My first time as a dungeon master
I play D&D every other week. The group is great. We love the game and we like to keep it balanced — we don’t want to just churn through battle after battle but we also don’t want to spend the entire time role-playing. We like a good mix of both. This allows us to develop complex, interesting characters while still building up our stats and gaining levels.
One thing that makes this group unique — unlike most D&D groups I’ve played with, it has more women than men. In fact, the DM is a woman. It’s also a diverse group. I am of Indian descent, the DM is biracial and the cleric is black. The other 4 players are white. We work well as a team.
Over the holidays, with people traveling, we decided to have a couple of one-off campaigns. This also gave the regular DM a break and gave other people a chance to DM.
When it was my turn… I was nervous as heck. I’d never done it before and was not sure I could.
Fortunately, my group was incredibly supportive. The regular DM sent me links to a bunch of resources. The guy whose house we meet at also offered input — he used to DM regularly and had some good insights. When we actually played, the players all offered me help when I needed to look something up or verify stats.
It turned out to be a great experience.
A few things I learned that might be applicable to any situation:
I wrote out my plans in a spiral notebook, though there are online tools and apps available. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what tool you use, the important thing is to make a plan. Below, I’ll discuss in more detail what my plan was.
The best laid plans can go awry, as I’ll explain below as well. It doesn’t matter, though, as long as you can be flexible. The best way to give yourself room to maneuver might be to build that adaptability into your plans, if you can. Or to keep your plans broad enough, with enough wiggle room, that you are not cornered with no options.
It’s better not to be too caught up on being in charge, even if you are in charge. Particularly when dealing with millennials, an authoritarian approach just doesn’t work. Allowing at least some appearance of a more democratic system brings more support to your plan.
Keep your Team’s Strengths in Mind
While theoretically, as the DM, I was on the opposing side to the players, in actuality a good DM will tailor the campaign to the team’s strengths and weaknesses. To make it fun it needs to be challenging but not impossible.
So, how did this actually work in practice?
I mapped out a decision tree for my players based on a Greek-themed story line, since one of the players was a minotaur. The story would evolve based on the choices they made.
The players were shipwrecked on the island of Parnassus. In order to get home, they had to climb the summit before sunset and talk to the Simurgh. There would be three interactions before the final one.
First, they would row to the beach, where an old woman sat in the shade of the adjoining forest. She could supply them with details about the island if they asked her questions. She would ask them to take her to see the Simurgh. As an old woman she could not navigate the dangers of the forests alone.
Second, once they entered the forest — they would encounter maenads along with companion wolves and panthers. The maenads would offer them blood wine. If they drank some and agreed to party with the maenads, then all would be fine, at least for a while. If they refused to drink the wine, then a battle would ensue.
Depending on their choice, they would either have an opportunity for role-playing with half-naked drunken nymphs and furry large animals or fight those creatures.
If they had taken the old woman and asked her the right questions upon encountering the maenads, she would steer them in the right direction.
So far, the decision tree was fairly simple.
Their next encounter was with a giant python, who is the natural enemy of the Simurgh (a giant bird). If the party had befriended the maenads, the nymphs would help fight the python. Otherwise, the party was on their own.
Finally, they would encounter the Simurgh. Hopefully they would do it before sunset, as, after dark, the Simurgh would be asleep and revenants would be roaming the top of the mountain.
The Simurgh is lawful good and would only help those of good alignment. However, if the travelers had helped the old woman and killed the python (the enemy of the Simurgh) then she would be willing to help neutral party members if they could answer a riddle.
Fortunately none of my party members were evil…
So, how did it work out?
Everyone had a great time. They chose to take the old woman but didn’t fully utilize her by asking questions. So they ended up having to fight the maenads. Which proved to be a tough battle.
I used the normal D&D monster guide to flesh out my maenads — they had a one-shot psionic scream and their fingers became claws when they attacked. Aside from the psionic attack, they weren’t particularly powerful and in a one-on-one battle with them, or the wolves, any of my heroes could prevail.
However, there were 8 maenads and 5 wolves. The 2 panthers chose to go off by themselves rather than engage in the attack.
Due to the numbers, the speed of the wolves and the psionic attacks, my heroes had a fairly tough fight. They also had to make sure the old lady didn’t die, since they had agreed to take her up the mountain and at least a couple of the characters were lawful good.
The battle ended with two characters dead but the maenads defeated. The old woman turned out to have a cache of healing potions she used to help revive the dead players.
The next battle, with the python, was easier but, since many of the players still had some injuries, again, two ended up dead. And again, the old woman helped out. I did double the hit points and speed of a standard D&D python when I drew up the campaign to make sure the encounter was not too easy.
The heroes made it to the Simurgh in the nick. Two of them had to answer riddles, which they were able to do, and everyone was sent home.
This turned out to be the perfect balance for my heroes. They felt challenged enough by the battles to be invigorated and yet they prevailed. So that provided a good game-playing experience for them. Plus they had to figure out the puzzle of the old woman and then the riddles of the Simurgh.
I really enjoyed being the DM. It gave me a chance to be creative in a different way and I was able to get help from my players a few times when I was unsure about a rule. So that was also great.
My friends enjoyed the experience since I provided them with a carefully crafted campaign. I prepared a decision tree ahead of time with options for both role-playing and combat, and I adapted my encounters to the party. I made sure that battles were tough without being overwhelming.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to try something new. I would encourage anyone who likes to play D&D to give a go at DMing sometime. If nothing else, it will give you sympathy for the Dungeon Master!