Since the players had one
I thought it would be cool if we made our own Survival Guide for DMs. I will occasionally read through the list and post the best ones at the top here (so make sure you give feedback on the really good or bad ones!). Since not everything works in a particular system, please say if your tips are general ones or ones specific to 3.5e, 4e, homebrew, etc.
1: Don't be a killer DM.
Unless the game is one like Paranoia or Cthulhu, or the players want you to be and it is the point of the game. Never
becoming a regular DM if what attracts you to the role is the power it gives you over the players or because you delight in hurting or killing off their characters. The players are not
in the game just so you can screw them over and kill them. You may be there for fun, but you are one person and they are several, the players won't mind so much if they die fairly, through their own fault, but if they know you are out to get them they will see you as a tyrant and they won't want to play with you anymore. And that is really what this comes down to: You are a semi-neutral party whose job it is to run the game for the others so they can have fun. Now that doesn't mean you
can't have fun, but what it does mean is that that fun should not be at the expense of the half-a-dozen people who are trusting you to be fair. Which brings us to:...
2: Don't be vindictive.
As above but more specific. DO NOT start a vendetta against a player. DO NOT try to kill their character for stuff they say out of character. DO NOT set out to kill anyone. The players will see you as a killer DM and you career will be short.
3a: Don't be over-generous
. It is fine to let the players have little bonuses from time to time (and they will love you for it if they have earned it) but players start to get annoyed when every chest spews magic items and every hall is filled with loot, if there is too much then it has no value and the game is too easy. Give them stuff if you want, but pace yourself to a level that is fun. If the power gamer is the only one who looks happy, you are doing it wrong!
3b: Don't be under generous either.
Don't be cheap with magic items. Seriously... some DM's treat it like they giving away real money. Be fair and balanced. Not cheap. (Suggested by Ghost007)
3c: Understand the mechanics of the game well.
There is nothing like when a player asks if he or she can do something in the game and the DM just flat-out says "no" simply because they don't understand the rules. If you aren't sure how to break it down into game mechanics, be democratic and ask the players how they think it should be handled. (Suggested by Ghost007)
4: Don't Joyride
. The character belongs to the player, if they aren't dominated or NPC'd they aren't yours. Don't second guess and don't make them do stupid things for your amusement. I have heard people talking (jokingly or not) about certain DMs making characters do stupid unrealistic things. These kinds of things are only funny for you
not them. The player controls the character, not you. If you do it too much they might just assume you don't need them at the table since you are apparently so good at playing their character.
5: Don't be cheap
. The player always needs to feel like they have a chance, or, at least, a chance to try again. Cheap deaths that would be extremely avoidably if the player was in the character's position are inexcusable. And on that note:
6: Don't leave out vitally important details a normal person would see
. This comes back to not screwing over the player. If you have a room with a massive dragon in it or something else the characters should definitely be able to see THEN TELL THEM IN YOUR DESCRIPTION OF THE ROOM! If the first thing your players hear about your rooms biggest feature is that it has just BBQ'd them and they are all dead, they are going to be really really mad at you. And if the water is a nasty bright acidic chemical green don't make it sound like it is algae!
7: Describe the environment.
Remember, the players are effectively blind. Start every description with the most important thing so that they can cut you off and run if they decide they are in too much danger and want to duck out before they see everything. Save your description though, they may come back better prepared or in a more stealthy way. Don't force the players make things up, if you do this they will just stop and stare at you blankly because they have no clue how to react, but instead find ways to let them feed into the campaign naturally. Give them plenty of stuff they can do and react to so that they know what the world they are in is like and feel like there is people in it, things to do, and places to see and go. It is your job to be their eyes and ears, so do a good job!
8: Give them mundane junk.
