Burning Questions: What Do New DMs Need to Know?
  • Burning Questions: What Do New DMs Need to Know?


    This week’s burning question: What are some basics to remember as a first time DM when starting up a new D&D campaign? DMing for the first time can be scary so here are a few tips to make DMing your first D&D (or any kind) of campaign easier.


    Photo by Max Felner on Unsplash

    Remember that it's YOUR game. You can change it.

    Mike Mearls, co-lead designer of 5th Edition D&D and Dungeons & Dragons Campaign Franchise Director, is constantly mentioning this. Flexibility is good – and empowering DMs to make their own stories is why the setting books for the current edition are more of a toolbox than explicit directions.

    The corollary to this tip is that if the players don't yet know a plot point, changing it is even easier so give yourself a break. Did you have an important encounter planned for a location, only to have the players completely bypass that location? Then move it to a location in their new path. Even if you're running one of the official adventures, you can change it as needed for your players' interests, circumstances or to adapt to curve-balls from the players. Which leads to...

    Remember that RPGs are collaborative storytelling, not a book


    Some DMs are actually secret, wannabe novelists. Don't be that person. A rigid story where players have to do A and then B and C, etc. to resolve the plot will make them unhappy.

    The whole point of an RPG is to take a story – created by the DM or a pre-written adventure – and see what happens when the players interact with that story. Embrace the interactivity and collaboration. For original stories, it's better to plan the villain's actions and an outline or a series of encounters/scenes that can be flexible and change because...

    Players will rarely do what you expect so relax about it


    “Expect the unexpected” is an understatement when it comes to players. It's easy for new DMs to stress out about that and try to railroad players to compensate. Don't. Sometimes the best story bits come from player unpredictability. Try to roll with the change and adapt it into your plot.

    For example, while running Storm King's Thunder, a player decided he wanted a rival – another bard who was his older brother. He talked in-game about his brother being a terrible person and regularly derailed the plot in weird ways to “show up” his off-screen brother so I substituted his brother for one of the Kraken Society henchmen. That tied the player's digressions back to the story without forcing his actions onto a particular path – and eventually gave him the showdown he craved.

    As with tip #2, generally the best long-term solution to player unpredictability is to plan an outline and encounters instead of a strict linear plotline. This way if they do things in an order you don't expect or skip certain parts altogether you can adapt. Or just be prepared to rewrite parts of the adventure to adapt to the player changes.

    You don't have to have every rule memorized

    Yes, you need a good grasp of the basic game rules, but you don't have to memorize every spell, feat, magic item, etc. It's OK to look things up if needed.

    Also, players can feel more engaged and empowered if they can tell you how a spell works so it emphasizes collaboration. If you do need to pause to look something up, that can provide an opportunity for the players to take a quick bathroom break, so it's not necessarily bad. Or, just use common sense to make a ruling for now and look it for the long term. Matt Mercer has recommended this several times.

    Above all, relax, have fun and DM. You'll get better with practice.

    This article was contributed by Beth Rimmels (brimmels) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!!
    Comments 32 Comments
    1. delericho's Avatar
      delericho -
      Quote Originally Posted by brimmels View Post
      This week’s burning question: What are some basics to remember as a first time DM when starting up a new D&D campaign?
      Don't.

      A first-time DM should begin by running a single adventure. Ideally, that adventure should be short, self-contained, and should definitely not spin off into a campaign.
    1. Matt S1's Avatar
      Matt S1 -
      Except for the tip about not having to know all the rules, these tips are for more experienced DMs who already got past the true first time DMing issues. Personally I wouldn't recommend a 1st time DM let the story go off the path. It's one more thing a new DM needs to juggle. The tips about are good but they come with experience.

      Here's my 1st time tips, as a DM since 1977.

      1) If possible, be a player for awhile before you DM.
      2) Know the difference between the 20 sided and 12 sided die (common new player mistake).
      3) Don't get into the mind set that it's the DM vs the players, it's not. The DM's role is to explaining the world, arbitrate plaayer actions and present fun challenges.
      4) And most importantly, prepare. Don't show up not knowing the adventure.
    1. Rhineglade's Avatar
      Rhineglade -
      I always feel - "Bottom line- it's a GAME. It's supposed to be FUN" - is the #1 rule. Too many times it seems players and sometimes even DMs get caught up in the frenzy and loose sight of this # 1 rule. Either by being rude, blowing off sessions, making arbitrary rule changes, it wears a body out.
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      Some DMs are actually secret, wannabe novelists. Don't be that person. A rigid story where players have to do A and then B and C, etc. to resolve the plot will make them unhappy.
      Strong advice, and one of the worst habits I broke when I was younger. There's nothing wrong with a simple plot, when your players expect and want it (some nights are different than others), but I had multiple instances where the plot was dependent on the PCs being captured, or the PCs taking the MacGuffin to a specific person, or the PCs acting a certain way ("well, of COURSE they'll surrender to the town guards..."). PCs will not only do the WRONG thing invariably, they'll RESENT it if you Deus ex Machina the "correct" result for your plot.

