How Not to Run Your D&D Table: confessions of a n00b DM

Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies.... Good. Grumpy Cat DM.

Me for the first thirty sessions as a DM.

DMing, or dungeon-mastering (sometimes GMing, game-mastering, and, honestly, I just had to look up what the difference is. Apparently, DM/Dungeon Master may be trademarked, if reddit can be believed) isn’t as easy or cool as Matt Mercer and Chris Perkins would have you believe. Actually, neither of them ever says it’s easy…

The truth, at least for me, started out a lot more like Grumpy Cat, where I screwed up 90% of everything, didn’t like the remaining 10%, and debated having the giants throw rocks so everyone would die. For an introvert (even a closet introvert), herding players for 4 hours can be nearly excruciating.

But when it starts to come together, then it’s like sun breaking through the clouds, complete with holy chords playing, rainbows, butterflies and unicorns. Or at least like waking up on the right side of the bed for once. That serendipitous feeling rarely lasts, though, and I’m right back in a fresh, steaming pile of mistakes.

As much for myself as anyone else, here are a few of the mistakes I hope never to make again.

  1. Played once; got talked into DMing.

Guess what? Turns out you actually need to know the rules pretty well to run a game. Skimming the DMG once isn’t enough.

Accidental upsides: a) One of my players is a rules wiz. Letting her relay the rules saves time and lets me focus on how to apply them. b) Happy discoveries, like when I think “there’s got to be a way to make this chase scene more interesting” — oh, hey, that’s in the DMG! 🙁

2. Picked a huge campaign with a big sandboxy beginning.

Sandbox-style play is super-neat–when the characters have strong bonds and goals to drive them forward. Not so neat with level 1 characters who don’t know each other and don’t have any real reason to stay together. Also not so neat for a DM who only prepped what the book gave her without asking fundamental questions like, “why the hell would they do that?” (See, e.g., the beginning of Storm King’s Thunder, in which a group of level 1s incidentally meet in a town that just got attacked by giants and is being plundered by goblins.)

Accidental upside: Learning how to write your own adventures. Not well, and not quickly, but learning. Actual upside, though, is it’s given me plenty of time to learn by experience.

3. Didn’t ask fundamental questions like “why?” and “how?”

The emergence of an adventuring party from a group of individuals is a mysterious and magical combination of alchemy and careful planning. DMs who like to live dangerously can rely on the consensual fiction that adventurers want to adventure. DMs who want to avoid hours of tsuris (distress, grief) might want to ask those questions about why they’re together, how they’re going to get along, why they’d do what you want them to do (or something adjacent to it), and how they’re going to get from A to B with literally no information.

Accidental upside: half the group got to test two different character concepts? 🙁 In all honesty, it’s taught me a lot about how campaigns work, so I’m super-grateful to my players for sticking with me.

4. Made battles harder by adding more enemies.

Whoa, hey, guess who has to run all those enemies and roll their saves? Sigh. Sometimes big battles are necessary. Sometimes you want overwhelming odds, or for characters to make a decision to try a trick, diplomacy, or retreat. Most of the time, a well-crafted NPC with a little support, or a small group of monsters with a hidden advantage is going to work out better.

Accidental upside: learning that 5e encounter builders are unreliable, and action economy may be more important than HP/XP in determining encounters. Also, spontaneous NPC rescues and learning the DM can make shit up if they don’t like how things are going.

5. Hearing questions as challenges.

Slightly more nebulous, and called to my attention by my partner-in-crime: When a player asks a question about why something happened, or how it works, I automatically hear “ur doin it rong.” That way lies madness, tsuris, “just trust me,” and DM fiat. It makes players less willing to ask questions, and therefore leaves them flat-footed when they should have asked but didn’t.

Accidental upside: A lot fewer insight checks? No, no upside here, unless it’s the process of working through baggage about being challenged. Hopefully not at my players expense.

Mostly this is me thinking out loud, but I’m sure I’ll make more (and more specific) mistakes. So there’ll probably be more posts like this.