Tips for New Dungeon Masters

by Mike Shea on 20 January 2015

Planning to run a Dungeons and Dragons game can be an intimidating experience for anyone, regardless of experience. In this article, we discuss a few tips for new dungeon masters to make it as easy as possible to run a fun game for you and your friends.

Find a group

The hardest part of running a D&D game is finding and retaining a good group of players. For a first-time dungeon master you'll want to find some people you know, people you trust, and people who will relax and enjoy the game. Seek out people who won't give you too hard a time if you make mistakes and will help you out as you get through your first couple of games. You'll need between three and five players. Fewer than three removes much of the PC interaction and will make combat significantly more difficult. More than five will make the game much harder to manage and will reduce the amount of "screen time" each player will get in the game.

Start with the D&D Starter Set

The full rules for D&D 5th Edition are available online but it's worth getting the Dungeons and Dragons Starter Set. It's cheap, contains a lot of great materials, and the adventure it contains, Lost Mines of Phandelver, is an excellent starting adventure for both new and experienced groups. The Starter Set contains a full set of pre-generated characters with the instructions to level them up to level 5. Don't worry about crudding up the ones in the box, you can always print more. The Starter Set also comes with a decent set of dice in case you or your players don't have any. A stack of 3x5 notecards are also handy, particularly for running initiative.

Read the Rules

Before running a D&D game it's worth your time to actually sit down and read the rules. Set aside an hour in a quiet place with a nice beverage and enjoy them. Get a feeling for how this game plays out at the table. Think about how you'll run the first part of the adventure. You don't have to read both booklets cover to cover, but you should have a good handle on how dice rolling works, how the character skills work, and how combat works. Combat is probably the most rules-intensive part of D&D and they'll throw you right in with the goblin fight to get started. It's a good way to get into the action and a good trial-by-fire to learn the more complicated part of the rules. Look over the character sheets and cross-reference with the rules until you understand what all of the numbers mean. This will help you explain it to your players.

Watch Live-Play Videos

If you want to get a good idea how a D&D adventure actually plays out at the table, consider watching the D&D Lost Mines of Phandelver live-play videos. These videos, hosted and played by the staff at Wizards of the Coast, will give you a good look at how to run the first chapter of Lost Mines of Phandelver.

There are many more live-play videos available on YouTube as well.

Options for Maps and Miniatures

You can run a Dungeons and Dragons game with just the character sheets, the books, and some dice, but a lot of folks like to see what's going on in combat. If you want to save your money, you can draw out combat on a big piece of paper like we did back in the 80s but these days there are other options.

Paizo's gridded dry erase flip mat pack includes four useful terrains including dungeons, streets, water, and grasslands. These make it easy to draw out a map of a room or dungeon as the PCs explore it. You can also keep track of monster damage or write other notes to yourself right on the mat. A good set of retractable dry-erase markers works particularly well with the flip-mat.

When it comes to tokens or miniatures to represent PCs and their opponents, you have many options. Here are a few:

Keep Your Story Simple

Your brilliant creative brain may come up with all sorts of big ideas and interesting directions to take the game but you'll want to rein that in until you have a few games under your belt. Don't start writing out the 2,000 year history and five-year-plan for your campaign just yet. Focus on the first adventure. Stick to the adventure in the book. If you're running Phandelver, don't worry about the game beyond the first goblin cave.

Start Them at Level 2 or Get Them There Fast

Level 1 in D&D 5th Edition is really lethal and players may really hate it if they die fast to a bunch of goblins. You might consider starting them off at level 2 instead of 1 just to give them a bit of a boost in hit points. As a new DM with new players, it will go easy on all of you if the PCs have a bit more wiggle room.

If you do choose to start them at level 1, go easy on them. Spread attacks out across PCs. Give them lots of chances to heal and level them up before they get into any serious battles.

Delegate Responsibilities

As the person organizing the game, you'll feel a lot of pressure to take on all of the responsibilities. Instead, take every opportunity to delegate out the things you can. Can someone else coordinate the time and location of the game? Ask them if they'll schedule it. Is there someone you think will really digest all the rules and help arbitrate discussions as the rules come up? Declare them the official "rules lawyer" so you can count on someone else to help figure out the rules during the game. Though you're ultimately responsible to run the game, you don't have to take on the responsibility to run every part of it.

Build A Story Together

Rookie and veteran DMs alike often make the mistake of feeling like they control the game's ultimate direction. Instead, remember that you and your players create the story together at the game table. The more you accept the input of your players and let it guide the direction of the story, the more interesting the story will be for both you and your players. You will likely be tempted to write the story ahead of time. Avoid that temptation. Instead, plan your game loosely into the general scenes and give the game the freedom to grow as your players explore. This doesn't mean removing structure. You'll need structure and you'll often have to nudge players in the right direction. Run your game with your eyes and ears open and let the story evolve. These are the core principals behind the Lazy Dungeon Master.

Ask For Feedback

Once your game is over, ask your players how they felt about it. What did they enjoy? What bored them? Which story thread, NPC, or particular type of gameplay would they like to see more of in future games? You can ask for this feedback to the whole group or to individual members as you can talk to them. Face to face is better than getting it in email. Take the time to actually listen to what they have to say. Don't interrupt them. Don't make excuses. Try to really understand what it is they enjoy about the game. Then use that feedback to build on how you run your games in the future.

Relax and Have Fun

Running a D&D game can be a fantastic relaxing time with you and your friends. Don't sweat it too much. Everyone is there to have a good time. Don't worry about getting things wrong. Don't be afraid to take a break if the players take a left turn and you have no idea what's in that direction. Every time we run a game we get better at it. Take a deep breath if the stress is coming on and always remember that we're all here to have fun.

Special thanks to Enrique Bertran, Sam Dillon, Tracy Hurley, James Introcaso, Michael Mallen, Ruth Tillman, and Randall Walker for reviewing and offering feedback on this article.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the Lazy Dungeon Master and Sly Flourish's Fantastic Locations. You can also support this site by using these links to purchase the D&D Starter Set, Players Handbook, Monster Manual, or Dungeon Master's Guide.

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