Part 4 – What 

(Find parts 1, 2, and 3

We’re here, almost at the end of our new Dungeon Master (DM) prep course. We have covered group dynamics, the selection of content you should include in your early sessions, and how you can approach shaping your campaign’s world. The topics covered in the previous articles were big enough to warrant whole pieces devoted to them; today’s column is going to be more of a potpourri. 

While getting comfortable with your group, the game, and the world you are playing in are your top priorities, you will have to make a collection of smaller decisions that will have an outsized impact on your campaign. For best results, these choices should be addressed before you dive in. Having your mind made up about these elements will allow your game to start as smoothly as possible. Since smooth starts are what I am here to facilitate, it would be a dereliction of duty to let you go without tackling these dilemmas. So, let’s get to it.


Chaos vs. Order 

The real heart of Dungeons & Dragons is the twenty-sided-die (d20). The strategic combat, puzzles, and roleplaying are all decided by the numbers rolled on the game’s trademark icosahedron. Whenever anything needs to happen, both you and your players will reach for that little chunk of plastic to find out exactly how it will happen. Some of the most exciting moments of your D&D experience will be watching to see how a pivotal throw of the dice will turn out. 

In ye olden days, character stats were also determined by the dice. Players would roll a collection of six-sided dice (d6) for each of their attributes and let fate shape their character. While the flow of the moment-to-moment gameplay still rests on the whims of the dice, the designers of D&D have been making a concerted effort to remove chance from character creation. The 5th edition Player’s Handbook presents the “point buy” system as the default method for determining a character’s stats. 

There are still a lot of players – especially among the veteran set – who swear by rolling stats as the superior method for character creation. Don’t get me wrong, there is a thrill in seeing your character’s future determined by the forces of the universe, but that thrill can turn into bitter disappointment if the dice are unkind. On the other hand, if the dice are too kind to a particular player, it can create a lot of frustration for the DM and potential for resentment among the rest of the group. Advocates of rolling stats will say that working around these drawbacks is part of what makes random stats interesting, but for a new DM it can be another layer of complication that can interfere with learning the game. 

I’m not saying you shouldn’t let your players roll dice to determine their stats if you want to, but just be aware that you are inviting imbalance into your game if you do. Think about it: how are you going to design an encounter for a party that consists of three average Joe’s, one weakling, and one physical god? If you try to challenge the god, you’ll kill everyone else, but if you design for the lower power characters, they will be completely outshone by their luckier teammate. If this challenge still sounds appealing to you, reach for your bag of d6s and go nuts, but there is nothing wrong with choosing the more reliable point buy system. 

Once character creation is behind you, you will have another decision to make about the role of chance: just how dramatic do you want to make success and failure? 

The numbers “1” and “20” have a mythical significance to long-time D&D players. 1 is the number of abject failure, while 20 is treated as a blessing from RNJesus himself. In previous editions of D&D, a 1 rolled on a d20 meant automatic failure. No matter how high a character’s modifier, if a 1 came up it was “womp womp”. On the other side of the coin, a 20 was an automatic success – no matter how ill-suited to the task at hand your character was, if they rolled that 20, they performed it with aplomb. 

Naturally – since many D&D players are extra-as-fuck theatre kids at heart – as time went on, “automatic” failure/success became “spectacular” failure/success. Rolling a 1 didn’t just mean you missed your attack, it meant your crossbow misfired and hit your own foot. Rolling a 20 didn’t just mean you hit your attack, it meant you lopped off the arm of the target.  

5th edition has held onto the iconic “critical hit” system – when you roll a 20 on an attack you don’t just hit, you double the damage dice you roll – but it has largely abandoned the “dramatic failure” side of the coin. For some players, the drama of a 1 was part of the fun of the game, so it can be something that is tempting to hold onto. 

By and large, when you embrace chaos in your games, it will generate a certain degree of excitement, but sacrifice a certain degree of control. This lack of control has the potential to derail your best-laid plans. If your players expect big things when they see a 1 or a 20, they will be disappointed if you don’t follow through. This includes moments where they do something unexpected. Imagine if a plucky player character interrupts a monologue from your Big Bad with an attack – and they roll a 20. If you have been encouraging “spectacular” successes to that point, your players might react badly if your baddie suddenly has chaos-proof plot armour. 

The choice between a chaotic approach or a more organized one will have a strong impact on the mood of your game, which dovetails nicely with the next choice you have to make. 


Guardians of the Galaxy vs. The Winter Soldier 

While I doubt everyone reading this is a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are few franchises that better capture the exact energy of Dungeons & Dragons. At its most serious, the MCU is still littered with jokes, and at its silliest, it still has the potential to strike an emotional chord. This ability to run the emotional gamut is also part of D&D’s appeal. You can get emotionally invested in a silly character inspired by Bender from Futurama and you can undercut the death of a beloved character with a bad pun. But, while there will always be room for both humour and drama, the default tone of your game will still have an impact on your players.

Are you trying for Guardians of the Galaxy – where every fight requires at least two puns/jokes and the multiverse can be saved with the power of dance? Or are you trying for The Winter Soldier – suspense, intrigue, and realistic-feeling stakes all building to a dramatic, action-packed finish? The choices you make while presenting your world will give your players the cues they need to feel comfortable interacting within it.   

On that note, when choosing how serious and sincere you want to be in the presentation of your game, you need to make room for what your players want. Calling back to Part 2 of this series, if you have a table of mostly Wildcards, it might be tough to convince them to buy into an emotionally-involved game. On the other hand, a group full of Roleplayers and Tourists will lap up a game that pulls them into a gripping conflict – they want to care. 

While choosing your game’s tone at the start is important, it will also evolve over time. Approaching your game with a vibe in mind sets the mood for your players and helps you focus your energy – but you are picking a path without a clear destination. As the game progresses, the exact tone of the campaign will evolve and change as you and your players become more comfortable adventuring together. 


