It’s your first night as Dungeon Master. The drinks are out, the dice are polished, and your nerves are spectacularly high. Your best friends plus that one guy you tolerate are gathered around your kitchen table eagerly finishing up inventories. Somewhere in the distance a crow calls twice, signaling the start of the game.
It can be intimidating when you’re staring at a page full of notes and a stack of rulebooks, knowing all of your hard work is about to be put to the test. Take a breath, relax, and remember these tips for running a successful campaign.
- Everyone you’re playing with is awful. They’ve all done terrible things, and transporting them to the Lilac Kingdom won’t suddenly polymorph them into good people. Be prepared for that.
- They want to watch it burn. They want to take your friendly NPC with the wooden leg who offers story-critical information and burn him alive. They want to steal his wooden leg, push him into a canyon, and sell that wooden leg to your down-on-his-luck jeweler with a heart of gold. The same jeweler they’ll feed to a bear later because it’s funny, and then feed that bear to a slightly larger bear.
- Consult your notes often to make sure you’re hitting all of the major plot hooks you’re trying to weave, but don’t be afraid to go off script. In fact, don’t even bother with your notes. That awesome dungeon under the Mayor’s house filled with cultists of Yantar, the Rat King? They probably won’t go there.
- Improvisation is key. Do voices for different characters, it really adds a lot to the experience. Make sure to practice your disgusted voice, because they will try to seduce every bar wench, Goblin, and Chimera they come across. This is an important point. Have the rules for seduction prominently displayed behind your DM screen to save yourself time.
- Show, don’t tell. Saying the town they’ve entered is dirty and run down is good. Describing how trash litters the muddy cobblestone of once proud streets is better. Saying “Yes, Mark, you can try and pick that beggar’s pocket” is best. Because Mark always does this and it SLOWS DOWN THE GAME MARK BUT FINE YOU STOLE HIS BREAD OKAY?
- Seriously, the seduction rules will be important.
- When it comes to plot, less can be more. A deluge of information can overwhelm players, so unless that’s the type of game they’ve agreed on keep it minimal, but available. They might know the Prince is a jerk, but his affair with the head of the Mage’s Guild won’t matter when they sell him into slavery for a cool pair of boots.
- Loot! Treasure is arguably more rewarding than experience for your average player, so have plenty of treasure available after battles and encounters. Enchanted swords, mystic rings, weathered carvings of animals with an aura of magic – All of these help to reward the player characters with tangible things to immediately sell away for hundreds of chickens in a bare bones cart they’ll use to hurl at Bugbears.
- Finally, while making sure your players have fun, it’s important to not burn yourself out in the process. If you’re not enjoying the game, eventually that discontent will seep into your players like a black pudding and taint their enjoyment as well. Running a game is like getting drunk and playing around with kittens: Everyone’s having fun until you start crying about Stephanie. (Why, Stephanie?!)
So with these tips in your mental bag of holding, your Dungeon Mastering will be the envy of players everywhere. Remember as always that games are meant to be fun, and it only works if everyone is having some. Everyone doesn’t need to be on the same page, but make sure you and your players are at least reading from the same book. That said – Dim the lights, perform the dark sacraments, and start DM’ing like a pro!
He likes long walks off of short piers (usually tricking some lust-ridden damsel to her watery demise while he surreptitiously activates his ring of water walking), and drinking copious amounts of coffee out of his most favoritest kitty mug (may it rest in peace). When he's not showboating his arcane prowess, he spends an inordinate amount of time cataloging and researching tirelessly for each and every episode of Dueling Ogres. Really. No, he really does. I promise.