Whether you’re a new or veteran player of DnD; Dungeons and Dragons, taking on the role of the Dungeon Master will be intimidating! So many possibilities to wrap your head around, especially if you’re homebrewing an entire campaign with deep intricate lore, NPCs, and quests. Even running a premade adventure can be tricky as the players really can just, do whatever they want, so a lot of the time you’ll still be semi-homebrewing whenever players go off track on premade! Running a game of Dungeons and Dragons, or really any TTRPG for that matter, can be extremely rewarding and fulfilling for you and your players, I think everyone should try dungeon mastering at least once.
10. Make Sure You Know What Your Players Want!
You are the DM, you know exactly what you want out of your game! (Hopefully). However, even with you being the Dungeon Master, Master of everything in this game world, your players should be able to contribute too. One of the main appeals of DnD and other TTRPGs is the collaborative storytelling aspect after all!
You want to let the players have free reign on their backstory, trust me, it makes your job way easier. Your players can really surprise you with a new angle on your world that they came up with, which you can then choose to incorporate into the main story later! Through the player’s backstories, you can figure out just what exactly your players expect out of your campaign.
Do they have a character with unresolved daddy issues? They probably want that to come up in the game!
Do they have a character with a long-lost brother? Again, probably want it to come up!
A character with a friend who betrayed them? You get the idea.
Of course, there is always the method of just asking what your players want from your campaign, so if all else fails, go ahead and do that!
9. Leave Room To Improvise!
The first instinct of many new DMs is to meticulously plan every detail of their world and story so that they are prepared for any situation. I have one thing to say to that, don’t. Not even premade adventures do that.
Not only are you unnecessarily overworking yourself, you realistically cannot plan for every occasion. It is just impossible. Someone will roll a natural 20 trying to kidnap a random child who looked at them the wrong, and you’ll have to improvise the consequences for that. Even if you feel like you have everything down, you probably forgot the name of that one NPC who owned a tavern, west of the town the party are currently in. Causing the game to come to a grinding halt as you go through your mind-bogglingly thorough notes on your world to remember it. It’s impressive, but not really necessary.
So, leave gaps. Gaps will be there anyway so might as well make it part of the plan! During the sessions you can have the freedom to fill in these gaps whenever they come up. When under the pressure of your players watching you come up with something completely on the spot, you can accidentally stumble onto some really cool stuff!
8. Don’t Avoid The Railroad Entirely.
One thing you hear about online a lot in the DnD community is DMs who railroad and about how it should basically be considered the 8th deadly sin. It really isn’t as bad as people say it is, not to say there aren’t extreme cases, but most of the time, it’s fine!
Railroading your players is sometimes necessary to get the story to move forward, especially at the start of a campaign! Just be upfront, tell your players that the next session may just be a little bit of a railroad. If they know that, they won’t feel cheated in situations which they otherwise would have, they know it’s to serve the campaign as a whole.
Do not try to run anything close to a sandbox on your first go, honestly in this situation the railroad is your best friend. As a new DM you will just naturally default to it without even meaning to, but that’s okay! Your players know your new, if they decide your railroading is too much then they’ll tell you! New DMs require a healthy middle-ground between railroad and sandbox to comfortably transition into great DMs!
7. Stop Caring About The DnD Rules.
Dungeons and Dragons has three main rule books for 5th edition, each combining to make a grand total of 985 pages for you to read. Any sane person would NOT expect you to read all of that to run a game. Make sure you make at least your first campaign rules lite because then you can relax, and learn the game as you go along. In fact, many players prefer rules-lite games!
Of course, this isn’t to say you should start neglecting the basic rules. Don’t start replacing D20s with D8s or adding random bonuses where they don’t make sense because you want to. Still stick with the basic rules, the more advanced stuff, you can learn later!
6. Take Notes.
Please, please, please, PLEASE take notes! You can’t keep it all in your head! Many DMs have made the mistake of not taking notes because they think they will remember everything that happens in their games, I am guilty of this too. You just won’t, the human brain is not capable of that.
You need to be able to remember what your players did, NPCs you randomly generated, and possibly any big future plot lines you unintentionally planted the seeds for in that one session. Your group may be lucky enough to have that one note-taker player, which is great, but don’t rely on them!
If your one of those DMs who struggle with taking notes in the heat of the moment, try going to your notebook post game and noting everything you deem important down there. Trust me, this will improve future game quality and inter-connectivity as you can callback to things your players thought they would only ever see once!
5. Plan Arcs, Not Stories.
When you’re planning a larger campaign with multiple moving parts and multiple stories all interweaving with each other, things can get complicated, and quick. Which is why when your players don’t do that one thing you planned to start the whole sequence of events that make up the story of your campaign, motivation for DMing can really just go downhill from there.
So my recommendation for this would be to not plan specific details of the story. Plan the start, end, and give yourself a skeleton framework for the middle part. Do this for EVERY plot line in your campaign! Not only does it give your players more agency, but it’s also less work for you and you may get an “aHA!” moment as your players do something without realizing they have given you the key to directly going to the big finale of the arc you have planned!
4. Don’t Tell Your Players About The Inner Workings.
I and many DMs are guilty of this. Telling your players about what you had originally planned for a session that went way off the rails can surprisingly make your job harder.
First of all, your players will get increasingly frustrated if they find out they missed something really cool just because they didn’t know to do something to get to it. Secondly, you are giving away ideas you could repurpose for the future! Don’t tell your players anything regarding your session plans, especially just after the session!
3. Try To Give Everyone The Spotlight!
The players are there to embody their characters, have cool character moments and show off their creation to the other players. Let them do that! You’re showing off your world and NPCs so they can have the space to show off their own characters! I recommend if your starting off a session with a bit of downtime, ask around the table to see what each player does.
Now sometimes there is just gonna be one or two quiet players, that’s fine, maybe they don’t want the spotlight on them! Just ask them privately “Hey, I noticed you were a little quiet last session, do you want more room to talk?” and take it from there. Make sure to have at least a few cool character moments for each player that they can pursue if they choose!
2. Know When To Say “No”.
You run this world, you decide everything that can and can’t happen. Of course you want to allow the players to feel free and like they are actually playing a game, but sometimes you should just say no to something a player says.
For example, the players want to go somewhere you just haven’t prepared yet. While it may take you and your players out of the game for a moment, just say you haven’t got it prepared and if they would be able to wait until the next session.
Other things like more sensitive topics can also be an issue, say for example a player wants to kill an NPC and they go to great lengths to describe the kill in highly disturbing, gruesome detail. Not everybody is comfortable with that sort of thing, so if you sense that someone is about to do something mildly controversial, shut that down as soon as you can.
1. Do Not Over-Commit!
This last and I think the most important tip somewhat ties into tip number 9.
There will come multiple times when your players will do something COMPLETELY unexpected and because of what you have planned, they unknowingly put themselves in more danger than they would have been if they didn’t do that thing. If you know for a fact there isn’t a way for the players to get out of a situation because plans changed, change the plan even more on your side. Do not punish your players for not being able to read your mind.
One way to avoid this situation is to give your players ample foreshadowing for the dangers to come. Although sometimes you just don’t have that room to give the players the right hints. If you DO give players what you feel like is enough foreshadowing and they still went ahead into the danger, give them all you got, it may actually be their fault at that point.
So, with these tips I hope you can take and adapt them to your personal DMing style because every DM is different! Some of these tips may not even apply to your type of game, this is just the stuff that I learned over the years of myself DMing! If you haven’t already, go ahead and get the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and get a start on becoming a great DM!