Tips for how to be a better GM and player for D&D 5e or any TTRPG can be as abstract as thinking outside of the box or as concrete as using specific software to ease things along — I am going to give you both. Starting D&D, or any TTRPG, can be complex, but that shouldn’t deter you from experiencing the greatest graphics engine in gaming: your imagination.
I’ve written many tips about the best virtual tabletop software, how to pick your soundtracks, how to make a D&D character, and much more all listed below. This article will be updated weekly with tips, tricks, and any advice that will come via my new series: Tabletop tips from an anxious GM.
If you have a question that isn’t answered by looking at this list — ask me! Send me your questions concerning mechanical, narrative, or social issues in the tabletop gaming space. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter.
Many D&D or TTRPG things I cover won’t be listed in here because they’re not technically tips. For example, if you are interested in video games that are D&D adjacent, check out my Life is Strange: True Colors review, which features a character that is canonically a Critter (fan of Critical Role), and there's also my Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands review, which is not only D&D-inspired, but features Critical Role guests like Ashly Burch. You can even see our interview with Ashly Burch and Sam Winkler about Tiny Tina's Wonderlands. However, if you want something to really scratch that D&D itch in video game form, check out Baldur’s Gate 3.
Without further ado, here are some of my best D&D tips for how to be a better GM and player in 5e — or any TTRPG.
Tips for playing and running DND 5e or any TTRPG
“How do I start playing TTRPGs?” is a broad question that’ll net you a number of blanket statements, but I’ll try to be as specific as possible to break down a multistep process for you to get started.
Find some friends, do your research, and buy supplies. Once you get all of that done, then you just need to find a platform to meet (physically or virtually) and schedule your game. Finally, decide who’s going to be the GM, figure out the rules together, create your characters, and then just play the game.
You don’t need to know all of the rules in the book to have a good time, just be open-minded and accommodating to everyone. Most importantly, make sure you set boundaries and limits between the players to ensure that no one does anything to trigger anyone else. The last thing you want is a party member causing trouble for the group and ruining the fun. If someone isn’t willing to respect the boundaries in place, they don’t belong at your gaming table.
See in-depth advice here — I’ve never played a TTRPG — How do I start?
“How do I play D&D?” is a question that’ll have GMs across the world raving about mechanics for hours. Yes, you can shove a rulebook, dice, and a character sheet in front of someone, but they won’t understand the magic of roleplay until someone breaks down that anything is possible.
Think of D&D or any TTRPG like a story, not a game. You’re writing it with your GM and fellow players, so ignore the rules (for now). You don’t need to know how to play D&D mechanically; you just need to grasp the core concept of roleplay. You are acting, and you’re playing the part of that beautiful character you created. So what would your character do at that moment? Are they impulsive? Maybe they jump for the mugger’s weapon. Are they charismatic? Maybe they talk the bank robbers down instead of whooping their asses. Role-playing games are narratives — so play it like you’re one of the protagonists.
See in-depth advice here — How do I play DND?
If you are brand-spankin’ new to the tabletop gaming space, and eager to jump into roleplay without exposing yourself to the risks of in-person gaming amidst the ongoing pandemic, I’ve got you covered. Since D&D and all TTRPGs are basically pen-and-paper games, you only need to talk to people in order to run a session, but there are many resources on the internet that’ll make your experience as seamless as playing in person.
Firstly, the internet is your player’s handbook. Yes, D&D and most TTRPGs can be incredibly rule-heavy, but the best part about a TTRPG is that you can throw those rules right out of the window. Don’t worry too much about what’s right and wrong — just have fun. Secondly, find a virtual tabletop (check out the tips below for specifics). Thirdly, make your character sheet a seamless experience with tools on D&D Beyond, a website for buying D&D 5e books and creating characters, or use Adobe Acrobat for more customization. Next, use Discord to manage your games. Finally, if you’re a GM, abuse the internet’s resources — there are so many good tools online to make GMing much easier.
See in-depth advice here — How to play D&D online.
You don’t necessarily need the best virtual tabletop software to have a good time playing Dungeons & Dragons (or any other tabletop role-playing game out there), but it certainly helps. As a game master, I know how important it is to know which virtual tabletop works best for your group and for the type of game you’re playing. I’ve bounced around between several of them, so I can help you decide which is the best virtual tabletop software to use for your needs.
