So you're going to be an RPG DM/GM
Maybe you thought instead of just gaming, you'd like to give it a try. Or perhaps you've been a player of D&D or any other roleplaying games for years and finally decided to see how the other half lives. Quite often the role of an RPG DM gets thrust upon you because no one else was willing but everyone still wants to play.
Whatever the reason, now you're wondering just how to go about the "Dungeon Master" / "Games Master" thing and, unlike your fearless RPG character that takes on all challenges, you're getting a bit worried. Well, here are some tips for beginners. I hope this helps you.
Firstly some honesty for my fellow gaming companions. Being a DM isn’t easy. You’re both the player’s best ally; you are their eyes and their ears allowing them to experience their roleplaying world and at the same time their protagonist and nemesis; representing the perils of the RPG world they explore.
Fear not though! While challenging, DMing a tabletop adventure 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 RPG players hungry for adventure. You’re a good and noble hero to us all, my friend.
So whether you’re considering becoming a RPG DM or just new to the job, pull up a chair at this virtual tabletop and here are some gaming tips to help you on your new path.
Use roleplay to make critical failures more fun than critical successes
The remarkability of gaming crits in roleplaying 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 tabletop experience. As an example of conventional RPG 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 gaming experience for players as it automates it for them.
There’s nothing wrong with doing as above, but as an RPG DM you have the opportunity (and the power!) to make things more interesting and give players more to work with. Build those rare events into interesting roleplaying narratives. By optimizing for fun this way, a critical success may translate to a player (or should I say his D&D character) doing enough damage to stylishly decapitate an enemy Kill Bill style, where a critical failure may mean they draw their sword only to realize they have accidentally cut their belt in doing so, leaving their character pantless. Tis encourages them to roleplay with that both during the combat as well as after the instance has wrapped up.
A dreaded outcome for a character on the tabletop doesn’t have to be a dreaded outcome for a player nervously clutching the D&D sheet, provided that outcome is fun enough. When RPG players roll very low whether for a skill check or an attack it is a great opportunity to input some humour.
Some RPG Examples
One D&D 5e PC was currently stuck half in, half out of a natural chimney trying to pull off a sneak attack and rolled a 1 to climb through, hence why they were stuck. Another PC wanted to help out and give them a swift kick in the rear to help them through. They rolled a nat 20. So what happened? The kick was so successful that the stuck PC superman style flew through the chimney and knocked the Bugbear in the next cavern prone doing a fair amount of damage. Is this realistic? Of course not. You are roleplaying fantasy though and trust me, your players will love you if you embrace the roleplaying madness!
Another bit of fantasy inspiration for you. One PC (again in D&D 5e) rolled for a perception check to look out a window to check for goblin patrols in a manor house they were imprisoned in. She rolled a 1. The description from the DM went something along the lines of ‘when you approached the window to carefully peer out, your foot became entangled in the heavy velvet curtains completely entangling you in them as you struggled to get free and so could not see if the patrol had passed.
A crit fail isn’t just for the players in your RPG world either. A Bard using Vicious Mockery in a campaign I ran caused a hobgoblin spellcaster he targeted rolled a Nat 1 on the save and would've died from the damage. so I had him break down in tears before killing himself with Magic Missile. It ended up being the highlight of the session and we were all crying of laughter for a few minutes. Doing stuff like this adds so much fun to the session!
You can just say ‘your attempt failed’, or ‘you couldn't see anything’, but adding these bits of gaming humour helps so much to bring your campaign and RPG characters to life. Players like it a lot and often end up talking about those roleplay moments for long after. (Actually, one of the PCs ended up with a nickname due to a low roll situation they were in. I can’t share!)
Just remember that, in the world of D&D, even a master swordsman can fumble their weapon from time to time and watch red faced as it clatters down the castle steps, or a master archer could miss the monster and snag the pouch you were after lodging both arrow and pouch 15 ft above your head.
Mix it up, try something funny. if it helps your PC's get into the storyline and, as long as you share out the tabletop humour, noone feels picked on!
Flesh out your RPG NPCs to enrich your world for the players
There are so many ways to inject your own personalized and interesting elements into the D&D world you’re building for your players. One of the easiest ways is to create, use and re-use interesting RPG characters. There are many easy ways to create interesting roleplaying 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 previous D&D adventures (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 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. Both would be 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.
Also, do a bit of preparation and make a list of NPC names common to the region your PCs campaign is set in, or to the D&D relevant races they might encounter. As the session progresses, if they meet an NPC you weren't expecting them to meet, you will be able to roleplay an NPC on the fly, by picking one quickly from your list (make sure you make a note about it later so you don’t get caught out later in your campaign!). You can also keep a list of NPC mannerisms handy for the same situations (ie. Smokes a purple pipe; Has only one eye; likes to say "Wot!" at the end of every sentence; Fidgets with an a dead rat.).
