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From Novice to Master: 12 Essential Tips for New Dungeon Masters in D&D

12 tips for a new dungeon master or new dm
Trying your hand out at d&d as a New Dungeon Master?
Here are 12 Essential Tips for New Dungeon Masters in D&D!

As a new Dungeon Master, you hold the power to craft extraordinary tales, guide intrepid heroes, and create unforgettable experiences. However, embarking on this role can be both exhilarating and daunting.

But fear not! We’re here to provide you with a treasure trove of invaluable tips that will elevate your DMing skills to legendary status. Whether you’re a seasoned player taking up the mantle of DM for the first time or a curious newcomer venturing into uncharted realms, these expert recommendations are designed to equip you with the knowledge and confidence you need to orchestrate thrilling adventures for your players.

Prepare to unlock the secrets of being an exceptional Dungeon Master as we guide you through these twelve essential pro tips. So, gather your dice, ready your imagination, and get ready to embark on an epic journey of discovery as we empower you to become a master of tabletop adventures.

Let the story unfold!

Tips for New Dungeon Masters

From setting the perfect mood at the gaming table to deftly managing unexpected player actions, we’ll delve into a wide range of topics that will enhance your storytelling prowess. Discover how to immerse your players in awe-inspiring worlds, handle different player types, and adapt dynamically to keep the game engaging and enthralling.

1. Embrace the Flow – Let Go of Overthinking

This sounds pretty on par with telling someone who is angry to “calm down”, but in reality, it’s game-changing.

As the orchestrator of the game, your demeanour sets the tone for the entire table. If you’re stressed, your players are likely to feel the same.

By consciously choosing to relax and have fun, you create an atmosphere that encourages your players to do the same.

So, take a deep breath, follow the other steps in this guide, and watch as the magic unfolds. Kudos to you for embarking on this journey of self-improvement!

2. Set the Stage – Creating an Atmosphere of Inspiration

Unleash your inner child and let inspiration permeate every corner of your world. Approach your game with the wide-eyed wonder of a 5-year-old, ready to explore and have a blast!

One personal rule I live by, and one that my players know well, is that dressing up equals inspiration. Encourage everyone to show up as their character or bring props that immerse them even deeper into their roles. But if costumes aren’t your cup of tea, fear not! There are countless other ways to set the mood.

Consider incorporating terrain and miniatures, adding a captivating table mascot, or dimming the lights and introducing the warm glow of lava lamps or salt lamps. The possibilities are as vast as the ocean.

As the wise Bigweld once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” So, let your imagination soar and create a captivating atmosphere that will transport your players to realms beyond their wildest dreams.

3. Craft Your Narrative Delve Deep into the World You Create

If you don’t know what’s going on in the world you create, how are the players going to know? 

To truly immerse your players in the tapestry of your world, you must first be intimately familiar with its inner workings. Knowing the ins and outs of your story is paramount. Take the time to acquaint yourself with the key non-player characters (NPCs), understanding their motivations, thoughts, and quirks.

By doing so, you breathe life into your creations and set the stage for captivating interactions.

Extend your knowledge beyond just NPCs. Familiarize yourself with the various shops, cities, and locales that populate your world.

Be prepared with a repertoire of random names to call upon when your players inquire about that captured goblin or the unassuming tavern-goer in the corner. By having these details at your fingertips, you’ll avoid awkward fumbling for a name, only to forget it moments later.

Keep a list of random names in your notes that you can use at any time for the inevitable “what is your name?” to a random NPC you added only for atmosphere.

Additionally, embrace diversity within your storytelling. Vary the races, sexualities, and expectations of your NPCs. This not only reflects the vibrant tapestry of the real world but also adds depth and authenticity to your narrative.

Explore the dynamics of racial tensions or the absence thereof, showcasing the interactions between different groups. While the importance of this aspect may vary for different groups, it undoubtedly enriches the tapestry of your world, making it feel all the more real and engaging.

In your hands lies the power to shape a world brimming with life, intrigue, and diversity. Embrace this responsibility, and watch as your players become captivated by the intricate web of your storytelling.

4. Mastering Player Relationships – Handling Problem Players

You need to be aware of player types and how to counter them, otherwise, you could end up with an unhappy table, a ruined experience and overall just a bad time. 

In the realm of tabletop gaming, it’s essential to recognize that not all players are created equal. There are various player types, each with their own play styles and preferences. 

Understanding that players bring their own ideas and expectations to the table is key. They have unique visions of how their characters would act and react in any given situation. However, as the Dungeon Master, you hold the responsibility of fostering a cohesive and enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

To mitigate potential conflicts, it’s wise to establish clear expectations from the outset.

