D&D General Practicing DMing

After our last session, I came away feeling that I didn't carry out my role as DM in as crisp a manner as possible. Setting aside that we can be our own worst critics from time to time, it did get me thinking: Are there resources out there for someone to practice Dungeon Mastering away from the table?

There are certainly endless articles and videos on how others do things. Some of those are really great (e.g., IMO, Slyflourish.com and Matt Colville's Running the Game among others) but I'm looking for a little bit more than absorbing advice and then trying to play it out in actual games.

Much like musician practices scales and parts of songs/pieces leading up to a performance. Or an athlete does drills and practices plays between games. Or an artist doodles or what not before tackling a final work. Or a salesperson might practice their pitch in front of a mirror or family before calling a client. Or anyone might visualize doing something in their craft before doing it physically.

So, does anyone out there have suggestions or resources that instruct us how to practice Dungeon Master skills between sessions?


EDIT to add: deliberate practice is kinda the concept I'm going for here. What can we, as DMs, do outside of playing our weekly/bi-weekly/monthly sessions to practice?
I kind of break practice into different categories.

I practice RP stuff in the car. I try to use voices, display emotions, and mannerisms of upcoming NPCs. I also use this same time to predict what questions PCs might have for them so I can tailor their answers to match their personality - not just relay information. It's here I play around with word choice and describing distinguishing traits or habits. (Side Note: My last practice I was describing two goblins that the PCs might eavesdrop on. One was describing how he has to go poop and the other thought he was going to go look for coin (they raided a place). So they were arguing. I eventually changed poop to naughty word, then to crap, because that was the best word for the setting and these goblins. ;))

I generally mentally run the combat through my head. I try to predict what the PCs will do, and then decide how the opponents will handle it based on their tactical prowess. Some might always do the wrong thing, where others will head it off at the pass. I also practice manipulating maps quite a bit for this.

Lastly, I do practice time management. This is constant. There are times early on, I would run an entire session by myself to see how long the combat and exploration pillars played out. I would also practice reading any setting pieces I had for the adventure. Now, depending on the system, I am almost always within thirty minutes of the four hours I set for a session. But twenty years ago, eh, not so much. :)
 

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prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Practicing GMing away from the table is hard, but I have thoughts on how one might improve without trying to exercise ...

I saw someone else suggest reading upthread on my skim through, and I second that. Fiction won't hurt, but if something nonfiction grabs your attention there's no reason to think it won't help--much modern nonfiction is at least as narrative as fiction. Expanding the set of ideas you've been exposed to is the helpful thing I'm getting at, here, so if you prefer to watch documentaries or videos or whatever, you can include that here.

I might also try writing something. Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, gaming-related or not, whatever--the point is to get thoughts from the inside of your head to the outside. If you have some other creative hobby that isn't gaming, or gaming-adjacent, or even words, that might help at least as much--flexing different mental muscles and all-a-that. I'd think expressive hobbies would be the key here, the difference between making music and listening to it.
 

Run one-shots. There are many Discord servers for pick up games. There are online conventions nearly every week. Their is online organized play. You can easily run online one-shots as often as you desire. And you can run in person one shots almost as often if you have a FLGS with organized play.

The benefits of one-shots is you can try new things with minimal impact. So what if your NPC improvisations don't work for a one-shot? No one cares. So what if something else you try falls flat. You and the players are not invested in some long campaign. etc
 




overgeeked

B/X Known World
After our last session, I came away feeling that I didn't carry out my role as DM in as crisp a manner as possible. Setting aside that we can be our own worst critics from time to time, it did get me thinking: Are there resources out there for someone to practice Dungeon Mastering away from the table?
Not many resources that I know of. DMing is like improv and stand up and public speaking and problem solving and fiction writing and a dozen other things rolled into one. There's a lot of "you have to do it to do it". But there's some stuff you can definitely practice.
There are certainly endless articles and videos on how others do things. Some of those are really great (e.g., IMO, Slyflourish.com and Matt Colville's Running the Game among others) but I'm looking for a little bit more than absorbing advice and then trying to play it out in actual games.
One of the most useful resources I know of for DMing in general is Mike Shea's Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. It's not practicing DMing away from the table, but it's focus is on what to prepare so that you can improv once you're at the table. Making maps and handouts and lists of names, etc, so that you're not stuck mid-game without these things that it's generally hard to improv. Focused prep, basically.
Much like musician practices scales and parts of songs/pieces leading up to a performance. Or an athlete does drills and practices plays between games. Or an artist doodles or what not before tackling a final work. Or a salesperson might practice their pitch in front of a mirror or family before calling a client. Or anyone might visualize doing something in their craft before doing it physically.
The imagination is a muscle, basically. If you don't use it, it atrophies. Read fiction, watch movies, read poetry, look at art. Fill your brain with the kinds of things that inspire you.

