I spend a lot of time pissing people off. I’m not going to deny that. Nothing infuriates people – especially game masters – like giving advice that they don’t personally agree with. My critics often act as if my terrible advice is literally destroying modern gaming for everyone. I was once called “the most toxic person in gaming” by someone who has been an editor for two MAJOR RPG publishers. And today, as a Christmas present, I’m going to be discussing a topic that has brought more ire down on me than any other three topics by psychotic elitist GMs who think I’m destroying the hobby. Why? Because it is the subject that I get the most questions about. Hands down.
I’m going to tell you how to run your first game.
If you’ve never been a game master, if you’ve never run a game before, I’m going to tell you how to run your first session. Of course, I am assuming you’re familiar with RPGs. I can’t imagine how you found my site if you’re not. I’m assuming you’ve played at least a session or two of some RPG or another. Or that you’re at least familiar with the concept of RPGs. I’m going to assume you understand the basic idea that there IS a GM and there IS a group of players and you know how the game basically plays out. And now, you want a turn behind the screen. I’m going to tell you how to take your first turn behind the screen. And I’m going to tell you how to give yourself every chance to get good at being a GM.
You wouldn’t think that would be particularly controversial, would you? Except it is. I’ve talked about it several times and it always, always is. A few weeks ago, I had to block a dips$&% former coordinator for a major organized play group on social media who was so livid about the advice I gave to a potential new GM that he felt the need to scream across the internet that I was a fraud that should be pulled down from my pedestal and excised from the entire gaming community. This is not hyperbole. This is a thing that happened. It happens every f$&%ing time I talk about how to run your first game. And I am standing ready to lock down the comment section on this very article.
What’s absolutely hilarious though, is that nothing I say will seem very controversial. It’ll seem reasonable. It’ll seem well thought out. But it infuriates people nonetheless. Because there’s a pattern in my advice that comes down to locking down certain bits of the game where all sorts of creative freedom would normally thrive. And there’s a really, really good reason for that. But it absolutely panics people.
Here’s the deal: an RPG is about choice. That’s what makes an RPG an RPG. Players project themselves into the minds of characters in another world and they make choices. Those choices have outcomes. They have consequences. And from that, a game emerges. And I’m not going to deny that. Choice is the single most important aspect of every RPG. It isn’t story. It isn’t challenge. It isn’t role-playing. It isn’t imagination. At the heart of every RPG is the freedom to choose and the promise that choices have consequences. And those choices might be challenge focused, like choosing the right tactics in a combat. They might be focused on mechanical growth, like picking a particular feat. They might be character driven, like choosing how to react to a difficult emotional dilemma. They might be narrative-focused, like whether to turn over the relic to this faction or that faction. It doesn’t matter. Min-maxers, character actors, power-gamers, storygamers, simulationists, and all of those various “types” of gamer are all united by the fact that an RPG affords you the freedom to choose as long as you accept the consequences of the choice.
And yet, much of my advice for your first few sessions is about locking down a lot of the freedom. You’ll see what I mean. Trust me. It is. And that goes against everything that unifies absolutely every gamer who sits down to play an RPG, right? So everyone gets pissed off.
Well, here’s the deal. Being a GM is hard. It’s easier than you think it is. But it isn’t easy. It’s not something you just sort of do. And it’s also not a skill. GMing is a combination of many, many skills. It’s like ice hockey.
If you want to be good at ice hockey, there’s a lot of s$&% that goes into that. I assume. I’ve never played ice hockey. I hate watching ice hockey. But I did once wear ice skates. And my mother was a deck hockey goalie for several years. So I figure I am qualified to comment.
To be good at ice hockey, you need to be a great ice skater. So you need all the skills that make a great ice skater. And I don’t know what those are because I apparently do not have any of them. You also need to know how to control a puck with a stick. Or a ball. Whatever they use. And you have to know how to pass under control. And receive a pass and maintain control. And how to shoot a puck across the ice. You need to understand all of the positions on the hockey field. And what your responsibilities are in each. You need to understand the strategy of the game. You need to know the rules. You need to know, for example, what the hell icing even is and why you are penalized for it.
So, let’s say you want to learn ice hockeying. You’ve seen a few games on television. You have a fan’s knowledge of the game. Are you going to strap on a pair of ice skates and start slapshotting? No! You’re going to start with f$&%ing fundamentals. The first thing you’re probably going to learn at ice hockey school is how to ice skate around in a circle without falling on you’re a$& while absolutely nothing is happening to you. And then you’re going to learn how to change directions and stop and start suddenly. You’re going to learn to ice skate.
