When the High Rollers crew started streaming their Dungeons & Dragons campaign, dungeon master Mark Hulmes got a bunch of questions from aspiring DMs at the end of each episode, and especially during the Q&A streams held on weeks without a regular game. As an aspiring DM myself, I started collecting and collating these tips for my own reference, and figured I’d post them online in case they helped anyone else.
This document should cover the tips presented up to and including Episode 65 (19th November 2017), as well as the “D&D Q&A” video and the “Dear Dungeon Master” series on Mark Hulmes’ YouTube channel, Tabletop Weekly.
Number one rule: show, don’t tell.
Know your group. There’s no point in trying to run a deep, political, deep-backstory-world campaign if all your players want to do is kill goblins and take their stuff. If that’s the type of group that wants to play, make ia campaign that’s going to be fun for them and you: make it all about killing goblins and taking their stuff, maybe have a bunch of crazy different goblin tribes with rivalries. Take those ideas, look at what’s fun for your players, and build on that. Over time, they may come around and enjoy the RP a little more, but make sure they’re having fun initially, you don’t want to lose them as players.
If you’re a first-time DM, consider running a pre-written adventure module rather than starting completely from scratch. They do a lot of the hard work for you, and give you a chance to learn the right mindset. In particular, The Lost Mines of Phandelver from the D&D Starter Set is a great introduction. On the other hand, pre-written adventure modules aren’t tuned to the preferences of your particular group of friends, so there’s a risk that people might get bored. Perhaps start off with a short pre-written adventure and see whether your friends are more keen on combat or roleplaying or exploring or puzzles and in future you can create custom campaigns with that in mind.
Have a theme for your campaign so it’s not just a generic fantasy world, something to make your world or game unique. If you have some big historical events, you can think about how they would change the political landscape, what factions would form or decay, what the struggles would be, how those would affect ordinary people, industry, commerce, religion.
Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson has various lectures on world-building available on Youtube—covering things like how to create plausible geography.
For your first campaign, don’t make it too big, try and focus on a region, let’s say a valley where there’s a couple of settlements, maybe a couple of interesting locations, some forests, some varied terrain so you can keep it interesting. Don’t start with a world or a continent or a kingdom, keep it small and then grow it outward when the characters outgrow that space.
For each location, try to have at least five interesting NPCs, who have a specific function in that location, and a specific secret that they have. You might have a shopkeeper with an interesting backstory, a villain with a secret agenda, a representative or a member of an interesting group or faction. They should have some aspect that the players will be interested in, and ask questions about. For other NPCs, just have a list of location-appropriate names you can pick from on the fly.
For most groups and factions in your world, you can get away with just noting:
That’s enough to give you a general idea of what the faction’s about and help you imagine how they might react to other events in the world. If the players actually interact directly with the leader or other faction members, then you can start fleshing out the society in more detail.
Add some side-questy stuff to each new location, to drive players towards your next plot hook.
A completely wide-open, sandbox campaign can be very fun, but perhaps not for a game played on stream, because the audience wants a story they can follow. Especially if your campaign includes newer players, start it off with a “tutorial” which is very story-driven and on the rails, and then when they get out of the cave and they see Skyrim, give them a few story hints and they can go off and do what they want. Perhaps don’t give them too many adventure hooks at once, maybe three at most, and preferably tie them together in some way. As they do more stuff, they can uncover more adventure hooks and hear about more interesting locations, and the cycle repeats. To help the players keep track of everything, have an NPC in the first town give the characters a map with a few landmarks and areas to “avoid”, and give the players a physical copy of that same map to pore over.
Sandbox campaigns also often encourage people to do things other than adventuring, like running a keep or a tavern, starting a mages guild, and those can be campaigns in and of themselves.
If you’re coming up with a novel setting for your campaign, you can pilfer parts of other settings for the same game system. For example, while you can invent a whole new pantheon for a D&D setting, re-using a pantheon from a well-known setting saves you a lot of time and means that experienced players will feel at home while newer players can look things up online.
If you’re running a game of D&D, consider having your campaign wrap up about level 16; once the characters reach that level, they’re basically demigods and have access to reality-shaping spells like Wish, which make it really, really hard for you to create any kind of dramatic tension.
If you want to run a campaign in a low-magic setting:
Ideally, write up a description of your world and hand it out to your players before they create their characters, and give them the opportunity to ask questions about it. Maybe some area or faction or group will intrigue them, and you can build up more detail about that group so the player can have a more specific back-story. Maybe a player will want to create a character whose backstory contradicts the general rules—that’s an opportunity to add even more detail to your world, and creates more story hooks for that character describing how their unusual situation came to be.
