Monday, August 12, 2013

Far Too Many DM Tips - Part I

As I was preparing for my next post, I eyed a post in a Facebook group I'm a member of. The group is focused on (duh) Role Playing Games and the poster asked the group what they thought of these '87 DM tips'.

"Relevant?" the poster asked.

I'm not sure they are irrelevant but I certainly don't agree with a good number of them.

I feel the snark I had originally intended on using this month for a roast of the D&D game bubbling back up to the surface. And here I thought I had locked it safely away in the bowels of my deepest, darkest humor dungeon.

It just goes to show, you can't keep a good snark down.


87 DM Tips And Why Not To Do Some of Them!

Tip Zero: Don't list 87 of something. That's silly. Either that or have a damn good reason for it.

1. Remember when you were the kid who fell in love with D&D the first time you played? Write adventures for that kid.

I do, except not that exact kid. I write it for the kid who grew out of D&D and into other things. I also write for the kids my players were. Don't forget your players.

2.That annoying guy in real life? Put him in your adventure. He’s obviously memorable.


3. Don’t give npc’s too much small talk. Get to the point, or I may miss something important.

Give them as much small talk as they require. My players engage in very little small talk with their home city's guards for the most part but talk up a storm with the owner of the magical component and item shop. You see, they like him, he's interesting and he knows a lot about magic.

4.Your BBEG (and each PC) has a huge emotional crutch. What is it?

You mean what is their emotional crutch or what is a BBEG? I think its a Big Bad Guy...E...Evil? Big Bad Evil Guy? Do you need to say Bad and Evil in the same acronym?

Yes, they have emotions, drives, mind sets, etc.  Preferably more than one. It could be a crutch or a strength or better yet, both.

5. Signs your adventure may be sexist: you describe the clothes of every female npc in the world, but not the males.

As an artist I usually either describe everyone in a lot of detail or I bring a picture. Male and Female characters get the same treatment.

6. If my character’s having visions, it better pay off down the line. Otherwise you’ve wasted our time.

I agree but...wasted? Not necessarily. Visions are usually not super clear. If the player doesn't make use of the information that is not the GM's fault. If the vision moments in the game aren't entertaining than yes, that is their fault.

7. Full page of description text? Not unless your name is Gary Gygax.

Even if you are, are you saying people read out loud page long descriptions? Who does this?

8. Ask yourself if you’d be excited about being a player in your own campaign. If you’d pick something else, back to drawing board.

Agreed but also ask yourself, are the players into it? Can I modifiy things so we're both having fun?

9. Stop showing off what a good writer you think you are. I want a description of the area, not 10 pages of your lore.

OK, again, I agree in principle but are there any GMs really reading pages and pages of lore at the table during a game? I also want to point out, some people do want to read 10 about the lore of your world if your world is that cool and they are that kind of person/player. Email it to them. Let'em read it between sessions.

10. Everyone’s fought some evil cult. Gimme something interesting.

Totally agree. Every once in a while, throw in a really interesting evil cult, just to shake things up.

11. “I don’t know” is not in the dm’s vocabulary. You have to know or I’m leaving.

No, no, no. You don't understand. Please leave and take your narrow vision glasses with you good sir.

I know everything there is to know about my D&D (But-Not) world of Aerth and I answer "I don't know" all the time. It could mean, "I am not telling you. You have to go find out" or "That's never happened before so I am looking forward to finding out what occurs/what I think of just as much as you are".

If it's a new GM saying it, it could translate to, "Crap! I need help here. Can someone look up that rule or help me field this? What am I doing all the work? Someone hold me...".

OK, maybe that is a bit much but, give the GM a break OK, they're only Human (relatively). They're putting a lot of effort into trying to create a good time. Cut'em some slack.

12. If I hear that your npc is “the most incredible swordsmith in town”, I better see why.


'Show, don't tell' is definitely one way of dealing with a character or scene but sometimes it isn't the best way.

My kind of fantasy is based on myth, legend and folklore as I've mentioned many times and in fantastic stories and fairy tales, someone is always the "Smartest Boy in All The Land" or the "Luckiest Girl That Ever Was Born". These kids probably did and continue to do amazing things, but “the most incredible swordsmith in town”? In town? Really? Who's to argue? Who's to say? Prove him wrong. Townsfolk tell tall tales of his amazing wares but what are they comparing them to?

Careful you don't miss an opportunity here.

13. Go heavy on what something feels like rather than what something looks like.

Not a bad recommendation at all.

