Thank fuck for D&D. Seriously. This political climate has got me way, way down. So you know what’s been really excellent? Not being in this world for a dozen or so hours every month.
Let me back up and explain.
Dungeons and Dragons is a tabletop role-playing game played with dice and a character sheet on which there are statistics, numbers that represent what your character is good at. Players roll dice and then add the appropriate number and that lets the group know if they succeed or fail at their plan. Most players play as one character, but one player, typically called the Dungeon Master, plays as all the monsters, all the other characters in the world there are to talk to and, occasionally, the world itself (you bet each day has weather in my game!). The main thing keeping folks from playing D&D, at least in my experience talking to people, is the lack of this one player willing to put in a couple hours prep and run everything, which sounds a whole lot like work when I put it that way. Except it’s fun. I promise. I love being the DM. I love being the DM more than I love being a player. And I am telling you this because you might too — I didn’t expect to. I got into DMing because I quickly realized that the only way we were going to play was if I did it.
Some people think D&D is a game for straight white dudes. It’s not. In fact, because one person is responsible for inventing the entire world, it’s a game for whoever you are and whoever your players are. That’s why I’m featuring it in more than a comedic capacity. Tabletop role-playing games that are as expansive as Dungeons and Dragons are excellent when you normally don’t see yourselves and your friends in the games you play. They’re excellent for when you want to process through difficult stuff you’re seeing in the world with little consequence. And, if you have a feminist group like mine, it’s excellent for giving your friends a lot of opportunities to subvert problematic tropes in awesome creative ways and, yes, to skewer the patriarchy on their swords.
But how to get started? And how to include your friends, some of whom may have never played before? I’ve got you covered. Here’s the lowest cost way to get going and some different kinds of formats depending on how many friends you’ve got who want in.
You can get started for the price of graph paper, pencils and dice. Here, there will be enough dice in here ($10.18) for everyone to use. Depending on your group size, that might even give everyone a set. Players really treasure sets their DM friends give them. I still use a set my very first DM got me. I recommend everyone bring a notebook too—you want your players to take notes about what interests them, so they can come back to them later and pursue a line of inquiry. You also want to take notes because you’re going to invent things on the fly (believe me, your players will ALWAYS surprise you). Here’s a pack of five Muji grid notebooks for $10.95.
Here are the very most basic rules for free. Start here if you’re not sure you want to invest in being a DM. If you want a little more detail (and a good deal of searchability options), check out the D&D Beyond Beta. Here are pre-generated character sheets so you don’t spend time doing math when you could be going on adventures. And speaking of adventures—
Campaign v. One Shot
Before we decide how you’re going to grab up your first adventure, you have to decide how much time you want to dedicate to playing. There are two main sorts of play-lengths: a game that takes more than one session to play and a game that only takes an afternoon or an evening.
The first sort is a campaign—a series of adventures strung together to tell a larger story. To see a good example of a campaign, check out Penny Arcade’s C-Team. There’s only four episodes so far, so you can catch up pretty easily if you enjoy watching! This is also a good example of a game that doesn’t use a combat grid or minis, which is the least expensive way to run a game! The second sort is a one-shot — a whole story arc that can be completed in one gayme night. One-shots are good if you aren’t sure about your time investment desires OR if you want to do something crazy with your characters just to experiment. For good examples of one-shots, check out this one episode of Critical Role that is kinda its own thing or this Critical Role one-shot (queer lady characters, but beware, it’s a group of evil characters and this one-shot is violent as a result!).
Once you know your level of investment, it’s time to decide on your adventure! But where to find them? Well there are tons of adventures on something called the DM’s Guild, an open marketplace for DMs to share the things they make up for free or profit. Do be aware: there are some hella problematic things on the DMs Guild! If you want to skip that and get a more curated look at it, Dragon + Magazine often features some of the best adventures on the DMs Guild (and includes free downloadable adventures as well). If you want a more direct rec, I bought this adventure for $2, which is good for first and second level characters (there’s some weird tropey relationship stuff at the end of it, but you can feel free to not!).
