“We’ve wanted to play D&D for years, but we’ve never been able to find a dungeon master! I mean, I’ve played before, but I have no idea how to run a game!” This is one of the most common reasons I hear for why people don’t play RPGs. You have a group assembled, but nobody to send your adventurers on their way. To be fair, dungeon mastering can be tricky, but we’ve all got to start somewhere. Here are some tips and tricks for how to avoid common pitfalls so your first game of D&D can be a great one. I can’t teach you how to DM in one article, but I can, at the very least, give you the most important advice for a new dungeon master.
For people who have never played a tabletop RPG, the idea of running a game can seem daunting. You don’t really have a handle on the rules until you’ve played a few games, which sucks since the DM has the final say on the rules. That’s why my first piece of advice is to pick a system that you can understand. I talk a lot about D&D because it’s my favorite game. However, there are dozens of RPGs out there that are a bit easier to pick up. I’d recommend starting with a more minimalistic game like Dungeon World. Having fewer rules makes it easier for you to focus on the story instead of whether or not an Investigation check is appropriate for sensing danger (in case you were wondering, it usually isn’t). Once you get the hang of actually running a game and juggling NPCs, setting, rules, and plot, you can move on to a more complex rule system.
Second, you need to be confident and prepared. When you’re running a game, characters are going to do some weird stuff that you won’t anticipate. That’s why you need to be ready to improvise. Back in my early years as a dungeon master, I would put in hours of preparation for a session only to have my players run completely counter to my plans. Many inexperienced DMs will try to force their players into the story they wrote, which just leaves everyone angry. Learning to roll with the punches will make your life much easier. Eventually you’ll get to a point where you’ll be able to anticipate your players’ actions. That being said, you definitely still need to prepare. Know your NPCs, have combat encounters ready to go, and have at least the skeleton of a compelling story ready. You’re in charge; in time, your players won’t even know that you’re making up most of the adventure on the go.
Most importantly, you must remember that, although you’re the storyteller, it’s their story, not yours. I’ve heard many a tale of the tyrannical dungeon master, who sets out to “defeat” the players instead of helping them. A common misconception is that RPGs pit the game master against the players. This just isn’t true. Your goal, as a DM, is to tell a story and evoke a world in the minds of your players. If you come to the table to tell a great story and have fun, it’ll be a good night. You can still stumble over your adventure, referencing the rulebook every time someone wants to do something, but give the players a good story, and a good time, and they’ll want to play again. New players are a lot more forgiving than you might expect. They’ll be coming to the table just as confused as you.
There are tons of resources out there for the aspiring dungeon master. Podcasts such as The Dungeon Masters Block, websites like The Angry GM, and subreddits such as r/DMAcademy, r/DnDBehindTheScreen, and r/rpg are all excellent sources for help and inspiration. These tips, however, should keep you from the common pitfalls of new DMs.