There’s a lot you need to remember as the designated Dungeon Master of the group. This could include different spells, abilities, NPCs, items, encounters, rumors. However, the crunchy mechanics or campaign details are not the most important things you’ll need to remember. These 5 things are important for every DM, and they relate more to the theory side of DMing rather than the practical side.
Today’s article expands on the following points:
- It’s a game. You’re supposed to have fun.
- You’re going to mess up. A bunch. But that’s normal.
- Different people have different play styles.
- Burnout is real. It’s okay to take a break.
- Scheduling sucks and sometimes life happens.
1. It’s a game. You’re supposed to have fun.
This doesn’t mean every minute of gameplay needs to be a crazy life-or-death situation for the party. Fun comes in all sorts of different shapes and sizes! Have you ever just had a shopping episode? They’re fucking awesome every once in a while, but they don’t contain any combat or significant plot development. The point I’m poorly trying to get at is that if you’re constantly stressed and dread DMing upcoming sessions, something is very wrong.
If you’re not having fun you need to ask yourself, Why not?
There are an infinite number of reasons why being the DM might not float your boat. Every situation is unique, but try using the following chart to pinpoint some reasons why you’re not having fun. To properly address the issue, first find the cause.
- Do you enjoy the role that a Dungeon Master plays?
- Being a DM is a bit different than being a player and certainly can require a greater time investment. If you really enjoy playing D&D but not DMing, then just stick to being a player! There’s no good reason to ruin a hobby by forcing something that isn’t a fit.
- Is it an inter-personal issue?
- Synergy at the table is huge and can make the difference between sessions being awesome vs. sessions being a bunch of passive aggressive bickering and smart ass comments.
- Whether it’s a single person causing problems or the whole table, talk to them like a god damn adult. Don’t get me wrong I love submerging myself into a world of questing and glory but sometimes you have to come back to the real world. It sucks and will probably be uncomfortable. Just clearly communicate the expectations to them “if they want to continue being a part of the table”. If they can’t agree or get all pissy, kick them out. Full stop.
- Does D&D 5e accomplish what you’re trying to do in order to have fun?
- I absolutely adore 5e and I’m able to have a ton of fun with their system and rules. But for you maybe the combat feels like an absolute slog fest, or you’re constantly homebrewing mechanics just to run the campaign you want.
- Don’t feel like D&D is the end-all be-all. There are SO MANY other TTRPG systems out there. Go check them out, there’s probably something that is better suited for your needs! Again, don’t ruin a hobby just because one part isn’t a good fit.
2. You’re going to mess up. A bunch. But that’s normal.
There’s a heck of a lot going on during a session of D&D, and as the DM you are in charge of orchestrating it. During this scheduled recurring chaos you’re going to eventually make a mistake. Might even be a huge one. This could include accidentally revealing info that spoils a plot twist, or maybe you said something with confidence only to later check and find out that you were completely wrong. A simple mix of up words or facts on your part can drastically affect the party’s decisions.
But don’t beat yourself up about it because it’s completely normal. It’s seriously just a numbers game. You’re probably talking the most, overall, as the Dungeon Master. More talking = more chances to make mistakes.
People tend to be forgiving and understanding of others, but strict and harsh on themselves. I can almost guarantee that your players will forget about the mistake looooong before you do. Be humble and honest with yourself if/when players point out mistakes that you make. Again, everybody makes them and they usually make for great learning opportunities. Of course if possible try to just laugh it off!
The party arrives at Port Nyanzaru via ship. As they’re pulling into the harbor I described massive doors being pulled open with large chains and a wench (instead of winch). Cue the jokes about some woman sitting at the top of the gate and cackling as she furiously spun a crank to open the oversized doors. Sure when somebody first corrected me I was embarrassed and felt stupid, but it ended up being a really funny moment that everybody got a kick out of.
3. Different people have different playstyles.
For reasons that baffle even the greatest scientists of our day, tables I’ve played at – whether as a player or DM – tend to toe the line of being a so-called evil campaign. And it’s awesome because it works for us. But it’s not for everybody. Some people might prefer a more typical “honorably defend the realm from evil” campaign. Some folks just want to charge into combat and kill monsters while drinking beer and joking around. Others want to have a roleplay heavy campaign, with intricate plot lines and detailed character backstories.
None of these are right or wrong, it just depends on what you like.
Issues can arise when everybody at the table isn’t on the same page about their preferred playstyle. If one player hates sitting around and talking and planning, while another player hates rushing important decisions you’re going to end up with a lot of tension at the table. Having a Session Zero and discussing the campaign’s playstyle is important, especially if the group is newly formed or people don’t know each other.
