Greatest Hits 2010: Eight Rules To Make You A Better DM

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on December 22, 2010

While the Dungeon’s Master team enjoys some well-deserved vacation time, we’re breaking out the greatest hits and shining a spotlight on a few of our favourite articles from 2010. We’ve searched for hidden gems that our newer readers might have missed and our long-time readers will enjoy reading again. Enjoy a second look at these greatest hits from Dungeon’s Master.

Sometimes an article is just fun to write and Eight Rules To Make You A Better DM fits snugly into that description. This article was a blast to write and revisiting it now for our greatest hits of 2010 puts me back in that moment. Written with tongue firmly in cheek and inspired by the Eight Rules of Fight Club I wanted to provide simple and concise advice for DMs.

I believe at the heart of the article is the message to have fun. As DMs we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously and we should be encouraging creative behaviour at the gaming table. Rules 1, 2 and 6 fall squarely into this category.

I hope you enjoy the article the second time through as much as I did. Until next time, just say yes.


From January 21, 2010, Dungeon’s Master once again presents: Eight Rules That Will Make You A Better DM

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 players 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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