At last, the day that I had been waiting for had finally arrived. It was the day of my official “debut” as a Dungeon Master, something that I had been looking forward to and planning for nearly three months. This was what I had requested as my birthday present from my friends and family; all I wanted was for them to join me for the one-shot campaign that I had prepared. I had prepared food, drinks, and desserts for the festivities, and even bought a pack of dice so that each person could receive a set, as most of my players had never played before, and thus had no materials. Hours of prep had gone into the session, and now the time had arrived.
Prior to the session, I spent time with each of my friends and family members to build their 3rd level characters. My friend Matt (the aforementioned DM for the game I play in and one of the players for Session 0) I did not supervise since he had nearly a year of experience playing and knew how to build characters. He chose to play a dragonborn paladin named Kava. Another friend, Jon, preferred the sneakier characters and so created Varis, a wood elf assassin rogue. Neli, another friend of mine, brought to life Kao Lei, a skilled marksman who once served as a soldier in the Tovellian army but has since become a ranger who discloses little about her past. As mentioned from Session 0.5, my sister played Caileth, the tempest cleric of Perceus, and my father was Solomon Sollew, bard extraordinaire. Together, the five made an eclectic team, and my players were ready to go.
The plot for my one-shot was supposedly simple. The group had been summoned to Goldcrest, the capital of Tovell, by a mysterious dragonborn named Druvall who knew Caileth from her time at the church in the capital. Druvall was the leader of a resistance that had popped up in Goldcrest; a small group of people had become dissatisfied with the corruption in the kingdom and desired a change. However, in a recent attempt to attack the government, one of the resistance leaders had gotten captured. Sandrael, an elven wizard, was set to be executed by morning. Druvall wanted the adventurers to sneak into the prison by using the resistance’s inside man, free Sandrael, and escape through the abandoned thieves guild tunnels under the city to return Sandrael to the resistance. Towards the end of the tunnel system, the PCs would encounter a group of thieves, indicating that the tunnel system was not as abandoned as anyone thought it was. The plan seemed simple and clear cut. I had prepared for this session probably twenty times more than I had for those simple improvised sessions, and if we had fun for those, then surely we would do even better this time!
Things certainly did not go as planned, however. While the plot ended up going in essentially the same direction that I had planned, there were some crucial differences that I had not planned for. We still enjoyed ourselves, but the session did not feel as fun as the first two, and it made me question whether or not I actually enjoyed DMing. Fortunately, I learned some extremely important lessons as a DM that I still consider to this day.
- If your players are suspicious of NPCs, there is only so much you can do about it
My players had decided right from the beginning of the session that they did not trust Druvall. They felt that it was extremely peculiar that this mysterious dragonborn guy who Caileth barely even remembered had suddenly sought them out for help. I in no way was anticipating this level of suspicion. Maybe from Matt, who had been playing for quite some time and knew how D&D and stories worked, but all four of the other people agreeing? In hindsight that probably just shows how naïve I am as a player, but at the time it frustrated me to no end. It seemed ridiculous to me that they would believe that I was setting them up so early. Even though they agreed to help rescue Sandrael, they were explicit in the fact that they did not trust Druvall or his organization.
It didn’t help however that many of my players’ characters were from Tovell, including Lei, and so several of them did not feel safe regardless of the situation. Even though during this first session most of my players did not have anything worked out for their backstory, most of them at least knew where their character was from. Without even realizing that most of my players had chosen Tovell as a home base, I had structured a story around a place that these characters were likely to feel uncomfortable. Perhaps if I had been more aware of my players and their decisions concerning their characters, the suspicion could have been avoided. This issue would actually come up again in future sessions, making this something I regret a bit. However, it has also allowed me to set up for story elements down the line now that we play regularly, so this has been a mixed bag of fortune.
- Your players are going to want to talk to local people; try to be prepared for that
When the characters were given the mission to sneak into the prison, they decided to case the joint while they were waiting for the changing of the guard that Druvall had told them would be their opportunity to strike. Not only did the players try to interact with the guards, some of them decided to visit the local shops. For some reason I hadn’t actually mapped out what was around the prison, so when the group wanted to talk to people, I had to quickly come up with some shops around the area. I settled on an alchemist’s shop, a blacksmith, a bakery, and a tailor. Kava chose to go into the alchemist’s shop, and ended up purchasing some healing potions. Two of the other members decided to talk to the tailor, hoping to find (translation: steal) a guard uniform. Instead they found a woman who was repairing a uniform but unfortunately it was not fit to wear yet. Through conversation they found out that the girl was infatuated with one of the guards, but otherwise there was no information to be had, primarily because I had not thought this far and was coming up with things off of the top of my head.
