You’ve taken the plunge. You’ve got a Player’s Handbook and you’ve got a set of dice, maybe two (it’s hard to make a decision on those things sometimes). You’ve probably sat down and played half a dozen sessions or so. And whether that experience was good or bad, it’s moved you to get behind the divider and actually try to run a Dungeons & Dragons game. There’s an understandable amount of concern when you sit in the big chair. But you’re not alone. Let’s get you ready, Game Master.
Start From Zero
We’ll operate on the premise that you’ve talked to some folks, either at your regular table or during lunch at work or something. You’ve got enough of them interested that they want to play. You set a time and place to meet up. And…you talk a bit. This is referred to as “session zero.” It’s become a more common practice, particularly with random people who don’t know each other very well. It’s intended to stake out boundaries about what sort of gaming experience one is looking for and what they’re trying to avoid. This will also likely involve having a frank conversation between player and GM about things like phobias and other sensitive topics. Take notes on what is cool and what is not cool, keep it in mind, and keep the notes handy. Ideally, this will be happening with everybody present at the same place, and it should probably be separate from the actual game. Occasionally, somebody may join your group later, and they’ll need to get their own session zero briefing at that time, along with you updating the group about the new guy’s limits. Depending on the players, a GM is likely to be balancing a number of factors in their game, and some of them might be mutually contradictory. The trick is getting the players to buy into the fact that there may be moments which aren’t necessarily their cup of tea (a player who doesn’t enjoy combat encounters getting into a big fight, for example) but which may lead to something they are more interested in.
Session Zero also serves a purpose as a way to brief the players what your plans are as GM. Yes, you’re going to be doing a lot of adjudicating rules questions and making judgment calls on dice rolls, but you’re the person running the show. It’s OK to have limited objectives at the start. If you’re just starting out, shooting for a grand sweeping epic of your creation is a really good way to frustrate yourself and your players. For your first few sessions in the big chair, run one-shots and let the players know this is going to be limited to start. It’s all right to admit that you’re new to being GM and ask them for a little patience. Get that first one-shot under your belt, see how you feel, see how your players feel, and build off that. At the same time, make it clear that you’re likely going to make mistakes. Things will get messy. This is not Critical Role and you’re not Matt Mercer (unless you are Matt Mercer; in which case, howdy!). People who are expecting a super-polished amazing tabletop experience need to have their expectations revised in light of your newly minted status as GM.
Tools Of The Trade
If you’re going to be running a D&D game, you should already have one-third of the necessary books, the Player’s Handbook (since that has all the basic rules). As GM, you’ll need the Monster Manual (for finding critters and people to throw at your players), and you’ll need the Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG). The DMG is less about rules and more information about how best to handle the rules, along with information about various types of treasure, variant rules for those more grandiose games later on down the road, and other tips. The 5th Edition of the DMG is by no means exhaustive. It’s enough to get new GMs/DMs started up, but there’s definitely going to be questions which pop up and information you might want but isn’t available. Some of this information is out there, though it may not always be “official” out of Wizards of The Coast, so carefully research it before introducing it into your games. Other times, you may have to do the coolest and most dangerous thing a GM can do: improvise. Improvising is a good way to establish something which isn’t covered in the official rules. Just try to keep your changes small and simple.
Beyond the three core rulebooks, it’s probably worth it to pick up at least one of the two big “Everything” guides, if you can swing it. Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything gives more character creation options as well expanded tips and tricks to help make your sessions run smoother. If, however, you’re currently pinched for funds, you can limit what players start with to just the information in the PHB. It may irk some players, especially if they have one of the “Everything” books or they’re trying to pull stuff off WoTC’s “Unearthed Arcana” playtest site, but it’s important to establish that this limit is for your benefit as GM. You’re trying to keep it simple before you get more complex, and good players will accept this in the hope that you’ll get comfortable quickly and start exploring more of the content later.
If you’re running one-shots, well, you’re going to need adventure modules. When starting out, try to avoid modules that state they’re meant to take characters from a certain x level to an x+y level. Wizards of The Coast has already put out a few adventure collections (Tales From The Yawning Portal, Keys From The Golden Vault, and Candlekeep Adventures) which have adventures designed for a single level. As one-shots, they’re a good starting point, both from your perspective as a GM and from the perspective of players. You don’t have to worry about coherent narratives beyond the confines of the adventure, no worrying about “down time” for characters who need to train, just grab and go.
