Setting out to run a game of Dungeons and Dragons for the first time is a daunting task. It’s really difficult to know where to even begin!
With this and future guides, I hope to add another set of tools to make this craft more accessible for all kinds of people.
I’ll be focusing largely on what I know as a Dungeon Master in these guides. You’ll find that everybody has a drastically different style, and that’s a good thing. This isn’t the one and only way to do things, it’s just how I do things. Hopefully it can help you build a good foundation to find your own way!
If you’re here, though, you’re probably nervous about running your first session as a Dungeon Master.
Hopefully these tips can help you overcome those nerves and get started on the right foot!
Holding a Session Zero
I’ve watched the community go back and forth on the merits of a “session zero”. This is a meeting where everybody gets together to discuss what they expect from the campaign. This might be when everybody rolls characters, too, if you’re a group that enjoys doing that together.
Session zero gives you a chance to get a feel for what players are looking for from your campaign. It’s a good time to be trying to figure out if you need to building a world brimming with political intrigue and social challenges, or a classic dungeon-diving hack and slash.
It’s okay to have a preference as your own as the Dungeon Master! Maybe you only really run one kind of game, or you’re bringing a specific campaign you’ve been working on. This is the time to be up front with players about what to expect, in this case.
It’s important to have this conversation first to make sure the group is a good fit. Having a group that meshes well and has their expectations aligned with what the game will be offering is a crucial element of a successful game.
Session zero is a chance to check in and make sure you’re on the right track!
Adventure Book or Homebrew?
I have heard it recommended, commonly, that new Dungeon Masters should start with pre-made adventures. I have never run one in my life, but I believe that there is a lot of merit to that.
Among good recommendations for a first adventure, I’ve heard great things about The Lost Mines of Phandelver for both starting players and Dungeon Masters. If you’re a fan of The Adventure Zone, this is the scenario they started playing in before Griffin took the campaign his own direction.
If you choose to go that route, I’ll be honest – I’m just not the guy you want to listen to. There are probably plenty of people out there with good experience running from these pre-made adventures, your time is better spent there.
Interested in making your own worlds and adventures, though? Read on!
It Starts in a Town
When you’re looking at building a world from the ground up, it can be extremely intimidating.
If you tried to have your entire setting fleshed out for the first session, you’re going to drive yourself insane with the amount of work it would take. It’s not worth the effort, either, because you’re forgetting something important: in pretty much every case, your campaign should be starting very small.
All you need, at first, is the immediate area the heroes are in. All you need is a starting town.
Knowing this narrows the scope significantly on what you need to prepare for. A few non-player characters (NPCs) to fill out the town’s populace, perhaps a nearby dungeon you will try to steer the party towards – it doesn’t take many details to begin to fill out a world.
Want to know more about making NPCs? No sweat, I’ll cover that in much more detail in a separate guide!
A party doesn’t tend to move until they are nudged.
If you don’t have adventure hooks, be prepared to role-play an entire session of drinking and debauching in a tavern. Situations like this rarely end in anything but frustration for most people involved.
The Dungeon Master needs to give reasons for the heroes to be all heroic. An adventure hook most often takes the form of a person in town asking for help, such as the classic “Blacksmith’s daughter got kidnapped” hook, though this is far from the only way to hook a party.
You could have them stumble upon the scene of a raided caravan, for instance, and track the culprits back to their hide-out. You could have them receive a menacing letter and have to discover who sent it. This is just a couple examples, the only limit is your creativity!
For a first session, it might be easier on you to prepare just one adventure hook.
What makes a good adventure hook? That’s a complicated question, but there are a few qualities I can list that are helpful to consider:
- Do the heroes have a good reason to pursue the adventure? It helps here to know what motivates your players. Do you need to offer an emotional buy-in for their characters to get invested, or are they looking for some cold hard cash up front?
