Jumping the Screen: How to Run Your First RPG Session

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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.

The End

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.

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52 thoughts on “Jumping the Screen: How to Run Your First RPG Session

  1. I started DM’ing a little over a year ago (after an 18 year hiatus from RPG’s) and I really wish this post had been there when I started. I found your website about 4-5 months ago or so while looking for advice on how to write a murder mystery adventure, and since then I think I’ve read nearly everything you’ve ever written. Practically every week I read something that inspires me to want to immediately DM or create something. For example, I immediately started creating my own monsters to fill niches left empty by the Monstrous Manual after reading your article on Monster Building. Or immediately started writing my adventures a different way after reading your article on Critical Paths.

    Anyway, just trying to say, keep up the good work! Looking forward to buying the (hypothetical) AngryRPG when it comes out!

  2. I started my first game not knowing any of the rules. Literally. All I had was the desire to run games. And it was pretty strong. When I heard about GM-ing, (well, DM-ing anyway), I knew that was the thing for me.
    But as you can expect, the first session went bad. So bad I wanted to quit. But a friend said, you can do better. Just try again. And I did. And it sucked, big time. Then I tried again, and that sucked. And again, and again, and again. To this day, I haven’t finished a campaign, and I’ve been behind the screen for about a year. And I can’t really bring myself to start yet another time. Or so I thought.
    But it’s starting to come back now, that urge to run games. And it’s mostly thanks to you, Angry. Sometimes, I don’t agree with something you say. But all of it helps me be a better GM. And I know that my next campaign will be better than the last one. And I hope that one day, there will be a campaign that I can look back on and say: “Now that is a good campaign.” And then, I will start a new one. Because that is what GMs do.

  3. Keep up the phenomenal work, Angry. In a world plagued by naive relativists and people who fear that truth and hard-lines will somehow inhibit (rather than enhance, as it actually does) creativity, it takes courage to stand up and say what’s right. I have had my differences with your approach (and probably not in the way the average reader might think – sticks and stones, man), but never with the substance of your content, which is deeply analytical, cuts to the point, and provides focus on getting things done.

    RPGs are not the only context in which this phenomenon is occurring, so you’re not alone. True understanding is a threat to those who have (often for the right reasons) sought a safe place to be expressive. But it’s time for the grown-ups to put their grown up pants on and realize that there is a drastic difference between freedom to be creative and freedom to ignore the simple and obvious truth.

    Don’t stop, man. The world needs more like you. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

  4. Great article. I was considering trying my hand at GMing sometime soon, and these thoughts are simple, but helpful, points to keep in mind. I did have a question: in the case of an adventure which comes with preen characters, how would you recommend dealing with character generation in the event of a wipe? Granted, it’s not like you’ll lose a lot of time or progress, but something like that would do a good job of messing with the narrative flow of everything.

    • There’s generally a pretty generous number of pregens available. Less than in older products, for sure… I think B1 and B2 had about three dozen characters included, whereas these days you might get about a dozen. Still, that should tide you over for a number of character deaths, since the average party is 3 to 5 players now instead of the 6 to 10 that was expected once upon a time. If there aren’t enough, you can always make some extras ahead of time – Angry did suggest in this very article that it might be helpful to roll up 4 or 5 characters yourself just to familiarize yourself with the process and with a few different characters classes.

      There’s also a solution going in the other direction, and that is saying “TPK guys, adventure is over, let’s try a different module next time.” Remember, one of the key components of and RPG is choice, and choices have consequences, and sometimes that consequence is failure. If the players wanted to just hurl themselves at a boss monster for an hour until they figure out a winning strategy, they should probably be playing Dark Souls instead – so unless there are significant choices they can still make (e.g., bribing a monster, avoiding the battle altogether, et al.) without going off the rails of the module (and remember, when first learning to GM, you DO NOT want to try being creative and going off the rails), then I would consider ending the game to be an acceptable solution.

