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Some things I've learned as a journeyman Dungeon Master.


Dungeon Mastering is an art form. It is the art not only of telling a story, not only of entertaining your players, but also of giving those players the tools for them to create their own scenes, to affect the world around them, and to truly choose their own adventure. A DM should take pride in an entertaining and memorable session.

Although all players should be contributing equally to the creativity and immersion of the session, It's up to the DM to set the stage and ignite the fires of the imagination. If given the right details and prompts, players imaginations will flare to life and they'll run away with scenes. The DM's job is not to overlord a game session and beat players into the ground with oppressive rules and dialogue. The players don't care about your masterfully written campaign history or how many hours you spend fleshing out every NPC in your world. In the long run none of that will matter. The DM's job is to suggestively and seductively plant creative seeds in the players mind and carefully nurture them to fruition. This means that being a DM is an art. It requires a degree of empathy, the ability to read faces, interpret moods, alter the flow of combat/story to alleviate boredom and inspire immersion.The players will do the rest.

Details should be applied at the players request, or otherwise strategically to inspire curiosity and interaction. There is no need to tell the players every boring detail about your city if all they want to do is find an Inn/Tavern/Brothel/Store. A four paragraph description should not greet the players as they kick down the decaying door sealing the ancient wizard's tomb. A player does not need to know where the stitching pattern of the noble NPC's garment. Conversely no player should ever be left wanting of descriptions and imagination fuel. It's safe to strategically employ key details in scenes and gauge player's interest and reaction to the crumbs you sprinkle. While traveling through the city to find the Inn/Tavern/Brothel/Store there's no harm in mentioning key landmarks they pass en route. It's also a great time to introduce NPC's big or small. I recently introduced "Gorvi the Dungsweeper" as an NPC while the characters were searching for a Apothacary located along the waterfront district. An NPC of zero importance was briefly mentioned and the PC's took an immediate interest in his backstory... of their own free will and without beating them over the head with unwanted details. At the same time several of the main streets were name dropped and a few key buildings were passed... just enough for the players to remember "Oh yea, that theater place is on.. Circus Street? Festival Street? Something like that". It doesn't matter if the details are fuzzy, but it does matter that they are attempting to recall the information because it's being given to them in easy little bite-sized chunks. Knowledge of your setting and the ability to think on your feet are highly prized attributes to possess in order to strike this fine balance.

It was told to me that people think in terms of "scenes" not rounds, or hours, or even days. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Ask your players what their characters were doing seven days ago and you'll get answers like "well.. how long ago were we in that dungeon?" or "Well I think it took us about a week to journey through the forest right..?". As I'm sure most players do, mine think in terms of meaningful scenes. Ask them how many "adventures ago" something happened and they'll be much more able to recall the event in question. Enforcing a linear flow of time in a fantasy game is the equivalent of watching paint dry or trying to recall uninteresting pieces of information for a midterm. If the overland travel to a nearby city is uneventful then so be it! There is no need to make players set camp, create a sentry rotation, and re-memorize their spells every day for a four day peaceful journey through The Shire. Looking back on the previous point, and using overland travel as an example, details can still be strategically placed to inspire curiosity. Skipping straight to the third day of travel through a forest, when the PC's stumble past the ancient site of an overgrown fort, is perfectly fine.. in fact preferable. Players get bored easily, and DM's burn out quickly. Skip straight to the good stuff unless it's absolutely necessary for plot reasons.

The world goes on with or without the PC's. More importantly than your knowledge of rules is your familiarity with the world itself. Become intimately familiar with stage that your actors will tell their story upon. PC actions should have reactions. The better you know your setting, the better you can create a truly interactive environment. Don't drive yourself crazy trying to micromanage every NPC in 100 mile radius, but don't be afraid to place bold and conditional new details in the world based on your players decisions. The haunted forest they cleared out? It turns out some of the best wood in the region can be found there. Loggers from the nearby small village have set up a camp thanks to the players. My players recently probed the lair of a juvenile black dragon but didn't fight it. The result was a dragon rampaging across the farmlands the next day and taking out several farmsteads before returning to it's lair. Players have a direct role in the development of the story and the world itself, don't be afraid to explore the possibilities.

DM'ing is a constant learning experience, and I hope to improve my game in order to contribute to the entertainment of the players and myself. No one side should be clearly dominant. Players have an obligation to interact creatively and enthusiastically, but a DM's job is to inspire and facilitate those feelings and desires so that all players can enjoy our time spent together at the table.

