I hear it all the time. "I'd love to play Dungeons and Dragons, if I could find a group." "I want to play in an RPG (role playing game), but I don't know anyone who can be the DM." I used to say it all the time as well. I used to game in high school and a little bit in college, but it was always a struggle to find a game master. And finding a GOOD game master? That was even harder!
Eventually, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. I was a storyteller, after all. That was half the job right there! I wasn't a big one for memorization, however, so that aspect got me nervous. There were so many rules! What if I screwed up? Another thing that gave me some anxiety was being the only girl in the room, which I knew was something there was a big chance of. One reason I'd stopped gaming when I was younger was because of some uncomfortable situations that arose, where some male players weren't able to separate their characters from themselves--OR they used their characters in a way that allowed them to get some of their baser instincts out. As I got older, however, I realized that if there was a good DM in that situation, it wouldn't have happened. When I DM a table now, whether it's for kids or adults, I don't let situations fly that make people are uncomfortable like that. It's also a bit different, I've found, than it was when I was a kid in the 80s and 90s. I think a lot of foul beasts have moved on to video games, leaving more room for less toxic people at the RPG table (not in all cases, of course, and I'm probably going to address harassment at the game table in a future article).
Even so, I was really nervous about starting to DM, so convinced it would be a disaster and everyone would hate me. But I decided to bite the bullet and get started. I mean, really, that's what all other DMs in the world had to do, right? No dungeon master ever sprang from the womb with full knowledge of RPG rules and etiquette. I started running games for friends and family, and then for game shops and programs, and guess what? It turns out I have a ton of fun, and most importantly, my players have fun, too.
So if you want to be a DM, what are some things you should remember? Well, here are a few things I always try to keep in mind:
- Your players need you. You are the most valuable person there. Without you, the game wouldn't be happening. It's hard sometimes to get people to agree to be the DM, and your players recognize this. Yes, that feels like a lot of responsibility, but also, your players will cut you some slack if you don't instantly recall some obscure rule. And if they don't and you have a complete jerk there? Remember, if you leave because they are making you miserable, they don't have a DM. Chances are, your players know this and if they notice another player being a dick, often times they will call him/her on it and you won't have to say a word. If they don't, just tell the person you're doing your best, to give you a break. If that doesn't work, you DO have the right to boot him from the game or penalize him in another way so he'll get the message. You're DM. Who's to say a dragon can't come out of the woodwork suddenly and breathe some horrid acrid breath on him? Or maybe players run across an old wizened adventurer who didn't listen to his group leader, and has some advice. There are a ton of ways to handle adversity at the table if you are anxious about that. But chances you, YOU WON'T HAVE TO. Players want to play. They will be grateful you are giving them that chance. Over the years, I've found that players are helpful and willing to wait if I get stuck with something, especially if I make it funny. THEY didn't want to be DM. They know it can be a tough job. They WILL understand if you have an off day, or if you didn't quite prepare for something, or even if you need help deciphering a rule.
- There is a different between being a rule master and being a game master. Yes, there are rules to role playing games. There are books full of rules. How can someone expect to memorize all of them? Well, believe it or not, there ARE some people who do. But there is a huge difference between someone who can simply know fact and spew trivia and someone who can guide characters on the adventure of a lifetime. Believe me, players would MUCH rather have someone who had great ideas and a strong story than someone who knew every exact detail of every rule in the book. The books exist for a REASON. Have the core rule book and the dungeon master's guide for whatever game you are playing handy, and you'll be all set. They have indexes so you can find things quickly. And if you are really stuck, make it a joke. I've had NPCs say, "Oh, wait, hang on, I seem to be remembering something..." and examine the strings tied around their fingers as I riffle through the rule book. And if there is a player more experienced than you playing? Don't feel badly about taking them aside for a side-bar and asking them a question. Not only do they not mind sharing info (after all, if they really wanted to be DM, they would be leading their own group!), but it helps keep them involved and engaged as a valuable part of the game.
