Dungeoneering's rules for total n00b DMs

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Update: I've edited this post to include some really good suggestions that other posters have made.  In places I've adapted what they wrote or incorporated it wholesale into the suggestions. Flagrant borrowings should be obvious and credit goes to everyone here.

I usually wind up being the DM for any group I play with for two reasons: one is that I kind of enjoy the creative and storytelling elements of the position, but more importantly is the fact that most other DMs I've played under were terrible. This is not an ego trip talking, this is a factual statement. I'm not saying that I'm an especially brilliant DM - I have my strengths and weaknesses, certainly. But I've been a player at far too many tables where people were stifling yawns and checking their watches after the first hour. When the players can't wait for a session to be over, something has gone very wrong. Yet this is the way I often feel when I've had the opportunity to be a player.

When people give DM advice, they usually start with points such as "don't railroad." That's great, but I have yet to play at a table where railroading was the problem. Often I would have welcomed a railroad. Yes, for the love of all the gods, please give me something to do! I don't care if some folks call that railroading, I call it not being bored out of my skull. As for how I run games: I'm no sandbox DM, but my players have you to complain about the fact that I offer them a story and give them something to do.

The problems most beginning DMs face are far less metaphysical than all the forum debates about choice or player ability vs. character ability. Before DMs worry about deep questions like 'the illusion of choice' they first need to know how to run a game that isn't an exercise in frustration and boredom. Here are a few practical suggestions along those lines:

(1) Know the Rules
The DM should have a thorough knowledge of the rules that come up a lot. In 4e the most commonly used rules have to do with character creation, combat and how to do a skill check. The DM should be very familiar with the basics. Yes, this means you probably need to read the chapter on combat in the Rules Compendium a couple of times. Is that exciting? No. Necessary? Yes.

I'm not saying that the DM should never ever look something up or that they need to be a walking Rules Cyclopedia, but if they are looking up rules every five minutes their game will grind to a halt in a hurry. Know the basics. If you have a rules lawyer at your table you can put them to work looking up esoteric questions when they come up, but in the meantime you should know how to roll a save or calculate someone's attack bonus.

That said, the worst thing you can do is stop the game for twenty minutes to try and figure out some obscure rule. As a DM, it's your perogative to make the call. Make a ruling and move on. After the game you can look up the correct answer, and let your players know before the next session.

(2) Always Have a Clear Objective for Your Players
Yeah, I know, railroading, right? Wrong. This is not about forcing your players to do one thing, this is about giving them one obvious thing to do if they so choose. And most of the time, they will go with it because they don't have a better plan. I've been a player in too many games where we spent half the session blindly stumbling around trying to figure out how to get the story started. Trying random things in hopes that one of them turns out to be the 'correct' choice to move the game forward gets frustrating very quickly. Hey DM: present your players with an obvious problem or an immediate threat. Even the old cliche of a local lord asking them to go kill some pesky golbin raiders is better than nothing. The players shouldn't have to figure out how to make the story happen. That's the DM's job!

As a side note: 'Gathering information' is not a real goal. It's an objective to find an objective. Again, don't make the players figure out what they are 'supposed' to do!

This goes double for new groups that haven't played together before. I'm a huge fan of kicking off a campaign by rolling initiative. It gives players a clear objective (survive!) and some important information (these are bad guys!). It also gives the players a chance to get a feel for the DM and for each other and get comfortable before you throw them into the deep end of your open-ended and intricately detailed campaign world.

If the PCs seem lost and confused about what to do or have taken up the bad habits of the unmotivated and aimless (such as vandalism) this is probably a sign that the DM is not providing them with concrete goals or failing to give them enough information.  Which leads me too the next point:

(3) Give Players Plenty of Information
Presumably you, like most people, are neither telepathic nor possess a massive touch-screen tabletop full of interactive maps of your game world. If that is the case, remember that the only things the players know about your world are the things you tell them! So don't be stingy with information about it. 

Don't wait for your players to start rolling history checks or interviewing that one NPC to give them all that background information you've written up. Also don't assume that your players are imagining all the amazing visual details that you are. Establishing things like tone and atmosphere are up to you! Even more importantly, don't withhold information your players need to move the plot forward, or expect them to dig for it. This goes right back to Point #2.

(4) Make It Cool
Raise your hand if your DM has ever handed you this scenario: "After a long journey you arrive at the village. It's a small, run-down place. Most of the buildings are crappy shacks. The large building near the center seems to be the inn." Player: "Uh, I head for the inn." 

Why DMs continually feel compelled to set adventures in The World's Most Boring Village(tm) is beyond me. DMs: come up with at least one cool thing to spice up whatever scene you're trying to set! Maybe that village is ruled by a dragon! Or everyone in the village is naked! I don't know, whatever. But please don't toss your players into the dullest corner of your super cool fantasy world. If the players are in a village, come up with at least one point of interest more compelling than the local inn. If the players are in a cave find a way to make it more interesting than just being dark and full of monsters. If you can't come up with anything creative to do with either of those locations, don't use those locations! Drop your players into a city or a fortress under siege or something. Anything that sparks your imagination.

Ask yourself: what is cool about this scene? Nothing? Then fix it or lose it.

(5) Be Enthusiastic
This is maybe the hardest for some people. I realize that most DMs really are enthusiastic about their games (if you're not, why are you DMing?!?). Presumably that the guy (or gal) behind the screen has come up with a cool story or imaginative and fully realized fantasy world threatened by ancient evil. They're excited! But then all of a sudden there are five players sitting across the table staring expectantly at them and stagefright sets in. What if they haven't prepped enough? What if the players don't like the game? What if they think the story is stupid? The DM shrinks down behind the screen and starts mumbling their way through the introductory description and the next three hours drag by. Ugh!

