Becoming the GM

By Shamus Posted Thursday May 10, 2007

Filed under: Tabletop Games 38 comments

In response to a question posed in the comments here:

[…]would you mind writing a little bit about how you prepared to GM a game when you had no previous experience with gaming? I'm in the same boat (wanna start a group, haven't ever played or GM'd before) as you described.

My first step was to soak up the rulebooks. They aren’t designed to be read cover-to-cover, but I read quite a bit of the core rulebooks this way, particularly the combat sections and the stuff that covers running a game session. I only had about three weeks to prepare, and the last thing I wanted was for every battle to be a series of research projects where we dug through the books and trying to figure out what should happen next.

The other thing I did during those three weeks was design the setting. I just made up the game world from whole cloth. (I stuck my players on a single island with about eight towns, which limited the scope of the gameworld nicely.) This was a lot to accomplish in three weeks: To learn the D&D 3.5 game system from the beginning and design a game world, but I didn’t see the point in using a pre-designed setting, since that would just be one more thing I’d have to learn. For me, it’s easier to contrive new settings myself than it is to memorize the settings crafted by someone else. This is my favorite aspect of running a game, and I’m eager to do it again. Making up stories is fun.

Then before I started the game I held a sort of test run. We got together and held a short battle, sans plot, just to see if there was anything I was missing and to make sure we were all on the same page when it came to how the game was to be run. The test run went smoothly, and the next time we got together we started playing the campaign.

Note that I don’t suggest you try this if you plan to play with experienced players. I was a newbie DM, but my players only had a few sessions under their belts, so when I diverted from the rules they didn’t notice or get bent out of shape. It was a very relaxed campaign between friends, and so I didn’t have the pressure of trying to please a bunch of veteran strangers. The other thing I had going for me was that my players were a great bunch of guys who were all on the same page about what sort of game we were playing. All of them were happy with a deep story, low magic, moderate combat type game where the focus was on roleplaying and not stat-building. I’ve since learned that getting that large of a group to agree on this sort of thing is a rare and wonderful thing.


From The Archives:

38 thoughts on “Becoming the GM

  1. Jason says:

    Shamus, thanks. Good tips, common sense for the most part. Although, the point about creating your own setting, so as to not have even more “new material” to memorize, is a good one. Thanks again!

  2. Jeremiah says:

    I’d also add that new DMs, especially those making up their own setting, need to be especially careful of coming up with a story they want to tell, because then you run the risk of a lot of railroading. So, on top of that new setting you’ve created, you need to find out what the players want to do. If they all want to hunt undead, and there’s no undead in what you’ve come up with, then there’s going to be a problem.

    In fact, there’s nothing wrong with having the entire group collaborate on a new setting. That way everyone gets to contribute and really knows what to expect.

  3. Gary says:

    I’d say the making your own setting is a good idea. Unless you already know one of the settings well (and I’ve run in the Forgotten Realms for that reason) I’d say you can quickly generate the setting you want for most campaigns. I’d say to create it as a GM rather than get the players to collaborate as I think that will result in a lot time spent in discussion or argument. If players seem to hint they want something then just stick it in; the flexibility of your own campaign means that someone else can’t just say “well the source book says that dragons only come from the western mountain range”.

    I do like collaborative games like Pool though but then, even though it requires less preparation, generally you need more experienced players.

  4. Corvus says:

    For my first campaign, I picked a rule set none of the players were familiar with, and a setting that they hadn’t played before (a sprawling post apocalyptic cyberpunk sort of affair).

    I proceeded to mostly ignore the rules and requiring them to roll only when they were being stupid. Eventually they were down to only rolling when attacking and never once did they think to ask me as to the exact mechanic I was using for conflict resolution.

    Additionally, I have them complete free rein to do whatever they wanted, dropping plot progression points into scenes when I had an opportunity and baiting some very lovely traps (oh, I rewarded them handsomely for picking up on plot points).

    It turned out to be an extraordinarily successful first attempt. Unfortunately, I afforded them even more control the second time around and they simply weren’t ready for it. The group tore itself apart.

