I’ve been a Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition Dungeon Master for 2 years now. When I started, I knew about the game but had never played it before, so I sought out books and other DMs to help me get better at it. This is what I’ve learned about being a Dungeon Master in 2 years.
It’s about having fun
The first advice I read about being a DM was that it’s your job to make the players have fun. I disagree with this. It’s your job to make sure *everyone* has fun, and that includes you. If you’re not having fun as a DM, then one or more of the following will happen (and they’ve all happened to me):
- You’ll grow to resent your group of players who don’t have to do any real work, and start being quite passive aggressive in the way you control the game
- You’ll get sick of being a DM and start trying to get someone else to have a turn, but nobody will want to do it because they can see how much you hate it
- You’ll stop playing altogether and try to find a group where you can be a player instead and do the “fun stuff”
Then you definitely won’t have a group anymore. Here are some ways to help you have more fun as a DM:
- Think about the moments in the game that make you enjoy it. For me, it’s when the group does something I find really funny, so I try to give the group opportunities to inject humour into the game.
- With some practice, you will be able to run a pre-written campaign with minimal preparation. When I started, it took me several hours to prepare a session. These days I can pretty much wing it.
- Delegate stuff you hate, like learning all of the rules (see below)
You don’t have to be a rules expert, but you do have to make a ruling when required
I think one of the most daunting things about being a new DM is having the whole group look to you as a rules expert for the game. One of the best advice I ever read was that you can delegate as a DM. This includes delegating intricate knowledge of the D&D rules. It can feel like a lot of work being a DM if the rest of the group relies on you to know everything about the game. Sometimes my group even tries to get me to calculate their dice rolls for them!
I’m no good at memorizing a bunch of boring rules, so I generally just try to be consistent with whatever rules I enforce. If someone in the group says that they think the rules are different, I’m happy to go with what they say as long as the rest of the group is happy. If there’s a dispute, then I make a ruling and we move on.
Sometimes we do look up rule books but I try to avoid this where possible because it slows down the game and it’s tedious. If someone is a real stickler for the official rules (aka a “rules lawyer”) then I’m more than happy to delegate all rule-related issues to them.
Get to know your players
For me, the advantage of D&D is that you can do literally anything in the game. If your players are just counting hit points and killing everything that moves, they might as well be playing World of Warcraft online. Once new players realise that anything goes, they usually get into a particular aspect of the game. Some like the roleplaying aspect, some like problem solving, some like being creative, some like combat. Pay attention to what each player likes, and try to give that to them. If everyone in your group hates negotiating with NPCs, then just skip those bits of the campaign – what’s the point? If they all love battling crazy huge monsters, then drop a few in there now and then and make sure that battle is extra glorious.
Get used to winging it
Some of the best sessions I’ve ever had were just completely made up on the spot. If you’re not feeling particularly creative, keep some lists handy for when you need inspiration. One of my favourite lists is the big list of NPCs. Anytime someone meets a new NPC, suddenly I have a fully realised character for them instead of just another boring human peasant guy.
For example, one time one of my players decided to seduce a royal guard and go from town to town visiting farmers’ markets while the rest of the party followed from a safe distance. I didn’t see this coming, but I had some maps handy and my list of NPCs. So when the Rogue wanted to talk to the local innkeeper, I just went to the next person on the list – an old dwarf who hates people. It could have been a tedious conversation, but instead the Rogue was yelled at repeatedly until he bought something or left the Inn. It made for a much more memorable experience.
Always have an exit strategy
Unless you’re a fan of your whole party dying (Total Party Killed – TPK) and starting again every session, it’s a good idea to have a way out for when they’re outmatched. Sooner or later you’ll misjudge the level match-up, or the players will roll terribly that day, and you’re looking at a really bad situation. Here’s some of my favourite options:
- Fudge your dice rolls. If you’ve got a DM screen you can just pretend your monsters are rolling terribly, giving your players the advantage.
- Make your monsters do something strategically disadvantageous. When you know all of the players’ abilities as well as your monsters, it’s pretty easy to work out how the battle’s going to go. So for instance instead of taking out their healer, you could attack their tank instead. I generally try to make smart monsters smart, but if things are really going pear-shaped I might get them to slip up now and then.
- Modify your monster’s stats or abilities. A favourite for if the battle is just taking forever, but this monster needs to be dead – just slash the hit points in half. Nobody needs to know. If there’s a spell that the monster knows that could TPK the party, maybe that monster just “forgets” it.
- Make the monster run away to fight another day. Either because they’re getting hurt, or because they got distracted by something else. Either way.
- Divine intervention. It could be from a god, or just from a strong third party who happens to turn up and save the day. I try to avoid this one because it’s just a bit too obvious and makes the players feel like they were really outmatched. Unless that’s the point…
Make sure your party is okay with the themes in your campaign
It’s an immersive game, and you don’t want players feeling uncomfortable. I’ve been on both sides of this and it can really ruin the game for people so it’s really important. Alert your players beforehand if your players are going to encounter:
- Violence. Yeah I know, it’s a combat-themed game! It is possible to play D&D without violence though, and the level of gore is up to you as well. Take this into account particularly with young players.
- Language. Again, mainly a warning for if you’re playing with kids but many adults feel uncomfortable about swearing too.
- Sexual themes. This includes sexual jokes, nudity, and sex scenes. I made a really bad judgement call on this with one of my campaigns, and I was a player in a campaign where this kind of thing made me feel uncomfortable too. Obviously not appropriate in games with kids!
On that last one – definitely keep this in mind if you’re playing in a group that’s all men but only one woman in the group! I was the only woman in a D&D group with a bunch of men I’d never met before, and the sexual jokes and other players hitting on me “in character” were enough to ensure I never returned to that group ever again. As the DM you’re also the best person to call out anyone in the group behaving inappropriately towards other players so take that responsibility seriously. A friend of mine said she once played a game where her character was stripped naked and made to walk through the town. This might sound like a fun Game of Thrones themed event in your mind, but when you’re the only woman in a group of men who are suddenly imagining you naked, it’s a very scary and threatening feeling. As a survivor of sexual assault, this kind of gaming experience would be enough to ensure I have nightmares and insomnia for at least a week.
All in all, it might help if you put a movie rating on your campaign if you’re opening it up to all kinds of players (G, PG, M, etc). And remember that it’s your job to enforce this rating for the benefit of all your players.
And on that cheerful note, that’s a wrap for my DM advice. I hope more people try being a DM. It’s taught me so much, and it really can be a lot of fun. Think of it like building your own theme park, and then watching discover all the cool stuff you built.