Ten Tips for Fledgling Dungeon Masters

I've played pen-and-paper RPGs on and off for the past five years, but I've always respected and admired the ability of the Dungeon Master to tell a fun, interactive story and keep the party coming back week after week. So when my fiance and I got a local group together to play Wizards of the Coast's latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons, my heart was set on trying my hand at DMing, writing my own adventure and running it for the party. I learned a lot from my experience, mostly through trial and error, and in the end I was able to present the party with a story they enjoyed while even managing to have fun myself, but it didn't come without its share of frustration, both for me and the party.

So you want to try to write and run your own adventure? You should be prepared for a lot of hard work, but in the end there are few things more rewarding in a DM's world than seeing your friends having fun enacting a story you created. As a fledgling DM, you won't be perfect and you shouldn't expect yourself to be, but hopefully by reading on you can pick up some pointers or, if nothing else, at least learn from my mistakes.

1) Always be prepared for the party to do what you didn't expect them to do.
They will manage to find a way, whether intentionally or accidentally, to kill the NPC that was going to send them on such-and-such quest, miss the seemingly-obvious answer to your riddle from thinking too hard, or march directly to the boss without finding that key item they need to defeat him. My party nearly did all three, so I had to improvise on the fly to either keep them from following through with their plan or hit them over the head with information in-game to persuade them otherwise. For example, when the party was going to investigate the boss's throne room first thing, they "suddenly" heard what sounded like an angry ghost coming from another room, who then sent them on a quest to find the item they needed to overcome him. Out-of game hints aren't usually very fun, so try to find a way to give your party hints in the boundaries of the game, such as telling a PC that he or she suddenly remembers a pertinent piece of information or something of the like.

2) On the other hand, don't prepare too much.
Before my first session, I wrote for a few hours a day for two or three weeks straight and ended up with fourteen pages of notes, read-text, and dialogue trees. If I thought I would say it, I wrote it down. During that first session, it took about two hours to get through everything I had prepared, and since a third of it was alternate content to account for an NPC being captured, etc., I didn't even get to read it all. With the time I spent writing all of that text I didn't use, I could have been contributing to the overall quality of the adventure by developing more back-story for the campaign, deeper personalities for the NPCs, more complex puzzles, or I could have just taken a much-needed nap. As the DM, you already have a lot of work to do, so don't make your job any harder than it has to be. Some things will just have to be improvised, and while you won't be perfect at it in the beginning, you'll get better with practice.

3) Decide how best to organize the information you'll need for your adventure before you start.
I did a lot of flipping back and forth between maps, dialogue, area descriptions, etc., during which time my party had to sit there patiently, and sometimes impatiently, while I found the next part to read to them. Having everything you need in a 3-ring binder and separated with labeled dividers is very helpful. If you are developing other things at the same time, like more puzzles or NPCs to add later, it might be best to keep the unfinished items in a separate binder or at least in separate sections of your binder so you don't get confused. I also used the DM screen, sold by Wizards of the Coast, for my campaign. There are a few arguments for and against using a screen, mostly concerning secrecy and its effect on your players, but in reality it has some useful reference information that any DM would find helpful.

4) Watch your players to see if they are having fun.
Sometimes my adventure would get tedious, and the players certainly showed their frustration. If I didn't catch on during the session, I would be able to tell afterwards by their quick and mostly silent exits. I saw this especially during one part of the campaign. The party spent all of six weeks wandering around in a labyrinth, and by the end of the second session there was no end in sight and my players were getting tired of being there. Regardless, I made them keep trudging along in the labyrinth because I didn't think it fit the story to have them suddenly teleported to the castle. What I failed to realize was that it didn't matter how much sense the story made if no one wanted to play anymore. The DM's primary job is to facilitate fun for the group. If the group isn't having fun, you need to change something, which brings me to the next point.

5) Never run the party through a labyrinth. Ever.
Sure, it may seem like a fun idea at the time, but trust me, it will only be a headache for both you and your players. It will either turn into a boring exchange of directions or an exercise in frustration as your party backtracks and/or wanders around in circles week after week, or, as in our case, both. The particular labyrinth I used was built by an evil mastermind to keep meddlesome adventurers from reaching his castle, so of course it made sense that it was very large. However, translating that into gameplay was where the idea failed. There isn't much to be gained from spending half of the adventure in the same place doing the same thing. If you simply must have a labyrinth or a maze in your campaign, make it small and leave out the dead ends, unless they have a specific purpose, to keep the party from having to backtrack so often.

