We all make mistakes but there are some major new DM mistakes that you will most likely make if you do not read this article! They are so common that you are bound to make at least 1 of them.
The top 5 new DM mistakes are, not knowing the rules, giving too much, killing the players, preparing too much or too little, and not having fun.
As you can probably guess, there are different sub categories to each section. After being a new DM and making all these mistakes forever ago and helping new DMs out today, these are the most common mistakes that I have found.
The top 5 mistakes
First I want to congratulate you on being a Dungeon Master. It is an extremely fun opportunity to have and can be some of the most fun you will ever have. I love DMing and I hope that you will to, but you are understandably worried. You don’t want to end up in a D&D horror story, and I understand. That is why you are here to avoid any major mistakes, and I hope that we can make your game a success.
The top 5 new DM mistakes have already been stated, but here they are to just reiterate for you:
- Not knowing the rules.
- Giving too much.
- Killing the players.
- Not having fun.
- Preparing too much or too little.
These are broad categories but cover just about every new DM mistake. Almost every new DM mistake can be boiled down to one of these 5 sections, so here are their subsets that we will go into for each one.
Not knowing the rules involves more than just not reading the rules. If you didn’t do that then you are beyond help. Not knowing the rules involves knowing them well enough to run the game, adjust accordingly, and gaining confidence to make D&D interactive between DM and players.
Giving too much involves many aspects. It can be giving your players too many items, but it can be much more. Giving too much freedom, or just making the game less fun when the players realize they have everything and didn’t really deserve it or could handle it.
Killing the players isn’t just by having 1 bad fight. It is based on a DM not knowing how to utilize monsters, or not knowing enough. It is also about your rulings and how these can bring about player deaths. Lastly, killing players is hard for new DMs because sometimes players will want to die.
Having fun is not just for others. It is for you the DM and for your players. This game should be a fun time for all, and generally DMs either favor themselves or the players. The other side tends to have less fun, and there are many different reasons for this.
Preparing too much or too little seems very straightforward. You prepared too little and can’t run the game, but this isn’t always the case. You can prepare the proper amount and still not have enough. It seems like this is a strange statement, but this will make sense once we get to this section.
Each section is broader than it seemed at first, but this is to extensively cover each area and help you get into a mindset or preparation that will help you succeed in your game.
Not knowing the game
The most obvious issue here is to know the rules. If you do not know the rules at all or haven’t even read them then I cannot help you. You are not putting in the basic effort required to succeed since you don’t even know what you are playing, but you are better than that. I have faith that you have read the rules, so what else can you do?
Many articles or other DMs out there give this piece of advice:
“If you have read the rules, then read them again! Read them a 3rd time!”
This is a summarization of what many DMs say to new DMs about knowing the rules, but this is completely unhelpful. You can know all the rules like the back of your hand, but that doesn’t prepare you for the game. Other DMs then try to have you learn a more important lesson, but it is already too late since they have made you focused on just knowing the base material.
A more important lesson that DMs try to teach after this is to ‘know enough in order to make a ruling.’
Even if you know the rules like the back of your hand that does not prepare for you a player asking how many drinks it takes before they are drunk. The rules don’t cover that, but you can use them to help you figure it out.
In this situation, you can use some of the rules that you know. There are constitution saves and alcohol is a poison so dwarves would have resistance to their saves. That means this is definitely a saving throw and it has to deal with one’s body or the fact that most poison is resisted by constitution.
Now that we know players need to make a constitution roll we then make up the next part. 1 fail and drunk? Seems a bit much. Maybe 1 fail and tipsy? Perhaps they have 1 fail and are just unable to continue drinking alcohol?
The answer is ultimately up to you, and knowing the rules is important to let you make a decision on what to do next.
A far more important lesson to learn is knowing enough in order to make a ruling on things that are not addressed in the book, or that you just don’t know. You need to make calls on these things going forward and being able to do so shows the difference between a DM who is crippled by indecision and one who is able to DM smoothly.
There is a problem with this that needs to be addressed so that you do not become a terrible DM.
Not listening to players
You know what the rules say or are able to make a loose interpretation of what they should be. You decide to give a call and expect the players to go with it, but one of them objects. They are visibly confused because the book says something different or your ruling doesn’t make sense.
These are only very rarely problem powergamers trying to get an advantage in game. Most of the time these are players who want to play by the rules. They want structure. Think of it this way, if you have always played D&D and a 20 is always a crit, why is it not now? This is odd from the player’s perspective and if this is done too much the game falls apart.
You need to adhere to the rules on most things. Whenever you deviate from the rules it has to be for a good reason that was hopefully explained beforehand. This is also why before your players do anything that might result in a failure or different result than they are expecting, tell them what it might do or their chances of failure.
Miscommunication and mistrust are poison to any campaign.
You need to be able to listen to players when they make reasonable requests. To not do so leads to many D&D horror stories. If a player knows a rule that is different than what you thought there are 2 options that will end in a good result.
