What does a good Dungeon Master do? He creates a campaign where every single player feels like the main character, he balances forces in an imaginary world and createsÂ challenges in physical (Combat), mental (Riddles) and social (Interaction) ways. Well I know there are a lot of DM advice pages and arcticles out there, but I felt like – a nice checklist could be useful – so I will give it a try.
I’ve used a lot of different products in the past to keep track of my player’s abilities and specialities but I tend to use only very few attributes on the various sheets. Therefore I’ve picked an open spreadsheet and decided to make this one a bit different, with notes for three main fields as said before.
This is where all combat related stuff goes. In section one it’s about your information so you can take a better hold of situations. Combat related for me means you have to know your player’s attacks and weapons as good as possible. Equally important is the kind of armor they wear. This will start improving your descriptions when you make regular use of it (though don’t stress it too much). Instead of the various hit descriptions you can relate to these notes and describe cuts on the leather armor (and take a note of them as well), break chain-links at the shoulder or pierce through plate armor – a red dragon’sÂ breath tends to leave some marks on the skin below the plate armor as well… But I think you get the idea.
Especially when you’re running a action heavy campaign, make sure you know the hitpoints of your characters, it’s not very useful to have an enemyÂ fireball dealing 10d6 (rolled 39) hitpoints when you should know that two of your players have neither a chance to avoid them nor more than 20 hp… Subjective realism isn’t always your best friend when it comes to a tpk after a few hours of gaming.
Last but not least physical specialities should be noted for every character, whether they are Skills or Feats (in terms of D&D) it’s the edge of the various characters and it’s there for you to use as a tool to get the character right into the spotlight – just where he should be on a regular base.
The second main section for me are mental capabilities of the characters. IntelligenceÂ and Intuition might be a good value depending on the system to describe this in general terms. Make sure to keep track of bad roleplaying, as I’ve read it described earlier, the dwarf barbarian that outsmarts the wizard once might be lucky and – funny – but the build-not-so-smart dwarf outwitting the wizard just because the player tries to is not. So try to keep a hold on character stupidity that is negated by players. Furthermore I think it might be handy that you know which of your player’s characters has magical abilities – be they arcane, divine or psionic – I would note them in this field and I would take care not to overstress. Especially useful for these kind of abilities are background ties: guilds, mentors, masters, slavework or whatever else creative came your players to mind when they wrote their background stories. It’s particularly rewarding to find those interacting in the game itself again and I think it’s the minimum you should grant when you like a background story. Last in this section are again specialities – which might be various turning abilities, Feats, maybe Special Spells or similiar things…
Last but not least of section one are social abilities. While social itself might be measured by charisma, I think it’s a good practice to use appearance as a first indicator if someone fits into a meeting / tavern / public court / whatever location you like. It’s not always handy to wear your father’s great plate mail when you’re at court, nor is it very appealing to ladies when they ask you for a dance at the party. It might as well not be very good to wear a formal suit at the thieves guild’s or start haggling when you’re wearing extremely expensive goods visibly on you. So while these two might give a basic indication of first reaction and overall reaction, it’s once again you who should take care of previously mentioned “bad roleplaying” when a player outwits his characters abilities…
Furthermore it’s important note special relationships or guild memberships in this section that might have a background and influence social things as well. Specialities as always should list – special things – feats, abilities, reknown, …
Scene – Highlights:
I’ve had the idea yesterday when it came to the short descent review. There were some guidelines as a dungeon master – and one was more important than any other – make sure your players enjoy the game… So what’s actually the most important thing to enjoy a game? Create spotlights, single or maybe even simple scenes in which you make the characters of your players shine. Mayhap you’ve a player or two that shine by themselves, then everything is alright, but I (may?) doubt that all of the players are equally able to do this all on their own. So – make sure everyone shines every now and then. In my opinion it would be ideal to have every session a situation to let a player shine, showoff in one way or the other. It’s not the simple strike during combat that stuns a player so he will remember it for days to come. It’s more than a throw of dice can achieve and it should be well prepared – at least in your mind. Good ideas are hard to give in “general” terms, but it’s the single spotlight.
A few examples are the (maybe lethal) situations when a thief spots a complex trap, a mage having a superior knowledge of the runes before him because he has seen this before and something is wrong. It’s the warrior’s appeal that draws a few nice women near to him when in the tavern or the bard that sings the song of a single hero or even the whole party when they sit near him. It’s something special. Give it to your players and I guarantee you – your games will be remembered for a long time.
I set that one here as a reminder to myself… to give them this special feeling again in the future… I think i’ve forgotten about that for quite a while now and next time I’m dungeon master this year, I should make sure not to.