How to Prep for Your First Session as a DM
"Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation"
Dungeon Masters are often hard to find and, unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your personal perspective I guess), you can't play the game without one. There are tons of people coming into the hobby who just want to play, but have nobody to DM for them. As a player who has never been a DM (or even as a person who has never played!) you might think, "well, I can probably do that... Let's give it a try.". If this is you, congratulations!! You are on the road to a sincerely fulfilling time. It can be a little bit daunting, however. When you commit to DM a game for your friends, everyone is excited, there are lots of ideas and the air is full of potential. "I can do this!", you say, "Let's start this weekend!!". Then you get home and the excitement dwindles as you sit in front of the stack of reading you need to do, and the icy dread descends upon you. "What did I agree to? I can't do this! There's so much to read! Where do I start?". Before you give up all hope of being a successful DM, fear not. There is a lot to digest at first, but you don't need to tackle it all at once. Let me give you a few pointers on how to prepare for your very first session as a DM.
Preparation is the key to a great session, but there's a huge amount of material available for DMs, it's honestly overwhelming. The published adventures, the Players Handbook, the Dungeon Masters Guide, oh my! Do you need to read them all? Most certainly not. Do you need to read some parts? Certainly yes. My advice to you is to read as little as possible, while still reading just enough to run the game. Sufficiently vague advice aside, you do need to get a few things organized, but don't try to read everything before your first session. What, then, do you need to know before your first session? Here's a list of 10 things you need to prep before you start. I'm not going to touch on getting to know the rules, or how the game runs, I'm assuming that you already know how to play. I'll also assume that you are going to run a published adventure, rather than a homebrewed one. The advice here can be easily translated to a homebrew adventure though, with the simple (lol...) added step of creating the thing rather than just reading about it.
Many of the recently published adventures come with a handy flow chart of the options available in each chapter and the general narrative flow. This gives you a good idea of the overall structure of the adventure and where the characters' choices will lead them. You don't need to memorize the whole thing at this point, but you should be familiar with the general options that are available. This will allow you to focus your prep on the active 'branch'. If the adventure you're running doesn't have one, consider making one, it is well worth the time investment. This will help you greatly in understanding the overall flow of events and how the characters' choices might affect the storyline as a whole.
Read through the first chapter and take note of the names of any prominent or important characters. Get an idea of where they will be when the players enter the area and jot that down as well. The most important step is to understand what this NPC wants. What is their motivation? Do they need something from the party? Do they want to help or hinder their progress? Understanding this will allow you to react in a realistic way when the party interacts with them. Finally, make a note of any information they have, that the party might want. It's a good idea to also have a list of random NPC names and appearances that you can draw on as required. When the party stops in at the tavern to find out the local gossip, you can just pull a name from the top of the list and describe them, then give out the information the party is looking for.
For each important NPC, make a note with the following info:
Make a list of generic NPCs, with the following info:
Every good D&D game has a conflict-creating villain. While they may not show up in the very first session (or maybe they do!), you should find out who the villain is, where they are, and what they are trying to achieve. The published adventure will almost certainly have an overview or plot synopsis at the beginning of the book, so start here and read this thoroughly (it's usually not too long). Take note of their name, where they are currently, any organizations they work with (or lead), and what their overall motivations are.
List the following, for each villain:
- Villain Name
Clues and Secrets
Get an idea of the various clues or secrets that are available to be discovered. This can be information, quests, hidden gold, magic weapons, secret entrances or caves, secret alliances between organizations or people. Know where they are and what the party has to do to find them.
For each clue/secret, list the following:
- Location / who knows it
- DC to discover it / effort to get someone to disclose it.
Goals of the Party
You also need to know what the party wants. This will vary from party to party and will certainly change as you continue to play the module. Look for clues in the character's backstory and the background they've selected. Have they been given a quest already? Are they on a personal quest now? Having an idea of what they're looking for and what their individual and collective motivations are will help you to guide them in the right direction.
