DMing for the first time Sunday. Could use some advice.

I’m co-DMing an AD&D 3.5 adventure over this summer. I’ve played many computer RPGs, and done some RPing as a player, but this will be my first actual DM experience. What advice can the veteran roleplayers give a newbie?

Some things I’ve learned from playing:

Write down my combat order, so I don’t forget anything or any effects.
Leave my adventures open-ended. Do not include the magical sword of
Fer-Floozle that is the only thing that can kill the lich-king of Zuai, because the players will hock it in town two for booze.
Liches make great recurring villains.
Liches make annoying recurring villains.
No spiked chains.
Reward tactical thinking with circumstance modifiers, if it’s good.
Reward good roleplaying with experience.

Other good advice for me?

I’ve always appreciated it when the DM interjects some humor into the campaign. For example, a goofy NPC or a scroll in an ancient language which the PCs think is vitally important only to find out it’s only a recipe for turtle soup when it’s translated.

Oh yeah, and liches kick ass. Especially when you get to play a PC lich. :slight_smile:

My best advice is to think hard about how you want the campaign to go and lay down the rules up front.

My big rule is, ALL dice rolls (excluding DMs of course) MUST be made on the table where everyone can see. Every time I’ve failed to make this a “rule”, I end up regretting it because one player or another seems to roll just a *bit * too well and you’re stuck with just accepting it or basially accusing them of cheating, which never goes over well.

For any given encounter, figure out ahead of time a good reason for the bad guys to bail out even if they’re winning. Also figure out a good reason for more bad guys to show up if they’re getting pulped. This is to avoid the unfortunate combination of a long series of no-experience battles followed by one brutally lethal one (“well, you guys were just killing those dire rats left and right, so I put some half-ogre fighters in there, and they were tougher than I expected…”).

Read the full text descriptions of all the monsters you’re going to be using so you understand why they’re doing what they’re doing; this will help you to make changes on the fly–the monsters wouldn’t necessarily react the way you would to any given situation.

Some other tips:

Evil isn’t necessarily stupid.

Good isn’t necessarily smart.

Back when I was playing a long while ago, a friend of mine was a great DM. I asked him for some tips the first time I DMed and he told me that whenever the players started looking antsy or bored, he’d throw a few fairly easy monsters at them to kill a few minutes to think of something better to quicken up the pace of the plot.

The only real rule is to have fun!

My number one piece of advice is to listen to your players as they chat amongst themselves. They will speculate on what is going on, and that speculation is good material for you to spin a bit and then use. Frequently, they will only talk about things they’d be interested in experiencing (though they won’t put it as such). If you then fulfil their expectation, but not quite in the way they expected, it leads to a very satisfying game for them. When building deathtraps (for any system), I no longer worry about coming up with the “one true way” of disarming it. I just inflict it on my players and choose the most interesting disarming methodology they come up with, turn it around a bit, and then run with it.

My second piece of advice, assuming you’re running a homebrew campaign, is to make sure to drop at least one hint about the next adventure in the current one. It can be a part of a map, or an NPC name, or simply news of an event that is a precursor to the next adventure. This will give your game a sense of continuity, and if you use the right hints, you’ll never have the party sitting in a tavern wondering what to do next.

Hope either or both of these are helpful.


  1. Don’t run a character in your own game.

  2. Get a whiteboard or something, and when combat starts- write down everyones’ PC name in intiative order- including your monsters. Cards with magnets on the back can work also.

–1st level characters are only about 2/3rds as strong as you think they are.
–Everyone else is about half again as strong as you think they are.
–Give the party at least some options other than the big earth-saving quest, especially if they aren’t interested in it (“I hear there be orcs over them thar hills, what say we get their gold instead of saving King Whinyface from the undead who don’t have any gold anyway?”)

Make up a brief background for each of the PCs. Include one juicy tidbit (sworn enemy, run-in with the law, lost royal bloodline, etc.) which will eventually tie that character’s background into the current game. If you do it right, you won’t have a group of “my parents were killed when I was 4 and I was raised by a group of magic wielding hill giant ninjas thus my exceptional strength, dex, con and engraved two-handed sword of extreme destruction.”

The best DMs I’ve had let the players come up with thier own backgrounds. But require at least a two page background. If you can’t come up with two pages in about 5 minutes they shouldn’t be role-playing anyway. Usually mine ended up 10 pages or so. I agree they should also contain at least one vague quest, and one vague nemesis. (vague meaning events rather than stats and name, it allows the DM to write the background into the adventures at some point) It keeps the player much more involved. More expereince points were given for a good background, then in the first 5 playing sessions combined.

