RPG Talk: So You Want to Get Started

Recently, my friend Joelle, an all-too-productive person to be on maternity leave, announced her intention to try her hand at GameMastering an RPG. She'd only played one RPG session (in my Doctor Who RPG series, as a guest-star), but her boyfriend is one of my former players, and she'd talked about it with a couple of others. Reading, learning and planning, she has a lot of time for between feedings. Graduating from player to GM is one thing, essentially starting in the GM's position is another. Where to start? What to do? These were all questions she didn't have answers to.

And maybe you don't either.

Many of us (I dare say most career GMs) did exactly that. Got a couple books, tried to figure it out, made many mistakes, honed our craft over time. So with the benefit of 30 years experience, let me impart some of the advice I gave Joelle.

Choose your level (of investment)
You might think the be-all and end-all of role-playing is the open-ended campaign. You would be wrong. That style of play is a MASSIVE investment, not just for you, but for any prospective players. If you're in high school, it might be possible to get a weekly game going, but adults have many more commitments (family, work, more established hobbies), and you'll soon be trying to figure out how to handle missing players, or waiting until the whole group is available, weeks turning into months between sessions until you've all forgotten about it. And you're new to this, what if you make an early mistake that corrupts your setting?  Or what if you don't like GMing all that much? You leave your players with no closure.

Scale it down for your first attempt. You could instead commit to a season (6-12 episodes, with an open door to play more), a mini-series (3-6 episodes with a definite ending or open door), or a one-shot (1 or 2 sessions, a single adventure, which could spin off into a more regular game or not). The beauty of fewer games is that you can work out the kinks, so that when you commit to longer engagements, it's as a more solid GM who knows what they are doing. Similarly, players who who are just trying will likely create characters they like, but that don't work in the field; they'll be happy to get a do-over as well. With a one-shot, don't even waste time on character generation - that's an extra session you don't have - just hand out pre-generated characters (many games have examples, or you can train yourself to understand the game by making them yourself, or have experienced players do so). It may mean that, for your purposes, characters aren't "first-level" rookies, but take note that more experienced characters have more abilities, and that means more complexity.

In any case, the point is to treat one's first experience as a trial run for all involved, with every opportunity to make improvements should the game "go to series".
Choose your game
This is the next big question, and it's one you probably shouldn't answer without speaking to your players first. The choice of genre, tone, and system is necessarily influenced by the whole of the gaming table. It makes no sense, for example, to play a Lovecraftian horror game if at least one player has no interest in that genre or tone. Have the conversation. Some players are interested in anything you're willing to choose, others are more particular. (Again, it's less of an ask if you propose a one-shot or mini-series.) And don't forget yourself in the equation. Don't force yourself to do space opera if you have no interest in it even if players are pushing for it.

Branding can be a help, especially if you need to recruit players. That's why you may be tempted to go with one version or other of Dungeons & Dragons. Or a licensed game, if everyone in the group is a fan of Doctor Who, Ghostbusters, Lord of the Rings or James Bond (to name various examples).

What's more important to the new GameMaster is SYSTEM. Or more specifically, system complexity and flexibility. Most RPGs, I would say, are of Intermediate difficulty, but the best can be scaled down. That is to say, you don't need to use EVERY little rule, not until you're ready for them, and the essentials are fairly easy to figure out. Figure out how to run simple combat and other types of challenges and you should be good to go. Things like magic systems, gadgetry rules, complex character generation, and the like can gum up the works pretty quickly, so flipping through a game book's pages before making your decision is key. If you want to learn one system, but don't want to be strapped to a single genre, know that you have options (GURPS, Savage Worlds, Fate). If you like a more cinematic/story telling approach, look for anything that has "Hero Points" (Bennies, Brownie points, Cinematic Points, etc.) which allows players to fudge rolls or create other effects. Do you have a head for numbers? Do you want more options than a "simple" system allows? You should choose something you can run smoothly. Look for reviews online (at boardgamegeek or rpg.net, for example) to help determine if a system is for you. Borrow books from a friend. Do the research.

