Introduction to the game
Objectives for this tutorial
- Learn what Dungeons & Dragons is
- Learn what a Dungeon Master does
- See examples of how a Dungeon Master sets the scene
- See examples of how a Dungeon Master reacts to character actions
- See examples of how a Dungeon Master referees the game
The Dungeons & Dragons game
In every game of Dungeons & Dragons, one person must act as the Dungeon Master. The Dungeon Master runs the game; the players play the game. The Dungeon Master presents an adventure; the players explore and interact and fight.
The Dungeon Master is in charge of everything in the game world that isn’t a player’s character. This means the Dungeon Master acts out the part of monsters and villains. Even though the Dungeon Master is responsible for them, the Dungeon Master is still on the side of the players having fun. A good game involves risk balanced against reward, where the players’ characters achieve a hard-fought victory against a nefarious opponent! The Dungeon Master creates adventures for players to have fun with.
A Dungeon Master’s three activities
The Dungeon Master performs three broad sorts of activities during a D&D game.
- Set the scene. First, the Dungeon Master tells the players what their characters experience in the game—what the characters see, hear, smell. The Dungeon Master prepares some details before the game begins. When the characters experience something that the Dungeon Master didn’t prepare, the DM improvises.
- Referee. Second, the Dungeon Master referees the game. This means interpreting the rules, helping move the action along, assisting players with questions, and delegating tasks to players. The Dungeon Master defaults to having the most responsibility and authority in the game. Because of that, it’s critical to the health of the game that the Dungeon Master be fair and supportive of the players.
- React. Third, the Dungeon Master decides how everything in the game world reacts to the characters’ actions. When a character talks to a fairy princess, the Dungeon Master decides how the fairy princess replies. When a character tries to open a door, the Dungeon Master decides the consequences, such as nearby monsters coming to investigate the noise. The Dungeon Master will apply the rules of D&D and the logic of the world to decide upon the reaction.
During a game, each sort of activity naturally flows into the others. For instance, once an outcome is decided through refereeing, the Dungeon Master will likely need to react based on the result and set the scene to describe to the players what has occurred.
Overview of the game
The script below is an example of how a D&D game might play. Before this game begins, the players created characters and the Dungeon Master created an adventure.
The participants in this portion of a D&D game are
- Desiree, the Dungeon Master running the game.
- Erika, a player controlling the character Freya. Freya is a fierce and formidable fighter.
- Quinn, a player controlling the character Rozh. Rozh is a larcenous, laconic rogue.
- Vince, a player controlling the character Wyx. Wyx is a wily but weak wizard.
Script from the game
Desiree (DM): [setting the scene] The three of you grew up together in the frontier village of Hilltop. Though you took different paths in life, you remained close friends.
[refereeing] Please introduce your characters briefly to each other. Erika, would you start?
Erika (Freya): Sure. I’m playing Freya. Freya is a fierce and formidable fighter. She is a barbarian princess, tall and strong. Right now, Freya is wearing heavy armor, but her helmet is under her left arm and her blond hair flows freely.
Quinn (Rozh): My character is a rogue named Rozh. He’s adventuring to retrieve loot and get rich.
Vince (Wyx): I’m playing Wyx. I’m a wizard, so I’m smart but weak. I wear loose clothing with a lot of pockets, and I have a dagger at my side.
Desiree (DM): [setting the scene] In the last two weeks, the Hilltop townsfolk have been talking about light coming from an abandoned tower at night, strange sounds in the woods that surrounds it, and livestock disappearing. They pooled money to pay for a reward for anyone who can get to the bottom of what’s happening and set things aright.
The three of you have walked outside town to the forest clearing that has the abandoned tower. A light breeze rustles the leaves and chills your skin. It’s chill in the shadows, though you quickly warm in the mid-morning sun in the clearing. You see the tower, made of crumbling stone, rising 30 feet. There’s also a tidy cottage in much better repair. You know that a wizard named Thariel used to live in the cottage.
Erika (Freya): “This is the place, friends.” Does Freya see any entrance to the tower?
Desiree (DM): [setting the scene] Yes, there’s an iron-bound door with a rusted padlock settled into its latch.
Quinn (Rozh): Rozh knows a few things about a few things. He cozies up to the padlock, pulls out his thieves’ tools, and picks the lock.
