I have been playing D&D for a number of years and more recently started running as DM of my own campaigns. I have been running campaigns for two years now, but I am still learning to this day.
Still, while there are a number of great video and text resources out there, I wished there was a more streamlined, holistic guide to how to be a first time DM or GM. In the interest of paying it forward, here is my guide, with a short table of contents, to get yourself started in running your first adventure. I hope it helps!
As a note, this guide is specifically about running a D&D 5e campaign, though I suspect many of the tips can be applied to other formats and settings.
What is in this article
- Should I even DM?
- What items should a DM buy?
- Should I run a homebrew campaign or a module?
- How many people should play in your first D&D campaign?
- Running your first “Session Zero”
- Preparing for your D&D sessions
- Tips to running a D&D Session
- Other helpful tools and practices for a DM
Should I even DM?
The first thing you should do is determine if you should really DM. While a campaign can eventually break up, being the DM is a good amount of work, so only do it if your schedule allows. Being the DM requires the following time commitments, not all of which are obvious before you start:
- 5-10 hours initially reading through all the source material and the campaign module (I’m not joking)
- 3-4 hours per session
- 1-2 hours of prep time per 3-4 hour session
- Support of your party and conversations offline between sessions to help build their stories and characters
While it is quite a time commitment, being a DM is a lot of fun and can be extremely rewarding. Running a great session will have you and your players (likely friends or family) excited about the possibilities and looking forward to the next session. I still remember when one particular session ended and I caught some of my players talking about how good it was and how well I ran the session. As sappy as it sounds, it was a simple comment that really warmed my heart. If nothing else, reading this and running your own campaign will give you enormous respect for your current DM.
What items should a DM buy?
Before you even get started running the game, you will need to purchase some things. Here is what you should buy (links to free virtual versions, below):
- A set of dice, preferably with a few of each type of die for rolling damage.
- Player’s Handbook
- Monster Manual
- Dungeon Master’s Guide
- DM Screen
- The book or PDF for whichever campaign module you are running
- Nice-to-Have: Monster and NPC cards (I eventually bought these and found them extremely helpful for running combat and coming up with ideas in preparation for a session)
If you are running a campaign primarily because people you know want to play and you are agreeing to DM for them, I would ask the players if they could help buy the above items for you during Session Zero. This is going to be a lot of work with some expenses, and I don’t think it is unreasonable to ask for some help in paying for it!
Should I run a homebrew or existing module?
This is a pretty commonly answered question across the web, so I will be brief here. Like others, I highly recommend running a prewritten campaign module / adventure for your first, second, and maybe even third campaign! Your personal learning and mileage may vary, but I am two years in and only now starting to feel as though I could possibly run a campaign of my own.
Modules provide you with the rubric and mental tools for how to run a homebrew adventure of your own. The way that the books are laid out provides you with the appropriate arcs of a campaign, including how to manage primary villains and important NPCs. Modules provide locations and maps with premade traps, monsters, and descriptions. On the subject of monsters, a module will explain how you can balance combat with certain monsters and how you can modify monsters and traps with unique stats or spells to make them their own. For example, after spending enough time with modules, I was able to develop cultists that had certain water spells to counter my pyro-murder-hobo party and teach them a lesson. 🙂
How many people should play in your first D&D campaign?
For your first campaign as a DM, I recommend the traditional recommended party size of 3-4 players. Any more will be overwhelming for a first time DM. If people want to play in a larger group, I recommend doing something else like another board game night or running with someone who has more experience if you can find them.
Running a Session Zero for the first time
A Session Zero, or, the session BEFORE the first session, is extremely vital, and I am embarrassed that I did not treat it as such on my first go. You can learn from my mistake. Here are the things you should establish:
How are you going to play the campaign?
There are different ways to play D&D, whether it be in-person or virtual. Establish how you are going to play with your players.
