How do I Run a Tabletop RPG?

This post is about a fun and scary nerdy rite of passage: running a tabletop RPG for the first time. It’s scary and rewarding. How do you do it? Brian’s here to take us through the process!

2014-02-22 21.19.39At the risk of making asses out of umptions, I’m going to assume a couple of things if you’re reading this article.

Assumption 1: You’re familiar enough with roleplaying games to want to run one. Probably you’ve at least played one, though maybe you haven’t.

Assumption 2: Actually, yeah, the first assumption kind of takes care of it. I guess I’m only making one assumption.

Not An Assumption: Because I won’t assume that you know all the lingo, here’s the lingo I’ll be using this article. An RPG is a roleplaying game. An RPG has players, and usually has a GM (game master, game moderator, referee, storyteller, or other, similar term); that’s the person who runs the game. That’s who you’re going to be.

Running a tabletop RPG for the first time can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be. There are ways you can mitigate the stress involved, and it’s one of those things that gets easier and more natural the more you do it. And here’s a secret: it’s super fun.

I enjoy playing a specific role in an RPG; I enjoy inhabiting that role and figuring out what makes that character tick. I enjoy pushing him or her, finding the point at which dramatic stuff starts to happen.

But what I like even more is helping that happen for other people, and that’s what being a GM is all about. There are really two things you have to overcome if you’re going to run a game for the first time: the prep work and the fear.

The Prep Work

Different RPGs require different levels of prep work in order to facilitate smooth play at the table. A game like Pathfinder is going to require a larger amount of prep, as you plan encounters, stat up monsters and other characters, figure out what kinds of treasure you want in the adventure, and so forth. A game like Apocalypse World, on the other hand, requires relatively little prep work; you make your characters, talk a bit about what you’re going to be doing, and then you start.

Prep work is important for a first-time GM. It’s good to have material to fall back on when things don’t go the way you expected, and it’s good to have an idea of how you want to respond to your players when they make decisions. More important than that, though, prep work helps you get in the right frame of mind to run the game.

When you prepare for a game, you force yourself to think about it, to run through possibilities, to immerse yourself in the world. A trick I like to use is to play out important scenes that I think might happen in my head. I imagine the dialog, the action, the setting, the way the characters move. Then I go back and I imagine it going a different way. It helps me run through possibilities and learn to adapt to changing situations, but it also helps me get enthusiastic and excited about the game.

You want to be careful not to over-prepare. I’ve done that in the past. I remember one time, prepping for a session of D&D: I statted out every encounter that was going to happen in the upcoming session, planned every room, placed every monster. Then, in the first encounter, my players made a decision that took them in a completely different direction. It happens.

Prepping too much can foster rigidity of thought when it comes to your game. You want to be prepared, but you also want to be flexible and adaptable, and you don’t want to be frustrated by spending hours preparing material that nobody will ever see now.

The Fear

Running an RPG for the first time is scary. Maybe it’s scary in a good way, maybe it’s just plain scary, but either way there’s a hurdle you have to jump over to do it that first time.

You can mitigate this somewhat by playing with friends you feel comfortable with, people who will support you and work with you and engage with your game in good faith.

Even if you’re still scared, here’s the thing to remember: it gets easier. I don’t just mean that it gets easier the next time you run a game (though that’s also true), I mean that it’s probably going to start getting easier partway through the current game. You’re going to be nervous at first but, somewhere into the game, you’re going to forget how nervous you are and just start having fun.

And that’s what it comes down to: GMing a game is fun. It can be demanding and it can be pressure, but it’s also rewarding as hell to run a game and look at a table full of smiling faces and people high-fiving each other and talking about that awesome thing that happened when you overhear them a week later.

That’s why I do it.

Brian Engard is a game designer and marketing dude who lives in Texas, but don’t let that fool you because he’s really an okay guy. He designs Fate stuff, mouths off about games and diversity and feminism online, and is hopelessly addicted to Storium. Please send help.


2 thoughts on “How do I Run a Tabletop RPG?

  1. Pingback: Friday I'm In Love | Gamerwife

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