Running your first RPG gaming session/campaign

Whether you are a Dungeon Master (DM), Game Master (GM), Keeper of Arcane Lore (Keeper) or a Story Teller, creating a new world/universe with a group of friends, through Roleplaying Games can be an amazing thing to behold.

Why am I telling you about RPGs? I’ve been playing over 30 years, and have tried at least 42 different systems (with additional 30 different versions/editions/variants of all those games). I have kickstarted about nine of these games. Each one has taught something.

I often end up running sessions more than playing, as I’ve usually formed the RPG group from a mixture of “Semi Retired players” and newbies. I’m writing this blog for  “leadership development” to help players run their first sessions, which allows me to play.

This blog post is for three first time Storytellers Stephanie, Adrian and Bill.


You are a Story Teller, first and foremost.

I have broken this down into several sections:

  1. RPG Basics
  2. First Time GM Basic guidelines
  3. Running your first scenario
  4. Making your games immersive
  5. Writing your first scenario
  6. Creating your own campaign
  7. Basic Host things
  8. Getting good at Gming
  9. RPGs I have played
  10. What has Roleplaying Games given me?

RPG Basics

  1. The Game Master describes/narrates the environment/surrounding and sets the scene – Story Telling/Narration
  2. The Players describe what their Characters will do – a mixture of Acting and Improv
  3. The Game Master explains what is the result of the players actions, through both world reacting and the Non Player Characters – Applies the “reality” using the mechanics or rules of the system, Acting and Improv. Improv because the players will often do the unexpected.

Together you and the players weave a tale


First Time GM basic guidelines

Make it as simply as possible. Use everything from published works, I suggest not creating your own scenario at first. Search for online beginning kits. Watch others doing it.

  1. If the game system has a solo adventure that teaches the rules, start there e.g. Call of Cthulhu has Alone against the flames.
  2. Start with with a starter pack, Quickstart or beginning pack e.g.
    1. Star Wars
    2. Dungeons & Dragons 
    3. Call of Cthulhu
  3. Run a couple published scenarios before writing your own and use the Pre generated characters. Make it simple.
    1. Hint – look at the back of the core rulebook, sometimes there are scenarios there
  4. Read the rule book, start with a beginner version, write a list of rules that you know will become important. The act of writing will help you remember better and the list will be useful. This will take more time than you expect.
    1. Hint – Read the sections that interest you first and eventually read it all
  5. Find books or written stories based in the Universe you wish to play, this will help you imagine this place and thus describe it better.
  6. Watch other GMs/Storytellers/DM run sessions – try out gaming conventions, RPG shops or meet ups.
  7. A good old internet search will give you answers to most questions you have, with both reddit RPG channel and RPG stack exchange

Keep your first few games really simple


Running your first Scenario

Wipe map and miniatures

Read the scenario multiple times, when it references rulebook, bookmark them in the rulebook. Read as many examples of how the rules are applied as you can. If you have time play through the scenario on your own.

  1. Add bookmarks to the important sections of rules and/or get a Gaming Screen for your game
  2. Read the scenario at least twice and once a day before
  3. Know how combat works, know how the dice work
  4. Know the descriptions from the areas of each part of the scenario, read them at once out loud before delivering to players
  5. Have a notepad and record, key moments in the players actions, ideas for future games and which rules you are weak on
  6. Bring spare pencils, dice, and paper

Free extra resources and materials

  1. Check online to see if there is an Errata or FAQ, or extras from the publisher of the scenario, or maybe there are extra pre gen characters
  2. Looking online for materials the community may have created your scenario. For Example
    1. The Haunted scenario for Call of Cthulhu I found:
      1. Sound effects for this scenario
      2. Maps for each scene for miniatures for this scenario
      3. Handouts converted onto newspaper articles, police reports, etc
      4. Google 1920 photos to get photos for each of the NPCs
  3. Check online for recorded run-throughs of the published scenario, some people play through Google Hangouts and its not hard to record from there – there is a bunch on YouTube

For your first time, start with published scenarios and pre gen characters

Understanding where people are

  1. Miniatures or even counters, are really useful for really understanding where people are on the map and where they are compared with the party
  2. Use a transparent plastic sheet and put any maps underneath, allowing you to draw on the plastic with a pen (check its not a permanent pen)  to mark things of interest. Or use a washable matt and draw the maps on it. Have something to clean sheet or matt with.