  5. QE says:

    The comments about world building are good. Although potentially a lot of work (and decent planning helps there, when you can work out what you don’t need to know) it helps avoid various problems you can have when trying to fill in around published material, especially since sooner or later there’ll be a player who thinks they know it better.

    I would argue that having experienced players around isn’t a disadvantage, provided they’re good players. Having an old hand around who is happy to let you get on with things until you genuinely have something he could help with is invaluable. Someone who feels superior to you because he’s played longer, and feels the need to show it is probably a game-killer.

    If you can get together that Holy Grail of friendly groups all working from the same page, then nothing can [too] badly wrong, and everyone learns valuable things from things that weren’t right.

    The only thing I might add is that because of the synergy you’re hoping for, and various other concerns, smaller groups are generally easier to DM for. Start small if you get the choice.

  6. Nilus says:

    Other good new GM advice

    1) No one expects you to have the books memorized. Just read them and understand them as best you can. If you and your players are new to the game then you will be learning it together and thats not a problem

    2) If you don’t know a rule and it takes longer then 5 minutes to look up, just wing it. It better to keep the game moving then use the exact correct rule. After the game feel free to look up the rule and see what you did wrong or right

    3) Talk to your players before the game. Let them know what to expect and what you expect of them.

  7. Mordaedil says:

    Awfully short, but good advice.

  8. AngiePen says:

    To avoid railroad plots, it helps to think about or (better yet) write down your major plot line ahead of time and think about where the decision points are. Figure out what’ll happen and what you’ll do if the players do X, do Y, do Z, or do nothing at all. And be ready to wing it when they insert decision points of their own in places you never expected, or end up doing Q instead and heading for the hills. :)


  9. mom says:

    Being a DM must be a little like writing a “Choose Your Own Adventure” Book.

  10. Shandrunn says:

    I have something to add: start small, and for heaven’s sake don’t do any more than you need to.

    When I prepared my first game, I actually did the combat stats for the innkeeper the group hardly spoke with, and wondered if “an inn” would be listed with the equipment.
    Several games have broken down, some before they even started, cause I couldn’t handle the work.
    Now I run a game where I keep my work to a minimum. I play by post on a forum, and it has the advantage of giving me plenty of time to work up stuff. I don’t even know what a room in the goblin den looks like until the players open the door.

  11. DocTwisted says:

    All good advice.

    I’d like to add that in every game I’ve ever played, either as a PC or the GM, it was understood in advance that the GM got the final say, not the rulebook. For instance, current D&D rules say that a critical hit requires *two* rolls: The first in your critical range and the second beating the target’s AC. I think that’s needless extra rolling, so players in my game just need to roll that first one and it’s a critical hit.

    Also, in my early games, I ignored a great deal of the “upkeep” details of the adventure… in other words, I assumed that the characters all were getting sufficient food, drink, rest, and bathroom breaks without having every character RP it out, or even spend their money (on the food and drink). The exception to this is if they actually went into a pub or inn, in which case they’d have to spend gold. I did it mainly to keep the game simple and the story flowing well. Later on, I would make food and drink an issue on certain points of the adventure… and certain areas they chose to sleep in just weren’t safe, so they wound up getting woken up constantly by (every half hour) by nocturnal monsters.

    Another thing, which my friend did when he GM’d, is save some time at the end for each player to give feedback, and to give your feedback to the players. What he did was have each player say one thing they thought each other person did well, and one thing that they might need to improve.

  12. The Pancakes says:

    I tell new GMs that running a game is like making your own burrito: if you try to put too much into it, you’ll end up with the whole thing in your lap.

    Understanding the rules is a given. You don’t have to know the minutiae of the game system, but you should know where to find it if you need.

    Finally, be sure there’s a good mix of elements. You should have some combat, some role-play, some problem-solving, and some non-combative action in each session.