- Let the player’s ruling work out. You trust them and this is just something that sounds right, but is easy for you to mistake. No big deal.
- You stick to your guns and tell the player that we are doing it this way for now, BUT we can review it and talk about the rule after the session.
Both options do not interrupt the flow of the game and let the player’s voice be heard. Generally most experienced DMs stick to option 2 since it lets them take time to review the point and not let any unintended consequences slip through. If you are new though, option 1 might be better for you since you will have some new DM mistakes, and that is okay. Your players can help you if you need it.
Just please, please do not be a dictator when it comes to the rules where everyone else feels unheard.
Giving too much
Obviously, you don’t want to give your players too much money! In D&D money isn’t the only currency though. Magical items, reputation, favors, property, all of these are things that players can have too much of. If you thought that property wasn’t a big deal, think about what the players could do if they owned 1/4 of the citie’s real estate. Politically, they are pretty much going to be the most powerful group and that alone will break your games.
There are many different ways to give your players too many magical items, but if you are really concerned we have an article dedicated on when to give your players items.This article is extremely detailed and fits whatever campaign you want to run.
Alternatively, if you want to run a powertrip campaign where items don’t really matter and just want to give your players more items, we have a nice campaign addition called the cube that gives your players a way to customize what items they want and give even more options. For new DMs though, I do not recommend this unless you are only trying to run a short power trip campaign and not a long sustained one.
If you are running a power trip game or one that allows players to become almost gods themselves with items because it is cool, that is fine and lets you see how quickly things can get out of hand. But for most of us, we want to run a normal long lasting campaign first. For those games, you need to temper when to give your players items and when not to.
If you are wondering about your ability to accurately give players rewards, less is always better. If you give your players less, then you can add more and make them appreciate you for giving them items. When they complain that there are too few items and you agree, you can give more. On the other hand, if you give your players an overpowered item, well, that can be a problem.
It is always easier to give than to receive. This is one of the biggest new DM mistakes that you can make when trying to determine if you should or should not give your players something. Always remember,
It is always easier to give than to recieve.
Also, if you give your players items too frequently they won’t get a sense of satisfaction. Tell me, which is more rewarding. Getting a Flametongue sword at level 7 from a random grizzly bear, or getting a Flametongue sword at level 13 after taking it from a villain’s cold dead hands who has been harassing you, and used this blade on you for 3 levels?
You need to temper not only how much your players get, but how they get it. Make them earn it and make every magical item that isn’t a consumable special. Not to say that consumables can’t be special, but they are not the ones that need to be given out with more temperance.
Part of giving too much isn’t just with monetary or tangible objects, but also with freedom.
Giving too much freedom
This sounds really odd at first. We play D&D since it is the only game that really allows us to do anything. Even in the most advanced video game, you cannot just do anything. There are pre-scripted rules and always limitations, so why should you not give your players unlimited freedom?
We talked about the rules giving a sense of structure earlier and that structure is important. If the players don’t see a sense of structure the game falls apart for them. This applies even more so with freedom. If players have too much freedom, they won’t know what to do and the DM’s job is pointless.
This actually happens much faster than you would think. If a group of players is told to get to know each other on their own and are not brought together by something, it can be a disaster.
Experienced players are able to roleplay, get together, and understand on a meta level that this game is about everyone and not just themselves. That is why they make it work and stick together in a group, but that is only with good experienced players. For most groups or players, that isn’t the case.
Most groups don’t 100% of the players fall into the good and experienced category, so you need to give them something to work with. Unlimited freedom can be overwhelming, and that is why you have the job as a DM.
Just make sure to have a scenario prepared to give the players structure if they seem like they need it. For example, If I don’t think that the players are able to introduce themselves based on how things are going, I might make a scene to draw the players together.
We talk about this in linear vs sandbox games for more detail, but you get a general idea of what we are talking about here. If you need a reason why players want to have a linear game or want to make a sandbox game since your players can handle it, then look at that article. Otherwise, don’t give too much freedom.
Killing the players
Killing players. This is one of the most common new DM mistakes out there and it can get pretty ugly. If your players are going to die, a good (or wana be good) DM has 1 of 2 reactions.
- They let the players die and blame something else like the system.
- The new DM tries to bend reality to not have players die.
Firstly, if you are concerned about players dying and don’t want them to you can make a rule in session 0. No one is allowed to die in this game. I and most DMs out there are not a fan of this rule, but you might need it. This rule makes it virtually impossible for characters to randomly die. The game is treated as more of a tutorial than what most D&D games are like though, so you may not want to do this.
If your players die and you blame something else, you are avoiding the problem.
The real problem is something that you did. You made an encounter too difficult, didn’t give enough hints for a timed death puzzle, or thought it would be cool for the players to forcibly attempt something that in hindsight was impossible. Whatever the mistake, you made it and that is okay. We all make mistakes. When you make a mistake own it and learn so that it won’t happen again.
