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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.

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.

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!!
 

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Beth Rimmels

Beth Rimmels

delericho

Legend
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.
 

Matt S1

Villager
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.
 

Rhineglade

Adventurer
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.
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
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 [MENTION=2]Piratecat[/MENTION] , 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.
 

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.
 


Jacob Lewis

Ye Olde GM
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.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
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.
 

dwayne

Adventurer
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
 

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