Being a Dungeon Master is a great way to approach D&D. Imagine – you can whip scenarios from thin air, establish conflicts, and even pit gods against extradimensional beings.
But sometimes, you’ll face thick walls of anxiety and self-doubt. You might even feel pressured as the players ask questions about the lore and other game mechanics.
Keep your worries at bay! We’re here to share some of the best D&D tips for any DM – beginner or professional.
D&D Tips for DMs
Read, Read, and Read A Lot!
The success of a D&D campaign hinges on the narrative’s continuous flow. After all, D&D is all about collaborative storytelling and event resolution. While you’re not required to read the entire Silmarillion, you’ll gain fantastic DMing advantages as you do so.
One potential advantage is the ability to craft scenes quickly. Scene-making is a common challenge among beginner DMs. Beginners tend to overthink their scenes because they don’t have a big mental repository of memorable story events. Or it’s also possible that their inner stories are convoluted and disorganized. If you’re having a problem with making or narrating scenes, you just have to sit down and read a captivating fiction book.
The Silmarillion is a great example because it will give you an idea about large-scale worldbuilding. Other great titles are A Song of Ice And Fire, Discworld, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, Greyhawk Adventures, and even a classic like Don Quixote.
Don’ stop with fantasy books. You can even read magazines to expand your ‘world knowledge’ and learn from other professionals. Eventually, the additional knowledge will serve as a pillar of your long-term campaign.
Don’t Hesitate to Reskin & Recycle
All aspects of storytelling, D&D included, are just methodical reskinning or recycling. You’ll often hear stories of heroes vanquishing dragons and other legendary beasts. Kingdoms fall apart under the whims of cunning antagonists, their names and motivations changed depending on the author.
Reskinning concepts, events, and characters is normal in D&D or any other tabletop games. Just ensure that your source materials are hidden unless you want to play a game loaded with pop culture references.
Keep your reskinning process mysterious and your players will admire your storytelling prowess!
Your Life Experiences Matter
Sometimes, all fantasy materials are not enough to connect the dots. You’d feel like a faker, stringing just one stale adventure hook after another. Guess what? This is normal! Every DM feels this brain-drain – it’s all about managing the problem and refuelling your creative process.
The last ‘creative wall’ that you can lean on is your personal experiences. Were you bullied as a child? Weave that story and create an NPC with an anti-bullying stance. Have you enjoyed a rare five-star buffet at least once? Well, craft a similar scene in your campaign and let your players enjoy the feast!
Reskinning your life experiences is an excellent way to build stories. From these stories, you can build bigger plots to push the campaign forward.
Simply Prepare What’s Necessary
It’s perfectly normal for any DM to prepare before the start of any session. Many DMs fill the table with their miniatures and battlemaps, while others rely on virtual tabletops and chat software. But if you feel the urge to go overboard, stop for a while – just prepare the things you need.
One of the subtle reasons why DMs fail is over-preparation. They spend too much brainpower on outlined adventure scripts, overarching plot lines, and extremely detailed NPCs. An unhealthy degree of DM prep is actually a manifestation of doubt and anxiety. Your mind needs a wiggle room – stuffing too much information will just derail your narrative.
So, what’s the best way to prep? There’s no right ultimate way but you can follow a basic template. First, you need a clean sheet of paper and a stack of core books (Dungeon Master’s Guide and the official DnD Player’s Handbook).
Next, you can add the following categories to the document:
- Major conflict & antagonist
- Five plot threads (storylines that players can follow)
- Five notable NPCs connected to the storylines
- Basic stat blocks for NPCs
- Important locations – at least three
You can adjust the template and add more data but keywords or short phrases will do. Leave the exposition part to the actual narrative.
If you’re playing online, you can prepare the whole map by using dynamic apps and easy-to-share documents. Again – don’t overdo this! You only need one or two apps at the most.
Adapt to All Possible Game Styles
Creativity will always go far in Dungeons & Dragons – whether inside or outside the game. You’re always free to invent a game style but you still have to start somewhere. Currently, the most popular types are physical, voice & audio chat, plain audio, play-by-post, and hybrid.