When creating characters:
It’s cool for players to have secrets about their own characters, but maybe not secrets that affect other players like “I’m secretly the person from the other player’s backstory that killed their parents and that they’ve sworn vengeance against”—that can be pretty disruptive to a party.
If a player wants a character that doesn’t really line up with any of the standard classes, consider whether you can take the mechanics of an existing class and reskin them: perhaps instead of casting spells from spell-slots with a wave of the hand, the character draws pictures on canvasses that come to life. Mechanically it’s the same thing and will have the same balance, but the flavour is different.
If one character wants to be a villain while the rest of the party is good (or at least trying to be decent), that can be very disruptive and quickly lead to arguments. If you have a very mature, very clever player that can do it very well, that can be amazing, but that is the rarity. Having a player who wants to be revealed as the main villain can work in a one-shot, but not recommended for a major campaign unless the evil character is a guest who can run away and become an NPC villain afterward. Having an evil campaign where everybody in the party is evil or selfish is fine, but mixing good and evil characters is always tricky.
If you do wind up with an evil character in a good party (or vice versa) and it’s not working out, maybe have a chat with the player in question and maybe have the character bow out of the campaign, and have the player roll a new character with a more fitting alignment.
Be very careful about thinking of it as “your story”. Yes, you’re the narrator, you’re the person who’s creating the world, you’re leading the NPCs and monsters, and you’re controlling lots of stories that are happening, but it’s not your story, it’s the group’s story, so you definitely need to incorporate player stories into whatever it is you’re doing. You don’t need to completely reshape your campaign to fit your players’ stories, but you can find areas where the two of them match up and then work them in.
For example, if a player says “I’ve got this bad guy, he’s after me for X reasons”, you don’t have to make that guy the Big Bad of the entire campaign and base it entirely on that one character, but at the same time don’t just ignore it entirely. Instead, take that character and unbeknownst to the player they’re working for one of your planned villains, or for an organisation that’s already in the world. That way, there’s a potential adventure hook for that player to discover and pull on if they follow up on their own personal story, but you’re also giving a bit more flavour and depth to the world by incorporating that player’s backstory into something you’ve already got planned.
Resist the temptation to say “no” when a player’s backstory contradicts the world you’ve built, instead try to work with the player to find somewhere for their backstory to fit. If there’s nowhere that a player’s backstory fits into your campaign world, strongly consider incorporating that player’s backstory into the world somehow, rather than changing something already planned.
It’s OK for you to know things about a character’s backstory that the player doesn’t know, but try not to subvert things or ruin their character. For example, don’t have the cleric’s deity turn out to be evil, Instead, try to build on their backstory as they see it: perhaps alongside the mainstream church of that deity there is also a cult that believes evil things about them. Are those beliefs accurate? Who knows!
If you only have two players, but they’re experienced, consider letting them have two characters each. If they’re not experienced, perhaps you could play an NPC mentor character that can die or leave early on, and let them build up a bit of confidence first.
It’s not a good idea for the DM to also have a character in the party. Especially if you’re a new DM, it’s very easy to make those characters too powerful, or too important, or too special. It’s also very easy for newer players to look to your character for guidance instead of taking an active role. It’s supposed to be the story of the players’ characters growing and becoming heroic, not the story of how a powerful character told them where to go and what to do. Even if you as the DM keep that character’s notes separate from your campaign notes, it’s very easy to do without realising.
If you really must have an NPC accompany the party, make sure they’re not too special. Sure, they can be an exiled prince or a wizard of a long-lost order, but if they’re the child of a long-lost god or the lost princess who will unite the realms, the story becomes more about them rather than about the party whose players you’re supposed to be running the game for.
When the player writes up their backstory, not everything in it has to be true. It’s a story from their perspective, but other characters may see things differently. There should always be things that are perhaps unknown to the player, even about their own past.
If you ask a player to write a backstory and they give you this huge long thing, that’s fine: it just means more plot-hooks you can weave into the story for them. You won’t need to remember all that detail all the time.
