Been a while since I did one of these RPG-themed posts. The last half dozen role-playing pieces I wrote were aimed at new players, but I figured today I'd toss a bone to the poor, unfortunate souls sitting behind the Screen for the first time who are, without a doubt, going to make these mistakes (and dozens, if not hundreds, more). While it's challenging being a player, and it can be a lot of work figuring out what sort of a character you want to play and how best to utilize their skills within the group dynamic, being a DM is an entirely different experience that requires one to develop a new skill set. Make no mistake, the first few times you take up that mantle, you're going to make mistakes. A lot of those mistakes will come from inexperience, and some of them will come from being forced to adjudicate on the fly, but it seems like no matter how prepared and how ready you are to be a Dungeon Master, every last new DM (including myself) makes all of these mistakes. Here's how not to do so, before it's too late.
Mistake 1: "I'm not a real DM unless I'm building an entire campaign world from scratch."
Pre-written adventures, for some reason, get a lot of flack from a certain segment of the gaming population. There seems to be a prevailing notion among this group that, if you're using content someone else wrote, then you aren't a real Dungeon Master. After all, back in the old days, people like Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson didn't wait for other people to write their adventures, they took the bull by the horns and built entire realms like Greyhawk and Blackmoor: iconic settings that still stand today, long after their creators failed their System Shock rolls and passed on to the Happy Hunting Grounds or wherever their spirits now reside. So what do you, as a Dungeon Master, want to do? Do you want to create your own realm to stand the test of time, or do you want to write D&D fanfic by using the world, pantheons, and adventures somebody else already wrote for you? Especially for grognards who grew up playing D&D under the original woodgrain box rules, before there was a Forgotten Realms or a Ravenloft, the choice is obvious.
While there's nothing wrong with wanting to build your own campaign from the ground up, and it's something I encourage every Dungeon Master to try at some point, these people are advocating a style of play best suited to DMs who have absurd amounts of free time and are willing to devote all of it to re-inventing the wheel. If that's you, feel free to disregard this advice and dive right into the deep end. If that's not you, and especially if this is your first time serving as a DM, let's understand why using someone else's adventure and campaign setting is the best idea in the world.
Being a DM is a lot of work. Adventures and campaigns written by professional designers take a ton of that work off your shoulders so you can concentrate on the important thing, which is hosting an adventure your players will find memorable. As a novice DM, one of the biggest issues you're going to run into is how to balance things. Published scenarios, whether they are one-shots or long-running boxed sets, have the advantage of being subjected to rigorous playtesting, often by multiple groups. This means they've been tweaked to (hopefully) eliminate most major errors and balanced such that the average party of the designated level range will have a decent chance to at least reach the climax. Your goal as a DM should be to present a fun and challenging set of circumstances to your players, and in the beginning, this will be much more manageable if you let someone else tackle the heavy lifting of mapping, writing encounters, and plotting out the story. You don't have to, of course, but it does make things easier as a beginner.
Mistake 2: The Never-Ending Info-Dump.
"Your party has been summoned to Drat'thul Tower, deep in the heart of Eiriniye Forest, by the powerful sorcerer Vizanther who, it is rumored, slew Shadrakk Baan, his own master, to acquire both his power and his fortress. Eiriniye Forest is populated by the Vix Moel, a race of tree-dwelling were-foxes who drove out the Kyleerie elves seven centuries ago. The Kyleerie have never forgotten this slight, and have vowed revenge upon the Vix Moel, but are biding their time until conditions are ripe. Meanwhile the dwarves of Rockhome in the Kraggul Mountains to the south have gone to war with the Green Scale Kobolds, who settled in the Caverns of Chult to serve Ythidress the Baneful, a powerful old green dragon who poisoned Lake Lamor and caused the death of every human in the town of Lamor twenty years prior. While all of this is going on, the power-mad Necromancer by the name of Pontus Qenthelis is raising an army of undead to the north, where it is assumed his first target will be the freehold of Nusk. Nusk is governed by Tamsin Lightwing, an alignment-shifted Fiend formerly known as Tamsin Darkshadow who broke to the surface of the world, first beheld a rainbow, and pledged her support to the realm of Aamus in holding back the dark tide of demons which threatened to spill forth from Durbin's Rift and overrun the Duchy of--"
As a first-time campaign designer and builder, yes, you're going to be excited by the prospects of this new world you've created (or that you've come upon in published form). There's nothing at all wrong with writing up all of that information, and hell, while I just came up with all that off the top of my head, I have to admit, I'm kind of intrigued at developing most of those ideas into their own places in my world. But one thing you have to understand is that your players don't need to know everything from the start.
Without going back up there and re-reading, do you remember any of those weird names? Any of those locations? Maybe one or two, but unless you're blessed with an eidetic memory, there's no way you absorbed all of that. Hell, I wrote all of that and I don't remember all of it. What's more, you don't need to.
"But this is their world! My players deserve to know what's going on in it!"
