A few weeks ago, Top of the Table began a side trek from game recommendations and round-ups to offer up some tips for getting into role-playing games, and specifically how to tackle the job of being a Dungeon Master. The first step along the way is making smart choices before you ever sit down with your friends; that was the focus of this first installment, where I talked about recommendations for choosing a role-playing game, considering what your players want out of the experience, and suggestions regarding notes to prepare before your first session. Today, we’re continuing the series, and moving on to running the game in the moment.

You’ve gathered your friends around the table, everyone has their characters ready to go, and they turn to you to start up the action. What’s next? 

Engage the Group

You can have the most meticulous notes, carefully planned encounters, and detailed maps ever sketched out on graph paper, but it’s all for nothing if you don’t pull your players into the fun. Think about ways to use showmanship, music, visual aids, and your own enthusiasm and storytelling chops to engage the players sitting at the table.

While preparation is great, don’t hide behind your notes and read text; that isn’t really communicating directly to your players. Make eye contact with individual players when they are asking you questions or telling you what their characters are doing. Use players’ names (or, if it’s your style, their character names) to address them one by one. Think about your storytelling as if you’re all gathered around a fire, and you’re launching into a great anecdote or ghost story.

Modulate your voice, especially when communicating NPC dialogue. Change your vocal range from quiet tones when creeping through a dungeon to louder expressions as you describe a sudden attack.  Don’t be afraid to use your hands to accentuate ideas, or if using miniatures and a map, point to monsters and locations as things unfold. Be willing to alter your voice to get across the deep growl of a dragon, or the timid fear of a scared child. Accents (even bad ones) can make your players laugh and have a great time. 

Consider the possibility of pictures and other visual aids to accentuate your descriptions. If you’re using a Monster Manual or similar tome of enemy creatures, show your players a picture of the monster they’re about to fight. If you’re describing an idyllic country valley of elven settlements, it’s a good bet you can pull up a piece of art online that roughly matches your description. Where possible, especially with major items or battle scene setups, consider physical objects that represent the objects at hand; that giant blue magical gemstone artifact is a heck of a lot cooler if you can pull a giant fake glass gemstone from under the table to show to your players. 

Music sets a mood, and it can be a great way to add excitement and tension. If you’re just getting started, there are tons of online sources where you can stream catalogs of music. Alternately, consider starting a personal collection of tunes and playlists that are customized to the situation you might want. I have a collection of video game and movie soundtracks that are split out into playlists like “Fantasy Battle,” “Sci-Fi Action,” and “Horror” that I use to match the needs of my session. You can even subscribe to dedicated services (like Syrinscape) to access customized soundscapes for your games.

In short, use the tools at your disposal to help your players feel like they are witnessing a great cinematic adventure, and then connect with them individually and as a group to help them feel like they are inside that adventure.


Unique character concepts should be encouraged, and games like The Strange do so naturally

Get Everyone Up To Speed

As you begin your first session, take a few minutes to set the scene. Remember, most of your players likely don’t know as much about the game and setting as you do, so it’s up to you to get everyone on the same page. At the same time, avoid the temptation to narrate for too long. Players want to get to the action, not hear you drone on and on. Keep the opening descriptions down to a few minutes, and then get the players involved in responding and making choices. 

After your first session, I strongly encourage asking one or more of your players to take on the role of getting everyone up to speed by describing the events of the previous session. This serves two purposes. First, it ensures that everyone knows what is going on, even if one or more of your players may have missed the last meet-up. Second, it lets you see the unfolding story through your players’ eyes. Perhaps you thought you had dropped an essential clue about the necromancer’s whereabouts at the tail end of the last session, but during the recap, no one mentions anything about it; that lets you know that you need to find a new way to get that info to your players. 

Yes, and…

Improv comedy uses the phrase “Yes, and…” as a way to encourage collaborative storytelling and receptive group listening. The basic idea is that once someone sets the terms of a narrative exchange, you want to follow-through on that initial premise, rather than changing directions. The same concept applies to good role-playing games. 

Perhaps you’ve established a friendly neighborhood bartender NPC with a penchant for sarcastic commentary to the party members. You initially intended the character to be a fun jokester, but your players interpret the bartender as a mean stick-in-the-mud who is always insulting them and getting in their way. Go with it. By recognizing the ideas that your players latch on to, you can continue to develop that situation in a way that resonates with everyone at the table, even if it doesn’t exactly match with your original intent. 

“Yes, and…” extends beyond dialogue choices. Listen to the ways that your players describe their character actions, and encourage them in the elements that work. If your buddy describes a complex acrobatic attack from his elven fighter, reward that effort and (after the dice are rolled) explain how his extravagant assault pans out in a grand success or a devastating failure. If a player has an idea that takes the action in a different direction than you expected, try to see where it goes.

Next Page: Give every player the chance to shine, and always skip the boring stuff