What things have you learned to make you a better story teller?


Staff member
I listen to my players.

I don't just mean the stuff like, "I attack the Orc with my sword" or "I'm going to try to blackmail The Lord of the manor with the existence of his illegitimate son." I mean all the little speculations about the campaign world that they share among themselves while sitting at the table...or even while hanging out in other places.

The thing is, they may actually come up with better ideas about the plot than the ones you've already scripted. I they do, and you use it, they feel like they have read your mind, when in reality you're plagiarizing them to their face.

Why is this important?

I'm smart, damn smart- but I'm not always as smart as the bunch of guys who are sitting there brainstorming the campaign world in front of me.* Odds are good that, at some point, they will outdo me in the discovery of just the right way to resolve a plot point.

* some of whom are damn smart as well.
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Agree on all points, and well written, too. But isn't this common knowledge to most DMs out there by now?

Instead of taking such a broad view, maybe focusing on the details of how you handle this-or-that situation, what you can do to provide this-or-that atmosphere, how you can handle a specific kind of player power in the context of this-or-that plot element, etc. would make for a more interesting compilation of thoughts on DMing.


Agree on all points, and well written, too. But isn't this common knowledge to most DMs out there by now?

Instead of taking such a broad view, maybe focusing on the details of how you handle this-or-that situation, what you can do to provide this-or-that atmosphere, how you can handle a specific kind of player power in the context of this-or-that plot element, etc. would make for a more interesting compilation of thoughts on DMing.
Don't be too hasty. There are always new GMs just getting into the swing of things. That's why so many GM books have sections on 'How to GM' after all.

Even experienced GMs sometimes get into ruts or struggle to get players interested in their campaigns or worlds. It doesn't hurt to have the occasional reminder that the rules are there to facilitate the story and anything you can do to make the story your focus will improve the game.


I wasn't trying to bash the OP or this thread at all, to be clear. I just think there has been so much work done already, and we in this thread couldn't hope to compare to the magnificence that is this classic thread, for example, that maybe one micht want to pare down one's scope.

Li Shenron

What things have you learned to make you a better story teller?
First of all, what [MENTION=19675]Dannyalcatraz[/MENTION] wrote:

The thing is, they may actually come up with better ideas about the plot than the ones you've already scripted. I they do, and you use it, they feel like they have read your mind, when in reality you're plagiarizing them to their face.
I am not afraid of sometimes allowing some bold, over-the-top ideas to work (if you check my playtest report thread of last week, you'll read an example) and that also applies to players throwing guesses on the plot that I haven't planned at all, and making them happen. If you don't want to be too helpful or to make them discover you're using this trick, spin those player-generated ideas with a twist, or add an extra layer of secrets behind their solution.

A couple of more things I've learned through the years...

You can really improve your descriptions if you keep in mind that they can be based on five senses ;) Don't just describe the visuals, but add one or two at least additional sensory descriptors for each locale: how does it smell? what is the background noise? how does it taste (more difficult, but can be done to describe the atmosphere)? how does it feel on the skin (at least temperature, but you can add humidity or even an odd electric feeling)? It helps player to imagine the locales more vividly and remember them as they for instance navigate a dungeon.

A related thing is: remember to use weather. This helps differentiate different days, months and seasons. Make it rain sometimes as they enter a dungeon, and when they get out the rain has stopped and everything has a freshly smell.

There's some trade off between consistency and variation, when you describe locales. They both helps immersion and remembering things: if you make all villages identical, it will be hard to remember where is a certain NPC, and they will be dull as in "just another village". Pick 1 to 3 striking features for each village, and make them consistent, and it will help both you and the players: maybe one village is renowned for a magnificent obelisk, another one has all decrepit buildings, the third has a permanent fair. Our previous DM had a city where it was always, invariably raining, at least every single time the PCs were there. If then one day you have the rain stop, you can use such break in consistency to suggest that something's cooking.

One more thing I've learned, is that for long campaigns it's very useful to keep a calendar and/or a diary. Use the calendar to schedule future events that will happen no matter what the PCs do, and add new events as you decide they'll happen as a result of PC's actions. Use the diary to keep track of what the PCs have done (or discovered, even when they gather wrong knowledge), so that you can get ideas for later events that have a link to their past. Creating connections between events far in time is just as good as between events far in distance or far in terms of character relations.


