Becoming a Dungeon Master: Running Your Game

The night is here! Again, you’re driving home from a very hard week of work. You got your Session 0 done last week, your gang has their characters, and you have your campaign. Tonight is finally here.

Running your weekly games takes effort, that goes without saying; it isn’t just improv and winging it, hoping your game sessions are epic. You need to know how to prepare, adjust, multitask and set up hooks for your players.

Preparing for Your Session

Preparing for your weekly session is crucial. Very rarely have I successfully and smoothly run a game with zero prep. There is always work to be done.

What to Focus On

Preparing during the week before your session will take pressure off your shoulders and keep you organized and relaxed. You don’t want to do your homework the class before its due, so to speak. It’s important to put some thought and time into your preparations.

Everybody has come across stories of Dungeon Masters spending hours a night for a week straight preparing for their sessions. I fall under this category on occasion, but what I can tell you is that it isn’t necessary. Unless I’m gushing with creativity and inspiration that week, I find that a cumulative of a few hours over the course of an entire week is enough. Oftentimes, if I hit a steady stride from session to session, I’ll simply carry a notebook with me where I jot down NPC, plot, and encounter ideas. I will then flesh them out throughout the day when an idea sparks in my head.

But, what you may want to consider is to ensure you have combat map plans for when encounters having. This can be something as extensive as having a digital tabletop program (I absolutely love using Arkenforge) with a bunch of maps made for every occasion. You can use simple grid paper and pre-draw your maps. Or, very simply, just doodle out ideas you want for encounter maps, and use a white-board or gridded printer-paper and draw your encounter maps on the fly.

Honestly, every option is viable.

You will also want to ensure that you have NPC ideas and names written down so you can pull them out when they are contextually appropriate. Along with this, be sure to have a list of encounter ideas and major plot events written down. But leave it at that: broad strokes of encounters and plot events and twists.

I should have taken challenge rating into consideration before throwing this at my Level 1 party…

What to Avoid

I have mentioned this in previous articles, but I cannot harp on this enough: do not over-write or over-prepare your campaign. By this, I mean that I urge you to avoid writing the story for your players.

I have often found myself in this pitfall early on in my career. I would play out story arcs and narratives of my campaign as movies in my head, while at work. Then, I’d rush to jot down these little movies, excited to see them play out that Friday.

Well, it didn’t work out this way. I got frustrated, because my players weren’t playing the way I wanted them to. They got frustrated, because they weren’t able to play the way they wanted to. Don’t over-prepare your sessions.

Next, you want to avoid predicting what your players are going to do. If you try to prepare for what you think your players are going to do, then you will oftentimes find yourself blindsided with a decision you can’t roll with smoothly. Even if you are 100% positive that your players are going to talk to this NPC because she you made her interesting, doesn’t make it so. In fact, your players just robbed her! You certainly didn’t see that coming. Did you plan for that? No?

So, loosely plan for decisions. Broad strokes. You have to learn to roll with your players punches and then punch back. Do not hinge major plot moments on a random NPC; build up an important NPC so your players have a sense that they should pay attention to them and not try to kill or rob them.

Well… most of the time, that is.

Adjust and react to you players’ decisions

Dungeons & Dragons is a game about the players’ choices, decisions, and how they approach problems and obstacles. You are going to be faced with players who trip you up in your own world. There is no getting around that unless you hard-core railroad your game.

As I mentioned in previous articles, I messed up by railroading my players. I was then unable to grow in my ability to react and adjst to my players’ decisions. I wasn’t willing to let go and let my players help tell the story. Due to that, I was not able to comfortably and fluidly go with the flow. You can loosely plan for general decisions, but don’t rely major quests and plot twists on specific decisions your expecting your players to make. In fact, plan for three possible decisions: a good decision or interaction, an evil decision or interaction, and a whimsical decision or interaction. When you have an idea as to how to react, you are able to make fine adjustments on the fly, if their interactions fall somewhere in between two of those options.

The Living World Needs to React

When they make a decision, you will want to know how your own world is going to react to their decisions; play as the world and genuinely react to their decision. For example, our sailor ranger, Enki, wanted to sneak a weapon onto royal property when asked to hand over his weapons. Well, when the guards inspected him, they found the dagger. The guards reacted accordingly: they detained him, shackled him, and chained him.

World reactions need to matter to the player. It mattered to Enki because he was arrested and needed to cooperate or talk himself out of this situation. Furthermore, the rest of the gang was then able to act freely without worrying about their ranger getting the rest of them arrested.