There are quite a few great virtual tabletop programs out there, but finding the best one for your specific game is more important than simply using the most expensive one. My personal favorite is Foundry Virtual Tabletop due to its customizability and relatively affordable price. It also smoothly integrates with content from D&D Beyond and I love the way it handles its music player. However, if you’re looking for free, easy-to-use software, try Roll20.
See in-depth advice here — Best virtual tabletop software.
For better or worse, people are playing D&D and other TTRPGs online because… well, most of us are stuck. Unfortunately, playing TTRPGs online isn’t the same as playing it in the flesh with your best friends. However, if you have a good webcam and a decent setup, playing online can deliver a similar experience to playing in person.
It sounds simple, but optimizing your setup to capture all of your microexpressions and ensure you’re not missing a second of those beautiful people on screen takes a lot more work than you think. It’s especially troublesome if you don’t have a good webcam or multiple displays. It is my firm belief that no one should pay $200 for a webcam, so consider the Logitech HD Pro Webcam C920, which you can find for just under $90. You won’t get 4K video, but you’ll get 1080p and a wide field of view, which is good enough for showing off your gorgeous face to your D&D group.
See in-depth advice here — How to set up webcams for D&D and other TTRPGs.
I’ve taken a deeper dive into how to make a D&D character and the best class, race and background combinations. To be clear, a good GM won’t judge you for playing any combination of class, race and background that interests you. But if you’re joining a combat-heavy campaign, consider maximizing the potential for your character. With the recent release of the sourcebook Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, there’s a seemingly endless number of combinations.
The D&D Player’s Handbook, as well as other D&D resources, start you off by making you choose a race, but it’s preferable to choose a class first since that’s an important factor determining how you’re going to play the game. In the full article, I briefly explain each class and recommend some of the best subclasses for those classes, so you’ll have an idea of where to take the character when the time comes. I also talk about the best races and backgrounds that suit those classes.
For example, one of the best subclasses for Sorcerer is Draconic Bloodline because it gives you a massive boost to your AC (Armor Class). If you play a Half-Elf, you’ll get a boost in Charisma and an ability called Fey Ancestry, which gives you Advantage (the ability to roll twice and take the higher number) on saving throws against being charmed, and magic can’t put you to sleep. If you combine that with a Pirate background, you’ll get to be an all-around badass.
See in-depth advice here — How to make a D&D character.
For those who don't know, Wizards of the Coast unveiled that a new D&D ruleset is coming in 2024. This new ruleset, predicted to be as huge as a D&D 5.5e or D&D 6e, was announced by D&D's Executive Producer Ray Winninger during the Future of D&D panel. We don't know much about what the ruleset entails, but we know it's backward-compatible with D&D 5th Edition, which is wonderful news for those who have invested a lot in 5e (like me). But you know, this ruleset is not coming out for a few years, so why wait when you can add new rules yourself?
If you haven't already, check out Tasha's Cauldron of Everything and add those new rules because they add a whole new realm of possibilities for players. Some popular homebrew rules I've added to my game are: Drinking potions as a bonus action; Using Spell Points instead of Spell Slots; Getting max damage on your first set of dice on Critical Hits; Letting players swap initiative rolls with one another before combat starts; Making resurrection more strict using the Critical Role method.
See in-depth advice here — Here are some D&D rules to add today.
I love Dungeons & Dragons and TTRPGs like Call of Cthulhu and Star Trek Adventures, but nothing bores me more than the absence of a good soundtrack. I pride myself on my music choices in my D&D campaigns, so I want to talk about how you can easily pick the best soundtracks for every scenario in your own TTRPG campaign.
Picking the perfect songs for a TTRPG scenario isn’t as hard as it seems, but it can be time-consuming if you’re as picky as I am. I run my sessions like a drama, so I have music queued for each story beat, but I also have tracks at the ready when my players do something unexpected and there needs to be a tone shift. The soundtracks I select are from hit games like The Witcher 3, Skyrim and even Hollow Knight. If any of these even remotely catches your fancy, you and I may have similar taste.
See in-depth advice here — Best D&D soundtracks for every scenario.
“How do I engage my players?” is one of the many complex tabletop gaming questions that’ll get you blanket answers from game masters. As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression — a combo that is less than ideal for a journalist or a game master juggling seven different players in a six-hour Dungeons & Dragons game — I want to thoroughly untangle these issues with my experiences.
