Thinking of running a game can feel daunting, but it needn’t be. It’s easy to over-prepare and overwhelm yourself with information. It’s easy to feel underprepared no matter what you’ve done. It’s easy to lose the fun you should be having in amongst all the stress you put on yourself.
At least, that’s how I feel sometimes (often!) and I’ve been running weekly games since 2016. The feelings of being underprepared, anxious, overwhelmed, an imposter, come and go even now. While I’m certainly more confident than I was in those early days, I’m still on the lookout for ways to improve and grow. I always will be.
One reason for writing here is to share what I can about my experiences running games. I have gotten (and still get) a lot of benefit from reading other peoples experiences. Right now, I’m embarking on a brand new campaign of Storm King’s Thunder (D&D 5E), so it seems the perfect time to share how my prep goes for that as it happens. Somehow this is actually the first time I’ve DM’d for a D&D game. Up until now, I’ve run Deadlands (Savage Worlds) for the majority of my DMing years, while dabbling with Dread and Tales from the Loop, and more recently Cyberpunk Red. Ultimately, though, the game systems don’t matter for how I go about running a game.
Everyone does this differently
This is a key takeaway. It doesn’t matter how much advice you read, or how many streams you watch, you’re going to have your own style. It’s kind’ve like the age-old dating advice: be yourself. Don’t compare yourself to others, don’t try to be someone you’re not, and you’ll save yourself a lot of heart- and headache later. Take the bits you see that resonate with you, and discard anything else.
That counts for DMing advice, pre-written adventures, anything really. Use the stuff that you like. The stuff that’s “you”.
If you’re thinking about running a game, you’re ready to run a game
By this I mean there’s no “entrance exam” to sit. You don’t need to know the rulebooks back to front and cover to cover. What you need are a group of people you could enjoy telling a story with. The rest you can make up as you go along. Together.
Okay, being honest: What I need is a group of people I can enjoy telling a story with. That’s because at this point in time what I enjoy most of this hobby is the narrative, the atmosphere, the surprises that players bring. That may not be what you’re looking for (you may not yet know what you’re looking for), but for me it is. Sometimes those stories involve life-and-death combat situations, but I am quite content with a game session where other things happen and no ‘initiative’ is rolled at all. That’s not for everyone, but it is for me and, crucially, the people I play with.
If you’re playing at a club or a store, you may not always get to choose who else is around the table with you. That’s not necessarily a bad thing either: stay true to what you enjoy playing and you will attract, in time, similarly minded players. Everyone in my current game group came from a club environment. We played together, our playstyles meshed, and we stuck together.
So why aren’t you running a game already?
It can be hard to know where to start. There’s a lot more overhead you can acquire as a DM if you let it happen. So I’m going to share (at the end, because: long thing is long) my prep notes for beginning a whole new campaign in a setting and ruleset that was totally unfamiliar to me. Maybe seeing where I start, and where I go, will help someone out there realise that you don’t need to spend weeks with books and intricate notes. And also see what happens when plans meet players.
Step One: Find a setting that excites you
You, the person running the game, have to enjoy the genre you’re going to play. If you hate fantasy games, don’t run a fantasy game just because it’s the popular choice. If you hate sci-fi, don’t run sci-fi. Find a genre and setting that you actually like. You might be playing it for a while!
Step Two: Find an adventure that excites you
Take it one step at a time if you’re beginning this journey. You might have a fantasy novel in your head waiting to get out, and think that it’s a great place to start playing. It might be, but with one caveat: players don’t act the way the characters in your not-yet-written book do, and if you’re trying to play out that plot it will go awry. That can be hard to deal with. If you have a detailed world in your head and you can translate the feel of the world across to the people playing with you, then you’ve got a better chance of pulling it off.
The easiest thing to do is to pick an adventure. Lots of settings come with “starter adventures” in them and they’re designed to be a good introduction for everyone to the world you’re playing in. In my prep below, we’re playing Cyberpunk Red and beginning with their starter set adventure “The Apartment”. If there’s an adventure somewhere that you think would be fun, save yourself a tonne of thinking time and start with that. “Homebrew” can grow organically out of what you all do together.
