5E Oh, Man, Do I Need Some DM Tips. . .

pontinyc

Visitor
My group and I are meeting about every two weeks now for three hours, which is great for us as we all have hectic schedules. Tonight they fought the BBEG and her minions to end the first chapter of an old AP we're running (RotRL converted to 5e). Man, I was horrendous. I did my best to come up with descriptive dialogue during the fight. I did my best to tie the events of the session to their backstories. I watched a ton of my favorite DM's on Youtube to get inspired. And. . . the enjoyment level for the players was probably a 6 out of ten.

What ended up happening was a constant and slow beatdown of a sack of hit points and a fair amount of yawning. Here's where I think I need help:

1.) I REALLY want to bring a much stronger RP element to the game while they. . . don't. Ends up with my describing too much and in too much depth. However, a meta game that just involves number crunching is extremely boring to me and I want to have some fun, too.

2.) I thought I was prepared but continually forgot to track advantage, fear, use of spells, etc. This led to pretty decent pauses in the flow of combat occasionally.

3.) I allowed the combat to devolve into a bunch of people whacking each other while stationary until someone ran out of hit points.

4.) Because of an insane smite crit from the paladin, the BBEG never got off an actual attack. While she had a lot of hit points, she was constantly playing catch up. This led for a really anticlimactic encounter.

5.) I didn't end on a cliff-hanger so the session ended somewhat antimactically, as well.

I realize that I'm writing issues that seem directly solvable but the real issue here is that I think that I'm all ready to address these things prior to play and in prep, etc., and yet they keep somehow happening. Any help here would be wildly appreciated, thank you!
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
First of all, don't beat yourself up unless the players have said they weren't having a good time. They may have enjoyed it, but you thought they didn't.
What ended up happening was a constant and slow beatdown of a sack of hit points and a fair amount of yawning.
if the battle is all but over (1 bad guy with lots of HP against the whole party), you should probably call the fight and either say they win or have the bad guy surrender/flee. Unless you really need to wear down the resources, it saves a lot of boring time. Now, on to your issues...

1.) I REALLY want to bring a much stronger RP element to the game while they. . . don't. Ends up with my describing too much and in too much depth. However, a meta game that just involves number crunching is extremely boring to me and I want to have some fun, too.
Dialog some of the events of combat, but obviously they don't care. Don't waste your time on that part of it, but focus on RP during the exploration and social pillars.

2.) I thought I was prepared but continually forgot to track advantage, fear, use of spells, etc. This led to pretty decent pauses in the flow of combat occasionally.
There are tons of trackers and tools that can be used to help you with this. Something else that may help is if you only play 3 hours, you'll probably only have 3 or 4 combats at most. Spend some time before the session reviewing each combat to figure out tactics you should use and what abilities are important to remember. If need be, write a crib note for each combat.

3.) I allowed the combat to devolve into a bunch of people whacking each other while stationary until someone ran out of hit points.
Dynamic combats are minimal in 5E (at least compared to 4E). In general, use more weaker monsters with a mix of range and melee. This should force the players to move between kills, even if the bad guys don't move much.

4.) Because of an insane smite crit from the paladin, the BBEG never got off an actual attack. While she had a lot of hit points, she was constantly playing catch up. This led for a really anticlimactic encounter.
NEVER use a BBEG by itself, even if it's a Legendary Creature (unless it's higher than the party's CR). Crits happen at the worst possiple time for DMs, and you need to have minions to take the heat off the BBEG (they may need to Disengage for a round, then heal while the party has to get past the minions). There's a reason for the phrase "meat shields" when referring to minions.

5.) I didn't end on a cliff-hanger so the session ended somewhat antimactically, as well.
Cliffhangers are overrated. You should only use them occasionally, otherwise they lose a lot of meaning. After killing the BBEG, there isn't a point for a cliffhanger; it's better to let them start off fresh at the beginning of the next session. Focus on resolving issues or setting up new ones, but make sure to mix it up.