Ensure all players get to be the key to success

  1. Note the skills/interests and ensure they are are needed during your scenario, if they are not make something up
  2. Establish the background with each player. Listen and suggest hooks for each player that you can use later. Use any contacts they have and create a character for each.

You will make mistakes, accept them and learn from them

Be flexible and improvise

  1. For both the GM and players there is a lot of improvisation – you will have make stuff up – use common sense to guide you. Do not worry about getting things wrong
  2. You do not need to (nor can you) control everything – players will often do the unexpected
  3. Do not become a slave to the rules, make common sense judgements rather than spending 15 mins finding/reading the rules
  4. Adapt the plot and the characters (NPC) to the actions of the players (but only if the NPCs should know)
  5. Grow your NPCs from their experiences i.e. they learn from their mistakes too!

It is not GM versus players

GM Hints

From Call of Cthulhu- Keeper Rulebook – Sandy Petersen

Rules/Mechanics

  1. Know the the rules, read that book multiple times, make notes, create summaries as if you are revising for an exam
  2. Do not let the rules get in the way of a good game
  3. You interpret the rules, not the players – but do listen to advice from players
  4. Be fair
  5. Be consistent (at least most of the time)
  6. Every game has some crappy rules, over time your group will build better ones i.e. “House Rules”
  7. A good old internet search will give you answers to most questions you have, with both reddit RPG channel and RPG stack exchange

Use Common Sense first. The scenario might not include a light switch, yet you know there is one. Rules are there to help guide you, keep you consistent not control you

Advice from other GMs on your first Session

Dan Murnaghan Be ready to change things at a moments notice! The best laid plans can and will be subverted by your players!

Paul Doerfling “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” – Moltke. Your players will do unexpected things. The best DMs learn how to roll with it and use it as a springboard for consequences and new adventures. Also, ask players what they think is going on. Then steal the most interesting ideas and weave them into your game.

Work with players on expectations for the game. If they expect a light-hearted dungeon romp and you give them political drama or horror, no one is going to have a good time.

Jack Graham Don’t be too in love with your own storylines. Adapt to what the players think is fun. (Don’t be too in love with the storylines in the published thing you’re running, either. I once ran _Masks of Nyarlathotep_, often considered one of the best published campaigns of all time, and it ended up sucking because I didn’t bend the storyline enough to make it fun for my group).

Tim Rudloff 1st session advice: expect things to go wrong. Memorable debacles can be just as fun as triumphant victories. Be ready to laugh at your own mistakes. Listen to what your players want. Make things up as you go.

Lachlan Harman “I need to pee” = “How did they get HERE?! I need a moment to figure out WTF I’m gonna do now”

Justin Birt Have one random encounter planned out in case things go short or go wrong.

Keeth Ar Ostrich-Watsun This would have to be adapted a bit for the genre, but I find this pretty inspiring and pared down to the essentials: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTD2RZz6mlo

Lonnie Harris If you’re running a one shot: Try to run it like a convention game. Keep to a time limit. Feel free to move the story forward if they get too bogged down. Make some prep sheets on the obvious gear they carry so they know what stuff does without having to stop and look at the rule book every five minutes.

If you’re running a campaign: Most everything up there except for the time limit. Also have a Session Zero and take copious notes for plot hooks. Make general objectives and/or cool scenario ideas, but don’t flesh them out much beyond some basic encounters/objectives, because all that work just sits if the dumb bunnies go to Venus instead of Mars.

