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How to DM DnD (and Improve Your Game Design Skills)

Ryan Omega

Ryan Omega

Ryan Omega is a live experience designer, GameMaster and video producer who has designed live game events such as RealityRP for DnDLive2020 for Wizards of the Coast, The Four Empires at Anime Pasadena, Anime Riverside and Anime Las Vegas, and the Malibu Daydream Experience (aka “Barbie LARP”) at San Diego Comic Con in 2023. He currently works a corporate team builder for companies such as Google and Amazon where he emcees and runs live games for up to 400 people. You can follow him on X/Twitter or Instagram.

What does it take to design a game?

Is a game just a set of rules, some options for players to choose from, and enough playtesting to make sure it’s balanced and fun?

That description misses something important about games. Classical composer Claude Debussy said, “Music is the space between the notes,” and I say, “The game is the space between the rules.”

There is no better way to learn this than running an adventure for your players in a home game of Dungeons & Dragons or another tabletop roleplaying game.

In a video game, you might have a single objective and a dozen input buttons the player can use to achieve it.

In contrast, a tabletop roleplaying game gives players near-total freedom over their actions, and no plan can survive their antics without adapting to their decisions.

That can make running a game of D&D intimidating, and very different from sitting at your computer working on your video game project. But gamemastering a tabletop roleplaying game is the fastest way to learn game and narrative design with the live feedback of your players.

This is my guide on how to run Dungeons & Dragons (or any tabletop roleplaying system) for first-time Dungeon Masters.

You can learn the basic rules from the Dungeon Master’s Guide, but I’m here to help make your first experience smoother and ultimately discover your own game master style.

Since I started DMing six years ago, I’ve run many games, from live-streamed shows like Arcana High on D&D Twitch to a home game based on The Golden Girls. This has taught me how to become a better game designer and storyteller, and I recommend the experience to anyone interested in these topics.

By the way, as you’re reading this post, if you have any questions or issues implementing you can get free help in the #game-design channel in Funsmith Club Discord, or you can DM me there.

Get notified each week on the latest game design tips, guides, templates, and workshops that I don’t share anywhere else here 👇

How to DM D&D for the First Time

This primer is divided into two parts:

  • An overview of the setup for a tabletop roleplaying game, including how to prepare for the Dungeon Master role
  • A guide to the social aspects of running an interactive roleplaying adventure, so you can create the best experience for your players and for you as the Game Master

The official term for the person who runs a Dungeons & Dragons game is the “DM” or “Dungeon Master,” but the general advice also applies to any other tabletop rpg, where the role is often called “gamemaster” instead.

Now let’s begin our quest.

Try a starter set or pre-written adventure

If you are not sure where to start, the official Dungeons & Dragons starter set includes a rulebook and beginner adventures (though not the complete core rulebooks).

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The Dungeons & Dragons website even has videos to guide you if you find that is an easier way to learn.

Beyond the starter set, I strongly recommend checking out The Arcane Library for adventures that are easy for new DMs to run. Their creator, Kelsey Dionne, lays out different scenes based on the player actions, and organizes everything in bullet points for easy reference.

…Or make your own story with the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide

Maybe you want to create your own adventure and don’t need a starter set since you’ve already been playing D&D as a player.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide is a comprehensive manual for players like this, covering every game mechanic along with ample suggestions for creating and running adventures.

With that said, there are many people in the roleplaying community that only use the Player’s Handbook to get started. If you want to start with only one book, the Player’s Handbook has all the rules for making characters.

Of the three core rulebooks, the Monster Manual is most easily replaced with online resources.

Run a “Session Zero”

Session Zero is the first meeting you have with your players before you run your first actual game session. This is a useful time for the DM to cover logistics and prep your friends so they’re ready to explore your adventure.

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Here are a few things you can do in your Session 0:

Build character sheets. Doing this in advance of your first game has a few advantages:

  • It doesn’t cut into your first game session, so everyone can jump in the next time you meet.
  • The players have time to figure out their characters’ relationships to each other.
  • You as the gamemaster have time to insert elements of player characters’ backstories into the adventure. The stakes are much higher if a character’s loved one is in trouble instead of a random person they’ve barely met.

Set the tone. Are you running a crunchy combat-heavy dungeon crawl where players are lucky to survive? Or are you running a political intrigue game or a heist where players can’t always solve conflicts with brute strength?

Decide on the emotional tone too. Is this game going to be mostly comical, dwell in horror, or even entertain romance?

