So you’re looking for some new DM tips before you sit behind the Dungeon Master screen for the first time, eh? Go you!
I’m not going to lie, it can be scary at first.
“What if I forget a rule?”
“Will they laugh at me if I do character voices?”
Being the Dungeon Master for your Dungeons & Dragons group is a lot of responsibility, but it’s also an incredibly fun and rewarding experience as you craft the world in which your players set out to adventure in.
To help you out, here are 7 MUST KNOW Tips for New Dungeon Masters to help you run games that your group will never forget!
New DM Tip #1: Keep It Fun
First things first: more than anything else, Dungeons & Dragons is a game. The primary goal is for everyone to have fun! As the Dungeon Master, you are describing the world and setting the stage for that fun to be had. At the end of the day, if everyone was engaging, laughing, and cheering, you’ve succeeded!
Fun should always be viewed as the most important thing in Dungeons & Dragons. Second comes the story and only in third place are the rules. It’s not that rules aren’t important, but if everyone is making time to come out for 4 or more hours and play the game, they should be having a good time.
By reminding yourself that this is collaborative storytelling and avoiding the trap of falling into a “DM vs Players” mentality, you give yourself room to be flexible. It’s worth mentioning that any flexibility regarding rules should always favor the players. It keeps them excited, moves the story forward, and keeps it fun.
Possibly the most simple-sounding of new DM tips, it’s #1 for a reason!
So don’t overwhelm yourself! Being a Dungeon Master is a skill that takes time and practice. You’ll improve the more time you spend behind the DM screen.
In the meantime, enjoy the ride and have fun building memories with your group. If you’re excited and communicate that to your friends, they’ll naturally be excited as well!
New DM Tip #2: Set Expectations for the Campaign
Before the first roll is ever made and before any of the adventurers are more than a nameless silhouette, it’s important to set expectations for the type of campaign you will be running.
“Hey guys, I think it would be fun to run a gothic horror campaign since it’s almost Halloween. What do you think?” sounds much better than “Just make whatever so you can do stuff and things.”
This helps get your players excited for the type of setting that is being run and gives them ideas for what kind of character to make.
There are few feelings worse than making a character, coming up with an awesome backstory, and getting excited to play them only to find out that they are wildly incompatible with the setting.
If you communicate that the adventure is a trip through the desert to find an ancient temple full of treasure, your players know not to make a character who is pirate looking for high seas adventures. Even if they do decide to make that character, they can at least explain why they’re now on a trek into the desert with their backstory.
It also signals to your players what type of enemies they may expect to face. Running a horror module like Curse of Strahd means that someone playing a cleric, for example, may have extra fun fighting off hordes of the undead.
New DM Tip #3: Do Your Homework
While being the Dungeon Master is a lot of fun, you do have some extra responsibility to make it work. Expect to dedicate at least a few hours a week for learning the rules and preparing for your session.
You don’t need to be a rules encyclopedia right out of the gate, but making sure to get familiar with the rules (and take notes on important mechanics) keeps the game moving along.
If you’re running a module, you absolutely have to read ahead.
Modules are fantastic (which we’ll discuss in New DM Tip #4), but preparation is still required. You want to at least be able to give yourself a solid idea of where the players are going and what to expect. If you’re just winging it, it will be considerably harder to keep the game moving.
New DM Tip #4: Modules and Clichés Are Your Friend
Taking on the mantle of Dungeon Master doesn’t mean that you have to reinvent the wheel. So many new DMs find themselves freaking out or choking when they start trying to plan their game because they think that they need to create some sweeping 2,000 hour completely original story.
Going back to New DM Tip #1 (Keep it Fun), clichés are your friend! There is nothing wrong with a “vanilla” adventure involving fighting off goblins, bandits, and orcs. It’s a trope because it works so well!
Especially when you’re learning the ropes of being a Dungeon Master, the familiarity will be helpful. Who knows where your story will go from there? For now, keep it simple and focus on creating an enjoyable game for you and your friends.
Similarly, the modules released for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition are fantastic resources. Using these, you’ll learn the game’s mechanics alongside the finer elements of designing dungeons and crafting stories.
Popular module choices for new Dungeons Masters include The Lost Mines of Phandelver (included as part of the Starter Set) and The Curse of Strahd (if you favor some horror flavor.)
New DM Tip #5: Don’t Control Player Characters
Railroading is lame. Don’t do it.
One of the biggest draws to playing Dungeons & Dragons is the ability to make choices in a reactive fantasy world. By telling your players “your character wants to go to the temple” or “your character is terrified” (without them failing a saving throw against a “fear” effect anyway), you’re robbing them of the experience of playing their character.
Similarly, if the party arrives in a town and every single person can only point them towards one specific direction, that ability to make choices goes away. This also includes having a friendly NPC “help” them by dragging them from objective to objective. Allowing your characters to explore the world, interact with the people in it, and make their own choices reaffirms that this is their character to play.
Encouraging your players to add flavor to their actions is a great way to get them to “buy in” to the world that you’re creating. Asking the sorcerer “what does it look like when you cast Lightning Bolt” gives them a chance to add some cinematic flair to their character.
When one of your players gets the final blow on the last enemy in the encounter, don’t be afraid to steal a trick from Critical Role Dungeon Master, Matt Mercer. Asking the player “How do you want to do this?” and letting them describe the final blow is a great way to get them to feel empowered. Without fail, this will be appreciated and everyone at the table will cheer.
New DM Tip #6: Get a DM Screen
The Dungeon Master screen is as useful as it is iconic.
It doesn’t just exist to conceal your rolls. Use the space of the inside of the DM screen to keep notes to help you while running the game. Few things brings an otherwise tense moment to a screeching halt faster than having to pause the game to pour through your Dungeon Masters Guide to look up a specific mechanic or rule.
Good ideas of notes to keep in your DM screen include a list of NPC names for quick reference, descriptions of status effects, difficulty ranges for skill checks, and a table for rolling random encounters. You may also want to include notes of significant events and the party’s current quests.
One of the best DM screens out there is this one from Stratagem. It comes with several very handy inserts and works well with a dry-erase marker. Plus it’s durable. Mine is going on 2 years of very heavy use and is still in perfect shape! As far as DM screens go, this one is worth its weight in gold.
New DM Tip #7: Don’t Overprepare
There’s a very good chance that you’ve seen the memes or read the posts on Reddit about a DM’s players completely destroying hours of campaign preparation.
Perhaps the players decided to completely ignore the direction that you’re trying to steer the story. Even more frustratingly, maybe they killed your Big Bad Evil Guy in their first encounter with him and now you’re just staring in disbelief.
As a Dungeon Master, it’s wise to just accept that even your best-laid plans will likely be destroyed or disregarded by your players. Don’t fight it. It happens!
On the other hand, don’t forget New DM Tip #5. Railroading your players so that they can experience the perfect murder-machine plan that you spent hours making will absolutely not go as well as you may think.
The truth is that it’s very possible (especially for new Dungeon Masters) to overprepare. All that this does is waste time. It’s much better to set some dots (as story beats) and let your characters connect them naturally.
While they go from dot to dot, this is a great chance for you to sharpen your improvisational skills. Use their interactions with various NPCs to practice coming up with character voices and personalities on the fly. If your session needs some action, roll for a random encounter.
When you learn to go with the flow and not get buried in every tiny detail, you’ll be able to spend more time enjoying the game with your friends!
Did these tips help? Any new DM tips we may have missed?
Let us know in the comments below!