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I believe that all tabletop role playing gamers should at one point or another try their hand at Dungeon Mastering. However, it's a goal that at times can feel overwhelming.

What advice would you give to a gamer who feels motivated enough to want to run their own games, but are unsure where to start?

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18 Answers 18

up vote 54 down vote accepted

I would keep in mind the following:

  1. Don't panic!

  2. You are almost certainly doing a better job than you think you are

  3. Read the rules

  4. Start small, a single adventure

  5. Consider using pre published material

  6. Remember your job is to help the players have fun. Sometimes that might mean you have less fun, unless you get your personal kicks from happy players. Which you should do!

  7. You do not have a character! Don't overshadow the players with your NPCs. Ever.

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+1 for #7 especially. – Erik Forbes Aug 20 '10 at 12:47
It took me YEARS to really internalize #6, and I still have a hard time with #2. This is great advice. – Ian Cunningham Aug 20 '10 at 12:56
+1. I'd like to add: 8. If you don't know the rule to something, or the group is arguing about a rule, make up something and keep playing. It's more important to keep the pace of the game going, and you can always learn the correct rule later. – Ski Aug 20 '10 at 14:39
I'd say definitely use pre-published material, even down to the characters for the first run (if possible), first because it lets you figure out how things work relatively quickly without having to worry about writing and development off the bat, and second because if something goes way off the rails you know you've done something wrong. – Kyle Willey Mar 9 '12 at 19:09

I would suggest:

  • The GM picks a simple game they feel comfortable with (perhaps Dungeonslayers or Warrior Rogue and Mage ).
  • They begin with a simple adventure, rather than plan a whole campaign
  • Don't assume it's going to go brilliantly at first
  • Prime the player team to be "nice" until the GM has found their feet
  • Don't try and take in too much from the internet at first
  • Read the game thoroughly (better if it is a simple one)
  • Never stop trying to get better

For more inspiration:

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If you have a friend that is interested in DMing? Do everything you can to encourage this behavior. People who are actually interested in DMing should just be encouraged. Offer to sit in as a player. Help organize the game (hosting, etc) but do your best to help them.

Also provide helpful feedback and resources (the websites linked above are great). The world needs more DMs.

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If the gamer is in your group, consider an “apprenticeship” period, where the individual co-DMs with you, and is gradually handed off more and more responsibility. This is an older method, one that is often lost in the face of GM-less games and other avenues of today, but it is also a very personal, one-on-one method that can be quite rewarding. As the Game Master, this can also help reduce your workload, be a chance for someone else to see how things go “behind the screen”, and gain an appreciation for the work and methods behind Gamemastery.

It won’t work for every group or situation, but you might consider it.

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Nice answer. Just remember that the apprentice will get to know most of the secrets of the story, if involved too much. You could consider pulling the player out of the quest and have him interpret a villain (who most likely know the real deal the PC have to discover) – Stefano Borini Aug 23 '10 at 10:38
Very true. I think ideally in this situation, the apprentice assumes the role of an NPC or NPCs and leaves his player character behind for the duration of the apprenticeship. – zacharythefirst Aug 23 '10 at 14:06

I clearly recall my moving from addicted player to DM. The hints I can provide are the following:

  • devise a story. Try to be original, but not too smart. In meatgrinding mechanics such as D&D, players tend to hack and chop through the story, thus ruining the delicate political plot you devised. One interesting strategy is to find the "small line" in a rule that makes things unusual. Example: Once I created a sub-campaign focused on poison trading. Players looked for poison with the proper magic but were unable to find anything. The poison was hidden inside weapons' handles who were carved to hold the poison, thus were unbalanced but looking normal at first glance. The point is that the spell to find poison cannot see anything under lead, and the weapons were internally coated with lead. They had their amount of struggle to figure it out.
  • The plot should not be excessively detailed. Let the story write by itself, with a clear initial direction, though.
  • create NPC and know them well, they do the actions and decisions that move the story. Give them names, backstories, objectives. Anything the players will do will force the NPCs to act accordingly to their objectives and alignment, hence the DM must know them well.
  • Prepare a large notebook with the directions given by my other post
  • define a simple rule for DC of unexpected challenges the players may invent and you won't find in the standard ruleset. Take CD 15 as a good measure of an average task that requires some skills to be performed. CD 18 is a hard task, CD 20 an almost impossible task. CD 10 for something relatively easy even for an untrained person (e.g. cutting a tree with a saw, regardless of where it falls).
  • Let them make the game, let them speak.
  • Learn to improvise, when to throw behind the screen (for random issues), when to do a fake throw (you throw behind just to give the impression that the decision is random, but you coerce the decision for plot purposes) and when not to throw behind the screen (for important throws, such as hits). Learn to throw dice randomly even if there's no reason for that. This disorient the players which could start metagaming in response of the DM throwing dice when something is done or some time passes.
  • if you want to keep things fun and relieve some pressure on you, give a staff of wonders to the bard.
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Staff of wonders? I'm at work, and Google is letting me down. – Pulsehead Aug 31 '10 at 13:13
@Pulsehead : makes a random magic effect, from painting the caster blue to fireballing the target. – Stefano Borini Aug 31 '10 at 13:26
Staff of wonders probably means the Wand of Wonders... a rather nasty bit of work in AD&D 1E... While it's not uncommon for fighters to get swords smarter than them, the WOW is often that to a wizard... – aramis Sep 7 '10 at 2:57

[this might not work for the DnD where one has to start from learning a whole lot]

  1. Just try. That's how I did it the first time (after some reading and seeing one session). And all my friends learned the same way.