The things a DM can explicitly practice away from the table are kinda limited. Practice saying boxed text so that it doesn't sound like boxed text. Rewrite it so that it's more natural sounding for you. Practice writing and reading aloud descriptions for towns, villages, people, roads, etc. Find great fight scenes in fiction and read them aloud. Write your own fight descriptions and read them aloud. Pick up some screenplays and stageplays and practice orating. Hone and craft those until they sound good to your ear. Practice describing physical actions of people you see. Even if it's on TV. Either in your head if you're not alone or out loud if you are alone.

If it's improv that is the bit you're wanting to work on, grab some improv books from the local library Viola Spolin is one of the big names. There's also Second City and various other improv troupes that have put out books and lectures and courses. Biographies about famous improv performers, like Tina Fey, have some info about how improv helped them. Using the exercises from the instructional manuals could help. There's also Improv for Gamers. A lot of it is about not shutting down others ideas and just going with whatever organically manifests. Gamers typically have some version of "say yes" or "yes, and" that comes from improv.
So, does anyone out there have suggestions or resources that instruct us how to practice Dungeon Master skills between sessions?

EDIT to add: deliberate practice is kinda the concept I'm going for here. What can we, as DMs, do outside of playing our weekly/bi-weekly/monthly sessions to practice?
It depends on the skills you think are lacking. Storytelling? Read up on story structure and dramatic pacing. Hamlets Hit Points and other stuff by Robin Laws can help. Engagement? That's usually a question of pacing. It's especially hard to do in combat...and the larger the group, the longer between turns. Again, studying storytelling and pacing can help. But so can changing things up so the players are more engaged when it's not their turn. Things like having them roll defense instead of the DM rolling attacks can keep them more engaged with the mechanics.

Hopefully something in that rambling nonsense made sense and might help.
 


One of the most useful resources I know of for DMing in general is Mike Shea's Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master. It's not practicing DMing away from the table, but it's focus is on what to prepare so that you can improv once you're at the table. Making maps and handouts and lists of names, etc, so that you're not stuck mid-game without these things that it's generally hard to improv. Focused prep, basically.
Lots of great thoughts you shared - thank you!

I did want to highlight the bit I quoted as I agree 100% that Mike Shea's book helps streamline prep in a very straightforward way. For example, the simple act of describing the player characters that will appear in next session sounds a bit silly on the surface but it really helps to reinforce what you, as DM, are "up against" when designing your challenges. Such great advice throughout the book for beginners and veterans alike.

I just picked up his latest book, The Lazy DM's Companion, via Kickstarter. It's only in draft form right now and I've been too... ahem... lazy to look at it yet. I think I'll take your post as a sign that I should review it soon!

Cheers
 


pming

Legend
Hiya!
So, does anyone out there have suggestions or resources that instruct us how to practice Dungeon Master skills between sessions?

EDIT to add: deliberate practice is kinda the concept I'm going for here. What can we, as DMs, do outside of playing our weekly/bi-weekly/monthly sessions to practice?

Talk to yourself...out loud.

Seriously. It's one thing to come up with a cool description on-the-fly in your head or typing it out...but it's quite different when you are trying to SAY it out loud as you think it up.

Practice changing the tone and pacing of your words to elicit some sort of "feeling"... humour, anticipation, dread, fear, excitement, etc.

Take a sentence and try saying it in different ways to get different results.

For example, "The door is old, made of oak or walnut maybe. Bands of rusted black iron, three of them, hold the door together, with three large hinges. A single, brass ring for a simple pull-handle is in the very center".

Now try saying it in a manner that tries to elicit: Dread. Excitement. Happiness.
You'll have to use pacing, tone and different words maybe.

E.g., (Excitement) "The old oaken door has THREE black iron bands around it. Sturdy and solid. Three iron hinges grasp the wall to hold it in place. A SINGLE, polished brass ring is it's handle, set in the center".

(Humour) "The old oak door is bound by three dark iron bands. Not four. Five is right out. Three is the number of the bands, and the number of the band is... three. Hinges, as well, are three. Neither do thou count 2, nor 4. Three is the number of the counting, and the number of the counting shall be... three. Oh...and there's a brass ring to open it...straight up the middle. That's where all the action is".

The trick is to be able to do that simply on-the-fly, speaking it. I can write it down like this no problem...speaking it off the cuff? That takes practice. And the only way to get better is to do it...so... go talk to yourself. Give yourself a picture, then describe it to yourself out loud as if you would to your Players.

