I estimate that I have run between 200 and 300 sessions, and despite having spent over 1000 hours prepping and running games, I just finished a campaign for the first time. It took 7 years and 53 sessions, but I took players from level 1 to 18. They started out fighting zombies and ended fighting the most powerful wizards in the world. They parleyed with gods, found many allies, and ultimately saved the universe.
I reviewed my first notes for this game, and I was pleasantly shocked by how bad they were. I’m glad to see how much I have learned about DMing since then and thus have a few ideas to share from the experience.
1. Start Small
I started this game with a big vision. It was set in the existing fantasy world of Tekumel, which I researched heavily. I came up with an outline for several large chapters to take my players from level 1 to 20. I created a bunch of factions and characters to make the world feel alive around my players.
And then we started playing.
As we played, I had to tweak everything to match what happened in game. My notes were filled with unexplored eventualities and a mess of contradictions that I got confused about what had actually happened at the table, what the current explanation behind the scenes was, and what I had deliberately discarded. I struggled towards the end to manage the pacing and keep the story coherent, and when I declared it the end of the campaign, I was frankly relieved to have stuck the landing.
There’s a meme out there about how players think that their DMs have a master plan and grand story figured out, but DMs know that the game is more like this:
Fiction, by definition, is all made up, but readers, viewers, listeners, and players set aside that fact in the moment because the story is more meaningful if we all pretend it is real. Game of Thrones was teetering during the last season, but it only went off the rails when the community could no longer suspend disbelief and questioned the other D&D (David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) for making up that crap.
So as a DM, it seemed natural to create a vast, intricate world with a story to last dozens of sessions. That’s how TV shows, popular fictional universes, published adventures, and even other campaigns look. In retrospect, they only got there in the end, and that lore was built up over time, not pre-written.
Next time, I’m starting small. Writers create the world and story for their readers. DMs discover the world and story with their players.
2. Let Players Go
Only a few sessions into this campaign, one of my players left: they just weren’t enjoying the game. It was quite a blow as a new DM: I had failed to create a compelling experience for someone.
However, seven years and about 200 hours of play later, I have come to terms with that. I love RPGs because they are so flexible compared to other games. Just as a person can like this movie but not that one, a player can like this RPG group but not that one with no judgment on the quality of the work.
Also, campaigns are long. Sessions are long. Most TV shows are only the fraction of the runtime of a campaign. Life gets in the way, and if a player has to leave, just keep going with everyone else. The point of a game is for everyone to have fun, and if that’s true for the remaining players, that’s the mark of a good DM.
3. Do a Session 1.5
When I started this game, I went through character creation with each player to get them familiar with the rules, and then we just started. I think I first asked for feedback about the game 20 sessions and two years into the game after I had two players leave and had to do some soul-searching.
To mitigate the risk of misalignment with players, many DMs will recommend doing a Session Zero. In Session Zero, the DM and players meet to discuss the concept of the game and expectations around it.
I won’t quite say that I recommend against doing Session Zeros, but I will instead suggest a Session 1.5 instead.
My problem with Session Zero is that it’s hard to talk about a game abstractly. There are many Session Zero guides, but most of it, like world building, will be irrelevant. Perhaps specific questions will avoid specific disasters, but I personally don’t need to read Miranda rights to my players.
Instead, I now start campaigns by just playing a one-shot. In a session or two, the players will get a feel for the world and the table dynamic, and then they can evaluate whether they want to keep playing. I constantly pester my players for feedback and hope that it keeps things fun.
4. Run How You Want
I have read so much advice about how to DM, and although the Angry GM, Matt Colville, Matt Mercer, Sly Flourish, and /r/dmacademy have absolutely made me a better DM, it is hard not to compare myself to them and their advice.
I will always aspire to run better games, but I have to remember that there is no perfect game. Each player has fun in their own way, so I have to run each group differently, and therefore have to prep differently. What worked for my Tekumel group is unique, and having learned from that, I will never run another game the same way.
As I was writing this post, I realized I was light on specifics about techniques, and this thinking is why. If a DM is having a specific issue, I probably have specific ideas, but what I learned from this campaign is that most of what I learned isn’t portable.
So I will keep reading and thinking and working to be a better DM, but I have to remind myself there is no perfect. In D&D terms, it’s not about being level 20: it’s about leveling up.