When we’re starting a new campaign, I’ll have a fish about for things that satisfy steps one and two, then write a short paragraph about the things that I could enjoy running. The people I’m playing with then see which of those they could be most excited about, and whichever one is most exciteable-aboutable is the winner (and no matter what, I am running something I can get excited about).
Step Three: Think about how long you’re playing for
Is this a one-off? Are you giving it a go for a few weeks to try it out? Are you filling in for your regular DM to give them a break? Are you planning on playing for months or years? It’s worth thinking about this a bit up front.
If you’re playing one game, or a very short string of games, look for something that’ll give you closure at the end of it. Having an endpoint to work toward will mean, when you get to that point, you can assess whether or not you enjoyed yourself at all. If you did, great! If you didn’t, you’ve got the opportunity to figure out why and see if another setting/adventure/character group (or player group) might work more for you. Or maybe you’d just like to chill and play for a bit, also a-ok.
If you’re planning for something longer, and you know it upfront, you can drop unresolved things into your starter adventure to give yourself something to work with later. Or you can make notes as you play of all the things that are left unresolved for later. Both, preferably.
Step Four: Gather the party, have a Session Zero, talk about safety tools
The first game you play with people shouldn’t be you immediately jumping into DMing. You absolutely 100% want what’s called a “session zero”. You get together with your group. You talk about the big themes you want to explore. You talk about what everyone is interested in playing. You let them build their group and listen to what they say. You get to lay down any houserules, safewords/X-cards/safety tools you want to use. You get to make sure everyone’s on the same page regarding the style of game you’d like to try and play.
Session zero’s are really important. The only time I wouldn’t use one is if I’m running a game at a convention and/or a one-shot using pre-generated characters. And even then I’d have a mini-session zero for the first 10-15 min or so. Safety tools are incredibly important to have at the gaming table.
Rather than divert to safety tools, I suggest you look at SlyFlourish’s summary (and stay for their DMing advice, too!)
Step Five: Listen as you play
Finally, dive right into the game. Accept that you’re not going to get every rule right, but that you’ll find a way to do things that keeps the game moving forward. If it’s going to take 30 minutes of rules-lookup to resolve something, it’s usually better to rule in the players favour and move on. You can look it up after the game and see if it mattered for next time. Since the players are the “heroes” of the story being told, you’ll do no harm if they get to be extra awesome for a time.
Once you’re playing, and you’ve introduced the adventure hook/job/mission, you can sit back and let the players do more of the work. They’ll talk to each other. They’ll prod and poke the world, and you (the world) get to prod and poke back. They’ll talk to each other again.
Listen to what they’re saying. Hear their theories, their madcap plans, all the things you hadn’t thought might happen, and think about three things:
- Saying “yes, and…”, “yes, but…”, and “no, but…” when they’re saying what they want to do
- Asking them how they/their character is feeling/thinking, especially when there might have been a misunderstanding between what you thought you were presenting to them and what they’ve taken away from it.
- Have they had an idea that you like better than the adventure prepared? Go with it!
How does this work for me?
Well, you’ve gotten this far…
I’m a mixed-media prep person. Some games I’ll use electronic notes (Evernote, Notion), some games I’ll go full-paper. Some games I use both. But when I’m starting something new, I prefer to stick to paper.
Why? Because it helps me realise when I’m going overboard.
If you’re making digital notes, it is very, very easy to write zillions of words and zillions of pages, and just end up lost in it all. A double-page book spread keeps things limited to something that’s easier to digest. It means I focus on the themes I care about, and don’t bother writing about the stuff I don’t care about.
Click the picture (or button) below to see the full glory (chaos?) of my DM notes for our first months of playing Cyberpunk Red. If the guys I played with ever see this, well, honestly I wonder what they’d think! You will need to zoom and be able to decipher my handwriting – good luck with that.
However, on the topic of “thinking of running a game”, I will leave it there. It is a lot of fun, and there is a lot to learn no matter how long you do it for. No-one’s perfect, but if you and the players are enjoying yourselves then you’re doing it right.