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17 Steps to GMing a New RPG for the First Time

This is the first post that’s been pulled from our Suggestion Pot. Connoisseur of stewed gnome flesh Sean A. Brady asked us to write about GMing a new RPG, and a mere six years later, here we are! (Our progress is lazy but inexorable, kind of like green slime.) Got something you want us to post about? Throw it in the pot.

With one exception, I’ve never given much thought to how I went about becoming familiar enough with a new-to-me RPG to GM it. That one exception went pretty badly, too, so I don’t know if I’m the most qualified gnome to be writing about this topic — but I’m not going to let that little roadblock stand in my way. (Heh, heh, heh.)

Is It New to Your Players?

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that the game in question is also new to all (or most) of your players, and that you not only need to learn the system, you also need to explain it to them. If it’s only new to you, there are a couple of steps you can skip.

Beautiful, Unique Snowflakes

My hunch is that like most variations on learning stuff (taking notes in class, studying for tests, etc.), the process of learning a new RPG is a personal one. I don’t think there’s a universal approach out there waiting to be unearthed, but I do have a few suggestions that should apply reasonably well to most GMs. This post is my attempt at formalizing the basic approach I take to learning a new game, but even I don’t do this stuff in this order every single time.

Like your, uh, “first time,” running a new RPG can feel a bit awkward: As the GM, you’re probably used to knowing more about what’s happening in the game than your players, and that’s often not the case when GMing a new system. In keeping with the awkward sex metaphor, let’s start with a little light kissing…

First Base

Second Base

Third Base

Mmm, Home Plate

The Post-Game Cigarette

That’s one approach to learning a new RPG — what do you do differently? Did I miss anything? Which steps suggest that I might, in fact, be smoking crack? Share your war stories in the comments.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. You can find out a bit more about him on his personal website.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "17 Steps to GMing a New RPG for the First Time"

#1 Comment By age On May 29, 2008 @ 1:26 am

Definitely Points 2, 3 and 14 stand out as most relevant in my experience
“Read it once,
then read it slow,
play together….
and have fun as you go!”

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On May 29, 2008 @ 9:27 am

I agree, and particularly like points 6 (Mistakes will be made) and 14 (Remember: It doesn’t have to be perfect, just fun). It’s hard to adjust to a new game when you’re used to having the rules down to a science in a familiar system… everything feels klunkier. But the new system might steer you in a direction you’d never approach in your familiar system– that’s a big part of why I enjoy exploring different RPGs.

#3 Comment By Martin Ralya On May 29, 2008 @ 9:48 am

@Scott: Along with going in new directions, trying new RPGs (which I also love to do) makes your mind more limber. Every system you absorb makes it a little bit easier to absorb the next one, and more open to different approaches — or at least I’ve found that to be true.

#4 Comment By BryanB On May 29, 2008 @ 11:53 am

Not only does trying a new game system open your eyes to new approaches and ideas, but it also allows you to appreciate the good ones that you already know while you are flailing around trying to grasp the new ones. :)

I think it is important to allow yourself to experience rule six on the list. Often times I have hesitated to run a new system just because I felt that I wasn’t ready enough. What does ready enough mean really?

Mistakes are going to happen. Expecting perfection from yourself on a new rules set is setting yourself up for disappointment. If you do the best you can, that is all that anyone can ask. If the players are new to a game, they might not even notice the mistake anyway. If you have read the book and understand the core mechanics, then that should be enough to get started. Part of learning a system comes from realizing that you made an error and then refreshing your system knowledge on that paricular rule so that it becomes less likely that the error will happen again.

Rule 14 and 15 are good to. Have FUN and just RUN that game already!

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#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 2, 2008 @ 8:31 pm

I’m surprised Sean himself hasn’t stopped in. Sean, if you’re reading this I’d love to know whether this post was what you had in mind, or if it was helpful to you, since you requested it. 😉

#7 Pingback By How to Start an RPG Campaign Step 1 – Want It « The Homework Never Ends On January 14, 2010 @ 10:18 am

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#8 Pingback By First-Time RPG Referee « FrozenIsles Productions On March 3, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

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