Finally, you will probably need maps for moving through dungeons and fighting monsters, and likely miniatures or cardboard “pawns” for moving around on said maps. Maps in D&D are generally built off one inch squares, with each square at the “tactical” level representing five feet. Most adventure modules will have a map for certain vital areas, but it’s usually more for your reference than an actual playable map. There are three ways to go about this. The first is to buy dungeon tiles. These are pre-printed full color cardboard sections of map which you can place in a number of configurations. The downside to these is that you may not be able to recreate certain maps with perfect fidelity, as they’re a generic solution for your own design rather than fitting to existing adventure modules. Second, you can buy a battle mat. These are soft vinyl maps which have empty grids printed on them (usually squares on one side, hexes on the other). With a wet-erase marker or two, you can easily “fill in” the map as the players are exploring, then wipe it clean for the next session. It’s an expense, but one that can last a good long while if you take care of it properly. Finally, you can go the “classic” route of using graph paper, either standard quarter-inch or one inch grids. It’s a bit more tedious, but a graph paper notebook is cheaper than either of the previous options, and you’ll have those maps available if you decide to run those adventures again.
The Call To Adventure
Let’s take stock for a moment. Players? Check. Adventures? Check. Maps and minis? Check. For the moment, we’ll operate on the premise that the players are congregating at somebody’s home (might be yours, might be somebody else’s). At this point, you’ve got everything lined up. Schedule a time for the actual game (as opposed to Session Zero), sit everybody down, and kick things off.
As GM, your role is one of facilitator and arbitrator. You show players the door they have to go through, but it’s the players that have to step through. Running one-shots, this isn’t much of a problem. The scenario precludes a lot of the aimless wandering that some groups endure because you’ve given them an objective as part of the adventure. That said, you do have to kind of give players the illusion of free roaming. Highlight points of interest, places they need to go, using the descriptions printed in the module. Inflection and tone of voice are important here. If you make the empty shack which has no significance to the adventure sound interesting by how you read the description, players will likely waste a good bit of time searching around it because they’ll think something is there. After all, if it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t have made it sound interesting. Of course, some players may figure that if you’re not putting any special emphasis on a description, then the spot must be important. This is an example of metagaming, and we’ll go into that in more detail a little later.
Expect weird and unexpected player actions or behaviors. Some of this can be chalked up to actual roleplaying, where somebody is taking on the persona of their character, and this can be a good thing. Other instances can be ascribed to a player not really understanding the context of the situation, and by extension the rules of the game. Moments like these can be quietly retconned with a simple, “No, that’s not an option in this situation.” Some of it, however, is essentially trolling the GM. Depending on the nature of the campaign and the moment, as well as your relationship with the player, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. Usually the latter. And fixing moments like this are usually more of a pain, particularly if the player insists on trying to carry through. Ideally, you’ll have nipped a lot of this sort of behavior in the bud before it happens by laying down ground rules in session zero (no PvP combat, no hostile actions between party members). But even then, some players will try to find ways to stir things up the wrong way. For moments like this, the best tool in your arsenal is the question, “Are you sure?” Make it clear to the player in question (and the other players) of the dire consequences which may result from their intended misbehavior. If they still want to go through with it, make it clear they’re responsible for what happens next. Then don’t hold back on said consequences. If a player character dies because they did something unconscionably stupid despite your warnings, it’s not your job to protect them from the consequences of their stupidity. This isn’t a video game they scumsave their way out of. It’s more a roguelike, where death is (mostly) permanent.
That said, as GM, you are in a position to adjudicate. You are in a position to fudge rolls behind the GM’s screen if it means keeping the story going. If a player describes some incredible stunt that, from a narrative standpoint, makes everybody go “Hell, yeah!”, allow the stunt and make it clear this is a one-time “Moment of Awesome.” Ideally, players will be able to figure out how to make these sorts of moments fit into the context of their dice rolls, but sometimes, the cart gets ahead of the horse. But at some point, you as GM have to take the gloves off. Particularly if you’re at the climax of an adventure or a campaign, the stakes need to be high and the blood is likely going to flow. This is where knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your monsters as well as your players will be important. While you should not (as a general rule) be encouraging an adversarial relationship between yourself and your players, you also need to remember that the bad guys are not obligated to be stupid or make the party look good. When the players reach the final battle against the primary antagonist, make it a fight to remember. Use special abilities and attacks. Do what you can to thwart the players or blunt their attacks. If you want to go easy on them for a round or two, especially if they got hit with a bad saving throw, that’s your call. Think of all the really great cinematic fights against the final boss and go wild.
