A Beginner's Guide to Running Games
Look, just run homebrew. Modules are difficult. I think I may have worn that drum out.
Alright, so. A few months ago, I was asked if I’d write a beginner’s guide to running games, and I sort of brushed it off because there’s a load of stuff online, and it’s been a very long time since I was a beginner, and honestly, you can find better stuff than I can provide. But I’m starting to think there’s some useful stuff I can say. This is about D&D, principally, although you can sub in the relevant rulebooks for most systems and fire ahead. Some people have argued that D&D is not a good game to start with, and honestly, I don’t know anymore. D&D is pretty much in my head, from 2nd Edition on up, and I don’t know how to un-know it to say that something else would be better to start from. I do know that the structure and detail of D&D is very comforting to beginning or even somewhat experienced players, because it gives you a clear, and not overwhelming set of Things You Can Do, and that takes some of the pressure off the person running the game.
(A recent in-game map from Heliomar)
The first thing is, though, that’s there’s plenty you can read and watch out there. Brennan Lee Mulligan’s Adventuring Academy is on YouTube, and will tell you a lot. Ginny Di is also on YouTube, and will tell you more. dndbeyond.com has a load of articles on getting started. And the actual rulebook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, has plenty more.
The second thing - and this is kind of controversial, it appears, and I don’t understand why - is to read the rules. Not all of them, necessarily, because I understand (intellectually, anyway) that other people don’t absorb text or hate being wrong the way I do, but: from the PHB, the Player’s Handbook, read the Introduction, and then Chapters 7-9. You might glance at Chapter 10, but that’s mostly more relevant to players than the DM. And over time you’ll become familiar with the spells, which are a huge wodge of the PHB. Then in the DMG, read Chapter 5 and Chapter 6, scan through Chapter 7, and read Chapter 8. You are then pretty much good to run a game.
This means that you can go out and buy a module, and run it. I don’t do this - never have - so I can’t give much advice on that, other than: read it. The whole thing; this is not optional unless you’re comfortably winging it, and if you’re comfortable winging it, why are you buying a module? Make notes, familiarise yourself with the NPCs and the setting, make sure you have representative minis or tokens for the fighting bits, sketch out battlemaps or find online ones for owlbear.rodeo or your virtual tabletop of choice (but not Roll20, because just don’t), and you’re pretty much good to go.
(You might also want to read reviews of the module, and see if it’s going to suit your players. A 15-level dungeon crawl is not going to suit a roleplay-oriented group, and The Wild Beyond The Witchlight’s mix of whimsy and negotiation is not necessarily going to please the combat monsters.)
Honestly, that’s a lot of work, and I think homebrew is easier. If you run a homebrew game, you can customise it to your players, you can invent stuff on the fly and know you’re not contradicting something in the module or the wider setting, and if you get something from your notes wrong on the run, nobody will ever know. But… you also need to know more of the game. You’re going to have to go back and read some more of the PHB, and you’re definitely going to need to read the DMG. And then you’re going to have to read some of the monster books.
Once you’ve done that, though, you can start simple. A Session Zero is a good idea; that’s when you get the players together, discuss what kind of game you want to play, what things you don’t want appearing in it (ranging from “spiders” through “any sexual references”), house rules, and so on. You can then do character generation together, establish how the characters know each other or have met, and have things set up for the first actual session.
When you know what classes people intend to play, have a look at the very basics of what those classes can do. In particular, some warlocks can read anything, druids and clerics can provide food and water by magic from fairly early on, and some subclasses have altogether unexpected abilities. Those things can break what might otherwise be reasonable low-level obstacles.
There are many types of players, but the basics of what people want out of a game come down to three things: to experience a story, to experience their characters, and to interact with the rules. You serve “experience a story” by having things happen. You serve “experience their characters” by giving them world and NPCs to interact with. And you serve “interact with the rules” by giving them obstacles to overcome by using the things on their character sheet, which is often but not always combat. So if your first session includes a description of some things happening, someone to talk to, and something to fight, you are honestly pretty much sorted and you are doing better than many published modules and campaigns. You can vary this a bit in future sessions, but it’s always good to hit two out of three, at least.
