How to Play D&D Without a DM – A Simple Guide for Beginners

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how to play d&d without a dm
how to play d&d without a dm

Many people believe that D&D can’t be played without a DM. That’s a clear misconception because D&D was actually one of the pioneers of solo adventuring. It just so happened that D&D fans are more familiar with social playgroups than obscure solo adventure titles.

If you want to play D&D without a DM, you will benefit a lot from reading this article. We covered important steps on playing DM-less RPG sessions, and we also recommended some popular solo adventuring titles. There’s no reason not to start your DM-less adventure today!

Playing D&D Without A DM – What You Need to Know

Try A Solo D&D Adventure

A solo RPG adventure is designed to be played without the guiding hand of a DM. Usually, solo RPGs are shorter than traditional adventures and they have a faster progression style. Solo adventures are also similar to give-yourself-adventure books where the reader must make important decisions by turning the page.

Nowadays, you can download a free solo adventure from online communities and forums. Free adventures are great, but they have varying quality and a lower rate of community moderation. Some free adventure files are also beta releases with minor formatting errors.

One popular solo adventure that you shouldn’t miss is Death Knight’s Squire. Many players consider this book as a modern gateway to solo D&D. Death Knight’s Squire is fully compatible with D&D 5E, and it even offers tons of viewable maps.

Use D&D One-Shots

For every D&D official adventure, there are at least a dozen of one-shot alternatives. Some one-shot adventures will take you on a quest to prepare a surprise party for a Dragon Turtle, while other titles are short combat-fest versus strange monsters. Even though D&D one-shots are meant for multiple players, they can be turned easily to a DM-less adventure.

To turn a one-shot into a DM-less adventure, you must analyze the encounters and plot progression. Since one-shots are virtually short, they’re mostly driven by social and combat encounters with many skill checks in between. Reduce the lethality of encounters by taking strong monsters out of the equation. Alternatively, you can replace big monsters with small interesting ones. The monsters from Creature Codex and Tome of Foes are great replacements for traditional monsters.

A modified one-shot will probably turn into collaborative storytelling as players take turn narrating character actions and events. In this sense, players are no longer limited to their characters but they are arbiters or overseers of a developing plot.

Use Random Event Generators

Random event generators are important tools that can make any RPG adventure interesting and fast. Some of the common event generators that you can find are dice tables. These dice tables have specific situations matched with various rolls. At one table, you might encounter a band of sneaky goblins that only care about your shiny things. In another table, a crazed owlbear might give you trouble for a few rounds. Through multiple event tables, you’d have the chance to create a unique situation or hurdle for your characters.

You should also try making some customized event tables for your DM-less game. It’s fun to see the events that any participant might encounter, and it’s even more fun to witness the roll of the dice!

Start Hacking RPG Systems

D&D is a social game with lots of moving parts. Most of these parts require the creative guidance of the DM and the enduring creativity of players. Only a few aspects of D&D are actually dedicated to DM-less gaming.

Sometimes, you need to stretch a gaming system to come up with a different template. While D&D is excellent on its own, it can still function as an autonomous engine with a couple of tweaks. To play a D&D game without a DM, you probably need to start hacking various RPG systems and mechanics.

Savage Worlds is a great example of a hackable RPG system. The system utilizes fast progression, dynamic combat, and feat-based rewards. You don’t have to take every fancy part of Savage Worlds. Rather, just pluck out its combat system since it utilizes a 52-card deck to resolve actions. Now, combine this system with D&D’s versatile adventuring rules and you’d have a fine recipe for a DM-less game.

Hacking and combining RPG systems is messy and laborious. You must understand the different systems being used, and you need to be ready for constructive criticism. Game balance is also another aspect that you should consider.

Coordinate with Players Properly

The immediate consequence of not having a DM is the redistribution of effort. Unless you’re playing alone, every other player is now responsible for different tasks at the table. One player must organize dice tables while another should keep tabs on plot-related things. Still, the narration is a joint responsibility that everyone should do.

Proper coordination is the key to having a successful DM-less game. If something feels wrong with the campaign’s narrative flow, take a break and tell the player about it. Don’t let minor problems go unresolved. Once minor problems pile up, they will turn into major problems that can destroy a campaign.

Every player at the table should take down notes (just like in a regular session!). The notes should include the players’ distinct narrative styles and the ‘plot things’ that they’ve revealed. In combat, unless all players are beginners, you don’t have to worry too much. D&D combat is organized in an efficient manner with only a few nuances in rules. And even then, you won’t encounter all of these nuances.

Try to Fight Non-Generic Monsters

Playing D&D without using monsters is like driving a car without seats. You will move forward in different ways, but you won’t like the journey at all. Thankfully, the Monster Manual contains all of the monsters that a basic campaign will ever need. But everyone wants to go beyond the fundamentals, right?