Solomon, on the other hand, was far more interested in learning about the person they were supposed to meet up with. With a particularly good perception check, he was able to notice that one of the guards had a letter sticking out of his uniform. By pretending to be drunk he was able to grab the letter, take a look at it, and put it back. The latter contained information about the meetup and was signed by “D”. While the players might not have trusted the kid, they knew at this point that he was the one to stay on the lookout for.
Even though the scenario ended up working, the players got almost nothing from the scenario because I hadn’t had at least a basic outline in place before the game. Everything from the letter to the tailor girl had been improvised on the spot, meaning that I wasn’t able to give the players as much detail as either of us would have liked. I could tell that they were fairly frustrated with the scenario and felt that their efforts should have garnered more reward. Because I hadn’t thought through the people who lived in the area and had assumed that my players would have moved in a straight line towards the suggested target. I found out that players will feel as if their efforts are not paying off if you lead them in a direction and yet leave them no clues.
- Practice variety in your NPCs
During this first game, I found it difficult to differentiate my NPCs with acting and voices. Outside of Druvall, the first NPC the players interacted with was a barmaid who wound up with an increasingly high-pitched voice and a progressively more southern drawl (the Texan in me was strong that day I guess). My players joked that she was actually just me putting myself in the game. This was fine at first, but later on when they met the tailor, she also had a high-pitched voice, particularly when talking about the guard that she had a crush on. The players once again joked that I had simply made the NPCs copies of myself.
I did have NPCs that were more distinct; Druvall had a gravellier voice, and since Sandrael was an elf from a foreign land I gave her a slight accent. What exactly the accent was I couldn’t tell you, but it was probably some strange mix of French, German, Russian, and probably some other eastern European accents. Dimitri, the inside man at the prison, I didn’t give a distinct voice, but I managed to keep him from being high pitched or Texan in his speech. However, having those two characters who were so indistinct in the beginning made me realie that I need to work on things like pitch, tone, and accent. An excellent resource for DMs (and players too) is IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive). By listening to and practicing along with the various accents and dialects, RPG players, voice artists, and actors can become much better at using their voice, and DMs can learn better to differentiate their characters.
- Make sure to have options so you aren’t railroading your players
This is perhaps the biggest mistake I made during this session. I hadn’t prepared for much variety in my plan, and so when my players tried to do something different than what I had expected, I panicked and tried to persuade them to do what I wanted them to. Once the players had infiltrated the prison and broken Sandrael out of the cell, I had intended for the players to escape down a secret tunnel that led to a forrested area close to the rebel encampment. If they rolled badly on their stealth checks, the guards inside the prison might notice, forcing them to flee quickly and take Dimitri with them. However, my players (perhaps suspicious of Druvall from earlier on) were hesitant to go into the tunnels and instead wanted to venture out the way they came and take a chance with the guards outside. I had not prepared for this opportunity and so when the players were discussing their options, I tried to prod them along the path of the tunnels using Sandrael and Dimitri. Eventually my players gave in, although I could tell they were a little frustrated, although they didn’t leave without a parting gift. Dimitri was unable to go with them but the guards were fast approaching, so to save his cover he asked one of the group to stab him (non-lethally of course). However, Kava took it upon herself to beam the poor guy upside the head with her hammer, effectively knocking him out. Effective and traumatic. Nice.
Another thing that was frustrating for my player was the “dungeon” I had created for them. To create the tunnels, I decided that a maze would be a good way to go, and so found a decent looking map online that I could use for my purposes. Neither too simple nor too complex, the map gave me the ability to customize the dungeon so that even dead ends could provide some interesting treasure. I set up traps in the form of pit traps, nets hanging from the ceiling and poisoned chests, and sprinkled in some untrapped chests with some less cool prizes along the way. Yet my party managed to circumvent almost all of the maze. Lei used her ranger instincts to find north, and with a good survival roll she not only knew where north was but she knew where the old mines that the rebellion had utilized were. This allowed the group to make their way through most of the maze of tunnels relatively unharmed. It didn’t seem like the players minded terribly, but I felt that by railroading them into this situation, the players had become anxious and wanted to get out of the tunnels quickly, resulting in a mad dash through the dungeon.
At the end of the day, all of us had fun, and most of the people claimed that they had a good first experience with D&D, which was all that I could have hoped for with this encounter. Even though I fumbled quite a bit during my first major session as a DM and wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue, I still enjoyed getting to try it and spending time with my friends and family. Even though I haven’t been DMing for very long, I still consider that the worst session I have ever DMed, and I am incredibly grateful to the players who have stuck with me long enough to turn my idea into a full campaign. To new DMs, the first time is always going to be rough because it is a big seat to fill, but if you relax, have fun, and keep at it, you will get better and your players will have fun.