Behind the Screen Part Two: Running Your First Dungeon Mastering Session

It’s all been leading up to this. You’ve prepped your adventure, you’ve gathered your party…and here they are, staring expectantly at you, primed and ready for a great time. No pressure.

Seriously, though, no pressure. You’re ready and it’s going to be great. Every first time Dungeon Master feels a little nervous before the game. In fact, many experienced and even professional DMs say that they still get butterflies before a session (I certainly do). It’s perfectly normal. Still, that nervousness can be distracting and keep you from achieving your potential as a DM. The mountain of rules, statistics, details and logistics that you’ve prepared can feel intimidating to keep track of, so here are a few tips and tricks to keep those anxieties at bay and translate all your prep into a fantastic game.

First, let’s talk about your setup. What tools do you need to run your game successfully? What information do you need and what’s the best way for you to keep it close at hand? I run my games in person, so I use a Dungeon Master Screen to keep my notes handy and hidden from my players. If you’re running a remote game, you may still find a DM screen helpful. It’s if It’s a great way to set up your space and feel organized. You can find one in a game store or online or one is included in the Essentials Kit that we discussed in last month’s article.

But what goes behind the screen? How will you know what information you’ll need? A good way to determine that is to take a look at the session as a whole. What do you plan to cover? If I’m planning to have a combat encounter I print out their information and statistics and make sure I have space in my notebook to track things like initiative order and hit points. If I think the players may want to shop, I’ll have a list of item descriptions and prices. If I’m planning to introduce them to non-player characters (NPCs), I’ll have a list of names and characteristics to help with roleplay (accents, their jobs, quirks, etc.).

Consider organizing your session into sections like Combat, Roleplay, and Exploration. Create quick reference sheets for each section (stat blocks, items, names, etc), then sort them in the order that you think the players will encounter them. Inevitably, things will change as the players interact and make choices, but having this information ready will help you quickly answer any questions they have and keep your story flowing smoothly.

You can organize this information however you wish. If you’re running your adventure from a book or print out, use bookmarks or sticky notes to mark the things you plan to reference often, or tuck notes between the pages. If you’re using a laptop or tablet, have tabs open on your internet browser, or notes in a word processing app. If you’re working from a virtual tabletop like Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds, there are resources built into the site to support you. I definitely recommend spending time exploring your options and taking full advantage of everything they have to offer.

Personally, I use a combination of ways to stay organized. I keep the adventure on my laptop, with tabs open for spells, magical items, and music, then print out the stat blocks of enemies and allies to keep behind the screen. I also have a notebook handy to keep track of combat or any important details that I think of during the session. The role of the Dungeon Master can come with lots of little details to keep track of but don’t let them bog you down. Put them in a place that’s easily accessible so you can focus on the story and your players instead.

Now that we’ve covered your space behind the screen, let’s move beyond it to the table. What will your players experience? If you’re planning to run a “theatre of the mind” style game and rely on imagination to tell the story, you don’t need anything on the table. However, some DMs who prefer this style of play do enjoy incorporating music and sound effects to enhance their storytelling and I think it’s a great way to spark creativity and immerse your players in the world. Some DMs use video game soundtracks. YouTube is also a great resource for playlists to use during your games, and it’s the one I use most often. I usually keep a tab open for roleplay and one for combat, switching between them as it feels appropriate. If you do like incorporating sound in your games, then Syrinscape is another great tool for you. For either a subscription or one-time purchase, it provides a fantastic database of soundscapes and effects for any occasion. There’s even a tool to help you create your own soundboards and customize them to your campaign!

In addition to audio, I prefer visual aids for my campaigns, using maps and miniatures to help make my story clear. If you have an idea of what a location will look like for a combat encounter or other event where a map will be helpful, it may be a good idea to have those ready ahead of time. Most published adventures will have maps for you and your players to reference, I like to copy those onto a dry erase playmat and pull them out when the players reach the location or begin combat. These playmats are very helpful for preparing maps or sketching out scenarios to clarify environments for you players and are fairly easy to find at your local game store or online. Look for ones with a grid so you can determine things like scale, movement, and spell effects. If you’re running a remote game and plan to use a map, I highly recommend using a virtual tabletop site like Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds. If you’re running a published adventure, you can purchase official maps and art to share with your players, or, if you’re homebrewing, customize a map of your own.

Map by Vince Caso

Miniatures and terrain are another helpful way to bring your players’ experience to the next level, but they can be costly. Elaborate scenery and perfect 3D printed miniature characters and monsters are wonderful, look amazing, and are very fun to use but they’re not necessary, especially for fledgling DMs. If physical representation of characters on a map help make your game fun, try picking up old board games from a thrift store and upcycling the player pieces. For an even more affordable option, you can use cheap plastic toys, extra dice, or even loose change to designate locations. If you’re a crafty type, you can even make your own from paper or cardboard! Whatever works for you and your group. And if you are looking to build a collection, you can definitely find miniatures and terrain at your local game store, or from online retailers like Eldritch Foundry, Hero Forge, Dwarven Forge, Ral Partha, and GriffonCo.

All of these tools: notes, stat blocks, music, maps, minis, etc., they’re just that – tools. They’re information and details to help you support your story. Knowing what helps you and how to organize it all will keep you from being overwhelmed with minutiae and put the spotlight back where it belongs: your players. Let them inform you and your story. Listen to their questions, their reactions and use that information to keep them engaged and invested. Don’t be afraid to be inspired by their ideas. It may take you in a slightly different direction than you planned, and that’s okay! Be flexible and enjoy the spontaneity that comes from putting a group of very different people into chaotic situations.

Don’t forget, whether you’re running a game for strangers or old friends, you’re in a group of people who want to have fun. They’re not sitting around waiting to judge or criticize you, they’re here to play a game, and they trust you to help them do that. So give yourself that same trust and settle in for the adventure.