View Full Version : Transitioning from a player to a GM

2012-10-02, 09:02 AM
So now I'm at college, and nobody in my dorm has run any sorts of tabletops, so I thought I'd give it a go. Right now I'm deciding between 3.5, Legend, and Exalted, but I was just wondering how to DM, basically? In the past, I've had two types, one that prepares everything and has an awesome story to tell, with lots of planned out options based on how he thinks we'll react to his scenarios, and one that improvised everything (everything). They all had a lot of experience, so I guess they knew what worked for them, but as a starting out DM should I plan a lot or a little?

2012-10-02, 09:21 AM
We can't really answer this question, because it comes down to what works best for you.

I'd suggest that you try by preparing, and see what happens when the party go off the rails.

Otherwise: If you're the sort of DM who needs to prepare, and you haven't, then you will be stuck.
However: if your happy adlibing you can just ignore what you have prepared.

2012-10-02, 09:45 AM
I think it's really important to start simple and slowly get a hang out of things.

Especially when players are new, everyone getting familiar with the rules of the game is the first priority at the beginning. It helps a lot to play a game where you are already very familiar with the rules. I'm not a huge 3.5e fan, but I know the rules so that's usually what we use when I start new campaigns.

Keep your goals simple. Don't try to start with a level 1 to 20 world traveling campaign, but start with simple one shot dungeon crawl adventures, one at a time. You can make NPCs from earlier adventures reappear later or have a villain for an idea you have for later make a short appearance in the adventure you are currently preparing. Or have the PCs go to locations where they have been before.
The adventures are still self contained and it's no problem when new players join or others leave, but it will be a nice touch when the player remember "hey, we know that guy!" or they see what has happened to a goblin they let run away two adventures ago. But as a beginning GM, first stay away from long plots and continous campaigns. Since the players are new, one shot adventures that take place in the same general area and have them keep using the same characters will be more than enough exitement for them.

And don't be afraid to do things that have been done a million times before. The first one or two times you do them as a player are still entertaining.

2012-10-02, 09:56 AM
Try both methods and see what works. Trial and error is okay. For a lot of people, learning how to GM means figuring out what are the aspects of game you can improvise, and what need to be planned. Which ones you can improvise is going to be unique to you.

The best advice I can give is don't bite off more than you can chew. The biggest mistake I've seen players make when they run their first game is trying to run something too big. They're used to starting at level 1 or only playing vampires in WoD, so they tell their friends to make a level 15 character or that they can play werewolves, vampires, and demons in the same game. They do this because as a player it's the sort of thing that seems fun, without realizing it's unmanagable as a GM, especially so as a brand new GM.

Gamer Girl
2012-10-02, 10:28 AM
Well, how do you do things? Are you a prepared person or a fly by night person? Do you take 10,000 word notes in class everyday and transcribe them into a massive notebook every night or do you just scribble down things that sound important? Do you spend 72 hours studding for a test or just casualty flip through notes and the book the night before?

How good are you at Improvisation? Can you think up of a character's history in less then two minutes? The history of a dwarven empire in less then ten? How fast can you create a simple encounter:time yourself making the classic 'monster guards a chest in a 10x10 room'. How long did it take for you to make that encounter? Was it any good? Was it interesting and exciting? Do you think your players will be talking about the 'chest encounter' for years to come?

Unless you already feel like your great at Improvisation, you should stick to prepared. So, you should plan a lot. After all even if you don't use the plan, you will still have it. But if you get stuck in a jam with nothing, and have nothing to go on...well....

2012-10-02, 11:32 AM
Players ARE going to do something you didn't expect, and from your perspective it IS going to be completely nonsensical and insane. That's because they don't know all the details.

Try something simple, with a defined goal, and fairly straightforward for your first session- kobolds stole something, party has to track them to their underground warren and get it back, for instance. It doesn't have to be fancy or even original, just run with something like this so you and the players can both get familiar with the rules.

Jay R
2012-10-02, 12:29 PM
..., but as a starting out DM should I plan a lot or a little?

Exactly as much as it takes to make you feel comfortable. Improvise anything you feel you can improvise, and map out everything you think you can't improvise.

We don't know how good you are at advanced planning or at improvisation. How can we advise you on what the balance between them should be?

2012-10-02, 01:41 PM
I second the "try it and see what happens" approach, and try to figure out what style works best for you. One nice thing about starting DMing with a completely new group is that you'll tend to adapt to eachother's styles subconsciously (at least, that was my experience).

On the subject of preparation-verses-improv, I recommend starting off by trying a little of both. Prepare some basics about important NPCs and areas, prepare some basic encounters, but don't worry about fleshing them out too much in planning. If your players go off the rails, you can transplant pre-planned NPCs and encounters into their path, possibly after applying a name change and a fresh coat of paint. Have vague story ideas and goals, but let the specifics emerge though gameplay.