As many other threads have shown, players can be masters of improvisation when it comes to bits of chalk, nails, pitons, soap, and so on. When the players are casually wandering round, add some desks with paper and ink, or cupboards with soap and saucers, a few loose planks, a handkerchief. Anything that is appropriate to the place. Then, if your players take them you will all be more likely to feel that rush that comes when a player thinks up something spectacular and puts it into action. If you players are worth gaming with you won't be disappointed. Don't be afraid to let what you think would work (maybe with a skill roll) guide if it does or not. Don't forget that monsters might be carrying all sorts of different things.
9: Monsters don't just hang around
. The humanoid ones play cards, read, chat, sleep, pick their nose, play darts, the animals do animal things like forage, play and fight. Low intelligence monsters need places for food, waste, and sleep, the more intelligence, the more space needed for luxery items like tables and chairs. Use these things and put them wherever appropriate in order to bring your world to life and give the players a chance to stratgise.
10: Be creative.
Your rooms need to look like somewhere that actually exists, don't be bland! Give the players details and keep track of them. Make unique environments and think about what each room is actually used for. If your game feels alive the players will stick around!
11a: Play the way your players want.
Collaborate with your players to find out specifically what kind of game they want to play, such as how likely it should be that characters outright die, how much combat, how much non-combat, types of enemies, types of settings, etc. Depending on the level of trust in the group, consider deeper collaboration, including NPC secrets and plots, and history and layout of the game world. This can generate immense amounts of engagement, as players play to see how their ideas pan out. When preparing the game, ask the players questions that contain some guidance, such as "Your character has heard a frightening rumor about the town: what is it?" The players can in this way both express the kind of game they'd like to see, and contribute to the world directly. When players are the ones causing trouble for themselves, they are often more likely to explore that trouble, rather than simply smashing it flat. (Suggested by Centauri)
11b: Have a plan for failure.
Figure out what can be done to keep the game interesting after failure occurs. Even if failure means death, have a plan for what it means and how to keep everyone having fun. Discuss this with your players in general and in particular. It can help them dread failure less, which can keep the game from bogging down in over-caution. Don't plan for failures you're not interested in seeing occur. And don't worry about consequences being obviously logical, just focus on making them interesting and plausible. Collaborating with your players on this can help. (Suggested by Centauri)
11c: Don't be afraid to roll with what a player says if it works.
A small variation of the "Yes, and..." suggestion from the DM's handbook, you shouldn't be afraid to accept player ideas and build off of them if they sound good. Blocking off player ideas, expectations and assumptions is discouraging for a number of reasons, and tends to close off constructive ideas. If you can avoid doing this, you should, even if it "ruins" an encounter or plot you had planned. In doing this you may find you can gain access to your players' own creativity, which can operate in parallel to your own to help create more ideas than any one of you could on your own. This approach can help you see what kind of game the players really want to play, so you can focus on giving them that. (Suggested by Centauri)
11d: Turn the players' questions around
. Inevitably, players will want to know things you don't have answers to. Try turning the questions back to them, by asking them "You tell me." Some players are delighted to be given the opportunity to contribute to a scene, and to see their ideas utilized and explored. Eventually, this can lead to players offering direct declarations instead of asking questions, which can flesh out the game world immensely, with ideas guaranteed to be enjoyed by the players. (Suggested by Centauri)
11e: Build trust, don't burn it.
Do everything possible to build trust in your players. This starts with you trusting them. Tricking them, wasting their time, and blocking their good ideas all erode trust. When trust is high, a game can sing. When trust is low, a game can never get beyond its own rules. Sometimes that's enough, but it limits the potential greatly. Remember - most tabletop game systems are far more flexible about their rules than most people think, often rules, effects, spells, and so on, are worded so that they are open to interpretation. Predestination (and other cantrips in general) is a fine example of this in that it is intended to produce any effect that you would expect a decent mage to idly conjure with little or no thought. (Suggested by Centauri)
12: Keep things fun, varied and interesting
. This is your prime directive.
