Hosting a Dungeons and Dragons game for the first time

Inspired in no small part by the kids in Stranger Things (aka my heroes), six coworkers and I stayed after work this past week to try out a session of Dungeons and Dragons. Who knows, maybe we could even defeat the Demigorgon!

Stranger Things

The new faces of cool.

I had played the game a little before, a few years ago. But I had never been on the hosting side (a role called the “Dungeon Master,” often abbreviated “DM”). I spotted a used copy of the “Dungeon Master’s Guide” at my local bookstore, the idea took root, and decided to give it a shot!

If you want to try something similar, I’m documenting what I did. It’s easier than you might think, and it’s really fun. :)

Step 1: Summoning the Heroes

In a way, a D&D session is a form of performance art. And like any form of performance art, it’s important to know your cast as well as your audience. In this case, the players are going to be both cast and audience, so as DM you have to set the stage correctly for collaborating with them to make the experience fun.

For me, the players were my coworkers. A few had played the game before (one with a negative experience where it had been all about rules, rules, rules), but more than half would be complete beginners. They wouldn’t be there to level up a half-elf paladin; they would be there just to try something new and have some fun with friends.

Meanwhile, our session would be after work, so it couldn’t be super long and there was not much time to explain the rules. The difficulties of scheduling future sessions meant that a one-time story would be very preferable.

Results of Step 1:

  • I’d knew I’d be writing a one-time story, aimed at 2-3 hours.
  • I’d be reducing most of the usual rules to just the core mechanics.
  • The tone of the story should be fun and inclusive, and not bogged down in mythology.

Step 2: Assembling my Armory

Especially for a one-time, more casual game, I wasn’t going to buy a ton of stuff. I spent a total of about $20, getting a few used copies of books and a bunch of dice.

The (optional) guidebooks:

  • The Player’s Handbook
  • The Dungeon Master’s Guide
  • The Monster Manual

I bought used copies of the 4th-edition of these three books, but really only used the Player’s Handbook and DM’s guide, and those just a little bit.

D&D books

The (optional) D&D guide books

The Player’s Handbook was useful for the concept of player “classes.” You can think of a player class as their role: fighter, wizard, etc. Giving the characters complimentary strengths and weaknesses also gives them a source of identity, and enhances the role of teamwork. As you’ll see, I dramatically simplified the player stats, but still made some differentiation.

The Dungeon Master’s Guide contains some useful tips on setting up the game, but I only ended up reading about 20 pages of it before being like “ok I think I’m good.” Surely, I can learn much more from it if I do this again in the future. I had observed the DM when I played previously, and decided to adapt most of their techniques anyway. :)

The Monster Manual is a book full of detailed example monsters, complete with their strengths, weaknesses, physical descriptions, and really cool artwork. This book would be more useful for a longer campaign that would require introducing a variety of enemies to fight, but for my session I created only three kinds of enemies: little goblins, big goblins, and a “Demigorgon.” They all just had a sword weapon, ran at and attacked the nearest player at all times, and just varied in terms of strength and hit points.

Little Goblin Big Goblin Demigorgon
Strength: 0 0 +4
Hit Points: 5 10 40

I also bought a pad of graph paper so I could lay out the gameboard, and a bag of cheap dice from Amazon (enough for each player to have a 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and 20-sided die). I took some game pieces from other board games I own for the characters and monsters.

Dice and game pieces

Dice and game pieces

Results of Step 2:

  • I plucked a few details from two of the core D&D books, and not really anything from the Monster’s Manual. I’d consider them optional.
  • I bought a bag of dice, graph paper, and mixed-and-matched pieces from other games.

Step 3: Uncovering the Legend

Even a one-shot session for beginners needs some kind of backstory. I’m the kind of person who spends his free time writing sci-fi stories, so this part excited me. I even recruited a couple creative friends to help build the scenario.

Our story was that characters from vastly different times and places suddenly found themselves warped into a vast cavern, and had two hours to find a set of magic words to leave, or else they would be stuck there for a year. The search led them to a labyrinth packed with goblins that eventually revealed the magic words.

Behind the scenes, a backstory emerged of a wizard keeping a pet dragon in the cavern, and leaving for a few hundred years. In the meantime, the wizard set up a system to summon random visitors to keep the dragon intellectually stimulated from time to time. A sign posted by the dragon said the magic set of words, so that after the dragon saw a few people, the people would leave and that would be that. It wasn’t meant to be dangerous, but then the cavern network was discovered by a Demigorgon and some goblins, and they stole the sign with the magic words so that they could eat the visitors who were summoned from time to time.

None of that deeper backstory really came out while playing, but that’s OK :)

I also took the time to write bios for each of the characters. I wrote them on the computer first, then handwrote them on cards that contained the character’s stats on the back. I reduced the possible stats to just Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma. To make it simple, every character had 20 maximum hit points. Also, each character learned a single special ability after the first battle.

