10 Tips to Being a Better Dungeon Master – A Dungeons and Dragons Guide

Harzel

Explorer
I LOVE playing with critical misses. Most players seem to enjoy the benefits of a critical hit when they roll well, so what's the justification for not having an ill effect when they roll poorly?
One doesn't need any more justification for not having crit fails than for having them. This is a matter of taste/aesthetics, not logic, law, or morality.
 
We decided to not use critical fails for our campaign, as most of the players are new to D&D (including me:)) WE discussed it with our DM and he told us that it can be too hard for us to play the campaign when a single bad decision + one bad role can get your character into serious troubles.
 

DM Dave1

Adventurer
We decided to not use critical fails for our campaign, as most of the players are new to D&D (including me:)) WE discussed it with our DM and he told us that it can be too hard for us to play the campaign when a single bad decision + one bad role can get your character into serious troubles.
I've recently shifted from a 3d6 Critical Fail combat chart to simply letting the players decide what happens on a 1. They can roll on the chart if they like (which is broken down for melee, ranged, and spells with the middle, most common numbers being just bad/comedic whiffs) or they can just be creative and apply some consequence that is appropriately fun for the scene (like slipping prone, or getting tangled up in the bad guy's cloak, or having their weapon fly out of their hand, or just have the enemy laugh at them, or whatevs). It's been successful for our group, making combat a little more interesting and sometimes leading directly to a post-combat story hook.
 

RxDrAcula

Villager
Hey, guys! I'm back. Hope everyone is having a good week.


Anywho, I've published a new D&D article. This time around, I have some tips and tricks for how to be a better dungeon master.


If you guys could provide me with some feedback or additional tips, I would greatly appreciate the constructive criticism.


Have a good day, everybody!


https://www.gametruth.com/guides/10-tips-to-being-a-better-dungeon-master-a-dungeons-and-dragons-guide/
It's a good, comprehensive list. I myself am a novice DM who has already followed a few of these tips, and they really have helped me.

I agree completely that talking to your players up front about expectations is very important. But I also think it's important for a DM (as he/she gets more experience) to learn what kinds of adventures he/she likes to run because if you're into it and genuinely engaged in what's happening, your players will notice and enjoy it more. There's a balance to be found here for each party to be sure.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
An interesting list, not sure I agree 100% but it’s a decent starting point.

1. Make it your story.
I think the best goal is your (DMs) story mixed in with the PCs stories. In other words they contribute the subplots that engage their characters (and thus the players). What mystery lurks in the PCs backstory?

2. Make critical failures...
I borrow from the Star Wars RPG and try to make a natural 1 result in a setback (despair in SW lingo) during combat, rather than make the PC suffer individually. For ability checks that roll bat 20s you can also use the triumph mechanic to give the PCs some extra bonus.

3. Party rules. I would rule out intra-party conflict unless the table are all very good friends that are pretty chill. players can get quite testy. Definitely try to establish how loot is divvied up, and what happens when players miss sessions (does their PC get XP?)

4. Lay down your rules. Absolutely.

5. Sit down and talk. Sure. (you might consider splitting this list into two (three?) sections: Prepping the campaign vs. Running the campaign)

6. Recap. Recapping is key. I played in a game where the DM didn’t recap at the beginning of the session and it sucked. I absolutely disagree with having players do it, they generally forget a lot of stuff (not because they don’t care, but because they’ve not spent the last few days thinking about the game like the DM has) The nice thing about the DM doing it is they can then smoothly continue narration into this session ending with a call to action.

7. Pre-rolling. Definitely figure out your random encounters before hand so you can prep the monster stat blocks before (something you don’t cover, but i think is key to smooth performance during the session.) I also recommend pre-rolling initative the PCs at the start of the session and at the end of each encounter. This avoids the “combat swoosh” transition that rolling for initiative can trigger. Instead the DM can smoothly switch from unstructured to structured rounds.

8. Memorizing rules. Agreed. The key things to remember are which ability applies to what kind of action (not skill, ability). Players can ask to apply a skill if appropriate. Also remember the core DC table: 10- easy, 15-medium, 20-hard. Finally remember to apply advantage/disadvantage when appropriate. The combat rules aren’t hard to remember and because it happens a lot it soon becomes second nature.

