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

ad_hoc

Adventurer
You're supposed to have fun too.

Make sure that the players don't feel like you're there to entertain them (unless they are paying you). All of the people at the table are supposed to entertain each other.

The players need to buy into the campaign and make characters who are compatible with the game. They need to play in bounds of what you have prepared. Doing otherwise is just being a jerk.

And then there is the campaign itself. Just play a published adventure. I've been able to play some of them just by reading the first page of a chapter and then reading along during the game as we play. Some of them take more work but still much less than starting from scratch.

I haven't run into a WotC one that I didn't like.

There are things new DMs forget about like pacing which published adventures will be good at. They're also designed to incorporate the 3 pillars of play and allow for players to have multiple solutions to problems. There might be good chunks of the adventures you just don't get to because players have taken a different route but you haven't spent hours working on them so it's just fine.
 

ccs

39th lv 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.
Unprepared? Absolutely.
It was Christmas break 1980. For Christmas my 11 year old self had ripped the paper off of the Basic set. (best Christmas present ever btw!)
Myself, my brother & our cousin went to play it. Three 9-11 year olds with 100% zero xp concerning D&D/RPGs And we discovered that this wasn't anything like any other game we'd played. We couldn't even begin.:(
So we decided that in a few days when our cousin was over again (she was at our house roughly 2-3 times/week) that we'd definitely play it then. It was decided that since the books (Basic book & adventure module B2: Keep on the Borderlands) were mine that I was to be the DM. I had 3, maybe 4, days to decipher this thing. And then teach the others how to play. So I spent the next 3 days reading those two books over & over & practicing making characters, running combats, making Saving Throws etc.
So we spent the rest of the afternoon/evening making characters & fumbling through fights with goblins, kobolds, orcs, etc
And somewhere in there we experienced what you have. The players attempted stuff not actually detailed in either book. Um..... So we just made stuff up.
We were definitely not sure we were doing it right. But we had fun. So in the coming weeks & months we made more characters, fought a minotaur, gnolls, evil clerics & their skeletons/zombies, met a mad hermit in the woods.... and kept making up new stuff.
Wich led us to actually figuring out how this fantastic game works.

Was I the right person for the job of DM? (shrugs) I was the ONLY person for the job at the moment ('cause the books were mine). And I was 11 - so there was no kind of self doubt, worry etc. It was a game, we were going to play it, & someone (me) had to play the role of the DM. And I've been a DM ever since.
(BTW; I was the right person. It turns out that I'm infinitely more creative & imaginative than either my brother or cousin)


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.
Bleh. Completely terrible advise.
Because you're playing a game. A fairly complex one. One that you admit to not knowing all the rules to.
So keep those books & tablets etc handy and reference things any time you need to. In fact, it's written down so that you don't have to memorize it all. Just know where/how to find it if needed. Do NOT worry about pacing & flow of play. It's not a performance. So spend that minute with the group finding the answer. Eventually you'll find that you only need to look up misc bits.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Bleh. Completely terrible advise.
Well that was extremely rude.

Because you're playing a game. A fairly complex one. One that you admit to not knowing all the rules to.
So keep those books & tablets etc handy and reference things any time you need to. In fact, it's written down so that you don't have to memorize it all. Just know where/how to find it if needed. Do NOT worry about pacing & flow of play. It's not a performance. So spend that minute with the group finding the answer. Eventually you'll find that you only need to look up misc bits.
I didn’t say “memorize all the rules.” I said it’s better to make an immediate call that might turn out to be wrong than to take a minute to find the exact rule. Pacing and flow of play do matter, and spending a minute or two not playing the game so you can find a rule is much more disruptive to people’s experience than temporarily going by an improvised ruling.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I didn’t say “memorize all the rules.” I said it’s better to make an immediate call that might turn out to be wrong than to take a minute to find the exact rule. Pacing and flow of play do matter, and spending a minute or two not playing the game so you can find a rule is much more disruptive to people’s experience than temporarily going by an improvised ruling.
Though there's a place and time for both outright winging it and spending ages finding the correct ruling, most times the reality will fall somewhere between the two: a short time spent looking it up and if not found then wing it.

