Hi guys. This subreddit has helped me out a lot, so I wanted to share what I’ve learned the last year after DMing about 20-30 sessions total. When I first started, I’d never even played a game of D&D before. I decided to DM out of the gate because I knew it was the only way I’d ever get some of my friends to give the game a shot. Something went right, because we’ve been playing about twice a month since!
First, I wanted to share three re-occurring issues that kept gumming up my performance as a DM. I worked hard to fix these problems, and I think through a lot of trial-and-error, I found what works really well for me.
1) Ineffective Dungeon Maps
After several disappointments, I came to the conclusion that large dungeon maps were like pacing quicksand for my party. I would give them an awesome, fully drawn-out dungeon map like THIS and they went from playing DND to playing a “don’t step on the lava” 5 feet at a time slog fest, complete with gamer-inspired “must clear all the fog of war!” tendencies.
My solution was to stop providing these maps. Instead of dungeon maps, I have started using a method known as point crawls. Point crawls are an abstracted way of organizing dungeons that provides the players with descriptions of key points, and ways forward depending on what they discover via perception/investigation. Traversal between these points is narrated briefly.
I find that this theatre of the mind works INFINITELY better for exploration in 5E, though I still use smaller Battle Maps like this for actual encounters. Because they’re cool, and because combat mechanics really need them.
2) Unorganized Notes
Not being able to find information on the fly was a huge reoccurring problem. Cycling through different apps/pages/tabs to find a name, room description, or monster ability would often just straight up kill the tension at the table and make everything last longer than it should have.
For organizing my notes, I eventually settled on just two programs: Miro and OneNote. Point Crawl style dungeons fit like a glove into Miro. Here’s an example of how I laid out my most recent session. Each node can be clicked and opened up to show a room description like this. Next to the rooms, I put monster stat blocks. The entire session is framed inside the dark blue square, and the next session will begin next to it, sharing the node where they left off.
Non-dungeon sessions work just fine as well, but you have to, of course, be more open to things going a bit off the rails. But IMO, you should always have a general idea of what your party wants to do, and can plan accordingly. I try to structure the narrative so that they have X rationale options to choose from instead of infinite choices to achieve a goal.
Miro's structure is not only great for opening things in a flash, the "node to node" way of structuring the story really just caused the flow of our table to improve dramatically.
I use OneNote to keep useful d100 charts, as well as notes about my world’s history or quests/story hooks that I’ve yet to use. I can also pop it open to jot down any important things I need to remember from the session.
3) Music Organization
I'm big on music/ambience, but I was spending an exorbitant amount of time finding the “right music” for a session, and then having trouble playing it exactly when I need it at the table.
I still have issues with this, but it’s improving. I have a folder of hundreds of files that I have labeled with tags like this and this, that I am able to search for using Windows Explorer. That helps a lot in finding music I want to use for the game, which I then copy-paste onto my desktop. Ideally, Miro would let you link mp3 files! Maybe someday.
Those three things were my big improvements, but here’s some various random tidbits and advice!
I have made a lot of mistakes with mechanic rulings, as have my players. Not once has it been a problem or affected our table's fun! When we do find a mistake, we figure it out and adjust moving forward, but never recon.
I fudged rolls a lot at the beginning, because I wasn’t confident that my encounters were fair. As I’ve gotten more confident, I’ve felt better about sticking to the rolls I make. I still sometimes tweak health on the fly, but for dramatic/pacing purposes, not balance. I used to think that fudging rolls was totally fine, but a year in, I really do think that should be used as sparingly as possible.
CR Ratings are pretty awful, and you really do need to run a few scenarios in your head when you plan encounters. How rested up your characters are also has a HUGE affect on the outcome of a battle — if they have all their skills, a Deadly CR Rating drops down in difficulty significantly.
Music/Ambient tracks are THE move to up your game’s tension and immersion. If I have a single piece of advice besides “use Point Crawls”, it’s “use music!”
Keep track of the time of day somewhere in your notes. I ALWAYS forget, between sessions, what time of day it was.
Limit your players’ ability to take Long Rests. Once I stopped letting them nuke every encounter and forced them to conserve resources, battle became so much more fun for all of us.
Consider giving your classes who only refresh on long rests some sort of homebrew consumable item that lets them refresh something on a short rest. My cleric has a “votive candle” with X charges that allows him to restore his spell slots on a short rest by using his Hit Dice, for example.
Make long-distance travel at low levels an adventure in and of itself. Using Point Crawls, you can approach it very much like an outdoor dungeon. When they are a higher level and have the means to bypass travel on foot, it’ll feel so much more rewarding.
I originally was very generous with low-powered Magic Items, but I’ve reeled back a bit. Not because it’s unbalanced, but because they now have an inventory of quirky stuff so large that it’s impossible for them to use what they have effectively. Less is more?
Providing Ability/Spell cards for your players can be a huge help if they are also new to the game. We started using cards for items as well, which gives them a physical reminder that they have those items. So often, they were forgetting stuff when it was just scribbled down on a line in an inventory sheet.
"Quantum Ogre" game design can be helpful for saving time, and perfectly valid, but make sure that it makes sense. A player would probably expect that a "high climb up and over a mountain" has more environment hazards than combat encounters, while a "shortcut through the mountain" would be shorter but filled with more dangerous foes. If you put the ogre wherever they end up going, (even if you re-flavor it), that will subvert expectations in a not good way.
Enforcing RAW action economy for drawing/sheathing weapons, IMO, helps with combat depth. So do a lot of the other forgettable mechanics, like auto-critting on incapacitated players, stabilization requiring a Medicine DC check, and cover rules.
I used to think encounters should ONLY be used to push forward the narrative, and that random encounters were an absolute waste of time. Well, I've changed my mind a bit. A random encounter CAN help the narrative, by importing to the players that an area is dangerous and inhabited by many different creatures. Even a minor encounter can help build the world in some small way. Furthermore, it will help to widdle down the players so that they aren't 100% Nuking Machines when the important encounters come.
I hope this wasn't overly presumptuous! I know I'm still a beginner in a sea of pros with decades under their belt, but I hope this can help someone just starting out! Thanks for reading!
- How can you run a dungeon crawl so the pacing is good?
- DMs, you are not beholden to anything in your notes
- In order of importance, how do you rank the different building blocks of what makes a good D&D session?
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