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Lessons I learnt Listening to Pro DMs

As with any skills, the gap between the professional Dungeon Masters and the everyday enthusiasts like you and I can be enormous. That said, there's a huge amount that we can learn from pro DMs and try to implement to improve our own Dungeons and Dragons games.

A word of warning though, while we want to learn as much as we can from these amazing DMs, we have to try not to hold ourselves to their standards. They are often professional storytellers, writers, or voice actors - and often are aided by big production budgets and careful editing. Thinking that we are gonna run games as exciting and interesting as theirs straight away is basically just setting yourself up for failure.

Now that that massive disclaimer is out the way though, let's dive in and see what we can learn from these pros.

*N.B. The Amazon links on this page (marked with an *) are affiliate links. This doesn't cost you any extra, but I make a small commission from any sales - which helps support the site :)

Say yes a lot

The first pro DM that I started listening to was Anthony Burch from the Dungeons and Daddies podcast. If you haven't listened to it, oh my god, go and do that now - because it's amazing! The first episode I heard was actually a few episodes into the first season, as I overheard my partner listening to it - and even without really understanding the story that had got them to that point, I was in hysterics. I immediately had to go back and check it all out from the beginning.

Besides just loving the podcast, though - I began to listen more to Anthony's DM style, to try to figure out what I could learn to improve my own games. And the big lesson? Say yes a lot. This allows the story to go in so many unpredictable directions - which is what makes the podcast so amazing.

The players in Dungeons and Daddies deserve so much credit, as it is their wild and crazy ideas that drive these storylines - yet it is Anthony who has to agree to them, and then try to figure out how to incorporate them into the story. He does so amazingly well, though - and by saying yes more in my own campaigns, I've found that they become much more enjoyable for both me and my players.

A quick bonus tip from Dungeons and Daddies: don't sweat it about the rules. I think it's not really until mid way through season 1 that (due to pressure from fans on twitter) Anthony went back and really read the Player's Handbook(*). So much of Dungeons and Daddies is homebrew, or loose interpretations of the rules - but the show doesn't suffer from that at all. There really is only one important rule - make the campaign fun. And Dungeons and Daddies follows that to a tee.

Over prep

To be honest, most of these tips would apply equally for any pro-DM that you like, but I've been on a bit of a Dimension 20 binge recently, so I'm gonna single out Brennan Lee Mulligan here. It's amazing to see the depth of prep and lore that go into his campaigns - which really serves to make the world feel alive and vibrant. True, Brennan is a world-class improviser, so it's difficult to know exactly how much of the worlds he builds is prep and how much is improv, but there's enough lore and intrigue to make me conclude there must be a lot of the former.

Indeed, Brennan's campaigns often feel a bit like a murder mystery, with players trying to piece together the fragments of info he gives them, in order to solve the mystery or work out who the BBEG is etc. And for the most part, this lore isn't just dumped on his players - but rather unveiled over several sessions as they go looking for clues. This kind of gameplay, and the level of complexity to the storyline really helps to keep his players engaged.

Now, obviously, everyone has different life commitments, and therefore different amounts of time they can dedicate to prep - but whatever time you can give to it should serve to enhance the enjoyment of your game. And if you're really pressed for time, maybe check out my lazy prep guide - to help you still run a fun session even when time is short.

The importance of Session 0s

There's no need out pick out a particular DM for this point, because basically all of the professional D&D content that you're likely to encounter will have had really in-depth Session 0s before the campaign begins. Ensuring that your players know about the setting, its lore, various political affiliations etc before the campaign even starts is super important for providing an engaging D&D experience right from the outset.

Given that these are professional enterprises rather than just home games, it's a given that all the players will be pulling in the same direction to try and make an enjoyable spectacle - but a Session 0 gives them the tools to really make the most of the setting from the get-go.

They make combat awesome!

When I think about it, there's two different elements to improving combat that I've picked up from pro-DMs. The first is how Matt Mercer effortlessly narrates the combat scenes in Critical Role. It can be really easy as a DM to just ask your players in combat 'ok, so what's your attack role? 13 - yep, that hits, and now roll damage. 6? Great. Ok, who's next?' . Whilst perfectly functional, this approach just isn't narratively satisfying.

What Matt Mercer does so well is then to bring to life how that 13 attack and 6 damage represents slashing across the enemy's chest, finding a weak point in their armour, and feeling the blade pierce the enemy's skin as they let out a blood curdling scream. Or whatever.

Narration such as this doesn't change the game mechanics - but it allows you to keep players engaged, to build tension, and just in general to make the world more epic. Now, Matt's a professional storyteller, so all the narration he gives (whether combat, NPCs, places or whatever) is beautiful and imaginative, and designed to get you more invested in the world and the story. Don't think you're gonna be on his level when you try this, but even doing your best approximation of it definitely makes your encounters feel more alive.

As a counterpoint to this, though - also feel free to let your players describe their attacks if they want to! You don't want to rain on their parade, and you definitely want to encourage those who want to add that bit of flavour to their turns. In general, I let anyone describe their actions who wants to, but I'll default to describing them if they don't. When they finish an enemy off, though, I always insist that the player describes how they want to do it.

The second element to making combat awesome that I've picked up from pro-DMs is trying to have different elements going on in the battles that I run. Sometimes this is easier than others - when players are at a very low level, for example, it can be difficult to have too many elements going on, for fear of overwhelming them and killing off the party when everyone's HP is pretty low.

All things being equal though, having different elements going on in combat can make the encounter memorable and notch up the excitement. My favourite example of this is from the Escape from the Bloodkeep Dimension 20 series. (Seriously, go check this out!). The Airship Battle in episode 4 was totally awesome, and a great example of different elements all making the fight unpredictable and dynamic.

Know when to sit back

This is maybe the biggest difference between professional D&D and your weekly home game - that when professional players sign up to be involved, they know that they're gonna be expected to do a lot of roleplay and between-character conversations etc. Depending on how comfortable your players are with D&D (and with each other!) this may be something they are less keen on. But when it does - sit back and enjoy it!

There's a tendency as the DM to think you're the one who always has to be pushing things forwards and moving the story along - and this can often lead to you thinking you need to be talking most of the time. But when your players want to chat to each other about their backstories, or the NPCs they've met, or what their plans are for the future - just sit back and let them talk!

It's such a gratifying feeling as a DM to know that they're invested enough in the story to roleplay among themselves and not just wait on you to entertain them. Pro-DMs know that this is where some of the most interesting character and plot development happens - so don't be too hasty to jump in and push them into your next prepared encounter.

Final thoughts

I hope that these ideas are inspiring rather than intimidating, and that you approach them with the spirit of 'what can I get out of listening to the pros that I can use to improve my game?' rather than 'oh my god, there's so much to learn, I'll never be as good as these people!'

Just remember that all these pros have spent years playing this game, and have improved to the standard that they can now earn a living from it. You're not expected to be on their level! But by breaking down what works for them, there's room for all of us to improve, and to try and make our own games that little bit better. So the next time you're listening to your favourite D&D campaign, occasionally ask yourself - why does this work so well? and what can I do to try and emulate this in my game?

But, above anything else, make sure that any changes you're making are primarily intended to make your game more fun for everyone involved. If you stick to that, you really can't go far wrong!


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