Yes, of course they do. And you put a lot of work into building that world, designing this adventure, preparing them for what lies ahead. But I promise you, if you throw all of that at them from the start, you'll see eyes glazing over before you hit the part about the dwarves. As a DM, you're going to be excited to share this whole new world with your players and their PCs. But there's a right way and a wrong way to do it, and the wrong way is what you just saw above: the info-dump.
As a DM, you have to resist the urge to spew information at your players like it's a hose and they've all caught on fire. The better, and much more memorable, way to relay this information is in an organic fashion. Remember that, especially if you're starting a low-level campaign, your PCs aren't going to have access to a whole lot of information. They might be aware, peripherally, of major events happening elsewhere around them, but they won't be aware of the details unless they're caught up in the middle of it. They may know, for instance, that a clan of dwarves and a tribe of kobolds are going at it up in the mountains, but unless they are dwarves themselves who hail from that part of the world, they're not going to know, or really even care, about the specifics unless and until it involves them or the people they know directly.
Info-dumps are fun for the DM, and miserable for everyone else. As a DM, you know exactly how much of this information will pertain to your group. As players, however, nobody will have a clue and they'll stress over trying to write down and memorize names, places, and terms that may have no bearing on the campaign for quite some time. Part of being a good DM is learning how to parcel out that information into bite-sized and digestible bits, reinforcing the most important bits (foreshadowing other quests, for instance) so that when the PCs run across new information their players are able to slip it into the relevant place. Trust me, as a DM, nothing is more exciting than watching your players piece together the clues you've been slipping into the world bit by bit and coming up with the next adventure hook all by themselves. An info-dump denies them this opportunity, and should be avoided whenever possible.
Mistake 3: Plot Railroading
Railroading is a hot topic among gamers, with some believing it's the worst use of DM fiat imaginable and condemning it under all circumstances, while others sing its praises as a way to keep a campaign on track and prevent a lot of extra work on the part of the Dungeon Master. "Railroading" your players as a DM is similar to putting them on a train which stops and opens its doors on a set schedule, with the DM as a conductor: they are entirely at your mercy, as they can only disembark when they reach the destination you've set for them. When you do this, you are removing agency from your players to ensure they play the game and the quest exactly as you've set it up for them. Used in small doses and at the correct times, a plot railroad can ensure the players stick to the path. Used too much, or improperly, and a railroad destroys player enjoyment as they feel nothing they do can affect the outcome.
Examples of railroading are legion, and include (but aren't limited to):
- Declaring as the DM the next move the PCs need to make and going down that route without regard for your players' agency.
- Using NPCs to perform actions the PCs should be doing in order to drive the plot forward.
- Spuriously deciding actions one or more PCs take automatically fail or can't be done, especially if logic dictates otherwise.
- Refusing to adapt to critical thinking on the part of your players when they've come up with a reasonable way of solving a puzzle or hamstringing a bad guy's plans.
- Placing larger and larger obstacles in front of the PCs to prevent them from accomplishing what should be an otherwise normal task.
- Arbitrarily killing PCs for reasons related to their player's interaction with you, the DM.
A certain amount of railroading is not only understandable, but unavoidable. Indeed, many players will railroad themselves just to make life easier for the DM. After all, if the DM has prepared an adventure which takes the players down into the Mines of Menace, deciding as a party that you're going to instead travel ten miles up the road to see what opportunities exist in the next village is kind of a dick move which may result in a delayed or even cancelled session since the DM wasn't prepared for such a thing.
If your players are considering, or decide on, a course of action for which you as the DM are unprepared and unable to wing, there's no harm in letting your players know that. That's not railroading, that's being honest, especially if their actions will require you to create new content out of whole cloth and you're not very good at making stuff up as you go. But if your sole reason for keeping them out of the forest is to prevent them from finding the bad guy's lair before they even know it's there, especially if they uncover a clue that points them in that direction, that's poor DMing.
Some players feel like the DM should operate in sandbox mode at all times. After all, in Skyrim, a player can completely abandon a quest at any point and go do something else for six weeks, then pick it back up again. The average DM, however, is ill-equipped to do this. It's not impossible, but most players understand the limitations of their human referee and will understand a bit of railroading. What they won't stand for is NPCs (or worse, DM-controlled PCs) solving the puzzle, killing the big baddie, or grand-standing in other ways. Don't do that.
Mistake 4: "I have to memorize the WHOLE adventure."
No, you don't.
Now, I will admit, it can make things a lot easier if you have memorized the entire adventure, and you should always read through it and check the maps to make sure you get the background information and understand the flow, but unless you're preparing to run a one-shot that will take your players 3-4 hours to play, there's no reason at all to memorize the entire adventure.
Instead, what I've found helpful is to make either a physical or a mental checklist of things PCs will need to do in order to progress the adventure from one point to the next, and what you should see emerge is a rough "chapter" system that will usually funnel adventurers from one place to the next. I'll give an example.
