Even if you’ve been playing D&D for years, preparing to run a campaign – or even just a one-off session – can be a daunting task. And if you’ve never run a game before – or if you and your group are all completely new to role-playing games – it can be downright terrifying.
It’s true that DMing is a lot of work, but you shouldn’t let that put you off. DMing is, in my opinion, the most fun and rewarding way to experience playing D&D. Today we’ll take a peek behind the screen and look at some of the things I do to help make that all-important first session go smoothly. They may not all work for you, and that’s fine; and if there’s anything you think I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments!
“Gee, Brain, what do you want to do tonight?”
Before you start thinking about what you want to happen in the game, it’s important to decide exactly what shape your first session is going to take. If the players are all seasoned pros, that’s easy; they’ll probably come to the table with characters pre-made, and you can launch straight into the game.
Sometimes, though, that won’t be the case. Let’s assume that you’re all new to the game. In that case, you’re going to need to create characters before you can do anything. As I’ve talked about in my last couple of posts, character creation is something that you’ll want to do together as a group the first time you play.
The ideal length of time for a D&D session varies from group to group, but I find that somewhere in the region of 3-4 hours – with a break in the middle – works well in most situations. For your first session, I’d say expect to spend the first couple of hours on making characters. Players are going to have questions, they’re going to be unsure what kind of character they want to play, and they’re going to spend an inordinate amount of time poring over lists of spells that they have no chance of being able to cast at 1st level. This part of the night is not something you want to rush; this will be people’s first experience of the game. Savor it and enjoy it; these characters are new and pure. They will never look like this again.
The second half of the night (or day, or evening, or whatever) is game time. And because you’ve already planned ahead and know that this session is going to be shorter than future games, you can build the adventure with that time constraint in mind.
For new players, I think it’s important to do two things quickly; the first is to get them comfortable role-playing their characters as soon as possible (although some groups prefer to describe their actions rather than role-play them – and that’s fine). The second is to teach the rules.
The old cliché of D&D is that all campaigns start in taverns. It’s tried and true; you as the DM can easily step into the role of an overly-friendly landlord or barkeep who takes a distinct interest in the group and why they’re in town, and has some rumors to spread that point the way towards the group’s first real adventure. And if all else fails, it’s easy to have somebody burst into the tavern in need of help, or with nefarious goals in mind. And in their banter with you as the innkeeper, you’ve got them role-playing.
When in Doubt Have a Man Come Through a Door with a Gun in His Hand
That leads me to the second thing part; get the players into combat as quickly as possible. Until they’re actually rolling dice, players might not really get what their characters can do. A couple of sheets of paper with abilities and numbers written on it does not a character make; it’s how that character acts when their life is on the line that makes the stories you’ll remember for years to come. You don’t need to go through all the rules with your players in advance; the best way to learn is to do, so send someone into that room with a knife and let your players start chucking d20s at them.
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to taverns. My most recent campaign began with the party travelling with a merchant caravan (another cliché, but one that also works). It wasn’t long before the party found that the bridge had been collapsed and bandits were abseiling down the cliff above them intent on stealing a very specific object from the caravan. The characters had a task – protect the caravan – and an instant threat to the success task, along with an immediate goal in recovering the stolen artifact that fueled the rest of this session and the next one.
One thing to bear in mind; no matter how much preparation you do, the game only exists with the cooperation of your players. You can do all the planning in the world, but if your players want to go off and explore you should let them. The best stories are the ones the players tell themselves, without any prompting from you – and it’s easy for you to change things around behind the scenes so that you still get to do the cool stuff you want to do.
Maybe you’ve spent days mapping out and populating a dungeon in the sewers, but the party decide to hike out and investigate the ruined keep on the horizon that you mentioned in passing. Let them. Once they’re there they could find that the surface level of the keep in abandoned, but a dark passage leads below the earth, and horrors lie beneath… Throw in your sewer dungeon, and you’re good to go.
I find that a good game comes down to two basic premises; let your players do what they want to do, and if you’re ever in doubt – wing it. (If you’re reading this, you probably watch Critical Role. Go away now and watch Episode 12. Matthew takes a couple of players who have never played before and, with no preparation at all, runs one of the most fun sessions I’ve ever seen.)
The first session is really about introducing the game, setting up the beginnings of a story that your players can get excited about, and managing their expectations for the game going forward. Bear in mind when you’re prepping for the game that you will probably never have as much time to plan for a session as you will for the first one. If you run a game with a few combats and you have beautifully illustrated battle maps for every single one of them, and stunning handouts showing characters and items that the party encounters, you might find that your players are a little disappointed when week two doesn’t have quite the same production values.
If you know you’ll have the time to produce these things then absolutely go for it! I’d only suggest trying to keep things consistent week to week. Nothing can kill your enthusiasm and enjoyment as a DM more than seeing disappointment on your players’ faces – and though you want them to have fun, you need to make sure that you are enjoying the game too. DMing shouldn’t begin to feel like work. If you’re as excited to play as your players are, then you’re doing it right.
Always leave them wanting more
Especially after the first game, you want your players to go home excited to come back and play again. Maybe the group levels up after the first session, and everybody wants to carry on playing so they can see what their new abilities and spells do. Or maybe they returned to the tavern only to find that goblins have tunneled up through the cellar and left everybody dead – and they’ll have to wait for next week to get revenge. Be as cheesy as you like. Cheese and cliché exist because they’re effective. Don’t be afraid of them.
You’ll find while you’re playing that you forget how some rules work, or that you aren’t sure how to handle some situations. That’s fine, and it’s part of the game. I’ve found that the best thing to do if you can’t find the real rule quickly is to just make a ruling for the time being, promise to look it up later for future reference, and move on. Don’t sweat it, and don’t dwell on it. You’re all learning the game, and nobody is expected to be an expert immediately. I’ve been playing D&D since the early ‘90s, and in my first 5e session I still had to look things up and wing a few decisions just to keep the game moving.
It’s more important that everybody has fun than that the rules are followed strictly, and I promise that if everybody has fun nobody will care that you couldn’t remember how grapple works. That said, the best aid for this kind of thing is the official 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Screen. As well as containing quick tables for a lot of the more commonly-used rules, it also gives you quick and dirty guides to setting DCs and a table for generating random NPC names for that moment when the enormous fighter decides to stop and chat to a passing gnome in the street and you don’t have anything prepared.
That’s it! Congratulations, you’ve successfully run your first session. Now all that’s left to do is decide on a schedule, and maybe talk about what happens if somebody can’t make it one week. And then you really are done – but you should probably start planning for the next session. And the next one. And the next one…
Next time we’ll be looking at some ways you can allow your players to build your campaign world for you. Leave a comment if you liked this article, and if there’s anything you’d like to see covered in future posts let us know!