When you run a game of Dungeons & Dragons, the intention should be to make it enjoyable for everyone at the table. The players and the Dungeon Master. There’s little point in running the game if you’re hating every minute of it, and if the players aren’t enjoying it, why should they come back for another game?
This is especially important when running D&D Adventurers League games, when you can often be playing with people you’ve never seen before. A lot of players are playing the game for the first time, and the Dungeon Master is the person who has the most control over their experience. There are players that won’t enjoy the game no matter what you do, and they need to be handled carefully. However, your average first-time player is likely to enjoy the game… as long as the game is enjoyable. To that end, I’ve assembled a few tips on helping you to that end.
Ignoring the Dice
Using a Dungeon Master’s Screen is not only about hiding the adventure and having a reference for oft-looked-up rules. The great advantage of using a screen is that you can lie about what your dice rolled. That natural twenty that would have slain the wizard? It was a normal hit instead – or perhaps even a miss. And, sometimes, you turn a monster’s missed attack into a hit, because otherwise there’s never any feeling of danger and you’ve been rolling ones and twos all night. I don’t do that last much. The first? All the time.
My standard assumption for a player I haven’t DMed before is they want to finish the scenario successfully. Yes, they probably want to feel like it’s challenging, but they don’t want to be wiped out just because your dice were running hot. If a player leaves the table feeling like everything they did failed, that’s not good. And the entire party being killed? There are times when I’m happy to have it happen, but almost never to a table of new players playing their first game of D&D!
So, I lie about what the dice do. A lot. (The more experienced the players, the more I let the dice be unaltered.)
In low-level games, the dice have a huge effect on the game. A 5th-level barbarian can handle what I throw at her. The 2nd-level wizard? One good hit and they’re down. In Organised Play, you’re not even sure of having a healer at the table. So, I’m very aware of the effect my dice can have on the game. You want the game to be challenging. You don’t want the players to not have a chance. So, I roll dice behind a screen, and alter their results for the good of the game.
Another aspect to this is that I adjust the difficulty of encounters by changing the number and type of monsters faced to better suit the party. And occasionally their hit points and damage codes, if that’s a better option. The D&D Adventurers League adventures have suggested options for scaling the adventures, but you’re not limited by those guidelines, and you’re also able to alter encounters in other adventures to better suit your needs, even if they don’t directly give you advice about how to do it.
Paying Attention to Players
A wide range of personality types play games. And, for obvious reasons, you will tend to concentrate on the ones who clamour for your attention. This isn’t something to feel bad about.
However, you should interact with the quieter players at your table as well. There are people who just want to be there and are happy for others to take the lion’s share of attention. Don’t push them out of their comfort zones. However, you also get people who are just shy or intimidated by the rest of the group. Or who worry about being perceived as inexperienced or stupid if they ask to do something that isn’t optimal. With these types, I try to engage them and help them through the process of doing what they want.
If, in the process, they do something unusual (like jumping on a Dire Wolf and trying to tame it), why not let them try it. Yes, it probably won’t work, but at least they can try. And if, in failing, they achieve something positive, then, with any luck, they’ll try something else and become more confident.
Likewise, if one or more players at your table are getting unhappy about something, try to discover what it is and fix it.
Keeping track of how your players are feeling while you’re running an adventure isn’t trivial, but it’s worth the effort.
Pacing the Adventure
There are very few adventures that are wall-to-wall combat. In general, they tend to move between exploration, social interaction and combat. The trick here is – as far as you’re able – to not take overlong on the bits your players aren’t enjoying. Which bits won’t they enjoy? Well, that’s why you have to pay attention to their reactions!
You are limited by the design of the adventure, but normally you should be able to emphasise the parts your players enjoy.
One thing to be very wary of is when a session becomes purely role-playing. This is more likely to happen in Curse of Strahd than any other adventure. This isn’t a problem if everyone enjoys roleplaying, but if you’ve got a couple of characters who like combat who are getting bored, you can still have a lot of role-playing, but use the random encounter tables (or the keyed encounter areas) to push the group into a fight or two. (I’ve had a couple of players be very frustrated by a session that saw them gain no XP. Note that you gain XP for overcoming foes, even if you do it by non-combat means).
Likewise, if the adventure is all combats, see if you can delay a combat a little to allow some role-playing with the foes before the inevitable battle begins; at least that way, the role-players in your group may be able to do some meaningful interaction. Let them learn something important!
Keeping the Peace
One thing that can go horribly wrong is when players conflict on what they want to do. As the DM, you’ll need to moderate between them. It’s hard to give general advice on this, because situations vary so much. It’s something you need to be aware of and moderate according to your sense of what is proper.
I’m very, very wary of situations where one player wants to do something which will make the rest of the group unhappy and wreck the adventure for them. There are times when you have to say no to players. You don’t have to allow a disruptive player to ruin things. I discuss this matter more in my previous DM Tips article, When to Say “No”.
Making Sure Their Characters Are Enjoyable
One final bit of advice: Nothing frustrates a player more than having a character who is ineffective. If you’re using pre-generated characters, choose a selection that covers the roles and are fun to play. If the players bring their own characters, see how the party balance looks, if the individual characters look like they will work, and provide the option of pre-generated characters if it will help ward off dissatisfaction. I recently used my own set of pre-generated characters at a local convention, and noticed that one of the characters (the fighter) wasn’t as engaging or as effective as the others. For the next set I build, I’ll try to fix that problem and have all the characters be effective.
So, there are a few tips on things I try to do when running the game for new players (and, to be honest, for more experienced players as well!) I haven’t covered everything, but I hope these tips give you something to think about!