To discourage players from becoming murder hoboes, make sure players are invested in what they’re doing and that they’re invested in the world around them. Encourage them to come up with a more detailed backstory than “I’m a barbarian and I have an axe”. Characters should have a history, and people that they know, and you can drop those things into the story really early, even at level 1. If one of the players comes up with a really cool-sounding town, have them start in that town. That player is immediately invested, and their character meets people they know. If another member of the party tries to chop up the barmaid, that player’s going to care and their character’s going to put a stop to it. If a player says “I”m an orphan, I don’t know anyone”, maybe they have a rival, and that rival shows up to steal the treasure from a dungeon the party is exploring, or shows up in town to make a fool of them. Then, that player is going to say “I want to kill that guy” and now your murder hobo is being directed to a plot and storyline, and you can build on it.
Particularly if some people want to play “evil” characters, it’s worth getting the players to agree on some ground rules at the beginning: is everybody OK with players stealing from each other? is everybody OK with players killing each other? These things are generally possible according to the game rules, but at the end of the day an RPG group is also a friendship group, and the players have to trust each other and be comfortable in each other’s company.
Before thinking of encounters for a session, consider:
To come up with encounters for a session, consider:
Once you have a clear idea of what’s happening around the party, browse through the Monster Manual to see if there’s any monsters that seem thematically appropriate, or that could be tweaked to suit upcoming NPCs. If you haven’t used these monsters in this campaign before, you might want to spend some time world-building, deciding where they came from and why they are cooperating with the villains.
To make monsters more interesting you can add some real-world background or flavour. For example, in the real world hyenas live in matriarchal societies, so you might apply the same trait to gnolls. Hobgoblins are described as having a martial culture, so why not go all out and model their society after the late Roman empire, or even feudal Japan? Drow society is split up into “houses” with ever-shifting allegiances, why not make them hyper-capitalist corporations?
When actually putting together the list of encounters for a session try to follow a structure with a beginning, middle and end. The beginning should be exciting: a fight, something happens, a murder, an assassin, something jumps out and kicks everything off. The middle should be the investigation or exploratory phase: give the players something or somewhere to explore. Maybe it’s finding clues to who the murderer is, maybe it’s exploring the ancient temple and solving a puzzle. The ending should be a climax: a big boss fight, a big reveal, something like that.
Try to have interesting characters. Don’t rely on lazy tropes like “prostitute with a heart of gold” or “somebody killed my parents”, those have been done to death. However, some tropes are fine—the jokey, jovial Jack Sparrow swashbuckler is fine, and people can have a lot of fun with it. Just add something to it, add a little thing to that trope to make it unique. Maybe that swashbuckler is flamboyant and flirtatious, but maybe he’s gay? Maybe he’s an orc that’s heard these amazing stories about these sword masters and adventurers who get all these ladies and he’s always been a bit of an outcast so he’s like “I’m going to be a swashbuckler!” and he’s got this gruff voice and he’s very intimidating but he tries to be this charming swashbuckler.
If you have an NPC join the party, it should be an ally that joins the party for some sort of mutual benefit, like a common enemy or a common goal. Once the story arc is over, that NPC should go off to do their own things. That way, the players never feel like they’re overshadowed, but they feel like they’ve had an ally. Also, try and make them so they don’t know everything: if the party asks them for advice, perhaps they give bad advice—not necessarily malicious advice, but maybe uninformed or from a very different point of view (“wrong genre savvy”). Maybe the NPC even asks the players for advice! Let the players take the lead, don’t ever make your character the leader giving the player characters orders, that just robs them of any decision-making and fun.
Try to have interesting locations, too. Don’t just have a dungeon, have a dungeon built by a mad beholder that’s sentient and can move around on its own. If you create a location with an interesting story, a good reward, and it’s tied into the players’ activities or backstories, they’ll want to go there, always. A really strong theme helps, too: if you can say “the underwater crystalline tower of the merfolk”, that’s way more interesting than just “the crystalline tower”. You can make a location even more interesting by twisting the theme: for example, when the players visit “fire temple of ifrit” they bring all their fire-resistance potions but it turns out the fires burned out centuries ago and now the place is filled with rock monsters.
While some groups love exploring huge, sprawling dungeons, they can often get quite stale and boring, both for the DM and the players. Instead, keep dungeons smaller and focus on functionality. Is your dungeon a temple? a ruin? a barracks for some sort of goblin force? a mine? Where do people sleep? Where do they eat? What rooms would they trap? If they’re going to put traps down, how do the people who are supposed to go through avoid them? If nobody lives there (say, it’s a ruin or a cave), did the current inhabitants (bandits, monsters, etc.) set the traps, or were they left by previous inhabitants? Are the current monsters immune to the traps? If so, why? What’s powering these traps, and why has the power-source lasted so long? If you’re desiging the temple of an evil cult, where do they hold their meetings? Would the cult leader have some method for maintaining power while holding a meeting? Would they have a lever that dumps a chair into a lava pit?