      Similarly, I'd advise be aware of the reasons each of your players play. This falls into an old book now, but still fantastic read: http://www.sjgames.com/robinslaws/ Robin's Laws of Good Gamer Mastering -- be observant to the activities that give your group of players their "emotional kick". Some people love acquiring new skills and tricks and powers for their PCs; some love solving complicated problems or traps; some love pure roleplay moments; some love multiple things. Learn over time to deliver a small spotlight of each to each player for their specific thing, and in my experience you'll have them camping out on your doorstep for the next session. ;-) More seriously, you can't go wrong finding those emotional drives and learning to incorporate them - but it does take time, and learning more about your players as you go.

      Largest piece of advice here though:
      Above all, relax, have fun and DM. You'll get better with practice.
      "You have permission to suck."
      Matthew Mercer sucked as a GM, once upon a time. Chris Perkins sucked as a GM, once upon a time.* They kept running the game, and learning.

      *Kevin Kulp, also known as @Piratecat , never sucked as a GM. He was Born in GMing Perfection from the Womb, and Blessed Upon the World that We may Know the Template to Judge All GMs by.
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      All good advice here. The only thing I’d add is to always do a post-mortem after a game. If you feel like something didn’t work, examine what happened, and how you can do better next time, or avoid that particular pitfall. Look at the high-points, too, and analyze those, too.

      While I wouldn’t trade my experiences playing D&D as a kid, I’m jealous of all the opportunities for DMs today to get better at their craft. Back in the old days, it’s not like I had any real contact with other DMs. All I had to go on were the scant examples of play in the books, articles in Dragon magazine, and studying how the modules were designed. And I suspect I wasn’t alone in that regards.

      Still, it’s never too late to learn, and I’m always looking for ways to improve my game.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      A 10 page guide I put together a while ago (offered for free) goes into a lot details making first time DM'ing easier https://www.dmsguild.com/product/212...ce-for-New-DMs
    1. Jacob Lewis's Avatar
      Jacob Lewis -
      Talk with your players. They are part of your game, too.

      Realize there is more than one way to play, and more games out there than what you are playing.

      Finally, learn to crawl before you walk. Start small and simple. Your skill set will grow stronger if you allow yourself time to master the mundane stuff first.
    1. jasper's Avatar
      jasper -
      If one of the players is making less fun to dm, talk to the player. If that player still makes the game less fun, boot the player. ESPECIALLY if the player is your best friend. Different play styles exist among buddies.
    1. dwayne's Avatar
      dwayne -
      To be a great DM takes much, you need to be a story teller, able to think on your feet, be flexible but at the same time keep with in the spirit of the rules. Imagination is vital as is knowledge of the material and game rules you use. I would also say as many have above play as a player for a few years, and not just under one gm but as many different ones you can. Also try different systems and play with the rules experiment and above all have fun, don't constrict your players but do rein them in, but above all make sure everyone is having fun. Because thats what it is all about you are there to provide a fun enjoyable setting and time for others, if that means you have to changer something then do it, just make sure it does not break things too much and all agree to it. Balance is the key to all things and as long as it is maintained everything should be fine, but even so i have seen some groups and gm's run a complete broken game and everyone in it had the time of their life. So to say one way is good for all is wrong, try and test and see what works for the group you are running , and as long as all of you are happy and have fun in the end thats all that matters rules be damned
    1. Fluerdemal's Avatar
      Fluerdemal -
      Run a game that *you* (the DM) find fun, *as the DM* - if you are running games that only the players find fun you'll burn out faster and resent things more. Some players may not like your game/campaign/style and that is fine, you're also not obligated to be ok with every single player and their style/choices - none of you have to play RPG's together.

      D.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      I'd say it is probably a good idea to start out with a module or two. Something fairly easy to run like Lost Mines of Phandelver, rather than an Adventure Path. Don't worry about things like "campaign" and "setting" too much. Focus on learning how to run the game - what causes slow downs at the table, what goes smoothly, that sort of thing.

      Let the bigger picture stuff come later on down the road.
    1. Gavin O.'s Avatar
      Gavin O. -
      My biggest piece of advice is to stop thinking like a player. The player mentality is counterproductive to being a DM

      A player puts great emotional investment in the character they play. If that character is hurt or killed, the player usually feels as if they failed. You as a DM cannot feel the same way towards your monsters. You can't feel upset when your BBEG or carefully designed and balanced encounter is killed, that's the point. All the characters you run are supposed to be defeated.

      Likewise, a player often feels like their job is to defeat the challenges the DM presents. You as a DM must not feel like your job is to defeat the players.
    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      You don't have to be a professional voice actor or author to run a game.

      Advice for the current generation of new DMs. I envy all the resources and example you have to learn to run a game. There are lots of great streams run by excellent GMs. At the same time, I am fortunate that I was able to blindly experiment my way into it as a kid without having to compare myself to Matt Mercer, Chris Perkins, and the increasing number of accomplished professional voice actors, TV/movie actors, and authors who are streaming games.

