You’ve gathered your players, crafted your campaign arc, and even had a Session 0. It’s time for some DM tips to help bring your vision to life, and run your first D&D session.
But where do you start? Some new Game Masters over prepare, while others freeze up and rely solely on reading premade adventure modules.
Fear not! I’m here to guide you and help you feel confident in setting up the first of many epic, successful gaming sessions. Let’s dive in and get ready for the adventure to begin!
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are my own. This post may contain affiliate links. At no additional cost to you, I may earn a small commission.
It’s Time to Setup Your First D&D Session. Get Excited!
There are lots of ways to go about getting your first session started, but to make sure you’ve got all your elements sorted, I’ll go through them all for you.
This includes considerations for time, helping new players, and setting up a plan or outline for your first session. I’ve got a sample outline for you, scripts to follow, and general guidance I hope you’ll find helpful.
I’ve been running tabletop games for over 20 years, and the best advice I can give you is this: Start Playing, Be Respectful, Have Fun.
Consider How Long Your D&D Session Will Be
My primary session right now runs for four hours once a week. Many people would say this is a middle-ground length for sessions.
Shorter Sessions For Heavy Content
A lot of people running horror campaigns try to keep the games shorter, to about an hour-and-a-half or so because of the weight of the content, but in many ways this is more challenging; getting your players to show up on time and start the minute your game is scheduled to begin can take some practice and guidance on your part as a Game Master.
Make sure to schedule in at least 30 minutes of wiggle time either before, after, or both. Players enjoy having a few minutes to chat about nerd culture or life events around a game session.
Longer Sessions for Tactical Combat
I have a good friend who runs an eight hour session every week. He likes to do a lot of really intense, large-scale combat with unique tactics to challenge his players.
This is better suited for longer sessions, because combat is time-consuming.
The length of your play sessions will dictate what type of game you play, and vice versa.
Make sure to schedule in at least 30 minutes of wiggle time either before, after, or both.
Chances are, at this point you’ve already decided on the amount of time and frequency to play. You should have set that up at session 0 with your players. This helps everyone keep their commitment to each other, to you, and to the game.
Consider What Your Players May Accomplish in the Session
Here’s a hint: It’s less than you think.
It is incredibly easy to take two-three hours of your time and accidentally prep for the next two months’ worth of sessions. And, if you take good notes, that’s not a bad thing!
Players love to consider options, roleplay scenarios, ponder tactics, and discuss ideas: all of which are time-consuming.
You’ll need to learn a good balance of allowing them to discuss plans, and keeping the game moving. They need some time to enjoy their ideas within this creative exchange, but we don’t want to dominate the game time with cyclical arguments and conjecture. Be prepared to encourage them to move on if they start sounding like a broken record.
I have a lot of professional experience with preparing content for an audience, and I have learned that generally speaking, people accomplish tasks much more slowly than most would anticipate.
Please Encourage New Players
Extra time is even more important for new players. A lot of fresh players will be hesitant or nervous to participate at first, or will over-compensate their nerves by dominating the conversation. It is your job as the Game Master to help them grow in their confidence each session and balance participation.
It’s an awesome opportunity and your responsibility to the greater gaming landscape to get your players feeling good at your table.
Ask your players their opinion on the topic if they’ve been quiet a while. Give them praise when they have an idea that would work for a scenario. If they get interrupted by a more veteran player, make sure to give them a moment to share their idea when there’s a break in conversation.
They’ll appreciate your listening skills.
Average Time Expectations, for Planning Purposes
Let me give you a few examples of how long standard events will take to give you some planning cues.
Obviously YMMV depending on how many players you have and how loquacious they are, but this is a good guideline to start with.
These times are considering a table of five players, including one veteran, two new players, and two intermediate players.
- Simple combat encounter with fewer than five enemies. You expect the party to win within 3 or fewer rounds: ~15-20 minutes
- Complicated combat encounter with fewer than five enemies, and environmental challenges or timed events with potential consequences (i.e. NPC deaths). You expect the party to win within a few rounds, but they will need to discuss tactics: ~30-60 minutes
- Simple combat with five or more challenging enemies: ~30 minutes
- Complicated combat with five or more challenging enemies: ~45+ minutes
- Meeting for the first time in a tavern, or wherever: ~10 awkward minutes
- Discussing a quest with an NPC: ~15 minutes
- Planning a heist: ~ 30 minutes
- Uncovering the villain’s plot in a tropey speech: ~15 minutes
- Attending a show or event: ~30-45 minutes
- Interviewing a suspect, recently deceased witness, or potential employee: ~10 minutes
- Recapping previous session: ~5-10 minutes
- Leveling up characters: 0 minutes–I usually have them do this for homework. When they level up, I tell them at the end of the night, as I prefer milestone leveling (as opposed to experience point levels). If you want to spend table time on it, expect to spend anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on how experienced your players are, and if they know what they want.
- Shopping: ~10-20 minutes depending on what they have available to choose from
Again, especially with roleplaying, these times will vary greatly depending on your group. They meant to give you an idea of about how long you can expect to spend on each event if there are no extenuating circumstances.
Acclimating to Your Group
Once you run a few sessions, you and your table will get more comfortable with each other and you’ll be able to predict with a bit more accuracy how long different encounters will likely take.
I know for my current primary table, I absolutely cannot predict what they are going to do, ever, and have stopped planning for standard outcomes.
They split the party almost constantly and usually take a ridiculous course of action that never even occurred to me. I also know that they will do just about anything to avoid combat and love to roleplay everything out.