The Game Within The Game Outside The Game
I mentioned metagaming before, and it’s one of those things that can either be very detrimental to your game or possibly very helpful. Metagaming is what happens when a player applies knowledge to a scenario that their character should not have. For example, a ranger who seems to consistently and correctly exploit the weaknesses of monsters which he has not faced previously is certainly metagaming. In this instance, a player applying knowledge from the Monster Manual is low grade cheating. The simplest way to combat this is to quietly change the weaknesses on the monsters. It’ll irritate the metagamer, but that’s kinda their problem for trying to get a leg up.
Another form of metagaming is “the stat disconnect.” You may have a player who in real life has a higher-than-average mental or physical faculty, but their character is the opposite. For example, imagine a player who’s very intelligent or very well read on a certain subject, yet they’re playing a character whose Intelligence attribute is below average. They may want to come up with clever plans and intricate strategems, but their character shouldn’t have that capability. It’s potentially a pain point for players, but also potentially an opportunity. When faced with a stat disconnect, try to encourage players to come up with other ideas, other ways around the problem. The best players will do that fairly quickly, with maybe one reminder, but newer players may need a little help trying to think around corners. The thing to keep in mind is that you, as GM, should have some notes on the players. Classes, base stats, saves, Armor Class, and hit points are the really critical bits of info. With this information, you’ve got the “at a glance” information of the party’s makeup which you can use to guide the players. If you can help players get a better handle on the strengths and limitations of their characters, you’re likely to have a much more enjoyable experience all around.
Other Worlds Than These
The last thing I’m going to talk about here is the “backend” elements of being a GM. Flat out, being a GM is not for the faint of heart. And it’s not something which should be done by those with a casual approach to things like storytelling. You don’t need to be Matt Mercer, but you have to be willing to take on a leadership role. And that role does not mean “dictating everybody’s actions.” You have to give shape to the story that the players are ultimately filling in through their actions. There’s a quote from Futurama which I’ve found to be a worthy aspiration: “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.” We’re subject to the same vagaries of chance as the players, in some respects, but we have the ability to…creatively ignore the dice when the situation presents itself. Ideally, we have a GM screen to shield us, or a whisper flag in our VTT of choice. Used properly, and sparingly, this can be a powerful tool to help the players get invested in the story. It can serve as a reality check to those characters who think they’re invincible (and just a step shy of becoming murderhobos). And it can help bring a climactic battle to an exciting conclusion. Maybe not a happy conclusion, depending on the circumstances, but exciting. The caveat here is that you have to be mindful when you’re tilting the odds one way or another. Remember what a player rolled to “miss” a hit on you, and keep it in the forefront of your mind.
You may find that, in the course of running one-shots, your players want more. They want not just an adventure, but a grand adventure. An epic worthy of Homeric verse. They want a campaign, to climb from the humble beginnings of a new adventurer to the peak of a living legend, or die trying. It’s a challenge for both players and GMs. This isn’t going to be a short story, or even a novel. This is going to be a whole cycle of novels. A trilogy of movies with a couple one-off side stories thrown in before the sequel trilogy. It’s a big undertaking and relatively few are able to do it.
There are some aids to a GM who wants to try this experience. Wizards of The Coast has put out a couple large scale adventure modules such as Curse of Strahd and Rime Of The Frostmaiden which do take players through a number of levels and require several sessions to get through. Think of it as a “light” campaign, one where the plot lines and supporting cast are all worked out for you. If you can run one of these, start to finish, and everybody is happy at the end of it, then you’re probably ready to take the next step: the custom campaign.
A custom campaign is the ultimate challenge for a GM. No safety net, no training wheels, no handy sidebars to help you out. But, on the other hand, nobody to dictate to you what sort of story to tell or what setting to put it in. While Dungeons & Dragons may have officially adopted the Forgotten Realms setting for Fifth Edition, it’s not the only possible setting. Wizards of The Coast has a number of them, and there are third-party publishers out there who’ve put out their own settings, such as Warchief Gaming’s Auroboros: Coils Of The Serpent and Edge Studios’ Adventures In Rokugan. If you’re feeling especially ambitious, you can craft your own setting. The lands, the cultures, the people, the history, the pantheons, all created by you for your players to explore. Or you can go the other way, creating a simple village and surrounding areas, then expanding out as the players push beyond the established borders. This is one time where taking notes and remembering what happened is especially important. By the time you reach the end, you’ll have a distinctive world created by you and your players.
It’s a big thing, moving behind the screen and taking on the role of Game Master. But it’s also one of the most exciting and incredible adventures you’ll ever go on. And you’ve got the tools to make it happen. Gather the party and go forth.