In the April 13th episode of Dragon Talk, the official Dungeons & Dragons podcast, Mike Mearls gives some of the best Dungeon Mastering advice ever. The discussion is about the differences between adventure design concepts over the editions and how that has change from AD&D to 5th edition. He’s asked what advice he would give for Dungeon Masters who are picking up Tales from the Yawning Portal and want to run it for their group. Here’s what he said:
“Embrace the idea that these are environments that you are supposed to change and modify in reaction to what your group does. I think some people read this style of adventure and they look at it and they just don’t like it at all. Its like its just a room with monsters and another room with monsters and so on. But what they miss…what I think makes these adventures fun, is that this as a Dungeon Master is your playground.
Part of is what you have to bring to the table is that performance element of really playing the role of the monsters and being as creative as the players can be. So rather than just say you see two orcs standing in the room and you fight them and they sit there and wait for you or whatever, do the thing like have the orcs run away. Have them try to plan an ambush and things like that. Don’t fall into the trap of running each room one after the other because I can guarantee if you do that – run the text strictly as written and don’t bring any creativity to it – you’re going to be bored because that’s not Dungeon Mastering. That’s just “I’m moderating a game” – I may as well be playing a video game.”
That last line rings so true with what Dungeon Mastering is all about. As the Dungeon Master, you don’t moderate the game. You bring it to life. You give the monsters, NPCs and areas life. You are what brings those things to the characters not as static events or individuals. You are what brings those things to life in a way that affects the PCs and their goals.
I love video games. I’ve been playing them since the Atari 2600 first hit the shelves and I’ve dumped enough quarters into arcade machines to finance a second home and a spare car. Having said that, video games have their place in storytelling. They do this by describing the characters, places and monsters you meet in ways that look, sound and feel (via that wonderful Rumble feature) like things you can identify with and remember. Before playing the new Mass Effect game, you had no idea what the characters and their stories would be like but once you started playing how they were introduced, how they spoke, acted and reacted began to give you memories of who or what they are. Take that concept and apply it improvisationally as you run your games. Change encounters as you play. Don’t make NPCs static or follow a specified course of action if you feel its not a good scenario for the game at hand. Don’t be afraid to change things, as these NPCs, monsters and areas are your tools to use as you see fit.
I’m currently running a group through the Sunless Citadel. This isn’t my first time running the adventure but this time through is radically different from my previous games. I’ve created 3 factions for the players (goblins, kobolds and the evil druid) and soon they’re going to have to make a decision which one or ones they are most loyal to. The others will then either become their enemy or pay fealty to the party if they feel the party is more powerful than they are. None of this is in the published adventure as I made it up on the fly as a reaction to the party wanting to just rush onwards through the dungeon. I saw that they needed a reason to fight and explore. By the time we’re done, I have no idea which faction they’ll choose but its going to be fun seeing them have to give up the other two.
Gygax said it best when he said the secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules. This is the key to having fun both as a Dungeon Master as well as for a successful Dungeons & Dragons game – as the DM you let the dungeon & monsters be your tools to having fun with the game and the group, and in no way are you limited to what the rules say, what the adventure text says, or what other people think you should do with your game. You aren’t a moderator of text – You are the Dungeon Master!