Don’t introduce the epic, save the world quest, at the beginning, let everybody get a feel for their characters on low pressure screw around stuff. Think hard about how they come together. A campain group gets off on a bad foot if you have one of those, “okay so every body happens to be eating at the same tavern when an evil wizard appears outside…” crap starts . Personally I prefer a Dm who runs each person singly(or in pairs or trios if you decided on a pre existing relationship) through a short introduction prequel, before throwing everybody together, let em figure out what they want to do with their character with your full attention.

The other most important thing is to keep a portfolio of contingencies. A bunch of extra encounters, extra towns, side quests, interesting PCs and such. With any luck they won’t be used, but nothing slows down a group like the DM needing half an hour to throw something together, which usually sucks anyway. After a couple years you will have a huge portfolio of well thought out well tuned side-track material.

But the open ended thing is the most important. An anal DM on a checklist schedule gets old fast.

It’s all about the story. It’s not dice, it’s not “gold pieces.” It’s the story. Be prepared to cheat the roles, ad lib, whatever to further the story. Be fair while you cheat, but everyone is there for a good time.

Also. Many pads of paper to pass to players – use them to coordinate action that they don’t know about.

Haven’t run for about 15 years, but started in 1977.

It’s all about the story. It’s not dice, it’s not “gold pieces.” It’s the story. Be prepared to cheat the roles, ad lib, whatever to further the story. Be fair while you cheat, but everyone is there for a good time.

Also. Many pads of paper to pass to players – use them to coordinate action that they don’t know about.

Haven’t run for about 15 years, but started in 1977.

Oh, yeah. For continuity, when you ad lib, write stuff down. Names, backgrounds, etc.

We have one player that keeps a running journal of what happened when and where (and how and why, most of the time) on his laptop. Makes the game go a lot faster.

It’s D&D 3.5, not AD&D… that’s second edition. :smiley:

Relax. Your group wants you to succeed.

Tip #1:
**Make sure the players’ actions matter. ** They want to feel like they have a part in the story, and a major one at that. They want to feel like they made a difference. If you fall into the trap of knowing how you want the whole thing to go and not letting them take it in a different direction, they (and you) will feel sort of cheated.

My best friend has fallen victim to this a couple of times. He runs good, really imaginative games, but, since he wants to tell a great story, sometimes forgets that the players may want to tell it differently.

Tip #2:
**Roll with what they do. ** As **jkusters ** suggests, when you throw a trap at them, you don’t have to know what the right solution is. In fact, sometimes having a solution in mind can be maddening, as the players just plain fail to see the obvious solution. If their plan is good, let it work.

Tip #3:
**Give everyone a moment of their own. ** Try to find a way for each of the players, and each of the characters, to have a Shining Moment or a Time in the Spotlight. That’ll keep them (and you) coming back for more.

Tip #4:
**Never let a player make a meaningless die roll in a critical situation. ** This means that, if the player is trying to do something like catch the fleeing Big Enemy, if they roll the dice, they should have a chance to succeed, and they should have some idea what that chance is. Otherwise, you’re rendering them powerless.

I’ve had GMs fall into this trap as well. The fight is over, the bad guy needs to get away (for plot purposes), but my hero gives chase. What should happen is something along the lines of “he disappears into the mist, leaving only mocking laughter behind,” which would make me feel like I tried. What happens instead is “okay, roll. Whoa, natural 20. Uh, he gets away anyway.” Don’t let it happen to you.

Tip #5:
**The GM is not the enemy of the player. ** The world may be, the bad guys certainly are, but you, the GM, are not. Unless, of course, you are one of those “bring any character you want, I’ll find a way to kill it” GMs who lurk in the dark corners of Gen Con. Brrrrrr.

Tip #6:
**Remember to have fun. ** This can be hard to do, but do remember to include yourself in the Shining Moment category as well.

Good luck.

  • Stay in charge. Don’t let smalltalk or other distractions get out of hand. Hand out demerits (negative experience) to people who are especially disruptive, or (my pet peeve) continually try to roleplay other Players’ characters.

  • Keep a table with your players’ character stats handy, so you can refer to them. All the characteristic stats, as well as HP, AC, THAC0, Saving Throws, etc, should be on there, as well as a brief list of abilities.

  • Keep track of the damage your monsters do to the players, as well, so you know when you’re about to kill them. You can bet they’re keeping track of what they’ve done to your monsters.

