Dungeon Mastering: Theory & Practice

Several moons ago, I posed the following question on Twitter, “What is your biggest flaw as a DM?” I also asked, “What is your biggest strength as a DM?” It should come as little surprise that more DMs responded to the Flaw than Strength question because people remember negative events better than positive events. I had every intention of writing about the responses I got from DMs but was distracted by numerous things – one of which was rampant speculation about D&D Next.

Perfection? Look closer.

I have read with interest the updates regarding the design motivations for D&D Next. Many of the articles have focused on theoretical issues such as archetypal characters, edition reunification and other specific rule changes. When I finally returned to the list of personal flaws DMs provided, I was struck by how little their responses related to gaming mechanics and rules and how much they applied to the practical issues of running a game. While specific questions like, “How should Turn Undead function for a Cleric?” are interesting and perhaps even essential to facets of game design, the focus on mechanical issues seems to overlook the needs expressed by DMs.

Below, I discuss the numerous responses I received from DMs regarding their “biggest flaw” and organize their responses in several categories. Since I do not have access to the materials that will be provided for DMs to run D&D Next, I returned to 4th Edition manuals – specifically Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 (DMG 2) – to investigate the proportion of content that addresses the most common DM flaws. I conclude by advocating for a new paradigm in future DMG manuals with clear education on not only game theory (e.g., rules, mechanics) but also practice (e.g., communication with players, managing the table).


When I posed the question about DM flaws on Twitter, I requested for those answering to include the hashtag #dmflaw in their responses. Twitter is a wonderful device for communicating and idea sharing, but consolidating and summarizing a large group of tweets is like herding cats!

I received 41 responses to the question, although a few DMs provided more than one response. For example, a DM may have listed in one tweet struggles with bringing NPCs to life at the table and troubles with preparing for sessions. In situations like this, I separated the two responses since they relate to different topics. In analyzing the responses, seven categories seemed to emerge from the 41 responses. The chart below summarizes the percentage of DM Flaws by category.

The entire list of #dmflaw tweets is available for viewing, which I encourage you to read “bottom-up.” The categories that seemed to emerge were:

  • DM/Player Expectations – struggling to match style of game with player preferences
  • Preparation – frustration with pre-game planning, procrastination, not knowing how to structure time
  • Improv & Acting – discomfort with entertaining players “on the spot”
  • Follow Through – not completing a campaign or seeing storylines to their conclusion
  • Confidence – general sense of feeling uncomfortable in the DM role
  • Tactical Combat – trouble with designing encounters that feature dynamic terrain and interesting monsters
  • Challenge Balance – not being able to challenge the skills of players and players characters during adventure and in combat

If you read through the responses (again, I suggest going from “bottom-up”) then you may categorize the responses in a different way, which is fantastic. Let me know in the Comments if you see other trends in the information. You can also play around with the data in the Excel spreadsheet I created for this analysis; if you find something interesting that is not discussed below, then please let me know in the Comments.

Common Themes of DM Anguish & Published Manuals

The three most common responses were related to Preparation (24%), DM/Player Expectations (20%) and Improv & Acting (20%). After the top three results, the remaining themes were Follow Through (12%), Challenge Balance (12%), Confidence (7%) and Tactical Combat (5%). If these are the biggest areas of concerns for DMs running games, then it would seem logical that the Dungeon Master’s Guide and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 would have information to assuage these DM concerns.

The most common DM flaw to emerge in the responses was Preparation. The DMG has one page (p. 18) devoted to Preparing with brief sections outlining five possible preparation strategies: one-hour, two-hour, three-hour and four-hour or no preparation. That is one page out of 221 pages of content (0.45%). To be fair, one can argue the entire DMG assists with the concept of preparation with chapters devoted to Running The Game, Encounters, Adventures, Rewards and Campaigns. The DMG 2 offers many examples of advanced encounter design and storytelling concepts, but does not specifically detail how to manage preparation time. The concept of preparation time is something Mike Shea is currently working on and I do not wish to step on his toes, but it does seem that in terms of providing DMs with information to assist with effective preparation, the DMG and DMG 2 are lacking in specificity.

