have a group you are already a part of, but wish to join one, ask around and see who has a group you could join. Or check out your local Game store, they might have a Dungeons and Dragons night you can participate in and join a campaign there.

Alternatively, try to find a DnD Online Community as there are plenty of groups on the web!

What does a Dungeon Master need?

Although a campaign can be played with the bare minimum, set of dice and character sheets, we believe that accessories can really enhance the game.

Besides the Dungeon Masters Guide that we recommend buying, another couple of things you may need are as follows:

  • The Dungeon Master screen – Dungeon Master has to remain secretive. If the whole group can read your maps and notes, then the magic is ruined, and your plans for traps and surprises are foiled. Dungeon Master screens keep the nosy eyes out. They allow you to view bits of information that you can’t commit to memory on the back for your eyes only, and it keeps your dice rolls out of view. There are plenty of custom DM screens you can buy online that look rustic and aesthetic. But for a new Dungeon Master, all that’s needed is a simple cardboard screen.
  • An Initiative Tracker – In combat, a Dungeon Master controls the order of initiative. The players roll their D20 and highest goes first and so on. It can get difficult keeping track of this in your head or with pen and pencil, and this is where an initiative tracker comes in. Sure you can buy a fancy set of counters or cards.. But you can also just use a whiteboard and pen, which we recommend for those of you on a tight budget. We use a whiteboard as it’s a lot easier and cost-effective.
  • Spell, Monster, and Item Cards – In a game of DnD, you can find the information on certain spells, monsters and items in the three player handbooks, but why skip through pages and pages to find the right one, when you can have a couple of boxes containing cards with the information on them.

How can I be a good Dungeon Master?

There are many things that define a good Dungeon Master. Mainly it’s just enthusiasm for the game. Being excited to play will make your players excited too! There are, however, some other factors that make up a good Dungeon Master. A famous Dungeon Master Mathew Mercer from Critical Role said that it’s a game of push-and-pull between the DM and players where the story is created together.

The DM is telling the story, but it’s actually made by the players themselves. Mercer has also said that it’s common to see an inexperienced DM who finds a premade adventure and reads it word by word. Therefore he recommends combining the premade adventure with our own flair and not reading those bits out loud that’s meant for DM’s eyes only!

Tips for being a Dungeon Master

When you start a new campaign, you need to get to know your players. You have to entertain, and therefore you need to know what your players find entertaining.

There are several categories that your players might like more about the game, and it’s important you ask them as if they can all agree on a couple of them. Later you could make sure your campaign surrounds those aspects. This way, everyone will enjoy your adventures more.

These categories are:

  • Acting – This category involves your players’ roleplaying as their characters and speaking to NPC’s and talking to their fellow party members. You can find these types of players by delving into their character backgrounds, allowing regular interactions with Non-Player Characters and including more roleplay within the combat to keep the acting going.
  • Exploring – Players who like exploring their environment want to see a beautifully built world. They want to explore caves, forests and mountains. They might be more perceptive and therefore you can keep these players engaged by dropping clues or little messages in the environment, giving them time to explore, giving extensive and detailed descriptions of their location and leaving secrets and hidden mysteries in dungeons and chambers.
  • Fighting – Players who like combat like to fight. A lot. There’s really only so much you can do for these players, and that’s giving them lots of fights and combat opportunity. You can also describe in detail the damage they do to their opponents and skipping out the ‘useless roleplay’ for more fighting.
  • Problem-solving – These players like logic puzzles, brain teasers and riddles. They like mysteries that need solving, and they like to unmask the real villain even if it’s not obvious. You can engage these players with puzzles that they have to solve, rewarding use of tactics and planning and creating non-player characters that might not be as nice as they seem.
  • Instigating – These players are hasty and impatient. They want action, they want adventure and they’ll take the dangerous path if it means more action than walking along a dirt road. Engage these players by including the second option, the dangerous option, presenting them with NPC’s as risky as they are, and giving consequences to their actions so they don’t turn into “Murder Hobos”.
  • Optimizing – these players like to tune their skills to be the best they can be. They want more levels, and they want new features and magic to use. You can entertain these players with access to new spells and abilities, including opportunities for them to show off, providing lots of combat for experience points, or rewarding experience from other tasks like roleplaying.
  • Storytelling – These players want to contribute to the story. They want to be invested in your story and they like a plot that ties together at the end. You can engage this type of player by using their backstories and involve them in the plot. You can also engage them by making their actions steer the story and using all encounters to enhance the story in some way.

A great tip for a Dungeon Master is to make sure your players think you know what you’re doing (even if you don’t). If you have to wing it – wing it! If you’ve planned something out perfectly, and it’s not quite going to plan, then there’s no shame in improvising or giving your players the benefit of the doubt.