- Let your players be responsible for their own characters. A fear of mine when I started DMing was that there would be a ton of people with wizards and druids and bards, and I wouldn't be able to know all the spells, so how could I know if there was an issue, and...well, yeah. Guess what? It's not a big deal. If you have a player who has a character with a ton of spells, and you can't keep track of them all, just tell them that they are responsible for knowing what those spells do, etc. If something seems off, or another player says, "I don't think that works like that," you can look into it in the player's manual. My players and I have developed a fairly easy routine where when one of them casts a spell on an NPC, I just say, "OK, what's the saving throw for that?" or "What are the effects of that?" and I write it on my pad. It happens naturally, there aren't big time delays, and no one seems to mind (not even when I have to have them repeat things because the poor dragon has like five spells on him at once!).
- There's preparing, and then there's over-preparing. All DMs have done it. We've created this AMAZING adventure, where the characters go here and there, and adventure is around every corner, and fierce monsters, and....then some dumbass bard who shall remain nameless decides they want to put on a concert in this town where they are SUPPOSED to be fighting ruffians, and....you get the idea. Players and characters WILL derail even the most thought out campaigns, and you know what? That's part of the FUN. Yes, that is fun. Because in the end, it doesn't matter if everyone follows everything to the T. What matters is that everyone has fun. If you want characters to behave a certain way, walk a certain path, then write a novel. If you want to interact with folks and have unexpected things happen, then play a game. As DM, it's not your job to be a gatekeeper or force people to do things a certain way. It's your job to let the players go on an adventure and supply them with the danger and rewards of doing so. Add twists and turns, add unexpected surprises both good and bad, and allow your own adventure to surprise you. That's how gaming can be fun for everyone. If you over-prepare and go into the game with tons of expectations, you WILL be disappointed. It's just the nature of things. But prepare something, and then be open to surprise, and you'll have doors opened and creative opportunities you never even dreamed of--that's the fun of playing with real people.
- Things get more fun when you understand your players. My DMing style changes with every different table of players I have. No two tables has the same dynamic, which is also part of the fun. Some groups are cautious, take their time, question captives, etc. Others just charge ahead and kill everything in sight. Neither is more right than the other, and both provide opportunities for the DM to expand their storytelling and adventure. Sure, if you planned for this bandit to reveal some info to a player, and the player kills him, it might frustrate your original plan, but just come up with something else (A mysterious note. A bit of rubbish that doesn't quite belong...a chatty spider? The possibilities are endless). And among your players, there will be one who is more easy-going, one who is more assertive, one who is a little flaky. Use all these things to your advantage. At the same time, however, you can maneuver things to be sure no one is taking advantage of the easy going person, or that the assertive person isn't calling all the shots to the detriment of others, etc. And once you become more comfortable with your DMing, your players will probably not even notice what you're doing, because it's all part of the story!
- Monsters can break up arguments. Fast. If an argument breaks out at your table, and you aren't the assertive type and don't feel comfortable breaking it up, well. That's what giant spiders are for.
There are many, many other things that I could list here for new DMs. But the most important thing of all is to HAVE FUN. That's why you are all there, after all, and if you aren't having fun, what's the point?
There are a ton of resources out there to help new DMs. One of the biggest helpers to me has been YouTube. If you just search for "Dungeons and Dragons campaign" (or whatever RPG you're playing), a ton of videos will come up. Watch several of them so you can see how different DM styles can be, and how different even the same campaign can be with different players.
Another great reference is the Kobold Guide to Gamemastering. There are essays in there from some of the best in the business, about everything from how to handle groups of any size, to how to wing a campaign, to how to handle romance between characters.
And always look for resources pertaining to your particular game. There are things from the core rulebooks to Facebook groups and web forums for many of the popular games out there.
Again--HAVE FUN!! Life is too short not to!
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy stories where heroes don't always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. She’s been known to befriend wandering garden gnomes, do battle with metal-eating squirrels, and has been called a superhero on more than one occasion. Her fiction has appeared in Circle Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, and in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis. She studied astronomy and physics at Northern Arizona University and has published some non-fiction in the field of astronomy and library sciences. She's the co-editor of the anthology MECH: Age of Steel and editor of Hath No Fury, and she is a blogger and general b*tch monkey at The Once and Future Podcast.