I felt the best way to start hurling my opinions at you through your router would be to cover the basics for aspiring tellers of fantastical stories, enablers of fun and creators of content. This will be a three-part series detailing the process of starting a game, and why you should be very excited to! It will be split into “The Crunch” – the more mechanical aspects, including game choice, tone and preparation – “The Fluff” – The more story-focused aspects including starting a larger plot arc, how to handle errors, and general story advice – and finally “The Sublime” – Tips on how to tie everything together into one big, impressive whole and look like you totally meant to do it all along.
I know of quite a few people who have said to me “I really want to get into roleplaying, but nobody I know who’s interested wants to GM”! My response has always been “Why don’t you want to?”
The answer is almost invariably because they think it’s too difficult, or they wouldn’t be any good at it. Sometimes, it’s just that being the man in charge doesn’t appeal to them, and that’s okay – Some people just honestly prefer playing the game to running it. If you’re one of these people, stick to what you like! GMs love awesome players!
If, however, you would like to try and GM, but think you’d be bad and thus don’t try to avoid the embarrassment, listen close and harken to my words of questionable wisdom as I share with you my first few techniques for starting down the road to becoming an awesome GM. The following assumes you already have a few interested friends (3-4 at most, for a beginner).
Step One: Choose Your Game!
The most important thing to an aspiring GM is to choose a game you’re comfortable with. This can mean a lot of things – Either a game you’re very familiar with, one you can think of a lot of ideas for, or one that you and your friends really, really want to play. Dungeons and Dragons, or “D&D”, is a very common game to start off with due to its familiar, well known, Tolkien-esque setting. It’s elves and dwarves, swords and sorcery, good vs evil, and everyone knows what to generally expect.
Another game that’s often picked up first is White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” line, with most people opting to start with “Vampire: The Requiem”, possibly due to the resurgence of vampires in popular culture. These are a little more story-focused than D&D, with the focus being on politics, social interaction and darker stories. Combat is generally discouraged, but does happen on occasion – Just not on the multiple-fights-per-session level of D&D.
I’ve played and run both of the above games, and they’re pretty solid – they’re well known for a reason! Whatever you choose, however, make sure it fits the style of game that you want to run. Speaking of which…
Step 2: Tone
This is very important, and something you need player buy-in for. Essentially, you all need to agree to play the same game – And I’m not talking about making sure someone doesn’t bring a 5th level Dwarven Cleric of Pelor to your Vampire Camarilla meeting. Essentially, I mean preventing exchanges like this:
GM: The lich-lord rises from behind his alchemical table, arcane smoke billowing about his robed body, and smiles a sickening grin as he notices you breaking down the door to his inner sanctum. “You’re too late, you heroic fools”, he sneers, his voice like nails on a chalkboard. “The ritual is complete, and with it, I have more than enough power to…”
Sir Pwnage of Win: I drop my trousers and take a dump on his desk!
Celevin Sen’Viren The Third: God damnit, Barry.
GM: …Just roll initiative.
See what I mean? Now, despite my portrayal of the noble Sir Pwnage, I don’t think he’s playing it “wrong”. He just has a different style to the rest of the group. Wacky fantasy hi-jinks is a perfectly valid (and entertaining) playstyle – But not when the rest of the group is here for a more serious, dramatic story. Conversely, a serious player would be equally grating for a group playing a more comedy-oriented game.
Step 3: Preparation!
So, you’ve decided that you’re going to play a dark, edgy game of Vampire and everyone’s down with that – All’s good, right? Sorry, but you’re not done yet!
Your players have their own work to do – Namely, making their character – and you should take this time to prepare your stuff as best you can. What exactly to prepare is a matter of personal preference, but there are a number of things that are pretty much mandatory.
Firstly, you’ll need an idea of what might happen in the first session! You don’t need to worry about a wider plot at the moment, especially if you’re all new. I like to think of the first session as a “Taster” session. It’s a time for everyone to make sure they enjoy the characters they’ve made, and get a feel for what this game’s going to be like. This is where you set the tone. Personally, I’d recommend a few simple encounters and scenarios to allow the players to test their character’s abilities, and get a good idea of what they can accomplish. For example, in my first D&D game, the players fought wolves after tracking them to their den.
If anyone doesn’t like the character they’ve made, which happens, they can always make another – The overarching story hasn’t started yet, no harm, no foul.
Speaking of characters, you should be prepared to have players ask you a lot of questions about character creation, especially if you’re all new. Always be prepared to sit down with them and help them through character creation if they need you to – you’ll both end up much happier with the end result!
Depending on the game, you may need to prepare battle maps for planned encounters. These can be as simple as lines on graph paper, or as complex as you want, up to and including 5-dimensional hypercubes if you can find a way to represent that to your players and have it make sense! I’ll talk more about encounter maps later, but for now there’s some great online resources to help you make maps without having to go through a forest-worth of graph paper every session. Both Maptool and Roll20 are free, powerful tools that will allow you to whip up a functional encounter map in minutes!
That’s all for this post – Tomorrow, I’ll talk about how to get your story started, and why you shouldn’t be afraid of writing plot arcs!