Watching D&D livestreams like ‘Critical Role‘, ‘Dice, Camera, Action!‘, or ‘Acquisitions Inc‘, can make Dungeon Masters seem like masters of storytelling. The deep, nuanced and colourful worlds that Mercer, Perkins and Holkins have created are as intimidating as they are immersive and awe inspiring. So obviously, as a brand new DM, this is the cost of entry – a complete world, filled with meaningful and interesting NPCs, each with engaging backstories and unique voices.
Except, no. That’s ridiculous.
“How Do I Get Started?”
Getting started in DMing is as easy as getting started as a player. Really. Why? Here’s why.
Simplify the rules.
Dungeons & Dragons is by far the most popular role playing game in the world, followed closely by systems such as Pathfinder (itself based on D&D’s third edition), Call of Cthulu, Shadowrun, and many other games. The common factor between these games is the relative complexity of the rules. Dungeons & Dragons basic rules, for example, are 177 pages long, over two PDFs, while their complete core set trifecta is close to 1,000 pages. That is a ridiculous amount of reading to play make-believe. Thankfully, there are other rule sets on the market that can give you valuable DMing experience, without having to remember the rule for every little thing that will happen.
Index Card RPG
The bestselling brainchild of Hankerin Ferinale, of Runehammer Games (née Drunkens&Dragons) fame, ICRPG is an amazing game for DMs who want to master the game design element of the craft. My full review of the game’s first edition (the second edition was recently released, and contains a tonne more content) can be found here, but I want to quickly summarise why I think it should be one of the first games you look at before hitting the table.
- It’s short.
ICRPG’s core rules cover about 6 pages, and the very basic rules are free (click here). It’s an incredibly short read, and the complete rulebook tops out at just over 200 pages long. That might sound like a lot, but bear in mind that, rather than the traditional American Letter size of RPG books, this tome is 6″x9″, and mostly written in a larger font, making it easier to read at the table. It also contains all of the rules on character creation, two world primers, monsters galore, and enough adventures to keep you going for a couple of months.
- It’s malleable.
More than any other game I have encountered, ICRPG is designed to built by you, the DM. This might sound scary at first, but the rules outline the creative process, giving you the tools to go and build monsters, traps and even whole new rules for yourself. Using Hearts and tags, it gives you, the DM, the means to build anything on the fly. Need a new monster? Choose a dice modifier, a number of Hearts, and whatever you feel it’s defining feature it, and go hog wild. Need a troll? Well, how about 2 Hearts, +4 to all rolls, a club which deals Weapon Effort, and a vomit attack that all CLOSE characters have to avoid with a Dex check, but that can only be used once every 1d4 rounds.
- It’s quick,
More complex games can very easily get bogged down. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it can be difficult as a new DM to know how to make these points interesting. ICRPG doesn’t have that problem. Keeping things in a traditional boardgame turn order, the action keeps moving along, and it is absolutely possible to run an adventure that would take weeks in D&D in the course of an afternoon.
- That damned Game Mastery section.
I don’t care if you played Tunnels & Trolls in the ’70s, or don’t know what RPG stands for, the ICRPG Game Mastery section is a must read. It breaks down the very essence of running a role playing game, and all of the concepts within it are system neutral. Reading this will make you a better DM, whether or not you ever use anything in it.
Dungeon World is another small press title, itself a mod of the Apocalypse World system. The value of Dungeon World, in my honest opinion, is not so much in the rules themselves (though they are incredible), but more in the collaborative nature of character and world creation.
While the rules are free, I don’t recommend going to them first. Check out videos of the game being played, and you’ll see a master class in how to DM well. To quickly summarise, though:
- Always ask questions.
One of your players decides they would like to be an elf. The very first question you ask? “What are elves like?“. Well, in this world, elves are four feet tall, with scaled skin, and eyes which burn like embers. Their affinity for magic was stripped for them in eons past by a vengeful god, and they have strode to rekindle their arcane nature ever since.
By asking that question you have done three things. 1 – You gave the player creative control, meaning that immediately they have a clear idea of what their place in the world is, and what their culture looks like. 2 – You found out what the player wants. Over the course of the campaign you know that the elf character wants to rekindle the arcane spark which has long laid dead. Gives them opportunities to move towards that goal, and to either succeed or fail in it. 3 – Your player has built a part of your world, and that world’s history, for you.
