DMing a game can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience. My first campaign had its ups and downs, but I learned a lot from it. I asked Trevor a while back if I could write a guest post on his blog about this experience, and he was all for it. So, here we go!
First, a little introduction to my game. I started out with book one of the Wrath of the Righteous adventure path from Paizo, using the Pathfinder system. My plan was to run the first book, and if everyone liked it, continue with the AP. As most sessions go, that is not what happened! After the first book was a success, I purchased the second and realized I hated where the AP was taking the story. So, now that I felt comfortable enough to do it, I began fleshing out my own story using the same basic plot- kill demons.
Now, it should be noted that this was not an ordinary AP- it took the characters from level 1-20 AND by the end of the campaign, the PCs would have earned 10 mythic tiers as well. I thought that adding the tiers would be fun for the players and would make for some really epic boss fights- which turned out to be a correct assumption. However, if any of you have dabbled in mythic tiers, you know that they are absolutely clownshoes and can make a normally challenging encounter easy peasy.
In the end, I don’t regret giving my players the mythic tiers- it definitely made me grow and learn as a DM more than a normal 1-20 level progression would have. However, it is something I DO NOT recommend doing for your first game! It requires a lot of extra effort for each session (especially if your players maximize), and in my opinion, is not really worth the hassle unless you are super serious about the game.
So I think that’s enough backstory! Without futher ado, here are my biggest lessons learned as a first-time DM.
1) Read the rules. Read them again. Seriously, this is first on the list for a reason. You cannot expect to run a fluid, fun campaign if you have no idea what your NPCs, bosses, and PCs are doing. For example, mythic tiers grant characters the ability to surge, which basically adds a 1d6/d8/d10 to a d20 roll. You can perform this as an immediate (once a round) action. We all briefly skimmed over this because everyone at the table thought they knew how it worked… and realized during one of the last sessions that we were wrong! Somehow, the immediate action rule had escaped all of us, so we were surging whenever and multiple times. Had I been more diligent with reading, this would not have been a problem. Now, I’m not saying you have to know how every single thing works, but you should be familiar with the class mechanics of your players and NPCs, and the feats/traits they take.
2) Mistakes happen. This is a given. Even the most knowledgeable player/DM is going to make mistakes- especially when you have 20 levels and 10 mythic tiers to keep track of! When these things happen with players, it’s best to just get it right the next time and let it slide. As a DM, it’s best to err on the side of the players and correct it retroactively if need be.
3) Plan for your players. If you have a table full of wargamers, get ready for some combat-heavy sessions. If you have a lot of role-players, brush up on your improv. In my group, I had a balance of both. Admittedly, I tend to lean more towards combat, mainly because I discovered I have a real knack for boss encounters. However, I was able to step out of my comfort zone and RP for the players that wanted more character development and story details. Talk to your players, find out what they gravitate towards, and plan accordingly.
4) Boss battles don’t have to be boring. I LOVE making encounters with the big bad. Since my players were maximized and mythic, it opened the door for some really intense boss battles. Now I know some DMs tend to dislike these types of battles because they tend to take up a lot of time, and are generally boring because it’s just a lot of dice rolling and math. Things like terrain and environment can help, but the way to take your battles to the next level is by thinking outside of the box. I could actually do a whole blog post just on making encounters! But until then, here are a few things:
4.a) Make sure it isn’t all hack n’ slash. One of our most memorable fights was a shadow demon who summoned minions and transferred between them. The battle took all night, but surprisingly, no one was bored out of their minds! It was awesome because my players had to actually talk to each other about strategies and work together to figure out how to take this guy down.
4.b) There doesn’t have to be combat for it to be a boss encounter. At one point in the campaign, the PCs encountered an evil Runelord who had been held prisoner by the demon lord Baphomet. The Runelord offered to help the PCs in exchange for his freedom, promising to end his evil ways and turn to the path of righteousness. This is another boss encounter that took all session, because the party ended up divided- our Paladin and Druid didn’t think it was a good idea, while the Gunslinger and Hellknight thought he would be a great asset. At that point, I got to sit back and listen to everyone debate over what to do, and heard some very compelling arguments both way.
4.c) All you need is a little creativity. If you run a boss straight out of the book, chances are the encounter will be VERY boring. I gave all of my memorable bosses their own unique capabilities. For example, there was a recurring enemy that would change up his tactics based on who had wrecked him in the last battle. For the final boss, the players fought ‘opposites’ of themselves, whose life was linked to the big bad- who himself was not terribly powerful or damage-dealing, but was immune to almost everything. Another boss would switch up his damage type for whatever I rolled on a d8. These type of things keep the encounters interesting and don’t end up with the players looking at their phones or computers until their turn because they are invested in what’s happening.
5) Be ready for problems… or just problem players. Rules disagreements and bad player behavior are situations that I’m sure every DM has had to deal with before, and it’s how you deal with it that matters.
5.a) Rules problems. Pathfinder is annoyingly vague with a lot of mechanics, especially when getting into the mythic feats and abilities. While it is sometimes worth pausing the game to look up clarification on something, it’s usually best to make a ruling on the spot and figure it out later.
5.b) Player problems. I covered most of this above, but I would like to mention that you should always talk to your player when there’s something going on. Explain to them why their behavior is affecting the game and most importantly, listen to their side of things. Sometimes it’s best to just give the player what they want (within reason), and other times you may both decide it’s best if they no longer play in the game.
6) Prepare for distractions. My players were all part of a large group of friends, so there were sessions where we ended up talking and joking instead of playing. We remedied this somewhat by switching up the location of where we played, and the game did tend to run much smoother without outside distractions (TV, computers, etc). However, there were times- mainly during combat- where I did have to get everyone back on track. I don’t like raising my voice or ‘scolding’ everyone, but it’s very hard to DM and disrespectful to whoever’s turn it is when everyone else is watching a YouTube video or talking. Make sure that the players know it is nothing personal, you just want everyone to have a good time and not feel ignored.
7) Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. A lot of my time planning was spent consulting Pathfinder forums or messaging my players to ask for opinions. I was fortunate to have a table full of people who had previous DMing experience, and that became invaluable when I had questions about how a mechanic worked or how to deal with a player situation. Pathfinder devs are really good about responding to questions on their forums, so when in doubt, see what they say!
8) Plan ahead, but not too much. The first few months of my year-long campaign, I would devote hours to planning- writing out dialogue, backstories, and descriptions. The first time my players decided to do the exact opposite of what I’d written down, I learned that you really don’t need to detail your planning. Have a good idea of the plot, NPCs, and current story arc, but otherwise get ready to improvise and let your players tell the story. This way, it really is their adventure, and you don’t run the risk of railroading them or using the ‘invisible wall’ to guide them the way you want.
Well, that’s about it. There’s a lot more little things, but I think I’ve got all my bases covered! DMing is a lot of fun and I encourage anyone interested to give it a go!
Thank you to Trevor for letting me write this!
Detective’s Note: While I only played for the first few chapters of Fiwen’s game, I can tell you that she did an excellent job. I also don’t think she gives herself enough credit when she says she has a “knack” for boss battles, but I guess she wanted to be humble. Also, she’s a magnificent artist, which you can see here at http://fiwen.deviantart.com/