Maybe you have been playing Dungeons & Dragons for years, collecting story ideas and lore to weave into your own epic plot. Or perhaps you have only watched Critical Role or other D&D live shows and are looking to start your own game for the very first time.
Whether you are a veteran player turned Dungeon Master, or a brand new convert, being the DM is a hugely important part of the game and so much fun! A good DM is hard to come by and the thought of leading the night can be a bit nerve racking. If you are thinking about running your first game, you will find everything you need to know right here!
What’s Necessary and What’s Not
First of all, let’s start with what you will absolutely need. This is the bare minimum to be able to play the game. If you are able to make some purchases, then you will need:
- A Player’s Handbook $49.99 (at local game shops)– This book contains all the rules for players, equipment, weapons, and combat rules. This is absolutely necessary for you to at least have access to these rules if you need to look something up.
- A Dungeon Master’s Guide $49.99 (at local game shop)-This book contains monsters, information on creating NPCs and settlements, how to create campaigns and other useful information for running your game. It is absolutely necessary.
- A couple sets of dice– You can get away with just one set of dice, but plastic dice are cheap, and you will often have to roll multiple dice, so it becomes much easier to have multiple sets. Also, you will want to have some extra sets on hand for when a player forgets to bring their own.
- A DM Screen- This doesn’t need to be anything fancy, even a box will do, you just need something to hide your notes and dice rolls from your party. A computer works just as well if you are looking at rules and rolling dice online.
If you cannot spend any money and are looking to start for free, then you will want to bookmark the following websites:
- Basic Rules- This is a free release from Wizards of the Coast that contains all the basic rules for playing. This does not have all the rules or in depth explanations you will get with the purchase of the book, but it is a great place to start. https://media.wizards.com/2018/dnd/downloads/DnD_BasicRules_2018.pdf
- For free dice, just Google “Roll Dice” and Google will provide you with dice. You can add however many dice you need and you can even add a modifier! Heck, it even adds it all up for you! No more panic math!
Although you only need these few things to get started, you will find it difficult to be a proficient DM with just these tools. As you can, I would highly recommend picking up the following:
- Published Adventures– I would really recommend starting here. Although they are more money up front, running a published adventure for your first campaign will take a lot of stress off of you! There are a lot of adventures to choose from, so you are certain to find something your party will enjoy. I recommend The Curse of Strahd and the Waterdeep adventures to start. (Find all the published adventures with summaries, reviews and links to purchase on my DM Must Haves page)
- A battle map– This is a dry/wet erase grid map that allows you to draw out battle scenarios, giving players a clear idea of what is happening. (see example here)
- Miniatures- These can be expensive, buy them as you need them and you will gradually acquire an extensive collection. Buy them unpainted and paint them yourself to make this cheaper. I have lots of tips and tutorials for how to do that, check them out!
- A Notebook– You will want a good quality notebook to keep notes on players, plot and NPCs
- Resource Books– Although you only NEED two books, there are a large selection of extra resource books available. These are useful as they have more monster, race, class and environment options for you to choose from. I would recommend picking up The Monster Manual, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, and Xanthar’s Guide to Everything, in that order. (You can see my full review of each resource on my DM Must Haves page.)
- Spell Cards– Spells can be really difficult to remember and track, you will likely have to look up a spell nearly every time it is used, useless it is a common “go-to” spell for your players. Spell cards make this easy as you can pull all the spells your party knows and have them on hand for quick reference. They are much easier to use than the Handbook during combat.
If you are looking to buy my recommended tools, check out my DM Must Have Page.
Your Responsibilities vs. Player Responsibilities
Next, you need to understand what your responsibilities are as a Dungeon Master. As the DM, you are responsible for:
- Knowing the rules– This is the main reason you are here! You are the keeper of the rules. You need to know them! Not all of them, that is nearly impossible, but your should have a basic understanding of how the game works so you can make decisions on the fly.
