Experienced DM’s, this article is not for you, so move along. Nothing to see here…
In July, it’ll be a year since I started DM’ing. Unfortunately, we don’t get to play as often as I’d like, so my time behind the screen doesn’t come about often enough. Nevertheless, the amount of time we do get to play has given me enough experience DM’ing where I believe I can share some helpful suggestions to those beginner DM’s who are running their first games. DM’ing is fun, but it is a time consuming task if you want to make your sessions memorable and fun for your players. Here’s some stuff I’ve picked up on this past year:
1. Be prepared. If you have a span of a few weeks between sessions, you have no reason to not have anything ready for the next time you play. Assume you’ll get through 4 encounters in about 4 hours, so plan accordingly. Try having your battle maps pre drawn on 1″ gridded easel paper to avoid having to draw at the table. Another alternative is to have your dungeon tiles arranged and mounted on a piece of foam board so you can just place it on the table when you need it. Try to not have to spend time drawing. Keep the action moving.
2. Use an encounter and initiative tracker, with the monsters’ initiative pre-rolled, the treasure parcel you’ll be giving already determined, and the xp calculated for the amount of players you will have. This is a real time saver. When the encounter ends, you can just read off the amount of XP earned, rather than having to use a calculator at the table to divide xp. Move on to the fun stuff, and away from the math.
3. Have your counters or minis separated by encounter and ready to go. You don’t want to be fumbling around your counter stash looking for the 5 ghouls you’re going to throw against your party. Have all your monsters in separate piles, per encounter. That way, when the next fight begins, you’re ready to go. 1″ counters fit prefectly in coin tubes made for “small dollars”. They are available on Ebay very cheap. I use these and swear by them.
4. Study the tactics that the monsters you are using can employ against the party. Don’t play dragons too dumb and zombies too smart. It’s not a very nice feeling when you’ve got a kick ass encounter planned, then you end up playing the monsters completely wrong and your players breeze right through the challenge. The tactics written up in modules and the monster manual are there for a reason. Read it, study it, and apply it. Your players will thank you for a challenging game if you play the monsters correctly.
5. Assign a bookeeper. You shouldn’t have to remember when all the status effects you’ll come across in combat end. Have your players be responsible for letting you know that the “kobold is slowed until the end of my next turn.” Once combat moves faster and you are more comfortable, you’ll be keeping track of this on your own, but have your players share this aspect of the game. It’ll keep them paying attention to what’s happening, and let you concentrate on other things, like story and roleplaying.
6. Be ready for anything. Players will sometimes stray from your path and want to do other things. “I’m going to go look for an odd job somewhere, and see if anyone needs me”. Have that odd job ready. Create index cards with NPC’s and minor quests you can drop in anytime, regardless of the town your party is in. Be seamless in your narration, don’t look like you’re pulling it out of thin air. Call for streetwise checks while you’re looking for and pulling out that index card. Keep the player busy, make it seem like the checks mean something, even if they don’t. What does he know?!
7. Avoid rule arguments during play. When in doubt, make a ruling and then revisit it after the night is over. When you are beginning, you will reference the books a lot. Assign a player to be your book guy. Let him be the reader of the Player’s Handbook. You do not need, or want, five guys all opening the book at the same time when you are trying to remember the stealth rules during combat.
8. If you have long spans of time when you can’t get together and play, avoid player frustration at the lack of level advancement. Every now and then reward them with 2x XP, or even 3x XP. Make sure your treasure parcels reflect the rapid leveling if they do in fact advance in levels by doing this. Don’t make it a habit though, save double xp weekend for special occassions.
One final tip for you DM’s that are about to run your first game ever: practice the night before. Have a friend, wife or player come over and run a small fight from the Dungeon Delve book or an encounter from the module you will be running. Understand what an encounter looks like, plays like and feels like at the table before you actually do it for the first time. While your players will most likely forgive any rookie mistakes you make, they will be looking to you to make the game entertaining and engaging. A bored player will get on the internet or start texting with his girlfriend sooner than you think. Avoid the “uuuhhh eehhhh… well…. uhhh…..” moments. Read the module, then read it again. When you go to the bathroom the week before you are to play, read it every time. Take it with you to the can, to bed, and to breakfast. I must have ready KOTS about twenty times before we actually played one session with it, and it helped.
I hope this article helps those soon-to-be DM’s with their games. You can always shoot me an email, and if there’s anything I can help you with, I’ll try. I’m still learning how to be a good DM, but If can help you, I will.
Random plot hook of the day: An orphaned child appears in town and she seems to be able to control the weather. After a few days, winter comes early, destroying crops and causing all sorts of trouble. Obviously the little kid is to blame, but she is just a child. Unfortunately for her, the Shadar-Kai appear, and are very eager to take her with them. The town sage says she must be protected at all costs. Why? And what do the Shadar-Kai want with her?