Over a decade ago, there was a defining moment that would shape my Dungeon Mastering career. The moment that nearly all tabletop gamers share has long been burned into my psyche. A reminder. Thinking about it now: my hands clench into a fist, my heart skips a beat, my brow furrows. I feel a swelling of inner rage waiting to barf forward through my fingertips as I type. This moment, that still fills me with anguish and regret nearly 15 years later, could easily have turned me off from the hobby forever. It was the dreaded horrible first game!
No seriously… That’s it. A bad game.
The whole thing lasted around an hour before the Dungeon Master laughed maniacally as my Elven Wizard lied burnt to death on the ground being eaten by ravenous goblins. I was given no choice, no interaction, nothing. He made all the rolls. He decided what I would do. I had no idea what was going on. Nothing was explained. I felt lost…
Why is this moment so important? You may say to yourself: “Hey me, you’re awesome. You’ve been in bad games before and they didn’t leave a lasting effect. What gives?” This part, it isn’t about you. It’s about the countless number of people that will never return to our hobby because of the experience they had. Whether it be with the mouth breathing creeper, the surly rules lawyer, or the “DM vs. The Player” mentality, something turned them off.
We won’t see that person again.
There are other factors that could have contributed. One common story I hear is how overwhelmed new players feel. Dungeons and Dragons, and other tabletop RPGs, are like making a burger from a cookbook. It’s easy to follow, but your first burger is going to suck. The meat will be flavorless and crumbly, and the bun will be too big for the abnormally small patty you made; however, with a little guidance and practice you’ll be on your way to making gourmet burgers.
It’s the little things you learn. No where in a cookbook does it tell you to press a dimple into the middle of the burger patties to keep them from ballooning up into balls, or that soaking your breadcrumbs in milk beforehand will help keep the meat moist and the patty bound together. Even if it did, it would be easy to miss.
This is how the Player’s Handbook reads: like a cookbook. You try to do what it says and you fail. “Well me, you suck at cooking. Time to hang up the apron,” you think to yourself, dejected and mournful as the dog slobbers through burnt meat in their food bowl.
Then something miraculous happens. You’re at work telling a coworker your dog food story and they mention a TV series on food network called GOOD EATS. It’s got this kinda dorky middle-aged man named Alton Brown that talks about the science of cooking and how everything works. Kinda like Bill Nye the Science Guy, but for cooking.
You spend the next 72 hours binge watching his show on Netflix and suddenly things begin to click. Under his magnanimous tutelage you’ve gained that information you needed. You learned about the dimples in meat patties and the milky breadcrumbs! Oh, what a day! Next thing you know you’re cooking 3 course meals for a cocktail party while talking about wine pairings and molecular gastronomy.
The Player’s Handbook is a cookbook. It gives you the ingredients and how to use them, but doesn’t give you all the tricks, tips, and modifications. You, as the DM, need to be their Alton Brown.
How do you become the Alton Brown of Dungeons and Dragons?
The number one thing you can do is… Practice. Like all things: practice makes perfect. Learning how to use a knife to julienne carrots is not something that happens overnight. You cut off the tip of your finger 30 times, then you figure it out (And occasionally cut off the tip of your finger again, because no one is perfect).
You need to run games, read the books, watch the shows. There is a plethora of information out there to absorb. From shows like CRITICAL ROLE and ROLLPLAY, YouTubers like Matt Colville who has his amazing RUNNING THE GAME series, and sub reddits like /r/DMAcademy and /r/DnDBehindTheScreen.
Sometimes, it’s best to start small.
All the information can be a bit overwhelming. Afterall, you are neither a chef nor a scientist so how can you be expected to be the Alton Brown of Dungeons and Dragons? “I don’t have time to practice!” “What the heck does Somatic mean?” “What in Mother Earth’s name is a Mordenkainen?” You’re overwhelmed… Just like your players. That’s ok, though. I’m here to help. Let’s start small with a list of things you can do to start your players on the right foot.
1. The Rules. Read The Player’s Handbook from front to back at least once. I know it takes a while and there’s a ton of information to process, but do it anyway. You don’t have to know everything, but this gets you ahead of the game. The rest will come with time. On the same merit, your players really should read through the book at least once. They likely won’t, but you should at least try to get them to. Here’s your first milky bread crumbs trick: The Wizards of the Coast website has a free PDF of the basic rules. Being a PDF makes them easily accessible to phones. Easy accessibility means a higher likelihood the players will read it.
2. Have a Session 0. I’m not going to get in the whole process of a Session 0 at this point; however, I’ll summarize. A Session 0 is a meetup before the game where you and the players will get together and create characters, talk about game goals, and establish etiquette. There are a thousand different ways to run a Session 0 and I’ll likely share mine in-depth at a later time. For now there are many guides out there for just this thing.
3. Handouts Are Awesome. New players would rather not be bogged down by constantly flipping through a book to figure out what they can and cannot do. Luckily, there are a ton of online resources that can easily provide them with the information they need. I personally like to take a one page hand out, (Found on Reddit here.) laminate it, and give it to the players with a dry erase marker so they can keep track of things right on their cheat sheet.
4. Food! Alton Brown taught you how to cook, maybe now is a good time to put that skill to use. Chips and dip are fine too. Everyone should pitch in as much as they can.
5. Pick a Module. New DMs, especially, should consider having their first game be a module. The Dungeons and Dragons Starter Box comes with an excellent adventure designed to be an introduction to this amazing game: “Lost Mines of Phandelver.” Read it 10 times (Seriously. It’s not very long.) before you run it. You’ll know the ins and outs. You’ll recall character names and avoid pitfalls.
6. “Yes, but…” Let the players have their fun. Yes, they can attempt to swing across the ravine by grabbing onto the rope dangling from the sky pirate ship’s hull, but it’s not going to be easy.
One final note and the most important advice I can give: Have Fun! Don’t take things too seriously. Mistakes happen and you learn from them. Mistakes are how you learn about milky bread crumbs and dimpled meat patties.