For the last few weeks the ITB offices have been downing tools and spending one night a week immersed in a fantasy world of adventure and peril. Once a week the team (as well as our friend Paul from Apauling Games) get together for a game of D&D, where I act as DM (dungeon master). 

For many players, tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs) like D&D offer a unique chance to immerse yourself in a fully interactive story, in the way that no other tabletop game (or any other media for that matter) can. Tabletop RPGs are an accessible and fun way to exist in another world as heroes, villains, or simply ordinary people and are hugely popular in the board gaming world.

Aside from a few rare exceptions most RPGs use a codified set of rules and mechanics known as a ‘system’. This system usually requires a games master to make decisions, tell the story and carry out actions in accordance to the system rules – making GMs arguably the most important ‘player’ in the game.

Becoming a GM can be a big commitment, especially if you intend to run a regular game of something like D&D. But the reward is huge. Existing in a strange place between player and rulebook, the GM role is not only fun, but can be an incredible education on game design and world building too. Creating and running the world around your players is hugely rewarding, but can sometimes be a little daunting.

The following tips are advice from my own experience as a GM to make it easier for first time players to run their own games.

Build your world first

A lot of RPG systems (D&D, Achtung Cthulu!, the Lord Of The Rings RPG, etc.) have ready-made worlds and settings for players to build their games in. Many of these are hugely in-depth worlds, with information on every possible aspect being available to GMs. If you don’t want to endure the time-sink that is world building then these pre-made world is a solid approach.

World building is hugely important for ensuring your game is as immersive and engaging as possible. If you are going for a custom storyline, or just don’t fancy any of the pre-made settings available, then creating the world your adventure exists in should be a priority. World building is such a big thing that next week I’ll be doing an in-depth post on it – keep an eye out on the ITB blog!

Avoid railroading 

Railroading, as the term might suggest, is any form of storytelling where players are encouraged, or forced, to follow a single linear storyline with no room for making alternative decisions and actions. Railroading has its place, and in small parts when you need to tell specific story points it is acceptable. But, in general, the more open a story is the more immersive it is for players.

Building a world in which players are free to travel to different locations, or carry out their mission in a non-linear fashion is great for this. At the same time, building missions (/adventures/questions/dungeons) with multiple possible approaches can help give the sense that anything is possible. For most players there is nothing worse than feeling that they are just sitting by as you narrate a pre-determined story to them.

Use pre-made resources 

For every RPG system out there there are dozens, sometimes hundreds, of fan-made resources for your campaigns. For D&D especially, fans have created entire websites and forums filled with characters, enemies, items, spells and world building tools for game masters to utilise. If you have an idea for your adventure that you can’t find in the standard rulebooks then a quick online search may reveal something by another GM that fits the bill. And, of course, if you can’t find it and decide to make it yourself remember to share it with the online community!

Use battles sparingly

It’s an easy rookie error to fill your missions with perilous battles and dangerous enemy encounters. The idea of an adventure filled with deadly action straight from the moves is incredibly appealing, but in most RPGs the reality of these battles boils down to dice rolls and number crunching. Battles are one of the fiddliest parts of any RPG, and can take up a lot of game time. Although they are still a solid part of any adventure they can sometimes drag down the pace of a story, something which is frustrating for some players, especially those new to tabletop RPGs.

When designing storylines considering how battles can break up the pace of a plot, and how this can be used to your advantage. Using battles only in the natural ‘breaks’ of a storyline (the quiet points between plot points) or to bookend story points is a good approach. Alternatively, finding ways that characters can progress a story during a battle (fighting off enemies while one player attempts to complete a task, for example) helps stop the story from slowing down too much.

Tailor to your players

Some players enjoy brash violent encounters. Some enjoy intricate puzzle solving. Others are looking for an engaging mystery. In each case it should be the responsibility of the GM to try to satisfy every player’s tastes whenever possible.

Including elements of your adventure that suit each player’s play-style and character traits ensures that everyone in the team can engage and contribute. Missions that are balanced to include multiple elements such as stealth, combat, puzzles, etc. are best. At the same time introducing sub-plots or character-specific tasks is a great way to give every player a unique tailored experience. In our own D&D game I introduced a subplot in which one character is motivated to collect ancient texts, which themselves are puzzles and backstory props I created. This was a great way of including this player, who otherwise did not have a huge connection to the main story of the game.

Hopefully the people you’re playing with are friends, and so you know already a little about their tastes. If not, ask for feedback after each session on what worked well and what didn’t. Taking these adjustments into consideration, even if you wouldn’t personally design a game in that way, is one of the best ways to engage and entertain players.

Set a fixed time to play

It might seem obvious to some, but there is so much to be said for having a set time for games each week. Our first few sessions were hampered by the fact that we shifted days, trying to find the best time to satisfy everyone. If you’re running a campaign that will last several sessions then set a fixed time and make sure everyone who wants to play always makes time for that time. Don’t be afraid if a player can’t attend, to have their character run on ‘autopilot’ and then fill them in with all the important plot points later. Having one player missing isn’t usually a disaster, and it’s much better to have the rest of the team there, instead of delaying or cancelling the session.

Have an end game

One of the most frustrating problems that often occurs in RPG games is the inconsistency, or seeming randomness between sessions. Many inexperienced GMs are guilty of planning games one at a time – never fully knowing what’s going to happen next until after a session is over. Some GMs take their campaign one game at a time, never looking ahead at any sort of meta-narrative. Although this works for some, it often leads to a story that can feel muddled and inconsistent.

Instead, it’s good to spend some time in the early stages of your campaign laying the foundations for a larger, ongoing plot. Introducing sub-plots, characters or returning villains in the first few games, and then building a story that lasts over several sessions is much more engaging than the improvised approach.

The downside to arching narratives like this is that players will pre-empt the obvious plot points, predicting the way a story might move towards its inevitable conclusion. One way of addressing this issue is by introducing twists in the story, or ‘post-story’ adventures that aren’t revealed until later in your campaign. By giving players a simple task as part of their adventure, and then surprising them with unexpected elements GMs can create a story that feels organic and alive – something that is far more engaging than the linear and predictable narrative arches you might otherwise have gone for.

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