Starting out as a brand new dungeon master (DM) or game master (GM) is a challenge no matter how much research or prep work you do. Reading all of the right books, watching other DMs, and learning the rules can certainly help. But when it comes right down to it, learning to be a good DM is a lot like learning to be a good cook—you just have to start, and expect a few dishes to taste terrible along the way.
That being said, learning as much as you can up front can help you improve much faster. So, what are some good tips for new DMs in Dungeons & Dragons? I’ve gathered up the most popular and helpful tips for game masters that I’ve found into one place. Check them out below and bookmark this page to use as a quick reference later.
Tips for Prepping a Session
- Build a framework for each session with the locations your group will likely visit, NPCs they may encounter, and enemies they might fight. I prefer to use the Lazy Dungeon Master approach.
- Plan problems, not solutions. Leave room for your players to come up with creative solutions rather than waiting for them to find the “right” way to do something.
- Don’t worry about trying to plan out every possible outcome of a scenario. It’s impossible to predict everything your players might do, and it will lead to a lot of extra (and often unnecessary) work for you.
- While you don’t have to memorize all the rules, you should do your best to master the basics. With an understanding of the fundamentals, you should be able to make an informed decision when a rules question does come up.
- Whenever possible, build scenarios that have multiple solutions: a combat solution, a diplomatic solution, and a clever or sneaky solution. You don’t have to make all three solutions equally attainable, though. For example, sneaking past the guards on the bridge might be more difficult than simply fighting them.
- If you’re just starting out as a new game master, you may want to start with a premade module. Modules allow you to practice the basics of DMing without worrying about world-building.
- If you are running a module, try to skim the entire book so you know the story and the world. Then, re-read individual chapters as your group reaches those areas.
- Review stat blocks for any enemies you think your group may encounter and consider what their fighting tactics would be (focus all on the same target, stay at a distance and shoot from range, etc.)
- Review your players’ character backstories and look for ways to incorporate elements into the session from time to time.
- Prepare as much or as little as makes you feel comfortable. More than anything, prepare to improvise.
Tips for Roleplaying NPCs
- When you act weird and crazy as an NPC, it gives your players unspoken permission to get more into their own characters without feeling awkward about it.
- Keep a list of names handy so you can quickly name a new NPC when your players inevitably ask about the random woman pushing a cart down the street. I love taping this list to my DM screen so I can glance at it at a moment’s notice.
- Accents aren’t the only tool for creating character voices. You can also try speaking faster or slower, in high or low pitches, or in various tones like cheerful, gloomy, or mad.
- Make a note of NPC names and details when you make them up on the fly. You never know which NPCs your players will latch on to, and you don’t want to forget what you named that woman with the cart who is now their best friend.
- Try basing your NPCs on characters you’re already familiar with, but add a twist. This will help you understand how they think and act while still making them feel unique. For example, for one wizard NPC I played, I imagined him as a cross between Doc Brown (Back to the Future) and Ian Malcom (Jurassic Park).
- Try to understand an NPC’s main motivations, and imagine what they might do in various situations. For example, if attacked, would this guard fight back? Run away? Call for help? Cry?
- Visuals can also help an NPC come to life. Try searching online for images that match your NPC, or draw your own if you’re artistically inclined (lucky…).
- NPCs can do more than just talk. Describing what an NPC is doing and how they are doing it can help bring a character to life as well (ex: fidgeting with a pocket watch nervously).
- Don’t feel like you have to make every NPC a totally unique and memorable character. Sometimes a barkeep will just be a barkeep, and that’s okay.
- On the other hand, don’t be afraid to make your “non-essential” NPCs quirky and fun. You never know who your players will become attached to during an adventure. Maybe that barmaid who showed them around town will help a player character learn to love again (this happened in one of my games).
Tips for Running a Session
- It’s okay to feel nervous. But if it makes you feel any better, read what the Angry GM has to say: “Your first game is going to suck. You’re going to be bad at it. But that should take a lot of pressure off of you. The outcome is certain: you will do badly. So, don’t worry about it.”
- As bad as your first session might be, remember that being a good GM takes practice. The more you do, the more you’ll learn and the better you’ll become.
- If the players need to know something in order to move forward, don’t hide it behind a skill check they might fail. Either allow them to notice the information without a check or use a check to determine how many specific details they get beyond the basic facts.
- Determine the DC of a skill check before you have your players roll rather than making it up after they roll really low or high. For quick reference, DC 5 is very easy, DC 10 is easy, DC 15 is moderate, DC 20 is difficult, DC 25 is very difficult, and DC 30 is nearly impossible.
