Ready, Set, Roll: Tips for Running D&D on the Fly

It was bound to happen. After a few weeks of binging Netflix and bickering over Monopoly, your family/roommates/quarantine buddies look to you and ask: Hey, what about that game you always talk about? What about Dungeons and Dragons, can we play that? 

Whether you’re a veteran or a newbie, getting requests to run a game can feel a little nerve-wracking. And last minute, in the moment requests? Downright terrifying. If you’re with a group of people with some hours to kill, D&D is a great way to pass the time. And it is totally possible to just pick up and play, it just takes a little confidence! Here’s my advice on getting a game started, for free, with less than ten minutes of prep.

A good way to be prepared for times like these, of course, is to have an old standby at the ready. A one shot or module that you like and are familiar with is a great way to share the game with new players (or veteran players looking for a new game). I’ve personally run The Wild Sheep Chase by Winghorn Press so often, I have it memorized. It’s one of my favourite games to run. It’s free, simple and self-contained, with a hilarious premise and lots of opportunities for roleplay. As many times as I’ve run it, it’s never ended the same way twice. I keep that adventure, and a few other longer campaigns in my back pocket, just in case. If that sounds like something you’d like to have in your arsenal, check out DM’s Guild. I often find myself browsing the site looking for new adventures, new works by favourite authors, or extra flavour to add to campaigns. If you have the time to explore, it’s a great way to find inspiration and broaden your horizons as a DM. And it’ll make you look super cool to your friends if you have an adventure you can whip out at a moment’s notice. 

Many DMs don’t spend all their spare time browsing DM’s Guild. If that’s not a fun thing for you, don’t do it, it’s definitely not a requirement to run a good game, I’m just that kind of nerd. You don’t need to have a module or one-shot memorized to run a last minute game of D&D. All you really need to play Dungeons and Dragons is a good story, so lean on the stories that you know and love. Pay attention to the books, movies, television shows, and comic books that you always return to. What about those stories draws you in? Steal elements of them to quick build an adventure in a matter of moments! My favourite trick? I take two or three stories that I know really well, say, a fairy tale, a popular film, and a book I loved as a kid, and I mash them up. Take the setting of one, the villain of another, an NPC ally or magical item from the third and voila! You have the beginnings of a solid story. Use a name generator to re-brand them a bit and there you go! 

Then you have to decide what kind of story you want to tell. Is it a heist? A fetch-quest? A rescue mission? What’s the easiest and quickest direction for you? Every DM has an affinity for a certain type of story, and your players can help you out there. Ask them about their favourite book or movie, see if their stories inspire you. What kind of characters do they want to play? If they’re familiar with D&D, they may have an idea already, or a character ready to go. Let that inform you, maybe there’s something in their backstory you can incorporate. If they’re newbies, ask them about their favourite characters in fiction or history, and have them build a character like that on D&D Beyond (That’ll also buy you time to finalize the adventure). Don’t feel limited to traditional fantasy genres if that’s not the kind of story that comes the most naturally to you or your players. You need material that you can improvise in, so if that’s a horror film, or a buddy comedy, or a romance, do that! 

Traditionally, Dungeons and Dragons adventures are built on three “Pillars” of storytelling: Exploration, Social Interaction, and Combat. Satine Phoenix breaks these down very clearly in her show Storyteller’s Guide, if you want more details there. These pillars really help structure your story quickly. Use the inspiration you gathered from your favourite stories and your players’ characters to build each pillar out into a three act adventure. Give them a setting to explore, NPCs to befriend (or harass), and monsters to fight and you’ve got a complete game. And don’t stress about running combat encounters without time to prepare. The Kobold Fight Club Encounter Builder will take care of it. Plug in the number of players, their level, and the level of difficulty and then just choose the enemy. You can search for specific monsters, browse by Challenge Rating or environment, or just have the builder generate a random encounter for you. It’s that simple.

And don’t forget in all your last minute prep to leave room for your players to add their own contributions to the game. You’ll likely find that they’ll do most of the worldbuilding and storytelling for you, all you have to do is say “Yes, and…”