As the DM, you are in the best position to set the tone and pace at the table. If you're into the game, your players will pick up on that, even if it's subconsciously. But if you don't project enthusiasm and confidence your players are quickly going to become bored and distracted and start checking their cellphones. Some of this comes down to confidence building. That's a personal issue, but you might start with the thought that since the players are sitting at your table they want to experience your story and explore your fantasy world. They just need you to lead the way! 

Un-self-conscious enthusiasm is what makes those infamous Funny DM Voices work in spite of their inherent silliness: the potentially dull conversation with the wizard quest-giver at Ye Olde Generic Tavern takes on a new dimension when the DM gives the wizard some stand-out character, or enthusiastically describes the tavern in a unique way that captures the imagination.

It's also important to Be Prepared. You'll likely feel a lot more confident if you are prepped and ready. Those sessions where you're running with a half-assed idea that you came up with on your way to the game, well, your players can sense that. Plan ahead, be confident, be enthusiastic. Your players will follow suit. It also helps if you...

(6) Start Small
D&D can be used to act out morally ambiguous stories, or handle complex murder mysteries. However, those things are difficult to pull off, and most of the complexity comes from what the players do with the PCs in any case. When you are starting out, some bad guys causing trouble that need to be stopped is just fine for plot.

In the same vein, don't over-prepare. It can be tempting for a new DM to create every possible character and building in every town in the world; every book in every library; every conversation that the PCs should logically ever start; and map out every logical branch of the storyline from beginning to end before the game even gets off the ground.  In spite of such all their efforts, such DMs are always the worst prepared for when players inevitably go off the beaten track in wildly unpredictable ways.  Starting small helps to prevent those dreaded moments where the DM must admit "I didn't expect that" and race to re-write a complicated plot to take new developments into account.  Rather than say "you can't do that," the DM should...

(7) Be Prepared to Improvise
A new DM should always be flexibile and be ready to improvise when players inevitably do the unexpected. This may sound difficult, but it's really not. Try and be loose and relaxed when you play and have your creative juices flowing. Prep a 'wandering monsters' encounter that you can use at any time. If you have trouble coming up with NPCs on the fly, there are some fun NPC name generators online.

Some tips for improvising: you don't need to have something completely thought out to use it. It's okay for some things to remain a mystery. How did that goblin get into the dungeon in the first place? Well, he's dead now. It's a mystery! 

Take cues from your players. If one has an idea to break into the wizards study and search for clues to so-and-so, put some clues in there for them to find. It may not be what you planned, but at least the player is taking initiative.

Remember that encounters can be moved and monsters can be reflavored. If the group heads into the forest rather than the dank dungeon you can still run the dungeon as weed-choked elven ruins. If you want the players to head east but instead they go west, just move whatever you had in the east to the west. The players won't know the difference!

If worse comes to worse and your players throw you a massive curveball, you can always tell them to take five while you sketch out a new plan. Or even politely ask them if they wouldn't mind accomodating you by going into the dungeon just this once!

Accusations of railroading tend to fly when a DM is afraid or doesn't know how to adjust to the unexpected. Adapt your plan to the your players, don't force your players to adapt to your plan.

(8) Ask for feedback.
Good DMs try to ask one or two of my players after every session, What did you like? What didn't you like? Did the game ever feel like it stalled? What would you like to see happen? etc.  One of the best ways to improve as a DM is constructive criticism. And make sure they know you want them to be honest, that you need their help to make the game better. And never take the criticism personally.

Doing this can also make it easier for players to become invested in maintaining the quality of the game, so that when something goes wrong that they could have prevented, they feel at least partly responsible for it.

(9) Review and Understand the PCs' Character Sheets
This should be done before the game, and periodically after leveling up.  PCs' character sheets are full of great ideas for expanding on your simple plot and for giving clear goals and providing the right information to fuel your PCs' sense of adventure.  You should also use this as an opportunity to make sure that your players understand and respect the rules, and anticipate the use of any rules and powers that you are not be familiar with.  If the character sheets do not provide enough information for you to understand either the mechanics involved, or the PCs' goals and motivations, then you should feel free to ask for clarifications from the player until you do understand.

This will also help you head off the dreaded Broken Build before it becomes a problem.



So there you have it: Nine Simple Rules For DMing My Game

Are they all you need to be the Best DM Evar? No. Will they keep your players from running screaming for the door at the first opportunity and maybe even ensure that they show up next week? I'd like to think so. They certainly would have fixed 80% of the games I've ever played in.

What about you? Which things are important for n00b DMs to know and which just don't matter?
Don't sweat the rules. The exact rules rarely matter, and it's certainly not worth grinding the game to a halt to check them.

Try not back up when something gets missed. This goes for players and DMs. It's hard to stick with it when it means the difference between life and death for a character, but that's why you should:

De-emphasize death. Either talk to your player about being ready to lose and replace characters, or give your monsters goals other than just the deaths of the characters.

[N]o difference is less easily overcome than the difference of opinion about semi-abstract questions. - L. Tolstoy

1.A) Don't Sweat the Rules

So, you aren't a walking Rules Cyclopedia. Don't worry about it, and don't waste time looking up the rules durring the game. Make the best ruling you can at the time to keep the game moving, and look up the rule later. If you got it wrong, tell your players the official rule at the start of the next session, so you're all on the same page.

Edit: Curse you Centauri!
"Make it Cool" is very important. It's so easy to come up with what everyone else comes up with because we're all drawing on the same genre. So when you come up with a solution that very "neatly" fits the D&D paradigm, do the opposite:

Sure, you can skin the dragon and make armor. But wouldn't it be cooler if you skinned the dragon and made it into an awesome tent that always keeps you warm and can't catch fire if the wind blows the embers of the fire on you? Every adventurer has dragonskin armor... but do they have dragonskin luggage? How about a dragonskin wallet that always seems to have a little coin in it and occasionally a magic item drops out of the billfold like that condom you forgot about?

There are trolls in the forest according to the keep commander. But what if the trolls are actually intelligent and thoughtful and it's their human neighbors with the big keep that are the aggressors?

