Jan 17

A simple tip to running a new game with a new system

Over at Gnome Stew (in conjunction with New Year New Game)  they have an excellent blog carnival running about running a new game!

I was going to start running a new system (Serenity RPG in case you were wondering) and while I knew the system myself, the players had never played it before. I asked a few other GMs who were much more experienced than me as to how to prepare for this and I was given the following advice on how to handle this. While looking back on it, it was rather a lot of common sense! However as a younger, less experienced GM it was invaluble and really let the game hit the ground. Now, if I know that this is a system that I know has never been played or run by the group, I do this. It isn’t a quick way to prepare… but it does let the games get going!

Read the rulebook. 

It sounds like such a simple and obvious tip but hear me out! What you don’t need is clear and detailed understanding of every single rule in the book. That will take a long, long time to do. It will probably also suck some fun out of the game for you. Sure it helps when a rather complicated situation comes up to know exactly what every rule is, but those don’t generally come thick and fast.

What you need to understand is:

  • basic character generation (even just the steps and the pages to look at)
  •  how basic skill checks work
  •  how basic combat works and XP awards (system dependent)
Character Creation

You need to be able to streamline the character generation else players will get bogged down and it could be two whole gaming sessions before even the first game really starts – that is boring for everyone. There is, of course, the option of pre-gens if your group will be open to that, but generally just take 30 minutes to write up a character creation cheat sheet can help speed things along nicely. There will be an abundance of questions as well, and if you can at least know where to look in the book as a starting point you will save plenty of time for everyone.

Skill checks

Skill checks, ability roles, just the ability to do something is the first thing your players will attempt (unless your campaign jumps straight into a fight), and will be important for you to get your story moving along.  You won’t need to know every single possible combination of skill checks they can do (in some systems, that is infinite) you just need to be able to explain how a player does them. After that it can easily be down to common sense. It helps to have a broad knowledge base of what is available  (“right, you want to see if that gnome is present in the crowd, a perception test makes sense”) but having a spare character sheet can be useful at this point, or in some systems just a level of common sense (“no, Dan, I won’t let you make a acrobatics check to be able to pick the lock…”).


In most systems, eventually it will boil down to some kind of conflict and you need to know how to run that. Again you don’t need intimate knowledge of every possible thing a player can do in combat, but again a cheat sheet can be immensely useful at this point. a simple list of possible moves, and a page number (and even book reference) can save a load of time in combat. Combat has to feel fluid, and in some systems that is fairly easy (in the case of D&D, roll a d20 and add some numbers depending) in others it can be a nightmare (rolemaster is the first example that comes to mind).  Figure out what you need to keep it as quick and easy to do as possible. In some cases that will be a rather short list with some page references, in other cases that will be quite a few pages. Decide how much you want to cover and want to be able to explain quickly.

Also with combat you may want to think about creatures fighting to the death, and when starting a new system (and even a new campaign) now is the time to a topic we discussed before. Have a think if this is something you want to do, and how you are going to do that and probably make the players aware of this at the beginning.

XP awards

XP in this is very different to D&D... don't award them 19200 for killing a guy.

In some cases the XP awards are clearly defined, in others it might be a bit more murky. If you are running an adventure path for the first session a lot of this will be ready for you as well. If you aren’t then you need to get an idea in your head for how quickly you want the players to level, as well as a rough idea of what are huge amounts of XP, and what is just a trickle. In Vampire – 6 experience points is certainly more significant than in Pathfinder! Thankfully in most systems working out how much XP a player gets per monster is fairly easy to work out. It is the rest of the awards (for finding a clever route through a trap, for solving a mystery in a different and interesting way) is where you need to work it out.

Although I talk a lot of about xp per kill here, don’t forget there are different systems where you award xp for how a player handles a situation and that is the only way in those systems to really give out xp. How to handle your xp award system can also completely change how the game runs, but that is all for another blog post!


You also need to take into account how experienced your players are. If they are experienced players  they probably already bought the rulebook and have a character in mind, as well as how to build them. Others may want wait to hear what you say then make a decision and in some cases just trust you to lead them through the character creation (especially if there is a lot of multiple ways of doing it). If you are lucky you can skip a load of prep because they players have already done it!

