Why I Game – Tips for the Newbie Dungeon Master

This year is the 40th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons. So, in celebration of that, and in light of the fact that D&D is releasing a new edition this summer, I’m posting some stories I have of playing Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games.

This month, Wizards of the Coast has begun rolling out the products for the 5th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. As I discussed last week, some of you may now be putting together gaming groups of new players, while others may take on the responsibility of running a game for the first time. While there is not a lot of 5th Edition content for Dungeon Masters yet, in regards to monsters and adventure creation, there is a pre-generated adventure in the Starter Set, which you can either run, or poach for other elements.

With that in mind, I wanted to present those new DMs with a few pieces of advice. More after the jump!

The Players Are Not The Enemy

Because of how we think of games, it’s easy to see one guy sitting apart from the other players and throwing monsters at them, and think, “OH, I see, the other players have to beat him. Once they defeat him, they win.” It’s rare that you see that attitude with Dungeon Masters, but not at all uncommon to see that in players.

I’ve said this before, but the Dungeon Master is not the enemy – the Dungeon Master is the game. If the D&D session were a video game, the DM would be all of the programming – he’s the one who decides what is and is not allowed. The players and the DM have to work together in order to tell the best story – if the players are trying to achieve victory over the DM, the game falls apart.

But that sword cuts both ways. The minute a DM starts trying to work against the players, they will begin to sense it. Your goal, as the Dungeon Master, is not to massacre your players’ characters just because you can; there’s no talent to killing characters when you’re basically God.


You Are Not The Only Storyteller At The Table

The story you tell in the course of your sessions is not the sole creation of one person. That’s what novels are for, and your game of Dungeons and Dragons is not a novel (even if you transcribe it later in prose form). You are playing a game with friends, and you have to listen to and take your cues from them. If you come into the session with a plan that you will not let yourself deviate from, you close yourself off to the input of your players.

This speaks to the last point as well – the players should have the same goals as you, in that everyone just wants to have fun. If your players don’t seem to be responding to the story you are laying out for them, that doesn’t mean you should push back – even if you did spend hours preparing the adventure in the Tower of the Necromancer that your players seem to have no desire to visit.

This is actually a challenging trick, and one of the hardest rules of thumb to actually keep in mind. One thing I’ll be talking about in a future column few weeks is my own first attempt at running a game, which was more or less disastrous – I had the story I wanted to tell (standard “collect all of the magic items to stop a war, and oh by the way, one of you is a secret king” stuff, so nothing especially inspired), and I lost the players’ interest VERY early on. But I kept forcing it, and trying to get them to the end of the game. The resulting campaign was not very fun for any of us, nor was it especially memorable.

If the players aren’t following your lead, or even actively resisting, don’t push back – take a turn. If you have a grand plan to bring them against a lich, but they REALLY want to go find goblins and kill them, that doesn’t mean you just keep throwing undead at them until they follow the bread crumbs. You have to bend a bit in the direction they’re going, and maybe you can find a fun way to tie in the adventure you had in mind… although it’s just as likely that you will end up with a story that is entirely different than you expected, and possibly better off for it.

The Internet Is A Valuable Resource

When you’re setting up a new game, you have a choice – run a pre-generated adventure, or create something original. I almost always opt for the latter – there’s something very exciting in coming up with your own story, and getting the genuine reactions of your players as they go through the story. However, I also have a 50-hour work week at my day job, and I’m also working on two podcasts, a blog, and a novel, so that doesn’t always leave a lot of time for campaign prep. Whenever that happens to you, your greatest resource is the internet.

Even if you are dead-set on creating an original session (as I often am), you can at least pull ideas from other sources. There are some terrific sites and forums (Myth Weavers, Dungeon A Day, The DM’s CraftDnDIY and Dungeon’s Master are some of the ones I use) which can offer maps, NPCs, adventure hooks, riddles and traps, and even specific advice on your campaign.

On top of all that, sometimes it’s useful to just use a gimmick to help focus your ideas. For example, right now I’m running a campaign where all of the major events and characters are loosely inspired by Disney movies. The first dungeon was the tomb of a dragonslayer named after Prince Phillip from Sleeping Beauty, the players met a cursed lord who looked like a monster, visited a seaside town where nobody could speak on the eve of the noble wedding, and recently traveled to a Dwarven mining town near an apple orchard, where an evil baroness ruled and conducted twisted experiments from a tower deep within a dark, magical forest.

Pictured: The upcoming scene from the finale of my campaign, where I throw all the above rules out the window and destroy my players with a goddamn dragon just because I can.

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