8 ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ Tips For Beginning Players And DMs From Legendary Dungeon Master Stefan Pokorny

Stefan Pokorny as a Dungeon Master in 'The Dwarvenaut.' Raving Cyclops Studios

Stefan Pokorny’s been a dungeon master since the age of 12, cramming graph paper notebooks with labyrinthine dungeons and handwritten notes outlining what players will encounter, from “vapor rats” to “half-eaten roast beef sandwich.”

Now he’s the founder of Dwarven Forge, which creates terrain for tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons , and the subject of new documentary, The Dwarvenaut. Pokorny’s skills as a dungeon master are legendary (you can get a taste of his theatrical style in the trailer a little down the page). At Gen Con, the largest tabletop gaming convention in North America, his Dungeons & Dragons sessions fill up within minutes.

“For a first timer, I don’t think you can have a better person be your DM than Stefan,” The Dwarvenaut director Josh Bishop said.

We spoke with Pokorny and Bishop (a D&D beginner) about the new documentary and their best advice for first-time Dungeons & Dragons players and dungeon masters.


No Voyeurs, Jump In

“A lot of people are apprehensive. Jump right in, feet first,” Pokorny says. “A lot of people say to me, 'I'll come and watch.' But you can't watch. You have to sit and play.”

Character Creation Doesn’t Have To Be A Chore

While the Dungeon Master has to do a lot of preparation in advance, players just need to have a good time. A lot of first-timers get hung up on character creation. Because it’s an avatar of yourself, many players may experience an anxious perfectionism.

“If you think it's complicated I'll roll you up a mercenary. It'll take 30 seconds. Just roll the dice six times and boom: here's your sword, here's your backpack. You're ready to go.”

All you need is a sword and backpack.

Push The Dungeon Master

Part of a dungeon master’s job is to both be prepared with a campaign but ready and able to adjust to the direction players take events. So when a dungeon master tries to force you back on to his or her preferred campaign track, feel free to forge your own path.

“There are no limits to creativity and no limits to imagination in this game. So don't be afraid. You can do whatever you want, so do that,” Bishop said. The players are not beholden to the dungeon master, instead player and DM are working together to create something fresh and magical that neither anticipated in advance.


Choose Your Style

There are two schools of thought on how a Dungeons & Dragons session should be run. One is called “theatrical D&D ” and the other is “theater of the mind.” The latter has dominated Dungeons & Dragons in recent years. Theater of the mind uses no props, no battle maps, no terrain and no miniatures. It’s about the dungeon master painting a picture in players’ minds.

The most recent edition of D&D (the 5th), “focuses on imagination and roleplay,” according to lead designer Mike Mearls.



But d ungeon master blog DM David makes a convincing case that players may prefer a little more visual inspiration as they play. This is the theatrical style preferred by Pokorny. Not only does it incorporate Dwarven Forge terrain, but also costumes, props and voices the dungeon master deploys when speaking as a non-player character.

“Not everyone uses props and voices. Many are deadpan, cerebral-like, but I want to give a performance,” Pokorny says. “I was very influenced by magicians and theater, actors, these kind of things had an impression on me. I want people to come in and be transfixed by what's going on. I want them to feel transported to another world for a while. I do everything I can. I turn down the lights. I try and get them into the mood. I want them to feel like they're in a special place. Forget about the troubles of everyday life and just be transported for four or five hours.”

Each dungeon master strikes their own balance, but it’s important to keep player satisfaction in mind.

Have a Plan…

“Especially if it's an important game I might spend the whole day setting up,” Pokorny said. “And if you're using miniatures I might have to set up a whole city or a whole underground city. And that takes hours. So I'll set it up and hide it with little bits of cloth so they don't see where they are going, so as they get to this section I'll lift the cloth off. They get to this section I'll lift the cloth up.”

…Then Throw It Out

“It's a game about storytelling,” Pokorny says. But it’s not just a dungeon master recital. A good dungeon master adapts to the players. “You get feedback,” Pokorny says. "’Oh, there's a little house over there, well let's go and check out the house. But when you start walking over there you see the grass move and a giant snake rises up! What do you do?’ And then back and forth like that, with the talking. Like sitting around the campfire having fun.”

“Sometimes the players will do something you didn't expect and you find yourself totally in unprepared territory and you have to make stuff up. And that's where the greatest fun comes,” Pokorny says.

Difficulty Settings

Dungeon masters need to strike a delicate balance between challenge and frustration. “It’s your job to guide them along, make them fret a little, but ultimately to let them overcome the difficulties and gain experience points and maybe some treasure,” Pokorny wrote in a recent Reddit AMA. “Unless they play badly, in that case kill them all :).”

“As you're playing a game you might try and make things harder or makes something lesser, depending on what's happening. You have to balance the game out, makes sure it has balance,” Pokorny told iDigitaltimes.

“You want to make sure everyone is having fun. If you see someone isn't participating that much you might try and get them more involved. 'Oh, let me stick a magical item in the treasure for this person.' You want to keep things in balance and keep things interesting.”

Storytelling Muscle Memory

Pokorny has been DMing for years. Like any other skill, the cumulative practice adds up. “He has this natural way of spinning a yarn,” Bishop said. “There’s a cadence to what he’s doing. He’s done it so many times. The game ramps up. There’s a flow. It’s an art. It’s quite something to witness.”

“Practice, practice, practice. Preparation, practice,” Pokorny says. “Make sure you weave a good yarn.”

But most of all: “Don’t be afraid.” Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t have to be intimidating. It’s precisely the game’s flexibility that has made it so enduring. So whether you’re a first-time player or a beginner dungeon master, the spirit of the game can only be found in play. Once you’ve begun, all the advice boils away, leaving you with the pure, blazing spirit of adventure.


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