I completely understand what Empirate is saying, and no offense taken as I don't believe he meant any. It was constructive criticism. I don't feel I'm well enough versed in the DM Arts to write up a post detailing any "narrowed down" techniques or specific fixes for ingame issues just yet. Hopefully in time I'll have that ability, but now isn't it. I just felt like being wordy about some things I've realized as I try and improve my DM Game form the bottom up. Thanks for the link to that thread by the way. That's a goldmine of information.

I hope more people post some of their DM / storyteller epiphanies.
I don't tell stories. The players tell stories, collectively. I referee.

Another way to think about it: if the game is a play and the players are the actors, the DM is the producer and there is no director.


One of the things I've learned is to remember that not every NPC or item the PC's run into has to be important. Sometimes its the little folks who make a place come alive.

And dont be afraid to throw something that seems silly out there.

Just as an example in my last session my players are going through the city of strangers from pathfinder. However I stuck it in a post LoTR middle earth where destroying the ring didnt beat Sauron. It just made it impossible for him to get more powerful.

So anyway the players are new in town and heading to their first destination and I'm sort of describing some sites along the way to give a feel for the city and out of nowhere as I'm rambling I come up with this gem

you see two human children playing chess with a goblin looming over them taking bets from passersbye on which kid is going to win. after a minute or so he points to a chicken sitting on a stool looking over the game and says "give the chicken a silver and he'll tell you which kid will win. " naturally you can only bet copper on the actual chess game.

Seems like an obvious con right? I got 3 players focusing like crazy on this dumb little random chicken game, sticking silver into the bag and trying everything (including more then one spell) to find out if its actually magical or not.

At one point one of them accuses the goblin of cheating because the chicken didnt tell his future. To which the goblin with a straight face says

"i never cheat, the chicken will absolutely tell you your future, if its in your future that he tells you."

when pressed on why he says

"Because he's a magic fortune telling chicken that tells the future, he's bound by whatever he see's and says. So of course he can see your future, and he can tell you your future, but only if its in your future already that he does so. "

And adds (to the mage no less) "its magic, i know its confusing but thats just how it works. You and me we cant understand these things, magic is very confusing"

they wound up moving on eventually but I thought it was a hilarious interlude and one character is pretty sure the chicken is actually the magical head of one of the gangs who was watching his territory and he's planning to go back and dig into the chicken and his goblin more when he has time.

What am I going to do with this little wierd sub plot? Hell if i know. Maybe it will be nothing like i originally planned but maybe that one player will be right after all. Its kind of a cool idea.

Stuff like that is what can make a good interactive sandbox.

Elf Witch

The thing I have found that make me a better DM is first of all to listen to my players and find out what they want from the game. And then do my best to weave it into the game world. I actually learned this from DMs who don't do that and leave you feeling that your PC is not really important.

Another thing is the rules should never get in the way of the fun of the game. I have changed rules for certain situations tweaked prestige classes traded out class abilities to make the character concept work. Rules are necessary but being a slave to them limits your ability to really run a game that players rave about.

Knowing your players is also important. Knowing what they like and want out of gaming. For example a good DM for me would know that I don't care about power or kicking butt the best, I like role playing opportunities a chance to interact with the NPCs of the world. I have a player that lives for tactical situations and being a hero so I strive to give him that challenge. My players are not Borg so I treat them differently I have players who want a no holds no saves let the dice kill me if that is what they roll and I give them that I have others who hate that with a passion so instead of forcing one to play the way the other plays I treat them differently at the table.

I consider myself more than just a referee that sounds incredibly boring to me. I see myself as the wizard behind the curtain I bring the world to the players. So yes I have been know to manipulate my players. Not by giving them no choice like railroading but knowing what buttons to push. Like I said I have one player who likes playing paladins. clerics heroes who do the right thing and protect the innocent. I use that by putting innocents in danger. When dealing with a greedy player I lure them with promises of great treasure. I give them a reason to want to follow my plot hooks based on what they like.

I view myself as a world builder but the PCs are the story tellers it is their story and their actions shape and change the world. I may have an idea of what the bad guys are going to do if they are not stopped but I never have a plan that the PCs have to follow the important thing to remember is that they should be the ones making the decisions of where to go next. I work hard to balance the story being about them without giving them plot impunity.

I may be playing NPCs whose job it is to stop the PCs but I am on their side I want them to win so I try very hard to avoid any DM/PC conflict. I get attached to some of my NPCs and give certain ones backgrounds and make them memorable. I have found that makes the world and the people in more alive for my players. They end up caring about the NPCs as much as I do. But I never allow that attachment to make them into DMPCs I keep in mind that it is not their story. They are guest stars.