Avoid These 5 Common Mistakes New Dungeon Masters Make in D&D Campaigns

As with any new endeavor, there are several common mistakes that new Dungeon Masters make on their journey to greatness.

You want to avoid them.

We can help.

Introducing new players to the world of Dungeons & Dragons is an adventure in itself. And going that extra bit to step into the role of a Dungeon Master can be both exhilarating and challenging.

In this article, we’ll explore five common pitfalls and provide invaluable insights to help aspiring DMs navigate their way through beginning a successful D&D campaign. Let’s get started.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.

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1) Astronomical Role-Playing Expectations For Your Players

Expectations are one of the most important pieces of a successful long-term campaign. I go into this concept in detail in these articles if you need help or convincing:

Expectations, at their most basic level, are a set of preconceived desires or needs that a person believes will be met by a specific event, item, or course of action. If our players expect to get exactly what we are delivering, that’s good. If you expect to be entertained with a table full of professional improv actors in the first session, you may need to scale that back a bit.

New Dungeon Masters have a whole world of opportunity awaiting them.

Just as You Are Not Matt Mercer, Do Not Expect Your Players to be Professional Actors

The surprising and frankly, unbelievable rise and popularity of live-play tabletop roleplaying games is a double-edged sword. On one side, it exposes people to the hobby and raises interest, bringing more people our way than ever before. I love having new players at my table, and anecdotally I know live-play games are to thank for this.

The other side, though, is not as pleasant. People new to the hobby sometimes watch these games and then believe every experience they will have, be it player or Game Master, will be the equivalent of sitting in a high-production entertainment media studio run by life-long nerd experts and actors. Actors being the keyword, here.

Some of us have a natural affinity for acting and improvisation, but going into the game expecting all your players to do the same is unfair to them—especially if they’re new.

Keep This New Dungeon Master Mistake From Being a Problem

Lead by example. Your players will certainly look to you as the game’s facilitator to set the tone in the beginning, and then continue to maintain it. If you do not bring 100% acting chops to the table with a healthy dose of enthusiasm, don’t expect them to, either.

And, if your players are lucky to have the next Academy Award winner seated at the helm of their game, that’s super awesome for them (and fun for you). That also doesn’t mean the rest of your players have that talent, affinity, or even desire to perform. Make sure everyone is clear on roleplaying expectations when the game begins.

Be supportive and patient with new players. It’s your responsibility as a steward of the hobby to be welcoming and to try and give them a good first impression of the types of people they’ll find here.

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2) Focusing Too Much on the Rules

We need the rules to play the game. As the game’s facilitator, be it Dungeons & Dragons, Blades in the Dark, Pathfinder, or any other tabletop game, it’s your job to know most of the rules; however, they should not be the focus of your game session.

Here’s What You Need to Know, Specifically for Game Mechanics:

You need to know how to handle:

combat.
roleplaying.
travel.
help with character creation.
You also need to understand how items work in the game for power balancing.

That’s it. If you can do those things pretty well with minimal book checking, you’ll be doing great.

D&D, or Dungeons & Dragons, is one of the most popular TTRPGs in the gaming world! Delight your players with dynamic sessions, exciting one shots, and loads of fun NPC surprises! A D&D game is a great way to brighten up your week.

Rules Lawyering Can Slow the Game Down…

When playing the game, if you do not know the specific rule for something rarely used, you have two options. You can break the pace of the game by looking it up, or you can make something up that works fine for now and move on. This is a very subjective decision and what I would consider the “correct” answer in some cases, you may disagree with. But for the sake of this conversation, let me give you an example of when this would come into play.

Fall Damage

I’ll use fall damage as an example. Despite the description, fall damage probably doesn’t show up too often in your games. Here’s the official RAW (Rules As Written) for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons:

A fall from a great height is one of the most common hazards facing an adventurer. At the end of a fall, a creature takes 1d6 bludgeoning damage for every 10 feet it fell, to a maximum of 20d6. The creature lands prone, unless it avoids taking damage from the fall.

If you do not know this rule offhand and someone plummets from a third story balcony during an impromptu chase scene, should you stop the chase narrative to look it up?

If you can get the information within 5-10 seconds while you stall, describing the plummet to the ground and Googling simultaneously, sure. I use that tactic all the time with more obscure rules or spell details.

If you’re not confident in that skillset and it will take you closer to 30-60 seconds, I’d say don’t bother looking it up. Instead of stopping the action to make sure the correct amount of damage is taken, take care of it on your own and move on. I have a few suggestions for that below.

…But Make Sure You Are Fair

If you choose to take this approach, there’s a few ways you can do it:

  • Assign a small amount of damage and move on
  • Assign no damage and instead give a plot point: In this case, I might say that you twist your ankle on the land and your speed is halved
  • Assign damage after the high-intensity scene is over, giving yourself some time to look up the rules
    • If it would have resulted in the player’s death, you’ll probably need to fudge that a little—maybe leave them one hit point plus a lingering injury? Your call.
D&D, or Dungeons & Dragons, is one of the most popular TTRPGs in the gaming world! Delight your players with dynamic sessions, exciting one shots, and loads of fun NPC surprises! A D&D game is a great way to brighten up your week.

If you choose to assign damage, be fair or even generous. Remember that the point of this is to KEEP the story going. If you unfairly batter your poor player, that’s going to likely upset them and make the experience even less fun than if you had stopped the action to look up the rule. Besides, you know they’ll check the RAW when they get a second and want an amendment, anyway.

A new Dungeon Master can find loads of success in a fresh campaign, with enough patience and preparation.

