DM Tip #1: Mastering the Mentality, Part 1

There’s already a lot of content out there about being a Dungeon Master (DM), how to do it, and other tips and tricks. I’m especially fond of Matt Colville’s videos for how candid and generally informative they are. Hearing what other people do and their experiences is a great start, though seeing it all for yourself can feel like a world of its own.

I’m not going to reinvent the wheel here, but I will write about my experiences because I think it’s a good starting point for this blog. I intend to reflect on them as best I can, and maybe someone will find that useful. After all, without tabletop games, without D&D and running a campaign myself, I wouldn’t have grown into my current career path. I owe a lot to the hobby.

For now, I’ll start with what it took for me to begin DMing and what I needed to do to keep at it—developing that mindset for getting started. While I can give a gist of the campaigns I ran, I’ll avoid semantics and deep dives into the games I’ve played (for now). However, I will dump some lore about myself, with how I got into the game and what drove me to run my own.

“You wanna play D&D?”

In high school, I started playing Dungeons & Dragons with a group of friends. Our edition of choice was 3.5e. Around the same time, I got introduced to Pathfinder too. Back then, I couldn’t tell the difference, so I often interchanged the two when talking about tabletop games.

My first ever character was a half-elf Sorcerer. In combat, I understood the game well enough to cast only magic missile. The most notable thing he did was accidentally bandage a bush (the type that Homer Simpson would meld into for obscurity) while trying to help an ally.

My novice Sorcerer died after he fell unconscious and was presumably coup-de-grace’d by a hostile druid.

Why was my Sorcerer unconscious? Well, the party’s kleptomaniac Cleric triggered a clearly trapped chest that released said sleeping gas, and I failed the save with a horrid roll.

Why was the druid hostile? Because our party trespassed in his cave, and we immediately initiated combat.

Our party TPK’d to that druid encounter, and my first campaign ended almost as quickly as it began. I got salty at the time, but now, I can look fondly back at it thinking, “Of course that’s how I’d start the game.”

Icarus

About a year after I started playing D&D, I took upon myself the mantle of DM. Not only that, I decided to DM two different campaigns within the same time frame, alternating days that I ran each one on. How naïve I was.

I don’t know how to feel about it now. Nor do I fully understand why I wanted to be so ambitious.

I thought I would be brilliant by creating an interwoven story between these two groups, who were both parts of the same D&D club. We’d meet on different days, so for a few months, I was running a game twice each week. I managed to get the campaigns to accumulate to this massive, 8+ person session. That was a mistake. Not for the notion, but for the fact I tried it while being so inexperienced.

In hindsight, it honestly didn’t go well. However, not everything about those first two campaigns was terrible. It was certainly a start, but I learned my lesson about trying to do too much at one time. While it took me years to consider it, I would build up my future DMing from what I did then—mainly in what I shouldn’t do.

There I Went Again

It took a few more years for me to step back in the DM chair. By this point, I had become an avid 5th edition player and got to play in a few regular groups over that period. When I had a few completed campaigns (as a player) under my belt, I felt I was ready to give DMing another shot.

I wanted to run a short adventure that I’d written. I had brewed up my own fantasy setting that kinda grew out of the Forgotten Realms. The adventure ended up being a mini-campaign of itself as I added more content along the way. Mistake number one there since no one was really ready for that commitment, but I wanted to ride it out.

Without getting too further into the details, we managed to run the mini-campaign to completion. It was a rollercoaster of a time that had more dips than peaks.

I pretty much fell back into the same bad habits from my first run that I didn’t want to repeat. To kinda offset that, I felt better about my ability to hold a narrative, to create certain character types, and to build up my world. There were things I tried that went well, and many others that didn’t. But this time, I was more conscious of what I did, and I really, really hoped I’d learned.

Third—Fourth Time’s the Charm?

Another year or so passed by. I graduated from college, and finally, I decided to go all-in for a campaign. I certainly had the time because of my degree and the job market (no, I’m not crying).

Anyways, I fleshed out the worldbuilding from my pervious mini-campaign. I had stepped away from pre-made settings barring facets that were baked directly in D&D 5e’s mechanics. I developed a repertoire of NPCs. And once more, I had a grandiose notion for the overall story. I felt ready. Again.

Keeping At It

Fast forward to about three years. The campaign I started right after college continues. The PCs are about level 14 now, and even at this point, I foresee it lasting at least another one or two more years, players willing. The three-ish years have been far from perfect: conflicts on both sides of the table, rotating out players for one circumstance or another, and a lot of rescheduling—among other issues that cropped up.

Recently, most of the sessions have become at least 60% or so of just roleplaying. It’s honestly fantastic. My players seem fine with it so long as the story keeps moving along, though I’ve grown more laid back in my pacing. However, the group also take it upon themselves to, as the old saying goes, “shoot the shit” in character. When there’s combat, they brace themselves for something that’ll push their characters—and, at times, their patience.

From my perspective, it all seems to work. It’s not perfect, and my players have become comfortable enough to tell me when something really didn’t jive with them. Still, it’s the best I’ve ever gotten at running a game, and that feels great.

The players come to the sessions (usually promptly). They participate in interacting with each other and with the world. They engage during play. And, I’m fine just taking my time with the game to see them have fun.

Takeaways

I try to find time to reflect on these past games (even when I’m not writing). I also think back to sessions maybe a day or two after I run them. The bit of time helps clear my head so that I see things more objectively. Not perfectly objective, but functionally enough. Shifting my mentality helps in my understanding.

How I am as a player tends to translate to how I am as a DM: a stickler for the rules and comprehensive, but willing to try new things within reason.

I improve by understanding what went well, what went poorly, and why that was so. I feel I’ve become a better DM as an accumulation of the many ups and downs I’ve seen while playing in and running a game. Moreover, I’m where I am now because of the experience I got from participating in some varied groups.

It took a lot of work and time to realize that reflection and introspection are just as vital to improving as a DM as it is in other facets of life. It’s a sign of progress that I could analyze my flaws and better myself through that understanding. When I knew what I had to do, I could make the changes that I needed to improve my game.

Next post, I’ll discuss the aspects that build up my mindset for DMing.


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