9. Notes. Agreed. The best time to take notes is right at the end of the session when everything is fresh.

10. Resources. While the DMG does have useful info, I find its presentation to be entirely backwards. Every DM needs to read the last section, so it should be first. Most DMs will find useful info in the middle section but not until they’ve mastered the last section, and some DMs will find value in the first section, but not until much later in their practice. However, the encounter building guides in Xanathar’s Guide are very convenient for new DMs (much simpler than the ones in the DMG, highly recommended.

11. Every table is different. One thing DMs forget is that their table is entirely unique and how they play dramatically affects the perceived challenge of adventures and encounters. If your table is finding an adventure too easy, turn up the difficulty dial (by either adding monsters or swapping for more challenging ones). Same for too hard, turn it down. Your job is to make the session an entertaining and challenging experience. Bored or frustrated players are not going to keep coming back for more.
 
I LOVE playing with critical misses. Most players seem to enjoy the benefits of a critical hit when they roll well, so what's the justification for not having an ill effect when they roll poorly? This is a two-way street, by the way. I've had players get lucky when the bad guy rolls a fumble at a critical point in the battle that turns the tide in their favor.

As for spell casters, any spell requiring an attack roll opens them up to fumbles. Also, I usually play it so that anyone rolling a natural 1 on a saving throw suffers more than if he had just rolled a normal miss. This can be a big benefit too spellcasters.

IMO, if the rolling of dice is one of the exciting aspects of combat and you expect special results at one end of the spectrum, you need to have special results at the other end.
Hey, Arvok! I totally agree. Part of the fun of D&D is the gambling aspect. Criticial successes and critical failures are an exention of that.
 
It's a good, comprehensive list. I myself am a novice DM who has already followed a few of these tips, and they really have helped me.

I agree completely that talking to your players up front about expectations is very important. But I also think it's important for a DM (as he/she gets more experience) to learn what kinds of adventures he/she likes to run because if you're into it and genuinely engaged in what's happening, your players will notice and enjoy it more. There's a balance to be found here for each party to be sure.
Hey, Dracula! Thank you for the kind words. I totally agree with you. Hope you are enjoying DMing!
 
An interesting list, not sure I agree 100% but it’s a decent starting point.

1. Make it your story.
I think the best goal is your (DMs) story mixed in with the PCs stories. In other words they contribute the subplots that engage their characters (and thus the players). What mystery lurks in the PCs backstory?

2. Make critical failures...
I borrow from the Star Wars RPG and try to make a natural 1 result in a setback (despair in SW lingo) during combat, rather than make the PC suffer individually. For ability checks that roll bat 20s you can also use the triumph mechanic to give the PCs some extra bonus.

3. Party rules. I would rule out intra-party conflict unless the table are all very good friends that are pretty chill. players can get quite testy. Definitely try to establish how loot is divvied up, and what happens when players miss sessions (does their PC get XP?)

4. Lay down your rules. Absolutely.

5. Sit down and talk. Sure. (you might consider splitting this list into two (three?) sections: Prepping the campaign vs. Running the campaign)

6. Recap. Recapping is key. I played in a game where the DM didn’t recap at the beginning of the session and it sucked. I absolutely disagree with having players do it, they generally forget a lot of stuff (not because they don’t care, but because they’ve not spent the last few days thinking about the game like the DM has) The nice thing about the DM doing it is they can then smoothly continue narration into this session ending with a call to action.

7. Pre-rolling. Definitely figure out your random encounters before hand so you can prep the monster stat blocks before (something you don’t cover, but i think is key to smooth performance during the session.) I also recommend pre-rolling initative the PCs at the start of the session and at the end of each encounter. This avoids the “combat swoosh” transition that rolling for initiative can trigger. Instead the DM can smoothly switch from unstructured to structured rounds.

8. Memorizing rules. Agreed. The key things to remember are which ability applies to what kind of action (not skill, ability). Players can ask to apply a skill if appropriate. Also remember the core DC table: 10- easy, 15-medium, 20-hard. Finally remember to apply advantage/disadvantage when appropriate. The combat rules aren’t hard to remember and because it happens a lot it soon becomes second nature.