- Making Fair and Unbiased Decisions- You can have a favorite player, we all do, but the table shouldn’t be able to tell who it is. Everyone is trusting you to be fair with all your decisions, so don’t play favorites and don’t be spiteful.
- Making Your Players Feel Awesome: You should be your players biggest fan. You should want to create scenes and encounters which allow each player to shine. You should not be so focused on “your story” that you forget this game is about the players. Your biggest goal should be to have your players leave every session feeling like heroes.
- Provide a Collective Story: You know where the story will end, but you should have no idea how the players will get there. And that is okay. As a matter of fact, that is great! Your job is to be the facilitator of the collective story. Let your players decide their own path and simply provide them with opportunities.
- Describe, Describe, DESCRIBE: This is your greatest responsibility as a Dungeon Master. You are the eyes and ears of the group. It is up to you to feed the collective imagination with sensory details that paint a complete picture. This game is mostly played in the “Theater of the Mind,” except for miniatures and battle maps, there is very little the players can physically interact with, which is why your role as storyteller is so vitally important. It is the only connection your players have to the world, sever that connection and the game simply isn’t fun.
If you need some help learning how to describe in a way that keeps your players engaged, you can see my a full guide to awesome descriptions.
These are the things you are responsible for, however, your players also have a responsibility to the game, and you need to be sure to clearly communicate your expectations. You players should:
- Be Respectful- both to you and to other players. This means no arguing or pouting.
- Be On Time- You put a lot of time and effort into putting everything together, your players should be on time to the session.
- Know Their Characters– Your players are responsible for knowing what their character can and cannot do, as well as understanding race and class abilities. Everyone makes mistakes, but your players should know how to play their own characters without being reminded constantly.
- Know Their Spells– You are not responsible for constantly checking to make sure the players are using spells correctly. They should know how their spells work and should be using them correctly. Of course, you should have quick access to the spell to check if something doesn’t sound right, but it is not your job to tell your players how spells work.
- Pay Attention– Players should not be distracted during the game. They should come ready to pay attention and participate.
If you find you are having difficulties keeping your group engaged, check out these helpful articles:
Understanding Basic Rules
While there are a mind blogging amount of rules in Dungeons & Dragons, from underwater combat to survival, there are really only a few you need to have memorized. Make sure to keep this up and handy during your game for a quick reference! Trust me, you will need it.
When to Roll
Rolling the dice is an integral part of D&D, but many new DMs either have players roll way too much, or not at all. Here is a quick reference on when you should have players roll in D&D. If you want full details and explanations of why, check out my Ultimate Guide on When to Roll.
|Dice to Roll
|Start of combat
|Initiative- determines what order players and monsters take turns in combat
|1d20 + dex
|Attack- determines whether or not the attack hits the enemy
Damage- When an attack hits, roll for how much damage the attack does
Saving Throw– To avoid a negative outcome, such as a triggered trap
|1d20 + attack modifier
Dice depends on weapon. See page149 of the Player’s Handbook
1d20 + skill modifier (such as dex, depending on the situation)
|Outside of Combat: When a player wants to do something that is not obviously simple to accomplish
|Ability Check– You can see the full list of all ability checks and when to ask for them below.
It is important to note that you don’t have to ask for an ability check every time players want to do anything. Simple actions, such as looking in a shop window or picking up a barrel, do not require a roll.
|1d20 + skill modifier
|Playing the odds
|Percentile Roll- When you want to determine how often something will occur, roll for something random, or if an NPC or player is stuck between two decisions and isn’t sure which they would take, you roll a percentile dice, also called a d100. Before you roll, choose a range of numbers or a percentage range. For example, if players would have a 30% chance of getting pickpocketed in a big city, you would roll a d100 and if the roll is between 1-30, they are pickpocketed, if it is over 30, they are not.
Basic Combat Rules
It is important that you understand the basic rules of combat so that your encounters can go smoothly. Combat is the longest part of the game, a single encounter can take hours even when do well. A poorly run combat can last much too long and become tedious. Here are the basic rules you need to understand.
As mentioned above, initiative is the order in which players and monsters take turns during combat.