The risk of winging an important rulings call is this: if you end up blatantly getting it wrong, what then?

1 Do you retcon the play later using the correct rule?
2 Do you let the ruling stand and lock it in as a campaign houserule going forward?
3 Do you let the ruling stand but explain it as a one-off exception that won't happen again?

None of these are perfect solutions. Option 1 invalidates any play that took place after the point where the ruling was made. Option 3 risks damaging or destroying internal consistency within the setting. Option 2, which is usually my lesser-of-the-evils preference, risks later 'broken' outcomes but at the same time provides the campaign with some individuality, even if unintentionally. :)

Obviously the above is all very much generalized, and each specific situation will be different. Sometimes you can get away with a seamless retcon that doesn't change anything that came after; sometimes a one-off event can be explained away as a feature of the dungeon itself that only works that way in that location; and so forth.

The other consideration is whether or not the mistake was in favour of the player(s). Fixing mistakes that favoured the players at the time is, I've learned, a lot harder than fixing mistakes that went against them. :)
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Though there's a place and time for both outright winging it and spending ages finding the correct ruling, most times the reality will fall somewhere between the two: a short time spent looking it up and if not found then wing it.
I would say that at the table during game is never the time or place for spending ages finding the correct ruling. I do agree that if you can find it quickly (as in, under a minute), fine, but if not, wing it. Spending any more than a few moments looking up a rule is something that should be done outside of the game.

The risk of winging an important rulings call is this: if you end up blatantly getting it wrong, what then?
See, this is the exact argument I would use in favor of winging it, rather than wasting table time trying to find the “right” ruling. If you get it completely, totally, 100% wrong, what then? Literally the worst case scenario is that you just go over the following options with your players:

1 Do you retcon the play later using the correct rule?
2 Do you let the ruling stand and lock it in as a campaign houserule going forward?
3 Do you let the ruling stand but explain it as a one-off exception that won't happen again?

None of these are perfect solutions. Option 1 invalidates any play that took place after the point where the ruling was made. Option 3 risks damaging or destroying internal consistency within the setting. Option 2, which is usually my lesser-of-the-evils preference, risks later 'broken' outcomes but at the same time provides the campaign with some individuality, even if unintentionally. :)
I agree that none of them are perfect solutions, but in my experience 3 is almost always the best option, as its drawbacks are pretty much negligible. What actual harm is done by one small internal inconsistency due to human error?

The other consideration is whether or not the mistake was in favour of the player(s). Fixing mistakes that favoured the players at the time is, I've learned, a lot harder than fixing mistakes that went against them. :)
This is not consistent with my experience. I haven’t had any trouble with players trying to argue against a ruling that happens to not be in their favor in many years. Not sure whether that is more attributable to the maturity of the people I play with, or the general attitude of D&D shifting away from the rules lawyering that was prevalent in the 3e days. Probably a mix of both.
 
1 Do you retcon the play later using the correct rule?
2 Do you let the ruling stand and lock it in as a campaign houserule going forward?
3 Do you let the ruling stand but explain it as a one-off exception that won't happen again?
This could be decent gauge for when to make a ruling vs look up a rule. If the DM feels a poor ruling might need a retcon (eg, a risk of TPK, a critical negotiation, a powerful magic item lost/acquired) then, yes, maybe look it up. But most of the time, just run with a quick ruling and correct it afterward. There's no hit to consistency as long as it's corrected and players understand why the change. (If they even remember, heh.)

Really I think it just depends on the table. If a DM is afflicted with a bunch of rules lawyers and powergamers, well, good luck with that.;) But I suspect most tables have some combo of inexperienced players, kids, "narrativists", casual/social gamers, etc, who usually don't worry too much if the "correct" ruling is made, as long as it seems fair. For the most part, people just want to play through an interesting story, not waste 5 minutes watching the DM flip though a book.

