A New DM's Guide to Keeping Things Simple

by Mike Shea on 7 February 2011

I recently received a note from a reader what a likely common delemma for new DMs. Today we'll look at his note and discuss potential solutions for simplifying his game and getting things on track for some fun D&D gaming.

Here is the note:

"So I have everything I need to start a D&D campaign: books, a group of friends, a place to play, a wet-erase mat for the board, etc. The problem is, I'm the one who knows the most about D&D, and it's all still pretty overwhelming at this point. I've tried putting together a game once before using Keep on the Shadowfell and it was a disaster. My players were apathetic and largely uninterested, and I felt like I couldn't keep up with the game to the point where I could make it entertaining. One of my friends has volunteered to help me by being a co-DM this time around. He's creative, but he knows even less than I do about the game. Currently, Keep on the Shadowfell is the only published campaign that we have, so we were thinking about creating a new world, new campaign, etc." "Anyways, I'll get to the point before I start to ramble: how can I make this less overwhelming? it seems like I have to know and remember two books (DM and player's guides) off the top of my head, and on top of that, create an interesting world and make it seem alive to my players by improvising as they play. I already know that I should take notes on the world, the towns, the characters, etc, before we start, but even then it's difficult to consult notes mid-game because the players get bored and just want to get on with it! Any advice you could give would be appreciated."

D&D 4th Edition is a very rules-heavy RPG system. There's a lot of things going on, a lot of moving parts, and a wide world of possibilities for the story. Sometimes this can be very overwhelming. Below we'll talk about a few ways to get things back and under control so a new DM can run a great game.

Shrink the story

Shrink the whole story down to just what you need to run your very next game. Don't flesh out a whole world and fill out a ton of detail. Focus down to what you need to run your very next adventure. Unlike a lot of people, I don't have a problem railroading if it keeps the game exciting. Some groups can be paralyzed with options and would prefer to just go to the next step.

So think up the seed to a small story; just a single thing the group needs to accomplish in that evening. Will the party investigate Kobold attacks? Will they track down a corrupt priest's dark rituals? Will they recover an old artifact from an ancient tomb? Will they talk to the forest spirit that lives under a twisted tree?

Pick a nice single objective for them. Then build three encounters around that objective. Talking to the forest spirit might have the following encounters:

  1. Fight the marauders twisted by the tree's dark calling.
  2. Fight a series of slimes and oozes within the base of the dark tree.
  3. Defeat the forest spirit and her briarthorn guardians.

Between the encounters and the transitions you should have five to seven scenes.

Though this is a linear adventure outline, you can put choices in and make them clear to the party at certain points. Does the group choose to kill or just disable the marauders possessed by the spirit's dark influence? Do they become allies or enemies with the surviving marauders? When they defeat the spirit, do they attempt to remove the corruption, kill the spirit, or leave it in its current state?

These choices will make the game feel less linear even if the rest of the outline is straight.

On published adventures

Generally speaking, your own home-built three encounter adventure will run better than a published module like Keep on the Shadowfell. The most success I've had with published adventures is when I make them my own. I'll cut out encounters I don't like. I'll string together threads and stories within the adventure that I like. I'll move things around and make them what I want. The adventure authors actually recommend this and things go a lot better when you've made it your own.

On knowing the rules

When it comes to handling the rules at the table, there are a few things you can do to make things run a little smoother.

First, pick up a copy of either the Dungeon Master's Kit or the Rules Compendium and keep the books handy. Assign one of the players as your official rules-lawyer. Make sure you pick someone who can objectively look at a situation and pick an answer your group will accept.

Second, when you don't know a rule, make a ruling on it and move on. This is a big part of DMing. Don't get too caught up in making sure you're playing it "right". Just choose a path and keep going. When in doubt, err on the side of the player. If you find yourself continually saying "no" to the players, they'll get frustrated. Make sure they aren't gaming the system this way, but if you think it sounds reasonable, give it to the players. Don't try to force mechanics just to keep the encounter running the way you want. Sometimes they should be able to short-circuit something in the name of fun.

Know your audience and my two favorite tips for speeding up combat

When it comes to running the game, always be watching your players to see if they're getting bored or frustrated. Try to keep the pace and the action moving forward. Keep battles running as quickly as you can. My two favorite tips for keeping a battle moving along is to use initiative cards that are visible to all players and to use monster knowledge cards to reveal monster defenses to your players. These two things can dramatically speed up combat during a game and take a fair bit of pressure off of you when you're running it.

Keeping it simple

Above all, you'll want to keep things as simple as you can for yourself. Maybe three battles is too many and you want to just focus on one. Maybe the story in your head isn't being absorbed by your group. There are a bunch of ways to cut things down and make the game easier for both you and your players. Find the core that makes things fun for your group and stick to that.

Good luck!

If you found this advice useful, check out Sly Flourish's Dungeon Master Tips. You might also consider picking up the Dungeon Master's Kit, the Rules Compendium, the Dungeon Master's Guide 2, or use this link to purchase anything from Amazon. If you're looking for good maps, check out the selection of Gamemastery Flip Maps at Troll and Toad, an official Sly Flourish sponsor.

Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.