Your DM Toolbox

If you’re a new DM running your first campaign and looking for advice, one of the worst things you could do would be to read the various D&D blogs and subreddits and take what they say as gospel. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of excellent and experienced DMs out there, each with their own well of wisdom from which you might drink. But there are also a lot of memes and ideas floating around the current D&D culture which, if applied without care, would preclude a lot of the types of fun you could be having with the game.

Put another way: Critical Role is an excellent example of D&D, but it’s not the only thing D&D is.

In this post I’ll explore four of the most pervasive pieces of New DM Advice I see bandied about and explain why it might be appropriate to ignore them. To be very clear: all of these points are things you should be familiar with, as a DM. They are powerful storytelling and adjucation tools. But they are not a Bible. They should be in your toolbox, to be applied properly and with care, not axioms to slavishly adhere to.

In general, any DM advice that includes words like “always” and “never” should be taken with a grain of salt. Keep in mind that every DM who gives you advice, including me, is speaking from a biased position. Nobody knows your table except for you, and even you don’t know your table if you’re still new. DMing is a skill, and like all skills, you’re going to be bad at it until you’re good.

But playing is a skill too, and your players are going to take their cues from you. They might not be reading the same subreddits you are. Applying advice you got on the internet without really examining it may send dangerous messages to new players and result in Bad Funtimes. The goal of this bloggy-post is to minimize that damage at your table.

With that in mind, let’s crack some popular DM memes!

“Yes, and…”

The idea here is, when your players have an idea, you should not shut them down. Instead of saying “No,” you find a way to build the scene by saying, “Yes, and this is what happens next.” (Or, “Yes, but this happens too.”) The practice stems from the improv scene, where trained actors build spontaneous stories by taking each others’ suggestions and adding to them. In some sense, D&D is a form of improv, and the concept does translate in a lot of circumstances.

But D&D is a game of rules, and your players are not trained actors. If you commit to “yes, and…” you can expect your game to immediately go in directions you did not intend, and aren’t equipped to handle.

What your players might hear: “I will never say no.”

Like spoiled little chocolate-smeared children, your players are going to have to hear “no” a lot. It’s the only way they’ll learn. For one, because D&D is a game with rules, “yes, and…” is not an appropriate response to any action that breaks a rule. If you allow this kind of thing at your table players are going to pick up on the idea that breaking rules is fine, and they’ll do it more and more, until you may as well just burn all your books. And for another, new players tend to not act in good faith. They want to do things they think are cool or funny without any regard to how it will affect your world.

Worst of all, if you’ve trained your players that “no” isn’t in your vocabulary, and your game gets into a terrible state as a result, you now cannot fix the problem by starting to say “no”. Players who have gotten away with murder (literally, in some cases!) will feel like you’ve broken a promise if you suddenly take away their “yes, and…” superpowers.

Here are some actions new players are notorious for trying, in case you’re still considering a primarily “yes, and…” approach to the game:

  • “I punch [other player] in the face for no reason.”
  • “My mount is a talking war elephant who eats halflings.”
  • “I throw acid splash at the wall over and over until I tunnel through it.”
  • “I stealth up to the king’s throne and take the crown off his head.”
  • “I toss the busty bar wench on the counter and rape her.”

If those all sound conducive to a reasonable heroic fantasy adventure story that you’d like to tell, by all means, let your players run amok.

Here’s what I’m not saying: “Find reasons to say no.”

Your first instinct, when players declare an action that sounds a little strange or unorthodox, should not be to shut it down. This is especially true if it’s tied to a spell or class feature. Players take these things because they sound cool and they want to use them; nothing degrades their faith and good cheer faster than not being told they can’t!

The spirit of “yes, and…” is to take reasonable-sounding suggestions and build memorable scenes out of them. With some experience, you’ll learn which suggestions are good for your world and which aren’t. If you’re going out of your way to say no as often as possible you are being unnecessarily adversarial. In this case you’re training your players to not try interesting things, because they know beforehand you’ll shut them down, and months of tepid statblock reading shall be your reward.

Here’s what I suggest: “Say yes as often as possible, unless you need to say no, then for the love of god SAY NO.”

Instead of training your playes that any lulzy thing that pops into their head is fair game, or that actions not strictly codified on their character sheets are verboten, train them to know the limits of your setting and of the rules, and to act within them. Commit to building scenes that work, rather than just any old scene your players come up with.

Fail Forward

Or, “Success at a Cost”. The idea here is that players should advance even when they fail. This is usually applied to skill checks, but not universally so; I also see the concept applied to saving throws and, in extreme cases, party wipes. New players hate failing, so twisting their failures into interesting story beats is a good way to soften the blow.

Of all the points on this list, I am least convinced Fail Forward is a universal storytelling tool. It’s surely the least-used tool in my box, maybe like an awl. I see Fail Forward preached as a way to keep the story moving when the players get stuck, or to alleviate the sting of an uninteresting roll outcome, or to make sure adventures don’t get bottlenecked by a single un-repeatable check. I try to avoid these things too, I just have other methods for handling them.