If you want a town map you can hand to your players, look up maps of old, medieval towns online and trace over them, making whatever modifications you need to fit the locations you’ve planned.
If you want a vibrant, living city:
The best story hooks always come from people. If you make interesting characters, or you give characters interesting motivations and goals, hooks will naturally arise. Maybe you have a wealthy merchant who wants to create a devil-worshipping cult—how would they go about that? What actions are they going to take to recruit people to join? What consequences of those actions might become visible to the party? Does he have some artifact he’s using to convert people? Where does he store it? What’s guarding it?
For building encounters, follow the instructions in the Dungeon Master’s Guide to pick a mix of monsters at the desired challenge level for your PCs. Maybe stick to easy/medium encounters unless your players really love combat and the party includes a tank/healer/DPS/etc. Remember that the environment can greatly affect how difficult a combat encounter is: a fight inside an active volcano with lava everywhere is going to be more difficult than fighting the same monsters in a grassy, open field.
For minor villains, you can just use the stat blocks from the Monster Manual, perhaps with minor tweaks like some extra spells just to give them a bit of a theme and flavour, or tweaks to their stats to represent who they are or what they’re doing.
For major (humanoid) villains, you don’t have to prepare a full character sheet, you can write up their stats like a monster stat block, but you can give them class abilities, class levels, etc. Rather than rolling their stats, just give them stats that represent their capabilities in the story. Note that humanoid villains will probably need henchmen and minions to be balanced against your party; a level-9 sorcerer villain will be destroyed by a level-9 party of adventurers.
For monsterous villains, take the monster stat block, add class levels and then adjust the stats as appropriate. Monsterous villains can probably take on your party single-handedly, but you can add things like legendary actions and lair actions to balance the encounter appropriately.
Balancing a puzzle encounter is basically impossible; try to set up the puzzle so that if the players solve it, they get a cool reward and bypass a threat, and if they can’t then they have to face a difficult but straight-forward encounter, like a tough combat encounter. That way, the characters are encouraged to attempt the puzzle, but they’re not road-blocked if they can’t solve it.
Accept that players won’t always find all the clues and plot-hooks you’ve left out for them. As a DM, you know everything, and it’s very easy to forget that what’s obvious to you isn’t always obvious to your players, so you’ve really got to prepare yourself for them to miss clues now and then—they didn’t pick up the bad guy’s journal with all the explanations, or missed the clues to who really did all the murders. Make sure you have some backup plans and redundancies so they can find another route back onto the path that you laid out.
For plotting road-trip style campaigns:
If your campaign is getting stale and players aren’t having as much fun, remember the original theme, what made it interesting, and try to go back to that. If all else fails, you can have an NPC suddenly kick open the door and kick off something new. start a fight, announce a world-changing event, whatever.
If you have an friendly NPC you want the players to be genuinely scared to fight:
If you have a villainous NPC you don’t want players to kill just yet, rememember that smart enemies have an escape plan; a scroll of teleport or a ring of invisibility or a potion of gaseous form or something. It’ll make your players mad, but in a good way—they’ll want to track the bad guy down, boom, story! Alternatively, if the NPC is much more powerful than the players, have them demonstrate their badass-ness by deflecting attacks with cool retorts or whatever.
You can have an NPC give the players mutually-exclusive quests, so the players have to decide which leads to follow and which leads will be left behind.
When it comes to balancing an adventure, generally you want to have something along the lines of two easy, two medium, one hard and potentially one deadly encounter. A deadly encounter is probably best for a big boss battle, something that really challenges the party, so probably stick to hard encounters at most. Keep in mind your players’ abilities, if there’s no tank in the party you might want to dial things down a bit, if they have no magical weapons then a creature that’s immune to non-magical damage is probably a bad idea, etc.
Other ways to include a scary monster while reducing the risk of a total party kill:
If you’ve got some players who love min-maxing and some newbies, maybe ask the min-maxers to ease off a bit so they don’t cruise through combat and make things boring for everyone. On the other hand, min-max’d characters are probably strong in one area because they’re weak in others, so think about encounters that emphasise those weak areas to give the newbies a chance to shine.
Advice for over-preparing: have a list of names, a list of bad guys, a list of cool locations and some information about them (2-3 bullet points). If the players decide to explore something you hadn’t prepared, pick a location, pick a villain to live there and name them from the list.
