These 10 tips for new dungeon masters will help you get started in D&D and avoid potential problems. Being a DM is hard, and the sheer volume of rules to learn is daunting. This is why our tips are geared to make your life easier and help you keep sight of what is really important.
Here are the 10 tips you need as a new DM:
- Have fun
- Use the rule of, “Yes, and?”
- Have a session 0
- Plan ahead
- Keep realistic expectations
- Run something approachable
- Start with the basics
1. Have fun
If you are not having fun then it can and will spiral to your players. This can make the session just awful.
New DMs forget this the most. You are understandably overwhelmed with all the rules, plots, environments, player’s enjoyment, an everything else! This can cause you to lose sight of why you are all here. These factors can cause you to not have fun while DMing.
The truth of the mater is, if you are just having fun and enjoying yourself almost nothing else matters. Your players will enjoy the time spent with you even if the game only vaguely resembles D&D. You can get rules wrong and just go by the rule of cool. Negative situations are less likely to arise, and everyone will remember the session fondly if you all are enjoying yourselves.
The DM provides an environment for the players to enjoy. The players might breeze through your content and cause you to feel dejected, but be warry of how you wish to amend the situation.
There is nothing wrong with trying to present a challenge, but very quickly it can turn into ‘me vs them!’ As the DM, you don’t want to ‘lose’ fights constantly, or have your creatures be only minor stepping stools for the party.
This ‘me vs them’ mentality is all too common for newer DMs. In the game, as a DM you are ultimately god. As god of the game, you can make your player’s life so difficult that eventually you will win. This is assured, and only causes problems when taken too far, and is why we must stay away from the ‘me vs them’ mentality.
The only time this is okay is if the players know you are trying to kill them. Tell them out of game before the encounter starts, or only adopt this mentality in grand situations, such as boss fights that dictate the story. This should be done sparingly. You all have come here to play a game together and have fun. Not engage in a competition.
Have you ever been in a situation like this?
DM: Alright, so you take 50 damage and go to 0 hp.
Player: What? Why?
DM: You went to attack and the trap next to him went off.
Player: No. I brandished my sword to threaten him.
DM: You pulled a sword on him and rolled.
Player: To intimidate!
This type of situation happens often. The DM thinks the player is making an action, which seems logical to the DM, and didn’t intend for this to happen at all.
It is reminiscent of when you choose a video game dialogue choice and the character does something completely different. You feel betrayed, and are a bit shocked. Everything about these situations is bad, and that is why clarification is key.
If you players are about to do something that is even slightly stupid or impactful, clarify with them first. Repeat their intentions so that they can confirm what they want to do. As long as it is the player’s choice, they can take the consequences.
4. Use the rule of, “Yes, and?”
When your players attempt to do something, almost always let them attempt it. In principle, this is the ‘yes and?’ method. You say yes, they can attempt something, and then the results are determined by dice and circumstances.
Just because players can attempt something, doesn’t mean that they can succeed. Instead of having them roll for impossible situations, just describe what happens. However, If there is even a chance of success, then let the players roll with the ‘yes and?’ method.
D&D is about making wonderful memories with everyone accomplishing things that should never happen. Some of the best stories are where there was a miniscule chance of success, and three natural 20s were rolled in a row. This is why the ‘yes, and?’ method makes the game more interesting than a scripted one.
5. Have a session 0
The most important part of starting a new game is to have a session 0! Many DMs out there don’t even have a session 0 and this causes problems down the line. During this pre-game session, your players will learn about the campaign that they are going to play in, tell you what type of game they want to play, and discuss any concerns before the game actually starts instead of mid session.
Session 0 is where you can go over any safety issues or concerns, and forge a social contract to not completely screw over the group (even if it makes sense) because they are still real people outside of the game. This helps A LOT in stopping negative situations from ever occurring.