Sometimes it’s best just to let them find their own solutions instead of sticking to the correct one that you have written down. For example, we once made a puzzle for our group in a one-shot where a door only appeared at the end of a corridor if they walked backwards. However, our players were just not getting it. Still, they figured out other ways, like using magic to open the door or try to open it with brute force. It wasn’t the correct solution but it saved time to just let it work rather than to stay sitting in that hallway and give up.

Worldbuilding

One of the best and most difficult parts of being a Dungeon Master is world-building. Some like to skip this part and use a premade adventure but others, like ourselves, prefer to make our own world!

The world you create is the base of everything. It’s where your campaign will take place and the place your characters will explore. You control it. Let’s say, it’s like you are the god of this world. You make the deities, the continents and countries, the people inside it, the history, the cultures and even the very landscape.

One of the first things you should do when world-building is to come up with a name for your world, then create a map of the whole planet. As the map of our world, it should show continents and countries and the basic geography of those places, and what they’re called. Here’s an example of a world we’ve made before:

how to be a great dungeon master

Think of how many continents are there? How big is this planet? You can find a list of map building materials and software here.

You’ll then need to make out a more specific section of your world, the starting location, and map in all of the towns and cities you would like to include into your first few sessions.

When going about this, we map out the starting location, the nearest villages and the nearest places of interest such as caves, dungeons or old mansions. We note the local religions, cultures and accents, and the rumours you might hear. We also establish a small plot hook such as a mysterious stranger in a tavern, or a rumour of a gang of cultists getting up to no good.

The Overview and Core Assumptions

All Dungeons and Dragons worlds surround a baseline of core assumptions. It’s like a spectrum of what your world is like.

There are very generic world types that most worlds follow with similar core assumptions. Some worlds that already exist and are cannon in the Dungeon Master’s Guide are ‘Forgotten realms’, ‘Greyhawk’, ‘Dragonlance’ and ‘Mystara’.

These worlds follow very much the same core assumptions which we will list in a moment. However other cannon worlds lie further along the spectrum and may not follow these core assumptions. These words are:

  • ‘Dark Sun’
  • ‘Eberron’
  • ‘Ravenloft’
  • ‘Spelljammer’
  • and ‘Planescape’.

When you create your world, you will have to choose whether you’re going to follow these assumptions or use a different path. These are the core assumptions listed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide, we’ll also list ways you might change these if you were to have your world separate from the core assumptions:

  • Gods oversee the world – Gods exists and represent different aspects of religion for example; god of the harvest, god of war and so on. These gods have power over your world and can interact with it with signs or miracles. Though some people in your world may refuse to honour a certain god, everybody knows that they do exist. Alternatively, you can have a godless place where humanoids must fight for themselves. You may also have gods roaming the world and being a part of it instead of being almighty and overseeing.
  • Much of the world is untamed – Many parts of your world are un-inhabited spaces beyond city walls such as forests or desert or outlands. Most of the people in the world stay in one place and do not dare risk travelling through those wild spaces. In contrast to this your world may be unique and every speck of land is inhabited, and everyone knows of the different cities and everywhere is mapped and chartered.
  • The world is ancient – civilisations have come and gone, people have evolved and moved on. Places are old and ruins dot the earth. There are ancient caves and dungeons from older times. Alternatively, the world is new, and the people are some of the first generation to inhabit the planet, these heroes could be the founders of empires and settlements that will stay for centuries and centuries to come.
  • Conflict shapes the world’s history – powerful people owning powerful factions shape the world, where like-minded people come together and share conflict with other guilds and groups. These factions are either religious, royal, or even criminal. They compete for power and this steers the worlds future. Instead of this assumption, you could have a world where everyone lives in peace with each other and those who pin themselves against others are incriminated. You can take your own core values anywhere you like.
  • The world is magical – Magic is common, and people use it often. It can be as normalised as a potion for wounds or a ritual to see the hidden items in the walls of a cave. Magic is everywhere, weaved into the very fabric of existence. Alternatively, magic could be thought rare and dangerous and access to it is limited and frowned upon. Or different from that, maybe magic is even more common, and every person of power is gifted with some form of magic and magic items can be simply bought from general stores.

You can use these assumptions loosely or not at all, it’s entirely up to you.

The gods of your world

Gods are extremely important for creating culture and religion on your planet. They shape almost every aspect if you choose to include them. There are ready-made gods in the player handbook.

Like a Cleric has a domain, gods could too. They rule over a certain aspect of the world, a certain domain if you will. If this isn’t something you want, you could have one main god or a couple of big gods that take on more than one or all domains. Here is a table of some already made gods and goddesses that you could use or adapt to fit your vision.

Dungeon Master Worlds
Source: i.imgur.com

Although it would be easy for you to select some gods from this table and be done, it can be great fun to come up with your own system of religion.

For example, in a world we created, the planet is surrounded by six living suns. Each is a god of a different aspect of life and are named by the position they are in. For example, the eastern sun worshipped by the Egots, a religion we created around that god. The sixth sun is the one true sun, the almighty god worshipped by most.