When the world reacts accordingly, the players will feel like their decisions matter, both good and bad. In fact, if they know there will definitely be consequences for their actions, they will approach situations sincerely, rather than carelessly.

My gang treated every NPC they met like they were a punching bag. And that felt awful. I, at the time, thought this is what made the party happy. At the expense of my own fun, I let them do whatever they wanted. But, they quickly became bored because there wasn’t direction or exposition. There wasn’t risk to their actions.

Then I made it known that there are consequences to actions. The party felt invulnerable, so one player just (literally) waltzed right into a portal where they knew led to Maliterra. Well, that player was surprise-attacked by a huge demon and immediately died.

They shapened up and cared about their actions after that.

Multitasking and Organization

Multitasking is incredibly important! You will need to have encounters up and ready, events loaded, and NPC names on hand. On top of that, what time of the day is it? What day is it? Where is the gang’s cart? Did they leave valuables on said cart? What is going on around town? 

It will start to feel a little overwhelming, but that is nothing a little organization and multitasking practice can handle!

Stay Organized

I section off my area behind the screen into categories. I have a square for encounters and monster stats. My right-hand section has my resources, including my written campaign resources and notes as well as my Wizards on the Coast books, where I have pages tagged and tabbed. On my left, I have my notebook where I jot down ideas, important decisions and important plot events. And my upper section holds my dice, calendar, figures, and scrap paper where I keep track of time.

I’ve got my NPC figures, many dice, plot notes, and session notes all (relatively) organized!

Knowing where everything is will help you keep the game and story moving fluidly and organically. Did a player just succeed a history check on the tavern they are staying at? Boom. Check your campaign sources to your right. Did someone just ask what time it was? Bang! You jotted down the hour just a minute ago. Keep things organized, and you will know exactly where everything is for quick reference.

Take Notes

When you take notes real-time, it will help take stress off your mind. You won’t have to juggle a thousand thoughts and events that have occurred as the session goes on. When the night gets later, it will become increasingly difficult as more events occur and when you become more fatigued.

You take the thinking and memorizing out of it. When you need to refer to something, just glance at your notes. You will have a lot of NPC names to juggle, but when you have them written down, you know who your party met and why. I seriously cannot tell you how much easier note taking made my sessions and weekly preparations!

Tabs are a DM’s best friend!

Setting up and Executing Hooks for Your Players

A quest hook is an event, NPC, or even line of dialogue that is meant to snag your players’ attention and call them to action. For example:

You guys decide to go to the tavern? Perfect! So, you all walk in to a dimly lit tavern, where the smell of grog intermingles with the smoke coming from the hearth in the common area. Make a perception check.

18! So, you notice a pair of dwarves in the corner of the tavern scanning you up and down, but quickly snap their eyes back to their drinks when they noticed they were caught staring.

The players will be compelled to approach the dwarves or at least know they are there. The dwarves can then mention trouble in the town due to bandits or mysterious monsters. Now your players have a quest to do.

Setting up quest hooks for your players requires a bit of finesse. This plays hand in hand with reacting to your players’ decisions.

Oh look, a burning village! What ever does the party do?

Practice reading your players. The more you play with your party, the more you will be able to anticipate how they will be acting. If you see a string of events starting to form an arc or pattern, start formulating the quest hook. If they players didn’t take the bait when they noticed the dwarves staring, then mention later that they notice the dwarves staring again. Gently bait your players into action; don’t shove it down their throats.

If they don’t go for the bait, then put a tack in it. They do, however, know that these dwarves were acting odd. So, later on in the session, maybe these dwarves were caught following them through a crowd in the marketplace. Now, if your players don’t act on this… then they probably don’t care much for adventure!

Conclusion

And there you have it: your first official session. You’ve been planning, writing, and organizing. You spent good money on your books, good time with your pen and paper, and good energy letting your mind wander at work.

You prepared during the week and had encounters and hooks in place. Then, you set up your screen, and put everything in their exact spots for quick reference. Finally, you were studying your party’s behaviors, smiles, laughs, and groans of frustration as they ventured forth into the world you created.

You set up a world full of adventure, mystery and intrigue. You are organized and multitasking like a champ! And you have sneak hooks set in place for your players, whether it be investigating dungeons, stopping a band thieves,

or confronting dragons.

 

Published by

Erick Schwartz

Writer and streamer! My life is Star Wars with The Witcher a close second, introduced to me via the books! Video games are a big hobby of mine, and include driving, space and flight sims, fighting, and story-driven games!

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