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

After our last session, I came away feeling that I didn't carry out my role as DM in as crisp a manner as possible. Setting aside that we can be our own worst critics from time to time, it did get me thinking: Are there resources out there for someone to practice Dungeon Mastering away from the table?
It really depends on what you're trying to improve. I have a suggestion that would rely on setup help from your players, or random gamers (like here). Have them make a bunch of "flash cards" of actions they'd take or questions they'd ask during a session. Obviously they'd have to be somewhat generic, but I'm sure they can come up with quite a few. You probably want several dozen, although some of them probably overlap to an extent ("what does x look like" vs "what color is x" or "what is x made of").

Take the cards and an adventure, roll to determine a spot in the adventure, then draw a card. Try to resolve the action/question as quickly and smoothly as possible within the context of the chosen scene (draw again if not applicable). Speak the resolution out loud to see how it sounds; recording it might not be a bad idea. Then consider how you might do it better. This can check your improv, adventure design, or rules knowledge with this, depending on the card, adventure, and goal.


Oh, and another simple idea for session prep is to constantly review important scenes when mentally unoccupied. I do this while driving back and forth to work, giving me about 4-5 hours a week of review. I consider how NPCs might react, tactics for important battles, how to resolve particularly tricky traps or exploration encounters. By going over it again and again, I mentally ready myself for how to do it during the game.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It's like any performance, the only way to practice is to do it.

Yes, but most performance has a concept of rehearsal, and also separate practice of skills related to performance. Musicians have exercises, and run over the difficult bits of a particular piece without actually doing the whole thing, or doing it in front of an audience.

Heck, even improv comedy gets rehearsal.

For the GM, if you want to practice coming up with narration of stuff that you didn't really think about beforehand, you might want to pick up Once Upon a Time, from Atlas Games. It calls for adding to a narration based on cards you've drawn.

 

loverdrive

Makin' cool stuff (She/Her)
I'm running an Apocalypse World game for AI Dungeon and having a blast. Otherwise, I don't think there are ways to practice running games without running games.
 


prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
For the GM, if you want to practice coming up with narration of stuff that you didn't really think about beforehand, you might want to pick up Once Upon a Time, from Atlas Games. It calls for adding to a narration based on cards you've drawn.
An alternative is maybe something like Rory's Story Cubes. Just roll a set and see what comes to mind.

They also do decent work if you're working out an adventure and get stuck.
 

MGibster

Legend
Yes, but most performance has a concept of rehearsal, and also separate practice of skills related to performance. Musicians have exercises, and run over the difficult bits of a particular piece without actually doing the whole thing, or doing it in front of an audience.
Rehearsal is "doing it." If I'm rehearsing Aaron Copeland's "Hoe Down" I'm actually playing my part. The thing with DMing is that you really can't do it solo. You can prepare in all sorts of different ways, but it's tough to rehearse when you have 5-6 players making their own decisions about what their characters are going to do, how you're going to interpret the rules, etc., etc.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
You can prepare in all sorts of different ways, but it's tough to rehearse when you have 5-6 players making their own decisions about what their characters are going to do, how you're going to interpret the rules, etc., etc.

So, you seem to have completely skipped the part of skills practice that isn't rehearsal.

And also, rehearsal is often done in bits. Most rehearsals for stage, for example, are of one scene. Full run-throughs are not how you spend most of your practice time.

And, you say it is hard, but... is that perhaps because you haven't tried breaking it down into bits? You can practice with your soundtrack setup separately from play, for example. For large combat encounters, you can get a friend who isn't in the campaign to help you playtest them. And we've also mentioned ways that you can practice improv skills.
 

MGibster

Legend
And also, rehearsal is often done in bits. Most rehearsals for stage, for example, are of one scene. Full run-throughs are not how you spend most of your practice time.
Dude, I know. I think we just have a different idea of what rehearsal is and I'm just not interested in nitpicking this any more. You guys win.
 

guachi

Adventurer
I think running a session where you've told the players beforehand that you want them to critique your DMing would be helpful. That might help your at-table DMing.

Generally, I've found lots of prep work makes the game run better. I've read the upcoming parts of the adventure. I have my combat encounter notes ready separate from the adventure. Maps and creature minis (tokens, in my case) ready for each encounter to speed things up. Any handouts are in the gaming folder. I have written and mental notes on how I will play the NPCs the PCs might interact with so their personalities and motivations are consistent and the players don't think they are insane or mind-controlled (seriously, it happens a lot. Players will pick up on a tonal shift in NPCs and think it means something when it's really just me messing up). Oh, I should add I also have a cheat sheet of names since I'm terrible with them.
 

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