I see a lot of Tweets asking about advice for new Dungeon Masters (DMs) or Games Masters (GMs) – which I will henceforth refer to as DMs. Rather than answer the plethora of questions there, I thought I’d do one consolidated response here. A caveat before I begin: even though I am what you would call a very experienced DM, I am NOT proclaiming to be an expert by any means. There are far more exemplary, qualified and professional people around who can claim that. I do okay lol.
Here are some of important things I think beginner DMs need to know (these are not in order of importance and I may have forgotten some stuff. So, sue me).
- Know Your Rules: When playing or running any game, whether it be a Tabletop Role Playing Game (TTRPG), board game, sports, or the stock market, you need to know the rules. Read them thoroughly and have a good understanding of how the mechanics work. This is important because you will be making decisions about what the players can do based on your knowledge of the rules. This is especially important if you are teaching a bunch of brand new players who have never played before – they are having their first experience and learning how to play from you. If you have more experienced players in your group then they can assist in the learning process. In the end you are the final arbiter of the rules, so make sure you have a pretty good idea how the systems work.
- ...But Don’t Be Too Concerned if You Forget The Rules: And yes, you’re going to forget stuff. I still do, even now. That’s fine, don’t get too anxious or worry about not knowing a rule. Unless you have an eidetic memory then it’s expected you’re going to forget something. Looking up rules can slow the game, so make a decision based on what you know and check up the answer later. In the next session explain what you did wrong and what you will do next time, and your players will be fine. And if you decide to house rule stuff (i.e. replace official rules with your own), discuss it with your players first so that everyone is in agreement.
- Don’t Over-Prepare: Preparing for a first session may become a bit nerve wracking. Do I have enough stuff for the players to do in my first session? (Yes, you will. Even if you don’t, the players will fill in the gaps with their shenanigans.) Am I a good enough DM? (More than likely, and even if you aren’t at first, you will become one in time.) What happens if they don’t like the adventure? (You’ll pick up cues as things go along – if players look bored, are checking their phones, are chatting among themselves about non-game content – if so you can throw in something to bring them back. Provide that clue they didn’t know about. Introduce an NPC to pull them back into the story. Ambush them with some monsters, which have a map or information that will get them engaged again). You will NEVER be able to prepare for everything the players decide to do in a session. Learn to prepare just enough – the basic adventure, a few maps as needed, a few NPCs, a few rumours, etc. – then improvise the rest depending on decisions the party makes (see further below).
- Listen to Your Players: Your players are there to have fun and they want to be engaged. Some want the cool backstories they spent hours laboring on to become part of the story. Some want to impress others with their knowledge of the game. All want to shine. It’s your job as a DM to give your players the opportunity to do all this and more, but it’s also your job to keep it together and not crack under the pressure (real or perceived). Listen to your players and incorporate their ideas – remember – you don’t have to do all the creative work.
- Learn to Improvise: Some DMs have a problem with making stuff up on the spot in response to player actions. That may not be you, but if it is, learn to improvise. Say “Yes, and…” more often. It’s an improv strategy designed to allow improvisation in a situation comedy/story context. That doesn’t mean you have to say yes to everything your players do. But learn to run your adventures in a freer and less structured way. To see an earlier article of mine on flying by the seat of your pants in games, click here.
- Take Notes: Come up with an organisational system to keep track of both short term events (in the gaming session) and long term (campaign) story points and player subplots. This can be something as simple as an exercise book you update during the game or a spreadsheet on a laptop. Or a post-it note. Although post-it notes are not the best system (trust me on this – I’m a post-it man from way back lol).
- Keep Worldbuilding to a Minimum: In your first and early sessions, keep the world limited to a small area – a keep on the borderlands, a small village and its surrounds, a single dungeon. Let your world expand as you play, and let your players help to expand it. Why so small to start with? I know you want to create an entire fleshed out world from day one, but time is always an issue and much of the work you do on creating a fully-fleshed world will never be seen or experienced by your players. Feel free to build an entire world before the first session if that is your thing, but I’d suggest you focus on that session first. Just saying. For more on world building, click here.
- Don’t Try to Be Matt Mercer: I love Matt Mercer, but he is a professional actor and is (now) paid to DM on Critical Role. That means he has a heck of a lot more time to prep for his games then you do, and he is a master of improv and voices. You are not Matt Mercer. No one expects you to be. Be you. Every game is different, and your game will have its own strengths. Want to read more about not being Matt? Click here.
- Have Fun: This is the number one rule! You and your players are there to have fun. If it’s not fun, ask everyone at the end what you can do to make your game better. But remember: you will always be your own worst critic – things are often not as bad as you think they are when you’re a DM. Accept criticism and advice, but make sure you don’t take it too much to heart. When you’re starting out, remember that this is just the beginning. You will get better. And soon you will take on the world.
I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten a few things lol. But it’s a start.
My absolute best advice is: Don’t be afraid. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Before you know it you’ll be DMing your favorite TTRPG like a champ.
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