These sorts of things make a game memorable. And that's the best you can hope for as a DM - a fun game in the moment and lots of memories down the road.

No amount of tips, tricks, or gimmicks will ever be better than simply talking directly to your fellow players to resolve your issues.
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"Make it Cool" is very important. It's so easy to come up with what everyone else comes up with because we're all drawing on the same genre. So when you come up with a solution that very "neatly" fits the D&D paradigm, do the opposite:

Sure, you can skin the dragon and make armor. But wouldn't it be cooler if you skinned the dragon and made it into an awesome tent that always keeps you warm and can't catch fire if the wind blows the embers of the fire on you? Every adventurer has dragonskin armor... but do they have dragonskin luggage? How about a dragonskin wallet that always seems to have a little coin in it and occasionally a magic item drops out of the billfold like that condom you forgot about?




In one game we downed a rediculously huge red dragon.
Of course the DM predicted that we'd skin it, sell off the parts, etc.
He did NOT forsee us waisting inordinate amounts of resources to turn it into the draconic equivelent of The Aperatus of Kwolish (sp?)/Mecha-Godzilla, complete with a breath weapon, & then riding around the country side...... 
(6) Ask for feedback.

I try to ask one or two of my players after every session what did you like? what didn't you like? did it ever feel like it stalled? what would you like to see happen? etc.

One of the best ways to improve as a DM is constructive criticism. And make sure they know you want them to be honest, that you need their help to make the game better. And never take the criticism personally.
(6) Ask for feedback.

I try to ask one or two of my players after every session what did you like? what didn't you like? did it ever feel like it stalled? what would you like to see happen? etc.

One of the best ways to improve as a DM is constructive criticism. And make sure they know you want them to be honest, that you need their help to make the game better. And never take the criticism personally.


You make a great point. Even experienced DMs can and should benefit from constructive criticism. 

*coughs, shuffles feet, makes mental note to ask for feedback more often* 
There are trolls in the forest according to the keep commander. But what if the trolls are actually intelligent and thoughtful and it's their human neighbors with the big keep that are the aggressors?



Remind me of the game I played where the party crashed on an island and met the frog-folk, who asked them to help with the terrible monsters that hunted them down and ate them.

Later, they met the lizard-folk, who explained to them that they hunted the frog-folk because they had to eat something and that if they didn't keep their numbers down, the frog-folk would breed out of control and destroy the habitability of the entire island.

That triggered a funny debate on what to do exactly.

Other then that I mostly agree with the things posted so far ;) Good post, good advice.
I'd like to add one of Murphy's Laws as another bit of advice:

No plan survives contact with the players
Don't plan too far ahead, and don't be afraid to improvise when the need arises. It's nice to have an idea of where the story's going, but don't map out dungeons 10 levels in advance, because odds are the story will not end up in that direction.
Players will surprise you and they will mess up your story. Don't fight it, embrace it. Let them guide you to where they think they'll have the most fun. 
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There are trolls in the forest according to the keep commander. But what if the trolls are actually intelligent and thoughtful and it's their human neighbors with the big keep that are the aggressors?



Remind me of the game I played where the party crashed on an island and met the frog-folk, who asked them to help with the terrible monsters that hunted them down and ate them.

Later, they met the lizard-folk, who explained to them that they hunted the frog-folk because they had to eat something and that if they didn't keep their numbers down, the frog-folk would breed out of control and destroy the habitability of the entire island.

That triggered a funny debate on what to do exactly.



That does relate to:

Plot: Keep it Simple. D&D can be used to act out morally ambiguous stories, or handle complex murder mysteries. However, those things are difficult to pull off, and most of the complexity comes from what the players do with the PCs in any case. When you are starting out, some bad guys causing trouble that need to be stopped is just fine for plot.



That does relate to:

Plot: Keep it Simple. D&D can be used to act out morally ambiguous stories, or handle complex murder mysteries. However, those things are difficult to pull off, and most of the complexity comes from what the players do with the PCs in any case. When you are starting out, some bad guys causing trouble that need to be stopped is just fine for plot.



Another way to put it: Start Small


(2) Always Have a Clear Objective for Your Players
Yeah, I know, railroading, right? Wrong. This is not about forcing your players to do one thing, this is about giving them one obvious thing to do if they so choose. And most of the time, they will go with it because they don't have a better plan. I've been a player in too many games where we spent half the session blindly stumbling around trying to figure out how to get the story started. Trying random things in hopes that one of them turns out to be the 'correct' choice to move the game forward gets frustrating very quickly. Hey DM: present your players with an obvious problem or an immediate threat. Even the old cliche of a local lord asking them to go kill some pesky golbin raiders is better than nothing. The players shouldn't have to figure out how to make the story happen. That's the DM's job!

As a side note: 'Gathering information' is not a real goal. It's an objective to find an objective. Again, don't make the players figure out what they are 'supposed' to do!

This goes double for new groups that haven't played together before. I'm a huge fan of kicking off a campaign by rolling initiative. It gives players a clear objective (survive!) and some important information (these are bad guys!). It also gives the players a chance to get a feel for the DM and for each other and get comfortable before you throw them into the deep end of your open-ended and intricately detailed campaign world.



In this vein, Don't Railroad.

A clear objective of what you want to do is good. However, if the players aren't interested in helping the local lord and would rather go out into the wilderness to seek out something there, don't force the local lord upon them, and definitely don't just say "No". While you should know where you want to take the story, give it flexibility, and if the players aren't interested, let them go somewhere else. Which leads me to my next point...

