10 Tips for Dungeon Masters
Thursday, April 22, 2021
I get a lot of people ask me for advice on how to DM well, the tricks I use, etc. So, here’s a list of some of my most common advice, which I hope will help new and aspiring DMs and GMs, and maybe even inspire experienced storytellers.
1. Have their character sheets.
Knowing your players’ strengths and weaknesses, their AC, their special abilities, their passive perception scores; all these help you to build tension. Information about their character allows you to highlight each player and get them involved, letting everyone play to their strengths, use their favourite abilities, RP the way they want. It also lets you keep your own notes on the characters, remember who has what item, watch their characters develop… information is power as a DM.
2. Tailor your encounters to the party.
This may seem self-explanatory, but the best encounters are the ones that allow multiple approaches, and allow everyone to shine. Combat is all well and good, but can get old fast if the min-maxed spellcaster blows everyone up on turn one. Throw in a rival spellcaster with Counterspell, monsters that are magic resistant etc. If social encounters are dominated by that one bard every time, try adding prejudices or other biases to make other party members talk more. If there is one quiet player, try offering a non-combat encounter that will allow them to shine if they wish, perhaps centred around their favourite ability or a personality trait that will allow them to RP more freely and gain confidence.
3. Be prepared to fudge a roll.
This is a contentious one, for sure. It is an extremely rare occurrence for me to ever fudge a roll, and I would only do it in a situation that would ruin the game for someone. I like my games to be full of danger and regularly have a very real possibility of character death, but even I think that a badly-timed critical hit causing instant death is a bit much… most of the time. Maybe the party come up with a really innovative plan to overcome an encounter; sometimes the bad guy failing that check can let the players’ scheme succeed and give everyone a memorable gaming moment. It’s a judgement call, and I don’t recommend doing it often, but don’t be afraid to pull the trigger on it to save a game.
4. Be ready to go off-book.
If there is one thing that is guaranteed in every TTRPG, it is that the players will invariably ask questions or take a course of action that you haven’t planned for. Improvisation is key as a DM of course, but you can help yourself by having some encounters prepared that you can throw at your players when they go off the path you expect them to take. I tend to have about five encounters ready for use when my group derail my plans; three non-combat and two combats of different severity. I also like to have three or so NPCs prepared for the players to meet, if they speak to someone I haven’t specifically prepared; just a name, race, gender, profession, and maybe one or two distinguishing features to make them interesting.
5. Do a session zero.
Having the players meet if they don’t already know each other and build a rapport before the game is invaluable. It’s also a great place to discuss expectations, hash out any house rules that you may want to implement, or voice any topics that should be avoided (for example, I often run horror campaigns and regularly have people ask me to refrain from strong body horror themes). It can also be really fun to have everyone create their characters together at the table, bounce ideas off one-another, and even help each-other with rules and tips. Alternatively, as I prefer, everyone creates their own characters individually in consultation with the DM, then has their own short mini-session as a prequel to get a feel for their character during session zero, as we did with our Islands of the Moon D&D 5E campaign.
6. Prepare house rules if you want them.
House rules can really help bring character to your campaign and make for memorable situations. For example, in my games, if you try to Counterspell someone’s cast of Counterspell, it creates a wild magic surge – do they take the risk? In Islands of the Moon, healing potions always do maximum healing to help with the severity of the combat, and we have house rules for lasting injuries too that really amp up the tension.
7. You don’t have to know everything.
One of the marks of a great DM, in my opinion, is knowing how to improvise and be fair if you don’t know a rule. Don’t be afraid to ask your players how something works – they likely know their character’s abilities and spells etc. better than you do. Don’t be afraid to check rules before the session in the DMG. Don’t be afraid to just wing it – if you can’t remember a rule for a certain situation, come up with something you think is fair and then use it for the session to keep the game flowing. You can look it up after; there is no sense stopping and breaking immersion for a rules discussion, unless you’re really stuck.
8. Write stuff down.
I use a notebook and my laptop, but whatever you do, write stuff down. That way, you can remember plot points and events and reference them later for a more immersive story. I love to have my characters’ actions come back to bite them sessions later, or see them have that “oh yeah!” moment when they recognise that NPC they met in the tavern that time. You can also keep track of magic items, a rough idea of players’ cash, an idea of their rations etc. to better cater to their needs and spring surprises on them.
9. You don’t have to do voices.
Character quirks and accents are great, but if you aren’t comfortable doing them, they aren’t necessary. Memorable characters come from content and experiences, not silly voices. You can also try doing things like changing your face, posture, mannerisms, or the speed of your speech. You can even change your language – maybe the BBEG is very educated and thinks they are always the cleverest person in the room; you could use needlessly long words and floury language to help convey their air of superiority.
