I have a group of players who are want to play dungeons and dragons, but (Like me) they are completely new. We had our first game from the starter pack today. Allow me to describe what happened to demonstrate what I want to improve upon.

Our group of 4 (3 players and a DM) finish discussing rules. As newbies, we're all only half sure of what we're doing. Character creation. About half way through, we realise characters have been made for us. We accept these new characters, but decide to spend our own gold, because it's not too fun when someone else decides what you want. While we do this, the DM does some last minute reading on the situation. We start the game with an encounter of 4 goblins. DM doesn't do an initiative check. That's fine, it's a loose game. DM has us roll to decide the group's aggro. Not sure if that's a 'thing' or not... One of my friends friend gets to be the meatbag for the goblins to punch (which they do) and knock him clear out. The encounter ends when the mage blasts the living daylights out of the group with an AOE spell. The other players play minimal roles in the combat. The DM struggles to flip through pages to find the info they want. Nearly all encounter go this way, and the players get bored quickly, as the DM gets pushy toward the story.

As you can see, the play was non-engaging, and miserable at some points. The DM was trying their best to illustrate a story which the players did not want to follow at all times. The players (in my opinion) didn't take the game too seriously, while the DM was more into the rules and flow.

Next time we campaign, It will be my turn to DM, and I want to learn from these mistakes. As above, I have pointed out what is wrong and come up with ways that I can fix these. However, I want to hear from more seasoned players and DMs what your suggestions for improving play is.

A comment has requested that I describe my strength / weaknesses, so here they are.

I have never been a DM before, so I'll try to provide other relevant info.

I'm a great story teller, I can make people laugh, cry, happy, and sad with my narration, so long as it's clear in my head.

I like to let people think, and give them a challenge rather than give them bits of critical knowledge. If the PCs could not solve a puzzle, I'd rather steer them away than to make the problem a hurdle, or drop a hint.

I'm bad at including specific details. I occasionally may leave out something in a scene that is important.

I am a heavy lateral thinker. I like to make wild jumps in logic.

I'm detail oriented. I like to provide well illustrated scapes for the players to play around in.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 I've provided some of that info, I hope that It's what you were asking for! \$\endgroup\$
    – tuskiomi
    Oct 24, 2016 at 16:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is covering a whole bunch of ground, and all the answers below have the beginnings of good answers for the 5-6 separate issues you're having (the ones that aren't just a random advice quip). I'm afraid you'll probably need to focus this in, maybe have a couple questions on various items. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Oct 24, 2016 at 23:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk I read between the lines a bit to arrive at the core question, which is what to focus on as a DM in a group new to the game so that the newness isn't an obstacle. I looked around at some of our old answers and could not find one that fit closely enough to mark as dupe, but I may not have used the right search terms. We've had a lot of Q's about starting out with LMoP ... but the added twist of rotating DM's seemed to me to make t his a different question ... which is how to get the group used to the new system as a DM new to the system. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 25, 2016 at 12:47
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, without a clear question it won't be helpful to others in the future, is my concern. I'm supportive of a "new GM basics" question (though I think we may have those already) but that question, here, is well sheathed in a cocoon of random other thoughts. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Oct 25, 2016 at 17:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ How can you be both "bad at including specific details" and "detail oriented"? You pepper descriptions with lots of inconsequential details? \$\endgroup\$
    – Szega
    Feb 7, 2020 at 21:39

6 Answers 6


Play for fun at first; you can expect it to improve once you are all more used to the game system.

Since you are all new to the game, it is OK to make mistakes as you learn the system. Given the situation you are in, and that you'll each take a turn as DM, you are better off letting that shared experience take its course and then, each having run a session as DM, get together as a group to discuss lessons learned, preferences, likes and dislikes, and how you'd like to proceed from there. That's roughly how we (as a group) "re-discovered D&D" in 5e after some decades off of D&D.

The play will improve as you all get more experience.

What do you do for your DM session?

Prepare, which in this case means a review of how the game flows.

In particular, review chapter 7 and 9 of the Basic Rules on how the game is played. You need to be familiar with the standard flow to run the game session. While your Starter Set has most of what you need, the section in the Basic Rules for the DM starting on page 109 are also very helpful.

It's OK for PC's to die

Low level D&D is swingy, with die rolls and variability, so some player-characters may die. That said, review the matter of players being reduced to zero hit points. Getting to 0 HP is "mostly dead" but there is a chance to revive. Page 79 covers that, make sure you know it cold.

The players (in my opinion) didn't take the game too seriously, while the DM was more into the rules and flow.