It is much more realistic for your players’ gaming experience. If the people they meet are called Bartender #4, or Generic Old Woman rather than have names, it really can burst the illusion that your RPG world is there to create.
Prioritise 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.
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.
Let their crazy plans manage to work often enough not to discourage them from making plans in the future. Let everything that you can stand to let slide, slide, because all that really matters is that everybody had a fun session and wants to come back for more.
Remember rules are more of a guideline and making sure you and the players are actually having fun.
Rule 0, aka "The DM is always right."
You might hear this "rule" in many places, and at first glance it might seem heavy handed and destructive.
Let's be clear, your job as DM is not to be an opponent for your players. Your job is to be part of telling a cooperative story, and take care of all the NPCs, monsters, traps, and plot points the players will encounter.
In this case, what Rule 0 (aka The DM is Always Right) means is that you don't need to worry about the rules, or the text of an adventure, verbatim.
If, during a session, something comes up in game and you're not sure what rule applies, or how a rule might apply, you can either stop the game and look up the rule (and debate it with the players), or you can make a ruling on the spot for the sake of keeping the game flowing. I vote for the second option.
Make it clear to the players that you are making a ruling now, and will check the rule later, just keep the game going! After the session you can look up the rule and parse it out.
If you got it wrong, no big deal. Next session you can tell the players what you learned and let them know that going forward if the same situation comes up you will all follow the rule as you've learned it to be. The same can be said for adventures.
If you're playing through a published adventure and make a mistake, no big deal! You can retcon it later, or just change the story to fit the mistake. The Adventure as written is not the law! You can make it your own. Rule 0.
You don't have to memorize all the rules!
This may seem like more of Rule 0, but it is important to understand going in that you DON'T have to memorize all the rules before you start DMing.
As long as you and your players are all familiar with the basic rules for playing the game, you'll do fine. As the game progresses you will pick up more and more and more.
Each game session is a chance to practice and hone those skills. Before you know it you'll be correcting other people online like a pro! So remember, you don't have to read through the entirety of the Dungeon Master's Guide before you DM.
In fact much of the D&D 5e DMing and other systems GMing is about world-building, which you won't need if you're starting with a published adventure (and you should).
The most important things to skim over before you play are probably the parts about encounters and the environment, traps and treasure. Don't bother reading through the entire magic items section, just look through it for the things that look cool to you.
One of the most challenging parts of running a RPG game is bringing together a group of people and keeping everyone happy.
Remember that it is a game, and you are all there to have FUN. If you aren't having fun, then something is wrong. As a starting point for making sure everyone has fun, put together a list of your table rules and hand it out in advance of the first session so everyone knows what to expect.
Let your players ask questions about the table rules and how you plan to run the game, and make sure you respect their questions - don't make them feel "dumb" for asking something you think should be obvious.
Role Playing Games are an inclusive game. Everyone at the table should feel welcome and safe.
Some good table rules include:
No racist, homophobic, trans-phobic, or otherwise prejudiced remarks, jokes or threats. Period. No one should be made to feel unwelcome or uncomfortable;
No party in-fighting. Unless everyone is okay with PVP (player vs player) just rule it out from the start. No stealing from each other, and no fighting each other, unless it's agreed upon by all. Even if a couple of players agree to it, it can make other players feel uncomfortable;
No bullying in-character or out-of-character. If any player has a problem with another player out-of-game, don't bring it to the table. If those players can't figure out their differences outside of the game, then they shouldn't be in the game together unless they are able to leave their baggage at the door;
No rules-lawyers at the table. A rules-lawyer is someone who knows (or thinks they know) all the rules, and is constantly correcting the DM and everyone else. Don't be a rules lawyer. If the DM needs help with a rule, they can always ask the rules lawyer for help, but until then, keep your rules-lawyering to yourself.
These are just a few examples of table rules, feel free to add more, but remember, the goal is for everyone to have fun.
Start with a published adventure
If you are brand new to DMing, I don't recommend starting out by trying to build your own epic world. Start with a published adventure where everything has been done for you.
This will help you to see how an adventure is laid out, and will make it much easier for you to run when you get to the table. I strongly recommend reading through the entire adventure at least once before you start your game prep.
After (or while) you are reading through the adventure, look online to see if anyone else has already run that adventure, and if they've got any advice on how to run it, what to change, etc.
Check YouTube for videos of groups playing through the adventure. There are lots of great introductory adventures on DMs Guild, some of them for free.
Keep Notes! Lots of notes!