One other point: IMO, one mark of good DM is mastery of the skill of making rulings that are already pretty close to "correct" (for varying values of "correct":cool:), so risks of serious inconsistency or retcon are practically nonexistent, anyway.
 

Stalker0

Adventurer
I've Dmed for over 10 years. And in my very last game session, I felt like I blew it. I had been riding high, I was running a campaign that my players had been gushing about, literally texting me after sessions to tell me how much fun they had.

And then last session, I did an ambush session with mind flayers. It meant as a big trap by the big bad, one the party had some chance to avoid, but they went in. Every party member except 1 was stunned off the bat, but the last player just keep passing every single save. Long story short, I had a 5 round combat which was basically 1 player vs these swarm of mind flavor....who then wound up escaping

So now I had this scenario where every other player is unconscious and only one is around, trying to get everyone back. 3 hours left in the session...and it made no game sense to have them come out from unconscious (they were honestly lucky there was a plot reason they were even still alive).

I could tell the players were bored out of their minds. And one even said "hey man, can I just home for tonight?".....hadn't had someone ask me that in years. I kept asking myself "I should have had some backup characters for them, I should have done X, done Y....etc etc".

It hurt, but I retconned a few things, made a few adjustments, and moved on. And now planning some exciting stuff to get things back on track for next session.


The morale of the story....it happens. Every session will not be perfect, no matter how long you have done it. Just work to do better next time:)
 
I kind of had that experience with one of my players but decided that instead of leaving them in the road where they first arrive into the town to begin the campaign i threw in an ambush of three goblins for each player individually to gain a bit of experience right off the bat and one of them failed a saving throw and attack while the goblins rolled each a decent attack roll and knocked him out. again though i thought it best for the party and story line if i brought him back a turn later and have the story continue.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
When it comes to making rules on the fly, I do it now and then especially if I want to keep the scene moving. Even then if it takes more than a minute I'll make a ruling and move on.

I'll double check the rule later and in most cases just let everyone know what the real rule is so that we remember if it comes up again. In theory I might retcon something if it there was some permanent negative effect, but it's never come up in all my years of DMing. Even if I ruled wrong, I just try to use the correct rule next time.

It's more important to keep the game flowing and to have fun than to be correct by the letter of the rules.
 

Galandris

Explorer
It's more important to keep the game flowing and to have fun than to be correct by the letter of the rules.
I agree, especially if it's something minor and non-reproducible. If I forgot that an NPC was resistant to the damage type the players dished out, then... too bad, I let it go and won't resurrect the NPC. If said NPC was supposed to add his STR bonus to damage and I forgot, I wouldn't say to the player "err, I forgot that in the last fight, please deduct 6 HP and drop dead". Winging it and letting it go when we speak of "one-off" ruling is easy.

If you didn't remember that only sentient beings are susceptible to Tasha's Hideous Laughter and had the spell work on an undead? That one undead who fell on the floor laughing was a weird skeleton whose spirit was lingering about, not the proof that all skeletons are sentient. Don't try and look up every spell even when in doubt because, as said above, keeping the game flowing is more important.

If the ruling is about a player capability, however , I'd say it's more difficult to manage, because your ruling might be reproducible: you have editorial powers on the world but much less on the PCs... If they ask you if they can use the Thorn Whip spell to grab an object across a chasm, you'd be better off looking it up (provided it can be found reasonably quickly) rather than make a ruling on the fly: players might feel "cheated" when you say afterwards that they won't be able to use their powers like that after it worked once... and if you generally rule "no" out of an abundance of caution when in doubt, you'll risk having a rule lawyer derailing the game even more by protesting the ruling.
 

aco175

Adventurer
I usually ask a player to look up a spell or rule while I'm getting to the monster's turn. I try to keep the action moving but sometimes I need to stop for a minute or two to get things closer to right then just winging it. At some point though I make a decision and look it up later.
 
I've been DMing for decades. And things still go wrong...sometimes disastrously wrong. My personal advice?