Patrick Fisher Have a session 0 for character building/world building. Saves a lot of hassle and gets everyone excited to be part of the collected story

Cory Vincent Your players will go off your rails. They will do things in ways you didnt plan. It is up to you to reward creativity, punish stupidity, and be ready to go with one or two extra “there was nothing here but you made it a big deal so heres a bossfight”


Making your games immersive

Dire wolf

Become good at setting the scene

The players understand from you what the world looks like, feels like, smells like, sounds like.  That is a lot of description. Practice and put the important description on cards. Practice the descriptions. Do not deliver in a monotone.

Good handouts

Take time to prepare handouts for newspaper clippings, reports, wills, etc

  1. For old print out rub lemon juice on and broil or grill to get the aging effect
  2. Use Newspaper templates
  3. Make handout into puzzle pieces and leave one missing
  4. Have pictures or drawings for each of your NPCs
  5. For encrypted/decoded give reports with whole words missing or strange words or just junk words. Or just blacker marker word as in a redacted file. Make it a puzzle to figure out.

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Use all the senses

  1. If you can find music that will be good background use it, it’s a great way to evoke emotion
  2. A friend Luai pointed me here for great sound effects -> https://tabletopaudio.com
  3. Pictures and artwork can help set the scene too. Are your characters wandering the woods? Do a google image search for “abandoned house in forest”
  4. Pictures, cards, drawings of the “monsters” will be really helpful.  If there is a card set for your game get it, this is always a great investment.
    1. Example card decks -> Eclipse Phase: Morph Recognition Deck, Call of Cthulhu Keeper Deck, or Coriolis Icon Card Deck
  5. Example -> for Horror get candles, horror music, get some sound snippets for footsteps, wailing/moaning, surprise the players.. make them scared, occasionally whisper
  6. You want people to feel cool or damp get a humidifier in the room and let it run and watch them wrap up..

Call of cthulu

Play NPCs differently

  1. Choose one characteristic to “ham up” for each NPC
  2. Change how you speak – accents, cadence, pitch, tone, and vocabulary can all vary
  3. To make NPC characters more dimensional and interesting, connect them with someone you know and use similar characteristics/backstory/motivation — that way you don’t have to create backstories for every character and can still make NPCs feel different

Writing your first Scenario

Local map

Most core rulebooks for each system will have a section on how to write a scenarios. Read it. They often will describe the themes of the system and how to show them.

To start my own, sometimes I draw a map and ideas come to me. Other times I will have a plot or idea and I will build it out.  Sometimes in a session players will suggest a plot idea that may not apply but would be good to use later, so take notes.

Copy the format of a published scenario

This will help you not miss anything. The order may differ depending on how the idea emerged, but here is a rough draft on how to put together a scenario:

  1. Start with a summary
  2. Create the main NPCs. Understand their motivations, their end goals and how they will achieve them.
  3. Create a timeline
  4. Map each of the scenes
  5. For each scene/room have a clear list of clues and or items the players can find
  6. Understand the layers of information that the players can discover, where, how and any difficulty ratings/skills
  7. Have cue cards for each block of description for each scene
  8. Create player handouts, the more authentic the better
  9. Make sure you have the stats for each of the “things” the player can interact with.

Visualize each scene/chapter

  1. Draw Maps of the local area and buildings/locations they will venture to
  2. Imagine the NPCs –  what they look like? Sound and speak like? How do they act? Do they have a quirk? What sets them off? Spend a couple minutes with each, yes even talk to them!
  3. Imagine the pathways the player may choose to follow, and what they would see/feel/hear/smell on the way
  4. If you are giving a lot of information, work out a way to make it a handout. This will allow the players to process it and understand it much better. Also helps players who like to touch things.

Handouts for The Haunting scenario

Creating Plot ideas

  1. Idea Creation -> Brainstorm, Mindmap, steal/copy
  2. Steal ideas from other RPG systems, Books, Films, etc. Do not be limited by genre – you can take a science fiction plot and design how it would work for fantasy.

