Shoestring Dungeon Mastery
This article is for DM’s who really don’t necessarily want to be DM’s. There are definitely DM’s out there who would really prefer to be players instead. Maybe your group of friends convinced you to be the DM for the game you are all putting together: after all, someone has to do it, right? There’s all kinds of advice out there on the internet that’s meant to teach you how to be a good DM. People have written articles and made YouTube videos. There have even been books written, in fact. This article isn’t intended to teach you to be a good DM… it’s intended to teach survival. You’ll probably learn to be a good DM eventually if you do it for long enough, but you have to start somewhere. This article will get you ready to be an adequate DM, good enough to get you through your first games. And with that uninspiring introduction, let’s get to it.
This article will be lacking in glamour. You’ll probably pick up some bad habits that you’ll eventually be better off without, and certain aspects of being a DM will be handwaved or sloughed over. But, again, this isn’t an article designed to make good DM’s. This is an article for those who have had the DM role thrust upon them.
If you have an option as to whether you’re going to be the DM or not, I would strongly suggest finding another source of information. Really. If you’re going to volunteer to be the DM, or you’re planning on being the DM gathering players (possibly strangers, even) for a new group, the level of instruction here will not be sufficient to your needs.
But sometimes there’s just no other choice: either someone agrees to be the DM, or else there will be no game. If that’s your situation, I salute you for your willingness to take on the responsibility for making D&D work for yourself and your friends. So, read on.
I’ll be using certain notation to refer to who’s doing or saying what during the game. Here’s how it breaks down:
Dungeon Master (DM): This is you, the actual person sitting in a chair. The one in charge of cycling the RPG Conversation, adjudicating actions, roleplaying NPC’s, and all of the stuff that we’ll discuss in this article.
Non-Player Character (NPC): This is every living animate thing in the game world that isn’t being controlled by a player. That’s just another way of saying that these things are controlled by the DM.
Player: These are the people sitting around the table. They are actually real human beings, existing in the real world. They are not their characters, so try not to get that distinction mixed up.
Player Character (PC): These are the characters controlled by the players. When things happen in the game world, they happen to the PC’s, not to the players in charge of those PC’s. Again, try not to get the distinction mixed up.
The Party: This just means all of the PC’s collectively.
If you get this mixed up, don’t worry about it. I’m only bringing it up because I need to give you the abbreviations and terms I’m going to use for the article, and giving them definitions is probably a good idea. If you call a PC by the player’s name, it’s not going to make the universe implode, but you should try to use the character names as much as you can remember to. “Hello, My Name Is” stickers can help with this.
If you’re going to be a DM, you’ll need a certain set of skills. Think of them as a toolbox. Most DM’s have a fairly large toolbox, and they’ve accumulated the tools in there gradually over time, picking and choosing the best ones for their specific preferences and needs.
Your toolbox will not be like that. It will be, by necessity, very small, so that you don’t have to learn how to use very many tools. Let’s go over what your tools will be, and then we’ll get into how to use them.
The RPG Basics Article
If you haven’t read my article on the basic principles of D&D and the d20 System, you need to go and read that before continuing. You might even want to read it over again, but with your DM brain mode turned on.
There’s a lot in that article that I’m not going to reiterate here, so fair warning.
The RPG Conversation: The RPG Conversation is the primary way you communicate with the players and progress the action. You will need to know how to run the cycle effectively.
Action Adjudication: You will need to understand how to decide whether things happen or not. The players will want their PC’s to do things, and you’ll need to decide whether those things work.
Rules Arbitration: You are the judge of how the rules of the game work, and you will eventually need to make calls or rulings or whatever you want to call them.
Roleplaying NPC’s: You represent everyone else in the entire world who isn’t a PC. This includes social encounters which consist of mostly talking, and combat encounters which consist of mostly fighting.
Preparation: You will need to do some work ahead of time, but you also want to avoid doing a lot of work that you won’t actually need. We’ll discuss the bare minimum of preparation that you can get away with.
Managing the Table: There are many real people other than you sitting around your table and playing D&D together. These people have basic needs that you need to acknowledge.
That’s it. Six things to know how to do, in the most rudimentary way possible. Let’s get to it.
The RPG Conversation
This is the basis of the game. Your purpose as the DM is to keep the RPG Conversation running. Hopefully, you keep it running smoothly, but if it doesn’t run smoothly, that’s acceptable at this point.
