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How To Get Started GMing a Tabletop RPG

So, you and your gaming group have begun conversations about getting a role-playing campaign going. With a quick constitution check, you decide to take on the role of Dungeon Master (DM) if you are playing Dungeons & Dragons, or Game Master (GM) if you are playing any of the other fantastic tabletop role playing games (TTRPGs) available. Great! Now what do you do? After factoring in your wisdom modifier, read the following for a few tips and helpful basics.

The Equipment

The first thing most new GMs ask is, “What equipment do I need?” There certainly are a dragon’s hoard of options, but really you only need a handful of things to get started. First, you will need the core books relative to the system you’re playing. For the D&D 5e system, that would be The Dungeon Master’s Guide, The Player’s Handbook and The Monster Manual. While many mainstream TTRPGs have starter kits, most will find these rather limiting. Also, if your players are experienced, they have probably already been through the short campaign it contains (especially in the case of the D&D Starter Kit).

Don’t let what’s on the table limit what you and your players experience.

Another essential item is a place to keep your notes. Some GMs keep a spiral notebook while others that are more tech savvy will use laptops or tablets. Personally, I prefer my laptop as I can quickly access the information I need. The notes you take are to help you keep up with where your players have been and are going. You may also want to note information concerning non-player characters (NPCs) they meet along the way. From personal experience it can be quite embarrassing to have an NPC suddenly switch names or genders from one section to the next.

You will need a way for you and your players to track where they are during dungeon crawls and during combat. This can be done quite simply using graph paper and a handful of pencils with good erasers. If you have the money to spend, you can upgrade to model environments and mini-figures. Personally, I like to use a vinyl mat with a grid, wet erase markers, and some pawns I took out of old games I had around the house. Players can bring their own mini-figures to represent their characters. Consider your budget and what you are comfortable investing. Most TTRPGs are games of imagination. Don’t let what’s on the table limit what you and your players experience.


You may also want to consider purchasing a campaign module. These are pre-made stories and worlds that you can lead your players through. I could write a whole separate article on the merits of homebrewing a campaign versus using a module, but the best advice is to go with what you are comfortable with. If you are comfortable with creating a world and a campaign for your characters, do so. If not, then there are several options out there for most mainstream systems.

Preparation

First, make sure your are quite familiar with your chosen system’s core books. That doesn’t mean you need to memorize the number of 6th level spells a paladin has when he reaches level 15, but you should know where and in which book that information can be found. Pausing the game for a moment to refer to resources is fine. However, stopping it altogether for 20 minutes while you search through each book is not only going to frustrate your players but also lead to a bad experience.

Next, know your story. Have a good hook that will draw the players in and motivate them to make choices that will lead them to the adventure you have planned. Encourage your players to write rich backstories that you can use to create that motivation. If your players are struggling with creating a backstory, there are multiple resources online and elsewhere that can help. You should also know where your story will end. The players should be free to make their own choices along the way, but there needs to be a clear direction that the story is going. If you are using a module, much of this will be laid out. If you are homebrewing, you will need to make sure you have this planned.

The players should be free to make their own choices along the way, but there needs to be a clear direction that the story is going.

Finally, know the world. Know the names of cities, the location within them, and the people who occupy them. Your players will want to explore. After all, this is a game of adventure and imagination. If you are playing with a module, take the time to familiarize yourself with the maps, the locations on them, and the notes concerning the characters. It’s a good idea to use some Post-it flags to bookmark the descriptions and have them ready to read. If you are homebrewing, take the time to create maps and populate them with interesting characters and locations. In the case of D&D 5e, The Dungeon Master’s Guide is a great resource for this.

Managing the Players

One of the most common questions I hear from people considering GMing is, “How do I handle a rules lawyer/murder hobo/glory hog?” or whatever other type of problem the player has encountered. The simple answer is communication. Before you ever start the game ask your players what they expect of you and tell them what it is you expect of them. Agree that if you or a player is not meeting that expectation, it will be communicated to that person clearly and strategy will evolve to change the behavior. For instance, if a player is making all the decisions and not letting others participate, come up with a signal word that lets the offending player know to back off and let the other player(s) give input.


Also, use the tools in the system you’re playing. The inspiration feature in D&D 5e allows the DM to award players extra dice rolls as a motivator and can be easily adopted into other systems. When a player makes an epic decision that adds tremendously to the fun of the story, award inspiration. When a timid player decides to use a character voice for the first time, award inspiration. When a player says an impossibly awesome one-liner, award inspiration. I have a special set of metal dice just for this purpose.

Finally, model the behavior you expect from your players. If you want your player’s to use character voices, then you should be using character voices. If you want a game full of whimsy, then craft a whimsical setting with whimsical characters. If you want them to take the game more seriously, then be serious.

Make Memories

A great way to make the game memorable is to have good catch phrases. Almost every D&D player can’t help but get chill bumps when their DM says, “Roll for initiative.” My players get even more excited when I ask, “What do you want this to look like?” They know this means the monster they were fighting has finally run out of hit points and I am letting the last player to deal damage to it call the shot and explain exactly how epic they want it to look. I also typically follow that up with, “And what cool thing did you say when you did that?” Memory made.

If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right.

One of the things my players comment on the most are the things I craft for them in the game. I add special little touches to the game using my talents. I draw maps to the treasure for the NPCs to hand them in the game and my players keep them to remember the fun they had. I use my computer and printer to write letters in Elven fonts to give the players. My players have taken this to heart and now the bard (who is actually a pretty talented musician in real life) creates parodies of popular songs to actually sing when his character is giving inspiration. Which the other players have started recording on their phones as the parodies are always written to include moments that were special concerning their individual characters in-game. You may not be into drawing maps or writing parodies, but you might make some amazing cookies that your players can get from the bake shop they visit in a town they are passing through. The hard part will be keeping them a surprise until the right moment.

The most important thing to remember as a GM is that TTRPGs are games. If you’re not having fun, you’re not doing it right. If you find that your gaming group is not having fun, there’s always the next play session to create the experience you need to make it so.





Ric is a middle school writing teacher with a doctorate in e-learning. He enjoys playing RPGs and is the DM on the actual play podcast “Have Fun Storming the Castle”. He lives in Middle Tennessee with his amazing wife and three boys.

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