It’s been at least a decade since I last ran a tabletop RPG. I played with a regular in-person group for years, but then got old and tired and shifted to the occasional online session, before finally settling into a very fun rules-light Star Wars group. For a while, that was enough.
But then something happened: I ran a game of Bully Pulpit’s Fiasco (check out my pal Jen’s stream for a taste of the fun you can have with the system) for a group of mostly first-timer roleplayers once it hit Roll20. There it was; that old, familiar itch. The game-running bug had bit me.
After a lot of research, some Twitter threads filled with good advice, and the subsequent pulling together of a good crew, I started a regular game up for the first time in a long time.
Here are three tips I’d give to people coming back to running games, or just generally anybody who wants to run a game with friends, regardless of their familiarity with RPGs.
Find the right system
There’s no end to RPG possibilities out there. A quick glance at our Orr Report shows just what a wide swath of genres and settings are available to play on Roll20..
For my group, I wanted to make sure the system fit the table instead of the other way around. I wanted something that was easy to play for newbies, lent itself to fun scenarios, and didn’t require a ton of prep time since, as I mentioned: Old and tired.
After some digging, I decided on Monster of the Week, one of Evil Hat’s Powered By the Apocalypse games (meaning that its mechanics were based on, or powered by, D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker’s Apocalypse World). Developed by Michael Sands, it’s a game that replicates the TV series formula developed by shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, and – the G.O.A.T. – Scooby Doo. Character creation consists of a playbook for each archetype like a Gumshoe (think Carl Kolchak) or a Chosen (Buffy), and has an easy-to-fill out sheet with Roll20 integration.
The best part? GM set-up is fairly easy! You decide on a threat and a location, figure out a timer for what would happen if your players didn’t intervene, develop a few NPCs for them to interact with, and you’re off to the races.
RPGs aren’t one-size-fits-all. Doing the research to figure out what will work best with all the personalities in a group will take some effort, but it’ll pay off in the end.
Find out what your players want
Once we decided on a system, my next step was to figure out how to best play in that space. We went over expectations in a Session Zero: That we are all respectful and open, that we are good collaborators, that we would speak up if things are headed in a direction that we weren’t comfortable with. I brought up the X-card and have since incorporated Evil Hat’s safety tools add-on to our sessions. I had them all fill out the Digital RPG Consent Checklist and drew some “lines and veils” based on those responses.
After that, we played with Abe Mendes’ Yarnspinner. Mendes describes it as “A framework for long-term play,” and it’s an incredibly handy world-building tool. One of the “Textures” we came up with during that time was that one of the foundational monster hunters was also the founder of what passes for our universe’s Dairy Queen, with some of the locations housing clandestine cabals of monster hunters in them. We also came up with some sort of standing stones that (spoilers if you’re playing in my game, I guess?) will play a part in a future session.
I’d expected the group to take a much sillier tack when building the world, but a detail they all agreed on was that this should take place in the shadow of late-stage capitalism– ghost towns, backwoods, and other places where industry showed up, chewed the meat and sucked the marrow off the bones of a place, and moved on.
Suddenly, what I expected was going to be along the lines of a show like Ash Vs. Evil Dead became something far more interesting, and you can bet I’m keeping that idea in mind whenever I sit down to draft a mystery for my Hunters.
I’d highly recommend using Yarnspinner if you plan on setting your campaign in a single distinct setting for a while. Not only does it allow your group to feel an ownership in the game, but it also makes your session zero an actual play session instead of just a dry monologue.
Find the right time
Our group has some considerations that play into our session times. We have three Pacifics, a Mountain, a Central, and two Easterns. On top of that, we have a few parents in the mix who have family responsibilities, and a lot of people coming off of just having worked a very full day, so having a humongous mega-ultra game sesh every week was off the table. It has also been established that I’m old and tired, so I just don’t have the stamina for that, no matter how many Diet Cokes I drink.
We settled on two hours on a recurring Tuesday, every month, and so far the only problem is that our east coasters are sometimes too jazzed from playing to fall asleep right after we wrap, but that’s a good problem to have. We also have a “whoever makes it, makes it” clause, which means no shaming or repercussions if life happens and you can’t make a session. Buy-in from your table is important here, as we’ve all consented to this being the arrangement. Your group might feel differently, and it’s really important to make sure everybody’s on the same page.
I’m not an expert, and I’m sure there’s way more tools and ideas out there than I list here, but I hope this helps. The core idea of listening to your players, respecting each other’s boundaries, ideas and time, and building a strong foundation for your campaign is pretty universal. In the end, we all want a place to play where we feel respected and safe, where we feel heard, and where we have a stake in the world we’re creating together.