What You Learn as a Dungeon Master

How I Got Into This

I jumped in fairly early on the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) bandwagon.  TSR published the original D&D rules in 1974; I persuaded my brother-in-law to run an initial game for my friends and me, as I recall, sometime around 1977.  Playing was fun, but what really attracted me was running a game.  It’s the worldbuilding, of course.

I started my own campaign on June 22, 1979.  Ultimately it ran for about 28 years realtime, fifteen years internal (game) time, and two generations (I ended up continuing the game for my kids and their friends).  The last recorded adventures occurred in 2008.  That’s beginning to seem like a long time ago . . .

Being the “Dungeon Master” (“DM”) or Game Master was great fun—but a heck of a lot of work.  Eventually I gave it up in favor of writing, which scratches somewhat the same storytelling itch.  But running a game also teaches some memorable lessons.

Before we take a look at what one learns as a DM, I’m going to provide a very quick overview of how D&D works, in case anybody out there isn’t familiar.  Those of you who already know can join us again at the next subheading below.

How D&D Works

Many different diceD&D is the best-known example of a “tabletop RPG,” or role-playing game.  Unlike an online RPG, it’s played by a bunch of people sitting around a table.  All you really need to play is pencil and paper, and some odd-looking dice.  (In fact, when my son and his buddies suddenly demanded I show them how to play D&D while on a Scout camping trip, I did without the dice; borrowed a couple of coins from someone to toss for randomizing.)  Typically, though, players will use other aids, such as miniature figures and a whiteboard or similar surface to make it easier to visualize what’s going on in a battle.  And rulebooks—did I mention rulebooks?  More on that below . . .

In chess and many other games, each of us is playing an army, more or less.  In Risk, each player embodies a whole country.  In Monopoly, we might consider each player an individual (that little stout guy with the top hat?), but it might as well be a corporation; the arbitrary placemarkers, the shoe and iron and racecar and such, don’t have personalities.  But in a RPG, each player plays a person, and the individual characteristics and personality of that person make the game what it is.  We’re playing a role, as the name tells us.

Kids playing D&D in the movie E.T.Each character in an RPG has a set of characteristics:  numerical scores for strength, endurance, dexterity, charisma, and so on.  (Remember in E.T. how the D&D-playing kids insult each other by saying things like “Zero Charisma”?)  Same with the monsters and other entities, and the people the players meet on their adventures—“non-player characters” or NPCs.  A complex set of rules govern how these factors interact:  if my character swings a sword at the dragon, what are my chances of doing any damage, and how much?

Yet, unlike chess or Go, D&D is free-form.  Any player can try any feat they can think up—and the DM has to figure out how to deal with it.  “I grab the rope and swing across like Tarzan, slashing at the dragon as I pass over it,” one player might say.  It’s up to the DM to decide what chance the character has of succeeding—which is why the DM is sometimes referred to as the “referee.”  If the innumerable rulebooks don’t cover that specific situation, the DM has to come up with something.  (For example, in my long-running game or “campaign,” I eventually had to invent a table to determine the chances of getting pregnant . . . But that’s another story.)

In other words, each player plays an individual character, but the DM “plays” the entire rest of the world.  The DM decides where the players start out (“You meet at an inn”), who they meet, how the innkeeper or the martial-arts trainer or the ogre down the street behaves, what the climate’s like, the politics and social structures—everything.  You can borrow some of this from a pre-designed game module, which Wizards of the Coast (today’s successor to TSR) will happily sell you.  But in the end, the DM provides the entire world in which the players carry out their exploits.

Note that the DM isn’t playing against the characters.  I’m not competing with the players for game goals.  Rather, my job as a DM is simply to create a background and a storyline in which the players can have fun, deciding for themselves what to do.  It’s a novel perspective.

