Dungeons and Dragons is the most iconic RPG, it’s the most often played game according to data published by Roll20, and it’s safe to say that there’s no shortage of people willing to run it.
Though if you dare to stray beyond D&D, you’re likely to find that there’s not many people wanting to run other games, either because being a player seems more entertaining, or they’d prefer to be a player in a game before running it.
I’m basically saying that knowing how to run games besides D&D is a fairly valuable skill in the table-top gaming community. So, with that in mind, I have prepared this little list of advice that will make learning how to run a new game much easier.
1) You Don’t Need To Know Everything
The bad news when you’re trying to learn a new game is this: most games have rulebooks that are several hundred pages long. The good news, though, is that most likely you don’t need to know everything.
Usually, just having a passing familiarity with the setting is all you need to run a new game, since there’s always some manner of mundane characters, creatures, and places for the initial few scenes. Keeping the setting mundane at the start will give you (and the players!) time to adjust while everybody is getting the rules down.
Let’s use Exalted 3rd edition as an example. The first few chapters of this book is setting information. While this may be interesting stuff, it’s not entirely necessary to run the game. Knowing the difference between an Abyssal, a Solar, and a Dragon-Blooded might help later on when you’re setting up antagonists.
What’s MORE important, though, is knowing how characters mechanically interact with one another.
2) Learn The Basic Conflict Resolution
The beauty of modern games is that they usually have one or two specific rules that are the core of everything else in the game. For Dungeons and Dragons, it’s roll of a d20 added to your modifiers. For Exalted, you form your dicepool based on your relevant attributes and abilities, roll all the dice, and count up successes for each that are 7, 8, 9, or 10, with 10 counting as two.
This god-send of game design makes everything MUCH easier, since instead of poring over the rulebook in the middle of play to find one particular sub-system for something, you can just make something up for the time being so you can move the game along.
Going back once again to Exalted, which has a fairly robust set of social mechanics, let’s say you skipped learning those since you know your players are more interested in combat encounters. However, one of them unexpected gets the idea to try to scare off some bandits harassing the local villagers instead of immediately coming to blows.
Well, since we already know the dicepools are formed with an Attribute and an Ability, we can have the player roll for his Charisma + Presence, and improvise something based on how many successes come up.
Which brings us to the next important set of information...
3) Learn Character Creation
You can’t really do much in an RPG without having a character, and if you’re the GM, it definitely pays to know what all characters can do out of the starting gate. So for that reason, character creation is another vital thing to learn when getting into a new game.
Often times, learning character creation is a good springboard into other parts of the game, and gives you hints for what other things you can expect to find through the rest of the book.
In Exalted, character creation follows the steps of picking attributes, then abilities, both of which are somewhat self-explanatory. Picking Charms comes next, which based on the name alone doesn’t say much. A quick look at the table of contents, though, reveals an ENTIRE CHAPTER dedicated to this facet of the game!
At around 200 or so pages, Charms make up about a third of the book! There’s no way we can memorize all this, so we’ll just have to accept that we’ll be referring to this section quite a bit.
Which means you should...
4) Familiarize Yourself With The Book’s Layout
I said earlier that you don’t need to know everything. I’d now like to introduce an important caveat to that statement: you don’t need to know everything IMMEDIATELY. To that end, you should at least know how to find it.
Know what sort of chapters are in the rulebook, or at least if there’s a table of contents and an index. Indices have helped me find numerous rules I’ve otherwise ignored since most of my players initially never needed to use them. And tables of contents were a great help in .pdfs that I couldn’t as easily flip through.
I don’t know what the sub-systems for leading armies and sailing ships are in Exalted, but I know what chapter they’d be in, and I know that particular chapter’s page is listed in the table of contents. And should I refer to it enough times, I’ll likely end up memorizing what page that chapter starts on.
5) Just Do It!
It’s good to read and research and generally be prepared, but the most practical way to crystalize something in your memory is to apply that knowledge.
Waiting until you feel prepared enough before running a new game usually leads to what I like to refer to as “preparation paralysis.” You want to wait till you’re prepared, but as you prepare, you find more things to need to be prepared for, and thus the cycle continues on.
But with the above steps, knowing the layout of the book, knowing what a basic character has, and knowing the basics of the game’s conflict management, you’re plenty prepared.
Get a scenario together, and make it happen.
You got this.
Aaron der Schaedel is a Game Master of many different games that hides out somewhere around The Rocky Top and The Dark and Bloody Ground. He also has a YouTube channel he’s named after himself, where he explains the ins and outs of various different games, just in case you need some more specific advice.
PICTURE CREDIT: From the Exalted 3rd edition Core Book, pulled from this site: http://mraaktagon.com/yes-but-you-didnt-the-failed-redesign-of-stunts-in-exalted-3rd-edition
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.