Keep This New Dungeon Master Mistake From Being a Problem

The last thing you want to do is spend precious minutes of your fun game time arguing with your players about rules or looking up specifics for every little thing that happens in the game.

If you have a particularly obstinate player at your table who simply wants to argue, Kick Them Out. They are likely ruining the experience for everyone. There are so, so many awesome and fun people in the world who would LOVE a chance to play in a game.

If, however, you have players who want clarification, or feel that something they contributed to in the game was ruled unfairly, take the time to really listen to them. Remember: it’s not YOU vs. THEM. It’s ALL of you working together to create a fun and epic story. The rules provide structure and give a challenge to the players that makes it fun.

You wield these rules as the marionette, not the prison guard.

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3) Bringing Outside Conflict, Personal Problems and Politics Into the Game

Playing a tabletop roleplaying game is meant to be a form of escapism. If we bring real life issues into the game, it can make the experience ugly for people very quickly. This may be the case even if your players don’t outright say it.

A lot of people prefer to avoid conflict. They may simply stop showing up to your games if you or other players make sessions unpleasant for them.

D&D, or Dungeons & Dragons, is one of the most popular TTRPGs in the gaming world! Delight your players with dynamic sessions, exciting one shots, and loads of fun NPC surprises! A D&D game is a great way to brighten up your week.

Politics, Specifically

Here’s what I’ve noticed: When in a politically-themed debate, people are not listening. They are just waiting for their turn to talk. People do not convince others of their beliefs during these exchanges in the majority of cases. If this is an issue at your table, I suggest you either find new players or stop the conversations yourself.

Keep This New Dungeon Master Mistake From Being a Problem

Here are a few articles that may help you with fixing this if it has already become a problem:

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4) Relying On One Decision-Making Moment

As Game Masters, when we are crafting the framework and conceptual gap-filling in Dungeons & Dragons (or any other tabletop roleplaying game) we should be leaving plenty of room for genuine player choice. Most of it, really.

While I’m certainly an advocate for merely propagating the illusion of choice in some scenarios, players should not feel like they are boxed in with only one potential direction available to them. This destroys one of the most precious facets of a tabletop RPG.

The term for this is “railroading” and is slung with intense vitriol within the TTRPG community. If you aren’t familiar with the concept or need some help with that, check out this article to help you prep more effectively.

Avoid common mistakes by reflecting on your practice often.

Railroading

If we are building a campaign arc and think something along the lines of: “When the players attack the BBEG….” You’ve already boxed them in. Maybe they won’t WANT to attack the main bad guy. This is an option in some scenarios. Maybe your players will want to join them. Maybe they do want the baddies out, but only to take the place of power. Maybe they want the property the bad guy is squatting in and consider how to preserve that above all else, including just driving the enemies away.

In most cases, players will want to kill the bad guys, but the point is, if you hinge some awesome story moments on a predetermined decision-making requirement, you risk either forcing your players into YOUR decision for them or losing the opportunity to use your content.

Keep This New Dungeon Master Mistake From Being a Problem

You may want to do things differently, but for me, I have essentially bullet points in my mind for the story. Something like this:

  • Players will be gifted a property they might want to do something cool with
    • If they express interest, I will create a system for that, because the standard 5e business system is boring and superficial
  • Players will “live” in this giant city for a little while, choosing how to spend their time
    • I will give them events they may attend, quests they may take or leave, and NPCs to interact with
  • There will be a tragic event to change the tone of the story and provide a sense of urgency
  • They will have opportunities to interact with the BBEG before a combat scenario really presents itself
  • The final boss location will be a playset
D&D, or Dungeons & Dragons, is one of the most popular TTRPGs in the gaming world! Delight your players with dynamic sessions, exciting one shots, and loads of fun NPC surprises! A D&D game is a great way to brighten up your week.

Pre-Planned Examples

I don’t plan a whole lot outside of this sort of framework. When the time comes and my players express interest in something, then the big planning guns come out. (Or, journals actually, if I’m being honest.)

Here are a few examples for you, which I’d love if you took, modified, used, etc.:

I’m sharing these quests, this system and this catalogue as an example of how I do intense, careful planning for my players when they show interest in something ahead of time and I’m able to accommodate them. That’s not always the case, of course.

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5) Designing an Enormous, Beautiful World… YOUR WAY ONLY

Plenty of tabletop folks love to create their own beautiful, interesting and dynamic worlds.

Some new Dungeon Masters come into the hobby primarily for the satisfaction of building a world and then seeing it blossom as their players tromp around within it.

Some other Dungeon Masters have such a strong preconceived notion of how everything exists in their fantasy world that when players start messing with everything inside, they throw a little temper tantrum and disallow most of the players’ agency.

Don’t be that person.

Keep This New Dungeon Master Mistake From Being a Problem

If you are interested in building your own worlds, that’s super awesome. Just understand that your players are going to build things, ruin things, burn structures to the ground (literally and figuratively) and potentially kill off your NPCs. And that’s with a GOOD-aligned party.

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Closing Thoughts

Being the omniscient wielder of worlds certainly has its perks, but it can feel a little overwhelming at times—especially at first. Approach the role with patience, flexibility, and a willingness to learn from both triumphs and setbacks with your players.

By avoiding these common pitfalls and embracing your growth as a game master and facilitator, you’ll soon find yourself crafting captivating stories and guiding your players through epic quests with (relative) ease. May your campaigns be filled with excitement, intrigue, and all your favorite monsters!

Did I miss a common mistake? Have you learned to overcome something challenging you want to help others with? Let’s see it in the comments below.

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Love, Malice. I hope you enjoyed the article! I'm here if you have any questions. Feel free to leave a comment below!

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