Last Updated: April 17, 2022
In this episode of the RPGBOT.Podcast, we talk about your first time DMing. We talk rulebooks, dice, what you need to know, what you don’t, and how to successfully run your first game session. We also suggest helpful tools that will help you succeed like easy (and often free) pre-written adventures.
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Materials Referenced in this Episode
- RPGBOT.Podcast Episodes
- Dungeons and Dragons 5e
- Pathfinder 2e
- Other Stuff
Welcome to the RPGBOT.Podcast. I’m Randall James. And… does anyone know the rules for drowning?
With me is Tyler Kamstra.
And Random Powell.
All right, Tyler, what’s going on?
We’re drowning today. No today. Today, we’re going to talk about DMing or GMing your first game. So chances are a lot of people out there listening to the podcast may have already done this before. But even if you have, I’d like you to stick around because we’re also going to offer some advice about how to support a first time DM. If you have not deemed or jammed your first time and want to, or if you know someone who’s going to this is going to be really helpful episode for you because we’ve got a lot of nice things to say.
Some of them are useful.
Yeah. And, you know, in case that you do plan to show this episode to someone who has never heard anything from us before, who maybe doesn’t even have the context and just wants to jump right in. DM of course refers to dungeon master. GM refers to game mother. No, I’m not going to elaborate.
Yeah, so I guess the big question for the first person approaching DMing, especially if everybody’s new, everybody’s coming to it for the first time, you know, table of new players plus new DM, because yeah, you want to play D&D, or you want to play tabletop game. How well do you think somebody needs to know the rules?
Less than you’d think. It’s, it’s very easy in DnD or Pathfinder to have someone hand you the DM book and say, “okay, you’ve got a week, good luck.” Just like learning to play for the first time, reading the whole book cover to cover and memorizing the contents is not necessary. If you know the game well enough to be a player and do okay without constantly flipping through the player’s handbook, you’re going to be totally fine. It is okay to get the rules wrong. It is okay to make things up on the fly and be corrected later. You do not need an encyclopedic knowledge of the rules. But giving them a quick look is definitely a good idea.
Yeah, definitely. One of the things that we talked about pretty frequently is that as a DM, GM, the primary rule is rule zero. What you say goes, and if you are listening to this as a player, absolutely, you know, maybe try and say like, “in my experience, this is typically played out really well when it’s handled this way” if you’re kind of disagreeing about some particular point. But at the end of the day, it’s your table, play it the way you want it. And then if, and we’ll get to this in a bit, but if something maybe didn’t work out great, your players will talk to you and they’ll be like, hey, this particular thing, it really didn’t feel good. It dragged the game out. So as much as you need to know the rules is enough to be consistent, and enough to make sure that people are having fun, because realistically, that’s the only judge of success, right? I feel like I say this frequently. It’s still true. As long as everyone at the table is having fun, you’re doing your job.
Yeah, I would I would say for this. There’s so many rules that you could be focused on. I definitely think picking up the adventure you plan on running and if you’re a first time DM, you know, we’re gonna talk about this a little bit. But I think running a published module, like a published one shot something like this is a fantastic way to get started. Really going through and saying what rules am I likely to have to adjudicate? So we’re talking about 5e, if you have creatures that are going to fight that grapple. Okay, do you know the grappling rules? If one of the creatures flies, do you know the flying rules? Looking at that, and letting that guide where you focus on rules is going to help you have a great table, and then even having those references prepared so you can… Okay, I don’t quite remember how this went, but I can pop back to it right quick. You know, that can be useful. If you do have experienced players at the table, I think that they can be a fantastic resource.
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, particularly if you’re listening to the podcast, you are likely to be that experienced player. Like I was saying earlier, be a little bit gentle, you know, especially if someone is DMing for like the very first time they’ve got a ton of stuff going on. They are maybe going to be too willing if you try and be like “oh no, maybe it should be like this” and then maybe that’s going to give them a bad experience, right? That’s why I was saying, you know, you can definitely make some general suggestions. One of the other things will be really helpful, especially if they’re trying to DM for the first time and there are other new players, be resource for the other players. Take that off of the DM’s shoulders as much as possible. Because really, we’re all here to just play a game, enjoy a story, have fun. The rules are there so that we have something consistent that we can all I agree on to follow. But that doesn’t mean that they’re set in stone. That doesn’t mean that they’re the absolute gospel truth. No, you know? And if there’s something obvious, you know, if someone’s like, Oh, yes, we’re… someone’s like, “I want to climb a tree” and you’re like, “uh, I don’t think how to climb a tree right now” and someone says, Oh, I’ll do this. And as long as the DM says, “Yeah, that makes sense.” If you as an experienced player know that’s not how that works, don’t worry about it. You know, let the obvious adjudication stand and then talk to them later.
I’m obviously going to roll a nature check to climb a tree,
It’s… you know, I can’t stop you.
If you’re that DM with an experienced player at the table, it is also totally fine to ask them questions, especially about the rules. If you are looking at someone trying to climb a tree and just can’t come up with the decision, it’s totally fine to say, “hey, experienced player, what should be done to handle this?” And they might say, “Oh, yes, this seems like a good case for athletics.” And you can take that feedback or ignore it. That’s totally fine. But the comfort of having someone at the table who you can ask questions of live and not feel pressure, or not feel a sense of failure, like, these are your friends at the table, everyone’s there to have a good time. And if you’re going to have more fun by asking for help, do it. It’s a great idea.
