Recently I took the plunge into playing Dungeons and Dragons for the first time since high school. What’s more, I decided to DM. DM, short for Dungeon Master, is the player who creates and dictates the Dungeons & Dragons (DnD) game to the other players, known as PC’s (or Player Characters). It takes a lot of work upfront, but it’s fun, rewarding, and well worth the time investment.
Now that I’ve gone through the learning process, I want to simplify becoming a DM for other hopeful game masters. So here is a resource just for you that will provide you with everything you need to get started. How to find inspiration, where to get free and legal resources, fun ways to learn the rules, and cool stuff to buy.
If you have any questions or would like to suggest an addition, feel free to let me know in the comments. Till then, best of luck in your DMing journey.
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Before you DM for the first time, it’ll be worth your while to watch some people do it well. There are a ton of live streams out there, so there’s inspiration aplenty, but what follows worked for me.
This is a great one-shot to watch. A one shot is an adventure that lasts a single play session, rather than one that’s ongoing. D&Diesel is short, so you can get a quick taste, but also hugely fun. Pay attention to the players reactions to the narration by DM Matt Mercer. I try to emulate his use of voices, but I’m not very good. Even so, I think the effort adds to the atmosphere, so even if you can’t voice act, give it a shot.
I love Dan Harmon, but he seems to inspire love and annoyance from different people. If you’re squarely in the Harmon camp, as I am, then you’ll love Harmonquest whether you’re interested in DMing or not. Spencer Crittenden is the DM here, and he does a fantastic job. Bear in mind that this show edits out all of the slower moments, so it’s not representative of the entire play experience, but it’s hella fun and worth a watch. You can watch it on YouTube or Vrv.co. Either way, you’ll have to pay. Sorry bout it.
You can’t talk about live streamed DnD without mentioning Critical Role, which basically started the whole craze. It’s a great show to watch, but each episode is around 3+ hours in length. I sometimes watch while I code or do yoga. Pay attention to how Matt Mercer goes along with his players ideas. He has a very “yes and” attitude, which I’m trying to get better at. “Yes and” is an improve idea where when someone else (one of your players) suggests an idea, you go with it and build on it, rather than shooting it down.
Learn how to DM
Before you dive in to running your campaign, you’ll need to know the basic rules. Start by watching the many great videos on YouTube that delve into the core rules of D&D. You’ll still need a Players Handbook at some point, there’s no getting around that, but watching the videos is an entertaining way of absorbing all the basic knowledge you’ll need to get started. Here are some I particularly enjoyed.
How to Play Dungeons and Dragons
This animated guide is a great intro into the rules. Much more fun than reading through the Players Handbook. If you’re not sure yet if you want to invest in the books, this is a great place to start. However, you will need a copy to play for reference. You’ll want to watch all of the intro videos, and probably videos on classes of your PC’s, before starting.
GM Tips w/ Matt Mercer
This is my third mention of Matt Mercer, and that’s not a mistake. He’s not only a great voice actor and DM, he’s also great at bestowing his knowledge in quick and easy to understand and utilize chucks. I enjoy the brevity of these videos. It allows me to pick up a lot of skills and ideas without needing to wade through a 30 minute video, which seems to be the norm in the DnD YouTube world. Watch the playlist below, cherrypick whichever feel most relevant to your current issues, and you’ll receive lots great advice without a major time commitment.
Your First Adventure, Running the Game
Speaking of 30 min videos, author, game writer, and DM Matthew Coville is the more in-depth and long-winded type, but his information is clear, full of context, and usually entertaining to watch.
For my first adventure, I literally the exact campaign from his video below, and it went better than I could have hoped. From there I branched off into my own homebrewed campaign, which I highly recommend. If you want to see the process of creating a campaign in action, learn about the various features of an adventure, and get all of the materials for free, then this is a great place to start. I’ve also posted links to some of the materials below.
Things You Need Before You Play
There are a lot of things you’ll need eventually if you plan on playing regularly. However, you don’t need everything all at once. In fact, if you’re strapped for cash, there’s enough free material out there for you to get started with nothing more than a set of dice.
Below is a collection of everything I think you need before you dive into your first game. Skip the books, skip the plastic minis, right now you just want to dip your toe in and figure out if this whole DM thing is for you. After your first session, you can begin getting all that other stuff.