A session zero, where players come together to discuss their characters, goals, and boundaries, can be immensely helpful in aligning expectations.

Many new Dungeon Masters opt for guidelines such as a “no evil characters” rule, which discourages disruptive behaviours like murder-hobo tendencies and random acts of crime that could derail the game.

By proactively addressing player dynamics and establishing a shared understanding, you can cultivate an environment where every participant feels heard, respected, and engaged.

5. Session Zero – Establishing Clear Expectations and Building a Solid Foundation

One of the most crucial steps in preparing for a successful tabletop role-playing campaign is to have a session zero with your players, especially as a new dungeon master.

This initial gathering sets the stage for the adventure to come, allowing you to establish expectations, align everyone’s vision, delve into character backstories, and ensure a harmonious gaming experience for all.

During session zero, it’s essential to create an open and honest dialogue with your players. Encourage them to share their preferences, playstyles, and expectations for the game. This discussion helps in understanding their individual goals and enables you to shape the campaign accordingly.

Use this opportunity to establish boundaries (here is a free consent checklist) and avoid any unexpected surprises that might disrupt the flow of the game. Discuss potential restrictions or limitations, such as character alignments, to prevent disruptive behaviours like wanton destruction or party conflicts.

By addressing these potential issues early on, you can foster a cooperative and enjoyable gaming atmosphere.

Furthermore, session zero is the ideal time to dive into character backstories. Encourage players to share their characters’ motivations, histories, and personal quests. This knowledge will allow you to weave their individual narratives into the overarching storyline, creating a more immersive and engaging experience.

Remember, session zero isn’t just for the Dungeon Master to lay down the rules—it’s a collaborative effort that empowers players to contribute to the world-building process. Encourage them to share ideas, ask questions, and express their desires for the campaign.

This collective input will help shape the game world, making it more personalized and exciting for everyone involved.

By investing time and effort in a comprehensive session zero, you can establish a solid foundation for your campaign. Clear expectations, aligned goals, and an understanding of each player’s character will ensure a smooth and immersive gaming experience, fostering a sense of camaraderie among the group. So, embrace the power of session zero, and embark on your adventure with confidence and enthusiasm.

6. Embracing the Unexpected – Adapting to Surprises in Your Adventure

No matter how well you plan, be prepared for the party to throw unexpected curveballs your way.

Embrace the chaos and let them explore the world you’ve painstakingly created on their terms. Some DM’s have a little ‘loading’ tent card that they put overtop of their DM screen while they look up stats, names, locations, or whatever thing the players have recently derailed.

It’s also okay to just call a 5-minute break so you can think about things.

Here’s a pro-tip within a pro-tip: avoid lengthy epic prologues or boss introductions. Why? Because a player might interrupt your dramatic moment with a well-timed spell like ‘Hold Person’ or ‘Fireball,’ shattering the narrative you had in mind.

Instead, skip ahead and witness the magic unfold as the players take charge. Often, they’ll come up with ingenious ideas that you could never have imagined. For instance, I once had a BBEG wreaking havoc in a grand mansion, and a player surprised me by leaping onto the villain’s back, attempting to push them off a balcony!

It wasn’t part of my script, but it was an awesome and unforgettable moment that still comes up today!

DM Style

7. DM Style – Varied Styles of Dungeon Masters

In the vast realm of tabletop role-playing games, Dungeon Masters (DMs) come in all shapes, sizes, and playstyles. Each DM brings their unique approach to the game, ranging from meticulous planners who map out every detail to spontaneous improvisers who thrive on unpredictable moments. Remember to acknowledge and appreciate this diversity, as it enriches the gaming experience and caters to different player preferences.

Some DMs live for crafting intricate storylines, meticulously planning every possible twist and turn to create a captivating narrative. They design intricate plotlines, complete with complex characters, interesting puzzles, and thrilling climaxes. These planners find joy in guiding their players through meticulously crafted adventures, leaving no stone unturned in their quest for immersion and storytelling excellence.

On the other hand, there are DMs who thrive in the realm of improvisation, embracing the spontaneity and unexpected surprises that arise during gameplay. These DMs enjoy the thrill of on-the-spot decision-making, allowing the story to unfold organically based on player actions and choices. They excel in creating a dynamic and responsive game world, where the players’ decisions shape the course of the adventure.

It’s important to recognize that neither approach is superior to the other. The beauty of tabletop role-playing lies in its flexibility and adaptability to different playstyles. Just as players have diverse preferences, DMs also have their unique strengths and preferences that shape their style of running the game.

