The Path to Becoming a Dungeon Master
So you want to be a Dungeon Master?
Bravo! The Dungeon Master is the most important role in any Dungeons & Dragons game. Without you, there would be no game! You are the driving creative force that propels the game into existence and down the path to glory!
But running your first game can be intimidating! The books are huge, the people streaming their games online look so professional, and you’re afraid of looking silly. There are so many videos, podcasts, and books all telling you how to do it, and you don’t know where to begin!
Right here! This article will provide you with a little direction as to how to spend your time leading up to your first session, offer some valuable resources for you to use going forward, and give you some advice and things to remember going into that all important first game!
Learn the Rules
That’s right, there is a little work involved up front... But hey, you’re not afraid of doing a little reading to be able to run the game well (you’re already reading an article about becoming a Dungeon Master, after all)! The Dungeon Master enforces the rules of the game and provides the framework that creatures the boundaries for the adventure… so you’ve got to be familiar with the rules. You needn’t know them by heart but having a general idea of them will benefit everyone involved. If your players know a rule, they’ll tell you. If you and your players can’t remember a rule, look it up! If you can’t find the rule, make one up (it’s totally okay to do this, even encouraged)! Don’t let the rules ruin the fun!
The basic rules for D&D Fifth Edition are online for free here.
When you’re ready to go a step further, there are three core rulebooks for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition: The Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide. They can be purchased in printed and pdf formats online and have lots of helpful information. The Player’s Handbook provides most of the rules needed to run the game, and has many, many tools for your players as well. The Monster Manual contains lots of enemies and creatures to contend with your party. The Dungeon Master’s Guide, ironically, is the least essential of the three, but can be a great resource for creating a custom world for your party to adventure in, magic items to reward your party with, and details on the finer points of the system. But you can find more than enough information at the link above to run your first session!
Plan 1 Session
Wading into the water at the beach is terrible. Feeling the frigid water moving inch by excruciating inch up your unprotected flesh is torture… but once you muster the courage to take the plunge, you find the water is comfortable. You forget how tough it was to take that first step and just enjoy where you are now.
Your first session is going to be similar. The transition from being a group of friends sitting around a table to being a D&D group is a tough one, as is shifting from being one of the gang to the person in charge. But once you’ve gotten through that first session, the comfort sets in.
Don’t try to plan a whole campaign when you’re starting out. Don’t try to plan a series of adventures, map out an entire town, or impressive dungeons. Just come up with one problem for your players to solve. “Goblins have kidnapped the blacksmith’s daughter”, “the bodies buried in the old cemetery are rising from their graves”, or “the children of Hamelin are disappearing at night” are all good problems for your players to solve that will easily take up a full session or more.
Matt Coleville, a long-time dungeon master, has a series of videos making great recommendations for beginning DMs. He offers tips on how to create your first session and even provides you with one in case you’re not feeling up to crafting your own just yet. The first three videos in this playlist are a great place to go for instructions and inspiration for running your first session. Check them out here!
There are plenty of miniature adventures out there published by Wizards of the Coast, such as in the D&D Starter Set that can be purchased online or in bookstores. Use these at your preference in lieu of creating your own. They often contain enough material for multiple sessions, however, and I would strongly encourage you to get at least one session under your belt before worrying about larger plots and stories.
Create Problems, Not Solutions
New Dungeon Masters often fall into the trap of planning too much. They try to foresee every possible circumstance, anticipate the players’ decisions, and script the entire scene. This is a lot of work, and most of it is wasted. The players will always surprise you by seeing things differently than you, responding to situations in unexpected ways, and choosing paths you had not considered. That’s the beauty of the game! If they always did what you thought, then the game wouldn’t be much fun and there wouldn’t be a point in them (or you) showing up to play the game.
The job of the Dungeon Master is to provide challenges for the players to overcome. They are a team of adventuring problem-solvers: they just need problems to solve! That’s where you come in! Create hurdles, inconveniences, and adversaries for the players to contend with, then step back and let them wrestle with them.
The challenges you present to the party should be manageable, not impossible. A 20-foot-wide chasm in the old dungeon floor can be handled, but a 1000-foot chasm in the Underdark is just a roadblock. Players have fun when they overcome an obstacle and feel frustrated when presented with impossible tasks.
“The blacksmith’s daughter has been kidnapped by goblins” is a great problem. How will the players solve it? By finding the goblins and rescuing the girl, hopefully. But how will they find the goblins? How will they rescue the girl? That’s for the players to decide. Don’t spend too much time and effort trying to solve the problem for them. That’s their job, and their fun.
Rolling the Dice
The Basic Rules linked above go into greater detail, but a lot of this game is rolling dice. When one of the player characters attempts to do something risky, they roll a die, add a modifier from their character sheet, and arrive at a total for their attempt. Then it falls to the Dungeon Master’s to dictate whether that total number is warrants success or failure in the endeavor by comparing it to the Difficulty Class (DC) they imagine is appropriate for the action. If it meets or exceeds the DC, they succeed! This is the bread and butter of a Dungeon Master’s job.
