So You Want to Start Playing Dungeons and Dragons, Aye?
I’ve only played D&D once before, long ago, on someone’s laminate floor with a tiny print-out dungeon and no idea what any of the numbers meant.
Five years later, my friends want to Play It For Real. Yippee! Let’s get nerdy!
YOU (me) volunteer to be Dungeon Master (DM) because everyone else is a bit hesitant. “The more I read about what it means to be DM, the more fun it seems,” you tell the group. “It’s basically writing a novel, I do that all the time.”
Except your friends can go left instead of right. They can kill an important NPC who was meant to be part of the main quest. They can choose to explore the one part of the map you didn’t plan on visiting for at least another five games. How the hell do you prepare for D&D when you’ve never properly even PLAYED the damn thing, let alone written a campaign? WHY ARE THERE SO MANY DIE?
Deep breaths. Here’s How I’ve Started…
Geek & Sundry is your new best friend. These nerds are all about helping you get started from the literal ground up. They’re especially helpful for new Dungeon Masters (like me). Upon their recommendation, I bought the D&D Starter Set, which comes with a small campaign story, a condensed rulebook and a set of six dice.
However, I had already decided that I was going to adapt one of my novels as the backdrop for our campaign. I know my own worlds inside-out, right? (I have since learnt I don’t know my own worlds inside-out enough.) This would take a lot of pressure off of me remembering the lore of a pre-existing D&D world. I feel it’ll be easier for me to make things consistent, and I’ll feel a little bit more confident about making stuff up that doesn’t contradict with rules I don’t know/forgot.
The small campaign from the starter set isn’t, in my opinion, an inspiring story. It is, however, a great example of how to get started and introduce combat/quest hooks. If anything, I’m glad I bought it for the set of dice and condensed rulebook.
If you’re not creating your own world (and that is not a failure on the DM’s part—D&D is famous, after all, for creating great worlds for players to use and abuse), then the Starter Set really is a perfect toolbox for those unfamiliar with in-depth worldbuilding.
[EDIT, 12/04/2022. I would like to eat humble pie. I didn’t use the Starter Set for maybe two years after purchasing it, until I got a job that asked me to run a D&D Club. By this point, I was acquainted with painstaking game planning. Another two years later and I am now comfortable making less notes and blagging events whenever needed.
This confidence was only possible once I finally played the Phandalin Campaign. It forced me to trust in the fun of improvisation. It showed me better ways to plot the information that I – as DM – need to know. I still structure the info better and I highlight stuff on every page, cover it in notes, but playing the campaign really truly showed me how to simplify, because your players will always take it further.
Most importantly, it forced me to ask hard questions about The Rules. Like WHAT DOES SPELL SAVE DC MEAN? Why do you NEED A FOCUS? If you’re still asking those questions, I made another post over here. Ultimately, the Starter Set is a perfect starting tool – fullstop.]
Matt Mercer is Your Divine Light
I watched all of Matt Mercer’s helpful videos. He’s engaging, charismatic and so good at explaining things with gaming examples. Each episode is also transcribed below the video, which I copy-pasted into a Word Doc, formatted prettily, and printed off for my folder of power and planning.
Whilst his intent is to guide new DMs, his videos also help the other players. It explains how not to accidentally piss off everyone else at the table, how to use Rule of Cool, and how to help your DM tell a great story.
These videos are short, engaging, and honestly so helpful you should watch them.
Decide on Your Setting
Are you going to follow the Starter Set campaign? Or make a world entirely of your own? Whatever the case, it’s time to get super freaking busy. Kiss your friends goodbye and promise to see them on the impending game night.
From here, I will talk about how I prepared my own world for D&D rather than prepared from an official campaign by Wizards of the Coast.
Like I said, I’ve already got a world. I’m sort of merging two novels into one. And for most of my novels, I like to make a basic map. So, luckily for me, I had a country with cities and towns ready to whip out my pocket.
If you’ve never made a map before, here’s the best way how:
- Get a blank A4 piece of paper
- Throw dry pasta onto the paper
- Draw around the pasta with a pencil
- Brush off the pasta
- You now have a continent/country and probably some islands, too
- Draw around the landmasses with pen
- Decide if it’s above the equator/below/or on the equator
- Sketch mountains, rivers, lakes and forests
- Pop on some major cities
Extra Accessories for Your DM
Because I’m an eager-beaver, I bought myself the Dungeon Master’s Screen Reincarnated. All DMs seem to have a screen to hide their notes from the players (PCs). This helps to stop PCs from spoiling the story for themselves and gives the DM a little privacy for notetaking or scrambling through cue cards.
The DM Screen Reincarnated is pretty nifty. On one side of the screen, PCs will see an awesome dragon. On my side of the screen, I have basic combat rules, the cost of food and lodgings, status conditions and actions in combat. It’s beautifully basic, and so is my level right now.
See How Others Play the Game
Now that you’ve made a little bit of progress – researching how to play, deciding on your own campaign or the Starter Set, who will be DM – it’s helpful to watch how other’s play Dungeons and Dragons. You shouldn’t aspire to copy them (unless you really want to, I guess), but it’s a great way to see how scenes are handled, combat is played, and when dice get rolled.
I highly recommend Critical Role, which is incidentally the group Matt Mercer is DM for. They’re super into the roleplaying and their combat is dynamic and imaginative. They make me want to be DM and part of a super cool roleplay group. Watch them. Be inspired. (I’ve linked it to start 10 minutes into episode 1 because the first 10 minutes is a lot of announcements and gumph for long-standing fans of their previous campaign.)
Next time, I’ll talk about what D&D books to buy (or not), character sheets, developing your chosen city/village and how to organise your friends to help the DM prepare.