  5. Thanks for the advice. I’ve been reading your site all day and it has been helpful. Unfortunately I’m in the first time DM position due to moving with the military and me and the new guys all play but left our normal DMs in other countries so I said I would step up and give it a try always have thought about it but never had the chance. Glad I found your blog it’s got a lot of good info.

  6. Thanks for this article. Lots of good advice here. I ran a module for my first 3 games, but I think I need to find another module for additional practice with the fundamentals.

    For the first games, I’d like to add that the added plus for *players* when they receive a pre-gen character is that they don’t have to mess with making a character their first session. Character generation for new players who don’t know anything about the game can be extremely time consuming, frustrating and boring. Players will have to learn how to make their own, but don’t make them do that before they even get a chance to play their first game.

    Anyhoo, this is solid advice and makes a lot of sense. Thank you! Wish I had this guide a year ago.

  7. This is very, very good advice.

    I think people forget where they came from. The first time I DMed a game I was 11. The game was AD&D (first edition), and it had taken me some time to save enough money to get (in order) a DMG, MM and PH. I would have loved to get a published module as well, but I wasn’t willing to wait any more before I started. So my first adventures were random dungeons generated out of Appendixes A and C of the DMG.

    Players made their own characters, but in 1e (particularly pre-Unearthed Arcana) the choices were so limited that class choice had little impact on the rules a DM had to apply.

    Like many modules published for 1e, the adventure began at the dungeon entrance. As 11 year old players, no-one cared about character backgrounds or plot; they played to kill things and take their stuff. So the players were happy to explore a randomly created dungeon with no plot and limited characterization. That came later as we aged and became more sophisticated. It was probably a year before resupplying in town was anything other than hand-waived.

    I think most people in that period started the same way. There was no pressure to do it any other way; I don’t know when that started, but I don’t think it is a positive development; it is actually a barrier to entry. I would be curious to know how many of the current crop of GMing experts (and “experts”) started this way, and how many started the way they are now advocating for GMs to start. The next time you argue with one of them, you should ask him about his first campaign.

    • The problems with using “what was your first campaign” question is that A) What works for or was interesting to one person doesn’t necessarily work for another A1) most potential new GMs today aren’t 11, and therefore may not be interested in a game about doing nothing but crawling through a context-less dungeon and B) There are new tools and methods available, which may make people think “gee, I wish this had been around when I was learning.”

      • A) I am not saying that what worked for me and my friends will work for everyone. I am suggesting that any experienced GM started with simpler games than they are running now, or abjectly failed over and over again. Or they are kidding themselves. I am suggesting that fact can inform the conversation with said GMs.

        A1) Most GMs may not be 11, but have you ever noticed all the complaints from GMs to the effect, “How do I stop my players from acting like murder hobos?” You don’t need to be 11 to enjoy a fairly basic gaming experience. Wanting a more sophisticated experience often comes with experience with the game more than experience with life. It is an example of refining the palate.

        B) There may be new tools and methods available, but I don’t see what that has to do with my previous comment. I worked with a limited tool set out of necessity; Angry is suggesting a limited tool set be voluntarily adopted. The result is the same.

        I would quibble with the existence of new methods, by the way; I’m not really hearing about anything now that I didn’t see in play 30 years ago. I would even suggest that what Angry does is not new, it is a (sorely needed) deconstruction of old techniques. Its value for new GMs lies in its teachability; for experienced GMs its value lies in allowing them to do consciously what they may already be doing unconsciously.

  8. This is well-timed, I am going to be trying the screen-jump by running a Pathfinder one-shot very soon. Do you have any recommendations for one-shots in general? Out group has already done the Beginner Book.

    • I’ve just run the first book of Mummy’s Mask for a group of first time gamers. It’s fairly straightforward. Three simple dungeons, an easy premise to get on board with, and a pretty cool boss.

      They had a great time, and the structure of the module is really simple to understand as a GM.

  9. This is good advice. I can see why people are utterly terrified of it because it is not a way to run great games. However there is a very large difference between this, which is riding a bicycle with training wheels that you know are training wheels that you’re working towards, and what they see, which is trying to ride the Tour De France on a tricycle. Actually, the short non-campaign is a good idea in general for a first foray into running a new system, especially one with new systems you haven’t engaged with. I nearly did that retroactively recently after making some serious mistakes with Edge of the Empire’s economy.

