My first campaign as a Dungeon Master

Thursday July 12th, 2018


I've been into fantasy since my mother first read me a bedside story. I've always loved dreaming of different worlds, characters, magic, stories and monsters. Which makes it slightly odd that I've never actually seriously played Dungeons and Dragons in the past. I've read libraries of fantasy books, I've played dozens of Role Playing video games, but I've only played D&D twice in the past, for one-shot sessions that lasted an hour before the parties lost interest.

Two years ago, I've started having discussions with my boss, after our work days were over, about the campaigns he was part of (either as a player or Dungeon Master). I loved listening to him talk about his stories and adventures, and that got me to start listening to Dungeons and Dragons podcasts on my commutes (namely The Adventure Zone -- Balance). Fast forward two years, and my interest involved into a deep love with all the possibilities offered by the game. I now listen to three different D&D podcasts and started hosting my first campaign as a Dungeon Master 5 weeks ago, with coworkers at my internship as players.


Don't stick to the "rules"

I mentioned earlier that my boss spent a lot of time telling me his D&D stories. I didn't mention that at some point, they switched to another Tabletop Roleplaying Game system (I believe it was named Vamp[1]). One of the reason he gave me for switching (other than their familiarity and how the like that other system) was that they did not enjoy looking for rules about everything. Most of their sessions were searching for stuff in the Handbook.

Now, I'm not saying that you shouldn't use the book as a reference point when needed, but I do not believe that you should be searching for stuff in a guide more than twice an hour. There's a few ways to avoid having to search in the guides. Of course, a good amount of preparation from the Dungeon Master can save time, as if he prepares his encounters well, he should have most of the mechanics down in his notes. But at some point, you need to improvise encounters/events. Even though the book allows rules to randomly generate a lot of different kind of events, and describes how to deal with certain actions, I believe you should just improvise the rules of the improvised event. If somebody knows the rules, you can use them, otherwise, it's better off to just make a house rule for this encounter.

To contrast, I've been playing a Legacy Board game with friends named Charterstone. One of the rules of the game says something along the lines of : "If at a point during the game, you notice that you've been following a rule wrong, act as if the rule did not previously exist and start applying the rule now." This allows the removal of stress caused by the need of "strictly following the rules." This can easily be used in D&D to remove the need of always searching for rules.

Disclaimer : Having a certain grasp on the mechanics of the game certainly also helps (i.e. listening to podcasts for 2 years).

Use color-coded dice

This advice is for helping new players. If you're not familiar with dice types, it may not be of any help to you. If you are, but your players are not, it helps the flow of the game greatly. Simply, if you ask a player to roll 1d10, and he goes "Is this a d10?", you can simply tell him the dice's color. This removes all friction between moving around/pointing/having somebody else mess with the dice.

Scale experience to your needs

This goes hand-to-hand with not following the rules exactly. The reason is what are called "rules" by players are actually guidelines to help balance the game. The thing with guidelines is that you can use your judgement to overrule them and make them fit your needs. This allows a great deal of flexibility to make the game exactly as you want.

As context, our campaign is time-fixed to around 8-9 weeks, as most players are also interns, and our end of campaign will fit with the end of internships. As well, our sessions last only around 75 minutes to accomodate our end of work time and the office closing time. This means that there's not a lot of encounters and chance for experience. If I'd follow the rules for experience, the players would maybe end the campaign at level 2, which is slightly deceiving for the players. Of course, this makes it slightly less realistic for the characters, but it allows the players, which are mostly new, to be allowed to try new spells and skills in this first experience.

Provide a lot of hooks

For those unfamiliar with D&D, when I say hooks, I'm talking about mediums to bait players in your stories. These can be requests for side-quests, new locations to explore, strange characters, world-shattering events or whatever you can think of. Players should not be forced to take the hooks in any way, as they should feel like they have the option to choose their path. If they decide to take the hooks, you can even slightly tie them back in the main story by potentially adding a hint for the players.

If they do not take the hook, you can reuse your hook's preparation and repurpose it to another hook further in the story. That means your preparation won't be wasted, and will also give you an easier time to prepare in the future (except you might have to slightly scale up traps and encounters to account for the players leveling up). Some hooks might not even be obvious to the players and they may miss them entirely (all players rolling below 10 on a Perception check).

Plan to wing it

Your players will not do what you planned for them to do. Maybe your simple puzzle will completely stump them. Maybe they'll kill your boss with three critical hits in a row, before he can run away. Maybe you'll forget to account for the fact that the party did not rest in the previous session, and throw enough damage to knock someone unconscious in one round.

The key here is to have slightly modular plans. The plans should not depend on each other, and should not be set in stone. Your story should be prepared for one thing : "If the players do not affect it, what happens?" Afterwards, you should account for common things your players will probably do to affect the story. Unless your players fit into the "I am chaotic and do whatever I want" archetype, they'll probably follow a good amount of your plan's lines. That'll mean all that's left to improvize is the small details where the characters actually affect something in an unplanned way, which should be made easier as it usually should not break all the plans. They killed your villain? Maybe there's a second in command which can keep the story slightly similar (while adapting for the new villain's personality).

Ask your players to prepare

This slightly goes back to my first takeaway. This is also probably the hardest tip to achieve. In an ideal world, your players should know what their spells and abilities do, without having to look them up in the handbook. That does not mean memorizing them, though. Writing or scanning and printing them can do the trick, as long as its kept in order. Of course, your players will never end up knowing everything at 100%, but even the smallest effort on this point will provide great results for the game's pace.

Have fun!

Most importantly, though, Dungeons and Dragons is a game. The goal is to have fun as a group. If any player is not having fun, tell him to come forward and express his concerns. As a Dungeon Master, your goal is to make sure every player is enjoying himself. Don't take this as giving them all they want, though. A challenge is way more enjoyable than having everything given to you, as overcoming the challenge provides way greater feelings!

Edits :

[1] -- Actually is called World of Darkness

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