How to DM for the First Time

by Hale J. on July 27, 2020
So, you’ve got a group together, picked your TTRPG gaming system and volunteered yourself as tribute as Dungeon Master. But you don’t know how to DM! Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. We won’t go into too much detail of exactly how to run your first session, but we’ll share a few things we have found helpful during our time as DMs. In this article we talk about:

 

  • The rules
  • The tone of your world
  • Session length
  • Juggling character motivations
  • Solving in-game problems

 

The First Rule of DMing...

You may be staring at that ½” thick, 320 page Dungeon Master’s Guide and thinking, “I’m never going to remember all that!”

Yeah. Me neither.

Don’t weigh yourself down thinking you need to know all of the ins and outs of your chosen game system. A basic knowledge of combat and skill checks should be plenty to get you started. You’ll learn as you go. 

“But what if I come across a situation that I don’t know the rules for?” I hear you cry.

The best way we’ve found to tackle this is to make sure that everyone playing knows from the outset that if we don’t know what the rule is we're not going to stop play so we can spend the next however long looking it up. We’ll wing it with an outcome that seems fair to all parties and we can look it up later. That way the flow of the game isn’t interrupted and once we know what the ‘actual’ rule is we can implement it in future sessions if we need to. 

Sometimes your way is better, or more fun, than the official rules anyway. 

 

Set the Tone.

One of the most important things to do in your very first session of any campaign is to make sure your players know what kind of world they are interacting with. I’m not talking about the setting here, I’m talking about the mood. Are you running the kind of game where players can get away with murder, where wacky and silly ideas will be accepted as solutions, or will there be consequences to their actions?

This may not sound like a big issue, but it can cause massive problems if it isn’t addressed right away. Your players may have come from a campaign where their previous DM has allowed them to murder hobo their way through the world, and they may expect to be able to do the same in your campaign. So when their solution to a brawl in the local tavern is to remove their opponent's head, they may feel surprised at the ensuing manhunt by the authorities due to the more realistic consequences you planned for your world. Not to mention the frustration this can cause to you as the DM when a player unintentionally derails your entire campaign by their actions. 

This doesn’t mean you can’t have a bit of silliness in a serious campaign, humour can add a lot to the overall story and make the more solemn moments that much more impactful. The reverse is also true a bit of seriousness in a generally humourous storyline can add some needed depth.

Generally the campaign that we run has quite a serious tone to it, but we all like to let loose every now and then. So sometimes between the sessions of our main storyline we’ll run a super silly one shot. This is a great way to mix it up a bit without affecting the story and environment of your main campaign. 

Whichever mood you choose is fine, it’s your world, just make sure everyone is on the same page.

 

It’s not the length, it’s what you do with it.

Contrary to popular belief, a D&D (or Pathfinder, if you’re into that sort of thing) session is not required to last 9 hours, stopping only for a quick loo break or to refill the snacks. Sometimes a session can be too long.

It can be tempting for us as DMs to add filler content to our sessions, like long NPC conversations, shopping experiences, or letting the party sit for half an hour strategizing about what they’re going to do next. Whether it’s to buy ourselves some extra time or because we feel the session needs to be longer, we’re all guilty of dragging a session out for the sake of it being longer.

However, we’ve found it’s much more fun to play a short but intense 2-3 hour session, where all of the players are engaged, than one that’s long and drawn out where players start drifting on to their phones and not paying attention to what’s happening in-game. Keeping it short means you can end the session at a point where everyone is still high energy rather than burned out. As long as the intensity of narrative and action is maintained there’s no need to drag it out for the sake of a longer session.

So we’d recommend trying this 2-3 hour timeframe for your first session. If it takes longer? That’s fine. If it ends quicker than you thought? That’s fine too, you’ll have some time you can spend just hanging out and talking about what happened, which can actually be just as fun.

 

Trust Me, Keep It Simple

For a first time DM it’s much easier to start with a situation where the player’s characters already trust one another and are working towards a common goal. 

It can be fun for an experienced DM to juggle PCs with many different motivations and plans that often conflict. The rogue is constantly trying to steal from the rich and powerful, but the paladin has sworn to protect the local lords and their estates. The barbarian has a goal of collecting trophies from each of the creatures they come across in battle, and the druid is on a personal campaign to turn everyone they meet into a vegan. It can be hard to keep track of everyone’s individual goals and write them into the story for your campaign. 

Backstories for characters are important, but for a new DM it’s hard enough to run 1 session, rather than 7 sessions happening all at once at the same table. Try to focus on one storyline at a time, and if there is a conflict in the nature of some of the player characters, talk to the players and try to come up with a reason that they have chosen to work together for the time being.

You can always change it up later when you have more experience, but start out with a scenario where all your player characters know, or at very least, trust one another.

 

Speaking of Goals…

Of course, part of the fun of games is having a problem to solve. Whether it’s a riddle, a puzzle, or some kind of scenario you present to your players it must have a solution. So when you present your players with a problem it’s a good idea to have a solution already in mind

This does not, however, mean it should be the only solution.

Allow your players to experiment with their own ideas. If they come up with a solution that’s different to yours then run with it. Even if it seems mediocre, you want to encourage them to think of novel ways to solve a problem rather than stabbing wildly in the dark hoping to hit the only solution you will allow. 

It’s a game, not a test. Unless it is a test then ignore everything I just said. 

Your solution is there as a kind of fallback. It can be hard, especially if your players are new as well, to know what your style of DMing is. It takes time to figure out what works in your world and what doesn’t. So if they have an idea that seems like it fits, let them win. 

If they’re struggling to find a solution then you can give them hints towards the solution that you already had in mind.

 

And Finally…

Have fun for goodness sake. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, games are supposed to be enjoyable. And sometimes the funniest moments come from when we cock up and break something. 

 

So Stop Reading and Go Have Fun Already!

Oh, you’re still here. Well, in that case, here’s a nice little summary of all the points of my ramblings:
 
  • Don’t worry about knowing all the rules. It’s fine to wing it sometimes as long as you and your players are happy with the outcome.
  • Set the tone of the campaign in your first session and make sure everyone knows the kind of game you’re running.
  • Keep it short. A session doesn’t have to take hours as long as the pace of the action and story feels right.
  • Keep it simple. Start with all the player characters trusting one another and working toward the same goal.
  • Have a solution in mind, but don’t be tyrannical about it. Let the players succeed if they find their own way of doing something.
  • Have fun!

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