I roll initiative as soon as I determine that combat is the only possible outcome to a situation. If players are sneaking around a monster or trying to persuade, I do not go into initiative. As soon as I am sure there is no other option, I stop everything and have players roll initiative.
Now, as soon as players realize they are about to enter battle, they are going to want to try and sneak in actions, such as casting mage armor or drawing a weapon. If they have no thought to do this before I ask for initiative, I do not let them take any actions until their turn. This just makes things easier.
Turns During Combat
When in the initiative order, players must take turns. Players are only allowed to do actions during their turn. Each turn of combat counts for 6 seconds of in game time. During each turn players can do 3 things, take an action, move, take a bonus action, as outlined in the chart below:
|Per Turn of Combat Players Can:
|Take 1 of the following Actions
|Move: up to their base speed
|Movement can be broken up however the players want, they just cannot move more than their total base speed in one round. (Most often 30 feet) Players can also choose not to move or to move less than their base speed.
|Take 1 Bonus Action
Note: a bonus action can be taken before the action.
Attacks of Opportunity
During combat, a player or monster is considered engaged with an enemy while within 5 feet of them. If either of them attempts to move away without taking the “disengage” action, then the other get an attack of opportunity. This is essentially a free attack that does not have to be on the player’s or monster’s turn.
For example, if a player is fighting an orc and want to run to a fallen friend, as soon as they move away from the orc, the orc can make an attack of opportunity. This works just like a normal attack.
Some spells and attacks have chance to knock creatures prone. This means they have fallen over on the ground. The follow rules apply to a prone creature:
- Melee attacks against the prone creature have advantage
- Ranged attacks against the prone creature have disadvantage
- To stand back up, the prone creature must use half its movement
If a creature or player hides behind an object or is partially blocked by something, then that creature has cover. The amount of cover depends on how much of the creature is hidden. A small creature hiding behind a rock would have ¾ cover, while a large creature hiding behind the same rock would only have ½ cover.
You can choose from two options when using cover.
- If a creature has any kind of cover, you can give the attacker disadvantage on attack rolls. This is the easy option.
- If a creature has ½ cover, they receive +3 to their armor class, if ¾ cover, they receive +5 to their armor class (AC), thus making them harder to hit.
Critical Hits and Failures
Perhaps the most fun of the game, critical hits and failures allow you to have some fun. During combat, a critical hit (rolling a 20 on the dice, also called a “natural 20”) doubles the attack damage on that hit. Either have the player roll double the dice, or simply double the number they roll. (I like to roll double the dice because the sound is satisfying.) NOTE: This does not apply to modifiers! ONLY DOUBLE THE DICE.
A critical failure, rolling a 1, also called a “natural 1”, on the twenty sided dice results in something very bad happening. Some common results of a natural 1 are:
|Roll a d20 for a random effect:
|Hit another player by mistake (if one is nearby)
|Weapon becomes stuck
|Stumble and fall prone
Dropping Below 0 Hit Points
If you have a player who gets in over his/her head, it is possible they could drop to 0 hit points. If they do, follow the rules below depending on the situation:
|If a creature Drops to 0 hit points:
|If a player character (PC) or creature takes damage equal to 2x their maximum number of hit points in one attack, that creature instantly dies.
Example: A PC has a maximum hit points of 21. A Dragon’s attack hits her dealing 42 points of damage, she is instantly dead. She rolls no death saves and cannot be stabilized or healed. It does not matter if this attack happens while she has 21 hit points or while she has 5 hit points. This rule is entirely based on the maximum hit points.
|Other than the scenario above, when a player reaches 0 hit points, they fall unconscious and must spend their turn rolling Death Saving Throws. They cannot do anything else.
|Death Saving Throws
|After falling unconscious, players must make a Death Saving Throw on each of their turns until they are stabilized or healed.
To make a death saving throw, have the player roll a 20 sided dice. If the number is 10-20, it is a success. If the number is 9-1 it is a failure. Continue to do this on the player’s turn until the player gets 3 failures and dies, or 3 successes and stabilizes, whichever comes first.
|Stabilizing a Creature
|A creature can be “stabilized” (no longer in danger of dying) in two ways:
Once stabilized the player is still unconscious until they regain hit points, but they are no longer in danger of death.
|Regaining Hit Points
|An unconscious player regains consciousness when they are healed at least 1 hit point. This can be accomplished by spells, healing potions, or rest.
Basic Rules Outside of Combat
Ability Checks (The most used mechanic of the game)
When a player asks if they can perform an action, such as climbing a tree or sneaking past a guard, you will want them to roll an ability check. This determines the level of success or failure the player achieves. For example, if a player asks to climb a tree, you would ask them to roll an “athletics check.” The player will then roll a d20 and add their athletics modifier (found in the “Skills” section of the Player Character Sheet). You will determine how difficult it will be to succeed, this is called a DC (discussed in detail below). If the player rolls the DC or above, they succeed, if they roll below the DC, they fail.
To know which ability check to ask for depends on what the player wants to do. Use this helpful chart to determine which ability check would fit the best!
|When to Ask for Them
|General check of the PC’s brute strength to accomplish an action, such as breaking down a door or lifting something heavy
|A general check of how nimble a PC is
|A general check for how well a PC can hold something down, like liquor, spoiled food, or tolerate a foul stench without retching
|A general check for if a PC is smart enough to understand something
|A general check for if the PC has the common sense to do or NOT do something
|A general check for how likeable a PC is
|Use if a PC wants to do graceful flips or balance on a narrow ledge
|Animal Handling (Wis)
|Taming/interacting with animals, riding or calming a frightened animal
|The ability to understand how magic works, such as seals, magical traps, or magic ruins
|Jumping, leaping, landing or any other movement that is powerful but not necessarily graceful (which would be acrobatics)
|Lying, avoiding questions, trying to be misleading in any way
|Knowledge of historical events, people and lores
|Telling if a person is lying or being earnest and sincere. Understanding motivations of others or knowing when something is “off”
|Trying to threaten or scare someone
|Carefully and thoroughly searching a person or place. This takes time, setting it apart from “perception” below.
|Knowing what causes an illness or what condition a wounded person is in and how to best help them
|Textbook knowledge of nature, names of plants and animals, where they are located, what plants can be used for medicine and which are poisonous
|Noticing things in passing. This is a quick glance or pass over, unlike investigation above
|Putting on a show or trying to get attention. Can be used for a wide variety of actions, such as playing a song, telling a story, making a scene to distract guards, etc.
|Trying to convince others to do what the PC wants. This can be negotiating with an NPC on prices, bribing a guard, begging for mercy, or any other act where the PC is trying to get another to change their mind.
|Textbook Knowledge of the gods, their lore, and followers. This does not mean the PC is a follower of a god, it just means they have learned about them.
|Sleight of Hand (Dex)
|Stealing, pickpocketing, or placing an item without anyone noticing.
|Moving or hiding without being detected, sneaking
|Practical knowledge of an environment, be it the forest or a big city. Knowing where to step in a swamp, knowing where to find food and water, knowing which areas of a city to avoid. Anything a PC would practically need to know to survive in an area.
Many spells, diseases, and effects will have the players roll a “Saving Throw” to try to avoid them. If a spell requires a saving throw, it will specifically state such and give you a DC. If the players accidentally set off a trap or fall, you should have them roll a saving throw to attempt to avoid damage. Use the chart below for a quick reference on when to use which saving throw:
|Situation or Reason
|When players are pushed or hit with a force they are trying to resist. Examples could be strong wind, waves, being pulled by a crowd,etc.
|Use when players are trying to dodge out of the way of danger, such as avoiding a triggered trap, or when trying to minimize damage, like landing on their feet after falling off a bucking horse.
|Use when players are trying to either hold down something gross or toxic (think alcohol or a nasty meal) or when they have eaten or interacted with something poisonous or potentially deadly, such as eating poisonous mushrooms or being exposed to a disease.
|Used to resist spells
|Used to resist spells
|Used to resist spells
Difficulty Class (aka DC)
When players roll and ability check or saving throw they are rolling against a Difficulty Class, or DC. If the players roll a number equal to or greater than the DC, they succeed. If they roll a number less than the DC, they fail.
Spell save DCs will be listed, but you will often need to come up with your own DCs for ability checks and strength, dexterity and Constitution saving throws. This seems tricky, but it is easy if you use this chart:
|Difficulty Level of Action
|Very easy to do
|Easy to do
|Manageable for a skilled person
|Difficult to do
|Very Very Difficult
Resting and Hit Dice
After combat, it is likely that your players are going to look to rest up and recover hit points and spell slots. There are two types of rest in D&D, short rest and long rest.
- Short Rest- Lasts for one hour. Some classes regain their spell slots after a short rest. Players can choose to use some of their hit dice to heal up during this time. IF they do this, they will not have those hit dice available when they take a long rest.
- Long Rest- Takes 8 hours. Some classes only regain their spell slots and abilities after a long rest.
Important Pages to Remember
While there are other rules that will come up during a session, these are the most common and most used rules that you will need to know. Make sure to have your copy of The Players Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide nearby in case you need to look something up. I recommend having the following pages bookmarked:
|Player’s Handbook page
|Adventuring Gear/Item List
|Potion of healing
|Mounts, food, and lodging prices
|Movement, travel time/pace
|Vision and Light (visibility, darkvision)
|Dungeon Master’s Guide page
|Wilderness features and survival
|Creating Settlements, Random buildings
|Conversation reactions with DCs
|Diseases and Poisons
Common DM Mistakes to Avoid
Now that you have a basic idea of which rules to focus on and where to find useful information in the rules books, let’s talk about some common mistakes new and veteran DM’s alike often make:
Running Your Own Adventure Right Away
)ften, new DMs want to run their own adventure for their first campaign. I do NOT recommend this. Unless you are a seasoned player who already knows the rules and flow of D&D, you will have a very difficult time creating a balanced campaign your first time.
I recommend you run a published adventure first to both decrease your stress level and give you a good idea of how a great story is told. Published adventures will have encounters planned out for you, giving you an idea of how to structure your own encounters, and give you descriptions of areas to help you paint the picture for your players. These published adventures will train you in Dungeon Mastering, and they are a great place to start!
I have listed all the published adventures on my DM Must Have page, along with summaries and review as well as links on where you can purchase them online. But I do ask that you stop by your local game shop before you buy online. #SupportLocal!
Not Being Prepared
This is a mistake all DMs are capable of, no matter how long they have been playing. Whether you are running a published campaign or your own creation, you need to prepare for the session! This means having the following:
- A list of random NPC names and descriptions
- A list of taverns and shops
- A list of possible encounters
- If running a published encounter, make sure you have READ IT IN ADVANCE *I hate that I have to actually say that..
- If you are running your own creation, make sure you have ACTUALLY PLANNED SOMETHING.
Just having these few things will help your game run smoothly and quickly, decreasing the awkward silence as you try to figure out what to do.
If this sounds daunting to you, don’t worry! I have created a 1 Hour DM Prep Binder that you can have for FREE. Just sign up for our DM League and I will send it to your email! Sign up below:
Not Knowing What Your Players Can Handle
I myself have been guilty of this one. You need to have a good understanding of what your party can handle at what level. You can’t just go through the Monster Manual, pick out some cool looking monsters and throw them at your party. *guilty*
How much your party can handle depends entirely on your party’s make-up and how well rested or worn down they are when they get to an encounter.
Remember, just because you have something planned, doesn’t mean you need to use it right then. If you have miscalculated an encounter correct in the moment, don’t make your player pay for your mistake. If you don’t have any idea how to tell how much your party can handle, I have the perfect step by step guide for you. Check out my article, Building Balanced Encounters and follow the steps to create well-balanced and fun encounters at any level!
