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.
Types of DM
Finding your own unique style can be a long process, something that can only be discovered by running and playing in role-plays. It’s important to observe and listen to the styles of other DMs in different systems, it can help you pick up their good habits, and discover what you dislike. Ultimately your style will form as a product of your experiences and you will develop unique subtleties over time.
Just to give an idea, here’s a few examples of DMing styles, in a format you may be familiar with:
“The games only fun if we’re going to play fair.”
A Lawful Good DM likes a nice balanced game in the hopes that everyone gets as much enjoyment as possible. For example, LG’s might choose to have their players use a fixed set of numbers to generate their characters rather than roll dice to create a random set. They are unlikely to so much as bend the rules for fear of causing a problem later on in the campaign.
Without an element of inequality however, it may remove an element of competition between players which can make for a more entertaining game, and a strict adherence to the rules can allow for fewer surprises.
Recommended System: Pathfinder
“You can’t afford food, you’ll need to roll to avoid starvation.”
Players need to keep a tab on their numbers with a Lawful Neutral DM. They will carefully monitor the money characters “should” be spending during those long weeks in town. They tend to be sticklers for what is and is not said at the table too, if you’re not expressly sheathing your sword, you’re approaching everyone with weapons drawn. Expect to be arrested for it.
LN DMs foster a sense of paranoia and obsessive compulsive behaviour amongst their players, which in many ways is in their best interest, and promotes good bookkeeping but by the same token can take a lot of joy out of the game.
Recommended System: Exalted
“Hey, it’s in the rules…”
The Monster Manuals are an arsenal to a Lawful Evil DM. They are in the rules, as are rules for character death, and are therefore entirely usable whenever the DM so chooses. An LE DM plays Tomb of Horrors for fun and throws Elder Gods around like toys. The game will be fair of course, just don’t get overly attached to your characters.
If a DM has a reputation for playing hardball they fall firmly into the LE category. As players they tend to be the worst kind of power-gaming rules-lawyers, but as a DM they can offer a peerless challenge that will leave you with some real stories.
Recommended System: GURPS
“Awesome! Have a cookie.”
Gaming under a Neutral Good DM is always fun. They’re always happy to put whatever scheme the players cook up in the hands of the dice; success will always be memorable, and failure rarely results in death. NG DMs are often willing to stretch the boundaries of what a system is capable of, but will rarely go entirely off-books: re-skinned and modified monsters, epic-scale fight scenes, and highly conceptual rewards a must.
The only cause for concern is that real challenge may not be forthcoming, and in the absence of deaths’ looming shadow, players have the freedom to make overly brash decisions with impunity.
Recommended System: D&D 4th edition
“You can’t just have it, but I’ll let you roll for it.”
Neutral is a hard balance to strike. It’s not perfection, as everyone’s technique is personal – perfect is what is right for you – but a Neutral DM finds a path between permissive, strict, threat and reward that usually appeals to everyone. The generalized approach draws from tips and tricks from lots of practice and playing multiple systems across a long gaming history.
The Neutral approach may give the appearance of being a little overdone, if not entirely generic, and most DMs will ultimately fall into this category somewhere. It needn’t be a bad thing, as every DM will have quirks that give their campaigns a unique touch, and may lean slightly in one direction or another.
“I hope everybody brought spare characters.”
The greatest tool in the hands of a Neutral Evil DM, is fear. Death of a character looms like the sword of Damocles, perhaps never to fall. Every door must be tested repeatedly, every corridor scoured, and every preconception forgotten. No NPC is to be trusted because the moment you feel safest is when the NE DM strikes for the throat.
Although fear is a constant companion, NE DMs play campaigns of intrigue, and horror very well, and are often better suited for games that offer sanity mechanics. They tend towards a creative kind of cruelty that makes a game so much more interesting.
Recommended System: Call of C’thulhu
“Let’s try something new…”
Chaotic Good DMs experiment and toy with the gaming system, perhaps even going so far as to produce their own, go off the books altogether, or even throw in seemingly unrelated games like chess or poker to change the pace. So long as everyone is enjoying themselves and the story is good, the rules can take a back seat.
CG DMs freeform style may not be to everyone’s taste, and if an experiment fails it can make for a distinctly bad game. It may be necessary at times to go back to basics.
Recommended System: Savage Worlds
“Oh sure, you’d do that. Would your character?”
Role-play is often the foremost element that a Chaotic Neutral DM will focus on. They may prefer a system that offers rule-support for it, or just focus most heavily on it during gameplay. Weeks may go by without a rulebook being touched, or actual combat taking place, but the story will drive on, perhaps recklessly at times. Players may feel swept up by the momentum but are more likely to have a memorable experience.
Many systems rely on combat, or focus a lot of heavy support for managing it. Players may feel that many aspects of their character go unused, especially those that are designed to be heavily combatant. The right choice of system is critical.
Recommended System: Cortex
“Who’s ready to die?”
It is said that the Dungeon Master is not supposed to be your enemy. Chaotic Evil DMs don’t care. No challenge will be impossible of course, otherwise where’s the fun? But instant and permanent death is a constant threat, mutilation is a very real possibility and a day without severe blood-loss is a miracle. This is the kind of DM who runs Tomb of Horrors for fun.
Nobody likes to feel stuck in a Kobayashi Maru (the no-win scenario) and it’s hard to feel attached to a character who’s liable to die at any second. Actual role-play is unlikely, and a party specialized to survive every situation through strict co-operation (and quite a lot of luck) might become a tedious necessity.
Recommended System: Paranoia
Of course these are broad-stroke generalizations, and DMs cannot be categorized absolutely. We each have unique quirks and techniques that make our games individually ours, and the only way to discover what yours are is to practice playing, learn from friends and be utterly unafraid to try something new.
If you would like to see more reinterpretations of the axis alignment system I posted three different articles entitled Bending Alignments on 1001-Up! And in case you’re wondering I’m firmly Neutral Evil
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