“How do you keep everything straight as a DM?”
We received this question a little while ago, and it’s a really good one! In this post, we’ll discuss strategies for staying organized as a DM. Try them out, experiment, and you’ll find a method that works for you!
Tip #1: Set your priorities
Your D&D session probably isn’t going to go exactly as you have it laid out, which is good! That means you’re leaving the player space to create the story with you and to drive it forward. However, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have a lot to manage as a DM, hence the need to keep everything straight.
I think the simplest way to keep everything straight as a DM, especially when you’re just starting out, is to set your priorities. It’s going to be difficult to feel equal responsibility toward your player, their PC, the game rules, the story, the adventure you’ve written or have laid out in front of you, your setting…the list goes on.
Instead, we’re going to stay focused on two things: the player and the story.
Priority One: the player
Your most important responsibility as a DM in a one-on-one game is to the person across the table from you. We often talk about the importance of the player trusting you and knowing that you’re on their side, which will help them to feel confident in the RP and their decisions at the table.
Another facet of this priority is setting the player up to truly play their character. This doesn’t mean protecting them from tough choices, but be supportive if their character decides to do something that steers away from what you had planned.
If the PC’s actions run so far afield of what you have prepped that you can’t use your outlined material, tell them how impressed you are with their creativity and take a 15-minute break to reset and adjust. You’ll find a way to reuse the materials you had ready somewhere down the line.
Priority Two: the story
In a duet game, the PC’s desires, destiny, and personality are the primary determiners of the plot and, most likely, the PC will represent some aspect of the player—not their whole personality, but a part of them.
Especially when you’re first starting out playing together, this is how you’ll connect your two main priorities, the player (and, by extension, their PC) and the story you’re telling.
When we move from character to story, what we’re looking at is change, which is what stories are all about. How does this ordinary character in a fantasy world become a hero of great renown? Who do they have to become to bring that about and what do they have to do to spark that shift?
Focusing on story entails taking a zoomed-out approach, so you’re not looking at the narrative of a particular session but, instead, you’re trying to set up where the character’s overall arc is leading. Maybe you have a story arc that’s location-based or character-based, but either way, having a general sense of direction can help decrease the amount of pressure on any single session which, in our experience, sets you up for the most magic!
Making the player and the story your priorities will keep you from getting mired down in the mechanics or a villain’s evil monologue not working out exactly how you’d envisioned it.
If you get stuck or are having to juggle too many things, narrow your goals and focus back on the character. Can you bring in part of their backstory, like letting them encounter an important NPC from their past in a way they weren’t expecting?
Tip #2: Start with an outline
If your initial reaction to the suggestion of an outline is a groan, then you’re not alone. But this doesn’t have to be a Part I, A, B, C, Part II-type of outline. Instead, think of it as story pieces, which will help you maintain your flexibility in-game while also keeping the various pieces you’re juggling organized.
I like to organize my outlines by location and to list the NPCs that my player will meet there. This method helps me be less tied to a linear order and instead supports the PC’s freedom of movement around the particular setting where our game’s occurring that day. A modular setup can also help you to move NPCs and combats around as needed.
If you’d like to see an example of this type of outline, you can find it below or watch the video at the end of this post. These notes are from session zero of our Tales of Eldura game.
Don’t plan too much
A shared favorite strategy that Jonathan and I both use when we’re DMing is to create a problem that we don’t have a solution for.
In one of my favorite sessions, we needed to heist an important magical item, and Jonathan had hidden an assassin inside the room we were infiltrating who also wanted the item. He knew that he was going to help my PC get there, but how it would unfold after that—and if we would be able to get the item—were both left up in the air.
You can avoid narrowing the player’s options, sometimes referred to as railroading them, by not having a set “right” answer to solve the problem in front of them. This gives the player the creative flexibility to decide where they want to go and what they want to do, and it allows you as the DM to support and encourage their decisions.
This is where our story priority comes back in. You know, in general, where the narrative is heading, so you can facilitate the overarching story goals without pushing for a certain outcome or solution in single-session instances. Instead, if you know that eventually they need to cross over the dangerous mountain pass, you can leave it up to them to come up with a myriad of different ways to do just that.
DM Prep Example
Thinking about this post and some of the other DM prep questions we’ve received, I put together this video on how I set up for session zero of our duet adaptation of Descent into Avernus. We are playing online, so that changed my prep a little bit, but the overall outline remained the same.
You can check it out below!
We hope this has helped you set a strategy for keeping everything straight as a DM! If you keep the focus on the player and the story, set a loose outline, and don’t plan so much that you narrow your options, you’ll be prepared for amazing duet sessions!
What about you?
How do you keep everything straight as a DM? Let us know in the comments below!
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