Unless you’re running a premade adventure, you will be arbitrarily determining the DC needed for the actions your characters take. It is entirely up to you what that number should be! When deciding whether a character triumphed or failed, remember the following guidelines:
- If there is no risk involved in the action, no roll is required (walking down stairs, riding your horse, drawing a sword)
- If it is an exceptionally easy thing to do but there might be a risk for doing it badly, the DC is 5 (walking along a wide ledge, riding your galloping horse though a terrible storm, swinging a sword near a friend)
- If it is a simple or mundane thing that most people could do, but there is some risk involved, the DC is 10 (walking along a slippery ledge, riding a tame but unfamiliar horse, sparring with your friend without injuring them)
- If it is something an untrained individual would have difficulty doing, or it is risky, the DC is 15 (walking along a crumbling ledge, riding an untamed horse, swallowing a sword)
- If it is a hard task that even professionals would find challenging, or there is significant danger, the DC is 20 (walking along a ship’s mast during a storm, riding an untamed griffon, piercing dragon scales with a sword)
- If the task is impossible, the character does not roll and automatically fails the attempt
DCs beyond 20 are not likely to come up in your first session. If a task seems like it might fall somewhere between two of these ranges (more than a little difficult but not quite hard, for example) set a DC in between the recommended DCs (such as 17). There are no right or wrong answers, so choose whatever makes the most sense to you!
Player Character Creation
Dungeons & Dragons requires multiple people to play. Everyone who isn’t the Dungeon Master is a player, who portrays one of the heroes of the story you’re about to tell together. These heroes are fantasy badasses with unique skills and abilities that separate them from the common rabble and mark them for greatness. But where do these heroes come from? You’re going to need characters for your players to play…
Wizards of the Coast provides a list of premade, ready-to-go characters for your players to use. They’re online, they’re free, and (best of all) they require zero effort on your part! Just present your players with these options and let them choose the one that captures their fancy. These are linked here.
As you and your players grow more comfortable with the game, your players may enjoy creating new characters for your games. The Player’s Handbook has everything you need to get started down that road. If you’d rather a website automate the process and do all the math for you, DNDBeyond has got you covered. Want to randomly generate a character who is ready to play immediately? Look no further than FastCharacter.
Advice from the Pros
Are you an overachiever looking to go the extra mile to make your first session go well? If so, you’re going to be a great Dungeon Master! There is and endless sea of resources online for an aspiring DM: articles, blogs, videos, and books. The sheet amount of content and creators out there can be intimidating and confusing in and of itself!
I’d recommend starting with this playlist from Nate at WASD20 on YouTube. He and the other members of Absolute Tabletop were a great source of encouragement as I started my journey with the hobby. His videos are packed with generally helpful advice free of bias and editorialization.
If you already have designs on turning your first session into something bigger, like a larger adventure or even a campaign, check out Barker’s “Be A Better Game Master” series over at Barker! / Ignite: Inspire the Story. He’s an earnest, entertaining teacher with a passion for simplifying and demystifying the art of running games for your friends.
And when you feel you’re ready to handle more complex game theory and hone your skills as a DM, return to Matt Coleville’s “Running the Game” series, linked earlier in the article. He’s been in the business of running D&D since the game was invented, and he has a wealth of experience to share!
It’s almost showtime: you’re meeting your friends soon, you’ve read the stuff, you’ve watched the things, and all that’s left to do is shake those butterflies out of your stomach and dive in. You can do it! Here are a few final thoughts to keep in mind as you’re about to start your adventure as a Dungeon Master:
- Everyone (your players and you) came here planning to have fun, and ready to work to make it happen. Them having fun is not solely your responsibility. You’re here to facilitate the fun, not provide it.
- The game was designed to create fun, not inhibit it. Don’t let any rule or game mechanic stand in the way of a good time. Whatever you say goes! After all… you’re the Dungeon Master.
- Pay attention to your players, notice what they’re enjoying, and be ready to provide more of that thing in the future.
- Slow down. It’s okay if the players want to spend their time talking to your NPCs, each other, or asking questions about the rules. D&D isn’t a race. If they don’t make it through everything you had planned, that just means you already have part of the next session already prepared!
- Don’t be afraid of the players going a different direction than you’d planned. If you thought they’d go right and they go left, stay calm. That right path isn’t going anywhere. They can always return to it later.
To hear these spoken in a reassuring tone, go check out my Last Second Tips Video! I made it just for you! Don't tell the other burgeoning DMs out there...
I’m not here to tell you being a Dungeon Master is not easy. As you’ve read, there’s much to do! But I am here to tell you that it is rewarding! It’s so much fun to surprise and delight your friends, to direct your own heroic adventure. And lots of people out here on the internet, including me, want you to succeed, and are producing articles, videos, and other content to assist your transition into being a great DM! Use those resources, watch those videos, and read these articles! Benefit from our experience as you being to have experiences of your own!
Now off you go! Off to weave stories of might and valor! Away, to craft plots both sinister and dire! Hasten to create challenges that only the brave or foolish dare face! And welcome, my friend, to the esteemed and exclusive society of players who are willing to put in the time and effort to sustain and grow the Dungeons & Dragons community.
Good luck, Dungeon Master!