The Master's Path: A Beginner's Guide to Becoming a Dungeon Master
Greetings adventurer! Are you ready to embark on a journey to becoming a Dungeon Master to run your own Dungeons and Dragons games? Fear not, for I, your trusty guide, shall accompany you on this epic quest.
Becoming a Dungeon Master may seem like a daunting task, but with a bit of determination and some guidance, you'll be leading your own epic quests in no time. So, grab your quill and parchment, and let's get started!
Note: If you are just now joining in on this blog post series and are totally new to Dungeons and Dragons, but want to learn more, check out our last two posts on what Dungeons and Dragons is/how to get started and our beginners guide to role-playing .
The Role of the Dungeon Master
As a Dungeon Master, you are the mastermind behind the adventure. Think of it as being the lead storyteller. You create the world, the non-player characters (NPCs), events and the challenges that the players will face.
You are also in charge of helping guide the players through the choices they make and the outcomes of those choices, which are often determined by a dice role and the player's character's skills. You describe the scenery and set the tone for the adventure. It's a big responsibility, but it's also incredibly rewarding.
In my experience, there's nothing like seeing the look on the players faces when they are completely surprised by something masterful you've cooked up for your game - whether a fearsome monster that attacks them that they weren't expecting it, how you've incorporated their backstory secretly into the game, when they find a powerful magic artifact in a totally unsuspecting place, or the big reveal at the end of the campaign that the evil villain was an NPC they were friends with all along!
It's up to you to help create a memorable adventure, while still making the world seem alive - one they can interact with, explore, and reap the benefits (or consequences), of their choices.
First things first, you'll need the Dungeon Master's Guide, the Player's Handbook, and, ideally, the Monster Manual. These three books are the foundation of the game and will give you everything you need to know to get started. There are a couple different editions of these books, but I recommend the most current, the 5th Edition (aka 5e).
These will run you around ~$25 each on Amazon, so it is a bit of an investment, but you can always ask your soon-to-be players to pitch in to help with the cost if they are excited about playing. I promise, the investment is worth it!
There are plenty of monster stats you can find online, so the Monster Manual isn't 100% necessary if you are trying to save some money.
If you want to make running a game easier on yourself, a DM screen is also helpful to have. This screen helps to separate you from your players and allows you to hide your notes, monster stats and other things you don't want your players knowing about.
It also usually has a lot of rules printed on your side, so you can use it as a reference when you are playing the game. If you don't want to buy one, there are a lot of printable resources online you could use to make your own.
It might be a little more expensive to purchase these items at your local game store, but buying local is a great way to support a small business if you have one near you and can afford it.
Next, gather a group of players who are ready to embark on an adventure. I've found that anywhere from 3-5 players is ideal. You can find players at your local game store, online forums, or even among your friends and family.
Building the World
Now it's time to build your world. There's a few different ways to do this.
The first way is to use a pre-made campaign or adventure. This is a pre-written story that the Dungeon Master can use as a guide for their game. These campaigns are designed to have a coherent plotline, engaging characters, and exciting set pieces that are tailored to a specific setting or theme. If you are a newbie or want to invest less time into prepping for your games, this is the route I would go!
Pre-made campaigns/adventure modules can be a great option for new Dungeon Masters or players who are just starting out, as they take a lot of the work out of creating a game or world from scratch. They provide a framework for the game, including plot points, non-player characters (NPCs), maps, and encounters.
This allows the DM to focus on running the game and creating an immersive experience for the players. You can still incorporate your own flair into these campaigns, they simply help provide a setting and adventures so you don't have to come up with it all!
There are a variety of pre-made campaigns available for D&D, each with its own unique setting and story. Some are designed for specific levels of play, while others can be adapted to fit a range of player levels. They can also range in length from a single session to a year-long campaign.
One example of a pre-made campaign is "Curse of Strahd," which is set in the gothic horror realm of Ravenloft, while the "Tomb of Annihilation" takes place in the jungle realm of Chult.
At the time of writing this post, I (Kasey, the creator of FFCC) am running, "Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos," which takes place at a magical college. It is basically Hogwarts, but in D&D, and is a great option for Harry Potter lovers!
No matter which pre-made campaign you choose, it can provide a great starting point for your D&D game and give you and your players a fun, immersive experience in a unique and exciting world. Building Your Own Adventure If you like having the opportunity to create your own adventure for your party, then all the more power to ya! If you are more into story/quest creation than world building, you can create your adventure in the already flushed out continent of Faerûn, the primary setting of the Dungeons and Dragons world. There are a ton of online resources that give details about towns, history, NPCs, etc., that are in this world.
If you want to create your own world, it's up to you how detailed you want to get with the process. The creative process for crafting your own world works differently for different people. I like to start with creating my own map of the continent, then figure out the general political/economic state of the different cities and communities, and then I flush out individual towns as my players adventure to them.
