One really important practice I was going to list Paul and Blair listed first: keep the game flowing, anything that slows or stops play should be ruled on quickly, handwaved, or revised to be quicker for next time. The exception I would make would be when the slowdown is fun enough to actually become part of the game (see #4).
Here are some practices I don't think anyone mentioned yet and that I think are essential to my game and that I'm good at:
1 Describe Combat
For old school play the randomness of the dice is essential but sometimes puzzling. It's your job as DM to meld these into some sort of sense. Especially in combats. You are in the best position to do this because, unlike players, you have to pay attention to what everyone is doing, you have a sense of what the monsters look and act like, and you have a sense of what tone you want to give players (isolation, desperation, victory). So, I do these things:
- describe hits and misses for both sides
- every few hits/misses back up and reiterate what has happened
- leave critical hits and misses to my own judgement (no charts) so I can come up with whatever ridiculous or awesome things fits the context
- if players make a great suggestion run with it as always
This isn't just for combat either-- missed saves, made saves, reaction rolls, morale rolls-- you are the interpreter of the randomness of the dice.
2 Don't Worry about Time
The single thing that kept me from DMing for years was worrying about how to keep track of rounds, and when to roll for wandering monsters, and when a torch will go out, etc. But I remember now, watching Tarzan movies on TV and trying to see if I could hold my breath as long as he could. Invariably, there would be a cut to a commercial, a cut to a scene happening elsewhere, a flashback, whatever. Tarzan underwater time was not literal time, we, the audience could forget about it to focus on something else for a bit and then be reminded of it with dramatic music and underwater closeups. My D&D is just like that. It isn't a simulation. Time is emotional. Time is narrative. Some specifics:
- If I forget to roll for wandering monsters then other interesting things were most likely happening and it isn't a big deal.
- If I suddenly remember, "Hey, it's been a while since I rolled for encounters," then there is either a lull in action or, more likely, players are dithering about what to do next. A fight to remind them of the danger of the underworld is just what's needed.
- If there's a dramatic time for a torch to go out, a spell duration to run out, especially if players mention it, then I might roll to see if that does happen.
3 Try to Engage All Your Players
I don't see myself as a distant arbiter of rules, a neutral judge. I'm there to have fun and see everyone else having fun. The rowdy, confident folks that turn out to be natural party leaders are not a problem. It's the person visiting and playing for the first time, the shy person, or even the person tired from work. So here are some things I try to do:
- I ask folks being quiet to roll initiative for the party
- I ask quiet folks what they are doing. To make sure they aren't talked over and forgotten.
- I'll have characters with little to do (the 1 hp MU who's cast his spell) make rolls for hirelings or npcs in combat
- If I roll a wandering monster I tell the quiet person that they hear something
- I give one session visitors a perk and try to make them essential to the session
- I try to make sure the players know their options "What was the spell you memorized PlayerNoobie? Oh, you're saving it, cool, cool."
Here is a fourth for good measure:
4 Don't Worry About the 4th Wall
If breaking it is fun, do it. This I learned from Jeff Reints. My hireling traits chart can result in some real doozies: hirelings with no feet, bearded women, slobs and pervs. It turns out players quite enjoy rolling to see the results. So, I let them do that during the session when they get hirelings. Other mechanics like pulling Jenga blocks or rolling a big d30 or whatever, if it adds choices, adds excitement, adds fun it gets added. I don't worry so much about ruining the player's sense of disbelief. The right mechanic will oddly make them more engaged. This all works better if you subscribe to my rule 1, because I will rewind a little and then narrate what the result of the goofy mechanic means in the game world, and this probably goes a long way to re-immersing everyone present in the shared daydream.
Other than that I'm not sure I have specific points for this practice.