I realize that I'm writing issues that seem directly solvable but the real issue here is that I think that I'm all ready to address these things prior to play and in prep, etc., and yet they keep somehow happening. Any help here would be wildly appreciated, thank you!
Are you new to DMing? Experience is the best teacher, so long as you learn from your screw ups. Something that helps me, is I think about the next session every weekday as I drive to work and on the way home. I think about what should happen (what's in the adventure), what could happen (what the players may do), and what hopefully won't happen (but probably will because my players hate me). Constant thought about the adventure will help you remember important aspects, and considering multiple possibilities (especially those annoying ones players always seem to choose) will help you at least have an idea of how to respond. Hope this helps.
 

werecorpse

Explorer
I rarely use descriptive dialogue during the fight. I find it gets too repetitive, every now & then is enough.

Have the bad guys shout random stuff that has a tactical impact like - "the one at the back is a priest, get him" or "Gleep, Merg protect the shaman I'll set fire to that sorcerer"

I ran that adventure about 6 years ago and the bad guy & elements my players remember from that complex is the bugbear ranger and some of the terrain, no one else - the memorable thing isn't always what you thought it would be.

My players like tactical combats not prose filled combats - so that's how I run them. 5e could use a "Tactical combat" module but until then:
1. Use numbers of weaker monsters
2. Have them use their abilities (ie goblins use bonus action to bypass front line fighters, gnolls focus fire in melee to try and get a rampage bonus action, hobgoblins use their high ac and dodge to block attack lines & provide a martial advantage for their missile using comrades etc)
3. Use terrain or obstacles (flaming pit to shove people in, altar to hide behind and duck in and out of cover sniping)

As for remembering effects like fear - the players should help you with that, to forget fear is like forgetting you have run out of hit points. But to be honest this is mostly practice and familiarity.
 
My group and I are meeting about every two weeks now for three hours, which is great for us as we all have hectic schedules. Tonight they fought the BBEG and her minions to end the first chapter of an old AP we're running (RotRL converted to 5e). Man, I was horrendous. I did my best to come up with descriptive dialogue during the fight. I did my best to tie the events of the session to their backstories. I watched a ton of my favorite DM's on Youtube to get inspired. And. . . the enjoyment level for the players was probably a 6 out of ten.

What ended up happening was a constant and slow beatdown of a sack of hit points and a fair amount of yawning. Here's where I think I need help:

1.) I REALLY want to bring a much stronger RP element to the game while they. . . don't. Ends up with my describing too much and in too much depth. However, a meta game that just involves number crunching is extremely boring to me and I want to have some fun, too.

2.) I thought I was prepared but continually forgot to track advantage, fear, use of spells, etc. This led to pretty decent pauses in the flow of combat occasionally.

3.) I allowed the combat to devolve into a bunch of people whacking each other while stationary until someone ran out of hit points.

4.) Because of an insane smite crit from the paladin, the BBEG never got off an actual attack. While she had a lot of hit points, she was constantly playing catch up. This led for a really anticlimactic encounter.

5.) I didn't end on a cliff-hanger so the session ended somewhat antimactically, as well.

I realize that I'm writing issues that seem directly solvable but the real issue here is that I think that I'm all ready to address these things prior to play and in prep, etc., and yet they keep somehow happening. Any help here would be wildly appreciated, thank you!
1) Really hard to provide advice on this point without knowing your group...but you might want to have a Session Zero (a planning session where everyone talks about expectations and desires for the game). Some players are more of the "fun with tactics and maths" type. Some are more of the "beer and pretzels casual" type. There's no right way. But it's not an uncommon complaint by DMs who are more into the story side of things that their players don't enjoy that part of the game as much. Sometimes the players not being into that side of things is on them, and they may or may not be able to "improve" (i.e. be trained in the direction you want). Other times the players are responding to something the DM is doing subconsciously (often railroading).

2) Sounds like your forte is not the rules. That's fine. Why not recruit a more rules-oriented player to help you as a sort of light version of a co-DM responsible for handling the rules side of things, especially during combat?

3) In the future when you design combats, have one of your design principles be "You've Got to Move It, Move It." Generally speaking, you can do this with a carrot method, a stick method, and/or creating circuitous pathways. It's a pretty big topic.