Whether you prefer meticulously planned campaigns, spontaneous improvisation, or somewhere in between, what matters most is finding the style that resonates with you as a DM. Embrace your strengths and preferences, allowing them to shine through in your storytelling and game management. By staying true to your style, you’ll create a more authentic and enjoyable experience for both yourself and your players.

Moreover, embracing the diversity of DM styles can offer valuable learning opportunities. By observing and engaging with DMs who approach the game differently from you, you can gain fresh perspectives and discover new techniques to enhance your own repertoire. Sharing experiences and insights with fellow DMs fosters a vibrant community of creators, where ideas are exchanged, and inspiration flows freely.

8. Critical Rolls

This is good for your players to know ahead of time, but you can let them know whenever the first one happens if you forget. Just make sure whichever way you choose, you stick to (along with all rules you make) so it doesn’t feel like you are making things up as you go along.

Critical Fails
  • I personally have a rule that if your dice rolls off the table, it’s an automatic crit fail – if you can’t hit the table then you can’t hit your target
  • Some DMs decide that ability critical fails are ruled differently depending on the player’s regular skills (for example, a rogue specializing in stealth cannot critically fail a stealth check) other DMs play that every critical fail results in something bad happening.
    • As a player that’s had DMs use both rules, I prefer just to have something bad happen. If you don’t mind either way, then maybe do a vote to see what your players would rather see.
  • Combat critical fails – Are they going to take damage? Do weapons break? Do they fall prone? Does the fire spread to engulf the building? These can all be up to you (5e technically has no combat damage on critical fails – but most DMs I know still play with it because honestly, it’s just more fun)
    • Luckily these can go on a case-by-case basis, but if you are going to be damaging players or their items on crit fails, be sure to let them know ahead of time that it could happen so there are no hurt feelings
Critical Wins
  • Let’s tackle combat first. There are a few ways to run this, pick whichever one works for you and your table
    • Roll double the number of damage dice that you normally would
      • I personally love going this way because it feels good to have all those beautiful dice in my hand as I roll
      • Some people don’t like it this way because you could get that critical hit and then roll all 1s for your damage, which is kind of anti-climatic
    • Max damage plus your regular damage dice
      • This way you ensure you are getting a reasonable amount of damage without going too crazy
    • Double max damage
      • This route is more for min/max people. Complete maximum damage, which takes the fun out of rolling the dice but deals the most damage you could possibly do

No matter which rules you decide to go with, make sure that your players are aware so they know what to expect and can base their gameplay around it.

Art by elle shengxuan shi

9. Player Agency – Give your players Freedom

In the world of Dungeons and Dragons, it’s important to remember that the game is not solely about the Dungeon Master’s vision—it’s a shared experience with the players. Just as you wouldn’t want to play a game where everything is dictated by someone else’s desires, your players also deserve the freedom to shape the narrative and make meaningful choices.

As a new dungeon master, it’s important to allow your players to explore and make their own decisions within the game world. If they happen to miss a critical plot item or overlook an important clue, don’t be discouraged. Instead, find creative ways to reintroduce the element or provide alternative opportunities for them to discover it. This could involve placing the item in a different location or having an NPC mention its significance, prompting the players to revisit the missed opportunity.

Remember, Dungeons and Dragons is a collaborative storytelling experience where the players’ actions and decisions have a profound impact on the world. It’s through their influence that the story truly comes alive. If you find yourself consistently guiding the players in a single direction without allowing their agency to shine, you risk being labelled as a “railroading” DM. Railroading refers to a style of DMing where the players’ choices are heavily constrained, limiting their ability to shape the narrative and explore their own paths.

To avoid this pitfall, embrace player agency and encourage their involvement in shaping the world around them. Listen to their ideas, respect their choices, and be open to unexpected outcomes. By fostering a collaborative and inclusive atmosphere, you create a dynamic and engaging game where everyone feels empowered to contribute to the unfolding story.

Remember, the heart of Dungeons and Dragons lies in the interplay between the DM’s storytelling skills and the players’ creativity. So, embrace the spirit of collaboration, and together, weave a tapestry of adventure that captivates and surprises all involved.

10. Understand Your Players – Tailor the Game to Suit Their Styles

Each group of players is unique.

Whether you have a party of min/maxers, a band of bards, or a merry troupe of adventurous drunks, their playstyles and preferences will greatly influence the way you approach the game. As the Dungeon Master, taking the time to understand your players and what matters to them can make all the difference in creating an immersive and enjoyable experience.

Start by engaging in conversations with your players outside of the game. Ask them about their character concepts, their motivations, and the aspects of gameplay they find most exciting. By doing so, you gain insights into their individual playstyles, allowing you to tailor the game to accommodate their preferences.