D&D is a fantasy-based RPG, in which players take on the roles of warriors, wizards, healers, rogues, and the like.  There are RPGs of all kinds, from science fiction variants to those set in the present day; even, heaven forfend, Cthulhu Mythos RPGs (to hark back to the last post).  A group of players may take their characters through one adventure after another, improving their skills and “leveling up,” accumulating loot and buying better equipment—or dying and losing it all.  In which case, unlike real life, you simply “roll up” another character (randomly generating ability scores) and start over.  Games can be as varied as the DM’s imagination allows—and that’s where the DM’s personality and expertise come in.

What a Player Learns

We can start with what the D&D player, as well as the DM, learns from the game.  If you think of this as an educational exercise for kids (and why not?), one thing they’ll pick up is a general sense of probabilities.  For example, a twelve-sided die (“d12”) goes up to a maximum score of 12, just like two conventional six-sided dice (“2d6”).  But if you’re rolling a d12, you have an equal chance of getting any of the possible numbers (including 1), whereas with 2d6 you have a greater chance of rolling a 7 than of getting a 2 or a 12.  Look!  We’re teaching them math.  No, really, honest . . .

Wizard casting fireballIf the DM is any good, the player will also pick up some basic physics.  When a wizard casts a fireball spell, for instance, the rulebook specifies how much volume the resulting fireball takes up.  I suspect every player group eventually goes through that painful learning experience where their wizard confidently hurls a fireball in some confined dungeon chamber or hallway . . . only to find that as it expands in the limited space, the fireball bounces back and barbecues the wizard and his allies as well as the hapless orcs.  After that, they’re more careful.

Which brings up the question of how to keep things realistic, which is mostly the DM’s responsibility.  Of course, the game isn’t going to be realistic, strictly speaking.  I’ve not encountered many dragons or orcs strolling down the street in real life.  But like any story, a D&D environment needs enough coherence to achieve that “willing suspension of disbelief” that makes the experience enjoyable.


When I created my D&D world or milieu, the Relitaria, I had to decide whether to change the laws of physics.  (It’s a fantasy; you can do that.)  Maybe it would be fun to have breathable air extending all the way out to the planets, so you actually could fly to the Moon on a giant moth.  But I decided it would be way too hard to figure out what would happen in a complex situation if I started making up an entirely new physics.  If my players decided to light a fire and make a hot-air balloon, I’d have to stop and try to figure out how lighter-than-air craft worked under my ersatz laws of nature.  The real world enforces consistency; my fictional universe would have no such guarantee.  So one thing I realized is—it’s easier to stick with the laws of the real world, with minor adjustments.

Maintaining that kind of internal consistency pays off, in the end.  At one point I took my players off on an interplanetary adventure (in a scientifically plausible universe!) that I thought might awaken interest in a science fiction RPG.  But while my players did okay, they didn’t seem to be entirely comfortable with the offbeat offworld adventure.  I finally concluded that I’d built my fantasy world so consistently that throwing in an entirely different kind of setting undermined their suspension of disbelief.  Of course, I’m only speculating; but I chose to take that reaction as a compliment, in a backhanded sort of way, to the coherence of the Relitarian setting.

Make Your Own Kind of Rules

Gettysburg board game, box coverOn the other hand, one thing that quickly becomes apparent in running a D&D game is the trade-off between realism and playability.  I’d seen this before in the Avalon Hill-type simulation wargames.  As my buddies and I moved from Gettysburg (1958) to D-Day (1961) and onward, the rules and initial setup became so complex that it would take all day just to read through the rules and set up your pieces, without even starting play.  That might result in a very good simulation, but not an especially enjoyable afternoon.

In a similar way, if we focus too sharply on realism in D&D, we can bog down into spending all our time looking up rules and telling the players what they’re allowed to do, which isn’t fun for anybody.  A good DM gets a feel for when to stick closely to the rules, when to ignore them, and when to improvise a little.  This experience comes in handy when, for example, you’re raising children.

When we’re inside the rules, as it were, making and remaking them, we also begin to develop a sense of why rules are made and what kinds of rules are best.  We recognize more clearly that rules are there for a purpose, and it’s by that purpose that they must be judged.  If a rule is making the game less rather than more fun for the players, maybe it’s time to jettison that rule—and the impartial DM is free to do so.  The same principle may apply with respect to those mutual and enforceable rules that we call law.  If a law is doing more harm than good, it may be better to change the law; although changing laws requires a more careful and balanced set of procedures than those of the lone autocratic DM.