Whether you are using a physical notebook at the table, a Word doc on your laptop, or an advanced organizational tool like Microsoft's OneNote, take notes, and then take more.
Make notes before the session starts in point-form for what you expect to happen in the session; make notes about the monsters coming up and any special abilities you might need to remember; and during the game make notes about any NPCs you need to make up on the fly, or things the Characters do or say that you can mine for story ideas and encounters later.
The more notes you take, the more you have to work with going forward.
Okay, don't worry about voices. Yes, voices can be fun, and they add a lot of flavour and colour to encounters with NPCs and villains, but not everyone is comfortable with doing voices, and that's okay. If you like doing it, go for it! If you are nervous about it, that's okay.
There are other ways to get across the character of an NPC or villain without using an accent or a strange voice.
You can use hand gestures, or change your face. If you are at the table in person, stand up from your chair and change your posture. You can also just change the speed at which you speak with your normal voice - slow it down, or speed it up. Maybe try talking in a bit deeper voice or a bit higher voice than usual, or try a gruff voice, a mean voice, or a happy voice. You can create character without doing an accent.
If you want to be able to do accents, watch videos on YouTube in your spare time and practice along with them, but don't get hung up over it. If the story is a good one, the players won't notice the lack of special voices, and if the story isn't good, the voices likely aren't going to save it anyway.
Whether you are playing a published adventure or making your own, there are lots of differing opinions on how much time to spend prepping.
Some DMs like to have ever possible detail worked out in advance, and some just make everything up as they go.
Find the method that works best for you, but in general you should consider making some point form notes before each session so you have at least a general idea of the encounters that could happen, the NPCs the PCs might meet, and where you'd like the story to go.
Just remember one thing... if your players can go outside the box, they will go outside the box. At least some times, anyway.
There will always be times when the players do something you didn't expect. THAT'S OKAY! Roll with it!
If you can, just make it up and make it seem like you were prepared for them to do that, even if you weren't.
If you aren't comfortable with "winging it" when the players do something unexpected, calmly call for a brief pause for snacks, or a washroom break, and take a few minutes to figure out what you will do next. Don't panic, it's going to be okay.
Don't Let The Power Go To Your Head
This one can be a bit hard at times but yeah you should not let the power of being the dm go to your head, because all in all your player will notice and may not want you dm’ing if it keeps up. Especially don’t be a jerk about it being “your world”.
Miniatures or "Theatre of the Mind"
Possibly you've heard a lot about this as being an all or nothing thing. Either you use minis on a grid/map, or you do everything in "Theatre of the Mind" (TotM from now on) where you describe the action and everyone imagines it.
There are pros and cons to both, and personally I like to use the one that works best for any given encounter.
Some encounters (imo) need a map and minis or tokens because it may be a complicated battle, and the players may want, or need, to see how everything relates to everything else.
Other times, it might be a simple encounter, and rather than stop the action to set everything up, you can keep the flow going by explaining the action to your players.
If you go with TotM for an encounter, don't sweat the little things. In TotM exact distances aren't that important.
Give your players a sense of where they are in relation to each other and their opponents, and just "guesstimate" it as things change.
Can the fighter run up to the bug bear and hit it this turn? Sure, go ahead!
More on Theatre of Mind
Web Sites & Blogs
World Builder Blog - https://worldbuilderblog.me/
Sly Flourish - http://slyflourish.com/
DMs Guild - http://www.dmsguild.com/
Stan Shinn - http://swshinn.com/
Official D&D Resources - http://dnd.wizards.com/products/tabletop-games/trpg-resources
Kobold Fight Club - https://kobold.club/fight/#/encounter-builder
Reddit D&D 5e (aka Next) - https://www.reddit.com/r/dndnext/
Reddit D&D - https://www.reddit.com/r/DungeonsAndDragons/
Matt Colville - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkVdb9Yr8fc05_VbAVfskCA
Official D&D channel - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCi-PULMg2eD_v5AO0PlW4sg
Nerdacrhy - https://www.youtube.com/user/Nerdarchy
How to be a great game master - https://www.youtube.com/user/Bon3zmann
GM Tips (Matt Mercer & Satine Phoenix) - https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7atuZxmT9570U87GhK_20NcbxM43vkom
Tabletop Babble - https://dontsplitthepodcastnetwork.com/table-top-babble/
DM's Deep Dive with Mike Shea (Sly Flourish) - https://dontsplitthepodcastnetwork.com/dms-deep-dive/
The Tome Show - http://www.thetomeshow.com/
DM's Campaign Work Sheet (from Mike Shea, aka Sly Flourish) - http://slyflourish.com/5e_campaign_worksheet.html