If you need to you can even tell your players that you made a mistake and ask if they want a take back or load since you screwed this one up. Only do this once, but it is an option.
When I was a young lad and started DMing, I made the second mistake. I tried to bend reality. 3 rounds of 30 attacks against 1 person. None could hit even though the rest of the party was knocked out in 1 round leaving the last remaining party member at 2hp. Yup. Completely believable.
In these instances provide an out. Let your players run away with a distraction aimed at the opponents. It can even be other adventurers taking up the parties quest and finishing it for them. Make those saviors jerks if you want to make a rivalry and just make it more than an ordinary deus ex machina.
If you are interested in making more balanced encounters then I suggest looking at why CR is a lie. I do not want you to be led astray by the cult of CR like many other poor new DMs.
But this is for DMs who want to be good! There are new DMs who think they want to be good, but no one wants to be a bad guy. That is why they think they are good but really are terrible. Please do not make these next mistakes and become a terrible DM. I have faith that you want to and can be a great DM.
Bad DM mistakes
I mentioned this above, but no one wants to be a bad DM. Even bad DMs think that they are good since no reasonable person views themselves as the bad guy. But there are some new DM mistakes that can led on a path to become terrible and we want to avoid that.
The 3 main mistakes that can lead you as a new DM down a dark path are:
- Arbitrary rulings.
- Power corruption.
- Ignoring your players
If you are doing any of these you need to stop them right now!
Arbitrary rulings are not arbitrary to you. If your rulings seem arbitrary to your players, the are arbitrary and need to stop. We have talked about this, but players need to know the rules of the game in order to have order. You cannot make arbitrary rulings. Players need to understand and most of the time agree with your rules.
Power corruption sounds more epic than power tripping, but they are the same thing. You get drunk with power and only your voice matters. The world goes the way you say it does and the players will do as you say. This starts out small at first, but like an infection it can fester until sexual fetishes become the way of every game. I wish I was kidding in this, but it can go this far. Please don’t become that DM.
Ignoring your players leads to player death and group death. Communication is the key to everything and can prevent the other two issues. If you do not listen to your players then you will have a campaign death instead of just a few player deaths. Pay attention to player body language and tone. If you start to act crazy, they will let you know.
This includes letting players die. Sometimes they want to die for character reasons or to switch characters and that is fine. Listen to them, but also look for players who are intentionally killing their characters. They can just be bad players, but most likely it is due to you slighting them in some way. This can be the player’s fault or your fault, but either way, you have to pay attention to them to not make them desperate enough to kill a character.
Finally a simple section. You all want to have fun. This at it’s core is simple, but usually there is 1 problem that needs to be addressed.
There is no winning in D&D. You cannot win as a DM and the players shouldn’t try to win against god. You are all here to have fun so enjoy the game, play as you and your group wants, just don’t make it about who is winning. Please do not make this as one of your New DM mistakes and just have fun.
Make sure everyone is having fun. That includes you Mr/Mrs/Mrs/whatever else there is DM. Have fun with your game and your game will be much better than an experienced DM who is bored of theirs.
Preparing too much or too little
Preparing too much is possible. If you prepare too much you can make one of the worst new DM mistakes possible. Railroading. To actually railroad a group is harder than you think. The article that was linked talks about it and tells you if you are railroading, but preparing too much leads to railroading. Preparing too much makes your players follow a script they don’t know about and that my friend is called a book. We are not writing a book. We are making a story with friends.
So the solution is to not prepare in order to avoid railroading right? Actually, this isn’t entirely wrong. There is a method for preparing for a session like this, but that is for only the experienced crazy DMs who fit in the minority. You still need to prepare enough in order to make the the game interesting.
You as a DM are a storyteller that facilitates the environment for the players.That means you need to have a lose idea of the plot, NPCs, story, environment, etc. But aside from this you need to be prepared enough for anything! So, how do yo do so?
I recommend having resources on hand that will help you. If your players demand that they must fight goblins and you have no idea how to work it in or what a goblin’s stats are, use your resources at hand. Use the monster manuel and think of a random name for an NPC to help your players learn about goblins. If you need to, get a name generator on your phone.
Being prepared is about having an idea of where the game can go. You are prepared for this, but have enough resources on hand to adapt to anything. If you have those resources and don’t have to ask for your players to get back to you later on too many topics (or ones that need to be answered now) you are prepared.
There are many new DM mistakes that you can make. Most of them are easily summarized but go in depth a lot more. For the last two points they aren’t too deep, but they still have more depth than just 1 line.
If you have read this article, then you should be prepared to not make any major new DM mistakes. You will make mistakes, but that is okay. Those mistakes should not destroy your game, and we all will make mistakes. Just don’t make the big ones.
With this you are prepared to go and not ruin your very first game, or get on the foggy path of becoming a terrible DM.
This has been Wizo and until next time keep rolling!