Yeah. So there it is, quite often that I am the DM playing with the more experienced player. I play a few games with Tyler. What I have found is that I will often go and say like, do you remember how this goes? And if Tyler’s like, yeah, it’s obviously this, I’ll tend to take that. And we’ll run with it. And then I will look it up later. Like I’ll make a note. Specifically, I’ll go read later. And I’ll go try to get myself to the same level of understanding so that next time, it isn’t that way. It also happens from time to time that you get in that situation where it’s like, you know, grappling is a bad example. Because yeah, dear god, Tyler understands the rules of grappling. But you know, you get the situation or it’s like, I don’t exactly remember how to adjudicate this. What I do often as a DM is I say, Okay, we’re going to do it this way. Like, we’re just going to do a contested check, or I’m just going to have you roll and then add, you know, this modifier that modifier with the idea, and I’ll tell the table, we’re going to do it this way. Player. After your turn, go look up how this actually works. And then I’ll keep the game going to keep the pace going. One of the things that I find as a DM makes me the most nervous is if everybody’s flipping through the rulebook to try to figure out how to do something, when ultimately a lot of times when you… it’s like, oh, I want to get this right. I don’t want to do that inexperienced DM. Realistically, you’re trying to figure out if they get the butter on the toast or not, you know? Like, what you’re doing is trivial. It probably isn’t the most critical thing to get right. So just adjudicate and then assign one person to figure it out while we move on the left the next people go. I guess generally, how do you feel about that? Do you do you think it’s okay for people to be like, Okay, let’s take a five minute break. Okay, that’s being ridiculous, because I’m setting you up to say no. How long is too long? To look up a rule to get it right, versus just making a decision and then getting it right next time? I think that that’s really going to depend on the way that you’re going to look it up. Flipping through a book is going to be hard for that. If you’re just gonna go on, like, D&D Beyond and you know, if you’re like, Okay, we have suddenly all lost our minds. No one knows how grapple works. If you do D&D Beyond and you type in “grapple,” you’re gonna get an answer in 20 seconds. Yeah.
Right? So if you have access to a digital resource like that, that is easily searchable. Maybe that is something… and again, I would, I would sort of say that the stakes are kind of the gonna be my my bellwether there. Like, if we’re in combat, like, Okay, this is the difference between whether or not I can pin this dragon to the ground so that my friends can beat the tar out of it. Okay, I really want to know that right now. And I want to make sure that we do that good. I would say 30 seconds. Like, if you can get it done in 30 seconds or less? Great. I’ll let you look it up right now because… absolutely. If it’s something where like, we’re going to need to do this, then yeah, I think what you said just, I’m going to adjudicate this the way that I want to, and then you’re going to look it up so that we have the absolute gospel truth for next time. That’s how I would have certainly put those two together.
And if you look something up and people have different opinions about how to interpret the text of a rule, always defer to the DM. Don’t let rules arguments derail the game. You can always look it up again later and have that discussion after the session. But a mid-game rules argument isn’t fun for anybody.
All right. Well, I think that that’s a pretty great segue. So as we’re talking about digital things, versus hardcover books and whatnot, so what do you actually need to have to get started DMing? And realistically, the answer is kind of just like, “the rules.” Do you, do you have those in a physical thing like the the PHB, the DMG. Do you have D&D Beyond? There’s absolutely value in both, and there’s drawbacks to both.
So the PHB being the player’s handbook, the DMG being the dungeon master’s guide.
Yeah. Nobody ever calls the monster manual the “MM.”
They actually did. So in third edition, that was a more common convention because in 3.x we had five of them.
MM1, MM2? They didn’t zero index?
No. Well, because they just had the monster manual. And then WotC in their infinite wisdom came up with the monster manual 2.
Yeah, and then you had monster manual, A New Hope.
Exactly. And by the time you got to Revengeance, and we were just way off the rails.
That was a call back to the previous editions where it was monstrous manual, monstrous manual 2. Like they’ve done that all the way back through I think first edition. Fifth edition’s first time where they actually said, we’re not just going to call a monster manual 2. We’ll come up with a more creative name and they have explicitly said that it’s quote “not a monster manual.” Volo’s guide, volo’s guide to monsters, more unkindness tome of foes, etc.
Monsters of the multiverse.
Okay, cool, cool. But digital copies, like you brought up a second ago how easy it is to be able to go to D&D Beyond. I will say 100% that is… when I have to solve one of these things and I think okay, look, I should be able to get this right, because my what I anticipate is that I’m just going to google it and get an answer. It is always grapple space D&D beyond. Click. Done.
Yeah. And of course, the Google search is generally going to work out better for that than the actual D&D Beyond search, like D&D, beyond will give you a perfect text search of the entire site. But there is some question about whether or not it will actually get you where you want to go or if you’re just going to find the grapple ability of the giant frog by accident.
Yeah, now I know there are 98 monsters which can grapple. And that’s exciting.
Right. Like I said, there’s absolutely benefits and drawbacks to both. You know, having the physical is a great way to just be like, Alright, I know it’s somewhere in the combat section. Open it, flip through. You’re going to be able to flip through things a lot easier then you’re going to be able to, like, scroll through the way that D&D Beyond has things organized, because sometimes it’s all on one page. Sometimes it’s on separate pages. It’s, it’s it’s kind of a mishmash. But with that said, no matter how you have your books… Well, I guess this only applies if you have physical books. A lot of times people, particularly veteran players who are trying to DM for the first time, you probably have a decent quantity of books. You know, maybe you’ve got a whole shelf full of all kinds of pretty things. And realistically, you don’t need most of those for DMing. You don’t need most of those for the actual act of DMing a session. You’re not going to go refer to something in Volo’s as like a rules adjudication probably. You’re not going to go refer to Eberron for Faerun campaign, probably. Unless someone casts dream of the blue veil, in which case, you can tell your player to knock that off.
