Eight Rules That Will Make You A Better DM

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on January 21, 2010

Admit it. As a DM there have been times when you’ve been stumped, regretted decisions, made a mistake or just wanted to quit. We’ve all been there and we’ve all looked for a way out of the situation. The following eight guidelines follow the KISS formula. Keep It Simple, Stupid. While they don’t cover every situation, they should provide a reliable fallback for DMs.

  1. Learn How To Say Yes

  2. The first rule is a fundamental one. Nothing grinds a game to a halt faster than a no ruling. Nothing frustrates a player more than being told their brilliant idea is no good. Nothing creates animosity towards the DM greater than a closed door policy on new ideas or rule interpretations. A no ruling at my normal game usually results in at least one player pulling out the PHB looking for clarification on the rule. It slows things down, it’s a distraction, it’s no fun. Please note this rule is learn how to say yes. There are instances when no is the correct call, but I urge to always consider the possibilities of yes before shutting an idea down. Unless the idea is clearly absurd, learn how to say yes. It will change your gaming life.

  3. Learn How To Say Yes

  4. Saying no is lazy. Learn to say yes, challenge yourself and your players to be more creative. You’ll become a better DM, your adventures will appear more compelling and your players will come back each week craving more.

  5. Learn When To Call An Encounter

  6. Nothing is more boring that an war of attrition. In higher levels of 4e D&D, monsters can have a ridiculous amount of hit points. Once the tactical aspect of combat is over, the PCs have expended their daily and encounter powers, and there is only one NPC left to kill, call the fight. The exception to this rule is if there is a realistic threat and a strong possibility of a PC dying during what remains of the fight. If this threat is not present save yourself and your players the time and move on. Be warned, you are a DM and therefore a storyteller. Don’t just end the encounter. Describe in detail how the PCs are able to defeat the last monster standing. Use the opportunity to build a sense of drama and accomplishment.

  7. Use The Resources You Have Available

  8. There are a lot of tools available for DMs. From mapping to encounter building, official to 3rd party. Feel free to use whatever works best for you. If a resource isn’t readily available during play, then forget it. Don’t decide mid-session that a graphical map displayed on the monitor stored in your garage would be a good idea, because it isn’t one. Don’t look for your player kill d20 that you lost this week because the PCs are cutting through your encounter like a hot knife through butter. Don’t ask to borrow another players Monster Manual 2 because there is a more appropriate monster in that book than what you’ve selected.

  9. Be Prepared

  10. I learned this in Boy Scouts and it ties to the rule above. Use what you have on hand, what you’ve prepared and what you’ve committed to before your player’s showed up. Wearing the DM hat is a lot of responsibility, the enjoyment of 4 or 5 other people rests in your hands. So be prepared. Don’t fly from the seat of your pants, be prepared. Don’t create maps on the spot, be prepared.

  11. When In Doubt, See Rule # 1

  12. If you don’t know, say yes. If you don’t care, say yes. If it makes sense, say yes. Nothing is worse than a DM who can’t make a decision on a ruling. If you find yourself in this position say yes. Your player’s will love you for it.

  13. Let The Dice Fall Where They May

  14. Dice are the random element of D&D. They can make exciting moments heroic and create disasters out of innocent transactions. As a DM you may feel the need to adjust the results of some dice. Some might call this creative cheating on the part of the DM. The final call is up to you, but I’m an advocate of letting the dice fall where they may.

  15. If You Aren’t Enjoying Things Stop

  16. I’ve ended more than one campaign early because it just didn’t work out the way I intended or feedback from players indicated that there was a lack of interest in the story I’d developed for the campaign. That’s ok. Best to stop early and abruptly than torture everyone for months. If you find the role of the DM to be too much work, admit it to yourself and get out. If you aren’t having fun doing it, stop.

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1 David January 21, 2010 at 9:39 am

I really need to work on rules 1, 2, and 6, and back off on rule 5.
.-= David´s last blog ..Gamers rock! =-.

2 Ben January 21, 2010 at 9:49 am

Great stuff. I agree with letting those dice fall (#7). I roll everything in plain view – more suspense that way.

I don’t end too many encounters early (#3) only because every hit point counts when really playing those rest rules. So, they may have it in hand but the loss of 10 more HP with 2 battles to go can make a big difference.

And amen to being prepared (#5). My DM work is monumental (as seen on our video podcast game sessions) but there’s real fun for me there and a sense of pride to give the group the best game possible every time out.

3 Siskoid January 21, 2010 at 9:52 am

Number 3 is VERY interesting. Something I hadn’t considered before. I mean… I’ve had the bad guys surrender or run away, but never boldly stated “you’ve won”.