The next most common theme was DM/Player Expectations, and this is another topic that is not covered in great detail in the DMG. The DMG has one section early in chapter 1 on The Players (p. 8-11) that outlines eight archetypal player motivations. In chapter 2, Running The Game, the DMG has brief sections on Modes of the Game (p, 20-21), Pacing (p. 24) and Dispensing Information (p. 26-27). Later in Chapter 6, Adventures, there are sections regarding Published Adventures (p. 96-97), Fixing Problems (p. 98-99), Building An Adventure (p. 100-101),  Quests (p. 102-103) and Encounter Mix (p. 104-105). Not every piece of those sections is focused on DM/Player Expectations, but at best that is a total of 18 out of 221 pages of content (8.14%) providing insight into how to structure the game to meet player needs.

As for DMG 2, the entire first chapter, Group Storytelling (p. 6-34), is 28 pages of content geared for DMs who want to connect and collaborate with her or his players. There is one section titled, What Your Players Want (p. 26-27), that provides DMs with clear questions to improve communication and learn and match the expectations of players. Also featured in DMG 2 is a wonderful section on Player Motivations (p. 42-49), which details how different players bring different motivations to the game and how to effectively reach each type of player. It should really be in the original DMG, but it’s great to have it available somewhere.

The third most common theme in the DM Flaw responses was the struggle of improvising and acting for the party. The DMG features a brief section of Improvising (p. 28-29) and a variety of random tables for the creation of NPCs (p. 186-188) and encounter features (p. 190-195). It also has sections on Narration (p. 22-23), Pacing (p. 24) and Props (p. 25). That is a total of 15 out of 221 pages of content (6.79%) providing information on how to quickly improvise and effectively act out characters and storylines. The DMG 2 adds the aforementioned Group Storytelling chapter (p. 6-34), which provides useful suggestions on roleplaying hooks, vignettes, drama rewards the DM’s cast of NPCs.

"Of course I can act. I read the Dungeon Master's Guide. Behold my Powers of Improv!" Art created by lusiphur.

The fourth most common theme to emerge in the responses was the DM’s inability to follow through on campaign goals, including carrying the players to the end of a campaign. This theme is more nebulous, but the DMG has an entire chapter on Campaigns (p. 130-147). The sections in the chapter that are most applicable are Campaign Theme (p. 134-137), Campaign Story (p. 140-141), Running A Campaign (p. 144-145), Tiers Of Play (p. 146-147) and a single column on page 147 regarding Ending A Campaign. In terms of advice for following through with a campaign, the DMG provides 17 out of 221 pages of content (7.69%). The DMG 2 adds examples of Campaign Arcs (p. 168-175) and provides suggestions for Paragon Campaigns (p. 176-222), but much of the information is geared to providing DMs with a specific setting to use in their Paragon Tier adventures. There is little in the way of concluding campaigns in either book.

The fifth theme in the responses was challenge balance, which means DMs expressed their struggles with finding a proper “difficulty setting” for their players. While the four previous DM Flaws could be conceptualized as practical in nature, this is the first theme that is more theoretical in that it relates to rules and mechanics. Chapter 4 of the DMG, Building Encounters (p. 52-67), presents strategies to build balanced encounters. The Encounter Level section (p. 56) gives DMs a very specific template to work from in regard to creating balanced combat encounters. The DMG also features a section on Traps and Hazards (p. 85-87), which are built using the same Encounter XP rule set.

A sixth and related theme to emerge in the responses is difficulty creating dynamic tactical combat situations for the party. Once again, the DMG’s Building Encounters (p. 52-67) is useful, but the DMG 2 adds chapters with a great deal of useful information. The chapters in DMG 2 on Advanced Encounters (p. 36-75) and Customizing Monsters (p. 102-133) combine for 46 pages of content.