4) This is going to happen, especially when cutting your teeth on 5th edition. The best thing you can do is learn from that experience, and apply your wisdom to designing their next combat encounter. It sounds like your party is quite good at "stun-locking" villains? So you might need to design for that...hard to say more without knowing specifics.

5) Sounds like your players may have experienced this as a bit of a "milk run"? If so, a milk run is a great opportunity to introduce a plot twist. For example, that last quest was easy...almost too easy...could it have been set up that way intentionally? An elaborate scheme by the real villain so they'd take out his rival? Or so they'd carry a cursed item back into town?
 

JeffB

Hero
We all have bad days. Don't beat yourself up.

Know and cater to the players' style.

That said. D&D is not very good at a narrative style. Some versions are slightly better than others, 4e and 13th Age, but the mechanics enforce a sim process. Especially combat where it gets very granular and precise like the wargames it is rooted in.

Thee are much better games out there for this sort of play. D&D is it's own beast and if you don't play to it's strengths and design philosophy, it really pushes back at the table.
 

Nebulous

Hero
Yeah, D&D is REALLY good at what it does, it is certainly its own beast, and trying to make it into something else doesn't really work well. I often wish it was more cinematic too, with far more movement and NEVER a static battle, but that rarely happens. The excitement usually comes from changing tactics to save your character from dying, not so much realistic movement.
 

Oofta

Title? I don't need no stinkin' title.
My group and I are meeting about every two weeks now for three hours, which is great for us as we all have hectic schedules. Tonight they fought the BBEG and her minions to end the first chapter of an old AP we're running (RotRL converted to 5e). Man, I was horrendous. I did my best to come up with descriptive dialogue during the fight. I did my best to tie the events of the session to their backstories. I watched a ton of my favorite DM's on Youtube to get inspired. And. . . the enjoyment level for the players was probably a 6 out of ten.
You can get a lot of hints from youtube, but they are not your group. Some groups you watch on youtube are also going out of their way to be entertaining, not to enjoy the game.

What ended up happening was a constant and slow beatdown of a sack of hit points and a fair amount of yawning. Here's where I think I need help:

1.) I REALLY want to bring a much stronger RP element to the game while they. . . don't. Ends up with my describing too much and in too much depth. However, a meta game that just involves number crunching is extremely boring to me and I want to have some fun, too.
This is tricky, and you have to find a balance between description of the action and keeping the game moving. I don't describe every hit or the reaction to every blow. I sprinkle it in along with BBEG dialog. I play it by ear since it depends on the group and their mood.

2.) I thought I was prepared but continually forgot to track advantage, fear, use of spells, etc. This led to pretty decent pauses in the flow of combat occasionally.
Things to help me.
  • I have a small whiteboard I can track HP and so on
  • For more complex fights, I will print out a piece of paper for my monsters with notes and places to mark legendary actions and so on. Leave plenty of space for notes. You can also put this in one of those clear plastic paper sleeves and mark on it with your dry erase marker.
  • We use minis so for fear effects and so on I use plastic rings from pop bottles that I put on the mini
  • I print out a list of spells ahead of time. I got carried away and wrote an application for it, but all you really need is how many slots the creature has, spell name and level and maybe a quick note.
  • I use initiative cards so I can include a card for lair events and so on.
  • I also use monster cards. Basically a word document splitting a page into 4 sections (landscape mode) with 1 section for each monster. I type up the info I need, print it and laminate the sheets (you can get self-laminating sheets at staples and so on). Cut them into the four pieces and voila I have monster cards. Add in some blanks for the PCs and I have cards to use for initiative. I rarely have to look at the books and just use my cards for info. If I'm ambitious (and the monster is unique) I print a picture of the monster on the back of the card.

Experiment with different things to find what works for you. The first step is admitting you need to try to do something different. B-)

3.) I allowed the combat to devolve into a bunch of people whacking each other while stationary until someone ran out of hit points.
Have waves of bad guys, traps set up for the good guys, a mix of ranged and melee people. Have the BBEG disengage and run away only to trigger a pressure plate which causes a trap to set or spring (this is dependent on type of BBEG of course).

