In response to a question posed in the comments here:
My first step was to soak up the rulebooks. They aren’t designed to be read cover-to-cover, but I read quite a bit of the core rulebooks this way, particularly the combat sections and the stuff that covers running a game session. I only had about three weeks to prepare, and the last thing I wanted was for every battle to be a series of research projects where we dug through the books and trying to figure out what should happen next.
The other thing I did during those three weeks was design the setting. I just made up the game world from whole cloth. (I stuck my players on a single island with about eight towns, which limited the scope of the gameworld nicely.) This was a lot to accomplish in three weeks: To learn the D&D 3.5 game system from the beginning and design a game world, but I didn’t see the point in using a pre-designed setting, since that would just be one more thing I’d have to learn. For me, it’s easier to contrive new settings myself than it is to memorize the settings crafted by someone else. This is my favorite aspect of running a game, and I’m eager to do it again. Making up stories is fun.
Then before I started the game I held a sort of test run. We got together and held a short battle, sans plot, just to see if there was anything I was missing and to make sure we were all on the same page when it came to how the game was to be run. The test run went smoothly, and the next time we got together we started playing the campaign.
Note that I don’t suggest you try this if you plan to play with experienced players. I was a newbie DM, but my players only had a few sessions under their belts, so when I diverted from the rules they didn’t notice or get bent out of shape. It was a very relaxed campaign between friends, and so I didn’t have the pressure of trying to please a bunch of veteran strangers. The other thing I had going for me was that my players were a great bunch of guys who were all on the same page about what sort of game we were playing. All of them were happy with a deep story, low magic, moderate combat type game where the focus was on roleplaying and not stat-building. I’ve since learned that getting that large of a group to agree on this sort of thing is a rare and wonderful thing.
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