Here’s a summary:

  • Leaf (bio): a hacker from the 2070’s. Special ability: After successful attacks, she has the option to move again.
  • Jek (bio): an archer. Special ability: Shoot two arrows at once.
  • Barack (bio): a leader from 2016 with considerable magic potential. Special ability: Fireball (attack that affects everyone in a small area).
  • Vera (bio): A wise healer. Special ability: Heal (heals 5 HP of an adjacent player)
  • Templeton Jacobs (bio): A medieval knight-in-training. Special ability: Blindly Spinning Around (attacks everyone adjacent).
  • Glitch (bio): A virtual-reality consciousness who can’t control the form their body takes, and it changes every 20 minutes. Special ability: Every 20 minutes, player rolls to determine switching between an ogre, a hobbit, or a human. I also tossed in “Blindly Spinning Around.”
Character bios

Character bios

Character stats

Character stats (on the backside of bio page)

Results of Step 3:

  • I planned out a little too much backstory on the setting and characters for a two-hour game, but I really enjoyed the process so I don’t mind overshooting it there. :)

Step 4: Mapping out the World

The enclosed space of a cavern was relatively easy to constrain. I added a “village” of people who were stuck in the cave, but never really made up much of a plan for that place. Luckily, the group decided not to head in that direction anyway.

Once the team found their way into the labyrinth, I used my pre-drawn maze to redraw the labyrinth bit by bit on the graph paper as they explored it.

Reference maze drawn beforehand

Reference maze drawn beforehand

I also wrote out the simplified versions of swords or bows-and-arrows, and the special abilities on scraps of paper. The player would simply roll a d20 and modify with their character’s attributes to see if they hit their target, then roll a d10 to see the damage.

The weapons and ability cards

The weapons and ability cards

  • Drawing the labyrinth beforehand was crucial– and it turned out to be about the right complexity.
  • Greatly simplifying the weapons system worked out well too.

Step 5: Brewing up the Puzzles

What would finding your way through a labyrinth be without some puzzles? This is not a required part of every D&D game, but I thought it would be a fun way to include everyone. Expert and novice quester alike could collaborate to advance the team. My inspiration was from this scene in the movie “Labyrinth”, though the puzzles took much different forms in the end:

I especially sought to balance the type of puzzle, so I had three: One was purely a logic, process-of-elimination puzzle where the group had to find which door was the correct one out of a set of five. I found the puzzle here.

The second puzzle was more of a lateral-thinking style puzzle, to solve the combination for the door into the labyrinth. Initially, everyone’s instinct is to find a mathematical pattern, but the solution requires looking at the puzzle from a much different perspective. I found it here.

The final puzzle was a physical one, where a sheet of paper the party discovered had a mysterious slot cut in it. When put over their character bios and lined up with the correct corner with a mark on it, it would reveal a secret word for each person (the bold word, if you read the bio links). These words put together was the magic set of words to open the enchanted door and escape the cave! (Handwriting these correctly was an important task!)

Final clue

On the left is the final clue, with a notch cut in it.

Clue placed over Glitch's bio

Clue placed over Glitch’s bio, revealing a magic word.

Thankfully, the puzzles worked perfectly. All the puzzles were challenging enough that people didn’t get them immediately (though the physical one was the fastest-solved in about 15 seconds), and required a different style of thinking so all the team members contributed.

Results of Step 5:

  • I used logic, lateral thinking, and physical puzzles to involve different thinking styles, and it paid off. :)

Step 6: Leading the Quest

One coworker was not able to attend, so I involved him by recording a video of him as the “labyrinth guard” presenting the logic puzzle. Showing that video at the right moment was one of the more memorable parts of the game and was well-received. It was kind of like a celebrity Daily Double in Jeopardy.

Labyrinth guard video

Me showing the “labyrinth guard” guest appearance.

We went around in a circle, taking turns doing an action (moving, attacking, etc). I noticed that the time started to get close to two hours, so an optional second battle ended up being the final battle, and the final clue was the reward.

Even with the best-laid plans, plenty had to be improvised. I had forgotten to decide what items would be in the treasure chests the team might find in the labyrinth, so I decided that they were one-time-use scrolls teaching a player a special ability. This kind of worked, except that there wasn’t much of a chance to use those abilities anyway. Removing the optional second battle and going straight to the final battle would’ve provided that chance.

Results of Step 6:

  • The cameo appearance of another coworker as “labyrinth guard” was a win.
  • I had made the labyrinth a little too long, but managed to move up the appearance of the final clue so the team could still escape in time.
  • I had an amazing experience and we all joked our way through the game.

Overall Results

Because I made the campaign a little too long, we never got to see the Demigorgon in action. Nor did the player special abilities come in handy very much (they would have, if the Demigorgon battle happened).

Like I mentioned, I did manage to improvise the final clue a little earlier so the game came full circle on time, but for some reason I didn’t think to move the Demigorgon’s appearance up too. There was an optional battle that the group decided to take, and I think I should have removed that option for time and instead gone to the final, larger battle.

Checking the maze reference.

Checking the maze reference while the team explores it.

But aside from the things to improve, I had a truly amazing experience. Some preparation was necessary, but ultimately setting the tone is far more important than getting all the details perfect beforehand. It was just so fun, and the humor that came out from everyone was pretty hilarious. My coworkers got into the game and expressed appreciation when it was all over. There are already rumors of a sequel for this winter…

Watching an important dice roll!

Watching an important dice roll!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *