Rutskarn’s GMinars CH4: Foundations

By Rutskarn
on May 21, 2016
Filed under:
Tabletop Games

Alright, you’ve borne with me through three posts of theory and explanation and art-of-GMing shenanigans. Let’s have an interlude of practicality. Let’s talk over the first three steps to getting your game set up:

First, Before Anything Else – Players

The most difficult part of running any game is getting good people to play with.

Some GMs make the mistake of only considering people who already play tabletop games, but that’s usually a bad policy; the pool of people who would want to try a game like D&D and haven’t is still much broader than the pool of people who are already playing D&D. Unless there’s a good well-populated club or organization nearby, your first instinct should be to do to what I’m theoretically doing right now–reach out to the interested and the sympathetic and convert.

It’s not just a matter of scarcity, either. Like everybody else, some gamers are just assholes, and partially because RPG players are scarce I’ve found that clubs don’t filter out jerks and creeps nearly as often as you’d think. I’ve met the love of my life and some of my best friends in the world in an RPG club, but I’ve also met a bunch of bottom-feeding cretins and borderline predators who were tolerated or even courted when available players were scarce. Especially if you’re part of absolutely any demographic that experiences harassment, I probably don’t have to tell you that randos aren’t always fun gaming partners.

Maybe it’s just my demo and location, but I’ve never had trouble persuading cool people I already knew to try RPGs. But–

Let’s just hit this head on. I’m lucky. I’ve been lucky enough to find a lot of cool people where I am–to have found myself a lot of friends over the past few years. But things haven’t always been that way. The truth is that I’ve spent a lot of my life without many friends at all, and I’m guessing some of you reading this are in the same position. So just leaving you with the advice “make your friends gamers” is a pretty crappy place to end this first section.

One suggestion is that if you can’t get or form a group in your area, try using Roll20, Mythweavers, and other websites to play online–either with text or with voice chat, depending on your preference. There’s always players looking for games, and if you’re anxious about GMing and want to try playing first, this is a good way to get some experience. I’m sure there are other good communities people can share in the comments. Heck, I use Roll20 to play with a group I met in real life, that’s in the same state as I am, just so we don’t all have to drive to one place on a Friday night.

Secondly – Chat

As the GM, it’s ultimately going to be your responsibility to decide what kind of game you’re going to play. It should probably be something you’re really excited about. It should also be something your players are excited about.

You’re probably not going to get anywhere asking your group, “What do you want to play?” If they’re new, they’re not even going to have the context to consider that question. If they’re not new, the reason they’re letting you GM is probably that they don’t want to worry about setting or system–they want you to figure that stuff out so they can just show up and play the game. Only once in all my gaming experience has somebody ever requested a system or setting of a GM, and it was me, and it was Seventh Sea, and I’m very sorry, Kamen.

If your players already have experience, just ask what systems and characters and setting they’ve liked before. If they don’t have experience, my earlier pointer about favorite TV shows and videogames and movies stands. I find another question useful: how much do your players like figuring out fiddly, complicated problems? A player who will spend hours and download a host of semi-legit programs to get their new tablet set up just right is more inclined to like a system with a lot of options, like Pathfinder, while a player who closes the same ten startup programs every time might like a bigger-picture game that requires less paperwork, like FATE. Of course, which kind of person you are can be equally important.

Thirdly – Pregame

This is a trifle obvious, and in fact it’s the only advice I offer that I know is standard, but here it is: before you run the game, read the rulebook. If you’re playing Dungeons and Dragons, you might think your first step as a burgeoning Dungeon Master is to read the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Nope! Almost all the rules you’ll ever need are in the Player’s Handbook, and if you’re only going to read one book it’s always going to be that one. Confusing? Yup. Here’s the classic structure of an RPG’s rulebook(s):

  • Big section (or entire book) explaining the rules for making a character, using that character to do things, and making that character stronger and better over time.
  • Section (or entire book) helping GMs figure out how difficult the things that characters do are. Plus, as much miscellaneous GMing advice as the beleaguered and overworked writers felt the inclination to provide.
  • Section (or entire books) full of charts and tables of stuff the GM can stick into the game, like magic items or spaceships or monsters or whatever.