* Accept that Sometimes Things Go Wrong: No plan survives first contact with the players. Try to have a sense of the underlying forces at play in the world and have enough back-up material that you can wing it when the players side with the BBEG, miss a critical clue, destroy or alienate important allies, or break the world.

* Don't Overprepare: Keep the game world flexible enough that you can improvise when instead of taking the left or right fork, the PCs travel to another dimension. You don't need exact stats or playlists for everything that's going to happen....just enough to improvise when the PCs take a particular course of action. IMHO it's actually counterproductive to overprepare....one can actually narrate one's self into a corner, create plot holes or non-fun adventures (aka "The Slog") if you don't respond to table needs. Let the PCs upend the world and react accordingly, it lets them feel their agency.

* Do Try to Anticipate What Could Go Wrong: Try to think about the ways the PCs could mess things up. If a character falls on the wrong side of plot-based challenges (e.g. ends up on trial for murder), consider how you're going to get the player back into the game ASAP. What if a PC with a long-term plot investment falls during a particularly lethal encounter? Do you really want to kill them? How are you going to mitigate the plot damage or the sting from the player's perspective? How are you going to keep things going if the players inadvertently set off the nuclear bomb spell in the middle of town? What are you going to do if the PCs decide they absolutely hate the quest-giver's guts?

* Don't Let the Seams Show: Don't apologize too much. Don't hyperfocus on your mistakes. Solicit feedback from the players and LISTEN, but not every five minutes. Bringing up your personal DM fails in front of the players too much focuses attention to said fails and results in a less pleasant experience. Remember that as DM you have artistic license to change rules and creatures around; be careful not to undercut player agency with this power, but don't be afraid to use it to improve the play experience. And be consistent about it. Change monsters around if you need before the fight not during the fight.
 

Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
DMing is something you learn to do through experience, study, and honing your craft.

It's also okay to make mistakes, because when you pay attention to your mistakes and try to do better the next time, that's how you get better. No one ever learns to improve by succeeding all the time.

I'm so jealous of new DMs these days. There are so many people giving good advice, whereas in the old days, we were often left bumbling along or the advice that was out there was terrible. There are a couple of YouTube advice vloggers I like.

The DM's Lair
How to Be A Great Game Master
Seth Skorkowsky
Taking20

And finally, one thing I want to point out is that you're worrying about being a lousy DM is a great first step. The truly terrible DMs out there never question if they're a bad DM or not.
 

jayoungr

Adventurer
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.
Definitely. I suspect almost every DM feels that way at some point during the first few sessions.

A few things to remember:

1. Your players want you to succeed, because that means fun for everyone. This means they'll be willing to work with you to get over bumps.

2. It will get easier. Once you've got a few sessions under your belt and a story is underway, it will develop its own momentum.

3. At the same time, you can spend your whole life DMing and never reach the point where you have nothing left to learn. (So don't kick yourself for not reaching a standard that's unattainable anyway.)
 

Haffrung

Explorer
The wealth of DM advice available online today is a mixed blessing. Yes, it's nice to draw on the experience of dozens of long-time DMs, or watch personalities like Matt Colville, Matt Mercer, and Chris Perkins do their thing.

However, all that advice has fostered unrealistically high expectations of the role of a DM. It takes years to become a skilled and confident DM. You have to start small - both in scope and in expectations. All of those famous DMs started with dungeons that afforded only narrow range of actions. They didn't create whole societies, plot world-shaping plotlines, and write up deep backstories for every NPC. Not until they had been DMing for years. They started with Keep on the Borderlands, the Village of Hommlet, and other small-scale dungeon adventures.

So start with a small village or inn with a couple NPCs. A ruined temple or fort with six or seven encounters. PCs who are travelling explorers or tomb-raiders. This is a manageable scope of play for novice DMs.

And it's conventional advice to use published materials when you start. But many adventures today are 36+ pages of walls of text with an enormous amount of background and details to learn - much of which is unlikely to ever come up in actual play at the table. The advantage of creating your own material is you can A) make it very small and manageable in scope, and B) you won't have trouble memorizing it.
 

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