9. Notes. Agreed. The best time to take notes is right at the end of the session when everything is fresh.

10. Resources. While the DMG does have useful info, I find its presentation to be entirely backwards. Every DM needs to read the last section, so it should be first. Most DMs will find useful info in the middle section but not until they’ve mastered the last section, and some DMs will find value in the first section, but not until much later in their practice. However, the encounter building guides in Xanathar’s Guide are very convenient for new DMs (much simpler than the ones in the DMG, highly recommended.

11. Every table is different. One thing DMs forget is that their table is entirely unique and how they play dramatically affects the perceived challenge of adventures and encounters. If your table is finding an adventure too easy, turn up the difficulty dial (by either adding monsters or swapping for more challenging ones). Same for too hard, turn it down. Your job is to make the session an entertaining and challenging experience. Bored or frustrated players are not going to keep coming back for more.
Hey, Robus! I appreciate the thoughtful feedback. I see what you're saying. The DMG can be a bit wonky.
 

TallIan

Explorer
1. While I sort of agree with this, there neads to be a plot, I have to say that suggesting you use stories like LotR or Beowulf is a terrible idea. This leads to railroading as your players have no agency to alter the story. By all means have a lead where the McGuffin needs to be destroyed at the PlaceOfTerror, but have a backup for when the players refuse that lead, or don't pick up on clues that the PlaceOfTerror is that way.

2. Critical failures can be funny. Most of what I have to say about this is to other commentors in this thread namely:
Critical effects should be balanced against each other. If there's a critical hit, there should be a critical miss...
Sorry Shiroiken, I just found your post first.

I disagree with the premise. Critical effects should be balanced across the sub-systems of the game. As an example I am playing a wizard through Out of the Abyss - 25 sessions in and my wizard has make exactly one attack roll. So across all the sessions so far he's had 5% chance to critically fail. Compare that to the martial characters who make dozens of attacks each round. If you have critical fails that have a mechanical effect then it needs to affect combat, magic, skill, etc

Critical fails can be funny but they need to be in line with the rest of the game. I don't think that belongs in 5e because 5e gives with both hands (compared to 3.x where you got +2 in this and -2 in that). Critical hits in 5e have a very limited effect after level 3

6. This is true as a player as well. For reasons I am keep the diary for our group, and I post them on a larger gaming forum. My DM has mentioned several times how useful that is in keeping his timeline in line with ours. In short, if you play D&D write stuff down.

7. Again, Ipartially agree here. Something like initiative is not worth pre-rolling - especially if you usually roll in the open. You can do this at the same time as the players. But you can have stuff like random encounters pre-rolled to avoid a big pause in the action.

8. On top of that - unless you are playing with (and aren't yourself) a total newbie to the game - get the players to look stuff up, while you move the game on with another player. While you are looking through the rules the players have nothing to do. Similarly don't be scared if making a ruling and a note to look it up later and address anything in the next session. Unless it is truly game altering (like a player death) its not worth pausing the game for.

9. Falls under the same points I made for 6
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
2. Critical failures can be funny. Most of what I have to say about this is to other commentors in this thread namely:
Sorry Shiroiken, I just found your post first.

I disagree with the premise. Critical effects should be balanced across the sub-systems of the game. As an example I am playing a wizard through Out of the Abyss - 25 sessions in and my wizard has make exactly one attack roll. So across all the sessions so far he's had 5% chance to critically fail. Compare that to the martial characters who make dozens of attacks each round. If you have critical fails that have a mechanical effect then it needs to affect combat, magic, skill, etc

Critical fails can be funny but they need to be in line with the rest of the game. I don't think that belongs in 5e because 5e gives with both hands (compared to 3.x where you got +2 in this and -2 in that). Critical hits in 5e have a very limited effect after level 3
The balance is not against how many times you roll an attack, but against the same probability of getting a critical hit. Your wizard only had a 1 in 20 chance of getting a critical hit, and should have had a similar chance of a critical miss (or the minimal hit option I proposed). The fighters had a TON of chances for a critical hit, but without a counterbalance, they just did better overall because of the chance for extra damage with no drawback (depending on the argument of the value of saves vs. AC)

Something you (and others) seem to have in mind is for critical misses to be catastrophic in nature, and the rest of my post argued against this. The negative for a critical miss should not in any way be significantly worse than the benefit of a critical hit (thus my minimal hit suggestion instead). If you want to have catastrophic critical misses, the chance of those must be MUCH lower than 5%; I would suggest only having them happen when the roll has either advantage or disadvantage and BOTH dice roll 1. This would make regular attacks unable to critically miss, and even advantage/disadvantage attacks only have a 1/400 chance of happening. While this might happen occasionally in a campaign (creating the memorable moments), it shouldn't significantly impact even the attackiest of fighters since they're still getting all those critical hits.
 

