How to DM D&D or Pathfinder

Run your favourite RPG

gaming tip gm rpg 5e pathfinder starfinder dnd

Are you thinking about playing D&D or Pathfinder or some other roleplaying game (RPG) like Starfinder, Call of Cthulhu, or similar? Of course you need players, and one player designated as the person (usually called the "Dungeon Master" or the "game master") to "play" the game world itself. The best way to make an RPG game happen is to volunteer to be the game master yourself.

Playing as the Game Master may seem complex and intimidating at first, but it's easier than you might think. My favourite way to get a new RPG player started as Game Master is to play a simple one-rule system.

However, at some point you're going to graduate to published material, because there are a lot of fun game systems out there to try. Here's how to run an official RPG, for the first time in your life, in three easy steps.

1. Get the rules

Unlike a board game, a tabletop RPG is usually just a set of rules. Go buy the rulebook or rulebooks for the system you want to play. What book you need varies on the game.

  • For official D&D, you need at least one copy of the Player's Handbook and a Monster Manual.
  • For Pathfinder, you need at least one copy of the Core Rulebook and a Bestiary.
  • For Starfinder, you need at least one copy of the Core Rulebook and an Alien Archive.
  • For Call of Cthulhu, you need at least the Keeper's Rulebook.
  • For Warhammer Wrath & Glory, you need at least the Core Rulebook.

The list goes on, and each game requires a little research to understand what's required to play.

Official D&D, Pathfinder, Starfinder, and Call of Cthulhu each have starter kits that provide simplified rules, pre-built characters, dice, and basically everything you need to play up to a certain level. When you get bored, with the simplified rules, you'll know it's definitely time to invest more time and money on more game books.

Reading rules

As with board games, you must read the rules before playing. If you chose a game with lots of rules, then this process can take days or weeks. But all you have to do is read the rules. You don't need to memorise them. Just get a feel for the system, with a special focus on what kind of dice roll indicates success and what kind of dice roll indicates failure. In D&D and Pathfinder, for instance, rolling a 1 generally means failure and rolling a 20 generally means success.


By this point, you have:

  • Rules that you have read
  • An understanding of the game's main dice mechanic (what indicates success or failure)

Time for the next step.

2. Buy an adventure

Games with big rule systems usually also offer adventures. In a board game analogy, the adventures are the board and the rulebooks you bought are the game. In a video game analogy, the rulebook is the code and the adventure is the level design.

Read the adventure from cover to cover to familiarize yourself with what's in store for the players. Personally, I take notes, using each location as a heading and then listing significant objects that the adventure's author expects players to interact with. This ensures I have quick access to what's important when I run the adventure.

For instance, here's an example entry from my notes for Threshold of Knowledge, an introductory Pathfinder adventure:

A1. Teacher Ot's Office

  • Read description

  • Flash beetles

  • Footprints into the hall to A2.

  • Search: DC 14 Perception

    • Under desk: Wooden rabbit mask with violently torn string
    • Critical: Scrap of paper with rune
    • DC 15 Arcana or Nature: Rune is conjuration
    • Critical: Rune teleports large masses of water

That's a lot simpler than what's written in the adventure:

...a DC 14 Perception check to search the room. On a success, a hero locates a small wooden mask beneath the desk. This is a student’s mask shaped like a rabbit, and its cord has been torn, suggesting it was pulled off during the attack. A critical success also turns up a small sheet of paper among the debris. The paper is marked with a strange rune and several notes analyzing various aspects of the rune. A character who succeeds at a DC 15 Arcana or Nature check determines that the rune is related to conjuration magic, and the analysis on the notes is actually incorrect and led to false conclusions. A critical success determines that the rune is related to the teleportation of large masses of water. Whether or not the heroes find any of the above evidence, they do discover a set of damp footprints that lead out of the office and into the hall. The footprints have yet to dry up and the heroes can follow them with ease to the reshelving room on this floor.

Do this for each location, noting important dice tests required by the adventure.

As you play, add to your notes based on important things the player characters do. For instance, if a player character takes a framed portrait from a foyer, then you might make note of it so that when your players return to the foyer later, you remember that one portrait is no longer there. For example:

  1. Entrance
    • Doors to Area 1B
    • Shield with family crest
    • Portraits of nobles (player took one)
    • Double doors to Area 2A

3. Roll some dice

Gather some friends, tell them you've never run an RPG before but you've decided to try it. Help them create characters, or give them a pre-built character if your game system provides those.

I have a few posts and videos on creating characters quickly. These are obviously limited to specific game systems, the general advice is universal: Create characters quickly (in a quarter of an hour) so everyone can start playing promptly. There's nothing less fun than being invited over to play a board game, and then spending 2 hours filling out tax forms instead.

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 of their actions, based on either common sense or on the roll of a die.

This is a loop, so just cycle through these steps until the players get from the start of the adventure to the end, or perish while trying.

You're a game master!

In my opinion, playing a written adventure is an advanced, or at least an intermediate, game master activity. However, publish adventures do have their advantages. They tell great stories, and new ones are being published every day. You can easily replace TV and movies with RPG adventures, and you'll get just as much (probably more) enjoyment out of them, whether you play them all or just read most and play a handful.

Whether you use a published RPG system and adventure as your first RPG experience, or you use a simple system you make up as you go, focus on being a player in the game. Contrary to common misconception, the game master is just another player, no different from the Betrayer in Betrayal at House on the Hill or any other game where physical players each have unique roles. The success of an RPG is a group effort, so focus on having fun with friends, and you'll learn what you need as you play.

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