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[#] GM Startup Guide
04:42pm EDT - 6/10/2009
This is intended as a guide for startup GM's, for the people running their first game(or second, after the first one imploded dramatically and they want to do THIS one right...).

Step One: What do you want to play? (AKA Picking a setting and system)

Now, a lot of people say that system is relatively irrelevant, that it all depends on the GM and his players. But it does matter, systems impart an atmosphere on the game, and depending on what the system already has rules for, it changes what the GM will have to make up from scratch, use personal judgement on or have prepared tables for. What follows is a short list of systems and why they might be, or might not be, a good thing for a GM to start with.

2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Pros: With low amounts of character customization your players are unlikely to be able to dick you over with min/maxing. Rules for pretty much everything that matters, but not so many to memorize that you will drown in them. A reasonable supply of pre-made modules, settings, creatures and items.
Cons: For the inexperienced GM it might be hard to know which of the optional rules(2nd ed even has rules for getting lost while out for a walk) to scrap, and which to keep. It might also be difficult to determine whether an encounter is Death or a reasonable fight.

3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons
Pros: Simple system that's easy for both players and GM to learn. A relatively decent amount of options. Reasonable supply of pre-made modules, settings, creatures and items.
Cons: A system that's practically legendary for the min/maxing shit your players can get up to, new GM's might have a hard time properly judging whether someone is fucking them over or not.

4th edition Dungeons & Dragons(Thank you, Tim)
Pros: Simplicity and good balance that the GM doesn't need to heavily monitor. Lots of good advice on running a game in the books. Probably one of the easiest systems to get people into roleplaying with.
Cons: It's easy to get too caught up in miniatures and grids, and forget that this is a cooperative story, and not just a game. Also, at the points where the system DOESN'T make it easy, it's not difficult to drop off because you've forgotten how to eyeball things right.

White Wolf's World of Darkness games(Vampire, Mage, Werewolf, etc.)
Pros: It carries some systemic roleplaying aids, like rolls for fear, anger, etc. which might help new players a tad. Aside from a bit of fluff to memorize(for instance, about the VAMPYRE CLANZ) most of the world is our world, which lessens how many details the GM has to constantly keep track of.
Cons: Not a particularly well-built system, especially for combat(though the nWoD, new World of Darkness, rules improve on this some), might be difficult to manage for those new to it. Occasionally attracts the sort of people who take the game way, way, way too seriously.

White Wolf's Exalted
Pros: None for beginning players and GM's
Cons: Same system issues as the World of Darkness stuff, combined with overpowering mountains of fluff to memorize and absurd levels of possible min/maxing.

Paranoia(any edition)
Pros: Very loose system, little to memorize. Fun and light-hearted setting that is unlikely to result in hurt feelings or powergaming(is that even possible in Paranoia?).
Cons: Loose system means a lot of judgement calls which might be difficult for a beginning GM, The Computer and Alpha Complex have a specific sort of mood that it might take some practice to emulate.

All Flesh Must Be Eaten
Pros: Simple system. Our world, so little fluff needs to be learned. Pre-made adventure seeds/settings by the shit-ton.
Cons: Relatively lethal system, it only takes a couple of poor judgements from the GM to get the party killed, especially if they do something stupid. It's also surprisingly easy to make a nigh-undefeatable combat monster if you don't mind being unable to do anything else(which could be difficult for the GM to deal with).

BESM 3rd edition(Big Eyes, Small Mouth)
Pros: Simple system, works for lots of settings and just about anything you can make up. If you decide to go the obvious route and emulate your favourite anime, this system easily lets you fit in plot, characters, powers, etc.
Cons: Very, very, VERY easy to break, even by accident. You might not want to play this unless you have an experienced BESM player/GM standing by to vet player character sheets and enemies for broken-ness.

Star Wars Saga Edition
Pros: Good for Star Wars. Simplified version of 3rd edition D&D, so simple system.
Cons: Can't really do anything OTHER than Star Wars and somewhat inflexible for character concepts.

Fading Suns
Pros: Simple system with enough complexity to satisfy most people. Can be used for just about any sort of sci-fi, from gritty post-apoc stuff to shiny Star Trek-like space opera.
Cons: Poorly laid out book, has a few sneaky routes that lets people make somewhat broken characters from the get-go, but they practically require you to hunt for them.

Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay
Pros: Random character generation lets anyone make a character even if they have trouble coming up with one.
Cons: Random character generation can leave people with someone that they have no idea how to play, especially if they're new to roleplaying. System is very lethal and rather unforgiving. Players will NOT feel like epic heroes.

Dark Heresy
Pros: Like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but you have guns. Fate Points give new players a chance to save their bacon if you, or they, screw up.
Cons: Like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, but you have guns. Has some min/maxing issues.

Unknown Armies
Pros: Let's players make up their own skills, giving them more freedom to fit a concept.
Cons: Requires more GM adjudication than most other systems, completely ridiculous magic system.

