Dungeons & Dragons content on my Magic: the Gathering website? It’s more likely than you think. 

Anecdotally, the Venn diagram of “people who play Magic” and “people who are D&D curious ” is basically a circle. Wizards of the Coast themselves acknowledged this overlap by releasing setting guides for both Ravnica and Theros in glorious hardcover; even the publisher is encouraging their fans to get a little peanut butter in their chocolate. 

If you’re a regular reader of The Mana Base, it’s probably safe to assume you are already a pretty enfranchised Magic: the Gathering player. I am here to offer you a change of pace – to guide you towards those fancy hardcover books sitting next to the dice at your local game store. Specifically, I am writing for those among you who might be thinking of taking the plunge into running a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Whether you were the last person to say “not it” when your group was choosing their Dungeon Master (DM), or you have always wanted to guide your friends through a high-octane adventure, this column will be for you. 

I plan to put my 10+ years of experience running games to work on behalf of any new DMs who might be reading this. Over the course of a 4-part special series, I will walk you through the groundwork required to build your first campaign world and the pitfalls you might encounter in the process. I made the mistakes so you won’t have to. 

Like most narrative endeavours, putting together a Dungeons & Dragons campaign requires some fundamental building blocks. For the purposes of this extended introduction series, we are going to be focusing on 4 W’s: Why, Who, What, and Where. Today, we will concern ourselves with Why.


Why Are You Running the Game? 

Did you draw the short straw among your group? Were you the one who could afford to pick up the Dungeon Master’s Guide and the Monster Manual along with the Player’s Handbook? Have you always had a fantasy epic within you that needs to be gloriously birthed in front of an awestruck, captive audience? 

I’m going to get this out of the way now: there is no wrong reason to decide to DM. You are not egocentric if you are driven to create a passion-project story, and you are not “doing it wrong” if you are slightly reluctant or exceptionally nervous. Make no mistake: running a D&D game is a lot of work, and understanding your motivations and how far they can carry you is an important part of making sure you are up to the task.

If you are having trouble identifying the exact reason you are stepping into the role of DM, it’s best to start asking yourself some questions. Here are a few you get you started:  

  • What excites you about running a game? 
  • If you went out of your way to claim the role of DM, what made it more appealing to you than being a player? 
  • What parts of the game are you most excited to create? (Building the world? Plotting out the story? Inventing the NPCs? Creating the encounters?) 
  • How much time are you willing to devote to the creation of your game? 

These are only a few queries to get your brain working. Figuring out what parts of the DM experience are most important to you will help communicate to your players a clear picture of what they should expect from your game – and what you expect from them. 

On that note, let’s talk about the other side of this coin: 


Why Are Your Players Joining the Game? 

Just as there are myriad reasons you could be running the game, there are a plethora of motivations that can drive your players. An important part of figuring out your approach to running your game is deciphering the reasons your players are sitting down with you. Today, we are dealing with the impetus that drives them from being normies to being D&D players. Understanding why someone is at your table can help you make your game as welcoming for them as possible. 

For this exercise, let’s imagine an axis with “casual” at one end and “dedicated” on the other:

*Image courtesy of the author’s terrible MSPaint skills

A deeply casual player is sitting down at the table because they are looking for a social experience. They are playing D&D not out of a deep, abiding love of the game itself, but out of a desire for a fun group activity. To them, D&D is just another incarnation of board game night; more about the beer, snacks, and shit-shooting than about the complex puzzles, nail-biting combat encounters, and intricate storylines. That’s not to say they don’t enjoy those more quintessential D&D elements, but they’re probably not going to be gasping in shock when you reveal plot twists. 

On the other side of the spectrum, we have the dedicated D&D players. These are the folks who are specifically excited to play D&D. They have a whole rolodex of character concepts lurking in their brain, know the niche rule interactions to optimize their class, and will know how to best use the rules of the game to their advantage in combat. Whether they are more partial to roleplaying or character optimization, they are there to get deep into your game.

It’s worth noting that the “casual” and “dedicated” traits are not set in stone. The right campaign or character can pull a casual player towards becoming a dedicated one – while overbooking or drama in real life can make a dedicated player act like a casual. While it’s common for new players to start off as casuals, having a newbie filled with rabid enthusiasm right from the start is also a frequent occurrence. 


The Point of Friction 

The reason I am spending so much time in the wishy-washy weeds of personal motivation is that many, many bad D&D experiences begin with a Dungeon Master whose motivations are misaligned with those of their players. 

Imagine: You – an aspiring DM – have always wanted to run a game. You have been working on building a detailed world and story in the margins of your school notes for years and you finally have a group that seems interested in giving it a go. But, when you sit down – with your deeply personal and sincerely crafted masterpiece – you are greeted by players on their phones, three beers deep, who rolled up characters with names like Beeg of House Chungus. You were looking for compelling escapism, they were looking for orc punching and dick jokes. 

Before I continue, I want to stress that neither approach in this example is wrong. I know plenty of successful groups that meet every week like clockwork to get half-cut and have a laugh. The key to making your group successful is ensuring that the players and the DM are on the same page about what they want the game to be, which brings us to the most important step that new groups usually miss: 

Session 0 

Session 0 is an idea that has been gaining a lot of traction in the Dungeons & Dragons community recently, being canonized by WotC themselves in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. In short: Session 0 is an initial meeting between the Dungeon Master and their players to suss out what the campaign and the characters will be at the beginning of their journey. Usually, the DM will go over what kind of game they will be running, what the vibe will be, and what level of involvement they hope to have from their players. For their part, the players will ask questions and – ideally – start to plot out what kind of characters they want to play; sometimes this will mean building those characters as well. Building characters together is especially good for groups with mixed levels of experience or who are all new, as it allows for a collaborative discussion and interpretation of the rules. 

If there is one dead horse I intend to beat over the course of my articles, it is the importance of open communication between DMs and their players. So many problems can be solved before they become problems if players feel comfortable talking openly with their DM and vice-versa. 

The second dead horse I am going to be wailing on is compromise. Differing motivations don’t have to be a death sentence for your hypothetical D&D group. As DM, it can be very easy to become emotionally invested in your “perfect vision” for the game, but remember that you can’t bring that vision to life without your players. By the same token, those players can’t have a game without your vision. Both you and they are united in your desire to play, so as long as you keep that mutual desire in mind, you can probably figure out a way to make the game work. 

Earlier, when discussing the differences between casual and dedicated players, I may have created something of an either/or dichotomy in your mind; D&D groups are either slapstick free-for-alls or dour cult-like enclaves. The truth of the matter is that most groups land somewhere in the middle. They reach this middle ground by listening, communicating, and prioritizing their shared enjoyment.


Part 1 – Fin 

As I mentioned up top, today’s article was about making your game welcoming; next time we’ll talk about making your game fun. We’ll look at what happens when the player motivations we discussed today are forced to express themselves through the framework of the game’s rules. Today, we tackled Why you and your players are there; next time we will discuss Who your players might become when they start rolling dice.

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