I see a lot of posts on Twitter lately along the lines of people who are new to D&D, been playing for a little bit, want to try their hand at being a DM (Dungeon Master) but aren’t sure how, or if they’re good enough. Especially in the rise of the TTRPG culture, with celebrity DMs or even just those who have been playing for 20+ years, it is daunting to think we need to live up to them, or even resemble them and their skill. It becomes all the more terrifying when you think about how many rules there are, what there is to keep track of, and just the idea of corralling a bunch of
cats people. Today, we’ll give you a first look at figuring out how to get into DMing, especially when the pressure seems just so gosh darn high.
1. You ARE good enough.
Period. End of article.
Editor’s note: Natalie, we need more content than this.
Basically, I am telling you right now – you want to DM? Do it. Please. This is your permission slip to go and try. Because if you don’t try, you will never know if it’s something you enjoy or not. Maybe you don’t actually like it, or maybe it’s your new favorite thing. Either way, just give it a shot, because you don’t know until you try. Get some friends together, run a one-shot. Don’t have anyone in person you can do this for? Go online. There are some wonderful, supportive people in the community who will happily play and encourage you. There’s so much content available as well now that you can just pick up and play, it’s incredible.
My first foray into DMing was after only playing for a year and a half. In-between the first campaign I played in ending and the start of our next, I took our group and ran them through a one shot. That one shot ended up taking about 3 sessions in the end (whoops) but I learned a lot about how to manage the group, how much (or little) to plan, and what my players enjoyed. Also what I enjoyed. After getting a taste of it, I wanted to run a campaign. So I picked up Curse of Strahd, and it’s been a hilarious adventure so far. Since then, I’ve run games (of varying systems) at conventions and on streams – and I’ve only been doing this for about 2 years now. You have to start somewhere – even if you think you’re doing poorly, you will learn. You will improve. You will get better. Use the resources available – you don’t need to craft some incredibly complicated story (trust me – the players will screw it up for you, that’s just how they roll). It’s perfectly fine to pick up a pre-made campaign or one shot – that’s why they exist: to save you time.
2. Improvise and go with the flow.
If you’ve never played improv games, it might not be a bad idea to start. Nothing will ever go as planned, so you need to be prepared to adapt and go with what your players want (within reason). Figure out the boundaries, work within the rules (and use them to your advantage), and be prepared to change what’s going on about a dozen times. Don’t scrap all the work you’ve done – it’ll come in handy at some point. Take notes when things go differently so you remember for later!
3. Read, Watch, Consume – this will help you learn!
While I shouldn’t recommend this, you don’t even need to have played D&D to DM. I’ve perused through the Dungeon Master’s Guide – I haven’t read it cover to cover. Some people will swear you need to. Honestly, that’s a bit daunting for me. I use it as a resource. Instead, I read adventures to get ideas. I read one shots. I watch and listen to campaigns on line – that for me is a far more effective method to learn how to be better. There is so much content out there now for you to consume that you can learn to run any game by just watching how others run it. Watch Critical Role. Listen to The Adventure Zone – Balance. Watch streaming channels like Encounter Roleplay and Goldhart Gaming to see how they run their games. It’s one of the best ways to learn.
Editor’s Note: Legend has it that Archmage Derek DMed without playing before. He was amazing at it.
4. Talk. To. Your. PLAYERS.
This may seem obvious, but even if you’re just running a one shot, set aside 10-15 minutes to have a session zero with your players (or longer prior to setting out on a campaign). Figure out who their characters are, what their goals are, and make sure everyone is on the same page. This is a great opportunity to set the expectations for the groups, and this includes talking about things such as availability/cancellations, lines and veils, and general goals for the game. Figure out how they want to play this, if they want silly and goofy or if they want a serious, emotional game. If they want to get something in particular out of this, then listen and see if you can incorporate! Also talk to them post game – get feedback from them. Listen to them – not everything they say may be applicable, but don’t ignore them either. They will have wisdom you should listen to. It’s also a great opportunity to learn for the future. If they’re not willing to talk – watch their body language. Check their engagement level – these are all telling signs that will give you an idea of what they enjoy and how they feel about the game overall. This will always make you a better DM.
Please know you don’t need to know everything, have all the books or the minis or the terrain to become a DM. Or to even be a GOOD DM. This is about teamwork and story telling. You need to help lead the team to create a story that everyone at the table (yourself included) enjoys. No one was ever amazing when they first started – but you need to start trying to ever even have a chance to be great at it. Perfection, especially in this, is also impossible. So don’t strive for that.
At the end of the day – get out there, do the thing, and have fun. If you and everyone at your table are having fun, then you’re doing it right, and you’re already a great DM. Keep in mind, that the responsibility of everyone’s fun is not solely on you, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Tell good stories, and continue to improve yourself.
If you like this advice, and it you find it helpful, follow me on Twitter along with the rest of the Mage College (Derek & Kannah) for more! If you really like our work, consider joining our Patreon for exclusives like new 5e content such as spells, monsters, and random tables.
Keep creating and stay awesome!