Open vs. Closed 

There is no piece of Dungeon Master equipment more iconic than the DM screen. There are official ones created by Wizards of the Coast, and there are unofficial ones released by a whole host of third-party companies. The role of the screen is simple: to keep the world of the DM separate from the world of the players. The idea being that the experience of the players will be heightened by their ignorance of what is going on behind the scenes. 

Most DMs swear by the screen as an important element of D&D. It not only allows them to hide potentially dramatic plans from their players, it also allows them plausible deniability if they have to fudge a roll for the sake of the game. We will discuss fudging rolls and DM handwaving in more detail in future articles. For now, we’ll focus on the fact that placing a barrier between what you are doing and what your players can see allows you to bullshit with impunity should the need arise. 

This more traditional approach is what I will call the “closed” approach; the worlds of DM and player are kept separate because a certain level of ignorance heightens the experience for both. However, there is another way – the “open” approach. The open approach is setting aside the DM screen and making your rolls where everyone can see. Opening things up changes the tenor of the game. Suddenly, you won’t be able to say an attack missed for the sake of sparing a beloved player character. Savvy players will also be able to puzzle out the stats of their adversaries by seeing exactly which rolls hit and which ones miss. In other words, you surrender a portion of your DM mystique for the sake of increasing the involvement of your players. 

Having played both closed and open games myself, I will say that closed games feel more like “proper” D&D – the way the game was meant to be played – while open games feel more like a traditional board game. The mood of an open game is definitely a little more free-wheeling and casual, while the presence of a barrier between DM and players sets a more theatrical tone right from the start. 


Dragon Ball vs. Game of Thrones

If there is one elephant in the room that looms over all Dungeons & Dragon games, it is the role that death will play in the game. Some DMs want their games to be lethal; death is a constant companion for their players and can take a member of the adventuring party at any moment. Other DMs will avoid character death at all costs, not wanting to cost a player the time and energy they have spent developing a character. When you are choosing to handle death in your campaign, there is a lot more to think about than simply: how willing am I to kill player characters? 

Within the rules of Dungeons & Dragons, there are multiple spells to revive the dead. This means that it’s very possible to have a world in which death is cheap – where it’s viewed more as a temporary inconvenience than a tragic loss. In these Dragon Ball worlds, all it takes to reverse the hand of the reaper is collecting the correct macguffins. In games where resurrection is relatively simple and commonplace, players will be more willing to take risks, be more cavalier with consequences, and events will lose some of their gravitas when the stakes are lowered in such a dramatic way. 

Plenty of DMs dislike the idea of easily reversing death. Some game-runners will reach into the rules and rip out the resurrection options all together. Others will add extra barriers between the players and revival magic. These Game of Thrones style games will feel much “heavier” as the players will know that if death comes for them, it could be very, very final. 

Regardless of whether you want your players vacationing in the afterlife or fearing character death as deeply as they fear their own mortality, let them know at the outset what they should expect after three failed Death Saves. If a player falls in combat expecting to be one Wish away from a second life, they might feel cheated if that’s not an option. If you are going to take immortality from the hands of your players, make sure they know going into the campaign so they can make their decisions accordingly. 


Mind vs. Matter

These days, there is an endless supply of DM accessories on the market. You can find battle maps, miniatures, customizable terrain, dice trays, and more. Dungeons & Dragons and its ilk used to be called “pen and paper” RPGs, but now there are so many elements beyond those basics. However, just because fancy toys are out there doesn’t mean you have to use them. 

That might seem like an odd choice to make – why would you turn your back on all of these cool things that exist just to make your life easier? 

Well, the more of these fancy toys you add, the more D&D can feel like just another board game. You have probably noticed this sentiment coming up a lot in these articles – the idea of a hazy boundary between D&D and more traditional games – it’s because it is an idea you will have to engage with when running your game. What really sets D&D apart from say, Gloomhaven (an incredible game in its own right), is the freedom of possibility the rules allow and the encouragement towards roleplaying. 

Every hard-and-fast accessory you incorporate will add a limiter to the way your players engage with the game. If you’re using a battle map and miniatures, your players will feel limited to those miniatures and what’s on the map when they are looking to get through an encounter. Did you intend for them to run from this fight for plot reasons? Well, once you’ve placed that map and those minis, you have implicitly signaled to your players that the combat mini-game has started and fighting is the only correct course of action. 

When playing other games, the board is required because it is 100% essential to the game. In D&D, the board is optional and remembering that can totally change your preferred approach to DMing. So, when you are getting your first batch of supplies together, be conscious about what tools you want to use and what impact they might have on the experience of your players. But also, don’t be scared to try new things. Maybe your group responds really well to having combat feel like its own game-within-a-game; or maybe you have a group that grew up on text-post roleplaying forums and could spend an entire campaign in just their imaginations. You should start out with a plan for what pieces of game equipment you want to use, see what your group likes playing with, and adjust as you go. The vast array of DM toys are just like the Monster Manual – they are tools to enrich your campaign in whatever way you like. 


The End of the Beginning 


And with that, we have concluded this 4- part introduction to getting started as a new Dungeon Master. As this column continues, we will delve into more detail about the intricacies of the game, how to tackle common problems in your campaign, and tips for taking your DM game to the next level. 

As I have said a few times, running a game of Dungeons & Dragons is a deeply rewarding and entertaining experience with very few parallels in the world of gaming. As a Magic: the Gathering player, your brain is already primed with enough fantasy tropes to kill a horse, so I highly recommend finding a way to put them to good use. 

One last time before I sign off: fostering open and respectful communication within your group is the most important ingredient to running a successful game. 


Catch you next time, folks!

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