5 Ways To Bring In A Substitute Dungeon Master


The first time a player asked me to allow them to run a micro-module in the middle of my 6-month campaign, my mind rebelled at the notion.

Stupid players. They wants it. They wants me to hand over my campaign. My love. My…precious.

But after some crying, a little blood, and a lot of counseling, I gave over my campaign for a single session while I test-drove a character concept that had been rattling around in my brain. 95% of the games I’m in, I’m the DM. But damn it felt good to let a substitute take over for a session.

So what are the benefits of bringing in a sub? How much control do you give them over the players’ fate? And how do you keep the game, the players, and the new DM from screwing up the overall campaign you’ve worked so hard to build? Well, here are a few tips.

5) Give Newbies a Chance

sub_02Starting a full campaign (levels 1-20) from scratch is insanely hard. Not to mention near-impossible for a new DM looking to get into tabletop storytelling. We on the internet know of a little trick called “skim blogs and rip off the good ideas” but a new DM isn’t going to have the requisite hundreds of hours of poring over other people’s D&D horror stories and successes. That’s where you come in.

Offer to let a newbie run a short session in your world. This does several things for him/her/ze:

  • It lets them DM in an already-established setting.
  • They get to experiment storytelling with a group they’re comfortable with.
  • You’ll be there to coach them over minor bungles.
  • They’ll maybe, maybe gain a new respect for all your hard work.

With the framework of you world in place a new DM should be able to get their feet wet without having to memorize the equivalent of the Library of Congress in tables, charts, and manuals. Of course, you’ll need to…

4) Provide the Props

sub_03If your players are used to painted miniatures, rich set pieces, and colorful monsters, then don’t let the newbie roll in with a set of tacky casino dice and a yellow legal pad. Coach your substitute on miniatures, monsters, and props. Hand over your collection of minis–anything that doesn’t reveal monsters you plan to drop on the players at a later date.

Often during a long campaign I find myself wishing I had time to scratchbuild something for an upcoming session, but I just don’t have the time. Handing over your bag of tricks and letting a substitute take over for a while can give you the breathing room you need to build a foam castle, paint a tribe of goblins, or give that dungeon puzzle its proper twisting complexity.

Just remember to frequently remind your players whose world they’re actually playing in. This can be easily accomplished by…

3) Play as a Walking Piece of Exposition

-- Memegenerator

— Memegenerator

Let me share with you an ancient Dungeons and Dragons proverb;

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn. Drop alchemist fire on me because I insulted your ancient knightly order and I’ll never goddamn let it go.”

In other words, if you give a lengthy description of the political climate of your world, the structure of the noble houses, or the current wars being fought, your players won’t give a dusty shit unless there’s loot involved. If, however, you re-enter your own game as a persecuted prince looking to re-establish his legitimacy, and there are promises of loot somewhere down the line, suddenly the players start taking an interest how your world fits together.

Play as a character that has seen some of the ‘big picture’ within your world. Feed tidbits of information to your players as the NPC-turned-PC. Share secrets with them about hidden treasures, ancient artifacts, or generous kings. This is your opportunity to steer the party’s interest for when you resume your role as DM. Just remember to…

2) Set Loot Limits for the Guest DM

sub_04Talk to your substitute about limits. Especially if they’re new to the game. Something I’ve seen all too often is when a green dungeon master first tries their hand with a seasoned party, the players will invariably try to talk their way into powerful weapons, armor, and spells well beyond their level.

During one session our regular DM wasn’t able to make it, and handed the reins to a friend who wanted to try running the show. He was new. He was naive. And he had no concept of how limited Diplomacy/Intimidate checks really are.

Our regular DM gave the substitute a single small town in the middle of an arctic tundra to play with. When he got back to running the game he found that we had renamed the town Joeville, built it into a fortress, and installed ourselves as wealthy barons. The quest we were sent to solve (stop the goblin attacks) had been largely ignored. Our reasoning; if the goblins can’t get over our massive fortified walls, they’re not really a menace.

Set upper limits on experience, gold, and magical items. And if you don’t want the players burning down half your towns or stumbling into spoiler territory (literally) then you should…

1) Segregate the Module

sub_05One of my favorite stories from author R.A. Salvatore is how he decided to write about the Underdark, which was revealed during an episode of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. In it, Salvatore claims that his choice of location boiled down to real estate. All the new stories coming from the publisher would take place on a shared map, split between several authors working under the same house. And all the prime locations on the world map had already been claimed.

Every time R.A. Salvatore would pitch a new idea for a town, dungeon, or mountain, the publisher would tell him it’s been earmarked already. Left with little choice, Salvatore picked a location that couldn’t be claimed and wouldn’t appear on any map. He wrote about the Underdark, a place completely segregated from the world of D&D at the time.

Utilize this trick when you’re allowing a substitute to jump in. Give them an Underdark of their own. Let them run a module on an island in the middle of the ocean, or a system of caverns, or underwater. Hell, give them a small dimension of their own, if that’s what they need to write an interesting module. Give them the freedom to write whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t overlap your world. Allow them to build a piece of their own immersion, and support their endeavor.

And if you take nothing else away from this article, remember this: the more your players become comfortable with you roleplaying as a harmless NPC during your substitute’s session, the funnier it will be when you bring that same NPC back as the villain next week.

sub_06This was a fine strategy, until my players adopted the ‘boil Joe’s character at the end of every module’ policy.

All images, including the featured image, are taken from Wiki Commons.

Originally posted to Statbonus.com


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