The goal of the game is for the players to have fun. If players are not having fun, TALK to them how you can make it fun for THEM, and then LISTEN. Don't just do the same old thing. Let the players tell you what kind of game you would like to play. (Suggested by Ghost007)
13: Don't be over-specific with certain results
. If your players search say "You find no traps" or "You can't see any secrets" not "There are no secrets". If you do this the game will feel more real to them and they won't know if there are traps they simply didn't find. (This tip courtesy of Spoony's Countermonkey
14: Ramp things up, constantly.
At Paragon (Mid) Level, things should start getting really Epic If your players don't feel like they are on their way to greatness you are doing it wrong. Don't just throw them at dungeons, stick them in the middle of an invasion or siege, or a Zeppelin battle, or ALL THREE. The true mark of a really great game is when it feels like it can't get any better, yet it does again and again. Challenge your players and keep inventing. Find the best or write the best modules you can and make them evenything you can of them. Let them feel like they are fighting insurmountable odds and give them a chance to live out a proper, epic fantasy
15: Don't forget to reward roleplay and invention.
Especially in the newest players, but keep it up with the experienced ones too. Special items, XP, skillpoints, Action or Style points, all these things are great little intensives for encouraging roleplay. Another good tip is to make sure the new player always levels up first - just find excuses to give them little chunks of extra XP. This will make them feel wanted and it also means that not everyone levels up at the same moment, meaning you can go over choices with the new player one-to-one before the powergamer locks himself in with you and a stack of gaming books.
16a: Improvise your story.
Don't prepare any kind of fixed or pre-planned plot for your game. This may sound strange, but you have to remember that you are not writing a book or a linear computer game, your characters aren't following any kind of a script and they will become very annoyed and frustrated if you try to force them to follow one. In a tabletop game it is best to simply create a setting and populate it with NPCs who have specific agendas and goals that they will carry out while the players are adventuring. This sounds harder to people who are used to a lot of pre-planning but it will actually make things easier for you since any group of players encountering a fixed story they are suposed to follow will automatically break it or even rebel against it, often without even realising. RPG worlds are supposed to be living, changing, things and your players must be free to make their own choices instead of being forced to follow a set path from A to B with every event along the way predetermined. The players will do things you don't expect that will quickly change or break apart a fixed story and it is a mistake to try and force them into a single course of action only because your pre-planned story requires it. Do your best to work with the players, even if the end result isn't exactly like you planned. Don't force your players to take a road into an ambush they know is ahead when they can avoid it. In other words: No invisable walls or railway tracks. Remember, the fact that they can do all this is the reason they are playing the game in the first place! Reading the commentary for Darths and Droids
may help you understand how this works (Suggested by Malph and Iserith)
16b: This includes your campaign plot.
Your players are free agents and at some point they are going to force your bad guy to change his or her plans. Don't get angry, have the bad guy get angry! If a bad guy or girl has to changing their plans to deal with player involvement, that is really cool, that is the sort of thing playing an RPG should be about. If a badguy knows it was the PC that thwarted a step in his plans he could go after their family, try to ruin the PC reputation, send assassins, work it into his plan so it bites the players. BE CREATIVE! (Suggested by Kailmung)
16c: Actions have plausible consequences.
Yours and theirs. That nameless NPC they roughed up? Maybe he has a vendetta now, even if it is along the lines of passive aggressive rumours. The person doesn't have to act sanely but it is best if you don't add too many mad vendettas or your players will feel like they are on eggshells in loonytown.
16d: Have a world that evolves and changes.
For some reason many DMs don't do simple things like weather changes or even seasons. As a DM you should do everything you can to help keep the PC in the mindset of this being a real place. Just simple weather changes can surprise players if they have never experienced one in a game before. Have a thunderstorm roll in across the hills, spatter them with rain, force them to seek shelter, even. Then, at an opportune moment have the sun break through the clouds and watch their faces light up. Some of your best RP can come from the little things. (Suggested by Kailmung)
17a: Remember the player characters should always be in the spotlight.
You may be running the show but the players and their characters are the stars. Don't make the game about you. (Suggested by Grimli)
17b: But don't let them feel like they own the world.
