I’ve been a D&D Dungeon Master since 1980. In that time, my play style and table rules have evolved. Here are my thoughts on some of the more contentious ones.
Initiative (side, individual, roll every round)
Rules for how to handle initiative have evolved since the first editions of D&D back in the 1970s. The Basic rules (Moldvay) stated that each side in a combat encounter rolled for initiative and that order held for the rest of the combat.
Some folks roll initiative for each monster and each character, holding that order throughout the encounter.
Yet another variation is to re-roll for initiative, either for each side or for each individual, every round.
This presents four variations, and there are situations where each makes the most sense. I don’t subscribe to the idea that one variation is so superior to the other three that it must be used at all times and at all tables.
Just like every rule in the books, whichever edition you choose to play, the group can choose which they like best.
My previous preference was to use individual initiative so that the strengths and weaknesses of each monster or character can play a part. I kept that order throughout the combat. I’m now a fan of side initiative as it keeps things simpler and goes faster.
Historically I have never used morale checks in my games as a DM, nor have any of the DM’s I’ve played under. On rare occasions, the DM would make a judgement call and say something like, “The rest of the kobolds, after seeing the majority of their group slaughtered before their eyes, drop their weapons and surrender, throwing themselves at the party’s mercy.”
After reading over old-school rules, specifically the Basic and 1st edition AD&D rules, I think that checking for morale makes a lot of sense based on the typical morale scores of monsters as specified in the various texts, and at prescribed moments in the combat such as when a group of monsters lose their leader or more than half of their number have been slain.
As with morale, I have never used encumbrance rules when DMing in the past. It’s one of those things that makes a lot of sense from a plausibility and realism standpoint, but I’ve felt that tracking encumbrance is a tedious pain in the arse.
I’m still on the fence about whether or not I’ll use it at my table.
Historically, I have ruled that a character becomes unconscious at 0 hit points, and loses 1 hit point her round until they receive healing (not just first aid as specified in 5th edition rules), and dies if they reach -10. Of course, if a player has a few hit points above zero and receives damage that takes them below -10 all at once, they’re dead.
5th edition, in my opinion, makes it far too easy to stay alive. The concept of death saves feels a bit gratuitous in favor of keeping characters kicking. I don’t subscribe to that model nor have I ever used it when DMing 5th edition games.
Conversely, the original Basic rules specified that when a character reaches 0 hit points, they’re dead. Period. I’m okay with that as long as the table is okay with is. It makes players more cautious in their actions, and I think that serves the game. I think it gives more emotional weight to the stakes.
One additional note I have about death is that when resurrected, a character loses 1 point from their Constitution score, and cannot be resurrected any more times than their original CON score.
Critical Hits and Misses
I have always ruled that a natural 1 on a d20 attack roll meant automatic failure regardless of bonuses. Along with that natural 1, I’ve typically specified that something awkward or unfortunate occurred, such as tripping or dropping their weapon. I have also ruled that a natural 20 on an attack roll always hits and does double damage; this is calculated by rolling the damage dice twice, adding them up, and then adding any bonuses to that sum.
I haven’t always handled natural 1’s or monster attack rolls in the same manner, however. They were an automatic miss but didn’t have any deleterious effect. Natural 20s were automatic hits and did double damage, of course.
Some tables I’ve played at, however, didn’t consider natural 1s or natural 20s as anything special. They were a result from a d20 roll just like any other.
On further reflection, I think a solid table rule should be that if the player characters suffer negative effects on natural 1’s and get double damage on natural 20’s, monsters and NPCs should, too.
Identifying magic items
Thinking back to all the games I’ve DM’d in the past, I realize that I have been a bit too generous to players when they discovered magic items. I’d simply say something like, “The chest contains 500 electrum pieces, 800 silver pieces, a +1 dagger, and a Wand of Fireballs.”
As previously stated about encumbrance, I never worried about how the party could carry their loot, either.
I never made the characters go through hoops to identify the magic items or their properties, unless the weapon was cursed, at which point I’d inform them that what they thought was a +1 sword was actually a -1 Backstabber. Oops.
After careful thought, I have changed my ways. Potions must be sipped to get hints about their purpose. Other magic items or weapons must be tried to determine their purpose and function, else the players must hire expert help at high cost to get the skinny on what that wand really does.
I’m also of the mind that the player would have no way of knowing how many charges a Wand of Fireballs has until it runs out. I’d keep track in my own notes.
I have fudged many rolls as a DM, especially in recent years. Because I have historically been a “story” dungeon master, focusing on a great story that fit a cohesive theme, bad dice rolls could detour a party in a direction I didn’t want them to go.
This DMing style is also called “railroading” and I’ve since given that up to being an almost 100% sandbox-type dungeon master. This has enabled me to make other changes, too, specifically allowing the fates of the dice rolls fall where they may.
There are still rolls I don’t let the party see, such as Hearing Noise or Move Silently checks, but I no longer fudge rolls.
Player activity reflects character activity
One of the new rules my groups and I have agreed to implement is the mandate that if a group of players are arguing loudly about something, their characters are, too. Wandering monsters become much more likely to show up under those conditions.
Also in recent years I have banned the consultation of Monster Manuals during game play. I may look up a monster’s stat as part of my DM duties, but the players don’t get to.
Consulting the Player’s Handbook during play is a bit different, though. Spell-casters need to be able to have full understanding of their spells to make good choices for their characters, but having the PHB handy during play can lead to min-maxing (making choices to optimize rolls, stats, and results that don’t necessarily coincide with sound role-playing).
