So, you have decided to make the jump. Either through desire or necessity, you have chosen to take up the mantle of being your group’s Dungeon Master. And so now you begin the long journey of learning on the job, and how to survive the tumultuous challenge that lays before you. Take solace though in the fact that you are not going to have to brave these challenges alone. A large community of DMs, PCs, and RPG veterans are all rooting for your success. This same community also serves as a veritable well of knowledge, wisdom, and experience that you may draw upon to make your game that much more special. In this entry, I hope to present a summarized version of all the tips for new DMs that I have come across in my (admittedly short) experience as a Dungeon Master.
The purpose of this game is to have FUN
Before we start discussing anything else, one thing that every DM ought to keep in mind, is that the purpose anyone ever plays D&D (or any other similar game for that matter), is that we do it to have FUN.
You may fumble with all the rules, you may make wrong calls, things may not turn out the way you had planned for them to go. But at the end of the day, if you, and your players are having fun, then you did your job as the DM.
Talk, talk, and talk some more
Communication is key in any good role-playing game. Not just because its through talking and communication that you and your players communally weave this epic story. But also because good communication is how you ensure that everyone at your table will have a good and fulfilling experience sharing this story together.
You may or may not have heard of something called a “Session 0”. A Session 0 is ideally, the first session that you should have as a group. It is where you all talk about what kind of game that you all want to have together, whether it be a major dungeon crawl, a story of political intrigue, a nice balance of the two, or something completely different altogether. A session 0 is important for establishing all the players’ (and DM’s) expectations of what kind of game is going to be played. It also helps establish what the game is NOT going to be. So that if this particular game doesn’t satisfy the desires of some players, they have the option to gracefully bow out before the campaign even begins. Here are some things that you could discuss at a session 0:
- Tone — is this going to be a brutal hack-n-slash? or a more gentle entry into the fantasy and lore of D&D?
- Setting — are we using a pre-written module? Or a homebrew campaign? what’s the world like?
- Goals — are we playing as the good guys? Or are we playing as an evil campaign?
- Characters — what characters are the players thinking of making? Are the characters compatible with the world the DM has made? Are the characters compatible with each other?
As an added note in character creation: Too many times have I seen posts about players whom have made a character that is difficult to play with. This character is usually some “edgelord” whom either tries to (1) steal from other players and/or NPCs, (2) go off on his own, (3) become a murderhobo, or (4) outright refuses to work with the party in any meaningful way. Confronted with this type of behavior, the player may then respond with “but it’s what my character would do!” Right off the bat, I’m going to say that this is a horrible excuse, and that it is this type of character that a session 0 is uniquely capable of catching and preventing. D&D is meant to be a cooperative game. That means that the players, and as an extension, their characters, should be able to work together. The experience is not made any more fulfilling by one PC whom refuses to work with the others. In fact, it detracts from the entire enjoyment of D&D, because now the DM has to take special consideration and time to accommodate only one player (while the others wait in the sidelines), and the players have to do some RP-gymnastics to somehow justify why this character is still part of the party. Ideally, when you create characters, create personality types that are capable of cooperating. They don’t have to like each other, and they may have some ulterior motive secret to the party, but as long as they don’t steal from each other, kill each other in their sleep, or detract from the RP experience, then those types of characters can be managed, and maybe even used for good RP moments down the line.
Communication is also very important when problems arise at a table. Problems during D&D can take the form of different rule interpretations, players behaving disruptively, or any other sort of social snafus (D&D is a social game after all). I can tell you right now that 90% of all D&D related problems can be solved by having all relevant parties sitting down and discussing the problem, and trying to arrive at a mutually beneficial solution.
Talking about a problem should always be the first thing that a DM defaults to.
Worldbuilding can be an intimidating experience. The sheer size of what you need to build can, quite simply, overwhelm. But while worldbuilding is challenging, it can also be extremely gratifying. To see your players running around this world that you have created.
One of the best tips that I have been given, is that when you start worldbuilding, start small. Don’t focus on creating the whole wide world. But instead, focus on creating a single town or city. And then you can really flesh out that one location. You can set up interesting NPCs for that location, faction quests, and introduce one or two good plot hooks. Your PCs can run around that single location for a few levels, and then once they want to move on (and you are more comfortable with worldbuilding), you can then start working on other locations.
You can certainly try
As your PCs start exploring your world, they will probably also start doing crazy sh*t. Perhaps they will try to walk into a brothel to gain some more information, or perhaps they will go and challenge a huge stone giant to an arm wrestling match to save the princess. I encourage you to not shut down these ideas with a definite “no”, but instead you can saying something like:
“You can certainly try…” — Matthew Mercer, Critical Role
By saying “you can certainly try”, instead of “no”, you are telling the PC that what they are trying to do may succeed, or it may fail, its entirely up to them (and the dice). And that it is not the DM unilaterally saying that something is impossible (because let’s get real, nothing is impossible in D&D). You would be surprised at the number of times your PCs come up with creative new ways to circumvent the challenges that you have set before them.
Don’t be afraid of the rails
However, as great as it is to let the players do everything they want, if you are still a new DM, there is only so much that you are prepared to handle. So when your PCs go in a direction, or try to do something that you are genuinely unprepared for, don’t be afraid to say out of character:
“Hey guys, I’m sorry, I actually didn’t prepare this far. I’m still new at this, would it be ok if your PCs were to go somewhere else? I’ll have something prepared next session, promise.”
You can then take that moment as a learning experience, and down the line, be able to work on it so that it doesn’t happen again. Being a DM is a “trial by fire”, no one is expected to be a great DM on their first go, and everyone has to start somewhere.
Learn from others
But of course, the DM trial by fire doesn’t have to be done alone. As I mentioned before, there is a wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and experience available to all on the internet. In fact many of these tips that I outline above, I’ve learned from these different source. Some of the places that I highly recommend you look into are:
- The D&D Subreddit
- The D&D Behind the Screen Subreddit
- The DM Academy Subreddit
- The RPG Subreddit
- Matt Colville’s DM Tips
- Matt Mercer’s DM Tips
So, I guess there’s nothing left to say, but good luck new DM! Looking forward to hearing your stories!
Earl is what you would call a Dungeons & Dragons addict. He watches D&D shows, prowls the D&D forums, and basically lives, breathes, and eats D&D (It’s no joke, he literally listens to the D&D Podcast while eating). He likes to be thought of as the “lead fool” as he guides us all through the silliness of D&D.
For his day-job. Earl is an ERP Consultant with the Nomura Research Institute (NRI). He is also a Shaper with the Global Shapers: Hong Kong Hub.