Tips For a First Time DM

JUMBO PALACE

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Hey everyone!

So I will be acting as the Dungeon Master for the first time tomorrow. I'll be shepherding my girlfriend and two of our friends through the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure that comes with the 5e Starter Kit. I have participated as a player in a pair of campaigns over the past few months and have a relatively firm grasp on the rules and mechanics our group of relatively novice players are likely to run into. Never the less, this being my first time as DM I'm a little nervous improvising on the fly and keeping things engaging. I do have a dry-erase board for drawing maps and depicting battles and have gathered some music for different environments, but for the most part have focused on familiarizing myself with the module and getting ideas for characterizing the various NPCs (which there are a lot of in Mines of Phandelver)

Long story shot, any tips from the veterans for a fledgling DM who is running his first game?
 

Saelune

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To grapple, it is the person grappling's athletic skill versus the target's athletics OR acrobatics, whichever is higher.
 

Silentpony_v1legacy

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Don't be afraid to smudge the dice or simply ignore them. I played Gama World once, spent 2 hours making a character, we get to the first enemy, a fire badger, it rolls double crit for a fireball and instantly killed me, before anyone could do anything.
I was then told my part in the campaign was done, go do something else. After clearing the day, and spending 2 hours making a character.

And that was the last time I let that particular friend be DM.
 
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- The rules exist to serve the story you and your players are part of. Don't be afraid to bend the rules a little once in a while to make things more interesting, or to give your players a fighting chance.

- Always be ready to improvise. Your players may surprise you and go off on a mad tangent or find a solution you wouldn't have seen coming. Play along with their wacky ideas, no one likes to be railroaded.

- On the flipside... Do rein your players in if they're being dumb. This was my biggest mistake when I tried to run a Changeling The Lost game. I let my ex (my girlfriend at the time) and another player just drag things on with stupid shenanigans that contributed nothing. So if a player insists on killing everyone they meet even the innkeepers, or they insist on roleplaying a crying 6 year old who cries every 10 minutes and the other players don't put 'em on a leash, you should.

- Make character death or permanent penalties meaningful. No one likes needing to re-roll a character because "oh woops, that archer in a random roadside ambush scored a double crit, redo your character!". On the flip side, if your paladin insists on holding the line against a dozen orcs to let the rest of the party escape from a terrible situation, and they die in the process, they'll probably enjoy it as long as you make it feel suitably epic. Also, if a character really does something stupid, by all means, let them make that mistake and reap the consequences.

- Try to give everyone a chance to shine. No one likes being a careful stealthy character who is completely upstaged by a warrior (Or a Tzmicze brawler mad-scientist) who just instantly resolves all problems the party will encounter with instant kills or BS magic to the point where they wonder "Why the hell am I even in this party, I'm not contributing anything".
 

Asita

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I'm just going to repeat what I said last time this question came up[footnote]This isn't a rebuke. It's good that you're worried enough to ask. My advice just hasn't changed[/footnote]:


This is going to seem like a weird suggestion, but read Darths and Droids. The comic's content itself may or may not give you insight, but the author comments below often have some suggestions worth noting...at least after it gets its groove going. On a grander scale it also works as an interesting commentary regarding the virtue of player agency vs. railroading, which had a very direct mention in the 16th comic. To quote:


By this stage it should be obvious that the players have completely messed up the GM's plans for this campaign. He never expected them to go down to the planet at all. But, like all good GMs, he's willing to wing things a bit and see where they lead to. Even so, there comes a time when you just have to call a time-out and invest some more effort into coming up with something so that the players don't catch you completely flat-footed.

We've deliberately set this up as a contrast to the gaming style portrayed in DM of the Rings, which is very much about the DM railroading the mostly unwilling players into his pre-established story. While good for comedic value, it's not how most of us would want to play a game, if we had the choice. The Darths & Droids GM is much more flexible and willing to work with the players, so that they can take whatever actions they choose. While usually more fun for everyone involved, it can get a bit hairy for the GM at times.
That's far from their only gem, but it is perhaps one of the more valuable ones.

