There is a lot of advice online for being a DM. Wahey! Most of it is pretty good, and nearly all of it is written by experienced DMs whose advice is worth a damn. I have DMed five sessions so obviously my advice is superior… In reality I was wondering if the advice of a crappy DM might help other new (and maybe less crappy) DMs, or at least give a sense of major things I feel I learned.
I’m going to ramble on but the most important things in my opinion are:
- Spectator-players are OK at the table
- Don’t stop yourself re-explaining things
- Use published adventures
Who am I?
I live and work in china, and asked some of my colleagues if they wanted to play – in the end six people said they did. I’d only wanted 4 but hadn’t expected everyone to say yes, so there we are. We worked together but were not really friends and there were some simmering resentments
I’d never DMed or even played DnD before.
What I learned?
Your players might not play…
Watch this video: Different Kinds of Players. The day after my worst session I watched this and understood my mistake. Basically the guy states that there are players and there are spectators. The second group will turn up, not really say anything until it’s their turn, never roleplay and just be kind of there. BUT don’t worry about it, just chill. If they’re having fun you’ve done enough, and they might start to participate more. AND do not force them to act, I did it once and it went wrong, quick – just as Colville describes in the video.
You don’t know people until you play…
People reveal themselves in different ways during play. Let me take my Gnome Ranger for example. On paper she should have been a great player. She seems like a laidback person but not a pushover, and did creative writing at Uni. Great, she was going to be a creative roll player and not take it too seriously.
Oh no no.
From the second session onward all of her character’s decisions became her decisions. That decision was normally “should I…” “should I…” “should I…” no matter the situation she considered that she should go first. Then she held grudges like a son of a bitch. She didn’t shut up about another character back stabbing the group in the very first session, then got pissy and personal in another one because of her actions being criticised in the previous (basically she had wanted to run off with a player who had blinded her and tried to steal from her, because she fancies him).
Phew – so, you might think you know the people you’re playing with, but honestly do not make any pre-judgements wait to see them at the table before you think how to respond. In the future I might use the advice in DM Angry’s blog post ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ to help respond to this.
Take a deep breath after the first minute…
I started my first session and immediately felt I was forgetting everything, I spoke for about 30 seconds, saying the wrong things, and just being a douche. I stopped took a breath and said “I’m gonna start again” and didn’t worry about it again for the next five sessions.
Notes are kind of crap…
This might just be the way I learn but after the first session I basically never looked at my notes. I would spend hours writing them out in different ways. But aside from specific puzzles or encounters never ever looked at them, to the extent that I’d forget NPCs planned names and just make up new ones, rather than look down. This was definitely partly fear of not being entertaining or “in control” but I feel like I’m heading in the way of DM Angry’s minimal notes (No You Can’t Copy My Notes). If anyone else has any thoughts about this I’d love to hear them.
It’s not fun…
It’s pretty bloody stressful really. Mathew Colville sums it up by saying to his players “Did you have fun? Then I had fun.” Unfortunately I am a teacher so this is my default attitude in all of my classes, so I find it kind of wearying. Admittedly I did the DM out of necessity (I wanted to play so I had to DM), but I can definitely confirm that, just like teaching, sessions seem to run along the road to panic where you’ll realise that you’re laughing with everyone else, or feeling glee at some player’s difficulty but actually “having fun” is kind of elusive.
The balance of the no fun is that satisfaction on a creative, intellectual and emotional level. You will be learning so much, engaging with people on forum’s watching videos, reading blogs, becoming part of a community (the elite part of that community, I imagine a lot of DMs might nod knowingly), that you become fully engaged. You draw monsters and maps, act out different characters, tactically plan situations… you could legitimately do it and feel that you had done something worthwhile and satisfying with your life.
For me I got the most satisfaction from tinkering with the system. I watched a few videos by DM Scotty and we went gridless in my next games (personally I love this). I also tinkered with a different combat system, though haven’t’ tried it out yet, and I made an alternative initiative system, which for me is illogical, I can’t imagine why, in the middle of a dungeon, a Halfling rogue would ever be less on-the-ball than say a zombie – “You’ve been preparing for this fight for days, you’re well rested, fed and equipped, you know that the zombie hoard is just on the other side of the door, you and your party burst in your fingers holding your arrow taught as your honed senses leap into action but unfortunately a mote of dust distracts you and the zombies, like agile ninja monkeys, shimmy over to you before you’re been able to move.” Oh also initiative is surprisingly difficult to apply seamlessly.
I wouldn’t recommend this tinkering though, I got obsessed and started screwing up remembering the basics. Definitely wait to tinker until you get it a bit more, again DM Angry has some good advice on what he calls Becoming a Hack.
This is particularly true with the players and their bullshit. As I mentioned a lot of my players didn’t really like each other and this led to some bloody irritating moments where people would go off on one, or play on their phones, or talk over you and then ask for a recap. There are ways around this but it’s still human interaction, and it’s still mostly on your shoulders, so yeah…
A drop in the ocean rises over you and make a wisdom saving throw…
This is a deep game, and there are lots of currents cutting through it. Once you dip your feet in it might just drag you away. There are so many rules alternatives, homebrew content and so forth, so many ideas and thoughts and ways of looking that it can be vastly overwhelming. I definitely spent too much time thinking about the logic of the system (my GF had to tell me to stop planning for an ancient Greek campaign setting at one point) that my prep for the actual adventures was often stressful and rushed. This is particularly bad due to:
The time, the time!!
