4 Lessons Learned by a Rookie DM Before My First Session

This column is for rookie DMs by a rookie DM. As I’ve been scouring the Internet for tips and tricks to help me prepare for my first session, I noticed that there is a lot of instruction available. Much of it is great information, and will likely be very helpful. But there’s a distinct lack of narrative-based advice.

A lot of experienced DMs forget what it’s like to be new to this whole gig. Sometimes very well meaning Dungeon Masters assume a certain level of knowledge or experience when talking about the craft. “The Misadventures of a Rookie DM” will be different. It will be different because it’s a first-hand account of my giving dungeon mastering a try for the first time. No prior experience. I’ll tell some stories, and let’s see what we can learn together. Hopefully, I’ll make some mistakes so that you won’t have to.

1. Remember the “Why”

So you’re starting out as a Dungeon Master, eh? While every group is different, the DM (or GM if you prefer) is often responsible not only for the hours-long gameplay sessions, but also getting the group together, organizing times and places to play, wrangling often unresponsive players, and generally being a leader. Plus, a lot of DMs create their own worlds, filled with original NPCs, and interesting, fresh storylines. Why would anyone want to go through all this extra effort, when you could instead just show up, roll some dice, and have an easy, good time?

The truth is there are innumerable reasons why someone decides to put all the effort required into running a tabletop gaming session. For some, the group’s DM leaves, and they step in to fill a void and prevent their beloved game from dissolving. Others have an itch to tell stories, and DMing is a great way to get friends involved and maintain a captive audience. Still others organize a group because they are looking for social interaction, and a regularly scheduled RPG night provides consistent friendship. Whatever YOUR reasons are, keep them in mind as you prepare for your first session. It will motivate you and guide the way you prepare, how you spend your time. It will also provide incentive to follow the next three steps.

Why did I decide to step behind the screen? Six months ago, my wife, our four-month-old baby, and I moved from Dallas to Baltimore, and I started a new job. It’s been a really great transition for my family. One of the perks of my new job is that I spend a lot of time doing creative things on a computer, and, as a result, have been afforded an opportunity to listen to a bunch of different podcasts. I’ve been a longtime fan of My Brother, My Brother, and Me, so when they kicked off their Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition podcast, Adventure Zone (available wherever fine podcasts are sold), I was in. I sat there listening to Griffin McElroy walk his dad through the steps of playing D&D for the first time and thought, “I want to do this.”

I started looking for other D&D podcasts, and the Dungeon Master’s Block, hosted by DM Mitch and DM Chris, kept popping up on recommendation lists. I added that to my rotation. After listening to about fifteen minutes of the first episode, I thought, “Yeah, I definitely want to do this.”

There was just one problem: I had left my whole interpersonal network in Texas. I didn’t know anyone in Baltimore, except the people I work with, and I didn’t really know them yet either. How would I crack wise with my players like the brothers McElroy or utilize the dump truck loads of knowledge being dropped at the DM’s Block without a gaming group?

2. Speak Up

There are two really important factors in establishing a tabletop gaming group: patience and courage, although, with just a tiny bit of the latter, you won’t need as much of the former. It turns out that with the rise of nerdhood in mainstream culture (10 of the top 15 highest grossing movies of all time are sci-fi, fantasy, or superhero movies, all released within the past 7 years.) that tabletop roleplaying games aren’t as toxic to one’s reputation as they used to be. Simultaneously, as people grow older, get a little established in their careers, maybe have families, they tend to worry less about how their hobbies will affect the way others see them. These two factors combine to create a cultural environment that’s actually pretty open to trying something like D&D. The point is this: you won’t know if someone would enjoy joining an RPG group unless you ask, and asking someone to join your group is the least dangerous it’s ever been.

My group has two players who’ve never played any kind of RPG before, tabletop or digital. Those two have put the most effort into learning the game, understanding my world, and creating characters. And, they seem to be having more fun than the other two, and we haven’t even had our first session yet!

Here’s how our group came about. One day a buddy from grad school, Josh, called me up and told me that he and his family were moving to Washington DC; I knew this was my chance to make a game happen. He and I had played GURPS together before (any GURPS players in the house? … No? Okay.), so I knew he was into RPGs. I asked him if he wanted to get a group together when he moved, and he was super jazzed. The excitement in his voice over the phone was tangible as he described how the one big loss he was feeling because of the move was his gaming group. To have a new one already waiting for him in his new location softened the blow a bit. We had a player and a GM. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a group. That’s all you need, really, to invite more players. The conversation changes from “hey, I’m trying to start a D&D group” into “hey, do you want to join my D&D group?” This subtle change makes all the difference in recruiting new people.

