Being a Dungeon Master is wonderful. With the right mindset, and the right group of people at the game, you will feel completely at ease. Yes, the Dungeon Master has an important role to play, but the roles fulfilled by the game and the players are equally important. Though each role is different, none rises above the others.
Let's clear one thing up right now: Dungeons & Dragons is a collaborative effort and not a performance by the Dungeon Master. Sometimes that fact can get lost in the noise. False assumptions like these have stopped talented, creative people like you from starting.
You can be a Dungeon Master today.
You are not in charge of the fun
You have a role to play, as do the players. Think of yourself as a special type of player in this game. You deserve as much fun as the heroes. If you practice, you will be able to enhance how much fun is had at each game – but the same thing is true of the players. They should also be practicing and contributing their share.
It can cause anxiety to believe you are entirely responsible for how much fun your friends are having. Remove that burden from your shoulders. Everyone at the table shares that responsibility. You are not alone.
You do not need to know all the rules
Some of the players at our regular D&D game have played for more than 10 years. We still use 10% of the possible rulesets and options. We still look up a rule almost every game as our new Dungeon Master learns the system. Even world class Dungeon Masters like Matt Mercer rely on cheat sheets like the ones this guide provides for you.
It is common practice to tweak rules to suit the style a particular group enjoys. If you ask 5 groups how they play D&D you will get 5 different answers.
Do not worry about memorization and do not read the core books cover to cover for your first game. All you need are a small set of Basic Rules to get started. The rest you will discover later as needed.
It does not take a long time to run your first game
You have a busy life. Job, family, friends, other hobbies. So you would be rightfully concerned to hear that you need to invest days of study to run a D&D game.
Thankfully, it does not take that long to learn the basics and run your first game. This guide strips away all non essential information.
Your small time investment will turn into hours of fun with your friends in the first game. It will continue to pay dividends should you decide to continue running the game. You will enjoy countless hours of fun as you deepen your understanding of the game and introduce more people to this wonderful hobby.
You do not need to be a great storyteller
Being a great storyteller will enhance your performance as a Dungeon Master (and player). As with other skills like reading, art, and athletics, you can train for years and always improve – but you can also do it right now. This time you have a secret weapon: your friends.
In D&D, the best way to tell a story is to commit to getting your friends together to have some fun. The story emerges as a shared creation between your players and you. Don't forget, a roleplaying game is a collaboration, not a performance by you.
You are not the adversary
As a Dungeon Master, it can feel like you are against the players because you design obstacles for them. You come up with devious traps for them to fall into, summon cruel enemies that want to kill them, and give them challenging puzzles to solve. This can make the relationship appear adversarial. But it is all in service of creating an exciting story!
You should be a fan of the players. When they disarm your traps, you cheer as they do. When they survive the attack with swords and spells, you high five them. When they stop the murderous plot, you nod in appreciation.
Sometimes they won't succeed. You encourage them to get back up and try again.
Use tropes without apology
A sly rogue, a stoic warrior, and a sultry bard. A fateful meeting at a tavern. A goblin ambush in the ruins. These are the stories we all know. Some would dismiss these tropes, claiming a true storyteller would never be so predictable. Not us. As a Dungeon Master, tropes are your best friend.
People love tropes and they reduce the amount of thinking you have to do on the fly. Tropes will amaze you with how much they help you improvise in your first game.
NPC notes with tropes
You know your players will meet a knight's squire on the road into town. What should you write in your notes?
Walter Alard: Human squire. 6 feet tall. Pale skin.
Walter Alard: Human squire. Nervous but faithful. Dreams of becoming a knight one day.
Walter Alard: Human squire. Nervous but faithful. Dreams of becoming a knight one day. Think Samwell Tarly from Game of Thrones.
You should not homebrew (yet)
Homebrew refers to content you invent yourself that is not part of an official book. Wizards of the Coast, the company that owns Dungeons & Dragons, publishes official books. Inventing your own worlds, rules options, and style is a glorious creative act that you will find very rewarding. You should definitely try it – but not today.
Your first game is more likely to happen if you focus only on the material provided in this guide. Don't worry – your creativity will shine throughout the game.
You should not start a campaign (yet)
An adventure is a series of encounters that provoke an interesting story by placing obstacles between the Players Characters and their goal. An adventure is like a single episode of Star Trek, or a chapter from The Fellowship of the Ring.
You can string many adventures together by connecting them with an overarching plot. That is a Campaign. If the TV episode is the adventure, the series is the Campaign. Campaigns can last for months or even years.
One-Shots have fewer moving parts. Less characters, places, and encounters within them. It is a small investment to read it cover to cover.
A small story will be just as fun as a big one.
I hope you are feeling more confident to try this out. Being a beginner is fine. You aren't expected to know everything. This guide and your friends will help you.
- Don't panic. You will do this and have a lot of fun learning. You are destined to be a Dungeon Master!
- You are not in charge of the fun
- You do not need to know all the rules
- It does not take a long time to run your first game
- You do not need to be a great storyteller
- You are not the adversary
- Use tropes without apology
In the next section we will walk through the concrete steps you need to take to prepare for the game. It's a list of clear actions that are arranged in a 2 week timeline (though you can do it much faster if you want).
You can skim through the steps now and then go back and follow them like a checklist when you are ready to commit to a game.
Continue to the next section
III. Game Preparation
Steps you should take to prepare for your first game session. You should follow them in order from top to bottom.
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