DnD - first time DM asking for help

Some very basic questions coming up:

Over lockdown, my brother ran the 5e starter adventure with various members of our family, me included. It was fun! We liked it, we’re doing it again. I’m DM and dont want to screw it up for everyone else.

Everything I know about DnD I know from that experience, reading Order of the Stick and also various threads on here. And the Players MAnual and various online sources. But I still have questions and I know there’s a lot of expertise here at the Dope, which I’m hoping to glean from.

Briefly the party consists of:

Bracklinn, Human Druid (my brother, 38)
Thokk Murren, Half Orc barbarian (my son,13)
Minarth Thorken, Dwarf Fighter (my nephew, 15)*
Lynk, Human Ranger (my daughter,10)*
Merric Hilltopple, Halfing Rogue (my nephew, 10)*
Valanthe Galanodel, Elven Sorceror (my mother, I’m not so dumb as to say)*

  • indicates first timers.

We’re doing Storm King’s Thunder. We’re just finishing the intro section and everybody is about to hit level 5 before we start the adventure proper. It’s going OK - some are more interested in role playing encounters, some in fighting.


First about classes:

The rogue has sneak attack, will get uncanny dodge and is also the Assassin archetype. Is this not massively overpowered? 3d6 extra damage on otherwise engaged opponents? Uncanny Dodge - can just choose not to take half the damage? How do I balance this? Not helped by the fact that Merric (under supervision) rolled implausibly good ability numbers that I had to throttle down somewhat - but he’s still a killing machine. Other people need a chance to contribute.

The sorceror, the druid and magic: AIUI, there is a set of druid spells, and every morning the druid prepares a given number based on expected need. This is flexible and wide ranging. But the sorceror… only knows a fixed number of spells? Is this not incredibly limiting? At level five we’re on only 6 spells - that’s… not much?

Equipment: what’s good kit for these level 5 characters? They’ve got basic adventure kit appropriate to their class but I’m aware upgrades are due. I’m thinking particularly about arms and armour for the fighty types, but if there’s anything people should have that helps other abilities it’d be worth knowing about.

Next Qs are on the DM-ing process. The next chapter involves the party being in a small town when it’s attacked by giants. As bonus fun, they also get an NPC each to control as well as their own character. My main concern is how to manage the off-screen battle. E.g. the giants will surround the walled town - main attack on the gates but all points are under attack. Should I be rolling dice to see what happens even in the bits no-one can see? Scripting it so as they defeat one enemy, another succeeds somewhere else?

Any general guidance on DM-ing, particularly for kids, very much appreciated.

  1. Assassins are pretty powerful, and they’ll do a ton of damage. The half-damage once/round from uncanny dodge isn’t all that game-changing, though. If they take two attacks in a round, they can only half-damage one of them. And they can make attacks of opportunity when they do this. The rolling-for-ability-scores may make this character super powerful, though. If you’re trying to balance things, consider having enemies making the assassin a priority target: whoever this asshole is who’s stabbing them in the throat has got to go. Rogues are glass cannons.
  2. Sorcerers are definitely limited in spells, but their metamagic somewhat makes up for it. Count on the sorcerer to do a fair amount of damage or control, depending on their setup, and if necessary remind them to use their sorcery points.
  3. Here’s a reddit thread with some ideas for starting equipment; it looks pretty on-point to me.

As for DMing advice, lemme make a different post.

I wouldn’t handle it that way: rolling dice slows things down, and should only happen when it’s fun (IMO). Instead, consider an abstraction like this:

  1. Add “Town events” into the initiative order, like at initiative 20.
  2. Write up some fun things that could happen, like, “Boulder smashes through the steeple on the Church of Moradin” or “Roars of triumph from the eastern wall as giant is taken down” or “Fire starts in the Steamwhistle Tea Shop.” Set up stats only for the ones that are made more fun by stats (like, a fire might spread to other buildings after 5 rounds, unless the PCs intervene).
  3. Put your events in a numbered chart. You might also have some events in the chart like “Nothing much happens.”
  4. During the fight, on the Town’s initiative, roll or choose an event to happen, depending on your play style. I’m likelier to choose an event as a way to modulate the action. If the fight is going in favor of the PCs, throw in a complication, but if things are going terribly, throw in a happy event. But you may want to do things more randomly, if that’s your jam.

You can also just wing it, throwing in events narratively without having a list written up in advance. I personally like having lists like this, because running exciting battles takes up all my brain-power, and this kind of prep helps me have cooler events.

I was once running an adventure for kids, and there was an evil priest who had a pile of skulls outside his lair. They were enchanted to start screaming if anyone approached, as a creepy alarm system. As I ran the adventure, I decided that was too creepy, so on the spur of the moment I changed the pile of skulls to a pile of dolls.

That turned and screamed when the PCs showed up.

So my advice to you is don’t do that.

Uncanny Dodge can be used once per round (since you only get one reaction) and only against an attack roll – AoE effects like Fireball, Fall Damage or Saving Throw effects in general don’t apply. Also enemies with multiple attacks only allow the rogue to Uncanny Dodge against one of them so you’re only halving the damage on one hit in a claw/claw/bite routine. Contrary to LHoD (but not to debate), I usually see Assassins rated pretty low on the Rogue chart since their primary subclass schtick is only typically good once per combat and Surprise rules are very finicky.

