Establishing the Ground Rules as a Dungeon Master

As in any social experience, a Dungeons and Dragons game benefits from common courtesies and ground rules that are followed by players and DMs alike. The following provides some of the unwritten ground rules of a game session, now written down for everyone to use.

Being ready to run the game

The DM needs to be prepared to run the game session. If you aren't ready, the game session isn't going to turn out well. Review the rules, particularly any special rules that might come up in the adventure. Know your adventure. If you're familiar with the plot and pacing of the adventure, it will run that much more smoothly. Plus, your knowledge of the adventure allows you to deal with the unexpected actions of the player characters — and the players will do things that you don't expect. That's part of the fun of the game.

Being ready also means being organized. Have your adventure materials and notes set up before the game session begins. Gather the miniatures you want to use ahead of time. Use sticky notes or bookmarks so you can easily find the sections of the rulebooks you know you'll need to refer to, especially the pages in the Monster Manual you might need to turn to for likely encounters.

The players expect you to be ready, so it's only a common courtesy that you don't disappoint them.

If you're ready, that's one thing that can take care of itself and you can focus on running a great game session.

Hosting chores

You need a place to play. Providing a place to play isn't the responsibility of the DM, though you might host the game session. Discuss this with the entire gaming group. Determine who has the space and the desire to host the game. Find out which of the possible locations are most convenient for the majority of the gaming group. You might decide to rotate your regular game among a number of locations, sharing the responsibilities. You might discover that one location is going to work out best all the time and the host is fine with that.

A lot of what goes into this decision involves where you want to play. You have two options:

  • You can play in a public place, such as a library or game store or coffee shop. This assumes that the staff and management of the place is okay with you playing there, you follow any rules the place sets up, and you keep the noise down so as not to disturb others using the public place.
  • You can play in a private place, such as the home of one of the members of the gaming group. Certain rules and common courtesies do go along with playing in a friend's house. Follow them, and the host will continue to make space available. Break the rules or show disrespect for the location, and you'll probably need to find a new location for future game sessions.

Prior to the game, the host should make sure the play space is clean and that distractions are kept to a minimum. (Keeping pets and young children away from the gaming area is probably a good idea.) After the game, the entire gaming group should pitch in to clean up by throwing trash away, putting away dice and other gaming accouterments, storing any remaining snacks, and so on.

Setting a time limit

Set a time limit for the game session. This allows the other players to plan accordingly and gives you an idea of how much material you need to have prepared for the game. Bear in mind that the time limit is only a guideline. If you and the other players want to keep playing, you can adjust the time limit to everyone's satisfaction.

Bringing or chipping in for refreshments

The gaming group should reach a consensus before the game about how to handle food and drink. Will people eat lunch or dinner before coming to the game, or will a meal be part of the event? If the meal is part of the event, will everyone chip in for take-out or will everyone bring a dish to share? D&D is a group activity, so it shouldn't be the responsibility of a single group member (including the host or the DM) to take on the entire burden of feeding the group. Everyone chips in and one person buys for the group, everyone brings something to share, or everyone is expected to fend for themselves. Any choice is fine as long as the group knows what to expect at the game.

Make sure that the group agrees to food choices that work for everyone, or at least have options for all of the players. Some people don't like certain things, and others have special dietary needs or allergies. Try to take all of that into account as the group comes up with a refreshment plan. And for long game sessions, the DM should plan breaks for food and drink so as not to disrupt the adventure.

Come up with a system that works best for your group and spreads the responsibility around. Then be courteous and live up to your end of the bargain.

Eliminating outside distractions

At the start of the game session, the DM needs to provide time for the players to socialize. Players like to catch up, discuss the news of the day, talk about favorite TV shows and movies, and generally shoot the breeze. D&D is as much about social interaction as slaying monsters, so this kind of activity is encouraged — as long as it's kept in its place. Fifteen minutes to a half hour of this, before the game starts, is fine, or perhaps over a meal (if one is part of your game session). When the DM calls for the game to begin, however, courtesy demands that all players turn their attention to the game.

The host can help by making sure that other distractions aren't easily accessible. The TV shouldn't be on when you're playing D&D. If the majority of the players want to watch the big game of the sport of their choice, maybe you should reschedule the game session. Likewise, keep the computer and console games out of sight, put the pets away, and send the younger children to their rooms to play their own games. (Better yet, hire a babysitter.)

Sometimes, a player just isn't in the mood for D&D. He or she might have had a rough day at the office, might not be feeling well, might have a ton of homework, or maybe there's something else he or she would rather be doing. Don't try to strong-arm a player into showing up and playing. If a player doesn't think he or she will have fun, encourage the player to take the night off from the game. The player can always jump back into things for your next game session.

Distractions are going to occur. Someone is going to tell a joke, relate a story, or otherwise disrupt the flow of the adventure. A little of that is okay and even fun. But stifle any distractions that derail the adventure and make it hard for the other players to enjoy the game. Etiquette and courtesy demand that players and DMs get their heads in the game for the game session so that everyone can have a good time.

Making sure everyone understands the in-game rules of conduct

These rules of conduct aren't revolutionary, but it's good to review them with your gaming group so that everyone knows what's expected of them when they come to play D&D:

  • It's the DM's show. Players need to be kind to the DM and accept the DM's authority over the game. Likewise, when the DM makes a mistake (and it will happen), he or she should be willing to change a decision if that decision had negative repercussions for a player character.
  • Play fair. Players shouldn't cheat, even to save their characters' lives. There are ways to deal with bad rolls (even ones that will result in a character's death) that don't force a player to stoop so low as to cheat.
  • Accentuate the positive. Players should compliment the DM on a good game. Likewise, DMs should praise players when they have their characters do something especially clever or heroic or just plain fun.
  • Let the players play. The DM needs to be kind to the players, treating them fairly and letting them make their own decisions. The DM shouldn't force the player characters to follow a specific path through the adventure, shouldn't punish them for being clever, and shouldn't intentionally and maliciously try to kill them.
  • It's the players' game, too. The DM needs to treat players with respect and should ask them for their opinions on difficult rules interpretations.
  • Eliminate the negative. The DM and the players should leave the real world behind when they play D&D, including any disagreements or lingering bad feelings that might otherwise color the way they play for a particular session. The DM and players should avoid distractions that make it hard for everyone to enjoy the game.
  • And most importantly, have fun!
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