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Helping Launch a New Dungeon Master

In the world of tabletop gaming, lots of us can easily get stuck being the Dungeon Master (DM). Now, some people love that role and will be the DM until the end of time if everyone is happy and playing. But sometimes you need a break. This fall, as we were drawing to a close a campaign loosely based on Kobold Press’s Tales of the Old Margreve, I knew I was hitting a wall and needed a break, at least for a few weeks. But I also worried that our group couldn’t sustain itself if we took a 6-week break. So, I was delighted when my brother, who has been playing Dungeons & Dragons for the last few years agreed to take on the Dungeon Master role for a short term project!

When you have someone who is willing to try being a GM for the first time, what are some things that you can do?

Editor’s Note: We use GM and DM interchangeably here. DM stands for Dungeonmaster, which is the Dungeons & Dragons equivalent of a Gamemaster (GM)

Show them your tools.

So if you have been a DM for very long, you have lots of tricks of the trade that you have picked up. Don’t make a new DM spend all the time you did in learning them; equip them from the get-go!

One of the things that I try and get to a new DM as fast as possible is Sly Flourish’s The Lazy Dungeon Master. The book is a fantastic set-up for any good adventure. Flourish’s tips and tricks have proven to be invaluable to me and countless others. It helps make sure you prepare enough, are flexible enough and, most importantly, helps you eliminate time waste.

We’ve all had those discouraging nights when we thought things would go a certain way only to see them go in an entirely different direction. Part of what I love about Flourish’s approach is how easy it is to shift the piece you prepared into another part of the adventure and keep moving. The added benefit of this is that Sly has recently started pushing out some really great 2-minute videos about different parts of the game, most of which can be really helpful to a new GM!

Mike Shea aka Sly Flourish has a fantastic series of videos explaining his “Lazy Dungeon Master” process to help DMs prepare what they need for their game sessions.

But there are other tools as well. My brother already had full access to all the books and adventures in DndBeyond.com and he was familiar with it as a player. But he also has used some of their new Beta stuff in ways I wouldn’t, most notably their entire encounter builder and then combat tracker. Because he was starting from a clear base, he has tried and had some success with tools I wouldn’t use.

He also went all-in on Owlbear Rodeo, the newer map app for us, as we all play online. We have had experience with both Owlbear Rodeo and Roll20.net. Our new DM went all-in on Owlbear, but was smart to ask for assistance such as having us build out tokens for our characters, etc.

Help them with the rules.

This doesn’t mean become the rules lawyer at your table. It does mean help them think ahead and figure out how they want to have things run at their table. They are the new leader, after all.

To prepare my brother, I asked about house rules that we usually use but reminded him that they didn’t need to. Second, I made sure to look at my own new character and the other characters to see what shenanigans could be hidden in the text. We probably weren’t the nicest of players by throwing 2 new classes at the new DM, as this is the first time any of our tables has really used a Bard or a Circle of the Stars Druid.

Books are helpful, but you don’t need every book under the sun to be a good DM!

When I saw at level 3 that I gained the controversial Healing Spirit spell, I let him know and told him I was happy with whatever decision he wanted to make, up to and including banning that spell. By helping him look ahead, he has been able to make good rulings on the fly and keep our game rolling. And if he does need to punt and have someone go look something up, I am happy to do so.

Don’t get too crazy.

Our group is like a lot of groups; sometimes we throw the playbook out the window. Not meaning that we ignore the rules. Meaning, we try Looney Tune ideas. So when I was DM, one thing would often become something else.

For example, the sea orcs that I meant to be a simple combat because they said “Let’s kill stuff tonight” became a major plot point involving economics, sustainability, and food pipelines. The raging giant water buffalo named Masher became of their favorite recurring NPCs/transportation to other places. But most the time, an adventure has a pretty direct point to go forward. With a new DM, we as a group have been pretty good about dancing along some of the lines but staying in the realm of the main adventure.

Take good notes and invest in their world.

I knew we were in good hands when after our session zero, we got a really great email explaining who we are, why we were together, where we were at in the Forgotten Realms, and setting up our story. I immediately made some notes and worked hard to include them in the opening session.

We are helping a booze runner ship product to the big city, and when they needed someone to give an speech about the glories of Tavlish Farms’ World Famous Chultan Wine-flavored Beverage Drink, I was ready and willing to step up to the plate. Thanks to a great roll of the dice, I was able to do so with pomp and circumstance!

But it is little things like that that help a game go from good to great. As a player, I want my DM to have a great game. That is to say, invest yourself in the world that’s being created, which will help bring about those epic moments.

When you have a good time, say so!

My brother and me celebrating a sweet DnD Tumbler sent to us by our player Kevin as a thank you for being Dungeon Masters!

New DMs are fragile. When a combat went a little long to a player, it feels like it went FOREVER for them. For the most part, the feedback I want to give new DMs is to thank them, to call out any parts that I thought was cool or especially innovative and wait for them to ask me for ways to improve. And even then, you give those notes knowing that no one runs a perfect table. If it was perfect, none of us could play at it!

So, what about you all? Any tips for a new DM that can help their first adventures be exciting and sensational? Are there tricks and tips you wish someone had gotten to you sooner? Pass them onto us on Twitter or on our Facebook page and let us all help keep launching more and more Gamemasters!