Lots of new players to DnD are interested in becoming a dungeon master but are afraid of the seemingly heightened responsibilities. Dungeon mastering, or DMing, can often be seen as hard and cumbersome when the reality could be much nicer. While a learning curve is definitely required, DMing can be a satisfying and creative way to play DnD.
Is DMing Hard? No, although there is an increase in responsibility. Anyone can be a DM, it just requires more preparation outside of the game and a mindful eye in-game to ensure a smooth experience.
There are lots of tools, hacks, and tips that can make DMing a fun, easy part of the DnD process.
Adventures vs. Homebrew
One of the most time consuming and possibly difficult parts of being a dungeon master is creating the adventures the party will go on. As the crux of play, nailing the story and connecting epic moments is an essential skill for any dungeon master.
There are two options available for dungeon masters to help tell a story at their table: premade adventures, or homebrew. Premade adventures are either published officially from Wizards of the Coast, the makers of DnD, or bought online from independent sellers. Homebrew is material that you, as the dungeon master, come up with yourself to run in-game. Both have pros and cons.
Premade adventures are a promising first step into dungeon mastering, as they handle many of the common hiccups that new DMs face.
Adventures cover everything from NPC creation, story, treasure, all the way to combat. In addition, they are great for new dungeon masters to look at to get a sense of how to pace a story in DnD. Even experienced dungeon masters who are less interested in telling their own stories and more interested in experiencing the story of their players will often use adventures.
Some of the pros of using premade adventures are:
- Story is provided
- Combat is balanced and planned
- Less prep work out of game is required
- Loot, NPCs, and many details are all well thought out
Of course, adventures are not without faults. Some common complaints about running premade adventures are:
- A lack of creative control for DMs
- Prep work is still required to tweak the game to your table
- The stories available may not interest your group
- Players may feel locked into the story, rather than being able to freely do what they want in the game world
A good rule of thumb for deciding between a premade adventure and homebrew is this: if you are willing to put in extra time and care deeply about creative control or telling a specific story, homebrew may be best for you. If you want to run a great game with minimal extra work where the details of DMing are handled, adventures cannot be beaten.
Especially for new dungeon masters, at least starting with a premade adventure is highly recommended. You can always leave the story behind later on and adapt it as you like.
Homebrew adventures in DnD can be a great way to tell a personal story with your friends and create unique situations. Fantastic for those who want more creative control or who care to tweak the gritty details of game mechanics, homebrew is a common choice in playing DnD.
When you run a homebrew campaign, most parts of the game will come from your head. This means that you must balance story, game mechanics, combat, loot, NPCs, and everything else. It can be overwhelming for new players but is highly rewarding for some.
If this sounds overwhelming, don’t worry! There are plenty of tools available for helping to create a homebrew campaign, both online and in officially published books like the Dungeon Master’s Guide.
Some of the pros of running a homebrew campaign are:
- Total creative freedom
- Tailoring the story to fit your player’s interests or character’s backstories
- Adjusting combat, loot, and treasure as you see fit
- Creating lovable and interesting NPCs
Not everything is great for homebrew campaigns either, however. Some of the cons are:
- A dramatic increase in prep time compared to premade adventures
- If you lose your creative drive, the story will stagnate and players could lose interest
- Handling every part of creating a campaign means spending time even on the less interesting parts
- If players are not interested in the game, you are more likely to take it personally
Creating a homebrew campaign can be one of the most rewarding parts of playing DnD for many dungeon masters. However, it is important to consider the extra time required and your group’s investment in the game.
Keeping Track of Characters
Keeping track of characters, both PCs and NPCs, can be one of the most challenging parts of being a DM. Luckily, this is a skill that gets better with time. However, to hit the ground running and expedite the process, there are some tips to keep in mind.
The methods used in tracking characters will change dramatically depending on a few factors, including:
- Is this character a PC or NPC?
- How often do they pop up?
- Are they a villain, hero, or in between?
- Do they have a unique quality to them?
Taking the time to come up with answers to all of these questions will help you track characters, keep NPCs separate, and have notes to look back on in the future.
Truthfully, it is impossible to plan every NPC your party may come in contact with. As players enter large cities or even small towns, the number of characters simply becomes too much. To remedy this, only track and plan out important NPCs or characters you expect your party to interact with. For the others, use tables or come up with it on the fly.
Keeping track of NPCs is a task that can quickly grow unwieldy without some serious organization. Due to how many NPCs a party will meet in any given session, it is best to create a system early on. That way, you can always reference back in case you have forgotten details about a character.
Good information to track about an NPC could include:
- Their position or occupation
- How or when the party met them
- Their main goal
- Any defining features, such as a funny voice or large scar
- Their opinion of the party
Any more information than that can make tracking NPCs tedious, and much of it will probably be unimportant anyway. Stick to tracking just enough information to remind yourself of the details.
Writing down this information can be done in a variety of ways, so choose one that works best for you. Some DMs swear by making index cards for characters, while others use spreadsheets or just list them in a notebook. This organization system will only be used by you, so make it work for that purpose.
Tracking your player characters is often something that does not need much attention to detail. Your players should keep their own character’s statistics, spells, and equipment tracked. Talk with your players to ensure that this is happening.
Even with players doing the bulk of the work here, it is still important for you to have some information about the characters on hand. The amount you will want at all times depends on your style, so do not be afraid to modify what you track if you feel it is too much or too little information.
Common things to track about PCs are:
- Passive perception
- Total health
- Magical items
It is important to not get bogged down in the details here. If your players are turning to you to ask how much gold they have, or where that magical item is, consider talking with them about the responsibilities you already have and encourage them to track their own character better.
Combat is often one of the most challenging areas to run for a new dungeon master. Luckily, some tips and tricks can make the process a whole lot easier.
If you are running a premade adventure, you do not need to worry about balancing combat as that has been done for you. However, in a homebrew campaign, it is important to consider your party’s level and what threats they can handle. One of the best tools to do this is DnDBeyonds encounter builder, where you can put the total level of your party into a system that calculates how deadly different combat encounters will be.
When running combat encounters, remember to make them interesting. Otherwise, combat will grow stale and turn into a slog of trying to simply reduce hit points to zero. Ways to make combat interesting include:
- Environmental hazards
- Multiple factions fighting each other
- An alternative goal while combat is happening (catch a thief while his friends fight you off)
- An interesting mix of creatures with various abilities
All of these serve to turn combat from a slugfest into an interesting and challenging encounter.
In addition, remember that many creatures are intelligent. Consider their goals in engaging in combat with the party. Are they hungry beasts looking for a meal? Bandits looking for some quick gold? A vampire, toying with them while her final plan finishes materializing in the background? The way each of these creatures fights will be different from the other because their goals are different. Accounting for this will allow combat to not feel the same every time.
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