If your players aren’t paying attention, throw the world at them. Show them that things are moving on without them. Be tactful and respectful, of course, but there’s nothing players love more than feeling like they’re a part of a living world. If everything that players experience is a reaction to their actions, the game won’t feel as real, and players can easily get into the mindset that they are in control of the world. Show them that they’re not.
See in-depth advice here — How do I engage my players?
“How do I set expectations and limits?” is a question that I didn’t even think about answering until I was knee-deep in my main D&D campaign. Unfortunately, some of my players may have suffered because of it, so get ahead of the game and answer these questions ASAP if you haven’t already.
Run a Session 0. Communicate with your players what the game is about, how it’ll play, what triggering issues may be discussed, and then compromise with them to shape it into something that’s fun for everyone. Don’t believe in unspoken rules. Speak about everything. Any triggers or limits that players have should be discussed now, so you can all come to a compromise as a group.
See in-depth advice here — How do I set expectations and limits?
Level 1 combat is boring if it’s not done right, so do it right. You only need to do a few things. First, focus on your player’s engagement, not how much damage your enemies can do. Decrease the enemy damage and instead rework their abilities — give them something fun and flashy that’ll add another obstacle to the battle.
Next, make some hazardous or advantageous terrain. Turn the map into a minefield of traps or consider how extreme weather can change the battle at hand. Finally, give your players a secondary objective. Why are they in this fight? Do they have to keep it quiet? Do they have to steal something? Or protect someone? Think about it and add it in. With these four things, you can make your combat truly memorable, even at level 1.
See in-depth advice here — How do I make level 1 combat fun?
Communicate with your players. Are they okay with character death? No? Okay time to get creative. If they do die, use their death to trigger the next arc. Send the PCs on an adventure to save their fallen companion. If you’re wondering now, what are the real consequences of dying? Well, think about it — if you died and you saw what was on the other side, how would that affect you as a person? Maybe run a solo one-shot for the PC, and give them an interesting story to tell — maybe even one that jumps into the next arc.
Okay, now what happens if everyone dies? Even better! That’s a whole arc right there that your players have given you. Show them the consequences of their failure, and write a narrative about what they can do to redeem themselves. Now if you’re thinking that deaths are meaningless and you can kill them whenever — stop. Don’t kill thoughtlessly. Death should have narrative significance, and there are way more interesting consequences than death, like getting captured, innocents dying, or being robbed of precious magic items. If you can’t kill off PCs for good — traumatize them (with permission, of course).
See in-depth advice here — How do I deal with player character (PC) death?
Communicate! Tell your party what your alignment is. Write what you know! Don’t think about fantasy, think about the human experiences that your character may have struggled with that shaped them into who they are. Don’t be a jerk! If you’re evil or neutral, don’t commit terrible behavior because it’s what your character would do. However, if it makes sense for the story, ask your fellow players for consent!
Playing Neutral or Evil is fine if your goals are aligned. You and your party members need to want the same thing in order to function as a unit, but the difference between you and them is the tools you use to get there. However, respect people’s boundaries and receive consent anytime you want to do anything morally gray or black all together. Be open-minded! People can change, so can your characters — be open to it and don’t be so stuck in your ways, good or bad.
See in-depth advice here — What would your character do?
Communicate! Talk to your party and GM about what’s okay and what’s not okay concerning metagaming. Some acceptable metagaming might be knowing your party members’ hit points. Questionable metagaming can be making a tough call between what your character would do instinctually with or without information known to the player — ask your party and GM for advice! Unacceptable metagaming is just straight up cheating, giving yourself an unfair advantage that you normally wouldn’t have within the narrative — don’t do this!
Remember, roleplaying is not a competition — it’s a story. You’re all authors sitting around the table weaving a narrative that makes sense — even if you know the ending, it doesn’t change how the journey should unfold. Make the story interesting for your characters, and don’t get caught up in a competition that doesn’t exist.
See in-depth advice here — How do I deal with metagaming?
Communicate with your fellow GM and party members to better move things along. Reveal Initiative and AC so players aren’t surprised or asking unnecessary questions that waste more time. Move on from players rolling a ton of dice! Let them tell you the totals in the middle of combat — you’ll be surprised how many turns you can get through while they roll. Auto-roll for your monsters! Don’t waste time rolling a ton of dice: that’s not your job right now. Just move things along with averages or auto-rollers. Finally, add a timer! You don’t have to skip a player’s turn, but showing them a timer can put the heat on, and I’ve found that it encourages players to speed things along.