It’s like we’re playing Rime of the Frostmaiden. Why do you, why did you bring descent into Avernus? It’s like, well, what if we trip and fall through a portal to Hell? I don’t…
Stranger things have happened.
Isn’t that how that campaign starts?
It might be.
Yeah, so definitely, you want to travel like the player’s handbook and the dungeon master’s guide, that’s going to answer 99 point something percent of all of your problems and everything else, just adjudicate and look up late like we’ve talked about.
The fifth edition dungeon master’s guide and the PF2 gamemastery guide are both excellent resources for Game Masters, but they’re not resources that you want to use at the table. Like they, they have a lot of advice on how to run your game, which I strongly encourage you to read. They’ve got a lot of things like variant rules tables on building monsters and building encounters. But if you’re scrambling and putting together a monster in the middle of an encounter, maybe save that for when you get home. Yes, so the game mastery books can often stay home. The core rulebook for your game or the player’s handbook for D&D will typically have the rules that you need. And yeah, obviously, digital, digital copies of anything that’s going to save you a ton of time.
We should say DnDBeyond by default, gives you access to the SRD which stands for…
Source resource, er, system resource document.
System resource document.
System reference document.
That makes a lot of sense, actually. Okay.
Producer Dan, quick, cut it! The system reference document. If you purchase content through D&D beyond. So for instance, if you purchase the player’s handbook, if you purchase the dungeon master’s guide through D&D Beyond, that’s what’s gonna make it searchable. D&D Beyond also does have like a sharing feature so that you can bring people into a campaign and then share the resources so that everybody within that campaign has access. And that’s something that, you know, as a group you should have conversations with and figure out how to take advantage of that to the fullest. Having that setup is then going to make getting to the details of the setting of Eberron a lot easier than needing to flip through the book, I think, if you’re trying to do something like this live.
And if you’re playing Pathfinder, the rules for Pathfinder are all available for free on Archives of Nethys, and then they’re working on Pathfinder Nexus by the same people who build D&D Beyond, I think that’s coming out soon-ish. Some time in the next couple of months. Other games don’t typically have as good software tools, but hopefully at least you’ve got PDFs that you can pull up on a laptop or something.
Another thing that’s useful in a game built around click clack math rocks…
Click clack math rocks?
You might want to have some of those.
Now, actually, with that said, if you don’t, and for whatever reason you can’t get to them. It is still actually possible to play this game, there’s some kind of quick hacks that you can do that people have done on things like car trips, that sort of thing. You can just like, take a piece of paper, write all the numbers down, cut them up, or tear them up and put them into a hat. Just draw like that.
Do you have a d6 hat, a d12 hat, a d20 hat?
I mean, you could, although realistically, you know, like we’ve said, d20 is absolutely the primary mechanic. So if you just do a d20 one, and then just say to your players, and you do average damage with your rolls. Problem solved. Same thing.
Yeah, that’s pretty fair. Maybe at that point, introduce something like the Pathfinder 2 critical success thing where, like, I’ll give you max damage on a crit.
Or on a high enough success, and then average the rest of the time. I’m also I’m going to point out, I think it’s really quaint and wonderful that you brought paper into this.
In a pen and paper role playing game?
Yeah, I think it’s wonderful. I’ll point out, we have supercomputers in our pockets these days. So any device that you have, you wouldn be able to get to a… Random was just staring daggers. No, I mean, most of those apps have… most apps. Most operating systems for phones. The two of them at this point. Have dicer only apps that are available. Also you can literally Google, like, roll d6 and Google will roll dice for you.
I’m just saying that I’m working off of stories of people, you know, deployed and playing D&D. Or in prison, actually, and playing D&D, which you can’t have dice because they don’t want to promote gambling. Yeah, I’ve seen some really clever solutions in prison. People have built tops out of paper and, like, a toothpick and like, written the numbers on the top and you spin it. People are very, very inventive. But I imagine most people listening this podcast aren’t gonna be playing from prison. If you are deployed, yes, a folder full of slips of paper works great. The face palms so many. Back in super early editions, they actually had trouble getting dice to print the DnD box sets, because the only people making them were for teaching supplies. So it was like this one company making polyhedral dice as an educational product. DnD comes along and is like, “we need all of your dice now, and also more dice than you could possibly produce.” So there was a while where the box sets would actually include envelopes with pieces of paper to cut out, put in the envelope to use as a randomizer. All of this stuff has been done before. And it has worked historically. But yes, for a lot of people, a dice roller app on your phone is going to work great. If you’re using a system that has a unique dice mechanic like Shadowrun, FATE, Fantasy Flight Star Wars, The One Ring ,anything that has custom dice, the company will typically have a dice roller app for their game. Usually have to pay for them. Usually there’s a free alternative. So look around, get what you need. But just having a basic dice roll or app as a backup, even in case you just forget your dice when you go to play a game. Always great idea.
Yeah, and so… I will say that this one is kind of optional. And to the degree to which you trust your players, a DM screen is very helpful to keep things that you don’t want them looking at. It’s absolutely not required. And, you know, realistically, it’s five bucks of cardboard. If you’ve got just, like, a three ring binder, set that up at an angle. That’s great. If you’ve got a cardboard box, turn it up on one side and play in the cardboard box. Plus you get to feel like you’re you know, playing with puppets. It’s great. But yeah,, like, you can get really creative and just how you hide things from players if you want to at all.
