Yes, I know, I know. I might be fast with writing a tips and tools bit, as I am only dm’ing for a little over 2 months on a biweekly basis now (soon switching to weekly basis).
I know. I have much to learn and only am a young padawan still, but as a new DM, I might have some tips to share to other new dm’s that are still on the fence about being a DM and starting their own groups and share the tools that I have found usefull along my short time of being a DM. Things you need to know about me: I am autistic and an ADHD’er so, If I can DM, probably anyone can, but I am very funny voice, roleplay heavy in my dm style, and I can get you books and recommend you things on how to be a better DM, which this piece is about exactly.
Something to organize your notes:
You NEED something to organize your notes and to put to down the things that your player seem to find important (the backdrop NPC you had no backstory for prepped yet, that doesn’t even have a name, but left all of a sudden and now they want you to investigate him… yes, write that down).
You can go two or three ways even: buy yourself a bullet journal and bullet journal your campaign. Indexing your notes in the index so you can easily find them again, so you don’t overwrite paragraphs, but only keep the most interesting stuff. Keep a few names lists in there that you can use and easily find again thanks to the indexing system or thanks to tabs… certainly a must. A binder with tabs works equally well, and something even Matthew Mercer swears by (not to promote the Mercer effect, but he is an awesome DM). Want to go more digital and less paper (and especially useful if you play over roll20): Scrivener. I swear by Scrivener and use a combination of the analog Bullet journal, when I am reading an adventure book or a core book or something else, when I am away from the screen of distractions that gives me a -2 on all my stats (also known as the computer).
You will need improv. You can not play a dnd game and play it without improv. Especially not as the DM. You are the one that needs to keep the game going, that needs to keep the ball rolling (or the dice… whichever you prefer). Improv is your bread and butter. You can use improv to keep the game moving forward, even when you are looking for something and use it to stall the group long enough until you have found it and not bring the game to a stop with the dreadful sentence: “I need to look something up, hold on”. I used this while my players were in an inn and needed to know the price of the lodging. To be fair: I am an adhd’er and totally missed the fact that I had all the information on my DM Screen. So, as the inkeeper, which in my game is a very, very talkative Satyr (why would that be… ADHD off course), I kept talking and kept the game going until I found the necessary information, and then I read it off the page, so I didn’t stop the game. I plan to use this more often, as I think this is a good thing.
A second tip I want to give for improv: don’t ever block your players directly when they try something. If you really don’t like the suggestion or the action they want to do, give them the thing, but make the DC more difficult. In that way they don’t feel that they couldn’t try the thing, but give them the illusion of choice. This feels like an invisible wall and should be used sparingly. You don’t want to railroad them, but sometimes you will have to if their suggestion is just to outlandish. I only use it really, really sparingly, but I will let them try fun things.
Don’t be afraid to loosen the reigns:
To go further about the reigns and railroading. Don’t ever be afraid to let the players do their thing. It is their world, their story, their adventure. If they want to try something, let them at least try it. I narrate the fails, as the fails should be negative, but not to negative. I burned a dwarfs beard once and let him take one hp of damage after a missed fireball by another player, but the wins, the critical hits, are always there, and this is also a good thing if you are bad at improvising. Whenever they do an action and it hits, let them narrate the hit and how they want to do it. It will improve the combat for them, as it is not about the stats but about the awesome moment they just created. They score a critical hit? Let them narrate how they just killed that goblin (poor Kevin) and cleaved him in 3 seperate pieces. They are drunkenly dancing on a table and want to get off? Let them roll and see if they can jump off. They jump off with a good result? why not have they jump off with a flip?
Don’t follow the module literally:
Modules are fun and great for beginner Dm’s. I am at the moment running Lost mines of phandelver (modified heavily at this point) and going to start Hoard of the Dragon Queen with another group. I modified lost mines, because my players’ actions dictated me too. I have run a mission now that is totally not described in the book. I have created a city they started from, from scratch (just for the funzies), and created my own Satyr innkeeper. Railroading is never fun, especially not for the players, and you as the DM need to loosen the reigns enough to let the players have fun, as it is THEIR story, you are only the facilitator and their biggest supporter. I don’t follow the module closely enough because I don’t want to hinder my players creativity and I can always get them back on track later, when I know what is important in the module.
Here is an example on how I would run a certain situation: You need them to go to a cavern for the adventure, because it is ABSOLUTELY essential. They go to a mansion instead (something that is only there because you mentioned it once), have a note there about the cavern and something interesting about the cavern, have a map there about the cavern. Have an NPC mention the cavern. So many ways to get them to the cavern or let them notice it is important. If they still don’t go to the cavern, see if you can change the location to still have the important bits of the cavern but put it inside a house for example… so they still don’t miss the important thing from the cavern, but you can still run your adventure as it should.
for example: for the hoard of the dragon queen, I found out, Sly Flourish has an excellent guide to run the module and highlights what is important in running it, and he even gives you tips on how to improve it, for example to skip certain boring parts. Sly Flourish’ books are a great resource for DM’s and especially new DM’s can benefit greatly from guides like this for their modules.
Don’t be afraid to fudge rolls. Don’t do it too often, but if your goblins keep rolling natural 20’s (get your dice checked), you might want to fudge some rolls, but don’t overdo it… don’t be afraid to knock down a character. Yes, you might feel guilty about knocking down a character, I certainly do, but sometimes it is necessary to get the tention going. I certainly do that. Don’t make all your rolls public, sometimes you need to hide your rolls to be able to fudge them, so you don’t give them the advantage or disadvantage they need at that moment, but still don’t overdo it… you don’t need to protect your players, but don’t spare them either. They WILL notice.
Get a DM screen:
I am so glad I got one. It has helped me tremendously and especially the small table that tells you what rolls are for what, and the DC difficulty section. That is extremely helpful. The condition one is good too, as a quick reminder. It has all the usefull information on it and can be bought cheaply, together with other useful material, in the Essentials kit, which I highly recommend, as it also gives you an adventure, but make sure you buy the starter kit as well as a new DM, so you can run lost mines of phandelver as a first adventure and learn the ropes to DM’ing.
A good group:
I can not understate the importance of a good group of players. They are the backbone to you being the DM you are. I have the luck of having one awesome group as of this moment, and still need to start with the second group, which also seems to be freaking awesome. I applaud goofiness in my games, although I try to run them seriously… for as long as that goes. As you might notice, I have a very loose way of Dm’ing as I don’t want to restrict player choice in any way noticably and when not necessary. A good group feels when a new DM is struggling and helps him or her to get better and doesn’t mind giving tips and tricks and helps with the rules for other players, so not everything falls on the new dm’s shoulders.
I suggest as a new DM, start a group with at least one experienced player, so they can help with you and get the new players going so they have fun and don’t have to wait through the rules and have fun roleplaying. Dnd (as an example) is a roleplaying game and roleplaying should be first and foremost, so the group of people you play with should be more important than any rule. Also: I keep a discord server for every group I run, so they can chat and have fun in between sessions. They post memes, joke about funny actions taken in game, show off their dice collections,… stuff like this, but it keeps the group engaged and keeps them connected.