Thursday, December 7, 2017

5 Tips on DMing the First Time

Knowing that DMing for the first time is scary, and feeling their first time viscerally in their bones, most DMs will present a list like this encouragingly.  They will rush to celebrate the new DM's courage, love of the game and generous spirit, hoping to create a wonderful positivity that argues that if you want really, really bad to be a great DM, and you believe you can be a great DM, then anything is possible.

This is not a list like that.

See, unlike other lists that purport to give advice on what to do if it's your first time as a DM, giving you zero help, this one seeks to tell you what you need to know.  And just so long as we understand each other, part of this advice takes the position that maybe you are not cut out to be a DM.  The fact is, maybe you're not the right material for this.  Maybe you shouldn't DM at all.

No, this isn't some clever psyche job.  I'm being dead serious.  Some people are shit at DMing.  I'm not trying to inspire you to get mad, tell me I know nothing, so you can find the confidence you need to be great. I want you to be consciously aware that running a game requires a mindset that you might not possess.  See, unlike those who will spoon feed you and tell you that anyone can DM, I don't agree.  I think most can't.  I think they know this, deep down inside ... so if you're someone who suspects, deep down inside, that you can't run a game, then you're probably right.  And you need to face that.

Good.  Let's get started.

None of this advice is easy.  But if you follow it ~ if you can follow it ~ then you might prove to others that you can do this.

1.  Research

I hope you've played before.  In the very least, you've got to see another DM run a game ~ an actual DM, not someone on a youtube channel, playing it up for an audience, where everyone plays politely because they're being watched by tens of thousands of people.  Or because they work for a game company.

Assuming you've played ~ and if you haven't, stop now, go play for about six months, then come back and read the rest of this ~ it's time to figure out what you believe.  I suggest writing down, for as long as it takes, at least twenty things that you've seen other DMs do that you disagree with.  The way they talk, the way they present, the adventures they run, how they manage people, how they've treated you, how they roll dice, whatever it is that bugs you.  Write it down.  Look at it.  Understand why you think it is bad behaviour ... and then precisely how and why you're not going to do the same thing when you're a DM.

If you can't think of a thing, don't DM.  You either haven't run long enough, or you're incapable of seeing how DMs are screwing with their players.  And seriously ~ if there's one magnificent DM that you know, that the sun rises and sets upon, then drop any hope that you will ever DM.  You're far, far too naive and poorly educated to be in any position where you have to manage people.

Now, maybe you can't think of twenty things.  Fair enough.  Try for ten.  If not ten, then five.  If you can't come up with five, no one can help you.  If you can managed ten or twelve, I can give you a pass ... for now.  But you're going to have a lot of trouble, because you haven't got a voice of your own.  You're not remotely prepared to answer confidently most of the questions you're going to be asked by players, who will certainly dig out and find everything they think is wrong with your game play, and exploit the ever-living shit out of you, their newest punching bag.

You might get better at seeing errors in others if you give yourself more time playing.  Eventually, with enough playing, and enough DMs, you might start to see patterns that indicate bad running techniques.  But truly, if you don't come out of the gate thinking, "Everyone else is doing it wrong!" ~ you're probably not of the right stuff.

2.  Know Your Game

You've probably heard this before.  And maybe, just maybe, you've read through all the rules (once) and now you think you've got this.  Or maybe you think with all your playing experience, you're ready.  Okay.  I understand that feeling.  But no.  You're not ready.

You're not going to be a player, now.  You're going to be a DM.  That is a different game.  You used to play for fun and laughs, but now you're going to play for a sense of satisfaction.  You're going to be too busy to have a good time ... and if you are having a good time, then guess what: you are seriously jacking your players, using them as your little pawns in a game you absolutely should not be playing!

But if you're evil in this way, I probably can't help you.  lf, however, you find yourself sitting at a table with a bunch of social rejects, who can't find a shower on their way to your house, who can't seem to find a garbage for their empty cheezie bags, using their orange, grubby fingers to make their grubby noses orange, then don't blame me.  Evil DMs do find players ... a particular kind of player, the sort that would probably frighten you now ... but one day you will be screaming at someone that these are, "My best friends!"

Know your game.  Know what you want out of this.  Is it to expand your experience, talents and social circle, or is this the beginning of a dangerous drift into obesity and forties-something infantilism?  You decide. The kind of players you will have applaud you will depend on your decision.

And if it happens that "your game" is going to be too high-brow for this bunch of dumb-asses you play with, or "your game" is going to be too much "fun" for these self-righteous college students you don't respect, then probably you shouldn't run a game at this time.  It would be a bad idea.  One that might cripple you for some time.

3.  You're the Referee

If it's necessary, go watch a professional football game, straight through.  Live, even at the high school or college level, is a thousand times better than one televised.  While there, watch the referees.  Take note of a few things.

The Refs decide when the game starts and the Refs decide when the game stops.  When the Ref blows a whistle, everyone acts.  They stop what they're doing and move on.  When someone does something against the rules, the Refs call it.  They stand their ground.  They don't argue with the players; they let the players bitch and moan, but in the end, the Refs are never, ever wrong.

The Refs are never wrong because they know the rules cold, and they see everything.  Players bitch and moan, but the players know the Refs are right, because that's the fact, Jack.  And because, if the players don't accept it, the door is thataway.

But understand.  The Refs are never deliberately jerks.  If another Ref were to see a Ref being a jerk, the jerk would very quickly never be a Ref again, ever.  They all know this.  If you think the Refs are harsh when they call a player, they're freaking psychotic about calling other Refs.