Let’s talk about the things that you would want to hide from the players in order to give them a good game. So I’ll say when I DM, what I tend to do is all the monsters I plan on my players encountering I actually bring up on D&D Beyond and then I just flip tabs as I need to and if I you know if they’re fighting two different monsters at once, I’ll have the both open and visible. And I have that pacing to where only I can see it. Which means that I don’t have the monster manual out. What I’ll say is that if you are just doing this with a monster manual, if your players can clearly see it, and they’re talking to this person, and they’re having a great conversation, and then one of them wants to make an insight check. And you flip to the ancient red dragon….
Yeah, and that’s very much a thing that you that you would want to keep hidden. And even if you are using the monster manual, just you know, do it later. This is very much a way where you can real life bluff your players. You know, roll some dice and say, Oh, yep, nothing. Blah, blah, blah. Go look up later. See if you were right.
They’ll never know.
They’ll never know, right? This is, this is a great thing. And this is one of the things in which Dungeons and Dragons is really just, like, theater as cooperative storytelling. They don’t know what the play is. They don’t know the script. Any change you make, that’s as far as they’re concerned, that’s how it was meant to be.
That’s exactly how I wrote the story that I, you know, painstakingly for the past month.
The other thing I’ll say that I think is worth keeping hidden is, like, current monster HP. I tend to take average monster HP with the understanding that I’m then going to maybe tweak at the end. So I’ve made the mistake a feww times of letting a monster die very anticlimactically, because technically it hit zero. And what I think I’ve internalized and learned is that let’s go and get it to zero from average health… Plus or minus, like if you do a really awesome move like use a high level spell, or you burn a maneuver and it ultimately leads to like this awesome damage. And then like, it’s cool, and it’s theatrical, and it has five HP left. Congrats, you killed it. Vice versa, if, like, oh, you know, I went in and I got the unarmed strike in and then everything else missed and I dealt six damages a Monk, I might let it stay in as long as the party is not in real danger. And let’s just, let’s see what happens next. Like, let’s let’s keep going a little bit to get something really awesome. Sorry, Monk, I apologize. But yeah, the the current HP, I think is definitely worth hiding. Because otherwise your players, you know, even if they’re peeking and they only see it once, they can kind of then internalize like, Okay, well, this is almost over. And so you start as a player, you start metagaming instead of just enjoying the combat rounds.
Yeah, absolutely. A thing with that. So fifth edition doesn’t technically have this, but this is, again, one of the like, two/three good things that I think fourth edition gave us. You’re gonna want to describe to your players how they’re doing. We’ve talked about this a little bit before, but realistically, you know… Well, we’re going to delve into what defines the game for a second. So one of the things that a game design author whose work we will link in the show notes, one of the ways that she defines a game is that it has to have a feedback system. If you’re just swinging into these bags of hit points, and you’re not getting any feedback, you have no idea if your attacks are doing damage, you have no idea if maybe there’s some kind of resistance or immunity that you’re swinging into letting players know that in visceral in-character ways is very satisfying, and lets them be more tactical in their actions. So if you want to talk about specifically the thing that I was going for, when a monster is bloodied. While it’s no longer a mechanic in this edition, bloodied in fourth edition just meant below half health. And that’s a really easy way for players to know, okay, we’ve put some good work onto this monster. Let’s finish this one off before we try and move on to something else. And maybe just take a quick second when, you know, an attack does bring it below half health to describe that last one took a good chunk out of it, roars in pain, and sets its gaze on you looking like it’s going to charge you soon. Something like that, you know, just a really easy way to describe okay, you’re doing it, it’s bloodied.
It’s really not happy.
So in addition to hiding stuff behind your DM screen, your GM screen there are also typically tables on the back of those screens, which can be very helpful. The fifth edition DM screen has a lot of things like prices for things that your players might buy off hand like foods, trail rations, things like that. A lot of things that you would typically need to reference from the table are on there. I think the drumming rules might be on there. So stuff that you probably aren’t going to memorize because it’s just, like, in a table or specific numbers. Those are frequently get going beyond your GM screen. Fantasy Flight Star Wars, the GM screen has the the tables of things that you can do with your boosts, setbacks, triumphs and disasters. The one for the One Ring has the benefits for the different combat stances and things like that, plus a big chunk of the journey rules. So those things that are going to be hard to memorize that you’re going to be frequently looking up in the rulebooks are very frequently on the back those DM/GM screens, even if you don’t have anything to hide, those are frequently a great resource to have on hand for when you need to look things up. And in a lot of cases, they’re also available as a digital copy. So obviously, you can’t put a PDF up as a DM screen, but it’s very nice as a reference.
But with the power of glue stick and cardboard, you can put up a DM screen.
Is it then a PDF? Well, it’s a printed document.
Actually, so that’s another thing, right? If you are using a laptop as your primary reference, then yes, actually, you can, in fact. That’s… a laptop is a perfectly valid DM screen. It does hide information and it’s a good way to make sure that you have what you need available to you. All right, so you you can go for other things, you know, if you want, you can have maps, like the… we’ve talked about before, if you’re playing an in person game, what year is it? You can absolutely make cover visualization easier by having some sort of map. Tyler is a very big fan of, like, the graph paper that you can just draw on. The one inch grid graph paper. I really liked the reusable fabric with a cating maps.
I bought some great maps that Gary Con, I’m very excited about those.
Yeah, there are…
Dry erase markable.
Yeah, there are like that sort of map that I was talking about. But like pre-printed on basically paper that’s laminated. So like, you get the art under it, and then you can draw on it. There’s lots of companies make those. I mean, they’re… generally the big ones like your your WotC, your Paizo they actually just make their own, but then also people are there.
Yeah, I guess at a high level, first time DM you’re running, let’s say a published adventure. And that’s going to be the recommendation I’m gonna make when we talk about this. Do you need to do grid combat if you’re running 5e?
