What is a Dungeon Master? What Do the Best Ones Do?

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The role of a Dungeon Master is unclear to people who have never played Dungeons and Dragons before. What is a Dungeon Master and what do they do?

What is a Dungeon Master? A Dungeon Master prepares and referees the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. The Dungeon Master does not roleplay one character like the other players. Instead, they facilitate the game by narrating the story and controlling all the monsters and characters that the players interact with.


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Emily DM
Me behind the Dungeon Master screen

Dungeon Masters (DMs) are central to Dungeons and Dragons (For an introduction to Dungeons and Dragons see my other article). Each player creates a character such as a half-elf warlock or halfling rogue and together the party go on adventures facilitated by the Dungeon Master.

Dungeons and Dragons groups might play using only a pencil and paper. The Dungeon Master is the person who brings the story to life.

What does a Dungeon Master do?

A Dungeon Master facilitates, narrates and referees the adventure of a group of players in the Dungeons and Dragons world.

The Dungeon Master doesn’t play a character themselves, instead, they are the storyteller and referee of the game. They create the story and adventure for the players and then facilitate the story in the gaming session. The Dungeon Master gets to play as all the monsters and other non-playable characters in the game.

The players make decisions and choose their own adventure within the story and it is the Dungeon Master’s job to incorporate their actions into the adventure.

There are many different parts to the Dungeon Master role.

The Dungeon Master designs or buys the campaign and scenarios

Dungeons Masters put in a lot of time and energy into preparing a game and finding ways to make it fun for their group.

Dungeon Masters can buy pre-made Dungeons and Dragons scenarios, but they usually design them themselves. Dungeon Masters can even share their campaigns on the Dungeon Master’s Guild website for other people to download and use.

Dungones and dragons vaults of the underdark map pack for use by dungeon masters and players
Dungeons and Dragons Map Pack

A scenario would include the context for the adventure the players embark upon, the people they meet, and the monsters they encounter.

While some Dungeons and Dragons groups play with just a pencil, paper and their imagination, other use miniatures to represent characters and the monsters (like in the Dungeons and Dragons starter set). If that’s the case, as well as designing the story elements, the Dungeon Master will prepare miniatures of the monsters and characters the players meet as well as maps for the game.

Preparing the story and all the miniatures takes a lot of time.

A D&D session may take a Dungeon Master several weeks or months to prepare.

The Dungeon Master knows and teaches the rules

Dungeons and Dragons is a complicated game with a lot of rules. The 5th edition of The Player’s Handbook is 320 pages long. But there’s also the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual in the core rules set – both another 320 pages each.

Dungeons and Dragons has 960 pages of rules!

The Dungeon Master needs to be familiar with, and reference, the rules so they can design encounters with the right level of difficulty for the players and referee the game as it’s being played.

As the referee, the Dungeon Master has the ultimate decision on any rules dispute.

The Dungeon Master narrates the story

The best Dungeon Masters are amazing storytellers.

Players may contribute to the narration and progression of the story, but the storytelling role mainly falls to the Dungeon Master.

The Dungeon Master describes the details of the locations the party starts in (a windy, snowy mountaintop) what the players can see, hear, smell, feel, taste (ahead of you is an abandoned, ruined altar that smells faintly like sulphur) and what all the people and monsters in the world say and do (A voice from the trees to your left shouts over to you, “Finally, you’re here!”).

Everything the players perceive and the outcome of everything they do is narrated by the Dungeon Master.

The Dungeon Master controls all the non-playable characters (NPCs)

Every character which isn’t a controlled by a player is controlled by the Dungeon Master. Every monster, barkeep, vendor, villager – everyone.

This means role-playing the characters, speaking as they would speak and doing what they would do. (The shady looking character eyes you suspiciously. “Medallion you say?” He shakes his head and sniffs. “Nah, I don’t know nuffin ‘bout that.”)

In a physical encounter with bad guys such as in a dungeon, the Dungeon Master controls the movement of the monsters and decides their strategy. Who they target, their exact movements, whether they try to run away, etc.

Whether an action succeeds or fails in Dungeons and Dragons is determined by dice rolls.