Desiree (DM): [setting the scene] As you inspect the lock and insert one of your fine tools, you see that the lock is caked with rust. Its tumblers are mostly frozen in place. It will be very difficult to move them without breaking it entirely.
[refereeing] If you want to continue picking the lock, you need to make a Dexterity check, Difficulty Class 20 to succeed. If you roll 15 or less, you break the lock and won’t be able to try again.
Quinn (Rozh): Ouch, that’s too tough for Rozh to reliably attempt, even with his thieves’ tools.
Erika (Freya): Then Freya will bash the door down!
Desiree (DM): [refereeing] That’s considerably easier. Make a Strength check, Difficulty Class 10.
Erika (Freya): <rolls> Yes! I got an 11.
Desiree (DM): [refereeing] Freya throws her shoulder into the door and it slams open with a THUD.
[setting the scene] Inside the tower, you smell decay and rot.
[reacting] There’s movement to your right. What looks like a man’s corpse rises from the floor, groans, and charges at you!
Vince (Wyx): I anticipated danger such as this. I cast a Magic Missile spell at the corpse.
Desiree (DM): [refereeing] First, I need all three of you to roll initiative. Vince, Wyx has been ready, but he also has been hanging back with a restricted view. I’d say Wyx has no special modifiers at this time.
Vince (Wyx): <rolls> But then again, I rolled an 18, so it looks like I was prepared after all!
Desiree (DM): [refereeing] Indeed you were. What did you get for your characters’ initiatives, Erika and Quinn?
Quinn (Rozh): <rolls> Only a 7.
Erika (Freya): <rolls> Freya has an 11 initiative.
Desiree (DM): [refereeing] Then Wyx acts first, as this rotted body rushes towards Freya.
Vince (Wyx): I cast Magic Missile with stentorious intonation and carefully controlled gestures. As three glowing orbs of force race to the creature, I sniff distastefully at the air. “Likely only a zombie, but it tells us something of what’s happening here.”
Desiree (DM): [refereeing] Okay Mr. Magic, how much damage do your orbs of force inflict upon this lifeless body?
Vince (Wyx): <rolls> I do 12 points of force damage.
Desiree (DM): [reacting] The magic missiles blast into the body, tearing large holes in its chest. Momentum carries it forward, even as it falls to the ground, moving no longer.
[refereeing] The immediate threat seems past, so I’m going to drop us out of combat.
[setting the scene] Freya, you see two closed, wooden doors exiting from this room. The stench coming from the felled corpse is strong but not over-powering. What would you like to do next?
- What are the three activities a Dungeon Master performs during a D&D game?
- In the example script when did the Dungeon Master Desiree perform two different activities in a row?
- In the example script how did the players determine different numbers?
- What didn’t make sense in the script? What do you want to learn next?
- Below are short scripts, each with conversation between two participants. In each conversation, which participant is the DM? What activity does the DM perform?
Amy: “Enough!” I thunder at the king. “Your murderous tyranny ends here!”
Ben: His eyes narrow and he says in low voice, “Kill her”. Guards rush forward to attack.
Carla: Pegasus Run ends abruptly in a cliff edge. You can see an entire valley, hundreds of feet below you, shrouded in mist and forest. In the distance a blocky building rises above the trees. It shines red-gold in newly-risen sun’s light.
Dwayne: That must be the temple the old man told us about. I set down my backpack and pull out rope, carabiners, pitons, and a hammer. I hope no one’s afraid of heights.
Emily: I try to listen in to the merchants’ conversation without being noticed. If I don’t look their way, maybe they’ll think I’m just another body crowding the bar.
Frank: Because you’re blending in with the other patrons, it’s easy for you to remain unobserved by the merchants. However, it’s tough to catch their whispers over the tavern’s rowdiness. Make a Wisdom check, Difficulty Class 15 to overhear them.
Grace: A full night’s rest under the healer’s care speeds your recovery. You gain double the normal effects.
Hugh: Great, I’m fully healed! Is anyone else still injured?
How to Play a Tabletop Fantasy Roleplaying Game by Venger As’Nas Satanis. The how-to is written like this tutorial’s example script. One difference is that it shows a Dungeon Master introducing players to the game, telling them rules on a need-to-know basis. There are many styles to play a D&D game. Let this be another source of inspiration for your game.