Lessons of a First Time DM

Having just wrapped up a 6-ish month long Dungeons & Dragons campaign, my first ever, my group of players wanted to take a crack at the DM throne and asked for any tips on how they might get started. Here is my process, what I’ve learned, and advice to any others hoping to get an adventure in the multiverse up and running.

Start with the Basics

That is, know the core rule set. 5th edition is the newest (and some say best) of the D&D franchise — but you have a lot of options from Call of Cthulhu to Ravenloft to Shadowrun to Pathfinder and more. The central concept of all of these is the same, storytelling and dynamic player-driven gameplay. Once you’ve decided, do a lot of reading. Read the source books, the fansites quibbling over rule interpretations, and the Reddits with stories of nightmare DMs who Mary Sue their way into the game and proceed to woo every Elven maid in the kingdom.

Gunshow #471 by kc grəən — http://gunshowcomic.com/471

As DM, you don’t have to know everything, and some sessions will inevitably turn into a judicial hearing on what can actually be done in a bonus action, but that’s just how it goes. Know enough, and be confident enough in your knowledge that the game can keep moving. Ultimately, players have to go by your rules so try to be fair but firm.

Story and Scope

You probably took an interest in DM’ing because you have some story you want to tell and see come alive. My advice here is to consider how grand an adventure you’re committing yourself and your players to. Is this a job from the tavern? A quest from the king? A grand journey to planes unknown? Even if you can’t answer right away, deciding the scope of your campaign will help pace it better and make for more rewarding beats in the overall narrative.

On the more micro session-level scale, you can only fit so much gameplay in a finite amount of player time. My experience with 3 players is that I could get two or three fights into a four or five hour session. I use this constraint as a scaffold in designing my story:

“Okay, the party will take the contract to go collect the debt from the guild. When they arrive to collect, they’re attacked! In the aftermath, they learn that the guild is innocent and the contract was put up by a corrupt official exploiting adventurers as muscle in a shakedown scheme! Time to confront him.”

In terms of narrative beats you’ve got Hook — Combat — Story — Combat, with room for a bit of epilogue based on how the players choose to resolve it. This example serves as a standalone one-off session, but could easily dovetail into something more; a secret clue discovered on the official’s body that entangles them in a grand conspiracy. However you go about it, be sure to allot enough time to see it through and have everyone leave the table feeling accomplished.

Freedom and Storytelling

D&D is designed to empower players with a lot of freedom. In fact, higher level mages can just fuckoff to another plane of existence if they feel so inclined. It’s important to remember that as adversarial as your roles of DM and Player may seem, you’re ultimately working to show them a good time.

In terms of world building, lay out narrative breadcrumbs: highlight the flyer-filled notice board, present a scene of a robed figure getting knocked down in front of the party, make the points of interest obvious and don’t feel bad telling players, “there’s nothing interesting in that other cave over there.”

Give concrete, finite, boundaries for the players to act within, then let them surprise you with how they go about discovering progress. Reward rolls and roleplay with hints and guidance, and don’t be so married to your own fantastic setup that you frustrate players. Missed content is inevitable; put the players back on course if they skipped something big, and recycle the idea if it’s minor. The key is to keep them moving and assure everyone is having fun.

Encounter Design

A good chunk of my players time in game was spent in combat. I’ve crafted whole sessions around one really great idea I had while listening to a song from somewhere. Players can feel when you’re inspired and look forward to diving in just as much as you like seeing your own ideas come to life.

Euglossine — Canopy Stories

For example, this song gave me the idea for the Goldring Arena - a deadly gauntlet of monsters and deception run by a flamboyant tyrant who could impose unfair and arbitrary rule changes at will (“My pets heal this round!” “All players have disadvantage next round!”).

In more practical terms, you’ve gotta break rules and make shit up. Use the monster manual as a starting point, a baseline for how challenging a fight should be, but get creative and add in new abilities. Allow a fire and water elemental to merge into some crazy steam elemental that melts the terrain, why not! Draw on experience with video games and other media to acknowledge hey, sometimes gimmicks can be fun. Provide players with an aspect of combat beyond just slamming to-hit checks against armor-class again and again, give them something to solve to succeed.

Balancing the Game

It’s a no-brainer to say you can’t throw a top-tier dragon against a party of level three journeymen, but at the same time you can’t have them steamroll kobolds for five hours and expect them to stay engaged. As a DM, especially one going off-script with homebrew monsters, items and rules, you have to do a fair bit of improvisation and adaptation on the fly. First, start by doing your best beforehand with encounter calculators and massaging monster stats to scale to your party. Then, as the game gets going, add or remove underlings from a battle, maybe don’t make that lockpick check quite so high, tweak things because rules for the sake of rules just isn’t fun.

In other cases, just talk to your players. In a final session, an NPC explained the importance of certain plot items and how they could be used; but it didn’t seem to sink in. So, out of character, I flat out told them, “Hey this magic book is going to be important, it can do X and you’re going to need that, OK?” Later on, when the time for that book arrived, I gave them a little reminder of the NPC’s explanation and they took care of the rest.

When in Doubt, Fudge It - You’re the DM

Yes, D&D does have extensive rules, and yes your task as DM is to create imaginative entertainment within the framework of those rules, but your word is law in the world your players inhabit.

… itty bitty social life.

You never want to openly antagonize your players with flagrant rule breaking. They can tell when you’re ignoring their options in favor of railroading your own story, and they’ll become suspicious if you keep hiding your dice and keep landing oh-so-lucky rolls. However, there are valid situations where, for the sake of story or challenge, you won’t let something stand as-is.

For example, I’ve made the mistake of setting players against a golem with 126 HP and 18 AC, only to see them spend way too long plinking away at the low-threat damage sponge. The thing is, they didn’t know it had 126HP, so I changed it down to 68HP and 16AC, speeding things up to let everyone move on. Similarly, I had players land crazy-lucky criticals on my big scary wizard bosses, nearly killing it in one shot. I kept the devastation of their attack secret and gave the enemy a few more hit points to keep the battle going a little longer. DMs control the balance of confidence and peril, so be mindful and make sure your adjustments are in the service of the player’s enjoyment.

A Few Final Notes

I keep ideas for a session or overreaching campaign percolating days or weeks in advance. When it comes down to actually implementing a story, I write an outline with the aspects I can control, then move on to a write-up with specifics. “This NPC will say and do this, he’ll give them this and offer them the choice of that or those.” I try to predict how my player’s characters will respond, “the barbarian likes to charge in, so I can probably antagonize him with NPCs into disrupting the governor’s ball.” As the characters become more defined, you can depend on them more to enact your story built for them — it’s cooperative fun.

Give your players off the wall magic items, throw them into improbable encounters, write NPCs who have more to offer than their next quest hook.

That’s the golden rule here: D&D is meant to be fun, but a world can’t exist without your players at the center.

Resources

These are just a few sites, tools, and apps that came in handy in planning or game-running. For everything else, just google around or ask!