Teaching someone to be a Dungeon Master is one of the most valuable things you can do to support the hobby.
A new DM will be able to help you out at the table. They will be able to jump in when you need a week off. They will commiserate with you when the players do some unexpected shenanigans.
Most importantly, they will go on to run games for other players and carry on the tradition of showing people how to roleplay.
These five tips will help you get new DMs started.
Tip 1: Plant the seeds by inviting a player
So many people don’t become DMs because they have the wrong story in their head. They wrongfully believe that DMing is some sort of arcane secret. They think that a successful DM needs to know every single rule in the book, or needs to be a professional voice actor. They have convinced themselves that DMing is too hard, and that they aren’t up to the task. You can change the story by inviting them behind the screen.
When you reach out to a player and say “Hey, I think you would make a good Dungeon Master. Do you want to try it out?” you give them your vote of confidence. You plant a seed. An idea they might have dismissed too soon is now at the top of their mind. You’d be surprised how many players are right on the edge. All they need is an invitation.
Inviting a player also prevents you from stopping yourself from teaching someone. You might think that no one else wants to try DMing. But you won’t know until you ask.
Tip 2: Keep it small and simple
Epic story arcs. Year-long campaigns filled with courtly intrigue. Fantastic worlds detailed in thousands of notes. These big things are fun but overwhelming. Luckily, the first-time DM needs none of them. The first-time DM should start small.
Direct their attention away from the big stuff and help them see the small first steps. Suggest that they run a one-shot and avoid homebrewing for now. Show them the basic rules and point out all the chapters they can ignore.
When I wrote The Quickstart Guide to Game Mastering, I trimmed out all the unnecessary rules, tools, and prep for a first-time DM. After doing that, I found that someone could be ready to DM in a couple hours at most.
Tip 3: Be a helpful player at their first game
It’s important to remind new DMs that they are not the players adversary. Everyone wants to create a fun experience at the table. The new DM does not need to take on every burden and silo themselves in an attempt to deliver a performance. Asking for a bit of help while running the game is completely fine!
The game will run smoother if they have an experienced DM like you that they can turn to when clarifying a rule or making a call. Make sure you leave them space to struggle, and jump in only when really needed. If they took your advice, and kept things small and simple, they will likely not need help at all. Knowing that help is available will help them relax – even if they don’t need it.
Tip 4: Don’t let them delay the game
Encourage up and coming DMs to schedule their first game in the near future. Agreeing to run a game “sometime later” or “when they are ready” is a recipe for disaster. They only way to learn is to actually do it and delays will cause nothing but trouble.
Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands to fill the time available” and this absolutely the case with DMing. If a new DM has as long as they want to prepare for their first game, they will fill all that time with pointless work. This can be a big problem.
The DM will continue preparing all sorts of ideas, plot points, and encounters for this hypothetical game. When the game happens, they will feel compelled to force players to encounter all their ideas. This rigidity will frustrate the players who will go off track anyway. The DM will leave feeling like they did something wrong because the players didn’t see all their content. In addition to all that, the new DM will experience growing anxiety as they anticipate the game for weeks or months.
Far better to book it soon, and just do it.
Tip 5: Run them through practice scenarios
This can be fun for both new DMs and experienced DMs. You can offer to run ‘practice scenarios’ between the two of you. You don’t even need equipment. You can simply chat scenarios and then see how a DM might rule in each situation.
For example, you might say:
“The party arrives in a small town and they can’t agree on where to go first. The fighter and the rogue decide to go to the tavern, but the cleric wants to visit the temple and meet the local priest. How would you resolve this?”
Discussing that common scenario will provide a fun mental exercise for the up and coming DM. You can then compare notes on how you would have handled it.
Check out these 3 scenarios for more examples of how to encourage player ideas.
The tabletop tradition: Learn by doing
Tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons have a long tradition of “learning by doing”. Explaining what a roleplaying game is is surprisingly difficult. People simply need to jump in and try it before they “get it”. As a result, many people learn how to play by having an experienced player show them how.
The same thing applies to Dungeon Masters. The best way to teach someone how to DM is to convince them to just try it. If you are a DM, there is a good chance at least one of your players is ready to take the leap. They are just waiting for someone like you to give them a little encouragement and say “You can do this. I’ll show you how.”
Adam is the founder of Sword & Source, a company that creates tools and training for Game Masters. His most recent project is The Quickstart Guide to Game Mastering, a free guide and adventure that helps players run their first D&D game.
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