How to DM

Run your favourite RPG

gaming tip gm rpg 5e pathfinder starfinder dnd

Are you thinking about playing D&D or some other roleplaying game (RPG) like Pathfinder, Starfinder, Call of Cthulhu, or similar? You might be confused by all the trappings of such a game. For instance, there's a special important-sounding title for one of the players, like "Game Master" or "Dungeon Master". Depending on what you've read online, you might think that this "special" player is supposed to know all the rules, craft their own fantasy world, invent complex stories, and guide other players through an experience that'll change their lives. I promise you, that's misinformation. Playing a tabletop RPG is basically like playing a board game, I can prove it, and it shouldn't cause you any more anxiety or confusion than getting together with friends for a friendly chat over coffee.

Here's how to run an RPG, for the first time in your life, in three easy steps.

1. Build the board

Grab a napkin or scrap of paper and draw five shapes on it. This is the "board" of the board game part of your RPG. Each shape represents a room, like in Clue (or Cluedo).

Connect the rooms with lines. These are hallways.

You've designed what's colloquially called a "dungeon", but it doesn't have to be a literal dungeon. You can imagine it's a space station, if you want to play a science fiction game. It imagine it's a castle, or a haunted house, or a school for witches, or a creepy hospital, or an office building overrun by zombies.

As game master, you get to decide on the setting, so think of a setting that appeals to you, and jot that down on your "dungeon" map.

While you're thinking about your setting, populate it with some interesting things. For instance, maybe it's got some antique furniture, or high tech control panels, or medieval torture devices. Maybe there are evil space marines roaming the halls, or scientists at work, or androids, or ghosts, zombies, or skeletons.

Be sure to populate the first room with useful gear so player characters starting the game can grab a sword or laser gun, or whatever would be appropriate in your setting, on their way in.

It's admittedly a little strange to have to create your own board for your game. After all, when you buy Monopoly, it comes with a board. For many game masters, creating the board is part of the fun, but sharing is also part of the fun, and lots of people have shared their dungeons online. You can download a $0 one-page dungeon and use it in future games.

2. Establish a rule

The dirty secret of tabletop roleplaying games is that they're all basically the same. The main game mechanic is rolling dice, and declaring success or failure based on what you rolled. Everything else is decorative.

For your first game, you can play with exactly that one rule. You have to come up with the parameters, though. I suggest this:

  • If you roll a 5 or 6 on a 6-sided die, then you succeed.

Use that rule for everything. When a player wants to force open a locked door, the player rolls a 6-sided die (d6) and succeeds on a roll of 5 or 6. When a player attacks a zombie, the player rolls a d6 and succeeds on a 5 or 6, dealing 1 point of damage.

How many hits does it take to kill a zombie? You decide.

How many hits does it take for a zombie to kill a player? Well, your game only has one rule, so when a player is hit, the player rolls a d6 and survives on a roll of 5 or 6.

Should a player character die, you could allow another player to attempt to revive them. You know the rule.

Should a player character die and fail to be revived, then the player invents a new character and joins the game at full health, just like in a video game.

This is the way of the RPG. You don't worry about rules, you make rulings.

3. Gather friends and play

Gather some friends, tell them you've never run an RPG game before but you've decided to try it. Tell them to invent a character for the setting you've prepared. The process of inventing a character is exactly one step: Give your character a name.

Now start playing:

  1. Tell the players where their characters are, and what they see around them.
  2. Listen to the players when they tell you what they want to do.
  3. Tell the players the outcome, based on either common sense or on the roll of a d6, of their actions.

This is a loop, so just cycle through these steps until the players get from room 1 to room 5. With 5 rooms, you can reasonably aim for a 2 hour game. It's OK if it's shorter, though.

The map is the board, and this is the roleplay part of the roleplaying game. Players must interpret the game world as if it were real. What'll happen if they mix those two magical liquids together? Nobody actually knows because magic's not real, but in the game world we pretend like it is, and we take precautions as if there were real consequences to our actions. As the game master, you roleplay by treating the world as a simulation. In real life, you don't have to declare when gravity is in effect and when it's not, because it's just always on. In the game world, though, it's up to you, as game master, when effects take place. And the other characters on the board (the ones the players aren't playing) must act and react as if they had goals and motivations of their own. There's a lot of roleplay here, and none of it involves dressing up, speaking with a different voice, or putting on funny accents, I promise.

You're a game master!


Can it really be so easy? It really is this easy. I've started people out with this system several times, and it always results in a fun time.

Have your doubts? Let's talk.

But what about the story?

You don't need a story. The story develops as you play.

If you really want a story in your game, have it happening around the player characters. For instance, maybe the player characters hear through the walls some people discussing an imminent ritual to cast an evil spell over the land. Well, the player characters may want to stop that from happening, or they may not care. It's not your place to tell the other players what to think of world events. It's your job to set up the game board (which you've done) and make rulings.

As you play, a story will form around the player's actions. It might be a straightforward story of a group of adventurers who run through the dungeon, killing monsters and grabbing treasure. It might be a comical story of a group of adventurers who accidentally push each other into pit traps while trying to persuade a mindless zombie to give them that golden ring lodged on one of its exposed ribs. Or maybe it'll be about adventurers who overhear a plot to destroy a nearby town, and heroically foil the plan.

Whatever the story ends up being, it's a lot of fun watching it unfold.

But I really wanted to play official D&D out of the book

You can do that, but I have a [different set of suggestions]() for that.

I'm of the opinion that it's wiser to start with an overtly simple system (like the one I've described in this post) rather than with a relatively complex system like D&D. Starting out with a game that literally has ONE rule means you get to experience and learn the rhythm and flow of running an RPG while focusing on playing and having fun. You can run D&D or some other system next time, once you're comfortable with talking to a group of players and keeping a game running from start to finish within an allotted amount of time.

Some of the best tabletop RPG experiences I've had have been with $0 games, like Dungeon Raiders and Dungeon Delvers. They also have the advantage of being really simple systems, so there aren't many rules to learn.

One rule seems pretty basic

My one-rule system helps you understand how a rules are built, and why they both do and don't matter.

Rules don't matter because you can obviously play a very fun RPG with just one rule. You can get through at least a 2 hour game by making on-the-spot rulings only as needed. And in a pinch, nearly anything can be decided by a die roll.

Rules are significant because, no matter what, they start to accumulate on their own. In your game, a player will do something unexpected, like buckle a sleeping giant's bootstraps together. When the giant awakens, it trips over its own feet, and falls prone. Your players suggest to you that they ought to have a better chance of hitting the giant, because it's lying more or less helpless on the ground. So you decide that rolls of a 4, 5, or 6 are successful in this instance.

Later, one of the players slips on an oil slick trap and falls prone just as a reanimated skeleton attacks. That player is prone. Just like the giant. It only makes sense that the same rule that applied to the giant also applies to the player, so the skeleton hits on a 4 or better.

And when another player strips the chain mail off the skeleton and wears it, you realise that there should be some way to reflect that the player is now in armor. You decide that enemies hit your player only on a roll of 6, not 5. Or maybe you decide that rolls of 5 damage the armor, and only rolls of 6 damage the player. How much damage can armor take? You decide.

Rules provide consistency. It's often easier to go to the trouble of learning rules when you understand their purpose. So spend some time with a simple rule, reap what you sow, and then graduate to something that's already figured out the details for you. But just as you didn't know the extent of your own rules until they actually came up in a game, you don't need to learn every D&D rule all at once. You can learn it as you play, with your friends.

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