3 Ways University Helped Me Be a Better Dungeon Master

On a whim, I wrote a homebrew campaign with only a few months experience as a Dungeons & Dragons player under my belt. I barely knew the rules of the game (and I still pretend I know how spell slots work) and cared much more about the roleplay aspect of the game than the combat.

That’s what makes 5th edition so great. Whether you want an action-filled fighting simulation or really want to get into character with dialogue and hands-on puzzles, the game is flexible to your needs.

My players asked for a 60/40 split between roleplay and combat. I was pretty happy with this and began writing my campaign. What started as a prison escape one-shot blossomed into a 24-session dramedy about friendship, stopping genocide, and infiltrating secret organizations.

I wasn’t always the world’s okayest dungeon master who had her players eager to come together every week. When I started out, I railroaded my players heavily, essentially forcing them along the path I had pre-written. I offered little room for my players to go trail-blazing and I sweat profusely when they wanted to talk to an NPC that I hadn’t prepared.

In my senior year of college, I could take 3 electives and while I made a huge mistake and chose (and nearly failed) piano, I also took an improv acting course and a class on creative writing.

Here are 3 things these unassuming electives taught me about being a better dungeon master!

1. Don’t Block

Those who listen to the hit roleplay podcast The Adventure Zone have heard the McElroy family remind each other to “say ‘yes.’” The brothers all took acting courses, and in improv you are taught not to turn down new ideas introduced into a scene.

Good improv, Cassidy — way to say ‘yes.’

So many shows and movies make hit jokes with the simple word “no”, whether it’s accompanied by a slow shake of the head or a deadpan delivery. But improv teaches you to reject that.

Let’s say you’re in a scene where a player asks you, “Are there any bars in this town?” Because you didn’t plan any bars or it is unimportant to the story, you might be tempted to casually say no. But why not? What’s the harm in letting Taylor’s alcoholic character go into a bar? You might think it’s funny to throw out a “No, Taylor! Enough of your drunken revelries!” but imagine all that good good roleplay from Taylor’s half-orc getting wasted in this new pub, gaining a terrible reputation in this town after only an hour.

If you want the players to stay focused, consider relaxing, but if the session needs to wrap up and they still haven’t found the town crazy lady with the quest? BOOM! Crazy lady’s in that pub now. Try to make player suggestions work with what you’ve written.

I started applying this to my games and ended up making my favorite 2 NPCs of all time up on the spot! I even went on to play the two as PCs in other games. If a player asks if there’s a certain shop or any handsome men in the crowd or if the bar has anyone to play poker with, why not indulge them?

2. NPC Depth

Some NPCs are not important. Sorry, bookstore owner #4. But when one comes along that the players have extensive conversation with, what makes the NPC realistic? Roleplay is about immersion. You embrace that creepy wizard hermit and you bring him to life!

Now, using different voices is a crucial weapon in any DM’s arsenal. I myself am nearly out of accents in my current game (the vaguely Aussie/Kiwi tiefling NPC being my favorite). You don’t have to be great at accents to make a character realistic.

A tiefling NPC in my last campaign

Consider doing a character study of a real person. That’s right — people watching. The once-creepy and now apparently socially acceptable pastime is a great way to bring your NPCs to life.

In my improv class, we were tasked with watching someone closely as they spoke or interacted with us. I personally took notes on a friend who closes his eyes when he smiles wide. Maybe your neighbor kid uses big words he doesn’t understand. Maybe your husband sucks at hiding the fact he was just picking his nose. Maybe your mother-in-law peers out the window on cold winter nights, singing away the Baba Yaga. Y’know, normal stuff people do!

Take a closer look at people while you interact with them. What are their ticks and mannerisms?

My first DM had a shopkeeper who would always hold up the wrong number of fingers when giving us a number of days. “So my armor will be ready in 3 days?” The gnome would hold up 6 fingers and say cheerily, “Yep! 3 days!” He was great. We totally robbed him when he didn’t have my stuff ready when he promised, but he was great.

What are some quirks you can subtly give an NPC to make them memorable? When your players’ party goes back to that shop, they might be excited to see that NPC again.

3. Multiple Plot Points

In writing, I learned the importance of having several plots taking place in my story. Most English courses will show you the following image at some point:

But I’m here to challenge you to double (triple, etc!) up on this bad boy. Ever seen anime? Of course you have, ya weeb. Take a look at some examples of different plots. Naruto has an end-goal but the characters have many adventures along the way that don’t necessarily aid them in reaching that end goal. One Piece has a hundred settings and thousands of characters, most of whom end up being connected to others in some way. And I’ve never seen Bleach, but examples often come in threes, so I felt it was important to include…

Sometimes in movies or shows, you’ll be shown an object or character that won’t be important or even mentioned again until the end of the season. You got a glimpse of a hooded figure watching the main characters. These weird stickers keep showing up around town. Someone keeps buying all the Campbell’s soup! Why do they need so much soup?? Turns out a factory worker dropped his wedding band into one of the cans and was buying them up before his wife found out. Classic.

The point is, give us a little mystery. A great example of this is Outside Xbox’s Dungeons & Dragons series. They play one-shots that follow an overarching story. 5 violent travelers embark on silly adventures, but a villain keeps reoccurring in several of them, whether he’s supplying the current boss with weapons or he designed the giant robot that’s been cutting down the forest. We don’t always see the villain — sometimes his name is found on a clue or someone mentions him in passing.

In my campaign, the players kept finding black gems. It wasn’t until we racked up 68 hours of gameplay that they learned where the stupid things came from. When it was revealed, it was a big deal for the character whose backstory it was attached to.

Use your PCs’ backgrounds as inspiration!

Do your homebrew campaigns have the heroes going on a single quest? Or did you take inspiration from their backstories so you can surprise them with figures and plot points from their past? Our party’s elf PC avenged the death of her family. I could have just left her family’s slaughter as part of her background and the reason why she was so malicious, but I decided to write in opportunity for her to reconcile. She totally killed the guy who was guilty, but I gave her opportunity to forgive him and that’s what counts! Give your players things that make them wonder and things that will shock them when all the pieces finally fall into place!

Those are the 3 things university taught me about being a better dungeon master. What unforeseen sources aided you in your story-telling?

Writer, proofreader, and editor https://sites.google.com/view/swallowtailediting