  • Require the players to keep track of their kills, roleplaying bits, and valuable ideas for later calculation of experience. Hand out 3x5 index cards for this. This saves a lot of work on your part. (And you can still hand out experience as you see fit. These are just so you don’t forget.)

  • Know your material. Study the books. If you don’t know a rule, don’t let the players rules lawyer you, either. Make a ruling and move on. If you have to apologize later, when you find a ruling the DMG and apply that one, so be it. But it’s better to know the rules in advance.

I cannot disagree with any of the advice given so far, especially:

  1. The players are not your enemy.
  2. Learn to roll with what your players are doing.
  3. Know the rules.
  4. Have fun.
  5. Good does not equal smart; evil does not equal stupid.

Let me also add:

  1. The players will never, ever ever do what you want or expect them to do. Learn to think fast and improvise:

Think fast. Turn the wooden laboratory into an underground stone dungeon, revise the map in your head to accomodate the new geography. Imagine up a fire brigade with buckets of water and sand for stopping fires. Think up some guards who will challenge the players’ firebug tendencies. But do not simply say “you can’t do that.”

  1. Know the abilities of your players and account for them.

And 8. Apply the rules consistently. If you allow them a saving throw in a certain situation, there’d better be a damned good reason to disallow a saving throw in similar situation—a better reason, that is, than “that’s what the story is.” Better than “but next they have to get captured!”

Similarly, if you calculate what happens when somebody misses with a bow or a crossbow, be prepared to chart them consistently.

If you are prepared to let players attempt skill checks for which they have not studied, you’d better get ready to let them always do it.

I can’t disagree with any of the advice given above (I wish I’d gamed with some of you folks back in the day instead of with some of the wonks I was with!).

My two copper pieces:

  1. Give each character his/her time in the spotlight. Throw in little things that each of the characters can do that none of the others can, that spotlights their talents. While the characters are in town, the wizard gets approached by the representative of the mage’s guild who wants the character to ‘try out’ for membership. The party’s stuff gets stolen and only the bard or thief (with their Gather Information skills) can find the bastards who stole it. Et cetera.

  2. Backstory is vitally important. Find a way to tie each character’s backstory into the main story. Maybe the guy who killed the paladin’s father runs into the party several levels down the road and they have to deal with him. Maybe the fighter’s sword (which belonged to his grandfather, the famous adventurer) is actually magic but needs a quest to be completed to activate it. This helps keep everyone involved and interested.

  3. Be ready to alter things on the fly and be flexible. If the party’s getting whomped and they’re dropping like flies, maybe drop the bad guys’ hit points or bring in some reinforcements (town guards or something).

On a purely mechanical note, make yourself a matrix/spreadsheet for combat. Along the top, the columns should be Initiative Roll, AC (normal/flat-footed/touch), hit points, and then a listing of rounds – go out to 20 just to be safe. List each character/monster in the encounter by initiative. This will help keep track of each entity’s statistics and can be used to make sure you know who’s gone when (it’s also good for figuring out when that Hold Person spell expires and your Big Bad Guy can get back into combat, heh heh).

jkusters makes a great point about listening to your players. Ofttimes, they come up with ideas far beyond anything you’ve thought of, and you can just pick it up and run with it. F’rinstance, our party was raiding the lair of a dead (maybe) necromancer. We ran into a giant skeleton that killed us all dead. End of campaign, right? Nope. While we were talking about it, one of the players said, hey, wouldn’t it be neat if the necromancer was still alive? Maybe he’d make us his puppets. And that’s exactly what happened – and the necromancer’s hold on the party eventually became the central theme of the campaign (trying to accomplish the necro’s goals so we could escape his grasp and get our own lives back). Little things like that can end up going far.

And remember, above all – it’s a game! If someone starts getting cranky or angry, take a step back and remember it’s a game and you’re there to have fun. Take a breath, relax and work it out.

This has been mentioned above but-

I’m the DM! I make the rules!

If there’s an unclear area that rules lawyering can’t resolve, your word is law. Infravision may work his way when Bob runs a campaign, but it’s your campaign now.

No story-on-rails adventures

You come up with the setting and npc’s, the players show up and stuff happens. It should never be ‘the player’s must do these specific things in this specific order and nothing else will make a difference or advance the adventure’. The Ravenloft module Hour Of The Knife comes to mind. Some Spoilers- There’s a serial killer at large. But nothing the players do will allow them to find the killer or stop him. We went through the first part of the module thinking that there were precautions we could take or clues we could find. Nope. After a certain amount of time, an npc shows up and moves us into the next part of the adventure. Then, he tells you where to go and what to do. One of the most unsatisfying adventures I’ve ever played.