    I use what I call the Scooby-Doo Method to plot out individual sessions. Watch any classic Scooby-Doo episode (the new ones are OK, but it’s the old ones that really show the genius of the series — no Scrappy, Dee or Dum, please!) and you’ll see all the elements of a great RPG adventure neatly packaged into a half-hour cartoon: The exciting/exotic/stange setting, the adventure hook (that old amusement park is haunted, kids! I’d stay away from there!), the initial conflict, et cetera. Watch an episode and take notes on the plot points, the encounters and the pacing. You’ll have a neat little outline for your first game session.

  13. RichG says:

    I think knowing the rules is overrated. No, seriously! Allow me to illustrate:

    I didn’t play D&D between 1st edition and 3rd edition, but when I moved to a new town I looked up the local games club and went along. I was a player in an ad hoc adventure that first week, but when the DM hadn’t prepared anything the next week, and everybody was just floating around, I said ‘okay, I’ll run something.’

    I knew almost nothing of the new mechanics. I just relied on the fact that a couple of the players knew the rules. I told the story and directed traffic ““ they chipped in with the rules. Four years on, and the campaign is about to reach Epic level, still with most of the same players, and most of the same characters …and I’m still a bit vague on some of the rules!

    So I’d say that, as long as SOMEBODY in the group knows the rules, just concentrate on the descriptive stuff and have a general idea of the combat sequence.

  14. Khizan says:

    Don’t let them start at a level higher than 3. This will limit the work you need to do, as well as limit the cheese the spellcasters can bring to the table.

    Don’t be afraid to ban a certain spell, feat, or PrC if you think it’ll be overpowered. Many of the spells in just the Core rulebooks are absolute and utter cheese, especially Polymorph and the variants.

  15. Roxysteve says:

    [Shamus] I did much the same thing, but on an even more limited scale for my first DM session (using the white box set!). I stuck my world on a plateau. It had half a dozen baronies with small villages and only one large town. I think it is a good idea to coral the players for your first game or two.

    I found the experienced players in my last D&D group to be rules lawyers when it suited them. I doubt I could run a D&D game that would satisfy their little minmaxing hearts. But faint heart and all that.

    I do think it is important to understand the rules that you will be using often, and to review those that might have come up during play if you’d remembered them :o)

    I would suggest a small expedition or single level/two level dungeon crawl to start with, and to replace any random wandering monsters with pre-generated ones that you know how to work. I found a small card index worked well for this sort of thing.

    Last of all, I recommend having a fistful of paper bookmarks to hand so you can find stuff in the DMG again when you need it the second time.


  16. Sashas says:

    Different people prefer different styles of play, but I am yet to meet anyone who preferred a completely linear plot over one where their character(s) could alter the course of events.

    My suggestions for new DMs (regarding plot) is quite simply this: Don’t write a plotline at all.

    1. Imagine a conflict.
    – Why/how is the conflict happening?
    – Why/how are the PCs involved?

    From here, you can drive something that will look like an amazing and dynamic plot by introducing various NPCs who will interact with the PCs. Each NPC has its own goals, often (but not always) detrimental to whatever the PCs are trying to do.

    2. Build interesting NPCs.
    – The Detect Magic spell will be the bane of your existence. Be prepared to point out random magical auras on NPCs, even if you don’t know what they are supposed to be yet. You will think of something. (Worst case scenario – you end up with something like the “Invisible Circlet” that I once used. It’s a circlet, and it’s invisible. That’s all.)
    – NPC “bosses” will always be outnumbered by the PCs. Prepare escape routes for them. If you give the PCs full experience for defeating someone that escapes, they won’t complain.

    3. Avoid dead-time.
    – If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t need to happen during the game session.
    – All interactions occurring “onstage” in the game should have the PCs on one or both sides.
    – All interactions involving PCs should involve PC input.

  17. fearless_leader101 says:

    Interesting… there’s a lot of good advice in this thread. My first DMing experience happened when I was 12 at the time (now 25), so I barely remember it. That said, from my perspective, understanding the rules is really secondary. Indeed, it took me quite some time before I actually understood 2nd edition THAC0 and how it worked. Essentially I learned the rules from other people. The same thing happened when 3.0 edition came out. I never actually read the books in one stretch of time, but quickly became very familiar with them over months and years of playing.

