A few weeks ago, I began running a brand new Waterdeep: Dragon Heist campaign with a small group of friends. It was awesome! Our first session left me looking forward to a lot more. I’m jazzed to find out more about my player characters and I think that we established the foundation for an awesome campaign.
Here, at the beginning of a new game, I’ve found myself thinking back on other games I’ve started that did not necessarily get off to such a strong start. I’ve made plenty of mistakes as a DM, but I try to learn from them. If I could go back in time, I would tell “New DM Jonathan” these three things:
- Know and understand what kind of game you run
- Let the players know about the campaign setting and the themes to be explored before they make their characters
- Make sure that everyone (you included!) is set up to have fun
The following is good advice for if you are playing with a group or with one other player. In both scenarios, the complimentary ideas of communication and mindfulness thread throughout.
Hold on Loosely
I felt when I started that I had to have everything figured out. I would spend hours mapping out branching decision trees for paths I anticipated my players taking through a given adventure. I thought that was how one planned.
This was a mistake. In addition to wasting hours of my time creating content and answers for questions my players never asked, I was also signaling to my group that there were prescribed routes to be taken. Without meaning to, my planning and non-verbal (I confess, sometimes verbal) cues communicated that there was a “correct” answer to the question, “What do you do?”
Since planning differently and learning to hold on to those plans loosely, I have given myself the gift of time, and I have also become much more comfortable trusting my improvisation and my player’s ability to navigate a given scenario.
But Stick to Your Guns
Sometimes I’ll hear well-meaning folks speaking of the ideal, long-suffering DM sacrificing themselves on the altar of the player’s whims. This kind of talk makes me sad as the DM is a player at the table too! They deserve to have fun! For this reason, I would go back in time and encourage “New DM Jonathan” to resist being cajoled or pushed around too much by players.
Especially as a new DM, you are eager to make sure that your players are having a good time. It took a lot of time and effort to even get the game going. We want our players to feel good, and getting to do whatever they are trying to do will make them feel good and happy and they’ll want to keep playing D&D with us forever, right? Yes and no. Say yes when you can, but when the answer is no, stick to it. The players will respect you for it and will (most of the time) rise to the occasion from a difficult spot.
For instance, consider a scenario where a Rogue is tied up and they want to escape. You ask them make a Dexterity check to wriggle out or an Athletics check to break the binds. They ask to make a Sleight of Hand (because their bonus is better) and try to justify that it would constitute a related skill. You say, “NO! Roll the die!” and their check fails by a small margin. You feel bad, and they are upset because Sleight of Hand would’ve made them succeed and failing a check feels like, well, a failure.
Stay strong, New DM JonathanWith Love, Now DM Jonathan
Resisting that pressure to have everything work out for your players can be addressed by making sure that failures always advance the story in some way. This is a key concept that the RPG Open Legend stresses at its core.
A failure on a check does not mean that nothing happens. It is instead a “yes, and…” moment. Or I suppose a “no, but…” moment. The key thing is that the story progresses in some meaningful way. From the above example, the Rogue was not able to free their hands, but in struggling against the ropes, their chair topples over making a huge crash and attracting the jailer.
Skill checks are one area to think about sticking with the rules and your interpretation of them. It’s really meant to illustrate that its ok to be decisive and go with what your gut says. This does not mean that you won’t make mistakes. You will. But it’s ok; mistakes are how we learn.
Know what Kind of Game You Run and Express That
I enjoy running games that lean towards heavy roleplay and rare, but tactical combat. I tend to get frustrated when I have Slappy the Fool trying to make ranged attacks with banana cream pies. It breaks the immersion for me and for the other players that know the kind of game that I run. However, I used to make the mistake of not communicating that preference/expectation before starting a new campaign.
By failing to communicate the type of game I like to run, I created a situation that was not fair to the player who was unaware that their novelty clown would not have the chance to pants orcs consequence-free in my grimdark setting. Not to mention setting myself up to feel aggrieved for the duration of a campaign.
I do not mean to say that you, as the DM, need to set up some kind of draconian, “my way or the highway” type situation. Most games will have a blend of serious and absurd.
It is my desire here to encourage you to think about which way your games tend to tilt on that spectrum and communicate that reality to your players.
By having everyone on the same page before the first die is thrown, everyone at the table is much more likely to have a good time.
Session Zeros are key
The kind of conversation outlined above is ideal to have before character creation has even started.
Whether via email, or in person, speak with your players about the campaign world and themes, your expectations and preferences, and any table rules or homebrew before beginning in earnest. This is called a Session Zero.
Flesh Out the World
Your players may be coming into your campaign setting knowing nothing about the world that your game is set in, but your player’s characters would certainly know and understand their world on some level.
Let your players in on some of the major historical events, customs, cultures, environments, etc. that their characters would likely know about or understand. This will help them create characters that will fit neatly into your world.
Maybe you are fine with having homebrew options in your game. Many DM’s are reluctant. The danger with homebrew is that it has not been subjected to the battery of tests and rigorous balancing that the official options have.
Personally, I don’t mind a little homebrew, with the understanding that it will be retroactively altered if we discover it is too unbalanced. Communicating your thoughts and preferences for homebrew during a Session Zero can prevent a player from getting overly excited about their Vampire race before hitting the table.
Finally, my favorite thing about having a Session Zero is building the anticipation and excitement for your game. Talking about your upcoming game gives you a chance to preview themes and settings and get your players hyped up about running around in your imagined world.
How do you like to start your campaigns? Do you have any really good tips for things to consider when setting up a Session Zero? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!
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