tabletop games

How To Start DMing D&D Games

Yesterday, I was chatting online with internet strangers about playing D&D. It started when someone mentioned wanting to play but not having any friends to play with, then switched to players being interested but too scared to run D&D.

Having mostly run (rather than played) tabletop RPGs, I was quite interested to hear why. Every situation is a bit different, but having heard a few different reasons, I wanted to cobble together a few responses on how to overcome or get motivated to run games.

“I don’t have anyone to play with”

D&D and tabletop RPGs are having a renaissance right now. Popular geek culture, online streaming, shelter-in-place orders, and better tools have made D&D more accessible than ever, and interest is at an all-time high. I want more people to run games because I think there’s far more demand than supply.

There are plenty of ways to find randos through meetup groups, local game stores, online sites, etc. However, I think it’s easiest to start with friends and family. Float the idea of playing D&D, and I suspect there will be enough interest to get the two players you need to start.

“Knowing the rules is really overwhelming”

Although D&D gets the most attention, it is also one of the more complicated games to run. There are lots of rules, spells, special abilities, math, and lore that you don’t really have to get right to run a fun game, but it certainly feels like that’s important.

I recommend new DMs pick a rule system that provides a manageable level of structure. It’s possible to be too open-ended, but I suspect that most people would prefer a rules-light game.

For the ultimate rules light experience, there’s Honey Heist or Lasers & Feelings. They’re both free, and the rules fit on one page. You can tell fun, goofy stories without thinking too much about the rules

Dungeon World is somewhere between. Its flavor is all clearly D&D inspired, but the core rule system (Powered by the Apocalypse) is different. It’s free as a ~30 page pdf online where almost all of that are character sheets that you don’t need to read ahead of time.

“I will get flustered when players do something unexpected”

Some players and groups are more chaotic than others. However, if you aren’t thrown for a loop a few times during a game, you have probably over-prepared for the game.

I’m not saying that improvising can’t be scary, but I think embracing the unexpected is part of the medium. For a finite, managed story or game experience, it might be better to read a book or play a video game or board game. The incredible part about TTRPGs is that anything can happen. Embrace that opportunity.

“It’s a lot of work to plan an adventure”

There are lots of great adventures published out there, like A Wild Sheep Chase or Spies Like You that will get all of that out of the way. Getting mentally ready to run a game is enough without feeling the need to prepare fresh content.

“I don’t want to commit to a long-running campaign”

Like many other things in life, I think it’s best to start small. Rather than thinking about world building, storylines, or long-term schedules, get a group together to play for one evening through a one-shot adventure. If it’s fun, do it again. And then again. And if it’s really working, it will pick up.

But it’s best to set small expectations and take it a step at a time.

“I am anxious about performing in front of everyone”

I remember hearing a story on This American Life about a teenager who performed as their high school mascot. As a student outside of the costume, she was shy and awkward. Putting on the costume, however, was literally like a superpower that made her outgoing and able to do cartwheels.

Once, I was running a game of Star Trek Adventures when the players were in a shuttle on their way to an away mission. One of my players was messing with me and asked the computer to perform Klingon opera. I hesitated for maybe three seconds before belting out a garbled (but enthusiastic) rendition of Klingon-sounding syllables to a random tune.

I do not deny that social anxiety exists. I also presume that such anxiety is much more deeply rooted than any argument I could make here on a blog. All I can do is share my own experience.

I have run really terrible games in my life. Maybe I still do; it’s hard to measure that objectively. However, I can confidently say that I have run much worse sessions before than I do now.

And yet, I’m still playing, and most players kept coming back. When I’m running a game, I am so engrossed and engaged and locked in that I forget to drink water, much less consider what my players are thinking. I presume my players are forgiving for my mistakes, but I’m not thinking about it during the game. I can’t pause to get self-conscious or fumble around because the game is waiting for me. I’m juggling rules and story and player engagement to keep the game going until we hit time, and then I remember to breathe.

That paragraph probably neatly summarizes why I keep running games.

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