This week we take a closer look at the basics of being a Dungeon Master, and how we can teach these essential skills to new DMs. At first I was naive enough to think I could answer this question in one post, but it deserves a thoughtful response, and so I’m going to divide it up into 3 separate posts. Today we tackle Part I:
How do you teach someone to DM who has a completely different style from you? I am an off-the-cuff DM; make everything up off the top of my head & take a few notes to maintain continuity. The person who wants me to teach them (my 2nd eldest daughter) wants to plan most everything before starting.
I remember when I first started my foray into Dungeon Mastering (or Game Mastering if you want to get technical). It was for the West End d6 Star Wars RPG and I was 12. Back then, being a Dungeon Master meant spending my baby-sitting money on as many Adventure books as I could find. I was terrified of making my own story from scratch. If someone else had already done all the work for me, why not shell out the 15 or 20 bucks for a book full of Adventures and save myself some work?
I did this happily for some time, but eventually I started writing my own adventures. I’m not sure when this change happened, but I can tell you why it happened. I was nervous about being a DM because I had no idea what I was doing. I never had anyone to teach me the craft. I was on my own, and it wasn’t until I had a significant number of adventures under my belt that I started to really understand what I was doing.
Like anything, when you DM for long enough, you get better, but having a teacher helps a lot. Learning to DM from other people’s adventures is similar to learning to play guitar from a book. You can do it, but it’s a lot easier when you have someone around to say, “No, your fingering is sloppy,” or “You need to lift your pinky,” or “You suck, maybe you should try the bass.”
As DMs we all have different styles; it’s what makes playing with different DMs interesting. If there was one perfect way to DM, we would all have virtual DMs for our groups. Some DMs love combat, some love intriuge, some love the rules and some hate them, some like to improvise and some have everything planned to the letter. This may seem like a challenge when you’re trying to help out a new DM, but for me, there are three things that are essential to being a good DM that you can pass along to anyone:
2) Character Development
3) Player Input
Planning is essential for new DMs. As an off-the-cuff DM, you may at first think the whole planning aspect of being a DM isn’t that necessary, but as a long-time DM even you’re probably overlooking some things you do automatically and easily.
First off, are the rules. You probably know most if not all of them by heart already. Something that slows down new DMs and bores Players is having to look through the rule book every time a die is rolled. It’s the fastest way to overdose on Mountain Dew and Cheetos from boredom. For a new DM this doesn’t mean memorizing the entire rulebook before you can start playing, but it does mean you should know enough. But what’s enough?
Basic combat should be no problem, and your Players Feats, Powers, Abilities, etc. should also be understood. The rest can be decided by the adventure you’re leading. You should at the very least plan out the enemies that will be encountered and familiarze yourself with that enemy’s abilities and stats. If you’re using random encounters, make sure to have a small pool of random monsters to pick from so nothing comes as a surprise.
When you’re just starting it’s also good to NOT give your player’s too many options. Even if you’re making things up as you go along, don’t present them with a lot of choices. This will just snowball out of control and turn into an improvisation nightmare for new DMs. Choices are good, but as a new DM you can simply give Players the illusion of choice.
For example, let’s say you present them with the following scenario:
A town is being harassed by some mysterious cattle thieves (local goblins), and the Players are asked to investigate. What happens when your players say, “No, let’s go back to that wizard we helped the other day and see if he has something else for us to do.” Instead of trying to force the Players into what you had planned, say, ”Sure! No Problem!” And hey, wouldn’t you know it, that wizard really wants his dead brother’s dagger back, and he thinks some nearby goblins (the cattle thieves) have it.
The point here is that we can use the same planned adventure hook in a wide variety of ways, and the Players don’t ever need to be the wiser, especially if the intial information we provide them with is vague.
Even as an anti-planner you can pass along these tips to aspiring DMs easily. And remember: starting out simple is essential. The easiest way to overwhelm a new DM is to throw too much at them at once. Keep an eye out for Part II this Friday, where we will discuss the importance of Character Development.
Please submit more questions!
You can also see me in action in One Die Short.