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Unflappable
The Dungeon Master Experience
By Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.


MONDAY NIGHT. It's one of those nights when the party's on the ropes. Two players are absent, leaving the group without its fighter and shaman. The wizard just dropped to –9 hit points while trying to fill the "tank" role, the paladin takes 151 points of damage from back-to-back critical hits and has 1 hit point remaining, the ranger is fighting a huge blue dragon by himself, the artificer is imprisoned thousands of miles away, and the rogue can't decide if it's in his best interest to remain invisible or risk discovery by stopping the main villain before she escapes amid the chaos.

My players do the clever thing: they slow things down, take their time, and look toward the clock. It's 9:15 PM. We typically play until 9:30 or 10:00, but their body language tells me they're ready to call it a night, not because they want the session to end but because they know time will freeze just long enough for the fighter and shaman (and maybe even the artificer) to miraculously reappear next week with their triple-digit hit points and unspent encounter powers. Is that cheating? Don't care. Like I said, they're a clever bunch.

A couple years ago, at one of the big conventions, someone asked me what's the best piece of DM advice I'd ever received. I don't remember my reply, but were you to ask me the question today, I would respond as follows: A smart DM sees room for improvement. In other words, a little humility is a good thing.

I don't profess to know everything about DMing, and gods know I can be lazy behind the DM screen. Only two things qualify me to write a weekly column focused on DM advice: (1) I've made more than my share of mistakes, and (2) I've learned from many of them. There's no substitute for experience, and everyone knows you learn more from mistakes than success.

Every serious DM, like every serious storyteller, develops a unique style. Just like skiers and painters, first you learn the basics, and then you experiment. I can tell you about all the things I do behind the DM screen, but my style is not your style. My education is not the same as your education. The things that inspire me as a DM aren't the same things that inspire you.


My education as a DM began by absorbing the contents of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide (1st and 2nd Edition), but it took years of running adventures and campaigns for me to develop a DMing style that made me comfortable. I didn't have the Internet to fall back on, so I pilfered tricks from other DMs as well as actors, directors, screenwriters, and novelists. I made a lot of conscious and unconscious choices along the way to suit my preferred style; for example, I've met DMs who are very animated behind the screen. My style is the polar opposite, being much more relaxed and still, except when necessity or variety demands that I flap my arms and honk at the top of my lungs like a loon.

These days, I develop my DMing skills through weekly practice and occasionally learn new tricks by reading blogs written by other DMs. My favorite is the ENnie Award-winning Gnome Stew, which has the advantage of having several different contributors. Check it out; it's well worth your time. There's also a really good article written for a blog called Beneath the Screen titled "Top 10 New Dungeon Master Mistakes". The blog is no longer being updated, but the article presents sound DM advice in a clear, concise fashion. It focuses on constructive suggestions, which makes it doubly valuable to DMs looking to step up their games. Clearly, if you're reading this article, you're the type of DM who doesn't mind wasting a few minutes online reading about other DMs' experiences, so I figured I'd share a couple of my favorites.

Lessons Learned

What one word best describes your DMing style?

If you can answer this question, then you're probably self-aware enough to know your strengths and limitations as a DM. If I had to describe my DMing style in one word, it would probably be unflappable. If you've ever watched the live D&D Penny Arcade games or listened to the podcasts, I think you'd probably agree with me. I wouldn't say it comes naturally; it's takes effort to be unflappable, but it's made DMing so easy and stress-free that I'm rarely thrown off my game by anything the players might do or say.

Case in point, here are three things that used to drive me crazy at the game table. They used to be pet peeves, but they no longer bother me. In fact, I've come to accept these behaviors as part of the default D&D game experience:

Players texting during the game: Don't care. All of my players have iPhones, which are like extensions of their bodies and brains. If by texting their friends or spouses they become momentarily distracted from the game, I don't take offense. They're just optimizing their time. When their turns come around, I'll get their attention easily enough.

Players not taking the bait. Don't care. In any given game session, I like to know where the characters are headed. However, my players are smart enough to know when I'm trying to lure them in a particular direction. As much as I hope they'll move forward, sometimes they veer left or right. Sometimes they stand still. Sometimes they turn around and walk back the way they came, just for the hell of it. Whatever. If they don't take the bait, I'll wing it. No problem. Hopefully they'll have a good time regardless.

Players who "cheat." Don't care. Sometimes the line between player knowledge and character knowledge gets blurry, and my players "forget" that their characters don't know as much as they do. Every so often, they make tactical decisions based on information their characters don't actually possess, typically when the party's in dire straits and a little "cheating" could save thousands of gold pieces in Raise Dead expenses. I'd probably do the same thing in their shoes, and as far as cheating goes, that's pretty mild. It used to bug the heck out of me for some reason. Not anymore. At least I don't have players who fudge their die rolls. ("Woohoo, another crit!" Yeah, right.)

So, what's your style?

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Hey DMs: Which of the following non-evil D&D gods would be the most fun to roleplay?
Avandra (goddess of change, luck, and travel; patron of halflings) 232 17.1%
Bahamut (god of justice, protection, and nobility; patron of dragonborn) 102 7.5%
Corellon (god of beauty, art, and magic; patron of eladrin) 46 3.4%
Erathis (goddess of civilization, inventions, and law) 54 4.0%
Ioun (goddess of knowledge, skill, and prophecy) 76 5.6%
Kord (god of storms, battle, and strength) 233 17.2%
Melora (goddess of wilderness, nature, and the sea) 26 1.9%
Moradin (god of family and creation; patron of dwarves) 98 7.2%
Pelor (god of the sun, agriculture, and time) 32 2.4%
Sehanine (goddess of illusion, love, and the moon; patron of elves) 115 8.5%
The Raven Queen (goddess of death, fate, and doom) 344 25.3%
Total 1358 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #96

 What one word best describes your DMing style?  
Adaptable/Flexible
Brutal/Unforgiving
Chaotic/Haphazard
Collaborative
Disorganized
Dynamic/Energetic
Entertaining/Fun
Lackadaisical
Lenient
Light-hearted/Whimsical
Nervous
Organized
Relaxed/Unflappable
Secretive
Story-focused
Strict
Other (leave a comment)

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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