Everywhere around the world, players are discovering, or re-discovering the epic thrills of Dungeons and Dragons. People of all kinds are settling around tables, looking to their Dungeon Master to kick off their next grand adventure. The role of the DM is a unique one: part storyteller, part referee, they lead their group of players through a campaign, introduce them to a cast of non-player characters, pit them against villains, and guide them through dungeons. For many players, the DM is a god-like figure, the ultimate authority that holds their characters’ lives in the balance.
These expectations can be intimidating for aspiring DMs. The pressure to play God and take responsibility for the fun and fulfillment of a whole group is often enough to discourage them from ever making that leap. But here’s the thing: it’s not actually that hard to run a Dungeons and Dragons game. The best part about being a Dungeon Master is that you’re in charge. You can run your adventure however you’d like and there are countless resources to support you and get you started. Want to run a weekly, super immersive, high fantasy adventure with maps and miniatures and all the bells and whistles? Follow your bliss. Leaning more towards theatre of the mind, using just your word sand imagination? Do that! Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t have to be an expensive or complicated undertaking. The only thing you need to be a great DM is the desire to be one. Everything else will fall into place.
Running your first game as a Dungeon Master is essentially a two-part process: Preparing for the session, and running the session. So let’s break down prep.
Beginning prep can feel overwhelming. The volumes of rules and lore available can make it seem impossible to be prepared enough to run a game, but all that material is just a tool, a source of inspiration for you to use as much or as little of as you’d like. I usually recommend that new DMs start with 5th edition D&D, as it’s the most accessible version of the game yet and the Basic Rules are available for free online. For DMs on a budget, this rule set also has a section of Dungeon Master tools that will give you everything you need to run a simple adventure (everything but the adventure, that part is left up to you). If you’re looking to cut your teeth on something a little more significant, I’d recommend checking out the recently released D&D Essentials Kit. Unlike the D&D Starter Kit, which is a great resource for new players, the Essentials Kit pus the focus on the new DM. It includes a full adventure, dice, a DM screen, and reference cards for magic items, non-player characters, and initiative order for combat. It’s a fantastic one-stop shop to get you up and running as a DM in a convenient, streamlined way. If you’re looking to run a longer, more involved campaign, or looking to incorporate original content of your won, I’d go ahead and pick up a copy of the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual. Those books, along with the Player’s Handbook, will give you all the information you’ll need to build worlds and customize to your heart’s content. You can find all those products at your local game store or online.
These resources provide you with framework to run your game, but how you use them is entirely up to you. What kind of story do you want to tell? Think about films and novels that you enjoy. What draws you in and keeps you engaged? Are you inspired by epic journeys or political intrigue? Treasure hunts or high stakes heists? There are infinite possibilities ahead, so pick something you know that you’ll enjoy. Fun is infectious, if you’re excited about the adventure, you players will be too. When you know the kind of story you’d like to tell, the next step is building your narrative. Again, you’ve got options galore. If you want to build your adventure from scratch, go for it. Write your story, then use the Dungeons Master’s Guide to help craft combat encounters, design locations, and create NPCs (non-player characters) to bring it to life.
If you’d rather run a pre-existing adventure, take your pick! Dungeons and Dragons has a vast and varied library of pre-written modules designed to grow with your group. For more content, you can also explore The Dungeon Master’s Guild. The DM’s Guild is a site where you can search and shop for the campaign that speaks most to you. With an extensive catalogue ranging from classic D&D storylines to contributions from independent creators, you’re sure to find something that fits your vision. Several contributors to the site also create original short adventures, known as one-shots, and make them available on the site for free. If you’re not looking to invest in a longer adventure just yet, I highly recommend taking advantage of these. They’re a helpful opportunity to stretch your wings as a fledgling DM without needing to commit to a longer campaign immediately.
We’ve talked rules and adventure, so let’s take a moment for the most important aspect of your game: the players. Speaking from experience, it’s incredibly easy to find players to fill out your adventuring party. Post on social media or head in to your local game store for in person games, or try meetup.com or Roll20 for virtual/video chat games. Lots of people want to play, so willing and eager DMs are a valued commodity in the D&D community. Finding a group is simple, putting together a well-matched group takes a little more work. Whether you’re strangers meeting for the first time or lifelong friends trying something new, communication has to be your number one priority. Encourage your players to talk to you and to each other about their expectations for the game. Ask them what they’re excited about, find out about their favourite stories and what draws them to Dungeons and Dragons. Many new DMs find that a session zero really helps to start these conversations and get everyone on the same page.
A session zero accomplishes several things: introduces the group and the DM to each other as people and as players, establishes individual playstyles and expectations, and allows the players to create characters with support from the DM. Sit down with your players, tell them about the world of the adventure and discuss the rules of the game, then have them build their characters with you. That last part is especially helpful for the savvy DM. I’ve always been a fan of incorporating player backstories into the storyline, it adds depth to the narrative and offers the players a unique opportunity to invest and engage in the adventure. They feel like active participants in the world instead of passive bystanders. Developing those backstories in a session zero gives you the chance to go back and weave them into the plot before session 1. Session zero is also the perfect time to go over any sensitive topics that the campaign may cover. Monte Cook Games has a free PDF available for download called Consent in Gaming that comes with a consent checklist that you can hand out to players before the adventure. It’s a clear, efficient way to take care of your players, avoid harmful triggers, and ensure everyone is safe and having a fabulous time. I don’t run a campaign without it.
After your session zero, you’re ready to go! You have your references for the rules, your storyline, a primed and ready group of players, throw in some scratch paper and a writing utensil and you’ve got everything you need. You’re as prepared as you need to be to run a great game, now take a breath and dive right in!
Want some guidance on running your first session? Look out next month for Part 2 of this breakdown: Running your First Session.