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Avoid these 10 mistakes to be a better Dungeon Master

Updated: Mar 10

The art of DMing is a beautiful and continuous pursuit, and whether you're a new DM or an experienced one, we all have something to learn.


If you’re wanting to keep your players coming back for more in your D&D games, make sure you avoid the 10 mistakes we’ll discuss in this blog.


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#1 Don’t railroad your players

Choice is a central component of the roleplaying experience. A large part of the reason that many of us play is because we get the choice to be someone different and do different things than we do in our daily lives.


This is why you shouldn’t railroad your players. If you haven’t come across the term before, railroading is forcing something to happen. Typically, we use it to refer to things that are forced to happen in the plot, for example a forced scenario or forced outcome. Imagine there’s an encounter with a big bad evil guy, and he’s summoning a Demon. An example of railroading would be giving the opponent plot armor so he can’t die or be incapacitated until he’s finished the summoning ritual. This could be more or less obvious, and in some cases a bit of railroading can be OK.


If the DM secretly gives the opponent more hit points to ensure the ritual happens and the encounter begins more interesting as a result, that’s probably fine. But if a player casts Banishment on the big bad evil guy and he visibly fails his save, yet doesn’t get banished, that’s pretty obvious railroading and should be avoided.


Really consider any decision that you make that contradicts either the rules of the game, the fundamental laws of the game world, or logic, because it can leave players not trusting the game world or its rules arbiter, you the DM.


I was playing in a game recently and it felt like the entire plot was a railroad experience. The introduction seemed forced and on a timer. It didn’t seem to matter what the party did until a set point in time, at which point something was forced to happen and we couldn’t stop it. We then had to chase the guy that did the thing, and we were told that they were faster than us and we couldn’t catch up with them with no explanation as to why. In the final part of the session, after I went through a door to enter a building, then turned around to try to open the door again, I was told it was magically sealed shut with no plausible explanation as to why. Personally, fog walls work for me in Souls games, but not D&D. Don’t be that DM and I guarantee your players will feel much more like they belong in the game and at the table.


#2 Don’t limit your players

This is the flipside of the last mistake. Don’t limit your players unless you have a good reason to.


I love roleplaying video games. These days, titles like Baldur’s Gate 3 have amazing graphics and gameplay and let players explore fantastic worlds and go on epic quests. But they still fall short of a good session at the table for me. Why is that? Because even though a company like Larian Studios spends huge amounts of money trying to, they can’t program every possible decision a player may make into a game.


In D&D, your imagination is the only limit, and it should be for your players, too.


Whatever whacky idea a player has, if it’s in keeping with the fundamental laws of the world you’re playing in and doesn’t lead to a poorer experience for the rest of the party, a good DM should always let a player explore them.


Actions should have consequences, of course, and many ideas a player has may not have the effect that they were hoping for, or be good for the player or the party, but it’s important to give your players the choice, even if it ends badly.


Otherwise, we may as well just play games like Baldur’s Gate 3.


Obviously there are many benefits to roleplaying that you don't get from playing a video game. These days, I spend very little time playing video games as I don't like the limitations inherent in them, even great ones like Baldur's Gate 3.

 

#3 Don’t overprepare your sessions

When you start DMing, you quickly find out that you can’t account for all of the possible ways players may interact with the content you present them with.


I have always run custom games in D&D, and I’ve never used a module. When I first started DMing, I would spend hours and hours planning complex adventures and dungeons with branching paths, writing down different skill checks that may be made or different ways a party may interact with a challenge, and building interesting encounters. Most of that time was wasted, because the party didn’t interact with most of the content.


These days, I spend very little time at all preparing sessions, typically a couple of hours or less, usually starting a day or before a session. This doesn’t only save valuable time, but it gives flexibility and makes it much less likely I’ll be tempted to railroad the party. If I have spent hours building a side-quest, then I’d probably want to try to convince the party to go on the quest. If I instead spent much less time outlining 5 different quests that the party could go on, then I can offer the party the chance to choose which they want to pursue.

