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How to DM in D&D 5e

Written by Bob Burne

With over 30 years experience, Bob started gaming when he was 8 and running when he was 9. He has played or run everything from D&D to homebrewed horrors that would split your psyche apart if you even glimpsed the badly done cover art. Recently he has begun writing, and surprisingly, people want to read his brain leakings. He has several short stories in anthologies for Carpathia Publishing.

On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:

There comes a time in many gamers’ lives where they hear the call of the screen. When they decide to stop being a mere player and step up to truly become a master of the game – a Dungeon Master of the game, you might say. Many then realize they have no idea what to do. They immediately give up, and the game loses another promising DM due to simple ignorance. I have seen it many times, and now I am here to help. The concise answer of how to DM in 5e:

Make cheat sheets that cover common game rules and your player’s characters. When making a game world, start small. For modules, read thoroughly and adapt. Online, college campuses, game stores, and military bases are great for finding players. Consider playing locations and players carefully.

I’ll get into all of that shortly, but first, a note on me:

Why You Should Trust Me

This is the part where I brag about myself.

I started playing at 8 years old as a fill-in character at a friend’s table. I hated it. 

A bit later, my friend came to me and helped me make my own character. Three dead goblins and a new hawk friend later, and I was hooked. 

Eventually, my friend moved away, and I took over the game at the age of 9; as of this writing, I am now 42. 

I have been running games steadily for 33 years, running or playing almost everything on the market.

1. Learn the Rules

Learn them. Love them. Live them. 

This is the first problem that new DM’s run into. Many think that simply playing for a while endows them with knowledge of how things work, and maybe they do – but the average new DM doesn’t know enough

Do you know how magic works? Arcane and Divine? If all you played were magic characters, do you know how melee works? 

When I started running games, I didn’t know these things, and my first game was a disaster. I grabbed for the books every few minutes because I didn’t know what I was doing. 

After taking a few weeks off and keeping the books with me constantly, I memorized tables, spells, and how all the classes worked. 

Armed with that knowledge, I was ready to run my next game. It still sucked, but not because I didn’t know the rules. I was 9, after all.

You don’t need to do what I did; learn from my mistakes. Become familiar with the rules – but make cheat sheets for important, often-referenced rules for your particular team.

Generally useful things to reference

Your Group’s specific information to reference:

To save yourself the trouble, only learn spells that your party has access to or that you plan to use. As the game progresses, so will your knowledge, and soon, it will be smooth as butter. 


Discover Ancient Treasure

The party is tired, hurting, and in need of shelter when they discover a mysterious, ancient stone crypt.

The dusty tomb could hold immense treasure, danger, or both – depending on how they approach it.

Perhaps they’ll foolishly wander into this setting-agnostic, densely-written classic dungeon that provides plenty of unique choices and twists on old favorites.

Check out the promotional version (on the product page) before you buy the Mound of Harald the Conqueror!


2. Writing Your First Adventure vs. Using a Module.

By now, you know the rules—good job not going mad from the minutiae. 

Crafting Your World

Now it’s time to consider writing your first adventure. For the sake of your remaining sanity, do not try to create a whole campaign world, for that way lies madness. 

All you have to do at first is create a straightforward adventure – don’t overcomplicate it. Start simple

Let’s break down one of my early first adventures that was half-decent:

Goblins are raiding a town, and the PC’s are tasked to get rid of them. I know—it’s not going to set the world on fire, but it taught me the basics. 

First, I designed the enemies. A warlord to lead them and a few bands of goblins to fight. Next, I turned toward the town; a simple farming village led by an elder. 

It had a simple tavern run by a middle-aged man and his wife staffed mostly by his kids because he was cheap. The town would need a blacksmith to repair things and sell new weapons or tools, and maybe they also had a basic herbalist shop for components. That was it. 

I expanded the town extensively after the PC’s took a shine to it, and I used it as a home base for a while. 

What I didn’t do was try to write a whole world, get overwhelmed, and give up – as many ambitious would-be DMs do. 

Start simple and build from there.


Looking to challenge your players?

Puzzles and Riddles can be tricky! Too easy and they’re pointless; Too hard and it’s pure frustration. What is a DM to do?

Well, our friends over at Dungeon Vault have an assortment of puzzles, riddles, and tokens to enhance your gaming experience. They even have a murder mystery and a political intrigue system!

For easy-to-use resources for any D&D game, check out the selections at Dungeon Vault!


Using Modules

I suck at running modules, and I probably always will. So, here is a small list of what to do so you don’t end up like me. 

Learn the module

Seriously – read the whole thing

Some modules are written like crap, and they don’t tell you what you need to know unless you go through the whole thing like you’re panning for gold. 

Don’t be afraid to change or adapt what you don’t like. Most importantly, be prepared for some serious out-of-the-box thinking and overthinking on the part of your Player’s Characters (PCs). 

I was in a game where the DM simply read the text no matter what we did

We used a wand of firebolt to flip an lever holding back an obvious rockslide trap. 

According to the DM, though, it was actually a wand of throw rock because the module’s text described us slinging a rock to trigger the trap and not a firebolt. The DM read the flavor text word-for-word. 