It is. Later Sorcerer subclasses outside the stock PHB ones address this by giving Sorcerers extra spells known but the PHB ones are restricted in this manner. You might want to look online for extra Spells Known lists someone created for the PHB subclasses and incorporate them.

Some other advice:

  1. You have a party with 4/6 noobs. Be ready for weird actions that don’t necessarily follow the rules. Encourage them where possible, and help them to translate those into the rules. I’m a fan of “yes, and” DMing: let folks do the cool stuff, and then let the enemies do cool stuff, too.
  2. You have a big group, and a lot of them are young enough that taking turns can be difficult. Be ready to say, even outside of combat, “I want to go around and hear what everyone’s doing. Merric, what are you up to? Lynk, what about you?” and so on.
  3. Be super flexible with changing up characters between sessions. Ideally this is something like, “I hate that spell I took, can I take another?” or “Should I have taken a higher CON for my rogue? Can I swap my wisdom and con scores?”

This may all be obvious stuff, but basically being gentle with new players, and even with more experienced players, generally goes well.

I like the idea of presetting some town events. One thing I’ll add after decades of being a DM, though it’s been a while… If something offscreen or tangential is slowing your narrative down, don’t be afraid to roll a die behind your screen and make some shit up. You don’t wanna do that often, but sometimes you just wanna keep things moving.

One of my gaming groups, which has been together for 40+ years at this point, is currently playing though Storm King’s Thunder (we’re currently at 9th level). One of the characters is, in fact, a halfling rogue, with the Assassin archetype.

Our rogue is good at alpha-striking, but he is also very squishy (not many hit points, not a great armor class – the “glass cannon” effect). He’s tended to get knocked to 0 hit points on a fairly regular basis, probably more than the rest of the party, combined.

Once your group gets to the point where they are fighting against giants regularly, your rogue will be regularly getting smacked around. :wink:

In our group’s experience, I’d say that, while the rogue has absolutely held his own in combat, he’s not really stealing the show from the rest of the characters, and our barbarian is the one who is really doing tons of damage, in part through Reckless Attack (giving her advantage on her attack rolls).

Also, if the rogue goes with two-weapon fighting, remember that he only gets that sneak attack damage on one of those attacks (which also balances things a bit).

One broader thing I’ll note is that, similar to our group, you don’t have a cleric. Both your druid and your ranger can cast curing spells, but it’s not their primary schtick (and the ranger won’t get many spells). In our group, my character (a bard) has wound up being our primary healer; I don’t usually mind, but in tough combats, it does mean that I’m doing little except healing. As the DM, you may want to keep an eye on the extent to which lacking a full-time healer is hampering the party, and adjust accordingly – in our group, the DM made a house rule that drinking a healing potion is a bonus action (to try to take some of the pressure off of me).

Thanks all! I knew there was a lot of expertise here, and I really appreciate you sharing it.

The point about the rogue as glass cannon is reassuring. I think in the early levels he’s been more powerful relative to enemies, but this will start to tail off. I also think I might have been going a bit easy e.g. in terms of who gets targeted and how quickly remaining enemies surrender. I’m not going to be mean about it but a little more jeopardy will force better tactics.

This is great, thank you. I will probably favour choosing myself so as to adapt to circumstances, maybe with some early dice rolling. It’ll be a lovely way to give the sense of a whole ongoing battle.

Yes. My brother and I spotted this after we let the newbies pick first, but decided he could still try out his Druid. The party are going to find a fair few potions of healing, and will have to convert loot into more of the same or something with similar effect on a regular basis. (On which note, thanks for the equipment list, LHOD). Bonus action potion consumption is a good idea too.

That said, this battle will probably be long and serious enough to make them start thinking about this.

Ok, now I’m sleeping with the light on.

Yeah, the goal is for all to have fun, and “Rulebook says no” isn’t. I mean neither, in the end, is “You’re great and everything you do is great and all your enemies fall at your feet” but the adventure should present enough challenge that I don’t need to force them to suffer for poor early decisions.

In terms of engagement the challenge is more the 15 y.o. who is only here as a favour to his gran. He’s quite happy with his dwarf wading in to combat but encouraging role play from him is a bit of a struggle. But I’ve given him a couple of chances to be cool outside of battles and I think he’s getting it.

(My mum, who really was into fantasy before it was cool but has never had a chance to do DnD, turned up with a sketch of her character and is exercising her dormant amdram skills, which is a lot of fun. But less patient with dice rolling and modifier adding.)

My biggest challenge has a newbie DM was generally balancing encounters, but there are a few easy things you can do to fudge things on the run.

Give the opponents a magic item or two to use when desperate. If they have a limited number of uses they won’t skew the power of your party too much if the bearer gets killed, and until you reveal it, who’s to say who was carrying the thing in the first place. This is also more fun loot than just a bunch of gold pieces.