It might even be your best friend or significant other who is causing some issues due to incompatible playstyles. Doesn’t matter. If everybody isn’t in general agreement about how the game will be played, it’s going to cause problems. You may have to ask them to leave the table, which would be difficult, but be sure to convey that it’s absolutely nothing personal and doesn’t reflect on your relationship.
Think of it like going to the beach. Some people want to relax in the shade and read a book, while others want to run and scream and splash in the water. Both activities are great, but they need to be done separately or everyone will have a bad time.
4. Burnout is real. It’s okay to take a break.
Life can get pretty hectic sometimes and you might be too caught up to even realize it. It seems like every few days there’s a post on reddit or facebook that looks something like this:
Hey guys, I really love D&D but recently it hasn’t seemed all that fun and it feels like it’s turning into a chore and a burden. I’m not really sure what changed or went wrong. I guess I’m kind of busy between working 60 hours each week and raising three small kiddos. Still though I manage to run a campaign of 7 people every Tuesday and Thursday, and I play in a friend’s campaign on Friday nights. Has anyone else experienced similar problems with not really enjoying games anymore? Maybe I’m just getting older.
LIKE HOLY SHIT DUDE YOU GOTTA SLOW DOWN!! That is a one-way ticket to crazy town, population: you. It’s not even just D&D, being constantly stretched too thin will burn you out and put you in the ground early. Protip: cortisol is the enemy.
It’s really important to make sure you’re not over-committing yourself. Take the time to recharge and relax. Take care of your body. Get plenty of sleep and exercise.
It’s super duper okay to put a campaign on pause to free up some time and regain balance in your life. Literally just tell the players that, “After this session, we’re going to take a break for a few weeks. I’ve been feeling really overwhelmed and burnt-out recently and I think I need some time to recharge.” Pretty much every single person can relate to that and will be very understanding.
Something that helped me tremendously was moving to every-other-week sessions instead of every week. This little bit of extra time is the perfect buffer that gives you some room to breathe. It offers a bit more flexibility, which has lead to more “rescheduling” instead of “skipping” sessions. Plus I’ve got a pretty good system right now where I get to DM one week, and during my off-week I get to be a player in my friend’s campaign!
5. Scheduling sucks, but sometimes life happens.
Trying to plan and maintain a consistent schedule for your D&D campaigns sucks. Seriously, it’s the fucking worst and I hate every second of it. But it’s a necessary evil that has to happen if you want a group of people to set aside a few hours of their time on a regular basis. Find a system that works for you. My group uses Discord for campaign-related stuff which makes it pretty easy to figure out times that work.
Of course, it’s possible to have a recurring game at a consistent time with superb attendance. If you’ve achieved this, hell yeah!
Even still, there will be times when you don’t hear from somebody or they cancel last minute. Yeah, it’s absolutely frustrating but there is a right way and a wrong way to handle it.
The Wrong Way: Blowing up on the player, personal attacks, blaming them for ruining the campaign, or even just making some assholeish passive aggressive remarks.
The Right Way: With grace and understanding.
Life happens, and when it does it’s usually unexpected. If the person who canceled is a trusted friend, there’s almost certainly a good reason for their canceling or lack of communication. They might have suddenly had to stay late at work. Maybe their phone broke or their power is out. It could be a family emergency or a health related issue. The point is that you don’t know what happened and there’s no reason to assume it was a spiteful personal attack against you and your campaign.
If someone is CONSTANTLY bailing or never communicating, well then maybe there’s a different conversation to be had.
It’s helpful to establish a rule early on in the campaign related to cancelling sessions. For example, “If we have 4 out of 6 people, we will proceed with the normal campaign as planned”. Sometimes sessions will be especially important (there’s been a big buildup to an upcoming moment for example), and for those I like everyone to be there. But again, life happens. Instead of cancelling or proceeding without the full party, try running a one-shot (so yeah, it helps to have one ready-ish)! This provides a great opportunity for players to try new characters and have some consequence-free fun. Bonus points if you make the one-shot still be related to the main campaign. This could be in the form of a prologue quest or a ‘B-Team’ of characters.
I hope you found these tips useful! They’re certainly not original but they’re worth hearing more than once!
Also if you’d like to help support the site and want to see more articles, please check out my Kickstarter, Ekemon’s Exotic Mounts! This 5e supplement contains 35 different options for exoti mounts. There’s also a free PDF, go claim your copy 🙂
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