The Hard Parts of Running D&D

by Mike Shea on 6 August 2018

For many of us, running D&D games is a great joy in our lives. We get together with friends, share laughs, tell stories, and have a great time together. Running D&D games, however, isn't easy, as lazy as we want to be about it.

For those of us who have run D&D games a long time, we can forget how hard it is for new dungeon masters to get started playing this game and which parts of running a D&D game can be the hardest for them.

I took to Twitter and Facebook to try to get a better understanding from new DMs on the difficulties new DMs faced getting started running D&D games. Instead of just surfing through the hundreds of responses, I copied them all down, threw them in a spreadsheet, and attempted to categorize them into specific groups and categories.

This led me to a few conclusions. First, there's a wide variety of unique challenges people face. There was a clear "long tail" in categories that only came up once among all of the responses. These included things like the diversity of expectations of the players, developing a good story, running session zeros, balancing encounters, understanding all of the spells, having poor teachers, being shamed by other groups or DMs, knowing when to say no, and onward. These are just some of the things that came up infrequently. You can read all of the Twitter responses here.

There were a few common problems new DMs faced, though, and that's where we'll focus some of our attention today. These common problems included:

Learning the Rules

Those of us who have played a lot of different RPGs know that D&D is far from the most rules-heavy roleplaying game out there but it still has a lot of rules, particularly when compared to other games a group might sit down and play.

When we think of the three core books, we're looking at over a thousand pages of rules. That can be intimidating for new potential D&D DMs who don't know which rules they should spend their time learning and which they can learn as they play.

There are lots of ways to learn how to play D&D, of course. Many recommend watching the myriad of D&D videos on Youtube to see what the game actually looks like in play. This isn't the best way to learn the ins and outs of the rules, but it really helps one understand how the game actually works. I'd start with Critical Role; Force Gray; Dice, Camera, Action; and the excellent videos by Matt Colville.

As far as actually learning the rules goes, I recommend starting with the D&D Starter Set which includes an abbreviated rulebook, focuses on low level characters, and has my favorite published D&D adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver. The Starter Set really is the best way to get started in D&D.

As an alternative, Wizards of the Coast has released the D&D Basic Rules for free including the Player's Rules and the Dungeon Master's Rules. These are great, free, online resources to help new DMs get started learning the fundamentals of D&D. All of these rules are also available for free on D&D Beyond.

Many veteran DMs also recognize that having full rules mastery isn't that important to run a great game. Understanding the basics and learning the rest of the rules as you go is a fine way to play. As a DM, there's no problem relying on your players to help you with the rules. It can even help get you out of a competitive mindset and remember that D&D is a cooperative game between DMs and players alike.

Learning How to Prepare a D&D Game

I've basically spent ten years writing on the topic of D&D prep, the results culminating in the book The Lazy Dungeon Master and the upcoming Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master so I won't repeat it all here. I'll give some sneak previews though, including articles that can help get new DMs started. These include:

There's more as well but you'll have to wait for Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master for the rest.

Finding Players

Finding a group is likely the hardest part of running a great D&D group. I recently wrote an article for D&D Beyond on this topic and have reposted it here: How to Find and Maintain a D&D Group.

Learning How to Improvise

Realizing that the rules of D&D don't cover everything that will happen at your game is one of the great leaps DMs and players take when comparing D&D to more traditional board games. The freedom for the story to go off in areas no one has thought of is both freeing and intimidating. Recognizing that the rules are a framework for collaborative storytelling takes some understanding and often the best way to learn this is to watch it. The web shows Critical Role, Force Gray, and Dice, Camera, Action are some great shows to see what D&D actually looks like.

When a new group wants to play D&D they might open up Phandelver from the Starter Set and start playing. During the first encounter one of the players might say "I want to flip the cart". A new DM might scramble, looking through the rules for cart-flipping without recognizing that just about anything in the game can happen if its possible. Just choose a difficulty class between 10 and 20 and see how it goes! This is easy for us veteran DMs to understand but it can throw off new DMs who might not have made that transition from a refined board game to an open-ended game like D&D.

This is, of course, just the beginning of the topic of improvisation. Learning how to improvise during the game is a skill that we can likely improve on as long as we run D&D games. It's also been a focus of this website for some time. Here are a few articles on the topic:

Getting the Confidence to Run

Though it didn't come up as often as the other hard parts of D&D in this article, getting the confidence to run games did come up a few times and I think it's a topic worth addressing. As part of the original conversation about the hard parts of D&D, I asked folks on Twitter about how they found the confidence to run D&D games. I got a plethora of answers which we'll cover in an upcoming article. For a short preview, however, respondents gave the following reasons most often when asked what gave them the confidence to run D&D games:

Helping New DMs Out

I expect that most of the people reading this article are already well versed in the world of Dungeons & Dragons and don't need the sort of help found in this article. I do hope, however, that this article can help us veterans understand what sorts of questions new DMs have and what sort of problems they face. If you know a new DM who's just figuring out what's going on in this game, perhaps point them to this article or offer some of the suggestions found within.

In a wonderful discussion of how streaming D&D is changing organized play, Paige Leightman suggested that we veteran DMs go out there and talk to five new D&D players to understand what their views and experiences of the game really are. Doing so can give us an entirely different look at how we can help new players and DMs get into this hobby. Instead of telling folks about the old days of X edition, let's keep our mouths shut and hear about them for a while.

Our hobby is growing like never before. Let's shepherd those just entering and show them the worlds that lie beyond.

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.

Need some dice? Check out this pack of 105 dice by Easy Roller Dice! Or how about some Flat Plastic Miniatures?

Send feedback to @slyflourish on Twitter or email mike@mikeshea.net.