There's one thing in particular though that I want to stress. I've seen various GMs make their own characters to be part of the party. By appearance, it seems a very common impulse, and it does have the apparent virtue of being able to re-focus the players on the main quest. If you have this instinct, fight it. Fight it hard. It's not impossible to pull off, but it's very hard to do, especially for less experienced GMs. Tvtropes actually gives a decent rundown of some of the pitfalls if you're curious, but it is tvtropes, so open it at your own risk.

There was some good advice in that thread, so here's the link to it.
 

Addendum_Forthcoming

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Don't let rules lawyers push you around. Also there is such a thing as too much freedom. It's actually kind of a good I dea to railroad them a bit right at the start for two sessions if it's an unfamiliar setting. Which doesn't sound like much of a problem, given you seem to have a pre-written adventure and I assume the people know it's your first time GMing?

If you know the system, make sure to memorize the haracter sheets of your fellow players. Not because you don't trust them, but if 5E is anythinglike 3.5 you can often see the obvious playstyle party dynamics. So make em work for that opportunity to use their abilities. They'll be frustrated, then get in a good hit, forget that they were frustrated, and everybody will feel like they contributed.

No pre-written adventure is quite so well written to accommodate every party that the players will come up with, so that's another reason you want to memorize their sheets so you can tweak your sessions acordingly.

Everyone has played the traditional rogue-fighter/barbarian-cleric-wizard generic party trope, which is precisely why they won't make it that simple for you.

Also, the number 1 thing. Remember all the times as a player that you had the most fun with that same group of friends, where al of you just felt kind of lost, or feeling awesome, or the elements of a puzzle or an event where all of you just simply clicked. You keep moments like that in mind, and you'll do fine.

Oh, and players do not like DMPCs. They'll just end up being a free action use item that they'll grumble about when it's...

A: Not something they have made.

B: Something that nonetheless drives up enounter difficulty.

C: Will either force you into the compromising position of having another character to field personally, possibly mucking up other PC plans, or as a tool to railroad them places.

It's not worth, and you'll just get annoyed by the inconvenience of having to think of another character and plan around them. An obstacle of your own creation. The only time DMPCs are viable (in truth, more a pseudo-NPC) is when the PCs have asked for their help themselves. Like for investigating a murder in town and getting ambushed while they're in party. That way they feel 'clever' by bringing along some extra muscle.

They should never hang around like a bad smell, however...

Apart from that, no. It's like creating more work for yourself to do long term.
 

Arnoxthe1

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Buzz Hickey: Hey, you can't just say he's gone. You owe us an ending!
Abed Nadir: ... I owe you nothing. I am a dungeon master. I create a boundless world and I bind it by rules. Too heavy for a bridge? It breaks. Get hit? Take damage. Spend an hour outside someone's front door fighting over who gets to kill him? He leaves through the back. He's out there somewhere. You might find him if you get your crap together.
That's pretty much my operating manifesto right there as a DM. Within reason though. Depending on the general feel of the campaign you and the players have agreed upon, you may not want to be as accurate or harsh as that, but yeah. I find D&D to be at its best when you run it as a complete fantasy simulation that adapts accurately and completely to whatever the players (or the enemies/NPCs!) decide to do.

Oh, and speaking as a player, for the love of everything, don't make players play Dungeons and Traps instead of Dungeons and Dragons. It entirely defeats the point of traps anyway if they're spread around like candy. There should generally be at max 10 traps in the entire dungeon.
 

Saelune

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Arnoxthe1 said:
Oh, and speaking as a player, for the love of everything, don't make players play Dungeons and Traps instead of Dungeons and Dragons. It entirely defeats the point of traps anyway if they're spread around like candy. There should generally be at max 10 traps in the entire dungeon.
Psh, there arent even 10 traps in my whole campaign :p
 

CrazyGirl17

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Asita said:
I'm just going to repeat what I said last time this question came up[footnote]This isn't a rebuke. It's good that you're worried enough to ask. My advice just hasn't changed[/footnote]:


This is going to seem like a weird suggestion, but read Darths and Droids. The comic's content itself may or may not give you insight, but the author comments below often have some suggestions worth noting...at least after it gets its groove going. On a grander scale it also works as an interesting commentary regarding the virtue of player agency vs. railroading, which had a very direct mention in the 16th comic. To quote:


By this stage it should be obvious that the players have completely messed up the GM's plans for this campaign. He never expected them to go down to the planet at all. But, like all good GMs, he's willing to wing things a bit and see where they lead to. Even so, there comes a time when you just have to call a time-out and invest some more effort into coming up with something so that the players don't catch you completely flat-footed.