Everything is more satisfying when it is earned. That adult white dragon the party beat would be more satisfying if it had shown up the group earlier. A enemy who beats the party and makes them run away, or keeps them in hiding for large parts of the game, is much more fun to beat than one they have no emotional connection with and no ongoing rivalry with
18: Root For Your Players
. While you should never cheat your characters of their chance to earn their achievements and win by their own merits, make it clear that you want them to have fun and to succeed. When your monster gets locked down and loses his most devastating move, don't lament and get angry. Be happy for your players. Maybe even reveal your hand a little bit to say how it was great that they immobilized that guy because he has a shift 5 that prones+dazes+ongoing damage everyone he shifts next to. If your players completely neuter an encounter, don't default to being defensive and demanding for the character sheet as this is extremely hurtful to the game, the player, and destroys their achievement. If a player is doing great, exalt the player don't whine that they would have lost if X ability wasn't broken. And when you score a critical hit against a player you can joke about it, sure, but don't throw it in their faces. Likewise, when the players start picking on a player for using their initiative, don't let them. Remember, if it looks silly but it works, it isn't silly. (Suggested by Matyr)
19a. Make character's background matter to the game.
Most players love their charactor and his/her background they have in mind. Incorporate
them into campaign, adventure. Make it count.
, and that player will love you long time. Ask for them to include as many plot-hooks in their background as possible, you never know where they might lead. And let players make and play the type of character they
want, not what you want. Perhaps provide some leading questions:
- Where is the Character from,
- How did he grow up,
- Are there any living relatives / siblings,
- Where did he learn / acquire his skills,
- What is his reason for adventuring,
- Do one or more characters already know each other – if yes how did they meet?
19b: Communication is King.
Don't assume things about your player's their character's, or your game. Take the time to find out how you are doing as a DM. Listen and take heart the suggestions and advice they give you. (suggested by Grimli)
20: Always Strive to be a better DM. Never assume your gaming style is perfect. Just because you get no complaints doesn't mean that there isn't something you could be doing to make your game better. Read forums, take advice, and bounce suggestions off of your players, fellow DMs, and anyone who will listen. Have an open mind with the advice you receive. (suggested by Grimli)
21. Listen to your player's small talk
. Often times, players will let drop what interests them and doesn't in how they talk to others around the table. Boredom and interest should be noted somewhere for future reference. Players trying to sneak around a guarded base might mention not wanting to be seen in patrols. So you throw a token patrol in there for them to avoid. The players will feel vindicated. HOWEVER, this should not extend to the point where the players feel like the monsters can read their minds and are countering their battle tactics before they make them. This is bad DMing. (Suggested by Mastercliff)
22: Be wary of 'little gifts' from your players that they don't want the others to know about
. As sad as it sounds there are actually a few players out there who will try to bribe you with small things like sweets and other stuff with the expectation, stated or not, that you will show favouritism. Don't let them do this, if the others think you have taken a bribe, no matter how stupid it is, it will probably be the end of your DMing days with that group. Or in general.
23: Don't ask for skill checks for every little thing.
If you can gauge for yourself what the result of a check will be then you shouldn't need to roll a dice. If the player can just keep trying until they succeed with no penalties then just hazard a guess as to how long you think it would take them and tell them they have done it. This can save a lot of time and frustration from other players who have to sit and wait while one player rolls and rolls until they finally succeed when simply telling them they took ages to do it is better than actually taking ages to do it and making people fidgety for no reason. The same is true for rolling dice to determine things that are already certain to happen, such as rolling to check success when the modifiers alone make the result certain. Use your judgement for when it is appropriate to roll and when it is not. (Suggested by Iserith)
24: Don't waste time
. Try to get to what the players enjoy and spend as little time as possible on things they are likely not to enjoy. Pay attention to their engagement level, and enthusiasm, and be prepared to drop anything that they're not having fun with, even if you know there's going to be a big payoff later. (Suggested by Centauri)