Almost a year ago, I wrote 10 Tips for a First Time DM. Now, as we finish off our month of Dungeons & Dragons articles, I wanted to wrap it up with 10 more tips. I hope the stuff I’ve written this month is helpful to you as you write your next adventure.
Memes aren’t necessarily related to the respective paragraph.
Know What You Want
The role of a Dungeon Master is a tough one. You spend more time than anyone else working on the adventure, as you prepare, study, and plan out for the upcoming session, or many sessions. It’s important that you know why you put yourself into this position in the first place.
Perhaps you have a group that no one wants to be the DM, so you have taken on the responsibility, because if you didn’t, no one would. If that’s the case, then make sure you ask for breaks, maybe after the adventure, see if someone else has something they are willing to run. Even if it’s just a One Shot, remind your players that you would like to play as well, so that you don’t get burned out.
Perhaps you like being the ForeverDM (like me). Even if that’s the case, if you find that you aren’t having fun running this adventure, this campaign, or even this group (gasp!), it’s okay to stop. Try to find a natural stopping point, but unless you are getting paid, you don’t have an obligation to keep going.
Remember Whose Story It Is
While it’s important that you are having fun, remember that your job is to help the players create their story. This whole adventure/campaign, is about their heroes, and their trials, tribulations, and celebrations. Find the things they want to do, and what they think is fun (as long as you also enjoy it). If you have this whole story set up, complete with plot twists, crescendos, and grand finale, but the party doesn’t seem interested, it isn’t a failing on your part. Save the adventure for another group at another time. If you find your party seems disinterested, it’s okay to hit the brakes and take a hard right turn.
Learn to Say Yes
Letting the party decide what story they want to follow is saying yes in a macro sense. However, you need to Learn to Say Yes in the micro as well. If you party is in a fight, and one player asks if there are torches on the wall, then sure, there are now torches on the wall. It wasn’t how you originally described the environment, it’s not on the battlemap, but they clearly have an idea. Let them run with that idea. Obviously if something doesn’t make sense, like a deep well in the middle of the woods, you can say no, but if there is something reasonable that they are asking for, just go ahead and give it to them. The worst that can happen is that they get a slightly unfair advantage that doesn’t make the most logical sense. The best that can happen is they do something super cool and feel heroic.
Learn to Say No
On the flip side, there are times when you can say “no” to your players. Some players like the feeling of heroism (as we all do), and sometimes will chase that feeling too much. If you find your players are telling you what should happen, it’s okay to start to pull on the reins a bit. If they try to use their abilities in ways you think just don’t make sense, and aren’t even all that cool, it’s okay to re-explain how you interpret said abilities, so they can reexamine how they want to proceed. Breaking the rules for the Rule of Cool is one thing, but it should be something that gets everyone excited, not just the player that’s trying to get away with it.
There is a misconception when it comes to Dungeon Masters, that you are the ultimate authority at the table. You have all the answers. You are a God. While that is true when it comes to the gameplay, that shouldn’t be the truth when it comes to the game itself. What I mean is that you should be giving the players choices, real choices, as to the story that you all will be playing. When an adventure is beginning to wrap up, ask your players what type of game they would be interested in running next (preferably with a couple of options from you). Ask them if they like the adventure you’re currently running, why and why not. Ask them if they like the idea of having sidekicks/followers, if they’d be interested in having a stronghold/castle/tavern of their own. It’s not your job to force the players into whatever story/game you decide (that’s called railroading). It’s your job to create an environment where they play the game that you all would enjoy.
Reality Begets Reality
You, as the Dungeon Master, are the natural leader of the table. The way you present your world to your players, will influence the way they interact with it. If you want a game that feels real, that gets genuine emotional reactions out of your players, you have to lead with genuine emotional delivery. If you want your players to be upset when an NPC dies, then you need to make that NPC feel like a real person, with meaningful stakes. If you want your players to celebrate the success of an NPC, then you need to show the genuine struggle that they are dealing with. The more genuine you are with your world, the more genuine your players will react to it.
Note: If you want to play a silly game where a bunch of murderhobos kill and romance their way through the world, that is absolutely valid and fun. It’s just not the type of game I generally run.
This is related to asking questions. It feels awkward asking questions at first, but once you get used to it, try to ask more questions about you and your game. Are they enjoying the game that you are running, and the way that you run it? Are there rules that they disagree with, and would like to work with you to find a new way to establish those rules? What was your favorite/most memorable moment of the adventure? What part of the adventure could they have done without?
This is always uncomfortable for everyone. You probably don’t enjoy getting negative (constructive criticism) feedback, and they don’t naturally want to point out anything they don’t enjoy, because they are (hopefully) grateful that you are taking on the burden of running the game as it is. However, if you are able to foster an environment where honest dialogue and communication can exist, then you will be able to create a better game for everyone at the table. They will be more engaged, and interested, and you will have more fun as you notice your abilities as a Dungeon Master improve.
Kill What Sucks
If you get feedback from your players that a certain storyline or gameplay mechanic is not fun, or worse, getting in the way of fun, don’t be afraid to kill it. If you thought that giving them a tavern to run would add a fun aspect to the game, but they never want to actually go back, then just let it fade into the background, or even sell it for gold. There is no shame in certain aspects of the game not working. You can be interested in different things, as a DM, than your players are. All you have to do is save what you worked on for another group at another time.
Leave Open the Blanks
There are a million things you could prepare for your adventure/campaign, and you’ll never be fully prepared for what your players choose to do. So instead of letting that worry you, use it to your advantage. Don’t try to prepare for every eventuality. Instead, prepare only for what the world would do if the party WASN’T involved. If you know what they want, then you can react more naturally to the party’s actions.
Additionally, if you encourage your players to come up with ideas, then they are able to help create the world. If your player asks if there are torches on the wall, then allow there to be torches on the wall. You don’t need to explain every aspect of every environment, because the players might have ideas that can only come true through the difference between what you see, and what they see. Allow it to happen. Embrace it.
Continue to Learn
There are a million resources for DMs to learn from. Something I love as a Forever-DM, is the fact that this is an artform. You will never be a perfect DM, but you can always be better than you were last session, which is a great feeling of potential. I have many different platforms that I learn from for my own DM growth journey. Whether you watch other DMs play (Matt Mercer’s Critical Role), or other DMs coach (Matt Colville’s Running the Game), listen to them talk about monsters (The DungeonCast), or read about how to DM (Sly Flourish’s The Lazy Dungeon Master), find a way you want to learn, and go learn. Read. Play. Fail. Try Again. Have Fun.