Want to play Dungeons & Dragons with your pals or family? Have you offered to be their Dungeon Master? Don’t worry, I’ve got your back. I’ve DM’d before – I know what it’s like, sitting on that side of the screen and I'm here with tips! There’s an element of prep work involved, sure. Lucky for you, I’m here to share some of my most valuable tips on how to get started, so let's get stuck in!
What Is D&D? What Is A DM?
D&D is an RPG (role-playing game) by Wizards of the Coast. It’s played in a campaign, co-operative style. Players pretend to slip into another person’s shoes, in a fantasy setting. Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes and Humans, to name but a few, all working together to try and achieve a common goal.
That goal could be anything. Could be breaking someone out of a medieval jail or finding equipment to help them slay a dragon! It’s up to the players to decide how their character responds and reacts in the heat of the moment. Likewise, it’s down the DM to digest how the players’ actions shape their surroundings.
One player – in this case, you – will be taking on the role of said Dungeon Master. The man behind the curtain (well, DM screen). You don’t have a playable character (a PC). Instead, you’re like the narrator of the action. It’s up to you to spin the story, to create the drama, and to describe the scene. Your friends will love you for it!
The PCs explain to the DM what it is they want to do. Jim says, “I want to sneak through the bushes, avoiding the hobgoblin’s attention.” You, the DM, will nod, and say reply with, “Okay, make a Stealth Check.” If the following die roll is not high enough, the DM describes the alternate outcome.
If you’re reading this and you haven’t got a clue what I’m talking about, it’s okay, I forgive you! I’d suggest you check out my other Zatu blog post first, here. It’s about an full-on introduction to D&D – what it is from a player’s point of view. What you can expect, when playing it, and what sort of stuff you’ll need to bring to your first session. I’m going to assume you’ve read that, as we continue here, talking about what every DM needs to start their first session…
Welcome To The Mad House
There’s no right or wrong way to play D&D. Every decision is like a ‘Pick Your Own Adventure’ scenario. The players have a free reign to walk anywhere and talk to anyone. The DM acts on behalf of every single NPC they might meet along the way. (You’re not trying to defeat the players, though. The DM is experiencing the story unfold, too! You’ll know what lies in waiting for the party, but you don’t know how they’ll get there.) That’s the beauty of D&D – not even you, the DM, know which way this adventure will unfold!
Bryan’s Half-Orc character wants to talk to the barmaid about the mysterious fire she witnessed. You play the role of the barmaid. If Simon’s Dwarf wants to interrogate the goblin the party captured in the woods, you play the role of the goblin. Spotted a trend? Being the DM requires a bit of quick thinking, at times. A common trend is how the players accept what the DM says as verbatim. You’re chairing proceedings. You’re sort-of in charge.
Are the players stomping through caves? Splashing and making noise? It’s up to you to figure out if they’ve alerted the, say, sea hags that you know are hiding around the corner. Usually this involves the DM making the players roll a d20 dice to determine the outcome. Depending on the die result, the DM decides what happens. This could cause a fight between the heroes and the bandits. In such a scenario, the DM plays on behalf of the bandits, and combat starts.
I’ll get back to combat later on. But first, we’ve learned to run before we can walk. Let’s rewind a bit, and start with some basics…
Dice And A DM Screen
Every DM needs dice. There are more dice sets in existence than you’ve had hot dinners - click here if you don’t believe me! Any standard D&D dice set comes with seven dice. You’ll need them for use in combat, among others. There’s bound to be a set somewhere in your favourite colour!
You’ll be rolling quite a few dice. Sometimes, for dramatic effect, you’ll want the results to be secret. In which case, you’re going to need a screen to sit behind. This way you can keep notes, as well as any NPC or plot details out of sight. Consider sitting at the head of the table, with the players sitting either side.
The Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated is a great option. It’s a physical shield; it’s over 20cm tall and over a metre wide. It gives the DM plenty of space behind which to prep. This screen can fold down into four panels, to an A4 size, so it’s perfect for transporting.
It also has many rules and hints on the back of it. The DM can check details at-a-glance. Common-asked-for items cost (like ale, or accommodation prices), for example. This screen explains conditions that PCs or NPCs might gain during combat, such as being ‘poisoned’, or ‘grappled’.
Consult The Books
There are, of course, rules that hold D&D together. The current version of the game is the Fifth Edition (known as ‘5e’). I recommended in my other blog that the players invest in a copy of The Player’s Handbook. It’s also useful for DMs to consult, because it covers rules. Rules for movement, combat, and how to make judgement calls for Ability Checks. (Like the example I used earlier, of the party traipsing through bandit caves.)
You can access the basic rules online, at the Wizards of the Coast website. Technically, you can run a starter game of D&D using them, alone. However, you’ll soon get a taste for DMing! The official books will answer all extra questions you’ll have. The Player’s Handbook will help you make quicker, better, creative, impulsive decisions. It improves the quality of your game, without doubt.
Another book that’s worth its weight in gold is The Dungeon Master’s Guide. This book is not for players, but targeted to DMs. It covers a heck of a lot of things: creating your own world, to designing your own adventures or encounters.
