Dungeon Mastering

Congrats on choosing to be the MASTER of your SimpleDnD games. You, the DM, are the rules, the gods, the monsters and the story in which the players enjoy. Your job is to referee games, place the breadcrumbs that the players follow to the end goal. You are the one who determines who advances, how fast and how powerful you’d like your players to become. Your job is to run the game the players are playing. To react to the players. To determine how their actions work out. You are the heart of creating a great RPG experience.

reminderDon’t forget to check out the How To Play Adventure: Goblin Raiders. In it players and DM will find a simple, step-by-step dungeon, designed specifically to teach how to use rules and how to DM a game. If you’re already ready to play, you can start your adventures in the Village of Cresthaven.

Setting Up The Game Space


As the DM you are privy to all of the secrets of the game, you don’t have to share your rolls, you don’t have to share your maps. Because of the this, you should always block view into your area with some type of barrier from the players. This could be a homework privacy divider, a file folder or you could buy a fancy DM screen from Amazon.

Many new DMs think they need to show the included maps and hand out papers for players. This is a huge fallacy, maps are for the DM, in fact anything included in any adventure is really just for the DM’s eyes only.

If you want to be more tactical in your combat, you can definitely bring in minis and maybe a dry erase grid map (I have a big vinyl one) I recommend one with a 1″ grid and dry erase marker friendly. This is completely optional and I’ve found it to be harder for younger, less strategic players, to use the maps like this.

A typical gaming session would be one player (the DM) behind a screen at the head of the table. Then all players sitting together with their character sheets and with a pool of dice or minis in reaching distance of everyone. The players would talk about their plan, the caller telling the DM what they do, and the DM doing secret rolls and such behind the screen and announcing the results.

Five Pillars of Dungeon Mastery

Playing SimpleDnD is very different from playing a modern RPG. It is game where the rules give guidelines and the Dungeon Master interprets those guidelines to referee the play. Your job isn’t to remember and apply rules correctly, it’s to make up on-the-spot rulings and describe them colorfully. It’s your job to answer questions (some of which will be off-the-wall) and to give the players lots and lots of decisions to make. You are the final rulebook and your word is god!

Pillar One: Rulings

When running a SimpleDnD game the DM is all about interpreting the rules to make rulings. The players describe the action they’d like to take and without even reviewing the character sheet the DM decides whether or not the player can do it. Only then can the player describe HOW they’d like to take action and then the DM will determine what Difficulty Check, if any, is required to accomplish the action. The dice are used to add uncertainty to a game – Even the DM can be surprised by a natural 20 in an unlikely situation.

Pillar Two: Actions over Skills

Gone are all of the complex skill checks of modern games. Players tell the DM what action they are going to take, say searching for traps, the DM will then allow you to roll a DC even if you don’t have specific skill bonus for searching – anyone can search, some just better than others. The DM’s main job is to help Players to leverage their ability bonuses to apply their actions more effectively.

Pillar Three: Everyday Heroes

The adventures in SimpleDnD have more in common with their players than most modern RPGs. Players may start the game with a few minor special abilities, but any foolhardy player will quickly find themselves dead. Only through the acquisition of treasure, reputation and experience do players find their way to be exceptional heroes.

Pillar Four: Mathematical Balance

It’s all too common for the super geeky of the RPG community to run a statistics program to determine the balance of an encounter. It should be noted that SimpleDnD does offer guidelines to help keep your encounter from becoming too deadly, balance is not a focus of the game. Players should always be wary of new rooms and unexplored dungeons. You never know when you might stumble upon something that will kill you in a blink of an eye.

Pillar Five: Player Agency

Player agency is the ability for the players in your game to intervene to produce different outcomes. Agency can come in all scales, from choosing what quest to go on, to what way you can kill the BBEG, to a much smaller scale, like what spell to use in combat, or which enemy to attack.

As the DM you role is to explain the situation to the players, such as put the characters up a tree, put starving wolves under the tree, and then trust them to find a way out of the tree. It’s not the responsibility of the DM to force the characters into a solution to the problem, but rather to help the players fulfill their plan to solve the problem. Violating player agency too often or harshly runs the risk of a game feeling unfair or railroaded.

DMing New Players

Beginning players often need help in learning to play and tips for new players. When running a game for beginners, the DM should encourage them by saying such things as “Do you want to search for secret doors?” or other suggestions. This should not be continued once the players have experience with the game, but such clues can be very helpful to beginners. Clues should be given when the party is approaching a deadly area, especially on the first or second level of a dungeon. Clues, such as, awful smells or bones of earlier victims. Extreme danger with no warning is not very fair or fun.

Beginners should win more often. You may wish to allow some “automatic success” situations to encourage the players. Those who never find secret doors will soon stop looking for them. We want players to start thinking about their abilities and actions in different situations. They must learn to use the tools available to them or the game will quickly lose its sparkle. 

Fudging dice is often a great way to make it seem that the players succeed or find an important clue, even if the dice say otherwise. Player will quickly become wary of the DM rolling dice in secret behind the screen and rolling in secret should happen frequently as most DM checks should happen in secret.

Caller, Cartographer and marching order

The player characters are often a chaotic bunch. They argue, get lost and generally space out in game and it can make the game feel more like baby sitting than fun. I’ve found giving the players roles help to keep your sanity as the DM.

The Caller – one player that speaks for the party. When the DM asks, “what will the party do next?” the player characters should talk among themselves and come to an agreement on the next move. It is the callers job to relay that message to the DM. This player is NOT the leader of the party.

The Cartographer (mapper) – one player that keeps track of the player characters in the location. This player can use graph paper or just bubble maps to track movement and important information for reference later. It’s easy to get lost if you don’t have a map. If the players don’t keep track of their location, it’s on them. I recommend you print out the Dungeon Journal pages.

Marching Order – is important to track as the DM, as many events happen around the party. Knowing who is marching in front and who is in back can determine who gets hurt or cut off or effected by a trap. I recommend you print out the Party Tracker to help you.

Giving Characters an Out

Fighting isn’t always the best answer. There are a couple of different ways that any encounter can play out. Fighting is one. Negotiating is another. Sneaking around, running through danger, etc, etc. It’s up to you Dungeon Master, to give these options to new players. You should also reward characters with experience, treasure and advancement for thinking outside of the hack and slash box.

Even the best plans can go wrong, and encounters that are supposed to be easy can become deadly if the dice turn against the players. If the characters get in over their heads, and you want to avoid killing them all, consider one of these ways to give them an out.

Enemy of My Enemy: Another group of natives or monsters arrives on the scene, providing a distraction to let the party change tactics or escape.

Kill the Leader: In some cases, monsters will withdraw or, in the case of intelligent monsters, propose a truce if their leader is killed or captured.

Jailbreak: Enemies might capture one or more of the characters instead of killing them (choosing to render them merely unconscious), and then barter them to another tribe. That other tribe might negotiate with the captives, or the adventurers might find a way to escape during the transfer. Alternatively, their captors hold the prisoners for ransom. The characters might be able to buy their freedom or make a daring prison break.

Negotiation: Humans and other intelligent opponents might be willing to bargain, even if the party is on the defensive. Perhaps their foes promise to cease the attack in exchange for something the party can offer, such as valuables or a promise to assist them against tribal enemies.

Run Away: Players don’t always agree on when to run from a fight, especially with actions dictated by the initiative order. A character might want to make just one more attack or stay behind to make sure someone else can get away. If the players are talking about running, give them that option, dropping out of initiative order and seguing to a chase scene. The characters’ success in escaping should be dictated by their choices instead of by rules minutia, such as whether one character is slightly slower than another. Do they slam doors shut as they run through the temple, topple large objects behind their passage, or use another tactic to slow pursuers? Do they escape one danger only to run into more trouble? If they do get out of sight, can they find a place to hole up?

DMing Experienced Players

When the players gain experience with the game, they may start asking questions like “Do we find any traces of passing creatures?” or “We don’t know which way to go from here. Are there are clues?”You may offer descriptive information that players will have to determine what it means. For example, “some footprints lead off to the left, but you’re not sure what made them.” Such clues may help to steer the party in the right direction within a dungeon. You may insert clues as part of the room descriptions.

High Level Players

Higher level characters are more accustomed to great dangers, and deeper dungeon levels may indeed contain sudden death situations. Vague or misleading clues may be provided by treasure maps found or purchased, or by slight hard-to-find indications in the dungeon areas. In general, when the players become more experienced, the clues may become fewer and more subtle.

SimpleDnD Resources

Online Reference

Here are a collection of blogs and tips that will help you better setup and run your games. They will help you to better understand when to roll and why. Essentially making you the most Bad Ass DM possible.

The Lazy DM ebook ($7.99)

How to build Awesome Encounters

Adjudicate Actions Like a Motherf$&%ing Boss!

5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System

Dragonsfoot community forums

A Quick Primer for Old School Gaming

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