Not only do you need the gods, but perhaps think of the prophet’s certain religions could worship and believe. Much like Jesus or Muhammad in this world… Perhaps your world has a magical prophet belonging to one of your religions?

Mapping and Planning Settlements

Within your big map, there will be smaller communities that live in settlements. These could be towns or cities or tiny little hamlets. In order to map these settlements, you’ll need to define their culture and values. If you decide to start your campaign near or in a village or city, it’s important you consider these aspects.

  • How big is your village/city/town?
  • What gods do they worship?
  • Who is the leader?
  • Who is the healer?
  • What is the law keeping like?
  • What defends is?
  • Where do people go to buy services?
  • What do the buildings look like?
  • What is the currency like?
  • What makes this settlement special?
  • What factions/guilds are prominent?

Your settlement has to exist to further your plot. So, think about what its purpose is. If it is to be your parties home base, we advise you put as much detail into the planning that you can. However, if you only attend for this settlement to be a quick stop on a journey to a more important place, maybe spend less time planning this particular town/village and only plan out the most important details.

Most of the information about the settlements you make will grow and evolve as your party visits them, so don’t be afraid to make a little up as you go along but be sure to make note of changes.

Settlement Size

Most settlements surround a city but consist of smaller towns or villages. The size of these are comparable to their population, government, defence and the organisations among it.

A large city is likely to have a huge population and a real army/police guild whereas a Village will have a tiny population in comparison and may just have a little village guard that doubles as farmers.

An example of stats for a village compared to a city are as follows, presented by the Dungeon Master’s Guide:


 “Village.

Population: Up to about 1000

Government: a noble rules the village, with an appointed agent in residence to adjudicate disputes and collect taxes

Defence: The agent might have a small force of soldiers. Otherwise, the village relies on citizen militia.

Organisations: A village might contain one or two temples or shrines, but few or no organisations.”

“City.

Population: Up to about 25,000

Government:  A resident noble presides, with several other nobles sharing responsibility for surrounding areas and government functions. One such noble is the lord mayor, who oversees the city administration. An elected city council represents the middle class and might hold more actual power than the lord mayor. Other groups serve as important power centres as well.

Defence: The city supports an army of professional soldiers, guards, and tow watch. Each noble in residence maintains a small force of personal bodyguards.

Organisations: A multitude of temples, guilds, and other organisations, some of which hold significant power in city affairs, can be found within the city walls.”

Factions and Organisations

The factions in your world are important social groups for your campaign. Religious temples, criminal guilds, secret societies and so much more. They could be spread across an entire continent with smaller groups branching off or be unique to certain cities.

None player characters could preside in some factions, and drag your party into adventures within them. Or they might even join one themselves…

Factions are a great way to keep your players connected to the world. You can use old stories to create your factions or rivalry and religion. You want to create factions that your players will want to get involved with.

They can have ranks and achievements to get to within the faction, and there should be a faction leader of great renown. Perhaps it could be a plot hook that your faction leader is corrupt and dealing in criminal business on the side.

Creating a Campaign

After you’ve got the world your campaign is set in, you can start planning your campaign. Now, you do not have to plan out every single little detail at the start, just a basic plot. You can figure out the details as you go.

First of all, you’ll need to introduce your players to your world. Tell them the history and local cultures. Tell them the religions specific to certain areas and the gods they worship.

You’ll then need to establish a starting place. A home base of sorts. You should immerse your players in the local culture and establish only the information they would learn in this village or city.

For example, there’s a forest nearby that’s full of monsters threatening the safety of your Homebase. Something like this can be a starting adventure for your campaign. This little adventure would ease your players into the game gently.

You would also have to map out a small region of land for your players to explore. It’s unlikely they’ll get from one side on a continent to another in a couple of sessions. So, plan something you can work with only for the first few times you play.

Throughout your campaign, you can weave a plot of adventures and mystery, but everything should lead up to a certain ending point. This ending should answer all unanswered questions your players had throughout.

The big bad evil guy should be revealed and fought and killed or imprisoned. You can finish a campaign whenever you like. It doesn’t have to be when your characters reach their twentieth level, but it can be satisfying if it is.

Let your players finish the personal goals they’ve made for themselves. If you want to start a new campaign after the end of the first, a great way to engage your player is to include the player’s actions in the last campaign as an abundance of legends. Though if you’re starting a completely new world this may not be possible.

The important thing is that you have fun with it. Take your campaign whatever way you want to. Improvise, use trial and error. Figure things out as you go and improve on your mistakes. No one is a perfect Dungeon Master when they first get started.

Not only it takes time and practice, but also attention to detail. Though, the likely story is – if you’re having fun, your players are too! We hope you found this article helpful, and I hope your first campaign is a great success!

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