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10 Tips for Beginner Dungeon Masters

Being a Dungeon Master is a hard, but super rewarding experience. And whilst there is a lot to learn, there are absolutely ways you can make it a less daunting experience. Here's ten tips that I wish I'd known before I ran my first session.

*N.B. The Amazon links (marked with an *) on this page are affiliate links. This doesn't cost you any extra, but I make a small commission from any sales - which helps support the site :)

1. Relax

Ok, so you want to be the best DM you can be, right? You want to amaze your players with enthralling settings, nail-biting battles, captivating NPCs, devilish bad guys, and mind-bending puzzles. That's awesome - you've come to the right place! But that's a lot of pressure to put on yourself, no? So let's just take a step back for a moment. Here's the deal: you're not Matt Mercer. Your game doesn't have to be perfect (in fact, I can guarantee that it won't be - and that's ok!) Look, you're (probably) not running your game so that it can be streamed worldwide and watched by millions of people, who are gonna comment below every time your accents slip or you forget a piece of lore or leave a massive plot hole in the middle of your homebrew world. Chances are, you're playing a game with some friends. That's it. The sky isn't gonna fall in if you have to admit you don't know something and need to look it up in the Player's Handbook(*). Just take a minute. Breathe. This is supposed to be fun, remember?

Now it's great having high expectations and wanting to be the best DM you can be - but that doesn't happen overnight, and the only way to get there is through practice and through learning from your mistakes. And guess what? To do that, first you've got to make a few. So honestly, don't sweat it. And besides, most of the things you're getting worked up in your own head about, your players aren't even picking up on. I've had games that I've come away from feeling like I've done a terrible job, only for my players to rave about them, even months later. It's never as bad as you think. Before your session, don't worry about a few nerves (we all get them) - instead, just take a few deep breaths, pour yourself a cup of tea (or a glass of beer, or whisky) and begin. Once you start, you'll be having too much of a blast to remember what you were worried about to begin with.

2. Over prep (but don't be afraid to go off-rails)

How much to prep (and how) is a tricky point, with different DMs having different ideas (and so much of it depending on your own life circumstances and time constraints). However, for your first session at least, I'd recommend being over-prepared. This will give you something to fall back on if you're not yet comfortable improvising and pulling out plot twists or re-inventing your world on the fly. This will come with time, believe me. You can't plan for everything (and even if you could, why then are you playing a collaborative storytelling game? Why not just go write a book?). For your first session though, it's better to have too much planned than too little. Have a couple of sidequests(*) or NPCs(*) fleshed out and written down somewhere, and a main overview of the narrative arc of the campaign (which can, and likely will, be re-written numerous times over the coming weeks and months).

The first session I ever DMed, I envisaged setting the scene, allowing my players and some of the NPCs to introduce themselves, a short battle, before one of the major NPCs inviting them on the first stage of the quest I had mapped out. I thought that was more than enough for session one - I was wrong. My players were less comfortable roleplaying than I'd hoped, and the 'introduce your character' part of the evening only lasted a couple of minutes. As such, I had about 20 minutes of my session left where I was outside of my prep and figuring things out on the fly. It turned out to be fine - they had a chance encounter with one of the setting's gods, and the group's bard sung to him (pretty much) in character. It was brilliant, and every single session I've DMed since has caught me off guard in one way or another - but having prep to fall back on in the early days when you're less adept at just going with it will be a big weight off your mind.

3. Know your PCs' character sheets

I'm a big advocate for having a Session 0 with your players. Talk with them a bit about the setting, tell them the kind of campaign you're hoping to run, and together work through some of their character ideas so you can tie them into your overall plot. If, for whatever reason, this is impractical, at the very least I'd urge you to ask your players for their character sheets a few days in advance of your first session. This will give you an opportunity to better understand each PC and weave their stories into the bigger narrative, and also give you a chance to think of the kind of plot hooks, NPCs and sidequests that may resonate with them. It will also give you a chance to look at their particular abilities and the spells they've chosen etc.

This is useful to have in the back of your mind, when you're figuring out how to make combat exciting and enjoyable for them. It can be pretty annoying to come up with what you think will be a blockbuster combat encounter, only for one of your characters to one-shot your bad guy due to some magic item you forgot they were carrying. This is not to say you want to nerf your characters' abilities. DnD is, above all else, a collaborative game. Even if you're playing the monsters, it doesn't mean you're your party's adversary - both you and your players share the same goal of having fun together. But a dynamic and challenging combat encounter is, for the most part, more fun than ones without any difficulty or peril. Knowing your PCs will help you tremendously in balancing this right.