  10. You have successfully filled the internal emptiness that, for me, is being alone on Christmas Eve. I read all your posts, regardless of holiday or lack thereof. I always enjoy your perspective and experience. But apparently this day holds extra emotional baggage, and you have kindly made it much less lonely. Thank you for all you do, but thanks especially for this, just for me. And cheers, you beautifully strange and special bastard.

  11. Very nice. Not only am I going to do this for myself, I am going suggest this concept to our local RPG group, and advocate having a regular meetup where veteran players let GMs run games in this fashion, to encourage the systematic training of new GMs. (Something somewhat lacking in our club, despite almost 2k roster members)

  12. I’ve been running games for about 35 years and not only do I think this is great advice, I’d recommend a similar approach to adopting new game system and/or running a game for a group of people who have never played with you in control. Adding one or two new players into an existing group of people who know your style is easier than GMing a whole group of people who have not experienced your style of play. Using the above approach is a great way to test the waters. I’m a software engineer and I think it’s also a good way for a programming team to adopt a new technology or to form a completely new team. Treat the 1st project as a throw-away… don’t make decisions on the real thing until you’ve learned to skate in circles…

  13. Geez, I feel like I need to throw some sort of crazy Internet tantrum or something after all the weird doomsaying at the start of this article, but this feels so non-controversial, it doesn’t seem worth the effort. :p

    My only gripe is that the games suggested aren’t really good beginner games, but I guess at the end of the day, what game you start with is determined by the game you want to run.

  14. Thanks for another great article.

    I’ve GMing for about 3 yrs. I first started when we were visiting a friends and they didn’t have a TV. In desperation we created an extremely basic RPG with a notebook pencils and a dice roller app on our phones. It really sucked as you would expect but from then on I was totally hooked.

    I have however subjected my friends and family to some pretty ropey RPG experiences and I think the advice in this article would have helped immensely back when I started. I still think I need to practice skating in circles…

  15. Angry! thanks for the Hogswatch present!
    I think this is perfect advice and from now on: I’m going to send my friends a link to this article if they ever THINK about starting to GM.

    Happy Hogswatch!

  16. You can boil down the advice to ‘run a Pathfinder Society Module or 3’. The whole pregen characters / prohibition on character creation is a time saver, but if the players are already proficient in character creation it shouldn’t be a big deal for them to make their own. So long as they’re not going to take two hours to do it. Given that the PFS modules are all expressly railroady, there shouldn’t be any issue with staying on task.

    I get it though, it provides structure and gives the GM a chance to get used to the role.

  17. I ran my first game after having played 4 sessions of D&D 3.5 (and badly-run sessions at that). I wrote an adventure of my own (mistake 1), walked the players individually through character creation (mistake 2), and planned to leave the door open for a long-term campaign (mistake 3). Fortunately(?), my players were a bunch of fellow college students, and by the time we were able to get at least 4 of us together to play, it was mid-November. We managed to get in 4 or 5 sessions, the first 2 of which were absolutely abysmal slogs through the rulebooks to check people’s spells and features (a habit I’ve started breaking in both my players and myself); the last two sessions were quite fun even though they were the least creative leg of my adventure, mostly because by that point I’d given up on running a GOOD game and prioritized running a FUNCTIONAL game.

    I’ve since switched to 5th Edition created a specific adventure, intended to run 5-6 sessions, that I can run for newbies; I tell them not to get too attached to their characters, but if they’re understanding the rules sufficiently by the time they reach the last stretch I tend to find myself willing to let the game keep going. I’ve been DMing for about a year now, and I’m currently finishing this adventure with a group that have gone from first-time role-players to knowing more about the rules and mechanics than anyone I’ve ever run for or played with before; despite not having been at this for long, I’ve run for 5 different groups, each of which has fallen apart because the players don’t care enough about each other’s or my time to learn the rules if they can even be bothered to show up.

