Every day, new players pick up a game they’ve never played before. In the same vein, new dungeon masters are forged every day—getting their first screen like angels get their wings. Being a DM isn’t easy: you’re both the player’s best ally—in that you are their eyes and their ears in the world and at the same time—and their antagonist and nemesis, representing the perils of the world they explore.
While challenging, DM’ing is also extremely gratifying. You are a god in a world of your creation: all knowing and all seeing. You are also the selfless saint who gives of themselves in order to facilitate a game for a group of players. You’re a good and noble hero to us all, my friend.
Whether you’re considering becoming a DM or are a new DM, here are some tips to help you on your new hobby path.
TIP 1: TRY TO MAKE CRITICAL FAILURES
AS FUN AS MORE FUN THAN CRITICAL SUCCESSES
The remarkablility of crits in a game is often represented by additional damage or bumbling failures. The problem with making critical successes amazing experiences and critical failures a terrible one for players means that as a DM you’re essentially building the opposite of fun into the experience. As an example of conventional crit realization, a combat critical success may manifest in additional damage, where a critical failure means damaging a companion. If these are simply givens, it stagnates the experience of crits for players as it automates it for them.
There’s nothing wrong with doing as above, but as a DM you have the opportunity to make things more interesting and give players more to work with. Build those crits into interesting narratives. By optimizing for fun this way, a critical success may translate to a player doing enough damage to stylishly decapitate an enemy Kill Bill style, where a critical failure may mean a character draws their sword only to realize they accidentally cut their belt in doing so, leaving their character pantless and having to roleplay with that both during the combat as well as after the instance has wrapped up.
A dreaded outcome for a character doesn’t have to be a dreaded outcome for a player, provided that outcome is fun enough.
TIP 2: BUILD OUT YOUR NPCS TO ENRICH YOUR WORLD FOR THE PLAYERS
There are so many ways to inject your own personalized and interesting elements into the world you’re building for your players. One of the easiest ways is to create, use and re-use interesting characters. There are many easy ways to create interesting characters—as has been previously covered. Beyond those character creation tips, though, think about drawing from characters you yourself have played or played with in the past (presuming you are also a player).
You can also think about people you know whose personalities might just be the perfect fit for a similarly styled character. That junior high school teacher you had who would have made a great tavern bartender, for example, or that holier-than-thou-art librarian from your college days who you could see as a religious zealot toiling in a town’s church are perfect personalized additions to such a universe. There’s also the minor satisfaction of watching your players battle and overcome an evil warlord whose personality was based on your childhood bully.
Round and rich characters make for great roleplaying experiences as interactions will feel more authentic for your players.
TIP 3: PRIORITIZE THE GAMING EXPERIENCE OVER THE GAME’S RULES
A good DM has a solid footing in the rules. At the same time, while they are gods of the universe they’re in, they’re also humans in this universe and nobody should expect their DM to be all-knowing about the rules.
In fact, even Christopher Perkins—who has DM’d for decades and who wrote rules for and designed multiple editions of Dungeons and Dragons including the current edition— doesn’t always know how to apply the rules. In the situation when his players (Acquisitions Inc. at PAX 2014) wanted to impale a flying dragon with their zeppelin, he chose to prioritize the experience over the rules. His lack of knowledge didn’t hinder the players’ experiences.
A great DM says yes first and facilitates the actions and decisions of the players. Players can do what they want, but they may face future consequences for it. Such decisions in particular may make for great roleplaying hooks later on.
What do you think? What tips would you give to novice DMs for their first and future sessions?
Interested in other tabletop games? Check out Teri’s YouTube Channel for videos about tabletop and miniature wargaming.