Don’t Just Have Fun – actually useful advice for new DMs/GMs

Over on twitter, there was some discussion recently about advice for people taking their first steps to DMing – on the lines that “just have fun!” is really terrible advice, advocating for an end product without giving any guidance on how to get there. So, putting my money where my mouth is, here are five actually useful tips for running your first game.

Because this post is probably not aimed at my patrons, this is going out to Patreon subscribers and regular blog readers at the same time. Of course the best way to become a better DM is to become a patreon backer – where you’ll instantly become much more skilled at every aspect of TTRPG play. For £2 a month you get access to (most) posts 7 days before release, and get to bask in the warm glow of supporting Burn After Running!

Run What You Know

Pick a system to run that you’ve already experienced as a player. If you’re in a D&D campaign, and think “I’d like to try running Cyberpunk Red” – or another game you haven’t played, then great! It’s good to diversify systems and settings – but run some D&D first. Knowing the rules (or feeling like you have to know them) takes up processing power at the table – if you’ve played before, a lot of these will be internalised already, so you can watch the table and worry about other stuff! So run what you know, at least to start with – whether that’s D&D or whatever system you’ve been introduced to.

Use Published Scenarios

Want to run D&D for the first time? You could do a lot worse than run through one of the Starter Sets or the Essentials Kit – and in any case, you’ll make it easier for a first time to use a published adventure. Both options are good, and there are some great starting short adventures for a few systems out there. Like getting your head around the rules, having the plot worked out for an adventure will give you one less thing to worry about. There are even some on this blog!

This book does contain some actually useful advice too!

Run for 2-4 sessions

Running one-shots is hard, as is maintaining (or committing) to a long campaign. Take away some of the time pressure by pitching to run for 3 sessions or so – you don’t have to worry as much about pacing, and you can take feedback and do any tweaking you need to between sessions. A lot of published adventures will run to this length anyway, so you can use them – but feel free to cut out stuff if you want to as well – you don’t have to run as the scenario author intended.

Don’t Bother With Character Creation

For a full campaign, you’ll want a session zero where you share expectations and the players create their characters. For your first time, you’ll find it easier at the table if you get some pregens together and just dive in. This means you’ll have a better idea of what the PCs can do, and also means you’ll be actually running the game straightaway. Of course, you still want to have some basic safety tools like an X-Card or trigger warnings for any potentially upsetting stuff at the start – but don’t spend a session making characters, just dive in.

Get Feedback

End each session with a quick stars and wishes session and ask your players what they want more or less of. Having a quick debrief like this will help you to zoom out and see what the session was like, and also allow your player to show you appreciation for running it. It’s easy when DMing to only notice when things go wrong, and your players should be able to help show you how much fun they had! (If your players are mean to you after you’ve just run a session for them, get new players. Seriously.)

So, some actually useful advice for new GMs… I mean, above all, do just have fun, but the above might make it easier to have it! Let me know in the comments if there’s anything I’ve missed!