    This group has been running for about 2 months (we’ve missed a couple play weeks), and I think if there’s any advice I’d give to new DMs, it’s that if you want newbies to learn the rules and take the game seriously, don’t run games for a homogenous group of friends. My players in the past have been too comfortable with each other, I feel, to feel that they’re wasting anyone’s time by not learning to play; my current group, which is made up of my two brothers and two of my college friends, have become quite close and formed friendships while learning to play the game at the same time.

  18. Thanks for another fine article. My only beef is with using the published modules, simply because I find them so boring.. All they do is setting up combat encounter after combat encounter, instead of setting up SITUATIONS where choices are interesting and actually matter. And this is the most important part of an RPG, isn’t it?
    Granted, I come from a slightly different stand-point here; I’m a very rusty GM that wants to make an interesting game for entirely new players that have _never_ played RPG’s before. I want to provide a thrilling adventure with challenging choices from the get-go, and give them a small taste of how cool RPG’s can be. I want to sell it, and doubt the dungeon crawl in the Pathfinder beginner box will be the best way to do that. But perhaps this a topic for another time?

  19. Hey Angry, a question that has always weighed heavy on my mind is how to do player death elegantly. I don’t mean how to roleplay out a tearjerker but how to adjudicate for it towards the continuing of the campaign.

    I think I understand that generally if you’re not okay with the possibility of a player dieing then there shouldn’t be a possibility of it and maybe the charade your playing with your players is the fear and illusion of imminent death.

    Personally that has never really sat well with me, I’ve felt that death should be just another thing that may or may not happen. That being said am I misguided? When a player dies, how do I best deal with it mechanically? Does the player just simply create a new character at the same level as the rest of the party, minus his coin and gear? It would be odd if the party decided to just outfit this newcommer but it would be far worse to tell them that their characters can’t decide to do that because I said so. I guess what i’m asking is: where is the penalty in a players death and where is the campaign enrichment if there really is any.

    Pros: Death should stand as a pressure on the characters/players which in turn makes them more invested in the lives of their characters.
    The allowance for death seems more preferable than some form of deus ex machina.

    Cons: Creating a new party level character seems to cheapen the whole idea.
    (Do we ask them to create a level 1 character? Probably not. Do we put them back a level? Is this going too
    far? I’m not a sadistic bastard and I’d rather not make my players feel terrible but I genuinely don’t know.)
    Death of the character is also the death of any backstory, plot hooks, or interests related primarily to that
    Death of a character can also mean a loss of buy in from that player. (but maybe if the character dies the
    player dies in real life [not really, he just leaves the campaign?] )

    Long post, sorry.

    • As a DM I always keep a couple of prerolled characters handy when I come to the table that I can easily fit into the story for the evening. That way the players who had a character die is not sitting around bored or trying to make a new character in the middle of a game. This keeps the pacing smooth and everyone at the table involved in the adventure. At the end of the session I usually give the player the option to keep playing the character I made or to roll up a new one at the same level as the party. When they send me the character I will give them any magic items or equipment they will need that is not basic starting equipment. I assume that they acquired it over their adventuring career to this point. I want them to be balanced with the party.

  20. Wonderful article Angry. As a long running DM of od&d/ad&d games (and other things, from Feng Shui, to Vampire:The Masquerade, and s$&@y, home-made RPG’s) I have been honestly, a little daunted by moving on to a game involving the plethora of possibilities and powers available to players in 5th edition d&d. This article couldn’t be more helpful to me, with my need to step back and get re-aquainted with the fundamentals. I’ve had a neat little linear adventure called “Stupid Human” in mind as a tool to get my feet wet. I made it clear that it’ll be a short run, and that they all MUST be Halflings (for setting/plot reasons), but now that I’ve read your adv

