Ten Tips for Beginning DMs

I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons since 1977. I started with the LBB’s, moved almost immediately to Holmes Basic, and then finally settled into AD&D 1st edition for a decade or so. In that time I’ve literally run thousands of hours worth of games, and thought it might be neat to share a few things I’ve learned over the years.

10. Don’t fudge the dice. Whether it’s to prevent a TPK or to nudge the players into an interesting part of the adventure, resist the temptation. You’ll find that the best part of the gaming experience comes from the players overcoming the vicissitudes of fate. Sometimes they don’t. But if there are no stakes, then there’s no real victory.

9. Let the plot go where it will. This is sort of related to the previous item. Don’t be so dedicated to The Plot that you end up changing outcomes just to satisfy what you planned was going to happen. The best campaigns are based on the players interacting with the environment, and if they have no real choice (because the plot says they have to do something), then there’s no real interaction.

8. Make your NPCs stand out. Use the funny voices. Make sure everyone has a defining characteristic that lets them be identifiable. Turn them into individuals. “The guy with the sparkling blue cloak” is still better than “the guy with 5 h.p.”.

7. Always describe the last hit. In AD&D (and other games) combat can, admittedly, be a slog. It’s a bit much to expect vivid descriptions for every d20 that is rolled on the table. But when the PCs manage to kill something, whether it’s an orc or a Type V demon, throw in a line to make it memorable. They just killed something. They deserve that much.

6. Know the rules. The last thing you want to do is halt the game for 10 minutes while you look up some table in a rulebook. Know the game you’re running. Preferably, play it before you run it. If I can’t find something in under 60 seconds, I move on to the next tip.

5. If you don’t know the rules, wing it. As a corollary to the above, if you find you don’t know what the rules are in a particular situation, make something up. Have the player roll percentile dice. If you’re truly stuck, make it up and move on quickly.

4. You’re the Dungeon MASTER. Act like it. Eventually you’ll get a player who wants to “top from the bottom.” Call them rules lawyers, call them problem players, whatever. They’re the ones who think they know better than you how to run the game. The players don’t tell you how to run your game. If they can’t learn that lesson, don’t invite them back. Even if it’s your girlfriend.

3. Don’t try to live up to someone else’s game. Everyone’s seen these video channels of people playing D&D with semi-pro improv actors who have costumes, or see set ups with amazing terrain and miniatures, or a group of 8 willing players whose schedules all magically align. Don’t be them. Play with who you have, how you’re able. It’ll still be fun as long as you and your players try.

2. Make sure you’re ready to DM. Being a Dungeon Master isn’t for everyone. It’s not something that you automatically get to do when your character reaches level 20. Many people are perfectly content to be a player all the time. Don’t think you’re somehow “expected” to be a DM just because you’ve been playing the game for a long time. If you want to be a player and not a DM, do that. You’ll be happier.

1. Don’t make the monsters morons. Well, unless they’re supposed to be morons. But orcs and goblins and kobolds are supposed to be threats, at least on some level. Make them cunning and crafty. They know every twist and turn of that cave complex they’ve made their lair. Let them act like it. And at higher levels, don’t just have the necromancer sitting in his tower waiting for the PCs to spoil his scheme. The instant he could have an inkling that someone is out to stop him, he should start pushing back. And that doesn’t have to be a horde of skeletons; make your villains subtle. Have them frame the PCs for some crime, just to keep them off balance while the villain’s scheme proceeds to fulfillment. It’ll keep up the pressure and the tension, which is always a good thing.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

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