Dungeon Mastering Tips
Tips from THE D&D Compendium
Dungeon Masters can wear many hats. Storyteller, voice actor, improvisational artist, comedian, rules referee, combat strategist, party host, event planner (both for the people playing in your game and for the people in your game world), cartographer, puzzle crafter, content creator and organizer, among many others. The skills you use while dungeon mastering and preparing to run game sessions have many applications outside of the game, and this is one of the funnest and most rewarding ways to practice them. Your primary job as a Dungeon Master, however, is to make sure everyone at your table is engaged and having fun!
If You Know Nothing About Dungeons & Dragons:
Check out the Newbie Guides page on this site, then return here when you feel comfortable with your understanding of the game itself.
If you have played D&D Before, but have not been a Dungeon Master:
YOU CAN DO THIS!
Any effort you put into running a game for a group of players is appreciated by those players. Sometimes, all it takes to run a good session is a single sentence, prepared in advance. Once you lift the veil on the "magic" that DMs seem to make happen, you find out how much content is improvised on the spot. You cannot control your players' characters' actions, so you cannot possibly prepare for every possible situation. The best you can do is understand how your world operates, so you can come up with the reactions of characters in your world.
Try Running a Small Published Adventure First...
The Essentials Kit and the Starter Kit for 5th Edition D&D both have high-quality low-level adventures for new DMs to run for a small group of players. They're designed to lead you into the game, and come with pre-made characters and a copy of the basic rules. I also have guides for them on this site, with tips and suggested changes to help you. Or, you can find adventures on AdventureLookup, DriveThruRPG or the DMsGuild to try with your players.
...or, Try Making Your Own!
Need some inspiration on where to begin? Pick a plot hook and let your imagination run wild! Some things to keep in mind:
Prepare NPCs with motivations. Motivation drives action.
Try building encounters with at least 3 Levels of Why: why are they there? Because A. Why A? Because B. Why B? Because C.
You don't need more than 4 significant locations in order to have a successful short adventure arc.
Use an Easy Rules Reference.
DM Screens aren't just for making your rolls in private. There are lots of good DM screens out there that you can either buy or print out. Check the DM Screens page and find a layout that works for you! For players, having a Cheat Sheet handy may prove useful at the table.
My Tips for all DMS
Don't Write a Story in Advance.
You're going to be building a story with your players, not dragging them along the plot of your fantasy novel. The biggest driver of plot action is motivation. Everyone wants something, and they generally act towards that goal. Good plots, and complex characters, stem from conflicts of motivation. When making characters in your world, give them at least one motivation, so that you can determine how they might act when presented with the situations that come up during your campaign.
Supporting article by The Alexandrian: Don't Prep Plots
Explore everything this site has to offer. Advice for making encounters, tools for organizing your thoughts, lists of plot hooks to get a story started, generators for shops and maps, and tons (really, tons) more. Take a look at what's out there, and find some tools that you'll find useful. There is so much content out there to gain inspiration from - write down ideas as they come, and prepare bits of content for your world based off of them.
Ask For Help!
There are several Dungeon Master-centric discussion forums, Reddit pages, Discord chat servers, and Facebook groups out there. Check out the Communities listed on this site for the invites and links. Run your ideas by other DMs and see if they can help you implement them in your world. They all have their own tips and advice to give, and there are often very good posts to find if you dig for a bit. One of the secrets of DMing is that we steal ideas from other DMs ALL THE TIME. Support content creators who are doing the work for you, when you can. Look at Patreon, DMsGuild, DriveThruRPG as content platforms.
Have a Session Zero Before Starting a New Campaign.
Make sure the game you want to run and the game the players want to play in are compatible. Talk about boundaries. Figure out what characters your players will be playing, and help them fit their characters into your world. Tell them a bit about the setting, and give them some background information their characters might know. This allows them to give their characters a meaningful motivation, which drives the progression of a plot.
Don't Tell the Players How Their Characters Feel or What They Do.
Your players have free will. Let them keep it. Controlling other people's characters is a big no-no.
A collection of guides and tips from the masters
Starting a New Homebrew Campaign
Session Zero Handout - Shows the DM what kind of players they have. Includes space to write character info.
Plot Hooks to get you started quickly
Starting an Official Published Adventure Module
Check out the Adventure Guides section of the website.
[Reddit] The Complete Hippo - great for worldbuilding
Sly Flourish Article Archive (Use ctrl-f to find stuff)
The Angry GM RPG advice
Lithyscaphe - DMing in old-school style