I imagine that if I did, to prevent players from going “aww I wanted to finish the fight”, I’d let them call the rest without rolls. “You’ve won, what happens next?” And let players make up cool finishing moves, whether they killed, captured or showed mercy and let go, etc. A nice trade and thinking outside the box. I like it.
.-= Siskoid´s last blog ..RPG Soap (The Culling Dilemma) =-.

4 Siskoid January 21, 2010 at 10:19 am

I’m not as keen on #5. I’m usually well prepared, but I’ve found great fun is to be had by “flying by the seat of your pants”, although I suppose knowing your world and overall story counts as prep. Depends on the game too. Rules Lite games are easier to run that way.

Of course, the old axiom of “Once you know the rules, you can break them” holds.
.-= Siskoid´s last blog ..RPG Soap (The Culling Dilemma) =-.

5 Mike(aka kaeosdad) January 21, 2010 at 11:03 am

Number 4 is crucial for new dms. I’ve seen it, and it’s happened to me multiple times. Stopping the game to look up a rule could also be part of #4 as your brain is your best resource, and it’s usually the one thing you lose during a game haha.

6 Wimwick January 21, 2010 at 11:06 am

@ David
We all have our weaknesses =) Think of these as a guide, just make sure you’re having fun.

@ Ben
Whenever ending encounters early don’t be afraid to also asses 2 or 3 extra healing surge expenditures to compensate for the damage. While I like having most discussion be in character, the nature of the game requires talking mechanics at certain points.

@ Siskoid
I like your idea on having the PCs call the shots for that final round, it adds to the drama and helps them get into their character.

Nothing wrong with seat of your pants, but if you don’t have a rough template then improvisation can be a disaster. I used to do improv and every skit you see has a framework to help it run to conclusion. I find these moments work best in skill challenges, where you know the tasks or goal, but are able to embelish the actions beyond what you’ve written down.

7 Anarkeith January 21, 2010 at 12:21 pm

I’d agree with Siskoid on the improvisation argument. It’s important to a campaign to be contextually consistant, but I try not to let minor things (“uh, last session this room was 30’x40′, now it’s 30’x50′?”) get in the way. I have a hard time fitting in notes during a session, so I usually take a picture of the tabletop (and any discarded maps) at the end.

I also keep a copy of the DMG and PHB indexes at hand. “That’s on page 284. You can look it up. Meanwhile…” I put the rules burden on the party and move on.
.-= Anarkeith´s last blog ..Tweaks to 4e D&D =-.

8 Siskoid January 21, 2010 at 1:10 pm

I’ve been deep into improv for over 20 years, (the French-Canadian version of the game doesn’t have supporting structures) and most people I game with have been recruited from the improv ranks, so maybe it’s something we’re a little more comfortable with than some.

I’ve done the “call the shots/no rolls” things for TEASERS in my GURPS cinematic Black Ops campaign. Basically each episode started with a teaser that represented the end of an “unseen adventure” that showed how badass the characters were, and setting up the feel of the adventure to come (which used rules so was consequently harder, and so more epic). The more entertaining you were, the more cinematic points you scored that could be used in the main story.

But I’d never thought of transferring that to the “boring” parts of fights.
.-= Siskoid´s last blog ..RPG Soap (The Culling Dilemma) =-.

9 Zzarchov January 21, 2010 at 1:44 pm

There should also be the “learn when to say no” as the other end of the spectrum. Saying yes is all well and good if something is “Super mega awesome”, unless that “super mega awesome thing” ruins it for other players. Player A and Player B BOTH want to be a Mary Sue character, ensure they want to play the character and not they want to the best. You can’t have two “the best” and they will just both become sulky and sabotage each other.
.-= Zzarchov´s last blog ..Experimental Travel Mechanics – A half formed though on hex crawls =-.

10 Siskoid January 21, 2010 at 1:51 pm

@Zzarchov: You’ve just tapped into another axiom of mine which I call the “Yes, but no Principle”. Basically, the opposite of everything I say is also right.

Learn to say yes, but learn to say no.
Prepare, but don’t overprepare.
And so on.
Wisdom can be found at both ends.
.-= Siskoid´s last blog ..RPG Soap (The Culling Dilemma) =-.

11 Wimwick January 21, 2010 at 3:23 pm

@ Mike (aka Kaeosdad)
I think every DM has been guilty of #4 at some point while being DM. I know I have and I’ve learned through player feedback to go with what I have.

@ Anarkeith
Nothing wrong with imporvisation, but your large set piece fight shouldn’t have a map drawn on the spot. Take the time to plan the encounter. A random fight that happens due to something interesting in a skill challenge, create it on the spot. The key is balance and doing enough prep work that you as the DM aren’t slowing things down.

@ Siskoid
I suppose I’m thinking of generic Improv rules, don’t say no (blocking), keep things open for the next participant. I like you axiom the “Yes, but no principle.” There are obviously instances where no is the correct answer.

