This is the first post that’s been pulled from our Suggestion Pot. Connoisseur of stewed gnome flesh Sean A. Brady asked us to write about GMing a new RPG, and a mere six years later, here we are! (Our progress is lazy but inexorable, kind of like green slime.) Got something you want us to post about? Throw it in the pot.

With one exception, I’ve never given much thought to how I went about becoming familiar enough with a new-to-me RPG to GM it. That one exception went pretty badly, too, so I don’t know if I’m the most qualified gnome to be writing about this topic — but I’m not going to let that little roadblock stand in my way. (Heh, heh, heh.)

Is It New to Your Players?

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that the game in question is also new to all (or most) of your players, and that you not only need to learn the system, you also need to explain it to them. If it’s only new to you, there are a couple of steps you can skip.

Beautiful, Unique Snowflakes

My hunch is that like most variations on learning stuff (taking notes in class, studying for tests, etc.), the process of learning a new RPG is a personal one. I don’t think there’s a universal approach out there waiting to be unearthed, but I do have a few suggestions that should apply reasonably well to most GMs. This post is my attempt at formalizing the basic approach I take to learning a new game, but even I don’t do this stuff in this order every single time.

Like your, uh, “first time,” running a new RPG can feel a bit awkward: As the GM, you’re probably used to knowing more about what’s happening in the game than your players, and that’s often not the case when GMing a new system. In keeping with the awkward sex metaphor, let’s start with a little light kissing…

First Base

  • 1. Create a place to take notes. I prefer to create a new Google Document; you might like to use your tiny notebook instead. Wherever you feel most comfortable jotting down game ideas, make sure it’s handy.
  • 2. Skim the book. Before you read it in earnest, skim the whole rulebook to get a feel for the game. If something jumps out at you, stop and read that part before moving on.
  • 3. Read that puppy. Read the book from cover to cover. There will probably be a few sections you can skip — for example, reading the description of every gun in the equipment section the first time around probably isn’t necessary.
  • 4. Take notes as you read. Any time I read something and think, “Man, that’s cool!” I add it to my idea file. If you need notes to keep track of complicated sections of the rules, that’s fine too.
  • 5. Anything confusing? If any element of the game makes you scratch your head, read that part again until you’re comfortable with it. If it’s still confusing or seems likely to bog you down during play, you can go online for help, rewrite it in a simplified form or even create a game aid to streamline it. (I’ve also heard that running a sample combat can be helpful.)

Second Base

  • 6. Mistakes will be made. Mention to your group that since the game is new to everyone, you expect mistakes to happen — and you’ll make your share of them. Let them know that as long as everyone has fun, you’re not too worried about mistakes.
  • 7. Summarize the game. Starting with the big stuff like genre and theme, give your players a brief introduction to the game. If you haven’t settled on what kind of game you’re going to run with this system, now is the time to do that.
  • 8. Discuss character types. In broad terms, talk about what kinds of characters are available. Don’t start creating them just yet, though — the goal in this step is to give your players ideas.
  • 9. Go over a few specific rules. Don’t try to cover the whole book, or even a fraction of it, but do cover: the core dice mechanics, how the PCs do stuff (skills, etc.) and how combat works. Demonstrate the core dice mechanic with a couple of sample rolls, and mention anything unusual about the system (“Negative numbers are good, not bad”).
  • 10. Group character creation. I think group character creation is absolutely essential for a new game. Not only does it give everyone a chance to flip through the book (your copy, or better yet multiple copies) and ask questions, but it also helps to make sure that no one creates an un-fun or otherwise inappropriate PC.
  • 11. Know what the PCs can do. Once you have a party, look over the PCs and make sure you understand the rules related to their abilities. You can afford to be fuzzier on other stuff than you can here — this stuff is guaranteed to come up.

Third Base

  • 12. Examine the sample adventure closely. Not every RPG comes with a starter adventure, but many do. If it works for your game, by all means run it — that’s a great way to get an introduction to the system. If it doesn’t fit your game, look at how it addresses combat and other rules-intensive elements of the system.
  • 13. Create a simple first session. I try to design my first sessions like my favorite convention scenarios: I give my players a good feeling for what the campaign will be about while showcasing various elements of the rules, and I keep it short (the first time around, most things will take longer than you think). Include at least one battle and one spotlight moment for each PC. I also reference page numbers in the rulebook for combat, skill checks, etc. right in my adventure notes.

Mmm, Home Plate

  • 14. Remember: It doesn’t have to be perfect, just fun. Don’t psych yourself out — plan to run a fun game and don’t worry too much about what could go wrong. Stuff will go wrong, and more than likely you’ll all have fun anyway.
  • 15. Run it! First and foremost, have a good time. The first time anything comes up involving the rules, slow the game down long enough to go through it step by step and get it right. You may only need to do that once per element, but most likely you’ll need to do it a couple of times.
  • 16. Retcon recent actions only. This is a two-parter. If one of your players wants to change their mind about an action because they didn’t understand what they were getting into, retcon it: Just rewind time and play it out again. But if you realize partway into the session that someone made a major mistake an hour ago, press on and make a note of what to do differently next time.

The Post-Game Cigarette

  • 17. Brush up on trouble spots. After your (hopefully fun!) first session, take note of aspects of the rules that you or your players had trouble with, and see what you can do to smooth things out for next time.

That’s one approach to learning a new RPG — what do you do differently? Did I miss anything? Which steps suggest that I might, in fact, be smoking crack? Share your war stories in the comments.