Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Whether you’ve sat on the other side of the DM screen as a player, or are approaching the hobby with fresh eyes, being a Dungeon Master can feel like a daunting prospect.
While players just need a working knowledge of the rules and their character, the DM wears a lot more hats: storyteller, referee, world builder, game designer, puzzle master, improv comic.
It can all feel quite overwhelming.
Being a DM is creative, fun, and a lot easier than it looks; there’s a lot of mystification created by the DM screen, the stacks of weighty tomes, piles of dice, and armies of plastic figurines.
These tips are designed to help you break through some of that mystique, break down the towering complexities of this hobby and, most importantly, have fun with your friends.
1. Remember: The Conversation is Everything
Let me explain.
Most tabletop roleplaying games, D&D included, follow a core gameplay loop: the Conversation, where the DM presents the world to the players, the players react, and the DM explains how things have changed. Rinse and repeat.
Let’s go through that process in a little more detail.
First, the DM describes the world that the PCs see before them.
You all meet in a tavern, a long, low room that smells like pipe tobacco and honey mead. You all received the same mysterious letter, telling you to be here at this time on this day to discuss “the last job you’ll ever need to take.”
The only clue to who sent the letter was the signature – a single mysterious X. Looking around you, you see, seated in the back of the tavern, alone at a table cloaked in shadow, a hooded figure sits watching you all.
What do you do?
This is an absolutely classic (some might say cliched – but cliches exist for a reason) start to a game of D&D, and it all begins with the DM describing the world the PCs see before them.
Next, the players ask questions about the world (Do I recognize the hooded figure? Who else is in the tavern? Can I rob the bartender?) and describe their character’s actions (I walk up to the hooded figure and demand they identify themself. I scan the room for danger. I rob the bartender!).
The DM then explains how the PCs’ actions have changed the world around them, describing how the scene has changed. And the loop begins again.
The rules – which spells you can cast, which numbers you add to your dice roll to determine if you break down a door or successfully pick the innkeeper’s pocket, whether you can crack the ancient elvish riddle – are there to help you figure out what happens next when the conversation is no longer enough to figure out what happens next.
When the stakes get high, the dice come out.
For example, whether or not the hooded figure reveals their face to the PC is up to you. You are the hooded figure, after all. “I would prefer not to” says the hooded figure, ushering you towards a seat at the table. “Just think of me as a … friend.”
Now, it’s perfectly alright that the PC who has decided to rob the innkeeper should be made to roll some dice to see if they’re successful.
There are definitely stakes for failure here.
Likewise, if the PC talking to the hooded figure decides to try and yank their hood from their face, it’s definitely time to roll some dice to see what happens next.
If you can really internalize the flow of that conversational loop, manage not to interject the rules where they’re not needed, and always remember to ask “What do you do?”, then you’ll find managing the moment-to-moment flow of the game feels easier from the first time your PCs step through the tavern door.
2. Don’t Cast Fly Before You Can Walk
When you’re first starting out, it’s really easy to fall into the trap of thinking that there’s some kind of minimum “buy-in” – a base amount of money or time you need to spend in order to be a real DM.
A lot of people who want to run D&D’s fifth edition (5e) think they need to buy the three core books: the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and the Monster Manual.
That’s a serious cash investment upfront and frankly, an insane amount of reading material (992 pages in total) that you do not need to read from cover to cover.
Wizards of the Coast has a free version of the basic rules for D&D 5e available online.
They also have 16 pre-generated characters available to download for free.
If your group is just starting out, character creation can be a bit of a slog.
Print out the basic rules, put a pile of pre-generated level one characters in front of your players, grab some dice, and you’re ready to play. It’s that easy.
3. Start by Running a Pre-Written Adventure
Writing a whole adventure from scratch is – much like the rest of learning how to DM – a lot easier than you probably think.
We’ll get to that in a minute, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t first expound some of the virtues using a pre-written adventure.
There are quite literally hundreds of thousands of published adventures that have been written for D&D over the decades.
There are more than 24 official adventure books that Wizards of the Coast has put out for 5e so far, each with enough material to run months upon months of games.
Fight vampires in Curse of Strahd. Become pirates, swashbuckle with fish men, and lay angry spirits to rest in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. And escape the Underdark in Out of the Abyss.
Then you have all the third party content, adventures written for other editions of D&D, and adventures written for other roleplaying games that you can splice, hack, cut and paste into 5e as you see fit.
Getting overwhelmed again?
Okay, I’ll slow down.
You can buy the Starter Set on Amazon, which is really cheap, contains dice, a (pretty flimsy) DM screen, pre-generated characters, and a great 50-page starter adventure called The Lost Mines of Phandelver.
It’s a great, focused adventure that will help you take your players on an adventure from level one to level five over the course of about six sessions.
Or you can pick up the D&D Essentials Kit (again, on Amazon), which does much the same thing, but with a more sandbox approach; rather than a single main quest, the Essentials Kit adventure The Dragon of Icespire Peak presents itself as “a collection of locations, quests, and challenges that inspires you to tell a story.”