And then slapshotting the goalie? Hell f$&%ing no. Next, you learn how to control the puck. You’re going to be back to skating around in circles. Except you’ll be pushing a puck in front of you. Just keeping it under control. That’s all.
Learning to GM is no different than learning how to ice hockey. It’s a complex mass of many, many different skills. You can only learn it by practicing it. And you have to master the fundamentals before you go any further. And that’s what the first few sessions are all about. And that’s what I’m going to tell you how to do. Master the fundamentals. The very, very basics.
The problem is, there’s a lot of dips$&%s who are good at running games (or think they are) who notice that I’m not teaching you how to take any shots on goal. In fact, I’m leaving the goal out of the game. And they freak out because you can’t win at hockey if you never score a goal. And that’s because the real problem is that (a) being good at something doesn’t make you good at teaching it and (b) when you get good at something, you tend to forget how hard it was to learn.
Now, me, I’m going to set you skating around in circles and teaching you how to control the puck. And that, by itself, should be enough for you to start learning how to make passes and shoot on goal in your own time. And you need to ignore all the f$&%wits screaming that skating in circles never won a hockey game. Okay?
The Non-Pep Talk
First of all, let me give you the non-pep talk. GMing isn’t easy. It’s not hard. Anyone can do it. But it isn’t easy. And it’s also emotional. You’re basically putting on a show for people. And you’re responsible for creating everyone’s fun. If the game goes badly, it’s all your fault. You’ve ruined five people’s afternoons. That’s how it is. And, if the game goes badly and no one has any fun, they are going to judge you for it. They are going to think you’re a bad GM.
So, you have a combination of performance, judgment, and responsibility. And that’s going to weigh on you. And you’re probably going to be nervous as hell. You’ll be nervous for several game sessions. You may be nervous for YEARS. That’s part of running games.
Now, some GMs will tell you “don’t worry, no one is judging you” or “you’re going to do better than you think” or “you’re your own worst critic.” Me, I’m not going to lie to you. Your first game is going to suck. You’re going to be bad at it. But that should take a lot of pressure off of you. The outcome is certain: you will do badly. So, don’t worry about it.
See, the thing is, even if you do badly – and you will – generally, players have a good time anyway. And players are, for the most part, forgiving of new GMs. If the players are experienced, they’ll be understanding of the occasional flub. If the players are inexperienced, well, they are generally so nervous too that they won’t notice what you screwed up. They’ll assume they screwed up. So, you’re going to run a bad game, but the players will probably come back next week. And, even if they don’t, you can always find more players. GMs can ALWAYS find players.
The key is to accept that you’re going to be nervous, you’re going to f$&% up, and it’s going to be stressful. If you accept those things, you won’t stop trying after your first stressful session gets all f$&%ed up. Just accept it. On your first day of hockey school, you will fall on you’re a$&. And people might even laugh at you. But you don’t f$%&ing quit school over it. Right? You keep coming back.
The important thing is not to be good at it. The important thing is to keep working until you become good at it.
There’s Nothing to Help You
Second of all, let me further shoot your confidence down by telling you that absolutely every gaming product that exists sucks. All of them. Every published game and module sucks. Beginner’s boxes? Suck. Starter adventures? Suck. GM guides? Suck. No gaming product is useful to a brand new GM. You have to sort of learn how to GM before you can make use of the tools the games provide.
You might think that’s strange. You might that’s kind of stupid. And you’re right. It is strange and stupid. But the reality is: every RPG is written for players and the GM s$&% is tacked on. And very little thought is given to actual instruction. A few beginner boxes and starter sets do OKAY, but none of them do great because, again, they address the players first and the GM second.
So, in addition to being nervous and knowing that your failure is assured, you also have piss-poor, sub-par resources to draw on.
I’m not telling you this to scare you. I’m telling you this so that, when you look at this module or that rule-book and think ‘am I missing something? This doesn’t make sense? How am I supposed to understand this,’ you’ll know that it isn’t you. It’s the crappy state of the RPG publishing industry. It’s perfectly normal to feel lost and confused by RPG products.
So, with those two warnings out of the way, let’s talk about how to set up your first session for success. Let’s talk about how to set up and run your first session.
Limited Run, Pregens Only, Published Module
There are three things I tell all wannabe GMs. And these are the things that get me into trouble. But, hopefully, you understand my logic.
