Dungeon Master – The Little Guy in Red Robes

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on January 16, 2012

Remember the old D&D Cartoon from the 80s? Six kids are magically transported into the world of Dungeons & Dragons where they fight the forces of evil while trying to find a way home. (See the cartoon intro below). In the cartoon the Dungeons Master was an actual character. He would appear at the beginning of each episode and provide the heroes with a quest; in much the same way the DM does during an actual game of D&D. The DM served as the guide for the characters in the show and the viewers at home. He’d also step in from time to time and give the characters advice or help them out of a really tight jam.

In 4e D&D the DM is not one NPC, rather the DM takes on the roles of every NPC. But wouldn’t it make things easier if Dungeon Master actually was an NPC in your game?

Using an actual NPC called Dungeon Master may be an easy way to resolve a lot of the issues or problems that sometimes arise in your game. It also gives you a way to have some direct iteration with the characters. Dungeon Master can act as a guide, providing the PCs with motivation for their next quest, much like he did in the cartoon. He can also be a good way to remind the players of details that their characters would know, especially names of people and places.

Dungeon Master can be especially helpful in a situation like D&D Encounters. We have a lot of younger players at my FLGS and they have relatively short attention spans. From week to week they often forget important details. Having Dungeon Master himself show up each week to do the recap can be a great way to get players to pay more attention, especially since they can interact with him directly. During the last season of D&D Encounters a lot of the players struggled to understand why they were taking on some tasks. Having Dungeon Master show up and emphasize their importance or providing details that were forgotten, the PCs can then make better decisions.

Whenever something in your campaign changes, say a new character joins the group or a character is absent, you can simply have Dungeon Master shows up and say “Braddoc is needed elsewhere but I leave you Delian in his stead. Good luck, brave heroes.” In cases where the DM may need to bend the rules for the greater story, he can have Dungeon Master show up and take care of it. For example, if the PCs have burned through their healing surges but it doesn’t make sense for them to rest given where they are in the story, why not have Dungeon Master show up and replenish a few surges for the party?

In extreme cases Dungeon Master can even raise character from the dead if there are no other alternatives. I’d be more inclined to believe that an omniscient Wizard called Dungeon Master showed up in our moment of peril and raised a fallen comrade than some lame excuse like he wasn’t actually dead because the last attack only grazed him.

In a recent game a few of the players were bickering over who got a particular magic item. They ended up fighting in-game and yelling out-of-game. Why not have Dungeon Master show up in-game and settle things. He comes up with a way for the PCs to best determining who gets the magic sword and if they can’t come to terms he’ll simply disenchant the item. After all he’s the Dungeon Master and can do anything.

Using such an obvious form of “Deus ex Machina” to resolve problems and convey information may seem a little bit silly or juvenile but I think it’s the kind of thing even the most serious gamers will be up for. After all, if they realize that Dungeon Master is on their side and would never do anything to intentionally harm them, why wouldn’t they welcome his assistance. It also gives DMs a license to be creative. In the cartoon Dungeon Master never actually came out and said do this or go that way; he often spoke in riddles and provided only clues. In my experience players would rather decipher these cryptic messages from Dungeon Master than just listen to a talking head DM who reads pages of text right from an adventure.

If you do decide to use Dungeon Master as an actual entity in your games you should also decide early on if he is well-known. In the cartoon many people are aware of Dungeon Master’s existence. In fact he has enemies of his own who sometimes attack the heroes just to get his attention. Although this isn’t something I’d likely do with any great regularity is does give the DM a way to introduce new and unexpected villains to the game that otherwise would have no reason to engage the PCs.

So the next time you’re unsure how to fix a problem in your campaign or remind the PCs of information vital to the upcoming session, consider having the little guy in the red robes show up and introduce himself as Dungeon Master. It will certainly make for a memorable session.

Have you ever used Dungeon Master as an actual NPC in your campaign? How did the players and PCs react? Was anyone ever dumb enough to try to kill Dungeon Master? How often did you have Dungeon Master appear and did you place any limits on his power? If this isn’t something you’ve ever done is it something you’d consider? How do you think your group would react?

Related reading:

D&D Cartoon Intro

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shane January 16, 2012 at 9:48 am

Did you know that Dungeon Master was Venger’s dad? True story. The final episode where the kids go home was never created, but there’s a script floating around out there somewhere, and their relationship would have been revealed at the end.

2 Brent January 16, 2012 at 9:55 am

I think I will try this for my next encounters game. Great idea. The cartoon was so awesome at the time and I always forget how many neat things were in it. Always loved the flame bow. Whenever I imagined Taulmaril, Drizzt’s bow, I thought of the cartoon version (arrows less flamey of course).

Cheers.

3 Taed January 16, 2012 at 10:03 am

I’ve never used “Dungeon Master”, but I have stepped in in different ways.

The most in-game was when the party was completely unsure on how to proceed, I had a magic sword (Sun Blade of Bahamut, which had been bestowed to one of the characters by a dying paladin) provide a brief vision that served as a hint. That actually worked well since the player with the sword then felt that the sword was even more special and would brag about its divine origins.

One time the players were sneaking up on some guards and started arguing about something stupid for longer than necessary, so I had the arguing transfer in-game and the guards were alerted and attacked them. The party recognized what I did and agreed that they shouldn’t have been arguing at that time. I suspect that every DM has done that (namely grudge monsters) at one time or another.

For the one issue mentioned of treasure distribution, I felt that the players were wasting time bickering and gave them my opinion (as the DM, but not in-game). In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have said anything, but just sent some wandering monsters, which would force the issue of someone taking the item. I stated to the players that I had intended the item for character XXX because character YYY has something special coming up next.

