Playing and Running Dungeons and Dragons FAQ
What is D&D?
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a Tabletop Roleplaying Game. Explaining it is pretty hard, but the maker of the game Wizards of the Coast has a decent video explaining it anyways.
Why should I play D&D?
Matt Colville, a game designer and founder of MCDM, has a good video explaining what makes D&D (or any TTRPG) different than anything you can find in another game.
Why should I listen to your opinions on this?
In short, it might be useful, but you should definitely also consult other opinions and resources. I played D&D for the first time about 12 or 13 years ago, and initially bounced off it. It was too complex and it seemed pretty boring. However, the persistence of one of my friends who enjoyed running these games kept bringing me back to try it. After a few false starts, around 9 years ago I started to engage with it more actively, and I found it a fun way to blow off some steam, hang out with friends, and do something like structured improv of a fantasy world.
After heading off to college, I missed playing with my friends, and I realized that if I wanted to play D&D and keep engaging with this hobby, I was going to have to be the one to run it. I asked my friend who had originally got me into the hobby how to get into running the game for myself, and he pointed me to some of the resources I will lay out here. Since then, I have run a number of campaigns of D&D on and off for about 5 out of the last 7 years. I wouldn’t say I am a great Game Master, or even a very good GM, but for the most part my players seem to enjoy themselves and keep coming back.
It’s important to note that there are people who are MUCH better GMs with FAR more experience who post way more information on the internet. My intent with this FAQ to point you towards some of them and sprinkle in some stuff I have learned from experience to save you time and get you to have more fun playing and running D&D.
How do I start playing D&D?
You will need to find a group of 5-7 people (including yourself) who are interested in playing.
One member of the group will need to elect themselves the Game Master (GM), and will need to prepare and organize the sessions and content to be played. The rest of the group will play the role of player characters. This GM plays the role of the eyes and ears of the players, explaining every person, monster, building, and environment the players interact with and how their actions affect the game’s characters and world. The most important lesson I can give you: The GMs primary directive, above all else, is to make their players have fun. Nothing else can override this central tenant. Even if everything feels like the whole game is in shambles but the players are having fun, the GM is doing something correct.
The best way to start playing D&D is to elect yourself a GM. If you are new, and your players are new, no one will know if you are good or bad at it, and it’s likely everyone will have a lot of fun. It’s much easier to find players than it is to find GMs, and once you have a regular group that has played a campaign or two, people are more likely to be willing to step up and try being GMs themselves.
A small aside, some people reach out to anonymous online groups or go to games run in a local game store, but I have heard mixed reviews of such an approach. I am sure they work for some people and can turn out great, but the best way to start playing D&D in my experience is to ask around your friend groups and your workplace to see if anyone is already interested. You would be surprised how many people are looking to try playing D&D especially after you explain it to them. This is particularly true since D&D has started to seep into the larger culture recently. Lots of people want to try and play but they don’t know how to get started.
How do I get into D&D as a player?
I will assume you have a group of friends already and someone else has offered to be the GM. You will need to work with your GM and other players to make a character based on the guide in the beginning of the Player’s Handbook. Once you have that, most of the work is showing up regularly and consistently to sessions and actively engaging with the world the GM puts in front of you. A much more nuanced and detailed introduction to starting to play D&D was made by Matt Colville, and you can find it here.
One small extra caveat: over time, you should read and reread the description of your character and their abilities in the Player’s Handbook. If everyone is well acquainted with their characters capabilities, the game can move much faster and be more fun for everyone. It’s reasonable to expect that the GM doesn’t know as much as you do about your character and their abilities, and they should be able to look to you for expertise around it.
I want to run D&D. Where do I start, it seems very intimidating?
- Step 1: Stop reading this and go watch these 4 videos from a famous, long running series by Matt Colville, the founder of MCDM on being a Game Master and running D&D called Running The Game:
- Step 2: Yes, right now, stop reading, go back to step 1 and watch all the videos. Yes it will take a little less than an hour, but you should watch them anyways. This hobby is very fun, but it’s fun that people can be serious about so you should take a minute to hear what you are getting yourself into.