Josh texted me later that week, “I’ve got another player!” (It helps to have people on your team who are really enthusiastic about life in general and your game specifically.) Apparently Josh’s friend, Ryan, from long ago, already lived in DC. Josh asked him to join our fledgling RPG group, and he was in.

After a few weeks of trying to unsuccessfully secure one more player, I asked a coworker if she thought her husband might be interested in gaming with us. She shrugged, “I don’t know. You should ask him,” and gave me his number. I had met Brian, her husband, a couple times, and we seemed to have some common interests, but I had no idea if he was into nerdery at all. After a few more days of waiting (this had started to feel like asking someone to prom), I pulled the trigger. Brian was excited about the idea. He’d never played tabletop RPGs before, but he was not going to let that stop him. He bought the Player’s Handbook the next day and has been devouring it since.

A couple days after that, we were at a children’s birthday party with some family friends, and, I sheepishly mentioned that I had this group that was getting ready to start playing D&D. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment to invite Chris, this family friend, to play. He was intrigued, but was nervous he wouldn’t be knowledgeable enough to keep up. I assuaged his fears: “This’ll be my first time DMing, plus we’ve got two other players who’ve never played any kind of RPG before. We’re all learning together.” He went for it. Now, we had a full four-player party, ready for our first game session.

3. Don’t Wait

Like anything in life, being a good DM is going to take practice. We are all going to make mistakes as we grow into our new role. But, acquiring new skills is often made easier if you have a good teacher or coach to guide you, to give you a little boost, to soften the learning curve a bit. I am not that coach. The good news is that there are thousands of people on the internet who have extensive knowledge of dungeon mastery, and are willing to share it for free! My advice: devour this knowledge now; don’t wait until you have the deadline of a first game session to do it.

Already have a deadline? First session is next week and you’re feeling behind the 8 ball? The good news is that there really aren’t limits to when or how you can apply your newly acquired knowledge to your game. If you need to buy some time to get yourself straightened out, try running a pre-gen module or one-shot dungeon crawl your first session. In fact, you should consider doing this even if you’re not crunched for time. It will help you get your feet wet with some practice running a game, dealing with the players at the table, and learning the mechanics, without having to worry so much about a story or world that’s precious to you. (At least, that’s what I’m hoping will happen. Our first game is coming up and I’m running the first encounter and dungeon of the Lost Mines of Phandelver starter set, on the advice of The Angry GM).

My coaches are the DMs of the Dungeon Mastered, Going in Blind, Sneak Attack podcasts, and the aforementioned Dungeon Master’s Block, among many others. Listening to these actual play and advice casts has helped me learn the 5e rules, and the way these guys DM their games have become examples to follow. I also spend a lot of time perusing the many D&D threads on Reddit and chatting with RPG players and DM/GMs on Twitter.

4. Find a Community

Speaking of Reddit and Twitter, do yourself a favor and find a way to connect with people, in person or online, who know and love tabletop gaming. Don’t just lurk, either. Participate! These two places are great places to start. Read blogs, comment on them, and connect with other people who comment on them too. Obviously, you’re reading this on Tribality right now, so you’ve at least started the learning component of leveling up as a DM. But joining in conversation is a fantastic way to get help that’s specific to your situation with your game and your players.

One of the most important things I’ve done in preparing to run a D&D game was joining the Dungeon Master’s Block forums (username: whipstache). It’s a welcoming community of friendly DMs of every experience level who just want to help each other out. They became a sounding board. They taught me that I needed to stop absorbing every bit of information being fed to me and start evaluating ideas for their quality. They encouraged me. They helped me think about methods of organizing. They gave me confidence. I’ve started to think, “I can do this.” And, you know what? You can too. Before you know it, you’ll have your game running, sometimes smoother than others. You’ll reach level three and get to choose a specialization track. And, most importantly, you’ll be well on your way to achieving whatever your “why” is.

Let’s go on this journey, learning how to be good Dungeon Masters, together. My group’s first session is coming up soon. I’ll let you know how it goes. You should let me know how yours goes too.

Ryan Hennesy is a husband and father who lives in Baltimore, MD. When he’s not embarking on a quest to reach Level 20 as a Dungeon Master, he loves helping businesses and non-profits learn how to better communicate. He’s living proof that Star Wars vs. Star Trek is a false dichotomy; one can indeed love both. Find him on twitter as @whipstache.