dungeon master lessons from professor beej

5 Lessons I Learned from DMing My First Games of D&D in Years

My first experience with Dungeons & Dragons was the release of Third Edition (3e) back in college. I don’t remember at what point I started DMing, but it was a natural thing for me because I’m the kind of guy who sits and reads rulebooks for funsies. I don’t know if I am any good at it, but I enjoy it when I get the opportunity.

Recently, I was able to do a couple of quick adventures with friends, and it felt fantastic to get my screen up again. It did, though, make me reconsider a few things I had sort of taken for granted.

The Introductory Materials Aren’t Always Introductory

Case in point: Ochre Jelly. These things are nasty little buggers, and the Essentials Kit throws them at your fledgling adventurers like they’re wee little bunnies. They’re not.

Not only are they immune to slashing damage (you know, swords! what the heck?), early spells and cantrips like Thunderwave can’t keep the buggers away from you. Plus, they can’t be blinded, charmed, deafened, exhausted, frightened, or knocked prone. And if you do happen to zap or slash at them, they just split.

Ugh. My party had an easier time with a Gelatinous Cube than an Ochre Jelly. And that’s just silly.

So if you start a new adventure, read the monsters, read the party, and make sure that you adjust them so that your party can have fun fighting them. Because that one up there…that ain’t fun for early/newbie adventurers.

It’s Okay to Play God

As much as Dungeons & Dragons is a numbers and stats based game…numbers aren’t always fun. In some cases, they’re downright boring.

For instance, combat in D&D can be a highlight of a session, letting your players buckle swashes and fireball things to Kingdom Come. But if combat drags on, and it’s just a series of dice rolls trying to whittle down an enemy’s HP…that’s not fun.

As the Dungeon Master, you have final say in who lives and who dies. From Player Characters to NPCs to the monsters they all fight. And sometimes, it’s okay to play God and make that group of Goblins drop dead, even when each of them has 8hp left. Or maybe that Bugbear just wants to suddenly run away. You can make that happen. Just snap your fingers and…blip. They’re gone.

This happened in my first session back as a DM. We were doing just a simple quest from the D&D Essentials Set (affiliate link) where the group had to head into some old Dwarven ruins. There’s a random chance that during the trip there, a young white dragon could appear there. Because I was DM, of course the dragon appeared there. Because dragons.

My crew had some oxen pulling a cart, and that dragon wanted some meat. My party’s ranger didn’t like that. So he shot at the dragon with his longbow (base 1d8 damage). As one does. Now, the book said the dragon backs off and flies back to Icespire Peak if it takes 10 damage.

His bow hit for 8. By the rules, the dragon should have kept attacking those oxen. It’s a dragon, and it’s hungry. Here, read for yourself:

But you know what’s not fun? A dragon eating your oxen. Especially after you get an almost-max-damage shot off with your bow. So instead of adhering to the rules, I decided that Cryovain the young white dragon needed to hightail it out of there because our hero shot him in the neck.

Deux Ex Draconis? Maybe. But playing with life and death in situations like this are what take the adventure from being mediocre to memorable. I mean, would you rather plunk a dragon in the neck once and scare it off or spend a few turns trying to make attack rolls for a piddling 2 damage?

Yup, neck plunker all the way. So play God when you have to. Choose who gets to live and who dies and when. It’s more fun that way.

Mix Easy and Hard Enemies

If your adventure is full of only tiny goblins or critters that your party one-shots every time, things will get a bit boring for them. But if every encounter requires them to take a long rest afterward, you’re tuning too far in the opposite direction.

With that in mind, making sure that you have at least a few monsters in each group that can be quickly dealt with makes your heroes feel powerful, and the meatier baddies feel that much more important.

The same applies for overall encounters, too. A few quick skirmishes and a couple of harder battles are great. During the most recent session, my party found a treasure room. It had 4 chests in it. A rug in the middle of the floor. And some tables and chairs scattered around. They were very careful about the chests because they might be Mimics.

But I tricked them! The rug was a Mimic! (Many things can be Mimics, didn’t ya know?) It engulfed the poor ranger who stepped on it unsuspecting and wound him up into a longbow burrito. And since they’re adhesive, as the party tried to beat him out of it (which was hilarious), their weapons stuck to it, one by one. It was great fun. For me.