I’m just gonna say no, no asterisk. Just no you don’t.
Yeah, here’s the thing. No is fine. And you can absolutely theater of the mind it. We’re both being really bet hedgy on that, because fifth edition is so very crunchy. And previous editions were even crunchier, right? But D&D is such a combat focused one, we’ve talked about this a lot.
It’s the tempura battered edition versus our deep fried editions of yore.
Exactly. A lot of things kind of only make sense… I mean, so you have to play the combat considering what it looks like on a grid. Even if you’re just imagining it, you have to understand that I am leaving a safety doughnut because that’s a huge rule. You have to understand. You know, like, if I have a reach weapon, you need to know where everything within 10 feet of you is. That’s important. Having a grid map, even if it’s just I’m going to pull out a piece of bog standard graph paper, and I’m going to put down pennies to visualize things. That’s going to help you a lot because, I mean, especially if you are a first time DM, trying to, like, get all of this stuff in your, brain trying to adjudicate all of this shenanigans. Having something to at least take one burden off of you of trying to visualize what’s going on is going to help you a lot.
No, I think that makes perfect sense. What I’ll call out: so physical maps are great, especially for physical game. If you’re doing this online, there’s a lot of great online tools for doing the same thing, right? So we have roll20, we have Foundry, I think by the summer, you’ll have Tabula Sono. You know there’s a there’s a lot of really good solutions for building grids, building maps. A lot of pre-rendered stuff that you can use. And so for places where you know, you’re going to have combat, you know, if you’re walking around the castle, you don’t necessarily need a grid map for that castle, new DM. You can just describe it, walk through, give box text, especially if the adventure provides it to. But if you know there’s likely going to be combat in the throne room or there’s going to be combat, you know, up the tower, you will be able to find grids for those of you want to use them whether that be live or whether it be through some online resource.
If you’re going to be playing without a grid, that is a perfectly valid way to play. But you may need to discuss that with your players and say, Look, we’re playing without a grid so I won’t be able to handle certain things. Like if you’re building a character to abuse opportunity attacks, things like that, you’re going to want that grid. So maybe you just don’t bring that character to this game and just setting that expectation with your players beforehand will remove a lot of those problems and make theater of the mind work a lot better.
Yeah, I think there’s a lot of great things that we can actually say about do’s and don’ts for your characters that you are bringing to a first time DM. And as a first time DM maybe you should put, like, some limitations on what your players bring to you.
Yeah, absolutely. In fact, this is is a great reason to have a session zero, right? We, we talked about this a lot. Go listen to the session zero episode. But realistically, as a first time DM, your DM if you are not the DM, or you as a DM, like I said before, they’re going to have a lot on their plate. And bringing, you know, some three different class abuse some mechanic monstrosity is unkind.
Making your DM look up whether or not coffeelocks are actually allowed at the first session.
Right? Yeah. Don’t. Just… just don’t do that. Right? You know, we’re all here to have fun. And there, there can absolutely be some fun in that kind of competitive Dungeons and Dragons. You know, Tyler, and I famously do this to each other a lot.
The first time DM is not the place for that. And so as as the first time DM, please, please have a session zero. Lay out, you know, kind of everything that you are going to. Say “I will take this, I will not take this, please be kind.” And like we’ve talked about in the episode, do you want to say like, here’s the adventure, try and make something that’s going to fit. Here’s, like Tyler was talking about, like, you know, I just can’t do a grid for whatever reason. So try to, you know, stay away from something that cares about the grid so much, and just go from there.
Yeah, another thing I’ll say. So we had a great podcast where we described, we discussed the topic, what level should you be running your oneshots? What level should you be running your game? I think, whether this be a one shot or a long-running campaign, you as a first time DM, that is a wonderful reason to just start with level one characters.
Because they can’t be that complicated. Things can’t go off the rails so much that they’re not controllable. You know, I don’t care if at the end of the session, you’re like, “congratulations, everybody’s level three, you did it.” Because it helps you get the confidence, it helps you understand where where you’re going, how your players want to play their characters. So that when you come back for that next session in the campaign, everything’s gonna be a lot tighter, better put together. If you’re running an adventure, like a published campaign, a published module, likely there’s gonna be recommendations about what levels you should be at. And if you’re running a one-shot, you should probably be choosing a one shot that allows lower level characters, because generally, lower level characters are going to be less complex to adjudicate things for as a DM.
And one thing you may actually want to consider is just writing up the characters yourself so that you know what mechanics you’re going to be dealing with. Particularly if you also have a lot of new players, this can actually be a way to help ease them into the game. But it’s also a way to just remove some of the the pile of randomness and stuff that you have to think about. So, you know, if you just want to give your party like great, here’s your Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Rogue, go. Now this can be one of the things that you do talk about in the session zero.
That was for different characters. That was not one character.
I mean, if you’re a masochist, you can absolutely… but no. Yeah, well, what Raandall said was absolutely right. Um, but this is one of the things that you could really reasonably cover in that session 0. Say, “Hey, I’ve got a lot going on. I want to make characters so that I know both kind of the power level that I can expect, and so that I can build them more functionally into my world.” And that is a great way to sell this because that’s absolutely true, right? And then you just have to deliver on it later. When you write the characters, you more effectively control the narrative. And I mean, there are even like some published modules that do this, right? You know, like, if you’ve listened to our… where am I going with that? If you’ve listened to our… there’s some pre-published modules that actually do that. If you’ve listened to our Gary Con, new stuff. So as I was wandering, I came across a company that does a really big, really inclusive box, that is the adventure. All, like, item cards for all of it maps for all of it, and characters for all of it. And that really helps the characters fit into the narrative because when you know what they are, then you know how to build a story around them. So that’s the thing that you can talk to your players about in a session 0. Say, Hey, Are you cool with this? If so, great, that’s gonna make it easier for me. And we’re gonna go like this.
