The DM's Guide to DMing


Hey everyone! I know there are few tabletop threads already, but I wanted to start a thread specifically for DMs to share strategies / philosophies, ask questions, and even share modules / settings / campaign ideas.

Feel free to vent about things going awry, recount stories of things going perfectly, or just shoot the breeze.

Anyone running anything fun on any system? Any DMing tips are tricks you can share? Have at!

I just picked up Perilous Wilds for Dungeon World, but I haven't had a chance to run it yet. I did roll up some dungeons based on the guidelines, though. Pretty good exercise for thinking up a space for adventure.

I really need to check out Dungeon World at some point. All of my current games are 5e (I've got two which have for sure stuck and meet semi-regularly, one over Skype and one in person and another which might stick and is two sessions in.)

Which reminds me, I made an interesting "hack" for skill rolls in 5e. There are many times where multiple PCs all get a shot to make a roll (things like "investigating a crime scene" or "surviving in a harsh environment" come into mind.) Assuming a party of 4, that means that all it takes is for one character to have a nice roll and what should be a difficult skill check becomes an auto-pass. After all, with four attempts SOMEONE is likely to get a good roll. Which diminishes the value of having a high skill in certain arenas. After all, what good is your survival proficient Druid if the Fighter from the city who has no wisdom bonus happened to also roll well?

What I've done is started allowing the party to determine who gets to make certain rolls, and being able to elect as many people as they'd like - with the caveat that all rolls get averaged (and rounded down.) So multiple people can contribute to the investigation, but the people who are bad at it are going to be distracting the people who are good at it, and driving the result towards the party average, rather than what might be the average for a proficient specialist.

The likeliness of an "average" roll becomes much higher, so there are some times where that could be a good game decision - but the likeliness of a truly exceptional roll is severely reduced. This has immediately paid dividends, and the players who have "skill monkey" characters are finally feeling like huge party contributors (and having those contributions noticed by the party, the same way parties always notice the timely spell or critical hit.)

I've also got one party in essentially an underdark like area, trying to live off of the land. None of them are good at survival. In the past, they'd gotten through this via essentially having three rolls to succeed (one for each party member.) Now they have to rely on the one person who is borderline competent.

I've always felt that with the multiple skill check thing, each successful check should be made with increasingly higher difficulties and increasingly more dire consequences.

So, basically increasing difficulties to such a high amount that it countermands the number of attempts the players as a collective get to beat the roll?

Mostly I try to restrict skill rolls to people with relevant proficiencies/backgrounds.

For situations where it does make sense to let everybody roll, perhaps failed rolls could impede the party's efforts. If everyone is rolling Investigation, maybe one guy gets a nat 1 and ends up tripping and spilling ink all over that important document they were looking for.

Some alternate ways to deal with the everyone-rolling-until-we-succeed issue:

Burning Wheel both requires you to define the consequences for failure before the roll, and makes the roll stand until circumstances change. If there's not an interesting consequence to the roll, the DM most likely should just let the player succeed without rolling. If the player does roll, success or failure, the result stands until something significant changes.

Dungeon World asks you to, first, describe how your character goes about doing something before the move is triggered, and, second, failure lets the DM make a move. Which, in Powered by the Apocalypse terms, basically means that something bad happens as a result. Even a partial success can snowball into trouble, so rather than a failed roll being a whiff, it's treated as a "No, but..." Everyone can roll, but they each risk consequences from each roll.

Fate uses consequences and fate points. It's one reason why I like the Dresden Files RPG, because it closely mirrors Jim Butcher's writing style. This isn't quite the same as the original question, since it depends on the fate point economy and doesn't directly link to failed rolls; Fate Core mostly deals with it by only rolling for interesting failures, though their suggestions for how to handle a failed roll are useful and broadly applicable.

While they have some assumptions that make porting them verbatim to D&D have side effects, the principles can still be applied, depending on what results you want. Either let the consequences of the first player's roll stand, or have each individual roll risk danger.

Note that these systems tend to prefer consequences that fail forward (i.e. keep the plot moving) either by giving them the result with a twist (Yes, but...) or introducing another complication (No, but...). They also tend to give experience when characters fail (in Burning Wheel and Dungeon World, but notably not in Apocalypse World or Fate).