And there are other concerns (sorry!). A new GM may need help, and some games are just better at giving it than others. If you're not certain how to write an adventure, a sample scenario in the core rulebook, or else one or more pre-written adventures, either published as its own product or in a gaming magazine you have access to (old issues of Dragon, Challenge or White Wolf, for example) will be very useful. D&D has a LOT of published material, for example, but its business model may make it cost-prohibitive (for most editions anyway). Savage Worlds, on the other hand, requires the core rules and then offers a wide choice of settings, which normally feature sample characters and short adventures perfect for one-shots or to string along as a series. While you might think a game that has only a single book is a good financial choice, if it doesn't have adventures, monsters/threats, and characters as part of its package, the new GM may be left wanting.

At the purely logistical level, is the game available to you? Comics and games stores tend to keep mostly current stuff, though they usually have second-hand sections that may be worth mining. Even a costly game like D&D can be gotten at a lower price this way. Also on the more affordable side is the pdf option. Sites like Drivethru RPG sell gaming books in physical and/or digital form, the latter being the cheaper option. Digital books are usually searchable, which makes them even more useful to new GMs, especially when looking for rules on the fly.
Build on your strengths
As a GameMaster, you have three task:
-Set the stage, describe the action, the world, and the atmosphere;
-Play every character who is not a Player Character;
-Interpret the rules (what must rolled, against what, at what difficulty, etc.).
We all have our strengths and weaknesses in each of these three fields, but the best GMs know how to capitalize on what they're good at, in the game and out.

If you're good at doing characters and improvising, then focus on the second field, and work out adventures that are big on social interaction (negotiation, diplomacy, seduction, comedy), and low on combat and dice-rolling. If you're crafty, then use that to help set the scene - make your own treasure maps, paint miniatures, make musical playlists... If you love reading and have a good memory, squeeze the juice out of the setting. If you're a bit of a writer, weave whatever the players say or do into your tapestry and make the plot more interconnected. And if you have a strategic mind and are adept at visualizing, make the fights vibrant and memorable. Also identify your players' strengths and interests so that you can give them the right opportunities.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes
You'll make them, might as well give yourself a pass from the outset. Know and let your players know your actual level of experience. When someone spots a mistake, either correct it or ignore it (depending on the situation) and KEEP GOING. There's no game killer quite like getting mired in rules minutia and discussing them for too long. If you can't find a quick answer to a rules question, make up the answer, agree to it for the moment, and tell players you'll change the rule for the next session if you find the right one. If something bad happens (like a character's death) because of your inexperience (oh wait, 1st-level characters can't handle dragons?!), interpret things differently. Have the character survive, but be captured, or fall into a pterodactyl's nest, or suffer terrible humiliation. That way, the game continues, you adjust, but there are some entertaining consequences to be had, things that drive the story forward, don't stop it in its tracks.

Another easy mistake to make is pacing. You only want to do a one-shot, but things take too much time, and you get that "to be continued" feeling. Well, maybe you're players are happy to come back. But keep an eye on the clock, and give yourself permission to jump certain steps (the door is not guarded after all, the clue easier to find), and if it's combat that's taking too long, don't be afraid to make the enemy retreat, surrender, or get killed with a few words in cases where it's clear the heroes are winning and it's just taking forever to get the dice rolling done (a nice opportunity to let players describe some cool moves they don't need to roll for).

If more experienced gamers are present, don't be afraid to lean on them. What is that rule again? Is this right? They'll know or have an opinion. But it's YOUR game, so don't let yourself be intimidated. If they can help, great. If they want to question and debate you at every turn, that's just going to slow the game down and make it a negative play experience for you. And that's the ultimate sin. Players can be a resource, don't let them be a nuisance. I'll let you in on a secret anyway: The first time a group uses a certain system, everyone at the table is trying to figure out the rules and no one thinks less of the GM for being as confused as the players are. We all work together and we get there.

So who's starting a game?


Anonymous said...

It's probably best if the new GM has actually had some exposure to what they intend to run as a player, especially if they are relatively new to gaming. I think one-shots are a good idea, even if a series of interlinked scenarios are notionally intended, it gives the GM the opportunity to change things up and denote, *this* one-shot is the true start to an ongoing engagement. Finally, the most important thing is probably choosing the right players, there's nothing to be gained by introducing a new GM to rules lawyers, or anti-social gamers. You want to be sure that issues that arise can be approached in a mature, constructive fashion.


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