Not Managing Your Group Well
As the DM, you manage the group. This means if someone is being distracting, mean or overbearing, you have to handle it. This can be intimidating to many, but for the health and longevity of the group, you have to do. Have one on one conversations with difficult party members, and be sure to set clear expectations before you begin the campaign, which we outlined above in the player’s responsibility section.
If you are having trouble with this, or want to prevent problems from occurring, be sure to check out my article on 10 Reasons Your Sessions Keep Falling Flat.
Not Asking for Feedback
No matter what skill you are trying to improve, you need feedback. You need to be open to it and you need to ask for it. DMs tend to be bad about this, especially veteran DMs. If you want to continually get better at DMing, you need to ask your players for feedback.
This can be difficult, as most players don’t want to hurt your feelings by giving criticism. To get honest answers, you will need to do more than just ask, “Was that okay?” at the end of every session. That’s why I made these “Exit Slips.” At the end of every night, have your players anonymously fill out an exit slip and put it in a bowl or box. Then you can read them later and see what everyone’s favorite and least favorite part of the night was. These will give you quality feedback without any awkwardness.
Feel free to download and print it here!
Not Forcing Connections between the Party
Many first time DMs don’t want to put too many requirements on their players for fear of looking overbearing. However, if you allow the party to be comprised of a bunch of individuals who don’t know each other, have completely different backstories, and have no interest in staying together, your campaign will be a nightmare. You will spend several sessions just trying to bring everyone together and once you finally manage to do so, you will spend the rest of the campaign trying to keep them together!
I recommend this simple trick for your first campaign. Have everyone sit around the table, then instruct everyone to talk with the person on their left and come up with a reason why their characters know one another. Now everyone has two connections to the group, making your life a whole heck of a lot easier!
Tips for Becoming a Dungeon Improv Master
- Let the Dice Decide
Don’t shoot down player ideas, let the dice decide if something will work or not. Let them try the crazy idea, they usually lead to more enjoyment than your original plan would have anyway. Don’t be a stick in the mud, let players do what they want and let the dice decide what works and what doesn’t.
- Just Roll with It– The most important rule to dungeon improv is “The Rule of Cool.” If your player asks to do something that would be really impressive or cool, let them do it! Give them advantage on the roll or don’t even have them roll, just let them succeed. Of course, you need to do this in moderation, but, overall, the rule of cool states that if it is awesome, it should be allowed.
- Pay Attention! Notice what your players are doing and saying. Notice what makes them excited and add more of it, pay attention to when they are nodding off and change gears. Paying attention to your players intentions and desires will go a long way in creating engaging scenes!
- Know character backgrounds and use them- If you have a player that knows Thieves Cant, throw it in randomly. You don’t even need to have a plan, you can come up with one later, just have the player keep noticing random phrases in Thieves Cant around the city. If you have a player with a criminal background, have wanted pictures posted around the city and watch them panic trying to tear them all down. Just knowing what motivates or frightens your players will give you options as you improvise situations.
- People Watch- It can be really difficult to come up with NPCs on the spot. However, if you pay attention to people around you on a daily basis, this will be much easier. Listen to how people talk. Pick up on ticks and quarks you think are fun and write them in your notebook. This will give you limitless ideas for NPC personalities that you can use on the spot!
- Be Ok with Not Knowing– The art of dungeon improv is to be completely ok not knowing what the heck is going on. Just keep smiling, agreeing and throwing out hooks your players may or may not bite at. And know that whether they do or don’t, they are going to have a great time!
You are about to embark on an amazingly satisfying, frustrating, and exhausting journey. You will have incredible sessions and mediocre sessions. Remember to think long term. Not every session will be amazing, but there will be something amazing in every session.
Keep focused on the overall goal of creating an epic adventure with friends, and you are sure to succeed, Dungeon Master!
We need more DMs like you in the world. That’s why we are here. So be sure to check out more tips and tricks to keep your games rolling!
Until next time,
May your game have advantage, my friends!