Top 5 Tips for Dungeon Masters

Photo by Craig Adderley on

I’ve been lucky enough to play in and game master several long term games. Out of all of them, there are a few things which I’ve noticed make successful sessions and campaigns. Here they are:

1. Make Things Easy On Yourself

One of the reasons I use apps and have pdf rules texts is so that I can easily find the things I need and make things as easy on myself. Having an app which takes care of as much as possible is super helpful. Keeping notebooks of stories and notes and trying to keep track of initiative and hp in combat was heavy and made it a lot harder. Now, it’s all in one spot on one app. There are a variety out there, but I use Game Master 5 from the Apple App Store. It’s made GMing so much easier.

Also, having some pdfs and some specific scans for what isn’t in your app makes it easier to use during play. When players go shopping, I check my scans of prices from my copy of the Players Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Xanithar’s Guide. Things I recommend having scans of:

  • Anything with possible character names to use (so you can come up with them as quickly as possible; this is best if printed out so you can mark it out as you go)
  • The XP Per Adventuring Day page (it’s where I get my session xp)
  • Trap details from any source you have
  • Anything else you know you regularly forget (like health potion dice rolls)

2. Have House Rules

House rules help you to run the game you want to run and lets the players know the rules you want to play by that wouldn’t be found in a handbook. Some of my house rules:

  • Try to be consistent: I get into this more next, but I always plan for all the players to be there. I set up what’s going to happen in the session before and then write what comes next. It super sucks when the player who’s central to the coming plot point doesn’t show up. (There are obviously exception to this, but there are the players who are unreliable on showing up. I try not to center the plot on those characters and treat them as regularly appearing side characters.)
  • No distractions: I personally get really annoyed when players are on their phones to play whatever. I took time out of my schedule to plan the game. Everyone else took time out of their schedule to play. Some things, like combat, take long enough as it is. Last thing I care about is how your Instagram life is going.
  • The “You’re Not There!” Rule: If a player character isn’t personally present, they shouldn’t give ideas to character who are. Also, if something isn’t said at the table, it didn’t happen. (I’ve had players say their characters conspired to murder another character, but they never said so.) This can be slightly loose at the very beginning for new players learning to play from veteran players and you.
  • Don’t be a jerk: don’t be a jerk. I don’t let players be jerks at my table, to me or others. (This is not to say that characters can’t be to other characters, but there is usually consequences– just like in real life).
  • Have fun!: That’s the point.

3. Keep A Regular Schedule

One of the main reasons I’ve seen campaigns fall apart is the inconsistency of play times. While some players can’t make it regularly, they can always come as guest players. The GM always sets the schedule and having it as regular as possible makes it easy for everyone. Set the time and plan around it. It doesn’t matter if it’s every week, every other week, or once a month, but having a regular schedule means that the players and you know when to meet. And then, try not to schedule something during it. Sure, it’s a game, but if you’re wanting it to be long term, you have to respect people’s time.

Even if you have something which crops up, try to communicate as soon as possible. Nothing is more annoying than showing up as a player to find out that the GM canceled while you were driving.

4. Reward Your Players

Your players show up to play with you. The goal of my games are always to weave a story. The goal of your game might be to have awesome combat encounters. Whatever it is, you have to reward your players. My personal favorite reward is advancement: I personally have so much less fun when I get to the end of a session and find out that I got almost no XP. Having side quests for players is great for getting them to invest in the overall storyline– especially if you connect it to that storyline. Additionally, I reward players every session based on tiers of role playing:

  1. My favorite role player of the session
  2. I have the players vote for their favorite role player (not the first one)
  3. Everyone else, unless…
  4. Someone who breaks a house rule.

If all the players are level 4, I use the XP per day scan to give the first player that day’s xp, going down for the other tiers. It looks like this:

  1. My Top player: 1700
  2. Players’ favorite: 1200
  3. Other players: 600
  4. House rule breaker: 300

I also try to keep track of who is getting these points so that I spread them around the group. I cannot recommend enough that you aren’t stingy on the XP; it’s been my number one issue with games I’ve played. There are also recommended session counts for how long a player should be at a certain level on the DMG 261. Within two sessions, a character should be level 3 (one level per session). Every level after that should not take more than 2-3 sessions to reach.

5. Have food

It’s hard to have fun when you’re hungry. If a game lasts several hours, as a lot do, then you’re going to get hungry. Having a pizza and/or other food around on the table makes things great. Come up with a way to split the food responsibilities among the group.

Thanks for reading! Do you have tips for starting a campaign? Post them in the comments section below!

If you you’re interested in more of what I write: check out my articles on orcs and alignment; if you want to find some of my creations on the Dungeon Masters’ Guild you can find them here; or if you want support me, you can check me out on Patreon.

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