Physical D&D is the grandfather of all styles. Under this method, you can use minis to represent players, monsters, and obstacles. Everything is tactile – right from your dice set to the battlemaps and game mats.
With the popularity of online tools, voice & audio styles became more significant than ever. If you DM online, you can save travel expenses but you’ll face numerous digital distractions. These distractions are the reasons why online campaigns simply die down. Despite such problems, the COVID pandemic empowered the need for online D&D.
Play-by-post or PBP is as old as physical tabletop games but less popular. PBP games are similar to MUSH or MUD titles. Out of all game styles, PBP has the lowest degree of DM prep needed. However, you have to exert more brainpower in the narrative. If you can’t keep the narrative interesting, your PBP game will die down slowly.
To become a competitive DM, you should try a hybrid style. Pick two of the styles that appeal to you and coordinate them into a working system. It’s difficult at first but you will definitely improve after a session or two!
Learn How to Use Virtual Tools
Now that the world is slowly shifting to the post-pandemic era, the demand for online D&D soared liked an alchemist’s fire. Therefore, you should tinker around with virtual tools if you want to keep on improving.
The most popular tabletop tool is Roll20. This tool allows you to create online battlemaps, personal character sheets, tokens, and any scenario imaginable. Another advantage of Roll20 is diversity – it’s not limited to D&D but also covers great classics like World of Darkness, Cyberpunk, Ars Magica, 13th Age, and GURPS. Plus, Roll20 is free but you always have the option to upgrade later.
What if you’re pressed for time or not techy enough? Then you should explore Owlbear Rodeo. It’s a basic tool that allows map uploading, scenario & token design, and audio sharing. Owlbear Rodeo doesn’t have advanced lighting or convenient map panels but it’s great for quick adventures.
Even a simple office tool can help you with DM prep. Google Sheets is a remarkable free tool that guarantees flexible design, easy sharing, live chat, and real-time commenting. Just use a communication tool like Discord for uninterrupted voice calls.
Be Mindful About Your Campaign’s Progression Type
In Dungeons & Dragons, there are two major types of progression: milestone and XP-based levelling. Milestone levelling is all about the characters reaching specific milestones in your campaign. Once they reached a milestone, characters gain a level. Milestone progression is easy to monitor but can ‘railroad’ your players into specific story-based options, thus limiting character growth.
XP-based levelling is similar to the system used in video games. Player characters gain XP by doing impressionable things such as influencing NPCs, uncovering deep secrets, killing monsters, and general roleplaying. With an XP system, players might adopt a ‘sandbox’ approach that empowers nearly unlimited character growth. This progression type is popular but difficult to monitor over time. There’s also a fair chance that players can derail your campaign.
If you’re still a new DM, you should try milestone progression. By doing so, you can spend more time fleshing out your campaign instead of cranking out the numbers.
Use Unconventional Hooks & Encounters
You all entered the cold dungeon. The door opened, and you all saw five goblins brandishing their weapons. Roll Initiative!
The above statement is a casual opener to most dungeon crawl scenes. Such an opening statement almost often leads to short battles, depending on the D&D version that you’re running. The scene is boring from the get-go, but it shouldn’t be. As a DM, you have all the necessary tools to make this short battle scene extra special!
Unconventional hooks will make every encounter worthwhile and memorable. Perhaps the group of goblins are just craving food, or they’re just wannabe theater actors rehearsing a scene. The possibilities are endless in D&D.
Do you feel lazy designing encounters from scratch? In that case, you should just fire up any of the reliable encounter generator tools online. Simply adjust the metrics such as the number of players, difficulty scale, and even the monster types. Once you’ve tackled the numbers, let the narrative take its course.
Know Your Table Properly
The DM’s table is the sacred ground where battles and stories take shape. It’s also a place of negotiations and countless actions determined by colorful dice. To make your campaign smooth and joyful, you need to understand your table. This process is not limited to the table itself but also covers the players and other campaign-related stuff.
The first step of knowing your table is to lay down the ground rules. If the table has no rules, prepare for total in-game and OOC (out-of-character) chaos. A common rule system includes etiquette guidelines, homebrewed mechanics, clarifications, and notes about bringing snacks or freebies.