I foolishly and arrogantly designed my first five adventures from scratch, some of it was based on a draft of a novel I wrote so I didn’t have to be too imaginative but it took forever! I had to learn the rules, then design encounters, maps, events, then make every single thing in order for the players to play. And, because you have to create “choices” you end up making and planning more than the players will ever see. I cannot understate this, if you are making content it takes hours every day to produce it. The next adventure I run will be pre-made without a doubt! Fortunately I don’t work much as a teacher in China but my writing was put on the side which is bad, if I don’t do my writing my mental health suffers. If I had used a premade adventure (like the DnD starter kit) it would have given me a much more solid experience of what a “normal” adventure looks like AND would have given my brain more space to focus on the players, the storytelling, and so forth as opposed to having to focus so much on creating the content and the world.
Seriously, you will have time to be the creative genius you know yourself to be, just get a little experience first.
The size, the size!!
Avoid 6 people – I wish I could have done four. Six is just too much, combat takes for ever with all new people, though there are ways to encourage speed, like bonuses, time limits and so on – I found just asking people to try being quicker worked pretty well. Also no matter what it says the combat encounter rules in the DMG do not work for a party of six (they might not for four). I would say that I did not run a single effective combat encounter in all of the sessions, and the worst ones were where I followed the rules in the DMG. It becomes a challenge to keep up with what they’re all saying, and to pick up when one is being an arsehole to another – and I’m a teacher, I do this shit for money. So do yourself a favour and start with a smaller group.
Options not freedom (or when to just tell them what’s what)
One of the other reasons my worst sessions happened is because I suddenly opened up the game. Up to that point my characters had been following a fairly obvious path. Then suddenly I revealed that they were actually trapped in this world and the narrow path disappeared and they realised they were stood in an open field. They then proceeded to have the shitty Ranger and the spectator in the spotlight start trying to do something different from the now confused rest of the party. The openness tripped them up, at least for new players people want options from a set number, not freedom of choice – that’s the crap we have to put up with every day.
I also fucked up here because my players started arguing about were they really trapped, how could they trust this information, why had this PC not revealed it earlier and so on. This in turn led to shitty Ranger taking shit personally, genuinely arguing and the mood being soured for this and the next session. Mostly because I didn’t want narrative information to drip omnisciently on them from the DM’s heavens. Mistake. They just needed to know what was going on in the world, get handed a couple of options and come back together as a team. Remember your genre conventions – in fantasy novels the readers (the players) do generally have a better sense of what is going on than the characters.
Keep it brief
You might be tempted to start with creating or running a whole campaign. Again Angry recommends doing 5 sessions and just ending that scenario all together, and after my experience I would agree. Learning normally requires graded exposure where you do something new, wait a bit, and do it again – it’s the principle of “sleeping on it”. I know that my having a break of a month or so after these first sessions will definitely make me better and more confident with applying the rules, creating content, experimenting and so on.
Recommended stuff to have…
Music! Works so well, provides a noise other than your droning voice, definitely a must. You can easily search online for ambient sounds, and fight scene music – which really helps to keep a sense of pace in the group as the minutes crawl by while players stare at their character sheets and say, “I’ll uhh… uhhh…. I guess… uh…. I’ll cast Acid Splash…. What do I roll?”
Props! Oh you’re players will love to get given a map, or a secret note, or a strange symbol carved into rocks. It doesn’t really matter if it’s not significant, they’ll just think it’s cool and immersive.
Try try try to knock em out…
I was a wuss, as much as my players. In the first few games I kept fudging my rolls to stop them from taking proper amounts of damage. I made sure they found things that would negate enemies’ advantages or give them their own. Terrible. My players became softlings, frightened even of a handful of damage – in the last session (which was fun) I had to state “Either you do what I say or the game ends” because they were arguing with me that my boss couldn’t do this or that and were really just terrified they might actually take some damage. So – abandon your willingness to please and try and kill some people.
Roleplay the “world”…
I can’t quite remember where I heard this advice, but basically it stated that you should roleplay the “monsters” i.e. don’t think that your party is being attacked by goblins, but think that a group of goblins, bored in a strange hostile world are waiting for a delivery when an arrow appears out of nowhere and pierces your boss’s muscly neck. Gods, he was just one week away from retiring too. In the future I will focus on this idea so much more, I won’t just be the NPCs and roving wolves, I will be the dungeon floor, the forest canopy, the moon o’er hanging the ice-bound river.
Find some advice…
There is so much advice, so much to choose from. Personally I found the most helpful (always in moderation):
- The reddit forums – They have a great session for really basic questions, and lots of noobs.
- Mathew Colville – Called Running the Game the first few are especially useful for beginners.
- The Angry GM – sometimes a little longwinded but that’s his style, and really solid advice – make sure you’re reading an article for the beginner, he gets into complex stuff.
- How to be a Great Game Master – not sure of the presenter’s name but good short videos on a lot of topics, very much aimed at practical advice over pontification. The videos also talk about how to be a great player.
- Don’t Stop Thinking – great animated videos that simply explain all of the basic player’s rules (including character creation and the like) especially useful for showing new players.
- The DMs Craft (DM Scotty) – if you’re interested in gridless or making your own terrain, they also run a forum.
- Acquisitions Incorporated (DM Chris Perkins) – Personally my favourite online DM, such a calming measure tone and someone to live up to.
Lastly, it brings you together…
You can take a group of people who barely know each other, who don’t really like each other and it provides companionship, a shared interest, shared stories. It really helped mine and my GF’s relationship with two of the other players by giving us something to talk about aside from work and China.
It also provides access to a huge community, online and in the real world, I will always be on the lookout for people to play with and hopefully, hopefully let me play and not DM…
Thanks for reading, if you’ve got any thoughts on this topic let me know!