There are some things I feel so strongly about whilst preparing to play Dungeons & Dragons that I feel confident enough to call them “Rules” that new Dungeon Masters should follow. However, there are things that I’ve picked up that may or may not work for you. Here is a list of tips that I want to share.
You’ll notice I’ll try to focus on tips for those Dungeon Masters who are just starting out and I’ll also try to focus on some of the minutia that many guides seem to ignore.
As they say, your mileage may vary and you should feel free to adapt these, change them, or ignore them if you wish.
Ignore the optional rules.
As a new Dungeon Master you’ve got a lot to remember. You need to remember the core rules and, more importantly, you need to remember your content. When you’re starting out, I strongly recommend you ignore any optional rules. This will allow you, and your party, to become familiar with the rules. Once you’ve got the hang of the basic rules you can then start introducing new rules as and when they come up.
Rolling high numbers is not a guarantee of success.
There will be times when your players tell you they want to do something that will require a skill check. You need to learn when and where to allow those checks.
What you also need to remember is that rolling a high number does not automatically mean success. A goblin can be persuaded to give up information when threatened but a bigger, stronger player is likely to have more success than a smaller player, no matter what their charisma score. This is because Goblins understand the threat of physical violence more than they understand verbal threats or magical prowess.
But you don’t get to stand in the middle of the King’s court room, amidst 50 of his royal guard, and demand that he hands over his country, even if you roll a natural 20. In this case, I would not ask the player to roll.
Sometimes you actively want to remind your players that something is incredibly difficult and asking them to roll a dice and then telling them their high score has failed is an incredibly powerful way of reminding them of that.
Let your players know when the game has begun.
When starting my campaign I began with “Are we sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin”. Later sessions will begin with the phrase “When we last saw our party…”
This is the signal to your group that you have now moved from that pre-game, out of character chat to the story itself. Watch as people sit up. The joking ends, it goes a little quiet, people are paying attention…it’s game time.
Refer to your party by their character names.
I don’t believe it says this anywhere in the ruleset and I’ve not been playing long enough to have read the Dungeon Masters Guide but I think you should refer to your party by their character names. This builds immersion. Don’t feel awkward about it. Within a few seconds you’ve set the tone for your game and your players will also start encouraging your players to roleplay.
Set an alarm 15 minutes before you’d like your session to end.
It’s really easy to lose track of time when you’re focusing on running your adventure. Set an alarm to give you advance warning then, when it goes off, you can choose when to bring that session to a natural close.
Make a note of how much content your party devours.
It’s a good idea to prepare in advance for a session and the more prepared you are the better you’ll be. However, the longer it takes to prepare for a session the more you will forget and the quicker you will burnout. Keep a note on what your party gets through in their session and then build in some tolerance in case their pace increases. Then prepare that much!