First and foremost, make it clear to your players that this game will run for a limited length of time. Three to five sessions tops. The game will not continue past that point. NO MATTER WHAT! I don’t care if it seems to be going well. I don’t care how attached people get to their characters or how much you want to continue the story. You pick an end point and you stick with it. After that end point, you throw everything out and start fresh. New characters, new adventure, new campaign, whatever. Your first game is not allowed to start a campaign. Ever. And that is a rule that must be made clear up front.
Why? Because that takes a hell of a lot of pressure off of you, your players, and the game. No matter how badly things seem to go, you will know that it will all go away when this particular adventure is over in three or four sessions. And if the players think things are going badly, the fact that there is a limited run will keep them coming back. They will stick it out and wait for the reset button. And it also prevents you from trying to be creative. Don’t try to be creative. Creativity is the worst thing you can do as a new GM.
Second, the players are not allowed to make characters of their own. You will give everyone a pregenerated character. No exceptions. No modifications. No substitutions. No weird supplements. No arguments. No nonsense. You – the GM – will know which characters are in the adventure and what they are capable of. Because you chose them. That means there’s less pressure on you or anyone else to know more than a subset of the character rules. And that also helps keep the players from getting attached, which makes the first rule easier to follow.
Third, you will not write your own adventure. You will use a published module. And you will run it as written. You will not get clever and creative with it. You will run the module as it was intended to be run.
Why? There’s a few good reasons. Firstly, you are trying to skate in circles right now. You’re trying to grasp the fundamentals. Adventure design is NOT a fundamental. It’s complicated. It involves an understanding of all sorts of concepts, like pacing, theming, narrative structure, challenge curves, and that sort of thing. And you need to focus on fundamentals.
But secondly, a published adventure lets you off the hook. See, when you a run a published module, the players hold you less responsible for the quality of the game. If things suck, they assume it’s because the module is dumb. Again, this takes a lot of pressure off of you.
Thirdly, the published module gives you a lot of permission to say no. If the players decide to go off the rails, ignore the adventure hook, and do their own thing, you can flat-out tell them no. “Sorry, guys, the adventure is to rescue the dwarf. Go rescue the dwarf.” Being new and running a published module gives you tacit permission to insist on following the adventure without the players blaming you for anything. Experienced players will forgive you. Inexperienced players will just think that’s how the module is written.
These three rules – limited run, pregens only, published module – help lubricate a thing called “buy-in.” Buy-in is the concept that everyone at the table agrees to play the same game. Here’s a simple example. When we agree to play D&D, the players know they can’t have lightsabers and laser blasters. It’s just part of the agreement between all of the participants about what the game entails. In general, the more specific the type of game you’re running, the more you need the players to “buy in” to that premise. Mainly because you’re limiting their choices. And if you put limits on the players’ choices, they have to feel like they are getting something in return.
It might seem like the big three rules require a lot of “buy in” because of how inherently limited they are. But, in fact, they short-circuit the whole process of buy in. Here’s why. Normally, the contract between players and GM sounds something like this:
“I’m going to place these restrictions on your choices, in return, I will run a really great game that offers these themes that you really want.”
Players agree to be limited in return for the promise of a game that delivers stuff they really want. BUT, the buy-in you’re going for is more like this.
“I’ve never run a game before and I want to run a game for you, but the only way I can learn how to run a good game is if you accept these limits for a short period of time while I figure this GMing s$&% out and then eventually we’ll game for realsies, okay?”
See? See how that works? And see how it takes a lot of responsibility off of you? Good. Then we’re agreed.
Now, where do you get pregens and a published module? Well, here’s the thing: most modules suck. Pathfinder has a few really good ones, but they are pretty advanced. D&D modules are currently more of a mixed bag, which is a polite way of saying they are basically a mess with some neat ideas here and there. For the most part, published modules run the gamut from bland to s$&%. So, knowing that, there’s no real pressure on you to find a good one. If every store is selling crap, there’s no point in shopping around.
So, my advice: get either the Pathfinder Beginner Box, the D&D Starter Set, or one of the Star Wars Beginner Sets. They are all decent products. The Star Wars ones give the best instruction, hands down, but they are also the most esoteric and the hardest to run. Pathfinder is a really good product, but the first adventure in there is kind of short. D&D has the lowest production values and is the least instructional, but the adventure in there is the best. It’ll get you a good five weeks of game. That’s what you want. So, the D&D Starter Set gets my grudging recommendation, even if you plan to move on to Pathfinder later.
You are also free to generate characters yourself. And that’s not actually a bad idea. There’s worse ways to learn about an RPG than generating four or five PCs. So, as an alternative to using the published pregens, I actually DO recommend you make your own if you have the time. It’s worth it. And it ensures you’ll get familiar with the game.
