We have tried to get started playing D&D three times and each have not worked out how we hoped.

  • Our first DM made up his own story and we played about 5 sessions. It was very fun, but the rewards were minimal, the exp. was not a factor at all, and it was mostly silly.
  • Our next DM started with the Phandalin Starter set. It takes him forever to do literally anything in the game and we all were terribly bored.
  • That second DM asked me to give a run at DMing and I tried a one shot made up story. I found that no-one wanted to dive into the story, look for items, and solve intelligent problems. All they knew to do was look for the closest battle. It was so frustrating. For me and for the players.

It seems like there's no way to make it work how we expect: be rewarding, fast, and engaging for everyone (including the DM). Pre-written campaigns are slow, and when the DM makes one up the players aren't satisfied by it in some way.

How do we fix this? Is that just a natural difference between how pre-written campaigns versus made-up ones go, and there's nothing to do about it? If it's not, how do we help our slow DM get faster with a pre-written campaign, and how does a DM make up a story that the players will enjoy?

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    \$\begingroup\$ What do you mean by "it takes him forever to do anything?" What is that time spent doing? Looking things up in the book? Or do you mean the pre-written adventure's pacing is slow? How does that compare to the "just looking for combat" nature of many of the players? Give us some more insight into what seems to be going wrong exactly there. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Aug 13, 2015 at 17:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm very appreciative... truly \$\endgroup\$ Aug 13, 2015 at 18:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ We still need to know "slow why..." \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Aug 13, 2015 at 20:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ You're saying that made-up stories were unsatisfying, but the first DM you described had a good story. Was there something else wrong with his DM'in other than low rewards, that we're missing here? \$\endgroup\$
    – Joninean
    Aug 14, 2015 at 7:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ The existing answers are having to stab out in 100 different directions to try and guess what's really going on at your table, please try to describe the exact issues more. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Aug 14, 2015 at 15:17

2 Answers 2


What went wrong

Looking at your three examples:

  1. Was this really a campaign, or just a series of adventures linked by common characters? If the latter, there is nothing wrong with that but the rewards you get are the fun you have at the table; not the thinking and planning that you do between sessions that a good campaign generates.
  2. I have been playing D&D for 35 years. Lost Mines of Phandelver is one of the best published adventures/mini-campaigns that I have seen. If you found it slow and boring then I would suggest that that is a problem with the way it was played rather than the material itself. This is not a criticism; you're new to this hobby and lacking the skills and experience that allow you to see how to turn this into a great campaign for both DM & players.
  3. What you have here is a miss-match in expectations; you expected problem-solving, they wanted fighting. Stuff like this happens and it changes too - sometimes I want pizza and sometimes Chinese food - its all good but give me pizza when I want Chinese and I won't enjoy it as much.

Common Expectations

There is no right way to play D&D!

The 5e DMG has some of the best advice on this on p. 6; read it in full and take it to heart. A summary:

Know Your Players

The success of a D&D game hinges on your ability to entertain the other players at the game table. ... your role is to keep the players (and yourself) interested and immersed in the world you've created, and to let their characters do awesome things.

Knowing what your players enjoy most about the D&D game helps you create and run adventures that they will enjoy and remember. ... know which of the following activities each player in your group enjoys the most ...

  • Acting
  • Exploring
  • Instigating
  • Fighting
  • Optimising
  • Problem-solving
  • Storytelling

Talk to each other about what each of you want out of a campaign. If you want you can even use something like the same page tool.

Irrespective of whether you are just playing adventures, using a published campaign or making your own campaign use a lot of what everyone likes, a little of what some people like and little to none of what everyone hates.

How does D&D work?

Luckily for you there D&D is really easy, how to play is on page 6 of the Players Handbook:

  1. The DM describes the environment.
  2. The players describe what they want to do.
  3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.

1. The DM describes the environment.

You have to know what it is!

There should be noting as a DM that surprises you except what the players do.

If you are using a published adventure you have to have read the module, preferably twice, and reread the bit where the PCs are up to just before you start playing. If it is your own material, you will spend more time preparing it and less time reviewing it.

For example, when I prepared to run Lost Mines of Phandelver I made this:

Lost Mines of Phandelver Mind Map

This is a mind map of the major NPCs, factions and places in the module showing how they were connected. I can look at this and know if they are talking to X then he is connected (in some way) with A, B, C & D - this is enough of a trigger (for me anyway) to allow me to remember what the NPC knows without having to thumb through the book.

You have to communicate it!