Talk about these topics with your players so they know what to expect out of the game and make sure their character concepts and abilities are effective for the game.

Your game doesn’t have to be for everyone. If a player is bored with your premise, it’s better to find that out in session zero and either tweak your plan or find a new player who will work better with the table.

Establish safety tools. Some people immediately cringe when they hear this, thinking, “it’s just a game, what’s so unsafe about roleplay?”

But in practice, this is a simple way to be considerate of your players. If a player is arachnophobic, I can easily find a different way to bring in fear and horror that won’t make them leave the table.

Games are also about escapism for many players, not about repeating the experiences of racism, sexism, and homophobia that many people have to put up with in daily life.

Even if you are interested in exploring these themes, you won’t have a game for long if your players aren’t on board with your plan.

You can learn more from the TTRPG Safety Toolkit, or get started with these popular choices:

  • Lines and veils: naming in advance your deal-breaker topics and your gray zones where people should be cautious
  • The X-card: any player may immediately “X” a topic to move on, no questions asked
  • The traffic light system: referencing red, yellow, and green to easily signal your current comfort level in a scene
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(You can use physical safety tools like these traffic light cards from Flights and Fancy, or just take a few minutes to make homemade versions on note paper.)

By the way, the term “safety tools” has its roots in the “safe word” concept from the kink/BDSM community.

So safety tools aren’t just about protecting people; they also allow the gamemaster and players to get as gory, raunchy, or extreme as they want, because they know exactly what is on the table.

Prepare for the main game

Here is a list of basic items every Dungeon Master needs for their game:

  • Player’s Handbook or an online source such as D&D Beyond, Roll20, D&D Wiki, or D&D WikiDot (the Monster Manual, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and other sourcebooks are a bonus!)
  • Dice: at least one set of polyhedral dice which has a d4, d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20. The more dice, the better.
  • DM screen: a vertical screen to hide your dice rolls and notes, sometimes with a cheat sheet of rules printed on the DM’s side
  • Pencils for yourself and each player (preferred over pens since you’ll be updating stats as you play)
  • Initiative tracker: a physical or digital tool for tracking the order players and enemies act in combat, visible to everyone so they can plan their actions
  • Paper: both you and the players might want to write down notes and ideas they have during gameplay
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(A handmade “old” map like this one shared by Loot & Liar is a great way to add details and atmosphere that make your world come to life.)

Speaking of notes, what kind of notes should you prepare?

  • Adventure outline: Anywhere from a couple of paragraphs to a few pages. Personally, I use bullet points, which act as guideposts to lead back to even if the story goes somewhere unexpected.
  • NPCs (Non-Player Characters): The cast of villains and helpers for the party to interact with. It helps to give major NPCs and big bosses character sheets, but for the rest, you only need basic stats and a few adjectives or features to help you roleplay them.
  • Combat Encounters: These should be challenging but not overwhelmingly difficult. Accomplishing this takes some practice, but start by following D&D’s Challenge Rating (CR) system as a loose guide. One CR 3 monster is a good challenge for four 3rd-level players.
  • Personal touches: A few props can add cool moments to the experience, like a physical sealed envelope containing a secret the players can find, or hand-drawn maps to reveal the location of a lair.
  • References for player skills: Notes (or bookmarks or printed D&D reference cards) to help you remember how player abilities work, especially the ones they’ll use again and again.

How to Improve as a Dungeon Master through Game Design

Many people don’t realize how much game design comes up when you run a basic D&D game.

The moment you decide to make a house rule or tailor an interaction that is outside an adventure to your players, you are designing a game experience.

You didn’t tamper with the rules; you tinkered with the rules with the players in mind so they could enjoy themselves the most.

You can become a better DM—and a better game designer—by figuring out your own gamemaster style and thinking about how to improve your interaction with players through storytelling.

And if you’re one of our many readers interested in game design as a hobby or career, that focus on player experience, is a great headstart on the fundamental principles behind our game design courses.

What is your Dungeon Master style?

If you have played in a few tabletop roleplaying games or watched “actual play” productions, you know there is no single right way to run a game.

Use other people’s games as inspiration, but figure out what style of running a game works best for you and your adventure:

Miniatures vs. Theater of the Mind

Laying out miniature figures on a large scale map works best if you want to encourage tactics and strategy.

This produces games that tend to be “crunchy” (as in “number crunching”), where a single square can determine if a lethal arrow shot will land.

