Updated: Jul 16, 2022
Congratulations! You’ve decided to start running your very first tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) for your friends! Being a Game Master (GM) is extremely rewarding but it can also be prohibitively overwhelming when you’re just starting out. Luckily you’ve come to the right place. Here are our top tips for starting out as a GM.
Start with a Dungeon - Friday night?! Are you kidding??? *Insert Preferred Expletives Here* I still have to flesh out my pantheon, write out family trees for all of my noble houses, and don’t even get me started on the starting town’s guilds and organizations. Worldbuilding is hard and time consuming. Duh. But here's the thing. You don’t need to start out with a fully fledged world. Just start with a dungeon. Your first session can be as simple as the player characters (PCs) start outside a cave where goblins are holding a few villagers prisoners. I’ve actually started many campaigns like this. If you’re a new GM, it’s likely your players are new too and they may be unsure if they’re even going to like D&D. By starting with a single location, you’re putting less pressure on everyone. If the first session goes well, you can add to your world but again, just keep it small. Think about where the party is likely to go next session and start with that. Instead of a whole world, a frontier village should be plenty for the next few sessions.
Keep it Simple - Miniatures, terrain, 3D printed castles and DIY crafted villages. There is no limit to the production value you can provide your players - or how much you can spend. It’s inspiring, can help create an incredible representation of your imagined world is both overwhelming and completely unnecessary. I recommend using the “theater of the mind” approach where you describe what the players see and they imagine it themselves. This is how I played for YEARS before ever getting a single miniature. Terrain and minis are fun but some of the best game sessions I’ve ever run (and played in) were theater of the mind. If you want to use something to help you and your players visualize combat, I‘d suggest Roll 4 Initiative‘s dry-erase gridded tiles. I used these, a set of markers, and some plastic bingo chips to run Out of the Abyss and they worked brilliantly.
Sticky Notes - You can easily play D&D just using your smart phone. Thanks to Wizards of the Coast’s Open Game License (OGL), many websites have all the information you need to play for free. If you’re playing online, I suggest pulling up relevant monster stat blocks, random event tables, and Non Player Character (NPC) generators ahead of time so you can easily look them up in the moment. If you already made in investment in some hardcover books, do the same thing with sticky notes. For example, I might have a sticky not on the goblin stat block from the Monster Manual (MM) I plan to use, another sticky note on the random loot table from the Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG), and another one on the Spell section from the Players Handbook (PHB). As a bonus tip, I recommend having additional sticky notes or a notepad ready at the table to jot down any important details from the session as they come up.
Fake It - Fake confidence. Fake competence. Fake everything. Your player are most likely just going to be excited to play D&D so if your voice acting isn’t as good as Matt Mercer, that’s okay. And though you might be a new GM, you’re still the GM and what you say is the iron law. If any of your players challenge you, just say its a homebrew campaign and you've modified some of the material to best fit your world. And that brings us to my last tip.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility - While you are the GM and your word is final, you should also remember that you're primary responsibility is that your players have as much fun as possible. Managing multiple personalities and experience levels can be challenging but do the best job you can to make sure everyone is having fun and has the chance to participate.
I’m excited you’re going to try D&D and I know you’re going to have an awesome time! For a lot of people, Game night is the highlight of their week. I think you might soon be looking forward to it yourself!
Let me know in the comments section what the best advice is you’ve ever gotten as a GM!
- Shane Collins