Dungeon Masters are a hybrid class. They’re a little bit writer, a little bit producer, and a little bit actor at the table. The best ones know how to think on their feet because tabletop RPG stories grow out of the action/reaction of the players as well as their contributions to the fiction. Few players will have Robin Williams or Tina Fey as their Dungeon Master, but these legends got to where they were thanks to several rules of improvisation from places like The Second City and The Groundlings. We’ve chosen some key improv rules that Dungeon Masters can apply to their Dungeons & Dragons games. We also have some tips on how these rules specifically apply to tabletop games.
This is the big rule of improv. When someone makes a choice in a scene, go with it. So often, Dungeon Masters fight what their players want to do because they have a specific vision for their story. That can mean both small choices like requiring the PCs to do a specific thing to move a scene forward or large choices like setting up plots that players don’t engage in. When a Dungeon Master says no, that endangers player buy-in and disrupts the flow of the game.
Saying yes doesn’t mean giving the players everything they want. This rule has risen in various gaming spaces as Say Yes or Roll the Dice. This particular version lets GMs say yes until the players get to a point where failure has some interesting meaning beyond “no”. Then the dice come out and the story continues on whatever path the dice say they it should.
Yes Is Good, “Yes And…” Is Better
The players and the Dungeon Master both contribute to the story at the table. As much as players build on and react to the Dungeon Master, so too should the Dungeon Master build and react to what they players do. It can be easy to get specific when a player asks if they can do something and use the rules as a justification why they can’t. Or the Dungeon Master can let the players run with their crazy plan and build on the consequences.
This rule also highlights a favorite dirty Dungeon Master tactic: Sometimes, The Players Have A Better Plot Than You. Dungeon Masters should listen during the scenes when the players get back to their tavern or tower and discuss what’s going on. The players might make a good argument for why the duke is the vampire instead of the duchess. Or they might remember a detail from three sessions ago that the Dungeon Master overlooked. Building on the player’s plot here—saying “Yes, And…” to their theory—not only makes them feel smart for figuring out the story, it makes for a smoother transition between scenes.
Building the story requires story elements to be in place. The Dungeon Master usually gets the first crack at these because they have the plot in mind. Asking the players can often be helpful for ideas but at the end of the day the Dungeon Master says what’s in the room or what the lord of the castle looks like. These statements can be big or small.
There’s an element of confidence here that many first-time players and DMs struggle with. People new to the RPG scene often talk about how they’ a’re afraid to say or do things because they don’t want to be wrong or embarrass themselves in front of others. But Nobody Knows You’ve Messed Up Unless You Let Them. Dungeon Masters aren’t infallible, but as long as they make confident statements and stick to them, the game will flow.
There Are No Mistakes
In an improv scene, there isn’t time to go back and fix things. Everything is about forward momentum. Dungeons & Dragons sessions also thrive on that momentum. Stopping to look up a rule or class feature can kill the flow of the game. Sometimes it’s best for the Dungeon Master to make a ruling in play and then clarify it after the game.
Rulings, Not Rules allow the DM to be flexible at the table, but the DM should also take the time afterward to explain to players if the ruling in play was incorrect. It’s okay to play a rule one way and then change the rule later, so long as those changes are clearly communicated with the rest of the table.
Originally published on July 19, 2017.
Rob Wieland is an author, game designer and professional nerd. He writes about kaiju, Jedi, gangsters, elves, Vulcans and sometimes all of them at the same time. His blog is here, his Twitter is here and his meat body can be found in scenic Milwaukee, WI.