Sometimes I can even leave the room and they’ll just continue to play without me. It cracks me up every time, but they’re having a blast, so I’m happy.
Build an Outline of Events for your D&D Session
If you’re running one of your first sessions, it might make you feel more confident if you have a list to follow as you proceed through the session.
Don’t get hung up at this point on all the advice of the internet (including mine). Don’t worry about “railroading,” or anything like that for now. You can adjust the way you run the game soon enough. For now, you are learning to start. You have to walk before you can run.
Don’t worry about “railroading,” or anything like that for now. You can adjust the way you run the game soon enough. You have to walk before you can run.
Your outline will give you confidence to get through your first few sessions, and you’ll look very well-prepared to your players.
You don’t want to accidentally run out of content during a D&D session, hours before its supposed to end. It’s disappointing to your players, and it makes you look like a novice.
The Core Purpose of Your Outline
Take a moment to think about how an outline is supposed to function in a more traditional sense. Like, say, a school essay or a speech. It’s a list of general ideas you want to discuss, or concepts you want to communicate, within a given time frame or word count.
Your outline here will be very similar. It is not a script. It is a guideline. This means you can veer away from it if needed. It’s not meant to trap you; it’s meant to guide you.
If your players take you WAY out of your outline, that’s okay! You have it there to return to if you need it. That’s the point. Think of it as a support or a scaffold, not a prison.
Here is a sample outline for your D&D game. Feel free to steal it and modify it for your needs! I made a copy on Google Docs for you, too.
Sample D&D Session Outline
My First SUPER EPIC D&D Session!
- Recap Session 0 and welcome everyone, tell them how excited I am: 10 minutes
- Have everyone quickly introduce their character’s class and intended combat role above table, finalize last-minute shopping, and explain anything that SHOULD be known or is relevant mechanically: 15 minutes
- Start the music as the last player is finishing, very quietly. Increase volume to a comfortable level when they finish, smile excitedly, then describe the tavern where they are all hanging out to meet (if you did not do this during session 0. Otherwise, describe where they currently are). Here’s a tavern script example for you, but try to paraphrase and make it sound natural, if you can:
- YOU ARE INSIDE a rustic tavern. Its atmosphere is warm and inviting, with wooden tables and flooring lending a homey and lived-in charm to the space. There is an intricate mural painted on the wall. It’s a masterpiece, though faded, depicting horses galloping across lush farmland. You recognize the farmland as the Harvestmoon Hill, which suffered a devastating fire just yesterday. The detail and skill put into the artwork is striking. The patrons are a lively bunch, their laughter and conversation adding to the buzz of the tavern. You feel as though you’re in a place where the simple pleasures of food, drink, and company reign supreme.
- You take a seat at a large communal table in the center of the room. Others file in, and pretty soon, the tavern is full. A lithe young man in a brightly colored tunic brings food and drink to the table as the patrons around you place their orders. You’re seated near one another, and can talk now, if you’d like. Say hello!
- If it’s too awkward or they are struggling, help them out. Have an NPC start a conversation with them and then leave, or have this NPC offer all of them a quest as a group of adventurers.
- Once players accept the quest, transport them there and describe where it begins. This is when you start the adventure you’ve selected.
- Give players a few options if they get stuck or stop the action, especially if they are new. Something like: “You can search the area, talk to one another, or ask the NPC for help.”
Once you get going, it will get a little easier for everyone. Have your quest and campaign notes ready for this part!
Prepare For Your D&D Session
You need the following for a successful first Dungeons & Dragons session:
Have a good understanding of the first in-game meeting location, first quest, turn in details, and 2-3 next quest hook options in case they move through content more quickly than you anticipated.
Again, you’re not concerning yourself with “railroading” at this point. You’re getting the game started, laying the groundwork, and getting everyone into their characters.
It’s likely your players won’t even finish the first quest, but if they do, you want to be ready and be able to present them with options. This will give them a sense of agency, the illusion of choice, and excitement for adventure.
The Illusion of Infinite
There should always be an illusion of infinite content, if you can manage that. It’s exciting as a player to have that before you. I like to have at least an extra hour’s worth of content ready, just in case I miscalculate something.
As you become more comfortable running the game and your players are more comfortable in their characters, you can continue to widen the scope to give your players a broader sense of selection.
Check out our guide on building a “playset” for the easiest way to provide genuine player choice within a story scene.
Benefits of Being the Dungeon Master
It can be super intimidating to run a D&D game the first time, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience with public speaking, facilitating content to people, or nerd culture.
That shouldn’t be a reason not to play, though. There is so much fun to be had, and I know you can be successful if you put your mind to it. Spending a little extra time preparing when you’re first starting will go a long way in making you feel more confident and excited.
Remember this above all, Dungeon Master: YOU are playing, too! Just because you’re running the game doesn’t mean it needs to be a sacrifice. Just the opposite, in fact. I think it’s often more fun to run a game than to just play it.
As the one running the game, you get to play constantly. Other players have to take turns, but you get to be every NPC, choose every descriptive setting, pick exciting secrets for story and combat moments… you get to do it all.
You’re ready for your first D&D game! Have fun with it, be creative, and give yourself a boost by taking some extra good notes for the first few sessions. Everyone will have more fun for your hard work.
You can do it! I have faith in you.
I’d love to hear how it goes in the comments below. Do you have any other tips for running your first D&D session? I’d love to see those, too.
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