5 Tips for Gamemastering an RPG System for the First Time

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Inspired to try your hand at running a new roleplaying game for the New Year? Approaching an unfamiliar ruleset can be daunting, but with the right tools you can learn the mechanics more quickly and easily, making for a smoother first session when you finally have a chance to play! Here are my five tips for teaching yourself a new RPG system.

Tip #1: Equip Yourself with a Beginner Game, Starter Set, or Quickstart Product

Publishers have tried to make it easier than ever to pick up and start playing their games. Rather than starting out by reading the whole core rulebook cover to cover, you might want to check your friendly local gaming store, DriveThruRPG.com, or the publisher’s website to see whether an introductory product is available.

Beginner games and starter sets are meant to ease new players and game masters into the rules through play, which makes learning a new system fun and low-stress. Many physical beginner products come with everything you need to play the game, from dice to maps and handouts to pre-generated characters. The rulebooks are condensed, so they don’t take as long to read, and the adventures are designed to highlight the essential aspects of the rules.

So-called “quickstarts” tend to be PDFs or small booklets that serve a similar purpose, although you might need to add your own dice or print/photocopy your own character sheets. You might also look for digital downloads of Free RPG Day offerings from past years, which typically contain quickstart versions of the rules along with a short adventure.

Tip #2: Don’t Worry About Every Single Rule

Usually, RPG systems have core rules as well as advanced or optional rules. Your priority when running a brand-new game is to identify what these core rules are and how they function. Generally speaking, there are three types of checks that can handle most situations in roleplaying games: Basic skill checks pit a PC against the environment. Opposed or competitive skill checks pit a PC against an NPC or another PC. Finally, cooperative checks feature two or more PCs are working together against the environment or an NPC. If you thoroughly understand how those three checks work, you can probably improvise your way through most encounters even if you haven’t yet figured out how the dueling or debating special rules work.

This probably goes without saying, but don’t try to bring extra rules from supplementary materials into your first time playing. It isn’t necessary for the first session, and you risk overwhelming yourself or your players right out of the gate. You’ll always have future sessions in which to teach players all of the rules, but you’ll save yourself time and frustration if you introduce rules a couple at a time.

Tip #3: Try Your Hand at Character Creation

If you have the full rules at your disposal (or even abridged rules for character creation from the starter set), practice making a sample character or two before running your first session. What’s the process like? What sorts of rules concepts are introduced for the different character types? Refer back to the rules chapters whenever you encounter an unfamiliar concept.

Once you’ve finished your practice character, try making a couple of dice rolls for a normal skill check, a combat check (such as an attack), and any other types of checks that are likely to come up in the adventure you plan to run. Learn how to construct the dice pool so that you can help the players do the same for their characters during the game. By going through the character creation chapter by yourself prior to the first session, you have a chance to work through any confusion before you have four or more other people asking questions of their own. Some of your players’ questions might be the same ones you had, so you’ll be able to explain the answer right away!

If you’re using an introductory product that contains pre-generated characters, familiarize yourself with the anatomy of the sheet and what the different sections are for. This way, you can answer players’ questions about what specific terms mean, and you’ll be able to help them locate important statistics during play.

Tip #4: Learn from Others

If you can’t play in the new RPG system before your first session, another great way to learn how the rules work is to watch someone else play. YouTube, Twitch, and iTunes are amazing resources for checking out actual play videos and podcasts. There are even series and channels that demonstrate how to play in a video tutorial, such as Wil Wheaton’s TableTop show. Do a quick search for these types of resources and check out the first episode or two until you feel comfortable with the rules. You might discover that you’d misinterpreted a rule during your own read-through, and now you can spare your players the frustration that could have resulted from a rule not functioning properly!

Tip #5: Remember that You’re Here to Have Fun

That said, don’t sweat it if you do make a mistake or misunderstand some of the rules during your first session. Nobody’s perfect, and some mistakes are inevitable! Gaming is meant to be fun, and it’s not like you’re going to ruin anyone’s life if you have to change the way you play the system in the future. By going into your first session with a positive attitude and an open mind, you can avoid making more mistakes from being stressed out. And if you can laugh off any mechanical hiccups, you can turn a potentially frustrating moment into one that your friends joke about fondly.

What tips do you have for gamemastering a new RPG system for the first time? Share your experiences and suggestions in the comments below!

Image Credit: Wizards of the Coast

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