  21. Wonderful article Angry. As a long running DM of od&d/ad&d games (and other things, from Feng Shui, to Vampire:The Masquerade, and s$&@y, home-made RPG’s) I have been, honestly, a little daunted by the idea of moving on to a game involving the plethora of possibilities and powers available to players in 5th edition d&d. This article couldn’t be more helpful to me, with my need to step back and get re-aquainted with the fundamentals. I’ve had a neat little linear adventure called “Stupid Human” in mind as a tool to get my feet wet. I made it clear that it’ll be a short run, and that they all MUST be Halflings (for setting/plot reasons), but now that I’ve read your advice on the subject I’m wishing that I hadn’t let them all go and think of character concepts! I should’ve made up some characters for them! And I’m going to make the adventure even shorter now for sure. This subject just goes to re-enforce one of the features that makes table top RPG’s so damn rewarding: there is always more to learn, and there are always new ways to look at things. Happy holiday season and New Years Angry!

  22. If GMing is like playing a sport, than the time at the table spent running is a game. Knowing the rules and theory behind a game is nice, but isn’t worth crap if you’ve never done it before. That’s what practice is for. In certain respects you have advised some practice (making the characters forces you to do some work with the material). In my opinion though, you haven’t prepared them for a skrimage yet (which is essentially what running a game with expectations of failure are).

    You don’t need players in front of you to practice using your GM skills. Set up a combat and try to run it. If you stumble, you have time to look up rules or seek outside help. No group of players sitting around judging you before you are ready. Every experienced player (most of which also GM) that I know wouldn’t put up with someone butchering the rules they can quote from heart and then telling them to stuff it because they are the GM. You want to talk the big boy talk, you better walk the walk. If you don’t you will be looking for a new group to GM for.

    If you do need a player (or person acting in that manner) to test out your skills, do so in a closed course. Get the best GM you know and run a scene for him. He’s a GM, so he can give you feedback (like a coach, gasp!). Almost no one makes it to the top by their own skill without any help. Practice makes permanent, not perfect. Unless you are exceptional, practicing badly will not make you improve drastically. That said, not every person can help you. Big difference between a decent shot and a shooting coach.

    Expect it to go badly come game time. No one should expect a win the first time out of the gate, no matter how prepared. If you have practiced then you just might be able to figure out what you screwed up. If not than you are likely to have so many issues that it will be hard to work on any one area. If you do know what mistakes you are making, try to focus on fixing them one at a time. Practice till you have it fixed, than move to the next.

    If you want to win you need goals. Being a good GM is a shit goal because you have no means to accomplish it. Like I said above, one thing at a time. If you solicit feedback, ask about your goal in specific. If you managed to get another good GM on board as a coach, maybe just ask him to evaluate your goal.

    In short, stop failing because you don’t have an actionable plan. Make a plan, practice, execute. Keep working at it until you win (whatever criteria you set for that is). The key word is work. No one else will do it for you.

    • Concur! Find a coach, or run things on your table yourself. Especially if you’re dealing with characters you created yourself. Try to figure out how tough they really are before you lay them at some PC’s feet.

  23. Best advice for new GM that I ever read.
    One rulebook at the table is even great for advanced groups.
    Keeps them rules lawyers from rules lawyering hil you’re trying to describe a scene or run a fight.

    • Even better. Just buy some ear muffs or plugs, then scream “LALALALALA!” whenever someone does something you don’t like.

      I think I’d show such a GM how retarded this is by demanding he hand over all his notes and prep material before the game. “These references will only slow the game down. No one wants to wait while you consult your adventure.” “Oh wait, you aren’t prepared to run blind? Well neither am I dingbat!”

      Not to mention that a good rules lawyer only needs the book to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are wrong. The good ones know the rules without the book. Since most GM’s of this mindset are adversarial control freaks, we have to quote verbatim with page numbers to convince them they are wrong. Instead of using a great resource, everyone is focused on shutting down the rules lawyer because once upon a time they encountered some teenage or immature dipshit who tried to game the system. While your at it, never go outside again, because you may get stabbed. It happened to some guy once, I swear.