I’ve read countless examples of Fail Forward stories on this here internet of ours, and while some have made for memorable stories others just seem contrived and arbitrary. One example that pops up time and time again is a rogue picking the lock on a door. The rest of the adventure is behind the door, so if the rogue fails on the lockpick check, the party can’t continue. Some examples of how to Fail Forward in this situation include:

  • the door opens anyway, but there are guards on the other side!
  • the door opens anyway, but the rogue’s lockpicks break!
  • the door opens anyway, but it took so long a monster patrol has snuck up behind the party!
  • the door opens anyway, but the rogue sprung a trap and takes damage!

In my estimation, these are all terrible resolutions to the problem of this stupid door, and the real solution is something like “there are other ways to get through the door.” Telling the rogue her failed roll pops the door anyway except now there are guards there is robbing the barbarian of the chance to bash it down, the wizard of the chance to cast knock, or the bard of the chance to sweet-talk a housemaid out of a key.

What your players might hear: “Success is guaranteed.”

If you don’t let your players fail, they won’t learn to deal with failure. They won’t learn to come up with creative solutions to problems. Instead, they will learn that every door opens, no matter what, just sometimes there are guards waiting on the other side. There’s no incentive to think laterally or prepare backup plans, because the first thing they try will work and the penalty that’s applied for “failure” is just a fact of life. (And probably not even that big a deal. What self-respecting rogue runs around with only one lockpick?)

Here’s what I’m not saying: “Failure should result in punishment.”

The flip side of this coin is being unnecessarily punitive on a failed check. A creative DM can no doubt think of ways to punish every bad skill check in the book, from rocks falling to alarm klaxons blaring to god-only-knows-what. This is of course just as absurd as guards materializing on the other side of a locked door.

In practice, most skill checks don’t result in an actual fail state; they simply maintain the status quo. The rogue failed with her lockpicks; the door remains closed. The cleric failed his Athletics check; he’s still at the bottom of the cliff. The ranger failed on Perception; he doesn’t know there are orcs nearby (and didn’t a moment ago, either). These situations don’t need an extra layer of punishment and there’s nothing sporting about concocting one.

Here’s what I suggest: “Know what failure means beforehand.”

When planning encounters with skill checks, know ahead of time what failure is going to mean. Cases where failure and success both lead to interesting results are usually pretty apparent. A quick line in your notes explaining what happens on a pass and what happens on a fail is probably all you need: “The guard captain can be convinced to release the prisoner with an Intimidation check, but on a failure he demands a 20 gp bribe.” For the rest of the cases where failure simply leads to the status quo, leave it alone and let the players think around the problem.

This does require planning, and it takes practice to get right. Every DM has a horror story about players failing to answer some magic mouth riddle, and then all failing their Intelligence checks, and having to spawn in a helper NPC who just so happens to know the solution. These are bad scenes and the only real way to deal with them is to use Plot Spackle for now and do a better job next time.

Player Agency

There is a very long list of things the DM can do to “remove player agency”. As best I can figure, player agency means something like “the player’s ability to make choices for his or her character.” This is utter nonsense and you would do well to discard such silly notions. Players do not make choices, for their characters or otherwise, and they are not in control.

If you’ve played in or watched one of my D&D campaigns, it may surprise you that I take such a hardline stance. But it is necessary to maintain my sanity. You might say you’ve seen lots of instances where my players made choices, or declared actions, and then things happened in the game. Like maybe one of my players said, “I attack that orc,” and then they attacked that orc. What you witnessed, though, was a tacit agreement between my players and I to simply cut out the redundant middle-man. What actually happened was my player asked me, very politely, for permission to attack that orc. And then I — not they — made the choice to allow that to happen in my game world.

“Yes, you may attack that orc” may be the most common response to the implied question of an attack roll, but it is by no means the only one. Other perfectly valid choices on my behalf would be, “No, you may not attack that orc.” Or, “No, the orc attacks you instead.” Or, “Zap! You’re all cows now! Moooooo!”

No player has ever overruled a DM at his own table, without that DM’s cooperation. Simply by virtue of being the DM, anything he says happens and anything he doesn’t say doesn’t happen. I’m sorry if you’ve been led to believe otherwise, but no, players simply do not have any sort of agency in that kind of environment.

What your players might hear: “You’re more important than I am.”

If you insist on allowing your players to have real agency, rather than the carefully-crafted illusion of same, prepare for many arguments. It is trivially easy to find examples of players running roughshod over their DM in practically every D&D community that shares horror stories. In the most extreme cases you will find players (who have never DM’d a game, in all likelihood) who preach the DM’s job is to provide a fun world for the players, full stop.

In actuality, the DM is a player himself, and is also trying to have fun. If he’s not having fun, the game will cease to exist in every meaningful way. The DM is the most important guy at the table, bar none. It’s not even a contest.