Don’t agonise too much over NPCs and story hooks, and don’t plan too much in advance. At the end of the day, your players can choose to go left instead of right, they can befriend the bad guy rather than fight them, they can kill an ally instead of helping them. It’s their game as much as it is yours, and that’s OK, it’s OK to let them have that control. If they don’t do something that you planned, that’s OK, you can put it on the back burner and save it for another time, reskin it, reuse it somehow.
If you’ve been giving your party minor magic items like health potions or +1 weapons or armour with minor enchantments and you’re worried you’ve given out too many, that’s not a big deal, just keep it in mind and maybe don’t give them any new magic items for a while. It’s not going to overbalance them too badly, try and factor it into your encounters, remember that creatures that can only be harmed by magical weapons will become less dangerous, that sort of thing.
If you’ve given your party too many strong magic items, or too-powerful items, there’s two ways you can scale it back:
There’s a line between letting players bear the consequences of their actions, and luring them to their dooms. If the party sneaks into the dragon’s lair and the dragon kills them all, that’s OK, but only if the threat was properly sign-posted beforehand.
In general, when players want to do something, try to say “yes, and…” or “yes, but…” instead of “no”. Sometimes you’ll have to say no, but if you can, ask them for some kind of check to see if they succeed. If they fail, don’t punish them too hard, come up with something funny, something that everyone around the table can enjoy, don’t make them fall to their death or wind up unconscious in melee range of an ogre, because that’s not fun for the player.
For truly new players, consider printing them a card or sheet that lists the most common mechanics, like “in a round of combat, you can move and do an action, which can be an attack, a spell, a disengage, a dash, …” Encourage them to use their skills in creative ways, “if you can imagine it, you can try it”, that kind of thing. You will need to lead them by the hand a little bit, give them a couple of clear objectives, but also give them room to explore and be creative. Remind them that it’s OK to take inspiration from books and movies and games, but don’t let them do carbon copies, encourage them to come up with (at least) one thing that makes their character special and unique.
If your group only gets together a couple of times a month and your time is limited, it’s easy for “game time” to devolve into “just hang out and talk about whatever” time. That’s good! Don’t let the game get in the way of your friends enjoying each other’s company! However, if you want to play the game too, maybe get everybody together an hour early so they have time to catch up, have a chat, have a laugh, and then start the game afterward. Then, have another break for half an hour or so, halfway through. Or, if your group have difficulty getting back into the game after the break, make the session shorter and have a full hour of chatting afterward.
When describing an environment, you can give players a hint that some feature might be investigatable without explicitly calling it out as “strange” or saying “you should look at this” by highlighting it verbally, mentioning something unusual about it or just mentioning it specifically. If a player is interested, they’ll lean in and start asking questions, and that’s when you can say “why don’t you give me an investigation check?”. Whatever aspect you describe might have a perfectly ordinary cause (and sometimes it should, just to keep the players on their toes).
When it comes to players handling traps (in D&D), the “Perception” skill (including passive perception) is good for noticing things that are out of place, but the “investigation” skill is what you need to actually find the mechanisms. Then disabling the trap becomes a more creative, problem-solving thing rather than just a dice-check.
If your group gets distracted and chatty during combat, give them each reference sheets for the combat rules (what actions are allowed, in what combinations, with creative examples) so they can consider what they want to do during other players’ turns. To speed up combat, don’t throw high-HP enemies at them, don’t throw millions of enemies at them, try to ensure everybody has something to fight (but for variety, sometimes have an enemy that’s tough enough for two players, etc.). If you reduce monster HP but increase their damage output, that will make fights much more dynamic, faster, flow better, but also riskier. Also, make sure that every fight, there’s interesting stuff that they can be thinking about and planning around: environmental hazards, exploding barrels, jump pads, things that change the arena layout, different heights, anything to promote creative and tactical thinking. Explain to the players that when it’s not their turn, they should think about what they want to do next.
If your group gets distracted and chatty in social encounters, make sure you’re engaging all of the players. Even if an NPC is having a one-on-one conversation with somebody, that NPC can turn to the other characters and say “And what do you all think of this?”. In a conversation that can only be one-on-one, pause it every paragraph or so and turn to the other players: “while that conversation is happening, what are you guys doing?”
If you don’t know what rules apply to a given situation, don’t make everybody wait around while you look it up, just make up something on the spot. You can look up the real answer later, and at the beginning of the next session tell your players that you got a thing wrong and here’s how that thing is going to work in the future.