If you are going to play in-person, you might also want to invest (with the help of your players) on the following items:
- A re-usable map on which to draw with markers / alcohol solution to clean it up
- Physical map version of the maps from your campaign module
- Miniatures for common enemies, NPCs, and players
If you are playing D&D in-person, you will also want to be clear about where and when you will meet. Try to establish a recurring weeknight or weekend day to keep it on agendas. You may want to cycle where you are going to meet if possible or find a place you can all go that will not disturb those NOT playing with you.
If you are playing the game virtually, you have different options, but if running a module, I recommend using Roll20 and then a service like Google Meet or Discord for chat. Roll20 has digital versions of the campaign you are going to run, including all of the same copy, monsters, items, handouts, etc. of the book.
The above being said, I still recommend buying the book version of the campaign in addition, as the campaigns are written more like novels for understanding what is going on and you might prefer running the descriptions and more direct from the book.
Try to establish a recurring weeknight or weekend day for each session, to keep it on agendas.
D&D Beyond is amazing, period.
This is not a sponsored link, I promise. No matter what format you use, I can’t recommend D&D Beyond highly enough. It is a great tool that is extremely affordable (I have spent ~$5 to date) and allows you to reference your character sheet physically, virtually, and with Roll20. To use D&D Beyond with Roll20, you can download the free Beyond 20 browser extension, which allows you to have your rolls from the former appear on the latter.
What D&D campaign should you play?
Keep in mind that this is an experience to be shared with all players and yourself, so it is important to understand what the players want to do too! There are a couple of parameters to qualify with yourself and the players here.
The first is the setting. Do you and your party want to do high fantasy? Swashbuckling? Dark fantasy? I didn’t ask this now obvious question my first time and missed an opportunity to move straight to the darker campaign, Curse of Strahd.
The second thing to ask is what type of experience your players want. Since D&D has the flavors of exploration, encounters, and downtime, your players may want to focus on one element or another. I asked this on my second time running a Session Zero, and my players wanted to do something less combat-focused. They also expressed a desire to own a tavern. BINGO! We rolled with Waterdeep: Dragon Heist.
If nobody has a big preference or wants to run “like Lord of the Rings,” I recommend running Lost Mine of Phandelver. It is the best campaign for first time DMs and players.
Create your characters
The next thing you want to do is work to create their characters, while encouraging that players finish building them and consult with you after the session, to give them time to create their full story and character.
The one big mistake I made as a first time DM was focusing Session Zero around explaining how the game works and how to build a character.
The true focus of Session Zero as it relates to your players is their background, goals, bonds, and flaws. Everything else is secondary.
If you don’t heed the above, you will run an aimless campaign. The module and your storytelling do not work in a vacuum. They only work well with your characters and their interactions. While you can read about backgrounds, goals, bonds, and flaws in the Player’s Handbook, the best strategy I have found is to ensure that every player has a bond/connection to one other player. For example:
- Player A knows Player B because…
- Player B knows Player C because…
- Player C knows Player D because…
- Player D knows Player A because…
If you do this and give them a simple background, goal, and flaw, the rest will happen organically.
As for rolling numbers for ability scores for the characters, you can do what you want. I personally recommend giving a set array of values and letting the player choose where to put each: (17, 15, 13, 12, 10, 8)
Running a Session Zero for First-Time players
I am assuming if you are running your first campaign, you might be running for brand new players. If so, I’m a firm believer in explaining D&D through the game itself. There are only two things I would explain to those truly uninitiated.
What is the D&D 5e – It is a fantasy adventure where you tell your story in a freeform environment. To tell your story through the following loop:
- You say what you want to do
- The DM manifests that with a skill challenge
- You roll dice to determine whether you succeed or fail
What are the ability scores? I forget where I got the below comparison, but it is my favorite thing ever.