Other Dungeon Masters prefer a “theater of the mind” style, where the combat occurs in their heads and in narrative descriptions.

This style is best suited for descriptive combat and storytelling, producing games that value more cinematic-sounding conflicts.

Theater of the mind lets you encourage and reward players’ creativity when they come up with cool action sequences, but without grid tactics there is more reliance on the whims of the dice.

Balancing between combat and roleplay (How do you resolve conflict?)

As a player, you might think that this is just about how to balance between fighting and socializing, two things almost every tabletop roleplaying game has in some amount.

But I’d like to reframe this: Are you the kind of DM that leans toward using dice and game mechanics to resolve conflicts or would you allow pure roleplay to resolve a conflict?

Your decision depends on how you want to tell these stories:

The pros of using dice to resolve conflicts are:

  • There is always an element of calculated risk that heightens any adventure
  • If you aren’t sure of the best outcome for story, then dice can decide
  • The gambling element of dice rolling adds a bit of fun

The cons of using dice to resolve conflicts are:

  • Making players roll for skills that should be in their wheelhouse can make gameplay slow and tedious
  • Introducing chance to important actions can throw the entire story arc off-course; as a Dungeon Master you need to be prepared to commit to this

Use your discretion whenever you see these problems come up. You don’t need to force an expert athlete to waste time rolling easy skill checks to climb a wall.

And if a player wants to do something that “breaks the game,” you don’t need to allow it if it’s not fun for the whole table.

On the other hand, do you want to use roleplay to resolve a conflict requiring social skills and empathy? Can your players give an in-character speech to convince an NPC to help them, or goad an enemy into attacking?

The pros of using roleplay to resolve conflicts are:

  • This method rewards empathic roleplay and makes noncombat conflicts more dramatic
  • This enables players to come up with their own creative solutions
  • You have more opportunity to roleplay different characters, adding theater to the game session

The cons of using roleplay to resolve conflicts are:

  • Some players feel they do not have the actual social skills to convince characters or influence situations, and would rather roll dice than improvise
  • Some Dungeon Masters are more interested in narrating conflicts than directly roleplaying as antagonists

Keep in mind that you can choose not to roleplay every encounter as a Dungeon Master and still allow players to roleplay solutions.

Vice versa, you can portray a whole cast of characters and still allow a player to narrate out third-person actions if that’s what they’re comfortable with.

There are also many Dungeon Masters who let both dice and roleplay influence a result, by rewarding a convincing roleplay with a reroll or other advantage in the game mechanics.

Letter of the Law vs. Rule of Cool

Some Dungeon Masters stick to the letter of the law, strictly interpreting the game’s rules to function only as prescribed in the rulebook,

On the opposite end, you might choose to allow players to come up with creative uses for their abilities or items even if it means bending how they normally work.

Going by the “rule of cool” means you will entertain a cinematic story moment even if it is not consistent with the rules as written.

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For example, the level 1 spell Grease makes an area slippery. If you stick directly to the rulebook, this causes people to fall over. But many players assume that the grease is flammable; it’s up to you as the DM to decide whether to allow this perhaps overpowered use of the spell for the sake of a cool moment.

Cut to the story beat vs. Explore every hall

Are you the type of storyteller who will handwave details to get straight to the action, or are you going to use relatively mundane tasks to create encounters?

This depends on your player group. Some people want shopping for new equipment to happen quickly and off-screen while others love to roleplay three hours of haggling.

Similarly, some players will kick down every door in a dungeon to mine it for every ounce of treasure while others want the straightest line to the mini-boss.

The best rule of thumb is that if everyone is into the scene (including you as the gamemaster), those small encounters can be just as meaningful as the big battles.

But if you find someone not saying much or not engaged because this isn’t the kind of gameplay they find interesting, either switch the focus to that player by giving them something they can concentrate on, or wrap up the scene to get all your players back on the same page.

Ryan’s Top DM Tips

What makes a tabletop roleplaying game different from other games with set rules is that narration is a significant part of the Dungeon Master role. Here are my top five tips that I’ve acquired over years of gamemastering that will help you sound like a pro.

Use the five senses to describe a scene

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(Try taking inspiration from how your favorite books or games write descriptions—here’s a passage from Moby Dick that includes sound, sight, feel, and temperature.)

Most DMs narrate what a place looks like as if we were in a movie.