I like both of the other solutions too, depending on whether you want to prioritize: increasing risk becomes a push-your-luck game for more dramatic swings, whereas average-the-rolls gives the party a choice between playing it safe for a middling result or relying on the expert for a hopefully-good result. You still have to deal with the occasions where the entire party needs something and blows all of their rolls, but that's a separate problem.

Also, if you're going to house-rule it as a DM, I'd recommend picking one approach and sticking to it, so your players know what to expect.

TheHarpoMarxist wrote:

So, basically increasing difficulties to such a high amount that it countermands the number of attempts the players as a collective get to beat the roll?

Pretty much. It's a simple hack, although I think I like some of the other options listed here better.

I usually adlib degrees of failure or success depending on rolls with my 5E games and my players seem to enjoy it. I've come up with some pretty fun side effects from crit fails. I usually try to present the players with situations that don't undermine their task entirely but give them another obstacle that they can surmount.

Ooh, this sounds like a useful thread. I've run a couple of one shots and learned a few lessons, but I've decided to take the plunge and start a local 5E game. My longest-running campaigns as a player have been in 3.5, so there will be a bit of learning with the system.

Right now I'm going over the DMG and coming up with plot threads. Debating doing a session 0 with my players because they have vastly different levels of experience (and possibly interest), ranging from never played before to "would it be cool if I used my homebrewed class." So balancing that will be interesting to say the least. Haven't ruled on the homebrewed class yet, but I do believe this guy will be an asset to me at the table with the newbies either way that I rule.

The points on skill checks are good - I hate playing skill characters and being overshadowed like that. Being overshadowed is also why I'm not a fan of pure stat rolling. A current campaign started with our monk doing most of the checks a few other characters should have just because he rolled incredible stats. Leaning towards doing point buy or allowing everyone to roll and then choose the roll they want out of everyone's.

I haven't GM'd in a very long time. Maybe 10+ years. But after reading a lot of DW material, I have been getting that urge again. Although I really don't have the time.

While reading DW stuff, I found references to the 5 Room Dungeon method for designing interesting adventures.

The initial post is here, with lots of examples attached as comments at the bottom:

A contest to generate examples:

And a cool follow-up article on how to expand the 5 Room Dungeon concept for more variety:

Hope these links help to inspire the GMs out there.

Gremlin wrote:

Adam Koebel video

Love Adam's work! His DW GM videos are great. I particularly enjoyed this 3 part DW series:

I can't wait to watch these videos!

Had a fantastic weekend of DMing that I'll report on soon.

Mixolyde wrote:

While reading DW stuff, I found references to the 5 Room Dungeon method for designing interesting adventures.

I like frameworks like this that give me something to improvise around.

TheHarpoMarxist wrote:

Had a fantastic weekend of DMing that I'll report on soon.

Looking forward to it!

Probably a good thread to mention The Unmarked, an RPG we're recording and releasing for the next while. Rob Daviau is our DM and I won't say he's exactly making it up as he goes along, but he's VERY light on his feet and nearly seamless. It's pretty fun as a player!

Certis wrote:

Probably a good thread to mention The Unmarked, an RPG we're recording and releasing for the next while. Rob Daviau is our DM and I won't say he's exactly making it up as he goes along, but he's VERY light on his feet and nearly seamless. It's pretty fun as a player!

Subscribed! First episode is downloaded. If I get hit with some massive filing at work, I will listen to the heck out of it today.

So, I wanted to do a quick DM check in! I have two 5e groups going. One is a long running play-by-google hangouts / roll20 game, the other is a new-ish in person game. The Roll20 group is three players, the other is four. I got to play both for extended times this weekend because I completed a trip around the sun! Both games are set in the same home-brew world, but at different points in the world's history. One of the features of the world is that it is entirely human (IE, all other races are just not playable options and humans have subraces.)

In the Roll20 group I got to introduce an NPC I've been holding in my back pocket for months. Her name is "Robe" and she is a sentient illusion (she's literally a floating robe that can talk.) She was cast to basically flag down help for the caster's family. The thing is, her spell ends when the family is safe. As she waited some adventurer's to recruit for a long time, she got to actually enjoy existing. So when the PCs approached she made them swear to not actually complete the quest before even telling them what the quest was. (She also begged them to not disbelieve in her.) Now she's accompanying the party as a guide. That's been fun, and the players got a kick out of the quest giver not wanting the quest to succeed.

