Zahra’s Very Brief Intro to DMing
If you’ve heard of Dungeons and Dragons then you’re probably aware of the role of the DM, otherwise known as the Dungeon Master. The mastermind behind the game, the one who holds your fate in their hands, all-powerful, all-knowing, yada yada yada.
Here’s a secret. They’re actually just another player! Take a moment to absorb that. The DM might be guiding the game, and they might be managing multiple characters, and they do know what’s around the corner, but really they’re just another player. I’m demystifying that role now.
Dungeon Masters don’t know everything, they don’t have all the rules memorised, they don’t have everything planned out, and they absolutely do not have enough unique voices for every NPC your party runs into.
It’s understandably a rather intimidating role, but it doesn’t have to be. And hopefully by the end of Zahra’s Very Brief Intro to DMing, you’ll feel ready to take it on. Because really, you’re already ready, you just need a bit of prep.
So, quickly, what is Dungeons and Dragons? It’s a tabletop roleplaying game where a group of people create characters, and using dice and modifiers you play as those characters, overcoming enemies, solving puzzles, and learning about the world you’re in. It’s a lot of fun! It can be as dramatic or as silly as you want, it can be a single session or a campaign that lasts years, and it’s a collaborative experience, where all the players all contribute to gameplay and the story. It’s customisable, and unique to every party.
But you need a Dungeon Master. They’re the one who creates the setting for your party. They are in control of enemies and non-playable allies, they adjust the game as you play depending on the desired experience, and they often have a story that they want the party to play through.
This doesn’t mean the DM is in control of everything! They are also subjected to the same rules that the party must abide by. If their big bad evil guy rolls badly and trips over a rock, they can’t just say no, I’m not letting that happen. Likewise, if the party turns down the wrong path (that has loads of warning signs plastered all over it), and end up falling into lava, well, they can’t really stop that.
Every game is different, and every group is different. But you remember what I said about DnD being a collaborative experience? The DM may put you in a setting, filled with vibrant and cool characters. And they may have a story they want to tell, but the party also decides on where they want to go, what they want to do, and will influence the story in their own way.
That’s not always the case, you might want more of a Party vs DM kind of game, which can also be quite fun with its own unique challenges.
But at the end of the day the most important thing is that people are having fun, and they’re engaged.
So, now that you know what the DM does, just how do you DM?
Depending on your group and the desired experience, outline a world. It might just be a forest with little villages in it, could be an undersea city. Don’t get bogged down by details right now.
You’ll need to create various characters, some may be villains for your party to go up against. A lot of them might be allies, annoyances, just silly little guys. It’s up to you! Think about your players and your goals, and create obstacles to challenge them, and helpful folks to nudge them in the right direction. This bit is a lot like creating characters as a party member, and for minor characters you can just have the most basic sheet with their stats and attacks on it.
For more important, major characters? Making them is exactly like creating a party character. Feel free to flesh them out as much as you wish. Give them goals, strengths, weaknesses.
For longer campaigns, outlining story beats is helpful for me to do upfront, and then before each session I will flesh out that beat. I’ll give my players a quest or two that will either move them through the story or act as a way to round out their experience. How do I give them that quest? I might simply say ‘This ragtag group is on their way to defeat an evil wizard who has been terrorizing the local population! What will they do?’. It can be that easy.
Often though you’ll give your party a handy inn nearby with an innkeeper who knows about everything and everyone, and will have a quest or two on hand. It’s a bit cliched, but it works, and it’s nice for your party to have a homebase and an NPC who welcomes them.
And finally, make a map. Will your party be going through a dungeon filled with traps and dangers? Or a swamp where one wrong move will have them walking into the jaws of a monster? You’ll want to make a map, it can be crudely drawn it just needs to be clear, so then your players can more easily understand the space they’re in. You don’t need a map for everything, like the long boring walk between towns, but for anywhere where having a space visualised will be useful. And keep a couple of pieces of grid paper nearby for those unplanned fights.
It doesn’t sound like a lot of prep, right? And here’s where I reveal the biggest secret for DMs. It’s all improv! Think about it, you can’t predict what your players are going to do, who they’re going to talk to, where they’re going to go. You can make them a super clear path, but they may decide to just slash their way through the forest. They might decide that they need to help a little girl find her pet dog, or they might want to try to seduce the innkeeper. Give them some space to explore and do their own thing, improvise as you go, and when you need to give them a nudge then have a messenger run up to them with a request for help.
But what about when you’re playing through the session and your players ask if they can do kickflips off the back of the enemy ogre but also they want to convince the ogre to let them do that? What skill check is that? What numbers do you need? You didn’t prepare for this, you’re feeling the pressure, is it persuasion or acrobatics? Both? Don’t panic! Here is my other secret.
You can just google it, look it up in the handbook, consult a cheatsheet, or you can even just go ‘this sounds right, does that sound fair?’ and make a decision. It’s fine! You can’t know everything, and it’s stressful being put on the spot constantly. Some DMs will have a ‘Rule of Cool’, where if a player proposes something extremely epic then you’ll do what you can to make it work. I like the ‘Rule of Keeping Momentum Going’. It’s more important to keep the game moving than it is to make sure every single move is perfectly legal. It really doesn’t matter all that much.
It doesn’t mean just do whatever you want, but you can just use your best judgement, and if it sounds fair then your players will be fine with it. Let’s keep this fight going!
And finally, you don’t need to create this perfectly unique, epic, homebrewed story with your own language and tonnes and tonnes of details and lore. You can just find an adventure or campaign that someone else made, and use it! There are adventures specifically for new DMs that will give you all the information you need for a successful session, gently teach you, and give you advice as you go. You can still put your own spin on it, introduce customised puzzles for that one person who is really good at moving tile puzzles, and make a friendly wolf character for your party to adopt. It’s all fine!
So let me just recap:
- The DM is just another player, just with a lot more paperwork.
- The DM does NOT need to know everything, they don’t need to know all the rules, they don’t need to plan for every possible decision the players might make.
- You can just improvise.
- You can just make up reasonable rules, or make a decision based on your own judgment in order to keep the game moving.
- You can use pre-written adventures.
- Maps are very important.
- Have fun! The party should have fun, but the DM also needs to have fun too!
You’re all playing make-believe. It’s not that serious.