Never stop asking those questions. Of course, make sure they hold a consistent logic, but allow your players to build the world around themselves, and use the things they tell you to craft adventures they will immediately engage with with ease.
- “Draw a map, but leave plenty of blank space”.
One of the bits of DMing I love most is crafting worlds. Talomire is one of my true loves in life. But even this world, designed to be published for other DMs to use, is filled with blank space for players and DMs to fill.
Draw yourself an outline of a map (or check out some of the resources below), and give it one or two major landmarks that you would like to use; a mountain range, a natural port, or a major city for example. During the first session, when players are creating their characters, and you’re asking questions, discuss what the world looks like. What is the climate? Who lives here? Where is the town you grew up in, and what is it called? Fill in the map over the course of the campaign, through the answers your players give, and the adventures you lead them on.
Outsource your prep.
Preparing a game can take time. For some of my more serious games I’ve spent tens of hours prepping a single 2-4 hour session. You do NOT need to do that. Prep enough for a single night of gameplay, around 3-6 encounters or rooms, and have enough content to one side to allow you to improv a game (trust me, DMing is like herding cats) if you need to. The resources I discuss below are all things I use at my table all the time, and I highly recommend you make the most of them.
- Predrawn maps.
Drawing maps is not easy. Crafting dungeons or towns that have character, while still making sense, is time consuming work. Of course, there’s no need to use maps at all, you can simply mind map how the rooms in your dungeon link together, or how the buildings in a town relate to one another. If you do want to use maps, however, check out Dyson’s Dodecahedron. With over 500 incredible maps, there is enough here to never need to draw a map in your life. I regularly print out six or seven of them, just incase my players decide to ignore what I’ve prepared!
- Index Cards/Magic the Gathering.
The Index Card RPG Volumes (seperate, but related to, the ruleset I mentioned above) are a great resource for a number of reasons. They’re fantastic tabletop resources, providing visual aides for players, but they’re also an important adventure-crafting tool. Here’s an exercise. Draw three cards, one after the other. The first card denotes the location, the second the obstacle, and the third the goal.
I drew a bear trap, a waterfall, and a cave entrance which looks like the gaping maw of a dragon. So, my location is a beartrap. What could that mean? Well, the location could be a trap, somewhere we were lured by those who mean use harm. It could be a hunt, one we were invited upon by a local noble. It could be a torture chamber, from which we must escape to our freedom. The waterfall could be a literal waterfall, one we must cross to achieve our goal, or it could be a metaphorical one; a torrent of enemies we need to avoid or dispatch. The gaping maw, to me, dictates an entrance to something far more dangerous beyond.
There. That could be a full night of gameplay, where the waterfall is at the end of a river you have to navigate on your escape from prison, or it could be the first room of a dungeon, where you have to escape your bonds and flee down a waterfall into the prison proper. Magic the Gathering cards work just as well. Imagine drawing Sulpher Falls, Jace the Mind Sculptor, and Sword of Feast and Famine, for example.
Actually, that M:tG example was pretty pricy…anyway!
- Two Minute Tabletop and Paper Minis
Miniatures and battlegrids are not compulsory. Theatre of the mind is a wonderful way of telling stories, and one I have enjoyed playing and running for years. If you enjoy tactical combat, or want to take some of the weight of remembering where everyone is in relation to one another, you needn’t buy 3d minis and craft beautiful maps. Paper minis are incredible. Cheap, easy to make and customise, and free with each ICRPG book and volume, they are a great choice for any DMing just starting out. The simpler the aesthetic the better, too, as it allows players to fill in the blanks with their imaginations, with the mini simply informing their interpretation of the character or creature.
As for maps, Two Minute Tabletop is a goldmine for battle maps, and a few other bits and bobs. Best printed on A2, it’s easy enough to have these printed on decent paper, and kept in a roll tube for when you need them at the table.
I hope this post has cleared up some of the mystique of DMing. Rather than the labour-intensive slog it can often appear, I like to see it more as an improvisational story, built on the back of the desires your players have voiced, and where game mechanics serve the story and get out of the way, rather than becoming the defining element of a session.
If you have any thoughts, questions, or complaints, fire me a comment or an email (email@example.com), and I’ll make sure to get back to you!
Until next time though, thank you!