Running a game of D&D can be really intimidating. There are rules you are responsible for knowing, often multiple NPCs that need embodying, and at the end of the day, you have to tell a story that results in your partner or group having a good time.
However, those jobs make the role of DM incredibly rewarding. Without you behind the screen, D&D wouldn’t happen! What a terrible scenario! I’ve written elsewhere about why you should DM, but with this post, I’ll look some at how.
To help you bring the fun and reduce the pre-session jitters, here are a few things that I think are helpful to keep in mind. These are lessons that I learned while running our duet, and it is my hope that they will help your duets or groups games run smoothly.
1. Fake It Till You Make It
When you are starting out, you are not going to know every little rule that you may need. Make sure that you have the basics down, such as how modifiers get added and how attack and damage rolls work. Beyond the basics, go with your gut.
So much of running a tabletop roleplaying game is about making decisions and projecting confidence, even when you don’t really feel confident. Here’s a little secret: almost all DMs get pre-session nerves. You are putting yourself out there in a major way.
The more confident you act, especially starting out, the more confident that you will be and the more Dungeons and Dragons you’ll play. The more you play, the better you’ll get and the more confident you’ll be! In this way, confidence becomes self-fulfilling.
Don’t let the rules get in the way of a good time! D&D is a game. Stopping play often to consult the rules can get in the way of this larger purpose of fun, halting or thwarting improvised moments on behalf of the player(s). If the rules are getting in the way, the game’s not doing what it’s supposed to do.
Here’s the thing, behind the screen, you are in charge. Not even the rules as written are more important than what you decide at the table. “Ideas, not rules.” This does come with a caveat: players make their characters following rules. Don’t flout them.
2. Use Your Tools
Don’t forget to use everything at your disposal when bringing the world to life for your players.
Making sure to engage your body while you are sitting behind the screen does a couple of wonderful things for your game. First, it allows you yet another way to transport your players into your imagined world. If you are looking off into the “sky” and then ducking as you describe the dragon swooping low over your party, they are going to be there with you in a more immediate and powerful way than if you just read a description. A significant percentage of communication is non-verbal and failing to utilize your body for non-verbal cues seriously hampers your abilities
One thing that helps me a lot, especially when playing NPCs, and especially again when they are a recurring character, is to have some kind of physical trait or habit tied to each one. Perhaps the kooky old magician will have the left side of his face all scrunched up, or the sophisticated Elven lady is always stroking her feline familiar’s luxurious fur. Actually scrunching your face or petting a fake cat not only signals to the players what kind of person they are talking to, but it also helps you keep your NPCs distinct and enables you to access their mindset more quickly and faithfully.
Modulate and vary the pitch and tone of your voice as you describe scenarios. We understand so much through tone. When your players enter a room, you already know what will be of interest. You can make sure the pace of your game stays at a fun clip and avoid losing your players by tweaking the way that you talk about items in said hypothetical room. If I know that there is a trapped drawer in a desk with cool stuff in a room, I’ll make sure the players know there is a desk. Stress the word itself and pause for a split second after.
Some may feel like that’s cheating, or that I am luring my players into a trap or something. My counter is that we are creating fictional worlds with our words that our characters are supposed to be realistically occupying and navigating. Our characters have access to way more stimuli/feedback/data/intuition about the world that they are in than we IRL are able to give with only our words. To bridge that gap, we can use our tools.
Your voice builds the world that your player occupies, not even to mention your voice as a tool to bring to life NPCs. Match the voice to the character speaking and you will be communicating a wealth of information to your players. Your nervous characters speak quickly, your powerful ones tend to speak more deliberately. Play around with it and develop a few voices or accents that your are comfortable with. Use tone, pitch, speed, and volume within those voices you develop to add to your repertoire.
3. Prep Smarter, Not Harder
I frequently hear about DMs, especially when they are starting out, prepping for double the amount of time that they are anticipating actually playing. These folks are preparing 8 hours for a 4 hour game. At that point, the DM has spent 12 hours on D&D and are most of the way to a part-time job.
This can be especially disheartening when the players take a hard left turn straight away from what you have spent so much time preparing. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy,” is an adage that the tabletop RPG community has aptly appropriated as “No plan survives contact with players.”
So, the way to avoid unnecessary and exhausting prep work is to make sure that you are focusing on the things that really matter. Having goals in mind is key. We have to know where we’re going if we’re ever going to get there! To that end, I will ask myself, “what do I want to accomplish in the next session? What do the players want to accomplish in the next session?” These are deliberately two different questions. The answers to these questions tell me what environs I need to prep.
I write out a brief description of read-aloud text for the different places that my players might go. That will usually be enough that I can mentally see the space and then improvise any needed elaborations from there.
Then, I’ll note the important things and/or people in that space. For the people, it is important to know who they are and what they want, but it’s not necessary to have them completely scripted.
Finally, I’ll consider triggers and points of transition. When do the players see or encounter the interesting thing or person.
4. Keep Combat Moving
Nothing derails a game like getting bogged down in combat. Make sure that when combat is happening in your game that it is meaningful and has goals that add to the story. Otherwise, it will turn into a slog.
One thing that you can do is to prep encounters ahead of time. Pre-roll Initiative for the bad guys. Have whatever you are using to track HP and the order already set up. If possible, have the battle mat already arranged.
Also, don’t forget that not every fight has to be to the death. Sentient beings do not usually want to die. If the tide has turned against your baddies, have them surrender or run. That should also usually be an option for your players as well!
Finally, one thing that can make combat in 5E a slog is uninventive tactical choices or having your creatures simply bashing away at the players. A great resource that we are both constantly using (and recommending!) is The Monsters Know. Keith Ammann does a phenomenal job of giving advice for running creatures, but also making them feel realistic in combat.
5. Listen and Communicate
Carefully listen to your players. Yes, you should hear them when they tell you what their characters would like to do. Yes, you should pay attention to the intent of what they are describing their character doing. But your players communicate with you in a number of other ways.
It’s easy to tell when your players are having fun and engaging with your story. People having fun will smile. People having fun will exclaim! People having fun will argue with passion. That means that what you are doing in your game is working and you should note that and do more of that thing.
Communicating your expectations and thoughts and perceptions of your game to your players is also very beneficial. Let them know what you think is working and what you see could be improved. They may agree with you, but even more likely they will offer you a point of view on your game that you had not considered. That is invaluable data for planning your game moving forward.
Considering these five things will make your games run more smoothly as you are starting out and are good things to keep in mind for DMs of any experience level.
Is there anything specific that you feel that you struggle with while running the game? What are some of your best DM tips? Reach out and let us know below!
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