4. Don't be afraid of mistakes

So, major newsflash (you might want to sit down for this one): we're all human. That means, we all make mistakes. It's part of the territory. You'll make puzzles that nobody figures out, give plot points that nobody picks up on, forget which voice you did for an NPC barman your players met three months ago. It's all good. Cut yourself some slack - this is a game, it's meant to be fun! A major problem many people have in life is waiting for perfection. "I'm not gonna try to speak French with anyone until I'm fluent", "I'm not gonna start exercising until I know all about nutrition", "I'm not gonna DM until I know the players handbook, monster manual and DM's guide inside out". You know the kind of thing? Honestly, life doesn't work like that. If you spend your whole life waiting for perfection, that's what you do - spend your whole life waiting. Honestly, wherever you are, it's better to just start.

Don't be afraid of mistakes, they're how we learn. And in a game that is largely improvised anyway, most mistakes can just be jumping off points to take your adventure in unforeseen and exciting directions. In the first game that I DMed I tried to make it clear to my (level 1 or 2) players that they were completely outmatched by the Hydra they'd just seen, and they'd better try to escape down the series of rapids and whirlpools that I'd prepped for them. Oh no, they decided to stay and battle it, risking a Total Party Kill ridiculously early in the game. Did I beat myself up about it and say how foolish I was for not making my intentions clearer? No! Instead there was a really fun battle, which ended up in their ship sinking and the players getting washed up on a desert island. Don't worry if you mess up and things go a bit sideways - just try to go with it and see where things take you.

5. Give yourself wiggle-room

Linked to the previous point, if you realise that you've messed up a little, try to leave things as open-ended as you can. I guarantee that your players won't start questioning your DM abilities if you don't answer all of their questions immediately - but the more you can leave things open, the more flexibility that affords you to figure everything out as the session goes on (or, ideally, between sessions). If your players start asking probing questions that might find a few plot holes or areas of lore that you haven't considered, you can always ask them to roll an insight, or history, or arcana check. Give them hints of the vague direction the plot may be going in - then step back, let them wonder about it, and in the meantime use that opportunity to figure out the finer details. This takes a little getting used to - but with practice, you'll enjoy all the extra possibilities that this opens up, and relish changing your initial storyline as the campaign unfolds.

6. Have an idea of the world/story in advance

Reading ahead if it's a pre-written adventure, or planning ahead if it's a homebrew, is vital to give yourself an idea of how you want the story to develop, and how you wish to explore each player's individual arc. This doesn't mean you have to rigidly stick to a story, or railroad your players into decisions they don't want to make - but it does give you an idea of which direction to gently nudge your players in when they seem uncertain, or are flat out making zero progress. For a pre-written campaign you want to be at least a chapter ahead, but ideally you'll have at least an overview of the story as a whole. This will help you to foreshadow key events or drop hints as to the motivations of key NPCs. In short, a better understanding of your world will make that world feel more real for your players. This helps them to feel more invested in that world, which just improves the gameplay for everyone. Again, there's a fine line to walk between prepping a story while still giving your players agency - but even when they decide to go off the beaten path, a fuller understanding of the world they're inhabiting will also help you when you've got to figure things out on the fly.

7. Don't sweat it about the rules

I get it - DnD has a ridiculously overwhelming amount of information to learn. Even for experienced DMs, you can't be expected to know all the rules, spells, conditions etc inside out. And for a beginner? Forget it. But you want to hear the great news? That doesn't matter! Watch a few episodes of Critical Role and you'll see Matt Mercer whip out the Player's Handbook(*) to double check stuff from time to time. Matt Mercer! If it's fine for him to do, you can be assured that it's ok for the likes of you and me as well. Better yet, don't worry about the rules! Make a ruling for any issues on the fly and go with it. Pretty much all of DnD's rules can be bent or broken anyway, and you're in charge here! Sure, you'll likely want to get to grips with combat and ability checks just to make things run as smoothly as possible, but beyond that, you're the DM - use your judgement!

The only rule that really matters is that everyone (yourself included) is having fun - if you're following that, then you're doing a good job. In an early campaign I ran, my party found themselves in jail, and one of them cast Minor Illusion, creating an apparition of the jailor's mother, who proceeded to scold him and insist that he released them. Now, was this technically against the rules? Yes. A Minor Illusion shouldn't have been able to be both visible and make noise. But did it lead to some really fun roleplay? Did my party become attached to an NPC that I was just making up on the fly? Did it lead to a whacky escape bid and move the story onwards? It sure did! In my eyes, that is what makes DnD amazing - not getting on my rules lawyer high-horse and telling my player he can't do it. With time you'll become more familiar with the rules, and gain a better feel of where it is or isn't appropriate to break them - but if your over-riding concern is for your players' enjoyment rather than adhering to the minutiae of every single rule, you won't go far wrong.

