Welcome to Dungeon Master 101, the chronicling of Melody Lynn’s metamorphosis from D&D player into D&D Dungeon Master…
So where I left you (which you can read here) was a brief introduction to this whole thing and as I’ve been told, there’s not been too much detail about the how you start things off. If you’re anything like me, you have a big idea and no real clue of where to start. If it’s your first time, the most important thing to remember is to keep it simple, you don’t need to be the best or brightest or flashiest, just play to your strengths. Try to break things down to a manageable size to deal with. Start with some questions.
First question I asked myself: What are my strengths? The immediate answer: Storytelling and Characters.
Second question I asked is: What are my weaknesses? Disregarding the first thoughts of “being a Dungeon Master” i realised it was my lack of knowledge and experience.
With knowing that my storytelling could get me out of most tight spots, I turned to my weaknesses, broke it down to the two bullet points and how I could address them individually.
Firstly, my lack of knowledge. When you are playing with a pre-written campaign this is pretty easy to remedy, read the campaign, in this case; The Horde of the Dragon Queen and mark all the important references and information you’ll need to know at a pinch. So I set out, read the campaign and broke it down into the Chapters. I wrote out the creatures from the encounter tables listed for quick and easy reference, marked out the pages that I would need and the key NPC’s and “Bosses” for that chapter.
I would also recommend having knowledge of the Player’s Handbook, the potential races and classes that your player’s might choose and be aware of possible reactions within the world for certain racial types. For example, a Tiefling, a humanoid with a demonic bloodline, might not be so welcome during the ransacking of a human town who rarely see people of that race.
Secondly, my lack of experience. The thing is, with lack of experience, no amount of study can save you from it, you just have to dive in and be ready to have a steep learning curve. To be honest it really helps to have a background in Role Playing games and prior experience in playing them. It also didn’t hurt that I’ve spent most of my life performing and doing Drama, not to mention the experience I have had in teaching leading me to knowing how to read a room and gain people’s attention. If you don’t have that kind of experience and you are keen to become a Dungeon Master or run your own Roleplaying Game, watching other people doing it and getting advice from others is something I can highly recommend.
Totally counts as research, right? Source
The next thing I would say is prepare your equipment.
Make sure you have copies of your campaign, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Player’s Handbook and just in case the Monster Manual. The resources are there for a reason, it is a good idea to be familiar with all of these in at least passing.
You’re also going to need dice, lots of dice.
First of all I love dice, I want to collect it all and I may be starting to have a bit of a problem, but I’ve been told under authority that when I get over 250 dice, that’s when I have the real problem. Secondly, you’re going to roll a lot of dice, sometimes the dice are trying to kill the PCs (Playable Characters) a little too hard, so you might retire them and use another d20, other times you’re rolling really shit and the PC’s are having a lovely stroll through what is supposed to be a punishing gauntlet, time to swap that dud d20 out.Thirdly, one of your Players is going to forget their dice. I’ve done many role playing games and it is inevitable that someone is going to forget., so keep a spare set. Perhaps make the loaner set your consistently bad rolling set, as a punishment for players who forget their dice a little too often.
Whilst I wouldn’t say it is an absolute necessity, I would recommend getting a Dungeon Master Screen.
I love my screen. Not only is it stylish, but it also helps to keep rolls secret from your players. Trust me, there are times that you will need that secrecy. On top of that my screen has a very handy cheat sheet to different useful references. A Random NPC generator, status effects, rolling difficulty guide, e.t.c. It really is very helpful to have when you’re making things up on the fly.
I would also recommend getting something to help your players visualise the terrain and combat. This can come in the form of a tac map and some minis, like the one I’m using (pictured below). It’s very effective and easy to maintain, acting like a whiteboard so you can easily edit and write on the material on the fly. Plus physical figures are cool, especially when you add a Dragon or Troll figure to the play field (be mindful though, they can be expensive).
Optional Extra, drawing skills
Or you could use a digital playing field like Roll20, which you can use on an Ipad or Android device, or if you really want to be fancy, on a big screen TV via your PC. There’s plenty of options, so just pick something that suits where you’re playing and who you’re playing with, but don’t be afraid to change things up if it isn’t working.
No drawing skills required! Source
Either way, this will especially help in combat situations, so that people know how far away they are from a target. More importantly, they can see where to aim particular spells, such as fireballs, so they don’t inadvertently cause friendly fire. Because the last thing you’d want your players to do is kill each other by accident.
To be honest the most important thing you can have when you start a game is your imagination. You need to be ready and quick thinking to be able to keep up with what your Players are doing and be able to communicate what is happening in your head to them, so that they can see that image clearly. For example, if you can visualise a town on fire and being ransacked, you need to be able to communicate that image you see. If in your head you can see the smoke rising and smell the burning of wood and flesh, find a way to narrate it to your players, try and bring the reality to life with your description.
I also feel that you need to be prepared to be wrong, and mess things up, you also need to be okay with being all of these things, which is pretty tough sometimes. There will be occasions where you’ll have to put on your Big-Girl/Boy/Other Britches and just deal with being wrong, and that’s okay. It’s not a pleasant feeling, of course, but try not to stew in it and remind your players you’re just starting out and to have a bit of patience with you. Playing with good or close friends goes a long way to getting them to forgive you for forgetting to tell them that moving away from an enemy’s reach without disengaging first results in them attacking as a reaction.
This leads me to the last thing you can really prepare, the group of people you play with. You could have the best story in the world, but if you play with a group who doesn’t get along or aren’t as interested as you are in playing, it can really sour the experience. IF you’re anything like me, you want to play with good friends, who you know won’t judge you too harshly if things don’t quite work out. Also make sure that your Players know each other a bit beforehand and get along well together. Trust me, it’s not fun playing with couples who have broken up and things are still sour, or friends who are slowly becoming not friends. I’ve been in both situations at the same time for my first ever campaign, I left after the first session when realising my Chaotic Good Bard was not going to do well with the evil party, and I was not going to do well with my ex and some people who I am now no longer friends with.
There is nothing worse than being in a negative and meanly critical group whilst playing a game like this. Be sure to avoid these kinds of situations. Something that my Dungeon Masters/Game Masters have done in the past is talk to all the players and make sure that any problems are aired out and if the problems aren’t resolved, that people who are contributing to the problems are asked politely to leave or work their shit out.
At the end of the day, what I’m mainly looking for is to have fun with some friends and explore the worlds of fantasy and so, really that’s what I have to remember when I get bogged down with nerves or pride. I hope you do too!
Please support Tabletop gaming and visit the Wizards of the Coast website if you’re interested in playing Dungeons and Dragons for yourself.
Have a look at the Roll20 website, it’s free to sign up: https://roll20.net/
Melody Lynn is a co-founder of Kartanym Productions and an extreme nerd. She’s been a Half-Elven Cleric in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, a grumpy mechanic in Firefly: The Roleplaying Game, a political pole climber Toreador in Vampire: The Dark Ages, a Solo in Cyberpunk 2020, a Tiefling Warlock in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition and is currently a Dwarven Paladin in Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition.