Most folks didn’t come to an article on tips for new Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) DMs and other gamemasters for a snappy intro. They came to improve their abilities as a DM without having to buy more books or watch a bunch of tutorials. While there’s a lot you can do, here are six of the most important things you can start doing right now or at your next session, whether that be DnD or something else.
1. Remember: As DMs, You Are the Arbiters of Fun
For new DMs, this is probably the hardest of the six tips: Your attitude and disposition are going to set the tone for the players. If you are nervous, it’s going to be hard for your players to relax. If every NPC sounds like you, your players will probably feel weird about trying different voices for their characters. If all your NPCs act like you, players will likely make their characters act like themselves.
As the DM, you’re like a litmus test for the players. If you’re willing to be weird and silly, they will. If you’re willing to experiment with having NPCs swinging from chandeliers or working as a team, the players will be more open to leaning on their creative side. If you’re willing to be vulnerable, that can encourage them to open up.
This can be extremely difficult because DMing involves performing, and performance anxiety is a real thing (and a real pain in the tuchus). From my experience, I can say it’s worth overcoming. Leaning into the performance side of DMing has created outstanding moments that I and my players have relished long after the game. It’s also really fun when you can cut loose.
That performance anxiety has never gone away completely after 15 years of making and running DnD and other TTRPGs, but it has gotten easier, and I’m always glad I pushed myself to get over it every time I do.
2. Think Post-It Notes
A problem for new (and even seasoned) DMs is creating a one-stop source for all of the information players need to progress. So if your players need to learn about the magic powers contained within the ruby eye of the statue of the goose-hydra Canadeez, for example, this often results in creating an NPC with a name hand-selected from your list of extra good NPC names, crafting a thoughtful backstory, spending too much time building stats, giving them a voice you’ve been practicing, and all the relevant plot points they can drop easily into a conversation.
You place that NPC in the tavern, and not a single player talks to them.
Instead of investing all of that knowledge and effort into one NPC, divide that information into post-it-note-sized chunks of usable data. So it would look something like this:
• The ruby eye has the power to see a glimpse of the future
• The statue of Canadeez is in the central square of Dickin’ Around Town (30 miles west)
• Info on the legend of Canadeez (foreshadowing)
• Coblin Goblin, a goblin cobbler (NPC)
• Stats for Coblin (or other small stature creature that uses shoes with hidden blades)
If you make your important info modular, you can apply it where it needs to go. If players go to the inn and one player sits in on a round of poker, maybe one NPC bets information about the ruby eye of Canadeez (since they don’t have money to match the player’s raise). Another player might get in a tussle with a random cat-caller and you can use the stats for them. Another player might chat up the barkeep to learn where the statue is.
If you keep important details mobile and modular, you can slot them in wherever they are appropriate, because there are few things worse than preparing something that never gets used or discovered.
But when that does happen (because it will)…
3. Reroll, Reuse, Recycle
Prepped a dungeon the players flat-out ignored? Spent hours making stats for a monster the players overcame by bribing it with food? Had a great trap ready but a player rolled a natural 20 to spot and disarm it without ever learning what it was supposed to do? Every DM has been there. But don’t let it get you down. Instead, use it to make future you happy.
Any time anything doesn’t get used (we’re talking NPC names, stats, encounters, traps, anything), do not weep over the loss and throw it away. You take that idea and put it in a big folder titled “to be used.” Because at some point in the future, you’ll need stats for a naga elemental archer or a pudding-filled death pit or magic item. And when you do, you’ll have a folder full of usable ideas ready to fill in gaps.
4. When the Action Economy Crashes
A common joke is that DMs spend days making a big bad villain for the final fight. The players roll a high initiative, the villain rolls low, and the players kill the villain in one or two turns.
The basic reason for this is action economy (the number of actions a character can take in a turn). If you have four players and one villain, players have four times the action economy (action, bonus action, and movement in DnD).
There are a few ways to deal with this. One is to not put all your eggs in one basket. If players only have one target, all of their damage is going to that. Have multiple factors players need to focus on. The villain could have minions with reactions that are literally to dive in front of the villain and chump block a hit. There might be multiple environmental factors players need to focus on (like a stream of lava racing down a mountain toward them and if they don’t stop or reroute that, it won’t matter if the villain is dead (and the villain may be immune to fire)).
Have multiple lines of action economy you can rely on. It’s also more fun for players, allowing you to have several actions between their turns rather than grinding the action to a halt and doing 20 things on the villain’s turn.
5. Don’t Neglect Downtime
It’s easy to get absorbed in creating a campaign and feel like you should be spending most of your free time building NPCs, fleshing out the world, or making sure the porta potty mimic has enough HP to survive a few rounds with a raging barbarian inside of it. But we are creative beings, and we need a balance of creative output (making your campaign) and creative input (reading books and comics, watching TV, etc.). If you starve yourself of one, the other will suffer.
Let outside influences spur your creativity. Maybe you won’t have a Twisted Metal competition for your players after watching the show (it’s surprisingly enjoyable, by the way), but you could use the character concept of John Doe as an NPC. Or have a minor villain inspired by Sweet Tooth that roams the new area your players are visiting.
But you don’t need to directly take from something to get something good out of it. Just experiencing art helps nurture your own. So be sure to look at art in all its forms and drink it in. Let it be a direct influence, encouragement to pursue your own ideas, or just enjoy it for what it is.
6. Have Fun as DMs and Players
No matter what, remember DnD and other TTRPGs are games and shared story-telling experiences. The main goal is for everyone at the table to have a good time. Whether things go your way or not, foster an environment where everyone can have a good time. After all, having fun is what’s really important.