RPG Game Master

D&D Ideas — Tips for a New Dungeon Master

Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition Lives!
Interpreting Dungeons and Dragons Dice Rolls

Welcome once again to the weekly Nerdarchy Newsletter. We were running late again! Between being away in the UK for D&D in a Castle and all the work for our Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition Kickstarter launch things have been crazy around here. If that isn’t enough we also had a couple of products in the Beast of a Bundle — 5E D&D related Humble Bundle which sold over 15,000 bundles to help RAINN. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates and info on how to game with Nerdarchy, by signing up here.

Delving Dave’s Dungeon

Wow! Doug and Ted have said so much about this one I’m not sure what to say, but I’ll take a crack at it anyway. 

What do I like about DMing and what inspires me to run Dungeons & Dragons games? Being a Game Master or Dungeon Master is a great creative outlet in my opinion. I can’t dance, sing, make art, and I’m a terrible technical writer. But D&D allows me to use my imagination and create. 

While the guys are talking about more practical tips for running D&D for the first time I want to talk about something I find equally important — why you are doing the thing. 

The Why — Most things in life can be overcome if your why is big enough. So why do you want to be the Dungeon Master?

It’s a lot of extra work and can even be a thankless job at times. That doesn’t mean it isn’t rewarding. Seeing you friends having fun, because of the story you’ve helped them tell. Or knowing the only reason the game happened is because you were bold and brave enough to get behind the DM’s Screen. Or those times you introduce a new player to the game and you just know they’ve just acquired a lifelong hobby.

By getting behind the DM screen you will be enriching lives. It may not seem that way when you first get started, but give yourself a break. Your skills will grow as your experience does. Just try to keep in mind what an awesome Dungeon Master you are going to be 6 months, a year, 5 years, or however long it takes. Just keep going. Remember — it’s just a game and to have fun that is why we do this.

From Ted’s Head

RPG Game Master tips for first time D&D dungeon master
The iconic Dungeon Master. Even this DM at one time had never run a game of D&D. You read this on the internet so you know it’s true. [Art by Jeff Easley]
First time Dungeon Master. There are lots of tips one can give and all gaming tips are something all DMs can use, but I am here to either talk you into being a first time DM ,or if you have already decided to take the plunge some simple things to do to become a better DM.

If you are on the fence about being a DM, just try it for a session. Use the tools you have learned so far in just playing. See how you handle a conversation with the random NPC the players want to have a conversation with. Try out a combat. Can you manage all the bad guys instead of just one player character? If you think you can do these things and they might be fun to guide a story that you all get to build together, then you should certainly take up the mantle of DM to run your first game.

If you have already decided to get behind that DM’s screen I am going to give you three simple things to help you become a better DM. Dungeons & Dragons as you might know is divided into three pillars: combat, exploration, and social. It takes using all of these things to make a good game of D&D for the average player. Only you know what type of game the players at your table like but it is best to assume you will want to use all three pillars unless you know for a fact players are not interested in one or two of them. 

Combat. Combat can be tricky, as there is a lot to manage. You have to track monster hit points and initiative as well as keeping an eye on your players and keeping those whose turn it isn’t engaged to what is going on. I say take notes. Ahead of time you can prepare certain phrases for how certain combat actions the players are likely to do can result. Read it off if you do not want to memorize and modify on the fly as you need. I write a top to bottom, high to low initiative on a piece of paper per combat. This way I can flow top down for whose turn it is. To the left of that list I write columns for monster hit points in that fight. This allows me to keep all the important data in easy reach. Afterward I recycle the paper. Another tip! The sheets I use are recycled from other one page projects so they are double recycled.

Exploration. This one is tricky for some, but very loved by others. Tread lightly. Okay, puns aside this one is easy and this tip helps even seasoned DMs. The tip is to engage the senses. Most likely you are already going to be talking about what they can see and hear. This is what people are used to. But you can always add another in certain areas to make them more immersed in their environment. Is their skin sticky from sweat from walking in the desert? Is their mouth dry as they get dehydrated? In the cold their skin hurts as they begin to lose feeling. They’ll need to seek shelter and fire soon or risk losing fingers and toes. Walking in a musty cave the mold growing leaves a bad taste in your mouth. No negative effect but it adds a negative aspect for those characters living in the area.

