7 Things I Learned as a First Time Dungeon Master



Being a Dungeon Master is a scary thing. From learning and trying to remember all the stats and proper skill choices, to improvising every character, to even making grand plots that may or may not be based upon your favorite movies, there is a lot of work that goes into a D&D campaign. Not to mention that you are responsible for creating a vibrant world for your players and trying not to kill them in the first five minutes.

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Dungeons and Dragons already has a very complex set of rules and dealing with players is a new kind of chaos. So here’s a list of what I learned the first time I ever DM’d.

1. Things don’t always go according to plan.

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Maybe you came up with your big bad monster who was hiding among the people of a town. Then your bard comes swaggering in, seduces the monster, and turns them good. Now you have to scrap that whole part of the campaign and develop the character of the bard’s new boyfriend.

Don’t let those changes get you down! The campaign is like writing a story, but where your characters truly have a life of their own. If you really need to have a character forced into a situation, I like to lay traps for my players, see if they enter them, and then go from there.

That being said, every time they defy your expectations for behavior, you have to use critical problem-solving and learn more about what provokes your players to get a desired result. There is a balance you have to reach between getting them through the plot and allowing them to move freely. I wish I could give more advice, but this balance is something you have to learn and can't really be taught. It's very experiential.

2. The story will write itself.

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Even if you have this big bad enemy at the end or some great plot twist, you still have to get there somehow. Don’t be too concerned with the specifics; unless you have a complex royal family that is fighting over the throne and you need a list of every possible heir. I recommend writing down everything and getting a notebook specifically for that campaign. It will help with continuity and the overall understanding of the world. Pictured above is a map of one of my older campaign's locations.

But otherwise, calm down! You’ll get there eventually and the journey can be worth more than the destination! Some of the greatest moments in my campaigns have been during side-quests where there is no hint of a big bad guy laying in wait.

3. Your DM style will evolve.

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The most simple ways that it will change is just becoming more intuitive about the players’ wants, wishes, and how they react. Some players love high fantasy, some people love pop culture references everywhere. Some people want a ton of combat, some want a socially driven campaign. It all varies and you have to evolve to adapt to it.

There will also be more skill based changes. Your skills will grow, you’ll become more competent with mechanics, you’ll be able to think lighter on your feet, like in the situation above. I found myself faced with this very situation and had to figure out how my player was going to Assasin's Creed jump his way down from a third story window. 

As you grow and become more comfortable, so will your players and your campaign will flourish!

4. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and your players.

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After spending every weekend together in a small area for upwards of three hours, there’s no way that you won’t grow some sort of bond. The campaign is a way for you and your team to escape from the world and experience things you never thought you would. In times when I was blue, I could rely on my players to cheer me up with the craziest proposals.

It also makes you really look at morals and where you and your character stand on certain issues. For example, a character might be willing to kill someone over a small slight, but I assume you wouldn’t. Those are the simple ones. In other times, you might find yourself facing the train dilemma: you can only save one person or several by running a train over them. What would your character do? What would you do? That’s for you to find out.

5. Organizing the next meeting is the hardest part.

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Getting college students to organize together is like herding cats. Everyone has everything going on at all the same times and conflicting with everyone else’s free time. Put bluntly, it sucks and it’s hard.

In my campaigns, we found a work around. If there was a day when everyone was relatively free, we decided that we would meet sometime that day. Then, we would play each week by ear and adapt to each week as it came. Of course, this can cause problems, such as when we have to miss multiple weeks due to other, unpredicted things, but we've been making it work.

6. Inspiration can strike anywhere.

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There have been so many occasions where I’m just sitting in class, thinking about the lesson when I think of how this might work into the campaign. I always make sure to write those things down so that I don’t forget them! There are even moments in a session where I thought of something I wanted to do down the road, so I had to jot it down before I forgot it or a player distracted me.

7. Sometimes, things don’t go according to plan.

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And finally, sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. One postponed session turns into two. A misunderstanding tears the players apart. The plot just stalls and no matter how hard everyone tries, they can’t get out of the web. The whole party gets wiped out by one, accidentally too-hard boss. Another campaign comes to an end before its time.

First, know that this likely isn’t your fault. Schist happens. The best thing you can do is move on. I know it’s hard. When you’re a DM, you pour your heart and soul into a world and characters. And admitting that their time is up is hard. You’ll come out of this as a stronger DM. And no one ever said you couldn’t recycle characters and plots.

Second, if you actually were responsible (entirely or in part), make sure not to blame your players. If blame is appropriate, then make sure not to be petty, vocal, or grudge-holding. You have no idea what they have been going through and a little empathy goes a long way.

And as for what you need to do in this case, the first thing is to accept your role in the breakdown. Whether you angered everyone in your campaign or just couldn’t keep up with it anymore, things happen. I can’t give you advice on winning back friends, but I can tell you that if things ended poorly, take this as a learning lesson. You’ll be wiser for it.

Also, don’t beat yourself up too bad over it. At the end of the day, this is just a game and not worth a destroyed self-esteem.

If you’re having a particularly hard time with losing your campaign, I have a simple suggestion for you: ever considered joining or starting another one?

If Dungeons and Dragons didn't work for you, there are all kinds of other games with the same general concepts of gameplay out there. An example is the GURPS system, which is designed to work with pretty much any universe or time. Many can be based on famous video games. It's no secret that I'm a fan of Fallout and there is currently a large project going to try and recreate Fallout in the Dungeons and Dragons style called Fallout 5E.

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Or, if you're impatient like I am, then you can cobble together a system with your friends that all of you agree is fair and good.

The world of tabletop RPGs is your oyster as a DM and may your rolls ever be critical, my friend. Good luck. You're gonna need it, but it's going to be worth it. 

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