To make your DM-less game more exciting, you can use non-generic monsters. Instead of pulling out the basic goblin, buff it up with extra skills or traits. Perhaps a cursed crystal embedded on the goblin’s head allows it to use a cantrip or two. Modifying monsters take extra work, but it’s one of the keys to a successful campaign.

Even if you don’t have a budget for a new monster-related book, the Internet got you covered. Just search for D&D monster ideas online and you’d be taken to a world of near-endless creations. You can find these creations in blogs, websites, social media, and accessible cloud drives.

Check out this simple video guide about some of D&D’s weirdest monsters:

Weird D&D Monsters Video

Explore A Strange Theme or Setting

Just like the effects of using a non-generic D&D monster, having a strange campaign setting for your game can work wonders. Instead of the traditional landscape, other players can find a quirky combination of weird soil and dangerous flora and fauna. You don’t have to go overboard with the changes. The bare minimum change will always be effective with powerful narration.

Also, try to expand your scope by exploring non-D&D settings. Some remarkable campaign settings are Shadowrun, Blades in the Dark, and Legend of the Five Rings. These settings can also function as systems with customizable rules and mechanics.

Document the Session

Every D&D table must have a documented log of sessions. The documented logs will serve as reminders of everything that happened in the campaign. By analyzing the sessions, you’d know which areas need improvement. Other table participants might also spot possible errors that can affect the campaign later.

A digital folder can be a repository of your table’s documented logs. Try to add sensible file names to your documented logs for easy navigation.  

The Best Books That Will Help You Play D&D Without A DM

Are you looking for some books that will help you set up DM-less RPG sessions? We have some suggestions to get you started!

The Ultimate Random Encounters Book

 
Ultimate Random Encounters
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Publisher: Adams Media

Book Type: Supplement

Pages: 176

Item Weight: 1.36 pounds

Rating: 4/5

Pros:

  • The book contains hundreds of encounters
  • Built for different types of RPG systems
  • Remarkable illustrations

Cons:

  • The number of encounters can be overwhelming

The Ultimate Random Encounters Book is an easy answer to creative burnout. Featuring hundreds of encounters, Ultimate Random Encounters will give you different ideas to play with. Some encounters might take place in a deep cave, while others must be tackled in the open sea. All of the encounters are highly detailed, and they also have neat illustrations.

The awesome thing about Ultimate Random Encounters is its versatility. The book is compatible with D&D 5E, Pathfinder, GURPS, and other common RPG systems. If you’re planning to combine two or more systems, you won’t have any issues with Ultimate Random Encounters.

Ultimate Random Encounters is not too short or too long. It has the right amount of pages, complemented by a decent formatting style. Still, the number of encounters within the book can be overwhelming for beginner DMs. Just read the book slowly if you don’t want to feel overwhelmed with the content!

Into the Dungeon: Choose Your Own Path Book

Into the Dungeon
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Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing

Book Type: Solo adventure

Pages: 112

Item Weight: 1 pound

Rating: 4/5

Pros:

  • Detailed choose-your-path RPG book
  • Interesting descriptions and twists
  • Only a pencil is needed for the adventure

Cons:

  • The book is short
  • No dice-saving mechanic

If you don’t have a D&D game at the moment, you can still have a thrilling adventure with a choose-your-own-path book called Into the Dungeon. Complete with detailed story texts and high-quality illustrations, Into the Dungeon can create the D&D appeal that you’ve been looking for. You just need a pencil to mark your location and track your current hit points.

Just like other choose-your-own-path books, Into the Dungeon relies on page-turning for its concept of randomness. This is a basic method of inducing thrill and danger, so you might find it lacking or subpar. Into the Dungeon doesn’t have dice saves, so landing on a bad page means instant death or defeat.

Into the Dungeon is a short adventure book. If you’re used to reading long D&D books, you might feel that Into the Dungeon is not enough. The quick solution to this problem is to repeat the adventure with a new approach. Maybe you can discover a secret event or a safer passage out of the dungeon!

Four Against Darkness

Four Against Darkness
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Publisher: CreateSpace

Book Type: Solo adventure

Pages: 90

Item Weight: 1 pound

Rating: 4/5

Pros:

  • Best for solo and cooperative games
  • Multiple classes available
  • A neat balance of rewards and danger

Cons:

  • Poor formatting

If you and your friends are looking for a DM-less game that can be set up within minutes, check out Four Against Darkness. This classic RPG adventure book can be played solo or cooperatively, and it features the common tropes of D&D and other fantasy systems. You can even pick from multiple classes such as Rogue, Wizard, Cleric, and Warrior.

