Those who have been following my blog for a while will have noticed how much Dungeons & Dragons has become a part of my life in the past few years. In that time, I’ve been part of about fourteen different games, and I’m currently involved in five active games. During this time, I’ve been both a player and a Dungeon Master, but what has captured my attention today is the rise of new DMs and how they follow roughly the same growth pattern that I went through.
Most people starting out as a Dungeon Master (though not all) have played the game before, so they have a pretty good idea of how it works on the players’ side of the table. They know that it’s a challenge to switch to being behind the DM’s screen, where they essentially have to create and control an entire world – much like a writer does, only a writer doesn’t need to account for the craziness that players come up with.
The first game the new DM runs isn’t bad (with a good group of players, it’s very hard to have bad D&D), but it isn’t quite where they want it to be. Often the plotline railroads the players – that is to say, there’s pretty much only one way for the players to go, and one way for them to solve problems. This isn’t ideal in a game that revolves around the decisions made by players, but it’s also extremely understandable – because allowing players complete freedom takes a lot of thinking on your feet, and that takes practice.
That first game usually falls apart within the first few sessions, but the new DM doesn’t give up. They learned a lot in those games, few though they were. The next game they run is significantly better. They’ve learned to prepare for players doing crazy things, and so they adapt their new game for that. This game goes much better, but it still isn’t perfect. The rails are still there, and still noticeable, and the DM runs into two similar problems: the players don’t catch on to what they were certain was obvious, so they need to improvise huge hints; and the players respond to things in ways previously unanticipated. Once again, the game usually falls apart at this point – but the DM has learned even more.
Now comes the time for over-preparedness. The new DM has realized that players are wild and uncontrollable, and so the solution is to have a plan for everything. A massive world begins getting built, populated with interesting people and things. Histories and mythologies are created, as well as multiple dungeons and ways to attract the players to them. It becomes overwhelming, and at some point the DM realizes that if they keep this up, they’ll never get to play again – and so they take a leap of faith and start the game with what they’ve prepared.
This time, the game goes very differently. Instead of the players going in crazy directions and forcing the DM to improvise, they seem to stick to the plot and avoid 90% of the content the DM has painstakingly created. This isn’t out of malice – this is simply because the DM has improved enough that the players feel that they are on the most natural course. The game lasts longer, and now the DM learns and perfects the rest of their skills. Their world is more in-depth, so they find improvising easier when it’s necessary. They get more of a feel for how to run and balance the game. They learn how to anticipate what their players are going to do, and to plan accordingly – but also how to have backup plans for when the players surprise them.
Finally, DMing begins to come naturally, and less preparation is needed for each game. A lot of work still goes into running the game, but it becomes easier and more natural – as does coming up with things on the fly when the player throws a curveball at them.
This isn’t a precise formula, as different people improve at different speeds. Some people manage to hold together that first game, improving as they go, while others have a few more false starts. However, by and large, this is the basic pattern of learning and growth I’ve observed in multiple new Dungeon Masters, and I find it to be fascinating – because running Dungeons & Dragons isn’t a skill you can learn everything about by being taught, or reading a book. It’s a form of art that you can only learn by doing.
Check out my YouTube channel where I tell the stories of my D&D campaigns.
Click here to find the charity anthology containing a couple of my short stories.