D&D is a turn based game, so as DM make sure you review the rules on how initiative works, what actions are, what bonus actions are, what reactions are, and how combat and other actions flow. That prep work will pay off when you run the next session. The key to this all is to keep the pace of play flowing. The fundamental model is (p. 3 Basic Rules):

  1. You describe the environment
  2. Your players describe what they want to do
  3. You describe the result (die rolls as necessary)

You are the DM, the game flows as you direct. Make sure that before play starts, the three players know that you want the game to flow smoothly, and that you will be running the game as it was designed to keep things moving.

Borrowing an idea from a D&D game designer from a few decades back, a good way to keep the game flowing, rather than constantly referring to the rules, is as follows: Make decisions quickly, and err in favor of the party. Use the rules to help you run the game, but don't let the rules slow the game down.

When new to the system, try to keep it simple at first

For example, rolling for the "player agro" isn't in the rules, so why complicate things? Use turns and initiative as written. That's simpler to do. (Aside: If you think it will work for you, read up on 'Inspiration' in the Basic Rules (p. 35). It provides another tool for your to work with to reward good play which may get some players more interested. If you think that's too complicated at this point, don't use it yet).

Learning by doing is fun

The fundamental and effective real life learning model1 is crawl/walk/jog/trot/sprint. When we started playing D&D in the mid 1970's, we were not instant experts. When I got back into D&D with 5e a couple of years ago, we were not instant experts. We had to learn on the fly a bit, but still had fun in so doing. You aren't at the sprint stage yet. Learning by doing is fun, or can be, if everyone at the table is interested in having fun.

The Play's the Thing!

Enjoy the learning process, and making the occasional mistake. Goof ups can be hilarious and memorable. It's part of the fun.

1 I spent a few years as a flight instructor; that learning model is very effective.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the question is using “optimisation” in a non-jargon way, to ask about how to tailor a first session for new players. I don't think it's asking about charop. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 24, 2016 at 15:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ If i could upvote you more than once, I would. astounding effort put into this answer! \$\endgroup\$
    – tuskiomi
    Oct 24, 2016 at 15:40
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm pretty sure I just misunderstood it before, taking the “optimisation” like a red herring. Looks good! \$\endgroup\$ Oct 24, 2016 at 17:18

The signs of what to do are there in your description of the game session:

  • “… decide to spend our own gold, because it's not too fun when someone else decides what you want…”
  • “That's fine, it's a loose game”
  • “…the players get bored quickly, as the DM gets pushy toward the story.”

These tidbits add up to a sense of the style of play you and your group desire: freedom of choice.

People play roleplaying games for many different reasons, because there are so many kinds of fun that an RPG can deliver. It sounds like the DM tuned the game experience to focus on well-defined mechanical action hung off a “railroad” of a story, which is one kind of fun that people desire. Yet people were bored by the paint-by-numbers combat and were resistant to being pulled along the story rail, so that's clearly not the kind of fun they were hoping for.

What this says to me is that your group (less the existing DM, whose actual player desires are not obvious from this description) wants the freedom to make their own choices and go and do what they want. Everything about that session rubbed that desire the wrong way:

  • Having their characters made for them (which they rolled with well enough, by taking a bit of control over their equipment choices)
  • Being dumped directly into a combat (that they didn't do anything to get into)
  • Having the combat run slowly (although the new DM can't really avoid that, it's still aggravating if you're not invested in the fight)
  • Being obviously pushed toward a pre-determined plot (which they haven't had the chance to poke at and choose for themselves)

So flip these all around, and even as a novice, you should be playing a tune that is already much more to the group's liking:

  • Let them make their own characters, or at least do the same thing again by choosing the gear for pre-made ones (depending on whether they want to get playing faster more than wanting to have a more personalised character)
  • Give fights some roleplaying lead-up, so that they can either choose how to approach the hostile threat, try to avoid it, or at least be already roleplaying-wise engaged with the threatening turn of events if it's unavoidable (such as with an ambush).

    Even in the last case, having space to roleplay the lead-up to the unavoidable fight makes a huge difference for players' sense of freedom: since they are actively roleplaying the surprise and anger at the ambush, they are already more invested in “well nuts, there's no way we can get out of this” kind of situation. Investment in the fictional turns of events is everything.

  • As a new DM you can't make fights super-fast, but you can take steps to avoid unnecessary delays.

    Keep combats simple at first so that there's less information to reference, and make sure all the information necessary is in one place. Copy out the creatures' statistics onto a separate sheet of paper if necessary, and if they have any special attacks, abilities, or tactics that require referencing the rules, make a note about which page those rules are on to speed up the unavoidable referencing.