The final theme to emerge was a lack of confidence from DMs while running the game. Here one could argue that every section of both the DMG and DMG 2 are applicable, but I was unable to find a section that speaks directly to a DM about the need for practice and patience while learning the craft of running a roleplaying game. The DMG actually offers advice that I disagree with (see below; emphasis in bold is mine). Early on in the section The Gaming Group (p. 6-7), it reads:

The last essential component of a D&D game is fun. It’s not the DM’s job to entertain the players and make sure they have fun. Every person playing the game is responsible for the fun of the game.

Granted, this is a brief three-sentence segment of a book that is over 200 pages long, but it seems to establish a false sense of equivalence in the roles of the DM and his or her players. Later in the section The Dungeon Master (p. 12-13) there is a small insert, Tips From the Pros, which features a message from one of the author’s regarding his initial lack of confidence while running a game for experienced players. The brief insert is quite insightful and gives new DMs permission to feel uncomfortable at times when running a game.  The DMG and DMG 2 contains a great deal of theoretical knowledge for a DM to consume to learn the game, but less practical content to bolster a DM’s confidence.

Replacing Nomenclature

The results above indicate that DMs are often dealing with practical concerns when running their games. They worry about their ability to entertain and connect with their players. They lament not being able to use their time efficiently to prepare for gaming sessions or properly execute ideas at the table – ideas that they’ve spent many nights contemplating. Few of the responses were related to “crunchy” mechanical deficiencies – or what I refer to as theoretical concerns.

However, the vast majority of the DMG is focused on theoretical concerns. The DMG 2, which features an increased balance of theoretical and practical advice, was unfortunately released over a year later. The assistance DMs crave is not easy to find, and being an owner of both the DMG and DMG 2, I didn’t even know some of the sections existed before starting this article. I realize that is a “me” problem, but I suggest the manuals for DMs can be structured in a different way moving forward, and perhaps this is something to be considered for D&D Next.

Instead of Dungeon Master’s Guide and Dungeon Master’s Guide 2, give the manuals a clearer identity.

For example, during my training as a psychologist I learned about numerous theories of counseling. I digested information about the theoretical foundation of cognitive-behavioral therapy, but having the theoretical knowledge did not suddenly result in my development of new skills when sitting in a room by myself with a client looking at me with the hope that I had something brilliant or insightful to say! I did not yet have the practical knowledge to be an effective cognitive-behavioral therapist even though I understood the theory behind it.

I believe the same applies to being a good Dungeon Master – having the clear and concise theoretical foundation for the game is wonderful but that information alone does not result in the DM being able to effectively run games for a group of players.

The DMG and DMG 2 contain a wealth of fantastic information, but the information is often difficult to find without a clear distinction between the theory and practice of DMing. Even the title of the books is obtuse – what does Dungeon Master’s Guide 2 mean exactly? My humble suggestion would be to reformat the material in the DMG into specific chapters on issues related to theory or practice. Perhaps the first half of the book details all the crunchy mechanical rules of the game (Theory) while the second half of the book is more conversational in tone with examples and suggestions for how to efficiently and effectively run a game for a group of players (Practice). Other fields have completed such a task.

Better yet, blow out the content into two books but instead of DMG and DMG 2, split the content into DMG: Theory and DMG: Practice. That way, experienced DMs could focus exclusively on the new rules and mechanics without practical applications getting in the way. And new DMs would have an easy-to-find, ready-to-use tome of accessible information about how to actually run their game and deal with challenges that arise before, during and after a campaign. Along with the Player’s Handbook (there is also an argument for a PHB: Theory and PHB: Practice content split) and Monster Manual, the DMG: Theory and DMG: Practice would result in a Core Four of books upon release.

Two final notes – I realize there is a great deal of information and advice availalbe through the Dragon and Dungeon Archives. The content of these articles are routinely wonderful, but trying to find relevant articles for a specific question or concerns is a chore. The online information could benefit from a dynamic search function that – among other classifications – splits content into the theory and practice categories. Last, it is very likely that one of the reasons DMs of 4th Edition are not seeking advice on the theory of the game is because the DMG and DMG 2 provide a great deal of theoretical content already.