Know the Rules, Know the Module
Once you’ve chosen your starting point, the next step is the boring step. Learn the rules of the game and read through the entire module. Start to finish. Now, I’m assuming you’re already familiar with the basic rules of the system you’re playing. But you want to review a few specific parts. Read the rules on action resolution, even if you think you know them. Read the rules on combat, even if you think you know them. And read the rules on magic, even if you think you know them. That’s three chapters out of the rulebook you should read every page of. If you’re using a starter set, read all of the rules included.
Now, read through the module. You don’t have to memorize it. But read through the whole thing at least once and skim it once more before the game. Honestly, if you have the time, read it through twice. Get to know it. Make sure you can summarize the major bits of it. See if you can describe, out loud, what happens in the module and why. If you can do that, you’ve read it enough.
Once you have the pregens and you have the module and you’ve read the rules and the module, you’re ready to actually run a game.
Narrate, Adjudicate, Maintain the Flow
Your first game and ESPECIALLY the first session of your first game are about three things: narration, adjudication, and flow. Those are your fundamentals. That, to a GM, is what skating in circles is to a hockeyist.
Narration is the ability to present the game to the players. Can you tell the players what is going on in a scene? Can you answer their questions? Can you describe the outcome of events? Are the players clear on what is happening and why?
Narration comes down to communicating details. And in order to communicate details, you have to know the details. That’s why I told you to read the module twice. Now, most modules include boxes of text that help set the scene. But that’s not the end of narration. Remember that, as things change in the game, you have to be ready to describe those changes.
Adjudication is the ability to determine what happens whenever the players take action. If the player tries to open a door, what happens? If the player tries to kill a goblin, what happens? If the player tries to climb the wall, what happens? If the player threatens the king, what happens?
Adjudication comes down to using the rules. But the rules aren’t the beginning and the end of adjudication. You also have to apply your own logic and reason. If the wall is smooth and has no handholds and the players have no tools, they can’t climb it. It’s okay to decide that. That’s how the game works. You should only ever refer to the rules when you’ve decided you need the rules to determine the outcome. If you already know the outcome with certainty, you don’t need the rules.
I know that sounds crazy. But the rules are a TOOL for adjudication. Good GMs know when to use them and when not to. I’m telling that you should always ask yourself “do I really NEED the rules” before you go to the rules.
The flow is the basic pattern of the game. Every RPG follows the same basic procedure. You describe the situation, you ask the players what they do, you determine the result, you describe the new situation, and so on. From the moment the game starts, that’s how it should proceed. See what I mean about skating in circles?
When you’re ready to start the game, start the players off at the start of the action. Don’t f$&% around with motivations and meeting in an inn and all that crap. Tell the players flat-out why they are where they are and jump into the first scene. Remember, published module and pregens give you permission for that kind of crap. Use it. Start at the first actual scene of the game.
Describe what happens and then say “what do you do?” Figure out the result. Describe the scene again. And then say “what do you do?” Keeping doing this over and over. It’ll be repetitive at first. But by being very mechanical about the structure, you’ll fix the structure in your brain. Eventually, bits and pieces of it will be assumed. You won’t always have to say “what do you do?” But it’ll be hanging in the air unsaid anyway. For now, say it every time.
Remember: narrate, adjudicate, and maintain the flow.
“Here’s what’s happening, what do you do, here’s what happens, what do you do, here’s what happens, what do you do…”
Keep that up for five hours and you’ve got your first session.
Control the Rulebook
During your first few sessions, you need to get used to using the rules and not using the rules. And you also need to get used to knowing the rules. For that reason, there should be only one rulebook at the table. Tell your players to put their rulebooks away. They are not allowed to open them during the game. If they have a question about the rules, they will ask you. And your ruling stands.
When a question does come up, either because a player asks you or because you forget a rule that you need, pause for a moment. Think about how important it is to be accurate. How much weighs on this particular rule. Is it a few hit points of damage to a goblin? Or will a PC die over it? Or will the whole game get broken over it?
Here’s the deal: referring to the rulebook takes time and breaks the flow of the game. Notice how there’s no “open the rulebook and read a whole bunch of s$&%” in the game flow. It’s just “here’s what’s happening, what do you do, here’s what happens, what do you do?” That flow is important. And the rulebook ruins it.
You want to avoid the rulebook unless it really is important. Instead, you want to build the habit of making good rules calls. If you make a mistake, no big deal. Remember, this game is limited anyway. It’s going to end. And it’s going to suck. So it doesn’t matter if you f$&% up. So, you might as well get in the habit of making judgment calls. It’ll help your confidence when you make judgement calls and the entire game doesn’t fall apart.
