Chester if you're reading this I love ya buddy – just reflecting on what happened.
This weekend was my friends first time at DM'ing. We agreed that we would play a pre-written one-shot; a baptism of fire for him to try it out for the first time.
It started promisingly enough, but then we spent two hours trying to find anything to do in this backwater town. We went to the inn, the store, the water mill, the town square, a giant rock and a church and all of our investigations resulted in nothing. We decided to sleep in the inn whereupon four level 5 characters were beset by a rabble of commoners with clubs for no discernible reason.
I must admit that the experience challenged my patience but I subsequently remembered just how hard it is to DM for the first time, and there were some pitfalls that he had fallen into that even two experienced players, who were both DM's (me 2 years, my friend many more), couldn't avoid. So I wanted to leave that advice here:
Have a clear purpose and make it clear.
Make what possible objectives there are clear – unless someone is intentionally holding information back don't be afraid to have some informative NPCs about. We started out so well as well – the wheel of our caravan broke, there was a small town in disrepair nearby so we went to go get a wheel. Our investigations started out following that and could have led to some hijinks but it was, surprisingly, summarily finished after being told "wait a day." So we presumed there must be something in this town to find, right? But after that our conversations with NPCs ran dry and our searches fruitless and revealing nothing. We learnt information about the town, sure, but each time we went somewhere there was nothing to do and not a whiff of adventure to be had. Make the possible objectives clear if you've got players making inquiries because they won't know what there is to do without you telling them! Throw all of the options at them and let them make up their mind as to where to go – just make sure there aren't wrong choices in that "go here and nothing happens, turn around and try again." otherwise yeah, they're going to spend 10 minutes ritual casting identify on a giant rock because that's all they've got to go on.
Don't block off the story!
Being able to engage with the story shouldn't be contingent on a dice roll: they should be used to determine how successful you are in your attempts to succeed. This was the big one for us. We went to this church that was in a state of disrepair as we heard that some kids had snuck into the building. When we got there, however, there was a shiny chain over the door. We walked around it and saw no windows that were broken nor ways into the church that a kid could access. The birdman flew above it and saw nothing too. Can't go under, over or around so to try going through we turned our attention to the door/chain. Birdman monk attacked the door and it held strong. Minotaur artificer used his thieves tools to undo the lock on the chain but it held fast. Monk attacked it again and still nothing. We concluded that we simply weren't supposed to go to the church yet and walked away. The NPC returned to us and we said he must have been mistaken: if a birdman monk and a minotaur cannot break into that church then a bunch of kids can't have either. We suspected the NPC of telling porkies (or locking children inside the church himself) and that became our focus.
Turns out that actually we were supposed to go into the church, but we failed our rolls because the module didn't specify a different way in (making the 17 in investigation a waste) and three actions on the door were not enough. The point is that the story he wanted us to engage with was behind those doors and completely inaccessible. If the story necessitates being in a place? Let them into the place. Let them in without rolling or don't let a low roll = failure. Perhaps that 9 dex check on the thieves tools resulted in snapping the majority of my lock picks, including my favourite one. Maybe the pliers were damaged when breaking the lock off of the chain. Don't stop the players from engaging with the story.
Reward ingenuity, even if you didn't plan for it!
My friend felt duty-bound for things to happen the way that he had planned. Your players? They don't know your plan. They only have their preconceptions coming into the game, their characters wherewithal and the information you, as the DM, give them. As long as their proposed plan isn't batshit insane (as in it would never work insane)? Reward the effort. Not everything should end in success, but don't be so afraid to go off-script that the story grinds to a halt. If it's plausible, it's possible.
Too much choice is difficult to handle at first. Start out smaller.
I think my friend struggled with having a whole town open to us at first. There were too many angles for him to keep an eye out on. Other than the grumpy inn-keeper everyone we spoke to were a bit generic. If you're not feeling confident with starting out in an open-world setting then make the world a bit smaller at first. Start the campaign out on a mission, already proceeding with a task. Railroading is when the DM drags reluctant players kicking and screaming in the direction they want the players to head into: there's nothing wrong with giving them tasks to do. And if you give them a task and they finish it make sure there's options for them to follow up on.
I'll give credit where it was due: the campaign started off in a caravan. We got to talk to each other, meet two NPCs who we thought were important to the story, get some camaraderie going, it was a good start! Had he, for example, had one of those NPCs go missing? We wouldn't have given up until he was found. More isn't always better – focus and then develop what your players take interest in. A difficult skill, for sure, but if you're worried about making a world for them to engage with? Then focus on making what you have more interesting, rather than providing a world of grey.
Research your module.
Preparing makes ad libing easier because you're confident enough with the destination that you can be flexible with the journey there. Most NPC characters need two adjectives worth of description and that's all. If you're using a pre-written module make sure you've read it, know who could be engaged with at each place, give them names and know what you need to describe and who you need to describe. If the place is creepy know how you'll describe that. If the place is buzzing with energy describe how it is. Unless you're some kind of savant it'll be difficult for most people to create a coherent, canonical universe off-cuff without a lot of experience. Until you're there? Make sure you prepare. Some DM's will tell you that they don't prepare at all. I'm going to go out on a limb that either use "the rule of cool" a lot or have had years of experience to facilitate that. Until you've got that competence? Make sure you plan and prepare thoroughly.
I hope some of these rantings helps a new DM out there. I'll finish off with a question: if you're a new DM what kind of feedback would you want to hear?
Edit: Typo then the formatting went weird X2
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