DM Tips: Things I wish I knew when I started DM'ing

DM Tips: Things I wish I knew when I started DM'ing

If you are new to DM'ing and need a quick guide on things to learn for your first campaign then this is a great place to start. I started DM'ing with a "wing it" attitude and failed a lot along the way. I stumbled over rules and how to role play NPC's effectively, but eventually found my footing. This article shares a list of a few things I wish I knew before I started. I've broken it down into the 3 main areas I think encompass most of Dungeons & Dragons: Social Interactions, Combat and Exploration.

1: Social Interactions

Social Interaction

Learn the Player Character Sheets

I can't stress how much this speeds up the game, particularly with combat and role playing. After I became familiar with the player's character sheets I no longer had to waste time at the table searching up what every spell/feat they were using. This helps keep the game flowing and keeps your players immersed in your world.

DM Tips:

  • Study each character's spells/feats/special moves
    This tip helps the most with keeping combat flowing seamlessly. When your player says I cast "suggestion" on the guard you as the DM can quickly role play how that spell plays out rather than having to look up the details about that spell.
  • Learn their backstory & important NPC's in their lives
    Understanding your player characters well helps with social encounters too e.g. if you know their backstory or what organizations they belong to you can improvise conversations with NPC's so much easier because you have topics to talk about that you know that player is going to get excited about.
  • Play into their appearance or demeanor
    What race/class are the characters? What do they look like and act like? Become familiar with the appearance & demeanor of your characters and that will help inform you how to role play NPC's attitude towards them. E.g. are they Dragonborn but the people of a city in your world are racist towards Dragonborns? By doing this it makes the world feel more rich and that the characters have a role & identity to play in this world

Role Play NPC's

Role playing NPC's is my favourite part of being a dungeon master. Watching other DM's role play NPC's and through my own trials & errors I have a few tips to help make this part of playing dnd more fun for the players and hopefully more interesting.

DM Tips:

  • Begin by describing about 5 things about the NPC's appearance
    This helps the players grasp how the NPC looks and feels. They can visualize the imagery of this NPC much easier with this. Start by describing 5 interesting details about the NPC such as: What they wear, their mannerisms, any interesting body features or the way they talk/act.
  • Have the NPC's goals + desires in mind
    Knowing what the NPC is trying to do with their life breathes life into the character. It helps with any improvised conversations that the party has with your NPC. Try bullet point a couple goals or desires for the NPC before you role play them.
  • Know the NPC's attitude toward the party
    Not every tavern owner or merchant is going to look kindly on the party. Before you begin role playing your NPC think about the NPC's attitude towards the party. Are they hostile? Are they friendly? and think about why. Perhaps they are a farmer that hates the idea of adventurers because adventuring is not "real" work.
  • Think about what the NPC knows
    Before throwing NPCs at your party think about how this NPC can help the party. Most NPC's are used as a tool by the DM to help inform the party or provide tension. Make sure you think about what the NPC might know about the world or the party and what kind of information the party could get from this person/creature.
  • Use voices and/or describe the voice of the NPC
    I personally love using different voices for different NPCs and the best tip I have is to re-use voices from characters/people you know in real life. e.g. celebrities & friends. This is useful because trying to remember what accent / voice your NPC had is difficult after about the 20th NPC. An alternative to this if you don't wish to voice act is to simply describe the voice of the NPC and then use your real voice. E.g. "The orc speaks with a low husky voice with the occasional grunt". The players will be able to visualize this just as easily.

Know when to use Skill Checks

Something useful is to decide the difficulty class (DC) for the skill checks based on how well the party has interacted with the NPC and what they are asking for. E.g. The party is trying to convince a noble of something and they go into the effort of using a disguise or present a trinket that they attained from a noble in a different village to help when they ask the NPC for a favor. In this instance if I had the DC at around 20 originally I might change the DC to 15 if their efforts were convincing enough. Similarly if the effort the party goes into and their solution is really creative I will reward them by asking for a persuasion check with advantage.

