This is the second in a series of articles intended to help new Dungeons & Dragons dungeon masters run great D&D games. In our first article we looked at the hardest part of running a D&D game: getting a group together and keeping it going from week to week.
In this article and in future articles, we're going to talk about running the game itself.
While this article intends to aid new dungeon masters, even veteran D&D DMs will get value from reviewing these ideas. At worst, vets can point new DMs to these articles when new DMs seek advice for running great games.
Let's jump right in.
Your First Adventure: Consider Lost Mine of Phandelver
There’s no single correct way to run your first D&D game but we're going to offer a suggestion—start with Lost Mine of Phandelver. This adventure, included in the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and available right here on D&D Beyond, is specifically designed for new groups to get into the game. The story of Phandelver is straight forward and yet has enough interesting threads to keep even veteran D&D players engaged. Lost Mine of Phandelver is my favorite published adventure for this very reason. It feels like a solid traditional D&D adventure and yet offers a rich fresh story to explore. Lost Mine of Phandelver covers at least 16 hours of gameplay spread across four chapters and can be expanded out into the larger Forgotten Realms world either as a home campaign or into one of the other D&D adventures published by Wizards of the Coast.
If you're eager to jump into the DM seat, you likely have your own ideas for your own campaigns and that’s wonderful. However, when you're first running a D&D game, you'll have enough on your plate already. Building a cohesive adventure for your group on top of all of the other duties required of us DMs can overwhelm even the most organized new dungeon masters.
If you do choose to run your own adventure, keep it simple. Focus your attention on the characters and what is right around them instead of building a huge epic storyline. Where will the adventure start? What choices can the characters make right off the bat? Focus on what they can see, hear, and interact with. Put them in a spot, but not one so tough that they'll all just get wiped out. Keep in mind that just about anything can kill level 1 characters. This isn't the time to bring out the cool ancient red dragon you read about in the Monster Manual and harass them. Give them a problem they can solve.
This is why Phandelver’s opening chapter in Cragmaw Hideout is such a great choice for your first adventure. It starts off in the action and puts a problem in place that the characters can solve. Stick to that formula until you get your feet under you.
The Tools of the Trade
With your first adventure selected, it's time to gather the tools you need to run your game. Players need character sheets, pencils, and dice. If everyone is new to D&D, it might be best to start with level 1 pregenerated characters. The D&D Starter Set includes such pregenerated characters but you can also download a set for free. Print out these character sheets and read them over. Players can also use the Quick Build option of the D&D Beyond character builder to get an optimized 1st-level digital character sheet for each class. Use the character sheets and the rules of the game together to help you understand the basic mechanics of D&D.
You will, of course, need some dice. The D&D Starter Set includes a set of dice but you can pick up additional dice from a variety of vendors on the internet or at your local game shop. One set of dice per player is ideal, and eventually players will pick up more dice depending on what they happen to use for their characters.
To actually run the game, you only need a piece of paper and a pencil to sketch out what is going on. When characters begin exploring caves, you can describe it and then sketch it out so the players can get an idea of what is going on. Better yet, ask a player to volunteer to be the cartographer and sketch maps of dungeons as they travel through them.
If you research D&D online, you'll see all sorts of tabletop aids DMs use to run their game. Painted miniatures, battle maps, wet and dry-erase mats, modular dungeon tiles, even 3d terrain of castles and dungeons. There exists an equally wide array of digital tools for running D&D games as well, such as virtual tabletops Roll 20 and Fantasy Grounds.
Once you get into the game, you can explore this endless list of such products and, over time, choose what tools and toys you like the best for running your game. Initially, sticking to paper and pencil can help you get the best understanding of the game without fiddling around with things like maps and miniatures.
You also need copies of the rules and the adventure you plan to run. The Starter Set includes everything you need but some players might want their own copies of the Player's Handbook. Eventually you'll want your own Dungeon Master's Guide and Monster Manual but you don't need it right away if you’re running Lost Mine of Phandelver.
All of this material is also available on D&D Beyond. Many of the monsters in the Monster Manual and the full set of rules for playing D&D are available on D&D Beyond for free and are accessible on a computer, tablet, or phone. The search in D&D Beyond makes it easy to look up a particular spell, monster, magic item, or rule quickly making it a useful aid even if you do tend to use the books at the table.
Don't feel like you have to load up on all of the tools you see on the net before you run your game. Keeping the tools at your table to the minimum required for your first game can help you focus on what matters the most.
Sweating the Right Details
When we run our D&D games, there are things we should pay careful attention to and things that we really don't have to worry about. We don't need to take full responsibility for every part of the game. We can work with the players to delegate certain activities, so we can focus on the parts of the game for which we DMs have the most responsibility.
It's common for new players and DMs to get caught flat footed by all of the rules in Dungeons & Dragons. Veterans will often share a common lesson to newer DMs: the rules really aren't that important. It's worth understanding the basics of the game; rolling ability checks, attacks, saving throws, and stuff like; but it's easy to get wound up in the minutia when we're really just sharing stories and throwing in the random element of the dice into the game.
A commonly offered piece of advice is this: when in doubt, make a ruling and move on. Later, one can look up the rule and see if it's off from what you chose and then you can run it the right way later.
Likewise, while we're likely to get caught up in the rules and mechanics of the game, we're also potentially likely to miss the most important part of the game—the characters. Spend time, both before the game and during the game, understanding the story of the characters. Who are they? What do they want? Where did they come from? What's interesting about them?
When we pre-load our mind with the story of the characters, we're more likely to hook into those stories during the game. This matters a lot to the players and makes the whole game more fun for everyone.
We can never go wrong by focusing our time, energy, and attention on the characters.
Finally, if we're running a published adventure, it really helps us to read the whole adventure through. This isn't always that easy. It takes time, but it's worth it in the long run. The more we understand the adventure we're running, the more fluid it runs and the easier it is to keep going when things go off track, and they always get off track.
If you're running your own campaign, spend your time focusing on the areas of the campaign that directly surround the characters. Build small dungeons right nearby and focus on what the characters can actually see and do instead of worrying about the larger picture.
Bringing the Whole Team Together
DMs are not the enemy of the characters. We are all on the same side. We're sharing a story together, watching it unfold in front of us as we play the game. We don't have to take full responsibility for running the game all by ourselves. We can depend on the players to help us run a smooth game, particularly in the beginning. We can ask players to look up rules for us when we need. We can ask players to run initiative to take it off our hands. We can even hand parts of the fiction to the players as well. If they go into a tavern, we might ask the players what interesting features they see. When we delegate responsibilities like this, the game becomes less of a competition and more clearly a game of cooperative storytelling.
Your First Steps into the Multiverse
Above all, we should not be hard on ourselves when we're first getting started. D&D is a game with a forty-year history and is truly as limitless as our imaginations. In future articles we’ll dig deeper into the hardest and most important parts of running a great D&D game such as honing our improvisational skills. Today, however, we can get started with our first session. Tell stories, share laughs, relax, and have a great time.
About the Author
Mike Shea is a writer, technologist, dungeon master, and author for the website Sly Flourish. Mike has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, Kobold Press, Pelgrane Press, and Sasquach Games and is the author of the Lazy Dungeon Master, Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Locations, and Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Adventures. Mike lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Michelle and their dire-warg Jebu.