Wisdom from the Masters: You Signed Up For This
This article was first broadcast in Episode Seventy Five on 5th June 2019.
Ostron: I realize what I’m asking here but could the KDM help?
Lennon: Does she ever?
Ryu: Oh come on, you know she does! But I don’t think so in this case; I’m pretty sure KayDee doesn’t get nostalgic about stuff like that, and everyone she DMed for in her first game is probably gone.
Ostron: Yeah, people move away, get older, you lose touch…
Lennon: Oh yeah, I’m sure that’s why none of the KDM’s first player group is still around. All right, let’s see what we’ve pulled together so far.
Other than a certain someone in a cursed santa hat, the most common reason D&D groups tend to fall apart or never form in the first place is actually scheduling issues. But following closely on the heels of time management is the ever important and divisive question: “who’s gonna sit behind the screen for us?”
Even experienced DMs pause when asked to run a campaign, but if you’re staring at the pleading faces of three to six friends who are looking to you to craft their adventure for them and you’ve never done it before, real panic can start to set in.
Listening to seasoned DMs, whether they’re your buddy that’s run a few games for you or an interview with Matt Mercer, can fill your head with a number of horror stories. From three-hour-per-session prep times to acting as a referee while two players destroyed their marriage in the midst of a game session, it’s easy to think that DMing is a babysitting / counseling job with bad pay and no recognition.
However, the horror stories are really less common than you’d think. Most of the time players are not actively trying to fight the DM and don’t bring crippling neuroses to the table. There are also multiple tips and tools to prevent prep time from turning into another job, many of which we’ve covered on the show. Remember; seasoned Dungeon Masters are not masochists. Some part of them enjoys the process, and there’s a lot to enjoy.
So, you’ve agreed (or otherwise unknowingly signed a binding legal contract written by a red, impish dude from Avernus), and you’re going to be DMing a game. Whether you’re starting completely from scratch, or you’re taking over from someone else and have inherited a DMG, monster manual, DM screen and a D&D Beyond link, you might start to feel the existential dread set in…
The most important thing is not to panic. You may feel like you have a lot of responsibility now, but this is one place where the famous quote from Spider-Man works in reverse in this case: With great responsibility, comes great power. This world is yours for the shaping, and you can do whatever you want with it… but a bit of advice: you don’t have to be ready to go with a fully fleshed out, hand-crafted, new level 1-20 campaign for your next session. Take your time. In fact, rewind the clock just a little bit…
The first thing you need to figure out is what campaign you’re going to run. Unless you have a really good idea in your head and you know that you will enjoy the worldbuilding and story-crafting required, we would not recommend trying to make up your own world and story for your first DMing experience. For your very first game, we’d recommend picking up an official module (or, at the very least, something written by somebody else). Most of the official D&D adventures, and a lot of the offerings on the DMs Guild, can be incredibly useful, and it relieves you of a lot of work both now and as you run the campaign. Especially the original 5th Edition Starter Set, though if you’ve got an experienced 5e group it might be hard trying to find someone who’s not played through the Lost Mines of Phandelver. However, if you’re all completely new to 5th edition, that would be a fantastic place to start.
However, choosing a premade adventure doesn’t mean you don’t have work to do. Almost every accomplished DM, including Sly Flourish, the “laziest dungeon master ever”, recommends you read through the adventure manual before sitting down at the table. At the very least read all the content that’s supposed to encompass the first session, but if you can, go further than that. Most adventures build on the story as things progress and clues and hints to later events will be seeded in the earlier parts of the adventure. If you know what those hints and clues are, you’ll be able to help direct or misdirect the players as needed. If you don’t know what’s important and what’s a red herring, both you and the players could end up getting sidetracked into a dead-end. Also, notice we didn’t say “memorise the adventure”! You’re going to have the module with you at the table so you’ll be able to follow along, but it’s important to know what comes next. Ideally, you don’t want to be surprised by anything that happens in the written parts of the module whilst you’re actually at the table. For the module you’re running, you should know all the spoilers. Besides, the Players will be throwing enough unscripted surprises your way that you don’t want the book also throwing you a curveball.
Once you’ve chosen the adventure, figure out how you want your table to run. We’re going to make a risky recommendation here and say you should check out some live play D&D groups. Now, we’re not telling you you need to digest all 700+ hours of Critical Role. Check out samples from episodes, and don’t just watch highlight reels. Pick an episode and watch 15 minutes at random. Then pick an episode of a different show and watch 15 minutes of that.
