Editor’s Choice: 5 Tips for a New Dungeon Master

Tips for running your first game (and beyond)
Editor's Choice: 5 Tips for New Dungeon Masters
| May 15, 2022

So, you’ve decided (or been elected) to be the Dungeon Master for your group’s next game of Dungeons & Dragons. It can seem daunting, but with these tips, you’ll be able to relax and create a fun experience for everyone at the table.

The Dungeon Master is the cornerstone of any Dungeons & Dragons game (and the same applies for Game Masters in Pathfinder, or whatever your game of choice calls them). While they get to share in the highs and lows with the players, they aren’t truly players themselves—they are the game itself. It’s a responsibility, but it can also be incredibly rewarding if everything goes well on both sides of the table.

Every Dungeon Master has their own style, rhythm, and approach to how they handle their duties, but there are some general best practices that can help you find yours, keep organized during games, and most of all, ensure that everyone has as much fun as possible.

Do your prep work

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Unless you're an impeccable improviser with an ironclad memory of the entire rulebook, you'll have some homework to do before you run any game. Foremost, this will entail having an adventure prepared, whether it's one you've made up yourself or a prepublished one. If you go with the latter route, make sure you've read just about everything before your group plays.

Either way, you'll want to have all the required materials prepared—maps, monster stats, and so on. This looks different for every DM, of course; for example, I make considerable notes and outlines that I can refer to during sessions, while others might refer loosely from a sourcebook as they go. But whatever preparation means for you, the more ready you are, the better your game will go and the better your players will respond. If nothing else there should be less downtime during game night if you don't have to rustle through a stack of papers or rulebooks constantly.

Ensure you've got a Dungeon Master Screen as well; not only can you set it up to block players from accidentally seeing your materials, they have rule resources printed on the interior so you can refer to them handily. I've gotten into the habit of amending my own information on my screen, like noting players' passive perception and armour class scores on Post-It notes for quick reference.

Talk to your players beforehand

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Preparation should also include talking to your players before you begin. Consider having a "Session Zero" before you actually start a campaign or adventure. It can be very helpful to get everyone in one room or Zoom call to discuss expectations and build your party. Those expectations can include anything from the sorts of things the players would like to encounter during the adventure, to content boundaries and limits that should not be crossed, like not allowing players to torture NPCs or so on. Making characters while in the same room allows you to have a sense of what abilities they'll have at their disposal, and players may naturally devise ways to connect their in-game selves.

Talking to each player privately about their characters can be enlightening too. They may share more ideas than they would with the group, like secret aspects of their backstories, or hopes and goals for their character's growth that you can use later. Not everyone will think this far ahead about their imaginary avatar, but if nothing else both player and Dungeon Master will have a better view of the situation.

Let your group know about any expectations you have, too. If you want them to show up before your start time with certain things prepared, but you don't tell them clearly what they are, you can't be mad when someone shows up late without their Player's Handbook.

...but also, be flexible

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Your players will surprise you. You may think you know every aspect of every room and encounter in your prepared adventure, but somebody will almost certainly catch you off-guard with a kooky or untraditional idea. And honestly, that can lead to some of the most memorable moments of Dungeons & Dragons. Be ready to improvise or fudge some rules.

The improv comedy world relies on the "yes, and..." philosophy; making up a scene together on the fly goes much smoother if each player accepts what another says ("yes") then expands upon it ("and"). This same principle can be useful in roleplaying games. If the barbarian wants to try a reckless attack strategy and the party will go along with it, the Dungeon Master should say "okay, and here's how this is going to play out." Obviously if someone wants to do something that vehemently breaks the game or predetermined boundaries, you can shut that down politely. But most players will respond positively to having the freedom to do so instead of being planted firmly on rails.

If you can tell the players are about to derail the situation or get into territory you didn't expect, try to think ahead while they're having their own discussions, rolling dice, or so on. Sometimes you can improvise a hazard that steers them onto the right path, or throw an ambush at them. Sometimes those crazy ideas lead to serious ramifications as well, like if a paladin acts in a way that goes against their philosophies, maybe their patron god shows up next session to reprimand them or impart a quest for penance.

While running a premade one-shot mystery session, I had a player who basically steamrolled through all the investigation phase and coincidentally charged straight toward the Big Bad's lair. To keep him from stumbling directly into the final encounter, I relocated the Big Bad and improvised a few changes to the story to justify why they weren't in the "right place." There was no good reason why the player couldn't have just charged directly into the biggest building in town, so instead of saying "no, you can't," I rolled with it, and no one was the wiser.

Set a good example (and let the players lead)

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The Dungeon Master sets the tone for any RPG session, for the most part. If you barely give any details and narrate as lazily as possible, don't expect your players to put much effort into their own decisions; if you aren't taking it seriously, they won't either. Everyone has different play styles, and some will feel more inclined to get in-character and theatrical while others won't. You can foster a positive space for your friends to do either with the way you narrate, the way you speak for NPCs, and the way you respond to others.

"Responding" is a key tenant of the Dungeon Master experience, for that matter. Monopolizing the decision-making to keep players doing things "the right way" you imagined ultimately discourages people. If they enter a new area, set the scene and then get out of the way by asking them what they want to do (as in Matthew Mercer's famous prompt, "how do you want to do this?") and roll with their answers. 

One of the best ways you can encourage your players is to let them describe the results of certain actions. Say one person rolls a critical hit on their attack and deals enough damage to kill the last monster in an encounter—let them describe the killing blow, or the way their magic spell resolves. You'll likely find that they'll follow the example you set while narrating everything else, more-or-less, and they'll feel more ownership over their character in the process.

Remember, it's about collaboration

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Listen, it's easy to feel frustrated when your party steamrolls your custom-made, legendary final boss—but don't take it personally. After all, Dungeons & Dragons is a collaborative game where the Dungeon Master facilitates an epic tale for the players. It may feel like "everyone versus the DM" because you control all the adversaries that stand in the heroes' way. At the end of the day, though, that team mentality is just going to cause friction.

You're not there to beat up the heroes; you're there to provide the right challenges. You're ultimately on their side. Dungeons & Dragons is about the story you weave with your friends, and it's the DM's role to facilitate that. Keep them focused, put them to the test, and reward them fittingly, and you'll all share in the victory.

Most seasoned Dungeon Masters will tell you the most rewarding experience for them is when they have to say hardly nothing at all, when the players get deep into their interactions and carry most of the narrative forward, whether they're having personal conversations in-character or debating about the task you've set before them. Don't be afraid to get out of the way and enjoy watching the teamwork unfold.

What makes a good Dungeon Master? Every Dungeons & Dragons player will have a different answer to that question. But being prepared, communicating with your players, and doing your best to make it as fun as possible for everyone involved will pay the biggest dividends. Like anything else, there will be good nights and bad, yet your players will ultimately remember the effort you put in, and the stories you tell together.

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