If players come up with a really creative and cool way to take down your villain, don’t rob them of that victory. Any NPC important enough that the players want to kill them is probably important enough that their death will have consequences in the world, and not of the “make the whole problem go away” variety. Maybe the NPC’s lieutenant will want revenge on the party, maybe even worse individuals will seek to fill the power vacuum.
You cannot possibly plan for every thing your players will do. Think through what you think the players will do for the next session, but for the rest of the world just have locations you know are nearby, with a few bullet-points each. if the players go there, you’ll just have to wing it, but you may be able to re-use encounters you already had planned. Pirates become cave-dwelling orcs, the encounter in the tavern is transplanted to the orcs’ central camp, etc. etc.
If some of the party want to gang up on another player’s character, consider what the consequences might be: there might be other people in the world who want to protect that character from harm (allies, enemies that have longer-term plans, etc.) so maybe you can just let the situation play out. However, it’s worth remembering that stuff like that can really upset people, and at the end of the day an RPG group is also a friendship group. You’ve got to be good friends, you can’t just be “well, the game allows me to screw you over, so I will” because that will ultimately lead to problems. Talk it over with the players in question (individually) to figure out whether it’s coming across as malicious, whether it is malicious, whether the other players don’t like the target player or they don’t like the character. If everybody’s fine with it and it doesn’t seem like it would damage real-world friendships, then by all means let it happen, but you should be neutral when adjudicating it.
If your players are being murder hobos, there’s a number of common causes:
In both cases, you can show these players (the hard way) that this is not a videogame, and that their actions have consequences—they can be arrested, locked up, maimed, have spells cast on them that prevent them from doing certain things… people are going to come after them, and they’re going to be the bad guys. Super-powered paladins will be coming to arrest them, the king might put a bounty on their head so random criminals will come after them. That can descend into a fun campaign as well, but it’s about learning that they can’t just do whatever they want and get away with it.
Don’t overdo it, though; if players are having fun being murder hoboes, you don’t want to spoil their fun, because you want them to enjoy it as a group activity and have a good time, but give them realistic consequences. Don’t punish them, don’t have a squad of level 10 characters turn up to arrest them and make it miserable and not fun, have a party of equal level and size show up… and if the player party gets away, there’ll be another, bigger party with twenty militia men, and that’ll be a problem even for level five characters.
If your players have access to reality-shaping spells like Wish in D&D, this can make it difficult to maintain any kind of narrative structure. Consider learning from every genie in every story ever and require players to state their wish as specifically as possible, and interpret it as ironically as you can. It can feel a bit like you’re screwing the players over and that’s a bit unfair, but you’ve got to think about it in the context of “how mental is this?”.
If you’re consistently rolling critical hits and maximum damage against your party (or the opposite), check your dice for air pockets. Air pockets do sometimes happen during the manufacturing process, and they can change a die’s weight distribution to make it role some numbers much more frequently than intended.
If you’re heading toward a party-wipe because you’re rolling unnaturally well (as opposed to because the party deliberately aggravated a powerful creature, or because they have terrible tactics) and the players obviously aren’t having fun, rather than fudging your rolls perhaps have the villain stop attacking them, or say “ha ha ha, see you’re no match for me” and lock them up so they have a chance to escape, or “flee while you can, mortals, next time I won’t be so lenient” and let them run away.
If a player rolls a bunch of natural 1s in a row, to the point where they’re not having fun, rather than let them fudge the roll out of pity, describe the effect in a way that gives them a small boon or an advantage on their next roll so they can at least feel like they’ve done something.
For ordinary enemies and minor villains, don’t bother with death saving throws unless the party makes an effort to heal them—assuming it hasn’t been too many rounds since they went down.
For major villains, if the players walk away from the body, or a minion drags or teleports the body to safety, or they can otherwise escape, absolutely roll death saving throws for them. It’s fair, since the players get them, and it also means that sometimes you get something even better than a great villain: a great villain who’s come back from the dead.
At the end of every session, ask your players what they’re likely to do next, so you can prepare more details about those places in advance.
If you need a real-world hiatus from your campaign, try to bring the story to a point where you can naturally have a time gap. Finish off a story arc where the characters feel they’ve succeeded at something, or completed a story arc, or something very bad has happened to the point where the party has scattered to the four winds and reconnect in six weeks, so when you do come back it feels like a natural progression of time. You might also offer your players a chance to buy consumables or upgrade their gear by talking to you directly, rather than having the player role-play their character going into a shop during a session.