 

Another tip is not to prepare anything more than a session in advance. If you reach the end of a quest or arc, outline the choices to your players at the end of a session and ask them which they want to pursue, then prepare what you need for just the next session based on the party’s choices.

 

#4 Don’t forget to consider your players' preferences

Making great games means making a great shared experience. Everyone involved will like some aspects of your games more than others, and if you aren’t careful, some aspects may leave some players with a bad taste in their mouth.


Don’t forget to ask your players about their preferences so you can craft the best experience for everyone. You can do this in a session zero, where you ask players about their preferences before the game properly begins, and also check in by asking your players for feedback after each session.


Player preferences include fundamental things like which pronouns a player wants to be addressed with, preferences for how a game is run, game themes, and balance of game mechanics, for example combat, roleplaying and puzzles.


Asking your players about their preferences can help you improve your games and lead to a better experience for everyone. While it’s all too easy to run a game in a fantasy setting because it’s the done thing, you may be missing out on an even better experience if every player at the table loves sci-fi and would prefer a sci-fi setting.


To have the best overall experience for everyone, try to balance everyone’s preferences. If most players really love combat, but one really loves puzzles, make sure to put a puzzle in the game every so often, and have lots of combats. If it’s the opposite way around, it would be better to have fewer combats and more puzzles. 


I’ve put together a short player preferences questionnaire that you can use to support asking your players about their preferences and use in your session zeroes.



 

#5 Don’t expect players to get the rules right

There are a lot of rules in D&D. Some people like them and like following them, while others would prefer for things to be a little looser. You’re likely to have players that fall in both camps in your games. Whether you like the rules or not, the structure that they provide can be one of your best friends as a DM. It helps provide an even footing for all players and avoid balance issues that can leave players feeling left out of the game.


Don’t expect your players to get the rules right. Keep an eye out for your players misinterpreting the rules, and if something seems too powerful, feel free to question it. This can go for anything, including bonuses a player is adding to their rolls, class abilities, features or spell effects.


A great example here is Wild Shape. I’ve been in multiple games run by inexperienced DMs that accepted a player’s understanding of the Wild Shape feature without questioning it, and allowed players to shift into creatures with a challenge rating more or less equal to the character’s level. This is obviously imbalanced as it likely allows a single character to solo the encounter, leading me to wonder what the point of taking part was.


Some more fundamental rules that are often forgotten are spell component requirements, interactions, and concentration checks.


Want to help your players get the rules right? Check out my printable set of free rules reference cards – keeping a copy by the table may help players that have rules questions.


Print a set of my free rules references cards and keep them by the table to give players easier access to important rules

 

#6 Don’t let players derail your games

Every person, and personality, around the game table is different. While you may have some great players that always support the game, some players may, intentionally or otherwise, take actions that can derail the game in various ways.


Players themselves, or the way they play their characters, can derail games, and it’s important to curb these behaviors.


Players can derail games by making inappropriate comments at inopportune times, repeatedly questioning your decisions, constantly wanting to be the center of your attention, or telling other players how they should be play their characters.


Player characters can derail games by taking actions that cause disruption, such as attacking or stealing from important NPCs, guards, or other party members. A typical piece of great advice is to not allow players to play characters with an Evil alignment, unless the party is on board with this.  


The best way to curb negative behaviors depends on the player and behavior in question and could be the subject of a full blog, but some advice is to consider whether it may be most appropriate to question problem behaviors publicly or privately, and make sure to remain courteous and explain the situation to the player.

 

#7 Don’t let individual players dominate your attention

One of the behaviors that can derail your games is attention hogging. This deserves more explanation, and leads to a potential mistake of its own.


There are a couple of types of attention hogging players. Let’s call them the “friendly” attention hog and the “me-me” attention hog. The first is just really engaged with the game and wants to play their part in it. They’re probably paying attention continuously throughout the session, and may be helping other players with tactics or advice. The second, on the other hand, wants to be the hero of every story, and likely gets bored and possibly disruptive if they aren’t involved in the action.


