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Forget Your First RPG — What Was Your First Setting as a GM?

Looking back at the first game you played, or GMed, can be illuminating, and as evergreen gaming questions go, “What was your first RPG?” is a good one.

But another equally interesting question tends to go unasked — so I’m going to ask it here: What was the first setting you ran a game in? And as a follow-up: How has that setting influenced your GMing since then?

The first setting you ever experienced as a gamer is also a good one to consider, but let’s keep our focus slightly narrower, and stick to the setting of the first game you GMed. I’ll start.

Lords of Creation

I got my start as both a gamer and a GM with Lords of Creation, which is a pretty nutso game. Created by Tom Moldvay, the author of my favorite version of D&D, it’s got time travel and crazy powers and awesome ’80s artwork.

I picked it up at my local Barnes & Noble as a kid, back in New York City, because the box looked cool. I was 10; that was all I needed. When I got it home, I only read some of it — and I had no real idea what to do with it. But I knew I needed at least one other person, and it had equipment lists and somehow you played out stories with it, so I recruited a friend and we tried it out.

There’s some setting stuff in the back of the book, but I don’t think I made it that far — I just made shit up. I started modern, then veered into fantasy, then settled into a kind of sci-fi groove with more than a dash of fairy tale oddity to it.

Part of that came from the monsters, which were a bizarre mix from all genres and the strange corners of Tom Moldvay’s imagination. But a large part of it came from me. I didn’t know what I was doing, and neither did the succession of friends I “GMed” this game for. System took a back seat to imagination running wild.

And you know what? To this day — 25 years later — I’m still at my best as a GM when I’m channeling at least some of what made whackadoodling my way through Lords of Creation so much fun as a kid, particularly when it comes to making game settings my own and letting mechanics fade into the background.

Taladas (The Time of the Dragon)

Once I knew what I was doing, at least to a greater extent than “I have no fucking clue what I’m doing” (I.E. after I’d been introduced to D&D by a friend who knew how to play, and seen a real slice of actual gaming), I took my Christmas money down to the Compleat Strategist and looked for the set my friend had used — the Mentzer red box.

This being 1989, they didn’t have it in stock, but they did have the newly released AD&D 2nd Edition. Along with the core books, I picked up The Time of the Dragon. This is a criminally overlooked setting, and it’s well worth tracking down. (The entire product line for it amounts to two things: this boxed set and a sourcebook about minotaurs. Longtime readers will know how much I love this setting, and this boxed set in particular.)

Taladas — the continent on Krynn that this boxed set is all about — is a strange and wonderful mix of serious and unusual and unexpected:

There’s also some of the patented Dragonlance humor, although here it’s more understated. The tinker gnomes of Taladas make stuff that actually works, and mostly weapons, but at the same time gnomes flying hang gliders over a lava sea while dropping giant darts on people is hard to take too seriously. (Taladas is part of why I love gnomes.)

So that mix, the serious, the unusual, the unexpected, and the funny, is also a part of my GMing DNA. It’s evidently part of me as a person, since it popped up in Lords of Creation when I had no idea what I was doing, but it remained part of my style once I figured some things out and started running games seriously. And, again, I’m at my best with a mix like this informing the games I run decades later.

So that’s me and my first setting — the first-first and the for-real-first. How about you?

27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "Forget Your First RPG — What Was Your First Setting as a GM?"

#1 Comment By shortymonster On September 12, 2012 @ 1:52 am

First edition Deadlands for me. I know it’s not that long ago, but I played for some years before finally taking the plunge. it did shape a lot about not only the type of game I run, but also the GMing style I still use.

I ran what I have since found out is called a sandbox style game, just because I wanted to have fun and explore the world just as much as my players. And to this day, i still love running, and as a direct result, playing in horror games.


#2 Comment By lordbyte On September 12, 2012 @ 2:18 am

Well… Mine was a homebuilt generic fantasy world based on everything my young mind had been exposed to 🙂 I could only afford the 2E Advanced PHB and eventually the DMG, but I had seen all these other books and settings (sometimes just the covers) and I just fit it all in! It was my longest running world, I ran a campaign there up to the day 4E came out.

I did try some other settings, but apart from Eberron for a while, none were as popular as that one. Although my new campaign, which has a lot more character and less everything and the kitchen-sink (you could say it’s lean even), has surpassed it, at least in my eyes.

