1. Run an Adventure You've Played Before
A lot of anxiety for first time RPG DMs comes from how to pick which module to run, how to prepare for the first game, and what will happen if they forget something or mess up a key detail when running. Since most DMs start out playing, my #1 tip is to run a module you’ve played before. This does a few things to help you out.
First, you already have an idea of how the module is supposed to work and how it can be run, since you’ve seen it first-hand. This makes it much easier to imagine how you can run it yourself and can also give you more confidence that you are running it correctly.
Second, you already know the important details of the game that the players need to know, so it will be easier to remember and convey those same details when you DM.
Third, you already have an idea of the world the module is placed in, including the setting, NPCs, and background events. This knowledge will help you more easily improvise NPCs and setting information for your players in-game.
If you’re still not sure what to pick, the Lost Mines of Phandelver (D&D 5e Starter Set) is a solid choice designed for first-time DMs.
Figure out what basic materials you need for your game and collect them ahead of time. Get your module, d&d monster manual, DMG, and DM’s screen. Collect enough dice to be able to roll for each monster in one go (i.e. if a monster can roll 5d6 damage, get 5 d6s; if they have advantage, get two d20s); rolling damage in one go is easier, math- and memory-wise, and is easier for players to follow. Get an extra dnd dice set of polyhedral dice, so you have a spare set to lend to players if need be.
3. Review Your Materials
Read over the materials you’ll be using 2-3 times. Make sure you understand the module forwards and backwards. Make a flow chart as a quick reference for the plot overview, write notes in the margin of the module, and/or highlight important sections. Do whatever mnemonic or note-taking tricks you need to learn the module inside and out. The better you know the module, the better your first experience will be.
Pick a location that you’re comfortable with, whether it’s a FLGS, coffee shop, or home game.
Pick players that you’re comfortable playing with, whether they’re total strangers you’ll never have to see again, fellow DMs, or close friends.
Do whatever you need to to maximize your comfort, so that your first time DMing for Dnd will be as stress-free as possible.
When you’re reading through the module, try to think about what characters reactions to certain setting and events will be. Imagine where they might go off-the-rails or what they might try to do that isn’t addressed in the module. Ultimately, we can never prepare for all the crazy schemes our players will throw at us, but thinking about what they might do and how to handle it will help you handle an unexpected situation when the time comes.
6. When in Doubt, Make it Up!
Players will always surprise DMs; It is an inescapable, age-old truth. Your player may want to talk to an NPC that doesn’t exist, swing from a chandelier that isn’t described in the module, or go shopping when no shops are detailed. When in doubt, just make it up! 99% of the time, players have no idea that you’re making up certain details, and ultimately, when you’re giving them more information or interaction than are in the module, you’re creating a more unique and immersive experience for that table.
Always take notes during a game, especially for long-term campaigns. This helps you look back and remember things that have happened, as well as plan plot hooks for the future. This is the easiest piece of advice to forget, and also one of the most valuable to remember, as it lets you create a tailored campaign experience for your players that is more fun than anything you can find in a book.
This advice comes from Wil Wheaton himself, from an amazing talk he gave at the Altadena Library District. Coming up with NPC voices, campaign details, or setting info is hard to do on the fly. If your characters want to talk to a baker NPC, and no NPC exists in the module, you may find yourself floundering, trying to create a brand-new NPC on the spot. The easiest thing to do is imagine your favorite character from a novel, movie, cartoon, etc. and just steal them. Steal their looks, mannerisms, name, or whatever other detail you need, and make them that NPC. This is easy to do in a pinch, and players (almost) never notice.
As a Dungeons and Dragons DM, your job is to make the game fun for your players. The easiest way to do this is use the “yes, and” method; essentially, when your player asks to do a an action, like try to jump off the wall and round-house kick the goblin boss, or asks if something exists, like a chandelier he could swing from, say “yes, and” then add details, such as a skill check that may be required. Do your best to avoid the word “no”. Encourage your player’s creativity and let them help you build the world. If you’re struggling to improvise, check out Mike Shea’s guide to improvisation for new DMs.
At the end of the day, Dungeons & Dragons is all about having fun and creating stories with friends. No one has a perfect first DM experience, but it doesn’t really matter how well or poorly you do your first time. You and your players are going to remember having a fun time with the friends, playing their favorite characters, and creating an awesome story. Don’t sweat the small stuff because, no matter what happens, you and your players will have fun, and that’s all that matters.
Emily Smith is a D&D Writer, TTRPG Blogger and DMs Guild Content Creator based in Los Angeles, CA. She is a regular DM and player for Adventurer's League, the official organized play system for D&D 5e. In her free time, she enjoys playing League of Legends, cooking, and cat herding.