The number one killer of campaigns, in my own 20+ years of experience, is DM burnout. The biggest contributor to DM burnout is a loss of interest because of entitled players making demands, provoking ceaseless arguments, or blatantly sabotaging the game. And players can only get to that point if the DM cedes control to them.

Here’s what I’m not saying: “Be a merciless god-tyrant!”

Of course, in practice, I am not a tyrant and I do not treat my players like slaves. Because there is one important choice players get to make, and they are making it constantly: “Should I keep playing in this campaign?” A DM who runs his game like an unyeilding control freak is a DM who eventually finds himself without any players.

It’s one thing to be in control. It’s another thing to abuse that control to the point where players no longer want to play. For every “my players went berserk and I burned out” story, there are ten “my DM was a sack of butts so I quit playing” stories.

Here’s what I suggest: “Players are at your mercy, but they’re still your friends.”

If a group of players do you the honor of putting you in a position of power over them, you should banish from your mind any thought of betraying that trust. Ostensibly these people are your friends, your co-workers, your IRC buddies, or your fellow game store enthusiasts. Treat them as such.

Own up to mistakes. Listen to criticism. Laugh at yourself. Be humble. Most importantly, don’t make rulings that would cause you, as a player, to quit a game. Find a way to be a benevolent dictator, and your players will love you for it.

“Did everyone have fun?”

Perhaps the most common response I see to new DMs soliciting feedback from the internet hivemind is some form of, “Did you ask everyone if they had fun? They said yes? Then there’s no problem!”

But there is a problem. Even though everyone had a good time, that DM still felt some niggling doubt that caused him to go seeking advice. That means there’s something wrong, and it can be very difficult to pinpoint what that something might be.

D&D is fun, but as we all know, fun comes in lots of shapes and sizes. It’s entirely possible for a new DM to have a vision in his head about what running the game will be like, but then the actual session didn’t meet those expectations, for whatever reason. Yeah, everyone enjoyed themselves, but he was expecting 100 Fun Units™ and ended up only getting 70 Fun Units™.

Maybe our poor new DM just had unrealistic ideas about his game fueled by too many professional podcasts. But maybe, just maybe, his vision is attainable if he could only figure out the trick to make it all work.

What your players might hear: “This is the most fun we can be having.”

You played D&D and it was fun. That’s great! But you could be having more fun, or a different kind of fun. Setting the goodtimes bar too low is a great way to make players lose interest in a campaign. New players will have a fine time with pretty much any style of D&D, from carefully constructed professional modules all the way down to wanton slaughter of the peasantry. It’s new to them, and novelty breeds excitement.

But that excitement will fade, and what you’re left with is what you’re left with.

Here’s what I’m not saying: “There are wrong ways to have fun!”

If wanton slaughter of the peasantry is what your table wants, and you’re happy to provide, then that’s the game you ought to run. I don’t kinkshame. You do you.

Lots of DMs will read this post and insist that my table isn’t fun. After all, I earned my kicks back in Second Edition, when men were Men, lawful good meant Lawful Good, magic-users feared housecats, and THAC0 charts spread across the landscape as far as the eye could see. I let my players fail, I let them get stuck, and I do nothing to hide my delight as I murder them with encounters designed for parties twice their strength. I make them track ammo and roleplay through mind control and force them into impossibly depraved moral quandaries.

Not everyone wants to play at my table. Maybe you don’t. And maybe I don’t want to play at yours. This is all fine, and perfectly natural. What we should both be doing though, with every session, is searching for new ways to have fun. We should be challenging ourselves to squeeze more and more out of the game.

Here’s what I suggest: “Solicit feedback. Act on it. And practice, practice, practice!”

Sometimes I ask my players if they had fun, and they tell me, “No, and here’s why.” Repeated iterations of this process is what has helped me to skill up as a DM.

The reason this tepid mantra has calcified in the community is because it’s easy. “You had fun, job done, hands washed!” is a decent way to encourage a new DM to keep doing what they’re doing, despite their misgivings, without actually addressing the misgivings. The real answer is a lot harder: figure out what your players want, figure out what you want, find the space where those things overlap, and then keep doing new things in that space for as long as you can hold it together. This is really tough to do.

You’re not going to find that spot without putting in the work. You’re going to have to actually talk to your players, and they’re going to have to be honest with you. They’re going to tell you that you suck, and you’re going to have to go back to the drawing board to fix the things that didn’t work and highlight the things that did. It’s a never-ending process, and at times, it can be exhausting.

But it’s worth it. If you commit to growing as a DM, to keep trying new things and pushing for new experiences, you will be having More Fun™ than groups who just stack up the orcs week after week. And every so often you’ll touch a raw nerve that really shocks and excites everyone, and those are the stories players and DMs alike will remember forever. Those are the stories that draw new players to the game.

D&D is not a video game.

There are no cheat codes, no killer strats, and no instruction manual. Advice can be great, but all any DM can really offer you is an explanation for what works at their table, with the hope that the same will work at yours.

Best of luck to you and your table. Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>