by Mike Shea on 2 July 2018
For an updated version of this article read Getting Started with Dungeons & Dragons. This older version remains online for historical purposes.
This article is reposed with permission from the original posted to D&D Beyond on March 2018. It is the second in a six-part series of articles focused on helping new D&D DMs put together and run great games and includes modifications from the original. The full list of articles includes:
There's no single correct way to run your first D&D game but we're going to offer a suggestion—start with either Lost Mine of Phandelver from the D&D Starter Set or Dragon of Icespire Peak from the D&D Essentials Kit. These adventures are specifically designed for new DMs to run adventures for their players. Both adventures are straight forward to run and help the DM focus on a specific town and the adventures surrounding it. Both show what a solid D&D adventure feels like and yet they offer a rich fresh story to explore.
Both the Starter Set and Essentals Kit include everything you need to run a D&D game. The Starter Set includes a set of pregenerated characters while the Essentials Kit includes abbreviated instructions for building characters. The three core books are, no doubt, the main pillars of D&D but at more than 1,000 pages total, getting the main gist through the Starter Set is a good way to go. If you're brand new to D&D, start with the D&D Starter Set or Essentials Kit.
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 learning how to run a D&D game, you'll have enough on your plate. Building a cohesive adventure for your group on top of all of the other duties required to run a great game 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.
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.
If you want to dig into D&D for free, check out the D&D Basic Rules with rulebooks for both players and dungeon masters. These don't include an adventure but they do give you full digital rulebooks to help you learn the game, build characters, and run your own adventures. You can also build characters and look up rules, spells, and monsters from the basic rules at D&D Beyond. The main D&D books cost money but the basic rules are all available there for free.
You will, of course, need some dice. The D&D Starter Set and Essentials Kit both include sets 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 and Essentials Kit both include 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 them right away if you're running either Lost Mine of Phandelver or Dragon of Icespire Peak.
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.
Don't feel like you have to load up on all of the tools you see 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.
The following advice comes from years of research, hundreds of interviews, and thousands of surveys. While every DM is different you will hopefully find some wisdom in these ideas.
DM's don't create the story. Though our creative minds want to build out detailed stories that the characters follow, that's not how D&D works. You have no control over the characters and what they will do. The sooner you embrace that the story is what unfolds at the table, the easier it will be for you to DM. Let go of what you think will happen.
Be fans of the characters. The characters are the heroes of the adventure. Focus on them. Make them awesome. Play to see what they do. Let the world revolve around them and change based on their actions. Before every session, review the characters and their backgrounds to see how you can draw them further into the story that unfolds.
Build situations. Set up situations and let the characters decide how to deal with them. Instead of expecting that an encounter will go a certain way, build the situation and watch what happens. Let the situation respond to the actions of the characters.
Focus on the fiction. It's easy to get caught up in the math and mechanics of D&D but the story is what matters. Start and end your descriptions in the fiction. Describe what it looks like when the goblin fires an arrow. Don't recite numbers, describe what those numbers represent.
Focus on your next game. Don't worry about your entire campaign, worry about what you'll run when the players sit down at your next session. Think about how that game will start. What will draw them into the action? What secrets and clues might they discover?
Work with your players. Your players are probably understanding half of what you're telling them. Work with them to accomplish their intent. Ask them what they want to do and help them try to accomplish it. Fall back on your players to help you with the rules. There are a lot of rules and you alone shouldn't be expected to know them all.
Keep things simple. Games will get complicated all on their own. As you prepare for a session, think of a hook to draw the characters into the session, a location they can explore, some NPCs to interact with, and some monsters to fight. Consider following the eight steps from Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master when preparing for your game. Prepare to improvise and let the story go where it takes you at the table.
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.
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