If you want to save yourself sifting through adventures (or memorizing anything), you can do what I do and MAKE SOME SHIT UP. Take the plot hooks from your favorite books and D&D-ize them. It’s just your home game so STEAL WITH ABANDON. Give life to your weirdest fever dreams. A crew of halfling bards on a river boat that they operate by all pedaling it like a bicycle while two of them play a giant tuba coming out the middle of the boat as a morale boost? THAT EXISTS IN MY GAME. And you know what doesn’t? Weird tropey relationship stuff! The merits to making up your own adventure are that you don’t have to deal with any eyerolling storytelling, you can just cut to the stuff you love and that’s that. The drawback is, of course, time spent. Might I recommend borrowing maps and ideas and tweaking them just a bit? Here’s a good wizard’s mill that I’ve used — the motivation for going there? The sorts of people they talk to on the way? That’s all up to you. (I also recommend tweaking the choice of boss monster for your first level players, or they will all die.) If you want a good primer on how to make your own adventures, I might recommend Matthew Colville’s series for beginner DMs. While Colville is cool and all, he sometimes uses clips of classic movies to illustrate his point. These classic movie clips, well, how do I put this…the breath-stealing isms present in many classic movies are the reason I’m not a movie person. But I’ve never heard anyone explain how to make an adventure from scratch better than Matthew Colville, so here you go.
Now to decide on a few other kinds of things regarding your adventure.
If You Have Two or Three Other Friends
One thing to note if you’re running for a smaller party is that most adventures you can buy or download are perfectly suited for exactly four people.This is great if your group has exactly four people. If you don’t, the main thing to keep in mind as you’re scaling adventures up and down is that, because math, whichever side has more people on it has a significant advantage REGARDLESS of how badass your adventurers seem to be. So even if you’re using something like Kenku or Gnolls and it doesn’t seem like they’re going to do that much damage, if your group of two goes up against four of these fairly weak enemies, they’re likely going to find themselves in trouble anyway. Remember, the point is not to destroy your friends’ characters. The DM isn’t adversarial. You are there to make your friends look like badass heroes and to tell a cool story. There is no “winning” D&D (that’s the other reason I love it). So if you’re running for a smaller group and you’re brand new and you don’t have a sense of how powerful your monsters are yet, I recommend using an encounter calculator so you set up the kind of battles you mean to.
If You Have A SHITTON OF FRIENDS
You may have the opposite problem — you sent out the email seeing who was interested and BOYHOWDY 10 people replied. First off, congrats on having the biggest, queerest D&D game, you’re gonna have a grand ole time. But second, I played in a group of eight. It was my first D&D experience. And while I loved that group, Imma tell you right now: DO NOT DM FOR EIGHT OR MORE PEOPLE. It is difficult — the group gets sidetracked a lot more, combat takes FOREVER, it’s just a mess. My group is capped at six. But the point of gayme night is to get your community together to play, so what’s a queermo to do? Well there’s a style of play called The West Marches that might suit you, wherein you cap the number of players at four or five a session, but a different group of players is always playing. Instead of you prepping an adventure, you give the whole group a set of plot hooks (like a treasure map with a bunch of cool sounding locations or a book of faerie stories, something like that) and then the players decide what they’re interested in, put together a group of players into the same, and say hey, we want to go visit the [insert whatever it is here]. You decide how much time you need to get it ready, when to schedule, etc. and then that group shows up. They go on their adventure, head back to town and add what they found to the collective map, and then a new group reforms based on another plot hook, maybe something they discovered along the way. This is great if you want to make up your own adventures and setting and such, but don’t want to do a ton of work up front just to have your players turn and go in the opposite direction. Here’s Matt Colville again with a really excellent description of what a West Marches game looks like and how you might encourage your players to really own it.
But What Kind of Things Do I Do For The Hosting Part of It?
Okay, so D&D has a particular culture of pizza and soda to it. Basically the name of the Gayme is to make it feel like the basement or dining room table from when you were a kid. Think Stranger Things. Don’t lean into making things medievally (though sometimes I do bake up a loaf of bread for my crew and serve it with some grapes and such). Lean into making things feel downright comfortable. Have everyone throw down a couple dollars for pizza. Pick up any of Mey’s fave sodas. If someone wanted to swoop in like a hero with their mom’s old cookie recipe, that’s extra cool. And if you drink, beer is the way to go here (but lets everyone be cogent. D&D is really hard to play at any level more than tipsy). I highly recommend pajamas and/or onesies. As you can see, we don’t get dressed up for our game:
If you get invited to a game, remember that your host is DMing, which takes preparation work. Offer to organize the pizza-getting or the weird-soda-tasting portion of the evening to take something off their plate. And please! Send me pictures of your queer games: ali [at] autostraddle.com. It would bring me joy (and you might get featured here on Autostraddle!). And please do comment if you’ve got questions. I want to make a million queer DMs give this a try. I’m sick of walking into tabletop spaces and being stared at because I’m the only one of me there. Let’s queer this space up, friends.