In digital games, your chosen online platform is the table. Forming this table is easier because you can just send out surveys to interested players. Those who answered accurately are potential matches to your table, making the recruitment process easier. This won’t guarantee trouble-free DMing but you’ll still have an easier time with the campaign’s flow.
Session Zero is a necessary phase in the campaign that helps you understand the players’ characters more. The players can also ask questions related to the campaign. Before any session begins, you should also declare a ‘chill period’ of at least 30 minutes. This period is great for catching up or reviewing what happened in the past session.
Avoid the DM vs. Players Pitfall
The bane of all campaigns is not a powerful BBEG (big bad evil guy) but an egoistic DM. Such a DM will always work hard to punish his players unreasonably, creating bitter feelings and empowering a ‘video game mentality.’
Remember: you’re not the players’ enemy! You’re a storyteller, navigator, director, arbiter, and even the game’s Overgod. Your goal is to weave a powerful story and have a great time with your friends. While D&D has tons of rules, you don’t have to use them against your players. Rules are templates – they’re designed to ensure a fair collaborative environment.
Don’t design a campaign to feed your desire for control. If you plan to do so, just play a competitive game or write a short story. This saves everyone’s time and emotions.
Never Underestimate Great Humor
D&D is as serious as you want it to be. You can memorize the rules or invent a new formula for your table. Alternately, you can add funny results for every critical dice rolls (or every dice roll!) and make your players chortle.
Humor is a strong framework of the narrative. It makes situations light-hearted and even leads to better emotional build-up along the way. Your players will bawl their hearts out if a comedy relief NPC died in combat or had to sacrifice for the greater good.
Balance, however, is important in humor management. Don’t keep everything funny or your players won’t take encounters seriously. Funny banter has its place in non-combat situations or casual gatherings.
Draw The Line in Combat Mechanics
Combat is a big part of D&D or in any other tabletop RPG for that matter. Without combat, D&D roleplaying can only go so far and your players will feel insignificant. Running combat in D&D is one of the skills that you should have as a DM.
The Player’s Handbook contains everything you need to know about combat. You should know some of the basic rules while applying a modicum of logic in every turn.
An example: the Ranger shot an arrow and rolled a natural 20. This is a critical strike, yielding double damage and other deadly effects. If you’re a rules-driven DM, you can narrate that the arrow pierced the enemy’s jugular. What if the player argued that the arrow pierced through the enemy and reached another unlucky fella? This is where logic enters the frame.
Stand your ground – does the arrow have the ample velocity to pierce through a slab of flesh and bones? Probably not! Just watch Mythbusters to see how projectiles slow down against pressure and resistance.
Combat will feel more visceral and fun if you can still employ a degree of realism fuelled by narrative. Now, magic is a different thing – only true narrative can direct the effects of magic with numbers acting as small references. Magic and narrative will always feed off each other.
Also, before you add homebrew combat mechanics, always inform your players. You can avoid misunderstanding and wasted shots this way!
Master These: Negotiation & Narrative
Negotiation and narrative are two important factors that can make or break your campaign. If you can’t negotiate properly, your players will just do whatever they want. They can mess up the campaign, kill NPCs out of their whim, and even acquire magical items easily. Eventually, they’d feel that your campaign is easy and will get bored.
On the other hand, if you can’t narrate the story effectively, your players will feel confused. This confusion will cause the party to fall apart.
There should be a fine balance between negotiation and narrative. Always examine your options whenever the players encountered an obstacle. If a player wants a certain effect, adjust the consequences like environmental factors or even social responses. In the D&D Monster Manual, you’ll see the descriptions and stat blocks of monsters. Play out those monsters according to their nature. The players must trade-off something to vanquish the monster – such as safety, wealth, and favors.
In the narrative, you don’t have to describe every detail. Rather, try to focus on specific keywords that can fuel the players’ desires.
Take a note of these keyword types:
- Related to characters’ backgrounds and backstories
- Fancy words like loot, gems, treasures, and strange artifacts
- Past event (i.e. a bugbear raiding a farm)
- Prominent names (i.e. Halaster Blackcloak or Xanathar)
- Hints of gatherings – like a buffet in town
Try to inject keywords or key phrases during a casual conversation. This will amplify the effect and make the rumor genuine.
