Welcome back to The Beginner’s Guide for Dungeon Masters series, the step-by-step guide to help new DMs plunge into the world of Dungeon Mastering. In previous articles, we discussed building your world and making it come alive. In this article, we will discuss building your party. You may ask what role a DM has in party building. Isn’t that the players’ jobs? Yes and no. Your job as the DM is to build the world they play in, of course. Part of that is making sure to cater to your players and, more importantly, cater the players to the game. Not every game is for every player.
Find a group to play with. This can be a group of friends or acquaintances you know from real life, or a group found online. Whatever the case may be, your players are all going to be interacting with you quite a lot. As the DM, you’re going to be in charge. You are taking on the role of the leader by default in this setting, and you don’t have to DM for anyone who makes you or the group uncomfortable, who might not be a good fit, or whose playstyle leaves something to be desired. This leads to my first rule, and one of the biggest: You are empowered to say no. “No” is a complete sentence. Use it sparingly, but have it in your arsenal. Vet your players. Make sure, as you recruit and at regular intervals during the game, that the group dynamic needs to be one of mutual respect and enjoyment. Players might make bad choices – that’s ok. Calling that player out, demeaning them, or trying to tell them how to play their character better is decidedly NOT ok. Not everyone shares the same strengths or experience level.
This is especially true with players who are new to the game – never, ever demean them for making a mistake, or you may never see them at the table again. Using a shove action to knock an enemy prone right before their turn instead of taking an attack? Probably a mistake, but I have seen a new player make that mistake on two separate occasions, and both players learned from the experience. Never offer unsolicited advice unless a new player asks or has made it clear they want to be corrected when they make an error. You, as the DM, might gently correct the mistake by allowing the new player to change their action when they realize their error, but that is your role, not the role of other players at the table.
Players choose the type of games they want to play in, and the types of characters they want to play. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to play a bloodthirsty character, and that character will have a fantastic time in a game focused on dungeon crawling and big combats against hordes of monsters, while the party face built to talk his way out of every situation will have a little less fun. But in a game set in a more social and political context, bloodthirsty characters might get bored. You as the DM have ways of making sure that a character always has stuff to do, but if the barbarian is sleeping through entire sessions because combat never happens, they aren’t having fun. If the party face drops to zero hit points on turn one and spends the rest of combat down, that character isn’t having fun. And fun is the point of the game. Make sure your players and the game match up. Let them know ahead of time what the game will entail, and work with them to build a character they can enjoy playing in that context. And once you have a party, make sure you build the game towards that party. In future articles, I will discuss the three pillars of roleplaying and how they work in dungeons and dragons, but for now, know that a good mix of social encounters, combat encounters, and exploration will help elevate your game to the next level for everybody involved.
There is another side of the “players choose their characters” discussion. Sometimes, despite informing the players of the type of game and working with them to build their character, someone might make a character that is a bad fit. It happens. It is ok to let players reroll a character if the game isn’t what they expected. This can be done at any point. The point of the game is fun. If a player isn’t having fun, they can and should be allowed to do something different. Don’t overuse this, of course. Unless you’re doing one-off games, changing characters too quickly prevents you as the DM from involving a player’s character in the plot in any meaningful way. Players need to stick with their characters for a while before changing, and changing more than a couple of times might indicate a discussion needs to be had.
I will close with one final unpleasant point of discussion. Nobody is the main character. The party as a whole is the main character. Each player has their own part to play in that, but it is the group as a whole that you are catering to. Each player needs to have their time to shine, and the other players need to allow that to happen. And respect needs to be given as well as received. I mention this, because I have had to eject players from my campaigns in the past. If they choose to play a character in a way that disrupts the fun and ruins the party’s plan, it isn’t the character making that choice, it is the player. “It’s what my character would do” has no validity because you, the player, are choosing to play your character in that way. I make it clear to every group I play with that the party is in this adventure together, and should be working together most of the time. Inner-party conflict is fine, but only when it is contained to in-character events that are done with respect between players for the sake of the collaborative story that is being told. If a player is not mature enough to address frustrations with the game or with another character in a productive way, and instead decides to vent those frustrations in the game with no regard for the other person, that player no longer has a place at the table. You are the DM, and your role is to facilitate the game. This is the less fun side of being the DM. “No” is a complete sentence. It is rare that you have to use it, but it’s important that you’re willing to if the situation arises.
This is my process for finding players for my games. Typically, you won’t have to look hard. There are many more players than there are Dungeon Masters. Find a group that works well together, set up your ground rules, and you should be geared up for a good time together. Remember, the goal is for everyone to have fun. So long as that is the outcome, you’re doing a good job.
See you next article.
Kenny, Dungeon Master Extraordinaire