- Some DMs will say that you should never fudge a roll behind your DM screen (that means deciding to use a different result than the number on the die). Others will say that it’s okay to do this from time to time in the name of making a better experience for the players (like to avoid killing a character or to allow a character’s spell to hit an enemy). My advice would be to find what works for you and your group, and run with it.
- Remember you aren’t working against your players. While you want to challenge them, you should also give them opportunities to be clever, sneaky, heroic, and successful.
- Make sure you know what your players’ unique abilities are so you can provide chances to use them. For example, throw a horde of zombies against a cleric who can Turn Undead, or use archers in a fight against a monk who can snatch arrows out of midair.
- Try to use a “Yes, and…” approach to your players’ choices. This means instead of denying a possibility (saying no) you build on what a player wants to do by asking for the necessary checks. Keep in mind that the “Yes, and…” approach doesn’t mean the characters get to succeed in everything they try—you’re just allowing them to make an attempt.
- Here’s a great tip for GMs from Matt Colville: “Listen to your players. They will come up with [ideas] you never thought of, but they don’t know you didn’t think of it.” For example, maybe the players suspect an NPC is plotting against them; while originally that wasn’t in your plan, maybe it should be!
- Don’t get bogged down in trying to look up every rule right on the spot. If a player wants to backflip onto a giant spider, and nobody at the table is sure about the rules for that action, make a call that makes sense to you. Keep the game moving. You can always look up the rules later so you know how to handle that situation next time.
Tips for Enhancing Your Sessions
- Experiment with music and ambient sounds to add to the mood of your sessions. You can find a ton of free music on YouTube, Tabletop Audio, and Spotify.
- Try asking each player for a picture of their character, or how they imagine their character looking. Then print these off, laminate them, and hang them from your DM screen for everyone to see.
- You can also print off and laminate images of important NPCs, locations, villains, and anything else you think might be helpful for the players to visualize.
- Introducing props can be a lot of fun if you’re the crafty type. I’ve heard of people brewing up potions for their players to drink, giving out handwritten letters from important NPCs, creating magical items, and more.
- Get snacks or drinks that fit with the theme of the session. Perhaps the characters have been invited to a dinner in the game, so have some of that food at the table in real life.
- Some GMs use incense or scented candles to add to the environment. I once played in a game where the dungeon master used a different scent for each level of the dungeon we were exploring.
- Send letters or packages from an NPC in the mail to your players for them to open during a future session.
- If your players are up for it, try a session in full character costumes.
- Using terrain pieces and figurines during a combat encounter can make it even more thrilling. If you’re crafty you can try making your own!
- Create a challenge for your players to overcome off the table like finding objects hidden around the room, competing in a dance-off, and putting together a puzzle. Making them get up and do something can be a fun way to mix up a session.
Tips for Managing Players
- Set expectations up front with your players for what content, character types, etc. are allowed in the game. Make it a conversation so your players have a chance to weigh in with their opinions and you are all on the same page before the game starts.
- You may want to dedicate some time before the game to talk about lines and veils—that is, subject matter that your players don’t want to have in the game or don’t want to have played out in detail.
- If you ever encounter a problem player, your go-to strategy should be to talk to them outside of the session. Find time to chat with them in person about their behavior, explain why that behavior is hindering the game, and work together to find a solution.
- Don’t be afraid to say no if a character’s or player’s behavior makes you uncomfortable. The “Yes, and…” rule doesn’t mean anything goes.
- You may have to talk to a problem player more than once to get the conversation to stick. However, if after a few one-on-one talks they still haven’t improved their poor behavior, it might be time to ask them to leave the group.
- Avoid punishing problem players with in-game consequences for their characters. Out-of-game issues need to be handled out of the game.
- If you feel like a player isn’t very engaged, try asking them what they’ve enjoyed the most so far or what they enjoy most about D&D in general. Then you can make adjustments in the future to try to incorporate more of these elements in future sessions.
- If you have quieter, more timid players in your group, try asking them directly from time to time what their character is doing while others are taking action.
- Remember that you should be having fun as a game master, too. If you aren’t enjoying the group or the game, you are allowed to stop or make changes.
- Take the “same team” approach with your players. You are all working together to make this game as enjoyable as possible, so don’t feel like you have to manage everything on your own. Ask for their input, ideas, and support when you need it.
Whether you’re a brand new DM who is starting their first adventure or a veteran DM of 20 years, all dungeon masters ask themselves the same question: Am I a good DM? It’s natural. We want our hard work to mean something; we want our vision to come alive for our players.
The definition of a good game master is subjective and changes based on what kind of player you’re asking. But if you follow these tips and practice practice practice, you’ll be well on your way.