Don’t stick with official or popular ones either. By all means, check out Critical Role and Acquisitions Incorporated, but look for lesser-known or local streaming groups too. We’ll include a list in the shownotes, but some of the favourites here at Heroes Rise include “The Adventure Zone”, “The Broadswords” and “The Inkwell Society”.
The point isn’t to look at Matt Mercer or Chris Perkins as examples of doing it right, then at the amateurs for examples of how it’s done wrong. What you should be doing is seeing how the players and the DMs behave and figure out what appeals to you. Do you want to do voices? Do you want your players to do voices? Do you want minis or icons on a gridded battlemat, or theatre of the mind for combat? Do you want gameplay mixed with side conversations and joking, or should everyone be roleplaying and dialed in for the whole session?
Depending on what segments of what show you see, you may even get examples of some of the problems and challenges that come up during a game session and how that DM dealt with them. Now, none of the styles of games are right or wrong, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, but also remember your players may have a different idea of what’s fun, so there may be compromise involved.
We usually tell players to talk to their DMs, but in this case it’s vitally important that you talk to your players. Let them know what adventure you’ve chosen and what kind of table atmosphere you’re hoping to have. Some players may want a different atmosphere, so compromise may come into it, such as a couple of players that aren’t going to do a special voice for their characters.
Speaking of characters, after you’ve told them what adventure you’ll be running, the next thing is getting the players’ characters figured out. Even if players are used to making characters and don’t need help with the process, a so-called “session 0” is something you should consider. This is a session where there’s no gameplay in the sense of running the adventure. Instead, it’s an opportunity for you to outline the world and setting the campaign is in, and the players can create their characters or tweak them and their backstory to fit that setting.
You shouldn’t just be dictating the setting and sitting back while they put their characters together, though. Pay attention to the party makeup and figure out how that’s going to affect the campaign. Mechanically, if they don’t have a ‘standard party’ and are lacking a lot of healing or a lot of durable characters, you have to decide if you’re going to tweak the encounters to accommodate that, or just let the dice rolls fall as they may. If the latter, it’s worth mentioning that to the players as it will save you and them surprises and headaches later on.
If you’re feeling creative, you can also focus on the backstories and races the players choose and determine if and how that’s going to affect their place in the story. If you’re running a Waterdeep Dragon Heist campaign, for example, you *can* ignore the racial makeup of the party and just proceed with the adventure, but you could compare it with notes from the enchiridion section and change the behavior of NPCs the players meet. After all, a mixed party of humans, half-elves, and halflings walking into a bar is going to be greeted very differently from one with three half-orcs and a tiefling. But if your group isn’t interested or entertained by roleplaying at that level, it’s not something you should worry about.
Unfortunately any other tips and prep work for the first actual gameplay session come down to style, so some of them only apply in certain circumstances, but here’s a quick rundown. If you’re a physical DM, be at the playing venue early so you can set up, and make sure you have whatever miniatures, maps, terrain, and other tools you’ll need, like pencils or access to power outlets. Digital DMs should use session 0 to work out connection issues and figure out logins for everyone on whatever virtual tabletop you’re using. If you’re a notes or notecard person, get those ready before game time.
And that’s about it. Grab some dice, and have fun with your Players. Remember, though you might be feeling a lot of pressure, just relax — it’s only a game!
Of course, during the game you’re going to have to actually DM — so what does that really mean? Well, aside from describing the scenes and weaving the narrative, you’re going to be called upon to make some judgement calls and to referee a lot of decisions. With that in mind, 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 move on. 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, 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 Intelligence, 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.
Also, whilst playing, try to read the players’ involvement level. If they’re all jumping on to the combat but zoning out over the discussions with NPCs, 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.
If you think it will help, there are a number of other tips and articles online and for sale that can enable you T. We already mentioned Sly Flourish, and he wrote a book entitled “the Lazy Dungeon Master” that has tips many people say have helped. And many of the DMs for major streamed series like Critical Role, Acquisitions Incorporated, and others have given interviews or written testimonials about what their process is and what they’ve found helps them DM.
That said, try to avoid DMs that are on a mission to “change the paradigm” or “reinvent running the game,” at least until you’ve got a session or two under your belt. It’s possible you can give yourself headaches you don’t need to deal with.
In the end you’ll need to find your own style, process and rhythm. Don’t let anyone rush you or push you into DMing in a way that you don’t enjoy. At the end of the day this is still a game, and that means you should be having fun too.