  • Let the players decide when (and how) to advance the plot between spikes of action. When there is a decision to be made, lean back and let the players talk amongst themselves to decide what to do. Especially if they're really into their characters, they will enjoy the opportunity to debate with the other characters as their own character. Giving them the space to make their own decisions puts their characters back into their hands instead of being pulled around by the DM, and gives them space to move around and think and choose independently — which is the greatest advantage of RPGs over other modern entertainments.

    As a DM this can sometimes feel agonising — after all, nothing is happening and isn't it your “job” to make the game happen?! — but it's important to relax. Be ready to jump in with something if your players appear to be drifting and undecided on what to do next, but don't be impatient and use it just because you're itching to move on. There is nothing more frustrating than being a player and enjoying a bit of freeform roleplaying, and actively engaging with the adventure by trying to puzzle out what to do next, only to be interrupted by an anxious DM who can't see that something is happening already.

    And be prepared for them to not follow the plot! That's OK — you may have to improvise, but if players can improvise 100% of their parts of the game, it's not so bad as the DM to improvise 50% of the game. Many adventures can be done out of order, so if they wander over to another area, be mentally prepared to grab that prepared material and make on-the-fly adjustments based on what they have and haven't done yet.

    We have some useful advice for improvising while using a prepared adventure elsewhere on the site, such as in “What to do when your PCs skip an important part of the story line” and “What to do when players bypass plot hooks”.


There are several aspects that make an RPG session engaging. I am focusing on the ones that are not based on players' expertise, since they will come with time.

The quality of a session does not depend only on the DM, but also on the players' attitude. First of all, every group has a preferred approach on the game: some prefer to focus on the plot and the interpretation, while others prefer a "videogame-like" approach (explore, fight, collect loot). You have to find out what suits best for you and the DM will run the game accordingly. Independently from this, the players should put some effort in taking the game a bit seriously.

As for the DM, it is clear that you cannot run the game as a veteran at your first session. However, there are some things that you can do. Since you are playing with a published adventure, you should spend some time before the session reading the manual. In this way, you will run the game more fluently. Also, don't put too attention on the rules at the beginning. Try to focus on the narration, even during battles. This will help to make the game more engaging.


Based on the specific experience you describe, I would give you this advice for your upcoming turn as DM:

  1. Do everything you can to familiarize yourself with the BASIC RULES. Maybe play a few encounters solo in between now and then, just to run through the rules. Don't worry about the more specialized or weird rules, just focus on getting the basics down. It sounds like waiting for the DM to read rules is part of what made things slow.

  2. Don't get hung up on the pre-made story. It sounds like the players in general want to explore and do their own thing, so let them do that. Improv is probably one of the more difficult skills for a new DM to pick up, but it can make a huge difference if you do it right. Listen to the table talk between players and don't be shy about using the "what ifs" and "that would be cools" they suggest themselves. Put your own spin on it and go nuts.

  3. When you aren't sure what to do, don't be shy about just making stuff up. If you can't decide how to handle a situation, roll a die high/low and go with what it says. (Be clear with the players that these are on-the-spot rulings and the universe might "hiccup" and work differently in the future, after you've had time to ponder the question.)

Like others have already said, the only way to learn is to try. You probably won't be perfect first time out, so don't get hung up on the mistakes you make. Just focus on learning so you can do better next time. Above all, focus on keeping the other players engaged with the game. If they start playing on their phones or talking gossip, you need to do something to get their attention back. As long as they're focused on the game, even if they're a bit frustrated, it's going well. Drop some clues if they start getting really upset, but otherwise let them puzzle through it.


I'm not too familiar with 5e, but I am with other versions, and I think its safe too say there are some overarching themes, and a few things I have utilized in my own experiences.

Session Zero and Character Creation

Now, when I first started, I never did a session zero. We planned a day to play and we'd spend 3/4th of it making characters. It sucked. Session zero is a great way to do a few things before making characters and playing:

  1. Establish setting: What's the area like that you are playing in? What are key places and key events the average person would know? Where do the characters start their adventure (you dont have to tell them this part unless you want to, but i recommend it)

  2. Establish tone: lighthearded or serious? Let your players know exactly how the game will be so they can plan accordingly

  3. Establish current events: What's going on in the world right now regarding politics and warfare. Just give information the average inhabitant of the land will know.

Then, after you establish this, you can go on to character creation. I HIGHLY recommend making your own. Presets are ok on short adventures, but if you're doing a campaign, go with creation.

Why create characters?

Presets can be dull. They all fit into one cliche or another and its harder for players to grow attached. The greatest memories I have of D&D are insane characters doing equally insane acts. If you tell people to make characters a week in advance and skype each of them to help them out, you'll all be ready to play on game day.