For a group of min/maxers who thrive on optimizing their characters’ abilities and mechanics, you might want to provide challenging encounters that require strategic thinking and tactical decision-making. Incorporate intricate puzzles, formidable adversaries, and opportunities for them to showcase their mastery of game mechanics.

If your group consists primarily of bards, who relish in storytelling, role-playing, and social interactions, emphasize narrative-rich adventures, compelling NPCs, and opportunities for dramatic performances. Allow them to immerse themselves in the world, interact with intriguing characters, and have a profound impact on the unfolding story through their words and actions.

And for those adventurers who enjoy a more lighthearted and whimsical experience, such as a group of relaxed players looking for mirth and merriment, infuse the game with humorous elements, comedic situations, and opportunities for creative improvisation. Let them revel in their antics, while still providing engaging challenges and rewarding moments of triumph.

By adapting the game to suit the preferences of your players, you create an environment where everyone feels valued and immersed in their chosen playstyle. This level of personalization fosters a deeper connection between the players and the game, enhancing their enjoyment and investment in the world you’ve crafted.

Remember, Dungeons and Dragons is a collaborative experience, and understanding your players is the way to create a memorable adventure. So, take the time to know your players, embrace their diverse playstyles, and embark on a journey that caters to their unique interests. Together, you’ll embark on an epic adventure that resonates with each player and leaves a lasting impression.

11. The Rule of Cool – Flexibility and Fun in Your Game

This principle allows for bending the rules or adjusting outcomes when players exhibit exceptional creativity or bring forth an element of awe-inspiring coolness. As a new Dungeon Master, it’s important to remember that the ultimate goal is to create an enjoyable and engaging experience for everyone at the table.

When your players come up with clever solutions, unique approaches, or truly memorable moments, don’t be afraid to deviate from strict adherence to the rules. Grant them the chance to succeed in spectacular ways, even if it requires some bending or tweaking of established mechanics. By doing so, you not only reward their creativity but also foster a sense of excitement and wonder within the game.

Similarly, maintaining a sense of fun should always be a priority. As the Dungeon Master, you have the power to gauge the balance between challenge and enjoyment. If your players are having a blast and the narrative is flowing smoothly, there may be instances where adjusting the outcomes of riddles or encounters can heighten the overall enjoyment.

In the spirit of keeping things entertaining, monster hit points can also be subject to some discretion. If a player achieves an exceptionally impressive outcome or unleashes a stroke of brilliant strategy, don’t be afraid to adjust the numbers slightly to match the moment’s epicness. Remember, the goal is to create memorable experiences and ensure that everyone is invested and having a great time.

Allow the creative, the innovative, and the cool to shape the course of your game. And always prioritize fun, for in the realm of imagination, the possibilities are endless, and the journey is meant to be extraordinary.

12. Enhance the Immersion – Adding Unique Voices to Your Game

Incorporate distinct voices and personalities for your non-player characters. Not only does this help to set the mood and create a more immersive atmosphere, but it also encourages your players to fully embrace their own characters and ensures that the non-player characters (NPCs) they encounter leave a lasting impression.

Perhaps a raspy voice for a grizzled old veteran, a high-pitched and energetic tone for a mischievous gnome, or a slow and deliberate speech pattern for a wise and enigmatic sage. By giving each character a unique vocal identity, you bring life into the world and make interactions more memorable.

A DM I played with gave a character a little throat clear after every sentence he made, we all immediately disliked him (for no other reason, he was a great NPC) and still talk about him to this day, even though he was only a minor character!

If you are looking for something REALLY memorable, try out a Norsemen accent. Everyone at the table will be doing it by the end of the session:

Other Useful Tips

  • Inspiration points are given to players who you think are awesome, sometimes it’s playing a character well, doing a cool thing, or adding sweet puns. Don’t be afraid to give it out!
  • Try an easy one-shot to get your game going, then you can railroad all you want and there are generally fewer surprises
  • Get a DM screen that has tips on it, super useful for when a random mechanic comes up that you won’t have to look through your notes for
  • Have some easy d&d food items out or suggest players bring something to share
  • Start your game with some sort of recap of the previous session
  • Take your own notes as you go along, players usually suck at it but will somehow remember some contradiction from 10 months ago
  • Add music to your game (Battle music, Tavern music, Travel music/sounds, etc)
  • Players like to roll, let them roll, and make them roll!

Comment below if you have other awesome tips and tricks for new dungeons masters 🙂

This concludes From Novice to Master: 12 Essential Tips for New Dungeon Masters in D&D.
Check out other tips For Players or For DMs to run your games with fun to the max.

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