5E Advice on how not to feel like a lousy DM

So I'm a new DM when it comes to D&D and would like to know if anyone else as a DM had the issue of feeling unprepared during a first time campaign as far as set up goes and wanting to be the right person for the job. Last night was my first time doing any kind of DMing for a campaign and I feel like I blew it when it came time to start. I hadn't looked over the campaign good enough to reali,ze that the players might investigate a certain part and had forgotten to add my own little touches to the campaign that might make it feel to them that i knew what i was doing. We ended up using the campaign that i have been working on for the last few months but by that time everyone was getting tired and it didn't seem like anyone was having fun with it. I guess what I'm asking for here is a bit of advice on how not to feel like a failure as a dm but to my party members that are playing.

Update: I will be going through all of the bools today that i have and marking things down on sticky notes that stick out of the books for a quick guide for myself and when we get together tonight to continue with the campaign that i have been working on i am hoping to be better prepared for the players the one thing I'm have a bit of difficulty with now is trying to figure out prices for the weapons and armor as well as health potions at shops and things like that i do have a few notes marked down for locating things in the books if i have to. However i would like to get feed back from my fellow DMs here as well as the groups that i am a pert of through Facebook on those prices just to see what the other Dms out there have done during their own first sessions and will more than likely go off of those with a slight variant.
 
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MonkeezOnFire

Adventurer
No one is an expert the first time they try something. It's important to keep that that perspective in mind. The first few times I DM'd it was horrible. Heck, even after years of running a 5e game I still get the feeling that I'm no good and that no one cares about my game. Just take a deep breath and remind yourself that this is supposed to be fun.

As for actual actionable DMing advice? I think the most important thing is to try to find your style and then hone in on it. Some DMs like to have a plethora of notes prepared and some mostly just wing it. Some DMs are great at acting out interactions with NPCs. Some are great at setting tone by describing scenery. Some are great at really creative dungeon design. Try to find a play style that you are comfortable with and what aspects of the game you are creatively strong in. Then lean into those things heavily. You can branch out into other things later once you are just comfortable running a game.

Of course the best way to do that is just to DM enough until you find your feet but there are other things that can help you along. Watch or listen to actual play podcasts. There are plenty of DMing advice blogs to pour through. As with all advice some of it will be good if it applies to you and a lot of it you are safe to ignore. Just find a couple articles that you think are worth trying out.

Lastly, I also think it's important to have interests and hobbies outside of table top rpgs. Having knowledge of other fields not only makes you a well rounded person, but it also really helps your DMing sometimes.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
TLDR version: nobody's perfect and don't be too hard on yourself. I've been DMing for a long time and still feel like I could improve.

It's not clear if you're running a published campaign or running a home brew so some of this may not apply. Given that, variations of this topic comes up on a regular enough basis that I'm just going to give you my standard reply, sorry for the long post!. :)

First, different people have different styles. What works for me (and the advice that follows) may not work for you.

I'm a lazy person. I don't do much more than what is absolutely necessary for preparation. So for me the basic prep steps include figuring out who's who, what creatures the PCs might encounter and setting and scenery.

Start Small
Even if your campaign starts out in a bustling metropolis, you only need a small amount of information. A list of people that are important in the daily lives of the young adventurers (which your players can, and should help with), a list of people that have direct influence over the area (whether king, magistrate or district council) and a list of people of which they may have heard vague rumors (the king of a large region, or neighboring countries).

But that list should be small, maybe a dozen, certainly less than 20. In addition, you only need vague descriptions and an outline of who these people are from the perspective of the adventurers. For the people that are in that tertiary list? They may not even know the name. Also see "Power Players" below.

Remember that historically, people lived their entire lives and were only really affected by a 20 mile radius of where they were born. I have a map of my entire world, but even though I've been DMing for a long, long time, probably 80% of the world just has some vague outline and a couple of lines of description on who and what lives there.

