Let’s Talk: Dungeons & Dragons – To Build Or Not To Build – By Stephen Stachofsky.
Dungeons and Dragons has really taken off in the past ten years. Its reemergence and acceptance in the mainstream consciousness is a comeback story to rival Rudy in and of itself. I have been an avid player since the dark ages of 4th edition and all its clunky glory. I was first introduced to D&D by my fraternity brothers. In those days we were fueled by lethal doses of energy drinks and alcohol and geared up for 24-hour power marathons. Our DM was a madman and a genius. As I got older, sessions of this kind became less and less frequent. After I got married, the days of marathon sessions lasting eight hours or more in the various worlds my brothers built became almost nonexistent. Even though my DM tried to limit sessions to a mere four hours, it was a hard thing to commit to. That is until I said this to myself, “Hey, I’ve been playing D&D for more than five years. How hard could it be to switch to DMing?”
If you have ever said this or something like it to yourself, what follows is for you.
Dungeon Master is a terrifying and thrilling title. Some are born for it, some are the only option, and some should not even attempt it. There are plenty of people out there who are great players, and they should keep doing that. We need more good players, but more on that later. The question is, what is so hard about being the DM?
Well if your introduction to D&D was anything like mine, you had a DM who was an expert world builder. His worlds felt real, lived in, and steeped in history and culture. His campaigns were compelling and grabbed the attention of every character and player at the table. He made it look and feel easy. So thinking that it wouldn’t really be that hard, I went and bought myself a Dungeon Master’s Guide, a Player’s Handbook, and A Monster Manual. Armed with the trifecta of nerdom, I sat down and opened the DMG (Dungeon Master’s Guide).
I was totally, utterly and completely lost.
Lost might not be the best word for it. I was overwhelmed. The DMG has so much information. It provides tips, and processes for building everything from a small farming town to a multicultural, diverse world. The book itself is a lot to process with tools for cartography, creating countries, creating countrysides. It has examples of multiple different pantheons of deities, various calendars, political systems, guilds, monetary systems, exchange rates of various hypothetical currencies, religious rights, and on and on and on and on…
This Pandora’s box of a book just made building my own world much more complicated. The crux of the matter is though, it should be. To have a world you have to have much more than just a monster of the week villain, a few minions and some treasure. You need people, history, and everything that goes with it.
So how does the starting DM do this?
Read the DMG after the PHB (Players Handbook). When you start the DMG sit down with several notebooks which you will use for your planning. Each notebook will contain various levels of depth. The first is where your players start, and you should leave room in it for the players to add their own lore. Is it a small fishing village, a school of magic, or a crossing point leading to a mighty fortress city? The next notebook gets bigger, with the county or duchy or tribal land you started in. The next gets even bigger and so on and so forth.
The key is to start small. Your party doesn’t need to be tossed into an international scandal at level one. A group of bandits stealing livestock is just as compelling as a false king to level one players. Your first notebook should focus on your small world, the first town, the immediate surrounding area and so on. As your players level up you can level yourself up as well. Then you move onto the other notebooks as your players discover more and more of your world. Don’t be afraid to drop hints at larger things happening, but don’t let those hints become more important than your immediate reality.
Building a world takes a lot of time and effort. So, what do you do if you just want to play now? What happens if your D&D group just lost a DM and you are the only person to step up?
You really have only a couple of options. If you’re some sort of genius wizard, you throw together an amazing world in an incredibly short amount of time and play a homebrewed campaign and everything is hunky dory. If you think that is possible, that’s fantastic. Take my suggested method above into consideration, or don’t, and go play. I can’t really put together a campaign world that fast, nor am I very good at it even with lots of preparation.
After a couple sessions in the amorphous blob of a world I had tried to shoddily put up with toothpicks, my players and I were very frustrated. I developed the ideas of the above method after this experience, and since have put together the beginnings of my own world. It has been five months in the making and I’m still not ready to play in it. But at that moment, since my players wanted to play and I was the only option to DM, I turned to a different tool.
In the early days of D&D, there were prebuilt dungeons and campaigns called modules. Though they are not called that anymore, the practice has continued by different names. These source books have everything the busy DM needs to run a full campaign with a minimal amount of prep. I have started one of these books, the Curse of Strahd, with my own group and I look forward to talking about that later. These books are meant to be used in tandem with the PHB, the DMG, and the Monster Manual.
Each chapter is built to take you and your players through a myriad of encounters, missions and objectives while providing ample loot and treasure to keep them well stocked and happy. Should they wander off and leave a chapter, you simply follow them through the map and open to the correct chapter when they stop, or use one of the many hooks provided to get the party back on track. Of course, when I purchased the campaign book for The Curse of Strahd, I read the whole thing cover to cover before playing any of it. While I am a huge proponent of “read the whole thing first”, a DM could run the campaign chapter by chapter with very little prep work, being surprised just like your players at every turn. Other books like Out of the Abyss, Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, and many more, allow DMs and players everywhere to enjoy many colorful and exotic campaigns.
If you are new to being a DM, I recommend jumping into any of the supplementary source books by Wizards of the Coast, because it is very easy to be burnt out writing your own world, especially if it’s your first time. In the end, to build or not to build, is up to you. If/when you decide to try and build, approach the project with a clear organizational method to your build, even if the story isn’t fleshed out yet. Good luck DMing and we will chat again soon.
If you like what you read, or if you have your own process or tips for fledgling DM’s, drop us a note in the comments.
All the best,
Stephen and the Storytelling Breakdown Team