Yaarel

Adventurer
The key to approaching critical fumbles is to read the room. Often times critical fumbles add an element of slapstick to a combat. Would that be appropriate to the situation? Then embellish to your heart's content! Would slapstick instead be a significant tonal shift? Best to avoid. Tone is something that is often very particular to a group, and even changes scene-to-scene.

One thing I'd avoid codifying is a critical fumble table. This takes away from your ability to control the tone associated with a fumble. The other thing I'd avoid is trying to suss out the direct mechanical implications of every critical fumble. A critical fumble doesn't always have to result in damage, or a status condition, or disadvantage, etc. It's enough, when they're appropriate to use in the first place, for the result of the fumble to just be highly embarrassing. That can be memorable in its own right.

Of course, ideally a critical fumble changes the situation of the combat in such a way that clever combatant (on either side) can then take advantage of. Perhaps the barbarian missed and driven their greataxe into a tree so hard it takes a greater degree of effort to dislodge it (a not uncommon trope in fictional combats). Before the barbarian removes it, your Monk can attempt to use the exposed handle as a stepping stone, leaping into the air to grapple the giant bat fluttering just out of reach. Critical fumbles can shatter cover, create difficult terrain, etc.
Maybe the player who rolled the fumble gets to decide what has gone horribly wrong, and leave it as narrative rather than mechanical?
 

TallIan

Explorer
The balance is not against how many times you roll an attack, but against the same probability of getting a critical hit. Your wizard only had a 1 in 20 chance of getting a critical hit, and should have had a similar chance of a critical miss (or the minimal hit option I proposed). The fighters had a TON of chances for a critical hit, but without a counterbalance, they just did better overall because of the chance for extra damage with no drawback (depending on the argument of the value of saves vs. AC)

Something you (and others) seem to have in mind is for critical misses to be catastrophic in nature, and the rest of my post argued against this. The negative for a critical miss should not in any way be significantly worse than the benefit of a critical hit (thus my minimal hit suggestion instead). If you want to have catastrophic critical misses, the chance of those must be MUCH lower than 5%; I would suggest only having them happen when the roll has either advantage or disadvantage and BOTH dice roll 1. This would make regular attacks unable to critically miss, and even advantage/disadvantage attacks only have a 1/400 chance of happening. While this might happen occasionally in a campaign (creating the memorable moments), it shouldn't significantly impact even the attackiest of fighters since they're still getting all those critical hits.
I still disagree that they critical hits should be balanced off against critical failures - no matter how balanced tehy are against each other. Critical hits make martial characters more deadly (it increases their damage) conversely critical failures make martial characters less deadly. So if you have a magic system that is more powerful than the martial system in the game, adding critical hits without adding critical failures can improve the magic-martial balance.
 

Gradine

Archivist
Maybe the player who rolled the fumble gets to decide what has gone horribly wrong, and leave it as narrative rather than mechanical?
Depends on the dominant aesthetics of play of the players at the table. For players who are all about Expression, that's great! For players who are more into Fantasy or Narrative, they might not prefer it.

It's kind of the same as the logic behind the whole "have the players describe what they find when they go over that hill" thing; Expression players love that kind of stuff, while Discovery-seekers would have wanted there to have been something important there to have found.
 

Yaarel

Adventurer
Depends on the dominant aesthetics of play of the players at the table. For players who are all about Expression, that's great! For players who are more into Fantasy or Narrative, they might not prefer it.

It's kind of the same as the logic behind the whole "have the players describe what they find when they go over that hill" thing; Expression players love that kind of stuff, while Discovery-seekers would have wanted there to have been something important there to have found.
I wonder if it is possible to have keep ones cake and eat it too.

Maybe the mechanical consequence of a fumble is disadvantage on the action of ones next turn. Then the player (or DM) can narrate why.