4.) Because of an insane smite crit from the paladin, the BBEG never got off an actual attack. While she had a lot of hit points, she was constantly playing catch up. This led for a really anticlimactic encounter.
Play to the fact that the paladin got in a good hit. The BBEG cries out in anger and so on. Minions rush in screaming "You hurt master!" Reward the paladin for getting in a good hit by reacting to it.
5.) I didn't end on a cliff-hanger so the session ended somewhat antimactically, as well.
If you can end on a cliffhanger, great. If you can't, don't force it.

I realize that I'm writing issues that seem directly solvable but the real issue here is that I think that I'm all ready to address these things prior to play and in prep, etc., and yet they keep somehow happening. Any help here would be wildly appreciated, thank you!
Everybody has a bad day now and then. You can also just flat out ask your group what you could do to improve. They're going to be able to give you far better advice than we are. Just try not to get defensive and ask for honest opinions.

There are times too when as a player I just have other things going on and I just can't get into the game. It happens - you're thinking about your day and just have a hard time turning the real world off. When that happens, the best DM in the world isn't going to change things.
 

Imaro

Adventurer
Dynamic combats are minimal in 5E (at least compared to 4E). In general, use more weaker monsters with a mix of range and melee. This should force the players to move between kills, even if the bad guys don't move much.
I'm going to disagree with this. I think both 4e and 5e (like most editions) require a dynamic environment in order to promote dynamic fights. In other words the environment that the battle takes place in has a much larger effect on whether the combat is static or dynamic than any inherent quality of the edition itself.

To address the OP... I think if you want to prevent the fights from becoming static you have to create environments for your encounters that push for dynamism. Some good examples such as traps, diversity of ranged and melee attacks and enemy waves have been given but also look at the actual environment... utilize terrain types, set up things in the environment that reward movement and thinking (A fire pit enemies or PC's can be pushed into... a table that can be flipped for cover... light that can be extinguished...ice that is slippery to move across and so on). Also use time sensitive events to push for dynamism, perhaps the structure begins to crumble and collapse over a certain period of time... or a secondary goal like disrupting a ritual needs to be completed in a certain amount of rounds. Perhaps if you lay out the setting for the battle with the BBEG I could give more specific advice.
 

chaochou

Adventurer
My instinct is that you would benefit from trying some different systems to see if anything matched your collective style. Kind of echoing some comments from other posters about examining what you want, what a good session looks and sounds like for everyone...

I REALLY want to bring a much stronger RP element to the game while they. . . don't.
This is worth talking to your friends about. I mean, I don't even understand what you mean by 'a much stronger rp element...' Is that less combat, is that more player driven content, is that more inter-party interaction? It's different things to different people, but they all need buy-in from everyone. It comes across to me as if your groups has a range of different expectations.

What ended up happening was a constant and slow beatdown of a sack of hit points and a fair amount of yawning.
It isn't clear (to me) whether this is because this combat was a bit dreary or because your group isn't terribly excited by combat in general. Generally, I don't find combat very entertaining in rpgs. When it happens I like it to be short, decisive and to have changed the character (or party) circumstances in interesting and immediate ways, win or lose.

D&D combat can be grindy, especially in editions where magic doesn't provide anticlimactic insta-wins. Maybe check out some other options - be it Dungeon World or Fate, Burning Wheel or the new Blades in the Dark.

I realize that I'm writing issues that seem directly solvable but the real issue here is that I think that I'm all ready to address these things prior to play and in prep, etc., and yet they keep somehow happening.
Which, again, suggests (to me) that there is an underlying mismatch of assumptions, playstyles and game choice which isn't ever going to solved by prepping ever harder. Get everyone on the same page playing the right system first :)
 
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hawkeyefan

Adventurer
Some ideas for each of your concerns. Some of these ideas have already been mentioned by other posters.

1) You'll have to find a balance in the RP that will satisfy you and not be too much for the players. It may be a bad idea to do too much of it in combat, so I would say to see if you can come up with some non-combat encounters that might engage the players that incorporates RP.