Add Depth and Detail

  1. What is the history?
  2. What other information could they find, where would they find it?

Clear Hooks

  1. Make sure you know how the players will “hear” or “see” the hook
  2. Remind them, maybe with urgency or different information

Adding twists

Once it’s all written consider the story from all angles, look for areas where you can add twists or surprising revelations..


Creating your own campaign

Campaign Map

Start with a small part of the world. You do not have write a 1,000 years of history and design all the maps and extra dimensions.

Build teams not individuals

  1. If you are letting players create their characters, get them to do it together and talk through the process, helping the players fill out the necessary skills to survive. Encourage each player to choose something that other characters are not good at, for balance and to make sure each player has a moment to shine.
  2. Have a conversation about how much inter player conflict you will allow
  3. Limit the ethics framework within the game
  4. Create (or print from book) empty character sheets for players to fill out, with space for stats and background information (and anything else)
  5. If your players choose to create their own characters, take photos of them as a backup – you never know when a character may lose or accidentally destroy their character sheet.

Limit the Universe and slowly expand

Limit your geographic playing space. Choose a small part of the Universe e.g. a county or a town or a neighborhood in a city to start with.

  1. This allows you time to build your knowledge of the Universe and Mechanics
  2. Set time each week to read about the Universe and examples of the mechanics in use
  3. Create multiple Non-Player Characters, some may start just as a name and what they do.
  4. By limiting the Universe you will let the characters be comfortable with it like a baby staying near its mother. When ready or not, expand it further
  5. This will help avoid overwhelming new players

Stories to Arcs

Start simply. Start with small stories that are quick to complete (1 – 3 Sessions), growing to longer stories and than expand to Arcs (Several interconnected stories). Later weave several Arcs at the same time. Grow to be complex but not too quickly unless they are experienced players.

  1. Start with singular sessions i.e. they complete the story in one gaming session.  The sense of completion is important at the beginning and gives the motivation for players to carry on.
  2. Look for opportunities to define long term “enemies” who may escape to appear later
  3. Listen to what the characters/players state they hate during the sessions for ideas
  4. Eventually players will want complexity to their games, multiple arcs will help

Balance the scenarios

  1. Do not kill all the players, think of alternatives i.e capture, etc.
  2. Do not hesitate to punish stupidity
  3. Increase conflict levels, so that you can establish the necessary level of conflict to challenge the players, you can do it through waves of reinforcements
  4. Push the players’ buttons, know what they like and dislike, push them as a means to heighten emotion and distract them from being rational. The best story’s memories are emotional..
  5. Pay attention to the energy level of the players
  6. Have a “Thoughtful path”, a path that may avoid conflict

Town map

Change the scenario styles/themes

  1. In some scenarios you will have time to plan, others drop them into thick of it, occasionally make them desperate
  2. Some scenarios may be be detective work, puzzle solving, combative, politics/influence, a setup/con, Horror, thriller, maybe even romantic – cover all the human emotions

Let players change your story

  1. Listen to them for ideas and even change your ideas to match them

Understand Your Universe

If you are playing an established Universe e.g. Star Wars, work out what you want and do not want from the Universe.

  1. Be clear on the time e.g. after this movie, things change,
  2. Understand where the “hero” characters are in relation to to players

Basic Host things

  1. Find a space that works for a couple hours, that has enough space
  2. Make sure everyone is agreed how you pay/contribute for food, snacks, drinks – not everything should rest on the Storyteller
  3. Share clean up after game
  4. Consider rotating locations, to share the load
  5. Try for 3+ hours. I tend to find shorter times make it hard to keep momentum over several sessions
  6. Consider Weekends. RPGers after work have less energy and can struggle to concentrate

Feeding your players


Getting good at GMing

We all start bad, whether it be we do not know the rules, or our descriptions are not inspiring or we are not good at managing our players’ expectations. Overtime you will get better and grow. You will never be prepared enough, there is simply too much to know.