This might be enough to avoid slapstick in a moment where players are in more a serious mood.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
I still disagree that they critical hits should be balanced off against critical failures - no matter how balanced tehy are against each other. Critical hits make martial characters more deadly (it increases their damage) conversely critical failures make martial characters less deadly. So if you have a magic system that is more powerful than the martial system in the game, adding critical hits without adding critical failures can improve the magic-martial balance.
Except you still have spells that use attacks that can be a critical hit. Not to mention the cantrips everyone uses, you also have spells like Steel Wind Strike that can critically hit for 12d10 force damage (against 5 targets), plus you can flood the battlefield with 10 small objects with animate object that each can critically hit for 2d8 damage. Because 5E has so many different ways for casters to make attacks, critical hits are not a good balancing mechanism between martial and magical attacks.
 

TallIan

Explorer
Except you still have spells that use attacks that can be a critical hit. Not to mention the cantrips everyone uses, you also have spells like Steel Wind Strike that can critically hit for 12d10 force damage (against 5 targets), plus you can flood the battlefield with 10 small objects with animate object that each can critically hit for 2d8 damage. Because 5E has so many different ways for casters to make attacks, critical hits are not a good balancing mechanism between martial and magical attacks.
You’re looking at one tiny aspect of magic - damage - when magic can do so much more that has a much greater effect on play. Compare that to martial characters who only ever do damage.

Something like hypnotic pattern has no critical effect yet it can lock down half an encounter - no matter how many hp those creatures have - a far more powerful effect than the best possible dpr character could ever hope to achieve with a single action.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
You’re looking at one tiny aspect of magic - damage - when magic can do so much more that has a much greater effect on play. Compare that to martial characters who only ever do damage.

Something like hypnotic pattern has no critical effect yet it can lock down half an encounter - no matter how many hp those creatures have - a far more powerful effect than the best possible dpr character could ever hope to achieve with a single action.
While I don't disagree, that's off topic from the need for critical failures to balance critical hits. You were saying that critical hits without critical misses were necessary to balance martial vs. magic, but since magic can also critically hit, critical hits aren't useful as a balancing mechanic of martial vs. magic.
 

TallIan

Explorer
While I don't disagree, that's off topic from the need for critical failures to balance critical hits. You were saying that critical hits without critical misses were necessary to balance martial vs. magic, but since magic can also critically hit, critical hits aren't useful as a balancing mechanic of martial vs. magic.
I’ve been arguing this as magic vs martial but that’s not a very good way to look at it. Damage is damage, whether from an axe or a ball of fire.

A better way to look at it would be damage vs effects (it’s just that effects are often magical). Many effects are more powerful than simply doing damage.

All critical hits do is raise your average damage. There is no need to have critical failures to lower the damage back down. You just have to ensure that the higher average damage is fair when looking at other options for your actions.
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
I wonder if it is possible to have keep ones cake and eat it too.

Maybe the mechanical consequence of a fumble is disadvantage on the action of ones next turn. Then the player (or DM) can narrate why.

This might be enough to avoid slapstick in a moment where players are in more a serious mood.
A good option for maintaining a serious mood is to just have things generally turn against the party. Some general misfortune is suffered rather than singling out the poor player who rolled the one.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
2. Critical failures can be funny. Most of what I have to say about this is to other commentors in this thread namely:
Sorry Shiroiken, I just found your post first.

I disagree with the premise. Critical effects should be balanced across the sub-systems of the game. As an example I am playing a wizard through Out of the Abyss - 25 sessions in and my wizard has make exactly one attack roll. So across all the sessions so far he's had 5% chance to critically fail. Compare that to the martial characters who make dozens of attacks each round. If you have critical fails that have a mechanical effect then it needs to affect combat, magic, skill, etc.
The flaw there isn't the critical fail rules, it's that casters should be forced to roll aim for placement of ranged spells just like any other character using a ranged item or missile. And on said aiming rolls, a fumble would of course be possible.

Just ask Jack, a mage from an old campaign of mine, what happens when you fumble with a fireball and it goes off inside the fireproof cloak you're wearing...

The long-distance message sent to the mage's wife shortly after: "It's OK. We've got Jack. He's in our Dustbuster...."
 

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