Step Two: JUST AS PLANNED (AKA, Planning your game)

If you post on /tg/ you probably see more than a few GM's who state that they basically make shit up as they go along, and that they have awesome games. This is very true, they do have that. But they've been GM'ing for fucking years, you're new to this, if you try that route you're going to screw up.

What you need to do, is plan.

Think up a plot outline, not necessarily more than a session or two ahead, but always know what you believe is going to happen in THIS session. Where are the players headed? What will they encounter on the way? Who will they meet? What will they find? What challenges will there be?

You don't need to write all of this down, some keywords might be enough.

Always prepare a few mental descriptions of places, so you don't just end up going: "You step into a town. It's warm." If at any point they have any sort of obvious choice: "Go left or right, the right path is decorated with skulls." Then sketch out a little flow-chart of where each decision might lead them. They might not adhere to it perfectly, but it's better than being caught off guard because you never expected that the players might be curious about that skull-filled pit full of Doomslugs.

Plan out a few encounters, even if you don't end up using them all, you might be able to use them later. And rather have them than end up just having the players spend an entire session walking while you describe the local flora and fauna.

Any monstrous encounters will need stats, seriously. Work these out ahead of time so you don't just end up rolling dice and going: "Uh, you kill him! You miss!" based entirely on whim. Sometimes encounters do need that sort of GM adjudication, but remember: You're new to this gig, so don't be too sure you can pull it off. Grab some pre-made creatures from the local Monstrous Manual or its equivalent, if you must.

Same for any challenges, decide what needs to be rolled to, say, break open a door or leap across a chasm. The difficulty of a lock, how well-hidden a trap or ambush is. Preparing rewards is also a good idea, it's actually far easier to make up encounters, challenges and enemies on the spot than it is to make up an interesting reward.

However, when planning, don't plan TOO far ahead. Players are generally highly unpredictable creatures and you may end up having to discard stuff if you move too far ahead. Attempts to keep a hold of this stuff can lead to railroading and annoyed players, having to dump it can lead to an annoyed GM. It leads to badness all around, don't do it if you can avoid it.

Step Three: Your Players

Your players are your best friends and your worst enemies. They're what make or break the game. Most often they'll break it, whether intentionally or not, but you can avert disaster to some extent. One thing you will definitely need to remember to do, no matter the system, is to look over everyone's character sheet before the game starts. Make sure that no one has anything that's wrong, broken or somewhat fishy on there. Compare sheets, too, make sure that no one is ridiculously much stronger than the rest. If there IS someone like that, and he's mature, ask him to tone it down a bit. If he's not mature, give everyone else a few buffs, either in-game or just let them start with a few extra things that you discuss with them behind closed doors.

It also helps to identify troublemakers before they actually start making any trouble. Any players that really itch to play Evil(in games that have such alignments) or seem more interested in their characters' stats than personality(somewhat acceptable if it's their first time playing, but still) tend to be warning signs.

If you're of a paranoid bent, consider googling your players' characters' names. It wouldn't be the first time that someone made a character based on their favourite anime character or some such. Not necessarily a Sure Sign Of Suck, but it could indicate that maybe he needs to attempt a bit of creative thought rather than ripping someone else off.

When it's your first time off, whatever game you're dealing with, you're probably best off sticking with whatever the basic book is for character creation. Don't let them use the HELLSLAYER class from DOOM COMPENDIUM 5: SPIKY COCKS IN THE GM'S RECTUM. Just stick with the basics until you, and all your players, know how the game goes. Until you have a better sense of judgement about what's overpowered and what isn't.

For discouraging min/maxing, especially with new players, the best way is to sit down with the players and make the character with them. I find that people are less likely to spend an hour hunting down the most broken combo when their GM is helping them out. Ask them for a concept, then suggest a class, maybe a race, etc. lay out how you think they could accomplish that concept. Now that they've said they're going for a certain concept, you can say things like: "Hmmm, I don't know, I don't think HELLKILLER is a fitting ability for a nurse, do you?" And thereby nudge them away from broken stuff without seeming like a total jackass.

Of course to do this, it tends to be vital that you read the rules before you present them to your players. Not only does it mean you can catch them doing anything that breaks the rules, it also means you know what things are completely broken and can answer any legitimate question they might have.

And finally, when dealing with players... never be afraid to tell someone to fuck off. If someone is ruining the game for everyone else, he or she should not be in the damn game. Obviously you should talk with them first, try to hack it out, see if you can't tell them they're being disruptive or problematic. But if they keep being annoying, if they keep ruining everyone's fun. Never, ever hestitate to boot them the fuck out.

Step Four: Running the Game

Once you're actually running the game, you've got an entirely new set of challenges. Your players will likely be testing their boundaries, seeing what they can get away with and trying to get into more than just a little trouble, especially if they're new to the game. It's entirely possible that they're completely ignoring your well-placed plot hook and deciding to bung off to get drunk and rob a bank.

This might tempt you to have the city's guards capture them and threaten to behead them unless they go on the adventure as you planned. But stop for a moment and wonder: Will that make them go along with it or will that just make them rebel?

