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.
Most of your job is to lie, mostly by omission, but lies, secrets and schemes are essential skills to master if you want to be a successful DM. It sounds so very simple, but it takes a special kind of liar to pull off a sly smirk when everything is going wrong, to roll a dice for utterly no reason other than to watch the players sit up like meerkats, and to keep a stone-face while the players set up a plan that is doomed to fail because of information that they have not uncovered.
Red Herrings – or “An Hour Spent Arguing About A Rock”
“You stand on the edge of an open market. All kinds of people are milling about, buying, selling, chatting and arguing. The wide avenue that leads up to the Coliseum is lined with colourful market stalls covered in assorted trinkets, souvenirs and junk that is presumably useful to someone. Nearby a homeless man is trying to sell pebbles from a blanket.”
The players know the story, they know that all they need to do is get to the Coliseum. This scene need only be an opportunity to pick up some plot-changing doo-dad that the players will try using to solve every puzzle from now on, or it could be your chance to drop in some new NPC ideas you want to try out, or maybe steal something precious from them to force them into a sidequest.
But take note of the little details! Arguments? Junk? Pebble-selling-hobo? It’s little details like this that players will agonize over for an hour! Sat in an empty field with only a rock to look at, the players will discover every single aspect of the rock before deciding to pick a direction and leave, no matter how many times you say “It’s a rock!”
Now these little details are great scene-building that add real character to a world or a situation, but if you can make a nice interesting detail, it can capture your groups attention utterly, which is an excellent skill to practice. Why? If you over describe a scene, the players will become overwhelmed and bored, but if you only describe those details pertinent to the story, the world will become boring and simplistic.
It’s a classic joke between DMs, if you’re in the chair, you can roll a dice whenever you like to make the players panic. Don’t over-do it of course, it should occasionally be a stealth check for nearby assassins, or a check to resolve the actions in an undiscovered room. Maybe the roll is as simple as Option A or B? But they all make players panic. “What are you rolling? What’s going on? I check for traps, I was checking the whole time!”
Your options don’t end there of course. There are some wonderful phrases that send shivers down spines once your group is nice and paranoid:
- “Who’s in front?”
- “Are you actually going to do it?”
- “How many hit-points have you got left?”
- “Ok, everybody roll a dice for me. Just roll.”
- “Anything else you’d like to do?”
- “Go ahead, try it!” (my favourite)
Or just a quiet laugh will get a fun reaction. Again, don’t over-do it, in fact you should hardly use any of these phrases unless the situation actually calls for it. But in those moments that you say it for fun, you can enjoy watching your players back-peddle furiously.
Note passing, or talking to single players in another room is a major part of the process. Sometimes a small piece of information passed from player to DM has serious, pivotal ramifications for the rest of the adventure, and often it is essential that as few people know as possible. When one player hasn’t received a note or been asked for a private word, they will become immediately distrustful and concerned for the details they don’t know. Take that power and run with it!
“That guy is obviously up to something!”
What if – now bear with me here – What if the guy with the curly moustache, cackling to himself in the corner, really is the bad guy? What if the thing that is amazingly obviously the right answer, is the right answer all along? The party are in a room, utterly featureless except the door they came in, the sealed door on the other side, and a shiny red button. It could just be so simple that the red button is a reasonable addition to the room that seals it for long enough for “security reasons” and then lets them through.
Sometimes the obvious answer is allowed to be the answer. Better yet, the more obvious a trap is, the funnier it will be when the players assume it’s too obvious and wade on through it anyway. Modern media has done such a great job of subverting our most basic expectations, that we’ve begun to revisit the round peg/square hole dilemma in the hopes of finding new and unexplored solutions. So why not throw the occasional curve-ball into your campaigns, and dangle the right answer in front of them like bait…
They will avoid it like it has simian flu.
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