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Letters to New and Veteran Dungeon Masters

by Mike on 15 July 2019

We're in an amazing time for our hobby. The number of people playing D&D appears to be roughly doubling every two years. That's a lot of new Dungeons & Dragons dungeon masters coming into the hobby every day.

Many of us have also been playing D&D for decades. We've played four or five versions of the game over the years and bring these decades of experience to the games we run.

This mix of new and veteran dungeon masters can bring an incredible wealth of shared experiences from both new DMs and veterans alike.

If we let it.

In today's article, I offer two letters; one to new dungeon masters and one to veteran dungeon masters. My goal is to help bridge the years between new and old DMs so we can equally share our experiences and all learn from one another without the years becoming barriers between us.

A Letter to New Dungeon Masters

Welcome to one of the most amazing hobbies in existence. Dungeons & Dragons brings friends together to share amazing stories that rival anything we've read in books or seen on a screen. With the mixture of creative ideas from ourselves, our players, and the randomness of the dice, we will watch stories unfold that will stay with us the rest of our lives. We're going to build worlds together.

This hobby can also be intimidating. We have to get past our inhibitions and become kids again. We have to be willing to play make-believe again. We have to be willing to make mistakes. We have to get past the fear that we'll look stupid in front of our friends. The smarter we get, the richer our imaginary worlds become, if we're willing to let go of the barriers our society has placed on us in their attempt to get us to "grow up".

We don't have to be afraid. Millions of people of all ages now enjoy Dungeons & Dragons. Groups like the team at Critical Role show us that adults playing make-believe is as fun to watch as it is to play.

It can also be intimidating when new players talk to people who have played D&D for decades. A lot of veterans in this hobby love to tell new players how long they've been playing. These stories might scare new dungeon masters, making them believe it takes decades before they'll be good at this game. Most of the time these veterans just love to have new people to share their old war-stories with. They love to talk about things like THAC0 and how hard Tomb of Horrors was back in '78. It’s been a while since anyone cares to hear these stories so they're always looking for an ear.

A few veterans, however, use their experience as a way to try to prop themselves up above new DMs. They're intimidated by all of the new people coming into the hobby. They're afraid it will change their game in ways they don't like. They fear their voice doesn't hold as much weight as it used to. They may use their years of experience as a goal post new DMs need to meet—one they can't meet since it's entirely based on longevity.

Here's a secret. Those years of experience tell you nothing about how good a dungeon master they are. Those years of experience might even bind these experienced dungeon masters into old styles best left to decades past. Some experienced DMs have closed their minds to new ways of thinking about their game. They don't just ignore Critical Role, they actively speak against it. "That's not D&D" they'll say because it isn't the kind of D&D they're used to seeing and playing. They're shutting themselves off from the growth of the game.

In this hobby, years of experience is no indicator of skill. You can be a great dungeon master in just a few months. We've never had better resources to become great DMs than we do right now. We can learn the basics, watch people play, ask questions, share our experiences, gather tools, and find people to play with all online. The hobby has never been easier to get into and easier to get better at than it is right now.

You can be a great DM with just a dozen or so games under your belt. After about fifty games, you could be as good as any DM out there if you continually learn along the way.

This path, of course, isn't the same for everyone. You'll have to find which tips and tricks help you the most yourself. If you're looking to begin, you might start here.

You don't need years of experience to run great D&D games. Keep your eyes open. Continually learn. Share your experiences. Pay attention to the experiences of others. Do these things and you're well on your way to being a great dungeon master.

You can do it.

A Letter to Veteran Dungeon Masters

D&D is changing. You and I have some decisions to make as the number of people in this hobby continues to grow. We can resent this growth or we can embrace it. I doubt many of us actively resent it but that doesn't mean we're not resenting it subconsciously. We have to push this resentment away and remember that every new DM entering this hobby makes the whole hobby better. Every new DM gives us new experiences we can learn from ourselves.

This means welcoming new people into the hobby. It means teaching them the ropes and making it as easy as possible for them to see what this game has to offer. Put yourself in their shoes and teach them the things that will help them. They don't care about how hard multiclassing was back in 1st edition; they need to figure out what they need to run a game now.

We can start by making it as easy as possible to bring new people into the hobby without using our years of experience as a barrier. Don't start a conversation by mentioning how long you've played D&D. Ask them about their own experiences. Listen to them before you talk. If they ask how long you've played, just say "a while". Don't push them away by digging a canyon of decades between you.

Here's something even more important. You have as much to learn right now as you did years ago. New dungeon masters are coming from all sorts of places with all sorts of backgrounds and their own experiences. They'll have all sorts of new ideas we can learn from.

We can learn as much from new dungeon masters as they can learn from us.

Keep your mouth shut and watch them, whether it's in online discussions, in video, or in real life. Watch them, listen to them, and learn from them. See what they bring to the table.

The growth of our hobby is as useful to us veterans as it is to new DMs. We can watch more DMs running games now than ever before. We can learn from more systems, sources, and adventures than ever before. We have many wonderful avenues to share our experiences and learn from other DMs however long they've been playing.

We might think, with our decades of experience, that there is nothing new under the sun. We would be wrong. We can learn as much about how to run great games now as any new DM. Embrace the philosophy to always be learning and let your style improve as it never has before.

You might be perfectly happy playing the way you've been playing over the years. Your group might be happy too. If that's the case, go with the gods. There's no obligation to change the way you play. Don't assume your way is the right way, though. There are many ways to enjoy this game.

Even small tweaks can bring more joy to the games we run. Continuously running small experiments keeps our game fresh over the years. If you feel yourself resistant to change, take a step back to ask yourself why. What holds you back? You don't have to make huge leaps. Small experiments can go a long way.

Learn From One Another

Whether you have six months experience running D&D games or thirty years, we can all learn from one another. This hobby, more than ever, is filled with ways for us to share our experiences. We have more access to more material than we could ever digest. Run some games, watch some games, pick up some tips, listen to other DMs however long they've been playing, and run small experiments to make your game the best game it can be.

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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