Gaming die is needed to resolve most encounters in Four Against Darkness. Various rolls can lead to difficult situations and fantastic rewards. The book’s encounters are lethal, paying homage to the good old days of classic D&D. One unique aspect of Four Against Darkness is the capability of monsters to give quests to all players.

The most glaring disadvantage of Four Against Darkness is poor formatting. Rule sections are separated, even if they belong to one category. You may need to flip the book pages many times just to understand a basic rule.

Scarlet Heroes: Sword and Sorcery Adventures

Scarlet Heroes
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Publisher: Sine Nomine Publishing

Book Type: Solo adventure

Pages: 132

Item Weight: 1 pound

Rating: 4.5/5

Pros:

  • Best for solo gaming or one session with a DM
  • Flexible with any campaign setting
  • Contains battlemaps
  • Classic thrilling sword and sorcery

Cons:

  • Needs extra tweaking for sessions with multiple players

Scarlet Heroes is a popular sword and sorcery RPG book meant for solo gamers or DMs with a one-player table. The book explores most of the classic fantasy tropes such as high magic, intense combats, and emotionally gripping stories. Aside from detailed text sections, Scarlet Heroes contains comprehensive adventuring rules that can fit most systems or campaign settings.

The Scarlet Heroes adventure book contains battlemaps that you can use for different encounters. These maps are based on different fantasy geographical locations, and they’re flexible enough for additional customization. The book also has a built-in monster compendium based on Southeast Asian culture. To make the monster list more interesting, you can combine it with a copy of Tome of Beasts.

Scarlet Heroes doesn’t have a noticeable disadvantage. Perhaps one minor issue with the book is the fact that it is designed for a maximum of two players. If you intend to play with more than two players, you need to modify some aspects and mechanics of Scarlet Heroes.

Four Against The Great Old Ones

Four Against the Great Old Ones
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Publisher: Independent

Book Type: Solo adventure

Pages: 79

Item Weight: 1 pound

Rating: 4.5/5

Pros:

  • Eldritch horror RPG
  • A dark take on the 1930s era
  • Features a unique investigation system

Cons:

  • Not compatible with high fantasy settings
  • Just a few battle encounters

Four Against the Great Old Ones is a horror RPG adventure book based on the Cthulhu Mythos. In this book, you will encounter the maddening influence of the Great Old Ones and the cult that intend to summon them. You can finish this Lovecraftian horror RPG alone or with the help of your friends.

The beauty of Four Against the Great Old Ones is the impending doom that players will encounter. At every turn, danger lurks everywhere because of the cult’s evil machinations. Depending on your actions, you might face the Great Old Ones with or without the universe’s favor.

Four Against the Great Old Ones is great for horror lovers, but it’s not compatible with high fantasy themes and sword and sorcery titles. The book utilizes RPG concepts with a deep investigative style, like solving a big world-ending puzzle. There are also a few battle encounters in the book since it is driven by pure narrative.

A Quick Guide on Making A D&D Solo Adventure

Do you want to try your hand at making D&D solo adventures? It’s like writing your own book except shorter and more technical. In this article section, you’d learn some important techniques for making a solo adventure book.

Prepare A Detailed Outline

Having a detailed outline will help you make a coherent and organized D&D solo adventure. You can follow the traditional standard of making story outlines. First, determine the starting point of your campaign story. This point can be a specific event in the past or a narration of the present scenario. Second, proceed with the story’s middle point. The middle point is the most important part because it connects all events and leads to the climax. And lastly, write down the endpoint of the story.

Before you end the story, always remember that campaign writing is different from traditional writing. The endpoint is just a general guide for your story’s progress. Solo adventures often have multiple endings determined by the player’s actions. In this sense, it’s always a wise choice to write multiple endpoints.

Make Short Yet Meaningful Encounters

Encounters drive a campaign story forward. Even if you have a ground-breaking story but your encounters are subpar, your adventure will barely make sense. While making the outline for your campaign story, you must figure out where to put the meaningful encounters.

Making a short yet meaningful encounter is challenging. You need to achieve a fine balance between encounter length, risks, and the monsters or enemies involved. Overly fatal encounters can crush the morale of a player, while trivial (or very easy) encounters will cause boredom.

Another thing that you have to remember in terms of encounter creation is continuity. Your encounters must be connected to the plot in one way or another. Otherwise, your encounters might feel like they’re all over the place, leading to player confusion and stress.

Make Some Event Tables

By now, you’re possibly aware of the importance of event tables and plot generators. Adding an event table to your solo adventure will make the readers hopeful and excited. The readers will scan the table, roll the dice, and hope for the best. The raw spontaneity is the factor that separates a solo adventure from a fiction book.

