D&D General 7 Golden Rules of Dungeon Master Etiquette

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
This has been the biggest hurdle for my campaign. Usually D&D groups will meet on a previously scheduled day and time (every Wednesday from 6pm - 9pm, for instance). But my group consists of my daughter and her two best friends. So we play whenever both of her friends are over at the same time, and the three of them all decide they want to play. So, I constantly have to have something on the back burner just in case they want to play at a moment’s notice. And since I have difficulty remembering things, this has been a major struggle for me. Luckily, they’re all D&D novices, so they are too green to notice my DMing flaws.
Published adventure modules (the standalone 1e style) are Your Friend. :)

All you need to do is make careful notes at the end of each session as to where they are/what they're doing, and you/they can jump right back in at the same place whenever you play next.
 

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Quickleaf

Legend
6. Communicate Clearly and Effectively: Keep communication with your players clear and direct. When introducing new rules or making other significant decisions, discuss these openly with your group to maintain transparency and clarity. At the start of each session, provide a simple recap of the last session. And don’t be afraid to ask your players clarifying questions, especially when they are describing character actions.
You distilled the feedback down to really clear points, M.T., all of which feel true to me too. Really nice summary of things to aim for as a GM!

I highlighted the only one that I actually like to change up now and then. It's one of those things that just isn't in player awareness, but it can help me as GM to let one of the players give us a recap because that shows me what's sticking for them, what was memorable, where their joy is, and if maybe there are things they've forgotten that I need to highlight that session.

I can see why most players would prefer the GM do it (voice of authority/clarity and all that), but I actually end up doing a little better as a GM if I turn this over to the players at least part of the time.
 

Rystefn

Explorer
Generally speaking, I agree, but I believe there is a fine line between too much prep and not enough, both can result in a bad gaming session.
I would say that the line isn't that fine and "way more than needed" is the hobby standard level of prep. Which generally leads to railroading, because if you don't play through what the DM spent all that time prepping, then it was a waste of time, right? (No I'm not saying everyone thinks this way, but you can't say it's weird or unusual.) Even if it doesn't, it inherently leads to a certain inflexibility around parts of the game. The group will pretty much always end up being steered towards the game the DM prepped to one degree or another. Heck, people come onto these forums and openly just declare that every player at the table has a responsibility and obligation at the table to bend their character in whatever way necessary to make them go on whatever adventure the GM decided they're going on, and everyone just just nods along like it's self-evident.

So yeah, this is me being the weird one and saying that DMs being "prepared" in the way that most people mean it is more likely to be detrimental than beneficial to the game.
 

R_J_K75

Legend
In a way you are correct. I think to a small extent the group you DM for should be willing to buy into the adventure you come up with as long as it's not a railroad, but the DM also has an obligation to be flexible and be willing to abandon parts of what they have prepared in part or in whole based on the flow of the game. I think both sides of the table need to cooperate to create a collaborative experience. In the end it all depends on the particular group and what their expectations are. Some groups want a straightforward objective laid out by the DM, a railroad type of game and don't respond well to too much improvising where they have too many options. OTOH some groups want more options than they could ever hope to engage with. So, knowing the group you're running a game for is where the DM needs to decide how much prep is required.
 

Schmoe

Adventurer
In a way you are correct. I think to a small extent the group you DM for should be willing to buy into the adventure you come up with as long as it's not a railroad, but the DM also has an obligation to be flexible and be willing to abandon parts of what they have prepared in part or in whole based on the flow of the game. I think both sides of the table need to cooperate to create a collaborative experience. In the end it all depends on the particular group and what their expectations are. Some groups want a straightforward objective laid out by the DM, a railroad type of game and don't respond well to too much improvising where they have too many options. OTOH some groups want more options than they could ever hope to engage with. So, knowing the group you're running a game for is where the DM needs to decide how much prep is required.

I bolded the part that I want to touch on. I think this is so, so true that DMs everywhere should pay attention to it. I've tried to create sandbox environments full of interesting hooks for the party to follow, only to have the group complain that they were bored because there wasn't an adventure. I've found, repeatedly, that the people I play with have been much, much happier and more engaged when I create a narrative for them to follow, with flexibility and freedom between the lines. That leads to a certain level of expectation on how much I should prep. This has held true for me across multiple groups, but obviously it won't hold true for every group, so your level of prep should very much reflect your understanding of what your players expect.
 


EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
I asked social media for real-life examples of "bad" DM etiquette and got about a hundred responses. I've taken that information and devised 7 golden rules of DM etiquette:
  1. Be Consistent: Apply the rules consistently. Be clear about whether you're using official rules or house rules, and ensure that players understand and experience them uniformly throughout the campaign. If you need to make a change, communicate the reasons why and get player buy-in. In the same way, present the game world details as consistently as possible; this greatly aids player immersion.
  2. Respect Player Agency: Value and respect your players—that means respecting their characters, their decisions, and their creativity. If a player uses an ability or item effectively or creatively, reward this ingenuity rather than looking for ways to counter it. This encourages players to pay attention, think laterally, and engage more deeply with the game. And avoid overriding player decisions or dictating character reactions as this is a quick way to get players to disengage.
  3. Be Prepared and Knowledgeable: Ensure you have a solid grasp of the game rules. You don’t need to be an expert, but you should understand the fundamentals. Prepare adequately for each session. The level of preparation required can differ among DMs, as some are naturally adept at improvisation. Determine the amount of prep you personally need to ensure a good session. A knowledgeable and prepared DM facilitates a smoother and more immersive experience for the players.
  4. Honor Player Boundaries and Foster Inclusion: Be attentive to your players' comfort levels and boundaries. Avoid introducing content that may be inappropriate. Do not show favoritism toward some players—rather, ensure the spotlight is shared around equally. In the same way, do not hold grudges against a player. Indeed, avoid being adversarial, and instead treat all players in a fair and welcoming manner.
  5. Avoid Overbearing Control: While guiding the game, avoid being overly controlling in your storytelling. Allow space for player-driven narrative and be flexible enough to adapt when players take unexpected paths. Where possible, incorporate changing character goals into the campaign. Avoid lengthy lore dumps or sessions dominated by exposition, and instead balance DM narrative with player interaction.
  6. Communicate Clearly and Effectively: Keep communication with your players clear and direct. When introducing new rules or making other significant decisions, discuss these openly with your group to maintain transparency and clarity. At the start of each session, provide a simple recap of the last session. And don’t be afraid to ask your players clarifying questions, especially when they are describing character actions.
  7. Encourage Mutual Respect: Foster an environment of respect where both DM and players feel heard and valued. Encourage players to actively listen when others are taking their turn—this creates a collegial table environment and often leads to excellent roleplaying moments. Check in with players after heavy sessions, or if you think someone’s boundaries were violated. Resolve conflicts quickly and directly, rather than ignore them.
This article was originally posted on my blog.
A great list, and one I wish more DMs heeded. It very much seems to me that most of these (except maybe point 3) are forgotten or even intentionally ignored in this glorious age of "DM empowerment."

You distilled the feedback down to really clear points, M.T., all of which feel true to me too. Really nice summary of things to aim for as a GM!

I highlighted the only one that I actually like to change up now and then. It's one of those things that just isn't in player awareness, but it can help me as GM to let one of the players give us a recap because that shows me what's sticking for them, what was memorable, where their joy is, and if maybe there are things they've forgotten that I need to highlight that session.

I can see why most players would prefer the GM do it (voice of authority/clarity and all that), but I actually end up doing a little better as a GM if I turn this over to the players at least part of the time.
I don't remember precisely which game system a prior GM got it from, but the idea of "ritual phrases" (which are prevalent in TTRPGs, but rarely called out as such) does a lot of work here. I have a ritual phrase I use at the opening of every game: "Previously, in the Desert..." It gets variations relative to the tone or context, e.g. when the party went to the perpendicular plane of Zerzura (based on the very excellent The Gardens of Ynn), I instead would say, "Previously, in Zerzura..." Or, for an upcoming example, the party is about to take an ocean voyage, so the sessions reflecting back on that voyage will begin with, "Previously, in the Sapphire Sea..."

