Running Your First Campaign

Running Your First Campaign

So you want to play Dungeons and Dragons, but you don't have a regular game going, and none of your friends have run a game before. It's a common predicament. My local D&D Facebook group has plenty of people looking to play, but not a lot of games for them to join. There are some local events where people run weekly drop-in sessions, but it seems hard to find that local, at-someone’s-house kind of game that a lot of us are looking for. Have you considered, though, that maybe you’ve been a DM all along? Or, at least, that you could be?

It’s no secret that there are a lot more players who want to play as characters in Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition than players who want to be the Dungeon Master (or, Game Master, if the phrase “dungeon master” feels a little kinkier than you’d like to imply). Some have even called it a crisis. 5e – and the community around it – tend to put a lot of pressure on DMs, expecting them to be equal parts masterful storyteller, star actor, relationship expert, magnificent host, and rules arbitrator. The truth is, once you take the pressure off yourself, it really isn’t that hard.

Who is this article for?

Are you a little intimidated by all the rules you have to learn to run the game correctly? Maybe you’ve always played a sorcerer, and now you feel like you have to understand the mechanics designed for fighters and wizards and – heaven forbid – monks. Or maybe you aren’t sure how much content to create, or what you need to prepare.

In general, if you feel overwhelmed by the idea of running your own campaign, this guide is for you. There are plenty of videos and articles about how to run a campaign (links below), but this guide is about how to make running the game feel easier and more accessible to beginners.

Making it Simple

To start, let’s take some of the pressure off of you and put your role into perspective. Step down from the pedestal you’re standing on: you are a player in this game, just like all the other players at your table. Let your players become the experts about their characters, and when they have questions, look up the rules together. You have the final say on what goes, but you don’t need to have complete and definite knowledge of every aspect of the game. And feel no shame at all about taking a break to look up rules you don't already know.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide (DMG) published my Wizards of the Coast is a fantastic resource, but it puts a lot of implied pressure on you, the DM. It’s ok to let your players tell you about the rules for their characters.

Let's make the story simple too. It's important to realize that you aren’t here to ensure that your players follow a particular story arch. Let them tell you where the story is going with their decisions and make up what comes next. Trust that what you’ll come up with will be fun. Let go of the need for control, and see where the story takes you. This can be hard at first, but it takes a lot of the work, worry, and stress off your plate.

What to Run

As far as what campaign to run the first time out, advice on this varies, but I tend to think that it helps to start off with a pre-gen (a published campaign written by someone else). The reason is this: the less work you put on yourself, the easier it is to get started. With a pre-gen campaign, you only have to worry about the rules of the game, and you can leave the task of building the world to someone else.

Running a campaign already feels intimidating without having to think about making sure your encounters are balanced, trying to match them thematically to the setting, coming up with all the non-player characters (NPCs) and their motivations, making sure there are plot hooks to keep the players interested, trying to anticipate what players will expect to find in the world, generating and pricing items for them to buy … you get the idea. A lot of work goes into creating a campaign, and it’s absolutely something you should try. But do you have to try it on your very first go? No, you don’t.

My advice is to pick something short, simple, and well-organized. Sure, you could try my campaign. But you could also try one of the many one-page modules available online, or something you find at your local game store.

And if you don’t like something in the campaign? Throw it away! This is your game. Get rid of characters, redraw maps, replace monsters – do whatever you want.


How long is your first campaign going to run? Is it going to be a one-shot? Are you going to complete it over several weeks or months? One-shots – campaigns designed to be completed within 4-6 hours of play – are tempting, because you only have to get everyone around the table for one night and you don’t have to commit to being the DM forever. However, there are problems inherent with running one-shot campaigns, the main one being timing.

If you want a campaign to last exactly one session of play, then you need to have an impressive level of control over the progression of the story. As I mentioned before, your goal isn’t to force the story onto the rails of a particular story arch (appropriately called “railroading”), it’s to help players interact with the world. When you try to wrap up a campaign in strictly one evening, you’re taking on the task of artfully tweaking events so the world mysteriously directs the players to a satisfying conclusion by the end of the night. That’s a lot harder than it sounds.

To take some of the pressure off, let your campaign stretch to two or even three sessions if it needs to. Set the expectation with your players that this is going to be a “one-to-two shot” campaign. I almost never limit one-shots in a single evening – I always allow the campaigns to stretch, because I want to have the freedom to let the story go where the players want it to and to let them savour the moments they enjoy.

