How to Dungeon Master, 1: Objective

I started running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for my nephews and a few of their friends about a year ago, and news of the game spread locally. A few adults have expressed interest in learning to be Dungeon Masters. I will write a series of brief (!) articles that I can refer them to.

You know how boys and girls spontaneously do makebelieve and adopt the roles of characters? D&D is like that with a couple of strong innovations.

The problem with makebelieve is conflict resolution. If you had a session of makebelieve and had one kid who sits out to tell the other kids what happens in their makebelieve and to resolve disputes, you’d be pretty close to a setting up the Dungeon Master role.

However, the Dungeon Master applies rules that everyone has access to, and that limits the Dungeon Master’s power and lets him experience surprise at developments in the story. Just having rules that give the players options they control makes the game a bit unpredictable. It’s made even more unpredictable by dice that are used to see if characters’ actions succeed or luck spares them from some misfortune (like getting turned to stone by a basilisk).

Your goal as Dungeon Master is to involve your players in a fun story. If you manage that, you’ve done the job. The co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary E. Gygax, said, “The secret we should never let the gamemasters know is that they don’t need any rules.”

Actually, I think the first thing you should know is that the D&D rulebooks are a resource, not a binding contract. If you try to learn by following all the rules, you’ll either feel like an idiot or drive yourself nuts. You’ll probably regret getting anywhere near such a ridiculous game. After all, we’re talking about fairy tales!

The D&D rules are a set of tools for working within a tradition, and most of those are optional. To play D&D — to be passably consistent — you need to learn some trappings of the game and very few rules. Your success as a Dungeon Master depends on storytelling.

Next up: Trappings


About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. President of
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