There are plenty of sandbox games out there that give the player immense levels of creative freedom but sometimes that just isn’t enough. Sometimes with that need to create comes a need to tell a story. If that sounds like you then you might have what it takes to run a table top role playing game. The individual running the game can be called many different things depending on the game you are playing. For the sake of simplicity we will be using the term GM which is short for Game Master.
The first thing to do as a GM is decide what kind of story you want to tell. Do you want to tell a classic story of fantasy where your heroes battle dragons? How about a story about adventuring into the far reaches of space? Or maybe something more modern with a dark government conspiracy to take over the world? These are only a few of the limitless possibilities at your disposal. Once you know what kind of story you want to tell you can choose the table top RPG that best fits that story. A few recommendations are Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder for fantasy games, and any game put out by White Wolf if you are into the supernatural or science fiction games.
Now that you have decided on your story and picked your game you can begin building your world. If you are not comfortable building a world from scratch many games have pre-written adventures you can purchase. These games can be just as fun as one you come up with on your own and many new GMs choose to use them for their first time. If you have chosen to create your own adventure there are many different methods you can use to help you do this.
My personal favorite is the ‘Small town, Big problem’ approach. In this scenario a town or some other relatively small group of people have a problem outside their capabilities to handle so they call in outside aid. This set up is simple but very effective but is best used if you are comfortable with improvisation as it tends to come up more than in other methods. For example you could have a small town hire the party to investigate a strange series of disappearances at the edge of town. Nothing is stopping your players from exploring the town before embarking on their adventure and it is up to you to role play the people in that town and decide the town’s layout. This method is also popular among new GMs due to it being less labor intensive. A lot of hard but rewarding work goes into planning a game so making a smaller adventure with room to improvise can make the process a lot easier.
Some GMs, including some close friends of mine, prefer to take a much more detail-oriented approach building their world from the ground up. Sometimes even starting with the creation of the universe. This ‘God View’ method gives you greater control over your world and allows you to know exactly what effect your players’ actions will have on a grander scale. Of course, the cost of this method is an increased work load. I would only recommend this method to those aspiring GMs who can dedicate the time to planning their game. That said, if you can dedicate the time and energy to that level of planning it can be extremely rewarding for both you and the players who get to experience the world you built.
The methods I have mentioned are only two extremes on the spectrum. There are countless methods in between and every GM develops their own style as they go. Another important aspect of your GMing style is how you tell your story and how much freedom you give your players. Some GMs create elaborate dungeons and send their players on a decided path, while others build massive cities and leave their players to explore at will. Whatever you decide to do it’s important to maintain control while still allowing your players the freedom to play their characters as they like. After all, no one wants to play a game that isn’t fun.
Now, we have talked about building your world and telling your story, but what is a world without its inhabitants? The characters you will fill your world with are called Non-Player Characters or NPCs. NPCs come in all shapes and sizes, from the goblins you kill in a fantasy game to the shady business man in a modern one. How much detail you give them ahead of time is largely based on your method of planning, but it is usually a good idea to figure out who will be important and flesh them out more than others. When confronted with a situation you have not planned for, such as players talking to an NPC you didn’t flesh out, it can be helpful to have lists of names and random personality traits at your disposal. Suddenly the nameless shop owner becomes Tim the disgruntled halfling. Keeping simple tools like this at your disposal can make working on the fly a lot less stressful.
At this point I can only hope I piqued your interest in starting your own table top adventure. If you want to learn more I recommend the D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide. It contains great story telling tips that are useful for any game. If you want to see great GMing in action, I recommend online shows such as Titan’s Grave and Critical Role. You can also contact me, DarkWave, through YeahDudeGamers.com if you want to hear more on the topic. Now grab those dice and roll on!