Or at least there doesn’t need to be one.
It’s not that hard to be a Dungeon Master/Game Master. I’ve been seeing videos again where people make it out to be much tougher than it actually is. I know where some of the dogma is coming from, and I’m here to tell you, family- Don’t believe a single word of it.
There’s been this weird rumor going around the Dungeons & Dragons 5E community lately such as:
“There just aren’t enough DMs to go around.” Aka “There’s a shortage of DMs in ‘X’ area.”
“No one will teach me how to DM.”
“I’m not a voice actor like that one guy on Critical Role.”
“Being a DM is too hard.”
“It’s hard to find a good Dungeon Master.”
“Being a DM is too expensive. You have to have ALL of the books.”
Let’s dispel some myths, shall we?
I find this all very strange because I can remember a time before Wizards of the Coast came along when it was hard to find players. We used to combine tables at conventions just to get events to run. I’ve seen entire four hour game slots sit empty. As a DM, it was disappointing.
Nowadays, I should literally never hear of a player or DM shortage. It’s just not likely. It’s almost guaranteed that if you have the time and access to the Internet (phone, tablet, computer, etc) you can probably find an online game. Most of the Friendly Local Game Stores that I’m aware of also offer Adventurer’s League or some other type of D&D game night.
Another possibility as a player is to look to other games. Certain events in the TTRPG industry have shifted the mainstream way of playing TTRPGs over to systems outside of D&D. Pathfinder, Dungeon Crawl Classics, Call of Cthulhu, and several other popular TTRPGs are out there waiting to be explored. OR, if one is willing to go just a little further, one can enter the world of the Dungeon Master.
I firmly believe that if you can learn to play Dungeons & Dragons, being a DM is just a short half step around the corner. It’s all about attitude and desire to run the game for friends. Forget paying a DM. Host for your friends for free. Do it for the fun and the love of the game. It’s easier than it looks.
We’ll cover more about why a certain large corporation wants us all to believe there’s some kind of massive DM shortage and why they might make it out to be so hard for beginners in another article. Let’s just say it has more to do with their making money and the use of AI Dungeon Masters than it does with actual difficulty. I find it rather intriguing that D&D 5E seems to be the only game where I hear about a shortage of DMs.
You’re right, no one will teach you “how” to be a DM.
Not when you have the magical power of the Internet, specifically YouTube, blogs, and years upon years of DMing advice to look back on. It’s also easy to find experienced DMs like me on social media to ask for advice and tips on getting started. We all had to start somewhere and, news flash, not all of us had any guidance or mentors. We dove in headfirst down on the deep end, sometimes landing on solid concrete. (*That’s a metaphor. Do NOT attempt concrete diving at home.) Basically, some of us old timers picked up the mantle of DM and had many successes and failures early on, and we can pass lots of advice onto you.
All it really takes is a starting town, some wilds for the player characters to explore, and a dungeon nearby. This very old Gygaxian approach still works today. Failing creating your own personalized setting, there are literally hundreds of 5E modules floating around for almost every level. Reading and preparing one of these premade dungeons only takes an hour or two. There’s a chance that some of your players may have seen the module before and can help you with some of the key encounters. But it’s not that hard.
Being a DM is loads of fun. Think of it like this- you get to play tons of different characters. You get to challenge your friends in new and exciting ways every time you play together. You get to be the producer and director of your own TV series or movie starring your friends. You provide the hooks and the leads while they provide the action and most of the dialogue. The fun helps take the edge off the difficulty.
One of the best ways to learn the fine art of Dungeon Mastery, other than reading and watching hours of podcasts, is to just jump in and DO the darn thing. Immersion helps teach people entire new languages. D&D is its own special language. One of the best ways to understand player characters and game mechanics is to jump in up to your eyeballs in the game and start paddling. Just do it!
The Matt Mercer Effect. With all due respect, it can go jump in a lake.
I don’t have anything against Matt Mercer or Critical Role. I’ve said before how I think it’s great that Critical Role has brought so many people into the 5E game. But you don’t have to be him. You don’t have to be at a table full of fully trained voice actors. You don’t have to do all kinds of crazy voices and come up with an entire new world all on your own.
One of the most important things to remember about Matt Mercer is he had to start somewhere, too. Everyone has that first session. Most DMs even come back for a second, third, fourth, and so on. Once you’ve tried it, even if things didn’t work 100% exactly as planned, it’s easy to want to come back. The best way to start an Actual Play podcast such as Critical Role is to actually run the game. All the cool voices and amazing lore will come later, or you might just discover it’s easy to have fun without all of that.
It’s not as hard as certain people make it out to be.
