There are hundreds of resources out there for DMs. Whether you’re just starting out or have been behind the screen for years there is an abundance of blogs, videos and podcasts about how to make your game better, how to make DMing easier or how to create your own homebrew content. This post isn’t necessarily one of those. It’s just a few things I’ve learned sitting behind the screen for the last year and a half. I don’t have decades of experience but I’ve rummaged through the blogs and podcasts and videos. I’ve tried to make my game better and learn from the DMs who have been doing it for decades.
I never planned on becoming a Dungeon Master. I don’t think any DM does. I don’t think any player says to themselves “you know what? I think I want to have the stress of coming up with a story, controlling countless NPCs, and making sure everyone has fun instead of just being a player and not having any worries”. I could be wrong but I think most DMs are forced into it by circumstance. Becoming a DM, in my mind, is less a voluntary undertaking than something borne of necessity. It’s a position we take to be able to keep playing with the group we have, or because we put the group together and someone needs to do it or there won’t be a game.
Many of us who have taken up the mantle of Dungeon Master have stayed in that role and rarely get the chance the chance to play that halfling barbarian we’ve always wanted to try. We become the designated DM of our group and don’t the chance to sit back and let someone else run the show. Very often it’s because nobody else in the group wants to DM or is afraid they won’t do a good job. And so it goes that we DMs become both the lead singer and drummer of our RPG bands.
I started to DM because the group I was playing with when I got back into D&D fell apart and our DM left. I had been playing 5th edition for only a few months, but those of us left in the group needed a DM or risk being tossed into the wilds of Roll20 to fight amongst the hoards of players looking for a spot in a game. The truth of the matter is that because so few people are willing to step outside their comfort zone and try to be a dungeon master that the ratio of players to DMs is heavily skewed. DMs are a commodity this is both a blessing and a curse. On platforms like Roll20 it allows us to choose who we want to play with and create our ideal group, but unfortunately it can leave many who want to experience this amazing game with out someone to show them the way.
And so for those who haven’t tried to DM, or are afraid of it, or think it takes some special powers they don’t possess to be able to run a game, I’m going to pull back the curtain a bit tell you what I’ve learned from being a DM.
It’s OK to not know what you’re doing
The idea that you need to know all the rules and lore and the ins and outs of every class or race is pure poppycock. Poppycock I say! If you are running a published adventure then most of what you need is right there for you. When (not if, there is no “if” in this situation) the players decide to do something completely insane that you hadn’t prepared for and you aren’t sure what they need to roll or what the rule is, make it up. Go with whatever makes sense to you in the moment and keep the game moving.
Every session I play with the 2 groups I’m currently running on Roll20 I have to make up what skill or ability check is best for any given situation. Every damn game. I’m currently running Tomb of Annihilation for one group and a homebrew campaign for the other and guess what…nowhere in either the published material, or the material I spent hours writing myself does it cover the things players will decide to do. It’s impossible to prepare for so don’t try.
I don’t know all the rules. I know barely half of them. But I’ll make a call in the moment and if it works great. If it seems off kilter then we’ll look it up after the game or during the break but not during the game. The last thing you want to do is slow down the game because you don’t know a rule, and in the end it doesn’t really matter unless it gets a character killed. But as long as you no the basic rules for combat and movement and few other things then everything else can be made up as you go.
This goes hand in hand with not knowing what you’re doing. You know that adventure you carefully planned every step of, every twist and turn, every shocking reveal? Yeah, throw that out because your players are going to make sure they go left at the first moment you need them to go right. Oh you want them get rid of a group of goblins, well guess what, they are going to make themselves rulers of the goblins and use them as advance party while they search the landscape for treasure. Nothing the players decide to do will you have been prepared for. The best you can do is improvise and hang on while they take you for a ride. Yes, absolutely you should have a story for them to follow and beats for them to hit along the way, but nothing should be set in stone and not allow for changes. It is a universal truth that your players will take everything you’ve planned and take it sideways in the first 15 minutes of the game.