In my current campaign, which involves a number of first-time players, I'm using Bruce Cordell's The Sunless Citadel as the starting adventure. I picked this module for several reasons, but chief among them is my familiarity with it (I've run it for other groups in the past), my love for it as a module with something for virtually every character class to participate in, and the fact Wizards was kind enough to convert it to 5E in Tales From the Yawning Portal means I could save a lot of time by not having to do the work myself. I'm going to avoid any spoilers from beyond where we are in the campaign, because some of my players read my work here, but one can easily break down the first few sessions into convenient chapter stops:
The PCs all meet one another, explain their back-stories, and travel to the village of Oakhurst. In Oakhurst, they learn that the son and daughter of the manager of the general store have gone missing, along with a paladin, a ranger, and someone else one specific member of the party is looking for. They learn about the strange fruit, and several party members are interested in acquiring samples for different purposes. All evidence concerning both the fruit and the missing people point towards the Sunless Citadel, a fortress which fell into a giant crevasse during a cataclysmic event years ago. Having met the townsfolk and picked up the plot threads, they journey to the crevasse and make camp for the night.
After dealing with some strange and unfamiliar creatures during the evening, they break camp and begin their descent into the Citadel. Their explorations lead them to a melancholic kobold who was caretaker of the tribe's dragon. Unfortunately the dragon was stolen in a goblin raid, and he's now on everybody's shit list for failing to keep the dragon safe. By agreeing to help him, the PCs meet the kobold queen, who allows them safe passage through the kobold domain in exchange for their assistance in bringing the dragon back. Using the dragon's keeper as a sort of guide, they arrive at the "back door" to the goblins' lair, and proceed inside, looking for clues and dealing with the unfriendly denizens of the goblin-controlled areas.
This is as far as we've gotten as a group, having only played for two sessions, but if I was splitting the module up into chapters, this is exactly how I would have broken it down so far. I know what's coming next, I have a good idea of what my players need to accomplish before they can advance to the next phase of the plot, so all I need to prepare for each session is what I think my players will encounter, and then a little beyond, just in case they overcome certain challenges faster than I anticipate. There's no need to memorize everything in the book, just what grounds the party is likely to cover next time we get together.
Obviously if you're building a long-running campaign, and you have plans to nudge the plot in one direction or another, you'll need to make sure you're familiar enough with the pace of the campaign that you can plant those plot points (or red herrings) in their appropriate locations. Otherwise, don't over-work yourself. If your group isn't going to reach the third level of the dungeon in the next session, there's no reason to prep for levels four and five. Instead, focus on the overall flow instead of specific encounters, and prepare only what you need to prepare. Leave the rest for later. You'll be just fine.
Mistake 5: Excessive Hand-Holding
As a DM, it's only natural to want your players to succeed. It's no fun when the action grinds to a halt because nobody at the table is good at solving riddles, but the module dictates they can't find the secret door until they've figured out the room's specific trick. Likewise, all players love accumulating sweet loot, so the temptation to shower them with money and magic can be hard to resist. There's nothing wrong with making your PCs a little wealthier, or nudging them in the right direction if you can find an in-game reason for doing so (whether that's an NPC remembering a tidbit of conversation they overheard, or allowing the Elf with 18 Intelligence the opportunity to roll against a DC to solve the riddle), but overdoing it will make your players reliant on you as the DM to get them out of bad situations. If you do that, you'll take away the challenge, and much of the enjoyment, of the game itself. One of the hardest thing to do, especially when players are smacking their heads against the wall, is to keep your mouth shut.
You have to do it anyway.
Part of being a good DM means adjudicating the difference between PC knowledge and player knowledge. Novice players may well forget about rules that benefit them, or actions they can take, and there's nothing wrong with doing your duty as the DM to remind them that if they Dash out of combat they'll risk an attack of opportunity, but if they take the Disengage action, they can move without letting their opponent get in a free shot. It's also fine to remind players to re-read their character sheets, think about objects they've picked up or equipment they found, to re-check the map to see if there are any areas they haven't explored, and other things its easy for beginners to overlook or forget. If you speak a second language in real life, you aren't going to forget that if it comes up in conversation, but a player may not remember they took 'Infernal' as a language. If a PC would know something (because it's recorded on their character sheet), but the player has forgotten, your duty as a DM is to remind them of that.
On the other hand, if your players insist on playing their PCs foolishly, even after one or two gentle reminders that this may not be a good idea, let the dice fall where they may. Either one of two things will happen: the player will learn "YOLO!" is not a sensible philosophy when it comes to single-handedly halting a demonic invasion, or they will succeed against overwhelming odds and you'll wind up refereeing a session everyone remembers for years to come. If it's the first, then hopefully their next PC will do better. If it's the latter, you'll be hailed as the DM who ran that epic session and everybody will definitely show up again next week.
Don't be afraid to let characters fail. Players learn best when PCs die, and while it's a hard lesson to learn, it's one every player will have to face sooner or later. Don't kill PCs just because the dice dictate it, but if their gods intervene every time one of them stumbles into a pit trap, you've gone too far in the other direction.
Thanks for reading! If you have any other tips for fledgling DMs, want to see more articles like this, or were about to call me an asshole, the comments section is open for business! And with any luck, the next time you get behind the screen will be better than the previous ones. May all your hits be crits!