14. Swap genres to surprise your players. Serious campaign? Add a bit of comedy to lighten the mood.

Unless your players hate that. Then don't.

15. I don’t want to hear about my destiny. My character is disposable and better not figure into your meta plot, otherwise I’ll know I live and challenges will be worthless...

You still have those silly narrow vision glasses on kid. Someone like you, who thinks their character is disposable, will be. You will never fit into a 'metaplot' or have a destiny. The girl next to you who thinks she does or might, her challenges will be greater and her rewards amazing. Thank goodness she has you to get killed and be a background foot note so she can figure out how the trap works and avoid it.

No one in any of my games knows for sure if they will live. They do know that they matter.

16. Loot is earned, not found.

Yeah, yeah, whatever. Loot is the least interesting part of the game.

17. The smaller the dungeon, the larger the pressure.

I can't comment on this. I don't know what it means.

18. If you’re going to introduce a thieves guild, for example, have a basic idea of how one may work. I might ask you questions.

Reasonable. I may answer those questions. Or I may say see #11.

19. The only original thing in this adventure is you. You make these tired plots and monsters come to life like nobody else can.


20. Is your opening scene set at the local inn? Change your opening scene.

Couldn't agree more. Unless you are homaging or parodying the concept.

21. The more you draw it out, the more amazeballs your adventure’s ending has to be. We want a payoff!

Conceptually agree but try not to draw it out too long. Timing is everything.

22. Need a time out? Take a time out. DMing isn’t a job, it’s supposed to be fun.

Here, here.




23. Believe in your argument if you are violating the laws of physics. “Magic!” is sometimes stupid.

I think I agree. I am not exactly certain what this is trying to say.
24. There’s a fine line between a buffoon, and an npc who couldn’t possibly function in a fantasy world or otherwise.

Um...perhaps. Have you seen the real world lately? Politics anyone?

25. Adventure getting boring? Come up with something that makes them say “what the hell just happened?”.

Does this really need to be said? Is this why there are 87 tips? Yeah. Keep things interesting. Next.

26. The worst aging thing you can write is comedy. The clever lines in your older adventures? Check them before you run them again.

I ran a Muppets RPG featuring the Marx Brothers in around this time last year. Good comedy is timeless.

27. Stop telling me what you’re seeing in *your* head, dm. Describe the scene and let my mind take care of the rest.

If I don't tell you what I see in my head, how the hell are you going to see anything in your head?

28. What does your BBEG gain in each encounter before the players? He better gain something if they lose.

I think I agree. I think. The wording confuses me.

29. A rule’s in the way of something cool you want to try? Break it. But it better be cool.

Damn skippy. You got that right.

30. You stopped and showed us “an important rare sword” in your adventure? Somebody better swing it.

Sure, sure. Chekhov's sword.

31. Slow down and describe the smallest details only when it’s relevant to the character’s choices. Otherwise get on with it.

Largely agree but then...aren't you making the choices fairly obvious? Describe everything generally, give some specifics to areas they are looking at, ask them if them want to inspect anything in particular. Give details on those things.

32. Quick npc voice on the spot? Think of a celebrity. Imitate him.

Better. Think of two, combine them. Think of one, adjust for NPC's current state of mind.

"This guy sounds like a really nervous Ricky Gervais".
"This guy's's like Christopher Lloyd trying to imitate Christopher Walken".

33. Tell the players what their character sees, and not what you want them to think is going on.

Yes. That can be hard but yes.

34. Not every bad guy GROWLS at the PCs. Some of the best bad guys are calm and collected.

Good advice. Duh, but good advice.

35. The best monsters have some sort of emotion.

Monsters? Hmmm. Maybe. Depends on the Monster. There is very little emotion in the Tarrasque beyond RAWRRgrrRAH!

36. Hide your boring exposition. It doesn’t always have to be the old man in the inn you sets the party off. Maybe it’s a few things.

Better. Do not have boring exposition.

37. “Oh, your setting has something cool!? I better see it.”

See #12.

At the same time, I will agree with the statement in a general sense. If one more person tells me their setting is cool and different and I walk into the same feudal-ish, medieval English village near a forest I am going to scream. In Klingon.

38. “cold, icy gaze” is a better way to describe your BBEG than just saying he has “blue eyes”.

Only if he actually has a cold, icy gaze. Color and manner are too different things.

39. Be ready to answer random questions about your setting.

Be ready to quote #11. Also, be nice sometimes and answer an honest question about a fact that the PCs, as people living on your world, would know.