It’s like learning to drive a car with a stick shift: at first, the ride is really bumpy and jerky and you have to think a lot about what you’re doing, but when you get more practice, it becomes smoother and you don’t need to pay as much attention to shifting gears. I certainly hope that people know what a stick shift is, because this is really the best example I can think of.
As a refresher, here’s how the RPG conversation runs:
The DM describes the world. Tell the players what’s going on. Describe the room that they’re in. Tell them about enemies or NPC’s that are around. Explain what they’re doing in the room in the first place. And then ask them “What do you do?”
The players describe PC actions. At this point, the players are going to respond to your description and that all-important question by telling you what their characters are going to do.
The DM decides the outcome and consequences of the actions. This step is often glossed over, but not in this article. When we talk about action adjudication in a bit, this is the part of the RPG Conversation we’re referring to.
The DM describes the world, again. The PC’s actions have changed the state of the world. Tell them what has changed, and then ask them again “What do you do?” And around we go.
The Conversation in Action
So here’s an example of the RPG Conversation, cut down to the bare bones. You can be a little more flowery if you want, but you don’t have to. In fact, not sounding like Tolkien is probably a good thing. Go for Joe Friday instead, and give them just the facts.
DM (describing the world): You make your way further into the dungeon towards the sounds of shouting you heard earlier. Now, you’re in a room that’s a rectangle, maybe 20 feet wide by 60 long. There’s a barrier of large crates on your end of the room, and elvish archers are taking cover behind the crates, and they’re shooting at goblin archers who are at the other end of the room. What do you do?
Fred the Fighter (stating his action): I hate ranged attacks, so I’m going to leap over the barrier and charge in to attack.
Note: all of the other players can also specify actions for their characters, but you need for them to do it one at a time. Eventually you’ll be able to handle multiple PC actions simultaneously, but not yet. Make the players take turns.
DM (moving into action adjudication mode): Okay, roll some dice (and we’ll get into how this works in the next section, for now assume the dice roll is good). Fred takes a running leap and easily clears the barrier.
DM (redescribing the world): Okay, the goblins and the elves are still in a firefight, and Fred is now ready to start slashing away at the goblins on his next turn. What do you (the next character) do?
And that’s how you do it, folks. Once you know how to adjudicate actions, and if you’ve prepared sufficiently, all you have to do is run that RPG Conversation cycle for the next three or four hours, and you’ll do just fine.
Remember to take your time when it’s your turn to contribute to the Conversation, because I guarantee you that the players are going to take their sweet time deciding what they want to do. If they get to have time to think, so do you. Don’t rush. Speed will come with time and practice.
This is the part that seems complicated, except it really isn’t. You have the d20 System, so all you need to figure out is when to use it and how. For any action that a PC attempts, here’s your process:
Can this action succeed? If the answer is no, just tell the player that the action fails. Don’t roll dice. “Your tiny and weak gnome wizard lands a solid kick on the reinforced steel door, but it doesn’t break even a little bit. Sorry, who’s next?”
Can this action fail? Again, if the answer is no, just tell the player that the action succeeds. Don’t roll dice. “Your large and powerful half-orc barbarian punches the rotten wooden door, and it breaks into a dozen pieces.”
Otherwise, roll dice. The secret here is that every roll to determine the outcome of something uncertain works exactly the same. Every single one.
d20 roll + ability modifier + proficiency (maybe)
greater than the DC (success) or less than the DC (failure)
Jumping a wall? Doing a backflip over a pit? Hitting a hobgoblin with a mace? Making a save against a fireball spell? All of these are the same process, the same things to add up.
The only difference is the DC (which you should recall stands for “difficulty class”). Sometimes you’ll get a DC to beat for picking a lock or breaking a door already written into an adventure module. Spellcasters have a calculated DC (the Player’s Handbook tells you how to calculate it) to save against their spells. AC, or armor class, is actually a DC; attack rolls are just another type of d20 roll with modifiers.
If there is no DC listed, you make one up. Use 10 for easy, 15 for medium, and 20 for hard. Those are the only three you need.
And that’s action adjudication. Simple, right? If you really want to get fancy, add some narration: “You narrowly dodge the exploding fireball, only taking half damage,” or maybe “Your warhammer comes down on the mind flayer’s head with a disgusting squishy sound.” Do you need to add in the fancy stuff? No, you don’t. Just tell the players hit or miss, full damage or half, making the jump or accidentally hitting the wall. As you get more comfortable adjudicating actions, the descriptive bits will become easier and more fun to add, but again that comes with time.
Avoid a Terrible Habit
From the very beginning, you need to understand something very important, and you need to enforce it during all of your games. All the time, period.