Being able to improvise and come up with something on the fly will serve you well. This isn’t an ability you’ll be able to have right away, some people are good at it and can think on their feet, some people need a few minutes. I’ve told my group before I need a couple of minutes because I had nothing planned for what they decided to do. That’s fine. Take a break, collect your thoughts and come up with a solution and build on it while planning your next session. The worst thing you can do is say “no”. Players don’t like to be told they can’t do something, it takes away their agency. Always let them try even if it ruins your plans.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself
Being a DM can be hard but very fun. Don’t feel like every game has to be the best ever played, don’t think that if you can’t do voices or tell a story like Matthew Mercer that you’ve failed as a DM. That dude gets payed to do voices. Do you? No, and if you do then yes you should put pressure on yourself to be able to do voices or think about a new career. But chances are you aren’t a voice actor, even then if you want to do voices for the NPCs go ahead. Even if they suck the players will like it and your NPCs will sound different. I try to do voices to distinguish different characters in my campaigns but most dwarves end up sounding like Spud from Trainspotting and female characters sound like women in a Monty Python sketch. But at least I try, and my players think it’s fun. I do what I can and don’t put pressure on myself to be perfect or amazing.
As DMs our job is, first and foremost, to make sure the group has fun. If everyone has enjoyed themselves then that session was a success. It doesn’t matter if you made mistakes with some rules, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t get to a certain point in the story, and it doesn’t matter if your villain sounded like Kermit the Frog (which would be amazing, I’m totally stealing that). What matters is everyone had a good time, no one’s feeling got hurt and they’re looking forward to playing again. If you can make that happen it’s a win.
The PCs are the main characters
It’s easy to get so wrapped up in creating a story for the players that we forget the player characters are what’s important to the story. We can come up with complicated political with a devious villain that they need to work to uncover and a plot to kill the King for them to foil. But they may decide in the first session they have no interest in that and head out of town. Don’t railroad them to do what you want them to do because that’s what you want. There are always ways to bring the big story back into focus for them and draw them in.
Letting your players make decisions and having those decisions affect the world around them creates a living, breathing space for them to exist in. Taking away their ability to make choices and go where they want removes the idea that their characters exist in a living world. It’s ok to make sure that the story you want them to be a part of happens, even if it doesn’t happen the way you thought it would, but don’t shove it down their throats. In the end it’s about their characters and their characters adventures.
Not every session will be great
Sometimes you won’t be into it. Sometimes a player or two won’t be fully engaged. You know what that’s fine. Don’t beat yourself up if ebery session isn’t the greatest game of D&D ever played. Not every game is going to be epic. The odds are against you. Sometimes it’s be a slog, sometimes it’ll feel slow and ponderous. It just will. And you know what, those aren’t the sessions your group will remember. No one looks back and says “remember that session that sucked? Yeah what a terrible DM” they just don’t. We remember the sessions that were epic, we remember when the gnome rogue landed on the ogre and drove his daggers into his head and used them to drive the ogre like a robot. We don’t look back and think about the boring sessions.
When you have a rough session, or you made a mistake in a ruling, or the session just wasn’t as fun as you hoped don’t worry about it. Next time will be better. Next time you’ll know how to make it more engaging. Don’t doubt yourself after you’ve had a slog. You’re the DM, they need you and they won’t fault you for having a bad game. You’re the one who was brave enough to step up and be the almighty Dungeon Master, you’re entitled to not be awesome all the time.Not even every episode of Dice, Camera, Action or Critical Role is fantastic. So don’t beat yourself up.
In the end you’ve taken on the mantle of DM. It isn’t easy and you don’t always get the thanks you might think you deserve but it’s worth it. You wield ultimate power in your corner of the multiverse. You decide who lives and dies, you create cataclysmic events and because of you and a small group of ordinary people can become heroes who save the world from the darkest evil. It’s a great amount of power, with an equal amount of responsibility (see what I did there?), all you can do is your best and keep learning from each session.
And remember, as long as your players are smiling at the end of the game, and looking forward to the next one you’ve done your job.
Do you have any tips for DMs? Let me know in the comments.