In DMing 101 I’ll be giving generalized advice on how to run a tabletop role-playing game. The articles will not presume any knowledge, except being able to read. And maybe knowing what dice are. And paper. And a computer. Maybe some other stuff. I’ll also presume that you can remember that DM means Dungeon Master. Some people call it a Game Master or GM, but I don’t. Suck it up. There are a few quick start guides on how to DM out there, but DMing 101 will offer a fairly easy set of tips that a novice can follow to make his/her games something truly memorable.
World Building and The Big Picture
Before your campaign has begun you need to establish a world in which to play. There’s no need to draw detailed maps populated with thousands of unique individuals, you only need to pin down the basic facts then make up the details as and when they pop-up. This is a short list of the essential things to consider:
It may seem obvious, but your genre is the first decision you’ll ever make about your campaign, and it’ll usually determine which gaming system you use. Guns, for example, don’t see much support in most fantasy-based role-plays. By the same token you’d be lucky to find a real-world setting with a range of races to choose from. You may find that if you’ve got an idea for a campaign but no system that supports it you’ll have to resort to a generalized system like Savage Worlds or GURPS.
Your choice of genre also brings you closer to determining the feel of your game. High fantasy for example is often fairly grand in scale and dynamic in pace, whereas horror should be dark, personal and claustrophobic. This is something important to keep to when going into detail.
Most games will start with a simple idea, often a “what-if” scenario. For example, I will be developing a world based on the concept “What if superpowers became commercially available as goods and services?” Building from that hypothetical you start getting some basic themes that you’ll want to keep in mind as you develop the world. In this case, how would superpowers be sold, regulated, policed and so forth? When you start answering those questions you can start your assumptions list:
- Superpowers are commercially available as goods and services.
- Salt9 is the most essential compound in the superpower industry and has become an industry in itself.
- The divide between rich and poor has broadened massively.
Write down your ideas straight away, you can always add to or take from your list later, but once you’ve got the fundamentals down it’s time to look to other factors.
You’re not the first thing to happen to this world. Maybe you’re the first living thing there (which presents some interesting challenges in itself) but the best worlds have all worlds have some history behind them which your heroes can become part of. What major events have shaped the world? What’s happened recently that makes adventurers want to go exploring? Here are a few examples of how history has changed the world added to my previous assumptions list:
- Humans have colonized Mars and have constructed orbital research colonies around Venus.
- The Third World War was purely economical, causing corporations to gain great power in parts of the world.
By now you should have a real idea of what kind of struggles the adventurers of your new world will face, so you can start coming up with themes for your campaign.
Without getting overly specific you can now start to pin down a few general ideas for stories and campaign themes. You needn’t consider things like plot or characters, just the general “threat” to the players or the world. For example, here’s a theme for my super-powered world:
Illegal super-powers are being manufactured
Are the players fighting a rogue element with dangerous powers, or could they be revolutionaries trying to smuggle the powers out of a highly regulated country to fight back against the governments and corporations that keep them in squalor? Here’s an idea for a gothic-horror setting:
Blood cults practice their rituals in the street
Who are these lunatics? What rituals do they perform and who (if any) are their victims? And what is their ultimate goal? There are many story ideas that can be drawn from themes like these. Jot down a few of these and then you’re ready to start your game proper.
Of course there are plenty of pre-made worlds out there that are ripe for role-playing, and most rule books will come with a readily established world for you to pick up and play, or you could always steal from T.V, films or video games to get your ideas – I’m currently working on my own tabletop version of 2K and Gearbox’s Borderlands series for example – but if you want to play your way this is the best way to get yourself started.
My name is Joel (Terra_Phi most places) and I am an experienced DM of nearly 7 years. I also run a site called Quotesfromthetabletop.net with a friend of mine who’s much better at site-building than I am. If you’re interested in getting into tabletop role-playing, our site is full of good reasons, all the stupid and brilliant quotes and stories that could only ever happen at the table.