Above All: Understand Your DM Purpose
When it comes to DMing, you have to answer one question: why do you DM?
Every DM will have a different answer regarding the question above. You’ll probably DM a game because your friends asked you to do it. Or perhaps you want a greater sense of control beyond the trappings of reality. Maybe your local game store commissioned you to run an Adventurer’s League module – the competitive version of D&D, complete with seasons and unlockable rewards.
If you can’t find any reason for DMing, don’t do it. The reason will keep you pushing towards numerous campaigns – official or homebrewed. You will enjoy the hobby more, and your friends will feel your passion.
DMing is an art, and your primary reason will shape it for the coming years!
Recommended Books For Any Aspiring DM
Trying to run a D&D game without any sourcebook is like driving a car with only three wheels. It’s almost impossible! And if you managed to pull this off, you might end up exhausted or bitter about the whole ordeal.
You don’t have to look far. In this section, we’ll share some of the most fantastic sourcebooks published for D&D. Our selection is not just limited to 5E.
D&D 5E Monster Manual
Making your own monsters is always fun. Just imagine – you have the freedom to create a four-headed goblin that can swim, fly, and summon smaller versions of itself. It’s easy to make a sketch of that monster in your notebook. The hard part is actually writing down the monster’s mechanical stats and other relevant information.
To make the process a bit easier, you can grab a copy of D&D Monster Manual for 5E. This book contains a wealthy amount of information like monster lore, habitats, behaviour, illustrations, and stat blocks. To build your four-headed goblin above, just take the stat block of a regular goblin and multiply its HP. Modify the attack and damage rules as well. You can do this in less than 10 minutes!
The Monster Manual is also your ‘go-to’ source of campaign inspiration. Just look up some of the most powerful monsters in the book and build your plot all the way.
D&D 5E Dungeon Master’s Guide
Popularly known as DMG, the Dungeon Master’s Guide is another essential book that you should get. The DMG contains all of the important things you need as a Dungeon Master such as lore from the old days of AD&D, DMing strategies, encounter guides, equipment, and even small maps. If you have the DMG, your prep time will go down by as much as 45% or more.
The DMG artwork also looks neat enough to fuel your creative spirit. Still, you don’t need to take everything from the book. Just get what you need and improvise the rest!
D&D 5E Player’s Handbook
Completing the cycle of the D&D 5E essentials is none other than the official Player’s Handbook. This book gives you a detailed framework of ideas regarding character classes, subclasses, backgrounds, spell descriptions and racial features. While you will benefit a lot from the Player’s Handbook, your players will need it even more.
You can send digital versions of the Handbook to your players. The digital version is compatible with most devices, eliminating bulkiness.
If you’re looking for a free version, you can just download the SRD or the Standard Resource Document. This contains the bare-bones of D&D 5E rules without illustrations and extended information. The SRD is enough to get your group started!
Creature Codex by Kobold Press
Third-party books are often scrutinized by players and DMs because of complexity. Despite this treatment, you’d still find a handful of gems like Kobold Press’ Creature Codex.
The Creature Codex is like a strange version of the Monster Manual. It has a large collection of interesting monsters with unique artwork. The stat blocks still have the same format but the monsters have more skills and cool actions. If you want to spice up your long campaign, get the Creature Codex and design some baddies. Your players will definitely love the challenge!
Tome of Beasts by Kobold Press
Another masterpiece from Kobold Press, the Tome of Beasts is highly similar to the Creature Codex. The only difference is the way TOB is more connected to overarching themes. You will find a decent number of eldritch monsters in TOB than in Creature Codex.
The Tome of Beasts is a great fit for players within the Level 10-15 range. But keep in mind that this measurement is just a quick estimate. You can always adjust monster stats based on the capabilities of the party.
Xanathar’s Guide to Everything
Are your players looking for additional ways to customize their characters? Do you need new spells for your NPCs or baddies? In such cases, you won’t be disappointed with Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.
