Starting A Game

This is something I should have talked about right at the beginning, and happily we’re close enough to the beginning that I don’t feel terrible about it. Starting a game. It might be as simple as getting people together, finding a game, and going, but I want to take the time to consider a series of actions that can make your fledgling game a lot more fun for everyone.

Step 1: Players

Find a group of people, four including yourself is usually a recommended minimum, though lower numbers can certainly work. Then talk with them about the kind of game you all want to play. Talk about setting, themes, roles, and the things that all of you are interested in doing. Maybe some of you want a fantasy adventure game, and others want a cyberpunk intrigue game, and it’s important to take those interests into account. The goal here is to determine who’s playing and to try and paint a picture of what the game everyone wants is like. The other major consideration here is the style of game people want to pursue, whether that’s linear, semilinear, or sandbox. That’s going to affect how certain responsibilities are assigned in the next step, and can create an additional one, that of managing the narrative structure of the game.

Sometimes it’s hard to get a clear picture, of course. People don’t always know what they want, in which case I advise getting at what they don’t want as a way of finding out what they’re interested in. But sometimes, especially with someone who’s new to roleplaying entirely, they don’t know the kinds of things that they could want. Their interests are still accessible though, it just takes a bit of work. Talk with them about if it were a cook or a movie, the kinds of things they’d want to see in it, and the kinds of things they’d want to see their character, the protagonist, involved in. When I get a player who’s brand new to D&D, I like to get them to imagine a badass fantasy hero, and then think about the kinds of things that hero might want to do. Stay general, you’re just trying to get a  feel for the game.

Step 2: Responsibilities

Once you’ve got players and an idea that people are enthusiastic about, it’s necessary to assign responsibilities. Most game systems will do this for you, in terms of requiring a GM to do a lot of these things, but there are some that the system never assigns. The major responsibilities are:

  • Rule Calls: There needs to be the final authority on rule disputes, if only to keep the game moving. You can put this in the hands of a single player, hold a vote, or develop a policy of randomness and resolve rule disputes with the roll of a die. Consult the book after the session and if nothing contradicts the ruling, that’s your ruling.
  • Setting: Someone needs to be responsible for the nitty-gritty of the setting. This could be the colour of the walls in the inn and the bits of dungeon dressing, but could extend to events in the political climate, great enemies rising up, and that sort of thing. Anything where the players are interrogating their environment, as well as the kinds of environment which seek to interrogate the players. It’s a big job, usually falling to the GM, but the design of the setting could be distributed out over everyone, and that might give players more of a stake in events and locales, knowing that their work is in there.
  • Interaction: Sooner or later people will talk with NPCs, and someone needs to be responsible for making that interaction meaningful, by taking setting information and bringing it to life. Talking in funny voices, gestures and mannerisms, that sort of thing. This also usually falls to the GM, but could just as easily fall to a player with diverse and theatrical interests.
  • Logistics: This is a real world job, and might be the toughest. Someone has to figure out when the group is getting together, where they’re getting together, and try to make sure that everyone’s in the same room at the same time.
  • Narrative: In a linear or semi-linear game, there’s going to be a narrative structure, and someone needs to be responsible for it. Usually this is the same person who’s responsible for the setting, but it’s perfectly conceivable that one person could design the locales and another could fill them with stories. This responsibility could also be set out in a sandbox game, with one or more players informing interesting plots and story arcs into the setting, creating an opportunity for characters to pursue them, in which case the narrative responsibility is governing the interaction of those arcs.

Step 3: Ruleset and Setting

Well, now you’ve got a picture of the game you want to play, and you’ve got people who are willing to be responsible for various aspects of it. Now is the time to pick the game system and setting that best fits with those ideas. Other considerations are ease of use and general familiarity with a system (though don’t let lack of familiarity keep you from trying new ones!). Do you want action heavy fantasy adventure with an emphasis on tactical mini combat? 4th edition D&D is probably your game of choice. Courtly intrigue in a sandbox style setting? Check out Burning Wheel. Open-ended swords and sorcery? Give Savage Worlds a look. High fantasy? 3.5 edition D&D. Science fiction dystopian comedy? Dust off those Paranoia books. There’s a system and setting for just about everything, and it can take a bit to find a best fit. What books people own is definitely going to be something to take into account, but the point is to work to find a best fit, even if that means doing a bit of genre-bending.

