What I Learned as a New Dungeon Master (And Why You Should Try It!)
Published on January 2, 2021, Last modified on February 13th, 2021
Everyone faces challenges and growing pains as a new DM. Don’t let that stop you.
A new frontier
As a long time Dungeons & Dragons player, I was always reluctant to try my hand at the most challenging aspect of the game: being a Dungeon Master. Like many people, the thought of being the one to actually run the game was intimidating. After all, why not just let my friends who are amazing DMs continue to do so?
That all changed when the first lockdown hit the country I live in. Unable to spend in-person time with one of my friend groups, the video calls started to get fewer and far between. Naturally, there wasn’t much to talk about when everyone was just stuck inside. But then it hit me – what if we played D&D? What if I took this group of people who had never played a roleplaying game before, a group of people with a questionable internet connection and English as a second language, and showed them why I love it so much? What if we just played, instead of thinking of all the reasons that it might not work out?
So, this isn’t a guide on how to be an amazing DM like Matt Mercer. This isn’t even a guide on how to DM in the first place. These are my thoughts and experiences as a brand new DM. The good, the bad, and the ugly. My hope with writing this article is to inspire someone who might be on the fence about DMing for their group, to show them that they aren’t alone in feeling nervous. Someone who constantly thinks about all the reasons why they shouldn’t or can’t do it. Someone like me.
Dragged down by the rules
I think the most common reason for not wanting to DM is that many people think they don’t have a solid understanding of the rules of the game. Even after years of experience playing various characters, I couldn’t sleep the night before my first scheduled DMing session. What if I forget how grapples work? What if I don’t know what a spell does? What if I make a mistake?!
Looking back, these kinds of fears were completely silly and ultimately unproductive. I had built up this idea in my head that when you’re the DM, it’s a showcase of your mastery of the game. But think about it; when you play as a PC, how often are you really thinking about if your DM is “good enough” to fill that role? Hopefully never! If someone is willing to put in the dedication to DM, they are good enough.
To alleviate some of this self-imposed pressure, I learned that communication with your players is key. Let them know you are nervous! This really helped take the stress off of me, and was met by support and encouragement from my friends. It is completely okay to stop and think about how to proceed, or to take a quick break to look up some rules before continuing.
This is even more true when running a game with new players. In fact, in the first few sessions, it’s best to not get bogged down by the rules. The most important thing is to keep your players engaged by keeping the flow of the game going. If you make a mistake, they won’t even know! When you sit down to play the next time, let them know of anything that was done wrong so it can be corrected going forward. DMing can be just as much a learning experience for yourself as it is a teaching experience.
Remember that everyone at your table is there to have fun! If you can look at your players and tell they are having a good time, that’s all that really matters.
Set boundaries early and firmly
An early issue I faced stemmed from the dynamic of the friend group. While we are all best of friends, we love to argue and tease each other, albeit usually in a friendly way.
In the very first session, I found it hard to keep things under control. While I was trying to give exposition, my players constantly talked over me to poke fun at each other. This led to me having to repeat myself several times because everyone was constantly getting sidetracked. The session culminated in one player attacking another because he caught him stealing from him. Completely over my head, I decided to end the session there.
Frustrated, I called up my friend who is an experienced DM. What he said baffled me at first. He told me to outright ban PVP fights outside of what I deem to be appropriate, and to learn to tell my players “no”. I was so caught up in this idea that D&D lets you be anyone and do anything, something I told my group at the start of the session, that I forgot what the game should be all about.
Before the start of the next session, I earnestly explained my new view point to the group. Dungeons & Dragons is the most fun when players work together towards a common goal. I told them that I worked very hard in preparing the session, and that they needed to listen to me for the game to function properly. While the rules of D&D allow you to do almost anything you want, that doesn’t mean that everything is fun.
After our chat, the next session became a lot easier. D&D is a game of respect, namely respecting your fellow players, the DM, and the game they worked on to share with friends. I am confident that if I had not set boundaries early, everyone would have lost interest and I would have become even more frustrated.
Practice makes better
Just like learning an instrument, learning to code, or any skill for that matter, there will never come a moment where you are simply done. You won’t magically wake up one day and say to yourself: “I’ve done it! I’ve learned everything there is to learn about being a DM.”
If you ask Matt Mercer if he thinks he is a perfect DM, or if Eric Clapton thinks he is perfect at the guitar, the answer would most certainly be no.
I’ve learned to take things in stride. I’ve started to approach DMing, as well as many other things in my life, as a process. If, after every session, you can say to yourself that you’ve learned something or improved your skills, you’re doing it right. If you get mad at yourself for not reaching your lofty expectations after your first couple sessions, you will be setting yourself up for disappointment.
It’s okay to let yourself know that you will never be perfect. In fact, it’s liberating to know that you can never know everything. Practice makes better, not perfect.
Every player should be a Dungeon Master (at least once!)
After reading about my struggles and triumphs as a fresh DM, you may still find yourself wary of taking up such a seemingly difficult task. Here are some reasons why I think every single D&D player should DM at some point, even if it’s just once!
DMing makes you a better player
As a DM, there is a lot more to focus on than just your own character. You need to improvise, come up with solutions on the fly, and adapt your session to what your players seem to enjoy the most. Not only that, but you need to roleplay as more than one character!
Getting into the DMing mindset has carried over into my other playgroups. I have found that I am more creative and spontaneous with my in-character dialogue, and am able to roleplay my character to fit the story better than before.
DMing makes you more appreciative of your friends
If you’ve never tried it, you may not realize how much goes into preparing a fun and engaging D&D experience, even one that lasts for just two hours. Your DM pours their heart and soul into planning narratives, dungeons, and story arcs just for the players to do something unexpected and potentially skip whole sections of what you had planned!
Of course, all of that is just part of the experience of being a DM. Whenever we wrap up a session, we all make sure to thank the DM for their hard work, and let them know it does not go unappreciated.
You will bring something new to the table
You may not feel like you have something to offer compared to the DM who has been doing it for 20 years, but that’s simply not true. Every DM I’ve ever played with has had their own flair that can often lead to radically different experiences, and it’s extremely refreshing every once in a while.
On top of that, it’s great for your DM to know you are available to take over for a session or two if they need a break or haven’t had time to prepare anything.
You will step out of your comfort zone
At the risk of this getting overly philosophical or cliché, some of the best moments of your life can happen when you do things you normally wouldn’t. Stepping out of your comfort zone can be healthy and give you confidence in other aspects of your life. Yes, it can be scary, but many things in life that are worth it are.
Looking back, it’s funny to think about how I built up all these terrible problems in my head only to realize how easily they were solved. At the end of the day, the world didn’t end, I learned a new skill, and I am better off for it.
I finished off the Lost Mines of Phandelver with that group, and everyone had a blast. Although we are currently on hiatus, I take over occasionally with my main group to do one-shots for holidays or other occasions. I will always be a player at heart more than a DM, but when I take up the mantle I always have fun.
So please, call up your friends and schedule a session right now. Do it. You won’t regret it.