by Mike Shea on 26 December 2017
The following is a letter I gave to a co-worker's son who just began his, hopefully long, career as a Dungeons & Dragons dungeon master. I thought it might be useful for the rest of us as well. His name has been omitted for privacy.
It's always a great pleasure to hear about a new dungeon master coming into the hobby of Dungeons & Dragons. It's hard for us old timers to remember what it's like to play the game for the first time. Regardless of how long we've been running D&D games, it's always a bit scary. The joy of running a great game with our friends, however, always makes up for it.
There are few greater joys in life than spending time with our friends and making up stories. Its easy to focus on all of the rules of D&D, but the rules are just the framework for the stories we get to experience with our friends. It's the stories we'll remember.
No one person knows best how to run a D&D game. Each of us has to learn our own way. We can, however, share in the experiences of thousands of other dungeon masters out there in the world; something I spend a considerable time doing. If you will forgive the arrogance, I'll offer a few experiences often shared among these thousands of dungeon masters who, just like you and I, are all figuring out how to run these games.
Keep it simple. We're always eager to run huge epic stories that expand in our minds like vast oceans. When we're running the game, however, we're best off focusing on the here-and-now. What matters to the characters right now? What do their immediate surroundings look like? What immediate threats do they face? That's where we might best focus our attention as DMs.
Focus on the characters. We might have grand ideas for our world but the players love their characters and so should we. Let the world test those characters and give those characters plenty of ways to shine in the world. They are the heroes of the story.
Don't sweat the details. Don't worry about knowing all the rules. Few do. The rules, frankly, aren't not that important. Learn the basics, make judgment calls during the game, ask the players to help you out, admit mistakes, laugh about it, and keep playing.
Prepare to improvise. The best scenes in D&D happen spontaneously. They surprise even us DMs when we're running them. Spend time preparing the tools that will help you improvise the game as it happens. Read the Monster Manual, not just the statistics but the stories of the monsters. Print a list of random names and keep it on hand for improvising NPCs. Write things down as they happen in the game and go back to this list for ideas. When in doubt, ask the players to describe the details of the world they see. It doesn't always have to be you making things up.
Relax and have fun. There are few times in our lives where we can let our imaginations run wild while having fun with our friends. Getting together with friends to play games happens too rarely in our lives. Relax, laugh, have fun, don't take anything too seriously, and enjoy the game.
Thank you again for joining this hobby of ours and may your dice always roll 20s.