One of the great benefits of such ritual phrases is that the GM doesn't have to be the one to speak them every time; the words begin to carry a power all their own once they've been used long enough. As a result, you can arrange for someone else to do the recap if it is useful/relevant/productive, by having them invoke the ritual phrase instead.

Other useful ritual phrases for me are, "Are you sure?"/"Are you sure you want to do that?" (read: that sounds risky, you might want to reconsider your options), "What do you do?" (classic PbtA gameplay loop), and for me, because I loved the first Myst novel as a child, "What do you see, <name>?"
 

R_J_K75

Legend
I've found, repeatedly, that the people I play with have been much, much happier and more engaged when I create a narrative for them to follow, with flexibility and freedom between the lines. That leads to a certain level of expectation on how much I should prep.
Same here. When we were younger, we played more often, sporadically with longer sessions. Open-ended sandbox campaigns were more viable as people were more engaged and read rules/settings outside of sessions. Nowadays, people have jobs, families, other responsibilities and interests, so we all prefer shorter linear adventures with room for some deviation.

In the early 2000's my old group broke up and I joined a group at a game store in the neighborhood. I started DMing when the current DM had to quit. I asked everyone if they'd be interested in a Forgotten Realms campaign, and everyone said yes. In the long run I ran what I thought would be a good FR game but ended up giving them too many options and probably too much lore than necessary. Oddly, even though everyone was familiar with the Realms, read some of the RPG books and novels the campaign didn't go over too well. Clearly it was a case of me not knowing the players and what they wanted. but when I asked for feedback, I rarely got any constructive criticism, and no one ever came out and said they were unhappy with the game or expressed their preferences. So, I think it works both ways, the onus is not always on the DM to make a successful game, the players should also be accountable as well. Sometimes no matter how hard everyone tries; the group just isn't a good fit as expectations and wishes are too varied. I think this was the case here.
 

Rystefn

Explorer
I rather strongly suspect that it isn't that your group needs/wants strong guidance and a plot to be pushed along. It's that they expect it and get lost and confused because they're waiting for something that isn't coming. They're probably all very used to being lead around by the nose in video games, too, but when you're clear that the video game in question just has no plot, you make your own fun, Minecraft is one of the most popular games ever made. Heck, even stepping away from actual sandboxes and to the theme park games most people call sandboxes, Skyrim is perennially popular as well.

No, I'm not saying that there's no group anywhere that prefers playing through someone else's novel over making up their own. I know that's a thing. But I also know it's a wildly overstated thing. If they're expecting a Final Fantasy, yes, they're going to wander around and not know what to do if the plot doesn't leap out and grab them by the neck, then drag them from scene to scene. I find that being clear with the players about the topic tends to disabuse them of this notion and they generally rather quickly start running off to do whatever it is that catches their eye.
 

Clint_L

Hero
To railroad or not to railroad. The classic debate.

Depends on the group. My beginner groups tend to like a very strong narrative direction. But I still always try to give options, and the current group is playing through Lost Mine of Phandelver, which offers a nice balance of a solid central story with plenty of side quests that give it a bit of sandbox flavour.

With my home group the story sort of evolves synergistically. I put out story threads, the players make choices or bring up stuff from their character's background, and one thing leads to another. Sometimes they wind up in a story that has a pretty clear through line, so I can prep a lot in advance. At other times, I am more reacting to them.

For example, a recent story arc involved the players arriving in a new town and making a deal to investigate a problem happening in a nearby village, near a swamp. This was just one of many available story hooks. It led to a violent encounter with a hag, and the party killed her pet Froghemoth and destroyed her home before working out that she actually wasn't really the villain of the situation. She escaped and threatened revenge unless they made up for the damage, which led to a series of quests for her that was pretty railroad-y.

So, that was a half dozen or so games worth of story that sprang out of a few decisions that the players made (to take that particular job, and to attack the hag without first figuring out the real issue). I had little to do with those choices, but once things were rolling the story had its own momentum. That's my preferred mode of play: player decisions driving the narrative, but the narrative having its own cohesion. I get there by giving my major NPCs their own goals and agendas, so that when the party encounters them, some outcomes are fairly predictable.
 
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