Either way, a game of D&D is a shared experience, and you shouldn’t let any one player dominate your attention. The friendly attention hog sounds great. We all want our players to engage with the game, especially if we aren’t confident in the game we’re running and want some continuous positive feedback and someone to continue to drive the story forward. But it would definitely be a mistake to rely too much on just the engaged players and forget about the rest.


Some methods you can use to help with this are using social initiative or calling out specific players or characters to share their thoughts during the session. Some players prefer to stay on the sidelines, but you should make sure they aren’t forgotten. If you have players that tend to remain quiet during sessions, it may be helpful to ask them how they’re finding the sessions and if there’s anything you could do to improve them, such as asking them for their thoughts more often. 


I had an experience like this in an Adventurer’s League game I played recently. I always do my best to remain engaged during a session – it’s just good manners – and I actively try to help DMs move the story forward when I can see it’s stalling. The DM in that game quickly picked this up, and from that point on, I noticed that they looked at me than some of the other players. I felt really odd in this situation and found myself wishing that the DM had asked some of the quieter players for their thoughts more.  

 

#8 Don’t ask for rolls that aren’t needed

As a DM, you choose when to request rolls from players. Rolls are important for bringing randomness or uncertainty to the game, but they can slow the game down, so don’t ask for them if they’re not needed.


If a task is trivial and can be completed in the time available without risk, it’s better not to ask for a roll as this just slows the game down. If a task can be completed without risk but time is an important factor, then you might want to ask for a roll for time taken rather than success or failure.


Likewise, if a task is impossible, don’t ask a player to roll for it. If a player rolls a 20 on the die and you tell them they fail the task, they’re likely to be unhappy with the outcome. Asking for a roll is an implicit promise of potential success, and if the best roll that they could make still fails, why . It’s much better to just state that the task isn’t possible given the player’s available resources or knowledge. 

 

#9 Don’t ask for player-player rolls

This mistake is related to the last, and it isn’t always a mistake, but it often is.


In some cases, player characters may take actions that oppose or attempt to influence other player characters. This can include social checks, such as trying to deceive, persuade or intimidate the other character, or physical actions such as attempting to steal from or attack the other character.


In most cases like these, it’s best not to ask for player-player rolls, or dictate outcomes.

If a player character tries to deceive, persuade or intimidate another character, it’s almost never ideal to ask a player to make a skill check, or dictate how a player character reacts. While the rest of the game is your domain, a player’s character is entirely their domain, and dictating how they react to a situation removes player agency, which can leave players feeling violated.   


If a player character tries taking a physical action that opposes another player character, this can be a sign of potential problem behaviors that you should do your best to curb. Generally, it’s a good idea to ask the affected player character what they want to happen based on the attempt so as to not remove player agency.


There are some obvious exceptions where it is appropriate to have players roll against each other, for example a consensual sparring match between characters, or if one player has been confused, charmed or dominated.

 

#10 Don’t forget to take notes

This is one of those classic “do as I say and not as I do” pieces of advice.

For any games that have multiple sessions, don’t forget to take notes, even if they’re minimal.


Lots of things happen during every session. Battles can be fought, quests can be completed, and new locations and NPCs can be encountered. Some of these are easy to remember, while others aren’t.


Having a good set of notes can help you maintain a sense of continuity between your games. While everyone is unlikely to forget that the party defeated the big bad evil guy and saved the world, it would be much easier to forget the name of the new NPC you introduced in the last session, or the name of the store they run. Just imagine the surprise of a player that remembers having met Percival the quartermaster in one session, who has an identical place in the world as Peggy the Seneschal in a future session.


Make sure there are basic notes about locations, quests and NPC and their personalities and appearance that you can refer to later.


You may want to ask your players to make shared notes about the game. This can be a helpful reference both for the party and for you.


So this is definitely the mistake I make in my games, and I am terrible for it, but I'm doing my best to improve! I run games in a very emergent way, that is, I improvise a lot of content in my games based on player actions in the world, so I prepare very little, but even so, I'd really benefit from having a more organized set of notes to reference from one session to the next.


Conclusion

 

I hope you can take something from this blog to improve your games. If you have any more mistakes you’d add to this list, let me know in the comments.


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Until next time, happy adventuring!


~Dan

 

 

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