Try to read the first two sections cover-to-cover, but don’t try hard. If something’s confusing, bookmark it and move on. Your goal isn’t to understand everything, it’s to understand some of everything and most of the basics–and especially, especially stuff the players will need to know. Reading and re-reading the omnipresent Example of Play sections is also crucial if you’ve never played before, but don’t take them too seriously. They suggest how a game should be run and played, but you and your group might settle into a different style and that’s okay.

NEXT TIME: The fun stuff begins.


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From the Archives:

  1. Alexander The 1st says:

    With regards to reading the Player’s Handbook for the GM’s Handbook…would you say then to skip the GM’s Handbook and just read a specific campaign book if you’re trying to get the tables and related details?

    If that’s the case, it almost sounds like the only reason to get the GM Handbook is for the Point Buy character setups that are specifically glossed over the in the Player’s Handbook… (At least, this is based on 4E PHB’s I have.)

    • Majikkani_Hand says:

      That depends somewhat on the system. For instance, in 3.5 and 2nd edition, the DMG has all the stuff like treasure tables and magic item descriptions that you probably do want, at least as the campaign progresses. It also usually has some (okay) DM advice. For 4th, though–I only played 4th once and it was with the sort of borderline-predatory group (or maybe just predatory; it was actually pretty bad) that he described above, so I noped out early and never got around to reading that DMG. No idea if the content distribution is the same or not.

      • Depending on the edition, advanced options like Prestige Classes are also in the DMG. But, yeah, the most-used part of the DMG is usually the loot tables and descriptions. Almost everything else that actually gets used in regular play is in the PHB or the Monster Manual. When I was running or playing D&D I’d generally make up note cards for descriptions of spells, items, and monsters that I was actually using just so I didn’t have to flip through the heavy book all the dang time.

        But you can 100% play D&D with just a PHB.

        • In fact, if you pick up Pathfinder, the loot tables etc. are all IN the player’s handbook. One reason I like Pathfinder quite a lot.

          • Pretty much all of the raw data for Pathfinder is available on their website, too, so you can pretty much play Pathfinder with only one book for the whole group. Technically you could even play WITHOUT a book, but I find this is difficult–getting a coherent view of gameplay from a bunch of dissociated wiki articles is really complex and time-consuming, so having at least ONE book is valuable.

            • Felblood says:

              Very yes. If you have any experience with DnD, or Pathfinder, or any other d20 game, you can play straight out of the System Reference Document wiki and get a character together faster and easier than with books.

              Conversely, if you haven’t played a d20 game, it’s probably best to grab the Player’s handbook, and maybe a DM’s guide. The wiki will always be better than a paper monster manual or loot splat-book, though.

    • Supah Ewok says:

      In D&D, the DM Book is generally a smorgasborg of extra bits that only the DM should need to know. Specific traps. Magic items. Costs of spell research. And a crap ton of advice and guidelines for running a game and running a game world. None of it is necessary, in the same way that a spice rack isn’t necessary for cooking. It just makes it a lot easier to flavor a campaign than to have to make everything from scratch.

      As for whether you need it if you have a campaign book, it depends. Does your group like to wander off the beaten path some? Do you like to mess with the “default settings” if the campaign starts feeling a little dry? How good is the writing for the campaign book? Are you gonna have to patch over typos, missing tables, rebalance encounters?

      As with so many other roleplaying questions, the answer is the almighty “Maybe” because “it all depends on your situation.”

      I will leave one caveat though: more recent editions of D&D require the DM Guide less when playing with a campaign book. Back in the day a campaign book might ask you to roll on loot table C9 in the DMG to see what pops out of your orcish piñata; nowadays it’s much more likely that a loot table will either be included or specific items will drop in scripted encounters.

    • TMC_Sherpa says:

      There’s a lot of useful stuff in the DMG but you probably don’t need to know most of it for the first session. If you want to play 4th Ed (For the record, I really liked 4th at launch) see if you can find a copy of the Rules Compendium, the index is actually useful and it’ll have most of the stuff you need.
      In a pinch there are only two things you need to know about 4th.
      One: For combats the recommendation is one monster of about the same level as the group per player. You can pull one and add 4 minions.
      Two: For a normal task, if you roll a 10 or higher it works. It doesn’t matter what level you are or what you’re doing. By the time you need to roll a 25 to succeed you’ll probably be able to add +15 (give or take) to your roll. I mean, that’s the basic conceit in 4th. If you want it to be harder make ’em roll a 13.