ALWAYS be Prepared to Wing it

PCs are an unpredictable lot. If you have an awesome story ready for when the PCs go into the crypt in the south, they will decide to go to the northern wasteland. You know, the one that has NOTHING there.
You should always have an idea of what surroundings are like, so you know roughly what they'll run into. In a perfect world, you'd have dungeons and encounters to cover every possibility, but preparing a game takes time, which chances are, you don't have.
Instead, hone your ability to think on the spot. If the PCs go to that wasteland, you don't say that you don't know what's there. Instead, you tell them about, uhm, ah yes, the hobgoblin tribes preparing for war. And these hobgoblins are in this cave which leads...
And so on.

And finally, oddly enough, Force Their Hand


Sometimes (and this should be sometimes, use this technique sparingly or it gets boring fast) you'll have a plot point that just has to happen. In that case, that lord shouldn't contact the PCs asking them to attack the goblins, the goblins attack the PCs village, and steal one of their magical items, or, if you can deal with a split party, one of the PCs (which is really very fun). The world should mainly be reactive, but if something has to happen, then make something for the players to react to.
Fantastic replies from everyone

[spoiler I Expand On The Advice So far]
I always love the new DM advice to "Start Small" - sometimes, it can be too tempting for a new DM to create every possible character and building in every town in the world, and every book in every library, every conversation that the PCs should logically ever start, and every logical branch of the storyline from beginning to end, and so on, before the game ever gets off the ground.  In spite of over-preparing, such DMs are always the worst prepared for when players inevitably go off the beaten track in wildly unpredictable ways.  Starting small helps to prevent those dreaded moments where the DM must admit "I didn't expect that" and must race to re-write a complicated plot to take the new development into account, helps prevent the dreaded "you can't do that" response, and inspires a healthy dose of improvisation, one of the DM's most valuable skills


For "Make it Cool", I want to point at H.P. Lovecraft, mainstay of YronimosW replies in every thread, and one of Lovecraft's rare forays into the fantasy genre:  The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.  The main character in that story travels through a number of cities in the world of dreams, and even the most dull backwater villages always had something cool going on... horribly ancient buildings made from exotic materials, crumbling ruins inhabited by menacing beings, markets selling goods imported from far-flung corners of the dream world inspired by the dreams of inhuman beings, sinister but otherwise harmless temples with eerie rituals, and descriptions that provide a wealth of strange colours and textures and sounds.  The main character had to keep moving as part of his quest, but it could be hard for readers choose between lingering and exploring each village more carefully, or moving on to see what new wonders and splendours every corner of the Dreamlands have to offer.  (But then, even in his stories set in the supposedly real world, even Lovecraft's collections of dreary, rotting, crumbling backwater shacks in Arkham, Dunwich, or Innsmouth are never dull:  these shacks hide sinister and ancient secrets, the pale faces of terrified people, deformed gibbering monstrosities locked in basements and attics, weird cults, secret passages to graveyards populated by colonies of ghouls, and always the promise of much more that cannot and should not be described....)


I think there is a lot overlapping between Making it Cool, and Being Enthusiastic.  It can be very hard for players to resist immersing themselves into even one of the more unimaginative settings, if the DM is enthusiastic about what he is doing, and as a result never passes up an opportunity to find ways to Make Things Cool in spite of the limitations of the setting.  Un-self-conscious enthusiasm is what makes role-playing's infamous Funny Voices work in spite of the silliness:  the potentially dull conversation with the Wizard quest-giver at the Yetanotherdull Tavern takes on a new dimension when the DM gives the wizard some stand-out character, or enthusiastically describes the tavern in a unique way that captures the imagination.


By "Asking for Feedback", you not only get valuable feedback about your skills as a DM and how you can keep at the top of your game, but you also make it easier for players to become invested in maintaining the quality of the game, so that when something goes wrong that they could have prevented, they feel at least partly responsible for it.  For example, I've been paying a lot of attention lately to threads about alignment problems, typically (but not necessarily) involving Evil characters, that I think might have developed in a much more constructive and fun direction if the DM had only spent more time asking for and listening to feedback from players.


For "Knowing the Rules", I would say Know the Basic Rules, at least.  For 3rd Edition, I believe I read somewhere where someone reduced the basic rules down to the formula, "the DM chooses a difficulty, and the player rolls a D20, then adds bonuses (or penalties) found on the character sheet and any special bonuses or penalties from the situation" (a basic rule around which anything else can be improvised on the spot fairly easily), and I would want DMs to understand at least the basics of balancing encounters and creating PCs.  However, more important than Knowing the Rules is, I think, that DMs Understand and Respect the Rules, even if they don't memorize all of them or feel bound to use all the "Rules as Written".  I've seen so many complaints from players that basically come down to DMs who create arbitrary and strange house rules without understanding or respecting the original rule or the consequences of changing it (for example, there was a case of a DM who arbitrarily banned the Rogue's sneak attack ability mid-game because the DM didn't like it for some reason, and the Rogue character was, as a result, crippled hopelessly.)


I think there's a lot of overlap between "Giving Clear Goals" and "Providing Enough Information" to players.  Goals and Information about those goals are the fuel that PCs use to get anywhere in your story; if the PCs seem lost and confused about what to do, and have taken up the bad habits of the unmotivated and aimless (such as vandalism), then it can be a good sign that the DM is failing to provide enough of that fuel.  I like to quote hardboiled detective fiction author Raymond Chandler a lot in giving advice to new DMs for situations where the DM feels painted into a corner, and I think the same thing can apply to when a group seems to be stuck in a rut:  "when in doubt, have a guy with a gun burst into the room!"  The fantasy equivalent of this advice can provide an instant way to give the PCs a clear short-term goal, and enough information to help point them in the right direction of a more long-term goal (the armed guy can feed plot information voluntarily, or after being disarmed and interrogated; even if killed, the PCs will want to know who the armed guy works for or where he came from, and that information should be found in the armed guy's pockets or appearance... whatever the case, he's a handy way of pointing directly back to the PCs' main goal.)
[/spoiler]

So, I agree all the way around.  The only thing I would want to add is this:

Review and Understand the PCs' Character Sheets!  This should be done before the game, and periodically afterwards on leveling up.  The PCs' character sheets should be full of great ideas for expanding on your simple plot and for giving clear goals and providing the right information to fuel your PCs' sense of adventure.  You should also use this as an opportunity to make sure that your players understand and respect the rules, and anticipate the use of any rules that you might not be familiar with yet.  If the character sheets do not provide enough information for you to understand either the mechanics involved, or the PCs' goals and motivations, then you should feel free to ask for clarifications from the player until you do understand.  (For this, I'm reminded of all the times I've seen questions in this forum from DMs who were unaware of players using hopelessly broken or unbalanced characters until after the game is underway, resulting in a lot of barn door closing after the horses are long gone.  I've also seen far too often precious information in character backgrounds go to waste from DMs who barely acknowledge that the backgrounds exist at all, let alone exist as a part of the DM's game world.)
[spoiler New DM Tips]
  • Trying to solve out-of-game problems (like cheating, bad attitudes, or poor sportsmanship) with in-game solutions will almost always result in failure, and will probably make matters worse.
  • Gun Safety Rule #5: Never point the gun at anything you don't intend to destroy. (Never introduce a character, PC, NPC, Villain, or fate of the world into even the possibility of a deadly combat or other dangerous situation, unless you are prepared to destroy it instantly and completely forever.)
  • Know your group's character sheets, and check them over carefully. You don't want surprises, but, more importantly, they are a gold mine of ideas!
  • "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It's a problem if the players aren't having fun and it interferes with a DM's ability to run the game effectively; if it's not a problem, 'fixing' at best does little to help, and at worst causes problems that didn't exist before.
  • "Hulk Smash" characters are a bad match for open-ended exploration in crowds of civilians; get them out of civilization where they can break things and kill monsters in peace.
  • Success is not necessarily the same thing as killing an opponent. Failure is not necessarily the same thing as dying.
  • Failure is always an option. And it's a fine option, too, as long as failure is interesting, entertaining, and fun!
[/spoiler] The New DM's Group Horror in RPGs "This is exactly what the Leprechauns want you to believe!" - Merb101 "Broken or not, unbalanced or not, if something seems to be preventing the game from being enjoyable, something has to give: either that thing, or other aspects of the game, or your idea of what's enjoyable." - Centauri

In this vein, Don't Railroad.

A clear objective of what you want to do is good. However, if the players aren't interested in helping the local lord and would rather go out into the wilderness to seek out something there, don't force the local lord upon them, and definitely don't just say "No". While you should know where you want to take the story, give it flexibility, and if the players aren't interested, let them go somewhere else. Which leads me to my next point...

ALWAYS be Prepared to Wing it

PCs are an unpredictable lot. If you have an awesome story ready for when the PCs go into the crypt in the south, they will decide to go to the northern wasteland. You know, the one that has NOTHING there.



While I don't materially disagree with anything you say, my intent here was to focus on the basics for n00bs. And in that context I don't really care if the DM is 'railroading', however you define that.

First of all, I've never had a brand new group with a new DM try to go 'off rails'. "Stuff it local lord! We want to go kill squirrels in the forest!" They're just not comfortable with each other yet to do that, typically. I'm not saying it can't ever happen, but it's not something most new DMs need to spend a lot of time worrying about.

I think running a fairly well-defined, black-and-white game is perfectly fine for a new DM. Think of it like training wheels. You gotta be able to peddle with them on before you can stay upright with them off. And honestly, I don't believe it's 'railroading' for a DM to ask that their players stick to the quest they prepped for them. Certainly not early on or for a one-shot game.

Personally, I'd rather have the n00b DM at my table running an on-rails game competently than wander in bored circles in their railroad-free 'sandbox'. 

Improvisational skills are awesome. The ability to come up with an encounter on the fly is huge asset for a DM. But these kinds of things belong to DMing 102 or 103, not DMing 101.

Being a DM for the first time can feel pretty overwhelming. It's a better use of a new DM's time to focus on setting the scene, presenting a clear and understandable adventure hook and running competent encounters, IMHO. 

Improvising a massive open world on the fly can come later.

you can do both. the best DMs, IMO are those that are so well-prepared that they can improvise a massive world on the fly.

by this i mean:

-Know your content: be familiar with the NPCs, the locals areas of interest, the local power structure ect... players rarely travel further then they have to, usually sticking to one locale until it gets boring. it's very easy to have a 1-30 adventure by a dynamic city like Waterdeep (Forgotten Realms) or Sharn (Eberron). 

a "world" can be as big as a country or continent or as small as the Nentir Vale. as long as you're comfortable with what's living in it, you can adjust it's reactions to current events as needed.

speaking of current events...

-know your plot : by this i don't mean to railroad the PCs, but understand that not everyone sits on their thumbs as the PCs bicker on the best way to dismantle the dungeon and sell it piecemeal. the Evil Duke Vorpal von Hackenslash will be on the move to trash Fort Forthington in 2 weeks' time unless the PCs stop him. while the PCs can influence "global" events

but to guide the players where they need to be...

-Know your audiance: if the players are the "kick down the door types" rather then trying that fancy "diplomacy" keep the alternate routes open, but give that door a neon sign. play to their strengths/interests. 

with playing to their strenghts and interests in mind...

-know your rules and keep them near you: by this i mean have a few cheat sheets nearby with stuff like status effects, disease rules, etc... as well as page 4 if needed (or at the least the information that's important to the players' current level). have basic cheat sheets on player abilities too as well as a "wish list" of item /  item types they're intested in. you don't have to give them every item on it, but it gives you something to work with.

but no matter what happens, expect things to hit a snag every so often. that when...

-Know how to keep the game moving : when it comes to rule disputes, don't be afraid to tell the players "i'll make a snap judgement now & look it up later" and post-game review your notes and email them your final judgement. if the game isn't going anywhere, don't just hint at the next direction, throw a goblin tied to a brick at them (with a note pinned to the gobbo). the more snags you get stuck on, the more bored they're likely to get. keep the game going at a steady pace.

though the game must go on, of course, but you know what...

