It’s game day. Snacks and drinks are out and your friends are all here. Everyone has their dice and a blank character sheet. Eager and waiting, your friends are focused on you, ready to begin.
Now what do you do?
For a new DM, starting a game for the first time comes with more than a few questions. Do you have the players create their characters individually? Does anyone share a backstory? Do you just jump right in and start telling everyone about the world? Are you the only one who knows any of the rules?
If you’ve never started a game before, the task can seem a little daunting. But with a little organization and the help of this checklist, you’ll be able to have a smooth first session with your group.
Starting Even Before Your Group Meets
Make sure your players know that you expect them to have a character concept in mind before they show up. At bare minimum, they should have their race and class picked out. Encourage them to flesh out their background ahead of time so they develop a full character.
While the burden of storytelling and organization will fall to you as the DM, there’s no reason for your players to continually be blissfully unaware of the rules. For the first session it will be very surprising if anyone knows all the rules, you included. There are a ton of them. But tell your group that you expect them to have a general grasp of the rules and how their character’s class works. It’s ok if they have questions; it would be unusual if they didn’t. It’s also ok if you don’t know the answers right away.
Rules and Plot
If you’re running a published module, get acquainted with the content inside. While your group likely won’t play long enough to finish an entire module in one sitting, it’s always a good idea to have an understanding of the entire plot. This is especially helpful if players ask questions about NPCs, the area, or the lore. The less you have to make up on the spot will mean fewer revisions later. A prepared DM is a happy DM. This is especially true for new DMs who may not be comfortable with improvising yet.
Make sure everyone has access to the rules; the basic rules can be found at the official Wizards site for free. It’s also a good idea for all of your players to have access to the Player’s Handbook. And while you’re reading things, make sure you take a look at the rules again. And again. Like ten times. Jokes aside, the players at the table are going to be looking to you for guidance, so just make sure you feel prepared.
If you’re using the starter set, character creation will already be done for your group. You can have your players choose from adventurers given, or you can assign them randomly. For new players, having pre-generated characters can reduce a lot of their first session anxiety. For veteran players, pre-generated characters will be an affront to their sensibilities, but they’ll still play along.
There are several ways that your players can determine their character’s stats. The most common methods are found in The Player’s Handbook (pgs. 12-13), but we’ll cover them briefly here. Our most commonly used method is the 4d6 method: roll four six-sided die and add the total of the three highest numbers. After you do that six times, you’ll have your base stats.
Another much faster methods is to use the standard array of scores. These can vary depending on spread, but the most common starting numbers are: 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8. Your players can also use a point-buy system, but this is typically not recommended as newer players likely will be confused by it, and experienced players can turn into min-maxers.
Tomatoes and You
Characters will use these base stats plus their racial stats to determine their six ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. New players and DMs may be confused as to what these ability scores represent. Luckily, folks on the internet are so clever and have already created a simple way of keeping them straight. You merely have to think of them in terms of having a tomato.
Strength is being able to crush a tomato.
Dexterity is being able to dodge a tomato thrown at you.
Constitution is being able to eat a bad tomato.
Intelligence is knowing that a tomato is a fruit.
Wisdom is knowing not to include a tomato in a fruit salad.
Charisma is being able to sell a tomato-based fruit salad.
If you have a player that tells you a tomato-based fruit salad is just salsa, congratulations on finding the Bard.
Stats and Role Play
Assign stats to ability scores in one of two ways: put the stats in an order that would give advantages to the class or the character you’re playing. Typically it would make sense for a player who chose a Fighter class to put their highest scores in Strength, Constitution, and Dexterity.
But what about that character’s Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma? Do you play a Fighter who has studied at a military academy, absorbing book after book about fighting styles and warfare? If so, then you might want to put more points into Intelligence.
Characters that have seen battlefield after battlefield since their pre-teens but never learned to read might want to put more points in Wisdom instead. Have your players consider their character and backstory more than just the stat numbers if you want interesting characters who will be fun to role play.
It’s a good idea to follow character creation with a level zero session. This is where your players start connecting to their characters on an emotional level. The idea is to go through each character’s backstory individually with a series of questions that the player will answer. This step can happen before or after character creation, your choice.
You may have created a world where races or specific groups are more likely to live in a certain area. Go ahead and start the character there unless they have other ideas on where they’d like to start.
The big question that your players will answer is what lead them to become an adventurer. Normal people with average lives don’t typically leave everyone and everything they’ve ever known to travel the world. What made their character leave town in the first place? Perhaps your player isn’t even sure yet.
Life at Different Ages
Ask your player to describe their character’s life at different ages, starting with how they came into this world. Was there anything out of the ordinary regarding their birth? Were they conceived by two loving parents, was there an odd astronomical event that coincided with them being born, or were they abandoned in the woods? The simple subject of birth could be the very reason that they became an adventurer. If your players haven’t decided yet, gently prompt them with tropes.
After the birth is out of the way, use it as a good segue to talk about their family and how they grew up. Have them discuss what their family did for a living, be it merchants, farmers, or sailors. Ask them if they grew up with both parents and if they had any siblings. Lonely orphans will fill out your group if you don’t ask leading questions about their family. With the amount of dead parents in D&D, DMs are genuinely surprised when a player makes a character with a happy, healthy, loving family.
But as a DM, control your urge to put that character’s family needlessly in danger. It’s lazy, and you’re better than that. It’s also the best way to insure that your players stop coming up with rich backstories full of NPCs already created for you.
The Blunder Years
Depending on the character’s age, ask them questions about their life in ten-year increments. Pay special attention to their teenage years because just as in real life, these are often very formative years and will likely have a large impact on their character. Ask about schooling, friends, rivalries, and romances.
Don’t worry about character class or stats at these early ages. Focus on how the chosen backstory (acolyte, criminal, etc.) came to fruition for the character. Let the player end the session by telling you how they came to be their level one character and if they have ties to any other player character, such as being their sibling or rival.
Starting your players out in these level zero situations doesn’t just give them the opportunity to create a character that is more than numbers on a page. It also warms them up to role-playing their character when you begin your campaign. It also leads to easier character introductions once you begin your story. Get players flexing their imagination muscles early and it will lead to richer, more rewarding role-playing sessions.
Starting the game doesn’t have to be as nerve wracking and difficult as it seems from the outset. In fact, starting your game is mostly out of your hands. Leave it to your players to do the work to develop their characters. Gentle prompting about their life pre-adventure is the best way to get the most out of backstory and lead to great role playing moments later in the campaign. Collectively generating characters in one big group is an easy way to have entwined backstories.
Or, for simplicity, start with pre-generated characters for new players. Just make sure you and your players have done some preparation before starting your adventure. Those rules aren’t going to read themselves.