The one thing I’ll say is that, that might be a better thing to do if you know you’re only running a one shot. You know, let everybody… like, okay, look, this one game, you’re gonna play the character, you’re gonna choose for four characters, because I kind of need this to get going. But once you’ve established that, and you say, okay, good. Everybody had a great time. We’re going to turn this into a campaign. That might be a wonderful opportunity to say, hand wave, bring your own characters next time. It’ll be fine.
Yeah, absolutely. Bring your own characters or you know, you could say I like the narrative that I built off of these personalities. So you know if you enjoy that personality, great, and instead of Bilbo the Thief Rogue, you’re now Bilbo the gnome Barbarian. Great! Nailed it.
I don’t know what happened…
If you’re looking at DMing for the first time, and you’re hearing us say like, Yes, bring the players pre-gen characters, if you’re thinking, oh, gosh, now I have to make pre-gen characters, don’t worry about it. There are plenty available for free online. For 5e there are pre-gen characters for free on DMsGuild running all the way from first to 20th level and they use the class options from the SRD. So those are generally the mechanically simplest characters, so they’re very easy to pick up and play. They’re very easy on the DM. A lot of published one-shots for other systems will include will include pre-generated characters. So like Paizo, famously does something cool for Free RPG Day every year, I ran their Little Trouble in Big Absalom adventure recently, and includes both the adventure and six pre-generated characters that you can just pass out to the players. So take that burden off yourself. Let somebody else do it for you.
And so actually, when we played Big Trouble in Little Absalom, that was my second time playing PF2. And it was awesome to pick a character, because I actually had a hard time understanding how to build a character until I got my hands on the core rulebook. And so just having, even as a player, having that character handed to me was fantastic to play. Because I got to see how the Druid worked. I had this beautiful cat named Precious. And it was wonderful.
Precious the house cat slash tank.
Yes. Oh, absolutely. Yeah, that was a murder cat.
All right, well, so we’ve we’ve hinted at it a few times during the podcast here. One of the things that I really personally strongly recommend if you’re going to start DMing: start small. Run a one-shot. Maybe run like a, you know, three shot that’s meant to be played over a course of 10 hours or something. I know that a lot of times people want to get into DMing because they have this idea in mind for this epic story, this epic campaign and they want to share that with people. And that’s awesome. Like, I fully believe that your story is going to be great, your players are going to love it, and your first time DMing is 100% not the place to introduce it. You are going to have a ton going on. You’re going to need to get experience because what you have is a book. And what players do is not a book. And until you are comfortable with improvising on the fly for Okay, well, here is the prince of this land, who as far as my story was concerned was going to be the primary plot point. He’s going to get married to someone who is secretly a demon. And then she takes the kingdom and, like, drags it down to the abyss, and oh god, my players just killed him. Oh, no. Right? So this is why you really want to get your feet under you running something like a one shot. Now you can read it yourself if you want to just make sure that you write about two hours of content. We’ll get to that in a moment. Or there’s a ton of one shots that you can pick up for free like Tyler talked about that you can buy if you really liked the sound of one. Run something short. Get your feet under you and then keep going.
So by the way, improv DM sitting at home: the right answer is the prince had a younger brother. Steps up, marries the demon, campaign goes on.
I have had people DM their forze-
I’ve also had people DM Forza. It was crazy. I was a car.
I have had people DM for the first time with me as a player. And I always really love that experience. I’ve had people run on eshots I’ve had people, er, sorry, I’ve had people run published modules. I’ve had people run things that they created themselves. And both have been great. But the people who created things themselves, I always encourage them to keep the story very, very simple because that does make things a lot easier your first time. I’ve had DM’s that were completely thrown off by things like what do you mean your AC is 19? Which is not a difficult AC to have in fifth edition, but it was still enough that it threw off the balance of all of their encounters. So it was a great learning experience. But expect to be surprised your first game. Even if you’ve been playing for a long time things feel very different from the other side of the table sometimes. So those surprises that your players are going to throw, yeah, absolutely knock you off track.
So in particular, when we talk about published modules, a resource that I’m going to recommend is the Adventure A Week catalog. They have this idea that mini dungeons where, you know, there’s a few rooms to go through. There’s like one map, maybe two maps for you to look at. You can literally search for I want a party of four level one adventurers or five level one adventurers. Let you pick any level and you’ll find a bunch of modules. So let’s say you have a little story you want to tell. You can easily find one of these mini dungeons, have mechanically everything worked out for you. Appropriate monsters for them to fight in the adventure, appropriate traps, triggers these sorts of things for them to hit. Because if you’re going to screw anything up as a dungeon master your first time, it isn’t going to be the story, it’s going to be the mechanics. So adopting something like one of these mini dungeons, letting that lay out everything mechanical for you, and then glue your, glue a little story on top of it that you want to tell. It kind of gives you the best of both worlds, and it’s going to come across to your players, like you really put this thing together well.
