Before we begin…
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So, you want to play Dungeons & Dragons but you aren’t sure how or where to start? Not to worry, we’re here help make sure your first few games are filled with confidence.
Remember to start small
The objectives of your first session should be simple: have fun, learn the most basic rules, and don’t worry about any complex story just yet. You shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel here with an intricate story of betrayal and deceit or some epic quest to save the earth. Don’t think of the first session as the pilot episode of a TV show. Instead, think of it like a dress rehearsal! Things will go wrong. Your players may accidentally catch the whole town on fire or let the bad guys get away because of some bad dice rolls. This is okay, in fact, it is a great start to an interesting story!
So how do I start?
Well, the first thing you have to think about is what interesting thing will the players be doing during the first session? Travelling through a cursed forest, solving a mysterious murder, or simply clearing out an ancient dungeon full of treasure. Whatever it is you want to make it easy for players to digest and get into the action. Don’t start your first session with 30 minutes of narrative and exposition. As DM you have to set player’s expectations and chances are your player’s expectations is to play something, not listen to your storytelling. Give players no reason to check their phones — get them engaged and active in the game as early as possible! Have the events of the game focus on their characters and their actions as much as possible, you want them to feel like they have agency in this world.
You should consider who you have invited to play when thinking of the setting. If you know that one of the players wants to play a bloodthirsty Barbarian, make sure to include moments of combat where they can show off their stuff! Alternatively, If you have a bumbling Wizard who couldn’t fight their way out of a bag of holding, make sure to have moments where creativity is key to avoid a purely combat focused play session.
This doesn’t mean start them in the town square and set them loose, that rarely ever ends well, especially with players new to the game. Consider starting them out in the dungeon, or the middle of the forest, or at the site of a grisly murder. This way they will be smack in the middle of the action, avoiding many of the first time player problems like being nervous, apprehensive, or impulsive in side-tracking the party and the game.
Put them in a situation that allows them to make immediate decisions on how to advance, whether that be stealthy scouting or brashly strutting through the area. All you need is a brief explanation of how fate has led their characters to where they are now and a decent enough motivation for them to step further.
If they want to visit a store or seek information before continuing the adventure, you can always use retroactive storytelling to satisfy those small requests. Just be careful that you don’t make these interactions too involved, you don’t want half the session taken up bartering for 50 feet of rope.
So now that we know where the action will happen, let’s create some backstory as to why they are there. Maybe they heard rumors of a wizard’s long-lost treasure resurfacing and sought to claim it for themselves before anyone else does. Or, perhaps they were hired by a merchant who wants a headquarters in a cavern but needs the heroes to clear it out of nasty creatures first.
Make sure to create a few details such as the name of the nearest town, some friendly (and non-friendly) NPC’s, and some local rumors or news of the realm. Now think of a twist to create some interesting drama and conflict in the game. Try to involve one of the characters by having a sibling or family heirloom in the location you’ve established, or perhaps the entire mission is a set-up by the town’s secret cult who lure adventurers into their traps. It doesn’t have to be an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist, just something unexpected to give the players a personal stake in the adventure.
If you can, try to foreshadow the twist in the opening of the game somehow. If the innkeeper is trapping and killing adventures in the nearby cave with his cult buddies, mention how the modest inn has a surprisingly full stock of adventuring supplies and gear. Or for a darker twist, mention that the fresh stew seems to have an exotic meat in it.
All the players should go along with an adventure but if one of the characters are involved, make sure that there is some other reason for other players to get excited about the adventure. You can always add a rumor of a powerful artifact or treasure, but a reward of impressing the local bar wench or earning the favor of a nobleman works well, too!
After you’ve decided what awaits them and where all that’s left to do is to come up with a few obstacles and challenges they may encounter. This could be a classic trapped corridor full of flamethrowers, a gang of bubbly goblins, or trying to convince the local town guard to let them out of prison. The idea is to give your players the opportunities to use their character’s weapons, spells, and skills to overcome roadblocks. Try and keep these obstacles straightforward and open-ended. You have to avoid challenges in which your players have to read your mind to figure out how to overcome them.
You have your interesting location, some background about why they are there, and some encounters that will let your players progress through the story! From here you can search online for pictures, battle maps, and other resources to help you out! If all goes well you will have a blast and the players will be craving for another adventure!