It’s okay to mess up. Everyone messes up in their first game, and the second, and the third. Don’t look at the best GM you’ve ever played with and think you have to be as good as them. You’ll get there, but you need to give yourself time. The second thing to know is that, like any creative medium, everyone’s process is different. The advice below is meant to be broadly applicable, but you may find that entirely different techniques work better for you.
Choosing Your System
Before considering anything else, look at the systems you’re already familiar with and choose from one of them. The GM doesn’t always have to be the most rules-savvy person at the table, but it’s vitally important that you understand the basics. You must have some idea how the system actually works in play. Later on, once you have more experience, you can try to run unfamiliar systems. For now, stick to what you know, no matter how shiny that book on the game store shelf might be.
With that in mind, what system you choose will have a major impact on the type of game you run. A dark and gritty system like Call of Cthulhu isn’t a good pick for your My Little Pony campaign. By the same token, a personal empowerment system like Fate will do very poorly for a horror themed campaign.
Let the kind of game you run flow from your choice of system. If Weapon of the Gods is all you know, then it’s time to run a campaign about wire-fu martial arts masters. This might seem limiting, but it’s more workable than trying to fit a system around your idea. Most systems are designed for a specific kind of game, and that’s where all of their support is focused.
If you’re fortunate enough to know a variety of systems, go with the simplest. The last thing you want to deal with is a long list of complicated rules to memorize. Games like Mouse Guard, World of Darkness, and Star Wars: Edge of the Empire are good examples. They’ll let you do what you need to do without getting in the way.
Choosing Your Setting
Whether you’re using a prepackaged setting or creating your own, there are two questions you should ask of it. First, are there interesting problems in this setting? Second, can anyone but the PCs solve them? The answers should be yes and no, respectively. These are the foundations of a roleplaying setting upon which everything else is built. If there aren’t any dramatic problems, then your PCs have nothing do. If someone else can go out and solve the problem, then your PCs aren’t the stars.
Again, you want to keep it simple whenever possible. Avoid settings that require a lot of cultural reading like Legend of the Five Rings’ Rokugan or metaphysically complicated worlds like Mage: The Ascension.
Modern settings can work, especially if your system is designed for them, but you have to handwave the police. In a realistic world, the vast majority of roleplaying adventures would get the PCs immediately arrested. That said, adventuring in the world we already live in drastically reduces the need for exposition. Traditional fantasy settings also work well for a first time GM, even if they are a little overplayed. Isolated pockets of civilization within a world overrun with supernatural monsters is an easy recipe for problems that need solving. Well-known science fiction settings like Star Wars and Firefly work too, particularly because there’s a good chance your players are already familiar with them.
If you decide to make your own setting rather than use a prepackaged one, don’t be afraid to steal ideas. You’re trying to make an interesting place for your PCs to adventure in, not win an award for most original world. George R. R. Martin probably won’t mind if you borrow his giant ice wall for your game, and you can think about adding nuance once you’ve had more experience.
Choosing Your Group
You want a certain kind of player for your first game. I’m not just talking about avoiding problem players, though you should do that too if possible. The players you want are the easygoing ones. As previously mentioned, this is your first campaign, and you will mess up. You want players who can roll with your occasional mistakes and keep going. Nothing will spoil your first game faster than a bunch of hypercritical players dissecting every inconsistency they come across.
For this reason, avoid players who are normally GMs. They can’t help but notice each of your little goofs; it’s in their nature. However, the most important kind of player to avoid are those who try to dominate the game. You know what I’m talking about. Some do it through powergaming, others through force of personality. They can be fun to play with if there’s a strong GM to keep them in check, but that’s not something you should have to worry about right now. You’re still learning the ropes, not girding up for battle.
It’s important not to simply choose a group based on who you’re better friends with in real life. Your best friend could end up being a very difficult player, especially if they think being your buddy entitles them to special treatment. Remember to be objective here and pick the people who will be most supportive at the table, not just who you enjoy hanging out with.
Unfortunately, not all of us have the luxury of choosing who we play with. Sometimes groups are small, or conflicting schedules leave you with a limited selection. If this happens, make the best of it and keep going.
Deciding Who the PCs Will Be
You never want to make the players’ characters for them, but you should give some thought to who they are and what they’ll be doing. One problem that often catches GMs by surprise is the group splintering because the PCs have little reason to work together. Because most roleplaying games still depend on the characters being in close proximity to each other, it’s important to provide some kind of framework.
In a science fiction setting, make the PCs the crew of a ship. That way they’re physically stuck together for long periods of time. If you want a more stationary campaign, make them part of a special police or military unit. In fantasy there are even more options. The PCs could all be sworn together as part of a mystical quest or even bound to each other’s destiny by a powerful sorcerer.
This may come off as a bit railroady, but it’s best to err on the side of keeping the PCs together. Of course, this doesn’t all have to come from your end. Encourage the players to build pre-existing friendships between their characters, and ask them for input on how they’re linked together. Avoid the old “a bunch of strangers meet in a tavern” opening because that’s a good way to have every PC wander off on their own.
Planning Your Story
There’s an inherent contradiction in planning stories for roleplaying games. If you don’t plan enough, you’ll be lost and unsure what to do at the table, but if you plan too much, you’re vulnerable to PC unpredictability. Trying to predict what the players are going to do is a waste of time, especially when you’re new to GMing.
Instead, plan what will happen if the PCs do nothing. I first saw this idea in Dogs in the Vineyard, and it works amazingly well. Imagine all the parties involved in your story following their own agendas, then jot down the outcome. That way you’ll have a baseline that can be modified based on whatever the PCs decide to do. You won’t have the problem of being taken unawares by their actions because you didn’t do any presupposing.
Once you’ve got that framework down, focus on relatively straightforward stories your first time out. You want a clear goal for the PCs, a “get this thing” or “stop this person.” Throwing in a few twists is great, but don’t make the story too complicated. You always want your PCs to know where they’re going, even if you have a few surprises hidden along the way.
For the same reason, avoid mystery stories in your first campaign. They can be tempting because they provide an easy conceit for slowly revealing information about the world,* but it’s too easy for the PCs to get stalled or frustrated. Your first priority is to keep the story moving; worry about more complicated stuff later.
Remember to limit the ability of non-villain NPCs. Most people know that NPCs shouldn’t be used to solve important problems in the story, but it goes a bit further than that. Few things will kill your game faster than PCs who feel that someone else could be doing their job. If the party meets up with an Elven Legion Commander, make it clear that said Commander is far too bogged down with military paperwork to go chasing after dragons or whathaveyou. If there are police in your setting, have them be corrupt or underfunded so there is still space for the PCs to be out solving problems.
Once you’ve got that down, how many NPCs should you make? There’s your villain of course, but who else is important? In general, it’s a good idea to make at least one NPC for each faction or group that will be important in your story. Those NPCs can serve as a representative of how their peers are feeling. That way the groups stay relevant to the players. It’s also a good idea to have at least one NPC relationship for each PC, just so you have an avenue to develop their character as the game goes on.
Most NPCs do not need stats. If a situation arises in-game where they need to make a roll, just jot down the relevant ability on the spot. It’s better to do a little fudging than to spend hours making stats that may never be used. What every NPC does need is characterization. For minor NPCs, a single line of motivation works fine. “I must get my pig back” or “The Asashi motorcycle gang is a menace.” Just a little something to give you an idea of how to play them. Spend a bit more time on the more important NPCs. Figure out what they really want and how they’ll go about getting it.
Finally, it’s very helpful to have an NPC to serve as your mouthpiece. That is, someone who can relay information from you to PCs in character. For example, if your party is spending a lot of time exploring the wrong dungeon, you can have your mouthpiece inform them that, “You know, good sirs, I seem to recall the Dragon being spotted over by the gorge, maybe we’d have better luck there.” This is a lot less intrusive than leaning out from behind your GM-screen and telling the players they’re on the wrong track.
The ship’s cook or knight’s squire make good candidates for the GM mouthpiece, someone who has a reason to hang out with the PCs but can’t do things for them. You can also try for a wizened old mentor, so long as they can’t solve the PCs’ problems. Don’t be tempted to make this NPC into your own personal character, because that way lies madness. The story should be about your players, not you.
Planning Encounters and Obstacles
This is arguably the most difficult part of a GMs first campaign and where it really pays to use a simple system. Figuring out the proper challenge rating for a Pathfinder combat can make your head spin, while Mouse Guard is a little basic math.
When in doubt, make things easier rather than harder. Players like winning. They will be far more forgiving of an encounter that is too easy than one that is too hard. You can run into trouble if players feel like there’s no chance of failure, but there’s a far greater margin for error. Feel free to experiment with more difficult challenges as you gain experience, but for now lean towards a softer touch.
If you’re not sure what obstacles to throw in the PC’s way, look to their character sheets for inspiration. If a player put max ranks in Rock Climbing, there’s a good chance they want to climb some rocks! It’s hard to go wrong with tailoring your encounters to the PCs strengths. By the same token, be very careful with challenges the PCs aren’t equipped to deal with. Throwing a hallway full of traps at a party without a rogue is considered quite rude. This sort of obstacle can be fun in the hands of a GM who really knows what they’re doing but isn’t good fodder for beginners.
In the same vein, you should use combat as sparingly as possible. It’s the most difficult kind of encounter to balance, and the most likely to result in damaging consequences. In most systems, losing a combat means the PCs are dead. Even if the party wins, it’s easy for one of them to kick the bucket because of a lucky critical hit. While character death isn’t universally a bad thing, you don’t want it happening willy-nilly in your first campaign. If one of your PCs dies under such ignoble circumstances, don’t be afraid to fudge the dice. Saying you rolled a 10 when you really rolled a 20 isn’t great, but it’s better than someone losing their character because you didn’t realize how much damage dragon breath does. GM screens were invented for a reason.
Does all of that sound daunting? Good, because it is. GMing is not something to be undertaken lightly. It’s like writing, except that your readers are also your co-authors and you can only ever show them your first draft. It’s also one of the most rewarding experiences out there. That moment when the players’ faces light up as they get fully invested in your story is priceless. There’ll be rough patches, but you can overcome them.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.