Under the POV of the paranoid criminal Beholder, Xanathar, you’ll encounter new subclasses complete with cool backgrounds and origins. Other useful features included in the book are campaign ideas, downtime activity rules, new spells, encounter tables, and a repertoire of powerful magic items.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters
The Monster Manual, Creature Codex, and Tome of Beasts are all about showing monsters and their innate characteristics. What if you need an in-depth guide to run encounters and make these monsters more functional? The answer is a fantastic sourcebook known as Volo’s Guide to Monsters.
Volo’s Guide to Monsters discusses numerous techniques on fleshing out the monsters of your campaign. You can also read about new usable races like Bugbears and Goblins. And if you’re having a hard time making a monster’s habitat, just browse the book’s pages to learn about some big chunks of interesting lore.
Tales From The Yawning Portal
The Yawning Portal is the most popular tavern in the city of Waterdeep. Aside from the tavern’s great food and environment, it promises glory and splendour for all adventurers. Underneath the tavern is the entrance to the Undermountain – a massive network of dungeons built by Halaster Blackcloak, the Mad Mage.
Now, Tales is not about the Undermountain but it contains many exciting adventures from the get-go. The book also offers advice on how to survive dangerous encounters and prioritize tactical advantage.
Tales From The Yawning Portal is also a nice book to read while you’re travelling!
Pathfinder Bestiary Series (For Advanced DMs)
At one point of your DMing journey, you probably want to make a deadly adventure or campaign. You might also get the urge to make your monsters deadlier. If you’re willing to step back by two editions, you should take a peek at Pathfinder’s Bestiary books.
Pathfinder is the successful cousin of D&D 3.5. This edition overshadowed the ‘video game appeal’ of D&D 4E and offered tons of customization options. Expect a bucketload of Math at almost every turn.
Pathfinder Bestiary books contain so many monsters greater than what Monster Manual can offer. All of these monsters are deadly enough – loaded with multiple attacks, advanced abilities, and strange resistances. The first Bestiary book is more tolerable than the later five editions.
A caveat: The Bestiary series requires a bit of tweaking if your table is keen on playing 5E. You might feel overwhelmed as you tweak monsters, so just focus on the essentials.
Here are some tweaking tips for Pathfinder Bestiaries:
- Reduce the HP levels and attack values
- Don’t hesitate to remove resistances and conditional immunities
- Compare Pathfinder & 5E stat blocks – remove the unnecessary stats
- Pick monsters based on narrative and not on CR (challenge rating)
Reskinning from one system to another (unlike from one movie to your campaign) requires a degree of skill and familiarity. Take your time – you can always scan the Bestiaries for inspiration anyway!
Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide
The sourcebooks mentioned above are cool options for exploring combat possibilities, narrative improvements, and monster mechanics. Another sourcebook that you shouldn’t miss is D&D’s official Sword Coast Adventuter’s Guide (SCAG).
SCAG scratches a common itch among DMs: worldbuilding. If your campaign takes place in Faerun, SCAG will help a lot. This book reveals important bits and pieces about the Sword Coast, an important location in Faerun. SCAG functions like a mini-encyclopedia where you can gather as much information as you want. Instead of working from scratch, you can just follow SCAG’s template and reskin all of the interesting parts.
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything is the representation of Unearthed Arcana – the small collective that explores D&D ideas and takes a whole new spin on character classes. While not everything in Unearthed Arcana was included in Tasha’s, the book is still remarkable with its selection of new spells and feats.
Tasha’s Cauldron is a quick remedy for your creator’s block. If your campaign feels dull at the moment, open the book and examine a few of its pages. Analyze the page sections for a while or read the lore. Within a few minutes, you’d feel the immersion and you can now develop cool plot lines that your characters will eventually discover.
On a side note, Tasha’s is lighter than other published sourcebooks. You might feel underwhelmed by this. Just remember – you only need the necessary stuff to run the campaign. Let your beautiful narration fill the gap that other sourcebooks couldn’t fill.
Learning about the best D&D tips for DM is just the start of a wonderful journey. It takes time to apply all the tips that we’ve shared, and you’ll encounter many challenges along the way. Still, don’t give up – every campaign that you run counts as one of your achievements!
What’s your most interesting DM story? Share it in the comments below!