Do not let the players decide when to roll dice. Only the DM is allowed to decide when dice will be rolled. If you let the players decide when to roll dice, the first two steps in action adjudication given just now are eliminated, and that’s bad.
Once dice are rolled, you’ve mostly lost control over deciding which things can’t succeed and which things can’t fail. The player of the gnome wizard rolls a 23 to kick in the steel door, and gets mad when you say that it still doesn’t work. The player of the muscular barbarian rolls a 5 to break down the rotten wood door, and now you have to account for how a burly half-orc managed to not break a few fragile boards. You don’t want either of those things to happen, so just don’t let the players roll the dice for them.
The players need to tell you what they want their characters to do. Do not let them say things like “I want to roll Deception on the guard.” If they say that kind of thing, you need to ask again, “what do you want your character to do?” and get an answer that describes the character’s actions, not the player’s.
Players roll dice for stuff, but the character isn’t rolling Deception; the character is trying to convince the guard that he should allow the party to enter the side entrance.
Make your players tell you what the characters are doing, and then you decide whether dice are needed. Always, without exception. Allowing players to talk about character stats and rolling dice, instead of character actions, is a habit you don’t need.
There are a lot of rules in 5E, and there are way more than that in 3.5 or Pathfinder. You know what? Nobody can have any realistic expectation that you know them all. Do your best with it, and it’ll mostly be fine.
If you’re not sure about how something works, and you’re in the middle of action, make a quick call in favor of the players, and look up the exact rules on your next break. For the most part, there’s no immediately pressing reason to look up rules or spells or whatever, so just roll with it and check up on it later. There may be a time when a lot hinges on the exact wording of a spell or somesuch, and it needs to be looked up right away, but those situations are few and far between.
You may have heard the term “rules lawyer”, which means someone who wants to nitpick and bicker over the implied or esoteric content of the rules. If you’re reading this guide, that means that you’ve become the DM even though you really didn’t want to, and that means you have the easiest way of dealing with rules lawyers ever. Say something like this:
“You asked me to be the DM, remember? Me agreeing to be the DM is why you have a game in the first place. So why don’t you cut the crap and let me DM already, instead of being a douchebag about pointless rule nonsense?“
It’s as easy as that.
First, get rid of any silly ideas you may have about what “good roleplaying” looks like. You do not need funny voices, or costumes, or elaborate backstories. Roleplaying simply means putting yourself in the position of someone else and deciding what you would do if you were them. And then you do it.
You’ll be roleplaying a lot of NPC’s, and they really come down to just two important types. There are NPC’s who the PC’s are intended to fight, and there are NPC’s who the PC’s are not intended to fight. That’s not to say that it always works out that way, but mostly it does.
NPC’s in Combat
These are your monsters, creatures, villains, henchmen… the whole motley crew of badguys who want to kill the PC’s. Roleplaying these badguys is not difficult, and we’ll strip all of the nuance out of it to make it even easier. You can put any enemy your PC’s will ever face in combat into one of three categories.
Smart enemies form plans, make tactical decisions, and otherwise exhibit intelligence in the way they behave. When you prepare to run your game (which we’ll be getting into later), think up some general tactics for these enemies to use. Example: if you have a red dragon that can fly and breathe fire, it might be a good idea for the dragon to fly upwards out of the range of swords and such, and then breathe fire down onto the PC’s.
Fortunately, most enemies don’t fit this category. Maybe 5 percent or so of all of the enemies in your adventure will be smart ones. You might think of these as the “boss monsters”, even. Unless an enemy has special abilities (like breathing fire, or flying) or spells to cast, they fall into the next category down…
Normal enemies are the kind you’ll find most often. They generally have only one or two different attacks, and most don’t have any special abilities either. These are your guards, and thugs, and gladiators, and bandits. The sort of badguys that are more of the run-of-the-mill variety: dangerous, but not in a complex way.
These are easy to roleplay. Look at their attacks, and see if one is better than the other. So if the city watchman has a shortsword and a heavy crossbow, but he’s got better accuracy and damage with the crossbow, he probably wants to stand back from the action and shoot. If the hobgoblin warrior can make two attacks with his scimitar but only throw one javelin per turn, he’s going to charge into melee range.
Also, look at the name of the enemy, and think of what you associate with that name. Thugs will choose the weakest person to attack first, but knights will go for the person who looks like the most worthy challenge. Goblins are cowardly and hang back from a fight, but gnolls are insane and feral and charge in every time.