    I would also make the contention that a great proportion of the rules are completely useless (at least for my purposes, which generally do not focus on hack-and-slash or dungeon-crawl styles of play). The main example I can think of is the secion of the 3.0 DMG dedicated entirely to door hinges, their condition and quality, and consequent break DCs. If the DM can improvise and come up with his own DC for breaking the hinge, there’s no reason to slow down play by paging through the rule books. Once you understand the basics, the rest is mostly fluff.

  18. Vegedus says:

    “I've since learned that getting that large of a group to agree on this sort of thing is a rare and wonderful thing.”

    There’s so much truth in that sentence it’s hard to comprehend. I’ve never been in a group that just clicked. Actually, I’ve never been in a group where it seemed more than 2 other persons wanted the same thing I did, which is almost what you describe.
    Though, on the other hand, I’ve only been in 5 or so different groups, but still, it’s aggrevating.

  19. Cat Skyfire says:

    I’ve been under several DMs who were new to DMing, though not to the game. I’d also suggest watching out for three things.
    1: Over combat. Combat is fun, but it’s easy to fall into the Nothing But Combat aspect. (See the Battle of Helms Deep not too long ago…) Experienced players start to get bored.

    2: Monty Haul syndrome. Not many people remember Let’s Make a Deal, but it’s way easy to start handing out treasure with ease. Next thing you know, you’ve got overpowered characters and it’s hard to backtrack. Remember…getting rid of stuff you’ve given them is hard. (I had one DM who had my magic shield (which he gave me) stolen in the night, because he realized it was working. Funny how our watch never noticed anyone approaching our campsite in the middle of a field…)

    3: Bored players. If players are bored, they will find a way to entertain themselves. This may be side conversations, dice stacking competitions, or, in character, inventing ways to entertain themselves. (Side note: This only applies to players that are usually willing to involve themselves in the game, the roleplaying parts and the combat parts. I had two guys who brought laptops, and really only cared about combat, and even then sort of only barely. (I think it was more ‘get out of the house and away from the wife n kids’ for one of them.) They pulled out laptops no matter who dmed…)

    And some bonus thoughts:

    Remember to have fun. Don’t get hooked on each rule (but don’t be afraid to double check something that might set a nasty precedent, or if you’ve got someone trying to pull a fast one.) Be willing to run ‘off script’, if the moment calls for it. Use the character backgrounds to make it more enticing to everyone.

    And if in doubt, go for TPK. Total Party Kill. Cause it’s just fun. :)

  20. Skeeve the Impossible says:

    “I've since learned that getting that large of a group to agree on this sort of thing is a rare and wonderful thing.”

  21. Phineas Rhyne says:

    I realize this is going to sound like a shameless plug for a -non- D&D system, but the best DM advice I can give comes paraphrased from Dogs in the Vineyard, and relates to plot/railroading issues. It’s been said here in a different form in a prior comment, but it bears repeating:

    Don’t write a plot.

    Figure out what your NPCs want. Give them personalities and desires and goals. Then, when the players trample their way through the NPCs and your ideas, it’s easy to figure out what happens next. The NPCs still want what they wanted before, -modified- by the players’ actions. It’s much easier than worrying about what they’re going to ruin/miss next.

  22. Rustybadger says:

    What I’d really like to see is a system that lets you run your workplace like a campaign. A good DM could make a name for himself (or herself, ok?) in that kind of setting; you’d have to have your whole year’s campaign planned out by Fiscal Year start, and you’d have exactly until Fiscal Year end to finish. Any Players who deviated from the plotline would get fired or have their Staplers Of Collating confiscated.

    Mind you, I suspect the amount of railroading would have to be on the high side.

    And the title of DM would be deliciously appropriate.

