Recently I reached the milestone of 200 hours of running sessions since I returned to DMing in 2016. Since then, I’ve probably added another 30 or 40 hours to that total.
For people who have been running games since the 1980s, this may not seem like a lot, but to me it was a huge marker in my progress from swithering about whether to return to gaming to jumping in with both feet and DMing a couple of fairly lengthy and involved campaigns.
In that time I’ve learned a lot. I’m also very aware that the next 200 hours will teach me even more. In the meantime, I thought I’d share a little bit of the wisdom that I’ve gained from the first 200 hours.
1. Preparation is everything
Before each session, I note down all the possible locations the party could visit and the people/monsters they could interact with. I then open up a Google Document for the session and pile my thoughts into it. I may not even use this document during play but the act of typing it out really helps to reinforce things in my mind. This is not about detailing every location within a dungeon. This is just a series of high level bullet points about what might happen and how to deal with it if it does. In particular, I often map out possible conversation paths and responses for NPCs because ad-libbing on the fly is something I have an issue with.
For Fantasy Grounds play, I often create a separate story entry for the session. Within that story item I add the same information as is in the Google Document, along with links to images, maps, encounters, locations etc. This greatly speeds up online play as I don’t have to go hunting for the appropriate Fantasy Grounds entry. Roll20 doesn’t have the linking functionality but you can still create a journal entry specific to that session to help keep you on track.
2. Facilitate your player’s story
Player’s can get creative. It’s what they do. If your adventure is predicated on them approaching a problem one way, and one way only, then you’re going to have to force and coerce them into acting as you hoped they would (which is no fun for anyone).
I recently ran a session for a party who approached a room containing a well. The well was filled with Giant Centipedes. The centipedes would have put up a tough fight for a 1st level party, especially given the fact that their intention was to grab players and drag them down the well. This could easily have been run as a straight combat.
The party had other ideas. They decided to firebomb the room with homemade Molotov Cocktails made out of bottles of cheap local spirits. This created a bit of a DM headache for me as I hadn’t really considered that as a possible option. As a result, I had no idea how much damage would be inflicted.
It would have been tempting at this point just to tell the party they couldn’t find anything flammable in the dungeon but where is the fun in that? So I pulled a damage roll out of the air, let them do it and they killed two of the three centipedes. The down side for them? The room and corridor beyond filled with choking black smoke. The Cleric ended up being lowered into the well to investigate where the Centipedes came from and was bitten by the remaining Centipede so the encounter ended up much the same, but the players felt they had agency.
3. Handwave it
I handwave stuff all the time. Player absence is one of those things which I just don’t care to narrate. If a player can’t make it then their character disappears for that session and is not mentioned. If they make the next session, the character reappears without any real explanation of where they were and how they reappeared. I just rescale encounters accordingly.
I take the same approach to rules questions. If a rules question comes up and the answer is either ambiguous or will take too long to look up then wave it through and adjudicate based on gut feeling. The flow of the game and the story is more important than precision. The only time I make an exception to that is when the handwave will cause a catastrophic imbalance in the game. Otherwise I work on the basis that all things even themselves out in the end.
4. Make the game as visual as possible
If you play online using a virtual tabletop (as I do) then the games is largely visual by default. Even so, it’s easy to fall into the trap of not sharing any visuals beyond the battlemap.
For all games, online and offline, it really brings it to life if you create and print off some props to help the players visualise proceedings. Some ideas include pictures of monsters & NPCs, puzzles, landscapes and any artefacts that players acquire during the adventure. I find that when I run a game with my kids, printed monster pictures really bring the game to life. Sometime it’s easy forget that they haven’t played this game for years and aren’t familiar with common monsters such as Orcs, Kobolds and Owlbears.
5. Remember that the game is about having fun
Recently, I had one of my players approach me and tell me that (at 7th level) they were dissatisfied with their choice of character class and felt that they weren’t able to contribute as they would like within the game. They asked if they could change character class.
This wasn’t a hostage situation. The player was more than willing to leave the decision up to me and would have continued as the original character. I’m not sure what that would have achieved though. I think it’s more important to make sure your players are having fun than it is to have narrative consistency. In the end, the player came back with the same name and race but a different class. Nobody in the group objected, least of all me. Give it a couple of sessions and nobody will even notice any more.
It’s important to be flexible. The world that you’ve built and the story that you are trying to project are never more important than the enjoyment of the players at your table. Remember that.
These are just some of the things I’ve learned in the past two years of DMing. How do they match up with what you’ve learnt?
I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.