In DMing 101 I’ll be giving generalized advice on how to run a tabletop role-playing game. The articles will not presume any knowledge, except being able to read. And maybe knowing what dice are. And paper. And a computer. Maybe some other stuff. I’ll also presume that you can remember that DM means Dungeon Master. Some people call it a Game Master or GM, but I don’t. Suck it up.
There are a few quick start guides on how to DM out there, but DMing 101 will offer a fairly easy set of tips that a novice can follow to make his/her games something truly memorable.
What You’ll Need
There is a wealth of material out there for you to use in game, but frankly there’s very little that you actually need. There is a reason why traditional role-play games are generally referred to as Pen and Paper, because that’s everything that you really need. Well, you could play without, in fact you don’t need anything more than another person to actually role-play in the strictest sense, but let’s not go too far here. Here are a few set-ups, depending on what you want to get out of your game.
Level 1 – Bare Bones
At their core, most games only demand a few simple basic materials to get started. This first list covers the absolute essentials, and is great for those just getting started and those of you who don’t need much to make a great game.
- Two pens – Seriously bring a spare. At least one person will need to borrow.
- A pencil – One with a rubber for preference. Mostly this will be useful for quickly sketching maps, which are of course, likely to change. Maybe bring a spare pencil too, somebody will want to change their hit-points eventually.
- Paper – Useful for drawing quick maps, tracking initiative orders, and most importantly taking notes! If it hasn’t sunk in yet, don’t worry, I will never ever stop reminding you. Every little detail that you improvise should be rigorously noted for the future, because you may be surprised to learn that they are often the best aspects of your campaigns, especially if they become reoccurring aspects.
- A copy of the rules – Always keep these to hand. I prefer to keep stripped down versions as .pdf’s on my tablet because they’re easier to search through, pass around the table, and more importantly lighter than a half-dozen books!
Pictured – The 5th edition Monster Manual and my Google Nexus 7
- Dice – Even if your system doesn’t need them, they’re a great way to settle disputes.
Level 2 – GG You Guys!
The next step is a few optional extras to make your life a little easier. You can take as many or as few of these accessories to make your games go a little smoother, both for yourself and for your players. Try them out and see what works best for you.
- Maps – Now here’s a polarizing subject, maps or no maps? Some people find a more enriching experience when they’re playing “off-grid” with perhaps the occasional sketch when people disagree on where they are in any given scene. Others prefer a visual representation so that no confusion can be had to break the flow of the narrative. Neither side is right or wrong, it’s a matter of opinion and what’s right for the group.
Pictured: The Chessex gaming mat, and D&D dungeon tiles.
- Miniatures – The same debate applies here, but minis are always great to have around. With or without a map, some people love being able to see their characters realized in front of them.
Pictured – D&D miniatures
- A DM’s Screen – Not just for hiding your dice rolls. Shop-bought or homemade, the inside of your screen should be plastered with all of the essential bits of info you need to run your games, numbers, tables and lists at hand in an instant.
Here’s a great tip for DM screens: Small strips of paper hooked onto the top with character names on them can be a great way to track initiative!
Pictured – The D&D DM’s screen from 4th edition.
- A Block of Paper – Little slips of paper are great for handing notes between player and DM. Have plenty!
- More Dice – Somebody will have forgotten, you can guarantee it.
Pictured – A bowl filled with dice from the Chessex “Pound of dice” bag
Level 3 – Getting Serious
Ready? If you want to go full-on and get your players utterly into the gaming experience there are many great ways to prepare the table, and the room for a night your players will never forget. Time, money, and a little showmanship may be needed to pull off the following:
- Props – Maps are handy visual representations of a room or landscape, but not everything can be so easily displayed that way. Bring a little extra depth to your games with showy scenery, and big props!
- Music – Great for atmospherics but use wisely! Music that is too loud or too “cluttered” can draw too much attention from the game and cause people to lose focus. Try and find simple atmospheric music, and keep it low enough that nobody has to shout over it.
- Soundboard – There are a few apps and sound-packages out there to give you a few atmospheric pieces of audio-flavour that can make your world seem a little more alive.
- Lighting – Another one to be careful of, but also very effective. Overly dim or mono-coloured lighting can make it impossible to read character sheets, and overly dramatic lighting can be more problematic. Finding a good balance is difficult but doable, again, do what is right for the group.
Pictured – A small spotlight which cannot be seen with flash on. My apologies
- Guests – This is my absolute favourite. If you have enough local gamers who are happy to get involved, bring them in to play an NPC for a week or two! Having a new face and voice attached to a character makes them infinitely more memorable, and makes playing distinct characters easier. I cannot rate guest-players highly enough!
Pictured – Mike from Quotes From The Tabletop
Whatever you use and however you play, there is a vast market of supplies out there. Some are specialized, but if your sharp-eyed you can make use of an incredible number of simple objects from around the house or (surprisingly often) from DIY shops.
If you’ve enjoyed this post let us know in the comments down below, or on our Facebook and Twitter (links on the right). If you’ve played a few RPs, also take a look at my own site, Quotes From The Tabletop, a place for all your favourite quotes and stories from your games.