Dungeon Masters continue to struggle with the practical aspects of running games and while there is a great deal of useful information available in published manuals, the content is either difficult to find or overshadowed by theoretical aspects such as rules and mechanical information. As D&D Next is still in the development stages, I humbly suggest for information presented to DMs in the next edition of the Dungeon Master’s Guide be split conceptually between topics related to the theory and practice of DMing.

Author: The Id DM

The Id DM is a psychologist during the weekdays. He DMs for a group of fairly loyal and responsible PCs every other Friday night. In the approximate 330 hours between sessions, he is likely anxious about how to ensure the next game he runs doesn't suck.

20 thoughts on “Dungeon Mastering: Theory & Practice”

  1. Wish I was following you when you asked this. Count me in both the 5% for Tactical Combat AND the 24% for prep. (We hates ’em, precious, hates ’em.) In a narrative combat-style system, I’m more in my element. (But I still suck at prep work.)
    Maybe I should clarify that. I suck at prepping for individual adventures. I love doing world creation and story arcs, but the fiddly bits of actual adventures throw me off mentally.

    1. Thank you for commenting. At various times, all of the flaws expressed above relate to how I feel about running games. I think I’m somewhat similar in that I have “great forest” ideas but the “tree ideas” are not as crystalized.

  2. “Few of the responses were related to “crunchy” mechanical deficiencies – or what I refer to as theoretical concerns.
    However, the vast majority of the DMG is focused on theoretical concerns.”
    Interesting. Instead of “however “, you could get a completely different angle by using “because “.
    Paraphrasing and changing the memetic load considerably, I come up with:
    “Because the DMG focuses on theoretical concerns, few DMs report problems with crunchy mechanical deficiencies. ”
    I know, correlation does not mean causation; however, your phrasing disregards the possibility that the DMGs simply did a great job conveying the crunch, allowing DMs to find another discomfort.

    1. That is an excellent point, and one that I only noted briefly near the end of the article. One reason DMs may not have concerns about Theory is because the manuals provide a wealth of rules and specific mechanics. It would be interesting to assess the DMs of other systems and find out their perceived flaws. The answers may vary on the information provided in the game materials.

  3. HI ID this is a great article and is one area I routinely struggle with. I think my area of weakness would be confidence. Often I plan and prepare well, but things don’t always work out they way you expect or indeed you can see a train wreck coming but feel powerless to react to it, because at the table spontaneity and confidence to be spontaneous is by its very nature, unpredictable.

    I always say that I don’t get a dress rehearsal before we play, so mistakes and missteps are bound to happen. I guess the point you highlight is that experienced game designers have forgotten what a steep learning curve DMing is for many today and also how high expectations are, as compared to when RPG’s began.

    1. Like many other things, running a gaming sessions takes practice to learn and execute well. And I imgine most DMs are running – at most – somewhere in the neighborhood of two to four games each month. At that rate, it takes a very long time to develop mastery. And things happen quickly around the table. The DM has to monitor what’s happening for each player at the time and be either one step ahead of the events or respond instantly to changes in “the plan.”

      I think the information in the DMG and DMG 2 is great, but it could benefit from being restructured into something like the Theory/Practice categories. In general, more Practice information and training would be useful.

      You also bring up an interesting point about modern players. The amount of distractions now are huge. It’s quite possible to be communicating with other people around the globe while playing another game *while* playing D&D. Players text, players have phones, tablets or laptops with limitless amounts of entertainment at their disposal. There are definitely new challenges!

  4. Hiya!
    The funny thing here (which you nailed) is how few DM’s actually read the DMG. WotC knows people don’t read it, in fact when 4e was released, the DMG was released a full 2 months after the PHB. Why? Experienced DM’s feel they don’t actually need it. :/ Most of them would much rather have a Rules Compendium and be on their way….
    If you split the DMG into 2 books, one of them will sit on the shelf and never get sold. The Rules heavy book will sell well, EVERY DM and Player will buy it. The fluffy book, meh, will sell to about 1% of that edition’s population.
    And for reference, they already do sell 2 books, but one of them is called the Rules Compendium, and it is released several years later so it can include errata….