Using these strategies I’ve shortened my combat sessions from two to three hours to a tight one hour per big encounter.
See in-depth advice here — How do I speed up DND combat?
Communicate! Make roleplaying a safe space between the GM and players. If there’s conflict, talk about it in and out of the game to ensure everyone is okay. Encourage conflict. Conflict is the meat of a great narrative and at the heart of compelling character dynamics. So inhabit those character flaws and really dig deep into your persona. And GMs, throw some wicked roleplay conundrums their way!
Hurt the character, not the player. Make sure all of your conflicts stay in-game and don’t bleed into the real world. How? Just talk. Check in on your friends and ask how they’re doing. Put down limits if you need to. Unearth every potential story. Conflict breeds narrative, but not all narrative fits with our expectations, so before you blow a hole in your campaign, make sure the other players are okay with it out of character. However, isolated character conflicts are fun because it challenges each character’s beliefs and ideals, which stimulates character growth.
See in-depth advice here — Ashly Burch asks how do we encourage conflict without derailing the story?
17. Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands writer asks how we manage expectations for our D&D home games vs. actual play shows
Communicate with your players and GM about your level of experience and what kind of expectations you have for the game. What to learn from live-play — it’s a great example for roleplay and storytelling. What not to learn from live-play — it’s not the standard, and you shouldn’t expect it to be. You’re not playing with professionals, you’re playing with friends.
See in-depth advice here — Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands writer asks how we manage expectations for our D&D home games vs. actual play shows.
Communicate! It’s okay to let your players know that you need time to set things up. Theater of the mind — if you have a small enough encounter, you don’t need a map, you just need a little imagination! Just Google it — seriously, you’re bound to find a cool looking map that matches your scene somewhere online. Speedy cartographer — take some time to whip up a map real quick. All you need is terrain, debris, and a grid, and some tools even generate maps for you. But wait, the tokens! You can find a hoard of easy-to-customize tokens from 2-Minute Tabletop.
See in-depth advice here — Unplanned DND combat broke out and I don’t have a map — What do I do?
Communicate! You’re not going to become a lich or a god without the help from your GM, so talk to them about it! How to become a lich. You and your GM can figure out the finer details, but it all comes down to sacrificing people and making a phylactery, which is a small vessel that houses the soul of a lich. How to become a god. Again, you and your GM can figure out the finer details, but you need to talk about what godhood means in your GM’s universe. Just be careful about overshadowing the party’s abilities. An all powerful god is boring, so make it interesting! The narrative comes first. If it doesn’t make sense for the narrative, it’s okay that your GM doesn’t think becoming a lich or a god is a good idea. Nothing is stopping your character from believing that they can do it, and nothing is more interesting than a failure!
See in-depth advice here — How to become a lich or god in DND — Who’s thirsty for undeath?
There are five tools you can use. D&D Beyond. To find groups or players in D&D Beyond, go to Forums > Looking for Players & Groups. Roll20. You’ll want to jump to the Join a Game tab after making an account, and then narrow down your searches to find what you’re looking for. Tabletop Wizard. You can look through the list of games available, and all you have to do is click “request to join.” StartPlaying. Pay some money for a professional game in the Find Games list. Meetup. Check out the Dungeons & Dragons topic (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab) or even the Tabletop Role Playing and Board Games topic (opens in new tab)(opens in new tab) to search through local events or groups.
See in-depth advice here — How do I find a group for DND and other TTRPGs? — 5 great tools.
Communication! I’ll say it forever and it’ll be carved on my gravestone: Communicate with your GM and players about metagaming rules. Backstory flavor. Throw in some meta knowledge during your introduction — just enough to get them wanting more. Let’s chill on stats. No, your characters don’t know what hit points are, but this is a game, chill out.
Keep people around more often than not. Don’t kick out players during private moments, they want to have fun too! You can even use them to enhance the encounter. Advice for your children. Don’t let a player character die because they’re going to do something dumb — just tell them (trust me, they’ll appreciate you). Parallels, themes, and foreshadowing. Use your meta knowledge for good and guide the narrative to a place with the most creative storytelling potential.
See in-depth advice here — Metagaming: How a frustrating problem can actually be fun