4 Alton January 16, 2012 at 10:26 am

The concept of introducing a dungeon master NPC into the mix is an interesting one. You would not have to place the characters in a position where an NPC could tell them what is happening.

The cartoons were awesome and the Dungeon Master did help them along the way.

To put the characters on the right path, I have done other things such as direct NPC involvement, have the PC’s dream or have nightmares, have a newsletter (like a character journal) handed to them week after week. Theare are a ton of things you can do.

If the Dungeon Master can be properly integrated and his character made memorable, then this would be the way to go. Otherwise he would just become another NPC of no interest to the players.

5 Hail randomly selected NPC January 16, 2012 at 12:17 pm

I am afraid that the players will try to kill him and loot the body.

6 Taed January 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm

I’m afraid that many groups would try to do that (kill the Dungeon Master and loot the body). If so, I think I’d just have it be a one-hit minion with only a copy of the DMG (written in English). If you don’t tell them what the book is (“a book of unknown language with ornate diagrams of various scenes of battle and magical items”), that could send them on a quest to get it translated. I’m not sure that even a spell of something like Comprehend Language would enable a language from “another plane” to be translated…

7 Sunyaku January 16, 2012 at 11:41 pm

I like to have a few semi-omniscient NPCs in the campaign… sort of like spymasters who know most of what goes on– but I’ve never had a completely omniscient, all-powerful NPC. I prefer to have backup plans for all possible outcomes… rather than use a character like “Dungeon Master” to fix something on the fly. For example, I have several story loops at the ready if the party has a TPK, and I also have a small battery of supporting NPCs I can send in to help before that happens. Of course, help isn’t free, so the long the party can go without this kind of support, the better off they are (e.g. finding themselves indebted to an evil creature who needs an evil favor, for example).

8 Anon January 17, 2012 at 2:17 am

Here’s something fun: imagine re-enacting the episode ‘Day of the Dungeon Master’ in a real D&D game.

9 Victor Von Dave January 17, 2012 at 3:45 am

The character of Dungeon Master is a bit of an ongoing joke at my table (including doing the voice ‘I am Dungeon Master’), so I don’t think I’d be able to use him directly :)

@Hail- That’s exactly what Warduke tried to do one episode!

10 Matt January 17, 2012 at 4:04 am

I think it’s perfectly appropriate to do something like that. Star Wars had Yoda, Lord of the Rings had Gandalf….my old campaign (here and there) had the Old Man with the Canaries. My new Dark Sun campaign has the Wanderer. It’s a comforting fantasy trope to have the “guide/wise man” archtype show up and light the way, when things get dark.

11 Ameron (Derek Myers) January 17, 2012 at 2:06 pm

@Shane
Really!?! Venger is Dungeon Master’s father. Cooooool.

@Brent
I find I often re-watch those old episodes now that I have them on DVD and pull inspiration for my games. I think everyone has wanted to play a Ranger with a bow like Hank’s at one point or another.

@Taed
I’ve found that “visions” are often misinterpreted and have caused me more grief than just having Dungeons Master show up. But it’s certainly a good alternative.

I’ve often done just what you describe when it came to players arguing, especially during D&D Encounters. Players need to remember that a round is 6 seconds and that a 10 minute discussion on any topic, be it civil or heated, takes time and will likely be overheard (maybe not the details, but the talking).

@Alton
I’ve found in my home games that the PCs are always suspicious of all NPCs, so even a helpful stranger isn’t usually trusted. But if I use Dungeon Master and they come to realize he’s trustworthy that would make things easier for me and a lot more interesting for them.

During public-play the adventures are highly structured with minimal opportunity to introduce a friendly NPC to remind the players of the little details. Again, an omniscient Dungeon Master who just shows up may seem extreme, but it will work. I think the players would accept Dungeon Master more readily than an NPC who just happens to wander into the scene and have the info they need.

@Hail randomly selected NPC
Let them! Have Dungeon Master toy with them and then finally say “enough” and end the battle. After all, Dungeon Master can do anything.

@Taed
This is genius! I’d never have though to do this, but I love it.

@Sunyaku
My players usually resent NPCs who know more than they do and who are more powerful than they are. When these NPCs share information they always feel like they’re being schooled and hate it, often missing the point of the information dump. But I think they’d be more accepting of Dungeon Master because he’s removed from the actual goings on in the day-to-day adventure.

@Anon
For those who aren’t familiar with the episode “Day of the Dungeon Master” from the D&D cartoon, it’s about one of the PCs becoming Dungeon master for one day. It’s a good mixture of humour and fable. In the end the PC realizes that having the power of Dungeon Master doesn’t make life easier. Thanks for the suggestion.

@Victor Von Dave
I think the key to using an actual Dungeon Master character in the game is to play him with a good sense of humour. The PCs should recognize his power but the encounters should be light-hearted and humorous for it to work. Adding the funny voice is an easy way to set the right tone immediately.

@Matt
I like the idea of using Dungeon Master as the mysterious stranger. Perhaps at first he’s just a guy who’s always there when the PCs really need him (not wearing the red robes, obviously). Naturally they’ll become suspicious and likely confront him. After he disappears time after time they should start to realize that he’s more powerful than they first thought. This is a good way to use Dungeon Master as a more serious NPC.

12 william gentry October 29, 2012 at 4:19 pm

In my campaign, the PCs often fought against the undead and Orcus cults. So, whenever they where in a jam where it would be a TPK, I send a raven flying over their heads, and as their corpse/weapons/enemies would glow purple and they would recieve some gift from the Raven Queen. Subtle? No. Effective? Yes.

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