Social. This one might be harder to manage for first time DMs but take a breath and be ready for my next tip. Take a break. If the players do something you do not expect, especially in a social pillar, you can always take five minutes and get your head and material prepared for the next step and continue. Most people are awesome. If they are your friends and you say you need five they will give it to you. Use the time to figure out how the story moves from where you are to where the players are taking it. Worst case, you can always throw in something they did not expect and turn the tables on them. The NPC runs away, a combat erupts around them — anything to change the situation. 

So there you have it. Just a few tips to get you going. Surely Dave and Doug will offer you some other things you might want to do as well.

From the Nerditor’s Desk

There’s so many terrific resources out there for Dungeon Masters, not the least of them the aptly named Dungeon Master’s Guide for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. Even more importantly are the huge numbers of DMs and D&D enthusiasts who very positively encourage people to take a seat on the other side of the screen and be the DM for a group of friends new or old.

But you’re reading along with this resource, and I’ve got a few tips of my own to share for first time DMs. Before we get to my top tips for first time DMs, there is one tip that outweighs any other advice or insight you can glean from anywhere else. And it’s the simplest one of all.

Just do it.

In keeping up with the dynamic and ever growing D&D community, I see a lot of people hesitant to take a turn as a DM because they’re nervous, anxious, uncertain or otherwise wary of taking that step. The secret to remember is we all feel that way before just about every game! Uncertainty is part of being a DM, and the trick is to embrace that uncertainty, trusting that the players joining you around the table are interested in playing, and together you’ll create the story of how their characters navigate the adventure.

Here’s a few pointers that have helped me over the decades of playing D&D. These are all still part of my DM toolkit and come in handy whether I’m running our Adventurers of Adventure campaign at home with my friends or flying over to the UK to play D&D in a Castle with people from all over the world I’d never met.

