In every game of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), at every table, and at the pen of every adventure, sits the Dungeon Master (DM). The DM’s job, as stated in the introduction of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, is broken down into three responsibilities. To be the Master of Worlds, the Master of Adventures, and the Master of Rules. These sections can be summed up as follows.
As Master of Worlds, it is the DM’s job to be the living world of D&D. Whether that’s in an official setting, one modified for your campaign, or a completely original creation, your world is a part of the Dungeons and Dragons multiverse.
As Master of Adventures, the direct environment of the game is your responsibility. You are the creator or facilitator of every quest, journey, and pilgrimage. The guide notes again that these adventures can be from official D&D adventure books, or any other sort of your choosing. The goal, however, remains the same. Keeping your players interested.
Finally, as Master of Rules, the guide begins to use very specific nomenclature. The words referee and mediator are the direct definitions of the role. It then leads the reader on how to best act in those roles, which includes the flexibility of rules and limitations. A knowledge of the rules are necessary, but you do also have the ability to bend, break, or make new rules to fit any given situation.
If one were to finish reading these sections, close the book, and begin running a campaign, they would miss the most important piece of D&D knowledge one can receive:
The success of a D&D game hinges on your ability to entertain the other players at the game table. Whereas their role is to create characters (the protagonists of the campaign), breathe life into them, and help steer the campaign through their character’s actions, your role is to keep the players (and yourself) interested and immersed in the world you’ve created, and to let their characters do awesome things.
Knowing what your players enjoy most about the D&D game helps you create and run adventures that they will enjoy and remember. Once you know which of the following activities each player in your group enjoys the most, you can tailor adventures that satisfy your players’ preferences as much as possible, thus keeping them engaged.
—Dungeon Master’s Guide, Introduction
To summarize, the DM’s role is to create the world being played in, run the adventures played, refer to the rules and mediate their use as needed, and cater the experience of the game to the desires of everyone at the table. To “let their characters do awesome things.”
If you’re a new player of D&D, you may have picked up this knowledge naturally, just by watching livestreams or listening to podcasts. That’s an excellent place to begin! However, there’s more to DMing than just watching. Actually sitting down and reading the Dungeon Master’s Guide is a vital first step for any new DM. But also, you have no foundation in knowing if the DMs you’ve experienced from afar are fifth edition DMs until you read and play for yourself. We don’t currently have a defined language surrounding the different DM rules between editions. Without that language, how is anyone expected to communicate how they DM to another person? We mostly define DMing as “easy” and “hard.” An “easy” DM being someone who is more fluid with the rules and is more focused on the game moving smoothly, and a “hard” DM being one who expects the rules to be followed without question (spontaneous house rules included) and to expect no mercy for the sake of a player’s desires. But the culture and rules of Dungeons and Dragons have changed so much over five editions that these aren’t nearly as helpful descriptions as they may seem. Let’s take a look at the first edition in comparison to the fifth.
Long Ago, At a Table Far Far Away
If a player opened the Dungeon Master’s Guide in 1983, you’d find a preface by the co-creator of D&D, Gary Gygax. He spends a page explaining the very basics of being a DM, which describes as having to know an expansive amount of rules, measuring a campaign’s interest by being challenging, yet surmountable, and keeping all of your campaign within the limits of what’s provided in D&D so that characters could easily be moved from one DM’s table to another.
This is all fairly standard, nearly forty years later. From there, however, begins the first difference in the rules between then and now. At the top of page 9, Gygax states, “As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of honorable death.” The tone follows the sage-like passing down of wisdom, and intends no harm. But it does begin to separate the knowledge and control of the DM and the players. For the time, this design choice made sense. D&D had a microscopic amount of content available in comparison to our present treasure trove of modules and adventures. Gygax continues on to say that the more a player knows about the contents of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, the less mystery there will be for the group as a whole. And at the time, that mystery was a major cornerstone of the game.
And so, after presenting us with 200 pages of fantasy to master, Gygax leaves us with an afterword. It begins with stating that the spirit of the game is more important than rules, as long as it still holds some uniformity with D&D as a whole. He encourages DMs to not be pushed around by “room lawyers,” a type of player which we now call “rules lawyers,” and who use their knowledge of the rules text to backseat adjudicate against the DM’s own rulings. But then Gygax states the following with finality and confidence, “...also be certain the game is mastered by you and not by your players. Within the broad parameters given in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons volumes, you are creator and final arbiter. By ordering things as they should be, the game as a whole first, your campaign next, and your participants thereafter, you will be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as it was meant to be.”
Contextually, this aligns with how the game was meant to function, and supports the design that allows players to move from table to table, or even to an official D&D tournament. However, there is a dark side to this directive. A DM who follows this advice to a T leaves players in a place where they are completely at their DM’s mercy, and have no concept of what rules to expect or avoid. Because one party has all of the information, a role where they can legally bend the contents of that information, and a penalty on players for having any of that information, a throne forms with ease.