Set Dressing
Does your campaign take place in a metropolis or wilderness? Desert or Frozen north? Think about how to describe the locale. Buildings where there is a lot of snow will have steep roofs, buildings in a desert will often have flat roofs and tall ceilings (heat rises). Middle of a forest? A lot of the construction will be timber, whereas someplace with fewer trees may have more rock buildings.

What mix of races and cultures do you have? A bustling port city is going to feel different from an isolationist wilderness outpost. A city with a relatively high population of dwarves may have a preponderance of heavily built gray stone buildings with slate or copper roofs. It's a city built to last, with the beauty in the durability of the structures. A city influenced by elves will have more greenery, soaring architecture. Nothing is meant to last forever, so embrace graceful beauty while we can.

How prevalent is magic? Are the streets lit with continual flame lamps or is magic only whispered about in dark corners?

Who are the power players in the region.
A band of orcs in the area? They've probably been raiding local villages.
I'll want some kind of town leader I can go to, that can reward/motivate the players.
Maybe someone in the village is secretly helping the orcs. I jot a note down about this but don't worry about it too much. If it sounds appropriate when we're playing I'll throw it in.
Do the orcs have a leader that stands out from the crowd? I don't need one but if I have a fun idea I go with it. Think of LOTR or The Hobbit movies with their mass of generic orcs and a handful of orcs with highly distinctive look and feel.
Do the orcs answer to anyone? This can be left vague for the moment - maybe a symbol of a black star is prominent. I don't really care about the black star other than as a possible hook for future development.
Are there any other conflicting groups? Perhaps a group of ogres is demanding payment from the orcs, making them more daring/reckless than usual.

I generally limit power players to 2-5 in any given area, more than that and it gets too complex. It can be as simple as good guys vs bad, or complex court intrigue. But even if it's the latter, there are less than half a dozen power centers with some individuals that may have conflicting loyalties (there may be sub factions that I can expand on later).

Where is this happening?
Once again, I only do what I need. I have a rough map of the area, but honestly rarely map out details of city streets or buildings. Instead I think about what type of area I have (wilderness, city, temparate or desert) and jot down some notes.
If my adventure is set near a small village with some nearby ruins, I will have an idea of where things are and may or may not have some things sketched out. I frequently describe things at this stage as what do the PCs know? Most people only know their local area and only have a vague idea of anything outside of 20 miles away from home.

What events are in play
Largely based on the power players and their motivations, this is also kept at a high level. I know in my scenario that there has been low-level warfare going on between orcs and humans. That if nothing is done, it may erupt into full fledged war (and may end in war no matter what).

There may be other things in play however. A local kingdom may be pressuring the local villages into becoming vassals. There are rumors that they are secretly paying the orcs to raid villages to put pressure on them to accept protection. Is it true? Heck if I know.

Or maybe the orcs are fleeing the hills because there's some dark power rising that they cannot fight. The organization behind the black star could become an unwilling ally in the "enemy of my enemy is my friend" type of way. If that happens, there will be a great deal of conflict between the various factions who support the idea versus those that will never willingly ally themselves with orcish brutes.

Dangling Plot Lines
I like to end my session with a summary of where the PCs are, and options of which direction to go next. Do they investigate the orcs, or try to track down the rumors of the dark power and let the local militia take care of the orcs? Do they want to investigate what's going on with Felicia the Mad, who I just threw in as a random NPC?

Listen to what your characters seem interested in, what they talk about during the game. They can inadverantly give you some good ideas.

Random Lists
I rely heavily on improvisation with the aid of a few lists. What kind of lists? Do a google search for "random ____ name" for taverns, people, items, you name it. One site for example is behind the name for when I want somewhat realistic names based on real world cultures. I have a cheat sheet that I can refer to, so if someone wants to talk to the orc guard I can give it a name other than "Grog". I then make a note on my cheat sheet that the group interacted with "Yolmar, Son of Furbog", and that Furbog may be upset that they killed his boy.

You can also get character descriptions, motivations and so on. There are tavern generators for example that will give you a menu. Play around, find one you like. Generate a handful of entries for whatever you think you may need.

