Every Dungeon Master should have their own style and what works for my group may not work for your group but, throughout my research, there are some things that I’ve picked up that I feel absolutely confident in saying should be a rule for anyone hosting, or looking to host a game.
Rule 1 – Not only should you not expect your first game to be perfect, you shouldn’t even aim for it.
I spent so much time trying to make my friends experience perfect but the result is that it took nearly two years for us to arrange our first session. If you expect your game to run exactly like an episode of Critical Role then you are setting yourself up for failure.
Set yourself a “minimum viable product” and stick to it. Later, as you get better, you can make improvements.
Rule 2 – Relax and enjoy yourself.
As the Dungeon Master you’ve got a lot of responsibility and you’ll put in a lot of effort to make sure your group enjoys themselves but you need to remember that you also need to have fun.
I spent far too much time worrying about it being right and in the end, it doesn’t really matter. Nobody should care that you make mistakes. They should only care that they’re having a good time.
Rule 3 – You don’t need to know all the rules.
I can’t say this simply enough. You just don’t.
When someone in your group takes an action for the first time, or casts a spell, there’s a good chance they know what they’re doing. All you have to do is say “For the benefit of the group, could you explain how that action/spell works?”. Firstly, you’re crowd-sourcing the process of DMing, and secondly, you’re giving yourself a break.
You have enough to remember when it comes to the campaign without having to worry about how many dice you need to roll on a particular spell. Learn what skill checks are and how to operate them, learn the basics of combat and the basics of spell casting and let your players do the rest for you.
Most people will be really respectful of the work you’re putting in and they’ll forgive the things you get wrong, providing you concentrate on having fun, nobody will mind. Set your stall early….”I’m a new DM. If I miss something, please let me know!”
Rule 4 – Don’t get caught up in the mechanics.
The Player’s Handbook is a great resource, and I thoroughly recommend it. However, it’s 316 pages long. When you add in the other books you can build up several inches of shelf space and there’s a LOT of rules. It can be easy to get caught up in them.
In an encounter I ran the group’s fighter wanted to punch a captive goblin unconscious. The goblin was cornered, the fight was over. There are rules to cover this (Unarmed Strike, TPHB pg 175) but in this scenario, not only is it not important to know this mechanic, it’s detrimental to use it. Simply gauge the situation and describe the ultimate outcome.
Consider each situation and ask yourself….do we really need to roll dice for this or can I just describe the result? Chances are the latter will make your game more fluid.
Rule 5 – Keep Notes
“Consistency is a key to a believable fictional world….” (Master of Worlds, DMG pg 4) and you cannot maintain that consistency unless you keep an accurate record of where your players have been, who they met, and the circumstances as they unfolded.
If you voice your characters, your players will become familiar with their accents. They will come to know NPCs they meet, and the places they have been, and they will build up an image in their head. It’s really important that you don’t shatter that image by being inconsistent.
To avoid this you should keep notes of everything.
- Where have they been?
- What did they do?
- Who did they meet?
- What do they look like?
- How did the conversation go?
- What is their attitude towards the players?
- Where have they been?
You don’t need to write a huge amount but simple notes that cover the main points will help you jog your memory should it come up again in the future.
Rule 6 – Roll your dice in private and learn when to fudge your rolls.
Rule 7 – Don’t be afraid to punish your players….
Rule 8 – Know your audience
Rule 9 – Understand that things will go wrong and move past it.
No matter how much you prepare, there will come a time when things go wrong. Like everything in life, the mark of a great person comes not from avoiding failure but in learning from it, and by eventually overcoming it.
When things go wrong, take a deep breath. Consider what works and what hasn’t worked. But most importantly, don’t beat yourself up about it.
I have come to realise that the main role of a dungeon master is to write a believable narrative to cover up for everything you fucked up in the previous session. If you are a creative writer, you can work your way around anything and the truth is….your players probably didn’t even notice.