6) Read the Player's Handbook.
I skimmed it beforehand, but I wasn't completely sure on some things, especially some of the combat rules. So when those rules came up, for example, when an NPC tried to stabilize a PC during combat, I had to pause the action while I looked up how exactly it worked. This also happened in the adventure preceding mine when a debate began over how cover and stealth worked. The game was halted for all of an hour while everyone skimmed rulebooks and scoured the internet for errata. For instances like this, you may consider making a temporary decision quickly and then finding the rule before the next session to clear everything up without putting the game on hold for a long time. And remember, as the DM, you have the right to override the rules as you see fit, but understanding what you're overriding is important. If you do make a mistake about a rule, or anything else for that matter, just be honest and open with your party about it. They should understand; especially if they've been in your shoes before.

7) Plan out your encounters ahead of time.
This was one of my biggest problems. Since I was writing the story from session to session, I would often spend so much time writing dialogue and descriptions that I wouldn't really devote more than a few minutes preparing the encounters. I would have an idea about the types of monsters I wanted to use, but I hardly ever took the time to read about their tactics or even their abilities. This lead to a lot of confusion and added length to the already time-consuming encounters because I would have to read about the monsters before we could start, and often during battle, too. It also wasn't uncommon for me to forget that such-and-such monster had a ranged attack or was a large creature instead of a medium one. A lot of my monsters ended up becoming meat sacks with hit points because I was unfamiliar with them and wasn't able to use them to their fullest potential. Reading and planning the encounters before each session will not only speed things up, but also allow you to give the party a tactically challenging battle that they'll have fun with.

8) Develop a system for keeping track of initiative, monster HP, player defenses, etc.
Each DM is different and therefore will be more successful with some organizational methods than others, so you should find what works for you. I had a card pinned up on my side of the DM screen with all players' defenses and skill bonuses on it for reference, a stack of index cards with each player's name and initiative on a separate card to keep everything straight during battle, and print-outs from the Monster Manual containing HP, abilities, defenses, etc. for each group of monster that I used in each encounter with their initiative and individual HP written out to the side on a separate sheet of paper. It may also be helpful to make an index card for each group of monsters per encounter with their initiative rolls to be sure no one misses his or her turn.

9) Get the players involved in more than just the story.
Have them help you keep track of things during battle, for example. In our group, I handed off the index cards to a player to track initiative scores for me and put the cards back in order. Something else to consider is getting the party to keep track of their own initiative order so they are all aware of whose turn it is and whose turn is coming up so they will be prepared for their own turn instead of caught by surprise. Having a player take notes is also helpful to give the group a refresher before each session without worrying about slipping up yourself and giving away information they shouldn't know yet. If you get as detailed as assembling miniature figurines for the adventure, as we did, make a party of it one weekend and get the group to help you glue them together or paint them. If the players feel more involved with the game, they will become more invested in it and have more fun, and handing out responsibility will make your job easier as the DM. It's a win-win situation!

10) Don't let the party think they can be successful in an endeavor when in actuality they cannot.
The lowest moment of my entire adventure was when the players broke down the door to the castle at the center of the labyrinth, were inundated with a horde of goblins, miraculously triumphed over almost all of them after a three-hour battle, then were all suddenly put to sleep with a spell. My original intent was to overwhelm the party and have them captured by the goblin horde and thrown into the dungeon, but the party did much better than I had planned, so I brought out the Goblin King himself to cast a sleep spell that was virtually impossible to defend against. After the session, most everyone left without much more than a "see you next week", save for a couple who stayed to express their disappointment with the way things turned out. While some may argue that battles which cannot be won should not be thrown at the party in the first place, I hold firmly that they sometimes do have their place when used with caution. Just be sure to make it obvious that the players cannot win. For instance, have the party immediately surrounded by a lot of high-level creatures that the players will know they cannot defeat, or have the "sleep spell" be cast on them at the beginning of combat or out of combat altogether.

As I've said before, you won't be a perfect DM on your first try, even with careful preparation. You will have moments when you are lost for answers, stumble over your words, or aren't sure how to handle a situation. The trick is to be patient with yourself. With practice, you will get better. Read the Dungeon Master's Guide, sign up for an online D&D community of like-minded people (I recommend the Wizards of the Coast's forums), and peruse the internet for as much advice as you can. Enlist your friends to help with creating maps of your universe, writing back-story for the campaign, even preparing encounters or NPCs so you aren't doing all the work. Above all, though, have fun with it. If you're having fun, that's a good indication that your players are having fun, too.