Hello, everyone! Today is another Mondays with Max and it is yours truly at the helm with this post. Continuing my D&D series (I promise I’ll be changing topics soon), I thought I might talk about becoming a Dungeon Master (DM) for a D&D game. For most people, the idea of becoming the DM is an insurmountable hill, especially if you are comparing yourself to other noteworthy individuals in the “profession,” such as Matt Mercer of Critical Role fame, Acquisitions Inc.’s Chris Perkins, or even your local DM that has been running you. With this post, I hope I can drive some of you to become DMs in your own right, as I want to show that becoming can be more rewarding than just being a player!
When I talk to people who haven’t DMed before and are trying to figure out if they really want to, they typically mention how intimidated they are with the responsibility that comes with the title. Not only does a DM need to act as arbitrator for all the rules and cast final judgements on how the game is played, they have to play all the characters that populate the world and interact with the other players, and they have to come up with an interesting world for the players to explore. Letting these anxieties spin in their head, finding more and more things they have to be responsible for, most people decide that they’d rather not take up the mantle of Dungeon Master, thinking the task itself is too daunting for them to handle. To be honest, yes, a DM’s job can be overwhelming, but only if you put too much thought into it. What I mean by this is that you don’t need to be prepared for every outcome or decision; you don’t need to have all three books memorized from cover to cover; you don’t need to have an expansive world that rivals the complexity and intricacy as Westeros or Middle-Earth. Above all else, your focus is to have fun, and make sure your players are having fun too.
The biggest mistake I see fresh DMs make is spending far too long constructing a world for their players to explore. Yes, having a fully realized world is great! Yes, knowing the internal politics between the Dwarven Baronies and the Half-Orc Tribes and their trading routes makes for interesting history! But if you spend all your time inventing the world rather than playing it, no one will ever experience it. This is where I think most beginning DMs get intimidated, in that they think that they need complete world with 10,000 years of backstory. They then either get cold feet and back out or spend all their time trying to create their world rather than playing D&D.
There are a few solutions to this problem. The most obvious one is that you run a published adventure, either one put out by Wizards of the Coast, such as Tyranny of Dragons or Curse of Strahd, or one by a third party company. Though this seems easy enough, it may not be the optimal answer, as now you have a 150 to 200 page adventure you will need to familiarize yourself with, which can take several hours of reading to get through as well as several pages of notes where you write down the important stuff. Some people are totally fine with that time commitment, and to be honest, that’s how I ran my first few games, too. However, I think there’s an easier solution, and it doesn’t require several hundred pages of writing, but in fact only a single page.
I think it’s important to state that regardless of how much you’ve written for your D&D campaign, it will be very rare for your players to see it all, as no amount of preparation survives an encounter with a group of D&D players. So, the easiest and quickest way that I found to start DMing for the first time is creating a single town and dungeon. By limiting yourself to a such a small subsection of your world, you can familiarize yourself intimately with how this area operates, and you don’t even need to know much about the world to give your players the immersion they’re seeking! All you really need to do is write a single page on this town, the surrounding area, and a dungeon[i] that exists nearby.
It seems that single page, or even two, would not be enough to run your typical three to four hour session of D&D, but what we’re focusing here is on the necessities. I would consider those something like the general size of the town (is it a small fishing village, a bustling city, etc.)[ii], a brief description of the surrounding area, one or two important individuals in the town, and maybe some additional flavor about the town, such as its primary source of trade or something of that source, but that is not entirely necessary. You may want to include a few notes about common places your players would be likely to visit, like a blacksmith or merchant to get supplies, or some sort of temple if one of your players is a cleric or paladin. The rest you can improvise if it comes up, as your players won’t know or even care if you came up with something on the fly.
At this point, you may actually have enough to play your first session, especially if your players are all new to D&D, so they may want to stretch their legs and see to the extent of what they can do in this new game. However, you may want to prepare a quick dungeon, just in case. For this, you only need three areas: an entrance, the body, and the finale room. For creating a dungeon, I will refer you readers to Matt Colville and his video on constructing a dungeon, which is incredibly informative. Mr. Colville also has a series of videos about running D&D (and tabletop role-playing games in general), and they’re all amazing and highly recommend anyone interested in running D&D to check them out.
In closing, I think I should also press that when running D&D, the ultimate goal is for you and your players to have fun! It doesn’t matter how bad or clichéd you think your game is, as long as everyone is enjoying themselves, you have succeeded at being a Dungeon Master. I could probably write at length on this topic, but I will leave it here, but if any of you have questions on running a game, feel free to comment and I’ll give you my best response! Until next time!
[i] I say dungeon here, but don’t let that limit you. Your “dungeon” could in fact be a bandit hideout in the mountains, or a cave dwelling of a nearby monster. It could even be a location within the town itself, such as an abandoned estate of wealthy baron or rock quarry that serves as the town’s major source of trade.
[ii] Though you can make your starting town any size you want, I would recommend sticking with a small or medium sized town if it’s your first time DMing, as that is less work for you, and your players would be unlikely to explore everything of a buzzing metropolis.