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17 Steps to GMing a New RPG for the First Time

Posted By Martin Ralya On May 29, 2008 @ 12:50 am In GMing Advice | 8 Comments

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

  • 1. Create a place to take notes. I prefer to create a new Google Document; you might like to use your tiny notebook instead. Wherever you feel most comfortable jotting down game ideas, make sure it’s handy.
  • 2. Skim the book. Before you read it in earnest, skim the whole rulebook to get a feel for the game. If something jumps out at you, stop and read that part before moving on.
  • 3. Read that puppy. Read the book from cover to cover. There will probably be a few sections you can skip — for example, reading the description of every gun in the equipment section the first time around probably isn’t necessary.
  • 4. Take notes as you read. Any time I read something and think, “Man, that’s cool!” I add it to my idea file. If you need notes to keep track of complicated sections of the rules, that’s fine too.
  • 5. Anything confusing? If any element of the game makes you scratch your head, read that part again until you’re comfortable with it. If it’s still confusing or seems likely to bog you down during play, you can go online for help, rewrite it in a simplified form or even create a game aid to streamline it. (I’ve also heard that running a sample combat can be helpful.)

Second Base

  • 6. Mistakes will be made. Mention to your group that since the game is new to everyone, you expect mistakes to happen — and you’ll make your share of them. Let them know that as long as everyone has fun, you’re not too worried about mistakes.
  • 7. Summarize the game. Starting with the big stuff like genre and theme, give your players a brief introduction to the game. If you haven’t settled on what kind of game you’re going to run with this system, now is the time to do that.
  • 8. Discuss character types. In broad terms, talk about what kinds of characters are available. Don’t start creating them just yet, though — the goal in this step is to give your players ideas.
  • 9. Go over a few specific rules. Don’t try to cover the whole book, or even a fraction of it, but do cover: the core dice mechanics, how the PCs do stuff (skills, etc.) and how combat works. Demonstrate the core dice mechanic with a couple of sample rolls, and mention anything unusual about the system (“Negative numbers are good, not bad”).
  • 10. Group character creation. I think group character creation is absolutely essential for a new game. Not only does it give everyone a chance to flip through the book (your copy, or better yet multiple copies) and ask questions, but it also helps to make sure that no one creates an un-fun or otherwise inappropriate PC.
  • 11. Know what the PCs can do. Once you have a party, look over the PCs and make sure you understand the rules related to their abilities. You can afford to be fuzzier on other stuff than you can here — this stuff is guaranteed to come up.

Third Base

  • 12. Examine the sample adventure closely. Not every RPG comes with a starter adventure, but many do. If it works for your game, by all means run it — that’s a great way to get an introduction to the system. If it doesn’t fit your game, look at how it addresses combat and other rules-intensive elements of the system.
  • 13. Create a simple first session. I try to design my first sessions like my favorite convention scenarios: I give my players a good feeling for what the campaign will be about while showcasing various elements of the rules, and I keep it short (the first time around, most things will take longer than you think). Include at least one battle and one spotlight moment for each PC. I also reference page numbers in the rulebook for combat, skill checks, etc. right in my adventure notes.

Mmm, Home Plate

  • 14. Remember: It doesn’t have to be perfect, just fun. Don’t psych yourself out — plan to run a fun game and don’t worry too much about what could go wrong. Stuff will go wrong, and more than likely you’ll all have fun anyway.
  • 15. Run it! First and foremost, have a good time. The first time anything comes up involving the rules, slow the game down long enough to go through it step by step and get it right. You may only need to do that once per element, but most likely you’ll need to do it a couple of times.
  • 16. Retcon recent actions only. This is a two-parter. If one of your players wants to change their mind about an action because they didn’t understand what they were getting into, retcon it: Just rewind time and play it out again. But if you realize partway into the session that someone made a major mistake an hour ago, press on and make a note of what to do differently next time.

The Post-Game Cigarette

  • 17. Brush up on trouble spots. After your (hopefully fun!) first session, take note of aspects of the rules that you or your players had trouble with, and see what you can do to smooth things out for next time.

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. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




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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