Leveling Up: The Invaluable Benefits of DM Practice and Preparation
Whenever you play a character, whether in AL, a homebrew campaign, or a store-run event, as your character grows and improves, your skill and knowledge as a player grows along with it. The same thing applies to being a Dungeon Master.
Though the role of a DM is challenging, it can also be the most rewarding once you learn the ins and outs, and can eventually become even more fun than being a player. As you run games, you’ll notice that each one will run differently, especially with different groups of players. The following are simple suggestions and tools you can use to “Level Up” yourself alongside your Adventurers League DM sheet.
Read the Adventure. Oh yeah, by the way… READ the adventure.
Every AL adventure has plenty of suggestions for the DM. Almost each one has reading through the module as the first and foremost suggestion. D&D is a game driven mostly by imagination. The story and setting of each adventure are just as useful and important as the rules that drive them.
Knowing in advance what you are presenting to your players and why not only makes things easier on you, it creates a smooth, fun, engaging environment that gives your players the feeling that they belong where they are, and what they do actually matters. This can be accomplished by a list of simple tasks. Please use, adjust, or borrow out of this list however you like in accordance with your play style.
Review. Official D&D adventures are written in a format that highlights important aspects of the story and complex details you need to know in advance. Make sure you go over these in order to understand the flow of events. I like to go through all of the boxed sidebar entries, then check to see what parts of the adventure they are referring to.
Examine. Once you know what you’re looking at, take a look at how you plan on running these scenarios. Look at the three tiers of play and make your best judgment on how long a combat may take with three players as opposed to seven, or the effects on the number of skill checks required, or areas where players may need help or coaxing when planning something out.
Adjust. When you have a better grasp of the scenario, plan ahead on items you may need to adjust. If you already know your number of players, pre-adjust the combat scenarios. Take a look at the NPCs and how to best utilize them. Look at roleplay interactions and try to best anticipate where RP may get heavy or complicated.
Direct. Now armed with your adventure pre-prep, you know how to create a vivid scenario for your players while always keeping the end-goal in mind. Make sure your players are free to decide, but are fully aware of the task at hand. Remind them and keep them informed if necessary. That is the major difference between directing a scenario and “railroading” your players through one.
Take Ownership of Your Game
As a Dungeon Master, when the players sit down to play, they are playing at your table. These players are relying on you to present them with a fun, immersive, entertaining game session. The adventure is designed to give you those tools, but it is up to you to make best use of them.
Good adventures are written to provide a full experience within a limited amount of time, as well as guidelines to presenting them. It is not, however, the adventure’s job to give you every single possible scenario that can arise, as such a thing is impossible. That is why your role as the DM is vital. If you navigate the adventure and plan ahead, the scenario is now yours. You know how you run your games.
If you see where something might generate some confusion, make a plan for it. If you feel there needs to be some additional information or something on a map that may help the players along, feel free to add it so long as it does not change the scenario itself. If you think something might derail the scenario with the types of players you have, then it might be best to simply remove it and still reward the XP.
Sometimes it even helps to simply be honest with your players and tell them how you like to run your game or ask how they like to play to keep things consistent. Remember that everyone at the table is playing the same game with you, not for you or them.
Once you get the hang of this, players will recognize your expertise at handling these scenarios and will be more than excited to sit at your table again, knowing that they’re bound to have a great time.
The Final Step is Acceptance
The one, single truth about running adventures is that each one will run differently at different times with different players and different DMs. In fact, the ability for the same scenario to be run differently each time is what makes games like D&D unique. Once you accept this, you have already taken your first step toward adjusting for the things that you can control when running your game, regardless of which pre-written adventure you happen to be running that day.
D&D, in essence, has always been about worlds of wonder, amazing stories, and interesting encounters. Treat these as the most important aspects, and you may find it easier to absorb any given adventure and present it to a group of players in a way that only you can describe.
Now, if this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it usually is. No one masters DMing overnight, and the best DMs already know that no one ever really “masters” it. But I promise you, with a little time, practice, and preparation, it becomes so much easier sooner than you’d think, and the game becomes just as fun no matter which side of the screen you play on.