  23. Avaz says:

    22 Rustybadger Says:
    May 10th, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    [i]What I'd really like to see is a system that lets you run your workplace like a campaign. A good DM could make a name for himself (or herself, ok?) in that kind of setting; you'd have to have your whole year's campaign planned out by Fiscal Year start, and you'd have exactly until Fiscal Year end to finish. Any Players who deviated from the plotline would get fired or have their Staplers Of Collating confiscated.

    Mind you, I suspect the amount of railroading would have to be on the high side.[/i]

    There have been times when I’ve made my job into a quest, just so I could get through the day.

    Mission: Make 20 copies, collate and distribute to appropriate personnel.
    Mission: Pick up person X and drop off at destination Y.

    Only problem with this is, there’s no one there at the end who will dole out rewards, XP or “itamz”.

    [i]And the title of DM would be deliciously appropriate.[/i]

    I imagine “DM” would roughly = “CEO”, as they both get final say and there’s just about nothing you can do about it. ;P

  24. Dave says:

    Don’t worry about making up rules.. hell.. put up the screen.. roll and make everything up.. be sure to do it with confidence .. just make sure you give out experience and some treasure.. plenty of XP.. and a shade too little treasure at first.. that sets the hook.

  25. Hal says:

    Any DM worth his salt will be rolling one of these:

    (They’re all supposed to be 20s. I suck at using photoshop. Try to appreciate it, okay?)

  26. Shamus says:

    Hal: I love it. :)

  27. Morte says:

    I can’t believe no mentioned this:

    “Be a player before a DM”

    It’s much easier to get a handle on DMing once you’ve got a few sessions as a player under your belt. You will be able to get a handle on the rules and what your DM is or indeed isn’t handling well. I really wouldn’t have wanted to have DMed any new system without having played it first.

    I think this has already been mentioned but start small and build up…and if you look interested in your adventure and having fun then more likely or not your players will be interested in your adventure and having fun.

    I’d also suggest some form of big stick for crowd control and admonishment.

  28. luagha says:

    One of my previous DMs was also a grade-school teacher (in a very difficult area here in California). The top students in his class got to join ‘Starfleet Academy’ and do ‘special missions’ in afterschool sessions. Which generally had a touch of research, a touch of homework, and some definite decision-making/roleplaying. Pretty soon the kids were practically falling over each other to get good enough at their homework to get into Starfleet Academy.

    He also demonstrated roleplaying to them a different way – he told them he had a special friend called ‘Mr. Hendricks’ whom they never wanted to meet. Mr. Hendricks was the archetype of every bad boring mean-within-the-extent-of-the-rules grade school teacher you ever had (and being a grade school teacher, he drew from the experiences of all the bad ones he had ever met.) If the class was disruptive he’d say, “I can leave and bring in Mr. Hendricks to teach for the rest of the day.” And once Mr. Hendricks was out of the bag, he’d never drop character….
    Generally he only had to do it once.

  29. DocTwisted says:

    Hal’s image FTW.

    That picture is my new buddy icon. Thanks Hal!

  30. RibbitRibbit says:

    To me, designing a setting, NPCs and occurences that are of no immediate concern to the players/PCs are a waste of time. Stuff like worldbuilding, metaplot and an NPC cadre for the entire western continent are an exercise in futility. (also: what Shandrunn said.)

  31. Telas says:

    Duplicating what’s been said, here are my thoughts on DMing…

    Start small. Use the smallest possible set of rules (SRD- or PHB-only for D&D), start at 1st or 2nd level, and start in a small town or village with a few established places and NPCs. Do not attempt to create a world; we geeks are famous for our grandiose yet unfinished projects.

    Flow is more important than accuracy. Keep the game moving, even if it means you get something wrong. Make your best guess, keep moving, and make a note to revisit the rules during downtime.

    Railroads are good training wheels. “Railroading” (forcing the story) is a bad idea in general, but in the beginning the DM has a lot less to worry about. Start simple (the Goblins south of town were an occasional nuisance, stealing livestock and such, but have now kidnapped five children in the last ten days), and plan one mystery, a few combats, and a red herring or two.