After the Game
After the game I like to do a quick summary for myself. I usually try to do this the day of or the day after the game. Quick things that summarize what happened so I can remember later on.

If I'm really ambitious (doesn't happen all that often, I'm lazy) I'll post a summary from the character's point of view.

Session 0
Whether you have a literal face-to-face session 0 or just chat over email, it's good to do some up front prep work. Here's my suggestions.

Do you allow evil?
Decide whether or not you want to allow evil characters. Some people enjoy playing and DMing for them, but I don't so I don't allow them. I also know that one of my players (my lovely wife) will always want to play a good character and it's not fair to her to force her character to play with someone her character would never associate with. If you can't decide have a secret vote. If even one person doesn't want to allow evil characters, don't allow them. I keep hearing about these amazing groups that were all evil, but I've never seen it work. Your mileage may vary.

Don't be a jerk.
Never assume that someone isn't going to bring a narcissistic, chaotic character who's only goal seems to be causing disruption in the group. If you want to be a griefer, play a video game. Along these lines, I simply don't allow PVP theft, murder or other shenanigans (unless someone is being controlled). I've seen hurt feelings between players (not just their characters) because the party rogue decides they're a kleptomaniac. Just say no.

It's all about relationships.
Everyone in the party should know at least one other person in the party. They don't have to all know each other, but usually they should know at least one other person even if only as a distant cousin or someone they know by reputation. I have occasionally thrown people together by having them being raw recruits in a nation about to be invaded but I'm more likely to have a couple of sessions of them as children.

Why are you an adventurer?
Every PC should have an answer for this. Gold? Glory? The greater good? Because you ran away and you need to do something to survive?

Set the scene.
As a DM, you need to give your players a broad overall picture of the type of campaign you're envisioning. Don't write a novella on your background (or if you do, don't make it required reading) but give them a rough idea. "It's a time of war, when orcs threaten to destroy your peaceful kingdom..." is enough. It should be a paragraph or two at most. I give information I think the commoner on the street would know, which often isn't much.

Listen to your players.
I'm not talking about just listening to feedback when you explicitly ask for it, but also pay attention when they chat among each other. I've gotten some of my best ideas from players when they say things and think I'm not paying attention.

Have fun, and don't sweat the small stuff
Different groups game for different reasons. For some it's just an opportunity to roll some dice while eating junk food and talking about their daily lives. For others it's about building a deep fantasy world where when you are at the table you are Torg the Barbarian who has never heard of this "football game" of which you speak. Let the group guide you as much as you guide them and try to find a balance.

Just remember that nobody is a perfect DM. If people are engaged and having fun you are doing it right. Good luck!
 

aco175

Adventurer
It is hard to not feel like you are doing something wrong when you think things are not going right. You will do some things right and some not so right. The players are a good gauge to tell you something. If everyone is having fun, then you are doing most things right. A lot depends on the players and if they are strangers or family/friends. Keep at it and it gets better/easier like most things like sports and writing.

If you are new to being a DM then you should get a pre-made module like Lost Mines of Phandalin (LMoP) or even a module from DMsGuild to help you through the first few adventures. As you go along add more things that can tie to players and their PCs. If the players are new as well you may need to add things slower or gloss over some of this until later.

A last bit I have used a lot when needed is to have a fight planned for when things get slow. If the PCs are in town and half the players are bored with the thief sneaking around, throw some bandits or giant rats at them. This will bring the distracted players back as the dice start to roll. I have even managed to draw out a whole night of gaming on a side fight when the PCs followed up on the attacks and I needed to do everything on the fly.
 

Arvok

Explorer
I think there are 2 separate issues here: trying to ensure you're the best DM you can be, and feeling good about it. Even if you do a great job DM'ing a session you might feel like a failure because you are aware of and remember every little mistake you made. Your players might not notice your mistakes and might sometimes (maybe often) your "errors" become great memories/plot twists/recurring NPCs et al. Show confidence (which comes with experience--and keep in mind experience is something you get right after you need it).

