So I’ve been Dungeon Mastering for a few years now, and without sounding too smug, people often tell me how much they love the way I DM. I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently- What do I do that people love so much, and why do they keep coming back to my games? And I think I’ve broken that down to a few key things, some things, things that I’ll do during the game to enhance the experience, and
This is the most important thing you can do. As much as being able to improvise is important, if you prepare well enough, you shouldn’t have to. Preparation isn’t about quantity- You could spend hours preparing a 20 page document, and none of it could be relevant (I know that because I did it once), likewise, I’ve run 4 hour games off a single A4 sheet I typed up in half an hour, the night before a game. Prep is about being effective, and honestly, effective preparation is something that will take more than a paragraph to explain (I’ll write an article on effective prep next week)
I know, it’s a bit cliche, you’ve probably read it before, or seen videos in which DMs talk about how important improv is, yet I’ve seen countless DMs get caught off guard and panic, or simply refuse to improvise. Fact is, as Dungeon Master, you are the facilitator of the game- You do what the computer programming does for a video game- The players make the choices, be it good or bad, you should be able to roll with it. I’m not saying let the players do what they want, I am saying let them try what they want. If you are fighting a dragon, and one player notices that they have a 50 foot hempen rope in their bag, and want to use it to Lasso the dragon, climb up, and kill it, let them try. Even if you give it a DC of 19 or 20, ultimately, it’s more fun to let players try, and maybe succeed, then telling them no, and forcing them to go through ANOTHER generic combat encounter. Basically, improve always comes down to a matter of never saying no- Or saying, in the words of Matthew Mercer “You certainly try”
Know the players
This ties in with improvising, and it’s a big one. Dungeons and Dragons is ultimately meant to be a fun experience for everyone. It’s important for a DM to be able to read the players, and work out what’s fun and what isn’t. First few games with a new group, this will be hard, but around 3rd or 4th game, you should know what they like, or at least how to tell what they don’t like. There’s an issue with DMs thinking that their story comes before everything else, and not letting the players do anything that goes against that. If the players have to trek through a forest for 45 days to get to the dungeon, most players will get bored after 3-4 days in game travel, so either completely skip the travel, i.e. “You travel for 45 days, the forest is thick, but you ultimately arrive”, or, break it down into a handful of events- i.e. “The first 2 weeks go by pretty smoothly, however about 18 days in, you encounter X (then play out that encounter), the rest of the travel goes smoothly”. If players get bored, they won’t come back, so if you see them getting bored, shake it up- Even if it means cutting out bits of your story. It also helps to have some random encounter tables, for when you see that the players are getting bored.
Just go with it
Communication is an issue- As DM, you want to make sure you communicate what you are trying to as clearly as possible (Unless something is meant to be vague and confusing) Despite that, errors occur. If you insinuate that the knowledge about a specific ruin, or villain is lost, implying that there is no way for them to actually find it, but they misinterpret that, and decide to go on a quest to find the lost knowledge, let them, it can be a lot of fun. And if that means pausing the game for 20 minutes to work out what you can do, that’s okay, because it means a more fun game in the long run.
Not many DMs I’ve played with have used a soundtrack, and I get why. It takes a long time to gather a list of songs, break them down into what you are going to use them for, and then in game, stop to change the song to reflect the mood- It’s bit of a pain at times, but worth it. My playlist took me about 8 hours to curate, finding songs online, downloading them, sorting them into folders and playlists, and coming up with a system by which I could easily swap between playlists almost instantly, to help build mood, but in game, it’s so much fun to watch the players react to it- “This song is a bit more mysterious, maybe something is about to happen” and watch how they act in game to this. Good sources for music when you are coming up with soundtracks include incompetech (https://incompetech.com/) and movie soundtracks (Lord of the Rings is always a good one). There are also good bits of music on the DMs Guild (http://www.dmsguild.com/browse.php?filters=0_0_45410_0_0_0_0_0)