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Beginner's Guide to DMing

I'm sure a 'beginner's guide' indicates that have some sort of authority but that's just silly. I don't actually know what I'm talking about, but I just started playing DnD 5e, and I want to talk about it

Beginner's Guide to DMing

It might just be the media that I'm consuming, but it definitely feels like Dungeons and Dragons is getting this massive insurgence of new players. I keep seeing new podcasts, and stories coming from internet personalities about how they're playing DnD now. Even my close friends want to learn to play, having never shown much interest prior. It's probably just selection bias, but it's like something about being stuck at home makes people want to role-play killing dragons.

But seriously, don't get me wrong, I'm really happy people are getting into it! I mean, hell, I'm literally one of the 'newcomers'. I've been tangentially interested in learning how to play DnD for a few years now, but never actually committed to it, and I think quarantine is kinda the perfect time to start. I mean you're staring at the same four walls everyday, might as well try to imagine something more interesting.

I guess the difference for me is that I have always wanted to become a Dungeon Master (DM). I want to create a campaign and torture my friends with shitty accents and complicated plot hooks. Problem is, I have 0 DnD experience. I'm not some long-time player-turned DM, no I've just never played DnD. I have to learn how to play, then learn how to DM on top of that.

The one saving grace in all of this is probably the fact that none of my friends are DMs nor are they DnD experts. A couple of them have played a few campaigns/one-shots here and there, but for the most part we're all learning at the same time. But as DM, I am a helper and a teacher, all at the same time.

Instead of just rambling about how hard my job is, I'm going to try and touch on a few things:

  • Why you should give Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition a shot
  • What you should know if you plan on DMing
  • Some reflections/ramblings

You're not that cool. Try DnD 5e.

Dungeons & Dragons definitely used to have a cringy vibe to it, and I don't think that's a controversial thing to say. When I was in elementary school, playing video games used to have the same aura. I didn't want to tell girls that I spent 6 hours playing Call of Duty this past weekend, because that might've halved my 0% chance of dancing with them at the upcoming Dance-a-thon.

Nowadays though, nerd culture is taking off, and even the intense areas are becoming more and more accessible. I can't wait to attend a LARPing convention in 2022. As a byproduct though, I think people are just more accepting of enjoying personal hobbies instead of trying to manufacture this 'cool-boi' image or whatever. To be honest, I have no clue if this is true, but it's my experience, and I'm a massive nerd with only nerd friends. Maybe some of you cool cats on TikTok will still look down on me, but I'll soak that damage.

That's why I think if you even have the slightest interest, you should play DnD 5th Edition (the only one I've played). If you have access to a DM, or a few friends who you want to party up with, you can get started for free. Most of the game takes place in your imagination, with just enough numbers/items/cool shit to start getting your gears turning. I've been a board game enthusiast (I sound pompous AF, I know), for a few years, and honestly, DnD is quite refreshing. Something about how the rules seem to melt away when I'm running a game is really part of the fun. I never have to check rule books because who gives a fuck, it's a co-op game, I'm just trying to tell a fun story.

For a quick overview, DnD is really just a basic stat-sheet with a few rules to help push the game forward. You create, name, and write a back story for a fantasy-style character, and then your DM will lead them through an adventure, along with all your friends. You don't even need to know how to play before starting! You just tell your DM, "I wanna look under that rock", and they'll tell you whether or not you can, or what you see!

I get that it probably still sounds boring as fuck, but there's something so silly about the whole experience that breathes life into it. You and all your friends role-playing some strange characters getting slapped around in the woods, it's like a movie that you all write together. You'll genuinely feel the ebb and flow of an adventure, with scares, downtime and excitement. Well at least I did. You really have to give in, and let yourself feel uncomfortable to get the most out of it.

Okay, so you want to DM.

See that subtitle up there^. It's sooo arrogant, lmao. I don't know shit, and I'm really not an authority here, but I do have some tips that I wish I'd known before my first game. I've only run two 2h sessions, but I am getting a flow down and I honestly (me personally), I really like getting tips from a beginner to a beginner.

When you go on YouTube and look up DM tips, I guarantee you'll see things like "Don't overprepare". Great advice, but then the person in the video will pull up their 'campaign notes' as a fucking index card. It goes wayyy over the top. Listen to me, it's harder than you think, and you definitely should prepare more than a goddamn post-it note. No matter how many episodes of Critical Role you binge, you won't be Matt Mercer without a bunch of practice. It's a skill as much as anything else, so you have to be prepared to put in more hours of effort than anyone else who sits down at the game table. You're crafting an adventure, a world, and a plot from like nothing! Even if you use a published adventure, you better be prepared to think on the fly, and weave in story hooks you didn't plan for.

Long story short, it's a roller coaster you build while you're onboard, and it'll be one of the most fun, rewarding creative outlets you partake in (if you were previously a boring video game nerd like me).

Tip #1: Don't overprepare, but don't underprepare either.

Haha, see what I did there? I meme'd on overpreparing — then used it as my first tip. What a good callback to a few paragraphs ago. It's not lazy, it's funny.