Preparation is key, and you should do your best to be as ready as you can be for the session. Having said that, no one is perfect and we all have limitations on our time. I've found that whoever is DM'ing is often doing it because nobody else wants to put in the effort, so keep that in mind.

Also, no matter how much preparation you do, your players will inevitably take the adventure somewhere you weren't expecting. If your group has some mature, experienced players they should take notice of this before too long and help you as you try to steer them back on course. If they're all new (and/or immature players), you might flounder for a while. A fun way to "prepare" for the unexpected is to absorb as much 'source material' as you can. Immerse yourself in fantasy writing, movies, TV shows, etc. These can be sword & sorcery or high adventure, Westerns, even ancient or medieval history. The human (read demi-human also) experience is universal and the more stories you've digested the more situations you will have already seen and be ready to deal with.

To repeat what others have said, have fun and don't worry too much. Like most anything else, DM'ing is easier the more you do it.
 

Aebir-Toril

std::cout << "Hi" << '\n';
Even after DMing for quite a while, I still get insecure about whether I'm running my games well. Other posters have made excellent points, and written excellent notes, but here are my $0.02, as seen at my table:

1. Set Expectations Before Playing: I'm the type of DM who polls my players on what type of campaign they want to play, allowing them to choose from a list of, say, twelve options, and then informing them of the campaign expectations. If you take this approach, and your players know that you're going to be playing a horror game, allow yourself a month after the session zero to come up with adventure details, and then the campaign can begin in earnest. Even if you don't poll your players, it's still a good idea to tell them the campaign expectations early on.

2. Become a Master of Encounter Difficulty: After my years of DMing, I've internalized the encounter difficulty tables in the DMG, and I have a fairly good 'sense' for what my players are capable of facing. Trust me, this is an excellent thing to become good at, as it makes creating unexpected encounters much easier than it would be otherwise, and generally speeds up dungeon design.
 

iserith

Magic Wordsmith
So I'm a new DM when it comes to D&D and would like to know if anyone else as a DM had the issue of feeling unprepared during a first time campaign as far as set up goes and wanting to be the right person for the job. Last night was my first time doing any kind of DMing for a campaign and I feel like I blew it when it came time to start. I hadn't looked over the campaign good enough to reali,ze that the players might investigate a certain part and had forgotten to add my own little touches to the campaign that might make it feel to them that i knew what i was doing. We ended up using the campaign that i have been working on for the last few months but by that time everyone was getting tired and it didn't seem like anyone was having fun with it. I guess what I'm asking for here is a bit of advice on how not to feel like a failure as a dm but to my party members that are playing.
It would be helpful to have some more details about the adventure. Was it a plot the PCs had to follow by interviewing quirky, cagey NPCs? Was it a dungeon to explore filled with dangers and loot? What are we looking at here?

As it likely relates to everyone's level of fun and thus energy, I also wonder if you can break down how many "scenes" in which there were "stakes" during your session. What I mean by that is how many instances of conflict were there in which the characters (and by extension the players) could win or lose something they care about (a battle, a negotiation, etc.).
 

BookBarbarian

Expert Long Rester
So I'm a new DM when it comes to D&D and would like to know if anyone else as a DM had the issue of feeling unprepared during a first time campaign as far as set up goes and wanting to be the right person for the job. Last night was my first time doing any kind of DMing for a campaign and I feel like I blew it when it came time to start. I hadn't looked over the campaign good enough to reali,ze that the players might investigate a certain part and had forgotten to add my own little touches to the campaign that might make it feel to them that i knew what i was doing. We ended up using the campaign that i have been working on for the last few months but by that time everyone was getting tired and it didn't seem like anyone was having fun with it. I guess what I'm asking for here is a bit of advice on how not to feel like a failure as a dm but to my party members that are playing.
The scariest thing is often just trusting ourselves to make something up on the spot and tying into the overarching world later. You do not need to have everything thought out before hand, and even if you do the players will surprise you, pretty much every session by doing something you didn't think of. It's OK it's good even.

It's surprising how little you need to know to run a fun game (which is more important than running a "Good" game IMHO)

Players want to feel like they have an impact. That they are making a difference. So I put the most focus on having the game world react to the choices they make.
 

Nebulous

Adventurer
IMO, the most difficult part of running ANY roleplaying game, as the GM, is making up stuff on the fly as a reaction to the player's decisions, and incorporate it in such a way -so smoothly - that they don't know you're making it up as you go along. And that really just takes practice, so keep at it. It does get easier over time, especially once you get into the groove and built the self confidence, of Yes, I can do this pretty darn well.
 

ccooke

Explorer
Something I do - especially at the start of the game, or with a new group - is explicitly ask for feedback.
Ask the party for things that they didn't feel worked, or for things they did. Remember to ask for both, though :)
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Nobody is a great DM their first time. But the best DMs are the ones who recognize their mistakes and work to improve. It’s an ongoing process, and there is always room to improve. You won’t always feel like you sucked, but hopefully you will always notice things you could have handled better.
 
Well we started out doing a one shot Thanksgiving themed campaign that I found online but I didn't take the time I needed to look it over and put my own thoughts into it than we decided to go with a campaign that I've been working on doing myself where I had the time and the thought into almost every detail of how the players could do things. My wife is one of the party members and with that being said even with it being my first session she thought I did pretty well. The other members of the party also had fun with what we did but there were times that I was flying by the seat of my pants so to speak and still looking things up in my books and online for reference and trying my best to give them the best experience that I could. I am going to go through the books tonight and try to get a bit more organized because the party members want to continue with the campaign on Saturday, so I'm going to continue to try and get better by being a bit more prepared for the curves that my wife has been known to throw at me since last night.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Well we started out doing a one shot Thanksgiving themed campaign that I found online but I didn't take the time I needed to look it over and put my own thoughts into it than we decided to go with a campaign that I've been working on doing myself where I had the time and the thought into almost every detail of how the players could do things. My wife is one of the party members and with that being said even with it being my first session she thought I did pretty well. The other members of the party also had fun with what we did but there were times that I was flying by the seat of my pants so to speak and still looking things up in my books and online for reference and trying my best to give them the best experience that I could. I am going to go through the books tonight and try to get a bit more organized because the party members want to continue with the campaign on Saturday, so I'm going to continue to try and get better by being a bit more prepared for the curves that my wife has been known to throw at me since last night.
In your post you've already identified the single most important skill you'll ever need as a DM; I've taken the liberty of highlighting it for you. I call it "hitting the curveball" - being able to take whatever unexpected thing the players throw at you and seamlessly make something out of it.

Others above have stressed the need for lots of preparation but I'm going to be a little bit contrary here and say don't over-prepare the small stuff.

The big stuff - enough game world to play in, cultures, some basic history, maps - all that ought to be in place before you start (pre-published settings always have this stuff built in, all you need to do is tweak it to suit what you want). And of course have the adventure ready to go - I strongly recommend running pre-published modules for the first few until you've got your feet under you (says he who didn't, and suffered mightily for it!).

But if they see some random town on the map - that you-as-DM know nothing abut except its name - and say "Right, we're going there!" then just make it up on the fly. Don't worry about getting every little detail right, just wing it at the time and sort it all out during the week.

And from your later post it appears you've also already achieved the most important goal of a DM: they're coming back next week for more! :)

EDIT TO ADD: and whatever you do, design your adventures and-or campaign without any expectation of how (or even if!) the players/PCs will approach and-or deal with them.
 
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Fanaelialae

Adventurer
It sounds like you did fairly well. An important thing to remember is that we're often more critical of ourselves than others are. Players are frequently happy just to play (particularly if they are GMs, who may not often get that opportunity).

I'd say the number one thing is to roll with the punches and allow the players to attempt anything they come up with (within reason). That's the biggest mistake I've seen new GMs make; not allowing the players sufficient freedom because of a fear of losing control. It doesn't sound like you had that issue though.

