Hello! I’m Kenny, and I am the Dungeon Master (DM) for the Bard Rock Café podcast. In this series of articles, I wanted to talk a bit about how you can plan your own homebrew campaign. DMing is a lot of work, and takes a lot of preparation to do well. If you haven’t DMed before, and you look at everything at once, you may feel overwhelmed. You have to keep track of plots, player backstories, balanced encounters, random events, provide a vibrant and living world filled with non-player characters and interesting locations… all while allowing your players the freedom to play in the world.
It can be a lot.
I find that, as with most things, it is helpful to break this enormous task down into smaller steps. Little goals are more achievable, and hopefully, with the help of a good checklist and some words of advice, I can help make Dungeon Mastering less intimidating for you. So let’s get started. I’ll give you the list of steps in this article, and in future articles, I’ll talk more about some of the finer points of each step, and how to make the game work for you.
Step 1: Pick a Setting and Make a Plotline
Before you find a group, or build encounters, or anything else, you need a story to tell. Dungeons and Dragons is best described as collaborative storytelling, and you are the facilitator of that as the Dungeon Master. It is your job to provide the world and storyline. While there is a lot to be said for making your own homebrew world, I won’t be covering that in this series. Suffice to say, once you have your setting, you need a plot.
There are several settings that are ready made for you to use. Forgotten Realms is the most common DnD setting, but others are common as well. Eberron, Greyhawk, Exandria, and countless others, each with their own rich lore and history, are at your disposal. Do some research on these worlds and their locations, and find an area that appeals to you. Pick a starting location – a tavern in a small town. A port city. A prison in a nation’s capital. The starting location ties in with your plot.
The plot needs to be the central driving force for the game. A good plot has motivation built into it. Players should not be able to easily ignore it. A city whisked away to the Nine Hells while your players are still inside, and now they must find a way to break free. A meteor strikes the inn where your players are all eating, granting them all wild magic that affects their daily life. War. Curses. Martial law, wrongful imprisonment… anything you want – the plot is the basis for the game. Everything else circles the core plot in some way.
If this isn’t your cup of tea, that’s ok. Wizards of the Coast has produced a ton of pre-made adventures. For a first-time DM, I would recommend Lost Mines of Phandelver or Waterdeep: Dragon Heist as good adventures to dip your toes in. They have great plots, are easy to run, focus on lower levels and hand you all the tools you need without any prep work needed for anything other than finding players.
Step 2: Enrich the Setting
Once you have a plot, map out who the major players are. The big bad evil guy, organizations of all varieties and how they approach this plot event, allies, rivals, enemies, etc. Give a variety of groups with a variety of motivations. If the whole city is now in Hell, every group and individual in that city will respond. Demonic forces will react to a mortal city being put in their home plane. Mages will study ways to reverse the effect. Holy orders and mercenary groups will organize to fight off aggressive attempts to take the city, while power hungry demons look to steal a few souls from the desperate people of the city now cut off from their supply of food and water.
It’s important to not get bogged down in the details here. Don’t over-prepare. Get a good 2-3 groups on each side of a conflict. Restrict your major NPCs to a manageable amount. Have them appear when you need to give the players direction. But if you make too many groups and big-name bad guys, you dilute the emotional bandwidth of your players. Make too many enemies with massive lore and backstory, and your players will lose interest. They’ll stop taking notes and start looking at things in black and white terms. Ally. Enemy. Kill. Spare. They have to do this, because sessions of Dungeons and Dragons are large investments of time, and players want to solve their own problems first and foremost. Too much lore means they stop caring about the lore, and focus solely on what their objectives are. This is bad for player investment in your story. Don’t over-prepare your world.
And again, if you opt to play one of the premade adventures by Wizards of the Coast, this step is already completed for you. In this case, be sure to take time to familiarize yourself with any named characters that have their own stat blocks, and learn the story and character interactions so you can roleplay it out with your party.
