So, you are about to be the Dungeon Master (DM) for your first game of Dungeons & Dragons? Are you nervous? Of course you are! Should you be? Probably a little, yeah. There is a lot to running a game, and there are lots of aspects to it that you probably don’t even know yet, and won’t until you get behind that screen. However, you will be surprised by how much of it you can do already, and your players will love it. This game works best when you are a little nervous. Nervous means you care about the game, and you want it to go well. Nervous is good.
Here are several tips that you can hear from others all over the place, I’ve just compiled them for you.
This is the one we all knew was going to be here, so let’s just say it now. Of course you want to make sure that you are having fun. This is a game, and if you’re not having fun, then you’re not playing right. It’s gonna be stressful, and confusing, and sometimes frustrating, but it should always be fun.
Keep it Simple, Stupid
There are a million parts to being a DM, so much that this will probably be a series of articles! You aren’t going to be able to do it all at once, and you aren’t going to be able to remember it all at the beginning. So have a simple idea, a simple town, some simple NPCs, and get started. You are never going to get better, unless you start.
Part of starting small is knowing the game on a basic level. If you’re not sure if you know the basics, DnDBeyond has a great New Player Guide for you to see.
Even as you get better, if you feel yourself creating a problem too complex, a world too intertwined, or even a puzzle too convoluted, just remember to “KISS,” and keep it simple, stupid.
As the DM, you need to know the 3 Pillars of gameplay in D&D. Exploration, Social, and Combat. Take a look at the adventure you are thinking about running, and make sure you have these three. Is there someplace new to explore? Is there someone interesting to meet? Is there something to fight? If you have all three of these, on some level, then you have the basis of an adventure.
Just like how the game is made up of a million different pieces, every time you play, a million different things are going to happen. You are never going to be prepared. Even if someone does something exactly how you expected, someone else’s reaction is going to be entirely unique. You need to know that you cannot be fully prepared for what happens, so be prepared to make it up as you go.
This game is creating a story, but you aren’t the one writing it. You can’t go into the game expecting your players to react a certain way, want to do a specific thing, or even succeed at combat. Your job as the DM is to know the world around them, and what the world wants and thinks. That way, when the players act, you can react.
Fun, Story, Rules
This is the order of importance when it comes to a group game. Rules are, of course, very important. Without rules, you’re not playing a game, you’re playing around. Rules are important to create the structure of the game in which you are all spending your time. This is why you MUST know the basics.
However, if the rules ever get in the way of the story your players are creating, get rid of the rules. This is known as the “Rule of Cool.” Let me repeat, if the rules get in the way of your PLAYER’S story, lose them. If the rules are getting in the way your YOUR story, then perhaps your story isn’t ready. The world you create needs to stay within the rules (for the most part) so that the players have a framework of what is going on.
Lastly, if you ever find yourself stopping the flow of fun, to get back to the story, stop. This is a game, and your players came to your table to have fun. Never let the fun of one person destroy the fun of another, but this game is not more important than you and your players having fun together.
Trust in the Dice
You’ve built up this Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG), and you are ready for an epic showdown. You’ve set the stage, the players are scared, and the battle has begun. If your players immediately roll a Nat20, which would kill the villain, ending this game anticlimactically…trust in the dice. One epic roll, that you embellish into the most amazing action of all time, will always be more satisfying than the no holds barred brawl you had intended.
If you have an NPC who is supposed to be a proud, strong, powerful person, and they fail a perception roll, looking like a fool…trust in the dice. Even the most composed people of all time make simple mistakes, and this will allow your world to feel more real.
If your players ask you the dreaded question “Can I Do X?”, your response should always be “You Can Try,” and allow them to roll. Even if they are asking for something impossible, like flying by flapping their arms really hard, then a low roll will lead to something funny, and a high roll will lead to an answer you never expected. Always trust in the dice.
Have a Toolkit
There are many things at your disposal as a DM. At the table, it’s helpful to have pencil and paper, dice, rulebook, index cards, DM Screen, and many more. On that DM screen, make sure you have information that you might need quickly. Eventually, you’ll find yourself almost setting up a station every time you play, as you get to know what tools you use.
A great tool to have in your first session, as well as your hundredth, is a cheat sheet. If you’re running a premade adventure, this can have the important NPC names on it so you don’t forget, or random names, so you can create villager #3. If you know that there is a cool treasure room your players might find, have a couple pieces picked out that you know will fit their characters. If there is a rule that you always get mixed up (which spellcasters use Charisma?) have those written down, so you can glance at them when necessary.
One of the most important tools at the table, should be your computer. With the amount of online resources, random generators, wiki articles, and more, a computer at your table is more important and useful than ever.
The most important tool, above all else, at the table, is yourself. Specifically, your body. Your ability to use your voice and facial expressions as you communicate to your players will do more than any amount of verbose verbage you can muster. Use volume, accents, and body posturing to bring your NPCs to life, and establish the mood you want to create.
You’ve started playing things are going well, everyone seems invested. Then suddenly, something weird happens. You forgot an important rule, and have to look it up. Or your players are asking for the price of a warhammer, and you don’t know how much a warhammer is supposed to be! Or two of them are fighting over what to do next, and the whole table is falling apart!! Stop. Breathe. Take your time. The amount of time it takes for you to collect yourself and your thoughts and take control of the situation, is less than the amount of time it takes for your players to be taken out of the world. For every one second you are willing to grant yourself, your audience gives you three.
Listen to your players. All of the action of the game moves forward when they say it does. The story goes where they want it to. Yes, you as the DM have the ultimate control to what happens in the narrative, but if you don’t listen to your players, they won’t come back to play again. If someone asks you a question, don’t just answer it, try to understand what they are trying to have happen. If someone tries to do something impossible, don’t just say no, but try to offer other options to continue down that path. Even if your players talk amongst themselves about what is happening, oftentimes you’ll find that their ideas are better than yours. When the session ends, and everyone is chatting as they are wrapping up and leaving, what parts stood out to them the most? Those are the parts you should try to include more often.
Do It Again
Being a DM is a lot of fun. If you had fun, but felt like you could have done better, the only way to get better is to do it again. Begin preparing and planning for the next session, game, adventure, and campaign. The most satisfying parts of D&D, is after you begin to know what you like in a game, and more importantly, what your players like in a game. As you grow together and find a play style that everyone enjoys, the stories you’ll create and memories you’ll share overtime will be the biggest reason why you might agree with me, that D&D is the greatest game of all time.