If a monster is taking an action, the Dungeon Master will roll the action for that monster. Likewise, if the Dungeon Master is roleplaying a barkeep who is trying to calm down rowdy patrons, they could roll to see if the barkeep succeeds.

A Dungeon Master's screen for Dungeons and Dragons
A Dungeon Master’s screen for Dungeons and Dragons

The Dungeon Master rolls the dice behind the Dungeon Master’s screen so they can alter the results if needed to progress the story or to keep the game fun. Behind the screen they also hide all their notes about the scenario from the players.

The best Dungeon Masters do these 4 things

1. Aligns the gameplay with the players

Because the Dungeons and Dragons world is so vast and there are so many different ways to play the game, the expectations of a player and a Dungeon Master could be leagues apart.

The best Dungeon Masters’s figure out what their players like and design their scenario with it in mind.

If I want to spend time digging up gossip at the town market, but the Dungeon Master is hurrying me along to get to the next encounter outside the town gates, then it’s not fun for anyone.

Everyone playing is there to have fun, wants the story to progress and see the characters level up. The Dungeon Masters are key to making that happen.

2. Balances control with player input

Dungeon Masters can have a bad name for being control freaks.

They spend a lot of hours learning the rules and designing the campaigns. As part of this, they try to predict what the players will do in any given scenario and lead them along the story they have designed.

But things don’t always go according to plan…

In one of our first game scenarios, a guy in the local tavern was being rather offensive to our characters. The barkeep intervened and calmed him down. But one of our players decided to go for the offensive guy anyway. He turned out to be lycanthrope (werewolf). He changed into his beast form and our characters defeated him.

The werewolf was meant to come in as part of the story later on, but our characters made that impossible.

The Dungeon Master had to think on his feet to make sure that all the characters in our party didn’t die.

He also had to figure out how to make the story work without the werewolf. We suspect that the Dungeon Master used Rule 0 (the Dungeon Master’s ability to overrule any rule) to change the result of the dice rolls by the werewolf so that our party stood a chance against him!

As a result of our Dungeon Master’s quick thinking (and maybe using Rule 0 a few times), we had a lot of fun and I still remember this encounter 9 years later.

3. Writes in surprises and plot twists

Over a series of gaming sessions, we’d got to know this character called Kevin. (Well, his real name was K-something-complicated, so we took to calling him Kevin.) He’d given us some quests to get back his father’s medallion that had been taken from him.

After defeating lots of monsters, we finally found our way to where the medallion was.

The Dungeons and Dragons encounter with miniatures to get the medallion
The Dungeons and Dragons encounter with miniatures to get the medallion

Right at the end, Kevin charged in and got the finishing blow. He took the medallion from the monster, used it to summon a dragon and flew off on its back without so much as a thank you.

When we returned to the local tavern we found out that the medallion hadn’t been wrongfully taken from Kevin at all! He’d duped us into helping him because he knew he couldn’t defeat the people it rightfully belonged to on his own!

We were outraged! But our Dungeon Master had designed a great story.

4. Builds on previous games

Players want to feel like the decisions they make in a game contribute to the world and the story that unfolds.

A good Dungeon Master will look back at previous games and weave in actions from the last session into the next one.

Like with Kevin. His running off was so impactful because we’d got to know the character over a series of sessions and didn’t see it coming.

In our group, we’d decided to keep a boar that we’d rescued from some goblins. We called him Hogger, and we had to think about whether he came with us into an encounter or if we left him with someone in the town.

Those kind of details make it feel like you’re building something unique together as a group, and keep you coming back to find out what happens next.

Conclusion – What is a Dungeon Master?

The Dungeon Master role is complicated and difficult to do well.

Dungeon Masters need the ability to balance the logical, rules side of Dungeons and Dragons with the creative, storytelling side.

It’s no easy feat.

I have the utmost respect for any Dungeon Master of Dungeons and Dragons or any other role-playing game. It takes a lot of time and energy to prepare and run an amazing campaign that your players love and remember. Without Dungeon Masters there would be no Dungeons and Dragons.

For an introduction to Dungeons and Dragons see my What is Dungeons & Dragons? article.

More Dungeons & Dragons articles

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Emily
Hi, I’m Emily, the tabletop gamer behind My Kind of Meeple. If this article helped you, I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.

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