    Let the players win. I don’t mean “throw the game”, but the player-characters are the stars of the show. Let them shine occasionally.

    Come up with procedures for combat, etc. Index cards, whiteboards, whatever you use, use it. I had very good luck with TGM’s Initiative Cards, and other index cards for environmental or conditional modifiers (“Heavy Brush – 4x movement, 30% concealment, +5 Hide, -5 Tumble and Move Silent, no running or charging”).

    Research! Check out’s GMing Wiki and forums. Great stuff there, and on many other sites. (, and even

  32. Sean Achterman says:

    There’s a lot of good advice here – the one other bit of advice I’ll point out is that it doesn’t hurt to look at published adventures.

    They’re a good way to get a feel for the basic ‘balance’, as well as a way to look at how someone else structures a starting area. Pick up something as a one-shot, and read it while reading up on the rules. Once you’ve got a basic handle on it, start developing stuff from there.

    This doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s a good way to get in practice for actually running a session without running the risk of overdeveloping your rules, or getting too tied up in a plot of your own devising (someone else’s divising, sure, but players object less to railroading if you can say ‘Sorry, that’s how the module goes’.)

  33. Teddust says:

    I’ve run both pre-designed settings and ones I’ve designed myself, and I actually found that I prefer using pre-designed settings. First of all, it saves me a whole lot of time on the campaign setting, which gives me more time to work on the actual adventures. Second, it allows the players more freedom. If I make my own setting, my time is limited so only part of the world will be detailed. If the players decide to go somewhere else I’ll either have to wing it and come up with the setting on the spot, or else railroad them back to where they want them. Third, it helps make your campaign more diverse. A book put together by a whole team of developers is going to have a lot of ideas you haven’t thought of.

    When you use a pre-designed setting, though, remember that it is now YOUR setting. If there is something you don’t like, just toss it. Rewrite an NPC’s history if it doesn’t work with what you want. Make the setting work for you, don’t let it hamper your story.

  34. Tsetut says:

    I prefer making my own settings, and changing everything. For instance, running a rodent campaign(with ferrets too, I know they aren’t rodents.) fighting against lizards and snakes. Meanwhile, there are great rampaging beasts like foxes and badgers.

  35. Qurqriish Dragon says:

    Most of the beginner ideas have already been mentioned by others above, but I have a couple comments to add.

    A couple “tricks” of the trade that are good to use:

    1) as GM, NEVER roll a die where the players can see it, even if it is a very trivial thing. Particularly in combat. The reason? If you have set up a combat that the party is supposed to win, you don’t want the group to see you rolling multiple critical hits. Similarly, if they are supposed to be severely outmatched (and thus find a way to get away), you don’t want them to see those fumbles.
    I learned this the hard way when I found that, for some reason, my dice worked normally (average quantities of high and low numbers), but for some reason, every time I had an orc archer, it could not roll lower than a 17. I didn’t want the party to get wiped out.
    The reason why you never roll in front of the players (or I guess you can, if you make it clear you are very reluctant to do this) is because if you only hide important rolls, then they will know when you are scripting the event. Main plot points will be obviously scripted anyway, but “I want to keep the party alive” moments should not be known.

    2) After your first campaign (so you have the basics of GMing down), never play in an established gaming system with new players (new to you, not necessarily gaming). This cuts down on rules-lawyers. For example, when I last ran a campaign, we were playing with AD&D 2nd ed. I told the players something like this:
    “This is a modified AD&D setting. Most of the rules are the same, but some things are different.” I actually did have a few changes, which I told them up-front, but I made certain they knew the changes were not limited to those I told them.
    This allows you to follow the rules strictly if you want to (especially if you are not yet comfortable with striking out on your own), but you can adapt things to your group’s style without worrying about rules you do not know. For a new GM, you are doing this anyway (since you really don’t know everything), but the group should be understanding of a new GM that messes up a rule. An experienced GM should still expect this of the players, but the players often won’t oblige :-)

  36. Target says:

    Qurqriish Dragon makes a great point in #1. I prefer never to let the players know what I roll. It takes away your control. It’s bad enough the players already know what they roll. You don’t want the dice to force you to do something (like kill a character) because it’s out in the open.