Reinforcement and improved opponent tactics. If the party is making short shrift of what you threw at them, have them fall back to a defensive position (plan ahead a little) and throw in some reinforcements with ranged weapons. Or have them shout for backup and call in a “big guy”.

My recollection of that battle, from a player standpoint, is that it did feel, indeed, like the odds were stacked against us (they were :smiley: ), and that it felt like it was going to be a party wipe, when we saw just how many bad guys were on the board, and how many of them seemed to be above our pay grade.

What we, as players, didn’t realize, was that the big threats on the table – the giants – weren’t there to engage us, but simply to get their macguffin, and then leave.

BTW, our party composition has been:

  • Half-orc barbarian
  • Human fighter
  • Wood elf monk
  • Human warlock
  • Halfling rogue
  • Half-elf bard (me)

Once we got a few sessions into this adventure, and started, as a group, talking about our lack of healing, the guy who plays the monk (who is also a risk-averse worrier of a player) decided to multi-class his character into cleric, to add to our overall healing ability.

In the early stages of the adventure, we were definitely a little paranoid, as we faced some very tough fights; it wouldn’t surprise me if your group winds up feeling the same in the early going. As time has gone on, and our characters have gotten more powerful, that’s become less of an issue. We had a combat in our session yesterday, in which we faced four tough opponents: four giants: a stone giant, a fire giant, a frost giant, and a cloud giant, all of which were “leaders” (i.e., tougher than normal), and we not only triumphed, but it wasn’t even close.

One other thought on this particular adventure: our DM has explained that it’s very much a “sandbox” adventure, where your players get to largely choose which leads or side quests they take on. With a group that’s largely younger players, you may need to give them some guidance, or narrow their options, depending on if they struggle to understand (or agree on) where to go next.

The current Sequential Art arc is about this sort of thing. Start here and continue to #1218.

Ha! My brother and I got back into D&D during the pandemic. He’s the DM. We have been playing Storm King’s Thunder for the past year. So, no spoilers! We just made it to eighth level.

I had a suspicion that there might be one or more thread participants here playing through it, so I tried to be careful about spoiler tags when I gave any detailed information about my experiences. :slight_smile:

Aces, my friend!

Only one attack. And not always. The Fighter always gets two attacks at 5th, plus a action surge, and can do more damage with each.

You only get one reaction per round. Uncanny dodge works on one hit. Most foes will have 2-3 attacks by this time. Two foes= 6 attacks- rogue takes half damage from one.

But he can cast 9 a day, plus cantrips. Using their Font, they can cast an additional 5 spell slots. They also get one more cantrip, and cantrips are important. The big advantage is that a Wizard might pick dispel magic and fireball. A sorc will know those two but can cast both or one of them twice. Then there is Metamagic, which is really nice.

Yep- by this time the three martials should have a magic weapon, and the Fighter magic armor- which should be full plate.

More advice- have one player do the Initiative, and another track monster damage.

A lot of really good advice. I’ll try to avoid repeating.

Targeting the assassin is a great tactical solution, but I also note that the assassin is tied for youngest at the table. Even among adults, it’s easy to make a player feel like they are being targeted rather than the character. Consider dropping hints that the assassin is gaining a reputation as a stone-cold killer. Also consider giving one of the tanks a magical item that increases their ability to protect the rogue under certain circumstances. The rogue (and the rest of the party) should see the increased attention as a challenge rather than a retributive balancing act.

You mentioned that some players are more interested in roleplaying than combat, which is awesome. Combat is only one leg of roleplaying, alongside exploration and social interaction. Make sure you know what each character is good at and what each player enjoys. Try to give everybody their spotlight moments.

Finally (for now): all rules are suggestions. You can rebalance enemy hitpoints and damage on the fly. You can fudge dice rolls. You can invent new abilities and resistances. You can declare certain rules void. The players have no right or expectation to know what’s happening behind the DM screen, and it’s much more fun when they don’t.

edit: Oh! One really good solution to glass cannon characters is to use the “minion” rules from 4e. Minions are enemies who are normal in every way except one: they only have 1hp. So they’re dangerous if left alone but can be cleared by anybody regardless of relative power level. The players are always aware which bad guys are minions.

A variant I used was what I called “one-ions.” They only had 1hp, but if minimum damage was rolled on any damage die, they miraculously survived the hit. It made them somewhat resistant to big AoE effects with lots of dice, and higher-damage weapons were less likely to whiff on a hit.

There’s no should about them having magic weapons and armor. It depends on the flavor of campaign you want to run. Ditto full plate armor, which is stupidly expensive and to me breaks my suspension of disbelief. Next time I create a campaign setting I’ll replace it with armor that you could actually put on and take off without a squire, magically with the same AC. The clank of plate armor can be replaced with some magical effect that reduces your stealth, or reduces something else. A light glow that makes you more of a target, an infrequent whisper that reduces your stealth and annoys the fuck out you, malfunctions if the attacker rolls a 17 …

As the characters are 5th level, the barbarian’s player has likely already chosen their “primal path” class feature, but the Path of the Ancestral Guardian is a nice “tanky” option, allowing the barbarian to make it harder for opponents to hit other party members, and to reduce some of the damage taken by another party member if they do get attacked.