Seriously though, don't overprepare. For your first session, you should come up with a few story beats you want to hit (examples):

  • Dragon attacking town
  • PCs live in a townhouse together
  • Wizard lives on a hill
  • PCs need to ask for his help

Then flesh out a bit more about the town/NPCs:

  • Who might the PCs interact with? (think shop keeps/blacksmiths, not strangers/civilians)
  • What are the key locations in town?
  • What is the vibe of the town, what are its problems?
  • How do the NPCs play into the larger story?

These few bits will help with not accidentally making dramatic 'improv' decisions that could affect your entire narrative. If your campaign is about killing a dragon, and you 'on-the-spot' that a character has a history of dragon-slaying, expect that they might become more important than you'd originally thought. You can't predict every action that your party will take, but having an idea of the thoughts/motivations behind central characters will help you RP as them realistically, without shooting yourself in the foot.

An important note though, don't be too loosy goosy on your first few sessions. If you're DMing with new players, expect the role play to be a bit sparse or awkward. The DM is the bridge between the 'game' and the 'adventure', so if you have to jump in their with a shitty Russian accent to relieve some tension, or force the plot forward, don't be afraid to. My first session, I put my PCs in jail expecting them to just share their backstories, but they were all just standing there. So I introduced a new character who was 'in the corner the whole time', who insulted them for being 'scared to share any emotions'. Probably a shitty strategy for experienced DMs, but it worked for me 👍.

Tip #2: Don't get too attached to your plan/world

So, you might come up with a story board of how your adventure is going to play out. Hell, there might even be one in the published adventure you may or may not be running, but trust me, it'll never be exactly like that. Puzzles you thought would take hours could be solved in a few minutes, and it's poor form to try and force those expectations on your PCs. If you put a trap in the room, and someone tries to perceive it, don't hide it because 'technically the doorway is in another room'. Let them have it, they'll feel much more enjoyment from feeling smart and adventurous in a 1.5h session, than stuck/stupid in a 2.5h one.

And if something seems like it's going wrong, roll with it. Like obviously if you're about to TPK in the first session, maybe don't fucking do that Satan, but otherwise — what's the worst that can happen. Are they supposed to be friendly to a lethal monster, but instead decide to attack them? Have the monster be scared away, or change the way the NPCs perceive them, or put the fear of god in them with a few rounds of combat, but keep in mind you're running their game. If they actually do kill the monster that was meant to come back in Act 3, don't have it fly away with 1 HP! Kill that thing! Your PCs are the stars of the show, and your job is to let them run around your world, not to play with them like you're a god with a fate set in stone. At that point it's almost wish fulfillment, and if you use DnD as a way to act out your god complex, you should probably just go back to killing NPCs in Garry's Mod.

Tip #3: Take it slow

You as the DM will have 45 000 things on your mind at once. Maybe this encounter involves an NPC that will join the big bad at the end, and you want to foreshadow this with some vague hints about their facial expressions. Or an encounter has 12 different attacking species and you're trying to track all their abilities, hit points and initiative. Just take a moment, and breathe.

DnD is about having fun, fucking around in fantasy land with your friends. If you didn't need them to enjoy yourself, you should be writing a book. Enjoy the time with them! If they rip on your shitty accent, do a worse one. If they make a joke about an NPC, don't whip out your campaign's lore manual to 'own' them, you should join in. At the end of the day, the game is about hanging out with friends, and getting all scatterbrained or ridiculously nervous won't be fun for anyone playing.

If you really can't improvise, or are worried something game-breaking is happening, don't feel like you can't just jump out of character for a bit, and talk to your pals. "You're fucking things up, can we do this instead?", is a lovely phrase that comes straight from the bible, and some say it was meant just for these situations. You're a new player too, it's okay to pause for a bit. If you focus on the 'big picture' or your 'grand plans', your pals will have trouble keeping up, and lose interest. It's okay to not hit all the story beats on your checklist, just get em next time, your Legend of Zelda rip-off campaign can wait a few weeks.

Okay, enough about you, back to me.

I briefly mentioned before, but I decided that I'd commit to becoming a DM as a sort of quarantine project. I started reading rules, watching people play, listening to every resource I could get my hands on. I even bought some of those books that are all online digitally and wiki-ized. My girlfriend and I spend have spent entire evenings just reading the Player's Handbook, looking at the Monster Manual, and sharing tips from the Dungeon Master's Guide. I jumped on this ship way hard than a first-time player had any right to.

Now the big question is why? If I've never played before, why was it so interesting to me, and why did I want to start? I'm a fan of The Adventure Zone and vaguely aware of Critical Role, but those had nothing to do with my deep dive. I think the reason I've fallen so in love with DnD is because it's a creative outlet. One that I enjoy, and that I've never really experienced.

I don't paint, or play music a lot. I can't draw, and don't read much either. The most I write are these shitty ramblings, but DnD? As the DM, I get to write worlds, and items and lore! Create inconceivable organizations, or construct immense towers in a a second, and then throw my friends in the mix and watch them die. It's probably the nerdiest outlet I can imagine, but I feel healthier and happier having started playing.

But you know what, maybe it isn't for everyone. Maybe you hate role playing, or find the combat boring or whatever and that's fine. But this is my blog and my opinion so I am objectively right. DnD is chicken soup my nerdy ass soul.