- Can you weave it in naturally? You don’t want your players to feel like they’re playing a video game, after all. Having an NPC approach them out of nowhere and offer a quest might not be the best angle. Perhaps have a bar fight break out, after which a bystander notices how well the party held their own and offers them a job.
- Are the goals clear? It’s important that you give the party a good idea of what steps they could take to pursue the hook further. The party is free to pursue any approach they like, but giving them definitive leads at the very least will save you a lot of headache down the line.
Making a Dungeon
I’ll surely be going into much more detail about how I create my dungeons in a future guide, but for now this doesn’t have to be anything fancy!
A “dungeon” is something of a loose term these days. When I say dungeon, what I mean is any contained set of encounters and challenges with some kind of goal at the end.
I’ve made my fair share of vast underground labyrinth-style dungeons, full of different turns and hidden rooms and traps and the like. But I’ve also made open areas such as ancient abandoned cities into dungeons. The players may not have been much the wiser, due to the way the environments were described, but both were built on the same skeleton.
So what do you need for a dungeon for a first session?
Well, a dungeon should have a few encounters. What kind of monsters live in this dungeon? Is it an old abandoned warehouse that has become infested with undead? Is it a murky cave that has been converted into a bandit hideout? Pick a theme and build encounters around that.
Encounters don’t have to only involve combat! You could include some kind of puzzle the players have to solve, or add a few traps the players could fall victim to. Be creative when coming up with challenges the party will face in your dungeons to avoid them all feeling like combat slogs.
Spread these encounters through some rooms, and you have a dungeon!
It really is, at the most base elements, as simple as creating a series of challenges and arranging them in rooms so the party has to move through them in order. You could make that order a straight line, or you could include branching paths to give players more choices and make the world feel more detailed.
The Boss Encounter
At the end of this line of challenges, it’s fun to design a boss encounter of some kind. This will usually be a strong monster who is the leader of whatever group you’ve been fighting in the dungeon, but it doesn’t have to even be a fight. The final encounter of the dungeon could be a non-combat challenge!
For a first time, you probably want to keep it simple though. For most low level monster types, you can find a monster who is a “boss” type for them. The Goblin Boss and the Bandit Chief are a few obvious examples, but there are many others.
When designing a boss fight, give them a few minion monsters or be prepared to watch the party wipe the floor with them in record time. Without a few monsters to slow the heroes down, they can quickly overwhelm a single foe in 5e Dungeons and Dragons. This has to do with the way advantages in the number of actions each side can take in combat (called the action economy) play out; the side with more actions is at a significant advantage. Remember this when designing all your encounters; even a weak monster in large numbers can become quite deadly!
Realistically, a single town and a single dungeon is likely to actually last you a few sessions of play time.
This can give you some breathing room to develop your world more.
The way I prefer to do this is by building out as I go. I let player backstories inform details of my world, weaving them into the overall tapestry. I think it’s a nice touch to have every player that passes through my world leave a little mark in the form of their contribution here.
Sometimes during a session something might come up where you are forced to come up with a world detail you hadn’t prepared. Keep detailed session notes to fold new elements into your world between sessions.
You can just keep building out from there!
You’ve started in a town, sure. What does the region around that town look like, now? What do the nearby major governments look like? You can start fleshing out the larger politics of the world from here, perhaps even naming large kingdoms or empires near the town you are in.
As you build the world outward, you can bring this new information into future sessions. Everything builds on itself. Now you know that this town is governed by a local kingdom, and this session tensions in town are high as the tax collectors are coming through.
I won’t claim it takes no time at all. Building a whole world for your players from the ground up is a huge undertaking, and definitely a labor of love. You don’t have to do it all at once, though, and you don’t have to do it alone – your players can help!
Little by little you build, until someday you’ll find yourself with a world full of well-fleshed out cities and stories about ancient heroes and complex politics and major recurring NPCs and a pantheon of gods and all kinds of incredible depth and detail.
I can tell you from experience that it works! Just keep going, one step at a time.