For those new to the hobby, Dungeon Mastering can seem mysterious. In this article, we will demystify the role and discuss what makes a good Dungeon Master by breaking it down into 4 "subclasses".
What is a Dungeon Master?
In a tabletop RPG like Dungeons & Dragons, the Dungeon Master "prepares the world and controls the people and peril in it while the other players create characters on a journey through that self same world." (excerpt from the science-fantasy RPG Troika!)
Preparing an entire world and taking control of its denizens and stories is a rewarding creative challenge. In fact, the Dungeon Master's Guide for D&D 5th edition even describes the Dungeon Master as "the creative force behind a D&D game." In addition to the creative preparation, the Dungeon Master plays a critical role in running the game.
To understand all the elements, the role of the Dungeon Master can be broken down into 4 "subclasses". Each one plays its part in preparing the world, controlling the world, and running the game. Let's touch on each of these:
- Adventure Writer
A Dungeon Master is an Adventure Writer
As an Adventure Writer, the Dungeon Master prepares situations for the players to get into. This involves placing things like monsters, puzzles, characters, and interesting locations into a fictional world. The key moments that you prepare are called encounters.
Many Dungeon Masters use worlds that have already been created as the backdrop for encounters, but you are free to create your own world from scratch. Just be warned: worldbuilding is a lot of work!
There are many excellent adventures that have been officially published (Lost Mine of Phandelver) or independently published (The Green Blight). Using a premade adventure is a great starting point for newcomers.
A good Adventure Writer
- Creates interesting situations for players to react to
- Incorporates elements their players enjoy
- Makes the fictional world feel consistent
A bad Adventure Writer
- Creates specific outcomes they force their players towards
- Ignores player preferences and only adds elements they enjoy
- Pays no attention to the consistency of the world
A Dungeon Master is a Storyteller
Storytelling skills come in when you describe the situation to your players during the game. You will help the players visualize the fantastic locations they explore. You will improvise based on their reactions to the world. All the while, you will want to keep a storyteller's sense of what is interesting and guide the players towards that.
The most fundamental idea to good storytelling is tension and release. As a Dungeon Master, you will learn what creates tension in a story and what relieves it. A great story needs both tension and release in alternate doses to create a satisfying story arc.
But what does this creative act actually look like when put into practice during the game? To better understand, consider The Core Loop of RPGs.
The Core Loop of RPGs goes like this:
The Dungeon Master describes a situation → The Players describe what they want to do → Dice are rolled to determine whether the players succeed, or if there is a complication.
This creative loop combines your role of Dungeon Master with the role of the players and the dice (which represent game rules) to produce an act of collaborative storytelling. As the players make decisions and take action, the Dungeon Master reveals more of the world to them. The story emerges from the interaction between the Dungeon Master's world and the players' decisions.
A good Storyteller
- Alternates between adding tension and providing relief
- Incorporates the player ideas
- Keeps the story close to the player characters
A bad Storyteller
- Adds more and more tension without any breaks, or makes everything too easy and relaxing.
- Only tells the story they want to tell with no regard for player ideas.
- Tells a story with no strong connection to the player characters.
A Dungeon Master is an Actor
Good games have lots of interesting people and creatures for the players to encounter. It is the Dungeon Master's job to breathe life into the creatures that populate the fictional world.
Some Dungeon Masters take this very far and use different voices to represent each character from a first-person perspective. This is really entertaining but not necessary to be a great Dungeon Master. The most important point is to make sure that creatures react to player actions in a realistic and consistent way. If you can do that, you can immerse the players in the game.
A good Actor
- Reacts to player characters and has fun
- Keeps each creature as consistent as possible
- Understand the motivations and flaws of each creature in the world
A bad Actor
- Ignores player characters
- Acts out the creatures in ways that are hard to predict
- Does not consider the motivations or flaws of their creatures
A Dungeon Master is a Referee
RPGs have rules just like other games. But they are unique because they offer a situation where anything is possible. In an improvised world where anything can happen, it becomes impossible to create a rule for every situation.
Not only that, but the focus is different. In a traditional game, the focus is on competition. You need a clear winner to get satisfaction. In an RPG, the focus is on creating an interesting story with your friends. Keeping rules loose is important because there are situations where bending a rule, or creating one on the fly, will prompt a more interesting story.
For these reasons, it is critical that RPGs have someone play the role of referee, so that they can use their human judgement in nuanced situations. The Dungeon Master is the person who is expected to play this role.
Luckily, there are only a few basic rules that a new Dungeon Master must know to get started. The rules you need to know are outlined here.
A good Referee
- Makes decisions so that the game can continue.
- Understands that the spirit of the rules is to encourage a great story.
- Acknowledges player concerns about rulings.
A bad Referee
- Hesitates to make decisions during the game and slows everything down.
- Obsesses over the "letter of the law" when the story would be better served by an alternate ruling.
- Dismisses player concerns.
A Dungeon Master is AWESOME
By breaking the role of Dungeon Master down into 4 roles, you can better understand the role and get excited about all the interesting skills it will teach you along the way.
You are not expected to become a master of all. Most Dungeon Masters prefer 1 of these roles and downplay the others. This is perfectly fine! We encourage you to jump in and try it out, learning as you go.
If you are not sure where to start, The Quickstart Guide to Game Mastering offers a clear step by step process and a free adventure to help you run your first game of D&D.
About the Author
Adam is the founder of Sword & Source, a company that creates tools and training for Game Masters.