There is an inherent information imbalance in D&D: you have the information and the player's don't. You need to communicate succinctly the important information the players need to make informed decisions at both a tactical and strategic level. So, describe the things (people, places, traps, objects etc.) and let the players tell you what they want to do with them.

If, for example, your players aren't keen on acting then it is perfectly OK for them to arrive in town and you to say: "You spend the night in the inn. You meet George the barkeep, Natasha the half-elf Rogue, Fred the Fighter and Sam the dwarven cleric. George tells you about the mad necromancer out at the Old Owl Well, Natasha is looking for help clearing goblins out of some castle, Fred is looking to hire on and is keen for anything and Sam is having trouble with orcs.

2. The players describe what they want to do.

The need to know what the choices are: in combat this is easy because the rules limit them; in social interaction and the general "What do we do next?" situation you should have given them the information they need but not so much they can't see the forest for the trees.

It is perfectly OK if they are floundering to recap their options. For example: "You can:

  • go to the Old Owl Well,
  • go to the goblin castle with Natasha,
  • hunt some orc with Sam,
  • do something else but we might have to shelve D&D for tonite so I can prep that, and
  • whatever you choose you can take Fred with you or not."

3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers’ actions.

The "Don't bore us, get to the chorus" rule aka the "Cut to the Chase" rule

D&D is about player decisions, its not about DM storytelling: if you want to tell a story, write a novel.

Continuing the previous example: if the player's say "Let's go to the Old Owl Well and check out the mad necromancer" then BANG, unless there is something interesting about the journey, you say "You are at the Old Owl Well and you see ..." The point is to move quickly over the parts where the player's do not have decisions to make.

Decide does not (necessarily) mean roll

Only roll dice where there are consequences of failing: if the players want their character's to do something that is within their capabilities and they will succeed at eventually then they do it; if it is something they can't do then say "You can't do that, but if you did X or Y that may give you the result you want." This is necessary because of the information imbalance; in real life we get feedback that tells us if we will eventually succeed at a task, in a RPG the DM is the feedback.


Two final points:

  1. you don't get graded on any of this,
  2. make sure everyone has fun!
  • \$\begingroup\$ Seriously Dale, I was almost in tears reading this. I am truly amazed at the time you took to respond and how wonderfully thorough it was. It is truly awesome that you were that giving. It was a joy to see help, instead of just judging the validity of the question. Thousand thanks to, Sevensideddie for the edit, timje and dale m. You guys are impressive. \$\endgroup\$ Aug 17, 2015 at 15:43

In my experience, by the time a person takes the plunge and actually runs a campaign, they want to write their own stuff. The problem is that writing your own stuff is tough, and knowing what to focus on, and what your players want to focus on, and getting the pacing right, is impossible without running a few games.

Solution: The DM runs a smaller pre-made dungeon or adventure, and if that goes well, build it into a larger campaign of the DM's devising. A lot of DMs just link together multiple premade dungeons and microadventures into a larger campaign based around the characters themselves. This allows wiggle room for characters to go off and do unscripted things, developing their own stories, without requiring the GM to meticulously write out the stats of every beast inhabiting every dungeon the players find.

It's very simple to take a smaller premade scenario (the sleepy village of Murkbrook has an undead problem) and then change the climax of the premade adventure to be have a few hooks suggesting a larger problem (of the DM's own creation). Perhaps the necromancer that was causing the problem was carrying written instructions from a sinister cabal? Or a contract of employment from a nearby baron?

Helping a slow DM can involve keeping your characters simple (stick to the core rulebooks for now), hand waving things like AoE spells (does it matter so much if it hits four goblins or three? Does it matter enough to measure everything and sidetrack the game for 10 minutes?), and picking up their plot hooks, even if they're a little clumsy -

GM:"A shifty looking fellow beckons you into an alley. He wants you to follow him."

Newer Player:"My character wouldn't talk to shifty looking types."

Experienced Player:"Well, lets go see what this guy wants."

Basically a GM will always need to railroad the characters sometimes, and a newer GM might be more clumsy at it. A kind player that wants things to go smoothly will just go with it for the sake of the story, even if it's not ideal for their character.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I suggest that, after you've run a few campaigns and the GM has learned the ropes a little, you can be a bit more picky. If the GM can't make mistakes (because the players swallow it all) he can't learn form them, and the sessions will all be the same. You can go a bit easy on him now, but you can always point out his mistakes. \$\endgroup\$
    – Joninean
    Aug 14, 2015 at 7:30

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