Top 10 Tips for New DMs
By Emily Smith
We can’t all be god-tier dungeon masters like Matt Mercer, but we can try our hardest to live up to his standards. That all starts with our first-time dm-ing. It’s natural to feel overwhelmed. There’s a lot to keep track of in a D&D game, and your players will probably have some expectations. Probably not Lord of the Rings level expectations, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. So, if you’re feeling anxious and in need of some first-time dungeon master tips, we can help you out. These are the Top 10 Tips on how to dm.
1. Run an Adventure You’ve Played Before
A lot of anxiety from the first-time dm-ing comes from picking the right module and the preparation that comes with it. Plus, you may need a contingency plan if something is forgotten or messed up. We can’t all be a Mary Sue and get things perfect right off the bat. Since you likely have some D&D experience as a player, the first tip on how to dm is to pick a module you’ve played on.
- First, you already know how it works since you’ve seen it first-hand.
- Second, you know all the important details of the game.
- Third, you’ll be familiar with the world, NPCs, and background events.
Basically, you won’t have to learn a bunch of new info before you start. You don’t need a galaxy brain to run a smooth campaign.
If you’re still not sure what to pick, the Lost Mines of Phandelver (D&D 5e Starter Set) is a solid choice designed for first-time DMs.
2. Gather Your Materials
The second tip on how to dm is to figure out the basic materials you need and get them ready ahead of time. In the words of Samwise Gamgee, “It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.” Get your module, monster manual, DMG, and DM’s screen together asap. Have enough dice to roll for each monster in one go (if a monster can roll 5d6 damage, get 5d6s; if they have advantage, get two d20s, and so on). Rolling in one go is easier for everyone. Do things right, don’t do them twice. Keep an extra d&d polyhedral dice set on hand to lend players.
3. Review Your Materials
That’s right, if you want to learn how to dm you have to know to review your materials 2-3 times. You want to understand the module forwards and backwards. Being a first-time dm doesn’t mean you can slack here. Do or do not, there is no try. Make a flow chart for plot reference, write notes in the margins, and highlight important sections if you need to. Do whatever memory tricks you can to know the module inside and out. This is the first-time dungeon master tip that really counts because the better you know the module, the better the game will be. You want to have so many details down that it will scare the players. Your memory should be beyond science.
4. Play Where You’re Comfortable
The best playing field is home turf. That could be your actual home, a coffee shop, or an FLGS. Wherever you’re comfortable with counts.
This goes for players too. If you’re still learning how to dm and only want close friends who won’t judge you, then play with them. If you know a person will keep you on edge, keep them as far away as possible. We don’t need any Dinklebergs at this table.
Do whatever you can to maximize comfort. That way your first-time dm-ing will be stress-free and let you focus on giving the best experience to your players.
5. Think Ahead
Thinking about how to dm is necessary to the craft. And if those kids that have trouble thinking could read this they’d be very upset. But since you are reading this, you likely can use your brain. Think about how characters would react to certain settings and events. Imagine where they might diverge from the expected path. There’s always that one chaotic evil player (we’re looking at you, Pierce Hawthorne) that does their best to derail the campaign in any way possible. Our tip for first-time dungeon masters is to think of all these possibilities and how you’ll handle them. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when the campaign starts to fall apart.
6. When in Doubt, Make it Up!
Your players will always surprise you, whether you’re just learning how to dm or already know. They’ll want to talk to NPCs that don’t exist, swing from a chandelier that isn’t described in the module or use every opportunity they can to express grievances with Game of Thrones’ final season. When in doubt, just make it up! Players won’t know you’re making up details, even if you claim there’s aurora borealis at this time of year, at this time of day, at this part of the country, localized entirely within your kitchen, because that’s obviously the truth. Plus, it lets the adventure be more interactive and tailor-made to the group. That’s what will make your first-time dm-ing a successful venture.
7. Take Notes
You don’t have to go full Tolkien and make up languages for your campaign to be a success, but knowing how to dm means knowing how to take notes. This is particularly true for long-term campaigns. Attention to detail is the foundation of long-running stories, and your players pick up on it. If people can spot split-second anachronistic Starbucks cups, they’ll find the inconsistencies in your logic. So, you’re going to want to remember this. It’s such a valuable thing to do, not just so you can remember what’s happened, but so you can re-incorporate those details into future plot hooks. Just because you’re getting tips on being a first-time dungeon master doesn’t mean Chekhov's gun is an out-of-reach concept.
8. Steal from Everything
This may surprise you, but everything is stolen from everything. All the good stories have already been written, we just change up the details a little bit. This advice on how to dm comes from Wil Wheaton himself, so you can believe we’ll take all the credit for it. Coming up with NPC voices, campaign details, or setting info is tough on the fly, especially in your first-time dm-ing. It’s easy to imagine one of your favorite characters from a novel, movie, cartoon, or more, and just steal them. That is, as long as it’s not obvious (so Hector the well-endowed is off the table). Take whatever details you need to make a perfect NPC.
9. Use the “Yes, and” Method
A key to knowing how to dm is knowing how to improv. You need to keep the fun going, and you’re bound to run out of written material to do that. So, when a player asks to do an action, you do the tried and true “yes, and” method to add details to the scenario. Try not to use the word “no.” If you can’t wrap your head around this, check out Mike Shea’s guide to improvisation for new DMs.
10. Focus on Fun
At the end of the day, Dungeons & Dragons is about having fun and creating stories with friends. You’re not going to know how to dm perfectly as a first-time dm. You can adhere to our first-time dungeon master tips all you want, but you still won’t be perfect. Besides, you and your players won’t remember all the little details once the game is over, you’re going to remember having a fun time with friends, playing their favorite characters. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’ll all work out in the end. And if it doesn’t, cast a memory-erasing spell and roll high enough that it succeeds. That’s all that matters.Emily Smith is a D&D Writer, TTRPG Blogger, and DMs Guild Content Creator based in Los Angeles, CA. She is a regular DM and player for Adventurer's League, the official organized play system for D&D 5e. In her free time, she enjoys playing League of Legends, cooking, and cat herding.