    I’ve read every DMG to every Edition ever, page by page, word by word. I have to say that overall, the 4e one is the best in that it actually has sections devoted to actually teaching prospective DM’s to DM, while still including the crunchy bits abotu 4e combat math and encounter balance. Seriously, compare it to the worthless crunchy piece of crap, that is the 3.5 DMG. About halfway through the book you’ll understand why it was a good decision to move magic items to the PHB and AV series…


      1. I basically agree, they mainly serve as math fixes with (usually) lackluster abilities tacked on. However, the math of the edition still requires they doled out appropriately…
        Unless you are using inherent bonuses, in which case you get the same bonus at the same relative level but never actually get anything new and shiny.

    1. “in fact when 4e was released, the DMG was released a full 2 months after the PHB.”

      What? No. That’s the opposite of true. They made a big deal out of releasing all the 4th Edition core rulebooks at the same time (as opposed to previous editions which had staggered the releases by months or even years).

      1. I stand corrected.
        I was thinking about the quick start stuff (including Keep on the Shadowfell), which was released a few weeks beforehand. You got pre-made chars, a quick rules insert, and um, that’s about it.

    2. I think the DMG and DMG 2 are great books, but they could benefit from some restructuring. A great deal of the material in DMG 2 should be in the first manual; I like the practical advice and information.

      I could see a format where you have a strict Rules Compendium (Theory) along with a Player’s Handbook and a Dungeon Master’s Guide (both Practical). In another conversation, you mentioned the Player’s Strategy Guide. That would be a great example of a manual that is more along the Practice side of being a player. I enjoy that idea as well.

      In general, this might miss the mark because things could me moving into a paperless domain in the near future. With the talk of D&D Next being modular, a player or DM could go to the WotC site and simply buy/download the bits and pieces of the manual they want.

  5. Hey. One issue I struggle with are the monsters. I tend to like most of the monsters I play and I don’t like seeing them die. I have been struggling of late to curb this attachment, knowing full well that this is supposed to happen. It must be the fact I have not played my own character in over 2 years. I become attached to NPC’s that make sense to me, and I treat them like they are my character. I have gotten perturbed by this; especially when the characters WHOMP the crap out of them. Lots of prep, little satisfaction. I have since worked on it but it still gets to me sometime. Must be the personality I invest in them, or maybe that the players do not interact with anyone, or…

    Just thought I would add this to your list.

    1. I can relate, it’s tough to work on a monster (or faction of monsters) and have that worked literally destroyed right before your very eyes over the course of an hour or two!

      I’m going to be writing a post next month on a quite similar topic.

  6. Intriguing article! Came for the Mearls interview but the links have kept me around for a while, so thanks for sapping my productivity today.

    I think 4E does an excellent job of making everything nice and neat, mechanically. Every so often my group loses a person for the weekend who is critical to the main campaign, so we run a lot of one-shot adventures. I love these because they give me an opportunity to try something new, and I’m often forced out of my comfort zone a bit, with little prep time. The last one-shot I ran (went overboard, now a miniature campaign) forced me to read the DMG more than I had previously, I’ll admit, and I did some things like utilize the encounter-building tables and rewards packages, and I’ll say that in practice it ended up with nicely balanced encounters every single time.

    On the other hand, no quantity of tables can prepare you for a player throwing away the script and going off rails, but these are the best moments in any adventure! The worst thing that has ever happened to me is to have a DM, suddenly lost when faced with player improv, basically shut the whole thing down and force us back on rails. I’ve even been sorely tempted to do this myself, when I sense that some of my arduous planning might be completely skipped soon, but I’ve managed to avoid it. Still, I’m not sure how you can avoid this. Maybe it’s just something you either get better at over time, or that causes you to quit DMing.

    I’d love a book dedicated to managing the table. I have problems with this – especially now that more people play with laptops and tablets (more distractions), and then there are things that are cool to do but hard to execute (secret messages, private information), and practical real-world issues (time constraints, logistics and scheduling). Theory sounds useful as well, with regard to problems like meeting varying player needs, keeping casual players involved when they start drifting off. “Theory” might turn some people off, though. Not sure it would end up being read more than the current DMG.

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