Step 3: Find a Group
This is probably the easiest and hardest part of DMing all in one. For some groups, you have friends who want to play. A lot of my games started because a friend was like “man, I really want to play something like THIS in DND.” I stepped up and made it. In some cases, finding a group is Step 1. In those cases, it’s ok to make the plot and the setting around what the group wants. That helps players stay invested.
Unfortunately, Dungeons and Dragons has a chronic shortage of Dungeon Masters. There are always players looking to play in a game. So, even if you don’t know anyone in your friend group, I guarantee there are players out there waiting for you. Find some LFG (Looking For Group) sections on popular Dungeons and Dragons sites like DnDBeyond, DMsGuild, or in any of the several Discord DnD channels, online forums, Virtual Tabletop sites like Roll20 or Fantasy Grounds, or anywhere else you might find DnD players like your local game store or even your local library. You’ll find someone looking for a game to join.
Don’t worry too much about finding random players. Once you decide what your story is, you’ll find players interested in it, and that will make your life as DM easier. You want players to interact with your story. You want them to make characters that are invested in the plot events. Letting them know what the plot is ahead of time guarantees this, and its why plot creation is the first step.
An ideal group is anywhere from 4-6 players, not including the Dungeon Master. Less than that, and it becomes much easier to kill everyone accidentally. More than that, and you will have a hard time giving everyone a chance to shine. After all, there is only so much time each session, and you don’t want a player to feel like they didn’t get an opportunity to play.
Step 4: Create Characters!
Players need someone to play, and you need an adventuring party to DM for. Once you have a group, you as the DM have to decide what rules you want to use for character creation. Do you go just by the books? Do you allow them to use Unearthed Arcana (playtest material that is not balanced yet)? Do you grant them a free feat at level 1, or magic items? Be careful not to overpower your players right away unless that’s specifically what your players are wanting from the game. If you give them too much, it will be much harder to create encounters that challenge your players, and much harder to meaningfully reward them once they overcome those challenges. Depending on the experience level of your players, some of them may need more guidance from you in creating their character than others, as well. Be prepared to engage with them in the process: answer questions, listen to their ideas, and offer gentle guidance.
You also need to decide what level to start at. I personally like level 3. Levels 1 and 2 are too easily killed, and higher than level 3 or 4, and characters miss out on chances to crystallize the party dynamic and how it impacts the group as a whole before committing to level-up abilities.
Step 5: Session Zero
Session Zero is, for me, the most important part of planning the game. In your Session Zero, you help finalize any character creation stuff, discuss character lore and backstory, and make sure everyone in the group understands how their characters ended up at the starting location.
More importantly, Session Zero is where you discuss the tone you expect in your game. Are you comfortable with adult themes? Are there triggers that your players aren’t comfortable with that need to be avoided? This can be discussed one-on-one with each player, and then discussed in broad strokes with everyone at the table during the Session Zero. Your players don’t need to know who is uncomfortable with graphic violence, just that it is a topic to be avoided.
Finally, Session Zero gives everyone a chance to interact before sitting down for the first gaming session. Often, not everyone at the table will know each other. It’s important to develop at least a small amount of comfort between your players so that any jitters from Session 1 don’t come from social anxiety and that they can focus on enjoying the game.
Step 6: Play!
Once you’ve done all this, you play the game. You’ve planned out your game’s starting location and plot, hooked in your player characters, and gotten everyone on board with the themes and tone of the game. Schedule a time that works for everyone, and have fun!
I hope this has helped. Like I said at the start, this is just the basics. There is so much more to be discussed when it comes to being an effective Dungeon Master. You will be juggling a lot of different things, and if it’s your first time, you will almost certainly forget a rule, or make a bad call, or generally get it “wrong”. Just remember that this is a game, and so long as everyone is having a good time, you’re doing just fine. The rest of the little details are just that – little details, easily forgotten. What people will remember is how much fun they had playing.
Kenny, Dungeon Master Extraordinaire