Back in 1980 (or was it 1981?), I got my first D&D boxed set. I’m fairly certain I read over everything (including the module) at least half a dozen times before I actually sat down as the DM for my friends. I’d played in a few games prior to that, but never served as DM. I’m glad there are no records of my first time in the DM chair, because I’m certain it was a disaster. I had NO IDEA what I was doing. All I had to to go on for help was the bit of example dialogue between DM and a few players inside the basic rulebook that covered levels 1 to 3. My dungeons tended to consist of room, hallway, room, hallway, etc… with a pattern of monster, trap, treasure. I exaggerate, but I’m sure that was close to the truth. I just didn’t have any help when it came to DM training.
Times have changed! These days, you can hop on YouTube and view any number of videos on being a good DM and every nitty-gritty rule is covered from initiative to creating balanced wandering monster encounters to storytelling and improvisation. But being a DM is still challenging for novices, and I’ve been a player in many games where I had to do my best not to jump in and “assist” and help a new DM out.
I don’t believe there is any one right way for a DM to learn the ropes (other than actually sitting down and being DM, that is), but a new adventure from Scott Fitzgerald Gray and illustrated by Jackie Musto comes pretty darn close to being the DM Training 101 textbook. It’s called The Hidden Halls of Hazakor and it is not only a great 1st level adventure (that will have the characters leveling up to level 5 by the time they finish the adventure) for novice DMs to run, but it’s also a great story and adventure for experienced 5e DMs and players.
First, some basic details:
- 75 pages in all
- Full color maps and illustrations
- Player handouts with permission to make copies
- Complete Creature Appendix in back of book so MM is not needed
- Downloadable GM Appendix comes with pre-generated characters (level 1), map handouts, etc.
- Over 45 Sidebar items with advice & tips for novice DMs (but experienced DMs will find them useful, too)
- Complete read-aloud descriptions for players PLUS room dimensions for players learning to create maps
- One complete dungeon map plus eight sub-sections repeated in their respective section of the book
- One complete castle map (numbered areas) and complete descriptions for every area including NPCs
Here are my overall thoughts on the various components of the book:
- The downloadable GM Appendix repeats the Creature Appendix in the back of the book but it lists the creatures in the order that the players will encounter them. This is helpful to the novice DM who will likely be struggling to keep all the paperwork organized during his/her adventure. A blank sidebar box labeled NOTES is also found on each creature page for the DMs to track hit points and write down bits of info that might need to be kept for later in the adventure.
- The sidebars are an incredible resource for novice DMs. Topics range from When Characters Die, Advantage and Disadvantage, Ability Checks, Secret Information, and over 40 more. The sidebars tend to explain topics in a less technical manner, expanding on the standard rules.
- The handouts are kept to a minimum, and what is there is all useful and pertinent to the adventure. A numbered map and a blank map of Purdey’s Rest (the keep the players can use as a homebase during the adventure, returning to easily whenever necessary) have plenty of space to allow the players to add their own notes about storefronts, NPCs, and other mysteries that the keep will reveal as the adventure moves forward. There are three “fragments” of documents that the players will find during the adventure, too… and these will help encourage novice characters to examine details and ask questions.
- Another bonus the downloadable GM Appendix offers in its 37 pages are complete spell listings and magic items used by NPC characters and creatures encounters. The GM Appendix has a few of its own unique and helpful sidebars with topics such as Bonus Actions and Hiding.
- A blank graph paper page is included in the GM Appendix that includes the dungeon room where the players will start the adventure drawn in at the proper location so the rest of the dungeon can easily fit on the remaining space (if drawn correctly using the dimensions the GM will read aloud to the players).
- Read aloud text is not only italicized but also placed in a light yellow/orange box so it’s easy to know what to read and what NOT to read.
As for the story… I don’t want to reveal too much in case there are some players out there wanting to encourage a new DM to try out the chair. It is a dungeon crawl… no surprise there. The dungeon has a logical progression to it—this helps the players avoid areas that are too dangerous but also assists the DM by providing reasonable adventure lengths and lots of places to rest or moments when it’s time to head back to the keep for rest and upgrading of weapons and armor or maybe selling off some found items.
Awarding XP can be done during the adventure, but the concept of milestone leveling is also used, with players leveling up as they succeed in opening and exploring each new area of the dungeon. The adventure states that there aren’t too many dangers that can kill a player… but they are there! But remember… the keep is a just a few days travel for healing. Most of the creatures, traps, and other encounters are there to help the new DM adjust to the role as well as help novice players learn the rules of combat, ability checks, roleplaying, and more. That said, the adventure is still a worthy dungeon-crawl for experienced players.
The Hidden Halls of Hazakor is a book that I wish I’d had back in those early days of D&D. Granted, the rules have changed for the game significantly since that early version of D&D that I played, but so much of this book is about helping the DM understand his/her role in the chair: descriptions, timing, improvisation, and interpreting rules and much more. For a novice DM (young or old), this is an amazing resource that should be given to any player interested in becoming a DM.
If you’ve got a young player who has expressed interest in being a DM, I encourage you to grab a copy and have them read it, cover to cover. If you’re normally a DM, offer to play as a character. Honestly, the gaming world needs more DM/GMs, and any resource that can help our community develop more of them has my vote and support.
Note: I’d like to thank Scott for providing me with a printed review copy of The Hidden Halls of Hazakor.