8. Your DM screen is your friend

So, the DMs job is hard. You have to be a storyteller, improviser, rules arbiter; you have to rewrite your tale on the fly, pull people and cities out of thin air, try to remember reams of lore, gracefully navigate your overarching narrative, and tie in the subplots of each of your players - all in real time. That's a lot, right? As such, you're gonna need all the help you can get to keep the show on the road without letting your players catch on that most of the time you're flying by the seat of your pants. That's where your DM screen comes in!

Your DM screen gives you a safe space, which you can fill with whatever notes or props will make your life that little bit easier. You can buy official DM screens(*) with a bunch of info already on them, or you can make your own (it doesn't have to be expensive - even a couple of binders propped up will do the job). Then you can think about what things you need to refer back to repeatedly, and make your own reminder sheets to help you. Obviously what you place here will differ depending on your DMing style, the kind of campaign you're running, and the kinds of things you usually forget. A good place to start is probably a list of combat actions, a list of the various conditions, some of your PCs' relevant stats, and a bunch of random names for NPCs so you're not caught out when they decide to go and talk to the old man in the street who you've not prepped anything for. With time, you'll be able to work our what you use and what you don't and slowly refine your setup behind the screen - but even just having that physical barrier between you and your players gives the impression of planning and preparation, which can be a lifesaver when they throw a curveball at you.

9. Take notes

One thing that you'll definitely want behind your screen is a notepad and pen! No matter how well you prep, your players will ask you things you hadn't foreseen or take your story in directions you hadn't planned for. This is a good thing! It's a huge part of why we play the game to begin with - but it's times like this when you're thinking on your feet that a couple of words scribbled down in your notebook can really save you down the line. If your players ask you for the names of people and places that you hadn't prepped beforehand and you're forced to just go with the flow - write it down when you say it! How many times has somebody introduced themselves to you, only for you to realise immediately after they've finished speaking that you just didn't take in what their name was? Pretty awkward right? Well, it's even more embarrassing when the person whose name you've forgotten was one that you named yourself, about 10 seconds ago! The thing with NPCs is that it's really hard to know who your players are gonna latch on to and want to go back and talk to again - perhaps several weeks or months later. If you didn't write down the character's name somewhere at the time, good luck dredging it back up from the depths of your memory!

Notebooks are also really handy for keeping track of initiatives in combat, writing down DC ratings as your players ask if they can do some random skill check, or writing down questions for yourself which will help with prep for your next session. Honestly, even a couple of words here and there can ignite your memory and help when you come to write up your session later on. Speaking of which, write up your sessions! Not only does this help enormously at the start of your next session (you don't have that awkward 'so what happened last time?' question before you can get going again), but it also helps with your prep for next time, when you can refer back to everything that happened last time out and all the characters your players met as they went along. When you do this is up to you - I usually try and do it immediately after a session, when everything is still fresh in my mind, but if I don't manage that, then I always aim for within 24 hours of a session. Any longer than that and I'm liable to forget things. And another great bonus to keeping good session notes? You can look back at your campaigns, even years later, and relive them through the notes you've kept. I often do this, and look back on campaigns from ages ago, and laugh at all the nonsense me and my players got up to. Make good notes, and you're making better memories as well.

10. Remember why you're playing

Before your first (heck, any) session, it's worth spending a second just thinking about what you're doing this for. Is it to show off? To astound others with your storytelling, worldbuilding and the bewildering array of accents you can bestow effortlessly upon your NPCs? If so, you're probably in for a shock. DMing is hard, it takes work - and if you're just doing it so other people can tell you how great you are, you'll probably be disappointed. There are surely easier ways to get that ego boost. Maybe post a picture of your lunch on instagram instead; save yourself all the hours of prep.

Instead, I believe that most people DM because they want to create an enjoyable experience for themselves and others. I know that's why I do it. Because the stories we tell and the worlds we create can be vibrant and charming and bizarre. Because we can be silly. Because the real world can be a scary and intimidating place at times, so sometimes it's nice to step outside of that and just have some fun. With this in mind, think about what's fun for you and your players. Once you know the answer to that, do more of it! If your players aren't roleplay heavy but instead prefer dungeon crawling and puzzle-solving, then create scenarios that play to that. This may involve talking to your players outside of the game and asking them what aspects they do and don't enjoy, and then going from there. This is a good thing. As with most things in life, good communication will get you 90% of the way there - don't be afraid of it.


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