I suppose it makes the most sense to start with what I think is the most fundamental thing about DMing, the thing that DMs need to understand before they do anything else. I’ve seen a lot of rulebooks say that Rule #0 is “The DM is always entirely right”, but putting that first and foremost actually skips over a whole level of understanding. It suggests (rightly) that the DM has the ability to throw out rules that don’t work with the game, but I feel that this begs the question of what works with the game. Thus:
Law #0 – The goal of the game is to have fun.
D&D is a role-playing game. I’ve seen too many DMs put the focus on the role-playing, but that’s just an adjective. It’s a game that you participate in by playing a role, but it’s a game before it’s anything else. The goal of the game is not to create engaging personalities (unless the players think that’s fun), to tell a detailed story (unless the players think that’s fun), to create powerful characters (unless the players think that’s fun), and so on. At its most basic, D&D is a vehicle for everybody at the table to have fun.
This includes the DM. Though there’s a wealth of information out there about how to make something interesting for the players, the person running the game has to enjoy it as well. If the players and the DM have different ideas about what’s fun, the game will degenerate real fast. The player with a bard with a five-paragraph backstory detailing their noble family’s fall from grace will not enjoy a campaign run by a DM who wants quick and dirty dungeon crawls, and the player with the optimized barbarian/fighter combination and an empty “name” spot on their character sheet won’t last long in a campaign run by a DM who adores party infighting and political intrigue. The best DMs I’ve met tend to balance their campaigns to accept most kinds of players, but the most successful ones have always enjoyed planning, running, and discussing their sessions from week to week, regardless of the actual content.
Personally, I try to include combat and non-combat problems in similar measures, and I try to challenge the players as much as the characters. There are a few ways in which I differ from other DMs I’ve seen, though:
- I like high difficulty. I tend to find that the combats that the players still talk about are the ones where they felt closest to death. For example, in the Monster Campaign, the players fought an arrow demon that killed two members of the party (one who was leaving the campaign anyway), and everybody remembers that story and the fact that the fighter was not present for it. What nobody remembers is the combat occurring at the same time that originally caused the party to split, a colossal fire scorpion that the party steamrolled. Hard-won combats are more memorable and more enjoyable long-term than easy ones, even if at the time it feels terrible.
- I like using information from many sources. I’ve only had one campaign were I restricted players from certain races (the Monster Campaign, which required it by nature) and once where I restricted classes (the Hyrule campaign, because of in-campaign flavor, though if I ran another Hyrule campaign I don’t think I’d do it again). The only equipment or magic that I’ve banned was because I thought it was too powerful for the campaign. Because of this, players are free to come up with all sorts of ridiculous ideas, like a man made of living slime, the world’s holiest tailor, and a kobold werepanther rogue raised by goliaths.
- I like egalitarianism. Related to the above point, I strongly reject any rules or fluff restrictions based on race, gender, origin, etc. I try to make 50% of my NPCs and monsters female, and I make a point of putting non-standard races in positions where the players can interact with them. I don’t think it’s fun to play in or run a world where only elves can be great archers, or only first-born males can rule an area, or goblins can’t be mayor.
- I don’t like save-or-die effects. They’re the laziest kind of difficulty. They’re not interesting and they don’t challenge the players, they’re just a quick way to put a threat in the room. I can’t wrap my mind around the idea that “roll a 14 or stop having fun” is a good mechanic in a rulebook or at a table. I have a standing rule in my campaigns that I won’t use any save-or-die effects as long as the players don’t.
- I don’t like published campaign settings. In general, I think of them as too impersonal, resistant to modification, and occasionally nonsensical. All of my campaigns have a setting that I’ve designed, in varying degrees with the input of the players. It means that I can spontaneously decide on the race or age or class of a given individual, and I don’t have to check a book for what backstory this changes or what limitations are imposed on the character by their country or weapon of choice or something equally meaningless.
In all of these cases, I’m open to some wiggle room if the players think that the game will be better for it. For example, I’m fine with a player using save-or-die effects, as long as it means I can too (this usually causes the other players as the table to kindly demand that the original player reconsider).
I’ve found that as long as everybody looks at the game through the lens of “what would be the most fun for everybody here?”, there’s pretty much no way a session can go wrong. Most people already do his in small ways, like designing a character that fills in gaps left by the other members of the party, or casting a buff spell rather than trying an attack with a low chance of success, but difference is looking at the entire campaign with this sort of view. I don’t expect every player to be helpful to the game at all times, or for every player to always think about how everybody would feel if they made a certain decision, and the game is better for it. But when you look at everything that’s going on, the entirely point is to have fun, and it’s everybody’s responsibility, especially the DM’s, to maintain it.