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Wisdom from the Masters: The Blushing DM

This article was first broadcast in Episode Seventy Six on 12th June 2019.

Ostron: Okay, that’s a researching case, that’s less urgent.
Ryu: I think this one…yep, chronic dice fudging. “Dear sir, No, you can’t rub the numbers off, just put down the d20…”
Lennon: Um, problem?
Ostron: Yeah, we’ve got letters from a bunch of DMs with trauma after their first sessions. Okay, that’s a classic rules lawyer… anyone got a potion of Charm Person I can mail out?
Lennon: So our last primer didn’t cut it then?
Ryu: I think it was okay, there’s a few things we should add though. I’ve been keeping a list of common complaints.

Last time we talked about some general tips for preparing for your first session as a DM, but we didn’t touch on a lot of things that might happen while actually playing the game. We’re going to cover some of the most common issues that cause problems while running games until you’ve established yourself.

Now keep in mind these will be recommendations based on our and some popular DMs’ experiences. Your particular situation and solution to some of these issues may vary. Also, some of these tips will be DM specific, but a number of them can help players out too, so take note regardless of which side of the screen you’re sitting on.

First, let’s cover some more preparation and quick fix ideas that may help your games. Now, before we start, there’s nothing wrong with getting the rules out at the table — especially if you’re a first-time or infrequent DM — however one of the main areas that really slows down the pace of D&D is spellcasting. We mentioned that players should know how their spells work, but for frequent spells that’s something the DM should be aware of as well. For example, if you have a cleric that uses Toll the Dead as their default cantrip, you should make sure you have quick access to your creatures’ Wisdom save bonuses. Learning more details about the spells can help in the long run, too, so if a player forgets how much damage a Fireball does, you’ll be able to save time and tell them rather than waiting for someone to look it up.

Another good reason to learn some of the spells is if you use creatures that are spellcasters. Monster stat blocks usually simply list the spells those creatures know. If you have to look up a spell in the middle of combat that’s going to slow things down, so try to take the time to look up what spells the creature has access to and then pick one or two you’ll use regularly and either memorize or find a spellcard that tells you how the spell works.

Electronics can help with this, even if you just have a phone and don’t run a tablet or a laptop at your table — and we’ve covered plenty of spellbook apps that can assist with this in our Adventurer’s Pack segments (and you can find a full list with links to everything we’ve discussed over on our website). Another method is if there’s a particular rule or spell you find yourself referencing a lot, snap a picture of it or take a screenshot so you can quickly pull it up without flipping through pages or sorting through search results. Also, a local picture is still accessible if your internet goes down.

Another common complaint that comes up: the inevitable crit on a low-level character. While in combat, particularly at lower levels, your goblin chieftain will have found their way over to the warlock and you roll a 20 to hit, resulting in 22 damage that’s about to descend on the warlock that has an hp total of 10.

This is when you have to decide how you’re going to deal with the fact that probability does not care that you want to tell a good story. Dice fudging, or taking advantage of rolling behind the screen in order to fake the result of a die roll, is a divisive topic in the D&D community. Lennon steadfastly refuses to fudge a die roll, whereas I find it preferable to traumatising players. I think we can guess which side of the fence Ryu falls on… Especially if she’s wearing the hat. Whether you think it helps to tell a better story, or that the dice are the dice and you’re taking away from the spirit of the game by fudging the rolls, as the DM you have to decide where you fall on that spectrum and what your stance will be.

With that issue, don’t be surprised if your convictions get tested. Declaring you are always going to roll the dice and let fate decide is fine, but when the first time player who’s so proud of their wizard they spent all of session 0 putting together, and wrote a four page backstory to really get into the roleplaying, is about to be insta-killed by the rampaging owlbear before they ever take a turn in combat, you’ll have a hard choice to make. Having said that, a character dying can, actually, be helpful for everyone involved. A lot of people, both players and DMs, assume that a character dying is a failure; either the player didn’t account for everything they should have before taking action, or the DM designed an encounter incorrectly. But character deaths are part of D&D. Granted, the game is skewed to allow characters to survive for the most part, but a character death can be a great way to highlight the roleplaying aspects of the game. How do the other characters deal with the death? Do they want to spend the time and resources to try to get the character resurrected? Also, despite the cliche complaints about it, the player doesn’t have to choose a totally different character to replace the one that died. But, do everyone a favor and don’t make them the long-lost twin no one knew about; that *is* a bit too cliche.