Instead, add depth to your descriptions by engaging other senses like the smell of fresh-baked bread coming from a bakery, the crunch of bones underfoot in a graveyard, or the shrill yell of a man screaming in the distance.

Allow losing rolls to still give information or roleplay opportunities

When someone rolls badly on a perception roll, many gamemasters might say, “You don’t notice anything” because the roll didn’t succeed.

However, a good gamemaster will still use this as an opportunity to give some information about the world.

A player might not succeed on their check to notice the zombies shuffling in the distance, but they might still notice that the trees in the graveyard are petrified and bleached, adding to the creepy feeling of the place.

Responding to player choices (including callbacks and favorite NPCs)

You might have prepared the most interesting NPC in the world, only to watch your players focus on an adorable sheep they found, adopting her and naming her Wooly Bully.

You might give your players their own castle as a reward, but they want nothing more than to make Nonna’s bakery famous.

Pay attention to what the group engages with most and provide roleplay opportunities involving these characters. . . or threaten them for higher narrative stakes!

Let players narrate final blows, critical successes, and critical failures

One of the most famous lines in roleplaying games is from the show Critical Role: whenever a player is about to land a fatal blow, Dungeon Master Matt Mercer asks, “How do you want to do this?”

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(The more you involve your players in the cool moments, the better the reactions you’ll get (screenshot from Critical Role[))
Allowing a player narrative control of that blow drives it home for the players that a task was completed.

For similar reasons, many gamemasters also allow narration when someone makes a critical success, so the player can narrate the best outcome of an ability check.

Personally, I also like to have players narrate their critical failures as well. This is because it allows the player to take control of the narrative, feeling like they are contributing rather than failing the group.

Also in my experience, a player committed to the story will also narrate worse effects for themselves than anything I could ever create for them!

Allow the player’s theories to be right all along

Over the course of your game, whether it’s a one-shot game, a mini-series, or a long campaign, players will come up with several theories about who is behind the dastardly crimes or what is motivating the evil monster.

Of all of those theories, choose one of them to be the correct one, even if it does not align with your original plot or destination.

Even though you are the dungeon master, your job is to tell a collaborative story. If your players think the evil monster is working for the crooked duke, they are seeing a connection in the world you built. Reward this engagement by building toward their expectations.

Some gamemasters might want to be more clever than their players and have a “correct” answer. But as a storyteller, you should leave clues to point your players in that direction.

If you end up misleading players to the wrong conclusion that no one got correct, it will feel like there is no payoff for all their work and leave players feeling unsatisfied.

Also don’t discount the idea that players will come up with wilder theories about your world than you do. And it is much more rewarding when a few of those wild ideas turn out to be right!

How to Enjoy Yourself as a New DM

Don’t forget the most important thing about being a gamemaster: Have fun.

Don’t forget the second most important thing when being a gamemaster: It’s OK to not know everything.

If I felt I had to memorize all 300+ pages of the Player’s Handbook, I would never have started being a Dungeon Master!

So with both of those points in mind, here are some final tips I’d like to give:

  • If you’re not sure about a rule, it is OK to make a gut decision that makes the most sense with the story and the knowledge you have.
  • Better yet, let your players help you. When a player uses an ability, I sometimes ask them to look that rule up for me while I continue to narrate to the other players.
  • If you find your head getting foggy or if running the adventure is getting too intense, take a break. You can use that break to look up rules, figure out how to adapt to a shift in the story, or just focus on yourself.
  • You can always modify the game’s rules to suit your story, playstyle, or your players. If you are working with a pre-written adventure, you can also modify the adventure to suit your preferences (just make sure to look ahead and adjust later scenes to match if needed).
  • If your adventuring party heads in a different direction than you planned, follow your players’ lead. I have a rule: “A group can come up with a much grander story than anything I can come up with alone. Otherwise, I’d be writing a book.”

Onward and Upward

Your gaming path is unique to you. I didn’t start Dungeon Mastering until six years ago, but I had a foundation roleplaying in LARPs for over 20 years, which is why my games are heavily influenced by social intrigue and lots of theatrics.

The great part of a system like D&D 5e is that you can thematically put your own spin on this game. Not every adventure needs to start at a tavern. Not every “evil” monster needs to be evil in your game, even if twenty other games do it.

On a practical level, the way to create your best stories is to have more tools in your gaming toolbelt: learn different ways of storytelling, understand the mechanics from various games, and study what ultimately makes interactions fun.

