I’ve made some of my closest friends sitting around a table playing role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. The experience of a shared narrative leads to tons of laughs and fun memories. But if you’ve never tried to run a role-playing game, the whole process can feel intimidating. 

I’ve received numerous emails over the years from prospective DMs who want to start playing, and are looking for some suggestions on how to get started. As I told those enthusiasts, while there’s no catch-all advice that is going to be perfect for everyone, there are some guidelines that should point you in the right direction. 

We’re going to divert a few times in the coming months from the regular schedule of individual board, card, and role-playing games, and discuss some of the ins and outs of running your own RPG game for your friends. It’s a surprisingly big and complex topic, but we’re starting today with some basics – what to play, how to think about your players, and what to prioritize as you prepare to sit down for your first adventure. A lot of the strategies for the actual running of a game are going to be in a future installment. We’ve got to start somewhere, and if you’re serious about running an RPG, the first lesson is that prep before sitting down at the table is as important as the actual game. If you want to jump ahead to running a session, check out Part 2

What Should I Play?

I used the term “dungeon master” in the headline of this column because it’s the word most people connect to the concept. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax originally released D&D in the early 1970s, and those early adventures were predominantly concerned with crawling through underground dungeon complexes, so the person running the game had an obvious moniker. But in the years since, numerous terms have been applied, depending on the game – game master, narrator, storyteller – each meant to imply a slightly different focus for the person directing the flow of the story and action. 

Your choice of game (and the relevant title you take on as the person running the game) is your first big decision. The landscape of modern role-playing games is vast, with all sorts of games that cater to different fantasies and styles of play. 

If you and your friends want the “classic” RPG experience, I recommend one of the two dominant games in the field – the latest (5th) edition of Dungeons & Dragons, or its cousin, the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game. While RPG faithful can spend hours debating the merits of each, I’m here to tell you that they’re both excellent game systems, with robust rules to cover any classic fantasy adventure you’d like to explore. Equally important, they both have active and engaged player bases, ongoing support from their respective publishers, and time-tested rules that hold up to whatever situation you throw at them. 

Looking for something with a more futuristic slant? The latest edition of the Shadowrun ruleset is awesome, melding traditional fantasy concepts like elves and dragons with a cyberpunk sci-fi aesthetic. If the weighty rules of that system don’t appeal, you can still explore the setting with the recent and excellent Shadowrun Anarchy system, which maintains the setting but opts for a greater focus on storytelling. For a universe that virtually every one of your players is guaranteed to love, I’m also a big fan of Fantasy Flight’s series of Star Wars RPGs, which use a compelling narrative dice mechanic to drive action that feels like it’s right out of the movies. And my personal favorite RPG and setting of recent years also deserves a mention; Monte Cook Games’ Numenera is a brilliant experience set on Earth a billion years in the future, and it doubles as one of the most accessible introductions to RPGs I have encountered. 

Are your buddies more into the horror scene? Plenty of great options exist. Consider the most recent edition of the Call of Cthulhu RPG, or the phenomenally strange Delta Green, both of which focus on investigations and existential terror rather than sword fights and dragons. You may also want to consider one of the World of Darkness series of RPGs; these storytelling-focused Gothic adventures focus on classic monsters; you can find active communities for both the classic World of Darkness RPGs like Vampire: The Masquerade and the newer Chronicles of Darkness games. And for a real change of pace, check out the wildly fun Dread RPG, a game where the primary mechanic involves pulling a block from a Jenga tower to see if the characters survive the horrors before them.

If you’d like a rules system that is more flexible to any style of setting, consider checking out one of the universal role-playing systems, like Fate Core System, Savage Worlds, or the Cypher System, all of which have smartly structured systems that can adapt well to even the most unusual potential settings. These games often sacrifice specificity of rules for flexibility, and offer specific optional setting books that help a game master drill down into the concept they want. 