Once the party had beaten that, I had a gelatinous cube fall from the ceiling as they approached one specific chest. And their rolls were so poor that they actually got sucked into it a few times. And you know what? I made it do max damage. Because after the dragon and another couple of encounters where they cleaned up handily, I wanted them to feel like they were still in danger.

Like a good musical where you need a slow song after a really raucous one, alternating and mixing the battle tempo can keep your adventurers on their feet better than going all the way to one extreme or the other.

Let the Players Tell YOU What Happened

A good DM really sets the scene and describes what’s going on. After all, this is a pen-and-paper game, and all anyone can see is what you put in front of them, figuratively or literally with maps and minis.

So with that in mind, a player doesn’t “hit for 8 damage.” They “sink an arrow into the soft flesh under the young white dragon’s chin. It screams and wheels in the air, retreating before it can be injured further.”

But in other situations, have you ever thought about letting the player tell you, the DM, what happens? Sure, you ask them what they’re doing, but on a success, do you ever let them actually tell how it goes? If not, you should. Especially on these conditions:

  1. Rolling a natural 20. Anytime the player rolls a natural 20 in combat, I want them to describe what they do to the enemy. I let them know beforehand if the roll is enough to kill the monster, so they can plan accordingly. 9 times out of 10, their description will be better than mine.
  2. When an enemy dies or a situation reaches its end. For example, my wife was playing Aasimar Paladin and when she rolled incredibly well to defeat the Sea Hag at the end of the adventure, I have her the reins and she proceeded to “whap whap whap whap whap whap whap whap whap whap rapid fire beat her with my wings“, physical miming of the event included. I would certainly not have gone that direction.
  3. When a rare roll or hard saving throw succeeds. Maybe the PC took a 1 in 100 shot at an enemy from across the island and they somehow landed it. Or tripped a barbarian with a bola from a hundred yards. Or maybe they beat a 19 DC Constitution check. Whatever it is, when something extraordinary happens to them, let them decide how it plays out. In almost every situation, they’ll improve the narrative in a way a DM just can’t.

Reward Critical Thinking and Alternate Approaches

While combat is incredibly fun, sometimes it’s just as much (or more) fun to handle situations in atypical ways. Sometimes that’s stealth to get a jump on enemies and take them hostage. Othertimes, it might be trying to dropkick them into lava or toss the gnome party member at them like a bowling ball.

Whatever it is that they want to do, as a DM, you can allow it. While you might not want to have every battle filled with Cannonball Specials, if the players want to do something that’s not quite what you had in mind, let them. And make sure to reward them for it.

I had a baddie in this particular session who was a few CR ahead of my party. I didn’t necessarily expect them to fight it, and if they did, I had thought I might make the NPC leave. What happened instead was that our Wizard cast “Sleep” on them, got a fantastic roll, and the Ranger used his Pseudodragon and stealthiness to tie up this particular monster.

Not only did I like the way they thought, their rolls hit the DC that I had set. So…I let them basically bypass the battle because of this, and they took care of the enemies as they saw fit.

And here’s the important part: I rewarded them as though they had won a combat encounter. Even the XP on the big guy I didn’t think they’d kill. Because they incapacitated him in a way I hadn’t considered, they got an extra 1,800xp. They thoroughly enjoyed that, I think.

Remember, This is All for Fun

Remember, we all do this for fun. We play with friends to escape the real world and kick some fantasy monster booty with dice. While it’s absolutely necessary to take it seriously and follow the rules, it’s also up to the Dungeon Master to make sure that the rules are enforced in a way that it’s fun and challenging, not arbitrary and rigid. I mean, otherwise, we’re just doing math and yelling a lot about it.

What lessons about playing Dungeons & Dragons have you learned from running campaigns as a DM?

B.J. Keeton

B.J. Keeton

B.J. is a geek, gamer, podcaster, and livestreamer. He has been the co-host of the Geek to Geek podcast since 2016, and he helped start the Geek to Geek Media Network. His biggest pet peeve is when someone spells Wookiee with only one E. One time, he told his friends he liked vegetables maybe more than he did Star Wars, and they made him put a dollar in the jar. That should tell you everything you need to know about him. Find him on Twitter as @professorbeej or on Discord as @professorbeej#1337.

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