Normal enemies will probably be about 70 percent of the enemies in your adventures. They’re the meat, the bulk. Not boss fights, but the regular badguys that you run up against the most.
The other 25 percent of enemies are what I’m going to call “animals”, although this also includes various aberrations and monstrosities. Wolves, bears, and giant spiders are animals. Stirges and piercers are animals. Some of the monstrosities can be pretty smart, but for your purposes things like manticores and chimeras are still animals, so if they have high intelligence in their stat blocks, just pretend that they don’t.
Remember that animals aren’t actually stupid, but they are not complicated. When you need to roleplay an animal, it’s going to have a really simple motivation. Protect the nest, kill and eat, maintain its territory… and that’s going to give you what you need to decide what the animal does. This really simplifies into just a few possible things any animal will do: either it runs away from a fight, or it fights while in a certain area, or it fights and chases down enemies to eat them. If it’s a companion or a pet of some other enemy, it fights alongside that other enemy to the death. That’s all the information you need to roleplay an animal enemy.
To Grid, or Not To Grid?
Short answer: if you’re new to DMing, do not use a grid and miniatures for your combats.
If you use a grid, you have to take the time to draw the combat area, either before the game or while everyone at the table waits for you to finish it. This can be a massive pain to deal with, and it slows things down, which we want to avoid.
If you use a grid, there’s a whole extra set of rules that you need to know about how creatures behave on a grid. You need to know about cover, flanking, how big certain creatures are compared to others, squeezing, plotting areas of effect, lines of sight… and you need to know all of this well enough to be able to answer player questions and correct player mistakes.
If you’re reading this article, you really don’t need an extra set of complicated rules to deal with. Just describe the area for the combat, tell the players how far away their enemies are and in what direction, and let everyone imagine how it looks. The really pretentious DM set will call this “theater of the mind”, and the really really pretentious will spell “theater” as “theatre” to show off.
The only reason I know of for using a grid is if you have players who are liars and need to be held to account. I have a fellow DM who runs games as an after-school club for high school students. That’s an awesome thing to do, but he always has to use a grid because teenagers will try to make things up if you let them. One round they were in melee with the drow warriors, and then they’re suddenly behind a post or something when the drow mage starts chucking lightning bolts.
Anyway, even if your players are the kind who will cheat about where they were standing, abandon the grid anyway. There are other reasons why grids are awful, and that’s beyond the scope of this guide. What you need to know now is that gridded combats are inconvenient and rules-intensive. Don’t do them until you’re really solid on the rest of DMing. You might never do them ever, and that’s fine too.
NPC’s in Conversation
Not every NPC is spoiling for a fight. In fact, there are many NPC’s who the PC’s really don’t want to fight. Killing a guard means that now they have the other 49 guards coming after them, screaming for blood to avenge their fallen comrade. Killing the evil duke will probably get the PC’s executed by those who don’t think he’s so evil. Getting into a fight with the arch-wizard will probably end with the party as a pile of dust and ash.
For your purposes, don’t even worry about making dice rolls for conversations. If the players say something convincing, or insulting, or amusing, or whatever else… just decide whether it works or not based on the content of what was said. If your players insist upon rolling dice to see if their conversational gambits were successful, go ahead and let them roll dice. Anything above a 15 is a success. Easy.
Preparation Is Essential
You need to keep the game running smoothly, and that means being prepared with the information that you will need to manage all of the maps, monsters, and other mayhem that happens during a game session. Fortunately, this isn’t too difficult.
First, figure out what enemies will be needed, and put their information down on an index card or a sheet of paper or something. At a bare minimum, you’ll need to write down the AC, hit points, and attacks. You can probably get away with leaving out most of the other info from the stat block. Eventually you’ll want to have it all written down, but in the meantime the AC, HP, and attacks will be enough for most enemies.
If an enemy has a particularly high stat, you probably want to note that: for example, if the enemy has Constitution above 16 (which is a +3), write that down so you can add the +3 to any Constitution saves. Same thing if it were a -3. Basically you’re accounting for enemies who are really good or else really bad at something. Enemies who are just sort of good or bad aren’t worth your trouble to keep track of at this point. Later you will, but not now.
