DMing 101 – Etiquette

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.

DMing101

Etiquette

There are a lot of rules about being a DM that go unwritten. I have written quite a few of them, but there’s some fundamentals that need to be addressed, just a few good habits to get into, and a few techniques that take a lot of time and practice to master.

Turning Numbers Into Narrative

We are all very accustomed to having a means by which to measure our successes and failures when it comes to games, and usually these are numeric. Points, health bars, levels, critical hits, you know the deal by now, but it’s all supposed to mean something! In real life we don’t get to know how hurt our enemies are until they stop moving, or show some signs of definite injury. The same is true of most RPs, you either have a numeric quantity of health or some other means of operationalizing our life.

However, knowing the numbers can be quite intrusive on the realistic elements of a game, and I’m sure I’m not alone in having enjoyed games where you can cut and slash at an enemy, only to be left wondering how much longer before it’ll finally stop hitting back.

Your choice of game usually makes your decision for you on how to manage the fluff vs. numbers dichotomy. The only way to utterly remove numbers from the players view, however, is to manage them all yourself! If you can do it, and your players are happy for you to do all of the dice rolling and all of the stat management for them then go ahead, but you’re shouldering a lot of the burden, and detracting a degree of interaction that most players would rather keep.

The classic method is of course to allow your players to know the degree of their own success, but keep the challenge to yourself. For example, let them enjoy dealing 100 damage, but leave them guessing at how much the “monster” has left. Be sure to give them hints, like noting how gravely wounded it has become, and how it now moves awkwardly, but never show them the numbers behind the screen.

This rule applies, not just to combat, but to all matters. Players need not know exactly how difficult a task is before they try it themselves.

No one method is correct, and this is very much a “trial and error” process to find what works for you. Try some different systems, try things out for yourself. You may be surprised at the difference it can make.

What Not To Say

That’s a great idea you had. Don’t tell anyone!

No, really, write it down, keep it secret. If you must tell someone, tell a foreign friend, tell a non-gamer, encode it in the condiment stand at a restaurant and walk away smugly, knowing that no one will ever understand a word of it. That was weird, why did you do that?

Because you can’t tell your friends! If you do, you remove the suspense, the surprise. Even if you never intend to use the idea on that friend, don’t do it because one day you just might. Keep a massive notebook, a folder, an entire harddrive separate if you’re that good, just don’t tell anyone until the moment comes.

I tell you this so that you do not make my mistakes. I had to physically hurt a friend who was desperate to tell me what he had planned for a session that very night just to make him stop. It’s a difficult thing to restrain the excitement of having created something that you’re proud of, but Nikola Tesla lost a fortune and nearly a century of notoriety because he wouldn’t stop talking about his cool ideas, and now look! We have to pay for electricity! That may be an exaggeration of what I’m trying to convey, players just really love the surprise of experiencing these things as they come.

Being In Charge, and Being a Friend

Ok, this one’s difficult. I for one, am no damn good at this part of the process. There is no easy way to boss your friends around and there are only so many threats you can levy against their characters, but there are a few simple things that should help keep things on track:

Bring food: Well fed players are happy players. It’s games night, you only really need to put out some snacks, or chip in on the pizza, but it’ll make all the difference. Food on the table is also a highly sociable thing, and will help keep the party cooperative and communicative.

Keep chatter low: Off-topic chat is fine when it’s quiet, or during down-time in the adventure. A well-done scene can get people talking straight away, and it’s good to let them engage with the story and rehash it’s events, but do your best to minimize it as it can really break the flow of the game. If the chatter is going on mid-scene it can also distract the people who need to be engaged, so just ask your group to talk quietly while other members are trying to speak up.

Minimize distractions: If someone else is watching the TV nearby, or if people keep walking in and out of the room it can really take people out of the game. Worst, if some players can’t keep off their phones during game you then have to catch them up. You can take it to the extreme of banning phones at the table, but some people struggle to keep their concentration generally, and may get bored and fidgety which is far, far worse.

Remember they want to play too: They’re your friends, and they wouldn’t be at your table if they didn’t want to play the game. Sometimes a simple shout out like “Shall we get back on track?” can work nicely. make sure everyone gets an even say; shut the talkative ones off before they launch into a ten minute speech and let the quiet ones join in. Try and encourage everyone to think ahead as far as possible too so that you’re not sitting and waiting for someone to make up their mind.


If you’ve enjoyed this post let us know in the comments down below, or on our Facebook and Twitter (links on the right). If you’ve played a few RPs, also take a look at my own site, Quotes From The Tabletop, a place for all your favourite quotes and stories from your games.