#3 Comment By griffon8 On September 12, 2012 @ 5:32 am

Forgotten Realms. It was also the first setting I knew anything about that wasn’t just made up by the GM.

#4 Comment By mcmanlypants On September 12, 2012 @ 6:53 am

World of Darkness was my first setting as a GM (a role to which I still refer as “Storyteller”). I’d played AD&D2E Forgotten Realms for longer but WoD was a system I could get my head around. I felt a lot more comfortable handling “on the fly” stuff in D10 then, and still do now. The 2nd edition Vampire: the Masquerade Storyteller’s Guide has some of the best GMing advice I’ve read anywhere, in any system book, and the game’s emphasis on story over dice had a deep influence on me on both sides of the metaphorical GM screen.

#5 Comment By black campbell On September 12, 2012 @ 7:00 am

A home brew setting in AD&D, quickly followed by a homebrew Traveler campaign,

#6 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On September 12, 2012 @ 7:51 am

My first campaign was a D&D shrink wrap setting followed by a homebrew AD&D setting.

In truth, my GMing style was more influenced by another GM’s style than my first campaign setting.

#7 Comment By shadowacid On September 12, 2012 @ 8:05 am

My first GMing experience was a brief game with the AD&D 2nd edition Lankhmar book. Since then it’s been a love affair with swords & sorcery.

After that my first real game was with 2nd Edition Shadowrun. Since then other games have just been intermissions between Shadowruns.

#8 Comment By Razjah On September 12, 2012 @ 8:11 am

My first real campaign was an Iron Heroes game set in a historical fantasy version of Egypt. Basically it was Egypt before the pyramids and I took every liberty I needed with the setting. The game was my comparison point for a successful game until the Burning Wheel game I used in the NYNG.

I had run some small stuff before or finished a campaign because the GM was too busy, and let the party become pirates in the end of the spring semester that we had talked about doing since we found out Eberron had airships.

#9 Comment By Roxysteve On September 12, 2012 @ 8:22 am

I first co-ran a game with Clive and Paul in the summer of ’75 that we invented from hints in Games and Pastimes magazine about some American thing that was different to any game ever made to date, set in a large dungeon. It didn’t look *much* like D&D once we imported a (white) boxed set and got a proper look (in our defense the article got bits of it quite wrong and was very vague overall), but it was great fun as we ran simultaneous competing teams through it in a race for loot, allowing them to help and sabotage each other.

What did I learn that carried over? Mostly to avoid doing some of the stuff we did as arguing wastes game time. Also, mature players will take a cheesy drubbing, even to death, in good humour as long as it isn’t a constant feature of the game. Oh, and shared world GM/Player mechanics (rotating GMs) can work as long as everyone invests equally in world-building.

#10 Comment By Gamerprinter On September 12, 2012 @ 9:34 am

My first setting played in was run by my first “real” DM with some very creative skills on his own – was that DM’s own home brew. Before Greyhawk and all the other known settings, I first played in a homebrew, and that has led to over 25 years of gaming in mostly homebrews. I can count on one hand the number of published settings I’ve played in. Homebrews have always been and always will be my preferred setting – even if, the latest setting is a published one (its my homebrew setting published under Rite Publishing; Kaidan Japanese horror for PFRPG)

BTW the Kaidan Campaign Setting Kickstarter has 3.5 days left, if anyone’s intersted!

#11 Comment By Scott Martin On September 12, 2012 @ 10:05 am

My first settings were the implied setting of the Red Box and 1e PHBs. I’d first played in a weird, wonderful D&D setting–really, head into a dungeon and see what cool, crazy things are down there. So that’s how I started–build a dungeon, don’t think too much about why it’s there, and let players take it on.

My first coherent campaign, in high school, was well received. It was a war between nations, in D&D, with sneaking and fireballing enemy encampments, and so forth. There was some development of a traditional medieval society. It went out with a whimper when the group tensions overwhelmed our love of gaming and the group split, wanting basically parallel or combative (with each other) campaigns.

When in doubt, I still reach for custom built worlds–these days, group built to maximize buy in.

#12 Comment By Scott Martin On September 12, 2012 @ 10:19 pm

I did read the Dragonlance novels relatively young and played in the world, but never ran it. Amber Diceless was a great setting that threw me for a loop (in a good way) early in college.

