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The DM's Mantle: Advice for your first Dungeons and Dragons game

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

So, you have decided to step up to the plate and take on the role of Dungeon Master.

My brothers and sisters welcome to the fold - we select few, are controllers of madness and order behind the screen. You are now the director and the adjudicator of chaos and the breath of life that the table builds upon.

"If players are the lifeblood of a good tabletop session, then the Game Master is the heart. You will move the fluid of the story, lift the pressure, and release it. You will go unseen, never stop improving, and dedicate yourself to bring out the best in others," RuneHammer games, Index Card RPG Core: Second Edition, pg 70.

(Seriously though - I cannot recommend this book for the GM Tips enough - I will cover it more in-depth in a future article and will update this once it is completed. Index Card RPG [Affiliate Link])

But enough about that - you are here for meat, to embolden and smash your goals of wowing your players and bringing forth worlds for exploration.

You are likely feeling a plethora of emotions as game day approaches: fear, pensiveness, excitement, all while riding that thin line of romanticizing your game too much for what you plan on doing and how the players will react.

This is a great place to be. You care enough to have an emotional response to running the game. Lean into it! Pour the gift of your love into the final touches of your game, like a geeked-up Santa-Claus placing game tidbits, fun, and treasures into your player's tiny little sleighs pulled by miniature dragons.

Below I have several truths for your first session of being a DM and running your Dungeons and Dragon's game (or any TTRPG game for that matter).

I refuse to number these because they are all important, and none should be ranked above another.

Quick Section links:

Truth Numero Zed - All Plans Fail

Truth #: For the Experience - Fun Over Rules

Truth B - NPCs Help Keep the World Alive

Certitude (C-Squared) - Combat Creativity with Vanilla Cream Amped on Sugar Cubes (wait, is that C-Cubed?). This is too complicated... We'll name this, "What If?"

Law DM - Lift and Fade


Truth Numero Zed - All Plans Fail

Similar to what the German Field Marshal, Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, said when he spoke, "No plan survives contact with the [Players]." - Ok, he didn't say, "players," but, "enemy," however, your players can (and will) derail your best battle plans based on their choices. (^_^)

No matter how much you believe everything will go how you expect it, it won't. Players tend to do the unexpected, lean into it. Take their idea and see how the dice roll. There will always be times your players will surprise you.

For example, in my own game, an entire story arc I had labored over was lost simply because of a Bag of Holding:

THE PLAN: I had developed a huge story arc involving a Hag who had cast a spell upon the King before her execution with the hope to transfer her soul into the King's body upon her death, thus granting her an entire kingdom for use to dispose of the PC's.

THE REALITY: As it turns out, developing a spell based on the caster existing on the same plane as the target can be easily broken by dropping the caster into a Bag of Holding. My players uncovered the truth of the spell and swiftly surprised the Hag by dropping the bag over her like a body bag... thus, the Hag was suffocated and removed from the material plane. King saved.

It was not what I had planned, but it was epic and memorable in its own right and quite an ingenious shortcut. I loved embracing this unexpected change from the plan I had devised.

If the plan the PCs have is better and different from yours, rule on the side of fun.

Speaking of which...

Truth #: For the Experience - Fun Over Rules

Once you start, the rules book should only come out if the PC's action could be detrimental to success, otherwise, keep the fun running and rule on the side of logic and cool.

You are the game master of the table, and if you are pulling out the rule book every 5 seconds, everyone will be bored in a short time and lose confidence in you. So instead, take some time to learn the base rules and find ways to shortcut common rules. If you don't know a rule verbatim, make a call and move forward. After the session, figure out if the call is correct and remember for the next time.

The most common way to place rules is on a DM screen, where information may be stored on the back for a quick lookup. However, I would recommend getting a modular one where you may place your own needed rules that come up commonly at the table. (Affiliate Link: 4 - Panel Custom Screen). Then, create and print what you feel you commonly look up and drop it on the backside panel.

Above all, be nimble like the deer as it bounds through the wood avoiding death by rule lookups (Note: deer do not look up rules - they experience them in the now. ^_^).

Truth B - NPCs Help Keep the World Alive

Do you know why video games have NPCs? Because they provide direction, comedic relief, and drama to assist the growth of the story into an epic created by multiple minds (The DM and Players). The players are trusting you to breathe life into the world they are about to affect, and when things change for the better or worse, they feel the agency of their existence.

Do the players hear rumors as they walk through the town of their deeds? Doing this allows you to create depth and allows you to sow plot hooks. Seeing how the players change from nobodies to heroes as they affect the city feels good. Seeing the hordes being beaten back so the city can fortify, bringing loved ones back to broken homes, or even returning lost artifacts later whispered about in town makes the world come alive.

Use this tool to smash the expectations of the players.

Drop their jaws when their NPC friend dies unexpectedly. Evoke tears as they watch the life of an NPC they love destroyed due to their actions. Use the Mentor NPC to provide direction through plot hooks that PCs can grab onto.

Certitude (C-Squared) - Combat Creativity with Vanilla Cream Amped on Sugar Cubes (wait, is that C-Cubed?). This is too complicated... We'll name this, "What If?"

Every creature in DnD comes with a stat block and abilities, telling you how the creature would fight. Construct your fights around these stats to begin to understand how they would engage with your players. Then flip the script by asking, "What if?"

Take a goblin, for example, out of Dungeons and Dragons 5e. The creature has base stats of 8 STR, 14 DEX, 10 CON, 10 INT, 8 WIS, and 8 CHR. Using only this information and no other details tells me this is a weak fighter who excels in speed. Using just two stats of the entire block, I know the encounter needs to be close quarters to allow for an element of surprise and/or larger numbers of the creatures.