Getting Started

So now you’ve got players with responsibilities, rules, and a setting. It’s time to get started. I advise having a session or two to just sit and make characters. Doing this collaboratively can lead to characters with more investment in each other and the setting. Then find a starting point, whether that’s the starting adventure for a linear game, or a starting place for a sandbox game, and go!

I hope this is helpful, in terms of providing some kind of structured idea on how to get a game together. I lay this out in a step by step manner, but realistically, some steps might precede others. For instance, if all the players are particularly enthusiastic about a specific ruleset or setting, then Step 3 could be taken care of in Step 1, and that’s fine. What other steps do you suggest? How do you get games going, and how could I make this more helpful for other people?


  • Intelligent Designs

    How do you rationalize sitting around character building as a group when some players would prefer secrecy in their characters? I've never played a game where I knew everything about everyone, and that makes for some tricky "well I'm not going to tell you" situations at first. I guess my hat sits in the build one on one hook…

  • Building characters as a group doesn't mean you can't have secrets, though I can see how my brief overview would imply that. Secrets can often add interesting drama and tension to a game, especially when they're secrets not just from the other characters, but the other players. The answer is to simply pass those to the GM afterward, through email or secret notes or however you like. You could even integrate it into group character creation, asking people to write down secret information and pass it to the GM publicly, which could serve an interesting psychological function if you're the person who passes over a blank sheet of paper.

    The reason why I advocate collective character creation is because it helps build enthusiasm and makes for characters who are a better fit with each other, rather than having each character be created on an island. It allows the players to work together to generate ideas on how their characters can be connected, and the kinds of things they're interested in. It's also a lot of fun, especially at those points where people get stuck, because there's other people in the room to draw on for ideas, and who have an interest in helping you make the best character possible. In short, cooperative character creation doesn't rule out secret information, and there's a lot to be gained from it.

  • There's an interesting distinction about "type" of game that I read a number of years ago that seems important for making sure everyone is on the same page as well. That distinction could be called anything, but the label I read was "Heroic vs Realistic". The idea of a realistic fantasy game may sound like an oxymoron, but it is supposed to pertain to combat mechanics. For example, D&D is a heroic game, allowing players to do very amazing things with little chance of dying relative to the action which is taking place (I can get hit by a sword a half dozen times and still swing on the rope to get away, then run for 20 minutes). James Bond is another "heroic" example. The hail of bullets is nothing for our hero. The other end of the spectrum is "Realistic" combat, where a single stab wound can be debilitating. Running makes you tired fast. If you engage in a sword fight, there is a good chance you'll die, and so on.

    Often players enjoy "heroic" games, and it is unwise to spring a "realistic" combat system on them without their consent. On the other hand, I have enjoyed games in very deadly combat systems just as much as heroic games. They do require a lot of characters to be generated, because people are always dying, but the prevalence of death makes just surviving a heroic accomplishment in and of itself. So when I start a group I usually check and make sure that we are all thinking about the same kind of combat. My preference is realistic because I think it is exciting just by virtue of the impending threat of death at every turn (just like Hitchcock used suspense and not gore to get our gut), but heroic systems can be a blast too. As with so many things in gaming, it is just a matter of preference, but it is another item for the checklist under "group expectations".

    Oh yeah, the last point about "realistic" I wanted to add. Some folks say it diminishes role playing because characters don't live long enough to experience the role playing. Yet when everyone really groks how deadly drawing a weapon can be, it can actually increase role playing by giving dialogue a seat at the table alongside of violence in conflict resolution. That is, in heroic games there can be little disincentive to fighting your way out of a situation. In more deadly systems, people are forced to be less foolhardy lest they pay the consequences.

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