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Until the Next Encounter
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.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT. It's been months since the PCs sacrificed themselves to destroy Vecna and save their home island of Irindol from annihilation. Well, we finally reconvened for a campaign epilogue, during which I tied up loose ends before initiating an out-of-game conversation with my players to answer campaign-related questions and "pull back the curtain" on a few unsolved mysteries. Once the players knew everything there was to know, we talked a little about my ideas for the next campaign.

I began writing this column two years ago, at the urging of friends and colleagues who felt I had a lot to say about DMing. Turns out they were right. The trick was to find things to say that (a) haven't already been said ad nauseum in books, blogs, and other works, and (b) foster intelligent discourse on the art of Dungeon Mastering. By pulling examples from my home campaign, I've tried to share the lessons I've learned from my own successes and failures. Having now written over one hundred articles on the subject, I feel the time is right to highlight several key bits of advice — things I consider important above all others — for readers who don't have the wherewithal to read every installment of The Dungeon Master Experience that has come before.

Without further adieu . . .

Lessons Learned

Here's my Top 10 list of DM tips in no particular order.

1. Honor the social contract. If your players are behind you and behind the game, do them the service of running the campaign fair and square.

2. Forget what the rules say about building encounters. A rollercoaster needs peaks and valleys to be fun. Design encounters that you think your players will enjoy. Easy encounters can be just as fun and memorable as hard ones, and a TPK doesn't have to spell the end of the campaign.

3. Look to storytelling giants for inspiration. I'm not talking about other DMs, but rather actors, writers, and directors with a gift for storytelling. In previous articles, I've shared several of my great inspirations. What are yours?

4. Think of three big stories. Make them the pillars of your campaign. Let the PCs' actions and decisions determine which of these stories becomes important, but keep the other stories moving forward to make your world feel alive.

5. Record everything that happens. If a player says something clever, write it down. If you name a tavern or NPC on the fly, write it down. If the session ends with one character lying face down in a pool of blood with two failed death saves, write that down, too. Don't trust your memory; it will betray you.

6. Let the players bring the food. You have plenty of other things to worry about.

7. Do what you must to keep the campaign alive. Sometimes that means swapping out players from time to time. Surround yourself with supportive players, and they'll keep the campaign alive for you. Other times that means ditching storylines that aren't going anywhere and taking the plot in a new direction.

8. Lighten up. It's a game. If you and your players aren't having fun, you're doing something wrong. Don't let the campaign get too dark. D&D offers a welcome reprieve from the doldrums of the real world — or at least it should.

9. Don't forget to roleplay. It's a roleplaying game. Get into character. Practice your funny voices. Usually I urge people to be themselves behind the screen, but don't pass up a chance to be someone else for five minutes.

10. Don't be afraid. Tell your story, let the players tell their stories, and make the most of it. Pull out the big guns, aim high, and don't let up. Not everything will be perfect, but every game session is a new chance to get it right. The only thing you have to fear is running out of ideas, and that will never happen.

There you have it.

Next week's article will be the last in this series — at least for a while. As much as I enjoy writing the column, it takes a large chunk of my time, and other projects are demanding more of my attention (not just D&D Next stuff but personal projects as well, including my next campaign and that Star Frontiers screenplay I've been hammering on). The articles I've written thus far are enough fill two Dungeon Master's Guides, and I'm feeling pretty good about that, and there's a decent chance I'll revive the column once my D&D Next campaign gets underway, but no promises. Thanks to everyone who offered praise and criticism, who embraced my advice or challenged it. I urge you to tune in next week for the farewell installment, and I hope my experiences behind the screen have helped you and your campaign.

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Previous Poll Results

Hey DMs: How BIG is too big for your campaign?
Characters fighting gods. 237 22.5%
Characters fighting giant robots. 206 19.6%
Characters fighting a dozen beholders. 35 3.3%
Characters fighting cartwheeling clowns. 176 16.7%
Characters fighting a flock of dragons. 29 2.8%
Characters fighting kobold ninjas. 24 2.3%
All of the above. 92 8.7%
None of the above (leave a comment) 253 24.0%
Total 1052 100.0%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll #105

 Which piece of DM advice do you consider the most important?  
1. Honor the social contract.
2. Forget what the rules say about building encounters.
3. Look to others for inspiration.
4. Think of three big stories.
5. Record everything that happens.
6. Let the players bring the food.
7. Do what you must to keep the campaign alive.
8. Lighten up.
9. Don't forget to roleplay.
10. Don't be afraid.
None of the above (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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