- Step 3: With that information, you should have a fairly coherent idea of what you will need to run D&D. I want to specifically emphasize a few pitfalls that either I have fallen into or I have seen people fall into:
- Don’t wait to start playing until you have built a whole world, lore, magic system, etc. Worldbuilding is a super fun, creative, and rewarding aspect of being a game master. But, before that matters at all, your players will need to go on some adventures in a small, local area which you should focus all your effort on to start with. Again, Matt Colville has a good video on this and how to build up to a whole world over time by gradually zooming out.
- Again, to double down on the previous point, start running D&D before you feel ready. It will take a long time before you start to feel ready. I still feel underprepared some weeks after all this time. If you are interested in running D&D, just get started with it and worry about being good at it after you have lots of experience.
- Do start with a one-shot or few-shot. A one-shot is a single self contained adventure that you and your friends complete in about 3-4 hours. It has a few battles, maybe a puzzle, and a climactic ending. The stakes for a one shot are incredibly low, it’s over in one night, you can move onto the next one with no consequences no matter how it went, and you and your friends still get to spend an evening hanging out together. A few-shot is the natural continuation, come up with something that lasts a bit longer than one session, maybe takes 5 or 6 hours to complete. Then, scale up from there. Eventually, you might find that you and your players are enjoying a particular few-shot and it can grow into a full, recurring campaign.
- Don’t obsess over comparing yourself to the amazing, famous, professional GMs one can find online (A couple examples: Matt Mercer and Aabria Iyengar). This is their job, they have much more time and experience preparing for these games. They can get others to help do part of the prep to make sure the game is over the top amazing every week. This advice goes for player expectations as well. It’s unreasonable for your players to expect you to produce anything like Critical Role, and in particular it’s unreasonable to expect it every week. Just like you don’t have the experience or resources of Matt Mercer as a GM, your players don’t have the experience or skills of the professional voice actors on Critical Role.
- Also, side note, sometimes the most fun types of gameplay in D&D don’t look good on screen, and so they rarely if ever do them on recorded D&D games. In your game, there is no audience, just you and the players. The party being stuck with a challenging puzzle or moral dilemma can be just as engaging for them as an exciting negotiation, but simply doesn’t look good on a livestream. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. There are tons of ways to have fun playing D&D, and being professional voice actors who speak in character and extensively talk back and forth within the party is only one of them. It isn’t better or worse than others, it’s just an opinionated take.
- Step 4: Always keep learning. There is an abundance of content that distills many years of hard won experience that can make you much better at running D&D. Again, I plug the Running The Game series by Matt Colville. This is recommended by many people and for good reason, it teaches you a lot about how to run D&D, how to think about running D&D, and watching the series results in actionable improvements to your game. Though a bit less actionable, I would also recommend Sly Flourish’s Lazy DM Prep Series. He has many of them, and the one linked here is only the one for Scarlet Citadel. These let you watch how someone with lots of experience might prepare a game, and how they might do it in much less time than one would otherwise. There are many others though and I encourage you to seek them out.
Is it better to play in person or online?
They both work and can be lots of fun. Personally, I am biased, I like playing around a table. For me, there is something particularly genuine about sitting around with your friends telling stories. I like to think that long ago in pre-industrial times, when people were done with their work for the day and light was getting dim, they had little to do but sit around fires telling each other stories and chatting for entertainment. This is probably a simplistic and naive view, but nonetheless, there is some sort of magic for me in getting a group of your friends to sit around a table, everyone putting away their phones, and, leveraging only books, drawings and theater of the mind, being genuinely present doing something creative together for several hours. If only for a few hours, the complexities and demands of the challenging modern day-to-day melt away into a level of carefree play that we often don’t engage with in the modern world.
With all that said, you can play a great game over a Virtual Tabletop (VTT). I personally have used Roll20 and Foundry VTT for online games. I personally thought Roll20 was much easier to get started with but the level of customization, automation, and gameplay quality you could have in Foundry was astronomical, particularly if you have experience coding.