The live group has a couple that just lost their cat, so they were eager for a distraction. Their party had had a rough go of it late, and I was hoping to give them a nice triumph against long odds and feel good session... But the dice were just insanely against them.

I've don't generally hold back on killing characters off, especially if the death adds something to the story of the game, but this one felt wrong. The rogue basically botched a stealth attempt trying to set up a quick and quiet ambush, and got spotted. Then, instead of scrambling away to regroup, the party decided to see if they could just muscle in and opted to forgo their much better plan (kill the two guards quickly, take their clothes, and bluff their way to where they needed to go) and had a series of terrible rolls. The fighter went down as did the rogue. The fighter stabilized, but the Rogue proceeded to roll a 4, 2, 1 on his death saves.

So there was a certain level of strategic failure at work, but mostly it was bum luck, and the encounter wasn't a dramatic high point. The party is 3rd level, so these characters have some investment in them.

I'm curious how you guys would handle this. "Dirty-Smelly-Hippie" RPGs are so much better at this sort of thing than D&D is, so what do you do, as a DM, with this character going down?

Here's what I did (spoilered to control post length):


I attempted to save the character by turning the death into a story beat that revealed stuff the player's didn't know. Basically, after the rest of the party retreated (taking the body) and a scene or two happened, one of the players had a dream where he made a deal with a spirit (this spirit has been hinted at / about but not yet ever met by the players.) It was essentially a "deal with the devil" type of situation. In exchange for bringing the rogue back, the spirit would get to "come along." So the rogue woke-up and basically transformed into a tiefling.

I took two points of CON away from him, permanently (he had rolled good stats, so this is definitely soakable) and I gave him some secret instructions and a special mission. The players don't know a fraction of the lore of the world, but in ancient history humanity trapped devils in mirrors. The rogue now has a special ritual that can spring devils from mirrors (the larger the mirror, the more powerful the devil.) The catch is if he sees a mirror he MUST attempt it, no matter what else is going on. (It basically involves his character staring at the mirror and mumbling in infernal, while his eyes change color.) If he succeeds the devil is released (not obviously to other players. Like, they won't suddenly be fighting the things, they'll leave the party be for now.)

The player seemed really excited because he has a host of cool powers now that the other players don't (he's got the Tiefling extras, so he can see in the dark and do Hellish Rebuke, etc) and he also got a little glimpse at some backstory that the rest of the players don't have. His secret mission definitely creeps him out, but it doesn't actively go against anything the party is currently trying to contend with. At the same time I think I managed to get some consequences in (and if someone else goes down I definitely have to make sure they are dead dead instead of GRRM dead.)

I like the "deal with the devil" solution.

The DM in one of my groups pulled something similar recently that I thought was pretty neat:


One of our players completely botched his saving throw vs a Medusa and got petrified. We're all level 4-5 so we had no way to reverse the effect. We dragged him back to town, and the DM informed us that a new merchant had arrived in the market: a travelling mage who deals in rare scrolls & potions. We went to talk to her about curing our friend, and she agreed to un-petrify him if one of us agreed to perform an unspecified favour for her in the near future. To enforce the agreement she ended up casting Geas on my character with the command that I perform one favour for her when she asks it of me. If I refuse her request the spell will melt my brain.

So now we have our friend back, and I have this ominous, mysterious obligation to do something sometime within the next 30 days. What could possibly go wrong?

I've yet to have a player character die on me, so this is a bit academic. (NPCs? Sure, go ahead and stab my main villain in the face during his monologue.)

Dungeon World explicitly does it a bit like you just did: when a character runs out of hit points, they get to roll "Last Breath". On a partial success, they get to make a deal with Death.

As a general rule of thumb, I try to limit my taking narrative authority away from players to the means that are carefully codified in the rules. At one point, this lead to a player character becoming a villain and a GM NPC (at the player's request). Lots of indie/hippie RPGs mostly hang out in this space.

D&D has a specific set of assumptions about death, including the availability of resurrection spells. How you choose to work with that is, I think, the biggest lever you have to adjust to the circumstances. There's a bunch of options, but mechanically it mostly works. The main drag is the fictional difficulty, not the mechanical difficulty. Any downtime longer than the rest of the combat will tend to drag a bit. There's tricks to deal with this: let the player play another character (either a new one, or an existing follower or acquaintance) or just skip forward to dealing with the resurrection.