-know when to keep your mouth shut : while you sometimes need to prod them along, sometimes you just need to sit back and let them do their thing. remember this one bit of advice : "no plot survives encounter with the PCs". oddly enough, due to PC meddling they might just be their own foil. run with what they're doing because they're most likely doing it because they're interested in it.

let them create the framework, you just fill it up with content.
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Oh, I don't know... improvisation is a good skill for even a new DM to start developing almost from the beginning.  There's always room for something unexpected to come up in even the most predictable and conservative group, and DMs who can accept and embrace the unexpected are, I think, the ones end up being the most confident and creative DMs.

On the other end, though, I think "Railroading" is the accusation that comes from players who feel like they are being forced to do something they don't want to do.  This accusation is more likely to come from experienced players who have seen enough of the game to be able to notice the most predictable and boring story elements, and want the freedom to do and see something more exciting.  For new players, everything is a new experience, and they are a lot more forgiving of being left with few choices.

Work on at least "Making it Cool" and "Being Enthusiastic", and new players especially won't notice the railroading.  "Providing Enough Information" and "Providing a Clear Goal" so that the Railroad seems like the natural choice for PCs helps as well.  And, if you've "Read and Understood the Character Sheets", and borrowed hooks from the character's back story, race, class, and motivations that lead right to the Railroad, then that railroad looks a lot more inviting than one that is unnatural and forced would:  it doesn't seem like a Railroad if it's something the characters would want to do anyway. 

Meanwhile, one of the many good things about a DM who is good at improvising is that players who insist on going the wrong direction can be taken for a ride on a railroad without even realizing it.  For example, inflexible DMs who think they need the party to go West to clear out the Dwarven Dungeon of Doom can end up frustrated and shaken when the party insists on going East into the forest to hunt squirrels instead... a DM who is good at improvising can simply move the Dungeon of Doom into the forest where the party encounters it as squirrel-infested, weed-choked Elven ruins instead, with all the encounters happening above ground in Elven ruins instead of underground in Dwarven ruins.  The party will likely feel pretty smart for refusing to go West, and stumbling instead on this unique location that their clever DM somehow accomodated them on by coming up with it so quickly....



"I Didn't See This Coming" - a story that shows the sort of cool things that can happen with a group that can improvise easily around the unexpected....
[spoiler New DM Tips]
  • Trying to solve out-of-game problems (like cheating, bad attitudes, or poor sportsmanship) with in-game solutions will almost always result in failure, and will probably make matters worse.
  • Gun Safety Rule #5: Never point the gun at anything you don't intend to destroy. (Never introduce a character, PC, NPC, Villain, or fate of the world into even the possibility of a deadly combat or other dangerous situation, unless you are prepared to destroy it instantly and completely forever.)
  • Know your group's character sheets, and check them over carefully. You don't want surprises, but, more importantly, they are a gold mine of ideas!
  • "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It's a problem if the players aren't having fun and it interferes with a DM's ability to run the game effectively; if it's not a problem, 'fixing' at best does little to help, and at worst causes problems that didn't exist before.
  • "Hulk Smash" characters are a bad match for open-ended exploration in crowds of civilians; get them out of civilization where they can break things and kill monsters in peace.
  • Success is not necessarily the same thing as killing an opponent. Failure is not necessarily the same thing as dying.
  • Failure is always an option. And it's a fine option, too, as long as failure is interesting, entertaining, and fun!
[/spoiler] The New DM's Group Horror in RPGs "This is exactly what the Leprechauns want you to believe!" - Merb101 "Broken or not, unbalanced or not, if something seems to be preventing the game from being enjoyable, something has to give: either that thing, or other aspects of the game, or your idea of what's enjoyable." - Centauri


While I don't materially disagree with anything you say, my intent here was to focus on the basics for n00bs. And in that context I don't really care if the DM is 'railroading', however you define that.

First of all, I've never had a brand new group with a new DM try to go 'off rails'. "Stuff it local lord! We want to go kill squirrels in the forest!" They're just not comfortable with each other yet to do that, typically. I'm not saying it can't ever happen, but it's not something most new DMs need to spend a lot of time worrying about.

I think running a fairly well-defined, black-and-white game is perfectly fine for a new DM. Think of it like training wheels. You gotta be able to peddle with them on before you can stay upright with them off. And honestly, I don't believe it's 'railroading' for a DM to ask that their players stick to the quest they prepped for them. Certainly not early on or for a one-shot game.

Personally, I'd rather have the n00b DM at my table running an on-rails game competently than wander in bored circles in their railroad-free 'sandbox'. 

Improvisational skills are awesome. The ability to come up with an encounter on the fly is huge asset for a DM. But these kinds of things belong to DMing 102 or 103, not DMing 101.

Being a DM for the first time can feel pretty overwhelming. It's a better use of a new DM's time to focus on setting the scene, presenting a clear and understandable adventure hook and running competent encounters, IMHO. 

Improvising a massive open world on the fly can come later.




Oh, definitely. But a new DM should always be prepared for flexibility and a chance to improvise. My first session went pretty much as planned, until near the end, when the thief decided to steal from the nearest mansion. Completely on the fly, I populated the mansion with oddities, and developed the character of the owner as I did so. By the end of it, the thief was a lot richer, and had just stolen from the man who would become the game's main villain. And I think that was the most valuable lesson I learned in my first session, and the most fun I had that day.

So, while I would definitely encourage an objective, I would also say that even the newbie DM should be flexible, and allow the players to experience the world the way they want to.
Oh, definitely. But a new DM should always be prepared for flexibility and a chance to improvise. My first session went pretty much as planned, until near the end, when the thief decided to steal from the nearest mansion. Completely on the fly, I populated the mansion with oddities, and developed the character of the owner as I did so. By the end of it, the thief was a lot richer, and had just stolen from the man who would become the game's main villain. And I think that was the most valuable lesson I learned in my first session, and the most fun I had that day.

