A new game of Dungeons and Dragons is always a nerve-wracking event as a Dungeon Master. There is so much to do, especially if you want to write your own adventure. Then you have to consider your players, you never really know what they are going to do, or if the content you’ve written will be “enough”.
Well last night I embarked upon a new campaign, written in about a week, using a digital tabletop which I’d never used before (I also haven’t ran many campaigns online), with an entire party of players I didn’t know. I don’t think it’s possible to present a DM with more of a psychological or physical challenge.
And frankly it was one of the best sessions I’d ever had.
This article is an attempt to get more people into DnD online. As a DM, you invest so much time and effort that it can be hard to step out of your comfort zone, but this session reminded me why that’s important.
We used Roll20: the free virtual tabletop which provides an absolute ton of functionality and really brings you as close as you can possibly come to being around a table. The dice roller even lets you roll big 3D dice!
As the DM, I found that every little need I had was met: I could set up encounter tokens, NPCs, new maps, handouts and even track initiative on the tabletop. This allowed me to involve the players in every part of my preparation. They could see the gears in motion so the session never really stalled or lost pace when I was setting up the next encounter.
For tracking characters we used DnD Beyond. An amazing official website by Wizards Of The Coast, which basically gives you every tool and rule to set up a campaign and actually play it. The site requires an entire article of its own, but suffice it to say that as a DMs and character’s toolbox, this site has it all.
Then lastly we come to my players. I was so nervous about these guys, I’d never met any of them before, we just set up the game on a discord server I frequent before christmas then last night, there we were, confronted by a whole slew of new experiences.
As a DM, you always hope that your players are going to “get” your game, and certainly I was worried that my game style wasn’t necessarily going to be compatible with how they wanted to play. My fears turned out to be completely unfounded, as they really got their teeth into my session in a way that made the effort totally worth it!
This proves to me, that playing DnD online, with strangers is not such a daunting task as it used to be. The free tools are so good these days that you hardly feel divorced from the table. It certainly opened my eyes and I hope you give it a chance too! Especially if you can’t give up the time and effort it takes to get together with people on a particular day. As a 29 year old who works odd hours, that’s become of great concern to me in recent years, so last night’s session was almost a weight off my mind: As long as you have a computer, you can play DnD.
So you’re going be the Dungeon Master (DM) for your first game of Dungeons & Dragons? You want to leave your players breathless, panting for more and unsure if they can take another mouthful of awesomeness?
I’ve seen it before; in your head there’s a legendary adventure waiting to vomit out from every orifice in your face and splurge itself onto the page.
You want to be the best goddamn master of the dungeon to ever grace the halls of adventuring. The dramatic music starts, your pencil plunges down toward the pristine sheet of paper.
You’ve got this. It’s happening. Like the impetus of the virgin lover, you stab down that pencil-lead and besmirch the paper.
Except that at the moment of climatic pencil to paper contact you have doubt. Your hand wavers, your fingers loosen and your pencil… it’s dropped to the desk, rolling slowly off the desk.
It happens to everyone.
You all want to play Dungeons & Dragons and it’s no easy feat to draw up a gaming session to please everyone. Either you drew the short straw and you have to write the game, working like a pack mule, or you chose the role of DM as a creative outlet because you’re pretty avant-garde.
I’m going to cover some simple basics; the role of the DM, knowing your players, what to prepare, an example of an adventure setup and finally some notes on starting your first session.
So here’s how it works; here is how you turn that dripping mucus of a brain into the well-toned 80’s sword and sorcery hero.
If you don’t have a copy or cant afford the ones you need, you could try these helpful PDFs provided by Wizards of the Coast.
Before we Begin…
Let’s get a few things clear about being the Dungeon Master / Games Master (DM / GM).
The DM acts as a type of story teller and referee rolled into one. You set the scene; you give cues and clues to the players, allowing each of them a chance to act with their character. You are not their adversary, despite being all the goodies and baddies in the story you’re trying to portray. And portray is the correct word.
You are showing them the story as they interact with it, you’re not telling them what to do, but guiding them on the journey of the story you have planned. Keep that in mind.
No one wins in D&D like in conventional games. The success of a game can be measured in the enjoyment of the players and the DM. If you enjoyed telling a story and making the players creep to the edge of their seat in anticipation, then it’s a good game. If no one has fun, it probably wasn’t worth it… but we all have to start somewhere, so as DM you must bear the burden of the players’ enjoyment, initially…
Trust me, it’s worth it.
So here are several important considerations to your first time DM session. Let’s rock this Kasbah with love and violence…
Know Thy Players…
Murder Hobos shouldn’t be the default setting for a brand new party, but be prepared!
Whether you’re delving at twelve, dirty at thirty or part time retired and kicking butt, knowing your players is the best advice you can get. I’ll tell you why with an example:
We can all watch the same film at the same time and enjoy completely different parts of it. We all went to see the film together, so we kind of enjoy the idea of the film, but some liked the love story, others enjoyed the high paced violent race and a few enjoyed the antagonistic interactions between two heroes. We like the film, but we love different bits of it.
Playing Dungeons and Dragons is exactly the same.
It helps if you know what your players like about a story. You’ll find some players are more into the story than pillaging troll caves and vice versa. This is fine, just identify who likes what. When you know this much you can add extra bits in for everyone to have a little more limelight – that extra tough monster for the barbarian to squish or the helpless stable boy trying to get the attention of the serving maid next door.
The little bits can add a lot to how the players perceive the game.
How do you know who likes what? Well, start by seeing what people want to play. A barbarian will enjoy fighting; the paladin will want a noble cause of their choosing to follow; a thief well… a thief will like collecting things; and the wizard? Well those creeps have all sorts of agendas.
Get your players to generate their characters before you plan the first game. Ask them to give their characters an agenda privately to you – you can use this later.
While you’re at it, ask them some questions about their characters and make some notes. Here’s an example:
Gwen wants to play a barbarian elf. Cool. She says her character is driven by revenge. Revenge for what? Well, Gwen explains that her barbarian lost her tribe in a cataclysmic earthquake, toppling their homes into a chasm. She thinks a powerful sorcerer may be responsible.
You don’t have to use this right away. Your first game is going to be about getting the players role-playing and enjoying their first game. But never forget those simple ideas.
Notes, Maps & Preparation Time
So this is where the planning starts.
You’ve already got an idea of what your players want to be, and you have their agenda or motivation for adventuring. These are invaluable. But now you want to create something for them to play in.
The limitless sandpit that is your mind is about to get as hot as all the fires in all of hell!
First off: Don’t try and write everything down.
You’ll get easily bored and frustrated and when you come to run the game, you’ll be flicking through notes and papers and no doubt getting lost. Even if it’s all typed up, you’ll be scrolling around and pausing and losing the attention of the players. A second to get your bearings is fine, but you want them to be savoring your every word.
Secondly: no plan survives contact with the players.
No matter how hard you plan it, the players will always approach things differently to how you planned it. Read that bit again, here I’ll help:
The players will always approach things differently to how you planned it.
It’s like they know exactly how you DIDN’T think the encounter could go.
For this reason alone, you should have your encounters and notes prepared in such a way that you can flip to any of them at a moment’s notice. If you force them to make decisions that you want, they will feel railroaded and not enjoy the experience.
Go with the flow, but nudge them in the right direction. Give them choices as the session progresses, but always loop them back to the encounter you hoped they would find. I’ll give you an example:
You wanted the party to talk to the shady character in the tavern but they decided to take a trip to the sewers to kill goblins instead. No sweat – all you need to do is give them a brief combat encounter in the sewers, suggest they go back to the tavern to clean up and heal… and have that shady character waiting for them. The tavern keeper can approach the party when they order a hot bath and let them know that the gentleman in the cloak was asking about them.
So how do you plan an adventure and keep track of things?
You’ll need an adventure idea. Here’s my personal check list:
Your Antagonist and their Motivation
You can literally watch any episode of Scoobydoo and get a load of examples of this. Why did Mr Parkinson terrorize the farmers market? Well he wanted to tear it down and use the land to build expensive flats… those pesky kids got in the way!
OK, so not a great adventure, but you get the idea. Think up your unsavory enemy and give it an agenda, motivation and a name. Keep it simple. Then work on its stats, but keep them basic for now – if it’s a monster from the Monster Manual, that saves time.
The Plot Hook
Or more correctly: how to draw the players into your story as if it’s their own choice. This is tricky but manageable. That agenda you asked them for? Well you’ll need to try and weave that in.
Gwen from the previous example might start the game hearing of a powerful sorcerer passing through the town you set the game in – a boastful man who claimed to have the power to move hills and mountains. She won’t encounter him this game, but she may if you play again. Make it seem like this was a month or so ago – you don’t want Gwen stomping off into the wilds to find him right that moment.
The Number of Encounters
An encounter is any time the party come across someone other than each other in a meaningful way. Buying food is essential to the characters but isn’t meaningful to the game. It’s not really an encounter… unless the food market is filled with rumors pertinent to the adventure idea in your mind. Bumping into bandits or falling into a hidden pit in the middle of the forest is an encounter.
How many encounters do you need? That’s up to you. I only plan the important ones – the introduction, the request for help or the motivation to get involved, some clues gathering by asking right questions, then some combat encounters as they sum up the clues and wander off to get into trouble. Finally, the end encounter – where facing the bad guys and trying to thwart their plan occurs.
These are the encounters I record. You’ll need an idea of where each one is (market place, creepy old church, grotto in the forest they learned about from someone in the creepy church). You’ll also need to record any monster stats or if you’re quick, their page numbers in the Monster Manual.
It’s worth noting that having some extra encounters both combative and non-combative is always wise in case the players skip a lot of role-play encounters and accidentally get close to the end encounter too soon in the session you’re running.
What about maps? Well, in honesty, if you keep your first game simple, you don’t need maps, but they can add to the element of belief if you have one.
It doesn’t need to be a work of art. You can find tonnes online for free, or if you’re pockets are lined with digital silver you can purchase whole packs of them. Check out Dyson, his maps are awesome!
Rewards (if any)
Ha. Hahaha *snort!* Hahahahahahaha… *snort*
Yeah so keep this simple too; try two hundred gold coins each with some (uncommon) magical items (which you can find in the Dungeon Masters guide). If you’re not sure, you can generate treasure using random generators based on their character levels, try DonJon it’s pretty descriptive and gives a nice gold value to each bit!
Wrapping up – An Example
So here’s an example of the above in brief.
The party meet on the road to Ostogar, where they travel briefly with some traders who say the town is pretty pent up at the moment on account of people missing (brief information encounter).
The party travel onward to the town and are told by the guards that they won’t tolerate bad behavior on account of the missing people. If they want info, got to the Black Boar Inn, it’s the only place open at night for strangers (brief info encounter).
The Black Boar Inn is a bustling multicultural place that serves traders, where the party learn of some of the missing people. Descriptions and emotive information about how much these people were loved, or how rich they were, are common) (in depth info encounter with role-play and room for high jinks).
They are directed to Sebby, an old clairvoyant who may be able to help them find the missing people. Sebby gives them cryptic clues as to the direction and the terrain they will have to pass to find the missing people (info and role-play puzzle as they decipher the crazy old ladies words).
They find a local ranger who can direct them to where she thinks they need to go, and off they set.
Two dangerous encounters (a wondering Ogre who wants all their stuff, and a pit trap set by the kidnapper to trap more victims).
They find a grotto or dungeon at the end of their trail and venture down into it. I call this a micro-dungeon, there are several traps, 3 combat encounters and brief puzzle about how to get past a locked door and…
The final encounter – a hag who has been torturing her victims by cutting bits off them.
Treasure! Yayy… oh wait there’s a twist! They find a clue… the hag is only one of three hags, so where are the other two? And there’s your link to the next gaming session.
Don’t try to go beyond what you have planned for each game. Once you run a game or two you’ll work out your pace just like you would learn to jog. Finish where your material ends, have a chat with your players and see if they can give you any feedback – accept good and bad feedback like a star player would, it’s a good mental place to be.
But don’t bend over backwards to cater for every gripe and niggle for each player. Chances are you are doing this as a favor and would love to play once in a while.
Learning to play D&D as a player is much easier than being the DM and your players should understand this.
Starting your First Game Session
Alright, so you’ve got your story notes, you have the books with scraps of paper to bookmark the important stuff. Your dice are warmed up. You have drinks and snacks on the table and everyone has sat down to start. But what is this? One of your players is sat watching the sport on his phone!
If the game is going to work and be enjoyable, you need everyone’s attention to give this amazing game its best shot. Give your players plenty of notice that they’ll need to ignore social media for an hour or two. Give them a social media break for a bit in a nice lull in the session.
So you sit down, open your note pad or laptop.
This is it. Your imagination is about to do battle with reality. You take a second to gather your thoughts. Everyone is looking at you…
Hit them with your first line like it means something. Start this bad boy up likes it’s a chromed Harley Davidson signed by Meatloaf, discovered by a post-apocalyptic tribe 200 years from now. Go full throttle on those natives and let them have it! But how do you do this?
I’ll tell you how!
Have your first line practiced. Get everyone settled in; all rules checked up with no more questions left to be asked. Absolutely don… Dave! Put your bloody phone away!
Depending on the type of story you’re showing the players will determine your first line, to a degree. For me, I sometimes start my party in peril.
But for your first adventure, you want to set the tone like any good author would. There are tonnes of this information on the net, but I’ll give you my opinion.
Which sounds better?
“OK, so you’re sat in a busy tavern when someone walks up to your table and says they need to talk to you in private…”
“It is night time in autumnal Ostogar, the town of bones. The Black Boar tavern is in full swing and the patrons, a colorful plethora of cultures and races sing and drink together, enjoying the sanctuary of warmth from the bitter cold outside. In the midst of the crowd, two cloaked figures catch your eye. They seem to be trying to get your attention without raising their voice over the merry din. What do you do?”
OK so maybe I’ve embellished a little bit here and there. But the idea is pretty obvious. Even if you don’t maintain this level of detail all the way through your game session, you still got everyone drawn in from the very start. The players will already be thinking along the same lines and wondering what is going to happen.
My example is pretty vanilla here, but that’s OK for an example. I’ll write a blog on great opening descriptions. another time.
So there you have them; things to consider when you’re about to become the DM. It can apply to any table top game where players’ role-play with you and each other.
Go forth and smack their pretty faces with a fist full of plot!
You can thank me in the comments… right?
In the next installment I will cover slightly more advanced topics: