Some asked on Twitter what’s a good way to get started with D&D, and who you should follow to learn how to do it right. I pointed them in the direction of some of my very favourite people, but their feed quickly exploded with loads of RPG advice, which if I was starting off, would have frankly been horrific.
When you don’t know what you’re doing and want somewhere to start, being told “There’s no wrong way to DM” over and over doesn’t help you get a handle on it. Follow that up with loads of people saying “There’s no one right way to DM, but there are loads of faux pas you could make” to make it intimidating, and chucking people at the streams of highly popular DMs who honestly can’t have time for all the queries they get doesn’t help much either.
Part of the problem, of course, is for a lot of us, this is a long term hobby. Its been over 30 years since I first sat behind the screen! Remembering how it feels to kick off for the first time is quite tricky – and many of the problems I had then aren’t the same as the problems now. Finding and affording hobby material without the web and with limited funds is a different to these days of the internet and being in a job with some disposable income to buy supplements.
So what advice would I actually give to some new starting off in D&D today, with a copy of the Starter Set? Especially here, where I’m not suffering from a character limit.
There are some basics! As a DM, you’ll not only set the scene and narrate the tale in the background, you’ll also be the arbitrator of the rules. Now we’ll discuss this some more in a second, but it does help to have a reasonable grasp of the rules and the adventure you want to run. Read through them, make sure you’re reasonably happy. For D&D, if you just have the starter set, download and read through the free basic rules. They don’t cover every race, or class, but you can quite happily play a full campaign with them. Heck, they probably cover all the options I had when I picked up the main AD&D core books for the first time.
If funds are less of an issue, get the core books, though obviously thats more of an investment and you might want to see if the game is for you first, of course. A few more sets of dice can help the session run smoother, but again, its not really essential.
What I’d recommend more than absolutely anything else is the mystical Session Zero!!!
Its actually not a mystery at all, but hey, its probably the biggest piece of advice I can give, so I felt it deserved a big reveal. Schedule in a first session with your mates before you start the game properly. Sit down together and have a chat about it.
It sounds so simple, but one of the biggest problems you’ll ever face in D&D, especially when starting out, is that a group of people all have different expectations of the game. There’s a social contract between all the players and the DM that you should all be there to have fun, and not spoil each others fun. That’s great … but if no one knows what anyone else is expecting, that’s almost impossible to manage.
Talk about what bits of the game excite them. Are they looking forward to battles? Roleplaying social encounters? Not everyone will be the same. What characters do they want to play? Create or allocate pregenerated characters in this session, so they can read up in the free basic rules about them if they want too before the actual game. Make sure no ones stuck with a character they don’t want to play, or that no one person’s expectation is totally out of whack with everyone else.
Another useful use of Session Zero can be to tone down their expectations too. If they’ve watched things like Critical Role, you’re watching professionals using acting skills honed in a range of environments to not just play a cracking game, but entertain an audience. Not every game can, or should, be that. The game is normally aimed at engaging all the players, and is fantastic fun as long as everyone joins in.
If you have a decent session one, everyone will be on the same page, expecting to have fun and knowing roughly what they are doing when you go to play. And that is absolutely priceless when you sit behind the screen for the first time.
When it comes to actually running the first game … then wow. The gloves are off! Its for real! You’ll have to find your own, to some degree. If you stick rigidly to the rules, some of the players are likely to die. That’s cool as long as they’re cool with that, so you might want to discuss that possibility in session zero. If you fudge it too obviously, you’ll lose any sense of tension. Finding a balance can be tricky. Personally, I’d advise starting off playing straight by the rules, and let the dice fall where they may to start with, until you feel confident bending things at all. And if you’ve explained that at session zero, people won’t feel aggrieved about things, or shouldn’t. Though you might want to create a few spare characters with people in that a session zero just in case, so they don’t waste “real” game time.
There are some good rules of thumb for running a game. Don’t keep looking up rules unless it seems something pretty fundamental. If someone wants to try something cool, let them. A fairly good rule of thumb to keep things running is if something unusual comes up, just set things to a difficulty (or DC) of 10, so they need to roll 10 or more on a d20 to pass. That may seem too easy, but its quick, and you want the players to feel like heroes with their ideas! If its something ludicrously difficult, you might want to make the DC 19 or 20, so they still have a shot, however improbable. Let them feel they actually can do things! That coming up with ideas makes a difference, and that cool things rock!
Keeping the flow going is almost always better than disrupting the game. When you’re all learning, I’d suggest holding your hands up and admit that’s what you’re doing, so if you look it up after the game, you aren’t stuck by your own precedent, but say you won’t be rolling back the events of the game. Keep things moving forward, keep it exciting, and avoid big rules breaks where possible.
Another big thing I’d say, despite pushing to keep things moving in terms of rules, is just take time to enjoy it. Try not to keep throwing stuff at the players if they are laughing and joking about something. Join in. Relax, and enjoy the game. If it gets silly, you can give them a nudge, but let them take the time to actually enjoy the game. Celebrate the first monster slain with them!
After the first adventure, which might be over several sessions, you might run a new session zero. make sure everyone is on the same page still. Stress the positives and ask what they feel is working well and what they’d like to see more of. Decide if you liked D&D enough to go onto a full campaign, and would they like to keep their current characters, or start fresh. Think about buying or finding some new adventures, and investing in books and supplements. But if enough people want to continue … you know, you’ve done it! And done far better than most, too, as a lot fall apart early on.
What resources do I recommend to give you a feel for running a game? Well the core books are full of valuable insights and information, of course, but they can be expensive to try before you are 100% convinced.
I can spend hours reading Mike Bourke’s work on Campaign Mastery – he’s got a knack of making complex concepts really accessible. If there’s any problem with his site, its that there’s so much on there you can easily get distracted fro the topic you were after! There’s a fantastic beginners section I can’t recommend enough.
Sly Flourish has written a couple of cracking, insightful books, but again, I’d wait until after you’ve given it a bit of a go before getting too into books. His blog on Building the Better Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master game is fantastic, with loads of great insights.
I’ve mentioned the basic rules already, but the main D&D website is packed with useful info and links to the community. Its more focussed on getting newcomers into the game too, so it can be more accessible than some of the longer running hobby websites. I’d particularly highlight the regular Dragon magazine free web/app for fun ways of getting slices of content without it feeling overwhelming.
Hopefully that helps a few people get started behind the screen. Its certainly stuff that I’d have liked to hear, and I love to add to it with any other suggestions.