If you want to run a campaign longer, or keep it open-ended, feel free to do that too.

Get Organized

There are some things you can do beyond just having a campaign ready to make things easier on yourself. It will take a couple tries to figure out what you like to have on hand, but here are some suggestions from my experience.

Stats – Keep the stats for monsters and NPCs readily accessible. Write or print them out if you like, put sticky flags in books and keep the books with you. My favourite DM tool is a pad of 4x6 inch grid paper sticky notes. I write out stats on them and stick them to my DM screen. You can also use these for making your own handy random tables of encounters, monsters, names, items – whatever!

Initiative – Initiative can be annoying to track. Sticky notes are a great way to do this. Write everyone’s name on a sticky note and then put them in initiative-order on your DM screen. Done. People have lots of other clever ways of tracking initiative, but this will get you started.

Random Tables – These are really useful, especially if you’re running your own campaign. When I make campaigns, I like to build little random tables of monsters and encounters that fit into the world beforehand. Usually I pull monsters from the Monster Manual or some other book and note the page numbers next to them in the table. They’re also useful for names: if you find it hard to come up with interesting names on the spot, build a table of them in advance and just roll up a name when you need it. You can do this with character traits, items – whatever you want.

Dungeon Master’s Guide – Can you run a D&D game without the DMG? Sure. But I recommend having it. It really is a fantastic resource, especially when you start to wonder about creating your own monsters, balancing encounters, and all that stuff I said was difficult earlier on. It also has a lot of general advice and even pre-built random tables for all kinds of things, even generating maps! If you’re not convinced, don’t feel like you need to have it. But it's nice to have.

Extra Stuff – If you’re playing an in-person game, I find it useful and courteous to bring along a pack of pencils, some extra sets of dice, maybe some blank character sheets – just so folks can still play if they forget theirs. If Dave left his character sheet at home, then he can always roll up a new character on a blank sheet and still play.

Session Zero

Your session zero is where you check in with players and see what they want from the game, learn about story themes or events that might make them uncomfortable, create characters, and set expectations about the game.

There are a lot of guides available online that explain this better than I will here, but I think it’s worth taking an hour or two to get everyone together, especially if your players are new to tabletop roleplaying games or haven’t played them together before.

If you are running a game with strangers from the Internet, then this is critical. Meet with people for your session zero at a neutral location like a restaurant or library to make sure everyone gets along and feels safe to be around. Don’t feel bad about telling someone they won’t be a good fit for the group if that’s how it feels, and don’t feel bad about doing it afterward by text instead of face-to-face. There are a lot of excellent strangers out there, but trust your gut and be safe.

Talk about content boundaries. Check out for some good guidelines.

If talking about Lines and Veils and content boundaries and all that feels weird and uncomfortable, that’s ok. A lot of people aren't used to talking about these things openly, so it can feel artificial and redundant when we do it for the first time. I heard someone say once that we always “create a space” around us, made up of our actions, our words, and how we react to the words and actions of those around us. My suggestion for you, no matter what safety tools you use, is to create a space at your gaming table (and in your life, honestly) that encourages openness about boundaries and personal discomfort. Make it clear that it’s ok for people to speak up if they become uncomfortable.


This one is hard, especially as an adult. As a publisher, I have to schedule a lot of meetings, and it can be hard. Here are some quick tips that I use:

Ask for general availability before suggesting a date or time – Ask everyone for the days of the week during which they are typically available. Pick the best day from that list. This is a lot easier than suggesting particular dates and having people pick from those, and it’s easily accomplished with a simple poll or by text.

Sometimes, people just can’t make it – If there’s one person whose schedule just doesn’t fit with everyone else’s, that’s ok. Tell them they can play in the next one. It’s not ideal, but sometimes that’s just the way it has to be. When I’m running a game, I usually like to aim for having six players – generally considered the usual upper limit for a game that won’t degenerate into chaos – so that two people can drop off before we have to start looking around for more players.  

Go Run a Game!

That's it! That's all I have for you. Check out some of the resources below, and then go run your first game! It can seem intimidating, but remember that you're here to have fun. You're a player in this game, and you deserve to enjoy it.


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