Last weekend I ran the first session of a Dungeons and Dragons (5th edition) campaign. This was my first experience being a dungeon master, so I thought I’d write down a few random thoughts about the experience. This will mainly be something for me to reflect on as I get more experience, but perhaps these notes will be useful for other new DMs too.
It’s actually been a couple of years that I’ve wanted to dip my toes into tabletop roleplaying games. My friend Vladimir got me into boardgames during my years in France, and from the beginning I’d always preferred games that let the players assume a role and build a story. The extra freedom afforded by tabletop RPGs seemed to tick all the boxes for what I would find enjoyable. The only barrier was finding the time and a group of people to play with!
Given my total lack of experience I didn’t feel particularly comfortable running a campaign, and in the end finding someone willing to give up their time to school a bunch of noobs was not possible. My luck changed when my good friend Adam organized a one-shot D&D session over the christmas holidays. He had put together his own world and story from scratch, complete with fleshed out and sometimes downright wacky NPCs. As players we certainly had a blast, but I could see that Adam was also having great fun seeing his world come to life and seeing how we interacted with it. I was pretty sure that I wanted to give this a go! On the other hand I could see the effort that had to be put in in order to make a compelling story in a coherent world, and I was not sure that I could afford the time committment. That’s when I discovered that there is actually a vast library of campaigns published by Wizards of the Coast (the company that owns the Dungeons and Dragons trademark) which takes the guesswork out of worldbuilding and generating compelling narratives. I quickly purchased the Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition starter set, which contains the “lost mine of Phandelver” campaign,
Despite getting a head start by using a pre-generated campaign I hadn’t anticipated how much preparation time was required for running the first session. I’d decided I definitely wanted to run dungeon crawling/combat on a grid, which meant that I had to source the images in the campaign book, set about rescaling them and printing them on the A4 paper I had available. In order to increase immersion I also cut up the maps into sections to reflect what the player characters (PCs) would realistically be able to see. To represent the PCs and enemies on the map I printed a bunch of player tokens and glued them to 1-inch washers to give them a bit of weight. I estimate that this effort alone cost at least a couple or three hours.
Even beyond the physical work, I quickly realized that even when the scenarios and story is pre-generated, there is still a lot of work that a DM has to do understanding the story. You’re not going to be able to provide an immersive experience for your players if you just skim the encounters; you really need to read, think, and get into the minds of the NPCs. There’s no way you’re going to be able to predict everything that your players are going to say or do, and if you want play to remain fluid in spite of this you have to know how an NPC or enemy would react to a particular situation. Is this person brave or a coward? What are their motivations, and would they help or hinder the PCs in this particular scenario etc.
Then there’s the question of how much to prepare for a particular session. If the campaign has a potentially branching story (and the most compelling narratives will) then as a DM you need to be prepared to make sure that you’ve covered the material for where your players want to go next.
All in I would say I easily spent perhaps 10 hours preparing in the lead up to the first session; certainly not a nontrivial time investment!
In the first session I feel that I roleplayed the NPCs quite well. We had a band of goblins to deal with and I found myself slipping into the mindset. There was even a goblin that the party captured (Grim), who became a central character in the story for that day (and he may come back in a future session!).
We also found that gridding the dungeon also worked well from a tactical point of view. It was really rewarding for the players to move their pawns around the map, set up plays and then have their strategizing pay off. Introducing “fog of war” by revealing parts of the map as the party was moving around was also a good idea and added a sense of discovery to the adventure.
Another thing the party really appreciated was the use of music in setting the atmosphere. I’d found tabletop audio a week or so prior to the first session and had spent a bit of time building up sound boards for the main locales that the party would encounter. Tabletop Audio is a really great site, and I’ll definitely donate to them when I get the chance. I also spent a bit of time setting up playlists of battle music, which was really appreciated by the group.
The last point that I think went well was the level of rules that we used. I personally didn’t want to get bogged down in irrelevant details like level of exhaustion because of lack of water or food, or encumbering the PCs when they were carrying too much. On the other hand having enough rules makes the world feel real and like the choices the PCs make has consequences. I felt that this was particularly important in battle, and it would have broken the immersion to have the PCs be able to do whatever they want whenever they wanted. I feel that the 5th edition ruleset balances these aspects well. When we get to wilderness exploration I’ll be interested to see what mechanics we can use for the party “discovering” a location. The best way I can think to handle this is have the party move through the wilderness hexes, and when they arrive at the hex containing the hidden location then they either automatically discover the location, or make them take a perception check with a DC that depends on what information they have about the location.