What happens if the player characters do something unexpected? Well, apart from the philsophically solid but practically difficult “try to avoid having expectations”, there are two broad things here. I’ll address the first problem first: “my character just wants to stay in the tavern”. The correct answer is “ok, so please roll up a character that wants to play the game we’re playing”. Premise-rejection like this is a player issue, not a game issue, and the player is being a dick. Players don’t have to do much in an RPG (althought the more effort they put in, the better the game is), so engaging with the game willingly is about the most basic level of interaction. I’ve very little patience for this, to be honest.
The second and more meaningful issue is “the player characters are going in a direction I didn’t anticipate”. This is pretty much the opposite of the first problem; the players are so fully engaged and interested that they’re chasing off after something you didn’t think of. This happens all the time. It is going to keep happening all the time for decades, and it still happens to me about a quarter of the time (and that’s with players I know really well). There are two key things here, which sound a little bit contradictory: know your world, and don’t plan too far ahead.
By “don’t plan too far ahead”, I really mean “don’t plan more than one session in advance”. If the players don’t get through all of the notes you had for that one session, great. If they do, and you have a big chunk of time left over, there are a number of ways to occupy it. Many of them come from knowing your world.
At lower levels, “your world” is the places the characters can reach. That’s anywhere within a day’s ride, more or less. Magical travel will expand this at higher levels, but magical travel has clever limitations, and you’ll know the world better by then anyway. So as long as you know some things about the current location, and what’s around it, you’re sorted.
So: the village they’re in now has a magical bakery, which has gone a bit wrong. That’s what you expect them to handle, and you have stats for the bread golem and also the horrible yeast monster in the basement. But if they decide instead that they’re headed elsewhere, there are only a few options. The next village north or south on the high road, or into the forest. If they go north or south, they meet bandits. If they go into the woods, they meet low-level fey beasties. Neither of these necessitates combat, but they’ll have to negotiate in either case. And this covers all eventualities. Do they go downriver instead? Fey beasties. Hide in the stables? Bread golem. Try to tunnel into the bakery? Yeast monster. Set the bakery on fire? Toast golem, which is like the bread golem except it has a higher AC and can melt butter. Stow away on a wagon? Bandits. And so on. As long as you have a few encounters you can drop in, you’re good.
At the mid-levels, this can just be an encounter with a previously known NPC (or a previously known NPC’s child, nephling, parent, spouse, liege, vassal, or whatever) who has a reason to be annoyed with the party, and has finally tracked them down. This is referred to in some parts as “Ninjas attack!”, but my settings mostly don’t have ninjas. Basically, as long as you have something interesting that can happen to the party, you can deal with any unexpected direction.
And finally, there’s running combat. Combat is, honestly, the easiest part of the game to run, although planning it can get a bit hairy past about level 5. However, the direction in which it becomes hirsute is that the players destroy monsters with increasing ease, so that’s not usually problematic for in-the-moment enjoyment of play. The thing to remember, though, is that the players can’t see what’s in your notes, and if the battle goes in some unexpected direction, you’re in control of the actual numbers. If the dragon is down to 10hp after Round 1, well, give it 200 more. It started with 300 hp, not 100. Alternately, if you’re into Round 5, and combat is getting boring, then you can decide that the enemies with 105hp remaining have only 5. You don’t have to expend all the creativity before the game; you can use some of it during the session as well. And “are people having a good time?” is a more important metric than anything in the area of game balance or specific powers.
Do note that “having a good time” can include the players screaming in despair as the healer goes down again, and there’s only one potion of healing left, and the rogue who’s on the other side of the battlefield is the one carrying it. Winning that battle can be all the more meaningful for it - or losing and being captured while everyone’s unconscious can also provide a vastly more interesting narrative.
I hope that helps. Let me know, and if there are specific questions, I’ll be happy to answer them!