While I always feel immensely satisfied with the work I put into crafting and delivering our various DnD sessions, when I look back on where we started versus where we are now I can’t help but feel like I missed endless opportunities along the way. My Dungeon Mastering started by following the Waterdeep: Dragon Heist book in an attempt to get my sea legs under me. I had always intended to stray from the book and its story, but never did I expect it to be such a dramatic departure.
I’ve gone over that transition once or twice already, so I won’t retread that yet another time. No, the crux of this The Master of Disaster is about adapting on the fly and how important being able to do it effectively is.
One of my players is currently in the midst of crafting a one-shot game for us as a way to get comfortable with being a Dungeon Master for a future campaign they’ll run. He recently came to me and let me know that he was a little behind and needed more time to hone it. That’s completely understandable, considering that putting together even a one-shot is a tremendous amount of work. But I wanted to impart my limited knowledge upon him and maybe help him prepare for the stuff that you can’t script out.
I don’t know if I was effective in portraying that message, but hopefully this can help him along with other first time Dungeon Masters.
The first thing to understand is that you need to give your players a reason to do something. I’ve struggled with it in the past and it led to a couple of moments with me breaking the fourth wall and just saying, “you’re going there cause that’s where the rest of the game is.” There was more context to that statement, but it doesn’t matter because that’s just a bad way to handle the situation. I either needed a better motivator or a better way to express that this was the direction the party should head in.
The second thing is to know your NPCs. You don’t have to make bespoke character sheets for every NPC you craft, nor do you need to name every citizen in a town or village. That path leads to nothing but insanity. What I settled on was making sure I had an understanding of what the named NPCs knew and what that information meant to them. Maybe the party would have to earn that information, maybe the NPC was easily intimidated, maybe they were a good Samaritan, or maybe they just don’t know something. You can’t plan for every question or line of dialogue cause you never know what your players are thinking.
Along those lines is the third and arguably the most important thing a Dungeon Master can do, and that’s being able to adapt on the fly. Improvisation is a required ability when leading a session or campaign, that’s why it’s important to have the previous two skills down because it makes this third one that much easier.
For example, you might have a quest line involving a corrupt king that’s been enjoying the benefits of their royalty while their people live in squalor. Why should the party care? Well, the easiest reward is money or treasure, but if you have players who actively role play, you can tap into their characters minds and appeal to their nature. The lawful good guy isn’t going to be too keen on an neglectful and abusive king. You can reinforce this by having citizens who voice their disdain and dissatisfaction to the party, or an event that shows the kings brutality. These can help propel the party in the direction you want them to go.
But you never know if they’ll take the bait or be as invested as you want them to be, and that’s why you need to be able to improvise and think on the fly. Maybe the party is looking for a diplomatic approach even though you planned for a big battle. Don’t squash that effort, embrace their decisions. Even if you had this elaborate fight planned, you need to know when to let it go and let the party succeed. There will be plenty of opportunities for other fights.
But let’s say you really want them to fight anyway. Okay, I guess if that’s how you want to play it, you have to justify it. The king might be okay with the negotiation, but maybe a group of his personal guards aren’t to keen on giving up their power. Things like that can allow the players to feel like they’ve accomplished something without making it too obvious that you just wanted to fight.
Although one thing I’ve learned is that it’s usually better to just let your players take their victory in circumventing a battle because it makes them happy. But maybe now you’re in a position where suddenly a battle that could take up half of your session is just gone and you’ve got nothing planned. Using the previous example of the king, you can have the guards jail the king for betraying them or the throne or something and have it end up as a big brawl between the citizens and the guards that remain.
That actually accomplishes a lot because your players feel like their plan worked, but there were unforeseen consequences of their actions that rippled throughout the town. Now they’ve got to clean up their own mess, and now they’re invested.
Like I said, I’m not perfect at this Dungeon Mastering thing, but I have figured out a decent way to keep my players engaged and excited most of the time. Sometimes it’s fun to make a quest that plays their alignments against each other, or that one players character would be really invested in and see how they convince the rest of their group to follow along.
I guess to sum up everything here into one tight sentence, it would be this; Don’t say no to your players, instead offer up alternatives, goals and challenges to their requests and attempts, even if it goes against what you’ve planned for.