Nine things to look for in a perfect D&D game

Unusually for me, I’ve spent most of the last six months not DMing but playing. And it’s been fun! I don’t think I’ve played this long with the same character since before the pandemic.

I think all DMs should go back to being a player every now and then (and all players, for that matter, should have a go at DMing). It gives you an insight into what Sly Flourish calls ‘the two different games we play at the table’.

As a DM, it has also been a useful reminder of the things players love about RPGs. And all of these things are inexpensive and low-tech! You won’t find fancy DwarvenForge terrain or $400 Tiamat ‘minis’ on this list. I don’t think they even require much more prep—in some ways, it’s a reminder that our games are sometimes better when we prep less.

1. A regular game

One-shots are great and all, but let’s be honest: a huge part of the fun of an RPG is coming back week after week with the same people and watching the story unfold. I am very lucky to have been in groups that play almost every week. But it doesn’t happen on its own. You need to nurture a group, tend to it; recruit enough people that you don’t have to cancel if one or two players can’t make it; stick to the same time slot as often as possible; and check in with people to make sure you’re running the best game you can. And DMs, as the host, you have a big part in all this!

2. A strong start

As a DM, I sometimes don’t give this the attention it deserves. It’s easy, low-effort, just to review where we left off last session. But getting back to the other side of the screen recently, I’ve noticed how much of a difference a strong start makes. We lean in, wake up, roll dice, start talking. Something happens, and it pulls us into the world. D&D has a rhythm: it’s all about players and DMs reacting to each other. So as DMs, we need to give the players something cool to react to! There’s a reason it’s the first step in Mike Shea’s advice, and it’s one you shouldn’t skip.

3. A genuine sense of freedom

As a player, it is just the best when you feel like you can go anywhere and do anything. It is why we play RPGs! Nothing else comes close to it. All you need is a cool map festooned with opportunities for adventure, be it a city, a wilderness, a continent, or just a really big dungeon.

Published adventures can be a mixed bag for this. Some of the best, like Tomb of Annihilation and Curse of Strahd, have big sections where you are free to roam where you like. Others—I won’t name them—are railroady, heavily plotted, and prewritten, and there’s a sense that nothing the players do will really makes a difference. Homebrewed adventures can be just as bad.

DMs: give your players plenty of options. Listen to what they want to do; try to make it happen. Prep situations, not plots. And if you’re worried that this might mean more prep for you—well, not necessarily. The trick is to prep flexibly: to get the ingredients together but be ready to improvise. And if improvising is anathema to you, why are you DMing?

4. Decisions that matter

This is a corollary of the point above, although not quite the same thing. As well as having a sense of freedom, players want to know that their choices mean something: that the world of the game is different for their being in it. Callbacks are great for this: show the players that places, characters, and events have changed or evolved because of their actions. And I don’t just mean superficially (‘Oh look, there’s the skeleton of that wyvern we killed’). Every now and then, something big should happen because of the characters. The characters should matter.

5. Not too much combat

D&D is often derided as a combat game. It’s not a view I share, but I agree that combat is the most codified part of the core rules, and often what DMs are most comfortable with. And don’t get me wrong: combat is often really fun! But it’s not the favourite part of the game for everyone, and too much combat can get a bit relentless. Something I’ve noticed as a player is that combat-heavy sessions make me feel like my choices don’t really matter. The more time we spend fighting, the less time we spend exploring the world, talking to NPCs, learning cool new things. We start to wonder what we’re actually achieving.

On a related note: don’t mistake challenging combat for fun combat. A tough fight is a big downward beat, and if all you have are tough fights, it starts to feel like a slog. Conversely, burning through hordes of enemies can really feel awesome!

6. Immersive description

I love it when a D&D game takes me away to another world. That, after all, is the point of fantasy. The best way to do this? Description.

This isn’t just about DMs. Players need to do their bit as well; a DM is only as good as their players. But DMs set the tone, and how they do this matters. Whether it’s carefully written boxed text or off-the-cuff description, scene-setting matters. Take pride in it.

7. Learning new things

I’ll say it again: no, D&D really isn’t ‘just a combat game.’ The main difference between combat and the other two pillars is that exploration and social interaction don’t really need 30 pages of rules. Exploration is essentially just ‘learning new things’, and one of the things I’ve realized during my time as a player is just how satisfying this is. Lore, secrets, clues: I love this stuff, and I don’t think I’m alone. Make sure your players can learn cool new things.

8. A DM who cares about your character

When you go from DMing to the other side of the screen, you are reminded what it’s like to play only one character. No monsters, no NPCs: that character sheet is all you’ve got. So you want that character to be cool!

DMs: keep this in mind. Use the characters’ names. Set up in-game situations just for them. Give them opportunities to show off their abilities. Root for them!

Which bring us finally to . . .

9. A DM on your side

I’ve never understood the ‘DM versus the players’ mentality. As a DM, you’re essentially god: if you want the tarrasque to awaken 100 ft from where the party is resting, there’s nothing to stop you. Playing to kill the characters is completely self-defeating.

As a DM, I sometimes wondered if easy encounters are boring for the players, but after several months on the other side of the screen, I’ve realized how fun they can be. They run quicker, we burn through our resources less quickly, and we feel awesome. Conversely, as I mentioned earlier, constant deadly encounters feel like a grind.

So DMs: be a fan of the characters! Don’t try to kill us all the time. Let us feel awesome.

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5 thoughts on “Nine things to look for in a perfect D&D game

  1. Great article. Thanks for taking the time to remind me what life is like on the other side of the screen.
    Bruce The DM

  2. Great post , the bit about easy combat being fun is a bit of a tough pill to swallow for me as a new DM. As a player I love risk and hard choices so it’s great to hear the perspective that a lot of players do not. But then I keep thinking , do I like the stakes or the actual challenge? Combat that matters might be more important to me than challenge as I’ve been trying to work world building and storytelling into my fights.

  3. I play D&D for the combat. “Role playing,” like being in an improv play, is both stressful & boring for me. Going straight from one combat or puzzle to another is what I enjoy. But this is what’s so great about D&D; it can meet the desires of us “wargamer” types & the “role players” too! But probably at different tables.

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