Failing as a new Dungeon Master

Deciding to become a DM and run Dungeons & Dragons for my cousin, her husband, and my wife, was one of the best decisions I’ve made in gaming. We had a ton of fun and are already planning another campaign.

We finished the 5th edition Starter Set, which I imported into a world that I created, and are now going to run a homebrew game where my cousin will DM. It was an incredible experience but I definitely could have done better, but since they had never played before and I had never DMed before, we weren’t that worried about it.

I thought it would be useful to highlight some of the most important ways in which I made mistakes. Try to avoid these pitfalls!

1) Slogs

Something I was very worried about when I decided to be a DM was the game getting boring for my players. I assumed the combat was always going to be the exciting part and the boring stuff would occur if I didn’t have NPCs prepared or prices for items at the Inn. I was wrong.  Combat can be just as boring, if not more so.

Since we ran the starter set, the players were low level and so were the monsters. Not only were the monsters low level but they were generally pretty boring. Goblins just hit or miss and maybe do damage. Then it’s the players turn. This generally isn’t a problem unless you hit the dreaded slog.

“Slog” is a term I learned from Matt Colville – (Check out his Youtube Channel – he’s amazing!). I describe a slog as a point in battle when the players know they’ve won the fight but 3 or 4 more monsters remain and it’s just a matter of killing them. If the players roll poorly, this can take upwards of 15 minutes and there is no excitement at all. It’s 15 minutes of everyone thinking, “God, can we just end this?”

Slogs develop as soon as the party no longer feels in danger. Whenever they know they will win, the game starts to get boring.  They snap back into enjoying the game once combat ends and they can resume exploring.  Make the monsters interesting!

2) Lack of World Prep

I built the world we’re playing in from scratch. I took the town of Phandalin from the starter set and placed it where I wanted it in my world. I changed a couple names and we were off to the races. What I didn’t realize was how much of the world I should have built.

Many times, the players would ask me a question that I would have an answer for.  Then they would ask a follow up and I would be lost.  Within the immediate game, I was great at making things up in the world, but I kept tripping up on history and religion. I knew I was just going to import the pantheon of gods from the Sword Coast setting but I didn’t have all of that memorized or written down. Consequently, when the players would ask me great questions about the world, I would have to disappoint them and show them the “Under Construction” sign. This is a real immersion breaker.  Don’t skimp on world-building!

3) Not enough voices!

I’ll admit it right away, my nerves got the better of me. I only put on a couple voices for a few different characters. The party ran into a Nothic which was very fun for me to play. I did a wispy, breathy voice that the characters all heard in their mindD&D - Nothic-5es. It was really memorable and they still talk about that moment in the campaign.

I couldn’t, however, bring myself to do the blustery, Scottish sounding dwarf or even pitch up my voice for female characters. I was just nervous and afraid of looking silly.

This is the blunder I’m most upset about. I do a great Scot, I swear, but something about busting it out on the fly in free flowing conversation was terrifying. Since the players were also new to D&D, it really would have helped them step out of their comfort zone and get into character if they saw me really hamming it up. I know I let them down with that.  Do the voices!

Takeaways for new DMs

Make monsters interesting! If the fight is getting boring make one of them cast a spell! Why not?? They could even capture that goblin and ask “How did you learn that!” Now you’re off on a whole new story.  “How did this goblin cast magic missile? Is it really a goblin? What is going on??”  See?  Intrigue. Or maybe they just kill the goblin, but at least now the story is “Remember that Goblin who cast magic missile? what was that??!”

Make sure you have the history and lore of your world built out. You never want to have to say “Oh I haven’t decided on that yet” or “I don’t know” God’s and histories are things you want nailed down. Making that stuff up on the fly can lead to bad story telling and way more work in the future.

GET INTO IT! You’re the DM, you’re gonna look silly making the voices. That is exactly what your players will love and remember. I don’t know if my players remember very many NPCs from the campaign. That’s because I didn’t make them memorable. Do whatever you need to do to get comfortable changing up your voice from race to race and male to female. Your players will appreciate it!

Ultimately – just have fun – we certainly did in spite of the above 🙂