Speaking of roleplaying, as the DM you have the opportunity to roleplay a number of NPCs, particularly if you’re running a published adventure. Many of them can even join the players’ party and adventure with them as companions. A key thing to remember in those cases is that the players are supposed to be the heroes. If your NPC character starts solving all the puzzles and finding all the clues, you’re taking the attention away from the players and depriving them of the opportunity to play parts of the game. NPCs should really only step in if there are things the players need to know that they can’t possibly find out themselves, or if the player characters explicitly ask for information or assistance, otherwise have the NPC just quietly hang out in the background.

If you’ve already given too much away with an NPC, or if you give away a piece of information by accident, don’t worry about it. It may mean some parts of the adventure are easier than others, but this can also be an important learning experience. You can try to improvise or plan an alternate path for the adventure to account for the knowledge the players have. Or you can work with the players and see if they’re willing to roleplay as if they didn’t get the knowledge early. That latter approach is especially useful because it gives everyone practice in dealing with metagaming, or at least highlights how people are likely to react in a metagaming situation.

As we mentioned last week, there will be times that you’re called upon to referee the game, so make sure you have access to your rules sources and the adventure module for reference, and don’t be afraid to pause and look something up during gameplay. If you can’t find an answer to a problem, or you’re feeling pressured to move on, simply make a ruling in your best judgement and continue. Something that Lennon often does at his tables when confronted by questions he doesn’t have an answer for is to make a ruling but let the players know that you’ll clarify it later. As an example:

“Hey Lennon, if I’m a multiclassed wizard-sorcerer, and this spell appears on both the wizard and the sorcerer spell lists. Should I be casting with Intelligence or Charisma?”

Given your character’s backstory, I’d say use Charisma, but I’ll look it up after the game so that might change going forward…

Speaking of going forward, let’s shift gears a little and talk about pacing. When using written adventure modules, don’t worry if you don’t get as far as the book thinks you will, and similarly don’t panic if the players sprint through the material. It will probably take a few sessions before you figure out what your players do fast and what takes them longer. Some player groups will need the entire session to resolve simple combat scenarios, while others can get bogged down for hours over the strategy and planning for unlocking a door and going into an abandoned house.

At the same time, try to read the players’ involvement level and why it’s actually taking so long. If they’re all jumping on to the combat and discussing the minutiae and tactics  that’s fine, but if discussions with NPCs are taking forever because you have to repeat everything because no one’s paying attention, make a note of that; or if they’re all having issues with a major part of the story, remember that. After the first session take the temperature of the group and ask for feedback on what they liked and what needs help.

Also, if you were concerned about a particular thing you did, talk to your players! Ask the players for feedback, but remember; if they have constructive criticism, it does not mean you’ve failed. As mentioned before, there are lots of people who think Matt Mercer is the greatest DM ever. But there are other people that could win a chance for him to DM a game session for them and would say “eh, I’ll pass”. If you did something the players weren’t enthralled with, just do it differently next time. You do need to be the one coming up with answers, but you don’t have to have all the answers all the time.

Above all, remember, make sure you’re having fun. All of the above can be stressful and occasionally confusing or frustrating, but running a good game is rewarding for everyone at the table.

Lennon: Speaking of answers, what’s wrong with this chap?
Ostron: Why, what’re the symptoms?
Lennon: I don’t know, there’s just a note here from someone that says “She’s so mean. I didn’t know she could be so mean.”
Ryu: Ohhh, that’s not…yeah, that fell out of my scrapbook. It’s the note I got after my first time DMing.
Lennon: Suddenly your interactions with the Killer DM make a lot more sense.
Ostron: Right but before she shows up to start telling stories, let’s head over to the Scrying Pool to see what the listeners have to say.

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