#13 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 12, 2012 @ 12:55 pm

Nothing so elaborate as all that. My first setting as a player was D&D’s Known World. As a GM, I’d have to say it was Wheel of Time. But I was WOT crazy long before the game came along.

I’d have to say, though, one of the strongest thematic influences on my GMing style/homebrew is the Thieves World anthologies. That shared world, pulpy feel, rough’n’tumble wizard-witchery thing. I just ate it up.

#14 Comment By joe white On September 12, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

Back in the dark years of the late 1990’s, we played adnd2e (I still do).

By first stint DMing was in what I would now call a “homebrew” world, but back then, everyone’s campaign was original. We didn’t have access to a large amount of gaming materials, all we had was the PHB, DMG, MM, and whatever splat book the Walden Books in the next town over could stock.

99% of every game I’ve ever run has been original, it just seems “correct” to me. Of course, I pull from other sources to make my “original” settings, but to me, putting the work into world-building is part of being a DM.

#15 Comment By Aaron Beaveridge On September 12, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

My first GM experience was with the new Red Box D&D last year. Shortly after that I started volunteering to GM at my local gaming store for the occasional LFR game.

To be honest, I never enjoyed it.

Then I was introduced to Savage Worlds, and I ran a few games for my cousins and I had a blast. Now I am running a Deadlands table once a month (and hoping to do more) at my local store.

#16 Comment By Cloudyone On September 12, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

My first game, as player and then GM, was using the original Chivalry & Sorcery rules. The world settings were sketchy homebrew but it was all we needed. I still draw on the C&S sourcebooks for material and have a fondness for the magic system.

#17 Comment By Delvidian On September 12, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

The first setting I GMed was a homegrown AD & D that mixed classic fantasy with every race and gadget found in Larry Niven’s Known Space.

The first commercial setting I ran was Star Frontiers. These days I’m involved with 3 campaigns, all using GURPS: 1) A Spelljammer/Banestorm fusion campaign; 2) A pbp campaign taking place in Frank Herbert’s Duniverse; 3) a GURPS Infinite Worlds campaign.

What hasn’t changed over all these years? An inability to keep my fantasy out of my sci fi and my sci fi out of my fantasy…

#18 Comment By Svengaard On September 12, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

It’s hard to say what my first DM attempt was. I tried a one shot in AD&D2nd Ed with just my younger brother. After that I tried running a game of “Kobolds Ate My Baby”.
The first real attempt was a BESM (2nd Edition) campaign. Over ten years later I still run campaigns based in the same world.

#19 Comment By jwperry On September 12, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

My first experience as a GM was in D&D 3.5. It was the game system that introduced me to the gaming world, and also the one that I was most comfortable with when I decided that it was time to try running a game instead of continuing to just play in them.
I remember that when I first started playing, it was really fun, and I was really bad at role playing when I was first introduced to it, but I slowly got better at it over time. I never really considered myself all that great at it, since I was shy and never really spoke out or spoke up. After GM’ing a game however, my role playing skills skyrocketed, as did my confidence with it. Now I feel comfortable GMing in pretty much any system that others want to play in, even if I have no experience with it whatsoever, i think sometimes that can just make it more interesting/memorable of an experience.

#20 Comment By NukeHavoc On September 13, 2012 @ 5:57 am

My first setting was World of Greyhawk, specifically the 1983 boxed set. I first ran it (badly) in high school, then let it lay fallow for a few years until I got back into role-playing games in college. My college campaign was my first real campaign — it started in the Great Kingdom and then slowly rolled north and west through the Flanaess.

It was hugely influential on my future gaming. Both of these proto-campaigns provided fodder for my post-college Blackrazor Guild campaign, which went onto run for something like 12 years straight. Greyhawk itself is exactly the sort of campaign world I like: detailed enough to get me thinking, open enough that I can build what I want without crashing up against canon. It also provided my first exposure to the larger role-playing community, first through AOL (yes, AOL) and then through the Greytalk listserv.

It’s been 4 or 5 years since we seriously adventured in Greyhawk, but I think it lives on in our Second Darkness campaign for Pathfinder; Golarion is basically a opus to the glory that was Greyhawk, updated a bit for modern sensibilities (and I would expect nothing less from Iquandar. :))

#21 Comment By Tsenn On September 13, 2012 @ 6:45 am

My first world was officially from the Monster Horrorshow, modern day characters dropped into a medieval world with some fantasy elements, but it didn’t last. It was an odd game.