So, while I would definitely encourage an objective, I would also say that even the newbie DM should be flexible, and allow the players to experience the world the way they want to.



Fair enough. While I haven't had players run off in the completely run direction, it is certainly very common for them to make choices that are... unexpected (I'm going to use intimidate on the friendly, well-connected NPC!).

When I first started DMing, I was paranoid that I'd be forced to improvise something, that it would be obviously made-up on the spot, and that the players would see through my shabby attempt at DMing. What I've since learned is that it's really difficult for players to tell the difference between something that was improvised and something that was planned all along! More than once I've had a player congratulate me for a good bit of 'improvisation' when it was always in the plan. And actual improvisation often passes without comment, even when it's less than brilliant.

I wish that was something my n00b DM self had understood at the time. Would have saved him a lot of over-preparing! 

How do you 'prepare' to improvise? 
How do you 'prepare' to improvise? 



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The best way to prepare to improvise is to watch a movie or read a book, or play a videogame, or something else that is somewhat losely related to the topic of the game.

Just to get your creative juices flowing.

Also, you don't need to have something completely thought out to use it. It's ok for some things to remain a mystery. How that Goblin you just met got in the dungeon? I don't know. And since you killed him, you'll never found out! And if you didn't kill him, then he wouldn't tell you. Unless I came up with a reason, then he'd give you that.
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It's also ok for your players to fillin the details themselves. Whether the details are wrong or right... well, that doesn't really matter .
How do you 'prepare' to improvise? 



Booze, but that's my answer to everything.


You know, I once played with a DM that was taking shots from a hip flask.

It didn't help.

Tongue out 

In other news, I've updated the first post to include a lot of these excellent suggestions! 
...How do you 'prepare' to improvise? 



It is kind of like being told to "expect the unexpected", isn't it?  We hear that a lot, but how do you really expect things you can't expect?

I think in this situation, practice is the best way to do this, and the sooner practice starts, the better.

I am reminded of the legend about Marx Brothers' film scripts, which would be meticulously scripted up to a section that would say simply "Harpo does something funny" - a point where that character's very creative actor would be left free to just make something silly up on the spot.  Similarly, the Three Stooges' scripts would often just say something like "Moe punishes Curley", and Moe would just pull one of his many famous Curley-punishing routines out of his hat at that point on screen.  Your mileage may vary, but fans would say that the results tend to be a lot more entertaining than anything that could be scripted.  In short, these are situations where improv becomes a compartmentalized part of a controlled script.

Using that as a model, a DM might deliberately leave one empty room in an otherwise detailed dungeon with a note of "something is strange about this room" - what?  It could be a strange painting on the wall, or the room could be described as having a strange shape, or it's bigger on the inside than it should be from outside, or whatever... don't set anything in stone until the adventurers open the door and walk in.  Or, make a note of a generic monster stat block, but leave a blank monster name and description, and just make the description up on the spot when the players step into the room (I've made fairly frequent use of that trick starting early in my career as a DM, using, for example, Goblin stat blocks, and then using my own nightmares or descriptions of monsters from books and movies to come up with the first monster description that occurs to me when the heroes open the door; the result is that most of my dungeons have at least one unique monster the PCs have never seen or heard of before.)

When using published dungeon maps or Dungeon Tiles, I always tell my players that anything printed on the tiles is 'fair game' for them to interact with; the tiles that came with the old 3.5 Edition starter sets have furniture, broken weapons, bones, cobwebs, and things like that printed on them.  I've had players say they pick up broken weapons to sell, or throw a skull printed on the tile into a guard room as a distraction before charging in, and things like that.  (I had a shopkeeper refuse to buy a broken sword, but make an offer on the gems encrusted in the hilt; the skull distraction gave the players a bonus to their attack for the first round.) It's a great way for both me and my players to improvise.

Players typically provide other opportunities for improv, by talking to NPCs you never counted on, searching areas you never gave second thought to, taking actions you didn't expect, or latching onto mundane objects or minor characters you never planned to give attention to as if they are vitally important to the story.  I never like to burst their bubbles when things like this happen... I'll try to find harmless ways to reward their thinking outside the box.

I don't normally sweat letting players know when I'm making something up.  For example, when I had a PC decide she was going to go talk to a village apothecary that I didn't know existed, I had no problem with making him up on the spot and telling the player "...OK, we'll call the Apothecary 'Valdemar'... write that down somewhere so I don't forget.  He's... he's a strange little old man in a hooded robe with... with an Albert Einstein haircut, and his shoppe is a tiny little hole-in-the-wall packed full of shelves of little bottles... in fact, you are almost afraid of making a wrong move and knocking all the shelves down like dominos!  Valdemar seems friendly, though:  'Welcome to my humble shoppe, stranger... how can I be of assistance?'"  Maybe it's just my group, but the players seemed quite happy with the fact that I was making no secret of making names, descriptions, and locations up off the top of my head, and Valdemar ended up being a recurring character that helped identify all sorts of obscure magical items (I don't know why the player in question decided that an apothecary was the best person to identify magic items, but I just rolled with it, deciding he was actually a retired wizard.)
[spoiler New DM Tips]
  • Trying to solve out-of-game problems (like cheating, bad attitudes, or poor sportsmanship) with in-game solutions will almost always result in failure, and will probably make matters worse.
  • Gun Safety Rule #5: Never point the gun at anything you don't intend to destroy. (Never introduce a character, PC, NPC, Villain, or fate of the world into even the possibility of a deadly combat or other dangerous situation, unless you are prepared to destroy it instantly and completely forever.)
  • Know your group's character sheets, and check them over carefully. You don't want surprises, but, more importantly, they are a gold mine of ideas!
  • "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It's a problem if the players aren't having fun and it interferes with a DM's ability to run the game effectively; if it's not a problem, 'fixing' at best does little to help, and at worst causes problems that didn't exist before.
  • "Hulk Smash" characters are a bad match for open-ended exploration in crowds of civilians; get them out of civilization where they can break things and kill monsters in peace.
  • Success is not necessarily the same thing as killing an opponent. Failure is not necessarily the same thing as dying.
  • Failure is always an option. And it's a fine option, too, as long as failure is interesting, entertaining, and fun!
[/spoiler] The New DM's Group Horror in RPGs "This is exactly what the Leprechauns want you to believe!" - Merb101 "Broken or not, unbalanced or not, if something seems to be preventing the game from being enjoyable, something has to give: either that thing, or other aspects of the game, or your idea of what's enjoyable." - Centauri
...How do you 'prepare' to improvise? 



