In DMing 101 I’ll be giving generalized advice on how to run a tabletop role-playing game. The articles will not presume any knowledge, except being able to read. And maybe knowing what dice are. And paper. And a computer. Maybe some other stuff. I’ll also presume that you can remember that DM means Dungeon Master. Some people call it a Game Master or GM, but I don’t. Suck it up.
There are a few quick start guides on how to DM out there, but DMing 101 will offer a fairly easy set of tips that a novice can follow to make his/her games something truly memorable.
Scenes and The Small Picture
Even if your adventure consists entirely of a single dungeon crawl, you are effectively writing a story which will break down into scenes. Each scene will present something new to the narrative and will influence your group in a unique way. For every scene there are a few essential things to bear in mind:
Not every event needs to happen, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t do it. What’s important is that your scene makes sense. A simple horror example: The players are hunting a werewolf across the countryside when they are beset by zombies on the road, why? It’s not important, generally speaking werewolves don’t summon zombies (or maybe yours do, hey, I’m not judging) but is there a graveyard nearby perhaps? Did the toothless drunk warn you of dead-men roaming the forest?
Consider your location too, nothing is worse than a bland rectangular room. What is this room, what purpose does it serve normally, and why are your players in it now? Why did they come to this town/break into this military base/stow away on this ship? If you feel like you can answer the question “Why” to your satisfaction, then the rest of the scene should fall into place for you.
Encounter, Challenge, Obstacle or Event
There are other, probably better ways of categorizing scenes in a role-play, but these are how I’m choosing to break your options down, and here is where I’m prepared to hear out anyone who wants to give me a better suggestion.
- Encounters: Any situation where the players are in conflict with something. It could be combat with a monster, negotiation with an adversary, or even a first meeting with someone the group do not yet trust. This is likely to be your most common type of scene.
- Challenge: A scene where the abilities of the players are put to the test. Tracking someone across the galaxy perhaps, holding open a heavy door, or trying to pass themselves off as people they are not. There is no adversary necessarily, if the players are in competition with someone else for the same task, it’s not an encounter until a fight breaks out.
- Obstacle: Anything that slows the players down passively. A locked door, collapsed corridor, a monster the group have no hope of defeating, or even the vast reaches of space. Even being stuck for ideas can be an obstacle in itself.
- Event: If a scene involves the players but does not affect them directly then it is an event. A disaster strikes the town the players occupy, or perhaps they witness a crime they are powerless to stop, or sit in conversation with friends to plot their next move. An event causes the players to react.
In each case these scenes present choices, or open multiple paths for advancing the story. Most are pass/fail, while others may force a decision, even if that decision is whether or not to act. They also drive the story onwards in their own way.
Making a scene fit in your campaign can be harder than it may seem at first, but once you’ve pinned down a few of the basic themes for your story it may be worth keeping those ideas written down somewhere close to hand to remind yourself of your ultimate goal.
Say for example your party are fighting an organization who are trying to re-invent necromancy for the 21st century (I have no idea where this is going, just stick with me). Maybe give the organization a symbol that pops-up every now and again, or give their operatives a distinctive uniform. While you’re playing around with magic and technology, perhaps include bizarre surgical theatres, life-sapping rifles, or wizards in helicopters (am I just too tired or is this becoming a thing?).
Give yourself room to play with your themes. If every room in a dungeon has the necromancers’ symbol why bother describing it every time? If the players are forever fighting uniformed-zombies they’re just going to get bored. Throw in extra elements that bring their own personality and themes for a little while before tying it back to the main plot.
Once you’ve got to grips with scene building you only need to work out how they’ll each fit together. It may be worth finding a good piece of flow-chart software, so you can visualize how your storyline will breakdown into pieces. But remember your group won’t always pick option A or B, and you can think you’re ready for options C or D in an emergency but I can guarantee you they’ll find options R, 8 and % somehow!
My name is Joel (Terra_Phi most places) and I am an experienced DM of nearly 7 years. I also run a site called Quotesfromthetabletop.net with a friend of mine who’s much better at site-building than I am. If you’re interested in getting into tabletop role-playing, our site is full of good reasons, all the stupid and brilliant quotes and stories that could only ever happen at the table AND I AM KEEPING THE ZOMBIE-SUMMONING WEREWOLF