- Strength: How well you can crush a tomato
- Dexterity: How well can you throw a tomato or dodge a thrown tomato
- Constitution: How well can you stomach eating a bad tomato
- Intelligence: Knowing that a tomato is a fruit
- Wisdom: Knowing that tomatoes do not go in fruit salad
- Charisma: How well you can sell a tomato-based fruit salad
Preparing for Session One of D&D
To prepare for you first session, here is what I would do. First, as noted above, read all of the core D&D books, cover to cover if you have not already. Read the module twice through if you can, at the very least once.
As for specific things to have ready to go for session one, this is what I prep, above just the events from the beginning of the module.
How do your characters start, if different from the module?
What happens if your entire party wipes? Total party kills (TPKs) suck. They are good for teaching lessons, but actually killing the characters smells. Defeat will be sour enough for your party, trust me. Have a “solution” for a total party kill, like an encounter in a prison or a cave where they get brought if they do all drop.
Create your own random encounters. I recommend creating a table of your own random encounters, even if you just riff off of what is in the module, if such encounters exist. This is a great way to whip something out if you need to fill gaps, provide consequences, or buy time during a session. Here is a random list of encounters from Wizards to give you an idea of how simple these should be.
Tips to running a D&D Session
Here are some general tips for how to be a good DM while running a session.
Railroading vs guiding. Don’t be afraid to lead players to the next event, otherwise they will probably get lost. DMs get afraid to railroad, but I guarantee as long as you don’t do things FOR the characters, you are probably just fine.
EXAMPLE) You want your players to get a quest from the bartender in the town tavern. Guiding: "You walk into town and come upon the town square. A great tavern sits directly in front of you. Someone is waving you in." Railroading: "You walk into town and come upon the town square. A great tavern sits directly in front of you. Your characters walk into the tavern and sit down at the bar. The bartender walks over and gives you a mission."
Take notes. Take notes of things your players do and receive for the next session prep. That way, when you go to prep that session, you can do that pretty easily. I have a big Google Document for each of my groups which has sections for each area of a campaign and what has transpired there, as well as a continuous update of ongoing quests and character motivations.
If you don’t know something, just roll with it. If you don’t know the answer to a question, use your best guess, and then look it up in prep for your next session. Don’t waste too much time. You can always let your players know that you made a mistake between sessions.
Tips for preparing for your next D&D sessions
Once you have run your first session you will want to get into a preparation cadence. My best guess is that you will need to spend roughly half the actual length of the session to prepare. For example, a 3 hour session would require 1.5 hours of prep time.
Here are some general tips for preparing your D&D sessions efficiently.
Keep and update a roster. I always keep a table of the most important character (players and otherwise), how to roleplay them, and what their primary goal is. This is a fantastic tool to always know where primary characters stand and remind yourself of goings on.
Review your characters. What is up with the player characters? Is there anything to explore as it relates to them, their goals, or their background?
Come up with 10 secrets to unveil during the session. If you take one piece of feedback, make it this, as this step instantly made my games better. This is stolen from the Lazy DM’s eight steps to preparing for a session. Write down 10 unique secrets that you want your characters to uncover. If you can come up with these, you can find ways to sprinkle them into your session and provide direction for the characters. Here are some example secrets:
- The tavern in the middle of the town is famous for its dwarven fire ale
- The bartender at the tavern has heard of the party and is waiting for them to arrive
- The town has been under attack from vampires during the night, and have taken to a curfew to avoid them
- Vampires physically cannot enter residences unless invited in
- There is a spy for the vampires who frequents the bar, but nobody has figured out who the culprit is
You can see how simply determining ten secrets can make for a compelling, guided session. I even do this for the prewritten modules.
Don’t overprepare. You will never be able to account for what your players will do, so just set loose encounters, with general win and loss outcomes.
The Best DM tools, apps, and websites
Here is a random list of links to things I use quite often in my running of sessions.
- donjon random generator (generates lot of stuff and treasures)
- Random name generator
- Shop Catalog PDF
- Magic Item Tables PDF
- Spell index to look up what spells do quickly
- Check difficulty level of battles and choose new ones – Kobold Fight Club
I hope this resource was helpful. If you want to know something else or have questions, please comment below!