Not great for immersion. 

Another example was our monk using flurry of blows with his fists to finish off the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG). The flavor text in the module described the BBEG slumping over as he bled from many cuts and thrusts. 

As you might imagine, it broke the immersion, and the monk’s nickname became Knife-Edge Chop. This is a minor example of adapting – you don’t generally bleed to death from a series of blunt fists.

Adapting Modules to Your World

Early 2nd ed modules were mostly designed to fit into your already-existing world, while later ones were world-specific. Tweak whatever you need to make it fit your world

If you don’t use goblins in your world, it wouldn’t make sense to have them running around as a horde of slavers. 

Pick something that works, and don’t be afraid to add things if you feel the potential for plot is there.

3. Finding a Group

This is where many games fall apart. 

In my day, you were stuck with the people in your immediate region. It was a careful process of testing the waters without them turning you in to the local religious group for your exorcism. Times were different then. 

Now that everything evil is getting blamed on a new source (thank you, video games), it’s much easier to find a group to play with.

The Internet

Somewhere between smut and people ranting about nothing, there is a thriving community of potential players just waiting to be found by an enterprising DM. 

Be smart and safe. There are many weird people out there, and some of them are bad weird. If you go the internet route, do your homework, talk to them first, meet with them in public (where possible), and only then bring the group together.

In Real Life

If you don’t want to go that route, there’ll be extra leg work. With a friendly local game store (FLGS), you can usually find people looking to get into a game. Quality game stores have a notice board for just such purposes. 

Create a throwaway email. Avoid giving out your phone number

Colleges are also a great spot to find players. Many have even D&D clubs and usually need a DM to run things. Even just walking around with a shirt related to the game can draw interest. 

If you have a military base, they are also surprisingly great places to recruit players.

Honesty is important when you are recruiting. 

If you want to run a high-combat, low-magic game, then let your players know that so there are no surprises at the table. Nobody likes to play in a game where their concept doesn’t work with the style of play. 

I once played a combat-heavy character in a highly political game. It was unpleasant at first and became downright torture as my character became increasingly useless. 

If the DM had been upfront with what the game would be, then I may have enjoyed it immensely.


Frighten Your Players

In a dark room, Jon is on the edge of his seat. He’s afraid his next act will be his doom.

Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.

Do something!” Sara shouts, causing everyone to jump. Rattled, Jon does something stupid.

For less than a Starbucks coffee, gift a thrilling night for you and your crew;

Check out Weeping Walls, our haunted house intended to fit into any campaign.


4. Choosing a location

I am always amazed by how little thought goes into location and how many times it wrecks games. 

A Player’s House

It’s free, but here are a few things to consider: Will the player’s family or roommates be an issue? Is there a child that could disrupt the game? How about allergies to pets? Is anyone afraid of dogs? 

Lastly, you should consider the player themselves. Dungeons and Dragons can involve PC death. Will this player flip out if you kill their character, and will this affect how the game is run?

DM’s House

Also free, plus all your books are on hand! And hey, you don’t have to travel!

Questions to consider: Do you want people at your place? Are you okay with the inevitable spills and messes that come with running a game? What about if your players overstay their welcome? 

If not, keep looking. It’s great if you have a designated “gamer cave”, like so many celebrities, but otherwise, think hard and choose wisely. 

A small addendum for the married: let your Significant Other (S/O) know the schedule so there are no surprises come game day.

Neutral Location

This is often the best but rarest option, sadly. Boardgame cafés are great – so long as people are okay with the cover charge. 

Gaming stores often have good tables;. A small diner with backroom tables can be great; just make sure you order food, and you will be left alone for the most part. 

However, be prepared to answer questions from passersby and looky-loos might become an issue. Keep this in mind if your players are already hesitant to roleplay or if they’re naturally shy.

Neutral locations solve many of the issues the other options have, but none are perfect.

Location Summary

LocationBenefitCost
Player’s House-Free
-Often convenient
-Their roommates or family
-Kids or Pets
-Allergies
-Potential drama if the player dies
DM’s House-Free
-All books and resources available
-No transit (if you’re the DM)
-Roommates, family, kids, pets 
-Players overstaying
-Spills, messes
Neutral Location-More Stable
-Often decent tables-Food and drinks
-Costs money, either for food or time
-Looky-loos
-Player Shyness

Summary

I hope you found this helpful. 

For deeper dives, keep an eye out for my other articles that will go into much more detail. 

Brief Recap:

  • Learn the rules thoroughly, but focus on the ones that are immediately useful for your group or game setting.
  • If you use your own world, start very small – set the immediate location and what would logically go with it, and what the action will be.
  • When using modules, be sure to adapt to your environment and players; read it thoroughly.
  • When forming a group of players, make sure that they’re all stable, flexible people. Don’t take just anyone. Find them on the internet, through friends, at game stores, on college campuses, or on military bases.
  • Locations all have benefits and drawbacks; if you can afford it, consider a neutral third location.

Most importantly, don’t panic. Like most things, it gets easier the longer you do it.

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