How to start as a D&D Dungeon Master: 7 Key Steps

With so many places on lockdown or under stay-at-home orders right now, a lot of people are looking for things to do during the quarantine. One of the most common new hobbies that people are picking up is getting involved in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and other tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs). These games offer a great opportunity to stay involved with friends and flex your creative muscles and keep your storytelling skills sharp — all while having a great time and exploring a new narrative medium. 

One thing that makes TTRPGs unique when compared to other types of games is the role of a ‘Dungeon Master.’ The Dungeon Master (DM), or the equivalent role in other RPG systems, serves as the narrator — and often writer — of the story in which the characters reside. The DM also arbitrates on the rules of the game, to make sure that things remain balanced (or at least, broken in a fun way). 

As you might imagine, some people are rather hesitant to jump into the role of Dungeon Master when they first start to play D&D. It can be daunting to be the writer, narrator, and judge over a story, and many are worried that the game won’t be fun for themselves and their friends if they are playing as the Dungeon Master. 

But the fact of the matter is, someone has to be the Dungeon Master for your group to play D&D. To make the experience as smooth as possible, it helps to get advice from someone who has spent years running games as a DM — so without further ado, here are the 7 key steps to take to get started as a Dungeon Master when playing D&D.

Step #1 — Gather some friends

Before you can play D&D — or whatever game you end up deciding to run — you need to get together some other people to play with you. Depending on the game, the ideal group size will vary; you’ll get a better handle on what size you prefer as you continue to run campaigns. 

For beginner DMs, consider aiming for a group of 3-5 Player Characters (PCs). This size is great as a starting point because it will allow you to keep all of your players involved and build off of their ideas and energy without having to keep track of too many characters and things. 

So how do you find people to play with? The first way is to just ask around in your friend group to see if anyone is interested. With the growing popularity of D&D — thanks in large part to popular online shows such as The Adventure Zone and Critical Role — you’d be surprised at home many people are interested in playing a TTRPG. Try talking to friends at school, classmates, coworkers, and family members; it’s a good idea to start playing with people that you already know and with whom you have good rapport.

If you don’t have anyone in your friend circle that you want to invite to a game, there are a ton of options for recruiting people online. Search around for D&D-focused Discord servers, forums, and subreddits where you can find people to join a game with you. One note of advice: if you are going to play with people you meet online, it’s probably not a bad idea to speak with them a few times before starting up any games — take it from someone who has had more than one campaign prematurely end in a horrific screaming match. 

Step #2 — Decide on a system

Once you’ve gathered your posse, it’s time to make an important decision: “what game should we play?”

Although, ultimately, you are the one running the game, it’s important to make sure that everyone in your group gets to express their opinion about what you all play. There are few things more frustrating than being forced to play in a system that you don’t enjoy — and our goal is to make sure everyone enjoys the experience of playing TTRPGs.

If there’s a system that you’ve heard of before that you want to try, feel free to ask your group; but if you are looking for suggestions, here are some of the best (read: approachable) RPGs for beginner DMs:

First Suggestion — D&D Next/D&D Fifth Edition

There’s a reason that D&D is almost synonymous with roleplaying games at large: it is a very tightly designed, very beginner-friendly game. That doesn’t mean that D&D lacks depth, just that its trenches of complexity are mirrored by clear rules and simplified dice mechanics. Wizards of the Coast, the creators of Dungeons & Dragons, took great steps to strip away a lot of the gristle that plagued other iterations of D&D when making the most recent Fifth Edition. This has left a tight, streamlined experience that leaves a lot of room for personality and home-brewed interpretations. 

Second Suggestion — Gamma World (7th Edition)

Gamma World is a great option for new players and one-shots because its random elements and curahzee character backgrounds naturally engender a sillier, more approachable tone. In particular, Gamma World is great to get people started with doing voices and playing out-there characters, which can be a difficult step for players who are shyer or lack any experience doing characters. The first character that I, personally, ever did a voice for was in Gamma World — a time-traveling demon named Herr Doktor who drove around in a solar-powered truck and spoke with a horrifyingly embarrassing German accent. Looking back on the fine chronomancer makes my insides cringe like I’ve been sucking pondwater for 5 days, but it was the perfect way to get a self-concious 14-year old kid out of his shell and start goofing off with his friends. 

Something to keep in mind: the most recent edition of Gamma World, which came out in 2010, is based on the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This means that the game tends to lean heavily on combat and there are some esoteric rules that might cause you to scratch your head on a first read. Just be aware of this going in, and be confident to ignore the rules that seem ill-suited to your players and tone (after consulting with the others, of course).

Third Suggestion — Vampire the Masquerade

Vampire the Masquerade is a lot of TTRPG players’ introduction to the World of Darkness, a series of interconnected rulebooks that allow you to roleplay as mythical creatures of the night. In VtM, unsurprisingly, you play as vampires in the modern-day, going about your sinister machinations while trying to avoid breaking the titular masquerade. 

VtM is the perfect place to start with the ‘Storyteller’ system, which is the semi-universal ruleset of the World of Darkness and many other games created by White Wolf Games (the team behind modern WoD games). Whereas many TTRPGs work on what is called a D20 system, the Storyteller rules are a D10 dice pool system — I’ll talk about the benefits and drawbacks of different rulesets in a future post. 

If you’re interested in creating a gothic adventure that deviates from the traditional D&D system, then Vampire the Masquerade might be the perfect starting point for you as a Dungeon Master.

Step #3 — Figure out how you’re going to meet

Before you can actually get started running your campaign, you’ll have to work out a way for you and your group to meet. Most of the time — barring global pandemics — you can sit together around a table to play. A lot of groups prefer to meet in person because the immediacy of talking face-to-face is difficult to replicate over online platforms.

However, if you are unable to meet in person, whether due to distance, scheduling issues, or worldwide economic and social meltdown, there are plenty of options for playing online. Zoom is one of the better video chatting services currently available, with enough screen sharing options to simulate a virtual tabletop if need be. On top of that, a lot of people are already familiar with Zoom, especially if they are working from home during the self-quarantine. As a downside, you might have to shell out for a premium Zoom account if you want to host full-length sessions — a free account will limit you to 40 minutes of video chat per ‘meeting.’

Another virtual option is to use Discord for your voice chat. Discord is a popular VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) program that is commonly used for computer gaming and general messaging. One of the best upsides to using Discord is that you can seamlessly switch between voice chat and text-based communication, and your group’s server could also work as an archive of your character information, campaign notes, and other miscellaneous information. The biggest downside to Discord is that the video and screen sharing options are disappointingly limited, so you will likely have to use another piece of software to see each other and simulate the tabletop itself. While you could, theoretically, play without any sort of video, it is likely that you and your PCs will find this far less engaging. 

For simulating the experience of playing around a table — with figurines, maps, and inspiring music thrumming in the background — consider looking into Roll20. Roll20 is an online platform that provides everything you need to virtually run your game. You can make and share maps, use the jukebox function to sync up a playlist of your choosing, and instantly make all your rolls in the chat box with the embedded dice roller function. On top of that, Roll20 has an encyclopedia for rules, items, and spells so you can look up the obscure minutiae that your wizard is trying to slip past you without having to crack a book or open up a new tab. The biggest concern with Roll20 is that its voice chat integration is a bit spotty and lackluster. 

My setup suggestion:

If you are unable to meet in person — which is always my #1 choice — then I would recommend that you use a combination of Discord and Roll20 to host your games. Discord allows you to have great voice and text chat and keep great logs, while Roll20’s jukebox, dice roller, and graphic options can bring extra convenience and richness to your storytelling. Best of all, this setup is 100% free, unless you decide to shell out for some of Roll20’s premium bells and whistles. 

Step #4 — Gather (and read) all your materials

Once you’ve taken care of the above logistics, it’s time to sit down and bone up on your chosen system. Find a way to get the books that you’ll need — preferably legally. You can find almost any TTRPG core rulebook on Amazon or other digital retailers, though the errata (weirder books) might require that you dig a few pages into Google. 

Everyone in your group needs to read the core rulebook (or whatever equivalent book for your chosen system). You will tell the group that they all need to read it. They will not do so. This is the way of the Dungeon Master. 

Your players might be able to skate by with some sketchy knowledge of the rules, but you cannot — after all, one of your most important tasks is to be the arbiter of any rule disputes.That means that you need to read the entirety of the books that you can acquire. Hey, no one said being the DM was easy. 

The #1 book that you must read is the core rulebook. This will include all of the information that you need to run a successful game, include a complete set of rules and systems, character creation material, a sampling of monsters, and a list of spells and equipment for your friends to use on the adventures. Once you’ve read the core literature, you can also consume the RPG apocrypha that are Dungeon Master Guides, Player Handbooks, and Bestiaries. These books are not necessary to run a game, but they often contain a lot of fun and innovative ideas that can bring some spice to your story. 

One suggestion: I always prefer to buy physical copies, if possible. PDFs are harder for me to pay attention to, and nothing quite beats the tactile sensation of lugging around a tome of D&D knowledge. Sure, they may not have a ctrl+f search function — but isn’t that why we invented indexes?

Step #5 — Decide whether to create a story or run premade

This is one that trips up a lot of people. After all, it’s your story, right? Why would you want to just read something that someone else wrote?

Well, because those people are professional writers who get paid to create stories and balance them for the system. And because trying to create an original story and adapt it to your party’s actions can be stressful — especially if you are just getting started as a DM! 

When I first started running games, I was resolutely against using any premade campaigns. It felt like a cop out on the majestic creative vision that my 13-year old self was so proud of. Looking back, I caused myself a lot of heartache and undue stress by sticking to this mulish refusal. Sure, these failures helped me to grow as a DM and writer, but they made for a lot of not-so-fun games, weak plots, and terribly balanced encounters. 

If you already have a story in mind, then great! Tell that story — but don’t forget that you can always rely on premades in a pinch. My personal advice to you, as a new DM, is to start off your campaign with a premade scenario; then, if you get hit by inspiration or the players and their characters grow in an interesting way that the module can’t handle, you can always split the story into something entirely unique. 

Just because you start a premade module, that doesn’t mean that you have to continue it for the entire campaign!

Step #6 — Schedule out a time to meet

Now, for the bane of my DM existence — scheduling. Working out a time that works for everyone can be difficult, but it is absolutely necessary. It’s best to meet on a regular schedule, rather than playing it by ear week-to-week. If you have a set, regular day to meet, then it’s far easier to structure your weekly planning (and make sure that you set aside time to prepare for your session). 

Set a time and date to meet, and stick to it as best as you can!

Step #7 — Work with your group, not against them

This is the advice that I wish someone had given me a decade ago. You are not trying to beat your group — you are trying to assist them! Contrary to what some people think, the DM/Storyteller is working with the group of player characters, not against them. This isn’t necessarily something that all DMs think about when planning their campaigns,  but it’s important to keep in mind when getting started as a Dungeon Master. 

The ultimate goal of D&D, or of any tabletop RPG, is to have fun with your group. And, as the ultimate authority on the rules and setting of your campaign, it is your role to make sure that you are working with the group to make sure that the game is as fun as possible! 

Header image by Rogier Hoekstra

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