For those 5 percent smart enemies, don’t write down any of that. Just make a note of the page number in the Monster Manual so you can look up all of the special abilities, resistances, spells, and whatever. You want to avoid flipping through the Monster Manual too much, but for the boss-type monsters you can get away with it. However, you will probably want to look up the spells for spellcasting enemies and make a note of how they work, because flipping through the Player’s Handbook to find spell descriptions is a massive time drag. You don’t need to look up all of the spells, but just the ones that you plan on using if a fight is going to happen. This is also where you figure out tactics for the smart enemies, which don’t need to be super complex; just a general idea of what abilities to use first, what spells to focus on casting, that sort of thing. Again, imagine yourself as that enemy and think about what you would do to win a fight with the party.
It should go without saying that you need to read the entire adventure module in full before you start running the game. If that means a five-page PDF from DM’s Guild, or twenty pages from an anthology book like Tales from the Yawning Portal, or two hundred pages from a big hardcover like Tomb of Annihilation… doesn’t matter. You have to read it all, or you’re going to end up in a nasty corner you weren’t expecting.
Okay, down to the home stretch here. Table management is fairly easy under normal circumstances. Make sure you give plenty of restroom breaks, so you don’t have players wandering off to pee during the middle of the action. Make sure you give stretch breaks, because people need to get out of their chairs and wander a bit for comfort, and wandering also increases blood pressure and wakes people up a bit. When you’re playing for three or four hours in the evening-to-night time period, keeping alert is worth the extra breaks.
Inspiration is something in the 5E rules that is optional, and it’s being included here because I consider allowing everyone the chance for a re-roll to be less about mechanics and more about happiness and well-being of players. That being said, I personally have a hard time remembering to give inspiration out as often as I probably should. My solution here is to give everyone one inspiration for free at the beginning of the session; everyone can re-roll at least one lousy roll every night. If I remember to award inspiration, each player can have a maximum of two at a time: one they got for free, and one they earned. It’s a decent way to manage it that doesn’t require a lot of attention while I’m doing actually important DM stuff.
And, as we discussed with the rules lawyers, don’t take any crap from players about your DMing style and expertise. Remember, if you’re reading this article, you pretty much got roped into being the DM, and that means everyone else at the table needs to be grateful to you for your sacrifice, and not give you a lot of guff about not being a perfect DM. Feel free to remind them of that, at least at first. As you get more experienced, you’ll begin to separate constructive criticism from mere bitching, but at the very beginning of your involuntary DM career, take suggestions but ignore complaints.
Finally, don’t even try to gauge how involved, or immersed, or engaged your individual players are. I’m not going to get into this in depth, but as long as the players keep showing up and are paying enough attention to play their characters effectively, don’t worry if it seems like someone’s attention is wandering or they don’t seem really focused on the game. People have different play styles, and people have different reasons for being in a group in the first place. As long as they keep coming back, you are doing a good enough job, and you don’t need to sweat it if some players seem distracted or are multi-tasking other things.
Throwing You Out of the Nest
Well, that’s what there is, folks. If you’ve read and understood this article, you should be able to swim instead of sink during your first weeks (or months) of being the DM. Remember, this is meant for the DM’s who really didn’t seek after the role, but ended up in it because someone needed to do it. If that’s you, you should be able to do an adequate job while you gain experience and confidence.
If you’re planning on starting a group as the DM, or otherwise throwing yourself into the bonfire, this article is not for you. If you’re becoming a DM by your own decision, you’d better do a lot more reading and research than reading this article. Read more articles, books, watch YouTube videos. If you have the time and the inclination to watch four-hour-long videos of other people playing D&D, you could even do that. All the same, some of the blue-boxed material here could be helpful, so if you’ve read this far even after I warned you not to in the first section, it probably wasn’t a total waste. Also, I feel compelled to offer a caveat, especially since I just suggested reading books and articles and watching YouTube DM videos: a lot of that stuff is utter garbage and nonsense, so think critically no matter who is telling you the gospel truth of how to DM. And that includes me, by the way.
But, for you involuntary DM’s, get out there and run your game. It will be far from perfect, but as long as you and your group are having fun, it doesn’t need to be perfect. I hope I’ve given you the advice you need to do an adequate no-frills job as a beginning conscripted DM, and I also hope that I haven’t started you off on years worth of bad habits and infected you with my lousy attitude.
Fact is, I love D&D, and I think it’s an important thing to have out there in the world, and at some point I’ll write a gushy encomium all about that. If this guide gets more D&D groups happily running, and helps some DM’s who were roped into the role to really enjoy doing it after some experience and practice, then it did the job I wanted it to do.
Happy gaming, and roll lots of 20’s. Actually, you’re the DM… so roll lots and lots of 20’s. Players love it when you roll crits on them, no matter what they say. Cheers.