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-Sean The Heavy Metal GM
It’s daunting to run a roleplaying session for the first time. Building a unique world requires the design of compelling NPCs, interesting plot twists, and engaging encounters. Even picking up an Adventure Path requires a surprising amount of upkeep and work to make an enjoyable session for players. Even then, sometimes players just take the DM’s plans, throw caution to the wind, and leave all the carefully planned notes on the cutting room floor. Here are five tips for a first time DM to hopefully make the first few sessions a little more organized.
1) Plan Everything
“Everything,” actually means, “almost everything.” It isn’t required to plan out what the random silk salesman is shouting out at the side of the road, but it does mean that everywhere the players are expected to go (and even the places they aren’t), a plan is required. The plan doesn’t need to be detailed, but having bullet points about each location, and any interactions at that location, can be very helpful.
If a DM plans their encounters, they can be ready for when the players enter the area. Planning ahead allows a DM to stay focused on the gameplay as opposed to trying to remember what was supposed to happen in a given encounter. It takes away stress and reduces some of the reliance on improvisation. Of course, this doesn’t mean that adaptation on the fly is forbidden; planning “everything” merely creates a framework to follow, allowing for the possibility of organic surprises to form as the game plays.
2) Make Cheat Sheets
There is a lot of information that DMs are required to remember at the drop of a hat. In Pathfinder, players can be affected by a vast array of similar sounding conditions like Frightened or Panicked. They’ll players will rightfully ask, “What does that do to my character?” and the DM will have to answer. Rather than looking everything up in the sourcebook or online in the moment, making a cheat sheet is a surefire way to keep the game focused and reduce stress on a first time DM.
Conditions are a good example of the lesson: taking time before a session to familiarize oneself with rules leads to a smoother session. Writing a brief description of what each condition does to a character not only allows the DM to become familiar with them, but makes that information quickly accessible during a game.
Conditions are overwhelming. Taking time before a session to familiarize oneself with rules leads to smoother gameplay. Writing a brief description of what each condition does to a character not only allows the DM to become familiar with them, but makes that information quickly accessible during a game. Doing the same for other complicated mechanics such as spells and monsters will also be beneficial for starting DMs.
3) Be Prepared To Improvise
Even you think you’ve planned for it all, players will be players, and will find a way to put themselves into unimaginable situations. A DM can look at a situation and design a handful of reasonable routes to take. Yet, players can concoct a plan that goes against the very idea of reasonable and, somehow, it works. It’s the job of the DM to steer the ship back to the original plan as seamlessly as they can and make it look as if it was all meant to happen.
This tip is essential because a DM may fall in love with the plans that they designed only for the players to never follow them. A good DM won’t railroad the players (force them on a specific path), but will instead adapt to what unfolds while considering their original plans. It’s a tricky balance, especially for the first few games, but it’s a skill to be practiced. Eventually, it will become quite comfortable.
4) Keep The First Few Sessions Really Simple
There’s nothing wrong with a DM’s first session being a simple dungeon crawl. It’s a great place to learn how to make the game flow while also learning the play style of your players. Custom designed dungeons allow your personality find its way into a session, though they take a lot of work. In the first few games, it’s easy to forget something as essential as roleplaying. When a DM is just beginning, the rules should be the main focus and roleplaying will naturally begin to burgeon after some time.
A dungeon is the perfect place to start, if you’re dead set on designing your own adventure. Focusing on building a small handful of rooms with their own unique encounters can help flex the creative muscles. The linear form most dungeons take also provides help in ensuring that the adventure follows a fixed path. Although, don’t be shocked if your players still surprise you! Dungeons can also provide their own semi-closed narrative, with the players starting in a specific room and being forced to find their way out. This allows players to have agency but there isn’t a larger, open ended plot.
If a DM is looking for a premade adventure there are a variety of options online. Pathfinder and Dungeons and Dragons have a good variety of modules to play. High Level Games has released a great one page adventure that makes for a good starting point. It provides some encounters in a city/town, followed by a small dungeon. It can be run in a few hours and after completing it, the players can perhaps continue their characters into a new campaign, should it inspire you. Find The Cat’s Meow for 5th edition here.
5) Don’t Expect The First Time To Be Perfect
Running a session is very challenging. Even an experienced DM can face situations that they don’t run well, or encounters that end up being boring. When, starting out your goal should be learning what works for you and your group. Mistakes are what help someone understand what’s effective, so welcome any missteps that are made with open arms.
This is not saying that you should just try everything and see what sticks. A DM will take what they find interesting, wanting to push those ideas onto their players. That can be a good idea; but if the players seem to pull in a different direction, then for the next session, try adding a little of what they want to see.
Finally, there’s nothing wrong with anyone simply saying, “Give me a second to look that up.” The players won’t lose anything if the DM needs to take a few moments to pull up a monster block, or ensure they are doing something correctly. There’s a lot of information in these games, and it’s against all reason and sense to memorize everything.
My first session as a DM was in 2016. I’ve learned a lot from running a full scale campaign that was way out of my comfort zone. In retrospect, I wish that I had started smaller. I wish I knew the tips above. Instead, I learned the hard way. It has been a fun and amazing experience, one I think anyone holding interest should try at least once. Even if it scares them.
Justin Cauti is a writer and Twitch streamer. He plays board/roleplaying games on the internet at http://www.playingboardgames.tv. Follow him on Twitter for updates on his boring life and writing projects @LeftSideJustin.
Image source: Neuronphaser’s Books to Help You Become a Better Game Master
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.