For those who are unfamiliar, D&D did and still does have a problem with DMs who use their privileges to control and limit players. They’re small in number and don’t represent the efforts of D&D’s present-day creators or the D&D community as a whole, but their behavior has dominated the stereotype of D&D players in popular media (such as The Gamers, The Simpsons, Community) for more than forty years. This antagonistic behavior was encouraged more in previous editions of D&D, where the style of play was somewhat different than it was today. This doesn’t mean that DMs who play other editions are wrong or bad, or even that they’re antagonistic themselves, but there are elements of fifth edition DMing that are healthy to adopt while playing any RPG.
So now that we know how and why many different DMing rules exist, as each edition provided different levels of specifics, clarity, and design support, let’s get into what makes an official master of dungeons in the present edition.
Communication, Knowledge, Communication, Judgement
When people say that there’s no right or wrong way to play D&D, they’re referencing the fact that the rules allow you to bend the game to however the group intends on playing. What isn’t being stated is that being unable to do so is the act of playing D&D incorrectly. Here’s why.
The game as a whole only functions successfully if everyone wants to play. To mirror both Gygax and the text of fifth edition D&D, the players must be provided enough of a challenge to be interested. As time passed over the many editions, fifth edition has pushed the rules of the DM into the realm of specific action: catering the experience of the game to the desires of everyone at the table.
What do your players want? What do you want? If your table desires compelling combat, it’s common for a DM to work on making unique, varied, and challenging tests of deadly might. If your players instead desire interpersonal drama laced with passion and romance, it’s also common for a DM to provide more opportunities for the players to indulge in melodrama. Think dramatic lighting, the now-is-forever and forever-is-now mysticality of the Feywild, a kiss for luck, and a drink or two for courage! The action of catering to the players’ interests, while still being the facilitator of challenging quests, provider of magical items, and puppeteer of various villains to voice violently, or even voraciously, is your job. To ignore the players’ interests is to be a bad DM. That’s the bad news. The good news, however, is that being a good DM isn’t hard if you follow the rules and guidance of the DM’s guide.
This of course includes making sure that you, the DM, are having the kind of fun you’ve signed up for as well. This can lead to some conflicting desires at the table! Any sort of requests have that potential, which is why communication and agreeing are important in a healthy group relationship. Don’t let the features of the game that make things fun for you go second to what they players want. You are, technically, a player. What comes first is what you all agree on.
The first way that the Dungeon Master’s Guide offers assistance is to find out what kind of, and what parts of, the adventures you and your players enjoy. What better way to do so than with communication? It’s common in the world of tabletop roleplaying games to, before beginning the first official session of the campaign, run a “Session Zero”. In it, many things are available to be done. Many use this time to collaborate on their character builds, bring forward their backstories, and set some expectations for each other as people. A Session Zero is the perfect place to ask questions that will help you keep the game interesting for the players.
“Do you enjoy political drama? Long-form storytelling or something more upfront? Are you fonder of money, feats, or magic items as rewards?” And most importantly: “How can we all make this game safe and fun for each other?” Knowing that each session is going to be one where the players are safe and comfortable with the people around them, as well as the world they’re inside, is an extremely valuable method of keeping players interested and coming back each session. As the DM, you’ve opened up a space for dialogue where players can let you know what they like and don’t like. Which is exactly what the Dungeon Master’s Guide asks of you.
Another function as the role of DM is to have a great deal of knowledge about the game. Obtaining it assists with the fluidity of each session to great success, but the Dungeon Master’s Guide proposes in its Introduction, “You can also lean on the other players to help you with rules mastery and world-building.” Knowledge is shared widely in modern D&D. Letting your players manage micro elements of the game lets you focus on the macro elements, which is the story being told and the judgements being made.
At this point, there’s a machine being built at your table. Your role and what you manage under it are clear. Players know that they’re getting to build the kind of stories they set out to, while also being challenged by what you present for them. Knowing what your players want gives you a map of their intentions. It’s in this place where you, equipped with the lay of the narrative land, can begin judging where their desires fit into your narrative goals, and your fun! It is in this space of measuring and bending and manipulating the world where DMs gain much of their personal style. If you’re a player or viewer of long-form D&D games, those dramatic moments that have been weaved together from dozens of sessions ago come from exploring the connection between your players desires and your creative ability.
The beginning of your mastery.
Yes, there is a right way and a wrong way to be a Dungeon Master in fifth edition. The right way keeps people coming back. It makes fans of the game, of the universe, and oftentimes, even you as a DM. Whatever works best for your table is the right way. The easiest way to reach your “right” is through the rules, so sayeth the texts.
Do you have a favorite DMing tip you've learned from experience, your fellow players, or other DMs? Tell us about it in the comments!
DC is an independent game designer, and the creator and author of plot ARMOR, as well as a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast. You can find them assisting the tabletop roleplaying game community’s growth on Twitter @DungeonCommandr.