10. On-line and distanced games are OK.
Miniatures and battle maps are great, and I love gathering friends around the table with drinks and snacks for games, but you can have just as much fun using websites like Roll20 or software like Tabletop Simulator for your games. It’s also really fun using online map editors to create your settings, and using music for your games is just as easy online as it is in your living room. My only advice here is to spend extra preparation time familiarising yourself with the tools beforehand (particularly fog of war, hiding and revealing areas) for a smoother gaming experience.
For more DM tips, check out my Twitter, and you can visit my channel to see me in action as both a DM and a player!
Wednesday, April 21, 2021
Friends, I am putting together my first supplement for D&D 5E!
If you watch my content or have ever played with me, you know that a healthy 95% of what I use in my TTRPG games is homebrewed to some degree. I’ve decided to scrape together some of my more choice ideas, refine and playtest them with my long-suffering victims -ahem- players, and even add some new ones to the melting pot. Throw in some amazing art from the exceptionally talented Lin (her details are below) and we have the makings of a book!
Written as a series of field notes, journal entries and sketches from the point of view of Torlek, my Knowledge Domain Cleric from our Islands of the Moon Campaign (it’s up on the channel, go check it out!), the as-yet-unnamed book will contain huge arrays of stuff for DMs to draw on to either plug into their games or use for inspiration, all in rollable tables.
Torlek’s field notes contain sections on weird magic items and magical trinkets, potions and consumables, poisons, books, critters and pets, diseases, mundane trinkets, cursed items, bric-a-brac and clutter, utility items, wondrous magic items, magical melee weapons, magical ranged weapons, and magical apparel.
What’s more, the compendium will also include my homebrewed rules and variants for arcane clockwork prosthetics and the modifications that skilled artificers can create for them, as well as my own take on the Deck of Many Things: the Fated Tarot.
I’m aiming to release the book around the middle of 2021, so be sure to check out my socials for updates.
Finally, as a reward for checking out the blog and your interest in the compendium, here’s a magic weapon to try out in your games!
Hummingbird – Weapon (Spear), Legendary. (Requires Attunement). (Requires Dexterity of 14+). Simple melee weapon. Damage: 1D6 piercing. Weight: 4lbs. Properties: Thrown (Range 20/60), Versatile (1D8), Heavy.
A 6ft. spear with an elder shaft, engraved from tip to tip with stylised birds in flight, capped at the bottom with a cruel hook and tipped with a polished steel winged head.
1. When the wielder is using this weapon with two hands and is Attacked by a creature with a melee weapon, they can use a reaction to attempt to disarm the attacker using the winged head to wrench the weapon from their assailant’s grasp. To do so, the wielder makes a Dexterity check contested by either a Strength or Dexterity check from the attacker (attacker’s choice). If the attacker loses the contest, their Attack fails and they are disarmed. If the attacker wins the contest, their Attack proceeds as normal.
2. When the wielder is using this weapon in one hand and uses their action to make at least one melee Attack with this weapon, they may use their bonus action to make an additional melee Attack with it against the same target.
3. If the Hummingbird is thrown, it makes a shrieking whistle as it flies through the air, intimidating all who hear it. Any hostile creature within a 60ft. cone of the thrower must make a wisdom saving throw of DC12. On a fail, the affected creature falters, reducing its speed by 10 feet and removing its ability to take reactions until the start of its next turn.
It howls! Keep it away! – Unnamed Goblin
My Origin Story
Wednesday, April 21, 2021
The question I get most often is simply: “Where did your name come from?”
It’s quite a long answer, but I really do have metal in my spine. Basically, I had a rugby accident, then a biking accident, then a rock-climbing accident, which, as you can imagine, left my back in pretty bad shape. I don’t have the metal rods and screws you might be picturing right now, but something entirely more complicated.
You see, I really am a cyborg. My injuries and nerve damage keep me in 24/7 pain, so I have an implanted system to help. There’s a battery pack inside me, connected to cables that run into my spine and rest on my spinal cord, delivering a constant, mild, electrical current into my nervous system. It helps a little, and it left me with some cool surgical scars and a metallic rectangle under my skin that people always want to poke.
All this does mean that not only am I partially remote-control operated (I kid you not), but I also have to charge myself up every day. Have you ever seen those wireless charging pads for your phone? I wear a belt with something like that on it for about an hour a day, and charge my battery through my skin via electromagnetic induction.
Obviously, with a group of roboticists and programmers for friends, the jokes don’t stop. The name is pretty apt though, as I need an Iron Spine to carry those noobs through PvP.
Want to see what I do? Check out my YouTube channel, visit the About page, or follow me over on my socials!