      Keep in mind that these streams are run for an audience. You are running your game for yourself and your players. While Critical Roll; Dice, Camera, Action!; and their ilk are great ways to get inspired and to improve your game, when you are just getting started, more relatable examples are going to be found at your local game store or convention. If you are completely new to the game but already have an itch to DM, try to play in a few Adventurer's League or Pathfinder/Starfinder Society games. You'll learn a lot but while not being overwhelmed by the professional polish of the popular streams.
    1. Li Shenron's Avatar
      Li Shenron -
      To a new DM I would give an extra suggestion: keep in mind that the MAIN premise of the game is cooperation, not competition. It is what sets it apart from 99% of the games out there.

      With that, don't let your players go against each other. Overrule any decision of PCs harming each other. Do not accept "my character would do so" as an excuse.
    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      Read several issues of Knights of the Dinner Table : https://www.kenzerco.com/index.php?cPath=22_23

      Concentrate on issues that have the players at the table. Amazingly accurate on how real players can rapidly get off track or misunderstand a simple clue.

      Try to eliminate all non-game distractions. Some experienced DMs can juggle family interruptions, barking dogs, etc. Very likely to cause a beginning DM to loose track and then loose the players.

      Require that all players and yourself at least put your phones on silent mode if not turned off. You don't need to be competing with devices going beep and otherwise making distracting noises or sucking players attention away from the game.
    1. Doc_Klueless's Avatar
      Doc_Klueless -
      Quote Originally Posted by MNblockhead View Post
      You don't have to be a professional voice actor or author to run a game.
      Absolutely.

      Caveat: The following is not a dig at Matt Mercer. He seems like a very nice, likable guy who is obviously skilled at his craft.

      Many people have stated what a great GM Matt Mercer is. He is and isn't. For the most part, he's a good DM, of that there is little doubt. Personally, I wouldn't want to be in his game long term, because he's not GMing in a style that I wouldn't enjoy over a long period of time (I find the voice acting really distracting at times, for example. He allows intraparty conflict, which I don't enjoy or allow in my games, as another).

      He's a great GM for that particular group and environment. And that is the major lesson that new DMs should take away from him (and I think I recall him saying the same thing): The best GMs tailor their game to their players and environment. That's a very hard GM skill to learn.

      I find, for the style of play I like, that Chris Perkins is a much better DM than Mr. Mercer. But that's only because he runs games in a style I'd enjoy more (very, very little voice acting or funny accents, much more comical/lighthearted, etc.).

      TLDR: Structure your game aimed at what your players want; not what other GMs are doing.
    1. irish44's Avatar
      irish44 -
      Don't think about things too much!! Be honest with your players, let them know you are new at DMing and that you are nervous. Ask for their feedback in advance and as others have stated keep things small and easy. Matt Mercer and the gang rock socks but it can make it hard for new DM's if that is what they think is expected of them.

      This is a game. Let me state that again, this is a game. If you are not having fun then maybe...
    1. Pravus's Avatar
      Pravus -
      Quote Originally Posted by Henry View Post
      Chris Perkins sucked as a GM, once upon a time
      Actually, even in high school Chris Perkins was a pretty amazing DM (and writer) he did after all get published in Dungeon magazine while still in high school too. So if he "sucked" it was a very minute period of time. Damn I missed his DM'ing.

      As for advice for first time DM, everything mention so far is great, maybe when you read through the adventure you are planning try and imagine as many ways the players might try and approach things especially if you are nervous about how you will react to the players antics. Having a few ways to respond to the players ready will help you keep the game going.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      I'd say it is probably a good idea to start out with a module or two. Something fairly easy to run like Lost Mines of Phandelver, rather than an Adventure Path. Don't worry about things like "campaign" and "setting" too much. Focus on learning how to run the game - what causes slow downs at the table, what goes smoothly, that sort of thing.

      Let the bigger picture stuff come later on down the road.
      Absolutely, a really complicated, very story-heavy adventure path is not a good place to start out. Run a lower level game with three or four encounters or a simple dungeon crawl.

      It's a real pity IMO that there hasn't been a lower price point conversion of the classic Keep on the Borderlands. Goodman Games did this huge hardcover book version but didn't make a pared down 5E version available. (If I'm wrong and there is one, let me know!)

      It's a "new DM" classic for a reason. It gives a new DM enough room to move in without being overwhelmed or overwhelming. It's mostly dungeon crawl, has a bit of wilderness, opportunities for interaction with NPCs, and so on.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by MNblockhead View Post
      You don't have to be a professional voice actor or author to run a game.
      This is a very good point. I pay 0 attention to streams and wouldn't even think of it, but you're right, noobs are likely to run into making that comparison. In many ways, it's like assuming that when you first start learning to play guitar you're going to be able to play like, oh, John Mayer, Tosin Abasi, or St. Vincent (to name excellent players in very different styles). That's not going to happen but it doesn't mean you shouldn't give it a go.
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