2) There's nothing wrong with involving h players in helping track things like initiative and spells. See if one or more of them can assist. I personally leave spells up to the caster...that player has to remind everyone of the effects. It involves them more.

3) I know you were running a prepared adventure, but there's no reason not to change things up if you think they're boring. Add in a few terrain elements to change things a bit. These can be as complex or simple as you like...large trees or rocks that block line of sight and provide cover, which can be added to just about any battle map with no trouble. If you're comfortable, you can add trickier terrain bits like varying elevation and stuff like that. Have bad guys use the terrain to their advantage...attack from range, put their backs to a wall so they cannot be flanked, etc. This will make your players respond and they will start using the terrain as well.

4) You can't avoid criticals happening from time to time. And a Paladin scoring a crit is a big deal if he can add a smite to it. So plan for it. Give the BBEG a couple of potions that she can use in the case of a huge hit. Have her minions swarm the Paladin in response to his big hit. This'll also change the fight up a bit, making it more dynamic, which may help with #3, too.

5) I don't think a cliffhanger is required, although I admit that I like to end on one whenever possible. My group plays every other week, so the cliffhanger leaves things very clear in their mind as to where things are at. And that helps them (and me) remember the rest of the session. But if the timing of things doesn't make a cliffhanger possible, then just try to do your best to come up with something else memorable. And by memorable I don't mean it has to be some major momentous thing...just something that will stick in the players' minds. It could be something as big as a major story element, or as minor as a cheesy joke...what matters is that when you start the next session, you can mention that last moment, and the players will remember it.

All in all, don't think of these problems as insurmountable. They're all pretty common and can be corrected with a bit of time and effort. But even then, ,they won't be eliminated...this stuff will always come up from time to time. I think the fact that you already recognize the problems is the first step.
 

Rhenny

Adventurer
Great advice so far. I'll just add a little.

It is really awesome to watch other DMs (Chris Perkins, Matt Merced, etc.) but it is just as important to forget them and be yourself. It sounds corny, but I've always found that when I try to be like someone else, I don't have the same confidence or enthusiasm that I have when I'm just being myself. The same goes for running pre-written adventures. Sometimes following a script zaps the energy from me, so I've learned to take what's written and make it my own. Don't fear cutting stuff, changing stuff or adding stuff. All this takes time and practice to develop so like others have said, don't be too hard on yourself.

Another observation that may help you feel at ease is understanding the different way players and DMs think about the same game. In my experience as both a DM and a player, I've found that DMs often feel as if a session was less challenging and exciting than the players. The DM knows so much more about each encounter and possible next steps. Players don't know as much about the adventure so they feel more of a sense of mystery/unknown. If you keep this in mind, you can often use the fear of the unknown to raise tension and make the game more exciting, but at the very least, knowing this should help you be less hard on yourself.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
I'm going to disagree with this. I think both 4e and 5e (like most editions) require a dynamic environment in order to promote dynamic fights. In other words the environment that the battle takes place in has a much larger effect on whether the combat is static or dynamic than any inherent quality of the edition itself.
Some of the mechanics are going to affect how dynamic a combat can be, even if it's less than the value of terrain. 3E was actually the worst for it, because it generally assumed miniatures and there were advantages to getting into a particular position and staying there (flanking and attacks of opportunity). 4E also generally assumed miniatures, but the mechanics generated a more dynamic combat (due to various forced movement and several movement powers). AD&D could be better for dynamic combat, depending on if you used miniatures or Theater of the Mind, because Theater of the Mind allowed for the most dynamic combats of all. 5E fits somewhere in the middle of all that, since positioning still matters even in TotM, but lacks 4E's constant movement that generated very dynamic combats.

Good use of terrain can make even a 3E combat fairly dynamic, but you should always consider the cost/benefit ratio. If it takes you a long time to make dynamic fights with terrain (which was often true in 3E), you should probably limit it to important combats. Adding one or two terrain features should take almost no time at all, but add some flavor to the combat, even if it doesn't make it very dynamic. Otherwise the combat sucks, as a DM of mine found out when every combat he ran was on a featureless grid (because he didn't think terrain should matter). Something else that can affect this is running a per-published adventure, as the OP is doing with RotRL, where combat locations are often already made (and designed for the style of the original edition).
 

robus

Lowcountry Low Roller
Lots of great advice here. Here's my 2c.

