In the minutes after this article is published, I will be gathering together my gaming supplies, kept semi-organised in a 27-litre tub. I will pack it away in my car, slightly saddened that with so much to bring, the motorbike is not an option, and drive to my friend’s house for Friday night D&D. Typically on Fridays, I’m a player and not the DM, but the night of this publishing, I will be the one behind the screen for a one shot.
This isn’t my first one-shot and it certainly won’t be my last. In the planning for this session, though, my very first one shot has been on my mind. It seemed to me a good opportunity to write the first of what I hope will become an ongoing series about my own experiences at the table- both as a player and a dungeon master.
Taking the Helm
My first time behind the DM screen was a one shot, held at the same house, with the same party. At the time I had been gathering players and making preparations for my own homebrew campaign to be run on Saturdays. To nobody’s surprise, I was feeling nervous about this. Excited, enthusiastic, ecstatic, yes. But also nervous, and with good reason. In addition to being a green dungeon master, this was also a large and inexperienced party. Seven players signed on, five of them new to fifth edition. This is where Friday night D&D comes in. The Friday Nights are a much smaller group, with four players and the dungeon master. Knowing that I was nervous about my new campaign, the Friday Nights asked if I wanted to run a one shot for them first. I eagerly accepted and started planning.
I decided to use this one shot as an opportunity to see my homebrew setting in action. I chose a city different from the one in which the Saturday Seven would begin their adventures and started planning. It took me a couple of days to finish, and in the typical fashion for someone both anxious and inexperienced, I somewhat over-prepared. Every possible path had been considered, every NPCs stats listed just in case. I had the relevant Monster Manual pages for each encounter printed out, with handwritten tables to keep track of their health, expended abilities and spell slots.
I won’t be going into the details of the session in this article, although that is definitely something I will do with some sessions in future table tales. Instead, given that this was my first venture into dungeon mastering, let me tell you about that side of the experience.
I arrived at my friend’s house early to set up my things. I had meticulously typed up my session notes, collated the monster pages for each encounter, lined up all the minis I would be needing behind the screen, and made myself a mug of coffee. The host, usually the Friday Night’s DM, on this night a player, offered words of support, knowing my anxiety had me on edge. One by one the other players arrived. As everyone introduced their characters, I handed out notes with some information and optional secret quests for each player and took some deep breaths.
I had written up a description of the setting to open the session. Regretfully, in my nerves, I ran through it a little faster than I ought to have. I was afraid to bore them or spend too much time speaking. From this I learned my first lesson as a dungeon master: take your time speaking. Your party doesn’t want you to rush, and if they’re respectful players, they’ll pay attention and enjoy the immersion it brings. It won’t be long before they are doing most of the talking while you listen, so allow yourself to set the scene with purpose and care.
I was painfully aware of the hesitation and shake in my voice for the first five minutes, but found that after the party began asking questions and talking to some NPCs, my confidence grew. One of the factors that make me an attentive player, my propensity to become completely immersed in a story, came through as a boon to me as a dungeon master as well. It was easy for me after a short period of time to become absorbed in DMing and player-NPCs interactions. From there I found myself hitting my stride, becoming less self-conscious and just enjoying watching the story unfold.
There were moments where no matter how thorough I had been, I couldn’t prepare for something. For example, I found myself having to calculate falling damage without any knowledge of the rules as written. In this instance, I learned my second lesson- this time not from what I could have done better, but what I did well. Rather than pawing through the book or googling the answer, I made a ruling in the moment. It’s great to know and follow the rules, but when the story is moving intensely, sometimes it’s more important to make a temporary decision and keep the story flowing. There will be time to look up the official rules later.
Towards the end of the session, I found that events were transpiring contrary to my expectations. It’s tradition, among the Friday Nights, that one-shots are deadly- no PC survives. I had planned to hold to this tradition, though of course, I didn’t want to railroad this ending. While unlikely, it was possible for them to survive. In all of my careful planning, one thing I hadn’t considered was what I would do if they did survive the quest. I had been so focused on the more likely ending that I entirely forgot the less likely path. Thus, when all bar one player survived the quest, I found myself improvising. Here was lesson three: improvisation isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds. This is especially true if your players are comfortable roleplaying. I was able to take advantage of this roleplay to buy time and come up with a satisfying ending on the fly.
So the session ended. The surviving PCs returned to their home city victorious and grandly rewarded, the players had a fantastic time, and I was left exhilarated and proud. Therein I found the final lesson of my first time running the game: no matter how nervous I started out, being a dungeon master is enormous fun, deeply rewarding, and a little addictive. When you step behind the DM screen, your job is yes, to plan and guide sessions, adapting to the direction your players take, but it is also to have fun. When the DM is enjoying the game, the players probably are too.
I must emphasise here how much I encourage you to try out dungeon mastering if you’ve ever considered doing so. I started my dungeon mastering life nervous and hyper-prepared. The night of this publishing I’ll be running a new one shot, and as I write this, I sit here filled with excitement and anticipation- no nerves in sight.