  2. Get GMs to be players. Really helpful - If they're not mean they will be really helpful. Experienced GMs as players are really supportive (if not mean :P)

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Some thoughts:

  • use a system you're comfortable with as a player. If you've got a few years of GURPS or 3E under your belt, roll with it.
  • be honest up front with the players. Ideally it should be your usual gaming group (I've yet to meet a GM who won't welcome the chance to play now and then), so they should be willing to cut you some slack. Trying out GMing at GenCon in front of strangers is not advised.
  • Keep your first adventure short and simple. If it's a hit and you're a natural, you can always add on later. But a one-shot is better.
  • There is no shame in using a pre-gen adventure. I've been DMing for a few years, and I still use them heavily.
  • Know your adventure inside out and backwards. In many ways, you're prepping for a performance - know your lines! (That doesn't mean you need to know every monster's stats; you do get notes, after all. But you should know what the NPC/monster motivations are, what they'll do... treat them like your own little characters.)
  • I can't recall where I read this, but I've found it greatly useful. There is no challenge in killing off your players: just drop rocks or dragons on them and they'll die nice and easy. The challenge is to make them stumble out of the dungeon victorious, clutching their last hit point like it was the most precious thing on earth.
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I'm a terrible GM, so I'm never in a position to offer any direct advice for friends who want to GM, but I will force them to borrow and read my well-loved copy of the seminal "Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering" (sadly now out-of-print, but available in PDF and pretty darn short).

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Telling us why you think you're a terrible DM would be an interesting answer too. – Adriano Varoli Piazza Jan 24 '11 at 13:15

(this is mostly D&D 4e related)

Read a few DM related blogs:

I would also recommend this book:

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Paizo's Gamemastery Guide is about the best product I ever read on the subject. I recommend it highly. It is well organized and reads well regardless of your level of expertise. And it pretty much system free despite it being a pathfinder book. Also both 4th edition Dungeons Master guides have well written sections on refreeing.

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Some rules which might help:

  1. Try a rules-light system
  2. Players should know the rules (but probably not the world or be flexible about it)
  3. Don't try to be clever – use whatever seems obvious to you
  4. Don't do anything – just react to the players

It helps if you wannabe-GM has played some GM-less games beforehand which give more narrative control to the players.

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In addition to the many good comments, I would recommend that you started with a pre-written adventure and maybe even pre-generated characters. It tends to make things a lots easier. One needs to learn how to walk before doing parkour -- the same apply to running games.

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Ten things I've noticed over the years:

  1. Don't become the players' enemy! There are more of them than you.
  2. The players will miss the most obvious hints.
  3. They will equally solve your most subtle and convoluted puzzle in an instant.
  4. Do NOT let 2. and 3. bother you -- keep the story going.
  5. Try to pick up your player's pet interests, so if the action starts to flag you can toss them a bone to get things going again.
  6. Be prepared to kill or ignore your favourites: if the players will not engage with your pet NPC then just let it go.
  7. Try to ASK more than you TELL because then your players are creating too.
  8. Don't get into rules-lawyer debates. Some people like them but I've never anything but frustration and delay.
  9. Some players will try to second-guess your plot -- try not to rise to it. ... and finally ...
  10. Experienced players will want to help you, as they know that will make the game more fun for them and everyone, so take the help.
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This is a great tool to help you think like a GM:

Also, there are a couple of things you need to do when starting out: 1) Play games you love, not ones that are supposedly good to learn to GM. 2) Play games that you either already know the rules or can easily master them (this isn't necessary to do for every game you GM, its just a lot easier if you do it when you are still learning). 3) Have fun! Dave M

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dead link. Have you got a copy you can legally link to? – Adriano Varoli Piazza Aug 31 '11 at 15:12

I started dm-ing last year and one small thing that helped me a lott was the fact that i started my campain with limited material (red box). For me it was more easy to get everything that way. It might be more limited to players but at the end they prefer it if you can actualy know most of the material. I made the rule nr7 mistake. in this campain i have no npc running with the party.

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I have just made this jump, i picked a system I had never played (but all my friends have been gaming for at least 20+ years so 3.5 to pathfinder wasn't a huge jump) but choose a scenario i thought sounded fun (skulls and shackles). The first module was a bit railroady as I didn't have the confidence to let them stray from the path, and they were nice and let me.

I am now on the second module where they have the ship and they are trampling on the module as the gloves are off, and I am having to assert myself. I set up an event and then let them run with it.

If your party has a rules lawyer listen the them unless it is really incovienient and stamp your feet and say "I AM THE DM I don't care what the book says, THIS HAPPENED" but only do this if it will increase the fun.

I count my success by the lol count, 5 good lols a night = good fun night.

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A Walkthrough

Run a one-shot or up to a 3 session game. Have your Newbie GM sit with you. Let the other players know that this is going to be a walkthrough. For a walkthrough, everyone at the table should be explaining the choices they're making and why they're making them, and feel free to ask questions as you go.

"Ok, so notice how I'm having the goblins run in and attack now? This is because they heard the fight from a few rounds ago, and I figure they need a little bit to grab their stuff. Also I'm having them attack from range, because they figure if the heroes survived the first fight, they might be tough."

"I'm ending the combat now, even though there's 3 guys left, because they all have like 2 hitpoints, so we know this is pretty much done. No point in playing out the rest."

If you can't do a full session, consider a few scenes - run a combat, run a social scene, run an exploration, point out why you're doing what you're doing and what makes it work.

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The main problem I see with learning to GM is that most people don't want to play in a game with a bad or novice GM, because the game will not be that good. If nobody wants to play for the GM, they can't get better because increasing their GM skills requires practice, practice, practice.

If you want to help someone become a good GM, the only solution is to play in their games, even if those games are rough. After you are done playing everybody should discuss what they enjoyed and what they did not enjoy. If you do this enough times, the GM will increase their skills.

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