      I don’t want to get into an edition war but let me say that 4th edition was fine. Putting the character creator behind a paywall? That was stupid.

    • Joshua says:

      Actually, for being such a “gameish” type system, the 4E DMG had a lot of good DMing advice and campaign building ideas. It actually received some criticism when the system came out because it wasn’t as devoted to “crunch” type concepts and thus wasn’t a necessary item at the gaming table (you’d use it between sessions for ideas on preparing your next session).

      The 5E book is a little more necessary at the table due to once again having the treasure/magic item lists, but also has some wonderful tables in there for generating random NPCs/Towns on the fly, dungeons, and even adventures. In addition to going in depth about cosmologies and different campaign settings, it also has the usual DM advice. My only real complaint is that it is *very* skimpy on traps.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      I played AD&D for maybe 7 years with a couple of friends and family, and all we ever had was the players’ handbook. At some point somebody got the monster compendium, just to get some inspiration for different opponents. One character used some photocopied add-on rules from some role playing club in the area.

      I never knew that there was much beyond that, and I certainly never missed it.

  2. If you’re looking for somewhere to meet players and form groups, I can’t recommend enough. It’s basically a huge resource for people to create their own campaign sites. You can create your own wiki, forums, maps, characters, items . . . basically anything that you’d want to reference in play, you can put on this site. I’ve played in several campaigns using it, and it is a GEM, particularly for groups that play online in some way.

    You don’t have to do anything elaborate with it–it’s all up to you–but I tell you the difference it makes with having your players be able to remember what happens between sessions and their overall investment in the game is HUGE.

  3. Cuthalion says:

    One other supplemental piece of advice on players:

    Expect one player to drop. No way of really knowing which one, but one of them will. It’s like a law or something. If you need at least X players, make sure you invite until you have X+1 confirmed. You’ll probably end up with X players by the end of the third session. Life happens, and people inevitably overestimate how much free time they have. :)

    • Felblood says:

      –and you may have certain players who drop in and out, especially if you want to play every week.

      Trying to balance encounters ahead of time can be a challenge in these cases, so I’ve developed a best practices checklist for these situations:

      1.Avoid encounters with a single large foe, unless this is an important NPC, like a the dragon at the end of a quest of a crooked vizer, or something.

      1a: When you must have a single target encounter, try to make the most powerful attacks something that hits multiple targets for moderate damage, rather than something that can waste a single character. If fewer players show up for the boss fight, losing a single man in the first round can lead to a very ugly TPK.

      1b: When building normal encounters, try to center them around a small group of interesting monsters, and then a group of simple monsters that can support them. For example the players might encounter an orcish squad led by a Barbarian and a Cleric, who have spells and special abilities. The rest of the orcs would be generic Warriors of whatever level will make them actually influential. That way you can make a note to just have the leaders, plus 3 Warriors for every player that shows up.

      2. If you’re running a campaign where the emotional heft comes from characters reacting to things they encounter, make sure that multiple characters have something to react to every week. There’s nothing like having Alice absent for the session where the party finds the corpse of her homeland’s ruler, and not having anything for the other players to say about it. You can’t really salvage Alice’s big moment, but at least Bob and Charlie should have something to talk about.

      3. Time and Tide wait for no man. Don’t try to pad out a session to delay plot developments or major rewards, in the hopes that the player will be back next time. Make this session more exciting to keep the players you have left engaged.

      4. Once somebody starts missing sessions, start looking for their replacement.

      • 5. Expect the holidays to completely bork up your schedule for WEEKS. In fact, it’s probably best to just stop playing between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Even if you can get everyone together, they’ll probably be cranky and distracted.

      • Also trying to bring in new players mid campaign (unless you know them VERY well and have gamed with them before) is usually a NIGHTMARE.

        • Peter H. Coffin says:

          But having that one player you DO know well who is willing to show up and be a player-run
          “NPC” is REALLY handy. That means you can do stuff like escort quests with cooperative but (probably) unknowing Dave MacGuffins, or an irregular cast of specialists so your regular gang doesn’t HAVE to have a ranger/hunter type or a cryptography expert “on staff” all the time.