And one of the things that I’m going to say so once you have picked your your many dungeon, your published module, or written your own stuff, read it thoroughly. This particularly matters if you’re playing something you you got from somebody else, but there’s very few things that feels worse than when a DM’s like, oh God, something else was supposed to happen a little bit ago, and it, uh, it breaks the story I don’t so I guess we’re gonna time travel back a room and then… right? That kind of immersion breaking is not great. Now, if you have to, you have to and your players will be hopefully accommodating because you’re playing with decent folks who understand that it’s your first time DMing. Great. But really one of the things that I cannot stress enough, read your stuff thoroughly. Because that’s going to give you the context that you need to improvise. And generally, if you’re reading a published module, it’s not going to be a ton of reading. The amount of text to run a single session is between like five and 10 pages at most. So it’s… you’re not going to be reading a novel, you don’t have to memorize a ton of things. You don’t have to stress that much about it. As you are reading through, you will get into the mechanics be very comfortable with the mechanics of whatever that primary focus is. So if this is a just your standard dungeon crawl, but let’s say it’s a dungeon crawl in a dark cave. Get real familiar with light, how light works, you know, the difference between dim light, how darkvision works in fifth edition, because it’s not how darkvision worked in 3.x. Or, you know, if you are like running your own thing, and it’s like primarily social, get real comfortable with target DC’s for diplomacy. Get real comfortable with, you know, telling players contested rolls, like yes, diplomacy versus wisdom insight, all that good jazz. As you read through, as you pick up the mechanics, go check that out in the DMG. Go check that out in the PHB. That’ll make you very confident, and confidence, really where I want to go here. Even if you aren’t 100% sure of something, present it. Just be like, You know what, we’re going to do it this way. Your confidence will make the players comfortable. And so even if you are being confident about something that you’re not sure of, be confident like that, and then say we’re going to do it this way, we’ll go look it up later. And as long as you are consistent in how you do that, you know, even if you do look it up after the session, but you you’re like, Okay, well, I’m not exactly sure how we’re going to grapple this time nut it’s going to be based on nature, because it’s a tree hug, right? And so as long as you make it the same thing every time, there will be that sense of fairness and that’s going to get buy in from your players.
What Random’s really trying to say is your players can smell fear.
Yeah, absolutely. And, again, hopefully you’re playing this with friends. That’s actually one of the things that we really want to recommend. Don’t try to first time, first time DM with strangers. You can. It’s way harder. Your friends are going to be some… are going to be people who are there to support you who will provide feedback because you know, there is that mutual trust, and so they understand you are doing your best and here is something that I can provide. Like, even if they don’t know the system very well they can absolutely provide you feedback on the experience, right? So this is like, man you that you froze up here and I know that it maybe didn’t feel seemed like a lot of time for you. But when you were looking at this thing that was like five minutes. That helpful reminder can be very good. And hopefully again, these are your friends will they’ll deliver it in a kind manner.
Yeah, and your friends have a vested interest in talking to you ever again.
And so ideally, you’re gonna be able to get through that situation in a way that ultimately makes everybody comfortable and makes you a better DM.
And a tip for keeping things on track while you’re running the game. get copies of everyone’s character sheets ahead of time. It’s pretty easy if you’re getting them pregens, you just scan another copy. But having access to things like their passive skills, passive perception, passive insight, and their armor class, so that you’re not constantly asking, Hey, hand me your character sheet so I can look at this number again on your character sheet. That will save you a ton of time during play. It’ll help you stay focused and will help you stay comfortable.
And yeah, use those passive skills. If somebody has a super high passive perception, like, let it go. They don’t need to make checks and every room in order to nail the thing that your module said they had to be there for. That’s exactly why it’s there, you’re not ruining the fun of the game, you are giving them the advantage that that character offers. The other thing I’ll say, for this more generally, is don’t, you know, oh, you know, their skill checks in this game, there’s lots of skill checks in this game. So I’m going to make you skill check for everything. Don’t do that. It can be extremely derailing. It can take things way down. And especially if you’re like, you know what, there’s no way they’re gonna fail my DC 10 check to do this mandatory thing that has to happen like climbing stairs, therefore, I make everybody roll and they fail. And now we’re stuck at the bottom. Nobody can go anywhere. Don’t do that.
That’s a really important thing. And one thing that I want to touch on that Randall has brought up. So passive skills. So a really interesting thing that we glean from the D&D beyond, which remember is like officially WotC approved that’s this is how this works. If you have advantage on one of the skills that has a passive, your passive goes up by five, because that’s just what advantage does to the math. If you have, say, a passive perception of 10. But you get advantage on perception from a source, your passive perception is 15. For as long as you have that advantage, just that’s something that gets missed a lot. So keep that in mind. All right, I think we did. So this is part one. We have a question of the week this week. Our question of the week this week comes to us from Gonk on the RPGBOT.Discord: What is one character creation option that you have in your head that you love to see in the game or homebrewed?
I have lots of ideas. Eventually, I will write them down and try actually publish something maybe, but I would really like to
I would really like to see a yuan-ti Warlock. If you look at the stat blocks for yuan-ti. There are two or three varieties of spellcasters. They’re all warlocks. What pact do they use? Who knows? Yuan-ti have their own deities. They have this whole cult where they worship serpents that want to eat the world. Like, that seems like a pretty cool Warlock patron. I would like to see that written down as a character option.
So my answer is a little bit of a cheat because it’s functionally just I want something from 3.5 in fifth edition. So right now the closest thing that we have to a mystic theurge is the sorcerers…
Divine soul. Thank you. From whatever the first one was. Xanathar’s, I think. Which is kind of similar, but it’s actually just a Sorcerer. I really want somebody, a class that functionally fuses arcane magic and divine magic. And because there’s not as much of a distinction in in fifth edition, I sort of see why there hasn’t been and because there’s nothing like prestige classes, I sort of see why that hasn’t been. But I think that that could be like an entirely new class is something that is almost like a, like Ur Priest, which… so another prestige class from 3.5 where rather than praying to a deity for your divine spells, you just said, it’s cool that you have divine power, I’m gonna steal some and you basically just like bent divine power to your will. So something like that, where we’re like, how do I take the arcane formula that Wizard learns, and like, apply that to divine magic? And now I’m just going through more and more proceed classes in 3.5 because there were so many. But like, like geometer, or like, put it Oh, God, we talked about like the geometric magic feat from Pathfinder that was just horribly, horribly busted, where you like rolled dice and if you managed to make it prime numbers, then you won the spell… something. It was shenanigans, but like-
Solve this NP hard problem. Actually, it wasn’t Np hard. They actually had solvers on;ome?
