Mastering the Dungeon: Being an Awesome DM

This week we help out a DM that’ s a bit new to the craft:

I’ve been DMing for little over a year now.

I struggle in areas like:
 -making the PC’s feel like they are making a change In the world around them.
 -Getting them on the edge of there seats.
 – different and unique kinda battles
 – Screwing over PC’s creatively

Things I like to think I’m good at are:
 – making great and unique heroes and villains with good back story’s.
 – fun maps.
 – I’m good in battles but some times it feels repetitive

For the most part we all have fun and I get good feed back from my friends I just want to step it up for them. If you have any tips or helpful input it would be great. On a different note I’m not 100% on how two weapon fighting works? Last but not least if you where going to play a PC what would you be and why? It’s just a question I like to ask.

Thank you from a struggling DM

Being a good Dungeon Master should always be an ongoing effort.  It’s great that you’re already aware of your strengths and weaknesses as DM.  I think using our strengths to inform our weaknesses is an effective approach to good DMing.  Strong map-making skills and making creative NPCs are a huge advantage as a Dungeon Master.  You clearly have an eye for detail and a creative mind, so use these abilities to their fullest.

When you design a unique villain, this shouldn’t stop with their personality and back story.  A unique villain should come with a unique battle.  Think about the battle as more of a puzzle and less of a hack-n-slash experience.  If you play video games, consider some of the boss battles.  A lot of them (at least the interesting ones), require more from us than just attack, block, attack, block, attack, block…  A lot of them require that we make use of our environment and terrain, or a certain combination of attacks.

Maybe your villain has some magical crystal that’s protecting him that needs to be destroyed first.  This will mean the characters need to think more about tactics and distractions.  Maybe your villain grows to gargantuan size, and the characters need to find a way to bring the castle down on top of him, strategically taking out support columns.  Think about where the characters are just as much as who or what they’re fighting.

As for screwing over your PCs creativley, making our battles more unique will always accomplish this, but there’s other ways to do this too.  Pay close attention to your PCs during games.  Eventually, if you haven’t already, you’ll notice they have patterns.  If you present them with a dead end, they will probably go through the same series of actions every time.  If the first thing they always do when presented with a concealed door, is search for a concealed switch, hide something that looks like a hidden switch, but actually springs a trap.  If they’re the cautious types and search for traps before they do anything else, have them find and disarm a trap before they reach the door, only to have a second trap activated by the door switch, and maybe even a third activated by the hinges.  These aren’t the sort of things you can use and reuse, as players adapt quickly, which means we have to constantly be thinking of new ways to thwart them.

A word of caution though: there’s a fine line between challenging your players and annoying them.  If you make every battle, every trap, and every puzzle, so creative and unexpected that they struggle every time, they’re going to start hating your games.  Most of the time they need to feel like they’re doing a good job, they’re smart and clever, and the choices they make are the right ones.  Every now and then though, it’s our job to remind them not to get complacent.

The next part of your question, giving your players satisfaction, can be more challenging, but it’s an important aspect of a good campaign.  If your players don’t feel like they’re doing anything meaningful, they won’t be as invested.

Let’s consider epic books and movies like the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.  Both of these make extensive use of the arcehtypal Hero Myth, something that’s existed for at least thousands of years.  In mythology, the Hero’s Journey is generally structured something like this: An ordinary person is introduced to an extraordinary world where they must face trials, earn help from allies, and complete one final task which may save the world, and will also provide them with important self-knowledge.  If you incorporate these ideas into your campaigns, you can’t help but create emotionally driven games.

Another way to up the emotion factor is to encourage your players to make more detailed backstories.  You can then use these to weave NPCs and personal events into the story.  If the players feel like they are personally invested in the adventures, they will be more likely to see the impact they’re having.  Sometimes if things are too grand and epic, players can feel far removed from it, and it can have the effect of becoming too abstract.

The last part of your question is probably the most important: how do we create suspense?  Regardless of what kind of players you have, nearly everyone appreciates suspense.  People like not knowing what’s lurking on the other side of a door, or who’s pulling the strings.  Creating suspense can be tough though.  Part of this can be accomplished with your descriptions of places and situations.  Creating a suspenseful atmosphere is the first step.  This is hard to teach, but one way to learn it is to read some authors that excell at it.  For short stories and some true masters of atmosphere, try Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft.

Aside from our descriptions, suspense is also about dropping hints and leaving clues.  Not every adventure needs to be full of suspense, but every good adventure should have at least a couple of unanswered questions.  If the PCs need to rid a cave of goblins, make sure they’re missing some information.  Why are the goblins there?  Who’s leading them?  What happened to the farmer’s missing child?  Along the way you can drop hints in the form of items, letters or bodies.  This also adds more variety to the game, making skill checks more frequent so the players aren’t just rolling for combat.

Building suspence for combat can be as easy as describing the trail of blood, gore and bodies through a dungeon.  You can have a series of hallways and empty rooms with no purpose but to get the players freaked out about what’s to come.  When they enter a dungeon it’s not necessary to throw monsters at them right away.

The last and most important component to good DMing is constant player feedback.  At the end of an adventure when you’re giving out experience ask the players what they liked about the adventure, what bothered them, what frustrated them, what excited them, and so on.  The more we get to know our players, the better DMs we become.

Be sure to check out for more great tips and tricks for DMs.  As for Two-Weapon Fighting, try this link.  Let me know if you’re still confused.

Happy Gaming!
The Dungeon Master

We need more questions! Please submit if you love us. 

If you wish to submit a question to the Dungeon Master, please e-mail them to, or you can Tweet me a question by hash-tagging me (#askthedm) in your Tweet. And make sure to review the disclaimer.

You can also see me in action in One Die Short.

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1 Response to Mastering the Dungeon: Being an Awesome DM

  1. Pingback: Screw You D&D: Designing Your Own Game System | Answers to Life, the Universe and Roleplaying

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