How to get started as a DM in D&D
If there’s one thing that every Dungeons and Dragons game needs, it’s a Dungeon Master. DMs serve to bring shape and flavor to your game, move the action along, and make sure everyone is playing fair.
Maybe you really want to step into the role — or maybe, no one else in your group is willing to volunteer for this, and the game won’t start unless you lead it. This task can seem daunting, after all. Here are some tips to give you advantage on the saving throw against those fears.
How does a new DM get started?
Have fun with friends! That’s the number one tip.
If you want to get started and don’t know where to go to find players, ask around in places where you normally talk to people — online forums you chat about other topics, coworkers that you like, the comments of this article. You can even ask family. Just casually say, “I was thinking of starting a D&D game, would you like to play?” You would be surprised how many people will say yes. You don’t need a huge group to start. Two or three players is enough to get a game going.
Once you have the players, let them know if you want to allow unofficial material, like Walrock Homebrew content, Unearthed Arcana material, or strictly official published material. Brush up on your knowledge with a readthrough of the Player’s Handbook, and watch some videos to get a sense of the game.
Things that a new DM doesn’t need to do
Don’t buy a lot books. Especially in the beginning, you can put together a nice campaign with the free content that is out there. DnDBeyond has the monsters and items from the Player’s Handbook for free. Sites like DriveThruRPG.com will have content that will give excellent ideas for opening campaigns, often for a donation of $0.00. Watching campaigns on YouTube will give you stories, and your imagination doesn’t cost a dime. Long-term, you might want to invest in certain books or campaigns, but in the beginning, save your money. Once you know what you want and need — and what’s worth the cost — then spend economically.
Don’t worry if you’ve never played D&D before. If you and a group of friends want to start a game, and no one has ever played before, you might be looking for an experienced person to DM Stop looking! A person new to the game can DM too. Do you need a basic understanding of the game? Do you need the rules to reference? Sure, but so do the other players. You’ll learn as you go. You can look up rules, definitions, and make calls on how things work. You don’t need to know what happens with each class. Even in Critical Role, occasionally someone will state they are going to use an ability, and Matt Mercer asks, “what does that do?” If Matt Mercer has to ask questions, you don’t need to feel bad about it.
Don’t think that the world, or story, is all your responsibility. The players are there to play their characters. That’s all they want to do. The DM just needs to provide settings, monsters, NPCs, and loot. Even then, you can take settings and other ideas from the players. Especially as a new DM, start with a “Session 0.” You won’t dive into the game itself here, but have a game meeting where the players create their characters and talk about the backstories. Ask a player to name and describe a town where their character’s from. You can use an online tool to generate an encounter appropriate to the group, like Kobold Fight Club and stick that encounter in the player’s hometown. Give the players some time to interact among each other. First session is complete.
Don’t DM with total strangers your first time. There are sites that will help you find a group, and that’s good, later on. But when it’s your first time DMing, do it with friends. It’ll be more fun and comfortable. If you’re diving into D&D for the first time and playing with strangers, go in as a player to get the lay of the game.
Things that a new DM should do
Feeling relaxed? Not as stressed? Don’t need to worry if you haven’t played, or that you need to spend a lot of prep time or money? Good. But there are a few things you need to be prepared to do as the DM.
Know the rules. Yes, you’ll have the Player’s Handbook on hand. Even if you don’t buy it, there are free copies online, the rules on DnDBeyond, and any question at all, you can look it up in your favorite search engine. But when players want to do anything, or find something on their character sheet, you’re the person they are going to ask. Before the game begins, read through the rules, or at least have a general understanding of the game. Be prepared to answer questions — and make decisions.
Watch YouTube videos, but not necessarily Critical Role. It’s entertaining, but they’re professionals. It’s like watching pro sports to be prepared to go play ball with friends. There are a lot of people out there with excellent tips for new DMs. Find the ones that interest you the most. You may want to check out Ginny Di, How to be a Great GM, Taking20, Don’t Stop Thinking, or Icarus Games, just to name a few of our favorites.
Set up how you are going to play. In person or online? Discord? Zoom? What are you using for dice rolling? Maps? Figures? There are many options to explore that will help shape your game. Online, you can do this all in Discord by itself, with a dice rolling bot (we use Sidekick for our Blizzard Watch games) and a lot of description. You can use Roll20 to create a board for everyone to see if you’d like. In real life, buy a rubber mat, several sizes of dice, and expensive figures — or you could lay down a piece of paper, draw a grid, and use pennies, or whatever you find around the house to represent the players and monsters. You could use dice rolling phone apps if you don’t want to buy real dice, too. Just prepare in advance how you want to play, and let players know what they need to bring — or leave at home.
Be flexible. If that makes it sound like you need to plan a lot, you really don’t. DMing is more about reacting to the players. The greatest thing to learn is to respond with the old improv lines of “yes, and,” or “yes, but.” Whenever players want to do something, just tell them to roll. High rolls, give them something great with a lot of description. Low rolls, they fail, again with description. Also, along these lines, keep the players making choices, but if there is something you really want them to do, all choices lead there. “Before you is a road.” But the players don’t go along the road, they go up the hill. Well, where was that road was going to lead? Would you look at that, that place is now at the top of the hill. Keep being flexible, and change with the party’s actions. Give them what they want. You’re not against them, you’re there to have fun together.
Once you start playing together, you’ll begin to discover more about how you like to play, like your DMing style. Do you stick to the rules, or are you the type that bends them? Do you prefer pre-written campaigns, or do you like to write your own? Do you want a long running campaign, or do you want one-shots with a self contained story? All of that takes time to discover. For now, just get a feel for what it’s like to be behind the DM screen, and remember — you’re also a player. Try to have a little fun, too.
Originally posted February 8, 2021. Updated March 17, 2021.
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