So, I have come up with the table rule that if the player wants to consult a book during play (other than the Monster Manual), their character is setting down their pack or Bag of Holding, rummaging around inside to find it, and spending time thumbing through pages to find what they’re looking for. This wastes the party’s time and obviously can’t be done while on the move or during combat, else there will be consequences in-game.
Monster reaction rolls
As with morale, I never used monster reaction rolls until recently. I like letting the dice make some more decisions for me as I’ve already got enough on my plate. Letting the dice decide a monster’s reaction at the start of an encounter also lends itself to the sandbox style of play. The dice can take the party in whole new directions and rolling for monster reactions is one way that can happen.
I also use reaction rolls for NPC encounters, too, although I still role-play NPCs as I think a good DM should.
Like encumbrance, tracking rations, water, rest, and consumables like torches, lantern oil and arrows is a realistic thing to do but is a bit of a pain. There are many DMs on YouTube and social media who have shared their methods and tools (checklists, basically) to make tracking these consumable resources easier.
On the one hand, tracking consumables seems like a tedious mechanic. But, I have found — and my players have, too — that this adds to the atmosphere and even the strategy of the game’s role-playing aspects. If the party wants to explore deeper in the dungeon but won’t have enough torches to see their way back to the surface, they must leave now and return another day better prepared. The same goes for healing and spell availability, so tracking consumables like torches and food isn’t really any different if you think about it.
An additional tip is to assign these tracking duties to an honorable and honest player in the party. Delegate it for the win.
Disclosing monster stats
I’ve disclosed monster hit points and armor class in the past, but no more. Now, “the manticore isn’t even bloodied” when it’s above 50% of it’s hit points, and “the beast has blood on its limbs and is showing signs of fatigue” when it gets down to around 25% of remaining damage. When it’s nearly dead, I’ll say something like, “The manticore has many visible wounds, is breathing hard, and seems to be close to death.”
A monster’s armor class is never disclosed but the party can often do the math to glean the likely number after several hits or misses in their attack rolls.
Sometimes a successful hit according to the d20 still doesn’t hit, or doesn’t do the full damage due to the monster having some kind of immunity or resistance. The party figures this out over time, but unless they are already familiar with the monster’s characteristics, it’s not immediately obvious.
This brings up another point about monsters. I used to say, “You walk into the room and see a manticore…” Now, I describe the way the monster looks and let the party figure out what it is. Unless it’s a group of orcs or kobolds, something everyone already knows and could easily identify; in that case I just say, “You see a group of around a dozen orcs staring at you from across the room.”
Sandbox: Multiple players
I’ve really come to enjoy the sandbox style of DMing. I’ve always been a story-driven “railroad” kind of DM in the past and it’s still my nature to design campaigns in the story-centric way. I’ll leave it to you to research on your own the difference between sandbox and railroad styles of D&D gaming.
[NOTE: I prefer the term “story-driven” play style over “railroad”; I’m using the latter term here as it seems to be the currently fashionable way of describing that campaign style.]
One aspect of traditional sandbox D&D games that fascinates me is the idea of one or two DMs running a campaign with a collection of up to 50 different players participating — yes, 50! A play session is scheduled and the players that show up get to play, regardless of the make-up of the party from previous sessions.
The DM must keep track of what happens in their sandbox milieu, which monsters are slain and treasure recovered, etc. The players go about their business and if today’s group happens to wander into a dungeon that was cleared out by another group of players the week before, they find bodies of slain monsters (or characters!) being eaten by rats and opened chests devoid of treasure.
I think this method of play has a lot of advantages but it puts a bit of a burden on the DM (or DM’s) to accurately and thoroughly track what transpires during each session.
Railroading: aka The Story-Driven Campaign Style
As mentioned previously, I’ve historically been a railroad or ‘story-driven’ DM. I would create detailed settings with elaborate notes about what is were, what’s happening behind the scenes, and carefully choreographed encounters designed to ensure my plot unfolds like a brilliantly written story.
This has been fun and well-appreciated throughout my DM career, but one particular event in a particular campaign a few years ago made me realize the potentially huge pitfalls to running a railroad campaign.
I had things carefully and thoughtfully planned out, but the party made a choice — with full knowledge of the consequences — that completely derailed the campaign’s planned trajectory. It ended the entire campaign halfway through and some players even left the game entirely.
I was not only frustrated, I was furious. This took place roughly halfway through a rather long and thoroughly planned campaign, which meant that 50% of my hard work just got flushed down the drain — and the party did it by choice, knowing this would be the result.
They didn’t do this specifically in rebellion to my play style. They explained their rationale, and it had nothing to do with whether it was a sandbox or railroad type of campaign.
Ultimately, they wanted to maintain their sense of agency even though it ended the campaign’s plot. I’ve since learned to value player agency far more than I ever used to.
But, if this had been a sandbox style game, it wouldn’t have mattered. The party’s choice would have been handled just like any other and play would have continued, just in a new and equally valid direction.
When this happened, I had never heard of the sandbox style of game play. I’ve since grown to love and embrace sandboxed games and, thinking back, recognize just how powerful and useful it would have been in that situation.
I still could have had my “grand plan” in place, ready for the players to discover. But it would have been designed in a way where that discovery wasn’t a requirement. It was simply there, ready to be found. I also have learned I don’t need to prepare things to nearly the same degree of detail as before.
I have calculated that in my story-style DMing days, I spent an average of 15-20 hours of preparation for every hour of actual game play. I loved every minute of it, but that’s not sustainable. Sandboxing still allows me an adequate amount of creative time to come up with settings and the beasts and traps and tricks and other fun things that inhabit it — something I personally enjoy — but I spend less than half the amount of time doing it. And the players are having a great time with all the sense of agency they could ever want.