    Oh, and don’t forget to roll randomly for no reason.

    DM: You move down the hall. {random dice roll}
    Player1: Well?
    DM: I’m sure it’s nothing.

    This sets the stage for random encounters/traps/whathaveyou later. And eventually trains your players not to search for secret doors every time you roll the dice.

  37. MooseUpNorth says:

    DM of the Rings is a superbly complete documentary of precisely how not to run a campaign. The fictional DM made every single mistake in the “book”.

    1) Bad campaigns are over-planned. Improvisation is, by far, the DM’s greatest skill. Good improvisers never need to be more than a step ahead of the players, and are never more than a half-step behind.

    2) Bad campaigns are over-complicated. Keep it simple. You’re running a sword-and-sorcery campaign, not a Tom Clancy novel. Players shouldn’t have to take copious notes to understand what’s happening around them.

    2) Bad campaigns are over-linear. A good fisherman knows it’s not about the rod, it’s about the bait. Your players just spent two sessions tracking down and defeating a band of Goblins that have kidnapped five children in ten days. There was an abnormal amount of foreign coin and non-local forged metals in the tribal loot. If your players are non-retarded, then on the trip back to return the children home, they will wonder who is bribing the goblins to pick on the village, and why? This is enough mystery to keep the players motivated. And if the bait’s good enough, they’ll go out of their way to think up ways they might investigate. If their ideas are good enough, run with it. If not, but they are biting, give ’em another “side-quest” with another clue and more bait as reward. Sooner or later, someone will figure out a way to run this down.

    3) Bad campaigns miss the entire point of adventuring. It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. The adventure. I actually consider the “main plot” to be the side-quest. It’s the backdrop. It’s the continuity. Player-adventurers are hedonistic-masochists. They’re after adventure, challenge, reward, and more adventure in roughly that order. A sense of “making a difference” comes a distance fifth (or lower.) Motivating players isn’t hard if you keep this in mind.

    4) Bad campaigns end. You can leave a player wanting more, but why would you? A good campaign never actually needs to end. If they want to take a session or two to investigate rumors of undead-haunted dungeons rather than chasing down the villain some more, what’s the hurry? Side-quests are good opportunities for everyone to stretch one’s mind, re-bait the main plot, and gives the villain breathing room to plot more mischief. This is win on all counts.

    5) Bad DMs are out to kill and abuse the players. Good DMs engage and challenge the players. This isn’t supposed to be an adversarial relationship. It’s supposed to be a cooperative enterprise to create fun, whatever that means to the players.

    Rolling characters is fun.
    Re-rolling characters isn’t fun.

    Investing yourself in your character’s motivations is fun.
    Knowing you shouldn’t get attached to your DM’s next chewtoy is not fun.

    Playing the game as a cohesive group is fun.
    Waiting idle while the group gets around to raising your character’s butt from his sudden dirt nap isn’t fun.
    Listening to a protracted debate about whether or not your character is worth the thousand gold expense of raising is about as fun as a root canal.

    6) Bad DMs are shackled to the ruleset and their dice. Good DMs remember that heroic (or villainous) deeds in the face of great peril don’t just drive the adventure, but are the adventure. Good DMs will also go to great lengths to protect the adventure. Letting bad dice wipe out the party is a show-stopper. Avoid like the plague.

    7) Bad DMs resort to Deus-Ex-Machina. Good DMs know that the player characters drive the campaign world. The world is merely a place for them to stand on while they do great and terrible things. At no time should they ever be bystanders to action, and only rarely for conversations. (A notable exception is overhearing a baited hook for more adventuring.) NPC Gandalf is bad example number one.