What do we need to play D&D?
To start, your whole group will definitely need:
- 4-6x Friends (Players)
- 1x Game Master
- 1x Player’s Handbook
- 1x Monster Manual
- 1x Sly Flourish’s Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master
- 1x Dice Set
- This 1x is an absolute minimum. Ideally, everyone should have their own dice to save everyone’s time and make things go faster.
- 1x Printed Character Sheet per player
- 1x Starter Adventure
- This can be something premade or something made by you
- Using pre-made stuff is really useful for getting into D&D. I particularly like these as first time adventures:
If you have those and still have more money for your group to spend, the bargain upgrades are:
- 1x Chessex Wet Erase Mat
- 1x Wet Erase Markers
- 20-30x Loose dice and counters to represent monsters and players
- 1x MCDM Flee, Mortals! Monster Book
- 1x Dungeon Master’s Guide
- 1x Full Campaign Book
- First, definitely play 1 or 2 one shots and then one of the recommended shorter adventures above first, they are excellent introductions to the hobby.
- I would not recommend playing your first large D&D campaign as full homebrew. I would highly recommend buying an adventure that goes at least to level 5 from either Wizards of the Coast (makers of D&D) or a third party instead before going at it on your own entirely. You can change things in the book liberally, but it will keep you from going overboard on preparing things your players won’t care about/interact with and save you time.
- Campaign scale adventure books I have some experience with that I would recommend for this:
- In addition, while I have never played or ran it personally, Curse of Strahd is quite beloved for being easy to run and good for beginners, and would be an excellent starting large campaign.
How do I make/get maps for my game?
This is a pretty opinionated topic. One initial distinction to make is that there are 3 major types of maps one can deploy at the table in D&D:
- Battlemaps: These are metric accurate maps that players engage in tactical combat on and do their monster fighting. In general, these maps are overlaid with a 1 inch grid, where each inch represents 5 feet.
- World/Regional/City maps: These maps represent where towns are, what they look like, what the relationship between the towns are and the geography. These primarily serve as a narrative tool in many of my games to guide my players in their interactions with the larger world, communicate details that are hard to effectively explain, and help them make plans about what they will do.
- Hexmaps: These are a particular kind of world or regional map that overlays with hexagonal tiles that often represent some scale of distance. These are traditionally used to represent overland travel and add complications for moving between places on a large scale (e.g. getting lost, going off the trail, etc.). Specifically, their design was intended to represent how difficult and dangerous overland travel by foot can be. In earlier editions of D&D and earlier TTRPGs in general, overland travel via a hexmap (often called a hexcrawl) played a large role in many games. However, in more recent years, these have generally faded into obscurity. In the highly narrative and NPC companion-driven games common in the 5th edition in D&D, a long overland slog filled with seemingly unrelated trials and tribulations which don’t advance a central plot generally don’t seem to fit the tone of the game very well and, as such, I have never had the opportunity to play or run a hexcrawl. However, I am very open to the idea and I think it could be very fun to run and play if deployed effectively.
With that background information, I can give some advice on how I do maps. When I first started running D&D, I used pencil and graph paper to draw out the rooms, buildings, and encounters of an adventure, and then I drew it for my players in real time as an area came into view on a Chessex Wet Erase Battle Map. I did this for many years, and still rely on this method for a number of encounters. It allows for lots of flexibility and allows the players to move off prepared content smoothly and reduce the load of prepping every week. Overall, I would highly recommend purchasing one if you are going to play in person.
For further quality and customization, or if you are playing virtually with your friends, there are a few other options to consider. In the intro videos linked above, Matt Colville recommends Dungeonographer, but I bought it when I started GMing and unfortunately I can’t recommend it. As I remember, it’s a solid piece of software, but there are a number of other options that are either more cost effective, more time efficient, or result in a higher production value in my experience. To be more specific:
- On a Budget: You can make perfectly good battlemaps and regional maps with a pencil and graph paper. Battlemaps can be drawn at scale on a wet erase mat, and world maps can be passed around to the players to look at each individually. For playing virtually, either of the above can be scanned in with a scanner app on your phone. For years, this is how I did every map.
