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.
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.
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.
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.