      • How does this help? If you get to the point where this sort of shouting match is seriously necessary, I don’t see how the game could possibly go well after it happens. If your GM not understanding the rules bothers you (and I’m right there with you) don’t argue during play, wait til a break and take them aside. If they aren’t willing to work to learn the rules, you probably need to leave the game, because unless arguing over rules is literally the reason you play RPGs, everyone will be better off, especially you.

        Actually yeah, of you feel like you have to compete with a brand new GM, you need to look for a more experienced one. To borrow your analogy from another post, don’t expect your intramural team to hold a two hour workout every day to get ready for the big game against Team B. Move to another league.

      • As Angry has said before, many times over and paraphrased in this particular article, playing RPGs with other people is about trust. If the players cannot trust the GM to run a fair game, and if the GM cannot trust the players to either have faith in his/her ability to run or be willing to play with him/her while he/she improves his/her skills then the whole group should do themselves a favour and break up.
        I myself had a craptacular experience gaming with a narcissistic jerk who ruled you to death and left you in the dark about things you needed to know for the adventure, if you couldn’t come up with his solution (which was ALWAYS talk to the thing, even if it was murderously mad and trying to impose said murder onto your characters). It took me 3 years to leave that table, with stress and anger and sullen stubbornness from everyone at the table towards each other by the end of it.
        Life is too short to waste at a table with people you cannot trust, and do not like.
        Asking a GM to game without his notes is completely different from players not being able to look at the rulebooks, especially if the GM does not have the experience to wing it (which, especially if this is his first time running, he might not have as a skill). Players not having the book is similar to video games without the walkthrough, it seems hard compared to having the walkthrough but anyone can do it and still have fun. The GM without his notes is like playing without a TV. The most likely result is that nothing meaningful will be accomplished, and if something is that just means you lucked out somehow.

      • My favourite counter rule is the one that says the GM has final say and can change any rule in the rule book 😛 beat that one Rules lawyers 😀 .

  24. I’ve been encouraged to GM recently, and I’m glad my friend recommended your blog, Angry. This advice is particularly timely, including the oddly encouraging non-pep talk. It’s okay if my first campaign sucks, so long as I work at it.

    Guess it kind of goes with one Extra Credits video on designing games: Fail faster so you can improve faster.

  25. I agree with this 100%.

    Without formalizing this approach in the way that you have laid out here, this is exactly how I started GMing last year.

    A year later, I find myself a) way more comfortable with the rules and how and when to enforce them, and b) feeling incredibly limited by the pregenerated modules I’ve been running. Therefore I feel like it is a natural time to start designing my own encounters, campaigns, levels, etc.

    I have run through enough pre-gen low-level encounters to know pretty well what makes for a fun and challenging session for a party of low-level adventurers, and having the freedom to respond to story demands essentially on the fly is much more interesting now than making sure they follow the scripted story.

    I also think that watching shows like Critical Role and the Acquisitions Incorporated games, has given me a much better idea of how great GMs solve problems, and create stories and games worth playing, and that is really inspiring. That’s the other advice that I would give… keep playing games with other GMs to learn new techniques, or read up on other sources to learn about ways that other people handle things, cause it is very hard to improve in a vacuum.

  26. Some awesome stuff in there, some stuff I love, some stuff I disagree with and some stuff I want to disagree with but can’t because you’re right (Like limited 1st run and pregen module and Characters)

    I have been running for 25 years now, and still am refining my style and have on days and off days. I have had campaigns which hit the mark and campaigns which don’t.

    I don’t think I’ll ever consider myself a master, but will always have plenty of experience, good and bad to share.

  27. Darn it Angry you couldn’t have written this earlier!??
    I actually agree with you, that using a pre-generated module is a good way to begin. I sure wish I had thought of that before I just jumped into running a Shadowrun campaign. The starter kit seems like it’s okay, a short adventure, pre-generated archetypes so people can even “try out” a class. I also agree with the point you are trying to make with having only you be the one with the rule-book, but I am slow so I often conscript my friends at the table to help me find specific sections or a rule if we need it (the Shadowrun book is ALL OVER THE PLACE). The only actual problem I can see with your suggestions is that not all starter kits are free and available, so once you’ve put the money into buying a kit, dice, and whatnot, I think you might feel pretty obligated to try to keep going with that RPG. Unless you have a big room with piles of money just chilling.
    Anyways, as a budding GM, thanks for all your articles and taking all this time, while I might not completely follow all the rules you are pounding into my head, I have taken away a lot that has helped me tremendously, and will definitely point anyone looking for tips to this article!