Creating Characters efficiently

mostly, this takes time to master, but a good way to do this in the beginning is to find a niche. Learn a class. Races you can swap for more interesting stuff, because that doesn't require you to learn too much more. Play a class until you get a feel, and it will be easier each time to make the character, knowing what works and what doesn't.


This is one of the hardest things to do, because you can't do too much or too little, otherwise it all comes crashing down. If its a game i plan to do from level 1-30, I plan for multiple storylines, usually about 3. If you decide they're going to kill Demogorgon at the end, no matter what and base all of your planning leading up to that, the players feel gated in their ability to choose. The world of D&D has so many great enemies and adventures. Get a rough outline of about 3. At the beginning, let them choose what to do. Based on the path they take, lead that down one of the larger 3 campaigns and archive the other 2. The problem with planning however is:


it is the golden rule.

Know Your Players

While planning is the hardest, this is the most important. From what i read, your party likes to be able to choose their own path and to have meaningful impact in the party. Maybe a rogue felt bad since he couldnt kill all the goblins like the wizard. How do you counter this? Add in dangerous traps that only the rogue can disarm. Tailor key aspects of your adventure to highlight the strengths of all of the players. With combat, this can be easy too. By choosing the right enemy, with the right weaknesses and strengths, you can play off of the strengths/weaknesses of the players.

Encourage Immersion

Chances are, there's at least one player that likes to be basked in immersion. From the sounds of it, that's you, but probably the others too. Encourage the dwarf to talk in a hilarious Swedish accent while requesting a mead. Encourage the players to describe their attacks. "I bring my blade crashing down on the orc with the fury of the gods, using ___" Sounds so much cooler than "I use ____" Of course, this is on you more than anyone, as the DM. Describing their surroundings and the precise looks of their enemies is one of the most subtle but effective ways of doing this. Appeal to all of their senses, or as many as you can.

**Don't Be a Stickler For The Rules"

I am NOT saying don't learn the rules. You should absolutely, but the thing is, when you first start out, especially if you didn't have a great time in the past, play a lose game. Let people learn at their own pace. As time progresses, you can gradually implement the more minute of details. Of course, still play by the base rules, but if there's a detail you aren't sure on which the fate of the party is riding on, just throw them a bone and they'll appreciate it

Yes, but...

Well, I already gave a golden rule, but this is like the platinum rule. Its mentioned in practically every book. Don't say no. If they want to do something cool, not gamebreaking, but cool, just let them do it.. They'll be immersed, they'll have a blast, and everyone wins. Now, don't let them do it all the time, and don't always say absolutely yes, that's where the "but..." comes in. Some things are just too OP and sometimes you have to regulate it with a drawback to stem from it.

Homebrew Races/Classes

In the beginning, its best not to let them make up their own races/classes. I know this isn't something you brought up, but in the future, someone will probably ask. If you can find some races online, they are usually not completely broken, but you should definitely compare them to the standard races. Classes are even harder. I say, stick away from it, even if its from online. Its just too much work to check every aspect for fairness. What you can do though is allow for aesthetic changes.

I know this is 5e, but I'm going to use an example from one of my 4e games. One player wanted to play a runepriest. Basically, they are people who learn the runes of the gods and utilize them to protect, support and destroy. They noted in the book, it said that there were many languages of runes, but the runepriests learn that of the gods. Being a Lovecraft fan, the player wanted to have a dark runepriest who learned the runes of primordials rather than gods. So what did I say?

"Yes, but it will only be an aesthetic change for your character and their spells. Also, while it may open up interesting paths for quests, there's a possibility some people will not accept you."

Its a great character idea, it helps you with quest ideas, it encourages roleplaying and everybody is happy.




I just finished running Lost Mines of Phandelver (5e starter set) for a group of friends, and none of us had ever played D&D before. We didn't have a wizard (we had a fighter, a rogue and a cleric) but the cleric had a couple spells that could end an encounter. I found that restricting rest times so the cleric couldn't "recharge" after every fight was really helpful. I'd have 3-4 combat encounters between long rests, and allow a short rest in-between for healing.

We had fun with Phandelver and now we've started a self-run adventure in a world I created. It's a lot rougher, since I'm still getting used to coming up with things on the fly, but we're really enjoying having characters we made ourselves instead of the pre-made characters. This time we've got a bard, sorcerer, dragon-born paladin, and a rogue.

Edit: Making your own characters is really fun, one of my players thought the pre-made cleric was so boring he named him Tobeé Flendersoninog

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    \$\begingroup\$ Clerics seem to be like cats in D&D, they follow whomever feeds them, and they love to take many, short naps throughout the day. \$\endgroup\$
    – tuskiomi
    Oct 24, 2016 at 15:15

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