    8) Players hate to run from a fight, and they hate to talk their way around one almost as much. No matter how much it makes sense to put discretion over valor, no matter how overpowered the foe, no matter if the DM comes right out and tells them to run, a player’s first, second, and last instinct is to fight it out. Somehow. No matter how retarded such an act would be on paper. Good DMs (and game developers) avoid such situations like the plague. NPC Gandalf, again, is bad example number one.

    9) Bad DMs shoehorn the players into established character roles. Good DMs let the players come up with their own character concepts and back histories, within reason.

    The default rules suggest rolling the stats before deciding class. That’s fine for cookie-cutter, one-shot adventures, but is horrible for campaigns. Even worse is ramming the players into pre-established characters.

    My method was to adjust stat rolls (through negotiation and bartering if necessary) to make a reasonable player concepts happen while preventing obvious min-maxing and munchkinism.

    I would also frequently ask the players to avoid meta-game discussions of their characters with each other, and especially keeping mum about their character classes prior to introductions. Discussion of their alignments were verbotten. Keeping the party somewhat viable was my responsibility.

    That means it was possible to end up with an all-clerical party or a party without healing capability or any tanks at all. An all-mage party is viable in the hands of a good DM. My responsibility as DM was to ensure, firstly, there were no serious game-breaking conflicts (paladins + chaotic evil assassin, for example) then adjust the adventure in consequence, not shoehorn the party into my expectations.

    This approach also makes it possible to have smaller or larger-than-typical parties. You simply adjust the adventure in consequence.

    It helps to let the players negotiate their own adventuring motivations and let you know about them beforehand: one of my last semi-NPC characters was a retired adventurer. Chaotic neutral and totally uninterested in dungeon crawling and altruism. The hook was that he felt obligated (partly through friendship, mostly through self-preservation) to protect an extremely excitable and far-too altruistic young lady (a proto-bard) of his very platonic acquaintance who leaped into adventuring with both feet. (Daddy, an excitable paladin, jumped to the worst possible conclusion.) It made for his adventuring hook, a reason to put not one but two party members at cross-purposes to the party, and a recurring semi-villain nobody could kill that I could trot out to keep things stirred up.

    10) Bad DMs will run an imbalanced campaign. Playing favorites (or anti-favorites) makes for bad feeling. XP rewards exclusively for kills, or emphasis on retarded damage reduction, ends up making non-combat oriented characters unviable. If only cleave-fighters and fireball mages can advance, you’ll only see cleave fighters and fireball mages.

    11) Clichés can be useful, but good DMs throw curveballs. I will resort to “the tavern” as a introduction hook, but I won’t let the players get comfortable enough to role-play a round-table common-consent schmooze-fest.

    My last group never even got to the same in-game table, let alone had the foggiest idea of each other’s classes or even names(!) before I’d assassinated an NPC for no apparent reason, threw in hired thugs to kill all witnesses including the PCs, boarded up the front door and windows during the ruckus, set the inn on fire, summoned the city watch and had someone frame the PCs for the whole she-bang.

  38. Blanks says:

    I would say that one of the most important things is player feedback.

    Before i run a campaign i ask the players:
    what level, alignment and setting do you want to play in. I refuse to run a “knights in shining armor” campaign for six people who all think ninjas are the best thing since sliced bread.

    And after a session i always ask:
    what went well? what do you want to do more of, what do you want to do less?

    The DM decides everything ingame, but the campaign belongs to everybody. It doesn’t matter that i want to run an evil campaign if all my players want to be paladins…

Thanks for joining the discussion. Be nice, don't post angry, and enjoy yourself. This is supposed to be fun. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*

You can enclose spoilers in <strike> tags like so:
<strike>Darth Vader is Luke's father!</strike>

You can make things italics like this:
Can you imagine having Darth Vader as your <i>father</i>?

You can make things bold like this:
I'm <b>very</b> glad Darth Vader isn't my father.

You can make links like this:
I'm reading about <a href="">Darth Vader</a> on Wikipedia!

You can quote someone like this:
Darth Vader said <blockquote>Luke, I am your father.</blockquote>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.