RPGs can be a serious time sink so you want to get the most out of them right? Here are 6 easy tips to help you become a better game master and keep your players coming back to the table game after game.
This seems like common sense but it can end up being a long thread to pull. How prepared should you be? Should you have an entire map and encounter list worked out for the entire Orc Fortress if the party decides to assault it the night before instead of fighting the war the next day? Probably not. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think about situations like this before the game starts. Familiarise yourself with the possible encounters and make sure you know what challenge level is best for your party (if you don’t know how to work it out, check out the Building Encounters section of your relevant Core Rulebook or Dungeon Master’s Guide). It may be helpful to mark out your monster manual with coloured post-it notes with monster stats that could pop up in improvised encounters.
Isn’t this the antithesis to the previous point? Not quite. Most of the time, you will build a game around a path you want your players to travel either narratively or thematically, and it can be frustrating when they don’t follow it with a few more options in case they take a few turns. But a role-playing game is a two-way street. This isn’t just your narrative, it’s everyone's. So be prepared, to be flexible. If your players start going wildly off course, don’t be afraid to improvise and, if necessary, call a break so that you can set up the new encounter path. The players will be much happier taking 5 minutes to grab a drink while you shift priorities, as opposed to being railroaded when they want to explore the universe you’ve built for them.
Understand Your Players
Every player is different and so every time you sit down at the table, it’s a good idea to know who you are playing with. Each Core Rulebook or Dungeon Master’s Guide will list these different player types in detail for you to learn about so here’s a quick summary of who they are and what they want out of your games.
The Actor - The Actor (AKA the Role-Player) likes the limelight and the world you are playing in is their stage. The best way to keep this player happy is to provide roleplaying encounters and give them an opportunity to accentuate and grow their character’s personality.
The Explorer - The Explorer wants to see the universe they’re playing in all of its glory. They usually push the party forward through the story. To keep them interested, include encounters that reward exploration over combat and, if you can, use maps, minis or puzzle props.
The Instigator - The Instigator is the trigger-happy player that makes things happen, regardless of the consequences. They’re great for creating unique situations that require some creative problem solving, but they can just as easily throw the party or campaign into peril. To keep an Instigator interested, give them tight situations but have a way out for them if they get in too deep.
The Gamer - The Gamer (AKA Power Player) builds their character to maximise the potential for their character, narrative be damned. They are the 20 Strength; 6 Charisma Barbarian. They do one thing for the party and nothing else. To deal with them, build situations that match their build or use their desire for powerful items as an adventure hook.
The Slayer - The Slayer is all about combat. Make it big and make it gory. Slayers are probably the easiest to please. All you have to do is make sure there are combat encounters that give them the thrill of destruction.
The Storyteller - Like The Actor, The Storyteller enjoys the role-playing aspect of an RPG. The big difference is The Storyteller wants to affect the world around them more than their character. To keep them interested, give them strong narrative scenes to play with and even let them handle some of the stories along the way, even if it’s just letting them narrate the critical successes or failures of their character or the party.
The Thinker - The Thinker walks into a room and plans every movement for the party for the rest of the game. This player is the most likely to be “Meta-Gamers”, gamers that plan their actions around what they think the Dungeon Master has planned for them. The best way to please them is to create cerebral puzzles for them to solve and use their meta-gaming against them, by changing up how you build encounters.
The Watcher - The Watcher is one of the hardest players to get into the game. They usually sit back from the game and only engage when needed. This is where a lot of Role Players start out so it’s best to allow them to come out of their shell on their own times. Give them small dedicated encounters so that they can build their confidence in the game.
The Lawyer - Ugh. These players are the worst. There is not much you can do about The Lawyer. These are the players that think they know the rulebook better. The only way you can deal with a Lawyer is by setting expectations at the start of the game or campaign about the rules and reminding them that you are the Dungeon Master, not them.
Just like players are a little different, so too are Dungeon Masters. To make sure your players get the most out of a game, you should really identify what type of Dungeon Master you are to know where you can improve. Just like the Player Types, your Core Rulebook or Dungeon MAster’s Guide will give you better detail into the different dungeon master types there are so here’s a quick summary for you.
The Director - Just like the actor, the universe is your stage, but rather than wanting to be the focus of attention, you want to use your players as actors in your grand display. Directors are great at creating a narrative base for a campaign to build upon but they have a tendency to railroad their players into particular routes. Don’t be afraid to take feedback from your players. They’ll usually let you know if you’re railroading them.
The Destroyer - You have one goal in mind, destroy the party. You will create encounters that are geared above an acceptable challenge rating and will frequently bring your players to the brink, sometimes even killing a character or two along the way. This is a fantastic way to have people never play under you again. Don’t ever be a destroyer.
The Trickster - AKA The Loki. You enjoy tricking your players into bad situations or giving them puzzles that are near impossible to solve. A great example of a Trickster is someone who will give a solution to a puzzle in a conversation with an NPC, but not highlight the importance of that information until 2 hours later when the characters are knee deep in a flooding room with a code lock in front of them. Players will feel deceived and, just like The Destroyer, are unlikely to come back to the table.
The Lawyer - Yes, there is a dungeon master version of the rules lawyer and they can be just as frustrating as the player version. A Lawyer will play everything by the book and, if it’s not in there, it can’t be done. The main goal of an RPG is for everyone to have fun and that means riffing a little with the rules.
Set The Mood
The mood can make or break an RPG and this is the one element of a game that is the easiest to create. Start by separating the play area from the break area. By doing this, you get your players in the mindset that when they are at the gaming table, they are playing the game. Also, throw on some music. Check out my article about using music and audio tools in roleplaying to get some ideas.
Remember The Golden Rule
Have fun. If, at any time, something is blocking people from having fun, find a way to remove it. Maybe you overpowered your encounter, or forgot an important clue for the puzzle, don’t worry. Improvise a way for the characters to move forward. Have some allies from previous games arrive in the nick of time to help take down the stone giant. Improvise an exploration encounter for the players to find that crucial clue. There should always be a way forward, and that way should be fun.