2014-07-06 Your First Time Game

Never ran a fantasy role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons before? Get yourself the D&D Basic Rules, Labyrinth Lord or the Basic Fantasy RPG (or any of the other role-playing games out there). Find some friends and volunteer to run a game for them. Here’s some excellent advice by Greg MacKenzie which he left on a Google+ post by Davin Asiala. I made some slight edits, too.

The important thing to realize is that unless you have a command of the material, an overview, you may have difficulty getting a sense of where it is all going. You are also treading in someone else’s footsteps. My personal advice is reduce your scope: make your own 6-10 room dungeon, and roll up the monsters for each room.

My early adventures went something like this: The adventurers start out at a local tavern where they meet. They hear a few rumours about some horrible hole and are offered either a guide to the spot or a map for a few coins. At which point they set off for the entrance. When they get there the guide leaves and they enter the dungeon. Now note that I provide no obstacles, save that for the dungeon.

You should have a few words of description for the entrance to set the mood. Each room should have a description and may or may not have a monster 1 in 6. The dungeon should be on one sheet of paper. The idea here is to make sure there is something to do. You don’t have to be terribly original here as the game takes on its own life as you play it.

The monsters should have treasure, and make sure to allocate a few magic items among the treasure. You want the players to gain experience points and get a taste of the good things, those magic items. The players should find a shut door for example, listen, try to open it, let the players make Strength rolls to open the doors, your giving them something to do and it involves them. If there are monsters inside, roll for surprise, and initiative to see if the players or monsters go first, and then follow the rest of the combat sequence for the player and monster groups. You will need those combat sheets to make your life easier. When you conclude each round of combat you re-roll for initiative. You can continue until one side or the other quits.

Because these are new players, and monsters aren’t dumb, you can decide if the monsters run away if things go against them or if they fight to the death, try to bargain, etc. Players inevitably fight to the bitter end when they should withdraw. Remind the players when they are low on HP that it might be wiser to run away. Running away is highly under-rated. In any event the monsters don’t have to follow the players beyond the entrance of the dungeon, making for a scary chase when you are low on HP.

If the players defeat the monsters they should be rewarded with treasures… Now what I am really suggesting here is not a give away, players have to earn these things, but in order to allow yourself and the players to get a sense of what the game is about it won’t hurt to be a little liberal with treasure starting out.

When you make your dungeon you can allocate monsters randomly by the tables, but if something is really nasty move it to the farthest point away from the entrance and put in references to it in the dungeon. Kobolds have scrawled on the wall “Go Back end of Kobold Territory”, or players might hear, “wait until ugly finds out” if the monsters are allied with whatever it is. As the GM, you have the decision to place monsters. I usually pick the worst one, and go random from there.


  • stick with the basics
  • know your combat sequence
  • know the dungeon
  • learn to improvise as you go along

Let the players clear the place out to give them a sense of accomplishment.

Improvisation is all about giving the monsters some personality. You can swipe references from film or novels. The players will know them. Juxtapositions are useful does the Orc leader behave and talk and sound like a film gangster? “Gimmie all your coins and I’ll let you go see…” Is one of the Orcs dumb and getting it wrong like one of the Three Stooges? He turns around a sets off a trap, a giant stone rolls through the middle of the room. Is one of them a coward like Ichabod Crane? Have fun with it.

Allow the players to make several trips to and from the dungeon as they may have to heal up before trying again. New players won’t complete this in one go. Compress the time takes, reset hit-points and spells, and carry on the story from that point so many days later. The tavern or village is a sanctuary where nothing should happen at this early juncture.

Some of their characters will be killed, that is part of the game. Re-rolling a character in the middle of the game is a pain for the rest of the players. It may be wise to have a spare on hand to hand out. I usually found that at the start of play, if players are rolling up characters that will eat up a good hour of the play session but it is absolutely essential to building the player-character relationship.

In short: Small dungeon, not big on plot, just players vs. monsters, hidden secrets, and traps. That’s how we did it. Just keep the action going if you can.

Players often go to the tavern to hire help. These non-player characters you play—or you can allow a player to role play one when their character is killed. Players will sometimes simply take over the non-player character for their own use.

When you describe something always have it end ambiguously, e.g. “When you hold your torch in the room you see that this is a 30 x 30 room with a stack of 10’ poles in the southwest corner. Nearby in the south wall there is a small round 2 inch hole in the stonework.” This sort of thing leaves all sorts of questions in the players minds, what are the poles for? Do we insert one in the hole, and if we do what might happen? Is it a trap? Nothing might happen, unless you find all of the other holes and put the poles in, then a secret room opens. Or the thing might set off a trap, release a monster, reward the players with treasure etc. Even when they fight orcs or goblins they might find a key when they are defeated and searched, what is it for? Always leave something open ended. Players will hang onto that key in the hopes it opens something long beyond when it may have been useful just because of the mystery.

– Greg MacKenzie

Greg MacKenzie also runs the website Busy Game Master.


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