They’re both excellent starting points and don’t force you to bite off more than you can chew.
5. You Need a Town, a Dungeon, and Something In Between
If you elect to go the other route and build a game “from scratch”, a lot of first-time DMs feel pressured (or sometimes seduced) by the idea that they need to create a whole world, filled with beholders and mad gods and other cataclysmic threats looming over the other side of the kingdom.
While world building can be one of the most fun things a DM can do, it’s important to remember that your PCs are going to be starting out at first level, which means they aren’t remotely equipped to deal with, well, much of anything.
You don’t need to make a whole world, or know what language they speak in the ancient sunken city of Tharacia at the bottom of the Sapphire Sea, or even what’s on the other side of the nearest mountain range.
What you need for your first game of D&D:
- a town
- a dungeon
- and something between the two
Figure those three things out and you’ll be able to run your first session.
The PCs will receive their call to adventure (widely known as a Hook) by learning about the existence of the dungeon, travel to said dungeon, and have a small adventure along the way (I personally like the old “Owlbear chasing someone up a tree set piece”), enter the dungeon, fight some monsters, disarm some traps, defeat the boss, and get some treasure.
There are a million fantastic resources for designing your first town, dungeon, and the thing between the two, as well as how to turn that initial adventure into something bigger – a campaign.
I’d personally recommend Matt Colville’s Running the Game series on YouTube, but there’s a virtually endless number of resources out there.
The rabbit hole has no bottom.
6. Steal Without Hesitation or Remorse
The choice between running a pre-written adventure module, or building something of your own from scratch isn’t black and white.
In fact, making a campaign is a process more akin to making a collage than writing a novel (or even reading one to your players).
For your starting town, you can just grab one out of an existing adventure module.
Try the village of Hommlet from Temple of Elemental Evil, or the mining town of Phandalin from the Starter Set.
Grab it, drop it into your game, maybe tweak one or two things to fit the story you want to tell.
You can do the same for your dungeon.
The Sunless Citadel – the first adventure in the official D&D adventure book Tales from the Yawning Portal is a great first level adventure packed with all the best D&D staples: goblins, ancient ruins, and a baby dragon.
If you’re feeling brave, you can use Against the Cult of the Reptile God, a first level adventure from the very first edition of D&D for a thoroughly creepy, culty, cursed village (which is actually another great contender for a starting town) and an absolutely terrifying temple packed with poisonous snakes, green slimes, and crocodiles, all building to a death-defying confrontation with a spirit naga called Explicita Defilus!
Your thievery doesn’t have to be confined to D&D itself though.
Steal the plots from your favorite books, TV shows, and movies.
I once had a friend who ran a dungeon that was explicitly based on the board game Mousetrap.
Another friend of mine regularly runs horror adventures by using the prompts, tiles, and hauntings from the fantastic board game Betrayal at House on the Hill.
I myself ran a campaign back in 2018 that was just a thinly veiled retelling of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, complete with a creepy lizard cult mind-controlling a child monarch.
The characters, situations (assassination attempts in lavish palace rooms, hidden passageways, spike traps, and ceremonies worshipping ancient forbidden gods), and pulpy tone were right there.
I just tweaked it a little and threw it at my players. They loved it.
They did end up calling me out for it, but only in the middle of a mine cart chase through a collapsing underground cave system. But they kind of loved that too.
7. You’re not Matt Mercer, and that’s Okay
Lastly, I see a lot of new DMs, particularly those whose introduction to the hobby are things like Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, or Dimension20, look at the kind of games being run and stories being told by people like Matt Mercer, Griffin McElroy, and Brendan Lee Mulligan, and despair.
Oh, but I’ll never be able to run a game that good. I’m a bad DM!
DMs like Mercer have had literally decades to hone their craft.
Also, they’re professional entertainers.
Mercer was an insanely successful voice actor before he started doing Critical Role, and Griffin McElroy had been a professional podcaster and comedian for more than half a decade before he started DM-ing The Adventure Zone, and it shows.
You – most likely – are none of those things. And that’s okay!
Your players are probably going to be just as new as you are. They’re going to think you’re amazing.
When I started running games for people, I was honestly very, very bad at it.
I forgot details, fumbled my descriptions, forgot NPCs’ names, and generally made a real mess of things. But my players (bless them) were engaged in the story anyway.
They weren’t some dispassionate audience, judging me from the other side of a screen; they were active, joyous, usually quite rowdy participants in a story we were telling together.
It was fun. Focus on that, on the fun. If you are enjoying running a game of D&D for your friends, and your friends are enjoying playing in your game, nothing else matters.
Here are some additional resources I recommend:
Now, Get Your DM On!
D&D is, to quote Matt Colville (someone whose fingerprints you can see all over my own DM-ing philosophy and style) “quite possibly the most fun you can have with your brain.”
It’s creative, goofy, and immersive. It’s also deeply, deeply addictive. So, be warned: use these tips and tricks at your own risk. You might just end up with a new favorite hobby.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.