- Recycling Maps: Tons of official, previous edition, and third party D&D products and adventures have complicated and fantastic dungeon maps provided along with them. While they are often excellent in their adventure, they are also just as good if you keep the room layouts and just fill everything in with whatever material you need for the session. Sometimes there are high resolution maps you can buy already printed or find online to use in your games, but the primary value of many of these maps is the high quality game design. Using these online is easy, just take a picture or screenshot and upload to the VTT. As for over the table, I would highly recommend recycling these maps by taking a picture of it for yourself and just drawing it out on a wet erase battlemap for your players if you don’t have a poster version of it.
- The Google+Reddit Method: There are numerous incredibly detailed maps available on the internet for free. A good place to start is r/battlemaps on Reddit. Oftentimes there is no “correct” map for an encounter and that’s when these generalist, colorful, free maps can be perfect to slot in. Color maps can be quite fun for players around a table, but the time and effort of printing out and assembling a map you will only use once can be a bit time consuming relative to the value it adds to a table over drawing it with wet erase. I would only strongly recommend doing this if you are playing virtually, as it’s very easy to drop an image you found online in a VTT and your players can instantly see it.
- Programmatically: You can literally generate dungeon maps automatically. I haven’t tried this before, but I have used the other tools on this site. You should consider this site an excellent resource in general for when your players catch you off guard or you need to speed up your prep. Remember, people have been preparing and running D&D for almost 50 years now, there is a huge amount of resources at your disposal to prepare and facilitate running a fun game of D&D.
- High Production Value: There are a number of excellent Patreons which charge a relatively small monthly fee ($1 or $2 dollars) and in return give you a number of phenomenally high quality battlemaps every month. The description of this campaign retrospective video highlights a few of the best. With these, you can follow the same strategies of recycling the map to be your own as described above and have the highest visual quality of maps available.
- Best but Time Consuming If you are really set on making your own battlemaps and world maps digitally, I had good experiences with Dungeondraft for battle maps and Inkarnate for world/regional maps. These will give you flawless, beautiful unique maps you have 100% control over. In addition, Dungeondraft has advanced features for exporting to VTTs that let you use dynamic lighting effects. However, this whole option is very time consuming in my opinion and I wouldn’t generally recommend it unless you will reuse the map more than 10 times. The benefit here is a bit better with a VTT but leaning on Patreons is probably better than doing this yourself.
What other tools do you use to run D&D?
- Note Taking software: Obsidian
- Prepping Map Images for Printing: PosteRazor
- Making Magic Item Cards for Players: Card Conjurer
What about miniatures?
You 100% do not need miniatures to play D&D and not having them doesn’t exclude you from having a good experience with the game. I used loose dice and coins for years as tokens to represent monsters and players in combat, and I didn’t have any less fun for it. D&D is a tactical TTRPG, meaning positions and distances matter, but the game pieces representing that don’t have to be expensive.
With that said, I have recently started collecting and painting minis for my D&D games and have found it to be a fun and meditative corner of the hobby. Matt Colville can speak more authoritively on the subject than I can as he has been playing for much longer. The brands he mentions are pretty good in the linked video and I have seen players and myself buy from a few of them.
One thing out of date with the linked video is that bulk lots of minis or cheap minis in board games are much harder to come across these days, but you can get a similar level of value from stuff like Reaper Miniature’s Bones Kickstarters. The lead time on receiving these is often a bit long but its well worth the wait in terms of quality and quantity. In terms of what I buy for non-bulk, specific minis I need soon, I buy lots of Reaper Minis for general figures and from lots of small sellers on Etsy for really niche figures. I would also recommend strongly that you just visit your local game stores and see if one of them has miniatures and paints. Not all of them do, but some of these stores have an excellent variety of in-stock minis you might not consider otherwise.
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