Five things I wished I had known as a new Game Master

Investing in people over time results in a life worth living

Human resources said it one more time over the phone, “you are no longer employed with us.” I looked at my boss across from the table and of course, he already knew. Security walked me back to my office and I placed all of my belongings in a postal box. Then they walked me outside to my car. (Don’t worry, I’m not a criminal, this “walk out” is common practice when management gets the axe. Still, pretty embarrassing, and the severance is never enough for the amount of time it takes to find a new job.

Full disclosure: I am new to Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, I borrowed the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master Guide from the local library for 14 days the day after I lost my job at an 8 year career. In 2017, this became one of the best turn of events in the story of my life.

Life prepares us in many ways for our next adventure, and I found that my time as a musician, pastor, student and nurse have all helped form me into a game master. But here are five things I wish I had known the day I prepared for my first game.

Invest in a simple adventure

I purchased “Starter Set – The Lost Mines of Phandelver”. I enjoyed the simple plot, the handy monster stats, and the compelling hooks into the storyline. Honestly, I would have been initially overwhelmed with a large hardback adventure. I ran this for my neighbors on Thursday evening for 6 months and it went off without a hitch, until they abandoned the plot. The players felt the pressure release right around level 5 and decided they wanted to go off and explore the big city of Neverwinter. And it was my own fault. Early on, I was so terrified of this evil device known as “railroading”. I was so afraid of that accusation, that I introduced a spray of plot hooks before they completed the initial mission.

“Dear young DM, please realize that your players will only take the hooks you hand them. If you craft three hooks, there is a 33.33% chance they will take one of those, and a 100% chance they will take the one you least prepared for. I urge you, if you want them to take one hook, offer a single hook. This is not running a bad game, this is directing the players into the action.”

My simple advice, don’t introduce more than you have prepared. There are plenty of ways to give the impression of a larger world than the players can experience for now. NPCs from other planes and far off lands can remind the players of the larger world. But as a new DM, remember that one strong hook is better than a sandbox full of flimsy ones.

Invest in a Patreon – Invest in Creators

It’s a universal rule. When you sow, you reap. When you give, you gain. When you invest in another creator, your creative forces as a game master blossom. Somehow surrounding myself with like minded people who place a value on their own work lifts the level of performance I produced. I didn’t learn this until I was four years in as a DM. For the first 3 years, I relied on studying DMs on live streams and while this is a great place to start, this is just a one way relationship. I received 4 hours a week on a Thursday night, but I didn’t have the opportunity to give. The beginning of my fourth year as a DM, I wandered the shallow wastelands of social media. It wasn’t until I connected with Patreon creators that I found more like minded creators, and then found my own creativity blossom.

“Dear young DM. You get what you pay for. Remember this law and obey it.”

My simple advice is realize that in the cheap swarm of tweets, likes and posts, a weary traveler finds rest when they meet with people and invest in them.

Invest in Leadership

I believe that game masters use tried and true practices of leadership. Whether it is managing money, a project, human resources, a family reunion, or a funeral, life is managed well by great leaders. Dave Stachowiak says “Leaders aren’t born; they are made.” Being a good leader takes skill and practice, and talent is available upon request! A word to the wise: you may not think of yourself as a traditional or professional leader. Leadership is not reserved only for corporate suits and political figures. I heartily beg you to consider that if you are sitting behind a game master screen – then you are already a leader. It’s now a question of how much you will invest in that part of yourself.

“Dear young game master, you have become an expert at comparing yourself to others, as you would say, but you are misinformed. You are not comparing, you are envious of others. In comparing yourself, you have to first know yourself. And that, you need to practice. Learn your strengths, learn your weakness. Learn what you like in a game and play that to full enjoyment. Learn what you don’t like and consider if your players share your feelings. Before you can listen to your players, you must learn to listen to yourself. Before you can even compare yourself as a game master, you must first respect yourself as a good leader worthy of comparison.”

My simple advice: along with RPG guides, grab yourself a good book or podcast on growing your own self as a leader. You’ll surprise yourself when this investment radically improves your ability to game.

Invest in good RPGs

This was simple for me. I like 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons. I haven’t run every adventure or setting, but wow, how they have provided countless ideas for inspiration. I am slow to experience new things. I know this about myself. I researched D&D for 3 months before clicking “add to cart.” Since then I have perused through other RPG books in stores and online. Honestly, I can’t keep up with how many roleplaying world there are, and respect those who can rattle off names, dates and modules like they just finished rolling the dice. All RPGs have dice, oh wait…5 rpgs that don’t use dice. RPGs are as diverse as, well, the people creating them. Diversity doesn’t mean you have to purchase that random RPG that everyone raves about. Purchase the content you enjoy.

“Dear young game master. It’s ok to call yourself a game master, dungeon master, or storyteller. There are many paths to run your table well and many rules to learn. The point is to read. Read until you find inspiration and then brew something out of your creativity. It may never see a bookshelf, and some ideas may never even see your table, but only exist hidden within the recesses of your imagination. Play RPGs you and your players like. Avoid snubbing the world of “other” and avoid shouting from across the room. It’s a game, and if getting upset about different RPGs is your thing, your world is too small.”

Invest in your Players

This last piece of advice surprised me. I knew that roleplaying games would be fun, but I had no idea they would be life changing. Not to sound to dramatic, but I made a difference in many people’s lives by engaging with them around the table and between rolls of dice. First off, I play with my kids. Often times, we will have family discussions trying to explain life and love and all things in the universe, and one of the kids will pipe up, “oh, like a constitution saving throw?” or “Oh, that’s just like the beholder’s eye ray!” Many times, my fatherly life lessons have been peppered with D&D lore, rules and gameplay. I have had a Marine tell me our games helped with his PTSD. I have had a young man excel in his high school education by taking part in learning how to organize a game session. Many folks have come and gone around my table, but gosh it all, if there hasn’t been a few that have left an imprint on my heart. During the last few years of play, we have also witnessed each others lives around the game table. You can read more about the conclusion of our campaign, The End of a Story

“Dear young gamemaster, you have no idea what difference you are making in the world. While you prepare your encounters, fashion your lore, practice your NPCs one-liners, your players are reaping the benefits of your hard work. The universe has a way of rewarding such efforts in blessings. Be ready to receive them. I have heard people speak so fondly of their dungeon masters over the years as if they spoke of a family member. Investing in people over in results in a life worth living.

May your story continue.”