What's A Dungeon Master?
Tabletop Role-playing games represent one of the most dynamic and unique play experiences there is. On the one hand, they involve rules and mechanics that would satisfy any strategy gamer. On the other hand, they offer the freedom for players to let their imaginations loose.
The richness of RPGs comes at a cost; tabletop RPGs are inherently complex and resource intensive. They involve a group of committed players, a decent amount of play time (3-4 hours minimum per session), and most importantly, someone willing to run the games.
No Role-playing game is complete without a Dungeon Master (DM, sometimes referred to as a Games Master, or GM). The Dungeon Master takes on the responsibility of creating the whole game world and making it come alive for the players. This is no easy task. Players in the game simply follow their characters motivations and play by the rules. Dungeon Masters, on the other hand, are responsible for creating the game world, guiding the characters through the story, managing combat and skill encounters, and coping with the spontaneity that is inherent to Role-playing games.
Dungeon Mastering involves wearing many hats. Being the DM means bearing the responsibility of making the game fun. If you're interested in becoming a Dungeon Master, or have already started but want more insight into what really goes into managing games, read on.
The Many Hats
1. Creative Director
Every campaign is set somewhere, and part of the DM's job is designing the world the players will play in. As the Dungeon Master, you are responsible for illustrating the world around your players, from the smallest details of a dungeon to the vast and complex political history of a nation.
Tabletop role-playing games fit all manner of settings, from medieval fantasy campaigns to futuristic worlds. Whatever setting you choose, the DM must create maps, lore, descriptions and role-playing encounters that fit their vision of the campaign, and must respond to their characters consistent to the guidelines of their setting.
One of the most enjoyable features of RPGs is their narrative quality. Players are not simply playing a game, they are writing a story together. Every choice they make contributes to the overall tale of the party. While the players are the actors, directly involved in each scene, the Dungeon Master is the director, providing cues to what the characters should do next.
Just like the setting, its you who chooses the direction of the story. You decide who inhabits the world and what opportunities and demands they put onto the player characters. You work with your characters natural motivations to create situations that challenge them to fulfil their characters hopes and dreams. You have the task of taking a series of chaotic sessions and threading them together into a meaningful and coherent story that grips your player characters until the very end.
3. Judge, Jury and Executioner
Tabletop role-playing games are not simply a group of people getting together to play out a story. They're a game, and games have rules. All RPGs rely on some mechanic to help the players determine what they can do. This normally involves rolling dice and trying to beat a certain number.
You decide every rule, and its your job is to keep players following the rules. You're responsible for determining how easy or difficult it is for your players to be successful, what kind of roll is used to breath fire, and whether or not a players magical sword is infused with lightning or frost. Most gaming systems also give dungeon masters certain license over the rules, allowing them to add or subtract mechanics at will, as well as brining in their own.
As if enforcing the rules of the game weren't enough, the DM has another job: enforcing the rules of the world. Unique to each setting will be laws, ethics and a moral code which players must subscribe to. With so much freedom available to them, player-characters need to be given guidance about what choices will benefit them most. If one of your players gets a hankering for someone's gold purse but fails his pickpocket check, its important that that player gets what's coming to him, which is probably a night in jail.
4. Everyone's Worst Enemy
The DM is responsible for creating every part of the setting, including the not so nice stuff. The DM controls all the bad guys, from the pack of bandits the players need to track down to their arch enemy who constantly harries them. This illustrates the unique challenge of being a Dungeon Master; while every other person in the room is working together, you're trying to constantly foil them.
5. Benevolent Provider
As much as your players might hate during combat, they'll love you twice as much when its all over and they've just looted the bodies.The Dungeon Master may create the challenges, but he also doles out the rewards.
Most RPGs involve a number of different reward systems, in the form of tangible objects (loot) as well as character progression (levelling up). Part of the motivation for fighting through all the combat encounters you create is that characters expect to be rewarded through treasure and new skills and abilities for their characters. Your job is to manage this, bestowing justly deserved rewards to the players periodically throughout the game.
Mastering Your Dungeon
The list above is hardly exhaustive, but it begins to touch upon all the challenges being a Dungeon Master entails. Look forward to more articles in the Mastering Your Dungeon series, which will explore other topics related to Dungeon Mastering.