BBEGs aren't just bags of hit points. They also have motivation. Why are they in the fight? And why are they continuing to fight. Not every creature wants to fight to the death.

As for the cliffhanger and the yawning you might find this interesting reading. I know my sessions have measurably improved since I adopted these practices:
http://theangrygm.com/how-to-structure-a-session/

For the combat this is also excellent advice for tightening it up:
http://theangrygm.com/manage-combat-like-a-dolphin/

Though as others have asked it would be good to know what RP you're looking for.
 
1.) I REALLY want to bring a much stronger RP element to the game while they. . . don't. Ends up with my describing too much and in too much depth. However, a meta game that just involves number crunching is extremely boring to me and I want to have some fun, too.

2.) I thought I was prepared but continually forgot to track advantage, fear, use of spells, etc. This led to pretty decent pauses in the flow of combat occasionally.
I guess you are talking about RP during combat, but discribing every attack can get repetative.
But you might ask how they use a condition grants advanatge when they attack with advantage.
 

Satyrn

Visitor
5.) I didn't end on a cliff-hanger so the session ended somewhat antimactically, as well.
So much good advice in this thread.

I just want to add that when you have a time limit to your session, cliffhangers aren't easy to come by. And really don't matter. At least I've never seen it matter, and we end our sessions roughly around quarter after nine (because we have to work the next day!), give or take 15 minutes. We end a little late to finish off whatever encounter we're in at the moment, or stop a little early if the DM thinks the next bit of gameplay will take too long.

The timing for our Real World lives takes precedence over timing a cliffhanger, and that's fine. I don't feel I'm missing out on any thing. That's me as a player.

And I'm guessing from your gaming schedule that you and your group will have the same priorities (Sleep before climax!) or similar, so don't sweat this point at all.
 
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pontinyc

Visitor
Man, this is a hell of a supportive and insightful community. Tremendous thanks for all of the responses thus far! I'll be responding to them further but am simply digesting the excellent input right now. Again, many thanks.
 

jgsugden

Adventurer
People overthink this type of thing.

Have fun and your players will have fun. A few more specific suggestions:

1.) Be confident in your NPCs. A confident delivery of a cheesy line works where a timid delivery of a masterful line won't.
2.) Don't sweat the small stuff. If the math gets in the way, if you forget advantage, if you allowed a spell to target too many enemies - don't worry about it. Just push ahead and keep the stoy moving. Most games won't fall apart if the DM fudges some numbers to avoid delays in the game for accounting breaks or got a rule a little wrong.
3.) Remember that the PCs are the star of the game. The campaign is the story of their characters. All enemies, NPCs, and featurwes of the setting are there to give them a place to experience their story.Look at the backgrounds, traits, flaws, bonds, etc... of the PCs to seed the game with things that will capitalize on their building blocks. If you play an out of the box adventure, you are best served to read ahead and alter it to incorporate things directly related to the PCs.
4.)Make sure the PCs have some over the top victories over enemies that underestimate them. DMs often think every battle needs to be a challenge for survival. This isn't true. Each battle needs to have a purpose, but sometimes that purpose is just to make the PCs feel powerful. Other times the success or failure of the battle might not be based upon the survivial of the PCs, but might be based upon stopping n enemy from doing something - get the raiders before they kill the people on the caravan, stop the kobold from tripping the alarm, hold the line for 10 rounds to give the refugees time to escape, etc... The PCs do not have to be in jeopardy for their lives in any of these battles to have a fun battle - and if they're not struggling to survive, they feel like heroes rather than zeroes.
5.) Have a good ending moment ready to go. Either end on a victory or a cliffhanger. I usually have a few ready to go cliffhangers I can throw into the game whereever the PCs are. For example, if they have a rival group of adventurers in their community, be prepared to have them burst in on the PCs, whereever they are, at the end of the session. Or perhaps the final strike by the paladin's sword activates the curse, or they realize that the hairy gnoll that scratched them that they were fighting might have lycanthropy, or if the rogue failed to find the trap in th chest before opening it - you can end it with, "And just as the chest begins to open there is a sudden crack that permeates the silence, followed by a hiss that ... will be continued."
 