@ Zzarchov
Balance will always play a part in referring as a DM. My thoughts on saying yes pertain mainly to rule questions that might not be clear cut or player actions you may not have anticipated. Saying yes makes it more fun for everyone. If the player wants to do something fairly creative, yet potential game breaking regarding their background story that’s when a DM and player have a conversation and compromise on a solution.

12 Alric January 21, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Great stuff, Ameron. Especially rule No. 5…

13 Neuroglyph January 22, 2010 at 8:16 am

Rules 1, 4, and 7 are key to my successful campaigns. Using 1 and saying yes and rolling with it makes the game hands down more fun.

I find that 4 is alot easier to do these days, since I started using a laptop at my game and gone paperless – my resources are as readily available as wishing as long as I have an internet connection.

Rule 7 is the hardest, because I hate killing PCs – but hey, it happens. I roll my dice on the table in front of everyone, just like the Players have to do. It’s kinda funny to have players beg me to put aside a particular dice, because it’s “hot” that night – and groan every time I pick it up and toss it down the table.
.-= Neuroglyph´s last blog ..Review – The Plane Below: Secrets of Elemental Chaos by Wizards of the Coast =-.

14 David Dotson January 23, 2010 at 11:21 pm

#3 has always been a challenge of mine. Sometimes when I’ve designed this grand scheme of an encounter, it’s tough to let that go when it’s clear that the encounter will end up without things going that way. Interesting thoughts!
.-= David Dotson´s last blog ..Do You Tell Your Boss You Play Dungeons and Dragons? =-.

15 skallawag January 27, 2010 at 12:39 pm

I find #5 the most difficult.

Creating the encounter, selecting the monsters, and then understanding all of the abilities of the monsters.. and then making maps! It’s easy to have a concept in your head, but putting it out there to play is difficult. If there was some way to create a random map and encounter generator based on party size and levels…

16 Siskoid January 27, 2010 at 1:07 pm

@skallawag: That’s only true if you’re designing a “module” style adventure where dungeon layout is important. A “dungeon crawl” as they say.

In more free-form play, all you need is the general layout of a place, a list of encounters and possible outcomes for each, and stats for your NPCs.

I don’t think the “dungeon crawl” does anyone any favors. It’s the one we’re most likely to learn from (some form of D&D usually being our “first” game) because it gives both GMs and players bad habits and/or limited expectations. Gamers become trapped in the idea that role-playing must include detailed room descriptions et al., which, by focusing on the space and the stats, makes gamers forget about the story. Dungeons are too often a video game-style area for various combat encounters or challenges. There’s a story, but it takes second place.

The biggest lesson (and greatest epiphany) of my gaming life was to discover other games and reading non-D&D adventure scenarios. How superhero games are run, for example, doesn’t usually include a dungeon crawl. It’s more about an investigation leading to a fight which reveals a greater threat that is followed up on to a big climax fight/stop the threat. I like to check out scenarios for games I don’t play because it can inspire a different way to go.

Many games take a non-dungeon approach, including many D&D-centric scenarios (I loved much of the Planescape output for this). Know your NPCs, know what everyone is doing at any given time, know what kind of social/skill/combat encounters you want as part of the story, and you should be prepared.
.-= Siskoid´s last blog ..Cat of the Geek #46: D&D Familiar =-.

17 kurgan July 9, 2014 at 8:46 am

#9 Try Playing for a Change
DMs could learn a lot from running a PC. In particular it teaches you how much detail is too much and how much is too little. It also teaches you about pacing. A DM doesn’t have to be good to learn from them. But don’t be arrogant and don’t try to sabotage the other DMs game. Try to be the player you would want in your own game.

18 TheBrassDuke March 23, 2015 at 8:24 am

Had a player try getting a Holy Unholy Vorpal Keen falchion. Never.

19 martin tang March 5, 2016 at 7:05 pm

I sometimes find it hard to follow rule 1, 2 and 6, because of situations when a thought out creative move seems very illogical. Take my example:

The party is attacked by a purple worm, which swallows the ranger whole. In an attempt to rescue the individual the druid wildshapes into a water elemental and jumps into the mouth of the beast to pull out the ranger. In my logic i said that the ranger was transported into the worm and was already being eaten up by the stomach acid of the worm.
Since the water elemental couldn’t be restrained in his form he engulfed the ranger and then claimed that he could get out without a problem, but i ruled that they were too far down in the worm for him to get out freely, and he had to make a check to get out.
He strongly disagreed to this, but in the end, the partymembers outside the worm slew the beast and everyone survied.

But what do you do when something defies your logic? how do you say no without angering the players?
(P.S. this is not the first time the druid have made near-suicidal missions that defied most logic)

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