  • The Five W’s. If you can answer who the villain is, what their goal is, where their plan is unfolding, when they aim to complete their goal and why they’re doing what they’re doing, you have a solid framework for any adventure. This works for lizardfolk using stolen grung eggs to perform a ritual at an ancient temple to summon a demon two nights hence, a demilich using a death curse to create a fledgling god at a trap-riddled tomb deep in the jungle, or an owlbear hunting outside its normal territory to bring food back for its hungry cubs because the depredations of humans is causing it to act in desperation.
  • Create Problems, Not Solutions. There’s a good chance one of my Nerdarchy colleagues will mention this too, but it bears repeating. I literally just finished running a session for my friends using most a few tables of random magical effects. They’re in our world’s version of the Feywild called the Dreaming World, and things like forgotten memories, an irrational fear of the moon (including images of it), and the fighter’s hair changing color from black to white provided a hefty chunk of their adventures. In all these cases there was no solution to be had. They’re just things that happened, and the players had fun dealing with them. Listening to the players discuss what was going on let me know what they thought and what interested them, and the story unfolded from there.
  • Describe Things Dynamically. Players get more engaged when they can imagine their characters in settings and situations. When they duck into a store specializing in ropes while trying to evade pursuit, tell the players all about the spools and spindles of ropes on all the shelves: thin cords of strong silk, hefty knotted rope suitable for mooring a ship, wall art made out of colored ropes, a Wizard’s Day Special on 60 ft. lengths of rope perfect for rope trick, a bargain bin of 25 ft. lengths of rope for all the rangers out there to cast snare, nooses, twine. Maybe the store clerk’s counter is made of reclaimed wood with a border of thick rope sealed in amber. Paint a picture for the players and let them interact with the environment. Same thing goes for travel through the wilderness or deep below the earth, or in a fight. Your descriptions are the pathway into your campaign world. The clearer the picture is for the players, the more their characters will become part of the tapestry. Bonus tip: ask the players to contribute too. Have them tell you what they saw on the road through the Old Forest, and encourage them to help bring the world to life by asking them how they do things. What does the rogue’s thieves’ tools look like? Are they a trusty old set of worn picks or a pristine array of surgical instruments? Is the fighter’s armor battle-worn? When the sorcerer channels their power through an arcane focus to cast a spell, what does that look like? Does the bard approach a guard with confidence, or meekly with their hat in their hand, or with an air of haughtiness?
  • When in Doubt, Monsters. Hey, it works. When there’s a lull and you’re not sure what to do next, a monster attacks! “Roll for Initiative” is a phrase signalling a different part of the game has now begun. Combat takes the longest real world time for the shortest in-game time, and it provides several opportunities. It gives you time to get a handle on what to do next. While players are figuring out how to survive against the ankheg presently burst out of the ground, you’re figuring out what to do with the direction the characters are moving in. Combat also has the potential to create subplots and side quests. The players might wonder why the ankheg attacked, or where it came from. Are there more of them? Is there a growing threat of insectoid invasion? Listen to the players reactions to a rando monster attack and your campaign could go in fun new directions you never imagined.
  • Don’t Be Stingy. The DMG has tons of magic items and third party creators (including us!) design and share new magic items and treasures all the time. Give ‘em out in your games! I’ve found cool stuff on Pinterest, DM’s Guild, Twitter, blogs, anywhere there are D&D nerds talking about D&D, you’ll find cool magic items and I bet more than a few will look perfect for the characters in your campaign. So what if they’re really powerful. Great! The characters will be able to face more difficult challenges and feel awesome about using the unique, interesting magic items they discover along the way. Earlier tonight in my game they found the Petal Blade, a longsword that can create a 10 ft. radius of flowers to grow, causing poison damage and poisoning nongood creatures in the area. I saw it on Pinterest and thought it looked cool. Later in the session they were fighting undead plant creatures and right off the bat the fighter used the Petal Blade’s power. It was really thematic how he fought off undead plants with living flowers!
  • Don’t Forget the Tools. I am a huge fan of tools in 5E D&D. As a player, I love when there’s a chance for a tool proficiency to have a significant impact on an adventure. As a DM I often ask what tools characters are proficient in and try to include ways for them to use their tools in meaningful ways. In our Ingest Quest campaign, cooking tools and weaver’s tools were used a ton. My Ron Swanson pastiche character Ruon Swansong’s carpenter’s tools were clutch in a Ghosts of Saltmarsh one-shot. Non-combat skills have been a part of D&D since AD&D as far as I know, and I like how they’re implemented in 5E D&D the best. A story or adventure might have a very different outcome when the party uses glassblower’s tools to solve a problem instead of a greatsword.

At the end of the day, everyone who runs D&D games as a DM had their first time. I did it, Nerdarchists Dave and Ted did it. Jeremy Crawford and Chris Perkins did it, and even Matt Mercer at one time had never run a game of D&D before. All of us weren’t sure what was going to happen, and the truth is we’re still unsure today. And as self-critical as any of us can feel after a session of D&D wraps up, it’s the memorable moments that make it worthwhile every time. 

Those are the moments no one can plan for. When the characters are faced with a problem you put in their path and together as a group you overcome the challenge. The unique (and I mean that in the most true sense of the word) way your adventures pan out can only come about because you became the Dungeon Master and welcomed the players to your campaign to create your own experience together.

Until next time, stay nerdy!

— Nerdarchy Team

Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition is live!

Our very first Kickstarter, with its origins right here on the Nerdarchy site, is live right now! Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition has everything you need in the box for when players do things that are out of the box. Which is like, every time right? Clever traps, hazards and encounters with all sorts of creatures plus the maps and flat plastic miniatures to bring any of the encounters to life at your table in an instant are all included. Check out the Kickstarter page for Out of the Box: Encounters for 5th Edition and get a sneak peek in the video below.

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