D&D has a lot of rules, and you’ll need to reference them from time to time. Lucky for us, Wizards of the Coast has a free starter rule book for new DM’s. So get the rules here.
Another helpful tool is the app Complete Reference 5e. I believe this app is on both Android and iPhone. I own an Android and it works well for looking up things quickly mid-play. You’ll have a hard time learning how to play if you only use this app, but you’ll save a lot of time referencing things when you download the Complete Reference 5e.
The Players Handbook is about $40, and learning how to build characters from scratch takes a lot of time. Instead, start with Wizards pre-made characters to take some of the load off your shoulders. I think there are 16 characters for your players to choose from. If you have a Players Handbook, make sure you’re players read through their class descriptions before your first game, otherwise have them look them up online. Get premade character sheets here.
Miniatures are one of the best things about DnD, in my opinion. They’re so damn cool, and add an extra dynamic to the game. However, like everything else in D&D, they’re expensive when you’re starting out. And even more expense when you dive in. Instead of dropping some serious coin on a bunch of figures, download and print them from Printable Heroes. There you’ll find high quality, printable minis that work just as well as actual figurines for a fraction of the cost. Find printable minis here.
There’s no way around it, you’ll need to buy dice. I bought this kit and am very pleased with it.
Everything Else You’ll Need If You Keep on Going
After you’ve run your first adventure and decided it’s something you want to keep doing, there are several more things you’ll want, and some other resources you’ll want to dive into.
All the books – At this point, it’s time to start investing in the books. Buy them in this order:
- The Players Handbook
- The Dungeon Masters Guide
- The Monster Manual
- Any campaign of your choice
I included a campaign book there even though I’ve been playing with homebrew content. While I don’t run my games out of one of these pre-made adventures, before reading this I was spending too much time creating content that didn’t really matter. After, I read through one which greatly aided me in knowing how much content of what sort I needed to prepare.
The Home Brewery
Once you start writing your own adventures, you’ll want them to look pretty. Enter The Home Brewery which does an excellent job of making your home brew content feel legit.
You can buy battlemats which have grids and stuff on them, and they look great. I didn’t want to spend the extra money, so I found a whiteboard I had lying around and I use that to draw the environments on. It’s quick and liberating to layout something with ease.
Dungeons & Dragons Lore
These lore videos delve into the various aspects of a lot of D&D’s most iconic creatures, gods, realms, etc. I went through the entire series in a week. It’s a shame there’s not more, but what there is is really great. Lore adds depth to your campaign, and throwing in some little details here or there will make your world feel more real.
Fantasy Name Generators
Coming up with the ton of fantasy names you’ll need is a chore. Use Fantasy Name Generators to come up with names for Cities, Taverns, Wizards, Elves, Pirates, Rivers, Monsters, etc. Really they have just about everything in a very simple to use setup. Generate fantasy names here.
Who The Fuck is my DnD Character
If you’re players are having a hard time coming up with character ideas, this is a fantastic resource. I ran a one shot adventure featuring only characters inspired by this tool, and it was a lot of fun. Get character ideas here.
Fantasy World/Dungeon Generators
These procedurally generated worlds and dungeons work really well. Create a detailed world or encounter with very little effort. Not as customizable as I’d like, but great for what it is. Build worlds or dungeons here.
Short Run Posters
Now that you have a world map, you’ll want to print it out and start drawing all over it, creating countries, expanding on the features of different zones, laying out area’s of interest, etc. I printed my map through Short Run Posters, and it turned out great.
I love being able to show my players where they are in the world, and let the map inform some of their choices. I only layout the areas around my players though, and only draw in cities their characters would already know about, adding more as they discover places. Print your map here.
Finally, once you’ve dived in deep, it’s inevitable that the miniature craze will hit you. Enter Hero Forge, a fantastic 3d printing service where you can design custom characters. They run about $30 a piece, so they aren’t cheap, but they’re great for adding a bit of ownership to the PC’s minis. Trust me, if one of your players buys one, they all will. Check out hero forge here.
There you have it, a collection of all the things I found useful on my journey to becoming a decent DM. I still have a lot to learn, and there is so much more you can do beyond this. I’m thinking about releasing some of my homebrew content for you to play too very soon. Keep an eye out :).