Step 1: We admitted our Players were beyond our control and completely unmanageable.
This is only 50% a joke. If you’ve Dungeon Mastered any group ever, you’ll see why this isn’t wholly a joke. It’s a lot like herding cats. While theoretically possible, more often than not it is practically impossible. You want them to go right? They’ll go left with an attitude. You plan for 6 rooms? They only get through 3. You want deep intrigue and role-play? They’ll spend three hours shopping and just being dicks to poor defenseless merchants. The less you try to control outcomes, the simpler your life will be. The more you merely react to their actions, the happier the table as a whole will be.
Step 2: We came to believe that a DM greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Inevitably, you will turn to the internet for answers. You will Tweet Chris Perkins, or read up on Sage Advice. You will listen to podcasts. You will watch Youtube videos. You will rant to Reddit, and you will talk to those you trust. “There has to be a better way,” you think, “If only I was better at this shit.” You start to see and hear experiences of happier, less frustrated DMs. Maybe there’s hope for you and your group after all.
Step 3: We made a decision to turn our stories and our craft over to the care of DUNGEON MASTERING as we understood it.
We know we have it in us. We know that this energy flows through the table when things are clicking. We’ve felt that electricity when we are brought to tears in character, when the whole table holds their breath on a single die roll. We have seen the greatness of gaming at our own table and the tables of others. We know that despite all our fears and failings, through all the drudgery of bad sessions, and all the times we ended disappointed, the love of the shared story keeps us going, keeps us prepping, keeps us dreaming up the next great campaign. This is the turning point. When we decide if we are Dungeon Masters or merely Players. When we decide to keep going, to listen better, to speak with confidence, to tell better stories, to be the best we can be.
Step 4: We made a fearless inventory of what we’re good at, and what we’re not.
Not everyone can act out NPC voices. Not everyone can craft unique and challenging puzzles. Not everyone can think strategically in combat. After all, there’s only one DM brain versus all those players. First try out a little of everything. Try character voices until it no longer feels goofy. Paint miniatures until their eyes aren’t googly. Read stat blocks till you find the hidden mechanics. Write descriptions till you don’t hate them. Then look back, take stock, and be honest with yourself. What’s your strongest tool? What’s your weakest link? Lean in to what you’re good at, and don’t try too hard with something you’re not proficient with.
Step 5: We admitted to ourselves and our players the exact nature of our wrongs.
If you made a bad call and you think you fucked up. Say it. Don’t hold it in. Your players will forgive you. And if they don’t, well, you need a new table because you were playing with assholes. We will make mistakes. That’s where we learn the most. I will personally never forget the one time I guessed the damage WAY wrong, and I let a single Ballista Bolt take out a Red Dragon. It was so painfully anticlimactic. I will never make that mistake again. And then there was the time I rolled initiative for 20 different Orc pirates on a ship and 10 different drunken Dwarven brawlers. Another time I did a round by round breakdown of a 2,000+ foot drop. You can’t know better ways to do things if you don’t do them horribly at least once. Cop to it. Learn. Move on.
Step 6: We became entirely ready for time and practice to remove our defects of DMing.
The only way to get better is to fail and do better next time. You will forget rules. You will wish you had not pulled punches in a combat encounter. You will fumble through endless notes looking for the details of an NPC you know are fucking somewhere. You gotta let that shit go. Do the best you can, and just like dice, roll with it.
Step 7: We humbly asked our players to help us improve our games.
When a session seems flat, or players seem disinterested, you have the power to ask for feedback. To poll your audience. Make adjustments based on their feedback and try to incorporate their ideas with your own. The more you do, the less work you will needlessly need. The more everyone will have more fun. A simple conversation may seem scary at times, but boy can it cut through the bullshit and wasted energy to just lay it all out on the table.
Step 8: We made lists of all the NPCs the PC’s had harmed and became willing to take revenge for them all.
Don’t just let things happen. Think of consequences for all their theft. Think of people who are jealous of all their gold coins. Think of people who want to spit in their faces for bringing death and destruction into their small town. We don’t play tabletop role-playing games so we can reload every dialog tree until we get the ending we wanted. We play tabletop role-playing games for that amazing sense of depth and consequence, the verisimilitude of a living breathing world. That feeling that “oh shit, once we do this, there’s no going back.” Don’t let those moments go unused. They can be glorious.
Step 9: We made direct revenge wherever possible, except when to do so would render the plot stupid and convoluted.
Not all bad guys know each other and work together in neat hierarchies of evil. Not everyone is part of the same massive crime syndicate that everyone knows but nobody can stop. Cut that shit out. There’s plenty of room at any table for diverse and varied villainy. Mix it up and bring them back only when it makes sense, if ever.
Step 10: We continued to take inventory, and when our rulings were petty we promptly admitted it.
Don’t make creatures auto-hit because you’re mad that the Paladin’s Aura of Protection gives everyone a +5 to all Saving Throws. Don’t punish your players because their characters are bad-ass or their hard work got them to where they are. Don’t take away Magic Items once you’ve given them. If things are going in unforeseen directions, follow that unknown path. In the words of Bear Grylls “Adapt, Improvise, Overcome.” If your PCs are strong you just need stronger monsters. Follow that murder-train until it’s the last stop. Just don’t take it personally when your Big Bad dies in one round. You’ve trained your Players to new heights of excellence. Be a proud Dungeon Master. Be a fan of their characters.
Step 11: We sought through prep-time and medias to improve our conscious craft of DUNGEON MASTERING as we understood it, praying that when the Players turned the plot we carried it out plausibly.
They will go often the beaten path. Follow them. React in ways consistent with the game world you have been creating together. Think of the game when not at the table. Research on Youtube, film, T.V., videogames, and anything else that strikes your fancy. Inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places. Bring it back to the table and share the hidden gems you’ve found in your travels.
Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other DMs and practice these principles in all of our sessions.
I wish back in 1999 there were Youtube tutorials to watch. I wish I had an older brother who played D&D and taught me how the fuck THAC0 works. I wish there was Adventurer’s League in my hometown. I wish that Roll20 and digital tabletops allowed people to play across any distance on the globe. Today, in this new golden renaissance of tabletop gaming, there are more opportunities than ever. The internet, Twitch, PDF downloads, and increased societal acceptance have revolutionized the game. Go forth and play. And share your stories with each other.