          • I usually run NPC’s pretty well (it helps that my group plays online, so there’s less of that “talking to myself” vibe about it, since it’s all text), but you can have some really fun gaming experiences with another player who’s willing to coordinate stuff with the GM behind the scenes.

            It’s not for everybody, but personally I don’t see any value in having the players be ignorant of everything in the game, and my favorite GM’s don’t run on this premise either–they’ll have story interludes where we read about what the bad guys are doing behind the scenes, stuff like that. It’s easier to get clever ideas out of people if you put some information IN first.

    • Joshua says:

      Well, the unfortunate thing I’ve noticed is that the more people you get in your group to offset people missing a session, the more likely people will miss a session. Either due to not being as invested in the game with the larger group, and/or because they have the mentality that it’s not a big deal if they miss a game.

      • Viktor says:

        Also, raw math. If you’ve got 3 people in your game and each has a 1 in 9 chance of missing a given week, you’re missing a player about every 3 weeks, plus the occasional cancelled session because no one can make it. Same odds per player, but with six players, and suddenly you’re missing at least one every other week.

  4. Rack says:

    Personally I’ve found a good campaign book to be worth its weight in gold when GMing, while the DMG is worth its weight in pig-iron orc helmets. Yor mileage may vary though.

  5. Malimar says:

    I play about half of my D&D around a table and the other half on the Giant in the Playground forums. They’ve got some bizarre axioms, hangups, and fixations on that forum, but by and large they’re good people.

  6. Sleeping Dragon says:

    I was really lucky far as inclusive player groups go. I sort of semi-outed myself to my first RP group (which were also the first people I outed myself to that I did not know very well) at character creation and we ended up in a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation where my character was gay but we never mentioned if I was. It was still a great experience to play as a gay character especially since the GM took it and ran with it, possibly because it was something of a novel quality and/or because I quickly realized that doing some comic relief was very much my thing. My next RP group I met through an anime club/forums centered around sexual minorities and and while that specific community is long gone all my RP groups since, whether as player or GM, have been various offshoots or combinations of the people I met at that time, their friends, friends of friends… so issues of harassment or real jerks didn’t really come up (not that there haven’t been conflicts due to differing playstyles).

  7. Nick says:

    Given many new players will start roleplaying as university students, I think it’s worth noting the 2/3rds rule – Scheduling conflicts will lead you to miss or run minus a person 2/3rds of the time (or worse). It’ll just happen, so try to be flexible on the plot if you need to fit it in before the end of the academic year

  8. Munkki says:

    … Yeah. Of all the posts Rutskarn’s made, I agree with this one the most. I was planning a campaign until pretty recently when I realised there was no longer any overlap between people I currently know who:

    1. would want to play a campaign with me, and
    2. I would want to play a campaign with.

    Which happens. People grow, move on, end up in different places than they were.

    I was going to write a longer comment and talk about bad gaming groups but that got awful very quickly so I’ll just say ‘Yes I also agree with this’ and leave it there. It’s good advice. Bad gaming group is not worth your time or effort.

  9. Trix2000 says:

    I got lucky within the past year when a good friend of mine returned to the area and apparently had already been roleplaying with some other people for a while. So I got to hop into the fun as well without too much trouble.

    I’ve been working on a campaign of my own on the side for fun which I’m actually thinking of running sometime. I’ve been deliberately keeping things vague and open-ended, mostly because I want it to be a more player-oriented experience – where the PCs are the ones deciding where they go and what sorts of adventures they have, with me filling in the gaps and subtly throwing in potential story bits they could latch onto (which I’d then elaborate on as needed).

    I’m hoping it’ll work well, but I’ve still got a fair bit of pre-work to do. Mostly that involves finishing touches on worldbuilding, as while the story and such is going to be open-ended I really want to define much of the world itself so it feels more alive. Mostly that involves coming up with lists of races/places/etc to semi-randomly generate stuff from when needed.

  10. Gnoll Queen says:

    I like this series so far it’ very useful for me as i am 5 sessions into my my first game i’m DMing. Its going…. Swell i guess. I do need (Ok more like want) more people. i’m playing a Princess: the Hopeful, Chronicles of darkness (That’s the renamed 2e New world of Darkness game fyi) game with two players who i have known for a year or two. One is the person who has GMed every single multiple session games (And a few one off games) i have ever played in. I always feel awkward asking him about things.

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