Tips to help out a new DM/GM trying to run D&D Next Encounters Season.
July 22, 2014 10:05 AM   Subscribe

Help a new Dungeon Master/Game Master run her first games with tips & tricks you wish you'd known when you first started out. Add to that the difficulty level of learning a new system, D&D Next at the same time.

Our D&D Encounters group has doubled in size over the past few months & we are now running 2 tables. Our usual second DM is busy with work & has asked to drop back to just playing for the next season so I've been asked to step up and fill in. I am super excited about it but realize I have only the vaguest idea of the best way to do this as I've only ever been a player.

I am looking for tips on organisation mainly. Most of the players are super experienced at various RPGs so tips on how to keep them interested & maybe a little surprised and not trying to out guess me and also to keep the group moving also appreciated.

Other relevant info.

I have only been playing for a year, & will be DMing guys who have been playing for anywhere from 5 to 20 years or so. They are all very easy going & super supportive of me DMing as is the other DM and all are happy to help me with the more esoteric aspects I might not have mastered yet. But the game will be run in a store & open to the public.

I have only played 4E up until we played this last D&D next playtest encounter and we are about to start D&D Next seriously. So I get to DM a game whose full guide isn't out yet and I have no idea of the quality of the materials they will be releasing to support the Encounter. I have the PDF guide & starter set they have released already.
posted by wwax to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I recently asked a bunch of questions along these lines when I started DMing my first campaign so feel free to look through my dungeonsanddragons AskMe tag.

In retrospect this was the best and most accurate piece of advice I read.

From my own experience:
-People like feelies and they help to remind them of important things: give them maps, handwritten letters, and other stuff to hang onto.
-Keep track of the players' experience because eventually someone will lose a character sheet.
-Pre-made dungeon maps are a lot more fun than automated dungeon generators.
-If you have an iOS device, Goodreader, Evernote and Penultimate are indispensable.
-I don't recall how skill checks work in Next but get or make a DM screen with explanations of when to use a certain check and what the relative difficulty of certain actions are.
-Write down any player's theory about unrevealed plot points (where the secret cave is, who killed the mayor, why the goblins are stealing chickens, etc.) and use them later. Players love feeling like they figured it out.
-Don't use a lot of puzzles, or at least make them easier than you think is appropriate. My players were some of the most intelligent, clever people I know and they couldn't figure out any but the simplest of puzzle rooms.
posted by griphus at 10:18 AM on July 22, 2014


Make a music playlist with some appropriate music to add atmosphere. Music from movies often works well because it's familiar to players, but also is often written to suit a specific scene (fights, chase, grandeur, etc.). Certain classical pieces are also great for D&D.

Here are a few suggestions:

- Conan the Barbarian soundtrack
- The Lord of the Rings soundtrack
- The Lord of the Rings Online soundtrack (This was released for free)
- Holst's The Planets Symphony
- The Ride of the Valkyries
- In The Hall of the Mountain King
- A Night on Bald Mountain
posted by Fleebnork at 11:14 AM on July 22, 2014

The worst DMs freak out if the players go off-piste. The best ones turn that into an opportunity.

When planning a session, I always found it best to organize not a plot but scenes. Players might miss a scene because they decide to do something other than what you had planned. Be prepared to rearrange scenes, or to tear a planned one apart and recycle it on the fly. The players are creating the game as much as you are, and need the freedom and accommodation from you to do that.

Similar but smaller idea: Have a bunch of set pieces you can pull out of your pocket which are more interesting than a roll-for-a-random-encounter: a bunch of gobs arguing around a campfire; an owlbear in heat (who scents a player's horse?); a couple of drunk soldiers; a young girl lost in the woods (who might or might not be something else); etc.... These don't need to be much more that a few ideas and a couple of stats on a card, but they can save your life when the players are transitioning between scenes.
posted by bonehead at 11:27 AM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

And a handy trick to lighten your load: get a player who is without a character for a scene (character isn't there, dead, player just visiting etc...) to take on one of the antagonists, even a non human monster. Makes your life easier, and can be a whole lot of fun.
posted by bonehead at 11:31 AM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a friend said, black-and-white it. What's the most extreme stuff the players can do? Plan for that, and maybe branch out that tree a couple levels. For example, what if the lich overpowers the party, or if they refuse to chase the lich?

Then, when they likely do something in the middle, you have an idea of the possible spectrum of responses in your world and you're more prepared to improvise.
posted by michaelh at 11:52 AM on July 22, 2014

Best answer: Since you're running Encounters you at least don't have to worry about writing the adventure. I'd give the following advice:
  • Make sure you are familiar with the module and it's settings. It will help you improv what would likely happen when something unexpected happens.
  • Cheat sheets. Cheat sheets cheat sheets cheat sheets. Here's one for 5th edition.
  • It seems like WotC isn't placing the monster stats very well in their adventures. If you have the time try to get the monster information on to cards. Either photocopy and cut with scissors or copy by hand. Flipping pages during a fight slows things down.
  • Notecards. Notecards notecards notecards. Put as much as you can on them. They are so much easier to deal with in the limited table space that you'll have.
  • 5th edition can be deadly at lower levels, much more so than 4th was. I don't know what the usual policy is but I'd consider rolling behind a screen. You know, just in case you need to prolong the fun for somebody.