Your players are generally like playful children, easily distracted by rewards and shiny things. Just dangle the promise of treasure, fair maidens and/or vast amounts of alcohol under their noses and you can easily lead them off to where you want them to go. Maybe that hobo they kicked to death had a treasure map, maybe some other group robbed the bank vault just ahead of them and their trail leads off to that old mine in the woods that the wizard in the bar wanted them to investigate...

When you force players to go somewhere, they cry and scream RAILROADING, when you tempt them to go somewhere, they feel brilliant because they made their own choice about whether to go there or not.

Sometimes, however, your players really will go off the tracks. Maybe they're jackasses, maybe you just misunderstood what they wanted/what would tempt them into going where you wanted them to go. But the long of the short is: They are now completely off the track and you're left making shit up as you go along. Now, you can either roll with it and try to make the best of it, or you can deploy some stalling tactics to buy some time to plan.

Depending on your players, the following may or may not work as stalling tactics.

Tactic #1: Shopping. Drop them in a shopping district somewhere, have them come across a gypsy camp or maybe a small town. Whatever the case, describe the stalls as well as you can as bulging with fascinating objects and rarities. Maybe point out that their rations are running low or that one of them just discovered his gun was broken. Give them a reason to shop.

Tactic #2: The Dilemma. Give them some sort of situation that will make force them to think for a while about what to do. For instance, a mysterious fountain in the forest with a few corpses near it, but the inscription on the fountain says it grants awesome stuff. Could be poison, could be magic... what should they do? You get the idea.

Tactic #3: Interior Decorators. Somehow give your players a home. Small fort, cottage, five acres of empty land, whatever. Have it be a reward, a random piece of treasure, maybe they find a portal to it and discover no one else is there. First they'll want to explore the, no-doubt-empty, place and see what it's like. Next, they'll want to decide what to do with it. Some groups could easily spend a few hours debating how to outfit the troops they're going to hire for their fort, or what to build on their acres of land. This one could lead to some future troubles if your players are wily, but if you're smart it could also be a nice source of quest hooks.

Tactic #4: It's a trap! Your players are trapped somewhere, and there's no obvious way out! Let them try stuff, drop them some cryptic clues... but don't tell them there's no way out. At some point or another, when you're ready for the next bit, let one of their attempts succeed. "Yes, you're correct. The floors and walls are real, but the CEILING is an Illusion. You grappling hook goes through the illusory surface and latches on to something solid..."

Another thing to avoid when running a game is GMPC's. I know, you have a totally brilliant idea for a BDASS character. Maybe it's someone you wish you could play, maybe you just think he'd be great in the story. But don't end up treating him like your own PC. Making him stronger than the player characters is a bad idea, you should not reach out to shield him if they try to hurt him or use him as bait or some such, and he definitely should never lead them. A character that hands out missions is fine, less so if he makes decisions for the players. If the players feel outshined and lead-around by some annoying NPC, then they're going to get pissed off and listless. And instead of listening to the plot, they're going to start planning ways to kill your NPC where you can't save him without looking like a giant asshole.

The simplest way to avoid GMPC's is just not to have any PC's accompany the players. If it's your first time running the game, you could probably do without the extra bookkeeping in fights and such, anyway.


I am an awesome GM


02:23am UTC - 6/19/2009 [X]
Cool article bro. I've been having a problem with my first campaign recently and this has actually helped me out quite a bit with the issues I've been having.

10:57am UTC - 8/14/2009 [X]
Great read. I'd like to hear your thoughts on the pros and cons of GURPS in the context of this article.

3 Mr Moo
01:28pm UTC - 8/30/2009 [X]
Cool story bro. No, seriously as someone just about to start running a game this has been extremely helpful.

4 Bob Smith
02:56pm UTC - 9/22/2009 [X]
This is a seriously good article, thanks for writing it!

I'm preparing my first campaign at the moment, and it's pretty daunting.

5 Prison restraint, town.
07:24pm UTC - 10/28/2009 [X]
Liked the article, hope /crskkk/ is treating you well.

6 Admiral F. Marrable
03:14pm UTC - 11/10/2009 [X]
Very helpful for newbies. Stuff like this is what we need if the /tg/ lifestyle to those with little experience, these sorts of guides will be pivotal. Not a newbie myself, but I have a couple of inexperienced friends looking to play with me, and this will be very useful.

Thanks for taking your time to do this!

7 Edmund Von Grood
01:02am UTC - 12/31/2009 [X]
The NEW World of Darkness is rather easy to pick up and play. If I'm playing IRL or with new people, I print up some cards quite like the Charm Cards for Exalted, listing their super/preternatural abilities.

11:06am UTC - 5/20/2010 [X]
thanks for this!

9 Flaser
09:14am UTC - 1/25/2011 [X]
Nice article, I wonder though what your advide would be on genres other then heroic fantasy/sci-fi? You did dip into these with Paranoia, BESM and the other "lite" systems.

Things like cyberpunk (CP2020, Shadowrun, Blue Planet, etc.), horror (Call of Cthulhu, KULT, SLA Industries) or the more narrative focused FATE systems (SoC, SBA, Diaspora).


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