I felt that the first session went really well, however there were naturally some things that could be improved. Firstly, I felt that my descriptions of the game world could be better. I was tending to rely on the maps quite a bit and I wasn’t really narrating the details of the places. This sometimes led to misunderstandings where it was, for example, not obvious that we were entering a tunnel under a hill (because the gridded map was a birdseye view). In the future I think that it would be better to take a few moments to describe a newly discovered area when the party enters it. This would help the PCs to get a sense of where they are, and would also increase immersion.
I also felt that my lack of rules knowledge was also hindering the adventure a bit. Notably, I kept having to look up the rules for lighting and perception checks. Also we had several situations where PCs were shooting “through” other PCs to enemies on the other side. During an intense battle it was difficult for me to decide how to best handle the situation. Luckily our warrior rolled a natural 1 to hit with their thrown javelin, so I could easily roleplay the shot going wide and hitting our druid in the back! I later found out that there are some specific rules for this. When you have to shoot “though” another PC this adds a few points to the DC of the “to hit” roll. When you roll greater than the regular DC to hit, but less than the modified DC, then you hit the PC whom you’re shooting through. This adds quite a bit of extra tension to battles and also makes PCs think a bit more before firing off their bows or ranged magic. I also had trouble remembering the characteristics of the different items, e.g. the precise weight of a piece of hemp rope, as well as how different spells worked. In 5th edition there are spells that have a range, and there are also spell attacks that have a range. In the former case there’s usually a saving roll that the attacked character must make, and in the latter case there’s a “to hit” roll that the attacking character must make, like if they were firing a bow or throwing something.
Another aspect with which I had difficulty was making sure that everyone got the chance to play equally. With a party of 6 it was quite difficult to ensure that everyone got their equal share of playtime, not to mention my lack of experience in DMing. In addition I found it quite difficult to think on my feet; for example I should really have kept a list of names ready for impromptu NPCs (as the dungeon master’s guide recommends!). Also I found that it is helpful to try and “get into the head” of the NPCs in order to figure out how they would act in a particular situation. It’s good to think of what motivation the NPC has for being in whatever situation they’re in and their motivation for interacting with the party. This kind of thinking became particularly important in the first session when the party refused to cooperate with Yeemik the goblin when bargaining for the life of Sildar, one of the “good” NPCs. I had to really think about what it was that Yeemik wanted (control of the goblin band) and how he thought that he was going to get it from the players. When it became apparent that the party was too powerful for him to handle, I had Yeemik try to flee for his life, which I felt was appropriate in the situation, but not before dropping Sildar from a high ledge, which started his death saving throws. Despite this the stakes never felt super high; maybe I should have had Yeemik stab Sildar before throwing him down, starting him on 1 or 2 saving throws so that the stakes felt higher.
Yet another aspect that could do with improving was running the encounters themselves. I felt that people were calling their initiative out before I was ready to write it down, and that I was getting a bit lost with all the bestiary cards. I had made notes on flash cards, but kept having to look up more specific details (e.g. height of ceilings or skill checks for different traps) which I felt hindered the flow of the encounters. I definitely felt that the situation could be improved with the use of electronic tools; I found 5etools and it seems really cool. I felt that a DM screen with a quick reference for rules etc. would be really useful, as well as a tool for running encounters, keeping track of enemies, initiative etc.
The first session was so good that we decided to continue with the adventure. I felt that during the second session we fixed a lot of the problems that we had during the first session. For example, I used 5etools for running the encounters, which made things a lot easier as I had the monster stats and initiative counters right there. 5etools even has a “DM screen” feature which allows you to build a custom screen with all of the necessary information on it; very useful!
One thing I continued to find difficult in the second session was hitting the main plot points when roleplaying. I found it quite hard to keep in mind the backstory of the NPCs, what they would be thinking in the given situation, and ensuring that I gave enough information to allow the party to progress. You also have to keep in mind that not all NPCs will know everything; adding a layer of complexity to the process.
Finally I just have one last thing to say about the second session: dooryways are fucking OP. We must have had 3 or 4 situations where the party was on one side of a doorway, and there were enemies on the other side. In all the cases the winning strategy was to have one of the fighters act as a tank and block the door so that nobody could come through, and then have archers and spellcasters fire through the fighter to the enemies beyond. I can’t really see how this strategy can be beat, especially as our party has 2 fighters, so if one is downed there is still another to pick up the slack.
All in all it has been a lot of fun to run these sessions, and I look forward to running further sessions in the future. I think all in all it will take maybe 6 or 7 sessions to get through the Lost Mine of Phandelver campaign, and then who knows, perhaps there will even be future adventures with the same characters!