(Mouseguard has one of my favorite fictional dodges for handling both players not being present for a session and bringing new characters in: because they've all sworn oaths to the Guard, they can be ordered around between sessions to invent excuses for the team composition.)

At the total other end of the lethality scale is Old School-style D&D, which is less literally Old School and more Gary Gygax roguelike lethality. Characters will die and you probably won't be able to afford to get them back. If players are on board with this, it plays up the tactical aspects of original D&D. (Paranoia parodies this, with the clones and the killer DM Friend Computer.)

Related to this is Burning Wheel, which is technically less lethal because characters are more afraid of dying: getting wounded will usually knock you out of a fight before you die outright. Wounds put a serious cramp on your style. (I had a dwarf once who lost his hand while adventuring. He finally got stabbed with a morgul blade after taking down a Nazgul single-handedly, and had a lingering death. It was an awesome way to go: he fulfilled his beliefs.)

OK so here's a problem I've been running into lately. The current campaign I'm DMing is set up so the players can often find out about certain locations long before they're at an appropriate level to visit them.

Princes of the Apocalypse spoilers:


Specifically, each of the Haunted Keeps contains an entrance to a cult's underground base, which in turn contains an entrance to the temple of elemental evil.

My problem is that any time I present my players with a new piece of information they treat it as if I've just given them an urgent quest that they need to pursue immediately. I need a way to introduce these things while also making my players understand that they are super dangerous and should probably be avoided until they're more prepared. I mean I could just straight up tell them they're too low level, but that's dumb and metagamey. I want their characters to have a reason to avoid these places.

What sort of tricks do you use to convey a sense of danger?
Do you ever try to introduce plot hooks that aren't meant to be tackled right away? How do you handle that?

I think it helps to have other actual urgent (and level appropriate) tasks at hand. You could also misdirected them on the way to a mistake by giving them a level appropriate task that takes them out of the way.

Failing all of that, a guardian they can't handle that they need to run from could do the trick.

Tricky. The easiest way to handle this is to set expectations before it comes up. I'm not particularly good at steering players away from danger.

Part of the problem is that you, as the DM, have a ton of information about everything that's going on, including notes about future stuff. Meanwhile, your players probably aren't even taking notes about the stuff they already know about. Stuff that's in their faces will naturally take priority. It can be hard for them to judge danger levels ahead of time because everything sounds dangerous.

I'd listen to TheHarpoMarxist on this one.

It’s tricky. If players assume that they’re expected to take care of a problem as soon it comes to their attention, which is a pretty reasonable assumption given the way modules tend to be structured, then it’s hard to blame them for running off. Of course, that’s cold comfort when everyone’s dead in a TPK because they ran off and got themselves killed in response to a bit of world building you were doing.

If you can, try to foreshadow some of the dangers the PCs should have to expect to deal with, but if you have any concerns that the players might not understand, then don’t hesitate to be explicit that they won’t be able to deal with it as they are now (e.g., they need to get more powerful, find allies, etc). You could also try being mindful of the information you reveal, only giving them enough once you’re fairly certain they’ll be able to deal with the problem. However, there’s a risk they’ll figure it out too soon and then go off before they’re ready.

Giving them enough tasks that they have to prioritize isn’t a bad idea, but it can lead to analysis paralysis depending on the group. However, I do like TheHarpoMarxist’s suggestion to give them diversions on the way to the mistake. This is especially good if the reward for completing those tasks is something they can use to their advantage completing the original task.

What you might do, when they find out, is mention that someone already has been dispatched to take care of it.

muttonchop wrote:

Do you ever try to introduce plot hooks that aren't meant to be tackled right away? How do you handle that?

A couple of techniques to control this I've used is to have an NPC give feedback that they're not ready yet or to 'gate' the access with something that the PCs can't do yet eg a higher level spell or a social status they haven't achieved yet "only a priest of the ninth circle can open the portal"

However since this is usually intended to be a foreshadowing technique my preferred approach is to give them only part of plot hook so that they can't proceed anyway. "The book says there's an entrance in the dungeon and the magical password is.... *turns page*... Oh dear, the next page has been torn out". Then the players can be redirected to the next adventure if they want to pursue the hook. "I hear the library at Castle Crag has a copy of the book. Maybe we should take that job protecting the merchant caravan that's heading that way."