DM Tips: 

The following describes some of the most commonly used skills and when to use them:

  • Intimidation: The party tries to intimidate an NPC into giving them what they want
  • Persuasion: The party tries to persuade an NPC into giving them what they want
  • Deception: The party tries to lie to an NPC to get their way
  • Insight: The party is trying to discern whether an NPC is lying or telling the truth
  • Sleight of Hand: The party tries to steal or distract an NPC

2: Combat

Learn the Rules of Combat

Make sure you read the 5e players handbook combat section. Your players will ask about what they can do on their turn many times while they are still trying to pick up dnd.

DM Tips:

  • Learn the basic rules
    Dungeon Diaries: Combat Explained

    Image from Dungeon Diaries.

  • Try learn some common niche rules for upcoming combat
    There are a couple rules that come in handy when running your first sessions. A small list of some niche combat rules to look up are below:

    Running combat in different environments

Prepare Combat Encounters

A lot of the time you will need to have encounters prepared to be ready for whatever your players might throw at you. To help you with that here are some things I learnt that were helpful to me.

DM Tips:

  • Use Maps!
    Preparing maps is essential to know where your creatures + players are. I usually find maps on pinterest or google images to reuse in my games. You can also get creative and draw your own maps.
  • Create Random Encounter Tables
    Create random encounter tables for monsters the party are likely to encounter in the environment they are in. Choose monsters that make sense in your campaign setting and spend a little time thinking about why they make sense for your campaign.
  • Learn the monster's abilities
    You need to read the monster sheet before the game session. This helps combat flow smoothly without you stopping every 2 minutes to read what the monster can do.

3: Exploration

Appeal to the senses when describing scenery

Try to keep each description relatively short but focus on a few key features that you want the players to experience. This helps the players imagine the bustling city, the small humble village or the cold, wet dungeon.

DM Tips:

  • Describe the weather and the time of day
    Describing the weather helps the players immerse themselves into the world. Describing the time of day lets them imagine what the lighting might be like outside and put together a plan for what they want to do with the time they have left
  • Appeal to senses: smell & feel etc
    When describing try to appeal to some senses other than sight. Think about what the characters might feel or smell as they explore the ancient temple ruins.
  • Describe the inhabitants of the scene to breathe life into it
    This one is not as important but helps paint a picture of the place. Try to talk about what the population is like. Is it a dense city or are the people spread out sparsely? Are there animals or monsters here? Bugs flying in your face or fish swimming in the river nearby?

Keep travel interesting by controlling the pace

When I started controlling the pace was a headache. Travel scenes took forever because I described every rock and tree and threw so many enemies at them. Here are some tips to keep travel succinct and fun.

DM Tips:

  • Prepare non combat encounters for overland travel
    Timing is key to keeping overland travel fun. Rather than talking about every little detail plan some key encounters on the way and just describe those. E.g. "2 days of travel on foot pass rather uneventfully, until you notice a crowd gathering on the road. Farmers are shouting at a group of adventurers".
    Another non combat encounter to deploy is landmarks. These could be natural or man made & really plays into the fantasy of the world.
  • Prepare combat encounters for overland travel
    You could either have campaign related encounters that drive the story forward on the road, or simply have random combat encounters at your disposal.

Describe the room first and then the monsters

A mistake I used to make is explaining what monster/enemy lay before the party as they burst into the room and then described the room decor. Do it the other way around, it keeps the players interested and builds tension.

DM Tips

  • Describe the terrain
    The players might want to use the terrain to their advantage. So describing the combat environment helps the players get creative on their turn.
  • Describe the room & then the monster
    Players will often overlook the room if you start with a monster because all they can focus on is the fact that there is an ogre staring at them while you try to talk about the deprecated curtains in the dungeon.
  • When you mention the monster don't make it attack the party
    Let there be a pause after you describe the monster in the room. If you always start with "you see a goblin, it attacks you"! Then you aren't giving your players the opportunity to have a social interaction with the monster which is sometimes more enjoyable than combat!


All of the tips above are there so that you can improvise easier and allow the game to flow more naturally. If all else fails don't forget that you can always make it up! Let go of the reigns and just make everything up. Your players will have just as much fun. I hope that you can learn from my mistakes and that my learnings are useful to you :)


Kindest Regards,

The Travelling Merchant

Back to blog


Great tips from the greatest DM I know!


This is really cool! wow!!!


Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.