So, after all of that..

It sounds like a lot of work – and in some cases it can be just as much fun to muddle through together as a group. Certainly plenty of games have started simply by someone picking up a book and sitting down together and just rolling some dice! It all down to how you want to prepare for a new game at the end, but certainly this my preferred way! Any advice as to what you do?


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  1. Mike

    I can’t remember if I’ve said this out loud on the ‘cast or not, but I’ve often thought that, combining this and the “GM as teacher” post, it would be a useful thing to create “tutorial levels” for games.

    So many computer games start off with levels that are designed to introduce the game mechanics one at a time (in some cases, level one is “use the arrow keys…”). I think something like that, both for a new GM and for new players, would be a neat thing.

    1. Mikael V-J

      In quite a number of games I’ve been in lately, we’ve done pretty much exactly that. First thing that happened after character creation was a bar fight, or a recruit field session with the boot camp sergeant, or something similar — in order to make you punch through most of the mechanics immediately.

      I think Ars Magica (inter alia) recommend this explicitly: start your mage’s life with their graduation ceremony from an apprentice to a full-on mage; with the corresponding examination by their master and his peers.

  2. Robust McManlyPants

    Great post! The cheat sheet is really key for me as a GM who is in no way a “systems guy”. Game systems somehow fail to lodge in my brain and for my most recent game I used an over-sized index card to record a sheet for every NPC then, on the back of the card, wrote down exactly the dice pools and costs of the specific powers I thought them likeliest to use. Nothing more complicated than this:

    * 3 blood points = 11 damage dice
    * 4 blood points = 9 damage dice + 2 successes
    * 1 blood point = 5 damage dice
    * 1 blood point + contested Willpower (difficulty 8) to make a mortal sleep.

    I’ve played Vampire for years upon years but the NPC was a clan with which I was unfamiliar as a player and I haven’t run a Vampire game in nearly a decade so having something boiled down to that level really helped the final fight against a powerful NPC with a couple dozen dots in Disciplines go much more quickly and enjoyably.

    I think the XP point you raise is great shorthand for a larger, more complex issue: the different philosophies and assumed motivations in a new game. D&D pretty much rewards combat but Vampire, to keep harping on it, explicitly rewards creativity, problem-solving and roleplay. That doesn’t mean D&D can’t reward those things and I’ve had plenty of DMs give out “storyline XP” at the end of a narrative arc in a campaign, but is that common? Regardless, I think any new system’s rewards mechanism should be examined both for what it seems to assume the GM and players will want to do and for what it seems to be missing so that the GM can think about putting a new spin on it. There’s absolutely no reason why a Storyteller in a game of Vampire can’t announce that they will be giving one bonus XP to the character that gets the killing blow in a given combat. It would encourage players to fire on all cylinders with their characters and I suspect that would make it more fun for everyone.

  3. Phil Harris

    Enjoyed reading that.

    On the subject of experience some systems require it but some have very little in the form of upgrades. Call of Cthulhu is a great example of giving little and making the experience of learning more, travelling further and in that particular game – sinking further into the depths of depravity and insanity – is what can be gained.

    If players feel they are resolving the plot and moving on this should be much of the satisfaction they need.

    Of course many systems have a defined upgrade system where the sweet spot is making your character more powerful. I play knowledge is power games.

    Mike – Being a little long in the tooth I’ve seen a variety of this type of tutorial. I’ll try and dig some of the “best” out as they seem to be as well written as the generate your own dungeon system at the back of the first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons DM Guide.

    1. Liz

      Hey Phil! Agreed on the point that CoC has a completely different idea of player rewards than other games (any game with a levelling system really) so it really depends, as you say, on the game you are playing. As long as the GM understands what the players really need to feel they are progressing and/or gaining something from the game, then that is all that is important!

  4. KunuK

    I’ve played AD&D for ever, among others, and I’ve always given out non-combat xp, based on character actions (including death, in a few cases), role-playing their PC and skill use/clever plans, as well as a lump sum at the start of each session based on the party xp from the last session…kind of like an ‘I thought about it and I’ve realized…’ thing: many PCs leveled at the start of a session, making it that much more fun for the others, knowing they might get there during the session (I give out xp in combat, or when great RP happens etc).

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