There’s a rumor going around (on YouTube and social media) that there’s a shortage of Dungeon Masters for 5th Edition.
Since when? Let’s dispel some myths, okay? I can’t even believe this is a discussion. I remember a time when there were too many DMs and not enough players. This situation is puzzling to me.
There should never be a shortage of Dungeon Masters unless we’re talking about a convention or an Adventurer’s League game night at the Friendly Local Game Store. Even then, somebody can often find a player or players willing to step in and run a session or two.
Otherwise, once you have an idea of what D&D is supposed to look like either as a player or by being a spectator- Just jump in and do the thing. Okay, plan ahead a little bit first, but otherwise don’t be afraid.
When you’re a DM, edition does not matter.
There’s this ridiculous myth that being a D&D5E DM is somehow more difficult than every other edition before it. I’m here to tell you it’s not. Yes, I know what it says in the Dungeon Masters Guide. There’s a reason why one of the goals in the new One D&D is to rewrite the DMG to make it “new DM friendly.”
Keep your DMG handy for some of the basic world info and magic items. The rest is, umm… filler? Otherwise, shuck the whole thing and wing it. Yes, I’m serious. Maybe prior editions of D&D were slightly easier to run, but it’s all very similar. Again, not nearly as hard as some might make it sound.
How to dive into the deep end of the piranha tank head first.
So, you want to be a DM for your group, but you don’t know how.
- Play a session or two of the game, hopefully with an experienced DM. Or watch some Actual Play on YouTube or some such just to get an idea of what Non Player Characters are like, how combat flows, what characters generally do on their turns, and so on.
- Spend a little time reading the Monster Manual and the Player’s Handbook.
- Third, make some notes for yourself about what kinds of encounters you want to see or a story you might want to tell with your players. And/OR read through any premade adventure module you’re planning to use. (*Note: You do NOT have to memorize every single detail. Just try to remember key details and keep it handy during the game to look stuff up.)
- Please do a Session Zero with your group if you haven’t already. (If anyone tells you to skip this part, they’re wrong. Get to know the players, maybe engage while they make characters. Get a feel for everyone’s character backstories. Maybe jot down some NPC ideas to work into your game.
- Remember, as a DM you define what the group senses seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and even tasting. You’re also the member of the group that creates the ground they walk on and everyone they meet that isn’t a Player Character. You don’t need details for most of the NPCs beyond maybe a name, a little personality, and some kind of basic description. Please make notes of any significant NPCs, monsters, and terrain the group might encounter during your first adventure.
- Get the group together and run the adventure.
- Relax! Have fun with it. Eat snacks, roll dice, and be prepared to come up with things on the fly if need be. Remember, we all have to start somewhere.
- Remember, you don’t need to know every rule. If something comes up and you don’t know/can’t find the answer then do what you think is best. Make a note, and figure it out after the game. Also, have a basic idea of what the character skill list looks like and what the Difficulty Class chart looks like. If you have a DM Screen, the chart should be on there. You can also keep a blank character sheet nearby to reference the skills.
Don’t be afraid to ask the players for thoughts and suggestions when handling things like skill checks and combat. Sometimes players can outline actions and all the DM needs to do is set the skill difficulty. Or if the player has an idea for something that isn’t already defined by the rules, let them try it by just talking their way through it. (Most social encounters don’t need to be a roll.)
- Try to keep combats simple for your first game. If using an adventure written by someone else, try to remember how many and where they are located at the start of combat. Not every creature fights to the death and most intelligent beings can be reasoned-with.
- Keep the characters surroundings in mind. Is it a prairie? A forest? Does the tavern smell of fresh apple pie or burnt mutton? Has the innkeeper had a bath recently? Does the gruel taste more like watery flour or oatmeal? Is the floor of the dungeon covered in a thin layer of dust? You don’t have to describe everything, but please give the group a basic idea of where they are and what’s going on around them.
- Make notes of what treasure, if any, is awarded. I recommend using milestone leveling for new DMs. It’s quicker than trying to calculate eXperience Points for everything. (XP is part of the advanced course.)
- After the game, talk to your group. Ask them to be gentle with their feedback. (I have social anxiety, so I worry a lot.) Try to take their feedback into consideration the next time you run the game. Hopefully everyone had a good time.
With love and respect to Matt Mercer, you don’t have to be him.
Luckily, Matt doesn’t read my blog. No one is perfect the first time they run a D&D game. You don’t have to have a different funny voice for every NPC, just make sure the players know who is talking and when. Pitch, tone, and pace for NPC will come later. (*Maybe we’ll have an advanced class article sometime.)
Matt Mercer is a great guy to the best of my knowledge. Critical Role is a great show. The world of Exandria is packed with detail and adventure. BUT, do you know what? Your campaign or adventure can be just as much fun. Don’t compare yourself to anyone. Just have fun.
The Matt Mercer Effect is nonsense. Most players aren’t going to expect a brand new DM to be like Matt. And if they do, they probably shouldn’t be playing under a new DM. Or they should try running the game before they get too picky.
Dungeon Mastering can be a little challenging at times, but ultimately rewarding.
Yes, being a good DM sometimes requires a bit of prep work. Not everything will always go off 100% as planned. Sh*t is going to happen sometimes. It’s nothing to get bent out of shape over. You’re going to make mistakes. Players are going to make mistakes. Just roll with it, move on, and have fun.
I’ve been at this for 40 years, much of it behind the DM/GM screen. I’ve been around for 5+ editions of D&D and more other RPGs than I can count. Trust me when I say it gets easier with practice. Anyone can run a game. It’s not exactly rocket surgery. It just takes a little desire first.
Remember, you can always improvise. The group goes west instead of east. Okay. Who do they meet? Throw the adventure to the side and just ask the players where they want to go and what they want to do. Eventually, they will run onto an adventure. They will wander into encounters.
Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate you. Have fun with your first time as a DM. Your fellow DMs have been there and we all love you for trying. Who knows? You may find you like it better than (just) being a player.
Thanks for this. I’m in the process of helping develop some new DMs for our school’s D&D club. They have great ideas and wonderful imaginations; they really just need tips on how to run a game: organize information, keep track of initiative, etc.
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