Your Guide to Starting as a Dungeon Master
You’ve got the basics before your session covered? Skip to Your Guide During your session as a new Dungeon Master!
If you are looking to start your very own campaign as a dungeon master in Dungeons and Dragons, but you’re new to the position or haven’t played D&D a day in your life, I have good news for you. You CAN do it! However, it can seem very overwhelming when you’re new to the system. As a dungeon master, you are the God of the game and have final say in all things. You help to drive the narrative of your campaign and create this amazing world, bringing your players into your imagination while challenging theirs. You act as a guide to your players, as well as their judge and jury. But in order to fill this illustrious role…you’ll need to understand some things. Things I will reveal to you now. I hope this will help all you aspiring dungeon masters out there in your endeavors.
First, I’m going to give you a look at all the concepts I will cover at a glance:
- Familiarize Yourself With the d20 System
- Consider Setting and Focus
- Recruit Players
- Build the World, or Use a Premade one
- Set a Date and Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
The d20 System and How It Works:
So, what exactly is the d20 System? Basically, it is a system that uses a 20-sided die (a d20) to determine the success or failure of an action a PC (Player Character) or NPC (Non-player Character) attempts to make. If you are playing Dungeons and Dragons, the basic rules on how the system works in all aspects can be found in the Player Handbook. Each handbook is different though, so be sure to have committed to a specific edition and set house rules.
For example, let’s say we are playing D&D 5e (fifth edition).
I’m one of your players and you have told us that there before us we see a wide crevasse between us and our destination. I then say, “I want to see if I can get a running start and jump across.” You as the dungeon master would then set a Difficulty Class (DC), which should be a number between 1 and 20 for most cases, then instruct the player to roll a d20 and add your Athletics Score. If the player hits or exceeds the DC, the player character succeeds on its action. In this case, you have set the DC to 15. Let’s say for brevity, that I rolled a total of 16. I exceeded the DC, so my character was successful in jumping over the crevasse. If I had rolled a 14 or lower however, my character would have plummeted to his demise.
This is the basic principle of the d20 system, and is the one that is most applied.
This can allow for the imagination to thrive while having the game world shape itself and react to the player’s actions. You keep order out of the chaos that ensues through the constant barrage of interactions between the character’s and the world around them, using this system as a conduit. The specifics of a system, such as skill/ability modifiers, combat, spellcasting, and saves, can be found in the Player Handbook and the rules vary between editions. Together with your players you craft a story using the fate of the dice as your guiding hand.
Consider the Setting and Focus of Your Game:
Part of what makes D&D so great is there are many ways to play it.
Are you playing a traditional role play campaign? Or more of a Diablo-style kill monsters, get loot experience? You should take this into consideration early on to avoid any potentially undesirable circumstances. If your campaign is a bit heavier on Roleplay over Combat, then you probably don’t want a Murder-Hobo. A Murder-Hobo is a PC that has no homestead anywhere and literally kills everything in sight and loots the corpse. Doesn’t really make for an interesting story. However, if that is what you were going for, then long live Murder-Hobos!! You can also spice things up, instead of the typical adventuring party, perhaps your group is part of a government agency thriving in a political intrigue campaign. Or you are part of a mercenary guild and received payment for espionage operations with the promise of a handsome reward. The possible settings and plots are limited only by your imagination.
There are also great references for different settings within the D&D universe. Classic examples are The Forgotten Realms and DragonLance settings. You can also create your own setting, with its own history and lore if you want.
The next thing you need is some Players.
Recruiting can be an intimidating task, so my advice is to just try and get some friends interested in playing. A typical party can consist of anywhere from 3-8 people. Try to keep your number of players within what you think you can handle. Be sure that you have whatever materials you need to accommodate your game and players. Here is a link to my post on what supplies you will need. Discuss with your players the possible dates and times they would be available to play. Also, if they are brand new to D&D and are unsure how to build their character, help them create it. This is a good way to build fraternity between your players while effectively getting them more excited to play.
If you’re planning on recruiting someone that you and any of your current players don’t know, plan some time to sit down and get to know the player.
Take them out to a coffee shop, restaurant, or bar. Talk to them about how your game is currently being run and try to establish if this player is a good fit. If said player is an experienced one, talk about their past games and their typical playstyles. If they are a newer player, go over what they know about D&D and move forward from there. After you’ve gotten the game details out of the way, you should talk to them about their character and how they will fit into the campaign. Then it’s up to you. If your work load is too big, give the player some homework. Tell them to write a back story while you work on the Character sheet. If you don’t have the time on your hands for PC sheets, then brief the player on how to fill it out, or make them come early to the first session they are playing in and help them create it then and there.
Build the World or Use a Pre-made One
This part is probably the one that will take up most of your time. Worldbuilding is an essential part of the campaign however, so it is unavoidable to have a world set up. You can either create it from scratch, or buy a prewritten campaign and use it as a resource. You can make the world however you like, so you’ll need to prioritize what’s important to your campaign.
If there is a focus on story and roleplaying, you’ll need to spend a little more time creating the world.
The more details to the world there are, the more options you can give your players, the better the flow of the story will be. Having a rich and vibrant world for your players to explore grants them creative freedom. With that freedom comes the inevitability that your story will be much better than how you planned it. If you want a story driven campaign, but don’t have the time to build a sandbox world in detail, there is always the option of picking up a pre-written campaign. You can still use the setup of the world, without sticking to the prewritten story. Even prewritten one off campaigns can be a lot of fun and take a lot of work off you.
If your campaign is focused more around combat and loot, then details don’t matter as much.
All you need is a setting and an antagonist or two and you’re pretty much set. Let the players rampage through swarms of enemies within the pits of Tartarus or in the desolate plains of Oblivion. Just be sure you have enough built to guide the players toward the next goal or adversary to keep them interested. Be sure to make every new encounter different than the last.
Regardless of what the focus of your game is, you’ll need to know what makes a world.
NPCs, Cities and Towns, Geography, Planes of Existence, History, and Lore are the main pillars that make a world stable. Cities, Towns, Planes of Existence, and Geography give you a physical image of the world and where there is to go as well as what they can do within it. NPCs, History, and Lore bring it to life, giving the player people to talk and react to and new things to learn about the world around them. You can balance the details on each of these aspects based on the needs of your campaign.
If you need a reference, the Dungeon Master’s Guide for your specific edition is probably the best resource out there. If you are short on funds and can’t get your hands on a physical copy, the PDF’s for most recent editions are available online.
Set a Date, and Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Now that you have your world built and your players assembled, all that’s left is to set a date for the first session, and prepare accordingly. Now when I say you need to prepare, I mean you really must prepare. Your players are people, and even if you know them all very well they are bound to do something unexpected. The best countermeasure for that is to be prepared. Create alternate paths and minor elements that can eventually be guided back to the main plot. Make notes that will help you remain calm when the chaos ensues. Have maps of the areas your players are starting and of the places nearby that they may wander off to. Prepare the infrastructure of these places: the NPC’s, the Politics, the Military, and Social Structure, etc.
Having these things lined up beforehand will give you a better chance of rolling with the proverbial punches of the unexpected.
Want to run a successful campaign? Check out our Guide to Keeping your Players Involved!
Check out our Home Page for more great Dungeons and Dragons Resources!
Author: Ven’Orik (Zach)
I’m just a regular nerd with a passion for storytelling and fantasy. Growing up I read books by Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, and this solidified my love for the genre. I first started playing D&D when I was 13 and have been pursuing it since. I’m just here to share my knowledge and hopefully learn a thing or two from all of you as well!