We've deliberately set this up as a contrast to the gaming style portrayed in DM of the Rings, which is very much about the DM railroading the mostly unwilling players into his pre-established story. While good for comedic value, it's not how most of us would want to play a game, if we had the choice. The Darths & Droids GM is much more flexible and willing to work with the players, so that they can take whatever actions they choose. While usually more fun for everyone involved, it can get a bit hairy for the GM at times.
That's far from their only gem, but it is perhaps one of the more valuable ones.
I second the Darths and Droids recommendation, not just for the Roleplaying tips, but for the interesting take on Star Wars. Plus it actually makes the prequels palatable.

I also recommend looking up Noah Antweiler's "Counter Monkey" vlogs, wherein he delves into his long history of role playing for interesting stories for various games. If anything, the videos are entertaining and informative.
 

bastardofmelbourne

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JUMBO PALACE said:
Long story shot, any tips from the veterans for a fledgling DM who is running his first game?
1. Don't be surprised if the players spend all afternoon talking shit and getting nothing done. That's normal. Just last weekend I started up an old campaign again, spent the week before working my ass off preparing, and when we started my friends just spent four hours talking about the shit that had happened in the previous campaign and we never actually got to any of the prepared material.

2. Don't be afraid to fudge the dice a little if it makes the game more fun or if it speeds up a tiring encounter. Always roll your dice from behind a DM screen for this purpose.

3. You can always take a break.

4. Nudge the players, don't push them. You're somewhat limited with a prepared adventure, but if the players want to do something, you'll only frustrate them if you tell them upfront that they can't, especially if there's no logical reason why they can't ("Why can't I piss on the king?!"). Instead, try to convince them to do something else, or give them an alternative that they'll like more. Most people will get the hint. What I do is basically try and predict what the players were going to do based on what I knew about them, but that takes time to learn, and obviously doesn't work with people you've never played with before.

5. Checking rules can take ages and is super boring, so you have to know the rules better than any of the players. That's hard if you're new. Ideally, you can get yourself to the point where if a player asks "Can I climb the wall/seduce the princess/grapple that troll/piss on the king?", you know what they need to roll without having to stop and check the book.
 

Souplex

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1. Everyone's there to have fun. If you think someone isn't having fun, talk to them, and see what they'd like to do differently.

2. The rules are a guideline. If you don't know an exact rule, don't be afraid to wing it. Don't bring the game to a halt while you all dig through the books.

3. read through all the basic books. (PHB, MM, DMG) Even if the information doesn't come up directly, it may inspire you. re-read the sections on their classes/races/spells. The elf may not realize they're immune to sleep when they're targeted by sleep. If you can catch it, they'll appreciate it.

4. This site is incredibly useful for casters: https://www.dnd-spells.com/ You may want to select their spells for them at first so they don't need to go hunting through books for them.

5. If you're doing published stuff, read through the part of the adventure they'll play before they play it.
 

JUMBO PALACE

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Thanks for all of the great replies! As I mentioned I am playing with a group that is composed of my girlfriend and other friends (another couple who just got engaged actually) so I know no one will be judging too harshly. I will definitely check out the resources you all have suggested.

Edit: Turns out the party will consist of a bard, a sorcerer, and a paladin. This should be interesting.
 

Souplex

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JUMBO PALACE said:
Thanks for all of the great replies! As I mentioned I am playing with a group that is composed of my girlfriend and other friends (another couple who just got engaged actually) so I know no one will be judging too harshly. I will definitely check out the resources you all have suggested.

Edit: Turns out the party will consist of a bard, a sorcerer, and a paladin. This should be interesting.
If you want to create tension in that party makeup, give them a Tome of Leadership and Influence.
They may murder each other.
 

Gethsemani_v1legacy

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I'm very much an improvisational DM that prefers to prepare plot points and then free wheel with the players, to make sure the plot points are hit while letting them feel as if they are calling the shots. I've got two advice:

1. Steal ideas from the players. So your idea was to let the assassin be some random thieves guild dude, but your players become convinced that it is actually the creepy countess? Use it. As long as it can be worked into the plot (the countess is suddenly a demon worshipper), change the plot. You want the players to find a hidden, weirdly shaped key, but they believe the door is opened by an elaborate magical lock that requires them to play scale notes on a harp you added into the room for flavor? Use it. Not only does it add verisimilitude to your story, if done right the players will feel pretty smart about having figured stuff out and they'll think the session is awesome.

