Advice for a New Dungeon Master

Every so often someone posts (usually on Facebook), “I’m new. Anyone have advice?” Unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough room to give a good, considered reply. So, whenever I see that, I’ll post a link to this page on my blog. Feel free to comment below your thoughts. If it’s something I should restate, reconsider, or add, I’ll update this page accordingly. Also, I’ve made this a site page rather than a blog post so that I can stick it on the menu and it won’t get lost to obscurity. Enjoy!

Have fun

It doesn’t matter what game you’re playing, whether it’s Dungeons and Dragons, Tunnels and Trolls, Traveler, or any of hundreds of other game systems. While some are great for new players and others less so, the main thing is this: you’re playing a game. You’re involved in a recreational activity, and your goal is to have a good time. Not just for you, but for your players. It is very important that you have fun, because if you’re not having fun, it will be obvious to everyone, and no one will have fun.

Start small and keep it simple

We’ve all heard the “KISS” principle. Well, I know you’re not stupid, but you might be silly. And that’s okay. When you first sit down with your friends to play your first game, don’t come to the table with a wide, sweeping campaign arc that you’ve spent months developing, which will take years to unfold. Bring one small, manageable adventure to the table, and don’t worry about the common tropes.

It doesn’t matter if it’s one you created or one from a published source. At this point, it’s better if it’s small and limited.

The characters meet up at a local tavern. A stranger comes in and tells them that he (or she) needs their help with something. The characters agree to go on this adventure to the nearby forest to explore the ruins, slay the leader of the kobold tribe, rescue the pretty girl, and/or recover the mcguffin. If you’re all new players to the game, do it with just first-level rogues and fighters, and maybe a cleric. Magic is comparatively complicated, so leave that out – not just for the characters, but for you as well. If you have a player who’s played before, let them be a caster of some sort.

After you’ve gone through a few sessions and learned how the game works, you can then expand the scope to something larger. Find a published adventure that appeals to you or spend a few days coming up with something on your own. Ask your players if they want to start over with new characters or continue with the ones they have. As the characters grow in experience, new options open up for them to expand and specialize.

Learn as you go, don’t sweat the details, and be willing to make mistakes

It doesn’t matter what system you’re using, there are a lot of “rules” and “guidelines.” Most of the good systems will state right up front that you, as the dungeon master (or whatever you want to be called, be it game master or referee or story teller or sage,) have control of the game and you have the final say when it comes to rule questions.

For your first few sessions, trust your logic and common sense. Chances are the rules will say what you think they should anyway. Even if they don’t, it’s more important to keep the narrative of the game moving forward than it is to get some rule detail correct.

After the session, you can read that rule section and understand it, and in the next session, you can say, “Hey guys, I got that bit a little wrong. Here’s how we should have done it.” Your players will respect your honesty and they know that going forward, should the same situation come up again, you’ll get it right.

You will make mistakes. You will survive them.

Encourage the players

The intent of role-playing games is for the players to role-play. I’m not talking about wearing costumes and speaking with funny accents, though that’s not ruled out. It means your players are playing alternate versions of themselves in a fictional setting. If you’re in a dungeon facing a rampaging ogre, you’re not going to pull out your cell phone and take a picture of it. Either you’re standing your ground, weapons in hand, or you’re running for your life!

Encourage your players to express the emotions and thoughts of their characters. Encourage your players to be different from themselves.

Make sure each of your players participates, and don’t allow someone to take control and tell everyone else what to do. Most combat systems are turn-based, meaning that each player gets their turn to do something. Help them to understand what their options are and what potential consequences of those options might be. Give them the tools to make good decisions without making the decision for them. When not in combat, it’s easy for a player to take control of a situation. Stop them occasionally and ask the other players for their thoughts or actions.

I said at the top and I’ll say it again. You’re playing a game. You’re here to have fun. As the dungeon master, you have the additional task of making sure the game is fun for everyone at the table – including you. If you’re not successful at that, perhaps this isn’t the right type of game for you. Just give yourself time to adjust, make mistakes, and recover from them.

And if you’re like me and the groups I’m in, you’ll find yourself rolling on the floor, laughing until you cry, at least once every session or so. What more can you ask for?

Added 3/15/18: I wrote an article about Session Zero. Check it out here:  My Take on Session Zero

Added 5/30/18: Check out this blog regarding Culture in RPG here: Culture in RPG

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s