For something that is not part of the GM's vocabulary, it seems you could use to say it quite a lot. ;)

40. If you can’t tell yourself why that encounter is there, then it shouldn’t exist. Kill it.

What about random encounters?

Actually I agree with this. If an encounter serves no purpose, find a purpose for it or move to the next more interesting thing.

41. Atmosphere isn’t in the environment, but rather in how that environment affects and challenges the pc’s.

Er, yes. And yet, it's in the environment then isn't it? A swamp doesn't challenge PCs if its not there. It's the wording. I would say it like this...

Atmosphere and environment are two different things. A swamp can be a friendly, backwater bayou like when Kermit the Frog sings Rainbow Connection or it can be a scary, dark place crawling with who knows what like Creature from the Black Lagoon. Decide which elements and challenges the PCs will encounter and how that is going to affect the atmosphere of your chosen environment.

42. Every single PC at that table should have something to lose in this adventure.

And/or something to gain. And/or something that interests them.

43. Your npc’s are better off without that extra dialogue you want to add that you think is clever.

Why? It's clever. It fits the character. Hmmm. Are you a bad writer?

44. Make your pc’s create their own worst enemy.

If only this worked. My players take weeks to even think of something mildly disadvantagous to their character. Besides, we all know every PCs worst enemy is themselves.

Well, that's all the time I have right now. Tune in as a a serious look at the rest of the tips. Only 43 more to go!

Barking Alien


  1. 87 Tips for Bloggers:
    1. If you can't manage to squeeze your tips down to a baker's dozen, stop.

    I saw this same post and after the third one, my eyes glazed over and that was that. I applaud your ability to plow the entire list... I managed to read this first half thanks to your snarkalogue.

    I feel all the tips about NPCs motives and weaknesses could have been compiled into one tip:

    Make your NPCs and Monsters complex with motives, emotions, and weaknesses; but most of all, give them interesting personalities and/or amusing voices!

    All the tips about Player engagement could have been similarly collapsed, and all the tips about DM exposition, and so on.

    1. I couldn't agree more Nate.

      I also think that while there are some good ideas and things it's helpful to remember in this list, the vast majority of them are really common sense.

  2. Also, honestly, I find the whole "tip" concept condescending. And that's not just because I'm likely older and have been gaming longer than the author of these tips, but because roleplaying is so circumstantial. My personality, my group's personality, the genre of the game--all of these things make the notion of "what's the best thing do to" more complicated than a single (or 87) answers.

    What I like to see when I cruise around the blogosphere is "here's what I did in actual gameplay and this is how it turned out." First, because I like a good story, and by that I mean a story about people gaming, not the story they were gaming. Second, because it has innate credibility.

    I too, appreciate your stamina, sir, for getting through all these.

    1. So much happens and is said during a given session of my games that I sometimes find it hard to recap the games in the way you describe but similarly, that is one of my preferred ways of gaining insight as well.

  3. I think y'all should cut the original tip poster some slack. He says right up front that these are tips for a new DM, not straight lines for a bunch of grognnards. You might be an excellent golfer, but I would need someone to tell me where to stand and how to hold the club (for instance). A first time MTG player needs someone to remind him to mulligan if he doesn't draw any land in his first hand. And so on...

    As for "28. What does your BBEG gain in each encounter before the players? He better gain something if they lose." I'm pretty sure he means that the bad guys should have a reason and a goal for their actions, beyond being evil. Why is the bad guy kidnapping the pretty girl? Why are the orcs suddenly attacking from the wastelands? Why is the evil wizard making monsters and letting them lose?

    1. Don't get me wrong Steve, I'm just having a bit of fun and I do make a point of noting those tips that I agree are important to keep in mind.

      I think the important thing to take from both the original list and my annotations, is that it is helpful and meaningful to really think about your game, your players and your personal style of play when designing a campaign.

      If you intend on creating a long term campaign, put some thought into it and all the parts of it that make up the whole.

  4. Ahhh - 87? I think I'm just going to read your take on these and otherwise let this go. There's a reason people do Top 10 lists and not Top 87 lists.

    I will say the celebrity voices thing is a solid one. I tend to do that myself, and even if the players don't recognize it having that note makes it easy to recreate that character down the road.

    1. Agreed. The example I gave of Christopher Lloyd imitating Christopher Walken came from a NPC Magi on our recent Ars Magica game. He was a bit absent-minded and unaccustomed to talking to people as he spent a great deal of time alone with his studies.

      I pictured an older Doc Brown, speaking in slow, deliberate cadence because he had to think about what he wanted to say and than recall who to say things.