2. Be direct with the players. I've got something I call my "GM voice of reason". If a player is about to do something obviously stupid, say taking a piss on the kind while he's holding court, be the voice of reason and lay out the possible consequences of that action (being subdued by guards, trialed and executed for humiliating the king), then ask the player if they really want to go through with it. Similarly, if the players are stumped about what to do, feel free to drop some advice that their characters might consider in the situation, but they as players might not have ("Orcs usually hide healing potions in mossy alcoves"). It keeps the flow going and prevents the players from getting too frustrated because they can't figure out what to do next.

Also, as a final aside, always remember that rping is cooperative in nature and it never hurts to take a break with the group to discuss what's going on in the game if there's something bothering you or them. You are all there to have fun and if you or the players are frustrated or irritated about something, it is better to work it out then to persist in doing whatever ruins the fun for someone.
 

Fijiman

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If they don't die within the first five minutes you're doing it wrong.
 

TheMysteriousGX

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Don't be afraid the let the bad guys run away.

Kobolds and goblins aren't shock troops, their morale is shaky at best.
 

chysamere

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Most of the tips I would give have already been stated, but if you want to WATCH an example of good DMing in action, I recommend this live game from Conbravo 2012 featuring Big Mike, Spoony and Linkara

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D2CR2HaPq24
 

Mechamorph

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I have three rules that I try to follow as a DM:

1) The Golden Rule
The game must be fun, preferably for everybody but realistically for most of the people, most of the time.
The point of playing games is fun. It's a hobby, not a chore. Understand your players and understand their needs. Some groups love goofy games where hijinks are common. Others like high fantasy, drama or exploration. Like any showman, know your audience. Fudge the dice if it will make for a better result narratively, nudge the players to get them onboard but if they want to do something else, roll with it. Planning may be important but improv is even more important. If there is a player who has a very different taste compared to the rest of the group, talk it over and try to accommodate those tastes as much as you can but ultimately you can't break the game for the sake of one person. Welcome to petty local government.

2) Rule Zeroth
The DM is always right. You are the referee and what you say goes.
This is you putting your foot down when the Rules Lawyers and Minmaxers come out to play, not for you to deserve your players humming the Imperial March when you walk into the room. You will often have to arbitrate between players, watch for the kind of players who think being an asshat to other players is hilarious. Find a way to ditch any player that insists on playing a Kender, preferably a method that involves a shovel and bags of quicklime. Remember your job is to keep the peace and keep the game going. A weak or vacillating DM makes for poor games, you must be firm and consistent about your rulings. Congratulations, you are now a pseudo parent.

3) The Oldest Rule
Do not be cliche.
Yes, much easier said than done. Only a few people are endless wells of creativity. Still try to overcome your player's expectations. After a while, every gaming group becomes a little jaded. Take it sideways with a tilt. The Princess has been kidnapped by a dragon? Nope, the dragon is in her pay and she wants out because her father has always been really stifling. The Evil Wizard is terrorizing the town? A fabrication by the town mayor who happens to be the wizard's ex. On NPCs, read your players and bring back people they like and quietly write out people they are antipathetic to. Those they HATE? Make those guys your recurring villains and your players will move heaven and earth to punch that person in the face. Keep your players poor and hungry so that they will drive the story. Everlasting glory and riches are what you get at the end of the story, not the middle. Learn to drip feed rewards at a satisfying but not gluttonous pace. Too little leads to frustration, too much leads to ennui. You have to be the Responsible Adult now and must Adult better than the other Adults.
 

the December King

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I just try to tell a fun or otherwise engaging story, and occasionally I let more trivial events get determined by the random rolls that the players, who represent various characters in my tale, make.

I used to tailor the stories more to the individual characters involved in the tale, and as time passes this comes out through the course of a campaign, but lately I just try for a good, or otherwise entertaining, core premise.

Here's the catch- if the players are into the game, and on the fly you see newer angles and ideas, then feel free to go for it, add to the story. Adapt to the scenario.