If you want to DM a D&D adventure but don’t know where to start, I’m here to help! It can feel daunting, but the first step is to decide on the source of your material. In my experience, there are three common ways people get started: Published Materials, Creations from the Internet, and Homebrew Content. Keep reading to find out which ones have worked for me and why!
This is how I started DMing, and it gave me the foundation to run games of my own soon after. Published materials hand you fully formed adventures with all the resources you will need to run them. (Note: With the exception of the D&D Starter Set, published materials might assume that you have other books or resources available like the Player’s Handbook or the Monster Manual. However, this material is available online if you search for it, so you don’t need to buy them until you’ve DMed a few times and decided the books are worth the purchase.)
The quality of published materials is reliably good, and because it is widely distributed, there is often a lot of supplementary material available online that can give you examples of how it plays. Before running Lost Mine of Phandelver, I listened to The Adventure Zone podcast that loosely covers the same material. It was very helpful to see how the game ran and how easy it was to add my own twist to the existing material.
One of the biggest drawbacks to published material is that it requires you to read and absorb the adventure as is. While there is room for your own creativity, the plot is already laid out for you. When your players veer off to a location that you haven’t read about yet or don’t remember fully, there is often a moment of panic where you hope you don’t mess anything up that you can’t retcon later – published materials make it possible for the DM to feel like they have ‘made a mistake’.
The most important thing you can do is find the right material that you want to run, like finding a good book. Yes, you could read (or run) anything, but finding the right book that draws you in and makes you excited to share with others will make running it more enjoyable for both you and your players. It’s also worth considering the fact that published materials can be expensive, so it’s worth doing a little research to choose the one that is right is for you.
Speaking of expense – the price of published materials is a big drawback. When there is so much out there for free, why would you want to pay for it?
Creations from the Internet
Examples: Feudal Attraction, Into Wonderland
People love making D&D adventures and many people make them available to others for a modest price or even free. DriveThruRPG offers a huge selection of adventures ranging from one or two-page dungeons to full on campaigns (and a bunch of supplementary material). Need a quick adventure last minute? Searching for ‘one page dungeon’ will bring up a ton of short, easily digestible adventures for your session that starts in an hour. There is so much content out there!
The sheer volume of content is both the great and terrible thing about other people’s creations. There is so much to wade through, it’s hard to know what is going to work for you. Is it in a genre you like? Is it written in a way that is easy to understand? It can be difficult to search for what you want. Occasionally you will find a great adventure, and you can look for more by that author or more on that website, but there is no guarantee. You might end up reading through 3 or 4 or more different adventures before finding one that suits you.
These adventures are usually not as polished as published materials. They might include made up monsters that are unbalanced, have plot holes your players will inevitably find or just don’t make sense to you. On the other hand, they might be great! I’m currently running Into Wonderland, a 240-page adventure set in the Feywild, and it is amazing. I found it on ‘pay what you want’ on DriveThruRPG after seeing it recommended in a blog post. If you’re willing to wade through a lot of subpar adventures, you will occasionally find a gem.
Do you want to avoid all that research and reading? Do you want the perfect adventure that’s exactly your style? Make it yourself! But be prepared to spend just as much time-if not more-in the process.
Lots of DMs make homebrew adventures (that’s where all those internet creations came from), and if they can do it, so can you. You don’t need to know every rule or think of every possible outcome to make your own adventure, but it will take time to mold your ideas into something comprehensible. Luckily, there is a lot of advice out there about how to make adventures yourself. Perhaps I will even get around to writing on the topic! The bottom line is you need to find it fun and enjoyable to write an adventure. You’ll be spending a lot of time on this project, so if you are not having fun making it, go ahead and try one of your first two options above.
I think there is a time and place for all of these methods to finding your D&D source material. In fact, you could mix and match. Perhaps you take an adventure you found on DriveThruRPG and add it as a side quest to your published campaign, or maybe you take that same found adventure and use it as a basis for your own creation. Drawing from different sources improves your DM skills as you expose yourself to new ideas and spark creative inspiration. Have fun!