2012-10-08, 11:34 PM
A good place to start is with pregenerated campaigns. Thatís right, those boxes you buy at the gaming sore. Because itís a premade campaign, you donít need to sit down and write out a big long planned out campaign. That partís been done for you. So all you have to do is study up the material and run with it. itíll also give you a chance to practice adlibbing, as the players will more than likely do something the book didnít expect. But thatís general player behavior anyway so get used to it.
Another good thing about the pregenerated campaigns is that they give you a bunch of maps and other materials. You know, the sort of resources that Dms are constantly looking for. I think most of us have a library of ďDming materialsĒ we call upon to use when we Dm. the premade adventure will give you a good place to start when you start collecting your own little library.
Lastly itíll also give you a formula to follow when you get around to writing your own campaigns. Naturally everyone has their own methods of doing just that. But at the very least, you can look at the premade(s) and get an idea of how the creators built their campaigns and you can use that as a rough framework for your own endeavors.

Many of us started out with nothing more than the DMG to go by (myself included). It's got some decent information in it but it does lead a lot towards trial and error. The premade campaign is a useful tool that you can add to your arsenal, that should reduce the amount of trial and error you will have to do. I hesitate to call it a shortcut, but it is definitely a useful tool.

2012-10-10, 04:30 AM
Check out the link in the bottom of my sig. I find that by using that method I can do some fairly minimal planning to start with, and then expand in the direction the players take the game.

Ultimately you have to be able to plan to improvise and to improvise plans. Exactly how much of each depends on you as a person.

I'm a planner. I go to a session with a couple random encounters already rolled up and on standby to buy myself time to think if the players do something completely unexpected. They're not as entertaining as the "scripted*" encounters, but I can't just fly completely by the seat of my pants.

*Scripted in this case meaning encounters that I expected the players to get to based on the plot they're pursuing and their previous behavior. I can't improvise worth crap, but I can read people like so many open books.


If you've never DM'ed before ever, then I strongly suggest starting off with a rules light game. It's damned difficult to teach yourself a new skill and teach the people you're playing with a complex system at the same time.

Whatever system you go with, make sure you know the rules pretty thoroughly. The less you have to look up during play the better.

Don't look stuff up during play unless you absolutely have to. Make up something that sounds about right, then look it up after the session to be sure. If you made a mistake own up to it and retcon if necessary.

Always remember the DM's mantra: It's our story, not my story.

2012-10-10, 08:27 PM
I think the key is to know your environment. Have at least a basic idea of what's on the map, who's there, what's there, and what is going on. No matter what the players do, or where they go, you will be at least a little prepared.

2012-10-10, 09:13 PM
I was just wondering how to DM, basically? Hmm...big subject. Think of it as herding cats by voice alone and you won't be too far off. ;)

More seriously, you have two general extremes with most groups I've experienced falling somewhere on the spectrum between the two: tightly scripted to free form. Scripted games have predetermined paths - sometimes just one, perhaps a set beginning and end with a few choices in the middle, or possibly a branching tree with different potential endings. As that 'tree' of potential endings gets more complex, more dependent on player choice, and less predetermined it gets closer and closer to free form. Eventually nothing is predetermined and you have free form.

I tend to plan NPC goals but not plot events or endings. It gives me a framework to build on and gives the players room for choice and action which affect the direction of future play.

In the past, I've had two types, one that prepares everything and has an awesome story to tell, with lots of planned out options based on how he thinks we'll react to his scenarios, and one that improvised everything (everything). They all had a lot of experience, so I guess they knew what worked for them, but as a starting out DM should I plan a lot or a little?Try both, see which works for you and your group. In general, a tightly scripted plot can (not a requirement) be planned for in extensive detail while player driven plots require a different planning focus from the GM. Which works best tends to depend on the personality and creativity of all players (including the GM).

Personally, I tend to fail at running tightly scripted plots. Mostly because they bore me. I want surprises, they keep me engaged. That's me though - I've played with GMs who want (almost) every major 'choice' planned in advance and can't react smoothly to a surprise. This is what most published adventures are - they have to be planned in advance. They're still often successful, sometimes wildly so.

Whatever you do, don't be afraid to fail. Not everything will be great at first. However, as long as you recognize problems and learn from them you'll continually improve. Good luck! :smallsmile:

2012-10-10, 11:09 PM
Oh, I forgot a very useful tip. Use the playground for a sounding board.

Don't ask us to do every little detail for you, but the people here are remarkably polite and helpful for an internet forum. If you need help finding potential plot-hooks/holes, present your scenario and you'll usually get some pretty good input.

2012-10-11, 12:21 AM
I normally start it out kinda cheesy and loosy-goosey with the rules.
Make sure people are playing what they can enjoy and do some cliche stuff to start it out. And If it comes down to it and you made your crawl to hard (or easy) Just fudge some numbers to even things out (ac and to hit numbers work quite well for this)
From there...Well see how you grow your world. Nothing we can say that you won't learn in the first few sessions as a DM.