  • posted by charred husk at 2:47 PM on July 22, 2014

    Best answer: Your first bit of DMing is always a bit daunting. You may be extra nervous that you're not familiar with the system, but look on the bright side -- if you're running 5th, no one is really "familiar" with the system yet, excepting those who were heavily involved in the Next playtesting. Even with that, it sounds as though you're playing with some understanding guys, which helps.

    I've just recently gotten back into DMing a regular game, after many years of being a player only, and have realized I'd forgotten just how much fun it is to be behind the screen -- a bit of work, yes, and I do end up stressing at times about the "obligation" of making sure a bunch of people who are looking at me to help them have fun do indeed end up having fun... but I've been having a blast, as have my players.

    If you want a bit of advice from someone who's not a new DM, but has only recently gotten back in to it, the best advice I could give would be to work in broad tones, rather than over-planning, and allow your players to dictate the flow of what happens. Since it seems like you'll have some prepared materials to run, take a little time getting familiar with that -- make yourself some cheat sheets so you have quick references to key NPCs, places, events, and so forth. You know, the most basic meat of the story.

    Then put a little more time into thinking about the bigger picture. Your players will wander off track. It's what they do. If you've never run a game you may not have an idea just how much of your time behind the screen is spent going, "Well... they certainly went off the rails there. Again. Now what?" It's a lot, though, if you have remotely creative players. You will never, ever be able to plan for everything a group of PCs can do, so don't even try. Do as has been mentioned above, and sketch out a slightly larger picture, draw up some plug-and-play scenes you can use if you get cast adrift a bit -- they can be used either to bring players gently back in line with the plot, or just to stall for time while you try to figure out "where the fuck do I go from here?" -- and generally build a vague mental picture of the set and setting just outside the borders of your adventure.

    Then... bring it to the table and roll (nyuk nyuk) with it. Don't sweat if things go a bit cockeyed; if you let yourself get flustered and upset it will rub off on the players. Some of the best times I've had on either side of the screen have been those moments of "well shit, I didn't expect that.... but let's play with it!". You may well have to go back and do some longer-term replanning, although this won't be as much of a concern for you if you're on a one-shot type system, but it's worth it in the end. Relatedly, one of the best things you can do is to take careful note of all the crazy theories and paranoid muttering your players do while they try to figure out what's going on behind the scenes. Many times you'll find they suggest something you'd never thought of and decide to run with that instead of what you had on paper. The great part about doing this on occasion is that it lets the players feel proud that they "figured it out" when it's really the tail wagging the dog. (Don't do this all the time, though, or it can start to feel a bit like reverse railroading -- moderation, in all things).

    Basically, a good game session is like free jazz, and you as the DM are the rhythm section, taking the various parts, gluing them together, and keeping everything moving in sync, even if it's not what you had first dreamed up. Know your chords and scales (the basic rules), have some basic progressions in place (canned scenes) in case you get lost and need a bit of a jump start, then get that beat going and see where it goes.

    (And if all else fails, just give the players a Deck of Many Things and let them fuck their own world up while you laugh your ass off.)
    posted by jammer at 3:28 PM on July 22, 2014

    Best answer: Dungeon World's GM advice is a great read even for games that aren't Dungeon World with regards for how to improvise while you're GMing.

    The agenda, principles, and fronts sections are great. I keep the moves list in front of me even when I'm running D&D - it's an excellent tool for dealing with that fundamental situation of 'okay, the player has done something I didn't expect. What do I say?' The point of the move list is a bunch of INTERESTING ideas as results - you consider the situation and the player action, run your eyes down the list, and use them for inspiration. If a player decides to dig a hole for some reason, you can always say nothing happens, but it might be much more interesting to reveal the signs of an upcoming threat, or offer an opportunity with a cost. Maybe the kobold raiders have buried the remnants of their feast - or maybe a dragon was buried here once upon a time, and excavating the valuable bones could be a whole future adventure hook.
    posted by xiw at 7:05 PM on July 22, 2014

    Make a list of ten names that fit with your fantasy world, and a list of ten movie actors you like. when you need an NPC, roll 2 ten sided dice and give them that name and that personality. It makes characters so much easier and more interesting. If the players like a particular NPC, flesh them out, otherwise don't bother.

    Have a set of four or five Things that Could Happen (ninjas attack! bat storm! messenger arrives with terrible news!) and drop them in when events are dragging.

    Start with energy, a soundtrack (good suggestions above) and an immediate problem that needs to be solved (bandits attack!).

    Listen to your players nut out what's going on and steal their ideas if they're good.

    If you have a sudden urge to change something in the adventure as you're playing, do it. The best adventures are always a little bit improvised.
    posted by Sebmojo at 7:20 PM on July 22, 2014

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