And are you planning to run a game for the kids in your life? You may want to check out my suggestions for RPGs to play with younger players

The recent Star Wars RPGs let you choose which aspect and tone of the Star Wars universe to focus on

Understand Your Role

You are not the player’s enemy. The popular culture that surrounds D&D has magnified this core misunderstanding, so let’s wipe that out right away. Should you challenge your players? Yes! Should you throw them narrative curve-balls? Yes! Should you act out truly dastardly evil for them to confront? Absolutely, yes! And should the player characters lose sometimes? For sure!

Even given all of that, your role isn’t to oppose your players – it’s to facilitate their fun. Every DM has a different approach to challenge, not unlike every video game. Your job is to figure out what your players get excited about, combine it with what excites you as a narrator and storyteller, and then pull it all together into a coherent whole. Sometimes that adds up to frequent character death and oppressive difficulty, while other times you’re enacting a superhero fantasy where the characters triumph over their enemies time and again. Usually it’s somewhere in between.

Another fundamental misunderstanding for beginning DMs deals with the difference between writing a story and prepping a game. As the person at the table who is guiding the narrative, the temptation is often to take over everything and just tell your players a story about what their characters are seeing and doing. If they wanted that, they would go read a book or watch a TV show or movie. They’re sitting at the table because they want an interactive narrative that they can shape – it’s the one thing that tabletop RPGs do better than any other entertainment medium, so don’t lose touch with it. 

This might sound counter-intuitive, but consider for a moment your favorite comic book or action movie. Is the protagonist swept along through scenes they have no control over? Or is it their decisions and choices that shape the story? The same should be true in your role-playing adventures – your players are the central protagonists, so they need to drive the action. In your preparations prior to the game, set up intriguing situations. Create compelling non-player characters to inhabit the space. And offer hooks into adventure and danger that are so irresistible players feel compelled to follow them. But let the players make those calls themselves, and follow where they lead. This is a topic we’ll talk a lot more about in future installments when we’re addressing the actual running of a session. 

Finally, the dirty secret of DMing: Nothing is true until it appears in the game. Did your carefully orchestrated assault by 20 goblins get missed because the players decided to travel via boat instead of through the canyon? Maybe the goblins have been waiting at the river the whole time. Prepare interesting content in your notes before a session, but be willing to repurpose that content where needed to make for the most fun. At the same time, don’t overuse the technique; players can tell when you’re railroading them into content that was unavoidable. Sometimes it’s better to leave a carefully orchestrated encounter unplayed and give players the feeling that they’ve outwitted their foes.

Learn the Rules So You Can Ignore the Rules

Individual players of a role-playing game can often get away with not learning the rules ahead of time, but that’s not really the case if you plan to run the game as its game master. Before you ever start trying to convince your friends to sit down at the table, make sure you have a grasp on the game you’re trying to play. Take the time to read the games rules and (where applicable) its setting. 

Contrary to what you might expect, reading through a well-written game and setting can be a lot of fun, especially if you’re the kind of person who likes to understand the concepts behind game design and narrative (which you probably are if you’re thinking about being a DM). Especially as you get more familiar with different games and universes, it can be fascinating to see the way different creators have crafted their fiction and mechanics, and compare it with what you already know.

Ultimately, the time you spend learning a game before you run it pays dividends, and it also helps you discover what parts of the game you like and don’t like, so you know where to put your focus. Don’t like character encumbrance rules? Leave them out. Prefer a more relaxed approach to modifiers on weapon range die rolls? Forget the modifiers. In my experience, new DMs struggle a lot with the idea of running the game “correctly,” when the focus should really be on running a game that is fun. If you don’t know a rule, it’s usually far better to keep the story going than to get bogged down in looking up the way it’s supposed to work. Make a call, and keep the action moving. But until you at least have a grasp on the rules system you’re playing in, it’s hard to know what is worth ignoring, and what other aspects are key to the game’s appeal.

Next Page: Understand who you're playing with, and prepare for anything