Beginner’s Guide: So you want to be a gamemaster?

Recently, I ran a game of Call of Cthulhu for Em and one of our friends (Kate, who has written for us in the past). This was my first time ever running Call of Cthulhu, as well as my first time running any game in about ten years. As such, I was a little apprehensive about running this game. Would I remember enough of the rules during the session, or would I bog the game down with endlessly looking things up in the rulebook? Would I be able to think on my feet and improvise for the players, or would I end up railroading the characters through the story? Would we have fun, or would this be torture?

At over 600 pages of material, THIS is intimidating.

I’m happy to say that the game went very smoothly, and we are planning on turning this game into a campaign, as well as adding a few players. And I’d like to say that it went smoothly because of my own natural wit and talent, but if you’ve ever met me, you know that that’s not the case. However, I did have a lot of things going for me, and I’d like to share these so that you, as an inexperienced gamemaster (or an experienced one with a lack of confidence like myself), can get your game off the ground.

Run the kind of game that your players want to play

Just because you want to take your players on a journey through the pits of Lovecraftian madness or on a swashbuckling adventure on the high seas, it doesn’t mean that the players will want to. If you’re trying to get a game started, find out either a) what genre of game your potential players might want to play, or b) who you might be able to get on board with the kind of game you want to run. Of course, option b assumes that you already know what you want to run, and if you are an experienced role-player, this might be the case. If you’re just trying your hand at role-playing for the first time and it is falling on you to be the game master, option a will be the better option.

Talk to your players. Find out what kind of stories might interest them, and what their familiarity is with those types of stories. Do they watch a lot of horror? Do they read fantasy? Their tastes, as well as your own, can inform where you draw inspiration from. If you can figure out what kind of thing the players like before-hand, it’ll let you tailor the experience to them.

Find a game system that works for you

Just because your players say “I want to try Dungeons & Dragons,” it doesn’t mean that you actually have to run out and learn how to run Dungeons & Dragons unless your players really want to specifically play D&D. We live in an amazing time in role-playing where indie game designers are exploring many different game design philosophies, and the internet makes it easier that ever to find this content. For example, as streamlined as D&D 5th edition is, I still find it intimidating. If the players are interested because they like medieval fantasy, *Dungeon World, which uses the minimalist Apocalypse Engine ruleset, is a more user-friendly option. In fact, if you click on that link, you’ll find a list of Apocalypse Engine games in all genres.

Look for “Starter Sets”

Only 23 pages of rules. Much better.

If you and your group do decide to run one of the more complicated systems, you still don’t have to dive right into the deep end. Many of the more-established game systems have a starter ruleset that you can use to dip your toes in the water. I know that I have seen the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set at Target, which is a very inexpensive way to start running the game. I myself used the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, which includes all the rules you need to play the three scenarios included in the set. Often, and indeed in this case, these sets walk new gamemasters through the scenario, offering tips throughout each scene. This was a huge relief because, though I had read the included rules (and, actually, the actual Keeper Handbook, sold separately), I didn’t have to rely on knowing exactly what to do, which ironically gave to me the confidence to rely on knowing what to do without the fear of slowing down the game.

However, you don’t even need to spend money to start playing some games. If you search Drive Thru RPG, you can find quick-start rules for all sorts of games, including Call of Cthulhu, Star Trek, and The Expanse, so you can start a session and see if the game is right for your group without wasting money on something you’ll never play.

By keeping these things in mind, you should be able to get through what is, for me, the most difficult part of running a role playing game: actually starting a game. Now, gather your party, lay down the ground rules, and have fun!

*Dungeon World has fallen out of favor recently, both for its inherently ableist use of attributes to define character abilities, as well as a controversy with one of its creators. That said, I think that the game is good, and if I were to run the game, I could easily mitigate the ableism. Also, while said creator’s actions definitely warranted his deplatforming in the live-play content forum, the game still shines as an example of how things can be streamlined and abstracted for ease-of-play.

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