That's you.  Or, at least, that's what you think you want to be.  Someone who knows the rules, someone able to be utterly without personal bias, someone ready to stand their ground against any argument, no matter who is screaming or how loud they're screaming.  Without, if possible, losing your temper.

You, and not the players, are running this game.  They have to believe that.  You have to believe that.  And you have to work very damn hard to get that message across.  Believing won't cut it on it's own.  The players will also believe it when you prove, over and over, that you're one step smarter than they are, because you're the expert.  You're the rules guy.  You're the one who got to the conclusion before they did.

Start figuring out how you're going to do that, because if you can't on your own, you're never going to be a DM.

4.  Don't Write a Story

Everyone who gives advice to new DMs says, "Come up with a good story!"  Don't.  Don't try.  You've never DM'd before and even if you've been a story teller all your life, you don't know how to tell a story in the context of this game.  And I'll bet you're not a story teller.

Look, this game is complicated enough.  Spare yourself some misery.  Forget the damn story idea.  Kill it with a spade, then use the spade to bury it.  It's your first game.  I'll explain what you should do.

Have them fight something.  Something very uncomplicated.  Orcs.  Giant rats.  Slow-moving tree stumps. Anything that swings and hits or swings and misses.  Nothing more complicated than that.  You're not used to running this damn game ... you need time to practice the simple stuff.

Okay.  They've won.  Now think of a reason to give them treasure.  It doesn't have to be a good reason, it just has to be a reason.  Now think of a reason to get them into another fight.  Then a reason to give them more treasure.  Then find a reason to get them to a town, so they can buy stuff.  And then find a reason to get them into another fight.

Do this until your reasons for moving from this thing to the next thing start to impress them.  Do this until the reasons start to impress you.  All this practice at coming up with reasons is going to make you a lot better at coming up with connections for things.

These reasons are called motivations. Getting them from one thing to the next thing is called momentum. There.  That's all you need to know right now.

I know, this doesn't sound exciting.  You're not ready for exciting. You're ready to learn how to run combats and figure out how much treasure to award, and that's it.  That's enough on your plate right now.

And if some jackass in your group says, "This is boring," you just come right back at them with, "Fuck you, I'm learning how to run this fucking game.  You can shut up and like it or you can sit in this fucking chair and run this thing yourself!"

Hey, I ran for five years doing nothing more than schlepping people from combat to market to combat.  No one ever, ever complained.  In fact, they really liked it ... especially as I got better and better with all the confidence I had gained learning how to run combats and award treasure.

5.  Don't Let Anyone Write a Backstory

If you give this a moment's thought, you will realize that when you used to write backstories, you would always use them to manipulate your DM into letting you do stuff, because your character "needed it." Backstories are ways for players to top from the bottom, if we can use that phrase.  You're not experienced enough for that noise.

For your first campaign, give all your players amnesia.  Tell them none of them can remember a single thing about their former lives.  And if they demand to know how they can restore their memories, tell them, "It's impossible."

Make it stick.

Trust me.  No backstories.  You will be real sorry if you don't listen.  And real damn glad if you do.


James said...

I really like all this advice. Backstories seem like a great idea, and really aren't.

Alex W. said...

"You're going to be too busy to have a good time"

Not convinced that these two things are mutually exclusive. I work my ass off DM'ing but still manage to have a good time. And, no, my players don't have cheese dust all over their hands!

On the other hand, maybe players would have no problem building this list of 20 things in my games.

Alexis Smolensk said...


The FIRST time you DM you're going to be too busy to have a good time. Not the last time you DM'd.

And you may, as it happens, have a good time ... but admit it. You don't play FOR a good time any more.

JB said...

Why wasn't THIS section in my Dungeon Masters Guide?
: )

Robin Irwin said...

very useful, and to the point. It took longer than I thought to come up with 20 things. But I eventually did. I began to take issue with your last bit about not having a backstory. I personally hate long ones, because death happens in my games. So I started asking for a couple sentences only for those who wanted to do it. But I ultimately agree, backstories are too much for a gm, especially a new one, to deal with. They are not necessary for player fun.

D-Squared said...

Regarding backstory, the player should be able to answer this one question: why is your character adventuring? That is all a DM (new or otherwise) really need.

Alexis Smolensk said...


The answer is simple. Because D&D is a game. I don't ask why the Top Hat wants to go around the monopoly board.

I do not want to let this sink into a debate about the backstory. Fundamentally, I wrote a post about role-playing earlier in the year, which gives my opinion about the motivations for participants. Please, if anyone has any discussion about the necessity of backstories for playing, please write them on this post:

The only relevance of backstories to the post above is that NEW game managers are not equipped to deal with the manner in which players will use a backstory to manipulate a DM. If you want to talk about how players do that with a backstory, or you wish to contend that players use a backstory for manipulation purposes, please write those comments here. That discussion would be relevant to the above.

Thank you.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Scratch that. I've just finished a new post about Backstories on Dec 8th. Address your backstory comments there.

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

Excellent advice. Should be in a large font in every introductory set.

Drain said...

This is advice I'd build a house atop of.

The convoluted twist, from my experience, comes from the fact that the people that have no skill at DMing are usually your friends and co-players: your RPGing social circle.

It quickly turns into a spiral of adulthood (a commodity not always found in vast abundance in the medium) to navigate the minefield and avoid a sicilian daisy-chain of "you won't play with me so I sure as hell won't play with you".

The solution, of course, comes from not being a bloody hermit crab and having enough of a pool of people that these considerations become obviated by the laws of the market.

Archon said...

Damn. Would have killed for this when I started. I had ... maybe half of that down from prior reading.

Bookmark'd (and added to the "You know about D&D, right?" pile.