Everything You Need to Get Started as a Dungeon Master
If you have been playing Dungeons and Dragons for any length of time, one of the things you most appreciate is the opportunity to immerse yourself in fantastical worlds. As a Dungeon Master (DM), you have even more freedom to shape the direction the campaign takes and facilitate an environment where players feel comfortable embodying any character they like. Taking everything into account, yours is one of the most important jobs in D&D. Your understanding of the game rules and how you choose to utilize or modify them are one of the pivotal factors of how smoothly things go, and ultimately, how much fun people can have. If you are new to the role of being a Dungeon Master or are thinking about taking that leap, keep reading, because below we discuss some of the tools available to you as well as a general idea of what you might be getting into.
What Is a Dungeon Master and What Does He or She Do?
As a DM it is your job to facilitate the game of Dungeons and Dragons. You are not roleplaying a single character like the other players in the game, but instead all other non-player characters, monsters, and events. You are the one narrating the story as players seek to resolve conflicts and interact with the world you have envisioned. You are also a mediator of rules, as well as the final say in what is possible in that world. It is a delicate balance of authority and mediator, but most importantly you are a storyteller. A good and engaging story will be what keeps players chomping at the bit for more. In the beginning, it might be easier to stick with common story telling tropes, but as you improve, you can start telling more elaborate and complicated stories of intrigue and adventure.
What Do You Need to Be a Dungeon Master?
Really, the only requirements to become a Dungeon Master is an understanding of the basic rules, mechanics, and the desire to take on the role of storyteller. There are many resources that can make your job easier or more organized such as dice, screens, books, and pre-written campaign settings, but fundamentally none of these are required. If it is your first time, it is best to start off with a simple adventure that takes place in a single location or deals with a single event. These “one-shots” typically take a few hours and are their own self-contained story. As an example, you can have your players responsible for recovering an heirloom, clearing a haunted graveyard, or solving a murder. Eventually as you practice and get better you are probably going to want to take your stories to the next level. This would most likely mean moving up to a full-scale campaign, where every session plays off the session before, and actions and choices by players can have farther reaching consequences or rewards. However, these also entail a great deal more work on you in your role as the DM, as there will be more things to keep track of as time goes on.
Handbooks and Character Sheets
If you are planning on taking on the mantle of Dungeon Master you have most likely played the game before, but for those that have not, there is really only one or three books that might be considered ‘required’ for gameplay; The Players Handbook, Dungeon Masters Guide and Monster Manual. These three books, often referred to as PH, DMG, and MM respectively, contain nearly all the collected information players and Dungeon Masters will need to create their adventurer and understand the rules of Dungeons and Dragons such as character classes, interaction rules, and monsters to battle. Since the Dungeon Master is part rules mediator as well as storyteller, it is recommended to have read these books at least enough to understand how combat, magic, turn orders, skill checks, and saving throws work. Knowing how to read the character sheet, which is provided in the back of the Players Handbook for copying, and understanding the different classes functionalities and differences is always a bonus as well, as sometimes players can misunderstand or misinterpret certain features that their class has. The Dungeon Masters Guide is chalk full of useful tips, tricks, tables, and tools to make your job easier. The Monster Manual would be the least necessary of the three, as there are plenty of free resources online such as Pinterest with a plethora of creative monsters that other Dungeon Masters and players have designed.
Pre-written campaign modules are settings in which nearly all the relevant information you will need for a multi-session campaign is provided, such as maps, descriptions, locations, plot hooks, and non-playable characters (NPC’s). These can take a lot of the burden off you by giving you a baseline to use and fall back on when your players throw a curve ball at you. Some popular modules written by Wizards of the Coast are Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Princes of the Apocalypse, and Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, though there are hundreds more written by a variety of publishing companies. How precisely you want to follow these modules is completely up to you, making them a great resource when you run out of ideas.
Dungeon Master Screens
While not necessary, these handy screens can be used to help you keep your notes, and dice rolls if you choose, hidden from your players. They also make a great place to have information quickly accessible to you. Many of the standard DM screens such as those sold by Wizards of the Coast even have rule tables printed their back side for easy reading. A quick internet search can lead you to a multitude of individuals and companies that make customizable DM screens or you could even make your own with whatever relevant information you feel you would need.
Dice, or at least the ability to roll dice, are probably the only item that are necessary to play Dungeons and Dragons. Many people even take a great deal of pride in the amount of dice they have, and while it can become an expensive addiction, you don’t actually have to spend any money at all. A quick google search can bring up a multitude of free dice rolling sites, although you miss out on the satisfying clickity-clack of dice hitting the table. Whether you choose to go with physical or digital dice, there are many options.
Miniatures and Battle Mats
While some people like to play the game completely with theater of the mind, others prefer a visual representation of the events taking place in the game such as battles, locations, or maze-like dungeons. For these players, the use of miniatures and battle maps can really help bring your game to life or add clarity to confusing situations. You can spend a great deal of money on customizable minis or battle maps to look like specific D&D terrain such as deserts and oceans, but really, anything with a grid can serve as a battle map. You can even use old board game pieces such as Monopoly or even buttons as miniatures to represent monsters and players. How deep you choose to go down this rabbit hole is completely up to you.
While these tools can help you in your journey to be the best Dungeon Master you can be, all you really need is the desire to take on the role. The role can be a lot of work, but it can be an incredibly rewarding experience as well. The feeling of satisfaction you get from watching your players explore and interact with your story in ways that you could never imagine makes the hours of preparation and work you do well worth the investment.