Yeah, they had solvers online. Like, as long as you got your dice to a minimum of like, seven, then you win. But yeah, so I would really like something that ties into, like, how do I apply that sort of logic to power gained from a divine source in a way that having, like, like I said, mystic theurge sort of got there on 3.5, but even that’s not really. I mean, I really want to lean into that mechanics somehow in a way that I don’t think we’ve really seen yet.
Okay, so I don’t know what to do with all of the character options that have already been given to me. I have an idea but I actually have to look at the adults in the room to see if this actually already exists and I’ve just overlooked it. I really, and also DM’s are gonna hate this. So if you’re listening to this for first time DM’s and what I’m asking for comes out, ban it. I want what I had with the Necromancer in Diablo 2. I want essentially I want something built around either summons or in particular maybe necromantic summons. I know we have raise dead spells. You know we have like a few, a few summons scattered throughout, but a magic class and maybe Warlock, I’m gonna guess is probably the best way to go about this. Where what my feats give me in my subclass are specific additional abilities tied to raising zombies, raising skeletons, you know having a golem following me around. This sort of thing. I think that can be a lot of fun for combat.
So a summoner a class that is more focused on the summoning aspect of spellcasting rather than just, I’m a Wizard who knows some summoning spells.
Yeah, like, I know, no spells that actually do damage. But my friend here Skeletor absolutely knows how to do damage.
Yeah. So there’s a big reason why that hasn’t come back into fifth edition because there were, there were classes that did that. In fact, Dread Necromancer, which we’ve talked about a little bit, was sort of the the best way of doing that in 3.5. The problem is, the more summons you have, the longer your turn in combat takes, and you immediately run into main character syndrome. And that’s if you wanted to do it as a bunch of pets. If you wanted to have a pet, okay, like and in fact, PF2 and Navy PF2 has summoner.
Yeah, summoner came back in Secrets of Magic, which was, I think, last year,
So summoner was a class that did that really well, of course, then it turned out that the most broken way to do it was to stop having a separate summon and just wear it as you know, the…
Synthesist? Yeah, yeah. The synthesist. You wear your summoned monsters as pants.
And it was busted. It’s like, yeah, as a concept. As a concept. I think that that could be done well, as long as you took it the one strong southern route rather than the undead army route that, like, dread necromancer does. I mean, I did… I think I have talked about this in previous episodes, but I did the math once. And at eighth level, you could have something like 4,000 commanded hit dice worth of undead because of the way that some spells worked and having, like, days durations.
Yeah, it was not not functional.
So okay, to get what I want, though, I don’t think one pet is going to do I don’t want to be an undead Ranger. I want to have… I want to have my necromantic army. But I think the compromise we want to come up with is a limit on clusters of creatures. So like, I have three zombies. And those three zombies make one attack roll. And do one pool of damage dice based on the number that are in the cluster. And so I can only target one creature. And you could justify this, right? Like, your mind can only send instructions to so many groups at a time based on…
The fifth edition has mob attack rules to handle exactly that case, which I’m really sad never made it in the third edition because they had them for the d20 Star Wars RPG which came out between 3.0 and 3.5 and somehow they just never thought you know, we will never have enough monsters and encounter that this would be useful. So 5e has mob combat rules. In Pathfinder second edition, you have a limit of having three controlled minions per character. Like, that is just hard. You cannot have more than three minions. And just… actually, might be two. Oh man. Now, I’m sad that I don’t remember. It’s two or three. And since you have to spend an action to command your minions there is a built in finite amount of minions that you can control during the game.
What if we just stopped for like 30 seconds, five minutes, whatever it takes. Let’s look through the core rulebook paper and we’ll see if we can find it right quick live.
So a couple of interesting things. First off, in 3.5, there was actually some amount of mob combat. This made it into I think the DMG 2. There was explicitly… so like I have 40 commoners with long bows. I don’t want to make 40 attack rolls. And so there were rules for functionally turning that into a volley in an area versus a reflex save instead. There wasn’t anything really like melee combat mob rules, but one I do want to say. So you said that you don’t want to just be like a zombie Ranger with the one pet so instead you have these three but they’re making one attack. So you you want like a, like a, swarm of undead minions. And you want to keep them… like, like a swarm… keeper.
Yeah, no, you got me. Absolutely. Swarm keeper Ranger, and my swarm, little tiny zombies.
And that’s fantastic.
Yes. Now we’re the shaman and Diablo three, I guess.
Okay. Nailed it. All hail the Leisure Illuminati.
I’m Rennell James. You can find me at AmateurJack.com and on Twitter and Instagram @JackAmateur.
I’m title Kamstra. You’ll find me at RPGBOT.net. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at RPGBOTDOTNET and patreon.com/rpgbot.
And I’m random pelle, you’re mostly just gonna find me here contributing to RPGBOT.net both in terms of the podcast and, of course, some articles. Although in places where people play games, you may find me as Hartlequin on Hartlequint.
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I don’t know about “so many,” but it was definitely like, like one each.