RPGs have exploded in the last few years. What was once the peak of obscure nerd-dom has started to come into common knowledge, what with the likes of Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, and approximately one in five people you know having tried D&D.
Tabletop RPGs, for those of you unaware, are half games and half a collaborative storytelling exercise. From the famous Dungeons & Dragons and Fate systems, to the almost gameplay-free Trollbabes, RPGs almost always have the same system: players, who each create and control a character, and a Game Master, the GM: the one who runs the plot, plays NPCs, rolls the dice and knows the rules.
Of course, if you want to give RPGs a try, and you’ve got at least two or three other people willing to try it with you, the onus is on you to run the game for your players. GMing for the first time, for a game you might not know, for some people who’ve never done it before? It’s easy to get daunted. But worry not: you don’t need to be a rules genius and master creative to start GMing (although you’ll get there eventually if you keep it up!).
Whether you’re toying with the idea or trying to improve, here’s some advice to carry you through.
Know the rules (but only enough to pretend you know them)
Some RPGs have rules for 200 pages. If you’re running a game you’ve never played before, you can feel the pressure to have the whole thing memorised. Don’t! You only need enough of an understanding to do what you’re planning and make up a solution when something throws you. You’re adapting the system to your game, not the other way round. It’s okay to simplify things, skip things, and make up solutions. Just be consistent, make a bit of sense, and be clear with the players on what you’re up to. As long as you’re playing some kind of semi-functional game, you can still enjoy yourselves.
Meet your players where they are
If your players are first-timers who’ve never even played a video game, don’t give them the most difficult, strategic, optimal-build war campaign you can think of. If your party has decided to call themselves the “dick squad” and want go out carousing, stealing and buying kebabs every night, you may need to adjust the tone of your Lord of the Rings style epic story. It’s your job to figure out what your players want from the game and do your best to incorporate it. If they don’t enjoy rules, don’t focus on them. If they like alternate answers and pacifist solutions, make them work. GM a game you think they’ll appreciate the most, and don’t waste your creative energy on ones they won’t: it’s more fun for everybody.
Expect the unexpected
This item appears on pretty much every article written about GMing since the dawn of time, but it still stands true today. Your players will come up with solutions, theories, and generally think of things you didn’t. They’ll ignore your plot hooks, destroy your puzzles, kill your NPCs and seduce your villains. Go with it, and get ready to think on your feet and improvise. You can never plan for every eventuality- the beauty of the medium is that anything can happen!
You’re not the enemy
People who have heard of RPGs but never tried them often seem to think of the GM as the bringer of death and scorn upon their players, but this simply isn’t the case. The GM is the storyteller, not the Grim Reaper. At the end of the day you’re there to make sure your players have a good time. Remember: the players have invested just as much time in their characters as you have in the world and story at large. Killing off characters occasionally can create a powerful and meaningful story, but killing off characters left and right to punish your players for not playing wisely enough is poor sport.
Give your players a sense of agency
Though it’s your job to make sure that your players are interested in the plot you’ve created, you need to make sure that they have as big a role in shaping the events of the story as you do. You may overawe your players by pushing them down a linear story you’ve created, but they won’t feel the same sense of achievement as they would if they had helped to shape the world they’re investing themselves into. Give them important choices, roll with it when they do something unexpected, and let them decide where the plot goes next.
Don’t worry about originality
You’re not under any pressure to make it a flawless, original, groundbreaking piece of fiction. That’s not to say don’t do your best, but you’re not writing a novel or designing an AAA game! You don’t have to be a creative genius to run an RPG. Steal ideas, make bad maps, base the NPCs on your lecturers, and don’t be afraid to do the first thing you think of. Nobody’s going to mind if you base your idea on a movie, a book, or another campaign, as long as you don’t pretend you didn’t! Don’t worry you haven’t written a story since you got a C1 in your leaving cert: playing even the most basic stories as RPGs is fun and your players will get into it, even if you’re not getting a book deal any time soon.
The rule of cool
The dice are not the be all, end all of the RPG. If somebody did something astoundingly clever, original, meaningful or just plain damn cool, don’t be afraid to fudge your dice rolls for the sake of story. If you’re really rooting for something to work, guess what? You’re God. Your city now.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably getting a flavour of the overall message- relax, don’t railroad, and focus on your players. As with any creative advice, take it with a pinch of salt. But if you’re going to take away anything, take this last bullet:
Talk to your players
Talk, talk, talk. You can’t read minds. Ask your players what you’re doing well, what to improve on, what they like, and what they want. You’ll find that sessions you thought were terrible were really fun for them, or plot twists you thought were obvious flew right over their heads. Listen to your players and take their advice, not this advice!
So, what are you waiting for? If you’re feeling ready to start running your own games, don’t hesitate. Not sure where to start? Pick up the rulebook and a pre-made adventure to start, like the D&D starter set. (Or look for a PDF of it on reddit). Where to go? Book at a table at the Tabletop café, drop in to the WARPS society some time, or enlist your friend with the quietest kitchen table. Starting is the hardest step: you can be sure it’ll be easier and not as scary as you think. Good luck, safe travels, and happy GMing!