If you’ve enjoyed Dungeons & Dragons as a player, you may have considered trying out the game from the other side. Perhaps you’ve also listened to the McElroys or Matt Mercer tell gripping tales of magic and fantasy, and it’s made you want to try it out for yourself.
While experienced Dungeon Masters on podcasts like The Adventure Zone or Friends at the Table may make the entire things seem intimidating, you should know that your first session as a DM won’t be perfect. It takes practice to develop the skills it takes to build and tell your own story, and there are some things you should know first. Here are some tips on getting a group together, creating encounters and crafting a story.
A good way to get a first group together is to go through people you’ve played with in the past. Players you’re friends with or have friends in common with will be more patient and willing to spend time helping you get used to being a Dungeon Master. If there are DMs you’ve enjoyed playing with in the past, they might also make for great players. For one, as a DM, they might be looking forward to doing a game as a player. Additionally, having someone with DM experience on-hand could come in handy if you have any questions should you be unsure of a rule or need help.
It’s best to pick a group of people who you are friendly with and you can count on to be good players. You’re probably going to have an awkward moment or two, so it’ll be good for everyone to have a group who will be willing to roll with the punches.
While involved and complex stories are great to read and listen to, it’s better to have a one-shot set up for the first session you DM. A full campaign or multiple-session game is a bit too involved for a first-time Dungeon Master. With a one-shot or pre-written adventure, if something doesn’t work out, you don’t have to worry too much about it because you haven’t personally invested a lot into it.
A one-time session is a perfect way to start learning the ropes. It’s all about seeing what works, finding out what your players like and trying things you think you would be good at. If you want more role-play, you can try implementing that. If you want more encounters, many D&D books will include optional encounters for players who like combat.
Feel free to try different things to find out what does and doesn’t work for you. Then, if you want to DM more games, you can adapt those accordingly. For example, if you’ve put a lot of role-play opportunities into your session but find that ad-libbing NPCs isn’t working out for you, you can either cut down on the role-play or formally script NPC encounters and exposition.
If you’re looking for one-shots, the Dungeons & Dragons Start Set may be a good place to start. Some of the books, like Tales from the Yawning Portal, include multiple adventures as an anthology. However, these adventures often take multiple four-hour sessions to complete, which will be more of a commitment for you and your players.
A great place to look for content is the Dungeon Masters Guild, where Dungeon Masters can publish supplemental material and share it with others online. Some of the materials come with fees, but it’s a small price to pay to support other creators and access the adventures.
Combat is one of the pillars of D&D gameplay, but don’t let its complexity overwhelm you. First off, you have to keep in mind your players’ levels. Reading their character sheets will also help you keep track of how they might behave in combat. If you’re creating your own encounters (instead of using pre-made ones from a book), a diverse set of enemies will help keep players on their toes. For example, players with high armor classes will be harder to hit with a weapon attack, so using spells that require save throws will diversify combat.
Expect some fumbles during your first session. You’ll probably be checking and re-checking stats a lot, so something like an Excel spreadsheet will help you organize your party’s ACs, health and other important information. You’ll be dealing with a lot of numbers, ad-libbing NPC dialogue and a party that will probably not do what you want them to do. But that’s what makes Dungeons & Dragons fun and endlessly entertaining.
Being a Dungeon Master isn’t easy (talking for four to six hours never is), and a lot of prep work can go into more involved campaigns, but it’s really rewarding to see a group of players respond well to something you created.
If you've played Dungeons & Dragons, you may have thought about creating or running your own campaigns. Here's what you should know.