I think that listening to The Unmarked might also be helpful, even for a more stat and skill focused system like D&D.

I love the moments when Rob asks the players specific questions. That can totally work in D&D.

You are on your way to go retrieve [whatever artifact / plot hook is in an area that is overleveled for the PCs] when suddenly you run into someone [PC] knows. PC, this is a person you are close to. Who are they? Other PC, they have urgent news, what is it?

And suddenly you're taking the PCs out of a thing they are underleveled to and into a new encounter - one they've had a hand in creating (and thus they'll be more invested in.) That'll definitely prevent them from getting themselves in over their collective head.

That’s a pretty awesome technique, which I love using too. Just because it was mentioned earlier, I’d like to point out that it’s also one of the GM’s principles (“ask questions and use the answers”) in Dungeon World. Even if one never gets a chance to run or play it, it’s worth reading just for the stuff on GMing. They’re things GMs were already doing, but perhaps not mindfully. I also like the concept of fronts, but it does an amazingly bad job explaining them. It took me a little while to really grok them.

Another option is to, if the players decide that they really, really need to go after the big bad you had planned for them 20 levels down the road is to simply change it around. The big bad in 20 it and it is the big bad now. The bad guy that they skipped? S/He/it gets shuffled 20 levels down the road. The plot gets re-arranged.

Yeah, I definitely need to check out Dungeon World.

The way I tend to set my campaigns up is modeled off of the Song of Ice and Fire RPG... Mainly I create a story, with factions, sequences of events, and major players. I map it out as if the PCs don't exist, and then I find a way to hook the PCs into it and let them figure out which way they want to break it. Incumbant in this is also keeping the relative power levels of everyone amorphous, so that plots and threads can be approached at any time (of course, the big bad dragon has a floor in terms of power level, but there is still pliability there.) What I love about that kind of approach is that it often gives the players a great feeling of agency in comparison to a "standard" module.

That's conceptually similar to Fronts in Dungeon World, actually. (Apocalypse World and the Dungeon World guide both do a better job of explaining how they work, though)

I don't like changing stuff I've prepared, so I'm not fond of altering power levels too much. But linked with that I mostly don't dictate explivt levels ahead of time (which is admittedly more important when you're running d&d)

I also tend toward games where the difficulty levels are looser (dungeon world) or where encountering difficult things or non-combat things is the point (Burning Wheel, where I've had games turn on a character's skill at accounting) .

At some point when I'm not on mobile I should type up what Mouse Guard taught me about structuring an adventure.

Yeah, that’s definitely a lot like fronts. However, grim portents are not sequences of events but lists of GM moves that one makes in order to bring about the danger’s impending doom. It’s mentioned in an almost throwaway comment, so it’s easy to miss. I haven’t read Apocalypse World, but from what I’ve seen of AW2E, it’s much more explicit. The idea is that when you make a GM move, you can turn to your active dangers and use one of the grim portents as a move. This can be particularly helpful when adjudicating moves like Undertake a Perilous Journey. Sure, you could have them get lost on a miss, but a miss is not failure—it’s a golden opportunity for the GM to make a move; and getting lost is boring anyway. Instead you could look at your dangers, see a grim portent like “The slavers come ashore”, and tell the PCs: “As you arrive back in town from your journey, you notice that several boats have been launched from that ship with the yellow sales in the harbor—you know, that one you identified a few days ago as belonging to slavers. You see a sizable group of them ahead, going door to door, grabbing anyone they can, using just enough force to make their cargo pliant but not dead. They’re all carrying cutlasses but a few also have flintlock pistols. What do you do?”

Right now I’m running a fantasy Fate Core hack, so the power levels are all kind of flat, but I generally prefer to base things on what makes sense in the world rather than what balances better. However, we’re going to be wrapping up in the next few sessions. After that, we’re going back to Pathfinder, but I’ll still be using fronts, which I’m using in my Fate Core game as well (the example grim portent coming from one of my dangers). We’re not doing Dungeon World because the conflict resolution mechanic was just a little too disassociated for some of my players, but I’m going to be borrowing elements we did like (such as answering the end of session questions for XP).