It also destails level-appropriate treasure or magical items you could throw into the mix. Was the party successful in beating up those orcs; the war camp no longer a threat? The least you could do is have some gold coins around the place. Or maybe magical boots that allow them jump crazy heights, or a potion that gives them fire breath! The choice is yours. Whatever you gift them, they’ll be gracious and find a cool way to use it. And they’ll use it in ways you never dreamed imaginable…
Roll For Initiative
There are so many possible beasties that roam around the world of Dungeons & Dragons. Like in the real world, some are more dangerous to fight than others. All creature’s scores, alongside their means of attacking in combat, is listed in a third book. The Monster Manual gives descriptions of dozens of creatures, alongside their Hit Points, and their Challenge Rating.
Challenge Rating? The higher this number, the more deadly a creature is to fight. To an extent, it’s down to the DM to create potential fights that could occur, between monsters and the heroes. More often than not, the DM will pick monsters that are suitable to the PCs current level of experience. If you have a pre-written adventure like The D&D Starter Kit, it will have the monsters listed for certain fights in there.
You might find it useful to pick up Monster Cards, with these stats on. You can pick up a pack of a whole range of them that sit in the ‘0-5’ Challenge Rating bracket. There are 268 of them in this set, so there’s quite a large variety! By taking this approach, you could clip them to your DM screen. This lets you have the stats to hand, without reaching for the Monster Manual each time. There’s another set of Monster Cards with a Challenge Rating of 6-16 you can buy, too.
The Scene Of The Battle
Heard of the term ‘theatre of the mind’? You, as the DM, will describe the building, town or scene the players walk into. You’ll introduce the smells, the NPCs, the sounds, and so on. The players will imagine it all, on the edge of their seats.
But sometimes, you need a map that everyone can see. Particularly when there’s going to be a fight. Wizards of the Coast, have written many excellent adventures, such as Curse of Strahd. In these books, it shows you the dimensions and layout of certain locations. There are a bunch of ways you can show this to the players.
One option could be to use a product that you can draw on using a dry-erase pen, which you can wipe off later. Something like the Pathfinder Basic Flip Mat is great, because it’s a generic, non-busy background. It’s got a 1-inch square grid overlaid, which is vital. (1 inch in D&D is a universal scale for 5 feet, which is essential, particularly in combat scenarios.) This mat is not complicated, and it’s a great budget option. You can draw your battle scenes on here: every wall, door, window, trapdoor – you name it.
If you don’t mind the extra weight, consider some chipboard tiles. 36 of them, to be precise! These Dungeon Tiles by Roll4Initiative all interlock like a jigsaw, so you can lay them out in any fashion you desire. You could place the tiles out one at a time. This way, the map extends as the party ventures further in (to the sewer, or dungeon, or wherever). The players gain a feeling of progression… and growing tension. How big is this place? What’s around the corner? I’ve experienced this as a player too, and it’s so satisfying!
What if you don’t trust your hand-eye co-ordination? No problem! Pathfinder have dozens of pre-printed mats that could suit your needs. How about some amazing tavern layouts? Or what about a cool battle over some raging rapids and waterfalls? If you want to create a woodland area, plump for the Pathfinder Flip Tiles Forest Starter Set.
Alternatively, you could use The Big Book Of Battle Maps, which has a ringbinder to it, sitting flat on the table. Or, you could opt for something like a Labyrinth Map Pack, which offers players the chance to explore in a room-by-room nature.
You’ll need to use something as the heroes (and NPCs) that match the 1-inch = 5 feet scale. Minis are available to buy. But you might not have the time, painting skill nor budget for all of this. You could use anything as a replacement, to be honest. Some of my friends use LEGO minifigs. Some people use minis from other board games they bought from Zatu. You can print off figures and place them on cardboard stands. Of course, if painting minis is your passion, Zatu has you covered in that regard!
Remember, It’s Not You Versus Them…
I’ve listed a bunch of products, here. For your first time DMing, you’ll only need a fraction of these things. You can go on a crazy Add To Basket binge later, once you yourself as DM feel ready to ‘Level Up’! (I guarantee it will be straight after you finish your first session!)
If you’re ready for even more books (once you’re a bit more advanced), you could consider Volo’s Guide To Monsters or Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. These two add even more detail and depth to the world of D&D. They’re luxury items; not essential for beginners.
Remember, the role of the DM is not to bludgeon the players into oblivion. You’ll aim to challenge them, sure. But not crush them. You won’t DM many successful sessions if you adopt that approach! D&D isn’t a 1-vs-all scenario like Fury of Dracula or the more recent Jaws. Rather, the DM is like a conduit between the rules, the plot, the secrets, and the actions and destiny of the players. The products I’ve suggested here will help you achieve that and smush it into one big D&D pie.
You could argue that the most important thing you need to be a great DM, though, is having a great bunch of friends. Together, you’ll all make it a brilliant, dramatic, laugh-until-you-ache experience. It’ll be fun regardless of how prepared (or not) you think you are. You’ll be great! I know you can smash it out of the park. Everyone has to start somewhere, so what better time to start than now?