Make a note with this information:
- Party Motivation
- Individual Character Motivations
If you are starting in a populated area, there are sure to be places to buy things. Make a list of all the shops there and their names. Under each shop name, make list of the type of shop it is (what they sell) and a list of items with prices. Don't get too hung up on trying to list every possible thing there, but give yourself a guideline. You can also list some qualities about the shop, to help you describe it as the characters enter. Is it a fancy place? Busy or deserted? Is there a lot of merchandise available, or are the shelves a bit barren? Any smells or sounds they might notice?
Additionally, you'll need to make a note of the shopkeeper and any other NPCs that are in the shop. Cross-reference this back to your NPC list.
Your shops' list should have the following, for each shop:
- Shop Name
- Shop Type
- Items for sale (w/prices)
- Shop owner/other NPCs here
D&D has a heavy focus on combat, so make sure you know which encounters might lead to combat. Prepare the stat block(s) for each creature/NPC they can fight and familiarize themselves with their features, abilities, spells, etc. You will also need a way to track initiative and the HP of your monsters. I like to use a small whiteboard, but use whatever is available to you. A piece of paper is more than up to the job, but there are also many digital tools that can help you out here.
For each monster, take note of the following:
- Monster Name
- Stat Block
- Notable abilities
At the end of each encounter (combat or otherwise), there should be a reward. Take a note of what they can find, where they can find it, and any special properties. This is usually well defined in a published adventure, but make sure that the reward fits the effort involved. If they had a particularly hard time with it, or if they solved it in a particularly clever way, feel free to add additional treasure, weapons, or items as you see fit.
For each loot 'stash', list the following info:
- What is in it
- Where they can find it
- Stat blocks/item cards for magical items they can find
Maps, Minis, Tokens, and Photos
If you are playing in person, prepare any tactical battle maps and miniatures that you will need. These don't need to be fancy, you can print out some reusable maps or just use some graph paper to draw one. If you are playing digitally, there are many maps available online for free, or you can find some spectacular creators on Patreon who are making some amazing maps. For tokens, you can get a set of fancy, hand-painted miniatures or you can use something more simple (and cheaper) like these. Keep this simple to start and build up your collection over time. If you're playing online you can create some cool custom tokens using this online tool. Finally, it's often helpful to have pictures of the monsters, NPCs, and locations to help get everyone on the same page, especially if you're playing online. Collect all of these pictures in one place and have them clearly labeled for easy access. If you're in person, you can share them from your phone or tablet and if you're online, your Virtual Table Top will likely have options for sharing these things. If you want to, you could set up a shared OneNote document where you keep all of the pictures and notes or even just a Google Drive folder where you keep everything for sharing.
This one is an easy one. If you're using any roll tables or other tabular data, get them ready and put them in a handy place. Maybe if you're a physical paper person (represent!), get them all printed and organized in a way that makes sense for you and is easy to reference. If you prefer your tables digital, consider making a reference sheet or table of contents that you can easily link to them from. This can be on a physical DM screen, a notebook, or sticky notes. If you're keeping it digital, an excel document or Google Sheets file with multiple tabs in it might work well for you.
That's it, You're Ready!
This should get you well on your way for your first session. Hopefully, these tips should help prepare you for your first session as a DM. The key is to keep it lightweight so that you can react to the inevitably unpredictable actions of your players. Your players will almost certainly create situations that you could never have imagined, so don't try to think of and plan for every possible outcome. Having a solid understanding of the framework of the adventure (who, where, and why) will let you react on the fly to almost everything that they can think of. Don't forget that this is also supposed to be fun for you! You'll get a feel, after a few sessions, for how much prep you personally need to do to feel comfortable as well as the areas you need to focus on. For me, it's always NPC and shop names!
That's all for this week, good luck, and don't forget, there are 20 sides to every story!!
-The Intrepid Adventurer