Advice From A Dungeon Master

Dungeons and Dragons is not a video game. Well, it is. They’ve made lots of them.

But tabletop D&D is not a video game and fledgling dungeon masters would do well to remember that.

Video games have influenced my understanding of storytelling more than any other media. Levels and worlds. Boss battles. Loot. Starting areas and world maps. Mini-games. This is how I think when I write a D&D campaign. For the most part, it’s a good system. There’s obviously a ton of overlap.

Whoa.

Whoa.

The problem is player agency. Choice.

The illusion of choice is an old discussion among gaming nerds. No matter how robust and intricate, a game can only allow you so many options. No matter what you choose, you’re following a path laid out by the developers. Bioshock made fun of this. So did one of the Metal Gear Solid games.

A dungeon master tries to guide his or her players by offering that same false agency, but it doesn’t always work out.

People are unpredictable. Frustratingly so. I’ve written pages and pages, scenario after scenario, thinking no matter what my players choose I’ll have a plan to lead them to the goal. But my players surprise me. Every time I offer them an option A and an option B they choose C. Hours of work on an NPC or an encounter scrapped with one unexpected move.

The players run the show. You can tell them all about a magic spear that will unite the planet and end all suffering; if they don’t want to find it, they don’t have to. If the players want to pick berries all day, they can!

Of course, it’s a give-and-take between the players and the DM. Sometimes you just have to hope the players pick up on what you’re doing and are willing to play along. But what’s an obvious choice to you isn’t necessarily an obvious (or even a sensible) choice to the players.

So my point is: don’t waste your time writing every detail of every encounter you think will happen. Lay out some major plot points — some checkpoints you will get the players to come Hell or high water — and then just know your world. Know the culture, know the geography, know the people. Be ready for whatever your players can throw at you. Do the research and prep work that will help your improv.

One more thing: I recently downloaded Twine to try my hand at games writing. I’ve found it to be the best darned organizational tool out there for writing D&D campaigns. I highly recommend it.

3 thoughts on “Advice From A Dungeon Master

  1. Good stuff here. For my part, I look at D&D from the other way around. Instead of prepping an adventure every week, I work on my world. I develop the politics, the plots, the places. When the players show up, they have the world to play in. I let them decide what to do from the get-go. After that, my job isn’t to shoehorn them into some arbitrary plot, but to describe the results of their actions in my world. And insert drama where appropriate, of course. The best villain is one the PCs create for themselves.

    There is a jump to make, sure, transitioning from a plot-a-week style to an open world, but it is soooo worth it.

  2. The difference between D&D and gaming is that because games are so expensive and time intensive, it is rare to find any room or corridor that is just there because, or just there to be a dead end or wrong turn. Think of Skyrim–even in a world that big, there is always something mildly useful everywhere.
    In D&D, the world is a world–not a level–things are not there just to interact with, they are there because they are.
    In a videogame, an outhouse has a panel down the drain you can blow up that reveals a crashed UFO (see: Outlaws, by Lucasarts)
    In D&D, it’s filled with shit and you only find 10 turns of sickness.

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