Tables are not limited to events. Don’t hesitate to exercise your creative muscle by adding different types of tables.

Here are some non-event tables for your adventure:

  • Potion effects
  • Establishment visitors
  • Establishment menus
  • Quest and mission board
  • Crafting results
  • Bonus items

Create Some Essentially Helpful NPCs

Helpful NPCs are crucial to any solo adventure. With the help of an NPC, a player can find a rare treasure or plot item. Additionally, NPCs can scale the odds of combat in the player’s favor. In the broadest sense, NPCs make any RPG adventure worthwhile.

The first step in making an interesting NPC is to write a concise backstory. Write down the origins of the NPC, and include some secrets that can be discovered later. You mustn’t deliver the NPC information in one instance. Let the encounters shape the NPC’s ongoing story. As much as possible, you should make the NPCs versatile and highly reliable.

You don’t have to create NPCs from scratch. Just search for NPC ideas in online RPG communities and tweak any related details. You can even run an NPC name generator to speed up the process.

Outsource Creative Work

A solo RPG adventure must have images or graphics. Through images, players can visualize scenarios and the appearances of characters. It’s also better for the eyes to have some breaks from long text sections periodically.

Unless you’re really dedicated to doing graphics work, you should outsource the effort to another person. Outsourcing will help you save time and focus on the most important aspects of your solo adventure project.

Once you’ve outsourced an artist and the project was successful, don’t forget to credit the artist. Proper payment and recognition are the bread and butter of creative people. You must also consider a profit-sharing scheme with the artist or with other people that you’ve outsourced.

Use the Open Gaming License if Possible

While it’s easy to create a plan or an outline of a solo RPG adventure, licensing is another matter. In order to secure your creative rights, you need to spend money for legal advice or representation. One of the cheapest and fastest ways to get your licensing issues out of the door is to use the Open Gaming License or OGL.

Open Gaming License allows you to use the licensed components of 5E’s Standard Resource Document. You will rarely encounter a problem as long as you stick to the SRD and the limitations of the OGL.

But if you intend to build everything from scratch, you can bypass the OGL and use your private licensing instead. This route requires more effort, patience, and due diligence.  

Run a Soft-Launch and Get Feedback

As an independent solo adventure book author, you should be careful with every decision. Many factors can derail your first product launch, such as software issues, last-minute formatting errors, and immediate publishing problems. Therefore, you must check the waters first by running a soft launch or a beta release.

Once readers know that your adventure is in the beta phase, they might feel compelled to try it. They don’t need to pay for anything, but they must leave reasonable feedback to help improve your adventure book. During the soft-launch period, make sure that you have a specific limitation regarding the number of beta readers. Ten responsible beta readers are more than enough.

Playing D&D Without A DM – FAQ

Is it hard to play D&D without a DM?

Answer: If the group consists of beginners, then it is challenging to play the game without a DM. As a player, you need to have a decent understanding of D&D rules and other flexible systems. You must also be ready to mix different systems while considering the opinions of other players at the table.

What books do I need to play D&D without a DM?

Answer: You need the Player’s Handbook, Dungeon Master’s Guide, and Monster Manual. Another classic and useful book that you should get is the Mythic GM Emulator. This book will make your game easier by providing random events and tables that can answer yes-or-no questions.

How does combat work in solo D&D adventures?

Answer: Combat still works in the same way as classic D&D, but there are some variations. Most encounters are small and they’re often resolved narratively. You still get the chance to roll dice and use your character’s awesome abilities.

What’s the difference between fantasy writing and playing a solo D&D game?

Answer: In fantasy writing, you must write only what’s necessary even if the world that you’ve built is huge. On the other hand, a solo D&D game is all about full exploration and deep adventure. If the author of the solo game wants you to explore every nook and cranny, your character’s actions must adhere to that goal. Of course, you have the option to deviate from the goal but there might be some plot-driven consequences.

What’s a cool house rule that players can use for their DM-less game?

Answer: One interesting house rule is collaborative narration. Each player must narrate a scene within a given time frame, considering all previous situations that the table encountered. This house rule can lead to spontaneous scenes, further developing the campaign’s plot.

Are there other RPG systems that work best without a DM’s guidance?

Answer: Fiasco is an interesting system that works effectively without a DM. This system relies on the fast resolution of events through the gaming die. Fiasco sessions are chaotic, fun, and flexible with any theme or setting.

Final Reminders

Playing D&D without a DM is possible. You just have to manage your expectations and drop some heavy mechanics. More importantly, you must be courageous enough to hack systems or combine them into a customized set of house rules. Also, cooperate with your friends and players because their creative outputs can lead to a wonderful DM-less game!

So, are you ready to try playing D&D without a DM? Start your adventure today!

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