Updated: Aug 23
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
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.
This even aligns when drawing on popular media of goblins. Players would expect it to be a goblin horde they came across and would see at least several goblins in this fight. Furthermore, they would expect the goblins to be small, fast, and not possess much strength. All of this agrees with the stat block above.
This leaves the DM with a decision. They could lean into the expectation of the players. The Dungeon Master could have goblins vaulting off each other to gain height to attack. Or, the goblins could lash out of the shadows to slowly chip away at the party as they delve deeper into their cave. This is the Combat Creativity and Vanilla Cream that you can work with to design a good encounter using the base stats to propel your creative ideas for combat.
However, adding the "What if" question to flip-the-script is where the Sugar Cubes are, my good DMs.
A quick example would be changing up the stat block or changing the encounter to something new and fresh. Something they may not expect.
What if the goblins had found a way to split open and control Warforged-like battle suites? Would that double the HP and create more strength on the stat block? Would this open new combat abilities for the goblins to explore? What if the Warforged allowed this as they felt the goblins needed protection but were still sentient? What if they required the party to fight one on one with their strongest champion? What if this was a society of goblins only because a curse True Polymorphed the town's people that the party was on the way to? Maybe, just maybe, that is why the Warforged are present in these caves?
The "What If?" question is how you leave your mark for your table and give the players something new to cultivate into their own stories.
Law DM - Lift and Fade
Lift your players and fade into the background - this is their story. (Cue Final Fantasy X music).
Arguably, your biggest job as the DM is to create moments for players to shine in the spotlight. The DM has the tools to lift up the players and bring forth great moments at the table. But, it is not your time to shine. It is not your time to squelch their creativity. It is their time to expound upon the foundation you laid at their feet.
If your rogue loves to lock pick, you better give them the chance to knock that out. Does Barbarian love to smash things? Throwdown some enemies in some quick bug smash combat. Wizard wants to learn and grow their magic abilities? Pepper the world with unique places, spells, and items for them to show their arcane prowess and learn. When they succeed, describe it and make it feel epic. Should they fail, let them feel the depths of it.
In downtime moments, if the conversation between players begins and they are role-playing out their characters, let it happen. Let their plains unfold and take notes to bring their ideas to life down the road. And in my personal opinion, no matter the length, allow the story to unfold organically before you drive the story forward and revel at the moment you get to fade away into the background. Let them create in your foundation as they build towers in the sand for the sea (your plot devices) to wash away.
There you have it, my last-minute advice for your first game. Remember to relax, have fun, and enjoy the journey.
If you need some organizational help, you can check out my mind mapping article here.
I also recommend reading the article on recording your game as well, here. This article covers what recording can do for you and your growth as a DM.
Until next time... Keep creating, keep thinking, and keep wandering.
P.S. some of you will have been watching live plays or listening to podcasts that will feel the need to compare your ability against someone else. While it is ok to emulate someone you enjoy, you are not them. You are your own person and have your own unique style. Embrace what you bring that makes you uniquely you. Be awesome.