Or, you may want to start with creating a history for your world. Who are the major players? What are the conflicts? What are the major events that have shaped the world? And then create a map from there. Or don't create a map at all! As the DM, this creative process is yours to explore.
If you choose to make a map, you can simply hand draw it with paper or use a software like Inkarnate (my favorite) to create a detailed map. Inkarnate also has maps other users have created that you can take and edit, and make your own. That's what I did with this map below when I wanted to create a city map for our recent game sessions.
Once you have a general idea of the world, it's time to create the adventure.
Start with a basic plot and then build from there. You can always peruse Reddit threads or google for ideas on the kind of game you want to run. You can also pull bits and pieces from pre-made adventures or use smaller adventure modules made by other DM's and Players (I love finding these adventure modules made by creators on Etsy!).
Running the Game
Part of running the game is being prepared. If you show up to the session and haven't thought much about the encounters you'd like to include, quests to send your players on or the town you know they are heading to, IT WILL SHOW!
The game won't run smoothly, I'm guessing it will be more stressful for you making everything up on the fly and it will be less fun for your players. Even if you are great at improv, an exciting and intriguing adventure takes some thought and preparation.
Take the time to think about how to incorporate player's backstories into your game.
Review monster stat blocks before the game so you have an idea about how their mechanics work so that combat runs quickly and smoothly.
If your players expressed interest in a certain place/activity/person, figure out how to incorporate it into one your next few sessions.
Have a few NPC's or side quests prepared that you can throw into the game when needed.
You'll need to know the basic rules well. Get familiar with combat rules and making ability checks. You don't need to have all the rules memorized, but it also helps be familiar with where to find the rules in the DM Guide or Player Handbook.
Often times, if we have a rules question when playing, I will simply google it - it's faster than thumbing through a book! If we can't find the answer quickly, I will make a ruling, and then research it more after the session is over.
Watching some live play videos on YouTube or Twitch can help you become more familiar with how the rules work, and having your DM Screen or Binder with the more complex rules inside will make the game run smoother when you or your players have questions.
The most important, and often hardest part, of being a DM is thinking on your feet and being ready to improvise if the players throw you a curveball.
You may have an adventure or quest planned, and they decide to do something totally different that you weren't prepared for. It's important to expect the unexpected. Roll with the punches if they handle something differently than you expected. You will get better at this the more sessions you run.
One of the great things about D&D is that players *hopefully* get to feel like they are in a world that is alive, where they have freedom to make choices and that those choices impact the world you've created.
In my experience, it really sucks when a DM won't let you do something you'd like to have your character do or a creates a random rule to prevent something from happening because they don't want it to mess up their plans. This takes away player agency and the realism/immersion aspect of the game.
As the DM, if your player wants to do something, let them do it! Even if it messes up your plan. You have to be flexible.
You should also talk to your players before you start your first session and ask them to have some grace with you as you learn and get better at improvising. I am sure they will be understanding!
Creating An Immersive Experience
Now, this is not required to run a game, but I believe that the best Dungeon Masters create an IMMERSIVE experience for their players. You do this by incorporating things into the game that stimulate the senses and make it feel more real - like they are actually in the world and experiencing the adventure! Here are my favorite ways to do this:
1.) Sound: Play music. PLEASE play music. This is the easiest way to add immersion to your games, as well as to heighten the experience - whether you are in battle, visiting the local tavern, sneaking into a manor, or investigating an eerie cemetary. We have a variety of Spotify Music playlists that pair with our candles to help set the mood if you are looking for some pre-made setlists. There are also various RPG Soundscape apps that provide music as well as sound effects.
2.) Sight: I love to put a background photo on a TV in the room of the setting they are in, such as an ancient library, a swamp or a moody tavern. You could always print one out if you don't have a TV available, or simply show them a picture on your phone. I also like to show pictures of NPCs I have photos for. Lighting can also make a big difference. You can dim the lights, if possible, when it's night time or invest in a color changing light bulb that you can control from your phone to add some extra fun ambiance.
3.) Touch: Print out a scroll, note or map to give to your players. Use miniatures or battle maps to provide something physical on the board. Make health potion bottles with dice in them for them to use and roll when their characters are drinking one in-game.
4.) Smell: I mean...come on. Candles, obviously. 😉 But also, diffusers, wax melters, diffusers, even flowers! Whatever makes it smell like the place they are in.
5.) Taste: Make a snack that is themed after something in the session, such as the place you are or the monster you fought last session. You could also take turns making cocktails themed after the class of each party member.
You don't need to do all, or any of these, to have a good session, but they will definitely elevate your game as you incorporate them.
All in all...
Becoming a Dungeon Master may seem like a daunting task, but it is such a rewarding experience. You can create a world of your own, guide the players through the adventure, and watch as their characters grow and develop. Remember to have fun, and don't be afraid to get creative!
Do you have any other questions about running your first game? Leave them in the comments below! I'd love to try and answer or have other DM's share their advice.
And don't forget to grab some of our Storytelling candles to help create a more immersive atmosphere when playing your next session!