The one that became a proper campaign was Advanced Fighting Fantasy. Sure, it was full of cliches, but I think that just made it more accessible and we had fun.

#22 Comment By Nojo On September 14, 2012 @ 1:36 pm

First edition Traveller.

I had played D&D since the white box, but never used a published world. I used published adventures, and shoehorned them all into my world.

The one thing we all agreed on about the Traveller world was that is was stupid but the game was fun. Even back then, the computers seemed lame. We had Apple IIs and Atari home computers that outperformed the multi-ton Traveller monsters. The politics made no sense. Using an old, rigid empire that was no longer expanding, struck us as lame too.

#23 Comment By MaW On September 15, 2012 @ 2:46 pm

My first GMing experience was online, with Paranoia XP. It was, as one might expect, pretty silly, and it’s difficult to GM effectively when incapacitated at one’s computer with laughter. Fortunately JParanoia has a freeze button to stop the players getting too carried away when the GM needs to stop for air.

In the real world, I first ran Nobilis 2E. That was also pretty silly, because that’s how the group roll. They liked it, but I found it incredibly difficult to run due to the players not being familiar with its rather unusual setting. I think it’s probably better if everyone’s read the book before you start.

Later on I did eventually get to run Paranoia (Troubleshooters, this time – not that it’s much different to XP) in the real world. Once. Can’t wait to do it again.

#24 Comment By Liack On September 16, 2012 @ 8:30 am

My first attempt was with Shadowrun 1st edition. I had done a few games of AD&D 2nd edition as a player and decided to launch into another setting completely and decided to go futuristic. I kind of smashed against a wall, since I was a little “by the book” with the D&D style and found the Shadowrun somewhat lacking in terms of opposition and rewards (what do I put against starting runners? how many karma do I award? what type of opposition then?). So after barely 1 game, I quitted GMing, for a decade, nearly two. And then, I hopped into the 4ed bandwagon 2 years ago, the rules clicking nicely, as well as all the monster references, build encounters rules, rewards, and GMing sites like this one. At first, I got into a homebrew based on “A Song of Fire and Ice” made by another GM (I was the alternate week GM), but once that group dissolved, I jump hard into Eberron and have kept at it since then (we will probably reach Paragon by next month).

#25 Comment By The Stray7 On September 17, 2012 @ 2:29 am

The very first “RPG” I was exposed to was HeroQuest, the board game that distilled hack’n’slash gaming down to it’s essence. This game was a partnership between Milton Bradly and Games Workshop, and set in the Warhammer universe. Not that I knew this at the time. We had no idea what we were doing when we first picked it up, but I built a dungeon out of those tiles, monsters, and heroes that focused on the pair of us (my friend owned it) fighting into the dungeon to rescue the Elvish King and then defeat the Witch Lord (we didn’t know the Witch Lord figure was used for several different characters).

Then I bought the game myself, photocopied the back, and built a whole campaign of quests once we’d defeated the original 14 9this time we knew the rules better, and actually played the game as written).

Then my friend Phillip bought this new Expansion Pack featuring the hordes of Chaos (actually a supplement for the Warhammer minatures game) and proceeded to run me through a solo quest he pulled pretty much out of his rear based on the pictures and the spells included in the box. Great fun was had by the both of us, and that sort of free-wheeling story-based gaming stuck with me when I made the leap to Dungeons & Dragons, the first ACTUAL RPG I ever played.

#26 Comment By Coldbringer On October 22, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

The first game I GMed was Star Frontiers from TSR. I used the setting as much as 12 year old me was able, and was fun for all involved. At times I think about revisiting the game and setting as an adult to see if there is anything that would strioe my fancy as a GM.

#27 Comment By Silveressa On December 10, 2015 @ 3:34 am

I first GM’d Rifts in the mid 1990’s, for better or worse, I Gmed for the first time after playing in the same game ran by a munchkin power gamer GM with a grossly over powered GMNPC.

SO I naively assumed that’s how Rifts was meant to be played, with insanely over powered characters and enemies, and most sessions being a running string of ongoing gun/magic & melee battles that often culminated int he surrounding part of the world turned into a smoking ruin and the group looking for somewhere new to go “save from evil.”

It took me several years later and playing in other GM’s games (Namely Were Wolf and Vampire) to realize the importance of characterization, interaction sessions and NPC’s that weren’t just enemies to be shot/stabbed/eaten.