What I learned as a first-time Dungeon Master

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For Christmas 2017 my family generously gave me the full set of Dungeons & Dragons core rule books, as well as the boxed Starter Set. This was good, because I had wanted to start playing the venerable role-playing game for some time and wouldn’t shut up about it.

So, after ploughing through the core rule books (namely The Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual) and making several pages of notes about the Starter Set, I took my place as the Dungeon Master for my first ever game at a table of newcomers. Hilarity ensued, and I learned some valuable lessons about being a DM.

In case you’ve never played it or seen those two episodes of Community, Dungeons & Dragons is a pen and paper role-playing game first released in 1974. It’s currently in its fifth edition, and the franchise has gone on to influence countless video games, books, series, and movies.

Think of the game as “Make-believe but with rules”. The players will be lead through a campaign by the Dungeon Master (DM for short), who will act as the NPCs and be the referee during combat. It is not a competition, the DM is not out to get the players, it’s just a big ole’ nerdy adventure.

I knew all of that coming into the game despite having never played it before, but my first session taught me some valuable lessons.

First-time Players are Garbage at Names

Despite it being my first time as a DM, this was not nearly my first venture into the Dungeons & Dragons world. I’ve played many of the tie-in video games, and read enough of the novels to consider myself a hardened fantasy nerd. The players were all gamers in some capacity, but none of them were quite as into RPGs and fantasy as me. And it showed when they had to name their characters.

That’s how the party came to consist of Harry (Elf Wizard), Gendry (Dwarf Cleric), Hanzo (Human Fighter with a longbow), and Sam the Hobbit (a Halfling Rogue played by a woman named Sam). Nice job team, the minstrels will sing songs of your deeds…

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Be consistent

Dungeons & Dragons is built on two pillars: Improvisation, and rules. Lots and lots of rules. However, just like players are able to create their own settings and events, the rules are flexible as well. I discovered quickly that some rules had to be altered or improvised for the table of newbies.

So, don’t be afraid to make it up as a DM if it keeps the game moving, or lets players connect with their character. You’ll find it’s perfectly common practise for a DM to have a series of house rules that address issues they pick up on, or improve the game in some way. It’s just vital to always stay consistent with the rules, both official and made-up.

Plan to Improvise

Improvisation is one of the core pillars of Dungeons & Dragons gameplay. There is no guide, manual, or handbook that will possibly equip a DM to deal with every decision the players throw at you, so you’re going to have to get really good at improvisation.

When your player rolls dice and says “I magically make the goblins think I am their god”, don’t tell them “No”. Don’t tell them they can’t do that, or that it’s not in the rules. I learned that each player is going to bring a unique gameplay style to the table, and learning to be flexible leads to the most fun. Allowing for crazy situations makes for memories that your group will laugh over for years, and it all comes down to the DM making room for a really crazy play.

Keep it moving

The players at the table with me were a diverse lot. One was dead-quiet nearly the whole time, another got really into role-playing his wizard. The other two were what you could politely call “Disruptive” and frequently brought the game to a halt so they could argue over something. It was hard to tell if they were even role-playing at this point, they just seemed to like bickering over the next course of action.

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So that’s where I learned I had to step in. As DM, you’re responsible for setting up events that the heroes can trigger, but sometimes your heroes are more happy to argue in a pitch-black cave. When this happens, invent some reason to get them to drop their bickering and get a move on. My personal favourite is “Suddenly you all hear a blood-curdling scream! You should hurry…”

It’s okay to go easy on them

In our first combat encounter, the player’s party was ambushed by four goblins. This was everyone’s first time, so two players were promptly knocked unconscious. That’s when I decided to nerf the rest of the encounters a little.

Nerfing enemies can be done in two ways. Either you adjust some of their stats to make them weaker, or you role-play a reason for why enemies are playing badly. The final boss of the encounter would have turned the players into a paste, so I had him fly into a rage and foolishly throw his weapon at a player. Without his Morning Star of TPK +1, the fight was more dynamic as he kept attacking with chairs and improvised weapons. The players were challenged, but they survived and didn’t even notice what I had done. Their immersion (and skulls) remained intact.

Schedule bathroom breaks

Because nothing breaks the immersion like waiting for one player to finish his business in the middle of their turn. I won’t name names, you know who you are.

So far, Dungeons & Dragons is turning out to be even more fun and involved than I could have possibly imagined. With the right group of players, an entire day can just evaporate while you explore fictional worlds that only exist on paper and your imaginations. Let us know in the comments if you also play, and stay posted for more Dungeons & Dragons content soon. And if you’re in Joburg, maybe consider joining a game at The Nexus.

Last Updated: January 23, 2018

Matthew Fick

You know that one guy you think is normal until he shows you his collection of antique swords? That’s me. I like games, board games, role-playing games, and knitting. Also I speak French, but not very well.

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