  1. Find books or written stories based in the Universe you wish to play, this will help you imagine this place and thus describe it better
  2. Watch other GMs/Storytellers/DM run sessions – try out gaming conventions, RPG shops or meet ups.
  3. Keep notes and maps from every scenario and keep making them better. You may move to a new area or change groups and be able to run the scenario again for different players.
  4. Have a scenario for new players for your favorite system, and keep upgrading it.
  5. Run sessions for strangers at a convention
  6. Play and run different games, don’t get stuck on one system.  I have learned so much about Horror from Call of Cthulhu, or how to integrate passions from Pendragon, or how to rethink humanity from Eclipse Phase or how to use Troupe Story Telling from Ars Magica
  7. Create a blog of the campaign and add background details here. Consider it a backup and a way to record your journey, but also excite players in between sessions. Here is an example of a short Eclipse Campaign -> To be Something Better or here is an Ars Magic campaign Crann Eireball. I created NPC posts for players to read in-between sessions. I also put rules, hooks for the players to follow and reports of exhibitions/missions.
  8. Ask for feedback from your players after a couple sessions. Asking the right questions are important e.g.
    1. Do you like your character?
    2. Do you like the setting/Universe?
    3. What is your perspective of the mechanics/rules?
    4. Are you getting enough description from me the storyteller?
    5. Do the NPCs feel real to you?
    6. Is the physical environment comfortable? Table, Chair?
    7. What have you enjoyed so far? (Be specific and give an example)
    8. What do you not enjoyed so far? (Be specific and give an example)
    9. What would you like to see more of?
    10. What would like to less of?
    11. Do you feel you are contributing to team?

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RPGs I have played

(That I remember):

  1. Dungeons & Dragons (Red Box , AD&D 1 & 2, 3rd, Pathfinder, 4th and 5th)
  2. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1st, 2nd and 3rd)
  3. RuneQuest (3rd)
  4. PenDragon
  5. Mega Traveller
  6. Paranormal
  7. Teenage Mutate Ninja Turtles
  8. Star Trek RPG
  9. CyberPunk
  10. Chivalry & Sorcery
  11. Paranoia
  12. RIFTS
  13. Twilight 2000
  14. Traveller (1st and 5th)
  15. Marvel Super Heros
  16. RoleMaster
  17. Middle Earth RPG
  18. Amber Diceless Roleplaying
  19. GURPs
  20. Star Wars RPG (2nd and 3rd)
  21. Call of Cthulhu (1st, 7th)
  22. Vampire (Masquerade 1st and 2nd, The Dark Ages)
  23. Werewolf (The Apocalypse 1st, 2nd, Forsaken)
  24. Mage
  25. Wraith
  26. Changeling
  27. Ars Magica (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th)
  28. Shadowrun (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th)
  29. Eclipse Phase (1st and 2nd*)
  30. Rogue Trader
  31. Polaris*
  32. 7th Sea (2nd)
  33. Shadows of Esteren
  34. Legends of the Five Rings
  35. MindJammer*
  36. Coriolis*
  37. Dresden Files
  38. Unknown Army (3rd)*
  39. Interface Zero*
  40. Numenera 2*
  41. Elite Dangerous RPG*
  42. Trudvang Chronicles*

*Kickstarted


What has Roleplaying given me?

In a professional sense, yeah, the real world, Roleplaying helped me evolve my Leadership Skills, Problem Solving, Conflict Management, Big Picture/Strategy skills, Story Telling for Pitches and Presentations, my understanding of Ethics and without a doubt my Empathy. All fundamental core skills for any leader in the modern world and I am a successful leader because of it (My Linkedin Profile).

It has also grown some acquaintances into friends who I care for and have shared many fun moments with. For me RPGing refreshes my soul.

I am a better a human for this fun “past time” hobby and yes it is fun 🙂

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