  28. Is a dm screen a good idea for a first time gm?
    It would allow me to quickly look up some of the more important rules without having to open a book and pour through pages of material looking for one little rule.
    Or would this just get in the way of things?

    I’ll be gming my first session in a week or two, so I’m happy this was posted. Thanks for your articles. They’re really educational. 🙂

  29. You’re not going to get any grief from me about the DM restricting player freedom while they figure out what the *$#(@! they’re doing. Just the opposite, in fact: I wish this article had been available when I first started to DM. On second thought, it wouldn’t have done me any good, though, because that was way the @!#*$ back in 1979 and there wasn’t any #$@*!# internet, so I wouldn’t have been able to read it. Oh, well.

  30. Article is great. That has been covered. Wish I had read it a decade ago when I started out.

    But I definitely think that it should be mentioned that the Angry commenters (for the most part) post thought provoking and reasoned responses. On the internet. There’s not many places I can read the comment threads and enjoy them.

    My own first experience as a GM was very silly, I told everyone to bring their favourite stuffed animal or action figure and we’d make really basic stats and have an adventure (based on some stuff I read on Something Positive many many years ago). I DO NOT advise anyone do this, as it turned into a complete debacle, but the group were super supportive and had fun with the silliness, and I never looked back.

  31. This is great advice. I played and ran games beyond counting back in college, but only returned to the hobby after almost 20 years as a player in a Pathfinder game. I got excited about the look and feel of D&D 5e, and the GM was interested in taking a break, so I started working up an elaborate campaign based on a 3e adventure path with my own modifications and tweaks…

    And then I stopped, because I realized that I was setting myself (and my players) up for a disaster.

    I got the D&D starter box, assigned pregens, and ran the campaign as written, using the basic rules. We all got to know the new game system, and I got to remember how to master a dungeon.

    When I went back to the customized adventure path (which we’re still playing) it was a hundred times better because I had taken the time to push a puck around the ice a few times before trying to shoot a goal.

  32. Pingback: Ask Angry: Running New Systems and Owning Your Rules | The Angry GM

  33. Well you’re wrong!
    (Didn’t see that coming, didya!)

    Read this:

    Probably not, but the gist is, people go to different games for different reasons.

    Choice, a.k.a. agency is just ONE of these. There are others.
    Agency in TTRPGs is greatest, therefore it is practically always a core aesthetic for every player. But… There. Are. Others.

    Otherwise good advice. Didn’t follow one bit of it and it still went well.

  34. Pingback: Ask Angry: Star Wars, Fate, and Critical Gaming | The Angry GM

  35. Pingback: Aulas de Mestre, Episódio 3: Pulando Para o Escudo – Como Conduzir Sua Primeira Sessão de RPG | dadosmalditos

  36. I’m going to be honest. First time I read this, my thoughts went to “But… I’m special. I’m a creative unique snowflake.” Yeah. Suuuure. Took me all of three days to realize that making pregen characters and using a campaign was probably better for a first try. Could I have accomplished doing it all first try? Yes, most likely. Would I have enjoyed it? Maybe but at the same time, I get a chance to practice without that much pressure and I won’t be putting in ridiculous amounts of effort for a mediocre campaign. So, the advice is appreciated AND utilized. Most of the blog is pretty helpful, although I tweak somethings here and there, it makes for a pretty good reference guide to do things the RIGHT way. (That’s sarcasm. Please. Don’t get angry. Notice it. There ya go)

  37. Oh thanks the gods. Last night my sister said she wanted to play. I love the game but haven’t played in ten years and NEVER gmed. I’ve been panicking ever since I agreed to run a game for her, today. So this article took a huge load off my mind.

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