Tips for the Beginning DM

So by now if you’ve read the first installment of the series, you should have enough information to get any party under the sun rolling on a solid campaign arc. Your job isn’t even close to finished. You’ve got to provide your players with an immersive adventure, and good immersion requires flawless worldbuilding and attention to detail on the part of you, the DM.

Coming up with good ideas for adventures, settings and NPCs isn’t necessarily hard. If you’re the kind of gamer who took to D&D like a duck to water, chances are you’ve already been doing stuff like this in your head your whole life. The trick is getting those great ideas to translate into something seamless and fluid, and this is where good organization and delivery come into play. You’re not a supercomputer or a piece of software that’s been labored over by an expert design team and polished to perfection. As long as your human brain is going to be responsible for doing the job of the latter two pieces of equipment, there are going to be seams. By seams I mean places where the immersion breaks, and your players remember that you’re just a guy sitting behind a screen rolling dice.

Seams are no good, but how are we going to fight them? Luckily this is a battle I’ve been fighting for a while, so I have some tips. Remember, like I said, organization is key, so that’s where we’ll start:

1.) Get graph paper! — You can draw your dungeon maps as pretty and as detailed as you want, but the first question your PCs will inevitably ask is for the dimensions of whatever area they find themselves in. Sure, you can fudge numbers, but the best way to keep things consistent is to keep accurate and detailed accounts of those dimensions. If you’re clearly making things up, PCs will eventually notice, thus breaking their immersion. It’s also more likely that you’ll throw out inconsistent numbers, which will DEFINITELY attract attention.

2.) Make Descriptive Notes — Knowing where all the traps are in a dungeon as well as their corresponding save DCs is important…it’s how you determine success or failure for the group. Equally important is the way you describe the PCs surroundings. This will either make or break immersion for your party, and thus determine success or failure of the entire campaign. Refrain from describing anything as “normal” or standard. Be sure you can tell your PCs what the walls are made of, what the area smells like, how well lit it is and where the light is coming from. Sense imagery is incredibly useful. What do the PCs see, smell, taste, hear, touch?

3.) Create Interesting NPCs — This part is really hard. It will take either extensive notes or an exceptional memory, but creating NPCs with depth and flavor for your PCs to interact with is one way to draw your players into the game world. Now, don’t get me wrong, when I say “interesting” and mention “depth” I do not mean that the NPCs need to be powerful, or even that they need to be combatants. On the contrary, I find that while your imagination may be geared toward creating NPCs you can’t wait to show off in combat, it can lead to your players developing an inferiority complex. No party wants to feel like it would be useless without NPC “X” or else what are they even doing? No, a deep NPC doesn’t need to wield weapons or fireballs, but they need to have intriguing characteristics and an established history. Maybe the blacksmith in the town where your campaign opens is part of a long line of smiths, his elder cousin being a famed weaponsmith in the bustle of the capitol. Maybe your PCs will score a discount later on when the campaign swings to that city and mentions who sent them. Or not! Not every perceived advantage has to pan out. In fact, screwing the PCs over every now and again adds to the realism. Maybe the famous weaponsmith hates his cousin and refuses to do business with the party. Not being able to buy weapons could lead the PCs to get creative in a variety of ways, and the bottom line is that neither option would have been viable if you hadn’t injected your NPCs with that little bit of life.

4.) Streamline Combat — I’ve seen numerous campaigns get derailed as higher level combat produced never-ending encounters. More enemies means more Initiatives to keep track of and more time in between player turns. Stronger enemies means more abilities to keep track of. Put this all together and you reach a precipice where fighting can be no fun. There are ways around this, however. One of my oldest weapons against boring combat was the index card. I’d write out all the necessary stat blocks for a given session on index cards, so jumping from one enemy’s stats to another was as simple as flipping through the cards. I’d also ask my PCs to make index cards of their own stat blocks, so I wouldn’t have to keep asking them for their Initiative, AC, Base Attack Bonus, etc. Also, cards worked well for keeping track of the flow of battle. After Initiative rolls, you can just sort the cards into combat order and flip through them to keep track of turns.

The other obvious option is the computer. If you have a laptop handy, you can access a dice roller, calculator, and word processor to track stats and events. The laptop also allows you to have multiple books, as well as the D&D Wiki, open at once, which has proven vital for me countless times. The major con in this scenario is that no online dice roller is going to offer genuine randomization, but I think that’s a reasonable trade-off for all the utility of the laptop. Also, rolling digitally will keep your PCs from knowing exactly when you’re rolling behind the screen as well as how many dice you roll. This will add a little more spontaneity to the game.

Well, now you have some optimization tips at your disposal for running a tight D&D ship, hanging on to as much immersion as you can. Before we part ways I’m going to give you another tidbit: an alternate way to give experience. Now there’s really nothing wrong with the classic format of giving out XP for kills or for solving puzzles, but I’ve found that my “Experience Game” is a big hit with crowds of new D&D players whose gaming backgrounds are centered more in modern console gaming than old-school fantasy. Here’s how it works.