Restricting access to the rules is symbolic. It puts you completely in control of the rules. There will be no arguments, your judgement is final, and if anyone is going screw up the game rules, it’s you. You want to develop that attitude anyway. That’s an important bit of self-confidence for a GM to develop. Because, eventually, you have to be willing to override the rules when you think they are wrong, bad, or broken. Getting used to being in complete control of the rules helps train you for that.
Don’t Seek Feedback
Now, your first “game” should span three to five sessions. And, like I said, it’ll be nerve wracking and it’ll probably go badly, but everyone except you will probably have a good time anyway. It is very important that you don’t seek ANY feedback. At all. Not even a little tiny bit. If a player says things went well or things went badly, thank them, file it away in the back of your head, and change the subject. You don’t need or want feedback.
Experienced GMs learn that player feedback is actually remarkably useless and inaccurate. Part of that is because the players aren’t GMs. If they knew how to run games, they’d be behind the screen. Part of it is that people are, in general, remarkably bad at understanding why they like the things they do and don’t like the things they don’t. It’s a psychological fact. Now, eventually, you do want to know when a player is unhappy. But that’s a skill for later. Right now, you don’t really need that crap.
Don’t. Seek. Feedback. Trust me.
Continue? [Yes] [No]
Now, after three to five sessions, your game is going to come to a close. And you’re going to let it. Remember, you are not allowed to continue your first game in any way! Trust me! It’s NEVER a good idea.
But, after that run, you’re going to have to decide whether you want to run a game for realsies. And, at that point, you can decide to change systems, buy a new module or campaign or adventure path, write your own material, let everyone generate their characters, and so on and so forth. Personally, I recommend starting small. Start with another published module or adventure. One that will take a few months maybe. Let people create their own characters.
But that’s only if you want to. And this is really important. It doesn’t matter if you think you did a good job or not. That’s not the question. The ONLY question you need to ask at the end of your first adventure is “do I want to run games?” If the answer is yes, then keep running games. If the answer is no, stop. But don’t even think about whether you did good or not. And certainly don’t ask your players.
Do you want to run more games? If yes, run more games. No matter what.
Once you’ve decided that yes, you want to run more games, now you can go to the players and say “I want to run more games, are you guys interested if I start running this module? Or this system? Whatever?” And if the players say “yes,” you have your feedback. If they say “no,” you also have your feedback. And that’s all the feedback you need right now. If you are willing to run games and they are willing to let you run games, you don’t need to know anything else. Just keep running games. And you’ll get better and better and better.
And what if they say no? Well, you can accept that. If you want. Or, you can go find other players and start again. Do the same s$&%. Limited run, pregenerated characters, published module. Start at square one and do it the same way. Then, ask those players to come along with you. If they say yes, you have a game. Otherwise, start again.
But the thing is: you can’t take the “no” personally. Players might say no for a thousand reasons. And only one of those reasons is “you’re a bad GM.” But, here’s the thing. Even if the reason is “you’re a bad GM,” that’s not surprising. You just started this s$&%. And it’s hard. And the first time you do anything, you suck at it. I warned you that you would suck.
The problem is not that you suck and the player is unhappy. It’s that the player who says “no” is unwilling to give you the chance to get better. That’s a bad relationship to have with a player. The player expects too much of you right out of the gate. Unfairly so. Because the only way you ever get good at anything is by practicing. And if you have a player who is unwilling to make that journey, it doesn’t make you a bad GM. You’re willing to work at it. To grow. The player is a d$&%cheese. They aren’t.
And that’s also why I said you don’t need any feedback right now. Because feedback won’t tell you anything you don’t already know. You already know you’re brand new, there’s a lot to learn, and you’re going to f$&% up. You don’t need that s$&% confirmed. All you need to know is that you have a group of players willing to let you learn. And who will have fun making the journey with you.
Look, that’s all there is to it. That’s all the advice you really need. I know you’re expecting a lot of stuff about how to prep and what to keep in mind and how to handle this problem or that problem. But none of that advice is useful or helpful. The game itself is almost irrelevant. If you set it up for success (limited run, pregens, published module), prepare yourself (review the important rules and read the module), and focus purely on maintaining the game from scene to scene (narrate, adjudicate, keep the flow), the game itself is the easiest part. Well, not really. But at least you won’t expect it to be any good after MY pep talk.
The most important thing is just to run the damned game. Get behind the screen and do it. And stay behind the screen and keep doing it. That’s the only way anyone ever gets good at anything.