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Mike Mearls @mikemearls
, 25 tweets, 5 min read Read on Twitter
I'm developing a new style of DMing for myself, riffing off my earlier tweets about railroading. It boils down to this - in a game of D&D, the DM provides the foundation of energy and action for the session, but NOT the direction. I'll explain using combat as an example.
I've been putting a lot of work into my combat management and presentation over the last few months, especially as streaming is something I do more of and, honestly, really love doing. It has made DMing into a true skill you can watch grow. I love that.
In combat, my job as a DM is to provide forward energy, narrative opportunities, and quick pivots to avoid dead spots. The bad news is that doing this well is hard and burns a lot of energy. The good news is that if you hit a 5 on a 10 point scale, you're still doing fine.
You can break combat down into three basic informational nodes:
1. A player's turn
2. The DM's turn
3. The system's turn

As a DM, you have a different job at each node.
On the player's turn, your job is to prevent interesting framing elements and narrative opportunities that help a player form an action.
On the DM's turn, your job is to resolve NPC/monster actions in a way that delivers both narrative and system information.
The system's turn is all the bookkeeping stuff you need to do that interrupts the narrative flow. It pokes up everywhere. Your job is to make that stuff as painless as possible. Ideally, the rule set itself steps in to make that a breeze.
In D&D, on a player's turn your job is to set up the player's choice. Don't just say, "What do you do?" Consider the player, their character, and then drop in a call to action. Let's say Kate is about to take her turn. She's playing a tiefling wizard.
Situational awareness is key. Kate is low on HP after the kenku archer tagged her a few times. So, play into that:
"The pain from your injuries seems to make the world spin, but all settles into place as you lock eyes with that kenku archer. He winks and takes aim at you."
You've done two things here - given the player an obvious path to decide around and you've also given the rest of the group insight into her situation. That might remind the cleric to get a healing spell ready on his next turn.
You've also saved some time by providing key info without the player needing to ask. Embedding that in the narrative keeps things moving by cutting down on questions.
On our monster's turn, this is your chance to inject personality and roleplaying. You can prep notes ahead of time, use random tables, or build on things as they arise due to the vagaries of the dice. Let's take that kenku archer as an example.
I might suspect he'll be a key part of the fight, so ahead of time I pick one of the backgrounds from the PHB and use its tables to generate his personality. I know that he's a bandit, so I use the criminal tables. I'll pick or roll a thing from one table - don't need all three.
I get "Never tell me the odds." I think Han Solo, so I think of this guy as a swashbuckler kind of guy. When he attacks, if he hits I throw in little quirks - he winks, he makes the sound of someone gasping and dying, he toys with the characters.
I want him to be imposing, so I highlight the player's skill or his bad luck of he fails. The fighter gets his shield up just in time, and the arrow pierces the shield and stops a fraction of an inch away from his throat.
The dice be damned, I'm making this guy a star! And now, both I as DM and the players have a hook to work around. The players start thinking about cover, I bounce back to him even as I describe other creatures' actions.
The thugs close in to attack, but I describe how they keep a clear alley for the sniper to fire. Repetition is super useful here, as it frames things consistently and keeps your information flow clear and easy. Less is more. Not every monster or NPC is a star.
What's important here is that I'm framing the scene, but it is all within my domain as DM. The players can make choices as they wish. They can take cover, they might see this kenku as someone worth recruiting, etc. But, absent that initial push he'd just be a bag of HP.
This approach is all about keeping roleplay an element in all aspects of the game, and I've found that it helps keep that shared, story space flowing even while dice are flying and people are tracking numbers and doing math.
And that brings me to to my final point - RPGs are descriptive rules sets. They describe a thing that we naturally do, rather than tell us how to do it. In the ideal world, the rules are just part of the flow. But sometimes, they can bring things to a halt. That's, obviously, bad
Easy fixes - take good notes, bookmark the rules, use @DnDBeyond for quick lookups (#WOTCstaff), but also keep an eye out for when you just make a ruling up on the spot to preserve the narrative energy and immersion.
My rule of thumb - does looking up the rule increase or decrease tension? It can cut both ways - the group holds its breath as we check to see if the sanctuary spell works on that critter that's immune to being charmed.
That's a big, juicy moment where the rule reference causes us to linger on a big turning point. Don't underrate the potential for the rules' intrusion to add a compelling beat to the action.
Opposite situation - do I have +1 or +2 to this damage roll? Really, unless the target is down to its last HP it is irrelevant. Err in favor of the players and keep things moving (NPCs don't argue and insist on looking up rules).
Taken as a summary - pick a flavor point or two to build your combat narration around, and hit it over and over gain. Lead into each player's turn with a narrative challenge, look up rules only when doing so makes things more tense or exciting.
Your main skills - read a LOT to build your vocabulary, remain focused on the game and take note of the details, and remember that the game is personal. Make each player the star of their turn.
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