If the players come up with something you don't know how to handle, just stall. You could excuse yourself for a few minutes to use the bathroom while you think. Or throw in a combat (or other filler encounter) to buy some time. Maybe while they're trying to break into the shop, a nosey neighbor shows up that they need to talk their way past. Or even just straight up tell them, "Wow guys, I'm really impressed. I didn't even consider that approach. Mind if we take a break while I figure out how to handle this?"
 

tetrasodium

Explorer
From the sounds of things everything went well. You & the players all had fun. Importer Syndrome & various other things are pretty common concerns for new GM's to have & even experienced ones will still feel it sometimes. As a GM i can feel like you are trying to juggle invisible chainsaws while riding a unicycle... to the players at worst you are riding a unicycle without falling over while huge holes are being carved into the stage & it's great. There's been a lot of great advice so far & I figure I'll offer some that might help with a topic that newer gm's fret over. this is a great resource to help you on the topic of running combat, take what's useful & have fun.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Well we started out doing a one shot Thanksgiving themed campaign that I found online but I didn't take the time I needed to look it over and put my own thoughts into it than we decided to go with a campaign that I've been working on doing myself where I had the time and the thought into almost every detail of how the players could do things. My wife is one of the party members and with that being said even with it being my first session she thought I did pretty well. The other members of the party also had fun with what we did but there were times that I was flying by the seat of my pants so to speak and still looking things up in my books and online for reference and trying my best to give them the best experience that I could. I am going to go through the books tonight and try to get a bit more organized because the party members want to continue with the campaign on Saturday, so I'm going to continue to try and get better by being a bit more prepared for the curves that my wife has been known to throw at me since last night.
This sounds like you did quite well, considering it was your first time. You recognized that you weren’t sufficiently prepared for the game you had set out to run, admitted to that, and pivoted to an adventure you were better prepared for, which was a very smart move, and the players enjoyed it enough that they want to continue. That’s a great place to be in.

You will probably always be flying by the seat of your pants. No matter how much preparation you do, the players will always end up doing something unexpected. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare, but it does mean that you should go in expecting to need to improvise at some point. I would recommend not putting too much stock in advice about how much or how little to prepare. That’s a very personal thing, and you will always be a better judge of how much prep you need than any of us here will be. Just keep in mind that it will always be necessary to go off-book when something unexpected inevitably happens.

I would also recommend breaking yourself if the habit of looking things up at the table. Flip through your notes if you need to, sure, but “looking things up in my books or online” can be pretty harmful to the pacing and flow of play. In my opinion, it is better to make an immediate call that might turn out be “wrong” than to interrupt play for a minute to find the exact rule.

Also, try to keep in mind that you will always be your own biggest critic. You may have felt like you were flying by the seat of your pants, but the players probably didn’t notice. You’ll be much more intensely aware of your own mistakes than they will, and at the end of the day, if they had a good time, you’ve done your job as a DM. Don’t let that be an excuse not to keep striving to improve, but do try to let it relieve some of the pressure to be perfect.
 

tetrasodium

Explorer
I would also recommend breaking yourself if the habit of looking things up at the table. Flip through your notes if you need to, sure, but “looking things up in my books or online” can be pretty harmful to the pacing and flow of play. In my opinion, it is better to make an immediate call that might turn out be “wrong” than to interrupt play for a minute to find the exact rule.
Adding to that.... it doesn't matter what notes you are flipping through... A binder with costs & plans for a business client is just as effective a distraction as an overprepared tome with notes that are actually filled with relevant notes when the players do something unexpected & you need a couple seconds to make things up so you can roll with it.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
1) Always seek feedback from the players after each session. If something isn't working, you have time to correct things. If the players are happy, then you're doing fine, even if you feel like a failure (we DMs tend to be a bunch of masochists).

2) As a new DM, I'd suggest simply fessing up to the players when something goes wrong. Eventually you can learn the skill "running on the fly," where you can have little to nothing prepared, but still have a kick-ass session. Until you start to pick that skill up, it's best to just be honest, and hopefully they'll understand.
 

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