So you want to be a Dungeon Master? Great! This guide will get you started on your road to dungeon mastering. If you’re an absolute beginner or coming back after a long break, the following steps will give everything you need to run the game.
Step 1. Dungeon Mastering Main Role: Storyteller and Arbiter
Dungeon mastering is a large part of the D&D experience. A DM has many jobs and they are each unique. So what exactly does the Dungeon Master do?
As a DM your job is to make sure the players get a sense of the world you’ve built for them. Dungeon Masters facilitate the story. Notice we didn’t say tell the story. It’s an important difference. A DM is there to describe what the players see and hear, but they do not control what the players do or where they go. You offer the players information and their actions are up to them.
Beyond the world itself, you also are in charge of NPCs. You are everyone the players are not. It may seem daunting at first, but getting to role play so many different characters is often part of the fun. You are all the good guys and bad guys. Every monster, every townsfolk.
You are also an arbiter of the rules. While this most often comes up in combat, it can be applied across the whole game. A lot of dungeon mastering comes down to your decisions about the rules of the game. In many cases, things will be open to interpretation. You may decide a certain rule should be bent or broken while others should be strictly adhered to. This isn’t to say you should cheat or blatantly ignore rules of the game, but there are times when a good DM knows the difference between the letter of the law and spirit of it. See more on How to Be a Good DM.
Lastly and most importantly, you are there to facilitate your players having fun. This might sound a bit odd at first, but it is important to running the game. Providing scenarios that your players actually enjoy is going to be your greatest challenge, far beyond the rules of the game or acting out NPCs.
Players are all different and as a DM you need to figure out what they enjoy as well as how to challenge them. The way you handle your players can hold their interest or cause their minds to wander. Your story telling can create drama or lead to confusion even in the same scenarios. If you’re mindful of your players reactions, you’ll be able to pull off this balancing act and share great stories with your friends.
Step 2. Know the Rules
Wizards of the Coast is very strict about how people share the rules of D&D. Luckily for us, they actually give them away for free. The following link is a guide to the basic rules of D&D provided by Wizards. You don’t need to read it front to back immediately, but you should be familiar with the guide and where to find information when you need it.
Step 3. Prepare Your Campaign
We already talked about how dungeon masters are the players’ senses and that they describe the world the players inhabit. So how do you go about building that world?
If you’re absolutely new to D&D and dungeon mastering, I would recommend starting with someone else’s world. There are hundreds of campaigns, modules, and quests online and in print that you can simply pick up and play. The D&D starter set begins with The Lost Mines of Phandelver. If you want to try something more advanced, there’s a host of options here.
If you would rather go about creating your own world, you have nearly limitless options. We talk more about world building in some other blog posts, but the basic steps are the same.
- Decide on your main quest
- Create a starting town
- Design a region of your world
- Flesh out the inhabitants
- Create sub quests
- Build dungeons/encounters
- Write some story hooks
- Balance your world
The above list can really be done in any order, but you might want to start with the first town and build out from there. If you’ve never built anything like this before, it can seem overwhelming. Most of D&D feels overwhelming at first but you’ll find it’s more manageable over time and with practice. The best part is that you don’t need every detail upfront.
You can think of world building like writing an outline for a play. You’re writing an outline and not a script because you don’t really know what your players are going to do. That’s a good thing. Your players are going to do half the story telling for you with their actions. Since your players are the actors on your stage, you don’t need to know every little detail. You only need to set up the scene and know how the NPC or world will react.
While people might think that the best D&D moments are planned, we find that often the greatest moments are improvisational. You don’t know how the dice will fall. You can’t always predict the players’ reactions. This collaborative storytelling is what makes D&D great. Dungeon Mastering is at it’s best when you remember to embrace the unexpected.
Step 4. Prepare Your Players
So you know your role, you have a firm grasp of the rules, and you built a great campaign for your players. Now it’s time to get them involved. Before the story starts you need to know who your players are going to be.
When starting a new game for the first time, it’s going to be your responsibility to help the players with character creation. Let them know what they can and cannot do. Advise them on how to create characters that will fit in your world without telling them who they have to be. Remember, it’s your job to help your players have fun. That means letting people do what they want, but also putting clear constraints on what they do so that the game play is fun for everyone.
If you are helping players put their characters together, it’s a good idea to help promote a balanced team composition. The standard balanced party is Cleric, Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard, but it’s rare to get that mix. You might have a group that wants to all play wizards. That’s okay, you just need to adjust your game accordingly. Remember, players will often surprise you and it can be fun to let them impose some of the challenges on themselves.
You can review your campaign once your players have gotten their character sheets made and know who they’re playing. Many DMs skip this step, but we think it’s very important to ensure that the challenges you put in front of your players are tough but fair. As an example, a group of 4 barbarians will be very powerful early on, but at later levels they will struggle with more powerful magical enemies. If you make yourself aware of what your party looks like, you can give them an appropriate challenge and help them feel they’ve earned their accomplishments.
Step 5. Run the Game
Game night! It’s finally arrived. This is where it all comes together. There will be literally thousands of pieces of advice on how to do this well. Don’t worry. The basics can be broken down into a simple loop:
- Social Interaction
The game can start in a variety of ways. You can start the game at any of these points of the loop as well. The players will explore the world, telling you what they are doing or want to do, and you will describe what they see. If they run into an NPC or talk amongst themselves, role play starts up and the players interact with you and each other as their characters.
Eventually the players will find a quest, come upon an enemy, or encounter an obstacle. This is where you provide the framework of rules for them to adhere to while they overcome their challenge. After overcoming that challenge, the loop starts over. They head back to town, wander into the wilderness, or do anything else that they want to.
This is just the beginning of what you will come to know as Dungeon Mastering. You will constantly be learning and leveling up your DM skills. The best way to get better at anything is practice. So go on, take your first steps. We’ll be here if you need any help.