Step 1: Figure out the total amount of experience you want to put up for grabs. I’ll usually make it enough to level up half of the party. You can always tweak the amount based on party performance or how fast you want your group to accumulate levels.

Step 2: Next I come up with a “milestone” that I designate the “Quest” for the day. Using my example from the previous article where I started my PCs on a ship soon to be engaged by a Kraken, the “Quest” for that session was surviving the attack and escaping via lifeboat. Either all the PCs get this reward, or none of them do.

Step 3: Following the description of the “Quest” we move directly into Accolades. These are kind of like Achievements, and once I decide on the list for a given campaign, I don’t change it. Instead I assign new point values for winning a given Accolade each session. The Accolades are given out by the DM, and some explanation should be given for them. Among the Accolades I usually use are:

— “The Hero”: For the PC who holds the group together, and keeps play moving forward both in-game and out by maintaining focus.

— “The Rock”: For the PC who takes the most damage in a session without falling unconscious or dying.

–“The Roleplayer”: This should be pretty self-explanatory. I give it to whoever I think is the most “in-character” that day. It doesn’t necessarily mean dressing up or using a funny voice (to me, anyway, it certainly could to you), it’s more about the decisions the players make in game. Making a technically poor decision because it’s “what your character would do” definitely gets you recognition for this category.

The obvious concern here is metagaming, but I try my best to ensure some of the categories on the list aren’t necessarily shoe-ins for the same character each time. Also, I always make roleplay-oriented accolades worth more, so even if we do have a Half-Orc Barbarian who always nets “The Rock,” our other less overtly powerful PCs get plenty of love too.

Step 4: Next up are “Kudos.” These are pretty much identical to Accolades in every way, except I allow the party to dole them out by way of a vote. A majority is needed to approve any Kudo, with the DM breaking ties and overriding decisions where necessary (if you happen to have a party that insists on colluding, but at that point I think I’d just start shopping for new friends). In my experience, having a hand, however minor, in how the experience is doled out, makes the players feel far more connected to the game. It also leads to conversations about performance, and how players can improve aspects of their game. I suppose the potential is there for this to get nasty, but it’s never happened in my playgroups.

Step 5: The last step is easy. I have my players go around in a circle one-by-one and plead for why they deserve experience. This is their chance to talk themselves up and evaluate their performance. They’re encouraged to be braggarts in order to secure themselves a larger share of experience. Basically I do the same thing here that I do for the “Quest” except instead of offering one big block of XP for the entire party to earn or lose, I make enough slots for each of my PCs and fill each with a descending amount of XP. The best self-advertisement gets the biggest portion, and so on and so forth.

Sure, this isn’t the easiest measure to incorporate into a game…it will definitely take some thinking and some doing to make it right for your campaign, but I think it’s definitely worth it. The Experience Game really makes players, even beginners, take a look at what they are doing in the game and how they are interacting with PCs and NPCs alike while making the act of improving their character much more hands-on and entertaining.

That’s all I’ve got for this week. I hope at least some of you budding DMs out there will find some of this stuff helpful. Remember, good D&D is all about immersion. At every turn you should be dedicated to creating an environment your players won’t want to leave. Accomplish that, and they’ll laud you as the best damn DM they’ve ever had.

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About incontrol88

I'm a 21 year old senior Journalism and Mass Communications major at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY. Writing and hobby gaming are my two greatest loves, and it is my hope to combine them here for the benefit of the burgeoning gaming community. I'm mostly an RPG/RTS fan, but I play everything from Final Fantasy to Call of Duty! View all posts by incontrol88

2 responses to “Tips for the Beginning DM

  • boccobsblog

    That’s a great list. Does step five ever cause tension at the table or does it make the players work harder?

    Good site.

    • incontrol88

      I’m assuming you mean Step 5 in the Experience Game (I think the actual ‘tips’ section only went to 4 ideas) and I can see how you might think that. I’m very used to playing with people who are laid back and I’ve known for a while, so there isn’t much danger of real tension at the table no matter what happens.

      There have been some instances where someone will squawk about their result after the final decision has been made, but I’ve found that by being open about why I agree or disagree with a certain action, my players can usually be made to see reason if they actually care about good play.

      Most often, this just adds an element almost like reminiscing to the game. A player may be at a loss when his fellow adventurer chimes in: “Oh, hey, you made some really good points when we talked to the Lizardfolk” or “Figuring out that riddle the Sphinx threw at us really saved our hides.” It gets the players talking about both the good and the not so good aspects of the session and what they might do to make next time better, both in-character and out.

      By the way, I noticed this is your second comment. Thanks a lot for checking back in with us!

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