If you haven’t read my first post on advice for aspiring dungeon masters, read it now, then come back.
Well met Aspiring Dungeons Masters
Rules, rules, rules. Our world has governing rules by which the day to day operations keep things running. From the laws we choose to obey to the ever shifting social structures we often have to adhere to, these mechanics are all around us. Though, if you are familiar with the rules of life, then things are so bad. You stop at the stop sign to avoid getting pulled over, you chew with your mouth closed so those around you don’t have to give awkward glances around the table. All in all, having some knowledge of how the rules work gives you an advantage, so roll two d20’s, take the highest. The rules of Dungeons and Dragons work in very similar ways.
The rules or mechanics of D&D are enough to drive any Dungeon Master mad. But this madness is needed. In a world created from imagination and given form through the mind’s eye, sometimes how things play out can become muddied. Even with miniatures and other visual aids, how an event is playing out may not be clear for everyone. Knowing that your player, the Dwarf Cleric will get an attack of opportunity on him/her if they step within the 5 foot attack radius of the Orc Chieftain when trying to heal their companion the Tiefling Fighter could, and I’m sure has, change the tide of battle for the group. But don’t worry. Even with pages of rules to adhere to you are the Dungeon Master. You can handle it.
Twenty-one years of playing Dungeons and Dragons, twelve of those putting on the mantle of DM, has taught me one thing about the rules. The rules are most important and more closely watched in combat than in any other time during the game. Which does make sense seeing as this is when your players have the greatest chance to pass beyond the mortal coil. Read and reread the combat chapter in the Player’s Handbook several times. The Angry GM wrote a fantastic article on effectively running combat, you should read it. You should be comfortable with the general flow of combat. How turns come and go, who attacks when, and with 5th edition, any of the special abilities or skills both the players and tougher opponents get and use. If it helps to mock up some stats and have a battle royal of NPC’s, have at it. Any tool to help you get a better grasp of combat is a tool used wisely. If you’re using an iOS device at the table, I recommend Game Master 5.
Non-Combat Encounter Rules
The second most important rules are those dealing with noncombat interactions the group has. When the Half-Elf Bard tries to persuade the guards at the gate to allow the party through even though it’s evening and the gates are closed, you need to be ready with what the player and the guard will need to roll for this interaction to play itself out. Having a good knowledge of what attributes go with what skills and if they can be contested, what skills are rolled to oppose them is a must for all Dungeon Masters. Knowing the differences between a Deception check and a Persuasion check can be tricky at times but will help in the long run if similar situations arise during the course of your campaign.
Just the two chapters mentioned so far would take a few hours to read and potentially several more to comprehend. Combine this with keeping the story going and cohesive, making sure to drop plot points, and to write down notes on what the characters do and who they meet, can be overwhelming. So if the players are in combat, which this upcoming scenario 98% of the time happens during, and a spell or ability is going to be used but the rules are fuzzy, have everyone look it up. You’re the Dungeon Master and nowhere does it say, in any source book, that you can not outsource looking up the rules to the players. I highly recommend this in fact. Having everyone at the table look up a ruling helps the group as a whole. Yes the Gnome Wizard may not need to know the rules for the Human Monk’s Unarmored Movement but him/her having that knowledge tucked away could help interactions down the road, especially if that Wizard decided to cast Haste on that Monk later in levels. SlyFlourish talks about delegating the work to players in his Five Tips for New Dungeon Masters.
DM Has the Final Say
One final thing about the rules for Dungeon Master who’s storyteller mantle is crisp and fresh, you have the final say in the litigation of the rules. So if the rules get in the way of a good solid story point, then bend the rules. This shouldn’t be a go to for every time you want something to happen your way but should be used sparingly and only when truly necessary. You’ve great power over the enjoyment of the game and that responsibility isn’t to be taken lightly.
Oh and one final, final thing, read the introduction in the Player’s Handbook. It paints a nice scene for the game itself.
And use a DM screen or something else to keep prying eyes from your dice. Sometimes bending the rules means that Natural 20 that would have killed the group is simply just a hit, and none need to be the wiser.
Till next time,
Dungeon Master Extraordinaire