Session 0s are also the only time where you should just straight up say no. If a player wants to play a certain character, you can tell them no and give a reason. Perhaps you don’t have orcs in your world or something similar. After session 0, you should just about never say no. If you want to know more about session 0 we have an article on it here.
Knowing how to improvise is essential and easy to do when you know the circumstances around every event, and where the players are meant to go. In this article on improv, we talked about how planning makes your life easier in-session, and this is true. However, even with great planning, I and many other DMs find that about 60% of the session is still improvised. So, how do you improv?
The easiest way to improv is to go with the flow. If the players ask a farmer what he knows of the recent murders, you might wonder what a farmer knows and give the party some vague gossip. In every bit of gossip, there is a kernel of truth. Gossip isn’t factual, so you could give the players wrong information as well. It was a werewolf with a jet black cloak who cackled. In reality the murderer had a cloak, but everything else is fabricated.
7. Plan ahead
In short, planning is about understanding where the party is going, the environments, and the overall trajectory of the quest/storyline. Figure out where the players are and detail the area, monsters, treasure, and NPCs, and everything will naturally fit into place.
Every single encounter should have a purpose, even if that purpose is just to satisfy the players’ curiosity. Lastly, as a newer DM you should have extra material ready. Get a name generator for when the players want to know some random NPC’s life story. Know the monsters that your players can encounter and have a few extra options ready. The more you prep before session, the less you have to scramble to do during session. If you want to get more detail on how to prepare for a session we have an article for you!
8. Keep realistic expectations
Many newer DMs out there expect to be perfect and at the very least equal to the professionals. This is meant to be a joke, but it sadly isn’t since a lot of new DMs think they should be as good as their teachers. This is never the case in any other field, and is not the case here. You will be worse than a DM who has played for 5-20+ years, and that is okay.
Just remember that you will get better each time. Better at making up new characters, knowing the rules, making good judgement calls, and more. You will always improve, and none of us were that great when we started. It is a craft like any other, and will take a long while to master.
Don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t force yourself to be stretched too thin. Perhaps don’t add voices at the get go, or start out with a 20th-level campaign. These are some pretty unrealistic expectations.
9. Run something approachable
It is always difficult to choose what to run as a new DM, but there are two options that I highly recommend.
- Pick a one-shot
- Pick an Adventure
It is always easier to let a character die because of something silly in a one-shot. In a campaign, it can be heart wrenching and cause a much greater dispute. This is a great way to learn with none of the consequences that happen in a long term campaign. Lastly, one-shots let you figure out what you like about DMing and what to improve upon.
Picking an adventure will help you gain a framework. If you have never run a campaign before, you probably don’t know how to map out a room. You might have some vague ideas, but adventures have pre-done rooms, factions, quests and more! It is always better to build upon the shoulders of those who came before than re-invent the entire wheel.
There are many ways to start, but I highly recommend these two options. At the very least, opt to play a campaign that you have played before, to take some of the pressure off you as a DM.
10. Start with the basics
When you are just starting out in D&D, you can easily be overwhelmed by the rules. There are a lot of intricacies and situational considerations that need to be taken into account when making rulings. This only becomes more difficult when you add in every new book that has come out!
This is why I highly recommend that you restrict your first time DMing to allowing the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide, and the Monster Manual. This is already a lot of material to cover. You don’t need to add Xanathars, Van Ricktens, Strixhaven, Monsters of The Multiverse, Tashas, and many many more books to your game.
Keep it simple and work with the basics. Once you are ready and comfortable, you can allow your players to add new books into the game. I would recommend doing this one at a time, and to really consider if the newer books are worth it for you as a DM. This way, you don’t have that one player who knows all the books giving rulings. You are the DM who has the final call. Keep it that way.
These are my 10 tips for new dungeon masters that I hope have helped you get ready for your session! It isn’t easy being a new DM out there, but if you follow these 10 tips then you should be able to have a great session or even campaign. Next, make sure to check out my article on the top essentials every new dungeon master needs!