Flamestrike

Explorer
1.) I REALLY want to bring a much stronger RP element to the game while they. . . don't. Ends up with my describing too much and in too much depth. However, a meta game that just involves number crunching is extremely boring to me and I want to have some fun, too.
Hate to say it but the players win this one. Its pointless you running a game that they dont want to play in.

I would suggest looking into why they prefer the combat side. It's usually down to rewards (xp and loot). If you provide social challenges that also provide xp, loot or other rewards (the NPC offers to teach you a special ability) then you should see their intrest in social encounters increase.

I bet you in a computer RPG these players are walking around talking to every NPC they encounter to get quests, loot and so forth. Let them see that they get rewarded by roleplaying and social encounters, and they might just come to the party more.

Of course, they may not. Some players just arent into that kind of stuff.

2.) I thought I was prepared but continually forgot to track advantage, fear, use of spells, etc. This led to pretty decent pauses in the flow of combat occasionally.
Players should be tracking their own stuff, with your only job to double check (via spot checking). Note when an ability gets used (action surge, spell slots, hit points, spells) and keep an eye on it by spot checking or pulling a player up on it from time to time (No Frank, you cant action surge, you havent short rested yet). Make the players self police.

3.) I allowed the combat to devolve into a bunch of people whacking each other while stationary until someone ran out of hit points.
Thats inevitable. The most common tactical error that leads to this is fear of attacks of opportunity. Dont be scared of them and move your monsters to get to the squishies (generally an attack of opportunity isnt an issue). Succesfully doing this will encourage the players to do the same, and places value on feats like Warcaster, and Sentinel.

I like doing this with Wizards. Move (proviking an AoO)... then move back and clobber them (the Wizard is now out of reactions for shield).

4.) Because of an insane smite crit from the paladin, the BBEG never got off an actual attack. While she had a lot of hit points, she was constantly playing catch up. This led for a really anticlimactic encounter.
Thats going to happen from time to time.

If there is one bit of DMing advice for 5E that I would offer related to this point its this:

5E balances around the presumption of a longer adventuring day (specifically 6ish medium-hard encounters and 2ish short rests bracketed by long rests). Its vital that you enforce this longer adventuring day on your party as a default (dont do it every adventuring day, but do it often enough that the players come to expect it as the default and self police around this expectation). Throw the occasional longer adventuring day at them, and dont be scared to dangle the occasional shorter one at them. Vary short rests as well (some days they get more, some days less).

Timed quests (do X) (by Y) or else (bad thing Z) happens are your friend here. Plus, they're a heck of a lot of fun. If the PCs know they have till midnight to stop the BBEG from completing his ritual, you can sit back and let them figure it out. If they fail then there are immediate consequences to that failure (showing them that their actions matter).

Within that paradigm let them figure out how to achieve the quest. From there you can have some of your encounters be social encounters (brings us back to point 1) that they can talk past saving resources for the BBEG at the end of the Adventuring day.

Remember, DnD is a resource management game (hit points, hit dice, spell slots, short rest and long rest keyed abilities, charges, xp, gp, sorcery points, ki points, superioirity dice, rages per day etc). One of your central roles as DM is managing and policing this.

5.) I didn't end on a cliff-hanger so the session ended somewhat antimactically, as well.
That happens mate. If every session ends on a cliffhanger they get boring (just like if every TV show ended with a 'to be continued'). Cliffhangers are great... when used sparingly.
 
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transtemporal

Explorer
Don't beat yourself up OP. The story doesn't always need to be tied up nicely with a bow. It doesn't always have to end with an epic climatic BBEG fight or a cliff hanger. Sometimes the PCs ace it and you just have to let them have their victory - for them that probably wasn't anti-climatic!
 

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