Thursday, March 25, 2010

Dungeon Mastery Principles

I’m still working on figuring out what my ideal dungeon mastering approach is. To that end I’ve cobbled together some essential principles. These are the things you do when you play that aren’t rules or even exactly techniques.* They’re the things I want to think about when I’m not sure what to say next, or when I want to make what I say next as striking as possible.

I’m not competent or even particularly good at most of these yet, but it’s a target to shoot for.

Channel the dungeon

Use your intuition of the dungeon world to good effect, so that when the PC’s do something, you can come back at them with twisted environments, hair-raising situations, and exciting turns. This is about keeping a heap of dungeon-flavored stuff, smells, situations, and descriptions on hand so you can wield it with authority when needed. Make the game real and interesting.

Aim the game at the characters

Make the game real and interest for the characters. Address the characters by name paint a picture of their situation. Put them in the world.

Aim the game session at the players

Don’t forget that this is about friends having fun together. Don’t neglect the food, environment, music, small talk and horsing around that’s part of a game session.

Put the dungeon in the imagination

Lead with cool imaginary stuff and put rules stuff second. Make it so that you can literally see the current situation in your mind’s eye. Convey that to the players. Then use rules stuff to make sure everyone understands how that situation impacts dice rolls and things like that.

Don’t get precious about “my stuff”

Players will mess up your plots, kill your villains, mock and ignore your PCs, tear up your plot, and meet your well-laid plan with indifference. Let them, but make it fun. On the other hand, if you absolutely need them to go on a particular mission or talk to a particular guy, just tell them. That’s game session stuff, not character stuff.

Name stuff

Give stuff names and make it act like it deserves that name. Make it up. Write it down. If a character asks who built the dungeon, make up some cool ancient civilization. Give the barkeep a name and a personality. Provide an interesting history about the +2 dagger when it’s needed. Also, give the monsters an opportunity to act like people, when that’s needed. Or even better, make the monsters act like totally twisted alien strange deformed things when it will cause the characters maximum consternation.

Draw connections

Whenever appropriate draw connections between all that named stuff. Connect the +2 dagger with the lost civilization, the barkeep with the hireling, and the twisted monster thing with the dewy-eyed priestess at the temple. Draw those connections back to a character. So the forgotten god of the ancient civilization doesn’t just enervate the magic dagger, but it whispers tantalizing secrets to one of the PCs in her dreams.

Think offscreen

Keep the world lively and alive even when it’s off screen – just enough to make the character’s lives interesting. So when the characters come back to a previous area, maybe it has new denizens. I was listening to a podcast yesterday where the party kept abandoning dead hirelings around the place – until one of them came shuffling up to them in full ghoul mode. That’s thinking offscreen. If the characters find the evil temple where the ritual is in full swing, and decide to retreat back out of the dungeon instead of interrupting it, think about what that ritual just did to make their lives more interesting.

Realizing that these are the principles I want has been pretty good for me in terms of evaluating my own dungeon mastering style. A simple list of priorities is really helpful to me. It helps keep me from going off on my own creative tangent instead of concentrating on what will make the game great. This is just a tentative list. There’s probably stuff missing, as well as stuff I left out, that other people really want on their own list.

* I’m taking principles (again) from Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, with some repurposing for myself. In that game, the principles are those things you think about when you’re the GM and it’s your turn to speak. They inform what you say. Some of Vincent’s principles are specific to his game, and some are night universal. I’ve stolen from Vincent freely. Sorry, Vincent.

Labels: ,


Blogger squidman said...

Very good post! Unluckily it reminds me about the faults of my own dungeon mastering.

March 25, 2010 at 9:58 AM

Blogger Chris Bennett said...

I like it. This is a very intuitive approach to dungeon mastering. Which is totally different than the "run it how it's written" approach that I used in the 80s.

March 25, 2010 at 12:48 PM

Blogger juliusz said...

Very interesting!

Maybe this question is kinda naive (for I've never been into dungeons and the like) but what, in your opinion, would be DM agenda here (as a counterpart of MC agenda in AW)?

March 29, 2010 at 5:29 AM

Blogger Rose Bailey said...

I've been writing a series on dungeons. ( ) Would you mind me citing this post in a future installment?

March 29, 2010 at 10:37 AM

Blogger Rose Bailey said...

Also, subscribing to thread.

March 29, 2010 at 10:51 AM

Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks, guys! I'm trying these ideas out again this week, I hope. I'll let you know how it goes.

@juliusz Vincent's agendas are pretty good, I think. For my purposes, I'm going to use some stuff I've already written here, be the eyes and ears of the PCS:

and make the dungeon world real:

Vincent has "make the characters lives not boring" as an agenda. I think maybe that's already built into the idea of going down into the dungeon looking for trouble, so maybe it doesn't need to be a DM agenda. I'm still pondering that.

@Russel cite away! I like the blog - adding it to my roll.

March 29, 2010 at 11:46 AM

Blogger Chris Bennett said...

Here's another one I've been using from my improv experiences:

Find a way to "say yes" to the players.

"I'm a strong barbarian. I want to knock the entire altar over!"

Response A: "What?! That's way too heavy dude. Sorry."

Response B: "Damn, you can do it but it's going to be tough. Roll 5 dice under your ST. One other person can help by adding half their ST. But if you fail, a green slime in the cave ceiling will drop down on you. Cool?"

Which is more fun for the players?

May 3, 2010 at 11:05 AM


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home