Storytelling With Real Characters

We can put on a rudimentary D&D campaign by just imagining some kind of ruins—the stereotypical “dungeon”—full of randomly assorted monsters and treasure, and setting the players loose to investigate.  But a really interesting campaign, one that keeps the players genuinely engaged over time, requires more than that.  We want ongoing dangers and plotlines, recurring characters who are interesting in themselves, scenes of wonder, scenes of horror, comic relief.  We want, in other words, the same things that draw us into any fantasy story.  Because the DM is not just defining a stage setting, but developing a story in which the players will want to participate.  So DMing engages the storytelling function too.

But not in the usual way.  We hear authors bemoan how their characters won’t cooperate and stubbornly go off in their own directions, much to the author’s dismay.  (And I want to take a closer look at that metaphor, one of these days.)  But in a tabletop RPG with real live players, the characters really are self-willed and prone to go off in directions the DM never expected.  One mark of a really good DM, then, is to be able to roll with the punches and adapt smoothly to whatever may happen.

In one adventure, I had arranged for the bad guys to frame the player-characters for a dreadful murder and then escape into the distance, full of fiendish glee.  That was fine; but a couple of my players were unexpectedly determined to give chase, and they kept it up much longer than I’d expected.  In fact, they ran right off the edge of the detailed map I had created for the session.  Now what?

Map with compass and coinsFortunately, I had long ago laid out the large-scale map into which the detailed map was fitted; so I had at least some idea of the kind of country they were heading into.  Within that known context, I could invent on the spot the particular scenery or towns along the road—quickly scribbling them down so I could go back later and fill those details in on the map, so that next time the players passed that way, they’d see the same locales as before.  (Consistency, remember.)  Eventually I got them to give up on the chase, and we could get back to the further events I had planned out . . . more or less.

The dramatic appeal of the story is also subject to the group’s whims.  At one point, my dauntless players, carrying a MacGuffin and hotly pursued by enemies, made it to the cavern of an elderly wizard with whom they were acquainted.  My idea was for the wizard to point them to a rear exit, and insist on staying behind to engage the baddies, perishing nobly in a dramatic rearguard action.  What happened when the wizard outlined this self-sacrificing plan?  Our cantankerous player-character warrior socked the wizard, threw him over his shoulder, and carried him out with the players as they escaped—ditching my tear-jerker moment altogether.  It was perfectly in character for this warrior; all I could do was grin and abandon my original plan, devoting myself instead to finding a way to make sure the players made good their escape despite the lack of a delaying rearguard.  Sometimes a poignant scene turns into a pratfall, and we have to roll with it.

Well-Planned Improvisation

These incidents exemplify the need for a combination of careful pre-planning and the ability to improvise at will.  It was because I had the large-scale map already drawn that I was able smoothly to interpolate the necessary details.

Oral argument in courtroomThis is true in all kinds of other areas.  The same combination of skills comes in handy in a negotiation, where we need to be familiar enough with the issues and possibilities so that we can respond promptly to unexpected counter-arguments or novel suggestions.  It’s the same reason that a lawyer prepares in excruciating detail for an oral argument before an appellate court, even though the judges are likely to start asking their own questions as soon as the lawyer starts talking and take the conversation off in a direction she couldn’t anticipate.  If we know the terrain, that gives us the best chance of being able to maneuver through it when the unexpected occurs.

This balance of traits is not unlike the metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog, as developed by John Lewis Gaddis in his recent book On Grand Strategy (2018).  The successful leader, Gaddis suggests, is the one who can be attentive simultaneously to the overall objective of a campaign, and to the practical details that must be managed to attain that objective.  This seems to be true in many more areas of life than just military or political leadership.

So I’ve learned a surprising amount about leadership, and coping with life in general, from running a D&D campaign.  There’s nothing we can’t learn from, and often put to use in surprisingly practical ways—no matter how fantastic the source may be.