And if you get hooked on D&D and want to share your epic adventures outside your playgroup, come tell us all about it on Discord!

There is a running joke in the TTRPG community that I LARPed so hard, I made a career out of it.

May you game so hard that you make the best version of your life out of it.

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Each Friday, get a shot of 2-min TL:DR update in your inbox on the latest

All tactics. No fluff . Pro advice only. Unsubscribe any time

EXPERIENCE & BACKGROUND:

[STUDIO] Blizzard Entertainment: Content, mechanics, and systems designer

(Creator of Apex Legends & former Creative Director at Respawn)

[GAME] World of Warcraft: MMORPG with 8.5 million average monthly players, won Gamer’s Choice Award – Fan Favorite MMORPG, VGX Award for Best PC Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Video Game.

  • Classic:
    • Designed Cosmos UI
    • Designed part of Raid Team for Naxxramas
  • Burning Crusade:
    • Designed the raid bosses Karazhan, Black Temple, Zul’Aman
    • Designed the Outlands content
    • Designed The Underbog including bosses:
      • Hungarfen, Ghaz’an, Swamplord Musel’ik, and The Black Stalker
    • Designed the Hellfire Ramparts final bosses Nazan & Vazruden
    • Designed the Return to Karazhan bosses: Attumen the Huntsman, Big Bad Wolf, Shades of Aran, Netherspite, Nightbane
  • Wrath of the Lich King:
    • Designed quest content, events and PvP areas of Wintergrasp
    • Designed Vehicle system
    • Designed the Death Knight talent trees
    • Designed the Lord Marrowgar raid
  • Cataclysm:
    • Designed quest content
    • Designed Deathwing Overworld encounters
    • Designed Morchok and Rhyolith raid fights
  • Mists of Pandaria: 
    • Overhauled the entire Warlock class – Best player rated version through all expansion packs
    • Designed pet battle combat engine and scripted client scene

[GAME] StarCraft 2: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Diablo 3: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Overwatch: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[GAME] Hearthstone: Playtested and provided design feedback during prototyping and development

[STUDIO] Riot Games: Systems designer, in-studio game design instructor

(Former Global Communications Lead for League of Legends)
(Former Technical Game Designer at Riot Games)

[GAME] League of Legends: Team-based strategy MOBA with 152 million average active monthly players, won The Game Award for Best Esports Game and BAFTA Best Persistent Game Award.

  • Redesigned Xerath Champion by interfacing with community
  • Reworked the support income system for season 4
  • Redesigned the Ward system
  • Assisted in development of new trinket system
  • Heavily expanded internal tools and features for design team
  • Improved UI indicators to improve clarity of allied behaviour

[OTHER GAMES] Under NDA: Developed multiple unreleased projects in R&D

Game Design Instructor: Coached and mentored associate designers on gameplay and mechanics

[STUDIO] Moon Studios: Senior game designer

(Former Lead Game Designer at Moon Studios)

[GAME] Ori & The Will of The Wisps: 2m total players (423k people finished it) with average 92.8/100 ratings by 23 top game rating sites (including Steam and Nintendo Switch).

  • Designed the weapon and Shard systems
  • Worked on combat balance
  • Designed most of the User Interface

[GAME] Unreleased RPG project

  • Designed core combat
  • High-level design content planning
  • Game systems design
  • Game design documentation
  • Gameplay systems engineering
  • Tools design
  • Photon Quantum implementation of gameplay

[VC FUNDED STARTUP] SnackPass: Social food ordering platform with 500k active users $400m+ valuation

[PROJECT] Tochi: Creative director (hybrid of game design, production and leading the product team)

  • Lead artists, engineers, and animators on the release the gamification system to incentivize long-term customers with social bonds and a shared experience through the app

[CONSULTING] Atomech: Founder / Game Design Consultant

[STUDIOS] Studio Pixanoh + 13 other indie game studios (under NDA):

  • Helped build, train and establish the design teams
  • Established unique combat niche and overall design philosophy
  • Tracked quality, consistency and feedback methods
  • Established company meeting structure and culture

Game Design Keynotes:

(Former Global Head of HR for Wargaming and Riot Games)
  • Tencent Studio
  • Wargaming
  • USC (University of Southern California)
  • RIT (Rochester Institute of Technology)
  • US AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association)
  • UFIEA (University of Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy)
  • West Gaming Foundation
  • Kyoto Computer Gakuin – Kyoto, Japan