How to Make Your First Game Not Suck

Top image taken from “Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set”

I’m beginning to notice that basically every nerd has the same basic story about the first time they tried a roleplaying game. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Someone bought the books, they all rolled up characters, and then… well, then they just kind of screwed around for a bit. No epic adventure, no grand quest.

It seems like in the mid 2000’s, there was an epidemic of this going around. I think it’s gotten a bit better since then, and I have a couple ideas why. Let’s break this down a bit.

So, you’ve got your characters, you’ve got your books, you’re set to go. What comes next? Well, if you’re an experienced DM, you probably lay out the adventure for the players. You give plot hooks, lay down encounters, maybe have them meet up in a tavern until the cosmic fates drag them kicking and screaming into the action. But what if you’re brand-spanking-new to the hobby? You’ve never run a game for anyone. You’ve read the books and you’ve tried to follow their advice but… how do you actually start playing the game?

I contest that the best way for someone who’s brand new to the hobby to learn how to GM is to run a module. Boo! Hiss! I know, I know. For some reason modules are seen as the anti-Playboy. You’re not supposed to play them, you’re just supposed to steal the pretty maps and “mine” for ideas. I’ve noticed an intense snobbery among GM’s towards modules, because apparently “real” GMs spin their adventures out of the ether, cobbling up masterful tales by virtue of just being that fracking inspired.

I theorize that it’s this – this condescenion towards the humble module that so pervades our hobby – this is the biggest thing holding RPG’s back from mainstream success.

As The AngryDM (or AngryGM) has pointed out, DnD has operated for a loooong time on the “Older Cousin” method of marketing. The idea is that RPG’s aren’t something you can just buy and figure out yourself. No, they must be “taught”, handed down from elder to younger like the sacred, Gnostic mysteries that they are. Good Christ. So, while geek culture explodes exponentially, RPGs are stuck in this linear, person-to-person, master-to-apprentice growth cycle.

The biggest obstacle towards introducing people to the hobby? Not enough GM’s. The biggest obstacle to GMing? I contend it’s figuring out how to write and run a coherent gorram adventure. This stuff is hard, man! Knowing when to call for checks, when to advance the plot, balance encounters, nudge in the right direction… basically everything a module provides are the biggest hurdles for the new GM.

All you have to do in order to start GMing? Know how to read out of a book.

But instead of encouraging those interested in GMing to pick one up and try to run one for their buddies, we talk about how “special” and “creative” you have to be to GM. How you have to spin worlds with your words! Is it any wonder people are intimidated? No. All you have to do in order to start GMing? Know how to read out of a book.

Having fun really shouldn't be this hard.

Having fun really shouldn’t be this hard.

Yes, box text is awful. Yes, the adventures are linear and railroad-y. So what? The important thing is that you’re playing! You’re getting your feet wet, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. The only way to learn this hobby is to do it, and it sure is a heck of a lot easier to do it when you’ve got a written adventure walking you through what to do.

Like I said, this is getting better. Most major systems now release a “Starter Set” that includes dice, CharGen rules, and a sample adventure or two to help new players and their GM get their feet wet. This is a positive change, and should be encouraged. My suggestion is that next time someone expresses interest in the hobby, don’t wax poetic about how hard and eldritch it is. Instead, smile, and show them where the Beginner Box is.

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