It is kind of like being told to "expect the unexpected", isn't it?  We hear that a lot, but how do you really expect things you can't expect?

...

Using that as a model, a DM might deliberately leave one empty room in an otherwise detailed dungeon with a note of "something is strange about this room" - what?  It could be a strange painting on the wall, or the room could be described as having a strange shape, or it's bigger on the inside than it should be from outside, or whatever... don't set anything in stone until the adventurers open the door and walk in.  Or, make a note of a generic monster stat block, but leave a blank monster name and description, and just make the description up on the spot when the players step into the room (I've made fairly frequent use of that trick starting early in my career as a DM, using, for example, Goblin stat blocks, and then using my own nightmares or descriptions of monsters from books and movies to come up with the first monster description that occurs to me when the heroes open the door; the result is that most of my dungeons have at least one unique monster the PCs have never seen or heard of before.)

When using published dungeon maps or Dungeon Tiles, I always tell my players that anything printed on the tiles is 'fair game' for them to interact with; the tiles that came with the old 3.5 Edition starter sets have furniture, broken weapons, bones, cobwebs, and things like that printed on them.  I've had players say they pick up broken weapons to sell, or throw a skull printed on the tile into a guard room as a distraction before charging in, and things like that.  (I had a shopkeeper refuse to buy a broken sword, but make an offer on the gems encrusted in the hilt; the skull distraction gave the players a bonus to their attack for the first round.) It's a great way for both me and my players to improvise.

Players typically provide other opportunities for improv, by talking to NPCs you never counted on, searching areas you never gave second thought to, taking actions you didn't expect, or latching onto mundane objects or minor characters you never planned to give attention to as if they are vitally important to the story.  I never like to burst their bubbles when things like this happen... I'll try to find harmless ways to reward their thinking outside the box.

I don't normally sweat letting players know when I'm making something up.  For example, when I had a PC decide she was going to go talk to a village apothecary that I didn't know existed, I had no problem with making him up on the spot and telling the player "...OK, we'll call the Apothecary 'Valdemar'... write that down somewhere so I don't forget.  He's... he's a strange little old man in a hooded robe with... with an Albert Einstein haircut, and his shoppe is a tiny little hole-in-the-wall packed full of shelves of little bottles... in fact, you are almost afraid of making a wrong move and knocking all the shelves down like dominos!  Valdemar seems friendly, though:  'Welcome to my humble shoppe, stranger... how can I be of assistance?'"  Maybe it's just my group, but the players seemed quite happy with the fact that I was making no secret of making names, descriptions, and locations up off the top of my head, and Valdemar ended up being a recurring character that helped identify all sorts of obscure magical items (I don't know why the player in question decided that an apothecary was the best person to identify magic items, but I just rolled with it, deciding he was actually a retired wizard.)


Wow, this is brilliant. I'm going to start pushing myself to do the 'leave one monster blank' during my game. I think that is a cool idea and it will keep me from sweating encounter design so much.

I tend to over-design and over-plan, in part because I enjoy designing and planning. But I definitely concur that some memorable moments have occurred from improv.  I want to get better at it and be less afraid to lean on it.

This is great advice! Might even deserve it's own thread. 
I'm glad you like it

I normally tend to over-design and over-plan, in part because I enjoy it, and in part because of insecurity about getting caught with my pants down, and worry about what I would do.

Giving myself structured opportunities to improvise helps me to actually get used to it, and handle it better and enjoy it more whenever something unexpected comes up.

So, it's really just a technique that helps me to keep my sanity under all the pressures of being a DM with social anxiety.  If it helps other people out too, that's even better
[spoiler New DM Tips]
  • Trying to solve out-of-game problems (like cheating, bad attitudes, or poor sportsmanship) with in-game solutions will almost always result in failure, and will probably make matters worse.
  • Gun Safety Rule #5: Never point the gun at anything you don't intend to destroy. (Never introduce a character, PC, NPC, Villain, or fate of the world into even the possibility of a deadly combat or other dangerous situation, unless you are prepared to destroy it instantly and completely forever.)
  • Know your group's character sheets, and check them over carefully. You don't want surprises, but, more importantly, they are a gold mine of ideas!
  • "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." It's a problem if the players aren't having fun and it interferes with a DM's ability to run the game effectively; if it's not a problem, 'fixing' at best does little to help, and at worst causes problems that didn't exist before.
  • "Hulk Smash" characters are a bad match for open-ended exploration in crowds of civilians; get them out of civilization where they can break things and kill monsters in peace.
  • Success is not necessarily the same thing as killing an opponent. Failure is not necessarily the same thing as dying.
  • Failure is always an option. And it's a fine option, too, as long as failure is interesting, entertaining, and fun!
[/spoiler] The New DM's Group Horror in RPGs "This is exactly what the Leprechauns want you to believe!" - Merb101 "Broken or not, unbalanced or not, if something seems to be preventing the game from being enjoyable, something has to give: either that thing, or other aspects of the game, or your idea of what's enjoyable." - Centauri