It’s really pretty easy as long as you’ve played the game once or twice- And I mean any TTRPG more than once. Maybe you’ve watched Critical Role or some other Actual Play podcast a few times as long as you have an idea of what the DM/GM is supposed to do, it’s not that hard.
What you will need to do (assuming players already have characters, Session Zero completed):
- Create some basic idea of a story. *
- Create NPC’s (At least names, personalities, appearances, goals.) *
- Maybe pick out a few monsters that go with the story. *
- Get your group together for game night.
- Figure out where they’re starting out and introduce the adventure via character interaction.
*The first three items may be taken in any order such as Monster, NPCs, Story.
You don’t have to have a long, complicated, epic thesis to run an adventure for four or five hours. Sure, you can. You can buy a prewritten module or download one for free off of the internet. But don’t let the lack of massive volumes of text already laid out stop you from running your game.
So many people online nowadays make being a Dungeon Master/Game Master sound like you need to be a PhD student in Anthropology and Theatre Arts before you can start. Trust me. It’s not anywhere near that hard. If 10 year old me can handle it- chances are you can, too.
Don’t let anyone fool you. You don’t have to know every last rule in the book. If you can handle making a character, you’re halfway there. If you understand the basics of things such as Difficulty Class and combat, that’s pretty much it. Oh, the rest is roleplaying various characters and monsters. That’s not too hard, either.
Don’t know a specific rule? Make up something that seems to fit. Look it up after the game and correct it next time if you need to. Don’t let the rules lawyers at the table disrupt gameplay. You’re in charge. Be willing to listen, though. Especially starting out there are going to be plenty of people who probably know specific rules better than the DM. Ultimately, the DM has final say.
Try to focus on the fun. If your story and your plot as a DM goes off the rails? Shuck it aside and ask the players what they want their characters to do next. Roll with it and make up the details you think would fit best as you go. Some of the best game sessions I’ve ever run started with me throwing the module over my shoulder and figuring out what would happen next that sounded cool.
“It’s hard to find a good Dungeon Master.”
Yeah, but sometimes having a game session is better than not having one, too. If someone is willing to run a game, please give them the chance? Sure, someone probably can do it better, but are they here? No? Well, than this is what we’re working with. Finding a “good” or at least willing DM is as easy as looking in the mirror.
You’re likely going to get compared to someone no matter who you are or what you do. Don’t let it shake you. I know I’m not Matt Mercer, but then again he’s not me, either. My little league kid isn’t ready for his MLBB contract, but he does pretty well as a left-handed catcher, and we encourage him to play. Anyone can be a good DM with a little bit of experience and some preparation.
No one is going to start out at $20 per player/per hour as a first time DM. But as time goes on, some DMs do decide to go professional. It’s not for everyone and everyone’s mileage will vary on the topic. Just because they’re getting paid to run a game, doesn’t mean they’re any better or more experienced. If DMs are as hard to find as some would have us believe, a new DM is still better than no DM.
Even those “really great” DMs had to start somewhere. They’ve all had sessions that flopped, TPKs, and things that didn’t work out as planned. They still came back the next week because the game is fun. It’s more fun to run a game session than to not have one at all. The best thing one can do is jump right back in if things don’t go well. Even the most awesome DM in the world has had those moments. But there’s been lots of fun before and since as well.
“Don’t I have to own all those books?”
Nope. Dice, pencil, notebook paper are all a good thing. For D&D, a Player’s Handbook, Monster Manual, and maybe the Dungeon Master’s Guide would be nice. Plenty of DMs get by without some or any of those things. If you have internet access or a public library card, the 5.1 SRD has a lot of that vital material available online for free. (*Please note that this link might change in the future.) Pathfinder 2E has Archives of Nethys, which functions much the same way. Other games have similar sites as well.
I’ve known some DMs who only own at most one or two books for the game they’re running. They create the rest on the fly, make up monsters as they go, and come up with their own magical treasures. As long as a DM understands the basic principles of roleplaying and some mechanics, it’s easy to run a game. No DM screen, fancy dice, or heap of books needed. Some TTRPGs have their entire game available for free in PDF.
Players are usually pretty cool about filling a DM in on specific items that appear in other books. The DM can allow or disallow it. Some homebrew is very well written. Some third party supplements are better left forgotten on a shelf somewhere. The DM ultimately gets to decide.
In conclusion, let me say this: Don’t let anything stop you from trying your hand at running a game. There is no reason someone can’t move from player to DM as long as they’re willing to learn. There are so many tutorials, experienced DMs willing to teach, and advice columns out there, too. It’s easy to pick up the role of DM. And if you decide it’s not your cup of tea, you can always go back to being a player. It’s okay.
Thank you for being here. I hope everyone takes a chance to learn DMing at some point in their TTRPG career. It’s a lot of fun. Just don’t get discouraged and have fun with it.