So, you’re running your first one shot for your group, and you’re absolutely terrified. It’s okay, I’ve been there. Every new DM has been there. You’re scared your players will hate the adventure you’ve spent so long on creating, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Your players are honestly just happy to get a chance to play for once in their busy lives. Being an adult tabletop gamer is one of the most difficult hobbies to have. Not only is it an expensive buy in, but getting a group of 4-6 adults together with revolving work schedules is a balancing act by its self.
Luckily for you I have ran enough games in my brief 26 years of existence to bring a list of tips for any would be new DM. Whether you’re a new game master on the table top, or a seasoned Dungeon Master looking to get out of a funk, I hope this list helps you as much as it would’ve helped me in my beginnings.
When In Doubt, Make It Up
I wish someone would’ve told me this when I first started running Dungeons and Dragons. I was that guy that spent weeks preparing an adventure by memorizing a module front to back. I’d get into the game, my players would be following the hook nicely then the inevitable happened. My players went off trail in search for things that had absolutely nothing to do with the story. Boy, I panicked. They started asking for the closest town, so I nervously flipped through the module to see if the author drafted up a town. He didn’t by the way. I was sitting there sweating bullets trying to explain there wasn’t one in the adventure. What a way to break immersion, right?
Over the years I’ve learned that most any tabletop RPG is 30% lore and 70% bullshit. Pardon my French, but it’s true. Any time a you ask to check an ornate chest in a dungeon, do you seriously think your DM prepared what’s inside? Nope. It usually sounds like this:
“Oh, uh, you find *rolls dice* uh, 37 gold pieces, and a wrapped up hemp rope.”
It’s improve. Being able to improve on any situation is the key to being a successful DM. Yeah, you have to get your players back on track, but use what they give you to do it.
Do Not Over Prepare Adventures
There is absolutely nothing worse than spending night after night crafting a detailed city for your players to explore, and then they aren’t even interested. Like, they do all they can to simply not be in that city. Every faction, every item in shops, every encounter, and every NPC are forgotten about to go hang out with a Tabaxi named Mr. Mittens.
So, no one ever gave me this advice, but one of the best things you can do for yourself is don’t build the whole world. Let the adventure your running be almost fluid. Create the world as your players move from section to section. The way I write an adventure is kind of like a flow chart. I have bubbles containing major events that I want to have happen in the adventure, and directional arrows keeping them in chronological order. That’s it. Yeah, I have a setting (usually Baldur’s Gate, duh), and have the players take it from there.
This system works perfectly for any TTRPG system, because there is no way your players can inadvertently skip major plot points. Oh, your players want to mess around at the town market? Boom those bandits jump the party. Do they decide to search the surrounding farmland instead of the market? Guess who’s waiting. Those same bandits you cooked up. You essentially build encounters that can be plugged anywhere your players decide to take the story. It’s flawless and my playes have a blast, because they do what ever they want, when they want. I just throw in a little drama and theatrics.
Make Things Personal With Your Big Bad Guy
One of the quickest things you can lose your players’ interest is presenting them with a villain they just don’t care about. Oh that bandit leader is terrorizing a town on the other side of the island? Cool. Good luck y’all. Presenting players with gold as a reward is a very archaic way of hooking your players into an adventure. I figured out the key to every successful campaign is making things deeply personal between the players and the campaign’s main antagonist.
Making a good villain requires a senses of intimacy between players and the antagonists. Perhaps he/she was a party member at one point and has gone rogue forcing the party to eventually put them down in a final, emotional confrontation. Another scenario can potentially have an NPC that you’ve designed your players to absolutely fall in love with, only to be savagely murdered like Glen from The Walking Dead. Avenging one’s friend is a classic example of a personal conflict that can still be utilized today. Sometimes you have to get a little creative with your villains, but if you take the time to give your players a real reason to cross mountains and oceans to reach them, the climax on the campaign will be satisfying to you and your group.
Another small piece of advice is have a notebook with random names in it for NPCs made up on the spot. Nothing is more embarrassing than naming an NPC Billy McBillyington cause you got put on the spot. I’ve been there…many…many times.
If you’re a new DM looking to run your first game, good job! Just remember that crafting these adventures are supposed to be a fun experience. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to craft an epic saga, sometimes simplicity is the best routes to take. Let us know your experience with being a new DM, and if you need advice you can reach us on our Facebook, or when ever we’re live on Twitch. As always, be kind to each other, and show the world that love still exists in this world.